London

London’s Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities

If you’ve been to London more than once, you’ll want to start exploring the neighborhoods and attractions beyond the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the like.

I suggest venturing out to the Bethnal Green neighborhood, which is home to the Museum of Childhood (and is part of the V&A) and the far more unusual Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities.

Upstairs is a cocktail bar with an emphasis on absinthe.

Downstairs, entered via a narrow winding staircase, is a highly entertaining cabinet of curiosities filled with natural history specimens, assorted taxidermy, skulls, marine creatures and a collection of books with titles ranging from ‘A Guide to Faking Exhibition Poultry’ to ‘A Sex Guide for Irish Farmers,’ and “Shopping Center Sex.”

Here are some snaps a two-headed lamb and other snaps from a recent visit:

Visting the Bankside hotel in London

I’m in London this week for a few days to be part of the judging panel for the second annual Travel Retail Awards program for TRBusiness. 

My assignment: evaluate spirits, cosmetics, chocolates, small electronics and other products sold in airport shops.

Tought job, right? But I’m taking the testing and evaluating very seriously.

While in town, I did take the change to stop by the Bankside, a new very fun and “design-forward” hotel in a cool neighborhood on the the south bank of the River Thames. (Sea Containers London, another swank London hotel I’ve had the pleasure of staying in before, is just a few doors down the street.)

I wasn’t able to spend the night at 161-room Banskside (part of Marriott’s Autograph collection of properties), but I did get a tour around the art-filled lobby, a look at a room and a lovely (hosted, thank-you!) dinner in the Art Yard Bar & Kitchen.

While I couldn’t try everything on the menu, I can heartily recommend the dishes I tried, especially the Monkfish Catapanla, (a hearty fish stew for two with several types of seafood), as well as the Pear Parfait and Dark Chocolate Fondant desserts.

The Bankside has several ‘bonus’ amenities that seem unique and/or quite amusing.

Guests find marshmallows on their pillows at turndown. Bars with taps to dispense several types of water (sorry, not beer) are in each hall. And just outside the elevator on each floor is a vending machine where guests may purchase small bottles of pre-made cocktails, wine, liquor and other ‘necessities,’ such as an emergency engagement ring, and handmade sparkly pants.

Fancy a fast trip to London & Paris?

Tower Bridge at night

A few month’s back I was invited – actually, challenged – to visit Paris and London in just four or five days.

“Not possible,” I insisted. But I was willing to give it a try.

Here’s a slightly edited version of the story I wrote for Travel + Leisure with some ideas for how to do it.

Getting there and back

To make this fast trip work, fly into one city and out of the other, and book a seat on the high speed Eurostar train to travel between the two.

Plenty of airlines fly between the US and both London and Paris and it is possible to find deals on a one-way or open-jaw ticket using tools on airline comparison sites or a knowledgeable travel advisor.

British Airways currently offers up to 50 flights from the U.S. to London each day, depending on the season, from 26 U.S. gateways and will be adding flights from both Pittsburgh and Charleston to London in April 2019. The airline allows passengers to cut the cost of flights by using Avios points towards payment.

Air France currently offers more than 150 flights a week to Paris from 12 U.S. cities and is adding Dallas/Fort Worth as its 11th U.S. gateway on March 31, 2019. The French flag carrier offers flash fares to Paris (and other destinations) about once a month, so sign up to follow the carrier’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Eurostar trains make the trip from city center to city center, between London’s St. Pancras International Station to Gare du Nord in Paris, in just over 2 hours for a little as $60 each way. Eurostar ticket pricing fluctuates like airline tickets, with the lowest prices usually offered for midweek travel. Be sure to hold onto your boarding pass: it offers 2-for-1 entry to many museums and exhibitions in both cities.

Where to stay; what to do

Coal Drops Yard

In London, there are lots of hotel to choose from right near St. Pancras International railway station, which is steps from the British Library and its many free events and exhibitions. Nearby is the Wellcome Collection, a hip and free science and health-themed museum that markets itself to the “incurably curious.”

Coal Drops Yard, built in 1850 to handle the eight million tons of coal delivered to London each year, has been transformed into the city’s newest trendy destination. Located in King’s Cross, just a few minutes’ walk from St. Pancras, the shopping and dining center boasts more than 50 stores, restaurants and cafés, including the flagship store of Wolf & Badger, which gathers cool offerings from independent brands, and Casa Pastor, serving Mexican-inspired tacos, alongside mezcals, Mexican beers and imaginative margaritas.

For convenience and a hefty dose of the historic, splurge on a two-night stay at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, inside St. Pancras station. The “Seat to Suite” package includes lounge access as well as a concierge escort between your room and your seat on the Eurostar train, which departs from St. Pancras station.

If you’ll be heading back to the states from Paris, choose a hotel in the city center that offers easy access to museums, café and other top attractions.

The newly renovated 97-room Renaissance Paris Vendome Hotel, near the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre in the city’s historic 1st arrondissement is a good option. Book a breakfast-included package (croissants galore!); seek out nearby “hidden gems” suggested by the hotel’s “Navigator”; and let the front desk book you a seat (preferably at the chef’s counter) in the hotel’s popular-with-locals Balagan Restaurant, which serves an ever-changing menu of Israeli-inspired Middle Eastern meals.

You can save time by combining touring and fine dining by having lunch or dinner at (or on) Ducasse sur Seine, chef Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant on an electric boat offering diners a 90-minute cruise on the Seine. Or board the Bustronome, a restaurant inside a double-decker bus that drives by many of the city’s top sights during a three-hour tour. (There’s a London version of this as well.)

