Weekend in London
By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor

Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace is referred to as "The Greatest Palace in Britain" and is currently celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I.
New York, NY - (Sports Network) Whenever someone tells you Americans are not traveling to Europe, ask them to check out all the flights to London. When I made my sojourn across the pond, my British Airways flight was overflowing with Americans heading out on either business or a holiday of some sort. I was, I must admit, pleasantly surprised when the folks at Brock Communications and The Historic Royal Palaces, the co-sponsors of this weekend soiree, and I were fortunate enough to encounter some very nice airlines personnel that knew of the feature being undertaken and, as a courtesy, arranged for me to be upgraded to BA's version of Coach Plus, with wider seats and more leg room. Luck was, indeed, a lady that day.

Interestingly enough, while most flights to Europe head out in the early evening hours with planned arrival between 6:00-8:00 a.m. the next day, the thought of a 9:00 a.m. flight appealed to me and the other 400 or so travelers accompanying us. That translated into arrival in London before 9:00 p.m. the same day and allowed for being at the hotel and in one's room, somewhat exhausted and ready for bed, by 11:00 p.m. for what can be a restful night to allow for the transition and time difference that precedes facing the morning.

The Intercontinental Hyde Park Corner was perfectly located near two Underground (which we would normally refer to as "Subway," not to be confused with a fast food establishment) stations, directly across from Green Park and Hyde Park Corner, overlooking Buckingham Palace. Whether a first time, or repeat visitor, very nice. Belonging to any hotel chain's "VIP" groupings allows for such advantages as being on the Club Floor where one seems to have superior service and, at the same time, can avail themselves of continental breakfast or hors d'oeuvres, possibly a late afternoon reception with friends or business colleagues and the availability of a high speed Internet connections. I made use of all of it and was able to take the time, in the quiet privacy of this atmosphere to conduct an interview with the chef and restaurant manager for later broadcast on my radio show in New York.

The Historic Royal Palaces, of which there are four, have been turned over by the Queen to charity, receives no public funding and relies on the revenu e from admissions for the preservation of these national monuments.

Hampton Court Palace is referred to as "The Greatest Palace in Britain" and is currently celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the death of Elizabeth I. I have often wondered why they "celebrate" death in Europe rather than honor, recall and recognize it? It is about 75 minutes by car from London center, depending on traffic, or 30 minutes from London?s Waterloo Train Station. Not too bad either way and rather pleasant by auto if you can adapt to driving on the wrong side of the road and have not forgotten how to use a stick shift, the order of the day for most rentals.

Great Vine
The Great Vine is 234 years old, making it the oldest and largest known vine in the world.
When you arrive you will discover 500 years of royal history waiting for you as you tour the vast Tudor kitchens, spectacular State Apartments of Kings and Queens and view seemingly unending works of art from the Royal Collection. This is what life was all about during the reigns of Henry VIII and William III. Royalty definitely had its benefits. The 60 acres of magnificent gardens, orchards, ponds, Hunting Park and Privy Gardens were the highlight of my visit despite the fact that I did manage to get lost for 15 minutes inside the garden maze of bushes and shrubs. What I suggest, if you chance to take a similar challenge, is that you wait for a bevy of school children to arrive, youngsters with more patience and practical sense, who might have been there before but who definitely possess a child's intuitiveness for things of this sort. Just follow their route and you will in and out within moments.

We were fortunate enough to tour the palace with its assistant curator, Jonathan Foyle, and the gardens with Gardens and Estate Operation Manager, Graham Dillamore, who requires and oversees a staff of 36 to attend to the daily and seasonal chores that a palace and estate of this size demands. While there, I was directed to the "Great Vine," which is 234 years old, making it the oldest and largest known vine in the world by all known reports. Tarzan was not there, nor any semblance of Johnny Weissmuller but it was housed in its own home and it was ostensibly the first time a greenhouse was built around a plant possessing branches up to 108 feet long and a circumference of nearly 10 feet, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. There are also more than 700 pounds of black, sweet grapes on view that were grown to be used by the Royal household in the past but are sold to visitors to the palace shops. After a long afternoon touring about, you will find that it is time to visit the Banqueting House, which has been set aside for your use to relax, sun one's self (an unusual occurrence with visiting London or nearby environs), and enjoy, in very British fashion and tradition, afternoon tea and snacks before pre paring for an outdoor musical performance of the "Best of the West End" (the London answer to Broadway).

