Travel Advent 3+ – Help! The Holiday Hangover

Kew Christmas lights

It is a sign of the Yule times that this post covers off advent days 3 through 8, most of which is ex post facto. And there’s only one excuse for this: the manic, boozy days of early December.

London is one of the best places on Earth to gear up for the holiday season, but it’s madness. Absolute madness. It’s dark by 4 p.m. Pubs are cozy. Most are also decorated with splendid holiday cheer. Every day, there’s another excuse to go out, whether that’s an official Christmas party or just the old “might be the last time we catch up before the holidays” drink(s). It is the classic death march on cocktails.

But it’s far too early to have a permanent holiday hangover. So, here are a few fresh air opportunities to restore your equilibrium and perhaps give your liver some breathing room.

 

Kew Gardens  –  Kew is a restorative place no matter the season, but at Christmas, you can have a bracing winter walk to clear the head by day, or in a far more festive fashion, by night. The illuminations in the evening hours are a great way to get some fresh air and avoid the pub for a few hours. If only they didn’t have stalls serving mulled wine…

 

Hammersmith to Kew Thames Walk – If you have a bit more spring in your step, you can walk to Kew from Hammersmith along the banks of the mighty Thames. Do not walk on the Chiswick side if you are trying to avoid pubs. The Chiswick side of the river starts with the excellent Blue Anchor and continues onward with a series of fine pubs– The Dove, The Black Lion, City Barge to name just three– from there to Kew Bridge. Abandon hope all ye who walk there.

Hammersmith sunset
You are not taking in this view at Hammersmith because you are not walking on the side of the river where there are a lot of pubs

To avoid the pub temptation, walk along the Barnes side. Oh wait, there are two pretty decent pubs on that side of the river….

Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace Walk – One of the things that makes London such a great city is that you can cover quite a few miles without ever leaving a park. A stroll through the Royal Parks is always good for the obvious royal attractions, people watching, and cute dog viewing. Start at Kensington Palace (grab a bacon sandwich at the stall right by one of the main gates off Ken High Street if you’re in need of sustenance), then cross into Hyde Park and walk along the Serpentine towards Hyde Park corner. (Do not get tempted by the siren’s song of the oompahpah band in the German beer halls of Winter Wonderland.) Cross the junction at the Wellington Arch into Green Park and then, you’ll arrive at Buckingham Palace. If the junction is frighteningly crowded, you might be tempted to steer clear of Green Park and head into the quiet backstreets of Knightsbridge where the excellent Nag’s Head and The Grenadier are nestled. But as you are trying to avoid pubs, you will not do this. On the other hand, if you are truly hungover, The Grenadier makes a fine Bloody Mary….

Richmond Park Deer Viewing – It feels festive to go check out the deer of Richmond; if you are bleary-eyed, the big ones almost look like reindeer. As long as you avoid the Park’s limited cafe options, you should be able to avoid drinks for a while. However, if you

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The Thames near Petersham, where you are walking to avoid visiting a pub

enter from the Richmond side of things, beware: the Roebuck lies in wait. Having a drink outside on the terrace with a stunning view over the Thames is one of life’s great pleasures. BUT WE ARE NOT DRINKING, ARE WE?

 

Hampstead Heath – While Hampstead does not have the deer population draw, ambling around the miles of paths is always a joy: fresh air and amazing views of London. Kenwood House is also interesting here– the stately home of one of Britain’s abolitionist judges, and his niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle. (On weekends, there are often classical music performances that can definitely soothe the savage hangover.) But if you walk out to the main road from Kenwood House you will have to steel yourself to avoid going into the Spaniard’s

Hops Growing at the Spaniard's Inn
You would not know that this is a hop arbor at the Spaniard’s Inn because you are not in a pub again, are you?

Inn– a lovely historic pub with a teeny little snug in front. The Spaniard’s is where Keats purportedly wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.” Well, if there’s history involved, why not go in….

Greenwich to Blackheath – You can take a boat to Greenwich, but there’s a bar on board, so the Tube/DLR are safer options. Walk right past the Gipsy Moth– you know you shouldn’t be in a pub again– and head to the park. The Maritime Museum is over here, the Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory– there are plenty of cultural places without pubs to visit in Greenwich if it gets too rainy to be outside. If weather permits, continue out of the park on to Blackheath. It always seems gusty here, so the bracing winds can help knock the hangover right out of you. But wait…what’s that over there off to the side of Blackheath. Is that a pub? Does the sign say “Hare & Billet?” What’s a billet? I cannot live in this ignorance any longer! I’ll just step inside and…

 

Travel Advent #2: Tinsel Pub!

