Saturday, January 3, 2015

The London Trip - Anne's Diary

My husband and I made a resolution for 2014. We were going to stop dumping our hard earned money into a house that will never be finished, and spend that money on trips with our daughters while they were young enough to still like us, but old enough to have flexible schedules.

We absolutely CRUSHED (in the best way possible), this resolution. We traveled to Washington State to visit family, went camping in Idaho, mountain-biking in Montana, played in a Thanksgiving snow storm in Connecticut, spent Christmas in London, and New Years in Paris.

Man, are we bushed...
Mind you, my master bathroom still has a shower the side of a casket, and there's a spot on the wall by the bathtub where the tile is broken and exposes the wire and paper behind it - but we TRAVELED.

After posting pictures on Facebook of our recent London/Paris trip, several of my FB friends have expressed interest in "Tips" because they themselves are traveling there within the next year. So, I thought the best way to do that was to chronicle my own trip, and people can take the advice where they may.

Flight to London: a direct Red Eye in Economy Class on a Saturday night = BAD IDEA

I'm 5'6" tall and I'm mostly legs. This is not meant as a brag, or any sort of effort to make myself sound desirable, I'm attempting to explain to you why sleeping on a plane for me is sheer horror. I propped myself up with a travel pillow, an eye mask, sound cancelling head sets, a blanket, AND an overdose of Benedryl, and I still slept like crap.

My husband, who is a back sleeper and was behind me with my youngest, did slightly better with the same set up. My youngest curled into a ball and passed out. My oldest, who is almost as tall as me, and has the same super long legs got so cold, uncomfortable, and miserable, she cried herself into a restless sleep out of exhaustion. This is also the kid who practically never cries at anything - so you can understand why I say this was probably the worst part of our trip.

Don't do this.

If you want advice on how to to fly to Europe, look elsewhere.
All I know is what NOT to do.

London: Day of Arrival

We arrived at around 4:30 pm London time. By the time we got our luggage (which thankfully, was all there!) and got through customs, it was 5:30 pm and already dark outside. We made our way to the taxi queue, hopped in and rode inside the tiniest little car which didn't even have a boot (a trunk). Just two seats, and two fold down benches which sat on top of the luggage.

We were too exhausted to care.
The driver was so entranced with a football (soccer) game on the radio, he forgot to turn on the meter. So when we arrived at the hotel, he apologized profusely and under-charged us. I know this because I had Googled rates and estimates before our arrival just so I knew what to expect. Anyhow, we arrived safely, checked in, got to our room and immediately went out in search of food.

Side Note: We splurged on the London hotel and stayed at The Landmark in Marylebone (pronounced Mar-le-bone). We had a breakfast buffet included, a large room with a sitting area, and two double beds (my daughters shared), and an incredibly polite and fantastic staff. I cannot recommend this hotel and area enough. It's right next to Baker Street if you're a Sherlock Holmes fan (more on that later), and next to two Tube stations - which comes in handy (more on that, too) and the food was FANTASTIC.

Our first dinner was at a pub called The Globe, near Baker Street. My youngest, who is a very very picky eater, had fried shrimp and chips (fries), and ate it all (yeah!), while my eldest and I had fish and chips (soooo good), and my husband had something else, which I can't seem to remember at the moment - but it was good. He also had a room temp beer, I had a glass of wine - and feeling very good and relaxed, we made our way back to the hotel, showered one at a time - and collapsed by 9 pm.

London Day Two:
I had pre-paid for tickets to The Tower of London. This was a Sunday, so it opened at 10 am. We woke at around 5:30 am and were unable to get back to sleep, so we all dressed and arrived at the breakfast buffet right at opening, which was 7 am. After eating a splendid breakfast with English tea (sooooo good), we walked to the tube station, studied the maps for what seemed like an eternity, but figured out how to get to the tower. We arrived around 9:00 am - so we walked around the area, and then got in line to pick up our tickets. We were one of the first fifty people inside.

I highly recommend this! (for reasons I'll get to later)

The first thing we hit was the torture chamber (you must understand, I write horror, so a lot of my trip was focused on the macabre - lucky for me my eldest is into it too, so we were having the times of our lives while the other two were only mildly interested), then we walked around the Traitor's gate, and gave ourselves a tour. We did not do an audio tour, and for this I'm actually grateful because I came to later regret audio tours, but - more on that later.

We saw the White Castle, the crown jewels, Henry the VIII's tournament armour (que crying jag #1), the exact location where Anne Boelyn was kept in the tower and where she was beheaded, and then every other nook and cranny of the Tower, and by noon, my kids started to complain. It was time to eat again and the Tower had become very very crowded - the main reason I was especially glad we'd arrived so early. <<< Highly recommended

So, we got in touch with a friend of ours who actually lives in London, and met up with him for lunch at a Ramen restaurant over the "London" bridge. Now, I call it the "London" (with quotes) bridge, because it's not actually called that, but if you see a picture of a bridge in London, this is the one they show. It goes right over the river Thames.

