Travel

London On The Fly

by Lou Marino
Contributor
Wednesday Dec 19, 2012
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London has always been on my list of favorite cities. It’s a beautifully aged metropolis steeped in history that also vibrates as a modern and up-to-date world city. With the largest LGBT population in Europe, it still offers travelers a more relaxed, tranquil environment than many other gay havens.

So when it was time for a quick respite - a little me time away from the daily grind, I decided that London would be the perfect spot.

From where I live (New York City), American Airlines offers 15 flights to London daily, so I knew getting there would be easy. But I didn’t just want to get away: I wanted to organize a trip that allowed me to see the city in a different light.

You see, prior to this trip, every time I had been in London it had been for an extended period of time -- at least a week. Being a city boy at heart, I reveled in the idea of never making definite plans. Other than booking my flights and hotel, I would always opt to hit the streets each morning and wander; I’d let each day and eventually my entire trip unfold however it may.

That approach has served me well on my other trips to London. I have taken the tour of Buckingham Palace (twice in fact), witnessed the changing of the guard, visited the Churchill War Rooms and seen the Crown Jewels. I’ve had the great pleasure of attending several productions on the West End (London’s Broadway), ridden the London Eye and mastered the city’s fleet of double-decker buses and the Tube (London’s subway system). Not to mention shopping at Harrods, eating and drinking my way through the pubs and, of course, the obligatory visits to the many gay bars and clubs that populate the city.

Although Soho and its main drag, Old Compton Street, lay claim to the closest thing to a gay ghetto, while in London you are seldom far from a gay bar, no matter where you might find yourself. For LGBT travelers, it truly is one of the best places to visit.

But this trip was going to be fast -- the equivalent of a long weekend. And this time, not only did I want to make sure that I made the most out of my days there, I also wanted to experience the city differently. I wanted to get out of my London comfort zone, shake things up a bit and see, with some organization and pre-planning, what I could squeeze into a 72-hour jaunt across the Atlantic.

With very little digging, I was able to put together the perfect three-day itinerary, one that offered me exactly what I wanted; a trip that was fun, exciting, educational and of course, free of the touristy offerings -- the tours, pubs, shopping and gay bars -- of my previous visits.

Here’s a look at what I accomplished with a little planning, in just three days while visiting this great city -- and how you, too, can drink in this great city in such a short time span.


What To Do:

Afternoon Tea At Fortnum & Mason

This is London at its best.

Although afternoon tea in now being served in many upscale establishments around the globe, no one does afternoon tea the like the Brits; and nowhere in Britain is afternoon tea more an event than at Fortnum & Mason in Central London. Founded in 1707 and located at 181 Piccadilly, Fortnum & Mason is a must when you next visit.

Consisting of six floors and offering everything from fine confections to fresh fruit and vegetables; from wine and spirits to gentlemen’s and ladies accessories, "Fortnum’s" is recognized internationally for its high quality goods.

Forget the lift (elevator) and treat yourself to a walk up the sparkling spiral staircase and you will think you have landed in in Oz. On the top floor sits the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon. Formerly known as St. James’ Restaurant, the completely refurbished eatery was opened by HM the Queen on March 1, 2012, making afternoon tea here truly a royal experience.

Start with a glass of Fortnum’s English Sparkling Wine to kick things off. Then dive into the Fortnum’s Afternoon Tea menu (one of three offerings), featuring a selection of traditional finger sandwiches including Cucumber with Mint Butter, Poached and Smoked Salmon with Lemon and Caper Crème Fraîche and Rare Roast Beef with Horseradish Cream.

Along with your sandwich selection, you will enjoy Fortnum’s Scones served with Somerset Clotted Cream and a selection of Fortnum & Mason Preserves. Top that off with an array of individual cakes and pastries and a selection from the Highgrove Cake Carriage, and you have an afternoon treat fit for a king -- or queen as it were.

If you are like me and not a tea drinker, they are happy to accommodate. At the risk of being labeled an "ugly American," I enjoyed my "tea" with a Diet Coke and concluded my meal with a glass of Fortnum’s Sparkling Rose. In a word, yum!

But why list tea as something to do rather than a dining option? It’s because Afternoon Tea at Fortnum & Mason is much more than a meal. It is truly an event. From the elegant surroundings to the first-rate service to the delicious traditional fare, Fortnum & Mason offers its guests the finest of experiences and the perfect way to spend an afternoon in London.


The British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival

OK, I have to come clean. I had never heard a peep about the London Film Festival. But when I learned that it was taking place during my time there I just had to check it out.

