Luxurious London

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:22 pm -

I should have been raised in a hotel. I would have been the consummate Eloise at the Plaza. I’ve met a lot of hotels I haven’t liked. But then, there’ve been the hotels I’ve loved — and London’s 51 Buckingham Gate would more than qualify. It has something for everyone: location, charm, comfort and intimacy. It essentially feels like a club.

Big hotels aren’t my thing. Invariably, I get lost in the corridors, and I hate hotels which resemble railroad stations, where guests feel as if they need to take numbers to check in or out. I cherish my privacy and don’t necessarily care having other guests keeping track of my comings and goings. However, the same doesn’t apply for the hotel’s staff members. I love being spoiled by them in an understated fashion.

Understated has a very special connotation for me. It signifies niceties such as having the room cleaned when I duck out for a couple of hours, half-used bottles of shampoo replenished and hotel concierges offering me directions without my having to ask. I appreciate being presented with a cup of tea when I return to the hotel looking frazzled. Perhaps I’m spoiled but I love evening turn-down service. So many hotels have put a stop to this luxury.

During visits to the United Kingdom, I’m invariably surprised. After all, English is our common language, but Americans are lingo-challenged. And, there’s no question that manners and customs are different and in many ways more formal. The British are simply different.

I should clarify that I’m an American who chooses to live in Paris. I arrived in the ‘City of Light’ seventeen years ago, on a six-month assignment, and never permanently returned to the US. I frequently go to Washington, DC because I have family there. I travel enough that I’m never quite certain where to set my inner time-zone clock.

On this trip, my departure city was the Nation’s Capital.   The British Airways Washington-to-London flight takes less than seven hours, so crossing the Atlantic feels like a proverbial snap once strapped in my airplane seat. For me, every trip is an adventure because I suffer from perpetual wander lust. Architecture may remain constant, but time never stands still. I’m always amazed by visible changes and trends wherever and whenever I travel.

Not long after clearing customs at Heathrow Airport, the driver pulled into the courtyard of 51 Buckingham Gate, less than five minutes from Buckingham Palace. The massive black wrought-iron gate protects the enclave and gives the entrance a regal appearance. In the center area, there’s a charming small garden that changes according to the season. There’s a story about the courtyard but you’ll have to ask.

Smiling staff members were on hand, and my luggage disappeared. I was handed a magnetic card to the room, attached to a black-and-silver key ring with the number 51. Little did I know that the key ring would be my checkout gift.

I was eager to go my room in the Kings section, one of the three restored buildings, which are striking examples of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. Former town houses, they were converted to long-term rental apartments and luxury suites by the Taj Group, which owns and manages a chain of luxurious hotels in India. The group decided to expand and make this property its London showcase.

Bernard de Villele became the hotel general manager in 1999 and converted the circa 1897 buildings into a five-star jewel of a retreat. This man doesn’t suffer incompetence, and although he’s usually onsite at 51 Buckingham Gate doing inspection tours, (you imagine he wears white gloves and has eyes behind his head), M. de Villele has been made Vice-president of Business Development & Operations for Europe and the Americas. He’s developed a stable crew of team members who know the clients and vice-versa. So many guests are repeat visitors because of the special environment, reception and attention they receive.

Prior to my arrival, I had requested soft down pillows. They were waiting and I fell into a profound sleep. I would have spent the day in bed if it weren’t for the guilt factor. The decor was stunning, and the living room had breathtaking flowers cascading out of a shopping bag from the chic Fleur Couture in the equally chic Mayfair area. The bedroom’s incredibly comfortable king-size bed was covered with a 100% down duvet with an Egyptian 600-thread count cotton cover and a bedspread that was nothing less than sumptuous. I’m a beige person, and I admired the suite’s clean design, which used modern furniture with subtle and never jarring color accents.

Rather than rooms, guest accommodations (82 in all) range from junior suites to four-bedroom residences, with full kitchens that are perfect for those who want to have champagne and goodies without leaving the inner sanctum.  Each suite’s kitchen includes a mini-dishwasher and combination washer/dryer. There’s also a DVD and a CD player, a printer/fax machine, a private telephone number with voicemail. All of the accommodations have data-ports but if you’re a computer addict, rooms are equipped with a high-speed or WiFi modem connection. Oh, and yes, there’s a safe in every room.

The beige marble bathrooms have high-tech elements and a tub and separate shower stall. I showered using the Molton Brown bath amenities. I crawled into bed before my hit-the-road wake up call. There was so much to see in so little time.

For those who desire service equivalent to what you’d experience were you a guest at The Buckingham Palace, book an Ivor Spencer suite. You’ll have a personal butler for sixteen hours a day who’ll do everything required to make your trip stress-free. A limousine will be awaiting you at the airport, your suitcases unpacked, your bath drawn, dinner reservations and/or business needs will be attended to, always with the utmost of competence. If you’d like to have a private dinner served in your suite, all you have to do is ask.  The meal will be served on Wedgwood China and Villeroy and Boch crystal. If you want special activities to be arranged for your traveling companion, don’t hesitate to ask. That’s all part of these rarified butlers’ jobs.

I didn’t ask, but I suspect you can request to be tucked into bed. I wouldn’t be in the least bit shocked if more than a few guests had taken advantage of that service. After a long dinner including champagne, wines and cognac, it wouldn’t come as a surprise. Don’t be surprised if you spy a rock star or a head of state at 51 Buckingham Gate.

I certainly didn’t require this type of attention. Each time I returned from an outing, a goodie was waiting to welcome me. Tea sandwiches, cookies, chocolate strawberries and a box of chocolates from the French were just a few of the surprises in case I’d worked up a hunger while out on the town.

