Friday, June 20, 2014

Homeward bound

Day 15 (Mon, 16 June 2014)

This was theoretically not a day in London because we left at 6am for the airport. But I thought I would just record it in a post to complete the journey.

Our flights were a little out of the ordinary, in the sense that we flew into Heathrow but were leaving from Gatwick. There isn't a Tube station at Gatwick so when I was researching ways to get to the airport from London, one of them I found was EasyBus - a low-priced bus that regularly ferried passengers from Earl's Court area directly to Gatwick Airport. In fact, this was the main reason that we decided to stay at Earl's Court in our second leg of London, we could easily board the EasyBus.

Among all the different ways to get to and from Gatwick, EasyBus is by far the cheapest - from £2 one way! That's even cheaper than a Tube ticket! It seemed almost too good to be true and I guess that should have triggered my suspicions but it didn't. We booked four tickets for the 6.20am bus. (Only one seat per bus trip gets the £2 special price so here's a tip: even if you're travelling in a group, book one ticket first and if you're the first one, you get it at £2. The rest will cost more but if you click say, four tickets at one go, you immediately get charged at the higher price.)

After we'd booked the tickets, I thought I'd check out reviews for EasyBus and to my horror, found that the service was panned very badly online. Lots and lots of reports of no-shows, late buses, buses getting lost... and NO REFUNDS. Yikes.

I had to have a Plan B on hand and after more research, found that we could also take the rail from West Brompton station (about 100m from the EasyBus bus stop to Gatwick. So we decided to do this: since we'd already booked tickets for EasyBus, we would go to the bus stop and pray the bus arrives. We'd give it 15-minute grace and if it didn't show up, we would make our way to Gatwick via rail.

So rather apprehensively, bright and early, we dragged our luggage to the bus stop. And lo and behold, the EasyBus drove up a few minutes after we'd arrived! Yay, our prayers were answered!

EasyBus is a small bus so there are limitations with baggage but we didn't face any problems. The driver was a quiet fella. He collected our tickets and helped with the bags without saying much. The drive all the way to Gatwick was smooth and uneventful.

So were we just fortunate? I don't know. I think God was looking out for us. Also, I don't doubt that all the bad reviews are true but I suspect that with such services that operate multiple trips almost round the clock, the bad reviews still form a small percentage of all the times that the bus actually worked. People tend to only report the bad experiences, afterall. Or maybe we weren't leaving at a peak hour when traffic is more unpredictable. So if you're thinking of taking the EasyBus, do consider the pros and cons. It's a very cheap and convenient airport transfer, only if you can stomach the possibility of a no-show.

Incidentally, Gatwick Airport is very pleasant. Everything looks new and modern, and it isn't as crowded at Heathrow. It's just a little less convenient to get to.

We were on Emirates which meant a stopover at Dubai. Even though we chose Emirates only because of its cheap fares (flying direct via SIA would have cost us 50% more), transiting at Dubai turned out to be a very welcome break for me. I tend to find it hard to sleep on planes so a long-haul flight can be torturous. After 10 hours, I feel like screaming and punching something. A Dubai transit cuts the journey almost exactly in half, which is great. Seven hours is about my limit - two meals, two movies. Each time I disembarked from the plane this trip, my knees creaked. I'm starting to feel my age. It was good to get out and stretch.

On the way back, we had a 7-hour layover - that was the shortest transit time we could get. We figured that was too long to be hanging around the airport so we booked a room at Dubai International Hotel. It's in the transit area so you don't have to pass through immigration. A bit pricey for a few hours but we figured we'd all appreciate the rest. (You can also book a recliner chair at the lounge but since they charge per person, for a family of four, I'd say it's more worthwhile to book a room).

It turned out to be fantastic. There's a meet and greet service to take you straight to the hotel (it can be hard to find if your gate is at the other end of the airport). The room is huge (you can request for a king bed or 2 singles) and there's a long leather sofa that can easily serve as another bed. There's free wifi and the washroom even had a bidet! You can also use the pool and gym but who has energy for that...

The beds were very comfortable. I didn't sleep much as my body clock was all haywire but Kenneth and the kids were out like a light. You can get the receptionist to inform you of the gate of your next flight and they offer a wake-up call to ensure you don't miss your flight. It was a terrific rest stop. Well worth the price.

