Luxury in London

British Airways unveils its sumptuous Airbus business class and opens doors around the Square Mile.

BRITISH AIRWAYS Airbus 350 provides all the comfort needed for an energetic visit to London and its many attractions  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BRITISH AIRWAYS Airbus 350 provides all the comfort needed for an energetic visit to London and its many attractions
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There are less comfortable ways to fly from Tel Aviv to London, but there might not be a more comfortable way than on British Airways Airbus-350-1000 in business class.
For a group of seven Israeli journalists and their remarkable escort Sophie Gersh Barak, who traveled to London as the guests of British Airways, the experience both in the air and on the ground in London proved memorable.
The aircraft boast personal suites with sliding doors that afford maximum privacy. And in tourist class there is much more leg room than in older planes and there are detachable headrests on all seats.
 Our group boarded the A350 ahead of other passengers so that Ariel Klausner-Stern, the cabin crew manager, could show us around and explain the benefits of the suite which include lowering and raising the seat for passenger comfort, adjusting the seat to a full length bed, and several push button devices which give new meaning to compact storage. It was amazing how much could slide out or just open up at the press of a button.
But the best thing was that there was no way that a person sitting in front of you and pressing the recliner button could make your life uncomfortable.
As luxurious as these suites are – and there are similar ones in First Class on the 787 Dreamliner on which we returned to Israel – anyone suffering from claustrophobia should look at a simulated version before making a reservation. Sometimes it’s better to travel tourist class, which in the A350 is very comfortable with plenty of leg room.
We arrived in London, expecting rain, but it was gloriously sunny, and stayed that way for the four days that we were there. A light drizzle came in the afternoon of our last day, but it didn’t really affect us because we spent most of that day indoors or traveling by bus.
In addition to flying passengers to destinations around the world, British Airways promotes tourism to the UK, and has arrangements with various tourist services and facilities including hotels, restaurants, theaters, etc.
After a very long walk through Heathrow Airport, including climbing the stairs of two very steep escalators which were not operational, we finally got into the bus that took close to 90 minutes to get into the heart of London.
Visitors to London should be aware that there’s a lot of walking, including to toilets in restaurants, where they are usually two or three flights down the stairs. There’s also a lot of walking in the underground stations – and here too there are staircases in addition to escalators and elevators, which are not always easily accessible.
But in the streets, every possible measure has been taken to ensure the safety of pedestrians.
London in the month before Christmas is truly a joy to behold. There were decorations everywhere, but Oxford Street had the best.
If your visit to London is brief, as ours was, one thing you shouldn’t miss is a walking tour of Notting Hill, which begins at 10:30 a.m. and finishes at around 1 p.m.
If you’re lucky, your guide will be Jordan Pattison who lived in the neighborhood for eight years and moved out four years ago because he could no longer afford to pay the rent even though his regular job is as an account manager for a global company specializing in digital signing and video streaming. Notting Hill, he said, has now become one of the most exclusive areas in London. Because he loves guiding and meeting new people, Pattison works as a guide during weekends and specially led a mid-week tour for us. Pattison, who can be contacted through [email protected], has an acute sense of drama, so as we walked along and he told us the history of Notting Hill and Portobello Road, and of some of the famous and notorious people who had populated the neighborhood and who in some cases still do, his narrative was almost like street theater.
Pattison pointed to a house that belongs to former footballer David Beckham for which he paid £6 million, and which he uses to accommodate friends who are visiting London.
Pattison told us that when the Beatles did their Hard Days Night movie scene in Notting Hill, Ringo Star had to disguise himself in order to escape the attentions of the young women in the area.
In December 2000, US president Bill Clinton, after having morning tea with the Queen, toured Portobello Road in Notting Hill and together with his entourage stopped off at the Portobello Gold Pub, where he spent some 45 minutes, said Pattison. When the time came to pay the bill there was a power outage, and therefore neither Clinton nor any of his people could use their credit cards and they had no cash with them. So, they left without paying. Since then, said Pattison, there’s a local joke that anyone who goes to Portobello Gold asks to have whatever they order to be put on Clinton’s tab.
As is the case in Israel now, and has been in London for some years, you cannot pay for a ticket on the bus. The most useful purchase you can make in London is an oyster card which works on the same principle as a Rav Kav and is suitable for buses, trains and underground transport.
There are different kinds of travel cards, most of which can and should be purchased in advance via the Internet.
