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London: family, friends, sport


Guesses of the number of folk with Zimbabwe origins living in the UK vary from 200 000 to a million. Whatever: there is a good chance most of us have family or friends living there.

With the arrival of Emirates’ five-times-a week service from Harare to Dubai, and other airlines flying through Jo’burg, “Nai-robbery” or Addis Ababa, connecting with the in-laws (or outlaws!) is much smoother, hassle-free and can be rather pleasant.

If that is not an excuse to take a trip to Blighty, then the prospect of London 2012 Olympics from July 27 to August 12 should be enough to tempt many of our sports-mad nation to board an aircraft in Harare en mass, joining an onward flight to London with comfortable connection times.

Emirates has eight direct flights a day from Dubai to London, with the latest aircraft, including the A380.

Many feature all-new cabins, including private suites in First Class, lie-flat seats in Business, and the award-winning “Ice” in-flight entertainment system in all classes.

There are five flights to Heathrow; three to Gatwick each day.

(Other airlines connecting Harare to London are Kenya Airways — working with Virgin Atlantic until late September — SAA and Ethiopian.
I’ve booked with the latter and get to London five days into the Olympics.)

Heathrow Express trains service runs every 15 minutes to Paddington, central London.
For destinations outside the capital, catch Railair’s bus to Reading, west of London, and travel onwards from there.

Passengers arriving at Gatwick can take the Gatwick Express train to Victoria, or catch other train services to destinations across southern England. (Emirates also fly to Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin.)

While taxis to central London are available from both Gatwick and Heathrow, they are dear; both airports are quite far from the CBD.

Emirates First Class and Business Class passengers arriving at Heathrow or Gatwick can use the airline’s complimentary chauffeur service.
London is what many would still claim as the world’s greatest city.

A London airfare gives you access to the British capital’s vast wealth of history and culture, from palaces and museums, to alternative theatre and a myriad cuisines.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Dr Samuel Johnson over 200 years ago, in possibly the most famous quote about what was, for centuries, the world’s most famous city.
What might have been gentle exaggeration then is now almost literally true.

London’s vast size and scale makes it impossible to “do” on one visit — or many years of them — but even on a short trip, it’s possible to get a good flavour of the sprawling metropolis: made easier by London’s comprehensive — if sometimes erratic and complex — public transport system covering almost the whole city.

Greater London covers a vast area, but many of the best-known sites are in the City of Westminster, a district covering much of central London.

Westminster is home to Parliament and Buckingham Palace, along with upper-class residential districts: Mayfair and Knightsbridge.

The West End hosts much of London’s entertainment, along with Soho, a great place to wander through, as well as for spotting an odd celebrity coming in or out of the Groucho Club.
Taking in Regent Street, Oxford Street, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, the West End is a good, if touristy, starting point for London — and parts, such as Covent Garden, are totally charming.

For a different perspective, stroll north of Oxford Street up Marylebone High Street, a genteel shopping area which still has decent independent restaurants, as well as minor London institutions such as Patisserie Valerie, or the excellent Daunt Books — then on to Regent’s Park.

Many of London’s outer boroughs still retain distinct identities, reflecting the towns and villages they once were before being swallowed up.
These identities are sometimes relatively recent. Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets, to the east of the city centre, was the first UK home of many Bangladeshi immigrants.

The street and area around it has a clear Bengali flavour — and has now shed its formerly seedy reputation to become a thriving cultural hub.
Further east, Docklands sees the remnants of run-down docks sitting next to — and now being taken over by — gleaming towers of Canary Wharf and its increasingly hectic bustle of high-powered business.

Next door is Greenwich and the Royal Observatory, where visitors straddle both East and West hemispheres standing on the Prime Meridian — zero degrees longitude.

London holds almost too many museums to count — also plenty of small theatres and music venues.
For culturists, big names are: the Tate, Tate Modern, National Gallery and British Museum all do-able even in a short visit, while those looking for high-brow entertainment can usually find something happening at the South Bank.

For many visitors to London, the West End is the first and last place they go for entertainment; it is home to “Theatreland”, an area packed with long-running plays and shows, generally including something by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Along with theatres and cinemas around Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, the West End is liberally scattered with big-name restaurants and clubs, but also includes Chinatown, where it’s still possible to get an affordable traditional Chinese meal.

Over London’s centuries of life, immigration brought many waves of different nationalities to the city, all of them leaving a culinary mark.

In the last decade, London has also seen an influx of high-end chefs from around the world, giving many traditional cuisines an interesting twist — and equally interesting prices.

Gatwick and Heathrow are the traditional international gateways to the south of England.

From Heathrow you can easily head west.
Visitors seeking a quintessentially “English” experience can visit the West Country, a land of rolling fields, haystacks, cream teas and “quaint” little villages — albeit ones charging London prices for hotel rooms.

For a less touristy experience, head to the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset; not a true island, the district offers rolling gorse-covered hills, rugged coastline, and striking mediaeval ruins at Corfe Castle.
From Gatwick — as close to England’s south coast as it is to central London — go down to Brighton to see the archetypal British seaside resort. Brighton was the playground of the Prince Regent (later George IV); his palace now sits converted as the Royal Pavilion.

Visa information is available at http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk

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