The Downton Abbey Movie Welcomes You Home

Two years ago, I boarded a tour bus at Victoria Coach Station in London for one of the most anticipated adventures of my whirlwind 10-day tour of England. A lifelong royal watcher and Downton Abbey devotee, I was determined to visit the real-life home of the fictional Crawley family — Highclere Castle.

I devoured every moment of my visit to Highclere Castle, which made Downton Abbey even more special in theatres. While the television show offers striking shots of the historic home, the film showcases the breathtaking beauty of the castle and the entire estate in a way that fully captures how magical it is in real life.

Home Is Where Mr. Carson Is

The Downton Abbey film was like going home in so many ways. I feel intimately connected with the setting — not only because I got to visit it a few years ago, but because I’ve spent hours watching it on TV. The cast is familiar and even the new characters introduce narratives and themes we’ve seen before.

The opening of the film reflects the beginning of the series — with the journey of a message. But instead of giving us tragic news about the Titanic, we’re being gifted with the delightful driving force for the plot: a royal visit! But that’s not the only gift the film gives loyal viewers. All of our favorite characters are back (even Sybil is mentioned, although naturally, we don’t see her).

I was delighted as soon as the film began. The music of Downton Abbey has always felt both comforting and questioning to me. You know where you are because the location stays consistent, but you never quite know what changes are in store.

Aside from feeling like a giddy school girl, the intro had me welling up with pride and appreciation. I felt like a delighted mum on graduation day seeing the names of well-respected film veterans and newly minted movie stars sprawled across the silver screen. As soon as the film began, I knew I was home and so were the characters and actors I love.

One of the most anticipated homecomings for the audience and Lady Mary alike was Mr. Carson’s return to Downton. We’re offered a glimpse into how Thomas (with just a glimmer of gray starting to peek through) is running Downton. And while he’s no longer the scheming young man he once was, he still lacks the polished reverence for tradition that Mr. Carson embodies.

Dame Maggie Smith’s famed Dowager Countess is back with enough witty one-liners to satisfy Gary Janetti. But while she’s still filled with spunk and sass, her lines are delivered a touch more feebly, which is understandable given both Smith and her character’s age. It’s a soft vulnerability that you might notice in your own parents or grandparents that makes you feel so blessed to have them around, but reminds you of the limited time you have left with them.

That’s how I felt the entire film. I was so happy to be experiencing it, but each minute that passed meant that we were one step closer to the end, which I wanted to put off forever.

Two girls wearing Downton Abbey-inspired outfits at a special fan film event for the Downton Abbey movie.

Everything We Love and More

The movie captures all the resplended intrigue of a world we can’t quite relate to, all while kicking it up a notch with royalty and the even grander Harewood House (which I also happened to visit while in England!!!). With new, royal characters and an additional stately home, Downton Abbey serves up everything we love about the franchise and more.

Both the upstairs and downstairs plots center around the royal visit, although one of the major downstairs plot lines felt less than realistic to me. I played along and I’m glad I did. Molesley’s devotion redeemed it all and reminded me why I enjoy Downton Abbey so much.

If it’s been a few years since you watched the show, it may be helpful to rewatch a few episodes to refresh your memory. With so many characters and storylines to recall, there were a couple of small instances that left me trying to remember what happened in the final season. It’s easy enough to pick up on most characters and their stories, though. It’s exciting, even, to see how they’ve all gone on with their lives since we last saw them.

The film is perfectly packaged and invites you to comfortably fall for everything you already love about it. Although the lavish world of Downton Abbey feels far removed, the movie reminds us that with all the changes the 20th century brought on, places like Highclere Castle and Harewood House are more accessible than ever before. In fact, these sprawling estate homes rely on period drama lovers in many ways and reflect the changing tides of cultural power and relevance.

Rooted in History

As an American with British roots, part of the appeal of period pieces like Downton Abbey is that they are inspired by reality, but accessible to the everyman. My grandparents hailed from Yorkshire, where Downton Abbey is set. Although they likely never would have had the opportunity to set foot in a grand home filled with lords and ladies, the complex social changes that Downton Abbey explores have given me the opportunity to get an inside look at how the aristocracy lived not too long ago — and how they live today.

At its heart, both the TV show and the film are an exploration of the development of British culture, sprinkled with the glitz and mystique of the early 20th-century. There has long been a delicate balance between upstairs and downstairs, villagers and noble countrymen. “Downton Abbey,” much like headlines about the royal family today, blurs the lines between tradition and progression, making us question what separates the classes.

