Mark\’s Rants, Raves And Other Things ;)

Rants and raves about things that interest me

Archive for March, 2008

Edinburgh, Day 3 and train to London

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 27, 2008

We started the morning with breakfast with Luke, Richard (the groom not the techy), Pamela and Beth, we checked out and headed to Waverley Station where we left our luggage as our train to London wasn’t leaving until 3PM.

We then used the hop on hop off tour voucher that we had received as part of our accommodation booking. The tour was on a double decker bus with an open top and was an audio guided tour (which was a bit of a pain as the headphone cables were not long enough and every time I moved around to take a photo I’d pull the cord out of the socket). We stayed on the bus until Edinburgh Castle where hopped off.

At this point, it was nearly 12PM already and due to it being the Easter weekend, there was a long queue for tickets and by the time we got to the front it took about 1/2 hour and we didn’t have enough time to actually go inside the castle. Instead, we simply bought a guidebook and headed back to the Royal Mile to catch the bus again.

While waiting for the bus, we checked out a few of the tourist trap stores around the area. A piece of advice: if you get tempted to go into the real working tartan mill on the left as you come down from the castle, avoid it at all costs, as although you do see them making the tartans, you have to go through about 10 different stores before you can get out of the place.

After the bus arrived, we hopped back on and continued the tour before arriving back at Waverley Station to catch our train to London. As we had a bit of time to spare, we grabbed some lunch (I had a chicken pasty and Craig had a sausage roll) and sat down to relax before we had to pick up our luggage and head to the train. One weird thing we noticed at Edinburgh Station was lack of bins which was odd given the number of food outlets at the platforms. I don’t know what the station expect people to do with their trash. The strangest thing about the lack of bins was that the station was unusually clean still with very little trash.

After collecting our bags, we headed to the platform to wait for the train. Due to the amount of luggage we had, we had to put our luggage in the guard carriage then proceeded into the carriage to our seats. The train was quite crowded and fully booked due to the Easter holiday and unlike normally, there was no seat food service. We did however get offered drinks and snacks at our seat.

As the train had Wi-Fi, I took out my laptop for a while and caught up on some of my blogging. This had the other benefit that the train had a web page which showed where it was so I could see how far we were from London. We also chatted for a while to Billy and Sandy from North Carolina who were sitting at the table in the seats opposite us.

Once we arrived at Kings Cross Station, we proceeded to the Underground to head to our hotel in Earls Court. Due to work being down at the station, we were unable to catch the Picaddilly line which would have normally taken us directly to Earls Court and instead had to catch the Victoria line to Green Park then the Piccadilly line to Earls Court. One thing we discovered is that you wouldn’t want to be in a wheelchair or have to push a stroller through the Underground as it is not very accessible as there are often many steps on the interchanges between lines and to the station exits. As you can imagine, this made it relatively difficult to move our luggage. Luckily, Earls Court station had lifts and a ramp to Earls Court Road so we had no trouble with our luggage once we reached our destination.

We then proceeded to our hotel which was the K+K George. We checked into the hotel and took our luggage up to the room only to discover that it was tiny. You literally walked inside and there was a small bathroom, a TV and a bed and nothing else. The room was just big enough for the bed itself and there was nowhere to place our luggage. According to our paperwork, we were meant to have a “superior room” so I rang reception and complained. A brief time later, the porter came up to help us with our bags to the new room. The new room was a big improvement with a flat screen TV, desk, small table with chair and  enough room to place all of our suitcases.

We then decided to go for a wander up Earls Court Road to have a look around the neighbourhood and had dinner at Wagamama before heading back to the hotel and bed.

Monopoly places visited:

King’s Cross Station

Euston Road

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Edinburgh, Day 2

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 27, 2008

After breakfast with Luke and Richard, I did a little blogging then headed out to take some photos while Craig did some preparations for the wedding.

