Tag Archive | castle

Disneyland’s Fantasy Faire

It’s a well known element of the restaurant industry: you never have or really want a weekend free. Weekends are prime time for the rest of the world eating out, so we humble waiters accept that we will be spending our Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays by our customers’ sides and at their service, rather than with our friends or family.

Sometimes, however, something glorious will happen and a server will get a “weekend” midweek. I was lucky to have Tuesday and Wednesday off this past week and it felt like a true weekend. Immediately I called up Mom and asked the most important question any person ever asks another…

“Do you want to go to Disneyland?”

Answer: Duh.

Disneyland recently removed the Carnation Plaza Gardens, an area…a restaurant…a garden…a stage for not Disney sponsored entertainment…you know what, I’m not really sure what CPG was to begin with, but I know what it is now. It has become a mecca of Disney Royalty, the Fantasy Faire.

The area is so well-decorated and quaint that not only does it blend in perfectly with the neighboring castle and Fantasyland, but it feels like you are straight out of Tangled or Beauty and the Beast. Which is fitting since the shows are based on those movies, but more on that in a minute.

The square is dominated by a twenty foot stone maypole carved into Rapunzel’s tower. It’s definitely a picture spot, probably the best outdoor spot for a photo, but other than architecture it doesn’t really serve a purpose, yet. I think they are planning on adding some type of maypole show eventually, but it isn’t on the Fantasy Faire schedule yet. Behind the pole and up against a stone wall is a little framed bench, another great photo opportunity for kids who want to feel like the characters and couples who want to look all cutesy. Next to the bench, though, is what I thought was the highlight of Fantasy Faire’s exterior look: Clopin’s Music Box.

Clopin is the gypsy from Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the favorite Disney character of Fantasy Faire creative director Michel Den Dulk (well, he is French). His music box has a wonderful hidden surprise beyond the crank and dancing Clopin and gargoyles. The background of the crowd is all Disney characters from other films! See if you can name them all becomes a cute little distracting game for us older children when there isn’t a line of kids behind you waiting for their turn to crank the box.

There is also the requisite princess dress gift shop and a snack cart called Maurice’s Treats, presumably Belle’s father selling French pastries that are really just chocolate, strawberry, or cheddar twists. And some slushy juicy thingy.

The Royal Hall is to the right of the entrance, basically a covered queue to meet three of the Disney princesses at a time. Apparently the princesses stand inside this ballroom and little girls get to meet them and take pictures. It’s a good idea, except I know that if I had been a little girl I would’ve been upset not seeing the princesses I wanted and the princesses can sometimes change during the 45 minute wait.

The highlight is really the shows. Based on Tangled and Beauty and the Beast, the shows feature two characters from the movies and Mr. Smythe and Mr. Jones narrating and playing the remaining supporting characters. There are actually a lot of funny “older” references that keep the adults laughing (more in the Tangled show which I felt was far better) and go straight over the kids’ heads. No worry. We all know they are just there to see Rapunzel, Flynn Rider, and Belle.

Mom and I went first thing to Fantasy Faire, and saw the first Tangled show, then walked around the Main Street shops and Downtown Disney before making it back for the Beauty and the Beast show. And then we left. We have passes after all and the whole point of going was to check out the new area. I may also have been more tired from my five straight days of waitressing than I had thought. At times it felt like I could barely move my feet!

Basically, you won’t spend a ton of time in Fantasy Faire unless you are waiting in line to see the princesses, but it is a must see destination on its quaint merits alone.

Disney Magique! (EuroDisney, part 2)

Returning to the scene of our second and unfortunately final day at Disneyland Paris. Days like this one are always bittersweet; you know that all too soon you will have to leave the parks and return to that horrifying place we call “reality”, but you still have a whole day of fun ahead of you. So you put the inevitable out of your mind when you jolt out of bed all too early for a continental breakfast that is only a few small steps above what you’d get at any European hostel. None of it matters–not the sleep deprivation, not the macerated fruit salad that plopped out of a gallon tin jar, not the chill of the air preventing the sun’s heat from reaching you–because you are on your way into a Disney park.

Do I sound like I’m romanticizing it a bit too much? Sorry, I’m a bit Disney deprived over here!

The entrance plaza

Anyways, as Disney Resort guests, we were able to enter Disneyland at 8 am for “Extra Magic Hours”, that turned out to be not as magical as we had anticipated. We had poured over the maps at breakfast, setting a solid plan that would allow us to ride all the major roller coaster type rides before any of the crowds swarmed in, but it all went to waste as over half the park was closed! And was going to stay that way until the park opened to the general public at 10! The tragedy of false advertising! Yet we are nothing if not quick thinkers, and some hasty rearranging still gave us a fairly solid morning to-do list.

Mickey Mouse!

We started out with a detour from the plan almost immediately when we saw Mickey Mouse! Of course we had to get pictures, because when else are you going to get pictures with Mickey without a really long wait? Then we proceeded to make up for that lost walking time by skipping down Main Street, USA (yes they kept it the same as in the US parks) towards Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Fantasyland. If we had known how long the lines for rides like Peter Pan were going to get, we would’ve gone on those first, but our plan was to take a roundabout way into Discoveryland for Space Mountain. But again, we quickly became sidetracked by the opportunity to be on the first ride of the Teacups for the day! What luck! What a workout! I don’t know if it was because the ride’s wheels hadn’t been unstuck by hundreds of other guests turning them or if French engineers were afraid of a safety risk, but these were the hardest teacups to turn that we had ever been on. We tried as much as our strength would allow, but it was never enough to get it spinning so we soon gave up and just let the teacup meander around in its Figure 8 without any help from us. Determined to recover from that initial disappointment, we wound our way over to Discoveryland, hoping that Space Mountain would make up for it.

Teacup Fail

And did it ever! Not only was the ride amazingly fun, but we also were able to walk on it with no line…twice! The park’s designers did seem to think that every single ride in the park would be packed full all the time since the queues were the longest and windiest queues we had ever experienced. Signs at a certain point, if there was no line of people, would list a 10-minute wait time, which we think was because it took ten minutes to walk through the maze of railing. The ride itself was a blast, figuratively and literally, with a launch start, a loop, and two corkscrews! Our heads definitely were rattled after one round, so naturally we decided to immediately go on it again. Our second mission was very fortuitously located in the front of the ship, making it even more fun, though we failed to walk in a straight line for about a quarter of an hour after that one. We agreed that nice and easy rides in Fantasyland would be the best decision prior to the opening of Adventureland in 45 minutes.

Space Mountain

Not that our agreement made a difference because no sooner had we arrived back in Fantasyland then we were accosted with the sight of crowds of children! Looks like their parents were finally able to get them out of bed, and all the rides had wait times of at least 30 minutes, not worth it for Fantasyland rides. We ended up wandering around taking more Vinylmation photos before waiting for the ropes blocking Adventureland to be dropped and making our way through the stunningly designed pathways towards Indiana Jones and Le Temple de Péril. The crowd of just entering visitors was gathering forces quickly behind us, but we made it walking through that queue as well before the mob hit and were enjoying what seemed like a slightly trumped up version of Mulholland Madness–now Goofy’s Sky School–at California Adventure, and then WHOOSH! We were thrown sideways into a loop! I have no idea how they managed to throw us sideways into a loop but they did and neither of us were expecting that at all. Le Temple du Péril is not at all like The Temple of Doom; something must have been lost in translation.

