It goes without saying that Cambridge is a popular UK destination for tourists, and understandably so. With its spires and colleges, and of course England’s future king is its namesake – William is Duke of Cambridge, the city is steeped in history. So it might come as surprise to learn that Cambridge also has a distinct lack of hotels, especially boutique ones.
This is just one of the things that makes the Hotel Du Vin in Cambridge a real hidden gem for me. It may be part of the Hotel Du Vin chain but this hotel, converted old Georgian terraces that used to belong to the university, is one of my favourites. Located slap bang in the centre of Cambridge on Trumpington Street, the Fitzwilliam Museum is literally across the road from it and all of Cambridge’s main tourist attractions are no more than a 10-minute walk away, it’s bursting with character.
It was the perfect base for us to explore – we went punting courtesy of Scudamore’s Punting Company. Kitted out with blankets and hot water bottles were treated to a riverside view of Cambridge’s famous colleges, including Trinity College which boasts 32 Nobel Prize winners as alumni.
On our river jaunt we also passed through the bridge of sighs (named after the one in Venice) and the mathematical bridge which legend has it Isaac Newton put together without any bolts – bolts were added when students took it apart and couldn’t put it back together again.
I was lucky enough to be hosted by the hotel and stayed in the Wolfbass suite which housed quite possibly the biggest bed I’ve ever seen in my life. Apparently it was a large kingsize bed but I don’t think that description does it justice as it could have comfortably slept four or five people – I slept starfish and still wasn’t anywhere near Sharps when I woke up. I also got quite overexcited about the two, yes two, freestanding cast iron baths we had on the opposite side of our room.
The room was also well equipped with all the latest gadgets including an Ipod docking station and an ethernet connection (a new word Sharps told me) so that you don’t need to use wifi to access the internet as well as the usual DVD player and a ginormous flatscreen TV that separated our bed from our very own baths.
Another bonus about staying at the Hotel Du Vin is the food. Having eaten at the restaurant on a previous occasion I can vouch for the fact that the food is first class. This time round we sadly didn’t have time for dinner but breakfast didn’t disappoint. I absolutely loved the homemade granola/muesli which was chewy and flapjack like in texture and packed with nuts, seeds, apricot chunks and large walnut pieces. When I told our helpful waitress how much I loved it she offered to find out the recipe for me from the chef and email it to me.
If you don’t fancy venturing out into the night the Hotel Du Vin Cambridge also has its own cosy cellar bar on site. Head down the stone steps and you’ll find various snugs, all named after Cambridge’s colleges. If you prefer, guests can also take their drinks upstairs to the sociable library area (I particularly like the wallpaper that gives the impression the room is full of books, although there are some in there) decked out with lots of grand dark wood and brown leather sofas. Either way it means we didn’t have far to roll into (there was no way we could possibly have rolled out of it) what is possibly Cambridge’s biggest bed.
I’m always banging on about the surprising lack of good Thai restaurants in London (click here for my post on Peckham’s best Thai restaurant) so I was pretty excited to hear about Naamya Cafe in Islington, London (recently just voted best newcomer in the Tatler Restaurant Awards 2013. Naamyaa Cafe is the latest venture from Alan Yau (the man behind Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Hakkasan) and David Thompson (Nahm, Busaba Eathai) and with their past credentials it’s a fair assumption to say these guys know what they’re doing when it comes to Thai food. The concept of Naamya Cafe is that of a modern day Bangkok cafe and when we turned up for dinner I was a bit surprised by the glaring red neon sign and the modern glass windows, I’d been expecting something a more low-key type of Thai restaurant.
Don’t let the brash exterior put you off as inside there is a wealth of . The vegetarian selection is a bit limited so I opted for the salmon sashimi with green pesto. The waitress told us that the dish was quite small to share but I’d say there was plenty for two and Sharps’ fried squid was superfluous given the substantial size of the main dishes. Not that Sharps was complaining as he happily tucked in to both.
I had a massive case of food envy when it came to the main dishes. I absolutely love red Thai curry in any form so I was gutted that there was no veggie option available and had to vicariously eat it through Sharps who opted for the red beef curry. Instead I settled for the Chiang Mai speciality of rice noodles with a rich, spicy chilli tomato sauce with big chunks of fresh tomato that reminded me of the type of sauce you’d get with pasta. Our helpful waitress also explained the best way to eat this dish is to take some noodles, add some sauce and mix with the various accompaniments that include star fruit, beansprouts, soft boiled egg and basil.
