When my son Riley announced that he intended to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University in Britain, three thoughts jumped into my mind. Thought #1: "Fabulous! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Thought #2: "Won't that cost a small fortune?" Thought #3: " The heck with it! Let's jump on a plane and check it out!"
Excited about the possibilities, I went into high travel-planning gear and mapped out a whirlwind 5-day trip to London and Oxford. Just hours after Riley finished his final first term exam, we were on an overnight plane headed for Heathrow.
We touched down early on Sunday morning and made our way into London with ease, using the subway line that connects the airport to the centre of town. We emerged at Hyde Park Corner and wheeled our small bags down Park Lane to our destination – The Dorchester Hotel.
We were met at the Front Desk by the Assistant Guest Manager and we assured her we had no expectation of a room so early in the day. Could we just check our bags and return later? She suggested we might want to stop for a refreshing breakfast in The Grill Restaurant, and when I saw Riley's look of hope mixed with hunger, I took her excellent suggestion to heart. The Concierge checked our bags and we proceeded through the gracious lobby into The Grill.
At the table, we relaxed into the welcome comfort of the broad banquette, surrounded by comfy cushions. The Grill is a grand dining room, with high ceilings, ample furnishings, rich tartans and sumptuous fabrics. The walls feature a mural of glorious Scottish figures, male and female, in full highland regalia. The beautiful décor reflects the heritage of the hotel's founder Sir Robert MacAlpine, who built the Dorchester in 1931 with the vow to create a luxury hotel that would "rank as the finest in Europe." The original owner's vow has been maintained and strengthened through the decades, most recently through a multi-million dollar refurbishment.
Our breakfast was the first of many meals at The Dorchester that introduced us to the best of British cuisine. The Grill's Head Chef Brian Hughson makes it his mission to source incredible foods from all over the United Kingdom, and bring them together in British-inspired menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our English breakfast included a mixed grill of sausage, bacon, black pudding and white pudding along with perfect poached eggs on tiny biscuit rounds. The requisite rack of toast came to the table with an array of British jams – apricot with lavender, marmalade, wild strawberry and more. Ravenous and extravagant, we opened and tested six different jams, slathering them on toast over sweet English butter. Riley downed several glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice and we both gratefully gulped cup after cup of hot, strong coffee with frothy warm milk.
During this meal we were introduced to the extraordinary experience that is service at The Dorchester. Throughout the hotel, the staff senses the precise moment you have a need or a request, and they also know when you want quiet privacy. The helpful servers that day, who hailed from all over Europe, shared a sensitivity and professionalism that is unparalleled. Always helpful but never obtrusive, warm and friendly but never overly familiar – everyone on staff strikes a balance that makes the guest feel welcome and supported in every way.
Feeling "at home" was amplified further when we were escorted to our hotel room after breakfast. All the rooms at The Dorchester are decorated in traditional English Country House style. The interior designers are known for their work in residential environments, and this is evident when you are ensconced in rooms full of overstuffed easy chairs, extremely comfortable beds, and beautiful bathrooms with Italian marble fixtures and the deepest bathtubs ever! The greatest temptation is to stay in your room and revel in the extraordinary comfort and luxury! However, the City of London was at our doorstep and so we headed out to explore.
When you stay at The Dorchester, you live in the heart of London's fashionable Mayfair district, within walking distance of prestigious shops and theatres. On our first day, Riley and I strolled the world-famous shopping streets of Oxford, Bond, Regent and Piccadilly. We saw spectacular window displays at Tiffany and Cartier, jogged through the Fortnum & Mason food halls, and made a pilgrimage to Liberty of London. Since 1875, Liberty has been synonymous with leading edge design, fashion and luxury goods. Its iconic fabrics have been recognizable for over a century and I have a passion for collecting vintage Liberty scarves. On this trip to the Liberty flagship store, I chose a fabulous silk scarf in shades of turquoise, aqua and green. Our next shopping pilgrimage was to fulfill my husband's request for soap from the quintessentially British parfumer, Penhaligon's. Founded as a barber shop in 1870 by William Penhaligon, this perfume emporium is famous throughout the world for its distinctive scents and high quality ingredients. We purchased Blenheim Bouquet soap for its fresh citrus signature, and took our beautiful cologne-spritzed packages back to our rooms at The Dorchester.
After dinner with friends and 36 hours without sleep, I was ready to collapse into bed. Riley, much younger and more energetic, met up with young London friends at The Dorchester Bar.
Riley's View: The Dorchester Bar
"It's not every day you get to be at the Dorchester Bar," said my friend from London. This was excuse to order another round; relevant if ever anything was. The Bar at the Dorchester is an experience; enter and you are bathed in hip, serene, and modern surroundings.
You will be given the option to sit at one of the many tables or the long, curving bar. We chose to sit at the bar. Good choice: the staff is friendly and professional. No wonder Travel + Leisure named Giuliano Morandin the Best Barman in the World and the Best Barman in London for 2009!
The drinks are as exemplary as the environment and service. The menu lists Fancy Drinks, "Twinklers" (drinks made with Champagne), and Classics (both Timeless and Revisited). When you order, be sure to ask for something special. My friend had a Ramos Fizz which was made with special bespoke flower water; more like an artisanal sherbet than a cocktail. I had the infamous Hendrick's Tea Time Martini, made with Hendricks gin and the Dorchester's bespoke rose-petal jelly. It's made in a teapot, served in a teacup perched on a cocktail glass stem, and the rose-petal jelly is a perfect complement to the smoothness of the gin.
I would be remiss if I did not include the most interesting drink on the menu: The Champagne Shimmer. It's made with champagne and gold dust, it includes a tube of the Dorchester's lip gloss that you (or the young, presumably, lady for whom you purchase this concoction) get to keep. The lip gloss has an LED light built into it that, quite literally, makes this drink shimmer. Order it for the spectacle, or just wait a few minutes because, inevitably, somebody will.
We started the next day with breakfast in the stunning Promenade at the heart of the Dorchester Hotel. With its rich silk draperies, oversized gold-framed mirrors, high-backed divans, deep sofas and intimate tables, The Promenade is a perfect setting for a meal or snack any time of day. In fact, The Promenade serves a sumptuous afternoon tea and has been recognized three times by the British Tea Council as "The Top Tea Place in London."
After breakfast I met Rosanna Crawley, Head of Communications for the hotel. We walked the full length of The Promenade and Rosanna noted how all the main dining rooms were arrayed along the length of this grand hall.
We peeked inside the Alain Ducasse Dining Room, elegant with its high ceilings and views over Hyde Park. In January 2009 this restaurant was awarded two Michelin Stars and tipped as a "rising three." The centrepiece of the room is the Table Lumière, a magical table for six guests in a private circle of 4,500 shimmering fibre optics.
We traveled behind the scenes to visit the cavernous kitchens where we were greeted by Executive Chef Henri Brosi who showed us his private dining room. Operated in partnership with Krug Champagnes, this walnut-paneled room with red leather dining chairs overlooks the kitchen through a liquid-crystal wall that can go from clear to opaque with the flip of a switch. Custom meals are designed to celebrate the various flavors of Krug champagne along with chef-inspired tasting dishes.
The Spa at The Dorchester is an oasis of beauty and calm. The design is inspired by 1930s Art Deco elegance, and features deep blue and ivory backdrops complimented with velvet, silk, leather and satin materials. The spa has nine treatment rooms including two double suites, mani-pedi suite and very sleek relaxation room. The uniquely named "Spatisserie" is an intimate space for light lunches, afternoon tea and Champagne and Spa cocktails – all reflecting the ethos explained by Rosanna as 'a little of what you love is good for you.' It is easy to see why The Spa is as popular with local Mayfair ladies as it is with hotel guests.
After the hotel tour, Riley and I ventured back into the streets of London, touring the colorful Soho district, again within walking distance of the hotel. In Soho, we came upon an eclectic tailor shop called Nino's.
Riley's View: Nino's Tailor Shop in Soho
Here is some important advice: if you see small tailor shops in your wanderings through London, go into them! They are reasonable in price and very high in both quality and style. If you are in Soho, make that small tailor shop Nino's on Brewer Street. Angelica, who owns the shop with her father Franco and brother Nino, kindly showed us around the small store, with its wonderful hand-made merchandise.
We purchased cufflinks made by a London craftsman, a tie made with Italian fabric, and a London-made scarf. Their main business is fine bespoke tailoring, especially in shirts. You can get a truly unique shirt here; three button cuffs, brilliant colors, Italian fabrics, all manner of embellishment. If you want to remember London every time you go out, I recommend a Nino shirt heartily.
One of the centerpieces of our trip was a fantastic dinner at the Dorchester's Grill Restaurant. We felt very much at home in this lovely dining room, and I looked around to see the variety of guests – a few business groups, couples, families – all reflecting the fact that the hotel enjoys a large regular clientele from London, many of whom treat the hotel as their club. Rounding out the patronage were the hotels' guests, visitors from around the world, here to enjoy the best of Britain!
