King of his castle

14 April 2004 by
King of his castle

Peter de Savary, or PdeS as he likes to be known, is back. The man behind Skibo Castle (the location of Madonna and Guy Ritchie's wedding), the St James' clubs in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Club is about to do it again. This time, the project is the much-hyped Bovey Castle which opens today (8 April) at North Bovey in the Dartmoor National Park, Devon.

But why bother? The 59-year-old entrepreneur hardly needs to make any more money. He's made his millions time and time again and, as well as his hospitality interests, still owns a shipyard in the UK. Puffing on one of the Cuban cigars from which he is rarely parted, he explains fast and fluently his motivation for staging his return after selling Skibo Castle last year.

"I don't need to be doing anything for the money," he says, "but I do it for the same reason that actors keep on making films. It's that challenge to do something creative, to get that applause from the audience. I am fortunate to have it as good as it gets, but it's still an overwhelming fix. I shall keep going until it isn't working."

De Savary is undoubtedly charismatic, quickly commanding a presence when he enters a room. He bears a resemblance to actor Jack Nicholson both physically and in his mannerisms, with the confidence of one who knows that, when he talks, others stop what they are doing and listen. It seems fitting, therefore, that he considers himself in the entertainment rather than in the hospitality business.

"I'm not a hotelier, I'm an entertainer," he states firmly. "It's fun to make people laugh and to help them." The entertainment in this case is a £27m refurbishment of Bovey Castle, built in 1906 and formerly the country estate of Viscount Hambledon, son of WH Smith, founder of the chain of newsagents. The theme of the hotel - which De Savary bought as the Manor House from Le M‚ridien last year, and has since completely refurbished - is the 1920s and 1930s, a period of prosperity, optimism and glamour.

To create this, of course, you need money, of which for De Savary there is no shortage. "Most operators and owners simplify what they have, to employ fewer people to make money for the shareholders," he says. "I am doing what I want to do. For me, this is really a passion to realise a vision. I am happy if I have to employ 10 gardeners, because I want the gardens to look good. If I need to, I can cut out some other extravagances in my life and have them here."

As well as 65 bedrooms, Bovey Castle has a cinema for 100 where "people can watch Casablanca and drink hot chocolate with Baileys". The general idea is to create a feeling of house parties. "If people feel that this is a hotel, then I will replace the manager," says De Savary, grinning slyly at Ian Solkin, whose job it is to run the place.

Solkin's team consists of 170 people who have not been hired on previous experience. "We hire on personality and on character," says De Savary. "You can't teach people to smile back, but you can teach them to wait at table. We have highly motivated people for whom it's not a job. They're here to kiss arse, because that's what guests are paying us to do."

Pausing to puff on his cigar, De Savary continues in a steady stream that's hard to interrupt. "I don't like hotels where everything is the same and has been done by someone to a strict budget," he says. "In many five-star hotels, the staff do their jobs but they're not highly motivated. I want people with passion and enthusiasm. It starts and ends with me - my boss is the customer."

When De Savary bought Bovey, it was, he says, Edwardian and rather dull, "a bit like a morgue". The transformed Bovey has palm trees and orchids. The wine list has 200 bins and there will be nine Champagnes, including three or four vintage Champagnes on offer each day. A cool £56,000 has been spent on silver and glassware alone, with wine glasses costing £75 each. In addition, there is a 147-strong cocktail list, and to shake them up there are 25 antique silver cocktail servers dating from the 1930s.

The point here is to gain interaction with the customer. "With a gin and tonic, there's no interaction," says De Savary. "We want to make a whole experience, with something for everyone. We're after cash-rich, time-poor people and we want them to be happy. If we get uptight, miserable people, then we'll pop them to the station and send them back to London. To stay young, you have to have fun. There's nothing comparable."

Children are welcome to this fun experience, too. There are dedicated children's camps with activities such as beekeeping, falconry, fishing (and smoking the catch), and building hides in the hotel's extensive grounds. While their offspring are thus catered for, adults can relax in the spa, which is not a health spa but, as De Savary describes it, a "happiness spa" with treatment rooms and a pool.

