Copyright Jim Bellomo • 2013
Jim & Kathleen go to Europe-2013
For most of the this trip (everyday except London) we were with our best buddies Mike and Carol Preisman. For a completely different take on our trip, see their review by clicking here.
It's always hard to start a big review/travel journal but away we go. (BTW: It has helped that I picked up some wonderful virus on our last day of the trip–Kathleen and Mike had already had it–and just not up to working but I can sit and type.)
Our cruise was leaving on Saturday, June 22 out of Southampton, UK so we needed to arrive at least one day early. We were flying British Airways using miles we had accumulated over the last few years to fly First Class (FC). Some tips on booking from Seattle to London in FC using miles. First, if you want to book with miles early enough to meet a cruise, you are not flying BA from Seattle or SFO. When I called BA 11 months ago they were very open about the fact that they hold all First and Business class seats on their Seattle and SFO flights because of the tech industry professionals in both places flying to Europe but the rep told me she could book me FC seats out of Vancouver right then so I did it.
If you have never flown FC it's something you should try hard to experience. We have now flown FC with Alaska, American, Cathay Pacific and British Air. The US airlines can't hold a candle to BA and BA can't hold a candle to Cathay. The one place where BA excels is their FC lounge at Heathrow (The Concorde Room). It is easily the best lounge I have ever been in. Even better than the FC lounge for Cathay in Hong Kong.
We had an easy drive to Vancouver (YVR) marred only by the detour for the Skagit River bridge that had been knocked down a few weeks earlier and the tunnel under the Frasier River in BC (AWFUL Monday afternoon rush hour traffic) but we had allotted plenty of time so we were just fine. We had originally hoped to leave our car with friends and get them to drive us to the airport and then pick us up but we didn't really want to bother them to do that. So we did some research and found that we could park for up to a month at YVR off-site parking for $125--a real bargain. If you are parking at YVR, try Vancouver Park and Fly. They didn't even hassle me when I lost my ticket after not seeing it for three weeks.
Our flight was close to on time and we took off about 20 minutes late headed to London. After a quick FC dinner (delicious) we tried to get some sleep and before we knew it we were having breakfast before landing at Heathrow (LHR). Although we had flown through Heathrow a number of times before, it had been awhile and we had never flown through Terminal 5, BA's new home at LHR. It is a very nice, new terminal and (thanks to flying FC) we were walking off the plane first, through Customs first and our luggage was up first which got us outside looking for a cab in less than 30 minutes. Very smooth.
We had used our remaining BA miles to book two nights at the Sheraton Heathrow on the BA site. The site rated the Sheraton a 3-star hotel but we beg to differ. It is located next to a prison (it's on the right in the trees in the photo above) and it looked a lot like one itself. We were able to check in right away and they sent us off to our room which was supposed to be a king room but when we opened the door it was two, tiny twin beds. Not cool. Not even as long as I am tall. So back to the desk and exchanged rooms. Unfortunately in the meantime (since we got our first room) their computers had gone down which meant they could not make any keys so they had to send a security guard with us to open our room and promise us keys within an hour. That sounded OK except that the electric in the room needed a key to be turned on so we sat in the dark waiting for them to come up which they finally did.
One of the things we had read was that we could take a free bus back to LHR the next morning so we could take the Underground so I went out to try and figure this out. I am pretty good with buses at home. I follow directions well. My only problem was no one at the hotel (reception, Concierge, etc) had a clue where the bus stop was, how to get to Terminal 5 once we found the bus and once I found someone who knew where the bus stop was, they couldn't tell me a safe way to get across a very fast highway to the bus stop. Then once I did get across (something I knew that my wife could not do with her bad hip as I had to run to not be hit by cars) there was no way to tell which way to go on which bus to get back to Terminal 5. Left me feeling totally stupid but convinced that the public, free bus was not the way to go. We splurged and got tickets on the Hotel Hoppa bus to take us back to LHR.
The next morning we took that Hotel Hoopa bus to LHR and then easily found the Underground (Tube) station below Terminal 5 and we were off to downtown London for our day in the city. Warning: The Tube takes about an hour to get into London. We could have gone faster and more expensively on the Heathrow Express but then we would have had to change to the Tube or a bus and by taking the Underground we saved money and went right where we wanted to go and only lost about 20 minutes.
We started with a quick walk from the Blackfriars Tube station, across the Millennium walking bridge to the Tate Modern, London's modern art museum. It was not NYC's MOMA but it did again reinforce my belief that anyone can produce modern art. A quick trip to Home Depot and I could have a piece hanging at the Tate. Seriously. After spending the morning there, we caught a quick lunch at a cafe on the Thames, I shot some pics and we took a boat tour on the Thames that dropped us off right next to Big Ben. A quick walk up to Leicester Square and we found a Starbucks (free WiFi and MUGS!!!) that was air-conditioned. By this time it was getting pretty warm in London. We walked around the theater district until dinner time which was early as we had theater tickets. Dinner was at L'ulivo in Leicester Square. I had booked this restaurant on the British equivalent of Open Table (who I trust VERY MUCH) but it did not live up to my expectations. Here's the quick review I wrote for TopTable:
Beware! Online this restaurant looks like an actual Italian restaurant. Take it from an American of Italian descent this is the worst kind of tourist trap. Food was boring and flat, under seasoned. Wait staff pretended to know what was Italian and what wasn't. When you get there you will immediately know you are going to be scammed as they are part of the entire tourist scene at Leicester Square. Host out hawking and trying to bring people in along with all the other restaurants on the street. We got the impression from the site that they were a little, authentic Italian place. This is not so.
