HOTEL REVIEW: GREAT FOSTERS

Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world, with planes taking off or landing every 45 seconds! As an entry point into Europe, many US travelers will pass through Heathrow/London on their way to other destinations – either in Europe or further abroad, such as Africa. As a result, I often recommend to spend a night or two in London at the start or end of one’s trip in order to break up the travel time. And for those who have visited London many times before, heading in and out of the city for a short stay isn’t all that appealing.

Enter Great Fosters. Part of Alexander Hotels, this stunning country estate has historic rooms, a Michelin starred restaurant and beautiful grounds to enjoy, and is located just 15 minutes’ from Heathrow airport. A stay at this property would be lovely on any occasion but I am particularly drawn to the convenience of its location. I can’t envision a more idyllic spot to recharge after a long flight or combat jet lag!

HISTORY

An estate is known to have existed at this location in Surrey since the Middle Ages and a portion of the original moat is still in tact today. While the history of the home through the centuries is quite lengthy, there are a few highlights worth noting in this short post, including a royal crest of Queen Elizabeth I located above the main porch and dating to 1598. The manor first became a hotel in 1930 when it was purchased and refurbished by Sir Harold Sutcliffe. The following year, Queen Mary visited the property and the famed Ascot Ball was held at the hotel, solidifying its place in modern history. In 2018, the Sutcliffe family sold the property to Alexander Hotels, who manage the estate today, along with four other historic manor hotels.

THE ROOMS

Currently, the estate houses 43 rooms, some of which are newly added and in a more contemporary style, attractive to business travelers who may be utilizing the estate’s conference facilities. In my opinion, the highlights of the hotel are the historic suites – 7 uniquely designed rooms in the main house. I personally had the chance to stay in Panel II. When I arrived on a stormy night, the dark wood paneling and four poster bed with rich velvet fabrics felt so traditionally British – I love when you can arrive to a place and feel you’ve stepped back in time a bit. I also had the chance during my stay to tour several other historic rooms and my personal favorites were the Queen Anne Suite and the Tapestry Suite.

DINING

The Estate Grill is the main dining facility, offering traditional British fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days a week. For a splurge, treat yourself to dinner at The Tudor Room, the hotel’s intimate Michelin-starred restaurant featuring cuisine by head chef Tony Parkin. The 20-seat dining venue serves a delectable tasting menu for dinner three nights a week (Thursday – Saturday) and for lunch four nights a week. Before dinner, you may opt to enjoy afternoon tea in the living room, or a cocktail in the hotels’ bar or on the terrace.

THE GROUNDS

As mentioned above, the grounds of the estate are partially surrounded by an original moat. Within those bounds you’ll find numerous English gardens that are lovely to stroll through and in warmer weather you can enjoy the outdoor heated pool or a game of tennis. For rainier days, you may opt for a spa treatment in the comfort of your room or simply to enjoy a good book by the fire.

All in all, this romantic country estate nods to a bygone era, offering the perfect respite to renew your energy at the start or end of a big trip. And the proximity to the airport makes it all too convenient! I would also just note that Great Fosters is quite popular for weddings, so weekends during peak periods tend to book up quite far in advance.

CALLING ALL WIZARDS

If you don’t already have the “Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter” on your bucket list, now’s the time to add it. This attraction in Leavesden (just outside of London) is where they filmed the majority of the movies. The former studio now houses full sets, costumes, special effects, and so much more. Fans of the franchise will see the wizarding world brought to life, while also learning some of the behind the scenes secrets for creating magic in the films. On my last trip to England, we finally had the chance to visit the studio and it was a dream come true!

Here are a few essential things to know before you go.

Buy your tickets in advance. While the studio is large, only a set number of tickets are sold per day. And with school field trips and tour groups in the mix, tickets do sell out far in advance. Make sure you purchase tickets online here well before your trip.

Ticket types. From individual to family to group tickets, there are a variety of options to choose from. There is also the choice to purchase just a ticket or a package ticket that includes a digital guide and a paperback souvenir guide. Personally, I found the audio guide to be a bit overwhelming during the tour as there was quite a lot to read as well. If you want to purchase the souvenir guide separately (instead of bundled with your ticket), you can pick it up in the gift shop after your visit.

Getting there. If you have a rental car, the easiest option is to drive yourself and park (for free) in the lot just outside the city. If you’re based in London and don’t have a car at your disposal, you can opt to take the train from London to Watford Junction, followed by a 15 minute shuttle bus. Read more about these options here.

Plan for 3+ hours. As mentioned, the space is large! There is so much to see and explore! You will need at least 3 hours to visit the full space. If you would like to take part in any of the simulators or other special videos, you’ll want to allot more time. And as there is so much information, you may want to break in the middle for a rest and lunch or a snack. If coming from London, I’d really plan for this to be a full day excursion.

