Saturday, June 23, 2007

'Billy Elliot' Storms The Victoria Palace - The Venue

There has been three theatres on this site since 1832. The theatre that is now the Victoria Palace holds 1,550 seats and was built in 1910 at a cost of GBP12,000. Like many theatres in London built during the time, originally the Stalls, Dress Circle and Grand Circle each had their own box office and entrance denoting the current classes of its citizens. The theatre has been refurbished since to no longer reveal this out-moded class system distinction.

Unlike any other theatre in London, the auditorium boasts a sliding roof. Considering the often damp weather and that the theatre is air-conditioned, one wonders if this feature is ever used. In 2006, a replica of the original ballerina statue was reinstated to its original place on the dome above the theatre's façade. The gold-leafed statue is now a fitting welcome for the patrons of the theatre's current tenant, "Billy Elliot".

Among the productions that have played here: "Buddy", the Buddy Holly musical; the 2001 revival of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate"; and "Tonight's the Night," a musical using the songs of Rod Stewart. The theatre is located on Victoria Street and the nearest tube stop is Victoria Station. Along with the Apollo Victoria Theatre, these two venues are the only two not within London's theatre district. Pictured below is the view along Victoria Street. Yup, the bus route says 'Victoria' and with the Victoria Place Shopping Centre nearby, it's unlikely Queen Victoria's name will ever be forgotten.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Haven of Holland Park

As much as I enjoy the accelerated pleasures of London city life, sometimes a peaceful moment to steal away is worth the diversion as well. The high profile green spaces of Regent Park, Hyde Park, Green Park, St. James’s Park and Kensington Gardens are always worth a visit. This time I opted to explore the treasures of a smaller neighbor of theirs called Holland Park. Located in the borough of Kensington, Holland Park is widely regarded as one of the more romantic parks in the city.

The former grounds of a country house, Holland Park holds a variety of delights for the visitor. They include woodland walks, formal English gardens, the Kyoto Garden and the high-end French restaurant, Belvedere. Thanks to World War II bombing, only fragments remain of the mansion Holland House. Those remains are the centerpiece of the park and serves as the backdrop for the open-air Holland Park Theatre, sight of a summer season of operas and ballets.

Apparently the park is popular for its many recreation areas to enjoy tennis, football (not the American kind), cricket and golf not to mention a playground for children. But the overcast weather on the day I visited left most areas of the park quiet. The stark contrast between walking from the woodlands area in the northern portion and formal gardens make for a peaceful walk. Don’t be surprised if you encounter one of the many peacocks or squirrels that call this park home.

One unusual attraction here is the Kyoto Garden with a pond full of fat koi fish. Laid out in 1991 for the Festival of Japan, it is landscaped with utmost care. This garden is meant to represent in condensed form the grandeur of natural landscape.

Entry to the park is free and open from dawn to dusk. Nearest tube stations: Holland Park at the park's north end and High Street Kensington east of its southern entrances. HIgh Street Kensington is a popular shopping thoroughfare for the posh residents of the borough. Information about this park and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea found at (Photos from top of this post to bottom: two photos of the formal gardens around Holland House; path through woodlands area; one of the park's peacocks; statue of Lord Holland; two photos of Kyoto Garden)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee - For Connoisseurs Only

It’s only fitting that after a visit to a wine museum, one can visit a tea and coffee museum nearby. The Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee is also located on London’s Southbank (tube: London Bridge). It is a small museum that tells the story of two of the world’s most important commodities.

The museum takes its name from the owner, Edward Bramah, who started the museum in 1992 with a collection of teapots. Tea caddies, teaspoons, strainers, sugar tongs, kettles and early Italian espresso machines are also on display. The largest tea pot in the world is pictured at the top of this post. Numerous printed media in the museum helps to chronicle the tea and coffee histories. The museum is fronted by a café serving a wide variety of both drinks. Part of the musem allows visitors to smell samples of tea and feel the coffee beans (pic below)

Visit this museum if you are an aficionado of tea or coffee. You will find this museum fascinating as it covers the trade of both items around the world from Japan to India to England. Other visitors, like T.H.T, will say it is not a must see but are happy to just have a relaxing place to enjoy a warm drink that isn’t a Starbucks after exploring the sights of the area.

