Sunday, August 31, 2014

British Isles - Day 8 - Northern Ireland

In Brief

Sunday we docked in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  We took a guided bus tour along the Antrim Coast which is considered one of the natural wonders of the world.  Highlights included a photo stop at Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, the ruins of Dunluce Castle, lunch featuring roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and finally a tour of the Giant's Causeway - a natural basalt column formation that legend says was created by the Irish giant Finn McCool.

Details of  Belfast and Northern Ireland

We woke up early and had breakfast this morning as we had to report for our excursion at 8:30 am.  Almost 1/3 of the ship was taking an excursion today so it was quite the process to get everyone grouped and across the gangway and on the buses.  They assign you to a color and a number based on your tour and then give you a sticker.  They call you by group and your bus is always marked with your group so that it is easy to find when you get off somewhere.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

As we drove out of Belfast, headed towards the northern coastline, we heard about the shipping and linen industries which is where Belfast made most of its wealth in the 19th and early 20th century.  Belfast is where the Titanic was built.  Heading into the country I saw that the landscape looked more like rural England and the Lake District than what we had seen in the Republic of Ireland.  Not as many shades of green, and more pasture land rather than farming.  Tons of sheep and cows still.  Beautiful heather growing wild.  I wonder if we could grow that in our backyard in DC?  Scottish influence on Northern Ireland vocabulary is very apparent.  For example they use the Scottish version of the word for most land features, rather than the English.

  • Glen = valley
  • Tarn = hill beside a lake
We stopped in the village of Larne for scones and tea, then continued on towards Ballycastle, where we stopped to take photos at a couple of sites.  My favorite was Dunluce Castle, built in the 14th century.  It was built right onto the coastal cliff which made it highly defensible, but also made it susceptible to damage from the sea.  In the 1500s, while serving Christmas dinner, the kitchens and a few rooms fell right off the cliff killing most of the servants!  The lady of the castle refused to live there any longer so the family abandoned it to ruin after that.  We also stopped to get some photos of the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge connecting the mainland to a small island.  Tom was disappointed that we did not have enough time to stop and cross it - maybe next time.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

We stopped at a local hotel for lunch where we had a fruit plate with raspberry sauce to start, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, carrots, cabbage, mashed potatoes and lightly fried potatoes.  To finish we had pavlova, which is merengue topped with whipped cream, fruit, and a citrus fruit sauce.  I had a few bites of everything since it was all too much in one sitting.

After lunch we drove to the Giant's Causeway which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is run by the National Trust (similar to our National Park system).  We had 1.5 hours to explore the site so we picked up our audio guides and walked about 15 minutes down the hill to the natural rock formations.  Tom climbed all over the stones to explore but I stuck to the paved path.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To Go

There are several ideas as to how the causeway was formed - I'll let you decide which you like best.  Science says that the thousands of hexagonal basalt columns were formed by volcanic activity about 30 million years ago.  Irish legend tells a different story that the Irish giant Finn McCool built a land bridge to nearby Scotland so that he could battle another Scottish giant.  He got all the way to Scotland and saw how big the giant was and ran back to Ireland.  He told his wife what happened and she had him hide in the bedroom.  A short while later, the Scottish giant showed up asking for Finn.  Finn's wife said he was out but that the visiting giant could have a seat and wait and she would make him some tea once she fed the baby.  She went in the bedroom and wrapped Finn in a blanket like a baby and carried him out.  The Scottish giant took one look and thought that if the baby was that big than the father must be enourmous!  He hightailed it back to Scotland and tore up the Giant's Causeway as he went so that the Irish giants could not get to Scotland again.

A daytrip to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland from 72 Hours To GoAfter exploring the stones and enjoying the sunshine, we headed back for the visitor center.  We had perfect timing since the clouds gathered and the heavens opened just as we finished.  Explored the museum and tried the Victoria Sponge cake (sponge cake layered with raspberry jam and clotted cream) then headed back to the bus.

