'Take me to the Savoy!'

RESTORED GLORY: The 'new' Savoy keeps its old-school grandeur, including the polished foyer.
RESTORED GLORY: The 'new' Savoy keeps its old-school grandeur, including the polished foyer.

'Take me to the Savoy!" There can be few more gratifyingly privileged words in the English language as you step into a black London cab at Heathrow Airport.

But these days, they're accompanied by a moment of guilty trepidation, too. Even after a three-year, US$300 million ($376 million) makeover, is one of the most iconic hotels in the world really going to be worth the big bucks it costs to stay there?

In the past it's played host to every fabulous somebody, from the Queen and Marilyn Monroe to Laurence Olivier, Oscar Wilde, Coco Chanel, Winston Churchill, Claude Monet and Noel Coward, all the way to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but will it be more crass than class?

This grand old institution, the first luxury hotel in London, dates all the way from 1889, when it was built by theatre impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte with the profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas run in his Savoy Theatre next door.

Off the Strand into Savoy Court, you enter the only street in Britain where cars are permitted to drive on the right - a curious quirk dating from the days of the horse-drawn hackney carriage when the coachman would lean down to the passenger door to allow his customers to alight right at the entrance of the hotel.

Today, a gaggle of dark-suited, top-hatted doormen dart forward to open the taxi door before ushering you through the quietly gleaming grand vestibule, all black-and-white art deco tiling, chintz sofas and gilt-edged tables.

Yet there's not much time to stop and stare; check-in is unfussy and you're shown to your room almost immediately. Already, you feel you're in a different world.

Everyone speaks in hushed voices here, the thick pile carpets absorb every sound of footsteps and you don't so much enter the rooms as they wrap themselves around you, a plush cocoon of luxury, glitter, feathers and flounces.

The Savoy was reopened only two years ago after its massive renovation returned the 268 rooms and suites, the entrance, the banqueting areas, the four restaurants, the two cocktail bars and the tearoom to their former glory. And then some.

Everything now looks perfect, polished and buffed to shiny perfection, with the staff no less so. The overhaul seems to have had a fabulous impact on business, too. My room is one of the last available that weekend, and when I ask to book an afternoon tea, the woman at the desk is apologetic.

"I'm sorry," she says softly. "There's a four-month waiting list." When I express my disappointment, she suddenly realises I'm actually a guest at the hotel. "Oh! In that case, we can fit you in," she smiles. "Our guests always come first."

When I have my afternoon tea at lunchtime the next day - well, you can't have everything - I graze on tiny crust-free sandwiches, scones smothered with jam and cream and a dozen exquisitely decorated cakes from the hotel's own patisserie and chocolatier.

In the breaks to catch my breath in the as-much-as-you-can-eat feast, I gaze, in turn, at the delicacy of the room, with its gold-fabric upholstered chairs, its chandeliers, its elegant gazebo beneath a newly created stained-glass cupola ... and Arnie Schwarzenegger, disturbingly eating far less than me, at the next table.

Yet amid all this perfection, there's still the odd, heartening flaw. In my teapot, there's a tiny chip in the china, albeit in the rim inside, hidden from anyone not so determinedly hunting for something reassuringly out of place. And the gym and pool are pretty ordinary, too.

Yet the big question is still: after so much money spent on its refurbishment, is all that splash worth the cash?

After a long weekend there, I'd say yes. If you can afford it with our still reasonably strong Australian dollar, even just two days at the hotel turns a trip to London into a real occasion.

It's wonderful to stay in the heart of London, with Mayfair, Covent Garden, Leicester Square, the West End and Westminster a short walk away.

At the same time, it's a glimpse of another world, a more fabulous, sumptuous and glamorous one than you could ever ordinarily imagine. And when it all gets just a little too much, peek inside your teapot for a reality check.



The Savoy, on The Strand, is a 45-minute drive from Heathrow Airport - about £60 ($115.8) by taxi. The nearest tube is Charing Cross.


Rooms start at £438 ($845.7) a night, up to £2094 ($4043.5) for a suite with butler. Email savoy@fairmont.com.


Asking the butler to pack or unpack your case.

Afternoon tea in the Thames Foyer; try not to eat for several hours before you go.

A champagne cocktail in the glamorous new Beaufort Bar with its jet-black and burnished gold decor, and onyx leather bar.

Dinner in the Savoy Grill, presided over by Gordon Ramsay.

Visit the shop in the foyer for a souvenir, selling everything from a Savoy bed to a box of its tea.

MORE INFORMATION Fairmont.com/savoy-london.

Sydney Morning Herald