One last pub, one last museum

Historic Prospect of Whitby pub.

By the time I left the Lush spa in my blissed-out, sweet-smelling state, it was early Friday evening and time for some dinner. After two weeks of pub food that ranged from mind-blowing to food poisoning, it was tough to choose one last place, but I went with the Prospect of Whitby.

This historic pub is along the Thames, a bit away from the city, and kind of in the middle of a residential area that doesn't have a whole lot else to offer. This 16th-century pub was frequented by people like Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens, and at least the old stone floor — if not the wood-barrel bar and the rest of the dark old wood decor — seems to be from their era. The space was as lovely and historic as any of the pubs I'd visited, but alas the fish and chips were pretty mediocre.

I got up Saturday morning, the last morning of my trip, and was glad I'd opted for a late afternoon flight. It gave me a chance to get in just a last little bit of sightseeing, and sort of eased me into the end of my trip. Usually, the last day of a trip has nothing but a flight or a train ride — at least the latter is scenic, but there's absolutely nothing redeeming about the former.

So for my last few hours, I opted to spend more time at the V&A museum. I'd been to the British Museum on my last two trips and was always impressed at the range of world history just waiting there for you to view — for free. What I didn't realize was that across the city, there was an equally large, equally grand, slightly quirkier museum. The V&A is famous for its textiles collection, and I guess I'd sort of assumed it was all about textiles and fashion.

Main entrance to the V&A.

Wrong. The V&A has exhibits on a variety of materials, but it also covers the gamut of world history. I spent a lot of time Saturday wandering through the European galleries, viewing furniture, art, and clothing from a span of about 500 years.

One of the mammoth galleries at the V&A.

Too soon, it was time for one last ride on the Heathrow Express train, out to the airport for what turned out to be a delayed flight (if only I'd known...more time at the V&A!). And, I suppose, it's time to wrap up the blogging on my trip. There are a lot of things I probably should have blogged about, but didn't, like my attempt to travel with only one carry-on bag, plus a messenger bag (a good idea that worked out well, generally, although I wish I would have used a wheeled bag, and the last-minute need to take an air cast threw a wrench in bag space). But it's time to move on to planning new trips!


In which I become a total Lush fangirl

Tracking convoys in the Cabinet War Rooms.

A few weeks before my trip, I was browsing the site for Lush, my favorite cosmetics company, when I noticed a link for spas in its navigation. I clicked on it, saw the page, and then emitted a shrill squeak: "LUSH HAS A SPA?!?!"

Turns out Lush has started up a handful of spas attached to some of their UK stores, including one in London. I watched the videos on their signature treatment, the Synaesthesia massage, and their other treatment, the Validation facial (yes, there are two, count 'em two, treatments). The Synaesthesia massage was pretty pricey at 125 pounds, so I thought about it for awhile. A few hours later, I was on the phone to Lush's King Street store in London, booking a massage.

The massage was for late in the afternoon on Friday, the last full day of my trip, so when I woke up Friday, I had some pretty serious mixed feelings. I only had one more full day of my wonderful trip, but I was capping it off with my long-anticipated Lush massage. I think I may need to end more trips in this manner.

In the morning, I headed out to the Cabinet War Rooms, the bunkers used by Winston Churchill and his staff during World War II. They'd been on my radar during my previous two trips to London, but I'd never quite managed to make it there, and I was glad I did this time. The war rooms are preserved in their 1940s state, and you can almost hear the telephones ringing and typewriters clacking away as the Blitz rages on above you.

The Map Room in the Cabinet War Rooms.

For staffers working in the war rooms, though, the living spaces were so uncomfortable that many of them took their chances sleeping at street level. The staff was convinced that one room, used exclusively by Churchill, contained the only flushing toilet in the place. In reality, it had a hot line to Presidents Roosevelt and, later, Truman, at the White House — the first of its kind. All in all, the war rooms are both a slightly unnerving subterranean space and a unique glimpse into a WWII nerve center. I'm glad I visited this time around.

Horse Guards.

I took a bit of a walk after emerging from the dim war rooms, towards the Horse Guards Parade, and, noticing a large crowd, I was lucky enough to slip up and witness the changing of the Horse Guards. I snapped some pictures, but I can't say it's enormously exciting, and it made me glad I've never attempted to brave the crowds and watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, no doubt more crowded. I'd planned to walk via Trafalgar Square to St. James's Street to do some shopping, but when I got to St. James's Street, I learned that Good Friday in England is a lot more significant than it is in the US — all of the shops were closed.

