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Wake Up Here : The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge

Wake Up Here : The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge

November 15th, 2022

The Varsity hotel is an amalgamation of old meets new, modern flare coupled with nods to yesteryear. In one swift movement you are welcomed through a very instagrammable flower arch, into an unassuming reception area and up to rooms steeped in the history of Cambridge, all rooms being named after the university colleges within the city and complete with corresponding yet understated decorative touches. With floor to ceiling windows boasting a view over St John’s college, a mahogany style writing desk and luxe heavy curtains juxtaposed against in-room tablets offering a variety of services at the end of one's finger, Elemis bathroom goodies and geometric patterned finishings, this hotel is a great execution of days gone by still holding their own in a modern setting.

The hotel itself is situated in a very quiet residential street, moments from Jesus Green Park and sitting on the banks of the River Cam and its bustling punting station, bars and restaurants. A quick stumble and you are in the heart of the city, a haven for both shoppers and sightseers. However, the real USP of this hotel is not its location, nor its onsite spa and restaurants - more on that later - but the views it boasts. The vista offered from our bedroom window was only the foreplay, the main event being a rooftop bar with 360, unparalleled, uncompromised view of one of the UK’s most beautiful cities. Open to both the public and residents, this little pocket of paradise is the perfect place to sip a cocktail and while away the hours as the sun sets.

The one thing the hotel drops points on is the food. Don’t get me wrong it’s not bad, it’s just not fantastic and given the food scene that has developed in Cambridge, it needs to be. We ate at The River Bar Steakhouse and Grill which is in the neighboring building, a repurposed brewery warehouse that is all exposed brick and trusswork. This place could work really well with a few tweaks - riverside warehouse eatery serving up red meat and red wine calls for low lighting and atmosphere. Instead we were greeted by stark lights and orange leatherette seats. That I can forgive if the food makes up for it. What I can’t forgive is a countertop storage unit in view of everyone dining, housing pre-cut slices of cheesecake and catering sized tubs of ketchup and mayo ready to be decanted into a nearby ramekin. If that’s how you’re going to do it, fine, but at least do it back of house or out of sight of customers that are spending a fair chunk of money on plates of food that the condiments are no doubt going to be slung on to.

Between the two of us we ordered Garlic Butter Tiger Prawns and Calamari to start followed by a New York Strip and a Wagyu. The starters were OK. I lucked out with the calamari, it was as it should be, golden, crispy, no slime, very punchy aioli. My friend's prawns (which were not of the tiger variety, perhaps a tiger cub in a pinch) were slightly anemic and considering we were in a grill restaurant, it would have been nice to see a bit of char, or any form of colour to be fair. I gave the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, this was indeed a Steakhouse and perhaps the main courses were where it really shone. Being an absolute slag for a steak, I poured over the menu for a good while, wondering if I could justify the £89 price tag that went with the Wagyu - after much circling back I thought f**k it, you only live once right? World’s ending and all that jazz. I ordered my steak medium rare as suggested with this cut. Alas, when my steak arrived it was most definitely rare, very rare. Now I have no problem with rare meat, give it to me blue and I am happy but for a steak costing the best part of a hundy and showing the cut the respect it deserves by ordering it as recommended, it was a bit of a disappointment and so a steak that is famed for being the tenderest of all the steaks was in actuality tough and not of the melt in the mouth variety. My advice would be to scrap the theatrics of the cloche and artsy plate and in fact concentrate on cooking the thing correctly. The New York strip that sat across the table from me was also nearing average rather than stupendous. A cut that isn’t seen too often in UK restaurants, I was excited to stab a piece off my friend's plate but again - there seemed to be more focus on the criss cross griddle marks and unnecessary skillet it was served in than the actual cooking of the meat. I will say this - you could absolutely taste the difference between both cuts and the Wagyu was superior, but £60 superior? I’m not so sure.

What the restaurant lacked in finesse of food it made up for with both its front of house team and ridiculous but delicious cocktail menu. I know this isn’t the reason you visit a restaurant but it truly turned the experience around for me. Our wonderful waiter Sibu looked after us as if we were the only people in the restaurant ( he didn’t know we were there as press). Wine glasses never ran empty, attentive but not overbearing, as the restaurant emptied out he pulled up a chair and sat with us for a bit, discussing how the hospitality industry differs in his native South Africa - warm and friendly, to the more robotic nature of the UK. Perhaps it was the bottle of red, the champagne cocktail to start or the nutella martini to finish but it really made me think about how the front of house team really are the first line of defense when it comes to a positive eating experience. Quick circle back, I would actually go back to this restaurant just for the Nutella Martini - it was absolute filth and I loved it.

The next morning, with slightly sore heads we headed to SIX for breakfast. Situated on  the floor below the roof terrace, despite being a floor lower, the wrap-around windows still offer an impressive view point of the city, really leaning to the ‘breakfast with a backdrop’ vibe. The continental breakfast was average - as I have come to expect with UK continental breakfasts, slightly under-ripe fruit and toasting machines that never really work. To gear up for a day of sightseeing I opted for Eggs Benedict from the a la carte menu, my absolute favourite breakfast in the world and I would go as far as to say I am an expert when it comes to an eggs benny. Fluffy muffin - check. Rich, unctuous hollandaise check. Slightly greying salmon, check. Undercooked eggs that I would have sent back if I had not been in a rush, check. We were close, so close, but alas no cigar.

Putting the food portion of our trip behind us, it was time for our spa treatments. The health club and spa is in the adjoining building and again, open to both residents and the public. The offering is small but well laid out and intimate with nice touches such as flavoured water and tea to welcome you. A hot tub bubbles away in an atmospheric cavernous room overlooking the river with well thought out one way glass. The perfect spot to people watch and take in the punts as they bob past. A sauna and steam room do exactly what they say on the tin and make for a perfectly pleasant way to reset from the night before ahead of a day of exploration. After an hour of bobbing and sweating we were whisked upstairs to the couples treatment room - very romantic - where we were treated to the signature facial and massage. The treatments were exceptional. I was nervous at first when our therapists came to get us and looked like they should still be in school, however on reflection I think this is a ‘me ageing’ problem and not a them problem. I need not have worried, they were informative and good at what they do - young smooth hands kneading us both into a slumber. If only they knew the sore knuckle joints that await them.

All in all, our stay at The Varisty was great - the perfect place for a girly getaway or a romantic minibreak. Yes, there are things that could be improved upon but it made a great base to explore the city, enjoy a drink with a view and live our best collegiate lives. My advice would be to use this as a settlement site, enjoy the bars and the views. Make the most of the spa and then explore everything that is on its doorstep and the wonderful things that Cambridge has to offer.

Hannah Gregory

Hannah Gregory

MasterChef quarter finalist, food and travel writer and mental health muser Hannah Gregory is always on a quest for her next adventure. Happiest with a glass full of wine, a belly full of food and sun on her skin, she is constantly on the hunt for food led travel destinations.