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Lose yourself in London's holiday spirit Add to ...

It's Saturday on London's Oxford Street. I am groggily euphoric after the long haul from Vancouver the day before. Surfacing from the Bond Street Tube station, I am swept up in a choppy sea of Christmas shoppers - all one million of them, the TV news says later. I bob, cheek to jowl, with the crowd, fighting my way in and out of John Lewis and Selfridges, where there is a lineup to get into the Louis Vuitton boutique. Are they giving away handbags? No. This is just London, and if you have money, there is no better place to blow it than here.

The Christmas lights of Oxford, Regent, Bond and Carnaby streets are wondrous even when unlit, but stopping to really take them in is impossible. I break my stride down Conduit Street and enter the cozy, old-school warmth of the Windmill pub, three times awarded for the best steak and kidney pie in Britain. After sampling the steak and mushroom one, all I can say is no kidding; I'll be back tomorrow.

Resuscitated, I take the back roads to Trafalgar Square, where they put up the massive Norwegian Christmas tree and you can belt out carols into the crisp night air. Then I stand still and gaze off down the Mall toward Buckingham Palace; along narrow Whitehall, which is choking with red buses and hackney cabs, and Big Ben stands at an end point in the distance; behind me, dramatic fountains and the imposing National Gallery. I love this city; always have. Here comes my first teary-eyed moment of many.

Onto the London Silver Vaults, opened in 1876 for the safekeeping of the rich's valuables. Now, it's home to the world's largest retail collection of antique silver: a fine place to browse or to pick up a fancy gift. I arrive via the 18th-century courtyard of Somerset House to watch skaters in front of the Tiffany & Co. Christmas tree.

The No. 11 bus is the best route in London for some must-see sights. Hop on at Victoria and pass St. Paul's Cathedral, where the finest boys choir in England joins in festive services throughout December. (Or try Sloane Square's Holy Trinity for a Christmas classical concert on Dec. 16 with champagne and canapés for $30 a ticket). Walking back, I drop into Temple Church, where I'm surprisingly alone. Just me and my overactive Da Vinci Code imagination and 10 eerily lifelike effigies of the Knights Templar. I'm out of there pretty quick.

After all that, I'm ready for my hotel. Barkston Gardens, in a quiet square across from Earl's Court Tube station, is a gem that I discovered online for around $100 a night. Its corridors might be tired, but a dapper maître d' wearing a tuxedo and bow tie seats me for my breakfast of cereal, canned apricots and abysmal coffee.

Where to today? Hyde Park's Winter Wonderland for Bavarian sausage and mulled wine. I peruse arts and crafts stalls for quirky Christmas gifts. My sense of smell is on overdrive from waffles, bratwurst and gingerbread, and I plod around soaking up the festive spirit until I've had enough of Handel's Joy to the World competing with Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody.

I escape deeper into the quiet of the park. The last golden leaves of autumn cling to trees. Dog walkers and joggers pass me, and horseback riders promenade the eight kilometres of bridleway. Nice life. A lone swan glides down the centre of the mirror-like Serpentine lake. I turn back to stare at the new and swanky London address of One Hyde Park, and try to imagine the person who recently bought one of its penthouses for a cool £140-million ($220-million). Farther on, where Hyde Park joins Kensington Palace Gardens, I stroll through the private, "no cameras allowed" Billionaires Row, home to some foreign embassies and Europe's richest man.

Where else can I possibly go after that but Harrods, the store that redefines amazing? Tourists photograph the Peter Pan-themed window displays - a profuse floating fantasy and feast for your inner child. Inside, I bypass the Egyptian Room selling stuff I can't afford and make for the food halls - the caviar house and seafood bar; the rotisserie, the sushi, the oyster and dim sum bars. I decide to treat myself to the cheapest glass of bubbly on the list in the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar - after all, it is nearly Christmas. Then, joy to my own significantly less decadent world, I stand in line to buy my Harrods Christmas Pudding to bring home. No turkey dinner I cook would be the same without it.





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