Admission is GBP3. Both the museum and café open daily 10am-6pm. More info at

Vinopolis: Too Many Wines Too Early in the Day

It seemed unlikely that a country not known for wine production should be host to a wine museum. Such is the case at Vinopolis: City of Wine located on London’s Southbank. Built in the vaults of a former wine warehouse, the museum offers a breezy history of wine with plenty of tasting opportunities. You have your choice of dozens of reds, whites and ports. The exhibits focus on the production of wine and its development in different regions of the world. You can even ride a Vespa with a video of the Tuscany wine country projected on the windshield.

You can either choose to rush to each of the three wine tasting stations or take your time with the audio tour. Being that it was only 12noon, I opted for the 'original' tour of five wine tastings. The museum is compact but offers many areas to lounge and sip your wine. Each wine tasting station has crackers and water dispensers to wash your glass. The knowledgeable wine servers can help you choose your next taste of wine. The tasting choices come from all over the world from the well known regions of Italy to the unknown commodities from Thailand.

There is one room devoted to the Bombay Sapphire that feels more like a club in itself. All tickets include a Bombay Sapphire cocktail. Choose one and watch your bartender prepare the drink. It’s actually not a bad cocktail. I opted for a berry concoction if I remember correctly as I opted to have this drink after all five wine tastings.

Of the five wines I tasted, my favorite was from Argentina called a Finla El Ritero. The server explained if you enjoy a Riesling, this wine is very sweet and is a late harvest wine. Now the wine from Thailand had something to be desired in its unusual bouquet. According to the server, it is meant to be served with spicy Thai foods which may negate the unusual aroma.

For those of a stronger drinking fortitude, you can add whisky, beer and champagne or more wine tastings. Vinopolis also offers Absinthe. Now Absinthe is not available in the U.S. and therefore gives this product a mysterious quality. Try it if you dare. The green drink is thought to be dangerously addictive and have harmful effects on one's health. In 1915 the drink was banned in the U.S. and is still banned today. More European countries have become more accepting of the drink in recent years and have lifted their bans.

Find something you really like during the museum tour. Visit the Majestic Wine Warehouse and the Whisky Shop for purchases. Be mindful that these products may have to be declared at customs and will not be allowed on board aircrafts.

- Original Tour GBP16 (self- guided tour includes five wine tastings, a Bombay Sapphire cocktail and wine tasting notebook).
- Discovery Tour GBP21 (includes benefits of original tour plus 2 whisky tastings, 2 absinthe tastings, 2 beer tastings and "How to Taste Wine" session)
- Vintage Wine Tour GBP26 (includes benefits of original tour plus 3 extra regular wine tastings, 4 premium wine tastings)
- Champage Tour GBP31 (benefits of vintage wine tour plus 3 Ruinart Champage Tastings).

Located near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, the closest tube stop is London Bridge Station. Open daily from 12noon-6pm; open until 9pm on Mon, Fri & Sat. Also onsite is a bar and restaurant. More info at Pictured below (from top): bar at the Bombay Sapphire Experience; the wine god Bacchus and Vespas (see the video on the windshields); and Wine Warehouse shop.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Millennium Bridge: Cross from Cathedral to Modern