Indiana Jones

Thoroughly shaken once again, we had to bypass the closed for repairs Big Thunder Mountain and take our chances with the ghosts of Phantom Manor. Continuing the day’s theme of unexpected twists, the only similarities between this attraction and The Haunted Mansion were the beginning’s stretching room and the actual path your Doom Buggy takes through the manor. The storyline was very different: something revolving around a deadened bride and ghoulish groom that we couldn’t really figure out because, surprise, the narration at the beginning was in French. Curse being in France!

Phantom Manor

It was also a lot spookier, with more grisly skeletons and a creepy forest, not to mention some weird western thing at the end. Now creeped out as well as shaken from the roller coasters, we headed back towards the innocent Fantasyland for a far superior Storybook Ride. I’m really jealous at the miniatures in their attraction, so much cuter and detailed than ours, though to be fair our is a lot older, but they have Beauty and the Beast!

My favorite movie ever!

Having hit all of the highlights of Disneyland Park and with a to-do list looming from the day before, we ate lunch on Main Street and said goodbye to this magical park, returning to the land of imitated films.

We first went by Crush’s Coaster only to find out that it too had broken down and that our nearest by alternative was Animation Studios. I don’t remember what the one in Florida is like, but definitely parts of it had to be the same as the one here, including the video of Mushu and his animators. But there was a beautiful montage of moving scenes from Disney’s animated movies that instantly added yet another Disney movie marathon to my summer plans. We only had about two hours left before we needed to be back at the train station to return to *cry* civilization, so we took in the two shows: Animagique, a live black light show that follows Donald through the Disney Animation vault and featured some of the songs translated into French, and Cinémagique, a parody medley of George (played by Martin Short) falling into movie scenes from quintessential films such as Some Like It HotCasablanca, Titanic, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both were cute and clever, and took up the rest of our time in EuroDisney.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Two partial days just didn’t seem like enough, so we stayed a third!

Just kidding, real life called us back into the United Kingdom and we were seated on the Eurostar at 18:02 as scheduled and in our rooms in Oxford much sooner than either of us wished to be.

So happy that I got to spend this time with you Partner!!!

Train of Thought (EuroDisney part 1)

“If I’m thinking while sitting on a train, and the train is moving at 160 miles per hour, is that then the speed of my train of thought?”

At the train station

It was probing and philosophically inane questions like these that characterized 48 hours of pure, unadulterated, child giddiness. In a complete fit on spontaneity, Dan and I decided to maintain my now 11 year old tradition of celebrating my birthday at a Disney resort by booking a trip to the one, the only, the EuroDisney!! Also known as Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Parks. I love that I have a friend around who loves Disney just as much as I do, as well as is in the position to take two days off of his extremely important research (studying pedestrian movements on bridges, woot!) to goof off in my home away from home of a Disney theme park. Within two hours of my breaching the subject of a Disneyland Paris trip, we were booked in and counting down the days until the Eurostar would whisk us away to that magical land.

Walking into Disneyland Paris!

That magical day: Thursday morning. We met bright eyed and bushy tailed (well, his hair was bushy, mine was straightened, and I guess I wasn’t that bright-eyed since I had barely slept and hadn’t had any coffee to compensate, so Dan was bright-eyed and bushy tailed while I was bagged-eyed and straight-haired) at the Oxford train station for yet another trip into Paddington Station, a tube trip to St. Pancras, and my desperate search for a cup of coffee. Thankfully we found a Costa right before the entrance to the Eurostar terminal, but I only had a few blessed sips of the caffeine before security informed me that I wasn’t going to be able to bring the coffee in with me through the check-in. Into the trash went my cup, and my last hope of staying awake on the train ride into the Disney Resort.

Disney Village

A wonderful thing about the Eurostar is that once a day they offer a train ride that takes you directly to the gates of Disneyland Paris, and when I say directly to the gates, I mean literally two steps out of the train station and you are in front of the Disney Village (their version of Downtown Disney). Talk about Disney Magic! I was able to fall asleep before leaving England and wake up a mere 10 minutes away from Tinkerbell. Of course, unless you have done the Disney Magical Express service where they check your luggage from the train straight through to your hotel, you have to take a short bus to your hotel, check-in, and receive your all important park tickets. Having forgone the Magical Express, we joined the bus queue for Disney’s Santa Fe and arrived at the sorriest interpretation of Santa Fe, New Mexico that I have ever seen. Every building was this reddish-orange adobe copycat, sparse, none of the comforts and atmosphere that one expects from Disney (granted we did stay at the lowest tier of hotels). Basically there was nothing around. Oh wait, then it was probably the most accurate interpretation of Santa Fe, New Mexico! After confusing the Trainee employee with our check in, we dropped off our bags and headed back into DisneyTown (a literally just coined region) and bounded into Walt Disney Studios.

I told him to do something stupid 🙂

For anyone familiar with Disney World parks, Walt Disney Studios is the EuroDisney version of Hollywood Studios, formerly MGM Studios. And like many things in the resort–as we were to find out–this park felt like the diet version of its predecessor. Many of the rides were the same. There was the Tower of Terror, an absolutely hilarious experience to watch the opening video dubbed over in French with English subtitles, Rock’n’Roller Coaster with a much less interesting backstory and interior decorating, and a “Backlot Tour” that consisted of about five or six artifacts from movies, a confusing audiovisual explanation as it was done with two different actors speaking two different languages, and driving around at the hurling speed of 5km/h. To be fair, everyone knows that they didn’t film anything on this site, but they still could have put in a little more effort.  Also for some reason, all of the restaurants seemed to be undergoing renovations at this time so the line for a snack kiosk took us longer than any ride line, and then Dan couldn’t pronounce the French word for pretzel properly and confused the poor employee.

K'Nex, remember those?

But putting aside the feeling that this was a sad attempt to replicate DisneyWorld, this park had some awesome features, such as a whole little Toy Story land, complete with K’Nex fences and a Slinky Dog whirlythingy. We got to ride Slinky’s butt! In fact, the whole time, we were unleashing the five year olds within and beaming at new attractions and giggling over signs written in both French and English. Unfortunately–or maybe not in hindsight–this park closed at 7pm, so we couldn’t do everything there was to do in time before we were forced out, so we left with a to-do list for the next day and went over to the later closing Disneyland.

He told me to mimic a statue 🙂

Fortuitously we ended up going to Disneyland Paris on the EXACT date of its 20th anniversary! So the whole park was decked out in golden yellow streamers and trimmings and there were special parades and a fireworks show that had just debuted. In typical Disney style, it was recommended that in order to see the fireworks from a prime location, we get a spot….now. Dan and I grabbed a quick dinner, a quick Viennese Waltz in front of City Hall, picked up some coloring supplies, and walked over to the castle, settling in for an hour or so wait until the show began.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Coloring? You say. Yes, coloring. I told you we were five year olds.

I got the Princess Pack and he the Pirate Pack

The show was a really interesting experience, being in a combination of French and English. Some of the songs were translated into the other language, and from my quick retranslations back into English, the words were totally not the same. Overall, it was more of a World of Color water show mingling with light special effects (I mean lights as in lasers and stuff by the way) with some fireworks thrown in for emphasis. The storyline was so interesting and well done: Peter Pan’s Shadow lets all of the magic out of the castle’s star and ends up traveling through the movies trying to get it back in. Clever! And what would Disneyland in any capacity be without fireworks? Exactly! This did mean that we couldn’t go on any attractions in Disneyland on this day, but we had extra magic hours the following morning, so Hakuna Mattata.

