Europe

Rail Europe: Riding the Rails in France and the U.K.

written by | Posted on July 1st, 2009

Upon arrival at St. Pancras Station in London, visitors will be surprised to see a huge, modern station that looks more like an upscale mall with dozens of boutique shops, high-end restaurants and fast food courts. The Champagne Restaurant there is located alongside the tracks, a unique venue where diners can enjoy top flight cuisine and Champagne, of course, under the silhouettes of the giant Eurostar trains.

After a brief tour of St. Pancras Station, we head off to The Langham London on Regent Street in the heart of the West End and one of Europe’s first grand hotels built in 1865. Today, this London landmark has just completed a nearly $150 million refurbishment that has brought this grand old dame back into the limelight as one of the city’s most prestigious hotels. With 338 luxurious rooms and suites, the past is melded seamlessly into the present with flat-screen TVs with a state-of-the-art entertainment system, a digital phone with a screen that couldn’t be figured out even after a 2-night stay, WiFi—a bit pricey, however—and mp3 player.

But history is still the cornerstone here—its original grand opening was presided over by the then Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VII, and it shows. Palm Court, for example, is the home of the original afternoon tea for over 140 years and still going strong, while at 18.65 hours (7:05 p.m.)—the birth year of the hotel—guests enjoy a soupcon of Champagne with canapes. Still another new initiative that salutes the past is the Book Butler program, a good fit due to the property’s proximity to Fitzrovia—London’s original artistic and Bohemian quarter—much visited by literary figures such as Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who mentioned the Langham in several of his Sherlock Holmes stories. The program allows guests to pre-select books for their stay and if they’re unable to complete it, they can take the book with them and return it on a future stay.

The next day, it’s time to enjoy London. First stop, the London Tube for a ride over to the Thames and a ride on London’s latest icon—the London Eye. For those of you who think of the London Eye as an overgrown ferris wheel, think again. This attraction is a wonderful way to get a bird’s-eye view of historic London with an incredible panorama of city landmarks that encompasses Parliament, Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, among others. It’s great fun and an attraction your London-bound clients shouldn’t miss.

Follow that with a 40-minute sightseeing cruise on the River Thames where clients will enjoy many of those same landmarks up-close, as well as the city’s famous bridges—made all the more enjoyable by the monologue of the tour guide offering historical tidbits and pointing out sights such as the Globe Theatre, the Tate and a number of other landmarks along the way.

Following the cruise, there’s a sensational pedestrian walk along the Thames that rambles along past myriad restaurants, small parks, a smattering of street performers, and trendy and very expensive condos, some of which you can get into for as little as $1 million, providing you’re willing to settle for a 1-bedroom. At the end of this trek, we wind up in Borough Market with its absolutely amazing selection of flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, wines and spirits—anything you can smell, chew, or swallow you’ll find in this absolutely delightful marketplace. We lunch at Roast overlooking the market, a restaurant and bar specializing in classic British cooking and housed in a former flower market with floor-to-ceiling paned windows and absolutely delicious fare. Recommend it, your clients will love it.

The next day, it’s time for an early morning Brit Rail train ride of a little more than two hours to Manchester, where the first class offerings including a fully cooked English breakfast—none of that microwaved stuff, the real thing served right at your seat. It’s the only way to travel.

In Manchester, we check into the Manchester Crowne Plaza, leave our luggage and head off for a quick trip to the Imperial War Musem North, an extension of the Imperial War Museum London, focusing on conflicts Britain has been involved in since WWI began in 1914. There are a variety of fascinating displays depicting how war affected the lives of British people involved in those conflicts that encompass the folks at home, the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen on the battlefield and in prison camps, and children in war. There’s a timeline element that runs from 1914-1918, 1919-1939 in between the two World Wars, 1939-1945, 1949-1990 and the Cold War and finally, 1990 to the present covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All in all, a dramatic venue.