Two of London’s famous landmarks are connected by the $25 million Millennium Bridge. The Tate Modern gallery on the South Bank and St Paul’s Cathedral in the City to the north. The bridge was built in 2000 and is the only pedestrian crossing over the Thames. A former power station building, The Tate Modern (pictured in the distance at top) is a wing of the Tate Gallery to house the musuem's modern art collection. St Paul's Cathedral (pictured in the distance below) is Britian's only domed cathedral with one of the world's largest domes, second only to that of St. Peter's in Rome, and site of the wedding ceremony between Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana in 1981.
The bridge is supposed to give the impression of a single sweeping ‘blade of light’. When it first opened, it swayed so badly that some of the pedestrians felt seasick. After a couple of days, the bridge was closed as dangerous. At a cost of $7 million and 20 months to stabilize the structure, it reopened in 2002. The bridge is 370 yards long and only four yards wide. The handrails are an aerodynamic design to deflect the wind over the head of pedestrians. The picture below was taken midway on the bridge facing east toward Tower Bridge, seen in the distance.
The Monday (28 May 07) of my holiday began with my first time crossing this bridge. Despite the bank holiday (national holiday), the weather all over the country couldn't be worst for a day in May. I knew something was up as soon as I could see my breath after leaving my hotel. The wind chill felt freezing cold. On my way to my next destination I found some warmth from the weather at Shakespeare's Globe Theater box office lobby which includes a pleasant cafe and gift shop.

Crossing the bridge is free. Nearest tube stops are St. Paul’s, Blackfriars and Southwark. Pictured below are the bridge supports.

WAGAMAMA = positive eating + positive living

Wagamama is a chain restaurant found all over London and known for its huge bowls of ramen and tasty pan-Asian rice dishes. All is served in a cafeteria atmosphere that is a noisy slurpathon. As you enter, check out the open kitchen and listen to the roar from the dining room where benches rock with happy eaters. The restaurant's trademark motto is “positive eating + positive living” and you can feel that energy as soon as you walk in the room. With branches all over town, the Bloomsbury location was a convenient few steps from my hotel. Despite its street façade (pictured below), the entire dining room and kitchen is in the basement.

For my Sunday dinner, I ordered the miso soup and pickles (soup flavored with miso paste, wakame, tofu and sliced spring onions); chicken katsu curry (chicken filet deep-fried in breadcrumbs, served in a light curry sauce and japanese-style rice, garnished with a combination of mixed lettuce and red pickles); and to wash it all down a glass of apple/organge juice. Still wanting more, I went ahead and ordered for dessert the coconut reika (three scoops of coconut ice cream topped with a mango sauce and toasted coconut flakes) and coffee. All of it yummy. It's actually difficult to resist the dessert as the selections are printed on the restaurant's placemats.

The restaurant gets awfully busy but service is rather quick. All servers take your order electronically on handheld computers and the order is then zapped to the kitchen where it is prepared immediately. It's a fun, good place to eat. By London standards, the meals here are reasonable for a restaurant. Entrée dishes run between GBP7-10. The restaurant is open Mon-Sat 12noon-11pm, Sun 12noon-10pm; no reservations. More information at

Peculiarities of a London Hotel Room

Like learning about all aspects of visiting a foreign country, just learning about the unusual features of an English hotel room can be an interesting experience. So far every hotel room I've stayed at in London has had a pants press. I guess English men really like to have the crease in their pants crisp. It does work but it really can't be used for anything else. I tried it on the sleeves of a long sleeve shirt. Better press shirts and anything else with with an iron and ironing board, also included in the room.
This next feature I like very much. A hot towel rack. There's something that has to be said about using warm clean towels especially on cold mornings. I can picture Americans using the 'hot rails' to dry their clothing....I am not one of them.
Rather than using a sign that hangs on your door knob, the English are high tech enough to have a switch inside your room to indicate "please clean room" or "do not distub". A flick of the switch in either direction from inside your room will have a light outside beside your door indicating either request. No more someone stealing the 'do not disturb' sign from a door knob....something I have never done.
The first thing I told myself when I saw this desk was 'Beam me up, Scottie". Honestly this desk looks like something out of a Star Trek TV episode. Touch any switch and you'll be transported to another dimension. In reality here are the desk features from left to right: blank cover, telephone outlet, two British outlets with on/off switch; 110V supply outlet; fuse for the 110V supply; fuse for the hair dryer; and a second set of British outlets with on/off switch. The hair dryer is kept in the desk drawer and connected to an outlet from under the desk drawer. Finally unlike filter coffee makers one may have in a U.S. hotel room, the one in this room is a hot pot to heat up water with instant coffee and tea bags. But look, real spoons and not just stirring sticks. Okay, I took the instant coffee and tea bags home. It's a way of trying to recover a very small portion of the huge 17.9 Value Added Tax that is charged on everything.

