In April, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 93rd birthday — a milestone that filled me with mild panic.
Why? Because I’ve been casually trying to catch a glimpse of the monarch in the flesh for the best part of a decade and it suddenly dawned on me that I was running out of time — fast.
Fortunately, I had a trip to London scheduled just weeks later. This was it, I vowed — the trip where I would finally spot the world’s most famous woman in real life.
I’d like to say I got all strategic with this, but I basically looked up Buckingham Palace on Google Maps and then booked into the closest hotel I could find — fortunately for me, this was the Rubens at the Palace, a five-star heritage property opposite the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, complete with liveried footmen straight out of your London dreams.
A short walk from Victoria Station, the hotel has 161 rooms and an upscale steak restaurant, a curry house, a relaxed South African bar, a traditional tea room a sushi and champagne bar and a gin bar.
Understandably, given its location, the rooms and suites are named after members of the royal family. We scored the Duke of Cambridge suite (was hoping for Meghan, or at the very least Harry, but tried to be cool about it).
The room is on the third floor with a view into the Mews. It is luxe, with a separate sitting room, central hall, oversized bedroom and full bathroom with tub. The suite is lavishly furnished with antique and custom-made finds, right down to the carpet, which features hundreds of tiny crowns.
The hotel frequently makes top 10 lists of London accommodation and is especially popular with children. My two girls were met by the children’s concierge for their own customised check-in, complete with tiny stuffed corgis to keep them company for the duration of the stay and a ‘Rubens passport’ which they could get signed by various members of staff.
But while all this is fit for a king, the real highlight is the hotel’s location, just a five-minute stroll to the front gates of Buckingham Palace. The Queen was in residence when we visited (a special flag flies when she is) but you’ve no chance of spotting her from the front, although it’s worth seeing the spectacle that is the changing of the guard (Fun fact: It doesn’t happen every day any more. Check the website before you show up to avoid disappointment).
You can get a little closer to Her Majesty from July to September when the Palace opens its doors to paying guests for a few weeks of the summer — sadly, this overlaps with the Queen’s summer holidays when she decamps to Balmoral, leaving her private rooms empty.
CHELSEA FLOWER SHOW
Day 1 of Queen-hunting took me to the Chelsea Flower Show, an annual event Her Majesty attends without fail. Tickets can be hard to come by but our hotel concierge worked his magic and off I went (minus the children as under-fives aren’t allowed). Sadly, I was a day too late, with the Queen and other senior royals making their rounds the previous day.
TROOPING OF THE COLOUR
We weren’t in London the right time of year, but if you’re around in the second week of June, the Trooping of the Colour is a sure-fire way to spot the Queen. The OTT parade celebrates the monarch’s birthday (her actual birthday is in April but the weather is rubbish then, so it is publicly celebrated in June instead) and she always takes part. If you’re keen, grab a spot along the parade route, or show up super early to nab a place near the palace balcony to watch the whole family assemble for the air force flyover.
May and June are also garden party months at Buckingham Palace. The Queen hosts three garden parties at the palace every year, inviting thousands of people to mingle on the lawns and eat crustless cucumber sandwiches. Senior royals frequently attend and pre-drinks and afterparties spill out in surrounding establishments, including the Rubens. Upon returning to the hotel one afternoon, we found guests buzzing about spotting Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie on their way to attend the day’s garden party.
In the end, we didn’t even need to leave our hotel to see Her Majesty. Disheartened by our lack of royal sightings, we were sitting in the spectacular Rubens at the Palace tea room on our last day enjoying a Royal High Tea when the lady in question drove right past the window, in what seemed like slow motion, flanked by police cars in her custom-made Bentley, with extra large windows for our viewing pleasure.
It was an encounter that was over in moments but it left the entire room speechless. Then, people started to laugh, almost embarrassed by how enthralled we all were, and the spell was broken.
And just like that, my mission was complete.
The writer was a guest of Rubens at the Palace.