London (part 1/2): Hotels & Sights

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Pip Pip, Cheerio, Let’s Go! Here’s the scoop, based on many articles in my travel file and over 30 trips to London:

STAY

Chelsea

Sloane Square Hotel 2013

Sloane Square Hotel

  • Sloane Square HotelIf modern décor in a great location is your thing, the SSH is attractive and sits right on Sloane Square, with its wonderful shops off the Square on Kings Road and on Pimlico Road, plus plays at the Royal Court Theatre right on Sloane Square, plus the nearby & lovely Chelsea Physic Garden, good restaurants, and a tube stop on the Square). Request a room overlooking always-buzzing and stylish Sloane Square.
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The Draycott

  • The Draycott Hotel–Two blocks from Sloane Square, the Draycott is refined, homey elegance, with traditional décor. This article from the HuffPost describes it best.The rooms are named after famous stage actors and your name will be inserted into the discreet name plate on your guest room door. Nothing flashy here, plus it is reasonably priced (though not cheap, because nothing good in London is). Request a  room with a balcony looking onto beautiful quiet Cadogan Square.

NOTE: If you are staying at the Draycott, drop by the nice bar at 11 Cadogan Gardens, a Small Luxury Hotel half a block away. Here’s what it looks like:

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11 Cadogan Gardens bar

  • The Sloane Clubis my personal fav, so if you can swing a letter of intro to this private club, go for it! In addition to individual rooms, they also have apartments. Great location just off of Sloane Square on Lower Sloane.

Knightsbridge

  • The Knightsbridge (10 Beaufort Gardens)–stylish, cheery, townhouse hotel decorated by its owner, the fabulously creative and successful Kit Kemp!
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The Knightsbridge Hotel

St. James

  • The Stafford (16-18 St. James Pl.)–VERY nice, old-school townhouse hotel with cozy, elegant bar. This photo shows the mews rooms (left). Ours was called The Daisy room because, in a former life, it was a stable for a horse named Daisy.
Blue Ball Courtyard

The Stafford

Following hotels get lots of positive press:

Mayfair

  • Claridge’s (Brook St.)–formal, traditional, fabled past, art deco, très élégant! Two beautiful bars. “…the suite with the prettiest of all balconies is 406,” per Departures (2015).

Claridge's lobby

  • The Connaught (Carlos Pl.)–very nice, with a buzzing, snazzy bar! This is where the Middletons stayed for Kate’s wedding. “The Apartment suite is London’s best example of making a hotel feel like a private home,” (Departures 2015)
  • Beaumont Hotel (Brown Hart Gardens)–Masculine art deco, upscale, nice neighborhood very near Grosvenor Square.

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Soho

  • Ham Yard Hotel (1 Ham Yard)–“the happiest hotel in London,” per Departures magazine (2015) PLUS beautifully decorated by owner Kit Kemp. The lobby was a-buzz with stylish people drinking tea and tasting champagne at 3:00 pm on the weekday afternoon when we popped in. It is a fun, happy place!
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Ham Yard Hotel

SEE THE SIGHTS

London has too many fascinating sites to list here. Following are my fav’s, organized by neighborhood, from least obvious to most:

Embankment

  • Somerset House–history, fashion, art, good food, sublime terrace for drinks overlooking the Thames…it’s all here; SH is a former royal palace on the Thames, with four huge buildings and a central courtyard, in which Fashion Week’s fashion shows take place; the four buildings house art and fashion exhibits. PLUS Departures (Oct. 2015) recently named Spring restaurant at SH as one of 25 “tables of note.”

