2 Chicks Take a Trip to London

Because Lesli and I flew from two different locations to meet in London, our take on everything was from very different perspectives.  For example, this was her first trip out of the U.S., so she was thrown off by driving on the “wrong” side of the road and by our Heathrow Shuttle driver’s creative weaving through traffic at top speed.  I flew from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where we drive on the same side of the road as they do in England, and far more creatively!  So the poor girl had her every comparison sprinkled with the further comparison of my experience as an American expat.  Ah well, that’s why I am more than just the average tour guide!

Our first order of business, after getting to our lovely hotel, The Hesperia London Victoria, was to find dinner.  The St. George’s Pub at the end of the block was so packed that people were standing outside to enjoy their pints, so we found ourselves something that seemed authentic inside a nearby shopping center.  I had fish and chips, of course.  The next morning’s breakfast was not so authentic…we skipped the £13 English breakfast of eggs, ham and baked beans offered by the hotel for scones and a hot beverage at the nearby, familiar and much beloved Starbucks!  (We don’t have them in Colombo.)  Then onto the hop on-hop off bus, The Original Tour.

Our first stop was the only place I really insisted on seeing – The Sherlock Holmes museum!  I’ve been in a Victorian era state of mind lately (perhaps since moving to Sri Lanka in 2000 actually, where it seems some are keeping the era of British rule alive). 

Loved it! 

At the same stop was Madame Tussaud’s, where I’d never been and had no intention of going. Lesli wanted to compare it to the one in L.A., so we went, and I had A BALL! 

 

LONDON LESSON #1 – Sometimes it’s the stuff you didn’t plan that turns out to be the most fun.

While Lesli stuck with more contemporary stars, I traveled through time, fiction and cultures, cuz that’s what I’m all about.  (I don’t really spend much time in reality….) 

Then it was back on the bus to see the sights of London town. One of Lesli’s priorities for London was to see a palace, so we did Buckingham Palace one day and Kensington Palace the next.  Unfortunately, the tours inside Buckingham didn’t start until later in the summer. Kensington Palace offered tours, but not merely of the palace rooms.  While they are refurbishing it, they’ve created an art installation called The Enchanted Palace that was AMAZING.  It was such a highlight that I’m going to delve into it in a separate post.

After shopping in the Buckingham souvenir shop, we walked back to our hotel near Victoria Station, and happened to notice that the musical Wicked was playing nearby.  Lesli and I saw Wicked together in L.A. … twice… and LOVED it.  I was quite obsessed by it, actually.  But we had tickets for the ballet that night – another of Lesli’s requests for the trip. The Northern Ballet was performing Cleopatra at Sadler’s Wells across town.  My lovely cousin, Nazra, was meeting us at our hotel with a print out of exactly how to take the Tube to the theater, how long it would take, and where to walk from the station.  Once we were all dolled up and ready, Nazra showed us the way.

We found our place on the train and then heard an announcement, but couldn’t understand a word.  People started leaving the train, so we asked someone.  Apparently, the Victoria Line was closed until further notice. Gasp!  Back up from The Underground we rushed, trying desperately to hail a cab (and apparently not very politely—we got told off!) until we realized there was no way we’d make it in time.  That’s when we found ourselves standing in front of the Victoria Apollo Theatre, staring at the sign for Wicked. We took it as a sign from the great and powerful Oz, and in we went. 

Having the soundtrack from the original Broadway cast committed to heart and memory, we were absolutely delighted with the performance. Not just because of the British accents of the characters, either.  The young woman playing Elphaba, who we later learned was Rachel Tucker, held up to Idina Menzel and then added her own magic.  We were so thrilled by the performance!  If you want a taste, check out this clip on YouTube:  http://youtu.be/XQAsv6ZnGFo

Afterward, we lingered, trying to find just the right souvenirs to represent our London Wicked experience. We were there so long that the staff began turning off lights and locking doors.  Oops! They ushered us out, and as we started toward our hotel, we noticed a small crowd gathered. And just as we walked by, out popped the star of the show fromt he stage door, Rachel Tucker!  Lesli told her how impressed we were with her, even compared to the two previous people we’d seen in the role (Lesli knew their names) and then we got her autograph on Lesli’s souvenir poster, and we took a photo with her!  See?

LONDON LESSON #2 – When plans go wrong, sometimes the alternative turns out to be WAY better than the original plan!

