Thanksgiving was coming up and we hadn’t decided where we should go. Holiday weekends have become much more important now that we are both working full time, but especially so for me as I only get twelve days a year. After being used to 20 plus, it has been a little difficult to adjust to! We mutually decided on a trip back to London. Our first trip was only 36 hours long – not nearly enough, and Nick was keen to head to an English-speaking place again (ok, so was I!)
We awoke bright and early at Frankfurt Hahn airport. Our new method for early morning Ryan Air flights is to save some sanity (from later in the day temper tantrums of our own) and drive up to Frankfurt the night before. It costs around $70 with the current exchange rate for a room at the B&B Hotel at the terminal. That is priceless when 5:30 am rolls around (rather than waking up at 2:30 or 3:00 if we were to leave from home). This time around I figured out we could get $7.00 back if we used Ebates.com to book through booking.com – so it ended up even cheaper than usual!
The flight took about an hour and we did our usual sneaky half-run through the airport to make it first to the customs area. We were the first ones out from our flight and made it onto our pre-booked Stansted Express train in record time. Stansted Express had changed their booking process since our last trip. It now is much cheaper to book in advance – our tickets were half what we paid last time as we booked more than 30 days in advance.
Once we made it to Liverpool Street Station, we bought Oyster cards to see if this trip would end up any cheaper. Once we had loaded them with some cash, we headed out to find the bus that would take us directly to our hotel. Unfortunately, our data wasn’t kicking in on our roaming phones and was unable to guide us to the bus stop – it’s never a nice feeling to start a holiday stressed out, and unfortunately that is what happened until we miraculously found the bus stop. The bus stop name didn’t match the bus that we needed either, but it was the same one, so that further added some confusion! We did somehow end up at our hotel.
I got our hotel through Priceline express deals as I couldn’t handle paying the rack rate for London. It ended up being around $160 a night (still pricey!) but it was right on the River Thames and about a ten minute walk to Vauxhall tube station. All in all, it was a good hotel, but we wouldn’t stay there again. They seem to be unable to heat each room individually and instead chose to have the entire hotel as a sauna, with no way of escaping the heat.
We set out after leaving our bags with the concierge (it was only about 9am at this stage!) and set off to do some sightseeing. We took the tube to Harrods and took a good look around all of the levels this time – it was awesome, but slightly sickening to see things with $1 million + price tags. We ended up walking to Hard Rock Café for Thanksgiving lunch. It was an awesome walk past some great shops and we even ended up passing a New Zealand monument area, full of facts about NZ and war memorials.
Hard Rock Café London was interesting. The ladies who worked there were all older ladies, ours was definitely pushing pension age, but they rocked their little dresses. Nick had the Thanksgiving lunch and I had my usual chicken twisted mac. We seem to always have to go to a Hard Rock now when they are in the city we are in. The discount we get due to Nick’s job, and also the free refills are draw cards!
We walked back to the Westminster area after lunch, partly trying to walk off our full bellies, partly because we weren’t near a public transport route. I had booked cheap theatre tickets on lastminute.co.uk for the show ‘Wicked’ but part of the deal was that you had to collect your tickets on the day of the show. Apollo Theatre is opposite Victoria train station, so that was convenient as Vauxhall is on the same tube line. Picking up the tickets was easy and completely worth the savings. I had got our tickets for 45 pound (~$70) compared to the normal rate for our seats, which was 150 pound (~$225)!
After catching a quick nap back at the hotel, we headed back to Apollo for our show. We had slept too long and didn’t have enough time to grab a bite to eat before the show, so we ended up stopping by a small Mark & Spencers in the Victoria station to grab something quick to eat. They ended up having some awesome sandwiches and salads for a really reasonable price, which we sat and ate in the train station as we watched the nightlife go by. We also ended up returning later that night to get some more supplies for breakfast – they even had hot cross buns year round! That was a highlight for me.
