On November 21, we packed our suitcases and made our way to SFO for a 10-hour flight on Virgin Atlantic to London’s Heathrow Airport.
We’ve long wanted to visit London but for one reason or another the trip never worked out. In fact, last year’s trip to Scotland was supposed to be a London/Edinburgh affair but then I decided that if we were going all the way to Scotland there was no way we were going to miss visiting Islay and so we scrapped London and focused solely on Edinburgh and Islay. Unfortunately, that flight was not without its problems and so after getting one day cut from our trip due to a faulty part on our plane before takeoff, Virgin Atlantic offered us a ton of bonus miles. They were just sitting in our accounts for nearly a year when I told Alan that we should use them to go to London. Those miles, paired with reward points from a Citibank credit card we no longer use, translated to upgraded seats for the flight and a nearly free hotel room for a week at the Hilton Hyde Park (we had to pay $157 in charges to complete the transaction but that was my fault because of the hotel I chose). That’s a hard proposition to turn down any way you slice it.
Unfortunately I didn’t do the best job at planning this trip. There were a number of things I knew that we wanted to do if we managed to find the time, but aside from two day trips we didn’t have anything set in stone. There is a group that does walking tours that you don’t need to sign up for – just show up and pay your €9 – and before leaving I had read through all of them and had thought we’d try to do two or three of them a day. I plugged them into our calendars so that we wouldn’t miss them, but aside from that, planning was pretty loose. Normally when we travel I identify at least a handful of restaurants that we want to visit and map them out but this time I felt like we’d probably just do most of our eating at pubs. Also, a couple of days before we left a few of Alan’s co-workers who have either lived in London before or have visited often gave him recommendations, so my loose plans paired with his co-worker recommendations, and we had a semblance of an idea of what we’d be doing but nothing hard and fast like previous trips.
After an uneventful flight in which I didn’t sleep and Alan did – such a reversal of roles! – we landed in London to a light drizzle and gray skies. We were in the customs line for what seemed like forever and of course because it’s cold and gray outside they have the heater running. I was dying. By the time we reached the customs agent I’m sure I looked like I wanted to murder someone. We didn’t really know how we should get to our hotel, but we settled on a train from Heathrow to Paddington Station that cost €23/each. From there we took a taxi to our hotel on Hyde Park.
Now, one thing you need to know about me to understand why we chose a hotel on Hyde Park – not exactly the epicenter of London tourism – is because I am obsessed with Regency London. I have read probably well over 200 regency romances set in London, with many scenes taking place in Hyde Park. And since I fancy myself a writer I have plans of someday writing my own regency romance novel I wanted to see for myself the places I’ve only before read about. Remember how I said I didn’t plan very well? Yeah, our hotel was on the opposite side of the epicenter of Regency London. Had I actually studied a map and really thought about it, I might have used our points to book a hotel around Marble Arch or even South Kensington but I just didn’t give it the consideration I should have when we were planning. So, yes, our hotel was overlooking Hyde Park but it was the wrong part of Hyde Park. And instead of being in a posh neighborhood, we were in a very international neighborhood with a lot of hostels and head shops. It reminded me a lot of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue neighborhood. Not horrible, but not exactly what I was looking for when we initially booked.
I will say this for our hotel’s location though – it was awesome for using the tube. There was a stop literally around the corner, and then another one that was more convenient to all of the tourist sites around the corner and up the street. We were always able to be on the tube en route to our first location of the day within minutes and that was invaluable. (We had the same situation in Paris – our hotel wasn’t centrally located but we were so close to the metro that it didn’t seem to matter … especially as I rather enjoy taking public transportation in any area but our own.)
So, we checked into our hotel overlooking Hyde Park – happy to get a room with a view – changed our clothes, and then set off for the Winter Wonderland taking place in Hyde Park. OH MY GOD. Now, the only other Christmas market we’ve been to was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and that was a lovely, albeit pretty low key affair. I don’t know what I was expecting from this one but it wasn’t this. Basically, it looked like an amusement park had camped itself in the park and that every young Londoner was there to drink overpriced mulled wine. I don’t know who was responsible for plotting out the event, but I was surprised to see what were clearly Halloween carnival themed rides there. And I was a bit disappointed in the vendor selections. I don’t know what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. Okay, yes, I do know what I was expecting. I was expecting something like what we experienced in Belfast, or what I’ve seen – via pictures – in the German Christmas markets. This was just pure insanity. After about two and a half hours of wandering around and then not being able to get a table at one of the beer halls we left to go back to the hotel to end our first day/night in London.