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3Novices:Ultratravel checks into London’s best new hotels

When the Hong Kong-based Peninsula hotel group recently announced plans to open its first London property, it seemed somewhat late in the day. Virtually every other global hotel brand is now represented in the British capital – and across its geographical area. Shangri-La at The Shard, the Mondrian London, the London Edition and Rosewood London have all opened their doors since last year; the re-opening of the refurbished Savoy five years ago, along with the Bulgari, Melia and beautiful Corinthia now seem like ancient history. Even the US-centric Ace Hotel chain is now fully at home on Shoreditch High Street (Nobu is soon to open a hotel there, too). Older luxury stalwarts such as the Lanesborough and Metropolitan by COMO have undergone thorough, multi-million-pound refurbishments to stay in the game; capital investment from the Arabian Gulf and Asia vies with British companies to serve high-spending clients on their leisure trips to the world’s biggest cities. Luckily for hotel owners, hotels have now become social centres and fashion statements, so there is also a huge market in less affluent patrons from Europe who frequent them even if they are not staying there, or who stay for only a night or two for a special occasion. Those travellers demand quality and style and are able to pay for it.

Underlying all of this is, of course, London’s tourism and property boom. This year, the capital is predicted to host 2.7 million more visits than in 2013. Business travel – these days often combined with leisure – has recovered, and there are now more than 130,000 hotel rooms in total. Even Airbnb is expensive and doesn’t seem to have affected the hotel occupancy rate, which has reached a 20-year high of 84 per cent, while the average room rate per night is £144 (Dh815). The good news is that big numbers of visitors and rooms create economies of scale and fierce competition. Book on the right day and some of the luxury hotels we look at here can be had for around this average price, rising, in the case of the Shangri-La and the Lanesborough, to a starting rate of over £500 per night.

Sometimes it takes an unexpected route to get to what you’re looking for. I’m on a circular tour of London’s new and refurbished hotels, and I start and end in Knightsbridge, both to access Heathrow Airport easily and to see how well the traditional West End home of London’s finest hotels has managed to hold its own amid massive competition from challengers farther east. The Metropolitan by COMO on Old Park Lane (http://ift.tt/1ddCfht; double rooms from £312; Dh1,765) is a typical example of a well-known hotel (it opened in 1997) that has felt the need for a top-to-bottom refurbishment. Surrounded by the Four Seasons, InterContinental, Dorchester, Hilton and other big names, perhaps that’s prudent. After a stressful arrival at Heathrow, with huge queues at immigration and a 40-minute wait for baggage, I exit Hyde Park Corner Underground station to the familiar sound of Arabic being spoken by almost everyone I see. After crossing the busy road system, arriving at the Zen-like Metropolitan is the ideal tonic. My fifth-floor room has a huge lateral window overlooking Hyde Park, and the spacious design and comfortable, minimalist furniture, combined with the positioning of the building well back from the main road, are just what I need to focus on the task ahead.

Downstairs, the COMO Shambhala Urban Escape spa is just that – the signature massage by Jana from the Czech Republic, accompanied by Tibetan music, is, along with the Bodyworks massage by Trillian, an Australian at the agua spa at the Mondrian, the best of the lot. This is London at its ideal – Hyde Park is just across the road and Mayfair is behind the hotel – including Shepherd Market, with its village-like selection of shops and restaurants offering another escape from the city’s roar.

COMO is a Singaporean company and most of its hotels are in Asia, though it does have a sister property called the Halkin in nearby Belgravia. At the other end of town, in a much more spectacular building, another Asian chain – in this case the much bigger Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts (http://ift.tt/L6U31r; doubles from £340; Dh2,095) – has opened its first UK property at The Shard, a Qatari-owned, Renzo Piano-designed tapered glass structure on the south side of the river near London Bridge. Throughout most of the hotel, you’re so wowed by the views (Westminster, the City of London, Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf in the distance) that the less-than-grand décor in the standard rooms and public areas seems not to matter. This summer, however, the hotel opened its long-awaited signature suites, including the 188-square-metre Shangri-La Suite (from £10,000 per night; Dh56,640), which has its own private lift and 180-degree views on level 39. As if commissioned by a wealthy Venetian during the Renaissance, the suite is designed by Francesca Muzio and Maria Silvia Orlandini, co-founders of Italian design atelier FM – Architettura d’Interni Studio. Their project involved a team of 250 skilled craftsmen from around the world and features custom-made furniture and silk wallpaper in champagne, citrine and bronze colours; a specially designed Shangri-La Bed featuring body-contouring technology; and Frette 1,000-threadcount linen. The marble bathrooms, Toto toilets and crystal glassware are de rigeur by this point.

