A view to the northwest across London from the Shangri-La hotel
A view to the northwest across London from the Shangri-La hotel © REX

For the opening-night party of the most anticipated European hotel launch in years, it was a strangely muted affair. Usually, such events call for celebrity guests and red carpets, for limousines and ice-sculptures. When the W chain opened in London in 2011, it threw an all-night party with members of the Clash and the Who singing in the bar; when Edition followed last year, crowds gathered outside to catch a glimpse of Harry Styles and Kate Moss. By contrast, the Shangri-La – the five-star property that occupies floors 34 to 52 of the Shard – launched last week with a modest drinks reception for journalists and senior managers. Performers dressed as lions danced for a few minutes; by 8.30pm it was all over.

But then, perhaps more than any other in living memory, this is a hotel that needs no fanfare. Few in a city of 8m people can be unaware of it – the hotel is visible from at least 25 miles away. Londoners have looked on – some enchanted, others appalled – as the Shard has risen above London Bridge station, the glass walls sometimes dazzling in the sun, the 310m summit sometimes lost in cloud.

And it has been a long time coming. Italian architect Renzo Piano famously sketched the design for the tower on the back of a menu in 2000. By 2003, the design had been approved, with objections from heritage bodies overruled by the deputy prime minister. In 2005 Shangri-La, the Hong Kong-based group that currently runs 41 hotels in China and another 42 worldwide, announced it had agreed a 30-year lease for 19 of the Shard’s 72 floors, which would become western Europe’s tallest hotel. Last week it put the total investment, including both lease and fit-out costs, at more than £90m.

Opening was originally slated for 2009 but the 2012 Olympics came and went and still no hotel. In January 2013 the building was finally declared finished and, by September, thousands had flocked to the public viewing gallery. Shangri-La meanwhile was busy changing its building contractors and the launch was pushed further and further back. Even today only 59 of the 202 bedrooms are ready; the remainder (including the three mega-suites that will sell for up to £20,000, as well as the swimming pool and champagne bar on level 52) will be gradually completed in the coming months. “Thank you for coming,” general manager Darren Gearing told guests at Tuesday’s party, “and thank you very much for your patience.”

The Shard, close to London Bridge, site of the first Thames crossing
The Shard, close to London Bridge, site of the first Thames crossing © Getty

A landmark for years before it had even opened its doors, the Shangri-La has little need for PR stunts. Little need to show-off at all, in fact.

When I am finally shown to my room, on the 49th floor, I endure a moment of panic. It is smartly but forgettably furnished: marble bathroom, built-in cupboards, desk and dresser in matching sycamore veneer. A plain standard lamp stands beside a grey armchair. After years of waiting to get inside, I worry I’ll struggle to find anything to say. It’s bland, slightly officey, could be anywhere in the world – completely anonymous.

But then my gaze drifts beyond the furniture, out of the floor-to-ceiling windows, and it all makes sense. This is a view with a room – the designer’s reticence ensuring that there is nothing to detain your eyes as they are drawn inexorably outside.

The panorama is as unique as the interior is anodyne, a view unrivalled in the UK, perhaps in the world. Consider that the Savoy sells its Royal Suite (at £12,000 per night) on the strength of river views that stretch from Canary Wharf to the Houses of Parliament with “seven of London’s bridges visible”. My room – an “Iconic City View” that sells for £600 – has an outlook stretching from Buckingham Palace in the west, to Alexandra Palace on a wooded hill to the north, and to Greenwich’s Royal Observatory in the east. It takes in a dozen bridges and the Thames Barrier, too.

An Iconic City View room
An Iconic City View room © Getty

Half of central London if not more is visible from my bed, landmarks too numerous to list, from sporting sites (Wembley, Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, the Olympic Park, Millwall’s Den) to cathedrals, stations, palaces and museums. On a clear day, from the window of a plane on the approach to Heathrow, you can sometimes get memorable aerial views of the city; but those are fleeting, tunnel-vision glimpses compared with this widescreen delight.

