Book British Airways, Get Two Free Nights In The UK

If you’ve been thinking about crossing the Atlantic and heading to the United Kingdom, now is a great time to snag a deal. British Airways and VisitBritain have teamed up to offer “The Big British Invite,” a promotion gifting free two-night stays when travelers book round-trip airfare out of the United States.

The offer – which is valid through midnight on March 31, 2013, so long as flights and rooms are available and a few other terms and conditions are met – includes two free nights at double occupancy in a hotel through May 31, 2013.

Most of the hotels offered are in the 3-4 star range, such as the Holiday Inn London Kensington Forum (the same hotel that previously offered human bed warmers), and other hotels throughout London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.

But the free stay isn’t all the sale gifts to travelers. Customers will also receive a “Better Island Band,” a bracelet that allows travelers to snag discounts and deals on attractions throughout the United Kingdom. This includes two for one scotch tastings at Glengoyne Distillery in Glasgow, two for one admission at Tower of London, an upgraded tour package at Cardiff Castle, and more.

For more information or to start booking, here’s more on the Big British Invite promotion.

[Photo credit: Blogger Libby Zay]

Historic Royal Palaces To See, Or Rent

Historic Royal Palaces

The UK’s Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace and Kew Palace. In addition to maintaining the physical structures, Historic Royal Palaces works to share them with the world through day tickets that might be great for those visiting the Olympics and seeking unique experiences between events.

“Our aim is to help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built,” says Historic Royal Palaces on its website.

While each of the five royal palaces in their care has survived for hundreds of years, they receive no funding from the Government or the Crown and depend on the support of visitors, members, donors, volunteers and sponsors. Four of them are available for hire too.

Tower of London
A breath-taking collection of finery in the newly presented Jewel House at the Tower of London features a unique collection of royal regalia that is still regularly used by The Queen in important national ceremonies. Also meet the Beefeaters and Ravens and enter the White Tower, the oldest museum in the world. Open daily, year round.

Hampton Court Palace

A temporary exhibition, called “The Wild, The Beautiful and The Damned,” is included in admission to the palace until September 30, 2012. The exhibit introduces visitors to the court beauties, lecherous rakes and ambitious courtesans who decorated the decadent world of Charles II and his successors. Open daily year round.

Kensington Palace

This summer, visitors can experience the momentous occasion of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897 or “Diana Glimpses Of A Modern Princess,” a small and elegant display of five dresses worn by the iconic princess. Open daily, year round.

Kew Palace
Kew Palace takes visitors behind the scenes to “George III’s Royal Kitchens” for the first time to reveal George’s eating habits and the management of an intimate royal household. Kew Palace is open this summer until September 30, 2012.

Daily tickets to see any one of the palaces are sold, but membership in the Historic Royal Palaces family enjoys free and unlimited entry to all palaces.

Visit London's Tower Bridge


Flickr photo by kingsimmy

Luxury hotel to open near Tower of London

luxury hotelLondon is certainly the talk of the industry. With the 2012 Olympic Games approaching and the wedding of the century around the corner, London hotels will be one of the most sought after commodity.

News from Luxury Society is that a new luxury hotel near the Tower of London is being planned, certain to add some competition to the luxury hotel market for the big events. The hotel is said to be ready in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and managed by Franklyn Hotels & Resorts, which already operates luxury London hotels The Cadogan and Durley House.

The hotel, which currently is unnamed, will occupy a 1922 building that played host to the inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1946.

We want to know: Would you choose to stay at a hotel simply for its historical significance?

Three Days in London

The cliches of constant rain and gloom are quickly banished when you visit London in the summer. While all the tourist favorites – Big Ben, Tower of London, British Museum – are open and busy, there are other exciting exhibits, West End shows and areas of the city ripe for exploration. If you have three days to spend in the capital this summer, here are some suggestions to keep in mind.

The Photographers’ Gallery is tucked away in a tall, narrow building on Ramilies Street, just a block from the Oxford Circus Underground station (or the Tube as it’s commonly known). Now through Sept. 19, The Family and The Land: Sally Mann, a retrospective of the celebrated American photographer is on exhibition. It’s not for the faint of heart. The show includes the controversial images of her three children in suggestive situations and oversized images of decomposing bodies from the Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Center. Between these two jaw-droppers are the haunting images of Civil War battlefields in the American South that retain scars from the fighting. For many of the photos, Mann used the wet-plate collodion photographic process, which involves coating a large glass negative with chemicals and exposing it while still wet, often in the back of her truck after a shoot.

Pro tip: Make sure to check out the gallery shop, which has one of the most impressive selections of photography books in the world, and stop for a sandwich or cup of tea in the airy cafe, which also hosts free talks and events at lunchtime weekly. Admission is free, but consider putting a donation in the box located in the gallery lobby.

For something completely different, take the Tube to Temple station and walk just a block to The Courtauld Gallery on the Strand. Located inside the circa-1875 Somerset House, the gallery has one of the most stunning collections of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. In its elegant, high-ceilinged rooms, there is an iconic piece of art just waiting to be discovered: Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear; Manet’s melancholy A Bar at the Folies-Bergere; Gauguin’s Nevermore; and work by masters Rousseau, Degas, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and more. The upscale cafe offers an excellent lunch menu and a large outdoor dining area in the Somerset House courtyard. Admission to the gallery is £5 (about $8 at current exchange rates).

