Highlights from a week in London plus a transatlantic crossing on the QM2

By Robert Ono
This article appears on page 18 of the July 2016 issue.
View of High Street in Eton.

Leaving Oxford at the end of our self-drive tour of England (see June ’16, pg. 6), my wife, Betty, and I arrived at London’s Paddington rail station around noon. Wearing our backpacks, we walked about three blocks to our apartment rental (www.vrbo.com/3899053ha), our home for a week’s stay in the city. (This one-bedroom apartment rents for $157-$272 per night, depending on the season.)

We always try to rent an apartment if we are staying in a city for five or more days, as it allows us to live a bit like locals. It’s fun and convenient to be able to shop for groceries and prepare a few meals in our “home,” however temporary it may be. And a washing machine, often included, permits us to easily catch up on our laundry. 

As we had been to London before, this June 2015 visit was focused on several less common tourist sights. Highlights included visiting the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show and attending a play and a musical, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Matilda the Musical,” respectively. We also made a few museum stops, taking in the Alexander McQueen fashion exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the Science Museum and the small Handel House Museum. 

Our plans also included a walk through Selfridges (we are fans of the show on PBS) and the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill and, finally, a day trip to Windsor. 

Seeing the shows

Hearing that the Chelsea Flower Show would be very crowded, we arrived just as the gates opened. Tickets to the show can be hard to acquire, so we joined the Royal Horticultural Society (rhs.org.uk) before our trip so that we could purchase advance tickets and enter the show on a members-only day. Membership costs £57 ($82) per year for an individual, allowing access for two.

The show was spread over 11 acres, with corporate-sponsored show gardens, a flower pavilion and food vendors plus retail representatives for garden tools, garden sculpture, outdoor hardscaping, plants, flower seeds, clothing and footwear. 

Bread vendor at the Saturday Portobello Market in Notting Hill.

The designer show gardens reflected very creative uses of hardscaping and plants. The flower showcases, with broad swaths of brilliant colors, were also spectacular. However, as the UK weather is vastly different from that of California’s Central Valley, it really wasn’t possible to draw many garden ideas for our house. 

Unless you’re purchasing items from one of the many vendor booths, about four to five hours should provide enough time to see all the exhibits, with a mid-morning coffee break. 

Then it was on to see shows of another sort… at the theater. Both plays that we attended were excellent. 

“The Curious Dog” had great acting and staging and a thoughtful story. We left the performance with better insights into autism disorders, linguistics and coping with challenges that can’t be easily controlled. 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of “Matilda the Musical” was a fun show, full of incredible young and energetic actors. 

A museum and a market

The Handel House Museum (25 Brook St.; handelhouse.org) was a short walk from Selfridges department store. George Frideric Handel lived in this townhouse from 1723 until his death in 1759, and it was where he wrote most of his compositions. (Next door to the Handel House was a flat in which Jimi Hendrix and Kathy Etchingham once lived.) 

For those who enjoy browsing antiques, fashion items, souvenirs, fruit, vegetables and prepared foods, the Portobello Market (www.portobelloroad.co.uk) in Notting Hill should be on your list of places to visit in London. For over 150 years, buyers and sellers have converged on this market, the vendors’ stalls lining the street for several blocks on Saturdays. 

Windsor Castle’s Moat Garden.

Along the market walk you can also see sites from the movie “Notting Hill,” with Hugh Grant, including the storefront that was portrayed as Will’s bookstore (now a somewhat tacky souvenir store), the actual bookstore that served as its model and the blue door to Will’s flat. 

We couldn’t resist all the food offerings along our walk and stopped for a Nutella-filled crepe.

Day trip

Using public transportation — taking the Paddington train to Windsor & Eton Central via Slough — was the easiest way for us to get to the last destination on our London itinerary: Windsor. 

Windsor Castle (www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/windsorcastle) covers an expansive 13 acres. The building structures were spread out, and the areas open to the public were somewhat limited. The State Apartments were grand as only castle public rooms can be. 

The audio guide, included in the admission price (£20 per adult or £18, senior), was useful to better understand the use and furnishings of the State Apartment rooms and the castle views. 

Leaving Windsor, we walked to Eton via High Street. As Eton College classes were in session, public entry into the school was not permitted. Nonetheless, we were able to watch the students rehearse a portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo in a broad athletic field.

