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London in a weekend whirl

Times Staff Writer

The only thing we really own, a wise friend once told me, is time. Given the state of the economy, it certainly isn’t discretionary income.

Like many people, I struggle to stretch my money and time. When round-trip airfares from LAX to London dropped to $330 last month and I found a hotel room at a luxury chain for $99 a night, part of the problem was solved. Bully for me and all that, but then there was the matter of time.

My biggest block of uncommitted hours was a three-day weekend, but the idea of flying 22 hours to spend 48 seemed outrageous. Who’s stupid enough to go to London for a weekend?

I was.

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Thus began my big fat London weekend, a mere appetizer in the smorgasbord of travel. I had two days to make up for a lifetime of neglecting one of the great cities of the world, and I was determined to cram in as much shopping, eating, female bonding (my 29-year-old niece, Angela, who lives in Surrey, joined me) and theater as I could. I would leave Friday afternoon and return Monday afternoon, swore to myself I wouldn’t get jet lag because I can sleep on planes, and try to do it all for about $800. That last was no small challenge. Runzheimer International, a Wisconsin-based management consulting firm, says London tops the list of the most expensive places for business travelers.

Focus was key, I told myself. After consulting experienced London hands, I decided to limit my weekend to what I could see or do off the Underground’s Piccadilly line, which bisects central London and major tourist spots. I would miss the sights between subway stops, but I also would stay sheltered from winter temperatures in the 40s and 50s.

Those to whom I disclosed my plans asked two questions:

First, can you really see London in a weekend?

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The answer is yes, of course, but not thoroughly.

Second, are you nuts?

The answer is yes, thoroughly.

The clock was ticking.

Saturday

Noon. My flight arrived on time, and because I had no bags to claim, I practically flew through customs at Heathrow. Angela met me, we bought a one-day, all-zone pass for the London Underground ($8) and we were off, bound for Russell Square, where I had booked a hotel.

1:55 p.m. Patience is not my strong suit, and when I saw the line for the Russell Square station elevator leading to street level, I said, “Let’s take the stairs.” Angela gave me a pitying look, then let Auntie have her way. By Stair No. 82, she was smirking as I huffed and puffed. By Stair No. 133, she was practically guffawing as I gasped for air.

“I guess that’s why they call it the Underground,” I wheezed on the last of the 175 steps.

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The little workout prepared me well for Le Meridien Russell, an imposing Victorian that’s about halfway through a $24-million refurbishment. My room was on the eighth floor; elevators go only to the seventh. After the saga of the 175 steps, the single flight up was a cakewalk. Besides, for $99 a night -- a promotional rate, I learned later -- who could complain?

The turretlike room was small but clean. I did have a tiny complaint: I practically needed a stepstool to get into the tub/shower, which was unusually deep. After a quick shower, I was on my way with Angela to do some power shopping.

2:45 p.m. Harrods, Knightsbridge stop. My consultants had told me to visit the food halls of this London shopping mecca, so we dashed through the cheese and meat, the chocolate, the teas, the coffees, and I tried not to gape, failing when I spied the whole skinned rabbit in the meat case.

Next stop: Floor 2, the pet department, where live bunnies were for sale -- an unfortunate juxtaposition, I thought. The pet wares displayed a definite bias toward dogs, if the accouterments (toys, leashes, bowls, sweaters) were any indication. A cat lover, I left empty-handed.

Then it was up to the fourth floor, where I snagged two baby gifts, pausing to squeal quickly at their cuteness, then back downstairs to the Sea Grill counter in the food court, where I inhaled fluffy fish and chips (a splurge at $23) and Angela had bouillabaisse ($14).

And we were out the door.

5 p.m. Leicester Square stop. Angela marched us over to the TKTS booth, where we pondered our choices, rejecting “Auntie and Me” for “My Brilliant Divorce” at the Apollo Theatre on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue. Our tickets in the “dress circle” (balcony) cost $31.47 each, which included a $4 service charge. (Ordinarily they’re $47 to $59.)

6 p.m. Piccadilly Circus. “You have to see this,” Angela said, pointing to the monument that everyone calls Eros but is actually the Angel of Christian Charity. It honors the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a reformer who outlawed women and children working in the coal mines. Pictures don’t quite capture it, and neither does being there. Perhaps it’s like New York’s Times Square: You develop an affection for it after a time, a luxury I didn’t have.