I ended up walking down High St past St Giles Cathedral, down the Mound to Princes St where I did some shopping, up George St, St Andrew Square and back up North Bridge to the hotel. Overall the walk took nearly 3 hours and I walked about 6km according to the GPS log. I took lots of photos which I’ll upload when I have a chance.

I got back to the hotel around 1:45PM and the wedding started at 2:30PM. I quickly had to go down to the business centre and print out Craig’s best man speech for him while he finished getting ready and then get changed into my clothes for the wedding. Craig headed down to the wedding while I was in the shower and I managed to get down just in time for it to start.

The wedding ceremony was beautiful with readings by Luke’s Mum Lynne, Richard’s Mum Sheila and Pamela, who was one of the bridesmaids and the exchanging of vows and rings by Luke and Richard.

After the ceremony, we moved to the room next door where we had the first of 2 wedding receptions. The first reception only had about 40 people and was for the family and close friends of the 2 grooms. I was placed on a table with Luke’s family who we had drinks with the day before. As I said previously, Luke continually apologized for seating me with them but I had a fun time and once again had some good chats with all of them.

The food was quite good. I had leek and potato soup, followed by a herb crusted salmon with vegetables and a dessert consisting of a flavoured cream in a brandy snap.

During the reception, speeches were given by Lynne and Phil (Luke’s Dad), Sheila and Ian (Richard’s parents), Craig (who I’m has details of his speech on his site so I’m not going to talk about it here) and Martin (who was Richard’s best man).

After the reception, we moved to the lounge to have some drinks while the other guests arrived and then moved into the big ballroom for the second reception.

I had a great time at the second reception which had a Scottish music band who led a number of dances, quite a few involving Highland flings and spinning around your dance partner. It was a little like a Scottish version of a barn dance to be honest. It was quite fun though. One of the weirder dances was the Helicopter Dance, which involved spinning people around. I took a video of the whole dance which I’ll upload later.

The food at the second reception was a buffet which wasn’t overly impressive. It was mainly finger food such as sandwiches, pakoras and chicken skewers.

I spent a bit of time talking to another Richard (who was the boyfriend of Beth, who was the other bridesmaid) for a while about techy stuff (thanks for introducing us Craig :P). Beth and he are coming to Seattle in June and I’m going to take Richard on a tour of the Microsoft campus while they’re there.

Towards the end of the reception (around 12:15AM), the fire alarm when off in the hotel and everybody (including all the hotel guests) had to evacuate the hotel. The silver lining in this is that we could have been asleep in bed when the alarm went off.

After the reception finished at 1AM, we headed up briefly to Luke & Richard’s room before heading off to bed ourselves.

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Edinburgh, Day 1

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 24, 2008

We woke up relatively early and headed down to the hotel restaurant to have the traditional English buffet breakfast which consisted of cereal, juice, pastries, fruit and hot foods such as sausages, scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes, fried bread and baked beans. I ended up having a bowl of cornflakes and some baked beans, scrambled eggs, fried bread and potatoes.

After breakfast, we quickly went up the road to purchase some prepaid UK SIM’s so that we could use mobile phones to communicate without having to worry about expensive roaming fees.

We were then picked up by Luke and Richard and driven to Glasgow where the suit hire place was as Craig needed some adjustments made to the length of his suit pants. I was really tired so I ended up having a bit of a nap in the back seat on the way there.

The suit hire place was very interesting and specialized in formal kilts as well as normal suits. There was even one kilt there which was hot pink crushed velvet. I kid you not!

You can see it here in the bottom right corner. They also had the same set in purple!

After being dropped back in Edinburgh by Luke & Richard, Craig and I went back to the mobile shop so that he could buy a new battery for his Motorola V3 as the one had was dead. We then wandered around the Royal Mile which is located near our hotel (The Carlton) looking for somewhere to eat for lunch. On the way, I ended up buying a cashmere scarf as I didn’t bring one with me and the weather in Edinburgh was too cold to not have one.