Hidden Treasures
London is full of parks, squares and streets with interesting shops that many tourists miss. Here are a few worth wandering off the beaten path to see.1.) Soho Square is ringed by some of the most-pricey real estate in the world housing some of the most noted companies, including 20th Century Fox and Bloomsbury Publishing. The shaded square itself, with its fanciful timbered garden hut at the center, is always full of picnickers and those just lounging in the dappled sunlight. Concerts are often held in the square and music lovers can stop by the bench dedicated to late singer Kirsty MacColl, who immortalized the park in her song “Soho Square” from her Titanic Days album.

2.) Victoria Embankment Gardens between Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridge on the Thames is another lush place to people watch, have a picnic or view the various sculptures along its manicured walkways lined with meticulously maintained flower beds. There’s a cafe in the garden serving ice cream and cold drinks and the Embankment Underground station has an exit right into the heart of the gardens.

3.) Charing Cross Road and Cecil Street are book-lovers’ heaven. Helene Hanff immortalized the former in her book, 84 Charing Cross Road, about an American literature lover who had a 20-plus year relationship with the staff of the Marks & Co. Bookshop. That store is long-gone (a plaque marks the spot), but Charing Cross and Cecil Street are lined with dozens of bookstores, selling new, used, antique and specialty books. Start off at Foyles, the London institution that sells the latest titles and often has free concerts happening upstairs in the cafe.

What’s For Tea?
London is an expensive city, but there are plenty of inexpensive – and delicious – options for dining, including one that offers a bit of history.

The Crypt Cafe at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Trafalgar Square lets you have breakfast, lunch or dinner with the dead. The 18th century crypt is beautifully preserved and you literally dine on top of the ancient burial vaults of old Londoners. All dishes – try a quiche or a hearty bowl of soup with a fresh roll – are prepared onsite using local ingredients. The Crypt Cafe offers an excellent traditional English tea (£8.50) with sandwiches and scones and if you happen to be there on Friday, try the fish and chips (£7.95). Try dinner on a Wednesday night and enjoy jazz performances by local and international artists. The arched, brick ceiling provides amazing acoustics. The dead – I sat over a vault dated 1825 – have, surely, never been so entertained.

How about having your lunch or dinner with a view? The Tate Modern Restaurant located on the top floor of the Tate Modern museum, has arguably the best view in London, looking across the Thames to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even if you don’t want to see the exhibits (but you will, and the Gauguin retrospective opens Sept. 30 with one of the biggest exhibitions of his work ever assembled), the Tate’s home in the massive, disused power station has become a familiar landmark on the South Bank. The menu is not huge, but what counts is the use of fresh ingredients and local foods. Prices range from £12 to £16 for entrees, but there are plenty of smaller dishes, pastries and extensive wine list to choose from. If the char-grilled Cumbrian lamb steak is on the menu, I highly recommend it, and fresh fish is brought in daily. You’ll want to book ahead to make sure you get a table by the windows.

A Night at the Theatre

Two wildly different shows are on in London’s West End this summer, and both have star-power to burn. Joanna Lumley (Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous), David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) and English theatre maverick Mark Rylance are the leads in La Bête at Comedy Theatre, which continues until Sept. 4 before transferring to Broadway. A flop when it first premiered in New York in the early 1990s, David Hirson’s comedy written in iambic pentameter pits the head of royal theatre troupe (Pierce) against a self-aggrandizing street performer (Rylance) being foisted on the company by its princess patron (Lumley). Rylance chews the scenery in a hilarious monologue outlining his comic gifts, and while the last half sagged a bit, this trio of funny folks is worth the price of admission, which ranges from £25 to £55.

Over at Apollo Theatre, British acting legends David Suchet and Zoe Wanamaker have been wowing the critics in the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It’s Wanamaker who walks off the show as the mother of a post-World War II family unraveling after its revealed her husband (Suchet) cut corners by allowing defective parts to be used in Air Force planes that ultimately crashed. The flashes of anger and devastation lurking just under her forced gaiety as a suburban wife build to a gut-wrenching crescendo as the secret is revealed. Miller’s dialogue and situations are a bit melodramatic, but director Howard Davies strips away the pretense and finds fresh undercurrents of emotion to mine. Tickets are £31 to £60.50 and shows are booking to October.

Collin Kelley just returned from Europe, where he traveled and guest lectured on social media at Worcester College at Oxford University. He is the author of the novel Conquering Venus and three collections of poetry. Read his blog on Red Room. The photos above are all courtesy Collin Kelley.

Virtual gaming within the Tower of London

Sometimes historical locations need a little modern twist to make them more interesting for tourists.

Take the case of the Tower of London. I visited this landmark about ten years ago and wasn’t terribly impressed. Sure, it was sort of cool and certainly had some interesting history about it, but, for the most part, it lacked the excitement and sense of adventure that such a storied structure deserves.

Dragging the Tower of London into the 21st century and making it interesting has fallen upon the shoulders of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity group that manages the site. Its docents have worked in conjunction with Hewlett-Packard to create a GPS-driven Tower of London game that is played with a PDA and a radio transmitter.

The concept is simple and brilliant. As visitors walk around the Tower of London, the GPS unit activates various audio feeds which virtually insert the user into historical events which occurred at the location, such as prison escapes. Aided by the PDA flashing images of the past, gamers are fully engaged in the unfolding stories as voices from their headphones cry for help, shout out directions, and navigate them through the historical twists and turns of the ancient structure.

Wow. This is a very cool example of active learning and a perfect way to really educate students without it seeming like a chore.