A really exceptional hotel must be a one-of-a-kind. Step into the Hotel du Vin Exeter and enter a unique and very special world of calm and exceptional service. Set in the heart of the ancient city of Exeter within a walled garden where bees buzz amongst vegetables grown for the restaurant, the striking Victorian hybrid baroque architecture of this former Eye Infirmary has been transformed into elegant spaces echoing its fascinating past while maintaining the highest of modern standards.
Each bedroom is styled with original artwork, bold colour schemes; luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets; roll top baths where long, luxurious soaks beckon; gowns and towels fit for Barbara Cartland on a hen night. Public rooms still bear traces of their original use: lovely marble flooring; a huge fireplace in the vestibule; a plaque announcing that ‘Patients may be visited by their friends on Sundays, Tuesdays & Fridays from 2.30pm to 3.30pm’. Contemporary furniture and lighting melds perfectly with traditional floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the library, begging you to hunker down, select an escapist novel and escape with an afternoon Devon Cream Tea (cream first then jam, purleese!)
Time now for some exploring. Exeter is brimming with must-does-and-sees: the magnificent cathedral founded in 1050 is just a stroll away as is the Quay built by the Romans to connect the city to the nearby sea. It’s now a fashionable place to stroll, eat, rootle for antiques, or hire a kayak and paddle down to the Double Locks pub for a glass of something. If the weather is ‘mizzly’ search out the Underground Passages, a web of medieval tunnels that originally brought clean water to the city. A conducted tour transports you to a world just below the bustle of the shops and streets above. If you fancy a bit more culture the nearby Royal Albert Museum and Art Gallery holds enough for many a visit. My favourite little jewel, ‘A boat in a storm’, attributed to J. M. W. Turner. The small watercolour depicts a boat near a rocky shoreline in stormy weather, a man battled against the wind on the beach and a ruin can be seen atop the cliff. It encapsulates the wilder side of Devon and would look very good hung in my downstairs loo.
The comforts of the Hotel du Vin beckoned and some thoughtful pre-planning had produced the following gameplan: swim-cocktails-dinner-sleep. The pool is tucked away in a corner of the garden. Forget all thoughts of icy, spartan, or bracing. This pool is pure heaven. The changing area was as warm as freshly baked bread and led to a small, covered pool, even warmer. It was impossible to slide into the water without orgasmic exhalations of sheer bliss. Oooo. Then out into a pool open to the sky, glowing with the setting sun over nearby Dartmoor. A glance at the thermometer – thirty delightful degrees. A reality check was needed. Here we were slap bang in the middle of Exeter, busy Magdalen Street only yards away, yet all was peace and calm, time to float and dream.
But don’t forget the list. Cocktails to prolong the warm fuzzy sensations. After an expertly constructed Bloody Mary for me, Kir Royale for her, thoughts turned to food. The restaurant is a brilliant add-on to the original building. Festooned with dozens of teardrop light spheres under a sweeping glass roof, it looks out on the gardens. Sliding glass doors can be opened in warmer weather to connect the in with the out. A word or two about waiters here. They can be intrusive or discrete, knowledgeable or uninformed, pleasant or downright surly. Ours ticked all the right boxes, and some more besides. Jake Stokes was working his way up through the pecking-order of the Hotel du Vin’s parent company Malmaison and will be at manager level pretty soon if I’m any judge.
To pair with my scallops then mussels (yes, I like seafood, and this was the best; diver-caught scallops and rope-grown mussels, local and oh-so-succulent) Jake steered me toward a bottle of Trimbach Riesling Alsace. It was exceptionally good. He knows his stuff. While we chatted between courses, he let me into an Hotel du Vin Exeter wine secret which I now share with you all. The assistant bistro manager, by name Laura Harris, is studying for sommelière qualification in her own time. Impressive. She has compiled a list of all the wines no longer featuring on the brand-standard card and there’s some beauties. A Timorasso ‘Derthona’ Piedmont, Walter Massa at £49, and a Hermitage La Chapelle, Paul Jaboulet at £199. There are dozens more. Laura wasn’t there when we visited but it sounds like a return stay is going to be necessary. Ask to see the Cellar Selection.
Over the after-dinner wind-down in the lounge I had a chance to read a fascinating history of the building written by Tony Shirazian, assistant front office manager, another Hotel du Vin gem. From its foundation in 1808 with seven beds, one matron, one nurse and a servant, this venerable institution and its staff has been looking after people in different iterations for 214 years. And it continues to do so superbly.
Room rates at the Hotel du Vin Exeter start from £183. For more information visit online.
Hotel du Vin Exeter