Jan. 11 1999

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  The London high life
  LONDON -- Many visitors to London find themselves at Piccadilly Circus then take a stroll along Piccadilly to Hatchard's elegant bookshop, then join the throng at Fortnum and Mason, both businesses dating from the early 18th century.

If they keep going they will come to Hyde Park Corner with Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington, on the right, and an equally impressive building straight ahead.

Londoners knew this site for more than 250 years as St George's Hospital. The land has belonged for centuries to the Dukes of Westminster, who own big chunks of the West End.

In 1719 James Lane, second Viscount Lanesborough, built Lanesborough House here, and when he died five years later a group of doctors moved in and founded St George's Hospital. In 1825 the building was demolished and a new hospital erected.

The architect William Wilkins, who also designed the National Galley in Trafalgar Square, incorporated classical and Greek revival styles that were features of the Regency period. This pre-dated the era when all hospitals interiors were covered in green paint.

In 1980 the hospital moved to a new structure, presumably with lots of green paint, and the old building lay empty and sad for 11 years until it reopened as the Lanesborough, a hotel with 49 rooms and 46 suites.

Needless to say a huge amount of work had to be done but much of the original handsome hospital facade was retained.

The job was done so cleverly, and with such style, that it feels like it has been there as long as any grand hotel in London, and gives no clue to its American owners, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts. I mean, the doorman wears a top hat and not a stetson.

My butler wore morning dress and offered to unpack my bags, press my suit, bring me tea or coffee and invited me to make a selection from his video and CD library.

Well he might, for my suite rented for $1,500 a night. And that was a small one. A large suite is $2750 and if that just won't do there's still a royal suite at a princely price.

But if London is the world's most fashionable city right now, the Lanesborough is one of its most coveted addresses, and business is brisk. Guests like the warm clubby feel of the hotel coupled with useful personal touches like business cards in a leather wallet. For a day I had my very own Knightsbridge phone number, 171-333-7498, and a fax number too. The fax machine was tucked away to the right of my leather-topped desk with the safe (for the tiara, but not mine) on the left.

I might also mention that the suite had three chandeliers, four decanters of spirits and as many light and air-conditioning buttons as a Boeing 747 flight deck.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to dine in the Conservatory, where chef Paul Gayler, ex-Dorchester and Inigo Jones, holds court, but I can give full marks for offering an excellent curry on the room service menu.

The good flavour lingered long after, and I still have those business cards.

The Novotel Waterloo is quite different, a no-frills hotel which provides a very comfortable room starting at $320 a night, which is good value in a desirable part of London.

My room looked over Lambeth Palace with the River Thames and Houses of Parliament just beyond. Outside I could catch a bus to Oxford Street or walk over Lambeth Bridge and take a stroll along the river past the Parliament buildings and Westminster Abbey. Five minutes farther on lies Downing Street and Trafalgar Square.

Service was warm and friendly, there's a cozy bar on the ground floor while just down the street I found a typical London cafe (mornin' Guv!) where breakfast was $5 including a read of somebody's abandoned Daily Mirror.

Funnily enough there was a story about a Paris politician saying French passengers on the Eurostar cross-channel train were affronted at the train arriving at nearby Waterloo Station. As it happens the Novotel Waterloo is part of the French-owned Accor Group.

Air Canada flies daily from Vancouver to London. If you're staying at the Lanesborough you may as well try Air Canada's Executive First service and new arrivals lounge at Heathrow Airport. Here you can get a shower, shoeshine, breakfast and use the business centre.

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