By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Watching the sun come up with the Southern Pride was one of the highlights of our trip.
On a recent safari trip to South Africa we stayed at Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge and Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge (Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, Sabi Sand Wildtuin, Mpumalanga, South Africa, lodge +27 13 7355-656, Sabi Sabi head office +27 11 447-7172, www.sabisabi.com, email@example.com). The two five star properties, members of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, were family owned and located within the 6,000 hectare Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, which is within the Sabi Sand Reserve. It in turn is a Big Five reserve adjacent (without fences) to the famous Kruger National Park. At Bush Lodge we stayed in comfortable and spacious rooms, and we especially enjoyed the game viewing in a private vehicle and spa massage.
Our beds had color coordinated mosquito netting, a change from the customary white netting
Our spacious bathrooms had a bathtub as well as indoor and outdoor showers.
During our visit, Stefan Schoeman, general manager lodges, Sabi Sabi, assisted us with camera related issues with speed and ease. We were glad to have our cameras in good working order since we saw the Big Five at Bush Lodge. On our first of two game drives we saw four of the Big Five. We drove around in an open Toyota LandCruiser in search of wildlife and interesting natural features to observe. We were delighted to have the game vehicle and Francois Rosslee, ranger, and Dollen Nkosi, tracker, to our selves. We have found that private game drives enhance our bush experience. So it was at Bush Lodge. Francois, a friendly man fond of his job, had been our ranger at Earth Lodge, where we had shared the vehicle with two other guests. That facilitated our arrival and check-in at its sister lodge.
The main deck had several lookout points over the dry river
Francois was a Full Trails Guide Level 2 of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) with six years of experience and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. Dollen had attained a FGASA Tracker Level 2 and had been with Sabi Sabi for nine years.
Our ranger Francois Rosslee (right) horsing around with Lawrence Mkansi, assistant lodge manager and head ranger
At Bush Lodge we saw the following mammals: buffalo, common duiker, dwarf mongoose, elephants, hippopotamus, kudu, leopard, lion, scrub hare, side-striped jackal, spotted hyena, tree squirrel, vervet monkey, warthog, waterbuck, white rhinoceros; insects: African monarch butterfly, Broad-bordered grass yellow, blue pansy, scarlet tip; trees and shrubs: jackalberry, knobthorn, leadwood, buffalo-thorn, silver cluster-leaf, large-leaved rock fig, greenthorn, and tamboti; and plants: wild cucumber, fannel weed, feather-top chloris, herringbone, and thatching yellow.
We saw or heard the following bird: African fish eagle, African grey hornbill, African scops-owl, bateleur eagle, Burchell's starling, Cape glossy starling, Cape turtle dove, crested barbet, crested francolin, dark-capped bulbul, emerald-spotted wood-dove, fork-tailed drongo, go-away-bird, greater blue-eared glossy starling, green woodhoopoe, magpie shrike, rattling cisticola, redbilled oxpecker, southern yellow-billed hornbill, spotted thick-knee, Swainson's spurfowl, laughing dove, Flappet lark.
One of the lions
Approaching a sighting in progress
The 25 room family friendly property owned by Hilton and Jacqui Loon had two swimming pools, an amply stocked boutique shop (branded clothing, jewelry, coffee table books, art, accessories), Amani Health Spa, and EleFun Children’s Centre. Although the game reserve and lodge opened in 1979, during 2015 and 2016 the public areas and rooms were completely refurbished.
Our rooms had a sitting area, desk and small outdoor patio facing the dry riverbed.
Our 80 square meter well appointed Luxury Suites faced a dry riverbed. They were comfortably furnished (I especially appreciated the large pleasantly firm bed), quiet, cool when it was hot outside and warm when it was cold. Like its sister property it had a number of amenities such as coffee machine, mini refrigerator and perfume scented Charlotte Rhys toiletries as well as thoughtful touches like a convenient location for electric plugs on the desk and pre-stamped postcards.
We had excellent closeup sightings of Cape buffalo, one of the Big Five.