Look out for special events. We were lucky enough to visit during Christmastime where many of the sets were decked out for the holidays. The studio also has fun events around Valentine’s Day and Halloween so be sure to check the schedules well in advance if you’d like to visit during these times!

Have fun! Entry is timed at regular intervals with an intro and a short movie shown to each group before entering The Great Hall. Due to large numbers of people, this first part can feel a bit too crowded, but after the intro and movie, visitors move through the attraction at their own pace and start to spread out. Be patient and just enjoy yourself!

This was such a fun day and there is really something for everyone! I loved the costumes while my husband loved learning about the special effects and which magic effects were computerized versus physically constructed. Our favorite however, was truly the sets – they really just brought the world of Harry Potter to life before our eyes.

HOTEL REVIEW: THE KENSINGTON HOTEL

London is one of the larger cities in the world, and as such, travelers have a plethora of options to choose from when it comes to accommodations. On my last trip to London, we spent a night at The Kensington Hotel in leafy Kensington. Part of the Doyle Collection, this property is made up of 8 historic townhomes dating to the Victorian era. The property evokes the sense of staying in a friend’s posh home in London – with cozy fireplaces, an open and inviting lounge area and friendly staff.

LOCATION

Kensington is the perfect neighborhood for visitors looking for a local flavor. A bit removed from the more touristy areas like Piccadilly Circus, the hotel is still conveniently within walking distance to many museums, Hyde Park and Kensington Palace, making it a quiet yet agreeable home base in London.

THE ROOMS

Though it hardly feels like it, the hotel has 146 rooms and suites. As with many older properties, the room lay-outs and color schemes vary from room to room, with some featuring more traditional British decor and others a more modern, refreshed design. While some rooms have balconies, others have floor to ceiling windows, and some of the newer rooms even have clawfoot tubs right in the bedroom – perfect for a romantic escape!

Those looking for a more unique accommodation will love the signature suites. The Knightsbridge Suite is a stunner with a more modern design, large balcony and two fireplaces, but I actually slightly prefer The Brompton Suite with its more ornate decor and subtle safari theme. Of course, there is the option to combine both suites to create a small apartment style dwelling – ideal for families or groups.

Notably, the hotel also offers several “family suites” – a rarity in many European cities! These are slightly larger rooms with a bit more living space and 2 King sized beds, offering a comfortable and more economical option for a family of 4.

DINING

The main lobby area of the hotel is an open lounge that feels like an intimate living room, with a variety of plush and cozy seating areas, several fireplaces and the option to stop at any time of day for a cup of coffee/tea or even a light bite. In Town House restaurant you can enjoy a lovely breakfast with both buffet and a la carte options. In the later hours you can dine here for lunch or dinner, but the true stunner is their afternoon tea, which currently features pastry molded into the famous landmarks of London – a real treat!

In the evening, when you return from exploring the city, pop in to the famous K Bar, reminiscent of a private members club, for some excellent craft cocktails.

SERVICE

Aside from the warm and inviting atmosphere, the well-appointed rooms and plethora of dining and lounging options, what really sets this hotel apart is the service. The staff is incredibly friendly and welcoming. They left some unbelievably thoughtful and unique touches and amenities in our room that made us feel right at home. I was so pleasantly surprised and appreciative to see this sweet photo they left for me of my puppy Deacon!!

I highly recommend staying at The Kensington during your next trip to London and would love to help you plan! Please contact me to get started.

A COZY WEEK IN THE COTSWOLDS

Just two hours outside of busy London, you’ll find The Cotswolds, an area of lush meadows and rolling hills, dotted with quaint villages featuring the famous, golden-colored Cotswold stone. The Cotswolds region is a perfect destination for travelers searching for a quintessential English countryside escape.

DAY 1: ARRIVAL

We flew into London and picked up a rental car at the airport. While you could opt to take the train from London to Bath or Gloucester (taking a taxi or transfer from there), it’s lovely to be able to explore the Cotswolds at your own pace with the freedom of a vehicle. So if you’re comfortable enough with driving on the wrong side of the road and navigating narrow lanes, then this is the way to go. Another great option would be to hire a private driver for a couple of days.

From London, we drove to our first hotel in Cheltenham, at the northwestern part of the Cotswolds. On the way from London, we stopped in at Oxford for a bite at The Kings Arms (the oldest pub in Oxford, dating to 1607!), a quick walk around town to see the architecture and a self-guided tour of the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library (featured in the Harry Potter films as the hospital wing).

Once in Cheltenham, we checked into Ellenborough Park, a stunning manor house with a Great Hall dating to the late 1400s. The current iteration of the hotel opened in 2011, but was refurbished just recently in 2017. The property has 62 rooms, and many amenities for guests, including a fine dining restaurant, a bistro, swimming pool, fitness center, boot room and easy access to the nearby Cheltenham racecourse.

