Wales' Premier Independent Travel Magazine

Loco About voco: Yes They Really Are That good

We’ve become very fond of Berkshire and Oxfordshire so every chance we get a weekend off, we go exploring.
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Oxfordshire and Berkshire are lovely counties. Home to beautiful English towns sprinkled across some of the most gorgeous countryside in the UK. It’s no surprise that rock and pop stars usually end up buying country piles in this neck of the woods.

voco Reading’s restaurant. Great food and excellent service.

Sadly we don’t have their millions so have to spend very carefully when looking to stay a few nights here. On this occasion, voco hotels caught our eye (part of the IHG Hotels and Resorts group) and we thought we’d try their Reading hotel and Oxford Thames – one of the reasons being they had recently promoted bird-watching packages in both hotels, including Cardiff, so we were intrigued.

We’re not fully paid-up twitchers but we do love to walk in the countryside with our dog and we do love the wildlife. Being around water helps too, rivers and streams seem to attract many species, so it makes sense basing oneself around waterways. Hmmm “oneself”, not a word I’d use ordinarily. Perhaps it’s because we were going to be close to Royal London.

Our first voco was Reading. If you’re into your football, you’ll know it’s located next to Reading Football Club. That didn’t bother us when booking but we were advised not to arrive between certain times because there was a game on and we might want to avoid the traffic. Our timing meant that we did hit a bit of match traffic, but it had no real impact and we arrived more-or-less on time. There’s plenty of parking and we managed to grab a space about fifty metres from the entrance which was handy.

When you arrive, the hotel appears to be part of the stadium. They are conjoined, part of the Select Car Leasing Stadium as it’s officially named, home to Reading Football Club. Not sure of the history but, from what we gathered, the land was originally purchased by Chairman Sir John Madejski (for a £1 allegedly) and he developed the site including the stadium, hotel and surrounding estate which houses a few hundred businesses and corporate entities. While the site was being developed, green spaces and waterways were incorporated and a pretty decent job they did of it too.

The hotel itself is classed as four star and visually it lives up to its rating. It’s stylish, spacious and immaculate inside. We were fortunate to be staying in a one-bedroom suite which was very impressive. The rooms are as stylishly designed as the rest of the hotel. The bed was super comfortable and the bathroom very smart too. Having said that, I thought they could have made the bathroom larger taking a little space from the lounge – a walk in shower would have been nice rather than a step-over. Just an observation. The shower was easy to operate, and the pressure and temperature controls were excellent (so many aren’t these days). There’s nothing worse than a lukewarm shower.

After checking in, we decided to take a walk around the area and observed plenty of waterfowl including ducks, swans, coots etc. The recent torrential rain had made some of the paths around Foudry Brook waterlogged but we enjoyed the experience nonetheless. voco provide binoculars and bird seed as part of this package and we spent a good five minutes feeding the ducks on our walk.

As the light fell, we made our way back to the hotel for a quick freshen up before dinner. The room is well appointed and has a decent size flat-screen television plus a good selection of teas and coffees and some complimentary water plus fruit and tasteful bird themed art which was a nice touch and very much in keeping with the bird-watching package.

Before dinner, we thought we’d have a drink in the bar which is about four floors in height – not sure why but it makes a statement. I imagine it’s very popular when the hotel is busy and when full would have a great atmosphere. There are tables and chairs, plus some nice, curved booths which felt more private and, as we say in Wales, cwtchy. On this evening,it was relatively quiet with no more than a dozen people there. Soon it was time for dinner so we headed through. The restaurant, although being quite open plan felt surprisingly intimate but if anything was going to surprise us, it was the quality of the food.

What a brilliant meal! From the starters to the desserts, everything was simply perfect. Our rib-eyes were cooked perfectly, and the cheese board was superb. They must have a very good brigade in the kitchen. As we’re doffing our caps to the staff, we have to sing their praises here. Every one was amazing and are a credit to the company. We extend particular praise to our waitress Juliana who was an absolute delight. Juliana was from Brazil, and we had a great conversation with her about her life, Sao Paulo and where she recommended locally. What a lovely young lady.

