(Heather) We really did not want to get out of these beds this morning! Seriously, one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had. They have a special kind of bed here at the Sofitel called “MyBed.” The porter told us last night it was like sleeping in a cocoon, and we would have to agree. But the day called, so we reluctantly climbed out of bed and started today’s journey.
What has struck us most about the Sofitel St. James is the attention to details, both in the physical aspects of the hotel, and in the service we have received. Each and every person we have come in contact with- from the manager to the bellhop, from the receptionist to the chef – has been so warm and attentive. The details in the room (besides the amazing beds and linens) include fresh long-stem red roses, an easy-to-use climate control, a towel warmer, rubber coasters for the glasses on the marble counter tops, a small night-light to illuminate the way to the bathroom, a box of chocolates hand-made on site, live bamboo in the bathroom, among other things. The breakfast was amazing! They serve a buffet, as well as an a la carte menu option. We chose the buffet. Everything was in cast-iron pots and pans of varying sizes, so the display was just charming! All the typical English breakfast foods, with some French breads and croissants added in, plus a wide array of fresh fruit and juices. They also offer a lighter buffet, but since we only have a couple more breakfasts here before we return to reality, we opted for the full English. The attention to detail is also found in the restaurant, for example, the milk for coffee is served hot and frothed, while the tea for mlk is cold.
We met Corinne Cleret, the P.R. and communication manager, who was most helpful in making our bookings for us and making sure we had everything we needed for our filming and stay. Her smiling face and sweet demeanor made us feel most welcome! She then led us to the SO Spa for our appointment. She gave us a tour of the beautiful, three-story facility, which was converted from a historic old bank building. Since it is a “listed building,” (historically protected) they could not alter the beautiful ceilings, columns, stairways, etc. What they have done in adding their own elements, combined with the old elements of the bank, is truly stunning, and blend so well to make a peaceful atmosphere. We were introduced to Robin, spa manager, Blandine, and Suzette. Corinne left us in their care, and they truly pampered us! We were offered a selection of fine teas. Courtney had rose tea, steeped from whole rose buds in the pot, and I had the white peony tea. Blandine begin my pedicure first while Courtney filmed. She asked when my last pedicure was. Um….no answer! I cannot remember. When you are a mom, so often you put pampering yourself way at the bottom of the list, if it makes the list at all! That is what made today so special. After hiking the rocky crags and pastures in Iona, our feet were needing some help! Suzette brought us each a non-alcoholic cocktail – after all, it was 10 AM! They were beautiful fruity drinks made from fresh fruits and juices. Everyone at the spa went out of their way to really give us the “royal treatment.”
During our treatment, we heard a lot of sirens going past. Blandine remarked how there were way more than usual, and wondered if something might be going on. On our way back to the room, we saw two police officers (Bobbys) in the lobby. We asked if anything was going on because of all the sirens, or if it was just a normal day in London. They said it was normal, nothing going on. Right. After we gathered our bags in our room for the trip to Windsor, we asked the concierge for directions to a bank. He said we needed to avoid Piccadilly because just above there, there was a demonstration going on – some anti-capitalism group protesting the G8 Summit which is happening here next week. Ok, so….police guy was not forthcoming! We headed out, and also noticed police cars zooming by, and a large police presence in the streets. Later, the newspaper headline read: “Police Storm G8 Protestors HQ.” We are not far away, but far enough that we can avoid that area if we need to. No worries! It is wise to be aware of what is going on around you in a big city, obviously. We had thought to ask the officer when we heard and saw the inordinate number of sirens and police. Knowing if there is some unrest anywhere in the city can help you avoid problems. Fortunately, the concierge filled us in!
(Courtney) Travel around the city is very easy. The tube (subway) is colored coded and also named by line, heading bascially north/south or east/west. To avoid the protestors, we walked to Green Park to get on the tube. The Waterloo stop is only 2 down from Green Park and it is also a massive train station. Heather looked up our train to Windsor-Eton Riverside online to find out the timetable ahead of time. We had 8 minutes until the next train departure when we arrived in Waterloo. We quickly and easily purchased our tickets at the kiosk in the station. While we were standing, there a very nice Londoner who mentioned that we could purchase half price train tickets at www.thetrains.co.uk then bring our confirmation and print the tickets at the kiosk. This is a great travel tip we will check out next time. Platform number 16 was a little ways down and the station was announcing the departure of our train so Heather and I picked up the pace and hurried along to the train. These trains DO NOT wait. They leave precisely on-time. Heather actually filmed the countdown on the screen and the second it hit the 12:28 we were pulling out of the station.