Delving into De Savary's background, a story emerges that may help explain his infectious optimism about life. In the 1980s, he was on vacation with his wife and children in the Caribbean when the private plane in which he was travelling crashed into the sea. De Savary found himself upside down in the water but miraculously managed to get free and swim himself and his family to the beach. His 13-year-old daughter, who was up front with the pilot, nearly died in the accident and had to be resuscitated on the beach.

Nothing, it seems, daunts De Savary. He plans to start another project in Tuscany in the New Year "if I can get through the Italian bureaucracy". But Bovey Castle will remain his head office. "This is my heart," he says. "Everything will spring from and be a part of this. I am looking for a place to have my ashes scattered, and I haven't yet quite decided where, but it will be here somewhere, in Bovey Castle." n

Bovey Castle
North Bovey, Dartmoor National Park,

Tel: 01647 445016
Owner: Peter de Savary
Manager: Ian Solkin
Rooms: 65

Room charges, 2004-05:
Double: April to October 2004, £180-£290; November 2004 to March 2005, £145-£240
Breakfast: £18 per person
Dinner: £45 per person
Anticipated average room rate: £260
Projected occupancy, year one: 55%

18-hole golf course and clubhouse
11 miles of salmon and trout fishing
Trout lake
Equestrian centre
Clay pigeon shooting
Boating lake
Two all-weather outdoor tennis courts
One grass lawn tennis court
4×4 driving and quad biking
Holistic therapy
Five treatment rooms
Sauna and steam rooms
Swimming pool
Sun deck

Accommodates as many as 120 for receptions
Boardroom, communications room
Tele- and satellite conferencing

PdeS in a nutshell Peter de Savary, 59, was educated at the Charterhouse School in Surrey. He didn't go to university. His time is now divided between homes in London and Gloucestershire.

De Savary's career began in Canada at the age of 17, where he worked as a landscape gardener before making his first million through selling wheat to West Africa.

In 1979, he created his own hotel chain, the exclusive private members' St James' Clubs, which could blackball any prospective members and made all members pay high dues. In the late 1980s, De Savary sold the clubs for more than $100m (£56.6m).

In 1990, he fell in love with Skibo Castle in Dornoch, Scotland, paying nearly $10m (£5.56m) for it. It shot to fame in November 2000 when singer/actress Madonna wed film director Guy Ritchie in its stately halls, and was sold last year for an undisclosed sum to a group of its private members.

De Savary also bought Stapleford Park in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, in 1996, renovating it and adding more bedrooms. He sold it in 2001.

As well as being a successful entrepreneur, De Savary was a challenger for America's Cup yachting honours in 1983.

An appreciation of the finest products extends to his personal life, where he enjoys Ramon Allones cigars. His favourite musician is Louis Armstrong, his favourite author Wilbur Smith, and his favourite film The Man Who Would Be King, starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

He is married, with five daughters.

Food is table d'hôte and costs £45 for dinner and £25 for lunch.

Example menu

  • Gazpacho
  • Spider-crab risotto glazed with a lemon and thyme sabayon
  • Smoked duck and orange salad, drizzled with a sesame and soy dressing
  • Millefeuille of guacamole, accompanied by a tomato confit
  • Poached chicken and wild mushroom boudin on creamed leeks and tarragon infused jus
  • Warm salad of lambs' kidneys and chorizo, topped by a poached egg and Thai hollandaise
  • Pan-seared fillet of Highland salmon
  • Sweet-and-sour pepper coulis with a garden herb tuile
  • Warm plum tomato tart tatin and a basil sorbet
  • Dartmoor hotpot
  • Soft herring roes on caper toasts
  • Warm chocolate fondant tart, accompanied by iced pistachio parfait and vanilla syrup (allow 20 minutes)
  • White wine poached pears with an aniseed cornet and liquorice ice-cream
  • Baileys panna cotta
  • Coffee anglaise and a kumquat confit
  • Red wine poached fruits, glazed with a spicy sabayon and served with crispy tuile
  • Freshly brewed coffee and petit fours
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