We boarded the plane with great anticipation. The day had finally arrived to travel with our daughter, Catherine, son-in-law, Daaron, and our grandson, Henry, to London and Paris. We had not reached our seats when our longtime friend, Pam Hines Brannon, came up to us. Pam has been flying for Delta for as long as I have known her. After 35 years, we finally boarded a plane where she was working as a flight attendant. That was a great sign of what was to come.
Mary Lou spent a year in England, as did Catherine, during their junior year in college. Mary Lou and I have been back many times over the years, having always loved London and having grown to love Paris. We were particularly anxious to share some of these sites with our grandson.
We checked into the Marriott London County Hall. We had never stayed here, but it is the single most convenient hotel we have stayed in to be able to easily walk and see most of the tourist highlights. Big Ben and Parliament are one view from our bedroom window, just across the Thames River from our hotel. The famous London Eye, also known as the Millennium Wheel, is literally just a few yards away from our window in the other direction.
One of our rooms was ready at three p.m., some five hours after we arrived at the hotel. The other was not ready until almost six pm. In a true show of hospitality, the hotel reduced our room rate by 50%, not an insignificant amount. They also comped us each a couple of drinks in the bar as another goodwill gesture. Good job for them.
The first day found us touring Parliament. The crowds were not as crowded as we expected. We used audio guides to take the tour at our own pace. It was amazing to be able to walk through one of the most storied and famous legislative buildings in the world, without an overwhelming display of security. You cannot help but be awed at the history and majesty of the building, both inside and out.
We walked to Trafalgar Square and toured a bit of the National Gallery of Art. We were looking for one painting that had once hung in the Maier Art Museum of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where Mary Lou had been an undergraduate student. We found it. Men of the Docks by George Bellows. It was sold for an amazing $25.5 Million dollars in 2014.
The following day found us at the amazing Churchill War Rooms, an extraordinary look at the underground bunker where Winston Churchill and his Cabinet conducted the British war effort during World War II. The museum examines in depth the life and work of the famous Prime Minister.
During our visit, we literally ran into two good friends from Auburn, our neighbors Matt and Lori Peck. Living less than 300 yards from each other, we found ourselves talking in a basement bunker more than 4,400 miles from home. Part of my love for travel is the way it teaches us just how small the world really is.
In the afternoon, we visited Buckingham Palace, and toured some of the beautiful gardens at St. James Park, originally purchased by Henry VIII in 1532. It is the oldest and some may say the most beautiful park in London. It was filled with people enjoying the cool Summer day. Perfect weather in London! We haven’t been able to say that very often during our previous visits.
After a well-earned nap, we found our way to Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse near our hotel. We were all ready for a steak, having already eaten fish and chips twice. Unfortunately, the waitress incorrectly ordered my steak as medium well, versus medium. Mariana, our server, was horrified at the mistake and, along with her manager, worked very hard to make things right.
A perfectly cooked replacement steak found its way to my table in ten minutes. The sides were replaced to be fresh and hot with the meal. Finally, a slice of a six-layer chocolate cake, large enough to feed the entire table and a generous slice of cheesecake also appeared at our table. All on the house, including the steak.
Mariana and the staff took what could have been an unpleasant experience and made it into a visit we will talk about for a long time. It was one of the best examples of service and making things right I have ever seen in a restaurant.
Just two days into our trip we have already visited some truly historic places. We have had good food and beautiful weather. We unexpectedly met good friends on the plane and in a bunker. Not everything has been perfect, but everything has been made right. You cannot ask for anything more than that.
Travel is not just visiting places and seeing things. For me, it is more about the experience. The world is smaller than ever, but I am older than ever. I hope to see and experience as much of the world as I can in the coming years.
The rest of the week we will be in London and then heading through the Chunnel to enjoy Paris. Stay tuned.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org