Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors, said it best, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been’.”
Regrets are a universal phenomenon that all of us confront at some point in our lives. Contiki believes that travel should never be one of them. With their philosophy, #NoRegrets, Contiki promises to deliver 18 – 35 year olds bucket-list experiences that fulfill their travel dreams. Having experienced Contiki this past April, I can say whole-heartedly that they practice what they preach.
My trip began in London, where I arrived several days prior to my Contiki trip to explore the city. I stayed at the historic Milestone Hotel, a Red Carnation property, that is quintessentially English in both aesthetic and significance. This 5–star hotel has a rich heritage dating back to the 1600s, and acquired it's name from the old cast iron milestone that stands in its original position beside the hotel today. Located in the heart of Kensington, and across the street from Kensington Gardens and Palace, this Victorian neo-Gothic building, with red brick and buff terracotta, begs to be noticed amongst its neighbors.
Standing outside the front steps, you are greeted by a kind-faced gentleman adorned in a knee-length forest green blazer and three-piece suit who tips his hat and offers a warm ‘Cheerio’. The whole exchange instantaneously making you feel as though you’ve traveled through time and should be handing him a white-gloved hand along with a small curtsey. The interior is no different and mirrors the opulence of its exterior in both architecture and antiquity. The quaint lobby is riddled with history from the art on the walls to the old-fashioned check-in desk, along with the aged elevators that all add to the hotel’s charm.
My room, a Junior Suite, offered beautiful views through the paned window glass of Kensington Gardens and the Palace. With a grandiose four-poster bed, large flatscreen TV, antique sofa, kitchen table, bathroom, toilet, bidet and copper bathtub.
The hotel is home to a plethora of dining experiences for such a small property, such as private dining in the Oratory – a small area they have flipped from an in-house chapel to a luxurious and romantic dining experience. There is Cheneston’s Restaurant, offering the finest of British cuisine, where you can treat yourself to their signature Milestone rice pudding with Chantilly cream. You can enjoy award-winning afternoon tea in the Palace Lounge or slip into the Stables Bar for a nightcap. Between the extravagant but cozy rooms and the 5-star service and cuisine, one needn’t venture far from the comforts and indulgences of the Milestone.
During my first few days I explored Kensington Garden, the Palace and surrounding area. I got lost in Princess Diana’s garden, fed the ducks by Round Pond, studied the perfect whimsy of Peter Pan’s statue and people-watched in Hyde Park. I discovered Knightsbridge and the magic of Harrods, and even checked English afternoon tea off my bucket list at the Egerton House – a small luxury townhouse hotel in the heart of Knightsbridge, perfect for sightseeing and observing the hustle and bustle of London.
After several days getting lost in London, my adventure with Contiki began. We met at our hotel in Earl’s Court, an area just south of Kensington and got acquainted with the group and assigned our rooms and roommates. Contiki remains cost-focused, as their key demographic is more budget-minded travelers, so they craft their trips to cater more towards the experience of the destination rather than the level of stars for the hotels.
Most of the hotels we stayed in were 3–star properties, all very clean and comfortable, but definitely not suited for those that prefer a certain level of luxury. Contiki also assigns you a roommate if you are traveling alone; otherwise there is a single supplement fee for your own accommodation. This however, is keeping with one of the main pillars of Contiki’s philosophy, and that is getting out of your comfort zone and meeting new people.
For most its Europe trips, Contiki has “kick start meetings” at their Contiki Basement, located at the Royal National Hotel in London. Here you get to meet Contiki staff, your tour guide and driver, your fellow travelers, and you learn about what is in store for your trip and familiarize yourself with how Contiki works.
After our meeting, we were treated to a late-night production of London’s STOMP. A lively and entertaining show filled with uber-talented percussionists creating music from cigarette lighters, sticks, trashcans, pipes and more – nothing was off limits. We were then set free to go off with fellow travelers and explore London’s exciting nightlife, where we all went bar-hopping and danced the night away. The next day we had free time to explore all the London sites, including Big Ben, Parliament, the changing of the guard, the London Bridge, the London Eye and more –a whirlwind day of tourist attractions.
The next day we all lumbered into our pink and white Contiki coach and set off for Liverpool, home of the Beatles. We explored Liverpool’s downtown, shops, waterfront, took rides on the Ferris wheel and eventually made our way to the famous Cavern Club where the Beatles first got their start. I would recommend a visit to this port city for diehard Beatles fans!
