England and Scotland
Our trip to London began in Chicago. Cricket and I again found ourselves in different parts of the country prior to our trip. We were forced to rendezvous in a convenient location and what better place than the Hilton at OHare Field in Chicago. Chicago, in addition to being central to our travels, offered an American flight that arrived in London at 10:30 PM on same day as the day of departure. The Hilton was surprisingly quiet and very comfortable for a hotel situated next to the runways and allowed us to walk to an airport train and the flight without additional transportation.
Unfortunately, our trip followed the first of two bombings meant to terrorize London in the Summer of 05; so we werent sure what to expect upon arrival. But as promised we arrived at Heathrow in London in time to catch the Heathrow Express (per Tony Blairs advice on the telly) and a taxi to the hotel. We were in bed by midnight (5:00 pm in Chicago).
We again stayed at the Stafford (http://www.thestaffordhotel.co.uk/) our favorite place in London for the past 15 years. The Stafford is located on Little St. James Street, a half block from Bond Street and some of the best shopping in the world. By the way room numbers ending in 12s are always a good bet at the Stafford. We did find out however that the hotel has acquired the property next door toward St James Street and is currently undergoing a total renovation. We and they will keep you informed. One of the highlights of this visit was finding a new restaurant in St James Park which replaced the old brat and beer stand. The restaurant called Inn the Park ( http://www.urbanpath.com/london/cafes/inn-the-park.htm) was built in a contemporary style with lots of light wood and glass. The service was excellent and the food bordered on gourmet. Not bad for an old beer and brat house.
We had never toured the War rooms at the west end of the park. So we decided this was the time (bombings and what have you) to step back into the 40s and revisit some of the courage of Englands past heroes. The entire exhibit was fascinating. The original rooms under the war department were still intact with the communications room (different colored phones) and the map room (with real maps and a tiny depiction of DerFurher on the corner of one of the maps). In addition, the sleeping quarters for Churchill and his staff with cots and basins showed what difficult times these were.
We ended the day with an organ concert at Westminster Cathedral and then retired for our trip to Edinburgh.
Our trip began at Kings Cross station in London where we purchased two first class tickets for 286 pounds. The scenery was gorgeous particularly as you approached Scotland where the train that follows the rugged coastline. The train was the only through train and is known as the Royal Scotsman. Its famous for its older cars with burled wood and fine dining.
Upon arrival, we taxied to The Howard, our hotel at 34 Great King Street. What a pleasant surprise. We were upgraded to the Trinity suite-a luxurious golden suit with a outdoor seating area, antique furnishings and the ultimate multi-jet shower-all for 188 pounds per.www.thehoward.com.
That evening we dined at Bellinis at number 8B Abercrombie Place (http://www.rampantscotland.com/besteating/best_eating_dev_bellini.htm). We were served fresh sole with lemon sauce; wild mushroom ravioli in herb butter sauce; great house salad so crisp and arranged in groups by ingredients; grilled veggies; whiskey ice cream; Amerone 1997 and a chocolate finish. Edinburgh is a late night eating town. Dinner is at 8:30 or 9:00 pm.
Day 2 was sunny but also cloudy and windy and in the 60s. It was July, but one still needed a wrap. (Weather is a problem here.) After breakfast in dining room at the Howard, we cabbed to the shops on the Royal Mile for a cashmere wrap and a pink cashmere scarf for CC. Then we were off to Edinburgh Castle for long audio tour.
The Scots were a scrappy lot- a lot of battles occurred here. The castle was interesting with gorgeous, but windy vistas from all points. After an hour or so of exploring, we lunched not far from castle at The Secret Garden Restaurant at the Witchery (http://www.thewitchery.com/home.html). Cricket enjoyed tomato consume with scallops and pasta with crustaceans. Dru enjoyed veal in butter sauce with pasta and salmon spread on toast. The maitre de seemed more like Laguna than Scotland. We next visited St Giles Church, where John Knox founded the Presbyterian Church. The Robert Burns window was interpreted by an elderly Scotsman with a perfect brogue. We next headed to the new town and walked Princes Street (the main shopping district). Toward days end, we stopped at Guilford Arms Pub (http://www.pubsandbeer.co.uk/index.php?ID=P&pub=254&O=&S=0&search=guilford), with its opulent 1890s dcor. It is located one block east of St. Andrews Street and a half block off of Princes across from the Scottish Registry.
Dinner was at the Howard.
Day 3 was warmer and sunny. We walked to the National Botanic Gardens (About 20 minutes from The Howard). This was Crickets favorite spot in Edinburgh. The Beech hedge and perennial border were most spectacular we have seen.
The Garden, 70 acres in all, contained incredible trees from around the world.
In one section we found a great rock garden. In another was an entire area of Chinese plants from Southwest China. We would love to have seen the gigantic Rhodys in bloom. Maybe some spring...
By the way, do not eat at the Garden Caf. It should be Garden Cafeteria, with lines and plastic chairs.
We walked back toward the Howard and stopped at the Olive Branch Bakery and Cafe (http://www.theolivebranchscotland.co.uk/index.html )which is just down road from the east entrance to garden. We thought we had been transported back to coastal California. Excellent fresh, au courant food.Grilled fresh veggie stack with goat cheese and lettuce. Smoked salmon in crme fraise and horseradish wrapped in crepe. Chips and slaw.Great combos.
At the Caf we learned of a river walk to Leith, the small port city near Edinburgh. We took a left at the river just outside the caf and followed the idyllic river walk (Leith Walk) to Leith. The old port town contained many new condos (mostly attractive) with water views. Leith seems to be quite a busy working port. At the end of the walk are a large square and many restaurants facing the river as it empties into Firth of Forth. We taxied home and that evening we went Thai Lemongrass on Hanover Street.
