In search of a holiday that's got the feel-good factor? Don't forget your favourite gang
Words by Tracey Nightingale
We’ve almost made it through January (hurray!), but if you still need cheering up, a weekend away with friends may be just the tonic. Board games, booze and brilliant company – what’s not to love? Nothing, apparently, according to a new happiness report by Booking.com, which found that 76 per cent of Brits are happiest when travelling with friends and family, which probably explains why group celebration holidays (hen weekends, weddings, birthdays) are a big new travel trend. I decided to round-up the gang for a group weekend away at The Luxurious Mansion (Peymans) in Oxford to put the findings to the test.
The key to a successful group stay (and maintaining beautiful friendships) is space, and for a party of up to 11, The Luxurious Mansion in Oxford has plenty to offer. Just off the main road into the city centre, with handy driveway parking and a bus stop outside, stepping into this shiny new three-storey house in prosperous Summertown is like being let loose in a show home (minus the smug estate agent). Gleaming white hallway with polished underfloor-heated tiles, glass doors through to the spacious living area and bifolds beckoning you out into the tidy garden with patio chairs and table for al-fresco dining – it’s a promising start. Upstairs doesn’t disappoint either. There’s a large modern bathroom, and the four bedrooms (two en-suite with walk-in showers) have a neutral palette and a luxe hotel vibe – think crisp white sheets, fluffy towels and soft-pile carpets – while the master has the added bonus of high ceilings and a garden view (you may want to draw straws for this one). Without a doubt, this house ticks the chic weekend sleepover and big family gathering boxes. And as you’d expect, there’s Wi-Fi to post all those Insta shots of the high-spec kitchen and large dining table fit for Jamie Oliver-style feasts with the gang. The kitchen has ample room for us to all to muck in, as well as a double oven, large hob, microwave and dishwasher (the washing machine’s in a separate utility room). There’s also a warming drawer (I’ve always wanted one of those), Nespresso machine (and one of those) and wine fridge (you’re spoiling me now). But tempting as it is to spend all our time holed up here chatting over a few glasses of Prosecco and home-cooked lasagne, this is a great location to get out and explore.
If you only eat out once, make it at The Oxford Kitchen. Just down the road from the house and nestled among Summertown’s unassuming parade of shops this modern British restaurant is causing quite a stir on the Oxford fine-dining scene. An exciting menu coupled with exposed brick walls and cosy booths make it a stylish go-to for brunch, lunch or a celebration dinner. We chose a la carte (£32 for two courses or £37 for three) and dived into tasty seared scallops with crispy pork belly and curried cauliflower, and Insta-worthy, almost too pretty to eat goat’s cheese panna cotta with beetroot. Likewise, mains are inventive and served with a flourish by executive chef John Footman, whose CV includes a stint working for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, so expect crowd-pleasing chef-y touches like lime foam. The lamb cooked three ways is gloriously succulent, the roasted stone bass is excellent and the chicken is deliciously moreish. The kids menu is spot on, too, and so are the cocktails and desserts. Service is attentive, yet warm and friendly, and this combined with fabulous food make it a popular spot, so as a group it’s wise to book.
For a more casual, central eatery, we also popped into Vaults & Garden in Oxford’s famous Radcliffe Square, a unique little pit stop for lunch or afternoon tea. Housed in the university’s old congregation house of 1320, this busy little canteen-style cafe with heavenly vaulted ceiling is bursting with charm. You may have to queue to be seated at one of long refectory tables (typically about 15 minutes), but you’ll be rewarded with yummy organic food that caters for all tastes from hearty beef stroganoff (£10) to vegan spiced chickpea tagine (£9). In summer, you can sit at one of the tables outside or on a picnic blanket and snap selfies in the shadow of the iconic Radcliffe Camera.
Tucked away down an alley behind Whistles – the shopping here is good too, FYI, but more on that later – TVC (The Varsity Club) feels like a hidden gem. However, unsurprisingly, given its successful formula of cracking cocktails and a fabulous view, word has got out about this cool four-storey space, but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. This is a stylish spot to hang out and party with friends. On a clear day, the rooftop is the place to be, where imaginative cocktails and sharing platters are mixed with funky beats and a view of Oxford’s dreamy spires. Most of the seating on the roof is first come first served, but you can secure a table in advance with a minimum £30 spend per person (tvcoxford.co.uk). At weekends, after the sun goes down, head inside for drinks and dancing till 2am.
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Oxford is a city of grandeur that’s full of awesome architecture, pristine parks and meandering rivers, where you can go picnicking and punting in the summer (oxfordpunting.co.uk). For a group, the beauty of the city is that it’s compact, but with narrow, cobbled alleyways to negotiate so getting your bearings can sometimes be tricky (even with Google maps). If sightseeing is your thing, it may be easier to let a guide show you round. Footprints-tours.com covers all the major must-sees, including the university’s Christchurch and Trinity colleges, the Bodleian Library, Radcliffe Camera and Bridge of Sighs. It’s fun, informative and free, but make sure you tip your guide – around £10 per person should suffice. Elsewhere, the Ashmolean Museum of art and archaeology (free) is impressive and has a super rooftop cafe with terrace and terrific views. Modern Art Oxford (free) is also worth checking out, and if you have kids in tow they’ll love Oxford Castle (£10.75 per adult), Museum of Natural History (free) and the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum (free).
The city has a healthy selection of high-street stores, but also make sure you take time to seek out the independent boutiques, bookshops, delis and vintage finds dotted around the centre. The charming 19th-century Covered Market has a mix of independents, coffee shops and food stalls, too. About ten miles from Summertown, bargains are to be found in the designer outlet shops at Bicester Village, but we decide against joining the six million people who visit each year – maybe we didn’t want Céline and Salvatore Ferragamo to come between us or maybe the lure of an unfinished cheese board and that wine fridge was just a little too hard to resist.
The Luxurious Mansion (Peymans) costs from £717 for two nights and can be booked through Booking.com, where you can find your perfect self-catering cottage or property in the UK and abroad.
Best of the rest…
For groups up to 19, luxe Stuckgowan House (from £2,293 for two nights), in a fairytale forest overlooking Scotland’s stunning Loch Lomond, has a cinema and 7-seater hot tub. Voltaire (from £1,950 for a weekend) offers boutique-style living for up to 12 in Beaminster, Dorset. It’s close to the Jurassic Coast’s fabulous beaches and has an indoor pool. If you’re after a unique rural retreat, the Pumphouse in Hilgay, Norfolk (from £1,659 per week) sleeps 14 and has riverside walks on the doorstep and a private chef available on request. For a classic countryside escape, check out the cosy apartments at Tranmer House, on the historic National Trust site of Sutton Hoo (from £259 for two nights). Or if it’s a sleek, open-plan cottage with the perfect barbecue terrace you’re after, check out Cranmer Cottages in Fakenham, near to Norfolk’s dramatically beautiful north coast (from £695 for six people). And don’t forget to bring your crew.