Now I have seen a few exotic, grandiose and glamorous hotels reviewed in my time, so given my extensive working week business travel activities over the last few years, I thought it was time I made a contribution.
Just happens that this week I'm in that internationally less than renowned metropolis they call Stevenage, but I'll give it my best shot...
I'm certainly no stranger to the Holiday Inn chain, particularly since signing up to their Priority Club Reward scheme a few years back, which has given me the chance to regularly earn enough points to get many free nights of hotel stays for the family. So naturally whenever I'm heading somewhere on business I look out for a Holiday Inn nearby. Via our company booking service I got a fairly reasonable £73.50 rate including bed and breakfast (I get to claim it back anyways) and with its central location in the town and close proximity to the railway station (only 25 minutes direct to Kings Cross) it's certainly handily situated.
From a previous visit a year or two back I remembered there was a smaller Holiday Inn Express (which is basically just across the way) but as the rates were cheap enough to satisfy the company bean counters, and given the Express didn't offer any onsite parking facilities I plumped for the Holiday Inn "full" version.
Now, having sneaked away from work a little early, arriving around 5pm I was hoping to have plenty of parking space to choose from. However the building itself was a fair bit smaller than I was expecting. I counted only 20 spaces around the outside, of which I just about managed to squeeze into the last one. They do have an arrangement in place to enable guests to park in a public access car park across the way, but I couldn't vouch for how safe that would be overnight.
From the outside it's basically an unassuming square block with rectangular stripes of white and dark grey. Pretty much in keeping with its surroundings, amidst a sprawling network of underground concrete underpasses and grimly appointed roundabouts that dominate this part of town.
But take a stroll through those automatic doors and your senses are treated to a transformation of TARDIS proportions. The ground floor is all about space and light open plan ultra modern furnishing complemented by soft and warm fabrics, effortlessly drawing you towards the fresh white reception desk surrounded by a rich tapestry of natural green and wooden shades.
It turns out that the Holiday Inn chain launched a major modernising rebranding / facilities restyling in 2008 and this is actually one of the first places to roll out the new layout.
~~~Room at the top~~~
I'd forgotten to pass on my Priority club membership details to the hotel in advance, but as it was quiet (first week of Easter holidays) they were able to offer me a complimentary room upgrade to an Executive room - oh Paul you is so posh!
Up I went to the 2nd floor, but no matter how I tried the cardkey wasn't playing ball. Dutifully I trotted back to reception and got the right number this time, in all the upgrade excitement the lady had simply forgotten to update the room number on my card - I was heading to the penthouse floor - woooh hooo!. To be fair with only 6 floors of accommodation, it wasn't such a massive achievement, but keep in mind I'm trying to sell the dream here....
From such lofty heights, I could see that the adjacent building was actually the local fire station, and in fact right next to that I later discovered the ambulance station. Fortunately being a quiet couple of weekday nights there wasn't an overwhelming amount of wailing siren action to be heard, but I could imagine that being a bit of an issue on a weekend stay.
Now when I've stayed in Hilton rooms over the years, there's usually a distinctive difference between the standard and the deluxe versions. In the latter you'd typically get a second double bed, complimentary wine and fresh fruit selection, his and hers dressing gowns, luxury selections of biscuits even the odd choccie bar.
Holiday Inns in my experience generally give you not much more than an extra sewing kit, a bottle of still water and a fluffy pillow for your additional executive outlay.
However, in this case there were certainly a few notable differences. A proper king size bed for a start, a fully stocked mini bar / fridge, complementary soda and sparkling water, touch control air conditioning; plus the centre piece of the whole thing -the flat screen Philips telly. Executive room or not, clearly they were in no mood to risk anyone attempting to waltz off with this beauty, so they built it deep in the centre of a three inch thick gleaming white wall unit.
Everywhere you look you see a continuation of those by now familiar naturalistic furnishing themes. Mounted above the bed, a 3 block canvas picture featuring a close up shot of a branch of fresh green leaves splashed by showers of crystal clear water. A soft two tone brown carpet, green and brown interwoven patterns on the curtains, a brown armchair a green leather metal weighted swivel seat, a long woodgrain effect desk with all the clutter of unnecessary drawers stripped away. (Mind you they've holstered a hairdryer in the right hand corner ; gave me a bit of a shock I can tell you , when I stretched my leg over my knee and accidentally flicked the on switch!)
