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Our five days in London had flown by. Still feeling the exhilaration from yesterday’s incredible adventure– we got up, packed, and prepared for the next leg of our journey. We had coffee outside the lobby of St. Pancras, as had become our morning routine, enjoying the bright morning sun and going over our schedule.
After breakfast, I walked the grand staircase, one last time– just relishing the beauty of it. I love St. Pancras. It’s hard to fathom that it barely escaped demolition and is now fully restored.
As guests in the historic part of the hotel, we were entitled to VIP service for the Eurostar to Paris at the adjoining St. Pancras International Railway Station. We were met in the lobby and escorted to the station, through customs/immigration– all the way to boarding and stowing our luggage on the train. It couldn’t have been easier.
Traveling Europe by high speed train is a fast, convenient and inexpensive alternative to air travel. From London to Paris took us two hours and twenty-two minutes. From St. Pancras International, the Eurostar took us through the Channel Tunnel and across the French countryside before arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. The distance is nearly 3oo miles. (By car the trip takes over six hours.)
I’d like to give you a highly romanticized version — riding the rails. Truthfully, from the scenery outside my window, it could have been a train ride anywhere in the world.
The one thing I did notice was for a good portion of the trip, we’d pass a church steeple seeming to stick up out of the fields every few miles. I saw dozens of these and they all looked similar.
Don’t get me wrong– some of the scenery was beautiful– it’s just not unique. I say this for anyone considering the train option purely in hopes of seeing a different world of small villages, farms and sights unique to France.
None of that really mattered to us though– because we were on our way to a new city. We’d be experiencing Paris for the first time.
We arrived at Paris Gare du Nord and found our driver waiting for us at the end of the track. He escorted us out of the station and drove us to our hotel. Our stay at Hotel Scribe had been arranged through Judy Perl Worldwide Travel that handles the bookings for Playbill Travel. We arrived a day earlier than many of the people going on the Broadway on the Rhone cruise, who were also doing the pre-cruise stay in Paris.
After checking with the desk, we had a little time before our room would be ready, so we went for a walk through the neighborhood– part of the 9th arrondissement. Just down the block from our hotel was the Palais Garnier. It’s consider one of, if not the most famous opera house in the world.
The Palais Garnier is the setting and inspiration for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, adapted into many movies and of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical.
After a pleasant walk, we returned to the hotel and got settled in. We checked the weather and were trying to decide if we should chance the threat of rain. A storm was rolling in and decided not to risk it.
We heard from our friends, Laura and Cass and met them down in the lobby. After a little catching up, we decided to go to dinner at a cafe/brasserie recommended by the front desk. They got us a reservation and we headed there, just across the street. It was pouring rain!
The restaurant was packed. Capucine Cafe is a lovely little place with great food and plenty of atmosphere. We were seated by the window on the second floor–with a nice view, as the rain continued to flood the street below.
We had a great time catching up, with our conversation bouncing from topic to topic. Then before heading back to the hotel, we planned our big day ahead. Tomorrow the four of us were heading to Versailles.
Little did we know– it would be a much bigger adventure than we were expecting!
Travel Date: May 18, 2017 (Day Six)
According to schedule, we landed at Heathrow at 8:30 am and breezed through Customs/Immigration. We had arranged a car service to meet us and whisk us off to our London home away from home, the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. We loved it so much last September, we didn’t even have to think twice about staying here again. The added bonus (this trip) was that they have VIP service to walk you through customs and get you boarded on the EuroStar train we were taking to Paris at the end of our stay.
We pre-checked in and dropped our bags, then had a quick knosh in the Chambers Club before hitting the street for the day. (We knew ahead of time our room wouldn’t be ready.) With tickets to two shows, we figured we wouldn’t actually get into our room until late that night.
We’d made a short list of things we wanted to see in London this trip. Since we were just here last September, we’d gotten the touristy- thing out of the way and felt no rush to cram in a bunch of sites. Plus, with our heavy show schedule, we figured we’d just try and do one thing a day and keep things simple and relaxed.
