Stalking the James Bond experience in London

LONDON

On Friday, Daniel Craig will strut onto film screens once again as James Bond. Skyfall is the 23rd installment of the world's longest-running movie franchise, and its release comes 50 years after Sean Connery first assumed the role in Dr. No.

So as a Bond babe wanna-be, I thought it seemed like the perfect time to step into a pair of sling-back stilettos and follow in the footsteps of the world's sexiest superspy, first created by author Ian Fleming in 1953. Hey, if Queen Elizabeth II could make her Bond girl debut at the Olympic opening ceremonies at the age of 86, then surely I can writhe and wriggle my way into the role, too, right?

Which explains why, on a chilly autumn afternoon, I'm strapped into a crotch-hugging harness, shivering atop London's O2 arena — the creamy white dome from which Bond took a tumble in the pretitle sequence of 1999's The World Is Not Enough. But whereas Ursula Andress would somehow make this unwieldy yoke seem ravishing paired with a skintight bikini, I'm zipped into a puffy blue jumpsuit, looking like the love child of Smurfette and the Michelin Man. I'm not even fit enough to inflate Gargamel's flat tire, much less seduce 007.

But never mind that; the 360 degree views of London from 170 feet up are breathtaking — and to tell you the truth, scaling the outside of the Thames-side arena wasn't that scary. The 90-minute "Up at the O2" experience, which opened in June, is basically like climbing up a tilted trampoline — albeit one that ascends to vertiginous heights — while securely clipped onto a metal cable. For JB and his bevy of beauties, it's practically summer camp.

If you're a 007 enthusiast in search of Bond-worthy exploits around the UK, read on for a list of adventures that will leave you feeling more pleasurably stirred than shaken.

00-Orientation

For an overview of James Bond's London, book a minicoach excursion with Brit Movie Tours. Over the course of three hours, we visit about a dozen Bond film locations, from the Tobacco Docks where Pierce Brosnan launches a speedboat up a ramp in The World Is Not Enough to Somerset House, which doubles as the Ministry of Defense in Tomorrow Never Dies and as St. Petersburg, Russia, in GoldenEye. We also pass by espionage headquarters MI5, which protects the UK against threats to national security, and MI6 — Bond's branch — which keeps a watchful eye on international threats, and which came under attack, at least on celluloid, in The World Is Not Enough and will again in Skyfall.

A brief stop at a fictional "secret" entrance to MI6 — an unassuming door beneath a stone lion on the south side of Westminster Bridge — produces the most Bond-worthy moment. As we pause by the door, I spy a man mumbling into a walkie-talkie as another fellow, clad in riot gear, storms by with a metal suitcase emblazoned with the ominous words "Box will activate if stolen." Bond might have given chase. I decide it's best to "die another day."

Bespoke bondage

Dodging high-tech weapons and outwitting psychotic villains is a cakewalk compared to navigating the high-end boutiques of St. James and the aptly named Bond Street, where you can do some serious damage to your credit card. Boutiques like Prada and Gucci flank the road, while a single block boasts the jewel-filled windows of Cartier, Tiffany and De Beers, reminding shoppers that diamonds are forever.

Nearby, John Lobb holds the royal warrant to provide footwear for Princes Charles and Andrew and the Duke of Edinburgh, and the company also shod Daniel Craig for Casino Royale. If you have the patience (and the pocket money) to wait nine months for a pair of £2,860 ($4,581) bespoke beauties, you can literally walk in Bond's shoes.

For above-the-ankle sartorial inspiration, Bond always turns to Turnbull & Asser, which has designed custom-made clothing for icons like Sir Winston Churchill, President Ronald Reagan and Prince Charles. The legendary Jermyn Street shop, founded in 1885, has served as Bond's tailor ever since Sean Connery donned one of the crisp shirts with cocktail cuffs in Dr. No.

David Gale, who has been with the company since 1974, has measured everyone from David Niven to Judi Dench, as well as Daniel Craig. Wisely, he refuses to dish the dirt on 007. "He's a heck of a nice guy," Gale insists. "He has eyes to die for."