I am happy to report that Tribeca, Sundance and Cannes have nothing on their London counterpart. In its 56th year, the 2012 BFI London Film Festival screened 225 feature films and documentaries, and did it splendidly.

I was fortunate enough to have scored a ticket to the premier and gala reception of "Quartet," a British film starring Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins (two of my favorites) and directed by Dustin Hoffman (his directorial debut). The film itself is a sweet production that is beautifully acted and directed with a loving hand. Well done by all involved.

Given the list of big-budget Hollywood spectacles being released between now and the end of the year, it is likely that "Quartet" will not generate a lot of buzz here in the U.S. But it is well worth the trip to your local movie theater, particularly if you are a Maggie or Dustin fan. Look for it in theaters nationally beginning Dec. 28.

After the premier, it was off to the gala reception at Asia de Cuba on Saint Martin’s Lane. In true Asia de Cuba style, the evening was full of fine food and a list of signature cocktails. Where else other than London can you hang out with Maggie Smith while guzzling intoxicating cocktails and munching on new twists on England classics like Fish and Chips and Bubble and Squeak? It was a magical evening, filled with Hollywood power players, British acting royalty and much to my surprise, an air of informality. No bouncers, no handlers, no one escorting you to the periphery while glitterati party dead center wanting to be seen. It was an evening for all to enjoy, together.

With the perfect mix of Hollywood glamor and English reserve, the London Film Festival offers an atmosphere that is both exciting and inviting, boasting a wide variety of films to screen and list of galas and after parties that would satisfy the most diehard film fanatic. The festival runs twelve days from mid to late October. I, for one, am already making plans for 2013.


The Old Vic

One visit to this historic London landmark and you will instantly understand why the great Laurence Olivier once described the Old Vic as having "The most powerful actor/audience relationship in the world."

Under the artistic direction of American actor Kevin Spacey, the Old Vic has flourished, attracting top-notch talent from around the globe performing in both classic and new works. Once inside its doors, you can almost feel the spirits of many theatre greats by your side. A trip here is second to none.

Its current resident (running thru March 2,2013), is a stellar, critically-acclaimed production of the classic Cole Porter musical "Kiss Me, Kate," the first musical mounted under Spacey’s reign as artistic director. Directed by none other than Trevor Nunn, the man behind such mega-hits as "Cats" and "Les Misérables," this production is classic musical theater at its best.

Upcoming productions for 2013 include "The Winslow Boy," James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About Nothing," and Tennessee Williams’ "Sweet Bird Of Youth" starring Kim Catrall.

So next time you find yourself on the corner of The Cut and Waterloo Road, treat yourself to one of the most memorable theater experiences you will ever have. And while you are there, drop by the American Airlines bar on the dress circle level for a pre-show glass of bubbly and an intermission ice cream--two of my favorite London traditions.


Victoria & Albert Museum

I have to come clean; I am a not a big fan of living in museums when I travel. I much prefer being out and about rather than looking at collections of paintings, sculpture or whatever delicately arranged in a stuffy old building.

Yes, I have made it a point to tour the Vatican Museum and pay a visit to the Mona Lisa at the Musée du Louvre. However, for the most part I tend to stay away from such outings when I am visiting other cities. But remember, this trip was about getting out of my comfort zone and experiencing new things, so I planned my first trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A) to scope things out.

The V&A is the world’s largest museum dedicated to design and decorative arts. Named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it was founded in 1852 and now spans over 12 acres in London’s Brompton district. Being an institution dedicated to design, it houses permanent collections ranging from china to photography to fashion.

Currently showing are three wonderful collections that make a visit to the V&A well worthwhile. "Ballgowns - British Glamour Since 1950" celebrates the best looks from the runways, red carpets and royal balls of Great Britain. "Light From The Middle East - New Photography," is the first major exhibit of contemporary photography dedicated exclusively to the Middle East. But the true showstopper is the debut of a fabulous new exhibit, "Hollywood Costume," a stunning exhibit showcasing the rich history of Hollywood costume design and designers.

Five years in development, the collection here is both exciting and educational. Curators Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Christopher Frayling, together with the exhibition design practice of Casson Mann have produced a vibrant, moving and thoughtful experience that brings into sharp focus the role of the costume designer within the most successful and powerful film industry in the world. Divided into three acts, Hollywood Costume takes viewers on the complete journey of costume design.

"Act I: De-construction," walks us through the very beginnings of creating costumes for the screen. Starting with the screenplay, sketches, comments and contextual references, we get a glimpse into the back-story of how the look of a character is determined.