The ride to Windsor is little under and hour. A very pleasant journey. We had a great view of the castle on the left of the train as we pulled into Windsor. Our first stop was a little antique jewelry store that Heather has been to several times. Berkshire Antiques is full of vintage and antique jewelry. I could have spent A LOT of money in there. There were hundreds of beautiful pieces, some funky some traditional. The owner heard us talking about lunch and suggested that we visit the Courtyard Cafe. Lilly walked us through a tiny alley into a lovely courtyard. We both had taken away ham and cheese paninis that were very inexpensive, but very tasty.
(Heather) Windsor Castle is such an impressive complex of buildings from the outside, and from within the walls. We got the free audio guides, which are very easy to follow and really enhance the experience. The history of the castle, and details of what is in each location are given at various points through the upper, middle, and lower wards, and inside the State Apartments and Saint George’s Chapel. We do not see how you could get much from a visit there without the guide! Also, in every location, there are warders to answer any additional questions you may have. We asked a lot, so we learned a lot. Even though I have been several times, each time I go, I learn new things. The highlight for both of us was Saint George’s Chapel, particularly the sculpture depicting the death and resurrection of Princess Charlotte and her infant son, who both died in childbirth. Very powerful, and amazingly realistically carved. It is quite an emotional piece. We learned about the various elements of the royal crest, and its evolution, which was fascinating. In Saint George’s Hall, we even saw one of the crests of a former Duke of Argyll who had been a Knight of the Garter, which we recognized because of what we learned at Inveraray from the current Duke of Argyll. Courtney was very taken with the whole experience. Her knowledge of English history surpasses mine, so I enjoyed having my personal English history guide to explain various stories of the kings and queens to me as well.
The Balcon is the Sofitel Saint James restaurant, led by chef Vincent Ménager. We had booked a late dinner at 8:30 to give ourselves the whole afternoon at Windsor. We had a gorgeous table in the corner with a nice view of the restaurant. The restaurant gets its name from the balcony inside , reached by two wooden spiral staircases where they do wine tastings. It is elegant, yet not pretentious or overly formal-feeling. The staff were all attentive to anything we needed, and did a perfect job at making us have a very special experience. Alessio is the restaurant manager, and he personally attended to us. The menu was comprised of seasonal dishes, made from local ingredients from the UK. The head chef, Vincent, came out prior to the meal to point out some of his favorite starters and main course items. He offered us a sparkling wine from Britain to begin. It was excellent – not to dry or too sweet. He also explained that when he moved here to England to start the restaurant, he spent a lot of time on the road exploring the country, meeting local farmers in order to make connections to get the highest quality, freshest meats and produce available. He also has a desire to help the local economy by using sources in the UK. This approach also helps him keep his costs down. He uses what is fresh and in season instead of importing. On staff, he also has a boulanger (baker) and patissier (pastry chef), with all of the breads and pastries being made in-house to ensure quality.
To start, I had the fresh asparagus (which he knew had been picked just yesterday) with a hollandaise sauce. These were so fresh and tender, they sliced like butter. Courtney got brave and ventured out of HER comfort zone to order the escargots, which were Hebredian. ( I made her since she made me do the whole oyster thing.) These were made with a savory bacon and onion sauce, and she loved them! After being on the coast of Scotland where seafood abounds, and where I had not had meat in a week, I was thrilled that one of the chef’s suggestions was the Cumbrian fillet. Again, perfectly cooked and seasoned. Courtney’s carnivorous side also came out and she ordered the lamb, which was also outstanding. Of course, such an experience requires dessert, especially since there is a patissier on staff! Courtney had a blackberry financier with sour apple sorbet, and I had a spice cake with ginger mousse and salted caramel ice cream. Oh yeah! We left stuffed after a superb 3-hour dining experience. It truly was a memorable evening, made so not only by the meal, but also by chef Vincent, Alessio, and the staff. Even if you do not stay at the Sofitel, a special dinner here is a must in London!
With very full tummies and smiles on our faces, we went up to our room to snuggle down in our comfy beds. Wish we could pack them up and take them home! We have one more day to get the “royal treatment” here in London. I think this is the most relaxed I have felt in years. Who would have thought? Here in London….
Enjoying the pampered journey….
Heather and Courtney