London is conveniently en-route to many destinations and there is nothing better than breaking your journey to Africa, Asia, or even other parts of Europe, with a fun-filled stop in what is arguably the most exciting – and eccentric – city in the world. A slew of new hotels, and several iconic establishments, bring new meaning to the word “buzz. Like the city itself, they feel like places where exciting things are about to happen and you want to be part of it.
I recently returned from a few days in London which included stays at the new Ham Yard Hotel – a bolt-hole tucked around a heated courtyard just steps from Piccadilly Circus. One of eight small properties impeccably run by Firmdale Hotels, the Ham Yard is the flag-ship and is frothing with locals enjoying mezes in the bar or afternoon tea in the solarium. Guests can expect to find sleek bathrooms, colourful, modern country-house interiors, bold art work and convivial gatherings of arty types and bankers – all served up with just the right attitude by the well-informed staff. There is a “loungey” rooftop terrace garden with harvestable herbs, olive trees and birdhouses. Residents can find respite in guests only drawing rooms with roaring fires and an honestly bar. My other favourites Firmdale properties are scattered throughout Mayfair, Soho, Covent Garden and Knightsbridge – each with its’ own charm. There are screening rooms at several properties and movie nights come with cocktails and dinner. The Soho Hotel plays host in March to the National Theatre’s production of “Behind the Beautiful Forever’s” , the new play by David Hare based on the mesmerizing book by Katherine Boo.
The recently reopened Café Royal on Regent Street, has been redone in grand style with spacious, sleek rooms and Louis XVI opulence in the public spaces – and is perfectly locate for shopping Bond Street, Jermyn Street and the tailors of Savile Row. The famous Oscar Wilde Bar – where great minds came together to change the world, and Mick Jagger & Elizabeth Taylor danced the night away – still draws a chi-chi crowd; while the Green Bar serves a myriad of cocktails laced with Absinthe. And if you are lucky enough to be there on the right night, you might catch a performance of the Black Cat Cabaret which wows with singers, comedians, performance artistes and magicians.
The Milestone Hotel remains a perennial favorite for it Englishness, location and service. Right across from Kensington Palace; reputedly they serve more champagne in their bar than any other establishment – who doesn’t want to be part of that!
If you’re looking for the quintessential “martini moment” or feeling like channeling a little Ian Fleming , you MUST go to the Dukes Hotel (they will only serve you two!) – mixed at your table after consultation on your preference by Alessandro Palazzi (vodka or gin; aromatic or mild) … the lemons are from the Amalfi and the olives from Sicily … perfection! Frequented by the famous James Bond author, the bar is said to be the inspiration for the classic line, ‘shaken, not stirred’. And it is a mercifully short walk from there to Bentley’s Oyster – shucked and critiqued right in front of you – this is the end to an ideal night in London!
But what if you’re looking for a little nosh to go along with your drink? If you can begin your day with Welsh Rarebit “The Wolsley”; or The English at “Delaunay” you likely will not need lunch but if you do“ Spring at Someset House”; and finish another day Heston Blumenthal’s award winning restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel; or if you are really hankering for a little New York, Balthazar have opened up shop in London.
I did manage to see a few of the famous sites – between eating and drinking of course …. I loved the famous ”Poppies” at the Tower of London and the fantastic Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit at the Natural History Museum. But for a taste of country life I ventured out to the Surrey Hills for a day of hiking – although I wished we had been biking the windy country lanes with cyclists we kept running into. The country pub at Abinger Hatch served a classic pub lunch with local cider and a roaring fire.
But perhaps the moment I knew I was truly in the England that I love was in Windsor, where we had gone to visit friends and see the Christmas light installation on the castle walls. The pub nestled up against the castle, with doors so low I had to bow slightly, welcomed dogs … but not children … thank you very much. Long Live the Queen!