By Ron Bernthal
For many American business travelers flying to London, the trend during the past few years has been to avoid Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, located about 45-90 driving minutes west of the city.
As airports go, Heathrow is mostly efficient, with rail connections into central London offering a much better ride into the city than the time consuming and expensive taxi services. But long security lines and flight delays often plague this very crowed facility and there are, fortunately, other choices. Stansted Airport is located north of London, 40-minutes by train from Liverpool Station to the terminals. Two all-business class airlines, MAXjet and Eos, fly to Stansted nonstop from New York, and other airlines are sure to follow their example.
South of London is Gatwick Airport, which officially opened more than 70 years ago, but which took its time growing, from mostly charter operations in the 1950s, to its first commercial U.S. flight arrivals in the late 1970′s. Today, with two modern terminals, and more than 30 million passengers a year, it is now the second biggest airport in England, yet it still feels compact and easy to navigate.
The Gatwick Express is a 30-minute rail trip to downtown’s Waterloo Station, and for travelers wishing to overnight near the airport there are number of good hotels.
Just a few miles from the airport is Copthorne village, a quaint English residential town that originally was a 16th century farming estate.
“The hotel site is quite old, and was originally built as a coaching inn about 300 years ago. The entire area around Copthorne was farming estates, and the little villages in the area still retain their historic charm. The area certainly abounds in the traditional English countryside feel.” said Nigel Mather, Operations Manager at the historic Copthorne Hotel, a business and leisure facility just a few miles from Gatwick Airport.
With air arrivals at Gatwick increasing over 120% from last year, and equally impressive increases of passenger traffic at Stansted, as well as at Luton, another regional airport north of London, the suburbs of the capital are becoming a destination themselves for many American travelers.
“We certainly look forward to welcoming American visitors to the property, and to showing them all the charms that is the Sussex countryside,” Mather said.
Inside London’s 13th- century Southwark Cathedral, the sound of the church choir is enough to make grown men weep. With late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows, it is difficult not to be transported back to the church’s early days, back to the reign of Mary Tudor in 1553, or to the 1607 baptism of John Harvard, the benefactor of Harvard University.
But outside the cathedral, despite the historic structures nearby, and the winding cobblestone lanes along the Thames, ancient history flashes by in seconds as visitors quickly notice trendy wine boutiques, the modern span of the Millenium pedestrian bridge across the river, and the hulking shape of the Tate Modern, where abstract art can be seen through the giant windows of what was once the Bankside power station.
The London neighborhood of Southwark (pronounced suth-erk) is now the city’s fastest growing tourist area, with a rich history and a vibrant contemporary arts scene. American visitors who realize the area’s historic significance, and its relationship to early America, can truly appreciate the part this London neighborhood played in our early history.
“I think anybody coming from America will appreciate our historical connections to the States, and if they really want to experience London’s history, and its relationship to colonial America, then of course visitors should come to Southwark, ” said Arthur Hayward, Tourism Manager for the Southwark town council.
In this lively neighborhood is Shakeaspere’s Globe Theatre, the London Dungeon, the historic 16th- century George Inn, and Borough Market, an indoor fruit and vegetable market that is the successor to the medieval market that was held on nearby London Bridge.
In 1276 the market was moved to Borough High street, and the present buildings in the market area date from 1851. During the mornings, beginning at two in the morning, and all day on weekends, the market is filled with more than 100 stalls, where producers from all over Britain bring a range of fresh produce to the market, including fish, meats, vegetables, ciders, cheeses, breads, coffees, cakes and patisseries. Other stalls specialize in produce imported from other European countries.
Small restaurants and cafes are tucked away in cobblestone alleys outside the market, and last year a new restaurant opened within the market itself, garnering rave reviews from the London press and the numerous business customers that flocked to the innovative space during its first several months. If you can reserve a table at Roast, you will actually be sitting in a glass enclosed room overlooking the indoor food stalls on one side, and a spectacular view of St. Pauls Cathedral s out the other windows.
The restaurant itself, with its modern, open kitchen, busy bar area, and expansive dining room, prides itself on serving the freshest British food, much of coming directly from the market stalls below. The restaurant’s founder, Iqbal Wahhab, says that serving fresh British food is what’s drawing in the crowds, and arranging deliveries of all the fresh produce is just a matter of having the right contacts.
