Have you ever done a hotel site-inspection at midnight? I can now say that I have. Go on over to our sister site Luxury Travel Advisor to check out some photos from our surprisingly late tour of 51 Buckingham Gate...which is a wonderfully impressive hotel, even when it’s dark and quiet.
But that’s Sunday night, and I’m getting ahead of myself. The weekend began bright and early with a visit to the Tower of London and a private tour of the Crown Jewels, courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. (Anderson Travel, incidentally, provided the coach and a guide for the day.) Ann Wilson is head of sales at HRP, and should be your go-to person for exclusive behind-the-scenes access at the Tower and at just about every palace throughout the UK. Seeing the Crown Jewels without a crowd around meant that we had plenty of time to ooh and aah and ask lots of questions about the priceless treasures - making it absolutely worthwhile to get up early and get in before everyone else.
After exploring the Tower (one could easily spend a day there), we hopped on a CityCruise for a 15-minute ride down the Thames to the London Eye. And this is where I have to pause and shill for the VisitBritain Shop, where you can purchase Eye tickets for your clients in advance and even upgrade them to FastTrack so they can skip the lines (or queues, as it were). You can even upgrade them to a private capsule for a really special experience. (How romantic would a marriage proposal in a private capsule with all of London at your feet be?)
For the afternoon, we toured Kensington Palace, where the current Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will soon live and where notables like Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales called home. The Palace currently has a lovely exhibit on Victoria, with plenty of artwork and artifacts from her reign on display. (Definitely worth a visit, and spend some time in the room with all the family photos. You get a true sense of how many royal houses of Europe are connected to Victoria when you see her posing with her nephew, Czar Nicholas II of Russia.)
We stopped for High Tea in The Orangery, a lovely light-filled restaurant next to the palace. The tea was lovely and the scones and finger sandwiches were very tasty, but the staff at the restaurant took their time in bringing the trays around. If one is pressed for time, this is probably not the best place to go for tea, but for something leisurely and relaxing, it’s quite nice.
For the evening, we caught Singin’ in the Rain at the Palace Theatre (lots of palaces in one day!), where Made organized a private reception for us in a separated section of the theater’s bar area. We could leave our coats and bags there, and our host Paul Mount ([email protected]) of Nimax Theatres (which includes the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess theatres throughout the city) said that he can organize all kinds of events within Nimax’s network. To arrange events with Made, contact Jonathan Mountford ([email protected]).
Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day, so to avoid the crowds we got out of the city as early as possible and set out with Premium Tours for one of their most popular excursions. The tour started at Windsor Castle, and blue-badge guide David Jordan showed us hidden gems (sometimes literally) throughout the historic building. (Any royal fans will appreciate being able to walk through the rooms where Queen Elizabeth II still holds official dinners...and visitors may well get to see the Queen's beloved corgis running around or being walked outside.)
Also, while at Windsor Castle, keep an eye out for a Japanese sword hidden in the corner of one room. It was presented to England when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and was prominently displayed until someone complained that the presentation was offensive to Japan. And so this 500-year-old (and decidedly historic) sword is now tucked into a dim corner of Windsor Castle. When you find it, take a few minutes to look it over. It's a beautiful piece of artwork, and is clearly significant to several countries in many ways.
Tip: Jordan suggested touring Windsor Castle during the week, when there are many fewer visitors passing through and one can truly take one’s time to look at everything in detail. Another tip: Premium offers several prices on different tours, sometimes with a difference of only £6. The difference, Jordan explained, is reflected in the quality of the meals included in the tour...and the quality can be greatly improved for £6, so it’s worth the expense.
We continued on to Stonehenge, where Jordan (a Cambridge graduate) talked about the various theories of the stones and their meaning and their assemblage, and then on to Bath, which has managed to hold on to its historic ambiance throughout the centuries. Some streets look perfectly Victorian, while others still look Medieval. A formal tour of the Roman baths was not included in our package (though Jordan implied that it could be added-on), so we explored the streets and bridge and shops and the beautiful Abbey instead. The Abbey was badly damaged by German bombs during WWII (thanks for that, Germany), so while some stained glass windows date back to the 1600s, some are just clear glass - offering a nice contrast and a quiet memorial to the devastation of the war.
Returning to London (it’s about a two-hour drive back from Bath), we visited Bistro 51 for dinner, where the chicken tikka masala and the duck are must-trys. (If there’s room for dessert, try the fondue. The presentation alone makes it worthwhile!)
And after dinner, we began our late-night tour of 51 Buckingham Gate. Click over to www.luxurytraveladvisor.com to see some photos from that inspection!