Spendthrift's guide to recession: The economic slump has hit the very rich, too, so if you have some spare cash to splash out on a luxury treat, now is the perfect time to sample the high life. Michael Durham reports

HAS THE recession spoiled your appetite? No? Good. Do you have upwards of pounds 170 to spend on dinner for two? Then a table awaits you at Le Gavroche, one of London's costlier restaurants.

Or perhaps you would prefer dinner in New York? No problem. Simply turn up at Heathrow airport and book a pounds 4,156 cheap-day return on Concorde.

There has never been a better time to go out and paint the town red - if you can afford to. The recession may be bad for some businesses but luxury has never been more readily available. The super rich, who normally ride out a recession, are feeling the pinch just like everybody else: they are not eating out quite so lavishly, changing their car as often, buying such expensive presents or taking exotic holidays. The result is that one no longer has to suffer the irritation of having to queue for the very, very best things in life.

Before we go further we will need a set of wheels. A Rolls-Royce? Simplicity itself. Before the recession, the waiting list was two years just to place an order. Today, with the requisite pounds 214,092, a custom-built convertible touring limousine will be standing in the drive in six to nine months.

So let's hit town. First, the double room in a top-class hotel. 'Yes, we have rooms at all prices,' said a spokesman for the Ritz. 'No need to book in advance. But August is always a quiet month.' Cost: pounds 220-pounds 265.

Now, the candlelit dinner for two. That, too, is easy. It is no longer necessary to book for dinner months beforehand at London's most exclusive restaurants. 'Yes, we can probably help you for tonight,' said Silvano Giraldin, restaurant manager at Le Gavroche, where just a glance at the menu is enough to make one's credit card quiver.

'We are a bit quiet at lunchtime,' said Mr Giraldin, 'but we are usually full at dinner. A year ago we were full within a week. Two years ago we were full within a month. That is the way it goes.' Dinner will cost about pounds 85 a head.

Max Palmer, matre d'hotel at Marco Pierre White's restaurant Harvey's on Wandsworth common, told a similar story. 'Eighteen months ago you had to book three months in advance for dinner on Saturday night. Now it is two or three weeks in advance. Mid-week, I could usually fit you in the same day if you don't mind coming at half-past-seven.'

On second thoughts, perhaps it would be cheaper to stay in and open a bottle of wine. If so, we are likely to be plundering the cellar - if we have not already sold it to pay our debts. Wine merchants report a large increase in the number of private cellars being sold up - some possibly by Lloyd's 'names' in reduced circumstances. The result has been that an unusual supply of fine wines has come on to the market.

'We have come across a fair few private cellars recently,' said Steven Browett, managing director of Farr Vintners, a leading wine merchant. 'But people don't come to us saying they need the money. They prefer to be discreet.'

He recently bought a private cellar of 1960s claret for pounds 100,000 from a city gent who had fallen on hard times. 'He was a very rich man with a fantastic house, a private art gallery, a collection of vintage cars and a great wine cellar,' Mr Browett said. 'He decided to sell the cellar and keep the Impressionist paintings.'

Andrew Gordon, sales director of Corney and Barrow, a leading London wine merchant, said: 'This year, companies and individuals are not restocking their cellars. Instead of spending thousands of pounds on new wines, people are drinking what they already have in. Most have three or four years' worth of

drinkable wine in the cellar. Our sales of fine wine are substantially down this year.'

Not that prices of fine wine have dropped. Corney and Barrow's most expensive is a Chateau Petrus 1947, at pounds 1,250 a bottle, and it is not on special offer. The firm says it has sold 'some' during the recession.

After all that rich food and drink, we are going to need a holiday. Perhaps we should book a trip on the Orient Express to Venice, at pounds 1,275 each return. The trip takes just over 24 hours: champagne on ice and a baby grand in the restaurant car. Berths are not a problem. According to the Orient Express company, seats are available on most Venice departures from Victoria this season.

Or should we take a flight? Let us first arrange our transport to Heathrow. A stretch limo, complete with uniformed driver, electric sunroof, cocktail cabinet, telephone and television, is a snip at pounds 75 one-way. The price has not changed for two years.

'Luxury car hire is not a good business in the recession,' admitted Adrian Challis, a director of London Car Hire. 'It is one of the first things to go.'

'We are only doing half the business of 12 months ago,' said Dorothy Dady, a director of Chauffeur (City and Westminster) Hire Company: 'People who used to take a limo to the airport are hiring a Jaguar or a Mercedes for pounds 35, which is very good value. We have taken Rupert Murdoch to Heathrow in a Jaguar. Some company directors are even taking the tube.'

And the holiday? How about a week's cruise off the Virgin Islands in December at pounds 2,650 a head? 'You really are pampered,' said a spokesman for Club Med. 'Mind you, at that price, you'd expect to be.' Suites are still bookable aboard the Club Med I.

And if the recession is still on in a year's time, there are plenty of places available on the world's most expensive holiday, a 37-day, desperately luxurious World Tour in November 1993 costing between pounds 24,000 and pounds 31,400 per person. And that's just half-board.

But be warned: Thomas Cook has already made 20 bookings, and says places are filling up fast.

(Photograph omitted)

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