Station to Station
Terri Hardin goes underground to discover the hearts of Paris and London
While traveling last year between Paris and London by the Eurostar high-speed train, I came to think: I bet the French wish they had more things they could name after Francois Mitterrand. President of France from 1988 to 1995, Mitterrand's name appears all over Paris, like, for example, Avenue Francois Mitterrand and the Bibliotheque Nationale Francois Mitterrand (the latter is an end stop on the metro, which ensures its prominence on every sign throughout Paris' venerable transit system).
During my stay at the 396-room Sofitel Bercy, a modern, four-star business property on the outskirts of Paris with a sublevel conference center, I visited an outdoor mall called the Village of Bercy, where low stone buildings, formerly wine warehouses, now house restaurants, boutiques, and a giant Club Med complex. It struck me that the Village, while wholly "French," was also sufficiently mall-like to be familiar to Americans, and would make a great event venue for an evening reception.
At Bercy, I was on the "Mitterrand metro line." My actual stop, Cour de St. Emilion, was an express ride to the center of Paris, so I was able to access all the famous districts, restaurants, museums, and gigantic department stores like Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. But just as I was getting used to the commute, I was due to transfer to the 116-room Le Parc Sofitel Demeure, close by the Trocadero, which is as central to Paris as you can get. Diving into the Cour de St. Emilion station for the last time, I emerged—with a few twists and turns—at Place Victor Hugo, and walked down Rue Poincare to Le Parc Sofitel Demeure. Le Parc's meeting space and eclectic, deluxe room inventory make it a special, if challenging, incentive property: The hotel is not one building, but four historic buildings circling a courtyard—five, if you count 59 Poincare, which was formerly the home of the Nobel family and now houses a restaurant under the direction of Alain Ducasse. In fact, I dined there, which was a bittersweet experience, since I was alone and under the watchful gaze of at least five waiters. I quickly ordered a main course of sweetbreads, then went right to a dessert of wild strawberries with creme brulee ice cream. (When I told one of the waiters that the food was fantastic, he nodded and said, "He is a good chef, Alain Ducasse.")
As I was due to take the Chunnel Train to London, I took a taxi to the Gare du Nord terminal, where I again saw Mitterrand's name, this time on a plaque. "Mitterrand," I muttered, to which the cabbie, himself glancing at a sign for the Eurostar, replied, "He is responsible for this; without him, it would never have been built." Considering that Channel Tunnel cost nearly $18 billion (double the original budget) before opening in 1994, Mitterrand must indeed have been a strong leader—with an equally strong following.
Entering the Gare du Nord, I went to the special Eurostar section, had my passport stamped, and waited to board the train. Now, like a rube, I expected the Chunnel trip to be hours of harrowing darkness; instead, it takes 20 minutes to pass under the Channel—the rest of the trip is spent rolling past the French and English countrysides. While the experience is top-notch, the key attractions of the Eurostar are those of any train: speed and seamless travel (meaning you actually arrive in the city center of your destination). Groups are encouraged, and business travelers are wooed.
Arriving in London's Waterloo Station I grabbed a cab, simply intending to arrive at the 186-room Sofitel St. James. Instead, what transpired—traveling past Big Ben, the London Eye, the bridges, Trafalgar Square—could have been a Visit London tourist montage, set to the cabbie's BBC talk radio. Dropping my bags in one of St. James' impressive black-and-white suites, I went on a quick tour of the massive property—solid like you'd expect a former bank to be—from the lower conference level, to the executive rooms on the first floor, to the Royal Suite, with playful allusions to Empire. That night, I ate at the hotel's Brasserie Roux before heading to the now-closed Jerry Springer: The Opera. Glancing at a London Underground map the next day, I easily found my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.
If Mitterrand sought to unite Europe, he certainly succeeded with the Eurostar. I was able to get from Paris to London. Once there, I was able to get around those ancient cities underground without too much foreknowledge—or forethought. Later, on a trip to Brussels, I remembered I could also get there on the Eurostar. Do you think it would be possible to visit the Comic Museum (and gawk at the mannequin pis—a fountain in the form of a cherub spouting water through his you-know-what) in Brussels, ride a barge on the Seine in Paris, and tour the Tower of London all in a single day? To throw in Euro Disney (Eurostar's Marne la Vallee stop) and make it a weekend? It sounds like something I might try myself—in fact, I believe I have a train to catch.
