Review by Fiona Duncan, published 25th January 2009.
You know the wave of new hotels that's changed the face of Britain's cities? Ones that provide individual, affordable luxurious places to stay where before there had only been a depressing choice of grubby-carpeted chain hotel or elderly Victorian relic? Well, it never got to Southampton.
Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, Cardiff, Reading – you name the city and there's at least one contemporary 'boutique' address tucked into its centre. But not Southampton, despite the many cruise ship passengers who would surely appreciate somewhere atmospheric in which to stay before setting off across the Atlantic or round the world. Until now, that is.
We needed a night in Southampton and as I scanned the unappetising list of contenders on my computer I could feel the vitriol beginning to flood my pen when the White Star 'Tavern and Dining Rooms' in the unlikely setting of Oxford Street, Southampton's attractive, upmarket 'restaurant row' hove into view and instantly grabbed my attention.
OK, it's plainly more 'restaurant with rooms' than hotel, but with a separate entrance for its 13 bedrooms, a pretty roof terrace and excellent business facilities, this new address would surely be more than adequate for most people. The website was encouraging – and, as we discovered, accurate – showing attractive, up to date contemporary bedrooms and bathrooms, with tongue and groove panelling and pretty details in the bedrooms, mosaic tiling and big showers in the bathrooms, with deep baths in the two best rooms.
Drawback: none are large and the cheapest are very small indeed.
Much more important, you can now stay in a Southampton hotel that's fun and young and isn't anodyne and provides at least a whiff of Southampton's fine maritime history. Renamed after the famous White Star Line, with rooms that recall their ships and America's Cup J Class boats (ours was Velsheda, illustrated by a Bekon of Cowes photograph on the wall) the handsome, little changed 1884 corner building was a former seafarer's hotel, The Alliance, whose name is still visible above the door.
In the 'tavern' downstairs, the old hotel's original panelling and brass chandeliers are still intact among a carefully designed mix of banquettes, dining tables and the ubiquitous (yawn) black leather Chesterfields. We couldn't dine there, but my spies tell me that the food is some of the best in Southampton. Instead we glimpsed one of the iconic sights of modern Southampton (or any other British city at night, presumably): teenagers in sub-zero temperatures and almost nothing else queuing for the under 18s night at the city's biggest nightclub. Their dress sense should have the fashion pundits running for cover: we spotted fabulous spray-on gold leggings, as well as frothy pink tutus and pirate hats, all paired with killer six inch heels.
We have another night in Southampton coming up next week, so we've booked the city's 'premier' hotel, the de Vere Grand Harbour, and will report back on which of the two we prefer. Don't hold your breath. I'll eat my pirate hat if the White Star isn't the place from which to set sail.
Oxford Street, Southampton (02380 821990; www.whitestartavern.co.uk) Doubles from £75 per night, excluding breakfast. Not suitable for guests with disabilities.