This post will not be your usual “look how cool London is” kind of travel post. Not because London isn’t cool, London is cool AF. Much like Tokyo, Paris and NY, you can bet your bottom dollar (or pound sterling, I guess) that London will deliver on all your expectations! If it’s red buses, red post boxes or even red phone booths you’re after, well, you can see all that in my ‘Icons of London’ post from a few weeks back. Yep, they’re all there and they are indeed what makes London such an iconic city.
However, with London being such a well-documented travel destination, we thought we would use this post to show you what we loved about London and our experience with iconic British brand Virgin Atlantic. We were lucky enough to attend London Fashion Week Men with the Edwardian Hotel group during our stay, but it was too much to fit into one post (so sit tight while we get working on that). In the meantime, here’s a little taster that squeezes 1 crazy week into 2 and a half minutes.
I think we can all agree that flying is often just a means to an end, right!? The grudge purchase you make in order to get to the place you want to be! That’s mostly because flying sucks… when really it shouldn’t. You’re in a 200-ton steel vessel hurtling through the skies at impossible speeds all while sipping on a glass of wine and watching your favorite Disney movie! I mean, that’s pretty awesome really! So why do so many airlines suck the joy out of it?
I’ve wanted to fly with Virgin Atlantic my whole adult life (true story) but never really had the opportunity. The simple reason is that it just seemed so damn fun… so effortlessly coooool – like that kid at school who drove a banged-up Alfa Romeo but still got all the girls! So, needless to say, we jumped at the opportunity when Virgin Atlantic invited us to experience their Upper-Class on a trip to London Fashion Week Men.
Like most good stories, our experience started with a great cocktail. Once all the necessary checking-in and passport control admin was out the way, we headed straight for the Virgin Clubhouse at JHB international (O.R Tambo) for a Negroni, a Martini and a couple of nibbles. The clubhouse also offers à la carte dining with some local specialties, but we decided to keep our appetite for dining at 30 000ft. Having some time to get away from the airport mayhem before your flight really helps take away the stress and boredom associated with traveling – we call it the ‘hurry up and wait’ scenario – where you are ushered from queue to queue just to queue.
We were welcomed onboard the ‘Pearly Queen’ (that was our airplanes name) with a glass of champagne and a “Hi’ya” followed by a massive smile! The first thing that stood out to me was the air hostess’s approach to hospitality. Rather than treating you like a 3-year-old who hasn’t been properly potty trained, you get treated like an old friend – A novel approach for an airline, but it certainly works. : ) The Upper-Class cabin has a unique herringbone seating configuration that results in every seat being an aisle seat. This means you don’t have to walk over anybody when you need to stretch your legs or head to the bathroom to put your sleepsuit on. Yes, I said, sleepsuit, you know, like PJ’s. With this being an overnight flight we were given a comfy sleepsuit to slip into after dinner in order to catch some decent shut-eye without wrinkling our actual suit. It was Virgin Atlantics dining options however, that really brought home the effortlessly cool approach I was expecting from the airline. The meals feel home-cooked and hearty rather than fancy and finicky. We settled on the cream of tomato soup and roast chicken, both of which were delicious before sharing a cheeseboard – the seat configuration creates a table setting that allows passengers who are traveling together to dine together – it’s super cool. My favorite offering though was the little bowls of popcorn they pass around just as you settle into your movie – I mean, it seems obvious but why don’t more airlines serve you popcorn while you watch a movie? If at any time you get an onboard snack attack, you can simply make your way to Virgins famous Wander Wall, where you can just pick up a variety of sweet and salty treats to fill the gap! If it’s a drink you’re after, just make your way to the onboard bar (yep, an actual sky bar) to top up your champagne or get a fresh cocktail! Having visited both (numerous times) during this very short 11-hour flight, I finally found time to enjoy the best offering on Upper-Class, a good nights sleep on a lie-flat bed in a haze of purple mood lighting! It was awesome!
English writer Samuel Johnson declared that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This little piece of wisdom was placed upon our pillow during turndown service on our final night at the Mayfair hotel. The timing couldn’t have been better! A week in London had definitely tired us out, but we were not yet tired of London.
