Here's a 2-minute Johnny Jet Vide of my trip down to Auckland. With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
Here's a 2-minute Johnny Jet Vide of my trip down to Auckland. With high-speed the video takes about one minute to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.
Friday, April 28, 2006
AUCKLAND TO ROTORUA
Although Rotorua is one of the most touristy destinations on North Island, there's not a lot of air service. That's probably because it's only a 2 1/2- to 3-hour drive, and most travelers rent cars to explore the country. (It's a fantastic country to drive, but they do use the wrong side of the road.) When I learned Air New Zealand flies only a Beechcraft 1900 (a 19-passenger plane resembling a flying tube of tooth paste) to Rotorua, I wondered why we didn't drive. The plane was so small there was no flight attendant, and when the captain walked down the aisle before takeoff to check if seat belts were fastened, he asked a passenger sitting near me if he would mind moving to one of the empty seats in the front because the plane was "taily." I asked the woman next to me what that meant. She said, "The plane is too heavy in the back." Makes sense, I said. Then she made the sign of the cross. She saw me staring at her with frightful eyes (I hate small planes) and said, "It's always rough flying into Rotorua." I quickly made the sign of the cross too, but I really wanted to jump out and hire Darshan to drive me. It was too late, though. The pilot had shut the door, and within seconds we were taxiing down the runway. The 40-minute flight turned out be very smooth and scenic. When we landed I turned to my seatmate and said, "You scared the daylights out of me" She said, "I know. I figured if you thought it was going to be rough it would lower your expectations." She was right! For more click HERE.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
ABOUT NEW ZEALAND
New Zealand (see map) is 1,200 miles southeast of Australia. It is made up of two major islands: North Island (44,197 square miles) and South Island (58,170 square miles). They are separated by Cook Strait. New Zealand�s population is a mere 4 million. First to arrive were the Polynesians, from a nearby South Pacific island to the North, around the 10th century. Both the Polynesian language and the descendants are called Maori. New Zealand�s largest city, Auckland (population approximately 1.3 million), has the largest Polynesian population in the world. But don�t worry: Everyone in New Zealand speaks English. That�s because the vast majority are of European descent. They started arriving thanks to Abel Tasman, the Dutch navigator who in 1642 was the first European explorer to arrive. Another watershed date in this young country is 1769. That�s when Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy arrived, and the United Kingdom claimed the land for itself. Though New Zealand retains ties to the U.K., in 1907 it became a self-governing nation. The capital, Wellington, is located near the south end of North Island.
AIRPORT TO AUCKLAND
New Zealand landed some of the best press available five years ago when the first "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was released. The film showed the world how beautiful this country is, with its green mountain ranges, flowing rivers, deep alpine lakes and subtropical forests. The result was a 16% boost in tourism. Most overseas arrivals land in Auckland, on the North Island, where I began my trip. I was traveling with a group of writers, and we had a 5-hour layover before our domestic connection to Rotorua. Instead of hanging out in the airport lounge (which was really nice, and had some of the best lounge food I�ve ever encountered), we went outside and hired a driver. Plenty of taxis and shuttle buses waited patiently outside of Arrivals. At the front of the line a man named Darshan offered us a two-hour tour in his Super Shuttle Van (a different company than the one in the U.S. with the same name) for $120 NZ ($75). It was a bargain, especially compared with one-way prices into the city. Taxi NZ$45 ($28); shuttle bus NZ$24 ($15); Airbus NZ$15 ($9.50) per person one-way.
A QUICK TOUR OF THE CITY OF SAILS
Without traffic, it takes about 25 minutes to get into Auckland, a big, cosmopolitan city with a subtropical climate, three harbors, two mountain ranges and more than 50 islands. It reminded me of a mix between Sydney, San Francisco and Seattle. Auckland is called the City of Sails, and the reason was apparent when we drove over the Harbour Bridge. The harbor is filled with sailboats. A great place to view the city is atop Mount Eden -- a dormant volcano (Auckland has 48 of them). If Mount Eden is not high enough, take an elevator up the Sky Tower � at 1,076 feet, the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of the women in our group wanted to shop, so Darshan took us to Victoria Park Market. Don�t go there � unless you like tourist traps. After explaining we wanted to shop where the locals do, he took us to High Street. That was much more our style. Time passed quickly, but even in those short two hours we could see why Auckland is regularly voted one of the "best lifestyle" cities in the world. For more click HERE.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Kia Ora! From that Maori greeting you know I am in New Zealand. How exciting is that?! If you want to come for the ride grab your camera and sense of adventure, because we are about to travel to Middle-earth and visit one of the most special, beautiful and crazy countries in the world. And we're flying there in style!
NEW HOMEPAGE FOR JOHNNYJET.COM!