We started our meal with a glass of champagne, followed by delicious appetizers – mine a trio of dressed crab columns and Riley's a sandwich of duck confit and fois gras nestled between thin layers of spiced gingerbread crisps. Our main courses truly reflected the philosophy of the restaurant, featuring aged Welsh black beef and Dorset Down's lamb. For dessert we managed to share a "conversation of chocolate" and a brandy souffle with sage sorbet. Throughout the meal, the fabulously helpful sommelier, Jason McAuliffe, assisted with the selection of wines to perfectly complement each course.
That night, we enjoyed another exceptionally comfortable stay at the Dorchester and the next day, an easy train ride from Paddington Station took us into the heart of Oxford. We dragged our suitcases through the cold, misty, narrow, cobblestoned streets of Oxford, getting thoroughly lost in the process. A helpful chap directed us to our hotel, which was known for its landmark status as 'the old prison." You might be slightly nervous thinking of your hotel in such an infamous setting, but when we finally arrived at The Malmaison, we were relieved to see a beautiful, stately building with hardly a hint of its former identity! (Well, once inside the remnants of prison life are in evidence, but more on that in a minute...!)
The name "Malmaison" comes from the name of the original home of Napoleon and Josephine, a grand house just west of Paris that was seen in its time as an icon of great style and modern thinking. There are 12 Malmaison hotels across the United Kingdom, each one distinctive in its history and design. What they share is a philosophy that says, "individual hotels for individual people – great style, great food and great value."
The Oxford Malmaison Hotel sits on the historic five-acre site of a castle built by William the Conqueror in 1071. The only remaining building from 11th century is the St. George's Tower, home to a medieval crypt. Known also as Oxford Castle, the site's history as a prison has been documented as far back as 1230 and it was in active use until 1995.
We entered the gently-lit reception area carved out of a series of Gothic arches. Panelled walls of ebony black, floors of limestone with crimson carpets, and arrangements of contemporary furniture told us that this was a very modern incarnation of the old castle and prison! In fact, the hotel is very hip with a young, professional clientele. The staff is extremely friendly and their cheerful demeanor was in evidence throughout our stay. We were shown to our spacious room by the hotel's very personable manager, Andrew Creese. On a tour of the property, he took us through the dramatically beautiful "Cell Block A," with its soaring, multi-story atrium and central staircases that echo the design of the original prison. Rooms in "Cell Block A" are constructed from three adjacent cells, and the triple-arched ceiling clearly shows the original layout. While these rooms are now spacious and elegant, it is hard to imagine that nine prisoners once occupied the same space!
We enjoyed a very welcome teatime in the "Visitors Room" which is in fact where prisoners and their families once congregated. With its cavernous ceiling and iron-barred windows, the room is dramatic and stylish. Later, we had a wonderful dinner in the Brasserie, housed beneath the arching sandstone ceilings of the vaults. We experienced another wonderful meal that showcased local British foodstuffs and ingredients – lamb shanks, local beef, and wonderful veggies! The next day we had a wonderful continental breakfast augmented with British eggs and local, strong cheese.
The hip and stylish Malmaison Hotel served as a wonderful contrast to the antiquity of Oxford. While Riley toured the university and several of its colleges, I wound my way through the old streets and visited the shops. Of particular interest was the Covered Market, which was built in 1774 in an attempt to corral the messy farmers stalls that were sprawling in all directions through the streets of town. Today the market is home to butchers and bakers, as well as to fashionable boutiques and artisans' tiny shops.
Riley and I met for lunch in one of Oxford's oldest and most beloved pubs, the Eagle and Child.
Riley's View: The Eagle & Child Pub
The Eagle and Child, locally nicknamed as the Bird and Baby, was particularly memorable. Built around 1650, it is a firm part of old Oxford - owned by St. John's College. I recommend a peek into St John's; the college luxuriates in medieval glory, stretching across a quad you would swear cannot fit into tightly-packed Oxford.
When you get to the Eagle and Child pub, see if you can sit down in the Rabbit Room at the back. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their whole literary crowd lunched and drank here while writing their famous works. Order the following two things: a savory pie and a pint of bitter. The Eagle and Child reeks of authenticity and its food and drink keep up the standard. Pies such as chicken and leek, turkey and Stilton, or beef and kidney are served in the British fashion: steaming hot, accompanied by mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. The food is satisfying and rich - you will not need to eat again for many hours. Good value for about ten quid.
If you visit Oxford University, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer antiquity of the institution. It is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, in operation for over nine centuries. Today students from more than 140 countries make up a population of 20,000 and over one-third of all students are from outside the United Kingdom. The Oxford faculty are from all corners of the world too, and the town is a wonderful blend of near and far, old and new.
The end of our excursion came far too quickly. I am encouraging Riley to attend Oxford so we can return again to explore more of what England has to offer.