Discovering London, For the First Time
I had never been to Europe. There, I said it. But I can’t be the only one out there since, come on, doing a trip overseas in the right way requires both money and time and, if you’re like me, you seem to regularly have more of one or the other, but never enough concurrently.
And so, finally, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and just do get to Europe. And I decided London was a great place to start.
A trip to the United Kingdom (or anyplace outside the US borders, really) is a big undertaking so my goal here is to walk you through the basics of how to get there and, more importantly where to stay, eat, be entertained, find the hot boys and even be a tourist.
Grab your passport (yes, you need one of those) and let’s venture across the pond!
The Friendly Skies via Air New Zealand
You know you’re in for an enjoyable flight experience when the first thing the flight attendant says to you as you’ve settled in your seat is, "Bubbly?" That’s how my flight from Los Angeles to London started out when I stepped for the first time on a direct Air New Zealand flight.
But why Air New Zealand over other airlines? Champagne is a great incentive but it was a bit more than that. The direct flight was a very big consideration since it’s an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles but when I thought of the ’musts’ of my flight, Air New Zealand met every single one of them.
First, Premium Economy is NOT the same as Coach! Thank you, Travel Gods! The appearance of the aforementioned champagne - and a genuinely cheery flight attendant; they were all happy and seemed to actually enjoy their jobs! When was the last time you experienced that? - was just the start of what would be an array of delicious non-airline-tasting food, beverages, snacks and desserts that were there for the consuming (with real cutlery!)...and this was all-inclusive in the Premium Economy ticket.
Also, for the long-haul trips, you’ll receive an amenity kit, which includes slippers, socks, toothbrush kit, earplugs, eyeshades and lip balm! Sadly, we’ve all gotten so used to the shoddy service on most domestic airlines but everything on the Air New Zealand flight, I found, was truly to make the passengers 110% happy. What a concept!
Second, each seat has its own television, which isn’t unique but what is special is the in-flight TV service features 100+ movies to choose from and a plethora or both current (Modern Family) and past (Arrested Development) television series.
Once I was settled in and we were in the air (and I had switched from Champagne to a lovely chardonnay) I wanted to put my head in the right UK space and chose to watch all 7-parts of the brilliant BBC series Downton Abbey. (If you missed it when it aired on PBS, find it, be ready to bow at the acting altar of Dame Maggie Smith and watch it...the second season is coming soon).
Third, the seating was divine. I should note that beginning in April, Air New Zealand debuted new planes with Skycouch seats, which is a trio of three Economy seats that can be used as three regular seats or, when putting up the arms, can become a space for you to stretch out and, yes, even take a nap. Perfect for traveling with small children that either need to rest or have a small play area.
Also, for a little extra money, you can purchase a Twin Seat, which is essentially an extra seat in case you want some extra space or prefer to have some solitude on your flight.
Also, in Premium Economy, I melted into my SpaceSeat, which is also a new feature. While you are seated next to another person, the slightly turned angle of the seats truly make you feel like you’re in a space all by yourself. And with more overall space and ample recline room, you can make your own space as comfortable as possible.
Also, besides the happy crew, each Air New Zealand flight also has an in-flight concierge who can answer any question about your destination. Truly remarkable and something all airlines should aspire to have!
To book your Air New Zealand trip, visit the Air New Zealand homepage.
Where to Stay: The Five-Star Hotel - THE LANGHAM
So you’ve made it to London and it’s off to the hotel to drop off bags and rest up before exploring the city. Like any trip you might take, budget comes into play in a major way. Some of us want to live in luxury and hit only the five-star accommodations while others are more apt to pay less for lodging and put more of their dollar (or pound, in this case) into food or entertainment.
Thankfully, I did a little of both on my London trip first settling into the five-star radiance of The Langham (http://london.langhamhotels.co.uk/) Langham Hotel UK
Located at the city’s West End, The Langham is majestic in stature on the outside but the interior lives up to that promise of luxury and class and not only in the décor but also in the impeccably mannered and attentive staff. Personally escorted to my junior suite with a view of the city’s West End, I was shown all the unique components of the room from how to work the big screen television, turning off the power from the master switch near the main door and where the plush robe and slippers were waiting for me.
