University Arms, Cambridge: Triumph of revived landmark with seriously impressive restaurant – ‘Anyone who visits will be itching to return’
When defining the qualities of a remarkable and memorable hotel, attention to detail must come top of the list. And University Arms in Cambridge - a short walk from the historic college quadrants, the fun of punting on the River Cam, or cultural attractions like the renowned Kettle's Yard gallery - has this in spades.
Where else, for example, supplies stacks of bespoke bookmarks on guests' bedside tables to mark the pages of the carefully-curated selection of volumes supplied in each room or - presumably through some considerable effort - manages to imbue every space with the same geranium-scented aroma, from the bathroom toiletries to the front lobby?
It's all a testament to the scale of the £80 million refurbishment University Arms underwent before reopening just over a year ago.
Dating from 1834, when it was the first hotel in Cambridge, the University Arms was built as a coaching inn before the development of Britain's railway network. Closely connected to the university, it's consistently kept up to date, converting the stables into garages for fashionable motorcars in 1904, and dipping into modernism in the 1960s with a concrete extension.
The latter looked frightful, by all accounts, and the rebooted University Arms is very much a return to traditional splendour, all sandblasted stone, wood-panelled walls and stained-glass windows. It is bigger too - classical architect John Simpson, who has worked on Buckingham Palace, increased the number of bedrooms from 119 to 192, an expansion made possible by completely stripping out the interior and reimagining the layout.
On arrival, the experience feels special immediately. Cambridge is an easy drive straight down the A1, and those travelling by car finish their journey underneath the hotel's imposing portico, where a concierge will step up to safely stow vehicles in the hotel's underground valet parking spaces.
Designer Martin Brudnizki, who has brought his touch to hotels, restaurants and clubs across the world, was responsible for the decor. His style is evident in the University Arms' mix of mismatched furniture, vivid colours - umpteen tins of Cambridge Blue paint must have been emptied - and eclectic artwork. Corridors are lined with scientific charts, paintings and antique posters, conjuring a learned atmosphere with a vintage feel.
Suites are named after Cambridge luminaries - we stayed in the Darwin Suite, a tribute to the evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, where a copy of The Origin of Species takes pride of place on the bookshelves. Rather like a student's quarters, each suite has a private library stocked by Mayfair bookshop Heywood Hill, who also looked after a larger reading room downstairs where afternoon tea is served on a reservation-only basis.
The luxurious black-and-white tiled bathroom, however, is in a different galaxy to student accommodation, with a freestanding bath, gold taps, underfloor heating and the aforementioned toiletries, produced by London perfumier D.R. Harris & Co.
Suites on the top floor overlook Parker's Piece, a park continually crisscrossed by bicycle-riding Cambridge locals where, in 1848, some of football's defining rules were invented.
The hotel restaurant and bar - Parker's Tavern - also takes its name from the neighbouring recreation ground. East Anglian head chef Tristan Welch, who trained alongside Gordon Ramsay and Michel Roux Jr, has overseen a menu comprised of 'characterful reinterpretations' of English classics that 'celebrate feasting at its best'. It's a gem, a seriously impressive venue that blends top-level cooking with a mission to keep things accessible.
Starters range from sharp and salty - cured salmon and hand-dived scallops - to gamey and spicy: see the whole Norfolk quail, roasted in tandoori marinade. Sauces are Welch's stock-in-trade; main courses of honey and thyme slow-roasted duck, nestled beside the silkiest of creamed potatoes, and sirloin steak emerged with a decadently sticky, meaty reduction and a glossy, warming peppercorn mixture.
A different pie is offered daily. Lucky ones might be treated to a 'full English pie' - the components of a morning meal confined in golden pastry.
Desserts are far from an afterthought. Diners are handed a checklist and pencil to create their own ice cream sundaes if they wish, or they can simply sample the delights of the boozy, intensely fruity strawberry and gin baba. Top marks also go to the 'apple epiphany' - a red apple mousse saluting, naturally, the discovery of gravity by Sir Isaac Newton, another Cambridge star. Breakfast the next day takes place in the Tavern again and is a serve-yourself affair, but no less satisfying.
This all sounds a little breathless, no doubt. But the revived University Arms is a triumph and may well be Cambridge's best hotel. Anyone who visits will be itching to return.
Rates at the University Arms - on Regent Street, Cambridge, CB2 1AD - start at £143 per night for rooms and £419 for suites. Festive packages are also available - Christmas in Cambridge, with two nights from £395 per person, includes dinner on December 24, lunch on December 25, late-night cream tea and other treats. On New Year's Eve a one-night stay starts at £409 for two, featuring a four-course gala dinner and dancing to a live jazz band. Call 01223 606042 or visit www.universityarms.com for details.