Bags are leapt on by silly-hatted porters at the bottom of the steps to the neo-classical portico, but the vibe inside the Xenia is thoroughly modern. Vivienne Westwood tapestries hang on the walls, giant vase-like artworks compete for attention with the sparkling reception desk and hyper-padded chairs that dazzle with the illusion of snakeskin.
It’s the workmanlike end of South Kensington – with close neighbours including lots of mid-market chain hotels and medical tourist favourite, the BUPA Cromwell Hospital. But it’s a ten minute stroll to the Natural History, Design and V&A Museums and a few steps further to Knightsbridge’s gold-drenched glamour.
More subdued than the lobby, the rooms are aiming for light and airy. Which is probably wise given the size. The classic rooms have only the most claustrophobic gaps around the queen bed, although the executive rooms have superkings and decent sprawl space. Tech smarts are shown in the free WiFi, multi-national plug sockets, aircon that switches off if you open the window and a bedside Samsung tablet loaded with information about the hotel and the area. Black and whitephotography on the walls, pillows from Harrod’s and plush towels help elevate above the generic.
It’s an old, rather grotty hotel that has been made over to be the best-looking and most personality-packed option in the area. The humidor and gloriously cute outdoor herb garden fit with the general feel of kicking back and relaxing. There’s currently a leisure guest slant – a lot of people on short breaks wanting something less bland than the Mercure or Crowne Plaza nearby. The position close to the Gloucester Road and Earl’s Court tube stations – on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport – make it a smart choice for those who would prefer to explore London than hole up in an airport hotel.
Neither starchy-collared nor shorts and T-shirt, the pan-European staff hit that right vein of friendly informality without descending into overly laid-back sloppiness. The usual perhaps-too-eager puppy dog spirit of a newly opened hotel is there, but it feels like a genuine keenness to please. Oh, and the pastries that arrive at turndown time are a welcome bonus.
The Evoluzione restaurant is both high concept and healthy – it adheres to the Cucina Evolution school that attempts to combine the art of traditional Italian cooking and nutritional science. Three dishes – such as violet potato ravioli with stewed seabass for £16 or low temperature-cooked ostrich fillet for £26 – never add up to more than 800 calories. Sadly, the pretence factor is high (being lectured on the anti-aging properties of cherry tomatoes and having dishes explained solely as “poetry of colours” soon wear thin) and, despite protestations to the contrary, flavour is clearly compromised.
The basement event room with pool table, sink-in sofas and 84 inch TV. If not privately booked, it becomes a sociable hangout lounge for guests.
The lack of fridge in the room. No-one wants to have to call room service to get cold water and soft drinks.
The Xenia has, on the whole, that crucial likeability factor. The event room and herb garden are the most obvious examples of a pervading thoughtfulness and willingness to try something a little different. The elephant in the room? Well, you’re not going to fit an elephant in your room…
The bottom line
Classic double rooms from £140 a night and executive double rooms from £173 a night, excluding breakfast. 160 Cromwell Street, Kensington, London. (www.hotelxenia.co.uk; 00 44 20 7442 4242).
This review was originally written for The National.
All content copyright David Whitley.