Before we get started I want to alert you that JohnnyJet.com just received a facelift! We still have all the same information, but now it's easier to navigate. This is still a work in project; we're redesigning other pages. Be sure to tell your family, friends and colleagues to sign up for our free Johnny Jet's Travel News, Tips and Stories newsletter -- and to use our links and search engines when booking travel.
AIR NEW ZEALAND
Air New Zealand has made a nearly complete transformation in the past year. It begins for me with their brand new airport lounge at LAX's Terminal 2. Passengers in business class (Air NZ calls it Business Premier) can relax, check email, take a hot shower or have a tasty pre-flight snack before boarding. On the plane, Air New Zealand's friendly flight attendants sport new duds that are both modern and stylish. The best part about Air New Zealand's makeover is the new seat configurations in all three classes of service: Business Premier, Pacific Premium Economy and Pacific Economy. Pacific Premium Economy is similar to United's Economy Plus seating. Both offer more leg room (39 to 40 inches), but Air NZ has wider seats (18.5 inches), a full leg rest and in-seat power ports. Pacific Economy is standard coach, but there's a 34-inch seat pitch. And all economy seats have 8.4-inch high-resolution monitors with in-flight entertainment systems of over 780 hours of video content: movies, TV shows, music and video games. All this makes the 12-hour, 45-minute flight seem too short.
Fortunately, I was chillin' in one of Air New Zealand's state-of-the-art Business Premier seats. I didn't know what to expect when I first saw the strange seating configuration. All the seats are set up like individual pods, and are on a slight angle instead of facing forward like traditional seating. These comfortable 22-inch-wide leather seats might not make it easy for couples or families traveling together, but they're sure great for travelers who want their own personal space, either for working or a good night's sleep. Each seat has a small ottoman that is used primarily as a footrest. It can also serve as a seat for another passenger to dine or work together, though without a back rest it's a little awkward.
Before takeoff flight attendants come around with pre-flight drinks and trays filled with individually wrapped eye masks, ear plugs, toothbrushes, tooth paste, lip balm and comfy socks. I grabbed one of each -- they increase your chances of having the best possible rest. After takeoff more drinks were served, including some of New Zealand's finest wines. A four-course dinner followed, with a menu full of New Zealand-inspired choices (designed by Govind Armstrong of Los Angeles' trendy Table 8 restaurant). Air NZ's food once had a poor reputation, but that's no longer the case. The starter was a cress and frisee salad with duck prosciutto. Then came a choice of NZ lamb, seared cod with a Dungeness crab soup, or wood-roasted chicken breast with olive oil whipped potatoes. I chose the latter. I passed on the cheese and fruit plate, but there was no way I'd turn down dessert: pineapple and strawberry ice cream! What a perfect way to get ready for bed.
TIME TO SLEEP
When it was time for some shut-eye, the flight crew attentively came by and turned the seats into beds. That's right: These seats transform into a 6-foot, 7.5-inch flat bed. As soon as the flight attendant lay down a padded sheet, soft blanket and pillow I was ready to dive in. In fact, I slept the longest ever on a flight: a good 7 hours. I didn't even bother using the in-seat power port to plug in my laptop, eat the light snack or break out one of the many travel magazines I brought. Instead, when I was awake I watched TV on the 10.4-inch screen that came with noise-cancellation headphones. I could have watched a number of movies, including recent blockbusters or even the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But I opted for travel shows and "Two and a Half Men." (Note to Air NZ: One more pillow would have been perfect. It's a little difficult to watch TV lying down). An hour before landing breakfast was served: a choice of creamy scrambled eggs with chives, or buttermilk pancakes. What an incredible way to travel! Air New Zealand definitely makes a long trip short. Good on ya! For reservations, click on www.AirNewZealand.com/usa or call 800-262-1234. For more click HERE.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
LAX TO PHOENIX
My cousin AJ, his friend Chris and Chris' wife Val invited me to Arizona for the night, so we could play golf the next morning. The LAX-to-Phoenix flight is only an hour. This might have been my last time flying on an America West plane, though. They recently merged with USAirways. The new company will do away with the America West name, and be called USAirways. Only a small tribute sticker by the plane door will remain.
PHOENIX TO SCOTTSDALE
The drive to Scottsdale from PHX Sky Harbor Airport takes 30 minutes without traffic. I won't name names, but as you can see someone brought way too many bags (7!). I hadn't checked in with them, so I almost fainted at baggage claim when one bag after another came out. Just getting out of the building necessitated a porter; reaching the hotel required a super-stretch limo -- and we still barely fit. Thankfully there won't be any more extra bag charges. I talked to the guilty party, who took my advice. That person went away the following week, and took only one bag!
