Travel: London’s Dorchester Hotel is fit for royalty

Situated a short walk from Buckingham Palace in the posh neighborhood of Mayfair, London’s deluxe Dorchester Hotel has had a long and distinguished association with royalty, British and otherwise.

In the summer of 1947, some five years before the British Princess Elizabeth was coronated as Queen, her engagement to Prince Philip was announced at a private dinner party at The Dorchester. Members of the British media had been tipped off in advance.

That evening, the police had to clear a path along the sidewalk for the future monarch, who was thronged by photographers, journalists and well-wishers as she left the hotel by a side door. It was a scene similar to those that her future daughter-in-law, the late Diana the Princess of Wales, would routinely face decades later.

It was also at The Dorchester that Prince Philip celebrated his stag night on the eve of his wedding. For Elizabeth’s coronation, the hotel’s exterior was decorated as gaily as a multi-tiered wedding cake, with ornate ribbons, sashes and curtains hanging from every balcony, and the Union Jack much in evidence.

Although Prince Philip has returned often to the hotel to speak at charity functions, it was only through the patronage and support of another regal figure — the Sultan of Brunei — that London’s most eminent address for foreign visitors attained a much-needed refurbishment.

The pride of Park Lane since its opening in 1931, and a “home away from home” for many famous guests from around the world, The Dorchester had been conceived as an advanced luxury hotel that would “rank as the finest in Europe.” One of its original decorators, Oliver Ford, had also been interior decorator for Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother. And the views outside seem nearly as pretty as those inside: all rooms overlook either Hyde Park or the hotel’s own landscaped gardens.

But after nearly 60 years, the regal decor of The Promenade, The Grill Room Restaurant, the Oliver Messel Suite and other areas of the hotel that had been recognized as architectural landmarks were showing signs of age. As well, management wanted to install a central air-conditioning system throughout.

So the Sultan of Brunei, the legendary multi-billionaire who had purchased the 11-story property in 1985, took the unprecedented step of closing it down in 1989 for a complete renovation and restoration. Prince Philip was again on hand when it opened for business late in 1990. Today the hotel is one of four properties in the Audley Group, a portfolio of hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Agency, whose mission is to preserve and maintain the highest possible standards of service and excellence.

The Dorchester’s rooms supposedly reflect the refined style of an English country house; if so, it is the type of stately home found around the British countryside, like the fictional Manderley, that opens its doors for public viewing once a week for ,3.50 a head. While each of the 197 rooms and 55 suites have a unique decor, many feature four-poster beds, fireplaces, fine wooden cabinetry and furniture, plush rugs and armchairs, embroidered bedspreads and draperies, and large walk-in closets designed for steamer trunks.

All the bathrooms are done entirely in fine white Italian marble and feature full-length mirrors, long counters with two sinks and sets of faucets, and bathtubs so generously proportioned that they routinely inspire hosannas from oversized or pregnant guests. Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger has publicly proclaimed that The Dorchester is the only hotel in Europe that possesses a bathtub large enough for him to relax in with his legs fully outstretched.

Also known for its generous dimensions, The Dorchester’s mirrored Ballroom can hold gatherings of up to 1,000 people — and sometimes much more. Years ago, when the Toronto-based Lord Thomson of Fleet hosted an 85th birthday party here for the Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook, he filled the room with a veritable forest of fir trees and flew over a troop of Mounties to form a guard of honor.

Enhancing its reputation as a royal hangout, state and other official banquets have been hosted at The Dorchester by foreign eminences such as King Hussein of Jordan, former Pakistani president Ayub Khan, and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

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Royal figures from the entertainment world such as Barbra Streisand, the Beatles and Michael Jackson have also frequented the hotel. Elizabeth Taylor was staying in The Dorchester’s lavish Oliver Messel Suite in 1960 when a film producer called to offer her the lead role in the film Cleopatra. Her husband at the time, Eddie Fisher, took the call and conveyed the offer to the film star, who was soaking in the tub.

“Tell him I’ll do it for a million dollars and ten per cent of the gross,” she shouted back, not thinking for a moment that the producer would take her seriously. But he did, and the rest is cinematic history. The queen of the film world returned to The Dorchester months later when filming began in London.

It was on the set of Cleopatra that Taylor fell in love with Richard Burton, who would become her fifth husband. Burton and Taylor stayed often at The Dorchester and threw many parties there. Years after Burton’s untimely death, Taylor threw a party at The Dorchester in his honor, and more than 100 of his friends from across Britain stayed there as her guests.

With a staff-to-guest ratio of about three to one, the hotel’s reputation for superb service and five-star cuisine has attracted many notables who have no claim to royal blood. Celebrity guests have included Mohammed Ali, Shelley Winters, Gloria Swanson, Cher and W. Somerset Maugham, who used to live in The Dorchester for months at a time.

All that’s needed for a stay at The Dorchester is money. Currently, the hotel is offering a romantic weekend package for two that includes a deluxe double room, breakfast, and full use of The Dorchester Spa. The cost for two people for two nights, beginning on a Friday or a Saturday, is about $1,250 Canadian, including service and value-added tax. ♦

The Dorchester, Park Lane, London W1A 2HJ. 

© 2000