Apsley House (unfortunately, no photography inside).

Fortunately, I was near Apsley House, the former home of the Duke of Wellington. The enormous house is on the borders of both Green Park and Hyde Park, too large for a family — even a Duke's family — to maintain in modern times. The family gave the house to the UK in the 20th century, but maintains some apartments there. The portion you can tour is extremely lavish, with its high ceilings and brilliant fabric-covered walls. Much of the Duke's extensive art collection — some won during battle — is on display. The portion you can tour doesn't take a huge amount of time unless you really work over the art on your audioguide (I didn't), but it's a fascinating little sojourn into a different era.

I killed some more time with a yummy, inexpensive lunch at the Belgian basement eatery Belgo, a favorite from my first trip to London, and then, with more time-killing necessary, took the Tube over to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which was fairly close to the Lush shop. By the time I got to the V&A, I only had about half an hour, but I figured I could just poke my head in and see a few things. Wrong. It didn't take me long in that enormous museum to realize that half an hour was just long enough to be completely overwhelmed. I vowed to come back the next morning, and left to walk over to Lush.

Like all Lush shops, you could smell this one long before entering a fairly large, airy store. I headed up to the counter and told them I was there for a spa appointment, still wondering just where the spa even was, standing there waiting as they called the spa and told them I was there. A few minutes later, my therapist, Jennifer, appeared, and led me around to a set of stairs at the back of the store. We descended and came through the door, and it was a bit like we'd emerged in some country cottage, a worn table in the middle of a quaint little kitchen, with teacups and glass jars full of cream-colored massage bars lining the wall beside the sink.

The Lush Spa kitchen.

Jennifer and I sat down at the table and I filled out one of those standard spa if-you-have-a-medical-condition-let-us-know forms. From there on out, things took a huge departure from standard. Jennifer gave me a laminated paper with a series of words and phrases on it — things like "Humour," "Perspective," and "Enlightenment." After two weeks of traveling, Perspective sounded like just the thing, and Jennifer explained that my choice meant that I'd start my treatment lying on my stomach, and it would end with extra massage on my face. Up until this point, I'd been assuming that the Lush Spa's two-treatment menu basically meant that you could have any massage you'd like, as long as it was black (err, Synaesthesia), but this indicated that there's actually some variation built in — just not the normal menu-o-massages type.

Jennifer had me smell the Perspective massage bar to make sure that I liked it, and it smelled like no other Lush product I'd encountered — a mysterious combination of vanilla, citrus, and other things I couldn't place — but I liked it. Then she had me write Perspective down on a small chalkboard, and invited me to write or draw anything else about my treatment I wanted to include. I drew a sun, thinking about the perspective the sun has, looking out over the earth and other planets. Also, I am terrible at drawing, but a sun is within my capabilities.

My chalkboard.

Then Jennifer went in to prepare the treatment room, and invited me to select from an array of colored bottles sitting on a cabinet. They were a variety of sizes, and different jewel tones, but each had hand-lettered labels. There were quite a few bottles, and it took awhile to scan through them before I decided on Curious but Quiet. When we went into the treatment room, it was this bottle that she used to dropper a bit of essential oil into two sconces on the wall. The sconces were filled with dry ice, and began smoking out a scent even more indescribable than the massage bar once the essential oil hit. The rest of the room was dim, and carried on the country cottage theme as much as possible, although the big silver containers on one side, for hot and cold stones, made it look a bit as if a mad scientist had taken up residence in said country cottage.

The cabinet of essential oils.

At the back of the room was a giant shower stocked with Lush products, and Jennifer invited me to take my time getting undressed, and have a shower if I wanted, then to lie down on the table and ring a bell when I was ready. I took a quick shower and rang the bell. Then I had the best massage, ever.

The treatment room.