Spy school and cool cars

Of course, it takes more than a laserlike gaze, a well-cut shirt and a pair of snazzy wingtips to make the man — or the superspy. Before Bond ever blew up a lair or totaled an Aston Martin, he would likely have spent several weeks at Beaulieu, a country estate about two hours south of London that served as a finishing school for spies in the 1940s. Beaulieu's "Secret Army" exhibition features a brief film highlighting the often witty reminisces of former instructors and students, a display detailing a handful of the agents' missions and their sometimes tragic fates, and an unassuming little chest of drawers brimming with grim paraphernalia, including a vial of urine that could be used as invisible ink, and a dead rat that agents would pack with explosives — a decidedly more low-tech, but no less deadly, device than one of Q's nifty gadgets.

Then there are the cars. Through the end of 2012, Beaulieu is exhibiting the largest collection of Bond vehicles ever assembled. These range from the Lotus Esprit S1 submarine car from The Spy Who Loved Me to the crocodile submarine in which Roger Moore navigated the waters around Octopussy's palace and an Aston Martin DBS, which Bond (or, at least, a well-insured stuntman) flipped a record 7.5 times in Casino Royale. "They couldn't get it to flip over without a helping hand (an air-powered cannon underneath)," says guide James Ellis. "It's a good advert for Aston Martin if you know that. Otherwise, you see him going around a corner at 70 miles per hour, flipping over — and the airbag doesn't go off," he deadpans.

Behind the wheel

Speaking of Aston Martins, if you've ever dreamed of putting the pedal to the metal in one of these speed machines, you can do it during a daylong class, offered March through November, at Millbrook Proving Ground, about 60 miles north of London. (There's another course in Michigan, too).

I have an opportunity to get behind the wheel of a gunmetal gray Vantage S as part of a rare tour of Aston Martin headquarters in Warwick. Although I've lived in England for five years, I've only driven here once — and that was just around the corner. Now my fearless instructor, Nev Foster, encourages me to "give the gas a little squeeze" as I navigate this growling beast down a quiet country road. I push the "sports mode" button (or "rocket mode," as Foster likes to call it), and he rolls down the windows so that I can hear the V-8 4.7 liter engine roar to life, eating the asphalt like a cheetah devours an impala. My hands are shaking, my palms are sweating, and my throat has gone dry as a bone. But I feel the need for speed, and I admit I like the almost gravity-defying, G-force launch.

My only disappointment? No switch for Bond-style driver's side missile launchers. Hmmm … I'll have to talk to Q about that.

Amy Laughinghouse is a freelance writer based in London.

Exploring Bond's London

What to do: The 90-minute "Up at the O2" experience at the O2 Arena, theo2.co.uk/upattheo2, £22 ($35.25) online.

Minicoach excursion with Brit Movie Tours on Dec. 22, britmovietours.com, adult £25 ($40), child £15 ($24).

Collection of Bond movie vehicles at Beaulieu, a country estate about two hours south of London that served as a finishing school for spies in the '40s, beaulieu.co.uk, adult £20 ($32), child £9.95 ($16).

Daylong driving class at Millbrook Proving Ground in one of the Bond cars; astonmartin.

com/events/performance-driving, £1,164 ($1,865).

Where to stay: Dukes boutique hotel, St. James Place, London. It was in the hotel's famous bar that Ian Fleming coined the phrase "shaken, not stirred." Try the Vesper martini, a combination of gin and vodka created by Fleming. With its slice of orange, it goes down deadly smooth, like a James Bond Jolly Rancher. dukeshotel.com; doubles from about £250 ($400).

The May Fair, near the shops of Bond Street. themayfairhotel.co.uk; doubles from about £290 ($465).

Four Seasons Canary Wharf. Room 712, which features a large dining room and living room with sweeping views of the Thames, doubled as a suite in Shanghai in Skyfall. Look for a sexy shower take filmed here, as well as a swimming pool scene. fourseasons.com/canarywharf; doubles from about £265 ($425).

Books on Bond: Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies by Roger Moore (Lyons Press, 2012) and James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters (DK Publishing, 2012).

More information: visitbritain.com,

visitengland.com.

Stalking the James Bond experience in London 11/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 5:31am]

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