Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review: St James' Court Hotel, London

Following our visit at the end of last summer I declared the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate to be my favourite hotel in London. It still is...but the St James' Court Hotel comes a very close second. Not surprising, really, seeing as the St James' Court is also owned by the Taj Hotel Group and is situated just next door. It used to be a Crowne Plaza but is gradually being 'Taj-ed up' so that it meets the group's exacting standards, as seen in the BBC series, Hotel India.

Whereas the Taj 51 is a 5 star, all suite accommodation, the St James' Court is currently a 4 star establishment with high aspirations. We booked it for a two night stay in the capital and were amazed at the discount available on their website. A classic room was on offer for £119 per night (the rack rate is £495) which is an absolute steal for such quality accommodation in the heart of London, even if it was a low season January booking.

On arrival we were upgraded to an executive studio which was perfect. Having been recently disappointed by another London hotel which had style but lacked substance, this room proved that the Taj group know exactly what their guests appreciate: ample storage space, tea and coffee-making facilities and, joy of joys, a full length mirror with nearby electrical socket. Add to that decent lighting, an iron and ironing board, quality bath products plus complimentary fruit, bottles of water and daily newspaper. They even provided a great selection of magazines.

These are just the little things, but it's the little things that make a difference. It goes without saying that the bathroom was spotless, the bed extremely comfortable and the sheets deliciously crisp. A good-sized TV with lots of channels, free easy-to-access WiFi, excellent sound-proofing. Need I go on? You can tell I loved it.

Clockwise from top left: James the bear resting on the crisp white sheets; beautifully appointed bathroom; little treats waiting for us from the hotel's management; the lounge area of our executive studio.

The Taj group pride themselves on exemplary service and this was certainly in evidence as all the staff were cheerful and attentive. Whereas breakfast wasn't quite as gloriously refined as the Taj 51, the offer from the St James' Court was pretty good, served in the Bistro restaurant which, later in the day, serves contemporary European cuisine. We had an early dinner in the conservatory restaurant, Bank, just as we did when we stayed at the Taj 51 on our previous visit. Attached to Zander, the capital's longest bar, Bank has a light, airy atmosphere and the food is delicious. Of course, being next door to the Taj 51 means that guests of St James' Court have access to its restaurants too so there is a great deal of choice.

Clockwise from left: Zander bar; seating area outside the elevators; lobby of hotel.

It's worth noting that the location of the hotel is excellent, very near to St James's Park underground station and only a short walk from Victoria. It's around the corner from Buckingham Palace and, if you are happy to power walk for 20 minutes or so like we did, not that far from the West End.

Like its sister hotel, if you are visiting as a family, they offer the Kids@Taj programme which is designed to make the youngest guests feel special.

We only stayed two nights but were so supremely relaxed, it felt much longer. I am now seriously considering not going online to trawl the internet for a hotel when we next visit London. Why keep looking? With the Taj 51 and St James' Court available, our search for the perfect hotel experience in the capital is over.


Monday, 19 January 2015

Oh What a Night...or two.

Whisky Galore!
We had these grand ideas that when Rory started University Dougie and I would be able to travel more. In truth, work commitments and moving my aunt up to Lincolnshire (plus all the recent complications regarding her hospitalisation) have meant that so far we have only managed very short breaks away. Thankfully these one and two night mini-breaks have proved to be excellent for re-charging batteries.

Take last week, for example. A trip to London. We seem to have done this a few times over recent months and its proving to be a real tonic. In December you may remember we had a super couple of days there to coincide with the Statoil Masters Tennis tournament. This time we were there to visit Dougie's tailor. I kid you not. Thanks to an over-enthusiastic waving of hands at an auction during a charity cricket match in the summer, my beloved husband bid for a made-to-measure suit. He has never done this before but when we see the results of the suit fitting in six weeks time, he may think he can't possibly go back to any old off-the-peg whistle.

Arriving in London the day before the suit fitting, we had no set plans so turned up in Leicester Square in the middle of the afternoon to see if we could buy some discount tickets for a show that evening. There was no queue at the TKTS booth when we arrived at 3pm and we managed to secure two decent discounted seats in the stalls for Jersey Boys at the Piccadilly Theatre for that evening. Friends had been telling me I should go and see this musical so I thought it was about time I listened to them.

Rather than return to our hotel (more on that in a separate post but it was St James Court in Westminster and was excellent) we passed the time having a pre-show meal in Chinatown and a mooch around the National Gallery. This has become something of a habit of late - my own favourite paintings are by a couple of Georges: Whistlejacket by George Stubbs and Bathers at Asnières by Georges Seurat.

