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Travel Blog: London sheds pounds, and their loss is our gain

LONDON -- Financial crisis, financial schmisis! London remains a vibrant, colorful, exciting world capital rivaled only by New York in the Western world for sheer fabulousness.

Sure, their new coalition government, lead by the Conservative Party with a junior Liberal Party partner, is braying about belt-tightening fiscal austerity measures, but you'd never know it in the whirligig, multicultural, hustle-bustle of Europe's still-reigning financial capital. For anyone who visited during the grim Margaret Thatcher years, the transformation of this gritty, nearly collapsed city to the pulsating capital it is today is nothing short of miraculous.

Ultimately, it's difficult, perhaps futile to compare New York and London. They're both great cities with diverse populations. One key difference, however, is the preponderance of groups in London from former colonies -- especially Asia, the sub-Asian continent, the Middle East, Africa, Oceana and Australia -- who moved to London simultaneously assimilating while holding onto cherished traditions making London a one-stop shop for anyone looking to travel the world without leaving the city.

Unlike the more planned European cities such as Paris, Barcelona or Rome -- or even in Britannia's imperial cities like Delhi with its broad avenues created by 19th-century English urban planners -- London never had a grand re-do of its twisting, winding streets. Rather than an easily navigated grid system, visitors find a seemingly random and often confusing but ultimately charming series of one-way streets curving into two-way streets, all circling parks and monuments in a willy-nilly fashion. The subway system too at first glance seems a splatter of multicolored strands of spaghetti.

However this is still England, and logic and order rule the realm. There are easily navigated and clearly marked buses and subway lines -- the Tube -- running all day and a system of night buses with service to most tourist areas, including gay spots like SoHo and Vauxhall. You'll find maps, electronic transport timetables and street signage super clear and easy to follow. (You hear that, New York!?)

The only transportation-related danger to visitors is the stream of traffic, which flows on the wrong, er, left side of the road. Helpful indicators at street crossings advise visitors to look left or right. Heed those signs.

London is one of the greenest cities in the world with a staggering number of huge, sprawling parks. Green Park is home to Buckingham Palace. Hyde Park -- formerly a royal hunting ground -- boasts Kensington Palace and the Albert Memorial. Plus there are tiny parks coating the entire city in a patchwork of green.

London is also one of the gayest cities in the world and many say it boasts the most beautiful gay women and men on the planet, though most New Yorkers would take exception to that assertion.

London is an exciting city that just gets better and better with each passing year, and it's a great time for Americans to visit. While London is still one of the most expensive cities on the planet, the exchange rate has not been this favorable for some time, recently hitting a low of about $1.44 -- still pricey but better than the nearly $2 that it was before the economic crisis struck a blow to London's finances.

Note also that Gay Pride London is around the corner starting June 19 and culminating in a fabulous, crowded parade on July 3. Their Pride parade is more political than we are used to seeing in the States, with socialists, anarchists and women's rights activists sharing the parade route with proudly serving out-gay servicewomen and men.

Getting there, getting around

Take the Heathrow Express (www.heathrowexpress.com), the quickest and most efficient public transportation option for getting from the airport to downtown London.

Trains leave Heathrow every 15 minutes and arrive into Paddington Station. Buy online in advance, print out the ticket and simply show it to the ticket-taker on the train. Depending on your hotel's location, it may be easiest to take a taxi from Paddington to avoid lugging bags up and down the often long escalators in London's tube.

If you take public transportation in London, which is cheap and incredibly efficient, it's best to get an Oyster card -- an all-access card good on the Tube and in buses (www.visitlondon.com/travel/oyster/index).

If you fly American Airlines (aa.com/rainbow) to London and arrive early you may want to freshen up before you arrive at your hotel, which may not have early check in. Hit the showers at the new AA Flagship Arrivals Lounge (www.aa.com/i18n/travelInformation/airportAmenities/AAFlagshipLounges.jsp)

Find information about London Gay Pride at www.pridelondon.org and official gay and lesbian London trip-planning information at: www.visitlondon.com/people/gay/. London also boasts an official brick-and-mortar LGBT Tourist Office, 30 Lisle St., Leicester Square.

Gay stays

For gay visitors, there are many great lodging options throughout the city.
On a recent visit, we explored the Mayfair section, in London's West End, which is a central area with convenient access to parks, public transport, shopping, theater, museum and dining. It's also within walking distance to SoHo London's primarily gay section, and only a few Tube stops to Vauxhall, London's other main gay nightlife area.

Located just north of Green Park, near the Green Park Tube stop, the Flemings Hotel Mayfair (www.flemings-mayfair.co.uk/) is a luxurious though laid-back property with 119 rooms, a bar and a restaurant, with incredibly helpful, friendly service focused on the needs of their guests whom they pride themselves on knowing.

