LONDON — The Cockney cabbie taking me to the swank Savoy Hotel speeds through the narrow back streets of the British capital like the getaway man in a bank robbery.
“Have you ever stayed at the Savoy?” he asks in an accent that is pure Michael Caine.
“It’s one of my favourite hotels in London,” says the 30-year taxi veteran, who looks like he might make some unsuspecting pedestrian a hood ornament at any moment.
A few minutes later, the cab pulls off The Strand in London’s Theatre District and The Savoy’s landmark marquee comes into view.
“They’ll treat you like a king here, sir,” says the cabbie, who snatches the fare and speeds away.
Above: Many rooms at the hotel with the famous marquee look out on the Thames River.
Men in top hats and long coats relieve me of my luggage and a member of staff whisks me through the Art Deco lobby into an Edwardian-era reception room that looks like it belongs at nearby Buckingham Palace.
As the nattily-attired young woman retrieves my information, I marvel at the room’s splendid decor — crystal chandeliers, original artwork and rich wall coverings make it look like a set on the hit series Downton Abbey.
Check-in complete, the attendant summons my butler.
“You’ll be staying in one of our River View Suites (they overlook the River Thames) and it comes with a butler,” says the attendant, who introduces me to a tall, handsome man named Richard wearing top coat and tails who looks like he belongs on top of a wedding cake.
Above: Service is paramount at the Fairmont-managed Savoy and the staff treats guests like royalty.
With service being paramount at the palatial Savoy, the hotel has some very high standards and trains its own butler staff in The Savoy Academy under the watchful eye of head butler Sean Davoren. They are at your beck and call 24 hours a day and arrange dinner reservations, theatre tickets, shopping outings and travel plans.
“May I unpack your bag, sir?” asks Richard in an upper class English accent that would impress Downton Abbey’s head butler Carson.
As Richard empties my luggage, I pull back the curtains of my swanky suite and I’m left awestruck by the scene framed in my window. The Thames, London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the city’s iconic bridges and a forest of modern skyscrapers spread out below. Talk about a room with a view!
This view of the Thames is what inspired Claude Monet and James Whistler to paint some iconic works while staying at The Savoy.
There’s only one problem: I can’t see the lovely Victorian building that houses the historic Savoy, the only 5-star hotel on the Thames which opened in 1889. It became an instant attraction back then because it was the first London hotel to offer electric lights and hot and cold running water — modern luxuries back in 19th-century Britain.
Above: The hotel's grand entrance has welcomed many important guests over the years.
Often called “London’s most famous hotel,” whose first manager was César Ritz, of Ritz Hotel fame, the Savoy is now under the loving care and management of Canada’s Fairmont Hotels and Resorts and part of the Paris-based Accor Hotels brand. Fairmont oversaw a $400 million renovation of the Grand Dame in 2010 and The Savoy has never looked better.
Through its long and distinguished history, The Savoy has been the address of many visiting heads of state and foreign royalty. And because of its location in the Theatre District, stars of screen and stage have called the hotel home when performing in London. Coco Chanel, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Noël Coward and Maria Callas are just a few of the big name celebrities who have stayed here. Some are immortalized in pop-art paintings that hang in the lovely Thames Foyer, where an elaborate gazebo draws lots of attention. Autographed pictures of others — Bob Hope, William Holden and Ava Gardner, among them — line the staircase leading to the hotel’s fabled American Bar.
The hotel’s most famous guest, of course, was Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime leader who would defiantly dine at The Savoy with his cabinet while Nazi bombs rained down on London.
Nine “personality suites” named in honour of the stars and politicians who stayed in them are always in high demand and are decorated with artwork, photography and artefacts from the time when they were in residence. For instance, the Marlene Dietrich Suite comes with 12 pink roses, just like the ones the sultry actress requested when she was a guest.
Above: The Savoy's elegant rooms are part Art Deco, part Victorian but all beautiful.
The stars of today are often seen eating at one of the hotel’s outstanding dining rooms — the Savoy Grill and Kaspars at The Savoy being the most famous of the property’s seven restaurants — or hanging out at the American or Beaufort bars — the latter is an Art Deco masterpiece that’s located between the Thames Foyer and Kaspars.
The Savoy Grill, with its polished oak walls and Art Deco fixtures, is managed by celebrity Chef Gordon Ramsey’s company and the 1-star Michelin room never fails to impress with its haute cuisine, service and seductive ambience.
My Cornish crab salad starter was followed by a Steak Diane that was expertly prepared at my table in a flaming copper skillet. The Savoy Grill is open for lunch and dinner and its daily carving board specials is a magnate for many Londoners.
Equally impressive is Kaspars at The Savoy, which specializes in British seafood dishes. Oysters so fresh you can taste the sea with every slurp, and freshly caught Scottish salmon are just some of the items that make Kaspars the most famous seafood restaurant in London.
Oh, and did I mention Kaspar’s cat.
One of the most intriguing legends connected to The Savoy is Kaspar the Cat and the number 13. As the story goes, a prominent guest was holding a dinner party for 14 friends back in 1898 but one failed to show up. Another superstitious guest predicted that should one of the 13 remaining leave before dinner ended, tragedy would befall them. A South African guest took up the challenge and left early. A few weeks later he was shot and killed in Johannesburg. Since that day, any time the hotel hosts parties for 13 guests, which is quite often, Kasper the (stuffed) Cat, complete with napkin, is trotted out and given a seat to make sure there is no unlucky 13th guest sitting at the table.
Above: The lounge area off Kaspers at the Savoy is an Art Deco masterpiece.
The Savoy’s magnificent collection of 267 rooms and suites are decorated in either Edwardian or Art Deco styles and stuffed with lots of modern amenities.
My River View Suite oozed with British charm — soft pastel tones blend seamlessly with hand-painted wall coverings and fabrics that wrap the suite in a warm, homey feel. Designer Pierre Yves Rochon utilized lots of antique furnishings in the Edwardian suites to remind guests they are sleeping with history. However, he also uses black and white ceramic tiles at the entrances and bathrooms of every Savoy room as a nod to the hotel’s Art Deco roots. The combination works amazingly well.
Not a dime was spared turning The Savoy into London’s best hotel. No wonder the renovation was almost 18 months late and more than $200 million over budget. A new spa, gym and indoor pool were also added during the renovations and each qualifies as the finest among London’s 5-star properties.
Service is what sets The Savoy apart from London’s other luxury properties, and it all starts with the hearty welcome guests get from the hotel's famed doormen, like Tony Harvey, a 30-year veteran who is actually referred to as a “linkman” because “we link the outside world to the hotel. Doorman makes it sound like we are bouncers at a club,” he once told a reporter.
The Savoy is a quick cab ride away from the high-end shops of Knightsbridge and Mayfair and is surrounded by some of the most famous of London’s theatres, including Covent Gardens. Trafalgar Square and Pal Mal, which leads to Buckingham Palace, are just down the street from The Savoy, and neighbouring Waterloo Bridge links the left and right banks of the Thames.
The spotlight is clearly on The Savoy these days because the legendary property is indeed the star of London’s hotel scene.
JUST THE FACTS
To book a room at The Savoy or to learn more about its history, go to http://www.fairmont.com/Savoy