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You couldn't get more top flight than this magical mystery tour

Published 2 November 2008
News Review
798th article

Michael with, from left, Andrew Davis, Sarah Russell and Nick Romano (no credit)

I exited Scott's in Mayfair having hosted a superb lunch for Andrew Davis. Andrew's gleaming Rolls-Royce Phantom, a mere £350,000-worth with extras, was waiting. Nearby stood his black (am I allowed to use that word?) chauffeur, resplendent in a uniform so grand that it would qualify him to lead a small African country.

"Wha'd'ya want?" asked Andrew. "Hash, cocaine, boys, girls - he can get it for you."

The chauffeur remained impassive. I thought it was very funny. Andrew is not politically correct. That's a compliment. He's marvellous and vastly talented. "But what does he do?" I hear you ask.

Andrew, age 44, has built up a staggeringly successful hotel company. He has 35 of the greatest hotels in Britain including Cliveden, the Royal Crescent in Bath, Sharrow Bay and one of France's best, Chateau de Bagnols.

He owns the London heliport. He's building an enormous hotel adjacent to it. He has a massive fleet of helicopters, his own jet plane business and he's a prime bidder for the Orient-Express group. Andrew's just the sort of caring, highly energised entrepreneur it needs. He offered me a magical mystery tour, starting in his offices at the London heliport. The capital's only helicopter pad.

He calls Sarah - his PA - Lady Russell. "She owns half of Somerset," he explained. "She had a house with four elephants and some leopards. Her mother-in-law came round with her jack russell terrier and one of the leopards ate it."

"She was not amused," explained Sarah, adding, "the terrier's name was Roulette".

"His number was up," I said, desperate to get a word in.

Andrew, Sarah and I got into the most luxurious helicopter I've ever seen. And I've been in a few. Big plush seats, the pilot behind glass. Beautiful wooden tables and cupboards.

Our first descent was to Blackbushe airport, where Andrew showed me helicopters owned by the most famous billionaires, all of which he services and provides pilots for. He's got more than 50% of the UK helicopter charter market.

Our machine next landed at Amberley Castle near Chichester. An astoundingly lovely hotel. "Ricky Gervais comes here all the time," said the manager.

"Who's Ricky Gervais?" asked Andrew.

We were joined by Nick Romano, Andrew's chief executive. Andrew greets all the staff by name. I could never do that. I know from other visits, without Andrew, that the staff adore him. He's witty, outrageous and speaks from the heart.

Then to New Park Manor, a spa hotel in the New Forest. From the pool, you see ponies, trees and fields. "Put this on the tape," instructed Andrew. "I want you to know what a good employer I am. On Friday, I send my PA home in a helicopter."

"She only lives in South Ken," I observed.

"She goes back to Somerset," I was assured.

A brief stop at Ston Easton Park near Bath. A fantastic 18th-century building.

I once had the greatest tea ever there.

We flew to Lower Slaughter Manor in Gloucestershire for lunch. Very posh. They had Evian water in a jug. I ate blue cheese pannacotta, yellow pepper coulis and crisp brown bread, followed by a venison and hare pie topped with potato puree, and finished with summer pudding. All excellent.

Andrew mentioned his father was chairman of a public company which made bricks. "Very big, very important," he said. Andrew was brought up on the Surrey-Kent borders. "Then why have you got a pronounced London accent?" I asked.

"You've got to remember, darling, I went into the antique art and diamond trade. I worked in Brick Lane and Bermondsey," explained Andrew.

I could go on about our trip for ever. Andrew is the jolliest person. He's also a lot more. But jolly will do for me.

  • So many people agreed with me about the crumbling Ivy. I don't understand why, when its compatriots Le Caprice and Scott's (both in my top 10 London restaurants) are so good, the Ivy lags behind. As for the Ivy club, people report it's still appalling. Waiters don't know what the day's special is, the wrong food is delivered. I could go on.

    One regular Ivy and club client asked for his bill three times in 15 minutes. It never arrived, so he left. He was almost at the street door when a staff member asked him to return and pay the bill. He kept walking. Later they apologised. Why put him through that in the first place?

    A member wrote to me, "All my colleagues and associates have had disappointing experiences there."

    I've been going to the Ivy since 1950. Recently, an hour and a half after I'd ordered my meal - beset with problems - no dessert in sight.

    At the Wolseley, I got my pud 54 minutes after first ordering. Its excellent chef, Julian O'Neill, is totally on the ball. Come on, Ivy. Get it together. Try harder.

    Michael's letters

    Three cheers to you for condemning Orient-Express's poor treatment of Fausto "Mr Splendido" Allegri. Like you he's from an old family and a good family. He deserved better!
    George G-P, Shropshire

    The greatest compliment I can pay my friend Fausto is that the notoriously difficult and impossible-to-please Rex Harrison, who lived on the hill behind the Splendido, approved of him. "Fausto, not Zanuck, should be running 20th Century Fox!" Rex proclaimed to me one day at lunch on the terrace. "Why?" I inquired. Rex smiled his evil smile, "Because Fausto does everything I tell him."
    Leslie Bricusse, London

    Is Fausto a close relative? He has the look of a Winner. He even makes you look well dressed.
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    You're right about the Ivy. Very under enthusiastic attitude as we were shown to our table. Starters and main course food - what a disappointment! We couldn't wait to leave. Why do people talk about the Ivy so much? And why would anyone go back?
    Mr and Mrs Hollingsworth, Solihull

    You raved about Quo Vadis. Could it possibly be the same lacklustre establishment I visited? The food was mediocre, the service non-existent. The only exceptional part of the evening was the bill, which to those of us not on large expense accounts, left a decidedly bitter aftertaste.
    Lindis Dockeray, London