In the Stars: A Tale of Two London Hotels

The Athenaeum Hotel

The Splendid Room

I am never happier than when I step into the slippers. The whole room is a dream, it’s true, from the cornflower blue fabric on the headboard to the sparkling porcelain sink. The lights brighten and dim soothing slowness, as though a basic switch would be too harsh, too jarring a transition. The climate control system—its intake and outlets mysteriously out of sight—whispers low like a lover. But the slippers.

Their one-size-fits-all design is genderless and basic to the point of being nearly disposable, but that’s beside the point. It’s the way that they feel that counts. Covered in what looks like terry but must surely be the insides of clouds or the fleece of a thousand baby lambs, wearing them means forgetting about discomfort. About sidewalk-nurtured callouses and endless dead skin and an ankle not quite healed.

I seriously consider wearing them out into the city. Before checkout, I stuff a pair into my already-overstuffed bag.

On Picadilly, across from the Buckingham Palace Garden, I decide to splurge. Maybe for the sake of the slippers alone.

The flight to New York to London is a sensory disaster, a 7-hour exercise in time-losing, body-disorienting anguish marked by the smell of thin, stale air and the endless bellow of jet engines. A soft landing on the other side becomes my mission, more than trying to maximize time, or bound out onto the city streets for sightseeing. This is how I know I’m getting older. Instead of needing to crisscross the city at breakneck speed, gawking and eating—the touristic equivalent of rape and pillage, all I want to do now is drink tea, scribble in my notebooks, wander without a map and sit by a river.

Upon arrival, I take a too-long shower and use up just enough of the shampoo and conditioner that I can still take some home. I wrap myself into the enormous white robe, knotting the belt around twice, and finally, when my energy gives out completely, doze on a starchy white pillowcase.

I don’t want to leave. I seriously ponder it, of all the blasphemies—staying sunk into that mattress like a lazy princess—instead of using my theater tickets. Instead of getting out, taking the walk through the bleating chaos of Picadilly Circus, figuring out dinner, spinning a map around in the palms of my hands. This is what a lovely hotel does to a girl who is not used to such things, who spends most of her trips avoiding the hostel she’s checked into, the noisy teenage boys there hogging all the good bunks.

The next morning, I make tea in the neat little electric pot. I use the wireless as though I will never have it again, as though I am headed to some overgrown jungle and will be sleeping in a hut instead of to a budget hotel across the river. My iPhone sits charging on a dock, unfettered from any tangling cords, from double layers of international adapters and surge protectors. I glut on civilization, on floor-to-ceiling mirrors and stacks of white towels. I am cured of my jetlag. I’ve seen nothing of London, of the river or Parliament or the parks or the little shops. The free museums inhabit some hazy elsewhere. Instead I have a cup of chamomile tea, turndown service, as many cotton swabs as I would like, and so much more—all the confines of that little room.

Tune Hotel Westminster

The As-Promised 5-Star Bed

You pay extra for everything. For a scratchy towel and a tiny tube of manly-smelling shampoo. For each day of internet access. For the television. For use of the hairdryer that sits like an overturned turtle on a table, its cord perma-mounted into a wall, silent and dead until you fork over £2.

It is a new concept in hotels, like an earthbound Ryanair—the nickel-and-dime business model. The benefit to the traveler? You can score an incredibly cheap room in a brand new London hotel that does promise a single, notable luxury: a great bed.

And it must have been, because I overslept in it twice, once on a morning where I was scheduled to take a train.

The Tune Hotel, located in South London by the Lambeth North tube stop, has the chipper, new-paint-and-plaster feel of an upbeat college dorm, right down to the Ikea furniture in the rooms and the kids at the front desk who smile like enthused RAs welcoming you to orientation. Even the wallpaper in the rooms is cheerful—the pattern covering mine was grass green and geometric with a whiff of vintage styling—but that, and the wide window, can’t cover the fact that the room is small.

The white slab of a bed fills it almost entirely, like a giant marshmallow.

After the Athenaeum, I try not to be displeased. I really do. I try to appreciate the bed, which is very nice, and the economy of the toilet/shower/sink, which sits in a pod in the corner and seems to be molded from a single piece of plastic. But I can’t. One 5-star hotel, and I’m ruined.

Even though the Tune is spotless, I smell the sheets. (Is that chlorine?) I wonder how the all-plastic bathroom is cleaned, and how it will look after five years of use, after the grime settles into the crevices. I am frustrated by the silent hairdryer, even though I haven’t blowdried my hair in years.

I’ve slept in beachside shacks and hippie commune hostels, and on a bare bunk in Greece for half a summer without a pillow. And here I am, cranky that the air conditioning is too cold, fighting with the window shade.

So I do what I must. I leave. I strike out into the city. I wander markets. I walk across Millennium Bridge. I see two museums, the Tate and the Tate Modern. I walk along the river. I take a day trip to Bath. I travel, finally, in earnest.

Go there:

The insanely wonderful Athenaeum Hotel is located at 116 Picadilly. To get there, take the tube to Green Park or Hyde Park Corner.

The utterly serviceable Tune Hotel is located at 118-120 Westminster Bridge Road.

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One Response to “In the Stars: A Tale of Two London Hotels”

  1. shane Says:

    you seem to be very biased toward the Athenaeum Hotel, which is reasonable, since it sounds just awesome and you can have a great time there, but i guess this comes witha price. do you remember whats the price diffrence between those 2 completly different kind of hotels is? for my hollidays i would probably chose something in between these 2 categories. i dont need the highest standards of luxury, since i am out sightseeing most of the day, but i also dont want inconvenient noises and having to think about extra payments for every single service

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