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|London's latest hotels have ditched the useless frills to offer
luxury and style without the sky-high prices, says Susan d'Arcy|
We're generally sceptical of travel trends. Fractional ownership sounds more glamorous than time-share, but it amounts to the same thing: Custom booking (now being touted. to A-listers as the equivalent of ordering off menu) sounds daring, but in fact, the tailor-made holiday you've been able to take for years. But, finally, here's a new one for London of which we- can approve - edited luxury.
It means staying in a swanky hotel, with exacting design values, that can't call itself five-star because it doesn't have the frills. You know, those services that inflate the room rate, but that none of us needs or wants in the first place. So, for example, it wouldn't provide a fully grown man dressed like Buttons from an end-of-the-pier panto to take your case the last few steps upstairs - after you've carried them half-way across the country all on your own. There won't be any of those reproduction Louis XV chaises longues in the corridor that nobody ever sits on. Or a fully staffed, over-air-conned, state-of-the-art gym. Or those slippers that would fit only Coco the Clown. Or the chocolate on the pillow you eat because it's there, then instantly regret. I could go on.
Disappointingly, while good-value boutique properties have sprung up across the UK in the past few years, London - our favourite destination for a weekend break - remains lamentably lacking in this category. Even Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, two chains we rate highly for delivering affordable luxury, haven't produced the goods in the capital. There is no Hotel du - Vin, and rates at the Malmaison in Clerkenwell start at a hefty £195 for a double, which doesn't include-breakfast, but does include entry to a gym. It really isn't unusual to pay £250 or more for a night's stay at some of its competitors. If you don't want to splash that amount of cash,~ your main option has been a lose-the-will-to-live chain hotel - until now. Fortunately, our first city is at last experiencing a revolution, with all this year's most exciting launches promising trendy design and essentials on which the discerning traveller does not want to compromise -.- good-quality beds, duck-down duvets, Frette linen, fiat-screen TVs - at affordable prices. In one case, five rooms each night cost just £1.
More encouraging still is that one of edited luxury's champions is Nick Jones, of the celebrity magnets Babington House and Soho House fame. He has just opened the pared-down, 14-room High Road House, surrounded by the chic boutiques and organic-food shops of Chiswick, in the capital's western suburbs.
And if Nick Jones says the future is fuss-free, prepare for an almighty bonfire of the vanity tables. Given the ethos of his new hotel, its design is slightly unexpected: granny's guest room meets Desperate Housewives. So, there are Old-fashioned Bush radios, Tetley brown teapots and a notable lack of wardrobes (clothes hang on pegs along the tongue-and-groove walls), teamed with custom-made beds, Frette linen, fantastic rainforest - showers and naughty freebies such as bedside condoms.
Although the rooms are priced at the pointer end the phenomenon (£160), given Jones's reputation - and considering that shareholders and local residents such as Ant and Dec and Colin Firth will be propping up the private bar and perhaps eating in the all-day brasserie - he could easily have gone for a more ostentatious style and charged £250+. "High Road House is an example of the new-style B&B: that's bed and brasserie," says Jones, who has recruited former River Café staff to run the kitchen. "People don't necessarily want grand. They want great design, a great night's sleep and great food with a bit of informality. Our rooms aren't huge - they're simple but fun."
Thankfully, the edited-luxury brigade are keen to be seen not to exploit guests. Sinclair Beecham, who became a legend in all our lunchtimes when he founded the fabulously common-sensical Pret A Manger takeaway-food chain, hopes to revitalise the hospitality industry in the same way he reinvented the cheese and pickle sandwich. He opens his first property, the £1 8m, 205-room Hoxton Hotel, in Shoreditch, next month. Rooms will start at f79, B&B, and during the opening period, five per night will be sold off at £1. He claims an unspecified number will always be given away at the £1 price each week "because that's fun".
"I got fed up with expensive hotels ripping me off," Beecham says. "If a hotel charges me £2.50 for a KitKat from the mini-bar, what does that tell me they think of me? We've got a kiosk in reception thatsells items you might need for a reasonable price. It will cost me 3p per room per day to offer WiFi internet, so why would I charge my guests 20 quid a night? Internet access will be free - and so will bottled water, because I can't stand being charged £4.99 for a drink when I arrive somewhere and am dying of thirst. A lot of the big chains have lost touch with reality. I want to prove that budget doesn't have to be boring and it doesn't have to be ugly."
