Review by Fiona Duncan, published 14th October 2010.
There are hotel groups in this country that are lousy, there are ones that are acceptable, there are some that are good and a few that are excellent. And there's Firmdale, which is in a class of its own.
We should be eternally grateful to Tim and Kit Kemp: without their highly individual, glamorous and funky collection – including town houses Number Sixteen and the Knightsbridge, and media magnets Charlotte Street Hotel, The Soho Hotel and Covent Garden Hotel – London's much-improved reputation for hotels would be massively diminished.
The Haymarket is a Firmdale hotel. Opened three years ago, it's the newest of the group's London establishments (a New York branch, Crosby Street Hotel, opened last year).
I wanted to stay at the Haymarket because, although it packs a big punch in terms of style, I wondered how successful it would be, compared with the others, as a place to come home to after a weary day's shopping, sightseeing or business meetings.
Compared with its siblings, it looks and feels – with its huge lobby and a series of expansive but underpopulated spaces for eating and relaxing – more like a stage set for an upmarket hotel than the real thing. A lavish stage set, mind you, in brilliant colour. If there's one thing we should thank Kit Kemp for, it's her bold, uncompromising use of colour in a hotel world that has become monochrome, minimalist and very often dull.
Underpinned by a remarkable collection of modern works of art, her classic yet contemporary spaces are also eclectic, playful and executed to the highest possible standards.
Here at the Haymarket, we have a white and canary yellow lobby dominated by a Tony Cragg sculpture and a London landscape by John Virtue; a feminine, leafy conservatory (the perfect venue for artfully presented afternoon teas); a riotous, almost-clashing sitting room with honesty bar; a stunning space for parties; and the Shooting Gallery, with fabulous black and white handcrafted wallpaper.
But that's not all. In the basement of the Nash-designed Regency building is a 60ft swimming pool, surrounded by a long pewter bar, oversized chrome Anglepoise lamps and gold lamé sofas, all bathed in alternate blues, greens and pinks by Martin Richman's wall installation.
A great space for a film launch perhaps, but far too exposed if, like me, you just want a solo swim in your ancient cossie.
If the public areas are stagy, the 51 divine, individual bedrooms are anything but. With unusual mirrors, a couple of appealing artworks, soft lavender curtains and splodgy, autumnal fabric for headboard, sofa and Kit's trademark tailor's dummy, mine was soothing, sensible, spacious and silent.
And I may be wrong, but it was my impression that, perhaps to counteract the too self-conscious staginess, the staff here are even more assiduous than at other Firmdale branches. Nothing was too much trouble and the spotless bedrooms were literally as new.
One caveat, though: the food in Firmdale hotels has never been outstanding, though I would make an exception for my côte de boeuf and for the service in the Brumus restaurant, particularly useful for pre-theatre and post-theatre dinners.
- 1 Suffolk Place, Haymarket, London SW1 (020 7470 4000;www.firmdale.com) Doubles from £250 per night; breakfast from £18.50. Adapted rooms are available for guests with disabilities
FIONA DUNCAN'S CHOICE
The current must-see exhibition in the capital (until January 16) is 'Gauguin' at the Tate Modern, in Southwark, featuring paintings and drawings not seen in this country for more than 50 years. A great way to see it and have a river cruise at the same time is to start off at Tate Britain, on Millbank, then take the Tate Boat that runs every 40 minutes between the two galleries (020 7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)
Battersea Power Station is one of London's most iconic buildings. It is normally closed to the public, but from October 29-31 it will be hosting 'Relentless Freeze', a snowboard, ski and music festival, complete with a 105ft-high, 330ft-long real snow ramp. A perfect trade-off for the children and teens you've just dragged around two Tate galleries.
Forget expensive wine bars and head to Islington, where you will find wine merchant The Sampler. It has 10 "sampling machines", which serve small tastings at a price proportionate to the cost of the bottle; prices start at just 30p and include such treats as a 1961 Bordeaux (266 Upper Street; 020 7226 9500;www.thesampler.co.uk)