The grand landmark building in Knightsbridge that houses the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park was opened as a gentleman's club in 1889 and became a hotel in 1902. In its interwar heyday, it was a favourite events venue for royalty and prime ministers; the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret supposedly learnt to dance in its ballroom. While this provides an agreeable back story to a stay, never mind that. What really matters is the Mandarin Oriental's current, very suave cocktail bar, large and agreeably padded and primped guestrooms, and two restaurants from Michelin-starred chefs, making it quite the London pied-à-terre from which to set forth and explore in style.
You'd have to be happy with this upmarket, central London location right beside a tube station (Knightsbridge) on the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow airport. Buckingham Palace is a 20-minute walk, Meghan Markle's new digs are a lovely 30-minute stroll through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Half the guestrooms face the park. If you hear a clip-clop mid-morning, lean out to see the red-coated Household Cavalry canter past.
The hotel is nearing the end of a complete but unobtrusive overhaul but, sensibly, nobody has messed with the distinctive exuberance of the turreted, redbrick facade or the slightly gloomy, uber-ornate Edwardian lobby and staircase, where fabulous hydrangeas erupt from enormous vases. Lounges beyond are light-flooded, chic and contemporary, with a few art deco flourishes and a toned-down palette that is quite the contrast to my guestroom corridor, pretty as a Harrods chocolate box in pale green with pink armchairs. Asian elements emerge in the excellent spa; there's also a good fitness centre and swimming pool.
My suite is large, with a hallway entrance, bedroom-sitting area and a marble bathroom that could host the cast of Holiday on Ice. I like the soft grey of the wall panels, the art deco-ish echoes and the subtle nods to the Hyde Park location, such as the carpet's silvery leaf motif, the chandelier's acorn-shaped lights and the mirror etched with swan feathers. A gorgeous bunch of fresh flowers combines orchids, roses and some dainty eucalyptus leaves. It's a beautiful space, but convenient details aren't forgotten, such as plugs in a pull-out drawer by the bedside table, a pillow menu, coffee machine and high-tech entertainment system – though with London beyond the doors, there's little need for that. La-di-da mineral water comes from Blenheim Palace estate.
For Michelin-starred swank and scrumptiousness, book well before arrival at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, where the chicken-liver parfait looks like a mandarin orange and the ice-cream trolley billows liquid nitrogen. More casual Bar Baloud serves French bistro fare. Think superb charcuterie plates, pulled rabbit, coq au vin the old-fashioned way, and a burger stuffed with foie gras and short-rib beef. A multi-tiered afternoon tea in the Rosebery Lounge is accompanied by champagne or teas recommended by a tea master.
Turn the corner occupied by the French Embassy and you're in leafy Hyde Park. Alternatively, head the other way into the elegant Knightsbridge district. Posh department store Harvey Nichols is across the road, Harrods not much further. The famous Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (for arts and design) are a walk away.
The atmosphere at the Mandarin Oriental is gracious without being stuffy from the moment the red-coated, top-hatted doorman opens the door. Guestrooms eschew glitz for subtle decor and contemporary comforts while retaining historic charm. Despite the Asian origins of the hotel group, it feels like the best of British.
From the friendly receptionists and restaurant staff to the butler lurking on every floor, the service at the Mandarin Oriental is as hard to fault as the impeccable location. Hats off to attentive breakfast waiter Alberto and helpful concierge Francois.
My guestroom has glimpses of Big Ben and The Shard, and looks over the handsome Victorian brick buildings that line Knightsbridge, topped with Union Jacks. However, it suffers from traffic noise, displeasing at this price point. Best book a park-side room.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of APT and Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.