The next day, we were off to see Westminster Abbey before meeting Nazra for tea at The Orangery at Kensington Palace.  The weather was great, so we enjoyed the walk from our hotel, then took the Tube– successfully this time—to Kensington Park, where we strolled until we found Nazra.  She joined us on the tour of the palace too, until it was time to part ways. Then to the Tube again to meet my husband’s cousin, Jani, and his lovely wife Angela (and their adorable little Isabel!) to experience Portobello Market. 

Turns out we were too late for the market. So after the obligatory tourist photo, Angela was only too happy to help Lesli cross another thing off her list – Harrod’sI’m glad to have seen it, but honestly found it a bit overwhelming. Lesli, however, had found a palace she could fully appreciate, and thankfully, a willing and able tour guide in Angela. I was quite happy to check out the décor with Jani and Isabel in the stroller. 

Angela knew of a lovely little pub nearby where we could have a dinner of Bangers and Mash and some cider, and then helped us find our way back to our hotel, where we had to pack for an early airport pickup for our flight to Paris!

 

In the next posts about Paris and Rome — be sure to check back discover how we took photos when they weren’t allowed!  Muah ah ah!

Written by Malayna Dawn for the Women on World Excursions blog , which she co-manages with some fabulous, world-traveling, women friends.

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Chick Trip Planning 3 – Top 5 London Hotels

It seems like it should be easy to find a hotel I like, which fits my needs and falls into my budget, but I found it to be a challenge…that became a time-consuming obsession!  
 
 http://mappery.com/map-of/London-Underground-Transportation-Map
 

 

 

In London, it almost doesn’t matter if you’re not smack dab in the city center, as long as there’s a tube stop (London Underground – their subway system) nearby. So I checked the ones I liked on a map to make sure I wasn’t booking us too far from easy mobility. And then I checked the reviews at TripAdvisor.com

I looked at about 40 hotels, according to my notes, but I suspect I looked at more and just decided not to keep notes on many more than that.

Starting with Price
The rationale for an inexpensive hotel is that we’d be so busy sightseeing and soaking up the atmosphere, we wouldn’t be spending much time in the room. So I started the search at Hostel World.com, because a well-traveled friend assured me it includes hotels and B&Bs as well as hostels and the reviews are spot-on. It was, indeed, a great resource for affordable hotels. She also suggested EasyHotel.com  –  for just the basics.  Other friends suggested Premiere Inn and Holiday Inn hotels. 

Premiere Inn London Eye

BUT I found I wanted someplace a little bit special. This was going to be my friend’s first trip outside of the U.S. and I wanted her to feel like she was in London.  We’re also the kind of girls who like to nap or perhaps sleep in and get a slow, languid start, so we’d probably spend more time in our hotel than most. 

Sense of Style
Therefore, I did a search for “unique, boutique hotels in London” and found Secret Places.com.  It wasn’t as easy to use as some sites, but had lovely suggestions.  Unfortunately, most of these were either outside of our price range ($200 or under) OR too far away from public transport options. Still, I fell in love with the Lime Tree Hotel and hold out hope that it works out for a future visit. 

Lime Tree Hotel

Once I had fallen in love with a hotel that had a sense of design that felt good, it was impossible to go back. I wanted to be excited about where we stayed.  The Hotel Guru had some nice choices as did Epoque Hotels, but they either didn’t have rooms with 2 beds available (called Twins) for our travel dates, or were too far away from tube stops. If they had, we might be staying at one of these:

Tophams Hotel

 

• The warm and cute Tophams Hotel 

• The lovely New Linden

New Linden

• The very hip Hoxton Hotel which periodically offers a £1 sale.

Finally, it was down to sharing a bed at the clean, modern, Euston Square Hotel or not sharing a bed at the Hesperia London Victoria, which had everything we needed and a great location too.  

Overall, I found that Agoda.com and Expedia had good rates and were easy sites to use in the search, which was at times, completely overwhelming.

So, after much research, here are my top 5 London Hotel recommendations:

1. The Hesperia London Victoria – wins for great price, great amenities and great location.  
2. Tophams Hotel –  Very cute, good price and location.
3. The New Linden – Nice, with good rates and location.
4. The Hoxton – very cool, but a bit far away.
5. Lime Tree Hotel – far away but so lovely!

I’ll report back when I’ve actually been to London and experienced the room for myself!

2 Chicks Planning a Trip – Part 2

http://www.zazzle.com/san_sebastian_postcard-239052563112264807

San Sebastian postcard from VictoriaShaylee on Zazzle.com

 

In Part 1, we tackled the first few steps of travel planning: imagining the ideal, researching the costs, and finding a way (financially).  Now that we’ve found our way, it’s time to get into specifics and fill in the blanks.

