Saturday, September 30, 2023

The 24 Hours in London Everyone Warned Us Not to Take

When we move for work, we're typically authorized a 24-hour rest stop at a place we would have had a layover. Until now, we've always taken the rest stop and appreciated the chance to shower, rest in a real bed, and explore a bit of the layover city. On our way to PCS (permanent change of station) to Dubai, our designated rest stop option was London. We waffled back and forth about whether to take the rest stop this time for several reasons:

  • We're traveling with a toddler, which is way more difficult than traveling with a newborn as we did on our last PCS from Korea to the States. Newborns are content to sleep most of the trip while toddlers are generally antsier and fussier. Shaking up routines can also be hard at S's age (a year and a half), so most parents recommended powering through to the final destination as quickly as possible and not taking a rest stop until kids are older.
  • Many folks told us that Heathrow Airport was too far from the city and we'd have a frustrating time actually trying to get out and see the sights due to cost and transit time.
  • People advised it's harder to visit London in a day than other cities where we've done rest stops like Doha and Paris because things to do and sightsee are quite spread out from each other and we might only get to see one or two things.

Ultimately, we decided to take the rest stop and see how it went, partially as a trial run to see how S did and partially because we've never visited London or any part of the UK together before. The trip started out very rough, with an awful experience on British Airways (BA). Everyone was perfectly nice, but it felt like the first time everyone we interacted with on BA staff had handled a family traveling with a toddler. For example, we always get S his own seat on the plane with a car seat approved for air travel and have him sit in that seat for takeoff and landing. (Not having him in our laps the whole time reduces the risk of in-flight injury.) Unfortunately, a flight attendant tried to tell us we're not allowed to put him in his approved car seat for takeoff and landing and had to have him in our laps. She brought us a seatbelt extension to strap him into our lap belt, but we insisted on using the car seat. Thankfully, she was overruled and came back to tell us we could strap him into his proper seat. (The exact same thing happened on ur second flight, as well. The head flight attendant insisted we couldn't have S in our car seat for takeoff and landing until we demanded he look up the policy and only let us do it once he confirmed we were right per the stated BA policy.

The worst part of all was the stroller. We have a nice, sturdy jogging stroller we travel with that we have always been able to gate check and receive at the gangway without issue. This time, however, we were told that BA policy was to take anything larger than an umbrella stroller and check it as a checked bag we wouldn't have until baggage claim in London. We resigned ourselves to our fate, taking a baby carrier onto the plane so we could wear him until baggage claim. But when we got to our luggage we discovered they had absolutely and permanently destroyed our stroller. The whole thing was smashed, the wheels were bent in all kinds of directions, the spokes were broken, and it was unusable. We had to toss it in the trash at Heathrow and BA shrugged and told us we could always file a claim requesting reimbursement (which may or may not be approved) later.

Not having a stroller in London (and taking an extra three hours to get out of the airport dealing with that situation) really messed up my carefully planned morning. We landed at 6am, so I thought we'd have plenty of time to drop our bags off and do a morning walking tour that was stroller accessible. We ended up scrapping the walking tour since our only method of transporting S was carrying him. We dropped our suitcases and the car seat off at a luggage storage at the airport and took only our carry-ons into the city. Getting into London once we finally escaped the airport was much less of a hassle than people told us previously thanks to the relatively new Elizabeth line train. We took it from the airport to right by our hotel and only had to walk a few minutes. The train service was great and the train was comfortable and on time with plenty of seating. The best part was, we didn't have to buy any separate tickets and could just pay by tapping our phones at the turnstiles and using Google Pay. It was so convenient.

We were able to check into our hotel a bit early, which I was really grateful for after that first leg of our trip. To our (and especially M's horror), though, they told us the building required emergency maintenance and the entire building would be without air conditioning during our stay. Strike two for our rest stop in London... Funny enough, the weather was gorgeous for our whole time in London, with partly cloudy skies and low 70s Fahrenheit for temperature, but the inside of the hotel was quite hot and stuffy compared to the refreshing outside air.

Once we all had a bite to eat at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant and took a nap to recover from the flight, we headed out to explore and had a lovely walk around Mayfair. I tried to find museums or things we could visit, but all of the ones I found nearby closed quite early on a weekday (5 or 6pm), and we had plans to meet a friend of mine for dinner at 6:30pm so the timing wasn't great. Instead, we popped over to Fortnum and Mason department store to do some shopping and ended up getting their ice cream at The Parlour. The Bickfield Milk flavor was my favorite: it tasted so fresh and delicious. We were so busy wrangling S at the table that I forgot to take a photo! (Oh, how parenthood changes you.)

