I’ve been to places like Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Seoul, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in California, and Paris. I’ve also been on popular holiday destinations like Phuket, Pattaya and Six Senses in Thailand, and Tenerife in the Canary Islands. But in all my travels few destinations – whether on holiday or business – have impressed me as much as London in the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
I am impressed because I find Brits generally very friendly people – about as accommodating as Japanese people in helping strangers find their way. Whether it is apologizing for accidentally touching you as they whisk by, or offering assistance when they see you struggling with your luggage, or pointing you in the right direction when you are lost, the charm of Londoners is there.
The other bit that impresses is the seemingly strong bond of its people to the country’s history and heritage. It is something that many cultures around the world appear to be slowly losing as its people adopt a more contemporary lifestyle.
I was told that the general weather in London is mostly gloomy for most of the year. I was also told that the period we chose to visit London would likely be the peak of Summer (though I always of summer as being at least a couple of months not weeks). The following is a diary of the eight days we were in London – summer of 2012.
Day one: Arrived at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3. Our CX flight landed in London on schedule. While there was a long line of arrivals at the Immigration counter (we were on row 6 when we queued up) the processing was very efficient. We were out at the luggage carousels within 45 minutes after joining the immigration queue. I was expecting to be stuck there as I’ve always been when arriving at major airports like Beijing, Tokyo, San Francisco and Los Angeles. We eventually decided to board our first “Tube” ride. It was only when I looked at the “Tube Map” that I realized how complex the London public transport system was and how dwarfish, in comparison, was Tokyo’s train system. Despite this being our first trip to London, we found our hotel easy enough (after asking for directions twice). I distinctly remember my Paris adventure where I got lost more than a few times both inside the train and outside, just trying to find direction towards my hotel. My last surprise of the day was realizing that the sun set at past 8pm. I was told this is typical summer in London – very long days. Having traveled over 12 hours we decided to sleep off the trip and get ready for a hectic next day.
Day two: I booked the family for an out-of-town excursion – Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge via Premium Tours. The coach (buses refer to public transport within the city whilst coaches are public transport that take you out of town) picked us up and hustled us to Victoria Station where we boarded a double decker coach. Gary, our tour guide, offered us tidbits of information about London’s history from ancient to modern civilization – it’s like a crash course in London history. My experience touring the grounds of Windsor Castle was comparable to the Palace of Versailles in France – lots of history I can barely remember. The decadence and opulence is mind boggling. Certainly I wondered if there gap between royalty and the poor at the time is comparable to our time. At one point I wondered if a thousand years from now, people in the future will think that the excesses of the 20th and 21st century would be viewed in much the same way. Lunch was ‘Fish and Chips’ at a local diner.
Next stop was a drive to the city of Bath. Along the way, Gary regaled us in Roman history and the Bath came to be. He hinted that our tour did not include entrance tickets to the Roman Bath or the Pump Rooms. Not wanting to spend more monies to see someone’s bath tub or some ancient pumps, we elected to have hot drinks and piping hot pastry at West Cornwall Pasty. That gave us almost an hour to shop. Long before coming to London, I was warned that prices for everything in London is expensive and that I should be prepared to budget at least 50 British Pounds per person per day to cover food and transportation. I didn’t factor in that this was summer sale period and that outside of food and transportation, UK and European branded products may actually be cheaper than the same brands selling in Hong Kong. I found the discounts for shoes sufficiently acceptable.
The last leg of the tour was Stonehenge, and this is where the disappointment was at its peak. Gary jinxed it when he said “the rain stopped!” as we disembarked from the coach and headed to the ticketing booth to get our entrance tickets. The rain and wind were sufficiently strong to force us to cut short our tour. Umbrellas were no match for the torrent so we scampered back to the coach and scooted our way back to the city (which surprisingly was comfortably dry). We managed to get a few photos taken but really I didn’t get a chance to experience the serenity of the place – to see firsthand if indeed these large blocks of stones were hauled and assembled into their position by ET and his extraterrestrial buddies.
