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The black and gold Beaufort bar at the Savoy.Niall Clutton

The Savoy Hotel has more ghosts than most, and many of them may be hanging around this weekend to see the grand old lady's new face. In October, 2002, long-time hotel resident and certified roustabout Richard Harris, dying of heart failure, was carried through the lobby on a stretcher, stirring himself long enough to call to the hotel's other patrons: "It was the food!"

At that point, London's dowager hotel was, if not quite as decrepit as Harris, badly in need of some restorative surgery. It was coasting on the fumes of an illustrious past, when movie stars and the occasional leopard walked its halls, and Winston Churchill held cabinet meetings in the dining room: "We had a building that was innately beautiful,'' says Savoy general manager Kiaran MacDonald, "but it was very tired and run down.''

This Sunday, after a painfully drawn-out and overbudget refurbishment, the Savoy will take off its bandages. It is a transformation that cost twice as much ($356-million) and took twice as long (almost three years) as predicted. Now there is light at the end of the tunnel - although that may just be the reflection from $56,000 worth of gold leaf in the Beaufort Bar.

A tour of the hotel 10 days before it reopened revealed a contained frenzy of activity: Painters touched up the edges of doors with minuscule paintbrushes, electricians huddled at the elevators - the Savoy, when it was opened by impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1889, was the first hotel in London to have electric lifts, then charmingly called "ascending rooms." A pair of brothers have spent two years French-polishing every piece of wood in the 268 rooms. Interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, who previously tarted up the Georges V hotel in Paris, is wandering about, casting an anxious eye over every detail, from the rounded door numbers in the art-deco wing to the ornate plasterwork of the Edwardian rooms.

In the famed American Bar, where Churchill and Eisenhower drank during the Second World War, a sharp-suited bartender drills his young underlings in the proper way to bid farewell to a guest: "You might say, 'Enjoy the view of the river,' or 'Please come back for a digestif.' "

Ah yes, the river. In the battle of luxury hotels - which continue to proliferate like mushrooms in London - the Savoy's knockout punch is its view over the Thames. In the River Restaurant, diners can listen to the tinkling of a white baby grand while averting their eyes from less savoury objects floating in the water below. At the front of the hotel, the Savoy Grill, where Laurence Olivier first clapped eyes on Vivien Leigh and where peaches first met raspberry sauce to become Peach Melba, will be resurrected by Gordon Ramsay Holdings, though the foul-mouthed chef himself won't be cooking (the opening of that restaurant is delayed until next month).

All this opulence comes at a price: Rooms at the Savoy, which is managed by Canada's Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, start at $560 a night and rise to $16,000 for the royal suite, which comes with its own butler, dining room and walk-in closet at least as large as Victoria Beckham's. In addition, there will be nine "personality" suites, named for Savoy regulars such as Maria Callas and Richard Harris (the Callas suite will always have pink roses, a favourite of the opera singer's; the Harris room, presumably, will not have a free bar).

Is there still a market for this kind of luxury, especially when there are indications that the British economy might be slowing again, and the rest of the world is still staggering to its feet? To judge by the swank new hotels popping up around London, the answer - or perhaps that should be "the developers' fingers-crossed wish" - is yes.

The Four Seasons is opening its doors on Park Lane after a two-year refit. Perhaps most exciting of all, the St. Pancras Renaissance, housed in the great Victorian hotel at the front of St. Pancras train station, which was recently voted Londoners' favourite building, will begin taking guests in May, 2011, two years after its scheduled reopening.

"We're going into it with due care," says the Savoy's MacDonald, "but the reality is that London weathered the economic storm very well, especially in the top luxury market. There continues to be uncertainty, but all indications are that London will continue to rise above it."

Almost half of the Savoy's guests come from North America (including business travellers "who aren't on as restricted a price point," as MacDonald delicately puts it). There are also visitors from the Middle East, Asia and Russia, but the bulk are British, who harbour a nostalgic fondness for a hotel that was once besieged by East Enders demanding shelter from the Blitz.

That historical connection is both the Savoy's blessing and its curse: The renovation took so long at the designated historic building because the repairs, not merely cosmetic, were done with an eye to period accuracy. But it's the ties to the past that keep people coming back: The Savoy is where Oscar Wilde was caught entertaining Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas, where Monet painted the Thames, where Auguste Escoffier cooked and Lady Farning shot her husband to death.

"The Savoy," says MacDonald, "is very much regarded as the character of London. It is such an English hotel."