By now, my kids are starving, their feet already hurt, they're a little cold (it was in the mid-40's and we'd slightly under-dressed), but our buddy took us on a walking tour of the market places and back neighborhoods of London that lasted about a half hour, and was fascinating and gorgeous, but we were good and cranky by the time we arrived at the Ramen place.

We sat down, ate Ramen until we were stuffed (it was actually VERY good and my picky eater was quite content! I was expecting a bowl full of MSG and sodium like the Ramen you get here in the US, but it was positively delicious. Not too salty, all the ingredients were fresh, I was so so so happy).

Then our buddy escorted us to our next location, (which included a tutorial on the London tubes = very helpful!) and then we arrived at the British Library.

Inside the British Library (NOT the British museum) is a room called, "Treasures of the Library," inside there are actual hand-written manuscripts, notes, books and folios from Leonardo De Vinci, Michelangelo, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, ANNE BOELYN, and countless, countless others.

If you are not a "Literary" type, this might prove extremely boring to you. My youngest gave up, at this point, found a cushioned bench, sat down and started playing Frogger on her phone. My eldest found it interesting, but was more entertained by following me around and watching me cry.

Yes, I cried.

I got choked up at seeing Jane Austen's writing desk and hand-written manuscript of Persuasion (her best, and last book), started all out crying when I saw Beethoven's hand-written 6th Symphony score (if it had been the 7th I would have sobbed), and when I saw Anne Boelyn's hand-written note TO HENRY VIII I was wiping snot on my gloves and sniffing like a blubbering lunatic.

You must understand, as a former violinist in love with Beethoven, a writer in love with Jane Austen's Persuasion, and a history buff obsessed with beheaded queens - this was my mecca. This was my heaven.

I could have stayed and stared for hours, but our buddy had to make his way back home, and my husband and kids wanted to head to the hotel…So I peeled myself away and sniffled back through the tubes to Baker Street. The kids were so spent we rewarded them with a trip to McDonalds and ate the food in our hotel room, showered, and passed out by 9 pm (again).

London: Day Three

Yes, THE Stonehenge.

We dressed for the arctic because we had been a bit cold the first day in London, took the tubes to our pick up location, and hopped on a tour bus headed to Stonehenge.

Thank goodness we had the pre-thought to purchase sandwiches at a shop (<< highly recommended!) and bring them along. It's about an hour and a half bus trip (once you're done picking up all the other tourists), so it was a nice change to all the walking from the day before.

We drove past Buckingham palace on our way out of town, then drove through the English countryside on our way to Stonehenge.

Now, again - you must remember I'm a "literary" type. I put on the soundtrack to Jane Eyre and cried through the English countryside. Absolutely cried.

It's gorgeous, and breathtaking, and soo soo pretty, and it's also the setting for about 90% of my favorite books, Jane Eyre among them. Now, I could have booked a double tour and had the bus stop in Bath to visit the Jane Austen museum, but I'd already tortured my family with the British Library, so I skipped that, and took the Stonehenge Express straight to the pre-historic monument, including an audio tour.

Now, even though the bus had picked us up at 11:15 am, we didn't arrive until around 2 or 3 pm, and Stonehenge was packed, the sun was already starting to set, and it was FREEZING. Literally, freezing. The puddles were freaking frozen.

We'd worn tights and/or long johns (aka "woolies") under our jeans, long sleeved tee shirts, short sleeved shirts over that, a sweater or sweatshirt, a very warm jacket, hats, gloves and scarves, and we were still FREEZING.

We were so cold, in fact, my youngest immediately started to whither, and although I had paid for an audio tour, I soon realized that I knew all the information on the tour (I had researched Stonehenge extensively for Amulet Chronicles) - so I took charge of my youngest and we shivered and shuddered and I pretty much dragged her around the whole monument while my husband listened to his audio tour and my eldest took a billion pictures.

Don't get me wrong, it was incredible and I'm glad we went! But the weather did put a bit of a damper on the experience.

After we walked all the way around, we stopped by the shop and bought a few souvenirs, then hit the loo and made our way back to the bus.

The bus dropped us off in some weird part of town, but thanks to our tube tutorial the day before, we were able to navigate our way back to Baker Street. However, the majority of restaurants and shops close freaking early. Like by 6 pm they aren't taking any more customers. So we went back to the hotel and ordered room service (which was excellent!), showered and passed out by 9 pm (again).

