IT SOUNDS LIKE A HIDEAWAY IN AFRICA OR INDIA— or perhaps a place for primates to reside in a city zoo. In fact, this one-time home to herbal elixir-making monks, fishing retreat for an 18th-century duke, secret nefarious nook for Eton student playboys, and raucous party spot for Princess Margaret and her cohorts lies in the pastoral English countryside, just 30 minutes north of London. Mere steps from the idyllic village of Bray-on-Thames where three Michelin-starred restaurants tempt (including 3-star Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal), the island occupies seven acres amid the Thames, accessible only by footbridge or boat.
Redolent with intriguing histories (some of which can’t be put into writing), the retreat smacks of mystery and intrigue. Monkey Island Estate could be the setting for any favorite British literary tale. The estate was once owned by somebody called (Clue fans, take note) Mrs. Plum; Edward Elgar composed here; Rebecca West and H.G. Wells stole away for writing jaunts and romantic rendezvous—to name a few fun facts. It’s whispered that more than one queen stopped over for sustenance after a stay at Windsor Castle, as well.
In fact, this one-time home to herbal elixir-making monks, fishing retreat for an 18th-century duke, secret nefarious nook for Eton student playboys, and raucous party spot for Princess Margaret and her cohorts lies in the pastoral English countryside, just 30 minutes north of London.
However, the hideaway fell on hard times until Malayasian-based YTL decided to make it legendary again. The estate re- opened last summer after major renovations as an intimate, 5-star resort. Expect stellar service, country house- style British sensibility, a languorous ambiance befitting the blue-blooded class, slow canal boats on the river, and a moored vessel which serves as a spa—but not one monkey in sight.
As it turns out, Monkey Island, once called Monk’s Eyot (or “Monk’s Isle” in Old English) was named for the medieval holy men who lived and worked here. Known for their curative tinctures and potions, they grew herbs and traded their wares and garden products with passing apothecary vessels, gaining a reputation for helping travelers heal. In an artful homage to the monks, as well as to the island’s history as a regal playground, YTL, a hotel group known for soulful refurbishments of historic properties, has reinvented the retreat. Now, rather than administer to the ill as the monks did, the island can ease stressed travelers to elegant repose and entertainment.
When in residence, enjoy interiors by New York’s Champalimaud Design (responsible for iconic design at places such as London’s Dorchester and Manhattan’s Carlisle Hotel), which reference the past with a tony, slightly reserved modernity. Reflecting former times, the mood across the grounds remains clubby and crisp—yet
It’s the sort of destination that makes one hanker to dance across the lawn in a chiffon dress, your arms wrapped around someone wearing a tuxedo, flutes of champagne clutched in your respective hands. You may even find yourself playing croquet.
friendly. Holding just 30 rooms, plus a handful of re- fashioned riverside cottages, and ideal for families and larger groups, the resulting, redone estate has exclusive appeal. It’s the sort of destination that makes one hanker to dance across the lawn in a chiffon dress, your arms wrapped around someone wearing a tuxedo, flutes of champagne clutched in your respective hands. You may even find yourself playing croquet.
I cherish the idea of sipping where aristocrats, writers, artists, musicians—perhaps kings and presidents, too—swigged before me.
I connect with the monks’ spirit the night I arrive, when I tipple in the Monkey Bar, set in one of the island’s classic, white, Palladian-styled buildings. Seated on a velvety couch, I peruse the menu and order a libation that borrows from the monk’s legacy—a concoction drawing from the power of plants and herbs. It fools me into believing that even the alcohol might be healthy. Called a Merton Priory, it comprises a bitter blend of Punt e Mess, Gagliardo Bitter Radicale, orange oil, and house-made walnut syrup—all medicinal, in a good way. While I wait for its delivery, I gaze up and gasp. As if from a dream, the ceiling is alive with naughty monkeys—or at least paintings of them—, dressed as human beings, fishing, shooting, and acting in the guise of country gentle-men. This centuries-old mural adds whimsey and gravitas to the otherwise modernized historic buildings, a perfect melding of old and new. I cherish the idea of sipping where aristocrats, writers, artists, musicians—perhaps kings and presidents, too—swigged before me.
No matter how much I wish to pack the Monkey Bar into my suitcase and take it home with me (as if one could, though the effects of the monk-ish drink do make me think magic is possible), I fall further under the resort’s spell and the monks’ influences at The Floating Spa the following day. Imagined to reflect the region’s history, the moored, vintage-looking canal boat has just three rooms. It takes its treatment cues from healing herbs and house-made oils, not to mention the boat’s rocking rhythm. I receive a face-changing treatment, which includes a peat mask.
But, monkeying around isn’t the only thing to do at Monkey Island Estate. One can ride horses, enjoy water sports on a nearby lake, take boat rides, learn to smoke salmon in the garden-side smokehouse, watch the guards change at nearby Windsor Castle, learn about beekeeping, and bop into the village for hard-to-get reservations at some of the UK’s best restaurants. All the while, with London less than an hour away, visitors can combine an urban holiday with a bucolic, rural stay–just as the glitterati did in the old days
I think the monks (and the monkeys) would approve.