“A small house to which I am proud to see my name attached….”
With this masterful pearl of understatement, Cesar Ritz celebrated the opening of his second great hotel, the London Ritz, in 1906. Like it’s precursor, the 1899 Paris Ritz, it has gone down in history and legend as one of the most iconic and indulgent luxury brands in the gilded pantheon of platinum chip, elegant travel experiences. Even now, it’s allure still draws the nostalgic, the hedonists and the simply filthy rich like moths to a flame.
What surprises many people is how small the Ritz actually is. The entire complex has only some one hundred and twenty four rooms and suites, something belied by the huge, swaggering scale of the public rooms located just inside the entrance off Hyde Park and Piccadilly.
Cesar Ritz, along with his collaborating architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, envisaged the creation of a string of ultra opulent hotels across all the great cities of the world, to accommodate the top drawer sector of the travelling public that could afford the coronary inducing prices still charged to this day.
The London Ritz is a monument to Edwardian elegance and style; a shimmering montage of huge, heroic chandeliers holding sway above acres of rich, oriental carpeting. Enormous gilt framed mirrors and sconces provide the backdrop to formal groupings of coquettish, salmon tinted Louis XIV chairs and sofas.
But it has always been the levels of service and exclusivity that have raised the Ritz to a position head and shoulders above most of its erstwhile rivals. And, naturally, it has history in spades.
The elegant, window walled Ritz Restaurant looks much the same as it did when passengers about to embark on the brand new Titanic dined there. The Ritz was beloved of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Coco Chanel, who once famously painted her toenails green while she stayed there. More than anything else, that little detail gives some idea of the indolent, raffish lifestyle that Cesar Ritz sought to create.
He succeeded admirably; in due time, the word ‘ritzy’ would enter the English language as a synonym for anything outrageously elegant and exclusive. It remains so to this day. When Cole Porter wrote Putting On The Ritz, it became an anthem for a hotel that was already way, way more than a simple gilded lodging house. It had already become an institution; a way of life in its own right.
You don’t have to stay at the Ritz to savour what is, in essence, a gilded Edwardian time capsule, suffused with an air of dignified, discreet calm and matchless service. Afternoon tea is legendary, extremely popular, and not cheap. Booking in advance is all but essential.
There is also the elegant Rivoli Bar, well worth dropping into for a cocktail, or a glass or two of the wonderful house champagne, But if you really want to push the boat out, as it were, then an overnight stay is the way to go.
Last time I stayed there, Bill Clinton was checking in just in front of me. The guest rooms are gilt encrusted, lavish, lounging treats in their own right. Even the bathrobes are inviting enough to live in.
Make no bones about it, the Ritz is one of the last pure, unabashed havens of real, old world luxury; a hotel that remains faithfully wedded to its original mantra of style over hype. Cesar Ritz did, indeed, succeed in creating something truly individual and utterly magical; an establishment invested with- and fuelled by- a sense of deep, whimsical charm and style that has enabled it to rise above fads, whims and frippery. I hope the proud old lady always remains the same.