Not far west along the river on the South Bank – walking distance really if you stop along the way at Borough Market and the Tate Modern – the Mondrian London at Sea Containers House (http://ift.tt/1iYnJ1P; double rooms from £195; Dh1,104) sees the pleasing end to an ambitious story. Perhaps ahead of his time, American Warren Plattner had planned the 1970s structure as a hotel, only for it to be turned into shipping company offices during an economic downturn (hence the name; pleasingly, some sea containers can still be seen being pulled up and down the river by barge). Appropriately, the building was bought by the Morgans Hotel Group, an American company owned by “boutique” hotel aficionado Ian Schrager and turned into the Mondrian London. Other Mondrians are located in Los Angeles and Miami’s South Beach (Doha and Istanbul are due to open this year); its sister brand is the Delano, an art deco landmark, also in South Beach; the emphasis is on glamour, fun and sophistication all in one. There are art deco echoes at the London property, with a 1920s cruise ship theme running through the Tom Dixon-designed interior. A great copper-clad hull serves as the reception, anchored by a giant blue chain. A model of a boat hangs over the bar in the Sea Containers restaurant, and the balconies to the river view rooms make it seem as if you’re on a cruise ship. That the water is right outside your window is probably its biggest asset. Waking up to a view of the Thames, throwing open the windows, heading down to breakfast by the river and then wandering along it to the Hayward Gallery for some modern art – all without being confronted by cars or traffic – is glamorous indeed. There’s also a spa, agua, which holds its own in terms of therapist skill, design and even price (a 50-minute massage is £75; Dh425) with the best in the business.

Heading north across the river to another American outpost, the Ace Hotel Shoreditch (http://ift.tt/1ey8l3T; double rooms from £178; Dh1,008) occupies what was beforehand a decidedly unfashionable Crowne Plaza, a modern but undistinguished building that fronted a main road and a selection of bus stops. The road and buses are still there, but thankfully have been muted by the compelling interiors and soundproofing. The reception – think concrete ceilings, stencilled artwork on the walls and hipsterish staff - feels like you’re putting your coat in at a local nightclub; behind that is a huge table for remote working; to the right is a surprisingly intimate bar and cafe and attached to that is Hoi Polloi, a cavernous but cosy diner-inspired space serving imaginative breakfast, brunch, snacks and dinners.

The clientele is as eclectic as you would imagine in this area – but less posey and more genuine than you’d expect. Prices are reasonable and there’s a string quartet at weekends – so the day could slip by quite easily. Upstairs, the bedrooms are fairly uniform in their upmarket student style – high, graphite-coloured ceilings and matching thick bedspreads on the low bed, a guitar placed on the wall, a long grey daybed by the window, blinds rather than curtains, a compact bathroom – but the space seems roomy, comfortable and practical. Oddly, the Ace Hotel’s founder, Alex Calderwood, died aged 47 of a suspected alcohol and drug overdose in one of the rooms here six weeks after it opened – but don’t let that put you off. This is a great hotel, and I’d go back for another stay.

Jumping on a bus outside the Ace, I head through the City of London to the Rosewood London: after The Shard, the most striking building of them all, and probably more surprising (http://ift.tt/1gU9ViR; double rooms from £350; Dh1,980). Fronting right onto High Holborn, guests pass through a deep arched entranceway into a courtyard that makes you feel that you’ve arrived at a grand country estate. Now Hong Kong-owned and American managed, the seven-storey belle époque building was once home to an insurance company and then a less lavish Marriott hotel. An £85-million renovation has preserved its Grade II-listed Portland stone exteriors and spectacular Pavonazzo marble staircase, as well as French walnut and Cuban mahogany panels and other features. There are 262 rooms and 44 different suites; I’m in the 100-square-metre, first-floor Noble House suite (£4,800 per night; Dh27,190) facing the courtyard. Far from being old-fashioned, the rooms, designed by New York-based Tony Chi and Associates, are swish and chic, with deep sofas, mostly neutral décor and coffee table books in the separate living room. Its best feature is probably the marbled and mirrored bathroom, which is the size of a small apartment. There’s a cosy den for business matters and a huge, almost fully complimentary minibar. I’m surprised, though, that there’s a door from the bedroom into the corridor, through which I can hear occasional sounds, and that I can hear and slightly feel the rumble of the Underground line below the hotel. There is a full service Sense Spa in the basement.

The brasserie-style Holborn Dining Room on the ground floor is a highlight. Amid reclaimed oak furnishings, antique mirrors and red upholstery, there are cosy booths with banquettes and a buzzy atmosphere. Dinners are unashamedly British, with local vegetables, fish and seafood; mains include fish and chips and smoked haddock, and the atmosphere is convivial. This is a splendid hotel for a special occasion – stay here and the whole world looks better.

In a similar vein but on a smaller scale is the London Edition on Berners Street off Oxford Street near Tottenham Court Road (http://ift.tt/1vIS8nK; doubles from £250; Dh1,415; loft suites from £980; Dh5,550). Another Ian Schrager concept, in partnership with Marriott International, the Edition brand (there are others in Istanbul, Miami Beach and New York; one is planned for Abu Dhabi in 2016) is supposed to denote “grown-up lifestyle.” While the building is older than the Rosewood – dating from 1840 – it’s less grand. Its best features are the public areas downstairs, which include a drawing-room-style lobby with marble pillars and a soaring French stucco ceiling, but with a pool table, fake fire and bar combo to the left and a giant silver egg hanging from the ceiling lobby. The whole thing feels theatrical and slightly staged, including the excellent Berners Tavern restaurant, also a beautiful space plastered with old-style British art.

