Maritime Greenwich is a World Heritage Site, and deserves the accolade, being right up there, though much smaller, with Venice, Florence and other historic and romantic spots. Best of all, this Thames River waterfront location is a borough of London, just southeast of Central London, a very short ride on the railway, tube or river, and as charming as all get out. If you don't come here on your first trip to London, you certainly must on your second, and if you haven't come by on your third trip to the English capital, someone should tell you that you're missing a sure thing.
Maritime Greenwich consists of dozens of places, but the Top Six, in my reckoning, are:
- The National Maritime Museum (www.nmm.ac.uk). If you visited here some years back, be prepared for a surprise, as the place has been totally renovated, and is bright, airy and cheerful, with only a hint of dark wood and darker stairways from the past. Among must-see items are the uniform coat worn by Nelson when he fell at Trafalgar, with the fatal bullet hole clearly visible, the "Maritime London" gallery, the 1732 Royal Barge, Queen Mary's shallop (1689), the Baltic Exchange stained glass and models of such ships as the Endeavour and the Mauretania. Open daily except three days at Christmas, 10am to 5pm (winter) or 6pm (summer). Free admission, suggested adult donation L3 ($5.62).
- The Royal Observatory crowns Greenwich Park, as it has since 1675. This is the Greenwich of Greenwich Mean Time, the standard by which the world sets its clocks, navigational routes were measured and time zones were defined. Most people go here in order to stand astride the Greenwich Meridian (otherwise known as the prime meridian, 0 degrees 0 minutes and 0 seconds), which marks the boundary between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. You can get (from a machine) a souvenir certificate printed with the exact time and date when you stood on the Meridian Line. The Time-Ball atop the Octagon Room here drops at exactly 1pm daily, so check your watch by it. Free admission, but suggested donation of L3 ($5.62).
- The Queen's House was begun by Inigo Jones in 1616, and was a work in progress for about 50 years. Sited in Greenwich Park next door to the National Maritime Museum, this is a fairly modest residence, however elegant. Highlights here include the Great Hall with its unusual checkered floor, the marvelous Tulip Stairs and the paintings in the Orangery and various parlors, especially a fine Hogarth portrait of Inigo Jones. Admission free, donation suggested of about L3 ($5.62).
- The Cutty Sark, the last tea clipper (1869), has been a famous fixture on the waterfront here, but will be undergoing a conservation makeover from October 2006 through April 2007, when it will reopen to visitors. Admission then may be L5 ($9.36), as it was before work commenced. Information on work progress can be seen at www.cuttysark.org.uk.
- The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College is worth a detour. Its ceiling, measuring 108 feet by 50 feet and 50 feet above the floor, took artist James Thornhill five years to paint between 1708 and 1725. Free admission.
- Greenwich Market and Turnpin Lane. This will give you a feel of Old Greenwich and you can go shopping, too! The market building dates from 1829-49. More information at www.greenwich.gov.uk.
You can say you walked under the Thames if you take the Greenwich Foot Tunnel from the observatory-shaped domed building right in front of the Cutty Sark. When you get to the other end, on the Isle of Dogs, turn around for a magnificent view of Maritime Greenwich, then either walk back or take the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) through its own tunnel under the river, right back to your starting point.
And now, for something completely different, consider the Fan Museum (Crooms' Hill Road, a block west of Greenwich Park), said to be the only one of its kind in the world, which displays many types of this fashion accessory and necessity before air conditioning took care of the cooling problem. More information at www.greenwichwhs.org.uk.
If you want to be guided around Greenwich, tickets for a 90-minute tour cost L4 ($7.50), accompanied children under 14 free. Walks start at 12:15pm and 2:15pm daily and include most of the highlights mentioned above. Contact the Tour Guides Association (tel. 020/8858-6169; www.greenwichtours.co.uk; e-mail: email@example.com).
The Old Royal Naval College has dozens of events, the most fun-sounding being cannon and musket demonstrations on October 7 and 8 to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar, a Trafalgar Night Dinner on October 21 ("black tie or mess undress"), the Greenwich International Festival & Exhibition of Early Music on November 10-12, and a Venetian Christmas Concert & Supper on December 12. Contact them at www.greenwichfoundation.org.uk.
