London By Night (and Day)

The Milestone Hotel, The Red Carnation Hotel Collection’s flagship property in London, wows with high design and service that only a family-run business can deliver.

By Elise Hofer Shaw

December 05, 2018 5:59 PM

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Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love… It’s life’s most awesome promise and sweetest reward. And just sometimes, when two people come together in love and creative pursuits, magic happens. Such is the love story of Stanley and Beatrice “Bea” Tollman—and, by all accounts, the story of The Red Carnation Hotel Collection.

You can’t tell the tale of one without the other. Stanley, a distinguished hotelier, met Bea at the Oyster Box Hotel on the coast of South Africa near Durban in the 1950s. Stanley was wearing a red carnation in his lapel; Bea was a vision who melted the room with her smile. Fast-forward 60-some years later—and six children and 10 grandchildren—and the pair have amassed a selection of 17 award-winning, family-owned boutique properties from Guernsey to Cape Town. Eleven are five-star properties, the rest four-star. They’re named, of course, after the red carnation Stanley so proudly donned on that day when he first met his bride-to-be.

Today, The Red Carnation Hotel Collection (RCH) is the No. 2 Top Hotel Brand in the World according to Travel + Leisure, and a brand that has become synonymous with high design, exceptional locations, celebrated cuisine and above-and-beyond service. And with accolades like The Leading Hotels of the World Leading Legend and the Lifetime Achievement Award at The Cateys, the most prestigious awards in U.K. hospitality, under her belt, “Mrs. Tollman” (as she is lovingly referred to by the some 2,400 Red Carnation employees) has indeed herself become a legend in the hotel and restaurant world. And the secret to her lifelong success is no secret: “To create something truly extraordinary,” says RCH’s matriarch, “you have to do it with all your heart and soul.” 

The proverbial bloom in the company’s boutonniere is The Milestone Hotel in Kensington, London—the city the Tollmans call home. And yes, the entire staff sport red carnations on the lapels of their bespoke uniforms, starting with the jolly doormen who are quick to give directions, open the door, find you a ride or even walk your dog (all of the Red Carnation hotels are dog-friendly).

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The Conservatory is the perfect place for a light lunch, evening cocktails or even Afternoon Tea service.

Heart and soul are also spot-on descriptors for the Milestone’s hallmark design approach. From the deluxe guest rooms and luxury suites to the recently renovated long-stay residences, no two rooms are alike. My room during my stay earlier this year, the Tudor Suite, can hardly be referred to as a room at all. A study in creamy whites and rich golds, all 667 square feet from its private den to the original, hand-carved stone fireplace, is appointed with a mix of Victorian antiques and more modern furnishings like silk, fleur-de-lis-printed wall coverings and a gilded, four-poster bed. Signature touches like oversize candy jars, fresh flowers and turndown presents (think a mini tome of Oscar Wilde quotes) evoke that “no request is too large and no detail too small” vibe that all of the RCH properties are known for. 

Always curious about where I hang my hat, I asked for a history lesson from Andrew Pike, general manager of the Milestone. Dating as far back as 1689, the original dwelling that stood where the Milestone stands today was home to Foot Onslow, a Commissioner of Excise under King William III. His son, Arthur Onlsow (1691-1768), was Speaker of the House of Commons for 30 years. From ambassadors and barons to a countess and one braggadocios officer who claimed to be William Shakespeare’s grandson, the address of 1 Kensington Court has had quite the storied history—which the Tollmans planned to honor and uphold when they purchased the Milestone property in 1998. Thus, the hotel underwent a year-long restoration before opening in 1999 with Mrs. Tollman’s stamp of approval. 

My visit was timed quite perfectly around the completion of an elegant refurbishment encompassing two of the Milestone’s largest suites (106 Grand Master Suite and The Meghan Suite) and six of its luxury residences. Housed in what was once a private Victorian mansion behind the hotel, the residences are ideal for large groups, families and long-stay guests, and all now boast handwoven carpets, exquisite fabrics, antique or custom-made furnishings, handcrafted chandeliers, and rare artwork. My personal favorite was the Kensington Court Residence, a split-level apartment complete with a mezzanine bedroom upstairs and access to a private terrace overlooking the rooftops of Kensington. (Full disclosure: While up there, I broke into song, belting out “Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins.)

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The Signature Grand Master Suite

“Our newly designed long-stay Residences are a home away from home for business travelers spending an extended time in London, or families seeking comfortable yet stylish accommodation for their visit to the city,” says Pike. “Offering guests their very own address in one of London’s most desirable neighborhoods [Kensington], the Residences combine the value, space and authenticity of renting a private home, with the service, facilities and security of a five-star hotel.”