Around and Beyond the Covent Garden Piazza

Just a few steps south of the Central Market is the Jubilee Market, supported by the vendors who trade there. Here you can find the unique craft or souvenir of your London visit. Here is where I purchased two photographic prints of London framed and matted.

From the Central Market and Piazza, the Covent Garden experience extends to other streets including popular Neal Street. Looking to add an edge to your wardrobe? You won't be disappointed by shopping here. Check out for a shopping map of this street and beyond including the Central Market. Also find out why the pineapple is the symbol of market. Pictured below is a portion of Neal Street and one of its unique shops.

Near or around the Piazza you’ll find these attractions: The Royal Opera House, The London Transport Museum, The Theatre Museum (provided funds are found for its continued operation); the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (currently home to “The Lord of the Rings” musical); and the Lyceum Theatre (home to the long-running “The Lion King”). Pictured below: Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Covent Garden - Piazza & Central Market

A short walk from Somerset House and the Strand is Covent Garden. It is a fashionable and compact area of shops, eateries, museums and performance venues. All are found around London’s first formal square, Covent Garden Piazza, which contains the 19th century Central Market halls that is the heart of the buzzing area. Over one million people visit some part of Covent Garden each week.

The Covent Garden tube station in evenings is one the most congested and transit authorities highly recommended you find alternative routes of visiting the area. This small station is accessed only by elevators or by stairs. Also don’t come to Covent Garden if you’re in search of major chain stores or mainstream shops.

Covent Garden Piazza was London’s first residential square laid out in the 1630s and became the model for one of London’s distinctive features. It later became a fruit and vegetable market, renowned for its flower-sellers. When this trade moved to another part of London in the 1970s, the market was transformed into the piazza that exists to today. Pictured at top the top of this post is the piazza at both ends of the Central Market.

The area is one of my favorite stops when in London and well worth the visit just to soak up the lively atmosphere that’s in full swing throughout the day. The Central Market, pictured in the above two shots, hosts an antique and collectibles market on Mondays and an arts and crafts market selling jewelry, clothing, silverware and pottery the rest of the week. A variety of shops (many unusual); street entertainers of all kinds; and lots of affordable food choices in and around the market add to the attraction of visiting area.

After the Rain at Somerset House

My Sunday continued with a visit to Somerset House which was built between 1776 and 1786 on the site of the Duke of Somerset's Tudor palace. It is a stately building set around a granite-paved courtyard. Reminiscent of a European piazza, the courtyard glistens with fountains which are illuminated at night. The fountains get playful twice every hour. Go ahead and walk through them if you want. During the summer, you may catch a concert and in the winter the area is turned into an outdoor ice skating rink.

Walking through the courtyard is like walking in another time (with the view currently marred by the construction cranes in the north). This site has been used in films including “Sense & Sensibility”, “Bride & Prejudice”, “Sleepy Hollow” and “Goldeneye”. Pictured below is the entryway to Somerset House from the Strand.Besides the grand courtyard, there are three galleries that now occupy what used to be offices of state: The Courtauld Gallery, Hermitage Rooms and Gilbert Collection. Admission is required for all of these three attractions and no photography is allowed. The Hermitage focuses on an ever changing display from the St Petersburg museum of the same name. Think Faberge eggs. The Gilbert Collection focuses on the decorative arts especially known for a collection of glittering examples of gilt snuff boxes and micromosaics. A grand staircase in Somserset House pictured below.The south wing of Somerset House includes a restaurant, deli/café and a terrace that runs along the Thames river where you can glimpse St. Paul’s Cathedral to the east and Westminister to the west. Entry to the courtyard and terrace is free. More information at
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