The hotel was built in 1851, the same year as the Great Exposition organized by Prince Albert and opened by his wife Queen Victoria in the Crystal Palace in nearby Hyde Park, making it the second oldest continuously operated hotel in London. Some of the buildings that comprise the hotel date from 1730 but the entire hotel has been continuously updated.

The hotel is run by an out gay general manager who, along with his staff, is always ready to let his lesbian and gay guests know what bars, restaurants, shows and events may be of interest to them the city. A nice touch is the fresh-baked goodies delivered to the room (free of charge) for your enjoyment. Considering it's a five-star property, the hotel offers competitive rates and is very popular with Americans.

Also steps away from Green Park to the east via an almost secret alley is the lovely Stafford Kempinski Hotel (www.kempinski.com/en/london/Pages/Welcome.aspx).

To the right of the hotel entrance is the ancestral home of Diana, Princess of Wales. This topnotch choice offers luxurious décor and furnishings, excellent service and a few surprises, including a vast wine cellar with tasting/dining area and a makeshift "museum" in the basement with artifacts from the days this area served as an air-raid shelter during World War II.

If budget permits, newly renovated apartments and brand new building in the back offer private entrances. The hotel even has an outdoor dining area for breakfast or lunch, perfect on those rare, heaven-sent sunny London days.

Just off the crush of shoppers and tourists stampeding along Brompton Road is the Berkeley -- pronounced "barklay" -- (www.the-berkeley.co.uk/), a serene, superb, super-discreet hotel property (there are no flags flying at the hotel entrance and barely noticeable is the name Berkeley etched in stone near the entrance) with a feature unique to London: a pool on the top floor with retractable roof.

On the roof in the warmer months, the hotel also shows movies for its guests. The small but well-provisioned fitness center features treadmills with floor-to-ceiling views of Hyde Park, so you can imagine yourself jogging through the park.

If you don't stay here, it's worth a visit to check out the hotel's Prêt a Port-Tea, an afternoon tea service whose sweet options are designed in homage to the most recent fashions from the world's major clothing designers. A recent Jean Paul Gauthier frothy yellow number is rendered as a mouth-watering light and airy lemon pastry.

The Westbury Mayfair (www.westburymayfair.com) attracts fashionistas from around the world with its stylishly designed rooms and common areas, and bar, its attentive service, and a casually luxurious (and delicious) restaurant, the Artisan. The hotel excitedly awaits the opening of a new sushi restaurant scheduled to open later this year.

Pub crawl

London's gay nightlife is among the best in the world with pretty much something for everything, though there seems to be a recent surge in venues and events for bears of all stripes and their admirers.

There are pubs, bars, and other venues scattered throughout the city but the biggest concentrations are in SoHo -- primarily the area for pubs, bars and dance bars and Vauxhall for bars and later-night clubs. Here are a few that are very popular with visitors and locals alike.

Two tried-and-true venues in SoHo are Comptons of Sohho, which attracts a diverse crowd, and G.A.Y. (www.g-a-y.co.uk/), in the venue occupied for years by Heaven, both on Old Compton Street.

The Box Bar (www.boxbar.com/) on Monmouth Street in the very cool Seven Dials area near Covent Garden closes early, but is a terrific café/bar to grab a beer after work hours through evening right until dinner. Allow yourself a good hour to explore Seven Dials and all its very trendy little men's clothing stores and other boutiques.

Another post-work spot open till 1 a.m. is Rupert Street (www.rupertstreet.com/) at 50 Rupert St, which is packed with happy booze-swilling gay boys outside (especially in milder weather). If you happen to see a show at Gielgud Theater, which is currently showing “Hair,” you should have just enough time to hit Rupert for a drink during interval (their word for intermission). The stage door faces Rupert's meaning you'll often get to see the actors sneak a cigarette between acts.

Next door to Rupert is the Duke of Wellington pub, which gets spillover from Rupert bar but is also popular for its less see-and-be-seen scene.

Profile (http://profilesoho.com) is similar to New York's trendy G Bar and Low Profile, the dance bar beneath it attract guys in their 20s to 40s.

Bar Code on Archer Street (www.bar-code.co.uk/flash.html ) attracts more of a muscle-bear crowd, though not exclusively.

For a gay-popular afternoon tea (where you can easily substitute a martini for that black liquid), check out the Metropolitan Bar at the Metropolitan Hotel (www.metropolitan.london.como.bz/), which offers lower-calorie, low-carbohydrate options during Afternoon De-Light -- a big hit with the gay boys, lipstick lesbians and others watching their waist lines.

