London / Southampton, England

 Just after I sent last week’s newsletter I hopped on a nine-and-a-half-hour Air New Zealand flight to London. Since the Rugby World Cup had just ended in Auckland, Air New Zealand had to add an extra flight, so instead of flying one of their new plush 777-300s we were on one of their older 747-400s. You don’t get to fly 747s much these days because most airlines are switching to more fuel-efficient aircraft, so when I boarded I quickly remembered why this bird is my favorite plane in the sky… at least to stare at.

I got upgraded to Premium Economy, which gives passengers six more inches of space–which is huge on a long flight. Air New Zealand has Premium Economy seats upstairs as well as business class, so you have a good choice. I of course chose upstairs, since it’s like your own private plane up there with the few seats. The best side to sit on is the right (when facing forward) since there are only two seats in a row instead of three. Actually I believe I had the second-best Premium Economy seat, 25K, a window seat in the last row. The best is 22K, a bulkhead. See this Seatguru.com chart to see the plane configuration.

It’s nothing like the airline’s new Premium Economy seats they showcase on their 777-300, but I was very comfortable. The service and food is basically the same as business-class passengers receive but presented differently, so everything is top-notch. I had a delicious salad for starters, chicken as my main dish, and then some cheese. Two hours before landing, breakfast was served (choice of eggs or waffles). My overall verdict is that Air New Zealand’s flight crew are seriously the coolest and most sincere people in the sky. Along with their incredible product, the Air New Zealand staff is a big reason why they are one of my favorite airlines in the world.

Welcome to London
I had another pleasant arrival into Heathrow. First of all, on descent we were treated to marvelous views of the English countryside and the clouds and rain didn’t roll in until final approach. The walk to passport control must’ve been a quarter of a mile long, but we all needed it after a long flight. There was just a five-minute wait to get our passports stamped and bags came out shortly after. Since we were shooting a TV show we had to check bags, but the plus side is we had a chauffeured van operated by Chirton Grange. Our guys were always on time, friendly, and, most importantly, excellent drivers. On top of that, all their passengers get a welcome bag filled with a bottle of water, pack of gum, package of tissues, pen, and chocolate bar. And if that wasn’t enough, one of their vans (we were in two different ones over the four-day period) had Wi-Fi. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt
Our first stop (we had 30 minutes) was to freshen up at the 215-room Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt in South Kensington (close to Knightsbridge). It’s a four-star hotel in a Georgian mansion. The hotel is nice, but the rooms and elevator are tiny. To give you an idea, the desk was so small my 13-inch computer couldn’t even fit securely on it and the shower was so narrow they should provide soap on a rope. If you are of plus size I would think twice before booking a room here. The other negative is the windows are not soundproof, and I learned the hard way that the city is on a full-court press to get ready for the summer Olympics. Construction workers were paving the street from around midnight to at least 4:30 a.m. (that’s when I finally fell back to sleep). Obviously, the noise isn’t the hotel’s fault, it’s the city’s, so my advice to you is ask your hotel if there is any planned construction going on and if there is, book an interior room. My colleagues had one and didn’t even know there was construction. Of course, always bring ear plugs. The good news: the hotel has free Wi-Fi, each room has a flat-screen TV, and the hotel is just a couple blocks from restaurants and grocery stores and is near some popular London attractions. I would definitely stay here again, just not during construction.

Autumn in England
I can’t tell you the places we filmed since the producers haven’t given me permission, but I can tell you this: autumn in England is beautiful. I took a walk on our free time along the walkway leading up to Windsor Castle and I felt like I was in a fairy tale. Actually, for that matter, the town of Windsor, where the Queen has one of her castles, is like a fairy tale. If I were to ever live in a suburb of London, that’s where I would set up shop. We had dinner one night at The Bell & The Dragon (website), which is in the center of town, just a couple blocks from the swan sanctuary and down the street from the Duchess of Cambridge Restaurant (website). The food and setting were excellent, but there were two middle-aged English businessmen who had had too much to drink. According to the waiter (after they left) they had 5.5 bottles of wine and were there from 1:30 in the afternoon to 7 p.m. One of them started ragging on Americans to me, so I had to give it back to him. I just said, “Listen buddy, if it wasn’t for ‘those damn Yankees’ [as he called us], you would be speaking German.” That shut him up and he left on a friendly note. (NOTE: This is the first time I’ve ever encountered this in England, and I’ve spent a lot of time there.)

FYI: The weather was much nicer than I was expecting. It sure beat the weather the East Coast received this week (can you believe the crazy snowstorm in the Northeast?). I’m in New York now, freezing, and when I left London on Sunday it was 64 degrees. Here’s London’s 10-day forecast.

