‘Hello? Is that the German Embassy? Can I check your quarantine rules and digital entry registration, please?’
Forget planning a holiday, it was more like staging a heist. In a global pandemic. With George Smiley for a travel agent. But then it’s funny what the prospect of a second summer at home – and two weeks of rain – will do to you. No moving goalpost or impenetrable government website seemed too much in our quest for the Great Escape.
And not just any old escape to a soulless fleshpot with a pool. A 2,500-mile road trip through the historical and cultural riches of Germany. With a family of five. From three different starting points. On three different dates.
The first overnight stay on Fiona’s epic German road trip was the Kempinski Hotel Frankfurt (pictured)
Daily calls to our diplomatic friends became standard practice, as Herr Hardcastle, ever the man for detail, became Hell Bent On Making It Happen. Hurdles that would normally derail the sane only strengthened his resolve.
Evie, 13, and Felix, nine, would have to quarantine on arrival.
He would drive out one week early and find a safe house (Airbnb) in Frankfurt.
Our oldest child Rose, 15, was currently with friends in Spain.
He would airlift her out of Andalucia (find a carrier who would fly her solo) and tell her to await instructions (pick her up at Frankfurt arrivals).
Our dead letter drops (PCR tests) were in danger of being compromised.
(The 72 hours we thought we had on our travel window turned out to be 48).
He would simply cross the German border by 12.30pm on Sunday.
And if he missed that deadline?
Proceed until apprehended.
Fiona says that the pools at the Kempinski (pictured) were ‘the perfect outlet for the children’
I would join the family the following week by air and rendezvous, 1900 hours, at the Kempinski Hotel Frankfurt. If none of us had been detained by then. Or detonated through stress.
It was all I could do but not fling myself at the mercy of the reception desk when I finally arrived, reunited with my family.
We’d made it. We were on holiday. Now all I had to do was relax.
Its twin pools were the perfect outlet for the children, who’d been cooped up in the car (‘TEN HOURS!’ Evie wailed from the deep end) while the still waters of its idyllic lake were a welcome balm to my battered nerves.
Surprisingly for a hotel situated a mere 20-minute drive from the airport, the Kempinski has an air of splendid isolation. Once a private estate used as a hunting lodge and surrounded by parkland, it’s worlds away from the hubbub of Frankfurt’s financial district.
Kempinski Hotel Frankfurt is ‘a mere 20-minute drive from the airport’ and has ‘an air of splendid isolation’. Pictured here is the indoor pool and its gem-studded ceiling
Kempinski Hotel Frankfurt is ‘worlds away from the hubbub of Frankfurt’s financial district’, enthuses Fiona
It also caters for young families as much as city slickers with a well-organised kids club that means mummy and daddy can squeeze in a trip to the spa.
I could have stayed for days – lost in the gem-studded ceiling of its indoor pool – but Deutschland was calling and there was an awful lot to do.
First stop Cologne and the majestic double spires of the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, home to the shrine of the three kings.
Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne is next to the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, home to the shrine of the three kings
Excelsior Hotel Ernst’s spectacular circular staircase had Fiona’s daughters in Instagram raptures
As incongruous as their final resting place seems – Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa transferred the relics from Milan to Cologne to drum up Catholic PR – there is a certain logic to the nativity’s second most famous trio ending up just a stone’s throw from the iconic Excelsior Hotel Ernst, where there is more than a touch of the divine.
Glad tidings abound from the moment you enter the cool marble atrium, where the warmth of welcome instantly makes you feel at home. And what a home it is. Gold bannisters and dark wood panels gleam from a bygone age. The rooms and suites – soothing white panelled walls, pale grey furnishings and a carpet so luxurious it’s a crime to wear shoes and deprive your toes of the thrill – were so opulent that once settled, it was a struggle to step outside.
Thankfully, Britta came to our rescue with a mini tour of the hotel.
A spectacular circular staircase had my daughters in Instagram raptures; a tour of the extensive wine cellar drew similar gasps from my husband and me.
“What country would you like?” inquired sommelier Robert Demers ahead of our dinner at its gourmet French restaurant, the Hanse Stube.
How could it be anything but Germany, land of the ravishing Reisling. A bottle of Knebel 2016 was selected for our evening’s delectation. Like everything else, it did not disappoint.
It’s not hard to see why the Hanse Stube is fondly known as the ‘good room in Cologne’.