Some people go all out for Christmas decorations– particularly in the U.S. Fortunately, if you’re a Yankee here in England, you can have your fill of far too much Christmas cheer if you get thee to Cambridge.

Specifically, the Empress Pub in Cambridge. Every year, Cambridgeshire’s supply of tinsel is applied to walls, chairs, and anything (including regulars) who aren’t standing still. Tinsel town’s location details here.

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A happy celebrant gets his Christmas on!

Nowhere near Cambridge in the UK? Buy as much tinsel as your arms and budget will allow. Festoon it around every surface of the smallest room in your house that’s not a bathroom. Drink warm beer until you hallucinate.

Top Choices in Chinatown

In case you can’t get enough of New Year celebrations or if you just hate New Year’s as a concept altogether, the vastly superior celebration is just around the corner. That’s the Lunar New Year, of course, which is celebrated by the Chinese and many other Asian cultures. Illuminated lanterns. Excellent food. Snappy fireworks. Far fewer hang-ups about what to do on New Year’s Eve. The Lunar New Year is the New Year we should all really get behind.

London's Chinatown gets ready for the Year of the Horse
Festive New Year lanterns in London’s Chinatown

While you may find yourself in or around London’s Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Horse next week, Chinatown’s always a good place to visit for some great food. In fact, unlike other Chinatowns, London’s almost solely features food– nearly every shopfront is a restaurant or some type of food supply emporium. However, the sheer number and variety of choices can overwhelm– particularly if you go with hungry, tired guests from out of town. Don’t give up! Here are three really delicious options that are guaranteed to please picky and adventurous palates alike.

Manchurian Legends is the most exotic of the three, and purportedly, one of the only restaurants in London to specialize in Dongbei cuisine (the type of food common in Northeastern China). Think: amazing handmade dumplings, flavorful grilled meats, hearty stews and some real spice or even weird offal offerings for the adventurous. There’s truly something for everyone. The vegetable dumplings are soft bundles of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned veggies; little tasty lamb skewers were succulent and savory; the house chicken specialty was a delight with some extra kick in the form of complex layers of real chile heat. (NB: I, like some, like it hot. While Manchurian Legends has many dishes that are not spicy, like the aforementioned dumplings, a man sitting near us was clearly on a first date and began pouring with sweat when he requested something to be “extra spicy.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you if you try and be similarly macho. Sadly, I don’t think our fellow diner had a second date after having to ask for towels from the kitchen to mop himself off with. Lots of towels.) If you’re a culinary adventurer or one of those people who likes to pretend they’re on a reality show, you can also order a few special offal dishes, which is apparently quite the done thing in Manchuria. As for me, I’ll stick with the veggie dumplings, lovingly handmade by chefs in the front window of Manchurian Legends as you walk in.

Yummy scallops at Haozhan
Scallops do the wave at Haozhan

 

Another favorite is Haozhan, right on Chinatown’s main drag, Gerrard Street. Haozhan does a lot of the cross-cultural classics very respectably. Think: crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken and all those Anglicized or Americanized Chinese dishes that we all love because they’re so amazingly good and comforting. However, as you can see from the picture, Haozhan also pushes the Pan-Asian and modern cuisine boundaries on a few dishes, like this one– a tasty creation of seared scallops and asparagus nestled in a dramatic noodle wave. Haozhan’s menu is fairly vast, so this is a good place to visit when you need to please a group of people with disparate dining interests. And unlike a lot of places that do noodle art and vegetable sculpting, dinner here is really affordable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mr. Kong, a Chinatown staple for over two decades. With really friendly service and excellent food, it’s easy to see why Mr. Kong seems to have a lot of regular customers. Mr Kong does a lot of the classics really well, but it’s the specials that really shine. On one visit, my husband and I had a crab hot pot that was really amazing, like a Chinese cioppino. Utterly delicious! Mr. Kong is also fairly quiet for a restaurant in Chinatown, which is nice if you’d like to have a conversation with your dining companion(s).

