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LUXURY HOTELS: Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Budapest, hUNGARY

Style: Oozing class and old school glamour.

Scene: Top spot overlooking the Chain Bridge and Buda district on the other side of the River Danube.

Seen in the lobby: This discreet hotel doesn't name-drop, but if famous faces are in town it's likely they'll be here with the business suits and well-heeled leisure breakers.

Pulling up outside the Gresham Palace it's obvious the former European head office of the UK's Gresham Life Assurance Company was designed with more than a corporate building in mind. Built in 1906, it also served as a source of rental income - when insurers were barred from investing in the stock market and other potentially risky ventures - a home from home for British aristocracy visiting the Hungarian capital and a display of the firm's financial clout.
As a waiting doorman ushers me through ornate wrought iron gates, and a porter simultaneously takes my bag, the wow factor is equally impressive today. Doors open onto a sweeping lobby dotted with contemporary sculptures and a chandelier created from hundreds of hand-shaped crystal leaves hangs below the high arched glass ceiling. By the time I get to the desk the receptionist somehow works out who I am and greets me by name.

four seasons hotel gresham palace
four seasons hotel gresham palace
park suite
passage
lobby
presidential suite
royal suite

I arrive late in the day and there's just time to pad around the marble bathroom with its heated floor and check out the L'Occitane goodies before the call of the king size bed. Next morning I explore in the light of day and the Park Suite reveals its USP, a double aspect with two balconies. One opens onto the classic picture postcard shot of the Danube against the backdrop of Buda and Royal Palace (in a city neatly divided by the river and criss-crossed by bridges the hotel is on the Pest side of things, close to the main Andrassy Boulevard and shopping streets).

Throughout the suite there are thoughtful touches. A selection of CDs to play on the music system, a leaflet of jogging routes and an eagerly awaited plate of sweet treats that arrives early each evening. Outside other bedrooms in the morning I see shoes immaculately wrapped in tissue paper, spirited away and returned free of charge by the shoe cleaning fairy. There are all the usual five-star trappings such as international TV channels, safe, mini bar and Wi-Fi (although Internet addicts should note you only get half an hour free and then it's chargeable). Whilst all 179 rooms and suites reflect the building's opulent Art Nouveau heritage, many with original features, book one with Danube in the name for a river view.

In the bathroom I dither between the rainforest shower and bath tub, complete with pillow, but opt not to use the phone by the toilet which must be for business types who can't bear to be out of touch for a minute.  

A focal point, in more ways than one, is the Gresham Kavehaz reflecting the golden era of Budapest's café society (at one time there were more than 400 coffee shops). Floor to ceiling glass puts window seat diners in an enviable goldfish bowl as passers-by steal glances inside.

The affable assistant director of food and beverage, Andrea Colla, maintains an expert eye on proceedings and, like other members of staff, instantly knows my name. At breakfast I wander along the beautifully laid out buffet and treat myself to a cooked order, where even humble poached eggs take on a new level and arrive with a neat side order of potatoes and tomato compote, and my handbag also goes up in the world to occupy a little stool of its own.
[The hotel] is undeniably grand. It could easily fall into the trap of being stuffy, but the MOOD is welcoming, FRIENDLY and intuitive.

The Kavehaz moves seamlessly through coffee shop, lunch and afternoon tea mode before the lights dim and it finishes each day as a restaurant. If you can't decide what to pick go for the six-course tasting menu that has the option (a very good one) of being served with selected wines to accompany each imaginative course. My meal starts with a crispy oyster and strawberry soup, ends with a white chocolate bavaroise and features guinea fowl and sea bream somewhere in between. Who says Hungarian food is all dumplings and goulash? For foodies wanting to find out more the hotel runs cookery courses with trips to the nearby Great Market Hall piled high with seasonal produce.

Highlight of the public areas is the Peacock Passage, with its soaring stained glass and cupola, and staff turn a polite blind eye to tourists who come in for a gawp. The passage, and cosy adjoining bar, is the place to begin, or end, the evening and it's good to see a cocktail menu with a decent choice of wines by the glass, many from Hungary's 22 wine regions. My choice, which I'm invited to taste before it's poured, arrives with little dishes of nibbles and I while away a pleasant hour listening to the resident pianist.

The building, restored to its former glory by an army of craftsmen to say nothing of a $110 million investment by Four Seasons before opening as a hotel in 2004, is undeniably grand. It could easily fall into the trap of being stuffy, but the mood is welcoming, friendly and intuitive thanks to its staff. I get the distinct impression everyone is encouraged to exercise initiative and not stick to a predetermined corporate mantra.

I make the most of sightseeing time with a one-to-one half-day guided tour with Anna Gorgey, who provides a fascinating overview of Budapest tailored to my interests, which includes going to an authentic café for coffee and cake, albeit the irresistible display at the Ruszwurm Confectionary near the palace results in cakes plural. The hotel arranges various tours, from a straightforward walkabout to a 'ladies first' limousine outing dedicated to spa, fashion and female culture. There's even a vampire-themed twilight jaunt ending with a glass of Bikaver, aka the robust Hungarian wine Bull's Blood.

Budapest is famous for being the world's only capital city with thermal springs and its spas are a unique attraction. At the hotel it's also well worth visiting the top floor spa, with its well-equipped gym, whirlpool, infinity pool and relaxation area with complimentary drinks and snacks if you prefer to chill out rather than work out.

For sheer indulgence try a chocolate body and facial treatment or a scrub and massage using brown sugar, honey and Hungarian Tokai wine, with an optional glass to drink afterwards (who'd actually say no to that?).  I put myself in the capable hands of therapist Eva for a 60-minute deep tissue massage and float back down to the luxurious suite in a suitably zoned out state to find the plate of delicious little eats already in situ.

It's easy to see why British aristocracy felt so at home here. The Gresham Palace really is palatial by name and by nature.
Check in: Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace, Roosevelt Ter 5-6, 1051 Budapest, Hungary. Tel: + 36 1 268 6000
Ultimate Luxury:  The second floor Royal Suite, with a huge balcony overlooking the Danube, is one of the largest in the city providing 2,400 sq ft (223 sq m) of lavish space to roam around in.
Most Indulgent Moment: Evening room service opening - rather than closing - the balcony curtains to reveal the glittering panorama of the Danube, at its most stunning by night.
Insider Secrets:  The lobby floor is the only detail in the hotel that's not original. It used to be covered in asphalt - considered modern in its day - now it's covered by 1,021, 200 mosaic tiles.
The Little Things:  Slipper s in medium and large sizes rather than one (usually enormous) size fits all, iPod compatible Bose sound system and bedside clock radio, a weather forecast card so you know what to expect the next day.
Junior Luxies:   Child- size bathrobes, complimentary children's toiletries, toys, special room service and restaurant menus make pint-sized guests feel pampered.
Dress code:  Mixed wardrobe of Euro-chic and dressed down style.
Perfect luggage: Understated quality suitcases and leather weekend bags that are more traditional than trendy.  
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Hotels Link: www.fourseasons.com/budapest
Jeannine Williamson 15/3/11
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