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6:30 p.m. Just north of Leicester Square are London’s Chinatown and Soho. We took a stroll through the pedestrian-only area and admired the headless creatures hanging in the Chinese restaurant windows. We wandered a bit farther north to Soho, which is said to have transformed itself from sleazy to trendy. But not completely. “Look at that sex shop,” Angela said, and suddenly a cup of coffee at Starbucks and a check of e-mail at the Troca- dero entertainment center sounded awfully good.

7:45 p.m. The Apollo Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday a couple of years ago. Clearly, people were shorter a century ago. Angela, who is 6 feet tall, thought the seats made airplane coach seem roomy. Despite its shortcomings, it was a jewel box of a place.

The curtain rose at 8 on a luminous Dawn French playing a jilted wife who must learn to love herself before love comes ‘round again. The theater was dark, I was warm, the play was frothy and I slowly began to drift off, until the first set of fireworks. It was part of a plot device, but the second and third times, I was beginning to think it was merely a plot. It worked. By the time we walked out at 9:38, I was awake and felt entertained. We hopped back on the Piccadilly line. This time we took the lift up to Russell Square.

10:15 p.m. We were snug in our jammies and ready to call it a day, until we confessed that we were hungry, rejected room service as too pricey and made a run to the Day & Night coffee shop in the nearby Imperial Hotel, open until 2 a.m.

11:15 p.m. One omelet ($8) and one ham and cheese sandwich ($3.85) later, we were really ready for bed. By this time, nothing could keep me from the arms of Morpheus.

Sunday

7:09 a.m. I’d told my niece we had not one moment to waste, and my threat of bodily harm apparently drove home the point. I pole-vaulted into and out of the shower, threw on my clothes and was back on the Piccadilly line with Angela by 8:30.

8:50 a.m. Green Park stop. “There’s the Ritz,” she said soon after we surfaced into daylight. I made a quick detour into the lobby and exited before the house detectives could be summoned.

The sky was bleak as we strolled through Green Park, but jonquils had started popping up their yellow heads, a contrast to leafless trees. We walked to Buckingham Palace.

“Big deal,” I thought as I focused on the palace beyond the stony face of the Queen Victoria memorial. “Seen it a million times.” But never in person.

Its elegance and majesty took me aback, and as much as I hated myself for standing there, rube-like and agog, I couldn’t stop myself. The clip-clopping of hoofs broke my reverie as the Horse Guard, red jackets bright against the slate sky, made its way down the mall. We ambled through St. James’s Park and watched them maneuver their mounts. I could see the London Eye in the distance and heard Big Ben, but that was as close as I got.

10 a.m. Covent Garden was just awakening as we arrived. The market was overflowing with jewelry, soaps, sweaters and candles. In the nearby courtyard, the Abraxas string ensemble played a rousing rendition of the “William Tell Overture,” a nice touch on a winter morning.

Noon. The Spice of Life, a lovely pub that was all burnished wood and bar on Moor Street in Cambridge Circus, beckoned us with a menu that promised typical fare. We ordered at the bar: steak and ale pie ($10.63) and Guinness ($4.70) for me, and for her, fish and chips with mushy peas.

1 p.m. After lunch, Angela needed a nap, but I had miles to go before I slept, so I went to the British Museum, just off Russell Square.

This would be a test of will. I’d have to lash myself to the timetable to avoid temptations.

I tried not to be distracted by the light and airy Great Court and the Reading Room and to go straightaway, instead, for the tourist trifecta: the Egyptian galleries; the Rosetta Stone; and the Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon sculptures, as they are more accurately known.

I bought a map ($3) and, using my finely honed sense of direction, found Egypt after searching frantically for 30 minutes (upstairs, Galleries 61-66). The glass cases, I noticed immediately, contained a mummified cat and kitten (from 30 BC), an eel and a falcon, even a crocodile. I saw no dogs. It almost made up for the “catitude” I’d perceived in Harrods.

The minute hand was moving, so I took off for the Rosetta Stone (Gallery 4), where I marveled at the genius it must have taken to unlock the mystery of the hieroglyphics. I persevered to the Marbles (Gallery 18), the Greek works that Lord Elgin either saved or stole, depending on your interpretation, from the Parthenon in the 1800s.

I limped back to the hotel through Russell Square park and woke Sleeping Beauty.