Day three: The morning began with a trek to London Bridge Station wandering aimlessly for a few minutes looking for the London Dungeon – which uses London’s nefarious history to create a sense of fear among its visitors. I am not sure how much of what was said was not exaggerated but the smell, sight and sounds certainly were entertaining at some points in the 90-minute tour. Next we took the train and headed off to Madame Tussaud‘s wax museum on Marylebone Road (exit off Baker Street station). Before entering the place we had a quick bite an Italian restaurant (expensive for a crappy meal but what can you expect this is London). I was expecting to be bored at the wax museum and to my surprise I found some of the replicas interesting. There was also a 4D short with Marvel Super Heroes (the script was extremely bad – not sure if this was sanctioned by the owners of the brand). It was a good couple of hours though of photo taking.
We took the afternoon off being tourists and met JJ (Ester’s classmate and close friend) and her son, Ralph, over on Oxford Circus, Oxford Street, to shop around. Oxford Circus is akeen to Singapore’s Orchard Road or Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong. While the group hopped from one store to another I went about to find a WiFi hotspot so I can check some stuff. We ended the evening with a dinner in a Thai restaurant manned by mostly Italian staff. The food is, as expected, westernized Thai so my expectations were tempered. Nonetheless it was interesting how such a place was packed, noisy and requiring a bit of patience to enjoy the company dining with you.
Day four: As early as we could we took a slow ride on the London Eye – snapped as much photos as we could – and then ran off to the Sea Life (which is just a few minutes’ walk from the London Eye). A quick note here – if you’ve ever been to Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, Sea Life is just a fraction of the size of Ocean Park.
After a brisk lunch we took the Underground over to Victoria station to escort Abi to the Victoria coach station that will whisk her off to meet her friend in Southampton. Soon as her coach left we headed straight to the Science Museum on South Kensington station. To be honest the Science Museum was a disappointment for me. Yes! I was impressed with the two floors dedicated to medical science but the remaining floors from third to second weren’t as impressive for me. There was the flight simulator but only for kids and the queue was long. Lots of science stuff on liquids, gases, solids and light. Quite frankly for the age of my group: 18 to 50+, the Science Museum wasn’t as exciting. We scooted off to next door Natural History Museum and we knew we hit gold soon as we stepped into the foyer. We spent a good couple of hours touring the different sections of the museum. After all the history, we finally agreed to call it a day.
Day five: We took an early morning Thames River cruise in the direction of Greenwich (I keep hearing people say greenich). The co-captain of the boat acted as our cruise guide noting places of ‘tourist’ importance. We disembarked on Greenwich – notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The Cutty Sark (reconstructed sea clipper) was on display in all her majesty. The Royal Observatory would have been a nice place to visit but because of the Olympics, the entire section was closed to tourists. We couldn’t take the cable car to cross the river so instead we walked the length of the river through an underwater/underground 800-meter tunnel linkinf Greenwich with the Isle of Dogs. It was surprisingly very cool so the walk was a pleasant stroll. The highlight of our visit was the local market where we had a taste of what I think is steak served with cooked potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. The market comprised of many small stalls selling a variety of stuff from shirts, souvenir plates, costume jewellery and food. If they had chairs and tables it would have been a nice place to sit idly the afternoon.
After lunch we walked back to the pier and took a quick ferry to the Tower of London. There was a long crowd of people queuing to pay 20 pounds per person to see the palace and the jewels. We opted to just walk the streets in the direction of St. Paul’s Cathedral as the Tower of London tourist crowd was just too stifling. St Paul’s Cathedral is majestic and awe inspiring even for non-Christians. Like many visitors to this ancient shrine to Christian belief, we climbed 259 steps from the Cathedral floor to the Whispering Gallery so called because you can hear what another person is saying even from across the entire length of the dome. We sat for a few moments on stone benches overlooking the center of the church. We didn’t dare go up the remaining 119 steps to the Stone Gallery, which encircles the base of the dome on its exterior. Neither did we take a further 200 steps to the Golden Gallery, which would give you a 360 view of London, with views of the River Thames, Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre among other landmarks. My insurance doesn’t cover stupidity.
