The first sign that my stay in the five-star Milestone Hotel, Kensington, is going to be unusual comes when I reach my room. It isn't the large gold day bed, or the cut-glass urn full of jelly beans, or the 48 bars of soap arranged on a tray on the bed that surprises. It's not even the little pack of prunes left on the bedside with a note making the case for a high-fibre diet. No, what really gets me is the presence of a cookbook, self-published and voluminous, by the owner of the Milestone Hotel and the other 16 hotels in the Red Carnation Group, Mrs Bea Tollman.
As the general manager of 10 years, Andrew Pike explains, this is nothing unusual at a Red Carnation Hotel. Mrs Tollman, a second-generation hotelier of South African extraction, is very hands on. "There is no part of the hotel that she has not been involved in," he explains. Evidently she is doing something right, too, for the hotel collects awards as though they were football cards. It has been listed on Travel+Leisure's World's Best 500 Hotels for 2013, ranked second in Condé Nast Traveller Readers' Choice Awards 2012, and came in fourth in the Travel+Leisure's Reader's Poll for World's Best Service 2012.
And today another statuette will join those already on the Tollman mantel piece. The Milestone has come first in the UK hotel category of the 12th TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice awards. Forget the London Edition, Claridge's, The Connaught or Somerset bolt-hole Babington House, this 44-room, 12-suite hotel is, according to users of the customer-review site, the model of a modern hotel.
Certainly, as I cross Kensington Road from Hyde Park and walk up the steps of the mid-Victorian hotel, things look promising. The doorman smiles like he means it. In the wood-panelled lobby a thicket of hands stretch to greet me – "Good evening, Sir"; "How can we help?"; "Do let me take your coat" – and that's before I've had a chance to say I've booked a room. It is a perfectly pitched welcome and one gets the sense that it is a sincere one.
Good service is what they are very good at here. Before I arrive, a "guest preference" form pops into my email inbox. Along with questions on whether I require the services of the hotel Bentley (£225 a trip) or an "anniversary cake" (£20), I'm also asked which pillow, duvet, welcome drink and fruit would I like, so all can be waiting as I flop down into my room. When I ask what time the resistance pool and gym close, back comes the pleasing reply: "Officially 11pm, but if you do want a swim at 2am, just let us know." They will even print you a business card with your name and the hotel's address on, an above-and-beyond service surely deserving of an award in itself.
There are so many small courtesies, in fact, one can feel overwhelmed. The foil-wrapped chocolate hearts on the bed and the "I Love You" lollipop are one thing, but the trail of rose petals laid from my bed to the bath while I was having dinner are quite another.
Other things are less welcome. The décor for one. It may please the reviewers on Trip Advisor, but the large black-and-white prints of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn in the conservatory are a little much for me. As is the vast portrait of a young Noël Coward, resplendent in bolero jacket, in the otherwise charming, book-lined drawing room. The low-ceilinged lobby, which is carpeted so luxuriously you feel you might sink into it, is small and dated (they have no truck with Ian Schrager's notion of lobbies as "social areas" at the Milestone).
The rooms themselves, while well-proportioned, lavishly bathroomed and decently serviced by Wi-Fi, are in some instances tired. Finishes are not always to the highest standard; the TVs need pensioning off. The design is, again, the purview of Mrs Tollman. The problem with having a non-professional designing guest rooms finds expression in the Art Deco room: while in no way unpleasant, it simply isn't Deco, despite the red walls and framed 1920s posters. The other rooms are more successful. The Regency Suite with its vast bed, empire-style furniture and view of Kensington Palace, feels as thought it's something from an Evelyn Waugh novel, and is all the better for it.
At dinner in the restaurant, Cheneston's, I think I finally begin to understand why people love the Milestone so. The room is dominated by a large oak fireplace, taken perhaps from some unloved country house. Candles cast dancing shadows on the wall; the "roast of the day" comes out on a silver trolley; the superb waiters wear dinner jackets. Save for the woman playing keyboard in the restaurant foyer, this could be a scene from the 1950s. It is then that things crystalise.
The dining room, and indeed the whole hotel, is a tourist's approximation of a top-notch English hotel. People who frequent other London hotels – its near neighbour, the Baglioni, for instance – might find it chintzy. But if you are an American tourist come to visit the nearby museums, or a Japanese businessman, it must be a delight. "Those Brits sure know how to do things," one imagines them saying as they show off the snap of that Noël Coward portrait.
As I get ready to leave, I walk through the lobby to my room. As I do so, I overhear a lady at the check-in desk. As if on cue, she begins to enumerate the hotel's many wonders to the woman on reception. "I could stay here forever," she says. "It's so unique."
And she's right. It may not be at the bleeding edge of chic, or afford much of an entrée onto contemporary London, but it does create a little bubble of fantasy for its guests, and for that alone it deserves a shelf-full of awards. µ
The Milestone Hotel, 1 Kensington Court, London W8 (020 7917 1000; milestonehotel.com). Doubles from £372 including breakfast
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