Joan Reen – Empress of Everything
19 Jun 2015
– Joan Reen is a remarkable woman. She won back her hotel, survived cancer and was named Relais & Chateaux Woman of the Year
– Award-Winning Ynyshir Hall is current AA Hotel of the Year, Wales, listed in Top 50 Restaurants by The Good Food Guide and awarded a Michelin Star last year
– 26 Years in business at Ynyshir Hall Shaping Luxury Tourism in Wales
Joan Reen is a truly remarkable woman. She’s won back her hotel, survived cancer and been named Relais & Chateaux Woman of the Year. Together with her husband Rob, Joan owns the exquisite 10-bedroom Ynyshir Hall (a former childhood retreat of Queen Victoria) in Powys, mid-Wales. Famous guests have included Richard Gere, Julia Ormond and Eddie Izzard among many others.
And 2014 was a record year for the couple. The five-star country house hotel won multiple awards including a prized Michelin Star for head chef Gareth Ward and the AA Hotel of the Year – Wales 2014-2015; while bookings have since soared up by 45%.
Joan herself was presented with her Woman of the Year award at a ceremony in Paris late last year. As the Relais & Chateaux judges observed: “After a couple of rough years, Joan is back at the top of her game and the stately home is more magical than ever,” referring to the Reens’ struggle to regain ownership of the hotel after previous owner von Essen went into administration, and her more personal battle against cancer.
Joan is now well on the way to recovery. But it has inspired a passion for alternative medicine and healing, which she wants to share with others. Last year the hotel unveiled a new Treatment & Therapy centre, offering holistic treatments, many of which assisted Joan’s own recovery from cancer, including Reflexology, Reiki, Tai-Chi, Shiatsu Massage, Energy Healing and Mindful Meditation Walking.
Ynyshir Hall is more like visiting someone’s much-loved home than being in a “hotel”. What makes it so special is Joan herself, as she moves around the dining room, engaging with guests who have embarked on a tasting menu, whilst offering moments of life wisdom between courses. While the décor in the dining room and bar is based around her husband Rob’s paintings. Guests here get a real family feel with both Joan and Rob’s presence at the hotel always accompanied by Theo, their friendly Bernese Mountain Dog. Ynyshir Hall is ideal for dog lovers with a selection of rooms opening directly out onto the gardens, meaning the whole family can visit.
“Being small, we can offer a very personal service,” she explains. “Guests feel very much as they are staying with friends. In a world which is so fast-paced, people love to just escape to our tranquil haven.”
Each of the 16th century white mansion’s individually decorated bedrooms is named after a different artist, with huge beds, television , radio, Wi-Fi and — a lovely touch — a decanter of sherry in each room.
Set amid 14 acres of landscaped gardens, surrounded by the Cambrian Mountains, Ynyshir is next door to one Britain’s finest bird reserves – the RSPB Ynys-hir; where BBC Springwatch is filmed.
The golden sands of Borth beach are a 15-minute drive away. While nearby Artists Valley is where Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven in 1970.
Last year the couple celebrated their 25th anniversary as owners. Former teachers who wanted a career change, they opened the house as a hotel in 1989. As Joan recalls. “It took several years to find the right property, and we knew the instant we saw Ynyshir it was ‘the one’ but had a long struggle to buy it, and an even greater challenge to bring it back to life. We were completely green when we came. But ‘in at the deep end’ we had to make it work. On the second day, Chef said it was his day off the next day, so I had to roll up my sleeves and cook a menu!”
In 2006 they sold the hotel to von Essen hotels, who promised to finance a refurbishment and expansion plan, and keep Joan on as General Manager to oversee this. In 2011 von Essen hotels went into administration. It was a terrible shock.
“The prospect of losing control of my beloved Ynyshir, and most likely seeing it fall into disrepair and decline was heart-breaking,” Joan says. “Having to show round prospective buyers and see the valuer rummaging through all my personal possessions and treasures was dreadful. I did spend some time crying at the bottom of our lovely garden!”
After heroic efforts, the couple bought Ynyshir back, with new investors (good friends, who were former guests) in 2012. To celebrate they built two new Garden Suites, Miro and Chagall, set slightly apart from the hotel, with huge film-star bathrooms by Villeroy & Boch, private balconies for sunbathing and a fireplace made from stone quarried from Ynyshir Hall’s own gardens.
Food has always been a major draw for guests at the hotel and chef Gareth Ward (who was previously at Sat Bains) has won praise from across the industry in just over a year at the hotel.
His innovative tasting menus use local seasonal produce and Joan and Rob have given him complete freedom to create his own menus (this freedom and respect for their chefs has previously resulted in a Michelin star under three chefs over 11 years).
The hotel offers “kitchen experience” days with a chef’s table, which is very much in the centre of the action. Located in some of the most unpolluted countryside in the world (it is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) Ynyshir have always grown their own food, foraged for wild food and used local suppliers.
The staff work together like a family, as Joan explains. “We have regular staff meetings, and I encourage everyone’s contributions. Our style is very democratic.”
Unfailingly modest, there is no doubt about Joan’s charisma (last autumn she had a 10-page cover interview in Welsh magazine, InBusiness). She cites her parents as role models. “Together they created a fantastic business and ran it very successfully for 50 years. They made sure each of their four daughters had a university education, but most important, they instilled into all of us a work ethic that has stayed with us all our lives.”
To run a hotel isn’t a “job” it’s a lifestyle, she stresses. “Remember all your busiest times are when everyone is out enjoying themselves. But it is the most rewarding occupation, and you meet amazing people. I live in the most beautiful place in the world, and quite honestly never want to be anywhere else!”
Eglwysfach, Powys, Wales, SY20 8TA Telephone: 01654 781209 Twitter @ynyshirhall
Dinner (5 course), bed & breakfast rates starts at £315 for two sharing a double room per night