Fez is home to Morocco’s oldest Medina and with a warren of over 9,000 twisting cobbled streets, it’s an attack on all the senses, a bustling hub of sights, smells and sounds. But just moments from the non-stop activity lies a haven of tranquility that could be a million miles away from the craziness that lies outside its walls.
Palais Amani - so called Fez’s ‘best kept secret’ for very good reason - lies on the edge of the old city’s boundaries, hidden behind palatial wooden doors, crossing the threshold you’re transported far away from the bustling streets outside. A courtyard of striking blue and white tiled pillars, intricately carved wooden shutters behind which lie sumptuous suites, delicate fretwork above the rows of windows studding the butter yellow walls, all surrounding a lush verdant garden.
Head up to the roof and you’ll be rewarded with a sun-drenched terrace, where you can take in 360° views of the city skyline and the mountains beyond from either a lounger on the rooftop solarium or a canopied seating area, covered in vibrant mirrored cushions and come sundown lit with the delicate flickering of hammered brass lanterns. The perfect spot enjoy a drink from the rooftop bar, the silence is only broken by the call to prayer that echoes out across the rooftops of the city. One of the hotel’s suites even has access to its own private domed terrace on which to take tea, though it’s worth asking about access as if no one is booked in to said suite, the terrace is yours for the taking.
The opulent listed building was partly rebuilt in the 1930s, explaining the slight Art Deco touch to its Arabian Andalusian style, and the luxury Riad is home to eighteen rooms and suites. From cosy Classic Rooms with views over the Medina to the breathtaking Grand Suite, covering the whole 100 sq/m of the south wing and resplendent with a salon, his and hers dressing rooms, spectacular bathroom and breathtaking views onto the gardens and the hills beyond,
all are set around the central courtyard garden and come with luxurious touches like local argan oil toiletries.
The hotel restaurant offers guests a slice of traditional Moroccan cuisine with an inventive flair, with a daily changing discovery menu of local breakfast dishes - we fell in love with the fresh whipped goat’s cheese and delectable honey - as well as lunches and dinners served either inside or in the garden. In addition to the selection of exquisite Moroccan signature dishes on the à la carte menu - including the rather delectable tagging of lamb shanks served with barley meal and courgettes - there’s a ‘Market Moroccan’ concept offering a monthly changing three-course bistro menu of fresh, healthy dishes featuring an abundance of seasonal produce from the local market.
It’s perfectly possible to while away the hours at Palais Amani, but with such a rich heritage to explore the other side of the walls, it makes for the perfect base from which to discover the fascinating ancient city of Fez.
It would be rude to visit Morocco without trying a traditional Hammam and Palais Amani offers guests the opportunity right on site. It may take a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the darkness as you descend into the candle-lit basement after stepping out of the blinding sunshine, but there you’ll be greeted by a willing volunteer to scrub you until your skin shines like you didn’t know it could. The traditional Hammam experience (405dhs/approx £40) involves a sea salt crystal hand and foot bath, natural rose water and bran scrub foot scrub, a white rhassoul clay hair mask, a body steam bath with the traditional Moroccan argan oil and mint black soap and a thorough body exfoliation. Trust me, you’ll leave squeaky clean. The hotel also offers a spa menu of treatments, including luxurious massages with local oils which, for the ultimate indulgence, can take place in a private tented pergola on the roof.
Those with a keen interest in beauty take note; as one of the wonderful menu of extra experiences Palais Amani can book for guests to enhance their stay, you can partake in a fascinating three hour beauty workshop, an introduction to traditional Moroccan beauty products.
