Going Our Separate Ways

Wow what an amazing year we have had! It feels like only yesterday we arrived back home after our pic overland adventure from London to Melbourne. So in honour of being backa year we have reposted our blog from our arrival back into London in 2014!

 

What an amazing journey the last five months have been. From London to Beijing then back to Delhi all overland by train, then some incredible memories through Myanmar, Australia and the Philippines. Sadly however all good things must come to an end.

For ‘The Smart Way Round’ that means it is now time for Natalie and I to go our separate ways.

Wait a minute, didn’t we just celebrate our first wedding anniversary living it large around London? We certainly did, going our separate ways simply refers to heading back to work. For Natalie that means back down to Somerset to start work again in the office for Oasis Overland, while for me, I fly out to Munich to take my first group of Guests around Central Europe for Trafalgar Travel.

Now I know what you are thinking, both working for travel companies and Dean running around Europe having an awesome time, that doesn’t really sound like work does it?! After five months together 24/7 it will certainly not be easy and getting back into a structured routine will take some time.

With us back in Europe The Smart Way Round is also going to change a little. We will be dropping back to one blog a week now, we still have some great stories to share about the London to Melbourne adventure, and Natalie will be posting a summary of all the statistics relating to our journey, but work kind of gets in the way right? We will also be sharing stories from Europe and introducing a new category of our blog called ‘Hometown Tourist’ sniffing out all the cool, quirky and different things to do around London. So really this is not the end of The Smart Way Round but only the beginning!

Exploring new places in London

Exploring new places in London

Thanks again for everyone’s support, comments and love over the last five months, because of you The Smart Way Round has grown bigger than we could have possibly imagined.

– Dean

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Taking sightseeing to new heights: Visiting the London Shard

Ever since construction was announced, the London Shard has polarised opinions of Londoners and the public alike. There was rumour that it would threaten the UNESCO heritage listing of surrounding London monuments, and its need and worth were questioned. However, rising up like a beam of light towards the sky, the Shard seized the mantle of the UK and the EU’s tallest building. Like it or loath it Londoners, a new icon of the city was born!

There are 11,000 glass panels covering the UK's tallest building!

There are 11,000 glass panels covering the UK’s tallest building!

We (well Natalie more than me) love going up things. TV towers, observation decks, roof top terraces, hills and mounds have all been conquered around the world in the search for the best view. Looking down over a city gives you a totally different perspective. Medieval street plans unravel, order arises from chaos and a better sense of the enormity, complexity and the city surrounds is unveiled from a great vantage point.

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Two photos looking down on a city. The top photo is overlooking the main market square in Marrakech. The bottom photo is a selfie overlooking Budapest

Two photos looking down on a city. The top photo is overlooking the main market square in Marrakech. The bottom photo is a selfie overlooking Budapest

The View‘ was opened in February 2013 and has been high on our ‘Hometown Tourist’ must do list since then.  However other travels and adventures have constantly got in our way, so when a friend gave us two tickets as a gift, it was as if our dreams had been answered. We charged our cameras, picked the day with the best weather and set off to experience London’s highest tourist attraction.

As you would expect, The View follows a similar set up and process as several other observation platforms around the world. Numerous staff are dotted along almost every step (well lift) of the way. As friendly smiles greet you and usher you towards the appropriate queue. Upon entering the ticket hall you a met with various photographs, slide show and time-lapse videos of London sights and sounds (many you cannot actually see from the top of the Shard!). After security there is the compulsory over priced photo, (at around £30 for a photo we are talking seriously overpriced), and before you know it you enter the first lift.

Due to the shape of the shard there are two lifts that you have to take to reach the top. Both have video screens on the roof showcasing scenes from London and the construction of the Shard. After what feels like seconds, the doors open and from the 68th Floor, London unravels before you!

How many iconic London structures can you count in this picture?

How many iconic London structures can you count in this picture?

