88 08 Apr 2013 Southampton (London), England We have decided to take a bit of a detour (at an additional cost of 30 GBP) to see Stonehenge on our way from Southampton (where we disembarked) to London.Stonehenge evolved from a simple bank and ditch in the Neolithic period, some 5,000 years ago, to a very sophisticated stone circle built on the axis of the midsummer sunrise. The bluestones were brought 240 miles from the Preseli Mountains in Wales. The stones weigh as much as 45,000 pounds and it took a huge effort to build this circle (half of their length is buried, but then the lintels had to be raised into place) about 500 years later. They can actually be seen pretty well from the road and my wife opted to stay in the heated taxi, while I paid the 8 GBP ($12US) to enter the grounds, circling and photo’ing the site from all angles (and listening to the audio tour) in the cold. There are many stories about the significance of Stonehenge. It may have been an astronomical observatory or used for sacred rituals linked to the sun, successful crops or even the dead. We simply don’t know, but these things have been on my bucket list since I was a kid. The surrounding Salisbury Plains are completely flat as far as the eye can see (with the exception of the odd herds of sheep or pigs), but I suspect a few months from now they will be covered with crops.Incidentally, petrol in the UK costs about 1.40 GBP (or about $2.10) per liter – making this the most expensive country that I think we have been in for this commodity. Prices in London are much higher than the States. As a rule of thumb, I usually consider prices in continental Europe to be about the same number of Euros as the price would be in US dollars in the States – or about a 30% premium. Likewise, prices in the UK tend to be about an equivalent number of GB pounds for each US dollar. This is our first trip to London in a number of years. We are spending a couple of nights at the Sofitel. The hotel is a block and a half from the National Gallery (most of London’s museums are still free – rather than the embarrassing $25 NYC museums frequently charge for entry), nearly on top of Trafalgar Square and a block down Regent Street from Piccadilly Circus. We are also a few blocks from the Turkish coffee shop Kahve Dunyasi (at 200 Piccadilly) which has the best Turkish coffee in town as well as an assortment of fabulous chocolate delicacies (though I still think Jacque Torres’s shop in Brooklyn is better – for the chocolate at lease). The flags on Westminster (down the Mall from the hotel) have been flying at half-mast and we just found out on the TV that Margaret Thatcher has died today.For those who have never been to London, the city has a “feel” that is dramatically different from any other. New York and Shanghai have a tall modern speed about them. Rome has the feeling of ancient empires mixed with the renaissance. Paris has a sense of curves and style, Tokyo has hard bright edges and much of Barcelona looks like it’s melting. But London looks like the city that Washington D.C. wants to be when it grows up. The streets curve with a majesty of ornate buildings which lead into stately parks. Where the style of Rome has flair and that of Paris has the appeal of eye candy, that of London is the stately 250 GBP shirts of Pinks on Jermyn Street, the marmalades and perfumes of Fortnum & Mason (on Piccadilly since 1797), and the real safari clothing from Beretta (on St. James Street since 1527). It seems that the investment bankers, Arabs and Russians (as well as what’s left of the aristocracy) have a broader range of overpriced items in London than we can even find in New York City. It seems like the ritzy neighborhoods of Belgravia and Mayfair are populated by absent owners of multi-million pound apartments (many of these guys also have apartments in New York, Monaco, Hong Kong and their home city of choice (Moscow and Abu Dhabi being favorites).We spent the afternoon at the National Gallery museum which ranks among the world’s finest.Considering that the alternative is a common event in the US, it is a bit interesting to find that the vast majority of the ethnic Asian and Afro/West Indies people you find serving you in stores speak with flawless educated BBC accents, while it is the whites who have either local or foreign accents. I took the liberty of picking up a couple of tickets (over the internet before we left on this trip) to The Book of Mormon “Broadway show” playing at the Prince of Wales Theatre. We got great seats (sixth row center orchestra) for a small fraction of the price they would have cost at the scalpers a subway ride from home. The play is very entertaining and the large theatre was packed with clapping, hooting and laughing Brits. The audience was about 1/3 kids who were South Park fans, 1/3 straight adults and 1/3 gay couples (I suspect almost none of the audience had ever met a Mormon or knew what LDS meant). After watching the play, I don’t think there will be a road show heading to Utah any time soon.Out second morning in London was spent wandering up and down the local streets. First we went westward on Piccadilly to the Costa coffee shop (a large chain of these in London with very good coffee) for a light breakfast. Then we backtracked east across Piccadilly Circus to Leicester Square (where, if we had more time here, we would buy ½ price theatre tickets at the kiosk set up for the purpose). We kept heading straight ahead until we reached Covent Garden. This covered market is full of eclectic shops and buskers entertaining the kids (who are still off for the Easter holiday). One store that was impressive was named “Carat” and which sold extremely high quality simulated knockoffs of fancy jewelry (it makes you wonder why one should bother with the real thing when something that looks like world class bling only costs a couple hundred bucks). The streets outside are lined with camping/climbing/hiking equipment suppliers. The next jump was to The Strand and a pop into the Strand Hotel – one of the fanciest (along with The Ritz in Mayfair) in London. Theoretically the high tea here is supposed to be special – but then so is the one in the Ritz – or even the Sofitel for that matter. A couple of blocks further down The Strand, we hit St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church (no longer in the fields as well as Covent Gardens no longer near a convent). There is now a restaurant in the Crypt. We then swung past Charing Cross and Nelson’s Column and ended up in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s likely that every picture you have ever seen of a British monarch is hanging somewhere