Being two complete junkies we obviously jumped at the chance and found ourselves, along with our guide, welcomed into the home of a local woman where we learnt of the secrets and scents of the Hammam essentials every woman is taught to make from a plethora of natural ingredients, with subtle, secret family twists on classic recipes passed down through generations of women. With a table laid out with everything needed, from volcanic Rhassoul clay from the Atlas Mountains, locally sourced henna, rose and orange waters, to dried herbs and spices, fresh eggs and honey she shared her recipes. From a henna and lemon juice face mask, to a deep conditioner of flax seed, egg yolk, olive and castor oils, a heavenly scented ground rice, cinnamon and rose water face scrub and a body scrub of ground lavender, rose petals, thyme and oats, we walked out of there with baby soft faces, Tupperware tubs labelled up ready for our Hammam visit, instructions on where to find the best honey and rose water in the Medina and a promise to make more of our own natural skincare upon our return.
To ensure your Palais Amani experience is everything you desire, the hotel can also arrange a multitude of other experiences, from a private hiking trip with luxury picnic in the surrounding mountains, an Arabic calligraphy workshop, photography tours, henna parties and excursions to nearby Chefchaouen and Meknez.
This glittering gem of a hotel is also home to the Fez Cooking School (www.fezcookingschool.com), a must-do for those who like to get busy in the kitchen. Fez is the birthplace of Morocco’s most diverse cuisine, so it’s the perfect location to create your own. We joined the hotel chef for a morning food tour of the Medina to buy the ingredients for our feast, visiting olive sellers, passing open air butchers (not for those of a delicate stomach), stopping off for a taste of a local soup, sizzling fresh doughnut and freshly-brewed mint tea, plunging deeper into the winding cobbled streets of the Medina and wondering, were we not in the very capable hands of our guide, if we would ever find our way out again.
Back at Fez Cooking School’s open-air rooftop kitchen, we worked under the expert tutelage of the chef to create a mouthwatering chicken tagine packed with onions and olives, a zaalouk smoky aubergine salad and a divine dessert of layers of flaky pastry drizzled with an orange blossom icing and finished with cinnamon and honey, all of which were devoured in the sunshine with a glass of wine. With the Fez Cooking School programme also including Moroccan bread and pastry workshops and a Moroccan Jewish Culinary Heritage Workshop and prices from around £32 per person to £150 per person, there’s something for everyone.
Getting out of London for a night has be one of my favourite pastimes; for those days when you need a little break, a time out from real life, but the time constraints and budget won’t quite stretch to a proper mini break in a far flung city. Luckily, there’s a raft of rather delightful spa hotels a mere stone’s throw from the capital that are begging for a post-work sojourn on a Friday evening.
The Runnymede on Thames in Egham is exactly that. Leaving work at 5.30pm on a Friday, we were crossing the hotel’s threshold by 6.45pm, ready for a night of rest and relaxation. Situated on the bank of the river and just a short taxi ride from Egham station, it’s an ideal getaway for a night away from London. With rooms overlooking the river, a spa and fitness room and two restaurants on site, it’s no wonder we found it buzzing with guests upon arrival.
Rooms vary from singles for the solo traveller to doubles overlooking the river, family suites and even dog-friendly rooms for those travelling with a faithful companion. Checking in to ours, I instantly eyed up the ESPA toiletries in the bathroom, ready for my post-prandial soak, along with a bottle of prosecco chilling in the minibar, part of the hotel’s current 'Fizz & Films' package, offering couples a bed and breakfast stay with unlimited films, a bottle of fizz and popcorn from £160 for two. Nevertheless, having leapt on a train straight from work dinner called…
The hotel has two restaurants; The Lock Bar and kitchen is the a la carte offering, boasting a 2018 AA Rosettes award for culinary excellence with a menu of hearty, home-style cooking and a regularly changing menu. The Leftbank restaurant however, our dinner location, may well be the best buffet I’ve ever encountered. Completely spoilt for choice, we absolutely gorged on a smorgasbord of delicious fresh salads and nibbles to start, from lentil, butternut and goats cheese to devilled eggs, before helping ourselves to a selection of fresh fish, calamari and mussels, which the chef cooked up before our eyes in a creamy white wine sauce. With an array of sides to accompany, guests can choose from a plethora of dishes from the theatre kitchen, from sizzling roasts with all the trimming, pasta and sauces cooked to order and stone baked rustic dough with delicious cheesy toppings. The range of food on offer was something else. Puddings must not be overlooked; given we visited on Burns’ Night I very much enjoyed the Cranachan … though the individual strawberry cheesecakes were rather delightful. And the meringues, and for that matter the chocolate brownies… OK, so it was all delicious! The danger with a buffet however is one’s tendency to overeat, so perhaps be mindful when dining that you WILL want it all so probably best to stick with small quantities.
