Cheerio from London where I’ve been three times in the last few months. I love this city and could live here (in the summer, that is) if the opportunity ever arose. I stayed at a variety of places, including a refurbished historic hotel, dined at an array of restaurants and walked a lot, especially through most of the city’s royal parks. I’ll tell you all about this, plus, the best way to get around and where to get theatre tickets. If you want to make your trip here smoother and see my London, both pricey and practical, then join me for this tour of one of my favorite cities across the pond.
GREAT BRITAIN POUNDS
We left off last week from Heathrow’s beautiful Terminal 5 after just touching down on a British Airways flight from Los Angeles. The first thing I did, which is what I always do when I clear immigration, is hit the ATM. The current exchange rate is £1 GBP = 1.66 USD. Ouch – I know. But the exchange rate is actually a lot cheaper than it was in 2008. Back then, it cost me $201 for pulling £100 from the ATM. This time, £100 set me back $166. Obviously, these rates make going out to eat, sightseeing, getting around more enjoyable. In addition to the more favorable exchange rate, many museums are free, theatre ticket prices are 20% lower than on Broadway and hotel prices are down an average of 33%, according to Smith Travel Research. Note: All prices below are listed in British Pounds, unless noted otherwise.
HEATHROW TO CENTRAL LONDON
Getting from Heathrow to the city is easy as can be and not expensive as long as you don’t take a taxi. A taxi will not only cost a ridiculous amount of cash (about £65) but it will take three to five times longer than the train. The quickest way to Central London is on the Heathrow Express. The trains are directly below the airport terminals and to make the walk less of a hassle, there are plenty of free luggage carts.
Heathrow Express‘ one-way cost is £16.50 (it’s £3 more on the train), it takes only 15 minutes to get to Central London (Paddington Station) and the trains depart every 15 minutes so there’s no need to rush. If you’re traveling now through August 31, Heathrow Express is offering free travel for children (normally £8.50) between five and 15 years when traveling with an adult. Tickets can be booked in advance atHeathrowExpress.com or at the station and all you need to show the conductor is your confirmation number. Note: There is a T-Mobile hot spot on the train but since it’s only a 15-minute ride, it’s not worth the hassle of logging on unless you really need to.
From Paddington, you can take a taxi or the tube to your hotel ifyou packed light. A taxi to Mayfair, where I was staying, takes about 10 minutes and runs about £8 (£2 more if you pay by credit card). The tube (£4) is available right from Heathrow to Central London but it takes a lot longer (it makes a ton of stops) and it’s not as spacious.
Without a doubt the tube and buses are the best way to get around London, besides walking, of course. To save money on your fare, get an Oyster Card like the locals. This transit card has a £3 refundable deposit and you can add as much credit to the card as you like. Plus, it’s good for traveling by both subway and bus as well. The Oyster card transforms those £4 rides into £1.60 rides (although it could be more for those traveling longer distances). The blue cards can be found in a number of places including most tube station ticket offices and online at the Oyster website. But the best place to get it is in advance from the Visit Britain Tourism Board; it’s one pound less and they will send it to your home address before you leave, so you’re all set to go when you land.
Since I made three separate trips to London, I have three different hotels to write about. Obviously I can’t tell you about all of them this week so the latter two will have to wait. Back in May, I spent almost a week at the famed Grosvenor House hotel, which is located on exclusive Park Lane and overlooks beautiful Hyde Park. I was there living like a rock star, thanks to an invite by Marriott Hotels to help celebrate the Grosvenor House’s 80th birthday. In case you didn’t know, The Grosvenor House is one of Marriott’s newest additions to their luxury JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts brand. I know what you’re thinking – score! BIG TIME … for me and for them! What a beautiful, iconic property to have in their portfolio.
