By Ian Beverley
We've just come back from a nice relaxing stay at the Cliffden hotel in Teignmouth Devon. I thought it would be good to write a short blog about this as the hotel has been through many changes in the last few years and our experiences have varied during this time.
The cliffden was formally owned by Guide dogs; initially run by themselves but latterly, it was operated by Action for Blind People and the RNIB. The hotel was set up in 1990 to provide holidays for people with a visual impairement; facilitating excurtions to all points of the south-west of England. In latter years, the hotel was put onto a more commercial footing and although the emphasis was still placed on being a VI friendly hotel, it also opened up its doors to everyone and the need to make things pay became more of a consideration.
A couple of years ago, the decision was taken to sell the hotel. In itself, this caused a lot of contraversy and fear that this facility would be lost to the commercial sector; hence deminishing holiday opportunities for many people. Earlier this year, Starboard hotels baught the cliffden and the hotel became part of a larger more commercially minded organisation.
Everything clearly needed to settle down, as the initial vibes that we were getting from the hotel were mixed at best. Clearly, to meet commercial pressures, Starboard need to make their facilities pay and not just at a break even level. We were initially told that specific facilities would not be retained and that it would simply become a mainstream hotel. We visited in July for a few days just to test the water. Our fears were partially cleared as the welcome was as friendly as ever, but the magic of the past did seem to be wayning.
However, during the following months, we'd received some very positive messages in terms of Starboard's intentions and that the cliffden would, like it's sister hotel in Windermere, be kept as very VI friendly destinations. In fact, Starboard are wanting to make all of their hotels VI friendly, which is indeed fantastic news.
As mentioned at the top of this article, we've just come back from a weeks stay. It was important to give it extra time and more chance as the change of ownership of any hotel does need that time. From the moment we stepped through the doors, it was apparent that things felt much more settled. The welcome from the reception staff was wonderful and made you feel at ease straight away. In some commercial hotels, you are just made to feel like a number, in the cliffden you were made to feel part of the family (I am not taken to wild exagerations by the way).
Unlike the summer, this time we decided to book half board and have our evening meals in the hotel. The menu has certainly changed and follows a more uniformed setting. It's still three course, but there are the same options each day along with a daily special for starters, mains and desserts (along with a soup of the day). We didn't find this as bad as first feared with the standard of the food to be fairly good; although staying any longer would have presented its challenges. There is room for adaptation I believe as the vegetarian options are sadly limited, but I understand that the chef will help and do something different if discussed beforehand. The service was good and very friendly and helpful. Waiting times were generally fine; although on our saturday evening, things did take too long to arrive at the table.
Pricing is always going to be the most difficult part of the holiday. Prices have gone up and this has to be taken into consideration when going to the hotel. What must be remembered is that prices are on a very commercial footing. For those saying that places like warners, premiere inn and the like are much cheaper, those organisations either have more establishments and/or see a great throughput of people. This drives prices down and commercially they can do it. This is a challenge for starboard as clearly providing deals is a way of getting more people in, but when they do advertise discounted stays, it is important to take advantage of this. Not only in terms of expense, but in terms of demonstrating that there is still a demand for specific VI provision. quite a difficult balance.
It was good to hear that excurtions were being kept for the time being; albeit one of the two each week would be a dog walk. We were thrown a little by this as the one we'd booked on and had expected to be a visit was indeed a dog walk. No problem in terms of giving my dog a run (which is always good) but it wasn't something that we both couldn't go on.
On the whole, the visit was positive. The hotel are still keeping their volunteers, but for how long, we're not sure. This is a crucial side to maintaining specialist provision because the volunteers have and continue to provide an essential outlet to getting out and about. If you want to be able to access the local area then please enquire about booking a volunteer prior to arriving at the hotel. My fear is that there is not a facility for recruiting new volunteers and that in time this provision may decrease.
In an ideal world, we should be able to access many if not all holiday opportunities. Realistically, this is not possible; hence why I think hotels such as the cliffden are a vital option for taking a break in the UK. It may not be for everyone, but I would encourage as many people as possible to give it a chance.