“Are you Mr. Kugel?” asked the uniformed doorman in a town shell top hat as I approached the St. James's Hotel and Club, a scone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. I was there to meet Madeleine Calon, head concierge and the only female board member of the Society of the Golden Keys of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, a prestigious concierge organization.
The St. James's (stjameshotelandclub.com) is intimate and elegant, a 60-room hotel that maintains a whiff of British stuffiness from its former incarnation as a private club. I had asked Ms. Calon to prepare an ideal $1,000 day in London for a fictitious client, which I would then try to approximate with a budget of $100.
A thousand dollars for a day in a city as expensive as London isn’t actually that much, she told me. But she cut corners (“A private guide and you wouldn’t have eaten”) and pulled it off, stuffing it full of Michelin-starred dining, brilliant views and royal treatment. She described it all to me as she plied me with royal treatment of my own: espresso and a tray of utterly delicious raisin-walnut cookies that alone might be worth the $400 or so a standard room at the St. James's costs per night.
But I’m not used to views from on high or high-end chefs anyway. And $100 provided for a day of sights and tastes of London from street level that, while perhaps not suited for a monarch, was just perfect for my commoner’s taste.
High Without a private guide, my high-end stand-in would have to suffer the indignity of London’s black cabs and their famously proper and well-informed drivers. Ms. Calon’s estimate for six rides was £64, which at $1.57 to the pound (the rate when I was there in late August) is the equivalent of just over $100.
Low That sum, of course, would end my day before it started, so taxis were out. And even London’s subway is pricey — starting at £2.30 for a ride or £12 for a daily pass. So instead, I bought a £2 24-hour pass for London’s bike share program, and, when necessary, took the bus (£1.50 and, from the upper level, a great view). As it turned out, only one Tube ride was required; total expenditure about £9.
High As a way to start my day, Ms. Calon suggested a hot towel wet shave, which included a shoeshine, at one of the classic shops in the hotel’s opulent environs: Truefitt and Hill (truefittandhill.co.uk), barbers since 1805 and holders of a royal warrant, meaning someone from Buckingham Palace is a client. “It’s where you’d see Prince Charles getting his haircut,” she said. (No promises, obviously.) £42.
Low The free shoeshine sounded appealing. But I’ve been bearded for over a year now, so I rejected the shave. Instead, I set out to experience some of the other centuries-old London merchants of the St James’s neighborhood. My walk included a stop at Lock & Co. Hatters (lockhatters.co.uk), another royal warrant holder established in 1676. I couldn’t afford to buy anything, but Lock & Co. also features a newly opened heritage room that serves as a mini hat museum; I gawked at the conformateur, a gizmo used for recording the precise outline of a client’s head, and Winston Churchill’s yellowed page in the store’s ancient ledger, which records four velvet hats purchased in 1911. Nearby, I also found William Evans (williamevans.com) (“Country Clothing — Gun & Rifle Makers”) and James J. Fox Cigar Merchants (jjfox.co.uk), which features its own Winston Churchill memorabilia. No sign of Charles, however.
High Ms. Calon’s agenda included a full English breakfast (including juice and pastries) at Aqua Shard (aquashard.co.uk) for £33. That includes a view of the city from the 31st floor of the Shard, the tallest building in Europe outside Moscow.
Low The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund (cabmensshelterfund.com) has been around since 1875, selling hot meals to London’s cabdrivers from tiny, cute green huts around the city. Thirteen still exist, and the closest to St. James’s — walking distance, no less — is the one at Embankment Place. In general, only taxi drivers sit down in those huts, but the takeout window is open to the public and they just happen to have a Full English Breakfast sandwich, with sausage and bacon (microwaved), baked beans (canned) and an egg (fried to order) for £2.80. Was it good? Let’s call it edible and filling and leave it at that.
High On the upscale agenda was a morning of sightseeing, starting with a tour of the Tower of London (hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon), £24.50 for regular admission, including a £2 donation you can opt out of if you are willing to publicly embarrass yourself. Then it was onto a boat for a £7.15 ride to the London Eye, for a view of the city from the famed 15-year-old Ferris wheel. (A fast track ticket that allows you to skip the line and not adhere to a reserved time is £29.50.)
