Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Spa Weekend @ The Runnymede-on-Thames

Ever so often, John and I exchange a wild look: it is one comprised of fear, panic, paranoia, stress. Accompanying this look are dashing, dark circles under John's eyes and a smattering of pimples, threatening to burst with ferocity over my already severely blemished chin.  When this "look" crosses our faces, we both know it's time to take a break.  Away.  Out of the city.  Preferably into the countryside.  Preferably to a hotel that has a spa.  Preferably a spa that has an indoor and outdoor pool, jacuzzi, eucalyptus (this is very important) steam room, sauna, and plunge pool (not essential, but a plus).

Our favorite spot of all-time for such getaways is The Grove, but unfortunately, it was fully booked when I made our last minute enquiry, so I had to find an alternative.  I settled on The Runnymede-on-Thames in Egham for the pure reason that it'd be easy to get to (bus from Islington to Waterloo, then quick train down to Surrey) and the price was just about right (£164 for one night, including breakfast and use of the spa facilities).  Plus, the photos on the website of happy families pointing out ducks on the river and taking afternoon tea (the cake stand filled with finger sandwiches and scones sold it to me) on the river bank seemed ideal.  

But looks can be deceiving, as an overwhelming sense of disappointment washed over me when we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, just off a roundabout near the motorway.  The photo above is of the BACK of the hotel, not the front - so what you're actually greeted with is a faceless, business conference-like front with a car park that rivals Costco's (okay, okay, there was a bit of grass and shrubbery to distinguish it from the Costco parking lot) - not the sunny, boutique-y charm the website would like to have you believe.  Undeterred, we waltzed in and checked into our room, grabbing some lunch on the terrace on the way.  "Would you recommend booking in advance for the two restaurants here?" I asked the waitress who served us.  It didn't look terribly busy, but with no dinner choices around other than the hotel, we'd be a bit stranded tonight if reservations were essential.  "You'll have to check with the front desk," she answered, which puzzled me a bit since she worked there and would probably be best placed to answer the question of whether or not the restaurant is busy in the evenings.  Still, we got distracted and forgot to ask.  Sure enough, as we approached one of the restaurants at 6:30 p.m. (which was completely empty, save for two tables, by the way) we were politely told by the Maitre d' that both restaurants were fully booked and that the earliest sitting was at 9:30 p.m.  We were encouraged to eat at the bar/lounge area, which was fine since we didn't want more than a sandwich in the end anyway, but was quite irritating.  You'd think it was common courtesy for hotel staff to inform you, upon check-in, that dinner does get quite busy and it'd be a good idea to book - certainly, The Grove offers to arrange reservations at one of their restaurants before you've even arrived!

However, whatever Runnymede lacks in charm, character or common sense, it makes up for in its outdoor pool.  Yes, that's right - a luxuriously long and wide, blue mosaic-tiled outdoor pool which is meticulously cared for and absolutely sparkles when the sun shines.  I know this because I was in that pool when the sun was shining and can confirm that floating on your back in an empty, warm pool whilst staring at the underbelly of planes flying overhead is possibly the most amazing feeling ever.  If, for even two minutes, I felt completely and utterly relaxed and happy, then the £164 I spent that weekend was totally worth it.

The next day, after checking out, we took advantage of the good weather and left our bags at the hotel and took a stroll along the river, as the spa is closed to guests after check-out (again, something that simply doesn't happen at The Grove - there, you're encouraged to stay as long as you'd like to continue your swim or sauna experience after you've checked out) though you can pay for a pass "per hour" which we decided against since it was so lovely outside anyway.  We stumbled upon a regional private school regatta where crews of 16 and unders rowed their way to posh stardom on the Thames.  It was truly like a scene out of Harry Potter, with marquees set up for schools such as Eton and Henley.  We even crashed their BBQ (though we paid, after all) and sampled some delicious burgers cooked by Surrey locals while watching poor, scrawny 10-year-old boys with arms no thicker than my wrist (and I have small wrists) try not to disappoint their over-paying parents, who were decked out in Boden and had names like Harriet, Hamish and Francesca.  Bizarre, yet highly entertaining.

Would I recommend The Runnymede-on-Thames?  Only if you're desperate and the weather is good - then it's not a terribly bad place to get to.  But if you've got better options, I'd say skip out.

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