4:30 p.m. We took the subway to the Caledonian Road stop and walked about four blocks to the Pleasance theater to take in the last night of “The Madness of George Dubya.” (Negotiations were underway to move the production to a West End theater as of the Travel section’s press time Tuesday.) This is a sort-of musical that sort of satirizes George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the military and that also borrows freely from the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove.” A drawling, teddy-bear-clutching George Dubya confesses that he relies on Daddy for help, and a debonair character named Tony Blear is just as bumbling as his U.S. counterpart but has a better accent. The scenery-chewing Gen. Kipper brings the world to the brink of war, and the explosives-wearing Yasmina has bombs strapped to a Wonderbra that, she sings, can “lift and separate” as well as “detonate.”

It was wickedly over the top, but I was starting to hit bottom. I hoped dinner would revive me.

7 p.m. We pushed past celebrity-watching crowds in Leicester Square (site that night of British film awards) to the Maharaja of India restaurant on Charing Cross Road, where I tried the tandoori chicken ($11) and Angela chose chicken korma ($10). Mine was tender and moist, hers was bland, and the service was good.

9 p.m. After dinner, we parted where we had begun: at the Piccadilly line. Back at the hotel, I decided to check out the other accommodations in Russell Square, where the calm and quiet settled over me, allowing me to stroll the area for a couple of hours before turning in.

At Heathrow the next morning, I reflected on my 48 hours. I had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind, but for someone who lacks time, money and, some would say, common sense, it was a good harvest.

*

Budget for one

Airfare from LAX $330.00

Hotel, two nights, tax $240.00

Subway, three days $21.82

London/subway map $3.14

Saturday lunch $33.61

Saturday latte $3.00

“My Brilliant Divorce” $31.47

“Divorce” program $4.75

Saturday dinner $15.58

Sunday breakfast $3.93

Sunday lunch $19.80

Sunday dinner with wine $29.04

British Museum donation $4.72

British Museum map $3.14

“The Madness of George Dubya” $19.67

“Madness” program $1.75

Monday breakfast $5.82

Shuttle to/from LAX, tips $28.00

Total cost $799.24

*

A fast break in London

GETTING THERE:

I paid $330 for a nonstop round trip between LAX and Heathrow on United. (Air New Zealand, American, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic also fly nonstop.) I booked Feb. 13 for a Feb. 21 departure. Since then I have not found a fare that low. The least-expensive restricted round-trip fares have been ranging from about $375 (special Web fares that may no longer be available) to almost $800. Check with a travel agent, be flexible on departure dates and troll the Web often. Remember, fares can change hour to hour.

TELEPHONES:

To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code), 44 (country code), 20 (local code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Le Meridien Russell, Russell Square, London WC1B 5BE; 7837-6470, fax 7837-2857, www.lemeridien.com. Clean, quiet, very near the Tube stop and the British Museum. My $99 rate was a promotional rate for a single. Standard double rooms begin about $125.

Imperial London Hotels, down the street from the Russell, cater to budget-minded travelers. Rooms were virtually identical, clean and basic, with private bath. Prices include English breakfast. Among them: the 448-room Imperial (which has an Internet cafe open until 2 a.m.), 7837-3655, $155; the 184-room Bedford, 7636-7822, $150; and the 523-room President, 7837-8844, $140. Information: 7278-7871, fax 7837-4653, www.imperialhotels.co.uk.

The Montague on the Gardens, 15 Montague St., Bloomsbury, London WC1B 5BJ; 7637-1001, fax 7637-2516, www.redcarnationhotels.com. Floors are creaky and prices are higher, but it’s where I would stay if I wanted to feel as though I were visiting a relative. Cheery doubles begin about $220, but specials may be available.

WHERE TO EAT:

Harrods, 87-135 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, 7730-1234, has nearly two dozen restaurants. We chose the Sea Grill, where entrees are about $14-$54.

Spice of Life, 6 Moor St., Cambridge Circus, Soho, 7437-7013. Seasonal menu, but standbys include bangers and mash, steak and ale pie, fish and chips. Entrees $6.25-$11.

Maharaja of India Ltd., 19A Charing Cross Road, 7930-8364. Just steps from Leicester Square. Entrees about $5-$17.

TO LEARN MORE:

British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; (800) 462-2748, www.travelbritain.org.

*

Catharine Hamm is deputy editor of the Travel section.


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