Even if you are not crazy about the traditional British seaside summer holiday – too many kids and dogs, too much sand in your sandwiches – there’s something quite magical about a beach out of season, especially one as magnificent as the West Sands of St Andrews, which is right outside your window if you are lucky enough to stay in one of Hotel du Vin’s two superior suites.
The thing about the Fife town is that it doesn’t really do off-peak – thanks to the twin populations of golfers and students, there is always something on.
If last year was all about the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, 2015 sees the greatest golf competition of them all return to its natural home, with the 144th Open due to be contested in St Andrews in July. However, when we visited last month, the town was full of wordsmiths rather than sports fans as the StAnza poetry festival was in full flow. (The students, meanwhile, were dressed up in lederhosen celebrating a belated, or super early, Oktoberfest, but that’s another story).
There were events and slams and readings galore, but my favourite vehicle of delivering poetry to the masses was the Emergency Poet, who offered consultations inside her 1970s ambulance parked outside St Andrews Public Library on Church Square, prescribing poems as cures for various ills.
I hopped in the back, lay down under a red hospital issue blanket and answered a series of questions about my reading tastes, as well as any current concerns, while the Emergency Poet took notes and looked thoughtful. A brief rummage through her files produced medication in the form of an extract from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and a poem by Denise Levertov with instructions to “take poem as often as necessary while sitting by a window and in silence”.
I instantly felt better – do look out for the Emergency Poet, she’s often found at festivals in the summer. However, if you are more interested in actual food, rather than food for the soul, there’s plenty on offer.
The peripatetic Fife Farmers Market rolls into St Andrews on the first Saturday of the month, from 9am until 1pm, with around 20 stallholders in attendance at North Car Park, off Argyle Street. Buy Spink’s Arbroath Smokies fresh off the smoker, or choose from the selection of wild game pies at The Wee Pie Company.
You’re spoilt for choice for lunch and dinner options too. St Andrews seems to have a disproportionately large offering of coffee shops and artisan delis thanks to its cosmopolitan residents. We had Cullen skink at Mitchell (110-112 Market Street, tel: 01334 441 396, mitchellsdeli.co.uk) for lunch on Saturday and on our first night, a perfectly breaded haddock, chips and peas at The Tailend (130 Market Street, tel: 01334 474 070, www.thetailend.co.uk). Highlights included a generous serving of their homemade tartare sauce and the news that you could scoff as many portions of the cute little baskets of chips as you like.
However, the big treat was dinner in Hotel du Vin’s bistro on Saturday night.
Opened last spring, the St Andrews outpost is the most recent acquisition of the group. Converted from a family home it launched with 22 rooms, later expanding the accommodation offer to 36, including a space for functions.
The location is classic, in the middle of a row of terraced sandstone tenements, complete with bay windows, but the hotel’s signature modern design touches are evident within. On the ground floor you’ll find the bistro, where breakfast is also served, and bars, including the whisky snug and the Macallan boardroom.
Upstairs, the bedrooms showcase all the boutique accents we’ve come to expect from this brand – in-room coffee machines, oversized baths, often with separate monsoon showers, flat-screen TVs and Egyptian cotton bed linen and duvets.
There are little touches of luxury everywhere to let you know that you are staying in a classy establishment. Even the toiletries are bespoke – the Terre du Vin products in the bathrooms are made exclusively for the hotel by high-end perfumier Miller Harris.
The formula of marrying Scottish ingredients with French recipes works really well in the relaxed setting of the bistro restaurant. One of us had to order the Comte cheese souffle – it’s one of the standout dishes that has been on the menu since the launch of the chain. It didn’t disappoint, but it did ensure that the mooted activity of a run on the West Sands the following morning was marked down as a definite.
Once committed to the Chariots of Fire reenactment there was no stopping us – there was more cheese in a tasty side dish of spinach au gratine, an unusual take on a shepherd’s pie with duck as the filling, and a classic sole meuniere which arrived swimming in a caper and brown shrimp beurre noisette. A pleasingly solid mousse au chocolat with creme chantilly and a tarte au citron with raspberry sorbet nearly broke us, but we made it – although we certainly didn’t set any records for speed as we paid homage to Eric Liddell the next day.
• Hotel du Vin St Andrews, 40 the Scores, St Andrews, tel: 0844 7489269, www.hotelduvin.com
• Doubles/twins from £160-£260 per night, suites from £240-£360 a night; breakfast is not included.
• Current promotions include Settle in Sundays, where your room rate is just £25 if you spend £75 in the bistro; www.hotelduvin.com/offers/special-offers/settle-in-sundays/