There’s really nothing quite like punting down the river in Cambridge with a glass of wine in hand, soaking up some sun and cruising past handsome academics whilst learning a thing or two about its interesting history. If you’re desperate for a little escape from things, even if just for a day, hop on the train to Cambridge and pray for sunshine.
We drove up from London and met up with an old friend who’s a student there, to show us around. We wandered down the narrow side streets that wind beguilingly between grand colleges and student digs, and had lunch on a lovely square, where we watched the throng of tourists pass by in groups, and two-wheeled students rattling over the cobbles to their lectures.
After a glass (or three) of wine on the terrace outside Galleria (don’t you just love this time of year when you can sit outside and watch the world go by?), and exploring Cambridge by foot, we hopped in a boat to go punting and catch the late afternoon sun.
Fortunately for us, she was friends with the chap who was punting us, and managed to get us quite a good deal!
Everyone I’d spoken to had recommended punting to me as the best thing to do in Cambridge, and I have to agree. A guided tour is great as it gives amazing insight and really helps to bring the city to life!
For example, did you already know that the Saxons called Cambridge ‘Grantabrycge’ (bridge over the river Granta) before the name of the town gradually changed to Cambridge? The name of the river then changed to Cam, which is interesting as the river is named after the town, not the town after the river.
Also, about 25 percent of Cambridge residents cycle to work, the highest number in the UK, yet residents of Cambridge spend more per head on takeaway meals than any other town or city in Britain.
The University of Cambridge itself is steeped in history too – it’s the world’s third oldest surviving university and was founded in 1209. It’s alumni include David Attenborough, John Cleese, Jane Goodall, Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton,Virginia Woolf, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne and Stephen Hawking (who’s currently the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology), not to mention 15 British Prime Ministers. And the University’s libraries host A.A. Milne’s manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh, books from Isaac Newton’s personal library, and early Shakespeare editions.
Lord Byron was also a student there, and apparently kept a pet bear in his rooms because he was not allowed a dog! Cambridge is also where the rock group Pink Floyd was formed during the late 1960s, and where the DNA helix was discovered.
Anyway. After a lazy afternoon on the water it was time to hand Flora over to my friend (as the Varsity Hotel is not dog-friendly) and head over to the hotel for dinner.
The Varsity Hotel and Spa is on a quiet side road in the heart of the city, right on the water and just a two-minute amble from a small collection of restaurants, while in the opposite direction you’ll find a large park, peppered with picnickers.
The name of the hotel, along with its rooms and the artwork inside, are inspired by the theme of the city; higher education. ‘Varsity’ is an old-fashioned British abbreviation of the word ‘university’, usually referring to Cambridge or Oxford.
The lobby area is small but welcoming, and they offer to park our car for us whilst we head up to our room. Parking in central Cambridge is difficult and very expensive, so the hotel’s handy valet parking service for £19.50 per night is well worth it and completely hassle-free.
Each of the 48 bedrooms are individually designed, and our room was simple but civilised, with bold floral wallpaper, floor-to-ceiling windows, large bed, coffee and tea area, Apple Mac computer, iPod docking station, TV, fluffy bathrobes and slippers.
Meanwhile, the bathroom boasted an impressive free-standing roll top bath, monsoon shower and Elemis goodies.
Aside from the bedrooms, the hotel also has an impressive roof terrace with 360 degree views of Cambridge, as well as two restaurants and a spa next door. All hotel guests are granted access to the adjoining Glassworks Healthclub, which comprises a sauna, steam room, gym and a jacuzzi with views over the river.
After dumping our bags and freshening up, we made our way to their River Bar Steakhouse & Grill, which is also next door. Funnily enough, it also happens to be our friend’s favourite restaurant in Cambridge – which was promising, coming from a local.
Split over two floors, the restaurant blends old and new (think exposed brick walls contrasted against a modern metal staircase and glass mezzanine level) and overlooks the Cam river.
We started at the bar with their cocktail map, helping us decide on a cocktail.
I went for a champagne Mojito and Jonathan the Blueberry Amaretto Sour. With cocktails in hand we were led to our table near the window, where a friendly Greek waiter talked us through the menu and gave us his recommendations.
He was refreshingly honest and told us exactly what not to have (simple dishes like prawn cocktail that you could make at home), and what his favourite dishes were. I chose the pan-fried mussels (in a rich and spicy tomato sauce) and Jonathan went for the homemade Scotch eggs and garlic dip.
The photos really don’t do it justice!
For mains we each chose a steak, as they are all prime cuts of beef, aged for 28 days and sourced from local farms. The steak menu features everything from a classic porterhouse to a tender fillet or indulgent chateaubriand for two. I ordered the fillet with peppercorn sauce, Jonathan the porterhouse, and to top it off a delicious Malbec to wash it down with.
My fillet was the perfect portion, with no fat whatsoever, and the meat was melt-in-mouth soft and succulent. The porterhouse was also top notch, and Jonathan still won’t shut up about it!
Two food babies later and we were once again the last to leave, carrying the last dregs of wine up to bed with us – they said we could take it with us if we couldn’t finish it there.
The following morning I woke up a bit groggy from a very deep slumber, but a power shower had me feeling right as rain, followed by a strong coffee in their sixth floor restaurant – aptly named SIX. Despite it being a grey and dreary morning, it was quite something to be having breakfast with a 360 degree view of Cambridge!
It was the perfect base for a whirlwind visit to Cambridge.