The Year of London

By Matthew Breen

Originally published on Advocate.com May 18 2012 7:00 AM ET

Springtime in London, and the city was abuzz. In the West End, Leicester Square, a heavily foot-trafficked area equidistant from hotspots Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Covent Garden, was cordoned off for repairs. Nearly every Central London tube station had no-go areas marked by plywood barriers behind which miles-long escalators were being refurbished. Midday traffic was miserable as construction signs forced reroutes. But hope lay on the horizon.

The opportunity for a makeover was never more apparent: London was expecting a lot of guests this summer, and the city was determined to be buffed, polished, and ready to host. Residents of a lesser burg might tire of the inconveniences, but a stiff upper lip prevailed, and there was every reason to assume London would be prepped and ready right on time.

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The London Olympic Stadium

Doubtlessly, hosting the Olympics is a massive task. Long before the national anthems are played and before bunting and garlands go up, there are venues to erect, public transportation to reinvigorate, and an Olympic Park to build. The massive face-lift of the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London, was just a hint at the scale of the undertaking. What was an industrial park for 400 years will ultimately become, post-games, the largest urban park in the U.K. Before its overhaul, the site had been derelict for decades. The ground, once used as a domestic and industrial landfill, was razed, cleaned, and replaced, and built up with sporting venues, a usable wetlands park, the Olympic Stadium, an athletes’ village, and the site for a 114-meter tall tower-restaurant (Britain’s tallest sculpture), designed by artist Anish Kapoor. The games kick off July 27.

Before any of that fuss begins in earnest, the United Kingdom and all the countries of the British Commonwealth (that’s 54 independent member states) will be celebrating a milestone. Reigning over the U.K. for 60 years is an immense feat, especially in the six decades that have arguably seen the most significant cultural changes in the kingdom’s history. And it’s not a milestone likely to be repeated anytime soon. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is celebrating that accomplishment with her Diamond Jubilee in June. The only monarch to have lasted longer is Queen Victoria at nearly 64 years, and Elizabeth, who is pretty spry for her 85 years of age, looks like she’s gunning for the record. The queen will make merry with a derby, a flotilla of 1,000 ships on the Thames, a BBC concert at Buckingham Palace, a bank holiday weekend June 2-5, and lots and lots of photo ops.

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Drag queens frolic during PrideLondon 2011.

However, as enormous as these historic events may be, can either compare to hosting the world’s biggest gay party? A projected 1 million LGBTs and friends are expected to descend on Ye Olde London Town for WorldPride, the massive Pride event held only twice before. In 2000 it was held in Rome, and the pope just loved that. In 2006 it was in Jerusalem, and plenty of Orthodox Jews protested that event. It seems that InterPride, the organization that selects the WorldPride cities, was determined to select conservative religious hotspots. If that’s the case, London is a curious choice. One hardly imagines that the queen, in her capacity as head of the Church of England, will be particularly bothered. So fantastic festivities will be the draw instead.

At press time the final schedule of events hadn’t been made public. However, the revelry will include theatrical presentations, public debates, music and poetry events, and more parties than you can shake your bangers and mash at. The two-week-long festival, from June 23 to July 8, will culminate in a parade through the streets of London on Saturday, July 7, and a street party in the Soho neighborhood. There’s no better time to break open the piggy banks and pull out all the stops on a posh London experience.

The Virgin Atlantic clubhouse at New York City's JFK Airport

GETTING THERE

Arrive in style via Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class service (VirginAtlantic.com). It’s hands-down the most stylish way to hop the pond. Sure, premium services are available on other airlines, but it seems that Virgin Atlantic, which recently unveiled its high-design new clubhouse at JFK, is having more fun doing it. The lounge has a gorgeous cloud-shaped bar, billiards table, club chairs, little cubbyhole hideaways, showers, Wi-Fi, and a full-service Bumble and Bumble spa offering hairstyling, facials, and massage. Full-fare food can be ordered at any seat in the lounge or in the brasserie.

A recent JFK-to-Heathrow flight in Upper Class featured immersive lie-flat pod seats, arranged in a herringbone pattern innovated by Virgin; seats are not, strictly speaking, next to or behind anyone. The footrests are fixed, so passengers can actually prop their feet up during takeoff and landing. Food and beverage service is nearly constant, and the dinner included an amuse-bouche, an appetizer, a main course, dessert (there was a nod to English cuisine with a sticky toffee pudding), a cheese cart, and a steady flow of cocktails, wine, and port. Some flights offer high tea as well. It’s a new service, and the cabin crew giggled their way through the tea, which involved assembling individual tier servers for the finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. A staggering 68 films were available on the entertainment system, and flight attendants will help turn seats into lie-flat beds. Even prone, one can still view the entertainment system.