A pre-breakfast swim was just the ticket prior to another gorge at the buffet; fresh fruit with coulis and homemade compotes, a cereal and yoghurt bar, homemade Bircher and granola, a continental spread featuring ham, mortadella and smoked salmon, cheese, pastries and a full English buffet to pick and choose from… needless to say breakfast is another hefty affair, made all the sweeter by the addition of comb honey from their very own resident bees.
With the spa open until 10pm the temptation of a post-dinner session proved too much to resist; after all, is there anything better for the digestion than a jacuzzi? Resplendent with the addition of a steam room, dry and infra saunas and pool, it’s the perfect place to while away an evening. Sauna, swim, steam, repeat is my new mantra in life.
The spa’s treatment many encompasses a whole manner of massages, facials, body wraps and more, with a number of spa day experience packages available. They’ve even earmarked particular treatments for younger guests, a great option to those who might want to treat their teens. Should it strike your fancy the gym and studio classes are also available… though admittedly I didn’t feel the need to break my relaxation with a workout. Come the summer months there’s an outdoor pool available, while guests can also indulge in the riverside hot tub, though the thought of being exposed to all and sundry jogging along the public towpath doesn’t particularly fill me with joy.
Although our January sojourn wasn’t quite the right timing for it, guests can also enjoy messing about on the river in one of the hotel’s boats, with a number of staff licensed to skipper you up and downriver from their private mooring, something it’s certainly worth keeping in mind for the summer months.
The only criticism I had of our stay was the somewhat dubious array off films on offer; for a film package the choice was disappointing, with absolutely zero chick flicks or rom coms (yes I was on a girls’ minibreak…) and more *ahem* adult films than actual entertaining choices we wanted to watch, though given we were so stuffed from supper and drowsy post-bubble bath it wasn’t the end of the world.
For a deliciously relaxing night away less than an hour from London, The Runnymede on Thames is certainly one to add to your little black book.
Bohemian luxury in the heart of Prague
There’s no bad time to visit Prague, but truth be told this already magical city becomes utterly bewitching in the winter months. Romantic cobbled streets dusted with snow, warming buckets of rich goulash, hot spiced rum and not to mention the Gingerbread Museum, with the added bonus of being extremely kind on the post-Christmas purse strings, it’s the perfect new year getaway that won’t break the bank.
Located in the centre of the city, mere minutes away from the Old Town Square, BoHo Hotel Prague marries indulgent luxury with boutique comfort - the very definition of charm. It opened in 2015 in a former post office, but now it couldn’t be further from its industrial past. With carefully thought out interiors with a nod to Scandi-styling, it’s a design-lover’s dream. Tempting as it may have been to stay lounging in the lobby bar with the glass of champagne presented to us on arrival, a tour of the hotel showed us there was so much more than first meets the eye.
A library packed with books handpicked by the owners offers drinks and snacks throughout the day, plus a complimentary wine hour daily from 5pm, an impossible invitation to turn down when there’s a roaring fire begging to be curled up in front of.
With rooms ranging from a standard size to suite, triples and family rooms, there’s a bed for every budget. Even the standard rooms feature a queen size bed, a bathtub or rain shower, robes and slippers and toiletries from Roja Dove and Nature Bissé - both big ticks in my beauty lover’s book. The beds are divine; you’ll be tempted by a lie in, though I somehow managed to drag myself out of it at dawn to be THAT tourist who wanted a picture of the Charles Bridge at sunrise…
The robes and slippers will inevitably come in handy for your venture to the basement Wellness Area. With a fitness and cardio area available to guests (helpful for working off that goulash…) and an accompanying spa area with hydro jet pool, sauna and steam room, we all too easily fell into a daily routine of a soothing post-wine hour, pre-dinner steam and snooze before heading out on the town. After a long day pounding the icy streets of Prague, it was a welcome escape that proved impossible to resist.
