Evolution of a London tourist (and photographer)

Freshly graduated from college and traveling abroad for the first time in my life, my first trip to London — in May 2007 — found me wandering around with my family and a tiny point-and-shoot camera. I’d barely had my PowerShot a week when we boarded the plane, but I was ecstatic to be going overseas.

Dad was our tour guide, plotting out the places we wanted to see in the city before boarding another plane for Rome. In Italy we met up with our tour group (Trafalgar, of course!) and ate amazing food while visiting gorgeous, historic places. It was life-changing.

But before Italy was London, and London has my heart.

Being a 21-year-old who had only ever traveled with her parents, I was completely reliant upon them to get us around the city. As the Tube seemed too complicated to attempt, we traveled by tour bus or taxi to see Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and more. By some miracle we even found ourselves at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the other side of the Thames. And though we didn’t get to see the Houses of Parliament on foot, we whizzed by on our “coach” a few times.

My photos were pretty terrible. I didn’t know anything about Photoshop or post-processing. Terms like composition, exposure and aperture meant nothing to me; I was just concentrating on getting something in my frame. Sometimes I succeeded, and other times not so much. In my own defense, we were on some form of transportation most of the time . . . and it’s pretty challenging to get an amazing shot from a fast-moving tour bus.

But looking at it with a critical eye, I just didn’t know what I was doing.

The next time I returned, I was ready — and not just with a better understanding of photography. My friend Stacy was studying abroad and living in England, so I knew she could navigate us anywhere we needed to be. We stayed away from very “touristy” spots and favored local eateries. We took the Tube everywhere, and when we wanted to go to Surrey — where I did got to the quite touristy (but awesome) Hampton Court Palace — we took an actual honest-to-goodness train.

We were on foot and busy, excited and without trepidation. Stacy was my tour guide, showing me another side of the city I’ve come to love so well. Though my parents dropped me off in D.C. and my friend met me at Heathrow, it was my first time actually traveling alone. If visiting England for the first time was life-changing, visiting for a second time was incredible. When I close my eyes, I can still remember what it felt like to ride the Tube alone headed back to the airport on a quiet Sunday morning. Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” came on my iPod, and I looked out the windows and felt . . . alive.

Aside from all that emotional growth, the photos I took — those above — were so much better. Between that first and second trip to London, Mom and I took a local photography class. I got really into macro shots and began to understand my point-and-shoot’s settings. Same camera — different perspective. And more knowledge. And more passion.

And I wasn’t on a tour bus then. Trust me, I love tour buses — and they’re a great way to quickly get the lay of the land. But if you want the real action? The real deal? You better get your feet on the ground. You better start walking.

When our travels brought us back to London in April, I had my Canon Rebel in hand. I’ve spent years cultivating my interest in photography and have had plenty of time to obsess over the city. Without a friend there to guide me, I developed an itinerary of what we should see and do during our four days in London — both before our group Trafalgar tour through the U.K. and after.

I was the tour guide.

I navigated the Tube with (relative) ease, getting us from Trafalgar Square to Charing Cross Road and back again. We rode on the London Eye. Shopped at Covent Garden. Attended Easter Mass at Westminster Abbey. And though we took the long way from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace, we got in some excellent exercise — combined with a memorable story to tell. (Yes, it was one step away from a death march. But it was a fun death march.)

Same places, different perspective.

And who knows what I’ll see — and how I’ll see it — the next time.

British escape, part V: Burns supper in the Scottish Highlands, Scotland

This is my fifth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite moments on our great British adventure in April was our Burns Supper, or an evening we spent in the Scottish highlands eating delicious (and sort of scary) food, enjoying Scottish music and watching a spectacular sunset with our fellow tour group members.

If you’ve never heard of Robert Burns, “Scotland’s favourite son,” let me give you a brief introduction: he’s the most famous Scottish poet to have ever lived, most argue; his “Address To a Haggis” is epic and exceedingly well-known; and he was quite the charismatic chap with a reputation for lovin’ and leavin’ the ladies, if you pick up what I’m putting down. He’s well-known for verses like “A Red, Red Rose,” and our introduction to Burns’ work was highly entertaining.

Leading up to our Burns Night, we really didn’t know what to think. My sister and I actually had a running gag that this “supper” was going to be in the living room of some poor soul’s home. When forty of us arrived with our giant “coach” and blocked their narrow Scottish street, the innkeeper and their entertainers would have to run and duck for cover.