We stayed at The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, a AAA 5-diamond hotel and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. It's in an ideal location, set against the backdrop of Arizona's McDowell Mountains, and has a Spanish Colonial feel. This place is pretty plush and really huge. The 651 guest rooms including 2 Presidential suites, 72 villas and 119 casitas. It is perfect for either large corporate conferences, or vacationers who want to stay in one place and not leave the premises. The Princess has it all: 3 restaurants, 2 championship golf courses, tennis courts, pools, and one of the best spas in North America (according to Cond� Nast Traveler). The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, 7575 East Princess Dr., Scottsdale, AZ; tel.: 480-585-4848 (toll free 866 540-4495).
The greater Scottsdale area is home to over 125 golf courses, many of them rated among the top 100 courses in the world. We were invited by a friend (and member) to play on one of the nicest golf courses in America: Whisper Rock Golf Club. This private 18-hole course, designed by PGA Tour player Phil Mickelson, opened in 2001. There are only 400 members, and they include some pretty well known people. Here's an idea: Dan Quayle was playing in front of us, and Fred Couples was in the clubhouse when we had breakfast. As you can see from these pictures, golf in the Arizona dessert is almost magical. I love staring out at the mountains and cactus, with the bright big blue sky as a backdrop. For more information on Whisper Rock visit their website.
Monday, April 24, 2006
TV LAND AWARDS
Back home, I attended the 6th annual TV Land Awards at Santa Monica Airport. TV Land is the cable channel that replays old television shows. This is a fun award show, because you get to see and meet many of the actors you grew up watching. Guests enter by walking down a red carpet. Then they take their assigned seats, at a 10-person dinner table. After the 2 �-hour show there's an open bar and really good buffet dinner. It's also the chance to meet the stars. (Many take off right after the show, so you have to be quick. This year I met Mary Tyler Moore, Sid Caesar, Larry Hagman, Adam West, Jimmie JJ Walker, Ralph Malph and Potsie Weber. How cool is that?! The highlight came in the buffet line when I got talking to a nice couple from New York. After I handed them my card the woman looked at the Johnny Jet logo, smiled and said, "You know what? I made your mom's Mississippi Mud Cake last Christmas." She found it on the webpage dedicated to my mom. I was shocked, but felt so honored that my mom had been remembered by a total stranger. For more click HERE.
Saturday, April 22, 2006
Greetings! This week we travel from Scotland to Scottsdale � beam me up, Scotty! We left off last week in Edinburgh after completing a Da Vinci Code movie tour (here's the link to our archives). Getting back home via Newark was an adventure, but I made it in time to attend a star-studded Hollywood party and take a quick golf outing to Arizona.
Of course, the one time Edinburgh has a blizzard is the day I'm flying out. Continental's flight to Newark was oversold, and because I was one of the first passengers to check in, they offered me a chance to volunteer my seat for compensation. Like a fool I didn't take the $500 Continental voucher, free night in a downtown hotel, round-trip taxi, meal voucher and a possible upgrade to first class the next day. One part of my brain said "do it!", but I had secured the best coach seat on the plane (an exit row aisle that reclines), and was already mentally home. But looking back after more than six hours of delays (including evacuating the terminal for 30 minutes into the freezing cold because some idiot was smoking in the bathroom), I realized I made a mistake. I should've taken the money. One of my friends did -- and she not only left the next morning on time, but in First Class. Ugh!
A LONG TRIP� LONGER
Actually my trip to Newark wasn't that bad, especially if you compare it to Continental's poor inbound Edinburgh passengers who were trapped on their plane for an additional five hours. (It was their plane I was waiting for, but I'd much rather be in an airport than on a plane.) Because snow closed the Edinburgh airport while they were en route, they circled for an hour, then had to divert to Belfast to refuel. After finally landing in Edinburgh they sat on the runway for 30 minutes, waiting for a gate to open. If that wasn't bad enough, when they arrived at the gate the jet way broke. They waited another 30 minutes before the door was opened. Talk about making a long trip longer!
NEWARK TO LAX
With the six-hour delay I missed my 1:30 p.m. connection to LAX (as well as the 3 and 5 p.m. flights that followed). There was only one flight left that day. After clearing customs in Newark, I ran to the Continental counter. The agent there said with a little bit of attitude that I didn't have a seat on that flight, and she thought it was sold out. When delays like this happen the airlines are supposed to automatically roll your name over and "protect" you. She checked and said, "Miraculously there are two seats left." Of course, both were in the middle. Like I really wanted to fly in a middle seat for 6 hours, after just getting off of a 7 1/2-hour flight! I hate middle seats so much I said, "I'd rather go out tomorrow to get a better seat." (I could have taken the train into the city to see friends). After that she stepped her attitude into high gear and said, "Then you'll just have to purchase a whole other ticket."
Why didn't I volunteer my seat?!
