August 2, 2008

Home From Home Feel

I have grown up with the Brends. When I say that, I mean their hotels have been a permanent fixture of my life: I learned to swim in one, undertook my first role as bridesmaid at the mere age of five in another, celebrated friends' weddings in two of their North Devon hotels and had countless drunken, embarrassing moments at Christmas parties in their finest coastal hotels.

They have been, quite simply, a big part of my life. My photo albums are littered with happy memories, of which their premises form the backdrop.

I could never figure out what their secret was. Certainly one of their biggest assets is their ability to do what they do incredibly well. And I suppose that is why so many people are captured by their elegance and why so many return year after year, for that short break or week away.

Certainly in my experience, in each one I have visited, their staff have been extremely professional and helpful. They also recognise they have to move with the times to keep attracting new clientele but keep enough of the old grandeur to retain their faithful clients.

Heading down the A30, the Carlyon Bay hotel is about a two-and-a- half-hour drive away. It's not that far, but far enough to feel as if you are getting away from the humdrum of the daily grind.

The rolling lush green of South Devon's hills give way to the rough edges of Dartmoor and Bodmin moors before sweeping down towards the south coast and yet more greenery.

The hotel is tucked away, as you swing right into the hotel drive it looks fairly innocuous from the outside - small almost - but once you get inside it opens up like an Aladdin's cave.

It is set in 250 acres of secluded gardens and grounds, including a championship golf course.

Once through the patio doors and on to the lawn at the back of the hotel, the view that greets you is just breathtaking: miles and miles of glittering sea.

Looking back, the hotel looks even more impressive with ivy creeping up its walls, coiling itself around windows. By night the twinkling candle lights flicker inside, casting a soft glow and creating a romantic atmosphere.

The Brends have just spent pounds1.5million on giving the hotel a good going over. The programme has included a contemporary look for the Bay View restaurant, plus a new menu.

The 86 bedrooms have been overhauled and have new bathrooms, flat screen televisions and WIFI access.

A spa is the ultimate treat and this one is small enough so it doesn't seem clinical but large enough so people don't feel cooped up.

It has an indoor pool, hydrotherapy hot tub, steam room and sauna.

I had every intention of exploring the cliff tops around the hotel - perhaps going out for a long bracing walk following breakfast or lunch - but my resolve deserted me when I entered the spa. I just had to stay all day and it was very easy to do. Padding from pool to steam room and sauna, endless times I felt all my worries, stresses and anxiety drain away.

It's equipped with heated loungers made of mosaic and ceilings fitted with 'starry night skies'. Lying there for half-an-hour I felt myself becoming hypnotised by the ever-changing lights. It was only later on I was told I had my eyes half closed, mouth hanging open as if I had gone into a trance.

For those who are not as lazy as me, there is a well-equipped gym, tennis courts, golf or walks in and outside of the main hotel grounds. St Austell is a few minutes away as is the little harbour of Charlestown. Further on fishing village Mevagissey is crying out to be explored.

The large and well-appointed treatment room has a wide range of health and beauty treatments for both men and women, under the supervision of senior therapist and spa manager, Jill Sparshott, a warm and friendly woman whose luxury massage was so relaxing, it tipped me over into a brief slumber.

A trained aromatherapist, reflexologist and the only skin 'aesthetisation' in Cornwall, Jill uses her own specially-blended range in many of the treatments, including essential oils and naturally sourced local products such as Cornish sea salt.

Treatments are also provided with products from the organic Dr Hauschka range.

Whatever you have, I guarantee you will feel fresher, energised and your skin will thank you for it. I had a back and neck massage and a luxury facial and the products used were based on a conversation we had about how I was feeling beforehand.

Having abandoned a camping trip earlier on in the same week due to foul weather, my skin was practically drinking the moisture Jill was brushing in. Cleansed, I headed off to meet my partner who exclaimed: "Wow, your skin is looking great - it's glowing."

The Carlyon Bay has recently become the first hotel in Cornwall to win the county's healthier eating and food safety award and has been praised for its policy of using locally produced food and sustainable fish.

I love my food and I could eat almost anything. For me, eating defines a holiday. And, believe me, in the course of documenting my travels, I have encountered some truly awful eateries.

But the food alone is worth going to Carlyon Bay for. Beautifully presented, every mouthful dances over the tongue, flirting with the taste-buds. An evening meal is five courses, starting off with an amuse bouche.

Typical starter choices can range from Cornish shellfish salad with Thai fragrant scents to iced watermelon, champagne jelly and Cornish berries - I opted for the latter and the zingy flavours set me up nicely for my main course of braised cannon of lamb, wild garlic and olives, tapenade mash and basil oil. A side of seasonal vegetables leaves your stomach groaning in pleasure - but not full enough as to skip dessert. Why, that would be a crime against cuisine. I recommend the French and local cheeses accompanied with grapes and walnuts: soft, hard, strong, sweet.

And let's not forget the wine list which is presented in a book the size of a heavy family photo album.

During my stay I began to feel as if it was home from home. The decor - from font styles indicating where suites were located, to lounge furniture - reminded me of their other hotels, the ones I had visited over the last 30 years. I took comfort in that.

And then it hit me. The secret was their ability to make you feel comfortable and at home, without scrimping on luxury.

They may not be uber cool or at the cutting edge of boutique- style, but it is their hotels' elegance and their staff's competence that shines through. And that, surely, is what we all want when we possess the urge to escape.

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