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Entries about luxury travel

You have Breakfast at Tiffany's, I'll do lunch at Harrods

The Oyster Bar at Harrods' Fish Hall

sunny 15 °C

Last Christmas, I was given a very generous gift of a gift card to Harrods. Harrods is a high end department store in West London. The store has one million square feet of retail space, making it the largest retail space in Europe. The size of the store and scope of products on offer brings thousands of tourists through the door each day. Harrods has a Latin motto - Omnia Omnibus Ubique, meaning "All Things for All People, Everywhere." Many products are priced well above the price brand for "all people," but there is the food hall to find a decent priced item.


I spent the day walking the halls of the store trying to find items on which to spend my gift card. I must admit, mostly I just did double takes at the prices. £145 for a bottle opener? Luckily there were a few items I picked up - a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses and a calendar. Though I still do have lots on my gift card to go through.

I did find one way to burn through the card value, though. At the Caviar House Oyster Bar in the Fish Hall in the Food Halls.


I started out with a glass of Harrods Lager and a plate of Scottish smoked salmon. The lager is a German beer brewed by Hofmark Brauerei. The beer wasn't great, a bit thick and sweet, but actually worked out okay as an offset for the oil in the salmon and salty taste of the oysters.


Oysters were up next, a selection of rock oysters. Decent tasting, salty and sliding down easily. It made me recall my experience in the oyster bar in the basement of Grand Central Terminal in New York City.


I got the bill - £66 for 2 beers, a salmon appetiser and 12 oysters. Decent food, and while I probably wouldn't have paid the prices of my own accord, certainly a decent way to burn through some of the money on my gift card.


Posted by GregW 06:22 Archived in England Tagged food luxury_travel Comments (0)

How Real Explorers Kit Themselves Out

A shopping trip to Fortnum and Mason's

sunny 16 °C

In 1923, Archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter broke the seal on the tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter and his team boxed up the antiquities that he found in the tomb to ship back to London. Luckily, the expedition had drunk a lot of wine, so they had a lot of empty crates which to use. Those crates had come from the only department store in the world that had an Expeditions department.


Fortnum and Mason's on Piccadilly since 1707.

In the early 1700s, Hugh Mason let a room in his house to William Fortnum. Together the opened a store on Piccadilly that has come to be an icon of Britain. The store has held a number of Royal Warrants, issued by the Royal Family to there preferred suppliers.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Britain set its sights abroad, and soon expeditions were spreading out around the world. In addition to Carter's Egypt adventures, Fortnum and Mason's outfitted The 1922 Everest expedition, which didn't make the summit but did set a world record height record and included Sherpa Tensing Norgay. Norgay was one of two men who first reached the summit in 1953. The 1922 Everest expedition included "60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of champagne."


I don't know if the expedition department still exists. My guess is not, as not many people go on expeditions that include the need for "essentials as butter knives and sauce boats." Too bad though. Nothing quite as glamorous as eating caviar off bone china and white linens while boating in the Belgian Congo or looking for lost Mayan lost cities in British Honduras.


Posted by GregW 05:16 Archived in England Tagged luxury_travel Comments (2)

Glamour and Gasoline part IV: The Wrong Train

Heading home it all heads south.

sunny 24 °C
View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I had gone to bed early on Sunday after the grand prix to make sure I wasn’t going to miss my early morning train. Unfortunately, it seems that Trenitalia and the SNCF (France’s train system) don’t do much to co-ordinate their schedules. I had a ticket on a TGV train from Nice to Paris at 10:41. To get to Nice, I would have to travel from San Remo to Ventimille, then to Nice from there.

I worked backwards to figure out the schedule. There was a train arriving in Nice from Ventimille at 10:42, a minute after my TGV train was scheduled to leave. The train before that arrived at 9:42, leaving Ventimille at 8:55. I’d have to wait 59 minutes in Nice to catch my train.

To get to Ventimille, there was a train arriving at 9:00, 5 minutes after the train to Nice had left. The next earliest train, according to the schedule in the San Remo train station was an 8:07, arriving in Ventimille at 8:23, giving me a wait of 32 minutes in Ventimille.


I arrived at the San Remo train station just before eight with more than 10 minutes to spare. I looked up at the train schedule, and noticed that there was no 8:07. The next train was the 8:43. The knock on effects were that I would miss my train to Nice, and then my train to Paris.

I don’t know why, but the 8:07 train ONLY runs on Sundays and holidays. On weekdays, there is no train at that time. On weekdays, they have LESS train service than on Sundays. I have never heard of such a thing. I was flabbergasted.