First, before solidifying dates, be sure to check if there are any public or bank holidays that will fall during your trip.  This can put a damper on your time if everything is closed.

Getting from A to B

 Doing this helps solidify decisions regarding timing and budget, because as with life, travel is a constant balancing act between time and money to get maximum joy.  After you get the general sketch, you can start coloring in the lines!

With airfare covered to our first stop in London, it was time to see how much else we could squeeze in.  I knew it was cheaper to take a car across the channel to France on the ferry, but how long would it take to get from Paris to Rome?   Ahh….time to examine logistics  – the thing that usually gets in the way of my grand plans.

A friend mentioned that the Eurostar gets you from the center of London to the center of Paris in about 2-1/2 hours. It would save us the trouble of getting to and from the Dover to Calais ferry and when I researched it, it costs the same as just the ferry ride without a car.  Sold! 

Image from GE Tours.com

Then, it turns out the driving distance between Paris and Rome is about 950 miles, or around 1530 kilometers. That’s a lot of driving. And then I found one travel website that said: 

“The blunt reality is that even for experienced Europe travelers, driving in and around some of the major cities, especially Paris and Rome, can be very, very challenging for driving, parking, etc.  Are you ready and experienced for this type of driving adventure?” 

I flashed back to my last trip to Paris when I drove just from Paris to Monet’s House in Giverny, on to Versailles and back.  It was all fine until we tried to get back to our hotel in Paris and couldn’t find our way off of the highway called the Peripherique! There was a tantrum involved.  I’d like to avoid tantrums.  So I’m NOT up to this driving adventure.

The Eurail from Paris to Rome takes 11 hours. We can save on one night of hotel expense if we take the night train, but we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the sight of Provence’s fields of flowers at night. And we aren’t so into flowers that we’d want to waste a day that way. 

Luckily another friend told me that flying costs the same as the train – and she was right!  And it gets us there in about 4 hours, even with a short layover in Switzerland.  The airfare wasn’t that much more to fly us back to London to catch our flights home either, even with stops in Germany.  Time and budget balanced. Sold!

The moral of the story:  Talk to your friends!

(The wonderful vocalist for this video/TV ad is Nadia Ackerman. Check out her stuff on Facebook!

Getting around A, B & C

A great way to get an overview of a city is from the hop-on, hop-off tourist buses. They give you the highlights and a bit of history, allow you to explore what interests you and offer a day or two of easy transport options for one price. They range from $13 – $36 and some offer discounts on museums and such too! 

In London: The Original Tour

In Paris: The Red Bus  OR L’Open Tour

In Rome: Trambus – 110 open tour

I then suggested top my friend that if at all possible, we should try to stay 3 nights in each city. That might enable us to get out of the city to see something else, like Stonehenge, Versailles or The Vatican.  She made it happen!

Where to Stay

We have the option of staying with friends in London and saving a few nights of hotel costs, but it would also limit our freedom a bit. We’d worry about imposing upon their time and might cut our evening revelry short to accommodate their schedules, so we decided against it for this trip.  But it’s always a good option if you’re traveling alone and have to keep the budget down. 

After the travel expenses, we can afford about $150-$200 per night for 9 nights, but we want aren’t necessarily comfortable with the idea of a super-budget hotel.  Instead, I began looking at any and all available discounts at my disposal.  Frequent flier miles and their partners, credit card points, discounts available from professional organizations, etc….  I’m still working on that.

In the meantime, Trip Advisor.com is a great resource for the hotel search.  I’ve found Yahoo Travel to be useful as well.  Both let you select by price, amenities and location and offer reviews. It’s a bit of a science distilling all the information into something useful, but it’s a money-saving endeavor that can assure a quality stay!

Next time, we’ll hone in on things we definitely want to do and see in each city.  Until then, here is some homework for you: watch these movies to put you in the mood and help you decide! (Mouse over the links to see who was in it and what year it was made.)

French Kiss with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline '95

London: Notting Hill, Love Actually, and Bridget Jones’ Diary 

             (and these from IMDb)

Paris: Amelie, French Kiss, An Education, Da Vinci Code (and these from IMDb)

            for Versailles, Marie Antoinette, and The Affair of the Necklace 

            (and these from IMDb)

Rome: Only You, Eat Pray Love,  Angels and Demons, and Jumper 

               (and these from IMDb)

Eat Pray Love 2010

2 Chicks Planning a Trip – Part 1

For my 40th birthday, I chose to celebrate with travel, and went to Cambodia to explore the Angkor Wat temples.  So now that my good friend is about to turn 40, I thought she should do the same.  But unlike me she hasn’t traveled beyond North America, so I started thinking of places she really ought to see. Then I thought I’d share the process with all of you! So here are the first few steps: imagining the ideal, researching the costs, and finding a way (financially).
STEP 1 – IMAGINING THE IDEAL
For her, I chose these, from the most ideal to the extremely acceptable:
  
• Europe – There was a time when all well-bred and educated young people took a trip to “the Continent” –especially France and Italy. It was known as “the grand tour”.  While I did the tour just after graduating from college when I was 23 (part of my 2nd trip around the world, thanks to travel-loving parents), I think it might be time she completes her education. 