Instead of requesting a supervisor and making a big deal, I sucked it up and took the middle seat. It's almost criminal how little leg room Continental gives coach passengers. I'm not especially tall � 6 feet -- but my knees were jammed into my chest. About five minutes before the airplane door closed, a woman suddenly asked me if I would mind switching rows so she could sit next to her family. If she had the toilet as an assigned seat I would've taken it, but when I glanced at her seat number (23D) I felt like she was Bob Barker telling me I'd just won the Showcase showdown. Maybe my not being a jerk back to the agent caused karma to be on my side. On top of that, her seat ended up being next to the only empty one on the entire plane! How about them apples?
Friday, April 21, 2006
Now for what all Da Vinci Code fans have been waiting for: the big daddy, and the reason I was in Scotland. The Rosslyn Chapel was featured in both the book and movie (they spent four days filming 10 hours a day in late September); this is where Langdon and Neveu uncover the truth of the Holy Grail. Dan Brown writes in Chapter 104: "The chapel�s geographic coordinates fall precisely on the north-south meridian that runs through Glastonbury. This longitudinal Rose Line is the traditional marker of King Arthur�s Isle of Avalon and is considered the central pillar of Britain�s sacred geometry. It is from this hallowed Rose Line that Rosslyn � originally spelled Roslin�takes its name."
ABOUT ROSSLYN CHAPPEL
The Rosslyn Chapel was founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair, and is located seven miles outside of Edinburgh. The chapel -- also known as St. Matthew's Collegiate Church -- was originally a Catholic Church. Today it is a working Episcopalian Church, wrapped in scaffolding to protect the roof from the elements. This place has garnered so much attention because of its connections with Freemasonry. It is often called one of the most mysterious places in Scotland, because inside is a variety of stone carvings related to biblical, Masonic, pagan and Knights Templar themes.
THE HOLY GRAIL
Dan Brown wrote: "For centuries this stone chapel had echoed with whispers of the Holy Grail's presence. The whispers had turned to shouts in recent decades when ground-penetrating radar revealed the presence of an astonishing structure beneath the chapel -- a massive subterranean chamber. Not only did this deep vault dwarf the chapel atop it, but it appeared to have no entrance or exit. Archaeologists petitioned to begin blasting through the bedrock to reach the mysterious chamber, but the Rosslyn Trust expressly forbade any excavation of the sacred site." Our guide did admit there is a mysterious chamber directly below the main room. He said the trust might excavate it a few years from now. But he also said the Da Vinci Code book had "little truth to the chapel." I will let you figure out what those inaccuracies are for yourself, but I will say there is no Star of David. Note: St. Clair family descendants do not believe they are direct descendants of Christ.
GETTING TO ROSSLYN CHAPPEL
Although the chapel is only seven miles from Edinburgh, because of traffic it takes 30 minutes by car. If you drive, take the Edinburgh bypass: Straiton Junction A701 to Penicuik/Peebles. Follow A701 to the sign for Roslin (3 miles). Once in Roslin Village, follow signs to the chapel. Two bus services operate to Roslin: Lothian Buses service 15A (not 15), and First service 62. This place used to be lucky if five or six people visited each day. Now you can hardly move. And just wait until the movie opens -- Rosslyn will become a major tourist destination. Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, Scotland; tel.: 131-440-2159 (outside UK 44-131-440-2159). HERE.
Thursday, April 20, 2006
THE ROYAL MILE
Before going out and looking for the Holy Grail at the Rosslyn Chapel, you should relax and explore Edinburgh. The Royal Mile is located just beyond the hotel. It comprises five streets, and is called the Royal Mile because over the ages Scottish and English kings, queens and other royalty have used it to travel between the Palace of Holyrood House (the royals� official residence in Scotland) and Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Mile is actually just over a mile long, and is heavily commercialized today. It�s full of tourist shops selling tartan pattern clothes and shortbread. Like a fool I bought both.
