Diane Sherer, owner and founder of Beyond Traveled, powered by Cadence Travel, recently ventured to the U.K. and is back with this report.
London is open and it’s better than ever. At the end of September, I had the good fortune of being one of 41 U.S. luxury travel advisors invited to attend a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime event hosted by Virtuoso preferred partner, NoteWorthy and 13 Virtuoso London hotels (The Berkeley, Brown’s Hotel, Claridge’s, The Connaught, Corinthia, The Dorchester, 45 Park Lane, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, The Langham, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Rosewood, The Savoy, and Shangri-La at The Shard). The event was the brainchild of the hoteliers and Nicola Butler, NoteWorthy’s owner, and its goal was to show advisors that London and the U.K. is ready to welcome back U.S. travelers. This was my first overseas trip since December 2019, and it did not disappoint.
The VIP experience began before I even departed when I received an e-mail from American Airlines (my carrier of choice) upgrading me to Platinum status. After an on-time departure, and a remarkably comfortable flight in my business-class lie-flat seat I was met by one of NoteWorthy’s greeters. They immediately relieved me of my hand luggage and whisked me off to passport control (which took less than 10 minutes to get through), followed by a quick stroll through customs. After collecting my luggage, I was met by my driver who walked me to the COVID-testing site provided by Express Test located right in Terminal 5. I was in and out in 15 minutes. Within the hour, I was checked into my suite at the Connaught and soon thereafter, sipping a negroni in the ever-glamorous Connaught Bar (made with the hotel’s first house-distilled artisan gin!) alongside the hotel’s gracious General Manager Sandeep Bhalla. What a welcome.
The Royal Suite by Gucci offers 2,852 square feet of space and a four-poster, king bed.
Just driving through London to my hotel, I was so happy to see life looking “normal”—the city was buzzing, masks optional meant people were largely opting against, the warm welcome and greeting we found everywhere was never more genuine.
The first evening we were wowed by Claridge’s when they unveiled to us their recently renovated rooms and suites, the new, subterranean wine cellar, kitchen, and chef’s table, and the yet-to-be completed but still utterly phenomenal rooftop of the Penthouse Suite, with nearly 360-degree views of London. This champagne-infused site visit was followed by a sit-down, private dinner at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Davies & Brook, led by chef Daniel Humm. We were seated at tables of four-six people, which made for a meaningful, intimate experience. I was lucky enough to be seated next to the charming Paul Jackson, general manager of Claridge’s, so I was able to continue my Claridge’s education throughout the evening.
The next day, we were off to explore the best London has to offer, courtesy of NoteWorthy. We were split up into small groups of about eight to 10 people, including one hotelier, a NoteWorthy guide (all of whom were extremely knowledgeable, engaging, and patient), and a few advisors. We were assigned two tours per day for two days, and a fabulous lunch at one of the participating hotels.
The first day, my group started at Kensington Palace (the London residence of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) where we were given a private viewing of Princess Diana’s wedding gown, on display for the first time in 25 years. We were also able to view (with no crowds), a rare, surviving toile for the 1937 coronation gown of The Queen Mother, and other gowns, sketches, fabrics, and swatches from the archives of some of the most celebrated royal couturiers of the 20th century who created clothing for three generations of royal women. For the fashion obsessed like me, this was a truly memorable experience.
The Coburg Bar at the Connaught overlooks Carlos Place in Mayfair and has a cocktail menu of classics and new inventions.
Next, we were off to a private tour of the London Underground. We were able to access our inner James Bond by exploring hidden, exclusive areas of the Charing Cross Underground station closed to the general public. Watching trains enter the station looking down from a grate in the ceiling and standing in the very same spots where the Bond hit, “Skyfall,” and “Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World” were filmed, was incredible. A whole world exists under there, and being able to see it privately, and learn about it from an expert, was nothing short of thrilling.