I caught the 8:43, and by the time I got to Ventimille the 8:55 had already left. My only hope was that the 9:55 to Nice would show up a few minutes early, or perhaps the TGV would be a few minutes late.


It was not to be, though. The 9:55 to Nice got delayed, and arrived a full 10 minutes after the TGV to Paris had already headed out.

At first I tried to rebook using one of the automated machines. Working the machine was amazingly easy, unfortunately the options it gave me weren’t great. The earliest departure was at 16:30 getting to Paris close to 10 at night! That would be well past the time when the last Eurostar would have run to London. If I got that train, I would have to spent the night in Paris.

Worst, there was a plan for a National Strike in France the next day, which means if I got stuck in Paris for the night, I might not be able to get out the next day if the metro or Eurostar weren’t running because of the strike.

I thought about ditching the trains and heading to the airport, but instead decided to give a human a try and see if I could get an earlier train. I pressed the CANCEL button, and the machine tells me to retrieve my ticket. The ticket, however, doesn’t come out of the machine.

I bend down and look into the ticket slot. I can see my ticket jammed and crinkled, stuck in the machine. I try and pry it out with the tip of my driver’s license, but it won’t come out.

After a minute, the machine’s screen goes bright blue and declares itself out of order. I spits out a little slip of paper and tells me to go and see a human. “Great, that was what I was planning to do anyway,” I think.

Luckily, the agent who served me was very nice and friendly, and was able to get me a much better train. She got me on a train from Nice to Marseille, and then from Marseille to Paris, arriving into 19:31, 50 minutes after my Eurostar train to London was scheduled to leave.

I went down to the internet cafe and rebooked my Eurostar for 20:41, one hour and ten minutes after arriving. All I would have to do is get from Gare de Lyon to Gare Du Nord in that time, a trip that shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

The train to Marseille was interesting. It was the first train I’d ever been on that had a children’s play area.




Once in Marseille, though, things go wrong. The train to Paris leaves 40 minutes late, and I arrive in Paris with only 30 minutes to get to Gare du Nord. Eurostar tells you to show up 30 minutes early to check in and clear customs, so already I am late.



I jump on the RER train, but it chooses to sit in the tunnel rather than transiting across Paris, so I wind up missing my second scheduled Eurostar departure of the day. Once I arrive at Gare du Nord, I get rescheduled and finally get home at 10:30 PM, 3 hours late and more than fourteen hours after first leaving San Remo.

So, should I have flown? It would have been quicker, for sure. But despite all the problems, I only wound up getting back 3 hours later than scheduled. I am not sure I could have said the same had I flown. The train, even though the overnighter was a bit like a dorm room, still had a certain touch of glamour that planes don’t have.

And because most of the trains in France run on nuclear power, I did end up saving a few gallons of fuel that didn’t have to be used on flying me around. As we all know, oil is a limited resource and is running out. By not using that fuel for the plane, perhaps they’ll be able to run a few more race cars around the track at Monaco, and keep alive the glamour.

The glamour and the gasoline.

Posted by GregW 13:29 Archived in France Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasoline part III: Fast Cars in Rich Places

The Monaco Grand Prix

sunny 24 °C
View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I made it an early night on Saturday so I could be up early to head to Monaco. I had checked the schedules of the trains from both San Remo and Ventimilla so I knew exactly what trains to catch, and scheduled the alarm to wake me up 1 hour before my San Remo train so I could get ready and go to the train station. The alarm ended up not being necessary, as the traffic at night and the birds at daybreak made sure I was awake with plenty of time to spare.

The train gained more and more passengers at each station towards Monaco, until it was as jammed as the Northern Line tube on a weekday afternoon. At Monaco, we all spilled out into the underground station before working our way out of the depths and into the light of what is arguably the most glamourous country in the entire world.

Finally, all the excitement that had been missing from the period before my trip came flooding to me, and I started to feel the anticipation. I was in Monaco for the Grand Prix.


I have had an on and off relationship with car racing for many years, starting as a child. I would go through periods where I would watch for a few years, and then tune out before picking it up again later. Through all of that, though, the thought of going to the Monaco Grand Prix has always remained constant. For the Grand Prix of Monaco is about more than the car race. It is a celebration of outrageous levels of glamour, glitz and wealth.

Monaco itself is enough of a draw. This city state of a country is known for being a place where millionaires come to live, mostly because it has a very low personal tax rate. That does mean, though, that as you wander around you are likely to see tons of rich people and nice cars and beautiful women.