Another 7-hour flight and we were back in hot and muggy Singapore. Nevertheless, it's nice to be home!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pomp and circumstance (and some lobster noodles!)

Day 14 (Sun, 15 June 2014)

After an intensive 2 weeks, we've come to our last day in London. Usually, we feel like our holidays speed by but I think because we've seen so much on this trip, it does feel like we had a very fruitful fortnight.

It was a gloriously sunny Sunday morning, a cool 21 degrees celcius. I think we'll miss the weather most when we get back. We had a leisurely breakfast in the apartment and took the Tube to Green Park to catch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. In Summer, this official handover from one set of Queen's guards to another is a daily ritual, popular with tourists. For those of you who are interested to know the route and where best to stand, check out this site.

This is The Mall, which leads all the way down to Buckingham Palace and is one of the routes the guards take when marching from St James' Palace.

The marching of the guards to Buckingham Palace begins as early as 11.15am but first, the police on horses arrive to make sure the path is clear. They don't hesitate to yell at people who step over the fence, so it's best to keep in line.

Selfie time!

The guards march down The Mall, with huge crowds running alongside them behind the barricade, trying to get the perfect shot. We were among the trigger-happy ones. Incidentally, the guards look stern and solemn but in actual fact, I was close enough to a couple of them to hear that they were chatting. Maybe they were complaining how England lost to Italy 1-2 in last night's World Cup match.

The actual changing of the guard ceremony takes place within the gates of Buckingham Palace, so if you want to see what's happening, you need to find a spot right outside the gates early. We didn't know about this so we just waited outside for the guards to emerge again.

Buckingham Palace is right next to St James Park, which is the oldest of the eight Royal Parks in London. It's not as pretty as Regent's Park but still very lush. Partly cos of the cool weather, being in a park in London is one of my favourite past-times. The abundance of nature (nice bits like flowers, trees and ducks, not bugs and reptiles) overfloweth.

The squirrels here are so used to people that they're very tame. We even saw one run up a man's leg!

Exiting from St James Park, we arrived at the Westminster area and went to take a look at the famous Westminster Abbey. This is the traditional site of coronations, weddings and burials of British monarchs. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were married here, so were Prince William and Kate Middleton. Apart from royalty, notable figures were also laid to rest here, including Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

From certain angles, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Notre Dame in Paris. That's because it was built in the same Gothic style.

From Westminster Abbey, we could see the London monument that Andre was most enamoured with - Big Ben! Since Big Ben features prominently in many British books and movies, eg. Peter Pan, it's almost synonymous with London for him (besides fish and chips!)

In case you're not aware, Big Ben is part of the Palace of Westminster for the two Houses of Parliament. It's a long building, with Big Ben on the north end. Trivia: Big Ben isn't the name of the tower and if one is being pedantic, not even the name of the clock! It actually refers to the large bell in the clock that chimes every quarter of the hour.

Thus ended our sight-seeing for this trip. That evening, we headed out to the Paddington area for a very special farewell dinner.

The Paddington rail station was made famous by Michael Bond's classic children's books which featured the lovable Paddington Bear. In the books, Paddington was found at Paddington Railway Station sitting on a suitcase which said "Wanted on Voyage". He also had a tag around his neck which read "Please look after this bear. Thank you."

Whadya know, they erected a statue of Paddington Bear with the tag and suitcase right there at the station! How very sweet.

Paddington is a very pretty area. On our way to our dinner destination, we passed a canal with some houseboats.

There's even a floating bookstore!

Our farewell dinner was at Pearl Liang, a Chinese restaurant again recommended by my London food guru, Lilian. We had discovered that we qualified for a 15% discount if we book online for dinner (Sundays to Tuesdays), so we did.

Pearl Liang's specialty is the lobster noodles. We ordered that, beef sirloin in fruity mandarin sauce, king prawns in salted egg yolk and egg fried rice.

I can't find enough descriptors to explain how amazing the lobster noodles were. The lobster meat was large and chunky and the noodles dripping with flavour. If you order this, add a portion of noodles cos I guarantee you won't get enough of it. Drool. Market rate - we paid £38 for it.