We didn’t stick around to try dinner at the hotel; eating out in Prague is incredibly affordable and with literally dozens of fantastic restaurants within spitting distance of the Boho’s front door the temptation was too much. We particularly enjoyed the Restaurace Tiskarna, literally a three minute walk away; their beef broth was so delicious we went back the following night for more. Where the Boho Hotel restaurant does excel, however, is the breakfast buffet. And what a buffet it is. Cereals, fresh honeycomb, a whole bakery of breads and pastries, ham and cheese sandwiches lined up ready for the toastie machine; I defy you not to overeat. Add to that the aforementioned mini croissants and pains au chocolate available all day in the library and it’s a recipe for a paunch.
As if all of the above isn’t enough, add to the fact that the Boho’s staff make you feel like no request is too small and you have a recipe for a dream stay. From organising city tours to recommending bars and restaurants, offering an umbrella to stave off the rain and sending up an iron to rescue my dinner outfit, they were invaluable. The Boho Hotel manages to perfectly encapsulate a luxury experience without the pretentious nature of some counterparts; as a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World it’s no surprise it feels like a comforting, cosy home from home. In fact, given a photo of their library is now on my Dream House Pinterest board, maybe one day it will be my home.
There is something to be said for escaping London for a weekend to indulge in a relaxing retreat. So, when The Vineyard Hotel, a five-star specialist wine hotel located in Stockcross near Newbury in Berkshire, invited us for a wine-focused night away with wine, delicious food and a spa on the cards, we couldn’t resist.
This delightful, award-winning hotel boasts 30,000 bottles of wine housed in the on-site cellar and features 49 individually designed rooms and suites - all named after famous wines. The property also admiringly houses more than 100 pieces of art.
Everything at The Vineyard Hotel is about wine. There are no rules to a visit here, whether the guest is a wine lover or a vineyard explorer, the enigmatic staff do their best to ensure wines on offer are tasted and enjoyed in the upmost luxurious surroundings, to ensure every guest enjoys the wine tasting experience to the fullest.
The hotel's award-winning sommelier Romain Bourger won 'UK Young Sommelier of the Year' in 2016, so guests looking for inspiration can be assured they’re in good hands when he recommends wines to be paired with their meal.
To introduce wines from around the world to a wider audience, The Vineyard has unveiled a Grape Priced Wine campaign (#GrapePricedWine), to showcase fabulous wines that are accessible – whatever your price point.
For those who are serious about wine, the hotel also runs WSET courses and exams across several levels, to allow guests to achieve a qualification in wine.
One of the hotel’s great offerings is its 3AA Rosette restaurant. The a la carte menu is fantastic, however, it’s the tasting menus that make a stay here truly memorable. Guests can choose from the Judgement of Paris tasting menu (£89), where each course is paired with two wines - one Californian and the other French, or The Discovery Dinner tasting menus (£75). We tried the Discovery Dinner menu, an exciting and at times blinder of a menu (one of the wine parings is a blind test), allowing the taster to enjoy five exciting courses, each paired with a different wine.
We loved all the courses, especially the starter of octopus, tomato and green olive sauce, fregula and sweet potato, which was paired with a gorgeous 2015 Viognier from Australia.
Celebrating 20 years of culinary excellence
To mark the hotel's 20th birthday, the hotel has created 'Back to the Vine' a culinary festival featuring the culinary delights of seven Michelin starred chefs who have graced their kitchen over the years. From 25 June - 30 June guests will be able to enjoy a five-course dinner with expertly paired with wines for £150 per person. On Sunday, 1 July guests can enjoy a fabulous four-course Sunday lunch also with paired wines, and priced at £90 per person.