But not so. After spending a few minutes admiring the Scottish countryside, including the photo at top and the tower above, we arrived at a cozy hotel and were immediately greeted by gentleman in honest-to-goodness kilts. If you don’t think a man can look attractive in a plaid skirt? Ladies, get on a plane to Edinburgh. (Spencer, if you’re reading this, look away — like, go get some coffee or something.) As the gentle lilt of bagpipes poured over us, we exchanged smiles with a man and his sweetly-smiling son. And could you have pushed this American chick over with a feather when Duncan, the innkeeper’s very attractive son, asked how she was enjoying Scotland? YES. Yes, you could.

I didn’t take any pictures of Duncan. I was trying not to look creepy and bring disgrace to the good name of America. But I did get photos of the gentleman playing the bagpipes. And, you know, Duncan’s dad. And the sunset, upon which I was gazing and thinking, “Wow, it’s sunset. And I’m in Scotland.”

After enjoying the fading rays of another day in the Scottish Highlands, we migrated indoors and relaxed at a table with my parents, sister and a duo of our favorite travelers, Merv and his wife from Australia. I appreciated how understanding they were of our questions about things like Australian culture, money and politics. Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but one of the greatest things about touring with an organized group like Trafalgar Tours is the opportunity to meet so many different people. Though we don’t always keep up afterward, it’s fascinating to meet families and couples from our the world during your amazing trip together. No matter what, you’re always linked in that way. And it’s really such fun.

So dinner was interesting, warm and engaging. Duncan’s father — and that’s who he is; the talented innkeeper who kept us all in stitches — began to give Robert Burns’ most famous address: the one to a haggis. After poking fun at the tourists about what a haggis really is (and if you don’t know, maybe you don’t want to), a casing was brought out to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the room. Our entertainer recited Burns’ poem, asked for volunteers and put on a very amusing show.

So how was the famous haggis, a delicacy most people on the tour were brave enough to try — even my mother? Not too bad, really. Meaty. Warm. Kind of squishy, but not gross. Sort of like sausage, really, but with a spicier kick than I’m used to eating. Not the most awesome thing in the world, but definitely not the most terrible. And since it was an absolute requirement that we do a shot of Scottish whisky (that’s whisky, friends, not whiskey) before consumption, that warm buzz might have helped me push through it.

Our evening ended with authentic highland dancing and more lovely bagpipe music, and I was filled with the bubbly enthusiasm that typically accompanies an interesting evening out, good food and good company. Though jet leg was my constant companion during this entire trip, I really didn’t want the night to end. Waving goodbye to everyone as we boarded the bus again, I couldn’t help but think about whether or not I’d ever find that little tucked-away corner of the world again.

And the answer is “probably not,” because I really have no clue where we were.

That’s the other adventure of going on an organized tour: all the legwork is done for you. You sit back, relax . . . and wind up in very random locations you’d never be able to find by yourself.

Pros and cons to everything.

British escape, part IV: Edinburgh, Scotland

This is my fourth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

After leaving the English Lake District and heading north, we stumbled across the Scottish border to arrive in Gretna Green — a lovely stop with infamous roots. The sun was shining and the people were friendly — plus, I managed to grab some whisky (no “E” there in Scotland!) as souvenirs. Who doesn’t like alcohol as a “Hey, I’m back!” present?

Our first night was spent in Glasgow, where we had a late dinner and didn’t get to explore much of the city. We were on the outskirts, it seemed, and far from anything we could walk and see. But our second day in Scotland brought us to my favorite city of the trip: Edinburgh! And how alive, intriguing and beautiful it was.

Leaving America for Great Britain, you definitely know you’ve left America — but in England, a place that’s growing familiar to me, I didn’t feel quite so out-of-place or foreign. Not so in Scotland, which was so unique and interesting to visit . . . a place that really felt far away. I loved the unique mix of the old and new as you wound your way through cobblestone streets on the Royal Mile and gazed at Arthur’s Seat (at top), which is quite famous and a place of prominence in David Nicholls’ One Day. We had lunch and walked along High Street, pausing to admire the wares of vendors, ducking in souvenir shops and listening to the cackle of street performers and their audiences.

