London: One of My Favorite Cities

I often get asked about my favorite cities in the world and it is hard to not put London at the top of chart.  I have been about 30 times over the years and always look forward to my return.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, “If you have tired of London, you have tired of life.”

If you think about it, the American equivalent to London would result if you pushed Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC together.  London is the political capital, the historical center, the financial hub, and home to the arts and theaters.  It is easy to get around on foot and via public transportation and has, over the past 10 years or so, dramatically improved from a culinary scene perspective.

The laundry list of attractions and sites is exhaustive and easily found in any guidebook or website and it is not my attention to supply a “top 10” list.  However, I might highlight a few or my favorites that are not necessarily hidden gems, but might not be at the top of everyone’s list.

Hotel

I again find myself at the Strand Palace Hotel for this trip.  While I have stayed at a number of different properties in and around London, the Strand Palace is almost impossible to beat for location, amenities, and cost.  Every once in a while I will stay at a Hilton property if I am using points and have been in about eight of the London locations, but one can rarely book at night in one of their properties for less than 150 GBP.

By contrast, I’m staying at the Strand Palace for 100 GBP per night with free wifi and a free travel card for each day of my stay.  The room is very small but functional and I’m literally steps from Covent Garden, the West End, four tube stations, and tons of restaurant options.  The only thing to consider with this property is that the rooms do not have air conditioning so you might regret a stay on a hot week in July.

Two New Finds

This week, I walked by a new business several times and finally popped in to try their service.  Ted’s Grooming Salon is in the Holborn area just east of Covent Garden.  They have been in business for about four months now and every time I passed, it was busy.

While they offer haircuts, I opted for a traditional shave complete with all the works.  First, he gave me a quick shampoo with cold water to help me cool down from all the walking around I had been doing that day.  This was followed by a face balm that was massaged into my face followed by old-style hot towels wrapped around the head.  Then, warm shaving cream applied with a brush and a straight blade shave that is surely the closest shave I’ve had in a long time.

The most unusual thing about the entire experience came towards the end – after the hand and arm massage.  I smelled something burning about the time I felt him gently tapping me around my ears.  I was a bit surprised to open my eyes to see him with a small metal torch that was lit and that was what he was tapping me with.  He was actually burning some of the small hairs off.  It didn’t hurt, but was unexpected.

All of this for just under 20 GBP and this is a an indulgence I look forward to on my next trip.

The second discovery I made this week was the Top Secret Comedy club in the same neighborhood.  With a 1 GBP cover charge (and voluntary donation at the end), we got four acts plus an emcee who may have been the funniest of all of them.  A small venue where you get to sit close, it was a great time.  By contract, I went to the 99 Club the next night and, while more critically acclaimed, it did not measure up to the previous evening.  The other London area comedy club I could recommend is Up the Creek in Greenwich which is a fairly large venue that attracts top talent.

Definitely will go back to the Top Secret club..

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Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.

 

Passport Lines at London Heathrow

How bad do the passport lines at London’s Heathrow airport have to be for Delta to send out an email to all their SkyMiles members?  For the past several weeks, we’ve been hearing horror stories about the lines at Heathrow and it seems like the problem is here to stay for awhile.  It doesn’t help matters for Delta flyers that Delta recently shut down their Gatwick operations.  I was on one of the last flights into Gatwick and had a conversation with the Purser who had been flying that route for years.  We agreed that Gatwick was the much easier airport to navigate on arrival and the problems at Heathrow only seem to confirm our sentiment.

There is a good summary of the issues at The Telegraph but things don’t look promising this summer.  I’m scheduled into Heathrow in late June and not looking forward to it!

Hilton Metropole – London, UK

Hotel Review

I’ve stayed in London many times but never had the occasion to stay at this particular hotel but had the chance to experience it as part of a business conference that was held at this location.  Located near Paddington Station and the Edgware tube station, the Metropole is a busy location.  It does not feel relaxed or comfortable, but, rather, has a feel of hustle and bustle.

The area around the hotel is heavily Arabic and, as a result, there are lots of ethnic restaurants in the area that are worth a try for good Middle Eastern food.  Baker Street is a close walk in one direction and Oxford Street can be reached on foot in about 10-15 minutes walk.

There were lots of things this hotel did well.  The staff was very friendly and thanked me for my business on multiple occasions.  The business facilities were good, the internet was fast, there is a nice fitness center and pool, and the room was fine.  The Executive Lounge was good, not spectacular.

But, I didn’t particularly care for this location.  They didn’t do anything wrong.  It’s me, not them.  I just never felt relaxed and didn’t feel the hotel had any personality.  So, the rating below is still good and not a reflection of the service levels.

Final Grade: B

Points and Dollars

My total spend for my four nights was $1,186 (rate of $149 per night for first two nights and $235 per night for second two nights).

For this, I earned 9,541 base points plus my “Points and Points” bonus of 4,770 and my Diamond bonus 4,770.  I got my Diamond “MyWay” bonus of 1,000 plus the AMEX on-line booking bonus of 500.  The Q2 Double Points bonus netted me another 9,541 and, for some reason, I still occasionally get a 2011 Any Weekend bonus of 1,000.  Plus, the first two nights were paid in advance and registered in the Facebook 24 Hour bonus event so I will see another 2,500 points there plus 10,674 from charging it all to my HHonors Surpass card by AMEX at 9 points per dollar.  Total HHonors earnings equals 44,296 points.