“The focus for us is getting fresh ingredients, and we do that by having our suppliers bring us produce directly from the market downstairs, and by having fishermen drive over in the morning their fresh catch from the sea, or asking local farmers to drop by the afternoon with whatever they have pulled form their gardens and fields,” Mr. Wahhab said. “Getting these very fresh products onto our tables for the lunch and evening meals is, well, there is nothing more exciting than that. ”
A few minutes walk from Roast is Tate Modern, the five-year old modern-art of Llondon’s famous Tate Gallery Mueum, located across the Thames. Snce Tate Modern opened its doors in the converted Bankside power station, in May 2000, more than 24 million visitors have come through its doors to view six levels of modern art, ranging from huge sculptures to paintings to performance art pieces. Of course, placing the new museum in Southwark five years ago was not without some risk.
“Bankside was an intriguing choice really, because this area was empty of visitors, and there were no restaurants or shops here at all. It was considered a real out-of the-way location, except for this old redundant power station, which was just sitting here,” said Adrian Hardwicke, Head of Visitor Services for Tate Modern. “But over the last five and a half years we have had millions of visitors come into the neighborhood and stop into the museum, and now there are many pubs, new transportation access, wine shops and new hotels, all of which make Lndon a much more coherent city.”
The Savoy Hotel opened to the public in 1889 with many unique amenities, including full electric lighting and 67 bathrooms, a rare luxury for late 19th-century London.
The owners lured the famous Parisian hotelier, Cesar Ritz, to take over the property, and he in turn brought in his top chef, Auguste Escoffier, to work the kitchen. Within a few years the hotel was known for its ostentatious and glittering gala events, attended by Britain’s royal family and dozens world celebrities. By 1914 the Savoy Grill, under the direction of Chef Escoffier, was the hot meeting place for London’s actors, writers, and parliamentarians.
In the 1920′s and through the war years, Gershwin played in the ballrooms and Winston Churchill visited the Savoy almost every week for receptions and dinners. Celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Oliver, Elton John, and countless others all came to bathe in the glow of the Savoy’s elegance, and to eat the delicious and traditional dinners that Escoffier had set the standard for.
The Savoy, now part of the Fairmont Hotel chain, is still considered one of London’s most exclusive properties, and to have dinner at the Savoy Grill, or pre-dinner drinks in the historic Thames Foyer, with a piano player creating the mood, is a true royal experience. But times and tastes change, especially when it comes to cooking, and the hotel has recently hired a young French chef, Patrice Martineau, to shake things up a little in the Savoy kitchen. Martineau, who was brought over from New York’s Daniel restaurant, is responsible now for tweaking tradition, and bringing new taste sensations to the hotel’s discriminating guests.
“I’m here to change all the former traditional eating habits at the hotel,” said Chef Martineau, as he directed traffic within the busy main kitchen area of the hotel. “London’s tastes have changed for food, and I am trying to create new recipes and combinations of food, which will add a little zest and life to the palate.”
A few minutes walk from the Savoy, in the direction of St. Pauls, is another London property that is receiving lots of visitors this year. However, unlike the Savoy, guests here eat their meals in a communal cafeteria, and bathrooms are shared. At the City of London Youth Hostel, instead of well heeled Londoners and visiting celebrities, the guests include several 20′s-something young women who have come into London from other areas of Britain to either search for work, or take on student internships, and lots of American, European, and Asian travelers who love the friendly, informal atmosphere inside the building.
The hostel is part of the larger Youth Hostel Association, or AYH, that offers dozens of inexpensive hostels in every part of England and Wales. This hostel building, like many others, is historic, having served as the former choir boys’ school for nearby St. Pauls Cathedral. The hostel, a three story stone structure, is located on narrow Carter Lane, and is clean, comfortable, and friendly. It may not be for every traveler, but with prices about $29 to $43 dollars a night, including breakfast, it is one of the best bargains in London, where the average hotel room is now close to $400 per night.
“The ages of our guests are getting higher as we see more families and older travelers visiting the hostel. We have private rooms, clean bathroom facilities, a great location within central London, and even older adults like to save a pound or two when they can. Youth hostels are not just for the young anymore, as we are finding out here at this property,” said Steve Collier, the hostel manager.
Despite decreases in American visitors to London in recent years, due in part by fears of terrorism and the relatively expensive cost of traveling overseas, Americans are returning to the European city they love the most, and they are finding a newer, more vibrant city, even as its genteel charm and historic sites remain as solid and traditional as ever.
If you go…
MAXjet Airlines (Tel 888-435-9629)
Tate Modern (Tel: Local 020 7887 8008; International +44 020 7887 8008)