- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

I should have been raised in a hotel. Really. I would have been the consummate Eloise at the Plaza. I have, though, met a lot of hotels I haven’t liked. And some I have loved — and London’s 51 Buckingham Gate more than qualifies in this category. It has something for everyone: location, charm, comfort, intimacy. It essentially feels like a club.

Big hotels aren’t my thing. Invariably, I get lost in the corridors, and I hate those that resemble railroad stations, where guests feel as if they need to take numbers to check in or out.

Each time I use my house keys, I can’t help but reminisce about a recent trip. Even though it was only an extended weekend, I returned to Washington knowing I had experienced a different culture. Perhaps not as exotic as many, but one with a distinctive imprint and a profound sense of history.

During my visits to the United Kingdom, I come away surprised. After all, English is our common language, but Americans are lingo-challenged. And there’s no question that manners and customs are simply different and in many ways more formal. The British are simply different.

The Washington-to-London flight takes less than seven hours, so crossing the Atlantic feels like a snap. Each trip is an adventure: The architecture may remain constant, but time never stands still. I’m always amazed by visible changes and trends wherever and whenever I travel.

Not long after I cleared customs at Heathrow Airport, the driver pulled into the courtyard of 51 Buckingham Gate, less than five minutes from Buckingham Palace. The massive black wrought-iron gate protects the enclave and gives the entrance a regal appearance. A charming small garden changes according to the season.

Smiling staff members were on hand, and my luggage disappeared. I was handed a magnetic card to the room, attached to a black-and-silver key ring with the number 51. Little did I know that the key ring would be my checkout gift.

I was eager to go my room in the Kings section, one of the three restored buildings, which are striking examples of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. Former town houses, they were converted to long-term rental apartments and luxury suites by the Taj Group, which owns and manages a chain of luxurious hotels in India. The group decided to expand and make this property its London showcase.

Bernard de Villele became the hotel general manager in 1999 and converted the buildings into a five-star jewel of a retreat.

I had requested soft down pillows before I arrived, and I fell into a deep sleep. I would have spent the day in bed if it weren’t for the guilt factor. The decor was stunning, and the living room had breathtaking flowers cascading out of a shopping bag from the chic Fleur Couture in the equally chic Mayfair area. The bedroom’s incredibly comfortable king-size bed was covered with Egyptian cotton sheets and a bedspread that was nothing less than sumptuous. I’m a beige person, and I admired the suite’s clean design, which used modern furniture with subtle and never jarring color accents.

Rather than rooms, guest accommodations range from junior suites to four-bedroom residences, with full kitchens that are perfect for those who want to have champagne and goodies without leaving the inner sanctum.

The beige marble bathroom had high-tech elements and a tub and separate shower stall. I showered using the Molton Brown bath amenities, then swirled around in my terry-cloth robe, which was monogrammed with the 51 insignia. Then I crawled into bed before my hit-the-road wake up call. There was so much to see in so little time.

Each time I returned from an outing, a goodie was waiting to welcome me. Tea sandwiches, cookies, chocolate strawberries and a box of chocolates from the French Z-chocolat.com were just a few of the surprises in case I’d worked up a hunger while out on the town.

Don’t be surprised if you spy a rock star or a head of state at 51 Buckingham Gate. The staff is prepared to accommodate all clients’ needs while being ever so discreet. For that matter, if you require a personal butler 16 hours each day, reserve an Ivor Spencer Suite and you won’t have to lift a finger. Your butler is there to do everything from making reservations anywhere and everywhere to serving dinner in your suite, not to mention drawing baths.

The first day was supposedly easy. After a buffet lunch in the hotel’s library, we set out to see London from on high. It was our second flight of the day as we climbed aboard the British Airway London Eye, a 450-foot monster Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations but held over by popular demand. Thirty-two glass capsules, each holding as many as 25 passengers, rotate for 30 minutes. During that time, passengers have privileged views of the Thames River and buildings and gardens rarely seen from the ground. It’s worth buying the guidebook in order to know what you’re seeing from this perspective.

Off we went to Fortnum & Mason, purveyor to many royal families over the years. There are a lot of gourmet markets, but Fortnum’s is an experience unto itself. Food sales are so brisk that the store is closing other departments because, when all is said and done, what’s better than gourmet indulgences?

