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Perfect city centre package of what Devon has to offer

By Herald Express  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

  • city centre: The rear of The Magdalen Chapter Hotel on Magdalen Road, Exeter, showing the original building (inset)

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YOU could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Alps. A cloud of steam rises up from the warm waters of the outdoor pool, chilling as it hits the winter air.

It's frosty, sunny — and the outdoor, poolside log burner perfects the conditions for an Alpine dip.

Only it's not a hot tub outside a chalet in the Port du Soleil or Les Trois Vallées, but the grounds of the former West England Eye Infirmary in Exeter's city centre.

We swim from the outdoor waters through a narrow, walled inlet to the interior of this 'inside-out' pool, where we warm by a real log fireplace set in a ruby red burner.

"This is a wonderful feature," says general manager, Fiona Moores, as she stacks another couple of logs atop the roaring flames.

"It's an example of the level of detail gone into the transformation of the hotel," she adds.

And we couldn't agree more. From mood lighting to paperless check-in services and an iPad2 in every room to assist with room services, music and more: "The building has a completely new, modern feel but the facade hasn't changed," adds Fiona.

I'm wooed by the place on arrival (maybe that has something to do with The Font, a large feature reception desk designed by Alison Crowther which seems to get all guests talking) — and it just seems to get better from there.

The unique pool with its 'inside-and-out' areas lies in a large, pretty walled garden beneath the imposing yet charming facade of this former hospital on Magdalen Street.

It is a new addition to this, the recently renovated and sympathetically restored 19th century Magdalen Chapter Hotel, which occupies one of the greatest locations in Exeter: in the leafy suburb of St Leonard's, just a stone's throw from Southernhay, the city centre shops and the popular quayside.

Once well-known as Hotel Barcelona with its basement cocktail bar, Kino, the iconic building has come a long way since it closed for a huge makeover in 2008 (and since I last had a cocktail there the same year).

Today, after re-opening just a few months ago, the former Eye Infirmary features 59 unique en-suite bedrooms, private dining and conference facilities, a 65-cover restaurant focussing on local, seasonal Devonshire produce headed by Devon chef, Ben Bulger, former head chef at Riverford Field Kitchen alongside Jane Baxter and Devon Life Chef of the Year 2012, a gym and an enticing spa, offering luxurious treatments by Devon-based skincare company, REN.

There is also The Library (pictured) with open fireplaces and shelves stacked with wonderful reads, The Lounge with a huge Hugo Dalton art installation sweeping across the wall, a cosy, welcoming foyer complete with an original open fireplace and artwork by Tracy Bush featuring tiny butterflies made from local maps. Look closely and you'll be able to pinpoint Torquay on a butterfly's wing.

It's a perfect package of what Devon has to offer at its best: local, fresh food; warm, attentive but unfussy hospitality, natural pampering in a serene environment — all with an historical edge.

Even the window sills in some of the rooms were made by local joiners.

"But the wonderful thing is that the refurbishment has really opened up the public areas," said Fiona, who was previously general manager for Hotel Barcelona, having now worked at the hotel for 10 years.

"When it was Hotel Barcelona and locals used to come in to Kino, there was very much the impression that the hotel facilities upstairs were shut off to the public – people didn't use them," she says, standing in the large corridor with its original Terrazo flooring and nodding to where Kino once lay downstairs.

She explains the space where the former cocktail bar once stood is now occupied by five bedrooms and office space.

"Now we're becoming popular with the locals: Mums call in during the day and we have regulars who use the bar; one chap frequently comes in with his dog — dogs are welcome, children are welcome. Local people are really important to us and we want people to know they're welcome to join us — you don't have to be staying overnight to enjoy the facilities," she adds.

Although the wonderful lounge, bar, library and dining facilities are slowly becoming popular with the surrounding communities, Fiona stresses she would like to spread the word that they are officially open to the public: "A lot of money has been spent on the transformation of the hotel and a lot of people have the preconception that it's really expensive.

"But with set two-course menus from £12.95 and day spa packages available from £40, it's completely affordable."

Every detail in the hotel, every crevice, has been restored, renovated and deeply thought about, it seems. Clearly, award-winning designers, Felden Clegg Bradley haven't left a fraction of the transformation amiss. Whether indulging in a spot of spa time, treating a friend to mid shopping-spree lunch, or going all out on an overnight break with dinner, the Magdalen Chapter Hotel has all of the fresh ingredients to get your new year off on the right footing.

And with the best of Devon at its heart, all at affordable rates, it's high-time to pay the hotel a visit.

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