On a trip to Sweden, Joy Anderson demonstrates her high-wireless act
When I was en route to Stockholm this past July with a group of journalists and meeting planners, we were advised that Sweden has become quite a gastronomic destination. Traveling nonstop from Newark International on SAS, I stretched out comfortably in the business-class cabin and slept most of the surprisingly short, under-seven-hour flight, waking to expectations of new Swedish cuisine that were to be realized at our home base in Stockholm, the elegant 307-room Grand Hotel, and elsewhere. We sampled everything from humble meatballs (with lingonberries) to savory fish chowders, smoked salmon and herring, baby shrimp, cardamom-infused limpa—the famous Swedish rye bread—and endless varieties of crisp breads—and found it all delicious.
The country of Sweden is also friendly and English-speaking. And efficient: for example, the Arlanda Express speed train runs from the airport to the city center (arriving groups can pre-book private carriages aboard). Sweden also has a long and distinguished meetings tradition. From roughly 800 AD until Pope Sylvester II intervened in 1000, the Vikings would gather every nine years in Uppsala, near Stockholm, to decide which tribes would trade, which would pillage, and which would explore. In modern times, however, Stockholm is renowned as the site of the annual December Nobel Prize ceremony, which is followed by a banquet in the magnificent City Hall. The rest of the year, the cavernous Blue Hall (where winners dine with the King and Queen) is available for groups of up to 700 wishing to recreate the experience by choosing one of the Nobel dinner menus, served on Nobel china and crystal. Our groups had its own Nobel dinner in the warm and attractive restaurant below Stockholm's City Hall.
Equally memorable was the Vasa Museum where a royal warship that sank in the harbor in 1628 and only recovered in 1961 hovers ghost-like above the main floor. The sight literally took my breath away. Groups of 600 can dine there, then repair perhaps to the Absolut Icebar, a glassed-in igloo with walls, bar, and tables created from great blocks of ice, in the lobby of the Nordic Sea Hotel. Even the glasses are made of ice. Guests are given hooded thermal jackets and gloves and allowed to remain no longer than 30 minutes (not that many would want to).
Stockholm is also a popular port of call for ships cruising the Baltic Sea. Our little group made a lunch excursion to the inn at Grinda, one of the 24,000 islands in Stockholm's archipelago. We made the hour-plus trip bouncing over the Baltic Sea on an inflatable boat—a trip that involved more weird weatherproof outfits—and returned more sedately by ferry.
Now, unusually for me, I was actually looking forward to my return journey so I could check out SAS' recently introduced in-flight wireless Internet service—now standard on all transatlantic flights in all classes (business, economy extra, and economy). The service is offered by a company called Connexion by Boeing, which charges a flat $29.95 fee for Wi-Fi on flights over six hours, with an option to purchase 30 minutes for $9.95 and then 25 cents per minute, or purchase a block of 120 consecutive minutes for $16.95. There is also a corporate account program, offering special rates and allowing employees to access their corporate networks via Internet services like VPN. Before leaving, I went online, chose a user name and a password, and received an account number. The plan was to try out the service by logging onto misoapbox.com (the new blog by Successful Meetings and MeetingNews), to see how well we could communicate. I knew my airport card was properly configured, so I was surprised that my initial attempt to get onto the Internet was a big fat flop. When I opened my Mac, a mysterious window in Swedish popped up and refused to let me log on to Connexion by Boeing.
Perhaps now is the time to confess that I have zero understanding of wireless communication, and all the attendant could tell me was that the Internet was currently accessible. Luckily for me, a fellow passenger noticed my plight and suggested I get out of the Safari browser and reopen it. At that point I was able to initiate a dialogue with misoapbox.com without further problem (and the rest is history!). I was also able to surf the net and read my accumulated e-mail, but when I tried to send e-mail, messages sat stubbornly in my outbox. Bottom line: Since I'd never before traveled with my current laptop, I didn't know what limitations I'd encounter. However, experts say that if your laptop works fine for you on the road, it will be equally fine and problem-free aloft. Amen to that.