Class Is in Session

While we all adore the Crawleys and the royal family, much of their lofty circumstances are merely chance. The core family members are graced at birth. Some, like Lady Mary, embrace their rank, while characters like Lady Sybil ignore the confines of their class and stretch toward new values. Men like Matthew Crawley and Bertie Pelham are miraculously gifted their good fortune. Others, like Tom Branson and a new character we meet in the film, enter the fold in a slightly more modern way — through the complex realities of “unconventional” families.

Downstairs, Mr. Carson unwaveringly upholds tradition. His wife, the former Mrs. Hughes, believes in order, structure and respect — but she isn’t afraid to remind those she’s closest to that the Crawley family is made up of humans just the same. Thomas famously begrudges the social structure he’s trapped in, eventually embracing it to advance his career. During the film, Daisy emerges as more opinionated than ever about nobility, while Mr. Molesley nearly falls over himself in admiration for the royal family (I’m right there with you, Molesley). Anna and Mr. Bates exude healthy respect for the Crawleys and the royal family, in many ways crossing the lines between service and friendship throughout the series and the film.

At Downton, there’s no right or wrong answer about the social merits of the upstairs and downstairs. But what is always clear is that change is afoot. A chauffeur can become a trusted son-in-law and help manage a grand estate, despite his political opinions. Lady Mary’s retired racing husband can own a used car shop. Thomas can explore his identity and Mrs. Patmore can open up her own business.

The formidable entrance to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed.

As the descendant of coal miners from Yorkshire, it’s inspiring to see the long-established class system explored in Downton Abbey. Aside from the grandeur of the estate home, one of the most striking nuances I noticed while visiting England as an American is how relevant the past still is. History remains in the scars on buildings and land from both World Wars and the memorials that fill the country, even in unsuspecting locations. It lives on with formidable country estates and social structure that still impacts relationships and families. The effects of the early 20th century that Downton Abbey reflects on are embedded in the set locations, which in many cases are real parts of local communities.

Downton Abbey reminds us of a time gone by, all the while revealing the fact that the struggles and triumphs these beloved characters face aren’t too different from modern life. Sisters still argue and reconcile into adulthood. Young people struggle to understand their identity. Family secrets make us question who we are. And most of us are trying to define ourselves despite the tiny boxes that society has placed us in. Homes like Downton Abbey are the constant, standing steadfast as the people within the gilded walls change, grow and, in some cases, remain the same.

Much like I wish the stately homes that dot the English countryside a long life, I never wanted the Downton Abbey movie to end. And while the ending was perfectly tied up in a satin bow, the ribbon could effortlessly be loosened to reveal a surprise wrapped up in the form of a sequel. A girl can dream, right?

Sweetest Picks for U-Pick Blueberries in Central Florida

‘Tis the season for U-pick berries. One of my favorite springtime traditions in Central Florida is blueberry picking (and the monumental amount of baking that takes place afterward). This year alone I’ve gone blueberry picking three times, and while I’d like to think that I’m done, I’m not making any promises. There’s no shortage of U-pick spots for blueberries and over the years I’ve gotten to sample several locations around Orlando.

No matter where you live in Orlando, there’s probably a blueberry patch closer than you realize. I haven’t made it to all of the blueberry patches around Orlando, but the ones I have visited are great! U-pick blueberry season in Central Florida typically runs from April through May or early June, but be sure to double-check the operating hours and schedule for each location before making the drive.

Beck Brothers

12500 Overstreet Rd
Windermere, Florida

This is the one that started it all for me. The first U-pick blueberry experience I had in Central Florida was at the Beck Brothers patch. I was a nanny for several years in Windermere, where I fell in love with the beautiful neighborhood and picturesque houses. But it got even better when I learned that there was a bustling blueberry patch right smack dab in the middle of one of Windermere’s coziest neighborhoods.

One day, the kiddos’ sweet mom and I packed up the little ones and headed off to the blueberry patch. We drove, but it was so close that we could have biked or walked if we wanted to. If you live in the area, this is the perfect healthy family adventure. The kids loved snacking on the fresh berries while their mom and I reveled in offering them an alternative to the TV.

A close-up image of fresh-picked blueberries from Central Florida.

Fair warning for families: It can take a while for little ones to fill up an entire bucket of blueberries. After the initial excitement wears off, it may seem like more of a chore to some tiny blueberry pickers. Plus, blueberry buckets can get heavy after a while, so be prepared to help your little one carry their treasures and be prepared to pack up early if it’s a little too hot out. For families with more than one kid, though, instead of boredom, you may be dealing with some fierce competition resulting in some overflowing blueberry buckets!

