Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Day 2 - Azamara Quest - London - Monday, 24 August 2015

We got to sleep in just little bit and met downstairs to go up the street to find some breakfast at around 8:30 am. We found a shop called “Pret au Manger” which turned out to be a very reasonably priced little coffee shop with handmade sandwiches and pastries - it was just a block away from the Sofitel St James. I had a coffee but saved my cheese sandwich to eat later. It was raining this morning and we returned to the hotel which, again, because it's a high end hotel, had umbrellas for us to borrow. Thank goodness because throughout the day, there were torrential downpours off and on. We met our tour guide for the day, Adrian Rouse, who was a trained London black taxi cab driver and would be showing us London for the day. He showed us to his black cab which was very interesting because the seats were facing each other and was extremely roomy. We didn't really have an agenda for him so we just left it up to him to show us the highlights of the city.

Adrian Rouse of London Tours by Taxi

Adrian came highly recommended on Trip Advisor and he totally lived up to his reputation – so incredibly knowledgeable, experienced, and humorous. We had just been in London 2 months ago but we learned more the first hour with Adrian than we did on our first visit. To be fair, though, our last visit was with over 200 high school students in 5 buses so I'm sure that tour was geared more for them (the students) than it was for us (the parents). I really appreciated Adrian's flexibility since the weather wasn't so great (raining). I enjoyed his humor and impressive memory for facts and figures about the city, and his taxi is immaculate. 

There is so much history in London I have no idea how Adrian was able to pick and choose what to show us but he kept us interested and entertained for 8 hours and seemed to have a natural intuition for when to stay in the taxi, when to get out, and when to interject to point out and explain something of interest to us. To me, one of the most interesting things that Adrian pointed out were the warrants that businesses earned for providing goods or services to the royal family. We saw a tailor that had earned an impressive 3 warrants and learned about why Harrods no longer had 3. He also pointed out the different colored round labels on certain buildings that were placed to signify something of historical significance with that particular building. 

Store with 2 Royal Warrants

Liquor store with 2 Royal Warrants
We also stopped by the shop that was used in the taping of the first Harry Potter movie that was the door to the Leaky Cauldron pub. He seemed to know a pearl or 2 of information on just about every building on every street in London. We stopped for a lunch of fish and chips and then later in the afternoon we were dropped off back at the Sofitel to get ready for dinner.

Door used as the "Leaky Cauldron" in Harry Potter movie

Marks on the ground showing where guards were to stand


Fish and Chips
We took an Uber to the Hakkasan restaurant – this time we were traveling during “peak” hours so our fare was 7 pounds one way. The restaurant was a little tough to find – there wasn't a big sign outside but there was a doorman. We checked in and were shown to our table downstairs – the restaurant was quite big and filled up as the night went on.

We had previewed the menu and wanted to go with their Signature menu. We started with golden fried soft shell crab which was followed quickly with the steamed har gau/prawn toast. The 2 courses of Peking duck was served family style along with the lobster, wagyu beef, vegetables, and Chilean Sea Bass. All of the dishes were excellent and the meal went very quicky because we were served family style. For dessert, we shared 2 – one was of chocolate and the other was coconut – both were really good but my favorite was the coconut.

Dinner menu

Gold Leaf Har Gau and sesame prawn toast with foie gras

Gold Leaf Har Gau and sesame prawn toast with foie gras

Peking Duck

Peking Duck with pancakes

Golden soft shell crab

Duck with ginger and spring onion

Grilled Wagyu Beef with Enoki Mushrooms 

Grilled Chilean Sea Bass in honey

We caught another Uber back to the Sofitel for 5 pounds and called it a night.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

Day 0-1 - Azamara Quest - Enid to London - Saturday - Sunday, 22-23 August 2015

Azamara Quest
22 August – 9 September 2015
Delightful Havens Voyage
Club Ocean Suite, 7004

Saturday/Sunday, 22-23 August 2015 – Enid to London

Wade referred to it as the “Amazing Race” - the route we took to even get to London. I was determined to fly business class to London but didn't want to pay an arm and a leg to fly on a domestic airline so after hunting around for quite a while, I finally found a reasonably affordable business class flight from Boston to London on Aer Lingus. The catch was that we would have to fly from Wichita to Chicago to Boston and then transfer to Aer Lingus to Shannon, Ireland and then, eventually, London. Our travel buddies, Wade and Charlie boarded a non-stop flight from Atlanta straight to London at around 9 pm. We left Enid at 3:30 am on Saturday and landed in London at 10 am on Sunday morning. - just about 24 hours spent traveling.

It was pouring rain with a lightning storm on the way to the new airport in Wichita – the Mid-Continent airport had been transformed into the Eisenhower Airport since the last time we flew out together from it – the new terminal was really nice. We stopped for some breakfast and coffee at the Dunkin Donuts in the terminal and soon boarded our plane for a 7:45 am departure. The transfer in Chicago was a problem. Our 11 am flight was delayed and then delayed and then delayed again. When we finally boarded, we sat in the plane for another hour and finally took off almost 3 hours late due to a problem with their radio. I guess there are about half a dozen places on the plane where there can be a problem with the radio and, of course, it seems like it was the very last place they replaced a part that finally solved the issue with the radio.

