London Like the Locals

| Monday, 04 Jul. 2011

A look at the best of London for pre- or post-cruise authentic sightseeing in Britain

If you're booked on one of many cruises departing from the London area this summer, you're undoubtedly flying in the obligatory day before a sail because you've been here before. You probably visit the same touristy sites each time. It's easy to fall into that pre-cruise trap when you only have 24 hours. But you're missing out. Pre-or-post-cruise, you should really see this city right now. London is red-hot, and not just because of the Royal Wedding and upcoming Olympics. The food and shopping scene (once dull, on both counts) is now quite astonishing.

So stop peering through the gates at Buckingham Palace (Will and Kate aren't there, anyway) and experience London like the locals. Eat where Londoners eat, shop where Londoners shop, and maybe, escape as they do, with a weekend in the country. You'll rediscover a fabulous city, far beyond Big Ben and other tourist attractions.

WHERE TO STAY

The Milestone

Forgot the big chains or fancy iconic hotels. The former have no ambiance, and the latter are over-the-top pricey. Instead, try a boutique hotel for a quintessential London experience. Take, for instance, The Milestone. This five-star Victorian gem is located right by Kensington Palace (where, ahem, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are taking up residence). For Anglophiles, this hotel is the epitome of traditional English style.

The cozy décor is old-school British; think knick-knacks, antique furniture and bouquets of flowers. There's also a clubby bar and library with a fireplace (for tea, of course). The Milestone has only 44 guest rooms, 12 suites and six two-bedroom apartments. No two are alike, in size, shape or décor. All are quirky and colorful; many overlook Kensington Gardens.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
Milestone hotel Exterior
 
Milestone hotel Chenestons
 
Milestone hotel Lounge

This hotel has the best back-story. The original dwelling at this site was built around 1689. Over the years, occupants included a gentleman who claimed to be Shakespeare's grandson, a mistress of King James II and an aristocratic governess to the daughters of King George II. There was even a lunatic asylum here in 1830. Fast-forward to present day; the Red Carnation Hotel collection bought the existing, neglected hotel at this locale in 1998, and transformed into the jewel it is today.

With two staff for each guest, The Milestone provides visitors with utmost attention. Not surprisingly, this wee place has topped a lot of best hotel lists, including Trip Advisor. (It currently holds the coveted number one recommended spot of 1,060 hotels at the site.)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
Milestone hotel Grand Master Suite
 
Milestone hotel Master Suite
 
Milestone hotel Studio Room

Amenities are many, including champagne at check-in, free Wi-Fi, gym and sauna. The complimentary English breakfast is civilized and sumptuous. Help yourself to fresh-baked croissants, yogurt and fruit. A cheery waiter takes orders for fluffy omelets and crisp toast. Housekeeping (which visits twice daily) leaves gifts, like candles, house-made bonbons, or even, a book of poems. On one stay, I got a trio of spa masks.

The Milestone's locale, in the heart of Kensington and Chelsea, is ideal. It's an easy walk to the fashionable shops and pubs that Pippa Middleton (Kate's sister, natch) and other scene-stealing Londoners frequent in Chelsea. If you're feeling more highbrow than royal-sister-spotter, turn right out The Milestone's front door and score tickets to a concert at Royal Albert Hall (royalalberthall.com), a few steps away. (milestonehotel.com)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
Milestone hotel Junior Suite
 
Milestone hotel Spa
 
Milestone hotel Deluxe King

The Halkin

If chintz makes you twinge, you'll love The Halkin, a small, impeccable hotel in posh Belgravia. Near Buckingham Palace, and in London's ritziest neighborhood, The Halkin belongs to COMO Hotels and Resorts. COMO's luxury collection includes such world-class properties as Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos, and Shambhala Estate, Bali. All COMO hotels are low-key, under-the-radar, appealing to those who have seen and done it all. (Or want to.) COMO has a distinct Eastern philosophy, subtly woven into each hotel theme, that sets this unusual collection apart.

