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Top-notch food, breathtaking scenery and cool venues make Devon and Cornwall great destinations for corporate getaways – particularly as the pound falters against the euro. Anna Longmore explores the event potential of these not-so-distant shores
With a speedy train service delivering passengers from London Paddington to Exeter in as little as two hours ten minutes, Devon’s historic capital isn’t as far away as you might think. The city’s manageable size, laid-back atmosphere, and range of shopping, eating and culture, combined with some attractive modern venues, make it a great off-site destination. There’s stylish accommodation for groups, too.
Meet… at Exeter Conference Centre (tel: 020 8133 4425), which offers a 410-seater auditorium for serious conferencing and exhibitions, and is handily located just across the road from the train station. Arts and media centre Exeter Phoenix (tel: 01392 667080) has a 450-capacity theatre with four workshop studios and two galleries available for private hire, while Spacex (tel: 01392 431786), a bright contemporary art gallery in a 19th-century warehouse, makes a great spot for breakfast meetings, though numbers and availability are dependent on what exhibition is on.
Eat… at Exeshed (tel: 01392 420070), occupying a stylish glass pavilion in the city centre, pictured right. A local favourite, serving global food from Brit to Thai, it’s ideal for groups of around 26 but 60 can be accommodated. For high-end dining, head to the Michael Caines Restaurant (tel: 01392 223638) at Abode Exeter. The small dining room holds around 60 but up to 100 guests can eat food from the same kitchen in the hotel’s smart Clarence Room (pictured, below right).
Stay… at the 53-bedroom Abode Exeter (tel: 01392 319955), home of Michael Caines’ celebrated restaurant. Co-owned by the chef and set in the stunning Cathedral Yard, it’s England’s oldest hotel. Even the slick modern design can’t mask its crooked charm and higher end rooms all have views of the 850-year-old gothic cathedral. For larger groups, the four-star Mercure Southgate Hotel (tel: 01392 412812) is more business-focused with 110 bedrooms and seven meeting spaces catering for up to 150 delegates.
If you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find it in the windswept wilderness of Dartmoor National Park. One of the last great sporting estates in Britain, Bovey Castle (tel: 01647 445000, squaremeal.co.uk/bovey) has just emerged from a stunning £16m-overhaul by new owner Hilwood. With 63 beautiful bedrooms and suites in the castle and 22 three-bedroom luxury lodges set in 450-acre grounds, the five-star venue is perfect for residential events. Spaces range from the handsome fire-lit lounges of the castle to attractive modern rooms in the adjacent mews building, while leisure options include a suitably vast selection of country pursuits, an 18-hole championship golf course and a lovely indoor pool and spa. Pre-dinner drinks in the tartan-clad bar are a must.
Just down the road, the Tudor-style Gidleigh Park (tel: 01647 432367, squaremeal.co.uk/gidleigh) is a smaller 24-bedroom country house hotel, scenically set on the banks of the North Teign River. It’s the ideal place for boardroom retreats and house parties (groups of 54 can have the run of the place). The venue’s centrepiece is its outstanding two Michelin-starred restaurant, headed up by renowned local chef Michael Caines.
Smaller still, historic Lewtrenchard Manor (tel: 01566 783222), set in glorious gardens on the edge of Dartmoor, offers a handful of cosy meeting rooms (for up to 45) alongside 14 bedrooms. It’s a homely venue, akin to staying in the manor house of a smart relative, and groups can take advantage of quirky options like the Purple Carrot chef’s table dining experience.
Meet…at the Riviera International Conference Centre (pictured above, tel: 01803 206306, squaremeal.co.uk/conf-torquay). The versatile
purpose-built venue has heaps of room, including a conference space seating 1,500, and the forward-thinking
on-site team has also secured AIM accreditation for excellence in meetings as well as a certificate for sustainability. Prices stack up favourably against similar-sized UK conference venues too. For smaller events, the Barceló Torquay Imperial (tel: 0870 060 4306, squaremeal.co.uk/torquay), pictured right, has some handsome spaces with stunning sea views. The original part of the hotel houses the most attractive rooms, including the elegant 125-capacity Regency Suite.