I didn�t have time to see all of what Edinburgh has to offer (I had to hunt for the Grail), but I did see Edinburgh Castle. It�s the most popular tourist attraction, and is only a 15-minute walk from the hotel � down the Royal Mile, of course. It�s sat atop the famous Edinburgh rock for over 1,000 years; the oldest part (St. Margaret's Chapel) dates all the way back to the 12th century. After a stroll to the top I took in the killer views of Edinburgh (you can see the sea, two miles away). There were lots of buildings and exhibits to explore, but it was way too crowded. I did see the main attraction: the Crown Jewels of Scotland (also known as "The Honours of Scotland"). The jewels consist of a crown, sword and scepter used in 1603 when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne. It would have been much cooler without the painfully slow-moving line that began out the door, then weaved around the inside of the building and even up the stairs where the jewels are on display. Next time I�ll get there early, so I can go at my own pace. Admission: adults �9.80 ($17), children �3.50 ($6), seniors and students �7.50 ($13). For more click HERE.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
MY FEAR FACTOR
My two meals at the Balmoral could have been used on the TV show Fear Factor. The first test -- I mean, dish -- was at the hotel's fine dining restaurant, appropriately named Number One (it has won all kinds of awards). This was where I tried sweetbreads for the first time. Of course, I didn't know I was having sweetbreads because I was dining with a bunch of tourism people. When the fish appetizer came out I asked the waiter if I could have something besides seafood. He promptly brought out what looked like chicken ravioli. I didn't think anything of it until he came back around and asked, "How are the sweetbreads over the ox tail?" I had one more bite left, and my jaw (and stomach) dropped. My face turned white. I felt like standing up and start yelling, "You just served me cow balls?!" But before I did that I whispered to my seatmate, "Excuse me, what's in sweetbreads?" She assured me they weren't cow balls (phew!), and said I had just ate either the pancreas, neck or thymus gland. That didn't make me feel better, but the beef and pecan cheesecake did.
If that wasn't bad enough, when I sat down the next morning at the hotel's Hadrian's restaurant I ordered the "Full Scottish Breakfast" (�18.50 = $32 ouch!). It sounded good, and I figured what the heck, When in Rome, I mean Scotland� Anyway, when the waiter brought my plate I realized why Scottish men have one of the shortest life expectancies (69.1 years) in the world. These guys seriously need to change their diet. My plate was filled with eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding (fried pigs' blood) and haggis -- along with baked beans, cooked tomatoes and mushrooms. I knew haggis wasn't made of anything I wanted to eat, but what the heck -- it couldn't be as bad as what I ate the night before, right? Wrong! That's what I get for trying to be cool and fit in like a local. I was later told that nobody eats haggis anymore except tourists. To find out what Haggis really is I logged onto Wikipedia.com, and found: "Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish. Although there are many recipes, it is normally made with the following ingredients: sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver, windpipe and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour." Now if you'll excuse me a minute, I'll go get sick... For more click HERE.
Monday, April 17, 2006
The Balmoral hotel is conveniently located around the corner from the train station. If it had not been raining I would have walked the two blocks; instead I paid �3 ($5) for a taxi. The hotel is elegant and comfortable, with 168 rooms and 20 suites. My room, 628, was was both stylish and contemporary; it had a work desk with a high speed internet connection for �15 ($26) per day. Normal room rates begin at �270 ($470). However, the Balmoral has unveiled a special Da Vinci Code package that includes overnight accommodations, a welcome gift, full Scottish breakfast (yum!), private trip to Rosslyn Chapel with a champagne picnic, and complimentary use of the Balmoral Spa. The price for the DVC package during the high season (May to October) is �455 ($792). The Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-556-2414 (outside UK 44-131-556-2414); e-mail: email@example.com.
RADISSON SAS HOTEL
For something a bit cheaper, try the nearby Radisson SAS Hotel. It�s also centrally located, and prices begin at �91 ($158). However, they don�t have a DVC package deal. Radisson SAS Hotel, Edinburgh, 80 High St., The Royal Mile, Edinburgh; tel.: 131-557-9797 (outside UK 44-131-557-9797). For more click HERE.
Sunday, April 16, 2006
Cheers from Scotland! In case you missed the past few newsletters (here's the link to our archives), we're at the end of our three-country trek through Europe. We followed the path of Dan Brown's novel and upcoming motion picture The Da Vinci Code. This week we close out our amazing trip as we travel from Lincoln, England to Edinburgh, Scotland. If you're in a hurry or have ADD (like me), there's another 2-minute Johnny Jet video at the end of this week's story.
LINCOLN TO EDINBURGH
The best way to reach Edinburgh from Lincoln is by train. If you purchase a BritRail pass from RailEurope.com, you won't have to buy expensive point-to-point tickets. There are no direct trains from Lincoln, so you'll need to take a 30-minute commuter train to Retford, England, then transfer to a GNER (Great North Eastern Railway) train for Edinburgh. The Edinburgh leg takes just under 3 � hours. The ride goes by quickly, as the seats are comfortable (even in coach) and the scenery is amazing -- especially the last hour. You travel along the rocky seashore, and see sheep grazing in the lush green hills. Talk about picturesque!
This was my first time to Edinburgh, and the first thing I learned was how to pronounce it the correct way: "ED-in-burra." I also learned that although Scots speak English, I could hardly understand what they were saying. Boy, do they have a strong accent! I loved it, although it wasn't easy to find an actual Scot - especially in the city. The city is nearly as multiethnic as New York, particularly in the service industry. I met lots of Irish lads, Poles, Swedes, Canadians, even New Zealanders - along with many other nationalities. It kind of bums me out that the world is slowly turning into one big melting pot. As for money: Scotland is part of the UK, but it is a separate nation. So Scotland does issue its own bank notes, but English pounds are accepted everywhere. However, you might have a hard time using Scottish pounds outside the country, as some places in England won't accept them. (�1 = $1.74).
