SO WHAT'S NEW? THE BOY'S BACK IN TOWN
The most exciting news on the London hotel scene is the relaunch of Brown's on 12 December after a glamorous makeover by the new owner, Rocco Forte Hotels. Hotel aristocracy, brother and sister team, Sir Rocco and Olga Polizzi, have transformed this Mayfair stalwart. It first opened its doors in 1837 when James Brown, Lord Byron's butler, bought four adjacent houses to create a hotel for visiting gentry. Other claims to fame: this is where Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call in 1876, where the Roosevelts honeymooned in 1905 and where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. Another literary fan was Agatha Christie who used Brown's as the model for her novel At Bertram's Hotel.
It's a homecoming as well as a redesign, however. Brown's was part of the Trusthouse Forte empire that was taken over by Granada in 1996. Undaunted, Sir Rocco dusted himself down and set up a new company, Rocco Forte Hotels, which now has properties across Europe, including the Hotel Savoy in Florence and the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg.
The redesign of Brown's, from the colour schemes and carpets to the choice of books scattered around the bedrooms, is down to Olga Polizzi, who also owns London-weekenders' favourite, Hotel Tresanton in Cornwall and the recently opened Endsleigh in Devon. Brown's devotees begged her not to change the hotel too much. Although the chintz has been thrown out, she has kept many of the original features; she has updated rather than reinvented. The black and white flagstones in reception have been replaced by grey mosaic flooring while the leather reception and concierge desks have been designed by Bill Amberg. The restaurant, The Grill, still has the warm wood panelling, 1930s lanterns and striking stucco ceiling but, instead of dark red chairs the mood has been lifted by fresh moss-green leather banquettes. The reception rooms have Neisha Crossland wallpaper but the stunning stained-glass windows up the stairs are original, as is the giant gilt mirror in the Roosevelt Room. It is, as you'd expect, stylish and luxurious, but it is also eclectic and surprising.
You can toast the reopening in the Donovan Bar, which is decorated with Terence Donovan's photographs, with the signature cocktail the Box Brownie, a mix of raspberry purée, Stoli Razberi and Aperol topped with champagne. Or treat yourself to the hotel's famous afternoon tea (£27.50 per person). Some things don't change.
Brown's, 33, Albemarle Street, Mayfair W1 (020-7493 6020; www.roccofortehotels.com; there's an introductory offer during December of £259 for a classic double; from January, rooms start at £347 excluding breakfast)
I THOUGHT THE RITZ WAS THE PLACE FOR TEA?
Afternoon tea at The Ritz is another institution, of course - although you have to book three to four months in advance for a weekend reservation, and three or four weeks in advance for tea during the week. The Ritz, the epitome of ornate grandeur, where the history hangs as heavy as the drapes, is one of London's grand hotels along with Claridge's, The Savoy and The Connaught.
Claridge's, which first opened in 1812, hosted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert during a visit to Empress Eugenie of France, who had made the hotel her winter retreat in 1860. After the First World War many British aristocrats chose Claridge's as their pied-à-terre. The end of the Second World War also saw the hotel temporarily declared Yugoslav territory by Sir Winston Churchill, in order that Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia could be born in Suite 212 in July 1945 on Yugoslav soil. Redesigned in the early Thirties, half of the 203 rooms are art deco, the rest Victorian. Claridge's bar is, today, one of London's hip hangouts with cocktails here the precursor to dinner at "Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's".
The Connaught also has its share of royal connections. It was named after Queen Victoria's son, Prince Arthur, the first Duke of Connaught in 1917. The hotel actually dates back to the beginning of the 19th century but it was rebuilt in the 1890s. In 1897 it re-opened as the Coburg Hotel after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg but was renamed during the First World War. Today, with its wide mahogany staircase, antique furniture and genteel atmosphere it is still one of the most distinguished addresses in town. Even more so now that Gordon Ramsay has put his name to the restored Grill Room and Restaurant, run by his protégée, Angela Hartnett.
Richard D'Oyly Carte built the Savoy, which opened in 1889, on the Strand to host the audience after shows in The Savoy Theatre. D'Oyly Carte persuaded the hotelier Cesar Ritz from Paris to manage the hotel, and he later went on to open The Ritz. The Savoy Grill soon became known as the place to dine for critics and stars of London's glittering theatre scene, while George Gershwin gave the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the ballroom in 1925.
The Ritz is a relative whippersnapper, dating back to 1906; centenary celebrations are being planned for next year. The architecture is mock French-chateau in style, the furnishings, dripping gilt, lavish Louis XVI.