The Grand Prix captures all that in one perfect day. If you’ve never seen the race on TV, it is visible stunning, with the cars racing past million dollar yachts moored in the harbour and along streets lined with luxury apartments. Prince Albert always attends and presents the trophy, adding a luxurious royal air to the proceedings. There are always shots of millionaires and beautiful women.

The stands I were in overlooked both the Marina, a corner and one half of the pits.




On the TV they showed commercials when the racing action wasn't on. One was for the Monaco Yacht show, which ironically is carbon neutral. I doubt that includes the post-yacht show use of the yachts, though.

Walking through the pits were lots of beautiful women, and there were a bunch in the stands with me as well.










The male fans were also out in full force. Not as pretty, but some were pretty fanatical.



The race started, and I got a good look at the action, both on the track...




...and in the pits.





Heikki Kovalainen hit the wall just in front of us. Don't worry, he was okay. I was impressed with the guys who ran out and started picking up the pieces of the car while the cars were still cruising by at high speeds.





It was very sunny and warm, so lots of folks were looking for ways to beat the heat.


This lady made a hat of newspaper. Her boyfriend decided to embrace the heat, take off his shirt and get a tan.



The race ended and Jensen Button won, the fifth win of the season out of six for him.


Honda used to sponsor this team, but dropped out at the end of last year. I bet they are kicking themselves.


Afterwards, I went out and checked out the booth. I bought myself and my father a hat emblazoned with Monaco Grand Prix on it. Then I headed to a pub called La Jazz, which turned out to be a British pub.



I headed back to San Remo. Due to the sun, the lack of sleep over the past few nights and the few pints I had at La Jazz, I fell asleep on the train. I woke up in some place called Taggio-Alma, and panicked, I jumped off the train. Unfortunately, I left my hats on the train, so I lost my souvenir of the race!

Luckily, Taggio-Alma is only one stop past San Remo, and I was back to San Remo in decent time.


I made it an early night, setting my alarm for 7:00 AM. I had to catch an 8:07 AM train to head back to London, and I didn't want to miss it.

Continued in Glamour and Gasoline part IV: The Wrong Train

Posted by GregW 11:46 Archived in Monaco Tagged sports events formula_one luxury_travel Comments (0)

Glamour and Gasoline part II: Living in a Dan Brown Novel

San Remo, Italy offers up the medieval warrens of Pigna hill.

sunny 24 °C
View Monaco Grand Prix 2009 on GregW's travel map.

I caught a train in Nice to Menton, where I planned to transfer to my eventual destination, San Remo.

Here is the first point in the trip where not researching a trip more bites me on the behind. I had read on the internet that you could travel between Nice or Monaco and San Remo by changing trains in Menton. I read this on a unofficial Formula One message board in a message that was 3 years old. So I bought a ticket to Menton, and got off the train.

I don’t know if the message was wrong, or in the 3 years since it was posted trains between France and Italy changed their terminus and transfer point, but to get from Nice to San Remo, the place to change trains is in Ventimille. I learned this quickly upon departing at Menton, though not quickly enough to jump back on the train I had just departed that was bound for Ventimille. Instead, I had to wait 20 minutes to catch the next train another 2 stations down the line. While waiting, I took a photo of the pretty station.


After a seamless transfer in Ventimille, I arrived in San Remo. San Remo train station is buried inside a mountain. To get from the tracks to the main station, you have to walk through a long tunnel for what feels like a dog’s age. Both being buried so deep underground and with its modern architecture, it feels more like a fall-out shelter or the lair of some master-mind criminal in a James Bond film than a train station.



One bit of research I had done before departing for Italy was to use Google Maps to get directions from the San Remo Train Station, even using the “walking” feature to map out the route for me. It was only 2 kilometres, not far to walk. What Google Maps doesn’t do, though, is figure out if the route they are giving you involves going up and down and up and down numerous hills.

Sweating profusely from the exertion of work out, I arrived at my hotel. Villa Maria, Mary’s Place. My room had a picture of the Virgin Mary above the bed, and there was a small chapel out near the road at the entrance to the hotel. Welcome to Roman Catholic Italy. The room was quaint and had a nice rustic feel with its period piece furniture and wooden shutters keeping out the afternoon sun.