Banqueting House
Visitors can relax and be entertained at the Banqueting House.
One day was spent walking through Green Park and Kensington Gardens to Kensington Palace which has been a royal residence since the 17th Century and was the birthplace of Queen Victoria as well as, almost more famously, the last home to Princess Diana. One of the more unusual, and not often taken, was a tour of "Hats and Handbags: Accessories from the Royal Wardrobe" conducted by palace director Nigel Arch. There were 120 hats, headscarves, handbags and gloves from the wardrobe of The Queen while also on display was the stunning Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, dating from the 18th Century to the present day. That provided us with a rare chance to see a selection of dresses worn by The Queen and 14 evening dresses worn by the Princess of Wales. If it was interesting from a male perspective, imagine how much your spouse is going to enjoy this.

Depending upon one's schedule, and your's might be a bit more relaxed than my own, I found myself rushing about to get to the early afternoon 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. (41 for the Queen; 21 for the regiment - a great trivia question for Brits and visitors alike). The Tower is the third most pop ular tourist attraction in London, after the British Airways London Eye (to Americans, a giant Ferris wheel and very slow moving one at that) and Madame Toussard's Wax Museum. The Tower, for history buffs, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 and made use of, not always pleasantly so, by most of the Medieval royalty that followed him. Following the salute I would heartily recommend a "Beefeater" tour of the Tower, its collection of arms and armors, its Torture at The Tower and the dazzling Crown Jewel exhibits which included the world's largest diamond, Cullinan I set in the sovereign?s Scepter (530 carats). Viewing that, we are speaking of serious value. Worth noting is that the Imperial Crown of India is set with more than 6,000 diamonds.

Ravens of the Tower
The Ravens of the Tower.
We also learned about the Ravens. The Ravens? Not Baltimore. The ones about which legend has it that complaints were made to Charles II that the birds were a nuisance so he ordered them destroyed only to be told that if the ravens left the Tower, it would fall and a great disaster would befall the Kingdom. The King quickly changed his mind following this news and subsequently decreed that at least 6 ravens should be kept with one more, just for safety' sake, in reserve. Their wings were clipped and that, apparently, was the end of that. The Tower stood and the legend lived on.

The London Eye, a giant enclosed Ferris wheel where 15,000 passengers a day travel in the 32 glass enclosed observation pods and can see up to 25 miles over the city, is very much worth seeing and, if the lines are short and the wait not too long, getting onboard, Early morning is be st, camera and telephoto lens in hand but do be prepared for a one to two hour wait later in the day. Walking along the South Bank area one finds that it is now home to great national centers of art and culture that include the Royal Festival Hall, National Film Theatre, Royal National Theatre, Old Vic Theatre, Tate Modern Museum, Shakespeare?s Globe Theatre and London Bridge. A very worthwhile stroll.

The London Eye
Sponsored by British Airways, The London Eye is a giant enclosed Ferris wheel where 15,000 passengers a day travel in the 32 glass enclosed observation pods and can see up to 25 miles over the city.
You absolutely must go to Vinopolos, the City of Wine. Anticipate a crowd but the experience is worth the price, the wait, the seemingly endless torrents of tourists and locating a cab when you are done. If you fancy wine at all this is an absolute must stop on your trip.

One of the best things that London has that I wish existed in New York and other cities is the Heathrow Express. After a 10 minute cab ride from my hotel, I was at Paddington Station where I was able to check in my luggage and have a leisurely lunch before boarding the Express (celebrating its fifth anniversary this year). The same, by the way, is available to you from Gatwick and is the only intelligent way to get to and from either airport upon arrival or for departure. In 15 minutes you are able to find yourself at Heathrow Airport - 20-to-22 from Victoria (on the Victoria Express) when arriving at, or leaving from, Gatwick. Yet another is available for those using Stansted Airport (about 45 minutes to London)

London has all the charm of every song you have ever heard or hummed about it and there is more to see and absorb than you can imagine, within or just outside the city. How long you visit is up to you but, rest assured, you will be busy all the time. It is just a matter of when, where and how. The British Tourist Authority has an office in NYC, my home town, and likely in every major destination in the country or you can go to www.travelbritain.org for all the information and guidance you will need before heading across what the British smilingly refer to as "the pond."


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.

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