Friday, July 29, 2011

London...Planned! Part II

Here are a few snapshots of my London planning binder, if you're interested. I will take about half of this on the trip with me, leaving the un-used bits behind. I'll also be leaving with my roommate copies of everything (including passport, credit and debit cards, ID, hotel info and itinerary) in case something happens.
I tend to decorate...everything. 
Two rows of tabs and pocketed inserts.  Categories include things like: flight,  insurance, lodging, itinerary, passport/ID, packing list, credit cards, to-do, tickets

My working packing list. I'll include a blog later about packing light. 
My the first of my actual 5 page itinerary. Even though my time isn't planned to the minute, I did include sights in certain neighborhoods for when I find myself wandering. You can see I've included maps for easy reference. I won't have to search at the train station for directions. That kind of move also marks you as a tourist.

My pre-purchased tickets! Everything is much cheaper when pre-booked, and it often comes with useful information.  I've also got confirmations pages for everything printed out and included in the binder.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


With the arrival of my very own Oyster card (the way you pay to ride the London Underground) in the mail, my planning for London is officially completed. All my dreams and schemes now reside in a tidy three-ring binder, along with an itinerary which I will share with you here. I purposefully did not plan every moment of my two weeks in London, because it's definitely important to remain flexible while traveling (especially while alone), but there are a few things I knew I wanted to do, and booking ahead saves a lot of money. I did try to create an itinerary that allowed me to do whatever, but gave me an idea of the area I was in, and what could be found around. I also included directions and maps for hotels and other sights, so I don't have to look them up when I'm there. I'm giving you a watered down itinerary here, and will try to update day by day while in London. So here goes my "booked" list of things to do:

Alison's Itinerary AUGUST, 2011

Day 1: Wander around Kensington 
Day 2: Dutch Landscapes Exhibition at the Queen's Gallery and a visit to the Royal Mews
Day 3: Windsor Castle Tour and Great Kitchen Tour
Day 4: Borough Market
Day 5: Anne Boylen at The Globe Theatre
Day 6: London Dungeon and the Tower of London!
Day 7: Bus tour of Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath 
Day 8: Private champagne tour of Buckingham Palace
Day 9: Afternoon gluten free tea at Claridge's, Madame Tussaud's
Day 10: Wander!
Day 11: Portobello Road Market, Wander!
Day 12:  Wander!

I'll post a picture of my travel binder later on!

Gluten Free London

I have to give a great big round of applause to Nutritious and Delicious' blog, Gluten Free London. While prepping this trip to London I wanted to plan ahead for some gluten-free treats, and this blog has been a lifesaver! London is a fairly celiac friendly town (they spell it coeliac), so I knew I might have some good options. Although living gluten free has been relatively painless, I was a bit disheartened to know I couldn't partake of most traditional English foods. Most of all was my sadness at not being able to have high tea, a ceremonious and epic meal-time event that involves not just tea (uh, gluten free duh) but the cutest little nibbles served on dainty silver platters, all glistening with deliciousness and ornamental yumminess, but oft including bread or pastry (think little cucumber sandwiches [without the crust because I'm not a peasant] and scones). What's a celiac gal to do? Luckily, Nutritious and Delicious' blog gave me many options for a gluten free afternoon tea. Upon their recommendation of the very famous Claridge's, I was able to book one of only TWO available tables for singles during my time there. (A full month in advance, they were already booked!) I noted on my reservation about my dietary concerns, and have full confidence I will receive a sublime and spectacular tea service. Needless to say, I'm stoked to get to fully enjoy this tradition. And while it's pretty pricey, I justify it because it's as necessary to do as it is to see Buckingham Palace. And since I'll be eating beans and jelly (that's British english for jell-o) from the grocery store the rest of the time, I think I'll indulge this once.  I have located a few gastropubs and a fish n'chips places that will do gluten free, and I will include reviews of those once I've thoroughly *ahem* researched their fare.

The most important thing I realized is that I can't be upset in the slightest that I'm limited in experiencing the full flavor of English cuisine. For one thing, it's not exactly the finest of dining (sorry England) and for another,  I'll be too busy RUNNING AROUND IN LONDON to really care about what I'm eating!

