Sunday, April 1, 2018

London 2018: Off the Beaten Path Tour

Our first trip to London, England was back in 2000 when my husband Rich had a bit of gap time before starting a new job.  This allowed us to take 15 consecutive days of vacation, a luxury not repeated again until after we retired in 2012 due to the restrictions of his position in sales.  We were able to spend 7 full days in London and 8 days driving around the Cotswolds.  When you are working and have limited vacation time, you don’t want to waste a single second.  So we packed our activities each day, especially during our time in London where we were out first thing in the morning until late at night for 7 days straight.  We managed to visit most of the major tourist attractions including the British Museum, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Piccadilly Circus, Victoria and Albert Museum,  and watched the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.  We went on a Jack the Ripper and a Hidden London walking tour, watched a couple of plays and even visited a few more obscure places including Apsley House and the John Sloane Museum.

Although it has been 18 years since that last visit, we do not feel the need to revisit most of these major tourist attractions on our return trip to London.  This time, we will take a much more leisurely 21 days in May, and will embark on an “Off The Beaten Path” trip, much like we did on our third visit to Paris.  We will return to the National Gallery and Victoria and Albert, since we raced through these museums the first time and did not see everything that we wanted to.  Other than that, we hope to explore neighbourhoods a bit further afield than the central part of London, and visit lesser known attractions that did not make our list on our previous trip.  It should be more affordable for us on this trip since in 2000, the exchange rate for Canadian dollars to pounds was 2.6!  Also at that time, the major museums and art galleries did not offer free admission, whereas most of them do now, at least for their permanent collections.

Since we enjoyed them so much on our last visit, we plan to go on more walking tours with the organization London Walks.  This time, we will take a Beatles Magical Mystery tour that includes a stop at Abbey Road Studios, a tour of the Hampstead area including Highgate Cemetery where Karl Marx is buried, and a couple of tours in the Covent Garden area including one called “Behind Closed Doors”.  With a separate tour group, we will take a Graffiti walking tour in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area and hope to see some works by Banksy amongst other street artists.  We will visit some museums for the first time, including the Science and Technology museum, Design museum, Museum of London, Imperial War Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, all which happen to offer free admission.  We’ve purchased tickets to watch two West-End shows so farone is a new musical and the other a comedy farce.  We have plans to visit the markets and shops located in many districts including Notting Hill, Camden, Southwark, Soho, Chelsea, Marylebone and Mayfair.  We intend to take tours of Kensington Palace, the Globe Theatre, Madame Tussaud’s, the Churchill War Rooms and the little known, far-off Eltham Palace which is furnished with Art Deco décor.  Having read several books on the Economics of the Contemporary Art World, we are looking forward to visiting the galleries of branded artist Damien Hirst, branded collector Charles Saatchi, as well as the Tate Modern Gallery.  We have some interesting dining experiences lined up, including lunch at Damien Hirst’s restaurant Pharmacy 2, which is decorated to reflect Hirst’s Pharmacy sculptures, as well as lunch at Bibendum, whose décor is inspired by the Michelin Tire Man.

Unfortunately, for the first time since 2012, we were not able to secure a home swap although it was not from lack of trying.  I must have contacted every user on our home swap website that lived within a reasonable vicinity of downtown London, without success.  In the end we rented an apartment, but after not having paid for accommodations on vacations over the past 5 years, it came as quite the sticker shock when we researched our options.  We hedged our bets using the Booking.com website by reserving our rental early in order to secure a good location, but choosing to pay a bit more in order to have free modifications and cancellations up to a couple of weeks prior to our departure.  The hope was that a home swap might show up at the last minute and then we could still cancel or shorten the length of our stay in the rental.  Alas it was not to be.  We originally rented our apartment for 4 weeks, planning for a very slow and relaxing schedule.  But once we realized that we would have to pay for accommodations for our entire visit, we tightened up our schedule.  We were able to fit all of our planned activities into 3 weeks, albeit at a less leisurely but still not overly taxing pace.  Since I had to pay for the entire 4 weeks up front in order to secure the rental, it actually felt like a windfall when we changed our dates and I received a refund for ¼ of our outlay.

On the bright side, there are many more options to choose from when renting a place, so we could pick a convenient location.  Since we were staying for 3 weeks, we preferred an apartment with a kitchen and living area as opposed to a hotel room.  We found a one bedroom apartment in the Earl’s Court district that had pretty much everything that we were looking for.  It was within a couple of blocks to two transit stations, two major supermarkets, a Vodafone store where we could get a local data SIM card for our phone, and many shops and restaurants.  The photos of the sample apartment looked quite nice, so we would be quite satisfied if we got something equivalent.  The building has an elevator and there are laundry facilities within the apartment.  There is even a tiny express grocery store on the ground floor of the building which makes it really convenient for picking up last minute items.

 This experience has proven to me once and for all that I do not like last minute vacations where the dates and details are not pinned down and planned far in advance.  I actually felt a sense of relief once we gave up hoping for a home swap and could finalize our dates, book our plane tickets and get down to planning our trip in detail.  There was one silver lining that let us reap some benefit out of our home swap membership.  After pleading my case, I was granted airport lounge passes for our trip, even though we did not book a home swap, which was the usual criteria for the free passes.  We thought that by booking our plane tickets so close to our departure date, we pay more for the airfare.  As it turns out, we got a fairly good rate that was much less than we thought it would be.  I think it helped that we chose a red-eye flight that left late in the evening.  In our past trips to Europe, we would book a 6pm flight and arrive in Europe in the early morning, thinking we wanted to maximize our activities on the first day.  But since we cannot check into our rental until 3pm anyways, there does not seem a point to arrive that early.  Instead we chose a flight leaving at 23:05 and arriving at 11:05am.  This would bring us into the Earl’s Court area between noon-1, allowing us to buy our SIM card and grab a coffee before picking up the keys and heading to our rental.  And with a flight departing so late in the evening, there is even a chance that we will be able to sleep on the flight and reduce our usual jet lag.

We are very excited about our “Off The Beaten Path” tour of London.  We have many fun things planned which will generate in many travel blogs, so stay tuned.

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