Aria Resorts has relaunched its south Devon property Gara Rock as a chilled, hip boutique hotel for families and couples alike. Rosalind Mullen reports
It was acquired in 2016 by Aria Resorts, having been put on the market by Kingfisher Resorts the previous year for £8.5m. At the time, it was an 18-bedroom hotel, restaurant and spa across a collection of cottages and apartments, but Aria had a bigger vision. In August 2018, the company relaunched Gara Rock as a luxurious wellbeing retreat with 29 bedrooms, as part of a £50m investment programme across all eight of its UK resorts.
As well as six loft suites and rooms, six seaview apartments, five cottages and 12 apartments, the relaunched property has a restaurant, bar, cinema, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, treatment rooms and access to the beach. It has also just opened three so-called Out of the Ordinary suites - the Penthouse, Secret Suite and Signal House.
Overseeing the transformation was general manager Donovan Van Staden, who is used to creating luxurious boltholes in out-of-the way places. Originally from South Africa, he has worked at luxury safari camps in Zambia and Botswana, as well as at Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye and Driftwood in Portscatho, Cornwall. However, he has recently moved on to Knoll House in Studland, Dorset. Jeff Ward, a former general manager at Hand Picked Hotels, has been appointed as hotel director to oversee Gara Rock and future hotel acquisitions by Aria Resorts, while a new general manager is yet to be appointed.
With nearby Salcombe often dubbed 'Chelsea-on-Sea', Gara Rock's guests includ well-heeled City escapees as well as walkers, families and locals wanting dinner.
Its TripAdvisor score is 3.5 and The Telegraph's Sherelle Jacobs described it as
"Devon's hippest hotel opening" when it launched last year.
The design vision
London-based House Nine Interior Design was briefed to refurbish the hotel to a standard that would appeal to everyone of all ages, day and night and in any season.
"We wanted to create luxury but in a very informal way," says design director Jo-Jo Barr.
"When people think of luxury, they might think of opulence or wealth, but we wanted to design an obtainable luxury that is made up of sumptuous comfort and warmth - design that wouldn't date and would work in both the summer and winter months."
Inspiration came from the breathtaking location and the design team has worked hard to try to bring the outside elements indoors by using soft, earthy, natural colours and textures.
"The surrounding area and landscape was our real inspiration," says Barr. "We used wide wooden floorboards and exposed wood walls. The deep ochre-yellow seen around the hotel was taken from the gorse bushes around the grounds. The sea-greens and blues on the furnishings were obviously taken from the sea; the greens from the rolling hills surrounding Gara Rock; and the raw textures and finishes on the accessories were a true reflection of the rugged coastline leading down to the sea."
The design changed throughout the project as the potential of Gara Rock started to evolve with, for instance, the addition of a private cinema, treatment rooms and the Secret Suite, which is a romantic couples hideaway set into the hillside near the hotel.
The team came together for the early planning stages in October 2017, so they were up against the clock to get the doors open by August 2018.
"Twelve months for any project is short, but to completely refurbish a hotel in the deepest depths of Devon was a challenge like no other," says Barr.
"The location of the hotel has been an ongoing difficulty. Anyone who has visited Gara Rock will know that even the nearest town of Kingsbridge is a 30-minute drive away and from there, you have to navigate very tight and windy lanes. Sometimes torrential snow and rain and other road hazards, including the occasional tractor, flock of sheep or cow on the run, would mean getting any deliveries to site was exceptionally tricky."
e refurbishment of the disparate buildings threw up a number of obstacles, particularly the addition of the Loft Suite rooms over the lounge and restaurant.
"The ceiling height was already very low, but it was necessary to get services, sound insulation and fireproofing in, meaning the ceiling had to come down even further," explains Barr. "That's when we came up with the idea to board the ceiling, giving it a Hamptons beachhouse kind of feel."
In fact, it has turned out to be one of the key features of the hotel and Barr believes the low ceiling height makes it feel cosier, especially considering the 45-metre-long The Penthouse room is open plan.
