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The Wow Factor: St. David's Hotel and Spa and What's Happening in Cardiff, Wales

At first glance, Rocco Forte's St. David's Hotel and Spa on Cardiff Bay brings to mind the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Spain. Not that the steel and glass tower in the Welsh capital bears any resemblance to Frank Gehry's titanium abstraction. Yet both structures, thrusting like monumental ships onto waterways once lined with wharves, declare an optimistic affirmation of the post-modern age where a grimy industrial past yields to   an ecologically-sound, high-tech future.

The wetlands of Cardiff Bay - click to enlarge
The wetlands of Cardiff Bay

When it was built in 1999, the hotel looked out on a field of mud. Today it fronts a 500-acre freshwater lake, the largest in Europe, held in place by a nearly mile-long dam.  Close to shore, a developing wetlands area is providing sanctuary and nesting grounds for a myriad of migrating birds, even a family of swans. 

Sluice gates refresh the water and control its levels. Locks and movable bridges allow for pleasure-boat traffic in and out of the Bristol Channel on the other side, while a fish pass allows for safe passage of migrating salmon and trout.

The dilapidated docks that had lined Cardiff's waterfront have vanished. In their place is the Inner Harbour, a shining new complex  of restaurants, shops, housing developments, a science museum, and an entertainment hall.

A row of Victorian sea captains’ houses connect the Inner Harbour to its long seafaring past - click to enlarge
A row of Victorian sea captains’ houses connect the Inner Harbour to its long seafaring past

Close by are the Millennium Stadium where the U.K.'s rugby  championships are held and the nearly completed Millennium Centre which will house the famed Welsh National Opera.  Abstract and futuristic in design, they nevertheless meld well with historic properties like a  row of Victorian ship captains' houses and a stark white Norwegian Church -- once a mission for Scandinavian sailors and today an arts center -- that anchor the area to its long seafaring past.

Even in this splendid example of waterfront renewal, the St. David's Hotel and Spa stands apart, beckoning at the apex of the Inner Harbour like a towering ocean liner about to embark. The façade of the nine-story building faces north to Cardiff's downtown.

The WOW! Factor: Views from St. David’s Lobby - click to enlarge
The WOW! Factor: Views from St. David’s Lobby

A soaring wall of glass panes bracketed with steel rods, it rises above the frame of a gigantic awning-like structure of sweeping steel lines. Together they evoke the ropes and pulleys, ladders and sail of a giant clipper.

Enter beneath the awning into a sky-lit atrium with floors of Welsh slate and a reception desk of pale green glass that could be a prop for a science fiction film, and the wall of windows becomes a stunning backdrop. Directly ahead an arc of balconies looms up overlooking the dramatic expanse.

Here the elevators stop, floor by floor with corridors off the balconies leading to guest rooms. Step out of the lift on any level, look across to the windowed wall and down to the lobby floor, and the heart stops.     It is what general manager Debbie Taylor aptly calls "the wow factor."


A plate of barrau bfrw - click to enlarge
A plate of barrau bfrw

Debbie phoned soon after we had settled in. "Just checking to see everything is in order," said the friendly voice with the Midlands accent. "Tea and barrau bfrw are on the way." There followed a knock on the door and the delivery of a pot of the standard U.K. pick-me-up accompanied by a deliciously dark, rich fruitcake whose name we could not begin to pronounce. Thus fortified we took in the surroundings.

Our neat two-room suite was furnished with Italian modern pieces of blonde wood, leather, steel and glass; fabrics were sturdy linens and knobby cottons in pale neutral shades. The television and mini bar were encased in circular armoires while a wall of bookshelves held aloft by vertical poles contained works by Dickens, Proust, Nabakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Brontes, Flaubert and the like -- all covered in identical jackets of white and green.


One of the 132 rooms with a view - click to enlarge
One of the 132 rooms with a view

In such serene environs, one could easily stretch out on the long sofa-divan and spend a few hours with a good book. But for the distraction of the views. Every one of St. David's 132 rooms and suites has floor-to-ceiling windows and private terraces overlooking Cardiff Bay. Gaze out on the water, and you will succumb to the illusion of being in a stateroom at sea. 

We felt we had left dry land for the second time at the holistic hydrotherapy spa where gym, dance/exercise studio, health-oriented restaurant, fourteen treatment rooms, and multi-level pool area all face the bay through windowed walls.

Here the sea theme is enhanced by strategically-placed portholes, sharply angled surfaces of green glass that suggest the prow of a ship, and a surrounding deck of the sort typically found on an ocean liner.