Disney Dreams

We finished our first day with a stroll through the one street long DisneyVillage, stopping in at a Starbucks for hot chocolate before heading back to the deserted Santa Fe for bed. After all, early to bed, early to rise (okay, midnight is not that early) and we had a lot to do the next day!

Oh goodness, I almost forgot. Dan and I bought these little figurines called Vinylmations and had a complete and utter blast taking pictures of them in places around both parks. Dan is an amazing photographer and the pictures are absolutely adorable, though far too numerous to show them off!

At the Santa Fe Hotel

Returning to the Castle

It has been an…interesting…week to say the least, but it has taught me some very important lessons. One is that I need to brush up on my French. Two is that it is always helpful to have a basic knowledge of the language of any country you are visiting solo (hence why I may soon be learning Italian). Three, that my dance partner is a truly amazing human being.

Indulge me being sappy for a minute because trust me, he deserves a lot more sappiness than I’m about to lay on. Apart from being one of the funniest people I know (just check out his blog and be prepared to laugh), he is incredibly caring and selfless and understanding. He is there for his friends no matter what, and I cannot thank him enough for being in my life. He is absolutely a wonderful person, and I admire him so much ❤ So grateful to have you as my best friend Dan!

So in small repayment for friendships rendered, I accompanied him to Windsor Castle this last Saturday. He hadn’t been yet to this quintessential medieval castle and kindly requested a field trip for his first History of the British Monarch lesson. History? Sunshine? Spending time with Dan? Didn’t take much convincing, I quickly acquiesced. I’m a sucker for teaching someone about English history! And Dan is such an eager student, continuing to ask questions beyond my instructions to listen to the audio guide, putting up with my frequent and I generally assume annoying interjections of random and obscure and often pointless bonus facts. One day someone will smack me and tell me to be quiet, I’m sure, but until then, you have all been forewarned that I can be a walking English History Encyclopedia on Energizer Bunny Batteries.

No we didn't plan on matching. Yes we are that awesome.

Having just been to Windsor Castle with my family a few weeks ago, I chose to ignore the audio guide hanging from my neck like a corded phone (yes I’m old enough to remember corded phones!) and to take advantage of my other senses. Sometimes in historic sites I forget that sight, true and focused sight, can be so powerful, typically favoring sound from audio guides or the little voice inside my head reading aloud signposts in my thirst for more knowledge. But putting away the audio commentary allowed me to just…absorb. And it was during this absorption that I think I was really able to appreciate the State Apartments for the first time for their artistry and architecture, their sumptuous designs both in decor and textiles: the richly painted or carved ceilings and the fading tapestries, the ornately sculpted wood furniture and the engraved suits of armor, the austere white marble busts and the gleaming inlaid porcelain. Everything took on a new dimension in the absence of the continuous running of verbal information. It was such a different, almost richer, experience.

Of course, even that didn’t stop me from being on hand to answer Dan’s every whim question, and answer ones that he hadn’t even bothered to ask yet 😉

I also was able to indulge my inner child. As it was the Saturday of Easter Weekend, the Castle had set out all these little jeweled eggs for the kids to find in the various rooms. I’m sure it was a cute way to occupy the smaller and more restless children while their parents listened to the audio guides in the rooms, but I took it to the “Fun for All Ages” level and joined in the hunt. The Windsor employees, I must say, are no where near as clever at hiding eggs as my dad was. I happily found all the eggs in the Castle, but I think there are still one or two that my dad hid years ago that my brother and I have yet to find. And then there was the one I voluntarily left “hidden” as it was playing couch to a snail and we all know how I feel about insects.

From the State Apartments, we entered St. George’s Chapel, the one part of the Castle I didn’t get to take my parents into as it was closed that day, and also the one part of the Castle that I care most about. Why? Because Henry VIII is interred there. Why else? Because chapels as old as this one have a funny way of concealing gems of history and art. With Dan by my side and time on our side, I was overwhelmed by the architecture of this chapel, something that I am only now beginning to really appreciate. Standing in the back of the chapel, gazing up at the nave, was the second highlight of our trip (first one is coming up), but that may be due mostly to the fact that we were standing on a glorious heated vent and the rest of the chapel was a tad cold.

Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Charles I, child of Queen Anne (no Tudor relation)

Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Charles I, child of Queen Anne (no Tudor relation)

We paused and sat contemplating the beauty of the choristers for quite some time. St. George’s Chapel is the spiritual house of the Order of the Garter so there were a lot of heraldic emblems and banners all around. I explained to him my incredulity that tourists can be so oblivious as to what they are really seeing, evidenced by nearly everyone rushing through the choristers, exclaiming at the pretty woodwork or the marble altarpiece, and completely neglecting the fact that THEY JUST WALKED OVER THE GRAVE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL MONARCH ENGLAND HAS EVER HAD!!!! In my humble opinion of course. Yes, it is just an innocuous little slab of black marble set into the ground carved with his name and the name of his third wife, Jane Seymour, but still, if you don’t watch where you walk, you will miss these notices of where you should be crying over the memory of these amazing historical people. Not that I cried……….

But the proof of why these chapels are rich sources of nerding out for me and why I consider it paramount to walk through them and examine with care, we stumbled upon the grave of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, more widely known as Henry VIII’s best friend and brother in law, and Henry Cavill on The Tudors.

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

All in all, another wonderful and historically enriching day in Merry Olde England 🙂

Last stop…

…London! Were you waiting for it? I told you to wait for it, so we now know your inability to follow directions if you didn’t. *Sarcasm Sign*

But it began with a day in London just us girls. Kevin and Dad went to Stonehenge, Old Sarum, and Bath so we had the whole day to ourselves. Mom and I checked into The Rubens at the Palace, a hotel full of memories for us as it was the same hotel we stayed at when we came three years ago. They kindly pretended to remember us, but we know that they don’t (except our favorite doorman Nathan who actually DID remember us!). It’s cute though. The first thing we did was take a tube to Piccadilly Circus to snag two of the last seats to that night’s performance of Les Miserables. They were in the Upper Dress Circle, aka the nosebleed seats, but they were tickets and that is all that mattered. I’m willing to suffer through a lot for the theatre.

Our first real activity of the day was going to the Victoria & Albert Museum in the Burrough of Kensington. I loved the museum, and it’s something I had wanted to do in London for a while and just hadn’t gotten the chance. It was full of decorative arts exhibits, so things like clothes, furniture, jewelry, plate ware, and my personal favorite, snuff boxes.

A snuff box, makes more sense why I like them now doesn't it?

Basically a ton of sparkly things which everyone knows I am attracted to like a fish. We lingered over the items from the Tudor era obviously, and while the ball dresses exhibit wasn’t open yet, there was a wonderful exhibit on theatre production that put us in the mood for Les Mis.