In the way back, we learned about the Irish school system and this is true of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. School for ages 5-16 is compulsory.  No tuition cost, but parents are expected to provide the basic uniform - polos with pants or skirt and a sweater.   Students age 14-16 specialize in subjects of their choosing that would shape their career.  If academically inclined, they can apply for grammar school and then take the A-level exams which determine which university they would be eligible to attend.  University can cost about £25k ($40k) per year without books.

This area was hit by the recession but is starting to bounce back in the past 15 months.  A 3-bedroom, semi detached house (shares one wall with the house next door) is measured as the average.  In Northern Ireland, the average home costs £135k.  The same house costs £185k on average in England, not including London.  London did not really feel the recession and the 2012 Olympics brought a lot of foreign investment from Asia, almost like land grab speculation.  Northern Ireland is trying hard to build up their tourism now that visitors seem to understand that "the troubles" of the late 20th century are over and while there are still community activities and decisions in the making regarding cooperation between those who believe there should be one united Ireland (republicans) and those who believe they should remain separate, all parties are getting along amicably and it is very safe here.  They are trying hard to build up more hotels and golf courses along the picturesque Antrim coast in the hopes of hosting large golf tournaments and making the area into resorts that would attract wealthy Americans and Asians who right now fly in and out by helicopter to golf at the royal courses.

Off to Scotland on Monday!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

British Isles - Day 7 - The Lake District

In Brief

Spent Saturday docked in Liverpool, England.  We took a guided tour bus excursion from Princess to the Lake District where we road the Haverthwaite & Windermere steam train, took a cruise along Lake Windermere and then ate dinner in a local hotel in the town of Bowness.  We had sticky toffee pudding for dessert which may have been the best part of the day and I even got the recipe so that we can compare the one that we prepare for Christmas day!

Liverpool and Lake District Details

We had a very quiet night at sea and got to sleep in since we did not dock in Liverpool until after noon .  I did a quick load of laundry using the laundromat on the ship and that should get us through the end of our trip.  Glad I got it done early because there was quite a line by the time I was done and I bet it will be swamped on the upcoming sea days.  We lounged in the morning and played trivia and then grabbed lunch at the buffet before reporting to the meet point for our excursion.  There are 95% or more "retirees" on this 3000 person cruise and so for the most part everyone moves very slowly.  Not normally a problem, but when you are trying to zip through a line quickly or board the buses it can take quite awhile!

Our bus drove through Liverpool and we had a guide who provided interesting narration throughout the two hour drive to the Lake District and back.  We passed through the town that hosts the Grand National horse race and learned about the original of steeplechase racing.  Back in the day, they used to line up the horses on the edge of one village and then race them to the next village, using the steeple of the village church as the guidepost since it could be seen above the treeline.  The horses would have to jump the hedges and streams to make the most direct route to the steeple, hence the steeplechase race was born.  We noticed that the countryside of England, although beautiful, was not nearly as green as Ireland.  We saw cows, and horses, and lots of sheep in the pastures.  The land near Liverpool was mostly flat and arable, but as we got closer to the Lake District we saw rolling hills and more pasture land as opposed to the farming.  Lots more sheep here than in southern Ireland.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

We finally reached the first point of our journey where we boarded the Haverthwaite & Windermere steam line and took a 20 min rail journey up the hills to the edge of Lake Windermere.  The rail was primarily used in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, and then was reinvigorated for tourism in the late 20th century.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

Once we reached the lake, we boarded the boat for our 40 min cruise.  A mere is actually not a lake.  Lakes have a river or source of water that flows in and out of them.  Meres are found near rivers, but don't have a source of water flowing in and out; they are standalone bodies of water.  Windermere is the largest of the meres in the Lake District, about 12 miles long and half a mile wide.  We sat on the bow and got a pint of hard cider to sip as we enjoyed the view.