We didn’t get to spend any time in Trafalgar Square last trip, so that’s where we headed first. The large public area, formerly known as Charing Cross, was named after the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and is anchored by the prominent Nelson’s Column surrounded by statues and fountains.
The National Gallery is located on the square, but being a Saturday, the lines were quite long so we didn’t try to go in.
There were plenty of artists and street performers entertaining the large crowds of people enjoying the weekend. The wind started to pick up and dark clouds started rolling in suggesting we might be in for a downpour.
After a bit of people watching, we headed to the far end of the square, towards St. Martin in-the-Fields church and the National Portrait Gallery around the corner.
After watching The Crown recently, I found out the sketches for Graham Sutherland’s commissioned painting of Winston Churchill were on display at the National Portrait Gallery. (Churchill hated the painting, that was commissioned as gift to him– and his wife had the painting destroyed.) What I neglected to find out was the room in which they are displayed is closed for renovation. Maybe on a future visit.
After exploring the neighborhood a bit more, we returned to Trafalgar Square to relax, enjoying the sights and sounds of the city until we needed to head to our matinee show.
Half a Sixpence. Our first show was a matinee performance of the musical, Half A Sixpence. The romantic comedy was originally produced in 1963 (in London) starring Tommy Steele and moved to Broadway (with Steele) in 1965. I saw the 1967 film version many years ago and remembered it as being a lot of fun.
We weren’t disappointed. We both enjoyed this “poor man- inherits fortune- loses fortune- gets the girl” story, thanks to the energetic and extremely talented cast. Charlie Stemp would have made Tommy Steele proud. It was a great start to our London theatre experience.
The threat of rain gone, the dark clouds had been replaced with sun and beautiful blue skies. We ventured over near Buckingham Palace and revisited the Wellington Arch. It was nice to be able to take our time enjoying the nice spring weather, leisurely, making our way to the theatre nearby.
We had plenty of time for dinner after picking up our show tickets, so we chose to eat at The Other Naughty Piglet. The restaurant boasts a seasonal menu of small plate offerings. Let me just say– the food here is art. The ham croquettes were to die for! For a place that appears so casual and unpretentious– the food is a culinary masterpiece. I’m no foodie and I seldom write much about our meals. This should be an indication of how impressed I was.
Whisper House. Our evening performance was Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House at The Other Palace Theatre. Built where the Westminster Theatre stood until fire consumed it in 2002, it was named the St. James Theatre when is opened in 2012.
Andrew Lloyd Webber acquired it in 2016 and it was renamed The Other Palace. There are two smaller theatres in the complex (a 312 seat main stage and 12o seat studio space) which is now dedicated to developing new works.
When I saw Whisper House would be playing, I had to see it. I’m a huge fan of Sheik and his musical, Spring Awakening. I’d say Whisper House is more a play with music than a true musical. It’s basically a ghost story that takes place in a haunted lighthouse during World War II. The show was originally workshopped in San Diego in 2010 and it was co-written by Kyle Jarrow.
It seemed promising at the beginning. Visually, the show was gorgeous. The opening number “It’s Better To Be Dead” is both haunting and glorious. Much of the music is really good– but at as the show progressed, it (the show) seemed to be troubled on a number of levels. The cast seemed to struggle with the material and the stage chemistry between the actors/characters wasn’t always evident. Initially, it appeared that only the ghost characters would be singing the musical numbers as a commentary– but then later it seemed to hinder the show’s progression.
Director Adam Lenson fails to make this production his own. During one song, for no apparent reason, the cast began to physically express themselves (individually) in a way that directly mimicked Spring Awakening. So much for originality. I also felt that overall, the intensity was lacking, causing the show to drag. I didn’t hate it– with work I think there’s some real promise in this piece.
It had been a long day.
We headed back to the hotel to complete check in, unpack and get some sleep. Our heads hadn’t hit pillows since Thursday night (in the U.S.) and I’m surprised we weren’t even more exhausted.
It had been a great first day of vacation. We’d walked over seven miles today, even with taking the Tube. We were ready for some solid rest.
