Blinking back tears, I tried to look away but couldn’t. Just three metres away, a horse lay dying, its feet buckled beneath him from exhaustion. It didn’t matter that it was a life-size puppet or that its every movement was choreographed and performed by men on a revolving stage in the heart of London’s West End.
To me – and the rest of the audience watching the award-winning play, War Horse – this stallion was real, and right now I was about to sob as it whinnied, then died from the brutality of pulling cannons through muddy fields during the First World War.
The play was originally a children’s story written by Michael Morpurgo, and made into an Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg, depicting the horrors of war through the eyes of Albert, and his horse Joey. Now, it’s on its final run at the New London Theatre after seven years, and even performances in front of the Queen, celebrities as well as 2.7 million Brits and tourists can’t stop the curtains from coming down on this moving play in March.
So I was lucky enough to catch all the drama during a flying visit to London with British Airways, having come on board to review the carrier’s new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on its inaugural flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi.
But first, I had 24 hours to soak up the English capital and do what I love best – living the high life. That means 24 hours of cultural, culinary and credit-card adventures.
The trip kicked off at Heathrow’s First Class arrivals lounge after a smooth overnight flight into the capital. No red-eye for me though as I’d travelled Business Class and slept in comfort at 37,000ft. Checking into the lounge, I got a complimentary 15-minute facial at the Elemis counter to really wake me up, before heading into the restaurant for a full English breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, hash browns and buttered toast, with extra-strong English Breakfast tea. It was a delicious welcome after more than a year away.
Then, I was whisked towards the city to my home away from home on the trip – the Rosewood London on High Holborn, just a few minutes’ stroll from Drury Lane and the theatre district. The hotel is London’s newest award-winning luxury property, and celebs and VIPs galore are clamouring to stay there.
A neoclassical landmark, the renovated headquarters (since 1914) of the Pearl Assurance Company has been brought up to date in style, with no expense spared. A cool £85 million (about Dh452.9 million) has given the hotel’s Edwardian heritage a modern twist. Think Grade II-listed street frontage and dome, a cobbled courtyard, gentrified bellboys and butlers and realistic-looking sculptures of British bulldogs that I expected to bark every time I walked past.
It was named Best New Hotel in the World in 2014 and I can see why. The lobby is plush, with books, antique artefacts, vertiginous flower arrangements and a buzz that even the most talented designer – Tony Chi of Park Hyatt interior design fame – couldn’t conjure out of his modern-metropolitan-mixed-with-smart-London box of tricks. The atmosphere is genuine – this is the hotel du jour with everyone from top CEOs to pop idol Justin Bieber staying there when they’re in town.
The reputation of Rosewood London’s fine dining repertoire, plush rooms and old-world service precedes itself, despite being a new property
Past the beautiful pavonazzo marble staircase that rises up the entire seven storeys of the hotel, I found my room. It was a haven of luxury with my own butler, tea on tap (I just had to ring and a full tea tray with crumbly biscuits and small floral arrangement arrived swiftly), as well as the most comfortable bed and decadent bathroom ever. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors, Chinese porcelain tooth mugs, and Czech & Speake bath products added to the luxe feel and look.
Equally stunning is the hotel’s location. Just a few steps onto High Holborn and the bygone glitz vanishes into the swirl of chaos that is London. You can catch the Tube to all the tourist haunts (the station is just over the road) or walk. But why use Shanks’s pony when you’re in the lap of luxury, I thought, so I hailed a black cab instead and took a tour in the drizzle to see the sights.
Londoners may get irritated by the noise, the traffic, the bright lights of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus, or the sight of people rushing about, but I couldn’t get enough of it. Even though I’d lived here for 25 years before moving to Dubai, I kept begging the cabbie to stop so I could pose for a selfie next to a scarlet double-decker bus or phone booth.
Myriad Instagram posts later, I realised I had to dash back to the hotel to freshen up – read languish in the huge bath – before dinner.
We were eating in the Mirror Room – cue more oversized exquisite flowers, mood lighting, and, er, mirrors – where French chef Amandine Chaignot (of MasterChef France fame) had created a deliciously earthy yet elegant menu. I feasted on truffle mimosa egg, wintery root salad, and rhubarb and orange dessert. It was a treat for the palate and light, so I wasn’t too full to sleep.
I was up early the next morning for more delicious food – this time, perfectly boiled eggs (three minutes so they were runny, not raw) served in the hotel’s Holborn Dining Room, before heading to Sloane Street, in upmarket Chelsea.
First stop was Jo Malone London. I’ve long been a fan of the British fragrance house and often wear its iconic Lime Basil and Mandarin Cologne. But I’d never been treated to a fragrance combining experience in-store – which is incredible.
Our perfume stylist started off with probing questions such as our hobbies (mine was sleeping while a colleague’s was kitesurfing), lifestyle (I’m more of a frantic working mum than a yoga enthusiast) and favourite smells (does cannelloni count?). She then chose fragrances to suit our personalities, and I was surprised to be handed a very floral rose fragrance and a Lime Basil and Mandarin shower gel (I hadn’t mentioned it was my favourite, so she was spot on). ‘Layering contrasting scents gives an extra dimension,’ she said. ‘You think it won’t work as they are so different, but they contrast and complement each other.’
She then proceeded to give me a hand massage, using the two fragrances, which did indeed smell amazing together. ‘I’m always going to layer my fragrances now,’ I decided.