We were going to meet my friend J for dinner at Dishoom, a restaurant multiple coworkers had recommended, but when we went there was a 40-minute wait and M and I didn't think S would do well waiting that long especially since he'd already be passing his usual bedtime. We tried a few other restaurants on the same street, but one said you needed a reservation and the next didn't have a high chair. As I started to get nervous we wouldn't find somewhere to eat, a lovely Thai restaurant swooped to the rescue with not only a table but a high chair. Success! The food really hit the spot. It was so fun catching up with J, my bestie from my time studying Arabic and teaching English in Oman. I haven't seen her in years but when we found out we'd be stopping by London she was the first person I messaged to see if she was free. This was the highlight of our rest stop (and we didn't miss out on Dishoom since we got some for breakfast the next day)!

On the day of our departure from London, we made arrangements to get to Heathrow two hours before our flight. Since the Elizabeth line train was so reliable on the way in, we thought we'd have a similarly easy time on the way out. Unfortunately, we were sorely mistaken. Multiple trains passed that were not going to our terminal in Heathrow, and the train we actually needed was delayed. It was only the beginning of our departure nightmare, however, because when we got to the airport we rushed to check in at multiple zones where British Airways staff kept redirecting us to a special zone we had to check in given we were traveling with a child, even though we were running late. They insisted it was for our convenience, but it was anything but convenient. By the time we finally found a British Airways employee in the zone for families traveling with children and told them we were behind schedule, they scolded us for our tardiness, rolled their eyes, and let us through saying, "What were you thinking? There's no way you're going to make your flight!" Despite our urgency, they still let two sets of customers from the regular line go before us before we could see an agent. The agent then informed us we were six minutes too late to check in per British Airways' required one hour minimum before the flight. Our pleas for mercy (especially since the only reason we were six minutes late is because other zones kept turning us away) were ignored. The worst part was, our flight ended up being ten minutes delayed anyway so we were technically at the desk more than an hour before departure.

I proceeded to spend many grueling hours on the phone with Carlson Wagonlit (CWT, the State Department contracted travel arranging company), American Airlines (through whom the tickets were booked), and British Airways (who operated the flight). Each one told me to go talk to one of the others and said they could not assist me at all. Even after seeking help from my office, I ultimately had to pay out of pocket the almost $2,000 cost of new flights for the whole family and just pray I can get reimbursed later (something I was assured was not a guarantee).

So what's the verdict? Everyone was absolutely right that the rest stop in London is not worth it, and we should have listened to them! I'm sure London would be great with more time, but 24 hours is insufficient and a logistical nightmare. Even though S handled the transitions, time zone changes, and long hours at the airport like a champ, it didn't make up for how awful the overall experience was. I'm so glad I saw my friend J, because catching up with her was the bright spot of our trip. Regarding everything else, I'll just add my voice to the chorus of wise Foreign Service folks who came before us and say: do not do the London rest stop if you can help it! (Though if you manage to have a completely delightful and successful rest stop there, I have mad respect for you. It's not easy.)

Monday, September 18, 2023

Girls' Trip to Richmond

Before we head off again to opposite corners of the globe, I got a chance to do a quick girls' trip to Richmond with my bestie from Seoul, N. It's hard saying goodbye so often in this lifestyle, but if it weren't for the Foreign Service then I never would have even met so many awesome people, including N. I'm glad I was able to get away and get some quality time with just us.

It was her first time to Richmond and my third, but I'm telling you the city wasn't quite how I remembered it. The pandemic really took a toll on so many cities, and many of the bustling streets I experienced years ago only have some of the businesses still operating. The many vacant storefronts (and in one case the inscriptions of people who died on a storefront with "RIP" alongside their names) made my heart hurt for the people of Richmond. That being said, though, I was amazed at the resilience and quality of those institutions that remain - and we took full advantage.

We started with a visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. As we bought our tickets, the kind person at the front desk urged us to head to the butterflies first, because that exhibit was about to close for the day.

We hustled to the far end of the garden and got in line for the butterflies. I'm glad the staff member told us to go, because the butterflies were so delightful and diverse. I saw butterflies snacking on cantaloupe, fluttering about, enjoying the breeze of a fan, blending in with a tree, and more. One even landed on me, but it was so brief I couldn't snap a photo. There were interesting facts about butterflies posted around, and the exhibit also had several cocoon types on display. It was so fun.

