First-time London visitor, Cara Wagstaff, is captivated by the city’s history, traditions and fine hotels.
The elevator ascends 35 floors and before I can catch my breath, the steel doors open to reveal the minimalist sky lobby of Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard. London is laid out in a patchwork beneath me; I can spot the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast moored in the River Thames. Located on levels 34 through 52 of Renzo Piano’s The Shard, the Shangri-La is London’s first elevated hotel, and the view is mesmerising.
The Shangri-La Suite © Simon John Owen
It’s my first glimpse of the city, but to really get a feel for its cosmopolitan and historic charms, I need to step down from my lofty perch. My first stop is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tower of London, where I’m amazed to find an entire village with accommodation, doctors and shops for the Yeomen Warders and their families who live within the 12th-century fortress and first royal palace of William the Conqueror.
I join one of the guided tours and we roam around the village to Traitors’ Gate, the infamous Bloody Tower (where it was thought the Princes in the Tower were murdered by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester), the torture dungeons and the Crown Jewels, which have been viewed by over 30 million people.
Cocktails at Shangri-La’s Gong bar © Simon John Owen
My head now swimming with tales of Tudors, Plantagenets and treason, I hop onto a river ferry and enjoy a rare burst of sunshine while cruising along River Thames. We pass The Shard, Palace of Westminster, London Eye and an ancient Egyptian obelisk popularly known as Cleopatra’s Needle. I disembark at Westminster and wander around the streets trying to find the perfect angle of Big Ben that doesn’t include the scaffolding set in place for a three-year-plus restoration. Returning to the Shangri-La, I meet a friend on level 52 for a cinematic ‘Director’s Cut’ cocktail at Gong bar. London twinkles beneath us, and the Tower Bridge – which I am becoming quite fond of – is looking particularly magnificent.
St James Hotel & Club © Small Luxury Hotels of the World
St James’s Hotel & Club had its beginnings as a private club for diplomats in 1857, and it still has that intimate, exclusive feel. The boutique hotel, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is located on a quiet, almost hidden, cul-de-sac in Mayfair, blending in with its neighbours of Victorian townhouses; only the red carpet spilling down the front stairs marks it as anything but another chic private residence.
My deluxe room is elegant and features handmade silk wallpaper and a Murano-glass chandelier. I make the most of the hotel’s prime location and set off on a stroll, window-shopping at Mayfair’s famous landmarks including Caviar House & Prunier, Bond Street’s exclusive boutiques and the timeless Burlington Arcade.
Afternoon tea at The Lanesborough © The Lanesborough
Tea for two
In search of some relaxation, I check into COMO Metropolitan London. The scent of COMO’s trademark Shambhala Spa greets me in the lobby, refreshing and exotic, before a bubbly and professional receptionist shows me to my room, an impressive park suite with sweeping views of Hyde Park.
When in London it feels only natural to do as the English do, and in England, they drink tea. I arrive at The Lanesborough, Oetker Collection’s London masterpiece hotel, for afternoon tea in the Michelin-starred Céleste dining room. The room glows with sunlight spilling through the domed glass roof and reflecting off the stunning chandeliers. I sip on Taittinger, relaxing into the comfortable chaise longue as waiters bring out dainty sandwiches (my favourite: the cream cheese and ginger on walnut bread). The towering tea stand follows, laden with delicate pastries, with a serving of freshly baked scones and clotted cream.
Before flying home I book into the Shambhala Spa for the signature COMO Shambhala massage. I sip on ginger tea sweetened with honey before succumbing to the long, slow strokes of the massage, sending me into a Zen-like state that lasts until my plane takes off. For my first visit to London I’ve been charmed by its culture and history, seduced by its luxury hotels and mesmerised by its melting pot of cultures living side by side.
Westminster Suite at Shangri-La Hotel at The Shard, London © Shangri-La at the Shard
This article appeared in volume 28 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.