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TPG Contributor Mitch Berman stayed with his family for the first two nights of 2016 at the legendary Savoy, London. Read on for his impressions of this magnificent hotel. (All photos by Kofi Lee-Berman, except as noted. Visit Mitch and Kofi’s photo blog and Kofi’s travel blog for more).
The Savoy, London was the first luxury hotel in Britain, the first hotel in the world to be lit entirely with electricity and the first to have electric elevators (originally called “ascending rooms”). The hotel’s first manager was César Ritz (the Ritz) and the first chef, the great Auguste Escoffier. Opening in 1889, the property billed itself as the “Hotel de Luxe of the World.”
Now, The Savoy is perhaps best known in the frequent-flyer community for being the hotel tasked with training Etihad’s famous A380 Residence butlers, who complete an intensive course before they may begin working scheduled flights.
Built on the grounds of London’s grandest palace outside of Buckingham — the first version of which was burned down during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 — The Savoy, London is perhaps the most charming and historical hotel I’ve ever stayed at. It’s centrally located on the Strand, within easy walking distance of Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.
In high season, it can be tough to get one of the Savoy’s 268 rooms — it’s already booked up for dates I tried in August, for example — and nothing’s available for New Year’s Eve 2017. My own additional booking challenge came because we were using Fairmont free nights on my Fairmont credit card (discontinued as of January 2017). Usually there are only a couple of free nights available per month and those are snapped up way in advance. By last May, there were none remaining for the rest of the year. Their first availability was the first two nights of January, so I built our trip to London around that.
The Fairmont President’s Club (membership in which comes with the Fairmont credit card) offers suite and room upgrades, dining certificates and a complimentary third night on a three-night stay. The Fairmont card’s initial bonus after a $3,000 spend is two free nights at any Fairmont property, among other perks. The annual fee, waived for the first year, is $95.
The Savoy is listed on both the Visa Signature Hotels & Resorts and American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts portals — check out this TPG post for more info about how to save using the Amex FHR program or this piece to learn more about Visa Signature options and benefits.
As always, when paying for hotel rooms, maximize your rewards by using a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2X on hotels), the Citi Premier Card (3X on hotels), or my own recent favorite, the Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card, which offers variable rewards depending on your accounts at Bank of America.
We entered Savoy Court, a dedicated alleyway off the Strand, hooded by an extended canopy surmounted by the Savoy sign. The manager met us as we entered the lobby, taking us to a quiet, dedicated check-in room. As I’d been told by the Fairmont phone reservations representative, my Fairmont card’s suite upgrade certificate can’t be used at The Savoy, London, though the room upgrade can, given availability.
The old-fashioned wood-paneled lobby has a gas fireplace and plenty of cushy seats, amid huge oil portraits of people you can’t identify. It’s a nice place to rest.
We were thrilled to learn that London’s first electric elevator — originally called an “ascending room” — was located right by our room.
The king-sized bed and twin rollaway bed were excellent, the closets very large, and the vintage furniture sturdy and appealing. There was nothing that screamed luxury — not even the chandelier — because the Savoy doesn’t like to raise its voice.
We were upgraded to a Deluxe King room — one level up from a regular room. In April, rates for a Deluxe King start at $646 per night, a Superior Queen room start at $603 per night, whereas River View suites range from $896 to $1,508 per night — suites include complimentary butler service and use of the hotel’s Rolls-Royce Phantom, by the way. When it’s available, the Royal Suite can cost up to $20,000 per night — you’re lucky if it’s available when you want it, even luckier if you can afford it.
No tea or kettle were provided, though both were fetched upon request. The mini-bar was thoroughly stocked. I have to be honest, though — I always unload mini-bars to the bare walls to make room for our own food and drinks.
The Loewe flat screen TV had seemingly hundreds of channels with about half of them in English — there were an amazing number of Arabic channels, a reflection of the fact that the hotel’s owner (Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal) and many of its guests hail from the Middle East.
From our room, we could look over the other London rooftops and spy The Shard in the distance.
Maid service included setting out our house slippers for us, shown below.
The Fairmont chain uses Le Labo amenities and always seems to choose the Rose 31 fragrance, which to my nose is much too sweet and floral. I’d greatly prefer a more citrusy unisex flavor. (Don’t worry; Penhaligon’s and Neal’s Yard Remedies are nearby.)
Fixtures were comfortable but nothing was particularly lush except for the big bathtub. The toilet flushed with a loud Gnrrh! sound. One nice touch was the speaker in the ceiling (with volume control) that pumped in high-quality sound from the TV. Towels and white terry robes were thick and new.
Service and Amenities
The hotel’s impeccable service is its greatest asset, striking just the right note of being friendly, helpful and enthusiastic without being obsequious. It’s a pleasure to sit in the armchairs across from the concierge and listen to them tell tales about the place.
The concierge here are quite resourceful. When we weren’t sure about the holiday hours at the Berwick Street Market in Soho, one of them, Jamie, called a friend of his who worked at another hotel near Berwick Street and asked her to physically check if it was open. That’s going the extra mile for the guest.
There were many little touches like that, as when I called the front desk after 1am to ask if it was too late to get our shoes shined. No, they told me, our last round of pickups is at 2am. The entire staff is dressed to the nines in tailored outfits, the doormen and servers with tails for a further touch of old-world elegance.
