If only I packed my glittery red slippers…

I open the window to a beautiful blue-sky day and excitedly put on my sandals.  Normally, I would put on sensible walking shoes, but I’ve come from my first winter in Melbourne and am desperate for some warm sun and open toed shoes.  Plus I plan to take it pretty easy and apart from starting the day with a walk, I plan to public transport my way around London.  Armed with a map and a couple of old Oyster Cards from previous trips of mine and my parents, I step outside to make the most of my only full day in London.

Strolling around Hyde Park on a Sunday is a great way to start.  Cyclists mingle with walkers, joggers, horseriders and lines of cars trailing inside the park to do any number of things from boating to exercising to enjoying the weather.  Its a big plot, fields and trees unending to the eye – and of course home to Kensington Palace and the Princess Diana Memorial as well as a number of galleries.

I do enjoy finding cool contemporary galleries on my travels.  London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery is hosting an exhibition by American sculptor Duane Hanson.  Throughout his forty year career, Duane created numerous life-like poly-resin sculptures portraying ordinary Americans as well as those that are often considered to be on the edge of society.  His works are damn realistic, right down to skin tones, wrinkles and age-spots.  You feel as though you are being watched.  Which makes their messages all the more confronting.

The figures were cast from live models in Duane’s studio, meticulously completing the details including veins and bruises.

Leaving Hyde Park, it’s time to make my way to another source of water – the canals of Little Venice.  I’m boarding a London waterbus to take a leisurely ride down Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock.. DSC03171

Regent’s Canal (named after Prince Regent, who later became George IV) is part of London’s Grand Union Canal and was originally built to link Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington tributary with the River Thames.  Now it’s a place of leisure for Londoners and visitors.  I’m boarding a London waterbus to take a leisurely ride down Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock.

Camden, or Camden Town, has been a residential area of North London since the 1790’s.  This lively area has been home to Dylan Thomas (who you’ll hear more about later) and Amy Winehouse and is also home to a great live music scene, housing the notable Electric Ballroom which has played host to an amazing and varied array of artists such as The Vaccines, Snow Patrol, The Killers, Stereophonics, Sir Paul McCartney, Alt-J, Megadeth, Kaiser Chiefs, U2, Prince, The Clash, The Boomtown Rats, Joy Division, The Smiths, Madness, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Public Enemy, Blur, Supergrass, Garbage…too many to name.

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And right next door are the Camden Markets, which are made up of three separate markets (not all in the same spot) – Union Street, The Lock and The Stables.  The Lock is the set of markets which first greet you when you disembark from the waterbus and straight away the smell of food hits you.  Good smells.  Almost immediately, I spot (or maybe more likely smell)a Polish food stall and am unable to resist a serving of pierogi – I really need to learn to make these myself.  There are all sorts of different foods here though from Mexican through to donuts.  The hardest part is deciding what to have, a close second would be trying to find somewhere to eat it!

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In and around the grounds are all sorts of stalls selling everything from orange juice to fashion. It’s a great place to be on a nice day like to day, with almost a carnival vibe.  Being a Sunday though, it’s absolutely crowded here, something I’m not very tolerant of.  So I’m in and out pretty quickly before jumping on a bus to head to my next destination.  But this is where it all seems to unravel.  The London Bike Ride is on today, and along with underground works to pretty much any station I need to get to, it’s a recipe for disaster (well, sore feet anyway).  The bus can’t go the whole way of its route and terminates early leaving me in Oxford Circus.  I need to go to Hyde Park Corner, but end up having to walk it because it’s easier, normally a great option, except for my choice of footwear, which now seems to be feeling the vibrations of every single step on the pavement as if it were a shockwave.  When I finally arrive at the Hard Rock Café, where I’d planned to have a nice drink – there is a queue a mile long out the door.  Not doing that, my feet say.  No buses are running in this area, so I walk to the Hyde Park Corner underground stop to head to the Victoria & Albert Gallery (V&A).  I’m going to be way too early to get into my timed exhibitions, but perhaps they’ll let me in earlier.

Last time I visited London, I popped into the Victoria & Albert Museum hoping to grab a ticket to the David Bowie Is exhibition.  Unfortunately seven million people also had the same idea that day, the event was sold out and I missed out (but thankfully I moved to Melbourne and got to see the exhibit a couple years later anyway!).  I started to have a quick wonder through the gallery, but I immediately knew this was a place that deserved a whole lot of time to do it any justice and I really wanted to fit in the incredibly awesome Saatchi Gallery, so I headed over there and vowed to do the V&A next time.

As luck would have it, the V&A is currently hosting another amazing exhibition – Savage Beauty, the fashion creations of the late Alexander McQueen.  And I’m right on time for the last day of the show.  McQueen was a British fashion designer and couturier best known for bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk runways.  His works are exquisite, but unfortunately no photography allowed so you’ll just have to use your imagination or GTS (Google that s#%&).

But that’s not all, there’s also Shoes – Pleasure & Pain.  Something I am very familiar with at this point.  Even though it’s a timed entry, the exhibition is crowded.  Clusters of people stand in front of glass windows housing exquisite shoes, including Cinderella’s glass slipper and the Judy Garland’s glittery red shoes from the Wizard of Oz – I could seriously use those right now to get myself home because all of the underground stops I want to get to are closed.

The closest I can get is back to Hyde Park Corner and I am not relishing the walk back across the park, but I’m also not willing enough to pay for a cab, so my feet lose out.  Just as well its such a beautiful day.

I am totally Londoned out and am in desperate need of dinner before I hit the hay for the night.  I was planning to head downstairs to the hotel restaurant for dinner, but somehow during my nice hot shower, my feet seem to have forgotten how to walk, so a call to room service is the way to go.