The next day we toyed with the idea of going to the Highlands by car, but decided there was still too much to see in Edinburgh. We started on foot again to the old town. We kept hunting for a cashmere scarf for my Scottish brother-in-law, again without success. We finally settled on another clans tartan and a paper weight. Our stop for lunch was at Bella Italia on Cannongate (not bad for an Italian lunch in Scotland-I guess the reader is getting the impression that the Crews arent into Haggis). We then proceeded to the Palace of Holyrood House (the name is from a piece of the cross). The palace was built in 1498 and prior that there was a monastery on the site built in1128. All that is left of the monastery are the skeletal remains and the beautiful gardens. The Palace of Holyrood House is currently the official residence of the Queen of England. The Palace is the site of the liaisons of Mary, Queen of Scots which led a stay in the Tower and to a terminal condition.
A new museum adjacent to the palace holds the paintings collected by the Queen Mother. Both were worthwhile. And least we forget the Magna Carta, check out the new, modern parliament building across from the palace.
We next stopped at a tea shop just up from the palace and across from parliament called Clarindas tearoom at 69 Cannongate.
That evening we again ate on Hanover Street. This time we selected Patio (http://weblog.brunton.org.uk/reviews/archives/eating_out_4_stars/patio_-_edinbur.html#more), an Italian (actually we eat at Scot restaurants in Italy) restaurant to the north of Queen Street. Great pasta and fish. Cricket had her usual Dorade and I had pasta with olive oil and clams. The wine was from one of our favorite vineyards in Italy, St Felice. We had fresh fried sardines as a starter. We met some fellow Americans from Sebastopol, California, north of Napa. The mother was traveling with her two grown children through Scotland and Ireland. We shared stories.
We were off on Saturday to Oxford. We found out that the concierge at the Howard was from Vancouver Island, Canada. We reminisced about our recent trip to Tofino and Longs Beach. After a 15 minute taxi ride to the train station, we, just by coincidence, found the 1st class lounge-very nice accommodations. While we watched a Cricket (no relation) match on the telly, we discovered that we were to be on Virgin Rail (as in Sir Richard). First class on a Virgin train is not the same as first class on British Rail. Your free drinks are in plastic cups and are accompanied by pre wrapped, Tuna salad sandwiches.
We were on our way to a week long course at Christ Church College in Oxford. The summer courses are called the Oxford Experience (http://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/courses/international/oxfordexperience.asp). They are held each summer at Oxford at Christ Church College, one of thirty nine colleges at Oxford (http://www.ox.ac.uk/colleges/) and one of the oldest. By the way the dinning hall is the model for the Hogsworth's dinning hall of Harry Potter fame, and you cant see it unless you are a student there. This is almost worth the price of admission.
Cricket was the graduate of two previous courses at the Oxford Experience and Dru was the graduate of one. So we both had enough prior "experience" not to stay in the dorm rooms. This was not an option however. So we had to sneak out of the back gate of Christ Church (kind of like the old days) to the Old Bank Hotel (http://www.oldbank-hotel.co.uk/). The hotel which is just two blocks away is very modern and unlike the dorm had a private bath.
Our room was room 24 and although small was a "larger room" according to the management
Sunday is opening day at the Experience, when you check in, meet your instructor and have an opening evening cocktail reception. Our course was to be The Grand Tour. Our instructor was Gail Bent who lived in both Canada and Great Britain and had both an educational and design background. There were eight students in the course who came from Australia, the US and New Zealand.
The Grand Tour encapsulated that period of time from the early 18th century to the early 19th century. During this time period the aristocracy sent their sons and tutors to Italy to study and absorb the classics and to return with noble thoughts and as much neoclassic memorabilia as they could afford with which to furnish their newly columnized and classicized estates.
The course was fascinating and Gail did an excellent job of bringing the people and their times to life.
Oxford is a great town in which to be in college, if only for a week. If this is your first visit, be sure to take a walking tour to learn the history and how the scholastic system works. Be sure you ask about the continued search for the mallard at All Saints College. Visit Christ Church College and the New College, the oldest college in Oxford (1200s).
And when you have completed your tours, stop for fish, chips and ale at the Turf, one of the best pubs in all of England. And while we are on pubs, another pub that is a must is the Eagle and Child (the Bird and Baby) (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~d-lena/DPaxsong.html). This is where the Inklings (http://personal.bgsu.edu/~edwards/inklings.html ), C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and other great writers, used to meet every Thursday morning to share their thoughts and a few beers. Lastly there is the Bear, a tiny and very old pub just outside the back gate of Christ Church. A rather clever book for sight seeing is Eccentric Oxford which guides you to the best pubs and also to the nearby town of Binsey and the Perch, walkable from Oxford. As you walk to Binsey, you will walk through Jericho, Victorian Oxford, where you will find a good Italian restaurant, Branca. The Quod at the Old Bank is also an excellent place to dine.Great side trips from Oxford are Blenheim, the Duke of Marlboroughs Estate, and in total contrast the country residence of William Morris at Kelmscott House.
After the Deans wine tasting in Alices garden (we never saw the Cheshire cat), we said good-by to our new found friends and headed back to London and the Stafford.
Back to London
There was a heavier police presence this time because of a second attempted bombing of the Tube. On this leg of the journey we were able to take in the FridaKahlo exhibit at the New Tate. We lunched at the XO tower and dined at the Tamarind restaurant (http://www.londontown.com/LondonInformation/Restaurant/Tamarind/4e93) before heading back to the USA.