By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor
New York, NY -
I was last in London in 2002 for the Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee celebration commemorating 50 years of looking and acting regal. This time, however, London was a stop-over as I was wending my way to Cyprus to study and write about its emerging wine industry. One of the interesting things about London is the fact that it "entertains and welcomes" 25 million visitors annually, with many using the 12 "underground" lines that take one just about anywhere devoid of the traffic turmoil capable of making a day in NYC by car analogous to a walk in the park. The Big Apple transit system could learn a lot from London with its excellent signage, maps and employees who seem to be everywhere, courteously assisting all, especially tourists. What a relief to encounter announcements that are clear and easy to understand with every station displaying the waiting time until the next train arrives.
A word of warning! The American dollar is like Monopoly money. It takes almost two US dollars to equal a British Pound, which is great for the Brits coming to America but not so great heading "across the pond" in the other direction. Forget the very expensive taxi ride from Heathrow to central London and, instead, opt for the infinitely faster and more economical Heathrow Express that whisks you into London and, in about 15 minutes, you are at Paddington Station. After that, a cab is a necessity and not all that expensive. Their taxis are large (remember the old checker version), comfortable and often referred to as "blacks" since that is the color that 90% of them are. Yes, the underground was an option but not, frankly, with a few large suitcases that would have to be "schlepped" up and down the stairs and, no, escalators were not an option. Very few stations seem to have elevators or are handicap accessible. New Yorkers are actually thinking of raising the $2 NYC subway and bus fare? By comparison, purchase a single rate London ticket, at peak time, (before 9:30 a.m. weekdays) and expect to pay $12 one way. I purchased an all day ticket (there were no two day tickets) for about $14 (peak) and then $11 (off peak for the second day). I made 5 to 6 trips each of my two days. You do the math.
For this trip I skipped everything I had done the last time I was in London, and that included The Tower of London, London Eye, Tate Modern, Shakespeare?s Globe Theatre, Vinopolis, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park Corner, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace and Kensington Palace. A ten minute walk and I was at the Holland Park tube station on the Central Line and, in 30 minutes, I was sipping tea at the elegant Five Star Savoy Hotel, a Fairmont Hotel property located along the Strand, where their Savoy Grill is one of London?s finest. The stately hotel is undergoing a $176 million renovation but it was showing its age. Maybe that will change by the time you arrive.
A quick 5-minute walk through Green Park on a different underground line and I arrived at St. Paul?s Cathedral for a private "behind the scenes" tour of this 300-year old cathedral (the original was destroyed in the 1666 London fire). I opted not to climb the 515 steps to the ?whispering catwalk? but did manage to get up the 91 steps to the now off-limit (and under renovation) rooms holding Sir Christopher Wrens original model and drawings of St. Paul?s.
It was lunch at Amba Restaurant in the 5-Star MayFair Hotel which was built in 1927 and just reopened after a $140 million refurbishment in an area that is an up market retail and residential neighborhood. My luncheon hosts were the Food & Beverage director of the 12 hotel group Radisson Edwardian and the group's Executive Chef. Happily, for those of us into people watching, The MayFair bar is a hot scene with 15 bartenders serving more than 40 mixed cocktails to all sorts of patrons. I had also planned to visit the Langham Hotel, circa 1865, and its brand new bar, Artesian, but, unhappily, I ran out of time.
My last stop of the day was the Winston Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Room, opened in 2005. Since the museum is surrounded by government buildings, security prevents them from having a coat check so winter and lots of outer wear is not the best time to visit. The museum is very 2007 with flashing lights, touch screens and maps dealing with Sir Winston from childhood to death (at the age of 90).
The next morning it was breakfast at Claridge?s. Talk about elegant and class, I felt I needed a tuxedo to feel at home. By the way, their afternoon tea is world famous. I was there to talk about the Chain Gang, a bicycle touring group that uses Tuscany and Bordeaux wine regions as two of its routes; peddling and tasting. Sounds like fun but a biker I am not. Instead of cold, damp, rainy weather it was sunny and warm so off I went to spend the rest of the day on the Catamaran Cruise Boat. Almost every major London attraction could be viewed from this Thames River Cruise including theTower Bridge, London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, St. Paul?s, The Tower of London etc. I chose the circular cruise ($20) and got off at the last stop, Greenwich. One could disembark at several stops along the way and hop back on the next boat, or any subsequent one. Greenwich is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and I visited the National Maritime Museum, the largest maritime museum in the world, as well as the Royal Observatory where Greenwich Mean Time originates. Be sure to go on Saturday when all the outdoor markets are open.
My long day had one more London classic coming since Cyprus was waiting. The great people at Keith Prowse (book in advance for shows, attractions, sightseeing and avoid lines) in New York came through with two sixth row center seats for "39 Steps." Originally produced as a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy movie starring Robert Donat it is now an uproarious four person comedy with three of the performers playing 139 roles. The theatre is in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, usually overflowing with people and this evening was no exception to the rule (think Times Square in NYC every night, almost).
Now you have the full story of my 2 ? days in London. Early the next morning it was a reverse trip to Paddington Station and the Heathrow Express to the airport and Part Two of my adventure- Cyprus.
Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.