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London - The world and his wife, his children and myriad grandchildren have come to Claridge's over the years, but mostly it's been the world's royalty. The Ritz, The Savoy, Grosvenor House and London's other grand hotels may compete with it in opulence, but none can hold a scented candle to Claridge's when it comes to richness of history and magnificence of clientele.
It was the London home for the war-exhausted Winston and Clementine Churchill in 1945, after Labour's landslide election win. It's where the crowned heads of Europe (including the kings of Norway, Greece and Holland) fetched up after they were deposed by revolution and war in the 1930s and 1940s. When King Alfonso XIII of Spain arrived in London in spring 1931, on the run from a Republican uprising in Madrid, he was welcomed in the lobby of Claridge's by King Manuel II of Portugal, who'd arrived 10 years earlier. On 17 July 1945, Crown Prince Alexander II of Yugoslavia was born in suite 212; some earth from his home country was placed under the bed, so the future king could be said to have been born “on Yugoslav soil”. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have dined there hundreds of times, and chose Claridge's as the venue for their ruby wedding anniversary party.
For Hollywood stars and rock gods, from Burton and Taylor and Cary Grant to Mick Jagger, Bono and Lady Gaga, it became a must-stay destination. Operatic and literary divas, accustomed to extremes of pampering, meet new levels of it here. When Dame Barbara Cartland was en route to tea, the hotel would have her secretary confirm whether she was in pink or turquoise, so they could lay her table in matching colours. High-profile friendships were struck up in the dining room, the cloakroom, the bar. Bing Crosby and Raymond (“Perry Mason”) Burr first met in the lift and were friends by the third floor. “When I die I don't want to go to heaven,” said Spencer Tracy. “I want to go to Claridge's.”
Claridge's - or the building at least - started life 200 years ago when, in 1812, James Mivart founded a small boarding house called Mivart's Hotel at 49 Brook Street, Mayfair. He had remarkable connections. After the fallout from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he entertained royal guests at his modest estaminet. In 1854 he sold the business to William and Marianne Claridge who owned the houses that ran to the corner of Davies Street: “Claridge's, late Mivart's” was born - a cumbersome construction, soon shortened.
Marianne Claridge was a cool beauty, as her portrait in the hotel lobby attests today. Her husband William was, by all accounts, the walking embodiment of a bow and scrape, a one-man lexicon of servilities. He had many opportunities to demonstrate them. After the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840, London became a haven for official visits from the world's royalty, and many came to Claridge's.
In 1860, Empress Eugénie of France visited London, made Claridge's her winter quarters, and invited Victoria and Albert to call. They did. It was the best-quality seal of approval. By the 1880s, it was “the extension to Buckingham Palace” and everyone in the Almanach de Gotha came a-visiting.
A new chapter opened in 1894 when the Savoy Hotel's owner Richard D'Oyly Carte bought Claridge's, gutted the old buildings and replaced them with modern hotel facilities, lifts and walk-in bathrooms. The modern hotel was born in 1898 with 203 rooms and suites.
Walk in today, and your eye is ravished by the dimensions of the lobby. It's not huge, but it looks a mile wide because of the black-and-white marble floor and the graceful declivity of the staircase. Both are the work of Oswald P Milne, who redesigned the public spaces in 1929. At the bottom of the stairs a huge Christmas tree dominates the view, a Tim Burton-ish, Snow Queen extravaganza of magnolia branches and linden moss, from which hang crystal and emerald jewel eggs in white, gold and silver. It's designed by Kally Ellis from McQueens floral designers (no relation to Alexander).
People gather around you. Elena Hanusch the duty manager somehow knows the names of each new arrival. Operations manager Michael Bonsor, a trim and elegant Scot, pumps your hand. Other staffers chip in to wonder if you'd like something in the bar to revive you after the stress of checking into your room.
In front of you is the Foyer, where visiting plutocrats enjoy a languid breakfast, and where ordinary mortals bring their daughters for tea on their 18th birthdays. It's all cream-and-soft-green hues, after you've got past the three dazzling Art Deco arches and Ionic pillars. Hanging from the 18ft ceiling is a crazily ornate Chihuly chandelier, a Medusa's head of 800 interlocking frosted-glass snakes.
Walk through the Foyer and you find the Reading Room restaurant, utterly distinctive with its four great red pillars, like the funnels of an ocean-going liner. If you're lucky, they'll direct you to Audrey Hepburn's favourite corner table, beside which a panel of button-backed red velvet climbs luxuriously up the wall.
