For anyone wanting to swing through London in style, the slate of uber-salubrious hotels has never been meagre: The Ritz, The Dorchester, The Savoy, The Langham, Claridge’s, The Connaught… the list goes on. And on.
That hasn’t stopped new arrivals from perennially trying to muscle in. A fresh five-star joint seems to open every year, and the pipeline is bulging: a second Mandarin Oriental, a Rosewood, a Six Senses, an Emory (from the group that owns Claridge’s and The Connaught), and a Waldorf Astoria that will occupy a stonking imperial pile on Trafalgar Square.
But right now the talk of the town is the arrival of a pair of luxury-soaked new establishments of Oriental heritage.
The first is an outpost of The Peninsula, an elite and slightly eccentric chain that has been owned by Hong Kong’s Kadoorie family for well over a century. The other is a new Raffles, joining the growing stable of that opulent icon of colonial Singapore; it’s a joint project between Raffles owner Accor and a wealthy Indian-British mercantile family, the Hindujas.
Both have only just opened – you can still smell the barely dried paint, and see workmen putting on the finishing touches. And both have been epic, almost epochal, $1 billion-plus projects. If you’re coming to London this Christmas, it’s the season of the Crazy Rich Asian hotel.
You might find yourself riding in a tiny lift that’s fitted out like a hot-air balloon basket, before stepping into a jazz-retro, aviation-themed rooftop bar and cigar room at The Peninsula. Or you might propose to your paramour in the ornate turret of Raffles’ Old War Office (OWO), with the same peerless view of Big Ben that Daniel Craig’s James Bond surveyed in the final scene of Skyfall. These are not hotels that have done things by halves.
But the two hotels’ exuberant Anglophilia and tang of colonial grandeur are just about the only thing the pair have in common – apart, of course, from their eye-watering room rates, which start above £1000 (about $1920) for even the smallest room, and could well be 10 times that for a price-on-application top-end suite. The Raffles suite I stayed in will set you back £25,000 a night.
The Peninsula London sits on Hyde Park Corner, handy for the wealthy Middle Easterners’ playgrounds of Knightsbridge and Mayfair. The Raffles London at the OWO dwells on Whitehall, within arm’s reach of the theatre land of Covent Garden and the circus of Westminster. The two hotels are only a mile from each other, but poles apart.
The Peninsula London is a new-build, where everything – even the element of homage to old-world Hong Kong – feels contemporary and cosmopolitan. The Raffles London is a seven-year renovation of an Edwardian government edifice, the Old War Office, full of vintage sofas, lamps, fireplaces and chandeliers.
So if you’re heading to London and feeling flush, which should you choose? The answer, I’m sorry to say, is that it depends on why you’re there, what you like or want in a hotel, and what flavour of London you favour.
If, like Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels chairman Michael Kadoorie, you are a bit of a nut for planes, trains and automobiles, then The Peninsula is the one for you.
The hotel has a fleet of racing-green luxury cars at its disposal. One is a 1935 Rolls-Royce Phantom Sedanca de Ville, which reportedly took eight years and more than £1 million to restore, and requires its drivers to undertake special training.
You’re more likely to see that one parked ostentatiously in the courtyard. I was ferried to my overnight stay in a preposterously spacious Phantom 8. I could stretch my legs full length in the back seat, although the car itself was more cramped in my home neighbourhood’s narrow, speed-humped streets.
The Brooklands restaurant on the top floor has a to-scale replica of the Concorde suspended from the ceiling, and the bar has a rotating exhibition of vintage automotive memorabilia. In the lobby downstairs there is an actual Concorde nose tip.
If this all sounds a bit odd, all I can say is that it actually works: it gives the hotel a personality and a touch of quirk that prevents it from being just another deracinated global chain.
The rooms themselves are tasteful but less eccentric, more tuned towards effortless comfort. I’m accommodated in a junior suite, which has more square metres of space than the ground floor of my London terrace house. Everything from the lights and curtains to the communications with the concierge is controlled by a kind of iPad. Even the toilet is top of the range tech, while the bed is the size of a small continent but is also an envelope of fluffy comfort.
The only mild oddity is the presence, in a dressing-room drawer, of a nail-dryer. Apparently Kadoorie was once late to dinner because his wife’s nails were slow to dry, prompting a chairman’s edict that every room at a Pensinula Hotel should have such a gadget.
So far, so deluxe. But in my rather varied experience, the chief differentiator between three-, four- and five-star hotels lies in the soundproofing. The Peninsula simply excels: it’s on one of the busiest roundabouts in London, a constant whirling dervish of traffic, and you don’t hear a thing.
