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The Best Kept Secret in Cambridge?
The Varsity Hotel and Spa, Cambridge, exudes elegance from the outside in. Set in a smooth concrete wall alongside the glass front door, is a double helix, gilded with gold leaf, which reflects the morning sunshine. This striking sculpture is not only beautiful and eye-catching, it resonates with the history of Cambridge where the first double helix model of DNA was created in 1953.
Arriving at The Varsity on a freezing February morning, we had a warm welcome from the front of house staff that lost no time in valet parking our car, stowing our luggage and answering our many questions about our day ahead in Cambridge.
As we had a walking tour booked at 11 am, we just had time for a brief look around The Varsity with the enthusiastic general manager who was clearly proud of her hotel and all it has to offer its lucky guests. The 44 roomed hotel has an enviable position in that while it is situated in central Cambridge, it opens onto a quiet side street that has neither traffic nor tourists. It also rises above the river Cam and its height affords an aerial view of the city.
Although the rooftop terrace was closed for the winter, we were ushered up to get a glimpse of the vista. Boasting the best view in Cambridge, in the warmer months this rooftop must be the place to watch the sunset with cocktail in hand. During the cooler weather, the view is no less breath-taking from the 6th floor restaurant and bar, where full-length windows provide fantastic light and a panoramic vista over the church and college spires – the skyscape for which Cambridge is renowned. Visitors usually crane their necks to gaze upwards at the soaring turrets of King’s College. This is the first time I have seen the city from above.
Next door is the Varsity Spa and Gym which is free for guests to use. A bare brick building dating back some 300 years and previously a barn, it now houses a weights room, running machines and a range of gym equipment that were in use by those fitter than me. I loved the look of the Jacuzzi overlooking the Cam. One way glass preserves modesty while enabling some great people watching and relaxing with a view of the punts gliding up and down the river. There is also a steam room and a sauna. Robes, slippers and towels are on hand. A yoga class was in progress in one of the studios; guests are invited to join in as all the classes are complimentary. I longingly eyed up the Elemis Spa wishing I had time for a massage or facial.
Guests have the choice of two restaurants on site. The Six Panoramic Bar and Restaurant serves food all day from breakfast, lunch, through a traditional afternoon tea and then on to cocktails and dinner. The restaurant boasts a wood stone oven, grill and rotisserie and has a comprehensive menu from pizzas to steak, veal, fish, seafood and curry. Down on ground level, the River Bar Steakhouse and Grill is set on the riverside with a full list of steak, fish, burgers and veggie options.
After a full day of sight-seeing, we returned to The Varsity after attending evensong at King’s College and were shown to our room on the 5th floor. The rooms are named after Cambridge colleges; I highly recommend the Magdalene – the Senior Fellows Superking room – for not only is the view glorious from the 5th floor, it is also a corner room with two walls of glass. Surely it must be one of the best views from any hotel room in the city.
The room was large with a huge, contemporary four poster bed, well-sized wardrobe, a desk with tea and coffee making facilities and bottled water, a comfortable armchair and the most gorgeous wallpaper festooned with instruments on a dark blue background. I would love a few rolls to decorate my own bedroom. The parquet floor had a stylish rug adding warmth and comfort. The tablet next to the bed was most useful not only in introducing me to every facility the hotel had on offer, but also enabled me to do a bit of internet research.
The large bathroom had an immense walk-in monsoon shower – very chic with shiny black tiles. Elemis products were lined up above the basin, fluffy robes behind the door. Yet another wall of glass had a blind to pull down in case anyone should be able to see up so high from the town below.
My husband disappeared to relax in the Jacuzzi and sauna while I indulged in some ‘me time’ with a pot of tea in our room with a view. How lovely to have a stylish, silver teapot included on the tea tray. Along with an elegant Illy cup and saucer, I felt quite spoilt sipping my tea and watching the sunset.
I called down to reception to ask after the drinks vouchers the manager had said she would leave. Before I had time to pop down to collect them, there was a soft knock at the door where a smiling member of the reception staff stood with vouchers in hand. The service really was impeccable.
For a pre-dinner drink, we headed one floor up to The Six bar overlooking the city, now twinkling brightly. The bar area is softly lit at night, the bar stools covered in mustard coloured leather which gives them a cheeky and playful feel. It is a cheerful and inviting space. We perched at the bar and perused the impressive cocktail menu which ran to many pages.
With a choice of over 30 Gins alone, it took a while to decide on our tipple. A champagne cocktail for me and a martini for my husband was just the ticket to get the evening off to a relaxed and refined start before setting off for dinner.
After a post-prandial stroll in an icy wind, I couldn’t wait to get back up to the comfort of our room. I had a great night’s sleep on the Hypnos mattress. For once my husband had no cause to grumble about my taking up all the space in bed. There was enough space for a family. I woke around 7 am, drew back the heavy curtains that kept the room dark, and discovered Cambridge bathed in the soft glow of a winter morning. I imagined the College rowers being put through their paces on the river below. Luckily all I had to do was boil the kettle and pop back into bed with my morning tea.
Breakfast is served on the 6th floor until 10 am which is great for guests who want to linger in their comfy beds. The natural light pouring in from the floor to ceiling glass windows in The Six restaurant was so wonderfully bright I nearly needed sunglasses. The restaurant has red leather banquettes along the windows adding colour and sophistication to the open space. In summer guests can dine on a terrace when glass doors slide open to extend the room to the outdoors. We sat at a corner table and enjoyed a generous Continental breakfast. Laid out buffet style was a choice of cereals from which I selected a bowl of muesli with forest berry compote and yoghurt. A glass of orange juice, a pot of tea, granary toast and orange marmalade completed my meal. There was a range of fruit juices alongside baskets of mini pastries, breads and jams. Also on offer was a platter of ham and salami, brie cheese, cheese slices, tomatoes and boiled eggs. A large toaster was available next to a bain-marie in which guests could boil their own eggs according to preference. Dinky egg timers were on hand to take back to one’s table. The restaurant also offers a range of choices from an extensive cooked breakfast menu.
Leaving a hotel like The Varsity is always going to feel too soon. We had a way to travel on to our next destination and when we checked out at 10.30 our car was waiting outside the front door as requested.
The Varsity packs in many facilities for its guests as well as attentive and friendly service. Valet parking is a great asset as parking in Cambridge is a headache. A gym and spa, two restaurants and a great bar all add up to not needing to leave the hotel at all. If it weren’t for the fact that there is so much to see in Cambridge itself, we might not have left the front door for 24 hours.
A week later I had dinner in London with a friend who works in the travel industry. I told him I had been to Cambridge overnight and discovered a wonderful hotel. ‘You must have stayed at The Varsity,’ he replied. I am delighted to be in on the secret.
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The Varsity Hotel and Spa
Thompson’s Lane (off Bridge Street)