There was a lot more to our three weeks' vacation in the UK than just famous sites and great shows. It was everything in-between that made the vacation truly extraordinary.
Some people bungee jump, some people ski the high powder, I drive on the left. Part of the fun – and part of the reason for -- this vacation was my two weeks of Driving on the Left on some of the most picturesque roads in the world. But it wasn't easy. Every drive was an adventure in survival. Every time we arrived someplace safely and I turned off the engine, I felt a sense of relief and accomplishment. It was just the right amount of vacation risk for me.
I've driven on the left before -- twice in the UK, three times in Bermuda (on a scooter), in Ireland, and in Jamaica. Driving on the left is a real challenge. An American driver has to suppress many – but not all – of the normal skills you use every day on American roads: so many actions are done backwards.
During these two weeks of driving in the UK, I didn't hit anyone or anything (unlike in Ireland in 2008 when I knocked off my sideview mirror on the very first day). First of all, I was smart: I didn't drive in London. If possible, I never drive in strange cities. Our very smart travel agents had us take a train to the West Country and pick up the rental car in Exeter, not too far from our first hotel.
During the two weeks, I was only badly "honked" once. I must have cut off this silver Volvo on a roundabout in Warwickshire because the guy got right behind me, blasted me with his horn and flashed his lights angrily. I guess I cut him off on the roundabout. Sorry, Mr. Volvo.
I did the best I could on the dozens of confusing roundabouts I drove. Several times I had to go around on a roundabout twice to try to choose the right road. Once I went around three times. And I still made mistakes.
My success driving around the UK was due in large part to the exemplary work of my navigator, the Tiny Goddess. She constantly was there at my side, reminding me to drive correctly.
"It's a TIGHT left turn" ... "a WIDE right turn" ... "Stay in your lane ... STAY IN YOUR LANE!!!"
She must have said those things to me a hundred times, and each time I was grateful. Right-driving habits are very hard to break. Each day I drove, I was like a new driver.
Fortunately, we had a GPS in our rental car, which was an enormous help. I also had an automatic shift car. The last time we drove in Ireland, I had a standard shift and a useless GPS. That was a little harder. At least this time, I didn't have to shift with my left hand, driving on the "wrong" side and shifting with my "wrong" hand.
Some things about the digital age are horrible, but the GPS is not one of them. Instead of relying completely on maps as we did in Ireland, we simply had to enter our destination into the GPS and follow the directions. To be precise, the TG was in charge of entering all the info into the GPS. She is much, much better at digital and computer things than I am.
And when I made a mistake and drove the wrong way -- signage in the UK can be quite strange and misleading -- the cool female voice of the GPS would say, "Recalculating," and find a way to put us back on the right road.
Before we left for the UK, I had studied our destinations and printed out maps from Googlemaps that showed where we were going to drive: from the car rental place in Exeter to Chagford in Dartmoor to Bath to the Cotswolds to Warwickshire to the Lake District and finally to Edinburgh. I also took actual folding road maps of England with us that we spread out on the bed before we drove. (They were way too big to unfold in a car.) But they helped us get a good general idea of where we were going that day.
But even with the GPS, and the Googlemaps, and the road maps, we got lost dozens of times. And that was some of the best part of the vacation: getting lost in these fairyland landscapes.
We got lost everywhere, but it didn't matter. Everywhere we drove was storybook beautiful. How much fun was our driving? It was among the true highlights of the trip, and what I'll remember most, equal to all the high art, the Shakespeare, etc. Those magnificent vistas we saw are in my memory forever. All of it was beautiful, but three areas were unforgettable: the Dartmoor National Park in Devonshire, the Cotswolds, and the Lake District.
I love beautiful drives, and I've done a few ... Pacific Coast Highway four times, the Yosemite Valley, the Ring of Kerry, the Dalmatian Coast, the Berkshires in the fall, New Mexico at sunset ... and these two weeks of driving in the UK took us through some of the most beautiful landscapes we've ever seen.
"It's like CGI!" I finally realized. The sheep-flocked hillsides, the deep forests, the perfectly geometric meadows, the stone walls, the stately homes, the gardens of flowers. Just like the guidebook said: Too beautiful to be real. We stopped and took dozens of pictures and could have stopped a hundred more times. You couldn't believe the beauty in front of your eyes.
