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In London, Fresh Sheets
Six New Lodgings in the Booming English Capital

By Gary Lee
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 16, 1999; Page E01

When Anton Chekhov wrote "On the Way," a short story about two travelers who can recall nothing of their maiden tour of Europe except the decor of the hotels where they stayed, he could have had a place like One Aldwych in mind.

It's been weeks since I overnighted there, but I still have flashbacks to the details that make it one of London's hottest new properties: the crystal vase of roses placed by my bedside; a swimming pool with recordings of Chopin piped underwater with such clarity that the piano seemed to be just above my head; a lobby with high-backed Chinese-style armchairs and pumpkin-colored birds of paradise that could have been a backdrop in "Evita" or some similarly theatrical movie. With those kinds of special touches, this place easily ranked high on the list of great lodging I discovered in my latest tour through London. In fact, it was my second favorite. (More later on my first choice.)

My trip was devoted to exploring new accommodations across the city. After trying out a new bed in a different part of town nearly every night for a week, I came away with suggestions in nearly every price category. Families on a budget could hardly do better than Travel Inn, a new Howard Johnson's-like facility that offers low-cost rooms big enough for a couple with two kids. For buff models and other members of the international gym and tonic set, the Metropolitan is the place of the moment. Altogether, I recommend six options, representing a range of styles.

After a quarter-century of travel back and forth to London, I have become a self-styled expert on accommodations in the city. Since my first visit in 1974, I have stayed in just about every type of lodging, from a $12-a-night youth hostel at Earl's Court to the venerable Dorchester, with its flowery wallpaper and stiff-necked butlers. Among the 1,000 London hotels, guest houses and bed-and-breakfasts, there is something to suit just about every taste.

Until this trip, however, I had never found a place I could call all my own. To be sure, I was delighted with the premier hotels I tried out on this trip. While perfect for an anniversary or another celebration, however, they were a bit too ostentatious to make me feel at ease.

But then on my last night, when I checked into the last place on my list, it happened. After savoring a cup of Darjeeling in the lobby and taking an hour or two to sniff catlike around the room, I was ready to cry "Eureka." I knew I had finally found my place in London.

In a city where perfectly ordinary hotel rooms can cost $250 a night, the year-old Travel Inn County Hall is distinguished by its reasonable prices. Every room goes for 59 pounds a night. With tax, at current exchange rates, the total comes to about $120 for a single, double or a room for four. In contrast to other places, room costs here will not suddenly ratchet up when you check out. The hotel has a policy against adding extras to the bill; telephone calls are covered by a special phone card available for purchase at check-in, and there are no in-house movie costs or other charges.

Though its size (313 guest rooms) kills any hope for intimacy, this hotel offers many other features. My room was average-size, clean and bright. It featured a comfortable king-size bed and a couch that could pull out to make two twin beds. The setup was perfect for a family of four. It was carpeted in baby blue, with matching floral bedspreads and curtains. It had a television, a telephone and a tiny kitchenette with dishes and a coffeepot. The view out my window was of a cricket field as green as a dollar bill.

Travel Inn, a booming chain with locations across England, has an unpretentious friendliness about it. And Potter's, the in-house restaurant, serves up a decent lunch of pork pie, salad and tea for about $8.50.

The hotel is conveniently based on the edge of London's County Hall, near the banks of the Thames. Gabriel's Wharf, a riverside settlement of trendy eateries and boutiques, is a five-minute walk away. Waterloo Station, where the London-Paris Chunnel arrives and departs, is just around the corner. Travel Inn has two other properties in central London, at Euston and Putney.

Prefer a more personal atmosphere? I found a bed-and-breakfast on Cheyne Row in Sloane Square, one of the city's most fashionable communities, that should suit anyone desiring a home living experience. It is a turn-of-the-century Victorian townhouse with wonderfully preserved carved pine paneling throughout. A private home, it has three rooms available for guests. One is a double, the other an interconnecting double and twin-size room. All have private bathrooms.

The owner, a retired English woman, serves breakfast in her dining room. Although this B&B was booked up during my trip, I put it on my list of places to stay on another visit. In the middle of a quiet, elegant neighborhood, it was the kind of accommodation that can make even first-time visitors to London feel like locals.

Reservations can be made through Uptown Reservations, a B&B service that places guests in about 75 private London homes. All of Uptown's hosts offer bedrooms, breakfast and a private bath to be used exclusively by the guests.

Uptown likes to distinguish itself from other London B&B services by offering rooms only in "the finer homes" in central locations. All of them are concentrated in Belgravia, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Kensington or Holland Park. "My rule is, the nearer a place is to Harrods, the better," said co-owner Monica Barrington, referring to the popular London department store. I visited three of Uptown's properties. Though one of the hosts seemed a bit priggish, all of the accommodations were well-appointed. Uptown's managers will match guests with the places they feel suits everyone best.

The Metropolitan is as up-to-the-minute as hotels get. Like the new wave of boutique properties making waves across the United States, it seeks to be as much a destination of its own as a place to sleep.

