Merchants Manor hotel and spa in Falmouth, Cornwall is a haven of peace, gourmet cuisine and exquisite massages, discovers Gina Baksa
“Why would I live anywhere else?” Our coach driver Jonathan smiles as he shares his passion for his native Cornwall. “I do a job a love, driving people around our beautiful county. All my friends and family are here. I even take all my holidays in Cornwall,” he tells us as we motor along spring-budded hedgerows, high above secluded rocky coves and golden-sand beaches. Gorgeous reminders of childhood holidays when the sun stayed out all day and our skies were a brilliant blue.
He’s collected us from Newquay airport in ‘Dumpy’, a vintage coach that is bouncing us – 1950’s style – along the windy lanes. Each corner offering up increasingly beautiful views of white-topped surf, rolling farmland and even an upside down sheep in a field (apparently they can right themselves). City clogged lungs are grateful for the chance to inhale fresh air from the open window.
Our destination: Merchants Manor Hotel in sunny Falmouth, a 30-minute ride south from Newquay airport. The Sunday Times has just declared Falmouth the best place to live in the South West, so I’m keen to see the town for myself, in addition to experiencing the Manor’s famed hospitality.
Owners Nick and Sioned – a husband-and-wife team with a background in corporate hospitality – have spent the last three years rebuilding and refurbishing Merchant’s Manor. Their hard work and financial investment has paid off – the 100-year-old boutique hotel now boasts a 4-star AA rating and has become a destination hotel in the South West. Word has spread about its superb cuisine specialising in local seafood meat and game, its £500k gym, spa and pool complex. And its superb massage treatments from the therapists in the Manor’s own Linen Rooms spa.
This grand house was completed in 1913 and built for the local Carne family – originally from Wales – who were successful merchants in Falmouth with interests in brewing to ship broking. Locals dubbed the house ‘Screwtop Mansion’ as the Carne Brewery was one of the first brewers to use a screw top on their bottles. The Celtic connection has now come full circle as both Nick and Sioned have strong family links to North Wales.
Cornish sparkling wine in hand (Knightor – divine) we sink into sofas by the welcoming log fire in the lounge and take in our surroundings. The public rooms are all beautifully put together with help from designer Helen Hughes. Artfully placed pieces, architectural highlights and neutral colours all combine to give the effect of staying in a friend’s country house for the weekend, instead of a hotel. Cosy yet sophisticated. “It’s quite a grand house,” she tells us. “So achieving this effect of being in someone’s home has meant a relaxed approach to the design; building it through eclectic décor and objects that reflect the evolution of a family home over time.”
The bound copies of Punch, sandwiched between two glass circles make for an intriguingly bespoke table (designed by Tom Cowell) in the library’s turret seat, while the milk-can lamp stands hark back to another era as do wooden bowls and brewing bottles and jars from the early 1900s, reflecting the life of a merchant at that time. The soft warm palette is inviting and creates a relaxed and natural ambiance.
There are 39 rooms all individually designed, with five Master bedrooms in the main house and a further six master bedrooms in the New House that wraps around the pool area and garden. Complimentary hi-speed Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel.
We’ve arrived at lunchtime and enjoy a succulent and juicy lobster bisque in the brasserie (gorgeous sea views), before our first spa treatment of the weekend. After steaming off London grime in the spa area I feel more relaxed than I have in weeks. The steam room here is the proper deal. Mighty hot. Mighty steamy. And incredibly cleansing. Emerging in a state of near bliss I make my way upstairs to the Linen Rooms for my treatment. It’s a beautifully calm and warm room. Heated massage table, extra toasty towels and I’m in the expert hands of Alex, the lovely practitioner who is giving me my Lomi Lomi massage. Based on Hawaiian healing principles, the long, gentle healing strokes and the scent of rose essential oil sends me into a deep sleep.
And for the first time ever – and I’ve been lucky to experience hundreds of massages over the years – I never once feel cold. What I do feel is incredibly cared for, lovely and warm and with a huge sense of letting go – both emotionally and physically. It really is wonderful. Other treatments on offer range from facials and mani-pedis, to deep tissue and Swedish massages plus reflexology. There is also a wonderful four-handed massages (sheer bliss apparently!) and the fabulous Chavutti Thirumal massage where the practitioner balances on a rope above her and works on you with her feet. I experience this later on in my stay and it was incredible – such a tension releaser. I highly recommend a facial during your stay. Mine, with Sarah, left my skin feeling fabulous and rejuvenated.
The practitioners at Merchant’s Manor all use 100% organic skincare oils created by Dr Mariano Spiezia and his wife Loredana, whose company InLight, based near Falmouth, uses only organic flowers and herbs, specially prepared. Their ethos is connected to the vibrational qualities of the ingredients they use – with stunning results. I used their cleanser before dinner and have never seen my skin glow with health. The feeling is rather like being healed from the inside out. You can buy their products online at: www.inlight-online.co.uk.
I’m so relaxed after the massage it’s all I can do to get back to my lovely room and lie down – on a supremely comfortable mattress. Just enough time for a nap before I enjoy gustatory magic from the Manor’s chef Hylton Espey.
Recently arrived from South Africa, by way of Colorado, Hylton is in the process of creating the new season’s menu. He tells us that it will feature plenty of locally caught seafood and shellfish and there will always be steaks and other turf options. What are his influences?