After checking in, we enjoyed a delicious and cozy meal at The Horse Box, Ellenborough Park’s 5-star country pub.

DAY 2: SELF DRIVE COTSWOLD TOUR

After a wonderful night’s sleep, a delicious breakfast with farm fresh eggs, and a quick stop in at the spa, we took off to explore some of the famous Cotswold towns. Our first stop was Bourton-on-the-Water, otherwise known as “The Venice of the Cotswolds” due to the river that runs through the town. One of the interesting attractions to see here is The Model Village – a complete replica of the town, built at 1/9th the scale! You will also find a lot of cute gift shops here that are great to peruse.

Next, we drove north to Stow-on-the-Wold, another adorable village. This one featured more art galleries and gourmet food shops which we enjoyed walking through.

Lastly, we drove up to Broadway, known for its broad main street – originally used as the main carriage way from London. You’ll find loads of cute shops and restaurants here so it’s a great stop for lunch. We popped in to The Bakehouse for a flatbread and a drink.

After our touring for the day, we returned to Ellenborough Park for a lovely afternoon tea in the main hall by the fire. And later in the evening, we enjoyed an incredible dinner at the formal restaurant, aptly named The Restaurant.

DAY 3: CHELTENHAM RACES

The British are big into horse racing and Cheltenham, where Ellenborough Park is situated, actually has a large race course. The main event is in March, but in November, they host the November Meeting – a 3 day event that draws people from all over the UK. We were fortunate in that our visit to Ellenborough Park aligned with the races and so we went one day. The really nice thing about staying at Ellenborough Park is that they are so close to the racecourse and they offer complimentary shuttles to guests staying over racing weekends – so you don’t have to deal with parking or Ubers, and can get dropped off right at the gates of the course.

While a bit chilly, this event was really great fun. We did a little betting (although no winning), enjoyed some food and drinks, and experienced great people watching. I particularly loved seeing all the British equine fashion and their great fall hats!

This evening, we ventured into the town of Cheltenham for dinner at Muse Brasserie – a fusion restaurant serving up a mix of Indian and French cuisine. It was innovative and delicious and a welcome break from the British fare we had been enjoying.

DAY 4: BATH

This morning, after our final breakfast, we bid farewell to Ellenborough Park, and drove south to the city of Bath. This is a beautiful city and one could really spend even a few days here, as with Oxford. But we just stopped for a couple hours and visited the ancient Roman Baths. Back in the 1st century, when the Roman Empire extended into the British Isles, they found a natural hot spring at this site and constructed a temple and traditional roman bathing complex. The Roman settlement of Aquae Sulis was later built around the sacred site. As centuries went on, this ancient roman site was eventually built over, only to be rediscovered and excavated in the late 19th century. Audioguides are complimentary with your ticket and offer a wealth of information about the construction of the site, how it was used and the types of people that visited there. This was really fascinating and I highly recommend it.

From Bath, we continued just a bit north to Castle Combe – a quintessential Cotswold village used as the filming site for the original Dr. Doolittle movie. Here you will find another lovely estate, called The Manor House. My parents actually stayed here many years before on their honeymoon, so we decided to stop in for Sunday Lunch at the on-site, restaurant, Bybrook.

After lunch, we headed to our home for the next two nights, Whatley Manor, a Relais & Chateaux property with just 23 rooms and suites. This property was truly fabulous and I am already planning to come back as soon as possible. Aside from the beautifully furnished rooms, they have an extensive spa, a private cinema, numerous common rooms, a brasserie and a 2-Michelin starred restaurant, The Dining Room.

After taking a bit of time to unwind and relax in our room, we headed down for dinner at The Dining Room. The experience began with cocktails and some nibbles in the lounge. We were then escorted into the kitchen (!!!) for the next part of the experience – some bubbly (to celebrate their recent 2nd Michelin star!) and three amuse bouches while we watched the chefs prepare our meal. This was such a fun surprise and an amazing way to start the evening. Next, we headed into the dining room itself where we enjoyed the rest of our prix-fixe dinner – each dish more innovative and delicious than the last – the whole meal was completely divine.

DAY 5: R&R IN THE COUNTRYSIDE

For our last day in the countryside, we just relaxed at the hotel. The sun was shining and it was a gorgeous fall day. After our 3-course breakfast, we borrowed the bikes and went for an hour ride through the countryside.

After our exercise, we enjoyed some much deserved spa time – swimming in the indoor/outdoor hydrotherapy pool, and using the sauna and steam rooms, before I went in for a treatment.

Later, we enjoyed an incredible afternoon tea and then watched a movie in the private cinema (complete with popcorn!), before sneaking back to the spa for one more swim before dinner in Grey’s Brasserie. It was a 10 out of 10 day, and the perfect way to close out our trip to the Cotswolds.