In the end, we ended up eating at an Italian restaurant called Bella Italia. It wasn’t bad although when we first came in it was really smokey in there for some reason (I think someone had burnt something in the kitchen).

After lunch, we returned back to the hotel where we found Luke & Richard checking in. There we also met Luke’s mother Lynne and his father Phil. Luke & Richard asked us if we could help set up the rooms in the hotel where they were having the reception and ceremony so we spent the afternoon assisting them with their preparations. We were also introduced to Richard’s mother, Sheila.

We also gave them their wedding present which was 2 teddy bears that we had made at Build-A-Bear Workshop while we were in Seattle, both of which we dressed in tuxedos. We named one Luke and one Richard and made their birth date the date of the wedding.

We then had some drinks with Luke, Richard, Lynne, Phil, Luke’s aunt Di and uncle Gary, Emmy (Luke’s cousin), Alice (Emmy’s friend) and Arden (Alice’s partner). It was a lot of fun and even though Luke kept on apologizing for his family, I thought they were great and had some good conversations with all of them.

After drinks, we then met Luke & Richard for dinner down in the hotel restaurant.

Following this, we went on a ghost tour which took us into the vaults under South Bridge. The tour was interesting for learning some of the history of Edinburgh but it wasn’t really scary at all (except if you include that we actually paid good money for it!). Craig was excited though as they took us to one of the locations where Most Haunted had been in one of the shows he had watched.

I thing I learnt from the tour though was that if I take my camera somewhere I should always bring a cleaning cloth as during the tour I accidentally put a big fingerprint smudge on the lens and had nothing to clean it with.

Then it was off to bed to get some sleep before the wedding the next day.

Posted in Edinburgh, Places, Travel | 1 Comment »

Wait at Heathrow and flight to Edinburgh

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 24, 2008

Our flight arrived in Heathrow at Terminal 4 and our next flight was in Terminal 1. After a really long walk from the arrival gate, we hopped on a bus and proceeded to Terminal 1.

At Terminal 1, we went through security (which unlike in the US doesn’t require you to remove your shoes or take out laptops and video cameras). We then bought a lock for my camera bag and some deodorant (so we could refresh ourselves). We then headed off to the British Airways domestic Terraces Lounge where we both had a shower which was quite refreshing after the 7 hour flight over to London.

The Terraces lounge was much like the one in Seattle but larger and with big windows looking out over Heathrow. It also had a self-service bar with spirits and wine as well as a larder with sandwiches and snacks. Best of all there was real cheese which was something that both Craig and I miss as the US cheese generally isn’t very good.

The interior of the lounge:

Terraces Lounge

The self-service wine bar:

Self-serve wine bar

The self-service drink bar:

Self-serve drink bar

We ended up waiting for about 5 hours in Heathrow in the lounge as our flight to Edinburgh (and all other British Airways flights for some reason) was delayed.

Once on the flight we discussed that even though our boarding pass said we were in Business UK, there is only one class on a domestic British Airways flight and the main benefit of Business UK is access to the Terraces lounge. Still the one class on the flight wasn’t bad. BA domestic flights have free alcohol as well as provide meals (similar to the service that Qantas offers domestically) so we yet another meal (we had spent the afternoon eating sandwiches and snacks in the lounge). The meal was quite good and consisted on a chicken fillet on tabouleh with a roll and apple crumble for dessert.

Once we arrived in Edinburgh, we were met by our friend Luke and his finance Richard (whom we hadn’t met before). They had offered to pick us up and drive us to our hotel (Carlton Hotel). However, due to the number of suitcases and bags we had, they couldn’t fit the bags and us in the car so I took one suitcase and my hand luggage and caught the bus from the airport to the hotel (which only cost £3 points as opposed to at least £18) while Craig went off with Luke and Richard to try on his suit for the wedding.