Those wishing to stretch out even further or chat with other passengers can visit the bar between Upper Class and Premium Economy. (A tip for work travelers: Premium Economy class seats are akin to other airlines’ business class seats, but the clever misnomer means that travelers can get away with buying an “economy” seat when their companies prohibit business class fares.) Heathrow features the flagship Virgin clubhouse, complete with Jacuzzi, and the Revivals Lounge at Heathrow makes showers and meals available to arriving passengers before they leave the airport. The Upper Class service also offers optional limousine transfers to and from the airport as well as expedited check-in and security screenings, making the whole your-door-to-London-hotel experience about as easy and pampered as it gets.

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The Corinthia Hotel London

LODGING

The Radisson Edwardian Mercer Street hotel (RadissonEdwardian.com) is a beautiful new boutique hotel with an entrance that faces the Seven Dials plaza. The hotel is a short walk from the Covent Garden tube station, and its lushly purple Dial restaurant faces Monmouth Street, which is chockablock with vintage stores, cafés, hair salons, and boutiques, including limited edition shops. The Seven Dials (SevenDials.co.uk) neighborhood, which residents proclaim is the only “village” in Covent Garden, is the definition of cozy, with endless theater and dining options along streets that extend like wheel spokes from the eponymous monument.

The four-star hotel, which rivals more expensive hotels in the area, is ideal as a tourist’s introduction to the city due to its exceptional location. And though the street below can be quite busy on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Mercer Street hotel is the picture of calm and quiet, with modern, individually designed, soundproofed rooms that offer flat-screen TVs with USB inputs that allow guests to play music from their iPods. The corner suites have remarkable views of the monument and rooftops, and the manager, Dawn, is accessible, gracious, and a font of information; she may recommend an early morning walk in the area to catch a glimpse of the village before the shops open.

The extravagant Corinthia Hotel London (Corinthia.com) at Embankment is something of an obsession here. It’s elegant, regal, and impressive in scale, due to a half-billon-dollar renovation. A former Ministry of Defence office building, and a stately 19th-century Hôtel Métropole before that, the Victorian structure has an entrance likely to be lined by armored cars that hint at the well-heeled clientele. International guests come for the grand atmosphere. Up a few steps from the lobby entrance is a salon where Qatari sheiks or the Duchess of Cambridge would feel pampered taking tea under the grand focal point, the “Full Moon,” a chandelier of 1,001 Baccarat globes designed by Chafik Gasmi.

The cathedral-scale Northall restaurant by Michelin star chef Garry Hollihead serves British artisanal foods, and Massimo Restaurant and Oyster Bar by Italian chef Massimo Riccioli is the hotel’s specialty seafood restaurant. Between the two is the in-house florist who creates the remarkably scented arrangements for common areas and guest rooms, and the only Harrods shop in any hotel. The opulent and dark hotel spa, ESPA Life at Corinthia, is monumental, taking up four floors. It’s the largest spa in London. Black marble is everywhere, and the attitude is sumptuous, private, and exclusive.

Speaking of marble, the Calcutta slabs that make up most every surface in the palatial bathrooms were marked with specific room numbers at the quarry site by the designer so that the grain was consistent in each of the 294 rooms. Many of the spacious, oak timber–framed guest rooms, designed with grand English homes in mind, include a dressing room. Some have French doors that overlook the outdoor courtyard with fireplace. The seven grand suites are individually designed with the finest materials, and if you can talk a staff member into a peek into an unoccupied suite, you’re in for a sensory treat. Corinthia is profound luxury.

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Wolfgang Puck’s first European restaurant is Cut London, above.

FOOD AND DRINK

Walking distance from Seven Dials is the Lobby Bar at One Aldwych Hotel (OneAldwych.com), one of the most glamorous places in London to enjoy a pre-dinner (or post-, or midday) cocktail. The seasonally rotating menu is imaginative, and tasteful. While it’s tough to go wrong with a traditional Manhattan, it would be foolish to pass up the True Unique, a cocktail of whiskey, port, and an apple and ginger reduction, the work of a passionate mixologist. Indigo, the restaurant that overlooks the Lobby Bar, is relaxed and informal, serving a modern European menu emphasizing organic produce. From its second-floor windows one can see the front steps of the Lyceum Theatre, where The Lion King is now being performed, making Indigo a great spot for dining before or after the theater. From there it’s a short walk to the Waterloo Bridge over the Thames.