We spent a long time in the V&A and then went to the famous department store, Harrods, which nearly ruined my beautiful day. It was gaudy and crowded, hot and smelly, and not just because of the perfume counters. Everything was a disgusting shrine to excess and overindulgence. We barely walked in before we got lost and asked an employee for a map just to find an escape from the place. It was one of the lower points of the entire trip and I have no idea why anyone would want to step foot in there. And then once we ahd escaped, we couldn’t find a nearby place for tea so we went back to our own beautiful and calm–as well as tea providing–hotel for scones and Early Grey. Definitely an improvement, bringing me back to the happiness of spending time with Mom, going to the V&A, and basking in the beautiful sunlight.

Tea Time

We went back to Piccadilly around 6 pm to grab dinner before the play. Because we were on the border of SoHo, most everywhere was clubs or cocktail bars and we ate at Le Pain Quotedienne. Our waiter was awesome. He was funny, liked Harry Potter and Disney, and even watches Downton Abbey. Unfortunately we didn’t get his name and will never see him again because he really was a sweetie. But Les Mis was calling and the theatre waits for no diner.

Les Mis was even better than I could have hoped for. The singing, the staging, the singing (yes, it deserves multiple mentions). I can see why everyone becomes addicted. I pretty much sobbed the entire last third of the musical, which was problematic as I had forgotten tissues. I was stunned, speechless, and streaming tears for a while after curtain.

At Les Mis

But all good things must come to an end; all too soon we were joined at The Rubens by the menfolk and nighttime gave way to morning of our first day in London as the four of us.

Kevin really wasn’t feeling well on this new morning so he elected to forgo going to Windsor Castle with us in exchange for an extra four hours of sleep. It was Dad’s first experience with the Tube, so we were lucky that it wasn’t as crowded as it generally is so Dad wouldn’t get separated from us. We got a much later start than Mom and I are used to or wanted to, so by the time we made it to Windsor we ended up waiting in quite a long line than we would’ve if we had arrived earlier.

Windsor Castle, the Queen was in residence

And St. George’s Chapel was closed for Sunday services so no Hency VIII grave for us (thankfully Mom and I saw it last time). All we ended up being able to do was Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, the State Apartments, and the outside areas. We did all of that three years ago on our Tudor Tour, but that time we had arrived so late in the day that we had had to rush everything. This time we were able to take our time, but with the chapel closed there wasn’t much else to do. We listened to the entire audio guide of the apartments and grounds, ate lunch, and walked back to the rail station. Dad loved the castle and went on and on about how cool it was. Our first train back was cancelled so we waited around for another 20 minutes for the next one. Once at Waterloo Station, there was a lot of security ushering us out of the station; apparently there was a fire report at one of the cafes.

We ate here last time we were at Windsor

Our initial plan was to do another cream tea and then catch a Hop-on-Hop-Off tour so Dad and Kevin could see more of London without needing to walk around for four days. As the train was later than we had anticipated, in fact the whole day was later than we had anticipated, Mom and I chose to graciously give up our precious tea in favor of catching one of the last tours. It turned out that the last live guide bus was leaving from Green Park at 5 and we were at one of last stops (Victoria) so we could get on the last tour IF we made it to Green Park in 20 minutes. We ended up making it with literally a minute to spare. Then while everyone went upstairs, I had to deal with a broken credit card machine preventing me from paying for the tickets. When it was finally worked out I went upstairs and snagged a spot at the very front of the bus, prime picture taking location. The rest of the family was in the back of the bus, abandoning me to be surrounded by Mafia men (no joke).

Rare photo of Dad and me at the Windsor Governor's House

Back at the hotel, Kevin and I sent Mom and Dad off to have dinner together while Kevin was stood up by a friend who was also visiting in London and I slept. Then Dad swapped places with me and slept while the three of us went downstairs for dinner and pudding 🙂 A lot of funny moments came out of that pudding.

For our last full day together (sadness) we went to the Tower of London, one of my favorite places to visit. I’ve been there twice already, so the immediate reaction would be an eye roll because there is a theoretically finite amount of things to do and see at the Tower. I mean I can basically spew off most of the same information about the history of the Tower that someone would get from the audio guide, so it isn’t like I can learn a whole lot more by continuing to visit.

Tower of London

But Dad had yet to go there and there was a huge draw for Mom and me as well. Thinking that it opened at 9:30, we took the tube, arriving at 9:15. Turns out that the Tower wasn’t open until 10 am. I was huddling on a bench in the sun because it hadn’t warmed up enough yet and Kevin and I practiced our British accents on each other to the embarrassment of our parents. I think we are getting pretty good at them to be honest. The gates opened at 10, but the first guided tour wasn’t until 10:30 (which once again further threw off our time game plan) so we beat the crowds to the jewel house and awed at the sparkliness of the Crown Jewels. Again, bored boys, starry eyed girls. That took all of 15 minutes and we made our way back to the entrance of the fortress to meet up with the tour guide.

The tour, as it was the first of the day, was incredibly crowded, probably consisting of 75 people. Thankfully the tour guide could project, because his jokes were hilarious and his history engaging (learned some new things! See? Totally worth revisiting). But as great as our guide was, he paled in comparison to the whole purpose of taking the tour: access to the chapel. Specifically, entrance to the site of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howards’ graves (always a Tudor reason behind my thoughts). Yes, I actually got to see the graves of those two tragic women, and was completely overwhelmed, as I often become when faced with the reality of history. Completely satisfied with my time at the Tower, I waited on a warm bench (are you sensing a theme yet?) while the rest of the family breezed through some of the other Tower exhibits, and then we all left and headed for the Tate Modern.

Here is where Kevin received his reward for being an awesome brother on this trip: we all went to a modern art gallery with him despite Mom and me hating modern art and Dad’s back not really able to handle standing around galleries. But the guy earned it, so we all kindly sucked it up and allowed him as much time as he wanted to explore the exhibits. Which honestly only took about an hour as the gallery is really only one floor, so we soon moved on to the National Gallery, a place I was much more interested in. The National Gallery has over 150 hours of audio commentary, meaning that renting one for the second time was worth it. I made sure not to listen to the same paintings as before, choosing instead an entirely different genre of works, and I also made sure that I wasn’t wandering on an empty stomach! Greatly increased my enjoyment and focusing ability. This time I was the last one done, but there was a cafe downstairs so everyone had agreed to just meet there and no one got lost. Then we walked back to the hotel, where Mom and I were greeted by the wonderful Nathan holding out an envelope for us containing our incredible seats for Billy Elliot.

Obviously Mom and I have no qualms about seeing productions more than once, note our 6 time experience with Wicked, but we had attempted to get last minute tickets to the eternally sold out War Horse. Unfortunately, those did not pan out so we consoled ourselves with the brilliant Billy. Definitely one of the best productions in London, and highly recommended by, well, me. Also, tidbit for those in LA, it’s coming to the Pantages! So buy a ticket, you won’t be sorry, I promise.

Unfortunately this left us with only one more morning to share before they had to leave me in the UK for their lives back in California. We chose to spend this melancholy morning in a melancholy place, a church. Specifically Westminster Abbey, fittingly surrounding ourselves with illustrious but dead people. I took my time even more than usual here, because last time Mom and I were both able to find the resting places of some important but relatively obscure Tudor people (Anne of Cleves and Anne Bolyen’s niece Katherine Knoylls), so I was hoping that I would stumbled across more of these people if I was just patient and didn’t zip through the Abbey like Dad did. I was rewarded as well, finding Anne Boleyn’s nephew and Elizabeth I’s counselor Henry Carey. Even cooler, I bumped into a friend from UCLA! Completely random, unintentional, and kind of surreal. We started at each other for a solid minute of confusion before realizing neither of us was hallucinating and yes, we were both real people standing in Westminster Abbey. Her friend just got accepted to Oxford so she came over to visit on her spring break. But how amazing that we both were in Westminster at the same time and able actually could catch up for a bit? So bizarre how small of a world it can be!

