London Calling - Luxury Travel Magazine
|By: Sandra Nori, Issue 49 Summer 2012|
|WITH ONE OF THOSE RED TRADITIONAL PHONE BOOTHS RIGHT OUTSIDE HER BEDROOM WINDOW, SANDRA NORI COULDN’T HAVE FELT MORE LIKE SHE WAS IN LONDON. THAT IS UNTIL SHE STEPPED OUTSIDE TO TAKE A STROLL AROUND THE NEIGHBOURHOOD...|
|You know you’re in London when you see those red traditional phone booths… I had one just outside my window at the Sofitel St James. I loved that red phone box because it said “You really are in London”. In fact, a sense of place is one of the things that can make a hotel special but besides the telephone box, the Sofitel St James’s location among the city’s icons, along with its elegant ambience, is the thing that most contributes to this hotel’s sense of being in London.|
From the moment I stepped off the plane at Heathrow I started getting that unmistakable feeling you get when just the thought of being in a particular city is exciting. Then there was the train ride to Paddington before jumping into a black London cab and wending my way through the at times imposing and iconic architecture of central London, all the way to Waterloo Place.
When I got to the Sofitel St James I knew I had really jagged it to be so well located, so central to everything… no need for cabs or the tube. I stood on the street and looked to my right and saw the famous Piccadilly tube station about 200 meters away. I looked to my left and saw that the corner of my hotel was on Pall Mall. I walked around the corner and saw the west end theater district (Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was one of the closest offerings). Then I walked up to Piccadilly, turned right and Mamma Mia the musical was playing, took a few more paces, crossed the street and I was in Soho among its theatres and bars. I really was at the centre of it all, but tucked away in a quiet spot, where there was absolutely no traffic to speak of and no other noise at all.
I was freezing. I’d arrived on a cold day but had packed for summer. No problem. The hotel was a short walk to Oxford Street with all its stores, fantastic department stores and great sales. Selfridges with its designer labels, John Lewis and House of Fraser were all there. I stocked up on winter clothes and returned to the hotel by a different route finding more boutiques at Molton Place, a pedestrian way with cafes and some very stylish offerings including the well known brands. For men, the renowned Jerym Street is just a stones throw away.
The way I like to experience a city is to walk. After settling into my room, I set off for Trafalgar Square (four minutes away by foot) with the idea to go to the National Portrait gallery (just opposite) and then on to Covent Gardens (a London Bobby directed me and it took another seven minutes to get there) to check out the busking. (The local authority here auditions buskers and sets rosters so the quality of entertainment is pretty high.)
I had planned to meet my son and his new wife in the bar of the hotel that evening so it was time to head back, after a short detour across a bridge that crossed the Thames.
Visiting the bar would be a good chance, I thought, to see the hotel in action in the evening. The bar was lively with patrons, not all of whom were hotel guests. People from the business district use it as a place for a catch up and its great for hotel guests to feel they are part of the life of the city. Before approaching the bar I’d caught the tail end of high tea in the hotel’s Rose Room, replete with harpist playing exquisite arpeggios wound around delicate melodies. At 6pm the piano bar, which is actually an open, overhanging balcony, takes over the show with pleasant background music.
Next day I set off on my walk. My plan was to visit the Royal Society to see if they had any public lectures scheduled. It was about 100 metres down the road from the hotel to the right. I had hoped for a longer walk so I kept on. In about 200 metres, having crossed a very busy street, I was at the back of some place where lots of people were gathering. It was a rather large unpaved area and I thought: “This looks familiar!” I had seen it on TV during the recent royal wedding. It was where the Household Cavalry does its changing of the guard. So I waited while the ancient ritual took place with lots of silver metal helmets, red uniforms, copious barking by the soldier in charge and magnificent horses.
I kept walking along the perimeter of a huge public park and garden past ponds, ducks, a keepers’ cottage with foxgloves and other beautiful cold climate flowers in bloom all the way before I stumbled on the Houses of Parliament and the government precinct. I went into the Churchill Museum which is underground and where the War Cabinet met during the Second World War. I kept walking with no particular aim in mind and then I heard the unmistakable sounds and rhythms of a marching band. Buckingham Palace was right there before me. I managed to see most of the changing of the guard ceremony and because I cannot resist a marching band and the red uniforms of the Grenadiers I just followed them along the street back to their barracks where some age old ceremonies took place with some more music, precision marching and then it was all over. If I had walked directly from the Sofitel St James to the palace, it would have taken me about 12 to 15 minutes!
For my second and final night at the hotel I had tickets, thanks to the concierge, (who did everything from suggesting it to organising it) to the Comedy Store on Oxendon Street. I left myself about half an hour to walk there so I’d have time to explore along the way but again, I was there in about three and a half minutes. This is the place where Robin Williams performed during his misspent youth and Ben Elton started out there. I spent two hours killing myself laughing at the speed of the wit and repost during the improvisations and repartee with the audience. (Some tips: don’t sit in the front row; don’t put up your hand when asked if you’re not a local and NEVER admit to being Australian unless you want to be teased mercilessly for the next two hours). It was great to be able to walk back to the hotel in a safe district with only a short way to go.
I didn’t take high tea at the hotel but I observed it closely. I couldn’t take my eyes off the glorious Rose Room setting that had two glassless windows either side of its entrance, like a peep hole designed to draw you in. I found myself peeking in through the windows and just watching and listening. The harpist was excellent, the room a perfect world; visually engaging, delicate and so pretty.
The guest rooms at Sofitel St James, which is by the way the Sofitel brand’s flagship hotel, are beautifully decorated and supplied with a speedy Wi-Fi connection gratis. The beds are among the most comfortable I have slept in. The staff and concierge service was at the very top end of what I’ve experienced.