So, let's say life is good, and you're headed to London (pdf) for New Year's. You have visions of post-Christmas sugarplums, ice skating next to a palace, champagne cocktails with a friendly, international crowd, or sipping tea next to a cozy fire...
You've just gone online and found what you think is the perfect London hotel. Said hotel's website depicts a charming whitewashed facade in fashionable South Kensington. It's close to the tube station, there's a marble floor in the lobby, plush carpet on the stairs, ensuite bathrooms, and best of all -- it's less than $200 US a night.
Let's also say that sometimes, websites lie.
Flying into London late in the day, on the tail end of a week's wintry journey to Brussels and Amsterdam, my husband, Adam and I were torn between a desire to keep touring amidst Europe's coldest winter since 1903...or to lie down for an open-ended rest. Sadly, our room at Hotel 167 made the choice for us.
The hotel had reserved us their last available room, on the fifth floor. Once we'd climbed their veritable Mount Everest of stairs (sans elevator or sherpa) to our room, it soon became obvious what their site had neglected to highlight. The toilet seat broke entirely off its hinge; the ancient tub leaked from a crack and flooded the floor; a spring sprung wholly free from the desperately thin mattress; and the 10" TV just plain blew out...by which time we had to sit down and laugh. We flipped the mattress and mopped the floor, but though we asked for help, no one ever came. We couldn't fall asleep reading (no reading lights), we barely had space to turn around, and perhaps most lacking of all for the season in question -- the room had no working heat.
Yeah, you read that last part right.
Waking the next morning with our wool coats still on, we tried to get out of our room. Believe me, we tried. Between Christmas and New Year's, there was not another affordable hotel room to be found. If there had ever been a moment to spend $800 a night on a place to sleep, this was it; too bad we didn't have the $800 a night.
By lunchtime, our mission was clear and we chose to accept it. During this near-frozen holiday, we would have to discover just about every indoor activity London had to offer. Our goal was to be out of our room by 9 am every day, and not back, no matter what, before 10 pm each night.
It turns out an unheated hotel room doesn't inspire romance half as much as it inspires sightseeing.
We bought Oyster cards to save money on lots of trips on the Tube. Walking is a great way to see a city...if you can feel your legs. If you can't, by all means take the subway.
We avoided visiting anything that required standing in line outside, like the Tower of London and the London Eye. They're great experiences, to be sure, but better to have in late spring or summer weather.
We layered each day, wearing the nicest clothes we had with us and shopping a little here and there. We never wanted to have to go home to change just to feel comfortable in a nice bar or restaurant.
In South Kensington, we toured the gilded Royal Albert Hall, and paid our (quick) respects to the columnar, outdoor Albert Memorial across the street. We gorged ourselves on the jewels, glass, ironwork, paintings, earthenware tiles, and amazing architectural models at the lavish Victoria & Albert Museum. We took the time to imagine who has the job of dusting the massive Dale Chihuly green-and turquoise chandelier in its front hall; if you're as curious as we were, by all means take a look at this.
Within a year of our trip it's become easy to find to-go (or, as the British call it, take-away) coffee; but at this point, Starbucks was just about the only game. We latte'd up for warmth and tramped the elegant acreage of Kensington Gardens, bent on another hot beverage -- afternoon tea at the Orangery of Kensington Palace. We waited 15 minutes for a table, but once seated, didn't linger; this 18th century conservatory, with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows, is barely-heated, see-your-breath, freezing cold in late December. We had assam and fluffy scones while fully attired in coats and scarves, as did everyone around us.
Journeying to Mayfair, we were fascinated by the basement of the Royal Institution, known as the Faraday Museum. This little gem exults in the quirky/weighty scientific achievements of Michael Faraday, father of the field theory of electro-magnetism. Above ground, we were grateful for the covered Victorian shopping arcades of Old and New Bond Street, where Adam discovered the funky dress shoes of UK sensation Oliver Sweeney. To get off our feet, we indulged in the abundant afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel. Here we cozied up in a velvet banquette, took our coats off and stayed awhile.
We pined for homewares in Chelsea. Ducking in and out of shops on the sublime Kings Road, we huddled in the cozy warren of antique shops known as Antiquarius, scoping out vintage movie posters and the elusive replacement for my mother's shattered wedding teapot. We were dazzled by the furniture design mecca of the Conran Shop, ornate outside but streamlined inside. Hungry, we were well taken care of at neo-Indian Chutney Mary, dark and sumptuous save for their airy greenhouse room.
