England swings hard in the summertime

Updated: 2016-06-29 09:36

By Mike Peters(China Daily)

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England swings hard in the summertime

Shoes and handbags displayed at the grand department store of Fenwick of Bond Street in London. [Photo by Mike Peters/China Daily] 

The antique map is gorgeous, though it's showing a little wear since it was engraved in 1778. I'd stopped in the Portobello Road market stall hoping to find an old Chinese map. Instead, I was grasping a poster-size work of cartography headlined "Boheme, Silesie, Moravie"-the now-Czech homeland of my late grandfather.

I never expected to come home from London with that souvenir.

Surprise, however, is one of the great rewards of a visit to Britain's capital, a centuries-old center of empire, commerce and culture.

A headline-making surprise-Britain's vote last week to leave the European Union-likely means a surge of Chinese tourists, a report by China's largest online travel agency, Ctrip, says, echoing other industry insiders. They point to bargains offered by the dropping pound.

Tourists head to the English capital for the inevitable photo ops: the Tower of London, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the selfie in front of a red double-decker bus. But for even first-time visitors, the indelible memories are not the ones found on postcards.

By the sea

Our stay started in Greenwich, a Miss Marple-ish village that was once a great port in England's headiest seafaring days. There are charming small inns and bed-and-breakfasts, pubs with nautical names, the old royal maritime college with its fascinating observatory and the must-see Cutting Sark.

Barflies may identify those words with a brand of Scotch whisky, but the booze's namesake was perhaps the greatest sailing ship of its day.

Roaming its huge wooden decks, visitors discover a fascinating story of both England and China: the Cutty Sark was the fastest of the old tea clippers that carried tea from China to London (and opium in the other direction).

The history is laid out with colorful artifacts and simple but detailed signage. After exploring the ship, we were irresistibly drawn into one of the local pubs for a hearty platter of Cheddar and Stilton cheeses and a robust pint of ale.

Shopping spree

Moving to the heart of London town the next day, we were whisked through some of the city's most venerable shops.

A charming guide from By Appointment arranged our bespoke tour of bustling boutiques and department stores. Options include specialists in perfume, shoes, bags, accessories and etiquette (the dos and don'ts of afternoon tea). Available experiences include curated art and cultural tours, classic to contemporary dining, and spa and beauty treatments.

Ladies seeking hat chic for any occasion can be found at Fenwick of Bond Street, the grand department store that includes one of London's most elegant milliners.

Our personal-shopping stylist walked us through Fenwick's exclusive ready-to-wear brands, including the famous designer Shoe Hall and the handbags displays.

We chatted with two young Chinese women who were having a makeover in the beauty hall and took a peek at the Diamond Bar before heading out to Burberry's flagship store for afternoon tea.

Bond Street is a magnet for Chinese shoppers in London's West End, with China representing 23 percent of total international spending on the street in 2014.

Guilty pleasures

We ended the day at the Hedonist, a celebrated wine and spirits shop that offers vintages from almost any country you can think of.

We sipped at a private tasting with our super-knowledgeable host Julian, but the coolest part was easily the cellar, where the oldest wines in stock are stored-sometimes in odd wall sculptures shaped like hands.

The bottles in the oldest bin were French wines labeled 1774. Such wines could have been consumed by the likes of Britain's King George III or US founding father Benjamin Franklin. The two might even have drunk them together, since Franklin was a well-known figure at the Court of St. James.

Two of the pleasures of spending time in London are staying at a great old hotel and going to the theater in the famous West End.

We scratched the first itch with two nights at the Lanesborough, a hotel in the grand tradition that shuttered completely for more than a year for a head-to-wine cellar makeover. The result is a triumph of red-and-gold imperial Chinese decor, while the famous but faded Italian restaurant has been reborn as Celeste, a British-meets-French fine-dining room. Buckingham Palace and Hyde Park were short walks away.

For the theater, we booked tickets for the long-running Les Miserables, a production as grand as we expected. The West End is conveniently close to Chinatown for a quick exploration and a light, after-theater supper.

And don't think we missed those de rigueur photo ops: We got most of them in by taking a pleasant cruise on the Thames.

Inexpensive all-day tickets allowed us to hop on, hop off-making it easy to linger at any sights that particularly took our fancy.

About this series

China Daily explores summer destinations and activities throughout the season.