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 The Brancatelli File

joe BACK TO THE PAST IN LONDON,
THE MILLENNIUM CITY


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

October 21, 1999 -- If London, the self-described Millennium City, is all about the future, how come the locals continue to obsess about the past?

The folks who market and package the British capital insist London "has seized a unique opportunity to reinvent itself for the 21st Century," but visiting business travelers will find precious little public support for the Millennium City theme. Pick up a newspaper, pop into a pub, or engage a business contact in idle conversation and the topic is always what's gone before, not what's coming next.

What's on the mind of residents of the so-called Millennium City? Margaret Thatcher, prime minister twice removed, who has risen from the political ashes to warn of the dangers of an alliance with modern Europe. The pound, the ancient currency which Brits seem unwilling to sacrifice for the new euro. And, of course, the state of the railroads, privatized years ago, but still shuddering from the effects of decades of infrastructure neglect.

The ultimate victory of past over future in London? The massive Millennium Dome, the quasi-public works project that is the symbol of London's "Millennium City" campaign. Few Londoners care about the $1.2 billion structure--except to note that an adjacent theater that will screen a new installment of BlackAdder, Rowan Atkinson's sitcom spoof of British history.

"London has been living in the past since the 16th Century, so why change now," asks Tom Rivers, a Chicago-born marketing executive who has lived in London for 13 years. "Nobody really wants to live in a new London. We just want to fix up the old one. London adjusted to the 20th Century just fine and I'm sure it'll survive the 21st Century, too."

AIRLINES There's a huge surplus of seats in all classes on routes between the United States and London. That explains the occasional $99 fare promotions in coach and the attractive business-class prices offered by consolidators. … At the other end of the scale: the first-class service offered by British Airways. Even five years after it was introduced, BA's first class remains the global pacesetter. Travelers want for nothing: private "cabins" convert into incredibly comfortable beds complete with bedding and pajamas; meals are served both in-flight and in private first-class airport lounges; and there are dozens of channels of cabin-wide entertainment and an on-board library of 50 videos. … Virgin Atlantic is scheduled to launch daily Chicago/O'Hare-London/Heathrow service on November 1.

AIRPORTS Many frequent flyers prefer Gatwick for itineraries that begin or end in London. Passenger terminals are less crowded than Heathrow and you can get to Victoria Station in 30 minutes aboard the Gatwick Express train. … Heathrow has more frequent U.S. service and better connections for travel beyond London. However, the terminals are frenetic and a bit shabby from the 24-hour wear and tear. The good news: The superlative Heathrow Express rail service gets you to Paddington Station in as little as 15 minutes. But be prepared for a long queue for cabs when you arrive.

HOTELS Nothing much has changed since the turn of the last century, when John Galsworthy wrote in The Forsyte Saga that you could spend more at a hotel in London than any place on earth. But occupancy at London hotels has eased in the last 18 months, so hard bargaining will yield substantial savings. … In Kensington, Singapore-based Millennium Hotels (800-465-6486) has acquired and upgraded both Bailey's Hotel and a property across Gloucester Road now called the Millennium Gloucester. Warm Welcome Rates start at $205 a night from November 1 through March 31. Both hotels are connected to the Millennium Conference Centre, a two-year-old facility that may be the most advanced in London. … Tucked behind those properties is Harrington Hall (800-44-UTELL), a privately owned hotel with a mansion-like façade and cozy rooms. Prices start at about $240. … Several blocks away, the Royal Garden Hotel (800-987-9317) towers incongruously over Hyde Park, but guestrooms are nicely renovated and there is an excellent Business Center. Rates are $299 a night until December 29. … The year-old Milestone (800-858-8471) is "a legend in the making, a terrific small hotel," according to Entrée, a newsletter for luxury travelers. Prices start at about $300 a night.

DINING Everyone tells me dining in London has improved dramatically. Unfortunately, the restaurants they tout are always booked months in advance. So do what I always do: gorge on Indian food. Even unassuming, hole-in-the-wall places usually prepare excellent meals. … Meanwhile, American Express and the British Tourist Authority have collaborated on a little dining guide called Eat London. It's available at 800-462-2748.

MILLENNIUM STUFF The Millennium Dome straddles the prime meridian in Greenwich, which Prime Minister Tony Blair recently dubbed "the home of time." The Dome itself boasts the biggest roof in the world. Inside, a multimedia, interactive exhibition with 14 themes will operate from January 1 to December 31. Tickets (800-223-6108) are $42 for adults and $36 for children. The new BlackAdder film is a time-traveling adventure featuring characters from the acclaimed 1980s BBC comedy and many guest stars. … The British Airways London Eye is a 443-foot-high "observation" wheel erected on the south bank of the River Thames. The ride lasts 30 minutes and will offer dramatic views of London. … Complete details on other cultural, social and entertainment events with a Millennium theme are available at LondonMillenniumCity.com.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.