Day in London – done.

Round Up

Here’s a bit of a round up of my travels – what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked well, what I’d do differently next time and just other general bits and pieces.

London

London in late June (early summer) is light.  It’s light at around 3.30/4.00am in the morning until around 10pm at night.  I found this a little difficult to get used to, especially coming from winter in Australia.  My advice if you like your sleep, make sure your windows are closed, blinds pulled down and perhaps invest in some earplugs and an eye mask.

Find a Waitrose, M&S or local fruit stall to stock up on fresh fruit.  Pret a Manger is a great cheap place to find breakfast or a sandwich and they are everywhere.

The underground was really easy to use.  I would suggest getting an Oyster card before you arrive in London.

I would definitely stay at the Rydges Hotel Kensington again.  It wasn’t really walking distance to all the action, but it was a few underground stops away and there was definitely enough in the area to not need to be.  It was close to the underground, supermarkets, plenty of restaurants etc.  I ate at the Hotel restaurant, the Jam Cupboard and was really impressed with the meal.  And of course, Kensington Palace and Hyde Park were just down the road.

There are people out late on the streets, but a lot of stuff doesn’t open til later in the morning.  So use it to sleep in or explore the streets while its quiet or go for a walk through Hyde Park.

Grand Cayman Island

The Caribbean Ocean is stunning.  However, it is very salty.  It played havoc with my hair, hats and clothes.  My suggestions would be to travel with a small container of hair treatment or at least wash your hair after every beach visit.  Rinse anything that you wear into or around the water so that the salt doesn’t ruin it.  Don’t pack overly good clothes.  Make sure it’s beach friendly, because truly that is where you will spend half of your time.  I reckon I didn’t use 1/4 of the clothes I packed for this very reason.

Sunscreen is a MUST.  I can’t stress this enough.  Even coming from Australia, the sun was so bitey.  Please be careful or you will end up very, very burnt.  And make sure you drink enough water.  Dehydration can happen rapidly.

Take an underwater camera, disposable or otherwise.  Schools of fish, stingrays and starfish can all be found in stunning clear water less than 1/2 meter deep.  So even if you aren’t into snorkelling or scuba diving, you can be assured to see sealife somewhere!

This is the place for water sports.  And because the waters are so calm and warm, it’s the best place to give them a try for the first time too.  Snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, scuba diving – just give it a bash.

Despite the fact that Cayman is not huge, it is not really that easy to get from one part of the island to the other.  A lot of the attractions are spread across different parts of the island.  My advice would be to either hire a car, or if you want to hit up numerous attractions pick up a tour.  Generally the tours visit the same locations, so choose between what you will see on the tour and what you can get to by local bus or taxi easily.

I would definitely stay along 7-Mile beach again.  A self-contained room, like what you’ll find at Sunshine Suites is perfect.  That way you can prepare the majority of your meals and then just splash out on the odd one.  There are some great value buffet meals around – like XQ’s and the Marriott’s Buckaneer’s feast.  But don’t forget to try some local specialties.

New York

If you are happy with a not so close up snapshot of the Statue of Liberty, just catch the free Staten Island Ferry.  If you want a better close up, I would suggest taking one of the paid ferries, which travel closer to the statue.  Of course, if you actually want to access Ellis Island and climb the statue, then that’s another option again.

The museums are huge.  Central Park is huge.  A lot of the time, you will need to decide whether you have time to dedicate a whole day or whether you want to fit more into your day.  I chose to do a little of each thing, rather than one or two things, but that’s just me.

New York is an easy city to walk around.  I walked most places, but I found that cabs were affordable and used them on occasions such as late at night or for further trips.  Bring good walking shoes.

New York is a noisy city.  Earplugs did not work for me.  Get yourself good and tired during the day and then have a few glasses of wine before bed, perhaps go to bed with the TV on snooze and hopefully that will give you a few good hours before daylight.

I found it easy to eat relatively healthy in New York.  There are plenty of shops such as Pret a Manger, Fresh & Co, Hale & Hearty where you can get fresh salads, sandwiches and fruit and they are open all day serving breakfast through to dinners.

New York is literally the city that never sleeps, but the city doesn’t sleep in either, so if you are into getting out there and seeing all the sights you can stuff into your visit, plan on some long, long days.  There are people out on the streets until late at night, and you can dine at any time of the day.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  I stayed at the Affinia Manhattan in Midtown, across the road from Madison Square Gardens and a 10-15 minute walk from Times Square.  I felt this was a perfect location.  The hotel, whilst old, had been recently renovated.  The rooms were large and funky, if not still showing some signs of age.  Niles Restaurant had great meals and hotel guests were entitled to a 20% discount on dining in.  There were a load of restaurants around the area in any case.

Seattle

I stayed in Belltown and I don’t reckon I could have chosen a better place.  Walking distance to the Space Needle/EMP, Pike Place Market, the shopping district and the waterfront, loads and loads of restaurants and bars to choose from – what more could you want.  Seattle is an easy city to walk around, and its such a pretty place, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to.

Get out and visit Mt Rainier – it’s worth it.  I chose Mt Rainier over Yosemite, as Mt Rainier is only a 2hour trip each way.  I chose Evergreen Escapes and although I probably paid a little more, the service and quality of the day was well and truly worth it.

Things don’t get going that early in the morning, so go for a walk around the markets, sleep in or do breakfast somewhere nice.

I wouldn’t stay here any less than 4 nights next time.  And I would definitely stay at the Ace Hotel again (I had a private room, but you can book otherwise).  The free breakfast was awesome.  The place smelt so clean and fresh and the staff were awesome.  The bed was the most comfortable I stayed in the whole time I was away.  FYI – Ace also have a hotel in New York.

