MaiTaiTom Gets The Royal Treatment…Two Weeks Exploring London and Scotland
Outside of one impromptu wild and crazy night in London, lost forever in the haze of overindulgent history (more on that later), our spring 2017 London/Scotland 15-day journey is full of vivid recollections. From gooey cheese toasties in London’s Borough Market to a chance encounter with a royal in Edinburgh to the mind-blowing beauty of the Scottish countryside, once again the UK left us yearning to come back for more.
With the help of a smoking hot airfare sale on Air New Zealand, Tracy and I coerced Kim and Mary to travel with us (will they ever learn?), which was also advantageous because Kim has become our official UK driver thanks to my aversion to multi-tasking.
As far as driving in Scotland, it was “easy peasy” (getting my inner Brit on), easy for me to say sitting comfortably in the backseat. Outside of Mary yelling, “Kim, you’re on the wrong side of the road!” a few times, we averted lorries, sheep and other cars as we traversed Scotland, often stopping to admire spectacular views. And traverse we did! Our overnights from Edinburgh included Callander – Isle Of Skye (Portree) – Nairn – a b&b near Dunnottar Castle – Falkland and back to South Queensferry. In between, we loaded a lot of interesting and beautiful places on our plate.
…peacocks wanting to learn how to play the bagpipe.
The weather was unpredictable. In our 15 days, we experienced all four seasons (without Frankie Valli or Vivaldi).
Within one 24-hour span, the weather changed from dead of winter to dead of summer. Shorts or parka?
We all agreed the Scottish people were the nicest people we’ve encountered in any country, and that included the folks who we understood virtually nothing of what they were attempting to say (although the dialect is a bit easier to follow after a few whiskey drinks).
Not even a minor “mishap” at Heathrow (the return of Sir Bleed-A-Lot) in the waning hours of our trip could dampen the memories of those two weeks. Throughout our entire trip, as usual, we had a blast and certainly experienced The Royal Treatment.
DAY ONE: What Airport Nightmare, Our New Favorite Airline, A Long Trip, Grand Hotel, Location Location Location, Arms Race, The World Is Our Oyster (Card), Mind The Gap, A Walk Through The Park, No Corgis, Diana’s Ancestral House, I’ll Never Find Another Mew, Chopin & Churchill, No Wrath Of Khan’s, Some Like It Hot and Tracy’s In The Kitchen
“Biggest Move in Aviation History,” the headlines shouted in our newspaper on the Saturday morning of our departure from LAX. “Be sure to leave for the airport early,” the story went on to caution. It seemed we had selected our departure day on the exact date LAX would endeavor to have 21 airlines play musical chairs and change terminals. The warnings were dire. “Leave early!!! Expect delays!!!”
Armed with this information and using it to my advantage (I like to get to the airport very early, (much to the consternation of my three traveling companions), we departed even earlier than usual courtesy of our friend (Uber Susan), who maneuvered the freeways for the predicted “arduous” drive to the airport. Our typical 35 – 40-minute drive took 35 or 40 minutes. It was the 1984 Olympics all over again…no traffic. Damn that Fake News.
We boarded our Air New Zealand non-stop flight to London. ANZ is now our new favorite airline, great personnel, good food, comfortable seats and (gasp) clean bathrooms (they even cleaned them in flight).
At Heathrow, it took us only about 20 minutes to go through Passport Control and immigration, and we found our ExclusiveAirports driver holding a card with my name on it (I don’t know why, but I love that).
On our way to the hotel, we got into a discussion on why we drive on opposite sides of the road along with questioning what country actually invented the car (10+ hour flights with no sleep can make you a little loopy).
Tracy asked, “Was it the U.S?”
“No,” Kim replied. “Cars were invented in Germany, which is why they’re known today as the Otto mobile.” Less than an hour in the UK and we all knew this would be a long trip.
What wasn’t long was our drive into London. On a Sunday afternoon, traffic was minimal, and soon we found ourselves at our hotel for the next four nights, the magnificent Millennium Bailey’s in Kensington.
We loved this hotel! Walking inside there is a lovely lobby with a sweeping staircase fit for Scarlett O’Hara.
There’s also a bar off to the side of the lobby, which we made use of on a few occasions, and the personable and professional hotel staff helped us when we asked our stupid tourist questions. Rooms were on the smallish side, but comfortable, plus it was only $200 a night, which we thought was a bargain. The location, directly across from Gloucester (only two syllables) Tube Station, could not be beat.
After a quick shower, lunch was a must before our 4:30 reservations at a sight we all wanted to see. We first attempted to get into the nearby Hereford Arms pub, but it was packed to the hoofs. We bade farewell to Arms, but a nearby pub welcomed us with open Arms.
The Stanhope Arms is across the road from our hotel, and we secured the last available table. The fish and chips along with a cold beer hit the spot. I decided to give peas a chance, but not much of one.
Back over at Gloucester Station, Oyster Cards were filled, and the best route to get us near Buckingham Palace had been calculated by our brain trust. Making sure to “Mind the Gap,” it wasn’t long before we exited at Green Park Tube Station and meandered alongside the park toward the palace. If you have a fear of escalators, London might not be your town.
While to our left was the mansion we would visit in about a half hour.
First, we walked over to Buckingham Palace gates and clamored for the Queen to show us her corgi so we could get a photo for our corgis back home. It seems she was busy. We bought them gifts later in the trip to makeup for the Queen’s slight.