A young kudu male with horns just developing
Stefan Schoeman, general manager, was a gracious host.
Meals were buffet style, with a made to order station, in an open air dining room in the main area. We sat at the table of our choice, where staff took our beverage orders. We enjoyed a delicious dinner, including Lamb neck, grilled meat and venison (gemsbock) in the boma (African open air enclosure).
The pool deck had a view of the river
One of my favorite activities was a massage treatment with Tarren, the spa manager and Francois's girlfriend. Had there been more time I would have explored the spa menu further. The excellent Big Five game viewing and spa treatment made our stay at Bush Lodge special. I would return and recommend it to friends seeking a family and group friendly stay in the Sabi Sand Reserve.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
View from the top floor of The Berkeley Hotel in the restored tobacco warehouse district of downtown Richmond, Virginia
My bride, Sandra Wells, and I wanted to take our April 2017 honeymoon somewhere we could indulge our interest in history. We had never been to any of the sites related to the American Civil War and looked for the best place to learn more about that darkest of periods in our history. Atlanta had surprisingly little to offer, Gettysburg and most other battlefields were remote and focused just on local events, while we wanted to get a good overall understanding of the period. We came to realize that by far the best destination for this was Richmond, Virginia, around which dozens of battles were fought, since the capital of the Confederacy was just 109 miles south of Washington, D.C.
After consulting reviews and talking with experts in local tourism, we decided to spend two of our four nights at a 55-room luxury boutique hotel in the restored historic tobacco warehouse district in downtown Richmond, The Berkeley Hotel (1200 East Cary Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219, 804-780-1300, 888-780-4422, www.berkeleyhotel.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). Downtown is just nine miles or 15 minutes from Richmond International Airport. It was built in 1988 by the Dobbs Family and prices were remarkably low for a four-star property (discounted because of ongoing renovation).
The Berkeley was set on the western edge of Shockoe Slip, whose cobblestone streets were a reminder that it was where the city started, and near the Central Business District. The hotel was an easy walk to the James River, where the American Civil War Center was located, and to the State Capitol, where the hemisphere’s oldest active legislature met (Richmond became the colonial capital in 1780; five years before, in a nearby church, Patrick Henry had given his speech with the famous phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death”).
The bed in our King Terrace View Room
The hotel assigned us a 300 square feet (27.8 square meters) King Terrace View Room on the top (sixth) floor. It had a balcony furnished with chairs to look out over the restaurants and stores that had breathed new life into the historic district. I’m not one to notice much about room décor, but there were lovely framed prints of flowers on the walls. We soon learned that many guests like to return to see how their new room is decorated because each was designed differently from all the others in carpeting, wallpaper, furniture, and even shape (there was a photo gallery on the website to compare some examples). The air conditioning and heat controls were easy to use and effective. The closet contained two terry cotton robes, an iron, and ironing board. There was a safe at the front desk.
The bed was very comfortable, with 100 percent Frette Italian linens, while the pillows were filled with down and feathers. The room was clean and we allowed cleaning once during our stay (it was normally once a day) and refused turn down service. We agreed to the hotel’s default policy of reducing impact on the environment by changing the linens every three days. Rollaway beds were available for an extra charge.
The bathroom in Room 604
There was a combination bathtub and shower with a powerful hydromassage showerhead. Like virtually every other luxury hotel we’ve been in, it had a makeup mirror with moderate (inadequate) lighting. There was a single sink, with toiletries from Gilchrist and Soames and cucumber and acai berry soap on the counter. The most unusual item was dental rinse (not something we normally have seen and helpful when dealing with flight liquid restrictions). There were two telephones, by the toilet and by the bed (local calls were free).
The desk and television side of the room
There was a coffee maker in the room, but we preferred to go to the lobby at 6:30 a.m. weekdays for fresh-made coffee, 7:00 a.m. on weekends (sweeteners included the best alternatives to sugar, stevia and erythiritol, which we have not seen often even in top hotels). There was also a desk and a 32-inch flat-screen LG television with cable. On the other side of the room there was a sitting area with stuffed chairs and a small round table.