Nathan!

Following the conclusion of Westminster, we took a massively scenic route up towards Trafalgar’s Square before heading back to the hotel for our farewells. As all taxis seem to be in the UK, my family’s ride to the airport was 15 minutes early, so the goodbyes were a little more sudden than I was expecting. I am so grateful that they came to visit and that I had the chance to spend two weeks with my dad and brother and three with my mom.

Now for a week of school work and dance and rest before I set off on another trip to Paris with my friends!

The Last Day of Scotland (anyone get the movie reference?)

Last day in Scotland, and although it was a little hazy, the sun was still shining and it seemed like the air would be warm, but I am perpetually frozen so it wasn’t enough warmth for me.

Having done the Royal Mile two days earlier, we decided once again to leave Edinburgh, this time going to get our Braveheart on in Stirling. I donned my tour guide hat and led the way around the city to the train station, hearing every five seconds a question along the lines of if I knew where I was going (I did) and then once at the train station if I knew what I was doing (again, I did). We took a taxi from the station in Stirling up to Stirling Castle, another imposing former royal residence on a striking hilltop. The Scottish seem to love castles on rugged hills, but they afford such expansive views that you wonder if they foresaw the tourism industry and the invent of the panoramic shot. After all, they did use fortune tellers back in those days.

View from Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle ended up being more of another stately home for royals than a defensive castle exhibit, so Mom and I were content, though we feared that Dad and Kevin would be bored. Most of the history discussed on the excellent audio guide revolved around James V and transitioning into Mary, Queen of Scots before ending with her son James VI of Scotland and I of England. The really great thing in my opinion that set Stirling apart from other royal palaces of the era is that in addition to adding the furniture and tapestries from the time period, they even recreated the painting of the walls and ceilings, really giving a sense of what these rooms would have looked like in the 1540s. With the rooms coming alive like they did, you can understand why these rooms were considered luxurious. I don’t know what you would have done if you got a migraine however; all the paint was bright and colorful to the point of being overwhelming.

There was also a really cool opportunity to watch a team of weavers recreating some of the older tapestries using the same techniques from the era. Apparently each weaver can only complete 1 square inch a day and each tapestry takes between two and four years to finish. Talk about patience.

KITTY! So cute 🙂

Leaving the castle, we walked back down the hill (I got them to walk somewhere, win!) in search of a taxi to the William Wallace Monument on the hill on the opposite side of Stirling. This time I told everyone that it was such a nice day that I was walking up to the monument and would by no means be hurt or insulted if they took the courtesy shuttle. My speech of one sentence, however, seemed to inspire everyone to walk, which I was fine with having the company. The walk was as lovely as I had anticipated.

William Wallace Monument through the haze and sun

The monument was gigantic, and to get to the top we had to climb 247 spiral stairs that were cramped and dark and only allowed one person to go up or down at a time. The climb was broken up with three exhibit rooms that I found very dull and not at all improved by the terrible audio guide. I quickly decided that I would rather go straight to the top and appreciate the view for longer than drag myself through the exhibits. And what a treat it was! The saying goes that on a clear day you can see all of Scotland from this summit. Of course this is an exaggeration but you can see quite far and it was well worth the claustrophobic stairs. Even the more frightening trip down the stairs, and that was pretty terrifying.

Top of the monument

It was about 4 pm and that seemed too early to return to Edinburgh because face it, we just would have been chilling in the apartment and we certainly didn’t come all this way for that. So instead we hopped on another train to Glasgow, just to say we went there.

Glasgow

A few hours there seemed like plenty. There wasn’t really anywhere cute to walk in the city centre and Dad’s back was bothering him too much to travel to the areas that would have been nicer. Yet the buildings were enticing despite the feeling that the town never shook off the Industrial Revolution. We “meandered” until we found the Glasgow Apple Store (something you do solely because you can) and then wandered around looking for a place to eat. After dinner it was back to Edinburgh to worry about packing everything up for our 6 am exit by taxi to the airport.

Where did we fly off to this time, you ask? Well by taxi, by plane, by bus, and by foot, we arrived back in my native Oxford. Yes, I was home! Only for half a day, but it was refreshing none the less. I noticed something about each family member and how different they each were when they arrived in Oxford and I showed them around for the first time. Kevin asked me about the history and the literature references such as Tolkien and Lewis. Mom asked about what my life was like day-to-day, where I do this and that, my favorite hangouts, etc (in case a certain person reads this, yes that included The Missing Bean). Dad asked only questions of why or how certain things were built the way they were. At least I knew the answers to Kevin’s and Mom’s questions.

In order to preserve his back for the next few days in London, Dad checked into the hotel, sending the rest of us out into the Oxford world to explore, make my day, and then take Kevin to The Eagle and Child, something he missed out on last time he was in Oxford. Then we headed back to the hotel the boys were staying at to meet Partner for dinner! Dan and I agreed that Fire & Stone, that Oxford Thursday night institution, was an excellent choice, a guaranteed hit. Then we took them to G&Ds–the real Oxford institution at this point–for ice cream. It was such a breath of relief to be back with Dan. He got along easily with Kevin and my dad, and he is good at keeping me calm when I get anxious (as evidenced by our surviving dance competitions!). Kevin and Dad joined the club of people who call him Matt Damon, secretly christening him Dan Damon, though I don’t think Dan knows that yet…well he knows now. Oops.

Partner meets the parents

Next and final stop (sad isn’t it?) on my family vacation will be…wait for it…

The Menfolk vs. The Womenfolk

Travel days are usually uneventful. We were flying from Shannon, Ireland to Edinburgh, Scotland so we had to sneak out of the B&B at 6 am as it was a 2 hour drive to the airport. Days spent in airports and on airplanes are hardly eventful. Of course given that the plane was a turboprop plane that wobbled as we were taking off, we were thanking our lucky stars for uneventful! Mom and I were both sad that we didn’t get Edinburgh stamped on our passports. That would have been really cool as I have a minor addiction to getting stamps on my passport.

In Edinburgh we stayed in an apartment. Having an apartment to ourselves, complete with a kitchen and the washer-dryer combination machine from hell, a living room, and a wonderful towel warmer was a welcome change, apart from it being smack dab in the middle of Edinburgh’s strip club district. Not exactly the best place for me to wander alone at night, as I found out when I went for a walk and came face to face with…well, this isn’t exactly a topic of conversation for polite society I suppose.

We threw a load of laundry in the washer/dryer thing and then caught one of the Hop-on-Hop-off tours. Unfortunately, as it is technically still the winter off-season, there were no live guides, only a super lame audio commentary. Such a shame because the live guides make all the difference. And that will henceforth be my first item of travel advice to anyone: if doing a bus tour WAIT FOR A LIVE GUIDE. It just isn’t worth it otherwise. Regardless the tours are a solid way to orient yourself to a city, and this one was fun for Mom and me as it cued up a lot of memories from our trip back in 2009. I was surprised at just what randomness we remember, like “here is where the pidgin almost pooped on my head” type stuff.

