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Luxury in London
I love London; I really love London. But London is expensive and my idea of roughing it is staying at a place with no room service. So I wanted to stay in London, in a good area, but didn't want to spend the kind of money those places normally command. Through a travel-savvy friend, I learned about an auction website that handles luxury properties/hotels worldwide called luxurylink.com. I checked it out, signed up and when a package came available at a price I was willing to pay, I jumped on it securing a 5 day stay at "41", a Red Carnation property directly across from the Royal Mews (stables) at Buckingham Palace. It was walking distance from Victoria Station, walking distance to Harrods, and walking distance (albeit a long walk) to The National Gallery. Note: if you want you can spend an entire day in The National Gallery and they don't charge you a dime. It's on the honor system, for you to "donate" whatever you feel is an appropriate amount for seeing all of those masterpieces and based on what you can afford.
This hotel is not for everyone. It's not really a family place; it doesn't feel like a traditional hotel; and it doesn't have a real restaurant. But it was lovely, discreet and the location was perfect for me. As a woman traveling alone, I appreciated that they knew my name and what my schedule was so that if something happened someone would sound the alarm. And their security at night was greatly appreciated.
- Luxury Hotel, 5 Star Boutique Hotel, London Hotel – 41 Hotel London
Five star London boutique hotel located near Buckingham Palace. Part of Red Carnation Hotels Luxury Collection, with suites & accommodation in London.
Shopping like the Upper Class
This same friend had a friend who had a friend who lived in London and had formerly been with Scotland Yard. After chatting with him about what to see in London, he urged me to skip the London Eye, the red bus tours, and the Tower of London; instead he suggested that if I wanted to see how the well-to-do Londoners lived, I should take in a few places over on St. James.
The first shop was Berry Bros. & Rudd, a shop selling fine wines and spirits from the same storefront for more than 300 yrs. Located at 3 St. James, the shop is not what you'd expect. The moment you enter its dimly lit interior you notice that the ancient wood floors are somewhat tilted. There are several rooms requiring you to step up or down, depending upon the room and each is devoted to a particular beverage. All I could think of was how many pairs of shoes had trod those boards over the decades and centuries! I elected to focus on the room housing the Scotch Whiskey because I had just completed a tour of the Scottish Highlands. The sheer number of selections made me dizzy. They had everything from the single malt, mossy/peatey tasting Scotch of the Highlands to a liqueur made from Scotch Whiskey that tasted like melted white chocolate and tart raspberries. Who knew there could be so much variety? I purchased a bottle of the Berry Bros. & Rudd Scotch Whiskey and a bottle of a liqueur like offering called Glayva that had a taste of allspice.
Berry Bros. & Rudd
- Berry Bros. & Rudd - Who We Are
Who We Are - The history, the services and the people behind Britain's oldest fine wine merchant, from our London shop originis, est. in the 17th century
John Lobb, Bootmaker
Next I wandered into John Lobb's at No. 9 St. James's. The smell of leather and polish was so intoxicating and heavenly that it nearly made me swoon when I entered the shop. (The amount of sampling of Scotch I had done at BB&R, might have had an impact, but I did not think so at the time.) Tradesmen were sitting at small benches, quietly working in the dimly lit interior to mold the leather to foot forms, and you could hear the tap, tap, tapping from ancient tools securing the leather in place on the forms to make the particular style ordered by that particular customer. Tall glass-fronted cases contained shoes so highly shined you could see your reflection in them. The quiet, cultured voice of the salesman patiently explained the process of ordering a pair of shoes, their manufacture and the history of the company. The perfection of each pair of those shoes was like a Faberge egg.
Lock & Co. Hatters
My grandmother was a milliner in Washington DC before WWII, so of course I had to go into Lock & Co. Hatters at No. 6 St. James's. They make men's as well as women's hats and you can order a hat in any style, made from any material, in any color with any trim. And it will fit you perfectly. The saleswoman explained all the different styles and made suggestions as to what would look best for what occasion and the proper way to wear, and care for the different styles. She explained the process of hat making and the history of some of the styles that they had in their big binders of hats made for other people. I regret that I did not buy a hat and have it shipped home.
Eating in London is expensive; it's really expensive. Unless you are traveling with children, there are ways to have the full experience of London without breaking the bank. On my way back from my day on St. James's doing glorified window shopping, I was starving and looking for something to eat. Because I had theater tickets for that night, early dinner would be too rushed and dinner after the play was over would mean I'd be eating at 10:30-11 PM when many restaurants were already closed. So as I walked back from St. James's along Piccadilly in the direction of Buckingham Palace, I spied The Ritz Hotel and popped inside. They had a very impressive high tea offering. Since I did not have a reservation, I was seated in the Rivoli Bar which was so lovely, filled with Art Deco furnishings, paintings and lighting - the real stuff - and the waiter had very few customers so he had plenty of time to make a fuss over me. I was grateful that there was no room for me in the main dining room as I feel my experience was the more enjoyable.
Rivoli Bar at The Ritz Hotel
- The Ritz London Bar - Rivoli Bar - Overview
Every grand hotel needs a spectacular bar. The Rivoli Bar is one of the best, reborn in glorious art deco style.
Shopping Overload at Harrods
The following day, I decided that no trip to London would be complete without a shopping excursion to Harrods which was walking distance from my hotel. It was overwhelming to see the departments and designers and items that you could select in just one store. I wandered into the food court and had total sensory overload: the sights, the smells, the sounds! I'd never seen anything like it but it sort of reminded me of a bazaar in a foreign country. (Okay, I'm American so technically it was a bazaar in a foreign country, but you catch my drift.) They had foods from every corner of the globe, from the most common to the most noble of items. People were selecting prepared foods and eating at counters where they could find a space, or taking their selections back to the office, or out for a picnic in the sun. People munching on meat pies were seated on stools next to people slurping oysters or piling caviar on a crust. It was almost too much to take in as we have nothing like this in the States.
In the end, Harrods Food Court offered too many choices. I couldn't make a decision. I couldn't process all of those choices. I recalled that I had passed by an incredible shop earlier in the day, Rococo Chocolates in Belgravia. I sought refuge in this beautiful, peaceful little shop that smelled the hypnotizing smell of chocolate and ordered a half dozen of their signature chocolates and a cup of tea. Sitting in the little shop, savoring the chocolate and sipping the tea the world felt totally right again. I never wanted to leave. By the time I finished my tea, I had promised myself that I would return some day and take the chocolate making class that they offer at Rococo's. So skip breakfast/lunch and just make your way to Rococo Chocolates. But don't tell the adults.
So If You Go -
If you want to see London on a budget, you can do that. But if you want to see the London that the well-to-do Londoners know, it's simply a question of discovering the little shops that the well-heeled locals frequent and which are not going to be found in your typical guidebook. I loved visiting these little out-of-the-way places and it didn't cost me a thing aside from what I chose to purchase. What I learned was far more valuable than what I spent. If you go to London, and visit these places, have a cup of tea or a glass of wine for me! I'm there in spirit.
And if you know of any additional "hidden gems" I've missed, let me know so I can add them to my list for my next trip.