The Vineyard Hotel Spa – the perfect place to relax
All that eating and drinking can sometimes get the better of us, so it’s a blessing that the hotel has an award-winning 5-star spa to help people unwind. In addition to an indoor pool, sauna and steam rooms, the hotel is unique in that it offers a selection of wine-themed spa treatments featuring red grapes including a body wrap, body polish and a back treatment.
This luxury hotel is ideal for a relaxing retreat while broadening one’s wine knowledge. The staff are very helpful, the sommeliers are proficient and the evening meals, superb. It is all about discovery and adventure at The Vineyard, a concept that we love.
Priced from £247 for accommodation including breakfast (based on two guests sharing and depending on time of year and availability).
The Vineyard Hotel
A summary of our stay at The Vineyard Hotel
The Swan at Lavenham
If you love quirky, higgledy piggledy historical properties you’ll be swanning with joy over The Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa.
A study in beams, this medieval 15th century gem is everything you’d wish for in a period property. The hotel is comprised of three houses from which the hotel was later developed. It's not fully known when the conversion from houses into an inn took place, but it was well established in 1667. During its heyday in times bygone, it served as a public and posting house, with stabling for 50 horses.
So many beams!
Today, the 4-star hotel has 45 bedrooms, all of which are unique. We stayed in Room 34, The Newton Room, which had a very low ceiling and original timber-beamed walls. Although the room was on the small side, we had enough room for a cosy double bed, a desk, two arm chairs and an en-suite bathroom with chequered tiles and country-chic wooden panelling.
Our cosy bedroom - The Newton Room
Within the hotel there are two on-site restaurants – the Brasserie, a relaxed restaurant with original stone floors and contemporary décor serving casual fare, and the award-winning two rosette The Gallery restaurant. On a warm summer’s day, guests can also enjoy afternoon tea in the garden.
The back entrance of the property adjacent to the garden
The chef at the helm is Head Chef Justin Kett, who is passionate about classic British cuisine featuring quality, local ingredients. Wine lovers will be pleased to know that the restaurant also has a sommelier, Head Sommelier Francois Belin (previously of the Goring Hotel in London), who is on hand to help guests navigate the extensive wine menu to find a wine that beautifully matches their chosen dishes.
Dining at The Gallery has a real sense of occasion to it, with its stunning minstrel's gallery where a pianist plays popular medleys on the grand piano while diners enjoy their meals. We opted for three courses, all of which were delightful and served with a smile by our friendly server.
After a restful night's sleep, guests can tuck into the complimentary breakfast, which includes a selection of breads, porridge, yogurts and a cooked breakfast featuring favourites such as smoked salmon and scrambled eggs or Eggs Benedict.
Weavers' House Spa located within the hotel is a serene space with a soothing colour palette of sage green and white, making it the perfect place to chill out after a hectic week. The spa uses Temple Spa products, all of which are available for purchase.
Weavers' House Spa at The Swan at Lavenham
The on-site spa facilities include a sauna, steam room and an outdoor terrace with a small whirlpool - a great place to relax if the weather is cooperating! Guests can choose from more than 30 treatments from hot stone massages to a unique brush massage or more traditional facials, manicures and pedicures.
Upon arrival guests are given an exceptionally fluffy robe and slippers and are then asked to fill out a questionnaire, which arrives on a cute tray with an olive branch decoration and a hot towel and a fresh fruit smoothie to help you ease into your visit.
During my visit, I experienced the New Beginnings mummy-to-be massage (£70), an extra-gentle 60-minute massage tailored for pregnant women. Instead of a traditional massage where you lie on your back, you rest on your side on top of a special water bed as the therapist gives you a head-to-toe massage. Although the massage was relaxing, I found myself wishing for a bit more pressure, but to ensure safety, the therapists have to be as careful as possible, which is why they use such a light touch throughout the treatment.
Exploring further afield
As the hotel is located right in the heart of town, taking a stroll is a must. Lavenham is considered one of England’s best medieval villages with more than 340 listed buildings, so it’s worth checking it out. One of the key things to see in Lavenham is its gorgeous church - the church of St Peter and St Paul - which boasts a striking 141ft-high tower.