But the evening got better when we made our way to the Phoenix Theater for a performance of the West End hit and 2012 Tony Award winning best musical, Once. What a fantastic piece of musical theater. I can't wait for it to get to Seattle next year so we can see it again…in a hopefully cooler theater. You see it had been hot all day and theaters built in 1936 don't have air conditioning so it was "bloody hot" inside. But once you get past the heat, the show was fantastic. See it if you can when the national tour comes through your town. After the show it was a quick walk to the Leicester Square Tube station, an hour-long tube ride and then a VERY EXPENSIVE cab ride back to the hotel. We learned that after 11:00 pm you pay 3x the meter rate (rechecked later with the hotel to make sure we weren't ripped off) so five minute cab ride cost us the equivalent of $40. But we made it back and got to bed as we had to meet our buddies Mike and Carol in the morning.
At 8:30 the next morning we were up and ready when Mike and Carol (and our guide for the next two days, Jim) got to the hotel to pick us up for our tour of Stonehenge, Salisbury and a drop off at at our Southampton B & B. It was great seeing Mike and Carol who we hadn't seen since our Century cruise in November. They had been touring in the UK for a few days before we got there and had just returned their rental car and were thrilled to be driven and guided around Britain.
First we headed to Stonehenge where they were making big preparations for the overnight Summer Solstice celebration that would happen the next day. Stonehenge is amazing but much smaller than we expected. Got some great photos, did an audio tour and then it was off to Salisbury where we saw the cathedral and the rest of the town before heading to Southampton.
In Southampton we were staying at the Alcantra Guest House. Here's the review of the place I posted on Trip Adviser:
As I sit on a very hard chair in our room at the Alcantara Guest House in Southampton, UK I am trying to figure out how this place became the fourth highest rated guest house/B&B in Southampton on Trip Adviser. OMG! I would not want to see #5.
To say that I truly despised this place would be a gross understatement. What's not to like? Some of the hardest beds I have ever slept on. A shower so small that raising my arms to wash my hair resulted in smashing my elbows into the side of it. The absolute smallest sink that I have ever seen. It was so small that after brushing my teeth I could not fit my head above it to spit into it. Seriously. A narrow, tiny staircase that I got to carry my very heavy bags up and down after booking a ground floor room that was given to someone else.
Of course there are some good points. Like the world's slowest WiFi that goes off every night and has to be reset in the morning. This is really helpful when you can't sleep on the hard beds and are trying to take your mind off the fact that every muscle in your back is screaming at you. And don't forget the fact that there was no top sheet on the bed, just a down comforter. Now in the winter, that might be great but what it meant in June was that I was either VERY hot or VERY cold. So besides trying to sleep on the world's hardest bed, I got to either boil or freeze in it. And the location is excellent if you don't mind having to get a taxi to really go anywhere. I am a walker and my friend and I walked into Old Town Southampton the first night we were here and there is no way either of our wives could have done what became a 90 minute round trip. To walk to the port would have taken at least 2.5 hours round trip. So plan on a taxi to dinner, a taxi to really go anyplace.
I should say that the breakfast was just fine. Actually some of the best scrambled eggs I have had and the coffee was much better than our previous Heathrow hotel. (My friend says, "Don't eat the eggs Benedict!") But that can't be why so many Trip Adviser folks rated this place so highly. Maybe it was the fact that it is very clean and the management is very friendly. I realize that it is also a good value but there is a point where I am willing to pay more just to be able to sleep in a bed that doesn't feel like I am sleeping on the floor. Oh, wait, at home our floor is softer than this.
If you are looking for budget accommodations, have your own car, are used to sleeping on a VERY hard bed with only a down comforter on top of you and WiFi is unimportant then this is the place for you.
Needless to say, I can't recommend it for your pre-cruise stay. But we did have a great dinner at a neighborhood Greek place called Blue Sky. Very homey and local. Lots of locals, good food and great service.
The next morning, our guide Jim was back to take us to Portsmouth to see the Mary Rose. If you have never heard of the Mary Rose then a visit to that part of England is now (it just opened) incomplete if you don't see the Mary Rose. She is at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. If you go and you want to see the best parts you will need the best part of a morning. The Mary Rose museum was truly amazing and if you have seen the Vasa (more about her later) in Stockholm, the Mary Rose is in the same genre. In fact, the Vasa is in better shape but the collection and the museum of the Mary Rose is better.
After our long morning (until around 2:00 pm) we drove to Arundel to see the castle but we were really hungry so we stopped at the Black Rabbit just outside of Arundel for lunch. Here's a restaurant that I can highly recommend. It was so good that we almost forgave Jim for getting us to the castle one minute after it closed so we missed it. But we got a great lunch out of it with free WiFi. Then it was back to the Alcantra Guest House for another night of hard bed sitting (no sleep for us) before we boarded Celebrity's Eclipse for our 14 day cruise through the Baltic Sea.