Connaught Village - why this delightful pocket of London is a must-visit for food, shopping and art-lovers
What did I know about the little pocket of London called Connaught Village before my whistle-stop weekend stay? Absolutely nothing - in fact - I'd not even heard of it.
The surrounding areas of Hyde Park, Lancaster Gate and Marylebone, I knew all about. Yet this small leafy community submerged in the Hyde Park Estate's luxury retail quarter had so far eluded me.
Wherever you are in London tourist attractions are never far away with the Marble Arch, Princess Diana Memorial, Kensington Gardens and the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street all close by.
But if you're looking for a more sedate experience featuring a mix of independent retail, culture and fantastic dining options, look no further than Connaught Village itself.
It's what I love about our capital city - there's always somewhere new to explore - and I was excited to discover why this area, with its rich blend of architectural heritage and exclusive green squares, was being talked about as the perfect weekend getaway.
WHERE TO STAY
Overlooking the sprawling greenery of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, there's no better base for a mosey round Connaught Village than the renowned Royal Lancaster Hotel.
Hailed as one of London's leading luxury hotels, it has spent the past two years undergoing a mammoth £85 million revamp.With 411 rooms across 18 floors, space is never an issue, and you get a sense of its sheer size as soon as you enter the plush lobby, where the friendly staff immediately hand out the five-star treatment.
What makes this hotel truly unique is its breathtaking views of the famous London skyline and if you book a suite, you can see iconic buildings like The Shard, Royal Albert Hall and the London Eye.
All rooms have flat screen TV's and free wifi and there are additional sitting areas, desks and park views if you upgrade. Suites provide extra perks such as iPod docks and Nespresso coffee machines.
Other amenities include a restaurant offering European cuisine, a smart Thai-themed option which also serves afternoon tea, a swanky lobby bar and 24-hour exercise room for the more energetic among us.
For a relaxing pre-dinner drink I recommend cocktails in the spacious Park Lounge Bar, where we slumped into one of the giant settees to sip on some of the barman's delightful mixed creations, including The Little White Bird and The Huntress.
The hotel also offers an excellent breakfast, where you can choose from a range of hot and cold buffet options or go 'a la carte' for something more special.
WHAT TO DO
First up for my wife and I was an activity of a more cultural nature as we spent the afternoon browsing around two of the village's art galleries. We started with a tour of the intriguing displays at RNat5a, named after resident artists Rob and Nicky who were showcasing their mesmerising 'Dark Factory Portraits' exhibition featuring portraits entirely painted by robots.
Over the road at Dellasposa, we observed an interesting mix of pieces displaying the talents of both contemporary and modern artists from around the world.
Moving on we then looked around a few shops, including the beautiful fashion boutiques of Lucy Choi, Kokoro, Kindare and Eliza Jane Howell. But it wasn't long before food jumped to the forefront of our minds as our noses led us to Buchanan's cheesemongers, where they have their own onsite maturing rooms and fantastic menu of British and European cheeses. It would have been rude not to try a few, which was enough to bring out the wallet for a purchase.
Afterwards, it seemed fitting to pop to the wine merchants opposite. Connaught Cellars has been supplying some of London's top restaurants and bars for the past eight years.
Eager to wash down the cheese we'd consumed, the offer of a tasting couldn't have come at a better time, so we happily sat for an hour trying out reds and whites from some of the finest independent producers from Italy and France.
With so much greenery on the doorstep, a walk around Hyde Park is a must, and who said that London wasn't dog friendly? I've never seen so many pooches in one place!
Another attraction worth visiting is the village's 'Tree of Love, Joy and Hope'. Beaming down on the junction of Connaught Street and Kendal Street, the unique display adorns dazzling pink and red hearts, providing the perfect location for a romantic after-dinner stroll.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
After a long train journey from the Midlands with only a cinnamon bun lining our stomachs, the bellies were rumbling for our first food stop at Argentinian deli Abasto, where we were excited to sample their selection of handcrafted empanadas, feasting on a number of delicious meat and vegetarian options including blue cheese, mushroom and chicken.
And you can't miss the beautiful Saint Aymes cafe next door, regarded as one of the most 'Instagram-able' places in London. People come from afar to snap of themselves outside the shop's incredible floral frontage and the food and drink is pretty special too.
Everything is presented so elegantly it's almost too beautiful to consume, like the 'Rose Teapuccino' I enjoyed and my wife's incredible 'Unicorn Milkshake' which was so stunning it could have featured in a Disney film. They also sell chocolates hand-painted with 23-carat gold and you can see why the likes of Selfridges and Harvey Nichols stock them on their shelves.
As lovers of Indian cuisine, we were really looking forward to our evening meal at Bombay Palace. With branches in Beverly Hills, Kuala Lumpur and Toronto, this globally-renowned restaurant is celebrated for its wealth of Tandoori specialties.
The meal was a real treat to the taste buds as we sampled a mix of spicy delights from sheesh kebab and lamb rogan josh to butter chicken, paneer and spinach curry and lentil dahl, all mopped with a selection of four different naan breads including our favourites, the cheese and peshwari.
The carb-loading didn't stop there as less than 24 hours later we were gearing up for our journey home with a belly-busting lunch at Persian restaurant Colbeh, where the portions are so generous you should make sure you are super hungry.
The biggest 'wow' moment came with the serving of Colbeh's signature flatbread, which was so huge it looked like the base of a rowing boat. And the taste was just as impressive as we used it to scoop up the copious amounts of rice and tongue-tingling flavours of our spicy lamb shank and chicken dishes.
Heading home with full stomachs and more great memories, I was delighted to add Connaught Village to my expanding list of London 'must-visits'.