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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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.