You may not get your fill of croissants, baguettes, macarons or other French pastries during a quick two-day visit, but you’ll learn some professional French bakers’ tricks to take home during a gourmet walking tour or a French breach-making class organized by a local tour group such as Meeting the French.

Train Tuesday: I skipped the plane and rode the Eurostar train

StuckatTheAirport.com is usually about airports and airplanes.

But a new joint campaign between the London and Paris tourism bureaus and the folks at Eurostar is aimed at reminding travelers that is much easier, much faster and sometimes pretty darn cheap to get between London and Paris on the train.

 

I tried it out this past weekend, starting my journey at the posh St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, which sits on top of the St. Pancras Railway Station.

That’s conveniently the starting point for boarding the Eurostar to the Gare du Nord train station in central Paris.

If, like me, you’re staying in a certain category of room at the hotel, a hotel employee will escort you directly from the lobby, through the fast track ticket and passport checkpoints and directly to your seat on the train.

The journey from London to Paris on the Eurostar train is then pretty darn quick and easy and takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes, including passage through the Chunnel.  If I had chosen to go to Brussels instead the journey would have taken less than two hours.

On board, Wi-Fi is free, each seat has power and there’s a fold-down table. A cafe car sells snacks and there’s a meal included for those traveling in business premier.

Like airline tickets, fares can vary widely depending on time of year and even time of day, but during low season I’m told it’s possible to get return London-Paris ticket for under $80.

As a bonus: in Paris, even the standard tickets are good after your journey to gain 2-for-1 admission to many museums.

Traveling from city center to city center saves all that time and hasssle going to and from the airports so it does indeed make visiting bost cities a “why not?” option.

My time in Paris is short,  but the Navigator tips offered by the concierge here at the Renaissance Paris Vendome are super helpful in helping me make the most of my time, so I’ll be back later with photos from my touring.

For now – here’s me, my bread and baker/instructor Didier Lavry of Le Pett Mitron and at the end of my Meeting the French bread making class this morning.

#LondonParisNow

(My visit to London and Paris is hosted by Visit London and the Paris Tourist Office, but reports are strictly my opinion.

Air New Zealand tries to solve the jet lag problem

I spent a few days in London earlier this month courtesy of Air New Zealand.

The airline known for its series of cheeky “bare essentials” ads and in-flight safety videos and, most recently, its Hobbit-themed airplane, invited a small group of travel experts and journalists to fly as a focus group from Los Angeles International Airport to Heathrow.

Hbbit Aircraft

Our assignment for the “#NoLagtoLondon” trip: share our tried-and-true anti-jet lag tips and our “insider secrets” for arriving fresh and perky after a long haul flight.

The work began in the Air New Zealand Koru lounge  before we boarded the flight. Workbooks and white boards were handed out and, among other things, we were asked to make a pie-chart of how we planned to spend the 10 hour flight.

Here’s mine:

Air NEW ZEALAND pie chart

As you can tell, I had big plans for this flight: working, sleeping, chatting with my neighbors, eating, drinking (water only) and visiting the entertaining bathroom, which had both a mural of a chandelier and a real window.

I also planned to watch a few silly, romantic movies that I’d missed in the theaters and I knew I’d end up getting a bit weepy watching them – even though I rarely react that way on the ground.

During the flight the group was asked to read inkblots, write haiku poems and, finally, share our pre-flight rituals and our tips for making it through a long flight.

Here are some of the answers from our group:

Pre-flight rituals: pack (and re-pack), work late/tie up lose ends, create to-do lists and/or music playlists; send out trip details to friends and family members who might like to know what’s up.

I’d prepared by eating extremely light for a few days before the flight and passing up all offers of liquor. I’d planned on getting a good night’s sleep on the ground before the flight so I could work and watch movies during the flight but ended up staying up late in my hotel room working.

Dressing for a flight: most everyone was in favor of comfortable clothes that are casual and a bit dressy, although jeans seemed to be acceptable. I advocate layers that are easy to add or remove and, for ladies, no skirts that might ride up while you’re sleeping.

Shorts on a plane? Pretty much everyone agreed that was a no-no.

Arrival plans: our flight arrived late afternoon and everyone said they’d try to stay up as long a possible and go to sleep at a ‘normal’ time. Some folks did, but for the next two nights several of us were wide awake – and online, tweeting about it – at 2 in the morning.

Jet-lag-wise, I was loser on this trip.

I woke up at 2 am each night of the trip and one night just stayed awake – working and watching a BBC documentary about Tom Jones (!) till 4 in the morning.

Still wide awake, I opened the bottle of red wine that had been left in my room by our hosts at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London , a lovely and very swanky establishment not far from Harrods.

A few sips and I was sleepy, so I put the glass aside and, of course, knocked it over on the cream-colored rug the next morning.

And this is where I learned a lesson about top drawer hotel service.

After spilling the wine, I panicked, grabbed a white towel from the bathroom and tried blotting up the wine.

That did almost nothing except ruin a good towel, so I picked up the phone and called housekeeping to turn myself in.

Within moments a supervisor was at my door and a minute later a man arrived with a machine for a spot cleaning.

He didn’t scold. Instead he told me how smart I’d been for calling right away and not letting the red stain set.

“You’d be surprised how many guests spill or break something and we don’t find it until they leave. But look – your mess is all gone.”

And, seconds later, so was he.