The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court at Somerset House © Jeff Knowles 2

Chelsea

  • Chelsea Physic Garden–LOVE this walled garden founded in 1673 to provide plants for medicinal purposes to the neighboring Royal Hospital; today, a section of its garden is organized by plants with healing ingredients for specific ailments. The CPG has a simple café, the Tangerine Dream Café, with very good food; suggest you make a reservation if you want to dine in the garden on a weekend, as fashionable Londoners fill up the tables for pastoral lunches…nice gift shop, too!
CPG August 20th-105

Chelsea Physic Garden

  • Chelsea Flower Show (every May): HEAVEN ON EARTH because so fabulously over the top, the best-of-the-best horticulture specimens and garden designs, beauty and brains meet creativity. The photos below say it best!
RHS Chelsea Flowe Show

Chelsea pensioners look at ‘Peter Beales Roses’  at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London

RHS Chelsea Flowe Show

Two men look at a flower display at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London

Westminster

  • The Houses of Parliament–in session: House of Lords and House of Commons (the H of C is better because they have more meaningful debates). Be sure to get tickets in advance through the U.S. Embassy because you do not want to wait in those long lines. The very best ticket is for the “Prime Minister’s Question Time,” though hard to get. No line or ticket needed for the House of Lords, whose ceremonial chamber is worth a short visit.
  • Westminster Abbey–lots of famous people buried here, gorgeous in and of itself, PLUS Kate and Wills were married here, so you gotta go!
  • Buckingham Palace–The public is allowed inside once a year, in summer when the royal family is in Scotland. Otherwise, you are limited to watching the changing of the guard (not a life-altering experience), visiting the Queen’s Galleries (traditional, top quality, art), and the coach collection in the Royal Mews.
  • St. James Park–In front of Buckingham Palace, this is one of London’s several beautiful public parks.
  • The Tate Britain–fantastic, traditional collection in classic building
  • Churchill’s Underground War Cabinet Rooms–I found these fascinating. My husband, who reads a lot of history, found them superficial. Go anyway! They’re great.
The Map Room at IWMCMCWR. 7th October 2009. Shot for Film Location.

The Map Room at Churchill’s Underground War Rooms

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Directly Across the Thames from Westminster

  • The Eye–This is a ferris wheel whose views are like looking at a giant map of London. It takes about an hour to go around and that’s because it does so verrrrrrrrrrry slowly. Each “car” is clean and big, so not claustrophobic. I did not wait in line either time I went, so you probably won’t have to, either.

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Southwark

  • The Tate Modern–art museum in a very modern building with very contemporary exhibits/collection

Kensington

  • The Victoria & Albert Museum (“V and A”)–has exhibits on any and everything related to design, be it design of wrought iron hinges, sterling silver or fashions; huge and something for everyone here; they even have an ice skating rink in the winter

St. James

Holborn

  • British Museum–historic artifacts on a major scale, e.g. THE Elgin Marbles are here, as is THE Rosetta Stone=fascinating and transporting; if you are short on time, the museum has a Top 10 pamphlet that directs you to the highlights.

Street walking: Yes, I am listing walking as a sight in and of itself because it’s a great way to soak up the many, charming details of London streets and architecture and style and history.

TIP: If you like to see the sights on foot, pick up a London A-Z, the small, detailed map book with every street in London, available at most bookstores and newspaper kiosks.

DAY TRIPS

  • Hampton Court: Henry VIII’s castle with beautiful garden; recommend you go one-way by boat (depending on the tide) & the other way via rail.
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew–impressive and historic
  • Greenwich’s Royal Observatory–as in, Greenwich Mean Time! Go if you’re interested in clocks, longitude & the British Naval Museum. Take a boat (make sure you’re going with the tide; recommend you pick up at Westminster or the Eye, for best city views) one way and the tube the other way,

WARDROBE

London is dressier than most US cities. You will see more women in heels and skirts here than in US cities. Also, they are not big on bright colors…except for men’s shirts, socks and waistcoats. Lots of black and grey assembled with panache.images

For RESTAURANT & SHOPPING recommendations, go to my “London: part 2/2 post.”

-posted May 2016

 

 

Malta Love Letter

The immense, fortified harbor of Valletta is the vision most often associated with Malta–and it is there, in all its glory–but there is so much more. Recommend five full days here to explore its charm, history and grandeur.