San Francisco

San Francisco is not really an easy city to walk around.  A lot of the streets are actually at a 45 degree angle.  Obviously if that’s what you’re into, then go for it.

There are homeless people everywhere, as with all cities, but I didn’t feel threatened anywhere else.   I didn’t do my research thoroughly enough and ended up on the edge of Tenderloin (well I knew there were homeless people around, but just not quite the extent).  In saying that, Macys, Saks Fifth Avenue, the Hilton and the Westin were all about two blocks away and they weren’t immune either.  I probably would have felt more comfortable staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, seeing as that’s where I spent most of my time. There’s loads of restaurants here and most of the tourist attractions are here or leave from here.  Because I didn’t feel safe here by myself, I would suggest the city sightseeing buses or guided tours with hotel pickup/dropoff.

I chose to stay at the Best Western Hotel California.   The vegan restaurant at the hotel, Millenium was fabulous.  Don’t let the fact that its vegan put you off – the meals are so hearty that you probably won’t even notice.  But I wouldn’t stay here again.

If you want to go to Alcatraz, book in advance if possible.

Pack warm.  Even in ‘summer’.  July (summer) is the foggiest month.  I would say it was more akin to winter in Perth.

Singapore

Let’s face it, I don’t think there’s many parts of Singapore that you could go wrong for accommodation.  But that said, I like indulging in everything that Singapore has to offer.  The only thing that would determine my accommodation is this – if you want to relax by the water, have kids or want to indulge in water sports – head to Sentosa.  If you are keen for shopping – stay on Orchard Road.  If you are into luxury – head to Marina Bay.  If you like Museums and great food, perhaps head for Chinatown or the Raffles area.  If you want a quieter, greener area, try around Cuscaden Road.  Keep in mind, nowhere on the island is more than a 10-20 minute taxi ride and Singapore’s MRT system is fantastic.  So you really can’t go wrong.

There is always something new to do in Singapore.  Keep an eye out on www.yoursingapore.com, www.timeoutsingapore.com or even just make sure you pick up the tourist brochures at the airport like Where and you will find out all you need to know about where to go and what to do.  I can recommend any tours by Tour East (www.toureast.net), especially the Night Safari with dinner, which I find to be the best value.

Singapore is not just about tourist attractions though, so if like me, you had no idea how much history Singapore had particularly in relation to World War II, make sure you check out Fort Siloso (on Sentosa), Changi Prison & Chapel, Fort Canning or the Old Ford Factory for starters.

Culture vultures will not want to miss the Chinatown Heritage Museum and the Peranakan Museum.  There are also numerous walking tours through Chinatown and Little India.  And for art lovers – you must stop by SAM or the Art Science Museum.  But sometimes, the best thing about Singapore is that even if you just stroll around the streets, you will get a really good picture of the country, its food and its people.  And don’t be afraid to try anything here – the food is amazing.

Again, things don’t get going until around 10/11am in the morning, so use the time to enjoy brunch, sleep in or just explore the streets or Botanic Gardens while it’s quiet.

Hotel 1929’s terrace rooms are the best.  That said, I would only chose one of these if I were by myself or with a boyfriend etc, simply because the rooms are on the small side and the toilet is situated in with the shower, surrounded by glass.  The hotel itself is in a great location, the staff were amazing.  Free wifi, good coffee, free breakfast, free cookies and drinks.  Well worth the price, which was much less than a lot of the other big name hotels

Don’t bother with a transfer here, just grab a cab from outside the airport.

Overall

Whilst there’s lots of conjecture over what works and what doesn’t when trying to combat jet lag, what worked for me was a) following the time clock of the city I arrived in (ie. even if you are tired, make yourself go out for dinner or even just sit on a city sightseeing bus and go to sleep when the sun goes down) and b) try Jet Ease (or No Jet Lag), they may be called something different in your country, but I found this homeopathic remedy to work a treat.

Book transfers.  I know you can catch taxis, but I prefer to know that I don’t have to bothered thinking about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there after a long flight.

I booked a lot of tickets on line which saved time queuing up.

When you are budgeting, make sure you include for tipping – I found this added incredibly to my bills in Cayman and the US.

Everyone will tell you this – but don’t over pack.  You won’t use it all.  And if there’s something  you need while you are there, if you need it bad enough, you can buy it.

Buy a second battery for your camera.  I take lots of photos and the best investment I made was in a second battery.  I find there are lots of days where I spend all day snapping away and not having to worry that I’m running out of battery is a relief.  Obviously make sure you have lots of spare cards if you are also this way inclined.

My best flights were with Emirates, Jet Blue and Singapore Airlines.  I was surprised that you had to buy food on the six hour Virgin flight from New York to Seattle.

Order a low fat meal for the flight home!

Any questions?  Please drop me a line and I’ll be more than happy to share my point of view!

Pretending to be Made in Chelsea

Day 4:  London

My love of Made in Chelsea

Grabbing a glass of champagne she toasted to the birthday boys, before adding “A second toast to my best friend Rosie for hooking up with my boyfriend Hugo Taylor when we were together and then lying about it”.  After a collective gasp around the room, she added ‘Here’s to friendship”.  Then storming past Rosie, she added “You’re disgusting!”

