5 Days in London, the Leisurely Tween Edition

Big Ben London 5 days in London

Big Ben and Parliament in London

Over the past ten years, I’ve visited London generally once a year for work or for a stopover on an award ticket during vacation.  I’ve become comfortable with the city and have my favorites so when my niece asked “can we go to London too?”, I said “yes”.  I said “yes” because we were already on a British Airways award ticket which gave us a free London stopover anyway so it wasn’t much of a stretch to visit the city as I had Starwood points for  a hotel redemption. So keeping in sync with planning a first time visit for a tween to London (taking into account all of the issues I dealt with in the Paris itinerary) here was the leisurely schedule for 5 days in London, the tween edition.

Day 1 –  1/2 Free Time

Arrive St. Pancras mid-day from Paris on the Eurostar train, we would take a classic black cab from the train station to the hotel to check-in, drop bags and go explore the city (code for tween shopping).  We were staying at the Park Lane Sheraton on Piccadilly (across from Buckingham Palace) which was a short walk (15 mins) to the shopping on Oxford Street.  My niece had a set amount of money to shop with in London and having spent the last three days in Paris with no money (after spending it all in one day shopping), she was ready to go crazy!  It only took one store to hit all the marks – TopShop!  We spent about two hours and she was in tween shopping heaven (me, well I was in shopping hell). Luckily, she (I) found great stuff just as she (I) had in Paris. Spending all of her money at once meant I didn’t need to browse/shop again for the rest of the stay (woohoo!).

TopShop Happy Tween London

TopShop is all it takes to make a tween happy in London

Byron Burger London 5 Days in London

Byron Burgers in London make people happy too!

We then walked down Oxford Street to Wardour Street (Soho) to pick up chocolate, red velvet cupakes and have an early dinner at one of my favorite burger shops (sure to please any kid), Byron.  Ordering burgers and fries, my niece went for a milkshake.  Byron doesn’t quite make a small milkshake – they use six (6!!!) scoops of ice cream.  My niece loved it all – shopping and burgers in any language, in any country is generally a home run!

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Categories: London, Travel, Travel With Children, Travel with Niece(s) | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Solo Dining London: Polpo Covent Garden, add to your favorites list

When I tweeted that I was in London and needed restaurant recommendations during a travel chat, many great options were suggested. As I was staying at The Rosewood London in Holborn, one option suggested, Polpo Covent Garden,  a short walk away.  I did a quick read of the restaurant’s menu online and deciding that the small plate concept, intimate space and dessert options seemed perfect, I set out to find Polpo.

Covent Garden London

Covent Garden main square so many choices for shopping, food, fun

Walking through the courtyard filled with people dining at the many restaurants, I wasn’t quite sure which exit to take and had to stop to ask.  Luckily, I was pointed in the right direction and with a quick right found the street – Maiden Lane.  There isn’t much to see outside – a small sign, lace curtains in the windows surrounded by green and a menu- it’s easy to miss on a walk by.

Polpo Covent Garden

Polpo hidden in Covent Garden

This is the point that most solo diners dread (at least I do), opening the door and standing there alone waiting for the host/hostess to greet you.  It is during this time, I scan the restaurant to get a lay of the land as they say.  It was small and packed with people on a Tuesday night which surprised me.  I was quickly scooped up by an energetic server and led to the bar as it was a busy night and the bar was the only option at the time (no reservations for dinner and the bar is first come, first serve).  I could have waited for a table or counter space but I was hungry and the bar was my only option.

Placemat menu Polpo Covent Garden

Place mat menu at Polpo

The bartender was kept busy throughout with drink orders and handles the bar patrons (about ten seats).  The menu is printed on the placemat and is served in small plates.  They suggest two small plates per person to start as you can always order more.

The restaurant is Italian, serving simple foods and young wines per the website. If this is “simple” food sign me up!  The varied options are sure to make any foodie (or picky eater) happy.   I ordered Meatballs (you get a choice of beef, & pork or spicy pork with fennel) & Spaghettini (£9) with a side of focaccia bread (£3) with olive oil.  The wine choice was a bit tricky as I was torn between two – the bartender gave me samples of both to help me decide (nice touch!), I chose the House Red (£6).  Wine is served in little rocks glasses so no swirling your wine here.

