I had such an incredible stay at the Ham Yard Hotel the prior year, I could not resist returning. Having stayed at the hotel just a few days after it’s much anticipated opening (see my review here), I was curious to check out some of the areas that were not yet opened on my prior stay. But mostly I wanted to see if the hotel still had the same buzz and energy that was so pervasive in its first months.
London is one of my all-time favorite cities. The city seems to be continuously reinventing itself. From the gastropubs of hip Shoreditch to the dizzying street style foods of Soho, there is always something new and cool to uncover each time I visit.
I was all too happy to spend an extended weekend in London and escape the Pope/United Nations gridlock in New York City the last week in September. With the new Departures London October 2015 issue (how timely!) in hand, I dashed to the airport – after a 24-hour Yom Kippur fast – to catch a red-eye flight (take note: you won’t find an emptier JFK airport than on Yom Kippur!).
I can’t think of a better time to visit London then late September. After the summer tourists retreat, the city celebrates with events and exhibits such as Fashion Week (September 18-22), the month-long Totally Thames festival, and London Design Festival (19-27), all happening simultaneously. The unseasonably balmy 70 degree days during my stay was a huge plus. I also had the guilty pleasure of watching the first two new episodes of Downtown Abbey, whose final season won’t debut here in U.S. until January. I won’t dispense with any spoilers!
While my main excuse for my visit to London was work-related, I was able to squeeze time in to see friends, check out some of the newest restaurants and do a little window shopping. There are many hotels here I still want to review (such as the family-owned 105-year old The Goring in Belgravia which re-opened its doors this past March after a major renovation), but I had such an incredible stay at the Ham Yard Hotel the prior year, I could not resist returning. Having stayed at the hotel just a few days after it’s much anticipated opening (see my review here), I was curious to check out some of the areas that were not yet opened on my prior stay. But mostly I wanted to see if the hotel still had the same buzz and energy that was so pervasive in its first months.
I am delighted to emphatically say, yes yes yes – the Ham Yard is as fabulous as ever! There’s a reason Departures dubbed Firmdale’s flagship hotel the “happiest hotel in London’.
My last time at Ham Yard was bit frenzied, with family in tow. This time, checking in solo, I was able to explore the Soho neighborhood, where Ham Yard is centrally situated, at my own pace.
It would be a challenge for anyone to find a hotel with a more central, convenient location. The Piccadilly Circus tube is around the corner, quickly transporting you to the antique shops in Notting Hill, the museums in Kensington or the department stores in Knightsbridge. Covent Garden, the West End theater district and posh Mayfair neighborhoods are all surrounding you, just a short walk away. And, many of the hottest new restaurants (see my list below) such as Black Lock, Palomar, and Barrafina are literally around the corner. Nearby Bleak Street, which leads you to always-fun Carnaby Street, possesses one enticing restaurant after another. Liberty and Top Shop? Both a stones throw away. Even a Whole Foods market is conveniently behind the hotel!
Last year at the Ham Yard, I was fortunate to stay in one of the 2-bedroom suites (I think we were the first ones to occupy them), which I would happily move into permanently anytime. This time, my accommodation for four nights was room #401, a femininely-decorated room decorated in an attractive color combination of navy and raspberry with a generously sized granite bathroom. I appreciated the Kit-Kemp-exclusive Rik Rak bath and aromatherapy products, the thoughtful edible gifts left in my room by the hotel manager, and the well-placed U.S. outlets, thank you! The king-size bed outfitted in Frette linens was divine…and ideally suited for lounging back and watching reruns of Pride and Prejudice – well hello, young Colin Firth!
It’s hard to get a bad room here (although the low floor rooms overlooking the courtyard where people spill out during the evening can be noisier) as all the individually-designed rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows and high ceilings. I personally prefer the 4th floor rooms as they are quiet, located on the same floor as the rooftop garden, and offer a direct elevator to the spa. I was able to experience one of my best massages ever at the now-open small but wonderful Soholistic Spa, under the expert hands of Emma. Make sure to seek her out!
The Roof Terrace, now open and exclusive to hotel guests, is a serene oasis that serves multiple functions as an outdoor living room, entertaining space and an extensive garden of herbs, fruits and vegetables used in many of the marinades, sauces and drinks served at Ham Yard’s restaurant and bar. Worth also checking out (but not too closely) are the two bee hives, home to about 600 resident bees making honey used in the cocktails at the bar. I recommend coming here for a pre-dinner drink or afternoon tea, especially as you are likely to find the main bar (except Sundays, perhaps) packed several feet deep – and often spilling into the courtyard – during happy hour.
One of the features I like best about the Ham Yard is that there are so many different places to lounge, my favorites being the two drawing rooms flanking the main entrance. Exclusive to guests with a fully-stocked honor bar, these warm and inviting areas are best enjoyed with a pre-dinner drink in hand.
One year after its opening, the Ham Yard has proven without a doubt to be much more than a pretty face. As a guest, it’s hard to stray elsewhere when you have experienced such a ‘perfect storm’ of design, service, comfort and location and positive energy in one place. I remain a fervent admirer.
Things to Do in London
With so many exhibitions and events happening this September, I made a short list in hand of the ones I absolutely wanted to catch. Unfortunately, trying to find this sculpture (pictured above) created for the Totally Thames festival called Rising Tide (an underwater installment of horses that rise out of the Thames during low tide), proved too difficult a task for this New Yorker. What was supposed to be a 2-minute trip on the hop on/off river boat actually turned into an hour-long cruise in the wrong direction and to the outskirts of London. All was not lost – I did get to revisit obligatory city landmarks such as the London Eye, Big Ben and Tower of London. They were probably under water anyway.
