I’ll warn you now – this is a long one. I wanted to save this trip for posterity – so here’s the recap.
Thursday - Day 1
After a long overnight flight (which actually wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be), we arrived at Heathrow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger, more sprawling airport. It took us over an hour to get through the immigration line/process - which turned out to be a simple “we’re here for work meetings (Mac) and vacation (both of us)”. Then a quick stamp in our passport and we were in.
We planned to take the Underground from Heathrow into London and of course we ran into trouble trying to buy our tickets. Even though we had phoned ahead to our credit card company, our card was still declined (don’t worry, we worked this out as soon as we arrived at our hotel). Thankfully, our debit card worked fine (though at a HEFTY fee) and soon we were being directed to “platform 2”. The ride into the city took just under an hour and was pretty simple. We ended up with a few blocks’ walk from the station to our hotel where we learned had we stayed on the train for one more stop, we would have ended up right at our hotel. Lesson learned.
Rather than falling asleep in the afternoon and prolonging dealing with the jetlag, we took a walk around the neighborhood – up and down Bayswater, with a quick stop for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien and then through Kensington Gardens. We lucked out with absolutely gorgeous weather – 70 degrees and not a cloud in the sky.
We finally gave in and took a quick nap and then it was time to meet Mac’s boss, his wife, Lorraine and a co-worker with her date for dinner. We ate at the hotel and had a nice, laid-back meal. After that it was off to bed – Mac had to work early the next morning and I had a running/breakfast date with Lorraine.
Friday – Day 2
Mac had meetings all day on Friday (which ended on a cool note – at the Crystal Palace for a wetsuit clinic in a pool there – they got to see the British National Handball and Synchronized Swimming teams practicing!), so I met up with Lorraine for breakfast and then we set out to “run” London. We spent the day running through the parks and seeing the sights. I carried my small camera in my hand while we ran and snapped a few shots.
We started in Kensington Gardens, and then we ran through Hyde Park into Green Park as we made our way to Buckingham Palace. We watched the changing of the guard and then continued on through Knightsbridge. We even ducked into Harrod’s for a few minutes (we actually thought we might be thrown out for our running attire!) We made our way back into Hyde Park where we ate lunch outdoors at the Serpentine Café along the Serpentine River. It was another gorgeous day – perfect for dining outside by the river.
After a lunch of ham and pineapple pizza, we thought we’d walk back to our hotel rather than try running. Lorraine and Peter were racing a triathlon the next day at Blenhiem Castle outside of London (later it was reported that Pippa Middleton, sister of the new Duchess of Cambridge also participated!), so they needed to get their bikes sorted out. While they did that, I grabbed my computer and headed to Starbucks to use the wireless there. Interestingly, our (first) hotel didn’t have wireless Internet in the rooms and I can’t plug my MacBook Air into a traditional wired connection. Dinner that night was with Mac, Lorraine and Peter at an Italian restaurant near our hotel called Zizzi. We were still catching up on the time change, so it wasn’t a late night for us.
Saturday – Day 3
On Saturday, Mac wanted to visit some of the shops owned by their distributor in the UK. Good for us, one of the stores was in the Spitalfields area – where we wanted to see the All Saints flagship store as well. We set off on the Tube and made it to Liverpool Station easily. I know that all large cities are made up of diverse and vastly different areas, but its still fun to see a city for the first time and learn this all over again.
Spitalfields, in my opinion, was quintessential London – narrow cobblestone streets, quaint shops and beautiful architecture. It was hard for me to find specific addresses in most of London – there doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to it! We actually wandered into a little market area and stumbled upon the bike shop we were looking for – talk about luck! After a bit of browsing in the shop and speaking to some of the staff, we were on our way to the flagship All Saints store. Aaaaahhhhhhh. Thank goodness there is an All Saints coming to Chicago this fall!
After a little time at All Saints, where we didn’t buy anything (gasp!) – the exchange rate made it really hard to buy much – we took the Tube back to Oxford Circle for more shopping – this time at stores such as Topshop (also coming to the US this fall) and Selfridge’s. We did make a few purchases at that stop and I’m really excited for Topshop to open in Chicago on Michigan Avenue.
We shopped until late in the evening and then realized how hungry we were. After dropping our packages off at the hotel we walked to a nearby Mexican restaurant. Funny to see Brits dressed in cowboy gear, including big hats, serving up shots of tequila. We weren’t feeling so tired after some margaritas and shots with the staff! One of the most bizarre things about London was that most bars and pubs are closed by 12:30 am.
Sunday – Day 4
Sunday morning we were changing hotels. We wanted to stay in a different area of the city our last two nights there so we moved to The Trafalgar Hotel on (you guessed it) Trafalgar square. We took the Tube to the new hotel and let me just say, taking (heavy) suitcases on the Tube is a workout. They definitely do not make it easy – lots of stairs - no elevators or escalators in most stations.
After a little confusion, we found the hotel. It is a Hilton property, but the Hilton name/logo is nowhere to be found on the outside of the building. We were pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be an AMAZING hotel. The décor was modern and impeccable; we had French doors that opened onto Trafalgar Square, a beautiful bathroom and a comfy bed! I would recommend it to anyone.
An added bonus was the great central location. After unpacking and getting settled, we walked down Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace. It was really crowded; there were Salvation Army Bands from around the world marching and playing there. Then I proceeded to get us lost trying to walk to the Knightsbridge area to go to Harrod’s. Ooops. We somehow ended up in Pimlico and had to take a taxi back to our hotel. Mac still hasn’t let me forget that one.
