Looking for luxury in and around London

This article appears on page 20 of the March 2008 issue.
Charming Calcot Manor. Photo courtesy of Calcot Manor.

by Beth Habian, Features Editor

Looking for some royal treatment on your next trip overseas? What better place to be treated like a royal than London, where they’ve been perfecting the art of luxury for centuries?

Granted, with current exchange rates, it’s not the first destination that comes to mind for those on a tight budget, but if you’re ready for a bit of a splurge, perhaps an account of my September ’07 visit will provide a few suggestions to make your trip a more memorable one.

Arriving in the city

After an enjoyable flight from JFK to Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic, the first flight I’ve been on in years that hasn’t been packed to bursting in coach, a 45-minute drive brought me to The Goring Hotel (Beeston Place, Grosvenor Gardens; phone +44 [0] 20 7396 9000, www.goringhotel.co.uk).

Self-described as a “quintessentially English hotel,” The Goring is centrally located, practically next door to Buckingham Palace, and is the only 5-star deluxe property in London that is still family run, today by the fourth generation to do so, in the person of Jeremy Goring.

With its history of prominent guests, such as Winston Churchill, I was expecting a posh, somewhat stuffy establishment. What I found was indeed posh, but “stuffy” was definitely not part of the equation here. The hotel is beautifully appointed, having recently undergone an extensive remodel (some of the bedrooms are still scheduled to be revamped), but it is attention to service for which the hotel is noted — unobtrusive but assiduous and delivered with a wonderful sense of humor.

Managing Director David Morgan-Hewitt, recognizable by his trademark pink socks, is a larger-than-life character, his delightfully boisterous presence putting smiles on the faces of guests and staff alike. For all the tradition of the place (The Queen has been known to “pop ’round” for tea on occasion), I felt immediately at home.

Off to the palace

Following a good night’s sleep, I met the rest of my group for breakfast before we headed out in the drizzle for the few minutes’ walk to Buckingham Palace. Our day was scheduled to begin with a visit to The Queen’s Gallery, which features changing exhibitions of works from The Royal Collection.

Waddeson Manor is situated about 1½ hours from central London.

Passing through security more thorough than that at most airports, we were led to the intimate gallery, where visitors milled around in silence, most listening to the audio guide included in the price of admission (£8, or $16, adult or £7 senior). I opted to forgo the headphones and quietly wandered from room to room admiring the well-laid-out exhibition, which featured impressive Italian Renaissance and Baroque works from artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael and Tintoretto. (Information on upcoming exhibitions can be found at www.royalcollection.org.uk.)

For art lovers looking for a way to spend a few hours in the city, I highly recommend a visit to The Queen’s Gallery. Its size allows visitors to appreciate a wonderful array of works in an hour or two without feeling overwhelmed, and the quality of the pieces on display are, of course, outstanding.

The gallery is open daily from 10 to 5:30 (last admission is 4:30), and tickets can be purchased in advance (phone +44 [0] 20 7766 7301) or on the day of your visit. Admission is timed, with entry every 15 minutes, so be sure to note the time printed on your ticket. The gallery is wheelchair accessible.

The combo ticket “A Royal Day Out” (£28.50, or $56) provides entry to The Queen’s Gallery as well as The Royal Mews and The State Rooms, our next stop.

The State Rooms

From August through September, when The Queen is not in residence, Buckingham Palace opens its 19 State Rooms to the public. This time I chose to use the audio guide, something I would recommend for the first-time visitor. The commentary was informative and well paced, not too dry, and included options for further details.

However, I must admit that after my relatively quick walk-through of an hour or so (the usual visit takes around two to 2 1/2 hours), I was a bit overwhelmed by gilt.

For 2008, visitors can see the Palace’s Ballroom lavishly set up as it would be for a State Banquet, which usually includes about 160 guests. Also new for 2008, private guided tours are being offered on select dates in March and April, when the palace is not open to the public. The cost is £65 per person and tickets must be pre-booked (phone +44 [0] 20 7766 7322 to check availability).

The State Rooms will otherwise be open to the public daily from July 31 to Sept. 29, 2008, from 9:45 to 6 (last admission at 3:45). Individual tickets cost £15.50 (or £14 senior) and can be purchased in advance (phone +44 [0] 20 7766 7300) or on the day from the ticket office at the visitor entrance located on Buckingham Palace Road. (The ticket office is no longer situated in Green Park.)

