Surviving Mai Tai Tom’s “Royal” Blunder: England & Scotland 2022
CHAPTER ONE: Somehow, We Make It To London
Prologue: Cancer, Covid & Calamities Nearly Derail The Trip
Looking back at our spring visit to enchanting England …
… and the stunning scenery of Scotland …
… along with a few oddities and Off-The-Beaten-Path spots in our travels …
… it’s almost inconceivable that this trip even happened in the first place. It seems we always have a little drama before each trip, but a number of pre-vacation misfortunes took this journey to an entirely new level of doubt.
In early December 2021, I called our long-time friends and traveling partners Kim and Mary to tell them we had booked our flight and inform them most of our hotels were also already reserved. We were greeted with the devastating news that Kim had been diagnosed with throat cancer the previous day and would start undergoing chemo and radiation treatments around Christmas. In a power of positive thinking moment, Kim made it clear that he still believed they would be able to make the trip.
He finished his treatments by the end of January, but would not know the results until the end of April, just a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to leave. During his treatment he had zero appetite, difficulty swallowing and could not taste anything.
Meanwhile, at the MaiTai house, in early April I took a tumble on the stairs, re-injuring my already damaged right rotator cuff and also doing unknown damage to my left arm, which I could barely raise. It was a real life farewell to arms. My orthopedist scheduled me for PT to attempt to strengthen both shoulders to help get me through the trip.
Nearing the end of April, we received the fantastic news that Kim’s doctors believed they had gotten all the cancer. Although he was still taste-challenged (we knew his tastebuds were on the fritz when he told us he didn’t even like Caesar salad), he was eating more calories, which he needed to regain some of the 50 pounds he had lost.
To celebrate Kim’s great news, the next afternoon I tested positive for Covid. Because I am known for being such a giving guy, two days later Tracy tested positive. Events were turning negative. There were now a little more than two weeks to go before ostensibly leaving for London. If we believed in those ill-boding signs and premonitions, this is where we could have called off the trip once again.
Tracy and I started to feel better (Paxlovid was our friend), but because the CDC said you could still test positive up to 90 days after getting Covid, our doctor drafted a letter stating we had recovered from it, so we could re-enter the US after our trip should we test positive (you still had to test to get home at that time). We hoped the letter would work, but we were certainly in uncharted territory.
During the week Tracy and I confidently started packing (OK, mostly Tracy), however less than 48 hours before take-off, she started experiencing terrible stomach and chest pains. The pain was so bad she needed to go to the ER, something she’s never had to do except for the two dozen times or so she’s dropped me off. We seriously thought about just blowing off the trip (we did have trip insurance), but she felt better when she got home hours later (no diagnosis), and the following day the pains had subsided. I guessed she was feeling stress, which, being married to me, is a common everyday occurrence for her. The trip was back on!
But wait, there’s more! In a last minute search for something in our upstairs bathroom, we discovered a rather significant leak under the sink. With less than two hours to go before we needed to depart for the airport, Tracy called my long-time plumber (of more than 40 years) who arrived to save the day within 45 minutes … and on a Saturday no less … and without charging us an arm and a leg, which was fortunate since I had no more arms to give.
Tracy said something to him about perhaps this was yet another ominous sign we should stay home, and he wisely replied, “It’s just a clog, don’t overthink it.”
So, on a Saturday in May, against all odds, Tracy and I took off from LAX to London, while Kim and Mary jetted from San Diego. For better or worse, our 23-day journey to London, York, the Northumberland Coast, the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh through the Highlands to some of the Argyll Coastal Route, Inveraray, Glasgow and numerous points in between finally became a reality.
We had all survived … for now. Had we not made this trip, we would have missed so many great sights and scenery, not to mention me nearly causing an international incident in York, getting lost in a most unusual spot in Durham, and our group almost having to spend the night in a parking lot near Oban. Those and a few additional blunders made for some most amusing (not necessarily at the time) events.
Day One – Is This Any Way To Board An Airplane?, “Yikes … We’re In The Wrong Terminal,” Back To The Baileys, A Toast To Good Fortune and We See The Light
… our Uber picked us up just about the same time as our plumber was pulling out of the driveway. Timing Is everything. I believe Uber to LAX cost about the same as our flight, and we settled in at one of the Tom Bradley Terminal’s overpriced restaurants, where we had a mediocre lunch and a Guinness (in a paper cup).
Boarding the planes were interesting for both couples. At our American Airlines gate, the boarding pass scanners were either not working or incredibly slow, so people had to scramble to another queue where some guy was taking passengers photos (not all of them) with his iPhone before boarding the aircraft.
Had I known, I would have worn a nicer shirt … and not worn my mask.