After working up quite an appetite, we were rewarded with lunch and cocktails at The Savoy. Some might argue that the highlight of this lunch was being serenaded by a pianist in the American Bar while sipping refreshing and unusual concoctions created by head bartender Shannon Tebay (the first female head bartender here since 1924), but I would say lunching in the Royal Suite by Gucci stole the show. None of us would be wrong.
Guccio Gucci was a luggage porter at The Savoy in 1921. It was his time at the Savoy that inspired him as a designer so when the time came to collaborate with a hotel, the Savoy was the obvious choice. Everything in the suite is Gucci, from the wallpaper to the furniture and furnishings, to all of the decorative items. And everything’s for sale. In addition, art and antiquities from Christie’s have been carefully chosen to adorn the walls (including a sketch by Lucian Freud which we were not allowed to photograph), which are also up for purchase. I’ll take two of everything, please.
As if that wasn’t enough excitement, that evening we were treated to a live, private performance by the Band of the Coldstream Guards behind the gate of The Guards Museum. Typically playing for the Queen and at royal ceremonies only, the Band played everything from a “Cabaret” medley to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and the British national anthem, showcasing the special friendship between our two countries. Needless to say, it was an incredibly emotional evening for those who haven’t traveled overseas in months and for those welcoming U.S. travelers for the first time since March 2020. Dinner that night was in the Chapel Square where we mingled and took photos with the Guards and dined on fresh oysters, octopus, and other passed items all catered by the incredible Berkeley Hotel, one of the hotel partners for the weekend. Naturally, we ended the night at The Blue Bar at The Berkeley, where we also got a sneak peek of the just-opened rooftop pool and were able to sample General Manager Knut Wylde’s special margaritas.
The next day we were up and at ‘em again. This time, our group had the distinct pleasure of being lead on a behind-the-glass, private tour of the Churchill War Rooms. Bypassing the crowds and being led into a super-secret door (which was fun in and of itself!) to get behind the glass and actually sit in Churchill’s chair, was an unforgettable experience. On one arm of the chair, you could feel the grooves from where Churchill nervously tapped his ring, and on the other arm, you could feel the scratches from his fingernails. In the Map Room, we were able to see and feel all the tiny pin pricks on the maps lining the walls. The tension in these rooms was palpable, even today. Whether you’re a history buff, an Anglophile, or just someone who likes extra special, VIP treatment (and who doesn’t?!), this tour is a must.
From here, we boarded HMS Belfast where we were met by the Head Engineer, who doesn’t give tours to “just anyone.” It was truly fascinating the way he was able to bring to life what transpired on this ship during WWII. We were given the opportunity to raise the flags, and had the cannons not been under repair, we would’ve actually been able to fire one! I guess it’s good to leave something for next time.
Nicola Butler of NoteWorthy with author Diane Sherer of Beyond Traveled. // Photo by NoteWorthy and BronacMcNeill
Lunch at the top of Shangri-La at The Shard was not only memorable for the never-ending sushi and sashimi bar, but also the views from there (as well as from almost all of their guestrooms and suites). The word “spectacular” does not do them justice.
That evening, we were hosted by Rosewood London in the famous Scarfe’s Bar, a place I had been dreaming about during the pandemic. There, we sipped martinis, mingled with our colleagues, and had a cake-tastic cake decorating contest, which was great fun. I also managed to squeeze in a late-night snack at The Gin Bar and Pie Room at Rosewood’s Holborn Dining Room. Couldn’t miss that.
Our last full day in London began at The Mandarin Oriental with some surprise guests. After a sumptuous breakfast in the Ballroom (where the Queen and Princess Margaret learned to dance!), we went outside through the exclusive Royal Entrance, which was lined by members of the Life Guards Squadron in their pristine red tunics, onto Hyde Park. There, we were greeted by The Household Cavalry. In true NoteWorthy style we were able to get right up close to feed and pet the gorgeous horses, all set against the stunning backdrop of Hyde Park.