I’ve returned to Beck Brothers several times over the years and they never disappoint! Make a day of being in the Windermere area and take advantage of the outdoors at Tibet-Butler Preserve, right off of 535. Beck Brothers is also ideal for those visiting Disney World who may want to venture slightly off the beaten path for some tasty treats.

Southern Hill Farms

16651 Schofield Rd.
Clermont, FL 34714

If Disney owned a blueberry patch, it would be like Southern Hill Farms. This place is massive and magical! I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I visited Southern Hill Farms to pick blueberries and peaches and I can’t wait to go back. It feels like a world away because of Clermont’s gentle hills — something you don’t normally experience in flat Florida. But this blueberry patch isn’t just a u-pick farm. Southern Hill Farms is an operation. It’s so far off the beaten path that the road to reach it is covered in dusty red dirt. But when you do finally, arrive, it’s as organized as the local theme parks. From the parking attendants directing your car perfectly into a spot to the kind peach and blueberry experts offering tips on how and where to pick the best produce, this farm does it right.

Rows of blueberry bushes at Southern Hill Farm in Clermont, Florida.

Did you know that there are different kinds of blueberries? I sure didn’t until I came here. The fields as Southern Hill Farms are organized in sections and there are maps posted at the entrance annotating the different types of blueberries. A friendly employee directed us to some of the sweeter varieties of blueberries and we got to pickin’. I also picked peaches here for the first time, which is slightly embarrassing since I’m from Georgia. They were divine!

Outdoor lawn games at Southern Hill Blueberry Patch in Clermont, Florida.

In between the blueberry and peach patches is a beautifully decorated activities area with a playground for kids, a shop, live music, food trucks and lots of shade. This is also where you pay for your produce, so don’t make the mistake that I did by returning to the entrance where you originally collected your bucket. Southern Hill felt like a community and I could have stayed there for hours because of all the actives they offered. While I was picking blueberries with friends, there was a yoga class in between the fields. In addition to fresh berries, peaches and flowers to pick, Southern Hill Farms also hosts weddings and other events. It’s a stunning little gem in Central Florida, and I can’t wait to check out their fall festival later this year.

 

Far Reach Ranch Heavenly Blueberries

1255 South Dora Blvd
Tavares, FL

The drive to Far Reach Ranch is well worth it. The blueberries here are just so dang good! Not only do they have delicious berries and baked goods, but it’s close to Mount Dora, which makes for a lovely day. The two times I’ve gone blueberry picking here, I’ve spent the afternoon strolling the timeless streets of Mount Dora afterward. It’s a perfect spot to grab lunch after stocking up on pounds of blueberries.

A close-up image of fresh-picked blueberries from Central Florida.

I’ve found that the operators of all the blueberry patches in the area are welcoming, kind and friendly, but the people who run Far Reach offer fantastic service. When you arrive, you have to check your party in and sign a waiver that includes hygiene rules. That may sound extreme to some, but I appreciate the extra step to ensure the health and safety of all the blueberry patrons out there. They provide a harness to help you carry your bucket if you’d like, and they offer clamshell containers at no extra cost to help you transport your treasured fruit.

A hand outstretched holding fresh-picked blueberries at Far Reach Farm

And while I haven’t participated, there are fun activities like a truck ride for families and grown-ups alike. This year, Far Reach Ranch even had an Easter egg hunt for kids while I was there picking berries.

While you dream of all the tasty creations you’ll make with your blueberries, take a stop at some of Mount Dora’s charming antique shops or taste your way through the city’s old-timey streets. If you want even more blueberries in your life, hold out for the Mount Dora Blueberry Festival.

Chapman’s Berries

75 Nolte Rd.
St Cloud, FL 34772

This charming little stop is nestled in what looks like a soon-to-be hotspot in St. Cloud. I’m not too familiar with the area, but it’s not far off from Kissimmee and there are several large housing developments in the works right next door. If you live in the area, Chapman’s Berries is in your neighbor’s backyard — literally. It’s family owned and the generous blueberry patch lies right behind the family home. The owners were immensely friendly and passionate about their blueberries. They even sell a large assortment of plants to take home! On the day I visited, a pop-up thunderstorm forced us to take shelter with the owners under their covered retail area, which was lovely because they were so friendly. My friend and I were able to wait out the rain while enjoying their company and learning about how a single blueberry plant inspired the whole business.

A bucket full of fresh, u-pick blueberries from Central Florida's Far Reach Ranch.

Undeterred by the last few sprinkles of the rainstorm, we finally ventured back out into the fields along with a few other brave patrons. My hands got a little dirty, but there were so many ripe blueberries that you could pick them by the handful. Chapman’s Berries has some of the highest and well-grown blueberry bushes I’ve ever seen, so if you want to Instagram yourself against a wall of blueberries, this is the place.

