The South of England’s best city hotels and spa escapes offer delights fit for a fairy-tale princess. Indulge your regal senses—and sweet tooth—and remember to dress properly for tea.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, a young boy wins a golden ticket that leads him on an enchanted journey with Willy Wonka. Now a popular musical drawing crowds in London’s West End, the story—flooded with fantasy and corporal temptation—has inspired my afternoon tea at One Aldwych (room rates from $445, suites from $700 per night), a member of the prestigious The Leading Hotels of the World group and one of London’s most fashionable spots. Bedecked with the owner’s personal contemporary art collection and brimming with whimsical chic detail, the hotel’s The Lobby Bar attracts fashionistas and celebrities both day and night. No wonder The Sunday Telegraph named it one of the top five bars in the world.
Here, after an afternoon of shopping at Seven Dials, a seven-street, village-like collection of more than 150 boutiques, restaurants, theaters, bars and bakeries located just steps from the hotel, I settle into a sofa to order food. I’m joined by top models and well-groomed businessmen for a new twist on a tea party. In collaboration with the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory production (showing just across the street at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane), One Aldwych has created a fantastical teatime to celebrate the child in all of us. I momentarily forgo hot tea to order the Cocktail Charlie—a fizzy concoction of Champagne, grapefruit juice and chocolate bitters. With it, the waiter delivers a towering tea tray laden with goodies, all the invention of the chef to reflect Charlie’s bewitching adventure. From a tiny heritage tomato tart to a miniature roast beef sandwich, the savory options satisfy. But, true to form, the pièce de résistance is the sweets—especially the golden chocolate egg, as ornate as jewelry. Stuffed with vanilla cheesecake and mango, the chocolate egg is accompanied by other stunning desserts such as homemade candy floss and raspberry trifle.
Playful One Aldwych set the standard for London chic opulence when it opened nearly 20 years ago in Covent Garden. With 105 stylish rooms kitted out in a historic building, it became a haven for off-duty actors, dancers and politicos. And when fashion week moved to the area in 2009, designers and models began checking in too. Today, the hotel’s inviting restaurant, Indigo, draws a pre-theater crowd that relishes its light, modern (dairy-free and gluten-free) menu, while downstairs The Lobby Bar serves small plates to complement its stellar beverages. Ideally sited to explore the serpentine streets of the artfully redeveloped Covent Garden, One Aldwych stands a stone’s throw from the River Thames, Waterloo Bridge and scores of shopping and theater options.
Not far from Covent Garden, on Piccadilly, The Ritz London (room rates from $490, signature suites from $2,600 per night), a beacon of sophistication with 136 rooms and suites, is also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World organization. Vaunting 24K gold-leaf details, a three-story rotunda and palatial interiors, this icon glitters with twinkling chandeliers, shiny marble tabletops and grand archways. A go-to spot for royalty for more than a century, The Ritz London has also housed celebrities, world leaders and jet-setters since it opened in 1906, and will be celebrating 110 years in 2016. In its eponymous restaurant, The Ritz Restaurant, as well as the lobby area and Palm Court, the hallowed hotel still mandates jacket and ties for men and eschews denim and sneakers. Thus, donning a little black dress with lavish Marie Antoinette sleeves, I nibble on scones and tipple Champagne in the Palm Court, famous for its afternoon tea, during one of the day’s five seatings. Around me, everyone is swankily clad. Later on at the restaurant, I dine on classic French fare while listening to music played by a talented quartet. The evening ends amid the hotel’s most exclusive guests at The Ritz Club—a subterranean casino open only to members and those staying at the hotel. I descend the stairs to contemplate what might be a scene from a James Bond film: Blackjack, roulette, tumbling dice, velvet furnishings and tuxedos aplenty set the scene. I contemplate gambling late into the evening, but remember I’m heading to the countryside early the next morning and decide to retire.
I drive an hour through the bucolic countryside to arrive in storybook Bath, an ancient hamlet in Somerset well-known for its curative mineral springs. Once the milieu for wellness-seeking Romans and Celts, Bath continues to be a haven for healing, hobnobbing and social high jinks. Here to experience The Leading Hotels of the World’s newly opened 87-room/12-suite The Gainsborough Bath Spa (room rates from $400, king suites from $740 per night), I see the glimmer of this cobbled city has not dimmed. In fact, the trendiness of the wellness movement has only enhanced its ambience. Awash in the Georgian-inspired colors of sky blue and toffee brown, The Gainsborough’s high-ceiling guest rooms and common areas entertain subtle Asian flourishes (a nod to the Malaysian owners). History is celebrated throughout with Roman columns, arches and displays of ancient coins found during excavation. Large windows bring the ornate architecture of Bath inside, inviting wonder and meditation. A small number of suites have bath tubs that fill with both regular and thermal spring water, creating a spa-in-your-room experience.
Glamorously appointed, the hotel’s 21st century interpretation of a soaking spa is called the Spa Village Bath. Using water from the original spring, with treatment rituals and design inspired by the Romans’ love of baths, the capacious spa area sports a thermal water circuit with myriad pools equipped with jets, a sauna and a steam room. I check in an hour early for my spa treatment to follow the circuit. As I pop between pools, I hydrate with lemon-infused water and sip liquid chocolate spiced with chilli. “It’s very healthy for you,” says the attendant, pouring me a tiny cupful of the decadent libation. I remember that later, when I end the day at the hotel’s already acclaimed Johann Lafer at The Gainsborough restaurant, helmed by the Michelin-awarded Austrian chef Lafer himself, who is a popular television personality in Germany. Feeling noble after my day at the spa, I rationalize my right to indulge in dessert and dig into the passion fruit poached peach capped with almond mousse and slathered with bourbon vanilla ice cream. A perfect bookend to a storybook trip, it rivals the sumptuousness of the special golden egg that started my “golden ticket” exploration of England’s delightfully decadent side.
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The Leading Hotels of the World
For more information on these and other hotels in the international collection, visit lhw.com.