Modern art, including a limited-edition digital piece by Tracy Emin, is dotted around in the other areas, but, although the other guests are great – affluent and successful but laid-back and friendly – the staff take themselves too seriously and the ski-chalet-style wooden panelling in many of the rooms is too close to bland. My “loft suite” on the second floor feels nothing like a loft or a suite, but it’s a very inviting 53-square-metre space, especially the seating area and bathroom. Views are unremarkable, and it’s rather stuffy – the air con stops and starts all night, and it’s too noisy outside to open the windows. The best thing is a meal at Berners Tavern – overseen by Jason Atherton, whose nearby restaurant in Soho has a Michelin star. For quality of ingredients, presentation and atmosphere, this was the best restaurant of all the hotels I stayed at (recommended starters: roasted quail and beetroot-cured salmon; mains: macaroni and cheese with braised ox cheek and barbecue turbot). This was one of those places where everything on the menu sounded tempting. There was also a great performance by a solo singer in the snug Punch Room afterwards (Sundays only). Breakfast, alas, wasn’t nearly as exciting.

Surprisingly, just down the road in Soho, British boutique hotel company Firmdale Hotels’ ninth property, the Ham Yard Hotel (www.hamyardhotel.com; doubles from £372; Dh2,100) is more satisfying: small scale (91 bedrooms and suites), beautifully decorated, both fresh and down-to-earth and with a relaxing ambiance.

There’s a rooftop terrace and other quirky features. It has a very British feel, but this isn’t rammed home to you: like all the best hotels, you feel at home rather than on edge.

It’s this magnified a hundredfold over at the Lanesborough on Hyde Park Corner(www.lanesborough.com; doubles from £650 (Dh3,744). The grand, mansion-style building is now under German management (as part of the Oetker Collection) and is owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

Sitting on a busy road over exit 3 of Hyde Park Corner Underground station, this historic hotel dating from 1830 has just reopened after a 19-month, £80-million refurbishment. In 2013 some 3,500 items of furniture and fittings were sold at auction, to make room for fresher, less-fusty pieces, and its technology has been brought up to date.

All of this seems to have been sensitively done, with a pleasantly minimal change to the marble walls and floor in the entrance. Again, you feel like you’re entering an upper-class home rather than a hotel, so there’s no queueing at reception or even the sight of any phones or paperwork. All of that happens in a back room, so you can recline at your leisure (check-in is done in the room). Céleste restaurant, to the right on the ground floor, is an exquisitely elegant space with powder blue walls, chandeliers and a glass roof letting in just the right amount of light – looking at pictures of what was there before, it’s much more inviting now.

The building was once a hospital, and the smallest rooms are on the upper floors. My room is a one-bedroom section of the first floor Royal Suite, with Regency-style furniture, including a lavish bed, period artwork, high ceilings and two tall windows. The huge marble bathroom with a heated floor is beautiful, though a flickering light above the sink is annoying and the air feels very dry – whether due to a lack of ventilation or recent decoration it’s hard to tell. The tablet devices to control the electronics are a good idea, but I don’t like using what looks like a mobile device in the middle of the night and find the low light setting too bright. But these are minor glitches, and I struggle to leave the comfort of my bed. The whole seven-bedroom suite costs £26,000 (Dh147,200) per night.

Downstairs at Céleste, the formal surroundings somehow translate into a relaxed atmosphere, with soft classical music and, most importantly great food by Florian Favario, a protégé of Eric Frechon, head of the three-Michelin-starred Epicure restaurant at Le Bristol in Paris (the pastry chef is also from there). Here, however, they use British ingredients for fish- and meat-based main courses and fish- and vegetable-based starters. I have a seven-course tasting menu (£95; Dh540) per person and love the heritage tomato soup, Cornish turbot poached in lemongrass butter and the cheese selection, but find the meat bland. The breakfast is a delight from start to finish, with the kind of attention to detail that has been lost in most hotels these days. Afternoon tea is another hit, and the room is packed with Arab guests.

Each tea (from £45; Dh255 per person) features an imaginative range of sandwiches (gluten-free and halal options are available, and top-ups are free), followed by a rich selection of French pastries and scones. The tea menu is imperially grand, with some delicious blends.

It’s a great thing, as an expat, to visit your home country and see it differently. As a Londoner I’m suddenly struck by the appeal of this place. Even though it’s UAE-owned, German-managed and with French chefs in the kitchen, this place could not be anywhere but London. In fact, that’s perhaps what it takes. In a world of bland design, ugly buildings and robotic service – this is still clearly, for the wealthy, something that’s worth paying for. And, if you aren’t a princess, there’s always afternoon tea.

Etihad (www.etihad.ae) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to London in seven hours; Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai.



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