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Ancient city turns pamper weekend capital

Costa Rica

Chester is one of Britain’s upcoming short break destinations. It has one of the longest Roman walls in Britain, a proud historic heart lined with unique medieval shopping galleries, and Britain’s most photographed timepiece after Big Ben. Add in one of the best zoos in Britain, and a long list of treats for a pampering weekend. Virgin Trains run direct services from London Euston. The city keeps Germanic opening hours for its Christmas market, starting at the end of November and continuing right through until Christmas Eve.

Animal magic

If we must have zoos, let them all be spacious out-of-town centres for rare 
animal breeding and conservation like this. This is what the zoo says: “the UK’s number one zoo, with over 8000 animals and 400 different species, including some of the most endangered species on the planet.” My pick of the attractions is 
the Butterfly House, a warm and welcoming, if steamy, refuge on a cold day. 
Brilliant tropical specimens in blues and purples fluttered languidly past my 
nose. My list of triple-underlined thrills included the zoo’s two Sumatran Orang-utan babies in the Red Ape enclosure. And Asani, the new baby black 
rhinoceros (one of just 700 in the world) barrelling around the Tsavo Rhino 
house. The Twilight Zone is the largest free-flight bat zone in Europe.
You look down from many high vantage points on, for example, South American condors, and cheetahs in their new corral. Current attractions include baby giant otters, a rare baby okapi, and the first calf born to the Asian elephant Sundara (November 2012).
The zoo’s latest initiative is to create a series of Southeast Asian islands, in one of the biggest zoo development programmes in Europe. Planning permission was granted in November 2012. (See below).
(Take the number 1 bus from the city centre to the door.)

Late News:
The Southeast Asian Island biosphere is to be created in microcosm at Chester Zoo after planners gave the green light to one of the largest zoo developments in Europe.
Chester Zoo will transform an unoccupied part of its estate into small islands of the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Bali, Sumatra, Sumba and Sulawesi, linked by a network of bridges.
Visitors will tour the feature by water and see animals and plants from south east Asian islands including rare species such as Banteng and the Sunda Gavial crocodile.
There will also be Sumatran tigers, orangutans, Indonesian rhinoceros hornbills, Sulawesi macaques and exotic birds such as the lorikeet.

Shopping history

The origins of The Rows are uncertain. Some say mediaeval shopkeepers stood 
in the two-tier shopping galleries running the length of streets in the city’s 
historic heart, and threw rubbish at the marauding Welsh as they passed in 
the streets. Whatever the truth, this unique retailing feature has survived 
largely intact. Eastgate Clock, the North’s version of Big Ben, is a good place 
to begin a tour. Regularly positioned staircases lead you up to the upper levels, 
where sloping wooden walkways pass interesting independent shops and 
boutiques. 
For big out-of-town shopping, try the Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet, but only 
after you visit the excellent Blue Planet aquarium, next door, where the more intrepid visitors may dive with a 10ft long sand tiger shark.

Pamper plans

The tourist people have worked up a long list of short break pampering themes, 
as they raise Chester’s appeal as a short break destination. (Direct trains run from London – you used to change at Crewe, not a 
good start for romantic weekends.)
The big end of year attraction is the Christmas market (2012), located within the heart of the city by the Town Hall and the cathedral, it follows the tradition of the continental markets, starting at the end of November and continuing right up until Christmas Eve. It is open every day from 10am until 6pm (8pm on late night shopping).
Festive food includes roast chestnuts, grills and crepes, as well as hot soup and mulled wine.
This year (2012) stallholders will be selling hand made Christmas decorations, paintings, cards and original art. Other present ideas include belts, bags, satchels, scented candles, jewellery and soft fluffy toys and recycled metal toy art structures. Gifts for the home include sheepskin, reindeer & bullskin footstools, wooden baskets, lamps and olive wood figurines.

I recommend lunch at Joseph Benjamin, a restaurant and delicatessen tucked against city walls: potato and watercress soup, char-grilled Jerusalem artichoke, roast red onion and rocket, and Woodlands bottle-conditioned beer.
Next stop Boodles, to closely examine £10,000 diamond rings (lowest prices around £200). Nobody says you have to buy. Then on to “Indulgent High Tea” at the city centre Grosvenor Hotel and Spa - champagne and strawberries, and enough sandwiches, scones and pastries to provision a small army.

Hooray hotel

Oddfellows Hall is the sort of rare hotel that hauls you in from the street 
through its sheer sense of fun. The renovated C17th Georgian manor house 
opened in 2008, determined to be different from the city’s other 
distinguished period hotels. They start with a visual joke – an upside down 
table in one of the dining rooms. Beyond the Champagne Bar is a restaurant 
under a glass roof in the walled garden, with heated Bedouin tents beyond for 
year-round drinks. After a zesty pre-dinner coriander mojito, I sampled the 
inventive English menu based around locally sourced ingredients - goat 
cheese and grilled aubergine terrine, Cheshire beef, truffle and mushroom 
macaroon, and mulled plum crumble with cinnamon cream. With only four 
bedrooms, high under the eaves, (two person shower and your own espresso 
machine), you are unlikely to encounter queues at breakfast.

Classy Cathedral.

Cathedrals do a nice line in peaceful corners, but I can’t think of a more
tranquil inner-city ecclesiastical spot than the garden locked right in the heart of Chester Cathedral and its cloisters. Leave it to last, after a tour of the Norman arches and gothic columns and many interesting features of this 700-year-old building. A painting extols Henry VIII, who – unusually for him – spared 
the adjoining monastery buildings. It’s worth searching for the wood carvings dating from 1380. Look for the elephant with horse’s hooves - the work of a carver who clearly never saw Africa - the Virgin and Child painted on a web, and the Chester Imp, a carved image of the Devil in chains. The C13th Refectory, where the monks used to dine, has a wonderful stained glass Creation Window, made in 2001.
The cathedral garden, at the heart of the Cathedral cloisters, features a sculpture, ‘The Water of Life’ by Stephen Broadbent.

Walk the walls

What did the Romans ever do for Chester? Well, apart from building the largest Roman 
amphitheatre in Britain, they left behind another splendid free attraction, well 
over a mile of 2000 year old walls. You can make a near complete high level 
circuit, looking down on the old city like a supercilious centurion of the 20th 
Legion on patrol. There’s a fine view of the Roman Garden, with paths and 
geometric beds of medicinal plants of the time (thyme, periwinkle, salvia, and 
alchemilla), shaped like a serpent coiled around a staff of the Roman god of 
health. I left the wall where it overlooks the river Dee, with the racetrack and 
the Welsh mountains beyond. Then it was Chester, the Cruise: there are boat trips on the river to Eaton Hall, in the Duke of Westminster’s estate.

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