If you're back again for part 2 of my travel blog post, it must mean that I did a fairly decent job conveying the story in part 1 or you're just really excited to hear about the 2017 Jensen Great Escape. Either way, I'm happy to share.
I love the saying "I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list." People often ask us how we choose the places we decide to visit. Often, the answer is as simple as "why not?" Of course, it's a little bit more in depth than that, but not by much. As you can probably gather by now, we have a pretty bit heart for Iceland. Not only is it a very cool place to visit, but it's also a great gateway to other countries. And, Iceland's motives to get people to visit are true - they have a cool country and they'd like to share it with you. So, that's generally why Iceland makes it onto our itinerary. Not to mention, they allow what's called a "Stopover" in which you don't pay extra on your airfare to stay for a night, or 7. Combine that with their on-point service and a direct 7 hour flight, and you've got the perfect travel solution.
Having just gone on an epic honeymoon adventure (Iceland, Austria, Germany) in 2015, we found ourselves late last fall wondering where we'd go next. Scotland has such a rich history and intriguing past, that it was already on our "want to visit" list. Another friend visited last summer, and I found myself ogling her Instagram feed daily while she was gone - so, we added it onto our plan. London has never really been a place that I felt I "MUST" see, but it seemed a great in-between with flexible travel options to and from Iceland & Scotland. Again, a simple shrug led to, "why not?"
And so the adventure began. Months of planning using highlighters, sticky tabs and Rick Steves' books, a few blog articles about the hidden spots, savvy Pinterest pins for me on how to pack lightly, and it was nearly time to go. Our itinerary was Iceland for a night, London for 5, then a train to Edinburgh for 3 nights, on to Glasgow for 2, then driving the western portion of Scotland for the next 7. We'd then go over to Paris for a night (because Paris is always a good idea) and then begin our trek home through Iceland where we'd hopefully recoup for a day at the Blue Lagoon.
Our arrival in Iceland was unlike any other we'd had previously (this being my 3rd time, and Joe's 4th). Sleet, wind and cold greeted us at a bright and early 6:30 a.m. arrival. We gathered our bags, and headed into Reykjavik to our City Center hotel. I say this was unlike any other trip because we've always been blessed with great weather - even when it's been cold. Apparently our Iceland luck had run out. We bundled up and headed to our favorite cafe by the lake (and the Iceland capital building) called Bergasson Mathis. Hearty, home-made goodness in a warm and friendly environment. We were happy to see that the cafe was buzzing on an early Sunday morning. In previous years it almost felt like a well-kept secret.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Everything in the city of Reykjavik is fairly walkable, and despite the weather, we managed to see our favorite places. We did some shopping, some eating, and despite my better judgement I let Joe talk me into a nap. Never again. It messed up my sleep schedule for at least 2 more days. We ate a hearty meal at our favorite pub, Prikid, and called it a night about 8:30p. Our flight to London the next day was early, so better to rest up.
Up and out of the hotel early the next morning, we began our journey to the UK. While the flight was great, London Heathrow is a beast of an airport to navigate. Customs took nearly 2 hours to clear, but the sun was shining outside, and we were happy to find the weather far more pleasant for spring. We managed to quickly figure out the underground, purchase an Orca transit card, and headed to our flat on the East End. It was an eclectic neighborhood and upon more research we found that it used to be the old territory of Jack the Ripper. That sounds a lot worse than it really was. Our flat was a repurposed car shop/garage, our host had done all of the work himself to make it a swanky flat. It was tall and thin, with a cast-iron staircase leading to a loft. We had not one, but two porches to enjoy the unusual weather.
Once we were settled, we hit the pavement (and the underground once again) to make our way to Big Ben, the London Bridge and an orientating Rick Steve's self-guided walk. Coming up from the underground is always a scintillating experience for me. While the stations look different from stop to stop, you really have no idea what you're going to climb up to. Traffic noise, sun, wind, sweet scents and Big Ben greeted us upon our ascension. Oh, and people, lots of them. It was a bit of a contrast from Iceland but we were happy to be in the hustle & bustle of the city for a few days. We snapped some pictures and then began our walk along historic roads, gardens and embassy rows complete with military police and black-windowed cars driving in and out. Our first evening ended in Trafalgar Square, a literal heart of Westminster with the Nelson's Column statue and 4 large, bronze lions guarding it. Trafalgar Square is the home to London's National Gallery and countless sites within a moment's walk. Feeling a bit parched, we stepped into a nearby pub (recommended in the Rick Steves' book for a hearty and cheap dinner) and were extremely satisfied with the service and food. Sufficiently full (I had seconds, it was so good and so inexpensive) we started the trek back to our place. London had definitely given us a great first impression.
Our next day was fairly scheduled. We decided (after much deliberation) to go ahead and visit Harry Potter World while in the UK. It's a bit of a ride out to Watford Junction, but turns out, everyone else wants to go there as well. There was literally one set of tickets left for a 5 p.m. "Tour" as they call it. We booked weeks before leaving the US, and are so glad we did. We started out the day with breakfast at this cute little organic cafe near our flat. We then proceeded to visit some of the older, more historic parts of town, complete with guidance from Rick Steves again. We got to visit the (not old) Millenium Bridge featured in a few of the HP films, but also see the Shakespeare Globe, the Thames, and so on. We stopped at Platform 9 and 3/4 at King's Cross Station for some tourist-y photo ops and then headed towards our train for Watford.
