In an elegant city such as Bath, bulging with cosy cafés and gourmet eateries, we expect boutique hotel-style rooms, but no longer require a traditional hotel restaurant. At least, that was the gamble the owners of Villa Magdala took when they bought this rambling, rundown B&B – and it seems to have paid off.
With a string of hotels and restaurants in London and Oxfordshire behind them, they chose Bath for their latest project, banking on the perennial appeal of the romantic short break.
They also spotted the potential of Villa Magdala, a dated monolith, standing at the end of a graceful Georgian terrace. They tossed out the dusty dried flowers, revamped the interiors and then threw open their doors to the loved-up of London – and further afield.
In the three years since they opened, young couples have been making a beeline for this luxury B&B. They come, they eat out, they mooch around the shops – and apparently, they sometimes propose. Maybe it's the complimentary Buck's Fizz at breakfast.
If you have a passion for elegant Georgian townhouses, Bath will make you swoon. However, Villa Magdala isn't one of them. It is handsome and honey-hued, but this Victorian mansion, built in 1868, is sturdy and substantial rather than sleek and slim-lined. It's also set back from the road, which means it has private parking – not something to be sniffed at in the city centre.
The 20 contemporary boutique hotel-style rooms are divided into Good, Better and Best, which essentially boils down to size. The rooms face on to a park at the front or the garden at the back, and have been styled with bold, contemporary wallpapers and one-off pieces: antique mirrors, button-back chairs, glamorous chaises longues. Luxury Hypnos beds with goose-down duvets, fluffy white towels, White Company toiletries, flat-screen TVs and complimentary Wi-Fi all serve to add the finishing flourishes.
My room, No 23, was on the lower ground floor overlooking the garden. It was lovely and spacious with high ceilings and white wooden shutters. The design was quite masculine compared with some of the more floral rooms, however the Louis XV-style chairs were a romantic touch, while the grey and white palette was calm and cool, from the pinstripe carpet to the huge dove-grey tweed headboard. The Victorian-style bathroom was also striking, with a black and white tiled floor and separate bath and shower.
The bright breakfast room, with corniced ceilings, large sash windows, and lively chatter (also possibly helped by the Buck's Fizz) looks out over Henrietta Park. As you tuck into your kippers or kedgeree from the mocha banquettes and vibrant sofas, you can watch squirrels scamper up the trees and dog-walkers stroll past, under the watchful eye of Morris. Morris is – or was – a magnificent stag, shot in the Highlands in the 1930s, picked up at an antiques warehouse in Devon, and now in pride of place above the fireplace.
Other eclectic touches include the jewel-like Moroccan ceramic sugar bowls and vintage toast racks.
Amanda and John Willmott clearly know how to create a business with a buzz, judging from the atmosphere at breakfast – there's nothing worse than that awkward hushed silence and scraping cutlery in the morning. John worked the room dishing out berry smoothies while Amanda was in the kitchen. You'll also notice how wonderfully friendly the staff are – another sign of savvy and experienced owners.
It's just a five-minute stroll to the centre of Bath where you can spend a weekend meandering from the Royal Crescent to Pulteney Bridge, and taking in the sheer magnificence of the Abbey. You can also take to the city's famous waters, of course. Thermae Bath Spa (01225 331 234; thermaebathspa.com) with its open-air rooftop pool fed from the city's mineral-rich springs, is the modern way to soak up the spa town's heritage. Or delve into the past at the Roman Baths (01225 477785; romanbaths.co.uk).
My favourite spot was Clayton's Kitchen at the Porter (01225 585 100; theporter.co.uk/claytons-kitchen) – a child-friendly restaurant that serves dishes such as salad of marinated pheasant breast with blackberry and balsamic purée and crispy ham (£7), Jerusalem artichoke soup with roasted hazelnuts (£6), ewe's curd and lemon zest ravioli with shallot and thyme puree (£12), and roasted scallops with pickled apple and Trealy Farm black pudding (£18).
Villa Magdala, Henrietta Road, Bath, Somerset BA2 6LX (01225 466329; villamagdala.co.uk). Doubles start at £79, including breakfast.