Polpo Covent Garden

My wine samples! I ended up with the House Red which was quite nice

My bread came out first and I inhaled it as it was dusted with sea salt (and I was pretty hungry). As you can see, it is three nice sized pieces.

Polpo Covent Garden Focaccia Bread

Focaccia Bread with olive oil and dusted with sea salt at Polpo Covent Garden

The spaghettini/meatball portion was actually a good size in my opinion (no sharing required) and I’m glad I made it my entree. As I’m picky about meatballs – these were the right blend of beef & pork with spices.

Polpo Meatballs and Spaghettini

Meatballs and Spaghettini at Polpo

Of course, I had to have dessert – again I was torn between panna cotta (my favorite) and the flourless orange & almond cake. Sadly this time no free samples. I despise (yes, harsh) basil on my pizza so I couldn’t imagine it in my dessert so I chose the cake (£6).

Polpo Flourless Orange and Almond Cake

Sadly the candle burned out the light but even in the dark this flourless orange and almond cake was a nice combination

Polpo, Covent Garden, was very friendly to the solo diner, offering a few seating options – bar, counter, table – all depends on how long you want to wait. It is a popular restaurant as it was busy on both nights I visited – Tuesday & Thursday. The decor and vibe of the restaurant are modern and comfortable albeit a bit noisy with a full house. Despite the touristy nature of Covent Garden (hello Shake Shack!), the folks I spoke with at the bar were local Londoners. The service was attentive and the food served quickly – since it is small plates, they come out when ready so be prepared to graze all the yummy foods.  It really doesn’t matter how it is served, you will probably eat it all like I did anyway.

The total bill including service was £27 and at my 1.71 fx rate came to be about $46 which, for London, is a fantastic dinner deal in my opinion.  With so many options starting at £3, you can mix and match your way to a fantastic meal even on a budget. This was an expense account dinner but I would return on my own dime two weeks later with my niece as I liked it that much.  Polpo is now added to my favorite restaurants list for London and should be added to your favorites as well. Polpo has four restaurants in London – Covent Garden, Soho, Notting Hill and Smithfields – so hopefully you get to dine at one and enjoy your dinner as much as I did.


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Raining on my Birthday Parade in Sydney

The rain used to follow me on vacation, it became a running joke with friends and family that a gloomy cloud resided over my head and went with me on vacation.  At some point, the cloud went away for a few years but then on my third visit to Sydney over my birthday weekend, the cloud returned with a vengeance.  While you can plan for weather, I was not prepared for three days of unending, unyielding rain in Sydney.  I had plans for my birthday and wanted to do really cool things like a helicopter over the city (for the photos),  a yacht ride in the Sydney Harbour and walk from Bondi along the coastline just enjoying the view and stopping at a café or two along the way.  The cloud had other ideas essentially making my weekend in Sydney very gloomy.  I had to fight off the natural reaction to have a pity party in the hotel under the covers with room service and movies. I’ve held off writing about the rains in Australia as they were  not the sunny, happy, pretty days that we all like to read about.  That said, my adventures are of the good, bad and crazy variety so it’s time to share, plus I like the photos as a contrast to the normal sun drenched absolutely gorgeous Sydney we normally see.

Sydney Opera House in Rain

Sydney landmarks in the rain – Opera House and Harbour Bridge

The weather app indicated that I had 1/2 day of sun on the day I arrived and I tried to make the most of that on my Chasing The Sun post.  I would luck into overcast, cloudy, rain here and there on Friday to do the Sydney Bridge Climb before the heavens opened up and the sky cried for days.  I wanted to cry for days (I may have shed a tear or ten in between cursing the universe for ruining my birthday weekend in Sydney).  Each morning, I woke and approached the room darkening shades with the hope of pulling them back and viewing the sun and blue sky.  Each day, I was disappointed.  I had traveled too far to give up, although with 11 out of 16 days of rain, you would probably understand if I cried “uncle” and hid under the covers until the flight home.