Low I couldn’t afford both attractions, and given a choice, the Tower of London was far more interesting: prisons, the Crown Jewels, a yeoman’s tour. I found a discount ticket — £18.90 including fees, no donation included — at 365tickets.co.uk (note: you must print it out in advance). The tour by the uniformed yeoman is perhaps best described as an educational stand-up comedy routine sprinkled with talk of beheadings. I found it quite, er, well-executed.
High Ms. Calon described William Drabble, the chef at the Michelin-starred Seven Park Place at the St. James's, as “influenced by French cuisine and using the best British ingredients, taking inspiration from the seasons.” A three-course lunch with paired wines is £58.
Low How about a one-course lunch with a beer pairing, served outdoors? A friend had recommended Maltby Street Market (maltby.st), also called the Ropewalk, a rather narrow, alley-like market hard against old railway arches in southeast London. And there I found the Cheese Truck (thecheesetruck.co.uk), which is not actually a truck, but a stand making sizzling sandwiches with cheese from (aha!) local producers.
I went for the goat cheese option, sourced from Rosary Goats Cheese in Landford, two hours southwest of London. Grilled to order with honey, walnuts and rosemary butter for £5.50, it was decadent and went well with a £3.50 honey ale from London-based Hiver Beers, which had a stand nearby.
High The end of summer at Buckingham Palace brings a State Rooms tour (£20.50) of 19 rooms of the “working palace” (not in use during those months), which, according to Ms. Calon, are “lavishly furnished with the finest treasures from the Royal Collection, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin and Canaletto and some of the finest English and French furniture.”
Low Free art abounds in London: the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Victoria and Albert. But if I had to eschew the palace’s private gems, what about a dazzling collection in a historic, luxurious (and free) townhouse? Enter the Wallace Collection (wallacecollection.org), recommended by Baldwin Hamey, the pen name behind the intriguing London Details blog (baldwinhamey.wordpress.com). It has Rembrandt and Rubens as well, and marvelous furniture — much of the collection was at one point owned by royalty, like a finely crafted oak commode chest by Antoine-Robert Gaudreaus from Louis XV’s private bedroom, adorned with astonishing gilded bronze mounts by Jacques Caffiéri. Though it’s no longer a private residence, the rooms are still named for their original purpose, so, as you enter the oval drawing room, feel free to tell your travel companion you’ll meet her later in the boudoir.
High Ms. Calon recommended “Gypsy” at the Savoy, starring Imelda Staunton, who has won extraordinary raves as Rose — some think she is better even than Ethel Merman. “Premium” seats are £90.
Low Larger-than-life stage stars are also the subjects of the raucous, hilarious two-“woman” revue (one was a man in drag) called “Miss-leading Ladies” that I saw for £12 at the St. James Theater (stjamestheatre.co.uk). The St. James — isn’t that a top-level West End theater? It is, but they put on significantly cheaper shows in their “Studio,” an intimate downstairs space. Even better, they sell a few standing-room spots by the bar, which essentially puts you in the sixth row, stage right. I didn’t even have to stand — I was chatting with one of the bartenders (though without a drink, which would have put me over budget), who rather conspiratorially whispered that once the show started, I could sit on a much lower ledge at the end of the bar (and even toweled it off for me).
The duo, Ria Jones and Ceri Dupree, portrayed everyone from Julie Andrews to Bette Davis, and, in a pleasing coincidence, Ethel Merman. Ms. Jones played it (more or less) straight, while Mr. Dupree cracked off-color jokes in utterly outrageous feather-topped outfits, most notably as Mae West. (“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”) Alas, the show’s run is over, but the studio’s low-priced standing-room tickets remain; it’s been replaced by a variety of alternating shows.
High The “refined and reinvented Chinese cuisine” of Hakkasan Mayfair is available late enough to qualify as after-theater dining — if you can afford a £250 bill.
Low Instead of reinvented, how about simply authentic? If you catch the Underground's District line from Victoria (by the St. James) you can get to the Stepney Green stop in East London in 23 minutes — plenty of time for the short walk to Tian Tian before it closes. The Chinese restaurant, which opened last year, has an intimidating menu, much of it traditional Sichuan — fried lamb kidney with cumin, dry stir pork intestine — but the prices are right, with dozens of entrees between £8 and £10. I had my eye on the non-Sichuan claypot dishes; the helpful waitress suggested the seafood version (£10). Chunks of fish, scallops, shrimp and fresh-tasting vegetables arrived bubbling in a standard brown sauce perked up with a few raw slices of chile. I asked what region of China it was from; the waitress said the chef had created it. Reinvention, after all!
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