From a historic hotel in the historic streets of London, to a playground for leisure in Scottish highlands, our contributor experiences two lavish sides of British hospitality. By Radhika Tandon
While staying in the timeless Hotel Café Royal on a recent trip to London, I had the pleasure of experiencing my favourite city from a heady new perspective. It isn’t just the unbeatable location—in the heart of London’s West End. What elevates the Café Royal to a league of its own is the unique blend of its exciting history and a very modern luxe.
The Café Royal began life as a restaurant with a fine wine cellar in the mid-1800s. At the time, Regent Street was coming into its own as the epicentre of all things fashionable, and Café Royal quickly became the favoured haunt of the leaders of London society. Over the years, rooms such as the opulent Pompadour Ballroom were added, hosting everything from boxing matches to fashion shows and weddings. Rare black and white photographs of iconic figures caught in candid moments at the hotel are a priceless documentary of this vibrant past. From Rudyard Kipling to Muhammad Ali, Princess Diana to Elizabeth Taylor—if these walls could talk, they’d have a thousand stories to tell.
Today, having incorporated the buildings on either side, Hotel Café Royal is an elite member of the Leading Hotels of the World. There’s an opulent minimalism to the new double-height lobby by Piero Lissoni, presided over by a giant, custom-made Murano glass chandelier, that sets the tone as you step in from the street. Walk down the hushed corridors to well-appointed rooms that leave nothing to be desired. The hotel has 160 rooms, with junior suites that offer an extravagant amount of space for central London. Seven exclusive suites promise an unforgettable experience. The most jaw-dropping of these is the three-bedroom Dome Penthouse, housed under the iconic green-domed rotunda that dominates the skyline of Lower Regent Street, with an outdoor terrace large enough to host a party. There are many little touches, such as underfloor heating in the bathrooms, a Bang & Olufsen entertainment and media hub, Frette linens, and the Café Royal newspaper—an unusual keepsake of your stay—that leave you feeling utterly pampered.
Both Soho and Mayfair are at your doorstep; St James’s Park is a 10-minute stroll away, as is Covent Garden; and the best of London’s shopping, dining, and theatre are at walking distances. When you need a retreat from all that action, look no further than the hotel’s spa, Akasha Holistic Wellbeing. Begin your days at the fully-equipped gym or the yoga studio, and end them in the heated pools, jacuzzi, or hammam. The spa offers some unusual sounding treatments—‘Poetry In Water’ at the Watsu pool is one—but most intriguing is the mysterious ‘Bone Setting’, conducted by the father-son duo and ta’i chi masters Andy and Duran Mack. I spoke to someone who’d signed up for it and gathered that this 20-minute energy healing treatment involves meditative exercises, realigns the spine, and was an “out of body experience.” That’s one for the bucket list then.
Even if you don’t stay here, there are many good reasons to visit. Every plate is a work of art in Laurent at Café Royal, where Executive Chef Laurent Tourondel—well-known for his steak and sushi offerings—has introduced a New York-style Sunday Brunch; he also runs the Brasserie Ruhlmann at the Rockefeller Center. You can indulge in a traditional afternoon tea at The Grill Room, where Winston Churchill often had lunch, or for something entirely different, pop in for desserts and champagne at Cakes and Bubbles. You can take away a beautifully boxed cheesecake from the restaurant as a souvenir. Or, follow in the footsteps of Oscar Wilde and try an absinthe cocktail at the Green Bar, recipes for which come from the original 19th-century Café cocktail book.
After living the high life in the city, a taste of gracious country living felt like a logical segue. Step into the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel at the stately Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland, set on 850 acres of pristine countryside. Back in the roaring 1920s, Gleneagles started out as a fashionable weekend retreat for the glamorous London set and their millionaire American friends, who’d take the train up from King’s Cross directly to The Gleneagles. The train station is still open, and complimentary hotel transfers are available to guests who choose to arrive this way. With most of the property renovated by its new owners since 2015, and as a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, Gleneagles is another inimitable experience.
You can spend days here and yet barely scratch the surface. Globally, Gleneagles is best known for golf, thanks to its three championship courses. To my delight, I discovered that this reputation is a vast underestimation of all it has to offer. If you’re outdoorsy, you’ll be spoilt for choice with everything from cycling to archery and offroad driving to fly-fishing. The Gundogs School is the first of its kind, and at the world- class Equestrian School, horse riders of all ages and abilities can be matched to suitable horses. When the weather allows it, your personal guides can organise traditional Scottish games on the lawns. Whatever your interests and abilities, they will tailor an itinerary accordingly.
If sybaritic pleasure is your priority, Gleneagles’s beautiful indoor spaces, award- winning spa, and fine restaurants will keep you happily occupied, though you may find it hard to resist stepping out for a dip in the heated onsen pool. With a staggering 95 chefs serving a handful of restaurants and bars, Gleneagles takes its gastronomy very seriously. The on-site Andrew Fairlie is Scotland’s only two-Michelin star restaurant. Whether it’s breakfast at The Garden Cafe, lunch in the charming conservatory space at The Birnam Brasserie, or a three-course dinner at The Strathearn, every meal here is an event. And if you must shop, browse for souvenirs at the recently revamped shopping arcade, the offerings of which range from locally-sourced delicacies to leather goods, and the Escada Shop, its latest addition.
If you can tear yourself away from the property, Edinburgh is just an hour’s drive away. Don’t miss the famous Edinburgh Castle—with its fabulous views. Walk the colourful streets in the Old Town, which were the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. The Grass Market, while quite touristy, is great fun for what the Scots would call ‘a night oot on the skite’. For an elegant meal, I’d recommend the Grand Café, housed in the former premises of The Scotsman newspaper. An Edinburgh institution replete with marbled pillars and chandeliers, it offers everything from brunch to cocktails and live jazz at night.
Gleneagles has been called many things, from ‘Riviera in the Highlands’ to the very fitting ‘Glorious Playground’ of today. On my last night, I luxuriate before the fireplace in my room, bidding goodbye to the darkening silhouettes of the gentle hills in the distance, and think about everything I’ve experienced here. It’s been special, or to borrow another Scottish phrase, just ‘pure barry’.
Virgin Airlines operates daily flights from Delhi to London and Edinburgh. Daily flights will operate from Mumbai as well from October 28, 2019.
The Hotel Café Royal is a historic place to stay in, while in London. From `48,938; hotelcaferoyal.com The Gleneagles Hotel is the ultimate statement in luxurious countryside living in Scotland, especially if you’re a golf enthusiast. From INR 35,591.
Book well in advance for treatments at Akasha Holistic Wellbeing, activities at Gleneagles, or a meal at Andrew Fairlie―these may be sold out weeks or months ahead.
Related: The Ultimate London Travel Guide: Explore The City Like A Local