How often do you get to stay on a private island? Monkey Island Estate is next to the village of Bray which is a magnet for gourmets hosting both Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and the Roux family’s Waterside Inn. It’s an island on the River Thames five miles from Windsor Castle.
Its charming name comes from either monk settling nearby in 1197 or George 3rd being banished here in his madness with his pet monkey. The 3rd Duke of Marlborough (a forebear of both Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Diana) bought the land in 1723 as a fishing retreat. He commissioned two Palladian buildings: a two-story temple and an octagonal pavilion.
It’s been a centuries-old retreat. At the start of its Edwardian golden era monarchs visited, as did the poet Siegfried Sassoon and the composer Elgar who worked on his First Violin Concerto in The Hut, a house on the adjacent bank. H.G Wells came with his lover Rebecca West, whose novel ‘The Return of the Soldier’ involved a past affair on Monkey Island.
I felt I was on for an adventure the moment I passed the reception hut and crossed the footbridge that reminded me of a Hokusai print. I landed on this fish-tail-shaped private island filled with chestnut, lime, and walnut trees. It’s tastefully and elegantly landscaped with lawns and flowerbeds. It’s punctuated with celadon shepherds’ huts, beehives, and statuettes of monkeys. All I could hear was the flow of the river, the birds, the cackling geese, and the chickens.
On the right, the 18th-century white Temple building came into view. It houses 40 wonderful guest rooms (with rates starting from $277 per night). They are cozy and intimate with Savoir beds. Their many windows offer plenty of daylight and afford lovely views of the river and hotel grounds. There are also six cottages and The Wedgewood Suite which is especially theatrical and magical. It has an original plasterwork ceiling depicting Neptune, shells, mermaids, and dolphins. It has windows all around and the walls are paneled in oak. There’s even a portrait of the Duke of Marlborough with Monkey Island in the distance. My bathroom had an indulgently deep stand-alone bath, a heated floor, and Elemis toiletries. Beneath is the Temple Lounge where I sat in divine silence to watch the water flow past.
On the left, as I crossed the footbridge, is The Pavilion housing the restaurant, bars, events, and ballroom. I had both dinner and breakfast in The Monkey Island Brasserie, a teal room with views over the river and gardens. I sunk into a deep banquette amongst the spacious tables. As my in-room hotel video declared “The dining is inspired by the freshness of nature”. The sparkling wine and cheeses are British and the beer comes locally from a Windsor brewery. The menu was confidently brief, the helpings were very generous and the price was not extravagant. Afternoon Tea is also a favorite on the lovely terrace overlooking the river.
In keeping with the hotel’s name, there’s so much character and exoticism on display. The corridor is rich in a wallpaper of the very forest ferns and leaves where you might expect to find monkeys. The stylish Monkey Bar has a warm, welcoming fireplace beneath an 18th-century ceiling depicting ‘singerie’ with monkeys pursuing country sports. Above it is the Whisky Room resembling a lighthouse with its narrow steep steps and attic-like vantage point. Octagonal in shape it was beautifully decorated with fabric wallpaper depicting leopards.
My hour-long floating massage took place on the hotel’s ‘spa barge’. With both the sensation of the river’s water and the sound of birds twittering I lay in my cabin instantly transported. My specially designed aqua-cushion bed enhanced my watery experience. I lay solely on my back, tucked in by towels. My muscles were manipulated from every angle. It was blissful soaking in the tinctures and oils of arnica, ginger, and rosemary once prepared by monks.
The hotel offers guests a private boat trip along the Thames. It’s also the perfect treat for couples looking to celebrate. It’s especially ideal for weddings with a ballroom and pagoda specifically designed. Indeed the whole place can be hired out privately. The vibe is chilled, the service telepathic and the clientele respectful. It’s a magical retreat in the easy range of both Heathrow and Central London. I can’t recommend it highly enough.