The Langham - a fine London Hotel
Come June, cruise ships start sailing the British Isles and Europe with London as the gateway. Most itineraries commence in Dover or Southampton, England, a mere two hours' drive from the big city. Some luxury lines (such as Silversea and Seabourn) offer voyages departing from London proper, with majestic sails under the iconic Tower Bridge. (The latter is a bucket list adventure; locals line up to watch and wave enthusiastically to passengers, who wave just as wildly back. You feel a little like Queen Elizabeth; remember when she had her Diamond Jubilee and sailed the Thames? Okay, stretching it, but you get the idea.)
No matter your departure port, you're going to have to spend a night or two in London to ensure making embarkation. For me, time spent in this city is nearly as good as the cruise.
If I don't visit London often, I get the blues. Maybe I like rain; probably I like Harrods Extra Jam Blueberry Preserve more. I buy many jars (they're delicious and make impressive, inexpensive gifts) to take home. I pack them in JetBags (thejetbag.com), which is really meant for wine but works just as well for jams, sauces and other bottled goodies.
But I digress. Before you buy preserves you have to book a hotel. May I suggest The Langham? The Langham, London is one of those fabulous hotels that marry old school with new. I'm not one for too much chintz and an avalanche of ruffles. But I am a sucker for grandeur and stately presence. And history, in which this hotel abounds.
The Langham, London Exterior
The Langham, London has a magnificent pedigree, with a royal flourish. It opened on June 10th, 1865 and was declared Europe's first grand hotel. HRH The Prince of Wales (who became King Edward VII) did the official opening.
The cream of Victorian society and literary luminaries such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde frequented the hotel. In fact, Conan Doyle used the hotel as a setting for several Sherlock Holmes stories.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, published in 1889, the central character Count Von Kramm, was asked by Holmes where he was staying. He replied, "You will find me at The Langham, under the name of Count Von Kramm." (Hmm, I wonder how many well-read guests decide to check in at The Langham under that name?)
If the above names don't impress you, try Toscanini, Noel Coward or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as guests. Mrs. Wallis Simpson, during her scandalous courtship with Edward VIII, stayed here, too.
But enough of the past, because perhaps you are now imagining musty corridors and cobwebbed corners. Not so. The Langham, London's management was passed to the hotel's owning company Langham Hotels International in 2004, and was reawakened, if you will. Most recently it underwent a five-year restoration unveiled in 2009 and cost a whopping 80 million pounds to complete.
What a difference many million pounds make. Why I don't know that personally (if only), I can judge it professionally. The hotel is a study in meshed style. Sure, it has soaring ceilings and marble pillars, but The Langham, London also has Asian-inspired art and intricate artistry galore.
Regent Suite Bathroom
I'll start with the bar, as Artesian is a microcosm of Langham splendor. In fact, it won "World's Best Hotel Bar," a competitive, coveted award in 2012. The room stuns, blending traditional elements, such as a marble bar counter, with Chinese Chippendale. Pagodas top bar shelves, mulberry and lilac-hued leather covers chairs and couches and silver-leaf beveled mirrors abound. Gold accents add just the right pop of plush.
Even the long-married feel like honeymooners in this sexy setting. And that's before you sip a bespoke cocktail, crafted by master mixologists. Try the Langham Cobbler, made with fresh lychees, lime vanilla sugar and aged sake, with a side of rosé champagne. Or a martini, perfumed tableside with XO cognac. Paris has nothing on this bar for romance.
WINE AND DINE
Roux At The Landau, the signature restaurant, is a creation of Albert and Michel Roux Jr. (The Roux brothers are world-famous chefs.) I've dined here pre-theatre a couple visits ago and appreciated the reasonable (for London) menu.
Three-course pre-show dinners include sophisticated dishes like mushroom soup with shrimp, crème fraiche and nutmeg; butter-roast guinea fowl with Madeira sauce and French and British artisan cheeses. For 35 pounds per person (about $53), the modern French-meets-modern-British meal also includes coffee and petits fours.
Still, my favorite hotel restaurant is Palm Court. Open all day and celebrated for afternoon tea, Palm Court captures both Art Deco and modern design in a seamless blend. Mirrors, crystal, marble, blue velvet chairs - each element adds lavishness in restrained good taste.
Afternoon tea at Palm Court is crazy-good. Fresh-baked scones crumble under thick clotted cream. The surprise of caraway makes poached Scottish salmon a finger sandwich highlight. Miniature pastries are fashioned as intricately as a jumbo wedding cake. The staggering selection of teas; from Yunnan Gold with licorice spice notes and whole chamomile flower tisane (herbal tea), to rare (picked only in late March) Pre-Rain Jun Shan Silver Needle Yellow Tea, reportedly a favorite of Chairman Mao.
Palm Court is so welcoming, it's lured me in for more than one casual dinner after hours of exploring London. Soups, like corn-fed chicken broth with lime leaf and coriander, and pastas like pumpkin tortellini with roasted beets and goat cheese, are light yet irresistible. And I can't refuse Cornish sea salt caramel brownies with Valrhona chocolate (France's best) whipped cream.
Dessert at Palm Court
And did I mention the hotel locale? It's perfect. At the top of Regent Street, in the West End by the theatres, and close to Oxford, Bond and Regent Streets' best shopping. The hotel is also near Oxford Circus Underground station (the Tube, as it's affectionately known), the easiest and least expensive way to traverse London.
Breakfast at Palm Court
I've saved the guest rooms for last. Not because they deserve that status, just that I like The Langham's food so much. Think cozy and warm (no chintz or ruffles) with patterned carpeting, English writing desks and big crisp-linen beds for day-and-night dreaming.
Penhaligons toiletries are room highlights. (See penhaligon.com for more information on this luxurious brand established in 1870.) The pricey soaps and lotions are rare hotel amenities. Complimentary Wi-Fi and USA power sockets are among other thoughtful touches. Even the simplest room, the Classic, is more than 300-square-feet.
The Langham, London offers a variety of packages, including early booking rates. It's not the cheapest hotel in London, but it's far from the most expensive. (I've seen rates from $400+ per night, depending upon the summer date.) Plus the value is so there. So far, the only flaw I see is my beloved Harrods Extra Jam Blueberry Preserve is not an amenity, but I can cope if that is the only indulgence missing. ( london.langhamhotels.co.uk)