I took a quick tour around the town, and treated myself to two dinners that evening. The first, let’s call it the piccolo, consisted of a panini that I grabbed at a small cafe on the Rondo Volta. Its amazing that tomato, mozzarella, mint and oil olive on toast can taste so good, and it made an amazing pick me up for a hot afternoon, refreshing and energizing and not too heavy. The later meal, let’s call that one of the grande, was consumed 4 hours later at 9 PM, a time I consider obscenely late for dinner but which most of Europe seems to consider reasonable. It was a carpocio starter and a perfectly cooked tuna steak on the main drag of town.

I retired to bed tired from the night before and a full day walking, expecting to get a decent night sleep. The bed was comfortable and the room the perfect temperature with the cool night breeze coming in through the shutters. It was not to be a peaceful nights sleep, though. My room faced out onto a road. I’ve lived in cities for the past 12 years and had always consider myself to be able to sleep through the noise of traffic. I discovered something that first night in San Remo, though. Apparently I can sleep through traffic noise as long as it is consistent in its volume. The road my room looked out on had a car drive up it every half hour or so, but otherwise was silent as a church. The noise of the car would wake me up because it was such a sudden switch from the previous silence. I would lay awake for a bit before finally drifting off to sleep again 20 minutes later, giving me 10 minutes before the next car came tearing up the road and waking me up again.

Once light started to break, then the birds joined in the noise-making. There were screeches, caws, whistles, hoots and something that sounded suspiciously like an elephant trumpeting. The birds kept they calling infrequent and variable enough to keep me awake, and made me long for the constant noise of car traffic outside my London flat. With my previous restless night on the train and 3 nights of disruptive traffic noise to deal with, it appeared that this mini-holiday would not feature much in the way of deep sleep.

Saturday morning was beautiful and sunny, and after splashing some water on my face went out for a walking tour of San Remo. Given I hadn’t planned anything, though, it was to mostly be a wander without direction, following whatever happened to catch my fancy next.

The oldest part of town is Pigna hill, with parts of it dating back to the Medieval times, including the San Siro church. The streets are still narrow and twisting, and there are points when you are walking through them that you actually pass through the medieval walls of the city. Walking through the twisting and hilly old town, I often felt like this what it must be like being in a Dan Brown novel, where around every corner there is some ancient, 800 year old building holding lord knows what secrets. The only thing missing was some crazed, albino monk chasing me.






Like Nice, everyone is on scooters. I thought for a moment this was a scooter farm, but it actually is just a parking lot.


The central of San Remo is a little more modern, but still pretty twisty and older.




Like most places in the Riviera, they have a fancy Marina full of fancy boats.






All that walking worked up quite a healthy sweat, and the Mediterranean Sea was calling to me with her cool blue waters. There are a few sand beaches in San Remo, probably man made I would guess. Most of them require some fee to get in. The one beach I found that had free admission was jammed packed, so I decided to splash out in true Monaco-glamour style, and pay to use one of the other beaches. €4 later I had admission to a beach and a blue beach chair in which to sit. On setting up the chair, the beach boy (for you know us big spenders don’t set up our own beach hairs) noticed a moth on the chair. “It’s good luck, to have a moth,” he said. I just figured it would eat the fabric of the chair, and shooed it away.

The water of the Mediterranean was more than cool, it was COLD. I shivered as I waded into the water, deeper and deeper until the water started to lap at my upper thighs. Male readers will know this moment, when you know the next step will take the water up between your legs and immerse your groin in the cold water. It is truly a breath taking moment when that happens, and I think most men pause momentarily before taking that next step. But we all must wade onwards. I took that step, and felt the air get sucked out of my lungs. I stood motionless and took three quick breaths in, refilling my lungs after the sucker punch of the cold water. Rebalanced and starting to adjust, I continue to wade into the water, sucker punched again as my chest goes under, and finally one last time when I dive forward and my head feels the cold water’s blast.

After adjusting to the cold water, though, it felt nice. The Mediterranean there in San Remo certainly isn’t like the warm water of the Caribbean, where you can soak for hours in a relaxing bath, but after a day of sweaty site-seeing, it was nice to have a quick, cooling dip in the water, and made the sun feel even nicer upon climbing back out and taking my place on my beach chair.


As I sat warming myself, the moth returned, landing first on my knee, and then flying up and landing on my right arm. This time, I didn’t shoo him away, instead I let him sat for as long as he wanted, which wasn’t long at all, just a few seconds.

“Hopefully enough to pass some luck on to me,” I thought.

If only.

Continued in Glamour and Gasoline part III: Fast Cars in Rich Places

Posted by GregW 11:24 Archived in Italy Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

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