Two years ago (plus a few months or so), I explored the then-under construction St. Ermin’s Hotel in London, which was in the midst of a massive renovation and due to reopen just before the Royal Wedding. (Remember that?) This week, I’m back to see the finished product and explore more of London courtesy of Visit Britain.
First off, the hotel: St. Ermin’s is a decidedly classic and quaint historic property that has long been connected with nearby Westminster and Parliament. Its renovation managed to preserve many historic elements, and the design nicely blends classic and contemporary so that neither aspect overwhelms the other. The renovated rooms are not huge or over-the-top, but instead have a decidedly homey vibe that is truly comforting for a travel-weary guest. The international staff at the hotel are also very sweet: One showed us a doorway that leads to tunnels that may or may not reach all the way to Westminster; another dropped off a complimentary macaron cookie not long after I checked in. Wi-Fi is free, and the desks have international electric plugs.
After lunch at the hotel's fine-dining establishment Caxton grill (try the de-boned grilled whole chicken...amazing!), we set off with tour operator Small Car, Big City (smallcarbigcity.com), which drives visitors around in classic Mini Coopers. The benefit of this kind of tour is that the Minis can get into small alleyways that larger motorcoaches can’t, giving guests a real look at the hidden gems of the city. Our hosts, Jay and Sam (pictured), shared some great stories about London’s history and attractions, and had clear answers for all of our questions, and plenty of cool trivia. (For example, the neighborhood of Elephant and Castle was named after a pub. Only in London, folks...)
From there, we headed up to the Shard, the brand-new building that towers over the Tower and its Bridge. Later this year, Shangri-La Hotels will make its UK debut on several floors within the building. The View from the Shard is the official name for the viewing platform on the upper floors, and it is an absolute must for anyone who wants a bird’s-eye view of the city without going on the Eye. Once on the designated floors, visitors can walk 360 degrees around the building and gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling all-glass walls. Sadly, we arrived in the evening and in the rain, so our view was a bit dark and blurry. Fortunately, visitors can use special “telescopes” that aren’t telescopes at all, but flat screens hooked up to cameras that display either the live view or pre-recorded shots of the scene at sunrise, in bright daylight or at night. (And yes, the screen really does display the photograph as though you were looking at it live. The machine can sense where the camera is aimed and display the right image in real time.)
Perhaps coolest of all is the second floor of The View from the Shard, which is partially open to the elements. If the view wasn't enough, feeling the wind from 70 stories up is a sure-fire way to get a real sense of place. Personally, I can’t wait to go back in summer. On a warm, sunny day, there would be no better spot to look over the city.