One unfortunate event

Our London visit was not without a mishap. During a pub stop, my wife’s backpack/purse was hanging on the back of her chair. Unbeknownst to us, a man sitting at the next table was quietly stealing her wallet while we were eating and having a pleasant conversation. We noticed the theft when we attempted to pull out cash for the bill. 

During the short walk between the pub and our apartment, thousands of dollars were charged against one of our credit cards. Apparently, the thief was purchasing transit passes for resale. 

The bank quickly deactivated the credit card, and, over time, all charges were reversed. 

This incident reaffirmed the value of keeping a separate record of all bank card numbers and customer service telephone numbers when traveling. 


Our London stay had come to its end, and it was time to prepare for our journey home. A car service from UK-based Smiths for Airports (phone +023 9283 1111, www.smithsforairports.com) picked us up at our apartment rental and took us to Southampton, the departure point for our cruise back across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 (QM2). (Originally, we had planned to take a train from London to Southampton, but there had been threats of a rail labor strike.) 

Our first stop was the Lok’nStore facility, where we picked up the luggage we had stored upon our arrival, then we continued to the Novotel Southampton (1 W. Quay Rd.; www.novotel.com) for our overnight stay ($137). 

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we walked into the Old Town of Southampton for lunch at the Red Lion Pub (55 High St.), built in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. Lunch was traditional fish-and-chips, with peas and a small salad plus a pint of local beer ($34 for the two of us). 

The next day we took a short cab ride to the Cunard cruise terminal, and within a short time we were on board the QM2 with the keycard to our 11th-floor balcony cabin in hand.

The Queen Mary 2

Cunard placed the Queen Mary 2 into service in 2004. Built as a true ocean liner, the QM2’s top speed exceeds that of most cruise ships by about four knots. In addition, it was built with four stabilizers rather than the two stabilizers found on many cruise ships, dramatically reducing the ship’s roll, up to 90%. 

We found many of the QM2’s public rooms to be larger in size and more elegantly furnished than those on the other 18 cruise ships we’ve traveled on. The QM2 also has some unique areas, such as a dedicated bookstore, a large ballroom, a dog kennel and a very large and comfortable library. 

Service on board was very attentive. I was surprised to be greeted by name when I entered a lounge for only the second time.

There are several different cabin levels available on the QM2. The more expensive levels have separate dining rooms and lounges that the lower-level patrons cannot access. So, while steerage cabins are no longer offered, a few cabin class distinctions do remain. 

Prior to this trip, we learned that on any formal-dress evening, guests choosing to dress casually would be restricted from the main dining rooms and most of the public areas for the entire evening. As I understand, this practice is particular to Cunard. 

Eton College students enjoying a walk.

Our six at-sea days took on a familiar pattern of attending onboard movies, theater shows and enrichment lectures; visiting the fitness center; browsing the shops, and reading. 

Unique experiences on the QM2 included planetarium shows and white-gloved afternoon tea service. We also had a dinner at the Todd English specialty restaurant on board. Otherwise, the dining on board was similar to what we’ve found on other cruises: buffet court dining, pub lunches and hotel-quality fare in the main dining room.

Arriving at the Red Hook cruise terminal in New York, we were met by a driver from the Carmel car service (New York, NY; 866/666-6666, www.carmellimo.com) for the transfer to La Guardia ($45, without tip). Luck was with us and we were able to catch an earlier Virgin America flight back home to California.

A few details

The cost of a transatlantic crossing will vary with cabin selection. For the two of us, our QM2 cabin with balcony cost about $5,000 for seven days, meals included.

Wherever possible, consider advance online purchases of admission tickets for popular tour attractions. These online purchases can save you time and, sometimes, money. We found that UK rail tickets were much less expensive when purchased in advance over the Internet.

If you’re considering a similar trip, I recommend consulting TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com) and International Travel News for hotel and attraction discussions and reviews. VRBO (www.vrbo.com) and HomeAway (www.homeaway.com) are good sources for apartment rentals, as is Airbnb (www.airbnb.com)

In regard to evaluating apartment or hotel reviews, I always place greater value on comments made by individuals who have seasoned traveler histories of 20 or more reviews. 

The TripAdvisor travel forum (www.tripadvisor.com/ForumHome) and Cruise Critic message board (boards.cruisecritic.com) each provides a wealth of travel tips.