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After my long transatlantic flight from Los Angeles to London, I was overjoyed to touch down at Heathrow and stretch my legs. This was my second trip to London, my first being two years ago. At that time I fumbled through the tube with map in hand. But, having overcome that learning curve, I felt like a savvy traveler as I carefully navigated myself and multiple bags over to the Heathrow Express then down to the subway only to emerge from the Westminster Bridge tube station without a wrong turn taken. Climbing up from the station stairs, I found myself in the heart of London. Taking in the iconic sites of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye, I wondered to myself, “Is there is any better introduction to this city than this?”
Well, maybe there is. I was back in Britain for a press trip to take in the arts and culture of London and to spend a day at the annual Best of Britain & Ireland Exhibition (BoBI) and, after running around the city taking in the abundant galleries and museum it was nice to spend a day on the exhibition floor, getting a glimpse into all that Britain and Ireland had to offer.
March’s exhibition was a great success, with more than 350 exhibitors showcasing their products at the Olympia in London. Host VisitBritain was excited to announce forecasts that predicted the volume for inbound tourism to the U.K. in 2010 to be 30.4 million, with inbound visitors spending approximately $25.9 billion, up 3.8 percent from last year. Many look to the more favorable currency exchange rates for the increase.
I made my way through the crowds to uncover some of the more unique venues that this year’s convention had to offer.
By sheer size, the Welsh Highland Railway exhibit dominated the convention floor. A first-class Pullman train car was brought in for the show allowing tour operators to experience firsthand the ornate woods and regal high-back chairs and cream tea their clients would partake in. I sat down to try it on for size. The railway offers visitors the chance to experience the nostalgic journey by rail, traveling up into the picturesque landscape of Snowdonia. The trip is designed in such a way so clients can hop on and off at multiple train stops to shop, dine or even spend the night.
My next stop was to see the Malmaison (Bad House) Oxford booth. It was once a Victorian prison, but now it has become a posh boutique hotel. With all bad prison puns aside, this is one place I wouldn’t mind being locked up abroad. The 94-room hotel offers a bar and a brasserie offering a homegrown and local menu. Clients looking for some solitary time have the opportunity to spend the night in one of the original cells with the genuine doors and bars, too. www.malmaison-oxford.com
Jameson Distillery Tours, Dublin // © 2010 Jameson Distillery Tours, Dublin
While tooling around the convention floor, I also stumbled across quite a few exhibitors offering to wet your whistle. The pride taken in the local Scotch and Irish whisky remind me of the fierce adoration that the French have for their wines. I spoke with Niall Stewart of Jameson Distillery Tours, Dublin who gladly offers to wean any American off of their love of Jack Daniels. Distillery tours are available seven days a week, minus a few of the bigger holidays, and gives guests of all ages an inside look at how whisky is made and the insight into the history and folklore surrounding the company’s name sake, John Jameson. www.jamesonwhiskey.com/ojd
For history junkies like me who just can’t get enough of the HBO series “The Tudors” and fans of the movie “The Other Boleyn Girl,” Kent, I found out, would like to offer their help. The Heaver Castle and Penshurst Place and Gardens are two neighboring properties that both play as backdrop to the lives of Henry VIII and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn.
Heaver Castle and Gardens // © 2010 Heaver Castle and Gardens
The 13th-century Heaver Castle, once the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, now pays homage to its history through historic festivals recreating the life and times of the Tudors. There guests can enjoy music and dancing along with craftsmen demonstrating their trades or stroll around the properties elaborate gardens. With a wide collection of activities throughout the year, agents should check the events calendar on the company’s Web site. www.hevercastle.co.uk
For guests traveling in small groups and who wish to stay on site at Heaver Castle, Medley Court is located in the Astor Wing of the castle and consists of four luxurious bedrooms and accommodates a total of seven guests.
Penshurst Place and Gardens // © 2010 Penshurst Place and Gardens
The neighboring Penshurst Place and Gardens was once the hunting lodge for Henry VIII and the romantic backdrop to for his courtship of Anne Boleyn. The king took claim to this property in his signature sinister style by relieving the current owner of his head. Penshurst now offers tours of the house and garden. www.penshurstplace.com
As I wrapped up a long day of walking the exhibition floor and speaking with vendors, I certainly can say, without a doubt, I will be back in Britain very soon, with every intent to experience and explore some of the amazing venues and activities that these suppliers had to offer.