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Travel 2016: Day One – London (and getting there)

London, Rome and Broadway On the High Seas 7- cruising southern Italy. This time around, we booked our own pre cruise adventure– with the exception of the hotel in Rome, booked through Playbill Travel. The first five days we were on our own to create our own experience.

It’s funny how months of preparation and research fly out the door in the few days prior to leaving on an extended vacation. This was our third trip overseas and you’d think I’d be used to that last-minute feeling of anxiety but it still takes me by surprise.  I suddenly found myself forgetting and rechecking everything I’d prepped for; probably asking Michael the same questions repeatedly, hopefully not driving him too insane. All the research on London and Rome was a jumbled mess in my head so I found myself going back over notes I’d made just to be sure I was ready.

The Flight

This was the first time traveling since we got the Global Entry clearance which includes TSA Pre-check. Of course, wouldn’t you know I was one of the people randomly selected to be scanned at security. Luck of the draw.

We flew to London Heathrow, direct flight, business class– on an evening flight out of Chicago O’Hare. The seating on this American Airlines flight was cozy yet smaller than past times we’ve flown business class. I watched two movies: All the Way and Trumbo, both starring Bryan Cranston, and enjoyed them both. Though I did manage to get a little sleep, I’ve found it’s really difficult for me to sleep more than a couple hours in the air. Michael, on the other hand, can sleep like a baby.

Overall, the flight was comfortable and it was on time. We arrived at Heathrow shortly after 9 am and breezed through to pick up our luggage.

 

The Tube is the best affordable way to get around London.

The Tube is the best affordable way to get around London.

Luggage and the Tube

We don’t travel as light as we probably should, so we found ourselves both lugging our two checked bags and two carry ons– that’s right… on the Tube. Aside from being a little awkward manipulating, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Except– that moment when we reached the first very steep escalator in one of the stations. I had a moment of acrophobia and kept it under control by staring at the back of Michael’s head.

The ride took us about 45 minutes to reach central London. Did I mention that I still didn’t know where we were going?

You Call THIS a Hostel?

Michael spent many hours researching London accommodations, months prior to the trip. To keep me guessing, he decided that our destination would be a surprise. It became a running joke that we were staying in a seedy hostel, complete with rats, paper-thin mattresses and a shared bath.

As we got closer to the trip, Michael would get “daily email updates” that he’d share with me each morning before he left for work. He’d inform me of pending updates such as ‘new pots to catch the water from the leaky roof’, warnings to ‘sleep with one eye open’, our daily ‘work assignment’– crazy stuff like that.

I can’t tell you how many times we’d finish watching TV or a movie and he’d say, “Did you see our hostel?” It was even one of the locations used in an episode of Downton Abbey that we re-watched before the trip. I was clueless.

The whole time, I knew I was in for something pretty incredible but Michael still managed to outdo himself. Our ‘hostel’ turned out to be the historic and opulent, St. Pancras Hotel.

St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel

We got off the Tube at King’s Cross, exited the station to the street and Michael just stopped in his tracks. “There’s your home for the next few days,” he said. I looked around and was a little confused. All I saw was this stunning, monster of a building– complete with clock tower, across the street. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. Welcome to St. Pancras!

 

My first view of the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

My first view of the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

 

Arriving early in the day, we didn’t expect our room to be ready. I soon found out Michael had scheduled a tour of the impressive building shortly after we checked our bags. (I’ll write a separate blog post just on the hotel– too much to include here and visually too impressive not to share.)

After touring this magnificent facility, we were able to check in to our room. And as if my head wasn’t already full enough, Michael had snagged of of the three designer suites in the hotel– the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite. The suite was named after the building’s architect. You’ll see in my next post, images of this carefully restored slice of history.

Staying in the historic section of the St. Pancras, we also had exclusive use of the Chambers Club where we could have breakfast, afternoon tea or just relax.

After settling in, we had just enough time to head out, catch the Tube and do a little exploring before our first show.

My First Visit to the West End

The West End is often referred to as London’s equivalent of the Times Square Theatre District in New York City– only it isn’t. Yes, it is the hub of many entertainment venues in London but that is where the comparison stops.  I found the West End to be quite charming and warm. Though it was bustling with activity, it was still easy to take a relaxing stroll through the area. The streets are loaded with unique shops and quaint restaurants enticing theatregoers around every corner. There is completely different vibe here than the tourist-driven frenzy that exists in New York.