Susan Anderson, director of communications, who -- but for her burr -- could easily be mistaken for the actress Goldie Hawn, was showing us around. "A day at the spa is a whole process," she said, her inflection a lilting Scottish melody.

Director of Communications Susan Anderson - click to enlarge
Director of Communications Susan Anderson
"It begins with a very detailed consultation with one of the therapists to find out what you want from your treatment. There are all kinds; many are from the Far East. You can get massages that reach every muscle in the body. You can also take yoga, dance classes, boxercise; you can get facials, manicures, and pedicures in an operation that is entirely geared towards health and well being."

One of us had stopped at the display of E'Spa beauty and restorative products, and despite the steep price and unfavorable dollar/pound exchange splurged on a little jar of skin polish before we exited via the private elevator that allows guests the comfort of coming and going in robe and slippers without encountering the rest of the hotel. Heading down to the bar, we remarked on both the size and elaborateness of the spa. After all, we said to Susan, this is not a destination spa, but part of an urban hotel.

"Oh but we are a destination spa," she noted. "People come here specifically because of it. And people from the community use it also either on a daily basis or as part of a club. It is unique in the R.F. collection."

Susan's boss, Debbie Taylor, is also unique in the R.F. collection. The only female general manager in the hotel group and possibly among all the five star hotels in the U.K. joined us for drinks, and when we put a face to the voice we'd heard on the phone earlier in the day, it was with no small measure of surprise. Debbie does not look like your typical g.m. But then again, why should the premier hotel of a city that is reinventing itself at the dawn of a new century not be run by a young and lovely woman?

"I just phoned home and my four year old said 'Mommy what time are you coming home? I'm waiting for you so we can bake cake,'" Debbie said laughingly, tossing back her long black hair and sinking into an armchair beneath a purple lantern. Before us, at a bar back-lit by shifting patterns of gold, coral and green lights, a batch of Bloody Mary's was being prepared. 

Is that her only child, we wondered. "Oh no. I have a six -month-old too. He announced his arrival at four in the afternoon in the midst of a business meeting. A colleague drove me to the hospital, and by 6:30 it was all over. Three days later I came to work because when I rushed off, I had left my desk in a mess."

Such are the days in the life of a modern woman. And what has the reaction to a female g.m. been like? "The ladies very much celebrate seeing a woman manager," Debbie said, sipping her tart drink, "but the men are very positive about it too. They know a woman will have flair and pay attention to details."

"We get compliments for small touches that will be attributed to our having a lady in charge," Susan interjected, "like fresh flowers or attention for special events. If a guest comes in for a wedding anniversary, we'll send a bottle of champagne. If it's a hen party, we'll send cocktails. We pay attention to children with little gifts and teddies, coloring books and crayons brought up to the room."

St. David’s General Manager Debbie Taylor - click to enlarge
St. David’s General Manager Debbie Taylor

"I'm very approachable as g.m.," said Debbie. "But I have a very good team whom I appreciate and take a real interest in. Even though we all work for R.F. properties, at the end of the day my team works for me. I'm the one they see, the role model and leader.

"When I moved up from marketing director to g.m. some two years ago, the responsibility of it loomed large. For the first three months, I found it difficult to adjust. But it's turned out to be great fun, very social  and an outlet for creativity. There is stress, but it's positive stress."

Debbie, a Liverpool native, had been scouting hotels in Wales as a tour operator when she met her Welsh husband and settled in Cardiff. Susan, a graduate of the Marcia Blaine School (of "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" fame), relocated from Edinburgh to accompany her husband in his career move. But both women went on to find their own professional niche in this city on the move. Another member of the St. David's team, assistant concierge Chris Cameron who would arrange our tour of the surrounding area, came to Cardiff from Newcastle. Having left one former coal-producing center for another, the tall, serious, and handsome young man seemed -- like Debbie and Susan -- to be emblematic of a new generation of smart and ambitious  professionals from the U.K. drawn to opportunities in the fastest growing city in Europe.   

Everything we had seen at St. David's and the entire Inner Harbour area confirmed Debbie's contention that Cardiff has become a very cosmopolitan center. "It came in second to Liverpool for cultural capital of Europe," she'd told us. "Companies from all over the world are based here, and people from all over the U.K. live and work here."   
But in the face of such sweeping change, what has given way? How has life changed now that the docks are gone and ships no longer bring in bananas from the West Indies and take away coal bound for South American ports? What is old Cardiff like and the countryside whose hilltops in the distance framed the northern view? We found some answers to such questions the next day on a tour arranged by Chris. Our driver and guide was his Welsh finacée's father, the garrulous Alan Russell.   

