Chapter One: Off To England (with a few problems)

P1000337Chapter One:  Off To England (with a few problems)

Days One & Two – Apartment Shut-Out, Last Minute Lodging, Damn That Traffic Jam, What Rooftop Bar, Clueless Concierge, A Rose Is A Rose, Where’s Daniel Craig, Are We In A Music Video, This Makes Time Square Look Quaint, Church Concert Venue, We Can Eat With Dead People, Which Admiral Nelson and Some Like It Hot

The still-to-this-day-maddening email arrived about 48 hours before Kim, Mary, Tracy and I were to take-off from LAX to London: “London Property Rentals just sent you a full refund of £1,290.00 GBP for your purchase.”  In other words, we were suddenly two couples with no place to stay in London for the first six nights of our fortnight plus two day trip to England, which would also include visits to Salisbury, Stonehenge, Bath and The Cotswolds.

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Murder being out of the question (but definitely in the back of my mind), my first option was to email LPR to find out what the hell was going on. Their less-than-informative response was, “I have no idea! PayPal are closed at this time over here!”

What a crock, it was LPR who issued the refund. Then I received another email, “Just got hold of them, it seems to be a security check they are doing, and I can’t send you another invoice so sadly this reservation can’t go ahead unless a bank transfer was made but I think it’s too close to the arrival date for that to be done.”

So, that’s as close as I ever got to an “explanation” from this “reputable” company as to why our South Kensington apartment rental was now a lodging of the past.

A security check???  Had PayPal heard abut the time I accidentally packed a large tube of shampoo in my carry on luggage? I called Citibank, and they said there was absolutely nothing wrong with the credit card, and apologized that they could be of no help in this situation.

I immediately weighed our options.

On the negative side, the weekend we were to arrive was the end of Fashion Week in London, so hotels were about 95% booked, and the ones that were not full were either located closer to Glasgow or cost more than a new Tesla.

tesla_100315283_mAlso, every apartment I contacted in the next five hours was booked during that period.

On the plus side, well, there was really nothing on the plus side. By the time Tracy got home from work, I had worked myself into a rather frenetic state (kind of like the Wolfman at midnight without the facial hair).

lon-chaney-wolfmanAfter telling her I wanted to light the LPR woman’s hair on fire, Tracy realized this might be a good night to leave me alone. She shoved some dinner under the door to my office and knew it would be a while before we would talk again. Even the cats kept their distance (our dogs were already safely ensconced at grandma’s house).

For the next 12 hours I emailed and phoned many different establishments, all to no avail. Afternoon turned to night, and when morning approached, we were still without a place to stay, and I was nursing a massive headache (double Manhattans at 4 a.m. were just a bad idea). It was now about 25 hours until Kim and Mary were to pick us up and take us to the airport, so I had to make a decision.

hotwireI had never used Hotwire before, and although wary of picking a hotel this way in a city I hadn’t visited in decades, as the saying goes, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”  I found a Four-Star hotel that didn’t break the bank, and the location shown was inside a circled radius that stretched somewhere from the Thames to near the Wales border. I realized once you book the hotel there’s no turning back, but the few apartments left had not returned my emails, so it was now the moment of truth.

Nervously I hit the “agree” button, and we were now booked at the Riverbank Park Plaza Hotel in London. I immediately went to their website and it was not exactly the location I had envisioned for our stay in London, and the hotel seemed much more suited to the business traveler, but at least I was happy we had a hotel…for the moment.

Of course, as fate would have it, one of the apartments I had inquired about emailed me an hour later saying they had space, but it was too late. We were at the Park Plaza Riverfront come hell or high Thames water.

When I finally got to sleep that night, I had gone 40 hours without sleep and was in a rather foul mood. Contrary to my mantra at the end of all my trip reports, my attitude sucked, and the journey hadn’t even started yet.

Ten hours of sleep later, I tried to regroup my inner positive feelings, and soon we were off to the airport for another adventure. I drank some refreshing English ale at the airport, which was the perfect cure to what was ailing me. Attitude adjustment successful…it was time to get this UK show on the road.

