My Next Adventure

25 02 2009

I just wanted to drop a note to let you know that I will not be posting the next couple of weeks because we will be traveling again.  Where to you ask?  Perhaps this cute little creature will give you a clue.

I will try to send some postcards, but it will depend on our access to the internet.  Stay tuned for exciting new posts to come!





Review: Hilton London Tower Bridge

18 02 2009

We stayed at the Hilton London Tower Bridge for 5 nights on our visit to London in November.  This Hilton is located on the South Bank of London and is primarily a business hotel.  However, it can be a good alternative for visitors who do not want to pay Central London prices and still stay in a very nice hotel that is close enough.  

Despite being across the river from Central London, the Hilton London Tower Bridge proved to be a very convenient location primarily because it is only two short blocks away from the London Bridge tube/railway/bus station.   The London Bridge station is only one railway stop away from Charing Cross / Trafalgar Square and one tube stop from Bank Station in the business district (“the city”).  In addition, there is a Marks & Spencer mini mart in the same square as the hotel, which is really convenient for breakfast foods, newspapers, snacks, and some groceries.  The area felt safe and I was comfortable walking to and from the station by myself.

Check-in was easy and all the staff we interacted with were friendly and helpful.  

 

The actual accomodations were stylish and comfortable.  The room was moderately sized by London standards and included all the expected amenities, such as high speed internet (for sale in 24 hour increments) and a flat screen TV.  

 

The bathroom was chic and clean and included both a shower and a tub.  After staying at a variety of places overseas, I no longer take this for granted!  Shower pressure was excellent.

Overall we had a very nice stay at the Hilton London Tower Bridge and I would recommend it.  The hotel does not have much character nor is it particularly London-y but its rates are usually reasonable for this class of accommondation.  

I have listed more transportation details below.  London has an extremely useful transit website at http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ , which has maps, updates, a trip planner, and other information.  I used it frequently and would highly recommend checking it out.  The London Bridge station is large and complicated, but basically the tube station is on the 1st floor and the rail station is on the 2nd floor.  You can buy tickets from ticket windows or machines and the employees at the station are very helpful.  Generally, an Oyster card is worth it but note that it doesn’t cover railway tickets.

To Trafalgar Square:

From London Bridge Railway Station (2nd Floor), take the Southern towards Charing Cross.  After crossing the Thames River, alight at Charing Cross, which is at the SW end of Trafalgar Square.  Incidentally, Charing Cross station is just one short block from Embankment station, which is on the Circle and District Lines that go around all the sights in Central London.

To Bank/Monument:

From London Bridge Tube Station, take the Northern line North (end of line differs by train, but any one going North will work) for one stop.  Disembark at Bank/Monument.





London at Night

13 02 2009

One of the questions many travelers have is what to do in London at night.  After a certain hour, most shops, landmarks, and museums are closed.  Although we didn’t get to do it this time around, my suggestion is to see the theatre!  (Notice I didn’t say theater. )  Besides the experience of seeing a play in London, many famous actors who may not do it anywhere else like to stretch their talent in London.  There are plenty of shows at Covent Garden to choose from, and even last minute half price tickets.  The official half price tickets booth is called TKTS and is located at the bottom of Leicester Square.  Be sure to check out the TKTS booth before 7 PM Monday through Saturday and 3 PM on Sundays.  Beware of imitators.    


Piccadilly Circus at night.

Besides the theater, there are dozens of restaurants of all sorts to sample.  From gastropubs to authentic Indian and Pakistani restaurants, to gourmet cuisine, London has it all.  Check out Time Out London and Zagat for recommendations.  After dinner, bars, clubs, and pubs await those who want to extend their night out.


Big Ben at night makes me think of Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.

Well, this is the end of my series of posts on London.  While this time I focused on seeing the landmarks and using tours for day trips, this is by no means the only way to see London.  In fact, I am really looking forward to going back to London without the pressure of the must-sees.  I cannot wait to come back and explore the neighborhoods I didn’t get to see by foot.  There are museums to see, theater to enjoy, dozens of beautiful castles calling my name, and of course more tea and crumpets for me to consume.