MakeMyDay, a British tourist service, had arranged for us to experience dining and drinking pleasures in various restaurants, and cocktail bars – not an easy thing for this writer who keeps kosher, but many London eateries have vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu – and there was sufficient variety to make dining an interesting experience – more so for other members of the group who had no dietary restrictions, and for the most part were more than satisfied.
Only someone who has no money can go hungry in London. There are eateries everywhere to suit every taste and pocket plus nicely presented pre-packaged sandwiches, pastries and full ready-made meals – not all of which have to be heated – in every supermarket and convenience store.
The first restaurant in which we ate lunch was the Swan, which is part of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on the bank of the Thames. It’s quite common to come out and find people in costume having a smoke.
Somewhat more sophisticated and infinitely larger was the evening meal at Bob Bob Cité in the Leadenhall Skyscraper building. This is an immensely huge upmarket restaurant with lots of different sized private alcoves as well as several private dining rooms. It’s a French-style brasserie whose chef Eric Chavot enjoys culinary stardom. My avocado salad was delicious and slightly sweet like the one I make myself.
Bob Bob Cité, which is owned by a Russian billionaire, opened only last May after five years of construction and special-detail décor at a total cost of £25 million. It boasts the largest champagne list in the UK.
Following our Notting Hill tour, we had been scheduled to dine at Ottolenghi’s Deli for a taste of home, but the store is small and is very crowded, so we opted not to stay, even though most of what was on display was vegan and typically Mediterranean.
Instead, one of our number who is very familiar with London took us to Cote Brassiere after walking past several other well-patronized restaurants. There were various salads on the menu. Both the spinach and the tomato salads were excellent. My colleagues were equally enamored with their meat and fish choices.
We decided to skip the pre-theater dinner at Kerridge’s Bar and Grill in the swanky Corinthia Hotel in the theater district, because we realized we would be late to an ultra-modern multi-racial production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theater, and instead went there after the play. There were two menus, one of which was vegan, and the pumpkin soup was sheer heaven.
One of our group who had done her own thing during the day had been scheduled to join us at the theater, but was unaware that the NATO summit was taking place in London at the same time and her Uber taxi driver was equally ignorant of the fact. It should have taken at most ten minutes to get to the theater from the hotel, but so many roads were closed that after more than an hour of driving and being stuck in traffic, he took her back to the starting point and she missed seeing the play. That episode cost her £55.
On the following night, we went to the Gong Bar on the 52nd floor of the fabulous Shangri-la luxury hotel. We had to change elevators at a certain point, which gave us the opportunity to see the impressive public area. The Gong Bar is the highest in London or Western Europe for that matter, and the view from the windows is breath-taking, especially at night.
Earlier in the day, we had taken a river boat from Westminster to Tower Bridge, had alighted at the pier, and then walked around the London Borough Market with its many gourmet foods, some straight from the farm, and happily right in the middle of the market a vegan take-away. As a matter of fact almost everything in the market is take-away and people were walking and eating out of small rectangular boxes of varied cuisine.
On one side, the exit from the market emerges near the Shard, a 95 story glass tower near London Bridge which is also where the Shangri-la is located.
We also went along the colorful walkway between Tower Bridge and London Bridge.
On the morning of our last day some of us went to the Tate Gallery which was within five minutes’ walk of our hotel. One of its key donors is Len Blavatnik, who is also a major donor to causes in Israel. Here too, we kept going up and down the stairs, but the London skyline view from the 10th floor was worth the effort.
The rest of our day was spent traveling to BA headquarters, seeing the Learning Academy visiting the British Airways Heritage Museum and meeting BA Chief Executive Alex Cruz.
The training procedures and simulated facilities, which are also used by El Al and other airlines, were quite fascinating and the Heritage Museum which is run on a voluntary basis by BA retirees was a wonderfully easy way to learn the history of air travel, and how it has changed in the period of a century. Jim Davies, who showed us around and who is a walking encyclopedia about airplanes, air travel and famous people, who have traveled on BA told us that the highlight of his career was escorting the queen last May.
Considering its more profitable destinations, we asked Cruz whether it was worthwhile for BA to continue on the London-Tel Aviv route.
He replied that pilots from both countries have a special relationship because BA’s pilots – like El Al’s pilots – are former Air Force pilots. “Tel Aviv is a good stable route that will always be there,” he said.
The writer was a guest of British Airways.