With a 360º view, the huge glass panels make you feel like you are suspended above the city. London’s icons look like childrens toys that could easily be picked up and moved around. The famous ‘Gherkin’ building of London’s banking district looks small in comparison to the newer additions to London’s skyline. Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, the Eye, Westminster and even Buckingham Palace are all visible and you begin to realise just how close so many of these world-famous structures are to each other.

Looking down the Thames with the sun behind you

Looking down the Thames with the sun behind you

Natalie summed it up perfectly, when you think of London’s iconic buildings or places you tend to think of them singularly, but when you look down on the city you begin to appreciate them as a collective or as a whole.

Natalie explaining her theory to me

Natalie explaining her theory to me

The View offers you two levels, the enclosed 68th floor and the open 72nd floor. The open floor also gives you a great chance to marvel at the architecture and engineering of the Shard. However, don’t expect there to be a glut of facilities at the top. There is virtually no seating for those who get a little weary, and only a Champagne Bar to quench all but the most expensive thirsts (it is however Europe’s highest Champagne Bar we are told). While we are sure they have them we couldn’t even find public bathrooms up the top!  Natalie was denied the chance to use the loo at the top – something she does from every high building!!

Part of the open air viewing platform on the 72nd floor

Part of the open air viewing platform on the 72nd floor

Despite these minor issues, a visit is now a must and we would highly recommend it to any of our friends coming to London. The top tip we could give you is book a morning visit. The sun is in the best position for your photos of all the major attractions and it was slightly less crowded. We were also incredibly lucky, a clear crisp winter’s day with hardly a cloud in the sky made for incredible visibility but from some of the photos we saw, an evening visit would also be very cool.

While the Shard still drums up some opposing opinions, love it or loath it Londoners, The View at the Shard towers over all other attractions in the city.

– Dean

Hometown Tourist: You Know You are a Londoner when…

I love living in London and have been lucky enough to call the city home on and off for 11 years now. In fact I would proudly walk around the streets wearing a “I Heavy black heart LDN” t-shirt if they were not so commercially touristy! As with settling into any new city, you slowly adopt the mannerisms of the locals. So below are a list of some of the tell tale signs you are changing. Eventually you will know you are a Londoner when…1. You don’t stop at pedestrian crossings.

 Londoners are always in a rush and despite the international reputation that the British enjoy queuing /waiting  it certainly is not the case in London. As Natalie liked to remind me “we are Londoners, we just go!”. A red crossing man is purely a light hearted suggestion to a Londoner. Like a red rag to a bull it just incites us to cross the road a little faster. Buses, lorries (that’s a truck to the rest of the world) and emergency services vehicles will have no influence on our desire to get to the other side of the road as quickly as possible. In fact next time you are waiting for the lights to change watch the locals as they make the dash, many will be shaking their heads at everyone waiting.

2. You will start to complain about all the tourists.

As London streaks towards becoming the world’s most visited city in 2014 the huge increase in tourism means the streets of central London are bulging. Saturday shopping in Oxford or Regent streets can be more like a contact sport and a venture into Primark? Forget it! Despite the need for the influx of tourism dollars, Londoners all secretly wish for the streets to be ours again! Could we really be turning into our arch rivals the Parisians?

Blimey!
Prepare to fight with the masses if you want this shot

Prepare to fight with the masses if you want this shot

3. You know a better curry house than anything in Brick Lane.

While the beloved chicken korma is now considered to be one of the UK’s national dishes, most visitors intent on experiencing British Indian food head down to the famous Brick Lane in the East End. As a Londoner you will proudly state that nothing in Brick Lane comes close to the curry house on the high street around the corner from where you live. To be honest, you are probably right!

A London institution, but you know a better place to go!

A London institution, but you know a better place to go!