P1000317Outside of the incredibly minuscule legroom and the guy in front of me reclining so far back into my personal space I could have given him a shave, the British Airways 747 flight was uneventful, which is always the perfect kind of flight. Kim and Mary were fortunate the people in front of them (Tracy and me) do not recline very far.  The plane even landed half an hour early at Heathrow’s Terminal Five.

1AI was excited because we had booked JustAirports to pick us up. I had always yearned to feel like a rock star and have one of those nattily attired dudes in a suit with a cool placard that said “MaiTaiTom” on it meet us at the airport.  Sadly, we were so quick going through immigration and retrieving our luggage (by the way, we have never experienced the terrible Heathrow problems that seem to be so prevalent on travel message boards), when we arrived at the waiting area, there was no one there to greet us.  A few minutes later I ran into “my guy” as he came through the door (I spotted my name on the card hanging at his side)…So much for rock star status.

Our driver apologized profusely for being slightly late and said he knew the plane was arriving early, but he had been caught in traffic. I didn’t care because we were in London. I was a happy camper in the backseat, enjoying three times as much leg room than I had endured for the previous 11 hours.

EngKDay1 #04As our driver headed to the hotel, his excuse seemed entirely plausible to all of us. The traffic in London made the congestion in Los Angeles seem like Fargo, North Dakota.  We might have been able to walk to the hotel just as quickly.

He dropped us at the hotel (£47 with a £5 tip). The Riverbank Park Plaza is definitely suited more for business travelers, but the location was much better than I thought it would be. We could see Parliament and Big Ben (about a ten minute walk) across the river, and as it turned out, the Vauxhall Tube Station was only about an eight-minute walk away. Things were looking up.

P1000661For some reason Hotwire had booked both couples into twin rooms (I had not booked twin rooms…that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it), but the pleasant person at the desk changed us to double rooms.  As we were chatting with the desk person, Tracy asked about the rooftop bar she believed she had seen on their website the night before we left. “What rooftop bar,” the desk person asked? (photo is from hotel website…kinda looks like a rooftop bar doesn’t it?).

4898_Park_Plaza_Riverbank_London We couldn’t check in until 2 p.m., so we dropped our bags with the bellman and off we went. Our first plan was to go to Victoria Station and pick up our Travelcards so we would cash in on the 2FOR1 attractions (we had printed out vouchers before we left the States). Still a bit confused about what we should do, we thought we’d take advantage of the Concierge at the hotel and ask him. You would have thought we were speaking French when we asked him about it, because the idea of getting 2FOR1 vouchers at London attractions was foreign to him.   Undaunted, we pressed on…but not very far.

P1000318As we walked toward the Vauxhall Tube/Train Station, we ran into a place just a few blocks from our hotel that could provide us some much needed food. It was a little pub called The Rose. Having passed on the mystery pizza breakfast on BA, all of us were pretty hungry.

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Not expecting much, The Rose turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. Kim had a hamburger/frites combo, Mary a butternut/coconut soup, Tracy went for the steak and caramelized onions on a baguette, while I opted for a butternut sage risotto with arugula. Lunch was quite good.

P1000319In a few more minutes, we would be at the Vauxhall Tube Station, but not before we passed a familiar looking building. It was the SIS Building, more commonly known as the MI6 Building, which is the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

P1000323It looked in relatively good shape after that terrible bombing in Skyfall. SkyfallMAIN28We quickly moved on before Mary channeled her inner Adele, and we were on our way to Vauxhall Station where we would head to Victoria Station and get those pesky Travelcards that cause so many travelers consternation.

Now that Kim has retired, he had time to be our expert “researcher” on this project. He explains, “Now, finally at Vauxhall, we each purchased a one-way tube ticket (£4) to Victoria Station where we would attempt to pick up our Travelcards.  The vender looked at us like we were crazy because no one pays full price for a Tube ticket; everyone uses a Travelcard or an Oyster Card (which he tried to sell us), but we were on a mission to the nearest National Rail ticket booth at Victoria Station.

