WHERE THE INN CROWD MEET

It's time to pack your Louis Vuitton bags and prepare for a stay in one of the capital's new `boutique hotels'.That's presuming that they'll let you in, of course
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The Independent Culture
THE GREAT EASTERN HOTEL

International financiers will have somewhere spectacular to lay their bowler hats when this faded Victorian masterpiece at Liverpool Street Station reopens in the autumn of 1999 after a pounds 50 million redevelopment. British Land has the freehold, but is leasing the site to a partnership of the hotel group Arcadian International and Conran Holdings, the restaurant and retail chain owned by Britain's favourite designer knight.

"Sir Terence likes to use the term modern classic for how he sees the hotel. It is about understated luxury," says Robert Malcolm, project co- ordinator for the CD Partnership, which is designing the interior. He refuses to go into detail about how the 266 rooms will look, as the dummies have not yet been approved. Atriums are all the rage in modern hotels, but few can compete with the one in the reception area of the Great Eastern, which rises through all six floors. Other public areas will be restored to their original style - including extravagant versions of Greek and Egyptian decor - as the setting for six bars and restaurants. "The building is so extraordinary that if we hadn't done something then someone else would have," insists Stuart Harrison, marketing director for Arcadian. "It is stunning."

Arcadian's involvement in prestige hotel developments like the Great Eastern has attracted a takeover bid from the US real-estate investment trust Patriot American Hospitality. Sir Terence retains a 75 per cent stake in Conran Holdings, which owns fashionable restaurants like Quaglino's, Mezzo and the Zinc Bar & Grill. Last year the company recorded profits of pounds 7.3 million, while its presiding genius is thought, personally, to be worth more than pounds 100 million.

THE MIDLAND GRAND

The Gothic glory that rises around and above the entrance to St Pancras Station like a secular cathedral was built by Sir George Gilbert Scott between 1868 and 1876 as the Midland Grand Hotel. It became outdated, was too big and too expensive to refurbish, so sections of the building were closed down and the rest used as railway offices from 1935. Dilapidated and underused, it failed a fire certificate and has been empty for more than a decade - although you may have seen the extraordinary interior in any one of a dozen films, including Richard III and the final confrontation with the Joker in Batman.

British Rail Property Board spent more than pounds 10 million repairing the exterior before privatisation. Now that new platforms for Thameslink and Eurostar services are being built at St Pancras, the Midland Grand is to be reopened early in the next century as a deluxe Marriott hotel. The top three floors will be apartments, while the magnificent public rooms will be restored and an extension built at the rear of the hotel. Now known as St Pancras Chambers, the building is being redeveloped by a consortium that includes the Manhattan Loft Corporation and Whitbread, which already operates 16,000 hotel rooms in Britain (including the Marriott chain).

This summer Whitbread will open a 200-bedroom medium-grade Marriott hotel in part of County Hall, the Grade II-listed former home of the GLC that stands on the Thames facing the Houses of Parliament.

MALMAISON

Trafalgar Square could be the site of the next development from the Malmaison chain, whose establishments in Glasgow and Edinburgh were described by the Good Hotel Guide last year as "a model for city accommodation in the 1990s". Ken McCulloch, a former hotelier of the year, called them after the house near Paris where Napoleon's wife once lived, a woman whose name was synonymous with style. The one in Glasgow was built in the remarkable but disused Greco-Egyptian church of St Jude's. In Edinburgh he used the former seamen's mission on the harbour front at Leith. Both are now boutique hotels with French-style cafes, bars and brasseries. Like most of the new wave of hotels their rooms have the latest information technology. Malmaison is involved in developments at the Quayside in Newcastle, Sovereign Quay in Leeds and Piccadilly in Manchester. Its backers are Arcadian International, which is also working with Conran on the Great Eastern Hotel.

THE PEARL ASSURANCE BUILDING

Marriott is also the project manager for plans to turn the former headquarters of Pearl Assurance at 252 High Holborn into a 335-room five-star hotel under the Renaissance brand name. The demolition work has been completed and the final touches are being added to the interior design, which guts the offices but preserves original features. The hotel is expected to open early in 2000.

