I promised you all a write-up and then immediately got sicker than sick. I am finally well and back at work after taking off more days for illness than I actually took to go to London. Hopefully most of you got a chance to view my photos.
I do have a few observations that I would like to point out for other clueless American’s who are possibly heading over to London for the Olympics, etc.
#1: Customs at Heathrow was a breeze. Besides asking me a few questions about where I was staying, if I have ever been in the UK before, and whoI was meeting up with (making sure I wasn’t meeting Kirsty to plan terrorist activities) I was in and out in about 20 minutes, and 99% of that was standing in the line… and they only had about three stations open. I was closer to the rear of the plane so naturally I got off with the last group of passengers. Citizens and European Union members have their own area and lines in customs, so we foreigners were in a different area… getting back in the States through customs in Atlanta was a fiasco in comparison.
#2: Exchanging your money: In the same room as customs, but behind the agent stations are two money exchange booths. As you stand there facing them, American Express is to the left, and another one, whose name momentarily escapes me, is to the right. The agent at the American Express booth said that they gave a better rate for American dollars (I don’t know how accurate that really is, so do more research than I did). If I were you, though, I would exchange my money here. The reason: Terminal 4 is a nightmare. There are a gozillion people everywhere and the terminal is also super busy. The currency exchange in customs is very quiet and relaxing in comparison. There were no lines and the agents were extremely friendly. The more “harried” agents were all out in the terminal when I was converting my money back into dollars. And I didn’t feel as safe in that open setting. Another thing you can do (but again do your research) is to buy the “Buy-back guarantee (which was about 6 pounds for me) it guarantees that you will get your money back at the same rate that it was converted. I never checked if the rate was up or down, though (my bad)
#3: The nightmare that was the entire Underground/Tube ticket purchase process. Ticket agent #1 (the RUDE ticket agent) at the window didn’t feel it necessary to explain the ticket purchase process to me or the other assembled clueless Americans. He just said, dismissively, “put your money in the machine.” I ended up swiping my credit card, but nothing worked until a “nice” underground worker #2 pointed out that my type of credit card would not work in the machine. She directed me back to the ticket window (which I was just at!!) saying that I could buy my ticket there. Hmph! #1 could have told me that from the get-go! I ended up buying an Oyster card (which I had to make ticket agent #1 explain which I could tell that he did not want to do) which was good on both the Tube and the bus. I still have something like 15 pounds on it, so if you go, put no more that 15 on it to start, you can always add more. I paid 30 pounds (which includes a 5 pound deposit) I used my pass a lot, mostly on the bus, but it hardly made a dent. The fares apparently varied by the time of day and as a tourist I wasn’t battling for a seat with commuters, I was just having breakfast around rush hour.
#4: Listen to your body. My body knew that it was still early morning US time, but my mind completely flipped and I was immediately on GMT. When I checked in to my hotel (great hotel BTW, and I totally recommend Base2Stay if you go to London… more on that further down) I showered and changed and walked from my hotel to the Victoria & Albert museum. Google Maps said it was a quick, twenty minute walk. And it could have been if it was not so bone-achingly cold and windy. But I loved it, the sites, the smells, the noise. I was charmed!
However, once I walked that distance, and entered the museum, I was overwhelmed with just how huge it was. And all of a sudden I felt tired in body, and I just could not face seeing all the the museum, so I stuck to the main floor. It was around 3:30 in the afternoon and I didn’t know what to do. I had a schedule to stick to if I wanted to see everything I wanted to see. I knew Harrods was just down the road, but I just could not bring myself to walk the distance. I also knew that if I wanted to get a Pippa handbag, that I needed to do it then.
So, being the adventurous person that I hoped I was , I boarded the #74 bus right in front of the museum. I had researched the route before leaving the US and I knew that that bus ran in the vicinity of my hotel to most of the places I wanted to see, including the John Lewis department store where the Pippa handbag resided. However, once I got on the bus, I discovered that it was rush hour and that a million people were taking it. It creeped along at a snail’s pace from Kensington to Oxford street. It did go through Knightsbridge right past Harrods, but it was getting dark and I opted to stay on the bus.
Oxford Street was loaded with thousands of people. A wall of people, I should say. I got off the bus by Selfridges department store and just started walking, hoping I was going in the correct direction. John Lewis ended up being about four blocks down and I was already tired. It was also dark, and I was a little unsure how London was at night. Was it safe? Would I get lost? In the end, I felt perfectly safe. It wasn’t like NYC where the subway is disgusting and crazy people are standing on every corner. Buy the time I left John Lewis (without a Pippa bag… which was nice but just not worth 220 pounds/$375, but I did get a new wallet) $375 is a very nice Douney & Burke or a Coach bag, the Pippa bag was not of the same quality, though is was extremely well made)
#5: Stay at BASE 2 Stay hotel. Why this hotel, and not the 1000 others? One thing I really dislike about big city hotels is how you are nickled and dimed at every turn. There always seems to be a maid or a bellboy looking for a tip, the hotel restaurants are outrageously priced, and there always seem to be people hanging about. Base2Stay wasn’t like that. You are more or less left to your own devices. I rarely saw another person. It’s a luxury boutique hotel, without the luxury boutique prices. The room was small, but very clean. It did have a desk and a wall-mounted TV with Internet. And for the posh area of London where I was (hello, Maserati’s, Mercedes, Range Rovers, Porsches up and down the street) it was a huge bargain. I paid 129 pounds a night (and they have less expensive rooms) It came with a king bed, a small kitchenette built into a closet with Microwave, fridge, sink, china, cutlery, wine glasses, tea cups with tea and teapot and electric kettle) It saved me a ton of money being able to bring back food to the room to heat up. But I did eat out a couple of times, but again, my body got tired at the oddest moments, so it was nice to be able to come back to the room, put on my pajamas, and curl up in bead with Indian takeaway and chocolate mousse from Harrod’s.
#6: Kirsty is SUPER cute and SUPER nice! I am so happy to have finally met her and to have spent the day with her. She knew who I was as soon as I got off the train (the train ride from hell, as I boarded the local when I should have boarded the express). I so wanted to channel Flora Post and ride a real train, but it was nothing like that, It was more like a glorified subway, but it was still interesting, although verrrrrryyyyy slllllooooowwwww. Kirsty had a cute little Mini Cooper (a very popular car in the UK it would seem) and we had a great drive from Boblogville in Kent to Hampshire. (Is Winchester still in Hampshire?) We also went through Sussex and I fiannly had my Flora Post moment thinking of Flora saying to Mary, “It is Sussex, for gods sake.” (Sheesh, I need a life… I have got to stop quoting British films all the time) We never seemed to stop talking (even though I think I was chattering my head off in excitement) I had a wonderful time!!!
I can’t think of anything else to say. I think I have tweeted most of it already, but if anyone has any specific questions about the V&A or The British Museum or HARROD’S (the most fabulous place on Earth) I would be happy to chat with you via email.