After that, we walked around the various sections of the garden, which was interspersed with art from the ongoing Incanto exhibit, featuring scultures by Kate Raudenbush and poems by Sha Michele, who apparently met at Burning Man. The flowers, art, and small lake combined to make a lovely walk, even if my friend N really could have done without the bees.

We also got ice cream at a wonderful place called Ruby Scoops I've never been to before. The ice cream was not only delicious, but the flavors were so unique. N's favorite was the hot honey cornbread and mine was the ube cookies and cream. And yes, we did have dessert before dinner.

Then, we checked into our hotel downtown and relaxed a bit before walking over to dinner. We chose a restaurant N's friend recommended called Lillie Pearl. Honestly, they knocked it out of the park. We got an appetizer with a full head of roasted cauliflower, and the beet and fig puree it came with was one of the best sauces I've ever had. For our mains, N and I split crispy skin salmon and lobster crab cakes, and the crab cakes in particular were extraordinary. We split dessert, as well: the bread pudding and the banana pudding. Everything was decadent and exquisite, and we may have overdone it a bit.

We hung out at the hotel, doing face masks I brought that I enjoyed more than N (especially because it adhered to my face better) and talking and laughing. It was a great time. The next morning, I took N to the coffee bar at Quirk Hotel, where M and I stayed on a previous trip to Richmond and which was thankfully still open. It was just as cute as I remembered.

I persuaded N to devote the rest of our morning to the Science Museum of Virginia. I love all museums, but science museums tend to be my favorite because of how interactive they are. We got tickets that included the special, temporary exhibit Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience. I learned a lot about what it takes to get to and survive in space and what are some of the most cutting edge challenges that scientists are tackling now to help get us to the next level in space exploration. It even included a rotating room to simulate the International Space Station! It was so cool.

We also watched a film in their giant screen theater called The Dome. The show was called Into America's Wild and featured landscapes, adventure sports, and wildlife around the United States. The movie made me want to become a backpacker and hike all over the country. The best and most surprising part was that the documentary film featured multiple Indigenous people, which I appreciated given the problematic history of the United States establishing so many government-owned parks on stolen Indigenous land.

Once we finished up our time in the museum, we popped over to Lemaire restaurant at the Jefferson Hotel. The hotel was extravagant in decor, and the food was pretty good (but not quite as good as Lillie Pearl if you ask me). With that, though, we had to wrap up our Richmond vacation and head back home. (I think N missed her cats as much as I missed baby S.) But N and I had a wonderful time, and I can't wait to see her again (probably abroad next time)!

Friday, September 8, 2023

Three Michelin Star Dining in the Inn at Little Washington

I can't believe our time in Virginia is coming to a close. In our final weeks before the next big move, I've enjoyed spending a little time with some of my closest friends. In this lifestyle, you have to take advantage of those opportunities when you can because it might be years before you see the people you love again. Some of my last stops this time included Little Washington for a decadent dinner, an overnight trip to Richmond, and a day trip to Middleburg. I'll devote this post to our visit to Little Washington.

I've wanted to try the Inn at Little Washington for a long time. It's the only restaurant in the DMV (DC, Maryland, and Virginia) with three coveted Michelin stars. My Michelin dining experiences prior to this were a total of one, Smyth in Chicago. Smyth had one Michelin star, and I still think about the extraordinary food years and years later. M is not one for fine dining, so I went with my dear friends L and D (yes, the same ones where I was a groomsmaid in their wedding).

Little Washington itself was adorable to walk around. We arrived a bit early so we could take in the sunset and go for a leisurely stroll in the small town and the farmside trails.

The Inn was spectacular in atmosphere, decor, and service. I included photos here of my two favorite courses, coincidentally the first and last of the meal. The first was an exquisite tuna carpaccio with wasabi sorbet. I didn't think it was possible for me to like wasabi in any form until I tried this dish.

My other favorite was the cheese add-on dessert option. My biggest piece of advice for anyone dining at the Inn at Little Washington is to get the cheese course if you can. The person who brought this amazing cow cart full of phenomenal cheeses to us is affectionately known as the Cheese Whiz, and he whipped out more cheese-related puns than I knew any human could possibly generate.

Our servers were also wonderful and made for lively conversation, something L and D rightly pointed out we often don't get to experience in fine dining. Despite the luxurious atmosphere, so much of the Inn at Little Washington was unpretentious compared to other restaurants at that level; for example, there was no dress code and they encouraged guests to dress in whatever they pleased.

Would I shell out that kind of money to go there again? Probably not, because it was really quite expensive, but the food was delicious and the experience was something really special. The company was the best part of all, and I'm glad I got to share this one-of-a-kind dinner with two of my favorite people.