P1000324“Once there, we handed over our passport-sized photos (two each that we had taken at home before we left) to the guy at the desk.  He carefully cut one so it would fit perfectly on our Photocard, and we each also received our 7-Day Travelcard that would allow us to use the tube freely in London Zones 1 & 2 (where virtually everything you want to see in London is located).”

Total cost for this deal is only £30 each, or what we called “The Bargain Of The Century.”  Not only do you get to ride the tube for free for a week (and we rode it a lot), you also get 2-for-1 tickets at many of London’s attractions (stay tuned for these).” Thanks to Kim’s research, getting the Photocard and 7-Day Travelcard was a piece of cake (or in England, I guess it would be, “a piece of Sticky Toffee Pudding”).

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A nearby walk from Victoria Station is the 110 year-old brick and stone church, Westminster Cathedral, so we decided to walk off our lunch and meander over to this church for a quick visit.

P1000328We were told that Westminster Cathedral is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, and both the inside (with its mosaics) and outside are quite stunning.

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If we had wanted, we could have taken an elevator to the top, but we had a lot of climbs planned in London, so we passed.

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As we exited Westminster Cathedral, we were almost overrun by seemingly hundreds of kids dressed up like refugees from a Hogwarts’ Convention entering the Cathedral. They all looked eerily similar to the students from the school in the Bonnie Tyler “Total Eclipse of The Heart” 80s music video. I half expected someone to say, “Turn around bright eyes.”

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As these kids kept pouring in, Kim said, “This must be a mass for the masses,” and we quickly got away and back to the hotel to check in.

As it turned out, the Riverbank Park Plaza has the three qualities I like most in a hotel; a good bed, a good shower, and it was quiet at night. Even though our room (knowing my dilemma of the past 48 hours, Kim and Mary graciously offered us the better one that was quite a bit larger) was near the railroad tracks, the double-paned windows worked their magic, and we heard nothing at night.

Before showering I made the nearly fatal mistake of napping in the afternoon (although truth be told, we might have nodded off for ten minutes or so). It was fairly late in the afternoon, and I had made dinner reservations a couple of weeks earlier for 7:30 at a South Kensington restaurant (back in the days when I thought we’d actually be STAYING in South Kensington), so we decided to do mostly outdoor activities to try and keep us awake until dinner.

P1000333We were going to go check out Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-In-the Fields, but as long as we were in the vicinity, we took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, because we had heard this is a crowded mess.

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The reviews don’t lie. It really is a crowded mess, but it was interesting to see the banners flying for a National Football League game that would be played in London.

P1000335Quickly, we departed and walked over to Trafalgar Square, remembering that in this country there is imminent danger waiting at every corner. Walking in London is an adventure, and thankfully, at most street corners there is a reminder of which way to look before venturing out into traffic (photo from internet)

DSC00858Being the daredevil that she is, Mary tends to like to cross the street whenever she feels there is no traffic coming no matter what color the light, and more than once we had to yell for her to stop because she was looking the wrong way. Nothing ruins a trip more than being run over by a double-decker bus. At each intersection we approached, I would say to myself, “Look both ways or die!” That way I could enjoy a beer or two later in the evening instead of becoming London road kill.

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We passed by the National Gallery and stepped inside St. Martins-in-the-Field, which got that name because fields surrounded the church back in the 13th century when it was founded.

P1000339Today’s church is from the 18th century, and there are not any fields to speak of nearby, unless there’s a Mrs. Fields cookie store we missed. It’s also a venue for numerous classical concerts throughout the year.

1DWalking around inside the church, I was more interested in what was located below the church…the Café in the Crypt. Downstairs is a cafeteria-style café that serves lunch and dinner on the gravestones of numerous people (the setting was apropos because I was feeling dead from lack of sleep, power nap notwithstanding).

P1000340We decided this might be a place to grab lunch after visiting the National Gallery later on during our visit.

P1000341Trafalgar Square sits in the center of London, and has a couple of lovely fountains and a large monument, Nelson’s Column.

P1000343Admiral Horatio Nelson was a British admiral who became the country’s naval hero.