The reality is that London never really lets you run out of things to do. Your first trip is likely to be filled with ticking things off your tourist bucket list. Big Ben, The Tower of London, The London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus, Oxford-street… The list is long, so long in fact that you may only get to most of it on your second trip to London. Either way, it needs to be done, it’s a right of passage and the only way to scratch that royal itch for all things Bri’ish. It’s on your third trip however that London really comes to life. On your third trip, you get to visit London like a local… and this just happened to be our third trip, geezer.
A short walk up from Covent Garden, at the end of Tottenham Court Road just a stone’s throw away from Soho, lay the Radisson Blu Edwardian, Bloomsbury Street, our home suite home (see what I did there) for the week. We dropped our bags and explored London in the best possible way, by foot! We had no plan… other than eat and drink anything that looks appealing of course. With close to 40 000 eateries (70 of which are Michelin starred restaurants) in London, you don’t need to go very far to find a little hidden gem. It wasn’t very long till we started stumbling on to them.
It would be impossible to list every meal and experience we had, so for the sake of your time and mine, I thought it best to narrow it down to our top few.
Brick Lane Sunday Market – Everyone generally heads to Borough Market for their foodie fix and although this classic London market has an incredible offering, it can be a little crowded with tourists and a little pricey. We stumbled onto the Brick Lane Market inside the Old Truman Brewery after a London Fashion Week show and were blown away with the authentic back to basics food market vibe! Nothing fancy, just fantastic vendors turning out their specialties and some of the best dumplings we’ve had this side of Hong Kong. Once you’re done stuffing your face, you can walk it off along the famous vintage market.
Leicester square kitchen – I know what you’re thinking, why the hell would you eat anywhere on Leicester Square? I know. But trust me when I tell you this was possibly the best meal we had during our stay. Offering up Mexican and Peruvian small plates, this place is an absolute must! The smoked Aztec Negroni was a total highlight and none of the 8 small plates we ordered disappointed. Don’t leave without trying the Sea Bass Ceviche or the Sliced Beef Tenderloin Anticucho! A tourist trap this is not!
Golden Union Fish and chips – This place was so good we dedicated an entire WMBW Eats blog post to it. You can find it here.
Dishoom – It’s impossible to visit London without going for at least one curry after all. Chicken Tikka Masala is the national dish you know. Dishoom is, however, not your local curry house and you won’t find any Vindaloo or Korma here. Based on the old Irani cafes of Bombay, Dishoom serves up modern Indian in a vintage chic setting! There’s a reason for the seemingly endless queues at any of the Dishoom locations spread out around London, we’re betting it’s the Murgh Malai – a chicken thigh meat skewer marinated in garlic, ginger! Apparently, Dishoom is THE place to go for breakfast…if you can get in of course : )
Dirty Bones – After our first failed attempt at getting into Dishoom (the queue was ridiculous and it was 9PM) we walked down to Kingly Court just off Carnaby street to take a chance on any of the amazing eateries in this not so little courtyard. Not shy of a little BBQ, Dirty Bones on the top floor seemed like the obvious choice. This is one of 4 locations serving American comfort food to a backdrop of classic hip-hop, funk and soul. The entire experience was incredible, the service, the atmosphere and of course, the food was as comforting as the cocktails. The fried chicken and waffles doused in Maple Syrup alone is reason enough to take an 11 hour flight back to London.
Berenjak – If you blink whilst walking through Soho, you will definitely miss Berenjaks. This tiny restaurant aims to evoke the style of rustic hole-in-the-wall eateries in Tehran. If a tiny hole in the wall is what they’re after, they nailed it! We literally sat elbow to elbow. Tell you what else they nailed, every single dish! This Persian themed restaurant uses local British produce to recreate signature dishes that literally have you scraping every grain of rice of your plate! I’ve never really had Persian food before and now that I know what I missed out on, it kinda bums me out!
