September 27, 2008

A Salute to Star-Spangled Manners

By Gabe Stewart

YOU'VE never heard the name, but you'll instantly recognise the scent. You've smelt it when someone with an air hostess smile entreaties you to have a nice day. Or when a waitress brings a jug of unasked-for water to the table.

Eau d'Americaine is a scent sometimes hard to pin down, but increasingly apparent in Scotland's hospitality sector. Frankly, our notoriously patchy approach to customer care could do with a wash and brush up. After all, what is so bad about being encouraged to have a nice day? Are Scottish standards of customer service so high that they cannot improve via questions about how you enjoyed your stay? Yet sneering at service that sniffs of Eau d'Americaine remains popular.

It's an aroma quite at home at the Fairmont St Andrews in Fife. It's apparent in everything from the inoffensive muzak and architecture, the screenings of cinematic family favourites in the 100-seat cinema and the kids club, to the staff's genuine "have a nice day" ethos.

In an act reminiscent of the quizzical 1960s disassembly of London Bridge and subsequent reassembly in Arizona, Dr Don Panoz, developer of the nicotine patch, built an exact replica of his Atlanta Chateau Elan Winery and Resort seven years ago in St Andrews, Fife. Then, in 2006, the entrepreneur sold up and the 209- room Fairmont St Andrews joined the 80-strong global Fairmont family, recently undergoing a GBP 10.5m refurbishment.

The concise reception area opens out into an impressive atrium like an airport hangar-sized Poseidon Adventure ballroom. This vast expanse houses the informal Squire Restaurant, used on a daily basis for breakfasts and evening meals. The busy breakfast buffet offers enough food to feed an army. Evening meals involve less bustle. Alternatively, the wood-lined Kittocks Den bar, or the Clubhouse with its panoramic clifftop views, offer alternatives for lunch or dinner.

The intimate Esperante restaurant overlooks the atrium in an exclusive eyrie. Friendly, attentive staff make the Taste of Esperante menu enlightening and memorable. This 90-minute experience takes you though seven courses plus an amuse-bouche and pre- dessert. The menu combines Mediterranean flavours and cooking styles with local ingredients. The enthusiastic wine waiter excels at introducing each of the seven wines chosen to accompany each course. This palate-tickling sensation costs GBP 60 per person, or GBP 90 with wine.

The hotel also caters for large conferences and hosted Tony Blair's Northern Ireland peace summit 18 months ago. It's used to attracting big names - Prince William was a member of the spa and the helipad sees regular use from high-flying clientele such as Ewan McGregor and Kenny Dalglish, who uses the nearby Fairmont manor homes.

Yet, throughout, there is the sense that the hotel is accessible to all, not in the slightest bit pretentious, and it is clearly popular with families and corporates. How appropriately star- spangled.

And when it's time to unwind...

Decked out in driftwood and pebbles, the spa is, unsurprisingly, a haven of tranquility. Treatments unique to St Andrews include North Sea salt and seaweed body exfoliation and a Celtic harmony treatment which involves being entirely cocooned in wraps, then scrubbed and oiled to within an inch of your ecstasy threshhold.

I was lucky enough to be at the receiving end of a stress relief massage based on Swedish massage with elements of aromatherapy and shiatsu to promote intense relaxation. After inhaling aromatic oils, which were then applied in a very firm massage, my lower back was kneaded from side to side, then each vertebrae explored, before prising apart my shoulder blades to winkle out the roots of rigidity.

By the time I had turned over for more of the same on my feet, calves and thighs, my body was so relaxed it was practically pouring off the edge of the treatment table.

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