The most effective method of looking young is to be photographed in front of a tyrannosaurus. A bunch of dinosaur bones certainly puts wrinkles into perspective. Which is why I like hanging out in museums. One of the best things about the Ampersand Hotel is its location, a stroll away from the Natural History, the Science and the Victoria and Albert museums. The Royal Albert Hall is also in the neighbourhood, which means that you can just absorb intellectualism and culture just by osmosis. (Boys, take note. The brain of course, is the only place where size does count. I do so love a man with a big, throbbing organ.) We have Prince Albert to thank for South Kensington’s monopoly of museums: in the mid 19th century, Albie put the profits from crowd-pleasing 1851 Great Exhibition towards enhancing the area’s cultural assets, resulting in a tract of land that’s veritably stuffed with exhibits. Now the area has another treasure: the Ampersand.
After overdosing on dinosaurs and diamantes, I explored the hotel. The Ampersand pays decorative homage to the Victorian values of discovery and invention that dominated the age. To echo the arts, history and culture, which are the heartbeat of South Kensington, all of the hotel’s boutique rooms and suites are wittily themed around astronomy, botany, music, geometry and ornithology…
Cushions and chair coverings are a creative nod to the patterns and textures of the V&A’s exotic costume collections (including beaded Elizabethan bridal gowns, Russian Tsar’s garters and David Bowie’s futuristic fashion.) Bedspreads are adorned with flowers and ferns and other exotic flora and fauna of the Natural History Museum’s 70 million items. The hotel hallway wallpaper is an intriguing collection of blown-up prints of ornithological drawings, planets, phials and specimens. Other rooms boast clusters of notes dancing across musical staves on bedspreads and pillows. The drinks cabinet in the hotel’s drawing room displays all its beverages as though they’re magic potions in a sorcerer’s den. (Having increased my brain capacity by touring museums all day, I then destroyed them with alcohol. Oh, to be an aqua-holic.)
The whole hotel feels like a film set. First there are the ornate high teas offering cappuccinos brewed in a Victorian coffee press and fresh pâtisseries baked on the premises. (Do indulge in the cakes. Just remember that there are three billion women in the world who don’t look like supermodels. And only six who do. And how often do you get to eat almond parfait, espresso marzipan custard, almond crumble, caramelised almond and salty toffee, all in one bite?) Then there’s the games room and library, lined with artifacts quirkily displayed in a Victorian style. I kept expecting Sherlock Holmes to come striding in on the sniff for an evil genius fugitive.
Dining at the Ampersand is also an excitingly experimental experience. Apero’s open-plan basement dining room of white metro tiles and vaulted brick walls, serves modern tapas. The inventive chef Chris Golding creates inspired culinary concoctions. I nibbled on the most delectable mix of stone sea bass, sumac and beetroot risotto, meltingly tender grilled beef onglet, cavolo nero, onions and celeriac. Followed by autumn truffle croquettes and truffle mayonnaise and wet polenta with New Forest mushrooms.
The decor of the lounge channels Kit Kemp’s style in its mix of bright, clashing colours and antique furnishings, but it would be murder with a hangover. The place is so ‘hip’, at first I imagined being arrested by the chic police, with the line: ‘I’m sorry but you’re just not fashionable enough to rub shoulder pads with these people’. (Although thankfully none of the staff here carries a condescension chromosome.) If I were to split hairs, another observation is that the gym is small. Mind you, Hyde Park is only a five-minute jog away. As for the bedrooms that are not huge, let’s face it, you’re out most of the day at one of the many museums or shops, so who cares? (Thankfully the beds are big and swathed in marshmallow-soft linen and the humbug-coloured bathrooms are stocked with the most thoughtful of extras, including eye-makeup remover.)
Really London is all about conquering the Great Indoors. After we’d overdosed on the museums, I hit the department stores. Pretending to have a High Life Visa, I made for Harrods with its 300 departments, and Harvey Nicks with its fabulous Fifth Floor Café. To many females, Knightsbridge department stores are like Mecca. These shrines to fashion are only a hop, skip and well-heeled jump away. Back at base there are things to play with too: Ampersand’s basement den has a ping-pong table, vintage boxing gloves and a stash of books.
Come to think of it, typing this review is stealing away more shopping time. So, I’ll stop prattling. In short, the Ampersand is a chic, quirky hotel in the shopping and museum Mecca of the most fashionable area of London. And I mean really fashionable. Put it this way, the Science Museum was not the only place I studied the celestial firmaments – I saw quite a few stars on the streets as well. A stellar assortment of personalities lives in South Kensington. Strolling between shops, I glimpsed a couple of Oscar nominees and at least one Rolling Stone – proof that dinosaurs do indeed still roam the earth. Must tell the Natural History Museum.