The public rooms
The restaurant and lounge bar are light and airy, but although they take in the seascape through panoramic windows, Barr avoided kitsch seaside details. There are maritime references, however, as seen in the bulkhead wall lights, rope details and some of the artwork. For example, black and white prints of fisherman sourced from old photo albums of the south Devon coast sit alongside original prints of local birds, fish, urchins and seaweed.
"We only gave a subtle nod to the nautical location and history of Gara Rock, as we feel this look is very common in seaside hotels. Gara Rock is just as much about the land as the sea," says Barr.
In line with this, the fabrics used are a combination of leathers, soft linens, luxurious flat velvets and subtle prints. The colour palette takes in oatmeals, deep, earthy browns, soft greens, burnt oranges, ochre yellows and sea blues.
"Using colours taken from the natural surroundings, we wanted each and every area of the hotel to feel soft, comfortably luxurious and inviting," says Barr.
Lighting plays an important part in creating the atmosphere. The team wanted to create a soft, warm and natural ambiance, hence the decision to remove all downlights where possible and to introduce the small bulkhead lights instead.
The fresh, natural design also complements the sustainably sourced menus, with dishes such as crab, celeriac rémoulade and herbs (£10), and red mullet, fennel and basil (£20).
All the bathrooms have half-height Farrow & Ball-painted panelling and the design team used strong geometric tiles of complementary colours by Bert & May to add an element of contemporary fun. Traditional-style bathroom fittings and iron mirrors give a solid and homely feel.
The colours and design follow through into the loft rooms, loft suites, junior suites, cottages and apartments, though it's worth singling out three new suites marketed as "Out of the Ordinary". The first is the Secret Suite: a romantic getaway; a bolthole cut out of the landscape.
"It envelops you in serenity and comfort," says Barr. "Just beyond your floor-to-ceiling windows, you step out onto your terrace from the warmth of your hotel suite and look directly out at the ocean. There's not a single soul overlooking you and are completely at one with the natural surroundings. Come rain or shine,
it's a sanctuary of peace and relaxation."
Another, the Signal House, is a fully equipped two-bedroom suite designed for a small family or two couples sharing.
"Step inside and you feel at home in the open-plan kitchen and living room with its own dining area," says Barr. "The furnishings are warm and inviting, the colours earthy and muted, making you feel instantly relaxed."
Step outside onto the large private sun terrace, which has direct access to the beach, and there is a William Holland tin hot tub that can be used by guests in all weather conditions.
The last suite, the Penthouse, spans the top two floors and has ocean views out of the curved windows. Again, it is suited to couples or families. The design draws inspiration from the surrounding scenery, with a mixture of raw linens, exposed wood walls and soft white bedsheets on sumptuous super-king beds.
The look combines modern materials and retro touches. Or, as Barr says: "It offers a type of luxury that is made up of sumptuous comfort and a homely atmosphere."
The top floor is a conical-eaved room with kitchen, living and dining areas. The lowerground floor has three bedrooms. There is a huge master bedroom with freestanding bathtub, a tiled walk-in shower enclosure, double basin, private changing area and a living area.
The second bedroom has a super-king bed with an en suite shower room, and the third has twin beds with a family bathroom across the hall.
Since opening, the hotel has performed better than budgeted. For example, at Christmas, bookings in the restaurant were up 30%-40%.
"The design has been pivotal in positioning the hotel," says Van Staden, prior to his departure in April. "We have seen a change in the demographic to a driven, younger generation who are more design-focused. We certainly have tapped into the millennials who follow us on Instagram, too. Obviously the setting we are in is very appealing."
Contact and details
Gara Rock, East Portlemouth, Salcombe, Devon TQ8 8FA
Owner Aria Resorts
Investment The relaunch is part of a £50m investment programme across Gara Rock and the other seven Aria resorts in the UK
Hotel director Jeff Ward
Head chef Christopher Warwick
Opened August 2018
Rates From £200 per room, inclusive of breakfast
Restaurant covers 100 inside or 150 with outside seating
Average F&B bill for dinner £45 for three courses
Fired Earth www.firedearth.com
Accessories Nkuku www.nkuku.com
GP& J Baker www.gpjbaker.com
Victorian Plumbing www.victorianplumbing.co.uk
QS Supplies www.qssupplies.co.uk
Bert & May www.bertandmay.com
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