Another week, another all suites hotel. Hosts Giles Jauffret and Amaury de Villoutreys’ residence in a walled garden hidden down a laneway behind tall wooden gates in the honeycomb coloured city of Avignon always proves the perfect getaway. “Being a relatively small residence, we can focus on our guests,” says Giles. “The real luxury is being able to receive them as friends, and to have time for each one on an individual basis. We present our house more as a family home than a hotel. We wanted to share our French history, passion for art and l’art de vivre with others.” There are 42 watercolours of the city of canals in the Venetian Suite. The Naples Suite is hung with Neapolitan gouaches. And then there are the animals. Whether statues or the real thing, from a stuffed horse to a hatted stone dog, Persian cats to Weimaraner dogs, they all match the décor.
The house became locally known as The Haunted House when it fell vacant in the early 20th century before it was bought by the Misses Outlaw in the 1920s. Clearly unperturbed by any ghostly rumblings, the two sisters ran turned it into the Riverholme Restaurant and Guesthouse. Changing hands over later decades, the hotel expanded to back onto the River Thames. Sarova Hotels purchased the hotel in 2011 and carefully restored it. The riverside brasserie in Sir Christopher Wren Hotel is the best place in Windsor for afternoon tea. Save, perhaps, for an invite from Her Majesty to sup at nearby Windsor Castle.
There are human whirlwinds. There are female tornados. But nothing can prepare us for the arrival of Mary Martin London at breakfast, morning coffee and car onwards to meet and greet Mayor Sadiq Khan, full throttling through the Chelsea Harbour Hotel and leaving a fiery trail of merriment behind her. The lady is on top (of the hotel; of the world), on vision, on game, on fire. She’s reached dizzying heights and we’re not just talking about our penthouse view overlooking the marina. “I was born a diva!” Mary exclaims embracing the panorama. This ain’t her first rodeo and it sure won’t be her last. All morning, Britain’s leading black fashion designer entertains and educates and generally is the star of the show.
Life hasn’t been slow behind the scenes for us this season either. Saturday mornings learning about the art and chemistry of Kent winemaking on the 2.8 hectare Barnsloe Vineyard. Later, sampling anse and mushroom broth with a lemon zest at Frog and Scot in Deal. “It opens up the palate really nicely!” declares Lady Dalziel Douglas. “Dover is where it’s at next!” she whispers, giving away an estate agent’s secret. Then there was tasting the sabih and shakshuka at The Palomar on Rupert Street, Soho, prepping for Tel Aviv. Not forgetting chilli zucchini fritters at Charlotte’s Cloud, the nearest stop off from St Luke’s Church Chelsea, after listening to Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag by organist Rupert Jeffcoat. Gosh, how much staccato’d syncopation can you fit into one Sunday morning service? Capriccio by John Ireland – Deal’s answer to Hamilton Harty (great composer; Georgian townhouse blue plaque) – will be played next week.Next there was Annabel P’s crushing Instagram moment at supper in The Ivy Tower Bridge when the waitress destroyed a photogenic moment by pouring red moosh all over the Centre Court Melting Ball bombe. A flight later, Belfast meant downing the Donaghadee Daiquiris at The Cloth Ear and shooting the Ballyhack Breeze at Horatio Todd’s. Back to the English Capital. James Sherwood’s 1975 Discriminating Guide to London Fine Dining and Shopping contains sections on Where To Eat… “in blue jeans”; “if you’ve come into an inheritance”; “if you want to dance”; “outside”; and “in the company of beautiful people”. Two restaurants listed for beautiful people that we love and are still going strong are Daphne’s and San Lorenzo. But if you really want to try on those blue jeans having just got freshly loaded and are ready to dance outside with beautiful people, there’s nowhere like the private roof terrace of Chelsea Harbour Hotel when Mary Martin’s in town.
Fellow breakfaster, model, animal and children’s rights campaigner, Janice Porter speaks out, “Once met, never forgotten! It was my privilege to meet the actual Mary Martin on Saturday 27 July. Her smile was overwhelming and her face simply radiated joy for life. As we enjoyed a hearty breakfast her laughter filled the hotel as she recalled outrageous incidents from her childhood and spoke of her recent university graduation. It wasn’t though until I visited her collection in St James’s and watched her at her sewing machine that she really came to life. Her dresses, I hesitate to call them that, rather than stunning artistic creations, took my breath away. Mary is simply a star. She’s an intelligent, witty, beautiful self made woman proud of her ancestors. I stand by her!”
