San Diego's Direct Link to London


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Local travelers have reason to celebrate. After a five-year hiatus, British Airways is back with direct flights from Lindbergh Field to London's Gatwick Airport. No more shuttles to LAX or sleep-sacrificing layovers in Chicago or New York. Those who abhor connecting flights now have a link right to the British Isles.

I tried the flight for a visit to London and Scotland, joining passengers en route to Germany and Greece. Gatwick is a good international hub, with flights to more than 160 destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States-and it's just 30 minutes by train from London's Victoria Station.

Like many of my fellow travelers, I began my trip with a few nights in London, catching a play, shopping, palace-hopping and adjusting my inner clock at the Royal Garden Hotel beside Hyde Park. The first morning I was wide awake at 4 a.m., bundled in a blanket at my window seat, sipping tea and watching London arise. Walkers and joggers in leather jackets and hooded sweatshirts wove through Hyde Park's trees and lawns. On television, a proper British newscaster announced the scandal of the day (a philandering bishop in Scotland). It didn't take long to get in a British frame of mind.

Samuel Johnson's 1777 proclamation still holds: "When a man is tired of London he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford." Despite talk of economic and social depression, occasional bombings and the city's generally gray ambience, London is a fascinating city, always ready with new diversions.

For a sense of history and pageantry, I toured Kensington Palace, home to several current-day princesses and dukes. The Royal Garden arranges special tours with dinner in the palace's Orangery overlooking Kensington Gardens, an idyllic spread of classic English flower beds. Ongoing renovations at the 17th-century country estate, now an inner-city palace, have resulted in smashing displays. Best is King William's Gallery-an imposing hall filled with royal portraits-and an adjacent collection of horrifically uncomfortable-looking regal outfits.

Scotland's St. Andrews Cathedral
For a taste of the theater scene, I caught the Prince Edward Theatre's production of Martin Guerre, a musical with a thought-provoking twist on the most famous trial of 16th-century France. For a sampling of the nouvelle London cuisine that refutes the reputed British blandness, I lunched at Oxo and dined at Mezzo and The Tenth, all as fashionable as London can be. And to touch base with the city's always-intriguing residents, one night I hooked up with an old friend over fish and chips and mushy peas at the Costas Fish Bar, then moved on to a comfy pub.

The tales one hears in pubs: According to legend, London will die the day the ravens disappear from London Tower. The ebony birds cawing atop gloomy turrets and inside cages appeared quite plump and opinionated when I walked through the tower's gloomy grounds on a damp and chilly afternoon. A breeding program is under way to keep this six-bird contingent in full force; when one dies, it is buried in the raven cemetery by the Middle Drawbridge. Its replacement's presence is assured by clipped wings, a deterrent to homesick ravens imported from Scotland and Wales.

Unlike Edgar Allan Poe's grim and ancient Raven, I was able to fly to Scotland the next day and wander the wild moors haunted with ghostly images. Thanks to "kilt movies" Braveheart and Rob Roy, tourism is one of Scotland's growth industries; according to the Scottish Tourist Board, one of every eight jobs in Great Britain's rugged north country involves tourism.

Wonderful restaurants like the Kingdom of Fife's Scotland's Larder are captivating diners with platters of smoked trout and salmon, plates of local cheese, and bowls of steamed cloutie dumpling with fresh cream and jam. After lunch, I filled my pack with jars of seed-filled coarse mustards, crumbly shortbread and a cookbook I hope to use someday.

Rather than race through Scotland's many attractions, I settled in at the St. Andrews Old Course Hotel Golf Resort and Spa, where French barman Regis Levaitre selected samples from his stash of 140 brands of whiskeys to educate my palate on the flavors of smoke and peat. My four-poster bed looked out toward the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse ruling over the infamous Old Course, home of early "gowf."

In a civilized bow to its neighbors, the course is closed to golfers on Sundays but open to tourists and town residents, who treat the course as a public park. But dedicated duffers on golf holidays need not fret over missing a game. The Duke's Course, which opened in 1995 alongside oak groves and fields of heather in Craigtoun Park, is open daily year-round. With five coastline courses as part of the St. Andrews Links Trust courses, one would think the region has enough holes in the ground. But the Duke's has several advantages: Tee times are guaranteed (unlike the lottery system used for the Old Course); the clubhouse has a warm and cozy feel; and the course was designed by Peter Thompson with Americans in mind.

While golfers in tartan caps worship the sport, townies and tourists all seem to spend Sunday strolling along St. Andrews Bay. Some scale the 150 steps to Rule Tower, overlooking the 16th-century ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral and the cemetery where 19th-century golf heroes Tom Morris Sr. and Jr. are buried. Students and profs from St. Andrews University (the oldest in Scotland) wander from church services to Sunday dinner in their academic gowns, passing fishmonger, butcher and produce shops closed for the day. Great bushy dogs run atop the Old Course bunkers formed by the wind, sea and (some say) the devil.

I could easily have spent a week in St. Andrews and a month in Scotland. My CD collection now includes haunting songs by Capercaillie, and my bookshelf bar boasts a dwindling bottle of Glenmorangie whiskey.

I'm glad Brit Air's back at Lindbergh.

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