A tasty afternoon

After stopping back at The Goring for some delicious hors d’oeuvres and a peek at the hotel’s lovely garden, one of the few privately owned green spaces of size left in the city, we were off for a short drive through the streets of London in Rolls-Royce Phantoms. Talk about top-notch transportation!

Fortnum & Mason's enticing candy counter.

While I’m not hugely impressed by luxury cars, the highly polished wood interior and self-closing rear-hinged doors were striking. My lasting memory, however, is of sitting in the back of a $500,000 car with David Morgan-Hewitt joyously rambling off the answers to a round of questions from the game show “The Weakest Link,” which was showing on the drop-down telly. Absolutely surreal!

We were headed for Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly; www.fortnumandmason.com), the über-department store that has supplied the best of the best to London’s elite for 300 years. Last year the store underwent a £24-million refurbishment to celebrate its tercentenary and, while I can’t comment on its previous appearance, it is a fabulous place to see.

However, I didn’t get too far past the ground-floor food hall. From English delicacies to an extensive selection of wine from around the world, it is a gourmand’s dream come true.

I did make it up the sweeping staircase to the confectionery counter, where I stood mesmerized by the cases full of champagne truffles, violet creams and pink and white sugar mice, all topped by gleaming glass jars filled with pastel-colored sweets. The kid in me was still giggling gleefully on the way out.

It doesn’t cost anything to look, and it’s a good place to find small gifts that won’t bust the budget. (I can personally recommend the tea, which, at £2.50 a box, has got to be one of the best souvenir values available in the city.) But if you love to shop, you definitely can set your credit card alight here!

A fond farewell

My appetite whetted, we returned to The Goring for dinner. The meal began with Eggs Drumkilbo, a Scottish dish said to be a favorite of the late Queen Mother. A cold concoction of lobster, tomatoes and mayonnaise in sherry-flavored aspic, it was a rich but rather enjoyable start.

My roast venison with mushrooms and red wine sauce was delicious, and, though full, I couldn’t pass up the lavender panna cotta that ended the evening.

Three-course dinners start at £44 ($88) per person and lunch at £32.50 per person, VAT included.

The next morning we were off to the country, sadly saying good-bye to our newfound friends at The Goring. Rooms here start at £295 ($590), single, and £320, double, although special promotional rates are regularly posted on their website. Children are welcome.

A French history lesson

Our next stop was a historical one, situated 40 miles northwest of London near the town of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. A member of the group Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Hartwell House (phone +44 [0] 1296 747444, www.historichousehotels.com) is a restored 17th-century country house, let in the early 19th century to the exiled King Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, before his return to France to finally take the throne in 1814.

The Queen's Bedroom at Hartwell House. Photo courtesy of Hartwell House.

The house was converted in the 1980s, from a girl’s finishing school and now offers 30 bedrooms and suites in its main house plus an on-site spa, Hartwell Court (a converted coach house) and the Old Rectory, a 4-bedroom Georgian house which stands alone — all on 90 acres of serene parkland.

I stayed in the Queen’s Bedroom and was incredibly impressed when I walked through the door. Light and bright and beautifully decorated, the room was enormous! Luxurious it was, but I must admit, climbing into the huge 4-poster bed and turning out the lights was a little creepy, being (hopefully) the only soul in the room. Still, it was the only night I slept through without suffering the effects of jet lag, and it was delightful waking up to the bucolic scene of morning mist rising above the trees and black-and-white cows grazing in the field just outside my window.

The public rooms, as well as the guest rooms, were filled with antiques, and signs asking visitors not to touch were scattered throughout. Children are welcome but only those over the age of six.

Rooms start at £160 single and £290 double, per night. The Old Rectory, which features a 2-acre garden and private swimming pool and can accommodate up to seven guests, is available for £2,500 per day (plus VAT), including all meals.

Waddesdon Manor

Our day here featured a tour of nearby Waddesdon Manor (www.waddesdon.org.uk), a property of the Rothschild family that was built in the 19th century to mimic a Renaissance-style French château. (The Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, is very similar in style.) Now a National Trust property, the manor house is chockablock with exquisite examples of 18th-century French furniture, textiles and porcelain plus English and Dutch paintings and Renaissance works of art.