HISTORY OF THE GROSVENOR HOUSE
The Grosvenor House has been frequented by royalty, business leaders and celebrities since its opening in 1929. In fact, I saw all 6-foot-4 of Brigitte Nielsen in the bar one night. She looked down at me as if she could throw me around the room like a blow-up doll but with Mark Gastineau, Rocky and Flavor Flav in her repertoire, I gave her the Heisman. The Grosvenor House was one of the largest private houses on Park Lane belonging to the Grosvenor family (better known as the Dukes of Westminster) for more than a century. But after WWI, the family realized it was just too expensive to maintain so it was sold. To make a long story short — it’s now the first JW Marriott hotel brand in the United Kingdom.
THE GROSVENOR HOUSE
The 494-room hotel has 8 floors. What’s nice about it is that although The Grosvenor House is now owned by a big chain, you don’t feel like you’re in a typical international hotel. Not that that’s a bad thing, Mr. Marriott. But there’s nothing better than a historic, iconic hotel that’s been restored so that it has all the comforts of home but still retains an old-world charm.
As you would expect from a five-star hotel, the service is top-notch. When I rolled up in my Blackie, a top-hatted bellman opened the door, welcomed me and grabbed my two small bags all in one fell swoop. Check-in took a minute. Since I had just gotten off a long flight, the first thing I needed to do was freshen up. I jumped in the marble shower and rubbed their fancy bath products (Penhaligon’s Quercus) all over my naked body and few hairs. The shower pressure was fantastic but the showerhead couldn’t be moved – I guess to keep monsters like me from flooding the floor. It was a cool day out so I really appreciated the thick, soft, heavy towels hanging on the heated towel rack. My one complaint about the bathroom is that the maid kept replacing my towel even though I had it hanging on the rack, which meant I planned to reuse it. In fact, to reduce my carbon footprint, I use one towel for the week. But in England, the service is so refined that the maid also kept moving my shampoo/conditioner bottles from the shower back to the sink. After the third day, it was driving me crazy so that finally, I had to sit her down …
As you probably know, hotel rooms in London are notoriously small but since I was a guest of Mr. Marriott’s, I got a one-category upgrade to a superior room. However, even though my room was bigger, it wasn’t necessarily any different from the others because the bedding and facilities were the same. After taking a quick nap, I had to tell someone how incredible the bed was so I ‘tweeted’ about it. Seriously, the bed and sheets might just be the most comfortable I have ever felt. Another nice room touch was the master switch, so in one flick, you can turn all the lights off. It would have been better if it were by the bed instead of the door, though. Each time the maid came to clean (twice a day) she left two bottles of water; I stocked up so I didn’t have to buy any. The rooms in these old hotels are solid so you don’t hear a lot of hallway traffic. I had a flat screen TV with plenty of channels and next to the desk were a bunch of electrical outletswith two UK type plugs, one to fit European plugs and best of all (for me!), one for North American plugs – so need to fumble with adaptors.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
The Internet is not cheap and it’s not wireless. And the curtainsdon’t fit snug so they let light in. Also the “green sign” for the sheets should read the opposite to what it actually said. Instead of saying: Please place this card on the bed if you want the existing sheets to be remade, it should say: Place this card on the bed if you want new sheets. That would not only save them money (because who the hell reads the card?) but the environment, too.
Here are some of my notes (random but interesting!). Marriott bought the hotel five years ago and pumped over £100 into its refurbishment. The word ‘house’ was used in the hotel name to keep the feeling warm and friendly. Marriott employees are calledassociates not workers. The Grosvenor House associates hail from 86 nations. On average, 34 percent of the hotel’s guests are American. The hotel is infused with a fresh, grassy fragrance.
THE GREAT ROOM
The royal family comes to the hotel at least once a year, usually in June, for a private view of the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair. It’s the top antiques show in the U.K. and rated number four in the world. It takes place in the Great Room – the largest ballroom in the Europe and the place where Queen Elizabeth learned how to ice skate in 1929, when it used to be an ice rink (they closed it in 1934). Each year, 90 of the leading dealers set up shop and sell not just antiques but fine wines, photography and art. Everything is for sale and there’s about half a billion pounds worth of goods at the show and around £55 million are sold each year. Other notable functions that take place here are the BAFTA Awards, England’s Oscars.
