Wessex Hotel, Bournemouth

Let me say this up front:  the review that follows is not critical of the Wessex Hotel in Bournemouth, since with what they have the management has done a very good job.  My question is about whether it yet fits in with the brand image of the group that runs the Wessex, Bespoke Hotels.

You couldn’t complain about the deal, which as it happens was via Groupon:  £99 for two nights in a decent hotel by the sea, a two-course dinner with a glass of wine, two breakfasts and unlimited use of the gym, pool, sauna and steam room.  Not one you’d find at high season, but pretty impressive all the same.

However, I mention the branding because as soon as I’d made my impulse booking I was getting daily emails from Bespoke Hotels, evidently a large group that has crept under the radar in the world of international hotel chains, at least in my world, one aiming clearly at the boutique hotel market – as witnessed by this statement on their website:

We’ve identified the individual, the idiosyncratic, the iconic, the chic, the boutique, the hip, the handy and the homely. In other words, the bespoke – the ones with a difference.

Aha, so cheap deals notwithstanding, Bespoke wants to differentiate itself from the bland world of corporate hospitality.  Seems they have four fine old hotels in Bournemouth alone, so what you really want to know is whether the Wessex is a good fit to the Bespoke philosophy:

The 109-bedroom Wessex Hotel is on the West Cliff, just five minutes’ walk from the centre of Bournemouth, where you can enjoy award-winning Blue Flag beaches, fantastic restaurants and bars and many family attractions.  The Hotel has its own leisure club with comprehensive facilities including indoor and outdoor swimming pool, gymnasium and beauty treatment rooms. There are also function rooms for large-scale business events, lavish and intimate weddings and other celebrations, free parking and free WiFi throughout.  Enjoy a seaside holiday, a family break or a romantic getaway at the Wessex Hotel, Bournemouth.

Well, you might read that sort of blurb on any hotel, but my eyes were fixed on the attention to detail that separates the wheat from the chaff.  First impressions were reasonable impressive, albeit by the light of early evening: a very large whitewashed facade  that originated in grander times, an impressive lobby in modern light wood, all bright and modern – maybe even heading in the general direction of “chic and hip.”

Seems it was established in 1891 and originally known as the Hawthorns Hotel, has been through lean times and several refurbishments, but most recently changed hands in October 2015 as a local developer, Philip Oram, paid £3.75m to purchase the property from LaSalle Investment Management (see here.)  What Oram’s plans for the hotel might turn out to be, the local council clearly views it as critical to the Bournemouth tourist industry, and hopes Oram will spend money to bring the premises back to its heyday.

Truth be told, the initial impressions were slightly misleading: by the cold light of day, flaws in the exterior facades were plainly evident, rusty balconies nibbled by the salt air, a few threadbare carpets once you head out along the labyrinthine corridors beyond the lobby.

This is not to say the hotel is uncomfortable or an eyesore: in fact, I have a soft spot for faded grandeur.  Nothing wrong with check-in service, and something satisfying about the old fashioned key attached to a solid lump of wood, even if it makes for a sizeable bulge in your pocket.  In fact, once we worked out how to ram said piece of wood into the slot inside the door, were also able to take advantage of admirable lighting and to see what you get in a room at the Wessex.

It’s fair to say the room looked rather too twee and 90s to be fashionable in 2016.  Important things first: it was spacious and well laid-out; the bed was firm but comfortable, if a little too hard for my partner’s tastes; all the bath and shower facilities worked and delivered hot water – even if separate hot and cold taps seem quaint nowadays.  Good, thick curtains did their job and we slept soundly, for which a thousand mercies.

Sorry to report that I did not take any photographs either of dinner nor breakfasts, but both met expectations for hotel chain dining.  The dinner menu contrived to sound more than a little dated too, though my partner’s duck and orange pate (definite nod to the 70s there) tastes both of duck and orange, and had been dressed in salad leaves and melba toast to protect its modesty, though my ham hock terrine topped with a pile of land cress was perhaps the finer edifice in terms of construction.

For mains she chose a fillet of plaice and I a braised duck leg, both mounted in the vertical modern vogue.  Mine was far the more generous, being a sizeable leg and thigh atop a mound of mash, surrounded by a moat of gravy with assorted veg, but as it turns out her plaice with provençal veg hit the spot and was sized appropriately to her appetite.  The latter looked moist and well-cooked, though the duck tended towards dryness.  We shared a chocolate fondant that retained a touch of gooey chocolate filling but was perhaps 20 seconds overdone.

Breakfasts followed the buffet tradition of piling high and allowing the masses (including a sizeable coach party) to help themselves.  Shame, since the boutique style would tend towards making a bespoke breakfast to order.  It was pretty standard fare, which means, for example: that the bread for toasting is box standard sliced; that sausages are cooked en masse in an oven with variations in temperature, such that some come out looking anaemic; and that eggs come either fried in a massive pan or scrambled and sat in hot water under the infrared lights.  Yes, buffets please most people most of the time, but neither do they hit the heights of customised breakfast, which would require a higher retinue of staff.  At least the coffee (from a machine) topped up my caffeine meter and left me ready for the day!

The Lulworth restaurant came out as not incompetent but neither outstanding.  Its facilities made it look more of a function room than a professional restaurant, and staffing and service were present and capable.  It would not take too much engineering and design to make it a destination of choice for dinner, though I hope they might consider a dedicated breakfast menu cooked to order in future, even if it costs more.

Meanwhile, after a day on the town in Bournemouth, which is well worth a visit, even in chill January rain (go to the Russell-Cotes museum and art gallery for a splendid feast of Victoriana), we had to try the spa facilities.

In keeping with the rest of the hotel, the facilities were fully functional, though slightly basic (changing room and showers could do with some updating.)  The gym looked well-equipped, even if I didn’t give it a while; the circular pool was perfect for our purposes, and both sauna and steam room proved refreshing.  If anything was the clincher for making the weekend complete, this was it – we thoroughly enjoyed and would not have objected to a small charge on top for the facilities.

Overall, it would be churlish to complain for what was offered at that price, so I won’t.  If the aim were to cater for weekenders and coach parties, they are doing just fine.  What is worth mentioning is that the product does not yet meet the Bespoke Hotels agenda for the chic and/or homely, let alone bespoke – and it will probably need a good deal of investment to elevate standards so the Wessex is effortlessly superior – and that is the mirage most hotels find elusive.

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