Last Updated on January 11, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
The Great White Palace – Burgh Island Hotel – channel your inner Agatha.
What better setting for a murder mystery than an island. Perhaps that was why Burgh Island inspired not one but two of Agatha Christie’s novels (‘Evil Under the Sun’ and ‘ And Then There Were None’). Or was it just because she herself loved the island and the beautiful Art Deco hotel and visited frequently?
The Beach House was first built in the 1930s as a writer’s retreat for Agatha, but you can stay there today, right under the cliffs with a panoramic view of the sea in what is now a self-contained luxury beach retreat with a double bedroom, a sofa bed in the lounge and two single beds tucked away on the top floor.
Perfect for a small family or for a couple who are looking for total privacy.
The main hotel, ‘The Great White Palace’ as it has become known, is my idea of perfection though, with a series of rooms and suites, each individually decorated and packed with original Art Deco fixtures and fittings. It’s not hard to step back in time and channel your inner Agatha. Originally built in the 1890s, the prefabricated wooden house that music hall star George H Girgwin built became a popular destination for weekend parties.
When the island was sold to Archibald Nettlefold in 1927, he set about building a luxurious and substantial hotel in Art Deco style. It quickly became one of the most popular hotels of its time and a favourite retreat for Agatha. Other famous visitors include Noel Coward, The Beatles, Edward and Mrs Simpson and reportedly Churchill and Eisenhower in the weeks leading up to the D Day invasion. And who wouldn’t want to stay on Burgh Island? Apart from the setting, just off the coast of South Devon across a sandy beach from Bigbury Upon Sea, the hotel exudes timeless luxury.
I checked into my ‘cosy’ room – ‘Jane Marple’. Did someone know something I didn’t?
‘Miss Marple is an elderly spinster who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead and acts as an amateur consulting detective’
With antique double bed and wardrobe, a slipper bath looking out over the sea and a pretty view down to the Mermaid Pool, I felt quite at home. There were fluffy bathrobes and plenty of towels, together with toiletries from Noble Isle. Perfect.
After freshening up, a trip around the island seemed in order. First down to the Mermaid pool which I’d spotted from my window. Tony Porter, who with his wife was responsible for restoring the hotel in the 1990s describes the challenge of re-establishing this particular feature. To all intents and purposes, it looks like a natural feature, but it was at least in part man-made. In the 1930s ‘walls’ were made to create the circular inlet, with a sluice gate to allow seawater in and out and ensure that it didn’t become stagnant. When the gates rusted up, one set of previous owners employed the Royal Marines to blow up the gate! Tony and his wife together with what help they could muster from the hotel staff had one attempt at rebuilding the mermaid pool only to discover a hidden hole, deep underwater. The project was put on hold for another 10 years before the eighteen thousand pounds needed to complete the pool could be raised.
What we see today when visiting the hotel, a stunning private seawater pool, surrounded by cliffs, with a sheltered beach to two sides and with a central diving pool, is the result of considerable work and planning.
The island isn’t just home to the Hotel. There’s an old smugglers pub, the Pilchard, which dates back to the fourteenth century and is popular with locals and visitors alike. And, there’s a network of walks with stunning views around the coastline. It’s the kind of place where you might arrive intending to take day trips and explore more of Devon…but end up just staying.
Apart from the mermaid pool, there are tennis courts and a croquet lawn for guests. And, the main beach is popular with surfers and swimmers alike. It’s an idyllic seaside location with everything you might want on your doorstep.
Although there are only twenty-five rooms and suites in the hotel, there are two restaurants and food is also available from The Pilchard which has a cafe to complement the popular traditional pub. Back in the main hotel, the Palm Court offers afternoon tea and cocktails too, so you really don’t need to leave the island if you don’t want to.
The Grand Ballroom in the hotel offers a full dinner service every night with live music and dancing. There’s a dance floor in the ballroom itself and a lovely outside dance floor where you can waltz away under the stars. It’s black-tie and guests do dress up in the most glamorous outfits.
Prefer something a little less formal? The Nettlefold, named after Archibold Nettlefold who commissioned and ran the hotel in the 1930s, is a fresh fish restaurant with a few non-seafood based options to suit all tastes.
I was treated to canapés and cocktails on the terrace before enjoying a delicious tasting menu with matched wines. Each cocktail was a unique twist on a classic cocktail – for me, an elderflower and cucumber Collins made with local Mermaid gin, cucumber bitter and topped up with elderflower tonic. The prettiest offering was the seaside Martini, made with Curio Rock Samphire Cornish Gin or Isle of Wight Rock Salt Vodka.
Three different local oysters, each with their own dressing – I particularly like the tangy apple and wasabi paired with a Porthilly rock. To drink, a glass of Taittinger Prestige Rosé NV, in a pretty 1930s style glass.
Next, razor clams with roasted chorizo and tomato salsa. I felt the accompanying chorizo and tomato was a little overwhelming for one of the sea’s most delicate offerings but still managed to finish everything on my plate, along with a glass of Susana Balbo Malbec Rosé from Argentina.
Pan-fried halibut with clam and broad bean velouté and braised fennel was perfection on a plate for me. I love halibut and this was beautifully cooked with a golden caramelisation and perfectly flaky flesh. The accompanying clams and fennel made for a delicious contrast. To accompany, a glass of Mâcon Lugny Joseph Drouhin, France.
Dark chocolate torte with coconut ice cream is the kind of dessert I will never complain about – and our late harvest Malbec from Susana Balbo was a lovely accompaniment. Coffee and petit fours for me before I tumbled into bed. But not before, like a small child peeking in at a grown-up party, I’d gone to check out the Ball Room. What a lovely sense of romance with the men in black tie and the ladies wearing their finest gowns – mostly out on the terrace on the outdoor dancefloor. All I needed was the man!
Breakfast the next morning was served in the Nettlefold too. It’s a stunning room with panoramic sea views. I sat gazing out over the sea and beach enjoying far too many pastries to complement my scrambled eggs with smoked salmon (recommended the night before – and good even for someone like me who doesn’t always enjoy eggs). I had a hectic day ahead and didn’t get back until dinner was all but over. A nightcap in the Palm Court Lounge gave me the chance to meet Gary, one of the longstanding members of the Burgh Island team that help to make this place so special. I watched him greet everyone by name, offer them the cocktail he knew they’d choose – and chat just enough to make us all feel at home.
For my final morning, I felt it necessary to indulge a little. A full Devonshire breakfast and a bellini. Just because.
A quick tour of the hotel gave me a chance to see some of the alternative accommodation. Everything is available from the contemporary styled Beach House to decadent suites and luxury rooms. Some have stunning private balconies with that wonderful sea view I enjoyed from the Palm Court Lounge and the Nettleford.
All of the main hotel rooms are different – and all are packed with Art Deco fixtures and fittings. This really is somewhere to come for the perfect Island escape – I didn’t bother checking the news and didn’t miss a TV in my room.
What better way to unwind and perhaps celebrate a special anniversary or event? I hope one day I’ll be back to do just that. And, next time perhaps I’ll get caught by the tide and have a chance to ride on the sea tractor!
Burgh Island Hotel
Bigbury on Sea
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Disclosure: I was a guest of Burgh Island Hotel