Situated in the sunny, sheltered haven of Babbacombe Bay, The Cary Arms and Spa on the Beach in Torquay is a large inn dating from the early 17th century. It has gone through many changes over the past 400 years before the sprawling property was adapted in the last decade into a highly successful boutique hotel.
As its name suggests, The Cary Arms was originally an inn when it opened on the bay, and boasts some famous visitors including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. “We have a lobster bar in the summer based around visits from Winston Churchill and his team during the war. But it has been an inn on and off for 200 years,” says general manager David Adams, who has been in charge of the property for the past three and a half years.
The business today comprises a mixed bag of guest accommodation. The original building itself has the original 10 accommodation units including two cottage suites that the current owner opened with 10 years ago. Then in 2016 and 2017 a total of six beach huts were added.
The process of keeping such an old property and its associated structures up to scratch providing premium luxury comfort for all its guests is a constant challenge.
David says: “It’s a very old building by the sea. The oldest part of our site, the thatched Rose Cottage, is over 400 years old. It is a constant job to keep it ship-shape.”
In fact, every room is routinely refurbished every two years, he says. “We have just started work on putting new bathrooms into the rooms within the original inn building. We bought two new self-catering cottages online last year, and we are looking forward to bringing on an additional five-bedroom self-catering unit later this year. There always seems to be something going on!”
MIXED BAG OF ACCOMODATION
Original Building – 10 accommodation units;
luxury doubles, which are sea-facing, with balconies or ground floor terraces, ensuite bathrooms, king sized beds – “everything you’d expect in a luxury hotel.”
One two-bedroom family suite in the original building and two cottage suites, named Shell, one bedroom, lounge, kitchenette, and with a bathroom freshly refurbished in March. The other such suite, Pebble, has two bedrooms with a lounge, kitchenette and bathroom.
The heart of the operation occupies a building nearly 200 years old offset by rooms that have a premium mix of modern facilities to go with the classic design: White Company toiletries in refillable dispensers to reduce single use plastics; voice-activated Alexa devices with Spotify music libraries along with free outgoing calls; Nespresso coffee machines; and Netflix-enabled flat screen TVs.
The property includes a new development that opened in 2016-17: six beach huts and two beach suites, modelled on the quirky original design of the brightly coloured traditional beach hut you see dotted along the classic seafront promenade, but with a modern luxury twist. “The beach huts all feature one bedroom, but with the bedroom itself on a mezzanine floor and with a lounge and bathroom downstairs with underfloor heating and Sonos sound systems, heated mirrors in the bathroom to prevent condensation when you shower, plus Smeg fridges, Nespresso coffee machines, and the same flat screen TVs and Netflix,” says David.
There are also bi-folding floors and terraces, and to round off guests’ luxury experience, lying on the pillow they have full view of a porthole looking straight out to sea.
Finally, there are a range of self-catering cottages ranging from three to five bedrooms, sleeping from four to nine people. David says: “These are sold on a self-catering basis, but guests have full access to the full hotel range facilities including the spa, restaurant and bar.”
Dining experience –
This is a dining experience to remember, for the restaurant itself offers what it claims are two of the best tables at which to dine in Devon: The Captain’s table which seats six and the Pod which seats four. The restaurant also offers Gastro Nights, with menus specially designed for the occasions by the head chef and paired with wines chosen by the head sommelier.
For a final touch of luxury all guests’ rooms have a decanter of sloe gin on arrival, plus a variety of different confectionery treats which, as David puts it, “give a real sense of nostalgia: sticks of rock, Kit-Kats and Orange Clubs!”
Locally sourced food
The Cary Arms takes the whole idea of locally sourced food very seriously. “Wherever possible our food is locally sourced depending on the seasons,” explains David. “We are right on the sea, and very lucky to be less than 10 miles from Brixham fish market, one of the best locally operated landing fish markets left in the country. It still has a fully working fleet of day trawlers, so when we say the fish has landed that morning it really has landed that morning on a small day trawler fleet, unlike some of the bigger fish markets where even if it had landed that morning it could have been frozen out at sea in the hold for two or three weeks before they come back into port,” he says.
He adds: “We have a great guy down there who picks our fish for us in the market every morning and brings the best of the day’s catch straight to chef for that day’s menu.”
While using local produce as much as possible, the Cary Arms is remarkably self-sufficient when it comes to freshly grown herbs, with its own herb gardens dotted around site. “We have recently planted a few patches of perennial veg around the site, rhubarb, horseradish, Jerusalem artichoke, and we have two local places dedicated to growing vegetables for us.”