There's no such thing as perfection, and yet, The Halkin comes close. (One reason they have 60% repeat guests.) Imagine a luxe private club, that upon check-in, you're an instant member. That's the vibe here. The staff is ever-present, yet oddly, invisible. When you want something, you get it. Fast. And no one gushes over you. The Halkin team is trained to pounce on details, not people.

Accommodations are like cocoons, embracing you with their restful design. Rooms and suites number a mere 41. They are unfussy but polished, with big white marble baths. At first glance, you won't notice the cream-colored bedding, but you won't forget the feather-light goose-down pillows and Egyptian cotton sheets that feel like silk. Bath amenities are from COMO Shambhala, made from the purest, highest grade of natural ingredients. (You'll want to take them home.) Even the mirrors pamper; they're anti-mist.

Room service arrives at lightening speed - no exception during the morning rush. The silver sparkles, linens are crisp and the food, superb. You can order anything, from simple burgers to caviar and blinis. Or, stick to The Hallkin's trademark - healthful dishes with international flair. Feel free to customize any dish; at this hotel, no one says no. At The Halkin, it's all about you.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
Nahm Restaurant
 
The Halkin Bar

The Halkin has one restaurant, nahm, and it's earned a Michelin star. (The first Thai restaurant to do so in Europe.) Its Australian chef, David Thompson, creates Thai cuisine at its most refined. That doesn't mean it's compromised for the Western palate. Each dish tastes scrupulously clean, so you can fully savor the aromatic herbs and spices. When you tuck into dishes like crispy fish salad with sweet pork and mango, or spicy red curry with grilled chicken breast, eggplant and betel leaves (Asian stimulant herb), you know you've lucked into something special. nahm's flavors are so distinct and vibrant, they swirl in my memory as I write these words.

You can also dine at The Halkin Bar (Scottish steaks and club sandwiches are popular), a lovely, intimate room. As this is The Halkin hotel, the bar serves fresh fruit juices and herbal tea, too. Cocktails are made with precision, but never taste precious. One afternoon, I nursed a cup of tea and people-watched for hours. You look around, and know inherently, everyone here is interesting. (halkin.com.bz)

WHERE TO DINE

Le Grenadier

You know you're in London when you're kicking back, sipping ale in a neighborhood pub. The Grenadier, down Wilton Mews, is within walking distance from The Halkin. The stroll becomes part of the local experience as you pass some of the quaintest streets.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
THE GRENADIER pub
 
Fish and Chips with Mushy Peas

Le Grenadier has dark walls, dark ceiling and little lighting. It's been around since the 1700s, and reportedly, has a ghost. I've been told Buckingham Palace guards occasionally come here for a pint of ale. The fish and chips are quite brilliant, as the English like to say. The batter turns golden-crisp, while the fish flakes into moist pieces. Mushy peas (a British fave, mashed green peas) are also excellent. The soup of day, which could be made with ale, is hearty and served piping-hot - perfect for London's rainy weather. (pubs.com)

Kopapa

Kopapa is a hipster hangout in buzzy Covent Garden. Acclaimed co-owner Peter Gordon is beloved by London foodies for his edgy fare. At Kopapa, the eclectic menu showcases Britain's best products. Salads include a lovely Violet (purple) artichoke, with goats curd, port-glazed figs and lavosh. New Zealand lamb rump glazed with quince, and seared yellowfin tuna on green papaya with coriander salad and nori (seaweed) sauce, are highlights. West Country beef burger with tomato-chili relish, smoked aioli (garlicky mayo), Emmental cheese and crispy bacon is old-school-meets-new-school delish. (kopapa.co.uk)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
KOPAPA
 
Violet artichoke, with goats curd, port-glazed figs and lavosh

Ottolenghi

Ottolenghi is foodie paradise. This takeaway shop has four London locations (some have limited seating) and its patron chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, is hotter than hot. The shops ought to pass out napkins for drool when visitors eye the display. Each bursting-with-berries fruit tart, every blacker-than-ink chocolate muffin, is made on-site. The house-made Mediterranean salads are so colorful, they look like they were rubbed with crayons. Roasted eggplant with mint yogurt and fresh mint, and roasted salmon with pistachio, pomegranate and rosewater salsa may be among the ever-changing selections. Take your goodies and feast in one of London's beautiful parks. Ottolenghi's two cookbooks, sold at the shops, make great gifts for foodie friends. (ottolenghi.co.uk)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
OTTOLENGHI
 
