Set in the grounds of one of England's finest country houses, this Waldorf Astoria hotel is full of surprises - not all of them welcome.
Hotel insider: London Syon Park
A fairly long and twisty road leads visitors through some spectacularly beautiful landscaped gardens; hardly surprising, for the 80-hectare parkland that provides the setting for Syon Park, the Waldorf Astoria's latest hotel, was designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown, known in the 18th century as England's greatest gardener. The land forms part of the Duke of Northumberland's Syon Park estate, and you drive past the imposing Robert Adams-designed Syon House on the way to the hotel. It was used for filming many of the indoor scenes in Robert Altman's Oscar-nominated Gosford Park, and the whole place positively reeks of rich history.
Unfortunately, all this grandeur, along with preconceived notions of what a Waldorf Astoria hotel should look like, leaves you feeling rather let down when Syon Park homes into view. Unattractive and brick-built, it's reminiscent of 1970s motels and some supermarkets. From the outside, at least, London's many other five-star establishments have very little to worry about, but once you are inside things really do improve.
Looking at the surroundings you'd have no idea that outside the substantial boundary walls lies the unglamorous London suburb of Isleworth. Which is probably a good thing. Situated exactly halfway between Heathrow airport and London's city centre (both are just 11km away), it's in an ideal location for an impromptu stopover for business travellers who want to escape the confines of Heathrow for something a bit more relaxing - even if the tranquility is shattered every couple of minutes by overhead planes.
Not exactly a happening joint, Syon Park's relaxing atmosphere unsurprisingly attracts a more mature clientele. Predominantly European and middle-aged married couples seem more than content with the unhurried vibe, and a smattering of business travellers were enjoying their escape from the city and airport insanity.
Exquisite. That sums up the dining experience at Syon Park. Lee Streeton, the head chef, has put together a mouth-watering selection of dishes, each prepared with the utmost care and attention. The Capability is the restaurant's name and it's perfectly fitting because so many of the raw ingredients used are to be found growing outside, giving a real home-cooked experience. The Aberdeen steak (£28.50; Dh170) is to die for, while vegetarians are catered for with a wider selection than normal. Another less formal eatery called the Clubhouse is opening in September.
Our ground-floor room, like all the others, is very black, silver and purple. Excessively blingy for some palates thanks to a plethora of sparkly fixtures and fittings, perhaps, the decor is nonetheless a successful balance of masculine and feminine touches. The bedlinen is sumptuous and the king-sized bed so comfortable that it was nigh impossible to get up the following morning. The underfloor-heated bathroom is luxuriously appointed, although the flatscreen television in the shower enclosure is probably unnecessary. Post-shower, using a hair dryer caused the entire room's electricity supply (one socket inexplicably excepted) to die. The smartly dressed maintenance man was quick enough to respond but we still ended up having to use a multi-socket adaptor for all appliances - amazing what you'll put up with rather than pack up to change rooms. One thing worth noting is the noise insulation: with 747s flying so low over the hotel you felt you could almost reach out and touch them, the rooms are remarkably quiet.
Absolutely top-notch. The check-in process is relaxed, with no imposing desk separating reception personnel from visitors (informal side tables are used instead), and there's no shortage of friendly staff on hand, who don't seem to be able to do enough to make you feel loved.
The Kallima Spa, with its attentive staff and unhurried approach: you book time in the spa at £96 (Dh573) per hour for a personalisted treatment programme. The home-baked sweets, biscuits and cakes served at Brownies, the sundae bar, which is at the far end of the entrance lobby. The funky Peacock bar with its cool atmosphere and Warhol prints. The grounds, where you can aimlessly wander for hours with a picnic prepared by the kitchen staff, and the fact that you can catch your own fish in the trout pond and give it to the chef to cook for your supper.
The architecture, which does this luxury brand a disservice. The pool, which is way too shallow at 1m throughout for a decent swim. The steam room, which is hotter than the sun, and the noise of the planes while sitting outside. But most of all the architecture - it really is drab in the extreme.
A rather posh Travelodge.While Syon Park is not short on luxury, it's desperately short on gravitas. Its room rates are relatively expensive yet it manages to look and feel cheap in places, but, having said that, the staff make everyone feel more than welcome and, if you're just passing through, its close proximity to Heathrow makes it a sensible choice. Especially if the company is footing the bill.
The bottom line
Double rooms, including breakfast and taxes, start from £358 (Dh2,159) per night, rising to £458 (Dh2,762) with dinner included. London Syon Park, Middlesex (www.londonsyonpark.com;00 44 207 870 7777).