Synaesthesia is the art/science of crossing the senses, so that, for example, a particular smell makes you think of a color. To really do a massage that lives up to the name Synaesthesia, Lush had to go beyond the obvious sense — touch — and ace some of the other senses. Scent came in the form of the Curious but Quiet essential oil, and Jennifer began the massage by wafting more dry-iced oil beneath my towel. Sound was a combination of birdsong and slightly folky orchestral score, specially recorded by Lush for this massage, the massage motions choreographed to the music. It all came together, perfectly — this was far beyond just a utilitarian working out of knots. And I actually did experience synaesthesia, seeing green, purple, yellow, and light blue at different times during my massage. I also felt myself being mentally transported to different places — the foot of a large tree in a forest, on the banks of a deep-cut, winding stream, and beside the rough-planked side of a country house.

I was still in my own personal wonderland when the massage ended, but thankfully Jennifer invited me to take my time getting up, and to use the Lush products or shower as needed. I was not about to wash off the amazing scent of the massage bar, but I did partake liberally of the dusting powder on the shelf, which meant that I spent the rest of my day slightly greasy but smelling brilliant. I headed out of the treatment room to find Jennifer sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of special Perspective tea for me, and a massage bar and bubble bar in the Perspective scent for me to take home, included in the price of my massage. A lot of spas try to hard-sell you on their products following a treatment, but there was none of that here. Ironically, I was so blissed out and enamored of the experience, I would have bought pretty much anything — the massage bar, the tea, the music, you name it.

My Perspective massage bar. The bubble bar is underneath.

We sat at the table and chatted while I finished my tea, and by chatted, I mean I waxed effusive about how great the Lush Spa was and asked when it was coming to the United States, and she told me they are indeed planning one in New York. We also talked about various Lush products, and she showed me the serum bars they use in the facials, which had come out so well they were starting to sell them in the stores. And once I'd finished up my tea, she led me back upstairs to the serum bars (I bought one, "Saving Face," and it is actually made of magic and rainbows. Seriously.) and other products that were out in the UK but hadn't yet made it to North America. It was an amazing amount of personal attention from a therapist.

I can't wait for the Lush Spa to come to New York. I'll totally take a train three and a half hours for another massage, or to try the intriguing facial — in fact, occasionally I'm seized by the temptation to book another flight to London for some Ship Anson fish and chips and more Lush Spa goodness. The Lush Spa experience is completely different from any other spa I've gone to or read about. It's almost like a concept album for spas. Yes, this just might be the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" of spas. But it's also not for everyone. If you want a therapist who's going to work on a specific problem spot or deep-crackle your sore bits, this is not the spa for you. But for me, this is now the spa against which I'm going to compare all others.

But the spa was only one of the factors contributing to my dive into total Lush fangirl status. That Saving Face serum was the other — it is hands-down the best facial product I've ever bought, and I've been switching over to a more-Lush, less-chemical skincare regimen that has worked wonders. I'm kind of disgusted at myself for using products with things like Cocamidopropyl Betaine and Polyquaternium-11 in them ON MY FACE for so long. What is that stuff, even?

And yes, I did order the Synaesthesia CD from the UK site, which gave me the lovely relaxing music to listen to whenever I want, and the side benefit of learning that UK orders actually arrive faster than ones from the US site, which are shipped from Vancouver. More Lush goodness, faster! Now where is that New York spa?


Dramatic Edinburgh

Old Town in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh's Waverley train station looks much like other train stations in the UK — the slightly twiddly Victorian-era iron supports, the crowd bustling toward an array of platforms. But after this very common beginning, when you walk up the ramp and come out onto Waverley Bridge and look to your left, when you see the Old Town, perched along the spine of a mountain, dark and medieval and moody, culminating in a castle, well that's when you realize that Edinburgh is truly a city like no other.

The Old Town was shaped by a geography that has since changed — in medieval times, Waverley Station would have been in the middle of a lake. Hemmed in by water and other factors, the city could only grow in one direction — up — and so the stone skyscrapers went up alongside the main drag, the Royal Mile. Extending out perpendicular to this line of skyscrapers were smaller multi-story dwellings, accessed by narrow alleys called closes. The surrounding landscape may have changed, and a Georgian-era New Town may have been added, but there's no denying the dramatic impact of the Old Town.

I spent my first hour in Edinburgh just wandering around, taking pictures and peering down closes. The history is so blatant on the Royal Mile that it's not difficult to imagine women walking along with their long skirts swishing, men struggling to coax horses up the steep streets. I would have enjoyed far more time to explore, but even with the time I gained by taking the sleeper train, I still only had about seven hours to spend there, and I had a castle to see.

Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle is at the very top of the mountain, and when I hiked up there, I was very glad I'd bought my ticket online already, because there was a huge line at opening time (and it only seemed to get longer as the day went on). I glided in and headed to the tour waiting area. The tour was short, probably only a half hour, but it covered a lot of history and gave me an idea of what I wanted to spend more time on later. The history of Edinburgh Castle is in many ways the intertwining history of Scotland and England — Mary, Queen of Scots, James VI/I, the Jacobite rising — but the castle also has plenty of its own stories. There's Mons Meg, the siege gun with cannonballs the size of beach balls, unceremoniously thrown over the side when she split while being fired (eventually she was restored). And there's the one o'clock gun, traditionally fired so that mariners may set their timepieces, but fired in anger during World War I during a zeppelin attack on the city.

Mons Meg.

I spent about two hours at the castle and could easily have spent an entire day there. In quick succession after the tour, I visited the Scottish National War Memorial, the Great Hall, the Royal Palace (home of the royal apartments and Scottish crown jewels), an exhibit on prisoners of war in a space restored to look like an 18th-century jail, the 12th-century St. Margaret's Chapel, and the remains of the 16th-century David's Tower. Eventually, though, I tore myself away, bought a little single malt scotch from the gift shop, and headed back down the Royal Mile for some lunch.

Before the trip, I'd managed to talk myself into trying haggis, the Scottish dish made of offal meat and a variety of other interesting bits including oats, and traditionally cooked in a a sheep's stomach. It sounds disgusting, and I'd always thought it sounded disgusting. But in most pub reviews I read, people (even tourists) praised the haggis. If that many tourists thought it was good, I figured, maybe it was one of those things that sounded disgusting but was actually good. So I decided I'd try it, and although there was a point immediately post-food poisoning where I thought I'd back out, by the time I got to Edinburgh I was ready for a little haggis sampling.

Haggis from The World's End.

I went to The World's End, a pub in the middle of the Royal Mile that had the distinct advantage of an appetizer-sized haggis. I ordered it with a bowl of soup and figured if it was terrible and I still had an appetite, I could order something else. Turns out, it was neither particularly disgusting or particularly good. It was rich and salty, and the oats gave it a strange texture. I'm glad I tried it, because it shows that sometimes intimidating foods are intimidating for no reason. But I'm not about to say I enjoyed it as much as the Ship Anson's fish and chips, or even that I enjoyed it at all.

I'd booked a tour of The Real Mary King's Close after lunch, and I'm very glad I fit both this and the castle in, even if it meant I felt rushed. Hundreds of years ago, The Real Mary King's Close was like any of the other closes in Edinburgh, open to the air. But when a city building was planned for the site in the 17th century, the buildings lining Mary King's and several other closes were lopped off, and their lower floors used to form the foundations for the new building. In essence, Mary King's close was sealed off, to be rediscovered later, a time capsule on a much larger scale.

Unfortunately, they don't allow photography on the tour because it's below a city building. But it would be impossible to forget that first look down the dimly lit close. Someone's had the foresight to hang faux laundry on a line across the close, and it's this detail that makes it goosebump-worthy, like you're looking back in time. The tour winds through old rooms of the close, some of more prosperous people, some tiny places that would have been packed full of families. There are ghost stories and a sense that you're wandering through some strange otherworld, completely disconnected from the city above. This is one of the things I love about Europe — from the Roman ruins in the basement at Guildhall Art Gallery to the forgotten-then-found surgical theatre in the roof of a church, to chilly spaces of Mary King's close, this is a place where so many things have been around long enough to be lost, forgotten, and then rediscovered.

After The Real Mary King's Close, I had just the briefest time to check out the National Museum of Scotland before I had to head back to the train station. It was another extensive place that I could have spent far more time in, filled with artifacts from every era on Scottish history, and a particularly interesting and extensive section on the industrial revolution.

As I left Edinburgh, I was tempted to feel short-changed on my time there, wondering if I should have cut something else on my trip short, knowing that I could easily have filled three days there. But there was nothing else I would have wanted to shorten (perhaps, in hindsight, more Edinburgh and less Dublin would have been good, but I did feel compelled to see Dublin). I decided that seven hours of beautiful, dramatic Edinburgh was certainly better than no Edinburgh at all. I'll be back, someday, and then I'll set aside more time.