Words: Tim Heap
Having rowed at school and university, I have a foolish habit of placing a small bet on the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Foolish because, even if I back the right crew, the odds are usually so even that winnings barely even cover the price of a celebratory G&T.
That said, I usually back Oxford over Cambridge – I’m not sure why, but I think it’s to do with the team colours: Cambridge’s dingier-looking light blue doesn’t compete with Oxford’s deep, commanding navy.
Anyway, I’m an equal-opportunities kinda guy, so having explored Oxford for a couple of days a few years ago, I was prepared to give Cambridge the benefit of the doubt and recently visited the city with my boyfriend, staying at The Varsity Hotel & Spa.
The four-star boutique bolthole, on the northern edge of the historic centre by the narrow river and the western edge of Jesus Green, is well placed for tourists to take in the sights on foot, bike or punt.
Opened in 2011, the independently owned Varsity takes its name and some design cues from the university’s varsity sports teams, including rowing of course.
Our ‘Senior Fellows Superking Room’ featured striped navy and burgundy wallpaper, an imposing (but inviting) four-poster bedframe, and lots of wooden furniture that imbued the space with a sense of grandeur.
Large floor-to-ceiling windows occupied most of the far wall, letting in plenty of light to offset the fairly dark décor.
A French cafetiere and generous supply of Illy ground coffee ensure an easy caffeine hit whenever you need it — you won’t have to call housekeeping for more coffee pods!
The room was completed by a well-proportioned bathroom, boasting a large walk-in monsoon shower and Elemis toiletries for that all important squeaky clean feeling.
The Varsity offers guests two dining options: The River Bar Steakhouse & Grill, with views over the river and a meat-heavy menu, and SIX, an all-day brasserie that occupies the top floor of the hotel and serves panoramic views as well as dishes from the wood stone oven and carefully crafted cocktails.
A G&T made with Cambridge Gin seemed an appropriate choice for me, while my Polish boyfriend spotted a cocktail named Zubrowka Spice, made with bison grass vodka, grapefruit liquor, apple juice, lime and cinnamon.
After gorging on pan-seared scallops and roasted mushrooms to start, and chicken milanese and chargrilled leg of lamb mains, there was little appetite for dessert – until our server suggested trying a Nutella martini for dessert. Creamy, chocolatey and boozy: a winning end to the meal.
Unfortunately too early in the season when we visited, The Varsity’s roof terrace comes alive in the summer as a perfect spot to try and identify the many spires of Cambridge while sipping on a tall drink of something cold and refreshing.
Hotel guests are also afforded the luxury of access to the adjacent Glassworks Health Club, which boasts a gym, studios for yoga, pilates, aerobics and spinning classes, and a spa.
We popped in after breakfast to soak in the spa’s Jacuzzi, looking out the one-way glass window at the river and the unassuming passers-by. Along with the Jacuzzi, there’s a sauna, steam room and treatment rooms.
After checking out, it was time to experience one of Cambridge’s enduring traditions: a river cruise on board a punt.
The Varsity works with one of the local punt companies to offer discounted trips, so we hopped on board and cruised along the backs of many of the impressive colleges, learning tidbits about their history.
A later walk along the river heading out of town gave glimpses of rowing crews practicing for upcoming races, decked out in that light-blue kit.
Both Oxford and Cambridge crews will be competing in the 164th Boat Race this Sunday, April 7 — maybe it’s time to reconsider my allegiance…