One bite of its beef tenderloin in beetroot jus with fondant potatoes had the meat-eaters among us dissolving with delight. The watercress and apple soup followed by handmade tagliatelle with asparagus and Italian truffle sent the vegetarians into a headlong swoon.
Excelsior Hotel Ernst’s rooms and suites were so opulent that once settled, it was a struggle to step outside
A lone gentleman diner, head bent low over his plate as if in prayer, excited the imagination of my eldest.
‘Could he be a Michelin reviewer?’ whispered Rose, bewitched by the idea of anonymous inspectors sealing a restaurant’s fate.
If the culinary guide has not yet dispatched one of its secret agents to these hallowed mahogany-panelled walls, it should. And schnell.
It doesn’t take a wise man to realise you’re in the presence of a star.
You can keep your gold, frankincense and myrrh. One last meal in the best room in Cologne and the biggest pillows in Christendom are all the earthly comforts anyone needs.
The Hanse Stube restaurant in Excelsior Hotel Ernst is fondly known as the ‘good room in Cologne’
As Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior might have said, guide us to thy perfect night.
Now all we needed was our own star in the east to lead us to Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate.
Dictators and kings have marched through this neo-classical landmark, emboldened by the Goddess of Victory astride her four-horse chariot above. Once an emblem of division, it is now a signifier of unity – and a popular spot for selfies – a reminder that reinvention can override any relic of evil.
Berlin’s lively Potsdammer Platz, where Fiona and her family ate at a ‘buzzing’ Vietnamese restaurant and had the best Udon noodles of their lives
No other part of the city captures the spirit of New Berlin better than Potsdammer Platz, the new lively quarter of plazas, cinemas, theatres and restaurants forged from the desolate strip of land that remained after the fall of The Berlin Wall.
You can only marvel at the skill, imagination and sheer ambition that has seen this no-man’s land rise from the ashes.
There can’t be many city precincts where the names of its architects are given priority over the shops and offices the buildings contain.
But here, it’s Renzo Piano and Norman Foster who take centre stage – along with a buzzing, waterside Vietnamese restaurant where, we agreed, we had some of the best Udon noodles of our life.
It’s all about reclaiming the past, as Philipp and Jennifer Vogel, the couple behind the Orania hotel, set in the edgier environs of what was once East Berlin, know only too well.
The chic Orania hotel, pictured, is set in the edgier environs of what was once East Berlin
Don’t be put off by the exterior. Panes of shattered glass and spray-painted walls – a welcome present from the locals who were initially angry at what they saw as an elite hotel intruding on their territory – belie an oasis of urban chic and the friendliest of staff inside.
A large welcoming living room acts as the focal point for the young clientele, connecting a stylish wooden bar – complete with Steinway piano – with its popular restaurant, designed with African and Asian animal motifs.
I’d heard great things about its signature dish – a four-course Peking duck feast designed for two people. Question was, who could I strong-arm into sharing it with me?
‘I like ducks,’ said Felix sadly. Meaning, my only reliable carnivore confessed, he wasn’t prepared to eat one.
‘I’ll help, Mummy,’ offered Rose, slightly hesitant. Quick as a quack, we were off.
Orania’s popular restaurant, designed with African and Asian animal motifs, offers a magnificent Peking duck feast for two
One of the stylish bedrooms at Orania, the port of call that preceded Leipzig
Dashi and dim sum, followed by crispy skin in pancakes (carved at the table) and I was eating faster than I could think. ‘The breast is yet to come,’ joked my husband in a bid to slow me down.
Succulent grilled breast, finished off with fried rice and drumstick meat – all washed down with another rave Riesling – and I could barely remember where I was.
Chinese food. German wine. African elephants. It was clearly time for bed. If only I could find it in our enormous suite.
Morning and our next manoeuvre came too quickly.
It was all I could do but steal ten minutes in the invigorating rain shower and gaze at the inviting window seat, wistful at the thought of sitting in one place, before sweeping the rooms for stray socks and sundries and packing the children back into the car.
‘How long until Leipzig?’ they asked, half in dread.
The response of two hours had them whooping in delight.
Leipzig – or as the papers say Hypezig – is called Saxony’s coolest city, due to the recent influx of young creatives. But for anyone who’s ever tried (and failed) to tinkle a well-tempered clavier, it will always be best known as the home of Bach.
Leipzig (pictured) – or as the papers say Hypezig – is called Saxony’s coolest city, due to the recent influx of young creatives
After checking in to the delightful Hotel Fregehaus, perfectly positioned slap bang in the centre yet tucked away inside a cobbled courtyard, I made a beeline for his statue outside the Thomas Kirche, where his grave lies beneath the floor of the choir.