Charlie marquee

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory marquee at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Our first show– my first ever in London, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Perhaps a little ironic that it was written by the American musical theatre team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who also wrote the hit musical, Hairspray.

I loved it! As opposed to trying to compare it to other productions, I’ll say this: It was probably my most thoroughly-satisfying theatregoing experience in the past ten years. The physical production, the cast and the adaptation were all nothing short of magical. As one of my most favorite and most-memorable books growing up, this production of Charlie… made me feel like a kid again– rediscovering Roald Dahl’s delicious tale as if it were the first time. I can’t say enough good things about it.

From our seats, inside the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

From our seats, inside the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

By the way, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is slated to make it’s Broadway debut next spring.

After the show, we took a leisure stroll through the West End with one destination in mind: Shake Shack.

The Shake Shack on 8th Ave has become one of our go-to places when we’re in NYC. With their popularity growing, others have started to sprout up in major cities around the world. (London already has three.) Michael and I both love their thick creamy concretes and their burgers and Chicago style hot dogs are good too. London’s Covent Garden location didn’t disappoint. It became our nightly stop before returning to the hotel every night after our shows.

Bellies full and exhausted, we returned to our hotel and actually slept through the whole night, peaceably.

 

On the street in the West End.

On the street in the West End.

 

The Nags Head in the West End.

The Nags Head in the West End.

NYC May 2014- Days Four & Five: Rocking the Political Cradle On Stage

A view on The High Line.

A view on The High Line.

Monday we met with our friends Steve & Amy (from home) who happened to be in NYC this week as well. We had a great time socializing and made our first visit this trip to The High Line with them. The High Line, which runs above Gansevoort Street to 34th Street on Manhattan’s West Side, is a public park built on what was once a historic freight rail line. It was a beautiful sunny day and only took us about an hour to walk the whole park. We’ll be returning with other friends from home later this week and hopefully I’ll get some good pictures to share.

Short on time, the four of us headed back to Times Square and Havana Central (our second time this trip) for lunch before parting ways.

art-web-telecharge-176x176The Cradle Will Rock We actually had tickets for another show that we ended up giving to friends. When we found out that this special, one night only, benefit concert was happening, we couldn’t miss it.

I’m a huge fan of Patti LuPone. Given the opportunity, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see her recreate her Oliver Award-winning performance in this historic, ground-breaking theatrical work.

The staging was a benefit for The Acting Company, which originally produced the show under the direction of John Houseman. This concert staging directed by Lonny Price, featured LuPone and a number of other original company members, as well as more recent alumni.

This is a work I hope to produce one day. Its political and social message are still relevant today and I have a specific vision for staging the piece.

Tuesday, Michael and I both did a lot of exploring on our own. I’m not sure how much ground Michael covered but I’d traveled over five miles (tracked on my Fitbit) before noon. We initial thought we’d find a new destination to visit and then decided to just explore instead. The great things about a big city is there’s always something new to see, it’s always evolving and there are always things you hadn’t noticed before.

Friends arrived in the afternoon and while I was off exploring 6th Avenue and Bryant Park, Michael accompanied them to the TKS booth to get their show tickets and then to stand in line for the lottery for Kinky Boots tickets (which they won).  We had dinner at Yum Yum Bangkok before splitting up to go to our shows.

 

All-The-Way-Playbill-02-14All The WayAll the way with LBJ!” Bryan Cranston IS LBJ. You won’t see any evidence of Walter White (Breaking Bad) on this stage. From his first breath in a solo spotlight, Cranston gives an incredibly layered performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson, proving his versatility and skill as as actor and showing that a true performer can successfully thrive on stage and screen equally.

Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch, All The Way follows LBJ’s journey from the Kennedy assassination through Johnson’s reelection as President. It carefully weaves the personal, public and political struggles LBJ had to juggle while blazing the trail in his fight for civil rights.

The story was skillfully told by an ensemble of veteran actors, supporting Cranston. Some of the other stand out performances were given by Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird Johnson/Katharine Graham/Katharine St. George; Michael McKean as J. Edgar Hoover/Robert Byrd; and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey.

All The Way is Tony-nominated for Best Play and Best Actor (Cranston), and has already won the Outer Critics Circle, New York Drama Critics’ Circle and the Drama League awards for Best Play.

 

On the way back to our apartment, we stopped and picked up Concretes at the Shake Shack. (8th Ave. & 44th St.) With multiple locations, this is THE spot for ice cream treats in New York City. The lines are almost always out the door but they move fast and you always get great service.