London: Day Four - Christmas Eve

Our plan was to go to 221b Baker Street and see the Sherlock Holmes Museum right when it opened at 9:30 am, but for some odd reason our phone alarms did not wake us up, and we overslept.

It was 10 am when my youngest woke us up asking for food.
Since the free breakfast buffet closed at 11, we rushed to dressed, showed up with only a few minutes to spare, then ate in a hurry.

As we feared, the Sherlock Holmes museum line was almost all the way down the block, and since it was cold, and the wait was going to be for HOURS (no joke, they only let a few people into the flat at a time), we went for a walk through Regent Park. This was actually a good idea. << highly recommended

Not only did my youngest get to run around and feed ducks and sing silly Christmas songs at the top of her lungs and chase us with duck poo on the bottom of her boot, but my eldest, who has a growing obsession with photography, got some great pictures - and we were able to just hang out together - no lines, no museums, no hordes of rude line-cutting tourists. It was so pleasant.

Skipping lunch since we'd had such a late breakfast, we then took the tube to Cambridge and saw a matinee of MATILDA. I had pre-ordered these before our arrival. Having no idea what the musical was like, (I'd read the book and seen the movie, as had both my daughters), we went in not knowing what to expect and had a FANTASTIC time.

What a show! What a cast!
It was outstanding in all ways.

Having not thought ahead for dinner reservations, we were turned away from the first restaurant we entered in the vicinity of the theatre district (it was late, almost 6 by the time we'd left the theatre), we got very very lucky at a Mexican restaurant that let us in, and had delicious fajitas and tacos and homemade guacamole that was made right at the table. So, so good… I think it was called "Jamie's."

Anyway, we made our way back to the hotel via the tubes, showered, and passed out by 9 pm (again).

London: Day Five - Christmas Day

The girls woke early, and thankfully, I had thought ahead and packed a few presents for them to unwrap at the hotel. We then went to breakfast at the buffet, dressed for outdoors, and took a walking tour through London (all the tubes were closed!).

We flagged down a taxi and took it to see Westminster Abbey, then walked to Big Ben (they're right next door), the Parliament building, and then walked a few more blocks to see Buckingham Palace. Apparently, every other tourist in London had had the same thought we did, but once again we were lucky enough in that we got there early, and it was downright crowded and pushy by the time we left in the afternoon.

We flagged another taxi, and came back to the hotel, where the girls DEMANDED a day of relaxation. So we sat, watched movies on the "telly" then "dressed" for dinner at another hotel restaurant called "The Potting Shed" walking distance from ours, where we broke Christmas crackers, wore silly paper crowns, and had Beef Wellington for dinner. It was divine!

Then, walking back to the hotel, we watched more telly, showered, and stayed up to 10 pm. I know, we're wild, right?

London: Day Six - Boxing Day

Having nothing immediately planned for Boxing Day, we took our time getting dressed, went to the buffet, then walked to Hyde Park and considered going to the Winter Wonderland Fair. It had been on my agenda, actually. But loosely. After inspection, we saw that the rides all looked a bit roller coaster-ish, and very fair-like, and it was really, really, really, crowded. If we'd gotten up super early and had hit it first thing, it would have gone better, but as it was, we hadn't. So instead, we walked to a nearby movie theatre and saw the last Hobbit movie. This was a bit hit among the kids, honestly. My eldest is a Hobbit junkie, and it was nice to just go somewhere and sit and relax.

Afterwards, we took the tube back to Baker Street, but had a hard time finding any place open on Boxing Day, so we went back to the hotel and ordered room service again, which was no sacrifice, if you ask me. The food at the Landmark was excellent.

London: Day Seven

Departure day. This meant, dressing, packing, eating and walking (with luggage in-hand) to the tube station to take the Chunnel to Paris. In theory, this had sounded like a good idea. However, two adults and two kids (even older kids) lugging four large roller bags through the tubes did not prove to be that easy. First of all, there are lots of steps. Lots.

[UPDATE: I forgot to mention how we woke up super early and went to the Sherlock Holmes museum. If you should decide to go, at opening is the BEST time, as the line was super duper long and slow, and the flat itself, really isn't worth more than an hour's wait, in my humble opinion.]

Second of all, we had BIG suitcases and the youngest couldn't navigate the gaps and staircases very well, and it proved to be a bit of a hassle. But we managed! We got to the train station, bought some food for the train, then boarded, and ate our food (which was a good thing because the food provided had ham in it, and my youngest (because of her migraines) can't have anything cured, and I was so thrilled we'd bought her a sushi pack at the grocery store. PHEW! We got lucky).

Then - we arrived in PARIS.

To see the diary of my Paris trip go here: HERE

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