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Saturday, February 23, 2008

London – Now that we’re here

Just like that and we are here in London. It is really hard to imagine that it is real. We left work behind just 14 hours ago and now here we are on the ground in London, England. While I time here will prove short – just four days including our arrival day – we are sure that we will make the most of it.

Our arrival at the Trafalgar Square Hilton
Upon arrival, we were waking up from our nice “naps” on a Boeing Triple 7 (777) as United Airlines calls them. It was nice to fly International Business class, but it actually fell below my expectations. Oh well, you get what you pay for and in this case it was free due to a couple of system-wide upgrades.

Our particular plane, although a long haul – had not been updated with the newer line of United’s Premium service – which makes it feel a lot more like Economy Plus than International Business class. Especially when compared to the service that other airlines like Lufthansa offer. Other than the additional legroom, some food and additional degrees on the recline – it feels a lot like Economy Plus. You are on the same cinema and entertainment selection as the rest of aircraft. Here’s hoping that all the flights will be updated by the time we leave for Italy in July.

The best part about the upgrade is that when we arrive we are able to go through the fast track queue which is reserved for premium passengers, but invitation only. It is sure to save us quite a bit. I change some money at Change de Cambio (also American Express is available) which is the ever present rip-off (If you have a Bank of America ATM card, the cheapest way to get money is through a Barclay’s bank ATM. Bank of America has partnered with Barclays to provide no ATM, international, or other fees – only the exchange rate), but we need to in order to get to the hotel – so I change it out. Once we gather our belongings and clear customs, it is time to find our driver.

At first, I was not able to locate our driver and was a little concerned about the booking I made with Exclusive Airports for our transfer from Heathrow (LHR) to our hotel just a couple of days before. But after a little bit more searching, I located our driver with my name on it and we headed to the car. Our driver was quite friendly, chatty, and was definitely a money saver over taking a standard cab. Later we learned that the Heathrow Express was a bit cheaper way to get to London, but then most likely we would have needed a taxi from Paddington Station (link here) which was quite a bit from our hotel.

On the radio on the way to the hotel, there was a “police incident” near Trafalgar square where our hotel, “The Trafalgar” a Hilton hotel (review here) was located. In this case, the incident had to do with a stabbing occurring at a club the previous evening. Our driver makes a comment about how little the police have done in London to get the youth under control with their drinking and other activities. We shrug and continue.

Once we reach the hotel area, we notice that the cab cannot pull in front of our hotel as it is in an area that is blocked off. Fortunately, the incident is not at our hotel, rather a few blocks away – but the driver needs to drop us off about a block from the hotel. We needed to stretch our legs anyways.

After checking into our hotel around 1:30pm, we realize how hungry we are and we set out to explore. Since it is Saturday and most London shows are blocked out on Saturday – it was imperative for us to try and find tickets to just about anything that was playing. That made our direction towards Leicester Square where the TKTS ticket office is located. Walking across Trafalgar Square we head up towards looking for food and theater tickets.

Our first stop is TKTS ticket booth what a different experience it is from either TKTS booth in New York City. Rather than having a snaking line that it takes you 30 minutes in which you fight for a spot at the window, the scene in London is calm. In fact at 2:00pm on a Saturday there are no lines to get a ticket for any show. Perhaps that is because tickets started to be sold at 10:00am, still it was unexpected for us. After debating for a few minutes (because all of Ashley’s preferred shows were gone), we decide to see “Blood Brothers” a story about a set of twin boys separated at birth only to meet later in life with tragic consequences. We do not know much about it, so we look forward to that.

The TKTS Booth in Leicester Square in London, England
After wandering the various cafés in the Leicester Square, we are amazed at how popular Italian food is in terms of the ever-presence of the restaurants in the square. We counted 7 in a one-square block area. We actually settle on Café Fiore which while Italian sounding, mixes a number of various food types ranging from sandwiches and kebabs to pizza and more traditional fare. Ashley decides on a tomato, basil, and mozzarella sandwich while I choose a lamb kebab.

This is the first point where we re-realize what we knew from previous visits:
1. London is pretty expensive, as we expected. With where the dollar trades right now – it looks like the starting point for a meal is in the $40 range. $40 for two sandwiches and two drinks.
2. A lot of restaurants build in the service charge to their meals, double check before leaving a tip. That way you do not go overboard.
3. A difference between eat-in and takeaway prices. If the service charge is built-in and you do not eat in, the price ends up being 15% less – which is great, especially when the weather is cooperating.

After finish lunch we took the main walk along Whitehall street towards Big Ben and Parliament. Fortunately for us, it was time for inspection of the Guard. The crowd was gathering to see the 10 soldiers and 2 horses have their uniforms inspected. It was a nice classic London experience to see and a good chance to start snapping photos.

Before heading back, we made sure to take quick glimpses of the Prime Minister’s home, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey before walking back through St. James Park. Amazing for February, the daffodils were blooming in the park, which was both very pretty and surprising for how early in the year it was.

A couple of Londoners mentioned to us that the weather had been quite warm, we hoped that the weather would continue it’s trend during our stay.

We took a quick nap to rest up to avoid as much jet lag as possible. After a couple of hours, we headed to the Phoenix Theatre where the Blood Brothers is playing to catch the musical production. While not as impressive as some of the other shows we have seen (Les Miserables, Wicked), it was an entertaining production that was well worth our half price tickets.

Inside the Phoenix Theater in London, England
On the way home we decided to stop at one of the many Italian restaurants in the area (fish an chips coming up tomorrow) and grab some Gelato. Tired and a little worn out from the travel, we got some sleep.