I worked in London for eight years back in the 1990s. It was a long time ago.
There were times when I tired of London (Sorry, Dr. Johnson): The miserable weather. The cramped accommodation. Breakdowns and strikes on public transport.
Being a tourist is so much better. I suspect it’s like being a grandparent. You enjoy all of the great moments and then if things go south, you just hand the little darling back to its parents.
We are simply enjoying all the great moments.
Today, we head for the ultimate shopping destination - Harrods. Plonked ostentatiously on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge, the massive department screams luxury from every corner. Seemingly every major designer has a section of the store - clothing, perfume, jewellery, pens, chess sets, toys, electronics - and then there are the food halls. Everything your appetite could desire (and more) is on mouth watering display. Fresh beef, poultry, fish, oceans of smoked salmon, freshly baked scones and patisseries. Exotic teas and coffees, chocolates. Oh my, the chocolates.
I have to say that the place is looking fabulous. The owners have spared no expense in decorating and getting the merchandising up to date. They are staffed up at full capacity with plenty of people to help you spend your hard-earned pounds, dollars or euros. The employees are friendly and extremely helpful. There’s not even a hint of superiority or condescension among the team members. We chat to several staff, who are clearly excited about their departments. The chap in charge of the $12,000 chess sets tells in detail about how their artist will hand paint the chess pieces. He clearly loves what he’s selling. (Or maybe he was just lonely since we were the only customers in his department. Either way, nice man.)
Like the bargain shoppers we are, we seek and find a couple of little deals that should fill up the last remaining space in our suitcases before we head home on Sunday.
We leave Harrods and head for lunch and high tea. Now I know what you’re thinking. Tea time is 4 p.m. in England. Yes, you are correct. However, we’re well acquainted with the tea rituals here - after all, Grainne was born and raised in England. And we know what’s in store. Food… A lot of food.
I spent quite a lot of time looking for the right place to have tea. I was trying to avoid the big department store and grand hotels. I wanted quaint. Intimate. Charming. I think I managed to hit the mark.
Ladies and gentlemen - let me introduce you to the Montague Hotel. Located on Russell Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury and around the corner from the British Library. The hotel describes itself as “quintessentially British,” and that is probably an understatement. As you’re greeted at the front by a doorman in a frock coat and enter the hotel, you’re taken back to the early 19th Century with plush furnishings and deep maroon interiors. One of the inn’s top features is the Leopard Bar, with - yes - leopard skin wallpaper and a deeply polished wooden bar. It reminds one of a time and place where gentlemen would retire in the evenings for cigars and brandies.
But we’re there for tea, so we pass by the Leopard Bar into the conservatory, where we are seated by a window overlooking the gardens on the back of the hotel. A young man named Declan, clothed in a dapper suit (and face mask) looks after us. First we select our tea. We both choose Assam, a rich strong black tea. Soon, Declan delivers sandwiches - smoked salmon, cucumber, egg salad and chicken salad. Next he arrives with plates of scones with jam and clotted cream. Chocolate cake, cheese cake, fruit tarts, macaron, custard.
OMG. It’s overwhelming.
It’s simply impossible to finish it, even over the two hours we spent munching and sipping tea.
We’re so taken with the hotel and its staff, we cheekily ask if we can have a look at one of the rooms. One of Declan’s colleagues happily agrees and proceeds to give us the grand tour of the Guv’nors Suite which includes two bedrooms, a rolltop copper bath, a kitchen and a private patio to the garden.
The hotel also provides private butlers and chefs. You know, just in case you really need pampering.
We thank our host for the tour and promise to stay with them next time… perhaps in the standard room.
The Montague and other establishments around London are severely missing the international tourists - especially Americans. And until we get Covid under control, that’s unlikely to change.
After an afternoon rest, Grainne and I head out for one of our favorite London activities - a trip to the theater. We’ve managed to snag a couple of great seats for “Come From Away,” the hit musical detailing the town in Newfoundland that found itself hosting 7,000 air travelers grounded after the 9/11 attacks.
As we arrive at the theater, we are asked to provide proof of vaccination. Luckily we are prepared this time. We show our CDC vaccination cards, the attendants clear us, and we find ourselves in a packed theater. Some of the theater-goers wear masks. Some do not. But at least we’re all vaccinated. There’s a great comfort in that.
There’s nothing quite like going to the theater in London (OK, I”m sure it’s great on Broadway as well, but London is where all my experience is based.) The crowd laughs, cries, claps along with the music. The cast is stellar. The play is uplifting. The whole experience is joyous and unforgettable.
Our souls lifted and faith in humanity restored, we head back to our hotel for a late night dinner at the Magenta restaurant. The staff now know us, and look after us with extra care.
We do experience a small hiccup as we try to get into our room. The card key won’t work. Two trips to the front desk for new cards doesn’t solve the problem. The front desk clerk comes up and tries to reset the electronic lock. No luck. He offers us another room down the hall. OK, but we don’t have access to any of our clothes, toiletries or medications. Just as we give up and start to settle down, there’s a knock on the door. He’s managed to get into our room.
Phew. A quick brush of the teeth and wash of the face and it’s off to bed.
A minor inconvenience for an unbelievable day. Good night.