Back in 1996, the Devon city of Exeter became my new home when I went to study geography at Exeter University. It was just far enough away from home, and just big enough to have lots to do without being too overwhelming for this country girl. Add in a lovely city centre campus with lots of green space and I had three happy years there. But since graduating I’ve only been back once, so took my mum for a birthday celebration/trip down memory lane. The campus was picking up the pieces after another group of graduates celebrated finishing their degrees. The building had some smart new building, and my digs for the weekend were a step up too, with a stay at the luxurious Hotel du Vin (formerly Magdalen Chapter). This boutique hotel in Exeter’s former Victorian Eye Hospital was a far cry from my student house – next to a prison and where my room had half a fireplace after it’d been split in two to fit more people in!
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Exeter is a really walkable city, with the main sites and shopping streets all close together. The hotel is to the south of the city, about five minutes’ walk from the quayside, which has bars and restaurants along the waterside and art studios in the old boat storage arches. Or it’s a ten-minute walk into the city centre. You can follow the 2000-year-old city walls to the Cathedral, on a pretty green lined with old mews houses. The city centre has all the usual high-street shops, as well as some interesting, quirky places along the cobbled Gandy Street. There’s also a ruined castle and the Northernhay Gardens, as well as the Underground Passages and Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Or on a sunny day you can take the one of Britain’s most scenic rail routes along the coast to the sandy beaches at nearby Exmouth or Dawlish.
The hotel has 59 bedrooms and each is unique, using different furniture, colours and artwork. The high ceilings and big windows of the old building contrast really well with the bold colours and modern design. Our ground-floor twin room was decorated in deep purple with geometric patterned wallpaper on one wall. There was plenty of space, with a built in wardrobe and desk, Nespresso machine (and kettle for us tea drinkers), free mini-bar and iPad docking station. You don’t have to bring your own either, as the hotel will lend you one on check in. We also had a big wet room, with bright white walls and tiles that reminded me of its hospital heritage. Or in the upgraded feature rooms you get a bath in the bedroom. Bathrooms come with robes and piles of towels, along with REN toiletries. The only minus was the hairdryer, one of those where you have to hold down a button to make it work – guaranteed thumb-ache for the long-haired!
The dining room is a light and airy, glass-walled extension overlooking the gardens. Breakfast was included in our room rate, with a selection of juices, fruit, cereals and pastries – and gluten free toast on request. We also had a full English breakfast, with local sausages and bacon (not quite crispy enough for me but good-quality stuff), eggs, mushrooms and beans. We ate in the restaurant one evening, where you can watch the chefs in action in the open kitchen. They use a lot of seasonal food from Devon – my mum had a roast plaice with capers and lemon, and I went for a chicken breast with mushrooms, leeks and crisp ham hock. There’s a good wine list too as well as special offers like half-price fizz on Friday evenings and two for £10 on cocktails from 4pm–6pm on Saturdays (if would be rude not to). The restaurant is also open for lunch and afternoon tea, and there are a couple of private dining rooms you can hire for parties.
The hotel is a real mix of historic and modern – there’s the paperless reception area where you check in with a laptop perched on top of a wooden modern art sculpture, then there’s the old wooden hospital visitor’s board in the hallway. There are lots of communal spaces to relax in, with a bar (complete with open fire in winter), a library with comfy sofas and piles of books, and a bright glass-fronted lounge. There are terraces outside the lounge and restaurant as well as a walled garden with circular lawn and deckchairs to relax in. There’s also a REN spa and a gym (so I’m told). But the coolest feature was the inside/outside swimming pool. On sunny days you can lie by a lounger outside and swim in the outdoor pool, or if it gets chilly you can swim through the doorway into an indoor jacuzzi area complete with woodburner to warm you up.
- Guests are… the car park was Lotus, Merc and BMW territory, and the smartly-dressed Exeter set were out in force on a Saturday evening, but there’s no pretentious atmosphere and the hotel guests were a mix of couples and groups of friends.
- Staff are… helpful and friendly, and there are plenty of them so you never need to hunt around.
- Don’t forget… your swimming things to make use of the pool.
- Useful to know… you can order drinks from your deckchair so you don’t even need to get up.
Rooms at the Hotel du Vin Exeter start from £105 for a standard double room up to £175 for a studio room, not including breakfast. They also offer one and two-night dinner, bed and breakfast packages and a special Sunday night deal where you can get a room for £250 if you spend £75 in the restaurant.
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