Since the hotel is situated in Mayfair, London’s ritziest neighborhood, there are plenty of places to shop. Most top designers have stores in Mayfair and there’s no shortage of luxury car dealers or restaurants. And good ones, too! Did you know London has 48 restaurants with at least 1 Michelin star, 13 of which are in Mayfair? Besides incredible food, the hotel is within walking distance to many museums, landmarks, department stores, parks and even West End theatres.
HISTORIC, HAUNTS & HOSTELRIES TOUR
If you time your visit right, you might make the free tour given by the Grosvenor House’s head concierge, Tony Verri. On the first Wednesday of every month, Tony escorts guests between 6pm and 9pm, around Mayfair’s Historic Streets, Haunts & Hostelries. Not only does he dish up all the history and insider secrets, but he also buys the participants their first drink at a local pub. He spreads the business around each month but we went to a pub that has been open since 1423 – can that even be possible? Unfortunately, Tony told us more pubs are closing than opening. Rates begin at £175. The Grosvenor House, Park Lane, London, W1K7TN United Kingdom, Tel: 44 207 499 6363.
In addition to checking out the Grosvenor House, I also accompanied Mr. Marriott to two other grand openings just outside of the city. One was the 218-room Courtyard at Gatwick Airport (shuttle costs £2 to the airport) and the other was the Twickenham Marriott. Twickenham is the home of English rugby and the hotel is connected to their incredible 82,000-seat stadium. They did a photo shoot on the rugby field, which is called a pitch, and I got to meet England’s most famous player, Jason Leonard. I think Jason got the short end of the stick when he and the mayor presented Mr. Marriott with a signed England rugby jersey by the national team and in return he received an unsigned Clinton Portis Washington Redskins jersey. Yikes! They should’ve at least dragged Portis’ sorry ass across the pond to sign it (if you can’t tell, I’m a NY Giants fan and the Redskins are their biggest rival). Nevertheless, it was a great day especially for Marriott, which now has 18 hotels in London and over the next two years, will have over 700 hotels and 115,000 rooms in development around the world.
Thanks to my good buddy and travel guru Chris McGinnis for sharing three good Marriott deals in this month’s Ticket Newsletter (sign up for it here):
1 Earn triple Delta miles for Marriott stays through August 31. (Registration required.)
2 Marriott Rewards members who complete three stays by August 31 will get a free night that must be used by December 31 (Ritz-Carlton not included.)
3 Rewards members can also redeem points for three nights and get the third night free for stays at certain Marriott resort properties through September 7.
DID YOU KNOW?
One in five visitors visit the United Kingdom because of films.
I dined at way too many places to list them all but the highlights were:
Quo Vadis was probably the trendiest and most expensive of all the restaurants I hit. Quo Vadis is a classic grillroom named after the movie and is usually loaded with celebs and London’s elite. It’s owned by brothers Sam and Eddie Hart who have the top Spanish restaurants, Fino and Barrafina. Eddie and Sam have restored Quo Vadis to its former glory so it’s back to being one of London’s most beautiful and historic restaurants. If you have the set lunch/pre-theatre menu like I did, it’s quite reasonable. I had their two-course option and chose the watercress soup for my starter and green asparagus risotto for £17.50. Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, Soho, Tel: +44 (0) 207 437 9585.
Just a block from the Grosvenor House is Corrigan’s. It’s run by Irish chef Richard Corrigan, who grew up on a farm and brought with him his fresh food mentality. Here there’s a strong emphasis on rustic, traditional fare with dishes featuring pheasant, grouse, lamb, venison and duck. All the food he serves is organic from small local farms. Richard is doing a great job fusing seasonal produce, while trying to redefine the concept of quintessential British cuisine. When I asked him what makes his place so special, he said that anyone can cook good food but you have to go the extra step with hospitality. Corrigan’s does just that and then some. BTW: The desserts are also divine. The best value is the midweek lunch menu: three courses for £27 and that includes a 250ml carafe of red or white wine. Corrigan’s Mayfair, 28 Upper Grosvenor Street, London; Tel: 0207 499 9943.