To me, the whole place felt just like some kind of enormous tree house, where you could hide yourself away from the harshness of the urban sprawl out there.
The attention to detail and extra thought that had gone into the design was also much in evidence. Even two of the pillows had little brown sashes wrapped around them. On closer inspection they carry a label - one "firm" one "soft". Being my usual inobservant self, I blundered into a classic curtain trap, tugging desperately at the large patterned versions, before finally realising these were just the outer layer, and there were two other rails of pale green and lace white ones to be drawn as the mood suited.
~~~Spotlight on the Bathroom~~~
A funky glass green door lead into the bathroom, and with multiple beaming spotlights up above, there was no danger of it being a dingy corner space. There were two or three separate shelves, multiple face cloths, complimentary soaps and crèmes, and even the iconic clear plastic cups sealed in cellophane bags had been replaced by two chunky white beakers
A stylish rectangular sink, a two flush option toilet to satisfy even the most ardent of eco warriors, and a proper length bath to match. A swish back of the curtain, revealed a fully featured power shower with a head twice the size of my biggest metal headed golf driver.
One thing I did find a bit odd was a little light underneath the sink unit that was permanently on, even if you didn't put the key card in the switch by the door. No problem during the day, but it certainly gave the bathroom an eerie glow when it came to bathtime.
Plus there was compelling evidence of some kind of spirit of hotel rooms past, when inexplicably, long after any flushing action on my part, I witnessed the water in the loo started to do some kind of back and forth waving, accompanied to the sound of gurgling pipes from another room. This went on for a minute or so then just as quickly as it had begun, peace descended.
Perhaps it was a disgruntled former guest who like me wondered just exactly why they position a full length mirror bang opposite the bathroom door; really not a glorious sight first thing on a morning hmm ......
Now despite its obvious green credentials, there's certainly no patch of grass to be spied in the immediate vicinity of the place and no gym room either, so if you are looking for an active sports session to break up your trip you'll be disappointed here.
However if like me from time to time you are happy to settle for stuffing your face in-room on company expenses, there's a decent enough selection on the room service menu, and the tray charge at £2 is at least £1.50 less than the usual extortionate hotel rates, enabling me to fit that extra pudding in within budget.
There's WI-FI available in room, operating at perfectly acceptable speeds. Again at £9.50 for 24 hours, compared with a typical £15 at most hotels, it's not bad value. With 12 channels on the TV, you shouldn't need to dip into the rip-off Pay TV channels, but if that floats your boat there's a choice of multiple on-demand movies for around £7.95 each
On the ground floor, there's another minimalistic masterpiece of space efficient furnishing in the bar and restaurant area.
The standard breakfast rate is £14.50, but if like me you manage to get an inclusive B&B rate it's well worth a morning fuel up. It didn't get off to an auspicious start for me mind you, when after taking my room number, asked if I wanted tea or coffee, the chap just gestured over his shoulder and said "sit where you like". I'm all up for freestyle dining, but as it happened there weren't all that many seats made up so it took me a minute or two to find one with the right combo of cutlery.
In the meantime, a thin silver pot was delivered to my table, which would have been fine other than me having asked for tea. Still, I quickly got it switched for a giant pot of tea, and any thoughts of further protest were instantly put aside when I spied the copious quantities of my own brekky favourite treat of fresh smoked salmon alongside the sumptuous array of hot bacon, scrambled eggs and all the trimmings, plus all the usual continental delights for those of a healthier persuasion.
~~~The final crunch test~~~
But however well a hotel scores on aspects of design, comfort and general facilities, there's always one ultimate challenge that I set for every hotel I ever have to stay in. Fail this one and you are nowhere in my book.
We all appreciate that little extra pack of biscuits on the tea tray when you arrive, whether it be bourbons or custard creams, its always nice to have something extra enjoy with a cheery in-room cuppa, or if you've arrived late to wolf down with no mercy. However, if you eat that first pack of biscuits, the burning question for me is always - will they be replaced the next day.
Joy upon joys I can report that not only were my bourbon biscuits restocked, they even threw in additional variety with ginger nuts and a kit kat. Now I don't care if you are the Travel lodge in Luton or the Shangri La - if you deliver on the crumbly stuff - you will always have a place in my hotel hall of fame.
Maybe one day my eyes will be opened to the delights of the wider Stevenage area, but for now I know that after a hard day's slog, there's a little lodge, nestled high above the concrete jungle, where I can rest my weary bones.