The year was 1978. In London Glam Rockers were on the wane but the equally flamboyant New Romantics were beginning to spread their langourous style onto the fashion scene. Design was everything – the more ecclectic, individual and luxurious the better.
Onto this stage stepped Anouska Hempel, socialite, former Bond girl, Hammer House of Horror and Dr. Who actress now turned designer and hotelier. Her first hotel venture, Blakes Hotel on Roland Gardens in South Kensington, reflected the exotic extravagance of the period.
Each room was individually designed with doubles and signature suites expressing the kinds of elegant fantasies that instantly appealed to the rich and famous.
Though some hoteliers in New York would like to take credit for the invention of the boutique hotel in the 1980s, Blakes was undoubtedly the first luxury boutique hotel in the world. Movie stars, rock legends and super models flocked to its theatrical rooms with their – gypsy flamboyance, sexy red velvets, Victorian stripes, Asian and colonial styles, beds draped in embroidered hangings or floating in airy netting.(Check out the gallery)
Blakes is 40 years old in 2018, still going strong and still attracting the rich and famous – who treasure its exclusive privacy. It’s an ambiance you can share – at a bargain basement price – if you’re quick.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the hotel is offering 40 rooms for only £40 during the month of January. The rooms, from the hotel’s selection of Parisian doubles, would normally go for £295 a night. It’s first come, first serve and it’s just one room per person – if you are lucky enough to land one.
The rooms go on sale on Monday, January 8 at 9 a.m. They will be bookable between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during January for as long as they last. To be in with a chance, telephone +44 (0)20 7370 6701 or email firstname.lastname@example.org A little bird tells me you’ll have a better chance of getting a room if you phone.
Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.
This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine.
In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection.
The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.
My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.
Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.
Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.
And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting. We left with shopping bags full.
Waddesdon Christmas Essentials
Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm
Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
I had enjoyed a small personal victory and wanted to treat myself to a very nice lunch. The Marylebone area – particularly between Marylebone High Street and Baker Street is full of nice little places.
But somehow as I walked through the side streets towards Baker Street Tube, my ultimate destination, nothing really struck my fancy.
Then I arrived at what appeared to be a garden terrace. An attendent manned the entrance. He was wearing a suit and tie and he was beautiful. There was no sign as far as I could see.
“Is this a restaurant?” I asked him.
“What kind of food do you serve?”
“Where is the entrance?” I still didn’t see any sign, any obvious way in or any menu posted discretely on an outside wall,as required by law in London
“Right this way,” he said, and ushered me into the garden. I still didn’t know where I was.
Eventually, a hostess offered to find me a seat inside (the garden was nearly full except for the bits of it that would soon be rained on). She was tall, slim and dressed in a fabulous two piece number in a dark leafy green. She was beautiful.
Inside, the restaurant was packed and buzzing. Another hostess, in a similarly designerish outfit, all in blue (also beautiful) offered me a seat at the bar. I hate sitting on bar stools but eventually she found me a seat at a sort of banquette with high single tables, facing the bar. The bartender and wine steward were beautifully dressed and beautiful (as you can see in the picture above).
It was only when someone finally handed me a menu, that I realized I had randomly stumbled into the Chiltern Firehouse, once one of London’s hottest celebrity haunts. The restaurant, with its kitchen “curated” by Michelin-starred chef Nuno Mendes, has cooled down some since the virtual hysteria of its opening months in 2014. But, people still wait weeks to book this place, and there I was settling in, by accident, after a Wednesday afternoon stroll.
All around me, beautiful people were tucking into gorgeous looking food. Nips, tucks and tans as far as the eye could see. And when my food finally arrived, it was absolutely beautiful to look at too.
Did I mention that everyone – and everything – is beautiful at the Chiltern Firehouse.
I ate a salad of heritage tomatoes with strawberries, a slice of sourdough bread, an omelet of crabmeat and lobster (pictured here) that was the strangest looking omelet with the oddest texture that I’ve ever eaten. It was delicious and I am very curious to know how it was made but I hope I’m not offending the chef when I say it did not satisfy my desire for a nice, tender, eggy omelet. It was something else entirely.
Oh, and I did treat myself to a glass of Ruinart NV champagne – well I did say I was celebrating.
And with a black coffee to finish, and the 15% tip, the price of my special lunch of omelet, salad and champagne came to an eye-watering £79.93.
Was it worth it? Well, it was a very nice lunch but I think if you have to ask about value for money, this probably isn’t your kind of place. I’m not actually sure when it will next be mine.
The Nitty Gritty
The restaurant and attached boutique hotel are owned by André Balasz who also owns the legendary Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, The Mercer in New York’s Soho, the Sunset Beach on Shelter Island and Standard hotels around America.
My friend, my dog and I had spent a few days in France in May. We stayed in several luxury hotels that were, on the whole, long on charm but (with one exception) very short on space.
The last day of our trip was a long one with a lot of driving and a late ferry crossing. My friend had suggested we book a room at the halfway mark to break the journey. It’s only 80 miles from the Dover Ferry Port to West London (a two hour drive, the AA rather optimistically suggests) so that didn’t seem necessary.
But roadworks on the M20 heading out of Dover turned our first hour on the road into a 20-mile, single-lane nightmare of orange cones looming out of total darkness, punctuated by the glare of oncoming lorries. By the time we pulled into the Junction 8 service area on the M20 in Maidstone, my eyes were burning and my jaw was clenched. I was thankful I’d taken her advice.
It was a Days Inn.
I’d never stayed in one before and if you’d asked me, before this trip, what I thought of the brand, I probably would have said, not a lot. Their no-frills websites with tiny pictures and lurid colours set in an electric blue background were not very tempting. But it was where we needed to stop and it was cheap (£68 for both of us plus the dog)so I booked it.
We arrived, bedraggled, at around midnight. Because you pay for these rooms online, in advance check-in is totally painless. I just handed over a printout of my reservation in exchange for a digital card “key” and directions to our room. That was it. No formalities, nothing to sign, nothing to pay.
The room, after several days on the Continent, seemed huge – a separate king-sized bed for each of us plus a pair of upholstered arm-chairs. There were plenty of outlets for our chargers, extra pillows in the cupboard, tea and coffee-making things, flat-screen television and a large, spotless shower room.
Bags of style? No, just your basic, early 21st century motel room. And maybe the towels were a little on the stiff side. But it was clean, comfortable, quiet and there. As I stretched out on the first bed I’d been offered in five days that was actually big enough to stretch out on, I thought, “Thank God for Days Inn. Who knew?”
I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).
During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means, ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.
I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless. And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.
But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region. Starting with today’s post and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.
In the interests of full disclosure: I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube and Haute-Marne and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.
First Stop Reims
Notre-Dame de Reims
Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battle-scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.
Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.
Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.
An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.
The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.
Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne. Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world, are headquartered here. Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.
Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.
We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.
Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.
She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.
Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact as it bursts from the bottle.
Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters, turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.
In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.