When you think of pub food you probably conjure up images of greasy fish and chips in your mind. But at the Guinea, a traditional English pub in the heart of Mayfair, you’ll get much more than that. First of all, the Guinea dates back to the 15th century and their now famous restaurant opened in 1953. Since then, its pies have won many awards helping establish itself as a London institution. In addition to its pies (just to be clear, these are not dessert pies; I’m talking steak and kidney or chicken and mushroom), the Guinea serves up some of the best steak in London. They also specialize in fresh seafood and English lamb. Eat upstairs in the Grill Room so you feel like you’re in England and are surrounded by pictures of many of Mayfair’s famous former residences, including Benjamin Franklin and Florence Nightingale. Here’s the link to their dinner menu so you can see what they offer firsthand and check out the prices. The Guinea, Telephone Reservations: 020 7499 1210.
TWITTER INDIAN FOOD
Here’s a good example of how you can use Twitter when you travel. I was watching a play with my friend Norie and at intermission, I asked if she wanted to get some Indian food afterwards. London is famous for Indian food. She asked me if I knew of any places nearby but since I didn’t, I decided to Twitter my query. I composed an approximately 140-character question and sure enough, when I turned my phone on again 45 minutes later, I had over 20 recommendations. My Twitter followers had responded with enthusiasm, providing restaurant suggestions with maps and reviews. It was unreal. There were so many recommendations, it was tough to choose so we went to the closest restaurant with the best review. Chowki, which means ‘traditional dining table’, was just two or three blocks away on Denman Street. They offered quick service, small portions and reasonable prices. I had yam curry with naan bread, rice and beans for £10. Chowki, 2 Denman Street, London; Tel: 020 7439 1330. BTW: If you are on Twitter, you can follow me@JohnnyJet.
ON A BUDGET
Not all my meals were expensive or even sit-down for that matter. In fact, most lunches I spent cost under $8 and I ate in London’s many parks. On more than once occasion, I purchased a sandwich from either Pret A Manger (there’s one on practically every street corner) or at Harrods’ food court. My favorite thing from Pret A Manger is their tomato, full leaf basil and brie cheese sandwich (£2.60) and I love to top it off with a Love Bar, made with oats, caramel, dark chocolate chunks, vanilla pumpkin seeds, pistachios, almonds and honey (£1.20). AlthoughHarrods is notorious for overpriced items, their takeaway food court is affordable. I had a spicy chicken with mango sandwichfor £4.99. And it didn’t end there. One evening, I grabbed achicken curry pie, with a side of mashed peas and baked beans (£4.99) from Square Pie, which was just a short walk from the Grosvenor House. And an even a shorter walk is Marks and Spencer, the popular store, which is also a perfect place to getpicnic food.
My favorite place to have lunch is in one of London’s Royal Parks. There are eight parks that cover almost 4,900 acres (2,000 hectares) of land in Greater London. The most famous is Hyde Park, which is near Harrods and directly across the street from the Grosvenor House. Hyde Park is huge! It has 350 acres (142 hectares) with over 4,000 trees, a lake, a meadow and even horse rides. It seems even bigger because it’s connected to Kensington Gardens and that covers an additional 275 acres (111 hectares) and has one of the most beautiful gardens ever. As you know,Kensington Palace used to be the home of Princess Diana and is open for tours. Currently the Last Debutantes exhibition and the Diana, Fashion and Style exhibitions are being showcased. Other highlights in this park are the Albert Memorial, Peter Pan statue and the Serpentine Gallery.
Other parks to picnic or exercise in: St James’ Park (58 acres = 23 hectares) is in the heart of London. St. James is where you’ll find the Mall, which is the setting for many ceremonial parades. Next door to it is Green Park, which is 47 acres (19 hectares) and is a peaceful escape. But my favorite park in London is Regent’s Park. It has 410 acres (166 hectares) and has the most incredible rose gardens I’ve ever seen. There are more than 30,000 roses of 400 varieties. It’s a remarkable sight especially on a sunny spring day. Regent’s Park is also the place to take in or watch some kind of pick-up game since it has 100 acres dedicated to outdoorsports.
