Early-morning arrivals can be hell for weary travellers but Michael Gebicki finds a way to stay rested in London.
As luck would have it, my Virgin Atlantic flight is the first to land after the 4.30am curfew ends at Heathrow, and it's barely 5.45am when the taxi drops me at the front door of the Notting Hill Bed and Breakfast. My host has been primed to expect me early, and this is well outside a respectable hour, but it's freezing. The coldest March since 1962, and snowflakes are landing in soggy splotches on my jacket. I can either stomp up and down in freezing cold for the next hour or ring. I press the bell. A voice answers, sleepy but quick. "Allo?" Antonella Miro is an exotic mix of Italian and French, and she's the one apologising. "Excuse me, I'm in my dressing gown, but I'll come down and open the front door."
In London, this is nothing short of a miracle. Show up at any hotel early in the morning and chances are you'll be left clicking your heels until your room has been serviced, which might not be until 2pm. Since most flights from Australia arrive in the early morning, this is a common problem faced by Aussie travellers. The other option is to shower and hang around at Heathrow, or pay for a room the night before you arrive in order to cater to your early morning arrival.
I've booked through London-based Bed and Breakfast Club, and they're remarkably understanding when it comes to early-morning arrivals. While they cannot guarantee that you'll be able to gain early admission to your room - they tell me it's up to the host, and whether they have a vacant room the night before - they'll do their best. The club's forte is modestly swanky accommodation in private homes located in some of London's most desirable real estate, such as Holland Park, South Kensington, Knightsbridge and Chelsea. Prices range from about £65 ($96) to £125 a night for a double room, keen value for London accommodation.
Located just off the residential part of Portobello Road, Miro's house is typical of the area's three-storey villas. The two guest rooms are on the top floor, two long flights up in the high-ceilinged house. Mine, with a queen-size bed, is decorated in gold tones with crisp bed linen. A double-glazed window overlooks the street, and it's quiet. There's a decent-size cupboard and a selection of teas and coffee to go with the electric jug. The bathroom next door is exclusively mine, a proper family-size bathroom with a bath, but only a hand-held shower piece, no shower screen or curtain, which makes showering without soaking the bathroom slightly tricky. Shampoo and conditioner are by Molton Brown. The other guest room across the hall has twin beds and a cupboard shower. It feels slightly larger, and this may be a better choice for couples.
Breakfast is served in the dining room. There's juice, granola, yoghurt, strawberries, kiwi fruit, banana, whole-wheat toast with jam, cheese and ham, and tea or coffee, made from a capsule-espresso machine. It's billed as a continental breakfast, but Miro also offers me bacon and eggs.
On the other side of the kitchen is a spacious conservatory, the family's informal sitting room, with big couches and a view into the walled garden.
The TV in my room doesn't work but I'm welcome to watch the big flat-screen TV in the conservatory. There's Wi-Fi throughout the house. Miro is a lively and well-travelled host, with a keen appreciation of the local dining and shopping scene. With her daughter about to head overseas to university, it's just she and her husband in the big house and she looks forward to sharing it with visitors.
The position offers calm with convenience. Notting Hill tube station is a five-minute walk away. In the other direction, and closer still, is The Ledbury, where ex-Novocastrian Brett Graham has won two Michelin stars, and 13th spot on the 2013 S.Pellegrino World's Best Restaurant list. Another gastro star in the same stretch is Ottolenghi, the patisserie part of Yotam Ottolenghi's food empire.
Stroll to Westbourne Grove and you have a galaxy of dining options, including Carluccio's casual bistro, the legendary Khan's Indian restaurant, brasseries, pubs and a handful of Persian restaurants. Paddington Station, the terminus for the express train from Heathrow, is a £5.50 taxi ride away.
It's so comfortable at Miro's that I book in for an extra night when I return to London. I'm leaving the following night, but I'm faced with a 10pm flight. I ask her if it's OK to leave my bags in the house until my 7.30pm pick-up. No problem, she says. Come and go as you want, use your room until you leave. Have a rest, take a shower - it's a long flight home.
Compared with the pursed lips and furrowed brow that is the usual response when you request a late check-out in a hotel, such generosity is priceless.
The Bed and Breakfast Club represents about two dozen properties scattered in and around London, and a small number of properties around Portsmouth. See thebedandbreakfastclub.co.uk.