A travelogue detailing our trip to London and Paris.
In April 2010, my wife and I took a trip to London (with an overnight in Paris) in April, 2010. For better or worse, here's what happened.
MONDAY, APRIL 5, 2010
Spent most of the morning running around finishing last-minute errands as usual. Alec picked us up to go to the airport around 1:30PM, and we left the apartment around 2:00PM ... a half hour later than planned, but a half hour earlier that we really needed to, which is pretty good for us. We were at LAX and checked in by 3:30PM, and proceeded to kill some time and prepare ourselves for the prospect of airline food with a quite bite at Wolfgang Puck’s airport bistro.
Virgin Atlantic has to be one of the best airlines we’ve ever been on. The ticket agent was kind, courteous and efficient, even switching our tickets from the very middle of the dreaded middle section to the two seats on the far side of each aisle, next to the windows. He was absolutely great, as were the other Virgin Atlantic employees.
Helped a woman from Bulgaria fit her suitcase and jacket into the overhead storage bin on the plane, just to disprove the apparent stereotype about selfish, egocentric Americans. I watched SHERLOCK HOLMES and NINJA ASSASSIN on the plane and wasn’t particularly disappointed at having waited for this venue for either movie. Crystal finally got to watch THE BLIND SIDE and loved it.
The flight was nine hours which, combined with the time change, put us halfway into Tuesday when we landed.
TUESDAY, APRIL 6, 2010
Discovered Ben & Jerry’s vending machines in the airport and our hotel; we officially love it here now. We’re staying at the Copthorne Tara Hotel in South Kensington ... a bit old, but in charming area of town, just a few blocks from a Tube station, restaurants, etc.
A Black Cab took us to the hotel from the airport. Fifty pounds, which I later calculated to be about $75 and a rather pricey cab ride ... but it was better than the alternative of pretending we knew how the Tube lines worked and trying to navigate them with our luggage in tow. Those zone passes can be confusing for first-timers! Perhaps we’ll save that challenge for the way back.
Went straight from the airport to hotel to check in; arrived about 1:30PM. Showered and washed off the transatlantic miles and achy bones that come with being packed into a sardine can for ten hours, even if it was a nice one with television, decent meals, and good company.
Left the hotel around 2:00PM to explore. Stopped at Caffe Nero for a mocha (Crystal) and hot chocolate and caprese Panini (me)... then walked down the main drag in South Kensington. We ended up walking through Hyde Park and around Kensington Palace before the time change caught up with us. Stopped at Whole Foods for lunch and some snacks to help avoid eating out for every meal, Crystal got spaghetti Bolognese from an Italian/British employee who was talking to us about SHUTTER ISLAND and movie adaption of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, which I’m coincidentally 150 pages into reading at the moment, as it was my book of choice for the plane ride over. Would have been further along if I hadn’t been tempted by free screenings of SHERLOCK HOLMES and NINJA ASSASSIN.
Stopped at a computer store to find a UK/US power adapter for our laptop and various sundry appliances, but no luck. After trying to stay awake as long as possible, Crystal knocked out around 7:30PM and I went down to the lobby in search of free internet and a power adapter. Success with the latter at the general store in the lobby, but discovered that internet options for this trip are fifteen pounds ($23) per day in the room, twenty pounds ($31) per day in the lobby, or one pound ($1.55) per 10 minutes on the crappy computers in the on-site internet café. Brought my flash drive, so will be working offline in the room on the laptop, then transferring as much as possible whilst feeding British change into coin-operated computers with the funky keyboards (for those uninitiated, British keyboards have a small left Shift key so they can fit the backslash key between it and the “z” key, the quotation marks are on the “2” key, the @ symbol where the quotation marks should be on the apostrophe key, and the # symbol on an extra key next to the Enter key, with the British pound symbol where it should be on the “3” key). Yikes!
Back to the room after the lobby adventures; trying to get some writing done (whilst typing very, very quietly and deliberately to avoid waking the wife). Tried to keep myself awake as long as possible to fight the jetlag; finally conked out around 11:00PM.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7, 2010
Woke up early and had to actually wait around for the breakfast buffet to open at 6:30AM. We had a choice between continental breakfast and “English breakfast”. Already knowing the lavish extent of a continental breakfast (toast, bagels, cold pastries, cold cereal, etc.) we opted for the more expensive English breakfast, not realizing it merely meant that we had access to the hot back half of the continental breakfast table which included scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, baked beans, and grilled tomatoes. The tea was excellent and everything tasted fine, but it was pretty expensive. The toaster was a frightening prospect, as you drop your toast onto a conveyor belt that goes into the machine, which then drops down inside and slides down a ramp on a bottom tray. Very strange and I was altogether certain the bread I sent down the line would travel into the bowels of the machine, where it would crisp, burn, and catch fire.
Went back to the room and fell asleep until 11:00AM.