The beef was tender and came in substantial slices.

I've never had salted egg prawns done this way - it tastes deep fried, with a light and very tasty batter but it's actually sauteed.

Since it was also Father's Day, this was a great celebratory dinner for the very happy dad who found the meal completely to his satisfaction.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ancient relics - giant stones and Roman baths

Day 13 (Sat, 14 June 2014)

Today would be the last of our day trips, out to Stonehenge and Bath. Again, we booked with Anderson Tours because of the convenient pickup at Earl's Court, which meant we didn't have to wake up extra early and take the Tube down to another pickup place.

Our first stop was Stonehenge. Some 15 years ago when I last came here, the coach could drive up all the way to the Visitor Centre at the stones. But since the Centre was being renovated, the coach had to drop us off at the base of the hill and we could only access the site via the official bus or tram.

Stonehenge is a World Heritage Site dating back nearly 5,000 years. It has been home to pagan religion and spiritual worship for many over the years. When we were there, there was actually a group of druids all dressed up in medieval clothing, performing a ritual among the stones! And no, it wasn't a re-enaction. They really do believe in the mystical properties of Stonehenge. Umm... I dunno what to say to that.

To be honest, we thought they kinda spoilt the facade of the stones, but this was the best angle we could get that didn't show so much of the group.

All throughout the area were fields of poppies, an explosion of scarlet amidst a lush verdant backdrop.

Next, we headed to the city of Bath, a famous English city in Somerset. This was the view coming into Bath. Bath was also the home of famous author, Jane Austen (although Lesley-Anne refused to visit the Jane Austen Centre cos she detested the book Emma, that was her sec 4 literature text).

This Georgian City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, mainly because of its Roman Baths, built nearly 2,000 years ago. The baths are the best preserved Roman Spa from the ancient world.

Example of a drain that channels the water to the baths. Amazing how they had such sophisticated structures thousands of years ago.

These are the tiles beneath the floor that would be heated up by the natural hot spring.

Many structures were discovered at the baths, including tombstones such as this one:

They had hot rooms and steam rooms too, much like the saunas and spas of today. The rich would have servants pour the hot water on them and give them massages. Ye Olde Spa Treatment! Baths were not just a leisure activity, the waters were also considered healing and therapeutic.

There are quite a few historical eating places in Bath. One of them is Sally Lunn's, which occupies one of the oldest buildings in the city and is famous for its buns.

We had the buns with some smoked salmon, pork loin and a cream tea set. The sets come with a pot of tea. Can't get more English than that.

The bun looks like a massive burger bun but its texture is more like a light and pillowy brioche, slightly toasted so there's a nice crisp around the edges.

The savoury items were nothing to shout about but the cream tea, with jam and clotted cream, was addictive. (Incidentally, Andre and I love clotted cream. We wish we could tar pow tubs of it back home!)

We had some time left so we walked towards Pulteney Bridge which overlooks the River Avon. Yet another postcard-worthy scene. The parks and gardens of England are gorgeous in Summer.

Traffic was bad coming back to London. Due to road works, I estimate we were stuck for 30mins at a half-km stretch. We held a bet as to what time we would reach our drop-off point and the guesses were as follows: Andre - 8.05pm, Me - 8.20pm, Lesley-Anne - 8.30pm, Kenneth - 8.40pm. At 7.50pm, we were still gridlocked and it looked like there was no way Andre could win. Then suddenly, as the coach passed a stretch, traffic became smooth-flowing and it stopped at Earl's Court just as the clock on the bus turned 8.05pm. Unreal. I'm only telling this story because it sometimes seems as if the stars align just to suit Andre. His prize? A bag of chips.

We weren't that hungry as we'd eaten at 4pm at Bath, so we decided to grab a pizza from Pizza@Home, a little shop around the corner of where we were staying.

Prices are very reasonable. After 6pm, it's £8 for a freshly made 14" pizza. £1 off if you order before 6pm. There are so many varieties to choose from, we took a long time to figure out what to order!

In the end, we went with parma ham, rocket and cheese. It was an excellent pizza - the crust is light and crisp. That's one very happy boy!