Having More Fun than the Kid at the London Transport Museum

Horse Pulled Bus London Transport

Double Decker Horse Pulled Bus one of the earliest mass transit options

Apparently, I was spending too much time at the museum display as the quiet was interrupted by the words “Aunt Sue let’s go!” as my niece had stamped her ticket at this attraction and was ready to move on.  Me?  Not so much, I was quickly realizing that the London Transport Museum was a hidden gem that I wanted to geek out on.  Having visited London for so many years on business and vacation, I’m not sure why I never visited before, I guess I thought it was for kids.  Now with my niece, I had an excuse to visit the museum and climb the historic buses and walk through the old tube cars.

The London Transport Museum is situated in one corner of Covent Garden Market, easily within steps of many shops and restaurants of the market.  There was no line to enter on a sunny June Friday which was a bit surprising.  The museum is free for kids and £16 for adults (some think this is expensive but you get an annual pass to return). There were a few local families with children exploring but not many so the place felt empty which made it easy to have displays all to myself.

The museum layout is easy to follow as it starts with the early history of London, its transit options (by foot or horse) and it’s growing population.  With easy to read displays and interactive displays walking through the history is fun and really interesting (ok for me, my niece not so much).  I was stopping to look at the advertising posters,  photographs, memorabilia, read the brochures, open the drawers of maps and sensitive materials under glass – basically I was trying to see each and every item.

London transport museum

Each drawer contained really cool London transport memorabilia

London Transport steam train

London Transport Steam train

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Categories: Activities/Experiences, London, London Sightseeing, Travel, Travel With Children, Travel with Niece(s) | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Sheraton Park Lane London – Anticipating the Renovation

Green Park chairs in summer

Relaxing options at Green Park across from the Sheraton Park Lane London

One of my favorite points redemption is in London at the Sheraton Park Lane, an Art Deco hotel on Piccadilly across from Green Park and Buckingham Palace.  A category 5 hotel which costs 12,000 – 15,000 SPG points per night can save you £250+ per night which is a great deal. Over the years, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the property – I love the ease, value and availability of the Starwood redemption but hate the uneven experiences/facilities during my stays.  I’ve stayed at the hotel because it was easy and I barely spent time in the room. The property is finally undergoing a massive renovation (sorely needed and welcomed) which started late in 2014 and scheduled through 2016.  During this time, the hotel remains open.

My last visit to the hotel using points was in June 2014 with my niece and we had a few issues that I tried to remedy on-site but ended up discussing in-depth with the hotel manager when I returned to the U.S.    Despite our issues, I have faith that they were addressed and look forward to the completed renovation and my next stay.

Location

On Piccadilly (not Park Lane), the hotel has a fantastic location especially for a first time visitor.  Crossing the street, you enter Green park and a short walk to Buckingham Palace.  You can then walk through St. James’s Park toward Big Ben, Parliament, The London Eye and the Thames River.  If you turn right, you can walk to Hyde Park (home to Winter Wonderland at the holidays) and further down the road to Kensington shopping streets where Harrod’s is located.  The hotel is walking between Green Park tube stop and Hyde Park Corner tube stop.  The original Hard Rock Cafe is a block away.

The London Eye view

The London Eye view from St. James’s park

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Dear Travel Industry…A Few Suggestions for Changes I’d Like to See

Dear Travel Industry,

Hi, it’s me again!  I’m the one who has been complaining about the single supplement all of these years, you know, the one you keep ignoring!  You really should take me seriously as the number of solo travelers continues to rise.  I’ve been reading study after study done on the State of Travel, Trends for 2015, How to Targeting the Traveler Type, etc. and the solo traveler seems to be missing.  We aren’t invisible you know, we are out there and after all the years of being ignored, we are finding alternatives in the marketplace who will embrace us (you’ve heard of AirBNB right?).  Solo doesn’t mean sad, single people, please erase this image – solo means travelers who don’t have a companion right now – maybe their spouse doesn’t have time off, their girlfriends can’t afford to travel, they are attending a conference or they are divorced, widowed, etc.

Miraval Tucson Arizona

Welcome to Miraval – first impressions

We have money to spend, why don’t you want it?  I had a wine tour operator in Portland tell me I couldn’t book his Willamette Valley wine tour as he doesn’t allow singles (solo travelers) on his group tours. Past singles made the couples uncomfortable!  Really?  If they want a private tour, pay for it, otherwise, deal with other travelers on the group tour!   I’m not looking to be your friend and talk to you all day because I’m a sad and lonely traveler, more often that not, you will bore me which is why I’m not talking to you.  I just want to enjoy the tour, take photos and experience something new on my own.

