Hotel review: Hotel Belvedere, Zakopane

Snowcapped peaks, ski slopes and hot chocolate. Sound like the Alps? Actually, this is the Tatras, the highest mountains in the Carpathians and a natural border between Poland and Slovakia.

The Tatras are Poland’s winter playground. People come here to ski, but they also come here to spa, to take off the winter chill. For this they stay at the Hotel Belvedere in the Tatras’ main resort of Zakopane.

We checked in in the snow. Outside, people with long poles were encouraging great wodges of the white stuff to make their way safely from the hotel’s roof to the ground and the lobby seemed to be gradually filling up with multiple gloves, hats and scarves as guests stepped into the warmth and disrobed in delighted relief.

Because the Hotel Belvedere is a real retreat from the frozen Zakopane streets outside. Here you’ll find cosy rooms with warm carpets, and en suite bathrooms with heated towel rails and underfloor heating. There is plenty of character too, from furniture made from local wood to slanting roofs and triangular windows.

We spend our days skiing on Zakopane’s nearby slopes and evenings riding by horse-drawn sleigh to filling dinners that tend to involve dumplings and always, always include vodka. But on our final day we decide to stay inside, and so we spend our time in the hotel’s spa area. I can’t say the pool décor – complete with integral fishtanks and watched over by an inexplicable retro deep sea diver’s suit – was quite to my taste, but the facilities are faultless. There is plenty of space for families to splash around in in the 20-metre swimming pool, while around it we find steam rooms, a sauna and a Jacuzzi plus a paddling pool and water slide for the kids. You could spend hours in here, before taking a seat in the lobby bar, from which you can watch over it all, vodka in hand.

If you still can’t face leaving the hotel, there is also a games room in the basement with two bowling alleys, virtual golf and its own bar, plus two squash courts and a gym. And there are three restaurants on-site too, serving traditional Polish cuisine.

We may not have left the hotel on our final day but we didn’t want for anything – and for an hour or two we even forgot it was snowing outside.

Hotel review: The White House, Swan Valley

There is nothing quite like staying with friends. When I stayed with Shelly and Ian they made me breakfast every day. They let me use their tennis court and their bikes. They introduced me to their kids and their horses. And they helped me to plan the perfect day of touring the wineries and restaurants of the surrounding Swan Valley.

But Shelly and Ian are not my friends; they are the owners of the White House bed and breakfast. And what a bed and breakfast it is. The White House is a truly spectacular home, with wooden floors, ancient fireplaces, gorgeous verandahs – and just one guest room. Or rather, suite of guest rooms. All of this was mine for the night: my own entrance and hallway, a lounge complete with piano, a dining room with a large fireplace, a double bedroom, a separate bathroom, an outside seating area.

I wasted no time in settling in to my new home. I made tea and sat on the verandah just outside the bedroom door as the sun set and then ran a bath in the clawfoot tub and began sinking into thoughts of which wineries I might try tomorrow.

I had no idea, frankly, but fortunately Shelly already had this all figured out for me and over a glass of wine she talked me through the valley. Giving me a map, she noted all sorts of things, from which wineries to visit to the spot where Captain James Stirling decided that he was going to build a brand new colony, and left me with enough recommendations to fill a week.

On one her recommendations was Sittella’s, just the other side of the river and accessed by footbridge, which I visited for lunch the next day. Here I did a fantastically informative tasting with cellar manager Shannon and dined on delicious red snapper washed down with a cracking shiraz. Shelly clearly knew what she was talking about.

Her other recommendations included the oldest two wineries in the valley: Houghton’s and Sandalford. I dutifully visited both and was not disappointed  – at least, not by anything other than the fact I had to drive. The wines were fantastic and, in my amateur opinion, rivaled the wines of more famous Margaret River further south.

On my return to the house Ian and Shelly were keen to hear about my day and to tell me more about the history of the area. The Swan Valley is one of Western Australia’s oldest settled areas, with Guildford one of the state’s first three towns, along with Fremantle and Perth.