Also, one thing I had forgotten about is that electrical outlets in the UK are not the same as the US so in most places you’d have to have an adaptor just to charge your IPod. However, the Langham was two steps ahead and actually had both US and UK plugs available near the room’s spacious desk. No wonder The Langham has been a crème de la crème of hotels since it opened in 1865!
While it would be easy to just kick back in my suite, the rest of the hotel was waiting for me to explore it. Once you try the food at the Roux at The Landau you more than likely won’t want to go anywhere else to eat during your stay. Breakfast can be as simple as a continental breakfast or you can also choose from a variety of international flavors (English, Chinese, Japanese or Lebanese). Lunch and Dinner are just as plentiful with choices including wonderful foods ranging from soups to seafood to meats.
And you’ll be doing yourself a huge disservice if you do not partake in the Palm Court’s Afternoon Tea, which is better than any other spot in all the UK. Awarded the Top London Afternoon Tea in 2010, the Palm Court’s Afternoon Tea is not merely a lovely sitting room with a cup of tea (which is what I thought was all an Afternoon Tea consisted of) but a food and beverage experience. The best specialty sandwiches, scones, pastries, the best teas and, of course, if you choose, more bubbly!
For some (myself included) a trip anywhere needs to come with a massage of some kind and the Langham doesn’t disappoint with Europe’s first Chuan Spa. The style may be steeped in Traditional Chinese Medicine but that includes wonderful, soothing massages, skin treatments and something as simple as a mani/pedi. The spa is incredibly serene even being in the middle of a busy city and the staff is there to accommodate in any fashion. There are also a variety of offerings for couples that want to indulge together. For more, visit Chuan Spa homepage
Where to Stay: Location! Location! Location! - The Courthouse Doubletree
If it’s all about location for you when staying in a hotel, one fantastic choice is The Courthouse Doubletree by Hilton (Courthouse Doubletree Homepage), which is located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Soho District.
Literally footsteps from the busy shopping street of Regent Street, the money you save on your hotel you’ll easily be able to use on your shopping sprees. While the Courthouse Doubletree was not at the same level as my first hotel and the overall experience wasn’t much different than a Doubletree or Hilton I’d stay in Stateside, I could also step outside the hotel and have everything I needed within a few feet.
While the ample shopping on Regent Street will surely keep you occupied, you’re also walking distance from the London Palladium where The Wizard Of Oz musical has been playing to sold out audiences. (Wizard Of Oz Musical homepage) You’re also a cab ride away from the multiple choices of theater in the West End Theatre district.
If you’re also missing your regular gym schedule, you can hit the gym and pool to work out your weary travel muscles. (And, don’t worry, if you can’t live without your daily dose of Starbucks, they are everywhere in London!)
Where to Stay: Off The Beaten Path (but not much) - The Chiswick Moran
For some travelers, being in the middle of any busy city is a hellish experience and they’d rather be close for quick access but are much more comfortable in a more serene location.
If that’s you, then the four-star Chiswick Moran Hotel (Chiswick Moran Hotel homepage) is for you. Located a few blocks from the Tube for easy access into the city, this hotel is in the middle of a tree-lined street with a neighborhood feel. That, however, doesn’t mean you aren’t close to a plethora of things to do. The Kew Gardens and Twickenham Stadium are near as well as the Heathrow Airport, which is one reason why I stayed here at the end of my trip.
You won’t have to venture far to find excellent food and drink at the Chiswick Moran. The Napa Restaurant offers Modern British cuisine with an ever-changing menu to showcase the different seasons of the year (for example, over the summer, an external barbecue was offered).
The Globe Bar is also a lovely place to kick back with one of the 25 different beers or yummy cocktail to end your day or liven up your night. There are also private party areas and, if you’re a sports fan, major coverage of the biggest events.
Looking for a special deal by staying at the Chiswick Moran this fall? The Autumn Kew Family package is perfect for a fall stay when leaves are changing and the air is becoming cooler. Families can enjoy the nearby Kew Gardens (one minute by taxi or a 15-minute walk) and take in the glasshouses of exotic plants, see the first of the season’s holly berries and, yes, let the kid in you come out and kick through piles of leaves. (Available from October 22-30).
