One for the road

Woman&Home - 2008

Could 3 days, £300 and an unplanned solo break bring happiness?

When Elaine Kingett needed a break she didn't choose long haul, she just jumped in her car…

Day 1
Planning my escape, the biggest logistical problem had been who would look after my dog, now I lived miles from anywhere. I posted a plea on and, quick as a flash, back came various offers, one of which fitted the bill perfectly. Later that morning, after passing him over to his vetted foster mum, I wiped away a pathetic tear and concentrated on studying the local map. A friend had told me about the St Moritz Hotel in Polzeath, a two-hour drive away, which was on the beach and had a spa. It was obviously a smarty-pants place but didn't seem at all pretentious. I had booked a Special Spa Break, which at £99 fitted my budget and included B&B, evening dinner, one spa treatment (manicure, pedicure, back massage or facial) and use of the sauna, steam room, pool and gym. When I checked in I wasn't disappointed. My swish, modern room had a vast bed, sea view, plus free goodies from the Cowshed range, of Babington House fame – wasn't that the cool hotel in Somerset where Kate Moss and her mates went? Gosh, I felt very rock 'n' roll. Giggling, I rang the spa and decided to pay a bit on top of my package deal to book the most expensive massage, the St Moritz Sun & Sea Signature Treatment, as if I did that sort of thing all the time. Grabbing my flip-flops, I then tripped off to the beach. On my own. But despite the warm afternoon sun, the wind whipping in from the sea was bracingly British and I soon raced back up the cliff path, eager to start some serious self-indulgence. The treatment didn't disappoint. I was brushed down, rubbed with sea salt, covered in peppermint slime, wrapped in clingfilm, then cocooned in vast honey-coloured towels – which felt like being cuddled by teddies – and given a hypnotic, gentle facial. I floated back to my room with skin so smooth and sexy I began to think it was a shame I was on my own. I planned to eat in the restaurant. This was what I was most nervous about. The public table for one. I went armed with a couple of magazines to give me something to stare at between courses. Sure enough, I was surrounded by couples, but my table wasn't next to the toilets and the waiting staff were attentive. Best of all, even though I'd chosen the one night package, I could eat anything from the menu – local scallops with asparagus, samphire with crayfish, and pigeon with rabbit. I had one glass of wine to show I was sociable but not alcoholic, and feeling surprisingly relaxed, returned happily to my room. I phoned Martin to reassure him I missed him but, in truth, being on my own was so liberating. I fell asleep wondering if the dog had eaten his Chappie.

Day 2
At the awfully civilised hour of 8.30am, proper fresh fruit salad that wasn't just apple, two naughty local organic full-cream yogurts, lots of thick-cut wholemeal toast, tons of butter, yummy jams, freshly squeezed orange juice and excellent coffee was delivered to my room on a tray the size of Greater London with the morning paper. What luxury.

Normally, I'd have been up, out with the dog and back home by 7.30am at the latest, wondering why we didn't have any milk. But I was determined to sample every aspect of the hotel's delights and get my money's worth so, wrapping myself in the hotel's wonderful Italian towelling robe, I toddled off to the spa to expose my body and try to remember how to swim. The pool was quietly auditioning for a Busby Berkeley film set – blue mosaic tiles glittered invitingly and gentle steps curved down to the crystal-clear warm water. There wasn't a soul in sight, certainly no splashy kids or floating verruca plasters. Where was my Martini and why didn't I do this more often? I performed a few reasonable lengths, in case anyone was watching, flopped into the Jacuzzi, sweated buckets in the steam room and then sluiced off those notorious toxins in the shower. I'd never been so clean. After all that sea, spa and grand design, I wanted the next bit of my trip to be a contrast. I fancied somewhere bijou, not too expensive and in the heart of a city. Before leaving, I searched www.trip for a B&B in Exeter, less than a couple of hours drive away. Since moving to the sticks, I'd learnt that it was the nearest place to go if I needed some serious retail therapy. A friend had recommended the Hotel Barcelona but all the site reviews raved about another place, which was inexpensive, very central, had parking and apparently, comfy rooms and a decent breakfast menu. Perfect. I'd been right first time, why not the next? As soon as I hit the suburbs, I realised the difficulty of driving and navigating solo in unknown territory. Especially without my glasses. I got totally lost and arrived at the B&B hot, bothered and decidedly bad-tempered. At this point I realised I'd made a mistake. The narrow entrance hall smelt of stale fat and when the role model for Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques wobbled past me out of the door, my heart sunk. Why hadn't I been braver and gone for Hotel Barcelona? The truth was that while I'd thought it looked fantastic I'd also thought it was a bit posh and trendy for me. Ha! I'd forgotten that was me! I decided to spend as little time as possible in my wrong choice B&B and fortunately Exeter city centre pulled out all the stops. The medieval cathedral glinted majestically before me in the sunshine and, armed with a map, I set off to explore. The wide Georgian avenues led to the ancient maze of cobbled streets that sat surprisingly easily next to the new shopping complexes. Exeter seemed like a town that was enjoying itself. I loved walking everywhere after car-controlled Cornwall and, apart from slight Green Fields Withdrawal Symptoms when I glimpsed the rolling hills around the city, the morning whizzed by as I flitted from well-known store to independent boutique and back again, trying on anything beautiful and frivolous that caught my eye. It was mid afternoon before I paused for breath and treated myself to a fresh seafood salad (£13.50) and large glass of cold white at award-winning chef Michael Caines' Café Bar in Cathedral Yard. Surrounded by shoppers and office workers it was fine to be eating alone and I

smugly thought of my poor partner stuck in front of a computer, wrestling with a mind-numbing spreadsheet. By 6pm, laden down with a gift for Martin (Gap shorts, £27.50), a selection of unnecessary but beautiful goodies for me (M&S sunglasses, £15; YSL nail varnish, £12.95) and a set of smellies for his daughter (£18.50), I was seated, foot sore and happy, in the independent Picture House cinema. The film was a award winning Iranian animated film, Persepholis, about an intelligent, feisty dark-haired girl growing up in Tehran at the time of the revolution. I thought proudly of my own strong, bright and beautiful dark-haired 19-year-old daughter, who was on her gap year travelling in Russia, and wept in the darkness. When I came out two hours later the streets were filling up with youngsters. I felt awkward and out of place for the very first time. Eating alone in a strange restaurant seemed too challenging, so I grabbed some supermarket sushi (£3.60) and shared it in my stuffy little room with reassuring Radio 4.

Day 3
Woken by the intense smell of bacon frying, I dressed and ventured down to the breakfast room. I ate quickly, paid the bill politely (£75) and decided to devote the last couple of hours on my own to a meditation session in the awe inspiring interior of the magnificent cathedral, marvelling at the breathtaking stained-glass windows and feeling humbled by the longest stretch of decorated Gothic vaulting in the world. And that didn't cost me anything at all. Speeding home on a cushion of rediscovered self-confidence, I looked back on my adventures. Had it been worth it? Certainly! Financially and mentally. Had it been fun? Definitely. Especially The St Moritz. Did I feel guilty? No, I felt energised and about five inches taller. My time away had given me space to think and rediscover the woman inside me, who didn't always wear socks and waterproof clothing. I'd enjoyed being on my own, the silence, and not having to explain my decisions. I'd slept well, eaten healthily and looked at myself naked – and approved. Would I do it again? Oh yes. In many respects I hadn't been brave enough. Unused to pampering myself, I'd played safe in Exeter when I should have listened to my friends. A chic hotel with in-house restaurant would have been easier, more fun and within my budget, but now I had an excellent excuse to return…