BATH, England - There is so much more to England than the sights of London, museums and Oxford Street shopping. On a recent trip to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath, together with five other Israeli journalists, a journey of discovery began.
The two-hour drive from Heathrow Airport to Bath was an eye-opener for some of my colleagues, who couldn't get over the luscious greenery of the English countryside. It seemed as though the scenery was laid on for us, sheep grazing in the meadows, cows in the fields and the beautiful autumn colors of the leaves made the drive a pleasure. How come it's so green, they asked. Rain is the obvious answer but, luckily on our three-day stay, we only had a few downpours.
The city of Bath is rich in Georgian and Roman heritage and is nourished by Britain's only natural hot springs. Almost everyone associates Bath with Jane Austen and rightly so. Her spirit is everywhere and, because of the beautiful Georgian architecture, there's a reason Bath is used as a location for so many period films and documentaries. It is also renowned as a romantic city, the scenery is stunning, the accommodation more than luxurious and the cuisine top class.
Our first stop was the Royal Crescent Hotel, where two of our group would be staying. The hotel occupies the two central buildings in the Crescent and there is no outside indication that a hotel exists. The building is Grade I listed, meaning it is of special historic interest, so nothing is allowed on the outside walls. Where is the doorman, the group, obviously having done some research before the trip, inquired, peering out of the van windows. As we drew up, he appeared, splendid in his livery and broad grins spread on all our faces.
Ushered inside to the warm lounge which featured a roaring open fire, a traditional English afternoon tea was spread out for us. Dainty triangular sandwiches without crusts filled with cucumber, smoked salmon and cheese and watercress were beautifully laid out on silver trays with silver servers to help ourselves. A colleague whispered in my ear: "The sandwiches are so small, were they expecting children?" More trays held scones, clotted cream, jams and Bath buns with currants and raisins - another novelty and eagerly devoured by all after long explanations of the origins of clotted cream and the tradition of afternoon tea.
We were then assigned our hotels, and two of us had the privilege of staying at the Royal Crescent. Shown to my room, the John Wood Suite (all the suites are named after personalities connected to Bath in its heyday as well as numbers), I gasped. It was like stepping back in time, the designers having recreated the luxury that typified the age. Restored to its original splendor, recreating authentic period details, the color schemes, striped fabrics, furnishings and paintings are as they would have been in the 18th century. A soft pink lounge with open fireplace (just call the staff when you want it lit, I was told), a four-poster bed on a dais, a large en-suite bathroom and the most wonderful view over Bath from the many windows, I was in heaven and would have been happy to spend the three days in my room. The hotel also has rooms across the beautiful landscaped gardens where the dining room is located next to the spa.
Time for a quick shower and change and off we went to visit the Roman Baths, which were opened at night especially for our group. The Roman Baths is the best-preserved ancient baths and temple complex in Northern Europe and viewed at night, with the steam escaping in the cold night air, was eerie. Thirteen liters of water per second gush out of the ground at a temperature of 46Âº centigrade, as they have for the past 2,000 years.
The water contains 43 minerals and can be tasted in the Pump Room, drawn up through a borehole sunk below the King's Bath. Having been fascinated by the Pump Room described so often in Jane Austen's novels, specifically Northanger Abbey, where her heroine makes a daily visit to the site, it was disappointing to see it empty by night, but did give us an idea as to its grandeur lit by magnificent chandeliers. The following day, however, we returned to "taste the waters" (not too bad) and, just as in Austen's novel, it was crowded with people having afternoon tea, and a three-piece orchestra was playing.
We then went to dinner at the Bath Spa Hotel, where a five-course gourmet meal awaited us. The Bath Spa Hotel is a luxuriously renovated stately home, as are most of the Bath hotels. The rest of the group were staying at the Bath Priory and Homewood Park. We eagerly described our hotels and rooms over dinner and it seems each was more impressive than the next. Everyone was extremely satisfied with both the rooms, the warm and inviting communal drawing room (once again my colleagues needed to know why it was called a drawing room), dining rooms and lounges and the extensive landscaped grounds and spa that each hotel offered. The Bath Priory even sports a croquet lawn. Many of the hotels also boast their own kitchen gardens, where fresh organic vegetables and herbs are grown for use by their chefs.
The meal at the Bath Spa Hotel was exceptional; in fact, the food on the whole trip was five-star gourmet. None of the stodgy pies, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings England is famous (or infamous) for but, rather venison, guinea fowl, lightly cooked haddock and other such delicacies were the fare. When informing friends that I was visiting Bath, however, more than one told me that the best Cornish pasties are to be found there.
