Thursday, April 07, 2016

DISCOVERING GREAT VALUE BRITAIN (Day 1)



The iconic Big Ben in London
Is there such thing as a silent scream? When I received the invitation from VisitBritain for a chance to experience London, Bath, Oxford and the beauty of The Cotswolds, I had to re-read the email twice to ensure it wasn’t a prank. Also I was in a café, in prim and proper office surroundings so I had to refrain from shouting out loud and jumping around in glee.
VisitBritain rolled out the GREAT carpet for us with these practical gifts

All too soon the day came for us to depart and after a smooth, surprisingly relaxing flight that took us from KL to Dubai before we landed in Heathrow, the three of us eager beavers: Jennifer Khoo of Chasingfooddreams and ex-Lisa mag editor Zura Ahmad could hardly wait to embark on our Great Value Britain adventure.
This stone South Bank Lion sculpture has been at the east side of Westminster Bridge since 1966

The good folks at VisitBritain wants us to share with fellow Malaysians that Great Britain is still an affordable destination to visit. Hence our Great Value Britain journey will highlight the many viable Food (including Halal eateries), Travel, Sightseeing and Accommodation options available to Malaysian visitors in London, Oxford, the Cotswolds and Bath. 

LIVING IT UP IN LONDON

 

Once we arrived at Heathrow Airport in London, we bought tickets for the Heathrow Express in London Paddington Station. The ticketing machines are similar to our LRT ticket machines so it’s easy to make your own ticket purchases. Then just look out for the directional signs on where to board the Heathrow Express to head into Paddington Station.
 

Once we arrived at Paddington Train Station, we simply followed the directional signs to change trains. We had to take the Bakerloo Underground Line (Southbound) to Waterloo Station, the nearest station to our hotel of choice, Premier Inn County Hall.

Despite the hurly-burly pace inside the Paddington and Waterloo Stations, I was surprised and very touched by the helpful and friendly London commuters – both ladies and gentlemen – who swiftly came to my rescue when they noticed I struggled to carry my suitcase down the flight of steps inside the stations (I had sprained my knee the week before so I had to proceed with caution). But all’s well when I received those kind souls unstintingly lent me a helping hand. What a heartwarming #OMGB moment for this newly arrived visitor!

We were gobsmacked upon finding Premier Inn County Hall (County Hall, Belvedere Rd, Westminster SE1 7PB, tel: +44 871 527 8648). The hotel is just around the corner from the London Eye, a stone's throw away from some of London's most famous landmarks and in the same building as the Shrek Adventure!
Reception area pix courtesy of Premier Inn County Hall
Centrally located in the historic County Hall building right in the heart of London, The Premier Inn team on duty was affable and efficient, ensuring our luggage was kept securely before we went exploring around the city.
 
After a flurry of photo-taking around the Jubilee Park, our group went up in one of the futuristic glass viewing pods of the London Eye, to enjoy sky-high and spectacular sights of cosmopolitan London. 
 
Much to my own surprise, my fear of heights wasn’t so acute…maybe because the pod was sturdily designed and I was too preoccupied in taking photos and role-playing at being video travelogue ‘host’. LOL.
The scenic Thames River with its parade of skyscrapers and famous landmarks such as Parliament House and Big Ben building at Westminster Bridge are so breathtaking, you'd go bonkers taking endless snapshots of them. Plus you don’t have to pay anything to admire them.

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To satisfy our growling tummies, Gillian Pearce from VisitBritain took us to lunch with a view at Skylon Restaurant and Bar. Located inside the newer 300ft cigar-shaped steel and glass structure to the west side of The Royal Festival Hall (a historic centrepiece built in 1951), the stylish restaurant serves up stunning panoramic views across the River Thames from its floor-to-ceiling picture windows. 
Executive Head Chef Tom Cook takes pride in modern British cuisine but great value seekers may want to head for the grill dining area which offers reasonably priced, informal bistro-style eats.

