Home » Posts tagged 'travel 2016' (Page 2)

Tag Archives: travel 2016

Travel 2016: Day Five – Farewell London, Ciao Roma!

The Grand Staircase at the St. Pancras Renassaince Hotel London.

The Grand Staircase at the St. Pancras Renassaince Hotel London.

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.

London Sightings

A few things I haven’t mentioned:

Punch Tavern.

Punch Tavern.

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.

A British Hearse leading a funeral procession.

A British Hearse leading a funeral procession.

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 Kiosk in the Queen's Gate neighborhood.

British Telephone Kiosk in the Queen’s Gate neighborhood.

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:

A typical London street.

A typical London street.

 

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.

excelsiorOur 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!

The Westin Excelsior in Rome.

The Westin Excelsior in Rome.

We checked in around 4 pm. –Our room was nice enough. — And we got settled in.

Our room in the Westin Excelsior.

Our room in the Westin Excelsior.

 

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!

Italian Stone Pines form a canopy over Borghese Gardens.

Italian Stone Pines form a canopy over Borghese Gardens.

Travel 2016: Day Four – A Royal Palace, New Friends and a Funny Girl

We started the day enjoying the ambience of our hotel and a hearty breakfast in the Chamber Club. Our last day in London. Our day was mostly planned out ahead of time so we weren’t rushed getting started.

Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace. We purchased tickets to tour the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace with an add-on garden tour, way in advance of our trip. The ticket also included a large exhibition of the Queen’s clothing entitled, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style From the Queen’s Wardrobe.

The State Rooms tour is only available during July-October. I was extremely glad we were going to get this opportunity.

The royal gate at Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Gate at Buckingham Palace.

 

A Palace Guard.

A Palace Guard.

 

Upon arrival, I got the bad news that no photography was allowed in the Palace. I always find this annoying, especially when you are being charged admission in the first place. You see people ‘sneaking pictures’ (which almost always turn out bad) that they will surely post on social media–so doesn’t that defeat the point? I behaved (inside at least) and left my camera in my bag while in the Palace. We were told we could take as many pictures as we wanted in the gardens afterwards.

The 19 State Rooms (public rooms) are each ornate and unique in their decor.  The Green Drawing Room and the Music Room were my favorites. What is really great about touring Buckingham Palace is that it is a living museum. It is actually lived in and used to receive guests. There are many breathtaking pieces in the Royal Collection. Also, the self-guided audio tour (with touch screen options) is one of the best I’ve seen.

The fashion exhibition was quite interesting as well. The exhibition is actually taking place in three locations. (Also at Windsor and Holyroodhouse.) The selected pieces of the Queen’s wardrobe are tied most directly to the location where they are displayed, 150 pieces in all. The only drawback was that the display blocked the grand view of the ballrooms where they are located.

 

The back, or garden side of Buckingham Palace.

The back, or garden side of Buckingham Palace.

 

We finished the tour and discovered we had an hour until the garden highlights tour started. This was frustrating because we could not leave the garden terrace and re-enter, meaning that we missed the changing of the guard in front of the Palace.

 

A view of the gardens from the terrace of Buckingham Palace.

A view of the gardens from the terrace of Buckingham Palace.

 

Part of the Queen's rose garden at Buckingham Palace.

Part of the Queen’s Rose Garden at Buckingham Palace.

Buckingham Palace Gardens. I had thought the garden tour was a great idea. It was an inexpensive add-on to our Buckingham Palace ticket and it’s the only way you get the opportunity to walk through the gardens. It ended up being a let down. First, no pictures. Second, there wasn’t much to see– mostly grass and trees.

The tour was basically a big loop around the perimeter of the gardens. There were a couple statues and the Queen’s rose garden– where I quickly snapped a picture unseen. We also passed the tennis courts but they were mostly blocked by trees and shrubs. I was surprised to find that there was no formal English garden on the property.

I think I figured out why they didn’t want photographs– evidence that the tour is a waste of time and money perhaps.

Leaving the Palace, we decided we were ready for a break. I’d wanted to visit the Queen’s Gallery and possibly the Royal Mews, but instead, we decided to spend a couple relaxing hours at the hotel. On the way back, we stopped at the Wellington Arch. It was an original entrance to Buckingham Palace, later representing Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.

 

The Wellington Arch.

The Wellington Arch.

 

New Friends. About a week before we left home, an old friend told me that her boss was going on our Broadway cruise and that he splits time between London and Chicago. We got contact information and planned to meet Anthony and Michael at The Lobby Bar at One Aldwych before our show.