Let's start the next part of this journey by noting...not all trains are the same. With the extensive mass of transportation that London (and really Europe in its entirety) has, the simplest answer isn't always the right one. We had spent a few minutes too long in the photo line for 9 & 3/4, so were rushed in finding the part of the station we were supposed to be in. I spotted a Watford-bound train leaving a few minutes early, and thought "Great! We'll be early!" Joe had purchased tickets to the 3:30 train and had arrival times nail down - there's a shuttle bus in Watford that takes you to HP World. Once on the train (and subsequently moving already) we realized that the train we were on was a commuter, and not the express that we had tickets for. This notion came to fruition when a few teenagers near us were talking about the stops, and ETA's. We didn't know they were going to the same place, but we all slowly started realizing things at the same time. (Side note, they were all American students that had been studying abroad for a year, and very fun to talk to.) Our train would get us there 10 minutes after the shuttle left for HP World. The next shuttle wouldn't come for another hour. The Tour slots require you to be there 30 minutes prior to your actual slot. Long story short, we were going to be very late. Combine that with a lack of lunch, growing thirst and a wee bit of exhaustion and we all started freaking out just a bit. We hoped the train would be just a tad early, or that maybe it could skip a stop. Well, fate stepped in and as we got off the train, we saw the HP Shuttle bus pulling away. Just kidding, it was actually dropping off passengers, but then swinging around to park by the pick-up stop. We figured if at least one of our "party" got to the bus in time, we could convince the driver to wait. It worked and before long, we were on the magical bus to HP land - all of us thanking our lucky stars.
I won't go into a lot of detail about Harry Potter World other than it was incredible. With Disney-like levels of service and experience, it was worth not only the ticket price, but the stress of getting there too. It was pretty magical to be walking in the footsteps of famous cast members like Daniel Radcliffe, Alan Rickman and so many more. The intro video shared how many of the youngsters grew up in this place, seeing that they had spent no less than 7 years of their life filming in it. We wound through the maze of interactive exhibits, sets and (of course) shops along the way. Despite the crowds, we were able to get some great photos, enjoy a few mugs of butter beer and pick out some unique souvenirs that mean a lot to us. We arrived back to our flat that night smiling and full with the experiences of the day (even the unplanned ones)
Over the next few days in London we saw so much and were blessed with incredible springtime weather. We toured the London Tower, one of the biggest fortresses in history. We explored SoHo, Oxford Circus, Neal's Yard, and other fun locales that had been suggested to us. I was able to see places like the original Twinings Tea shop and the church where Charles Dickens parents were married. These aren't "big" things to everyone, but I found them charming based on my love of historical fiction and, obviously, tea.
Joe found a love of the culture in that all the gentlemen (yes, ALL of them) were wearing brightly colored suits and ties. We did some great shopping at various suit shops and I was finally able to visit Liberty of London. This was like the Disney of creativity for my fashion-forward mind. We found our fair share of red telly booths and great photo opportunities at every turn. With the weather being so lovely, we'd often do a bit more walking after a delicious dinner (that usually led to us NEEDING to walk). We stumbled upon St. James' Gardens near Buckingham Palace and enjoyed an evening stroll with ducks, birds and the occasional smooching couple.
I have to add in a small paragraph here about the incredible nature of London's transportation. We loved the ease at which we could get around such a sizable city with little effort using the incredible transportation systems they have in order to visit some of the smaller destinations I mentioned earlier. Train stations were massive shoppingmall-esque places that people not only used to get from one place to another, but they plan meetings there, they enjoy lunch there, and they feel primarily SAFE there. Security was in full force after the most recent attack in London, but not once did we feel unsafe or unclean, even in the underground stations.
Our last day in London was likely one of my favorites on the trip. We headed to the Portobello Road market in Notting Hill. The pastel houses and picturesque streets were beaming on this sunny Friday morning. We enjoyed a second cup of coffee and strolled along as the booths and tables were getting set up. We happened upon a delightful tweed/suit shop that also had fun frocks for ladies. Despite our desire to buy everything along the marketplace (vintage books, doo dads, trims, and fabrics, oh my!) our realization of another 2 weeks carrying things quickly won over. That's not to say I didn't happen to find the one incredible designer selling her samples at the flea-market section of Portobello Road's market.
We stopped for an afternoon tea (cider for Joe) and then headed over to see some Sherlock Holmes sites. While I'm not an expert or super fan of Holmes, I did enjoy the quaint little museum that was modeled after his apartment in the books. These types of homes are called "tenements" in the UK and are tight-spaced, tall buildings that we might consider a town home here in the US. The door guard was excited to pose for pictures and I was happy to take them. We then headed to the official "Sherlock Holmes" pub/bar for dinner. Being our last evening, we walked through Trafalgar Square one last time, and I decided it a good place to video chat with my Bestie, Jennifer for her birthday (since I was missing it, yet again).
Onward towards our flat for packing our limited souvenirs up and preparing for the train ride to Edinburgh!