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Inspirational Female Hotel Owners
From Devon to Morocco, Liz Simpson meets the women behind the world’s coolest hotels
In an industry generally dominated by men, it’s a refreshing thing to stumble across an independent female hotelier. Most are part of a husband-and-wife team, or own but don’t run, the operation. So those who do it all alone, through establishing and setting up the hotel to managing it day-to-day, are a rare and brilliant breed.
The reasons for this are multitdunious: not having the confidence to go it alone in a male-dominated sphere; not being taken seriously by local authorities and tradesmen, and – in some cases – juggling the anti-social hours of hospitality with the demands of motherhood.
But some women thrive on the challenge, brimming with determination and drive, on top of a huge willingness to graft. Alex Polizzi, aka The Hotel Inspector, is one such woman. She and her mother, Olga, have set up and run two top hotels: the seaside-chic Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall, and the utterly romantic Hotel Endsleigh in Devon. Although she comes from a long line of hoteliers, the business was never handed to her on a plate; Alex worked her way up from a young age, starting as a waitress in the school holidays. ‘Work gives you such confidence in yourself and in your ability,’ she explains. ‘The truth is that everybody should have a job.’
One of the reasons her hotels are so successful is that she demands utter excellence from herself and her staff. ‘Service must be charming but professional; friendly without being intrusive; ever-present without being noticeable… I want to give guests the kind of experience I want when I go away.’ Even having young children hasn’t affected her energy or commitment. When asked how she ‘does it all’ as a working mother, Polizzi is refreshingly frank: ‘I’m a firm believer in the power of a good nanny,’ she says. ‘Nobody can do it all, so why pretend otherwise?’ Although her career often demands that she’s away for days at a time, she refuses to feel the guilt that plagues so many working mothers: ‘I like the person I am at work, and I can’t imagine ever giving that up for anything’.
Similarly focused is Freyja Ducker, owner of the beautiful Sandy Duck B&B in Falmouth. Her background as a stewardess on luxury yachts stood her in great stead for the demands of running her own hotel, not least the obsessive attention to detail and the ability to be utterly charming. Her Scandi-style Edwardian townhouse (once tired old accommodation for customs officers) is lavished with just-so detail: a cane chair perfectly positioned to see the sea; gleaming bronze lamp fittings; fluffed-up sheepskins and bespoke tables carved from fallen elm trees. The walls are decorated with art by her mother and sister – further homage to the female vibe – and include a stunning piece sculpted from the old roof joists, brushed with gold leaf. Guest after guest raves about Freyja’s friendly welcome, feeling utterly spoilt by thoughtful touches such as homemade cakes and recommendations for day trips.
As you might expect, establishing a successful hotel business outside the UK as a female can be tricky. Judith Thiel, owner of the dreamy L’Escale du Ciel B&B in Provence, had always dreamed of opening a luxury guesthouse in France, but found it very complicated to get it up and running: ‘When you build the house, you find yourself in a mensworld and you have to be aware about everything,’ she says. ‘The tax system is really difficult in France and it’s not that easy to find good workers to restore the house.’ Charming, friendly and multi-lingual, Judith persevered and her peaceful romantic guesthouse is a knockout, perched in a beautiful mountainous location near Nice: L’Escale du Ciel means ‘Staircase to the Sky’. She admits that her world is ‘a lot of work’ but loves meeting so many international guests.
British designer Helen Howat had to go one step further with her Moroccan hotel, not simply cajoling local workers to take on the restoration of an old riad, but actually insisting they learn new techniques of craftmanship for the transformation. Not an easy task as a lone female. She’d stumbled across the ruined building in the seaside town of Essaouira and felt instantly drawn to it. ‘It had an amazing Jewish-Moroccan architectural structure,’ she recalls, ‘and it changed the pathway of my life.’
Over 5 years, Helen painstakingly breathed new life into the building, teaching local artisans special techniques to fit with her modern aesthetic. ‘I had to teach them a contemporary way of working. For instance, the zellige tilework you see in the riad is learned from grandfather to father to son, but I work with different patterns and different colours so I took them back to the beginning to relearn the process.’ She threw together clashing colours and patterns in an exuberant splash of creativity, creating something utterly unique and joyful: Salut Maroc, one of the country’s coolest boutique hotels.
But it is Jacqueline Brandt’s story that is one of the most inspirational. Her colourful, rustic guesthouse Douar Samra is perched high in the remote Moroccan Atlas Mountains, amid wildly beautiful surroundings. She found herself here following personal tragedy, and fell in love with the light and incredible views of the Tamartet valley. After selling her watch to buy the douar (manor) at the edge of the village, the locals adopted her as one of their own, and she worked with them to restore the house, using traditional methods and materials of pisé (beaten earth), wood and stone. “As I restored the house, so I rebuilt myself,” she explains. Today, her Berber home radiates warmth, and her hospitality is legendary. Guests arrive on donkey – it’s the only way in – and quickly fall under the spell of this very special place. Bright cushions and rugs dress the simple bedrooms, candles and fireplaces provide light and warmth, as do hot-water bottles tucked between your sheets while you’re at dinner. As Jacqueline says to every guest on arrival, ‘Welcome. Relax. You are home.’