Legend of the Long Weekend

The magnificent Houses of Parliament in London, England - photo by E. Jurus

What happens when you fly to Europe for a long weekend? You become a legend among your friends, that’s what!

A few years ago one of our brothers-in-law died very unexpectedly in March at the age of 47. My hubby Mike was very close to him, but didn’t have any time to grieve as he helped his sister and kids cope with all the legalities. Mike was holding up manfully throughout, but I could tell how much it was affecting him, so I thought it would be a good idea to plan a bit of a break in June once everyone got past the most pressing duties.

The most we could afford that year, both time-wise and budget-wise, was a long weekend away, so I pondered what would be feasible.

Option 1: long weekend in northern Ontario. Pros: 3-6 hrs driving time. Cons: the beginning of insect season and the unreliability of our weather – we stood a good chance of being stuck inside for 4 days while it rained throughout.

Option 2: long weekend in one of the New England states, just across our border. Pros: hopefully better weather, lots of history/culture to explore. Cons: up to 12 hours driving time, i.e. not conducive to relaxation.

Option 3 popped into my head rather unexpectedly: fly to London, England for a few days. Pros:

  • We’d already been to London a few times, so no urgent need to go sightseeing – we could just meander around enjoying the ambience, and explore a few sights we hadn’t seen before if we chose
  • Transportation required only 7 hours relaxing on an airplane (except for the then brief airport waiting times – it was pre 9/11)
  • London is one of our favourite cities, great pubs with lots of atmosphere, the lively theatre scene, enough history to never run out of things to see…

Cons: Getting a good package – at the time, travelling for less than 7 days could mean exorbitant rates.

I checked first with British Airways because in the winter they offered 3- or 6-day theatre packages…but not in June as it turned out. I had our local travel agent, Marilyn, on the hunt, but nothing was coming up in my price range until I spotted an ad by Caledonian Airlines for low one-way fares to Great Britain. I got Marilyn on the phone and asked if she could find out whether they would still give us the low rate on each leg (to London and then back) if we booked them for 4 days apart.

Hallelujah, they would! We were off and running. I asked Marilyn about any special rates  (pre-internet days) at our wish-list London hotel, the Russell in Bloomsbury, a huge old Victorian pile that was the epitome of a classic English hotel. We’d had breakfast there before – fantastic English breakfasts – but the normal room rates were out of our reach. I think Marilyn pulled some strings, because she got us in for half the normal price, including the fabulous breakfast, which was worth about $25 per person all by itself.

We packed a few clothes and set off on our adventure. We decided to wing it for this visit – we didn’t book any theatre shows in advance, as we had access to a ticket office right in the hotel and we thought we’d take our chances with whatever was available, and we didn’t pre-plan an itinerary other than to make a beeline to our favourite pub in all of London, the Museum Tavern across from the British Museum. We discovered the pub on our very first visit to England and have been enjoying its Victorian décor and delicious home-cooked food ever since.

It was wonderful to settle ourselves into our high-ceilinged old English room at the Russell. The bedroom and bathroom were straight out of a British novel, with dark wooden furniture, old-fashioned marble surfaces and loads of faded charm. We checked out the ticket office and were lucky enough to get tickets to see both Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s only play and the longest-running production in history.

For three days we meandered around the city as we felt like. We did make a day trip out to Leeds Castle in Kent, on a drizzly afternoon that just added to the atmosphere. Leeds is a beautiful moated castle dating back to Saxon times, and is known as the Queens’ Castle, as six different queens have lived in it. The interior is surprisingly light and airy for a medieval castle.

It was time to return home all too soon, of course, but the trip was successful – as relaxing as I hoped and a good break for Mike. The fun wasn’t over when we reached Toronto though: Customs had a hard time believing we weren’t smugglers of some kind. The conversation went something like this:

Customs: “How long were you away?”

Us: “Four days.”

Customs: “Were you travelling on business?”

Us: “No, it was a vacation.”

Customs: “Did you go anywhere else?”

Us: “No, just London.”

Customs: “ You flew to England for vacation for 4 days?”

Us: “Yes.”

Customs: “Please see the man over there.”

We trucked our stuff over to the other desk, where luckily the presiding officer took one look at our documentation and told us we were free to go.

Our story quickly made the rounds among our friends and co-workers, growing in stature until we became the stuff of legends: jetsetters who might take off to Europe for a weekend at the drop of a hat. In actuality, we don’t have the funds to do quite that, and prices have probably doubled since then, but for a one-of-a-kind adventure it was a blast and remains a fun possibility for everyone. And every now and then Mike will still come home from work and say that someone has once again brought up the ‘legend of the long weekend’.

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