The Fumoir cocktail bar is a titchy miracle of Art Deco brushed steel and Lalique crystal, the walls dominated by William Klein portraits of Anouk Aimée and other French beauties in torn veils and mouthfuls of smoke. The bar itself dates back to 1929, though the room was re-ticked by David Collins in the 1990s. As the name implies, this is where guests used to smoke - mostly Cuban cigars called Macanudos. Today, you can rely on Oliver Blackburn, the young cocktail barman, to regale you with interesting drinks, especially the Claridge's Julep (champagne, calvados and raspberry preserve with fresh mint), the Flapper (kir royale with crushed strawberry) and a unique vodka martini: Konik's Tail wheat vodka, frozen to -15C and poured straight on to a glass pre-chilled with ice and sprayed with Noilly Prat vermouth. After 45 minutes of trying this and that and shooting the breeze with Oliver, you feel you might stay there for ever.
The hotel is currently the subject of a three-part BBC2 documentary, Inside Claridge's, directed by Jane Treays. This is the first time cameras have been allowed down the hallowed corridors, into the suites which can set back a modern Croesus £6,900 a night, and backstage in the kitchens where staff prepare the 1,000 lobsters and chill the 60,000 bottles of champagne required by Claridge's guests every year.
TV viewers have been introduced to Thomas Kochs, the perma-smiling German general manager. At one point, Kochs faced the imminent arrival of a demanding diva, a Tokyo pop star known as “the Japanese Britney Spears”. She was travelling with an entourage of 35, and demanded a Jacuzzi in her suite. “Our penthouse doesn't have a Jacuzzi,” said Thomas sleekly. “But it will … in about four days.” We met John Alves, who operates the oldest working lift in the UK, and who is a bit of a gossip. “The Queen of Spain was in here last week,” he confided. “Tom Cruise likes to stand here in front of the mirror.” Madonna, breathed John, actually parked her astounding derrière on the sofa that is his constant companion.
We learned that some guests forgetfully leave wads of thousands of pounds in bags locked in the room safes. That dogs are checked into rooms with their personal toys, food and water bowls. That many of the suites have pianos in them - the Royal Suite houses the piano on which Arthur Sullivan composed operettas with W S Gilbert. And that some guests ask the management to change the decor of their rooms.
How could they? I'd been given one of the Linley Suites for the night: a stage-set bedroom, with a bed wide enough to house a basketball team: it and the cupboards are all handmade in pale wood by David Linley's cabinetmakers. The bathroom is black-and-white marble; the lavatory has a heated seat. The soap is geranium scented, the shower softly assertive; the towelling robes enfold you in a Mabel Lucie Attwell bathtime embrace.
In the living room, you can admire the captain-of-industry desk, the squashy sofa, television and music selections, but I was thrilled to find a minibar which contained real drinks (mostly champagne). This is a luxury long abandoned by even posh hotels. The real bonus of a Claridge's suite, though, is the round-the-clock butler service. Ours, Stephen Boness, started his career as a waiter in Bermuda and an events manager in Washington DC, before trying butlering in Mayfair. He spoke with pleasure of the “family” of Claridge's, staff and customers - and before you make I'm-going-to-vomit gestures, remember that, among the suites, 80 per cent of their market is repeat business, “so we know people's likes and dislikes”. They take pride in serving people well. Stephen tells you about the film star who, on his way out to a dinner with Barack Obama, begged Stephen to advise him about which way to slant the handkerchief in his breast pocket. And the “socialite” who enjoyed a drink or three: Stephen had to stop him from heading for a big fashion event with a price tag dangling from his jacket and the label still on his new shoes.
Before we left, I noticed something that's distinctively Claridge's: male staff, from the doorman to the liftman, by way of the butler and the maître d', are big touchers. They'll touch your arm, very gently, to guide you, or when they're saying goodbye. It's curiously intimate and reassuring, though it may not delight everybody. Heaven knows if it's something taught by the management; if so, it's just one final grace note in the symphony of delights you experience at Claridge's.
The chilliest puritan would melt under the onslaught of indulgence, the carpet-bombing with charm, that bewilders you when you stay here. The hotel's raison d'être is huge but simple: to give people accommodation, drink, food and sleep that's as close to perfection as you can get, without ever becoming servile; to pamper, and tickle and delight the rich while making them feel, as Churchill felt in 1945, that they're - rather unexpectedly - at home.
Claridge's, Brook Street, London W1K 4HR (020-7629 8860; claridges.co.uk).
Doubles from £300 (about R4 000), room only. The Timeless Christmas package costs £795 per room per night, 24-26 Dec. - The Independent on Sunday