Taste:
Manchurian Legends, 16 Lisle Street WC2H 7BE

Haozhan, 8 Gerrard Street W1D 5PT

Mr. Kong, 21 Lisle Street WC2H 7BA

Ye Olde Pub Crawl

It’s no accident that several of the pubs here have “olde” in their names; the most recent among them was created in 1905. This crawl is a great way to while away an afternoon into the evening– particularly if the weather’s chilly and the pubs with fireplaces have them lit while you’re getting lit. Start off at the Holborn or Chancery Lane Tube stop. Try to do this crawl during the week if possible, as pubs in this part of London can have funny hours or be a bit dead on the weekends. NB: This is not a very long walk, so pace yourself with the pints or you will indeed be crawling.

Barrels in London Pub, Cittie of Yorke
Roll out the barrel at the Cittie of Yorke

Pub 1: The Cittie of Yorke, 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BN
While the building that houses this pub was rebuilt in the 1920s, the Cittie of Yorke’s interior has been deemed historically signficant for its much older fittings, like the large triangular stove that helps warm the high-ceilinged main bar in the winter. Though the main floor is very spacious, the dark wood interior and huge barrels on the walls make it feel intimate.

Particularly cozy and good for conversation are the Victorian cubicles along the wall, once used by lawyers to consult with clients since the Cittie is situated in the heart of legal London. The lawyers and their clients always must have been thirsty, as a pub has apparently been situated on the location since 1430. The Cittie of Yorke is a Samuel Smith’s pub, so serves only its own brand of beers, wines, and liquors (all very good!) for more reasonable prices than a lot of the other pub groups.

Pub 2: Ye Olde Mitre, 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ
This pub can be tricky to find, but that’s part of the fun. The easiest way to reach Ye Olde Mitre is by walking down a very small, doorway-sized alley just off Hatton Garden. Hatton Garden itself is worth a look; there are all sorts of wholesale jewellers on the street, buying and selling gold, diamonds, and other precious doo-dads.

Such finery would have been perfect for the Bishops of Ely, who used to have a palace where Ye Olde Mitre sits, hence the pub’s name and symbol– a bishop’s mitre. The pub was purportedly constructed for the servants of the Bishops of Ely in 1546 and, because the land was owned by the Bishops of Ely, the pub technically used to be a part of Cambridge. According to lore, Queen Elizabeth I danced around a cherry tree in front of the pub.

More recently and better documented by film, Ye Olde Mitre was featured in the movie, “Snatch.” A Fuller’s pub with a lot of great guest ales, the toasties at Ye Olde Mitre are also excellent, particularly when eaten by the fire in the snug bar at the front. There’s a friendly elderly bar man who will enthusiastically tell you much more about the pub’s cinematic appearances and history if it’s quiet and he happens to be working when you visit.

Pub 3: Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street on Wine Office Court, EC4A 2B4
Another Sam Smith’s pub, Ye  Old Cheshire Cheese features a lovely, very dark snug bar upstairs with a sweet fireplace and a cavernous basement– literally caverns. The vaulted cellars may go back to the 13th century, when a monastery stood on the site.

A pub has been situated here since the 1600s and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese has quite a few historic associations as a result, particularly literary ones. Dr. Johnson’s house is around the corner, prompting much speculation about the frequency of his custom. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese was also frequented and well-documented by Charles Dickens, notably mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities.

Stained Glass in London Pub, The Bell Tavern
Find illumination at the Bell Tavern

Pub 4: The Bell Tavern, 95 Fleet Street, EC4Y 1DH
Though the interior of this pub feels more modern, particularly since it’s part of the Nicholson’s empire, The Bell is worth stopping by for a pint. The building was constructed by Sir Christopher Wren (whose most notable accomplishment among notable accomplishments is St. Paul’s Cathedral). One of Wren’s other commissions in the 1600s after the Great Fire of London was to rebuild the nearby St. Bride’s Church. Wren constructed the building that’s now home to the Bell to house stonemasons working on the reconstruction.