I happily fantasized about spending a vacation in the hotel suite, reading, relaxing, and eating caviar and smoked salmon and other delicacies while living in the lap of luxury. The chocolate section is so vast that Fortnum’s has a dedicated buyer who spends her life traveling the world and assembling the most extensive chocolate collection anywhere.

The buyer’s apartment is climate-controlled to accommodate chocolate tastings. And she is skinny as a rail.

Returning to the hotel, I was booked to have a massage in the recently opened Sodashi Spa. Sodashi products, well-known in Australia, are pure and formulated from plant extracts and essences; 51 Buckingham Gate is the first hotel in the United Kingdom to offer the products. After an hour-long massage, I emerged feeling like a new person. Any jet lag had dissipated, and I was rejuvenated to go onward and upward. Well, almost.

What’s a London weekend without eating, sightseeing, shopping and lots of walking? During the weekend, I took a look-see into Buckingham Palace; the Victoria & Albert Museum; and the Tate Modern, the former Bankside Power Station, which was converted into a museum of international modern art. There are critics who feel more strongly about the museum’s architecture than its exhibits.

A highlight of my visit was a tour of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Seeing backstage, costume rooms and dance rehearsal halls gives the performing arts a new meaning. The Covent Hall has an excellent restaurant that is crowded at dinner but not at lunch, and the food is lovely.

Once a month, there’s a tea dance where participants dance up a storm. Some of the women jitterbugged, wearing dresses and hats from the ‘50s. Dapper men waited their turns to ask women to take a swirl on the dance floor, accompanied by big-band musicians.

I had never thought of London as a culinary-market town. How wrong I was. Since its opening in 1999, the Borough Market near Southwark Cathedral (subway stop is London Bridge) is worth a visit Friday and Saturday mornings. Many of London’s finest chefs can be spotted here, in addition to food aficionados. Gourmet selections are widespread, and many vendors have gone organic — even organic baby food.

Every market worldwide has its own style of displaying products that invariably gives insights into the region’s culture. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss this market, which won the 2003 London Tourism Award as being the best “London experience.”

It was cold and raining when we left the market, so we sought refuge in the nearest pub, where numerous beers were on tap and bangers and mash — sausage and mashed potatoes — on the menu.

Speaking of food, all those years of thinking London had a dearth of good restaurants are best forgotten. The city is full of top-notch eateries serving sophisticated and excellent food.

The Bank Westminster Restaurant offers light and tasty bistro food in elegant and sleekly modern surroundings. Its bar, the Zander Bar (all of 140 feet long), is one of the places to see and be seen, especially if you’re young and hip. There are also seating areas should you tire of bar stools. If you’re noise-sensitive, this is not the place for you, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the music is blaring away.

There were so many places where we could have eaten but didn’t. One night, we were guests at a private dinner guided by wine expert Hugo Dunn-Meynell. Wine and food are not to be taken lightly, and Mr. Dunn-Meynell enlightened the group on which wines were compatible with various foods. Much to our surprise, they weren’t necessarily the ones we had predicted.

A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a walk in Hyde Park. After our share of such exercise, we returned to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park for tea and scones. Tea is served in the hotel’s dining room, which opens onto one of the most verdant views in the city. If you’re watching for more than a few minutes, you might well see a parade of horses being ridden in perfect formation.

The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park has opened a beautiful spa that transplants guests to Asia. If you’re the ultimate sybarite, you might want to book a series of treatments.

All I wanted was to return to 51 Buckingham Gate. It’s rare when I find a hotel where I’d definitely rather live than in my own home if only I could afford it. I guess I’m not alone in my choice. 51 Buckingham Gate has won the Conde Nast Johansens award for most excellent London hotel.

• • •

51 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E6AF; phone, 44/20-7769-7766; fax, 44/20-7828-5909; visit www.51-buckinghamgate.com.

British Airways London Eye; visit www.ba-londoneye.com.

Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A1ER; phone, 44/20-7734- 8040; visit www.fortnumandmason.co.uk.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E9DD; visit www.royaloperahouse.org.

Bank Westminster Restaurant and Zander Bar, 45 Buckingham Gate, London, SWIE 6BS; visit www.bankrestaurants.com.

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