By Laurie Kahle, November 03, 2015
The slate roofs of Mayfair’s characteristic red brick Queen Anne revival buildings ground the sweeping city vistas from the rooftop terrace of The Apartment, the sprawling penthouse suite at the Connaught, a London landmark that traces its history to 1815. The hotel and its sister properties, Claridge’s and the Berkeley, were sold in April to Constellation Hotels Group of Quatar, following a contentious multiyear legal battle that made headlines on both sides of The Pond. With ownership issues settled and London’s economy booming again, the hotels are poised to embark on a new era catering to the next generation of five-star travelers.
Eight floors below The Apartment, shoppers stroll around Carlos Place and Mount Street exploring the charming neighborhood’s posh boutiques offering exclusive wares that can’t be found on more famous shopping thoroughfares. Those with an eye for edgy, modern jewelry designs can’t miss the gallery-like ateliers of Jessica McCormack and Solange Azagury Partridge, while Stephen Webster showcases his bold jewels down the street. The Scottish fashion designer Christopher Kane chose the chic enclave for his first signature boutique, which opened earlier this year. And watch enthusiasts can peruse the latest timepieces from Swiss boutique brands Richard Mille and Parmigiani, while the English watch brand Bremont has a shop around the corner.
Mayfair has long been a center for luxury goods, and last summer, the Connaught launched a series of guided walking tours with Fox & Squirrel, a specialized guide service, to immerse guests in various aspects of the area’s culture of craftsmanship. ”Only the finest shops and the most acclaimed craftsmen were allowed to set up shop here, and this mantra has carried on till present day,” says Penelope Sacorafou, founder of Fox & Squirrel. “This hand-picked process is how a luxury retail street is crafted and why Mount Street with its century-old heritage is superior to them all.”
The Connaught’s Luxury Walks take you behind closed doors into the ateliers of bespoke tailors, milliners, perfumers, and more to meet with artisans and learn about London’s luxury culture both past and present. The two-hour walks are scheduled for the first Tuesday of each month running through December and focus on selected topics, such as royal warrants, bespoke tailoring, and even five-star hotel and restaurant service. “It is not the usual Bond Street experience,” says the Connaught’s General Manager Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, who notes enthusiastic interest from fashion-savvy clientele who want a more in-depth experience. “The concept really fits with who we are—it’s an insiders’ thing.” The last stop on each walk is the Connaught’s Coburg Bar to sample a cocktail created to complement the tour’s theme.
If champers is more your style, the Connaught recently unveiled its Champagne Room, a secluded, intimate bar tucked behind velvet curtains. Inspired by Jules Verne, Guy Oliver designed the cozy space in soothing neutral tones with blue undertones that play up the artwork, including Sophie Dickens’ life-size bronze sculpture of a diver who appears ready to splash through the oval skylight. Gilles Bensimon’s abstract underwater flower photographs underscore the aquatic theme. The brass bar, which evokes a steampunk submersible, serves eight prestige bubblies and 40 rare vintages by the bottle, or you can choose from sommelier-selected wines and rare spirits, all served in custom Baccarat crystal glassware.
The Champagne Room is the newest development since the hotel underwent a massive renovation, refurbishment, and expansion in 2007, adding a contemporary wing plus an underground Aman spa, which recently introduced complimentary daily meditation sessions. The addition expanded the hotel’s accommodations to 121 rooms, including 34 suites (from £720 or about $1,100), the pinnacle of which is the 3,000-plus-square-foot Apartment behind violet-painted, hand-carved double doors on the top floor of the original building. David Collins designed the sprawling lofty rooms as a residence in shades of white, blue, and purple with commissioned contemporary artworks and stacks of art books on the tables. A dedicated butler is on call to attend to your every need and whim. Following the renovation, in 2008, the hotel also opened a new gastronomy restaurant with French chef Hélène Darroze, who created a menu that earned her a second Michelin star.
Updating a historic landmark can be tricky, as longtime clientele tend to balk at drastic changes. Aware of this sensitivity among established patrons, yet keen to attract newcomers, the Connaught carefully manages to preserve its rich character and historical essence while infusing the spaces with a fresh and modern spirit to appeal to today’s younger, style-conscious jetsetters. The warm and personalized service remains unchanged. Even first timers will feel recognized and welcomed from the moment they arrive. As Peter Mayle wrote in his book Expensive Habits: “To hell with stream-lined and faceless modernity: give me the pleasure of being looked after by polite, well-trained smiling people. In other words, give me a room at The Connaught.”
A short stroll away, Claridge’s remains a scene in which to be seen among London’s movers and shakers and international A-Listers. The hotel’s illustrious legacy dates to the early 19th century when William and Marianne Claridge ran a hotel in their home. After acquiring five adjacent buildings, they opened Claridge’s in 1856, and it has famously hosted royals and rock stars, sheiks, and starlets ever since. “If you are a movie star who is launching a film, you go to Claridge’s,” says the Connaught’s Seiler-Hayez. “That same movie star who comes back to London with family stays at the Connaught. You go to Claridge’s for the glamour, to be seen. You go to the Connaught for understated luxury and discretion.” The proximity of the hotels let you sample the best of both worlds within a five-minute walk.
A magnet for the Hollywood and fashion sets, Claridge’s bustling Deco-style public spaces hum with the energy of attention-seekers, celebs, and those who want to share their rarefied orbits. If you prefer to keep a lower profile, you can slip into the dark, retro Fumoir bar for cocktails before dining at Fera. In May 2014, British Michelin-starred chef Simon Rogan assumed the space formerly occupied by Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant.
The Art Deco-infused room, also designed by Guy Oliver, serves as an elegant and dramatic backdrop for Rogan’s “naturalist” culinary creations that draw heavily on seasonal organic, local ingredients, some from his own farm. Fera is Latin for “wild,” which alludes to Rogan’s devotion to nature, yet the atmosphere is refined and splendid. The ever-changing £105 six-course tasting menu presents an array of temptations, including raw rose veal and kohirabi, oysters, marigold, and apple with kohlrabi juice and New Forest asparagus, with smoked yolk, perilla, St George mushrooms, and crisp ham. For a taste of the sea, there’s turbot, tomato, and mussels braised in seaweed butter with grilled fennel and rapeseed oil. Each delectable course blends imaginative flavor combinations that are colorfully presented to please the eye as well as the palate.
Upon returning to The Apartment’s serene haven above the pitched rooftops and peaceful streets, I pour a nightcap and stand barefoot on the terrace among the Connaught’s towering gables, feeling like a princess of Mayfair.