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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
Cardiff CF10 SSD
Phone: 44 (0)29 2045 4045; USA: 1-800-223-6800
The Museum of Welsh Life
St. Fagans,Cardiff CF5 6XB
Phone: 44 (0)
(Like all museums in Wales, the
Museum of Welsh Life charges no admission fee)# # #
Photos by Harvey Frommer
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights