Each year, over the late August UK bank holiday weekend, residents and merchants in London's Notting Hill neighborhood batten down the hatches and prepare for a storm of sorts -- nailing large sheets of wood to buildings' facades and sealing off fences and access points to their residences and retail outlets.
Despite the local multicultural traditions that the annual Notting Hill Carnival upholds and its aim of fostering community, many residents experience the raucous event like the prospect of an out-of-control party being held in their homes, and pack up their bags, leave, and brace themselves for the worst upon their return.
Likewise, each year, I join the mass exodus, taking off for some nearby locale. One year it was a stylish B&B in a small Cotswolds town; another, a two-day sojourn in Thames-side Richmond Hill. I have come to realize that there's no sense fighting it; my annual departure from W11 has become both a personal tradition, and an unexpected means of discovering nearby areas and new hotels and inns -- some practically on my proverbial London doorstep.
This year, I got the opportunity to experience a couple of new hotels in two very distinct London quarters -- South Kensington and King's Cross.
I breezed through the former upscale museum-side area for a dosage of culture, fresh, creative food and a visit to the relatively new 111-room Ampersand Hotel. The artistic and botany and ornithology-inspired boutique property (opened in late 2012) is more modern than its 19th century facade reveals.
Staying in The Ampersand's deluxe room presented the rare London luxury of space in which to sprawl out. For about £40 more than a superior chamber, it offers plenty of room in which to luxuriate; my favorite self-pampering spot being its comfortable and luxe double-sink bathroom with rainfall shower, tub and in-tub telly, featuring handy bath-time accoutrements like a loofah and hotel-branded rubber ducky.
With so much going on in the area -- effectively the playground of the young Sloanie set who once partied at nearby Boujis -- less socially adventurous culture vultures seeking a tranquil night's sleep may want to request one of the hotel's back rooms. However, the property is perhaps best suited to those wanting to zealously drink and dine.
Just steps away from Madsen, a laid-back Swedish restaurant with fresh, clean food and a short walk from lively Old Brompton Road tapas spots like Tendido Cero, and campy after-hours watering holes like the Nam Long Le Shaker, The Ampersand is well-positioned for cool night crawls.
However, visitors stopping by for more low-key creative inspiration thanks to the close-by Victoria & Albert and Science Museums, are likely to revel in one of the hotel's best features: its charming Drawing Rooms restaurant. There, amidst lilac hues and playful and vibrant furniture, afternoon tea, lunch, coffee are served, including a cornucopia of sweets like raspberry hazelnut meringue slices and 'Intense Chocolate Tarts.' Although it's not specifically offered, breakfast can (and should) be requested in this Wonderland-esque salon.
The next stop on my Notting Hill exodus/London staycation was the Great Northern Hotel. Opened in the spring of 2013 in the burgeoning and culturally exciting King's Cross/St. Pancras railway station neighborhood, it is an uber-stylish high-end boutique hotel gem. Although there are some intriguing up-and-coming spots worth checking out in this hip quarter -- like French chef Bruno Loubet's Grain Store restaurant and the craftsy-cool Drink, Shop & Do -- one could almost use the Great Northern as a city resort and barely leave its pleasant confines.
The hotel's destination restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk is lorded over by none other than Mark Sargeant, who did a 13-year head chef stint at Gordon Ramsay's Michelin-starred Claridges restaurant. The rich and tasty food consists of elegant and upscale takes on traditional British fare -- a fine example of which is the creamed smoked haddock with poached hen's egg (a small but indulgent meal in itself).
The cuisine is only perhaps upstaged by the stunning dining setting replete with a privy corner view of the railway station area (soon to be more glorious upon completion of its refurbishing), dangling hand-blown glass lights and neo-Deco furnishings. The adjacent petite bar (also upstairs) with its charmingly cluttered paintings and fragrant signature cocktails feels a bit like a literary lounge in which a contemporary Zelda and F. Scott might imbibe libations and playfully pontificate, sans the undignified distraction of tech devices.
There is a private club feeling to the whole establishment with its much-appreciated double-glazed windows and locked (to non-guests) floor entrances. The hotel's extra-wide hallways are also a rarity. They were fashioned during Victorian times to accommodate the full-style dresses women often wore. An added modern, communal touch: pantries on every floor, stocked with gratis tea, coffee and edibles for guests.
The rooms -- masterfully designed by the architects at Archer Humphryes, featuring hand-crafted furnishings-- also delicately straddle the line between modern/contemporary and retro ('20s/'30s).
Of the hotel's three room styles, two pay homage to the property and area's historical railway past: the Cubitt (named after Lewis Cubitt, the master builder behind the property's first iconic incarnation in 1854) and the Couchette (a small, contemporary rendition of a train sleeper carriage with a geometrically riveting view of the top of the King's Cross concourse). The other is the oaky and masculine Wainscot.
Although there is no traditional central front entrance to the railway-side boutique hotel, I originally accidentally discovered it through its downstairs bar, which feels a bit more modern and night owl-conducive than the aforementioned literary lounge. Thankfully, serendipity and happy accident led me there... and continue to lead me to explore new areas and hotels like The Ampersand and the Great Northern, each year at Carnival-time.