The Scarlet Hotel, Cornwall
Tell people you’re spending a few days at a hotel in Cornwall and the likely response is, “The Scarlet?” Considering the press I’ve seen on it, it’s hard not to imagine it is the only hotel in Cornwall. Garnering coverage and accolades across the board, from broadsheets’ getaway recommendations to the more questionable plaudits of over-zealous interior designer Laurence Llellewyn-Bowen on daytime TV’s House Gift, The Scarlet has become synonymous with design, haute cuisine, the definitive relaxing getaway; you name it. With an imminent visit there, I was battling both excitement to experience it for myself and the curiously British trait of cynicism railing against success.
Consequently, on my first sighting I wasn’t disappointed. Given its reputation as the definitive getaway retreat, I imagined it to be nestled in splendid isolation somewhere remote and rugged along the Cornish coast. Having dipped into Mawgan Porth and emerged the other side I thought I’d taken a wrong turn when a sign pointed me down a residential street. Must be a different Scarlet hotel, I figured. But, as I came across a small, sloping carpark on the left, its distinctive sign indicated I was, indeed, at the right place.
This was a most unassuming introduction, and for one that makes a statement on so many levels it seemed remarkably unpretentious. This was evident as we walked in and found no formal introduction, no concierge, just a sign saying, “Take a seat, we know you’re here. Someone will be with you shortly”. And then Will emerged, greeting us warmly and as laid back in manner as attire that I thought at first he was another guest just being friendly, until he started taking down our details.
While we waited for our room, Will offered us a tour, mentioning his favourite spots and giving us insider tips that felt designed just for us. As I struggled to keep up with the staggering array of art and kaleidoscopically eccentric furnishings (fortunately there were info guides available on the artists ), he explained the facilities and the execution behind what is their signature eco-oriented ethic. From its recycling practices to the architecture of the hotel itself, everything is designed to complement the environment. And for one so modern, it seemed to nestle itself into the cliffside like a missing jigsaw piece.
Its environmental credentials are The Scarlet’s signature. Will explained, for example, that there are no tea and coffee-making facilities, or fridges, for that matter, in the rooms – rather, such things are available on request and anywhere in the hotel. In fact, it’s so integrated into its environment that the substantial water feature I thought was the central asset of the garden was, in fact, the outdoor pool. I got the sense I was more at a sort of commune, where everyone chipped in, rather than some stuffy five-star effort where the hospitality often feels forced.
Having enjoyed coffee on the terrace, it wasn’t long before our room was ready and Will was back to usher us downstairs. All 37 of The Scarlet’s rooms are designed around the view of the bay below. And with the bed facing the French doors that extended the width of the room, this was all about lying in and looking out, the meadowed garden tapering towards the cliff with the bay beyond. It was beautiful.
The communal sense of the hotel extends to the bedrooms, too. There’s no en suite. Instead, the bathrooms are open plan with the shower and toilet behind a glass door which, while frosted, nevertheless was not entirely to the ceiling or floor. Some may find that disconcerting, even off-putting, but I’ve encountered far more alarming amenities in my time.
As we settled in, I did something I’ve never done in hotel rooms before, having never really had the need. I read the services brochure. In most hotels it’s fairly prosaic nonsense – welcome welcome blah blah, times for breakfast, laundry options, itemising the services and whatnot, most of which are designed to make their life easier, not yours. Not so, the Scarlet. Never mind that everything was met with their ‘can do’ attitude, the booklet was a great read. It was witty, charming, inviting. We were in for “delicious food [we were, indeed], Cornish art and quirky stuff [you can say that again] to make us smile”. Staff didn’t “stand on ceremony” and guests were to “make themselves at home”. Their whole ethos was “blurring boundaries, both indoors and out”, “sumptuous didn’t mean unsustainable” and “luxury was not a guilty pleasure”. It all sounded so refreshing. In particular, with the promise that the spa “restores with the feeling of aaahhh that lasts for days, not hours”, I was tempted to pop back upstairs and ask when I could move in.
We considered our afternoon. A blustery, bracing cliff top walk along the coastal path to Bedruthan Steps – taking in yet more absolutely glorious scenery – set us up for a dip in the pond – pool, sorry. While chilly, it was delightful, even liberating, with eco-sense taken to further heights as we swam among reeds and algae.
The Scarlet’s informal, feel-at-home (admittedly, if you lived in a particularly quirky house) ambience hums at you from its walls – although that possibly could have been the music. Nowhere more is this stressed – pardon the irony – than in the Spa. The Scarlet prides itself on its spa. With its list of treatments, the spa section alone takes up nearly a third of the hotel guide. Great reading it may be, but I am, alongside probably 90% of the male population of this country, sceptical about spa treatments. That said, along with 90% of the male population of this country, I also secretly rather enjoy them. Well, massages at any rate. And, as if to tempt me in, we had to walk past it every time we went to our room.