The trick is to juggle your budget when visiting Great Value Britain. You may opt for a simple lunch and splurge out on a good dinner or vice versa. After all, you are on holiday and should be able to treat yourself once or twice during the trip. Penny-pinching would just make yourself miserable so it pays to plan ahead and spoil yourself when the occasion calls for it.
A two-course lunch at Skylon costs £28 (+12.5% discretionary service charge) while a three-course costs £32+. Seasonal produce plays a key role in the menu which led me to pick the Saddle of Rabbit with Beignet of Leg, Braised Baby Gem, Broad Beans and Mustard Veloute for main and luscious Rhubarb Cheese Cake with Yuzu Granite for dessert.
Another way to explore Great Value Britain is to go on a Big Bus Tour – the nearest stop from our hotel is York Street. Fyi, each Big Bus Tour Hop On Hop Off ticket is valid for 48 hours and includes a boat cruise along the Thames River. The first Day Tour bus departs from stop 1 at 8.30am with tours running every 10-20 minutes (subject to change).
If you feel lost, check with any member of Big Bus Tour staff at the London Eye York Street stop. We like the convenience and freedom that allows visitors to “hop off” and “hop on” the Big Bus at any stops. There is live and recorded commentaries on the buses in different languages too.


The circuitous route covers St. Paul’s Cathedral - Tower of London - Westminster Bridge (Big Ben & Westminster Abbey)  - Buckingham Palace - Oxford Circus - Piccadilly Circus - Trafalgar Square  - Victoria. Seats at the open deck allow you to enjoy an unobstructed view of the city's many heritage buildings and major attractions.
 
We chose to hop off the Big Bus near Covent Garden. Here, you’d find quirky shops, standalone kiosks and little eateries proffering a wide variety of merchandise; from food and drinks to local handicrafts and touristy souvenirs. Most shops are open Monday to Saturday between 10am and 7pm and on Sunday from around 11am to 4pm.
 
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When we arrived, there were several lively street performances going on in addition to the kaleidoscope of kitschy craft items and street wear on sale. Queues snaked from Ben’s Cookies and Venchi for famished visitors wanting to treat themselves to some light bites. Needless to say, we had a field day snapping pixs of interesting goings-on, eye-catching shop displays and irresistible food in and around Covent Garden.
 
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Tuttons Bar pix courtesy of Tuttons London
Gillian Pearce from VisitBritain then hosted us to a slap-up dinner at the legendary Tuttons Restaurant in Covent Garden (11-12 Russell St, London WC2B 5HZ, tel: +44 20 7632 2081). Arguably one of the most famous and long standing restaurants in Covent Garden, Tuttons is situated on the east side of the historic piazza, overlooking the hustle and bustle of the markets.
The restaurant’s gorgeous vintage-inspired interior designed by Russell Sage serves as a stunning backdrop for our dinner. There’s also a bar for pre-dinner tipples and private dining rooms for dining parties. In fair weather, Tuttons’ al fresco dining area out by the cobblestone path of Covent Garden offers a unique and enjoyable dining experience.
We made our selection from a 3-course menu priced at £22 inclusive of a Bellini cocktail. I chose Tuttons Maple Cured Salmon with Avruga Caviar, Horseradish and Dill Crème Fraiche followed by Vegetable & Cannellini Bean Casserole with crispy Tortellini, Savoy Cabbage  & toasted Pine Nuts. The classically English fare at Tuttons showcased a good variety and quality of seasonal produce from Great British suppliers that left little room for complaints. In fact, I had to takeaway half of my dinner which the waitstaff courteously helped to pack on request.
My sweet tooth was satisfied by the Passionfruit & Vanilla Crème Brulee with Shortbread Biscuits (top dessert pix). I swapped samplings of my choices with Jennifer and found her selection was excellent too.
Sleep like a baby at Premier Inn's spacious guest rooms (pix courtesy of Premier Inn)
Back at the Premier Inn, I enjoyed soaking in the long bath before tucking in the ultra-spacious room for a good night’s sleep. The extra-cosy bed lulled me to dreamland as soon as I had finished making full use of the complimentary speedy WiFi connection. Upon waking the next morning, I made myself a cup of tea using the little kettle provided while catching up on the news and weather forecast. Then I’m off to enjoy a good English breakfast before we head out to enjoy sightseeing in London.
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COMING SOON! Day 2 of my Great Value Britain discoveries
 
 
Travelling from Malaysia to the UK on a budget? Check http://www.visitbritain.com/malaysia or CIT Malaysia http://cit.travel/europe/united-kingdom to plan your VisitBritain itinerary.

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