I’ve seen a lot of spas in hotels on my travels across the world. I tend to find that I use them mostly to relax and recover from jetlag, or to pass a pleasant hour or so in between readings and signings. This time, however, I’m with my daughter Anouchka, and it’s the first time either of us has come to a spa as a destination in itself.
Rockliffe Hall is a golf club, spa and hotel, situated in the quiet countryside of County Durham, between the villages of Croft and Hurworth-on-Tees. The hotel is a beautiful red-brick building in its own extensive grounds, lawns, walkways, flower beds and quiet avenues of trees.
On arrival into the large, airy lobby we are greeted by a steward, who takes our luggage and parks the car, and a receptionist who offers us cold drinks - sparkling water and cordials - before showing us to our room. The decor is a little generic for such a picturesque building - sepia flower prints and a predominance of beige - but the rooms are very comfortable, of more than generous size, and with a large, modern bathroom and separate shower room. White bathrobes and slippers await us, for use in the spa wing of the hotel as well as in the hotel brasserie, which serves lunch and snacks.
The menu there is varied and interesting – a series of small plates, including an excellent pea and asparagus risotto; plus soups; salads; main courses and a number of generous desserts, including a gluten-free option and a salted-caramel brownie that Anouchka declares to be the best she has ever tasted. Attention to detail is impressive – the hand-cut chunky chips are twice-cooked, and served with a really excellent tomato salsa – and the service, both here and in the spa itself is friendly, efficient, but never overwhelming.
The general facilities are varied, but always spotless and of high quality. There is a nicely-equipped gym and weights room, a daily exercise class, personal trainer as well as an excellent range of hydrotherapies. Within a light and airy space surrounded by reclining chairs and beneath colourful stained-glass windows, there is a 20-metre swimming-pool; a large hydrotherapy pool with a variety of features – high-pressure jets; fountains; Jacuzzi settings; hydro-massage - and a bar, with complimentary snacks and drinks; iced tea; fruit and water. There are several hot and cold treatment rooms, including a Roman (dry) sauna and a traditional sauna, both wood-lined and dimly-lit, plus (one of my highlights) a spectacular electric-blue ice-room in which to cool down and refresh, with a perpetual supply of shaved ice for stimulating circulation.
Moving onto the treatment wing, we both try different therapies. Anouchka’s is a Murad body treatment, which she declares excellent; mine, one of the spa’s signature body therapies; a blissful combination of massage and chakra-balancing, using Tibetan singing bowls and ylang-ylang oil. We emerge feeling wholly, marvellously relaxed, and are led into the sleep suite, a lovely semi-dark, pillared room of a dozen beds, in which we are encouraged to lie for as long as we like beneath furry blankets, while listening through headphones to the sound of the sea, and drink ginger tea, relax or sleep beneath an enormous stained-glass window. For me, this was one of the highlights; a place in which to extend the relaxing effects of a treatment at will, in quiet, discreet luxury.
After a day of blissful relaxation, the bar and restaurant seem like a must. The restaurant is in the Orangery, a beautiful glass-ceilinged room with view of the grounds, and the adjacent bar serves an impressive number of cocktails as well as the usual range of wines and spirits. Although there is no dress code here, the restaurant is special enough to encourage even my tomboyish daughter to dress for dinner, and it’s clear from the varied clientèle that the Orangery is one of the major attractions of Rockliffe Hall.
The wine list is excellent; the food, terrific. Once more, attention to detail matters here; the menu is varied, making the most of seasonal ingredients, and there is a friendly sommelier to suggest accompanying wines. The menu is British fusion; roasted squash ravioli; white onion velouté with basil oil; pan-fried foie gras with caramelized apricots; gnocchi with duck egg and hollandaise; lobster Thermidor; Dover sole; rack of lamb, carved at the table. The vegetarian dishes are equally good, and there is a cheese trolley with a wide selection of really spectacular cheeses, served with fruit, saffron or truffle honey and home-baked salted biscuits.
In the morning, we go for a walk through the grounds before heading for a leisurely breakfast in the Orangery, a quick dip in the spa pool and a last serving of iced tea before heading back on our journey south. All in all, a most enjoyable stay for both of us, and one that I would recommend to men and women alike – although there seemed to be quite a number of mothers and daughters staying here, as well a couple of wedding parties, and a party of teenage girls celebrating the end of exams. A terrific place for a day out, but even more so, a weekend, to take the opportunity to explore the neighbouring countryside, experience a few different treatments, and get to know the Orangery, with its breakfasts, and afternoon teas, a little more intimately...
Joanne Harris gave up teaching in 2000 to become a full-time writer and has written fourteen novels, including Chocolat, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film, two books of short stories and three cookbooks with Fran Warde. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16 and still lives in West Yorkshire, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband and daughter.
11th July 2014
Warmth and sunshine; spas which take me away to another country; fruit infused waters; beach-worth pedicures; deep tissue massages.
High footfalls; treatments that over promise and under deliver; heavy lunches; loungers drapped in used towels.
Behind the scenes