There was complimentary high-speed wireless in the room and some public areas. There was no mini-bar or refrigerator, but ice machines were one floor below and elevators were fast (in a small hotel, that made transfers to other floors almost instantaneous). Complimentary health club privileges were available at the nearby Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Children were welcome and the hotel was pet-friendly, charging $50 per stay, one per room up to 25 pounds.
Our bed in the Governor’s Suite
Any hotel can create a nice environment with upscale carpets, décor, and furniture. Under normal circumstances, adequate training may produce good service. But a crisis highlights staff's ability to balance conflicting demands from customers. On our first night at The Berkeley, we were asleep when around midnight we were awakened by a party next door. We asked them to keep it down, but when people get drunk they have a hard time judging whether they might be disturbing others. We finally called the front desk and within minutes a security representative invited us to move to Room 608 before he dealt with our neighbors. This seemed prudent: in our experience, most hotels prefer to start by asking guests to not disturb others, which usually just drags out the resolution. We had barely unpacked, so it was an easy move down the hall.
We were surprised when the new room turned out to be the Governor’s Suite, a pair of rooms behind a set of doors separating them from the rest of the top floor. The bedroom was 600 square feet (55.7 square meters) and had a 37 inch flat screen Philips television. Next to it was a Keurig coffee maker with Royal Cup and Green Mountain options. A three-panel full-length mirror stood in one corner. There were several sofa chairs around a low glass table and plenty of room for a small group to visit after a wedding (which is what the Suite was often used for, as well as for birthday celebrations and other special events; the adjacent room we just peeked into was for the reception or a dinner). The four-poster bed had two mattresses, which made for comfortable sleep. The Suite was rented the next night, so we returned to 604 in the morning.
The bathroom in the Governor’s Suite
The bathroom in 608 was larger than 604, the single sink had more counter space, and the décor was nicer (large gold-trimmed mirror and lights). There was also a large walk-in shower, rather than the small tub-shower combo in 604.
The view from the Governor’s Suite
There was a balcony with chairs outside 608 and a sculpture of a fish-headed, Egyptian-style god. The view was of the Central Business District.
Artwork in one of the hotel hallways
The rooms and hallways were decorated with prints of paintings from the colonial era and old maps, which made it seem a place of Southern elegance from a bygone time. Many on the 60 staff of the hotel spoke Spanish. The ones we spoke with were knowledgeable about the city when we asked questions.
William Price III, chef, The Dining Room
The Dining Room at The Berkeley
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served on the ground level in adjacent rooms, with a bar in the middle at the main restaurant, The Dining Room. William Price III, the young and friendly chef, had studied at the Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts and Le Cordon Bleu Institute’s Pittsburg campus.
The Dining Room’s Amuse Bouche
A salad at The Dining Room
The chef's Signature Southern dish
We enjoyed our breakfast, including the Signature Farmers Market Quiche, grits, a three-egg omelette with aged cheddar cheese, onions, and sautéed mushrooms, the Southern specialty fried green tomatoes, and a salad. There wasn’t a vegetarian option on the dinner menu. While Chef Price was whipping up a meatless experiment he had been working on, we amused our palettes with the Amuse Bouche, an appetizer of grilled French baguette, pimento cheese, and pickled vegetables, with sorghum balsamic vinaigrette, an apple peach crisp, and bread pudding. The chef’s Signature Southern, a tentative name, was a delicious concoction with five green tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and sautéed spinach risotto.
We only had time to see the top priorities on our list in three days, including the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, the American Civil War Center, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center (we also recommend the RVA Tour of the city over alternatives because of their extremely knowledgeable guides). Richmond was rich with culture, so we definitely want to return, and would stay at The Berkeley because of its location, comfortable beds, food, service, and price (we hope it remains a relative bargain when the renovation is complete).