P1000342By now I was so tired the column could have commemorated Admiral Nelson from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, and I might not have known it.

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However, since I read Horatio Nelson had lost an arm in one battle and an eye in a second but kept on fighting until he met his end (killed in the Battle of Trafalgar), I figured I could suck it up and make it to dinner no matter how knackered (the Brits were already affecting my language) I felt.

P1000347 It was time “to tube” over to South Kensington, our London home until it was snatched away by the bloody dodgy apartment people (oh yeah, I was still bitter). We quickly came to the conclusion that London’s tube might be the most efficient subway system we had ever encountered on our travels. I don’t think we ever had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train at any station during our entire six-day stay.

We also learned an important expression, “Mind the gap,” which is often announced over the train’s and station’s public address system as the tube cars roll to a stop. This phrase alerts unsuspecting passengers about the gap (some bigger than others) between train and platform. Those three words can help prevent one from severely spraining an ankle or, even worse, falling and becoming stuck between the train and platform when they disembark. Between “the gap” and the potential pitfalls of being a London pedestrian, I figured our group had about a 47% chance of getting out of this city completely unscathed.

mind-the-gapHopping off the tube at South Kensington, I realized I had left the address of the Indian restaurant we were going to for dinner back at the hotel, but I knew its general vicinity, so we started walking.

Kim ducked into an Indian restaurant competitor (perhaps to curry favor) to ask where our Indian establishment was located. They pointed him in the right direction. We finally reached the street that I knew I would recognize when I saw it (Bina Gardens), and as we turned right on Bina Gardens, there was Noor Jahan (photo from website).

2It was a great choice for our first dinner. The restaurant was elegant, and the wait-staff was professional and courteous, explaining many of the dishes in detail to four weary travelers.

The Garlic Naan was so good that I blurted out, “This bread is second to Naan!” Shaking their heads, Kim and Mary were sad they still had 15 more nights with me, but they probably had more sympathy for Tracy who is stuck with me for life.

Tracy had the Shrimp Curry (waiter recommended) with fried rice and fried onions. Kim tried the garlic chicken with fried rice while Mary had the lamb with basmati rice. I asked for a really spicy dish, and Noor Jahan’s chef went off menu to prepare a special, hot Chicken Curry dish. I still had some slight feeling in my lips and gums after finishing. Thank heavens for the Cobra beer to put out the fire.

Dinner was tremendous. We always joke that when the four of us dine out, the bill somehow comes close to $75 a couple. Our bill on this evening was…£96 (about 75 dollars a couple), and Noor Jahan fit the bill for us. We highly recommend it.

P1000348Back outside on a brisk night, South Kensington establishments were full of people. It’s a very vibrant neighborhood.

Walking back to the South Kensington Tube Station, we passed an Italian restaurant on one side and a French restaurant on the other side. We would try them both before we left, and one of them we liked so much, we dined there twice.

A bit further, we saw the magic word that always stops this group in its tracks…”Gelato.” We walked inside a place called Scoop and ordered some small cups of Gelato that capped off our first day and night perfectly.

I had brought a Fitbit on this trip. A Fitbit hooks on to a piece of clothing and measures the amount of steps and miles walked in a 24-hour period. We thought it might be interesting to chart our trip, since our group is known for walking a lot (tough task master, I believe). Although not arriving at the airport until mid-morning, I walked a total of 8.29 miles (17,558 steps). So it was no wonder that we were asleep before our heads hit the pillow.

I don’t know remember what Tracy dreamt about that night, but my dreams centered on the following day’s lunch, which I knew would contain more calories in one dish than the amount I usually consume in an entire day.

Next: Day Three – Going Crazy At Starbucks, It’s Good To Be Old, Tower Of Power, Where’s The Gin, Cross That Bridge When We Come To It, The Big Cheese, My Cup Runneth Over, Going Gothic, Fly (Almost) Like An Eagle, A Monumental Climb, A Walk In The Garden, Bellying Up To Manet’s Bar, Church Of The Royal Air Force, Go Fly A Kite, Two Ships We Won’t Pass In The Day And A Taste Of France

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