That same formula extends to the Milestone’s food and beverage program, which is as decadent as its decor yet extremely approachable. At Cheneston’s restaurant, contemporary British cuisine is elevated under the artful direction of Executive Chef Rob Creaser. Dishes like his Suffolk rack of lamb with sweetbread croquette, baby gem lettuce and spring peas have a devoted following, and his use of seasonal ingredients sourced from around the British Isles keeps the menu fresh. But it was Bea’s chicken noodle soup and pot roast Dover sole that were a comforting surprise to me when spied on the menu. After I’d tasted both, it was no surprise to learn that Mrs. Tollman’s cookbook, A Life in Food, is in its fifth edition. Après dinner during the holidays, head to Stables Bar for a Carousel cocktail made with barrel-rested Patron tequila, Old J Tiki Fire Spiced Rum, coffee liqueur, orgeat syrup, lime juice and orange bitters served atop a tiny carousel. Or warm your bones by the fire in the Park Lounge with a flight of whisky, including one pour that’s been barrel-aged for 60 days in Canadian maple syrup and vodka.

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The Carousel cocktail is just one of the magical creations that barman Angelo Lo Greco stirs up in The Stables Bar.

Usually when I’m in London, I’m inflicted with a bit of a Goldilocks complex—either trying to cram too much into too little time, or doing little more than exploring my corner of the city like a local. On this trip, the latter was just right—but I did enlist some help. Only the top-level tour guides in the U.K. get to don a Blue Badge, and mine, Russell Nash (guiderussell.co.uk), pinned his to a three-piece khaki suit and a quick wit. My private, 90-minute walking tour of Kensington under the guidance of Nash was both entertaining and informative. I now know where Mick Jagger baptized all of his children (St. Mary Abbots Church), how to distinguish a wealthy borough from London’s more “dodgy ends” (coal holes in the sidewalks and defunct gaslights), exactly where T.S. Eliot’s former flat is, and why the iron balconies in Kensington Court bulb out at the bottom (hoop skirts, natch). Needless to say, it was my kind of tour. On another day on my own, a brisk, 15-minute walk to Portobello Market for some antiquing, and then on to Notting Hill for a spot of Monmouth coffee and a slice of banana bread at Lowry & Baker, was blissfully low-key. 

For those who are more culturally inclined than I, Royal Albert Hall is a short, eight-minute walk from the Milestone, and the aforementioned St. Mary Abbots Church is but a block away. And across the street from the hotel at Kensington Palace you can stroll the gardens where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement, then take in the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibit (running through Feb. 17, 2019). During the holidays, definitely speak to the Milestone’s concierge team about planning some festive fun. A horse ride in Hyde Park? Caroling at Covent Garden? Ice-skating in the shadow of Somerset House? The Milestone’s V-class Mercedes can whisk your family wherever you’d like to go. (Don’t miss the Birmingham Royal Ballet performing The Nutcracker at Royal Albert Hall, Dec. 28-31.) And for a day trip to Windsor Castle, the site of Harry and Meghan’s nuptials last May, ask the hotel to organize a custom-curated Evan Evans tour complete with a chauffeured drive and private guide to unravel the history from the magnificent State Apartments to the beautiful St. George’s Chapel (evanevanstours.com).

Heading to Gatwick Airport in the Milestone’s chauffeured, midnight-blue Bentley—a lunchbox full of Mrs. Tollman’s chicken salad sandwiches rolled in chopped almonds placed neatly on my lap and a carry-on concealing a Powell Craft nightgown for my daughter and bits and bobs from Portobello Market for my husband at my feet—my heart was far from heavy about leaving. That’s the thing about a truly remarkable hotel stay: You know it won’t be long until you return. Next time, I’ll bring my own ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-’em loves along with me.

The Milestone Hotel & Residences, 1 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL, +44 (0)20 7917 1000, milestonehotel.com and redcarnation.com. Norwegian has direct flights to Gatwick Airport from 12 major U.S. airports including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York (prices from $159.90 including taxes for Economy to $714.90 including taxes for Premium Flex). norwegian.com

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The spectacular Art Deco bathroom of the Meghan Suite
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The menu at Cheneston’s has some local favorites including Cured Loch Fyne salmon with horseradish and dill as well as some of Mrs. Tollman’s own family recipes.