A journey across the pond (translation: the Atlantic Ocean) is more than a change of latitude. Indeed, a visit to London is a trip to the past.
But it’s much more.
Yes, English is spoken, albeit the Queen’s English (making no translation necessary), but this is where many similarities end.
London is an introduction to Big Ben and little tea sandwiches . . . Green Park and red phone booths . . . the Tate Modern and Old Scotland Yard. It is a city where the term “loo” means “restroom,” taxis are stately black cabs (no yellow here) and traffic signals at Wellington Arch have walk and do-not-walk signs . . . for horses.
In short, this town on the Thames is a study in contrasts — uniquely British ones — that make London seem much further from California’s west coast than its 5,500-mile distance.
Here’s some insight to give an insider’s edge.
SEE AND BE SCENE
The best way to see London is like a local. It’s a big, noisy, self-confident place, the core around which Britain pivots. Bustling along the streets and negotiating the web of cobbled walkways are men sporting bowler hats (folded newspaper under an arm, trusty umbrella in hand), women in tasteful knee-length ensembles, children with rosy cheeks and visitors from everywhere.
It is important to join in, to set out with a map (discreetly stored as there’s no need to announce “tourist”) and tackle the sights on foot or from atop a double-decker bus. Transportation tip: though the underground is quick, it lengthens one’s getting-to-know London curve.
All is within easy reach, with many guidebook must-sees clustered near one another. Examples are endless. Buckingham Palace is a short walk through Green Park from Piccadilly Circus. Big Ben is across the River Thames from the London Eye (the millennium’s Ferris wheel-like structure). And from Harrods, Kensington Gardens (site of Princess Diana’s palace home) is nearby.
PLEASURES OF THE PEDESTRIAN
It is not a race. London’s maze of streets is littered with pubs and tearooms (and nowadays, Starbucks). My advice: by-pass the tried-and-true for a pint of lager or a cup of English Breakfast and the homegrown buzz.
On the occasion of a wonderfully sunny day (considered God’s most precious gift to Londoners), the best visitor investment is leisure in the park — with every local who can sneak the time.
WHERE TO TAKE OFF YOUR COAT AND STAY A WHILE
The Dorchester — The hotel is like an elderly man with clothes as elegant as his demeanor. Situated on Park Lane, it opened to fanfare in 1931 and to this day is a classic reminder of its glamorous origins.
Its history is oh-so British — the hotel was the site of Prince Philip’s bachelor party on the eve of his wedding to Queen Elizabeth II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower planned the Normandy Invasion from his suite (Eisenhower Suite, rooms 104 and 105) and Judy Garland called it home during appearances at the London Palladium.
Big news is not limited to the past. The crown on the hotel’s recent refurbishment program is the redesign and reopening of The Bar (celebs such as Kate Moss and Jade Jagger attended). Decorated as a reminder of the long-ago classic cocktail hour, its impressive drinks list helps further the tradition.
But The Dorchester is best known for amenities that go beyond abundant. ‘Tis true, for the only pleasure missing from the luxury digs is a knight on a white horse delivering breakfast.
The Capital — Where The Dorchester has a moody, evening gown feel to it, The Capital is cozy and clubby. The comfortable, at-home atmosphere is not by accident. It is a reflection of Scottish proprietor, David Levin, who envisioned a grand hotel in miniature over 35 years ago. The hotel remains family-run.
Located on a quiet, residential road named Basil Street, it seems miles removed from London’s action. Yet, the setting is delightfully deceptive — it is mere steps from Harrods and the activity of Knightsbridge.
The Halkin — A little backstory: When creator and owner Christian Ong purchased a London car park on a small side street near Hyde Park Corner, her goal was simple — design a hotel where she would want to stay. The result is The Halkin — it opened in 1991.
Mission accomplished. The hotel captures what the luxe life should be: Armani-dressed staff, anti-mist bathroom mirrors and complimentary mobile phone hire.
Technically, The Halkin transports guests well into the 21st century. Its in-room control panel (operating in six languages) manages the lighting, temperature, “do not disturb” sign (activation mutes the door bell) and butler call. In short, it’s cooler than thou.
The Vineyard at Stockcross — Taking its inspiration from owner Sir Peter Michael’s noted Napa Valley winery, The Vineyard is a country getaway dedicated and defined by its foods and wines in a luxury setting.
Andrew Lloyd Webber concurs, “If you have the remotest interest in wine, you must hasten to this restaurant immediately. If you really love wine, take a suite for a week.”
The best part is its accessibility from London: one hour by car; 45 minutes by train. Nearby attractions are A-list — Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and the races at Newcastle.
THE FUN ALSO RISES
~ High Tea is quintessential London. And The Dorchester is consistently recognized as the city’s best. Set in the comfort of the hotel’s impressive Promenade, it is the place to spend an afternoon in the same manner that the rich and famous have always whiled away the hours.
~ A football (American soccer) game is the premium sporting enthusiast’s souvenir. Advice for takers: Drink plenty, sing loud and have fun.
~ The backstage tour of Royal Opera House makes it possible to visit closed-to-the-public areas of one of the world's leading theatres as it prepares to open its doors for the evening performance. It’s an insider’s dream.