To preserve the integrity of the priceless pieces within, the house is very dimly lit, the heavy curtains pulled to avoid exposure to the damaging rays of the sun. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust, but what was revealed when they did was extraordinary.

The Conservatory at Calcot Manor. Photo courtesy of Calcot Manor.

Most impressive was the marble-clad dining room complete with a table set with Sèvres porcelain, a dizzying array of 19th-century glassware and an elaborate gilt bronze centerpiece supporting a profusion of blooms that ran the length of the massive table. It was absolutely over the top.

In contrast, the Blue Dining Room was dressed plainly in cool, soothing shades, the intimate table crowned by a strikingly modern chandelier – an explosion of broken white china fashioned into a piece of art.

Other rooms boasted fine examples of 18th-century French furniture, including the delicately inlaid and surprisingly petite writing desk once belonging to Marie Antoinette.

Waddesdon Manor will be open for visits from March 19 to Oct. 26, 2008 (W-F 12-4, Sat. & Sun. 11-4; closed Monday and Tuesday). The gardens, aviary, shop, restaurant and Woodland playground also will be open, on weekends, from Jan. 5 to March 16.

Tickets for the house and gardens, also allowing admission to which includes the wine cellars stocked with one of the most extensive collections of Rothschild wine in the world, cost £13.20 on weekdays or £15, weekends. Tickets can be booked in advance (phone 01296 653226; allow at least 24 hours’ notice) or on the day of your visit outside the front of the house. Tickets are limited and can sell out.

A royal garden visit

Our final full day featured a visit to the gardens at Highgrove House, the country home of Prince Charles near Tetbury in Gloucestershire. This was a special treat indeed, as the gardens are open only for a limited number of tours each year from April to October.

The prince’s famous passion for gardening has created an incredible landscape here, varying from more formal layouts to refreshingly natural plantings. While the grounds feature pieces given to Prince Charles by important heads of state, there are also personal touches, like a memorial to a beloved family pet, that convey the sense that this is a family home, lovingly maintained.

Individual visits to Highgrove are not available, but if you are part of a group or organization interested in visiting (it is an ideal destination for gardening groups, especially), written requests can be submitted, on your organization’s letterhead, to the Gardens Tour Manager (Highgrove House, Doughton, Tetbuy, Gloucestershire GL8 8TN). Be sure to state the number of intended visitors, but do plan your visit far in advance; there is a 3-year waiting list for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

A grand finale

After our garden tour we were driven to our final accommodation, Calcot Manor (phone 01666 890391, www.calcotmanor.co.uk), a former farmhouse dating back to the 14th century. This 220-acre estate, located three miles west of the Cotswold market town of Tetbury, boasts an absolutely charming hotel plus an on-site spa, a world-class restaurant and a cozy pub.

Entry and bar of London's elegant Goring Hotel

Our first stop was The Conservatory for lunch, and, while the meals on the rest of our tour were most enjoyable, the food here was a step above. The wood-roasted beetroot and goat cheese salad is one of the best starters I have ever tasted.

Daily lunches, featuring fresh local products, are available for £19 (two courses) and £23 (three courses).

Not to be outdone, the rooms at Calcot are fabulous in their own right. The integrity of the original stone structures has been maintained while inside the bedrooms and living spaces are modern and chic. Room rates start at £180 single and £220 double, including breakfast. Family suites are also available. Special offers are posted online.

While this is a place where one can indulge in some adult-style pampering — including spa treatments and fine dining — Calcot Manor prides itself on the attention it pays to families. The on-site Creche, open daily from 9 to 5:30, offers a secure place for young children to enjoy toys and games while being professionally supervised. Upstairs, a space for older kids provides X-boxes, computers and movies, allowing parents some time alone.

For our final evening in England, we had dinner at the hotel’s Gumstool Inn. The pub, frequented by locals, was pretty packed and the food was tasty (I had the fish and chips, £11.75, which included a good-sized chunk of crisp, lightly battered cod), but the service was a bit spotty. However, this in no way hampered my enjoyment of my stay here. I didn’t want to leave.

Beth Habian was a guest of The Goring, Hartwell House and Calcot Manor, all members of Pride of Britain Hotels (phone, within the UK, 0800 089 3929 or fax 01666 825779, www.prideofbritainhotels.com), a collection of privately owned British hotels.