As we sped up the broad new Lloyd George Avenue for the brief ride from the harbor area to downtown Cardiff, Alan told us he was the son of an Irish father and Welsh mother. "In my parents' time, many men from Ireland emigrated to Wales where they found work in the coalmines, steelworks and on the docks," he said. "I myself worked in the steel mills until they closed during the 1980's." Alan is eminently suited to his new career of tour guide. But when we passed a huge abandoned steel works on the side of the road and he slowed the van allowing us a long look and said "I used to work there," we thought a sadness could be detected in his voice.

"Blacks used to live in the area around the docks that once lined the waterfront," Alan told us. "They came on the ships from the Caribbean and remained, marrying the local women and integrating into the society. The singer Shirley Bassey was the daughter of such a couple. The slum housing they'd lived in has been knocked down, and they've moved into far better areas of Cardiff. There never was any prejudice to speak of," he added. "In general people take no notice of one another."

Cardiff proper, a busy commercial city, and its surrounding suburbs seem modern enough except for the occasional medieval castle, replete with moats and turrets, that suddenly rises up.  But the landscape of the hilly countryside beyond is starkly dramatic with long views of brush-covered moors. Here and there are isolated corpses of trees; everywhere are grazing sheep. "This is common grazing land," Alan said. "People let their sheep out in the morning and collect them at the end of the day."

Climbing above the tree line, we entered high and wind-swept Blaenafon which housed what was the oldest working coal mine in Wales when it closed in 1979. Today one can descend deep into the pit for a walk-through in the company of a retired miner who will describe what life was in an industry rife with accidents, hardships, and death. Our robust and cheerful escort tempered tragic stories with lighthearted accounts of the role of canaries in the mines and a typical Welsh warmth and good humor. Still it was difficult to forget the time he bid us shut the battery-powered lamps on our helmets to experience a darkness we had never known before and learn that five-year-old boys, at one time, had routinely been placed alone in exactly such a situation to warn of impending danger.

Despite what are obviously better living and working conditions in contemporary Wales, there is a palpable sense of loss attached to the closing of the mines, the steelworks, slate pits, and other industries -- primarily in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's administration. It seemed that Alan was voicing a common sentiment when he said "Thatcher had in the back of her mind one thing and one thing only, to break the back of the miners. And she did! Because they were getting coal from Eastern Europe cheaper than they could dig it out from the ground here."

The lost worlds of Wales' industrial and agricultural past can be re-experienced, however, in the remarkable Museum of Welsh Life St. Fagans in Cardiff, an open air repository spread out across 104 acres of beautiful woodland laid out by the sixth Earl of Plymouth early in the twentieth century. Original and detailed restorations of dwellings, barns, smiths, bee shelters, churches, stone walls, even a cone-shaped pig sty are here dating as far back as the 12th century and up to the 1970's. Among the throngs of visitors are interior designers who study the thatched roofs and exposed interior beams which have become fashionable home accoutrements.

Since it opened in 1948, a committed staff with a sense of being part of a mission has traveled throughout Wales seeking structures and artifacts that are then photographed, taken apart if necessary, and brought to the museum grounds. Only traditional skills and authentic materials, from the stones for houses to the slate for walkways and roofs, are utilized. In the space of a few hours, we went through dwellings as disparate as an 18th century craftsman's cottage and a post-war aluminum  prefab, down village streets with a 1936 post office and an 1800 communal baking oven, into a Victorian tailor shop and an 18th century tollhouse. This museum is a virtual time machine and deservedly a source of great national pride.

While our guide, an informed, enthusiastic young woman from west Wales, spoke to us in English, all her conversations with museum personnel were in Welsh. Fluency in the native tongue, she said, is mandatory for all employees. Its revival has become a national cause.

Public signs everywhere are in English and Welsh, a strange language to behold with its profusion of the letter Y, double letters, and strings of uninterrupted consonants. Though we found it difficult to reproduce Welsh sounds made in the back of the throat, it is a lovely, musical tongue. "The Welsh call their language the language of God because of its musicality and also because it is one of Europe's oldest languages," said John Grimes, Clerk to Cardiff's Economic Development Committee, whom we met on the train from London. "Few people in Cardiff speak Welsh, but all our government meetings are held with simultaneous translations, and all documents are in both languages," he added. "It is the intellectuals and academics who are promoting it. Ironically, in the north and west where Welsh never ceased being spoken, its use is declining."