The show was incredible. I had heard Wicked was a highly rated show, but after our experience in New York watching Phantom of the Opera, I was a little hesitant to get excited. Wicked blew that experience out of the park (although that wouldn’t have been difficult). The two lead actresses were highly talented singers and we were transfixed throughout. The stage was always vibrant and exciting, and it helped that we had excellent seats. I would highly recommend anyone reading to go to the show. Go, even if you aren’t sure theatre would be your thing. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. We will definitely be seeing another show next time we are in London.
Friday was our ‘down day’. I hadn’t planned anything in particular tourist wise, so we were able to sleep in after our rather hectic Thursday. As luck would have it, my friend and former colleague, Katie, lived in London and as she has just had a gorgeous wee baby, she was free to meet up.
We wandered down the River Thames to meet up with Katie down past the London Eye at a baby-friendly café called Giraffe. Along the way we ended up passing an amazing Christmas market which had a Swedish cider (Rekorderlig) hut set up! We had planned to return, but when we did it was packed full and we were unable to even make it anywhere near the hut, let alone get inside it for a drink!
Further past the Christmas market full of little stands was a food market. We were lost trying to find the café and ended up coming across it by mistake, but we were so glad we did. There were foods from every part of the world and they all smelled and looked amazing. It looked like it was a regular occurrence, not just part of the Christmas market. Had we had more time (it seems like you always need more time in London) we would have eaten there for one of our main meals.
Katie and I used to work at Ernst & Young together in Christchurch. She was my ‘mentor’ that you get assigned as an intern. She’s always so lovely and down to earth, and seems to be adjusting to motherhood to sweet wee Scarlett just fine! It was great to catch up with a friendly face that I associate with home, and I’m so glad that we will be able to catch up again as her and her husband have no plans to return from London anytime soon!
After meeting up with Katie we headed into the city as I wanted to do a wee spot of clothes shopping. First was a dinner stop to Chinatown for some Asian food. We picked the busiest place and while it was good, it wasn’t anything to write home about. We walked from there into the shopping district, but unfortunately it was so busy that we just couldn’t deal with the foot traffic. We found a Tesco to grab some food for the next day at and headed back to the hotel so we could get some good sleep in before our big day the next day.
We were collected early the next morning by our tour guide from Evan Evans Tours. I actually booked it through viator.com – it was the ‘Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Bath day trip’ on there. Keep an eye out for their promotional emails that come out – they often have 10% discount emails that last for a couple of days. We ended up saving a few dollars through that!
After we were picked up, we were dropped off at Victoria Coach station to catch our actual bus. I did not realize that Victoria Coach and Victoria Train station were actually two different things, so I’m thankful that our hotel was one that we were able to be picked up from or that would have added some stress to the morning!
The tour set off early with our first stop being Windsor Castle. Last trip we did Buckingham Palace, so it was only natural that we saw the other castle. As it turned out, Her Highness happened to be present while we were there! Apparently the flag is the telltale sign, and it was showing her as in residence, so that was a wee bit exciting for this royal nerd.
We only had about one and a half hours to do the entire self-guided audio tour. This was not enough. I can imagine it would be easy to spend at least a half-day to truly see everything in the staterooms. We ended up not having enough time to listen to the audio tour or we never would have made it back to the bus in time. It was still lovely to be able to walk through the rooms though, and we even had some banter with one of the staffers there in the room that the Royal Family has their Christmas dinner at! It was all decorated and the staffer thought that the Christmas trees weren’t Christmassy enough, so he was asking everyone what they thought. It was a bit hilarious! Nick also got told off for taking photos inside. I did tell him he was being naughty!
Next stop was Stonehenge. To me it was one of the bucket list things to see. People always say it is overrated, and maybe it is, but I thought it was awesome. Our tour guide told us a lot of the history on the way, and when you think about it, it really is a feat that they could have moved those stones so far, so long ago. I was not disappointed seeing them in person! People say you can’t get close enough to them – but what do they want to do, walk all over them like we saw Americans doing in the Coliseum in Rome? No, I think they are smart in having a circle around them to preserve them.