If I thought I loved photography before, this trip completely transformed me. It was the first time I’d been away with my Rebel and wow, am I in love with that baby! I could have wandered around Edinburgh for hours, people-watching and capturing the flavor of the city. Though it was a chilly and drizzly day — much colder than the days to follow, we’d learn — I was bolstered by the city’s energy and my desire to see as much as possible in a short time.

One of the coolest things we spotted there was the Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure commemorating the accomplishments of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. My dad remarked that it “looked like something out of ‘Lord Of The Rings,'” and so it did — this looming, creepy and remarkable edifice in the middle of the city. No matter where we turned in Edinburgh, I kept a close eye out for its spires. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to stand beneath it and peered in; we saw people ascending stairs there, too.

I was also amazed by how comfortable I felt in Scotland. The hustle and bustle of London is one of the things I love about it, but it can get overwhelming — as any major city can. New York and D.C. are like that, too, but I’ve grown used to those. Edinburgh is a giant, sprawling place, too, but it didn’t feel quite so hurried. Maybe I was in a different frame of mind then, too. Our time in London was my responsibility to plan and adapt and change. Having never been in charge of an itinerary with my family, the pressure was on. But in Edinburgh? Well, I could just hang out and let someone else worry about the plans.

So much to see there, and so much I’d love to see again — including the view from Arthur’s Seat. Though we only spent about six hours in the city, I’m looking forward to returning . . . and doing more shopping on the Royal Mile. And maybe consuming some whisky. And, more than anything, just roaming around and maybe getting lost. I’m learning that, above all, that’s what travel means to me: losing track of time and yourself and your worries and scattering. Edinburgh is definitely a place I could scatter and peruse and daydream about and love.

British escape, part I: London, England

London is my BFF. On this, my third visit to England in four years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was pre-Royal Wedding week, after all — and having had the greatest time on my previous visit, nerves pulsed in my stomach. What if London wasn’t the way I remembered it? What if — two years later — I felt older, wiser — and thoroughly less enchanted? What if something bad happened and it was forever tarnished for me?

Oh, the agony.

Well. It wasn’t tarnished — or anywhere close. It was . . . comfortable. Familiar. It was a place I’d already navigated and seen and photographed, which opened up a whole new door for me: feeling less like a tourist and more like a local. Branching out and doing different things.

I wasn’t a local, of course; I was an enthusiast. And I met locals — including Lyndsey — and was still the sweaty, disoriented and Tube map-clutching American wandering around the city with her family . . . but that was okay. I had my bearings. And seeing Big Ben peeking through the treetops still gave me a happy, familiar jolt of excitement.

Twice before I’d taken red-eye flights to England and arrived in London just as the city was waking up. This usually left me bleary-eyed and exhausted for the full day ahead of me, so we made a different plan this time: leaving Washington, D.C., in the morning and arriving in London at night. So that’s what we did — getting to Heathrow around 10 p.m. local time.

It was a very strange sensation, watching the clouds turned golden as our plane dipped closer to the United Kingdom. “It’s sunset!” I cried at one point, peering at my small watch. Night closed in and encompassed the plane, tampering with my body clock. It was 3 p.m. at home.

After a good night’s sleep, it was off to explore the city on Thursday and hunt for royal souvenirs — and that meant leaving our hotel near Heathrow for central London, where we were staying in Islington. With four heavy, 50-lb. suitcases apiece, getting to the next location was a little scary. We packed up our stuff and found a bus that would take us to the closest Tube station, where I was in charge of navigating us to our next hotel.

I’ll toot my own horn right here: over the course of our four combined days getting around London at both the beginning and end of the trip, I didn’t get us lost on the Underground one time. This is all thanks to my friend Stacy, who taught me not to be afraid of the train system with its complicated, crazy maze of lines and colors and names. After stowing our stuff, we left to explore the city.

We hopped on the Tube en route to Knightsbridge, where we had lunch at Spaghetti House near the world-famous department store Harrods. Exhaustion was setting in at that point, rendering me a hungry, disoriented beast; I woofed down some pasta after laughing with my family about a guy who looked like Edward Cullen on a “date” that didn’t seem to be going well; neither he or the hairbow-wearing lady he was sitting with were saying a word to each other.

The man had show-stoppingly good hair.

After walking through Knightsbridge, it was over to Hyde Park to try and find “traditional English gardens.” Like me, my mother is never without her camera — and we were eager to find flowers to photograph. It was a gray day, but warm and without rain, so we embarked on foot for the park and a chance to see the Diana Memorial Fountain.