Reaching out to the local community
One of these is in partnership with a local care home, Maidencombe Manor, which supports adults with additional needs, both learning and physical. This has a five-acre skills workshop garden, where its residents spend the days potting around in the fruit gardens and vegetable beds, learning skills whilst staying active.
David explains: “We have a standard agreement with them to take all their surplus fruit and veg. This supplies us with almost the volume of fresh produce we need in the summer months and is a great way to support a local community project.”
The local food initiative does not stop there: “We also have a training allotment which we use for our apprentice gardeners to learn how to grow vegetables, then three quarters of a mile from here, providing a lot of the vegetables for the chef. Meanwhile we have a local wholesaler who works for a number of local farms for everything else we need,” he says.
Partnership with Combe Pafford School, a centre for children with additional learning needs. We take 2 students on work placement 2 days per week to help them acclimatise to the workplace and learn skills they need to have successful careers. We’ve had one student from them for 2 years on work placement with our gardening team. He then stayed with us to do his apprenticeship and is now full time and is actually looking after the next generation of students from his own school. It’s absolutely great to see how he has grown and developed with us over the last 4 years. We had 4 apprentices start with us this September across the hotel and it’s really great seeing the next generation come through.
A local brewery produces Sammy’s Ale for us, named after the resident seal who spends most of the day taking mackerel from fisherman at the jetty outside the hotel, 50p from every pint sold is then donated to the RSPCA.
Rowcroft, a local hospice, is doing a 2 day sponsored walk along the South West Coast Path in May, we’re looking forward to welcoming the 100+ walkers taking part for what will most likely be a welcome break from them halfway through their second day. They do great work in the local community so we’re of course more than happy to provide complimentary food and drink to those taking part so they can keep their energy levels up.
We’ve started a new partnership with a local care and support provider this year, Maidencombe Manor, who provide both residential and outreach care to adults with additional needs. They have an amazing 12-acre site with both a carpentry workshop and 3 acre vegetable garden they use for skills therapy. Our cottages are already showcasing bird tables made by them and this year we have agreed to take all their surplus fruit and vegetables off their hands. It allows them to add funds to their operation and gives us the incredible opportunity to have organic produce grown less than 3 miles away.
The spa is a major attraction for guests to the hotel. David says: “It gives people something to do on a rainy day. We are in England and we can’t get away from the rain, even located as we are on the English Riviera. However, many palm trees we plant round here, we can’t make the sunshine all year round!”
The spa certainly contributes to the status of the hotel as a compact boutique hotel, he says. “It is designed for our hotel residents: we do not allow membership for non-hotel residents, so there is always that exclusivity and privacy,” he explains.
Within the spa are a hydrotherapy pool, a sauna, a steam room, and an experience shower that can be set to anything from blast of arctic winter to temperate rainforest depending on which button you press. There’s also a singles treatment room and a couple’s treatment room.
Conveying the satisfying, elite experience of luxury this provides, he says: “Sitting back in the hydrotherapy pool you have 180-degree views out to sea; you lean back at 34 degrees and bubbles go in. No matter how wet the weather is out there, you can lie there and pretend you are in the sea, you’re nice and warm, and it’s amazing!”
While the spa gets less use in the summer it’s still popular year-round for treatments, he says, noting that it has definitely proved a massive benefit to the hotel.
The local sourcing extends to the inn itself, which is open to non-residents from noon and serving lunch until 3pm and dinner until 9pm.
David explains: “A local brewery provides us Sammy’s Ale, named after our local seal that hangs around our sea jetty in the summer months, with 50p from every pint donated to the RSPCA.
“We offer a full range of Devon gins as you’d expect, and we have a partnership with a local rum distillery which supplies our dark and spiced rum distilled from scratch up the road in Exeter. It’s a great sustainable partnership with no packaging waste, and we have our own three litre oak barrels behind the bar which they come down and refill for us, poured straight from the barrel at the bar to our guests,” he says.
The inn also serves local wines from Devon and local ciders. “If you can get a product locally then we have an option for it,” he says.
The Cary Arms attracts a wide mix of guests. “Typically, guests tend to be people who want an exceptionally high quality, refined service, but delivered in a relaxed, informal and unpretentious way,” David says.
It is hard to say how guests differ from the typical visitor to Torquay, he says. “We are a premium property with premium service and premium standard, so there is obviously a different price point between us and a lot of the other properties in Torquay. But then we also rate very high in value for money as well from the people who do come to stay.”
