A Foggy Day in London Town
After disembarking in Southampton and a week on the open water, I’ve got some serious sea legs. It’s been a decade since I dropped any kind of hallucinogenic drug, but it comes back in a flash as the pavement squishes beneath my faltering equilibrium.
I’m headed to London for a quick 24 hours and the idea of transportation in any sort of moving vehicle turns my stomach into knots. I grip the armrest and fight off dry mouth for the two-hour shuttle bus ride into London, but once settled, I’ll be footing it around Seven Dials in the heart of Covent Garden.
Originally designed by Thomas Neale in the late 17th century, Seven Dials emerged as an unconventional form of urban planning that maximized frontage space based on a triangular plan that put a Sundial Pillar designed by stonemason Edward Pierce at the epicenter with seven streets jutting out like wheel spokes.
Some of the street names have changed over the years, as have the neighborhood’s residents (an influx of Irish laborers populated the area in the 19th century), but the last decade has seen a resurgence of British heritage shops, quirky retailers, specialty foods and high-end residential properties.
Within a stumble of many of West End’s theatres, the Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street is centrally located and offers a chic, modern setting set against the neighborhood’s centuries-old backdrop. Lush fabrics and textures adorn each of the 137 rooms, ranging from rich green and purples to deep midnight blues. I crawl under the down feather bedding for a quick nap, but I’m still reeling and rolling post-Queen Mary 2.
Bespoke Shopping at its Best
A jolt of caffeine from Monmouth Coffee Company invigorates me to embrace the serious retail opportunities (and steep U.S. dollar to pound exchange rate) ahead. Founded in 1978, the company moved the roasting facility from the Monmouth Street location to Maltby Street in South London in 2007. The Italian-made Petroncini roasting machines churn out complex and deep-flavored beans sourced from single farms, estates and cooperatives. From the black tea and floral notes of Ethiopian Kochere coffee to the sweet pipe tobacco richness from Raja Batak in Indonesia, these coffee connoisseurs travel the world to responsibly source the best beans available.
I hit the ground running and weave my way among Seven Dials’ bespoke men’s shops. While mainstreamers may want to hit Harrods and Harvey Nichols, here you’ll discover a resurgence of fine clothiers and educated sales people eager to share their brand’s stories. Wolsey, founded in 1755, is one of the world’s oldest textile brands. Repositioned this year with a more contemporary fit and shape, you’ll find classic British pieces like the Morton peacoat and knitted cardigans that offer a modern take on workwear.
Hop over to No. 3 Earlham Street and your wardrobe will never bee the same after a visit to Peter Werth. Back in the day, the designer was "asked to leave" the famous Walthamstow School of Art, but that only fueled the Londoner’s fire to explore "glitz, glamour and bespoke finery" when he took a job at a relative’s nightclub. Discovering his love for fashion, Werth founded his knitwear business in 1975 and it has since grown into a brand that epitomizes British men’s fashion. The line has recently expanded into footwear and accessories in addition to the evolving collection of shirts, blazers, outerwear and fine jerseywear.
I could spend the entire day wandering in and out of the shops, chatting with the impeccably dressed and well-trained sales staff that populates each and every storefront. From Cro’Jack’s navel duffel coats to custom suits from Gibson London, I consider pulling an Artful Dodger and making a mad dash with some goods.
A Slice and a Shave
Seven Dials’ locavore movement spills over to its food scene, where you can wander into Neal’s Yard and discover culinary finds ranging from Neal’s Yard Wild Juicery for a tonic or smoothie or a piece of Italian-style piece from Homeslice Pizza. This is upscale pie, though-forget the pepperoni-instead you’ll find moist pork belly with zesty chimichurri and smoked onions on a perfectly charred crust.
After an afternoon of window-shopping and credit card purchases that I will only regret because of the exchange rate, I make one final stop at the men’s grooming establishment, Murdock London. Banish the word "salon" from your vocabulary when you enter this dapper-driven establishment. Have a beer or whiskey and settle in for a modern haircut or traditional wet shave.
If you’re reluctant to take a razor-sharp blade to your own throat, schedule a "How to Shave" tutorial for some expert tips of the trade. After my trim and facial, I’m spritzed with one of Murdock’s signature colognes (I opt for the "grassy and grounded" Vetiver) and head back to the hotel for a post-cruise wavy night’s sleep. But there’s no rest for the weary, there is one final leg to this journey.
Star Light, Eurostar Bright
My bucket list is short. In fact, I’d need to think long and hard about must-see destinations as my Aries nature pulls me in whatever direction the wind seems to blow. That being said, knowing that I was going to arrive in London leaves me no other option than to hop on Rail Europe and head to Paris. My only other visit to the City of Light was in the dead of winter and I can’t pass up the opportunity to see Paris blossoming in early spring.
Eurostar’s high-speed trains have been transporting passengers between Britain and the Continent since 1994, carrying more travelers between its destinations than all airlines traveling these routes combined. London’s St. Pancras International Station is a destination in and of itself. Designed by William Barlow and completed in 1868, it was the largest enclosed space in the world at the time of construction. Its latest showpiece is the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel. Opened in 2011, the 244-room luxury property features the Booking Office Bar-a majestic backdrop for a proper Victorian punch before taking advantage of direct platform access.
My Rail Europe experience catapults me to Paris at top speeds of 186pmh, but I’ve settled into Business Premier, which includes free flowing wine and a three-course meal. Such a ticket has its price, but if you can afford the splurge, it also offers ultimate flexibility should your plans change. If you’re traveling for business (and someone else is picking up the tab), the Business Premier Lounge overflows with complimentary snacks and more refreshments (a.k.a cocktails), international newspapers and taxi transfer bookings. For an upgrade at a more modest price, Standard Premier offers a spacious cabin to stretch out and light snacks.
As the French countryside whizzes by, I can finally feel my body shaking off my week at sea. Or maybe it’s the triple-digit speed carrying me toward my final destination. This visit to Paris will reveal a stunning exhibit of photographer/architect/interior designer Eileen Gray at Centre Pompidou and an unforgettable meal at Le Comptoir. I will walk along the Seine and marvel with a gaggle of teenagers at the Eiffel Tower. It will rain... a lot... and I’ll be OK with that because-damn-it’s Paris.
Eventually I’ll take the train back to London and a plane back to New York City and a subway back to Midtown and my own two feet back to my tiny Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I will have been fundamentally changed because I have raised my level of awareness beyond the destination itself. Gray said, "We must ask nothing of artists but to be of their own time." Thank you, Ms. Gray. I’m grateful to have finally have rediscovered time and the patience to appreciate the journey.