At Eltham Palace (tel. 020/8294-2548; www.english-heritage.org.uk), where Henry VIII spent his boyhood, there's a demonstration of sword fighting and the like on October 22 and 23 this year. The palace is in the southern part of Greenwich, on Court Road. A surprise -- the medieval palace is attached to a smart, 1930's Art Deco building, the Courtauld House.
For atmosphere, try the Trafalgar Tavern (1837) (www.trafalgartavern.co.uk), on the waterfront down the street from the Queen's House. They are famous for their whitebait dinners, and Charles Dickens used the place as a setting in his book, Our Mutual Friend. The usual lunchtime pub grub shouldn't get any awards in my opinion, but sitting outside in daytime and watching traffic on the river and other tourists in full flight can prove to be amusing. Lunchtime grilled haddock and mussel chowder, L5.50 ($10.34).
The Greenwich Playhouse (tel. 020/8858-9256; www.galleontheatre.co.uk; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; 189 Greenwich High Road) has a full season of theater at its venue located inside St. Christopher's Inn, where you can dine before performances. Tickets usually L11 (US $21).
The Greenwich Theatre (tel. 020/8858-7755; www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk)also has a full seasonal repertory (Marlon Brando's Corset was playing when I visited), with tickets from L10 to L22 ($19 to $41). It's located right in Greenwich Park.
In 2006, Greenwich offered its first Music & Architecture Week in mid September, a series of concerts and speakers offered free, something it plans to do annually, under the auspices of the Trinity College of Music, the University of Greenwich and the Cathedral. Contact them at www.greenwichwhs.org.uk. At about the same time each year is the Riverfront Jazz Festival in Greenwich, tickets from L8 to L19.50 ($15 to $37), contact info www.riverfrontjazz.co.uk.
Getting to Greenwich
Greenwich is just 18 minutes by train from Charing Cross rail station or ten minutes from London Bridge rail station. On the Underground, take the Jubilee Line from Green Park, for instance, and change at Canary Wharf for the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) ten-minute ride (part of it under the Thames) to Greenwich.
A lovely way to go is by boat, departing from Westminster, Waterloo, Bankside, Embankment, Tower and St. Katharine's piers at regular intervals throughout the year. The journey time, depending on the tide, is about 45 minutes to one hour. If you have a London travel card, you get a 33 percent discount.
There's even a regular bus (188) from Russell Square to Greenwich, if you have time and don't mind the traffic.
Getting To London
New airlines are always a pleasure to see, especially on the busy New York-London route, so it was fun to fly with MAXjet (tel. 888/435-9629; www.maxjet.com), a business-class-only service that began in November, 2005. In addition to good service, the best aspect of using MAXjet is its cost, which is low for business class pampering, costing from $1,500 round-trip out of New York, $1,750 from Washington, D.C. This is less than one-third of what most airlines charge for their business class fares, roughly speaking. All 102 seats in the Boeing 767s are big, plush business-class with 60-inch pitch and reclining to 160 degrees, and amenities like boarding champagne cocktail and canapés are followed by a choice of menu with tablecloth and chinaware service, good wines and more. DVD players come with the service, too.
At Stansted Airport (northeast of London), MAXjet has a deal with the terminal's Radisson SAS Hotel for free use of the health club and a free buffet breakfast on arrival, a two-minute walk from customs, they say, as well as a day room rate to 6pmof L60 (about $112). In November, they plan to begin flights between London and Las Vegas, with round-trip airfares beginning at $1,999.
A note about British airport security measures: Since the August 2006 terrorist scare in London involving alleged plans to use liquid- or gel-based bombs on aircraft across the North Atlantic, the British government has introduced severe restrictions on carry-on items from UK airports. These are stricter than such measures in the USA, requiring two security checks, sometimes including body searches both on entering the departure area and again at the gate on entering the aircraft, as I witnessed leaving Stansted Airport in mid September. The chief restriction is the size of your carryon hand luggage, which at time of writing was limited to one item measuring roughly 22 inches by 18 inches by 10 inches. The second main restriction is that you can carry no liquids or gels of any kind on board, and no cosmetics, no toiletries, no gels or pastes, no lighters, no sharp items. Exceptions include essential medicines in liquid form if they are under 50 ml (just under two ounces), and you'll have to taste it at security. You can also carry baby milk and liquid baby food, but the contents of each bottle must be tasted by the parent. Items you purchase inside security and before departure are also subject to this rule, unlike the new relaxed rules in the USA. For more information on this, go to www.baa.com.
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