 • England – Both of us being Jane Austen fans with a general appreciation for literary history, we could do a tour of locations from Jane Austen novels and films and also visit King Arthur’s Tintagel. She also shares my love for the modern day romantic comedies of Richard Curtis—Love Actually, Bridget Jones Diary, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. We could do a tour of those locations. 
 
• New York – We’re both fans of musical theater, and quite a bit of America’s literary, film and social history has taken place there.  It’s one of the world’s greatest cities and everyone should visit at least once. Plus we both have When Harry Met Sally memorized, (she orders food like Sally does too!) so we might need to pretend we’re in it.
 
• New Orleans – This city is a beautiful, living piece of Spanish and French colonial history, as well as some of the more colorful parts of America’s backstory—Pirates, Riverboats, Plantations, Swamps, and Ghosts!  (I fell in love with it because I’m an Anne Rice fan.)

STEP 2 – RESEARCHING THE COSTS

Airfare– it’s the biggest piece of the cost of travel, followed closely by accommodation.  But you gotta get there before you need a place to stay. 

• Online Searching – I used to be able to get significantly cheaper airfare from Lowestravel.com, but now they have pretty much the same airfare options as Expedia, Travelocity, Cheap Flights, or Orbitz.  Searching through TripAdvisor.com lets you compare, and is a good way to keep track of your searches for hotel as well.

• Choosing Dates – Keep in mind that travel costs will vary depending on the season and the day you want to travel.  Her birthday is actually in the first week of June, but I found if I used a date at the middle to end of May, the airfare dropped by about $300.  Also, fares tend to be cheaper when they’re on a weekday. It is supply and demand in action – more people want to fly on weekends, so they can charge more for the privilege.

Other Transportation –  
 
• If we were going to travel around England, I would rent a car, or maybe get a BritRail Pass. 
• If we’re going to Europe, we’d need to get across the channel from the UK, and around Paris and Rome.
So I did some basic research on all the options. 
• Car rental/Britrail Pass – A search for “car rental in London” brought up familiar U.S. chains Hertz and Enterprise.  It looks like $200-$250 for a week. A Britrail pass costs $249 for a week.  So the cost is about the same, we’d have to weigh the pros and cons of carrying our luggage and walking from train stations.  We’d probably rent a car.  We’re American after all – and born & bred Los Angelenos at that.  We love our cars!

• Ferry/Eurail – To cross the channel via ferry from Dover to Calais is actually less expensive if you have a car for some reason.  We could rent a car in England and drive to Paris.  It’s £39 with a car and £59 without. I usually just double that to estimate the cost in dollars.  But to be specific, I go to xe.com’s universal currency converter— £39 = $63, £59 is $95.

I’ll have to check how long it would take to drive to Paris from London.  I’ve driven in both England and France before, and I’m used to driving on the other side of the car and other side of the road (from the US perspective) from living in Sri Lanka. 

A Eurail pass for 2 countries within 4 to 10 days is advertised as “from $169” – but upon closer inspection, for adults 26 or older, a 2nd class saver ticket for France and Italy is $275 per person.

STEP 3 – FINDING THE WAY (FINANCIALLY)
 
It has been my experience that once I know how much money I need to create the trip I want, the rest sort of falls into place somehow.  So I never wait until I have enough money saved up.  I start planning the trip first, and then find ways to make it happen.  This is how The Law of Attraction works!  (Check out my articles on The Power of Thoughts & Goal Setting.)

So many people put off doing the things they want to do in life until they have enough money, but the money always gets spent somehow until they’re too old to enjoy it when they’ve got it. 

Within days, she and I had found the money.  Hers came from a bunch of people who love her. They all chipped in to give her a great 40th birthday present when I suggested my plan.  Mine will come from a creative use of available discounts, frequent flier miles, and accumulated credit card points.  Neither of us will need to go into debt to pay for this trip! 

So it’s been decided, she can take a week off of work without negatively impacting her budget. We’ll meet in London (she’s flying from LAX, I’m flying from Sri Lanka), and do 2 days in London, 2 days in Paris and 2 days in Rome.  
Next time we’ll get into the serious planning!