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

A day trip to the Lake District from 72 Hours To Go

When we reached the town of Bowness, we were supposed to have time to browse the cute town and the shops but we had been late docking in Liverpool so unfortunately that part of the agenda got scratched.  I was very disappointed since this is the area that Beatrix Potter is from and there were quite a few shops that carried items inspired by her works.  Thankfully we saw websites for some of the shops so I can check them out online when I get home.  We had a great dinner at the Windermere Hydro Hotel.  It was built in the Victorian era as a bath house and spa.  We had salmon mousse to start, mutton and potatoes with gravy and steamed veggies, and sticky toffee pudding to finish.  The pudding was really excellent and I will be sure to share the recipe once I can scan it.

We drove back to Liverpool and watched the sunset over the country side.  Heard more about the recent renovation and regrowth of the city in the past few decades as it has reshaped itself to be a cultural center.  And of course we heard a bit about the Beatles since they put Liverpool on the map again in the 1960's.  Boarded the ship and then turned in for bed since we go to Belfast next and have a full day excursion

Friday, August 29, 2014

British Isles - Day 6 - Cork, Ireland

Friday we docked in Cobh (pronounced cove), Ireland which is the closest major port to Cork and Waterford.  We opted to take a Princess excursion into Waterford via bus where we toured the factory, enjoyed lunch, and took an afternoon drive through the country.

Unfortunately all my notes from the tour were lost due to an email malfunction :( but here are the highlights of the day as told through photos:

An afternoon in Waterford, Ireland from 72 Hours To Go
Watching the crystal making process at the Waterford Factory

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Shaping the crystal by hand

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Stages of crystal cutting and polishing, from raw product on the right to finished product on the left

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Vikings first settled this region - you can still occasionally find some to this day!

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
Delicious pub lunch at the Munster Bar across the street from the Waterford Factory

An afternoon in Waterford from 72 Hours To Go
The colorful town of Cobh, Ireland hugs the shores as we sailed out of port

Thursday, August 28, 2014

British Isles - Day 5 - Guernsey

In Brief

Thursday we were tendered outside of St. Peter's Port on the Isle of Guernsey.  We got off the ship around 8:30 AM to explore the town on our own.  Took tender boats to shore and then walked 20 minutes to the Castle Cornet which had military and maritime museums.  Enjoyed a guided tour of the castle from a man who lived here during the German occupation of the island.  Made our way back to the ship around 1 PM since we only had a half day in port.  Spent the afternoon sitting on the windy deck or in the hot tub.  I went for a massage and facial and Tom did some afternoon trivia and the comedy show and we met for dinner at the Italian specialty restaurant, Sabatinis, which was delicious!  Turned in after dinner to get ready for the next port, Cork, Ireland.


The isle of Guernsey is loyal to the crown but not to England.  Essentially this means they follow the rule of the Queen and will respond to her call for aid, but they are not governed by the political entity of England and do not pay taxes.  They are very proud of the Queen and the royal family.  This connection has existed for over 500 years.

A day in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go
Model of the harbor, with the castle in the left foreground
We spent the morning at Castle Cornet which was originally built shortly after 1066, and has been continuously added in to since then.  The Castle is built on an island in the harbor on a strategic position to be outside the cannon range of the town and in an area to protect the sea trade routes between France and England.  The castle has only been taken twice - the Hundred Years War and the Nazi occupation.  Our tour guide was 8 years old when the Germans took the isle of Guernsey in 1940.  The isle had paid money to England for protection but it would have been too costly in lives to free the isle, but they did come in to evacuate the children.  Our guide was the only family his mother had left and she could not part with him so he stayed there.  He was a fantastic storyteller on both the aspects of living through the occupation and the hardships, as well as bringing to life the siege and battle tactics that would have been used throughout the history of the castle.