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
A typical dreary day by Lake Titisee during our visit
We planned our week long trip to the Black Forest Highlands in Germany months in advance with the expectation that a spring itinerary would reward us with dry and sunny weather. Instead it our visit in June 2016 was far wetter, colder and foggier than we had anticipated. It rained on and off most of the day every day during our whole stay in the area, forcing us to revise our plans entirely. In lieu of trekking on mountain tops and cable cars we spent our days in our hotel room waiting for the rain to stop or remained indoors, dining, in museums, and churches for the duration of our visit.
The clock museum featured displays of clock history
Tools used to automate the creation of the gears and wheels were featured
We replaced nearly all our outdoor activities with indoor ones. The two lane mountain roads, slick from the rain and filled with impatient drivers, did nothing to improve the situation. In the end, we made the most of the situation, exploring as best as possible in moments of respite from the constant showers. We seldom encountered English speakers or materials in English, making it necessary for us to rely on our guide frequently to translate menus at restaurants and information sheets at attractions.
The Parkhotel Adler in Hinterzarten was a favorite for its luxury facilities and spa
From the airport we drove to the Parkhotel Adler in Hinterzarten. It was the most luxurious of the properties we visited that trip. I spent time at Hoffmann Beaute & Physiontherapie, its serene spa. Because of the cool temperatures and showers I was thankful for the property's underground hallways that connected its facilities and provided us indoor access to the hotel spa and restaurants in adjacent buildings.
The lake fronting Seecafé in Schluchsee
We had Black Forest cake, strudel cake and cappuccino by the lake
The first attraction we visited was the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum at Robert-Gerwig-Platz d-78120 Furtwangen, +49 7723-920 2800, deutsches-uhrenmuseum.de) northeast of Freiburg. It was a fun way to spend the morning and learn about the history of clock making in Germany.
We spent the weekend at the popular Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel
One afternoon, to satisfy our sweet tooth we stopped at the Seecafé (Im Wolfsgrund 26, 79859, Schluchsee, +49 76 56/98 88 97), where we indulged in hot beverages and huge slices of regional specialties such as Black Forest chocolate cake. Despite the chilly temperatures we enjoyed the Schluchsee lakeside setting and terrace seating until a steady flow of raindrops forced us to leave.
We were delighted with our first sunny hour from the patio at Boutique-Hotel Alemannenhof
In the Lake Titisee area we stayed at two family owned properties. We spent the weekend at the popular, lake fronting Treschers Schwarzwald Romantic Hotel (see Our weekend stay at Black Forest lake front hotel with spa) with a spa in the highly touristy town of Titisee. When our rental apartment plans fell through the friendly owners and staff at the charming and lovingly built Boutique-Hotel Alemannenhof squeezed us in at the last minute without hesitation. The hotel, the Drubba Monument Shopping stores on the pedestrian street in Titisee, and the Hofgut Sternen hotel and adjacent shops were the property of the enterprising Drubba Family. It was at one of their shops where we watched a demonstration about the making of the famous cuckoo clocks. At another we caught the end of a glassblowing demonstration. Their hillside property was a favorite for its Lake Titisee views and foodie orientation.
One of the hand-carved carnival masks at Holzmasken Stiegeler in Grafenhausen
In Grafenhausen, we liked the hand-carved carnival masks at Holzmasken Stiegeler (see Black Forest shop carried on with wood carved mask tradition). In Grafenhausen-Rothaus, we visited Hüsli or small house (79865 Grafenhausen-Rothaus, Am Hüsli 1 im Naturpark Südschwarzwald, + 49 77 48/212, www.hüsli-museum.de), a folk art museum dating back to 1912 when actress Helene Siegfried built a summer home from second-hand materials. We also toured the Rothaus (Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus AG, Rothaus 1, 79865 Grafenhausen-Rothaus, +49 7748/522-0, www.rothaus.de, email@example.com) brewery museum, a modern facility with self-guided tours, where we sampled locally produced beer and bought souvenirs at the small shop.
St. Blasien Cathedral, a lovingly maintained structure 36 meters wide and 62 meters high
The interior of St. Blasien Cathedral
The St. Blasien Cathedral cupola
We visited several churches while in the Black Forest Highlands. Salient among them for sheer size and the determination of its builders was St. Blasien Cathedral, a pretty and lovingly maintained structure 36 meters wide and 62 meters high. The early classical cupola is the largest of its kind north of the Alps.
Our final nights were at the Hotel Adler in Häusern
The sun made an appearance on our last afternoon in the Black Forest
Our final nights were at the Hotel Adler in Häusern, where we dined at the hotel's gourmet restaurant (see Dinner at Black Forest Highlands gourmet restaurant). We would recommend the Black Forest Highlands to friends who speak German or don't mind seeking translations, like moderate luxury in a heavily touristy area with authentic regional cuisine, enjoy mountainous landscapes and the outdoors, and are able to change plans in a hurry if the weather turns ugly.
Limefish from the beach
Although we loved our Holmes Beach rental house's beachfront location, its outstanding views of the water across lush sea oats and sea grapes from the open porch as well as from the single contiguous air conditioned living, dining and kitchen room, we were disappointed with a number of aspects of the luxury rental house. Holmes Beach is one of three municipalities on Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida. In addition to its outstanding beachfront place the house was on the north end of Holmes Beach, which after some exploration became our favorite part of the island along with the town of Anna Maria. It was also conveniently one block away from a complimentary island trolley stop, and within walking distance to the main shopping streets in the town of Anna Maria.
The living room featured an outstanding view of the beach
Limefish, a 1,500 square foot colorful three bedroom three bathroom house, faced the beach. The pool was on the north side and included a shady covered open air area with a propane grill, two lounge chairs, outdoor dining furniture with seating for eight and two showers. Indoors the air conditioned house was painted in bright colors. It had a master bedroom with a king bed and small en suite bathroom, a second bedroom with a queen bed and standard en suite bathroom, and a third bedroom with four bunk beds and an adjacent bathroom convenient for guests. The living area had two loveseats, a brightly painted coffee table and a built-in entertainment wall.
The private pool area was inviting day and night
We liked the quiet, especially indoors, and sense of privacy the home afforded us although it was sandwiched between other houses on two sides and an empty lot adjacent to a busy public beach access with parking. The muted sounds were the result of double-paned windows and a well tended garden with a narrow path that led from the back porch straight to the beach some forty feet away. The distance from the crowded beach and the garden seemed to serve as buffers. We also liked the large private heated swimming pool, an uncommon amenity in rental beachfront houses in town based on an informal tally, and the spacious parking area, which included three spaces under cover.
The bedrooms looked out on the driveway
On the beach, many people walked by at a quick pace. Others set elaborate groupings of chairs and umbrellas, bringing babies, children and dogs (although the beach was supposed to be dog free). Because the water was chilly few went swimming. Once we spent time on the crowded beach we particularly appreciated having private space to ourselves where we could retreat anytime and enjoy beach views in quiet seclusion.
The second bedroom
Although the company website made the rental properties look inviting there were significant errors. When we began our search for a vacation rental we encountered a number of red flags. First, there was limited information on the company website. One property appeared to have never been rented and the second one had had no reviews in more than a year. The most recent review we found said the house needed a facelift. We were unable to find details about the properties, such as terms and conditions, and availability on the rental company website. It also did not indicate when the photos of the house had been taken.
The spacious kitchen also had a beach view
After an initial email reply, the real estate agency woman was slow to respond. When reached on her mobile number she was unable to provide additional information. The first time she answered she explained she was grocery shopping. The next time she said she was visiting her daughter. Then she said she was a realtor and busy selling houses. Unlike every other person we spoke with on the island who answered questions easily and with a pleasant demeanor, her attitude seemed somewhat condescending and dismissive to us. A conversation with a second woman at a United Kingdom location was fruitless.