We got lost and drove on country roads, cut through farmland, so narrow that they had no name. The GPS just called them "Road." We drove on a lot of beautiful, nameless roads. One closed bridge in the Lake District even fooled the GPS, but we wound up driving through land so magical that it was worth the long detour and the constant "recalculating."
When I turned the car in to Hertz in Edinburgh, the last bit of city driving was nerve-wracking. I didn't want to make a mistake at the very end in the clogged traffic as we dropped off our suitcases at our busy hotel and then managed to find the Hertz office. When I turned off the engine for the last time, I did a little internal dance of triumph. I drove for two weeks on the left and lived to tell the tale. I didn't hit anything, not even a sideview mirror. I didn't kill us ... or anyone else, for that matter. (Pace Matthew Broderick.)
Here is some of the magnificent countryside that we got lost in:
LAKE DISTRICT PHOTOS
DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK in Devonshire
Perhaps the biggest surprise of our trip was the great food. British cooking is off-the-chart wonderful these days. The British are absolutely food-crazy: the hottest show in the country is "The Great British Bake Off" -- and it shows. British food used to be a joke and frankly what we ate wasn't exactly "British food." (No puddings, not much game.) But what we had -- "international" cuisine, made with local ingredients -- was some of the most delicious food I've ever had in my life. And the presentation and service was impeccable. We had smoked salmon – served under a glass dome, in a cloud of real smoke – twice!
We like to dine out and we generally go to nice but not super-fancy restaurants at home. (I'm not a foodie. I like food, but I don't LOVE it.) But our travel agents booked almost all the dinner reservations, and they made some great choices. They picked out a bunch of two-star and one-star Michelin restaurants for us that were simply extraordinary. They also had us eat at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London (1798), which I wouldn't have chosen but am glad we ate at. It's where Edward VII wooed Lillie Langtry, and Dickens, Thackeray, Chaplin, Olivier, Gable, etc. ate, so it was good enough for us.
It's hard to single out one particular meal, but the dinner we had a Dinner By Heston, the restaurant run by Heston Blumenthal in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge, was unforgettable. Blumenthal is a British celebrity chef and proprietor of The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, one of four restaurants in Great Britain to have three Michelin stars; it was voted No. 1 in The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2005. He is a champion of the scientific study of cooking, for which he has been awarded honorary degrees from Reading, Bristol and London universities and made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He is a pioneer of multisensory cooking, foodpairing and flavour encapsulation.
Dinner By Heston is his tribute to the history of British cooking. Every dish on the menu is "dated," showing its source from some ancient British cookbook. (Of course, I'm sure that Heston modernizes the dishes to some extent.) On the advice of the concierge of our hotel, I ordered the restaurant's signature dish, the "meat fruit" (c.1500). It was an appetizer that looked like a Mandarin orange, but had pate inside. It was beyond delicious. I wish I could remember every dish and every ingredient but I can't. The TG had "braised celery" (c.1730) that she said was fantastic. For dessert, I had (again on the recommendation of the concierge) the "tipsy cake" (c.1830) – a deconstructed pineapple upside-down cake – that was one of the best desserts I've ever had.
And it wasn't just the fancy restaurants: even in the little places where we would stop for lunch, there would be good soups and salads. Even a well-prepared risotto. In Scotland, we had amazing salmon, amazing seafood. Great shellfish all over the UK.
In all, the three weeks of dinners in the UK were the best, richest food I've ever eaten. Fortunately, we walked it all off during the days – in museums, on sidewalks, through gardens, up mountains, and in stores.
DINNER BY HESTON
The British TV we saw in our hotels was a hoot: lots of quiz shows ("Eggheads," "The Closer," "Pointless," "Celebrity Pointless," etc.), lots of cooking shows (one of the biggest news items when we were there – it was even on the front pages -- was the change of networks for "The Great British Bake Off"), and lots and lots of football/soccer. We also got semi-hooked on a reality show "The Retreat" that was on at 7:00 every night, just as we were getting dressed for dinner.
THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF
Everyone we met was pretty-to-very, very nice. Except the Volvo driver who honked me and flashed his lights. Most of the drivers were very polite. We had a lot of close passings on tight country roads and one-lane bridges. Everybody was patient and gave "the wave" when we passed.
And they're all as scared to death of the prospect of Donald Trump's winning as I am. And even if he loses, he's unleashed some very bad things into our general society. Or rather, exposed things that were there all along.