The age range of guests is remarkably wide. “We have a couple of guests in their 70s who have been staying in Torquay every summer for 50 years in pretty much every hotel in the bay. They found us three years ago after having stayed in the same place for 10 years, and now they are with us for three weeks every summer. It just goes to show that all visitors to the area can find something they like at the Cary Arms.”
He says it is hard to pin down quite what it is that makes the Cary Arms such a great success. “It is down largely to how welcoming and relaxed we are. We are a small and compact team and have been together for a while now. It is a cliché, but people do really seem to like to work here. We are relaxed, we have a laugh, and we get on well with the guests.”
He adds: “If we need to be incredibly efficient and get the job done, we can, and if we have time to relax and have a chat with the guests, we can do that too. I think that’s what people like. The staff here are real people with life stories and jokes to tell. I think the guests really like being able to come in and get what they are used to getting when they used to go to their local pub 20 years ago in terms of that friendly, relaxed and welcoming experience but delivered to a much higher standard with refined service levels.”
That informality appears to underpin a remarkably high staff retention level at the hotel in a competitive market of which many properties would be envious. “Staff retention is absolutely amazing,” says David. “It is very rare that we would lose a full-time member of staff. Obviously, we have temporary staff called upon through the high season but in terms of the core team it is exceptionally stable. In fact, a lot of staff have been here since we opened 10 years ago.”
When asked about the secret to this success, David said: “A lot of it comes from developing staff from the bottom up. Nearly all my senior and HOD positions are filled by staff who have been with us since the start of their careers. It’s also a great place to work, we usually get it right so my team get to spend their day around happy guests and aren’t dealing with complaints and grumbles all day so are happy themselves. It’s a bit of a snowball effect, happy guests equal happy staff, happy staff equal happy guests.”
The Cary Arms is notably dog-friendly, and in this regard has won a number of awards over the years. David says: “A couple of luxury doubles are dog friendly, a couple of beach huts, all the self-catering cottages, and we have two distinct sections to our restaurant and dining area, one dog friendly and one dog free. The only communal area in the hotel where dogs are not allowed to go is the spa.”
We use what we call the holy trinity of social media – Instagram twitter and Facebook. I think Instagram is best for telling a story if you have an event enabling you to have videos and photos posted on it as people are arriving, while they are here and as they are leaving, and things like that, with a story board, which is particularly effective for us. It’s also useful for promoting upcoming events. There needs to be a discipline to how that information is used, with the right links. We have loads of tags.”
“In the last couple of years, we have considerably increased our number of followers to 27k across our social media platforms.
“We used some stunning imagery, ran some competitions to encourage the interaction with our followers, created some interesting & exciting content, for example; events, news, offers, research popular hashtags, trends, ect…and kept a friendly & informal tone to our posts.”
Today this historical property has a total of 23 units, which includes the self-catering cottages and two-bedroom suites. Excluding the self-catering cottages the total is 18, currently sleeping a maximum of 75 guests.
Its success as a high-end hospitality destination today is down to a combination of the heritage of the site, the regular attention to detail when it comes to equipping the rooms with luxury, and perhaps most notably of all, the informal approach to guests adding a comfortable feel of ease to the sense of luxury.
Our one rosette restaurant offers a great mix between high end dining and nostalgic classics.
A breakfast buffet where guests can help themselves to items such as smoked salmon and real honeycomb is there along with our cooked to order breakfast menu featuring classics like bubble & squeak with fried duck egg, smoked kippers, eggs hollandaise however you like it and of course the show-stopping full breakfast.
We offer a really relaxed lunchtime service with guests ordering at the bar in a traditional inn style with menus displayed on blackboards on the wall, a great selection of light bites, including the ever popular handpicked Devon crab sandwich offer are available along with mains such as fish and chips, steak and ale pie and catch of the day. Chef also offers up some great specials too, last week saw an incredible corned beef hash absolutely fly out of the kitchen, he’d cured his own brisket for nearly two weeks and the whole thing was made from scratch, I’d never tasted anything like it.
Dinner sees the white linen come out, lights turned down, candles lit, roaring open fire and live pianists every Friday and Saturday night. It’s an incredible setting and Chef really makes great use of the fresh seafood he receives each morning from Brixham market, just a short hop away.
“Many of the rooms have Voice activated Alexas, giving access to a huge library of music along with free outgoing UK calls. There are decanters with sloe gin on check in, Kit Kats, orange clubs, sticks of rock.”
The best bit will always be that amazing view of the Jurassic Coast out of the window though, it just can’t be beaten”