Cambridge is a city very hard to describe without resorting to the language associated with its most famous attribute, the University. Dating from 1209 this centre of learning is a powerful signifier in a city whose physical size is dwarfed by its reputation throughout the world. King’s College is undoubtedly the most stunning but do make time for a wander around Pembroke College also, with its Christopher Wren-designed chapel and magical atmosphere.
Round-eyed from the architectural marvels we’d witnessed and a little weary from all the walking, Johnny and I were keen to check in to our hotel for the night, the Varsity Hotel. With its location so close to the centre of the city and its grand name, we imagined that the Varsity might be traditionally old fashioned.
Happily, even before entering the hotel we knew our concerns couldn’t be further from the truth. If the modern and sleek architecture of the hotel was no clue, then the exuberant multi-coloured floral display framing the electric glass doors of the entrance certainly were. The informality of this welcome was matched by the warmth and charm of the reception staff who proudly informed us we had been given a beautiful Senior Fellows Superking Room and dinner in their riverside restaurant.
While guiding us to our fifth-floor room the receptionist explained that the Varsity’s design concept was modern British, juxtaposing the traditional with cutting-edge elements and we noticed this ethos throughout our short but enjoyable stay. Our spacious room had striking purple wallpaper from Colefax and Fowler, solid oak flooring throughout and a beautiful four-poster bed with perfectly crisp yet soft linens.
A deep sofa in front of the widescreen television and Juliet balcony with lovely city views made us feel right at home, the perfect mix of comfort and elegance that a luxury hotel should offer. In keeping with its contemporary style, the room’s technology was both cutting edge and user-friendly with a tablet available to order room service directly. A pleasingly old-fashioned kettle and hot drink supplies were also present so no need to wait for coffee to be delivered in the morning!
After a restorative afternoon nap, we were ready to explore more of the hotel, beginning with its most admired feature, SIX, the rooftop bar. Making the most of its location, SIX has expansive views to the River Cam below and across the city, taking in some of Cambridge’s stunning architecture. Eschewing the bar or lounge area, we were seated at a window to best enjoy the views and swiftly attended to by a bartender who was as enthusiastic about the art of mixology as he was friendly, giving us an explanation of the remarkably long cocktail list.
Choosing to play it safe I went for a classic champagne cocktail while Johnny indulged in his love of tequila and aversion to sugar with a tequila soda on the rocks. These were predictable choices perhaps but perfectly executed and set us up for dinner admirably.
As its name would suggest, the River Bar Steakhouse and Grill is right on the Cam, with a beautiful view of Magdalene College opposite. Billed as serving the most tender, full flavoured steak using finest prime beef, the restaurant has a simply elegant and almost rustic design.
Seated on its mezzanine, we were impressed by how busy it was on a Sunday evening, testament to its popularity amongst visitors and locals alike. A table of American businessmen competed with a group of students celebrating the end of a course in which party could toast their successes more loudly, all adding to the warm and enjoyable atmosphere.
Encouraged by our charming waitress we ordered a trio of starters, a warm Scotch egg with garlic mayonnaise, a classic prawn cocktail and in a brief nod to health – a tomato soup, all of which were delicious with the soup in particular offering strong flavours and a lovely acidity that cut through our other mayonnaise-heavy choices.
Taking our cue from the name of the restaurant we both ordered steaks for our main course, an 8oz fillet and 10z rib eye, with the fillet as silky smooth and tender as it should be and the other boasting beautiful marbling and luscious fat. Wonderfully crispy chips and a fine béarnaise sauce completed the meal and despite exhortations from our waitress we passed on dessert, fully satiated and yearning for the bed a few floors above. On our way out the waitress pressed a small bag into my hands, telling me that we couldn’t leave without trying their famous brownie and that we might find more room for it later in the evening. Her suspicious were correct!
Before we left, we popped into the restored bonded warehouse that is now a spa with a jacuzzi overlooking the River Cam to relax, rejuvenate and de-stress before going back to London. Next time, we will try in one of their Elemis treatments or even go to the gym to work off those amazing brownies!
With so many more colleges to explore and the contrasting contemporary stylings of the Varsity Hotel to look forward to, we will be sure to return soon.
To book and discover more, visit: www.thevarsityhotel.co.uk
By Paul Simpson