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When a Man Is Tired of London ...
February 24, 2011 -- I must be tired of life because I surely was tired of London last month during a few days of work and play.
I refer, of course, to an oft-quoted Samuel Johnson maxim. He told James Boswell, frequent London visitor, that Boswell would adore the British capital should he move there. "You will find no man … who is willing to leave London. No, sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
With all due respect to Mr. Johnson, I was not alone in my exhaustion with London last month. Most locals seemed as tired of the place as me. And the ever-prescient Johnson may have an explanation for that, too.
In a much less frequently used part of his 1777 paean, Johnson noted that "there is in London all that life can afford."
Londoners, like occasional visitors Boswell and your humble scribe, are beginning to think they just can't afford London anymore.
As 2010 yielded to 2011, London residents were hit with a blizzard of higher costs. The British value added tax jumped 2.5 points to 20 percent, highest in the world except for Sweden. Mass transit fares rose an average of 5.8 percent and as much as 13 percent on some routes. The congestion charge to drive a car in central London jumped two pounds, to 10 pounds a day. Gasoline prices have hit record highs. Clothing prices jumped 11 percent on an annual basis. Four of the country's six energy suppliers raised their fees for electricity and heating.
There was also a blizzard of other bad news. Basic unemployment rates remain stubbornly high. The British economy contracted in the fourth quarter of 2010 while the rest of Europe and the Western world was in recovery mode. And, of course, there was the actual "blizzard," which coated London with snow just before Christmas and crippled Heathrow Airport for almost a week.
And before you issue the standard rejoinder--"Londoners always say they are miserable"--trust me when I tell you that it was different this time. I'm a big fan of London. I expect locals to grumble. Like New York, my hometown, London always has an undercurrent of discontent. We bitch and we moan and then, like Johnson, insist there is no place else in the world we'd rather live.
But not this time. Everyone I spoke to in London last month--the butcher, the baker, the hotelkeeper, the local bobbie on the beat--was fed up. The winter, economy and rising prices seem to have beaten down the usually London upper lip.
Is there hope for London? Of course.
The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is just two months away. It's not only a big deal for royal watchers, it is also an event that will help revitalize London's spirits and give a short-term boost to the economy.
"Nothing makes London more exciting than a royal wedding," says British Airways executive vice president, Americas, Simon Talling-Smith, himself a London native. "We just love the stuff."
And next year brings three more blockbusters to London: Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, a celebration of her 60th year on the British throne; the 2012 Olympics; and the 2012 Paralympics.
All of these special functions are expected to attract throngs of visitors, generate some much-needed enthusiasm and pump billions of travel dollars into the city's crippled economy. If the weather cooperates, they will also be dazzling worldwide television showcases for the city, its iconic tourist destinations like Westminster Abbey and its new Olympic venues.
So stay tuned 'cause we're going to hear a lot about London in the next 18 months even if we're tired of the place just now.
Despite the gloomy weather and local psyche, I spent several glorious days last month cocooning at 51 Buckingham Gate, which is unique in all of London. Operated by Taj Hotels, the luxury lodging group based in India, 51 Buck is a collection of 86 residential-style suites surrounding a courtyard guarded by a gated entrance. Its location is perfect: a few steps from Victoria Station, St. James Park and the government offices in and around Westminster Palace. It is not inexpensive, but frequent promotions and packages help soften the blow a bit. The service and the furnishings are exquisite and you can also call on the facilities offered next door at the St. James Court, which Taj is painstakingly restoring.
Since London doesn't have the kinds of all-suite and extended-stay properties that are common in most U.S. cities, "there really isn't anything competitive with us," explains Prabhat Verma, general manager of both the bustling St. James and the genteel 51 Buckingham Gate.
But if the lure of points or free stays keeps you anchored to the major chains, my recommendation is the Andaz, adjacent to Liverpool Street Station, for Hyatt Gold Passport players; the Marriott County Hall, carved from the former seat of London city government, for Marriott Rewards players; and the Hilton Paddington, connected to Paddington Station, terminus for the Heathrow Express, for Hilton Honors members. If you're a fan of Starwood Preferred Guest, try the W Leicester Square.
Fabulous and Fast Dining Delights
It's easy to make fun of food in London because, well, the British diet is worse than ours. To be fair, though, London is one of the greatest restaurant towns in the world. And one of the many reasons to stay at 51 Buck is because it is upstairs from The Quilon, the world's only Michelin-starred restaurant serving South Indian coastal cuisine. The fare is brilliant, the dining room is spacious and soothing and the service is impeccable. If you only know Indian food as curries from the north, you must make The Quilon your first stop the next time you're in London.
Like a lot of big cities around the world, London is in the throes of an invasion by "fast casual" chain restaurants. Surprisingly, several I tried this trip were quite good. Ironically, neither chain trades in the United States. Nando's is a fun, casual chicken operation that focuses on Portuguese and Mozambique flavors. It's cheap, cheery and irresistible, with a freshly cooked variety of chicken platters, wraps, salads and burgers. And Zizzi is a slick chain of faux Italian trattorias. The pizza is well-made and properly cooked in authentic wood-fired ovens. The wine prices are gentle, too.
What would you have me say about Heathrow Airport that you don't already know? Government aviation levies--up to 170 pounds on a long-haul, premium-class flight--make Heathrow the most taxed major airport to fly from or through in the world. Terminals 1, 3 and 4 are still a mess and parts of them look like third-world facilities. Terminal 5, which is dedicated to British Airways, is new, clean and finally working properly, but the walking distances are long and the repeated changes of levels are annoying. (A tip: If you're flying premium class, head for the Zone H check-in area, which is dedicated to elite travelers and business- and first-class customers.) The airport has proven it can't handle more than an inch of snow in winter or a heavy load of passengers and luggage in the summer. Heathrow is an airport to avoid if you're planning a connecting flight and a place to endure if your destination is London.
If you must stay overnight at Heathrow, plan tactically. If you're flying through T5, stay at the Sofitel. Terminal 4 customers should rely on the older, but still quite serviceable, Hilton. If you're using any other terminal, jump on either the Heathrow Express or Heathrow Connect trains and go to Paddington Station. Walk upstairs to the Hilton there or use one the other properties near Paddington. It's just as fast to go into Paddington and London than to board one of the Hotel Hoppa buses for the mostly insipid "airport hotels" on the Bath Road.
Rereading this piece after six years reminds me how dreary that time in London really was. Happily, all the things that London needed--the Royal wedding, the Jubilee, the Olympics--went off without a hitch and really did buck up the city's spirits. But now London is in the throes of Brexit and that is hurting the economy--although the marked decline of the British pound has made the city much cheaper for visitors like us.
Even Heathrow has improved--at least a little. The Queen's Terminal opened in 2014 and decrepit Terminal 1 closed for a desperately needed renovation and remake. Several renovated hotels opened along the Bath Road and a few other more in proximity to Terminal 5. But beware because those hotels are far from the terminal and the Sofitel remains your best T5 option.
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