Food and Drink
The Savoy’s restaurants include two legendary venues, the Thames Foyer and the American Bar, as well as Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill, the Beaufort Bar, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the Melba take-out pastry shop and Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill. I’ll focus on three of my favorites:
The Thames Foyer
At the Thames Foyer’s afternoon tea, our server, Josh, emphasized that we could have seconds on tea (and refills of any kind of tea), sandwiches, scones and pastries — a policy that is not unique, but also not universal, among the best UK tea salons. Choose from traditional afternoon tea ($72 per person on weekdays, $76 per person on weekends) or traditional high tea ($77 per person on weekdays, $80 per person on weekends).
The Thames Foyer is a lovely spot and many customers come here to celebrate special occasions. With some fanfare, servers came out from the kitchen with candled cakes — about five at once, fanned out to different tables — to the strains of “Happy Birthday” on the piano, followed by room-wide applause. The pianist then went back to playing jazz standards.
The sandwiches — including smoked salmon and duck-and-chicken — were moist and flavorful, served on five different types of bread. The two kinds of scones were good, too, and I will never refuse a second helping of clotted cream. The pastries were excellent and not overly sweet.
The homemade tea blends themselves were superb and for once, strong enough. When we asked if we could take a few sandwiches back to the room, Josh had some sent up.
We returned to the Thames Foyer the next morning for their pricey (₤31, or $45) English breakfast. The eggs, sausage and potatoes, served on a tea tower, were all good but unspectacular. The pain au chocolat and other viennoiseries were better than that, flaky and buttery.
The American Bar
The American Bar introduced American-style cocktails to much of Europe. One of its most famous bartenders was Harry Craddock, an Englishman who had learned to mix drinks in the States before fleeing to London during Prohibition. Craddock wrote one of the definitive cocktail recipe collections, The Savoy Cocktail Book, still in print today, featuring no fewer than 750 of his recipes, like Corpse Reviver #2.
With its live jazz, curving walls and art-deco motif, the American Bar would be a nice place to sip the Original Sazerac, a ₤5000 (~$7,239) cocktail made from Sazerac de Forge Cognac 1858. Luckily, most of the cocktails run a less insane ₤15-₤19 ($22-$28), and the Bar’s menu makes for fun reading.
Kaspar’s Seafood Bar & Grill
In 1898, South African diamond magnate Woolf Joel held a dinner party at the Savoy for 14 guests, one of whom was a no-show. One of the remaining guests declared that the first of the 13 to leave would die; host Woolf Joel got up anyway, and a few weeks later, was shot to death in Johannesburg (and not by the other guest who had made the prediction). Since then, the hotel has never allowed parties of 13, in the early years seating an employee at the table to round out parties to 14. When that proved awkward, sculptor Basil Ionides created Kaspar the Cat, and since 1926 Kaspar has taken the place of the 14th guest at table, a full place-setting before him, napkin tied around his neck. He lent his likeness to a large sculpture in Savoy Court and his name to Kaspar’s.
The spa and the fitness center are both relatively small, as is the pool, which smelled too strongly of chlorine to me. When I asked about it, I was shown a daily log of chlorine levels, taken every few hours, and all the readings were clearly within what were defined as normal levels. That information, however, did not stop my eyes from burning.
The spa has a massage room and a small manicure-pedicure room. Rates and beauty rhetoric are both predictably lofty — the 80-minute Maria Callas’ Age Repair Facial is ₤140 (~$203), and the 125-minute Savoy Anniversary Ritual massage including “Chakra balancing and deep inhalations of the positive and uplifting power blend of Clary Sage” is ₤240 (~$347).
José from concierge took us over to see the Savoy Museum — doesn’t every hotel have a museum? At the Savoy’s you can read the hotel’s cards containing special information on celebrity guests like Josephine Baker, Maria Callas and Marlene Dietrich — including her request for 12 pink roses and a bottle of Dom Perignon on arrival.
The hotel opened in 1889, built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte on the proceeds of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera productions (he was the man who had introduced Gilbert to Sullivan), all of which debuted at his own Savoy Theatre next door.
Other fun facts about The Savoy, London: Fred Astaire danced on the roof, and later Charlie Chaplin strolled around it (the roof sadly, is now closed). Winston Churchill met his wartime cabinet here and dined weekly to the very end of his long life. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland all stayed here — Monet painted no fewer than 100 different views of the Waterloo Bridge from his rooms on the 5th and 6th floors.
Exploring The Savoy, London
Old hotels usually have mysterious extra rooms, disused and sometimes unlit, that you can still poke your way into. I’m happy to report that this particular hotel has far more than its quota of such hidden nooks and crannies. Downstairs from the lobby, near the Queen Mother entrance, we looked through this beautiful set of riverfront conference rooms and ballrooms, some empty and looking little like the pictures on the website, some all set up for the next event, but all of them bursting with character.
This is a wonderful hotel with an amazing staff. Its history and friendly welcome give it a uniquely homey feel — albeit that of a very stately home. Even if we’re not staying here, my family and I will gladly come back just to enjoy the ambiance, visit the Savoy Museum and linger in the Thames Foyer for another afternoon tea.
Have you ever stayed at The Savoy, London? What was your experience like?
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