The snacks and drinks on offer in the room are so good that you barely need to go out to dinner. But it’s worth it: both the ground-floor restaurant and cocktail bar are Cantonese-themed, and deliver as authentic an old-school Hong Kong experience as London can offer.
If you do decide to stay in, you’ll probably make use of one of the things I most liked about this hotel: the valet cupboard, next to the door. You put things in it, like dirty clothes or scuffed shoes, and next time you open it, there they are, as new. You order room service, and it appears in the box rather than requiring a knock at the door. It’s like a magic box.
There is a seemingly infinite amount of attention to detail, from feng shui-guided layout to subtle London architectural references in the ceiling, or whimsical flourishes in the furniture of the restaurants and bars. It’s hard to explain, but somehow this hotel is both lavish with pastiche yet also zen-like in its simplicity. It’s an impressive feat of alchemy.
Over at Raffles London at the OWO, slavish authenticity is more the name of the game. In the mid-2010s, it was a dilapidated old dame of a building, the dour and dusty den of an outfit called Defence Intelligence. Now, it has been restored to full baroque Edwardian elegance.
Although there are modern flourishes, much of it has the feel of a film set, replete with period furniture, impossibly high ceilings, and restrained lighting. You almost expect to see Winston Churchill himself prowling the corridors, chomping on a cigar.
In the reception area, they’ve done away with the usual colourless counter: the staff sit at big wooden desks, the arriving guests in leather armchairs. There’s a lift that still retains its metal-mesh shaft.
Some of the smaller rooms are pretty modest, but the suites are extraordinarily extravagant. I stay in the Haldane Suite, at the top of the grand central staircase. It overlooks the front of Horse Guards on Whitehall, where those cavalry troopers with the shiny gold helmets do their duty for king, country and tourism.
This suite was once a ministerial office and has been kitted out as such. Its greatest claim to fame is that Churchill had a desk in here during World War II. There’s certainly a vast bureau with his photo on it in this modern incarnation, along with a bust on the mantelpiece.
And there’s room for plenty more besides. Across the suite’s two main rooms, I count 18 chairs, two sofas, 11 side tables and coffee tables, 16 lamps, three fireplaces, two desks and three chandeliers. There are seven windows, each about five metres tall. I almost feel lost in the space and history.
One of the suites, the Granville, is kitted out with what must be London’s largest shower cubicle – if that’s even a word I can apply to an object the size of a smallish up-ended shipping container – and a free-standing gold bath. Another suite has its own private tower.
A concierge shows me around, rattling off stories, dates, facts, chronology; this is a hotel that takes history very seriously. There are other hotels in old buildings nearby – The Royal Horseguards, the Corinthia – but none has the antique reverence of this one.
Some of the common areas are slightly less elaborate. The restaurant is more quotidian in appearance, although the European food is terrific and the sommelier and his wine list even better. The lounge is slightly bland, but the downstairs bar has a cosy, conspiratorial feel – and the signature London Sling is a huge improvement on the Singapore one, which I’ve never quite taken to.
Raffles London has done well on the recruitment front: its staff are convivial, and while they’re attentive they don’t fuss and flutter – they set you at ease, rather than on edge.
Renovating a heritage building can’t have been easy, and they haven’t pulled off quite the same soundproofing feat as The Peninsula. The occasional wail of a siren or growl of a motorbike found its way to my ears. But arguably it was worth it because it meant I got to hear the melodious chiming of Big Ben – the very essence of a night in London.
This is what the Raffles OWO is, ultimately, all about: if you want to dwell absolutely, unmistakably in a reverie of timeless, effortless Englishness, this hotel is your ticket of admission.
Whichever of the two hotels you pick, you’ll get food from Michelin-starred chefs, bathrooms of the finest marble, exquisite cocktails, exceptional views, and all the creature comforts a peripatetic sybarite might ever want or need.
If you have a few million to spare, you can even move in: both have a residential wing, although each claims to be nearly sold out. In that case, there’d be only one other option. Like the unforgettable opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians, you’re just going to have to buy the whole thing.
The author was a guest of The Peninsula London, and Raffles London at the OWO.
Need to know
- Raffles London at the OWO | 57 Whitehall, London SW1A 2BX; call +44 20 3907 7500. Rooms start from £1100 ($2120). All Heritage Suites are POA; the Haldane Suite is priced from £25,000 per night.
- The Peninsula London | 1 Grosvenor Pl, London SW1X 7HJ; call +44 20 3959 2888. Rooms start from £1300 a night.
Fetching latest articles