Once at the hotel, I just relaxed until Craig arrived with the rest of the luggage. Once he arrived, we unpacked a little and then went to bed. One annoying thing about the bed though was it was a double bed made from 2 single beds. Given that there were 2 men listed for the room, they must have assumed that we didn’t want a double bed so they made the beds as 2 single beds with their blankets tucked in the middle between the 2 beds. This problem was easily solved by simply pulling the blankets out from the middle and voila we had a double bed again (albeit one with a little gap in the middle) 🙂

Posted in Airports, British Airways, Flights, Heathrow, Travel | 3 Comments »

A first class experience

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 24, 2008

For our first flight from Seattle to London we flew First Class on British Airways which neither Craig nor I had ever flown before. After flying it though, it will be difficult to fly Economy again.

Here’s a dissection of the flight:

The meet and greet

When you first arrive at the plane and show your boarding pass, you are personally escorted by one of the senior cabin crew members to your seat. The crew member then offers to take your coat which they place into a closet until the end of the flight.

Pre-flight service

Even before the flight takes off the ground (i.e. while taxiing), you are offered a glass of orange juice, water or champagne and a plate of mixed cashews and macadamia nuts. You are also offered a set of pyjamas and given a velvet boxed toiletry kit containing a velvet eye mask, eye cream, moisturizer, lip balm, mouthwash, ear plugs and a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Seats

In BA First class on a Boeing 777 (which is used from Seattle to London), there are only 14 seats in the following arrangement:

I had seat 2A and Craig had seat 2E.

The seat also has a personal reading light, coat hook, laptop power outlet and a small seat at the end for another person so you can easily converse if you wish.

Each seat also has its own personal overhead bin. However, much like in a lower class, other people end up also putting items into your overhead bin unfortunately.

The seats have adjustable lumbar support and can be converted into a flat bed for sleeping.

A First Class seat:

First class seat

The seat controls:

 Seat controls

The seat as a flat bed:

Seat as a flat bed with pillow and duvet

Looking towards the end of the bed (which is also the small chair):

Looking towards the end of the bed

Food

In First Class, the food service is way beyond that offered in Economy Class. The service is effectively silver service with tablecloths placed on the table, personal salt and pepper shaker, side plates, cloth napkins, and white china.

Dinner place setting

The menu offers a choice of starters, a main course, and dessert as well other other things such a cheese plates and gourmet snacks like an asparagus risotto. There is also a wine list with a choice of about 10 wines to drink either during the flight or to accompany a meal.

The food is also presented very well as can be seen below.

Dinner

The starter was a oven-roasted tomato salad with endive and braised fennel:

Oven-roasted tomato salad with endive and braised fennel

Main course was Mark Edwards’ sake-braised guinea fowl with sansho pepper pineapple chutney:

Mark Edwards' sake-braised guinea fowl with sansho pepper pineapple chutney

Dessert was warm peach crisp with vanilla ice cream:

Warm peach crisp with vanilla ice cream

Personal pot of peppermint tea (and a creme brulee chocolate) to finish the meal:

Personal pot of peppermint tea

Breakfast

Breakfast started with a plate of fruit, personal pot of team and a choice of pastries:

Breakfast setting with fruit plate

This was followed by pancakes with maple syrup:

Pancakes with maple syrup

Toilet

Even the toilet in First Class is an improvement over those in lower classes. The toilet is more spacious (at least compared with an Economy Class toilet), has a changing seat which goes over the normal seat to make it easy to put shoes, etc. on and even has disposable real cloth hand towels to dry your hands with.

Staff

In First Class, there are about 4 cabin crew members to service the 14 seats which means that each person gets personalized service and there is always a cabin crew member available to help you.  Additionally, the cabin crew are the more senior members such as the pursers, etc.

Additionally, the staff have a no pressure approach and you are free to eat, drink, etc. at your own pace.

How to the confuse the cabin crew

According to our boarding passes, Craig has the window seat (2A) and I had the interior seat (2E). We decided to swap seats so that I had the window seat and he had the interior seat. This caused a bit of confusion amongst the cabin crew as they personalize the service so often Craig was called Mr Sztainbok and I was called Mr Clemo by various members. This was only a problem however momentarily until we had interacted with each crew member.

