JINI REDDY and her friends head to Yorkshire for a perfect girls' weekend combining culture, retail therapy, some pampering and a buzzing nightlife
A DOME-SHAPED Buddhist shrine is not a sight one associates with a weekend jaunt to Leeds but it is one of the unlikely attractions I discover on my first visit to the city.
I stumble upon the stupa, draped in prayer flags, in the Himalayan Garden of Harewood House, a stunning stately home owned by the globe-trotting Earl of Harewood, David Lascelles. He commissioned it and it was devised by a Bhutanese Lama and built by Yorkshire craftsmen using local stone. I've seen stupas in Nepal but here, 20 minutes from the city centre, it feels like a magical thing.
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Shrine aside, the garden is tranquil, spacious and a little wild. It is also home to alpine flowers and plants more often found in the Himalayas: flaming rhododendrons, striking cobra lilies and many more varieties guaranteed to send gardening enthusiasts into a swoon. It's currently full of autumn colour with blue gentians in bloom.
Once I've dragged myself away, strolled round the lake, explored the walking trails and traipsed through the bird garden (complete with adorable penguins which children big and small can adopt), there's the property itself. If you like the TV series Downton Abbey you'll adore Harewood: the state rooms are dazzlingly ornate, priceless paintings adorn the walls and "below stairs" you can poke your nose into vast kitchens where, in times past, a battalion of cooks would toil for aristocratic bosses.
Best of all, the number 36 bus from Leeds passes right by and, in a laudable initiative, if you take public transport you'll only pay half of the £11 admission. Next time I'll be back for a meal on the outdoor Terrace restaurant which overlooks the grounds.
On this occasion I've cabbed it from my weekend abode, the five-star country house hotel De Vere Oulton Hall. With chandeliers, plush sofas and high-ceilinged suites it's easy to see why the likes of David Beckham and Robbie Williams have stayed here.
After a good night's sleep I head for an early morning swim in the heated indoor pool then settle into the spa for two hours of pampering by Charlotte, a sweet-natured therapist whose treatments use ostrich feathers and hot candle wax. It feels divine, as do the massage and facial that follow, the latter using WAGish-sounding products called Germaine de Capuccini. All I can say is at the end of it all I feel brave enough to emerge make-up free.
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Following a siesta and afternoon tea complete with cherry-studded scones and champagne I head out for a night on the town with a posse of female companions. First stop, cocktails in the Mint Hotel's 13th-floor Skylounge followed by a meal of lamb and creme brulee at the chic City Cafe on the ground floor with views of the canal.
It and the hotel are part of the regenerated Granary Wharf area buzzing with bars, restaurants and smart residential blocks.
Now the UK's largest financial centre outside London, Leeds is in the throes of a retail frenzy. You can shop till you drop and you'll even find a Vivienne Westwood store rubbing shoulders with Harvey Nichols, both in the glitzy shopping arcade Victoria Quarter.
Across the road is Kirkgate, Europe's largest covered market, where you can pick up everything from local cheeses and chutneys to buttons, vintage mirrors and cut-rate designer shoes.
The next morning I put retail splurging on hold to learn of the city's proud past on a Heritage Tour. It's drizzling when I meet veteran Blue Badge guide Bob Tyrell in front of the Civic Hall but by the time we have admired the Moorish minarets of St Pauls House on posh Park Square and the Dewhirst Buildings, where Polish immigrant Michael Marks met and went into business with Tom Spencer, the sun has come out and my head is reeling with nuggets of historical lore.
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I've learned that Leeds started out as a Saxon village (mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086) and that wool-making was its life-blood before engineering. It has been a magnet to immigrants: Jews fleeing Russia in the late-19th century and, in the post-war years, newcomers from the West Indies, Pakistan and India. Today you can follow faith trails around Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, Jewish synagogues and churches such as the Italianate-style Leeds Methodist Mission. All happily co-exist in a city that feels relaxed.
Even lunch in Harvey Nichols's chic fourth-floor restaurant is a warm and unpretentious affair.
When I coo over the freshly made muesli bread that precedes my scallop dish, the waiter offers to email me the recipe. Now, that's what I call Northern soul.
De Vere Oulton Hall (0844 980 9950/devere.co.uk) offers doubles from £99 per night (two sharing), B&B. Harewood House (0113 218 1010/harewood.org), Freedom ticket admission £11 per adult, £5.50 per child. Himalayan Gardens open until October 30 and again from April 2012.
Leeds Visitor Centre: 0113 242 5242/leedsliveitloveit.com Welcome To Yorkshire: yorkshire.com