Monkey Island: an isle of plenty

Once the haunt of kings and aristocrats on land once farmed by Medieval monks, Monkey Island Estate is now enjoying its new incarnation as a luxurious country house hotel. Wildflower takes a peek behind those Grade I-listed doors to discover a bucolic island retreat like no other

Monkey Island

Just an hour’s drive from London, Monkey Island Estate is an oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of city living. Set on a tiny island on the River Thames in the pretty village of Bray, Berkshire, this sumptuous hotel is steeped in a rich history that dates back more than 800 years. On the site of what was once a settlement for monks, the Grade I-listed Temple and Pavilion that form the property were commissioned in 1723 as a fishing retreat for the third Duke of Marlborough. As well as its popularity with visiting monarchs and aristocrats, it’s seen Elgar write a symphony and HG Wells conduct an affair. Rumours abound that the retreat’s exotic name derived from insane king George III’s banishment here with his pet monkey…

After a golden era lasting right up to the 1980s, Monkey Island fell into disrepair, before being snapped up by its new owners, YTL Hotels, proprietors of uber-chic hotels across the globe. Today, the Georgian buildings have been carefully restored and the seven acres of grounds beautifully landscaped. Award-winning New York-based Champalimaud Design was called in to weave the magic that has already made it the go-to interior designers for the likes of the Dorchester in London and The Carlyle in New York. The 41 bedrooms and suites ooze contemporary English country house charm, but for something truly exceptional, the grade I-listed Wedgewood Suite is not to be missed, with its fantastical original plasterwork ceiling resplendent with dolphins and mermaids all-encompassing windows giving stunning panoramic views.

Those beautiful grounds, meanwhile, provide an endless source of inspiration. “Garden elements can be found throughout the hotel, from the botanical wallcovering in the entry hall to the Brasserie,” says Andrew Jordan, vice president of YTL Hotels. And it’s not just the grounds — the surrounding river provides its own inspiration, too. Moored on the banks of the island is a luxurious floating spa, the very first of its kind. “We couldn’t actually build on the island,” says Andrew, “so we took the spa
to the waters instead and commissioned a custom-made barge.”

The spa menu pays tribute to Monkey Island’s past — don’t miss The Monks’ Elixir, which promises to deliver booze, botany and beauty in a 90-minute treatment that takes its inspiration from the 12th-century Augustinian monks who settled along the river at Bray Lock. Meanwhile, herbal tinctures that are crafted on board by the team of beauty experts dressed in nautically themed uniforms merely add to the desire to slip into that white fluffy robe.

And if the lure of the river continues, while away an hour or so on a gentle cruise, with locally made Harrow and Hope fizz and canapés to add to the decadent delight.

Sumptuous treats of a different kind are on the menu at the Monkey Island Brasserie — the perfect place for a long lazy lunch and with a picturesque terrace where guests can enjoy outdoor dining while admiring the idyllic river views. Competing with Bray’s many Michelin-starred restaurants was always going to be a daunting task, but the Brasserie is already making its mark on the area, serving a modern take on British classics. Keeping things truly local, the hotel grows much of its own vegetables and herbs in its Alitex-designed glasshouses and extensive kitchen garden, with a smokery on hand for the delicious smoked salmon that appears at breakfast.

The Monkey Room, meanwhile, is a glorious spot for afternoon tea, where guests can marvel at the original hunting, shooting and fishing monkeys-as-humans frescoes on the ceiling, which were so popular in the 18th century. When cocktail hour beckons, The Monkey Bar is the place to be for a perfectly poured creation — and be sure to find the secret staircase to the Whisky Snug for a sneaky postprandial.

For larger family groups wishing to staycation in style after lockdown, new this year are six private residences, offering guests a choice of charming period accommodation. Named to reflect their individual nature, the residences blend classic style with contemporary and luxury comfort — and each has an intriguing history. Long White Cloud, for example, is where Edward Elgar is known to have stayed and composed some of his greatest works, while more recent residents include Formula One racing legend, Sir Stirling Moss. This magnificent 19th-century property has four large bedroom suites accompanied by an impressive kitchen and charming garden, ideal for alfresco dining in the summer months. Sitting on the banks of the River Thames, Long White Cloud also has a private pool and jetty, ideal for those who may wish to arrive by boat.

Guests at the residences will have a fully stocked fridge on arrival, along with pre-arranged food orders collected on their behalf in advance so they can rustle up simple suppers or gourmet. Those looking for something more special can request a private chef to cook for them in the comfort of the residences. Guests staying at The Residences can also make the most of a 10% discount on all food and drink at the Monkey Brasserie and Bar.

Rates at Monkey Island start from £275 per room per night. Visit monkeyislandestate.co.uk.

Nightly rates for the private residences start from the following prices and are subject to length of stay and a minimum three-night stay is required at all residences over summer weekends: Sundial Cottage from £1,250; Brook House from £1,500; Long White Cloud from £1,400; Bray House from £1,250; Dormer Cottage from £400 and Lavender House from £1,000.

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