Thursday, September 29, 2016

On the Subject of Bathrooms in Britain and Other Oddities

(This was the only thing I wrote on the entire trip while it was happening, hence the present tense and a bit of repetition from my previous post.)

At this point on the trip, we've stayed in eight different hotels across England, Wales and Scotland, with two more to go.  I've been quite pleased with the accommodations for the most part.  I had expected that traveling as a single on a tour with 45 participants would get me put up in tiny little closets with a twin bed and barely room to turn around, but each room has been roomy, with comfortable full/queen-sized beds and nice views out the window.  That extra premium to have my own room was money well spent.

The bathrooms in these hotels have been clean and well-appointed, but all share a couple of common elements that have left me amused and/or confused and usually each has a unique feature all its own that sometimes has me scratching my head.

The travel documents from the tour company had warned me that some hotels do not supply washcloths, deeming them unnecessary luxury items.  Huh.  Something to put soap on and scrub yourself with is a luxury.  Ok.  I popped a scrubby into the suitcase just in case.  So far about 50% of the hotels have supplied washcloths.

Most of the rooms have had nice, glassed-in showers.  A few have had tubs.  Both kinds of layout require care in entering and exiting.  The showers will be up on a 6-8 inch platform.  The tubs will be DEEP with high walls and necessitate careful climbing into and out of.  For someone who is still extremely skittish about falling after the great smoke alarm catastrophe and who is virtually blind as a bat without her glasses, this can turn out to be the biggest adventure of the day.  Most of the hotels have a sign in the bathroom offering to supply a non-slip mat for the tub, but who thinks to call housekeeping before they are standing naked and getting ready to step into the slippery tub.  I found myself contemplating at one point about how long it would take for someone to figure out I had fallen and cracked my skull (probably 10 minutes after I failed to show up at the coach on time) and how long it would then take them to break through the dead bolt and chain on the door.  My thoughts then wandered to how I'm sure Globus has that kind of scenario all timed out and the other 44 passengers would be on their way to the next stop on time less 10 minutes while the designated damage control representative took care of disposing of the body.  (I have a morbid imagination.)  I decided I should best not inconvenience them and be extra careful getting in and out of the tub.  They probably charge extra for that.

We have stayed in 8 different hotels and each one has had a different kind of faucet/shower control.  After a long day on the road and having one's senses overloaded on beautiful scenery, puzzling out the right combination to get water to flow through the pipes so you can take a shower can be almost overwhelming.  I very nearly gave up in Inverness.  All I could manage to produce was a bare trickle into the tub.  Finally, in desperation, I stumbled across the solution when I realized there were two parts to the shower controls, built into one piece of metal.  One turned left and one turned right and both had to be engaged to start the shower, but until you looked at it closely you would never know it contained two controls.  (I had a private chuckle the next morning on the coach when I overheard a couple of folks talking about having to bathe in a trickle of water because the shower didn't work.)

Also in Inverness, there was a notice on the tub and on the door that steam would set off the smoke alarm (!), so please keep the bathroom door shut.  The room was tiny and thoroughly steamy by the end of taking a bath. I slipped in and out of the bathroom, careful to leave the steam captured behind me.  Putting on makeup with a bathroom full of steam is not easy.  None of the bathrooms have been equipped with a fan, so tough luck there.

Most of the standalone showers have been designed in such a way that the shower head points directly out the door and you either have to step in and close the door and accept being blasted with cold water until you get the temperature adjusted, since there is not enough room to move out of the way, or risk filling the floor with water as you stand as far back as you can outside the shower while you fiddle with the taps.  I generally end up mopping the floor with the extra towel when I'm finished, because it takes awhile to puzzle out what all has to be turned to get the water to a comfortable temperature.

We won't even go into the variations of the toilets.  Let's just say that some work fine and others mull it over before they decide they might just accept the order to flush.  There was one that would spend about 5 minutes pumping water noisily upstairs to the appropriate place and eventually kicking off a violent flush after you had forgotten all about asking it to do its job.

The electrical set ups are just as off-beat.  I have stayed in hotels across the USA and have taken to carrying along a power strip because there is usually one outlet available for the various chargers I take along with me.  Just about every place we've stayed in Britain has a multitude of outlets all over the room - although not in the bathroom.  There will be a special outlet in the bathroom accepting two different kinds of plugs for "SHAVERS ONLY".  There is no outlet in the bathroom that can be used with the hair dryer.  The secondary issue in this particular case is that where there are plenty of outlets in the main room, there is frequently no handy mirror to help you style your hair.  I've been running about 50-50 on  whether my hair will be in order or look like a fright wig once it's dry.