Sydney Bridge Climb in rain

Climbing in all weather – the Bridge Climb in the rain

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World Elephant Day – The African Elephant

Two years ago, on August 12th, 2012, World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the plight of the African elephants and Asian elephants.  While much is publicized about the poaching of these amazing animals, there are other dark sides – treatment in captivity (as we’ve seen many videos of horrible abuse) as well as the ongoing debate about elephants in zoos.  I continue to be amazed at the conservation efforts around the world to protect the elephant population (many rangers have died protecting the elephants).  Yes, you’ve seen elephants in zoos and they’re cute but, in my opinion, until you see them in Africa (or Asia), you can’t understand the crazy that is going on in their world. Any light that can be shed or conversation sparked to make people think about saving the elephants is a good thing.

Elephants at the river safari

Elephants at the river – drinking at breakfast

On my travels to Africa, I was lucky to see the elephant in it’s natural habitat – stomping forward knocking down trees (more destructive than I was aware) after eating from the trees.  Flying into camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I could see a few elephants roaming below, it was the first real indication that I was in Africa.  It wasn’t until the walking safari when the elephant was coming toward me that I was in awe – he didn’t see us and walked past as if we belonged there too.

Elephant Okavango Delta

There were no words for my first sighting of the elephant it was surreal as it walked past us

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The Palmer House Hilton in Chicago

The Bean Chicago CloudGate

CloudGate “the Bean” Chicago

When I attend conferences, I generally stay at the host hotel which is not always my first (or tenth) option.  It’s about convenience to the sessions, the shuttles (if applicable) and the attendees.  Making the compromise from my favorite chain or boutiques is usually about the discounted cost for attendees and I usually regret the choice after the fact. For the weekend conference in Chicago, the host hotel was the historic Palmer House Hilton Hotel.


The Palmer House is located downtown with Milennium Park (where CloudGate aka “the bean” is located) two blocks away, the Chicago River about six blocks (ten minutes walk) and the elevated (L) train outside.  The Chicago Art Institute is a short walk. Shopping and food options abound in the area.  Without crossing a street, you have Starbucks, Freshii, Corner Bakery, McDonalds and Miller’s Pub within feet of the hotel.  The hotel is along Jewelers Row and blocks from the Theater District. So for a first time or multiple visitor, the location is pretty good, especially in cold weather to know it’s a short walk to most places.

Lobby/Check In

The hotel is a massive, they have 1,641 rooms which is a big change from the small boutique hotels I like (in Paris, there were 33 rooms).  To reach the lobby, on the second level, you can use the main entry stairs, the escalators or the elevators.  Taking the escalator up to check in, I was instantly struck by the beauty and grandeur of the ceiling and lobby.  I could imagine coming here in it’s heyday when celebrities played here as it is the grand dame of hotel lobbies.  The original owners’ wife designed the hotel so that romance could be seen throughout the space – whether by Romeo and Juliet statue, paintings in the hallway or through the design.

Palmer House Hilton stairs

Palmer House Hilton stairs to the lobby


I used the main check in line which moved quickly but the front desk person seemed like she was trying to process the most people as there was a line despite the large staff working the desk (about ten).  I was not welcomed as a HHonors member, not welcomed as a conference attendee and not provided the conference wi-fi code.  She did switch me from a double/double to a King room, which I would later realize was not a good thing.  Passing the welcome beverage station and the Concierge desk, the ten bank elevators are in a U shape with a round seating area in green velvet.

Palmer House Hilton elevator lobby

Palmer House Hilton the elevator lobby


The Hallways

Exiting the elevator, I made a few turns and passed many a star of yesteryear, actually stars of a time well before I was born.  For younger guests, I doubt they even know who any of these faces are, especially as there are no plaques to explain. This was telling, the photos of the ghosts of the hotel – those who in their fame and stardom played at the hotel.  As if the lobby and other features, didn’t scream “historic hotel” and “old school”, these photos definitely did.

