Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Carpe diem

Jailan Halawi recounts 48 hours of guiltless pleasures in London

There are times in life when one feels stressed out beyond repair; when you feel that the forces of nature have suddenly and inexplicably decided to conspire against you. In this down and out mood, I received a welcome call for a 48- hour assignment to a destination I consider my second home: London.

Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.

It had been four years since I was last in the British capital, so the excitement kept me up all night. Ever since the age of seven I've had a passion for this cosmopolitan city, which left quite an impression on me even at such a young age. Blessed with family and friends there, my trips have been frequent although every time feels like the first. I anxiously awaited my ride to the airport as I sipped my staple morning coffee on the balcony.

As the car pulled up at the terminal, I could tell that my trip will be memorable. It began with a business class ticket on the United Kingdom's national carrier British Airways (BA). As VIPs, the handful of reporters tapped for this trip promoting the opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 were quickly checked in and, by virtue of our flight rate, enjoyed breakfast at the exclusive Business Class Lounge. We were a group of seven, two first-timers to the UK, four had been at least once, and one national whose obvious excitement to visit home -- albeit briefly -- reflected on us all.

As we boarded, I became very excited about trying out the lounging seats which turn into beds -- a feature which BA prides itself in being the first to use in Business and First Class cabins. Arriving at my aisle seat I found everything very pleasing and inviting.

As a frequent flyer, I have travelled on several carriers and even tried First Class travelling a few times. Service in this exclusive class had always impressed me, but BA's lower grade Business Class promised to leave an even stronger impression on me. For some reason, the flight attendants seemed ready to cater to all our needs and genuinely happy to serve us. It certainly does make a difference when you feel that your pleasure and comfort are your host's top priority.

As soon as I was settled into my seat, I immediately began experimenting with all the buttons, until my plush seat slowly -- but surely -- straightened out into a full-length bed. I didn't wait for the crew to finish their hospitality rituals or dim the lights, and I was gone in a matter of seconds. It's actually quite difficult for me to sleep anywhere but my bed, but when I woke up my fellow travellers asked if I'm in the habit of smiling in my sleep. Strange.

It was almost time to land at Heathrow Airport, so I freshened up and readied for my shortest trip ever to London. Upon arrival, procedures were swift and we were whisked away to our hotel. I filled my lungs with fresh air, washing away the fatigue and stress of recent months, eager to take in all the excitement to come. En route, I saw the Harrods department store at Knightsbridge, Brompton Road, brandishing the motto: Omnia Omnibus Ubique -- All Things for All People, Everywhere. For me, this is exactly what London is about.

Despite my regular trips there, I've always stayed with family, friends or rented apartments. So, the Royal Lancaster Hotel was only my fourth experience with hotels, and by far my most favourite since it's only a stroll away from the shops on Oxford Street, theatres and museums. At the same time, Knightsbridge and Harrods are 10 minutes away by taxi or underground, stationed at the doorstep of the hotel. Even Heathrow Airport is a short 20-minute ride on the Heathrow Express from nearby Paddington Railway Station.

At the hotel there was a delay at check in, so we decided to have lunch at the Island Restaurant and Bar. The eatery is a stylish contemporary split-level space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Hyde Park, one of the largest royal parks and my favourite, alongside Regents Park and Hampstead Heath Park.

As light-headed as I was, I was ready for a hearty meal, and my diet would have to wait a few more days. Famished travellers was, in fact, a characteristic of our group that day. It left our French waitress perplexed why -- despite her explanation that the size of the entrée could do for a main course -- some of us went ahead and ordered the Caeser salad as well as a main course. Despite her preliminary shock, she politely removed our spotless plates at the end of the meal.

The hotel's management wanted to make-up for the check-in delay, and offered to treat us to any dessert of our choice. My decadent choice was ice-cream with chocolate sauce with a side serving of crème-brullee. Following lunch, we went to our rooms to freshen up and head to a brief meeting. Since the rest of the day was free, the women embarked on a shopping frenzy. Thankfully, taxi rides back from the shops with our newly purchased goods were affordable because of the hotel's vicinity.

My best buy was the all feather duck down duvet which took Hanna and me almost two hours to choose, as we flirted with a dazzling variety of home accessories, linens and duvets. Of course, the Christmas season discounts weren't much help in abating our crazed appetite for shopping. By the time we returned, all I wanted was a shower and a bed. Pleas by my colleagues to join them for dinner at the Nipper Thai restaurant -- awarded a certificate of excellence by the Thai government -- fell on deaf ears.

With much more to do, I woke up at the crack of dawn the next day, drank my coffee, nibbled on some digestive biscuits and hurried to my beloved Hyde Park. I believe these ostentatious grounds offer something for everyone, with over 4,000 trees, a lake, a meadow, horse rides, plus residential areas for the lucky ones. I went for a jog, taking in the magnificent view, enjoying the fresh morning breeze and serenity which are sorely missed in congested Cairo.