4. You hit the parks at the first sign of the sun!
There is no better city in the world when the sun comes out than London. Fact! The city comes alive, the convertible roofs on cars are lowered, everyone spills into the parks (of which London has World class options) or green spaces and the streets in front or behind the local pub become THE place to be. I still find it mildly amusing that people will be sunbathing in the park as the mercury hits a stifling 18 degrees Celsius, but we have to make the most of the sun when we see it! (Maybe I am not a fully fledged local just yet). Oh and often Tesco’s sell out of burgers – sun=BBQs!

5. You will walk 10 minutes past multiple coffee shops to visit your favourite coffee chain.Costa, Cafe Nero and Starbucks monopolise the coffee shop scene in London and most Londoners have their favourite. Sometimes you will drop your standards to the second choice but everyone of us has one of the big three we wouldn’t be caught dead in. Sometimes that 15 minute walk (it would have been 20 if we waited for the lights) was worth it.

Sometimes it is worth the walk to stay loyal

Sometimes it is worth the walk to stay loyal

6. You don’t talk to strangers on the Tube.
Seriously! During London 2012 the vibe in the tube was incredible but as soon as the Olympics finished that spirit disappeared faster than Usain Bolt in the 100 metres! Whether you are on your own, travelling with your friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife husband or even kid, most Londoners pile onto the tube in deathly silence. No eye contact is made, a look of disdain will be flashed at the overly noisy tourists and no word uttered until the cone of silence ceases when the tube doors open and you step onto the platform!
The smiles will stop and silence ensues as the train pulls up

The smiles will stop and silence ensues as the train pulls up

7. You don’t catch black cabs.
Sure they look cool and are one of the symbols of the city but do you know how much they cost?! Unless you are a high flying banker where (our) money is no object, most locals will walk, tube or if a taxi is a must, take a mini cab. There are always exceptions but if you do have to take a ride it is never a very long one.
The Black Cab, icon of London but too expensive for most locals

The Black Cab, icon of London but too expensive for most locals

Of course this is not a definitive list. There are numerous other tell tale signs you have evolved merely from living to in London to becoming a true Londoner. Do you have any more? If so, leave a comment below or share with us on Facebook.
– Dean

 

Hometown Tourist: The London Pass Review

 

“Nothing is certain in London but expense”

– William Shenstone

When it comes to sightseeing around London, William was right.  A quick search of “what to do in London” is invariably followed by the gasp of shock and horror at some of the entrance prices.  For visitors, a full day or two of sightseeing around the UK’s capital can easily set you back a pretty penny.

London is set to be the world’s most visited city in 2014.  So we decided to try a cost saving alternative and look for a way for the cash strapped tourist to cover the best London has to offer.

Introducing the London Pass.

The London Pass comes in various formats, from a one day pass (£49) to mammoth six day option (£166) or for an extra cost, a pass that includes a daily travel card on London public transportation. There is a “cap” on how much you can see depending upon the length of your pass and everything is explained in a very thorough and well put together little handbook. For those of you who are a little more tech savvy there is also a great App for your smartphone which we used as we traversed London.  Here you can check out opening times and even favourite certain landmarks as you plan your day.

Skip the lines and save money with the London Pass

Skip the lines and save money with the London Pass

The London Pass gives you access to over 60 different London attractions.  They include everything from the big-ticket sights such as Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London and Kensington Palace to further flung, but equally as impressive, sights such as Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle. For sporting enthusiasts the pass also grants you access to Wimbledon, Stamford Bridge (the home of Chelsea football club) and the Emirates (home of Arsenal). Most of the attractions are free with the pass and others offer a discount rate for pass holders.

So armed with our handbook and our App we decided to see just how much we could see of London in a day and the London Pass certainly proved to be excellent value for money. We researched some of the things that should be on every visitors must see list and a couple of off the beaten path sites that appealed to us as Londoners. First on the list, Westminster Abbey.

It is embarrassing to say it, but in 12 years of using London as a base and now calling it home I had never been to Westminster Abbey. We arrived early, or so we thought and joined the queue to enter. One of the bonuses of the London Pass is not having to line up to buy tickets, only for the necessary security check. After having my bag less than thoroughly searched we just handed over our Pass and in seconds it was scanned and we were in!

