Cheltenham turns chic

Stylish new hotels, restaurants, art spaces and festivals infuse the Cotswolds town with vigour

CHELTENHAM • On a chilly Saturday evening in Cheltenham, England, a smartly dressed crowd gathered at a bar spilling out onto the terrace at No. 131 the Promenade, a boutique hotel in the centre of this Cotswolds town. The mix of locals and tourists sipped drinks and nibbled on fried Spanish almonds, while eagerly waiting for a table at the property's hot restaurant (also called No. 131) featuring locally sourced fare.

It was hard to believe from the vibrant scene last spring that just a few years ago, this 18th-century townhouse sat empty and dilapidated. But then, in a situation that is reflective of the city itself, there was a renewal and buzz ensued.

About two hours west of London, Cheltenham, with a population of 110,000, is one of the biggest communities in the Cotswolds, a popular vacation spot for the British. And while much of the region is notable for sprawling meadows dotted with daffodils and storybook villages with cosy stone houses, Cheltenham feels more like a sophisticated mini metropolis.

Though its origins are mediaeval, the town became famous after the discovery of mineral waters in 1716, which attracted a stream of travellers including King George III and Jane Austen. Then for much of the 19th century, it was known for its Regency architecture characterised by wide streets lined with horse chestnut trees and elegant townhouses with stucco facades and wrought-iron balconies.

Though that appearance is still intact, Cheltenham's reputation as a spa haven faded in the last century and apart from a nearby racetrack, it seemed to have lost its cachet. Other Cotswolds towns such as Gloucester became the hot ones to visit.

That has changed now with stylish new hotels, restaurants, art spaces and festivals infusing fresh vigour into the area.

  • Concierge

    AUSTRALIA DAY DEALS

    To celebrate Australia Day, which fell on Jan 26, British Airways is offering special fares on its daily flights to Sydney, from $676 economy class return and $1,373 for World Traveller Plus premium economy return. The sale ends on Tuesday or when tickets sell out. The fares are valid for travel till June 30.

    For more information, go to ba.com.

    HOSTED TOURS

    Luxury cruise operator Aqua Expeditions is upping the ante on its award-winning cruises of the Amazon and Mekong rivers with intimate tours hosted by renowned chefs David Thompson and Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, and company founder Francesco Galli Zugaro.

    Chef Thompson of restaurants Nahm in Bangkok and Long Chim in Singapore and Chef Schiaffino of renowned Malabar restaurant in Lima, Peru, will lead tours of markets in the places visited, introduce guests to local produce and share their sources of inspiration and methods of cuisine creation in Q&A sessions. There will also be a hands-on cooking masterclass.

    The two chefs designed the menus onboard the cruises.

    Since founding Aqua Expeditions in 2007, Mr Zugaro has amassed a wealth of knowledge about the rivers' cultures and landscapes. He will share his insights into the destinations and lead guests on his favourite experiences, such as bicycling through villages along the Mekong and kayaking on the Amazon to spot wildlife.

    For more information or to book a tour, go to www.aquaexpeditions.com.

    LOVERS' RETREAT

    Spend Valentine's Day in Cambodia's Song Saa, a private island resort in the Gulf of Thailand whose name means sweethearts in Khmer.

    On that day, guests will be invited to receive a blessing by Buddhist monks, followed by Valentine's Day cocktails and a dinner specially crafted for each couple. Before heading back to their private pool villa, the couples will light lanterns and release them into the sky.

    Stays at Song Saa cost US$1,440++ (S$2,056) a night, which includes all meals and unlimited house wines, spirits, beers and non-alcoholic drinks; free use of the resort's kayaks, sail boats and snorkelling gear; guided tours of the islands; speedboat transfers to the mainland and a 15-minute foot ritual.

    For more information, go to songsaa.com.

Cheltenham's renaissance is partly credited to the husband and wife, Sam, 37, and Georgie Pearman, 42, who own No. 131 the Promenade. The stylish couple said they moved to the Cotswolds from London more than eight years ago hoping to live at a slower, more fulfilling pace.

They found that outlet by starting a hospitality group that they named the Lucky Onion. Their first venture, about nine years ago, was a pub near the outskirts of downtown called the Tavern, a bright two-storey space with exposed brick walls, wood floor boards and blue banquettes serving seasonal and creative local food.

There are five Lucky Onion hotels and restaurants, but the showpiece is the chic No. 131, which opened in late 2013 on Imperial Square. The couple spent nearly three years on the refurbishment, which blends past and present. Touches include antique radiators and cast-iron bathtubs from the late 19th century in the 11 rooms mixed with sleek velvet couches and modern artworks by British names such as David Hockney in communal spaces.

The hotel's bi-level restaurant and its bar, Crazy Eights, are packed every weekend. Mr Alan Gleeson, who was the head chef at the Michelin-recognised Cotswolds pub, the Wild Rabbit, runs the kitchen. "Where possible, a farm-to-fork approach is present across all of our menus," he said.

Another happening spot in Cheltenham is the 61-room Montpellier Chapter in a Regency-era townhouse that is a five-minute walk from No. 131.

The hotel does double duty as an art gallery: There are 160 contemporary paintings, prints and sculptures from established and up-and- coming names on display, such as the multicoloured glass block sculpture in the garden, which the notable British artist Peter Fillingham constructed from 1,700kg of material, including ancient sandstone.

Indeed, the arts are a driving force behind Cheltenham's resurgence. The Wilson, an art gallery and museum, for example, reopened in late 2013 after being closed for more than two years for a US$10-million expansion to a three-level space that is 20 times its original one-room size.

The arts scene extends to Cheltenham's several festivals including ones for science, jazz and literature. Most have existed for a while, but are enjoying newfound fame. The Literature Festival, for example, started in 1949 as a modest effort, but is now a 10-day extravaganza that has drawn marquee names such as Salman Rushdie and Hilary Mantel.

Not all of Cheltenham's festivals have a long history. Anna Saunders, 50, a long-time local resident and poet, founded one for poetry in 2011 to showcase the genre in a fun way. The line-up has included a children's workshop and hip-hop poetry.

Saunders has seen the festival grow from a four-day affair to a two-week celebration from late April to early May.

"I wanted to get across that poetry isn't just about traditional readings," she said. "With Cheltenham's growing appetite for culture, people seem to be really receptive to that."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Cheltenham turns chic'. Print Edition | Subscribe