Gal With a Suitcase
Our intrepid business traveller searches high and low for the best places to sleep, eat, and hang out in Oxford, England—and finds a few surprises.
TED, the celebrated Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, decided last year to expand its franchise with an annual global event in Oxford. It felt like a good idea—the oldest university on the planet plays host to the millennium's brightest minds and fiercest innovators. I have since attended both: 2009 was terrific; 2010 was not. This year the event felt tired and past its sell-by date; too much buck without enough bang. Before I invite scornful missives I'll confess that hearing Annie Lennox sing moves even the sturdiest soul; the humorist Ze Frank and the astounding education researcher Sugata Mitra were memorable and provocative—although not necessarily in that order. Beyond this triumvirate I struggle to recall something or someone truly remarkable. Alas, the same feels true for Oxford.
Lest you think GWS is a snooty Philistine, I'll share that I'm a great lover of old English villages and towns. Windsor makes me long for a horse and carriage (and a tiara); Stratford upon Avon makes me swoon for Will Shakespeare; Cornwall secured my affections at first glimpse of the beaches and smell of homemade pasties. Oxford, dare I say, consistently leaves me wanting more. The city itself has magnificent treasures—the university, the spires, the cathedral—but to experience any of it you have to fight the hordes of harmless thugs and misbehaving lasses. Where are the actual students? I've long wondered. Those populating the streets and cafes are not, as my father would say, members of the honor society. I've tried hard to fall for Oxford, but during each visit I find myself hatching an exit strategy. Fifty miles from London can sometimes feel just the teensiest bit too far. That said, it is Oxford and I'm sure you'll be tempted, so let GWS help.
Malmaison is arguably the most popular place to stay in town. It's a converted prison and within walking distance to everything. Skip it. Instead get acquainted with Jeremy Mogford, who has created a few winning destinations in The Old Parsonage, The Old Bank, and eateries Gee's and Quod Brasserie. All are noteworthy. Try staying at The Old Bank Hotel. This Georgian stone gem offers 42 rooms and honest décor in support of its boutique heritage. Marble baths are nicely complemented by air-conditioning and cozy rooms. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance and you can even procure holistic spa treatments if you think ahead. Rooms from £115 ($176).
Outside of the city center you get funky options, like Jason Hunt's The Crazy Bear (an acquired taste, to be certain) and many gorgeous inns. For a secluded weekend with faultless service and Michelin-starred fare, opt for Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Known as one of Britain's "finest gastronomic experiences," this utterly charming retreat, less than 10 miles from the main center of Oxford, is bound to impress. Each of the 32 rooms is individually designed, and the restaurant has held its prestigious two Michelin stars for a whopping 26 years. From £490—that is, if you can find a room.
The aptly named High Table offers service from breakfast through dinner, including tea service and a chilled-out lounge. The food is classic with modern touches and fresh ingredients, mostly offered via a set menu. Four courses for two runs you about £80.
Fratelli's Pizzeria is a great Italian joint offering flavorful risottos, and freshly made sauces and pastas that round out their compelling hand-rolled pizzas.
Oxford itself takes some exploring. The university has incredible treasures. Find someone with a working historical knowledge and tempt them for a tour.
If your visit falls between March and October, with agreeable weather, try punting. This infamous activity is great fun if you're prepared to get wet. The act itself is like standing on the back of a long, more handsome canoe and wading yourself up or down the river Thames. Imagine yourself as a gondolier in Venice (or hire a "chauffeur"). Established in 1904 and still family-run, GWS suggests the Cherwell Boathouse. Rates from £13 per hour.
The Ashmolean Museum has just completed a £61 million refurbishment, doubling its exhibition space. It offers a vast collection of "portraits and curiosities," including Guy Fawkes' lantern rumored to have been given by the pope to Henry VIII. The top floor restaurant has amazing views and so-so fare.
Eight miles outside of town, on 2,100 acres of gorgeous grounds, lies Blenheim Palace, birthplace to Winston Churchill. There are better relics in England, but if you've got little ones or WWII buffs this makes sense.
It bums me out that again I have to slate chef Jamie Oliver, as he's such a nice bloke. His Italian offering, Jamie's Kitchen, was just awful. It's bland, the service non-existent and on the whole you'd be far better off at Prezzo.
The main streets in downtown Oxford, like Cornmarket, are a crowded bore; the shops exclusively offer bric-a-brac, with the exceptions being coffees and KFC. No thanks.
Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50 percent of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.