And that’s where I screwed up.

We’d gotten off the Tube at Hyde Park Corner, which was close to lunch but . . . not the fountain. Without a phone on which to check a map or the location of the fountain, I had no idea how far away it would be — but hey, I debated, how bad of a walk could it be? We’re on one side of the park; the fountain’s on the other. We need some exercise. We can make it.



We made it. An hour or so of walking, detours throughout the grass expanse of Hyde Park, stops to photograph a few stray tulips and a Ferris wheel that had taken up residence there and . . . we made it. But by the time we arrived at the fountain, we weren’t much in the mood for photographing little kids splashing in the burbling water.

We were exhausted.

I felt bad. No, really — I did. I was okay, but I knew we were all suffering badly from jetlag (it was barely morning at home!) and the last thing we needed was a miles-long walk around an entire British park. Still, my family was a trio of troopers! We even walked over to Buckingham Palace next, where we purchased royal souvenirs and loitered in the shops there. Television crews lined the streets surrounding the palace, some interviewing passersby and others doing stand-ups with wedding news. My sister, a video journalist, was drawn to the cameramen and anchors like flies to honey; we couldn’t resist pausing by a woman with a BBC lanyard to see if she needed any, um, interviewees. (She didn’t, I guess.)

And then? Then we walked from Buckingham to Trafalgar Square, one of my favorite spots in the city, where was I tremendously disappointed to see the fountains weren’t turned on (but I did get to make a wish in the Victoria Memorial fountain by Buckingham)! Crowds still loitered on the steps of the National Gallery and gazed at the large clock counting down the hours until the 2012 Olympics, which will soon take the city by siege.

We sat for a few minutes to collect our thoughts (and calm our racing hearts), then headed to The Sherlock Holmes nearby — a restaurant I’ve been dying to visit since first spotting it in a calendar years ago. It looked so pretty! So fresh! So British! And it didn’t disappoint. Dinner was delicious — a perfect collection of hearty and savory foods, and it was fun to sit in a place with so much atmosphere. Downstairs the pub was jumpin’, with the after-work crowd loitering in the streets for happy hour. In the streets. With beers. That was a funny sight, honestly: people drinking right out in the open. At most spots in the U.S., do that and you’ll have a nice chat with a police officer for your “open container.”

After dinner, my energy level was hitting a low point — and our collective legs were screaming from the miles we’d walked that day. We popped in a Waterstone’s bookstore en route to the nearest Tube stop, where I had fun looking at the differences between British and American book covers (like this one, for Emma Donoghue’s Room). Funny signs littered the store, too, and I really enjoyed the ambiance of wandering around a city bookstore in the evening. Though I left empty handed (trying to preserve much-coveted space in my suitcase!), it was a fun visit.

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, thankfully, I was feeling way better after a good night’s sleep. We hopped over to Covent Garden, another place that had long been on my “to be visited in London” list, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of the busy commercial area. Street performers were swamped by crowds of tourists and locals with cameras and phones, laughing at the antics of a man performing magic with audience participation. I loved walking through the open-air markets and dodging in the little stores.

Hunger was taking over by the time lunch rolled around — and how fortunate, because I was meeting up with the lovely Lyndsey of Teadevotee! We’d made plans to see one another when I announced my travel plans months before and found each other at Bill’s, a lovely cafe between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. I’ve met up with fellow book bloggers several times before and am never, ever disappointed; Lyndsey was exactly the funny, sweet person I felt I knew. She recognized me just as I recognized her and, after a moment of accidentally appearing in the background of a fashion commercial (?? Oh, London!), we made it the cafe.

Poor Lyndsey probably didn’t expect to dine with a table of journalists. It’s in our nature to pepper innocent people with questions, so the inquisition began: what do you do? What does your husband do? What’s life in England like? Are you excited about the wedding? (I’m sure everyone in London is really, really sick of being asked that.) Lyndsey was gracious enough to answer our countless inquiries and even brought me a gift: a copy of a Jane Austen biography that I’ve never seen and can’t wait to read. Sweetness! We said our goodbyes and snapped a few photos. I tried not to look like the frizzy-haired, jetlagged monster I was.