The Savoy, Strand, WC2 (020-7836 4343, www.fairmont.com/savoy; doubles from £316 excluding breakfast); The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly, W1 (020-7493 8181; www.theritzlondon.com; doubles from £435 excluding breakfast); The Connaught, Carlos Place, Mayfair W1 (020-7499 7070; www.the-connaught.co.uk; doubles from £464 excluding breakfast); Claridge's, Brook Street Mayfair W1 (020-7629 8860; www.claridges.co.uk; doubles from £257 excluding breakfast)
WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING A LITTLE LESS GRAND?
More intimate than the capital's grand hotels, London has a sprinkling of sumptuous townhouses. The Cadogan, another glamorous landmark hotel in Knightsbridge, also has a star-studded past. This Edwardian townhouse hotel dates back to 1887. It was once home to the actress and mistress of Edward VII, Lillie Langtry, while Oscar Wilde was famously arrested in room 118 in 1895.
More literary connections can be found at Hazlitt's. Named after the essayist who once lived there, the clutch of charmingly quirky rooms crammed with antiques are named, as Bill Bryson so tactfully put it in Notes from a Small Island, after "his chums or women he shagged there".
The Colonnade, situated in Little Venice, is owned by mini-chain the Eton Collection. It was created from two Victorian mansions and played host to JFK in 1962, while Sigmund Freud stayed here in 1938 - both have a suite named after them.
The Cadogan, 75 Sloane Street, SW1 (020-7235 7141; www.cadogan.com; doubles from £288
Hazlitt's, 6 Frith Street, Soho Square W1 (020-7434 1771; www.hazlittshotel.com; doubles from £241 excluding breakfast)
The Colonnade, 2 Warrington Crescent, Little Venice W9 (020-7286 1052; www.theetoncollection.com; doubles from £140 including breakfast)
AND BOUTIQUE HOTELS?
One of the original boutique hotels, Blakes opened in the early Eighties and was designed by Anouska Hempel. Conjuring up images of the luxuriant Orient (check out the dimly lit Opium Room for cocktails) the décor is dramatic, dark and decadent. Bedrooms, or rather boudoirs, are sumptuous and decked out in exotic silks and antique travelling trunks, or white gossamer nets and mother-of-pearl furniture in French Provençal style. Despite all the pretenders, Blakes is still the original boutique hotel. Anouska Hempel also created The Hempel, a shrine to aesthetic minimalism. Think stark décor or simple lines depending on your perspective, the palette white on white. There's even a suspended bed in one room, while oxygen in a can in the mini bar is the signature gimmick.
The Halkin has just won Visit London's award for Best Small Hotel 2005. The façade might be Georgian but inside this understated hotel, with just 41 rooms, is contemporary and chic. Each floor has a different inspiration; water, earth, air, fire and sky, while Italian designer Edith Leschke has used a palette of soft taupes, beiges and creams.
Blakes 33 Roland Gardens, SW7 (020-7370 6701; www.blakeshotels.com; doubles from £323 excluding breakfast); The Hempel 3-35 Craven Hill Gardens, W2 (020-7298 9000; www.the-hempel.co.uk; doubles from £200 excluding breakfast); The Halkin, Halkin Street, SW1 (020-7333 1000; www.halkin.co.uk; doubles from £376 excluding breakfast)
There's a clutch of designer hotels around the West End. Christina Ong gave the capital its first real introduction to pared-down contemporary style and muted colours - aped by so many poor imitators over the last decade - when she opened The Metropolitan on Park Lane. It's home to the continuously fashionable Met Bar and Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Nobu. The staff uniforms were designed by Giorgio Armani. Rooms are Sixties urban living in style in soft mauves, cream and beige with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Hyde Park.
The exciting partnership between Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck produced The Sanderson and St Martin's Lane (both are now owned by Morgans Hotel Group). The Sanderson was the media's darling when it opened in 2000. On the outside an ugly Fifties office block, inside it's a witty, modern, sexy dreamscape themed "urban-spa" dotted with eclectic pieces such as the red "lips" sofa.
St Martins Lane is a theatrical spectacle, juxtaposing the modern with the baroque. In the lobby there are giant chess pieces, molar-teeth stools and gilt chairs scattered across a clean open space. In the rooms interactive light displays allow you to create your own mood.
Tim and Kitt Kemp, who own mini-chain Firmdale Hotels, have under their umbrella the Charlotte Street Hotel, the Covent Garden Hotel, The Soho Hotel, the Pelham Hotel, Knightsbridge Hotel and Number 16. A seventh, the Haymarket Hotel next to the Haymarket Theatre Royal, is scheduled to open in September 2006. Veering away from copycat minimalism, their style fuses the contemporary with the classical.