Victoria & Albert Museum – I always love to come here and check out the current exhibits. Barnaby Barford’s Tower of Babel, an extraordinary pyramid of 3,000 porcelain miniatures of real London shops, is on exhibit through November 1. The Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibit (on through the end of January), displaying more than 200 different pairs of shoes through history, is also fun and worth a detour.
Covent Garden – A 10-minute walk from the Ham Yard, Covent Garden has wonderful boutiques and cafes near the junction of Seven Dials where seven streets converge (Monmouth street, where Neal’s Yard Dairy is located, and Earlham Streets are especially worth walking) . The more touristy Covent Garden Market and the streets surrounding it is a bit more hectic but always has some public installment on display. I was able to catch the last day of an incredible art installation of 100,000 balloons across the length of the Market called Heartbeat.
Soho – Of all London neighborhoods, I prefer Soho, with its quirky shops and pubs, for exploring without any agenda. After leaving Liberty of London (a mandatory stop each visit – this very British but manageable department store/emporium has a well-curated selection of clothing, furnishings and accessories), I made a wonderful discovery this trip called Cowshed on Foubert’s Place. Walking into this British shop is like transporting yourself to the English countryside. Along with a wide array of holistic bath, body and skin care products, there is a quick mani/pedi service and spa treatments. I stocked up here before realizing there is now a U.S. website.
Notting Hill is best experienced on a Saturday (for its flea market) or a quieter Sunday. Electric Cinema, one of the oldest and most beautiful cinemas in the U.K, is located in the center of it all on 191 Portobello Road and worth a detour in itself. Check ahead for a list of movie screenings on its website and book tickets aheads as there are only 65 seats (choose a sofa or arm chair). After a long day of walking, I indulged myself and watched Everest in 3D. Wrapping myself in the cashmere blanket provided in each footstool, with glass of wine and cheese (coffee and donuts are also available if you prefer or bring in a cupcake from neighboring Hummingbird Bakery ) in hand, I sank down in my luxuriously comfortable leather arm chair. Blissful. Now this is the way to see a film.
Where To Eat
Guided by London friends, Departures magazine and the London food writer from Fodors, I had a long list on hand of the newest ‘must go’ places to eat. Stay tuned for a more comprehensive listing of our fave places to eat, shop and stay in London in our upcoming City Guides in November. Below are some highlights (see more places in our A Family Affair in London post):
Around the Ham Yard Hotel
Polpo. 41 Bleak Street. A popular lunch spot serving Italian small-plate dishes of meatballs, pizzettes, pastas – all delicious. Sit at the counter before heading to Carnaby Street from the hotel.
Black Lock. Casual but hip spot serving steak or chops as the Brits call it (and all its droppings) in a basement. Hard not to drool just passing by this place.
The Palomar. 34 Rupert Street. On the list of all my London friends favorite restaurants, I was excited to try this teeny Jerusalem-tapas style restaurant just around the corner from the Ham Yard. Very difficult to get a reservation as only 40 seats but its better to sit at the kitchen bar (for walk-ins) anyway where all the cooking and fun happens. Although you can leave your phone number as a walk-in and go back to the hotel, we still endured over a two hour wait. The owner’s advice? Come at 6 p.m., leave your name and you will almost certainly be seated by 7 p.m. when the pre-theater crowd leaves. Dishes here are meant to be shared (4-5 for two people). Great vibe, friendly staff, awesome dishes – a must!
Bocca di Lupo. 12 Archer Street. As many food reviewers claim this is the best Italian food in London right now, I was eager to go here. Like the Palomar, there are few tables in back and a more-vibrant chefs counter where plates are meant to be shared. Our dishes were pleasing but not memorable and I found the ambience lacking (it was a Sunday night, to be fair). Still, I was a bit put off by the waiter who kept rushing us to order even though it was fairly empty. Disappointing.
Nopi. All-day Ottolenghi brasserie serving Mediterranean, middle east and Asian fare. Great pre-theater choice due to location but book way ahead as very popular right now.
Barrafina. 54 Frith Street. An authentic spanish tapas style restaurant (note the tapas theme going on here?) also around the corner from the Ham Yard. No reservations – walk in.
Other notable mentions:
Aubaine. 260 Brompton Road in Chelsea. There are several outposts in London, but I like this location the best. A few blocks from V&A Museum, it’s a super people-watching spot for Sunday brunch.
Neal’s Yard Dairy. On Monmouth Street in Covent Garden. Pick up some gourmet cheeses and crusty loaf of bread here for a picnic lunch.
202 or neighbor Daylesford Organic on 202-208 Westbourne Grove in Notting Hill. Both great choices to rest your feet after antique shopping on Portobello Road and people-watch. Both always seem to have a wait but there are shops all around Westbourne (and within both restaurants as well) to browse after you put your name on the list.
Tom’s Kitchen. A brasserie-style restaurant near Victoria & Albert Museum with classic comfort food. A solid choice for breakfast or brunch.
Ivy (West Street). Move over, Chiltern Firehouse, although we still love you! This celeb-favorite haunt reopened in June for its 100th birthday. Good chance to see Jude Law or Hugh Grant. A hard rezzie to get but the Ham Yard concierge is likely to snag you a table.
Chelsea Farmers Market. On Sydney Street off of Kings Road in Chelsea. This has a mix of chalet style shops and open-air restaurants. Ideal for lunch post-shopping on Kings Road when the weather cooperates. Stop next door at the Chelsea Gardener garden shop (NYers, think Marders and Mecox Gardens rolled in one).
Kitty Fisher. In Mayfair, named after an 18th-century courtesan, this is a casual but very cramped restaurant serving rustic fare with a Spanish twist cooked on an open grill. Also one of the hottest and hardest restaurants to get into right now – try a walk in!
Images courtesy of Inviato Travel and Ham Yard Hotel.