By: Kelly Gray

I hadn’t been to London since I was 14 years old. We toured all the requisite sites, and I was dragged around by my enthusiastic family to see everything and anything marketed to American tourists. We flew to London via New York City, absolutely crammed in the vice grip of coach class. Ew. By the time we arrived in London, we had such horrific jet lag, we missed an entire day of our trip sleeping it off. The next trip I took to Europe in 1998 was even worse. I can’t seem to cross the Atlantic without getting sick. Flu, colds and bronchitis have all accompanied me to Paris, London, Amsterdam …

So when I was assigned to review American Airlines’ business class and service to London, the American Airlines staff member I interviewed went on and on about their business class reclining seats. I admit it. I was skeptical. Even in business or first class, you’re still sandwiched between other members of the general public and largely in a seated position the entire time. I, a reclining airline seat virgin, couldn’t imagine a comfortable flight to London under any circumstances. If lying down isn’t part of the equation, I simply can’t sleep. And I sleep on my stomach or side. To say I was a disbeliever in sleeping comfortably on a flight from the United States to London is an understatement.

I soon found out that in addition to “sleeping” in reclining seats on the way over to London, I was informed that dinner “would be served”. I knew at that moment there had to be a catch. Food typically served on airplanes has, to me, always qualified as the very worst kind of fast food. I just knew I’d get sick, have to eat nasty food and there was no way in heck I’d get any sleep. So there! But by the time we landed, I would eat my words.

At the gate we waited to take off. Everyone was all smiles. Not me … as I rummaged through my bag for the largest dose of Ambien I could lay my hands on, a flight attendant came by and showed us how to use our seats. As I stretched back, a glimmer of hope emerged. Could it be? Was I completely stretched out? I was lying DOWN and it was wonderful. Someone handed me a menu and on it were items I would have selected in a fine restaurant. And when our food was delivered, it was actually delicious. An Ambien and eight hours later, we arrived in London. Rested.

Upon our arrival, my group was met by our guide – Jakob Hartmann. As we say in the South, now le’me tell ya ‘bout Jacob. First of all, he’s everything you’d expect from a young man living the good life in London, England, with everything at his fingertips. His cosmic knowledge of all things London made the trip so much more enjoyable. Plus, he’s cool – you won’t be going to see London’s largest ball of twine on his watch.

We journeyed to the O2, located at Greenwich peninsula in South-East London. The O2 is a concert arena but don’t let the moniker fool you. It’s not your typical, head-banging destination. Encompassed in the O2 are a music club and cinema, exhibition spaces, and even piazzas. Another highlight of the trip was catching the Lord of the Rings theatrical production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. London is a theatrical destination and there are many productions to choose from. And that means there are about a billion places to dine beforehand.

One thing I didn’t expect when I traveled to London this time was the plethora of luxury things to do, and the quality of the cuisine. On my first trip to London with my parents, we ate at a department store café almost every day, or at our hotel. I recall nary a fish or chip, gourmet treat nor anything memorable about the food on that excursion. But on this trip to London, the cuisine was what I remember most fondly. My favorite place by far was the Cricketers, Clavering. Trevor and Sally Oliver’s pub in Essex was exactly the sort of thing I had wanted to do on my first trip to England, but wasn’t old enough to enjoy the ales, beers, wines and spirits they offer. As things like roast loin of local pork from Priors Hall Farm and twenty-one day hung charcoal-grilled rump steak go, the cuisine at Cricketers, Clavering was the culinary highlight of the trip. Seasonal vegetables and leaves come straight from the organic garden belonging to the Olivers’ son, Jamie … also known as the Naked Chef.

The Cricketers, Clavering is a must-do if you have time to scoot out of London for a night. Flanked by oh-so-English pub surroundings, the evening made me feel like I had been dropped right into the film Four Weddings and Funeral. For oenophiles, the wine list beckons. My only regret about having dinner at Cricketers, Clavering was that I didn’t get to see much of the country on the way since we left the charming inn well after dark. I would have liked to have spent a few nights there, and awoken to the sounds of and a view of the English countryside. Breakfast here must be incredible, if dinner was any sort of indication. No surprise to me, The Cricketers, Clavering country inn comes “highly commended” by the English Tourist Board and recommended by the Good Pub Guide, Johansens, Michelin Guide and yours truly.

My other decadent meal in London was at Amba Bar and Grill in the Mayfair Hotel, part of the Radisson Edwardian family on Stratton Street. There I discovered London’s young professional set. It reminded me of the sex- and greed-charged energy of an updated version of the movie Wall Street paired with fashions from The Devil Wears Prada. Dinner at the restaurant here matched the opulent surroundings and included chilled vanilla and pumpkin foam with foie gras followed by a potato puree and grape tomatoes. Scrumptious, decadent, perfect.

Far too soon it was time to leave London and head home to the US. I couldn’t help but realize another huge difference between my first trip to London and this one: age. When I first went to London, I was a child. Now as an adult of merely 25 (okay, I’m 38), London was fabulous! Though they are worthy sites, I didn’t see the Tower of London, the changing of the guard or ride public transportation to Piccadilly Circus just because it’s named Piccadilly Circus, like my parents made us do back in 1984. But I did see a different side of London and get to ride in first class masquerading as business class on American Airlines. Even though I was only in London for barely a weekend, it was well worth the trek.


Note: This trip was sponsored by American Airlines.

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