Monday, July 30, 2007

Fowey Hall Hotel

Our main family holiday this year was to spend a week at Fowey Hall in Fowey, Cornwall; the Hotel is now part of the Luxury Family hotels group, see here this is a small group of select hotels in the UK that specialise in child friendly “luxury” holidays that cater for families that have young children who want 4/5 star accommodation, food and service but also need childcare, children’s facilities and organised child oriented activities. A couple of years ago we spend a long weekend at the Moonfleet Manor hotel which is also part of this group so it was interesting to compare and contrast these two establishments.

The main building of the hotel was originally built in 1899 by Sir Charles Augustin Hanson, 1st Baronet of Fowey and Lord Mayor of London (1917-18) he was also an MP for Bodmin in Cornwall (1916-22); apparently it was the inspiration for “Toad Hall” of “Wind in the Willows” fame, a children’s book by Kenneth Grahame. The high vantage point is superb, probably the best in the whole of Fowey, great views of the river estuary and Fowey town; it also serves up views of the medieval blockhouses guarding the entrance to the harbour and on out to cliffs and the open sea.

The décor and atmosphere of the communal areas of the hotel are great; the character of a stately home has been well preserved. There are dinning rooms, libraries, drawing rooms as well as games and meeting rooms, a splendid terrace soaking up the great views along with small but mature gardens concealing a conservatory style pool, several trampolines, play area and a kids club with full day-care/nursery facilities and a play room housing table football, pool and table tennis etc. Overall the quality of the facilities was good; their condition was satisfactory rather than pristine with some (i.e. the pool) in need of a refresh or updating baring in mind the price and marketing positioning of the hotel.

Our room was probably one of the biggest in the hotel; actually it was two adjoining rooms each with its own bathroom and a little hall area between them. Availability was scarce when we booked and all that was available was half-board and the “Charles Hanson” room; it was nice enough i.e. great views and clean, but the state of decoration was generally poor for the money. Creaky old wardrobes, rattley sash windows, cheap curtains and badly faded tapestries, I guess some people like this authentic “moth-eaten” feel, but personally I thought it badly needed modernisation and redecoration. The room had a cheap LCD TV and bargain basement DVD player (which worked most of the time); the kid’s room just had a cheap CRT TV which frankly was rubbish, the equipment was decidedly 2 star and we hardly used it. Apparently (according to other guests) there were other rooms in the hotel (in a new extension wing) that were very well equipped, i.e. modern stylish bathrooms, up to date AV equipment and contemporary furnishings etc. but sadly we didn’t get a chance to look at them during our stay.

Generally the pattern of activity flowed pretty much the same for us on most days; a hearty breakfast was followed by putting the kids into the club for a couple of hours at around 10am; this was nice as it allowed us adults to chill out over a cup of tea and a good read of the papers etc. (although the last Harry Potter book came out this week so that featured high on the “to-do” list of most people). After picking up the kids at midday we usually headed out for the day, things like beaches, attractions, parks and organised outings were in order along with a spot of lunch. Typically we got back at around 5pm when kid’s dinner was served. The hotel offers the concept of a separate children’s dinner from the main “adult” dinner, this was an extra charge, but at £7.50 per child offered reasonable value and certainly a convenient way to maintain “home like” eating schedules, we took advantage of it every night.

In-between kid’s dinner and adult’s dinner several activities were on offer, games (i.e. Xbox, Playstation, Monopoly etc.) and (weather permitting) outdoor sports like football, cricket, badminton etc. although this is one area where the facilities were particularly poor, cricket was 4 stumps, one adult size bat and a tennis ball (hardly suitable for 5 year olds); football was a ball and the same 4 cricket stumps for goals. The “sports” were supervised by hotel staff (usually a solitary young member of staff) mostly they seemed pretty disinterested in the whole thing, which often degenerated into chaos as the older kids pummelled (figuratively) the younger ones, inevitably it ended in tears.

After bathing and settling the kid’s down to sleep we prepared ourselves for dinner; each room has a listening device connected to a central console in the reception, the idea is that if your child cries out or makes a noise then the staff come and get you. This seemed to work ok, luckily neither of ours gave us any trouble (must be all that sea air!); human baby sitters were available but at extra cost, since we ate in the hotel every night we didn’t really need them.

The overall dining experience was good; the main dining room was reserved for adults only; however children could still eat with their parents in an adjoining room (I am amazed by how many 2-3 year olds were still running around after 9-10pm). This was a very good scheme as with so many children in the hotel, the noise and general mayhem of the day did wear you down after a while and having dedicated “Adult time”, i.e. peace and quiet was great. Three courses were on offer every night, a fixed, unchanging menu of 5-6 starters, 8-9 mains and 5-6 desserts with a single varying “menu of the day”, the selection was fair, plenty of fish and shellfish, surprisingly no beef (although steak appeared once as a daily menu item), one lamb, one chicken and one pork dish the rest seafood of varying kinds. On Sunday the chef obviously took the day off and we were all treated to a BBQ; I wasn't that keen on this idea, the food was fine, but the restrictions on kids in the main dinning room were lifted and boy was that unpleasant, over tired brats endlessly tearing around your table, simply not conducive to an enjoyable dining experience, we were in bed by 9pm that day.

The presentation of the food was very good; the quality was generally good although some dishes were a little bland (i.e. the tian of crab starter), the desserts were the highlight for me, generally they were excellent. The wine list was limited to around 50 bins and hardly any well known producers; I think they had tried to “represent” every conceivable country and grape so that people could at least find one thing they recognised; however in doing this it was a kind of “jack of all trades” but master of none. I found it very difficult to select wines from this list, the mark-ups seemed inconsistent and I suspected that the wines were chosen for their “margin potential” rather than their quality. This is not a hotel for wine geeks; they even committed the cardinal sin of advertising one vintage and serving another. One night I ordered a 2000 Stags Leap Petit Syrah (£59), this is a £20-25 pound wine (retail) but 2000 was an excellent year in Napa so I thought I would splash out; when the bottle arrived it turned out to be a 2004, when I mentioned this to the waiter he looked at me as if to say “so what it's the right wine isn't it?”, for a wine geek this is about as bad as it gets. The Bordeaux and Burgundy selections were poor, fringe/unknown producers, poor vintages and 5X+ mark-ups, Italy seemed reasonably represented but again, no one I’d heard of, South Africa & Spain seemed the best value with the rest a real mixed bag of odds and sods.

Overall this was a good, not great, holiday, the kid’s really enjoyed it and we genuinely had time to relax and recharge. The location (i.e. Fowey) was lovely, the views were great and there was plenty to do and see in the surrounding area. In terms of the hotel itself I’d say the following,

Excellent things

  • Kid’s club
  • Location, buildings, atmosphere and gardens

Good things

  • Dining experience, food
  • Indoor facilities, games, library & communal areas
  • Attentiveness of service, general efficiency

Poor things

  • State of décor & equipment in our room (Charles Hanson)
  • “Sports” in the evenings, lack of proper equipment & supervision
  • BBQ on Sunday (at least the lifting of child restrictions in the main dining room)
  • Overall value for money

Unacceptable things
  • Wine issues
  • Loud music from the kitchen (just below our room) at 5:30am!
  • Rattling windows (a couple of nights it got windy)
If I had to compare Fowey with Moonfleet Manor I'd say that Fowey was definitely better for (adult) food and dining, childcare and general location/atmosphere however I think Moonfleet scored better on facilities for sports and games, having a large indoor sports centre all of its own.

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