William McGonagall

We took the tour all the way around once and then up one or two more stops to the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, the dog so devoted to his owner that after his death the dog sat on his grave in the Greyfriar Church cemetery. The people of Edinburgh took care of Bobby and he is also buried in the churchyard.

Thomas Riddell

But the real draw of the cemetery was it’s Harry Potter connections (of course, right?). JK Rowling took some of the names of her characters from graves in the cemetery. I found two on this visit: a William McGonagall and a Scrymgeour.

Mary Turner Scrymgeour

Two days later I also found Thomas Riddell. After that, we walked over George IV Bridge and stumbled across The Elephant House, the cafe where Rowling wrote the first book on a bunch of napkins. I basically needed out, for good reason! This was the birthplace of Harry Potter!!!

The Elephant House

From there we just walked to Princes Street to buy the souvenirs for everyone at home. I don’t know how I did it, but I remembered my way there from three years ago. I think I have a near eidetic memory when it comes to maps and cities. Then we ate dinner at Bella Italia. Back at our apartment, Dad tried to make tea in the kettle they provided us, but never having used one like it and without me there to explain it, he just put it on the lit fire stove. Instantly the whole apartment smelled of melting rubber. I ran into the kitchen and yanked the kettle off the fire. Dad didn’t realize that it was an electric kettle!!!! Now you have to hold it in a really awkward direction and push on it in order to get it to heat up on its stand (no more kettles in the UK for Dad).

We started the next day at Edinburgh Castle. Mom and I both did the audio guide last time we were here, so nothing was particularly noteworthy or new; everything was just a repeat of what we had heard three years ago.

Edinburgh Castle

Unfortunately, one of the coolest exhibits in the castle was closed, the prisoners of war exhibit. As such, what should have taken about four hours only took two and a half including lunch in the castle cafe. I tried a sample of whatever whisky liquor was on sample, mostly for nostalgia’s sake as I hate whisky. On our last trip here, I tried whisky for the first time and was instantly sent running for water. This time I handled it a lot better, but I didn’t like it anymore than last time! The boys on the other hand are motivated to become whisky enthusiasts which meant that they boys wanted to go into every whisky shop down the Royal Mile. At least we also went into St. Giles’ Cathedral, something I really wanted to see.

I was also able to convince the boys to hold off going into every shop, instead to wait for the one recommended by the Rick Steve’s Guidebook. What made me even happier that day was that the Palace of Holyroodhouse was open! No garden parties in March! We sent the menfolk off on what we thought would be a whisky hunt but ended up being a hike up the crags while we girls got to tour the palace in peace and without being rushed by two bored men anxious to get to another whisky shop.

Palace of Hollyroodhouse

The palace tour is broken up into two parts: the current royal apartments and the historical apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots. Both were really interesting, though I am obviously partial to the historic aspect of it all rather than the celebrity-like obsession with the royal family.

We finally got to go inside!

But the palace is a stunning piece of architecture and decor; understandably you can’t take pictures inside so I will have to cherish the memory of finding a portrait of Mary Boleyn, as well as Henry VIII, Mary I, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and everyone associated with Mary, Queen of Scots in one of her rooms. In fact it was the one in which her Italian secretary and friend David Rizzio was murdered by her second husband, Lord Darnley. I love history!

As the boys had not gone to that whisky shop, Mom and I accompanied them to Cadenhead Whisky Shop where they were like kids in an alcoholic candy store.

Cadenhead Whisky Shop, aka the store that reeks of cigarettes, cigars, and booze

Mom and I left them this time, and ended up walking past this dress shop and found my dress for the Keble Ball. It’s stunning and I can’t wait to wear it!

We all reconvened at the apartments and the guys picked out a Chinese place for dinner, but Mom and I were so exhausted that we chose to sleep and later grabbed dinner at Sainsbury down the street (I spy with my innocent eyes strippers standing around outside). After the boys returned from an apparently terrible meal, we all curled up to watch the first Harry Potter movie. Inner nerd very happy 🙂

Local Celebrity

Stop number two: Kilkenny, Ireland

Dad was feeling really ill and so opted to rest and sleep in the hotel room while the other three of us explored Kilkenny. I instantly liked this town light years better than Dublin. It has that quaint, people actually live here feel and a warmth that Dublin lacked. The people of Dublin were absolutely lovely. I can’t think of a city where I’ve met nicer people, but Kilkenny as a location is more my style. And this first day was definitely done in my style of traveling. We wandered. We saw a cute street; we took it. Cute potential tea shop? We looked at the menu. The place we ended up going for tea was more like a pub that served “scones” and pastries.

Always up for a cream tea 🙂

The scones were like no scones I’ve ever had, more akin to danishes served with pure whipped cream in a little dish, making me think that maybe something has been lost in the vocabulary translation between the English and the Irish.  No place has done tea and scones and clotted cream like they do in England. Returning from my tangent…

Armed with solely a map and my relentless passion for walking, I led the way toward a 12th century abbey, which as my newfound Irish older man friend informed me was closed to the public for safety reasons (despite how much fun it would be to watch tourists run away from falling stones Ireland has decided against it). He was an adorable man, explaining all of the directions to every church-related house in the entirety on Kilkenny. And he didn’t just point out the roads, he literally moved me into place until I could see the routes.  So cute and helpful.

St. Canice's Cathedral

We ended up going to the closed St. Canice’s  Cathedral, Black Abbey (so called because the Dominican monks wore black robes) and St. Mary’s Cathedral. This is essentially what I do when I travel: on the first day I wander around town, into churches, and plan the rest of my days in the city in which I am visiting.

The Black Abbey

We ate dinner in the hotel bar as the three of us and soon joined by Dad. Both he and Kevin ended up sound asleep by 9 pm, and Mom came to our door. She and I talked for a bit and then once I said that I was sick of spending every night hanging out in a room, she suggested that the two of us go to a pub (yeah, my mom is that cool) without the boys for some local music. We ended up at a pub called The Field where some guy played music nonstop for over three hours. And he was actually really decent. I of course found some way to make an idiot out of myself, this time by confusing the bartender by ordering a basic American cocktail at an Irish pub. Jenna=moron. After the drink debacle (I ended up with an overpriced glass of house red) the night was perfectly low key, but I didn’t feel like I was wasting it. So glad we went out!

Partying it up with Mom!

After my sleepless night, I met everyone downstairs for a bland but included breakfast (amazing how being included means that I mentally disengage from quality standards). I drove us to the Rock of Cashel, a ruin of a cathedral that was originally the ancient seat of the Munster kings in the 300s through the Middle Ages. I love all these ancient ruins ad how I can use the history I’ve already learned to better understand it all. And the sites themselves are obviously spectacular. In Ireland there are more of the ruins surrounded by untamed countryside and not the immaculate gardens and parks you see in England. It was a bit misty and drizzly, which I christened as “spitting” and made Mom laugh. I thought it was an apt description.

Rock of Cashel, under construction aka preservation

Back in Kilkenny we went to Kilkenny Castle which was really more of an exhibit like those of British stately homes, so Dad and Kevin were both bored and let down. I enjoyed it, but I also got into a discussion with one of the employees regarding the lack of Versailles furniture so I was in my element. The tour, self-guided, didn’t have a ton of information and so we were finished pretty quickly and retraced our steps from yesterday to St. Canice’s Cathedral. Cathedrals are all really similar in design so I am more interested in any cool history or who is buried there. One of the former bishops interred here was Obama’s great great granduncle, which is pretty cool. There was also a memorial to a 14 1/2 year old martyr who was beheaded by Emperor Constantine on her way to her first communion. The weather wasn’t cooperating so the boys didn’t get to climb the ancient tower.

