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Rule Britannia

March 17, 2008 By: David Eisen Travel Agent

London's Old World charm mixes with eclectic modernity

London has always been pegged as a model of propriety, though a seedier underside, brought about by the likes of the '70's punk rock movement, has given England's capital the perfect balance of haughtiness and irreverence.

Stafford London Guv'nor's Suite

The Stafford London's two-story Guv'nor's Suite, set up like a posh London flat, was recently renovated.

For the U.S. traveler, it is looked upon as the gateway to Europe, assuredly because one doesn't have to speak another language to find their way around—though brushing up on the provincial lexicon is advisable.

The city has always been recognized as a bastion of refinement demonstrated by its rich history of culture, theatre and arts. In recent years, the city has been grounds for a successful ascension in an area it's long been mocked for: food. London is no longer just Bangers & Mash and Yorkshire pudding, but haute cuisine fashioned by some of today's most renowned and up-and-coming chefs.

But it doesn't come cheap, particularly for U.S. travelers. While we share a common language, we do not share a duplicative currency—and when we travel to London we are on the short end of the stick. The British pound is worth about two times the U.S. dollar, meaning that everything we buy over the pond costs double. (That $2 coffee at Starbucks quickly becomes $4.) Hope, though, may be on the way: the latest word from Visit London, the official visitor organization for London, suggests that the pound may let up a bit against the dollar this year.

The Cheaper Side

Until then, it doesn't mean that you have to deplete your life savings for a week's stay. Like any city, there are many things to enjoy that don't break the piggybank. Included are the array of museums that line the various districts of London, and most don't charge a penny—or pence—to visit. 

At the top of the list should be the British Museum near Russell Square, and open every day with free admission (some special exhibits carry a charge). The museum boasts a collection of over 13 million objects of art and antiquity. U.S. travelers will get a kick out of a special exhibit of American art featuring the likes of Jackson Pollock and Edward Hopper, which is set to run from April through September.

A real treat is the Imperial War Museum opened daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. As you may be able to glean from the name, the museum is a treasure trove of military artifacts from weaponry to vehicles. There are also countless hours of videotape and sound recordings to pore over. One of the museum's more poignant exhibits is its Holocaust exhibition, which is a permanent fixture and features startling remnants from preserved news clippings to diaries to children's toys.

Now, unless you are Superman, getting around a city can be an enterprise all in itself. Luckily, London has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. The London Underground, known colloquially as The Tube, services 268 stations throughout Greater London. We advise purchasing Oyster cards, which are pay-as-you-go cards that are pre-loaded with an initial £10 or £15.

For those wishing to remain above ground, we got a great recommendation from Nancy Hamilton who is an independent affiliate of America's Vacation Center and is based in Novato, CA. She backs the Hop On, Hop Off Bus, which doubles as a sight-seeing bus. Full-day tickets are available and the bus, which is of the double-decker variety and opened up top during the warmer months, makes 70 different stops around town. Agents should take note that tickets can be booked for clients at a commissionable rate.

One popular stop on the bus' route is The British Airways London Eye, the largest observation wheel in the world. A standard "flight," as it's called, costs £13.50 for adults, £6.75 for children. Do note that it takes a full 30 minutes to make the loop.


Britain's Bustle

Meanwhile, Hamilton says London's West End Theater is the best way to spend a day or evening. She suggests asking your hotel's concierge to obtain tickets to shows, which she says are comparable to those on New York's Broadway. Before an evening of theatre, you may want to get in a bit of shopping—and London's most popular shopping venue has to be Harrods, a gigantic luxury-goods department store located in the Knightsbridge section, with the same sort of cachet as Macy's in New York. The store, which comprises 4.5 acres, sells everything from designer clothing to furniture and all other goods in between. 
While the breadth of shopping is an important aspect of any city, London is especially famous for its multitude of markets. While Covent Garden Market is one of the more famous, our insider says to head to Borough Market, a wholesale and retail market just south of London Bridge. Note the interesting opening and closing times: the wholesale market is open daily, except Saturday, from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., while the retail portion is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

London Eye Ferris Wheel

The London Eye Ferris Wheel

The market carries some of the freshest food items in London. For a quick bite, grab a sausage from Leila McAllister, who mans one of the 70 stalls in the marketplace, or a chorizo roll from Brindisa (ask for Moshe; he makes the best!). If you have a hankering for some curry, a staple of London, venture to Brick Lane and its bevy of Indian restaurants.