The lobby, clearly inspired by the properties of boutique hotel guru Ian Schrager, is a masterpiece of minimalism. The staff is decked out in designer suits. The Met bar, like the watering holes at other happening hotels in New York and Los Angeles, is a fashionable hangout for locals as well as guests. It offers 26 types of martinis, including one made of pineapple. Nobu, the Japanese restaurant downstairs, has become a popular business-lunch spot.

Two aspects make the Metropolitan a cut or two above other hotels of this genre. One is the rooms. While most of the new chic hotels sacrifice room space for brighter lobby decor, Metropolitan rooms have enough space for a small party. The bathrooms have oversize walk-in power showers and tubs as well. My room featured a picture window with a wonderful view of Hyde Park across the street.

Another distinguishing feature of the Metropolitan is the clientele. For people-watching purposes , it is hard to beat, even in fashion-conscious London. But it's probably not well-suited for families or an older generation of travelers.

Drawing heavily from the fashion and publishing industries, the clientele seemed to be yanked out of modeling school for cameo appearances here. And a location on Old Park Lane, one of the best addresses in the city, helps the place maintain its chicer-than-thou reputation.

When hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray decided to open a London hotel, he made a design for it and then set off to take a hard look at the world's most famous hotels, from the Peninsula in Hong Kong to the Ritz in Paris. "I wanted to see whether other premier hotels had features that were worth incorporating," he said in an interview.

One Aldwych is the payoff for Gray's pursuit of perfection. Everything about the place, which he now manages, is as fine-tuned as a concert piano. The fresh flowers in the guest rooms, created by an award-winning florist, are changed daily. The sockets in every room are outfitted for both American and British appliances. The bedside fiber-optic lamps are so keen I could even read the tiny print of the Oxford English Dictionary under them.

In the midst of the theater district, this is a good choice for anyone who plans to see a lot of plays during a visit in London.

What really makes One Aldwych a standout is the service. In a place with 250 employees and only 113 rooms, the staff offers guests unusually close personal attention. During my stay, my every desire was answered promptly.

While it draws together the best features of first-class accommodations, One Aldwych is probably the least pretentious five-star hotel I've ever visited. In contrast to the stuffiness at many top London properties, it has an atmosphere that is casual, even laid-back.

"I don't like snobbery of any kind," said Gray. "I want guests in black tie and guests in jeans to all feel that they are welcome here."

Even if it were not in one of the most talked-about parts of town, the Portobello would be a fabulous base for exploring London. Just sitting in my room was an adventure. Decorated like a ship's cabin, it had plush velvet pillows throughout and round windows with gleaming brass fixtures. The bar downstairs was friendly and served excellent gin and tonics. This stylish but quiet 24-room place offers a perfect backdrop for a couple in search of romance.

Best of all, the hotel is in the middle of lively Notting Hill Gate. Featured in the soon-to-be-released Julia Roberts movie named after the neighborhood, it offers the perfect setting for an urban getaway. The Portobello market, the largest street fair in Europe, is a few blocks away. With antiques here and kitschy souvenirs there, touring this market alone would take the better part of a weekend.

But there's much more to see in the area: Intoxica, one of the best old-record shops in the city; Subterania, a hot dance club; and Cafe Med, a trendy restaurant. These and other popular haunts of London's so-called chattering class are within walking distance of the hotel.

If the Metropolitan is designed for thirtysomething fashion victims, the Halkin is meant for fortysomethings reaching for a higher level of sophistication. From the huge mural in the lobby to the contemporary furnishings in the room, it exudes a combination of elegance and intimacy that appealed to me instantly.

It is clear that no expense was spared in the decor. My bed was covered with Egyptian cotton sheets and goose-down pillows. There was a bar made of deep green marble, and a large sitting area. The bathrooms included a tub big enough for two and a magnificent power shower. It had a CD player, a VCR and a bedside switch to control all the lighting, including dimmers.

In spite of the posh decor, the mood at the Halkin is calm, even understated. Located in ritzy Belgravia, only a couple of blocks from Hyde Park, it's on a quiet side street. With only 41 rooms, it is small enough to maintain an air of intimacy.

Except for the rates--among the highest for London hotels--I would be happy to call the Halkin home all the time. With rooms starting at $375 a night, however, it's a place I would have to save for special occasions.

DETAILS: New London Hotels

* One Aldwych (1 Aldwych, telephone 011-44-1-71-300- 1000). Doubles start at $365.

* Metropolitan (Old Park Lane, 011-44-1-71- 447-1000). Doubles start at $330.

* The Halkin (5 Halkin St., 1-888-HALKIN H). Doubles start at $375.

* Travel Inn County Hall (Belvedere Road, 011-44-1- 71-902-1600). All rooms are $120.

* Uptown Reservations, a B&B service (telephone 011-44-1-71-351-3445, e-mail uptown@dial.pipex. com). Doubles are $144 a night. I liked the Cheyne Row home, but there are many options. Ask for a listing.

* Portobello Hotel (22 Stanley Gardens, 011-44-1- 71-727-2777). Doubles start at $250.

--Gary Lee

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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