James Merrell
| Credit: James Merrell

As recently as 10 years ago, new hotels in London were little more than jumped-up bed-and-breakfasts. Travelers counted themselves cosseted if they bagged a power shower and a king-size bed.

Fast-forward to the turn of the century. When no one was looking, London became the hotel capital of Europe--make that the world. Consider the cast. Leading roles go to design doyen Terence Conran, to neo-traditionalist British tastemaker Kit Kemp, and to Philippe Starck and Ian Schrager, the Franco-American team for whom a good gag is as important as a good pillow.

They say there's no place like home. But these days, there's no place like a London hotel.

Even before it opened, Terence Conran's monolithic Great Eastern Hotel was the site of a reception for artist Gary Hume, a zooey party for the indie bookzine Tank, and a Tracy Mulligan fashion show. Each event was carefully chosen to instruct London's chattering classes what they should think of the hotel--that it was "brilliant," "hot," "genius"--before they had the chance to decide for themselves.

It worked. But the Great Eastern, which promises "modern service, classic values," is still in gamble mode. Is geography destiny?If so, the hotel and its four restaurants and three bars have their work cut out for them. The Great Eastern is one of only three hotels in the City, London's financial district. Many consider this nosebleed territory. Have you ever tried asking friends who live in Kensington to meet for a drink in the City?They look at you like you've got two heads.

As evidence of the area's viability, promoters mention the proximity of Hoxton and Shoreditch, two districts with exploding arts scenes, and the presence of Louis Vuitton and Hackett outposts. (Unfortunately, stock traders are morphologically unsuited to Hackett's signature jean-cut moleskin pants, which make them look like sausages.) Promoters of the City want you to believe it is the new Notting Hill, but the jury is out. For most Londoners, the claim remains a stretch.

Debuting in 1884 beside Liverpool Street Station, the original Great Eastern was built to serve the era's growing network of steam-powered railways. The hotel had its own tracks for the delivery of coal and seawater (used to fill tubs in the guest rooms); halls were sized for the easy passage of bulky crinoline boxes. A prized example of late-Victorian, Early Renaissance-flavored public architecture, the building was designed by Charles Barry, who also did the Houses of Parliament; his son Charles Edward Barry; and Robert Edis, who created the ballroom for Edward VII at Sandringham.

The Great Eastern was neglected and undercapitalized in the years leading up to its closing in 1997. Conran gets full marks for his restoration of the dignified red-brick façade, Flemish gables, roof towers, stained-glass dome, florid ironwork, pearly alabaster staircases, neo-Elizabethan oak paneling, and delightfully baroque plasterwork. If any corners were cut, they don't show. The most ambitious addition was a vast indoor "urban piazza" that manages to make an Important Feature out of a wide stainless-steel flue that climbs six stories, nuzzling an elevator shaft, to an etched-glass ceiling.

Unimpeachable if rather chilly in their sleekness, the 267 guest rooms deliver all we've come to expect from modern design's master merchandiser. If these walls could talk, they'd be asking, "Don't I have great taste?" Icon worshipers are guaranteed to get off on the Eames EA106 chairs and Jac Jacobsen's chrome-plated architect's lamps. Other touches make clever reference to the glory days of train travel. A white cotton antimacassar (changed daily) hangs over a metal pole at each bedhead, and the leather writing surface on a black walnut desk lifts to disclose a mirror and hair dryer. Rooms also nod to the neighborhood dress code: upholstery is done in traditional men's suiting fabricsãpinstripes, houndstooth, herringbone, and Prince of Wales checks. The bed valance has a corner detail that evokes a French cuff.

And that's not buzz.
GREAT EASTERN HOTEL, Liverpool St.; 800/337-4685 or 44-207/618-5000, fax 44-207/618-5001; doubles from $360.

Ian Schrager is no lily-livered hotelier. Last September he opened the St. Martins Lane hotel in Covent Garden. This April, having paused just long enough to check his spreadsheets, he struck again with the Sanderson, a sanctuary-cum-urban spa in Soho.

"It's the most radical, sophisticated, high-finish hotel Philippe and I have ever done," says Schrager, referring to visual-joke king Philippe Starck, the French designer with whom he has scored big hits in New York (the Royalton), Miami Beach (the Delano), and Los Angeles (the Mondrian). "The envelope is minimalist, but the contents are baroque, which gives rise to a certain tension." The Sanderson's unlikely envelope is the former corporate headquarters and showroom of Sanderson fabrics and wall coverings. Though many find the grid façade (in aluminum and squares of clear and blue-green glass) too dreary for words, the structure is considered a model of 1960's British office architecture. Among England's protected buildings, it has a starred Grade II listing (Buckingham Palace is Grade I). As a result, Schrager was forbidden to remove the letters spelling out SANDERSON above the front door, leaving him no choice but to name the hotel after the original, none-too-glamorous occupants. And he lost the battle for four-inch maple floor planks in the public spaces because two-inch planks were in place when the building sold wallpaper.