Lined up at Westminster ready to start exploring.

Lined up at Westminster ready to start exploring.

To say Westminster Abbey was amazing is an understatement. The audio guide poured over the history and after leaving the church we wandered through the cloisters including seeing Britain’s oldest door! After just over an hour we had exhausted the audio guide, wandered the cloisters and it was time to move on. (Attraction value so far for N&D £18, London Pass £49).

Just around the corner from Westminster we decided to visit another attraction that was free on the London Pass and was more up my alley than Natalie’s. The Churchill or Cabinet War Rooms (£17.50) were the underground headquarters of the UK Government during WWII. Left in their original condition the museum shows the former living quarters, conference rooms and map rooms where the D-Day landings were planned and where the British planned the downfall of Nazi Germany. To be totally honest we probably could have spent a little longer there but we had a plan for the day and had to keep moving. This was just a bonus visit – something that you can easily do when you have a ‘pass’ to get you into places!  (Attraction value so far for N&D £35.50, London Pass £49).

Time to go underground

Time to go underground

Now from the Westminster area we had two options, we could have taken a Thames River Cruise, free with the London Pass (normally £18) or Tube down to our third destination, the Tower of London. For the sake of speed and a few other things we wanted to see we chose the Tube. According to tourism statistics, 2 million people visit the Tower every year, or approximately 6,000 a day! No lining up for tickets for us it was straight to security and in we went.

The Tower was packed, school groups galore and every nationality you could imagine (and lots of Australians!). Despite the crowds, there is plenty of space to explore and the only thing we had to line up for was the Crown Jewels. With plenty to see the Tower easily ate up the majority of our time, but luckily enough our next site was only a stone’s throw away. (Attraction value so far for N&D £55.50, London Pass £49).

Selfie with one of the Beefeaters at the Tower of London

Selfie with one of the Beefeaters at the Tower of London

Natalie has always raved about the Tower Bridge Experience, so we thought why not take this opportunity to visit the top of one of the most iconic bridges in the World. Sadly only part of the bridge is open to the public until the end of the month as the other half (with the best views of London’s skyline) undergoes a facelift and new glass-bottomed floor (you heard it here first). That being said it was a great little visit and certainly complements the Tower.  Best of all even when the second walkway is reopened it does not take a long time to visit, so a great inclusion on your pass. (Attraction value so far for N&D £62.50, London Pass £49).

Time to conquer the Tower Bridge

So from the banks of the Thames we decided to finish our day up at the Olympic Park, bur first we made a brief stop at the Monument to the Great Fire of London. After a lung busting 311 steps to the top we were greeted with an amazing vista of…. Cranes! Nestled in the heart of the City of London the view from the Monument dating back to 1677 showed us just how much construction was taking place across the capital. (Attraction value so far for N&D £66.50, London Pass £49).  A short walk to Bank and it was a chance to get off our feet as we Tubed away from the city centre.

The Monument and a crane, something you will see a lot of from the top.

The Monument and a crane, something you will see a lot of from the top.

The Orbit is the UK’s largest sculpture and during the 2012 Olympics it was virtually impossible to get tickets to the top. Natalie had said during the Games, we would have to come back and do it one day. Today was the day. The park was like a ghost town, bereft of the pulsating energy that London 2012 was so famous for. However a few locals strolled amoung the now well established trees and gardens.  We made our way to the entrance and The Orbit itself.  When we reached the top we looked down upon the skeletal remains of the Olympic stadium as it is transformed into a future football stadium. The scene is like something from the run-up to the games, and it seemed hard to believe we sat in the stadium and cheered on our athletes.  Further round we were treated to views across London and inactive displays to help point out what your are seeing.  The experience was great fun, and would be amazing to visit when the stadium was in full swing. (Attraction value so far for N&D £81.50, London Pass £49).

