Walking a city: The only way to get to know it

In October of this year the Tower lf London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans.  A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.
In October of this year the Tower of London was home to a magnificent display of ceramic poppies to honor the WW I veterans. A stroll around it was the only way to appreciate it.

We’re now ensconced back home in Toronto and walking this beautiful downtown is how we get around: how we buy groceries, how we go out to dinner, how we appreciate all it has to offer.  This last consideration is one we take to heart when we travel abroad.

In October we revisited London (the fact that our youngest son makes his more there now is an added benefit).  Every time we venture across the pond to this other marvelous city, we stay at different hotels in different parts of the city.  In fact, in recent years, we’ve stayed at five different hotels each of which is centered in a different district or neighborhood of London.  On this last visit, we stayed at the wonderful Threadneedles Hotel.  Threadneedles is located right in the heart of the “City of London”, that single square mile of real London town.  Housed in a building that was originally home to the City Bank of London, this boutique property exudes a timeless elegance that draws you into the history of this venerable city.  On each of our three days there, we headed out in the morning to walk different directions – never treading the same street twice is our motto when walking a city.

A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don't get out and walk.
A walk through the Borghese Gardens brings you to many delightful places you simply cannot see if you don’t get out and walk.

We then flew from London to Rome, a city we’ve visited several times before, each time for only a day trip from a Mediterranean cruise.  Although we had seen the highlights of the tourist sites: the Vatican (hours and hours spent there on one visit, the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps,  the Trevi Fountain etc.) – we had never really been able to get a feeling for the city of Rome.  This visit was different.  We walked.  In fact, one day we walked eight miles!  How do we know this?  We find it interesting to always wear a pedometer when we travel.  Knowing how far we walked is the best rationalization for all that wonderful pasta we ate and Barolo we drank.

Our last stop on this visit was the magnificent city of Istanbul.  We stayed at the fabulous new Marriott Hotel in the modern Istanbul, a couple of kilometers north of Taksim Square.  Although that might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who wants to spend time walking around the old city of Istanbul where the main historical sites are located, the fact that we weren’t confined to that relatively small area was a real bonus.  We walked around the modern city to get a feel for the everyday life of Istanbul’s 15 million residents!  Although we didn’t walk around the Asian side where a large proportion of the residents actually live, the modern city of Istanbul did provide us with a sense of the

A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!
A walk through the Spice Market in Istanbul uncovers more than spices!

city.  Of course, sitting high above the city each evening overlooking both the old and new parts of the city along the shores of the Golden Horn with the Blue Mosque shining in the distance was an added benefit from the top floor lounge in the hotel.

Then our driver and guide picked us up to take us to the historical sites (read about our fantastic private experience in Istanbul here).  We walked through museums, palaces, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and market streets that cater only to the locals.  We would never have had that opportunity without our guide!  But with or without a guide, walking is our recommended method for seeing a city.

Get out of that taxi or off that bus.  And for heaven’s sakes, get above ground and out of that subway or tube!  You’ll never get to know a city that way.

There’s no place like home for the holidays? For discerning travelers, not so much

And so the season is upon us, and the discerning travelers are preparing for Christmas – at home? Yes, at home for the first time in many years. Most people would think that wasn’t so odd – they spend the festive season out-of-town with relatives every year. We, however, usually spend it in a hotel. And what’s more, we like it that way!

London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.
London is dressed for the holidays and for our Christmas last year.

This time last year, we offered you Travel for Christmas? You bet! where we explained how this seemingly odd situation came to be, and gave you a few tips for spending the holiday season far away from home. Two years ago, we shared our story A Merry Christmas Cruise, the most memorable Christmas experience we ever had as a family. But last year’s Christmas season was so memorable, we have to share a bit of the story with you.

As far as we are concerned, there is no place like a big city for the holidays! Last year that big city was London, and merry it was! Here’s how it happened…

Early in 2013 our son, the twenty-something performing artist decided to leave his long-term contract with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo to return to his original roots: musical theater. An accomplished dancer and singer, he decided to start at the top: he would move to London and audition for the West End. So he did, and so he debuted in the West End at the Savoy Theatre in the revival of Cabaret in the fall of last year. So, where would the discerning travelers spend Christmas? In jolly old London, of course.

We checked into the Marriott Park Lane just before Christmas to find ourselves surrounded by crowds of people all celebrating the season. Children were having their photos taken in front of the glittering Christmas tree in the lobby; parents were enjoying a festive cocktail in front of the roaring fireplace. All this seems so normal – but most of these people were from the Middle East, and few of them were even Christians. As we have always said, the Spirit of Santa Claus transcends any religious affiliation at this time of year! They were having fun.

Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?
Who could mind a rainy Christmas evening if you can spend it in London?

And so were we. Two days before Christmas we treated ourselves to an afternoon of the English National Ballet’s Nutcracker. As anyone who knows us, or reads us regularly will know, The Nutcracker has been the cornerstone of many a Christmas season – just ask anyone with a child who is a ballet dancer. We had seen son Ian in many performances of the National Ballet of Canada’s Nutcracker from the time he was 11 years old until his second year with the company at the age of 20. The English National Ballet’s was lovely – wonderful dancing, the beautiful Tchaikovsky score and the traditional story. Even at that, though, it had little on the NBoC’s spectacle that has something for everyone – even those who (horror) do not appreciate ballet as a form of entertainment. But we had a memorable afternoon, imbibing champagne at the interval and enjoying a traditional holiday treat.