I looked round to find the children, marshalled by Felix, more interested in the queue for the street food sausage vendor. Brandenburg concerto or currywurst bitte? I’d been a fugue to think I could win.
But then the beauty of Leipzig is that you don’t need a seat in a church or concert hall to appreciate classical music. String quartets busk from every platz, snatched strains of cello concertos only adding to this gem of a city’s civilised air.
It’s an atmosphere encapsulated by the Hotel Fregehaus, where the architect owner Sabine Fuchshuber has executed a charming mix of the chic and the antique, expertly juxtaposing stylish modern features against original details of this beautiful 18th-century building.
‘I love the mirrors. And the stonework. And the bright blue tiles,’ said Rose, forever planning her future dream house, as she admired our kitchenette floor.
‘And I definitely want a courtyard when I’m older,’ she added, as we pulled a few mismatched chairs together for a game of cards in the early evening light of the quadrangle before moseying out for dinner.
Good for her. If she can channel any of Leipzig into her adult life, it will be all the richer for it.
Quite how Felix’s love for all things Bavarian – evident from the moment he first clapped eyes on a feathered felt hat in the Landromantik Hotel Oswald – will inform his future style choices, is anyone’s guess. But given his delight at Andreas Oswald’s warm welcome in lederhosen, I would not rule out the occasional folksy costume or even a cowbell.
The Landromantik Hotel Oswald (pictured) is a Relais & Chateaux hideaway in the Bavarian hills
The vibe at Landromantik Hotel Oswald is ‘rustic hunting lodge’
I, for one, would settle for the Gemutlichkeit, or cosiness, that emanates from this rustic hunting lodge nestled high in the Bavarian hills, although whether I could pull this off without the furs and antlers that adorn almost every surface of its sumptuous main living areas and luxurious chalet-style suites, is debatable.
The bathrooms – ours complete with a television and fireplace that could be controlled from the tub – were so out of our worldly reach that for once I did not get any ideas of remodelling ours at home.
The only idea my motorway-weary mind was capable of processing was the fact there was row upon row of sun loungers neatly laid out on the lawn outside our window and I was going for a long lie down.
For dinner at Landromantik Hotel Oswald, Fiona and her family tucked into ‘fabulous fillets of beef’
Deep breaths of Bavarian air and the holiday Hardcastles were soon in full swing, trying to keep the splashing to a minimum as we took to the outdoor pool en masse and let the thousand-mile drive melt away.
A collective sauna and steam room later, and we were parading around the Relais and Chateaux hideaway in fluffy robes and slippers like a family of spa old-timers. Gesundheit! I could get used to this.
Time to make ourselves worthy for dinner. Tricky, as I discovered, without access to an iron – the hotel’s only one was already on loan to another guest. All we could do was smooth down our wrinkles and smile and hope that the starched linen tablecloths would hide our sartorial sins.
And they would have done – had we not needed to leave our seats for starters and puddings served buffet style. I needn’t have worried. By the end of my succulent seafood salad – with extra heaps of herring and oven-warm breads – I cared not a hoot how crumpled I looked.
Fabulous fillets of beef, delivered to our table for main course, had Felix so animated that an elderly German couple at an adjoining table laughed out loud. Could the evening get any better?
As if on cue, strains of an oompah band wafted in through an open window. Bavaria, we were bewitched. And we still hadn’t left the hotel grounds.
Morning and a soothing drive down the southern tip of the Romantic Road released the dreamers in us all. The fairy tale turrets of Schloss Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II’s medieval vision, appeared like a mirage through the mountains.
Schloss Neuschwanstein and its fairy-tale looks even won over Evie, the family’s ‘chief cynic’
‘It really does look like the Disney castle,’ exclaimed Evie, the family’s chief cynic wreathed in smiles, as she stood at the foot of its fantastical facade.
‘Can I get my hat now?’ asked Felix, craning his neck to the stalls lining the route below selling traditional Bavarian fare.
Fifty euros – and two bemused parents – later and the sight of our son skipping along in the foothills of the Alps wearing a felt grey hat complete with plume planted one thought in our minds. Munich, we were ready for you.
Nowhere else in central Europe do the locals don their traditional costumes quite as readily as the good people of Munich and my husband was hankering after a visit to its legendary Hofbrauhaus, the government-owned beer hall and garden where oompah bands entertain sozzled crowds every day of the year including Christmas.
Perhaps best to check into our next hotel first.