Made in Chelsea, Season 2, Final Episode

This was the explosive ending to Made in Chelsea (MIC to its fans) Season 2 – everything you could wish for in a final episode.  For the uninitiated, MIC is a reality tv show in the same vein as The Only Way is Essex and Desperate Scousewives, following the intertwining lives of a group of well-to-do twenty somethings from Chelsea in London.  I’ve been a fan of MIC since accidentally coming across it on Foxtel one day and have been hooked ever since.  And now I’m staying in Chelsea (well, South Kensington actually, but very, very close to Chelsea) whilst in London.  It’s interesting to note here that you can actually find on the internet, lists of the places that the MIC crew hang out in, both on the show and in real life, like a kind of a high end stalkers guide.  And whilst I’m not planning on spending my time trying to get hair-styling tips from Ollie or bumping into Millie carrying her adorable pooch Herbie around in her handbag, I am definitely going to spend some time in the area, and grab a bite to eat at The Bluebird Cafe (okay – so what if it’s where my favorite cast member Binkie likes to hang out?).  I guess it would be just a little bit exciting to get a cast sighting though – we’ll see!

Hyde Park

There are dogs bounding through the long grasses and pigeons and squirrels wandering around, as well as joggers and cyclists.  There’s a few different things to look at in Hyde Park, but I was mainly here to get a look at Serpentine Lake and Kensington Palace which also sits in the grounds.

Which way where?
Which way where?

And no, Leigh and Katie – I did not eat the squirrel for breakfast!

Kensington Palace

To be honest, I can see why Wills and Kate are renovating this place.  It is a little old.  Old it may be, but overly extravagant, it isn’t.  I was quite surprised at how plain (if that’s the word) the palace is inside.  The current exhibition is Victoria Revealed, which gave a good insight into the lives the royals led.

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Kensington Palace was also known as the home of Princess Diana.  Within moments of her death in 1997, thousands of people flocked to Kensington Palace to pay their respects.  Within just a few hours, the tributes covered the iconic gold gates to the south of the palace.  In the coming days, every piece of railing around the palace was covered and a carpet of flowers stretched out into Kensington Gardens.

Walking through the Palace gardens, I spy a couple of those little squirrels that inhabit this neck of the woods.  He must have been hungry and suspected that I had some food, because he ran half way up my leg before I knew what was happening!

Palace of Kensington
Palace of Kensington

Sloan Square

Sloane Square is a small hard-landscaped square on the border of Chelsea.  Sloan Square also lent its name to the “Sloane Rangers” in the early 1980s – young underemployed, often snooty and ostentatiously well-off members of the upper classes.  The term often applied to young women, and Lady Diana Spencer was considered the quintessential Sloane prior to her marriage to Prince Charles.  Kate has now taken up the mantle, just in case you were wondering…

Wealth, and an upper class social position is a pre-requisite for being a Sloane.  However it’s not all fun and games for the Sloane – regardless of any educational standing they may have achieved, they are generally regarded as dim-witted socialites.

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Saatchi Gallery

At first I thought this was a gallery dedicated to the divine footwear creations from Saatchi.  Turns out I was wrong, but the Saatchi Gallery still looked incredibly interesting when I researched it further, so it stayed on the list of things to do.

The Saatchi Gallery aims to provide an innovative forum for contemporary art by presenting work by largely unseen young artists or by international artists whose work has been rarely or never exhibited in the UK.  The popularity of these contemporary art exhibitions has increased during the recent years as general awareness and interest in contemporary art has developed worldwide.  When The Saatchi Gallery first opened over twenty five years ago it was only those who had a dedicated interest in contemporary art who sought out the gallery.  This has all changed, and the museum was quite busy today.

The works here are amazing and so different from the mainstream.  One of my favourites is a series of shopping bags that have been sculpted into paper trees – no that doesn’t sound quite right – or do the works justice, so just have a look at the photos instead.

Tree Bag 1
Tree Bag 1
Tree Bag 2 - yes that is a McDonalds bag...
Tree Bag 2 – yes that is a McDonalds bag…

Black Cabs

According to section 51 of the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831, a London Hackney Carriage, which was the horse drawn equivalent of a taxi in those days, by law had to keep a bale of hay in the boot to feed the then horses.  Of course at some point the horses became outdated with the motor car revolution, but the law still held.  Some places actually even constructed very small bales of hay to carry in a taxi during disputes with local councils on the matter.  Along with the hay bales, the vehicles still had to be tethered at a taxi rank, and the council had to supply a water trough to the taxi rank.

Ok, so these ones aren't quite black...
Ok, so these ones aren’t quite black…

The law for this held for well over 100 years, only being amended in 1976, although some taxi drivers still carry around small bales of hay on the boot just for the fun of it.  In Australia, we also had to follow the same law and it is believed that it actually still exists without amendment.

Now I tried to flag down a black cab twice today, but each time, there was no black cab in sight!  Only coloured ones.  Oh well, they are still really cute and I love how there is so much room in the back, for all your shopping bags!

Buckingham Palace

Ok, ok, I couldn’t leave London without seeing the Queen, so before I head back to the hotel, I head to the Palace.  There’s not much going on.  A couple of snaps, and well, how long do you hang around?  Is there a minimum time period?  Some people look like they have been standing here a while.  What are they waiting for?

I've been to London to visit the Queen!
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen!

I think its time for me head back to the hotel.  Sitting on the underground for the last time, I reflect on how easy its made it to get around.  Another city that Perth could learn from perhaps…

Traditional Fish and Chips

Tonight is my final night in London, and there’s just one more thing I’ve got to do.  Try traditional fish and chips with a pint down the local, which happens to be the Stanhope Arms (side note: I love all the little pubs in London, heavily decorative and most with big pots of hanging flowers with really cute names like The Lady and Flower).  They proclaim to have the best traditional fish and chips in London, so I sit down to await my fish, chips, mushy peas and pint of Stella.  Yes, that’s right Mum – mushy peas.