It’s the same story downstairs in the public areas and restaurant. The decor echoes countless luxury offices and airport lounges, expensive and agreeable but hardly striking, so that your eyes just slide out over the expanses of polished marble to the glass walls and the view beyond. In truth, I had arrived feeling hostile to both building and hotel. London is witnessing a growing backlash against tall buildings, as residents realise the scale of the projects under way – some 230 towers of more than 20 storeys are planned in a city whose low-rise skyline has long been a defining feature. Earlier this year, 80 influential public figures, from sculptor Sir Antony Gormley to author Alan Bennett issued a statement warning, “the skyline of London is out of control”. It’s hard not to share their concerns about the capital becoming dominated by glass and steel blocks, indistinguishable from Bangkok, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Kuala Lumpur.

How fitting that the hotel in the tallest tower of all should be a Shangri-La, offering “Asian-inspired hospitality” rather than drawing inspiration from its location in the historic heart of the city. It seemed to embody a sad trend for international chains to be more concerned with their own corporate culture than that of the destinations they find themselves in.

At first, the Chinese touches do feel a little odd, as surely would a big British-themed hotel in a prime site in Beijing. The minibar offers beer from Greenwich as well as Tsingtao from China but, instead of crisps or even a pork pie to go with it, there is Shin Cup Noodle Soup. I sit in my kimono, leafing through the menus for the hotel’s restaurant, café and bar (Ting, Lang and Gong, respectively) and look out at the Tower of London.

But the longer I stare, the weaker my objections become. The Shard may loom over numerous cherished sites like a futuristic invader but, from inside, there’s a profound sense of being connected to the city. The commuters pour over London Bridge, trains glide in and out of the station. With the binoculars provided I watch a film premier taking place at Old Billingsgate market. A tablet computer helps identify the buildings.

Details catch my eye for the first time: the gardens on the roof of Cannon Street station, the delicate steeple of St Dunstan’s, the wind turbines chopping the air on the far eastern horizon. The full meandering sweep of the Thames, so familiar from the Tube map and the EastEnders credits, is laid out before me for real. Rain showers fall on the distant hills, the sun sets, the city lights sparkle – minutes turn to hours and I watch and watch.

And then, my reverie is abruptly interrupted. Someone has flicked a switch and, rather than staring at distant spires, I am suddenly looking at a couple getting ready for bed. They are very close and very clear.

The Shard may look like a conventional four-sided pyramid from afar but in fact it has about 20 faces (the exact number depending on height). At many of the corners, glass panels protrude several metres beyond the edge of the building, helping create the jagged “shard of glass” profile. In daylight, you look straight through them but at night, when the room lights are turned on, they act like mirrors.

As I work this out, another light goes on. This time it’s the room below and I find myself looking straight into a bed, thankfully empty but with the duvet pulled back as if someone is about to jump in. I lunge for the switch to lower the electric blind. It seems to grind down very slowly.

Only some rooms will be affected by this issue and, of course it’s not uncommon for hotel rooms to have windows facing others. But this is a hotel where the windows are entire walls, and where everyone will naturally want to keep the blinds open.

It’s the biggest, but not the only, niggle. At breakfast the toast is done only on one side; the coffee takes 15 minutes to arrive. The digital clock inset in my bathroom mirror insists it is 63.16pm. When the hotel is full, with 400 guests in rooms spread over 15 floors, there might be a bit of waiting for the two lifts. But really, what does it matter? That view means coming here is an occasion, a night that can’t fail to be among the most memorable of the year. The management expects at least a quarter of guests to be Britons coming for a special treat (early signs suggest demand is strongest at weekends, when London hotels are traditionally least busy).

This is different though. Blow-out weekends at West End hotels tend to mean a whirl of indulgent meals, theatre shows, bars and galleries, shops and clubs. Staying here, up in the clouds, is a more contemplative experience. The station is directly downstairs, all of London’s attractions are within easy reach, but I suspect many guests will just want to sit quietly in their rooms and watch. From up here, the frantic city seems so serene.

Tom Robbins was a guest of Shangri-La (shangri-la.com/london). Double rooms cost from £450


Letter in response to this article:

One-sided toast tastes good to me / From Mr Tony Parrack

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