Chateau Ste Michelle red wine

Happiness in a bottle of red at Chateau Ste Michelle

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Solo Travel Tips – How To Start with Baby Steps

Big Ben and London Eye

Classic London – Big Ben and the London Eye

My friend Amanda, recently traveled to London on her first solo trip.  This wasn’t a business trip or a school trip, this was last-minute due to a ridiculous coach award ticket on USAir direct to London she found for 30k points (normally 50k).  Exploring London is so easy to do as a solo traveler that I often cite it as a starting point for a first time solo trip international so I had no worries that Amanda was going to have a fantastic four-day trip.  When people ask me about solo travel, I tell them that I was thrown into it when abandoned in Paris before the internet and mobile phones and had to figure it out on my own with a few missteps.  My experience can’t be replicated today but it’s easy to start traveling solo if you follow a few baby steps (solo travel tips):

 Dining Solo

Have you dined solo in your hometown (takeaway and drive through doesn’t count)? I’m a big believer that you need to not care about what others think and enjoy your meal alone. We all deserve the opportunity to enjoy good food – it isn’t limited to couples and groups.  So embrace it here at home so that you feel good on the road. Embrace meeting new people at the bar, talk to your server and try the communal tables.  I won’t deny that dining solo allows me to be gluttonous with good wine and desserts.

Go to the Movies (or Theatre) Alone

I’ve been traveling solo to film festivals for years so seeing movies alone is easy for me, preferable really.  I don’t need anyone to sit next to me (and eat my popcorn) to enjoy the show.  When I visited New York City in December, I wanted to see the show If/Then but my friend didn’t so we ended up at the Christmas Spectacular (a compromise on my part).  If/Then is about choices in life and what happens with you chose this path over the other. A bit like solo travel, you don’t know how it will play out but you need to chose the path unknown.   Last month, I was able to see If/Then on a solo visit to NYC.

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Philadelphia in the Spotlight – The Pope, Politicians and My To Do List

Liberty Bell Philadelphia at night

The Liberty Bell at night when the crowds are gone is magic – one of my favorite views

Philadelphia has long been the overlooked middle child between New York City and Washington, D.C.  Chances are if you’ve visited the city you did so for one day and saw Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, ran up the “Rocky steps” and ate a cheesesteak or soft pretzel.  In Philly, we were ok with this type fo tourism as we had the rest of the city to ourselves – the amazing plethora of art museuems (Philadelphia Art Museum, The Rodin Museum, The Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to name a few), the emerging restaurant scene with over 200 BYOBs and the outdoor spaces.  We like to complain and don’t quite know how to be as awesome as we are – it’s just what we do.  We’re always “this close” to success. But now, we have a huge spotlight shining on us and fingers crossed we will be happy to step on the stage and say “you like us, you really like us”.

World Meeting of Families – The Pope is Confirmed!

In the past few months, Philadelphia has exploded on the National and World’s stage – we’re not much of a secret anymore.  Starting with the announcement over a year ago of the World Meeting of Families and the hopes that The Pope would visit, we got confirmation that Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia, his first U.S. visit this September.  Yes, he will go to NYC and D.C. but his main focus will be Philadelphia. He will celebrate mass on the Parkway with about a million plus faithful followers. Having grown up Catholic in Philadelphia (Catholic grade school, All Girls Catholic High School), the Pope’s visit is definitely a big deal.  The world will be watching Philadelphia, many learning about it for the first time and the city is bracing for the influx of pilgrims and conference attendees.

Having done a few queries on hotel rooms right now, they are tied up in conference room blocks, I’m not sure when (and if) they will be released.  I did find a hotel at the airport which normally charges $150, and now is asking close to $600 a night!  That’s insane!  The points redemption rate was a steal given the rate in effect. The Archdiocese is asking residents to open their homes and host attendees during the week, allowing folks to list their entire homes or rooms for a price.  I’m thinking of hosting but couldn’t charge a fee, it doesn’t seem right it’s the Pope and while I haven’t been to church in a long time (save weddings and funerals), I think living by the golden rule might rule here – I shouldn’t profit from this but rather be charitable and welcoming to those from around the world. The nuns might tell me I’m going to hell otherwise!  Note that the volunteer application isn’t available yet.