After St. Paul’s Cathedral we took a short trip a quick detour around the London Museum for a quick study on London history. Truthfully I am never one to like to live in the past so it didn’t take long before we were on our way to Harrods on Brompton Road (via Knightsbridge station) to see what the rich and wealthy do all their MONEY! We left Harrods richer by not spending a dime and just taking photos outside the store. By 8pm we were on our way home.
Day six: We took a 30-minute train ride to New Malden to meet JJ and her family. We went to Kingston by bus, had Chinese buffet for lunch, shopped around the small mall and had dinner at La Tasca, a restaurant specializing in Spanish cuisine. While the venue itself was deserving of a gold star, the service and the food were deserving of nothing short of a scolding in restauranteur 101. Service was bad, we were served the wrong order, and overall it was expensive. For the prices they were charging, I think we deserved more. Nonetheless, it was the company that we came for and it was a very nice relaxing end to the day. We took the train on Kingston station and were back in the hotel about an hour later.
Day seven: We started the day with a walk along the outskirts of Parliament House, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. We walked all the way to Buckingham Palace to watch the daily ritual of the Changing of the Guards – I really can’t see why this daily routine deserved so much attention. It was a scalding day under the heat of the sun. We decided not to stay for the entire duration of the ‘show’ and headed off to Trafalgar Square. We took a short bus ride – it was actually walking distance or a couple of train stops away. Took a lot of snaps in the center of the square, and headed to Regent Street – home of more shops. We spent the rest of the afternoon on Oxford Circus station (again). By nightfall, we were beat and ready to go home.
Day eight: We planned to spend the last evening in London inviting JJ over for dinner – at least that was our plan. Knowing that we only had half a day as Abi would be on her way home from Brighton, we took a train ride to Liverpool Street station and walked around the shops of Spitalfields. Ester got a call from another classmate who said she wanted to see Ester in person and was on her way to London from Bedford. So we headed back to the hotel to meet our guests. I left Ester with her classmate and headed off to Westminster station to meet Abi. After dropping off our luggage, we took the train back to New Malden for some home cooked dinner – our first real dinner since arriving in London. We got back to the hotel before midnight.
Day nine: After breakfast, we went to Waterloo Station for a quick stop at Marks & Spencer to buy some last minute food items as presents to people we know in Hong Kong. We booked a 2pm car to bring us to Heathrow Airport. Ester spent literally an hour queuing up at the VAT refund counter just outside Terminal 3. It turns out there is a similar counter inside the airport itself after immigration and there was almost no queue there. At the airport, we got a bit of a scare when one of the people at a souvenir store mentioned that the Hong Kong International Airport was closed due to Vincente, a typhoon 10 that swept through the city on Tuesday. Luckily, the staff was partially misinformed. According to the Cathay Pacific ground crew, inbound flights to Hong Kong were not affected. We landed in Hong Kong on schedule and were home by early evening.
Summary: London is a beautiful city to visit. It can be expensive – food and transportation are not cheap. The people are generally nice. It is a tourist magnet and hotels and tour operators quickly capitalize on the opportunity. There are some cheap accommodation like Premium Inn and you can live off in London as a tourist on 30-40 pounds a day excluding accommodation. Use a travelcard or Oystercard to avail of travel discounts. Avoid fancy restaurants but recognize that cheap restaurants aren’t necessarily better than fastfood restaurants like Subway or even buying sandwiches from a local deli. The tube or train system is complex and at times very confusing but if you know how to read a map and you know where you want to go, its easy to use.