If you’re into shopping, head to Snape Maltings with its seven acres of Victorian buildings with shops, galleries and restaurants. If you’re a foodie, head for the Suffolk Food hall, near Ipswich, which boasts more than 8,000sq ft of space filled with some of the best food from Suffolk.
To book a stay at the Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa visit www.theswanatlavenham.co.uk.
Rooms start from £185 per night for two sharing including a full Suffolk breakfast; dinner from the a la carte menu is from £39 per person for three courses. Overnight guests have a complimentary two-hour session with use of the facilities in Weavers’ House Spa including the sauna, steam room, outdoor vitality pool and relaxation lounge.
The Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa
A beachy, buzzy oasis is probably the most apt description for Urban Beach, a quirky boutique hotel near Boscombe Beach in Bournemouth, which is the ideal place to hole up for a weekend beach escape.
Urban Beach is proof that good things come in small packages. With only 12 rooms, it feels more like you’re staying at a stylish mate’s house, rather than a hotel, and you get the feeling that this is precisely the vibe they want you to feel when you stay with them as everyone who works at the hotel is exceptionally laidback and on hand to ensure that you feel welcome during your stay.
The rooms at Urban Beach
Each room at the hotel has a different design, and some rooms are larger than others, however, they all offer luxury en-suite bath or shower rooms, crisp white Egyptian cotton linen, down bedding, fluffy white towels, arran aromatic toiletries, fair trade tea & coffee making facilities, complimentary Wi-Fi, plasma TVs and DVD players.
Our room (Room 1) was tastefully decorated and had a gothic-inspired black glass chandelier, which lent a touch of rock star opulence to the room. Our en-suite shower room was small, but the natural tiles made it feel luxe.
Food and drink at Urban Beach
The hotel features a modern bistro with inside and outside seating, depending on your preference. Food and drink is served in the bistro from 8am – 10pm, and the menu boasts a wealth of tasty entrees, with the majority of the ingredients sourced from local suppliers, something that we love. The ala carte menu features a wide variety of options including mains such as the ‘fish of the day’ (£16.00); wild mushroom risotto with tomato pearl barley (£13.00); and Beef Wellington (£22), to name a few, so if you leave hungry, it’s your own fault! They also offer a sensational breakfast, which is in my estimation, the best way to start your day right.
Those who are exceptionally lazy can also spring for room service, which we did the following morning, when we couldn’t bear to pry ourselves out of bed!
Urban Reef restaurant
If you like your breakfast, lunch or dinner, with a seaside twist, then you can’t miss their sister restaurant, Urban Reef – an easy, breezy seaside restaurant with cracking sea views that will make you want to savour your meal all day just to watch the waves rolling in.
The fare here is also casual dining (think fish and chips, burgers, mussels, etc), however, they also have a variety of small plates to choose from, which we had during our visit. We loved the Dorset crab paté, grilled sourdough, taramasalata, pickles; the Lamb kofta, coriander pearl couscous, smoked paprika yoghurt; the Salt baked candied beetroot, rosary goat’s cheese, honey and mustard dressing and the Isle of Wight heirloom tomatoes, Laverstoke mozzarella, figs, pesto dressing. The small plates are great value as well, either £5.50 each, 2 for £10.50 or 3 for £14.00.
We found all of the small plates to be seriously flavourful and nicely presented and you could tell that the ingredients were really fresh. All of this was enjoyed with an ice-cold glass of Riesling, which we sipped while gazing out at the mesmerising view.
All in all, the Urban Beach hotel and Urban Reef restaurant combined are the perfect elixir for easing into a lazy weekend. Just be warned, you might become so relaxed that you may never want to leave.
Prices from £55 per night (staying in a single room).
Our experience overall
Food and drink ****
Staff attentiveness/friendliness ****
Book your stay at Urban Beach Hotel here:
*During this trip I was hosted by the Urban Beach Hotel and the Urban Reef Restaurant. All words and opinions are my own.
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