Palmer House Hilton Chicago

The ghosts of the Palmer House Hilton Chicago

Frank Sinatra Palmer House Hilton

Frank Sinatra

Eartha Kitt Palmer House Hilton

Eartha Kitt












Sid Caesar Palmer House HIlton

Sid Caesar

My Room

When I travel on a cruise ship, I choose the inside cabin which has no window/light as it is the cheaper option.  I’m fine with the lack of light as I rarely spend time in the room.  So why the cruise stateroom analogy?  My room at the Palmer House was an inside room without light despite a window.  When I first entered, I was struck with the heavy feeling of the room – this was not a fun boutique hotel that I like, this room made me feel sad (on the website, the rooms seem happy).  The room was dark, the furniture dark, the rug dark – definitely not my style.

Palmer House Hilton Chicago King Room

My 3pm sunny friday in Chicago view of the room


The king bed was striking in white with four pillows (quite comfortable too), a contrast to the dark furniture, green chair and heavy curtains.  As I do, I went to the window to check out my normal alley (no view) view, in this case, I opened the blackout curtains and raised the shade to see this unique view and further explained why the room was so dark. Note that this wins my “worst view ever” despite the cool photo of the various metals.  Given that it was winter and my room had no light, I really should have switched rooms as it may have made me feel better.  Not quite sure why I didn’t call.

Palmer House Hilton Chicago view of grate

A subway underground feeling – I could barely see the blue sky above – it was there if you pressed your face to the window at a certain angle!

The closet contained the safe, an ironing board and iron.  With a pull cord for the light, I had flashbacks to my childhood – it was odd that the decor was new and other parts were old and not in the good way or marrying old & new.

Palmer House Hilton Chicago

I almost expected to see a rotary phone after seeing this

Palmer House Hilton closet

The closet amenities with a pull cord light













The Bathroom

The bathroom was very small with a full size tub and small vanity in the compact space.

Palmer House Hilton bathroom

Compact and functional bathroom

Palmer House Hilton toiletries

Standard Hilton toiletries














I would dine at the restaurant for breakfast, enjoy drinks both in Potter’s bar as well as the lobby Lockwood Bar.  The lobby area was constantly packed throughout my visit.  On Sunday night, after many weekend/conference folks had left, I was able to easily get a seat at the lobby bar to order a glass of wine and dessert.

Palmer House Hilton Lockwood Restaurant

Modern restaurant at the Palmer House Hilton

Palmer House Hilton dessert

Tasty chocolate dessert at the Lockwood Lobby Bar


On my first visit to Chicago, I stayed at the Peninsula Chicago and their concierge team was fantastic.  The Palmer House Concierge team is also fantastic.  Robert was my go-to guy the entire weekend.  Robert gave me the team’s pre-printed sheet of restaurant suggestions, walking directions and frank opinions when asked.  He made a local reservation and the restaurant gave us free dessert (nice perk)!  His breakfast suggestion to Wildberry Cafe for pancakes was fantastic. Robert was great to talk to and took his time with me and all the guests which is, like the hotel, a bit of a throwback to customer service of years gone by.  I put him through his paces and he succeeded each time – definitely a highlight of my stay.


I forgot my toothbrush and called Housekeeping at 10:45 pm and within 15 minutes they delivered two toothbrushes with toothpaste.  They must be psychic as I would end up dropping one between the tub and vanity (too tight to recover dropped items so be careful) so definitely needed both.


The Palmer House Hilton is a category 7 hotel for HHonors (50,000 points to redeem for a free night).  If you can get a low rate like I had ($139 +tax in March) then save your points for when this hotel charges close to $400 during peak season.  With so many rooms to fill, there seem to be lots of deals online.  The history of the hotel in the lobby, the hallways and the rooms won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (see how the hotel evokes these old phrases) but the location is wonderful, service is attentive and it’s easy to explore Chicago. Just ask for some light!


Palmer House Hilton

The historic plaque at the Palmer House Hilton

Categories: Chicago, Hotels, Travel | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment