COSILY ENSCONCED IN my River View Suite at The Savoy, gazing out over Victoria Embankment Gardens, the slate-grey waters of the Thames and the row of august cultural institutions that lines its South Bank, I’m feeling a bit of a fraud. My accommodations are magnificent, the views up- and down-river are priceless in themselves (to the right I can see the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye), and the list of guests who’ve graced these premises since the late 19th century is like a roll call of at least eight generations of the planet’s great and good. So what, I keep on asking myself, am I doing here?
Built by the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, who’d made his name and a sizeable fortune from his wildly popular productions of the operettas of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, The Savoy was London’s most modern and lavishly appointed hotel when it opened, in Savoy Court just off The Strand, in 1889. Among its amenities were such innovations as electric lighting and lifts, speaking tubes to valets and room-service staff, constant hot and cold running water, and en suite bathrooms in many of its rooms – the latter a luxury almost unheard of at the time.
Soon to join the hotel’s staff as manager and chef respectively were Cézar Ritz and Auguste Escoffier, a duo who were to became as celebrated as any of the royals, heads of state, politicians, magnates, artists and stars who since then have called The Savoy their temporary home in the British capital. (Some high-profile guests stayed considerably longer, including the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who occupied one of the hotel’s new-fangled serviced apartments that were added in the early 1900s.)
Almost 130 years and several extensions, additions and refurbishments later, The Savoy still remains a byword for sumptuousness, style and service, and is equally famed for its Savoy Grill and American Bar as for its regal accommodations. Today owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and managed by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts in which he also has a stake – and which reopened the property in 2010 after a three-year closure for renovations that cost around £220 million – it’s been firmly yanked into the 21st century.
Fortunately – and unlike many grand dame hotels whose restorations “to former glory” exude an unpleasant whiff of theme-park fakery – that doesn’t mean it’s been stripped of its character or its soul. On the contrary, thanks to the sympathetic hand of French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon (probably most notable for the Four Seasons George V and Shangri-La Paris) and in spite of gleaming from every angle like a highly polished mirror, The Savoy could hardly feel more comfortable or more authentic. Original details, fixtures and furnishings have been retained, though suitably buffed up to shine again like new. Indeed, the air of living history is so palpable I’m half expecting to bump into Claude Monet, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel or even a young Bob Dylan each time I pass beneath the metallic, art-deco porte cochère and step into the cavernous lobby across its black-and-white marble floor.
Naturally the check-in formalities, completed in an anteroom off the foyer, are so smooth and discreet that they barely seem to have happened at all. Maybe it’s smoke and mirrors, or perhaps it’s just the awe of entering my suite after being led through a warren of corridors, themselves a reminder of The Savoy’s venerable, 19th-century origins.
A marble vestibule leads into a sitting room, elegantly though not over-ostentatiously decorated in Edwardian style, with a fireplace, a comfortable three-seat settee, a pair of armchairs, a polished writing desk that I’m told converts into a dining table (and with a bespoken leather desk set), and a large bookcase stuffed with reading material, all apparently unread. Modernity comes in the form of a 40-inch Loewe flat-screen TV, iPod audio docking stations and, more discreetly but no less effectively, all the high-speed electronics required to remain constantly in touch with the world beyond this cocoon of quiet opulence.
Through a door is the bedroom with a broadly similar panorama, an emperor-sized bed with gorgeously crisp linen and one of those wonder mattresses that manages to be as cosseting as it’s supportive. Off at the back is the spacious bathroom, with free-standing, claw-foot tub, a drenching rain shower and his-and-her washbasins – and naturally there’s a dressing area.
My butler drops by to introduce himself and ask whether I need his help unpacking my suitcase, a chore that along with polishing my travel-weary Tod’s I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Try hard as I might, I can’t think of anything I need him to do for me, either now or for the duration of my stay, so I politely send him on his way.
Exploring the hotel I come across the Thames Foyer, a fin-de-siècle winter garden just a few steps down from the main lobby. Here I have a sudden recollection – of afternoon tea sipped decorously from bonechina cups, and plates of delicate finger sandwiches, scones and cakes, so many years ago that it seems as if it were another lifetime. I’d totally forgotten about it and am genuinely delighted, though the place strikes me as being far more chic than I remember it, with a grand piano inside a central wrought-iron gazebo and an exquisite stained-glass cupola that theatrically illuminates the entire room. Perhaps I do belong here after all.
Further exploration reveals the Beaufort Bar, stunning, intimate, enveloping and crepuscular in jet-black and gold, though this cocktail-hour hot spot turns out to be a new addition that occupies the hotel’s former cabaret stage (George Gershwin played the British premiere of Rhapsody in Blue on this very spot in 1925 – and how many hotels can make a claim like that?). Reassuringly familiar, on the other hand, is the American Bar, a London institution dating back to the 1890s where former habitués such as Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra would still feel right at home. It was here in the 1920s that head bartender Harry Craddock not only created a list of drinks that have since become classics, but also put them together in the famous The Savoy Cocktail Book, a tome that’s still in print and gets fatter with each edition as new recipes are added – most recently, I assume, by the current chef de cocktail-shaker, the multiaward- winning Erik Lorincz. After sampling three of Lorincz’s ultra-potent concoctions, I’m beginning to feel so cosy and laid-back that I may need to be carried upstairs.
I could wax lyrical about the Savoy Grill, its original 1920s decor faithfully restored, its food – overseen by Gordon Ramsay – honest, unaffected and more comforting than anything Mum ever put on to our dining table, and its ambience buzzing and glamorous, even on a pre-matinee Saturday lunchtime. Or about dinner in Kaspar’s, formerly the River Restaurant and now an art-decostyle seafood bar and grill named after a late and near-legendary hotel cat.
But ultimately it’s the ease, repose and unassuming elegance of these very English surrounds that gets my vote. Because if I didn’t quite feel I belonged here when I checked in, I’m certain that after two more nights of this it’s going to be very hard to leave.