Mary and Kim first flew from San Diego to Seattle, where they would endure a seven hour layover. That turned out to be fortuitous because when Tracy and I landed there was a text from Mary saying, “Yikes, just realized we were at the wrong terminal.” Yes, after six hours they realized they were waiting in the wrong terminal for their flight to London. They made it … barely.
After all the trials and tribulations we’d all endured, sitting in an airplane for 11 hours didn’t even sound too bad. It was an uneventful flight (always the best). It helped we’d used points to upgrade to premium economy so we could catch a few hours sleep. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 must have felt sorry for us, because we were in and out in no time.
Digression: Heathrow’s Passport Control was a far cry from what we’ve encountered in the past. No more long lines. The entire process is automated … just scan your passport, have your photo taken (for an actual purpose) and, voila, we were through in less than 10 minutes.
It was so quick, that we even beat our Just Airports (£55) driver to the concourse, and once there he whisked us (as fast as you can whisk in London traffic) to our home for three nights, the Victorian-style Bailey’s Hotel London Kensington, where we stayed five years ago. Its elegant lobby and grand spiraling staircase was a welcome sight for two somewhat weary travelers. I have to admit the fatigue from our recent Covid spell lasted longer than we thought.
We were hoping the Queen might greet us at the hotel, but she was busy at Windsor Palace in preparation for her Platinum Jubilee, which would really ramp up in a couple of weeks. The Bailey’s is situated directly across the street from Gloucester Road Tube Station, which is a convenient hub that transports you to all parts of London.
We had upgraded our rooms, because the last time they were a little cramped. The rooms were much more spacious and didn’t have the death defying Shower-Tub combination.
Kim and Mary opted not to get a driver at Heathrow, but instead take The Tube from Terminal 3 to the hotel, hoping they could beat us (both planes landed at 1:15 on Sunday afternoon) there. One minor glitch to their plan; the tube at Terminal 3 had been shut down for repair throughout the weekend, so they were forced to catch a shuttle that took them to the first station out from the airport. As Mary stated, “It was a comedy of errors, especially since it was raining.”
Meanwhile, Tracy and I were showered and refreshed by the time they arrived, and I believe Kim muttered something about getting a car to pick them up next time in London. While waiting, we learned that the Bailey’s Hotel is named after Sir James Bailey, who was a member of Parliament in the late 18th and early 19th century. It is also part of a group that also owns the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.
We ventured out in the gray, drizzly late afternoon for our customary first day drinks to toast Kim’s health and our good fortune of being back in Europe once again.
Just down the street from the hotel is the Hereford Arms pub where we have imbibed a pint or four before (this was the fourth time the four of us have enjoyed time in London).
Now this is more like it! No more Guinness in a paper cup for me.
The interior of the restaurant was lovely, and the service throughout the evening was stellar. More importantly, so was the food. Walking inside, the cooking aromas made us even more ravenous (we had passed on the American Airlines gourmet dinner of something that I think resembled pasta). To borrow from the website, “extraordinary combination of flavours, delicate seasonings, in-house freshly ground spices, marinade and complex tastes.” Really delicious meal.
Our table shared a starter platter of spicy pickles (I believe I skipped that dish), mint yogurt and mango chutney served with Papadums, a crisp Indian flatbread. Kim and Mary shared the lamb samosas, followed by Malwa Mango Chicken (chicken cooked in mild, sweet mango sauce with almonds, coconut and cream) and the Lamb do Pyaza (diced pieces of tender lamb cooked with onion roundlets, mixed peppers and green herbs).
Tracy tried the Anaar Avocado and Mango Salad (fresh mango, avocado and pomegranate mixed with chickpeas, glazed in olive oil with a light balsamic vinaigrette dressing) and Chettinad Pepper Chicken (South Indian style chicken curry cooked in onion, tomato gravy with black peppers finished with coconut milk).
I dined on Peshawari Lamb Chops (tender lamb chops marinated with garlic, ground chilli, fennel, cream and cooked in tandoor).
When I was planning this trip, I promised Kim and Mary that I would set an itinerary that would allow us to move at a much more leisurely pace. That being said, the next day we’d scope out a Cathedral with the second highest dome in the world, a museum highlighting London’s history, London’s oldest surviving church, meander through a garden and memorial, then have a terrific lunch before checking out a renovated great hall in a building housing dinosaurs, gems and a whale named Hope. Coupled with a wonderful French dinner, we would end up walking nearly seven miles by bedtime.
Next – Chapter Two: Historic First Full Day In London
Day Two: Tap and Pay, St. Paul’s, No Whispering, The Real Christopher Wren, Tracy’s First Garden, Examining London’s History, London’s Oldest Surviving Church, Virgin Mary Meet Benjamin Franklin, Great Scot, Are You Sure It’s Only Half a Mile?, Shake It Up, Okey Gnocchi, Tom Pays A Price, The Great Hall, A Real Gem, A Whale Of A Tail, Mozart Lived Here & Old School French Dining