I don't like being in or near London's Piccadilly Circus. The area is elbow-jabbingly crowded, brain-cloudingly, honky-tonk noisy and choked by slow-moving clumps of people who too often don't watch (or know) where they are going. So a few months ago, when Jackie and I had a look-see of the Hotel Café Royal, on Regent Street perilously close to the Circus, I was surprised to find myself hankering after the place. It is everything Piccadilly Circus isn't: calm, quiet, good-looking and elegant.
On a more recent trip to London, we spent a couple of nights at the Café Royal and had a lovely time. The core of the hotel goes back to 1863, and for most of its life it served as a restaurant, banqueting venue and even as a place for boxing matches frequented by tony gentlemen including the Marquess of Queensberry, whose Rules were evidently promulgated on the premises. The connection of its gilded grill room (now the Oscar Wilde bar) with the Victorian and Edwardian literary set is pretty well known. As it is now, the hotel spreads into adjacent buildings; its center retains or emulates the original ornate décor, while the newer parts are decorated in a sleek, clean modern style with a pleasing, relaxingly neutral color palette.
Our room, like most (but unlike some of the more elaborate grand suites), was clad in a plaster simulacrum of the chamfered stonework of Regent Street buildings - and in the big bathroom this was rendered in marble slabs (the bathtubs are literally monolithic, each carved from a massive block of stone; they feel silky but not slippery). As in too many hotels, the lighting and other controls are nearly beyond comprehension. Even when we got the hang of them we still had to confront their invisibility: they are black on black.
Amenities bring a smile to the face: Floris toiletries may not be state of the hotelkeeper's art, but they are awfully good. And the little box of chocolates we found in our room was from one of the very best London pastry and chocolate makers: William Curley (whose shop you ought to visit when in London). There was a nice little spritz bottle of pillow scent on the bed too - an idea we'll adopt at home for sure.
For us at any rate, what really made us forget we were near Piccadilly Circus was the Akasha spa in the basement. Its tranquility is profound (apart from the thumping music in the well-equipped gym), and at 60 feet (18 m) in length its swimming pool is surprisingly large for London. The lighting there is almost at the low level of candles, and it is one of London's more pleasant places to swim. There's also a jacuzzi of considerable turbulence, a steam room and a gorgeous sauna with a barrel-vaulted ceiling for those who like to roast themselves. A full range of spa treatments is offered, with the usual hint of new-agey holisticism.
At breakfast, there's good coffee and very good pastries (a nice retail pastry shop is attached to the hotel), with jams made by the excellent Anglo-French supplier Tea Together.
It's hard not to be jarred by the bustle outside the front door - and by the need to wade through the crowds when you return from a day of tourism or a night of theater and dining. But once you're inside, it's easy enough to (almost) forget just where you are.
Hotel Café Royal. 68 Regent Street, London W1B 4DY; +44 (0)20 7406 3333; http://www.hotelcaferoyal.com/. Double rooms begin at about $445 depending on date and availability.