The lobby at the Charlotte Street Hotel is hung with 20th-century art including two Roger Cecil abstracts; in the two drawing rooms are works by Bloomsbury artists such as Vanessa Bell; on the wall of the restaurant, Oscar, is a mural of contemporary London life by Alexander Hollweg. In the heart of London's entertainment district, there are handy private screening rooms at the Charlotte Street Hotel, the Soho Hotel and the Covent Garden Hotel. The Soho Hotel has log-burning fireplaces in the two drawing rooms, and a 10ft-high bronze cat in the lobby. The rooms are all individually designed in a contemporary English style - think pastels and florals but no chintz.
The Sanderson, 50 Berners Street W1 (020-7300 1400; www.sandersonlondon.com; doubles from £264 excluding breakfast); St Martins Lane, 45 St Martin's Lane, Covent Garden WC2 (020-7300 5500; www.stmartinslane.com; doubles from £235 excluding breakfast); The Charlotte Street Hotel, 15-17 Charlotte Street, W1 (020-7806 2000; www.firmdale.co.uk; doubles from £229 excluding breakfast); The Soho Hotel, 4 Richmond Mews W1 (020-7559 3000; doubles from £276 excluding breakfast); Covent Garden Hotel, 10 Monmouth Street, W2 (020-7806 1000; doubles from £300 excluding breakfast); The Metropolitan, Old Park Lane, W1 (020-7447 1000; www.metropolitan.co.uk; doubles from £250 including breakfast)
For something a bit edgier, head east. It started with the Conran-designed Great Eastern Hotel just round the corner from Liverpool Street, a revamped railway hotel with chocolate shagpile in the rooms, art installations in the lobby and a restaurant with a stained-glass dome. Also in the city is Threadneedles in a converted bank dating back to 1856. Now a boutique hotel with 70 rooms and a suite overlooking St Paul's Cathedral, the original stained-glass dome soars over the reception.
The Zetter in hip Clerkenwell is housed in an old five-storey warehouse and is the brainchild of restaurateurs Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan. Their aim was to create a hotel and restaurant for those looking for comfort and style without that hefty London price tag. Rooms start at a very reasonable £140. A spiral staircase leads up through the five-story atrium to the hotel's 59 bedrooms, which retain many of the building's original 19th-century features. These are counterbalanced by quirky touches created by young designers and artists including floral wallpaper panels and eclectic ceramics and furniture.
Just around the corner in Charterhouse Square is mini-chain Malmaison's London digs. The old Victorian brick building was once the nurse's residence of St Bartholomew's Hospital.
The Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street EC2 (020-7618 5000; www.great-eastern-hotel.co.uk; doubles from £335 excluding breakfast); The Zetter, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road EC1 (020-7324 4444; www.thezetter.com; doubles from £140, excluding breakfast); Malmaison, Charterhouse Square, EC1 (020-7012 3700; www.malmaison.co.uk; doubles from £229 excluding breakfast); Threadneedles, 5 Threadneedle Street, EC2 (020-7657 8080; www.theetoncollection.com; doubles from £182 excluding breakfast)
THE CHAIN GANG
London is one of the most expensive cities to visit. However, it is possible to find affordable options in the heart of the capital. The Myhotel group has two hotels in London: Myhotel Bloomsbury and Myhotel Chelsea. But for real value for money look no further than the Travel Inn in the old County Hall right next to the London Eye which has rooms from £86.95 excluding breakfast.
Myhotel Bloomsbury, 11-13 Bayley Street WC1 (020-7667 6000; www.myhotels.com) and Myhotel Chelsea, 35 Ixworth Place SW3 (020-7225 7000) have doubles from £182 including breakfast;Travel Inn, County Hall SE1 (0870 238 3300; www.premiertravelinn.com)
THE BEST BATH
Legend has it that Johnny Depp filled the Victorian bath in room 116 of this eccentric bolthole with champagne for Kate Moss.
22 Stanley Gardens, W11 (020-7727 2777; www.portobello-hotel.co.uk; from £170 with breakfast)
THE BEST SPA
You book time rather than treatments at The Mandarin Oriental's spa. Rituals are based on ancient Eastern therapies.
66 Knightsbridge, SW1 (020-7201 3773; www.mandarinoriental.com; doubles from £440 room only)
THE BEST URBAN POOL
One of the things that makes this stylish designer hotel stand out is its spectacular pool which comes with soothing underwater music.
One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych WC2 (020-7300 1000; www.onealdwych.com; doubles from £405 room only)