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.
I’ve blogged before about how you can find Michelin star restaurants in the unlikeliest, and sometimes most unglamorous, of locations (click here for my post on Sat Bains restaurant in Nottingham) and it would be fair to say that the Alimentum restaurant in Cambridge most definitely ticks the boxes on that front. A 15-minute walk from Cambridge city centre Alimentium restaurant is adjacent to a Travelodge and business park that is home to a Tesco Express, Cineworld and Frankie’s pizzeria. The area doesn’t exactly ooze charm or scream Michelin star. But don’t let that put you off as lurking in the midst of this concrete jungle is a culinary hidden gem foodies will love.
Having read mixed reviews about the food and service at Alimentum I was a little anxious about going for dinner there. I had nothing to worry about as both the food and service were exemplary. Our table was booked for 6pm (the early bird session) and although we were a little late (which wasn’t a problem) we were surprised to find that there weren’t dining alone. Inside the contemporary decor felt like that of a bar (there is a bar area too near the entrance which has live music later in the night) with dark mahogany tables and red glasses.
While we deliberated over the food we were presented with some green olive crackers, a bit like poppadoms in texture. Their saltiness was offset by an accompanying zesty orange mayonnaise. As soon as we had devoured them, as if by magic, warm sage and onion bread and milk loaf appeared, along with a complimentary amuse-bouche of parsnip voluté with a syrupy swirl of apple caramel served with caramelised popcorn. The sharp, sweet tang of the apple worked really well against the rich, velvety soup that disappeared in a couple of greedy slurps.
We were sitting next to a glass window where we could see sous chefs busy at work preparing the exquisite creations. Appetites whetted we were ready to order. Sharps decided on a meat feast. He plumped for a starter of quail which, he said, was the best quail he’d ever eaten – soft, juicy and pink in the middle – braised with meat stock and maple, giving it a sweet, sticky glaze. His main of beef with oxtail ragù, a mound of caramelised onion (onion ash) fortressing the main event of pulled meat was reminiscent of cottage pie.
My dinner was all about the fish. A starter of mackerel pâté, which could easily have been too sickly were it not for the crispy rice and apple pieces, was followed by a meaty chunk of firm halibut. A nutty topping added a layer of texture to the fish which was served with pumpkin in various forms, purée, cubes and curls, giving extra splashes of colour to an already vibrant plate of food – cooked, al dente, shredded cabbage moulded with mayo.
The star dish for me was dessert, and sadly it wasn’t mine (although my hazelnut cake with coffee ice cream and chocolate wasn’t too shabby either). But as usual food envy got the better of me when I saw Sharps’ pudding, a kind of deconstructed rhubarb crumble. Pieces of stewed rhubarb and crumble were topped with a rhubarb sorbet, white chocolate powder and the addition of Coulommier goat’s cheese coated in rhubarb jelly, that looked a bit like kids’ sweets.
What makes Alimentum a hidden gem for me is just how good value for money it is. Incredibly, the fixed price menu is just £24.50 for three courses (lunchtimes and before 7pm as well as all night on Mondays) plus an amuse-bouche and a pre dessert. The à la carte menu coming in at £49 for three courses. Opt for the former and you won’t be short-changed, I mixed and matched and two of my three courses were from the cheaper menu. The reason they are able to keep the prices down, the maître d’ explained, is by using cheaper cuts of meat, such as pork belly, and buying seasonal produce. Plus, the fact that Alimentum isn’t in the heart of Cambridge probably helps to keep rent costs down too. Alimentum, means food in Latin, and this Cambridge restaurant is one hidden gem where you won’t be going home hungry.
The trendy De Pjip area of Amsterdam is home to the Albert Cuyp, the largest street market in Netherlands. Part of the beauty of visiting Amsterdam is that nowhere is that far away and as De Pjip is only about a 10-15 minute bicycle ride from the centre of Amsterdam and about a five minute walk from the Hotel V (click here for my blog post on Hotel V). The market is located on Albert Cuypstaat (named after the 17th century painter Aelbert Cuyp). We had previously been here for dinner (click here for my post on Bazar restaurant Amsterdam) but I was keen to check out the area during the daytime to see what the market was like.
I have to admit that the Albert Cuyp Market wasn’t exactly what I’d been expecting. I’d heard it sells clothes and is a great place to bag a bargain, so for some reason I thought there would be lots of cool vintage clothes stalls. There were indeed various clothes stalls, all selling the kind of cheap tat you’d find down Peckham market. But don’t let that put you off as I still found the Albert Cuyp Market to be one of Amsterdam’s hidden gems, if only for its food.
There are around 260 stalls at Albert Cuyp – as we turned down onto the main market strip we were greeted by the wonderfully pungent aroma of fresh cheese coming from a stand selling lots of Dutch cheese. You’ll also find a colourful array of stalls selling everything from fresh bread and gigantic pickles to flowers. My souvenir shopping may have gone out of the window as it wasn’t the flea market I’d picture but I was overjoyed (sad, I know) to discover a shop just down one of the side streets (Ferste Van Der Helst Straat) selling possibly the best herring I’ve ever eaten. This was undoubtedly the highlight of my visit to the Albert Cuyp Market.
Forget fish and chips, in Amsterdam it’s all about the herring, served by itself with onions and gherkins or in a bun (broodje haring) charged according to weight and pretty reasonably priced. Or, if you prefer you can try kibbeling, deep fried cod served with a kind of tartar sauce which was equally as delicious.
