Living it up in London

LONDON CALLING: A view of the magnificent city, with The Shard, Britains tallest building, jutting out elegantly in the background
LONDON CALLING: A view of the magnificent city, with The Shard, Britain's tallest building, jutting out elegantly in the background

Perched somewhere within the Shard, Christian Sylt discovers what it's like to be living amongst the clouds, while having favourite touristy spots close at hand



Published: Fri 14 Apr 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 14 Apr 2017, 2:00 AM

The highlight of any plane trip to London is coming into land. For fleeting seconds, you feel like the owner of the world's most ornate model village. The flight path into Heathrow airport often follows the river Thames, which cuts through the heart of the city and is lined with its most famous landmarks.
On a clear day, you can pick out London's renowned red buses on the streets and see sunlight glinting off the spire of Big Ben or the golden gates of Buckingham Palace. It's a sight that has even the weariest of travellers pressed up against the window wishing  that the flight would last a bit longer. It's not uncommon to hear travellers say the flight was worth it for the view alone.
Now, you don't even have to take off to get it.
The experience is surreal. I'm so high above the skyscrapers that I can see the terraces and gardens atop them. Wisps of cloud pass by and the sun seems almost level with me. But there's no turbulence and I'm certainly not confined to a seat.
Instead, I'm lounging on the crisp white sheets of a double bed in a teak-panelled room filled with cream-coloured leather-lined furniture. It resembles a cabin on a luxury yacht and couldn't be much further from the inside of a plane. Welcome to the Shangri-La Hotel in The Shard, Britain's tallest building.
The hotel opened in 2014 and occupies the 34th to 52nd floors of the 95-storey building, which is famous for its dagger-like shape. The hotel isn't just an attraction in itself: it is one of the most breathtaking landmarks in London and that's saying something in a city that is home to some of the world's most well-known landmarks.
On a clear day, you can see for 35 miles in every direction from the hotel - so there's no need for Instagram filters to make the world below look like a toy town. Needless to say that it's perhaps not ideal if you have vertigo but anyone else will find themselves losing hours just gazing out of the double-height windows, which are all angled as the hotel comes to a point at its peak. It adds to the impression of being on a luxury liner and seeing boats bobbing on the river around the hotel completes the picture.
No other hotel in London offers such a sweeping view. In the distance to the west, there's the famous arch of Wembley football stadium whilst the twisting red tower at the centre of London's Olympic Park pops up more prominently on the skyline to the east. In between, there's a clear view of all of the major sights from the Big Ben clock tower to Tower Bridge and the London Eye observation wheel, which, ironically, looks like it's around the size of a car wheel from the Shangri-La.
The view gets even more mesmerising at night as the city lights sparkle and you can make out pedestrians and police cars pulling people over. Watching the events unfold is like viewing a bird's eye reality television show and it is just as addictive as its on-screen counterparts.
The Shangri-La restaurant is as fancy as they come and even has small stands beside the tables so bags don't need to sit on the floor. However, despite its highbrow atmosphere, it's impossible to resist taking photos on your phone over dinner as the tables are, of course, cunningly located in front of some of the tallest windows in the hotel. The restaurant serves sumptuous Asian-European food but it still can't top the view.
Starting from Dh1,570 (£350 plus VAT) per night, the rooms are no bargain but they are worth it for the scenery alone. It seems almost a shame going down to ground level but before you do, ask the concierge to make a dinner reservation at London's hottest restaurant, the Chiltern Firehouse.
The Shard is a few minutes walk from Tower Bridge, which has its own unique view of London in the form of a glass walkway 42 metres above the river. To get even closer to it, take a Thames Clipper catamaran, which operates on a scheduled service from the foot of the Shard.
Reservations are not needed and tickets can be paid for by credit card on the pier. Not only are the catamarans quicker than cabs, and have an on-board bar and WiFi, but they also offer a perspective on London which few of the locals even get to see. They go underneath Tower Bridge and give close up views of the buildings beside the river.
In just 10 minutes, you will be at the Embankment, which gives on to Trafalgar Square, famous for its centrepiece Nelson's Column. It commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and is crowned by a statue of British naval officer Horatio Nelson looking towards the Big Ben clock tower. Across the square from Big Ben, you will find Westminster Abbey, the 700-year-old building where Prince William and Kate Middleton got married in 2011. It is also the burial place of numerous figures from Britain's history, so look out for the graves of Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens.
Walking back through Trafalgar Square will take you to Leicester Square, an entertainment spot filled with cinemas, nightclubs and casinos. Some of London's most renowned shops are next door on Regent Street. The flagship is Liberty's, a department store famed for its craft ware and graphic prints.
After some retail therapy, hail one of London's many black cabs and ask your driver to take you to the South Bank where street artists perform by the river. Forget the tourist trap that is the London Eye observation wheel and, instead, make your way to the neighbouring Royal Festival Hall, Europe's largest arts centre.
More than 300 free events take place in its foyer every year, but the main event is found by taking a lift to the top floor where a terrace offers perhaps the best view of the river in London: a clean sweep down the Thames. It stretches from the spires of the skyscrapers in the business district, known as the Square Mile, in the east all the way down to Big Ben in the west. Access to the terrace is free but you can admire the view over lunch from the Skylon restaurant, which has floor-to-ceiling windows and a three-course menu featuring hand-picked crab, roast lamb and peach tart.
At the London Eye next door, you can get a Clipper four stops to Blackfriars - which is a few minutes walk from St Paul's cathedral. Climb steps up its historic dome to try its whispering gallery where ingenious acoustics allow sound to travel around its circumference.
St Paul's is one of the most photographed landmarks in London but shots of it usually have other buildings in the frame. The best way to avoid that is to nip across the road to the One New Change shopping centre and head to the Madison on the roof. It has an uninterrupted view of the dome of St Paul's and a wide grill menu. Sipping a drink whilst admiring Christopher Wren's stunning architecture is a calming experience. It perfectly prepares you for some more retail therapy in the boutiques down below that include Kurt Geiger, LK Bennett and Superdry.
After a busy afternoon on your feet, there's only one way to relax. Grab a cab back to the Shard and head to the pool on the 52nd floor. Not only is it London's highest pool, but it is also an infinity pool, meaning that it has water continuously flowing over the edges. It makes it especially soothing to lean over the side of the pool and watch as the surrounding skyscrapers are shrouded in a purple glow as the sun goes down.
It's hard to drag yourself out but there's no choice as the pool closes at 8pm when, in true rockstar style, the area around it opens up into a bar. That's the signal to ask the concierge to book a cab to the Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone where that all-important dinner date awaits.
The restaurant is an event in itself and is the latest offering from hotel impresario André Balazs, who owns the luxurious Chateau Marmont in Hollywood and the Mercer in New York. The former fire station re-opened in 2013 and if it wasn't for the black book of the Shangri-La concierge, you would need to wait six months to get a reservation.
The Grade II listed Gothic Victorian building has high ceilings, large mirrors and a busy open kitchen. It's a chance to get an up-close and personal brush with London's royalty as Kate Middleton's sister Pippa has been seen there with her entourage. Other customers include A-Listers Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Gerard Butler and Lindsay Lohan.
After that, it's time to head back to the Shard for some star gazing from the windows. You'll soon be planning your next trip to London because after all that high-flying, it's hard to come back down to earth.  
wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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