The best traditional fish and chips in London?...
The best traditional fish and chips in London?…

The meal is good.  I’m not sure that I would say it was the best fish and chips I’d ever had (sorry London, but Perth has way better fish and chips), but perhaps they are the best in London – I’ll never know. But I think I’m qualified to judge given I used to work in a really good fish n cgip shop in my teenage years!

And no…I didn’t see anyone from Made in Chelsea today.  Just as well the season final is on TV tonight!

London by Bus

Day 3:  London

OMG what a noisy city at night London is.  There are constant sirens and they all seem to stop close by.  Either that or they just turn their sirens on for the time they are passing by my hotel, and then continue on their way in silence…

Anyway, it’s Sunday morning, which gives me the perfect opportunity for a slow start, and to take advantage of that I’m heading to  Bumpkin for Sunday Brunch.  A typical English Breakfast with Champagne.  Although its 10am when I arrive its absolutely empty, which feels kinda weird. The English breaky consists of scrambled eggs, a field mushroom, roasted tomato, baked beans, bacon, a sausage and a slice of toast. And yes I did eat it all to myself. Bumpkin pride themselves on using seasonal produce and so the meal certainly didn’t taste like a big greasy fryup in anyway. Of course there’ll be no lunch for me today.

For the rest of the day I’ll be occupying my time with a ….

City Sightseeing Tour

I don’t really like to resort to these types of tours, but when your time is limited, sometimes it’s just the best way to take in a lot of sights in a little time.  Plus with the interrupted sleep last night, I’m still not feeling on top of the world, so I booked a ticket on The Original Tour bus which covers over 80 stops,  on three different sightseeing routes and countless photo opportunities.

Today I’m going to start of with the Red Route which takes in the capital’s most famous sights, some of which I no doubt saw yesterday, but it will be good to get a closer look, take more photos and stop off to go inside if I so desire.

The bus is actually quite slow going probably due to it being a weekend. London is trying so hard to give me a summer’s day but there’s no hiding the clouds and the freezing wind, certainly not conducive to sitting up top on a double decker bus!

The view from the top of the bus
The view from the top of the bus

Marble Arch

Marble Arch was designed in 1825 to be the ceremonial entrance to Buckingham Palace.  It’s based on the design of the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  It was deconstructed and relocated at its current position near Hyde Park corner in 1851.  Historically only members of the royal family have been allowed to pass through the arch.

Marble Arch
Marble Arch

Red Telephone Boxes

You can’t possibly think of London without thinking about red telephone boxes.  The telephone box has become an icon of British design, alongside the black taxi and the Routemaster bus.  It is part of this nation’s heritage and identity.  But as with all things these days, technology is taking over and the red telephone box is under threat, with numbers declining.  From a peak of over 70,000 in the 1980s, today there only 11,000 red telephone kiosks surviving in public service.

The good old red telephone box
The good old red telephone box

St Paul’s Cathedral

A cathedral to St Paul has stood on this highest point in the city, in some form, for over 1400 years.  The current building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and is quite spectacular.  Story has that Chris was quite lucky – when he was originally commissioned to fix St Paul’s up when the restoration took place, there was no money in the budget for rebuilding, which is what he wanted to do.  He was only allowed to renovate it.  He’d just put up all the scaffolding around the church when the great fire of London spread and the church burnt down, leaving the only option to rebuild!

St Pauls - this versions only about 300 years old
St Pauls – this versions only about 300 years old

Tower Bridge

Not to be confused with London Bridge, and many do, as our cycling guide mentioned yesterday.  Now I’m not a fan of the Spice Girls, but in the movie – you know the bit where they are driving across the bridge and the gate goes up and the bus flies across to the other side?  Well that was based on an actual event.  There are traffic lights at either side of where the gates on the bridge go up, but on one occasion in 1951 the warning signals failed when a bus driver was on his way across.  He was already past the signals and he couldn’t go back, so he had no option but to go for it, flying over the gap and landing safely on the other side.  Now that would be a bus trip you’d never forget.

Tower of London Bridge
Tower of London Bridge

Tower of London

The Tower of London has been many things in its time.  Royal residence, grand palace, an armoury, a treasury – even a zoo.

But it’s most popularly known as a prison and the place where many executions were carried out.

Executions by beheading were considered the least brutal of execution methods and were accorded to important State prisoners or people of noble birth.  Killing the lower classes was usually achieved by hanging from the gallows.  The more serious the crime the more severe the punishment.  Burning to death at the stake or the barbaric method of slowly killing by inflicting unimaginable pain was by ‘Hang, Draw and Quartering’ – these methods of execution might be delivered to any class of victim.

Tower of London
Tower of London

Death by beheading with the use of the axe could be a terrifying prospect.  The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed.  If the executioner’ axe was sharp and his aim was true, beheading was quick and relatively painless.  If the instrument was blunt, the axeman inexperienced or careless, then the execution might take several strokes to sever the head.  This was certainly the case in the execution by beheading of the brave Countess of Salisbury who was struck eleven times with the axe before she died.

Various traditions were observed at executions by beheading.  A raised platform was built (scaffold) and covered with straw.  A minister of the church would be available to offer religious comfort to the victim.  The victim would be expected to pay and forgive the executioner.  It would be hoped that the headsman completed his job swiftly and with care.  The condemned prisoner was usually given the opportunity to address the spectators – with the King’s permission.  The heads of traitors were displayed on top of spikes on London Bridge.

Following execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner. This was done, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the faces of crowd and it’s own body!  Killing by beheading is not immediate. Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness and eventually death.

I don’t actually spend that much time here.  It was probably not a good idea to come on a weekend cause it’s really busy and there are queues to see everything which is a shame, because I’m sure it would be a good place to spend a couple of hours.  Patience is not my strong point.