If your tastes are a bit more up the scale, you're in luck: London has quickly become one of the best cities in the world for not just expensive cuisine, but really excellent food. There is Gordon Ramsay at 68 Royal Hospital Road, where the only thing overshadowing the food is its celebrity chef's temper. But we are going to recommend St. John Bar & Restaurant, near the Smithfield Market. The genius behind the restaurant is Fergus Henderson, who in 1991 penned the book Nose to Tail Eating, which, as one can surmise, deals with using every part of an animal when cooking. With specialties such as Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad (£6.60) or a whole Roast Suckling Pig (£320), which feeds 14-16 guests and requires a week's notice to guarantee availability, you can't go wrong.


Lodging Mix

Where you can go astray is figuring out where to stay during your time in the city. London boasts some of the most lavish hotels in the world, but also has a nice mix of lower-tier properties that are a bit softer on the wallet.

Landmark London

The Landmark London, one of the city's grandest hotels, is situated in the very exclusive Marylebone district.

For those looking for less-expensive digs, AVC's Hamilton recommends staying at a Jurys Doyle hotel, such as the 173-room Jurys Kensington, which offers rates from £99.
If your clients are willing to stay outside of London city, there are many great deals to be had, particularly at airport hotels. For instance, the St. Giles Hotel Heathrow is offering rates below £100 per night, and while the rooms may be spartan, your clients will be able to save a ton of money.

Of course, staying at one of the real gem London properties is an experience all its own. One at the forefront is The Landmark London, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World and located in London's tony Marylebone district.

The hotel has 299 rooms total, with the executive guest rooms (£249 per night) the most requested. When booking, try and secure your clients rooms on the fifth or sixth floor on the Marylebone rail station side; our insider tells us those floors offer the best views of North London. If a client is willing to pay a bit more, recommend the Marylebone Suite, room 636, which, too, offers stunning views.

The Landmark also encourages guests to utilize its concierge, who is deft at procuring any ticket in town or even arranging private dining in—of all places—the Tower of London.

Landmark London Suites

Suites at The Landmark are well appointed and offer unbeatable views of North London- particularly those in the fifth and sixth floors.

Agents can contact Chris Darcy, the sales manager responsible for agents, at 44-0-20 7631-8253 or [email protected]. For VIPs, contact the guest relations manager, Claudia Weiland at 44-0-20-7631 8000 or [email protected].

Just south is another luxury hotel, which confesses its brand of luxury to be informal. The Stafford London has a long history, as guests will quickly note from the property's grounds, which includes rooms in a restored Carriage House that overlooks a stable courtyard.
The hotel only numbers 106 rooms and suites, and at the top is the Guv'nor's Suite (£1200 per night), which just went through a big refurbishment. The 864-square-foot, two-story suite is reminiscent of a posh London flat and features a library, dining room, winding staircase, gas fireplace and 22-foot-high windows (guests can control its blinds with a remote).

For families, the all-suite Stafford Mews, which opened last April, is the perfect recommendation. There are 26 junior and master suites spread over six floors and each Mews junior suite has a sofa bed, which can accommodate two small children. We hear that many agents have taken to selling clients entire floors, which consist of two junior suites and two one-bedroom suites. There is also a Penthouse suite on the top floor of the Mews, which offers sweeping city views.

Guests will be impressed by the hotel's various amenities and service. For instance, the concierge team can arrange to have Savile Row tailors give private in-room fittings and outfit bespoke suits.

Questions regarding the hotel should be directed to Sarah Pugh, who is the director of sales, at 44-0-20-7493-0111 or [email protected]. For VIP's, call the general manager, Stuart Proctor, at the same number or [email protected].

Agents should also take note that The Stafford is offering U.S. travelers a fixed exchange rate on room rates of $1.80 to £1.00, which will help clients stretch their money.

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