Not all of the dishes on the menu are Thai, there’s an odd mix of Western style dishes that include burgers and a salad Niçoise. And I wasn’t bowled over by the choice of desserts, and after seeing the people on the table next to us send theirs back we decided against them. Probably a good job anyway as we were pretty full. But puddings aside the dishes here are packed full of flavour and are pretty good value for what you get. It was only after we’d eaten I realised I’d meant to ask what fish was in the fish main course (all the rest had seafood in them) but forgot. Turns out it’s made from white fish, which gave me the perfect excuse to have to come back – when I then tried a new addition to the menu of the seabass red Thai curry. This surpassed any earlier jealousy I may have had of Sharps’ meal making Naamyaa Cafe a hidden gem and definitely the best value Thai restaurant in Angel.
Think of Holland and the first thing that comes to mind (apart from mice and windmills) is usually tulips, heralding in the springtime. Nowhere in Holland is this more evident than Keukenhof keukenhof.com. The world’s largest flower gardens and home to over 7 million flowers, Keukenhof is also one of the stop off points of Holland’s annual Flower Parade. So I couldn’t believe my luck when the people at Keukenhof and Visit Holland invited me to come along to check it out.
It takes about an hour to get to Keukenhof (€15 entry), which is near Lisse, from Amsterdam. The quickest way if you’re going by public transport is to get the train from Amsterdam to Schiphol airport. Usually this takes about 20 minutes but sods law that there were engineering works the weekend we went so we had to get on a replacement bus service at the first stop Sloterdijk, which took us there. From Schiphol you can catch an express bus 858 for €8 return that takes you directly to the front door.
Keukenhof isn’t exactly a hidden gem in that it was heaving with people. We couldn’t believe just how busy it was, a bit like the Chelsea Flower Show, so don’t go expecting a quiet day out. This may be due to the fact that Keukenhof is only open for 8 weeks every year, from 21 March until 20 May. These dates never move, regardless of whether the weather has affected the blooming of bulbs. But it may also have been partly down to the fact that our visit coincided with Holland’s annual Flower Parade passing by on the 20th April.
You may not be the only people at Keukenhof looking at the flower displays but as you can see from my pictures they are pretty impressive and well worth a visit. I never realised just how many varieties of tulips there are, not to mention hyacinths, daffodils and a whole host of other fllowers. The theme for 2013, aptly for me and Sharps, is United Kingdom, Land of Great Gardens. As well as English style landscaping there are various exhibits, including a floral mosaic of Big Ben and Tower Bridge and an RHS exhibition showing how people can cultivate their own gardens.
At around 3pm we headed out of the main entrance at Keukenhof and joined the throngs of people lining the main road for Holland’s annual Flower Parade. The 20 main floats and 30 decorated cars (and tractors) travel the 40kms of the Flower Parade from Noordwijk to Haarlem, accompanied by a variety of lively brass and marching bands, to get the crowds into the party spirit.
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting as most of the floats were sponsored and the designs reflected this accordingly. But nevertheless they were still a work of art – from giant converse style shoes to fish and even a toaster that had bread popping out of it, it was hard to believe these had all been delicately crafted from flowers (they took 2 days to make).
After the parade finished we stopped at Rent-A-Bike (10 per person for the day), located just to the right of the Keukenhof’s main entrance. Keukenhof is ideally situated for renting a bicycle and cycling out into the tulip fields, and it’s this that really makes Keukenhof a real hidden gem for me.
The rental company recommends various cycling routes where you can go off and explore Holland’s countryside. If you’re feeling energetic one of the routes is 21 miles and you can even cycle as far out as to the beach to the seaside resort of Noordwijk, which on a sunny day sounds idyllic.
Sadly we only had about an hour left after watching the Flower Parade but it still gave us enough time to cycle out to some of the tulip fields, which despite the cold weather, still had the most gorgeous arrays of multi-coloured tulips in bloom. Cliché or not, when it’s spring again I’ll most definitely be visiting the tulips again at this hidden gem.
Lençois, a former diamond mining town in Bahia, North East Brazil, is the main stop-off point for people wanting to go trekking in the Chapada Diamantina region. The centre Lençois is literally made up of four main cobbled streets so considering its size I was surprised by just how many bars and restaurants it has. I guess it’s to be expected as Lençois is a bit of a tourist trap, it also goes some way to explaining why the restaurants here weren’t particularly cheap, don’t expect to find many budget eats here. But don’t get me wrong, English menus and inflated prices aside, Lençois is full of colonial charm.
Luckily for us we were presented with the most amazing breakfast every morning in Lençois. (Click here for my post on the best breakfast in Brazil) which filled us up for most of the day so we only really needed to fork out for dinner. As someone who doesn’t eat meat, my experience of Brazilian food in the North East of Brazil as a whole wasn’t that favourable. But comparatively speaking some of the best meals we ate were in Lençois, so I guess you do get what you pay for.