Where to Dine: SamarQand
While you will have to venture to one of the many fish and chip spots around London, for a lovely dining experience, visit SamarQand, which brings the cuisine of Central Asian food to London. Don’t expect to get the usual Sweet and Sour Pork here, though.
Tastes from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan as well as influences from Russia, China and Mongolia, make up the menu and the knowledgeable staff can steer you in the right direction. I highly recommend getting several dishes and just let the various tastes and textures explode and be sure to tell your server if, like me, you’re a big baby with spicy foods and they will accommodate.
You can’t go wrong with the Lamb Cheburek (pan fried flat meat pasty with Asian spices), the Shashlik Mixed selection (chicken/lamb/kufta), the Samarqand Plov (traditional Asian rice dish) and the Pelmeni Choochwara (steamed beef dumplings) and, for dessert, the Zebra Chocolate Cake is heaven!
Overall, while you can have an elegant dining experience or if you’re in the mood for more fun, there are private rooms equipped with Karoke machines and game consoles. For more, visit SamaQand Restaurant homepage
Where The (London) Boys Are
Gay bars are everywhere in London and like any big city there’s something for everyone depending on your tastes. Down at one of the three Ku Bar locations (Lisle Street at Leicester Square, Frith Street in Soho and, for the ladies, Candy:KuBar) you’ll find the friendly and cute boys and you can also watch your favorite divas perform on the many video screens showing videos and concerts.
I favored the Lisle Street location with its three floors, nightly events, DJs, shows, drink specials and the sparkling new Champagne Bar! And did I mention the cute boys? For more, visit Ku Bar homepage
When you’re ready to get your dance on and may favor a throw back to the Studio 54 days, saunter, strut and shake it over to Soho’s The Shadow Lounge (Shadow Lounge homepage), which may be located in the basement but shakes the ground with great music, dance floor and hot bartenders. Keep an eye out for celebs hanging out in the private seating areas...and for the cute guy over there who wants to buy you a drink.
Theater West End Style
Like hitting the bright lights of Broadway, plan ahead and always have back-ups since many of the West End shows were completely sold out so I didn’t get my first choices. The good news there is plenty to choose from and I found everything I needed on the web (London Theatre homepage).
Even if I didn’t get to see my top choices, I did manage to see the fabulous London production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at the Palace Theatre as well as hitting the renowned National Theater (National Theatre homepage) and while it was impossible to get tickets to the hotter-than-hot show War Horse, a backstage tour of the theater provided insight into that show as well as the plethora of big and small productions going on at the various theaters.
Go ahead...be a tourist at least for a little bit!
When you go to any city, I think there are just some things that are prerequisites to visit and take in, though I suggest keeping the time to a minimum. Do go see Big Ben. It’s just beautiful in its largeness and old-ness and is a landmark that needs to be seen.
But after a few minutes, it’s just a big clock so move on to the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace and follow that by grabbing a boat tour of the famous Thames River.
One place I would spend some time is Hyde Park, the city’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park. You can take in a lovely walk here or at the adjoining Kensington Gardens and you may even come across a concert or a protest along the way.
Hyde Park is also the location for the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial. Opened in 2004 (by none other than Queen Elizabeth II and Diana’s children, William and Harry), the design is set to express Diana’s spirit and love of children and was designed by American landscaper Kathryn Gustafson. The oval stone fountain is a large streambed of water surrounded by a lush field and carries a serene ambiance and is perfectly fitting the memory of Diana. And, yes, wading is allowed!
For easy getting around all over the city, the London Tube is your best financially and logistically. Easier to navigate than even New York City’s often-puzzling subway system, the Tube has clear directions and signs everywhere and staff is always close-by to answer tourist-y questions.
For your stay, since cabs can add up and traffic can be just as hairy as any big city), I suggest you get your pre-loaded Oyster Card or Travelcard (UK VisitorShop homepage) and you’ll be ready to go anywhere in the city in no time.
So, go book that London trip now and you’ll have a gay old time!