We arrived into Boston at almost 5 pm for our connecting flight at 7:15 pm. Normally, this wouldn't be a problem arriving for an international flight except that we had to collect our bags, get to another terminal, and check-in on a different airline. We got our bags some 30 minutes later and took a taxi to terminal E from terminal B instead of waiting for the shuttle bus just to save us some time. I held up a $10 bill and asked the driver how much our fare was and he said “ok” so I just handed him the $10. We checked in and made it through security by 6 pm which did still give us enough time to head to the Aer Lingus lounge for about half an hour of quiet time with a drink (and a snack).

We flew business class to Shannon, Ireland which was nice with the reclining seats and amenities like quilt blankets, toiletries, and a nice dinner after taking off. The seared filet was quite good and we were offered wine during dinner. I had never had colcannon before – it's basically mashed potato with chopped cabbage. I thought it was really good.

When we got to Shannon, we had to change planes with about a 2 hour layover. We found our gate and were a little hesitant – the gate was in a really old part of the airport and it reminded Seth of the type of airports you see on the way to third world countries. The gate was pretty empty for quite some time and then about 10 minutes before we boarded, a ton of people showed up out of nowhere for our flight. We were in economy on this last leg of the flight and these were the tightest seats we had ever seen – Seth's knees were up against the seat in front of him and the seat wasn't even reclined back. Thank goodness this flight was only a little over an hour.

We collected our suitcases in London and I used the free London airport wifi to call for an Uber vehicle. We were instructed to meet the Uber at the taxi stand which was a bit away from baggage claim. I had called for an Uber XL because of the number of bags we had and we were picked up by a mini-van. The ride to the Sofitel St James took about 40 minutes. Even though we had requested early check-in, our rooms weren't ready yet at about 11:30 am but, being a high end hotel, they gave us a key card for access to the fitness center in case we wanted to use the shower and changing facilities. We checked out the fitness center and then had a drink in the bar and got our first taste of horribly expensive London prices. 2 drinks in the bar cost over 30 pounds (over $40). Not too much longer, Charlie and Wade arrived at the hotel – just in time for our 12:30 pm lunch reservation at the Balcon restaurant right in the hotel. Of interest, we were able to compare our Uber ride (57 pounds) with their taxi ride (over 70 pounds) from the same location.

We celebrated the beginning of our 2 week vacation with a bottle of wine from Chateau Gachon in Saint Emilion – one of the wine appellations that we would be visiting while in Bordeaux. For lunch, I had the “hot dog” with foie gras – it was delicious.

Following lunch, our room was ready but Wade and Charlie's wasn't quite ready yet so we all went up to our room. I really needed to get a run in so I went back down to the fitness center and pounded out 4 slow miles on the treadmill then headed back to our room, showered, and took a short nap.

Our dinner reservation was at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel which was less than 2 miles away. We took an Uber to the hotel for about 5 pounds one way and arrived at the restaurant just a little bit early. We were seated right away and led to the chef's table in the kitchen to a table that overlooked the central kitchen as well as another prep kitchen to our left.

Our menus were on the table in a long brown box which we got to keep. The menu was fascinating and our waitress explained that each of the courses represented a different time period with more explanation of each course on the back. We were seated at a table surrounded by whimsical drawings on the 3 walls depicting things about the restaurant and its owner.

The Earl Grey Tea cured salmon was great – even Seth liked the salmon. The buttered crab loaf was even better but, to me, one of the highlights of the evening was the Meat Fruit which, honestly, didn't sound that great but the chicken liver pate on the brioche was so good every single person in our party absolutely raved about it. It was paired with a Sauternes which was perfect. The Frumenty (octopus) was my least favorite on the menu but the rest of the menu was delicious. I even enjoyed the lamb and that's not one of my favorites in general. The menu was punctuated with really cool bits of genius like the cucumber ketchup which was so good. Apparently the restaurant is well known not only for its Meat Fruit but for its signature dessert – the Tipsy Cake. Hands down, this was the most amazing dessert I've ever had. Ever. The “cake” was like mini Frontier rolls (complete with an obscene amount of butter and sugar) – crunchy on the outside and soft/warm in the middle – served with a roasted caramelized pineapple. The nitro ice cream trolley was fun to watch but the ice cream melted so incredibly fast and I normally love sprinkles but the candy coated fennel “sprinkles” weren't for me.

Earl Gray Tea Cured Salmon

Buttered Crab loaf

Meat Fruit

Meat Fruit 
Frumenty - octopus

Adding broth to the frumenty 
Frumenty - octopus

Roast iberico pork chop 
lamb and cucumber

Roast peach

Tipsy Cake

We took another Uber back to the Sofitel and went to bed exhausted but happy.