EuropeA tale of two hotels

Taking in London's sophistication

An aerial view of Central London. London Bridge spans the Thames in the left of the photo; the Shard tower, at right, is the tallest building in the U.K.

March into the Rosewood London and you'll be greeted with the equivalent of a formal, classy handshake. Glide into the London Edition and you'll be met with something akin to a flirty nudge. Either way, the first impression at two of the city's newer hotels will reflect a sense of unmistakable sophistication. Just like London itself.

Even a trip to the U.K. capital during the heart of the holiday season, when I made my visit, belies a sense of good cheer, tasteful decor and local pride that manages not to devolve into the kitschiness and overt commercialism that we're used to stateside.

And while people visiting most of the year won't witness sites like twinkling lights strung across Oxford Street or a decorated-to-the-nines Piccadilly Arcade, there's a sense of continual vibrancy in central London that's typical of the world's largest cities but which the friendliness of the locals prevents from making a visitor feel overwhelmed or frenetic.

And that's a good thing, because there are about a hundred tourist angles a traveler can take when attempting to make sense of this city of more than 8 million people.

Culture, cuisine and more

Looking for high culture? Yes, Buckingham Palace may be mobbed during the changing of the guard, but walk around to the back of the big house and one can experience the Queen's Gallery and its rotating exhibitions. My visit coincided with a showcase of the brilliant and sometimes disturbing work of the 17th century Italian artist Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione.

The Punch Room is among the London Edition’s four bars and clubs.
The Punch Room is among the London Edition’s four bars and clubs.

For those who want to shop, there are endless possibilities to drain the wallet (especially with an exchange rate that pretty much makes everything in the U.K. about 60% more expensive), from the big, blingie stores near Piccadilly Circus to the fast-paced hustle of the stretch of Oxford Street that splits Soho from Fitzrovia. I was partial to the slightly slower pace of the boutiques dotting the nooks and alleys that make up the beautifully asymmetric Covent Garden.

As for food, anyone disparaging U.K. culinary choices relative to the cuisine on the Continent is likely overlooking the sheer breadth of London's restaurants and its ethnic and stylistic choices. My visit included the tapas of Soho's Spuntino, whose name is Italian for "snack" but whose cuisine goes far wider. Mac and cheese gets mixed in with butter-drenched greens, eggs and soldiers (soldiers are a form of really tasty buttered and toasted bread used to dip into the soft-boiled egg) and a Dutch baby (almost like a Yorkshire pudding pancake).

Meanwhile, breakfast at Covent Garden's Kopapa meant an outstanding plate of Turkish eggs. Dinner at Clerkenwell's Eagle pub provided me with the heartiest bowl of chowder I've ever had. And for traditionalists, there's always the insanely decadent tower of sandwiches, scones and desserts that make up afternoon tea at the JW Marriott Grosvenor House across the street from Hyde Park.

Washing down those meals won't be a problem either. Hotel Cafe Royal's Grill Room has been serving up cocktails in its all-gilded-fixtures-and-mirrors room since 1865, while whiskey connoisseurs can rejoice at the Athenaeum Hotel's Whisky Bar, which serves up more than 300 varieties. And in addition to the Eagle and its beer selection, the West End's Coach & Horses served a fine and reasonably priced pint of Chiswick Bitter.

Additionally, a visit to the 68th floor of the Shard is worthwhile for a stunning if not agoraphobia-inducing view of the city, though probably not after those drinks.

Penthouse suite of the London Edition.
Penthouse suite of the London Edition.

Beyond that, my trip veered toward a music-geek theme appropriate for a city so steeped in rock history, and the London Underground made the effort manageable. That meant trips out to St. John's Wood to Abbey Road Studios and the crosswalk out front made famous by the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album cover. It also meant a stroll to the section of the Waterloo Bridge over the Thames that inspired the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset."

Tale of two hotels

Which brings us back to those aforementioned hotels. The London Edition, a product of the Ian Schrager-Marriott mash-up brand, opened in the Fitzrovia district in September 2013. Built in 1835 as a group of townhouses and formerly the Berners Hotel, the 173-room hotel has a public space that's marked by flattering lighting and no less than four bars and clubs as well as touches like a massive silver egg dangling from the ceiling. Rooms, whose weekend rates start at about $490 a night, reflected a studied informality, including a throw quilt on the bed, wood paneling, white-on-white bathrooms and a marked lack of right angles.

Meanwhile, the Rosewood London, which opened on High Holborn, about a 10-minute walk from Covent Garden, in October 2013, marks the luxury hotelier's European debut, and it's a beaut. Redeveloped out of an Edwardian building first constructed in 1904, the 308-room property, which cost more than $130 million to redevelop, is posh, posh, posh. Guests are first greeted by massive entry gates, a stately porte-cochere, a library-style lounge complete with a blazing fireplace and no-stone-unturned service.

Upstairs, the high life continues, whether it be in one of the 330-square-foot deluxe rooms, which include Italian marble bathroom fixtures and whose weekend rates start at about $457. Or one can go whole hog in the Noble House Suite (one of the hotel's nine "signature suites"), which is notable for its almost 1,100 square feet of space as well as its sparkling hall-of-mirrors bathroom, raised den and dedicated butler service. Weekend rates will set you back about $7,650, not including the tip for the butler.


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