Waiting staff may stand outside their respective premises trying to entice you in. A word of warning, the caipirinihas in Lençois are lethal. On one occasion our drinks were so potent we were drunk after just one cocktail each, but not so drunk that I didn’t notice the restaurant had overcharged us. Just as I was about to call the waitress over, bill aloft, she hurriedly took it from me and amended it. Gluttons for punishment, after a hard day’s trekking we were keen to rest our aching limbs and grab a drink on our last night in town.
It was something as simple as a happy hour offer (from 6-8pm) of two caipirinhas for R5 (under £2) that led me to the discovery of the best restaurant in Lençois, El Jamiro. Plonking ourselves down on fold up chairs, precariously balanced on the cobbles, we ordered cocktails from a super smiley waitress who, as an added bonus, spoke English. She promptly returned with our caipirinhas and a bowl of the most amazing popcorn I’ve ever eaten. The popcorn, cooked with huge chunks of garlic, oregano, chilli and salt and pepper, was bursting with flavour and was so moreish I immediately ordered another round of drinks so we could have more of it.
If the popcorn was anything to go by, well how could we not eat dinner here too? My main of pasta in a cream sauce and capers came with big pieces of salmon and Sharps’s fillet mignon in a creamy sauce, accompanied with rice, was generously sized too and didn’t disappoint.
Our lovely waitress introduced us to the owner of El Jamiro, Max, a DJ who had originally run a restaurant in Morro de Sao Paulo (click here for my post on how to get to nearby Biopeba island) before moving to Lençois. This, he informed me was because he wanted to live in a place where he could be more eco-friendly and grow his own produce. He also revealed his plan to extend the current restaurant to include a pizza bar with a play area for kids to make it more family-friendly. Currently inside there’s also a chill out area where you can kick back, relax and take full advantage of happy hour. We were a bit gutted that we didn’t find this hidden gem, and in my opinion the best restaurant in Lençois, till our last night. I’m not sure my liver would agree!
It’s not the first time I’ve spent the night in jail, click here for my post on Clink 78 but it is the first time I’ve stayed in a such a luxurious one. Having recently spent a weekend Cambridge it seemed only fair to take Visit England up on their kind offer of a trip to Oxford. And I was all the more excited to learn the accommodation for my overnight stay was the Malmaison, Oxford’s quirkiest hotel. A former prison, now a boutique hotel, this Oxford hidden gem is right next to Oxford Castle. Built in 1071 AD by William the Conqueror, this former stronghold is now part of the Oxford Castle Unlocked attraction, which also boasts a courtyard of bars and restaurants as well as a medieval crypt, Heritage Centre and the original castle mound.
The castle was first linked to being the site of a jail since way back when in 1230. It was completely rebuilt in 1786 – this led to what now form the C-wing, Houses of Correction, and The Governor’s House (rooms 301-312) which was added in 1848. The last execution to take place at Oxford prison was in 1950, the hanging cell is now part of the hotel staff area. In 1996 Oxford prison closed its cell doors, reopening one of its wings as a Malmaison hotel in 2006.
It may be part of a chain of hotels, the Malmaison, but what I love about this boutique Oxford hotel is the way in which it retains many of the prison’s features, keeping the character of the building intact. The interior of the A Wing (see my photo above) with its central atrium, metal galleries, glass walkways and staircases is exactly how I imagined the inside of a prison to be (based on watching films and TV of course). This may explain why it has been used as the location for TV series including Inspector Morse, Bad Girls and The Bill and Hollywood blockbuster The Spy Game. There’s also a lavish bar (it used to be the Governor’s House) with a very high ceiling, for guests on the third floor and there’s a roof terrace which looks out across Oxford’s spires.
Walking through an original iron cell door felt a bit on the strange side. But any thoughts I had of it being a bit creepy to sleep in a former prison cell, that was potentially home to hardened criminals, went out of the window as soon as I stepped inside my luxury room. A double cell room, on the 5th floor, it’s one of the 38 rooms in the former A Wing. It’s hard to imagine that the gorgeous adjacent bathroom, complete with a free-standing cast-iron tub, also used to house prisoners too.
Apart from the quirky appeal of staying in a former prison, the other thing that makes the Malmaison Oxford a hidden gem is its location. It’s only about a five minute walk into Oxford town centre and yet it still feels far enough removed not to be too hectic. The hotel also serves up a great breakfast, and not just porridge as I opted for eggs royale with a generous helping of smoked salmon and hollandaise sauce on the side. My one night stay at the Malmaison Oxford definitely felt too short as it’s one hidden gem I’d happily let them lock me up in and throw away the key.