“Slow down. Slow way down,” is the advice I give when asked to help design an itinerary. Typically, people have two weeks in Europe and want to cram in as many countries as possible. Indeed, the distance between England and Germany is about the same as from New York to Cleveland but with vastly different cultures, languages and international borders.
Everyone wants to tick off the postcard icons and get that Instagram selfie with the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Big Ben, the London Eye, the Berlin Wall or the Cologne Cathedral, but the amount of money and human energy it takes to fit all these into a traditional trip aren’t worth it, and the memories you make won’t be nearly as meaningful. Sure, you can check off the top 10 things to see in London in a few days by taking a hop-on hop-off bus. But as Thoreau said, “The only people who ever get anyplace interesting are the people who get lost.”
Novice travelers underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes to change venues, let alone countries. First there is packing everything and not forgetting the phone charger or the shampoo in the shower, lugging the backpack and suitcase to the train station or airport, going through immigration and customs on both ends, transportation to the next hotel, unpacking and finding the next meal in crowded locations — and that’s if everything goes smoothly.
Unless you have a legitimate concern about kicking the bucket in the near future, crumple that bucket list in favor of savoring fewer locations, whether rural or urban. The main cost of travel is the actual movement between places by sea, sky or land. One benefit to staying in one place longer is that the same budget can cover fancier food, theater and event tickets, or a splurge on a nicer hotel and a more central neighborhood. The aches and pains that come with jet lag and navigating in a strange city can be eased by a comfy bed, crisp linens and the pampering that comes with a higher price tag.
London is always worth at least four days, although a week is even better. Each time we visit, we pick a different neighborhood to get to know in depth. This summer we decided on Kensington, which ticked off all the boxes. The Milestone Hotel is right across the street from Kensington Palace, which has been the home of Kate and William, Meghan and Harry, Diana and Charles and Princess Margaret. Queen Victoria grew up there. Not only is the palace open for tours, but there’s also a restaurant in the gardens that’s perfect for lunch or tea.
Kensington High Street has eclectic restaurants, cafes and a convenient Tube stop. Nearby Royal Albert Hall is one of the most iconic venues in the world and it’s well worth booking an event there as part of your planning. It’s walking distance to the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its opulently decorated rooms by William Morris and others that reflect the aesthetic charms of the Victorian era along with other exhibits to delight everyone. Plan on a meal in the cafe, which has the distinction of being the first eatery in a museum, then visit the nearby venerable Natural History and Science museums.
If you deduct the actual costs of changing countries — airplanes, trains, taxis — plus the time unpacking, repacking, waiting and typical delays along with the accompanying stresses, you might be able afford a more luxurious hotel. This can spin something grueling into a panoply of little pleasures that will be remembered long after the iconic, yet ordinary, photo of Buckingham Palace fades.
The secret sauce of certain bespoke hotels is that they treat their guests not as credit-card-carrying travelers but as long-lost friends they wish to coddle. Instead of snobby, obsequious behavior that some people fear in high-end accommodations, here you get warmth and kindness. In fact, the staff of Red Carnation hotels must have specialized training in generous and friendly welcomes.
The Milestone Hotel in London, the group’s flagship property across the road from Kensington Palace, has mastered this. Even though you realize that you are only one of thousands they will host in a year, all the little gestures, gifts and personalizations feel genuine because everybody knows your name, where you’ve been and what you might need.
Yes, there are those 19th-century bedside mats to wipe your feet before climbing between the impeccable sheets. Then there are the generous towels, the handwritten note, a different type of candy every night. There’s also a special thrill when you find that all of your electronic charging cables have been corralled with twisty ties.
Montague in the Gardens, another Red Carnation hotel, is a perennial favorite of mine, especially the location around the corner from the British Museum. Here you’ll find the same service for a lower price and with almost all the same amenities.
For your next trip you might just want to slip out of your walking shoes, put on those monogrammed slippers beside your bed and revel in having a stately home away from home. Then you can explore one city in depth with indulgence rather than exhaustion.
WHEN YOU GO
Novelist and Travel Writer Gay Courter’s latest book is “Quarantine: How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis.”