In the heart of London are three hotels that set a standard for hospitality few can match. The Connaught and Claridge’s in Mayfair and The Berkeley in Kensington are part of the Maybourne Group, which has created a reputation for excellence that is the envy of its competitors. Daniel Jeffreys found that the most difficult part of making a reservation is how to choose among a glorious trio of grand hotels that are steeped in history.
[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t was the middle of the morning at Claridge’s hotel in London and the marble lobby with its black and white chessboard pattern, grand staircase and iconic tearoom was bustling with well-heeled clients and immaculately attired staff. Despite the scene’s whirling intensity the reception staff, led on this occasion by the charming Joanna, had the serenity of saints on the façade of a great cathedral. But I wondered if they would stay calm once I opened my mouth. I had a list of demands that included checking three bags into my room (without me), unpacking two suits and sending them to be pressed, finding a table in the foyer restaurant during one of its busiest times and locating a television producer who was somewhere in the hotel awaiting a rendezvous.
The opulence of the Sutherland Suite is so extraordinary that for a moment the world, or rather the perfect wooden floored baronial corridor on which we stood, seemed to shift and ripple in a manner that might make one think a speaking, thinking bag is a possibility and that it could become tongue tied when confronted with the mysteries of nobility. While I gazed inside I sensed that my well-traveled bags had suddenly turned shy, reluctant, retiring even, as if they were thinking, “No, this suite cannot be for us. We may have been manufactured in a great Italian fashion atelier, but surely this stately mansion is not where we are supposed to be.
What we (or at least me) could see was an expanse of polished oak floor that was occupied by an enormous silk rug. In the centre of the 30-foot long room was a mirror of majestic proportions. To the right was a grand piano that looked like it could have been left behind by Beethoven or Chopin (it was actually the former possession of composer Władysław Szpilman, upon whom Roam Polanski’s The Pianist is based). To the left was a sofa that reminded me of a 50s-style silk-swagged dress by Mignon. Behind that hung museum quality works of art.
Later that day, exhausted from a meeting of six, I put on Mozart’s Magic Flute (the suite has a sound system worthy of Carnegie Hall) and played along from the Steinway. For a few minutes I could not imagine a more sublime experience. I didn’t care that my playing was off (I would guess next door they would be saying “way off”) because I was able to capture for a few seconds that always elusive existential moment when perfection and the search for it were in perfect harmony, like the moon and the sun during a total eclipse of the sun; a few seconds that are both exhilarating and terrifying. And never has there been a better description of true luxury.
It might be tempting to conclude that The Berkeley must be the awkward younger sister of its grand dame siblings, a mere slip of a thing, all gangly and cast out in Kensington where the hustle has more bustle and the stores have less of a solid-gilt edge.
It’s true that The Berkeley is more gamine. The intimate lobby and the seductive bars that sit nearby have an air of naughtiness, as if the Berkeley is the sister most likely to be sent home from boarding school for sneaking out to play with boys. It’s also true that the Berkeley would be the place most young bucks (or buckettes) would choose for a hot date where the champagne is Cristal, the lingerie is La Perla, the diamond is large and the evening is destined to end in a proposal. But these features are just the bright silk bows of a hotel that, beneath its surface, has all the values that make Claridge’s and The Connaught so desirable.
Consider a Saturday in summer and the traveller has arrived fresh from a flight on a UK-based carrier where careless staff had dumped hot coffee upon the keyboard of his computer.
Rather than offering to deliver a new machine to The Berkeley by the time the aggrieved party checked in the airline made lackadaisical suggestions that involved the injured party (me) making visits to repair shops and finding technicians who might judge if a computer I had renamed corpse was actually dead.
Guests in the Berkeley Suites can request the trunk upon check-in and each of its drawers houses vintage statement pieces including a 60s Christian Dior necklace, a 70s Pierre Cardin Studio 54 evening clutch and a 50s Marilyn Monroe-style embellished mink stole. The Fashion Trunk is delivered in the later afternoon and guests enjoy all the accessories with the hotel’s compliments. The Berkeley’s concierge will also arrange for guests to purchase pieces from the trunk, should they so desire.
Extra touches such as this have become a hallmark of The Maybourne Group hotels. The Connaught now has its own Aman spa, awarded the coveted Spa of the Year award by Quintessentially last year. It features a treatment inspired by China, which is designed to restore the body’s Qi (vital energy) through the use of rejuvenating essential oils and massage techniques that stimulate the meridians (energy lines) to release stress.
- Food: A new Michelin star for Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, where Ms. D practices some of the best regional French cuisine in London.
- Shopping: Stephen Webster has his gem of a headquarters around the corner on Mount Street in the Mayfair Village, along with Christian Louboutin, Marc Jacobs and Balenciaga.
- Culture: Some of London’s finest art galleries including Hamiltons, Timothy Taylor and Haunch of Venison are a short walk away.
- What’s New: The hotel has enjoyed a recent restoration project with Guy Oliver refining the hotel’s suites, David Collins sprucing up The Connaught Bar and designing the hotel’s penthouse apartment and India Mahdavi adding her elegant Parisienne touch to The Coburg Bar and Héléne Darroze at the Connaught.
- Royal Provenance: The hotel opened as The Connaught in 1917 but the building made its debut as a hotel in 1897, then being called The Coburg. The original name came from Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg – Queen Victoria’s husband. Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught was the source of the name the hotel bears now.
- Shopping: South Moulton Street is just a few steps from the hotel and in its midst sits Browns, one of London’s best and most exclusive fashion emporiums. The Burlington Arcade, Bond Street and Savile Row can be reached in a few minutes of pleasant strolling.
- Culture: The Royal Academy of Art is close at hand, in summer it presents an exhibition of the best new work in the UK and at other times it plays host to world-class shows by top artists.
- What’s New: Claridge’s will offer a series of Master Classes through the autumn and winter, allowing guests to absorb the expertise of the hotel’s exceptional talented chefs, sommeliers and mixologists. Coming up soon is a Game Master class on October 6 that will offer insider tips on cooking grouse, venison and partridge.
- Royal Provenance: There were so many royal families staying at Claridge’s during the 1940s after the upheaval caused by the 2nd World War that a diplomat who telephoned Claridge’s in 1947 and asked to speak to the King was met with a polite response of “Certainly sir, but which one?”
- Food: Two star Michelin dining with Marcus Wareing plus Koffman’s, new home of Le Tante Claire legend Pierre Koffman ensure that this sister has the way to a man’s stomach.
- Shopping: Turn left on foot or by Rolls Royce and glide a few yards west to Harvey Nichols and a few hundred meters to Harrods. The hotel will also provide its own “Insiders Shopping Guide” on request.
- Culture: Keep going beyond Harrods to find “museum row” including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History museum and the Science Museum.
- What’s New: Afternoon tea with a twist comes to the Berkeley with Prêt-à-Portea, inspired by the fashion world. The menu is transformed every six months to follow the changing themes and colours of top designers.
- Royal Provenance: The Berkeley is a stone’s throw from the back wall of Buckingham Palace and the queen of pop, Madonna, is a regular at the hotel’s Blue Bar.