By Hyon Jung Lee
London offers a dazzling range of hotels for every taste and temperament. There are shiny mega hotels, mini boutique hotels, and swanky business hotels, all catering to the fussiest of travelers. Hundreds of hotels promise something special — perhaps the best location, acclaimed restaurants, a superb spa, or maybe some whiz-bang technology in the rooms. But when you’re jetlagged, lost, and dragging luggage through the rain at 7:30 a.m. after a red-eye, there’s nothing more important than prompt and intuitive service in a peaceful place designed to be as much like a home as like a hotel.
Fifty-one Buckingham Gate, a discreet “townhouse” property in Westminster, just a three-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, happens to be an excellent place to recover from jetlag. At this extended-stay property, I was happy to avoid the usual post red-eye frustrations—long queues at the front desk, set times when I must check-in (and check-out), or cut-off times for room service. Owned and managed by the legendary Taj Hotels since 2000, it delivers all the amenities of a fine hotel, yet all of the timelines of a hotel are merely guidelines.
Formerly known as St. James Court hotel, 51 Buckingham Gate originally opened in 1902, seeking to be “fashionably smart, exclusive, modern without being vulgar — and quiet.” It’s amazing how after all this time, the hotel manages to match up to the original ideal. It’s no wonder why it continues to host visiting dignitaries, traveling executives and celebrities in its private townhouse — everyone from the Prime Minister of India to Donald Trump.
Despite the formidable wrought iron gate, the entrance at 51 Buckingham Gate is so discreet, that I nearly missed it. Upon entering the courtyard, though, I was charmed by its concealment. Built by an unknown royal engineer at the turn of the century, the property was designed as an exclusive set of houses, each with a porched entrance opening onto the central courtyard.
Upon walking into the main building that morning, I was whisked to my room, Apartment 1012, by the butler and checked-in from the sofa in the living room. Why doesn’t every hotel offer this for guests? Most hotels rooms are too small for hanging out with a front desk clerk (each of the 86 suites and apartments at 51 Buckingham Gate are a minimum of 5 square meters, or 550 square feet — the largest suites and serviced apartments in London).
My butler inquired if I needed help with unpacking, but I wasn’t carrying much. It was a shame that I was staying at 51 Buckingham Gate for only one night. Had I stayed for a week, I would gladly have cooked elaborate meals in the very modern and fully equipped kitchen or worked feverishly at the desk equipped with a printer/fax machine. I’d even have done loads and loads of laundry with the washer/dryer! (I have a guilty pleasure when traveling: I am a sucker for any hotel room with a washer and dryer, because I love going home with a load of fresh laundry. I wish I’d checked in to 51 Buckingham Gate at the end of a long trip.)
Even if I didn’t have a chance to use all of the home-like amenities in my enormous apartment, I felt better just knowing that they were there. That night, I had dinner reservations, but I seriously considered inviting my friends May and Jenny, who live in London, to a dinner party in my suite instead. May might have enjoyed a delivery from the nearby Lebanese restaurant Noura, and liked the animal touches in my bedroom – a leopard print upholstered chair, a furry overthrow for the bed. Jenny would have been envious of the walk-in closet.
They would also have been green with envy if they saw the award-winning master bath. One of the most important amenities for jetlagged travelers is an enormous bathroom – for me, it’s the ultimate reprieve from the compact bathrooms on an airplane. Apartment 1012 in fact had two bathrooms: a half-bath for guests, and a truly oversize bathroom loaded with Molton Brown toiletries and a soaking tub.
Of course, 51 Buckingham Gate is not for everyone. If you’re looking for a hotel with, say, an expansive lobby with big swinging doors to check out who’s coming to and fro, or maybe nightly live piano music, you might be disappointed. A stay at 51 Buckingham Gate is more like crashing at a friend’s house while he or she is out of town, rather than staying in a hotel where you can shimmy up and down the elevators to get to the pool, restaurant or spa. At 51 Buckingham Gate, you’ll have to leave your townhouse to use the fitness club (which, to the dismay of jetlagged travellers, closes at 10:30 p.m.). There are also three on-site restaurants: Quilon, Bank Westminster and Bistro 51, serving modern British, Indian and bistro fare.
Nevertheless, there’s a good chance that you’ll be perfectly content staying in, stretching out on the sofa to watch a DVD, possibly having dinner come to you (room service arrived in 25 minutes flat.) If you do step out, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the excellent turndown service — I returned from dinner to find a plate of chocolates, and little bottles of port and cognac.
Every hot hotelier could benefit from a stay at 51 Buckingham Gate, even if for just one night. 51 Buckingham Gate remains as “fashionably smart, exclusive, modern without being vulgar—and quiet” as a hotel could be. It might remind some silly hoteliers that hotels are intended for rest, not just for noisy bars, wild ceiling hangings, or complicated telephone systems that are too hard to figure out how to work when you’re jetlagged.
If you go...
Rates start at £385.
51 Buckingham Gate
Phone: +44 20 7769 7766
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