A day at Castle Cornet in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go

A day at Castle Cornet in Guernsey from 72 Hours To Go

We also listened to some audio tours we had downloaded ahead of time from Tasty Walks.  We only heard a couple, but they offer many more that cover both attractions and food highlights all over the island.  We tried to find a shop that sold local cheese since Guernsey cows are world famous, but we could not find anything in the port area!  Saw some ice cream shops but we weren't up for that before lunch.  We boarded the tenders and then headed back to the boat.  Tom opted to ride top side on the tender to enjoy the view and the breeze.  I stayed low to help combat the motion sickness caused by the choppy English Channel.

Had lunch in the buffet and then found seats on the pool deck to watch the sail away.  Between the cold and the drizzle, most of the other passengers stayed inside so we had plenty of options.  Tom made a few business calls before we lost signal and I read and then got in the hot tub.  I figured if I was already wet it didn't matter that it was raining anyways!

We played afternoon trivia and joined up with another couple to make a team.  Got 15/20 correct!  I headed off to the spa to get a massage and facial.  It was all very lovely and relaxing and I noticed positive changes in my face and muscle tension immediately.  They have a changing area where you get into the provided spa robe, and if you come early you can use the steam room and sauna.  My appointment lasted about 90 min, and they were a little backed up so I started a few min late.  By the time I got done I had to run back to the room to shower and change for dinner.  Thurs was formal night and I had planned to get all decked out, but because of the time crunch I had to wear my hair curly and slightly damp and kept the look simple with my black dress.  Will plan my time better for the next formal night so that I can get ready properly and we will get some formal portraits taken as well.  While I was being pampered, Tom did trivia, napping, changed into his tux, and went to the comedy show.

Dinner at Sabatinis on Ruby Princess from 72 Hours To Go

We met up for a drink before our dinner in the Italian specialty restaurant on board.  Dinner was fantastic and we will definitely be going back here again.  They start you with fresh flatbreads and break sticks, a plate of olives and prosciutto.  I started with an artichoke souffle and Tom had tomato carpacchio with mozzarella burrata and balsamic reduction.  For the entree, I had braised short rib with penne and Tom ordered the special of the night, veal saltimbocca.  We split a citron tart with chocolate sauce for dessert.  Since they cook everything a la minute, instead of pre-prepped like the main dining room, dinner took about an hour and a half but we thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, the wine, and the view off the stern as the evening light faded.

The ship was really swaying as we ate dinner and throughout the night.  We were making our way across the English Channel and the Celtic Sea towards Cork, moving at about 30 knots.  I woke in the night with motion sickness and had to take some medicine.  Even with the drugs I had dreams that the ship was rolling upside down!

Next port is the town of Cobh, Ireland which is just outside Cork.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

British Isles - Day 4 - Stonehenge

Wednesday we rented a car and drove from London to the port of embarkation for the cruise in Southampton.  We stopped in Stonehenge to tour and lunch and then boarded the Ruby Princess in mid afternoon.  Spent the rest of the day exploring the ship and then late dinner seating at the main dining room.

Although there were many options to get from London to Southampton, we opted to drive because it offered the most flexibility and control over our time, the least amount of time waiting around for others, and the adventure of driving through the English countryside.  We rented through Enterprise, and were to pick up the car in Marble Arch, London.  Enterprise will pick you up, so we called when they opened and sent the car to us with a driver who brought us and the luggage back to the office to complete the paperwork.  He gave Tom some tips as we drove and we talked about Top Gear.  He drove us by the posh hotel that had a gold Bugati Veyron parked out front!  We had hoped to be able to rent a mini cooper (that would have been too cute!), but we ended up with a Citroen.

We completed all the details at the office then set off with Tom driving and me navigating in addition to the built it "sat nav".  Tom did a great job in London and things were even smoother once we got on the motorway.  We don't have to go twice through any of the roundabouts and only made 1 wrong turn the whole trip. As far as driving on the other side of the road, Tom said he would only recommend it for someone who is a very competent and capable driver, and if you are picking the car up in London, you need to have experience driving in DC, NYC, or LA.  If you don't have that kind of experience, plan to pick your car up at Heathrow airport or somewhere else outside London.  If you do not drive stick on a regular basis, be sure to get an automatic car.  Focusing on the other side of the road and the different traffic patterns is plenty of change!  Also, having a second person to run the sat nav and read road signs and provide guidance on lane changes was really helpful.