The next day, we were taken on a tour of both the old and new parts of the city. Sally Lunn's Refreshment House and Museum, the oldest house in Bath, home of the Sally Lunn Bun from the 16th century and the original recipe which is still used today. We also visited the Jane Austen Center, where the exhibition focuses on the five years Jane spent in Bath and is housed in a Georgian townhouse very similar to the one she lived in. We also stopped at the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum, showing fashion through the ages including an authentic black dress worn by Queen Victoria. The staff walk around in period costume and there is a room where visitors can try on crinolines and bustiers, quite funny seen on top of jeans, but women and children were having a lot of fun doing up each other's laces.
We then carried on to the Theatre Royal, Pulteney Bridge - based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence with shops on either side - and the Circus, where Johnny Depp owns a home. Architect John Wood, heavily influenced by 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, designed both the Circus and the Crescent, but his son, John Wood Jr., completed the construction of these magnificent buildings. The Crescent comprises 30 houses, two of which belong to the hotel, Nicholas Cage owns one, and apparently his children go to school in the area. No. 1, the Crescent, has been returned to its original state, complete with servants' staircase and kitchen, and is now a museum and definitely well worth a visit, with explanations given in every room.
Many of the more lavish hotels do not accept children under 12 as guests. On the other hand, many Bath hotels cater specifically to families. Wooley Grange, one of them, is again a converted old stately home with an outdoor heated swimming pool in its large grounds and a creche where the children are supervised while Mum and Dad can enjoy some peace and quiet, and is quite beautiful.
There is plenty for children to do in and around Bath. Longleat Safari Park is only half an hour's drive away, and boating on the River Avon and hot air ballooning are but some of the attractions. Bath Aqua glass is also well worth a visit. It is only one of three glass-blowing factories left in England, as most of the glass sold in Britain is now made in China. The glass is pale blue as opposed to the much darker blue of Bristol glass. Children and grown-ups will enjoy the short demonstration and lecture given, as well as admiring the finished products.
We also visited the newly renovated and improved Thermae Bath Spa, where we bathed in the naturally warm water. The 46Âº water is filtered and cooled and we lay in the open-air rooftop pool despite the chilly evening air, enjoying the view over the city. There are also two indoor pools to choose from and spa treatments, massages and therapies are also available.
Dinner at the Hunstrete House Hotel was another gourmet affair. It's another stately home turned hotel with many of the original furnishings, antiques, collections of fine porcelain and paintings adorning the comfortable rooms. The owner sold the mansion and still lives in the lodge on the grounds amid the 71 acres of parkland which is a sanctuary for wildlife. The hotel terrace overlooks the deer park and croquet lawn.
The 25 en-suite bedrooms are named after birds found in the area. It is hard to imagine that a family of only six people last lived in this mansion, and the lodge itself where the owner moved to has five bedrooms, so my heart doesn't bleed for her too much. Children are most welcome and Conde Nast Traveller named Hunstrete one of the 10 best English country house hotels. It was nice for a while to live the life of the gentry and bathe in the luxury and elegance of these beautiful vintage homes. The feeling in these country homes is one of comfort, where you sink into the armchairs and sofas gazing at the magnificent paintings in the glow and warmth of the open log fires. Xanadu.
True, as guests of the Bath Board of Tourism we did have a five-star luxury stay but you don't have to spend a fortune to enjoy English gracious living, the beauty of the city and the wonderful English countryside and gardens. Bath has an abundance of quality hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, some in the center of the city, offering comfortable rooms and a hearty breakfast at reasonable prices. The tourist information office offers discount entrance booklets to most of the attractions, which works out much cheaper than paying individual entrance fees.
There are also restaurants to suit all tastes with a fantastic mix of cafes, pubs and bars. Jamie Oliver recently launched his new affordable "Jamie's Italian" seating 200 people. We tried to take a look, but the queue was so long we couldn't even get near. And if it's shopping you want, Bath offers all the big-name stores in addition to boutiques and small independent shops and exclusive designer brands, all easily accessible by foot.
Our host, Andrew Wright of FAB, a conference management company, who organized our trip, thanked us before our departure, saying he had never enjoyed a group of journalists as much. Not surprising, we were all so interested in this charming city and, in our couple of hours of spare time, went sightseeing and visited museums.
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