20 August 2014

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Celtic Manor - In full swing


Celtic Manor is building again. This time it’s not another new clubhouse but a collection of Scandinavian-style lodges. We got the nod to head west and check them out.

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In 2010, Tiger Woods et al descended on Celtic Manor for the Ryder Cup. The venue prepared accordingly by cutting 1.1 million tonnes of the Usk Valley into the shape of a championship golf course. It was to be the five-star hotel’s third. So, of course, when we popped over last month for two days, our breakout activity was Segway racing. Followed by duck herding. Golf? Too obvious for the events team at Celtic Manor.

If you haven’t tried either of these activities before, you should. Duck herding, particularly, had a group of journalists who’d met that morning engaged, laughing and working together. It’s snappy to do – as little as an hour for a group of 10 – and inclusive by nature. Few people I know would struggle to drink Welsh whisky – to stay warm, you understand – while ushering Indian Runner ducks into a tunnel, with the help of a shepherd’s crook and an obedient collie. Riding a Segway, on the other hand, is a learned skill. Fortunately, I’d had previous training, so navigating the events team’s pre-made course – half cut and at full throttle – was a breeze.

Pine and dandy

Truth is, the reason we got the invitation was to see the venue’s new Hunter Lodges. And it was with these upscale new-builds – there are plans for 60 of them across the 2,000-acre site – that Celtic Manor surprised me again: light, bright, sustainable Finnish pine, views across the Twenty Ten course and the valley beyond, an indoor sauna and a hot tub on the terrace.

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The lodge we lunched in had two chefs preparing locally sourced dishes – a day-long service available for groups. Then, we learnt that the Twenty Ten course’s original 18th hole, found directly in front of this lodge, was to be converted into a personal putting green for its temporary tenants.

In high season, you’ll likely struggle to find any free slots around the pitching wedge-wielding leisure guests – the golf packages are set to be popular. When things are quieter, though, you and your group are welcome to hire a lodge for a golf-and-gastronomy-peppered powwow – the massive dining tables look good for informal sit-downs – or an incentive weekend away. There’s space for eight people if you’re staying overnight, while the 4,000sq ft lodges will take considerably more if you’re just in for the day.

Celtic colours

After lunch, we had a little time to have a snoop around the hotel. Owner Sir Terry Matthews’ love of all things Welsh is hard to miss when you take it all in. The artwork and much of the interior are unabashedly Celtic in character. The impressive hand-carved dragons that wrap around two of the central lobby’s columns form a case in point.

The afternoon was grand-tour time. Until this point, I’d only seen snapshots of the grounds and it wasn’t until this whip-round that I realised its scale – there are 750 permanent staff – and particularly its vast conference facilities. In the resort hotel, a Convention Centre is laid out over three escalator-split floors.

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The Caernarfon Suite is the largest of the options, with space for nearly 1,200 delegates theatre style. Room sizes then descend steadily until you reach numerous well-appointed syndicate rooms, which accommodate as few as six people. On the lowest floor there’s a handsome high-ceilinged space for exhibitors with grand ambition. You big-leaguers will be pleased to hear that plans are already in place to build a 4,000-capacity international conference centre in the grounds. An opening date remains in the air.

Outdoors, on one of the adjoining terraces, we rather liked the look of the Rooftop Garden, which is a good one for after-business barbecues, come summer time. The covered area ensures events are weather proof, while live music should keep your delegates fist pumping into the early hours.

For smaller groups, I’d suggest looking at The Lodge, the second of the resort’s clubhouses. When we turned up, the building was bustling with business-minded folk on a break from an event in the Augusta Suite, which will hold up to 400 seated delegates. I couldn’t decide whether the decor was old-world Welsh or Canadian cabin – a little of both, perhaps. Either way, it looked cosy and characterful. The views out on to the Roman Road golf course weren’t bad either. 

Although we only had a quick look, I mustn’t forget the resort’s original manor house. If stained glass, dark wood and painted portraits are your thing, then smaller meetings or private dinners should be considered here.

If you’re keen on an intimate dinner with a relaxed atmosphere, check out the hotel’s pub, The Newbridge on Usk – recently bought from Chris Evans, no less – a few miles up the road. We didn’t see it first hand, but PR manager Paul assured us that’s where he likes to take the family when they visit.

In the club

Dinner was at the Twenty Ten clubhouse, in its impressive Members’ Lounge. Chesterfields, dark wood and a fine view across the course – you get the picture. The roast pigeon starter stuck in my mind as a triumph, while the adventurous pre-dinner cocktails, made especially for our sitting and matched thoughtfully to the food, piqued appetites fittingly.

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The Members’ Bar is not always readily available for events – what would the club captain say – but the events team are flexible and it’s certainly worth asking about hosting a meal here for up to 60 guests. 

Failing that, the Samuel Ryder Suite next door will seat just shy of 100 diners. Afterwards, your guests can take a tour of the wood-clad changing rooms and have a photo taken next to their favourite player’s brass-plaqued locker.

The next day, fresh from an early bed, I sat to a bounteous breakfast in the venue’s principal restaurant, Terry M. I noticed there’s a private dining room in there too – opening out on to a view-wrapped terrace – for at least 24 diners. The morning patter revealed I’d missed a memorable cocktail session in the hotel bar that concluded with a survivors’ pizza session. It was hard to hide the envy between mouthfuls of melon.

At least I won the Segway race.

This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events, spring 2014.

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