The dining table
After some effort and contradictory information the company representative explained that they had made a mistake listing the first property, the one we preferred. It had a more upscale location and features. After some back and forth communication the representative said the listing with an elaborate video had been in error and the property was not for rent at all. Although it appeared for rent on the company website and was vacant they would not honor the advertised rental. The second property, she prompted, had been renovated and was available at a significant seasonal discount.
The deck and outdoor chairs were in the shade in the mornings.
We swallowed our concerns about the realtor and the property and took the bait. On arrival, the good news was that the property location was excellent. The house fronted the beach and had outstanding views from the back porch, and interior common areas. The pool, on the side of the house, was as we expected. There were however a number of disappointments, mostly the house was in a less than optimum state of repair and the amenities were of a lower quality than we had anticipated for a luxury property. We were surprised to read in the booklet with information on the house that if any equipment broke during our stay there would be no discount, only the agency's assurance they would try to fix it.
The master bathroom
One of the things we disliked most was the six human hairs strewn in varying places (bed covers, bathroom sink, shower, facecloth, extra blanket) and the smelly mold on the washer door. The towels were mismatched, some stained and very thin. The kitchen towels were synthetic as were the pillows and bed covers. The sheets were of low thread count. The washer soap dispenser was dirty. The dryer didn't work well at first (we discovered accumulated lint that might have caused the difficulties). The spare blanket smelled strongly of women's cologne.
Cheerful colors and bright sunlight gave the house a summer feel.
With some effort the repetitive noise of the dining and living room fans subsided. Such was not the case with the loud washer and dryer. The dishwasher door was broken. It had to be latched in place or it would fall open every time we opened it to load or unload items in the appliance.
There were four built-in bunks in the third bedroom.
The colorful outdoor furniture made of synthetic material didn't overheat, making it possible to sit on the chairs at any time of the day. But because the chairs were in a fixed position they became less than comfortable after a few minutes. There were no cushions on the chairs, which also made then less than ideal for extended lounging. There were only four beach towels for the three bedroom house, which meant if we wanted clean towels after a day at the beach we had to run the noisy washer and dryer.
The sunsets were lovely about half the time.
By the pool there were only two adjustable lounge chairs without cushions or tables (we had to place books and beverages on the floor) and no umbrellas for shade. The lack of umbrellas or cover from the sun made it difficult to enjoy the beach facing porch in the afternoons when sunlight shined directly on that part of the house. No kitchen curtains meant sunlight covered and heated parts of the kitchen (as well as the dining and living areas) during most of the afternoon. The air conditioner and fans struggled to cool the house.
The beach was busy every day.
We enjoyed our time at Limefish as well as our first stay in Holmes Beach and Anna Maria, despite the high density of visitors during our shoulder season visit, and would consider returning. Perhaps by then the property owners and managers will have given the beachfront house some tender loving care or we can find another rental beachfront home.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Guards’ Crimean War Memorial in front of the Sofitel London St James
In September 2016, my wife, Sandra, and I spent one night at the Sofitel London St James (6 Waterloo Place, London SW1Y 4AN, United Kingdom, +44 0871 6630625 or 800-221-4542, http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3144-sofitel-london-st-james/index.shtml, H3144@sofitel.com) in central London, United Kingdom. As history buffs, we chose it for its location a few blocks from the Piccadilly Circus subway stop on Waterloo Place, with its magnificent Guards’ Crimean War Memorial.
The memorial was originally erected in 1861 to commemorate 2,152 soldiers who died in the 1854-56 conflict with Russia. Three guards were cast in bronze from captured Russian cannons. The memorial was reconstructed in 1914 to make way for statues of Florence Nightingale and the man who hired her to reform nursing on the front, Secretary of War Sidney Herbert. Nearby is the 34-meter (112 feet) Doric column for Prince Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York, a hero of the British Empire. The area is packed with 150 historic buildings, as well as statues, including those of King Edward VII (eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) and Antarctic explorer Robert Falconer. It is also a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and Saint James’s Palace (where retired royal officials now live, and which has its own changing of the guard). A nice touch in the lobby were the gorgeous fresh flower arrangements each day.