I've surmised that the Brits must be absolutely terrified of electrical accidents. (Probably explains why there are no fans in the bathrooms.)   Each of the dozen or so plugs in their hotel rooms has its own switch and they are off when you arrive.  I'm glad that the converters we brought with us have lights to indicate the plugs are active, so I know when I've successfully kicked off the nightly charging process.

Some of the rooms will keep you busy for your first minutes in the room as you try and figure which switch turns what on and off.  Sometimes I will make the rounds, turning on all the switches, think I've figured it all out, reach for what I think is the bedside light switch and turn the entire room off.  Then there was the hotel room that requires you to insert your key card into a pocket beside the door to activate the lights and the air conditioning.  Not necessarily a bad idea to help cut down costs - although I do like to leave a lamp on when I leave a hotel room for supper and I was out of luck in that place.

I had a quandary at the boutique hotel where we spent our few days in London prior to joining up with the tour.  London was having a bit of a heat wave when we arrived and there was no air-conditioning.  When we arrived and each evening when we returned, the window would be wide open to catch the scant breeze.  I couldn't quite handle leaving my window open at night in a big city like London, especially since my room was on a lower floor and any American burglar worth his salt could have gained access without breaking a sweat (heat wave notwithstanding).  I can only guess that British burglars have some kind of ethical issue with breaking into boutique hotels in the Belgravia neighborhood.  Or maybe it's the CCTV cameras on every corner that deters that kind of criminal behavior, but I still shut the window every night and made do with a rotary fan to get through the warm nights.

The Brits supply an electric tea kettle in every room and it beats our standard hotel shoddy drip coffee makers all to heck.  I've seldom had a decent cup of coffee in an American hotel room.  When I decided to try out the tea kettle,  I expected that the tea bags supplied would produce a fine cup of tea, but I wasn't so sure about the instant coffee packets.  I've been pleasantly surprised to enjoy a good cup of decaf coffee in the evenings and they even supply little cups of milk and none of that nasty powdered creamer you get Stateside.  The Brits know how to provide decent warm drinks.

But another of their oddities is the dislike of cold drinks.  I wasn't about to ask for a glass of iced tea anywhere, but I expected I could at least get iced water.  In general, their idea of iced drinks involves about 3 ice cubes in a tall tumbler.  When you reach into a cooler for a bottle of water in a grocery or convenience store, it is barely chilled and certainly nowhere near cold enough for us Texans.  I have learned to tolerate barely chilled beverages, but I am looking forward to glasses packed with ice as soon as I get back home.  (The only adequately iced drink I've had here was when I ordered an amaretto sour.  It was more ice than liquor and mixer and I enjoyed it thoroughly.)

The Brits are different, no two ways about it.  But aside from their odd bathroom fixtures, their paranoid attitude toward electricity and their unexplainable fear of ice, I like it here.


Life on the Road with a Group Tour

When contemplating a first trip overseas, you have to decide which approach to take:  (1) plot the trip yourself and commit to renting a car and hoping you can cope with whatever the local roads and drivers throw at you, (2) plot the trip yourself and commit to using public transportation, or (3) join a group tour and let the professionals take care of the details.  We opted for a combination of (2) and (3).

David has taken the challenge in previous trips overseas to do some driving in a rental car, but always where folks drive on the right side of the road.  Both of us agreed that we would not be comfortable attempting to drive in Britain until we had a chance to observe the roads themselves and how things work differently when driving on the left side of the road.  For the London stretch of our trip we decided the smart thing to do would be to travel mostly by taxicabs, taking the tube where unavoidable and taking a train on our one trip we wanted to make out of the city before we joined our tour group.

So far as London goes, I will never ever attempt to maneuver a rental car in that city.  Driving in London requires a certain level of throwing caution to the wind and it might be mandatory to have either a death wish or be a tiny bit insane.  It is quite an experience to sit in the back of multiple taxicabs and watch the drivers zip in and out of the tiniest openings, driving pell mell down a busy thoroughfare with pedestrians standing at the edge of the road (I kept holding my breath for fear someone would step off to their death) and seemingly running red lights.  (I finally caught on that there were two lights, one on the left for the thru traffic and one on the right for the turning traffic.)