Tom also commented that the English are much safer than Americans, both in driving style and speed, laws, even the electricity system which has switches on each outlets and everything in 3 prongs to be grounded.  The emergency exits within buildings are all marked very clearly and in symbols, not words.  We saw multiple types of fire extinguishers throughout the buildings we visited.  [Can you tell Tom is an engineer?]

Roadtrip from London to Stonehenge to Southhampon featured on 72 Hours To Go

On the drive, we listed to some of the Rick Steves podcasts about the English countryside, Stonehenge, and the ancient Celts and Druids which all helped provide some context for everything we were driving through.  It took about 2 hours to get to Stonehenge, and because we wanted to leave plenty of time to get on the ship, we skipped the museum at the visitor center and hopped straight on the next tram to the stones.  Earlier in 2014, they moved the visitor center and parking lot away from the stones, about 1.5 miles up the road.  This was done to remove the modern elements from the immediate area of the stones, and better preserve the area from the effects of foot and car traffic.  The new visitor center has a nice museum, WCs, a cafe, and ample parking.  You can walk to the stones if you choose, otherwise they run a tram/shuttle every few minutes.  Apparently the cost of admission rose considerably with the new center and so many people are unwilling to pay, therefore the A303 highway which runs nearby comes to a standstill just in front of the stones because everyone wants a "free view" from 200 yards away.  I wonder if they will be forced to put up a wall soon to prevent the traffic from stopping?  We had pre-booked timed entry tickets so we hopped on the next tram (otherwise walk up tickets are sold in limited quantity and cost more than booking ahead online).  They offer an audio guide, or we downloaded the Stonehenge app at the hotel the night before so we could listen to the tour on our phones.  Its a 5 min drive to the stones.
Tip: If you are in hurry, you can start listening to the audio tour while you board the tram, and can spend about 10-15 min at the stones then take the tram back.   
If you are not rushed,  the audio tour is designed for you to start once you reach the stones and walked you around them clockwise.  We opted for the fast version but felt like we saw everything and learned a lot and got some great photos.  After returning to the visitor center by tram, we got Cornish pasties (hand pies) for lunch - steak pot roast filling and cheese, onion, potato filling.  They were a good option to tide us over until a late lunch on the ship.

We headed out for Southampton around 12:30 and arrived an hour later.  The address of the car return plots in the wrong location on google maps so we had a few wrong turns and a call to the rental place but eventually found it.  They drove us over to the pier which was very convenient so that we did not have to call a cab or haul luggage.

Boarding with Princess was orderly and uneventful.  You check in and are assigned a color and number.  When you group is called, you can line up to go through security.  We waited about 30 min and took another 30 min to get in board after that.  Got a late lunch on the lido deck where they serve meals buffet style all day and then explored the ship.  I visited the spa and entered the raffle but did not win anything.  I did sign up for some relaxing treatments for Thurs afternoon, once we set sail from Guernsey.
Tip: Never book spa appointments before you are on the ship.  They always offer discounts on board, and we even had a special offer extended to those who attended the spa raffle.
We headed back to the room to nap, unpack, and dress for dinner.  The show didn't interest us so we skipped it and went to the 8 pm seating for dinner. Dinner was fine, but not something we would consider fine dining so we are going to try the specialty restaurants on board the next couple of nights and see if we prefer those.

Turned in after dinner to be ready for our first port of call - Guernsey, England.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

British Isles - Day 3 - London, England

Tuesday we spent a drizzly final day in London visiting the Globe Theater, tea at Fortnum and Mason department store, and finished with a tour of the Buckingham Palace State rooms.  Spent a quiet night in with an order of fish and chips and some British tele so that we would be ready for an active travel day on Wed. 

