The palatial St Regis Hotel in Florence is perfect for those seeking a grand city break.
Hotel Insider: A perfectly romantic Florentine experience
There is no hotel in Florence that is so striking on first impressions than the newly reopened St Regis. Sitting on the bank of the Arno River, the facade resembles an ornate wedding cake decoration and initially it's difficult to imagine that this sumptuous palazzo dates back to 1432, when it was designed by the great Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi, who was also responsible for the city's iconic Duomo.
The moment you walk through the entrance, you step into a plush lobby that echoes the early days of luxury travel when Florence was an obligatory stop on the Italian Grand Tour and The Grand was the place to stay. I stayed many times in the old Grand and, on recent visits, I felt like it was living a little on its reputation, being somewhat tired and dated, and in need of a makeover.
After a 10-month closure and a huge US$25 million (Dh92m) renovation, the reborn St Regis Florence has lost none of the old grandeur but has added seductive modern touches. As I check in, there is a Philippe Starck-inspired purple pouffe and zebra-striped chairs alongside precious antique furniture. In the library/lounge area, beautiful photographic books are displayed but most of the guests are reading on Kindle or browsing on their iPads. And then the impeccably dressed butler arrives to whisk me off to my suite.
Just a five-minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio and the Renaissance heart of Florence, the Piazza Ognissanti is a quiet oasis, just far enough from the tourist sites to avoid all the crowds that throng the narrow streets of the city centre. On the piazza itself is one of Florence's hidden secrets, the quite incredible 15th-century cloister frescoes of the Ognissanti church. Don't expect to find too many smart restaurants and designer boutiques, as this is still a down-to-earth neighbourhood, especially the nearer you get to the main train station.
There is a sense here of staying in a private gentleman's club or the plush mansion of a wealthy friend where guests are relaxed, having lunch in jeans and T-shirts even in the opulent surrounds of the Giardino d'Inverno. Business travellers are more likely to check in at the Westin Excelsior across the piazza, but clients of the St Regis are here for Florence's museums, exhibitions and gastronomy. The Florentines themselves are not great users of their palace hotels, like residents of London or Paris, so you won't see too many residents here unless there is a function in the majestic ballroom (definitely the city's most prestigious setting), and then the hotel comes alive with elegant Italian signore dripping jewels and wearing the latest Roberto Cavalli or Valentino designs.
In general, the service here is friendly, relaxed and impeccable. The big plus for 40 of the hotel's 100 rooms is that guests are utterly spoilt by their own butler who unpacks the luggage, presses clothes, shines shoes and serves tea or coffee with the wake-up call. And the concierge is happy to recommend jogging routes through ancient Florence.
The hotel doesn't have a pool but there's a small, well-equipped gym. What is new, though, is a stunning spa operated by Clarins featuring its new Iridium range of products.
Each room has its own name based on the city, so you may find yourself staying in Palazzo Medici or Campanile di Giotto. What surprises immediately is the size - even the standard deluxe rooms are very spacious. The decor is sumptuous, from the canopied beds to the gilt-edged mirrors. Guests can choose from three styles representing the long history of the hotel - Medici, Florentine and Renaissance. And while the room may be decorated with a fresco and lit by a glittering Murano chandelier, there is every modern convenience, too, including a Bose sound system, an iPod charger and a seemingly invisible TV screen set in the bathroom mirror.
The hotel's glass-ceilinged Winter Garden, a jewel of Belle Epoque architecture and decor, is its life and soul, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no breakfast buffet but everything from the Eggs Benedict to the selection of Tuscan cheeses is well-prepared and served briskly. The dining room is due to be under the auspices of Florence's greatest restaurant, the three-star Michelin Enoteca Pinchiorri, but this remains to be confirmed, and for the moment the current chef's Florentine cuisine is a mix of classic Italian inspiration and modern French influences, ranging from traditional Tuscan homemade "pici" pasta with succulent chunks of breaded monkfish (€25; Dh122) to main dishes such as wild duck in a sweet and sour sauce with braised endives (€28; Dh137).
The location. Views across the Arno river to the Ponte Vecchio are breathtaking, and a sunset stroll along the Lungoarno boulevard is the perfect Florentine experience.
The music. There is piped jazz day and night, from the library to reception, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
A welcome return to form for one of Italy's most historic and prestigious hotels, wonderfully restored to its former glory without losing any of its unique charm.
The bottom line
Prices begin at €320 (Dh1,560) per night for a deluxe room, and from €4,000 (Dh19,535) for the Bottega Veneta Suite, designed by Tomas Maier, the fashion house's creative director. The Presidential Suite costs from €10,000 (Dh48,835) per night. St Regis Florence, 1 Piazza Ognissanti, 50123 Florence (www.stregisflorence.com; 00 39 055 2761).