The next morning, after a good breakfast (thank you Jade and the breakfast team!), we checked out and headed off to Lower Calversham a few miles away for a walk along the river Thames (one of the places suggested by Juliana). We didn’t really go into the village but will certainly explore another time. On this occasion, we were just intent on having a relaxing, autumnal, waterside walk and we did. It was lovely.

After about an hour, and a great looping walk down the Thames over a bridge and back up the other side, we were back at our car and Windsor beckoned. It’s about 30 minutes away (a touch over twenty miles). We had toyed with driving to Kingston-upon-Thames but Mayor Khan’s ludicrous Ulez fees put us off completely. The M25 has now become an invisible wall for most road travellers outside Greater London, and I really feel for the businesses and residents that it’s affecting. Anyway, we’d never been to Windsor, so we fired up our fifteen-year-old Fiat Doblo diesel and off we tootled.

Windsor, home to Windsor Castle, has to be up there on the coach day-trip charts if our visit was anything to go by. I mentioned Ulez fees, well the parking charges in Windsor come an eye-watering close second. We were only there four hours and we got mugged for £15. Is it worth the fee? Honestly, yes. We resisted the castle visit but it seems huge and from our brief conversations with departing visitors, the overwhelming opinion was that it was money well spent. Windsor is charming no doubt, but we must confess to being slightly disappointed. It didn’t have as many independent shops as we’d hoped, and its main high street just seemed like a bit of a clone of most UK town centres. There was also quite a bit of litter which surprised us. Anyway, we took ourselves off for a walk up and down the riverbank and, to be fair, that sort of restored our faith as it was very pretty.

As we completed our walk down the opposite bank, we happened upon Eton. Now Eton is a different story. Galleries, antique shops, restaurants, boutiques and, of course, the famous Eton school. It’s much prettier and well worth a stroll through if you’re in Windsor. Would we return to Windsor? Absolutely. Together with Eton, and the castle, it has a lot to offer. It would be nice to actually book a hotel there and really get into the town. We think it has a lot to offer and we merely scratched the surface.

After a solid four hours exploring Windsor and Eton, we headed for our next voco – Oxford Thames. The hotel sits in thirty acres of grounds and gardens near Oxford, thankfully outside Oxford’s low emission zone so that was a bonus (we checked before we visited). It feels very rural on arrival and is, like its sister hotel in Reading, in an area near to waterways where you can have a wander and check out the bird life, which we did straight away after checking in. Reception is part of what appears to be an old barn and it’s clear this hotel has a lot of history attached. The extended bits have been incorporated with great sympathy to the original structures and it all knits together very nicely. The little voco Woodie (Morris 1000) certainly adds to the charm.

After a walk in which we sighted a huge heron, we rewarded ourselves with a nice tipple in the bar before dinner at Napier’s, the in-house restaurant. Had we wanted a dip before dinner, we could have. There’s a really nice pool, leisure club and spa, and a decent gym.

Napier’s offers full à la carte or set menu. We went for the two course set menu but, while the selection was naturally limited, the kitchen still delivered an excellent meal. Our starters and mains were very good indeed and the staff every bit as attentive as Reading. Clearly voco train them well, or perhaps it’s something in the water being near the Thames. Either way we were impressed.

Our room, a King Deluxe, was smaller than our suite at Reading but, nevertheless, it was certainly impressive. The outlook was superb. We were on the ground floor, and we could open our door onto the lawn and walk to the river beyond. Somehow it just felt more cosy, and we liked that. Again, design, fit and finish were superb and the bed was one of the best we’d slept in. Everything about this hotel felt quality.

We’ve stayed in lots of ‘four star’ hotels and many barely scrape by. When it comes to their star four rating, do voco Reading and voco Oxford Thames cut the mustard? Certainly. The only real issue I have with that is the staff – they’re definitely five stars, and Juliana’s possibly a six.

voco Reading
Select Car Leasing Stadium, Reading, RG2 0FL
0118 925 3500

voco Oxford Thames
Henley Road, Sandford-on-Thames
Oxford OX4 4GX
01865 334 444

Did we mention dog friendliness?
Not sure about Reading but Oxford certainly is with a supplement. Maybe we’ll take our Roxy next time.

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