Having passed so many other self-conscious-looking chaps in their bathrobes hovering about the product display shelves awaiting their appointment, it seemed silly not to indulge when this was, after all, a lot of what the hotel was about. I consulted the guide. There were all manner of treatments, led, largely, by the Indian Ayurvedic philosophy, offering ‘journeys’ for just about everything, from seaweed hot tubs (the ones over-looking the sea) to four-hour facials. And, ahem, all looked rather on the pricey side. Really, all I wanted was a good half-hour massage. And, in the spirit of the Scarlet’s ‘can do’ nature, I thought I’d ask. “I’m not sure I really need my ‘dosha’ taken care of for 90 minutes,” I told Mrs L, “let’s go along and ask if they do a simple massage, but let’s not get drawn in and commit to anything until we’ve had a chance to think about it, hey?” Agreed.
Two minutes later, the conversation with the receptionist went something like this.
“Hello, I was just enquiring about back massages…”
“Certainly, sir. We’ve got a 2.30 available tomorrow?”
“Great. We’ll take it.”
The next day, having hired wetsuits and boogie boards (arranged by the hotel, naturally) and braved the beach, our exertions wrestling the waves, in spite of cursing myself for being such a pushover, the anticipation of a massage was certainly inviting. Mrs L, far calmer than I, slipped into her robe and trotted off, a glint of glee in her eye. I followed later, feeling a little under-dressed, if one can be, for the occasion. With not a minute of massage time to lose, I arrived early at the desk and checked in. And was presented with a questionnaire. “But I haven’t had the massage yet,” I protested. “Sorry, sir, this is to be able to brief the therapist.” You’re nothing if not thorough, I thought. Some of the usual questions were in there; history of back pain, allergies, tropical diseases, that sort of thing, and then under it a page that asked me about the state of my nails, moods and bowel movements, among other things. “Is this absolutely necessary?” I asked. “It’s all part of your journey,” the receptionist explained. “A journey? But I only wanted a half hour back rub.” “The total session lasts an hour and a half,” she replied. “I see,” I said, and mentally checked my bank balance.
I turned back to the form. It may be a hang-up from my school days, but whenever I’m presented with anything that asks me various questions, I slip into examination mode and become determined to submit as good an answer as possible. I was now going for an A in A-level Ayurvedic. I turned back to the receptionist.
“Hello, sorry, I’m not sure I can answer most of these. You see, I don’t think I have a specific dosha type.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, here, for example, I’d say I’m prone to anxiety so I tick this box but then on the same line I also ‘get things done’. That makes me both pitta and kapha.”
And that was before I’d even met the therapist.
Two hours later, back in our room, a thoroughly relaxed-looking Mrs L asked me how it went. “It wasn’t quite what I expected,” I told her. “I didn’t realise there’d be a consultation process.” “Oh, no, you started telling her your life story, didn’t you.” She sighed with resignation. “I couldn’t help it,” I said, “I only wanted a massage and instead I get this whole journey. I think ended up somewhere near Bangalore.” “Did she manage to sort out your flatulence in the process?” she asked, hopefully. I shook my head. “How was yours?” I asked. “I loved it,” she said, “I didn’t have much to say to the therapist so we got down to the massage and then I completely relaxed in one of those hanging tents.” Horses for courses, really. And off we went to dinner.
Dinner at the Scarlet – in fact any meal there – is something that cannot be understated. And certainly not rushed. As with most things, in fact. (Like massages.) Even before you reach the menu, you’re advised to take your time. Our waitress’s ebullience was so infectious that I felt like asking if she wanted to join us, such was the genuine enjoyment she showed working there. And it added to the meal. Not that it needed it. She could have flung us our starters across the room and sighed with indifference as we ordered and it wouldn’t have diminished the blue cheese tart that I had. It could have been the curious habit she showed of describing what we’d ordered after we’d ordered it. Far from sounding conceited, it was complementary. I asked for the apple and rhubarb crumble for dessert: “Ooh, you’ll like that,” she said, “it’s made more as a compote and kept slightly tangy to keep it summery.” And she was right.
Many hotels mark themselves out as purely functional. They are designed for business guests, city guests, tourists. Some are stuffy, lofty, or snobbish. Some rest on their laurels, clinging vainly to past reputations. The Scarlet is none of these. And yet it should be. It should be pretentious, arrogant. Instead it’s informal, human, approachable. Some are known for one thing, be it a trendy bar or quality restaurant or views from the top. The Scarlet is all of these. It’s the kid at school who was brilliant at everything and was a really nice guy.
As we left, I noticed among the glowing comments in the visitors’ book one that cited a triage of mistakes made by staff. It reminded me of my welcome letter addressed to Mrs Nicola Shaw. There, I spotted it, a flaw. But it was a detail that meant I was able to relax, knowing that I didn’t have to be on my best behaviour, that I could feel at home. And isn’t that what they said in that great literary work, their guide?