Novotel Southampton hotel
After dinner in Windsor we drove 90 minutes to Southampton (map) and spent two nights at the Novotel Southampton hotel. It’s listed as a four-star hotel with 121 contemporary guest rooms and is in central Southampton. The rooms are double the size of those in the Radisson Vanderbilt, but they don’t come with free wireless. You can either charge 9 (uS$14.41) to your room or use the Orange network and pay by credit card (they have all kinds of plans, but a 24-hour pass is £9,90 (US$13.80). Luckily, the Orange network is partners with Boingo and I have a monthly account with them, so I was all set.

What I liked about the Novotel was the room had two doors to keep sound from the bathroom and hallway traffic to a minimum. What I didn’t like about it is that the duvet was way too thick and the air-conditioning didn’t work. I was able to open the one window six inches, but it got noisy outside around 5 a.m. Here are some of my notes:

  • Lobby looks like a new hotel but it’s not, and you can tell when walking down the room hallways.
  • Rooms have been remodeled but the bed isn’t desirable; the mattress is springy, pillows bulky, and duvet too heavy and not soft.
  • There is a separate toilet closet, which I like, especially when there are two or more people in the room.
  • The desk was 15 times the size of the one at the Radisson Vanderbilt.
  • The bath towels were long and soft.
  • The small flat-screen TV took a while to get to the free TV channels–there are all these options for pay TV. Kind of scammy if you ask me.
  • The breakfast buffet cost £13.95 (US$22.32).

Titanic
OK, I’m banking that the TV producer is not going to read my newsletter, so I will tell you the highlight of my trip to Southampton. It was going to the very berth from which the Titanic set sail on April 10, 1912. Seeing a departure photo from that occasion with the same bollards that are there today is really something. I just closed my eyes and tried to picture what the atmosphere must’ve been like on that exciting day–and then the horror the town experienced two days later.

Weymouth
On our last day we drove 90 miles or so from Southampton to the resort of Weymouth and the Isle of Portland. It’s in the middle of the Jurassic Coast, which is a World Heritage Site. Silly me thought the Jurassic Coast was in Kauai, where Steven Spielberg filmed the blockbuster movie. Wrong. I took a sailing lesson from Laser Sail School on the very body of water where the sailing competition will take place during the 2012 Olympic/Paralympic games. I would love to come back here in the summer when it’s warmer because it’s a beautiful area. And the resort of Weymouth has the feel of a quaint and quirky town. We walked around and had lunch and some of the restaurants we walked into reminded me of the ones I went to in Atlantic City growing up. The coolest place we hit was the Black Dog Pub where a friendly drunk played “Born in the USA” for us when he found out we were from America.

Renaissance London Heathrow Hotel
Our last night we spent at the Renaissance London Heathrow Hotel. It’s along Bath Road, which is where most of Heathrow’s airport hotels are located. From the outside it looked old and dated, but they did a nice job remodeling it. The rooms could still use some help (especially with the mattress, TV, and shower curtain), but I had my best night of sleep here. The air-conditioning worked well and the duvet and pillows were soft. Besides, I love plane spotting, and this hotel has to be one of the best in the world for doing just that because it’s right near the runway (be sure to ask for a room overlooking it if you are an aviation geek like me). Don’t worry, the windows are fairly soundproof, so you will get sleep, and I don’t think the planes were taking off in the middle of the night. I was jet lagged so I was up for a few hours and I didn’t hear any planes until 4:30 a.m. Other notables:

  • The Internet cost £15 (US$24) for 24 hours.
  • There was a sign at the front desk informing guests Europe was changing their clocks back that night (they do it a week earlier than North America.
  • Lots of flight crew and passengers from cancelled flights stay here.
  • Like all airport hotels, it’s for transients.
  • The dinner buffet was pretty good and cost £19 (US$30) per person.
  • Breakfast was free for us, and I think that is the case for most room rates.
  • The gift shop sells all the things a traveler needs like adapters, toiletries, and model airplanes!

Getting to Heathrow
You would think airport hotels would have a free shuttle, but they don’t. I’ve stayed at a bunch of them at Heathrow and none of them do, including the Renaissance. If you buy a bus ticket in advance it’s £4 (US$6.40) per person, otherwise it’s £4.50 (US$7.20) on the bus. A taxi for the four of us was going to cost £16 (US$25), but since the bus was there we took it instead for the seven-minute drive.

Heathrow Airport
Check-in was quick for Virgin Atlantic and security only took about 10 minutes (it’s the same procedures as the U.S., but you don’t need to take your shoes off). At Heathrow you never know what your gate is until about an hour before your flight. I think they do this so people just mull around their duty-free shops. It works–I hit Harrods. After I bought a present for £7.95 I remembered the scam they and many other businesses partake in. When they find out you are American they ask if you want to pay in U.S. dollars or pounds. Most Americans think it’s benefiting them so they choose dollars, when in reality they are getting ripped off. For example, the conversion they quoted me to pay for my gift in dollars was US$13.98, but I chose pounds instead and was charged only US$12.84. (My Capital One credit card sends me an email the moment my card is charged with the price in U.S. dollars.) Shame on Harrods and all the rest for offering this dis-service.

 

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