Rachel Lees checks into a suite at an historic hotel in the centre of London.
London first-timers, history buffs and nascent secret agents.
Location: A discreet backstreet in the centre of Westminster, a four-minute walk from St James' Park tube station. It's about 45 minutes from Heathrow Airport, if you catch the Heathrow Express to Paddington, then hop on the tube or into a black cab.
What's in the neighbourhood? What isn't? Stroll to St James's Park in about four minutes, Westminster Abbey in six, Buckingham Palace in nine, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in 10 minutes.
Check-in experience: From the Victorian red-brick façade, to the grand staircases, Rococo ceilings and chandeliers in the lobby, St Ermin's delivers a memorable first impression — one that is reinforced by a warm and efficient welcome at reception.
How big is the place? 290 rooms and 41 suites.
What's good about it? Central location and charming decor aside, the hotel's history reads like a spy novel. MI6 held guerrilla warfare classes at St Ermin's in the 1930s. Winston Churchill founded the SAS there in 1940 — the elite squad used an entire floor of the hotel as their headquarters during World War II. And in the 50s, double agent Guy Burgess delivered secret papers to his Russian counterpart in the bar. Rumour has it there is still a secret tunnel, which leads to the Palace of Westminster.
Anything bad? The otherwise flawless concierge team was not aware of the private tours on the hotel website. A shame, given the excellent Spy Mysteries of London tour (£36 per person) was designed exclusively for St Ermin's, and touches on the hotel's history. Led by an affable young historian, it includes several spy landmarks, and tales about everyone from Churchill to the Cambridge Five.
The room: With a sophisticated palette of cream, raspberry, moss green and dark wood, the spacious 60sq m suite evokes a modern English country house. Comprising a bedroom, bathroom and living room, complete with Bose sound system and Nespresso machine, it would make an equally nice London apartment.
The bed: A canopied king bed with a firm mattress.
Bathroom: It's decadent, darling. Think chocolate-coloured marble, a claw-foot bathtub and Kohler electronic shower. You'll be as fragrant as an English garden too, thanks to jasmine, rose and neroli-scented toiletries from The White Company.
View: The nondescript government buildings across the street. Could top secret meetings be taking place inside, or is it just that my imagination is getting the better of me?
Food and drink: Make like Churchill, and sip Champagne at the Caxton Bar. A few feet away, the Caxton Grill serves modern European dishes, made with seasonal ingredients, many of which are grown in the kitchen garden on the hotel rooftop. The Moroccan-spiced cannon and shoulder of lamb (£23) is superb. For a modern rendition of British afternoon tea — including bite-sized bagels, cheddar compote, and scones with jam and cream — head to The Tea Lounge between 12pm and 6pm.
Noise: The faint drone of nearby construction work by day, blissful silence by night.
Price: Rooms start from $315 per night. Suites are approximately $900 per night.
In a nutshell: A four-star hotel so good you may want to list it as Top Secret.
St Ermin's Hotel is on Caxton Street, London, United Kingdom. Phone: +44 20 7222 7888.