Travel Date: 5/13/17 Saturday (Day One)
It’s hard to believe this day is finally here! We started planning this trip in February 2016 when Playbill Travel announced their inaugural river cruise. This will be our first as well, while it’s our fourth vacation built around a Playbill Broadway Cruise. This ship, Uniworld’s S.S. Catherine, holds about half the passengers of the Broadway at Sea cruises from the past few years. This cruise actually sold out before it could go on sale to the public.
We weighed some options and building around the cruise, we came up with a pretty exciting trip. Nineteen days in Europe, start to finish. We start with five days in London, then take the Eurostar train to Paris for three days, followed by the Broadway on the Rhone River Cruise and finally three days in Amsterdam before flying home.
So here’s a quick preview of our trip:
Having just visited last September, we saw many of the historical places of interest and found how easy it was to get around using the Tube. This time we’re seeing nine shows (yes, nine shows in 5 days) in the West End. We’re staying at the incredibly beautiful, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel again which connects directly to the Eurostar at St. Pancras International. When we’re not in the theatre, we hope to visit a few of the museums and places we didn’t have time to get to on our last trip.
Our first time. So many things we’d like to see and do– but we’re keeping our options open so we can focus on enjoying the ambience of the city. Hotel Scribe will be our home base for a few days. We’re definitely making a trip to Versailles, must see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we’re seeing the show at Paradis Latin and have a short champagne cruise through Paris on the Seine. I’m really hoping to spend time in the Montmartre district and make a quick visit to the island of Grand Jatte. We’ll probably skip the museums this time and have to plan a longer stay in the future to experience more of what Paris has to offer.
Broadway on the Rhone
Sponsored by Playbill Travel, this Rhone river cruise starts in the south of France and visits: Avignon, Arles, Tarascon, Viviers, Tournon/Tain L’Hermitage, Macon and Lyon. World renowned sommelier Jean-Luc le Du will be on board, sharing his love and knowledge of the wines, cheese and chocolates of the region. Evenings will feature entertainment by Broadway veterans Rebecca Luker, Paulo Szot, Liz Callaway and James Barbour, accompanied by Grammy and Emmy Award winning Music Director, John McDaniel.
At the top of my bucket list of places to visit has always been the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. We’ve already booked our tickets. We also booked a half day trip to Zaanse Schans, Voldendam and Marken in the Dutch countryside. Windmills anyone? There are also several museums and a canal cruise we hope to enjoy, not to mention the necessary stroll through the infamous red light district, known around the world. I think we’re too late for tulips but you never know!
I’ll be posting what I can, when I can on social media as well as blog posts of our daily activities– though they may be posted later, depending on time and Internet availability. I hope some of you will follow along– join us on our journey!
Saying goodbye to a city you’re visiting can be hard. Especially when you’ve had great experiences and stayed in a wonderful place.
This was my early morning– saying goodbye to St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Before breakfast, bags already packed, I walked through the hotel one last time.
I found myself back at the grand staircase. I had to walk all the way up and down it one last time.
Some London Takeaways
- Public transportation is a must in London. It’s much too big and spread out to walk. Walking neighborhoods, yes; but not if you are sightseeing all over the city.
- We purchased and used the London Pass. We probably just about broke even with what we saw using it and saved time not waiting in lines. I know we visited a few spots we wouldn’t have, had we not had it. If you are the type of traveler that wants to see as much as possible (in and out), it’s likely a good investment. If you are the type that prefers longer visits, especially at museums, for example– you are probably going to save money paying as you go.
- Travel Guides can be handy but for me, I found them unnecessary (practically useless) and it certainly wouldn’t have been practical to carry around the city. If you do your research online ahead of time– there’s no need to purchase/carry/take a book.
- Get a good GPS phone map (app) like Maps.Me to help you get around. I found it to be an invaluable tool and never had to stop and ask directions while using it.