Eat… upstairs at The Elephant (tel: 01803 200044) for a hushed Michelin-starred experience for up to 24 guests. Alternatively, a less formal 60-seater brasserie is available on the ground floor. Meanwhile, the French-leaning cooking at the nearby Orange Tree (tel: 01803 213936) is particularly popular with locals, as is the unstuffy atmosphere, friendly staff and a laudable single-sitting policy. For larger groups, the casual Compass Bar & Lounge at The Grand (tel: 0844 502 7587) has plenty of space, a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere and a hearty menu – local fish and chips and homemade steak and Guinness pie, for example. Everything down to the bread rolls is made on site from scratch.
Entertain… among the stalagmites at Kents Cavern (tel: 01803 219242), a series of prehistoric limestone caves that housed the earliest recorded humans. The venue can arrange a Champagne reception, guided candlelight tour and fish and chips or Devon cream teas in the modern restaurant area. Handily placed next to the Riviera Centre, the 800-year-old Torre Abbey ( tel: 01803 293593) has just emerged from an £8m-restoration. Atmospheric spaces include the 60-capacity Cellar and Undercroft for drinks receptions and the bright white Long Gallery on the top floor. Its 180-capacity Spanish Barn is popular for medieval banquets.
Stay… at the largest hotels in town: the 152-bedroom Barceló Torquay Imperial Hotel or The Grand. The former has a better position on the cliffs over the bay and more attractive event spaces for large groups. Smaller parties could head for the intimate Orestone Manor (tel: 01803 328098), which also has a highly regarded restaurant, or the funkier Osborne Hotel (tel: 01803 213311).
Famous for its vast expanses of golden sand, North Devon offers some of the UK’s best surfing. While it lacks the conferencing facilities of larger centres like Torquay, the combination of good-value accommodation and high-octane activities attracts small- and medium-sized groups for a mix of work, rest and play.
Work, Rest… This is bed & breakfast territory, so larger hotels like Brend Hotels’ four-star Saunton Sands Hotel (tel: 01271 890212, squaremeal.co.uk/saunton) near Braunton, are relatively scarce. The venue might look a little faded, but it’s the stunning beach view that steals the show and the majority of the event spaces (suitable for up to 200) take full advantage of the position. Its beach café bar is great for evening parties too. Just up the coast, the 63-bedroom Woolacombe Bay Hotel (tel: 01271 870388) is an attractive modern property with four event spaces including a 250-capacity ballroom and gardens that run down onto the beautiful Blue Flag beach. If you’re after more of a country-house feel, you’ll find the 18th-century Northcote Manor (tel: 01769 560501) situated a little way inland. It offers log fires, croquet and Devonshire teas and the whole place, including the 20-seater boardroom, was revamped in 2008.
And play… The powerful Atlantic swells that bear down on North Devon create superb surfing conditions all year round. The slower breaking waves at Saunton Sands and Bideford are perfect for beginners, while Croyde’s powerful waves attract more advanced surfers. There are surf schools and hire shops in every town: Barefoot Surf School (tel: 01271 891231) in Putsborough Sands, North Devon Surf School (tel: 01237 474663) at Westward Ho! and Surf South West (tel: 01271 890400) at Croyde Bay and Saunton Sands all take groups.
The rugged coastline also presents plenty of opportunities for golfers who relish the challenge of a links course. Both the Royal North Devon Golf Club (tel: 01237 473817) at Westward Ho! and the sister club at Saunton Sands (tel: 01271 812436) are stunningly located and welcome visitors by prior arrangement.
The happy, wholesome Dart’s Farm (tel: 01392 878200) near Exeter is Devon’s answer to Daylesford. The food hall, farm shop, deli bar, restaurant, fish shed, cider works and alehouse are all bursting with local artisan foods and the owners have recently added a light-filled 80-capacity meeting room with views over the farmland as well as a demonstration kitchen.
