London’s Athenaeum: I Didn’t Want to Leave
Now I’m not one to write overly-emotional or mushy reviews about trips, properties or airlines unless something or someone has really gone over-the-top. I tried not to do it while writing press releases or correspondence during my airline career and I guess it’s the experience of being in the PR business for four decades and maybe seeing almost everything that one gets slightly jaded and spoiled.
But recently in snowy London, I really did encounter such a welcoming experience that I felt other travelers should know about my little sojourn. It was a short hotel stay that was a business trip to some extent with a bonus of having time to visit friends.
Now to put this into perspective . . .
For myself and perhaps for most road warriors, the very best part of the road trip is coming home. Yes, it’s quite over-the-top and utterly fantastic when we land the big contract for a million dollars worth of widgets, but by-and-large, the best part of the trip is walking into that warm and comfy home, taking off of the angst blanket and falling into that fabulously cushioned sofa or that triple-soft, body-warming bed.
But let’s back up a bit. Say you must travel to London for several days to meet with several clients and the appointments are all fixed; but you really don’t want to leave home. Teleconferencing, facetime or skype won’t do – there just has to be face-to-face communication – it’s always the best. So you plan to fly off to the UK.
What to do for a hotel? You want the comfort and convenience of home, but not the nuisance of a bad location or the high cost of the conventional super-deluxe, five-star hotels (which obviously of course, everybody wants; no secret there).
Now there are probably only a very few luxury hotels in Europe, let alone the world, that can fill the bill: comfort, space, economical and reasonable price with no intentional gouging the guests.
One hotel in London that certainly fits the bill is the Athenaeum, a small, family owned property located a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner on Piccadilly in the Mayfair district of London.
Now I first mentioned snowy because when we arrived at London just two weeks ago, it was in blizzard conditions. London gets very few inches of snow, probably once every two to three years, and the city’s snow removal plan is non-existent. We arrived in a howling snowstorm at Gatwick Airport and throughout our transfer from the airport to Victoria Station and then to the hotel, all worked exceedingly well. The city roads were all black, but we could see pedestrians with their umbrellas and slickers skillfully maintaining their balance whilst plying the sidewalks.
What immediately astounded me is that no one clears the sidewalks of the snow and ice. Upon arrival at the front door of the Athenaeum, we found the sidewalk had been cleared. Thank God.
What most people don’t realize is that the London sidewalks are made up of individual blocks or slabs of cement as opposed to continuous porous concrete or asphalt as found in the USA. When wet with snow or ice, these cold cement blocks are slippery as hell. It was kind of walking a tightrope hoping not to fall over. In the next two days of walking around London, we had to be every-so-careful as not to wind up on our bottoms. That was the last thing we needed.
The point here is that the Athenaeum had the good smarts to clean up their front door right away and avoid problems for guests or just passers by. Two steps into the hotel, and I was already impressed.
Upon checking in, Betty, a most courteous and lovely receptionist guided us through the check-in protocols, and then escorted us to our room. The room was spacious and looked ever-so-relaxing. Betty explained the various bits and pieces about the room and then totally flabergasted us when she stated that all snacks and non-alcoholic beverages in the mini-bar were free – - and that the minis of vodka gin, scotch, whatever, they were all £2.20 each.
Then the big hit – wifi also was free! I couldn’t believe it. A five-star, luxury hotel in central London not nickel and diming its guests.
I hadn’t been in the hotel for 20 minutes and I never wanted to leave. What a find! Why hadn’t I stayed here all these many times visiting London! Well I can’t erase the past, but I can certainly make up for some lost opportunities by enjoying the new hotel digs.
Getting back to the room – - upon first settling into a new hotel room, the first stop is the bathroom. Hey – it’s true. There were plenty of nice amenities, but the really cool thing is the soft water. Especially in cold, dry weather, it’s positively brilliant. Then the heated towels – of course a heated towel rack upon which were folded the British Floringo brand of towels, most luxurious and fluffy.
Now I can get a bit snobby about bed linens – my wife has taught me well – and I always joke about sheets and pillow cases with high thread counts. The bed linens were really smooth and then I saw why; they were Frette, one of Italy’s top linen manufacturers. No need to say more here. There were plenty of pillows, and what I love, a bouncy and fluffy duvet. For some reason, I love duvet covers rather than blankets – it’s a comfort thing as opposed to cosmetic or aesthetic. Maybe it’s the filler – down or whatever feather – but there’s weight and warmth without the scratchiness. That’s just me.
So there’s the hotel room – probably as close to home comfort and being 3,500 miles from Manhattan.
