London Notes – Visit to the UK (London and Ashdown Park Hotel) Late December 2006

Virgin Atlantic still has the best business class in the sky; it’s basically first class, and their premium economy is everyone else’s business class, at least as far as the seat is concerned. Good food; even the fish in the airport club was fresh. Don’t count on doing much reading on night flights; the cabin is dark and your personal light isn’t much. The personal suites are not great for couples traveling together but if you take a center pod and ask before the flight leaves, they can lower the divider between the seats. The lie-flat seats are good for having room to sit around with a kid. 6:10 flying time to London from NY; 6:45 returning. Take advantage of Virgin’s arrival club at Heathrow for a full breakfast and a salon with all kinds of treatments available. The British pound at 2:1 against the dollar really makes it expensive; a bowl of soup with a piece of bread at Selfridge’s cafeteria was $11; or fish and chips with a vegetable, cake and juice makes for $35; a single ride on the tube is $6 but a daypass is $10; the Heathrow Express is $30 into town. My best advice is to just ignore what you’re paying while here or else you could never enjoy it. Remember that it was always at least 1.5 pounds to the dollar so it’s not that much more than before. You really feel the prices when you shop; I’m not paying $220 for a Lanvin tie; so instead I went to Harrods and Marks and Spencers and bought house brands and there it wasn’t so bad. There are lots of sales going on and that helps; the prices at Marks and Spencers in London were the same as they were in Bermuda the month before. There is no VAT on baby clothes so that means you can’t get a VAT refund on that stuff. A little context: Even though it feels ridiculously expensive on day to day stuff, high end hotels and fine dining are still comparably reasonable to Manhattan prices. The US is not a cheap place to be a tourist and most Americans are not tourists in New York and don’t realize what places get.

I stayed again at the Savoy where I had been 4 years before. Still a nice hotel but needs renovations particularly in the guest room bathrooms. Had a junior suite with river view of the London Eye and Big Ben; use the American Express platinum for the upgrade and the inclusive breakfasts and afternoon tea. Gelato at the food court in Selfridge’s is excellent and their slogan is “Life is too short to eat bad ice cream.” We found nice baby clothes at Marks and Spencers and Harrods; Selfridge’s in all respects was disappointing in terms of clothes. Good shows I saw included “Dancing in the Streets” with every Motown hit they could get the rights to; everyone danced in the aisles and in front of their seats. Great show to take someone to if you want to feel “in the mood” — the women in the audience loved it. Another absolutely fantastic show I saw was Billy Elliot; I had no intention of seeing this but decided to take a chance and was told it was a top show if not one of the best musicals in Britain. Definitely fantastic and in my pantheon of all-time best shows. It’s a musical about a boy living in coal mining country militantly involved in and suffering from the strikes of the 1980’s who wants to be a ballet dancer and how his macho family comes around to supporting him in the endeavor. Lots of talent, heart, dancing and crying in the audience at some of the moments in the show. I’ve always been rewarded when I take a chance at London’s theater. Marks and Spencers opened a great line of food shops with marvelous takeout from sandwiches to everything else ready to eat. We had the greatest strawberries that were in from Egypt. The sandwich chain Pret a Manger now has breadless sandwiches and a line of healthy meals, not yet in the US. The restaurant chain Garfunkel’s is everywhere and is reasonably priced at least in the sense that you can get salmon patties with broccoli, french fries and veges for about $15.

On Saturday I got to 4 museums in central London; they’re all free entrance to the permanent exhibitions. Tate, Tate Modern, National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. I wouldn’t recommend doing this except if you’re nuts. They are all nice museums but not that particularly memorable. I needed to buy butt cream afterward. The Boots pharmacy was closed and had a sign telling me to go across town for an open pharmacy; but there was another Boots about 50 feet away that was open late. Go figure. I should probably add Desitin cream to the packing list for city walkabout visits. Ended that day with an 11pm walk on the Jubilee bridge to the sounds of Big Ben and the view of the London Eye ferris wheel.

Left on Sunday for the Limmud conference; notes will be posted separately as to interesting things I heard there. The UK Railroad system very rationally priced — 45 pounds one way to Nottingham off-peak; 57 pounds one way peak; 39 pounds round trip off-peak.