“There’s a lot of fresh seafood here, so that’s a big focus for me,” he says. “I’d previously only cooked it frozen, so now I can source fresh scallops, crabs and other seafood from in and around Falmouth. It’s very exciting.
“I try and extract as much flavour for the food. So if I’m doing a bisque with the lobsters we’ll do a shellfish butter for example.
Venison is on our menu tonight, is it local? “We source it from nearby Tregothnan estate where we also get our charcoal and wood for the Bertha oven. They also grow great teas.”
Hylton is a huge fan of the Bertha charcoal oven. “If you smoke something properly it’s like having a Chardonnay that’s well wooded,” he explains. “It adds a creaminess rather than harshness. If the smoke is harsh it’s overdone. It’s actually quite tricky to get the smoke right and takes a lot of practice.“
Our meal tonight (thank you Bertha) is divine: Baby gem lettuce grilled over the wood with lightly cured and confit local mackerel. Followed by a deliciously golden and crispy spicy confit chicken wing with wild garlic aeoli. The melt-in-your-mouth venison – medium rare – has been marked up on the grill after smoking and is complemented by roast potatoes prepared over coals with Earl Grey tea smoke. Such delicious flavours! The roast carrot purée, baby onions and baby carrots – roasted on a bed of rosemary burns as it cooks, the rosemary adding tangy flavour. A feast for the eyes and the palate.
Dessert is Hylton’s signature dish: baked gingerbread cheesecake, fresh ginger biscuit served with honeycomb ice cream. Out-of-this-world.
Our wines include a fabulously fruity Gran Rosso Negroamaro Primitivo from Puglia, as well as local Cornish red white and sparkling varieties from vineyards at the Camel Valley, Knightor and Trevibban. All highly recommended. English wines tend to be lighter on the nose and palate due to our soil, the grape variety chosen and of course a distinct lack of sunshine. However these Cornish wines – sparkling too – were superb. Especially the Knightor Brut, which you can order online.
The following morning I’m up early, excited to see the sea and walk downhill to Gylly Beach – a 10-minute stroll from the hotel. It’s a popular spot with locals and tourists, and has a fab café, a wide expanse of sand, an amazing variety of seaweed and fun rockpools, with splendid views across Falmouth Bay to Pendennis Castle – a stronghold built by Henry VIII. Staring at the sea… there is nothing quite as relaxing. The perfect way to build up an appetite for breakfast.
Probably my favourite meal of the day, you’ll have a feast awaiting you here. Dive in to the selection of homemade muesli, cereals, fresh fruits, cheese and meat cuts, the creamiest yoghurt and great great coffee – always important. Boiled eggs and soldiers never tasted so good, or opt for the more substantial Smugglers Breakfast – a proper English fry up with all the trimmings.
The Manor makes for a wonderful wedding breakfast destination. You can get married in the summerhouse and entertain a small party of up to 30 in the Library. Or go full out in the Trelawney Suite, which accommodates up to 200 and has a wedding licence. As do the Library and Brasserie.
Or enjoy one of several mini-breaks at Merchant’s Manor, with visits to Pendennis Castle and a day’s fishing. Spring and summer are lovely seasons to visit Falmouth. The Fal River Festival (22-31 May) will have over 150 events, in June there’s the Castle to Castle Swim between Pendennis Point and St Mawes Castle, and there’s the wonderful Falmouth International Sea Shanty Festival. Held on 12-14 June, join in the fun celebrations of a maritime tradition. Mid-August meanwhile hosts Falmouth Week, one of the largest sailing regattas in the South West. Grab your fish and chips, and watch yachts race across the harbour, serenaded by the roar of the mighty Red Arrows above.
Like me, you might find it hard to leave the Manor, but a saunter into Falmouth’s High Street is well worth it. Completely lacking pretention, it’s a warm welcoming town. People actually talk to each other in the street. Even shock, horror, strangers! And it’s no country bumpkin either. The town is a magnet for entrepreneurs with hundreds of small businesses. It is also home to the prestigious Pendennis shipyard where they design and build multi-million pound yachts. Falmouth also boasts a well-regarded University with over 3,000 students.
You’ll find plenty of funky independent shops, like Cream-Cornwall that sells high quality homeware and gifts. We’re reliably informed that the best fish and chips in town is at Harbour Lights, while The Wheelhouse on Upton Slip is a must for great seafood, as is Rick Stein’s gaff which is always packed. Sundowners at any time can be enjoyed at Dolly’s, Cribbs, or The Townhouse, while real ale aficionados will love the Hand Bar and The Chain Locker. You can’t visit Cornwall without sampling an original Cornish pasty – so head to Rowes on Market Street for one of the best.
My stay at Merchant’s Manor was just the tonic I needed after a recent hectic work schedule. In the words of Alex, my amazing massage practitioner: “Everyone just wants to be looked after, don’t they?”
We certainly do, and when you visit Merchants Manor, you can expect just that: a very warm welcome, attentive service, fabulous food, superb massages and well-appointed rooms with the most comfortable beds ever. Merchant’s Manor is a cosy yet sophisticated home-from-home where you can kick back and relax while Nick, Sioned and their amazing team look after you. I’ve already booked my return visit.
Merchant’s Manor Western Terrace Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 4QJ merchantsmanor.com
T: +44 (0) 1326 312 734
F: +44 (0) 1326 211 427
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