Set out this morning on a grand tour of London. Intended to start the farthest out and work our way back to the hotel ... Tube ride to the Tower of London, sightseeing on the outside, walk across the Tower Bridge and to Shakespeare’s The Globe Theater, then across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tate Modern, before hopping back on the Tube and heading to the Imperial War Museum and The London Eye, then walking across the Thames and seeing Westminster Abbey, Westminster Walk, Parliament, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace before taking the Tube back to the hotel in South Kensington.
To be fair, we realized that number of attractions in one day would involve passing glances at best ... quick walkthroughs of the museums and a few pictures here and there. A sampler platter of London, if you will.
Unfortunately, Rick Steves lied to us. His map made the Tower of London and The Globe Theater seem like a brisk walk. In reality, they were more than an hour apart by foot, and by the time we got to the theater, jetlag had caught up with us again. We ate at The Swan restaurant at the Globe Theater; Crystal had potato and leek soup and I had an apple scone. We took the tour, saw the theater, saw the exhibition, and decided against buying souvenirs since we can order them online and have precious little space in our luggage. Highlights included both graphic novel and manga versions of Shakespeare’s plays... reproductions of authentic original folios, and Shakespeare quotes on everything from pens to pins to boxer shorts.
Too exhausted to do much else, we walked across the Millennium Bridge and caught the Tube at Mansion House, then headed back to the hotel where we promptly crashed. Ate a box of cookies we got at the Tube station with chai latte and hot chocolate purchased at the hotel. In bed reading and lights out early, on account of having to get up so early tomorrow.
THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 2010
Big day today. Woke up at 4:00AM so we could get ready to go to the train station. Picked up at 4:30AM by a taxi that sped through the empty streets of London on the way to St. Pancras train terminal; considerably less frightening than the taxi to the hotel in traffic.
Caught the 5:25 train to Paris; the Chunnel was pretty unspectacular, but then again, not sure what we were expecting from a long, dark, underwater tunnel. Not exactly a glass-domed affair with sea creatures like Shark Experience at Mandalay Bay or anything. Two and a half hours brought us into Gare du Nord in Paris.
We stood in an obnoxiously long line for taxis, before venturing downstairs to metro station and subsequently deciding the Paris metro system is completely insane. We’re as adventurous as the next couple, but we counted at least three train changes to get to our hotel, and decided against the hassle. Went out to hail a cab on the street and after a failed effort at that, resigned ourselves to standing in the long line for a cab at the train station.
Went right to Hotel de la Bourdonnais, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Fantastic hotel and staff, let us check in at 11:00AM without trouble. And they offered free internet (take note, Britain!). We walked to the Eiffel Tower - which we could see the top of from our room balcony - got a preemptive look, and then had lunch at The Royal Café or something with “royal” in the name, which was entirely disappointing. Steak and fries is exactly that, and salt and pepper are apparently in short supply. Crystal’s spaghetti with meat sauce was heavy on the noodles, meat and oil, light on the sauce. Have a feeling we stumbled into the “tourist” area of France, although it was quite nicely maintained and everyone spoke English.
Went back to hotel to take a nap, woke up later and took the City Bus tour which took us around to the sights. Got on at Les Invalides, went by The Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, along the Seine River, the Arc de Triomphe, and finally the Eiffel Tower before returning to our starting point. Made reservations online for the Eiffel Tower tomorrow at 1:00PM to avoid the ticket line, which Rick Steves tells us could cut 1-2 hours off the experience. A definite plus.
Had dinner at Le Bosquet, which was a great little French restaurant on the corner near our hotel. I had salmon in béarnaise sauce with basmati rice; Crystal had French onion soup. It was very good, but the desserts put everything else to shame. She had warm chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center, accompanied by whipped cream and vanilla bean ice cream. I had to try the vanilla bean crème brulee. Went back to the hotel with happy tummies and off to bed. Loved the fact that dinner was a leisurely affair and we weren’t rushed around.
FRIDAY, APRIL 9, 2010
Last day in Paris. Woke up early, checked out early to make up for checking in several hours before we were supposed to. Left our bag at the hotel and went back to the tour bus pickup (got a great tip by the hotel staff that if we bought our tour tickets after 4:00PM – which we did – they’re good for the entire next day, which allowed us to use the tour bus as free transportation to all those sites we had seen yesterday).
Unfortunately, we misjudged the traffic and the number of idiots on tour buses who need help with directions or buying tickets or working their cameras, and our original plan of hitting the Louvre around 10:00AM and spending two hours there before heading to our Eiffel Tower appointment was all shot to tell. We didn’t get to the Louvre until 11:30AM, which just left us enough time to snap some photos outside before jumping back on a different tour bus with a more aggressive driver who was single minded in his mission of getting the bus from point to point.
A bit of nail biting involved in getting to the Eiffel Tower; realized that a tour bus isn’t the most efficient transportation available. Still, made it to the Eiffel Tower around 12:45PM, just in time to jump in the “already purchased tickets” line (which was several hundred people shorter than the actual ticket line). We were riding the elevator up to the mid-level floors after 45 minutes, and at the very top after 90 minutes. Snapped some photos, and finished up with the Eiffel Tower after less than two hours, which apparently is a feat in and of itself.