Head to the increasingly gay-popular Vauxhall area south of SoHo and central London, across the Thames (take the tube to Vauxhall stop but remember the last trains are usually around 12:15 and 12:30 am) where you'll find an array of gay spots under the bridge just across from the Tube exit.

Bar Code Vauxhall (www.bar-code.co.uk/flash.html), brother club to Bar Code on Archer, is fun but it is more clubby and attracts a younger demographic, in their 20s to 30s.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (www.rvt.org.uk/event/bar-wotever-33) and the Eagle (www.eaglelondon.com/) are good places for a drink and to meet a more leather and bear demographic. For more info on the Vauxhall area visit www.realvauxhall.co.uk/

Swept along by Victoriana

There are simply countless ways to spend time in London. You can check out art from ancient and classical to modern and cutting edge. You can enjoy music, performance and theater, as well as historical, religious and cultural attractions. You can shop, drink or dine your way to oblivion.

If it's your first time, there are certain must-see attractions like Big Ben, the Millennium Eye, the Tate Modern and so on.

If you've visited in the past, perhaps you can pick a theme to help you focus your limited time, and have at it.

On a recent visit, I was inspired by "The Young Victoria" (www.theyoungvictoriamovie.com/), a charming movie I happened to watch on the flight to London. This feature, starring Emily Blunt, depicted the very early years of young Queen Victoria's rise to the throne as well as her courtship with and marriage to her cousin Prince Albert from Germany. There are lots of interesting historical quirks to their union, including the fact that, as the ruling monarch, she essentially had to propose to him. A modern-seeming marriage, she took care of the state and he was head of the family, a role he truly owned and excelled at by all reports. He also headed up numerous commissions, including organizing the very important (and history changing) Great Exhibition of 1851.

Considering Victoria was the longest-reigning monarch in England's history (with the 110th anniversary of her death in January 2011), it's no surprise that the city is chock-a-block with streets, memorials, museums, exhibits and events dedicated to her memory, as well as that of her short-lived husband who died at 42, after more than 20 years of marriage to Victoria. He fathered her nine children and fostered in her a love of the arts.

Your first stop is the Victoria and Albert Museum (www.vam.ac.uk/), whose dedication was Victoria's last official duty before she died. She wanted to call it simply the Albert Museum but her advisers persuaded her to add her name. The museum does not contain much work or many artifacts from their life, but it is well worth a visit. Added bonus: The main museum and collections are free.

The Victoria and Albert Museum is also hosting the marvelous Grace Kelly exhibit, but hurry, it only runs through Sept. 26. Be sure to get tickets in advance. Info: www.vam.ac.uk/collections/fashion/gracekelly/home/.

To get a sense of their life together, you'll have to check out the Queen's Gallery (www.royalcollection.org.uk/), a small museum next to Buckingham Palace, which exhibits items from the permanent collection on a temporary basis, usually just one themed collection at a time.

You can see "Victoria and Albert: Art & Love" through Oct. 31. It shows how important art collecting was to the young couple. Many pieces were commissioned by Victoria or Albert; gifts to each other; and objects gifted to them, including a fabulous pre-fabricated (for easy shipping) carved-ivory throne from India, like a very early (incredibly valuable) Ikea chair. The Queen's Gallery will close down at the end of this show and reopen in April 2011 after renovations.

Be sure to check out the Albert Memorial (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington_gardens/tours/index.cfm), a gorgeous monument in Hyde Park across from The Royal Albert Hall (www.royalalberthall.com/).

This lovingly designed homage to the beloved husband of Victoria emphasizes Albert's support of and passion for the arts, sciences and learning.

The final stop of the Victoria tour is the Kensington Palace, home to seven princesses including Victoria, Princess Margaret, Princess Diana and other important and often tragic royal British women.

The current exhibit, "Enchanted Palace" (www.hrp.org.uk/enchangedpalace), is an out-of-the-ordinary interactive experience, part poetic fairy tale, part whodunit where visitors at each of the allegory-laden displays must interpret hints, fragments of poetry and other visual cues to suss out the princesses who resided here over the past 300 years. The palace is planning to close later in 2010 for extensive renovations, reopening in early 2012.

The fantastic Natural History Musuem (www.nhm.ac.uk), which is located next door to the Victoria and Albert Museum, is well worth a visit. Come for the dinosaurs and gems and vast number of curiosities and artifacts but marvel at the splendid Victorian museum building itself and the creative, scientific, we-can-do-anything spirit of the age Victoria helped create.

Ed Salvato has been called “the world’s foremost expert in gay travel.” You might remember him as editor in chief of OUT & ABOUT and The Out Traveler. He also oversaw travel as senior online editor for Gay.com, PlanetOut.com and Advocate.com. He has logged over a million miles visiting countless destinations on six continents. Antarctica is next on his list. Reach him at Ed@EdSalvato.com.