Jim Fisher, a laconic American who works under the title of senior vice president of international lodging development for Marriott, said he could not reveal details of the design at this stage, or the name of the building's new owner, who was based in Hong Kong. A Malay-sian investment group is reported to have paid up to pounds 13 million for the property, but Mr Fisher would not confirm this. "I know who it is, but I'm not sure which of his many investment vehicles he is using."

Neither would he reveal any figures for the redevelopment budget. "That's something I would leave to the owner to say." However, when it was pointed out to Mr Fisher that the Independent on Sunday could hardly ask the owner for the budget figure without first knowing his or her name, the reply was, "I guess that's right."

THE HEMPEL

Not really a new hotel, but certainly an influential one. The first to capitalise on Cool Britannia was Lady Weinberg, best known as the former actress and model Anouska Hempel, who named this temple of minimalism after herself. Perhaps it was a clever use of a brand name, since Hempel was already famous for her 51-room Kensington hotel Blake's, which opened in the Seventies and became a favoured haunt of stars like Robert de Niro and Jean Paul Gaultier. Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit spent their honeymoon cocooned in the opulent furnishings and decor designed by the owner with her mind on the Far East. One can only speculate on what they did with the oxygen canisters supplied in the mini-bar.

The Hempel, which was opened in late 1996, is built behind the unchanged facades of five Victorian townhouses in a Bayswater square. Inside is another small boutique hotel with an Eastern influence, but this is the polar opposite of the jumbled decadence that characterises Blake's. This time the mood is Zen, the stark white public spaces illuminated by what feels like natural light, and decorated only by orchids. Each bedroom is different - one has a futon suspended from the ceiling in a cage.

Overall it has a reputation for being cool, calm, contemplative and quirky. The restaurant I-Thai serves a brave mixture of Italian and Thai food. Expect to pay well over pounds 200 for a double room, or in excess of pounds 700 for a suite. If you can get in.

THE METROPOLITAN

If the Metropolitan were a film star it would be Tom Cruise in Top Gun - young, good-looking, smart, cool, and so damned cocky you'd just love someone to smack it in the mouth. The Met lobby is, we are assured by its publicity material, "centre stage for the hippest crowd in town" although its ambience is oddly suggestive of a Duran Duran reunion. The Met Bar - members only, and it helps to look good if you want to be served by the very cool bar staff, who are known as "mixologists" - is "guaranteed to be the hottest spot in London". All of which could be dismissed as hype were it not for the hysterical devotion that the Metropolitan has inspired in the capital's fashion victims since it opened in February last year.

Its owner is Christina Ong, the Singaporean billionairess who also controls the Sydney Hilton, the Inn on the Park and (since 1991) the Halkin, an award-winning 41-room boutique hotel in Belgravia where the staff wear uniforms designed by Giorgio Armani. They are dressed in black Donna Karan outfits at the Metropolitan, a modern block on Hyde Park Corner with 155 rooms, a gym and a very expensive Japanese restaurant. The cheapest room is pounds 195, the Penthouse Suite costs from pounds 1,300 a night, plus VAT, but for that money you might get a glimpse of one of the young film or pop stars, supermodels or designers that hang out here. Even if you don't, the staff are all beautiful enough to model, and to make you feel ugly.

CANARY RIVERSIDE

Christina Ong's company, Hotel Properties Limited, also has a 50 per cent stake in this huge development at Westferry Circus on the Isle of Dogs. A consortium of nine banks has lent the pounds 100 million required to build 322 apartments with views over the water around Canary Wharf, plus a health club, pool restaurants and a luxury hotel. No details have been released about the hotel yet, but it will be at the top end of the market. The intention is to capitalise on the continuing rebirth of Docklands, which will be strengthened when the troubled Jubilee Line extension eventually opens. Canary Wharf once looked doomed to failure, but more than 21,000 people now work there. Mrs Ong's partners are the property development division of a Singaporean company that specialises in new technology, which will own 30 per cent of the project. Canary Wharf Limited, the landlord, will have 20 per cent. !

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