I had to play tour guide throughout this whole trip

Dad and Kevin went back to the hotel after that while Mom and I did some shopping and journaling and tea before the boys joined us for drinks. Dad of course ordered a vodka gimlet because this was the fourth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, but he had to teach it to the bartender. Mom then chose to forgo dinner because she was so tired and not hungry, so the rest of us went off. This time, after dinner, Mom and I didn’t have to go to the pub alone; the boys came too. We went to Flanigan’s Pub where at 9 pm this fantastic Irish band called Divil and the Bit was playing. There was a hilarious bachelorette party going on with a crazy Irish dancing mother and aunt. Dad called the office on the iPad so they got quite a surprise. The boys both left early once again, missing Mom getting hit on and both of us getting our picture taken with some locals for next week’s Kilkenny newspaper. Who knows? We might become local celebrities!

A Wales of a Tale

And the cross-country travels begin! We woke up this morning and caught a car to the train station where we hit the seemingly minor snaffoo of my credit card not registering as having tickets. Chalking it up to the glitches of modern technology, we went up to the counter to discuss with an actual human being how to get our tickets. Well, turns out we had tickets…booked for yesterday (this was Saturday). Basically, my arch nemesis–that would be technology in case anyone was not aware of my long standing vendetta–attempted to foil my plans once again by inducing a website glitch that booked our tickets for the wrong day. But we were not to be foiled, not this time! The woman at the counter graciously printed us out excess cards that may have forced me to present an entire stack of stubs every time the ticket collector walked by, but at least we got on the train, off to Wales to meet our 86 year old cousin James Anwyl of Harlech.

On the road to Harlech

The day’s complications were not over yet, however. While on the first leg of our train journey, we were sitting across the aisle from these women who for some reason completely annoyed me, the American especially. I can at least partially attribute my irritation towards her being from the sheer volume of her voice. Grating and loud, they all kept shouting about dogs for an hour! As it so happens, this weekend in Birmingham is some famous dog show called Crufts that they were all (in fact everyone in Birmingham International Station) associated with in one way or another. Thankfully that ordeal only lasted an hour and the remainder of our journey by train through the Welsh countryside was peaceful, uneventful, and full of beautiful scenery.

Wales really is a stunning region. It looks exactly as I imagined it would: rugged but quaint, with craggy hills on one side and a gray sea on the other. It seems slower paced, especially as it isn’t tourist season, so everything closes at 4 pm as we found out while wandering the High Street in Harlech. To be fair, the High Street is basically the only street in Harlech, so there wasn’t much need to gather alternative evidence.

The owner of Castle Cottage where we are staying picked us up at the rail station and drove us up the Guinness Book of World Record’s Steepest Hill to the hotel. After settling in, we tried to find James. We knew which house was his, but were both a little afraid to ring the doorbell or knock too loudly. Part of that was just natural apprehension at meeting someone you had no idea existed until 2 months ago and the rest may have been utter terror that we would literally straitly him to death. Honestly the man is 86 so it was a completely valid concern! Eventually we did meet him (alive, I might add) and he told us all about the family tree of the Anwyl’s. He has so much information and kept repeating himself over and over again (he’s old) that it sounded like he was reading off of a script and if you broke this script’s run, he had to start all over. But he really was a dear old man and gave us a lot of information.

The Welsh Ladies from America

After that we walked around a lot in search of a cream tea, but every place seemed to be closed for refurbishments or some derivation of that excuse. We ended up as the last customers of this deli that only had  caramel shortcake, banana bread, or cherry almond cake, which both of us opted for along with tea (Earl Grey of course!). The cake was really tasty and the waitress was uncannily like Keira Knightley. We henceforth called it Keira’s Place.

After tea we just walked around Harlech and the surrounding hill. There isn’t much to the actual town, especially when everything closes at mid-afternoon, but we walked along some really beautiful country paths and were afforded some stunning views of the sea and valley.

Harlech Castle with the sea and mountains in the distance

We also ended up coming across a field of pastures crawling with Baaaaa-ing shell. The closer we got, the more noise they made, until we were literally almost at the gates to their enclosures when we turned and saw this SWARM of sheep running down the hill at us, practically sheep screaming at us! It was actually really scary and freaky, and I kind of wanted to run all the way back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure that I had nightmares after that. I’m never using counting sheep as a method for curing insomnia ever again. I’ll stick to my pills!

On our first morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and it was such a good hearty breakfast that felt fit for the region of Wales. That sentence probably makes no sense, but I can’t really describe the feeling it gave us, that of being strong and hearty, ready for a day of fresh Welsh air and walking. Okay, I guess I just did describe it, though it looks better as an image in my head. Regardless of how I will fail to describe the breakfast, we headed first thing into Harlech Castle where I played Audio Guide Voice by reading off the information given in the guidebook we bought for the castle.

Fun castle history! (For what would a vacation post of mine be without the traditionally exasperating history lesson?): Harlech Castle was built by Edward I in 1283, my 34th great grandfather, as a stronghold against the Welsh warriors. The castle was sieged multiple times over the following centuries, most famously in the War of the Roses, when the Lancastrian-aligned Harlech was the last Lancastrian stronghold to surrender after a seven year siege that inspired the song “Men of Harlech”. Throwing in some of my family’s history, dating back to I believe the 1700s, the Anwyls were constables of Harlech Castle up through 1915 when the last Anwyl to rent the castle, who had been using its grounds to raise her sheep, died and the family let the castle revert back to the crown.

We spent quite some time at the castle. As we were the only ones inside, we felt free to take our time and savor not only the ruins, but also the views afforded by the turrets and the outer curtain. Castles are always amazing to me, but this one had an incredible view of the cliff below and the sea in the not-too-distant-distance. Having exhausted corners of the castle to discover, we returned to call on Cousin James, and were informed that he was taking us for a light lunch at this nice restaurant that he sometimes goes to for lunch after church on Sundays when he is interested in a change though he usually cooks lunch after church but sometimes a break from the routine is nice. Yes, he said that all in one sentence. But he was right, the restaurant was lovely, and we had soup and scones (finally a cream tea!) in the conservatory, while continuing to learn about what life was like in Harlech back during James’ life. Random fact that no one else will care about (isn’t my blog just full of those?) James still lives in the exact same house where he was born 86 years ago. As in, midwife style, actually born in, and has lived there his whole entire life. Incredible.

We took our leave from James and walked down to the beach, maybe a mile and a half away from the base of the hillside. It was so bizarre walking on a beach in the cold, bundled up in sweaters, jackets, and my boots, something that would never happen in California.

Practicing my Latin Checks on the beach!

I’m sorry that I can’t say that anything interesting happened on this walk, but it’s Harlech and I get the impression that the most interesting thing that happens there is the bank being open for two hours. Still it was a lovely, if long, stroll along the beach and back up that famously steep hill, before I went back to the hotel to read a book while Mom said our goodbyes to James. Then we had nothing left to do but lounge around in our room and eat a makeshift dinner of Welsh cheese and crackers and a flapjack before retiring (I know that retiring as a word for going to sleep is rather old fashioned, but that really felt the most apt).