Got another group to swap cameras momentarily so we could get a picture together in front of the Eiffel Tower, then bought a sandwich at a bakery and bought some desserts at another place, then headed back to the hotel for our bags and to call a cab for the train station.
We were sad and depressed by the number of beggars, con artists, and scams going unchecked in Paris, particularly at the tourist attractions and train station. Especially displeasing were the women asking if people speak English, and then shoving a card in their face that says something about needing money for their sister’s leukemia or their mother’s hospitalization or similar such fabrication that sadly preys on people’s natural empathy for these real-life tragedies in an attempt to get cash from unwitting tourists.
Almost missed the train because Gare du Nord has virtually no signage or directions, and a surprising lack of security (anyone can walk in and approach the train platforms). We discovered, mercifully before our train departed, that we had to go UPSTAIRS to the lounge area to check in for the Eurostar Chunnel train. Made it on time and onto the train, headed straight back to the hotel and, again, crashed around 8:00PM. Which was okay, because tomorrow’s going to be busy as it’s our last full day in Britain.
SATURDAY, APRIL 10, 2010
Actually lounged around in bed this morning, didn’t get going until around 11:30AM. I guess we’re finally getting the hang of this vacation thing. The goal for today is to wear ourselves out and then sleep in as late as possible tomorrow, so that we don’t sleep on the plane and can get back into our regular Pacific time zone cycle.
Today we bought tickets to the Original Tour Bus, a city bus tour similar to the one we took in Paris. Bought the tickets at the hotel concierge who underestimated both the distance to the nearest stop and how often the buses actually stopped there. After walking down the street and asking both a police officer and a local travel agent, we figured out that the stop we were standing at was an irregular stop, which means we had to stand up, wave or arms, and try our hardest to flag them down so they’d actually stop rather than speeding by.
This stop was on the blue line of the tour circuit, which was the museum tour. It took us by Harrod’s department store, the original Hard Rock Café, Picadilly Circus, the Royal Academy of Arts, and the British Museum. On the way back, we hopped over onto the yellow line at a junction point, which took us around to all the most recognized sites: the Marble Arch, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, The London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, The Tower of London and Tower Bridge, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
After the bus ride, we went shopping at Harrod’s and ate at their Chocolate Bar where we both had to admit that there was such a thing as too much chocolate (Who’da thought?). I had an assortment of hot chocolate shots, she had a cappuccino, and we shared a fondue plate with three different chocolates and all sorts of delicious things to dip – blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, marshmallows, bananas, croissants, and pound cake. It was amazing.
We took the Tube back to the hotel and stopped to do a little shopping, but were given the ten-minutes-til-closing warning as soon as we stepped into the store. Resolved to go back tomorrow when we had more time.
We headed back to the hotel where we relaxed for a little while, then went to the Malaysian/Chinese restaurant in the hotel for dinner. It wasn’t bad, but not great.
After a little internet time, it was off to bed.
SUNDAY, APRIL 11, 2010
Ended up waking early again. At least it helped us get packed up and ready to go early. We went back to the store and realized that, unfortunately, most places in London don’t open until noon on Sunday. We got ready to go and checked out; I waited with the luggage while Crystal ran back to the store to buy a couple things she had seen the night before. Thankfully the store opened a few minutes early because, with the car coming to take us to the airport around 12:20PM, despite best laid plans, that didn’t give us much more time to shop than we had last night. Still, she made it back just in time to get picked up and head off to the airport.
Going through security was much better at Heathrow than it is in the U.S.; we didn’t even have to take off our shoes! With a couple hours to kill before our flight, we stopped for a bite to eat and I finally ended up getting the fish and chips I’d been wanting the whole trip.
It ended up being not so great a selection, as I ended up getting a fishbone caught in my throat which I couldn’t get down. I’m afraid I may have scared Crystal when I told her I had to go to the bathroom and get it up since it wouldn’t go down.
Picked up some books at the airport bookstore (I was tempted to buy a couple that hadn’t been released in the U.S. yet, but decided against it at the last minute), and were on the plane by 2:15PM for a 3:15PM departure.
I thought the fishbone was the worst part of the day. As we were taxiing out to the runway, the woman behind us started complaining of not having her medication and needing oxygen. We ended up having to go back to the gate, the staff had to argue with her about deplaning, we had to empty out all the overhead bins for another security check, they wanted to top off the fuel tanks... and we ended up leaving at 5:30PM, more than two hours after we were supposed to depart.
When we landed at LAX, we were diverted to the “auxiliary terminals”, where we deplaned and then had to take a bus across the entire airport to get back to customs. Went through customs and finally got picked up by Joni; we felt awful because the whole ordeal with the delay put us 2-3 hours behind and she was waiting around.
Made it home and, except for the rather rough last day and journey home, it ended up being a pretty spectacular trip.