LONDON, England — As baths go, this had to be the best one I ever had. With no lights but that of flickering candles, I eased back into my tub and gazed out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows at the Tower of London and Tower Bridge illuminated in a silver glow against the night sky. The River Thames looked like a sheet of black satin and a full orange moon was suspended over it all. I couldn't take my eyes off the scene below me, and thought I was truly in Shangri-La.
I was in Shangri-La, as in the Shangri-La Hotel, the second European property (after Paris) of the renowned Hong Kong-based hotel company. The location couldn't be more spectacular, occupying the 34th to 52nd floors of the Renzo Piano-designed Shard, the needle-like structure which dominates the South Bank of the Thames.
Sleek and sophisticated, the Shangri-La is a beguiling slice of Asia in London's burgeoning East End. Looking out the massive windows of both my bedroom and bath, what I saw wasn't the typical landmarks of Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and the Theater District.
Instead, in addition to the Tower and Tower Bridge, I saw the looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the river as it meanders in a series of turns eastward to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I saw an increasingly Manhattan-like skyline dominated by buildings Londoners have given quirky nicknames: the Gherkin, Egg, Cheese-grater and Walkie-Talkie. The West End may be posh and genteel; this part of London pulsates with energy and excitement.
Expecting a long wait for my room (flights from America to Heathrow usually land very early in the morning), I sat down with a cup of fragrant jasmine tea in the lobby to admire the view. Almost before I knew it, I was being ushered to my room on the 44th floor, where the view was the same, only higher.
A few hours rest erased most of the jet lag and I was ready for a walk to erase the rest. The Shangri-La is within easy walking distance of many of the South Bank's premier attractions: Borough Market, in my opinion, the best outdoor market in the world; the Globe Theater; Southwark Cathedral; Vinopolis, the Museum of Wine; and the Tate Modern (if you walk across the Millenium Bridge from the Tate, you'll be at the foot of Ludgate Hill and St. Paul's Cathedral.)
It may take a bit of doing, however, to make yourself leave the myriad pleasures of the Shangri-La. Service is as attentive as it gets. Five minutes after checking in, it seemed the entire staff knew my name, and anticipated my every need.
No request seems too impossible, even when I asked the concierge about my chances of getting the city's hottest theater ticket — the Old Vic production of The Crucible. Although it was apparently sold out the entire time I was there, he miraculously found me a seat.
Then there's the food. My seven-course tasting dinner at TING was one of the best meals I've ever had. I met friends for a drink in GONG, the highest bar in London on the 52nd floor, and while the cocktails are indeed pricey, I just kept telling myself that price included the view.
I missed taking a dip in the Skypool (it opened a few weeks after my visit.) The infinity pool, the highest in Europe, is also on the 52nd floor adjacent to GONG. It's partitioned off during the day, but at night opens up to become part of the bar.
Now, that's what I call Shangri-La.
I arrived at Coworth Park, the exquisite country house hotel just in time for that typical British lunchtime tradition, the Sunday roast. It's a good thing I had a chance to savor the tender roast beef, light-as-air Yorkshire pudding and asparagus with a delicate lemon sauce, as the rest of my stay didn't turn out exactly as planned.
Suffering from what I later self-diagnosed as a severe sinus infection, I made my way to my beautifully appointed room, from which I didn't emerge for the next two days. Grabbing a box of Kleenex, a bottle of aspirin and a Coca-Cola from the minibar, I nestled into the high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and spent the next 48 hours sleeping and watching TV, everything from episodes of Dr. Who to reruns of Frazier.
Happily, I can attest to the luxury and comfort of the accommodations. If you are going to feel miserable, there's no more comforting spot for it than Coworth Park. It's much better, however, to be here when you're feeling up to enjoying all it has to offer. I'm still regretting that I missed my spa appointment and polo lesson, as well as the sheer enjoyment of exploring the 240 acres of private estate grounds.
Located just 45 minutes from Central London near Ascot and Windsor Great Park, Coworth Park is a different kind of English country house. While the classical Georgian exterior of the manor has been retained, the interiors — by acclaimed designer Martin Hulburt of London-based Fox-Linton Associates — are contemporary.
A sweeping staircase, for example, has been re-designed in modern English pale smoked oak in a sculpted oval shape; the restaurant boasts a signature copper-sculpted oak leaf chandelier; in every room, picture windows overlook an expanse of rolling parkland, while large arrangements of fresh flowers bring the gardens indoors.
The property's 70 rooms (30 in the main mansion and the rest in outlying cottages and converted stables) are complemented by the signature suite, the Dower House. Dating to the 18th century, the three-bedroom house also has a dining room, lounge, kitchen and secluded garden and stream where a family of swans happily paddles.
Additional amenities include a two-story spa nestled in a bend of tall silver maple and English oaks, and an informal restaurant situated in a converted barn. Being in such close proximity to Ascot and its famed racecourse, one might expect Coworth Park to offer riding among its activities, but what you won't expect is the level of commitment to equestrian sport found here.
The Equestrian Centre has mounts suitable for every age and skill level — from Connemara ponies for children to German Grand Prix winners for those who want to practice their dressage. Additionally, Coworth Park is the only hotel in the United Kingdom to have its own polo field. Managed by the Guards Polo Club, it's located in the heart of Windsor Great Park.
If you're a duffer rather than a rider, Coworth Park has a relationship with neighboring Wentworth Club, known as one of the world's finest golf and country clubs, which allows hotel guests to play on any of its three championship courses. You just might find yourself teeing off next to a Member of Parliament.
For those who want to experience a quintessentially British outing, the staff can arrange a day at the races at Ascot, a visit to nearby Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey) or a wine tasting and lunch at the Vineyards at Stockcross.
I'm already hoping for a return visit where I can experience all this lovely property has to offer.