We woke up to a thankfully less hearty breakfast at the hotel, and then caught the trains back on our way to Oxford. I got a ton of reading done in those 6 hours, but not as much statistics learning as I would have liked (read: none). Then Mom and I walked a bit more around Oxford, essentially killing time before meeting up with Partner at the Eagle and Child Pub for dinner. Yes, as in the pub famous for it’s associations with Tolkein and CS Lewis and all of the Inklings. But for us, it was simply the pub closest to Dan’s place that we knew Mom would like as well. And what a lovely dinner it was. The three of us get along smashingly and before I knew it, the clock struck 10 pm and we all had to run, because as I said, the cross country travels are just beginning and I have yet to pack.

Leeds Castle and Maidstone

Today is beginning to feel like one of those days where you just deflate. After six days of walking around, touring small towns and big cities, rushing to catch trains and tubes, and reading signposts describing historical sites, I can barely get out of bed. Honestly if I’m going to have a complete bum day, today is the day to do it since other than grocery shopping and maybe making a trip to Carphone Warehouse to buy a new phone charger, I have nothing else to do that would require leaving my apartment. No essays to write, no research to read, no dance rehearsals to attend, just plain old boring stuff all completable in Isis. Including continue to update this blog and work on my surprise, so let’s return to the morning of our last full day in England.

It was quite the luxury to not have to set an alarm to ensure that we catch transportation on time. Maidstone may be a minuscule town, but Leeds Castle is a decent number of miles away along a highway so we had to take a cab and we could call one at any time in the day. We ate breakfast at the buffet at the hotel which was absolutely no better than dinner the night before. A basic buffet centering around a mass produced English breakfast (I wasn’t even going to try to get Kevin to taste black pudding) with overcooked eggs. At least fruit and toast is pretty much fruit and toast anywhere so I can adapt pretty easily. Though we quickly made up our minds to find a Sainsbury or Tesco and buy breakfast stuff there for tomorrow.

While it would begin raining later in the afternoon, mid morning was another crisp and blue skied day (just as it is in Oxford at the moment; pity I have nothing to do outside) and the walk up to the castle led us through some beautiful expansive grounds. I am constantly awestruck by the picturesque gardens and fields and ponds that grace not only the stately home grounds, but also the simple towns and the views from train windows. So perfect that they don’t seem real. A few sights into the country and you understand what drew artists like JMW Turner and John Constable to England. If I lived in one of these stately homes, only rain would force me indoors and out of my gardens and fields. Luckily Kevin also found the grounds mesmerizing so he didn’t make a fuss when I later suggested a stroll through the gardens and taking our time walking the path to and from the castle. In fact, I think he was just thrilled that I was backing down from speed walking everywhere so easily.

Leeds was another one of those castles built in the generations immediately following William the Conquerer. Most of the original castle was demolished over time so the newer castle doesn’t look like it would have back in it’s first form. It was further renovated and updated by its last private owner, Lady Baille, so half of the rooms we were allowed into were decorated in a more modern style than those rooms would have looked in the castle’s heyday.

Leeds Castle

The first half of the rooms on the tour were focused on the castle’s history pre-Lady Baille and so were kept looking like they would have in the earlier centuries. I really like this stone mantlepiece carved for Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (don’t look so surprised, I’m predictable) for their overnight stay at Leeds on their way to France for the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit with the French King, Francois I. But for me, yes the castle was full of great history and I had that overwhelmed by history feeling I get whenever I go to these places–that awe that you are standing in the same exact spot where people have been standing for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years–the grounds were the highlight.

Castle grounds

Castle grounds

There was a pretty interesting aviary with exotic birds that were mostly hiding in their pens to escape the biting cold (lucky birds) and a flock of extremely annoying young macaws. We made friends with a cockatoo and saw a blue and gold macaw for Kevin. And the toucan’s beak was so long and colorful! Oddly it kept hitting its beak on a nearby branch, like actually smacking it on purpose, so I wonder what that was all about.

Our friend, the Cockatoo

Kevin had remembered a few days back that my friends and I always do a cream tea when we travel, part of our not-very-scientific search for the best cream tea in England. I was rather touched that not only did he remember, he offered to go to a place and have a cream tea with me. Understand, readers, that Kevin does not even like tea, hates raisins (which is a common fixture in scones), and I’m not really sure of his stance on jam, so his suggestion was all the more awwwww inspiring. I’m the worst judge of timing that there is, and I didn’t know if anywhere in Maidstone proper would do a cream tea, so we took our last opportunity and had tea at the castle.

I keep debating whether or not to make a separate category and posts for the cream tea reviews so that I can go more in depth for anyone who is really that interested or is looking for a good cream tea in the places I’ve visited in England. Comment below and let me know if you would like me to do that, or if I should just keep the reviews quick and concise within the location posts.

Basically, the tea was a make-your-own kind of deal in the castle’s cafeteria. The tea was a decent loose leaf pot, but since you couldn’t remove the tea leaves the second and successive cups were very over brewed. The scones were the largest sultana scones that I have ever seen, too large for a cream tea but fine since tea basically replaced lunch. I was disappointed that the clotted cream and jam were the same individual buy in bulk packets and jars that we’ve gotten at other places and that I’m sure you could find at a well stocked Tesco. But the worst part about it was that this was Kevin’s only experience with a cream tea, and it was far from being impressive. I wish I had brought him to The Rose in Oxford as that is a fantastic tea, but it was closed until the 4th and we were not going back to Oxford.

Kevin's first cream tea at Leeds Castle

After tea we headed back into the small town of Maidstone and to their town museum. I have never been in a more eclectic museum in my life. It was a massive hodgepodge of artifacts and exhibits: from calvary developments to a mummy, from the history of the town’s beer manufacturing to neolithic tools and ancient coins, from fashion to dinosaurs and taxidermy. But the most interesting room was their photography exhibition called All Change. They had photos taken around the town from the invention of photography in the 1800s and beneath those, there were photos taken in the exact same locations over the past two years so you could see how much the town has changed and where are some places that have remained relatively the same. I thought that room was the coolest in the whole museum, and there were a lot of rooms considering that Maidstone is such a small town.

Somehow all of this only took us until 3:30 in the afternoon and we were suddenly stuck with nothing to do for an entire afternoon. I had thought that the castle would take much longer to do, and Kevin didn’t want to go on the historic Maidstone walking tour, so we were at a loss. We literally meandered (I told you, vacation catchphrase) through the town, down towards the Archbishop’s Palace (Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest clergyman in the Anglican Church) and along the river, before it started raining again and we ushered into a shopping mall to regroup. There, we came up with…nothing. It seemed that there really wasn’t anything to do in Maidstone. We were left with finding a cheap restaurant/bar and lengthening out our dinner as long as we could so that we could avoid sitting in our hotel room reading books and watching TV on the iPad on our last night. Which, because like I have iterated multiple times there is NOTHING to do in Maidstone, we ended up doing anyway. I had a book I really wanted to finish so I wasn’t all that upset. But it was a pretty anticlimactic way for Kevin to end his trip to England because he won’t have time to get in anything else before his flight leaves tomorrow, and that made me a little sad. Guess he’ll just have to come back though!