Food Halls Around the World

11 02 2009

Whenever I am shopping while abroad, I inevitably find myself in a food hall. At the most basic level, a food hall is any indoor area that offers a variety of food for sampling and purchasing. They are often found in department stores, but can also operate independently.  A food hall is more than an indoor market or run of the mill mall food court, however.  A food hall is above all an exhibition of local and international artisinal food.


Harrod’s famous food hall
 
The most famous food hall in the world is arguably Harrod’s in London. While for many destinations I end up in a food hall by coincidence, Harrod’s Food Hall was a must-see for me even before my arrival in London. Harrod’s was founded in 1834 as a wholesale grocery with a specialty in tea.


Harrod’s has some of the fanciest groceries I have ever seen.


There are lots of stands to try out at Harrod’s Food Hall.

After arriving at Harrod’s, I bypassed all other departments and made a beeline for the food hall. There’s better shopping in the United States. I was here for the food hall. I was not disappointed. In room after themed room, attractive gourmet food was presented to me, the shopper, for my perusal. If you want seafood, there is an entire room dedicated to these delicious creatures under the sea.


You can eat fresh oysters in the seafood room at Harrod’s food hall.

Need gifts for loved ones? Harrod’s has quite a selection of packaged ready to gift gourmet food items. Perhaps some proper English tea would delight your grandmother, or lemon cookies for your best friend, or Turkish Delight for your unsuspecting brother!


Food gifts at Harrod’s


Indulge your sweet tooth at Harrod’s.

Before heading out, be sure to view the over the top escalators at Harrod’s. The escalators have an ancient Egyptian theme to honor the heritage of Mohamed al Fayed, the current owner of the department store. The escalator bay is also where you can find Princess Diana’s and Dodi al Fayed’s memorial.


The Egyptian decor is historically listed to protect against their removal and alteration.


Yep, that’s the actual face of Mohamed al Fayed on the Sphinx.

Despite Harrod’s fame, to many English residents the designation of best department store for gourmet food would belong to Fortnum & Mason, which has held royal warrants for 150 years. Harrod’s also holds some royal warrants, but Fortnum & Mason is more closely associated with British royalty and the peerage.


The circular stairway at Fortnum & Mason decorated for Christmas.

Although we had heard of Fortnum & Mason, it was by chance that we stumbled upon this establishment while shopping near Piccadilly Circus. I thought we had entered my version of department store heaven. Exquisitely decorated for Christmas, Fortnum and Mason offered all kinds of British foodstuffs, from minced pies to jars of ribbon candy to traditional china. Fortnum & Mason is most well known for its teas and luxury picnic hampers.


A selection of Fortnum and Mason’s gourmet products with its signature turquoise label on display.

Fortnum & Mason’s food hall is not to be missed for foodies the world over!


Inside Fortnum and Mason during the Christmas season.

These two luxurious food halls reminded me of my visit to the highly regarded Alois Dallmayr in Munich, Germany.  The Dallmayr is a famous luxury delicatessen and food hall that has served European royalty since the 17th century.  You can read about our day in Munich and see some more photos of Dallmayr here.  

 
Alois Dallmayr plaque proclaiming its status as a royal purveyor.


Window display at Alois Dallmayr.


Inside Alois Dallmayr delicatessen.

Inspired by these elaborate European food halls, the Japanese created their own twist on the concept with depachikas, department store basement food halls. Similar to the Harrod’s concept, depachikas seek to create a high end retail experience, but for food. Only the best brands are offered, from sushi to desserts to mochi to tea and other delicacies. However, depachikas have a larger selection of freshly prepared takeaway meals for shoppers. Many professional stop by and pick up bento boxes for lunch and dinner on a daily basis. Another major difference is that Japanese department stores often directly rent out the spaces on the store floor to bakeries and food businesses. As a result, the salespeople of these kiosks do not necessarily work for the department store. These businesses of course have to pass a rigorous test of quality and name. A third distinction is that Japanese food halls tend to emphasize trendy food over more traditional flavors.  You can read all about the depachika craze in this Food and Wine magazine article.  

The Dessert comes First blog has an excellent post on food in Japan, including an entire section on depachikas with fantastic pictures.  Here is the link to that specific post.  I have included two of her photos below for reference. 