For a change, we also nipped next door to the National Portrait Gallery. Why have we never done this before? We didn't have time to see all the collection so concentrated on the contemporary works and found them to be fascinating. One or two were so detailed it was hard to know if the composition was a photograph or a painting. Our favourite was a black and white portrait of Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse by artist Jason Brooks. I had to put my nose right up against it before I could quite believe it wasn't a photo.

Jersey Boys was, as my friends had told me, quite brilliant. Slick, funny, mesmerising and, oh my goodness, the music. I didn't think I was a particular fan of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons until I watched the show and then heard hit after hit, the tunes so familiar. If you haven't been to see it, let me now be that friend and tell you...go, go, go!

The following day, shopping around Piccadilly, we walked past Matt Nalton who plays one of the Four Seasons, the honey-voiced Nick Massi. Subtle as you'd expect, I pointed him out to Dougie saying, "Ooh there's a Jersey Boy!". Matt turned round and smiled so I took the opportunity to tell him how great he was and what a magical production we had seen the night before. This is Matt's debut in the West End so I'd like to think he was chuffed to be recognised. I didn't do the selfie-with-celebrity thing so you have no proof of our meeting...sorry about that, folks.

Our final treat during our swift visit to the capital was a launch party. I had been invited to attend the launch of a new luxury magazine, Whisky Quarterly, and, as it happened to be on the same night as the suit fitting, I said yes and asked if I could bring my own whisky connoisseur along. Dougie thought all his dreams had come true - spending a very pleasant few hours supping his favourite beverage in the Assembly Hall at Church House, Westminster. The stunning circular hall is the location for the General Synod of the Church of England but when not in use it becomes a very versatile conference centre.

The ice sculpture whisky luge
Whisky cocktails were available all night so I tried a rather delicious St Lawrence (Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon shaken with pressed apple juice, maple syrup, lemon and Angostura bitters). The doctor prescribed himself Penicillin (Chivas Regal blended Scotch Whisky shaken with honey, fresh lemon and ginger, inoculated with Lagavulin) and, in order to ensure it would be effective, he required another dose. The doc also tried out the whisky luge, as the ice sculpture in the centre of the room became the conduit for more alcohol. Dougie couldn't quite decide whether the taste of whisky which has been poured down the rear end of a winged lion is improved or not but he wasn't complaining.

If its parties are anything to go by, the magazine is sure to be a success. By the end of the night a wonderfully diverse group of people of all ages, suitably refreshed and relaxed, were dancing in a very loose-limbed manner to the live band whose repertoire was perfect for getting everyone moving. You'll be pleased to know we were there in the thick of it, strutting our stuff with the whisky fraternity.



Sunday, 11 January 2015

Christmas: no turkey, rude reindeer and trouble on the trains

Well what a funny old Christmas break that was. My aunt remained in hospital throughout the period and this just put everything out of kilter. Christmas Day itself was odd as Mum and I decided to drive to Peterborough mid-morning to see Auntie, leaving the boys at home. Dougie thought he should really have come with us but I told him he was better placed staying with Rory and they could do the preparation for the dinner. My aunt was still, at this stage, quite confused, so it made no difference if we didn't all troop in to see her.

When I knew we would be going to Peterborough Hospital on Christmas Day I couldn't cope with the idea of a turkey or big roast and the associated timing issues, so we bought chicken breasts marinaded in lemon and green pepper from Wimberley Hall Farm Shop and they proved to be a huge success. Half an hour in the oven, served with roast potatoes and the usual trimmings - they were delicious and saved an enormous amount of time.

We didn't play our usual round of Arthritic Charades with the inlaws - we were all too tired. We did, however, have a quiz which, on the whole, was answered with more common sense than is the norm apart from one question: "What name is given to an animal with four legs?" The answer was a quadruped but I suppose 'a horse' was technically correct.

A big hit were the racing reindeer crackers. Dougie's dad struggled to wind his up properly, believing he should twist its head to make it move, but once corrected the race was on. The reindeer didn't quite behave as they should - none of them moved in a straight line and, no matter how many times we tried, Prancer was keen to rear-end Dasher which, maybe on account of the alcohol consumed by this stage of the day, caused much childish mirth from all of us. When Cupid joined in for a threesome we were helpless with laughter. Easily amused.

Mum's return journey to Newcastle was eventful as it occurred on the day after Boxing Day when the East Coast trains were affected by the over-running of planned engineering works. That deserved a special post of its own so my column this week in the Lincolnshire Free Press will give you all the detail - I'd love you to read it so you can appreciate my poor mother's plight.