Last (but not least) on the list was a different experience altogether, a wine tasting at the world-famous Berry Bro’s & Rudd – this was more of a liquid lunch, to be honest. Berry Bro’s & Rudd are Britains oldest wine and spirit merchant who’ve been working out of the same store since 1698. With over 300 years in the business its fair to say these guys know their Chenin from their Chardonnay, so much so, that they curate the entire wine list for Virgin Atlantic Upperclass! Having not had enough time on board to get through all the wines, we saw this opportunity as more of a challenge! If you ever get a chance to experience one of these tasting, grab it with both hands, one for the wine glass and the other to fist pump the air!
There is one last experience pictured below that goes on to the AVOID list and that’s Tea at the Harrods Tea Room. If you know anything about the Brits, you’ll know that they’re crazy for a cup’a. Tea seems to be an all-day affair in this part of the world and the solution to any and every problem. So it goes without saying that a traditional English tea and scones were a must-do for our trip and what better place to do it than in the fanciness of the Harrods Tea Room. Or so we thought. What a letdown. In short, the service is terrible the prices are ridiculous and the portions are laughable. It’s definitely catering only to tourists. After leaving our £25 tea experience behind we popped into Boots to grab a meal deal…like regular Londoners!
I know it seems as though our trip to London was all about eating, but that’s really not the case. We did a fair amount of drinking too : ) Nothing makes you feel more local than stepping into your local for a pint of Guinness or a lager. London pubs seem to be the mixing pot of the city and you’ll quickly find yourself at the bar with a lawyer on one side and a laborer on the other! It’s probably the most authentic experience you’ll find in the whole town!
Of course, there’s a lot more to do in London than eat and drink, but as non-foodies (the term ‘foodies’ is so wanky) who love to eat there is no place in the world that fulfills your appetite better!
Before we knew it though, we were sitting back on the Picadilly line heading for Heathrow. Lucky for us we had the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse to look forward to and a whole new Upper-Class experience to take in! Virgin Atlantic has its own Upper-Class wing in Heathrow Terminal 3. They describe it as “having your own private airport” and it’s a pretty accurate description. Check-in was a 3 min process, maybe 4 min. With boarding pass in hand, you open a secret wall (James bond style) that gives you access to the private security channel. All said and done we were in the Virgin Clubhouse within 10 minutes! Hands down the best check in experience of our lives!
The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse must set the golden standard for business class lounges the world over. It hits a perfect balance of fun and sophistication and is without question the most incredible lounge we’ve ever experienced. It lacks for nothing. The lounge is massive, so massive in fact that it makes the 14metre bar at its core look like a drinks trolley. Why so massive? Well, they need the room for the luggage storage, hair salon, beauty spa, games room, sit down restaurant, deli, viewing deck, roof garden, TV room, shower facilities, shoeshine station and 1000 seats – Okay, I didn’t actually count the seats but I’de bet there were 1000 at least.
At the center of it all sits the aforementioned bar with a cocktail list curated by Londons Dandelyon Bar, naturally, I got stuck into my traditional pre-flight negroni before picking a seat at the virtual fireplace! Turns out there are no bad places to sit as you can order off the a la carte menu from anywhere in the lounge, there are waiters everywhere just waiting to top up your glass or bring you a plate of chicken wings! If there is one piece of advice I can offer for your trip to the Virgin Atlantic clubhouse is come early and come hungry. Fine, that’s 2 pieces of advice, but the one really leads on to the other. We were in the lounge for about 3 hours and that barely gave us enough time walk around it nevermind experience it all! We would have loved to experience the complimentary spa treatments or haircuts but spent so much time working our way down the food and cocktail menu that we never got there.
It goes without saying that a trip to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse is an experience all on its own, they should put it into London guide books or make it a stop on the Hop on Hop Off sightseeing bus! It definitely lives up to all the hype.
Eventually, our flight was called and our time in London was up. London can be a bit of a warp zone for time, the week spent wandering the streets seemed like it went on forever but by the time we boarded the plane, it felt as though we had barely arrived. In the end, our departure was bittersweet. There was so much we didn’t manage to see and so much more we didn’t manage to taste, our only consolation was that we could plan or return trip over a glass of champagne at a bar going 900km an hour.
If you haven’t been to London. Go.
Oaky, travel safe and stay fancy.