Manchester, with its majestic Victorian spires, quiet canals and factory conversions scrubbed of the indignities of hard labour, is not too shabby – just so long as you don't have to sleep there. Last time I stayed over, a shower door caved in on me and the sink plugged up. Before that, I left my hotel without paying after searching fruitlessly to find someone to check me out. Sorry!
And those were the smart options. In Manchester, you generally have two choices for an overnight: a faded-chintz railway inn or middlebrow chain hotel. The Principal, in its previous incarnation as the Palace Hotel, fell into the former category, all dusty rose and rubber chicken. A $50-million reno has done right by the Gothic Revival building.
Local architects 3DReid overhauled the sweeping Edwardian structure with designers Michaelis Boyd, known for their magic-dust interiors for Soho House and the Groucho Club. They preserved the elaborate cornicing, mosaic-tile pillars, antique parquet floor and original marble staircase, then amped up the industrial references with iron-mullion mirrors and steel lighting in the rooms.
The space below Victorian peaked skylights is wrapped in steel-framed windows that create an interior greenhouse – called the Winter Garden, it's a haven of green upholsteries and fairy-lit trees. Decorative fabric panels in a wild geometric print, purloined from the defunct (but beloved) cinema across the street, is a clever, if out of place, touch.
In the vaulted marble lobby, topped by an engraved frieze and stained-glass cupola, the designers commissioned a three-metre bronze horse in mid-trot from the London sculptor Sophie Dickens – this, after all, is the former turning circle, where carriages once let out their top-hatted fares. With all this attention to historical detail, they seem to have forgotten one crucial modern convenience: ramps for rolling luggage. From check-in at street level, it's three lots of stairs and a fiddly set of doors to the elevators.
Oxford Road train station is next door, for your day trip to Liverpool or Leeds. And the Rochdale Canal path runs right outside the door, before blowing past the red-brick landmarks of Manchester's manufacturing past. But you'll have to walk 20 minutes into the Northern Quarter for nightlife, or to the splendid park-side Whitworth Gallery.
Whom you'll meet
Blue-rinse pretheatre groups peek in, wondering when it got so spiffy.
Raucous crowds from the university faculty congregate around the 14-seat party table. Impeccably groomed sybarites, possibly too heavy-handed with the hair product, line the sinuous sofas in the bar.
The buzz echoes through the cavernous hall to the games room, where floppy-haired gents retreat to check the football score.
Eat in or eat out
The lads behind Volta, the hipster hub of suburban Manchester, have taken over the restaurant, naming it for the Refuge insurance company that built this place from the ground up. Michaelis Boyd encased the old pillars in translucent steel mesh and there's a 40-foot backlit granite bar separating the massive room from the bar next door. Flop into a cozy pleated booth fit for Madison Avenue and graze from the Levante-themed menu, the sort of Lebanese-Moroccan fusion that's ubiquitous down in London these days. Slow-roasted harissa-rubbed lamb leg falls easily off the bone; the pumpkin is puréed to a sweet, soft paste like miso. Salads studded with pomegranate seed complement seabass with pine nuts and a hint of tamarind. Sharing plates up the romance factor.
If I could change one thing
Despite the snug zigzag carpets and heavy drapery in the guest rooms, it's freezing upstairs. Who hid the thermostat?
The glorious full-English buffet breakfast, with fresh juices, fruit and granolas (plus a cooked-to-order menu) is $23, but you'll easily consume more than your money's worth. And service this sunny is hard to find in Britain.
Oxford Street, Manchester; 01144 161 288 1111; phcompany.com/principal; 270 rooms from £100 ($167)
The writer was a guest of the hotel.