Double your fun in London and Paris
France is the world's No. 1 tourist destination but there is no denying that Merry Old England is the hippest place on the planet this year.
Not since the Brit-pop invasion and the swinging days of Carnaby Street has the country known for its "keep calm, carry on" pragmatism been so cool. A year-long tsunami of fun and mostly free events celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Summer Olympic Games has made London the place to be in 2012.
But why restrict a visit to one fantastic city when you can have two? A strong Canadian dollar coupled with a lower pound, and an even lower euro, make a combined London-Paris getaway more-affordable than ever -- even if you splurge on a few "royal treatment" experiences.
Here are a few ideas on things to do in both cities from a recent visit:
LONDON - PARTY CENTRAL
The night before she walked down the aisle at Westminster Abbey and became the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton and her family stayed at The Goring, a quintessentially English hotel long favoured by the royal family, politicians and visiting dignitaries. Located in Belgravia -- close to Buckingham Palace, shopping, theatres and Victoria Station -- it has 69 individually decorated rooms and suites, including a recently redone "Royal Suite," where Middleton "may or may not" have stayed on the eve of her wedding to Prince William. Odds are good she did occupy the royal suite but staff of the five-star Goring are models of discretion when it comes to guest privacy -- royal or otherwise.
A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the multi-award winning Goring was the first hotel to have central heating and a bathroom in every bedroom. Today it has a lovely lush garden, a wonderful restaurant and a clubby bar-lounge inspired by Chateau de Malmaison (one-time home of the Bonapartes) with leather chairs, gilded ceiling and swagged curtains.
But the best thing about The Goring is its service -- impeccable, attentive, but never snooty as befits a 102-year-old hotel still run by the family that built it.
-- Kensington Palace has a new permanent exhibition -- Victoria Revealed -- on the life of Britain's longest-ruling monarch who was born and raised there.
The exhibit paints an intimate portrait of Victoria's unhappy childhood and her 63-year reign from her first day as Queen at age 18, to her wedding to Prince Albert and their happy family life, to her grief over Albert's death, and her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Items displayed include paintings, sculpture, clothing -- including Victoria's black silk baby shoes, her wedding dress and mourning clothes -- and snippets of handwriting from her journals.
Visitors get a sense of the great love shared by Victoria and Albert through the music he composed for his young bride to be, sketches the newlyweds made of one another, and jewellery he designed for her.
We also caught Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton: A Diamond Jubilee Celebration at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Drawn from the museum's permanent collection, the special exhibit of images by the royal photographer spans three decades of her majesty's life. Starting in 1942, the photos show the progression of the Queen from young princess to the confident monarch we see today. Subject matter includes Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, her state visits to Commonwealth countries, and childhood photos of Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, as well as photos of other members of the royal family.
While the V&A exhibit wrapped up in late May, it is travelling to other venues in the U.K. for the rest of the year. Versions will also be shown at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria (until Sept. 3) then at the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg.
I've visited London several times but on this trip I took a walking tour from Trafalgar Square through Admiralty Arch and down The Mall to Buckingham Palace with Viv Haxby, an excellent Blue Badge Guide. The services of a guide like Haxby can enhance any visit as these veritable fonts of knowledge will not only provide the history of the glorious buildings you are seeing but also dish some delicious gossipy tidbits about the people who inhabited them long long ago.
READY, SET, GO
Diamond Jubilee celebrations peak this weekend but many Jubilee-related events continue throughout the year. Add to the roster, the annual arts-focused City of London Festival June 24-July 27, the London 2012 Festival June 21-Sept. 9, the Olympic Games July 27-Aug. 12, and the Summer Paralympics Aug. 29-Sept. 9, and it's easy to see why this party may not wind down until Christmas. During my visit, the city was literally buzzing with anticipation.
After riding London's high-energy "jubilympic" wave for a few days, a serene ride aboard the Eurostar from central London to central Paris will provide a stress-free retreat.
For convenience and the best pricing, book Eurostar tickets through RailEurope before leaving home. And don't forget to use your ticket for shopping discounts and admission deals to popular museums and galleries in both cities. These include London sites such as the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, and Liberty souvenir shops, as well as Paris sites such as Musee d'Orsay, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Le Musee du Quai Branly, Cite de la Musique, Jeu de Paume, Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Galeries Lafayette.
PARIS - PERFECT!
When it comes to the royal treatment, it really doesn't get any better than Le Royal Monceau -- Raffles Paris. Recently renovated with interiors by French designer Philippe Starck, you may be tempted to spend the entire Paris visit inside this beautiful art hotel.
Designed to feel like the home of a friend with very good taste, each sophisticated room features a leather couch, acoustic guitar, pieces of art and photography from the hotel's collection, and art books. They will even arrange for guitar lessons if you want.
Floor-to-ceiling mirrored bathrooms (also decorated with art) and walk-in wardrobes reminiscent of haute couture dressing rooms are real show-stoppers. There are three Presidential suites with private entrances as well as a Ray Charles suite and a Parisian suite.
Le Royal Monceau is the first Paris hotel to have an Art Concierge, and there is a private exhibition area, an art bookstore and a movie theatre on the main floor.
And as wonderful as it is, a fantastic location on Avenue Hoche just steps from the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe will draw you outside sooner rather than later.
After a little retail therapy at Galeries Lafayette -- and a trip to the department store's rooftop terrace for a wonderful view of the city -- I strolled back to my hotel along the Champs Elysees. The the next morning I hopped a train to Chateau de Fontainebleau, about 55 km from Paris, for a guided visit with Barbara Keraudran.
Less famous than Versailles, Keraudran said Fontainebleau is the country's largest chateau and the only one to have been inhabited by every French sovereign from the 12th to the 19th centuries. And unlike Versailles, which was stripped of its treasures during the French Revolution and then abandoned, Napoleon took a fancy to Fontainebleau and restored much of it to its former glory.
Set in an 80-hectare forest, Fontainebleau began life as royal hunting lodge and was expanded many times over the centuries. Its treasures include Renaissance masterpieces and interiors designed for Marie Antoinette, and emperors Napoleon I and Napoleon III. Highlights are the Grands Apartments, the Renaissance Rooms, the Papal Apartment -- where Pope Pius VII was first a guest then later imprisoned until he "came around" to Napoleon's point of view -- and the Napoleon Museum.
IF YOU GO TO LONDON AND PARIS
Eurostar operates up to 18 daily trains between London St. Pancras International and Paris Gare Du Nord with return fares from 75 euros (about $96). Travel time between the two cities is about 2 hours, 15 minutes. Eurostar also offers connecting fares from more than 200 stations in the U.K.
Upgrade to Standard Premier for flexible fares, a quiet spacious coach, a light meal and a selection of magazines. Standard Premier fares start from 174 euros (about $222) return. Business Premier customers enjoy flexible fares plus 10-minute express check-in, access to Eurostar's business lounge, an excellent working environment on board and menus designed with Michelin-star chef Alain Roux. Return fares are 539 euros (about $690).
For details on exhibits at Victoria and Albert Museum, see See vam.ac.uk. For Kensington Palace information, see hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace. For information on Chateau de Fontainebleau and the town, see uk.fontainebleau-tourisme.com. For information on guiding services, contact Viv Haxby at firstname.lastname@example.org and Barbara Keraudran at email@example.com.