"Act II: Dialogue," examines the collaborative efforts between the writers, filmmakers, designers and actors in the development of the film’s characters. A highlight here are the specially commissioned interviews with Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro, who discuss how they work with costume designers and ultimately the costume in order to breathe life into the characters they portray; while around them are arranged costumes from some of their most memorable performances.

"Act III: Finale" is a spectacular parade of fifty of Hollywood’s most iconic film characters. Showcasing Tinseltown’s most famous ingenues, femme fatales, heroes and villains, this final act of Hollywood Costume glitters with some of the most famous Hollywood film costumes ever created.


Where To Stay:

The Royal Horseguards Hotel

Located in the heart of historic London, the Royal Horseguards is a 5-star, 282-room hotel designed to blend traditional British elegance with 21st century luxury. Built in 1884 in the style of a French château, it sits on the banks of the River Thames and literally mere yards away from Downing Street, Trafalgar Square and London’s West End.

This is a property that will surpass every expectation. After checking in, drop in at the Equus Bar directly off the main lobby. All of your worries will instantly disappear as you relax in the plush, deep crushed, red velvet chairs and sofas while you enjoy an outstanding selection of British Afternoon Teas, tailor-made signature cocktails or a tasty selection of nibbles and treats. For those who wish to partake, Equus offers one of London’s largest hand-rolled cigar selections. In warm weather, take advantage of the spectacular views and relaxed atmosphere of the outdoor Terrace, perfectly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Once inside your room, you’ll revel in the plush surroundings and in most rooms, stunning views of the Thames and iconic London Eye. For your comfort, iPod docking stations, surround systems, flat screen televisions (in both your room and bathroom), laptop safes, complimentary Wi-Fi and supremely comfortable mattresses are standard throughout the property.

Adjoining the Royal Horseguards is One Whitehall Place. Home to many of the British political and literary greats of the 19th and 20th centuries and steeped in history (it was used by the Intelligence Service as its headquarters during both World Wars), One Whitehall Place offers two floors of magnificent event space perfect for your destination event or same-sex wedding.

Connected by an awe-inspiring, circular, marble staircase - the largest of its kind in Europe - each space has its own distinct style. Ranging from the Victorian grandeur of the Gladstone Library, housing 30,000 replicas of original library volumes, to the intimacy of The Cellar, which, as local legend has it, once housed an underground passage that linked The Cellar to the Ministry of Defense, One Whitehall Place offers a plethora of options for your special day. While you are there, consider hosting a party in Churchill’s Bar, housed in the club where Sir Winston spent so much of his time meeting, relaxing and debating while he was on his way to becoming on of the greatest political figures in British history.


Coworth Park

If you are looking to get out of the city and take in the English countryside, Coworth Park is the place for you.

Situated on 240 picturesque acres in nearby Ascot (only 45 minutes from Central London, 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport), Coworth Park combines the warmth and comfort of a classic country house hotel with first-class service and modern, English sensibility guaranteed to put this destination on the top of your all-time favorites list.

From the moment you drive through the gates of the property, you can tell you are in for a treat. Forget the frenetic pace of London. At this retreat, comfort, leisure and relaxation are the order of the day. With a history dating back to 1776, Coworth Park passed through many hands until ultimately ending up as a part of the Dorchester Collection (its eighth hotel).

Reconstruction began in 2008 and after nearly two years, it opened in September 2010. The Mansion House consists of 30 rooms, including one- and two-room suites. Rebuilt in the exact footprint of the original 1776 house (and including three of its original walls), the hotel is one of the most environmentally advanced hotels of its kind.

Another 40 rooms and suites are spread throughout the Stables and Cottages along with its signature suite, the Dower House, which boasts three bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, study and sitting room.

Environmental responsibility is taken quite seriously at Coworth Park. A biomass boiler fueled by willow grown on the estate ensures that the hotel is able to produce its own carbon-neutral fuel supply. Rain and surface water is recycled via drainage into the lake to be used for irrigation. The spa has been built into an existing hillside and hosts a rooftop herb garden.

It’s no wonder that Coworth has been the recipient of numerous international awards and accolades including the European Hospitality Award for "Green Hotel of the Year" in 2011.

If you can pry yourself away from the luxury of your room or suite, there are any number of outdoor activities to keep you busy. Equestrian at Coworth Park provides stabling for 40 horses along with a top-notch team of trainers ready to assist both beginner and experienced riders. Two professional polo fields offer guests the opportunity to experience the quintessentially English sport; or if you are in the mood to master it yourself, Guards Polo Academy at Coworth Park offers a full roster of both individual and group lessons. In addition to polo, the grounds at Coworth offer walking and jogging trails, shooting, fishing, mountain biking, tennis and croquet.