In front of Buckingham Palace:
Now we were tired of walking; it was time to sit in the very chic lobby lounge at our hotel. The cocktail menu was huge and everything sounded amazing. I couldn’t decide between the “G and T ini” and the “Porn Star Martini”, so I did what any good American tourist would do – I had them both. Then I was ready to tackle more of London.
It had started to rain pretty hard so we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and walked to Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye. Even on an overcast day, the views from the Eye were unbelievable. They aren’t kidding when they say you get 360° views of London.
Leaving the London Eye, we walked over a pedestrian bridge into the Embankment area. Before we left, a co-worker of mine suggested we try to have a glass of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar. After coming off the pedestrian bridge, we happened to walk right past Gordon’s. Talk about good timing and placement! Of course we had to stop in for a drink. The bar is in the basement level and feels like cave or dungeon form the 1600s. Really cool, but kind of creepy too!
Now it was after 9:00pm and we were hungry. The Concierge recommended an Argentinian steakhouse called Gaucho, the only thing was that they stopped seating at 10:00 – we had a few minutes to change, get presentable and jump in a taxi. I’m so glad we rushed and made it – Gaucho was a truly wonderful dining experience! The atmosphere was dark, shiny black everywhere with cowhide covered chairs and banquets. I couldn’t pass up having a Caipirinha to start and while Mac had a huge steak for dinner, I had sashimi style scallops with lime, ponzu and mango. AHHH-MAZING! We also shared chips (fries) and mashed potatoes. Yes, we like our carbs. After a long, relaxing dinner, we were ready to call it a night.
Monday – Day 5
The first thing we thought when we woke up on Monday was that we had reached our last full day in London. It made me a little sad because there was so much more I wanted to see, but I was truly ready to be back home with the kids. We decided that we’d go to Harrod’s – and after the failed attempt at walking there – we thought the Tube might be a better option. It worked perfectly and just few blocks from the Knightsbridge Tube stop, there it was. Harrod’s. Whoa! Lorraine and I had stopped in for a few minutes on Friday, but we didn’t spend much time there. Our first stop was the food area – actually, areas. The food section at Harrod’s is bigger than most grocery stores in the states. All gourmet, beautiful and all very expensive. Mac had a piece of marble cake and I had a scoop of chocolate gelato. Yum. Then we headed to the toy area in search of something for Sienna. We ended up with the limited edition Kate Middleton Barbie for her. So fun!
A quick Tube ride back to Trafalgar Square and we started the process of packing - ugh. We didn’t really even shop that much, but it seemed that our bags shrunk while we were there! We took a break and went down to the lobby lounge for a drink and ended up talking for quite a while with the bartender who had recently moved from Australia to the UK. He was a great bartender – I told him the type of drink I tend to like and he made me one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. I couldn’t replicate it, but I know it had muddled berries, mint, simple syrup and vanilla vodka in it, among other things. So delicious.
We decided to keep it somewhat simple for dinner that night and booked a reservation at Automat – a upscale “diner” with an American flare. I ordered a burger and chips, Mac a steak. After the waiter left, Mac said he really wanted the burger too, but didn’t want to order the same thing. Ironically, our waiter then came back to tell Mac they had run out of the cut of steak he ordered; he would need to choose something else. He went with the burger. It all worked out in the end.
After dinner, the same bartender was at the bar at our hotel so we felt like we should enjoy one last cocktail on our last night in London. (I promise, we really did a lot more than eat and drink on this trip!) Then it was time to finish packing and try to get some sleep. Though, I was thinking that if I didn’t get much sleep, maybe I would be able to sleep for some of the NINE HOUR flight home the next day.
Day 6 – Tuesday
Tuesday morning we were up bright and early to head to Heathrow. We didn’t have anything else to do, so we figured, we might as well allow plenty of time. Our flight wasn’t until 3:20, but we had heard that security at Heathrow could be hit or miss – you might get right through, or you might wait in line for 2+ hours. We took the Tube back and when our train was stopped in one of the tunnels for more than 30 minutes (due someone with a broken leg on the train in front of us), I was really glad we had allowed the extra time.
We finally (over an hour and a half later) made it to Heathrow. We returned our Oyster Cards (Tube passes) for the £5 deposit, got our VAT tax return vouchers stamped, checked our bags and then went through security. For what its worth, I thought security at Heathrow was much easier than going through security at any airport in the States. For on thing, you don’t have to take off your shoes. We were actually through in less than 5 minutes!
We had time to spare so we were able to sit down for lunch and buy water and some fun UK magazines for the flight home. Heathrow is interesting in that you don’t go to your departure gate until they are ready to open up boarding for your flight. Everyone waits in a huge central lounge area and as boarding times approach, the boards tell you what gate to go to and how long it will take you to get there – our gate was a 20 minute walk away. I’ve never seen an airport as spread out as Heathrow is – and they are currently working on a large-scale expansion there.
Finally, we were on our flight home. I was concerned about a 9-hour flight during the day. I didn’t know if I would sleep or not – turns out I was pretty tired and after reading a bit and watching some TV shows on the iPad, I did manage to fall asleep for a couple hours. When I woke up, we were back over the US and getting closer to Chicago. The trip was great and went by too fast, but I was ready to get home, see the kids and have a big piece of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza!