Penrhiw Hotel – escape to a chicly converted priory in St Davids

Penrhiw Hotel sits in 12 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds © Kerry Walker

St Davids is busy as a beehive in summer, but you would never guess it when you give the crowds the slip and wind down the wooded country lane that leads to Whitesands Bay. Behind wrought-iron gates, tucked away from prying eyes and reclining peacefully in 12 acres of landscaped gardens and wildflower meadows, is Penrhiw Hotel, a sleekly converted Victorian priory where period charm meets contemporary architect-driven cool. 

Why we love it…

Staying at this comely late-Victorian pile is more like sojourning in your very own private mansion. Its façade glimmers with distinctive, locally excavated Caerbwdi stone, rising gracefully to a gabled slate roof. It’s a heavenly sight on a warm, sun-dappled summer’s evening, and indeed its purpose has often had a religious bent: it was built as a vicarage in 1884, then later lodged a priory from the 1960s to 1985.

A blend of period charm and contemporary style in the guest lounge at Penrhiw Hotel © Kerry Walker

The vibe

If first impressions are historic, the inside is startlingly contemporary by contrast, with cleverly designed interiors that bear the minimalist hallmark of internationally lauded architect Keith Griffiths. Keith grew up in St Davids and still has a soft spot for Pembrokeshire – a fondness that inspired him to revive such properties and deeply inflected his work and taste in art.

On the ground floor the muted taupe-chocolate colour scheme is enlivened by the specially commissioned canvases of renowned Welsh painter Brendan Stuart Burns. The overall look and feel of the house is pared-back, but these abstract, dreamlike paintings sweep you away to the Pembrokeshire coast, shot through with silver and gold and mottled with swirling, pebble-like motifs.

A fireplace decorated with tiles by famous ceramist William De Morgan takes pride of place in the drawing room. Though books are currently off limits due to Covid-19, the library ordinarily has a fine selection of books on local history and landscapes – for instance the beautifully photographed trilogy Pebidiog, the ancient Welsh name for the St David’s Peninsula. There’s an honesty bar, and tea and coffee are always on the house, as are transfers to and from Blas restaurant in sister hotel Twr Y Felin. They will even organise a stargazing hamper for you should you wish to enjoy a picnic and some of Pembrokeshire’s darkest skies, far from any light pollution. Nothing, in short, is too much trouble here.

The welcome 

Penrihw prides itself being luxurious and discreet yet inclusive so you can expect a heartfelt, extremely personal welcome. Guests are warmly addressed by name and shown to their rooms. After check-in, you are very much left to your own devices but the friendly, locally knowledgeable staff are on hand to make bookings or provide tips on exploring the area should you so wish. At the time of writing, during the pandemic, it is a socially distanced welcome, with a temperature check on arrival and in-room kits with masks and sanitiser helpfully provided. 

Understated chic defines the rooms at Penrhiw Hotel, St Davids © Kerry Walker

The rooms 

Keith Griffiths has managed the delicate act of seamlessly melding Victorian grace with 21st-century comfort, echoing the contours of the building while keeping the look streamlined. Up in the eaves, our room is sleek and decorated in natural tones of sand, taupe and dove grey, with an alcove through which the soft evening light streams. A lot of thought has gone into the design, with details in dark leather and wood taking the minimalist edge off. There’s a huge walk-in shower and divinely scented products by Aromatherapy Associates in the white walled, slate-floored, Philippe Starck-designed bathroom, while gadgets like Nespresso makers, DVD players and iPod docks  – trademark features of all three Retreats Group hotels – up the comfort ante further still. Ambient music plays softly as we relax over a coffee and a scallop shell-shaped Aberffraw biscuit (incidentally dating to the 13th century and allegedly the world’s oldest…).

With dreamily comfortable beds and downy duvets that scream ‘lie-in’, this is a far cry from the days of Spartan cells and prayers before bedtime.

Breakfast is served at Penrhiw Hotel, St Davids © Kerry Walker

Food

With time slots currently in operation at the moment, we were the only couple at breakfast during our stay so it felt as though we had the place to ourselves. And what a breakfast it was – served stylishly on impressive bespoke, Penrhiw-inspired crockery. After coffee, fresh juice and fruit with local yoghurt, we were treated to a feast that championed top-quality regional produce: one full Welsh with local bacon, sausage, eggs and laverbread Rösti, one cockles with thick bacon and wholemeal toast. It was a tough choice given how tempting the other options also sounded: smoked haddock omelette, say, or a selection of cheeses and charcuterie. 

In the evening, take your pick of the restaurants in St Davids, or book a table at Blas (coming soon on Undiscovered Wales) at sister hotel Twr Y Felin.

What’s here and nearby

St Davids – Britain’s smallest city, cradle of Welsh history, birthplace of the country’s patron saint and home to Wales’ most impressive cathedral – is right on the doorstep. Whitesands and its broad curve of sand and pounding surf is just a mile-and-a-half away, while offshore Ramsey Island entices with seals and seabirds. Voyages of Discovery run wildlife-focused boat trips around the island. 

Whitesands has great foraging potential as we discovered on a walk with Wild About Pembrokeshire (coming soon to the site!), where we we were given a primer on edible seaweed. It is also the trailhead for the circular 3.5-mile, two-hour ramble to St Davids Head, taking in the magnificent hidden cove of Porthmelgan en route.

For touring the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, there is no place like Penrihw – a place that is proudly Welsh to its very core.

St Davids is one of our special star destinations. Scroll to the bottom for our mini guide to access all our St Davids content in one place…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Fancy finding out more about that strangely-shaped crag of Carn Llidi, visible from Penrhiw’s grounds? Keep walking along the lane from the hotel, turn left at the crossroads to reach Whitesands Bay after 1 mile and pick up our circular walk to Porthmelgan Beach which takes in the Carn.

At a glance

Snooze factor: 10 Incredibly peaceful. Beds are the dream.

Food factor: 8  An outstanding breakfast referencing local produce and with plenty of Welsh twists.

Eco-friendly factor: 8 Keith Griffiths has revived the spirit of the building without selling its soul, and it is refreshing to see a Victorian building like this preserved so beautifully. The landscape gardens, with pockets of woodland and wildflower meadows give it added green credentials.

Location factor: 9 Couldn’t be better – just a pebble’s throw from central St Davids and Whitesands Bay, yet ever so tranquil and secluded.

Price: Double rooms start at around £190 but, if it’s a special occasion, the Meadow Suite (£260), with private terrace and views of Carn Llidi, is well worth the splurge.

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Map:

ST DAVIDS MINI GUIDE:

Explore: Caer Bwdy Bay, source of Pembrokeshire’s striking purple stone

Explore: Porthmelgan: hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path to a thrilling smugglers cove

Eat & Drink: Grub Kitchen, St Davids: where the grub is always good