After being out and about, some time at the Spa is essential. Spa visitors can enjoy an indoor heated swimming pool, sun terrace and aromatic steam room. With virtually every treatment room and all common spaces lit by a flood of natural light, the Spa at Coworth Park offers the perfect space to relax, unwind and decompress.

After you enjoy the spa amenities and treatments, stop by The Spatisserie for a selection of light meals, Afternoon Tea, wine and Champagne. With spectacular, sweeping views of the English countryside it is easy to understand why Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Travel Awards have named The Spa at Coworth Park the Best UK Hotel Spa and the fifth best in the world!

As if the lush surroundings, eco-friendly initiatives, outdoor offerings and award-winning spa are not enough, Coworth Park also offers a number of elegant spaces perfect for your same-sex wedding. With stunning event spaces, restaurants, hotel bar and Drawing Room, there are any number of options available to make your special day one that will be both unique and memorable.


Where To Eat:

One Twenty One Two

Named after the famed Scotland Yard telephone number (Whitehall 1212) and housed in the Royal Horseguards Hotel, One Twenty One Two Restaurant serves modern British cuisine made with the finest ingredients from around the British Isles.

Classically decorated with a rich, luxurious feel, One Twenty One Two features high quality dishes crafted from the best Great Britain has to offer. Start off with the Cropwell Bishop and Broccoli Bavarois, served with shallots and baby onion dressing Light and aromatic, it is perfect for those looking for a tasty vegetarian option.

North Atlantic Halibut, Medallions of Casterbridge Beef and Free Range Gloucestshire Hen are just some examples of the first-rate main courses prepared with finesse and served with the utmost care. Treat yourself to the South Coast Dover Sole (Meuniere style) with new potatoes and green beans and you will be as happy as a clam. Fresh, light yet still full of flavor, my sole was perfectly prepared, beautifully presented and de-boned tableside by my server with great flare.

With impeccable service, both tasting menu and a la carte dining options and list full of wines selected to enhance each course, dining at One Twenty One Two is a great way to kick off a visit to London.


The Barn

Housed on the grounds of Coworth Park, The Barn offers a fine selection of English classics and comfort food. A quick stroll from the main Mansion House, you’ll find it nestled among the property’s stables and cottages.

While you sit at the first floor bar, you can take in the gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside. Once you move to the lower floor to dine (or out to the terrace in warmer weather) you cannot help but be taken in by the warm, rustic atmosphere and friendly staff.

I began my meal with gooey mozzarella and baked cherry tomatoes served with country bread, honey and toasted hazelnuts followed by a main course of Fish and Chips. The mozzarella was absolutely delicious - quality you would expect to find more in the center of Rome rather than in the suburbs of London. Baked with firm, fresh cherry tomatoes and sitting atop crunchy, toasted, country bread I would have been happy to end the meal there. Luckily for me I did not. What followed was the absolute best Fish and Chips I have ever tasted. A large, beautifully white filet of cod, lightly battered and fried to perfection. The chips were hearty and crisp and so fresh tasting I would swear the potatoes were still underground when I was first seated. I opted to forgo the homemade tarter sauce and tomato ketchup and instead turned to the more traditional mix of salt and malt vinegar to dress my filet and chips. After all, when in Rome...

For dessert, the Prune and Armagnac Cheesecake proved to be the perfect ending to the perfect meal. Not too heavy and not too sweet, it proved to satisfy my sweet tooth without the heaviness of the cheesecake we have come to expect in the U.S. Perfection.


Canteen

If you are looking for a more laid back, casual dining experience while you are touring the city or just want a place to stop for a nibble and cocktail, Canteen is for you.

With five locations throughout London, Canteen offers an extensive menu with options to suit any taste: from breakfast (served all day) to Afternoon Tea and traditional British pies to fresh fish, daily roasts and a selection of main courses. For the vegetarians, I recommend the veggie pie and a side of seasonal greens.

Top off your meal with something from the long list of cakes and puddings (desserts). Canteen also boasts a wide array of wines, micro-brews and cocktails.

Treat yourself to some old-fashioned British hospitality and good grub.


Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Nothing will complement a day of shopping in Knightsbridge (preferred by Patsy, Edwina and the late Princess Di) as beautifully as a feast at Dinner. No stranger to accolades, Chef Heston Blumenthal’s first foray into the London dining scene has resulted in one the best culinary experiences in the city.

It’s no wonder: His Fat Duck restaurant in the Village of Bray was awarded three Michelin stars and has been on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for nine years, including 2005, when it was named the best. Happily, the inspiration that put Fat Duck on the map is in full view at Dinner.