How to spend a rainy day in London from 72 Hours To Go

Woke up to light drizzle that continued throughout the day but didn't seem to cause the same chaos that downpour on Monday had resulted in at all the tube stations.  We woke early to breakfast and dress nicely and then headed out to the South Bank via tube to tour the Globe Theater.  This is a reproduction of the Globe that presented some of Shakespeare's plays in his time.  They featured a neat museum with artifacts and exhibits on theater life including playwriting, the acting company, costumes, set construction, and music.  After making our way through the exhibits, we had a tour that took us into the theater.  We were lucky enough to go inside when a technical rehearsal for their next play was going on, but unfortunately that meant that we were not allowed to take pictures.  The theater is beautiful on the inside and I was sorry that nothing was showing the weekend we were in town.  The guide emphasized that the groundlings, who stand on the floor during the show, are the beat "seats" because you get to really interact with the show.  But after seeing the floor and the seats, I think I would much rather sit on the balcony.

After the tour we walked along the South Bank and then crossed back over the river.  Got a great picture of St. Paul's Cathedral while we were walking.  We headed to Fortnum and Mason, one of the posh department stores for high tea in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon.  It was a very lovely affair with silver service.  I had the Bannockburn Darjeeling tea with fruit and honey notes.  Tom had the Keenan which was recommended to serve with milk.  He started with eggs Benedict and I had tea sandwiches.  They then brought out the three tier tray of scones with jam and clotted cream, cookies and cakes, and then we got to choose a large slice from one of several cakes on the tea cake trolley.  It was decadent and delicious and we loved all of it!

A decadadent afternoon tea at Fornum & Mason from 72 Hours To Go

A decadent afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in London from 72 Hours to Go

A decadent afternoon tea with scones and sweets at Fortnum & Mason in London from 72 Hours to Go

After tea, we walked through Green Park to Buckingham Palace for our tour of the State Rooms.  They are only open for viewing during Aug and Sept when the Queen is on vacation at Balmoral Castle, therefore it was very crowded, even with pre-booking tickets.  You are given an audio guide that walks you through the rooms to provide context and descriptions.  The state rooms are the public rooms of the palace used for entertaining.  Each year there is a theme to the exhibit - this year focused on children and growing up in the royal family so there were lots of displays of toys, games, photos, and family history throughout the palace.  The tour takes about an hour, then you exit in the gardens and are free to walk the estate.

My feet were finally giving up after 3 long days of walking and standing, so we headed back to our rooms at The Byron Hotel in Kensington.  Tom went out a bit later for take-away fish and chips from the store around the corner.  We got haddock and chips (fries) with lots of vinegar and some mushy garden peas.  Our hotel had put us in the penthouse suite which meant that we were on the top (5th) floor and in addition to our bedroom and bathroom, we had a sitting room with table and chairs, sofa, and tele.  It was perfect for eating in on a couple of nights, and just having more space to set out luggage and bags so that we didn't have to open and close them on our bed all the time.  Overall we really liked the hotel but will leave a comment warning people about the towel warmer and bathroom pump switches since those were the only hangups we had.

Kensington hotel recommendation for a trip to London from 72 Hours To Go

Sitting room of the penthouse suite in The Byron Hotel, Kensington, London from 72 Hours To Go
Wed is a travel day, ending with us in Southampton to board the ship.
Christina and Tom

Monday, August 25, 2014

British Isles - Day 2 - London, England

We woke up to rain, with a forecast of 60 degrees and continued heavy rain all day. Ate breakfast at the hotel together, then we split for the day.  Tom went to Churchill War Rooms and the RAF Museum while I went to the studio where they filmed Harry Potter.  Finished the day my meeting up for dinner and dessert at Harrod's, the ultra luxurious department store in London which has an amazing food hall. 