Pub 5: The Blackfriar, 174 Queen Victoria Street, EC4V 4EG
When considering both interior and exterior, the Blackfriar is the “newest” pub on this crawl, built back in 1905. The Blackfriar is also a Nicholson’s pub, but the interior here is impossible to modernize. The Blackfriar is one of the most gorgeous pubs in London– a lush, amazingly detailed demonstration of Art Nouveau by an architect and artist who were proponents of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Black Friar at the Blackfriar London pub
Follow in the footsteps of friars

Friars appear throughout the reliefs and mosiacs, as the pub sits where a friary once stood, hence its and the train station’s name, Blackfriar(s).  In the back sitting area, the walls are adorned with credos that are worth pondering– particularly now that you’ve likely had a few.

Leaves on the Rail – UK Trains

Leaves on the Rail
One of the Many Hazards Facing British Trains

In traveling around Europe by train, the UK stands out by not being a stand-out. Because the British do not like being thought of as European, UK trains are not sleek, modern, and fast like French and German trains. To ensure that American tourists understand that the British are not Europeans, British trains are also not included in your Eurail pass.  

This means you will have to buy individual tickets on one of the world’s most grossly inefficient, antiquated train systems. Do not plan on arriving when you hope to or need to. Trains are frequently delayed or canceled because of “leaves on the rail.” A dusting of snow on the Isle of Wight can paralyze the country’s entire rail network for weeks at a time.

Never, never buy a last-minute train ticket in the UK. Buy your tickets in advance. My husband and I once spent three hours traveling from York to London in that dreadful space between train cars jammed with five sweaty men all yammering into their respective cell phones. This delightful travel experience cost us $150 each because I wanted to be spontaneous. It was not a good day to be spontaneous.

Passengers are exhorted to “Mind the Gap” when boarding and exiting British trains. This does not refer to the American clothing chain. This announcement is intended to help you avoid falling into the perilous chasm that maws between the 1950s-era train car and the fantastically sharp, metal-edged platform. This chasm, or “gap” as it is termed by the British, has a depth and width roughly equal to the Grand Canyon’s. Sufferers of vertigo should be cautious when taking British trains due to the risk of swooning into “the gap.”

Be sure to pack light and wear sensible shoes. If you have several bags, you will always have to change trains at the exact moment you have stowed your bags and settled into your seat. The crisp-voiced British train station announcer will calmly state that your new replacement train departs in one minute. This announcement will be broadcast at the exact moment you have only just started to hump your bags up hundreds of narrow, steep stairs towards a platform that is approximately 5.2 miles away. The British will know that you are neither British nor European because you, as an American, will begin to curse. Loudly.

On the bright side, the tea served on British trains is actually quite good.

41 Buckingham Palace Road

 

There’s a dream of England that many of us have: wood-paneled libraries, a cozy fireplace, large comfy leather chairs, the most gracious service. You can find this at 41, a boutique hotel that’s located at the very prestigious 41 Buckingham Palace Road, just across from the Royal Mews.

The wood-paneled library/fireplace/leather chair area is 41’s  “Executive Lounge” where you take your delicious breakfast in the morning and your cocktails before supper or at the end of an evening. You will perhaps never feel as cosseted as when having a cocktail in front of the fireplace at 41.

The rooms are extremely spacious for central London, and very well laid out with all the right gadgets and amenities. (Business travel would be quite easy to handle when staying here.) The black and white color scheme is classic and contemporary, so you never feel like you’re trapped in one of those ghastly floral chintz nightmares that can often happen in elegant places in England. 

The 41’s beds are a dream, while the showers and deep tubs have amazing water pressure, perfect for rinsing off the city’s grime or getting a bath run quickly, so you can bring out your inner Churchill. (The former Prime Minister and maker of history made many critical decisions from the bath.)   

Aside from the wonderful location, the amazing lounge, and the nice rooms, it’s the people who work here who make the 41 truly exceptional. My husband and I were celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary and the staff did so much to make it special. Even if you weren’t celebrating a special event, the staff will go out of their way to make your stay seamless, anticipating your every need. The concierge will provide you with directions to a restaurant where you’re meeting friends (without your asking); the reception staff will help reserve the fireplace nook so you can have a cocktail hour at the hotel with your friends; the staff can get anything booked for you in London and beyond. All while being some of the most pleasant (and interesting) people you could hope to meet.

The 41 is well worth the price for making your stay in London truly memorable.  They consistently win a slew of awards, and each is well-deserved.

For more info and reservations, see 41 online @ 
http://www.41hotel.com/