Monkey Island Estate.
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 countryside, just 30 minutes north of London. Mere steps from the idyllic village of Bray-on-Thames, where three Michelin-starred restaurants tempt (including three-star Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal), the island occupies seven acres amid the Thames, accessed only by footbridge or boat. Redolent with intriguing histories (some of which can’t be put into writing), it smacks of mysteries and intrigues. Monkey Island Estate could be the setting for any favorite British literary tale. Imagine for example: 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 way 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. But, the estate had fallen on hard times until Malayasian-based YTL decided to make it legendary again. It re-opened this summer after major renovations as an intimate, five-star resort. Expect stellar service, country house-style British sensibility, a languorous ambiance befitting the blue blood class, slow canal boats on the river, 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 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 them, 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 monk’s 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 interiors 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 friendly. Holding just 30 rooms, plus a handful of re-fashioned riverside cottages, ideal for families and larger groups, the resulting redone estate has exclusive appeal. It’s the sort of destination which makes you want 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 connect with the monk’s vibe the first night when I have a drink in the Monkey Bar, set in one of the island’s classic, white Palladian-styled buildings. On a velvety couch, I peruse the menu and order a libation that borrows from the monk’s legacy — a concoction that draws from the power of plants and herbs, fooling me into believing that even the alcohol might be healthy. It’s called a Merton Priory, a bitter blend of Punt E Mess, Gagliardo bitter, orange oil and house-made walnut syrup — all medicinal, in a good way. While I wait for its delivery, I look up, and 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 gentlemen. This centuries-old mural adds whimsy and gravitas to the otherwise modernized historic buildings—a perfect melding of old and new. I like the idea of sipping where counts and duchesses, writers artists, musicians — perhaps kings and presidents, too — have tippled before me.
No matter how much I want 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 monk’s 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 rocking rhythms of the boat. I choose face-changing treatment which includes a peat mask. But monkeying around isn’t the only thing to do at Monkey Island Estate. Resort guests can ride horses, do 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 trip 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, one can change gears in a heartbeat to bookend a bucolic rural stay with big city fun and frenzy.
I think the monks and the (metaphorical) monkeys would approve.