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My Paris Mistake – Versailles with my Tween Niece

It was a gorgeous Sunday in June and my niece and I were up early to catch the train to Versailles. It was our last day in Paris and I wanted to show her the beauty of Versailles especially the garden fountains. The grand palace and gardens are one of my favorite attractions while the hoards of tourists my least favorite attraction. The lines and crowds are always a bit off putting and despite arriving early, we got stuck in the line, the unbelievable line that snaked through the courtyard into the one (yes one!!!) security entrance.  Had I realized this pain point, I would have booked an expedited ticket or private tour to skip the wait.

Versailles entrance

Imagine riding up in your carriage or on your horse to the gates of Versailles

 

Versailles long lines entrance

The snaking lines at Versailles for ticket holders – over an hour wait

When I travel solo, I get into a zone and the annoying crowds disappear and I tune out the noise – easy for me to do, for my eleven year old niece not so much. We waited over an hour to get through security (we had tickets!) inside only to hit the waves of groups in the rooms (there is only one way to go through the rooms).  My niece’s face lit up and said “look” and I was excited for a moment only to realize she was pointing to the gift shop kiosk in the middle of the room that was more interesting to her than the exhibits.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

The hall of mirrors at Versailles is always a WOW moment for me

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Categories: Activities/Experiences, Paris, Travel, Travel With Children, Travel with Niece(s) | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

Solo Dining NYC: The Smith Restaurant, a Dining Delight in Midtown

The Smith Midtown NYC

The Smith Midtown NYC

Our college intern worked the summer in NYC at Goldman Sachs (she has a great future ahead of her) and told me that one restaurant that she went to many times was The Smith.  The Smith NYC has a few locations (Lincoln Center, Midtown and the East Village).  I would visit the Midtown location on 2nd near 51st, on a Thursday night. It was nine blocks (the number streets are a quick walk) from my hotel, The Westin Grand Central, and not far from the theatre for the show If/Then.

Prior to my visit, I looked up the menu options online and was instantly hungry and confused.  There were so many great choices that it was going to be hard to choose.  I normally suggest reservations via OpenTable but for just me, there were open slots at 6 p.m., 6:15 p.m. and 6:30 pm so I decided to be a walk-in.

First Impressions

The restaurant is larger than I expected.  From the street, I could see an ample L shaped bar area with seating and hi-top tables and dining rooms on the right side.  As I entered, I noticed the black and white tiled floor and the hostess stand on my right (with three people staffing it).  The bar was crowded and seemed popular for happy hour.  I was instantly greeted and without issue taken to a table (no mention of the bar seating) passing a seat of booths on the left that were filled and saw a woman dining solo working on her laptop.   The dining room is split into three distinct areas – a small area next to the bar, the larger area I was in with an L shaped booth and then the back room which had just seated a party of 12.

The Smith Midtown dining room

The Smith Midtown dining room quickly filled up on Thursday night

The restaurant reminded me of my favorite Philly restaurant Parc – it was warm, open and full of life with a great energy.

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Expecting More from the Hotel Pre-Arrival Email

When my “pre-arrival” email showed up yesterday from the hotel, I realized I hadn’t done any research for the weekend trip.  So I clicked the “concierge” button and was taken to the hotel’s standard internet site with attractions listed.  There wasn’t an email link anywhere to contact the hotel other than the General Manager’s “contact me if you need assistance” so I sent her an email to forward to the concierge team.  Yes, I could have called the hotel directly and asked to be connected to the concierge desk but was being lazy and figured email should suffice.

A day later, I received a note from the concierge with a list of restaurant names (no descriptions), a few bakeries and delis in the area that I inquired about.  Sending a thank you, I further queried the concierge on which of the restaurants on the “hotel approved list” she has personally eaten at and were appropriate for a solo diner.  She skirted the question saying that they are all good for solo diners as they have a bar to sit at or be seated at a table.  Not quite a good answer for me – basically without saying it, she hadn’t eaten at any of the recommended restaurants.  I know for a fact that a few listed are not “solo friendly” as you may be in a sea of romantic couples or in between businessmen on expense accounts trying to out drink each other.

Holborn Dining Room

Holborn Dining Room Communal Table

Is it too much to ask that the concierge have tried each of the restaurants they are recommending so that they have first hand knowledge if questions arise?  It’s not a hard question – what is your favorite restaurant in the area?  Should they not go the extra mile and provide descriptions of the restaurants to make them stand out. I noticed that Davio’s (one of my favorites in Philly) was listed by name under Italian with price range.  I would have listed it under Italian with the following description

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