“The sun always shines on the righteous!” claims hotelier Astrid Bray and sure enough the clouds fade to reveal an unblemished cobalt blue sky over the Capital City of Northwest Ulster. For once it’s not “foundering” as the locals would say. Depending on your persuasion, the name of this place is a four syllable binational portmanteau (Londonderry), a three syllable aristocratic surname (Londond’ry) or a rationalist nationalist two syllables (Derry). The city is one of two in Northern Ireland to share its name with its host county; Armagh does as well (Antrim doesn’t count as it is a mere town and county).
Sisters Margaret and Laura Bowe are joint châtelaines of Marlfield. Laura is Chairperson of Ireland’s Blue Book. “Now entering its 47th year,” she explains, “our collection of properties and restaurants continue to offer luxurious, memorable and unique experiences across the length and breadth of the island of Ireland… We are very proud of our chefs and patron chefs, with many of our restaurants boasting one and two Michelin stars.”
Guests at Bishop’s Gate Hotel are greeted by a framed picture of a quote by the sage Madame Lily Bollinger, clearly not the abstemious sort: “I drink when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” Equally educational are a series of framed architects’ drawings illustrating the genesis of the architecture of the hotel and other significant buildings in Derry.
Like all cultural tourists to the city, we ask our waitress for directions to the Derry Girls mural. “Not a bother!” she enthuses. “Just like a lollypop lady I’ll direct you!” Her shortcut is through the rear of the hotel. “This room used to be a garden and that’s a covered up well in the corner. The house where the hotel is now was used to hold prisoners during the Siege of Derry. They were able to travel underground from here to a well on Shipquay Street and from there across to boats on the River Foyle to escape.”
Seriously. It was that good. The revivification of Countess Markievicz. Luton is the new Paris. Katie swapped a runway for the runway. The revolution has begun. Game on. As for the legendary niche leap….
Everything’s different up north from the prices (lower) to the portions (bigger), from the hills (steeper) to the weather (colder). And of course not forgetting that fare (plenty of parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and tea). Then there’s the ruggedness: a brooding dark stone cliff looms ahead and that’s just Richard and Samuel Sharp architects’ 1830s Crescent. England’s original seaside resort Scarborough embraces the coastline twice: North Bay and South Bay. Sandy rows. Separating the two bays is the precipitous Castle Hill which thanks to its multiplicity of castellated houses creeping up to the castle itself should be pluralised in name really. On the climb up to Castle Hill is St Mary’s Church where Anne Brontë is buried.
Agnes Grey House. La Baia. Colli Gham. El Eid. Greno. Helaina. Howdale. The Kimberley. The Paragon. The Ramleh. Rockside. The Thoresby. Wharncliffe. The Whiteley. Homes and bed and breakfasts. Deals Takeaway probably the best Deals in town. God is always greater than all our troubles. Peaches. Three course lunch 6.50. Tony Skingle is Elvis. Wanted Wanted Wanted Wanted. Signs and plaques and placards. And everywhere, the screeching cacophony of chips stealing herring gulls. Liverpool-on-Sea. Margate-on-more-Sea.
“There are little nods and big gestures to Cruella throughout the afternoon tea,” explains Annabel. “Cruella is very Vivienne Westwood – 1970s punk rock and anarchy. She’s a super chic sassy gal with anarchic attitude. It’s all rock and roll and a little bit mad.” The egg and cress mayonnaise sandwiches and mint yoghurt and cucumber filled may be classics but they are placed alternatively on the plate with white and dark bread. The striped effect is of course inspired by Cruella’s two tone hair. All very Daphne Guinness.
Every plate is full of devilishly delightful signature pieces. “The Lanesborough is very dog friendly,” praises Annabel P. “When I arrived a bed with a couple of treats was set out for Winne my mini wire haired dachshund. “I’m sure Cruella would approve!” This season is all about reinvention of the A line and afternoon tea. And killer heels of course. It’s all brilliant, bad and more than a little bit mad.
In the land of champ and Portavogie scampi and pasties (Ulster not Cornish) and soda farls and wheaten bread and dulse and Tayto crisps and fifteens and rocky roads and yellowman there’s something new and exciting to go and explore for a wee dander. The original house at the heart of the Culloden Estate – the Bishop’s Palace – may be 145 years old but Art and Soul, the Holywood International Art and Sculpture Fair filling its grounds and interiors, is very much a meantime use.
Dr Howard Hastings, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, explains “At Hastings Hotels, I believe that we can distinguish from our competitors by highlighting the local culture and heritage surrounding our hotels. One way we do this is by focussing on our own locally grown produce in our menus. At Culloden Estate and Spa, another way we achieve this is through the artwork on display throughout the hotel. Some of these paintings were acquired by my father, Sir William Hastings. He selected paintings he liked and which he thought were in keeping with the Bishop’s Palace setting. More recently we’ve concentrated on supporting our local artists, many of whom have international reputations, yet still live and work in Northern Ireland.”
Over the last while, swimming against the tide, we have been consumed by a tsunami of beach huts from Bexhill-on-Sea, Cooden Beach and Eastbourne to Hastings, Littlehampton and Westbrook Bay. And Deal of course. But we never quite expected to be breezily coasting along to face seaside exposure in… Knightsbridge. Shedding any retro rusticity never mind dodging budgie smuggling by the bucketful, primary colours afloat, The Berkeley offers sophistication in spades while flying the flag for its coastal theme. When the chips are down, it’s time to head for the beach huts at your local five star. Talk about drowning in a new strand of luxury. Life’s beachy. Over to Gertrude Stein in her 1914 classic Tender Buttons: “A winning of all the blessings, a sample not a sample because there is no worry.”
Our hut is full of the haves and the have knots. HMS Bon Voyage is plain sailing thanks to the crew on board this afternoon. We’re feeling somewhat nautical and rather nice, ready to learn the ropes. Fortunately all hands are on deck to deliver service with platefuls of smile. Ship ahoy! We’re all awash with admiration for this full throttle experience. Our table might be a cacophony of firm but feisty first world orders but we’re not feeling fishy so dive straight into the off menu on zeitgeist in vogue vegetarian range (we don’t want crabs or the £128 tomahawk steak). Nothing tastes as good as skinny fries. Or baked artichoke, grilled tenderstem, courgette and tomato. Or even charred asparagus, carrots, radish and truffle goat’s curd. Not forgetting lemon drizzle bites washed down with British sparkling Gusbourne Blanc des Blancs. Somebody give that vintner a knighthood! Gertie again, “Nearer in fairer sea, nearer and farther, show white has lime in sight, show a stitch of 10.”
There are five huts: Whitstable (lobster red and white stripes); Southwold (ocean blue); Walberswick (sandy orange); Deal (seagrass green); Padstow (surf blue). As for the experience – it’s a micro break good enough to write home about or at least to send a postcard. Everything is shipshape although it’s not like we’re here to rock the boat, more like rock the casbah! Late afternoon is all about topping up our monokini ready spring tan on The Berkeley’s terrace. Bronze is the new gold. Who’d have thought? We’ve never had such pun. Seamen’s paradise. We just don’t wanna leave but hang on, mixing our drinks with our metaphors, someone’s commanding doors to manual. Best not catching cabin fever. Waving goodbye, we’re all washed up but in a good way, heading across Wilton Place to the local Nag’s Head just in time to catch sunset. Life’s peachy. And finally Ms Stein: “A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a little less hot.”
Afternoon tea, really an excuse to indulge between official meals, is high up the list of sybaritic Must Dos. Chinoiserie at JCT lives up to its name. Bedecked with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and gold leaf galore, the lounge is thronged with an army of cheongsam clad waitresses at our beck and call. We half expect Fan Bingbing to sweep through the revolving doors. Instead, the flame haired resident harpist provides a sense of serenity for the American, Saudi and English Isabel Marant clad guests. A glass of Champagne accompanies fresh strawberries before the menu goes choc-a-bloc in a celebration of its cocoa theme (Montezuma was the last Aztec king and a bit of a chocolate fiend). We order a Darjeeling and (Lady Grantham wouldn’t approve) a coffee.
One of the many joys of afternoon tea is having your cake and eating it in whatever order you desire. For the purposes of this review, we will stick to the order of the menu. Cocoa dusted (a taste of what’s to come) croissants with chorizo and Elemental provide a comforting intro. The sweet meets savoury theme makes its surprising, sensual, debut with a rich curried crab tart topped by white chocolate. A heart shaped white chocolate and parmesan palmier is hard not to love. Another unlikely yet successful marriage is chocolate macaroon with venison. For pescatarians, there’s the opportunity to order off menu, so cucumber and mayo sandwich is a traditional alternative. Back on menu, the cassis imperial chocolate cupcake is a fine dark mousse with balsamic blackcurrants filling an edible chocolate case. A sprinkling of pearls completes this sultry indulgence.
To cleanse the palate, a conquistador shot is an inspired layered composition of passion fruit, white chocolate with basil seeds and coconut jelly. Mission complete. Caraque spicy chocolate tart with popping candy features a pistachio wafer as delicate and colourful as the Chinese wallpaper. Dark mini chocolate caramel loaf filled with liquid salted butter, sweet food in savoury form, provides a jubilant succulent extravagant finale, for now, to cocoa. After this exotically original South American tour de taste, familiar British comfort returns in the form of (Lady Grantham would approve) scones with clotted cream and fruit preserve. Throughout this autumn, the general public can get tarted up and enjoy Eric Lanlard’s Montezuma Afternoon Tea. It costs £40 per person; £50 includes the Champers; for £55, the strawberries are added. The service is great, friendly staff who are more than adept at catching eye contact; a Coutts (of course) bank machine outside the hotel comes in handy for withdrawing tenners for tips.
Lavender’s Blue. Some colours are legendary. And others become synonymous with places. The Blue Bar is always The Berkeley Hotel. The hangout of the bold and brilliant and beautiful down from Apsley House. Every era has one. A London fine dining defining interior designer. Currently, it’s Martin Brudnizki. At the end of last century, no restaurant or wine bar was complete unless David Collins had transformed it. The late Dublin born artist used a striking Lutyens Blue hue, a dusky cornflower, to create the most memorable interior in Knightsbridge just as the new millennium dawned. In a touching posthumous tribute, The Berkeley called up David Collins’ protégé to dream up a dining room named after his master. Robert Angell employed some of David Collins’ favourite motifs, from a white onyx bar to a Soaneian use of mirrors. Some designers are legendary. And others become synonymous with places. Lavender’s Blue. Breakfast in bed, even The Berkeley variety, means casually leafing through magazines, preferable the vintage variety. Although inclusion of today’s Times is a nice touch. Here’s the September 1999 edition of Wallpaper* magazine:
“There’s no denying that the acrimonious and much publicised art appreciation tiff between Damien Hirst and new Quo Vadis owner, Marco Pierre White, was bound to draw in curious diners and art lovers alike. But David Collins’ pleasing refit and the culinary skills of ex Ivy maître d’ Fernando Peire are two good reasons to return. Leather banquettes break up the room, a marked improvement on its previous cold refectory incarnation. Though not hugely original, the food is exquisite, just as we have come to expect from a MPW establishment; lobster, poulet noir and a variety of risottos are all on offer to a discerning clientele. The controversial conceptual art by Marco Pierre White is more than a little reminiscent of that of Damien Hirst, though much cheekier, especially our favourite, the aptly named ‘Divorce’ – a copy of Hirst’s dot painting, but with four perpendicular slashes – ouch. The Private room at the back boasts Thirties New York green leather walls created by the ubiquitous Bill Amberg. The skeletons have been ripped out of the upstairs bar, and the refit’s final stage will include a bar for the restaurant as well as a members’ bar called ‘Marx’ in homage to the great Karl who lived on this site. Admittance will depend on whether or not Fernando likes you – so start sending flowers and chocolates now.”
As always, what does Gertrude Stein have to say about breakfast in her 1914 Tender Buttons? Rather a lot as it turns out. Here are a few of her rich pickings, “A sudden slice changes the whole plate, it does so suddenly.” And, “An imitation, more imitation, imitation succeed imitations.” And, and, and, “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly a shelter, all these show the need of clamour. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” A candy striped strawed bottle of ‘Berkeley Boost’ – freshly squeezed carrot, orange, turmeric, apple and ginger – followed by a homemade croissant and almond pastry; fruit salad; Scottish smoked salmon, cream cheese, rocket with Annabel’s style linen tied lemon bagel; Greek yoghurt, granola, Acacia honey and strawberries; and a celebratory chocolate cake topped with raspberries. The portions are so indulgent this ain’t breakfast in bed – this is breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea and supper between the duvets. All to be taken laying down. All on Aunt Margery’s best linen and tea set. Some breakfasts are legendary. Lavender’s Blue.