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Zen and the art of relaxation

PUBLISHED: 13:19 03 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:17 07 September 2010

I consider myself a man of the world, well-travelled, pretty well-read, and a keen observer, writes Barry Reynolds. Yet... after being shown our room at The Hempel hotel, I had to get someone from housekeeping to show me how to turn on the lights. Total embarrassment until I wa

I consider myself a man of the world, well-travelled, pretty well-read, and a keen observer. Yet... after being shown our room at The Hempel hotel, I had to get someone from housekeeping to show me how to turn on the lights.

Total embarrassment until I was told that in the early days, there were guests who could not find the door to the bathroom.

It's all the design.

And design is what The Hempel is about but subtle changes over the years have made it more guest-friendly and a place that proves to be a haven - again, if you can find it. Because, like the interior, the exterior is all discretion, a large "H" on either column at the entrance the only indication this is a hotel sitting in an otherwise residential street in west London, close to Hyde Park and a quick step to Notting Hill.

The five-star luxury boutique hotel was designed by Anouska Hempel, obviously under the influence of Zen minimalism. And in keeping there is no bustle, no crowded lobbies and no signage, just an atmosphere that forces you to slow down.

It is advertised as "an intimate and elegant hideaway", helped by its location in a quiet street with no offices, pubs or nightclubs.

The staff, too, are quietly efficient, and seem to magically appear when you need them.

The Hempel has 44 individually designed rooms, something that must be a challenge for the staff - maybe they have a manual entitled Zen and the Art of Hotel Maintenance.

Our room, functional and comfortable by design rather than as a money-saving option, had a slightly Japanese twist with the bathroom, which I had no trouble finding, at the door level with the main part of the room about 10 steps higher. The bed, a large, deep futon sat on a platform on the main level .

From the room we looked down on the Craven Hill Square, owned by the hotel and available for functions. The gardens can be used by functions but guests are asked to leave by 10.30pm as a courtesy to their neighbours. To the right of the gardens are apartments owned by The Hempel which follow the same design.

This was to be our headquarters for a weekend of some of the sights of London, as well as some of its tastes and flavours, starting with aperitifs in the H-Bar, mixed by Joel Miguel, the only touch of flamboyance in the place.

From there we made our way downstairs to the dining room for a meal that showed why The Hempel was so keen to have the services of chef Simon Aquilina.

It was a bit of a show-off meal for Aquilina, but then there was plenty to admire about his cooking.

The following day after a guided tour of Hyde Park, we made our way to the V&A to take a peek at the hat exhibition.

We could have gone to the Baroque show, but after the brisk walk and the thought of a lovely lunch, we both felt like something a little more low brow.

Lunch in the early afternoon was at Le Cercle, the restaurant owned by Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie in Chelsea, which is celebrating its fifth birthday. Again, the chef presented us with a wonderful five-course tasting menu, all of which included flowers - daisies in the wild rocket sorbet, tulip confit in the spring salad, nasturtium in with the seabass, and so on.

Le Cercle has also started monthly wine tasting dinners, on the third Thursday of each month. Given the standard of the wines we had with our meal, it is a night worth considering.

That evening, after the obligitary quick nap, we were treated to a demonstration of new ways with old cocktails (see right), followed by an early night.

The next day we were invited to Roast, a restaurant that sits above the Borough Market. It provides a great view of that wonderful, bustling crowded colourful place where you can buy every type of food and drink known to man. Except this was Sunday, when it is closed. But going on Sunday is brilliant for the one item you cannot get on the menu any other day - Sunday roast.

You could do all of this from your own home, every now and then you need to get away, forget the (grand)children, and just remind yourself that life is to be enjoyed. Save your worries for the work week.


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