ARRIVING IN EDINBURGH
Arriving at the Waverley train station in the heart of downtown, I felt like I was trapped in a classic movie. I almost did a double take to make sure I hadn't gotten out of a time machine, rather than a train. Everything appeared almost black and white. It must have been the high white dome ceiling and legendary black Londonesque cabs all lined up just a few steps from the train. It was weird -- although the station was covered and appeared to be indoors, it obviously wasn't. Hundreds of taxis sped through the center, dropping off and picking up passengers.
I was fortunate to stay at one of Edinburgh's nicest hotels. The 5-star Balmoral has been a city landmark for over 100 years. This is where the Da Vinci Code cast and crew stayed while they filmed at nearby Rosslyn Chapel. No one can miss the hotel, as it sticks out proudly amid the amazing Edinburgh skyline, with its distinctive clock tower. The Skyline is so awesome because it's not filled with modern tall skyscrapers, but rather medium-sized historic buildings that resemble a fairy-tale picture book. I've never seen a skyline so charming in my life.
For more click HERE.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Less than an hour's drive on the other end of Lincolnshire (approximately 90 miles north of London) is Stamford's Burghley House. This is another jaw- dropping experience. It's one of the largest and grandest houses of the first Elizabethan Age. Built between 1555 and 1587, it has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. There are an additional 80 lesser rooms, as well as hallways, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. Talk about a pimp daddy house! The place may look familiar, because it was used in the recent remake of "Pride and Prejudice" (link to Pride And Prejudice Info). The interiors will also be featured in the Da Vinci Code movie as Castel Gandolfo (the Pope's summer residence). Filming here took two weeks, and it's worth a tour. In honor of the film the Burghley house has created its own "Burghley Code." Visitors can crack its code through clues in the 17th-century Italian paintings on display in the state rooms. Be sure to walk the grounds, and look for the 300-plus fallow deer that roam around. Open daily except Fridays from April 1 to October 29. Admission: adults �9 ($15.60), children (5 to15) �4 ($7), families �22 ($38). The Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire; tel.: 1780-752451 (outside UK 44-1780-752451).
TIME OUT FOR LUNCH
Eat lunch at the Orangery Restaurant, a caf� in the Burghley House that serves good, reasonably priced food. They even have venison. Hmmm�I wonder where they get it from?! Orangery Restaurant; tel.: 01780 752451 (outside UK 44-1780-752451). For more click HERE.
Friday, April 07, 2006
The highlight of Lincoln is the Cathedral. Regarded as one of Europe's finest Gothic cathedrals, its four massive transepts dominate the Lincoln skyline for miles around. The moment I stepped into the cathedral I had the same reaction as every first-time visitor: "Wow!" This 480-foot-long, brightly lit place is amazing. After Westminster Abbey (which is longer but narrower) shot down Ron Howard�s request to film there, the Lincoln Cathedral welcomed them with open arms. That caused a lot of controversy, but the Dean of Lincoln posted a brilliant statement on their website describing why they allowed filming. He said in part: "The Da Vinci Code stimulates debate and the search for truth and we are glad to be part of this process. The book claims that the church has suppressed important facts about Jesus. The way to counter this accusation is to be open about the facts as we understand them and welcome vigorous debate. This is part of the Cathedral's mission � to get people talking about the truths of the Gospel. Our Bishop has said �People have been coming to Lincoln Cathedral for centuries in search of the Lincoln Imp. Through the warmth and friendliness of their welcome and the challenge of the building, they have gone away having found God.� There can be no better place for the Da Vinci Code to be filmed." If you�re wondering, here�s an explanation of the Lincoln IMP.
DVC TOURS OF THE LINCOLN CATHEDRAL
The people in Lincoln are no dummies. Allowing filming was one of the best PR decisions they could have made (in addition to their �100,000 fee). Beginning in May, when the film is released, the cathedral will receive worldwide attention. On May 15 the cathedral will begin its own Da Vinci Code tours, Mondays through Saturdays at 11.30 a.m. and 2 p.m. One of the highlights will be a small exhibition of set photography and props, showing how the cathedral interior was transformed into Westminster Abbey. They had to remove the chandeliers (Westminster doesn�t have them), and to the delight of the church the DVC crew cleaned them -- no easy or inexpensive task -- before putting them back up. Admission into the Cathedral: adults �4 ($7); children 5-12 �1 ($1.73). There is no additional charge for tower tours. The Lincoln Cathedral, 4 Priorygate, Lincoln; tel.: 1522-544544 (outside UK 44-1522-544544), email: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more click HERE.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
THE OLD BAKERY
After the Ghost Walk I could honestly say I needed a good "pee and a sandwich" myself. A great place for dinner is The Old Bakery. This small, award-winning eatery just a few blocks from the hotel was a favorite of the film's stars (they all signed a copy of the Da Vinci Code book, which will be auctioned for charity at the time of the film's release). The chef/co-owner is Italian, but you won�t find a lot of pasta on the menu. Just good ol� Mediterranean and local dishes like roast "Lincoln Red" sirloin of beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy. They also have a variety of addictive homemade breads. The Old Bakery, 26/28 Burton Road, Lincoln; tel.: 1522-576057 (outside UK 44-1522-576057).