Returned to London with Karen and Elizabeth; stayed a night at the Sheraton Park Lane. Stayed there because we had a decent price from Starwood but the hotel needed better air conditioning and I wound up sleeping without a shirt in the middle of the winter. Also couldn’t get through to the front desk for 2 hours from outside the hotel as they don’t pick up the phone. Not my favorite hotel. We were surprised at how little choice there is in baby food here. Dinner at the Ritz Hotel was expected to be memorable and it was truly excellent. They have a 4 course prixe fix menu for 65 pounds which is good value for what it is. Dinner was accompanied by a 5 piece orchestra; they have dancing on the weekends and on weeknights in December before Christmas. Babysitters run about 6-7 pounds per hour. A very good store for toys in the UK is Early Learning Center; they have lots of locations and a website but don’t ship to the US. Lots of educational toys there that we don’t see in the US. 

Transferred 90 minutes to Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club, about 30 minutes beyond Gatwick airport and about an hour from Heathrow. This is Winnie the Pooh country, home of the legend. Lovely country manor hotel of about 150 rooms in a scenic rural area with charm and old stone castle look; used to be a convent. Hotel has a spa and nice walking trails and gardens with a little lake in the back. Even in the winter it was a very relaxing enjoyable place to be. Lots of sitting rooms; beautiful restaurant and the prices were reasonable. The rooms were spacious and our suite was perfect. Very good place to vege out for the sabbath before returning on Sunday. No elevator here and we had to climb stairs to get to the room; left the stroller at the valet desk. We had to change rooms at first; they gave us a split-level junior suite which was a disaster with a small kid; had to bug several people before we got the suite we originally ordered and they forgot to reserve a babysitter and told us they had no babysitting service (we later got them to find a sitter and found out they used sitters plenty) but aside from these snafus at check-in by what was probably an inexperienced staffer it was a fine hotel. Elizabeth loved climbing the stairs for the first time in her life and met a very nice boy whose heart she broke when she left England. She had her face in his chest and I wondered if he was going to ask her to marry him. My wife flew with Elizabeth without me on the way over and was determined for me to have the full experience on the way back. Except for a 5 minute meltdown midway through the flight when she couldn’t resist sleep anymore, Elizabeth came out of this just perfect, even better than her mum. They provided baby food on Virgin, heated her bottles and basically it makes what should be a miserable travel experience a bit less miserable (you can’t escape the fact that little infants have to be constantly watched even if you want to go and pee); she loved walking around the cabin and sitting on the bar and there were a good number of little boo-boos on the flight as well as in the hotels. Seems to be that the best way to get kids used to traveling is to travel. Not that we expect to go across the pond again for a while; it is a different trip when you are going with kids but it is possible to have a good time and as you can see this year we managed not to stop having fun just because we had a kid. Get a suite in a hotel so that you can close a door on your little sleeping kid, use a car to transfer places instead of taking taxis and then trains for short distances (price might work out the same as well without all the bother and you can ask for cars with car seats as well), book the babysitter and consider business class especially when the kid is not yet 2 years old and you don’t have to pay yet for their ticket except 10% of the fare and the taxes. Over Christmas Virgin’s upper class sells at a 75% discount and it is just a step over the economy fares because business people aren’t traveling at that time. Look for these sales in mid November. I’ve seen them now for several years in a row.

Airport security hell: At JFK they patted down Karen and Elizabeth. Wanted to see her diaper. “You pull it; you change it” said Karen referring to the possible poo inside and that got them less interested. At Heathrow, they confiscated the baby butt rash creams and insisted Karen try the baby food even though her hands were dirty and we had no spoon with us. The zaniness continues as airport security looks at things instead of people. One lady got searched; she asked why and was told by a security colleague that she was a pretty blonde and the man probably was interested in her. Meanwhile, all this searching and insisting on no carryon-bags  takes up time and we had no time for the duty free or the airport lounge. Somebody has a great thing going — right next to the check-in area at Heathrow he sells suitcases for $50 for all the stuff you hoped to carry on. I had thought the Europeans were more practical than the Americans — now I realize they’ve all simply gone nuts.

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