Step inside the blue drapes of the iconic Bayerischer Hof and you are instantly transported to a bygone age, albeit one with private cinema, swimming pool, sauna, spa, six bars and four restaurants (one, the Atelier, has three Michelin stars). While the lobby is a burnished hall of marble and gold, rooms are a mix of old and new, ranging from wood-panelled Royal Bavarian suites to the minimalist yet warmly rustic rooms recently remodelled by Belgian designer Alex Vervoordt. His spectacular penthouse garden suite (yours for £10,500 a night) is apparently rented out at least once a week.
‘Step inside the blue drapes of the iconic Bayerischer Hof [pictured],’ writes Fiona, ‘and you are instantly transported to a bygone age, albeit one with private cinema, swimming pool, sauna, spa, six bars and four restaurants’
Bayerischer Hof’s Atelier restaurant (pictured) has three coveted Michelin stars
But you don’t need the penthouse to appreciate the stunning views of the Munich skyline. Both breakfast and dinner are served from rooftop locations with a bird’s eye view of the city’s landmarks. A feast of Fruhstuck overlooking the Frauenkirche will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Time to explore the riches of the city by foot and start with a stroll through the Englischer Garten, comparable in size to London’s Hyde Park, and with more surprises than a teddy bear’s picnic.
Surfers in the city – showcasing their flips and tricks on the two-kilometre-long man-made Eisbach river that flows through the park – were the first. Followed by an 18th-century imitation of Kew Gardens Chinese Pagoda, the Chinesischer Turm, now at the heart of the city’s oldest beer garden.
A surfer showcases his tricks on Munich’s Eisbach river, which flows through the Englischer Garten
Back to the Bayerischer Hof for a swim before a sublime dinner at the Winter Garden – a glazed rooftop terrace with welcoming open fire – and the chance to put these panoramic views to the test with a family guessing game of Which Roof Top Am I?
‘I’m bigger than a mouse and you cannot trust me…’
‘Rathaus!’ cried the children in unison.
I could have stayed and played all night, but my husband had only one pitched roof in mind.
‘Baywatch hunk tends mono-brow at home.’
Jawohl! It was time for the Hofbrauhaus.
We took our seats in the courtyard, while locals washed down steins of beer with pretzels the size of your head, the oompah band now in full swing.
The Hofbrauhaus restaurant in Munich is where you’ll find ‘steins of beer with pretzels the size of your head’
‘Apfelsaft bitte!’ ordered Felix, his delight when it arrived in a mini stein to match his father’s two-pint version was a sight to behold.
‘The drinking years are coming!’ he cried, eyes glistening at his grown-up glass.
What had we done?
Little did I know I’d be asking myself the very same question 24 hours later.
Astronauts know the feeling. Presidents, too. How do you re-enter normal life as an ordinary civilian once you’ve tasted greatness and walked with giants? How do you re-adjust your settings from hyper-space to the humdrum? How, in short, do you spend one spectacular night at the Mandarin Oriental and not leave a changed woman?
The Mandarin Oriental Munich’s grand lobby. It’s in this hotel, says Fiona, that ‘the top 0000000.1 per cent of the other half live’
The Mandarin Oriental Munich’s regal exterior
The moment we pulled up outside, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
A crowd of excitable young men were jostling each other on the pavement. The reason soon became clear. A pair of Bugatti supercars – parked millimetres from our reversing XC90 – were being snapped like a couple of Victoria’s Secret supermodels.
‘Welcome to the Mandarin Oriental,’ smiled Vincenze, the doorman, opening the passenger door with a trademark umbrella to shield us from the rain.
‘Everything?’ he asked Rupert, looking up at the six mismatched suitcases in the roof box.
‘Everything!’ the girls and I chimed. One night in the world’s best hotel and every dress was being tried on before dinner.
Having parked their supercars outside, the super-rich were busy inside doing what they do best.
An Asian lady dressed entirely in orange was grilling a receptionist. She was hungry. She wanted a steak. She didn’t care that the restaurant was closed that night. She wanted it now. But only if it was good. Would it be good?
‘It will be good, madam, and I will arrange for it to be delivered to your room as quickly as possible,’ he reassured, as sweetly as if he were giving his grandmother a cup of tea.
‘It’s like Crazy Rich Asians,’ the girls giggled, thrilled to see how the top 0000000.1 per cent of the other half live.