Boating along the Thames

From the Tower of London, I jump on board a ferry for a ride down the Thames.  The ride is included as part of the City Sightseeing Bus price, which is a nice way to break up your day of touring.  And there’s hot chocolate on board to take the edge of this cold ‘summer’s day’.  The ferry goes all the way down to the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, where you can get off and rejoin any of the sightseeing bus routes.

One of the many ferries trawling the river
One of the many ferries trawling the river

I jump on the yellow route for a while, but when I get to just near Oxford Street I can’t contain myself and decide to do a little bit of shopping.  I can’t believe two days of sightseeing is already done and dusted.  Obviously there is so much to see, you just can’t fit everything in.  Probably a good excuse to come back.

Wheeling Around London

Day 2:  London

I know I should probably try and sleep in this morning, but I just can’t.  Half of it is that I’m just excited, and the other half is because I just actually can’t sleep.  Oh and the fact its light at around 4am!  I may as well jump straight into it and pack as much sightseeing in as possible.  Ready…..Set…..Go!

First up is to tackle the underground.  Gloucester Road station is about a 2 minute walk down the road, which is great, and I don’t have to go that far to get to my tour meeting point.  But I am early given that I couldn’t sleep in, so I stop at Embankment station and walk across to Southbank and wander around the streets until it’s time to go to Southwark Station to meet my group.

Because I wasn’t sure what sort of brain capacity I would have today, I decided that I would join a small group cycling tour around the Thames River area.

The guide looks like a typical BMX punk with black jeans (complete with chains) and a cap.  He walks us through the backstreets of Southwark and leads us to a carparking area housing a row of 5 sheds – their office.  Hmmmm.  But it’s soon clear, that he knows his stuff.  Here’s some of the stuff we learnt:

The Millenium Wheel

Apparently no good if you are in a relationship.  Stories from the wheel include the gentleman who ‘treated’ his girlfriend to a ride to conquer her fears of height and vertigo and the guy who hired a private cubicle, violinist and all to propose to his girlfriend who said no.  Uncomfortable ride to the bottom.  If you are in London and keen to ride the wheel, perhaps do it alone.

The Millenium Wheel
The Millenium Wheel

Big Stink over the Thames River

The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste, which used to flow straight into the Thames River, reached boiling point.  The stench was so hideous the MPs in central London could no longer stand it.

The Metropolitan Board of Works accepted a scheme to implement sewers proposed by its chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, in 1859.  The intention of this very expensive scheme was to resolve the epidemic of cholera by eliminating the stench which was believed to cause it.  An unintended consequence was realised once the water supply ceased to be contaminated; this resolved the cholera epidemic.

Big Ben

The Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower (more commonly called Big Ben, are among London’s most iconic landmarks.  Technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell inside the clock tower, which weighs more than 13,760 kg.  Why Ben and not Tony or Bob?  Apparently, it was named after a heavyweight boxing champion at that time, Benjamin Caunt. It was said that the sound of the largest bell, sounded just like Big Ben knocking out one of his opponents.

Big Lizzy?
Big Lizzy?

The Golden Hind

The Golden Hind was an English galleon best known for its circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580, captained by Sir Francis Drake.

Pretty much, Sir Francis Drake was a pirate.

The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre facts:

  1. The current building is a replica built from traditional materials and techniques – the original was demolished to make way for tenements in 1644.
  2. The Globe Theatre was stolen!  The building started life on the opposite side of the River Thames, however after a row over land leases and ownership, the building was stolen and rebuilt across the river.
  3. The Globe was an open air theatre experience and therefore exposed to the awful English weather!
  4. William Shakespeare was a shareholder.  As an astute businessman, the young Shakespeare bought shares in the theatre and benefited financially when his popularity grew.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Borough Market

Borough has long been associated with food markets and as far back as 1014, London Bridge attracted traders selling grain, fish, vegetables and livestock.  In the 13th century traders were relocated to what is now Borough High Street and a market has existed there ever since.

Foodie Heaven
Foodie Heaven

The market stocks all kinds of foods and goods and the air is pungent with the smell of all kinds of cheeses, baked breads and sausages.  But there’s fruit and veg, wine bars, chocolate shops, cake shops – all sorts.  If you head to the Borough’s website, there’s a heap of recipes you can try – here’s one to get you started:

Pint of Stout Brownies
Makes 16, Prep time 15 minutes, Cooking time 25 minutes

Ingredients:
350g butter

200g dark chocolate at least 70% cocoa solids
200g caster sugar
125g demerara sugar
3 eggs
200ml Irish stout
175g self raising flour
200g mascarpone cheese
250g icing sugar, sifted

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.  Lightly grease a 24cm square tin.
  2. Place 200g of the butter into a heavy based pan and put over a low heat to melt.  Break the chocolate and add it to the pan.  The butter stabilises the chocolate, so no need to worry.  Warm until melted and stir together.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the two types of sugar.  Break in the eggs and beat them in well. Pour the stout in carefully, you don’t want it to froth too much, and combine.
  4. Mix in the flour until the mixture is glossy and thick, then scrape the mixture into the tin.  Bake for 25 minutes until it is just set.
  5. Making sure the remaining 150g butter is lovely and soft, whisk it together with the mascarpone.  Then, starting slowly to avoid dust clouds, add the icing sugar until it is all combined.  Spread the icing lavishly over the cool brownie!
  6. Cut in to 16 and enjoy with a glass of Irish stout.

London Wall

This is, or what is left of, the defensive wall built by the Romans around Londinium (the Romans early name for London), now obviously known as London.  It’s believed to have been built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century and is likely to be one of the last projects undertaken by the Romans before they left Britain in 410.  The wall remained in active use for over 1000 years afterwards.

