OPENED IN 1997 as part of the Como hotel group founded by the Singaporean businesswoman Christina Ong, The Metropolitan on London's Park Lane is part of an intriguing portfolio of properties that takes in Bali, Bangkok and Bhutan, as well as the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean.
Ong, of course, is married to Malaysian real-estate tycoon Ong Beng Seng, who helped bring Formula 1 to Singapore and who owns everything from residential properties, hotels and shopping centres to the distribution rights to Häagen-Dazs ice cream. According to Forbes magazine, the couple ranks 10th on the Singapore rich list with an estimated net worth of US$1.6 billion, yet somehow they still manage to stay almost completely under the radar of the social pages and celebrity media.
Famously, this indefatigable businesswoman's empire began with the fashion boutique and distributor Club 21. Now it's a worldwide name, handling 30 luxury brands including DKNY – Donna Karan is Ong's close friend and collaborator – Armani Exchange and Mulberry. Yet she still finds time for her hotels.
It was Ong who turned the building her husband bought on Park Lane not into The Roxy, as he'd originally planned, but into the sleek and stylish Metropolitan. And it was daughter Melissa who persuaded her to launch the concept-driven Met Bar, which started life as an exclusive club and immediately became one of the big talking points of late '90s “Cool Britannia”.
Staff at The Metropolitan speak with genuine warmth of “Mrs Ong”, as they call her, who visits the hotel regularly and has frequent spa treatments there. Passionate about holistic health, she's been focusing her considerable energy on making the Shambhala spas – the name means “peace” in Sanskrit – a key feature of the hotels and overseeing every aspect of the experience they offer. Central to the Shambhala philosophy of the spas are the “five pillars”: culture, cuisine, wellness, adventure and sustainable design.
The Metropolitan has nine floors, with 144 rooms and several suites. My room, a Metropolitan Park Studio, which looks out over London's 140-hectare green oasis, Hyde Park, has a comfortable king-sized bed, a dresser-cum-desk and a sitting area meticulously arranged to create clear lines and a sense of space. The colour scheme is light and unobtrusive. All-natural body products with geranium, lavender and peppermint complement the essential oils that infuse the hotel's air-conditioning system. In-room yoga mats add the finishing touch.
This is, perhaps, not so surprising since at The Metropolitan the concept of wellness underlies everything. The six treatment rooms of the Como Shambhala Urban Escape have a relaxing colour scheme of white and sea blue. My hour-long signature massage uses the traditional Eastern technique of working first down one side of the body, then the other, a holistic approach that encourages energy flow and balance. The charming masseuse, who is also a qualified chiropractor, uses her knowledge of the Como Shambhala's own range of products to pick the most suitable for me, and I leave with a selection based on eucalyptus and geranium, which proves an astute choice.
Besides the spa, the other key feature of The Metropolitan is the Met Bar, recently renovated using timber, leather, lava stone and contemporary artwork. Once a club, it's now an intimate bar serving highly original cocktails – one is made of beetroot, ginger and potato vodka – and a varied menu. Potted shrimps, warm and delicate in melted spicy butter, are served with a mini brioche. Crispy bites of slow-roasted Norfolk lamb come with a smooth green purée of pea and mint, while the kedgeree cakes served with the lemon-poached monkfish add a real tang. But while the health-conscious guest has plenty to choose from here, or from the lobby's Shambhala cuisine menu (focused on raw organic ingredients and avoiding dairy), there are also other options. A sumptuous English cream tea with champagne is being served at the next table.
The Metropolitan stands in the heart of an area of London that has its own special character and history. After lunch I wander up past Mark Birley's exclusive club Loulou's to arrive at Shepherds Market, a uniquely upper-class gentlemen's red-light district. Legend has it that Charles II's mistress Nell Gwynne plied her trade here before catching the king's eye – and the area has attracted the rich and famous ever since. By a strange and somewhat macabre coincidence, one of its smarter addresses, 9 Curzon Street, saw the deaths of not one but two pop legends in the 1970s: Mama Cass of The Mamas and Papas in 1974 and, just four years later, Keith Moon of The Who. More recently, at the Michelinstarred restaurant Mirabelle, Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis were reported to have spent £17,000 on a meal (including £11,000 on a bottle of Romanée-Conti), though even that order of excess couldn't keep the business afloat: it closed in 2007.
Shopping is in plentiful supply, too, and dedicated window browsers will be quite happy in nearby Bruton Street, with boutiques by Matthew Williamson, Diane von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney, not to mention the many luxury stores on Bond Street. There's also a good choice of evening venues in close proximity, with the Four Seasons, Athenaeum and Dorchester hotels all close at hand. In the Metropolitan itself is Michelin-starred Nobu, with its Japanese-Peruvian cuisine. Executive Chef Mark Edwards has been cooking here ever since it opened, following a career that included The Peninsula Hong Kong, and New York's Rainbow Room and Tribeca Grill.
Breakfast at The Metropolitan is served each morning in the White Room. At many hotels the buffet breakfast can be quite intimidating, with long queues leading to mountains of greying scrambled eggs, floppy bacon and other tired offerings. But The Metropolitan has none of that, for instead of a buffet there's an adventurous menu, expertly cooked and with fast waitress service. I decide on the “healthy” option and am delighted by the oat milk porridge – warming and creamy – and delicious sprouted seed bread with avocado and tomato.
Over a cappuccino, I reflect on why The Metropolitan works so well. It's the detail – the freshness, the range of cuisine and the sheer level of comfort and space right in the heart of one of London's busiest and most cosmopolitan districts. Carefully designed to free you from the usual routine, it gives a real sense of an urban haven.