The new Spa Suites at Gilpin Hotel & Lake House could not have been better timed for Covid-era travellers in search of wellbeing, privacy and sustainability combined in one contemporary luxury package – even if the timing of their debut was probably more by accident than design.
It’s embarrassing to say the only occasion I have spent any time in our beautiful Lake District is passing through en route visiting candidates for TTG’s Top 50 travel agencies (shout out to Cumbria Travel and Travel The Globe), usually involving very long drives and only short stops in various towns.
But like many of us this year, my international travel wings were clipped, so I naturally found myself looking for escapes and inspiration closer to home, and I definitely found it with Gilpin, a beautiful little spot near Windermere, with its already innovative Spa Lodges, two terrific restaurants and now the cherry on top – three new Spa Suites.
If we’ve heard one thing over and again during these months of Covid chaos, it’s that luxury travellers will be seeking privacy, sanctuary in nature and ways to ramp up wellbeing; when the Cunliffe family – who have owned and run Gilpin for decades – were planning these standalone wellbeing cabins, little would they have known how apt an idea they would have had for these times.
Taking the chance to make up for that past neglect of the area, I booked in for two nights to really get settled – to stay any less in one of the new Spa Suites is to do them an injustice, as they really warrant more than a one-night stand.
Gilpin’s reputation precedes it, but these new “suites” take things to the next level, and I’d stick my neck out and say they are one of the most impressive new hospitality products I’ve seen in a while (even before I stopped going Anywhere this year).
The term suite is also a bit of a misnomer, as they are actually standalone Scandi-style boxy lodges rooted in soothing biophilic design, and seem to “float” over their own ponds. They are cleverly built just up from the rest of the hotel product to give further seclusion, and privacy is further enhanced by a two-metre curved wall made from traditional Lakeland stone around the outside decking area and garden.
They scream quality all the way, from the Porsche electric car charging point for each lodge (you can just drive yourself up there after saying hello at reception meaning minimum contact/maximum privacy), to the huge plush orange Boma Sofa by Rodolfo Dordoni for Kettal that draws you in as soon as you open the door.
From the ceramics to the soft furnishings, you just want to own everything in here: picking it up, inspecting it, wondering if you could afford one – the old adage applies though, if you have to Google how much something is, you probably can’t afford it (probably just me).
There are carefully selected wines in a temperature-controlled 24-bottle wine fridge (wines are available to buy at retail prices, which is a nice touch), a 65-inch TV which pivots for viewing from lounge to the bathing area, Sonos music system throughout, heated floors, huge circular Lusso stone bath beneath a huge lightwell and giant “birdcage” bursting with foliage, while elsewhere, a free-hanging circular gas fire leaves you thinking “how the hell does that work?”.
And it goes on: covetable light fixtures aplenty, a double walk-in cedarwood Alexander and Sancto open shower with a distinctive fibreglass fern-design back wall and an actual tree inside the room too. At the western end of the suite, the bedroom “floats” over the pond with a perfect window seat framing a dreamy view looking towards the mountains, while south-facing patio doors lead to the decked garden, pond and hot tub.
And then over to the other side of the lodge; welcome to the piece de resistance – the personal spa room, complete with tulipwood TyloHelo double sauna and matching steam room, both scented with specially selected aromas.
The rain was so bad over the two days of my stay, it was a perfect excuse to hide away inside the suite and make full use of every bit of its spa-like goodness – from slathering on the fresh salt scrub provided and sitting in that sizeable steamroom, to applying the natural hair and face masks provided for you and slobbing around in front of the huge TV.
When there was a brief break in the rain, it was bliss to nip across the decking outside and hop in the hot tub and watch the steam rise up and drift off over the “plunge pond”, which guests will also eventually be able to have a dip in (steps were due installation before lockdown 2:0 kicked in), if they prefer the idea of a bit of ‘wild swimming’.
Also in this spa room is an infrared overhead light option which means you can pop on the massage bed, stick on your goggles and stretch out under it for a spell: infrared is believed to help with detoxification, pain relief, muscle tension, circulation, boosting the immune system and a host of other wonders.
And then can we talk about the Weyron massage chair, incorporating the very latest Japanese technology: prepare yourself, this is like being gripped by an intense robot intent on getting its electronic fingers into every sinew. The mind boggles at how it does it.
The hotel had these installed a few months back when it was looking like it would be tricky to administer Covid-safe treatments, but now they can offer both, so the spa room has both the hi-tech chair and a treatment table for those who prefer the human touch.