Not many bricks left in this wall
Not many bricks left in this wall

Remants of War

This is the site of a former church, which was bombed during the blitzkrieg of WWII.  Instead of rebuilding or demolishing the church, the ruins were turned into a garden sanctuary.

St Dunstans of the East
St Dunstans of the East

A Goose Named Tom

Old Tom frequented the Leadenhall Market in the early 1800´s and remains one of the most famous characters from Leadenhall´s past.  He was due to be slaughtered along with thousands of other geese who had been sent here.  However he escaped death and became a much loved character for traders and customers, and was fed at all the local inns.  Known to the traders as ´Old Tom´ he eventually died at the age of 37 and lay in state before being buried here.

There’s also a bar named after him…Old Tom’s.

Old Tom's Bar, Leadenhall Market
Old Tom’s Bar, Leadenhall Market

We see heaps more stuff like the London Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the Monument to the Great Fire, but I’m conscious of boring you (and I’m tired after 5 hours of cycling!).  I think London’s given me her typical weather today:  there’s been a few moments of sunshine, but the sights have been covered by a grey blanket of cloud, and there’s been a few attempts of rain.   I’d definitely recommend the Fat Tyre Bike Tour company if you are in London – we certainly saw some of the sights that weren’t just the run of the mill tourist trail, which is exactly what I like.   The tour ends now, so I make my way back to Embankment to visit something special.

St Martin-In-The-Fields

I’m going to check out St Martin-In-The-Fields Church.  This landmark church in the heart of London was completed in 1726.  Now who was St Martin, and what did he do to have a church named after him?

St Martin was a soldier posted in France.  Riding through the city gate on cold night, he saw an almost naked beggar huddled against the stonework.  Martin cut his cloak in half with his sword and gave the beggar half.  That night in a dream, Jesus Christ appeared to Martin in the form of the beggar to thank him and the next day he rushed to be baptised.

SONY DSC
St Martin in the Fields Church, London

Now upon the celebration of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, St Martin-In-The-Fields gifted the city of Perth its twelve bells.  The bells, which are recorded as being in existence before the 14th century, are one of the few sets of royal bells and are the only ones known to have left London.  The bells rang out to celebrate many occasions, including England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, WWII and ringing in the New Year for over 275 years.

The bells, embarrassingly having sat in storage for around eleven years, are now housed in the purpose built structure in Perth, Australia, known as the Bell Tower.  The building caused a fair bit of controversy when they were built with people blaming the government for spending money unwisely.  However, the building is created in the image of a swan, and I think its amazing.

The Bell Tower in Perth, Western Australia
The Bell Tower in Perth, Western Australia

St Martins-In-The-Fields is also the name of a church in Kensington, Western Australia.  And why is St Martins-In-The-Fields of any interest of all to me?  This church, which was built in 1953 and named after the London Church (there is a memento mounted in the church which is made from the original Portland Stone used when SMITF London was built), is the church where my parents got married!

My Parents on their Wedding Day at St Martins-In-The-Field, Kensington, Perth
My Parents on their Wedding Day at St Martins-In-The-Field, Kensington, Perth

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar.

The square is also famous for its feral pigeons.  How often does the local authority feed the pigeons?  They don’t!  It is illegal to feed them.  Trafalgar Square used to be famous for its large flock of pigeons (estimated at the peak to number 35,000 birds), which used to appear daily to be fed by tourists and residents alike.  In 2000, due to worries about the health risks posed by the pigeons, the sale of birdseed in Trafalgar Square was banned and trained falcons were used to try to discourage the pigeons from the area.  In 2007, by-laws were passed to ban the feeding of the birds within Trafalgar Square.  But if you are keen to find out what the pigeons have been up to since being moved on, make sure you have a read of http://pigeonblog.wordpress.com/.

Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos here because the square is set up for little teasers of all the West End shows and there’s stacks of people around, being a Saturday.  You know when you get to the point, you are so tired, you just want to get home?  This is one of those days – it’s been a really long day and I am really looking forward to an early night so I can really get into some more sightseeing tomorrow!

Learning to Deal with Long Haul Flights

Day 1:  London

Extremely early start this morning.  But if anyone’s used to it, it should be me.

This is my first long haul flight ever and my also my first time flying with Emirates.  I read somewhere that you can kind of counteract the effects of jetlag if you set your watch to the time of your destination as soon as you get on the plane, and sleep accordingly from that point onwards.  So that’s the method I’ve chosen to go for on the flight over and we’ll see whether that works.

I get a spare seat next to me, which isn’t as great as having no one in the other seats next to you, but at least it lets me put my legs in different positions to keep from getting stiff.  There’s some great movies on this plane and I watch about 5 or 6 of them, including some great music history documentaries on heavy metal.  I don’t sleep because I’m too busy learning how classical music turned into Black Sabbath, but I don’t feel that tired and think it’s best to try and keep awake as much as possible.  The flight lands in Dubai on schedule, but when I look at the transfer sign board, my next flight has a final boarding call!

I get held up at security cause something on me is beeping, which is odd cause I’m only wearing my clothes having been stripped of my watch and shoes.  They signal me over to a room for a security search.  I’m not sure what this details, cause they don’t actually speak to you at all – just motion to put your arms out to the side, and without any warning, she’s running her hands right down the front of my body – um, bit of warning would have been nice!  She also determines that I have nothing left on me and lets me go.