But it is very, very nice to have these gluten free options. So thank you, Nutritious and Delicious, for your gluten free London blog! And thank you to the English people for your awareness!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

London Calling

I was talking to my brother (a major business traveler) earlier this year about the mileage I have racked up on American Airlines. I thought my current miles would buy me a round trip ticket to Europe, but my brother pointed out it would get me a one way ticket. I was pretty disappointed, because I had been hoping those miles would help me start my solo traveling adventure. My brother then told me about the American Airlines fare sales they post on their website. Most of the time, you have to leave within a week or two, and can only be gone a short amount of time. The destination is totally up to fate, and you never know what could show up. This sounded...amazing. I could book a flight to some crazy, dreamy land I'd never been, grab a guide book and a list of hostels and set out, in search of new experiences. I told my wonderful boss about this crazy scheme, and warned her I might take off for a few days with little notice. Being an avid traveler herself, she totally understood. (Best boss ever!)

After searching for a few weeks on AA, they posted a sale fare to Heathrow, London, with a later travel date two months away.


Not exactly the strangest, most exotic place.

Not really at the drop of a hat, either.

But the idea gained momentum. I'd been there twice, sure. But I was five months old the first time, and the second was just a long layover where we ventured into the city for about five hours.

I'd also have more time to plan. And be able to stay there much longer, perhaps two weeks! (Makes the price of the plane ticket seem more worthwhile.)

It would still be a new experience, even though they speak my language there (sorta). There are plenty of things to see. "So why not?"I thought. I'll do a slow-ease into this solo travel business by giving London a thorough run-through for two weeks. Plus you can't beat the price of the plane ticket there with this sale.

So booked it I did, and then used a combination of TripAdvisor and travel guide books to narrow down the area in which I would stay, and the hostel that would be my home base for two weeks. (I did decide that I should stay in a hotel just the first two nights, to get my bearings.)

Hotel prices being what they are in London (sheer bloody murder), I found a great hostel near Abbey Road, a bit out of the way of the major stuff, but easily accessible by two close Tube stations. The hostel is Palmer's Lodge, Swiss Cottage, located in the old Palmer's mansion (of Palmer's biscuit fame), where I'll stay in a 10-bed female dorm. The cost is a little higher than some hostels, but it's in London, so of course it's expensive. 18£ on weeknights, 21£ on weekends.  I'll be posting a review later.

And my hotel is the Kensington Gardens Hotel, a 7 room baby, small, cozy place that is a part of the larger, Best Western type hotel a few hundred yards away (which I call the Papa hotel). Kensington Gardens Hotel is very close to Paddington Station, where the Heathrow Express ends up. Normally you can take the Tube into the main area of London, but since I'll be arriving at 9:30pm, I opted for the Heathrow Express, a direct, 15 minute "luxury" train ride that goes directly to Paddington Station. So it'll be conveniently located for getting to Kensington Garden's Hotel late at night. After 6pm guests must go to the Papa hotel next door to get the room key. Funny, no? But I do get full buffet breakfast included at the Papa, which is nice. (Meaning I can load up on the non-gluten options!) A bonus was that the hotel offers a special Rick Steve's discount when you mention him upon booking. So I got about 20£ off per night! Which is a VERY good deal. When booking a room you have to check if the restroom is attached or if it's separate, usually in the same hall, but sometimes on a different floor. Rooms with bathrooms attached are called en suite, and cost more. Sometimes you can get an en suite shower with a separate toilet. This is the case at the Kensington Garden's Hotel, where I'll be staying my first two nights, for around 50£. I think I'll stop here for the day, since now you know where I'll be showering and going to the bathroom. TMI?

More on my sight-seeing plans to come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Like It's the First Time...