Michael at one of the gates at Somerset House.

Michael at one of the gates of Somerset House.

Arriving early, we decided to walk the neighborhood. By chance, we found Somerset House— which was on my short list to visit.

We didn’t have the time to wander through but did have a few minutes to enjoy the large plaza and exterior architecture. There’s an art gallery, the Courtauld Gallery, I really want to visit in the future.

We were there a few days before the official start of London’s Fashion Week, so there was a lot of activity there.

 

The plaza at Somerset House.

The plaza at Somerset House.

Michael was waiting for us when we got back to the bar and Anthony joined us a few minutes later. Very nice guys. We had about an hour to get acquainted and talked a little about London, theatre, and what to expect on the upcoming cruise. (Their first one.) Then we parted ways– they were headed to see The Entertainer and we were on our way to our last show in London– and our most anticipated.

Funny Girl.

Funny Girl.

Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre. Producers have been trying to bring a revival of Funny Girl to Broadway for years with no success. Could the success of this London production be just the push that it needs?

Any production can’t help but be compared to the original Barbra Streisand vehicle that made her a star. But is that fair? Is there another Streisand in the wings?

Sheridan Smith, who leads the cast of the London production, is clearly not Barbra Streisand. My argument is that she doesn’t need to be. She does need to embody Fanny Brice though– at this she misses the mark.  Smith is a good actress and a fair singer. Her portrayal here (as pointed out by Michael after the show) is more Melissa McCarthy than Fanny Brice. Her Brice character is empathetic and likable, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I can think of a dozen actresses that could have acted and sung it better.

Another huge weakness in this production is the choice of  Darius Campbell as Nicky Arnstein. He’s too cute. Campbell is more reminiscent of Zac Efron in High School Musical than Arnstein–the gambling, debonair man of the world. It just doesn’t play believably.

My last gripe is the cast is too small. I’m sure it worked perfectly in the smaller Menier Chocolate Factory Theater (sold out run). I would have thought with the move to the Savoy, a few more actors could have been employed. This story revolves around the Ziegfeld Follies which evokes images of a large dancing chorus. Not here. Especially frustrating was when male ensemble members took on multiple roles within minutes of each other with no effort to disguise them. It was just confusing.

All that said, I did enjoy the production, in spite of its flaws. I just can’t imagine a Broadway transfer which means American audiences will have to continue to wait.

 

We made one final stop at Shake Shack on the way back to our hotel.

Tomorrow we’re off to Rome.

Travel 2016: Day Two – King’s Cross to London’s Camden Market

Marylebone Grammar School.

Marylebone Grammar School.

After a good night’s sleep, we decided to head out on foot with only a tentative itinerary in mind. We had two shows booked and about six hours for exploring before then. We wanted to try and catch a boat ride at 10:30 am so we started walking that direction; up through King’s Cross and Marylebone to Little Venice.

Our friend George, highly recommended the phone app Maps.Me and so I’d downloaded the map of London as soon as we arrived. It’s a life-saver. What’s great is that once you have a map downloaded, you don’t need phone service to use it since it is GPS powered. We used it to get our bearings, locate points of interest and find the nearest Tube stops, never needing to worry when we’d wander off track.

We arrived in Little Venice early, giving us time to explore around the Regent’s Canal and grab breakfast at the Waterside Cafe. The restaurant itself, was a boat on the canal.

Jason’s Original Canal Boat Trip.

Jason’s Original Canal Boat Trip.

After breakfast, we boarded Jason’s Canal Boat Trip using our London Pass for a leisure ride around Regent’s Park (which covers 395 acres) to the Camden Locks. Jason’s has been operating since 1951 using a boat that’s over 100 years old.

The boat ride takes about 45 minutes. In addition to plenty of natural scenery, you glide past old and new estate homes, jogging paths and the London Zoo which flanks both sides of the canal.

Crossing under a bridge on the Rengent Canal.

Crossing under a bridge on the Regent’s Canal.

There are many bridges crossing the narrow canal allowing only enough width for one boat to pass through at a time.

At the end of the line, we reached the Camden Locks that are still manually operated to this day. The twin locks were originally constructed in 1818 and 1820. They now have Grade II historic designation and protections.

 

Camden Market

Welcome to Camden Market.

Welcome to Camden Market.

We got off the boat and found ourselves in a wonderland of food and unique treasures. The Camden Market started out open only on weekends but became so wildly popular it is now open daily.