Dashing through the airport, it occurs to me that they couldn’t have made my connecting flight at a further away terminal than they have.  Just as I think I’m near my terminal, there’s a transit monorail that I have to take, then up about 40 escalators.  The flight is actually just boarding, so I’m not sure what all the final boarding call was about, but I’m so overheated from running and the plane cooling isn’t on yet, so it’s an uncomfortable wait for water while the rest of the plane boards.  Hurdle number one – flight transfers – cleared.

Please let me have a fairly empty plane for this one, I think to myself, but as I look up, I can see a small Indian girl with a cheeky grin heading my way, and I just know – she’s sitting next to me.  Yep, she’s definitely sitting next to me.  Great.  Hate kids on plans.  She talks, babbles and knocks stuff off the table tray for about 60% of the flight and cries and slaps her Mum for about another 30%.  For 10% she sleeps – which you would think is great, but this kid seems to have more arms than the Indian god Ganesha, and her little arms slapping me left right and centre while she sleeps across her mothers lap – oblivious.   Not the best flight this one but finally I land in London.

Next issue to deal with is immigration.  Wow, feel like a criminal trying to do the wrong thing.  The guy at the desk grills me.  And I mean grills me – like he even tells me he probably shouldn’t let me in cause I should have had a written itinerary of exactly what I was doing here for the next 4 days.  Because apparently just arriving for a holiday doesn’t matter.  All my printed stuff is in my suitcase, which I obviously don’t have yet and the rest is on my mobile, but I can’t connect to it because I haven’t been able to get a connection yet.  I show him the whole folder on my email about all my bookings.  He cannot believe that I wouldn’t have all this information ready to show him.  WTF?  No one mentions this in the guide books!  He finally agrees to let me in, but warns me that when I get to the US, it’ll be just as bad, if not worse.  I just can’t believe it – I am the most organised person in the world and I’ve just been ripped to shreds for being not organised enough!  Unforseen hurdle – cleared – just.

Flushed with embarrassment, I head to the luggage hall to clear my next hurdle -hoping my luggage has arrived.  I have to wait for a little while, and am starting to panic that not only is my luggage not going to show up on the conveyor, but that my transfer will have given up waiting, but I can finally see my suitcase – hurdle cleared.

I finally step out into the arrival hall where my task is to try and locate my private transfer.  The number of placards being waved around is amazing, and I begin to think that because of the hold ups my transfer is no longer waiting and I will have to find some other way of getting to my hotel.  But just when I’ve almost given up, I do one last run past of the placards, and there finally is my name.  Second last hurdle for the day cleared.

It doesn’t take long to get to the hotel, driving through the streets is reminiscent to parts of Melbourne, only everything here is so much older obviously.  The hotel is in a lovely spot in South Kensington, and the street itself contains lots of little shops, restaurants and across the road a Waitrose supermarket.  Hotel check in is smooth – no more hurdles today.

The room, despite what I’ve read about it being tiny is actually quite a fine size – obviously my travels in Japan have paid off or other travellers expect a bit too much.  I have a beautiful old window that opens – yes actually opens – out to a street that is only what I could call totally London – complete with chimneys and cobblestones.

OMG – it has hit me!  I have ONE WHOLE MONTH OFF WORK!!!!  No alarms, no meetings, no ABB.  I have four weeks to see and do as much as possible in countries I never thought I would visit.  I’m going to try new things and take it all in my stride.  This next month is going to be amazing!

The Wonder of Google Maps

Everyone knows I’m a planner by now.  So it’ll come as no surprise to you that before I go on a trip, I get on Google Maps and scope out the destination I’m travelling too.  Part of it is just excitement building up, and the other part is that I can see what is going to be around me – like supermarkets, cafes and restaurants.  But the new reason for doing it, is just because sometimes when you use Google Maps, you can find things that you missed in travel brochures and books.

Like the other day, I was having a search around the area of Kensington, where my hotel in London is situated.  I was mapping my way along the Chelsea Embankment (so that’s where Cheska and Binkie from Made in Chelsea go running!) and past Sloane Square and I noticed embankments of blue bicycles everywhere.  I wonder what they are, I thought.  I zoomed in enough to read the signage on the bicycle wheels and could make out ‘Barclays Bikes’.  Hmmmm, I wonder what they are doing there?

A bit of googling and I find out that these bicycles are available for hire by anyone and you can use them 24 hours a day.  These bikes are locked into docking stations, you use your debit/credit card to pay for their release (an access fee of £2 for 24 hours and a usage fee of £1 for an hour with the first half hour free) and you can drop them back wherever you find the next docking station.  Further searching revealed these docking stations are all over the place!  And there’s even one pretty much right outside my hotel.

These bikes were something I had missed noticing in any of my research.  So thank you Google Maps!

Journey to the (Other) End of the World

Having conquered my solo trip to Japan, I now have another new challenge in mind.

Typically I have always travelled through Asia. I love that the culture, beliefs, language and the food are just so totally different than those in my home country of Australia. Its just fascinating and I can’t say I’ve ever had a hankering to travel to many other places in the world – not London or the US.

But seeing as my friend Katie is travelling around the world for the next few years – how’s a girl to catch up for a glass of wine if I don’t step outside my comfort zone?

Luckily Katie and her husband will be standing still long enough in the Grand Cayman Islands for me to catch up with them in the middle of this year.  So after what will be more than a year apart, I’m taking a trip across the world to catch up on the goss and share a few bottles of vino!

Only problem is, its a 30 hour plane ride to get to the Grand Cayman Islands from Australia!  And for someone like me, who becomes a caged tiger when bored, you can’t imagine what the thought of that does to me.  So the logical step is to break the trip down.  And where do those logical steps appear?  Of course – London and the US.

It’s really hard to plan a trip to places you have never particularly wanted to visit.  But taking the tools I used on my trip to Japan, I will conquer this trip too!

So are you ready for the ride?