UK / Europe

Wish upon a spa at magical Pennyhill Park

Penny Hill Park, England

Less than two hours from London sits a theme park the masses don’t know about. There are no long queues, no nap-deprived children, and no junk food. Welcome to Pennyhill Park – a luxury hotel that’s like Disneyland for spa-lovers. I count at least eight, yes eight, different ‘experiences’ and that’s excluding any treatments, which is probably why it’s considered the second largest spa in Europe – that, and the fact that it occupies 45,000 square feet. More on that later.

Apart from the spa, there are a few things that make Pennyhill a special place. The staff is one of them. They are warm, friendly, and accessible, but totally unobtrusive. You never know they’re there until you need something and then they seem to appear around the corner out of nowhere. A member of staff at the swimming pool can change a dinner reservation without getting flustered and everyone seems looped in and ready to assist.

Set on 120 acres of woodlands, Pennyhill Park is an escape located less than 30 minutes’ drive from Windsor Castle. All 123 rooms are styled differently. Ours has a subterranean feel, as it’s set just below ground. Guest rooms are spread over four different areas, which helps insulate individual guests from groups. Our ‘Bamboo’ room is straight from the pages of a design magazine with plenty of pinterest pin-ups. Cool, pearly greens and dark browns carry nature inside, with mostly modern décor that’s deliberate and consistent – something increasingly and sadly, rare. It all works well with the more traditional building and setting without resulting a confused mash-up. Smart features include a power strip with multiple charging plugs for various devices – something that should be ubiquitous by now.

An iPad in each room provides internet access and comes loaded with dozens of mainstream, foreign language and niche newspapers and magazines. There is a large DVD library to choose from and guests can order hot popcorn and movie sweets. The idea feels utterly indulgent. If only we had time…

Blissful luxury

We are in the Courtyard wing, which feels a bit subterranean, and lacks enough natural light as it’s almost below ground. This is a place one comes for fresh air and tranquility. Ask for a room in the Redwood wing. We’re told it offers blissful views of the grounds, which are so vast, the England Rugby team practices here. There’s also 9-hole golf course and bicycles to borrow.

One thing you don’t get at Disney, that you do get here, is homemade cookies and milk delivered to your room any time you wish.

Many locals and guests come for two Michelin-starred chef Matt Worswick at The Latymer. The setting, in the main house, with a history dating back to the 17th century, is a cosy, romantic space with lush velvet banquettes. There is only a tasting menu at weekends, which looks divine with interesting combinations of seasonal, local ingredients, but we’re exhausted from the traffic getting out of the Big Smoke and it’s one of those nights in summer where the temperamental English weather holds, with a sky that doesn’t dim ‘til late. It’s all the encouragement we need to sit on one of the garden terraces with cocktails before supper. Normally, the brasserie of any hotel is glorified room service. It’s a menu of international comfort food, most of it not terribly good. At last, here at Pennyhill Park, there is a chef who understands casual dining doesn’t have to mean lazy cooking. The menu at The Brasserie is inventive and curious and we don’t feel we’ve been left out of an interesting dining experience having foregone Latymers – though we’d love to try it another time.

Temptingly sweet and generous

A beetroot custard starter arrives with as much substance as style. It delivers on texture, and, even if slightly too sweet, is so beautiful, and well paired with watermelon and feta, we can’t fault it. The rabbit terrine is moist, and arrives prepared with date puree, apple, and pickled Shimeji mushroom. Portions are generous.

Penny Hill Park, England

You’ll want to ensure you build in as much early check-in and late checkout time as management will allow in order to enjoy all of the spa experience at least twice. There are so many ways to relax we don’t even bother with treatments. It begins with unusually large changing rooms and showers that could fit entire families. We spend all day rotating between different aqua experiences: an indoor/outdoor thermal tub, and another with ‘love seats’ offering privacy for couples and salvation for the rest, an ice cold plunge pool which is both refreshing and bracing, next to which, quite fittingly, is a warm foot bath. There’s also an herbal steam, as well as a laconium, similar to a sauna, but with lower temperatures to gradually heat the body, and a tepidarium where the air feels, well, tepid as guests recline on mosaic-tiled loungers. Music is piped underwater in an indoor 25m indoor swimming pool with Greco-Roman architecture and a 20m heated, outdoor swimming pool, a rare find in the UK is oh-so-welcome when the sun is shining, as it is this weekend.

There isn’t much we don’t like about Pennyhill Park. With the “L” word (luxury) thrown about these days to describe pretty much anything, it’s refreshing to find a place that actually fulfills the brief. Our only regret is staying for just one night. This is a spot that deserves an entire weekend to lap up all the attractions.

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