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Traveling in Style : PLACES OF THE HEART : London : The Essence of England : Staying to the Genteel Connaught Is a Little Like Being Accepted at London's Finest Private Club

March 17, 1991|LEONARD GROSS | Gross is the roving editor of Conde Nast Traveler. and

In the days of the dissolution of the British Empire, so the story goes, an American who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and prospered in the New World set sail for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth, his object to gain the refinement and the mastery of English he believed he needed to attain the social acceptance that had eluded him in his adopted land. His first stop after settling into his hotel was a tailor shop on Savile Row, where he was measured for a suit. Ten days later, he arrived for the final fitting bearing two boxes. As the anxious tailor stood by, he put on the suit. Then, from the first box, he extracted a bowler, which he placed on his head. From the second box came an umbrella, which he hooked over his forearm. As he studied himself in the mirror, he burst into tears. The tailor paled.

"Is something wrong with the suit, sir?" he asked.

The customer shook his head.

"What then, sir?" the tailor asked.

Through his tears, the customer cried, "Ve've lost India."

I understand that man. There is something about England that makes me want to belong. Forget the gray weather and sometimes-insipid food. Everything else is as it ought to be: the cars and clothes, the pubs and inns, the squares and gardens, the theaters and galleries and, above all, the amused, equable manner with which cultivated English men and women seem to go about their lives. In France, the sum of these expressions would be called panache , but panache is flamboyant, whereas true style, as expressed by the English, doesn't proclaim itself. It simply is.

To me, the quintessential expression of English style is London's Connaught Hotel.

OVER THE YEARS, I'VE HAD THE GOOD fortune to stay at some of the best hotels in the world, among them the Ritz in Paris, the Baur au Lac in Zurich, the Grand Hotel du Cap in Cap d'Antibes, the Beau Rivage in Geneva, the Oriental in Bangkok, and the Mandarin Oriental and Regent in Hong Kong. As splendid as those hotels may be, and as pleasant were the stays, none of them evokes such sweet memories as that small establishment on Carlos Place in Mayfair that, during the late '60s, came to seem more like a home than a hotel.

I was at that time the European editor of Look, based in Paris but with a free-wheeling assignment that frequently took me to London. From 1966 to 1970, I spent about 200 nights in the Connaught, every one of them with the conviction that I'd been granted a temporary membership in an exclusive club.

Just calling the hotel to book a room got my juices going, one reason I always made the call myself. First, I'd hear that deep, double ring of the English telephones and then the operator's sing-song voice--"The Connaught, good MOR -ning"--and as I waited for the reception desk to answer, I could almost smell the perfectly broiled kipper I'd be having in the dining room a few mornings hence.

There was another reason I made the call myself, and that was because I knew how much management valued personal relationships with its guests. I knew how much easier it would be for one of the gentlemen at the reservations desk, all of whom I knew, to say no to my secretary, if space were tight, than it would be to say no to me. One day I called to say that I intended to fly to London that afternoon and needed a room. The reservations manager got on the phone. "We're absolutely booked," he said. "We can't take you."

"Well, if you can't take me, I'm not coming to London," I said, because I'd never stayed anywhere else and had become hopelessly spoiled.

"Oh, come on then. We'll find something," he said, obviously peeved yet pleased, I suspected, by such an extreme expression of loyalty.

Among travel agents, the Connaught management has a reputation for being difficult, to use a kinder word than the agents do. Many will tell you that a room reservation is harder to come by there than at any hotel in the world (or was, at least, until the outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East put a damper on tourism). The management, for its part, points out that the hotel is small--it has but 90 rooms and 24 suites--and is usually fully booked and that on any given night, 80% of the occupants are clients of long standing. It's out of deference to these clients as well as to prospective new guests that management attempts to make certain the newcomers will fit in. It knows from experience that people who like elaborate hotels will not like the Connaught and that their discomfort will be felt by the staff and other guests. So it is that management much prefers a letter from first-time applicants to a telephone call or telex from their travel agents. Only recently, in fact, did the hotel install a telex.

ONCE YOU'RE IN, HOWEVER, THE ARM'S-length formalities vanish, and you really do feel as though you're in your home, at your club or at the country estate of an exceedingly wealthy friend. What you definitely don't feel is that you're in a commercial hotel.

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