THE FOLLOWING IS A SPECIAL CONTRIBUTION BY NOTED TRAVEL WRITER SI LIBERMAN:
It was like any other Saturday in cool, drizzly London May 8. Doubledecker red buses rumbled through crowded streets, hundreds of camera-toting tourists swarmed around Buckingham Palace gates, strollers ambled past fresh beds of white, purple, red and yellow flowers in St. James Park and eager shoppers brushed aside poster-carrying, anti-animal cruelty protestors to enter Harrod’s landmark department store.
You’d never know it was the 65th anniversary of VE-Day, the day World War II ended in Europe. It’s not a holiday in England, and Jeremy Viray, spokesman for Great Britain’s New York tourist office, said he wasn’t aware of any city events commemorating that unforgettable day.
London was where I longed to be with my wife on VE-Day’s 65th anniversary, and we managed to fit it in a three day visit after a transatlantic cruise. As a 20-year-old 8th Air Force B-24 radio gunner, I was there on a three-day pass when the Battle of Britain ended. And who could ever forget the wild celebrations that followed? Neither could I forget trying to sleep in chilly St. James Park that night after my money ran out.
We had no trouble sleeping in the five-star boutique Draycott Hotel (www.draycotthotel.com) in the exclusive Cadogan Gardens area, though. The 35-room hotel, a short walk to Harrod’s and Kings Road designer shops, originally comprised three four-story, brick-faced Edwardian residences, and is owned by a privately-held South African company with game reserves and boutique hotel properties.
Instead of a number, each room is named after a celebrated British theatrical performer or artist and decorated with an eclectic assortment of Victorian antiques and art works.
Our spacious $370 deluxe double, the Laughton (Charles Laughton of “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame), had high ceilings, gas-fired fireplace which we used, 10 framed paintings, over-stuffed sofa and club chair, desk, TV and DVD sets and kingsize bed with a feathered blanket, pillows plus a cuddly teddy bear leaning against a pillow. All very British with old world charm.
“We try to make this place feel like home,” said general manager John Hanna. “Remember, breakfast is between 7 and 11 a.m., tea 4 p.m. in the drawing room, complimentary champagne at 6 and hot chocolate 9:30 p.m. before bedtime. And we also don’t charge for Wi Fi in our rooms or use of our computer. Enjoy.”
And that we did, especially during the champagne hour. The next day we were on the go from mid-morning till midnight, soaking up Churchillian history with visits to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum. Then a long nostalgic walk through St. James Park, ending in front of Buckingham Palace. Little had changed in the park, it seemed, except for the embedded walkway metal plaques, designating the path as the “Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Walk.”
Two hours were barely enough time to see and digest all the museum exhibits, films and recordings, describing Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s upbringing and life in the bunker basement of the Treasury building as he directed Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. From there he was able to speak securely to President Roosevelt, using a telephone scrambler hidden in his lavatory.
Easily, you could spend an entire day, listening to recordings of his inspiring speeches and voices of persons who knew and worked with Churchill. Purchase of a day transit pass ($10 each) came in handy, allowing use of the underground subway system and buses till midnight each day. It got us to a couple theaters in the West End section and to Harrod’s where we explored its tempting two-acre prepared food section and several of the store’s 22 restaurants.
However, we opted to dine at a recommended Belgian seafood restaurant with an open kitchen called Belgo Central in the Covent Gardens section. The pot of organic mussels in a wine garlic sauce as a main course was ravable along with the usually reliable Italian Montepulciano d’Abruzzo red wine and Tartufo ice cream dessert.
Another day we feasted on fish and chips, chicken wings and beer at a crowded King’s Road pub. It was reminiscent of the war days in a way except most patrons were in blue jeans, not uniforms.
One night we saw and thoroughly enjoyed “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Weber’s sequel to “Phantom of the Opera”, which is scheduled for a Broadway opening in the fall. The next night it was “Chicago,” a hit musical we’ve seen several times and never get enough of.
There were some anxious moments the last day of my sentimental journey. Plumes of Iceland’s volcanic ash were causing delays and cancellations of flights from London’s Heathrow Airport. Flights over Scotland and Ireland were halted and threatened to delay our U.S. return.
Not until we reached Heathrow 8 a.m. the next morning did we know for sure that British Airways flight number 185 to New York was a go. Because of a circuitive route to avoid the ash, the nonstop flight took more than eight hours instead the usual seven.
Still that was less than half the time in the air it took me to get to England more than 65 years ago in a B-24 bomber that required refueling stops in Labrador, Greenland and Iceland.