Breaking Travel News investigates by Chris O’Toole
A beautiful slice of countryside, Monkey Island.
Sitting, watching the geese waddle past, pecking at the manicured lawns, it seems this is the storybook England overseas visitors imagine, this is what they come for.
The Thames gurgles gently in the background as I take in the chicken coop, smoke house and lovingly restored buildings, all of which to combine to create an idyll.
Reopening earlier this year, the estate it is owned by YTL Hotels, a Malaysian conglomerate with globe-spanning ambitions.
The property traces its history back for nearly a millennium.
A former monastery (home to the monks in Monkey Island), the location has also played host to monarchs, aristocrats and writers alike.
This enchanting location and intriguing history attracted the attention of YTL Corporation founder, Yeoh Tiong Lay, who decided to add it to his stable of investments.
Sadly, Yeoh passed away in 2017, before the project came to fruition, but a statue on the grounds marks his memory, staring out over the river.
As general manager, Lee Kelly, explains: “The company, YTL Corporation, is a large Malaysian conglomerate, with interests in many sectors.
“It is a small part of what we do, but it is still sizable – I believe we now have 38 properties around the world.
“In hospitality, our hotels tend to operate independently, or in partnership with Marriott, usually as part of the Autograph Collection.”
YTL owns the Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, the Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui and they are building a new Ritz-Carlton in Niseko, Japan, where they already own a number of hotels.
Here in the UK, they own the Gainsborough Bath Spa, as well as the Glasshouse in Edinburgh and the Academy in London.
“So, the hospitality element is sizable and continues to grow,” adds Kelly.
Indeed, Kelly’s appointment reflects the owner’s ambition for Monkey Island.
A Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts stalwart, he has been brought in to ensure the property reaches its full potential.
Set across seven acres, the estate boasts the striking white bricked Pavilion, home to 30 rooms, as well as the smaller Barn, with a further 11.
The décor of Monkey Island juxtaposes timeless glamour and traditional features with a modern and relaxed countryside style, creating a unique blend of past and present.
New York-based Champalimaud Design are responsible for the design.
The landscape uses a beautiful combination of mature trees, shrubs and a huge variety of British plants to create a magical journey.
Here guests can enjoy an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city living.
Bobbing on the river, the brilliantly named Floating Spa also does exactly what it says on the bow, while the Dragonfly is moored nearby, waiting for those who wish to explore further.
Situated in Bray-on-Thames, just 30 minutes from Paddington station in central London, the hotel sits in one of the most famous culinary destinations in England.
This is the perfect foodie pilgrimage, with the village being noted as the only one in the world to house three Michelin-starred restaurants.
“We work very well with the village, there are a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants here, including three from Heston Blumenthal,” explains Kelly.
“You have the Crown, which is a quintessential English pub, the Hind’s Head, and, of course, the Fat Duck, which is three-starred Michelin restaurant.
“There is also the Waterside Inn with Michel Roux, which is again three Michelin-starred.
“So, we do find that a lot of guests will come for that, special occasions, bucket list events, and then stay here with us.
“The fabulous restaurants almost become part of our offering – a selling feature of the hotel.”
For the true gourmand, there are also a number of residences, operated by the hotel, located in the village.
“One of our residences, Lavender, is literally two doors down from the Fat Duck, so you can waddle out of there and over to your bed for the night,” jokes Kelly.
But Monkey Island is more than just accommodation for the more famous restaurants, it is also a hub for the local community.
The Monkey Island Brasserie, headed up by executive chef William Hemming, is making a mark of its own.
A sophisticated yet casual location, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on the river, it offers guests a modern take on British classics, with produce freshly sourced from the surrounding countryside.
Over coffee Kelly points out Sunday lunch is a tradition for the hotel, always selling out, despite the famous competition.
“At the beginning we looked at getting a ‘name’ chef for the hotel, but when you talk to the local residents, they all have a personal connection to the hotel, many have been married here, for example.
“This led us in a different direction; we wanted something accessible, something that would complement, rather than compete, with the village and what is on offer there.
“We are not necessarily looking for a Michelin star, but it would be great if one came!”
He adds: “We opened the restaurant early, and invited the local residents of the village to come and enjoy it.
“That was brilliantly received, and we officially opened the food and beverage in late March.
“People love the island, the landscaping of the property, the chance to sit outside with a glass of Champagne by the river – it just really works for a lot of people.
“It is a hub of the community; people would look in to see how the work was going – so it is good to return it to the village.”
Of course, like any hotel, there have been challenges.
Opening was delayed by more than a year as the Grade I listed status of the building slowed restoration, while Brexit has played a role in building a team.
As Kelly adds: “There have been challenges getting the team together – and I think any hotelier would say the same, from the Savoy in central London, through to those in more remote locations.
“There are concerns for the wider industry.
“We did see a bit impact from Brexit, immediately, which created uncertainty in our traditional labour markets in Europe.
“But we also have very low unemployment, the lowest since 1972, which also impacts on us.
“So many economies in Europe are also all doing very well, so there is no longer than need to come over to the UK, whereas there might have been 20 years ago.
“That being said, the team we have, we focus on quality, and we are creative.
“Staff might not have done certain jobs before, but we draw on our other hotels to train our staff, to take them in new directions.”
But overall it is hard to call Monkey Island anything except a success.
The time and effort YTL and their partners have put into their property has been well rewarded and the group has been left with a sumptuous, refined and terribly British property in the very heart of the countryside.
For more on Monkey Island Estate, head over to the official website.