Simon Richardson, TV-producing traveller
‘Your butler will be along shortly,’ says the bell boy. Mrs Smith raises an eyebrow. ‘Our butler? We have our very own butler?’ Well, we are in Mayfair. The butler duly arrives – our very own Jeeves – and he is wonderful. His name, I confess, slips my mind – but his performance? Unforgettable. The first thing he asks is whether we’d like him to unpac…
‘Your butler will be along shortly,’ says the bell boy. Mrs Smith raises an eyebrow. ‘Our butler? We have our very own butler?’ Well, we are in Mayfair. The butler duly arrives – our very own Jeeves – and he is wonderful. His name, I confess, slips my mind – but his performance? Unforgettable. The first thing he asks is whether we’d like him to unpack for us. The second is whether we’d like our shoes polished – Mrs Smith’s black boots are immediately dispatched and, minutes later, return in a basket, wrapped in tissue paper.
The butler is at the heart of what is so wonderful about the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair – exemplifying the very personal service. It’s not limited to having your own manservant; from the uniformed man on the door at the Connaught Bar to the lady who turns down your bed in the evening, everybody is effortlessly friendly and entirely focused on what will make your trip (and any follow-up visits) magnificent. ‘I’ll add that to your profile’ they say after each request, however minor. This isn’t the Stasi or the CIA – this a group of people out to make you happy, ensuring you want to come back for more.
Once we’ve run out of ways to keep the butler busy, it is time to enjoy the room. With the boots not ready to leave their tissue wrapping Mrs Smith wanders barefoot into the bathroom where she receives a delicious surprise; underfloor heating is the height of decadence in an ensuite. A few minutes later she is stretched out in a piping-hot bath, enjoying the delicious products and the brilliantly positioned plasma TV – her idea of a thoroughly luxurious early-evening experience. I am stretched out on the bed devouring my book and making full use of an iPod docking station I’ve found tucked in a drawer. ‘Come and join me,’ I suggest. But time is tight, we have a Michelin-starred rendezvous three floors down and we haven’t even started on the well-stocked minibar.
This historic luxury hotel has undergone an exciting overhaul in recent years and the result is spectacular. The rooms are beautifully decorated in restrained, but elegant, tones of silver, grey and warm, dark wood. There aren’t many establishments that lay claim to housing Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison and, perhaps most famously Charles de Gaulle (who is said to have lunched in the hotel every day while exiled in London during the war). The French statesman almost certainly frequented the five-star hotel’s outstanding bars from time to time, too.
Tucked away in the back of the hotel is the Connaught Bar, a stunning Deco-inspired creation that is packed to the rafters every evening with politicos and rock stars – we spotted one of the Kings of Leon – enjoying cocktails supplied at a dizzying rate by world-class mixologists. Crowding onto the leather seats, ordering martinis and mojitos we salute their expertise. Heavy snow has caused transport chaos while we are here; friends have joined us for drinks: either thrilled to have made it to central London or they have been trapped in the city by the weather. Drinks are accompanied by small but delicious plates of food created by Hélène Darroze, the double Michelin-starred chef whose eponymous restaurant graces the hotel with foie gras, caviar and lobster staples of her fine French cuisine. But to call her heavenly morsels devoured in the lounge ‘bar snacks’ does them a considerable injustice.
Mrs Smith has booked a massage for 10.30 the next morning; with a three-year-old at home she is sure that she’ll have been up for hours by then – but she is mistaken. Heavy curtains and an absurdly comfortable bed keeps us both sleeping well into the morning and it is only the fact that the lift goes straight into the spa, five floors below our room, that gets her there on time. The Aman spa in the belly of the Connaught is an absolute treat. It has that perfect combination of relaxed atmosphere, exotic fragrance and soothing temperature that forces you into an instant state of calm. The massage is exceptional – the foot treatment apparently one of the best ever.
A little later, after several cups of delicious ginger tea, I am swimming in the black-slate swimming pool, the ripple of a waterfall at the far end easing any remnants of stress away. ‘It’s truly like being on holiday,’ I say to Mrs Smith. ‘Without travel or jetlag,’ she replies. And that is the truth of our time at the Connaught – there is something deliciously decadent about staycationing in a great hotel only a couple of miles from home.
But a truly leading hotel such as the Connaught presents a big problem, in good weather as well when it’s less clement. A beautiful hideaway so close to London’s West End offers an outstanding opportunity to experience the very best of one of the world’s most exciting cities: shopping, museums, galleries, parks, restaurants, nightlife are all within easy reach, even on foot. But as Mrs Smith puts it, when the hotel is this comfortable and offers so much right here, why leave? Ice, snow, hoards of Christmas shoppers, traffic, the general hustle and bustle of the Capital… Do we stay in or do we brave the outside world?
I could tell you that we are joined by our three-year-old for our second night and have a brilliant late evening tour of Hamleys which makes him squeal with delight; I could claim that we discover a sensational, authentic family-run Italian restaurant and sit drinking red wine and whiling away the hours as the restaurant clatters around us; and I could swear that we found a wonderful gallery around the corner and make an impulse purchase that we’ll always be grateful for. Or I could tell you that we simply curl up in the warmth of the Connaught until, all too soon, our stay comes to an end. These things are, of course, all true – and that is the problem. The answer is very simple: next time, we need to stay for longer.