The chic centrepiece to the Mah Jong roof terrace is this glorious plunge pool
Fiona’s Mandarin Oriental room had ‘a dining room for six, soothing grey walls, oak parquet floors and enough original art to open a gallery’
Hotel Kempinski, Frankfurt
Visit kempinski.com or call 00 49 69 389 88 0.
To make a booking at Hotel Excelsior Ernst in Cologne, email: [email protected] or phone: + 49 221 / 270 3220.
Enjoy the Orania.Kids Package at Orania.Berlin from 800 euros (£684) per night based on a family staying in the Orania.Suite on a B&B basis. This includes tickets to Orania.Concerts. For bookings and further information please visit orania.berlin. This offer is valid until the end of October, based on availability.
For more on Hotel Fregehaus visit hotel-fregehaus.de.
A double room at the Bayerischer Hof starts from 310 euros (£266) per night. Visit www.bayerischerhof.de/de.
Mandarin Oriental, Munich
Enjoy the ultimate family stay at with rates from 1,250 euros (£1,068) per night on a B&B basis. This rate includes a half-price second room, children’s amenities and a host of special touches. For booking and further information, please visit mandarinoriental.com/munich/altstadt/luxury-hotel. This offer is valid all year round, based on availability.
Fiona and her family used PCR tests from Boots. MyHealthChecked At-Home Covid-19 PCR Swab Test Kit (for General Use and Fit To Fly). A family bundle of four costs £234.00. Boots Advantage Points can be collected with the purchase.
Activate your kit online at www.myhealthchecked.com/activate-kit. Send your sample back the same day, ensuring you post it in a Royal Mail Priority Postbox. Within 24-48 hours from lab receipt, you will receive an email with a link to view your results online at www.myhealthchecked.com and download a Fit to Fly certificate.
The children having completed their most elegant Covid swabs yet – behind an art deco screen – we were shown to our rooms. Although when I say rooms, what I really mean is realms. With their own floorplans.
‘Oh my goodness,’ breathed Rupert. ‘We have a tower.’
Germany may be a land of fairy tale princesses and fairy tale endings, but no happy ever after will ever come to close to what lay within rooms 300 and 303.
Soothing grey walls, oak parquet floors and enough original art to open a gallery. And that was just the hallway. A bedroom Sleeping Beauty would have put a padlock on; a walk-in wardrobe Cinders would have preferred to the dress and a vast marble bathroom so fabulous that The Little Mermaid would never have entertained the notion of swapping her fishtail for legs.
Did I mention the dining room for six? Or the raised, circular sitting room with curved windows, silk curtains and green chaise longue?
This, I found myself saying out loud, must be what it feels like to be Joan Collins.
The children, although lost on the comparison, were equally entranced.
‘The hairdryers – and straighteners – are GHD!’ cried Evie from one of the three bathrooms.
‘There’s apfelsaft in the mini bar!’ shouted Felix.
‘I wouldn’t mind home-schooling from here,’ said Rose, settling herself at the beautiful writing desk. ‘Do you think they’d mind if I took a pen?’
‘Do you think they’d mind if we moved in?’ I muttered to no-one in particular.
‘Do you think they’d mind opening the rooftop pool?’ asked Evie, desperate to swim the Munich skyline even in the pouring rain.
One nervous phone call to reception, and five towels appeared at the door. The Mandarin did not mind.
It was probably best that we had the pool, a chic centrepiece to the Mah Jong roof terrace, to ourselves. Was it raining? The children didn’t notice. But I fear the sophisticates who would normally sip cocktails on a sunny evening here would have been within reason to complain.
The swiftest of swims and we were back primping and posing for the meal of our lives. The Mandarin’s Mahjong menu, designed by Mr Nobu himself, was being prepared for our private delectation. I thought I was going to die.
But I’d be damned if I did before savouring its famous black cod, yellowfin tuna sashimi and every other deliriously delicious dish that was headed our way.
Fit for a king? It was. And more, as Sebastian, our convivial host for the night, explained.
When Chelsea faced Bayern Munich in the 2012 UEFA Champions League, the London team booked out the entire hotel. Bayern, appearing in their ninth final, were the favourites to win so when Chelsea raised the cup before returning to the hotel that night, the mood was understandably sombre.
Until, that is, Chelsea invited the entire Mandarin staff to celebrate with them.
By the end of the evening, everyone was drinking champagne out of the trophy, oblivious to the result, which just goes to show that men can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same – as long as there’s a jolly big gold cup of bubbly to share.
But you don’t need to sup from a Champions League trophy to feel like a winner. One night at the Mandarin Oriental will do that.