Chaos (just like the war) spirit.

On New Year's Eve my aunt was transferred to our local community hospital so I can visit her more frequently. Hopefully she will be discharged back home soon although she has now been in hospital twice as long as she had been in her new flat so can hardly remember anything about it.

We took Rory back to Exeter on 3 January which seemed far too soon: those three weeks had passed in a blur. He has returned to exams but also an interesting few months ahead: it's an exciting time to be studying politics when there is a general election looming. He is already planning to see a number of speakers from various parties who have been booked to speak to the students.

As for me, I've decided I need to return to my singing so am planning to get involved in the next musical with Spalding Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society. They are putting on Half a Sixpence in May. Rehearsals start this week and, although I don't know yet what part I have (chorus suits me fine this time) I am looking forward to exercising - lungs and limbs.


Monday, 29 December 2014

Review of The Exhibitionist Hotel - South Kensington

The Exhibitionist Hotel certainly lives up to its name. Behind the demure exterior of an 18th century townhouse in South Kensington, there is a brazen, bold interior just waiting to expose itself to unsuspecting visitors. 

Searching for a last-minute stay in London to coincide with the Statoil Masters tennis tournament at the Albert Hall, this newly-opened hotel burst out of the iPad, flashing its rich, sumptuous fabrics and extraordinarily kooky artwork. I was completely besotted.

In real life the hotel is just as arresting as it appears online. Its lobby, bar and lounge areas are comfortable and stylish but there are huge dollops of fun and eccentricity to make you smile. Great design touches include the lift: a genius idea to transform a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing space into an exquisite garden with artificial grass on the walls and brightly-coloured magnetic letters - how many rude words can you make before the lift stops at your floor? Say hello to the huge bull in the lobby and make friends with the naked male floor lamp. Find the little green doggy in the fireplace and wonder how the upside-down legs got into the large white jardiniere. The artwork continues to delight in the stairways and along the corridors: fresh, innovative and just a little bit weird.

Fancy a cocktail? Sink into the ample sofas, let your eyes be dazzled by the colour chart behind the Abstract Bar and indulge in one or two sublime drinks such as a Twisted Pina Colada (Koko Kanu coconut rum with fresh lime juice and coconut meringue) or an Ardbeg Margarita (Ardbeg 10 year old whisky, Cointreau, maple syrup, shaken with lemon and lime juice).

Breakfast? A small but perfectly formed dining area: wall to wall mirrors and clean, white furniture give this area a remarkable sense of space. I just hope all the guests don't want to eat at once.

So far, so gloriously different and bewitching. But then we have the rooms themselves and, with a heavy heart, I have to say we were disappointed. The same flashes of brilliance could be found - the floral ceiling light, the bold colour choices, the slate walls in the bathroom - but a hotel bedroom needs comfort. I can appreciate great design, but I need a wardrobe I can actually open properly, not one which is positioned so near to the bedside table that you can only use one side of it, and then with some difficulty. I would like a bit more space (I know it's central London but this is an expensive hotel and I was in an upgraded luxury room). Tea and coffee-making facilities please? A chair to go with the table? There were ten sockets in the room, four of them under the table and none close to a mirror. Then there's the feature window in the bathroom. I can see the sensuous appeal of the shower being visible from the bed (this is The Exhibitionist after all) but when that window also reveals the loo, I'm afraid, for me, that's going a little too far.

There were also a few snagging issues - fair enough as it was only a couple of weeks post-opening - but we were surprised these little things hadn't been spotted or that there were no customer feedback forms so we could inform management about the odd loose screw. The staff were polite and charming and will be an asset to the hotel although I sensed a lot of urgent paddling under the surface. Give it a few more weeks and I'm sure things will have settled down.

Nevertheless, despite all the things we adore about the place, I don't think we will return, unless it's just to enjoy the fabulous bar. We loved the art and the inspirational flashes of cool design but we needed a few home comforts. And when we had to complain twice for the music in the bar to be turned down as we were on the floor above and the bass level was driving us insane...we realised we must be getting old and intolerant.

It might not have been ideal for us as a couple but it's still an extraordinary hotel. Take a peek...
Features of our luxury room 

The Great Green Elevator

Corridor artwork -  You won't feel a thing...

Dougie being scanned...

How many tables? It's all done with mirrors.

Dougie's new friend is a bit of a hot head.

Abstract Bar - I'll have what she's having.

We were offered a discounted rate of £190 per night for a luxury double room including breakfast and a complimentary cocktail. Rates vary so best to check online for current prices. 

All opinions are my own.