As the seat of an ancient university, Cambridge is not an obviously welcoming place for modern style. Those dreaming spires and grizzled dons create an atmosphere more conducive to old-fashioned grandeur than cool comfort, a mood as manifest in the city’s hotels as anything else. Few are likely to have Philippe Starck quaking in his boots.
Into that mix (or lack of it) comes the Varsity Hotel, a boutique establishment that feels quite unlike anything else the city has to offer – without sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s in a new development on the bank of the Cam, a block originally intended for residential use that was repurposed as a hotel when its Cambridge-alumnus owner realised that the housing market wasn’t likely to bounce back any time soon. The results of that change of plan make it seem like a sensible decision.
If the entrance and lobby are slightly underwhelming, from the moment you get to your room it’s plain that a seductive, contemporary sensibility has been brought to bear on the design.
Still, the design isn’t the only thing to distinguish the Varsity. It benefits from a decent restaurant, The River Bar Steakhouse & Grill (about £50 for two excluding wine) and there’s also access to the hotel's luxurious spa, if you want to pamper yourself without leaving the premises.
Chief among the hotel’s selling points, though, is surely its extraordinary roof garden, offering a stunning panorama of the city. It’s a unique, exclusive-feeling vantage point of the beautiful town centre, and a fine way to get your bearings before striking out to get a closer look. It can get a bit windy, but it’s hard to think of a nicer place to drink a cocktail on a sunny afternoon – or, if you prefer, to take part in an early morning yoga class. Either activity might feel a little incongruous in Cambridge – but then that’s the point.
Part of what you pay for at the Varsity is prime real estate. In a city centre festooned with colleges at the expense of almost everything else, and hotels in particular, it’s a rare privilege to sleep so close to the city’s main attractions. You’re a five-minute stroll from Trinity College and King’s Parade, and since the centre’s so compact just about everything is in easy walking distance. From the train station it’s a bus ride to the top of town, then a short walk, or you can get a taxi to the entrance in around 10 minutes. The only drawback is the rather unprepossessing entrance itself, perched on an anonymous side street in such a low-key fashion that you might easily walk past it.
By and large, the accommodation is calm and spare, and it’s a lovely place to return to after a wander. It’s a shame, then, that there are a few surprising missteps – self-consciously fashionable wallpaper that wouldn't feel out of place in a Laurence Llewelyn Bowen TV makeover programme, for instance, or bubble-based lamps hampered by a similarly anxious sense of urgent style.
Like the hackneyed practice of naming the rooms after Oxbridge colleges, these make you feel the place isn’t quite as sophisticated as it would like you to think. The 48 rooms are listed in an equally cringeworthy series of academic levels, from the “Graduates” doubles at the bottom to the grandeur of the “Masters” penthouse suite. However, if you can stretch to one of the suites on the hotel’s higher floors, you’re in for a treat, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering a vista nearly as spectacular as the one from the roof. The service was uniformly excellent – and what’s more there is free Wi-Fi, as well as Nintendo Wii consoles and iPads available for use if you ask for them. I told you this place was modern.
The Varsity Hotel, Thompson’s Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8AQ (01223 306 030; thevarsityhotel.co.uk)
Doubles from £139, including breakfast.