Starck plays a new and provocative game of transparency in the 150 guest rooms, suites, lofts, and penthouse apartments, the last served by private elevators. The only dividing walls in these ironic dreamscapes are glass; all are see-through except the acid-etched partitions shared by the shower and toilet stalls. The closet is a translucent box that bears testimony to every wrinkling moment your clothes sustained getting here. Mercifully, when you can't stand to look at them a second longer, a filmy curtain can be pulled across the closet's front. Another curtain whips before the bathroom sink to keep your companion in bed from watching you floss. Now that's privacy.

But what a bed--an Italian silver-leaf sleigh bed attended by spidery polished stainless-steel night tables and draped with a fringed pashmina shawl the color of dried lemon verbena ("But pashmina's so over," you can hear the fashion rats crying). Cartoonish copies of Empire chairs have arms ending in swan heads, and one of Victor Hugo's love letters was blown up 15 times to provide the scribbly pattern for the handloomed rugs. A pair of Starck hand weights look like cow femurs.

The same if-it's-not-broken-don't-fix-it philosophy that put Schrager back with Starck for the Sanderson also has him reprising collaborations with his wife, Rita--for a branch of Agua, the holistic spa she launched at the Delano--as well as with video installation artist Jean Baptiste Mondino, art director Fabien Baron (who's almost as famous as his boss), and landscape designer Madison Cox. But no news is bigger than the hotel's nabbing of Alain Ducasse to open a branch of his Paris restaurant Spoon.

The Sanderson has a subtly older, richer vibe than Schrager's other properties. What explains this?"I'm a little older," he smiles. "And a little richer."
SANDERSON, 50 Berners St.; 44-207/300-9500, fax 44-207/300-9501; doubles from $310.

With its dazzling period bathrooms, the Rookery celebrates that splashy moment in British social history when the population--Queen Victoria included--sentenced its inconvenient, massively awkward portable tubs to the slag heap in favor of proper fixtures designed to ease (and encourage) bathing. Until then, bathrooms were one of those things, like cooking and romance, on which the English would have preferred not to stake their reputation. After all, when Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, even Buckingham Palace did not possess a bathroom. But by the time she died in 1901 most new houses in England could claim one.

Are vintage bathrooms an odd selling point for a hotel?Not when they're done with the flair and conviction of the Rookery, a hideaway coaxed out of three mid-Georgian brick town houses on an almost unfindable, carless lane in up-and-coming Clerkenwell. Poised on the City's fringes, Clerkenwell--with its concentration of painters, jewelry designers, and graphic artists--is known as the Soho of east London.

Burnished essays in brass, copper, and nickel, the hotel's bathrooms are appointed with reconditioned 19th-century fixtures (even the exposed pipework, too beautiful to bury in the walls, is old) and antique elements. Huge enameled tubs with rolled lips (the better to cradle your neck) pose regally on ball-and-lion-claw feet. High-mounted cast-iron water tanks dangle chains that end in chunky ceramic pulls. A toilet gets the full throne treatment on a platform within a towering Gothic pulpit salvaged from a provincial priory. The showerheads are the heroic size of Vita Sackville-West's watering-can spout, and the Rookery touts them the way other hotels tout their room service. Reliable, plain-Jane Neutrogena toiletries vault the gap between now and then.

The bedrooms and public areas are no poor relations. Flagged floors, mellow woodwork, barley-sugar-twist balustrades, open gas fires, outsize neo-Jacobean beds, and retrofitted stately-home wardrobes speak compassionately to travelers for whom Philippe Starck is an irrelevance.
THE ROOKERY, 12 Peter's Lane, Cowcross St.; 44-207/336-0931, fax 44-207/336-0932; doubles from $310.



What's the decorating equivalent of a fashionista?Until they come up with a term, "Kit Kemp" will have to do as shorthand for someone who lives and breathes design. Kemp is half of the unstoppable husband-and-wife team powering Firmdale Hotels. Its latest venture is the 52-room Charlotte Street Hotel, a romantic and understated ode to the fabled Bloomsbury group of writers and artists that included Virginia Woolf, Dora Carrington, and Roger Fry. Folded into a mid-19th-century building that had most recently been a dental warehouse, the hotel has a sweet, friendly, village-like setting in Bloomsbury, just north of Soho.

Industry eyes are trained on Charlotte Street because of Firmdale's amazing track record. In 1985 the company gave London its first country-house hotel, the Dorset Square. At the Covent Garden Hotel, which opened in 1996, Kit Kemp proved there was life for traditional English decoration after squishy dog-friendly sofas. She showed that it could be modern, fresh, young--even a little zingy. At Charlotte Street, which combines ethnic touches with a British appreciation of comfort and propriety, guests benefit from her hungry talent for approaching rooms intuitively. After touring the Rothschilds' Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire not long ago, Kemp was immediately able to identify what makes the house tick: "I realized that each room had one big, ugly piece of furniture that anchored it and made it wonderful!"

