London Bound

In eager anticipation of the royal wedding, Advocate contributor Steve Freiss and his partner take a gay olde trip through London.

BY Steve Friess

April 05 2011 8:54 PM ET

SISSINGHURST X390 (FAIR) | ADVOCATE.COM

From old-world glamour, we checked out the one-year-old Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, which, with rooms starting at $230, may just be one of the best bargains in this very expensive world capital. That’s not nothing, but it is kind of a steal considering the primo location across from Big Ben and its very hip, young vibe, from the expansive, sultry lobby bar to the huge rooms appointed with slick, minimalist furnishings. If the Langham was the sort of place the 19th-century upper class regarded as luxurious, the Park Plaza is what someone like Prince William would view in the same light today.

Finally, we concluded our trip at the Savoy, a few blocks away from Theatreland and gifted with stunning views of the Thames River. You know the Savoy even if you think you don’t, for this is where George Gershwin first played “Rhaphsody in Blue,” where Queen Elizabeth II first went out publicly with her future husband, and where Oscar Wilde carried on much of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. This is Hollywood’s London haven — Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Noel Coward all performed in the famed American Bar or Beaufort Bar, and Vivien Leigh met Laurence Olivier in the lobby — and we’re quite sure we encountered Nora Ephron in the elevator.

We checked in just in time, as the Savoy — where I had taken high tea in 2003 and remained lustful ever since for the rich, buttery taste of the finest raisin scones ever — had just reopened last fall after a three-year, $300 million overhaul. Indeed, it’s worth noting that even if you cannot afford a room at the Savoy (they can start at $500), at least take tea. Doing so is a classic, elaborate British tradition that can last two hours or more during which guests leisurely enjoy unlimited variations of special-blend teas as well as constantly replenished finger sandwiches, scones, and pastries in a stately room where they are serenaded by a tux-clad pianist. It costs about $50 per person, and reservations are required.

Having never seen the previous incarnation of the 268 rooms, divided into Edwardian and art deco wings, it’s hard to grade the Savoy on its overhaul except to say that the 450-square-foot Edwardian room we occupied was flawless right down to the daily fresh flowers. The difference between the Edwardian and art deco options is mainly about taste, the Edwardian having the more antique, regal touches of brocaded comforters and decorative draperies, whereas the art deco versions are sleek and modern, with primary-color paint and white-and-gray bedding. All have the modern elements — flat-screen TV, iPod docking station, spacious marble-floored bathroom — you’d expect from new digs.

Before we departed, we managed to do one very pertinent royal-related activity, the William and Kate Wedding Walk, opportunistically slapped together by the British Tourist Authority, whose site, VisitBritain.com, overflows with interesting and very reasonably priced group tours. The tour starts outside the building where Queen Elizabeth II was born (by cesarean, we are informed) and concludes outside Westminster, where The Wedding will take place.

There’s one problem with it: It’s very little about William and Kate and much more about their various forebears. In particular, and not displeasingly, the ghost of Diana looms, whether it be the jeweler that made her — and now Kate’s — engagement ring or the chapel where her body lay for visits from grieving subjects. Even the conclusion of the tour by our guide was Diana-esque: “After the wedding, Kate’s going to have a lot of titles after her name, but she’s going to have to work very hard to earn the hardest title of all, that of the people’s princess.”

I consulted with Thompson about why the tour felt so contrived.

“Kate and Wills are two very young people who are on the outset of their lives, and he just happens to be Queen Elizabeth’s grandson,” he said. “Come back in 30 years when their children are getting married and I’m sure the William and Kate tour will be far more interesting.”

What a splendid idea! It’s a date!

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