On Christmas Eve we made our way up the street to the Marriott Grosvenor House to eat (one thing we know to be true: you can always find an open restaurant on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at a lovely hotel!). Upon our return to our own hotel room after a wonderful meal, we found that Santa had left a stocking filled with chocolates on our door knob (thanks, Marriott elves!).

Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!
Marriott elves helped Santa Claus last year!

The next morning found London at its best – empty. What a treat to take a walk along the storied streets with hardly a living soul about. We didn’t mind the rain at all.

Later we repaired to the dining room for some live entertainment and a stupendous Christmas meal that included turkey with all the regular trimmings and a few surprises.

Having someone else madly shop for groceries, plan the day to the letter, sweat over a hot oven, serve up meals for everyone may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it is ours. That said, we are looking forward to Christmas here on the bay this year. Then a mere four weeks until we head to the South Pacific. We wish a wonderful holiday season to all our regular readers– and those who happen by.

One perfect day…in London

The Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel in London used to be both an old hotel and the train station. It has been fabulously restored.

A quarter of a century seems like a long time in a life – but for these discerning travelers it seems to have flown by.  So, last week on the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary, we spent another perfect day.  Unlike other perfect days we’ve spent, this one was not on the water.  It was determinedly on land – in London.

We awoke to a wonderfully sunny and crisp autumn day – just the way a perfect fall day ought to be – with only a vague notion of how the day would progress. We only knew how we would cap it off in the end – we’ll get to that.  So, we did what we usually do when we visit a city: we walked.

Staying at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, we had little choice: as our son who now lives in London remarked, it’s not really close to anything.  But for us that is not a shortcoming.  The hotel is a remarkable architectural treat in itself, with a rich history, and when you walk through the Booking Room Restaurant & Bar and exit through the back door, you find yourself on the platform where the Eurostar trains leave for Paris & Brussels.

That morning we headed out toward Regent’s Park (which is but a five minute walk away – who says the hotel isn’t close to anything?).  What a beautiful oasis in the city – one of many.  London is dotted with these green spaces, a fact that often surprises people whose only view of London has been of traffic jams and hordes of ogling tourists as shown on the nightly news.  We enjoyed our walk and just kept going into the heart of down town, browsing the many wonderful shops along the way.

Art strolling in Regent’s Park, London.

Eventually it was time for a late lunch.  It’s often best in our view to wait until the weekday office crowd has returned to their desks to take fuller advantage of restaurants.  In the past when we have visited London we have concluded that we don’t go there for the food – but this trip seemed different somehow.  Every restaurant we had chosen in the days leading up to our anniversary had proved our previous experience to be so wrong.  And this time was no different.

In Swallow Street just off Regent Street, we discovered Bentley’s Oyster Bar.  With options that included the oyster bar itself, an outside dining space and an upstairs dining room (a bit more formal, said the hostess), the restaurant had a wonderful British ambience, replete with attentive, professional wait staff and fabulously prepared and presented food.  We opted for the ‘more formal’ dining experience upstairs and found ourselves surrounded not by tourists, but by well-dressed business types.  It was wonderful.  It also reinforced for us one of our rules of traveling: always dress comfortably but well: you never know where you might end up.  We may not have been dressed as we would for a formal presentation at work, but we comported ourselves quite well, thank-you very much.  Let that be a lesson to any travelers who favor those god-awful, hulking white sneakers and (we can hardly bring ourselves to say it) the fanny pack!

Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill in London

We treated ourselves to their wonderful seafood, a bottle of reasonably-priced Sancerre from France and even their trifle with mascarpone, and then returned to the street to continue our wander to soak in the London ambience.

Returning to the Renaissance, we made our way into the Chambers Club which has to be the most impressive concierge lounge among the Marriott properties.  It is massive, well-staffed, well-victualed and does not charge for wine.  We were in the mood for a few hot appetizers and a glass (or two) of their cold sauvignon blanc on offer.  We were not planning to eat until after the evening’s entertainment.

We changed and made our way to the west end in time for the 7:30 curtain of the new production of Cabaret which had officially opened with press night just the evening before.  We were eight rows back, dead center when Britain’s first Pop Idol, and platinum British recording artist Will Young emerged from the “O” in “Wilkommen” as the emcee in this astounding production.  Of course, our interest was a bit more personal.

The marquee at the Savoy Theatre.

Several minutes later, we spotted him – Hans was the character’s name – and he was very familiar to us since we’ve been watching him perform since he was three years old.  It was our 23-year-old son Ian making his west end debut, and it was the most unique and wonderful way to celebrate 25 years of marriage.  We congratulated ourselves on having “done good” as they say.

The cast poster outside the Savoy Theatre.

We capped off the day with a late dinner at Café des Amis just off Covent Garden with Ian & Jeremy – another west end musical theater veteran, and returned to our hotel via the tube. We are now the proud owners of London Underground ‘Oyster Cards’ which we intend to use often and soon!