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Photo of depachika by Desserts comes First

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Photo of depachika store display by Desserts comes First

I have visited the depachika in person at Isetan in Tokyo and Kaohsiung.  You can read my entire post about the Isetan department store in Kaohsiung here. These basement food halls are one of my favorite places to just relax and eat. I wish the US had places like these – I would be there every night!


One of the stores within a store in the basement food hall at Isetan in Kaohsiung.


A bakery in the basement food hall at Isetan





Castles and Cathedrals

3 02 2009

Since my mother-in-law is an architectural historian specializing in churches, we decided to take another bus tour in order to see Canterbury Cathedral.  If you have been following this series on London, you may have noticed that our sightseeing has been slanted toward history and architecture for this trip.  This is part of the reason why we did more tours than usual.  We were also interested in seeing some more castles and the Cliffs of Dover, so we decided to take a tour that visited Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, and Dover.  These three sights are often grouped together for touring purposes because they are all located to the east of London.


Leeds Castle

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, a lovely castle in Kent.  While not a major castle, Leeds has a history as a royal residence and is a fine example of a moated castle.  The castle grounds include a museum and several gardens, an aviary, dog collar museum, maze, conference center and other attractions.  You can even have a wedding here!  


The grounds of Leeds Castle were graced with Black Swans.

Although a manor stood there before the Norman conquest, the first stone fortifications date back to the 1100s.   


Ruined parts of the older fortification at Leeds Castle.

Edward I and his queen Eleanor of Castille lived there in the 1200s, making it a royal palace. From that point forward, royalty occasionally resided there, including several queens. The castle was often used as a stopover for trips to and from the Continent, including a famous visit by Henry VIII before his meeting with Francis I in France in 1520. You can read more of the history of the castle here.


Leeds Castle

After the middle ages, the castle eventually passed into the hands of private owners and was purchased by the Culpeper family. The Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, the last private owner of Leeds Castle remodeled the castle into a gracious home and created a private foundation for the maintenance of the castle. Today, the foundation owns and operates the castle.


Leeds Castle

Inside the museum, there are guides in every room. You can ask them any questions you would like. I found the medieval parts of the castle much more interesting than the remodeled gracious home sections.

I did appreciate this sun filled library, though.

The maze was interesting as a novelty. Since I had never been inside a hedge maze, I had to go in and see. We met one of the other people in our tour group at the entrance to the maze. Apparently, he had been stuck in the maze for 25 minutes! Fortunately, a kindly tourguide offered to lead us through the maze since we were short on time and needed to get back to the bus. At the center of the maze is a cheesy “grotto” with some lit up monsters and mermaids. 

While historically Leeds was a relatively minor royal castle, we still enjoyed our visit here. The castle and grounds are beautifully kept and maintained, the guides welcoming and informative, and it was lovely to just stroll around and enjoy the romantic environs. I could definitely see myself living here. Oops, did I say that out loud?

After Leeds Castle and a brief forgettable lunch, we drove to the city of Canterbury to view its famous Cathedral. As the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, this structure is the most important cathedral in all of Britain.


Entrance to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral is also famous for being the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the pilgrims who visited his shrine as told in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


The site of the martyrdom of Beckett.

Outside of its historical and religious significance, the cathedral itself is magnificent. Canterbury Cathedral was founded in 602 AD by St. Augustine and dedicated to St. Savior. Over the centuries, successive archbishops extended and added onto the main structure. Fires and raids also prompted new designs through the centuries.

The cathedral has both Norman and Gothic architectural styles incorporated within its design.


The nave at Canterbury Cathedral

The ceiling at Canterburgy Cathedral


View of the choir at Canterbury Cathedral

Personally, I found the Norman crypt the most beautiful and intriguing part of the tour, but pictures are not allowed.  Down below ground, the crypt was dark, quiet, and very still.   There are small chapels within the crypt where you can see faded paintings on the walls that date back a thousand years. It was truly a humbling experience.

Our final destination on the tour was the town of Dover, home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. Dover is geographically the closest part of England to France, and located just across the Channel from Calais.


View of the seashore in Dover


The White Cliffs of Dover


Dover Castle

We viewed Dover just as the sun started to go down.  It was a peaceful way to end our day.








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