Cliveden: The world’s most historic airport hotel

Airport hotel. The words alone are enough to make travelers cringe.

But just outside of London, 15 minutes from Heathrow Airport, lies a storybook mansion set on the rolling green banks of the Thames. It just may be the grandest airport hotel in the world.

Of course, Cliveden House existed long before 747s started touching down nearby. The estate was originally built in 1666 by George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham (1628-1687), and it’s seen a parade of wealthy residents and scandals ever since.

Today’s Cliveden, a three-story, 48-room hotel with 376 acres of manicured formal gardens, offers historic charm, luxurious dining and spa opportunities — and a taste of the bucolic English countryside life, all just a short drive from Heathrow. Although it wasn’t designed as an airport hotel, savvy travelers could do worse than make it their layover HQ.

House history

For a house that looks so stately, Cliveden has a rather colorful history, thanks to the characters who have called it home over the past 350 years.

For Villiers, it was a place to carouse with his friends and mistress. For the American-born Astors, Cliveden was a parade of visitors with bold-faced names — from British monarchs to the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.

William Waldorf Astor was not only wealthy — his father purchased the house for the then-stunning sum of $1.25 million — but also politically connected. After becoming a Viscount, Astor was required to vacate his seat in the House of Commons. That’s when his wife, Nancy Astor, campaigned for it and won, becoming the first woman to take a seat in British parliament in 1919.

While her political career was not without controversy, Astor became known as the first lady of British politics. Cliveden was the perfect setting for the whirlwind of socializing attached to the role.

This “golden age” of the grand estate began to wind down in 1942, when Viscount Astor gave Cliveden in its entirety to the National Trust landscape and building preservation charity. The gift came with a caveat that the family could continue living at the house.

They they did until soon after Nancy’s death in 1964, but not before her son Bill and Cliveden became embroiled in what was known as the “Profumo Affair.” The incident refers to the 1961 affair between a prominent British MP and a young woman, who was rumored to have connections with a Russian spy. The pair met while socializing by Cliveden’s pool.

Cliveden today

While the current Cliveden is much more sedate than its eye-opening history might suggest, it’s still grand enough to welcome royalty. The hotel is where Meghan Markle spent the night before her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018. While Cliveden is operated by the Iconic Luxury Hotels group, the house is still owned by the National Trust, which maintains the estate’s magnificent gardens and parkland.

The gardens draw crowds of day visitors in the summer, but given the size of the grounds, there’s plenty of space for everyone to ramble. Cliveden’s two restaurants are also a top draw for locals, as are its suite of elaborate event rooms, including The French Dining Room, with seating for 60.

A+ Airport hotel amenities

Banish the idea of cookie-cutter rooms and sad breakfast tables in the lobby: Cliveden has some of the most rare, high-end offerings you’ll find this close to an airport. Guest rooms, named after former Cliveden inhabitants, are filled with antique furniture and one-of-a-kind period details such as fireplaces and marble baths.

On the splurge end of the spectrum, guests can rent the Spring Cottage, a private three-bedroom space set on the banks of the River Thames that looks like it was plucked right out of a Merchant Ivory film.

Heathrow passengers who don’t want to spend the night can still take advantage of the good life at Cliveden by enjoying lunch at the clubby Astor Grill (the old stables), a spot of afternoon tea or a visit to the recently revamped Cliveden Spa.

The quintessential English tea service is served in The Great Hall on Sundays, and in The Cliveden Dining Room restaurant Mondays through Saturdays.

The Spa, situated in the garden and surrounded by lavender and roses, offers a variety of packages, including an Afternoon Tea Spa Day that combines a 60-minute facial and full use of the spa facilities with a glass of Champagne and afternoon tea beneath the chandeliers of The Cliveden Dining Room.

For travelers short on time but keen on pampering, there’s an Express Spa Day, which includes a 25-minute manicure or pedicure, lunch in The Spa Kitchen, and, of course, access to the spa facilities and National Trust Gardens.

Nothing beats staying the night for the full Cliveden experience, except perhaps taking a jaunt down the Thames in one of the estate’s vintage boats. The Suzy Ann, built in 1911 and restored in 1986, is the flagship of the fleet. Along with the 33-foot slipper launch The Belmont and other vessels, she is available for charters by hotel guests and nonguests, for an hour or up to a whole day.

And, because this is Cliveden, no cruise is complete without the guest’s choice of afternoon tea, a picnic lunch or a Champagne toast. Here’s to raising a glass to the good life — and to the extravagance of one very fine accidental airport hotel.

Cliveden House & Spa,Taplow, Berkshire, England SL6 0JF; +44 1628 607 107