FLYING AGAIN: A POST 9/11 TRIP TO LONDON Send This Review to a Friend
As more attention is being paid to airport security, the reticence about flying in the wake of the September 11 disasters is giving way to the need to fly for business or the desire to travel for pleasure instead of giving in to fear. My wife and I decided to get in the air again for a trip from New York to London, a favorite destination, especially since my wife was born there. Off we went for some family visiting, good dining (especially at the Connaught), a sampling of London's busy theater scene (See separate London Theater 2002 under Special Reports), and general sightseeing. There were no airport delays and we encountered many other Americans who had ventured abroad with a similar refuse-to-be-intimidated attitude.
In view of our previous satisfaction with Virgin Atlantic, we chose to fly that airline again. Of course, if you can spring for it or get a frequent flier upgrade the most pleasurable way to go is with Virgin's Upper Class accommodation. On the night flight overseas the "Snooze" section in the upper cabin of the 747 enabled us to stretch out on seats that slide forward into an almost horizontal position so that one can really get some shut-eye in comfort. In that section meals aren't served during the flight, but ticket-holders are invited into the airline's Clubhouse at JFK airport, where dinner and drinks are served before takeoff. Aboard, after some welcoming champagne, one can leave a call for breakfast if one wishes to be awakened.
On the return during a day flight we sat in the regular Upper Class section, which also has most comfortable reclining seats, plenty of legroom, and food and drink served on demand through the entire trip. Virgin Atlantic also offers massages and manicures during the flight, and if there isn't time to get around to everyone, a priority rain check is provided for future use.
The Virgin Atlantic personnel make a real effort to please passengers--we've noticed that in economy class too--and the general experience makes for a journey that eliminates as much as possible of the hassle that has become part of mass travel. That goes from the moment of check-in to the time of landing. Of course, traveling in Upper Class style carries a substantial tab. The regular New York-London round-trip fare is $7260. But it is always wise to check for special seasonal offers for any class of travel. Before Christmas there was a limited-period New York-London roundtrip Upper Class offer at $1199. A January, 2002, limited special economy class offer for the roundtrip was quoted at $198. Taxes are extra.
Feeling reasonably fresh on arrival at London's Heathrow airport, we headed for our hotel, the Mayfair Inter-Continental on Stratton Street. Through the regular Inter-Continental toll free phone number in the U.S. (1-800-327-0200), it was possible to get a winter options rate, and membership in the chain's Six Continents Club added the special promotional perk at the time--a fourth night free if one stayed at least three nights. So we got five nights for the price of four (at about $215 per night), including full breakfasts. Club membership also entitles guests to an automatic upgrade if space is available. Not only were the accommodations excellent with all the key amenities, but the staff was especially eager to please. There is also a pool and health club available to guests, as is a business center with computer and fax facilities.
The Mayfair Inter-Continental's location is superbly central. As the name indicates, the hotel is situated in Mayfair, and is off Piccadilly on a street opposite the renowned Ritz Hotel. One can get to most theaters easily, as well as the popular shopping spots along Jermyn Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street and Knightsbridge. Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus are within walking distance. The Green Park tube station is nearby and taxis are generally available. The same chain also offers the Inter-Continental near Hyde Park Corner and the Churchill at Portman Square, but for our purposes we preferred the Mayfair location.
The time when food in London was considered inferior has long since passed, and the city boasts excellent places to dine. A favorite for indulging ourselves is the Connaught, located in the prestigious Connaught Hotel at Carlos Place, near Grosvenor Square. The welcoming long-time restaurant director Jean Pierre Chevallier settled us at a well-located table, where we enjoyed signature dishes of head chef Michel Bourdin, who was retiring after 26 years. But his successor, sous chef Jerome Ponchelle, was already in charge and it was clear that the Connaught is continuing in its vaunted tradition.
The Connaught epitomizes elegance, from its attractive wood-paneled main dining room to its pampering service. After starting with champagne, I had the warm Oysters Christian Dior, followed by rosettes de veau aigre doux, accompanied by an appropriate wine. My wife's dinner began with pate de turbot au hommard sauce, followed by sole jubilee, sole stuffed with mushrooms and encased in thin pastry. The dessert cart affords sumptuous choices, or one can simply settle for the divine crème brulee aux diamants noirs. The waiters are well-schooled in explaining the nuances of each dish.
We also made the rounds of other preferred restaurants such as Le Caprice, Langan's Brasserie and the venerable theater district favorite The Ivy. We also tried other spots where we hadn't eaten previously, and in our explorations discovered the delightful and reasonable little Indian restaurant Delhi Brasserie at 44 Frith Street in Soho, as well as the inviting and serious Italian restaurant Montpeliano at 13 Montpelier Street (near Harrods). In short, dining can become a major pleasure of a visit to London.
Culturally, London is alive with museum possibilities. Having not yet been to the Tate Modern, we made a visit to this impressive addition to the London scene a must. The building itself is fascinating and creatively constructed, but we specifically took in the wide-ranging surrealist exhibition, which, it turns out, is due at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (February 6-May 12, 2002). At the British Museum we were impressed by the restoration of its historic reading room, now especially beautiful. While at the British Museum we also re-visited the controversial Elgin Marbles, sculptures which were taken from Athens in 1806 and which Greece has been trying to retrieve.
At the Victoria and Albert Museum, we visited some of its new galleries that reflect style and fashionable living from 1500 to 1900. There are replicas of drawing rooms, elaborate couture, period furniture and numerous, varied objects of interest. I was particular struck by seeing embroidery done by Mary Queen of Scots while she was imprisoned before her eventual execution. One needs more than one visit to the museum to do justice to the treasures on display.
London is also an excellent city for walking. There is history virtually wherever you turn, with many buildings bearing plaques that explain their special significance. As for shopping, Americans probably won't find many bargains except during the sale periods, but it is important to remember that one can obtain a refund of the value added tax, less a service charge, and that makes a difference.
One thing we noticed was an increase in delays on the underground. There were frequent announcements that a route suffered a delay because of a signal failure or other reasons, and passengers were advised to change course. But in general, particularly for a New Yorker, the tube remains so much more attractive than the Manhattan subway, and the direction markings could well serve as a model.