These days, if you are a boutique hotelier and following trends, all of your guest rooms look similar if not identical. But Kemp is not into trends. Every room at Charlotte Street is a one-off: a worldly, soft-focus mix of furnishings the Bloomsbury set would no doubt have admired. A room's none-too-shy centerpiece might be an immense wrought iron canopy bed, hung with embroidered linen sheers and made up with a crunchy sprigged quilt, both from India. "Firmdale has always been about beds--big, high beds," says Kemp. Wasp-waisted upholstered side chairs with a boudoir feel are partnered with muscular Brancusi-inspired desks hand-crafted in oak by Sussex artisans. Rectilinear tole tables were rescued from a bank in the Paris suburbs just before its appointment with the wrecking ball, and benches are a riff on DalÌ's famous "lips" sofa. Granite bathrooms have adorable brushed-steel pedestal televisions with six-by-eight-inch LCD screens.

The Bloomsbury connection is made explicit with documentary fabrics from the Omega Workshops, founded in 1913 by Roger Fry. Kemp designed the striped paper used in all the hallways in the style of a woodcut book cover from the Hogarth Press, the imprint owned and run by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, wrote recently that life as her parents lived it "was not only a sort of cocktail of the serious and the funny, it was also seriously unpretentious." Shades of Kit Kemp's new hotel.
CHARLOTTE STREET HOTEL, 15 Charlotte St.; 800/553-6674 or 44-207/ 806-2000, fax 44-207/806-2002; doubles from $290.

Myhotel in Bloomsbury is famous for being designed along the principles of feng shui, but it is perhaps even more famous as a magnet for pop stars. As I checked in last winter, Gwen Stefani was flashing her braces and pink hair in the lobby, chilling with the other members of No Doubt. At the same moment, another chart-climbing group was giving an interview to MTV downstairs in the library, making it impossible for me to use the terminals there to read my e-mail. Normally I would have been furious, but the group is one of my favorite boy bands.

If it all sounds just too dope for words, it's not. You don't have to be a hipster to stay at Myhotel, which occupies a classic Victorian residential building off Bedford Square. The atmosphere is surprisingly non-threatening for a place that's, well, just so cool. Still, the music television generation is likely to get more out of staying here than the one that grew up on black and white.

"My doorman was quoted in the Standard the other day as saying proudly, 'I let anyone in,'" notes general manager Christopher Oakes. "We're not one of those hotels-as-theater where you're part of the script or an extra who's hung around too long. We don't mind if you're having a bad hair day."

Terence Conran's Conran & Partners collaborated on Myhotel with an expert on feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement that analyzes the flow of energy in a space. "Being uptight architects, we centered the mirrors directly opposite the beds," remembers Conran's James Soane, who dictated the sinewy, lean-but-not-mean quality of the 76 guest rooms. "But one rule of feng shui is that you're not supposed to see yourself when you wake up, so we had to shift the mirrors over."

Oakes admits that some people are put off by the feng shui concept, or find it drivel. The insecure wonder, How do I dress for a feng shui hotel?Is someone going to jump on me if I make a wrong move?

In fact, you probably wouldn't know feng shui was at work at Myhotel unless you were told. Rehang that mirror!
MYHOTEL, 11-13 Bayley St., Bedford Square; 44-207/667-6000, fax 44-207/667-6001; doubles from $277.

Opened in April opposite The Royal Mews in Belgravia, the 41 has London hoteliers hunched over their calculators, recrunching their numbers. How does the 41 do it?

"At $466 for a double room we're competitive with every luxury hotel in town," says project manager Brian Brennan. "But unlike the competition, we include hundreds of dollars' worth of extras in our prices. And I haven't even told you about our butler service."

No-cost extras include phone calls anywhere in Britain, dry cleaning, pressing, and laundry--all in unlimited quantities. The mini-bar is stocked (and restocked and restocked at your own risk) with half-bottles of champagne and bottles of brand-name liquors. Cocktails in the lounge?The use of a cell phone?They'll never appear on your bill at the 41. Complimentary English breakfast, afternoon tea, and lunch and dinner buffets mean you could go your entire stay without paying for a single meal. Particularly sweet is the absence of any charge for room service. No one will ever accuse the 41 of gouging.