We really had the best time exploring this region of the English countryside. In 5 days, we really just scratched the surface and I can’t wait to come back here and explore more. The Cotswolds are a beautiful place to visit year-round and I would love to help you plan your next trip there!

LONDON CALLING: A WEEKEND IN THE UK’S CAPITAL

A few weeks ago, I was booking flights for a business trip to London and (naturally) decided to hop across the pond a few days early to spend the weekend exploring the city with a friend. I had visited London only once before and that was about 16 years ago so I was long overdue for a return trip.

IMG_6933

Where to Stay

Given the time since my last London visit, I wasn’t all that familiar with the city’s different neighborhoods. But after a little research, I stumbled upon Covent Garden, a quaint area of cobblestone streets, local shops and plenty of sidewalk cafes, just a stone’s throw from London’s vibrant theatre district.

IMG_6900

I booked a room at the Covent Garden Hotel, operated by Firmdale Hotels – a group that specializes in boutique stays in both London and New York. The rooms offer everything you’d expect from a luxury hospitality brand, but what really made our stay so special were the unique touches: the lavender room mist they left at our bedside during turndown service, the Honour Bar (complete with mini pints of local ice cream) adjacent to the wood-paneled drawing room, the adorable brasserie off the lobby with its (surprisingly affordable) breakfast buffet and afternoon tea, and (of course) the private screening room.

IMG_6906IMG_6901IMG_6915IMG_6912

Eating & Drinking Around Town

  • Afternoon Tea at Sketch – Well if you’ve read any of my prior posts, you probably know how I feel about afternoon tea. So this was one of the primary activities I wanted to fit into our weekend. And when two people recommended Sketch, I knew I had to go. The place did not disappoint – it was like stepping into a scene from Alice In Wonderland. Though a bit on the expensive side, the food was delicious and the whole experience was one surprise after the next. IMG_6884IMG_6895IMG_6897IMG_6898
  • Sunday Roast at The Princess of Shoreditch – Another iconic British tradition is Sunday Roast – basically a full Christmas dinner every week: roasted meat, veggies, potatoes, yorkshire pudding, and of course sticky toffee pudding. The Princess of Shoreditch was a friend’s recommendation and once again we were in food heaven. Luckily we’d been on our feet all day so this was a well-deserved meal. IMG_6938IMG_6940
  • The Culpeper Roof Garden – I’ve dubbed Shoreditch the “Brooklyn” of London. With trendy restaurants and bars on every corner, this seems to be the neighborhood where every young professional in London is living these days. Our first night in town, we grabbed drinks on the roof of The Culpeper, which offers amazing views of the London skyline. And their Aperol Spritz (aka the cocktail of the summer) was on point.IMG_6910IMG_6908
  • Flight Club Darts – Flight Club is basically the British alternative to an American bowling alley. With two locations – Shoreditch and Bloomsbury – Flight Club is a great option for an evening out with a big group. Each group gets their own “Oche” (ie. bowling lane of darts) with a digitized dart board offering a variety of popular dart games and a waitress to order food and drinks. Despite being a terrible dart player this place was still really fun, offering a modern twist on a traditional British past time (plus they served up a great Pimm’s Cup). IMG_6949

Cultural Sites

The first time I visited London, I hit all the must-see tourist destinations. Since this was a second visit, I was less concerned with checking off the to do list and more interested in just enjoying the city. One of my favorite ways to do this is to go for a long walk or run first thing in the morning. It helps you get your bearings, get in a little exercise and also see a lot of the major sites before the crowds. From our hotel, we were able to easily see all of the following:

  • Buckingham Palace – The Royal residenceIMG_6882
  • Piccadilly Circus – Famous road junction near the theatre district
  • Hyde Park – Large park in central London (don’t miss the rose garden)IMG_6926
  • Westminster Abbey & Big Ben – British houses of Parliament and the famed London clocktowerIMG_6923
  • The London Eye – Ferris Wheel with sweeping views of the city
  • River Thames – Main body of water that runs through the city. It’s lovely to walk along the bank of the river and across the bridges.

We also booked a historical walking tour with City Wonders UK. This particular tour offered a 1.5 hour walking tour of Westminster and the surrounding areas with a guided history pertaining largely to World War II and Winston Churchill.

IMG_6922IMG_6916

Following the walking tour, our ticket granted us access to the Churchill War Rooms (without waiting in the very long line!), a series of rooms in a bunker under the heart of London from which Churchill conducted the British war effort during WWII. The museum has audio guides and includes a full chronology of Churchill’s life, in addition to the restored “war rooms” from the 1940’s. Both the tour and museum were fascinating and though we looked a lot like tourists with our headsets, audioguides and cameras, we learned a lot about British history during the war.

IMG_6945

Other Recommended Things to See

If you have more than just a weekend and/or it’s your first time visiting London, I definitely recommend these sites:

IMG_6920