Sunday, 23 June 2013

Rediscovering Britain's Grandes Dames...

 Long before Claridges was a twinkle in the Maybourne's Group's eye or cheap flights meant that a ticket to Milan or Prague was the same price as a standard return to Manchester. The Imperial in Torquay was 'the' hotel in the UK.  With rooms starting from £400 (and up from there in the 80s!) We never actually stayed there, but as our big treat at the end of the Easter break would go either for lunch or dinner.

The position, south facing, perched on a cliff side is reminiscent of the big hotels in the South of France. It overlooks the Marina and although an oasis from the hustle and bustle of town is only 5 minutes on foot from the main shopping area.

balcony of room above the spa and harbour views

We went back recently and this time DID stay there, since the hotel now has offers that make it cheaper to stay there than be at home. £99 per night for two including dinner!

The ambiance is not what it was back in its hey day with celebrities arriving in white convertible Rolls or mooring on its private pontoon and coming in for lunch from their gin palace boats.  But everything is still there.  By that I mean the rooms are huge, the views amazing, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, tennis courts, a snooker room, a nightclub, a bowling alley, great walks, you can keep busy all day and when the sun is out it still rivals any of its more pricey alternatives in the Med.

The movie star glamour of the place used to be second to none, thousands spent on flowers every week, one member of staff for every two guests, silver service bar b ques by the swimming pool during the day and obligatory black tie in the evening for the gala dinners, which happened every night. The dresses were something to behold, think Diana Ross mermaid style spangly evening dresses and you have an idea of quite how seriously the black tie dress code was taken.  Dinner was always followed by live entertainment in the ballroom and finally a spin in the nightclub to round it all off.

Glamour for 21st century

Agatha Christie wrote there and David Suchet of Poirot fame lives in the apartments attached to the hotel so all those British character actors that we know from years of Midsommer Murders and Agatha Christie adaptations were regular visitors, as well as the UK's wealthiest industrialists, bankers and business men.

It was a sort of virtuous circle where glamour begat glamour.  The more wonderful everything was, the more people dressed up to play their part. Just sitting in the lobby watching people arrive was an experience, women wrapped in white furs with bellboys wheeling in trolley after trolley of trunk style luggage and vanity cases full of jewels.

The crowd has undoubtedly changed since the jet setters can now get to the various different 'Caps' in the South of France with the regularity that the low fare operators offer where they are guaranteed the glamour AND the weather.

But if you can overlook a few tattoos and beer bellies, it's not a bad place to go for a cheap break.  The boating is good and reasonably priced, the shopping is not bad with stores like Hoopers (at its height it rivaled Harvey Nicks for its new discoveries and top end brands, it was the first store in the UK to stock Vera Wang bridalwear for example). And Maggie and Co next door, which is hanging on by the skin of its teeth and still stocking Armani, DVF, Dolce e Gabanna etc

On a fine day, everything looks beautiful, when it is raining it is only as bleak as anywhere else in the UK.  But ultimately it is the guests that create the atmosphere, if we all dressed up a bit, took afternoon tea, changed for dinner (didn't wear gym wear all day..still working on this). The glamour could come back just a little and it would transform these places to somewhere special again!


  1. Oh yes Torquay was the Riviera for us, my sister ran away to there when she was 17, that was terribly glam.

  2. I think it might be one of the Daily Mail's 50 signs of old age, but everything is a little boring now that glamour is no longer acceptable as a dress code!


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