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TRAVEL FEATURE

London, lately


Duane Wells | November 29, 2007

A friend of mine once likened London to a perfectly comfortable, if slightly well worn, slipper. Staunch and stalwart, there is a pleasant constancy to London that inspires in one an easy sense of familiarity. After all, it�s not like the grandiose Buckingham Palace, the monumental Houses of Parliament or the towering Big Ben are going anywhere. Yet in spite of its consistency, London still manages to evolve and change in subtle ways that reflect its growing citizenry and the ever-changing times.

On a recent visit to London I uncovered much that was new to me about the grand old city, which is often referred to these days as the gateway to Europe. In fact, my discovery began the moment I touched down in merry olde England at Stansted Airport.

Prior to this trip, I had flown into and through Heathrow Airport innumerable times and even had a brush or two with the landing strip at Gatwick Airport, but not until this trip had I flown into Stansted. Already popular with business class only airlines like EOS and MaxJet and growing in popularity with U.S. carriers like American Airlines, Stansted is a gem of an airport. Unlike the always overcrowded Heathrow and the far out of the way Gatwick, Stansted is an accessible and welcoming airport that is both easy to navigate and most importantly easy to get in and out of. I honestly think I spent less than 10 minutes going through immigration and I had my bags in less than 20 minutes. Surely that has got to be some kind of record!

The other handy little amenity available at Stansted Airport is the Stansted Express train which runs from the main terminal to the Liverpool Street Station in Central London and costs approximately $28. A short, well-guided walk from baggage claim, the well maintained Stansted Express runs jsut about every 15 minutes and offers over the course of its 45 minute run through the British countryside a peaceful bit of foreplay to the frantic hustle and bustle that awaits travelers at the end of the line. Once at Liverpool Street travelers can opt to take the Underground to their desired final destination or hop a cab, which this weary traveler opted for given the nearly 14 hour journey I had just endured.

After being deposited at the Stansted Express Monague on the Gardens hotel near Covent Garden, located directly across from the British Museum and a stone�s through from the heart of gay central Soho, I settled into my accomodations – one of the new, terribly modern Bloomsbury Rooms that represent the boutique hotel property�s most successful attempt to blend the contemporary with the historical. Though the room was smallish, it benefited significantly from its avant garde d�cor and the impression that it was a private guest room in a sprawling country manor. I certainly felt that way as I sat in the room�s window seat and gazed out at the distinctly British architecture surrounding the hotel.

Still a bit jet lagged I decided to forego the hubbub of Soho on that first Saturday night, but I still couldn�t resist taking a stroll through the heart of London�s gay scene en route to dinner with an old friend I had met up with in the city. On our stroll, I noted that many new bars dotted the packed Soho landscape but I was most happy to see many of the old faithfuls like G-A-Y at which I had formed so many fond memories on previous trips.

For dinner, my friend and I popped into Randall and Aubin, a West End favorite, as popular for its informal hipster vibe as it is for its fresh seafood offerings and hearty soul-satisfying fare. Depending on when you arrive, you may experience a longish wait, but the friendly staff that willingly serves guests the libations of their choice (open containers are still legal in London) while they wait helps to make the time fly by.

By the time we left dinner, Soho was hopping. Some bar patrons were already stumbling, a couple we had earlier passed at a bar on our way to dinner were standing in the same place we last saw them with full mugs of beer, one poor sod appeared to be upchucking the evenings intake in a not so very discreet corner and a band of randy, inebriated boys chatted my friend and I up on our walk back to my hotel. Grand! Boy was it good to be back in London!

Years ago, when I first visited London I remember being shocked at how early everything closed. That was before club culture reached new heights in the British capitol where, today, hard partying is for many something of a raison d�etre. While London may not have the market cornered on nightlife, there can be little doubt that Londoners take their partying very seriously. One need only take a gander at any popular watering hole on a Thursday night to qualify this theory.

The great thing about gay nightlife in London these days is that it has matured without losing any of its characters. Twinks still flock to G-A-Y in droves on any given night of the week, just as the more mature, rugged gay set takes up at the venerable Compton�s on SoHo�s Old Compton Street. Adding to the going out options nowadays are newer spots like The Yard on Rupert Street, where a smart, hipster klatch gathers in the comfy confines of the lounge-y upstairs bar area. Low-key and less cruisy than other options, The Yard is a superior meeting place if one is in search of place to get better acquainted with a potential suitor.