Located on the first floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Hyde Park, Dinner’s décor was inspired by Blumenthal’s extensive knowledge of 15th and 16th century cookery. Through a series of glass walls, patrons enjoy excellent views of Hyde Park and the restaurant’s kitchen, which includes a unique spit roast pulley system.

The menu, which pays tribute Britain’s gastronomical past with recipes dating back as far as the 16th century, offers diners an education in English heritage.

My lunch began with the restaurant’s signature starter, Mandarin Fruit Meat, a delicious, savoury meat (chicken liver pate with a hint of citrus) course disguised as fruit. The dish serves as an instant reminder that through the ages, food has served as both fuel and a source of entertainment. Here it both entertains and delights.

I followed my Meat Fruit with the Fillet of Aberdeen Angus with mushroom ketchup and the obligatory chips. The grass-fed, Irish Angus was cooked to perfection and a welcomed change from the corn-fed beef served in American restaurants. I accompanied my fillet with a side of the most amazing mashed potatoes on the planet and (just to get something green into my system) green beans and shallots. It was truly a first-rate meal to remember.

Fortunately, it was far from over. Dessert consisted of Dinner’s signature Tipsy Cake with spit-roasted pineapple and an assortment of British cheeses with runner bean chutney and cider apple, both excellent. To top it all off, the ice cream cart was wheeled to my table table and in a matter of seconds, my waiter had created the most delectable vanilla ice cream tableside, thanks to the wonders of liquid nitrogen. For some extra zing, I topped off my ice cream with their apple popping candy. Amazing!

From start to finish, Dinner is a treat. The service is top of the line and the food simply delicious. Fortunately for those of us living in the U.S., Chef Blumenthal is looking to open his first restaurant abroad in New York City next year. Trust me, I will be the first in line.


Getting There:

Fly American!

Truth be told, almost any airline can get you to London’s Heathrow Airport from virtually anywhere in the country. However, whenever I can, I fly American Airlines, and this trip was no exception.

Like most of us, I try my best to spend my pink dollars with those companies that have shown committed support to the LGBT community. American has long proven to be a champion of our issues and interests, sponsoring Gay Pride festivals around the world, partnering with many non-profits and charities and being the first airline to introduce both sexual orientation and gender identity in their corporate nondiscrimination policies.

American was also the first airline to offer domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. It can boast being the first -- and only airline -- to be awarded a 100 perent score on HRC’s Corporate Equality Index from its start and for every year since. Pretty impressive.

Flying to any destination is effortless when you choose to fly with American. Through a partnership with British Airways (BA) and Iberia, American now offers service to 425 destinations in more than 100 countries with over 5,000 daily departures worldwide. From the New York City Area alone, American and its oneworld partner British Airways offer 15 daily flights to London, with early evening flights departing as frequently as every half-hour. Passengers can interchangeably earn and redeem American AAdvantage frequent flyer or BA Executive Club miles.


Business Cabin

Next time you are flying American, ditch the coach seat and treat yourself to the comfort of the Business Class cabin. From the moment you are greeted by the friendly, capable fight crew until you touch down at your chosen destination, you will be treated like a king (or queen).

Aside from the coveted extra leg room, international Business Class travelers also enjoy individual laptop powerports, motorized and angled lie-flat seats with ergonomic controls, six-way adjustable leather headrests and advanced lumbar and complete under-calf support. To make the flight even more enjoyable, you’ll find personal media players and, on certain flights, personal video with a variety of programming.

My favorite Business Class amenity is the set Bose Quiet Comfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones - perfect for enjoying your favorite film, TV show or music channel.

Get settled in your seat and enjoy a glass of pre-flight Champagne to kick things off. Once airborne, you’ll enjoy complete cocktail service accompanied by a selection of warm mixed nuts, followed by personalized dining service with an expanded selection of menu options.

Appetizer options include soup, salad or grilled shrimp with main course choices such as Rosemary Cumin Chicken with spinach orecchiette pasta, Peppercorn Beef Fillet and lime-marinated shrimp and scallops with jasmine rice. Of course, there are always tasty vegetarian offerings as well, all served on modern china and with real flatware.

To enhance your dining experience, wine consultant Ken Chase has put together a list of distinguished wines, all of which perfectly complement the in-flight menu.

After dinner, you can choose from either a made-to-order ice cream sundae or fresh fruit and cheese plate. Top it all off with a fine cordial, sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.

Traveling in American Business Class affords you some the amenities and first-rate service once reserved exclusively for the flying elite. Spend the extra cash or use your frequent-flyer miles to upgrade when available.

You will be very, very glad you did. You’ll arrive at your destination well fed, well rested and ready to hit the ground running.

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