Slept in a bit this morning but got up in time to enjoy continental breakfast at the hotel.  It's truly continental with breads, meats, cheeses, yogurt, fruit, toast, and Tom's favorite - croissants with jam.
After breakfast and a miserable shower with no water pressure, we headed out.  I asked the front desk how to turn on the towel warmer, and during the conversation he warned me not to turn off the water pump switch nearby or there would be no water pressure.  I ran straight back to the room and sure enough the pump was off, hence why the showers had been miserable this morning!  Got it fixed now and so we will enjoy warm towels and strong showers for the rest of our time here.

I took off on the tube for Victoria Station where I was to meet my tour bus to the studio tour at noon.  Stopped in a Boots (like a British CVS but better) to see if I could find some products that my sister had asked me to bring back.  Unfortunately the train station Boots had minimal stock but I will find a proper branch tomorrow. 

Warner Bros. Studios Harry Potter Tour Bus

I took a tour bus from London out to the Warner Bros. film studio lot, about an hour north of London, for the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  They take you in a livery bus, which looks awesome from the outside but you can't see out when you are in the bus because of the film on the windows!  I loved the actual studio tour, but there was too much waiting around because the company made us get to the pickup too early and we got to the studio too early as well.  During the tour you get to see all the costumes, props, sets, and more from all the films.  The attention to detail was outstanding!  For example, in the Potions classroom, they actually filled 1000 vials, vases, and jars with various liquids and bones and whatnot to make them all look real.  I also got to try butter beer, the kids drink of choice in Harry Potter.  It tasted like cream soda with a thick head of butterscotch foam.  The foam was the best part for sure.  The tour included an iPod touch with narration and videos for more info about each of the displays.  Overall a great visit!  I hopped on the next bus back to London and met Tom at Harrod's for dinner.

Costumes from the Harry Potter Set at the Warner Bros. London Studio Tour
First taste of butterbeer courtesy of the Warner Bros. London Studio Harry Potter Tour

Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter set, on display at the Warner Bros. London Studio

Dolores Umbridge's Office from the Harry Potter Set, on display at the Warner Bros. London Studio

Tom spent the day at the Churchill War Rooms and the Royal Air Force Museum.  The war rooms were excellent and Tom would highly recommend it.  It covers both his operations during the war and his life.  Tom warns that it wouldn't be engaging enough for kids, but great for adults.  The RAF museum had lots of planes and military history, but wasn't worth the hassle of the trek out there since due to metro closures, he had to take several detours. 

He explored Harrod's before I arrived - particularly enjoyed the electronics section.  We made our way through the mobs of people wandering aimlessly around the store and settled on the bistro in the food halls for dinner.  We enjoy pumpkin and Parmesan soup, endive salad with walnut and Stilton, duck confit, and veal pot pie.  After dinner we stopped in the confectionary section and chose some macaroons and chocolates to bring back to the hotel for dessert.

The forecast called for rain, which was not surprising for London, but apparently it was heavier than usual because none of the stores or the tube stations were equipped to handle the water tracked in from shoes and umbrellas - there was flooding and people seemed shocked and confused.  I guess the Brits are used to mild rain, not the downpours we get in the Southern USA.  We had no problems thanks to our raincoats and umbrellas and boots.  More rain tomorrow, but should be lighter and more scattered.  It's been a second long day of walking for both of us so we laid down to plan the morning activities.  Still working on the final plan but we know we are doing afternoon tea and then a tour of Buckingham Palace.

Christina and Tom

British Isles - Day 1 - London, England

We arrived uneventfully in London around 1 am local Sunday.  For our first day, we slept in and then took a hop on/ hop off bus tour , stopping at the British Museum and doing a Thames River Cruise.  It was a nice way to ease into the time zone change, get some sunshine and fresh air, and move at our own pace.  Highly recommend this agenda for a transition day of jet lag!