Swaddled in the deliciously confidential atmosphere of a private club, the 41 sits on the top floor of a discreet 1870 building originally used to groom debutantes for presentation at court. Its 20 rooms are decorated in eye-popping black and white with a bravura you can only applaud. Crisp dentil and rosette-embossed wall coverings provide the backdrop for cushy velvet sofas (no one does upholstery like the English) and smart leather-and-rattan coffee tables with brass studs. Rich Brazilian mahogany doors dialogue with desks in the same wood, the desks fitted with drawers that tuck the fax machine/scanner/printer out of sight. (A no-brainer, you say?Then why didn't someone think of it before?) All the bathroom elements are precision-set like stones in a ring, a result of the rooms having been assembled off-site by prefabrication specialists BRS of Denmark. The modules were hoisted into the 41 by crane and wheeled into place on a hydraulic lift.

It's all business as usual for owner Bea Tollman, an American whose Red Carnation Hotels collection includes the giddily opulent Milestone facing Kensington Palace and the scrumptiously retro Chesterfield in Palm Beach. The 41 trumpets its handmade bedding almost as loudly as its bathrooms. Each king-size Savoir mattress, which is to sleeping what a Bentley is to driving, has more than 1,800 individually pocketed springs. Cost to the hotel: $4,000 each.

Good night!
41, 41 Buckingham Palace Rd.; 44-207/300-0041, fax 44-207/300-0141; doubles from $466.

The well-heeled inhabitants of Little Venice, near Paddington, think so much of the Colonnade Town House that they relish the chance to book friends into one of its 43 guest rooms. In a part of the city known for its generosity of trees, great swaths of sky, and literary legacy (Robert Browning lived here), the Colonnade is composed of two mirror-image 1865 houses that together make up one imposing, freestanding mansion. Add to that the hotel's rather grand location on a corner plot just down the road from actor Ewan McGregor's place, and guests may feel wealthier, more in the swing than they strictly have the right to feel.

The Colonnade has been called Nina Campbell on steroids--but what a compliment! We should all be so lucky, to live in a house done in the style of the doyenne of English decorating, which might be summed up with the three F's: furbelows, fringes, and four-posters. Nearly $2.77 million went into the hotel's design and renovation, and it has paid off in a frank, unforgettable grandeur.

Many rooms have private terraces and 15-foot ceilings with egg-and-dart molding. Each color scheme is richer than the last: cream and black, cream and yellow, and red and gold. Furnishings run to Knoll sofas (those classic English-country-house couches with high sides angled away from the back), fleur de lys-patterned carpets, jewel-toned Ralph Lauren velvet bed hangings, and cushions made up in luscious Jim Thompson Thai silk. Toiletries (from Penhaligon's), bed linens (Egyptian cotton, from Frette), and English breakfast (kippers with horseradish sauce) don't get any better than this. Mouse, the resident cat, holds the title of guest relations manager. The Colonnade is that kind of hotel.
COLONNADE TOWN HOUSE, 2 Warrington Crescent; 44-207/286-1052, fax 44-207/286-1057; doubles from $174.

The $71 million renovation of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (66 Knightsbridge; 44-207/235-2000, fax 44-207/235-4552; doubles from $466), which shut down the hotel from November 1999 until last month, has yielded 200 almost absurdly luxurious guest rooms. Located in the heart of Knightsbridge, the Oriental has views of Hyde Park and Harvey Nichols. (Attention, shoppers: suites 906 and 908 look directly into the store's fifth-floor food halls.) Adam Tihany, the wizard behind New York's Le Cirque 2000, designed the hotel's new Foliage restaurant, the Café on the Park, and the Mandarin Bar. A bi-level, 7,500-square-foot spa and fitness center specializing in crystal healing opens this summer. It's a long way from the hotel's 1889 beginnings as an exclusive block of "residential chambers for gentlemen."

Having identified the Lanesborough hotel up the street as the enemy, the Mandarin Oriental threatens to vanquish it with something it says London has never seen before: Asian-style service. "One part of that tradition we're embracing is managers who work on the floors and whose job is not only to meet, greet, and check in guests, but also to be on call throughout their stay," says the Oriental's Nina Colls. "The part we're rejecting is the woman who comes to your room to run your bath and expects a tip."

Overlooking the royal gardens of Green Park, The Ritz(150 Piccadilly; 44-207/493-8181, fax 44-207/300-2305; doubles from $514) deserves some kind of award for enduring what must be one of the most drawn-out hotel renovations on record--it lasted nearly five years. More than $40 million was lavished on the 1906 ch’teau-style landmark, whose co-architect, Charles Mewes, also did the Paris Ritz. The 131 Louis XVI-style guest rooms owe their candy-box splendor to three sugary color schemes: salmon pink, rose pink, and yellow-cornflower blue. Original to the hotel but handsomely restored are bronze sconces, crystal chandeliers, bouillotte lamps, and kidney-shaped dressing tables with triptych mirrors. Impossibly luxurious curtains have swags, jabots, and bushy $200-a-pair tiebacks. Wags say that when the Ritz completed its refurbishment program in May, there wasn't a sheet of gold leaf left in London.