We treated ourselves to plays in Piccadilly Circus and on the West End. One night, we had pre-theatre dinner at the famous Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason's; their herb gnocchi and the cheese plate with more-British-than-British oat biscuits should not be missed.
Exploring Covent Garden, we stumbled upon the cobblestone shopping district known as Seven Dials. Here we fell in love with art and design books at Magma, the apothecary at Neal's Yard Remedies, and delicious Indonesian rijsttafel at Bali Bali. While Seven Dials is itself an outdoor complex, all of these places are worth a good hour apiece, and are joyously indoors.
While in nearby Trafalgar Square, we ducked into both the National Gallery (which has a staggering collection of Renaissance art) and the pristine church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, still decorated from Christmas, where a classical quartet practiced for a concert that night. We sat together, holding hands, and let the music waft over us.
In tourist-heavy Westminster, we tomb-trolled for famous names in the incomparable Westminster Abbey, then strolled past Big Ben to the gleaming Design Museum, underneath London Bridge. We loved the bookstore here, where I discovered the whimsical vinyl figures of British cartoonist James Jarvis. Afterwards, we wandered alongside Parliament and a short, park-like stretch of the Thames to an incredible four-course dinner at the Tate Britain's Rex Whistler Restaurant, surrounded by UK artist Rex Whistler's gorgeous mural,The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats.
On New Year's Eve day, we Tubed it to the Baroque St. Paul's Cathedral, exploring the gilt-marble majesty of its great hall and the crypt with its funhouse Whispering Gallery. For warmth's sake, we did climb to the top of the cathedral dome, but skipped the roof balcony. A few blocks away, we raised hard cider in a New Year's toast to the gruff bartender at the city's finest art nouveau-era pub, Blackfriars.
We strolled across the nearby silver caterpillar of the Millennium Bridge to the Southwark side of the Thames. We skipped the tour at the super-touristy Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (their performance season starts again 2009) in favor of touring the entire world of wine at the clever Vinopolis. (For the latter, purchasing advance tickets is highly recommended.) In a twist we hadn't expected, we spent one of our favorite all-time New Year's Eves at the exciting Tate Modern. This contemporary art museum was built in an enormous former power station, and is full of amazing art we could hardly believe we'd never seen before. On the top floor we flipped for its excellent, elegant restaurant with a view of the Thames and St. Paul's; the food was gorgeous, and everyone in the glittering dining room seemed impossibly genteel, including the waiters. Our taxi trip home revealed city streets full of drunken revelers, but we were at last tired enough to fall asleep in our sad little room.
Early on New Year's, we arrived at Harrod's in tony Knightsbridge two hours after the doors opened for the biggest winter event in London -- their half-yearly sale. (This runs through much of January, and again in June.) Amidst the human stampede still in progress, we fortified ourselves with a beautiful breakfast of eggs and pastries in the upstairs cafe. Only after three cups of tea did we brave the sheer, screaming insanity of the women's shoe department; I've yet to get over the pain of the $100 Prada boots that didn't fit, since I was almost killed trying to reach their box. Poking around the exquisite food hall in the basement was far more relaxing, and rewarding.
London holds a huge New Year's Day Parade each year, and we scored a prime viewing spot at the far northern edge of Green Park, on Piccadilly Road. The crowds were thick but good-natured (if largely hung over), and we all cheered for a fleet of bagpipers, men on stilts, and little girls dressed as sparkly fairies. Though sheltered by trees, the cold became rough and we escaped across the park to the gilded frou-frou of the Queen's Gallery. We had to walk by Buckingham Palace to get there, and just managed to catch the changing of the palace guard; we took this as a good portent for the New Year.
I'm happy to report that Hotel 167 has just recently closed (hallelujah), and that in general, London's notoriously tragic hotels are starting to undergo a style and comfort revolution. If I was to re-do this trip now, I'd certainly look into the Hoxton Hotel, B & B Belgravia, or Notting Hill's The Main House.
After all, a whirlwind trip through London Town and a string of good nights' sleep might just put us all on the path to a better 2009.
Melanie Waldman, a Los Angeles writer and artist, writes Travels With Two -- the travel blog for couples. She and her husband, Adam, can only sit still and work for so long before they have to get up and wander off somewhere in search of romance, adventure and wine. Once they get home, Melanie once again feels compelled to sit down and inspire others to wander off, as well. It’s a vicious circle.