Our Premium Luxury Room
Room categories began with the Classic, then Luxury, Superior, Luxury with two single beds, and Premium Luxury. We stayed in a 32 square meters (344 square feet) Premium Luxury Room, one of 183 rooms at the property. We hadn’t realized it was a five-star hotel until we tried the king bed and pillows. They were so well liked by hotel guests (we found them so comfortable we weren’t surprised), that Sofitel sold them in various sizes and styles, from $1,750 to $2,123 at its online shop.
We appreciated the light on the headboard that allowed me to read and not disturb Sandra when she fell asleep early. The view over Waterloo Place and nearby parks was beautiful, but we had to keep the windows shut because of loud exterior noises late at night (we like fresh air, but didn’t mind adjusting the air conditioning instead). The walls, floor, and ceilings were soundproof, so there was no noise from other rooms (a common problem I have encountered at four-star properties). There was an LCD TV, iron and board, safe, Krups coffee-maker, regular brew coffee pot, and complimentary WiFi. There was also complimentary Internet access in the business center. There were two types of complimentary mineral water on the desk. We were surprised by the number of families in the lobby and noted that the hotel offered cribs.
An excellent bathroom
The bathroom had a wonderful rainwater shower and Hermes toiletries. But the things which really distinguished this from other hotels were the deep and long bathtub with easy-to-understand controls (I can rarely find anything that can accommodate my 6’4” frame comfortably), the extensive counter space for both of our personal items, and an outstanding makeup mirror and lighting (even the best hotels usually have inadequate LCD lighting for the mirror).
The Rose Lounge
Breakfast in the restaurant was perhaps the best we’ve ever had in terms of food quality and quantity for people as picky as we are (lacto-ovo vegetarians who prefer whole foods). The sheer number of choices for yogurt and cereal alone were amazing. For example, there were organic and unsweetened selections, including honey and stevia. There were also many choices of cheese for omelets and breads.
After breakfast we visited the Rose Lounge, a lovely area for teas, with a harp in the corner. The staff, each of whom was multilingual, was pleasant. Some were helpful in explaining how to find our way to our daytime destinations. Thanks to its location, friendly service, in room amenities and excellent breakfast the Sofitel London St James would be our number one choice for a future stay in London.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch, built as a courthouse and police station in 1903, was recently restored and opened as a hotel.
In September 2016, just four months after its soft opening and while it was still adding features and functions, my wife, Sandra, and I spent two nights at the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch (337 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LL, United Kingdom, +44 203 3105555, www.shoreditch.courthouse-hotel.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) on the cusp of northeast London, United Kingdom. The hotel, the sister property of the five-star Courthouse Hotel in Soho, was established in the former Old Street Magistrates' Court and Police Station (1903-96), a few blocks from the Old Street Station of the Northern Line of the Tube (subway).
The lobby with the statue of a British guard at the top of the stairs
The restoration of the Baroque-style courthouse and station cost £40 million (about $64 million). The lobby provided an impressive welcome with its marble floor, grand stairway guarded by a golden statue of a soldier, and a clean and sparkling redesign. Although top hotels usually have employees eager to help, the ones we encountered at Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch were exceptional in their friendliness and helpfulness. Although we arrived early in the morning expecting to leave our luggage with the concierge while we headed to the Tower of London, our room was ready and our first requests received immediate response.
We liked that the multi-lingual staff provided an overview tour of the facilities, and after we returned there was a more in-depth one. Not everything was fully functioning: the main restaurant was due to open soon, spa services were limited, and Internet access was available only at the front desk until the business center opens. We like to experience the emerging hot properties before everyone else discovers them, so the stay was to our taste.
From our sixth floor we looked out over the rooftop dining area and the historic Shoreditch Town Hall across the street, housing restaurants and a theater at the time of our visit.
