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London in a weekend whirl

One bargain plane ticket, 22 hours of flying, two days of fun. Let the madness begin.

March 16, 2003|Catharine Hamm | Times Staff Writer

London — The only thing we really own, a wise friend once told me, is time. Given the state of the economy, it certainly isn't discretionary income.

Like many people, I struggle to stretch my money and time. When round-trip airfares from LAX to London dropped to $330 last month and I found a hotel room at a luxury chain for $99 a night, part of the problem was solved. Bully for me and all that, but then there was the matter of time.

My biggest block of uncommitted hours was a three-day weekend, but the idea of flying 22 hours to spend 48 seemed outrageous. Who's stupid enough to go to London for a weekend?

I was.

Thus began my big fat London weekend, a mere appetizer in the smorgasbord of travel. I had two days to make up for a lifetime of neglecting one of the great cities of the world, and I was determined to cram in as much shopping, eating, female bonding (my 29-year-old niece, Angela, who lives in Surrey, joined me) and theater as I could. I would leave Friday afternoon and return Monday afternoon, swore to myself I wouldn't get jet lag because I can sleep on planes, and try to do it all for about $800. That last was no small challenge. Runzheimer International, a Wisconsin-based management consulting firm, says London tops the list of the most expensive places for business travelers.

Focus was key, I told myself. After consulting experienced London hands, I decided to limit my weekend to what I could see or do off the Underground's Piccadilly line, which bisects central London and major tourist spots. I would miss the sights between subway stops, but I also would stay sheltered from winter temperatures in the 40s and 50s.

Those to whom I disclosed my plans asked two questions:

First, can you really see London in a weekend?

The answer is yes, of course, but not thoroughly.

Second, are you nuts?

The answer is yes, thoroughly.

The clock was ticking.

Saturday

Noon. My flight arrived on time, and because I had no bags to claim, I practically flew through customs at Heathrow. Angela met me, we bought a one-day, all-zone pass for the London Underground ($8) and we were off, bound for Russell Square, where I had booked a hotel.

1:55 p.m. Patience is not my strong suit, and when I saw the line for the Russell Square station elevator leading to street level, I said, "Let's take the stairs." Angela gave me a pitying look, then let Auntie have her way. By Stair No. 82, she was smirking as I huffed and puffed. By Stair No. 133, she was practically guffawing as I gasped for air.

"I guess that's why they call it the Underground," I wheezed on the last of the 175 steps.

The little workout prepared me well for Le Meridien Russell, an imposing Victorian that's about halfway through a $24-million refurbishment. My room was on the eighth floor; elevators go only to the seventh. After the saga of the 175 steps, the single flight up was a cakewalk. Besides, for $99 a night -- a promotional rate, I learned later -- who could complain?

The turretlike room was small but clean. I did have a tiny complaint: I practically needed a stepstool to get into the tub/shower, which was unusually deep. After a quick shower, I was on my way with Angela to do some power shopping.

2:45 p.m. Harrods, Knightsbridge stop. My consultants had told me to visit the food halls of this London shopping mecca, so we dashed through the cheese and meat, the chocolate, the teas, the coffees, and I tried not to gape, failing when I spied the whole skinned rabbit in the meat case.

Next stop: Floor 2, the pet department, where live bunnies were for sale -- an unfortunate juxtaposition, I thought. The pet wares displayed a definite bias toward dogs, if the accouterments (toys, leashes, bowls, sweaters) were any indication. A cat lover, I left empty-handed.

Then it was up to the fourth floor, where I snagged two baby gifts, pausing to squeal quickly at their cuteness, then back downstairs to the Sea Grill counter in the food court, where I inhaled fluffy fish and chips (a splurge at $23) and Angela had bouillabaisse ($14).

And we were out the door.

5 p.m. Leicester Square stop. Angela marched us over to the TKTS booth, where we pondered our choices, rejecting "Auntie and Me" for "My Brilliant Divorce" at the Apollo Theatre on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue. Our tickets in the "dress circle" (balcony) cost $31.47 each, which included a $4 service charge. (Ordinarily they're $47 to $59.)

6 p.m. Piccadilly Circus. "You have to see this," Angela said, pointing to the monument that everyone calls Eros but is actually the Angel of Christian Charity. It honors the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a reformer who outlawed women and children working in the coal mines. Pictures don't quite capture it, and neither does being there. Perhaps it's like New York's Times Square: You develop an affection for it after a time, a luxury I didn't have.

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