I was introduced to an incredible tour company, London Walks. It’s the oldest walking tour company in London and is the best bargain around. Get this: a London Walk costs just £7 or £5 for adults 65 and older and full-time students. They have 75 guides and multi-language tours are available but need to be booked separately. I toured with the owner David who, by the way, can do all 51 of their walks but you’ll be happy to know that he and their guides don’t do a tour more than five times a week to keep things fresh. What’s also nice about London Walks is that if you’re doing a tour in English you don’t need to book in advance – just show up to the dedicated meeting spot that’s on their website and you’re good to go. London Walks offers tours seven days a week featuring highlights from Jack the Ripper to Westminster Abbey and everything in between. Check out their website for a complete list.
I did the Little Venice tour, which operates three times a week and is in the town of Maida Vaile (a 10-minute bus- or tube-ride from Mayfair). After WWII, all the locals began calling Maida Vaile, Little Venice. Little Venice is off the beaten path and many Londoners don’t even know about it, which is one reason it’s one of the prettiest and most romantic spots in town. The Little Venice neighborhood has a unique combination of white stucco buildings, lots of greenery and, of course, waterways. There are three main canals and walking along the canal towpath on a warm sunny day is amazing. On the flip side – you probably don’t want to do this tour if it’s raining – there won’t be much to see. Some of Little Venice’s famous residents include (or have included): Robert Browning, Joan Collins, Annie Lennox, and Sigmund Freud.
A tour which you don’t need a guide for is the Portobello Market. It takes place every Saturday on Portobello Road in Notting Hill and is a complete zoo because it’s the world’s largest antique market with over 1,500 specialist antiques dealers, antique arcades and galleries. You can find everything from furniture to jewelry but I prefer the fruit and vegetable stands at the bottom. Helpful websites: PortobelloMarket.org andPortobelloRoad.co.uk.
KEITH PROWSE THEATRE TICKETS
In my opinion, London is the best place in the world to see plays and musicals. The theatres are all historic and amazing. It’s also my favorite London pastime so I almost always catch a show when I’m in town. There are two ways I get my theatre tickets. If I have my heart set on a particular show or want to impress someone by scoring the best seats to a new production, I get them from Keith Prowse (KeithProwse.com). These guys have sold tickets to the theatre, sports events, concerts and special events for more than 200 years … that’s right – two hundred years! They started in London, but now have 36 offices in more than 20 countries. They aren’t cheap but there’s no gamble with these guys and the other night, I used them for tickets to see Les Miserables at the Queens Theatre. Natalie and I sat in seats C14 and C15, which were center seats, just three rows from the stage. We were so close we practically had to dodge the actors spit. BTW: The seats at the Queens Theatre have low backs but they are staggered so you don’t have any heads in front of you so we had an unobstructed view of the stage. At intermission, they sold water for £1.50 right at the entrance to our row and Haagen-Dazs ice cream for £3. Buy Theatre Tickets.
The other way I get theatre tickets is by going down to Leicester Square and rolling the dice to find a discounted play. You can definitely find inexpensive tickets here, though keep in mind, not every show is available and your view might be obstructed depending on the seats. Many shops sell tickets, though none is more popular than TKTS (the same company as in Times Square). One night I went to a bunch of the booths to possibly buy some tickets but they only had seats left for three plays: Chicago, Avenue Q and Grease. But when I was here in May, I scored third row center seats for £23.50 to see the play 39 Steps. It’s a comedy-thriller based on the Alfred Hitchcock’s film. There are a total of 104 characters but just four amazing actors perform it. It’s really entertaining and fun. Short too. Each half was 45 minutes.
Next week we visit the only city in the world that’s on two continents. Do you know where?
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Note: This trip was sponsored in part by The Grosvenor House.