Disclaimer: Virgin Atlantic Airways provided travel accommodations for my trip to London. All opinions and thoughts are my own.
When I was contacted by Virgin Atlantic a couple of months ago and asked whether I’d like to experience one of their flights from San Francisco to London Heathrow, I felt almost like I was cheating. I had flown to London twice, once in 1997 and another time four years ago, both on Virgin Atlantic. So I already knew they were a better choice than the other airline I flew to Europe for a freelance assignment back in 2009 (which will go unnamed … it rhymes with “you flighted”).
I’ve always been a Virgin man. Wait, that sounds wrong. What I mean is, if given the choice, I’ll take Virgin (Atlantic, America, even Australia if given the opportunity) over other airlines every single time. So accepting their invitation was a no-brainer.
That was before I found out we were flying “Upper Class” on the way to London, which meant car service to SFO and some time before the flight to hang out in their clubhouse …
… which features cocktails from Bourbon and Branch like this old fashioned.
Then we entered the plane, where I finally found out what it’s like to have a chair that goes fully flat to form a bed.
The result: I slept over four hours on the flight that left shortly after 9 pm on Thursday, easily setting a new personal record for me. I usually have a tough time sleeping on planes, often because my 6′ 2″ frame ends up feeling cramped in coach. This wasn’t a problem on this trip, thanks to Virgin’s hospitality. And their Boeing 787s have the biggest windows of any commercial aircraft, which allowed me to see London from a new vantage point.
Apparently the air quality on the 787 was better than on other planes, with lower cabin pressure and higher humidity, which decreases jet lag. I didn’t feel different during the flight, but thanks to the Upper Class food (salmon and squid ink pasta for dinner) and drinks, some sleep, and a movie (Creed) before landing, it seemed like the flight lasted less than half as long as it actually did (10 hours).
We arrived on Friday afternoon, and I took this photo when we passed Big Ben on our way from the airport to the Mondrian Hotel on the South Bank of the River Thames.
Yes, the weather in London was nicer than it was when we left San Francisco. The pound is also at its lowest level in years, and the streets were filled with thousands of tourists, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in The City.
On the evening of our arrival, Virgin took us out for cocktails at Dandelyan, the brainchild of International Bartender of the Year Ryan Chetiyawardana. The cocktails were ridiculously inventive, with botany-focused ingredients including plant haemoglobin, grass cordial and pine cone. And just like the bartender, who was really humble and approachable for someone who’s a scientist/genius, none of the crazy-sounding items kept the drinks from being approachable. Every one we tried was delicious.
Then we had a late dinner at Sea Containers (located in the ground floor of the Mondrian), which had some of the best appetizers I’ve ever eaten.
At this point, you might be wondering why I was invited on this trip. I actually stuck out like a sore thumb in a sense, because I was one of five people to go and the other four were women who focus on food, travel and fashion.
Each of us was taken on our own experience on Saturday, and while the girls headed out for a “hidden food tour” or a trip to a fashion museum before afternoon tea, I got the sports experience. Yeah, they care about sports in London. Just a little.
My day started with a tour of Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea F.C.
The English Premier League club has been around since 1905, and they’ve played at the same Fulham, London location since then.
Bay Area sports note: The New York Giants once played the White Sox at Stamford Bridge, back in 1914 when there was a running track around the pitch and the capacity was somewhere around 100,000. The White Sox won 5-4 in an 11-inning game where the teams almost ran out of baseballs, leading John McGraw to lead everyone on a search for souvenirs that fans might have tried to keep for themselves.)
Capacity at the Bridge is now an AT&T Park-like 41,663. The tour started in the press room, which was at ground level and unspectacular in appearance, but apparently provides football journalists with an outstanding buffet meal before games. For free. Things are different for sportswriters working overseas. The room even has a small bar that used to serve alcohol, but now just supplies soft drinks. I’m guessing there are a few interesting stories behind that change.
We also checked out the locker rooms. Here’s the visitors’ changing area. Even a football novice probably knows these dudes.
Our guide said Stamford Bridge has one of the nicer away locker rooms in the league. Some teams aren’t great hosts, as they’re known for shenanigans. Apparently Liverpool used to make their visiting locker room floor so slippery that Chelsea would lay out a rubber mat before their players entered. Another team (I can’t remember which) painted the walls in a pattern meant to induce nausea, and another still built an L-shaped locker room to remind their opponents what would happen during the match.
Chelsea’s home stadium is quite intimate, with roofs covering the stands but not the field. I found myself quite envious of anyone lucky enough to take in a match there (Chelsea’s next game isn’t until Aug. 15), but at least I got to sit in one of the same chairs the Blues use during games.
The natural grass at the Bridge is pristine, even during the offseason (the 49ers should take notes).
They also eat some of the same things we do at games, along with other items we never see (mostly pies).
I really need to come back soon and check out a game before they tear this place down and replace it with a 60,000-seat stadium that will be wrapped with dozens of concrete and brick columns. Stamford Bridge has gone through multiple renovations over the past century-plus, but the current configuration doesn’t appear to have any bad seats.
Plus, since I’m an EPL free agent, I’m thinking I might just have to pick Chelsea as my team. I posted that sentiment on Twitter, and almost everyone disagreed with me. Chelsea finished 10th this past season, but the Blues have won the Premier League four times in the last 12 seasons. So choosing them makes me a bit of a frontrunner/bandwagon-hopper, I’m afraid. However, the idea that I’ve picked a Premier League team that no one who follows me likes … well, that makes rooting for them even more attractive. So, Chelsea it is!
From there, we took the tube to the River Thames for a high-speed RIB boat tour. The boat ride was all I could’ve hoped for and more.
- Cheeky British tour guide making at least one joke per minute: CHECK
- James Bond music during the slow part of the tour early on: CHECK
- Views of Big Ben, the London Eye and the Shard from the River (along with tons of crazy, eclectic buildings of all shapes, sizes and uses): CHECK
Grip-the-rails speedboating with “Walking on Sunshine” playing: CHECK
— Bay Area Sports Guy (@BASportsGuy) July 10, 2016
We spent the rest of the time doing a little sightseeing (and pub-crawling, in my case). I walked to Buckingham Palace on my way to the shopping district to get some souvenirs.
And that night we got to see what London looks like from floor 72 of the Shard.
So yeah, it was tough leaving London the next morning after three fun-filled days. Everyone reading this is feeling all sorts of sympathy for me, I’m sure. What can I say, Virgin Atlantic was ridiculously nice to me with their offer, and eggs benedict at their Heathrow clubhouse, along with a flight back in Premium Economy, made leaving one of my favorite cities a little easier. A HUGE thank you to my favorite airline for contacting me out of the blue (they were even nice enough to push the trip — originally scheduled for mid-June — to July so it wouldn’t conflict with the NBA Finals) and taking me on a journey I’ll never forget. Now all I have to do is figure out how quickly I can fly back and check out a Chelsea game.