I was pleasantly surprised by how good the food was in Lincoln -- all of England, in fact. Everyone used to say that English food was bad, but that�s not the case anymore. A perfect example is Epernay. This seafood restaurant was so good that Ron Howard raved about it to Tom Hanks. The following night Tom and his family dined there. If you�re a landlubber like me, don�t worry; they serve more than seafood. And save room for dessert, because the sticky pudding is ridiculously delicious. Epernay, St Paul�s Street, Bailgate, Lincoln; tel.: 1522- 569284 (outside UK 44-1522-569284).
BROWNS PIE SHOP
Browns Pie Shop is a stone�s throw from the White Hart. Though called by many "the best restaurant in Lincoln," it is not overpriced. It�s small though, so make a reservation. Browns Restaurant & Pie Shop, 33 Steep Hill, Lincoln; tel.: 1522-527330 (outside UK 44-1522-527330). For more click HERE.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
WHERE TO STAY
The White Hart Hotel has 48 rooms. It's regarded as the best place to stay in Lincoln, and the location is probably why. It's right between Lincoln Cathedral and Lincoln Castle (the two main attractions, each only a block away). This 3- star hotel sits on historic ground. King Richard II stayed in an earlier building on this site in 1372. If King Richard is not good enough for you, how about this: The Da Vinci Code movie cast stayed here for five nights last August. Tom Hanks and his family stayed in room 371, Ron Howard was in room 400, Audrey Tautou that little French hottie was in Room 350, Jean Reno was in room 205, and Sir Ian McKellen had room 204. In case you're wondering: Johnny Jet slept in room 154 ;-). My large junior suite had spotless bathroom and twin beds. The White Hart should be regarded as an inn, not a hotel, because that's what it feels like. It was very cozy and old, and the creaky floorboards and musty smell reminded me of childhood vacations at the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Rates begin at �55 ($95) and include breakfast. TIP: Don't forget electric plug adaptors for your laptop (internet access costs $16 a day). White Hart Hotel, Bailgate, Lincoln, Lincolnshire; tel.: 1522-526-222 (outside UK 44-1522-526-222).
A town so full of history has to be haunted. What better way to hear ghost stories than going on Margaret Greene's Original Lincoln Ghost Walk? Tom Hanks and his family felt the same way, taking a 90-minute tour themselves. The tour was a great (and spooky) introduction to the city. We picked the perfect time: a cold, misty, foggy, mysterious night that had just as much personality as our guide. Margaret told all kinds of spooky stories. She saved the scariest ones for last -- and they happened to be about my hotel. GULP! The freakiest was that the White Hart has a room locals call "the sad room." On four different occasions, people died there from gunshot wounds to the head. Yikes! The Original Lincoln Ghost Walk costs �4 ($7). Tel.: 1522-874-056 (outside UK: 44-1522-874-056).
THE SAD ROOM
The first thing I did when the tour was over was run to the front desk. I showed my room key to the clerk and asked if room 154 was the "sad room." The clerk was stunned (probably wondering how I knew about the sad room). She paused and shook her worried head "no." I walked up the narrow, winding stair case to my room, not sure whether to believe her. Later that night I tried to sleep, but I kept hearing noises. It felt as if there was someone -- a ghost -- in my room. At one point my mind really played tricks on me. Just as I was about to fall into deep sleep I heard a noise. I opened my eyes and saw a flash above the door. I was afraid to get up and turn on the light, so I just lay on my back with the covers pulled up to my chin. My heart beating so rapidly that I could see the covers bob up and down. Two days later, when I checked out, I asked a different front desk clerk to give it to me straight: Which room is the "sad room"? He said, "room 154 --- your room." Before I fainted he said, "Just kidding � it's room 255." Phew!
For more click HERE.
