London Ritz restoration nears completion

By Donna Tunney
Donna Tunney, Travel Weekly's editor/news operations, stayed at the Ritz before covering a trade show in London last fall.

LONDON -- A restoration to return London's famous Ritz hotel to its turn-of-the-century grandeur is nearing completion.

The property, long known as "the French chateau in Piccadilly," was the creation of Cesar Ritz in 1906. Its exterior is a mix of French architectural traditions, including an arcaded walkway that, stretching across the full width of the building, evokes the Place Vendome in Paris.

The decor is Louis XVI. Think of floor-to-ceiling windows dressed in brocaded drapes with tassles, 24-carat-gold-leaf borders on wall and door panels, plush patterned carpets in pastel shades, ornate dark wood furniture and marble columns.

"All of the upholsteries [and soft furnishings] were replaced using French imports, all of the marble was scoured clean, and new rugs were woven in Northern Ireland," Umberto Schioppa, the hotel's front office manager, said during a tour of the property.

The public and guest rooms indeed have a more distinct sparkle than they did the last time I visited, in 1995. At that time, the restoration was a gleam in the eye of Giles Shepard, who had just been named managing director and who, over lunch in the Ritz dining room, described his vision of the hotel's renaissance.

Some of his vision stemmed from sketches and information about the construction and original decor of the Ritz contained in a 90-year-old book found in the hotel's basement. Upholstery patterns, furnishings and color schemes depicted in the book were models for the restoration, which so far has racked up a $13 million tab.

Some contemporary enhancements have been part of the upgrade, including the addition of a fitness center and a redesigned hair salon. A masseuse is available during weekdays -- part of the Ritz's movement to address the ills of modern-day stress for guests who find that, perhaps, afternoon tea just isn't soothing enough.

The hotel caters largely to executive business travelers during the week.

It is making a push to lure families for weekend stays, and during my tour Schioppa showed me some junior suites equipped with an extra bed for a child and/or with a crib. (Children under 12 stay free with their parents.)

The Ritz has 128 rooms, including 22 suites. Each room has a fireplace, but it is just for show. Bathrooms are spacious and marble tiled.

Yet to be completed in the restoration process are guest rooms on the sixth and seventh floors and the upper tiers of the property's signature grand staircase. The whole project is due to be finished by June.

Here's a rundown of the hotel's public rooms:

  • The Ritz Restaurant. This is the main dining venue. It's a vast room with marble columns, a statue of Neptune and his Nereid, golden chandeliers and an oval trompe-l'oeil ceiling. The restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An outdoor terrace runs nearly the length of the dining room. Its stone flooring was resurfaced with a colorful tile mosaic depicting the Ritz logo.
  • Palm Court. The focal point here is an elaborate fountain called La Source. This is where the famed afternoon tea is served (I was told reservations are needed at least one month ahead for Saturday bookings) and where big-band music and dancing are featured on weekend evenings. The room has a high glass ceiling, marble columns and, true to its name, palm trees.
  • The Long Gallery. This lengthy extension of the lobby runs from the check-in area to the dining room entrance. Chairs and tables are strategically placed for guests having cocktails. Two vestibules off the gallery offer a more intimate setting for small groups. The Ritz Bar services these areas.
  • Fitness Room. It is open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and has treadmills, step machines, bicycles and rowing machines.
  • Business Center. Located on the ground floor next to the lobby, the center offers guests the use of two PCs, printer, fax machine and secretarial support. On request, a fax machine and printer can be placed in guest rooms.
  • The hotel has three meetings venues: The Marie Antoinette Room, modeled after a room at the Palace of Versailles, can seat 30 and accommodate 90 for a reception; the Trafalgar Suite, with views of Green Park, seats 20, and the Berkeley Suite, which has a dining and a reception room, can handle up to 40, seated.

    The Ritz is owned by Barclay Brothers, a London-based investment firm that also owns London's Howard Hotel, a five-star property located just off the Embankment. True to its history as a place where royals and celebrities gathered, the Ritz still attracts the privileged few.

    According to Schioppa, Prince Charles attended a wedding held recently at the Ritz. That is not to say, though, that the Ritz staff is any less accommodating to the uncelebrated masses who, through whatever fortunate means, find themselves sipping Earl Grey tea in a guest room here.

    A cheery hello awaits visitors

    LONDON -- The front door of the Ritz hotel is located in its arcaded walkway that stretches across Piccadilly, but guests cannot enter that way.

    "We closed off that door years ago because people would wander in from the street to look around, and it was clear our guests did not appreciate that," Umberto Schioppa, the hotel's front office manager, said.

    Guests now enter the Ritz from a side door on Arlington Street. Doormen posted there -- celebrities in their own right and donned in elegant long coats -- often are the focus of tourists' cameras.

    Winter rate, weekend plans set

    LONDON -- Through April 9, the winter rate for one night at the Ritz runs from about $380 for a standard room and from $600 for a deluxe double. The rate includes one full English breakfast.

    Weekend packages include:

  • Putting on the Ritz. This is a one-night plan for two people priced from about $495 for a superior room and $550 for an executive room. It covers champagne, fruit and flowers on arrival and full English breakfasts for two.
  • Suite Celebration. This is a two-night plan for two people priced from about $2,100. It includes dinner and dancing on either Friday or Saturday night; champagne and canapes served in the suite the other night; a gift, and full English breakfasts for two on both mornings.
  • Fact Sheet

    Phone: (011) 44 171 493-8181

    Fax: (011) 44 171 499-7487

    Reservations: (800) 525-4800

    Location: 150 Piccadilly, London

    Number of rooms: 128, including 22 suites.

    Nearest tube: Green Park

    Representations: Small Luxury Hotels of the World;

    Utell International

    Rack rates: Standard rooms from about $400; suites from about $890.

    Front office manager: Umberto Schioppa

    Raves: Luxurious surroundings with a French ambience. A friendly staff eager to please. Spacious rooms each with a fireplace and marble bathroom. A dream location in the heart of Piccadilly within walking distance of West End theaters, Mayfair and Green Park.

    Rants: No hairdressing or massage on weekends.

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