Sometimes the gal finds herself doing a quick overnight in transit between one part of the world and another. When that happens it is a good idea to find a luxury hotel that gives a sense of locale, so you know where you are, on that transit stop (and before you say anything, dear reader, this is NOT a hotel, this is Kensington Palace, London, a few yards from the Royal Garden Hotel). Of course in years to come, when Prince George is in charge, perhaps this gorgeous palace might be a hotel, but who knows…. little did Sir George Coppin, who built a simple two-floor house in the village of Kensington way back in 1605, know that in 2015 this would be the official London home of Prince G and his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as well as assorted lesser members of the enormous Royal Family.
You can tour some public rooms of Kensington Palace, and wander in some of its grounds – note the double-lifesize stone statue of a seated Queen Victoria to its east. I actually love running in the extended grounds, Kensington Gardens, which join, to the east, Hyde Park. Head the other way, to the west, and you come to the semi-private Palace Green, running north from High Street Kensington to Bayswater. Look at some of the houses in Palace Green. Lakshmi Mittal has a whole one. If you want to buy the leasehold on a single apartment, last recorded price on Rightmove is £3.8 million.. It is staggering that Malaysia’s embassy can justify being here, for the ambassador to live the appropriate equivalent of the life of Riley.
But then Lebanon, Nepal and Romania, plus the Russian Federation, all have massive houses here, and Malaysia, at least, does not want you to take any photographs. So be it. I continued on round Kensington Gardens and preferred to look at the striking simplicity of the Royal Garden Hotel. It was built 1965 as a boring block but new owners, the Singapore-based Goodwood group, in 1996 added its current sculpted-like exterior. Inside are 394 rooms, and of course those facing east, over Kensington Gardens, are prime (I loved 436, for its views, and its thoughtfully heated bathroom floor and electric towel rail).
This is a luxury hotel that not surprisingly gets a lot of embassy business, plus sports teams and the entertainment world’s support groups – think nice bands rather than temperamental star singers. They love Bertie’s Bar, in the evenings, and the rooftop Min Jiang restaurant, and day-long, Park Terrace, for its Kensington Garden views and superb and healthy breakfast buffet. At weekends leisure guests flood in, for the luxury hotel’s superb location (Kensington High Street underground/tube, lots of buses, proximity to High Street Kensington retail and the Albert Hall) – and kids can borrow, for free, scooters to take into Kensington Gardens, immediately outside. Who knows, in a few months little Prince G might be scooting around, too.
It was end of winter according to pagan law but with all that snow in Moscow it did not yet seem like spring. Anyway, there were big feasting celebrations at the city’s most-established Balchug Island luxury hotel, the Baltschug Kempinski, dating back to 1898 but rebuilt in 1992. The gal was lucky enough to be dining in the Grill with two friends, Lada Samodumskaya and Helen Gorbunova, and a lovely man – one wonders who? – sent over a little can of caviar to start the three-little-maids-are-we evening. Of course it was served properly, with blinis and all the trimmings, and a small shot glass of vodka.
After that simplicity was called for, and the salad was beautiful as well as healthy. Talking of wellness, Lada and Helen were talking about the FIFA World Cup in Russia, June 14th through to July 15th, 2018. The final will be in Moscow, at the Luzhniki Stadium, and no chance of getting a room here, at this friendly, family-style luxury hotel. All 230 rooms are already bought-out by FIFA, or its designated supplier (Sepp Blatter‘s nephew Philippe Blatter remains President and CEO of his sports facilitating company, just bought by that ambitious Chinese entrepreneur Wang Jianlin, who owns Dalian Wanda hotels plus a share of Madrid’s Atlético football team).
The Grill, as its name implies, offers masses of meat, all from New Zealand. I went for a steak tartare, which was hand-cut tenderloin, brought already cut but then mixed at table, and put in a metal form – see it in the photo – and it was magnificent, particularly with the little container of thin, salt-free fries that I ordered on the side. Boy, were I here next week I would be choosing from the alternative Lent Menu, which runs through to April 11th 2015. How about beetroot carpaccio with pine seeds and ruccola followed by buckwheat risotto with cèpes and spinach? No meat is allowed on a Lent Menu, apparently, and you are supposed only to eat fish twice in the whole six-week spell.
More food. If one must go out to dine – and actually sensible travellers would usually dine in as all top hotels have outstanding cuisine – there are two leading Moscow restaurants. One is Arkady Novikov’s Baccarat Crystal Room, designed by Philippe Stark in what used to be Ferrein’s Pharmacy, but that was closed, that night, for a private party. The other is Andry Dellos’ Turandot, named for the princess who inspired Puccini’s opera of that name. Turandot, the princess, was allegedly a cold fish who was wooed by Prince Calàf, who successfully solved three riddles that might otherwise have resulted in his death, but still she refused to marry him. The story can be traced back to the 12th century poet Nizami’s Haft-Peykar, and on to Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot and thus to Friedrich Schiller’s translation. Puccini, who died before the opera was finished (Franco Alfano completed it), used an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Reno Simoni (Turandot was first performed at La Scala April 26th, 1926, Toscanini conducting). All would be perfectly at home in Turandot the restaurant, part of the Dellos Group.
Apparently $50 million was spent forming a two-floor square space into a two-floor, circular China-meets-Versailles dining area, the upper level an open-circle gallery giving better audio access to the live music below. My host immediately ordered the best-selling Pekin duck, expertly carved at table (I told him how Made In China, in Grand Hyatt Beijing, employs one specialist merely to insert toothpicks to hold birds’ necks at the right open angle before cooking). For some reason tonight was a special occasion, and tea was being offered, and skilfully poured, at all tables. Downstairs, tonight, were young Muscovites, in their thirties, and a few groups of Asian gourmets. Upstairs was completely taken up by a group of Russian business people, about 80 percent of them male. Andry Dellos and his designers have formed the resulting eight-in-total leftover bits into 20 funny-shaped rooms, ten on each floor, unique private dining rooms, each more than worthy of Versailles.
After that it was night-gazing time back at Baltschug Kempinski. This luxury hotel has a unique spot for views across the Moskva River to the Kremlin, to the left, and Red Square straight ahead. At ‘two o’clock’ was once the monster Rossiya hotel, with thousands of rooms and hundreds of yards to walk to a restaurant, where you might wait hours to be served a meal. Now all is gone and it is said, officially, that a lovely park will sprout here. We will see. I, meanwhile, am going to bed, ready for tomorrow…
Don’t get carried away, urges the gal. It is all too tempting at most buffets to gorge a lot of the lot and end up feeling bloated and unhappy with yourself.
Luxury hotels of the calibre of Shangri-La Tokyo make it much easier by only putting out small portions, all of them delectable. it also helps, of course, to have views of surrounding Marunouchi from the 28th floor window, and what you cannot see from this image is the exquisite André Fu interiors of Piacare, which so suitably means ‘pleasure’.
I think of some of the world’s most enticing lunch buffets. The list includes Hotel de Russie, Rome, especially if the weather allows you to eat outside looking up at the near-vertical Giardino Segreto, created by Cardinal Caffarelli Borghese, 1576-1633. Also on the list is the staggeringly-expensive lunch buffet at Costa Smeralda‘s Hotel Cala di Volpe, where you pay an extra eight euros for coffee. Much more reasonably priced, and lots of fun, is the elegant Arabesque in Park Hyatt Dubai, where you are served by lovely people wearing loose white pyjamas.
But oh, my luxury travel trip was supposed to be about food, not gardens, price or servers. Back to Shangri-La Tokyo, and if you can follow an antipasti buffet with cod with an artichoke, you are near heaven.