LONDON TO LINCOLN
The best way to get to Lincoln from London is by train. It departs from King's Cross Station, and requires a change in Newark. Total travel time is around two hours. You can buy tickets from RailEurope.com (TIP: On RailEurope.com purchase a BritRail Pass. You can go all the way up to Edinburgh, or another place or two in the UK � it's a better deal than buying a point-to-point ticket). Like fools, my tour group decided to hire a van and a driver, and fight London's horrendous traffic. We lost. The 135-mile drive took 4 1/2 hours. Ouch! However, I did pass time savoring my delicious and surprisingly reasonably priced gourmet sandwich from Harrods Food Hall. Who knew Harrods could be reasonable? On top of that, our driver entertained us with his English humor. About 3 hours into the trip the driver got on his microphone and said, "We are going to take the next service stop for a pee and a sandwich." How funny is that?
Lincolnshire (Here's a map), Britain's fourth largest county, has been visited by kings and poets. It boasts ancient churches, country houses, lush farmlands and tradition. It's also where Ron Howard filmed a good portion of the Da Vinci Code movie. That followed London's Westminster Abbey rejection of the film's proposal (calling it "inappropriate"). I am sure Ron and his company were bummed at first, but this is a perfect example of everything happening for the best. Had it not been for the rejection, most people (especially me) might never have been exposed to this region, let alone visited it. That would have been a shame. As you are about to see, this area is full of allure and good times. We owe a debt of thanks to the DVC movie for putting Lincolnshire (especially Lincoln) on the checklist of thousands of travelers as a destination itself.
Lincoln (Here's a map) was once a bustling port and a thriving commercial and trading center, with a population between 6,000 and 8,000. That made Lincoln one of England's largest cities. Long before that it was a Roman town (here's a list of Roman sites), and a retirement community for Roman soldiers. Today Lincoln is a town of 86,000 people � about the size of Norwalk, Connecticut where I grew up. I mention this because Lincoln reminded me a lot of Norwalk, probably for its energy as an up-and-coming town. When I arrived just after dark my first impression was of Nantucket (link to Nantucket story). I had no idea this place had cobblestone streets and so much charm. What a pleasant surprise! For more click HERE.
Monday, April 03, 2006
THE NATIONAL GALLERY
On our way to the National Gallery we cut through Saint James' Park. Three amazing palaces border St James: the Tudor St. James' Palace; Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament (it used to be called the Palace of Westminster). The National Gallery was not referred to in the book. However, Leonardo Da Vinci�s painting "Virgin of the Rocks" was, and the National Gallery houses one of the two originals (the other is at the Louvre). Besides seeing the Virgin of the Rocks, visitors can admire the more than 2,300 other pictures, spanning the period from 1250 to 1900. There is no fee to enter the National Gallery. For more information, log on to The National Gallery.
Westminster Abbey is a key part of the book. The real interior is not in the movie, because director Ron Howard and his gang were not allowed to film there. They used another cathedral, which we will describe next week when we travel to the English countryside. Whether you are a fan of the book or not, be sure to tour the Abbey. It�s an amazing place, starting with a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that sits above the Great West Door. There are nine other statues of people from around the world that the church recognizes as 20th-century martyrs.
INSIDE THE ABBEY
Our tour guide, Anthony Astell (AnthonyAstell@hotmail.co.uk; tel.: 20-8518-6262), was fascinating (he charges 50 pounds = $86 for a half-day tour, but is flexible on his price). Before going in he told us not to mention the Da Vinci Code book � the church is not happy about it, and might have refused us entry. The Abbey was built around 1045-1050 by King Edward the Confessor. He is also the first of over 9,000 people to be buried inside (the most recent, in 1989, was Sir Laurence Olivier). But I was there -- as Langdon and Neveu were -- to look for the final clue around the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. A key scene takes place in the Chapter House, an octagonal room with a lone column in the center, where the King's Council met. It should not be missed -- especially the 14th-century frescoes painted on the walls. Interestingly, every hour on the hour there is a two-minute prayer service, reminding visitors it�s a church, not a museum. Admission to the abbey is �10 ($17) for adults; �6 ($10) for seniors and children, �22 ($38) for families (two adults, two children). The nearest tube stop is Westminster. Westminster Abbey; Tel: +44 (0)20 7654 4900.
Saturday, April 01, 2006
Da Vinci Code fans should jump on the tube to Temple Street. There they can join a guided Da Vinci Code tour from Golden Tours (available Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:30 a.m. Cost $50, tel.: 7721-683841). Our guide, Maria, began our tour in the rain on Fleet Street. First, we went to the Middle Temple Gardens, Courts, and then the Gothic-Romanesque Temple Church which is where Langdon and Neveu began their search for the Holy Grail in London. The church was built by the Templar Knights in the 12th century, and is famous for a rare circular nave called "the Round." The Red Knights as they were called for the red crosses they carried, held secret initiation rites in the crypt (look for effigies around the nave). The Red Knights protected pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem. They grew rich until the 14th century, when they were charged with heresy, blasphemy and sodomy. The Temple Church, Temple, London; Tel: +44 (0)20 7353 8559.For more click HERE.