The Guardian, Wednesday 22 February 2012
It wasn’t the built-in seating, the colourful Roman blinds, or even the trendy factory lights that revealed how much design thought had gone into Plas Curig, a new hostel in Snowdonia. It was the bedroom door. It glided slowly and silently shut without so much as a click. In shared dormitories, when you are at the mercy of others’ nocturnal bladder control, a banging door can mean the difference between a good night’s sleep and, well, a really bad one.
The last hostel I stayed in, in the Peak District, met my low expectations: dark Victorian furniture, threadbare carpet, thin mattresses and a chill wind blowing down the corridors. Hostelling in the UK is cheap and easy, but not luxurious. And although the YHA is smartening up some of its properties, most are still no-frills. In Europe, hostels are usually a little more modern – in Paris recently, I experienced psychedelic walls, elegant wallpaper and a cheerful cafe. But the bunks were still standard issue, and the walls were thin.
Plas Curig, by contrast, better resembles an extremely good value boutique hotel. It is interior-designed, plush and thoughtful. For its young owner, Amy McIntyre, getting the atmosphere right was uppermost. She was inspired by hostels in Malaysia – colourful and relaxed, where guests walk around barefoot, drink beer and chat to each other. “I wanted it to feel more like a travellers’ hostel, or a small, communal hotel,” she says. “Hostels in Britain are usually places people just turn up and sleep, and can be uncomfortable and freezing.”
Her mother, designer Jane McIntyre, created the interiors. The communal entrance area has seating built from reclaimed scaffolding planks, piled high with stripey cushions. Shelves are filled with books for people to read or take – as long as they replace it with another. Just off it is another communal room with a log burning stove that’s lit every night in winter, giant TV and more colourful cushions. The dining room has more wood seating – this time sanded and varnished.
“We had to use lots of warm colours as the light here is pretty murky,” says Jane. None of it would look out of place in an interiors magazine.
The beds (made every morning) are bespoke and wooden, painted heritage shades, with panelled walls, reading lights and – on the bunks – curtains for privacy and ladders that don’t shake the frame as you clamber up. There are Welsh wool blankets on each bed for chillier nights. Each bunk has two storage drawers, and some rooms a trunk for bags that doubles as a window seat. Lighting is soft and flattering; bathrooms small, clean and hot.
Plas Curig had been a YHA hostel since 1945, and was about to lose its one-star rating. McIntyre mother and daughter gutted it, lifting up vinyl flooring and worn terracotta tiles, and laying glorious slate, sadly not Welsh. They kept the elegantly worn central wooden staircase.
Best of all is the view. A hop across the road from the front door is the shapely mountain, Moel Siabod, with the River Llugwy at its foot, winding its picturesque way to Betws-y-Coed five miles away. We set off in the morning, following the river for half an hour before heading slowly up a gentle pass to the summit. Towards the top, rain-lashed blades of grass had frozen into delicate shards of ice that tinkled in the wind. Taking the more direct route down meant we were home just before sunset.
After hot showers all round, we headed to the pub next door, Bryn Tyrch Inn (bryntyrchinn.co.uk), for upmarket local food that’s worth splashing out on if you can’t be bothered to cook – a slap-up dinner there cost us the same as our bed. The following day, as the rain came down, we drove the winding four miles to the cosy Pen-y-Gwryd pub (pyg.co.uk) where Edmund Hillary based himself when training to climb for Everest.
Rooms at Plas Curig start at £22.50 per night for a bunk bed, and go up to £25 per person per night for a double. How is it able to charge hostel-style prices? “We’re a few pounds more expensive than other hostels in the area, but we’re still a hostel, after all,” says Amy. “We had to put our prices up after we opened as people were suspicious of how cheap we were.”
Now that Plas Curig is almost finished – they are redoing the car park – Amy has her sights on “premium hostels” in other UK beauty spots, including Dartmoor, the Lake District and Cornwall, each with its own character. Hostelling has never looked so attractive.