As I clutch the wheel of a silver Aston Martin V8 Vantage S and watch the speedometer straddle the 100 mile mark, I feel a smirk coming on. Steve, the professional driver propped in the passenger's seat beside me, tells me to relax and enjoy the ride: I wholeheartedly obey. After ten minutes on the M40 Motorway in Warwickshire, England at 95 miles an hour, I've experienced a taste of what it feels like to be James Bond, even if it is only for an afternoon (during which I sign my life away on a dotted line and promise to return the hand-crafted, $150,000 speed machine in one piece). I could get used to this, I think.
It'll be tough to top his latest mission as Queen Elizabeth's date, escorting Her Royal Highness by helicopter from Buckingham Palace to the Olympic Park where she leapt to cheering crowds in a parachute, but the world's favorite MI6 operative embarks upon his 23rd assignment on November 9 when Skyfall hits theaters (www.skyfall-movie.com.). Skyfall's premiere also marks the 50th anniversary of the Bond film franchise, which I recently celebrated on a Bond-themed expedition through the martini-sipping spy's home country.
My adventure kicks off in St. James at the exclusive Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon on the top floor of Fortnum & Mason, (www.fortnumandmason.com), the Queen's grocer. Here, I nibble savoury scones served on sea foam-green china before casing the neighborhood for fineries befitting 007. In search of those sigh-eliciting, chest-skimming shirts worn by every single Bond actor in history, I strut over to Turnbull and Asser (www.turnbullandasser.com), whose master tailors happen to be outfitting Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan when I arrive. Turnbull's head shirt-cutter, David Gale, regales me with stories about Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig and even Dame Judy Dench (aka "M"), who recently called upon the 127-year old clothier to design a set of bespoke PJ's. Next, I pop into Floris (www.florislondon.com/gbp), a luxury perfumer which makes Floris No. 89, a nutmeg-tinged men's fragrance worn by James Bond in the novels and also by Bond creator Ian Fleming. Floris has been a London institution since 1730, and No. 89 is named after the perfumer's address on Jermyn Street. Around the corner at shoemaker John Lobb (www.johnlobbltd.co.uk), I enter the shop's dimly-lit underground chambers where row upon row of stacked wooden shoe molds create the perfect setting, it seems, for a Bond rescue sequence. I half expect Daniel Craig - who wears a pair of black John Lobb Luffield shoes in the casino scenes of Casino Royale - to spring forth from behind the shelves, announcing that the shoe molds are actually grenades which will explode within seconds and instructing me to wrap myself around him whilst he hightails it up the stairs and out the door. Happy to oblige.
A day of window-shopping and I'm ready to unwind at nearby Dukes hotel bar with a highly-potent Vesper martini, named after the one and only Mrs. Bond. Former neighborhood resident Ian Fleming is said to have been a regular at Dukes, where he purportedly coined Bond's famous "Shaken, not stirred" martini order. For serious Bond groupies, barman Alessandro Palazzi offers a Martini Masterclass (www.dukeshotel.com/foodanddrink-dukesbar-martini-masterclass.php) in which participants mix their own martini under Allesandro's watch then enjoy their concoctions with a selection of canapés in Dukes' elegant, mahogany-paneled bar. Reclining in a cozy club chair by a crackling fire, I listen to the "lecture" and soak it all in. (For a Vesper, that's 10ml Amber vermouth, 20ml Potocki Vodka, 80ml No. 3 Gin, a few drops of Angostura Bitter and a twist of orange, to be exact.)
The next morning I'm whisked away on a 3-hour "James Bond Tour of London" by actor-cum-tour guide Akin Gazi of Brit Movie Tours (http://britmovietours.com). As Bond clips are shown on a TV screen at the front of a minibus, I whirl around town listening to a trove of movie trivia, bad guy impersonations and insider Bond stories. (Did you know, for instance, that Ian Fleming named one of his most notorious henchmen after Erno Goldfinger, architect of London's famed Trellick Tower? The architect was apparently a neighbor of Fleming - an outspoken conservationist - who is said to have been enraged when Goldfinger demolished a pair of Victorian homes to build his now-classic ultra-modern villas.) Between tales, Gazi calls upon the real-life MI5 and MI6 headquarters, Somerset House (which doubles as the Goldeneye version of St. Petersburg Square and the Ministry of Defense), and a handful of locations from Skyfall, including The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. (The building was originally a cafeteria for naval veterans and was recently featured in Skyfall as M woefully contemplates a coffin in the basement - spoiler alert!)
Bidding bisous to my Bond-obsessed tour guide, I board the Thames Clipper, a river bus that delivers me almost instantly to the O2 Arena. (www.theo2.co.uk/upattheo2). A London landmark housing cinemas, restaurants, and a concert venue, the O2 is also, since June, home to a new adventure experience called Up at the O2 during which participants hike to the top of the arena's 170-foot domed roof. Commencing at "Base Camp," I don a pair of protective overalls then make my way with a metal clip along a taught wire. (No Bond girl would be caught dead in this overstuffed ski suit, I surmise.) As I trek to the summit - my hair a wind-blown heap - I cannot help but think Pierce Brosnan must've appeared more graceful in this setting. (Brosnan suavely rolled down the roof of the O2 in the pre-title sequence of the 1999 Bond film The World is Not Enough, you may recall.) On reaching the top, I behold 360 views of the London skyline, snap a few photos, then probe the platform for any villains that may have followed me. No Jaws or Scarpine in sight, I proceed with caution on the descent. The entire experience lasts about an hour and whilst I may not have scaled Maiden's Tower in Istanbul (where M is imprisoned by an oil tycoon's daughter in The World is Not Enough), I feel oddly valiant.
Saturated by now in James Bond 's London, I turn south towards Britain's New Forest, where the "Bond in Motion" exhibit showcases the largest collection of original Bond vehicles the world has ever seen at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu (www.beaulieu.co.uk/attractions/bond-in-motion.) Included in the display (a partnership with the Bond film production studio EON) is Bond's 1964 Aston Martin DB5 and the 1937 Phantom III Rolls Royce from Goldfinger, the Lotus Esprit S1 (nicknamed 'Wet Nellie') from The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bede Acrostar jet and quirky yellow Tuk Tuk from Octopussy, and the Aston Martin DBS stunt car from Casino Royale. Entrance to the exhibition, which runs until January 6, also covers entry to adjacent Palace House, a grand estate where the highly secretive Special Operations Unit trained spies during World War II. The palace includes a small museum, The Secret Army Exhibition, which offers guided tours covering fascinating bits of World War II spy memorabilia, gadgets, and uniforms.
After a two-hour drive back to the capital, I'm ready to retire to The Draycott, a boutique hotel transformed from three Edwardian homes on leafy Cadogan Gardens in Knightsbridge. (Ian Fleming would approve, I think.) As I'm checking in and chatting with the desk clerk about my whirlwind holiday, she informs me that the hotel's evening cocktail hour is about to begin and tells me one of the Draycott's guest suites was actually used as a changing room by the cast of Skyfall during filming. Not only that, she says, but Pierce Brosnan is currently staying at The Draycott! I retire to my room as planned for a good night's sleep before my early morning flight from Heathrow. As the elevator doors merge, I spy a dark-haired, bow-tied, gentleman nursing a fresh martini by the bar. Suddenly, that cocktail hour sounds enormously appealing.