Diametrically opposed to The Yard is Profile, the clubby outpost owned by gay matchmaking outfit, Gaydar. Modern and sleek, the multi-level club features among other amenities a computer room where patrons can log-on presumably to schedule hookup meetings at the slick gay gathering ground. Adding to its club portfolio, Gaydar with its partners is expected to launch Lo-Profile, yet another nightspot catering to its ever-growing band of randy supporters.

For those interested in seeing and being seen, the West End�s Shadow Lounge is one of the many places of the moment to visit, if you can manage to get past the surly door guys. I suppose the anticipation of a celebrity sighting or a possible impromptu turn by pop princess Kylie Minogue demands such discretion.

Moving out of SoHo, Vauxhall has developed quite the gay scene in recent years. In fact it becomes quite rowdy at the weekend, currying particular favour from those who love the afterhours scene. With clubs like the rambling Area and the well established Crash blaring house music of every variety almost nightly, Vauxhall has fast become the destination of choice for some London gays who now eschew the more stereotypical SoHo in favor of this hodgepodge of a gay village just south of the river. Oh and speaking of hodgepodge, when clubbing just ain�t enough Vauxhall also has the popular Chariots Roman Spa to offer as a diversion. I�ll leave your mind to do the wandering as to what goes on there.

For high profile nightlife experiences in London that are less overtly gay, spots like the celebrity heavy restaurant Nobu where trippy house fills the bar area and everyone from Princess Beatrice to Rod Stewart and Penny Lancaster are regulars are surefire winners. Ditto for Mayfair�s Mahiki bar, which both Princes William and Harry frequently favour with visits alongside their love interests of the moment, and the nearby vocal house flavored Funky Buddha which is popular with British television reality types.

Another area of London that is hopping these days is the Greenwich area just at the end of the Jubilee line where much of the activity surrounding the 2012 Olympics will take place. Not only are there a couple of hopping gay clubs in the area but there are is also the expansive O2 entertainment complex where the likes of Prince and Alicia Keys have taken up residence.

Yeah, there is a lot that has not changed about London but there is also a lot that has. If you don�t know about it, then you clearly haven�t visited London lately.

Anyone who has ever visited London is probably already well acquainted with the city�s affinity for tradition. Not only does the UK capitol have it�s fair share of long-standing rituals and traditions ranging from the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace to high tea at Harrod�s, it also constantly inspires new ones that instantly become such a part of the fabric of the grand old city they seem as though they�ve always been there.

One of my favorite new traditions in London is Pret � Portea, which takes place at the seriously upscale Berkeley hotel and is most appropriately billed as a fashionista�s afternoon tea. Served between 2 and 6 PM, Pret � Portea is a traditional tea service highlighted by a range of specialty teas like Pear Caramel, African Amber and White Peony stylishly complemented by a variety of �cakes and fancies� in the colours of the current fashion season and inspired by the style of the world�s leading designers. It�s positively divine.

Another new adventure I happened upon while visiting London recently was the Champagne flight on the London Eye. I never much fancied the London Eye until the prospect of having a birdseye view of London was complemented by a glass of fine chilled Champagne. It�s a little more expensive than a normal London Eye spin, but there�s something terribly glam about sipping Champagne while gazing out over le tout London.

Speaking of le tout London, much of the British capitol is still buzzing about the anniversary of Princess Diana�s death which is being commemorated at Kensington Palace with the illuminating Diana: A Princess Remembered, an audiovisual exhibition celebrating the princess� life. A selection of the late princess� dresses which were auctioned off for charity closes the tour alongside the famed final photos of the late fashion icon by photographer, Mario Testino.

In the midst of my most recent travels around London, I happened upon Bermondsey Street a rejuvenated thoroughfare in London that fashion designer Zandra Rhodes and much of London�s new caf� society call home. Smart art galleries, trendy bars and chic shops dot this hip street where old meets new in the heart of London, just a stone�s throw from London Bridge.

Finally, for something completely different, I found myself completely in awe of Canary Wharf. London�s new financial center, Canary Wharf is sort of like the realization of a fantasy, which it is given that it was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Skyscrapers connected by underground shopping malls and computer operated trains that run above ground on rails define this sterile futuristic area of London. Like Battery Park in New York, there is a pre-fab manmade quality to this gleaming London hub, but there is also something quite visionary about it. Personally, I think it feels a bit like a grown up amusement park. In any case, love it or hate it, Canary Wharf is definitely worth experiencing for what its worth.

They say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. With traditions old and new continuing to define London there can be little doubt that even as London evolves, it will always remain the same at its staunch and stalwart core. – Gay Link Content



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