The sight of students cycling back and forth across Parker’s Piece is characteristic of many mornings spent in Cambridge. On the weekends, and particularly in summer months, these locals are almost always joined by tourists on rented vehicles, hoping to experience something of the city’s university culture as they risk their limbs on the busy bike routes.
Visitors looking for that uniquely academic atmosphere without the physical exertion will find it at the University Arms, a Marriott Autograph hotel with a boutique feel, located on the corner of Regent Street and Park Terrace – and right on the common.
Our stay coincided with a wedding, several events for the Cambridge Literary Festival, and many bookings for afternoon teas and sumptuous dinners. Unphased by the bustle of guests, the service was warm and efficient, the sign of a well-oiled machine. I suppose this is to be expected – no Cantabrigian would let their wheels get rusty.
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With 192 suites, the University Arms’s nine floors are something of a rabbit warren. We twice got lost while trying to take the stairs (even pre-cocktail hour), but once in our rooms, we were on much firmer footing.
The original building dates back to 1834, when it operated as a coaching inn for traders passing through Cambridge. An £80m renovation, which saw the hotel reopen its doors in 2018, has preserved elements of this historic character, integrating the mod-cons and comforts today’s slightly more demanding clientele know to expect from the Marriott group.
The suites benefit from high ceilings and generous floorspace. With colourful curtains, decadent soft furnishings and books you would actually want to dip into on the shelves, you’d be forgiven for feeling as though you are nodding off in a college library – or so this writer would like to imagine.
The spacious bathrooms are beautifully decorated, featuring monochrome tiles and gold metalwork, and with waterfall showers. Some also have the luxury of roll top baths. The 19th-century details are present here too, with apothecaries from either side of the Atlantic – D.R. Harris & Co and C. O. Bigelow – selected to supply the bath salts, soap dishes and toiletries.
The design and ambience of Parker’s Tavern, located on the hotel's ground floor, is said to be inspired by the communal dining halls of Cambridge’s colleges. Parquet flooring, dark wood furniture and panelled walls adorned with a mish-mash of artwork have the feel of a past era. Happily my guest, a Cambridge alumni, could confirm that the menu topped her memories of Formal Hall dinners.
Like many restaurants competing to attract today’s foodie crowd, the self-described British brasserie plates up local, seasonal dishes. More unusually, it is the only restaurant I’ve ever visited where spaghetti bolognese feature on both the starter and main courses of the à la carte menu. Perhaps I’ve been eating in the wrong places…
Starters are appropriately sized, leaving a healthy amount of room for the main event. My nut brown buttered sole came with a heavy handful of samphire – just as this ingredient should be served, in my view. My guest devoured a perfectly pink sirloin steak. For dessert, ice-cream fans will enjoy the pick ‘n’ mix nature of the build-your-own sundae option. There’s continental classics like tarte tatin and Cambridge’s take on a crème brûlée, but the cheeseboard is all British.
Bartenders mix a select range of cocktails, and a well-judged drinks menu delivers the pleasant spectrum of old favourites and perhaps more surprising offers. The Saffron Grange Brut, produced just a matter of miles from the hotel, is highly recommended. Flip to the back page if you fancy a cigar.
Rest and rejuvenation
The hotel opened its two treatment rooms in March, with a range of bespoke offerings in partnership with luxury wellbeing company Aromatherapy Associates. Tucked away on the ground floor, guests can relax on velvet chaise lounges, tea or juice in hand, as they decide on their treatments and consult with the in-house therapists in a quiet, decadently designed relaxation room.
Treatment times range from 30 to 90 minutes, and there’s a carefully curated range to choose from, including facials, full body massages, and a treatment designed for pregnant mothers too. We opted for the ultimate aromatherapy massage, consulting first with the team on what our mental and physical needs were at the time, before choosing an aromatherapy blend that would do the trick.
Guests are in for an experience that feels particularly exclusive, both due to the privacy of the treatment rooms and the attentiveness of the team’s therapists. In a hotel of this size, it’s a rare luxury to have a whole treatment area to yourself (and we were more than happy to indulge). We were advised that Friday and Saturday evenings can be busy, so book ahead if you’re hoping to unwind before your night gets underway.
If you are feeling active, there’s an underground 24-hour gym open to guests. You can also borrow the hotel’s Cambridge blue bikes to explore the city, or join a walking tour to unearth historical tales from behind the colleges’ doors.
There is limited parking at University Arms though, so it’s worth ringing ahead to see if a space is available. If not, the staff can recommend nearby car parks or park and ride services – and the train station is no more than a 20-minute walk.
Rooms at University Arms start from £209 a night on a B&B basis; treatments start from £60; universityarms.com
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