While I’m all about the herring Sharps was far more interested in the sweet treats – mainly the Dutch waffles. He spent ages at Wally’s Wafels deliberating over the toppings before finally deciding on cherries topped with rich, warm, milk Belgian chocolate (€3.25). And yes he polished off both.
Food aside, what I also loved about the Albert Cuyp Market is its relaxed atmsophere, there’s no aggressive trading, you just buy stuff if you want to. Set against the tree-lined neighbourhood of De Pjip, with its cute little cafes and bars, it makes for a great place to stop off for a coffee or beer and people watch. It’s worth noting that the Albert Cuyp Market isn’t open on Sundays (it’s open Monday – Saturday 9-5pm) so if you’re only in Amsterdam for the weekend you’ll need to factor a visit into your Saturday. And, from 3 April the market is also launching a new farmers market every Wednesday, selling an even greater selection of fresh produce. You may not shop till you drop at Albert Cuyp but this is one hidden gem you certainly won’t go hungry at.
Most people (myself included) think of sun-kissed beaches, or the wilds of the Amazon Rainforest, at the mention of Brazil and its hidden gems. It may then may come as a surprise to know that if you head inland in Brazil there are some incredible hidden gems to be found. Chapada Diamantina, in the Chapada National Park, a 25-minute drive outside of the town of Lencois in Bahia (not to be mistaken for Lencois Maharenses in the top North West corner of Brazil) is one such hidden gem. Lencois is a six-hour bus journey from Salvador. You can fly (40 minutes) but as TAM are the only airline to operate out of Lencois (we had a horrendous experience as they hadn’t processed our flight booking from the UK), I’d obviously recommend travelling by bus. Plus, the bus drops you off in the centre of the town.
Lencois is the main stopping point for tourists as it’s a great place to use as a base to explore the area and the Chapada National Park. There are some walks and treks you can do by yourself, we had a free morning and walked up to the Serrano swimming hole, a popular spot with local families wanting to cool off from the sun.
But to really discover what Chapada Diamantina, a former diamond mining region (so it literally used to be full of hidden gems) has to offer it’s best to book on an organised tour. Our trip was very kindly organised courtesy of Simon Williams at Bespoke Brazil, a relatively new tour operator based in the UK who works with tour operators in Brazil, who arranged our trek through Venturas & Adventuras in Lencois.
As our bus pulled in to the bus station at Lencois we were greeted by one of their guides and escorted to our accommodation, Alcino’s pousada (click here for my blog post on Alcino’s and the best breakfast in Brazil). And each morning we were picked up from Alcino’s so we didn’t have to do a thing, lucky as we needed to conserve our energy for the hiking that was to come.
On our first afternoon in Lencois we were collected by car at around 4.30pm and driven 25km (it took around 20 mins) to the Pai Inácio Mountain to watch the sunset. The climb up left me worried about the climb back down in the dark. But I reasoned that lots of people considerably older (though probably much fitter) than me had gone up, so the descent couldn’t be that tricky to master. And I could always get Sharps to carry me if worst came to worst.
Without sounding too much of a cliché the views were breathtaking, the sun setting against the backdrop of the mountain range makes you appreciate your insignificance. Capturing the glow of the sun’s orangey hues over the tablelands made the walk down more than worthwhile. Our sunset expedition gave us a taster of the hidden gems we were about to explore in Chapada Diamantina.
With so many hidden gems in London, and a host of new ones popping up all the time, it’s not often I get a chance to revisit some of the hidden gems I’ve uncovered. But when Sharps said he’d like to go for afternoon tea for his birthday (if that doesn’t scream middle-aged I don’t know what does?) there was only one obvious choice, The Landmark Hotel, London.
I’ve blogged about this hidden gem before as I took my Mum there when she came to visit (click here for my post on London’s best afternoon tea) and yet again it didn’t disappoint. From my previous visit to the Landmark London for afternoon tea I knew I was in for a treat and I’d recommend a light breakfast, or no breakfast at all, to make sure you’ve got plenty of room for the feast that lies ahead.
Staff are incredibly attentive as they serve up a quintessentially English afternoon tea, without making you feel uncomfortable. First up are the sandwiches – smoked salmon, cucumber, chicken and egg and cress – two of each though any dwindling supplies are quickly replenished. Accompanying them on the table is a beautifully arranged tiered cake stand bursting with delicate pastries and cakes. We opted for the chocolate afternoon tea, it was too good to resist, and I graciously let Sharps take his pick first, forgetting of course it wasn’t an issue as we could just ask for more.
And for me it’s this attention to detail, as well as my gluttonous streak that loves the fact that the flow of food appears to be never-ending, that for me makes afternoon tea at The Landmark London a real hidden gem. Sharps too was in his element as we toasted his birthday with rosé champagne (we had the champagne afternoon tea). And by the time the freshly baked scones came out, complete with clotted cream and jam, I was bursting at the seams. This time round I was sensible and decided to ask for a doggy bag to take home the leftovers (I’d been too embarrassed on the last occasion but noticed other people had no such qualms) which meant we could enjoy the remnants of our delightful day out when we had more room. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, or you just want to treat yourself, then the Landmark London’s afternoon tea is ideal. Think I’ll phone my mum and see when she’s next coming to stay…