Speaking of lights, one thing the Brits do that I think we should adopt is the yellow light coming on both to and from the red.  I liked that.

The first few taxicab rides I just held on and hoped for the best.  Our last night after the tour ended found us back in London and zipping around to a few last places on our list.  By that time, after 12 days in a motor coach on narrow British country roads, the taxicab rides weren't nearly so daunting.  But I still wouldn't attempt to drive in London.  I would undoubtedly end up blocking Piccadilly Circus or some equally busy place, having hysterics while some poor bobby tried to prise my hands from the wheel.

One of London's black cabs, Big Ben in the background

Looking toward Big Ben from the Jubilee footbridge over
Victoria Embankment

Once we joined up with the Globus Essential Britain tour and exited London, the road situation changed dramatically.  Sometimes we would be on what we would term an expressway, although much less stressful than our version and usually no more than four lanes, divided.  Most of the time we were on smaller two lane roads heading out to scenic sights in the countryside and coastal regions.  We were traveling on a luxurious motor coach, with plush seats and wi-fi (sometimes).  Our primary driver, Kevin, was very competent and never gave us a moment's concern, not even when we would meet up with another large motor coach.  The two drivers would squeeze past each other with inches to spare.  Our tour director would instruct us to "breathe in" as we would approach these passings.  Quite frequently there would be spontaneous applause for Kevin's driving once we cleared.

On the way to Loch Lomond, Scotland

Our coach parked for a photo op near Ballachulish, Scotland

Squeezing past a lorry on a narrow country road near
Blairgowrie, Scotland

The view through the front window near Kyle, Scotland
Not only are the roads narrow, in many cases there are hedgerows or rock walls right up next to the roadway so it's not like you can ease off onto a shoulder when it's a tight squeeze like you usually can here.  I can't be complimentary enough about our drivers. (Kevin was required to take a day or so break here and there and our fill-in drivers were just as good as he was.)

The bus - I mean motor coach (they were adamant about that) - was very comfortable and each day on the trip meant several hours watching the beautiful countryside through enormous windows that Kevin cleaned at the end of each day.  By the third day, most of us were taking cat naps between stops.  The seats were soft and comfortable and the motion of the coach was as good as any lullaby coaxing you into sleep.  We became accustomed to our travel companions either listing forward until they jerked awake, or their heads lolling backwards with their mouths falling open.  Fortunately I never heard anyone break into a snore.  

Hmm.  I best get back to the subject of this essay, which was not really supposed to be about the road conditions in Britain, but rather a tiny review on seeing Britain with a tour group.  Let's just close this portion with the observation that while I would never ever attempt to drive in London, I don't think it would be too much of a challenge to drive elsewhere in Britain.  After 12 days on the road observing a competent driver (when I wasn't catnapping), I think I have a basic understanding of the road signs and the roundabouts.  I would feel optimistic about flying into a smaller airport, grabbing a rental car and heading out to Dartmoor or up to the Lake District or the Scottish highlands.  Those were the three standout areas for me of all the places we visited and I would love to go back and spend some time exploring.

The time issue is the big negative about traveling with a tour group.  Don't get me wrong, the positives far outweigh the negatives, especially for your first time traveling abroad.  What you give up in freedom to roam and explore, you gain in getting to see far more than you would if you were traveling the same amount of time on your own.   The tour folks have this down to a science and know exactly how much time it takes to see a place, grab a bite to eat and get back on the coach.  They make sure to stop every couple of hours if it's a long travel stretch so you can visit the facilities, stretch your legs for a few minutes and grab a fresh bottle of water.  Sometimes you end up having to decide between visiting a promising gift shop and taking that potty break, because the stops are timed exactly to get the essentials taken care of and no extras.  You sure don't want to be the one who is causing the other 45 folks to wait on you to get back on the coach.

At the destination stops we would be provided with tickets and eased on up to the front of the line.  (This initially seemed like we were being treated like something special, although you quickly become aware that at every one of these stops, there are likely another half dozen or more tour groups being shuffled to the front of the line to keep them on the tour schedules.  These places depend on those tour groups for a big part of their revenue.)  For these primary tour stops, we would be turned loose for 90 minutes or a couple of hours and given a time to be back in our seats on the coach.  I would always plan on being done with the sight-seeing about 20 minutes before boarding time so I could stroll through the gift shop or grab that bite to eat.

