“That man over there looks like Paul Martin,” said my friend, another expatriate Canadian living in London. I turned to look, but it wasn’t the former prime minister, just another distinguished gentleman in a suit who looked comfortable talking about money. This is the American Bar of the Savoy Hotel: half the men look like Paul Martin, and the other half look like Prince Harry. At one table, all the men wore tuxedos. I’m pretty sure the dress code reads, “affluent hair.”
You can see why International Co-Operation Minister Bev Oda chose to stay here, over the elegant but somewhat sterile Grange St. Paul’s hotel down the road: Visiting the Savoy is like buying a ticket to the Zoo of the One Per Cent. In the hotel’s other bar, where George Gershwin first played Rhapsody in Blue for a British audience, the gold leaf alone cost $56,000.
The drink in my hand – “the Vesper, a combination of gin, vodka and Kina Lillet” – set me back $26. Twenty-six dollars, and I don’t even understand what the hell is in it. I apologize unreservedly to the Canadian taxpayer.
It’s understandable that Canadians bristled at their minister for the globally disadvantaged staying in the hotel where Elton John once flooded his bathtub and Oscar Wilde got too cozy with Bosie, but it could have been so much worse. Yes, Ms. Oda charged the good people of Moose Factory and Musquodoboit $16 for orange juice, but if she’d come to the American Bar, she could have bought a shot of 1965 Macallan for $400. And they don’t even give you swizzle sticks!
We really are amateurs when it comes to this stuff. In Britain, they’d laugh at the idea of a politician overcharging for orange juice: Here, for MPs to get in trouble they have to expense the construction of a duck house, the pruning of an arboretum or the cleaning of a moat.
I realize Ms. Oda paid $665 a night for her room, but you have to understand that in Savoy Hotel terms, that’s like sleeping on a sack in the back of a freight train while rats sing you to sleep. The royal suite, which comes with its own dining room and a veritable Downton Abbey of domestic drudges to put out your cigarettes and wash your unmentionables, is $16,000 a night. Really, when you think about it, Canadians got a deal: the Bev Oda Bargain Backpacker’s Tour of London.
Although, if she were actually a backpacker, she’d probably have taken the bus and not spent $3,000 on three days’ worth of limousines. (Ms. Oda has, of course, apologized and paid back the money she charged for the limos, the OJ, and the difference in hotel rates between the Grange St. Paul’s and the Savoy.)
I decided to test the expense of travelling between the Savoy and the Grange St. Paul’s, where Ms. Oda’s conference was actually taking place. Seeing as my limousine was at the mechanic’s, I opted for a black cab. The top-hatted doorman at the Savoy bowed and scraped me to a taxi, which was slightly terrifying but would have made me feel right at home, were I a cabinet minister.
About seven minutes and $12 later – it would have been less expensive if we hadn’t detoured around a giant hole in the middle of Fleet Street – the glass doors of the Grange St Paul’s swung open. Employees from Mitsubishi were holding a business meeting, and unlike the Savoy, no one was in evening dress or walking their pet leopard through the lobby (Okay, the leopard thing happened several decades ago, but still: true story.)
The Grange is a perfectly lovely business hotel, 10 efficient stories that look out over the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where, until recently, Occupy London protesters slept in tents to draw attention to the disparity between rich and poor. But a hotel that lists “natural daylight” among its selling features cannot compete with the absurd opulence of the Savoy, where Winston Churchill once parked his private whisky bottle and General Eisenhower his electric toothbrush. What politician could resist that kind of stardust?
The Savoy was closed for renovations for three years, and when it reopened in October, 2010, under the management of Canada’s Fairmont Hotels, I wandered the floors, where a pair of brothers had spent two years French-polishing every bit of wood in the place. Who could afford such luxury in recession-hit times, I asked the Savoy’s manager, Kiaran MacDonald: “The high-end corporate traveller,” he said, “those that aren’t on as restricted a price point, who are looking for that next level of attentive service and product.” And, of course, a perfect glass of orange juice.