Reliving the good times at  the London 2012 Olympic Park

Reliving the good times at the London 2012 Olympic Park

As we strolled down the circular ramp of the Orbit our day exploring London was drawing to an end. Without a doubt the London Pass worked out to be great value for money. In fact our day full of sightseeing ensured we saved £33.50! Now in all fairness we did have to push a little and your average tourist would have taken a lot more photos in between destinations, but still if you had a plan the one day pass was certainly a great option.

If we were asked by friends visiting the capital, we would recommend perhaps the two or three day pass. You could easily see everything we saw and with the extra time you could add a Hampton Court Palace tour, a Thames Cruise and throw in a Kensington Palace tour as well. For those of you short on time, budget conscious and desperate to see as much as possible then the London Pass is for you. Most importantly, if you are organised, have a plan of what you want to see then, like us, you can prove poor old William Shenstone wrong!

-Dean

The London Pass can be bought online or at the museums/attractions as well as numerous souvenir stands throughout London.  Just look out for the ‘buy the London Pass here’ flag!

Keep  look our for these signs to buy your London Pass

Keep a look our for these signs to buy your London Pass

 

To spend or to avoid… Airport shopping!

Airport duty free shopping. It divides opinion. For some travellers it is a ticket to spend. For others it’s a painful gauntlet that’s full of dilly dalliering travellers rushing to catch flights.

I have some friends who look forward to the experience. They stock up on cheaper priced face creams, cosmetics and perfume.

I have others who avoid the shops like the plague and instead find a seat in the corner to ‘man the bags’ whilst their partner goes off shopping. I would suggest that this also works well!

Whether you are rushing for a flight or have time to kill, the Duty Free section is sure to get in your way or give you an escape!

Whether you are rushing for a flight or have time to kill, the Duty Free section is sure to get in your way or give you an escape!

As smelly, not washed often enough backpackers I’m sure we have all at one point or another felt that we could do with smelling a little sweeter. Bingo. Walking through the perfume section sorts this little problem perfectly. Like many others I always take the opportunity to try out a new scent and see what I think. I certainly don’t buy every time however I do from time to time make a purchase. Choosing the scent to try can depend on several factors. How long you want it to last, whether you go for something totally new or one you know. Perhaps above all it depends on where the shop assistants are located as to which one is easier to get the biggest ‘squirt’ of! The tricks of the trade….

Some Duty Free favourites...

Some Duty Free favourites…

It’s fair to say whilst we assume prices are cheaper, this is not always the case. I recently looked at a Ted Baker set in Boots at a London airport. Eager not to carry it round I searched to see if I could buy it online. To my surprise it was being sold on the Boots website quite a bit cheaper. However most things are ‘duty free’ and indeed less expensive at the airport. This in itself encourages travellers to part with their heard earned cash.  My tip – if you still have lots of time to kill and have your smartphone handy, then double check prices to make sure you really are getting a bargain!

Duty Free champers - these  appeal to The Smart Way Round!

Duty Free champers – these appeal to The Smart Way Round!

For me, the biggest thing airport shopping provides is that feeling of being on holiday. It’s a signal of the beginning, of the excitement that lies ahead. You might not want to buy anything, but with time to kill at an airport it provides a space to wander and stretch the legs. And hey, if yet another MAC eye shadow should fall into my shopping basket then who am I to complain….

– Natalie

Flashbacks to the inspiration of the London 2012 Paralympics – joining in the celebrations for National Paralympic day 2014

A week ago I was waiting for my tube train to arrive and I spotted a poster – National Paralympic Day 2014. I went home and googled it and that’s it, I was sold!

After a few text message conversations, a friend and I made a (slightly too) early start and headed down to where it was all happening. When we got there a festival awaited.

I had managed to secure some tickets to go into the Aquatics Centre. This was the first time some of a paralympians were in action since 2012 and the atmosphere inside was electric. One of the big things that stand out for me about the Paralympics was watching and cheering on some of our athletes who clearly had hurdles to face on a daily basis. Their courage and determination is incredible, and on Saturday this spirit was on display again. We cheered on our girls and boys and watched some great victories.