I didn’t think I was really tired until I saw this photo I took. Tracy immediately confiscated the phone from me after looking at the picture, and she returned it to me when we got back to the U.S. Fortunately (sort of), I had also brought a camera.
The Spencer House
It was finally time to go on our 4:30 (one hour) guided tour of The Spencer House. Although it’s located just a couple of blocks away from the palace, we got lost, which did not bode well for the future when we needed to navigate somewhere difficult.
Inside, we learned Spencer House is not named after our tuxedo cat. It had been a bad day for our pets.
Tours are limited to 20 people, and it’s best to book timed tickets online so as not to get shut out because it is only open on Sundays (tickets £13 and £11 for old geezers like me). It was the final booked tour of the day. Once seated, a short movie told about the building’s history. Then, to the disappointment of many, including me, we were told there would be no photography (the photos I put in here are from the internet).
Construction on Spencer house was begun in the mid 18th century (commissioned by John, 1st Earl Spencer) and rumor has it that the house was utilized by Diana’s ancestors as a “love nest”...a really opulent love nest. The Spencer’s moved out in the 1920s, taking a lot of cool artifacts with them, but it was still worth the visit. Today it is owned by the Rothschild’s Banking Company. A guide takes you through the eight state rooms giving a little history about the home and its furnishings.
The Dining Room, which was renovated after suffering damage in World War II, stood out…
My favorite part of the Spencer House was the Palm Room, so we gave it a hand. This is the room where the guys went after dinner to do whatever they did (I assume drinking was involved), while the ladies skedaddled upstairs to Lady Spencer’s Room to see who they might be able to have a clandestine affair with.
There are also colorful little signs on many homes throughout London. In this neighborhood, one stated that in 1848 Frédéric Chopin left this house to play his final public concert. That last performance took place at London’s Guildhall in November 1848. The Polish composer, who was already in failing health, died less than a year later. The man who composed many a funeral song (as NPR once reported, “If you’re talking funeral music, no one did it quite like Frédéric Chopin”) had a unique funeral…admission to it was by “invitation only.”
We also passed by a building that purported to be Winston Churchill’s residence from 1880 – 1883. He moved here when he was five years old until he went off to school at Ascot a few years later.
By this time, the “Jet-Lagged Four” barely had enough energy to Mind The Gap when we entered and exited the tube.
Adhering to our “no sleep till we drop” policy, and since it still was about an hour to our 7:30 dinner reservations at a nearby Kensington Indian restaurant, we did what tourists should do in this situation…scope out the hotel bar.
For a minute, we all felt like we were back on our Central European trip. Our server was from Poland, while our charming bartender, Olga, hailed from Latvia. Throughout our two weeks, we would run into many Central Europeans working both in England and Scotland.
As we chatted with Olga, I realized that Kim had departed, and only Mary, Tracy and I were enjoying our libations. About five minutes later, he walked in with a beautiful bouquet that he purchased at the flower stall at Gloucester Station and presented them to Mary in honor of Mother’s Day. And they say chivalry is dead!
Khan’s of Kensington
It was finally time for dinner, and among the two million Indian restaurants in London, I had booked Khan’s of Kensington in South Kensington before we left on the trip. It turned out to be a spectacular choice.
We started with the unleavened bread with garlic (£2.50), which we all agreed was “second to Naan.” Being wild about Saffron, we also ordered Pilau Rice, a Basmati rice cooked with Saffron (£3.95). Every dish that came out seemed to be even better than the next…and they were all delicious. From memory (which by now was a tad frazzled due to sleep deprivation) they included: King Prawn Dopiaza, King Prawn pieces seasoned with onion, capsicum and other fresh herbs, cooked with a minimum sauce (£12.50); Aloo Gobi (£5.50), a delicious mixture of cauliflower, potatoes and light spices, along with a number of other delectable concoctions featuring lamb, prawns and chicken, and a chicken curry dish.
Much to the dismay of my dining mates, I ordered a couple of the dishes extra hot. I figured I might as well start big. Those spices dazzled, and ERs throughout the city went on red alert.
I love Indian food, and Khan’s of Kensington delivered on every level, so much so that before I could say “Tandoori chicken,” Tracy was hanging out in the kitchen schmoozing and taking pictures of the chefs. We all agreed this would be a place to return on a future trip.
It was about 9:30 when we returned to the hotel, but we thought we should say “goodnight” to Olga, which entailed ordering a nightcap. Hey, we’d only been awake 32 straight hours! At 10, we called it an evening.
Besides an insanely cheap airfare, one of the biggest reasons we were in London was so Tracy could visit a museum with a painting she has been yearning to see since our last trip in 2013. We’d also hop on a boat, check out a glimpse of another art museum, go to the theatre, eat a sandwich I’ve been dreaming of since 2013, visit one of the oldest pubs in London, traverse a cool bridge and see a museum filled with lots of “stuff.” We’d also see (and hear) the “Ugliest American” we’ve witnessed on any trip, not to mention a delicious dining experience in a former automobile (not “Otto Mobile”) showroom.
Next: DAY TWO: Line In Wait, Sargent Major, Anchors Away, To Pee Or Not To Pee That Is The Question, Short Stop, The Big Cheese, By George, A Dickens Of A Time, Bridge Of The Millennium, That’s The Ticket, How The Hell Did We Wind Up In Florence, The Dark Side Of The Tourist, Art Deco Paradise, and Book ‘Em