And of course, all of this is surrounded by nature with an unhindered view of a little valley, woodland and stream unfolding before you; step outside onto the wooden terrace from the spa room and you may even spot of one of the hotel’s llamas in the distance.
Grabbing one of these Spa Suites is going to prove tricky as the country gets on the move again, as there are only three of them for now (another two are also in the planning) – not to forget though, other options are available at the hotel.
The Spa Suites are 25% bigger than their equally gorgeous precursor, the Spa Lodges – of which there are five – and all of the hotel’s 25 other options have lovely Lakeland views of their own, most leading directly onto gardens. Six open-plan Garden Suites have their own decked area too, with cedarwood hot tubs, while the Spa Lodges have en-suite spas with treatment beds, steam room, hydrotherapy hot tub and sauna outside.
With its Relais & Chateaux credentials, I knew a visit here would not disappoint on the culinary front either and the stay kicked off with a lip-smacking dinner in the pan-Asian restaurant Gilpin Spice. With its open kitchen and contemporary design, there was a great relaxed atmosphere and a nice buzz, even though it was a Sunday night in early November (as luck would have it, my stay was literally just before lockdown, when the hotel clearly had to close).
All the nibbles, sides and mains at Gilpin Spice packed a punch – from the salt and pepper king prawn skewers and pani puri balls (filled with chickpea curry); to spiced octopus; and the whole marinated Morecambe Bay seabass, it was a tasty triumph.
When you live alone and are certainly no Angela Hartnett, all this cooking for yourself stuff tends to veer from bore to chore, so just to sit down, peruse a menu and tuck into dish after dish with excellent wine felt lottery-winning in its glory. And that was only night one – day two saw a plethora of healthy treats delivered to stack up in the Spa Suite fridge.
These included healthy blend juices and a “bento box” of carefully created snacks and small dishes to munch on across the day; while a tasty in-room breakfast was also delivered with aplomb and within 20 minutes of ordering over the phone.
And then came dinner at Michelin-starred HRiSHi, which is in the main house: in a new twist on an “open kitchen”, there is a giant window into the hive of chefs’ activity which you look into from outside the front of the hotel.
Hrishikesh Desai heads up the culinary charge at Gilpin and has been with the hotel since 2015 (his pedigree includes Les Maison de Bricourt, Le Chateau de Bagnol, French Laundry, and Lucknam Park), with the hotel now the proud owner of four AA Rosettes for HRiSHi as well. I started with Scottish scallops and Morecambe mackerel, while the slow-roasted aubergine with root vegetables, miso dressing, chili sauce and fried garlic to follow was a powerful vegetarian option. Ending on the Autumn raspberry souffle with ice cream and raspberry sauce was a no-brainer for me, and it was all beautifully paired with fine wines, and various little treats served between courses.
Pre-dinner drinks for HRiSHi are expertly administered from the central bar at Gilpin while you make your menu selections from an iPad (I’d actually already decided after perusing the options on the handy Gilpin app earlier on).
The dining space is split around three rooms, and there were only five tables in the area I dined in, so it felt a little quiet, but the comings and goings of the excellent service team, and the satisfied oohs and aahs of the diners filled the gaps; dining here does have a formal air to it, with everyone dressed pretty fancy and a white table-clothed kind of elegance.
What the Cunliffe family has achieved over the years is a huge credit to their graft and vision. Dad John has even written a book about it – Slightly Perfect: A Lake District Love Affair, with the strapline of “one family’s endeavours to create the perfect hotel in an imperfect world”.
It’s clear Gilpin is the result of a dream to create a hotel people fall in love with, driven by John’s passion – Gilpin was his grandmother’s home and he used to holiday there often as a child. After an international hotel career, he set his mind to reacquiring the house back years later, buying it in 1987 after it had had several other owners. Gilpin Lake House, a separate component now used for exclusive-use stays, was also a family heirloom having belonged to a feisty, pioneering great aunt of John’s originally.
John’s wife Chris and children are intrinsic to its success as well of course – Ben is the architect of much of the development over the years, and along with many other things, Chris takes care of interiors, usually alongside local designer Sarah Jane Nielson.
Sadly, John died this year so he never got to see the success of the book, or the completion of these magnificent Spa Suites – but I’m sure he would have agreed they make a fitting new chapter to Gilpin’s story.
How to book it
Prices for a Gilpin Spa Suite booked through Relais & Chateaux start from £770 per night, relaischateaux.com