Swimming at its best - go Team GB!

Swimming at its best – go Team GB!

After a pit stop for lunch I said goodbye to my friend and continued wandering. The Liberty Festival (as part of the day) was by this point in full swing. I initially went into the Copper Box (dubbed during the Paralympics as “The Box that Rocked”) and saw Team GB beat Belgium in a closely fought GoalBall match. Goalball was new to me, but the level of skill in playing a ball game without sight / blindfolded is so admirable. I was on the edge of my seat!

We won!

We won – taking a bow!

Outside “The Box That Rocked” there was so much going on. Artists were painting with their mouths and feet (better than I could ever dream of!) Boccia England were giving everyone the chance to learn about the intricacies of the sport and wheelchair ballroom dancing was taking place – awesome! I joined in from afar, as did the majority of the audience.

The sense of inclusion for everyone was very special. There was such an amazing vibe during the day. This is the second year the day has been celebrated at the park, and I for one intend going every year from now on. There were visitors there with all sorts of abilities, and all with something special to give. Paralympians wandered the park in their Team GB kit, and whilst they weren’t wearing their gold London 2012 medals it wouldn’t have been out of place if they had have been. With so much going on at times it was hard to know where to look.

GoalBall lessons, Boccia and my favourite, Ballroom Dancing!

GoalBall lessons, Boccia and my favourite, Ballroom Dancing!

As an aside, for me it was the first time I had visited the Olympic Park, now known as the ‘Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park’ since the Paralympic games back in 2012. The changes to (and demolition of) some of the venues plus what was happening to the grounds had been much debated on the London news networks. I hoped I would be as impressed with the legacy of the park as I was with its original form. The park has been open for several months, but it was the first opportunity I’d had to visit, and I can honestly say I was not disappointed. The landscaped gardens and trees are now well established, and large areas of the concourse have been opened up to reveal the waterways below.  It is clear that the stadium is still undergoing its transformation, but the Aquatics Centre is fanatastic and the velodrome the beautiful building I remembered.

So much going on and such a great vibe

So much going on and such a great vibe

Now my closing confession is I do love going round old Olympic stadia. Dean has been marched round the Olympic villages of Seoul and more recently Beijing with me. Whilst both have been amazing, they have lacked a little of the ‘va va voom’ that they once had. I suspect it was way more than the sense of occasion on Saturday that meant that the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park still has that something special. Something that you can’t put your finger on but my goodness, London you still have it! As for the athletes – your courage is amazing and your skill just incredible. Keep up the good work and see you next year for National Paralympic Day 2015!

– Natalie

Hometown Tourist: Travel Inspiration in the Heart of London

The best thing about living in London is there is always something going on regardless of what you are into. So with a day off work together and a quick Google search we discovered that the Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition was on at the Royal Geographic Society, how could we not go?!

The best thing about this exhibition is it is free!

The best thing about this exhibition is it is free!

The exhibition showcases the best photos and some honourable mentions of the 1000’s of photos that are sent to the Royal Geographic Society every year. From stunning landscapes, incredible wildlife shots and intimate local interactions, the winning photos come from all around the world.

Every year there are different briefs and categories and you can even win an award taking photos with your mobile phone. If ever you where in need of some travel inspiration, this exhibition is for you!

Set in the courtyard of the Society’s London headquarters, there are about 50 photos on display. Combine that with books on show of previous years’ award winners the exhibition makes for a great escape for an hour or two. There are umbrellas on hand should you need to borrow one (we did!) to continue browsing the pictures in the outside courtyard. Wandering around an outside gallery was a novelty in itself!

The Society's courtyard

The Society’s courtyard

Sadly the Exhibition finishes this Sunday (August 17th) before it begins to tour the UK and then the world. However it is a great prelude to our favourite photo exhibit every year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the Natural History Museum which starts every October. If you have a spare hour at lunchtime, then its well worth a wander!