Camden Market is an indoor and outdoor marketplace housed in multiple buildings and connecting streets. It’s a must-visit destination requiring anywhere from a couple hours to a full day of exploration.

Whether you are a treasure hunter, tourist or window shopper –there are multitudes of unexpected gems to taunt the senses. You can find food and trinkets here from all over the world.

 

Outdoor stalls at London's Camden Market.

Outdoor stalls at London’s Camden Market.

 

Several sellers exclusively merchandise to the Steampunk crowd.

Several sellers exclusively merchandise to the Steampunk crowd.

 

Exotic textiles at Camden Market.

Exotic textiles at Camden Market.

 

New and perfect-condition vintage clothing, steampunk accessories, old records, lamps, artwork, new and heirloom jewelry– it’s all here. If you can dream it- you’ll probably find it.

 

ZSL London Zoo

London has a truly first-class zoo. With a little time before our matinee, we used our London Pass  for fast-track entry and a rather rushed but enjoyable visit.

Opening in 1828, the London Zoo is the world’s largest scientific zoo. Today, the zoo features 756 species of animals.  It’s as much a park as it is a zoo. Large green spaces, well constructed exhibition grounds and something to appeal to all ages.

The carousel at the London Zoo.

The carousel at the London Zoo.

 

Lions at the London Zoo.

Lions at the London Zoo.

 

Show Time

Matilda the musical at the Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden.

Matilda the Musical at Cambridge Theatre in Covent Garden.

We headed back to Covent Garden for the matinee performance of the musical, Matilda. Based on the popular children’s book, it made for a colorful and entertaining afternoon. I’m really glad we waited to see it here in London.

We had just enough time between shows to catch a nice dinner at Cote Bistro, in the theatre district.

Our evening performance was what might be considered standard British farce. The Play That Goes Wrong is funny, funny stuff. The plot centers on a community group putting on a play. As the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does so hysterically.

The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre.

The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre.

For my theatre friends– every single thing that could possibly happen, or you have ever experienced going wrong in a show, is included. I couldn’t think of one possible thing they left out.

After the show, it was back to Shake Shack at Covent Garden Market for a chocolate-peanut butter concrete, then headed underground for our Tube ride back to St. Pancras.

Travel 2016: St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London – A Photo Essay

The restored clock at St. Pancras.

The restored clock at St. Pancras.

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.

Inside the lobby of the restored St. Pancras hotel.

Inside the lobby of the restored St. Pancras hotel.

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.

 

Exterior at St. Pancras International.

Exterior at St. Pancras International.

 

The original design of the train terminal at St. Pancras International was by William Henry Barlow.

The original design of the train terminal at St. Pancras International was by William Henry Barlow.

 

Eurostar High Speed Trains provide service to Paris.

Eurostar High Speed Trains provide service to Paris.

 

The Victorian Gothic entrance designed by Douglas Gilbert Scott.

The Victorian Gothic entrance designed by George Gilbert Scott.

 

This magnificent building is too large to photograph.

This magnificent building is too large to photograph.

 

The restored clock tower at St. Pancras International.

The restored clock tower at St. Pancras International.

 

Looking down at the lobby of the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

Looking down at the lobby of the St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

 

The grand staircase at St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

The grand staircase at St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

 

Inside the Booking Office Bar & Restaurant, once the ticketing office for train passage.

Inside the Booking Office Bar & Restaurant, once the ticketing office for train passage.

 

The ceiling inside the Gilbert Scott Bar.

The ceiling inside the Gilbert Scott Bar.

 

The Gilbert Scott Restaurant.

The Gilbert Scott Restaurant.

 

The bedroom of the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

The bedroom of the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

 

The bathroom in the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

The bathroom in the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

 

A touch of whimsy.

A touch of whimsy.

 

The living area in the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

The living area in the Sir George Gilbert Scott Suite.

 

Fresh flowers and a view of the Clock Tower.

Fresh flowers and a view of the Clock Tower.

 

The Gothic Windows of Grand Staircase.

The Gothic Windows of Grand Staircase.

 

A view at the Grand Staircase.

A view at the Grand Staircase.

 

Looking up along one side of the Grand Staircase.

Looking up along one side of the Grand Staircase.

 

Looking down the center of the Grand Staircase.

Looking down the center of the Grand Staircase.

 

Looking down one side of the Grand Staircase.

Looking down one side of the Grand Staircase.

 

The exterior of St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel & St. Pancras International.

The exterior of St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel & St. Pancras International.

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.