On the southern fringes of Dartmoor, Riverford Organic Farm (tel: 01803 762074), famed for its organic veggie boxes, has become a venue in its own right. The Field Kitchen serves sparklingly fresh zero-food-mile produce from the surrounding fields and there’s meeting and eating space for 45. Don’t forget your wellies for farm tours or an apron for the cookery demos.
It’s all about cheese and wine at the Sharpham Estate (tel: 01803 732203) but the surroundings are pretty captivating too. There’s a creamery and a winery on site and groups of 12 plus can explore with the fully guided ‘Vine to Wine’ tour, which takes in the vineyard and winery.
To really get to grips with the field-to-table concept, make for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ (tel: 01297 630302) on the Dorset/Devon border. Private event spaces comprise a restored threshing barn for 60 or the dining room of a traditional Devon farmhouse for up to 17. Build in private versions of any of the excellent regular courses: the butchery masterclass, mushroom foraging or cider making. There’s plenty of accommodation nearby.
For a residential foodie retreat, head to Percy’s (tel: 01409 211236), a country hotel near Tavistock set on 130 idyllic acres of organic estate. There are a handful of comfortable rooms but it’s all about the food here, whether it’s roaming around you (organically reared black pigs and lambs) or on the plate, expertly prepared – with home-grown veg – by Tina Bricknell-Webb, who has won almost every award going.
CORNWALL: NEW WAVE DESTINATION
While the rest of the country has been crowding onto budget flights and high-tailing it to the Med, a transformation has been taking place in the UK’s most southerly county. ‘We’re not sleepy little Cornwall any more,’ says Charlotte Lean of Cornwall DMC (tel: 0203 287 0773). ‘It’s so vibrant – very different from 10 years ago.’ With the new wave of boutique hotels and excellent restaurants, small groups on team retreats are particularly well catered for.
Style-conscious holidaymakers flock to the elegant Hotel Tresanton (tel: 01326 270055) in St Mawes. Beyond an unremarkable exterior, it’s the ultimate in seaside style. Aside from the 29 pretty bedrooms, highlights include a seaview terrace, cinema and 18ft-yacht, which can be incorporated in event programmes. Meeting rooms seat up to 60. Though it might not have as much provision for events, nearby Driftwood (tel: 01872 580644) is a more modest outfit with the same breezily stylish feel and a 7-acre garden that includes a pavilion for secluded lunching. There’s a private beach too.
On the north coast, Watergate Bay (tel: 01637 860543), just two miles down the coast from Newquay, has all the natural charm of its neighbour but none of the stag-party boisterousness. With the Extreme Academy for watersports, a lovely 65-room hotel with sea view event space and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall, all right next to the airport, the bay lends itself to single-site corporate retreats with no logistical headaches.
Larger groups with more serious conferencing in mind should head for the function-friendly cliff top Bedruthan Steps Hotel (tel: 01637 860555) overlooking a lovely bay just up the coast from Newquay or Carlyon Bay (tel: 01726 812304) near St Austell, set in 250 acres, which include a championship golf course. It is also well-placed for the Eden Project.
If you’re not shaking the sand out of your shoes two weeks later, you haven’t made the most of your Cornish getaway. Watersports are the main attraction for the majority of corporate groups and centres such as the Extreme Academy (tel: 01637 860543) at Watergate Bay offer the full gamut of high-octane beach activities: surfing (kite, paddle or regular), wave-skiing and land-boarding. Can’t decide? Opt for an ‘Extreme Day’, where groups get the chance to try them all. If watching the action is more your style, the hotel next door offers a Champagne and seafood package for the Polo on the Beach tournament in September. For land- and water-based coastal fun, the Adventure Centre (tel: 01637 872444) offers ‘Surf & Turf’ packages on the private Lusty Glaze beach, Newquay. An on-site restaurant can take up to 150 for barbecues and buffets.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Spring 2009.