within these walls (along with hundreds of other portraits). We picked up lunch at a sandwich place off the corner of Orange and Oxendon Streets. I noticed the place had pasta de nada pastries stacked up and I asked if the owner was from Lisbon – it turned out he was from Madera, but the pastries are made there as well. We walked a block and a half and had a picnic lunch at our hotel.In the evening some good friends of ours (the same ones we travelled around Israel with last summer) took us to a lovely dinner overlooking the Thames at the Skylon restaurant at the Southbank Centre (London’s performing arts center - equivalent to NYC’s Lincoln Center). The food was good, the view special and the prices here reflect that. After dinner we headed to an exceptional concert at Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing Brahms including the wonderful Second Piano Concerto and “Piano Quartet No.1” with orchestration for the full philharmonic by Schoenberg (as well as one of Schoenberg’s works).Well, it is the end of our stay. We are flying back on Virgin Atlantic for the first time (in their “Upper Class”). We had decided to splurge and have Cunard arrange for us to fly back in business class (which while it costs a bunch, lets us take our luggage without quibble and stretch our feet without complaint). They elected to put us in what amounts to First Class – reclining beds and all. We got to the airport early, but stood on the tax rebate line for 45 minutes (not realizing that there was another empty one after airport security. Security took my carry-ons apart (presumably because of the number of electronic gadgets I travel with). We showed up at the Virgin Atlantic lounge a little over an hour before the flight. This limited the time we had to enjoy the breadth of services available for our enjoyment. The plane however was a Boeing 747 and the ride/accommodations exceeded our expectations.The NYC cab driver “forgot” to turn on his GPS, so this became a cash only trip (he was ticked off about the amount of luggage we had – forcing him to put a carry-on on his front seat). The weather in NYC is hot, so I guess we are back into summer.Our apartment building lobby has not been repaired since Hurricane Sandy hit (maybe the landlord is waiting for an insurance settlement?).The normal day or two fight against jetlag awaits.POST MORTEMIt turns out that our selection of clothing and gadgets was up to the task. I can’t remember ever needing anything we didn’t have along (though we had to replenish some toiletries as we ran through them). We used most of our cloths and we had the proper weight clothing and footwear for every environment we hit. Just about everything worked out OK that we had planned.On the electronics side, the Kindle no longer allows foreign free internet connections (this was my shipboard emergency device, but Amazon has now cut that off). The Samsung Tab 2 7 inch tablet was very useful ashore, but it’s important to realize that trying to do anything complex on a tablet is like only being able to look at an unabridged dictionary through a window (it’s all there, but you can only see a bit at a time). It worked OK (not connected to WiFi and no SIM) as a GPS with downloaded maps and as a guidebook (but unfortunately, not both at once). The Sony laptop which I Frankenstein’ed back together after our last trip has again proved itself very useful (and years ahead of its time). Once I broke down and read the book, the Nikon AW-100 camera was the best thing since sliced bread (and I ended up with a few thousand snapshots – after throwing out the obvious duds). Our cell phones worked fine with foreign SIM’s (including the ridiculously cheap $1.50 ones in Indonesia – but I hear the Thai ones are better). One of the key good ideas was to have a handful of spare thumb memory and SD memory drives. There were a few gadgets I didn’t get to use, but usually they had potential (I had a TomTom with full maps, but never ended up renting a car – this would have likely been more convenient while driving than the tablet. Besides, the tablet persisted in using foreign alphabets in the appropriate countries which would have made things fun as I can’t read phonetically and quickly at the same time).So how did the trip go? The choice to take the Queen Mary II across the pond, in retrospect, was brilliant. It was a cost effective, elegant and comfortable way to travel. The ship was stable, the food and service excellent and the activities interesting. I would select only this ship for a winter crossing of the Atlantic. This is the last of its kind and I suspect there will be no more true ocean liners built (it is simply much cheaper to build cruise ships which provide an adequate experience for most passengers). The MS. Rotterdam, which we boarded in Southampton was an elegant ship. The food preparation was about the most consistently excellent that I can remember having on any cruise. The room was good, the on-board activities varied and the service among the best available afloat. But it was the itinerary which was unique.The ship stopped at a variety of ports that even world cruises seldom visit. The route meshes wonderfully with our upcoming (in September) Canadian trip which will culminate with a circumnavigation of the Pacific (which I guess I will be forced to name “Jeff goes West”) with the stop at Singapore closing the circle around the world this year. The ship we will be using is the MS Amsterdam – the sister ship of the MS Rotterdam (and a ship we’ve sailed on before). It was interesting to contrast the differences in attitude between the various European countries as well as comparing the various countries in the Moslem world that we visited. The trip gave us the opportunity to rejoin with old friends (both living in some of the ports and as fellow shipmates) as well as make new ones.While last summer’s long trip was equally varied, it was a lot more work because of the number of packing/unpacking cycles (around 20, I think) and the individual traveling arrangements. This one was easier (put the stuff in drawers and closets and hide the luggage under the bed) and had a different “flavor”, but was at least as interesting.It is sad that the trip is over (I could do another 90 days without missing a heartbeat), but I guess all good things have to come to an end (and of course there will be other trips in the future).Looking ahead towards 2014, I think we are going to try to spend over a month in sub-Saharan Africa, and similar periods of time in India/Nepal/Bhutan/Miramar and Japan (but nothing is cast in stone yet.Jeff
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