Our sixth floor room looked out over the outdoor dining area on the fifth floor roof, directly across from the Shoreditch Town Hall, built in 1866 as a vestry, a building attached to a church used to store vestments and liturgical objects, with halls in which church and public meetings can be held. In 1888, it was the site of the inquest into the murder of Mary Kelly, Jack the Ripper’s last victim. The following year, the suburb was incorporated into the county of London, and in 1899 it became a metropolitan borough of London, with the town hall in operation until 1965, when the area was incorporated into the Hackney Borough. Shoreditch had been popular in the 16th and 17th centuries as a place for theaters, gambling dens, taverns, and brothels. When we were in London it had an edgy hipster reputation with abundant street art, galleries, nightclubs, and restaurants (the former town hall had some activities on offer, as well as a theater and event space. For more, check out the Top 10 Things To Do in Shoreditch (theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles/top-10-things-to-do-see-in-shoreditch/). Past area residents have included the playwright Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare’s lead actor Richard Burbage, who is buried in the church. More recent ones have been artist Damien Hirst and actor Richard Brand.
The Dalston King room was 26 square meters in size and had a comfortable bed.
We stayed in a Dalston King room, the first of three types of 86 guestrooms (the others were Magistrate King and Xscape). At 26 square meters (280 square feet), our room provided enough of space for the two of us. The bed was comfortable enough; though we prefer a slightly softer mattress and pillow, we slept soundly, which was all that mattered to us. Despite the nightlife in the area, our room was free of street level noise (finding a hotel in a quiet area has proven difficult in central London in the past). The insulation was also enough to keep us from being bothered by neighbors.
The best in-room feature was the Samsung 46 inch flatscreen hi-definition LED TV. It was larger than those at the other three hotels where we stayed and the only one that offered CNN. The television remote wasn’t responding, but that was a good test of the service: we called twice and had immediate responses. The first time the front desk sent someone who moved some wires in the back, which worked for a while. The second time, two technicians spent half an hour to provide a permanent fix. We also heard good things about responsiveness from other guests.
Our room had a desk and a table with chairs, plus bottles of sparkling and still water (other hotels provided two carbonated ones, so it was nice to have a choice). The small refrigerator was not yet being stocked as a mini-bar. We appreciated the fresh cream and good grade of instant coffee. The room had the usual upscale amenities, such as an iron and board, robe and slippers, and safe. Something we had never seen before was hangers with built-in lights so that at night or early in the morning we could see our clothes. We appreciated having a window that opened for fresh air (something top urban hotels sometimes lack), and we also liked the easy-to-use temperature controls. There was turn down service at night, but we declined.
The bathroom had a bidet, the first we have seen in a luxury hotel.
We’ve reviewed many leading hotels and don’t ever recall one that had a bidet, evidence of management’s interest in attracting the international audience that shares French culture. We wanted to know how it worked. Although the drain was stuck it was fixed right away. The phone by the toilet was well-positioned. The counter space for makeup was larger than many hotels where we have stayed, but the lighting on the makeup mirror and overhead wasn’t as bright as it ideally should be (a weak area for even the best hotels). The shower had two nozzles that were easy to use: the standard showerhead and one for the overhead rain effect, which was pleasant.
The bar had semi-private rooms that formerly were jail cells.
The hotel retained some of the architectural features of the original building. In the breakfast dining room we saw signs of its use as a law library. The bar had several semi-private 5 by 15-foot rooms with reinforced metal doors. Those were originally holding cells which hosted the likes of East London gangster twins Ronnie and Reginald Kray.
The hotel had a large, heated indoor pool.
There was a small gym with equipment for cross-training, cycling, and weightlifting and a four-lane heated indoor pool with current. Like the original Courthouse, the hotel had two rare features, a private movie theater with capacity for 196, including armrests and foldout tables for a planned film club, as well as a two-lane bowling alley. Bowling was one of those sports the city people came out to Shoreditch to engage in hundreds of years ago, so it was fitting for the location.
The movie theater
The bowling alley fit in with Shoreditch's history.
We liked the unusual features of the Courthouse Hotel-Shoreditch and the responsiveness of the staff. When it is fully functioning I would consider it among my top five choices for a different hotel experience on a return trip to London.