- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

LONDON

Gordon Campbell Gray has a way with hotels. He likes good contemporary design, but not at the expense of comfort. He respects tradition but knows a hotel doesn’t have to rely on floral chintz to be English.

“Nothing is so dull as standardization, and nothing dates so quickly as trendy,” Mr. Campbell Gray says. “One Aldwych is contemporary, but definitely not trendy, nor is its look purely of the moment.”

One Aldwych was the first for CampbellGray Hotels; it is sleek but happy in a grand 101-year-old flatiron building in Covent Garden, very handy to West End theaters. Next came the calm and collected Carlisle Bay resort on Antigua in the Caribbean and then Dukes Hotel, which Mr. Campbell Gray took over and gave CPR while keeping its English appeal.

One writer called Mr. Campbell Gray “fastidious” and described him as having a “mania for excellence” and “refined urban sensibility.” Another spoke of him as a “dapper provocateur.” He wears these descriptions well, but it is his “refined urban sensibility” that so accurately describes Dukes Hotel and One Aldwych, and it is a “refined island sensibility” for Carlisle Bay.

I stayed at Dukes in late 2006, several months before Mr. Campbell Gray took over the successful family-operated hotel. Despite creamy yellow paint, the dark green patterned carpet and mahogany reception desk made the lobby seem gloomy and dated. It needed help.

Enter Mr. Campbell Gray and decorator Mary Fox Linton to work their magic again. Pale green on the lobby walls and, along with taupe, occurs throughout much of the hotel. The lobby’s dark carpet is gone, replaced by large squares of creamy limestone framed by strips of dark wood. The mahogany reception counter has a new prominence as well as excellent service, another hallmark of CampbellGray Hotels.

The Dukes Conservatory lives up to its name, with lots of light and pale green on comfortable chairs and sofas, walls and floor. Granite has replaced tired marble in the bathrooms, and the navy blue velvet upholstery on the chairs in the bar make it a comfortable spot for enjoying one of the hotel’s famous martinis. Pale green carpet runs up the stairs and along corridors. Dukes is a soothing oasis in a bustling part of London.

The dining room sparkles, with salmon-colored fabric on the chairs and linen tablecloths making it simply elegant. The restaurant is geared to traditional British ingredients and dishes but with a modern touch to local produce.

Dukes Hotel is on a narrow cul-de-sac off St. James’s Place, off six-block-long St. James’s Street south of Piccadilly. This puts the hotel close to Jermyn Street and its bespoke shops as well as to Piccadilly, a short walk to St. James’s Palace and the Mall and a comfortable walk to Buckingham Place.

One guest remarked that Dukes is one of the rare London hotels where a guest can open the window and have fresh air and hear birds singing.

The restaurant offers a three-course pre-theater dinner, and for guests returning to the hotel after the theater when the restaurant is closed, light snacks are available in Dukes Bar. I enjoyed a perfect club sandwich and a martini made with a Polish potato vodka recommended by the bar manager, Alessandro Palazzi, a delightful man justifiably pleased with the Dukes martini. Mr. Palazzi has said he does not believe in celebrity bartenders, for the guest is the celebrity. How could I not accept his suggestion that I have another martini — made with a grain vodka in which he had infused a white truffle?

A white-truffle martini might not be what purists like James Bond would order, but Dukes Bar does have a connection to Bond: Agent 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, was fond of these martinis on St. James’s Place. Daniel Craig, the current James Bond portrayer, has said he drank martinis to get into the Bond mode.

James Bond would enjoy Mr. Palazzi’s ritual of preparing the Dukes martini from a tray at tableside. Mr. Palazzi holds a chilled martini glass and with a crystal atomizer sprays extra-dry vermouth into the glass. Then he lightly touches the rim of the glass with a strip of freshly cut lemon peel and pours the vodka, fresh from the freezer, into the glass.

The suave Bond would enjoy a martini in the lobby bar at the equally suave One Aldwych. If he were on a Caribbean assignment, he would feel quite comfortable at any of the three bars at Carlisle Bay and in East, the resort’s restaurant that serves not fusion, but authentic dishes from East Asia.

One Aldwych is modern with taste and understanding. Mr. Campbell Gray said in an interview with the Independent: “I dislike most contemporary hotels because they have thin design; they look as similar as the matching bedspreads and curtains do in tawdry traditional hotels. People are saying modern is out and traditional is back. No. Good contemporary style with an interesting design is totally in; bad high street uninteresting design we are bored with already. Great design that is of the moment is spectacular and stimulating.”

From plumbing fixtures in the bathrooms to the discreet light switches, generous closet space and comfortable chairs and bed, One Aldwych is spectacular and stimulating. Fabric colors and flowers change with the seasons in the lobby — during one holiday season, potted amaryllis were arranged in the shape of a Christmas tree. Mr. Campbell Gray likes fresh flowers and ripe fruit in each guest room, not just in the more expensive suites. This is true at all three hotels.

