The plane touched down in Los Angeles on December 14, 2019. After a 12-hour flight from Europe, we were exhausted but deeply satisfied with our latest adventures in Paris, Belgium, and London. We had no foreshadowing that our travels would come to an abrupt halt. Within a month of our return, the world’s nations began shutting their borders against the COVID-19 pandemic like falling dominoes. I detailed the first two legs of our trip in The Last Trip: Part 1. Paris in December and The Last Trip. Part 2: Belgium.
Part 3: London
My husband had been obsessed with taking a train through the Chunnel for as long as I have known him–15 years. This is the tunnel that connects England and France. To recap: A train, in a 31.3 mile tunnel, under the water. We boarded a Chunnel-bound train in Brussels, and the adventure commenced. I would like to say it was amazing, but it was pretty much just riding a train through a long, dark tunnel. The Brits on board were a bit drunk and having a fine time, but that was the only noteworthy aspect of the journey.
We quickly checked into our hotel and hurried over to the British Museum, which is one of the largest museums in the world covering much of human history. In that second week of December, even before the world shut down, there was no line and no wait. I had never visited the British Museum before, and I still haven’t “seen” it. The museum is so large and impressive that we barely scratched the surface. Overall, I wish I had a few months to dig into all the museum has to offer, but I did find time to sneak a peek at the museum’s nod to the holiday season–two beautiful Christmas trees on display.
Although London is too large a city to have a cozy, Christmas feeling, it puts Paris to shame in terms of festive cheer. The trick to London is to carefully plot your holiday tour. There are wonderful Christmas scenes, but you don’t run into them on every street. For instance, Covent Garden was spectacular with trees, lights and beautiful displays, such as the one sponsored by Tiffany & Co. A short walk away brings you to the iconic iceskating rink at Somerset House where the posh department store, Fortnum and Mason, hosted a pop-up dining and shopping area. According to their website, “Take a stroll down the Christmas Arcade for a little piece of Piccadilly and visit the Fortnum’s Lodge for Mince Pies, Fondues for Two, Hot Chocolate, Champagne, and more.” Yummy. Speaking of Piccadilly, head over there after dark for inspired Christmas lights soaring above the city.
London’s main Christmas tree is located in Trafalgar Square. Here is my advice: Do not get your hopes up. In 2019, it was the most scraggly, oddest, Christmas tree I have ever seen. It was worse than the Christmas tree that was surrounded by rats in New York’s Washington Square Park, which I discuss in Itinerary: New York at Christmas Time. Obviously, you still need to see Trafalgar Square. But, if you want a sure-fire, magical, holiday experience, then reserve a spot at the Savoy Hotel for afternoon tea.
Note: After I published this post, I took a pandemic-era virtual Christmas tour of London. David Drury, a London tourist guide, taught me that the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree has a long, proud history. The tree, a Norwegian Spruce, is an annual gift from Norway to thank Britain for their support in World War 2. It is a focal point for caroling in the city and is treasured by the people of London. Obviously, this is a lesson in not bringing your own pre-conceived notions into your travels. However, I have yet to find a reason to appreciate the rats surrounding the Washington Square Park Christmas tree in New York.
I almost cancelled on the Savoy, because I decided that no one should indulge in an insanely expensive afternoon tea twice in two weeks. (The week before, we had tea at the Charles V Hotel in Paris.) As it turns out, when you have to live on your travel memories for an entire year because of a pandemic, then you should indulge in a fancy afternoon tea every chance you get! In other words, we walked into a twinkly, garden-themed, champagne-filled, Christmas wonderland at the Savoy, and I don’t regret one pampered moment.
Windsor Castle was on my bucket list, so we hopped on a train for a quick trip. My husband and I had attempted to visit Windsor in the Spring of 2018, but gave up in defeat. We couldn’t find parking among the hordes of people cramming into the place. I wrote about the sorry saga in: London: A 5-Day Itinerary. Ahh, but in December, we practically had the place to ourselves.
As befitting a serious monarch like Queen Elizabeth, the castle is not overwhelmed with Christmas kitsch. There are a few, well-placed wreaths and a much-celebrated Christmas tree in the castle, but the lack of crowds is the real reason to see the castle in early December. The town itself had not received the “understated holiday decor” memo, and Christmas lights in the shape of crowns and scepters were strung over the streets. For the record, I adore Christmas kitsch, so I was delighted.
Having built up a suitable thirst, we stopped for lunch at a historic pub in Windsor dating from the 17th century called The Two Brewers, which had fantastic food, drinks, and a Christmas tree made out of wine bottles. Whenever I read about pubs in England suffering during the pandemic, I think of this pub and send them my silent best wishes from 6,000 miles away.
My husband and I stayed at our favorite hotel in London–the Gore, a boutique hotel in South Kensington. Although this is not the most expensive hotel in London, it also is not the cheapest. We went crazy and paid extra for a junior suite. On our second day, the hotel ran out of hot water for 24 hours. My husband said we deserved it as we “overshot our station” in life. He compared us to Icarus who flew too close to the sun. He is deep and poetic when unwashed.
This trip, our last before the pandemic, came to its inevitable end. We had originally planned only a one-week visit to Paris. At the last minute, I talked my boss and my husband into letting us stay an extra week in Europe. I had always wanted to see Bruges, Ghent and London at Christmas. In hindsight, this uncharacteristic spontaneity was one of my better decisions. The memories of this trip have sustained me during the months of lockdowns, travel bans, and social distancing. Happy Holidays, and may next year bring us all closer together.
To read more about our Christmas travels, please see: