As our car sweeps around the driveway of The Shilla Seoul, my immediate reaction can’t be described as relaxing into an oasis of calm. In all its brutal brick glory, this is not, after all, a hotel that purrs tranquillity from the outside. Step through the entrance however, and things slowly start to change. The cavernous foyer is imposing, yet clean-lined furnishings painted in oak, chestnut and mahogany hues – brown is clearly the new black – give a natural feeling to the pristine, polished space. It’s hard to miss the cascading crystal installation that sends light ricocheting from floor to (very high) ceiling, a creation by celebrated Korean artist Bahk Seon Ghi that serves well to emphasise The Shilla’s conscious blend of traditional and contemporary design.
It’s a quick check-in before bags are dropped in our neat little room. Spacious enough, with a mini bar we can’t figure out how to open, and an in-vogue but awkward glass window separating the bedroom and bathroom, our room has plenty of natural light and remote-controlled blinds for added ease.
By this stage, an evening Martini beckons. The Shilla’s Library Bar sits on the ground floor, alongside The Parkview restaurant, where breakfast is served if you’re not lucky enough to get access to the much-lauded Executive Lounge. The handful of bookcases scattered about the bar are presumably there to make the bar’s name seem relevant. As with the rest of the hotel, space here is not an issue. In the main room windows are colossal and wood panelling lends a grandeur that’s impressive. A fireplace set away from the central bar is a final-night find that brings some much-needed intimacy to the set-up; we only wish we’d stumbled upon it sooner. The live music is a plus, the bizarrely uncomfortable seating less so. Prices are bold, but when drinks are this well prepared it seems almost legitimate – over a weekend we enjoy a series of classic concoctions that are beautifully handled, from Old Fashioneds and Negronis to cucumber-garnished G&Ts.
A day exploring Seoul is on the cards, which means an early breakfast – fresh-from-the-oven pastries, acres of international cuisine, strong coffee – and shooting straight out of the hotel. The concierge seems surprised at our decision to hit Seoul on foot, but dutifully pulls a titanic map out of nowhere (yes, I’m still a paper map over Google Maps kind of girl – sorry husband) and sets about scribbling directions to avoid us getting hopelessly lost as we traverse from Myeong-dong to the walled compounds of Deoksugong and along the path-hugging Cheonggyecheon Stream. Post outdoor adventures, the day ends with a booking at The Shilla’s fine-food destination, La Yeon, one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
The morning after our authentic Korean feast, The Shilla’s capacious outdoor sanctuary Urban Retreat is calling my name. Set across multiple levels, it’s an emblem of elegant city lounging. Cabanas frame the upper level, some with private plunge pools and Jacuzzis, while day beds skirt the main swimming pool. Elsewhere, wicker-framed sunbeds overlook the lush green of nearby Mount Namsan. I have found my oasis. For those wanting an extra dose of rejuvenation, the Guerlain Spa offers an extensive menu of treatments (be warned, it’s naked or nothing when it comes to the steam room, as is tradition), or you can step out into the Sculpture Garden, a meandering 1.6km trail dotted with eye-catching art pieces. Or if, like me, you prefer the bare minimum of exertion after a day of sightseeing, settle in for the long haul and watch the sun trail across the sky.
The Shilla Seoul is a five-star hotel with five-star prices, but when you get what you pay for it’s hard to mind. Service rarely falters, and there always seems to be at least one friendly face nearby for those essential questions (“Can I order food from a sun-lounger at 4pm?”). Fine-dining fans will be impressed by the quality of La Yeon, while lazy-day lovers will be hard-pressed to find a haven as welcoming as Urban Retreat. Inside, we say skip the overdone formality of the main bar come evening, and nestle into one of the set-aside armchairs encircling the fireplace instead. Martini optional, but most definitely recommended.