OTTOLENGHI

Roux at The Landau

The new Roux has set London abuzz. Roux is a collaboration of superstar chefs Albert Roux and his son Michel Roux Jr. (London's Le Gavroche) - who are working together for the first time in 19 years - with The Langham, London hotel. (Protégé Chris King handles the cooking on a daily basis.)

The menu features classic French cuisine, prepared with a light modern touch. Despite the restaurant's hotel location, it's drawing a solid London crowd. Locals appreciate the impeccable service, which lacks any airs. They delight in the airy room; elegant but not stuffy. And they really adore the menu. It's a marvel of intricately prepared dishes made from first-class ingredients. Chorizo-filled rabbit legs with Scottish langoustines attracts adventurers; grilled Dover sole appeals to the more traditional-minded.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
 
 
ROUX AT THE LANDAU
 
 

The three-course pre-theatre menu is a steal; it includes a half-bottle wine, mineral water, coffee and petit fours for about $76. It's worth trying even if you're not theatre-bound. This menu often changes and never bores. Begin, perhaps, with chilled Chanterais melon soup (France's famed fragrant melon) with Serrano ham vinaigrette, or squid with chickpeas and grilled spring onions. Move to entrees like red-wine glazed blade of beef with bone marrow and parsley sauce, roast Cotswold chicken or gurnard (similar to cod) with chorizo, octopus and almonds. Spiced Kent cherries with bitter chocolate brownie and pistachio ice cream is a solid dessert. Indulge, you will work it off; London is the best walking city. rouxatthelandau.com

Amaya

London abounds with Indian restaurants but Amaya is a heart-stealer. In 2006, the sexy eatery won a coveted Michelin star. Amaya serves sophisticated Indian grill food, tapas-style, prepared in an open kitchen. Dishes are cooked in one of three ways; in a tandoor (hot clay oven), over a coal flame or on a griddle. Each has its own marinade so no two dishes taste alike. Grilled oysters with coconut and ginger sauce, venison kebabs and chicken wing "lollypops" are among many unforgettable dishes. (amaya.bz)

Simpson's-in-the-Strand

True Brits love their Sunday roast, a traditional afternoon meal of roasted meat, gravy and Yorkshire pudding. Simpson's-in-the-Strand is one of the best places in London to experience it. This iconic restaurant (owned by The Savoy hotel) has been serving classic British dishes for more than 170 years. One 93-year-old regular confided to my waiter that his father used to dine here before him.

The restaurant's history is awesome; famous past guests include Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw. Surely they feasted on roasted lamb and beef, too. Just sniffing the air here makes your mouth water. Your eyes will certainly follow the master carver, who wheels a silver trolley around the room, asks how you like your meat, and slices it perfectly. Scottish beef on the bone is excellent; it's aged 28 days and served ladled with spoonfuls of beefy jus.

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
Beef
 
Simpson's-in-the-Strand at The Savoy
 
Serving

This is melt-in-your-mouth beef, thinly sliced and just chewy enough for you to appreciate the juiciness of each morsel. Fresh horseradish, a big puff of Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes complete an unforgettable meal. Order lobster soup, an intense shellfish essence reduction, as a starter. Or go for Cornish crab - this local delicacy is so good, it was served at Will and Kate's wedding reception. (simpsonsinthestrand.co.uk)

melt

Rub shoulders with locals at melt, one of London's finest chocolate boutiques in Notting Hill. (A great neighborhood and relatively free of tourists.) The kitchen is inside the shop, so you can see -and smell - the chocolate being made. Some are most unusual. Hot Chocolates, square blocks of chocolate on lollipop sticks, are for dipping into hot milk - and voilà - hot chocolate. They come in seven flavors, like Venezuela Single Dark Origin. melt's all-natural chocolates won't last past 10 days. Not that you would wait that long to devour them. (meltchocolates.com)

click on pictures below for larger images:

melt breakfast chocolates

SHOPPING

Why fight the crowds at Harrods? That department store is always jammed and it's Tourist Central. If you must venture inside, visit the Food Halls. You'll go bonkers over the cheeses, cured meat and chocolate selections - actually, over everything. And don't leave without a jar of Harrods Extra Jam Blueberry Preserve. You'll thank me later. (harrods.com)