As Dukes Hotel’s art collection has a proper home, so does the 400-piece collection of contemporary art Mr. Campbell Gray selected for One Aldwych — from Andre Wallace’s bronze of a rower with 50-foot oars to Justine Smith’s lovable “Beano Dog,” a papier-mache dog covered with comic strips. Both are in the lobby. Two-story windows — no curtains clutter this grand space — add lightness, with the bar at the narrow end of the flatiron building. Searching for a word to describe the One Aldwych lobby, I decide on sensational — stimulating the senses.

One Aldwych formerly was headquarters of the Morning Post, a London newspaper from 1907 to 1937. One Aldwych was built in 1907, designed by Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, who also were architects of the Ritz, London, which opened to guests in 1906. They also worked with Cesar Ritz on the Ritz in Paris. Their firm, Mewes and Davis, was founded in 1903.

Each time I have been to One Aldwych, the guests have been of all ages, and all have seemed happy to be there. One morning at breakfast, I overheard a boy, who looked about 8 years old, telling his parents, “I was quite disappointed in the production, actually,” as they were discussing the previous evening’s performance of “South Pacific.”

No one was disappointed with the traditional English breakfast in the hotel’s Indigo restaurant on the mezzanine level overlooking the lobby. The waiter asked if I was familiar with black pudding and indeed wanted that included in my breakfast.

The hotel’s other restaurant, Axis, is below the lobby level and is not as casual as Indigo. It offers a modern British menu. Lighter fare is available in the Cinnamon Bar, an espresso bar. The Lobby Bar is where the buzz is for tea and after-work or after-theater cocktails or a nightcap before heading upstairs, where the curtains can provide absolute blackout.

The colors at Carlisle Bay are as subdued as at Dukes Hotel and One Aldwych. Although they were planned, “color scheme” seems out of place, denigrating the harmony. Say “Caribbean resort,” and one thinks of Caribbean kitsch: bad island art, lots of seashells, bold colors, beach music, parrots, tacky ceramics. None of these is Gordon Campbell Gray, and none fits in Carlisle Bay, the resort he rescued from abandonment and completed.

Arriving guests step into a small pavilion from which a wooden walkway crosses water that is bordered by hot-pink bougainvillea, all the same color and nary a branch out of place. The walk leads to the lobby, the casual restaurant, Indigo on the Beach, then beach and bay on the southern shore of Antigua.

Some of the guest rooms open onto the grass and the beach, while others are in a series of three-story buildings farther down the beach, ending where guests may obtain equipment for water sports. At Carlisle Bay, water sports do not include motorized personal watercraft. In the opposite direction from the lobby are the Blue Spa and tennis courts. Ocean kayaks and Sunfish sailboats are available, and there is a 24-foot Sea Ray powerboat for picnic cruises.

Other facilities include a screening room and a library.

I walked by one of the beach rooms and saw Carlisle Bay staff creating a ramp from the room to the beach so it could be reached easily by a guest in a wheelchair and remembered something Mr. Campbell Gray said: “Our guiding philosophy is ‘It’s all about service.’ ”

CampbellGray Hotels’ next opening is the eight-story, 86-room Le Gray in Beirut’s city center in November. From the hotel’s rooftop swimming pool, guests will have great views of the Mediterranean and the hills of Mount Lebanon. Scheduled for 2009 is the first of two projects in Morocco, each 20 minutes from Marrakech toward the Atlas Mountains. The first will be the 152-room hotel with gardens and courtyards, two swimming pools, 10 tennis courts, a spa with 16 treatment rooms, two restaurants, two bars, a Jack Nicklaus golf course and a screening room. The second hotel will have about 60 rooms on an adjoining site.

There is more: CampbellGray is running the Goodwood Park Hotel in West Sussex, England, working in collaboration with the Earl of March to create an eco-based hotel on the 12,000-acre Goodwood Park estate. The company also will open a 65-room hotel in Rowallan Castle in Kilmaurs, Ayrshire, Scotland, 20 minutes from Glasgow. A championship golf course there will be designed by Scottish golfer Colin Montgomerie.

And then? Maybe Spain? Perhaps.

Mr. Campbell Gray told the Independent’s reporter that it is flattering to be asked often to open hotels somewhere, “but I’m not that ambitious or competitive. I like to create individual hotels in an authentic, original way. I like them to have a soul. I concentrate on the product rather than the profits. If you concentrate on the product, the profits come along anyway.” This comes from a man who was turned down by 66 financial institutions until one believed in him and his concept for One Aldwych.

•••

British Airways flights from Washington Dulles and Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall international airports arriving at London Heathrow Airport on April 30 and thereafter will use the new Terminal 5, built exclusively for B.A. The Heathrow Express trains will travel between London’s Paddington Station and Terminal 5 in 21 minutes.

American Airlines flies between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and V.C. Bird International Airport (airport code ANU) in northeastern Antigua.

For CampbellGray Hotels, go to www.onealdwych.com, www.dukes hotel.com and www.carlislebay.com.

For information about Antigua, go to www.antigua-barbuda.org; for London, www.visitlondon.com.

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