We left in a cloud of gorgeous scent, and were whisked off to Burberry’s flagship store on Regent Street. The Beckhams had been in the night before along with Elton John for a launch event – Romeo Beckham has modelled for one of its campaigns – but there was no hint of a party; just plenty of signature trench coats, iconic check scarves and the brand’s latest runway collections.
Thomas's at Burberry Regent Street
However, the quintessential British brand isn’t just sticking to fashion anymore – it has opened a restaurant next door called Thomas’s, after Mr Burberry himself. A brown-and-white haven of light and space, the Sloanies were out in full force, showing off their hair and surgically enhanced faces while tucking into plates full of salad leaves.
I went for something far more substantial – a Cropwell Bishop (a British blue cheese) and leek tart with a salad and side of fries. It was classic English food, served simply and well cooked. My companions ate lobster and chips, fish pie and kale and declared them all delicious, while I fell in love with the place. It is next to the gift shop, so you can browse the shelves while eating. Perfect!
There was no time to relax though as we had another iconic shop to visit: Louis Vuitton’s store, or Maison as the brand calls it, on New Bond Street. Louis Vuitton isn’t British, of course. He is one of the most famous French men of all time, making his name after he came to the aid of French Empress Eugénie in the late 19th century, helping her transport her personal effects safely – and in style – no matter what their size. Et voilà! The Louis Vuitton trunks and the first ladies It bag was born.
In 1885, Vuitton opened his first London store and the New Bond Street Maison is aimed at the designer connoisseur and fashionable collector. So many high-end and celebrity clients visit that it has become impossible to do what other London stores have done in the past – close the doors for a private browse.
Instead, the brand has created The Apartment on the second floor with its own antique and vintage furniture, artwork by the likes of Jeff Koons and Hans Hartung, and a butler so VIPs can happily shop in private or even host parties there. The Beckhams were there recently for a stylish soirée, sneaking in and out of a private lift without being spotted.
Having fed my Vuitton addiction by way of a huge Alma bag that could hold more than an average family’s suitcase for a two-week holiday, it was back into the cold to walk along New Bond Street to Asprey. Entering the store was like stepping back in time to when the brand created crowns and tiaras for the royal family.
All plush carpet that my heels sank into, the friendly assistants in sharp suits were happy to let me try on diamonds worth hundreds of thousands of pounds – ‘They look fabulous on you, so sparkly!’ – before taking us on a guided tour of the workshop. We met designers working on trophies and cups heading to Dubai – ‘You can’t say what for’ – and a lovely lady who transforms alligator skin into covetable diaries, key fobs, wallets and purses. She also painstakingly restores antiques for VIPs, royals and celebrities from around the world. ‘I’m not allowed to talk about it,’ she insisted, hiding a box behind her back.
It was a fascinating glimpse into the techniques the designer store has been using since opening as a luxury emporium in 1841. The Prince of Wales recently gave Asprey a Royal Warrant of Appointment, so its goods come with the highest stamp of approval.
There was just enough time to try on an emerald the size of a baby’s fist – ‘Imagine if it got stuck on my finger,’ I laughed, while the assistant smiled nervously – before we had to head back to the hotel to pack.
We were taking off early the next day on the Dreamliner and I couldn’t wait, especially since I have become a bit of a plane geek since becoming a Dubai resident. Before, a flight was just a way of getting from A to B. Now it’s an experience in itself and I care about which aircraft I’m on. Having flown the A380 (OK, it was only a flight simulator at Heathrow but it felt real enough!) I’m a major fan, and will always check that I’m booked on it if possible.
British Airways’ new Dreamliner
But the twin-engine Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner is a state-of-the-art aircraft and I could see why. Divided into four classes – world traveller (economy), world traveller plus (premium economy), club world (business class) and a redesigned first class cabin, with just eight suites instead of the usual 14 – it can carry 216 passengers.
The specs are impressive too. The plane can fly for just under 16,093km, is 20ft longer and 4in taller than its predecessor – the 787-8 Dreamliner – and is 60 per cent quieter and 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than similar-sized planes.
Writing down these figures is one thing, but experiencing them is something else. Comfortably lounging – shoes off, and with my seat down as a flat bed – I couldn’t hear anything. I was in club world, and could see the wings slicing through the clouds, but I couldn’t hear that usual drone of the engines. Sun in my eye? I simply touched the (bigger) windows and they went dark instantly. I touched them again and they cleared. ‘I love technology,’ I smiled.
The cabin was immaculate too – all shiny and new with soothing mood lighting. It even smelled gorgeous, or maybe that was my fragrance combining skills paying dividends.
Sadly, I wasn’t travelling in First, but I was allowed up front to take a peek, and unfortunately suffered instant travel envy. The suites were huge and everything was adjustable – from the headrest to the seat and lighting – so the seat would fit into your back perfectly. The TV screen was bigger too, with a touchscreen handset and extra storage for personal items.
I went back to my admittedly large and comfortable seat, and settled down to tuck into my pre-ordered vegetarian meal – restaurant-class al dente pasta with mozzarella, and a strawberry cheesecake.
Maybe it was the Dreamliner, or just luck, but it was the smoothest ride I’d ever had, and so I snoozed in style. I arrived in Abu Dhabi impressed and refreshed. It had been a first-class trip that left me on a high.