Tale of two hotels: London visitor samples high-end lodgings

Associate editor Grant Flowers stayed at two London hotels, the Four Seasons and the Sheraton Park Tower. His report follows:

LONDON -- They're located less than a half-mile from each other in one of the best areas of London. They both cater to the most selective of clients and charge hundreds of pounds -- and therefore even more hundreds of dollars -- for a night's stay.

They are the Four Seasons and the Sheraton Park Tower, two high-end properties in a city full of them. So what's it like to stay in both of them in the space of three nights?

Pretty nice, it must be said, and the ways in which the properties reveal their luxury are also revealing. The Four Seasons has a very private, sedate tone throughout the entire property.

In contrast, the Sheraton Park Tower to me felt more like a "regular" hotel but is no less luxurious, in its own way.

Sheraton Park Tower, London

This member of Starwood's St. Regis/Luxury Collection brand, the only one in the U.K., is hard to miss. Visitors to the city can spy the 25-year-old "Pineapple," as it is called by locals, from far away. Alas, it's not as pretty as a pineapple, with its gray, bay window-studded exterior.

Inside, however, the circular shape of the hotel lends itself well to the inner structure, particularly the Knightsbridge Lounge, a round, two-story room at the center of the hotel's ground floor. This gilded room is stylishly decorated with chairs, couches and small tables. Here guests can have a quiet tete-a-tete or afternoon tea.

The bottom floor also has a cozy bar -- renovated last year -- that looked like it would be a good place to meet after work. Nearby is the hotel's independently managed restaurant, One-O-One, which completed a renovation in May 1998. The restaurant specializes in seafood and has a view of Knightsbridge Road.

The Park Tower also has four meeting rooms that hold seated groups as large as 30 people. Another feature is a business center on the ground floor. It's not open 24 hours a day, but guests can request entry outside of business hours.

Guest rooms are divided into four categories and, except the 24 suites and penthouses, are identical in size. (Rooms are differentiated by service level -- there are some butler rooms -- and floor). Rooms are quite sizable, partly due to the hotel's curved structure.

While the bay windows may seem like fruity protrusions from outside the hotel, inside they are a delight. The Park Tower is one of the tallest buildings in the area, and because of its location, a large percentage of guests have views of Hyde Park or of Buckingham Palace and Parliament.

Rooms are decorated with an English look: Floral patterns abound on bedspreads and curtains; the sofa is a deep burgundy, and the furniture is made from dark wood. The most curious flourish is the clock. Instead of using a standard electric timekeeper, management placed a small, noisy clock with hands on the end table. Thankfully, the clock is not as bothersome when buried under a thick pillow.

One of the biggest bonuses of the Park Tower, which has been a Sheraton property for 23 years, is its location. The hotel is a block away from Hyde Park, but shoppers will find other reasons to appreciate the neighborhood: Harvey Nichols is across the street and Harrod's is a short distance away.

Four Seasons, London

Situated at the southeast corner of Hyde Park and the southwest edge of the neighborhood of Mayfair, the Four Seasons London has one of the best possible locations for a hotel.

For those interested in doing a little sightseeing, Buckingham Palace is a five-minute walk away. The Four Seasons is also a couple of minutes from a tube stop (Hyde Park Corner), and taxis are easy to find.

From the outside, it's not the most attractive hotel in the city. Built in the 1970s, the eight-story property is low, gray and thoroughly uninteresting compared to other, more classic looking buildings on nearby Piccadilly and Park Lane.

Once through the entrance, guests will notice the decidedly low-key luxury of the hotel. The typical big brown reception counter found in most hotels has been replaced by a single table fronted by two chairs. When checking in, guests sit here while an employee codes the room keys and takes care of the usual business of welcoming new arrivals.

The hotel has a very sedate and intimate feel, in part due to the decor, in part due to the service (polite, personal and efficient). The dark paneled walls of the first two floors -- where the public rooms are located -- are offset by motifs of light, such as the large windows and the chandeliers studded with flowers made of colored glass.

The lobby has a quaint sitting area near the entrance, and down a nearby hallway is a parlor where guests can enjoy the terrific afternoon tea. A window in the sitting parlor looks out into a small garden and, beyond, to the edge of Hyde Park. The hotel plans to build a conservatory in this garden space for small groups.

Off the entrance is the hotel's business center. While small, the center has the standard office equipment and guests can use it free of charge, 24 hours a day. A set of wide, carpeted stairs leads to the second floor, which is where guests can find the bar, the hotel restaurant and meeting rooms.

The bar was renovated last year. The updated space has the same sedate tone as the rest of the hotel, with elegant decoration. Lanes is the name of the hotel's restaurant, down the hall from the bar. It's a large, well-lighted space with dark marble walls, plenty of glass (much of it colored) and a window that looks out on Hyde Park.

Meeting rooms are very ornate, more so than the main parts of the hotel. The rooms have wood paneling, elaborate chandeliers and colorful frescoes. The spaces are frequently used by finance-industry groups and are also popular locations for weddings.

The guest rooms are as elegant as the rest of the hotel. All of the rooms have been renovated in the last two years. In the brush-up, rooms were given a pale, contemporary color scheme, and the walls were soundproofed (to some extent).

The carpet has a blue and gold pattern that goes well with the pale yellow and blue-trimmed walls. Even the standard rooms are quite sizable and include an entertainment center with a VCR, a desk, an armchair and a small table.

The only disappointment in my room was a rock-hard ottoman. Because the property serves a large business clientele, data ports were installed about two years ago.

Those same business guests can use their room key to access the hotel's small fitness center, located downstairs, which has the usual assortment of treadmills and exercise equipment. The bathrooms are not huge, but they are spacious.

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