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The Halkin Hotel Culture Lounge, above.

There can be few more opulent ways to take an afternoon’s high tea service than at William Curley’s Couture Chocolate Afternoon Tea at the Halkin Hotel (Halkin.como.bz). It’s served from 3 p.m to 6 p.m. in the Culture Lounge; order it with champagne for £47.50, and browse the salon’s Assouline fashion and travel books while satisfying a sweet tooth. The chocolate pastries and cakes are practically baroque in their construction: chocolate financier with passion fruit curd, orange and chocolate Sacher, sea salt caramel and raspberry tart, a shiny Black Forest dome, and a perfectly chewy chocolate macaroon. But call ahead for reservations.

New York chef Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market restaurant (WLondon.co.uk/Spice-Market) at the W Hotel in Leicester Square features a lounge sensibility with low lighting, open kitchens, a pan-Asian sense of design in dark wood and bamboo, and the riotous energy of a Vietnamese street market. Signature dishes include spiced chicken samosa with coriander yogurt, cod with Malaysian chili sauce and Thai basil, and Ovaltine kulfi.

Wolfgang Puck’s first European restaurant is Cut London (WolfgangPuck.com/Restaurants/fine-dining/61487) at 45 Park Lane, another tony address, this one on the edge of Hyde Park. The American-style steakhouse serves the finest cuts of beef (filet, sirloin, rib-eye, rib chop, porterhouse) complemented by sauces including shallot red wine Bordelaise and Argentinean chimichurri. The clientele is moneyed, as is the atmosphere (16 Damien Hirst prints line the walls), and the servers are intensely knowledgeable; one person’s sole purpose is to bring around a rather heavy tray that displays all the cuts of meat available for order each evening. The steakhouse, interestingly, is also open for breakfast. The dinner experience, though expensive (expect to drop at least £125–£150 per person), is undoubtedly memorable.

GETTING AROUND

If you’re traveling in a group of three or fewer, Small Car Big City (SmallCarBigCity.com) is a terrific way to get a personalized tour of London—certainly more stylish than double-decker buses. The amiable drivers of classic vintage British Mini Coopers will pick you up wearing their ’60s-era attire. They offer tours of varying lengths, from the 30-minute Royal London tour, to the three-hour Great Escape; they now have a William and Kate tour that includes the site of their engagement and the residences of royals for the past eight centuries. The drivers are quick-witted and full of fascinating gems about the city’s history. One stop in the Borough in South London was the tiny Cross Bones graveyard, a 500-year-old burial site for prostitutes who, for their sins, were rejected from consecrated ground (despite having been pimped to the area’s gentlemen by local bishops). The well-attuned drivers tailor their talking points and sites to the interests of each carload of sightseers.

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The new extension at the Tate Modern, above.

ART

Visitors have dozens of art options, including the British Museum (BritishMuseum.org), Tate Modern and Tate Britain (Tate.org.uk), and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG.org.uk), all of which have large free exhibitions and special ones that require a ticket purchase. The Royal Academy of Arts (RoyalAcademy.org.uk) in Piccadilly isn’t free but has rotating exhibits of modern and classical works.

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Soho's Green Carnation nightclub, above.

NIGHTLIFE

A 10-minute walk from Covent Garden to Chinatown in Soho and one is in the midst of an enormous collection of gay bars. Though the particulars of bar hours elude me, many seem to close at 1 a.m., and from that hour nightclubs quickly swing into gear. A Friday midnight stop at Green Carnation (GreenCarnationSoho.co.uk) took our party into a nightclub that meanders through a townhouse featuring flocked wallpaper, fireplaces, and upholstered armchairs, its decor inspired by the life of Oscar Wilde.

Nearby Ku Bar (Ku-Bar.co.uk) found raucous gay 20-something boys and their best girlfriends smashed together like sardines, drinking beer and singing along to videos of Westlife. The evening continued at Lo-Profile (GaydarProfile.com), quite literally an underground dance club featuring porn star go-go dancers and name-brand DJs for the Playtime party. The dance floor filled quickly, and around 2 a.m. the T-shirts started coming off. Though Time Out London

(TimeOut.com/London/Gay) lists a reliable range of options for LGBT parties, the most comprehensive and descriptive listings are available at Disco Damaged (DiscoDamaged.com), which doesn’t stop with Central London (Shoreditch in East London is especially popular), nor with parties where one is expected to remain clothed.