Ten years after first visiting as a backpacker, Craig Platt discovers London's a different town when you've got money.
It was my first big overseas holiday as an adult – the obligatory trip to London, followed by a Contiki tour of Europe.
I was in my early 20s, low on cash and keen for a taste of the world. But I wasn't quite ready to move to London as some of my friends had done. As it turns out, I never did – and my first visit had a lot to do with that.
Now, in my early 30s, I'm back in London for the first time in 10 years and the experience could not be more different.
This time around, I'm not dossing on the floor of my friend's flat. Back in 2001, it was a reasonable enough, two-bedroom place in Kensington.
Reasonable for two people to share, that is.
Unfortunately, London rents being what they were, and hospitality industry wages being what they were, there were far more than two people sharing the place. Five girls – two in the master bedroom, one in the other bedroom (which was so small the bed could not be walked around – there was literally no floor space), two more beds in the lounge room and, to top it off, three crashers from Australia on the lounge-room floor – including one serious snorer (not me).
After a couple of nights of this communal living we headed off on a road trip around the UK. With a new batch of Aussies arriving to stay on the floor at the London flat, we opted to stay at a youth hostel when we came back to town.
Unfortunately, we'd failed to book far enough in advance and the only decent hostel we could find with rooms available (more accurately, the only hostel listed in the Lonely Planet Britain guide with vacancies) was in Epping.
Epping: located relative to London in the exact same place it is in Melbourne – the far, far north-east. This meant an hour-long train ride to get into central London. It also meant there were to be no nights on the town – our Epping youth hostel locked the doors at 10pm.
Now I'm back in London, almost 10 years later, and it's quite a change. I've been working full time since leaving university and actually have a disposable income. To top it off, the Australian dollar now buys 63 pence. On my first visit it bought 34p, compounding an already expensive trip.
This time, I can actually afford to stay in a hotel, and a decent one at that. I splurge on London's Langham, the second oldest hotel in the city. Even at a discounted rate, it's still more than I've ever spent on a hotel room before.
But what a room: it's huge, with a bedroom and a sitting room. It looks out on to Langham Square and the BBC's corporate headquarters, just a block up from Oxford Street. A friend who visits is excited by the fact the room has its own doorbell.
The hotel was opened in 1865 by the then Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VII) and, at the time, was one of the largest buildings in London, with more than 600 rooms. Langham took over the hotel from Hilton in 2004 and the building has since undergone an 80 million pound refurbishment of its facilities (now with just 380 rooms).
It's hard to drag myself away from a hotel like this, but I do want to take advantage of the hotel's central location to actually visit some of the city's highlights (many of which are within convenient walking distance).
London feels different this time. For one thing, it's less intimidating than it was when I had barely travelled beyond Australia's borders. It didn't help that on my first morning in London 10 years an elderly gentleman took my picture without asking and then attempted to charge me for it (and became angry when I refused). It was a scary place for a young country lad.
Now I'm older, wiser and (probably) look a lot less like a naïve tourist than I did back then.
London also seems less intimidating because it seems smaller than I remember. (Although the fact I'm staying on Regent Street and not commuting for an hour from Epping probably helps.)
Indeed, I realise this time just how many of London most famous locations and attractions are within a short walk of each other. Trafalgar Square is mere minutes away from Piccadilly Circus, and on a bright spring day Hyde Park is an easy 15 minute walk from the hotel. Buckingham Palace is another short walk from there and, after meeting a friend at the Victoria Memorial, we take another short stroll to Westminster to take a ride on the Eye and enjoy the views of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Of course, I did most of these things on my first visit, but it feels different this time. I feel less like I'm ticking boxes and more like I'm actually just wandering about, actually taking the time to enjoy the city.
We have an excellent dinner at an Indian restaurant near Piccadilly Circus and I'm thankful that, this time around, we didn't need to peer uncomfortably in the windows beforehand to figure out if we could afford to eat there or not.
I don't regret not moving to London, even though I've seen a lot less of Europe than some of my friends who did. And, for me at least, it always remains an option as I hold dual Australia-UK citizenship (though the state of Britain's economy at present doesn't make it an attractive professional destination).
For the moment though, comfortable, if brief, visits to one of the world's great cities will suit me just fine.
The writer travelled to London as a guest of AirAsia X.
AirAsia X flies daily to London via Kuala Lumpur from Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Perth. See www.airasia.com
The Langham Hotel is located at 1c Portland Place, Regent Street in London's West End. Rooms start from about 440 pounds for two adults. See http://london.langhamhotels.co.uk for details.
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