The first day was supposedly easy. After a buffet lunch in the hotel’s library, where you can always order something to eat, including a four tier silver tray of delectable sandwiches and different pastries for “high tea,” we set out to see London from on high. It was our second flight of the day as we climbed aboard the British Airway London Eye, a 450-foot monster Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations but held over by popular demand. Thirty-two glass capsules, each holding as many as 25 passengers, rotate for 30 minutes. During that time, passengers have privileged views of the Thames River and buildings and gardens rarely seen from the ground. It’s worth buying the guidebook in order to know what you’re seeing from this perspective.

Off we went to Fortnum & Mason, purveyor to many royal families over the years. There are a lot of gourmet markets, but Fortnum’s is an experience unto itself. Food sales are so brisk that the store is closing other departments because, when all is said and done, what’s better than gourmet indulgences?

I happily fantasized about spending a vacation in the hotel suite, reading, relaxing, and eating caviar and smoked salmon and other delicacies while living in the lap of luxury. The chocolate section is so vast that Fortnum’s has a dedicated buyer who spends her life traveling the world and assembling the most extensive chocolate collection anywhere. The chocolate buyer’s apartment is climate-controlled to accommodate chocolate tastings. And she is skinny as a rail.  Don’t think this was an easy job to land. There were more than 450 qualified candidates!

Returning to the hotel, I was booked to have a massage in the spa. After an hour-long treatment, I emerged feeling like a new person. Any jet lag had dissipated, and I was rejuvenated to go onward and upward. Well, almost.

What’s a London weekend without eating, sightseeing, shopping and lots of walking? During the weekend, I took a look-see into Buckingham Palace; the Victoria & Albert Museum; and the Tate Modern, the former Bankside Power Station, which was converted into a museum of international modern art. There are critics who feel more strongly about the museum’s architecture than its exhibits.

One of the highlights of my visit was a tour of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Seeing backstage, costume rooms and dance rehearsal halls gives the performing arts a new meaning. The Covent Hall has an excellent restaurant that is crowded at dinner but not at lunch, and the food is lovely. Once a month, there’s a tea dance where participants dance up a storm. Some of the women jitterbugged, wearing dresses and hats from the ’50s. Dapper men waited their turns to ask women to take a swirl on the dance floor, accompanied by big-band musicians.

I had visited the British Museum and so many other cultural landmarks. I’d done my fair share of shopping in London. But, I had never thought of London as a culinary-market town. How wrong I was. Since its opening in 1999, the Borough Market near Southwark Cathedral (subway stop is London Bridge) is worth a visit Friday and Saturday mornings. Many of London’s finest chefs can be spotted here, in addition to food aficionados. Gourmet selections are widespread, and many vendors have gone organic — even organic baby food.

Every market worldwide has its own style of displaying products that invariably gives insights into the region’s culture. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss this market, which won the 2003 London Tourism Award as being the best “London experience.”  It was cold and raining when we left the market, so we sought refuge in the nearest pub, where numerous beers were on tap and bangers and mash — sausage and mashed potatoes — on the menu.

Speaking of food, all those years of thinking London had a dearth of good restaurants, are best forgotten. The city is full of top-notch eateries serving sophisticated and excellent food. The Bank Westminster Restaurant offers light and tasty bistro food in elegant and sleekly modern surroundings. Its bar, the Zander Bar (all of 140 meters long), is one of the places to see and be seen, especially if you’re young and hip. There are also seating areas should you tire of bar stools. If you’re noise-sensitive, this is not the place for you, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the music is blaring away.

The 51 Buckingham Gate complex also has a very good French bistro (aptly named Bistro 52) that serves classic French and British fare in an informal setting. If you’re into Indian food, Quinlon, the sister restaurant of the renowned Bombay Brasserie, is the “in” place in London to eat South Indian coastal cuisine.

There were so many places where we could have eaten but didn’t. One night, we were guests at a private dinner guided by wine expert Hugo Dunn-Meynell. Wine and food are not to be taken lightly, and Mr. Dunn-Meynell enlightened the group on which wines were compatible with various foods. Much to our surprise, they weren’t necessarily the ones we had predicted.

A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a walk in Hyde Park. After our share of such exercise, we returned to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park for tea and scones. Tea is served in the hotel’s dining room, which opens onto one of the most verdant views in the city. If you’re watching for more than a few minutes, you might well see a parade of horses being ridden in perfect formation.

The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park has opened a beautiful spa that transplants guests to Asia. If you’re the ultimate sybarite, you might want to book a series of treatments.

All I wanted was to return to 51 Buckingham Gate. It’s rare when I find a hotel where I’d definitely rather live than in my own home if only I could afford it. I guess I’m not alone in my choice. 51 Buckingham Gate has won the Conde Nast Johansens award for most excellent London hotel.

I have a confession.  I already have my next trip planned to “my home away from home. This time the start and finish destination will be Paris. What a pleasure it’ll be to hop on and off the “Chunnel” that takes just over three hours and there’s only an hour’s time difference. I think I’ll even time my arrival to have lunch in the Harrods’ Food Hall.  I suspect I’ve even take some Stilton cheese back to 51 Buckingham Gate – naturally with a bottle of Port. When in London, do as the natives do!

• • •

51 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E6AF; phone, 44/20-7769-7766; fax, 44/20-7828-5909;

British Airways London Eye;

Fortnum & Mason  181 Piccadilly, London W1A1ER

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Piazza
London WC2E9DD

Bank Westminster Restaurant and Zander Bar
45 Buckingham Gate
London, SWIE 6BS

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