May 1-2, 2014 With one step onto that Boeing 747 at SFO, I officially went from never-left-North-America American Girl, to world traveler. After waking up at 6:00 a.m. San Francisco-time, hitching a ride to the BART train, arriving at SFO, checking in, and eating my last trace of Mexican food for the next 25 days, I settled in for the 10-hour non-stop flight to London Heathrow.
I was surprised at how painless it was. My flight was booked through Avoya Travel (a Contiki partner), and cost about $1100 USD round-trip, non-stop from SFO to Heathrow. I was feeling a bit luxurious when I arrived at the airport, so I marched right up to the desk and asked for a seat upgrade. For another $130, I was in Economy Plus, with way more leg room. Worth it! The United flight was decently comfortable, and we all got ice cream sandwiches, which I was more than reasonably excited about.
After 10 long hours, the pilot made an announcement that we would soon be touching down in London. I felt the excitement well up as I turned on the flight tracker and looked out the window for signs of Big Ben.
I got off the plane and made my way through customs (pretty painless at Heathrow) and got my passport stamped! Then, I headed downstairs to the London Underground, which Contiki had provided me with tickets for. I made my way to Russell Square (with the help of a delightful Mr. Feeny-ish English gentleman who clearly sensed my complete confusion as I stared at the Underground map), and arrived at the Imperial Hotel – site of my first night’s stay of the trip.
I was immediately enamored by London. There was a charm that was present from my first step onto the Underground, and I loved the little suburbs we passed through on the way into the city. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the charm of London itself. The city, while certainly modern, felt like stepping back in time. Brownstones lined the streets, red double-decker buses whizzed by, and the famous London fog settled around me as I headed out to explore.
My first stop was a little pub just across from the Imperial called Friend At Hand. I was dying for a good breakfast and a cup of coffee. Jet lag was starting to hit me hard. I had been awake for nearly 20 hours straight, and it was only 10:00 a.m. in London. It was going to be a long day.
I ducked into the pub for what I thought would be a quick bite. I ended up staying for almost two hours, after meeting a (super cute!) English peace officer visiting friends in London. He taught me about USD to English pound conversions, and how to properly order a cup of coffee in London. After hearing that I was only in town for one day, he told me that the only way to see London in a hurry was a hop-on-hop-off tour bus, and directed me to the nearest pickup. I said goodbye to my first European crush and jumped on the nearest tour bus.
London Eye and Parliament Buildings
The tour cost around £35, and was worth every penny! It was blustery and cold out, so I was thankful to be cuddled up in a nice, warm bus, taking in the sites of London while our hilarious tour guide gave us the history of each. There were around 20 spots to see, but the highlights were:
London Theater District
Tower of London
Parliament Buildings (including Big Ben)
Tower of London
I felt a bit sad as the bus pulled up to the final stop around 3:30 p.m., signaling the end of our tour. I would have loved to do another round to see everything again, but I headed back to the Imperial to check-in and take a quick nap before Contiki orientation at 6:00 p.m. I found when I arrived that I would have my own room that night, and was so grateful considering I knew I would crash so hard when I finally got in bed.
Single occupancy room at the Imperial Hotel.
I headed to the orientation at the Contiki Basement, located inside the Royal National Hotel, where most of my fellow travelers were staying. The Contiki staffers addressed all of us as a whole (probably 60-70 people). We comprised two different tours, both of which would be leaving first thing in the morning. They divided us into our tour groups, and I was left alone with around 30 people who would be joining me on this amazing adventure. The average age was early-to-mid twenties, and we seemed evenly split in terms of gender. We were told to introduce ourselves to the person next to us, so the guy to my left nudged me and said “Hey, I’m Mark,” …and that was my first introduction to Canada.
I was waiting in line to turn in my paperwork when I met Pat for the first time. He was one of the first to say hello to me, and I nearly died on the spot when I realized his ridiculous good looks came with an Australian accent. Next came Emily, another Canadian, who I bonded with right away. We grabbed a few others into a group, and headed upstairs to the London Pub, where we had a few drinks and got to know each other over the next few hours. I discovered that I would be one of only two Americans on the tour!
Jet lag made me super boring, and I left early with Emily to pick up some snacks for the next day’s bus ride. We wanted a decent night’s sleep before our 7:00 a.m. bus call time.
The next day would be a huge one. I would cross the English Channel, have my first long coach ride with the crew, and set foot in France. My adventure was just beginning!