Being an ex-airline person, hotels usually were the necessary sidelight to a trip – it was always the destination or, quite often, the airplane that intrigued me: number of engines, size of the aircraft, cabin interiors, passengers, crew, aircraft performance – remember the Concorde or your first A380 ride - seat types, etc., etc., the list was endless.
Now here was a stationary, land-based object – a hotel – that really got my interest. Aside from the obvious places one would encounter between the front door and the bedroom, what else might there be slightly intriguing about this establishment?
First of all it has a great location in the heart of Mayfair, on a main thoroughfare, Piccadilly, very close to the Hyde Park Corner or Green Park tube stations. There are bus stops on either side of Piccadilly within a one minute walk from the front door. The location of the hotel is phenomenal considering that several blocks away is Apsley House, a once-stately home belonging to the Duke of Wellington, that is now a museum that bears the address, Number One London. Can’t get much more central than that.
Two other very important aspects of the Athenaeum – its very unusual and unique vertical garden and the separate private apartments around the corner.
First the vertical garden. When I first saw it and realized what it was, my reaction was, “how’d they do that.” Simply put, the garden or ‘living wall’ is eight stories of greenery, flowers and bushes that somehow adhere to the walls and foundation of the building – a kind of botanical architecture. It’s not just a case of a dense growth of up-shooting vines, but the artist/gardener has found a way to grow plants without the need for horizontally-based soil. There is a system of slats that secure an artificial felt and hundreds of plant roots, much the same as wild plants grow on vertical rock faces or tress. And it’s almost like Green Park across the road extended itself onto the Athenaeum – it’s quite a green-growing stunner!
The next unusual highlight of the Athenaeum is, in addition to 164 guest rooms and 12 suites in the main hotel building, the Athenaeum owns a block of 18 luxury town-house apartments located on adjacent Down Street. The Edwardian-architecture buildings house full size, one-bedroom, one bath, living areas complete with full kitchen facilities, living room and dining areas. There also are a few apartments that adjoin each other to make room for large families. It’s a great place for some guests host business meetings and meals while working, and not have to bother with setting up separate private meeting or banquet rooms; it’s all there. On one occasion, a very famous Hollywood director used the adjoining apartment as an edit bay and suite while working on his film.
The upper floor apartments all have elevator access and all apartments have twice-daily complete maid service. And the beauty of staying in the apartments is that there is no minimum or maximum stay as there can be with numerous other short or long-term apartment locations.
Often times business travelers are able to take their families, and this hotel sports a kid’s concierge that assists with kid-friendly shows, events and restaurants. Children are supplied with child-sized bathrobes and slippers, appropriate DVDs, snacks and soft drinks, and cookies and milk at bedtime. Age appropriate books, toys, games, electronic and otherwise, also are available. And everything is free – on the house.
Beyond the bedroom scene, the Athenaeum also has numerous other amenities to bolster its primary goal of accommodating the sleep-over needs. There is a luxury restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, a very cozy bar that features over 275 whiskies and a Garden Room for relaxing or taking in a sumptuous afternoon tea.
And something noteworthy, the Athenaeum was last year’s winner of the London Tea Guild’s “Top Afternoon Tea 2012,” a very prestigious Oscar-like award that pits the top hotels of London against each other in this friendly battle of the tea leaves.
The hotel also has its own spa offering a wide variety of relaxing body or facial treatments, and then there’s a wet area featuring glorious hot tubs and sauna. There is an exercise and gym area with treadmills and workout machines, plus the greatest set of bike trails in Green Park right across the street; the hotel does provide bicycles as well.
Now after reading all of this, many people will believe the Athenaeum will cost an arm and a leg. In fact it is nowhere near the prices charged by some of the larger five-star London hotels – and remember, wifi is free. That’s a biggie! Hotel prices will always vary by the season and even by the day of the week – that’s sound revenue management and any business subscribes to these dictums. And when you’re running a hotel with 225 staff, almost a one to one ratio of staff to guest, management is always looking for the best ways to properly serve its guests without overextending budgets.
It just so happens that during this time of the year, there is an Athenaeum room sale going on through the end of February. It consists of three nights for the price of two; it’s in dollars which makes everything more economical and easier to figure out; a three-night stay in a superior room is priced at approximately $723. The offer includes full English breakfast daily, all non-alcoholic drinks and snacks from the mini-bar, free wifi and full use of the hotel’s spa, gym and hot tubs. Children aged 12 and under eat free when dining with an adult.
Like I said before, London is a fabulous city, one that I had the privilege to live in for almost a year many years ago. I would do it again if I had the opportunity and the time. It’s almost like London is a second home. The reality is that certain places in this world, like London and its Athenaeum, really punch up the nostalgic button – for fact or dream, “two homes are better than one” and for the first time in a long while, I really didn’t want to go home.