As a group, we unanimously agreed to wrap up meetings as soon as possible to leave plenty of time for sightseeing and more shopping. We were extremely lucky during our visit, because we were blessed with fair weather and a bright sun throughout. Our pick for sightseeing was the city's most popular attraction since it opened to the public in March 2000 -- the London Eye. At 135m high, the Eye is located on the south bank of the River Themes, next to County Hall just across West Minster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament.

Back in 2000, the London Eye was known as the Millennium Wheel. At that time, BA was the main sponsor, and up until November 2005 they were joint shareholders with Marks Barreled Architects and the Tussahs Group. The airline also privately funded the London Eye project from the early stages of conception. Today, the attraction is operated by the London Eye Company Limited, a Merlin Entertainment's Group Company, and is a must-visit for anyone visiting London. Even if you're afraid of heights, you can still enjoy the view and the delicacies offered by a variety of restaurants by the Themes.

In the evening, our hosts invited us to the hit play Mamma! now in its ninth year in the West End, and concurrently playing in New York, Las Vegas, Berlin, Essen, Barcelona and Moscow. The touching and hilarious storyline by Catherine Johnson is a stand alone script, but paired with the timeless music of Abba Mamma Mia! is an absolute must-see. Reviews have described this show as "the musical Abba didn't know they'd written."

Showing at the Prince of Wales Theatre, the musical is appropriately housed with comfortable seating and lay out to ensure one always has a good view of the stage. The set is fairly basic, but put to very good use in inventive ways. I can't remember laughing so much watching a British show -- the gags are fantastic and contagious, and the cast delivered an excellent performance. Being an avid Abba fan, I greatly enjoyed the songs woven into the storyline, and by the end of the show everyone was on their feet, swaying, clapping and singing along.

Following the vigour of the musical, we went to dinner at the French Chez Gerard across the street from the theatre. Recreating the look and feel of a 1930s Parisian brassiere, Chez Gerard is styled with brass and dark-wood fittings, closely spaced tables and snug booths. The menu covers such Gallic classics as French onion soup, snails in garlic butter, salad nicoise and beef bourguignon, with a range of steak- frites.

Since we were latecomers, we chose the compact pre-theatre menu to ensure we are served quickly. Although our group was divided over the superiority of the main course, everyone enjoyed large helpings of crème brulle. Personally, I stuck with the ice-cream and chocolate sauce.

On our last morning, we checked out and headed to BA's exclusive new home at London Heathrow Terminal 5, which opened on 27 March 2008. The gigantic state-of-the-art building is breathtaking. According to our guide, Terminal 5 was designed by Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners and built at a cost of 4.3 billion. It is exclusively used by BA and at full capacity can handle 30 million customers a year.

BA invested 330 million in designing and equipping the terminal, 60 million of which was spent on the lounge complex, as well as significant investment in IT systems, staff accommodation, ground vehicles and equipment, storage and maintenance facilities, plus staff training and familiarisation. The building itself is light, airy and modern -- more than 30,000 square metres of glass is used to glaze the 40m by 396m long main terminal building.

Aircraft stands are located around the buildings, and using an underground track transit system means that aeroplanes are unimpaired by cul- de-sacs or other planes when they need to pull away from the jetty. This speeds up the arrival and departure of flights and improves punctuality.

Some 80 per cent of customers use BA's self- service channels to check-in -- many of them arrive at Terminal 5 ready to fly, having checked-in via ba.com. The building is designed to ensure that customers keep moving in one direction, starting at one of the 96 check-in kiosks, continuing onto the fast bag drop desks, followed by the northern and southern security search points. Customers then pass through the retail area towards the aircraft gates.

The intelligent, flexible design of the building also means that the airline can use the desks to react to changing customer needs, and ensure a continuous forward flow of passengers. Terminal 5 was designed to ensure that it is simple for customers to make their way through the building, and the volume of kiosks and fast bag drop desks aims to eliminate queues at either of these points. The BAA (British Aviation Authority) has fitted large "beacons" as orientation landmarks, making it clear for customers where they need to be. There are plenty of screens and information, denoting the location and amount of time required to reach each gate.

I took the most pleasure in the lounges. Terminal 5 has overhauled the British Airway's airport lounges, embracing a luxurious new look and feel with crystal chandeliers, fabrics by Osborne and Little, art installations and mood lighting to reflect the time of day. Crafted screens divide the lounges into sections, beautiful wine bars welcome customers, and restaurants serve fresh food prepared in view of the traveller. Work and entertainment zones are also available with Internet services.

Indulging myself in the extreme comfort of the lounge, I was barely aware of my impending flight. If it wasn't for the inviting beds onboard, I might have even considered missing my flight altogether.

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