Spies, intrigues and secret tunnels. They all had their place at one time or another at London’s St Ermin’s Hotel, unveiled in April 2011 as a ‘four-star deluxe’ address following a multi-million pound makeover. The headquarters for many a clandestine meeting throughout history, St Ermin’s was the location for a top-secret gathering organised by none other than Winston Churchill, summoning those who would eventually become part of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) for covert operations during WWII. In the 1950s, meanwhile, Guy Burgess (a member of the notorious spy ring The Cambridge Five), chose the hotel’s bar in which to pass secret papers to his Russian counterpart. Today, however, the only spying I’m doing is on the cocktails on offer at the Caxton, the hotel lounge bar.
While mulling over a leather-bound list of mouth-watering concoctions, the barman asks me if I’ve tried pisco and suggests the SW1, describing a creation that also contains lime, Joseph Cartron crème de cacao, black pepper and “a hint of sweet and spice”. I admit, the SW1 is not something I’d usually fancy but I find myself accepting enthusiastically for fear of appearing unadventurous. That, and the charmingly persuasive service, instills in me a fleeting daring streak. Indeed, much can be said of the service here; discreet, sophisticated and approachable, the staff are a perfect match for the hotel’s brand of low-key luxury.
Many of the St Ermin’s original features have been restored to their former glory; combining Art Nouveau, Baroque and Rococo styles with the contemporary, the result is an unashamedly girly abode. The courtyard garden provides a grand entrance and I certainly feel as if I’ve arrived as I step into the magnificent lobby, where the attention to detail is nothing short of impressive. While there are gleaming marble and mosaic floors, crystal chandeliers, a decorative frieze and elegant columns, my eye is immediately drawn to the grand staircase and the incredible, sculpted ceiling above it, a legacy of Victorian theatre designer J.P. Briggs. Braving the November chill, I step out on to the Caxton Terrace, an ideal spot for summertime cocktails (too bad about the timing; I’m several months late). There’s a hidden passage underneath the staircase – “is it true it leads to the Houses of Parliament?” I enquire – but, on viewing its blocked off state I can’t be sure what remains of the so-called secret tunnel. Back in the lobby I am in no hurry to check into my room, but rather quite content curled up on the plush magenta velvet lounge beside the open fireplace, surrounded by an exquisite melange of antiques and objets d’art.
I am escorted to my room and we take one of the tiny lifts to the fourth floor (larger lifts are due to open early in 2012). My Executive King room has a bay window as well as views across the courtyard. All the 331 rooms and suites feature LCD televisions, MP3 docking stations, White Company toiletries and not-quite-fluffy-enough bathrobes and slippers. Modern florals and colourful geometric patterns are loyal to the feminine aesthetic of the hotel, however the zero bathroom vanity space is not – just where is a girl supposed to put all of her lotions and potions? All is forgiven as I sink into my two-poster king-size bed, disappearing in a mass of pillows and cushions… Sadly, the combination of chatty neighbours and thin walls ensures I don’t squeeze in my coveted mid-afternoon nap.
I’m meeting a friend for dinner; when I suggest an aperitif in the Caxton Bar he happily obliges. We study the long list of cocktails, signature, speciality and seasonal, and it is at that moment I am persuaded to try the subtle kick of the SW1. The variety of wine, whiskey and champagne flights however ensures no bar goers are left out. Contrary to the light and whimsical look in the hotel lobby, the Caxton Bar is dark and cosy, masculine even, awash in warm autumnal shades of russet, chestnut and burnished gold. I begin to understand how so many hushed, intimate, clandestine meetings were able to take place in this very room.
When it’s time for dinner we are ushered into the adjacent Caxton Grill. On the ground floor of St Ermin’s and overlooking the courtyard, the restaurant is stylish yet snobbery-free. The menu is succinct and the wine list impressive, with Executive Chef Hus Vedat’s cuisine championing simple, delicious dishes created from fresh, local produce. Just as in all other areas of the hotel, I’m delighted to find the staff not only knowledgable, but helpful and attentive to our needs. While my companion opts for the catch of the day, I’m tempted by the organic sirloin of Hampshire beef with medium porcini rub and smoked béarnaise sauce. The utter gourmande that I am, I order sides of 300 degree oyster mushrooms and garlic and parsley fries. The fish, I am assured, is light and delicious, while the beef is close to perfection: carnivore heaven. We polish off the last droplets of wine before succumbing to the white chocolate mascarpone cheesecake, a veritable delight.
As I bid goodnight to my friend and retire to bed, I make a mental note to return for a girly weekend to indulge in a spot of retail therapy. With its central St James’s location, St Ermin’s is but a stilettoed hop skip and a jump away from the boutiques and department stores of Knightsbridge and Bond, Oxford and Regent Streets. My credit card is already trembling at the thought.