Nicole Farhi

Local fashionistas shop at Nicole Farhi, a store carrying everything from clothing to tableware. And wouldn't it be nice to score some vintage-inspired Audrey sunglasses (about $130) or contrast-trim, silk-blend jersey cardigans (about $156) to take on the cruise? Sales help are keen on dispensing fashion advice, so you can put an outfit together like a Pippa-perfect Londoner. Nicole's, the restaurant at the flagship New Bond Street location, serves delicious Mediterranean food to its well-dressed London patrons. (Hint: Leave your trainers - running shoes - back at the hotel.) (nicolefarhi.com)

Reiss

Maybe I can't be Kate Middleton, but I can dress like her. Well, sometimes. Prince William's wife is quite the fan of this U.K.-based shop and is often photographed in Reiss designs. Reiss has many locations in London and beyond (including NY, MA, NJ, FL, CA). The clothes are not pricey, yet have designer touches that make each item special. Check out the stores in Kensington, Sloane Square and New Bond Street. (reissonline.com)

Peter Jones

The new princess has recently been spotted at Peter Jones, a Sloane Square department store. Peter Jones has some seven floors of merchandise, including home and fashion. You can also grab a mani/pedi at Footopia, located within the store. Bet you'll be the only tourist. (johnlewis.com/shops)

QUICK COUNTRYSIDE TRIP

The outskirts of London are filled with charming villages, so quaint you wish you could pack one in your suitcase and take it home like a souvenir. Many have changed little in 500 years and whisk you back in time. Each has beyond-old pubs and the people are so friendly.

If you're pre-cruise, you want to stick fairly close to London. Look on a map and venture no more than a two-or-three-hour drive away. Perhaps head south to Surrey, where upmarket Londoners have second homes. Surrey's Pennyhill Park Hotel & The Spa is an idyllic retreat. Its 123 rooms (none are alike) are in a 19th century country home on 123 acres of rolling parkland. And it's got a Michelin-starred dining room. (pennyhillpark.co.uk)

Or head west, as I recently did, to The Manor House Hotel & Golf Club on the southernmost edge of the Cotswolds, about a two-and-one-half hour drive from London. It's close to Bath (12 miles), so you can sightsee. Pennyhill and the Manor House are two the four family-owned Exclusive Hotels, and belong to the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World. (slh.com)

The Manor House Hotel is a 14th century manor in the village of Castle Combe. This village is untouched since the 17th century, and often called England's prettiest. Houses are Cotswold-style, built with thick stone and natural stone tile roofs. Buildings are listed as ancient monuments. See the ducks cruise the ponds, hear the birds sing and you'll think you found Brigadoon. (I know, Brigadoon was in Scotland.)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
Manor House Hotel and Golf Club, Castle Comb, Wiltshire, England
 
CASTLE COMBE, ENGLAND
 
Manor House Hotel

The Manor House Hotel is in a 14th century manor; it looks like an aristocratic country residence. It's on 365 acres and the grounds, including Italian gardens, so are gorgeous, it resembles a film set. Play tennis, croquet or golf. Have tea outdoors or by the fire. The hotel has 48 bedrooms; each is different. You can stay in the main house or the mews; mews are little cottages with big character. Some have sloping ceilings, curved stone staircases and huge fireplaces. Bathrooms, however, are redone in a luxurious modern style.

