Dolphin House, London review: The Canny Traveller - Stay

Read our writer's views on this property below

Furnished apartments make a smart alternative to hotels for Mark Chipperfield.

WHAT Dolphin House, London.

WHERE On the River Thames at Pimlico, a stone's throw from the Houses of Parliament.

HOW MUCH Studios from $228 a night. Spacious one- and two-bedroom apartments also available.

WHY GO With a weak pound, crazy hotel deals and an abundance of cheap flights, London has unexpectedly become an affordable holiday destination. But no amount of discounting can disguise the fact that the standard London hotel room tends to be pokey, poorly ventilated and fraying around the edges. And if you're looking for the bar fridge, forget it.

No wonder today's savvy London-bound traveller is opting to stay in one of the capital's many apartment hotels, which offer space, light and modern amenities for about the same cost as a double room in a big-brand hotel.

For apartment living, Pimlico's Dolphin House is in a league of its own, offering a swish location, a fitness centre, elegant gardens, underground parking and a wide choice of smoke-free accommodation. Dating from 1936, Dolphin Square (of which Dolphin House is but one component) was once Europe's largest, self-contained apartment complex. Designed in the Art Deco style, the 1250 flats are grouped around a central garden courtyard – conveniently shielded from the hustle and bustle of London's busy streets.

Such was its opulence, the council-owned building soon became the favoured London pied-a-terre for actors, writers, judges and especially politicians who found the place handy for late-night sittings at Westminster.

Over the years, actor Peter Finch, British prime minister Harold Wilson and celebrity call-girl Christine Keeler have called Dolphin Square home.

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Dolphin Square has also figured prominently in the annals of British espionage. Sir Miles Messervy (the model for Ian Fleming's spymaster M) was a long-time resident, as was notorious Soviet spy John Vassall, arrested here in 1962.

After its purchase by Westminster City Council, the elegant pre-war pile was branded "a bourgeois council estate" but its appeal seems undiminished. At last count, some 59 members of parliament were still living at Dolphin Square.

New US owners have embarked on an ambitious program of refurbishment since acquiring the square in 2006. First fruits include the self-contained accommodation wing (Dolphin House), offering a range of studios and spacious apartments. With their contemporary colour schemes, well-chosen sofas and desks, galley kitchens and luxurious bathrooms, these apartments are a million miles from the normal London hotel room. My one-bedroom flat came with its own entrance hall, walk-in robe and central heating system. Linen, towels and toiletries are of the highest quality – as was the Hypnos king-size bed.

FREE STUFF The adjoining fitness club, which includes squash courts, a well-equipped gym and a superb 25-metre heated indoor swimming pool, is open to all guests.

ADDED BONUS Another legacy of Dolphin Square's post-war affluence is the in-house shopping arcade, which now includes a bottle shop, modest supermarket, pharmacy, florist's shop, newsagent and dry-cleaners. With its 1930s design and chatty shopkeepers, the arcade is a pleasant antidote to London's often abrasive big-store experience.

DETAILS Dolphin House, Dolphin Square, London SW1V 3LX. Phone: +44 (0)20 7798 8000, see www.dolphinsquare.co.uk.