Just Back from London

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In late December, Fodor's editorial director Linda Cabasin rented an apartment on London's South Bank for a week with her husband and college-age son. They watched fireworks over the Thames and celebrated the New Year with art, theater, Indian food, and the city's January sales.

Why London?
I'd been in the city on a short trip in September for an advance look at Kew Palace, the summer retreat of George III and his family, which reopens in spring 2006. It made me yearn for more time to soak up the museums, neighborhoods, and the whole stimulating mix of humanity that is modern London. My son loves history, so the trip grabbed his imagination.

What surprised you?
Traveling with a teenager can be dicey, but his interests made me visit places that wouldn't have made my list---and they were fun. For example, we followed a visit to the brilliant Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms with a stop at the Imperial War Museum. Seeing German V1 and V2 rockets from World War II after exploring the actual cramped, underground rooms in which the British made war plans truly brought history to life. And although I love the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, Ben made me excited about brooches from the 7th-century Sutton Hoo Treasure and coins from Anglo-Saxon England. He also steered us to Jarndyce, an antiquarian bookstore straight out of Dickens. Oh, I even enjoyed the views of the city from the pricey London Eye observation wheel, which I've avoided on previous visits.

What was your best find?
Our apartment in Lambeth, on the South Bank, proved fabulous. Research showed options at all prices; I picked a flat from an agency in Fodor's London. Doing some cooking saved time and money, and we loved the privacy and space to spread out. The nearby Lambeth North tube stop made it a snap to head back to evening theater in the West End. We were five minutes south of the London Eye and a 15-minute walk across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament. We were also close to decent Chinese takeout, convenience stores, one chic gastropub, many semi-ancient pubs, and an English-language school! Lower Marsh, a modest shopping street with a low-key vegetable market and several bookstores and vintage boutiques, was full of character.

What was essential during your trip?
A sense of humor. No traveler or parent survives without one. Humor saved me and my son when we joined forces to compete with the hardened hordes bagging the annual January bargains at places like Harrods (Ben had to see it) and Harvey Nichols. The sight of women grabbing at tables of Anya Hindmarch handbags was unnerving, though not as surreal as the Tussaud-like figure of Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed that loomed over the men's sale ties and socks. Each time I pondered a purchase, glumly calculating the exchange rate, Ben swiftly moved me along. I either had to laugh---or cry.

What do you want to visit on your next trip?
I love London's manicured green spaces and royal history, and would combine a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with a stop at Kew Palace on its grounds. Historic Royal Palaces is reopening this intimate palace, the summer home of George III and his family, on Easter 2006, after a 10-year closure. In September I viewed this exciting work-in-progress and learned how original colors and materials were discovered. Kew is 35 minutes by Tube from central London. Or I'll head to the grand gardens at Hampton Court Palace, a half-hour train ride from Waterloo Station.

What advice do you have for someone going to London?
Research costs in advance and set priorities for spending. Take advantage of the world-famous free museums, but don't pass up unique opportunities that are only a few bucks. We sprang for ?11-pound tickets to the Royal Academy of Art's Three Emperors show of Chinese art, stuffed with many treasures that have never been out of Beijing before. Finally, plan your time but embrace spontaneity. One highlight for me was an inexpensive candlelight concert of works by Handel in the 18th-century church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, on Trafalgar Square. We picked up a flyer while lunching in the Crypt Cafe there and made a fast decision that will provide happy memories for years.

Photos by Linda Cabasin and Michael and Ben Squires

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