Arrival lounge

Normally there is an arrival lounge available in Heathrow where you can have clothes pressed, have a shower and a hot breakfast and even complimentary spa treatments such as facials and massages. Unfortunately for us, the arrival lounge and spa in Terminal 1 where we were had closed the day before in preparations for British Airways’ move into Terminal 5.

Posted in Airports, British Airways, Flights, Heathrow, Travel | 1 Comment »

Details of the flight from Seattle to London and the flight from London to Edinburgh still to come

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 22, 2008

I haven’t had a chance yet to write about our First Class flight from Seattle to London. Hopefully I’ll have one tomorrow morning…

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A bunch of singing hobbits

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 22, 2008

While at Heathrow Airport, I was looking at some leaflets for the various musicals currently showing in London and came across one for Lord Of The Rings The Musical. Yes, you heard me right. There actually is a muscial based around the story of Frodo’s quest to destroy the one ring before Sauron can use its power.

From the brochure:

The magic of the THE LORD OF THE RINGS comes to life in a stunning new onstage spectacle with over 70 actors, singers and musicians. An amazing life event, filled with jaw-dropping theatricality, that transports you to Middle-earth as breaktaking special effects, thrilling music and dazzling performances fill the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

IMG_0112

When I read the first quote, I thought it said “You’ve never seen a spectacle like it”. Yes, I’m sure I haven’t 😉

I do wonder though how well a story which took 3 films of more than 6 hours total to tell can translate well into a 2 hour muscial…

More information can be found at http://www.lotr.com

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What goes up doesn’t have to go down apparently…

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 22, 2008

This is a sign in the Carlton Hotel in Edinburgh where we are staying:

Sign at the Carlton Hotel

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Waiting in the BA First Class lounge at Sea-Tac

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 20, 2008

Just over 2 hours until our plane leaves…

It turns out that our original flight BA48 had a defective plane and the replacement plane doesn’t have First Class so we got moved to a later flight BA52. The downside of this is that instead of departing Seattle at 7:30PM, we are now leaving at 10:55PM (which is delayed an hour from when BA52 would normally leave. I’m not sure why that is). This has resulted in us having to change our flight from London to Edinburgh too so we now arrive there at 8:55PM instead 4:10PM.

Ah well…at least we managed to get on another flight still in First Class. I would have been especially annoyed if we had been stuck in Economy given how much both Craig and I had been looking forward to flying First Class and also due to the lack of sleep we both have had due to packing and preparing for the holiday (and the fact that we paid good money!).

Because of the change, we also had to move the Lincoln Towncar that was picking us as our travel agent advised us to get to the airport early as BA had to issue new tickets. As it turns out, the check-in only took a few minutes so we have had a lot of time to spare before the flight.

So here we are sitting in the BA First Class lounge drinking free alcohol (Craig has a glass of Chardonnay and I have a Tanqueray 10 and tonic), eating complimentary sandwiches and using the free Wi-Fi…life is hard, isn’t it?

And if you’re wondering what the lounge looks like:

The interior of the lounge

The complementary food selection in the lounge:

Food selection

The complementary non-alcoholic drink selection in the lounge (there is also an espresso machine and water):

Non-alcoholic drink selection

The alcoholic drink selection in the lounge:

Alcoholic drink selection

Posted in Travel | 1 Comment »

Not long to go…

Posted by Mark Sztainbok on March 16, 2008

Only 4 more days to go before we’re on our way and still so much to do.

We still need to:

  • Finish some shopping
  • Finish the paperwork for our visa renewals
  • Print out all documentation for the holiday
  • Clean the garage so the car can be put away
  • Clean up the house
  • Pack our suitcases and hand luggage
  • Finish packing my camera bag

I’m sure there’s more but I can’t remember it at the moment….argh!

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