The house itself probably dates back about 100 years and it is lovely to be staying somewhere historic in a country where this can be rare. Antique furniture fills the rooms and the décor is in keeping with the age of the house. Even better, it reflects the fact that this is a house, with family portraits filling the walls and homely touches in every room. By the second night I am very much at home, ranging around the rooms as if I own the place – and certainly fantasizing that I do.

When it comes to time to leave, it is just like leaving a friend’s house. No impersonal speedy checkout here, we take our time saying goodbye and as I drive back onto the main road I am genuinely sorry to go. How often can you say that about a hotel?

 

Restaurant review: Tower Restaurant

A museum may not sound like an impressive setting for a restaurant. All too often more canteen than dining room, museum restaurants are rarely the first choice of those seeking the gourmet.

But discount them altogether and you could be missing out on some top dining experiences – literally. At the National Museum of Scotland in fact, you would be missing out on the chance to eat at Scotland’s very first rooftop restaurant.

Tower is located on the fifth floor of the museum, with views of the castle and the city’s skyline from its large glass windows. Squint and you might just see the sea – and this is where much of the menu comes from. Sure, there are steaks, but this is Scotland and it would be rude not to revel in the country’s fantastic shellfish.

And so we start with oysters, farmed on the Sound of Cumbrae on the country’s west coast, and served with mignonette, Tabasco and lemon. Next up scallops, hand-dived around the Isle of Mull and served with black pudding and apple, before the main event – a whole Isle of Skye lobster thermidor.

Everything is messy, abundant, delicious. This bounty of succulent seafood is to me what Scotland is all about – along with, naturally, a whisky to finish with. Tower has a great range, from the islands, the Highlands, Speyside and the Lowlands and sitting back with a Lagavulin 16-year-old is the perfect end to a thoroughly Scottish meal.

Norfolk Hotel, Fremantle

Staying above a pub may not sound to you like the most glamorous experience – and in many respects you would be right.

Taking a room above a pub often means entering through a back door, passing the kitchen on your way upstairs. It often means a compact room, equipped with just the basics. But it often also means plenty of traditional character, a great central location and friendly service.

This is what a stay at the Norfolk Hotel is all about. We arrived in the afternoon and were checked in to our cosy room with a warm smile. It may not have had a luxurious bathroom or a surfeit of space, but it did have free wifi, a powerful shower, a flatscreen TV and plenty of teabags.

And so we relaxed – for about five minutes. Because we were not in Fremantle to hang around in a hotel room, we were here to explore the town’s famous nightlife, and this was Friday night.

There is no better place to spend a Friday in Fremantle than Little Creatures brewery and so we headed straight for this warehouse building on the waterfront, arriving just in time to see the sun dipping below the horizon – it was beer o’clock. We dined on delicious mussels and kangaroo and knocked back the microbrews until it was time to head back to the hotel, a short walk away in an unbeatable location on South Terrace.

The next morning, that location really came into its own. South Terrace is also called the “Cappuccino Strip” and there are so many bars and cafes along here you could eat in a different place every day for a week. We selected Gino’s, something of an institution in these parts, and ordered eggs benedict and flat whites to enjoy in the sunshine.

Back at the hotel things were just getting started for the day so we took advantage of staying in the heart of the action with a drink in the bar. The wine list at the Norfolk is superb and we relished a cracking Sandalford Estate Chardonnay from Margaret River, just a few hours south. As lunchtime rolled around we found it impossible to leave and so we stayed, sitting out on the terrace to share a seafood plate of scallops, salmon carpaccio, tempura whiting, Szechuan seasoned squid, chilli mussels, prawns, cayenne pepper whitebait and chips. Hours passed as we relaxed in the sunshine, the buzz of Fremantle surrounding us.

Yes, staying above a pub may not be glamorous. But choose the right pub and it can certainly be the right choice.

Travel writer, editor and broadcaster