London On The Fly
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.
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.