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Europe - Part 1: London

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

We set our sights high for our first bucket list adventure, opting for a two week vacation overseas. Beginning in London, UK to experience the culture, before venturing through France and Belgium to the Netherlands to board a Rhine River Cruise to sail upstream to Switzerland. Our European Adventure has been posted in two sections, Part 1: London and Part 2: Rhine River Cruise.

Our first stop during our visit was London, UK. We took advantage of a familiar vernacular while settling into a new culture before venturing further East. We wanted to experience the English country-side in addition to the city life of London, so we reserved a quaint Carriage House in Wanstead. American tourists must not normally stay this far from the city. Our taxi driver was surprised by the address we gave, asking three separate times to make sure he had heard us correctly.

"Wanstead!" our taxi driver said, "there has to be a mistake, that's located in the suburbs." Shaking his head in astonishment he added, "I live ten minutes from that location."

Needless to say, he wasn't wrong. What appears to be 12 miles on a map turned into a nearly 45 minute taxi ride from the airport to our flat, costing us more $120 pounds. Our research indicated that there was a Tube station just a short 10 minute walk (or 5 minute bus ride - if you caught the bus schedule) from the flat. Once on the Tube, a quick 20 minute ride put us into the center of London. While this commute into central London may be atypical for most travelers, we enjoyed it (for the most part) strolling through the neighborhoods of this historic suburb. We felt a bit like the locals as we walked the cobblestone streets, we even caught glimpses of two foxes, one scampered through the gardens directly outside the Carriage House. Yet, navigating the Tube was a bit of a challenge - so do your homework! We learned that some stations close throughout the week or after specific times in the evening - so we had to plan our vacation around the station times or find other means of transportation out of the city.

Nevertheless, our Carriage House was a well-appointed flat located behind the main house with a beautiful garden separating the two. The owners were delightful and had two friendly dogs who would come visit us on a regular basis.

We ventured into London every day visiting popular sights like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, St. Paul's Cathedral, and the "Wibbly Wobbly" Bridge. We walked by Parliament and took the obligatory photo of Big Ben. We reserved tickets for a double-decker bus, as we have been very pleased with similar tours in the US. We quickly learned that U.S. cities have designed their streets for multiple lanes of traffic, unlike the European cities where many of the streets are narrow, often only one-way, resulting in traffic jams, especially located around popular tourist destinations and historical buildings.

We opted to spend an entire day in Windsor, touring the grandeur of Windsor Castle and it's quaint city. The Castle is massive and the grounds are expansive, including a chapel and several servant quarters. The grounds are expertly maintained.

The Long Walk spans nearly three miles down a straight Elm tree-lined avenue connecting Windsor Castle to Snow Hill in Windsor Great Park. Beyond the ornate wrought-iron gate stands the imposing Windsor Castle. Deveny captured a stunning photograph of Windsor Castle from the Long Walk Gate that hangs on our wall at home.

#RoamLikeAPro: Invest in a quality DSL camera and learn how to use it. Bring it on vacations and capture your own memories. When you return, select your favorite images and cover your walls with your adventures.

Nestled near the towering Castle walls is this charming city of Windsor. Strolling the streets and window shopping at various book stores and hobby stops, we stumbled across a fudge shop. After a sampling of their candy, we learned that the owner received training from one of the famed shops in Michigan. It's a small world!

While in Windsor, we made reservations for a quintessential British experience: Afternoon Tea. The Brasserie at Sir Christopher Wren, situated near Boathouse 19 on the River Thames, presented a formal afternoon tea. The hostess sat us near the window; we sipped tea and savored our finger sandwiches while watching swans swim and a local crew team row up and down the river. This was a peaceful experience before hopping the train back to London.

We opted for a half-day self-guided tour of Warner Brother Studios for an awesome experience into The Making of Harry Potter. We are not super-fans of the books or movies - I'm not even sure that I've seen them all - we were in awe of this experience. Guests entered this magical experience through the door to Hogwarts. The door opened to the dining room set; a large continuous banquet table with benches on either side. The actual costumes for individual characters were positioned on busts, as if the character themselves were watching us walk by. Vignettes of sets, props, wigs, monsters, and miniature models lined the hallways of this expansive museum. Interactive sets included camera-tricks, animatronics, and shared the movie magic behind how important scenes were filmed. Narration and placards invited guests to learn much about the filming, characters, and events of making Harry Potter. At the end of the exhibit, guests entered into a sound stage with a huge model of the entire Hogwarts complex, which changed from day to night every few minutes. At night every window was lit from the inside. This impressive model was used to film the shot of characters flying around the castle. The entire experience was mesmerizing - we left feeling like we were part of the magic.

We also visited the London Dungeon, a wax museum attraction that is designed around London's dark history; the black plague, the great fire, torture techniques, and Jack the Ripper, among other things. While marketed as a "scary experience," this experience differs greatly from a haunted house - this is more of a museum of the absurd and focuses on a history of London that would rather be forgotten.

Deveny surprised me with a visit to The Bletchley, an immersive WW2 themed bar where all customers become secret agents - donning a WW2 era agent jacket for the evening (unfortunately, most WW2 agents did not fit the Big & Tall image, so I wore my own attire). This interactive experience requires guests to use enigma machines, break codes, and solve puzzles to gain access to cocktail ingredients. This was unlike any other bar experience - we received a total of four drinks throughout the night. The bar tenders were attentive and hilarious - they remained busy all night creating new cocktails for each guest. No two alike. You should absolutely add this adventure to your travel itinerary - just don't go on an empty stomach!

From historic landmarks to hidden gems, we packed a lot into our 5-day London vacation. On the fifth day, we bid farewell to London to begin a new adventure. We booked Rail and Sail tickets from London to Amsterdam, hopped a train out of London to the White Cliffs of Dove, and boarded our ship for a voyage across the English Channel to France. The picture below is of our sleeping cabin, just large enough to spread out and get some shuteye for the overnight voyage.

After disembarkation during the wee morning hours (having lost an hour as we traveled across the Channel), we wiped the sleep for our eyes and rode two more train transfers before arriving in Amsterdam before noon. Author's note: Pack light. We did not, as you can tell from the various luggage items in the photo above. Navigating the stone staircases, crowded terminals, and small train cars with large, clumsy luggage can weigh you down. During our scenic rail and sail adventure we met several friendly European natives who were astonished that we would make this trek.

One person even said, "You're American?!? Why are you here? American's fly - they don't rail and sail."

While most people might agree that Americans generally enjoy the convenience of air travel since a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. We are not most Americans and chose to roam across Europe, to meet locals and explore the culture along the way. NEXT STOP: AMSTERDAM!

Click here to read European ~ Part 2: Rhine River Cruising.

Travel Dates: May 8-13, 2017

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