I have had the great fortune to have already traveled quite a bit. I've been to some wondrous places, seen people and done things that are incredible. Unfortunately, I do not remember 90% of these trips, as I was too young, or too uninvolved to capture complete memories. In my first passport, I was 2 months old. My entire body fits in the frame, and I'm sitting in my father's hand. When I was 5 months old, my family went to France and England. I sat up in London for the first time, and with this new ability almost fell out of my stroller and off the towers at Notre Dame de Paris. I went on several school organized tours from middle school through high school, always over Spring Break. We got an exchange student from France, Florence, and our mothers became good friends. So we began to travel to France in the summers to see them. They took us all around to wonderful places that most tourists don't go. But I have very few memories of those places. I wish I had kept better travel journals, but I was just a kid. I couldn't have known how much I would want those memories later, or how easily they would slip away.

I didn't come away completely empty handed, however, and I do not mean to discourage anyone from traveling with children. Something very valuable can be gained by introducing kids to the world. These early experiences surrounded me with art, culture, and tradition far different from my own. Appreciation is perhaps an overused word, but it applies in this instance, because I understood that the world did not consist of my hometown, and that I was a piece of something much larger than myself. I may not have great memories, or be able to recall the names of the churches and the hillside villages and the famous sights, but I do have a familiarity, and a respect for them. Because my emotional reaction to what I was seeing has stayed with me longer than the details of where I was. I wish to never cease to be amazed by everything.

Aside from my spontaneous few hours in Paris (from my first post), there was one other trip before that tilled the soil in which I planted my solo travel seed. When I was a junior in undergrad, one of my favorite teachers from The University of North Texas, Professor Cynthia Mohr, organized a trip to Florence and Rome for a small group of students. She provided travel planning and the hotel; we were to build our own itineraries. If I wanted to sleep in and eat gelato 24/7, that was my business. She was the safety net, and we were the acrobats, flinging around through Florence at our own whims for 7 days. I planned on a few museums, picked out some nice walking tours, and was looking forward to a week of exploration. Upon arrival, I found my two roommates hadn't planned anything at all, and so I became a tour guide for them, taking them to the places I had planned, and reading my walking tours out loud instead of in my head. And while it was nice to have such eager company, I was still bound to my companions, and my ability to react to my own desires was stymied by the presence of others. (One of those roommates, by the way, purchased a pair of gorgeous Salvatore Ferrigamo's for her tiny size 5 feet, while I tromped around in my size 10 clunkers. This was also the trip where I was removed, by store security, from Versace, after I backed into a mannequin wearing a $2,000 dress and knocked it over. Thank goodness it didn't tear. There is no humor in Italy, where fashion is concerned.)

So here I am, with some photo albums to prove that I have been and that I have seen, but no substantial cognitive evidence.  As I venture into the world again, this time, at my own discretion and for my own reasons, I hope to see the world fresh and new, as if it were the first time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"The Wanderlust has got me... by the belly-aching fire" — Robert W. Service

There's always been a tiny seed there, residing primarily in close proximity to the tip of my heart, and which does, on occasion, migrate elsewhere (but always returns). Stubbornly dormant through plenty of opportunities to bloom, the seed finally got a chance at survival with an accidental foray into Paris for a day. That was the day new life began in this seed, this desire, this, polestar of curiosity to walk out into the world and see what's there.

That was the trip that made me an unintentional solo traveler, where I was presented with a choice, like so many things, and was able to choose from two options. To do... or to not do. I was traveling alone to Spain to meet with a large, pre-organized group of classmates and teachers, when my layover was suddenly rerouted to Paris (instead of Boston) and the layover lengthened to about 7 hours. So, to go in to Paris or not? Leave my safety net at the airport, where guards could keep me safe, where I knew I wouldn't miss my next flight, where McDonalds and vending machines and airport attendants so kindly anticipated my inability to speak French and therefore never offered an opportunity to practice? Or, should I ask the gentleman next to me to see his Paris guidebook, jot down directions from Charles de Gaulle to the Eiffel Tower and see what happens in the next 5 or 6 hours? With the possibility of pain au chocolate in my immediate future, I chose the latter and struck out for Paris. While the trip had it's negatives (a 'learning experience' with a group of pick-pockets, a frustrating inability to pass through train barriers correctly,  and relatively grim weather) it did, on the whole, give me the most exhilarating sense of adventure and freedom (perhaps all the greater for the negatives). I was loose, and wild, and at my own whim and discretion, with no premeditation on where to go or what to do. And so I wandered. 

And so I shall continue to...