There are some London hotels that are lovely. There are some London hotels that are really rather special. And there are some London hotels that simply transport you to a bygone era of refinery seldom seen in this day and age. King's Cross's Great Northern Hotel most certainly falls into the latter of those camps.
Tacked on to King's Cross station, one would be forgiven for thinking that a train station hotel would be a fairly simplistic stopover venue, but you couldn't be more wrong. From the moment you step through its doors you're whisked into a subtle, sultry world of refined luxury, a throwback to the golden age of steam, yet you’re mere seconds from the hustle of one of London's most thriving areas and just 25 metres from the Eurostar terminal.
This exquisitely designed space was first opened in 1854, designed by Victorian master builder Lewis Cubitt but has been lovingly refurbished of the finest luxury boutique hotel spaces in London. With a building so rich in history, it would have been a travesty not to restore it to its former splendour. It’s one of those spaces that makes you want to don a flowing gown and race down the staircase, a la Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.
The rooms at the Great Northern Hotel
The 91 rooms within the hotel fall into three categories. The Couchette rooms are small but perfectly formed; an homage to the classic continental railway sleeper, featuring a Hypnos double bed within a leather-clad banquette, high ceilings, flooded with natural light and with cleverly designed bespoke bathrooms.
The Wainscot Rooms, located in the hotel’s eaves, feature striking decor with clubby dark American walnut panelling and rich shades of plum; the perfect cosy retreat for a romantic city weekend. Lastly, the Cubitt Rooms, named after the hotel’s master builder, offer views of King’s Cross through tall sash windows, king-size beds and bright bathrooms - eight of which feature a standalone roll top bathtub.
Dining at the Great Northern Hotel
Indulgent food and drink is at the heart of the hotel. Each floor boasts a help-yourself pantry with teas and coffees, cake, fruit and Tunnock’s caramel wafers - the perfect plunder for a midnight snack (or a raid in the morning en-route to work…ahem), though not that you’d need one after supper at Plum + Spilt Milk. A restaurant that’s long been on my radar, this is definitely one dining room that you ought to make a date with. Like stepping into to a classic dining car of the Flying Scotsman, Plum + Spilt Milk’s interior of cosy booths, floor to ceiling windows and gold accents oozes sophistication and charm.
Michelin star-winning chef Mark Sergeant’s menu is based on seasonal British ingredients, including beef from Mey Selections, part of the prestigious North Highland initiative launched by HRH Prince Charles, produced using traditional methods on family farms and crofts.
The menu is a smorgasbord of simple yet creative recipes, featuring sublime dishes such as steamed Wye Valley asparagus with poached Loch Duart salmon and wild garlic mayonnaise or Dressed Portland crab to start, Orkney scallops with roasted cauliflower, samphire and sherry vinegar caramel, grilled Cornish lamb chop and pressed shoulder, served with wild garlic and spring greens and Paddock Farm Tamworth pork belly with braised celery, baby turnips and mustard sauce. Simple, classic, wholesome dishes with standout flavours that have you begging for more. Leave room for pudding though; the signature Plum + Spilt Milk is a classic, but I can heartily recommend the iced peanut and salted caramel mousse, which was truly special.
The bar at the Great Northern Hotel
With a roll top bath and an entertainment package including 96 TV channels and 70 classic and new movie releases, one would be forgiven for retiring after supper for a night in one’s chambers (which, accompanied by a good book, I most certainly did), but night owls may be enticed down to the bar on the ground floor, a buzzing hive of activity with an unrivalled cocktail menu.
Despite being situated smack bang in the centre of one of London’s busiest areas, a night of slumber at the Great Northern Hotel was pleasantly peaceful and uninterrupted. Breakfast was certainly a highlight of our stay; for the health-conscious, the menu includes dishes such as quinoa and pumpkin seed granola with yoghurt, apples and golden raisins. If, like me, you feel that life is too short, there are also treats including smoked haddock kedgeree and brioche eggy bread with bananas, pecans, and salted caramel sauce to tickle your tastebuds. Do it; you won’t regret it.
We’ve all heard about places in the world which have been victims of their own success - over development, pollution and pickpockets are just some of the things that seem to come hand in hand with popularity. When I was younger, it wouldn’t have been enough to put me off, but with age has come discernment, and probably more than a healthy dose of jadedness. Was Rome always this oppressively crowded? Was there ever a time when people could actually just admire a monument without having to whisk out a selfie stick (and in doing so, take out the eyes of any hapless bystanders)? Was the food on offer near the larger attractions always so overpriced - and so average?