All images from http://www.zazzle.com/vintage+postcards — buy them as prints, t-shirts, mugs, etc!

Cornwall & Tintagel Castle – Living Legends

Modern Cornwall is beautiful with its ancient beginnings.

Lanyon Quoit Henge in Cornwall, and an old tin mine in the background.

Before I get into how much I loved Cornwall and all there is to see there, let me first explain why I was absolutely driven to go: Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which begins with The Crystal Cave. I re-read this every couple of years –just because it’s a damn good piece of fiction.

For those of you not familiar with this series, it’s the story of Myrrdn Emrys (Merlin) growing from socially awkward boy to powerful man-magician. And a key part of the saga occurs when Merlin orchestrates the conception of King Arthur, at Tintagel Castle.

I should probably note, this series is actually a quintet, but the magic of the story dwindles and ends in the third book…many people refer to the series as a trilogy.

But back to Cornwall, as it exists today…

Magic Rediscovered in Modern Cornwall

Lamorna Cove, Cornwall

Lamorna Cove in Cornwall

Driving southwest from Somerset and Devon, you’ll feel like you’re entering a different world. The Cornish roads are so narrow there’s only room for one vehicle at a time. If you encounter any oncoming traffic, one of the drivers will have to back up until s/he reaches a turn out to let the other car pass. (Usually, it’s the smaller vehicle that does this…)

Not only are the roads narrow though, they’re also lined with very high hedges. You’ll feel like you’re traveling through a maze sometimes.

But once you get into the more settled areas along the coast, the hedgerows disappear and the terrain becomes a lot more open. You’ll see old tin mines dotting the landscaping, and run across a henge or two.

The coastline itself is dramatic (thus the poetic “Land’s End”), with it’s bluer than blue water. Apparently there’s a high copper content in the sediment, which gives the coastal waters the blue-green hue.

Tintagel Castle Ruins: Not-so-easy Access

Expect to go for a bit of a hike to get to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. This is the view of the mainland from Tintagel’s ruins.

And finally, there’s Tintagel Castle, where Merlin supposedly orchestrated the conception of King Arthur.

Tintagel Revisited

Now according to legend, Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, hid his wife Ygraine in Tintagel castle, to keep her safe from King Uther. Tintagel Castle is right on the coast, by the way. Merlin disguised Uther and led him up a narrow, treacherous path along the cliff face to gain entrance to the fortress. According to Mary Stewart, it was a dark and stormy night. Of course.

In real life, Tintagel Castle ruins lie on a small island-like land mass jutting out from the mainland and you’ll have to walk a narrow path and cross a bridge of stairs to get to them. Thankfully, the bridge is in good order and it’s a much safer trek than the one Uther supposedly made in the fifth or sixth century.

Challenging Stairs at Tintagel

It’s a rough climb up to Tintagel. But the handrails are sturdy!

Still, this is not a hike for the faint of heart. It’s a long walk, and the stairs from the bridge up to the top of the peninsular mountain where the ruins lie, are fairly steep.

Of course, the stairs aren’t comfortable to climb either, because the originals weren’t cut in ergonomic times. The newer ones are fine, but some of the older ones really challenge your sense of balance. They’re roughly hewn and dangerous.

Bridging the mainland to Tintagel Castle.

Why does this bridge remind me of a Monty Python movie?

Most people in average condition won’t have a problem, but if long walks and steep stairs really aren’t your thing, you might want to wait in the car. Go explore Tintagel Parish instead – it’s very picturesque.

Once you arrive though, the views of the Cornish coastline are well worth it. And what’s left of the castle is worth the walk too, with interesting stone structures and a few walls still standing.

The castle courtyard is probably the most interesting with its arched entryways and tiny peephole windows. You’ll also get to see a tunnel leading to a food storage area, a well, medieval graffiti, and gun fort for the latter days, among other things.

Tintagel Castle Courtyard Wall - Cornwall

Few walls still stand at Tintagel Castle. This archway is the main entrance into the courtyard.

Archaeologists date the site to 3rd or 4th century AD, and they believe the land belonged to a Celtic monastery or prince of the region. However, they’re still digging up buildings, and learning that the site was used as an ancient Mediterranean trading post as well.

TIP #1: Restrooms and snacks are available on the mainland. Be sure to take care of your bodily needs before you cross the bridge to the ruins.

TIP #2: Please DO be careful on those treacherous stairs!

Coastline around Tintagel in Cornwall.

View of Cornwall coast line from the ruins at Tintagel.