With hours to go before meeting up with our tour group later that evening to embark on an eight-day jaunt through the rest of the UK, Mom, Dad, Kate and I went over to see the London Eye, the famous Ferris wheel constructed in 1999. We queued up with hundreds of people to get a birds-eye view of London, which was awesome — and very different from the air! London is huge. Massive. Sprawling in every direction, giant and encompassing . . . and how strange to see Big Ben from the air, where it’s not nearly as majestic as when you’re on foot.

We took a riverboat cruise on the Thames River next, which took us up and down the river en route to Tower Bridge and back. I love being on the water — especially on vacation. You see so much more that way. Though I couldn’t snap many photos without someone’s head or camera in them, it was fun to see the city that way . . . and so nice to just sit down.

After the boat ride, I convinced my family to walk across Westminster Bridge, which spans the Thames, to get a closer look at Parliament and Big Ben (again). On my last trip, walking across that bridge at sunset was one of my fondest memories . . . magical and surreal. It felt good to be there again, but hard to believe — especially since I wasn’t sure when I’d ever make it across the pond again!

We wrapped up our third night in the city by having dinner at the hotel and getting a good night’s rest — and we’d need it. On Saturday morning, our alarms chimed at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. local time to begin the leg of our tour with Trafalgar Tours, which I’ll tell you all about . . . next time.

Hint: it involves the English countryside, cathedrals, countless medieval streets and clotted cream fudge.

If nothing else, you have to come back for the fudge.

New York weekend: What I saw and how (much) I ate

So. We’ve talked books, conferences, bloggers, friends and a big ol’ bookstore. And that’s all fun and we all like to read, etc., and so on and so forth, but let’s get serious: if there’s one thing I’m all about on vacation, it’s the food. More specifically? Eating it. Lots of it.

And there was no shortage of good eats in New York City. While I didn’t venture too far off the beaten path with my food choices, I did manage to get to a few unique places, have some authentic New York-style cheesecake and pizza, and basically act like a glutton. That’s sort of my vacation MO.

I’m going to say something bold, and I don’t want you guys to freak out. I realize this isn’t a statement I should bandy about lightly and trust me, I’ve given this some serious thought. So, without creating a Big Dramatic Build-Up, I’m just going to say it: I had the best dessert ever in the city. Ever. Ever ever. Like, my love for this dessert was the sum of my love for pumpkin spice lattes, gingerbread-flavored things, Peeps and hugs from my boyfriend. I’m that serious. (Sorry, Spence; you’re still my boo.)

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We have all day, right? I mean, you don’t mind sitting there while I wax on and on about delicious desserts I’ll probably never have again — but the memory of which is seared in my pink brain forever?


So. Food. Places. Things I did. Well, I arrived in Penn Station from Washington, D.C. (or “downtown,” as I inevitably refer to it) with my parents and sister late Thursday night, and from there? It was a hop, skip and a jump over to our hotel: The New Yorker. It was plush, big and very, very busy. We were on the 27th floor. And as someone with a mild fear of heights (read: a penchant for freaking out when I can’t easily rest my feet on the ground and see it far, far below me), I was a wee bit nervous punching that button on the elevator. But, hey — we made it! Our room was small but nice, and fine for a weekend.

From there it was off to Ben’s Deli, a traditional Jewish deli a few blocks from our apartment. As soon as we walked in, I knew I’d be digging the place — mostly because I’m obsessed with stuff like pickles, pastrami and sauerkraut. After we shared an appetizer of pickles and coleslaw, my order of the “Deli Double” arrived: two sandwiches, one pastrami and one corned beef, on fresh, warm challah rolls.

Um, basically? I could have curled up and lived inside those sandwiches, eating my way out for the next ten years. They were delicious. And if I could find something like that in my small Maryland hometown, y’all better believe I’d be their Patron Of The Year.

Friday you already know all about, considering I was at the Book Blogger Convention until 5 p.m., and after that it was back to the hotel to put down my awesome swag bag and charge my phone, terribly depleted from so much live tweeting at the event. Once I’d recovered, I hailed my very first cab — all by myself! — and headed over to Bloomingdale’s to meet up with Stacy. Almost a precisely a year after I went to visit her for a fabulous weekend in London, my favorite city, I found Stacy and we headed to Cabana, a restaurant she recommended. After a delicious meal of grilled chicken which, sadly, I have no photos of, I ordered The Dessert.

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