As if that wasn’t enough royalty for the day, we then headed to the Apollo Theatre in the West End for a private audience with His Royal Highness The Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex KG GCVO, followed by a private performance of two numbers by the cast of “Six,” and a panel discussion featuring Virtuoso’s Matthew Upchurch, Sir Rocco Forte, Nicola Butler and Sally Balcombe from Visit Britain, among others, and moderated by Peter J. Bates, founder and president, Strategic Vision Inc. It was exhilarating to hear everyone, including Prince Edward, speak of the comeback of travel and of the re-opening of the U.K. to tourism.
For the final hurrah, The Langham hotel had a lot to live up to, and they did just that. And beyond. Decorated all in pink, dinner was created by the one and only two-star Michelin, celebrity chef, Michael Roux, Jr. at the Roux at The Landau. While the food was elegant and refined, the evening was peppered with a lot of cheeky fun, including a musical performance by London Essentials and a drag queen show by Globe Girls. The performers then followed us all to The Wigmore Bar where we sang karaoke into the wee hours of the morning. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip.
As one does when traveling that far for four days, I chose to extend my stay with NoteWorthy and visit the English Countryside with a few other advisors, and then on to Scotland with Nicola Butler, owner and managing director of NoteWorthy. Nic showed us some incredible experiences, including a visit to Painshill Park in Surrey (where much of “Bridgerton” was shot), and a pint pulling contest in a local pub. Let’s just say, I’m sticking to my day job. We spent one night at the dreamy Heckfield Place and another night at Four Seasons Hampshire. Both epitomize country living in very different ways. We also visited The Newt in Somerset and its new addition, The Farmyard, as well as Lucknam Park and the fabulous boutique hotel No. 1 Bruton in the charming village of Bruton.
Then off to Scotland. Our first stop for the night was at Auchterarder Castle, where we experienced a fascinating tour of the property by the owner himself, a formal sit-down dinner prepared by the owner’s private chef, and even a late-night game of Frieda around the Snooker table, whisky included. This 10-bedroom meticulously restored castle was perfect in every way. I can’t wait to book it for a multi-gen family or anyone looking for a truly breathtaking, authentic Scottish experience.
The Mayfair Suite at Claridge’s has a golden age, deco design.
Next up, Gleneagles Hotel, where we went on a falcon walk and had a gourmet picnic lunch (shots of sloe gin included!), afternoon tea, pre-dinner cocktails in their new pop-up space, The Enchanted Garden, dinner at The Strathearn, and of course post-dinner drinks at the perfect American Bar. If only I golfed…
From Gleneagles, we drove up through the Highlands to Fife Arms in Braemar. It was a long drive, but so well worth it. This eclectic, stunning, recently renovated 46-key hotel is the former hunting lodge of Queen Victoria, and just 15 minutes from Balmoral Castle. It has 12,000 pieces of art and antiques, a whisky bar with 365 whiskies, and the best fish and chips I had in all the land.
We spent the following day visiting a few more hotels (my idea of a perfect vacation) including Cromlix (owned by tennis great Andy Murray) and The Old Manse of Blair, a unique, boutique country house in the heart of rural Highland Perthshire. We laid our head for the night at the newly reopened Cameron House on Loch Lomond. They’ve done a beautiful job restoring it and the early morning boat ride on the Loch is not to be missed.
We ended the trip in Edinburgh, which is everything I thought it would be and more. The cobblestone streets, the pubs dating back to the 1600s, the castles, and a very fun, private tour of the Royal Yacht Brittania with our amazing NoteWorthy driver guide in full kilt attire, rounded out the day. We spent our last night in gorgeous suites at The Balmoral and had the pleasure of dining with Richard Cooke, the GM, in Brasserie Prince.
My takeaway from this trip was not only that the London and the U.K. are indeed open to travelers, but that travel itself is going to look very different moving forward. For my clients particularly, having access to off-the-beaten-path, private experiences where they can avoid the crowds and spend quality time with locals and experts learning about the destinations, is going to be the key to meaningful travel.