Yes you can see Stonehenge by walking through the fields to avoid the entrance fee. Please don’t be that cheap. Your ticket is paying for the conservation and education of these artifacts. Just pay the entrance fee and then you can get your close-to-Stonehenge photos.
Next stop was Bath! I knew nothing about Bath beforehand and was kind of annoyed that they were reducing time at the other two places to fit a third in. As it turned out, Bath was pretty cool. Again, it would need at least a day or two to do it justice. Going around Christmas was perfect timing too as they had an amazing Christmas market. Our tour included entry to the Roman Baths. We weren’t able to experience them (the water is practically acidic) but they were neat to look at.
Bath seemed much more authentically England, the buildings were all beautiful, the people were all nice and there seemed to be something about walking into some of the shops that made you feel as though you were in ‘England’. There was a little art show on that we went into and it reminded me of all the art shows I was dragged along to as a child in New Zealand. It made me quite nostalgic!
The bus ride back took about three hours and the bus driver put on some Christmas carols. I would rather have done Stonehenge and Windsor Castle on our own, but this tour was the most economical and easiest way to see them. As it turned out, our tour guide Emily made the entire (l.o.n.g) day very enjoyable. We were dropped off back at the coach station and made our way to a London pub recommended by Emily for a dinner of fish n chips – pub style. So yummy! I don’t doubt that it added a little layer of clogging to my arteries, but it was delicious.
We ended up walking back to our hotel from the pub as we were between two tube stations and it didn’t make sense to backtrack. It took us about half an hour and it was pretty interesting to walk through the streets of London that late at night. I expected it to be much busier than it was, but it didn’t feel unsafe. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but in that situation it was the best solution for us rather than paying for a cab.
One thing I wanted to do this time before leaving London was do a shop of things I can’t get in Germany or America that I need for baking and cooking. We got up, checked out and headed to the closest big supermarket we could find. It ended up being over by Shepherds Bush. We had brought a gym bag along with us and ended up filling it to the brim with drinks, baking stuff and lots of goodies. We ended up spending about 100 pound there, but poor Nick ended up having to lug it through London as I forgot the strap. Talk about a workout (and no, he wasn’t happy with me!)
We wound our way through the tube to make it to Liverpool station so that we could catch the Stansted Express back to the airport. It was just near Liverpool station that we had our first event that tainted our view of London (and it was going so well!) We were waiting in line for some lunch when a guy started yelling at Nick. It turned out that Nick’s backpack had apparently bumped into this guy’s kid. He was screaming at Nick telling him to apologise to his son in this way that only rotten old Englishmen can do. I knew Nick was about to blow his fuse, so I dragged him out of there before there ended up being a punch up. I’ve never seen or heard anything so ludicrous before!
There was food at the train station so we grabbed some before heading back to the airport. It took both of us awhile to calm down from the situation, so it made sense to get out of the area. We headed for the train and ended up exasperated because for whatever reason the train was packed. And I mean packed. We walked down the 15 or so carriages and there wasn’t a seat in sight and everyone was standing. It turns out that local commuters can take the train too, so once a couple of stops passed we were able to grab some seats. The train takes a little under an hour, so we were thankful that they freed up.
Stansted Airport has not grown fast enough for its passenger carrying capacity. When we got there, the place was packed to the brim. The security line ended up with people fighting over people cutting in – just ridiculous. We gave ourselves plenty of time which we were happy about, a lot of other people didn’t do the same and there looked to be a lot of unhappy, grumpy faces. Moral of the story – if you are traveling peak time (Sunday night) then get to Stansted early!
Germany was foggy on our return and we ended up having a pretty interesting drive home. I will never understand how the GPS comes up with the route it takes, but we made it home in time to get a few hours of sleep before work.
We will definitely be heading back to London again, next time to visit Wales and Oxford!
Until next time,