The hotel restaurant, Bybrook, has a Michelin star (three years running). The food, like duck liver with port and gingerbread, and herb-crusted lamb with tomato-rosemary terrine, is delicious. The setting is terribly romantic and includes those sweeping grounds view. (manorhouse.co.uk)

click on pictures below for larger images:

 
 
 
 
BYBROOK RESTAURANT DISHES
 
 

For a change of pace, dine at the 14th century village pub (White Hart) - just steps away from the hotel. Fish and chips, beef pie and other hearty meals await - as does good draft ale. (thisiswiltshire.co.uk)

PLANES, TRAINS, AUTOMOBILES

PLANES

British Airways usually has the best schedules to London from major cities throughout the United States. And as a member of the oneworld® alliance, (which includes American Airlines), possibilities exist to use mileage awards from other airlines for tickets, or earn miles onboard BA and apply to a oneworld® carrier that better suits your future travel needs.

British Airways has definitely upped its game cuisine-wise, particularly in flights from London to the U.S. (Those overseas caterers almost always outperform American-based ones.)

Recently, the airline made waves by hiring Heston Blumenthal to upgrade its in-flight cuisine in all classes, and his work with the airline's catering team aired on British TV. Foodies worldwide swoon at the mention of Heston Blumenthal. Blumenthal earned three Michelin stars (the most possible) for his Fat Duck restaurant in Bray (about 50 minutes by train from London) and currently has London atwitter over his new Dinner by Heston Blumenthal restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London. It's easier to win the lottery than score a reservation here.

Back up in the air, British Airways spotlights organic cooking prepared from ingredients gathered near the catering kitchen on many international business class flights to the U.S. The results are impressive. On a recent London-Los Angeles flight, I couldn't believe how good Glenarm organically raised salmon tasted. This fish was from the coast of Northern Ireland and lacked any typical airplane-fish off-notes. (Reportedly, salmon from the same farm was on the menu for the queen's 80th birthday celebrations.)

Instead, you could taste the salmon's mild flavor and appreciate its flakiness. A fragrant corn-studded broth - no thick, gummy cream sauce here - kept the salmon moist and emphasized its sweet nature. This is a dish that makes you happy, whether on the ground or cruising above clouds. A starter of lobster with pink grapefruit and mango salsa was sweet and refreshing. And caramel salted chocolate cake with a coffee-soaked almond sponge layer was as good it sounds. Who knew flying could taste this good? (ba.com)

TRAINS

If you're traveling light, you will appreciate the ease and comfort of the British rail system. That's how locals get in and out of town. It takes just 15-to-19 minutes to get from Heathrow to Central London by Heathrow Express and it costs far less than a taxi or car service. (heathrowexpress.com).

The rail system is a snap to use for a countryside trip. If you have multiple suitcases, ask your hotel if to store some luggage for the short trip. All London railway stations but one have direct subway links and you can plan it out online. (See thetrainline.com or nationalrail.co.uk)

Within London, the Underground, or "tube," as it's affectionately known, is the most cost-effective way to get around. (visitlondon.com posts maps and provides detailed information, so you can know before you go. Read about invaluable Oyster cards, electronic smart card tickets, which work on both the Tube and British rail systems.)

AUTOMOBILES

Renting a car in England from big companies like Hertz is easy to book from the U.S.A. (BTW; they call it "hiring" a car across the pond. Other common words include "boot" for trunk and "petrol" for fuel.) I particularly like Hertz's web site; it contains valuable information on driving abroad. Study it carefully; when driving on the opposite side of the road, you need all the help you can get.

GPS is well worth the extra cost. And it's cheaper than divorce. Driving through the countryside, with signs often MIA on rural roads, can be tricky. GPS also makes it easier to get back into trafficked-clogged London. Those roundabouts can drive you crazy - and keep you on the road long past when your ship has sailed. On my last trip to London, I rented from Hertz at the central Marble Arch location. The car was in mint condition and the staff couldn't have been more patient and friendly. They took the time to explain all the features (despite honking from impatient renters behind me) as I stumbled over renewing my acquaintance with English-style vehicles.

Recommended Articles