It isn’t often that hotels live up to advertised claims of luxury comfort, service, cleanliness and an ideal location, but we discovered two remarkable gems that are the genuine article in royal London.
Our good fortune began when we Googled www.VisitBritain.com, which proved to be an invaluable source of the most recent UK travel information. It led us to the luxurious Red Carnation Hotel Collection (RCH). www.redcarnationhotels.com
All 16 distinctive RCH properties worldwide were awarded the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2013 and each one has won many awards over the years from Conde Nast, Travel + Leisure and other major travel publications, in addition to pages of rave comments from guests.
The icing on the cake was reading that RCH founder and president, Bea Tollman, was named Hotelier of the Year at the European Hospitality Awards in 2012. In accepting the honor, she said her passion was to make guests feel truly special because that’s what is “at the heart of everything we do.” The award judges added, “Beatrice Tollman has never lost sight of the guiding principle of hospitality: service.”
Well, that did it for us. As everyone knows, service can make or break any experience. And equally important for hotels, to paraphrase a real estate term, is location, location, location. So we booked eight nights with RCH in central London.
We stayed the first four nights at The Rubens at the Palace. It’s one of the closest hotels to Buckingham Palace in central London and its fun to tell everyone back home that we stayed next door to the queen. Her Royal Horse Guards live across the road in the Royal Mews. Its imposing stone archway and elaborate iron gates are directly across from the hotel’s entrance at 39 Buckingham Palace Road.
We felt like royalty the moment we arrived at this grand hotel. Before our taxi came to a full stop, an elegantly uniformed door man, personable Nathan Champion, was at the curb to greet us. With a warm, genuine smile he quickly took our luggage and led us through the well-designed and welcoming entrance. A reassuring start for the incomparable service that was matched by every one of the staff, including the managers, that lasted throughout our stay.
As we crossed the handsome lobby and arrived at the well-staffed reception area, we were warmly greeted and efficiently checked-in. We then met the concierge, Dave- an East London cockney who could have been a character straight out of “My Fair Lady.” He’s a jolly bigger-than-life personality who turned out to be an invaluable guide to all things London and ‘his’ hotel. Dave and Nathan are known as ‘TripAdvisor Stars’ because so many guests have given rave reviews about their friendliness and unfailing attentiveness. It turned out the same could be said about everyone at the Rubens.
The distinctive décor of each room, we soon learned, was personally selected or approved by Mrs. Tollman. . No two rooms are alike; each color scheme, superb furniture, fine fabrics, bedding, lighting and remarkable artwork and, yes, even the spacious, marble bathrooms are designed with the best interest of the guests in mind, including the comfort of plush terry robes and bedroom slippers.
The luxurious 143 bedchambers range from classic single or double, superior king, executive king to a section housing ‘royal rooms’ located in a private wing.
Many rooms have an unobstructed view of the handsome Royal Mews compound and main gate. If your timing is right, you might see the Royal Horse Guard in full regalia riding to the front of the royal palace. It starts around 9 am on selected days, and you can have a close-up, street view of this colorful event in front of the hotel.
Each morning we had our breakfast in the stylish Traditional Carvery and Grill Room. It offered a choice between the “Full English” cooked-breakfast menu or from the large buffet selection of fresh and dried fruit, cereals, granola, yoghurts and a variety of pastries and breads. From bagels with cream cheese and salmon, to thick crisp bacon and country ham, the Rubens breakfast is a bountiful feast, including a cook to prepare a single egg or an omelet your way in the beautiful dining room.
Rubens has a number of other highly recommended restaurants, including the intimate Library that has been awarded two Automobile Association Rosettes. The inspiration for the fine cuisine comes from the many signature dishes which guests come back for time and again. They are among the collection of recipes that Mrs. Tollman has refined and perfected. (Her cookbook is available at each RCH property and online.) The Bbar, just next to the front entrance of the hotel, is a South African-themed gathering place, with exotic game dishes – and burgers- plus over 60 kinds of cocktails.
During our stay, we frequently saw long-time general manager, Malcolm Hendry, mixing and mingling with guests while keeping an eye on every detail in sight. He said, “It’s one of the most satisfying jobs of my career,” and added “I work with a team of over 160 employees who are highly motivated and dedicated to delivering unbelievable levels of guest service.” We can confirm from personal experience that he and his team consistently deliver, with charm and skill, that signature outstanding service. And we noticed from the start to the finish of our stay that staff morale was excellent. That can only happen when an example starts at the top with the owner and managers who show their appreciation of the employees who maintain the high standards of service and hospitality.
And, here’s a secret: Mrs. Tollman is a frequent visitor to all of the hotels in her Red Carnation Collection. One week she might visit the Chesterfield Mayfair in London, the next week might find her at the Red Carnation’s newest property, the renowned Ashford Castle in Ireland. Or she might 'pop' in to the kitchen at the stately Old Government House Hotel and Spa on the island of Guernsey to observe the tea service preparation.
As you can imagine, every guest room, suite, apartment and public room is always ‘at the ready’ for a surprise appearance by the guiding light of these gems, Bea Tollman. What could be a better way to engage with the ‘hotel family’ and guests that make up her highly acclaimed hotel collection?
After our Rubens visit, we spent our last four nights at the five-star London flagship of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, the Milestone Hotel, directly across the road from Kensington Palace and gardens.
For us, it was simply exchanging a stay next door to the queen for being across the road from Will, Kate and baby Cambridge. There’s no place like being royally away from home.