- Safety was never a concern during our visit. Of course, you should always be cautious but I never felt I was in a dangerous or risky situation. I honestly felt safer in London than I did in my last Chicago overnight visit, 45 minutes from home. I bring this up because in Rick Steve’s London 2016, he overemphasizes the necessity of safety steps, to the point of fear mongering.
A few things I haven’t mentioned:
Traditional London Pubs, you know, with the old-style classic exteriors– are abundant. I always love sighting unique architecture. Another thing I noticed as we passed many restaurants– in London, creating a unique atmosphere and ambiance is not only important, it’s the norm. This can be said of many of the small retail shops as well. I mean, uniquely different. It appears British entrepreneurs have a better understanding of what will set themselves apart and draw in the clientele. American business owner should take notice.
Classic British Hearse. While we were on the HOHO Bus, we were passed by a funeral procession and it was interesting to see a British Hearse with large side windows and wreath rails. The coffin and the many floral tributes were in full display to all it passed. You hardly see this in America. The hearse windows are almost always tinted or curtained.
British Telephone Kiosks are alive and well. Often referred to as the Red Telephone Box ; there were many incarnations, with the most common ones (seen today) being the “K6”. We saw them all over London in Red, Green and Black. With the popularity of cell phones, many of the boxes are being re-purposed into WIFI, phone-charging and even work stations. The good news is that these icons aren’t going away.
My View of London
Looking back, I see London as an extremely friendly, warm and inviting city. It’s not at all what I had expected. I thought it would be more like downtown Chicago or NYC. It is full of neighborhood charm, while at the same time– steeped in massive amounts of culture and historic places of interest. As old as London is, it retains its historic appeal, yet feels comfortable and modern at the same time. It is busy– but not chaotic; and it is a quiet city, compared to many others I’ve visited.
This photo probably best embodies how I feel about/picture London in my head:
Off to Rome
Our car to Heathrow arrived early and we were there in a flash. I was so glad we weren’t hauling our luggage on the Tube again. The flight to Rome was on time and we had no issues at the airport or with our flight.
Our transportation and hotel had been arranged through Playbill Travel, so a car was waiting for us at the airport when we arrived in Rome.
Our driver didn’t take the most scenic route to the hotel. I was a little taken aback by the rundown, graffiti-covered buildings on the outskirts of the city. It got better the further in we got, finally arriving at the Westin Excelsior Hotel, a few blocks from the Borghese Gardens.
We arrived mid afternoon and had a short wait before our room was ready. The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the armed soldiers across the street. That was a little unnerving. Then I discovered the following day that we were next door to the American Embassy, which explained the added security.
While we waited for our room, we started looking to see what friends from past cruises had arrived. We knew our friends George and Mary had gotten there that morning– if we could only find them!
We checked in around 4 pm. –Our room was nice enough. — And we got settled in.
We went down to the Playbill Reception Desk, got our stuff and ran into a bunch of friends. After chatting for awhile, we decided to make things simple and have dinner in the hotel.
Eight of us met for dinner at the Doney, and enjoyed good food and conversation before retiring for the night. A big day tomorrow!
You’re probably familiar with the St. Pancras Hotel and didn’t even know it. Have you seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? In an early scene of the movie they fly right by it. The Spice Girls video “Wannabe” was filmed at the entrance and on the grand staircase, prior to the hotel’s massive renovation.
The London neighborhood of King’s Cross was a major train hub, both freight and passenger trains, in the late 1800’s, with four major train stations located there. St. Pancras was opened in 1868 owned by the Midland Railway Company. The Midland Grand Hotel, a stunning work of Victorian Gothic architecture, designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, opened in the attached space in 1873.
Unfortunately, the hotel closed in 1935 when it became too costly to run with its outdated utilities, and was used mainly as office space after that. In addition, train terminal was hit by bombs during WWII causing extensive damage.
This incredible landmark was almost demolished in the late 1960’s after falling into major disrepair. Luckily, with great effort and much expense, it was saved.
St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London is actually part of the larger complex known as St. Pancras International. Eurostar began providing high speed train service to Paris in 2007 and the hotel reopened in 2011 with a five star rating.