Regular visitors to the Welsh capital may well have stayed in an incarnation of St David’s, the 20-year-old five-star hotel built to resemble a cruise ship (from some angles, anyway) that sits in Cardiff Bay. Originally a Rocco Forte hotel and later a Principal, it has now moved under Intercontinental Hotels Group’s newly-launched brand Voco, which debuted in Australia’s Gold Coast in November and has since expanded to Dubai and the English town of Solihull. Properties are signed in Bangkok, Cairo, Oxford and Melbourne, with more planned, so it is an upmarket brand to watch.
Cardiff will be the flagship Voco, which as a ‘conversion brand’ seeking to sign up existing popular hotels will have fewer uniform features than, for example, IHG’s Crowne Plaza. Beyond Aveda toiletries, yellow and blue colour schemes, a social area and a welcome gift on arrival (in Cardiff it is freshly-baked Welsh cakes), it promises more vaguely to “combine the informality and charm of independent properties with the quality and reassurance of a global brand.”
Voco St David’s welcome gift: Welsh cakes baked in-house
What’s it like?
After two decades in operation, St David’s has a sense of history (just ask doorman John, who has been there since its inception, for a few stories).
But from the signature-scented reception with its seven-storey windows, up to the redecorated bedrooms featuring splashes of bold yellow and petrol blue, down to the Admiral restaurant and bar with views across Cardiff Bay, it could be a new build.
The ground-floor Marine Spa and event spaces give away its age a little more, though the former is scheduled for a refurb later this year. For a hotel so near a city centre, what is immediately striking is the sense of space, helped by the airy reception and floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows with balconies that look out onto the bay.
The hotel is easy to navigate – the check-in desk is placed directly in front of the entrance, and from this vantage point you can see the Admiral to your right, the main lift ahead, and the six floors of rooms curving around the central atrium. From all upper floors another lift provides direct access to the spa, pool and gym.
Where is it?
Waterfront development Cardiff Bay, a five minute drive or ten minute train from the central station. Cardiff is sometimes described as a ‘fifteen minute city’, with all of the major sites accessible by foot within that time. The Bay is an exception to that, about 40 minutes’ walk down a not particularly scenic road, so something a little more central may suit those who want to avoid taxis.
The dockland area was once an industrial powerhouse, though fell into dereliction when demand for coal demand slumped in the mid-twentieth century. But since the construction of a barrage in 1999 to turn the muddy tidal waters into an attractive lake, and a regeneration project that has seen chain restaurants and bars pop up in a zone called Mermaid Quay, it is a growing leisure destination.
It also hosts the Wales Millennium Centre concert hall, which is definitely worth admiring by night, and the Welsh parliament, an interesting building made of local slate and outer walls of glass to symbolise political transparency.
The hotel is set back a little from this cluster, and its curvature means rooms look out onto a nature reserve and the picturesque town Penarth, or the terracotta Pierhead building (pictured above) and the quaint Lutheran church where Roald Dahl was baptised.
A quick note for those unfamiliar with the city; Cardiff is accessible from London Paddington in two hours by train, a journey time that has improved with the electrification of the line. Trains leave every 30 minutes, though they can get absurdly crowded at peak times, so it is worth booking early and reserving a seat.
Moving to Voco has seen the rooms get a total revamp, with a new colour scheme, carpets, curtains, desks, smart TVs and bathrooms. This has led to a couple of teething issues – my TV kept turning on to ask me to connect a device, and one of the automatic bathroom lights seemed to only stay on for about 20 seconds – but generally the rooms are impressive. The beds are King-sized, with large, soft pillows that are a pleasure to sink into.
The water-facing balcony came as such a welcome surprise to me, that I faced howling winds and the hum of the nearby A-road to determinedly drink a coffee there on my first afternoon. It was much more pleasant the following morning, however, as I watched a gorgeous orange sunrise fade into purple to my left, and boats drift on candyfloss-hued waters to my right.
Rooms come in four tiers, all 34 sqm and with the same amenities but with different decor and furnishings; hence it’s only worth paying extra for a Premium room (the highest tier, pictured in this review) for style rather than substance. Several 40 sqm suites are also available. All but four of the hotel rooms have balconies, and all rooms have armchairs, large desks and Nespresso machines. There are plugs and USB sockets by the bed.
As with almost every new hotel brand at the moment, there is a nod to sustainability at Voco, with bedding somehow made from recycled plastic bottles. The Aveda toiletries also come full-sized, but note that taking one home will cost you £9.90.
Food and drink
The only offering is the Admiral St David, a versatile space that feels bright by day and cosy by night, which is useful as it serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and drinks.
The buffet breakfast is good quality (though the first pot of coffee brought was criminally weak). Pancakes and waffles were a nice addition to the hot offering, healthy oat and yoghurt pots sat alongside the cold cuts, and local dishes such as Welsh laverbread can be ordered a la carte.
The dinner menu is Welsh-Asian fusion. After trying a tuna tataki starter followed by fall-off-the-bone glazed Welsh lamb shank on egg noodles and aubergine, with a selection of local cheeses to finish, I was more than convinced it’s a combo that works.
Mains are between £16 and £22, more if you add a £4 side, while starters and desserts are around £8 each. A catch of the day or prime-cut Welsh steak are also available at market price. The cost matches the quality and relaxed yet upmarket atmosphere. Our waiter was well-versed in the wine list and finer points of the menu and ingredients, and was happy to give detailed recommendations.
My table was informed while ordering dessert that the apple crumble was a deconstructed take on the dish, so we were not too aghast when this arrived…
I’m informed it was very tasty, with a chocolate shell, creamy filling and side of honey ice cream. Arguably reinventing the wheel, though.
Eight meeting spaces cater for events from conferences (up to 400 people) to weddings (up to 220). Some of the rooms look a little dated, but as a popular local spot for meetings and events, the staff are experienced. A business centre can also provide printing, courier and other services.
The Marine Spa and a gym are accessible from all floors via a private lift. The spa provides various treatments while another room contains a fitness pool, two ‘hydrotherapy’ pools, deck chairs and a sauna.
While it’s a better offering than many UK hotels provide, hotel guests only get complimentary access from 7-10am and 5-10pm. Nonetheless these hours are convenient for business travellers, and when I went for a swim at around 7am on a Friday, the area was almost empty.
As previously stated, some of the spa areas could probably do with freshening up. This should be taking place before the end of the year. The gym is fairly standard but does benefit from a nice view.
Voco is not a business traveller-oriented brand, but St David’s is still an excellent hotel for business travellers, and the updates are worth checking out. It has easy access to the city centre, and the professional staff will happily cater to any additional needs. Rooms are spacious with large desks for working, while the spa is a good place to unwind.
Giving even a business trip a holiday feel
Dinner at the Admiral – try the decadent chicken laksa (below)
Internet rates for a flexible midweek stay in May start from £99.
Havannah Street, Cardiff, CF10 5SD; tel +44(0)29 20454045; ihg.com/voco