Sunday, January 5, 2014

London Holiday, 2

Backtracking a little for some kvetching:  We flew to London out of Washington, DC's Dulles airport because the travel agent assured us that Virgin Atlantic had more comfortable seats than most other transatlantic flights -- a few more inches of seat and leg room in coach. Since I am 6'5" and 285 lbs., this was certainly a consideration. It was also untrue. While the staff were quite friendly and the food edible, this was by far the most uncomfortable flight I have ever experienced.  Seats were hard, small and cramped, and of course the person on the plane who felt the deep need to recline fully and immediately for the entire flight was the guy in front of me.

Nevertheless, some 7 hours later we arrived at Heathrow. London time, 7 AM. Body time, 1 AM. We made our way to the Heathrow Express train, took it to Paddington, bought our Oyster cards (the fare card that accommodates London's buses and Underground) and took the Bakerloo Tube to Edgware Road, where we called our hosts.  A brief word about our lodgings:  We decided that we wanted to pack light and rent an apartment with a washer and a dryer for our ten days in the UK. Our travel agent friend -- the same one who pointed us to Virgin Atlantic -- suggested a service that offers apartments and flats in London and we booked one in Marylebone, a neighborhood in the city that is part of the Westminster district. The flat was near three major Underground lines and in a beautiful, upper-class area. Or so we thought. The advert for the flat mentioned several "home truths" including an "unassuming exterior" that hid the modern apartment within. "Unassuming exterior" is rentalese for "dump." We thought that this might actually be to our advantage, since nobody would expect a luxury flat inside. One "home truth" that was NOT mentioned, however, was the fact that the building had no elevator and the flat itself was up four flights of stairs. Upon reaching the flat, we discovered that it was indeed quite lovely if exceedingly tiny. When unpacking we further discovered that there was no storage for our things apart from one narrow Ikea wardrobe. No drawers, no closets, no storage for the suitcases, nothing. The flat consisted of two rooms and a teeny bath. The washer/dryer was in the kitchen/sitting room under the sink. It was one machine that did both laundry and clothes drying, and as you might expect, did both poorly. If we go again, we will simply stay in a hotel with guest laundry facilities. As it was, we spent all of our time at the flat tripping over one another or over our luggage.

(The "unassuming exterior." And "Hampstead Lodge" sounded so cool.)

(Inside the flat.  I don't know what kind of lens they used, but this room was maybe 10' square.)

While we were there, the tiny refrigerator kept flopping open and one day we came home to find water pouring out of the ceiling light fixtures due to a drain leak in the apartment upstairs. At no time did the rental agency physically involve themselves in any of the troubles. We cleaned up the water ourselves, and reported it, and finagled a crude fix for the fridge. For the two grand we dropped on the place, I expected a little better. And fewer stairs. One good thing: the flat came with an iPhone with local maps, useful apps, and unlimited data which was extremely helpful to have, as long as we weren't trying to get the actual agency to come over and fix things.  Because they never did.  I'm still waiting to see if we get any of our £1,000.00 security deposit back, even though the ceiling leak was nothing to do with us.

By Christmas Eve my daughter was complaining of cough and running a low-grade fever.  She didn't shake it until the day before we left.  I figured as long as I'm using this entry to complain, I ought to mention everything.  Including listening to a lot of commentary about cost. I did not intend our visit to be about how much things cost, or how poor a value something was for the money paid, or anything like that, but a fair amount of time was spent doing just that. I'm usually the curmudgeon of our family group, but I turned out to be the one saying things like, "Oh, come on! When are we ever going to be able to eat squab for lunch at Harrod's again?" Another example: one of our group accidentally used one of their 3-day London Passes instead of their 2-day pass.  Meaning the third day would be wasted since it fell on Christmas when nothing was open. (The London Pass is a tourist pass that includes pre-paid admissions to big first-time tourist attractions like the London Eye, the Tower, Westminster Abbey, etc. It also usually lets you jump to the head of the line, and is, in my opinion, a decent deal, especially for go-getters who go out for full, action-packed days. The accident lay purely in the hands of the pass-holder, not with the Pass itself.)

The first half of Christmas Eve was wonderful, and will be covered in the next entry. The second half not so much. We were concerned that since so much was closed in London on Dec. 24-25-26 that we would find ourselves with nothing to do.  So we planned ahead as much as possible.  Our Christmas Eve evening was spent in Hyde Park at the Winter Wonderland -- kind of a British version of a US State Fair, with carnival rides, food stalls, craft booths, and a few other attractions.  The ice sculpture house was amazing. The VIP ride we reserved on the giant Ferris wheel was a complete ripoff.  It was cold, brief and generally left such a bad taste in our mouths that we could scarcely enjoy the rest of the evening. There was an amazing circus we had pre-ordered tickets for, the Cirque Berzerk -- think Cirque du Soleil with an Aztec slant -- that mostly made up for the wheel earlier, but I think we tried to fit in too much that day, and we were just too tired and cranky by then.

(Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.  You can keep it.  Especially the Giant Wheel.)

Christmas Day in London there is no public transportation, and a fifteen minute cab ride (assuming you can even find one to hire) costs triple, about £15.00 ($25.00 US).  We had made reservations at a swanky hotel in our district for Christmas Dinner and it was totally worth it, so I will cover it later. It was too fab to go into here in Complaint Central.

One last gripe: hours as advertised cannot be trusted, at least not during Christmas Week. We had to eat a couple of meals at the flat -- thank goodness for the mini-mart up the street -- because kitchen hours at the local eateries were simply not accurately advertised. We would look up a pub or a restaurant and find that they were closed, or that, if yesterday they were serving food from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM, why, TODAY the kitchen closed at 6:30 PM. Or a museum or gallery that was supposed to be open until 8:00 PM and had a sign on the door saying so had inexplicably closed at 4:00 PM. We had more than one frustrating afternoon either looking for a place to eat, or finding that a gallery or exhibit that was supposed to be open...wasn't

Everything else was pretty good.  Yes, Boxing Day shopping was the unholy child of Black Friday and New Year's Eve in Times Square, but we knew that. The crowds were pretty impressive. And the flight home was just as painful and cramped as the flight over, plus an hour longer thanks to the headwinds. But I was expecting that as well. The rest of the trip was a whole lot more fun, and I'll tell y'all more about it next time!

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