Bilingual signs are omnipresent - click to enlarge
Bilingual signs are omnipresent

There is some passion behind the movement to revive Welsh, and John Herlihy, St. David's avuncular doorman, articulated it pointedly. Another son of an Irish father and Welsh mother, he told us that for centuries English was the dominant and imposed language while the Welsh tongue was suppressed. At one time, children were punished for speaking it. Today it is part of every Welsh child's education.

On all other subjects, John Herlihy provided a merry and magical perspective. The last afternoon of our stay, he took off his top hat and tails, donned a windbreaker, and brought us to the only castle we managed to squeeze into our brief visit, the fairytale-inspired Castell Coch built in 1875 by William Burges for the Marquis of Bute, owner of Cardiff's docks. Set in a wooded retreat, this is the real-life realization of what you imagined Snow White's or Sleeping Beauty's castle looked like with walls depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables and towered ceilings painted to look like the sky filled with soaring birds. On the way, John regaled us with Celtic lore. It was from him we learned that Merlin the magician was Welsh "in every way," and that the powerful red dragon, symbol of Wales, dates back to the time of King Arthur.

With images of the conical towers of Castell Coch, the red dragon, and Merlin in our heads, we returned to our home base at twilight as the lights in the bay came up and real birds began to fly into the wetlands. We had left a medieval storybook castle for a bay-front table at St. David's decidedly 21st century Tides Restaurant, a cool blue and white interior that incorporated the deepening night. The scene had changed, but the magic remained.    

Chef Daniel James, a 100% Welshman - click to enlarge
Chef Daniel James, a 100% Welshman

And here at last, we met a 100% Welshman, the Tides' youthful executive chef Daniel James who has been on the job for some ten months. His accent spoke more of the Midlands than Wales, we thought. "That's because I spent so much time in England," he said. "I trained originally in the Savoy and Dorchester in London, worked in France for a while, and then was in Surrey, southwest of London.

"St. David's is like coming home for me although I've never done a very modern place like this before," he added. "The big hotels I've worked in had all the traditional stuff. Here the environment is modern, and that's a nice experience for me.

"We serve very simple modern European food. We don't have one style. It is a mixture. A few months ago we began the market menu to go along with the regular menu that focuses on changing seasonal products."

Daniel focuses on local ingredients as much as possible "because you know where's it's coming from." He's included a choice of vegetarian starters and main courses on menu. "Previously they were separated like these were the last people to be thought of. They say 10% of people now are vegetarians and that's quite a lot."

We began with baked rings of goat cheese on an arrangement of delicate greens with sun dried tomatoes and pine nuts in a tangy vinaigrette, and scallops in a creamy sauce with leeks, scallions, and the delightful addition of raisins.

Entrees were a succulent square of sea bass on a circle of spinach with lentils and Scottish lobster out of the shell with broccoli and cauliflower that was meaty and tender. A deep, full-bodied Rioja, Monte Real Rioja Riojanan 1994, was an excellent accompaniment to a superb meal.

At Daniel's suggestion we had a fabulous chocolate semi fredo for dessert, but we also succumbed to a nostalgic selection that brought back the 1970's and trying out recipes from that old staple The Joy of Cooking. Only this welsh rarebit was the real thing: cheese, ale, eggs, mustard, and flour mixed into a paste, spread onto toasted brioche and placed under the grill.

"When I was a boy living with my parents and grandparents in Wales, it was an everyday dish you would have at home. Very nice," he said. And it was.

The young executive chef and his French wife live out in the countryside. Each day he travels two and half hours from rural Wales to cosmopolitan Cardiff and back. But he enjoys the journey "It gives me time to concentrate," he said.

We too had enjoyed the journey. In just a few days so much had been revealed to us of a nation, a culture, some wonderful people, an exciting reinvented city and its exceptional calling card -- Rocco Forte's St. David's Hotel and Spa.

The St. David's Hotel & Spa
Havannah Street
Cardoff Bay
Cardiff CF10 SSD
Phone: 44 (0)29 2045 4045; USA: 1-800-223-6800
e-mail: reservation@thestdavidshotelcom

The Museum of Welsh Life
St. Fagans,Cardiff CF5 6XB

Phone: 44 (0) 2057 3500

(Like all museums in Wales, the Museum of Welsh Life charges no admission fee)

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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