The perfect day in London to recover from jet lag from 72 Hours To Go

We used Big Bus tours of London.  They received good reviews online and in Rick Steves guidebook, had a discount to book in advance via the web, and stopped only a few blocks from our hotel in Kensington.  Found that the Blue buses, which have audio recordings in multiple languages and headphones to plug in, are much more frequent (5 min or so), but the red buses (10-15 min) with the live guides are much more educational and entertaining - definitely worth waiting for the Red at the first switch point.
Tip: Take a seat up top either in the first few rows or toward the very back for the best views.  Grab a paper map or download the phone app so you know the numbered stops to plan where to stop at.  The guide announces them as you approach so that you know when to get your things together to hop off.  Bring your own small headphones for better sound.
We used the bus as our transit for the day and took the entire loop, just broken up into several segments as we hopped off for the British Museum, the Tower Bridge Pier, and finally took the bus back to our hotel.   Ticket included a Thames River cruise on City Cruises.  Took advantage of it toward late afternoon.  We boarded at the Tower Pier and cruised toward Westminster.  We got in line just after 4 pm and had to wait about 45 min so leave time for queuing if you are on a schedule to get somewhere.  Again best views are from the top deck and there is time to get a good photo of Tower Bridge while the passengers all board.  The ride was about 20 min plus another 15 to dock and disembark.

A perfect day in London to recover from jet lag from 72 Hours To Go

A perfect day in London to recover from jet lag from 72 Hours To Go

Around noon, we transferred to the green line of the bus and it was a 5 min walk to the British Museum from the closest stop.  Spent about 2 hours at the British Museum.  We had downloaded the Rick Steves Travel App with audio tours and podcasts before the trip and I highly recommend it.  The Rick Steves guided audio tour was excellent!  Covered all the highlights of the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek exhibits in about an hour and was flexible enough that you could easily pause and explore more of a gallery if you were not ready to move on at the pace of the tour. Great turn by turn directions through the gallery and good commentary, if a bit cheesy at times. Rick Steves's phone app was great and included a map to reference during the tour.

Lunched at Savoir Faire, a 2 min walk from the British museum.  Had excellent reviews on Trip Advisor and the food did not disappoint.  Generous portions that could be shared.  We split a bowl of mushroom soup to start and I ordered braised lamb with veggies and mash.  Tom had a baguette stuffed with steak, brie, caramelized, and horseradish sauce.  Neither of us could finish our entrees.  After lunch and the museum, we returned to the bus line and took the bus to Tower Bridge, the launch point of the previously mentioned cruise.

After the cruise, we grabbed a tea and scones to go from a little bakery and we hopped on the bus again for an impromotu afternoon tea and took the last hour of the route around Hyde Park and Kensington Palace to end up back in Bayswater near our hotel, The Hotel Byron.  Carnival, an annual three day festival in Notting Hill which is the Caribbean community version of Mardi Gras, is happening this weekend.  We saw the stragglers of the parade and festivities dragging themselves home around 7 pm and we were glad we had avoided the area today.  The parade continues Monday so we will plan to visit other parts of town again.  The party did not extend to the street of our hotel so that area is still quiet and the police are prompt to end the noise by 7 pm and start the cleanup.

After a quick change we headed out to find a pub for dinner.  Ended up walking to Paddington Station, about 10 min away.  Our first choice place had great reviews as a pub, but didn't serve food.  The second choice place was full and we were starting to feel the jet lag so we picked the first place we saw across the street - The Dickens Tavern.  Grabbed a quiet corner table and ordered food and drink at the bar.  I went for cod and chips with garden peas and Tom got the steak and ale pie.  After an hour plus wait, and no food we finally asked what was going on and they explained the kitchen was backed up.  We waited another 10 min then gave up and cashed out.  It was now 10 pm and we were exhausted and starving so we grabbed shawarma wraps and walked home and crashed.  Needless to say we provided an appropriate review for the Dickens Tavern on Trip Advisor and would not recommend it for anything other than a drink.

Tomorrow we are splitting up - me to Harry Potter film studio tour and Tom is doing the Churchill War Rooms and the Imperial War Museum.

Until tomorrow!  Christina and Tom