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Trip Report London (and the rest of the UK) Calling...

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We (DH and I, a 60ish couple) have recently returned from three weeks in the UK. We spent the first two weeks on a Rick Steves "Best of England" tour, and then had a week in London on our own. I know some are interested in RS tours, so I will spend a bit of time describing that in the midst of an otherwise "normal" trip report. I spend a lot of time searching and reading this forum when planning a vacation, so hopefully this will provide some resource to others in the future.

We departed Chicago on British Air on Friday, April 24, arriving Heathrow late morning Saturday. We were to meet up with the RS tour group in Bath on Sunday night, and the extra day gave us a little time to acclimate. We planned to take the train from Paddington to Bath, so decided to spend the first night near there. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington on Saturday (booked from home in Chicago – they send texts and emails with the tickets; got the DuoSaver rate, round trip for two for £50 -- https://www.heathrowexpress.com/duo-saver ) and booked the Indigo Hotel London - Paddington ( www.ihg.com/hotelindigo/hotels/us/en/london/lonin/hoteldetail ) for Saturday night. It proved to be a lovely boutique hotel, with small but well-appointed rooms, and only a couple of blocks from the train station. A ten minute walk gets you to Kensington Gardens, and St. Mary's Hospital (site of the royal birth) is right there, too. We had dinner just down the street from the hotel at The Victoria (http://victoriapaddington.co.uk/ ) which turned out to be a lovely pub; I had booked online and we got a reserved table in the library on the second level. We felt almost like locals, with fish and chips and our first minted mushy peas!

We were to meet the tour at 5 PM on Sunday, so we took the easy 90 minute train ride to Bath from Paddington at 1:30ish on Sunday. I had purchased the train tickets at home a few weeks before; the fares are cheaper if you book ahead, and they send the tickets via email. We stayed at the Brooks Guest House ( www.brooksguesthouse.com ) which was typical of the tour hotels -- pleasant, nice, clean, safe, perfectly acceptable -- but not luxurious. No concierge; no lift; no air conditioning (I don't think -- it was so cold while we were there we never checked!) but a pleasant and efficient staff. All of the hotels had wifi (some better than others), and most had in-room telephones. Located within walking distance of the main attractions, usually in the town/city center. All of the hotels provided breakfast, usually a buffet of juice, cold cereal, pastries and yogurt, and then a menu of hot breakfasts you could order from. Typical menu items were a full English breakfast (or, whatever parts you wanted), smoked salmon, Eggs Benedict, and sometimes French toast or pancakes or porridge. And always French press coffee and tea. We also had about half of our dinners and a couple of lunches provided through the tout in group meals.

Our tour group of 24 met in the breakfast room that first night and there was wine, cider, and some sorts of both savory and sweet biscuits (see how cleverly I picked up the British terminology?!) We met our guide and exchanged introductions. Group members included a university professor (me), a psychologist for the VA, a government lawyer, a guy who worked for the EPA, a journalist-turned-book author, a retired Air Force physician, a nurse, a couple of teachers ... All but four in the group were 60 or over (but were near 60, except for one young lady who had just graduated from med school and was taking the trip with her mother before starting her residency), but all of us were relatively fit and active (some days we walked nearly five miles; some days not much at all). Of the 24, about a third were singles who were either traveling entirely alone or who had a friend/co-worker in the group, and females outnumbered males two to one. I’m not saying that this is typical of RS tour groups – but that was ours. It was a congenial crowd, and over the course of the two weeks some of the tour members formed loose groups who did things together, but most just floated.

The main rules of the RS tours are: you always carry your own luggage; you can never smoke in the group unless you're on fire; the tour never waits on stragglers because one inconsiderate person can waste hours of everyone else's aggregate time (but you do select a "buddy" from the get-go, someone you aren't traveling with, and we always did a "buddy check" before setting off so in case someone is in trouble s/he isn't abandoned); tour activities and times are posted at the hotel's reception each day and it is your responsibility to read these and know the plan. No grumps -- if something doesn't meet your expectations, then change your expectations. (But there really wasn't much to grump about in any case, and any problems were addressed almost immediately.) In essence, you're expected to be responsible and act like an adult. But the tour guide also gives you his or her cell phone number at the beginning in case you get stuck somewhere and need help – even after the tour is over – so you’re never stuck.

I won't go through the RS itinerary in detail (you can get that on his website), but will provide highlights of the two weeks. After our initial group meeting in Bath we had a group dinner at a local pub (the Hop Pole) and since it was Sunday and we were at a pub, we had a traditional pub Sunday roast (beef and pork, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes, vegetables and choice of sticky toffee pudding, cheese tray, or crumble for dessert). This pub also brews so we had generous samples of its ales and ciders, but usually anything but tea, coffee or water were on your own dime (tour members often split bottles). This was a huge spread and you could have many (or as few) things as you liked; for all other group dinners we were given a menu with two or three choices for each course the day before and we could pick what we wanted. The following day we had a walking tour of Bath with our guide and a visit to the Baths (you could spend as much time there as you liked) and then the rest of the day was free. The tour never takes you to a shop or store, but the guide points the way to the shopping district and there is lots of free time, so if shopping is your thing, then you have ample opportunity.

We met our bus (a standard 60-passenger bus with the usual amenities, including wifi in towns) the next day and we took a day trip to Glastonbury (the resting place of King Arthur) and the guide provided a picnic of pasties, fruit, cheese, cider, and biscuits on the Abbey grounds. We then went to Wells and had a guided tour of the Cathedral there, and time to wander the town. The next day we headed for Stowe-on-the-Wold, stopping in Lacock Village (a National Trust site chock full of historic buildings – popular for filming period movies), Avebury (Stonehenge-like), and Blenheim Palace (birthplace of Winston Churchill – not quite Versailles, but close) on the way. Our hotel in Stowe was The Old Stocks Inn ( http://www.oldstocksinn.com/ ), right in the middle of town. We spent the next day touring Cotswolds villages and had a tour of Stanway House and its flour mill (our Chicago aristocracy live quite differently!) We had dinner as a group at the Bakers Arms, a cozy pub (with live music that night) in Chipping Campden.

More to come ...

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