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Malmaison Oxford Castle, Once a Jail Now a Posh
 Hotel in UK's Lively College Town, Oxford

By Jeremy Manier, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 21, 2007 - Malmaison,

3 Oxford Castle

Oxford, England; 011-44-1-865-268-400; http://www.malmaison-oxford.com

For more than a century before it became one of Oxford's most posh venues, the Malmaison hotel served as a prison for inmates who scarcely could have imagined the change their stark home would undergo.

Being so near the center of Oxford's lively college town atmosphere didn't do the prisoners any good, but it's probably the best reason to stay at the Malmaison, which hasn't quite perfected the transition from jail to luxury inn. It opened as a hotel in November 2004.

Just beyond the prison's old gate are the lovely spires and medieval alleys of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Even in summer when classes are out of session, the town is stuffed with street musicians, interesting bookstores and coffeehouses, and an array of college sights that are either free or accessible for a few well-spent dollars.

I stayed for two days and one night, which gave ample time for a leisurely tour of Oxford and a day trip via train to nearby Bath, a popular tourist spot with its fascinating Roman-era spa and elegant Georgian architecture.

CHECKING IN: The Malmaison's sleek lobby is designed to dispel any notion that staying at a former prison means you're roughing it. There was always a crowd near the desk, but the neatly dressed receptionists got me to my room quickly.

ATTITUDE: I didn't get much sympathy when I described my room's most glaring flaw, about which I'll say more in a moment.

ROOMS: The Malmaison describes its rooms as "super-slinky," and that's not far off. The color scheme consisted of severe shades of gray and brown, with silky pillows and linens that went well with the original, rough-hewn brickwork. Framed prints of gargoyles completed the room's somewhat dungeon-like feel. It was visually interesting, if not exactly relaxing.

The room came with free Internet service. The TV was a sleek, flat-screen model, with an accompanying CD player. There was an appealing wine bottle with glasses on an end table, though opening the wine would have cost $30. The closet contained fashionable plates, a mini-bar, the usual assortment of instant coffee and tea, and ironing equipment. There was no robe, and the room featured no take-home extras beyond the toiletry set.

I stayed in Room 203, which at a rate of $313 per night ranked as the hotel's least expensive lodging. It was on the small side but lacked the tiny windows or bars of the former inmate cells. I had a good view of the courtyard -- a former exercise yard -- and an adjacent hill where I could see the old castle that used to connect to the prison.

BATHROOM: This was the biggest disappointment. Though plenty slinky, the bathroom had no room for a bath, only a shower. And in the morning, the water from the shower was lukewarm at best. I got a cursory apology when I described the problem at check out.

KID FRIENDLY: When I asked what they offer for kids, the staff said they could provide cribs or roll-out cots.

ROOM SERVICE: The service runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. The morning buffet downstairs included some tasty yogurt, granola and fruits, and cooked options that didn't go much beyond what a middle-of-the-road American hotel would offer.

PERKS & PEEVES: My bad shower experience threw some cold water on the good first impression the place made on me. It's an unusual hotel that manages to play up the prison theme without being too creepy. Some aspects were surprisingly graceful, including the long, light-bathed atrium that used to serve as the main prison gallery. You can't beat the location. But for luxury prices, I expected a bit more attention to detail.

BOTTOM LINE: Adding in $24.97 for the morning buffet, the bill came to $338.41, including the 17.5 percent VAT. The rooms vary from my base model to a $890 per night suite that includes a cinema room. The Malmaison is handicap accessible, though some of the gangways in the atrium seemed too narrow for wheelchairs.

IN THE WEB EDITION

For a video look at the Malmaison hotel, go to chicagotribune.com/sleepingaround

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