I was disappointed that a few of the promised destinations fell more into the 20 minute rest stop variety,  but there were so many stops on the way that you really had to keep moving to get them all in.  I guess when you really think about it, after you've ooh'ed and aah'ed over the beauty of Loch Lomond and snapped 20 or 30 pictures, there's not too much point in hanging around.  There's more to be seen down the road a bit and a schedule to keep to, so we learned to step lively and see the sights without dawdling.

Our daily starts were early, with luggage to be outside your hotel door by 7am and boarding time set for 8am.  (There was a morning or two that started even earlier.)  While they were collecting and loading your luggage, you would have access to a full breakfast buffet at the hotel.  During the preliminary days in London, I thoroughly enjoyed the "Full English Breakfast", which is generally eggs, bacon (English style, more like thin ham), sausage, beans (like our pork and beans, only no pork), grilled tomatoes and/or sautéed mushrooms, toast and pastries.  By the time we joined the tour, the novelty of that spread had worn off a bit and I found it harder and harder to face eggs in the morning.  Fortunately, I developed a taste for the fresh croissants and the English jams, so I switched back and forth for the duration of the tour.  As the tour progressed into Scotland, you also had the option of your morning dose of haggis, which I declined to sample.  There's only so much adventure in my soul.

I was a bit apprehensive about what kind of accommodations we would enjoy during the tour.  I had paid an extra premium for a single, but I knew that many hotels in England provide twin beds and smaller rooms to singles.  My fears were unfounded.  I always had a full or queen sized bed and a generous sized bathroom (more on the bathrooms in a later post).  I usually had a decent view out my window.  I discovered rather late into the trip that the instant coffee provided with the mandatory electric tea kettle was much, much better than the instant coffee I'm familiar with and that became a late evening treat along with a package of the tea biscuits provided.   The majority of the time I had an ironing board and iron and sometimes a little fridge for my water.

What they didn't have, reliably, was air conditioning.  At the bigger chain hotels, air conditioning was not a problem.  At the smaller hotels, it got a bit warm at times.  These places did provide fans, thankfully.  Some of the hotels required your hotel key to be put in a slot just inside the door to keep the lights on and the air conditioning going.  That took me a few minutes to puzzle out, but I eventually got there.

The extra excursions we enjoyed and the meals provided by the tour I will cover in later posts, but I will say that the entertainment was excellent and the meals were adequate for the most part.  Our tour director was entertaining on the road, spinning tales (some tall) about the places we were going through and anecdotes about the royal family and other Brits of note.  At either end of the tour, we were expertly welcomed and discharged by very friendly Globus representatives.  At the very end of the tour I hesitantly asked if it would be possible to add a transfer to the airport for early the next morning and it was quickly arranged by a most charming and helpful young lady.  I don't know about other tour companies, but I can say that Globus knows what they are doing and I felt like I got my money's worth.

Our travel companions were a mixed assortment.  We had quite a few Aussies on board with us and they seemed to be a friendly and cheerful bunch.  While there were several single folks on tour, most were paired up with co-workers or friends or a family member.   There was one other single woman traveling without a roommate and she and I just happened to meet in the hotel lobby before the rest of our group assembled the first morning.  Toward the end of the tour we agreed that we had a bit of a bonus traveling alone, as we each got our own bench on the coach, all to ourselves, and we could spread out and be even more comfortable.  My additional seat generally held my hat, upside down, holding my knitting bag so it would stay put and I worked on my knitting project off and on while gazing out at the beautiful English countryside.

Sad to say, there is always a grump in any crowd and we had one.  He was generally complaining to the tour director early in the morning about some perceived slight in the accommodations and he bit the heads off a few of our companions who wandered into his orbit, but we lucked out in that he almost always fell asleep on the road so we didn't have to put up with too much out of him.  He was easy enough to avoid off the coach.  (Wouldn't you know, he sat across the aisle from me in the mini bus that took us to the airport for our departing flights.  The trip to the airport was an hour and he kept falling asleep and tilting toward me, getting snagged by his wife before he could fall out of his seat and then snapping at her for waking him up.  He must be a real joy to live with.)

So to wrap this up....I would definitely take another tour with Globus.  But not to England, Wales or Scotland.  They showed me a good time and I saw so much that I had heard about all my life and I enjoyed every minute.  But the best thing they did for me was provide me with the experience to know where I would like to return and take my time getting to know better.  Next time I'm going to stop and smell the heather, for as long as I please.