Rome was the first European city I ever explored, and I can’t imagine that I’ll ever regard it as anything other than alluring and magical. I still want to see everything there -The Pantheon, The Colosseum, La Bocca della Verità - as much as I wanted to the first time around. But I don’t want to do it non-stop from morning until night - I want to relax on my travels! And the problem with many of the hotels in the centre of Rome is that they don’t really offer much of a respite or any sense of place - call me demanding but I still want to feel like I’m in Rome, even when I’m not marvelling at an ancient monument.
So, the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria resort, is nothing short of a revelation - what it lacks in absolute centrality it makes up for - decadently - in amenities and view. Set high upon one of Rome’s Seven Hills, the city is laid out before you in a jumble of rooftops, domes and spires, with St Peter’s and the Vittorio Emanuele II monument clearly discernible. And, for when you’re ready to head back out and face the madding crowds again, the hotel runs a complimentary shuttle bus with regular service to and from the city centre.
Activities at Rome Cavalieri
Art is unquestionably a huge part of what draws people to Rome; there are incomparable masterpieces housed here. But neither can it be denied that their appeal palls somewhat when you’re caught in shuffling tides of people blocking your view as they angle iPhones and selfie-sticks (are they even seeing the painting?!). Staying at the Cavalieri, however, makes you feel like you’re staying in a gallery, albeit a languidly-paced and tour-group-free one, with a collection of over 1,000 pieces spanning centuries, from the Beauvais tapestries in the lobby, to original Warhols in the penthouse and a series of works from 18th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, you can either browse completely on your own or plug in to an iPod tour. Alternatively, the hotel’s resident Art Historian can take you through the collection.
The Spa & Pools
The Cavalieri has a magnificently luxurious spa, offering a range of wellness and relaxation treatments so blissfully efficacious that you’ll feel as if you’re hundreds of, rather than four, miles removed from tourist throngs. There’s also a state of the art gym with high-tech workout equipment, and a variety of classes for those who prefer to exercise with guidance. But for me, when the temperatures are searing outside, there’s no better place to be than beside one of the hotel’s four swimming pools. Forget sitting bolt upright at an outdoor table of a bustling cafe to get your people watching fix - here, between refreshing dips, you can recline on a sun lounger and observe from behind your sunglasses - all while being served snacks and cocktails by smilingly attentive staff.
Where to eat
A trip to Italy requires sampling some of the culinary delights for which the country is famed but, as is often the case in such enduringly popular destinations, there’s a lot of sub-standard (yet overpriced) food to be found. Even if this weren’t the case, the Cavalieri offers plenty of incentive to dine at L’Uliveto restaurant, where the focus is on authentic flavours and seasonal produce, with a range of fish, meats, pastas and risottos on the menu.
For getting a more authentic feel of how and where locals eat, book with The Roman Food Tour, who will take you on a walking tour to some of the best salumerias, pasticcerias, markets and pizzerias in a residential neighbourhood, offering you the chance to not only stuff yourself silly, but to do so on quality food about which you’ll learn loads in the process. Dietary requirements? Just let them know in advance.
As a gluten-avoider, I thought I’d be glumly sipping a coffee at the pasticceria but our guide had me covered; likewise at Bonci Pizzarium, where creations by Gabriele Bonci - otherwise known as ‘the Michelangelo of Pizza’ - creates his masterpieces with the finest and freshest ingredients (never more than three per topping; any more will destroy the balance of flavours of colours) to be sold ‘al taglio’ (by the slice).
Another unforgettable dining experience awaits you back at the hotel, which is home to La Pergola, Rome’s only Michelin three-star establishment. Book well in advance if you want to dine here: not only will your senses be dazzled by the view over the city, but by the culinary creations of head chef Heinz Beck, whose attention to detail in the presentation of ingredients and combination of flavours falls nothing short of genius. The wine list is tome-like, but head sommelier Marco Reitano is both charming and informative.
Choices abound even for those eschewing alcohol: there’s a water menu with H2O from around the globe, complete with information about the properties of each. Some salt with your meal? Allow the waiter to talk you through the rainbow of choices on his tray - there’s Hawaiian Black, Australian Pink or Peruvian Blue, to name just a few. And in a final magic twist, you’ll discover that you’re not, as you thought you were, far too stuffed to take another mouthful but that you can, in fact, find room for one (or some) of the chocolates and truffles that appear on your table in a tall, silver many-drawered chest.
Rome if you want to - but I can’t imagine doing it any way better than this.
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