In times of economic recession, some would argue that the best remedy is to go out and live it up. As always, London remains one of the best places on earth to run away for a pre-holiday long weekend, celebrate life with your sweetheart and do some serious damage to your credit card. The retail district around Green Park, in Central London, offers multiple opportunities to browse for things that will break your hearts with their price tag and elegance.
At Holland & Holland's legendary Old Bond Street shop, you can measure her for a hand-made shotgun that will cost about as much as a college education. The men's clothing stores along Jermyn Street offer wardrobes that will make you look like a million dollars and cost almost as much. When you're dog-tired of searching for stuff you can't afford, you can walk down the street to 150 Piccadilly and take an afternoon nap in your room at The Ritz, which many consider the world's finest hotel.
Like most grand hotels, The Ritz is equal parts hotel and cultural institution. To justify the cost of a room, (which is actually less than you might expect) you and your partner might reassure yourselves that you're buying not just a room but a once-in-a-lifetime, inside glimpse of old London.
If possible, ask the concierge to arrange a tour of the hotel, which is well worth an hour of your short weekend. Like all great institutions The Ritz has humble beginnings. It was founded over a century ago by entrepreneur Cesar Ritz, the Swiss hotelier who earned his innkeeping chops back in the days when restaurants listed cat, horse and spaniel on the menu and men dined publicly only with mistresses and prostitutes. Ritz and his chef, a young Frenchman named Auguste Escoffier, pioneered the notion that a hotel should be a luxurious place where refined people could dine and socialize.
Ritz and Escoffier started working together at the Savoy Hotel in London, drawing the upper class with fine food, plush surroundings and dinner music supplied by the up-and-coming Johann Strauss and his orchestra. The royal families of Europe soon gravitated to their dining room, as did lesser characters of the court such as the Duc d'Orleans, who often showed up for dinner with his two pet tigers. When Ritz and Escoffier were fired in a dispute with the board of the Savoy, the royals threatened to take their business elsewhere.
The hotel that now bears Ritz's name was designed by the French architect Charles Mewes, an architect of the Beaux-Arts school. His building was distinctively French in design, and it borrowed heavily from American engineering know-how, with a unique steel inner framework that was pioneered in rebuilding after the Chicago Fire destroyed much of the city. With a steel inner framework, buildings can rise higher and more lightly, with stone facades acting as decorative cladding rather than load-bearing walls.
The new Ritz opened in 1906 and soon became the trendiest place in London. (On a summer night in 1917 the Countess of Essex smoked a cigarette after dinner, and people stood up to watch.) It was the only large hotel in London that allowed girls to enter without chaperons. If the shop girls weren't successful in snagging a wealthy boyfriend, they could at least amuse themselves with the notion that they had "danced with a man who'd danced with a girl who'd danced with the Prince of Wales."
Edward, the Prince of Wales, was, in fact, a regular at the Ritz and liked to demonstrate his prowess as a tango dancer, regularly burning up the floor with an assortment of femmes fatales. His mistress at the time was an extraordinary beauty named Lady Furness. During lunch at the Palm Court in the Ritz, Lady Furness told her American girlfriend that she needed to sail back to New York for a few weeks. "Oh, no," said her American friend. "Your little man is going to be so lonely."
"Well, dear, you'll just have to look after him while I'm gone."
In her autobiography, Lady Furness later noted that "Wallis took my advice all too literally," speaking of Wallis Simpson, whose romance and later marriage with the prince led him to abdicate the throne.
During World War II, Winston Churchill used the Ritz for meetings with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle, and it served as a home away from home for royal refugees such as King Haakon of Norway and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who were fleeing Nazi occupation.
During German air raids, (the hotel was hit on nine occasions by falling bombs,) many of the guests would sleep in the basement hallways. When the sirens wailed, the lights in the downstairs bar would go out, and the patrons would mill about in the dark, offering witticisms. During one raid, the over-refreshed bon vivant Felix Hope-Nicholson went feeling his way down the darkened hall and tripped and fell on top of the sleeping King Zog of Albania.
In the postwar boom of the 1950s, the Ritz became the European headquarters of American movie stars, magnates and billionaires. J. Paul Getty, then the richest man in the world, was photographed in front of the Ritz as he bent over to pick a penny off the sidewalk. In recent years the Rolling Stones, Julia Roberts and countless other celebrities have stayed at the Ritz.
Aside from its European incarnations, the name Ritz almost disappeared from its corporate children in this country during the Depression but was revived in the 1980s by the Ritz-Carlton chain, which embraced the same attention to luxury and detail.
When we checked in, our hall porter informed us that Prince Charles likes to walk across Green Park and duck into the Ritz for a quick lunch. There are six grades of room, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and although ours was "budget" accommodation, it still seemed that we were ensconced in Marie Antoinette's boudoir. Our large windows overlooked Green Park and St. James Palace, and our ornate marble bathroom was big enough for a football team. Our high-ceilinged bedroom was fitted out with such splendid carpeting and silk draperies that we felt that instead of going out on the town we should be staying home, trying out the different bath features and admiring the wallpaper.
When we got home, it was a little painful to review our Visa slips. But the memory of a weekend at The Ritz will stay with us long after those bills are forgotten. And after all, it's just money.
Rooms at The Ritz range from 270 pounds to 515 pounds; that's about $410 to $782 to you and me.
The Ritz London, 150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR
Toll free from the U.S.: 877-748-9536