STAY

  • Xara Palace (Mdina)–Our friend-who-lives-in-Malta describes the XP as “a lovely, old, classic palazzo hotel in the center of the oldest walled cities in Malta (& one of the oldest walled cities in Europe, pre-dating the Knights of Malta by at least 1,000 years).” He says it’s the best hotel in Malta. More important 😉, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed here when in Malta. Big views of the countryside from nice hotel rooms. Lovely to walk around Mdina at night after the tourists leave. Mdina is a 30-minute taxi ride from Valletta. We stayed at this Relais & Chateaux hotel last month and loved it. (17 rooms)
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Xara Palace

  • Casa Ellul (Valletta)-Despite the tacky art in its lobby, this is an attractive hotel in Valletta’s center, near the main tourist sights. It is a member of the usually-great Small Luxury Hotels group and Mr. & Mrs. Smith like it, too. (8 suites)

SEE THE SIGHTS

Air Malta’s website provides an excellent overview of the sights to see. Here’s what Mimi’s Travel File recommends you do on your fabulous trip to lovely Malta…

Hire a guide to drive you around the beautiful countryside. The Xara Palace can arrange this.

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17th cent. chapel on dramatic Dingli Cliffs (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

  • Walk along the Dingli Cliffs to see the small farming plots sweeping down to the beautiful rocky coastline…and be swept away to another time
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Hagar Qim Temple (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

  • Visit 5,000 year old temples, like Mnajdra and Hagar Qim (above)!
  • See the beautiful Blue Grotto (below)…
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Blue Grotto (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

  • Have your guide deposit you in Marsaxlokk, an old fishing village, for lunch at a restaurant on the harbor, filled with colorful fishing boats.
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Marsaxlokk (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

  • Mdina-Spend the afternoon wandering around Mdina, the first capital of Malta and small enough to cover in an afternoon.

Mdina is a hilltop, walled, city fortified from as long ago as 1,000 BC by the Phoenicians. The Arabs arrived in the 9th century and named the town Medina (“medina” is Arabic for “walled city”).

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Mdina city gate (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

Lots of beautiful buildings (17th cent. mansions of Maltese nobility), peaceful streets, serene feel…

Mdina

Mdina (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

  • Valletta — Explore Malta’s clean, low-crime, very attractive capital city, Valletta (pop. 7,000)
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Valletta’s fortifications (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

One of the first things you will notice about Malta is its massive forts, especially in Valletta. Due to its strategic location in the  middle of the Mediterranean and its deep, safe harbors, Malta has been fought over, time and again, for thousands of years.

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Valletta’s Grand Harbour (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

The fortifications that can be seen today come from two distinct periods: those of the Knights of Malta and those of the British era. Visit the National War Museum at Ft. St. Elmo. Malta was awarded the St. George Cross for heroism by King George VI for having withstood over 3,000 air attacks during WWII…a far greater number than the air attacks experienced by London.

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Valletta: Prime Minister’s office building (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

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Valletta: distinctive enclosed balconies on 16th & 17th cent. buildings (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

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Valletta: Renzo Piano-designed Parliament Building (image http://www.viewingmalta.com)

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

For the scoop on Maltese cuisine (traditional meals, etc.), go to Air Malta’s website, as it provides detailed background info. The following were our favorites…

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view of Harbour Club from the water

  • The Harbour Club–Sitting right on Valletta’s grand harbor, this restaurant provides beautiful views, good food, attractive interior decor, indoor and outdoor seating, stylish & upscale…glorious!
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view from Harbour Club of the water

  • Trattoria da Pippo (136, Melita Street)-FUN, small, in the heart of Valletta, lots of locals lingering over tables of good food

Recommend five full days, as follows: There is so much more to see and do on the Maltese islands. I have merely scratched the surface of its fabulousness.

Day 1: Tour the countryside (SE & central Malta, including Marsaxlokk, pre-historic temples Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, Blue Grotto, and Dingli Cliffs); wander Mdina after tour

Day 2: Valletta

Day 3: Wander Vittoriosa, the city across harbor from Valletta

Day 4: Tour NE Malta, then hop evening ferry to Gozo & spend the night at either the Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort (Our friend-who-lives-in-Malta says, “I am told that the Kempinski is the best…& most attractive”) or Hotel Ta’Cenc (click through to view website)

Day 5: Explore Gozo (“small, easy-to-reach via a ferry every 15 minutes from mainland Malta; clean, well-managed island with authentic feel,” per our friend-who-lives-in-Malta)

-posted May 2016