After a quick visit to Penny Lane, and the obligatory Instagram photo by the Penny Lane sign, we headed off for York. York was and is by far my favorite city in England. The historic 13th-century walled city has over 1900+ years of history and is quintessentially medieval, having lost little of its pre-industrial luster. The narrow, cobblestoned streets are easily walkable, and at the heart of it lies the immense York Minster – Northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral. As small as the city is, it has quite a lot to offer.
York is home to The Shambles, which takes its name from the Saxon word shamel, meaning “slaughterhouse,” where in the 1800s there were 60+ butcher shops along this street. Today the butchers are long gone, but the cramped and cobbled lane is lined with 15th century Tudor buildings, making it one of the most picturesque streets in Britain, as well as one of the most visited in Europe. It is said that author J.K. Rowling was so inspired by The Shambles that she modeled Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley after the street.
York is also home to the most haunted bar in England, the Golden Fleece. Still an inn and tavern to this day, this place is truly one of a kind. Built in 1503, the building has become so warped and misshapen that when you place your beer on a table, the degree of tilt is so staggering beer spills out of your glass. There are many haunted stories of ghosts, such as Roman soldiers in the cellar, or the One Eyed Jack in his red coat carrying a pistol. I recommend to just sit at the crooked bar next to their permanent resident (a skeleton that apparently waited too long for his drink!) and let the bartender fill your head with eerie and spooky anecdotes while you sip a nice local ale.
Another great activity in York is to walk along the medieval walls of the city. You get to explore the charming town and all its intricacies while getting great photographs of the cathedral, gardens and more. When I was exploring the walls, I happened across a set of stairs. I wandered down and found myself in a beautiful and lush garden with an intricately carved tree with a Roman soldier and horse that read “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?”. It was truly a whimsical and dreamy landscaped yard with delightful patio furniture and guests sipping afternoon tea and eating biscuits. For a moment, it felt as if I had landed in Alice’s Wonderland. I meandered into the old, brick house and treated myself to their Blackberry and Raspberry infusion specialty tea along with fruit, scone with goat cheese, clotted cream, and apricot and raspberry jam. Truly one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.
The next stop on the itinerary was England’s Lake District. We visited Windermere and Kendal, took a ferry ride around the nearby lake, roamed about the little boutique shops and restaurants littered along the streets. This area of England is incredibly picturesque and perfect for those that just want to wander and get lost.
We ended our adventure in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capitol, and truly one of the highlights of the trip. This magnificent historic city dates back to the early 15th century. It has long been the center of education and medicine for Scotland and attracts over one million visitors each year. The city surrounds the “Royal Mile,” which is a street running up to the hilltop-perched Royal Castle (the rock it is built on is a remnant of an extinct volcano), and home to what the locals call ‘Old Town’.
It is a magical experience exploring this walking city, made even more magical by the fact that J.K. Rowling found her first inspiration here for her famous Harry Potter novels. She taught classes at the Moray House School of Education – drawing inspiration for the Harry Potter “houses” (i.e. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, etc.) from the Scottish school’s division on students into houses. She also first started writing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in a little café near the Royal Mile called “Elephant House,” and you can sit in the same seat she has overlooking Edinburgh. Also overlooking Greyfriar’s Kirkyard – an old Scottish graveyard where she was inspired by the names of Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Mad-Eye Moody and others -–a Harry Potter fan’s heaven.
There are so many little shops, pubs, restaurants, and cobble-stoned and winding streets and alleyways in Old Town, as well as great shopping in New Town. Edinburgh is also home to Hogmanay – it’s the Scots word for the last day of the year, and is the celebration of the New Year in Edinburgh. Guinness Book of Records names it “the world’s largest New Years Celebration.”
You haven’t lived until you’ve tried Scotland’s signature dish, haggis. A dish made with sheep meat minced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices and more, traditionally served with potatoes and a dram of good Scottish whisky. Another dish you can’t miss in Edinburgh is Café Piccante’s deep-friend Mars bar.
Another culinary experience not to miss is Edinburgh’s Scotch Whisky Experience. Home to the largest whisky collection in the entire world, this attraction takes you through all the regions of Scotland, explaining the herbs, weather and cultural differences that make each bottle unique – and also what goes into making Scotch Whiksy! You can sign up for several types of tours, all of them including whisky tastings, and some of them including masterclasses and tasting menus! A delightful and informative activity right next to the castle. After you’ve had a dram or two, it is fun to meander through the Royal Castle and learn all about centuries of history within its walls.