A member of the Leading Hotels of World, the Milestone has for many years won the most prestigious travel industry awards and countless guest accolades, including the TripAdvisor Travelers' Choice® Winner for 2013. It has also been voted No. 1 in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice poll, one of highest four-star deluxe hotels in London by the Automobile Association and the top small city hotel in Europe by Travel + Leisure magazine.
We were enthusiastically welcomed by an accommodating and charming doorman as well as the alert and helpful reception desk staff and two fine concierges, including one named Edward Cambridge, a prince in his own right, as it turned out. Deputy Manager Neil and his co-workers were as attentive and as knowledgeable as was everyone at the Rubens at the Palace.
There are 44 guest rooms, 12 suites and 6 apartments – all are sumptuous state-of-the-art facilities that include 24-hour butler service. Quiet sophistication was the keynote in each accommodation.
Our Royal Studio had glamorous views of awning-shaded terraces decorated with classic topiary shrubbery and hedges. The rooms with a view of Kensington Palace and its acres of manicured lawn, dotted with mature shade trees, were fully rented. If you want a view of the princely palace from your own window, book as early as possible to make that dream come true.
Expert chefs preside over the kitchens in the Milestone’s Cheneston restaurant, the Park Lounge with its roaring fire, pianist and award-winning English high tea; Sables Bar for delicious snacks and cocktails and the glamorous black and white Conservatory for light snacks and pre-theater drinks.
Each morning we adjourned to the bright Cheneston breakfast room. First, we were quickly served coffee or tea, and were offered a choice between the ample cooked-breakfast menu that was served or we helped ourselves from the large buffet selection of fresh and dried fruit, granola, yoghurts, a variety of pastries and breads, bagels with cream cheese and equally superb salmon, assorted cheeses and meats. We spooned Mrs. Tollman’s fresh berry mélange over our granola for an extra special taste treat.
For wellness, the health club and spa has a resistance swimming pool, sauna and treatment room, fully equipped and air conditioned workout facility, a qualified personal trainer as well as a well-known spa therapist who has worked at royal palaces, Downing Street and the White House. The Spa is a secure environment for guests to swim, workout, relax, enjoy a massage and exit refreshed to fully enjoy London.
The Milestone, an architectural masterpiece, made up of two connecting mansions, reminiscent of the great English country homes, has its own regal setting in Kensington; one of the city’s most sought after residential districts. It’s close to major museums, Royal Albert Hall, Hyde Park and minutes from the finest shopping in Knightsbridge and Mayfair and the West End theaters.
All of the Red Carnation Hotels serve a sumptuous English afternoon tea between 1 and 5 pm. One afternoon we craved the experience as we were shopping at Harrods in London's exclusive Knightsbridge, so we walked a few blocks to Egerton Terrace and the RCH Egerton House Hotel, a small and elegant establishment in an landmark townhouse.
Afternoon Tea at this 5-star boutique hotel makes for a delightful retreat from the hustle and bustle of shopping, and for visitors who want an early dinner. The tea tradition takes place in the sophisticated drawing room, a space complete with beautifully upholstered armchairs and luxurious fabrics, furnishings, paintings and objet d’ art – more of the magnificent pieces selected by Bea Tollman.
We were warmly greeted by Mr. Esley who offered us a choice of teas. We opted for a combination of Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea which he deftly served from a shiny antique silver tea pot into fine china cups. A huge tiered silver stand displayed an array of delicacies from tasty savory finger sandwiches (curried chicken salad rounds surrounded by sliced almonds, cucumber and watercress rectangles and smoked salmon on brown bread) to homemade pastries and cakes including mini cappuccino cheese cakes, dark chocolate cake, flavorsome macaroons and fruit tartlets. The warm homemade scones with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry preserves are ‘simply divine.’ As we ate everything in sight, from savory to sweet, we didn’t even have to ask when Mr. Esley anticipated and served us a second pot of tea.
As are so many other people, we are accustomed to eating lunch near noon and a mid-evening dinner, but we are now happy converts to having an array of delicious savories and sweets for a late lunch or an early dinner at home. If you eat early, reserve closer to 5, and 'tea' will become your dinner - paving the way for a leisurely evening.
After tea, Mr. Espy asked if we’d like to tour the hotel. He turned us over to Scott Clinton, who was in charge that day, assisted by his colleague, Nikoleta Gulisova. She watched over reception while Scott showed us a few of the soon-to-be-occupied rooms at the intimate 28-room Egerton House.
Our eight days in London was at an end and we agreed that the Milestone Hotel, and the other Red Carnation Collection hotels in London, are ideal full-service luxury headquarters for pre-and-post stays for cruise-ship passengers. For us it turned out to be two luxurious holidays – on land and at sea - for the price of one round-trip plane ticket.
To reduce the stress and time of taking a cab, managing our luggage on and off a train and into another taxi to reach the Azamara Club Cruises Quest ship at the Southampton dock, we opted to book a comfortable, non-stop ride in the Milestone’s Land Rover (the hotel's other cars, a Bentley and a Mercedes, were already booked).
Our helpful chauffeur quickly and carefully took charge of our luggage.The hotel gifted us with sports bottles of BELU natural mineral water and snacks (the owner’s own delicious Biscotti recipe) for the one-hour trip to the port. The driver drove right up to the dock-side baggage area. All we had to do was present our passports (and we had computer printouts of our reservation documents) to get cleared for boarding the Azamara Quest.
If you agree that a picture is worth a thousand words, take a virtual tour of all these stunning hotels to see in full color what we experienced at www.redcarnationhotels.com
Written and happily experienced by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’