Whereas Jones has gone for a folksy style, Beecham - who hopes to expand within London next year before taking on the rest of the UK - has given his - hotel an edgier, uber-cool look in keeping with its hip east-of-centre location, which attracts the likes of the singer Lily Allen. So, there's lots of exposed concrete and brickwork in its striking double-height lobby and a predictable palette of beiges and browns, with the occasional splash of red to ensure you're paying attention. It is admirably plasma-ed up and WiFi-ed throughout.
A similar philosophy and similar expansion ambitions lie behind another impressive newcomer, the 67-room Kensington Hotel Apartments. It opened a couple of months ago in Earls Court, with prices starting at £99, room-only, and is the brainchild of the property developer Robert Nadler. Like Beechani, he was disillusioned with the lack of panache in the middle market. “Chains do things by rote,” Nadler says. “You can see- this especially in the little things. Hotels never have enough plugs for today’s traveller, so to recharge your phone you have to unplug the lamp, and if you use the bathroom during the night, you have to listen to an extractor fan for the next half an hour.”
Kensington Hotel Apartments’ design is contemporary without being overly cutting-edge: flat-screen TVs and original prints on the walls, decent beds and even a kitchenette, but no redundant trimmings: “We’ve cut out all the nonessentials, such as rooni service,” Nadler says. “But there’s a microwave in-every room and our free TV internet service lists all the local takeaways, so you can order In. It means we’re more part of the community. It’s a more socially responsible approach. There’s no dining room, but you can get a breakfast box delivered to your door for a flyer. It’s a much more private experience, more environmentally aware. Hotels like ours are more of the time.”
But they are clearly more than that. They are also part of a-sea change in the capital’s hotel industry. The Rockwell, also, in Earls Court, is another newcomer falling into the bed-and-brasserie bracket. A reworking of an elegant Victorian terrace, it has 40 rooms, classically stylish and Individually designed, if a little on the small side - edited luxury, in the Rockwell’s case; means no baths, just showers. There’s a pretty courtyard garden, and one no-frills touch that is going to win fans is a 20% discount for guests eating the restaurant’s modern British fare.
Further towards the city centre, in a Grade 11-listed Georgian town house on the binges of Marylebone village, Montagu Place is another new hotel staking out the stylish-but-affordable territory. It takes a novel approach to room classification, defining its contemporary accommodatIon as comfy, fancy or swanky, but all categories-have deluxe pocket-sprung beds, cafeiières with freshly ground coffee and free DVDs to watch on your flat-screen TV.
All of which just has to be good news for visitors to London. But if you’re happy to pay an extra £100 per night to have someone open a door for you, there are plenty of anachronisms still out there.
'The Sunday Times' national newspaper, Travel section 20 August 2006
My mum and younger sister were bringing two of our god children, OIly, 13, and Elly, 11, to stay with me in London for the first time. Having never been to the capital before, the boys were deliriously excited, and I had arranged an itinerary of non-stop sightseeing and enforced fun, but there was just one problem: With only one lumpy sofa to offer in my cramped flat,and no funds to stretch to a swanky suite for five. where would we stay?
Salvation came from Kensington Hotel Apartments, a new budget accommodation concept near Earl’s Court tube that offers serviced apartments with boutique hotel style. It had a room for three next to a bunk room - perfect.
Dropping our luggage off at the attractive stucco townhouse on Friday lunchtime, the impression in the small reception area was of an upmarket hostel. We set off on a whirlwind tour of St James’s Park, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, the London Eye, a brilliantly commentated river cruise and dinner at Covent Garden, before returning to collapse on our fat, squishy beds. Amazingly, we were still capable of taking in our surroundings after all that, and the boys had enough energy to pelt between our adjacent rooms, bellowing ‘Oh, mint! Flat-screen TVs! Look at the showers! This is wicked!'
My mum and sister thought the rooms ‘very trendy’ on account of the wetroorn-style bathrooms, and that ubiquitous modern look easily achieved with rich brown carpets; spotlights and framed black and white photographs.
The small chrome kitchen, hidden behind cupboard doors, would have been handy if we’d had time to stop and cook. The hotel was faultless, and though the breakfast boxes provided weren’t nearly hearty enough to sustain a morning at the fascinating 'Bodies’ exhibition, being a touristy spot meant there were plenty of great caffs nearby.
In fact, Kensington Hotel Apartments rated almost as highly as eating burgers, riding the tube and seeing all the homeless people as the lads’ favourite bits of the weekend.
THE PRICE: Singles from £8O a night, bunk from £90, double from £99.
WE LIKED: The tellies, the bunk beds. the whizzy showers.
WE DIDN’T LIKE: The meagre breakfast.
VERDICT: Wicked! The perfect base for a stylish London break on a budget.
Gemma Bowes 'The Observer' national Sunday newspaper 3 September 2006.
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