Spend the rest of the day in the area at St. Cloud Lakefront Park and enjoy the striking lake views and play area for little ones. Or just go straight home and start baking blueberry delights. I don’t fault you either way.

Late Bloom Blueberry Farm

115 Scenic Hwy.
Haines City, FL 33844

I discovered Late Bloom Blueberry Farm while driving home from Bok Tower Gardens a couple of years ago. While it closed for the season on April 28, 2019, it’s worth adding to your list for next year, especially if you’re out and about in the Lake Wales area. It’s right on the way back toward Orlando and is a great stop to help break up the drive and get a snack.

We parked under a shady tree before getting down to business to collect some blueberries. This patch is not far off the main road but maintains the charms of a country roadside attraction. It reminded me of the simple country roads of North Carolina where I’d visit my grandma growing up. This blueberry patch is simple, no-fuss and delightful. While I probably wouldn’t make the drive all the way out here from my side of town just for this patch, it’s the perfect stop on the way home from any of the area’s attractions. If you live close by, it’s well worth a stop to stock up on blueberries!

A blueberry bush at Far Reach Farms in Central Florida.

Quick Tips

While springtime in Florida can feel a lot like summer, there are so many refreshing activities to help you get out and explore the outdoors. Blueberry picking is one of my favorites, and the fun doesn’t stop when you leave the u-pick patch. I’ve been snacking on berries for weeks now and love coming up with new ideas and recipes. And the best part is that you can never over pick because blueberries freeze so well. Plus, the frozen berries can bring fond memories of your blueberry picking experience all year long.

I have two cartons of berries in my fridge and yet I’m already lamenting the fact that blueberry season will be over soon. I’m going to have to come up with an alternative snack pretty soon, but until then, I’ll continue to chow down on fresh, hand-picked blueberries for as long as I can.

Top Tips for Touring Buckingham Palace Like You’re Part of the Royal Family

I recently visited London for the first time ever and had the immense pleasure of visiting Buckingham Palace (the Queen’s digs). I’m a pretty avid royal watcher and fan of the Duchess of Cambridge, so my trip to London was filled with palace visits and Royal footstep retracing. Touring Buckingham Palace was one of the highlights of the trip. I felt like royalty (or at least a nosy long-lost Royal cousin) walking through the rooms that we’ve gotten glimpses into with wedding portraits and state dinner photos.

In 1993, the Queen opened the doors of the palace to the public for the first time. While the opening was originally intended to raise funds for repairs to the fire-stricken Windsor Castle, it remained a summer tradition for locals and visitors alike. By the time I visited in September 2017, the operation was a well-oiled machine, complete with airport-style security, an electronic guide and exhibits throughout the staterooms.

During the summer of 2017, the stateroom tour also included a collection of well-placed Royal gifts. Each room contained not only its usual collection of furniture, artwork and historical architecture, but also display cases of trinkets and oddities given to the Queen by heads of state and Royalty from across the globe. Each room was dedicated to gifts from different regions. The gifts were fascinating, but not nearly as impressive as the sheer magnificence of the palace and its history. It was like living inside a movie you’ve seen a millions times, or stepping into a painting you’ve admired your whole life. I absolutely loved touring Buckingham Palace, but the experience didn’t come without learning a thing or two. So here are my tips on visiting the Queen’s London abode so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

The front balcony of Buckingham Palace, where many members of the Royal Family have stood and waved at crowds for decades.
The iconic balcony of Buckingham Palace, where Royals wave to well-wisher during weddings, Trooping the Colour and other noteworthy events.

Plan Ahead

This year, the palace is open from July 22 through October 1. The Buckingham Palace tour is largely available while the Queen is on holiday at her summer residence, Balmoral. Fun fact: You’ll know when the Queen is home by looking at the flag atop Buckingham Palace. If it’s the standard Union Jack, she’s away. But if you see the Royal standard, you can bet Lizzie is kickin’ back at Buckingham Palace. Ahem. I mean, the Queen is tending to very important state business in her official Royal residence.

When you book a tour of Buckingham Palace online, you’ll find a variety of options and prices. I opted for the base tour, a visit to the state rooms that included an exhibition of Royal gifts. While there are more involved options, including guided tours and visits to the Royals mews, gardens and portrait gallery, I didn’t feel like I missed out on anything by skipping them. But of course, that’s the beauty of not knowing. Maybe on a return trip I’ll check out the other areas of the palace. I spent at least two hours on the main tour, so adding on extras would have constituted dedicating an entire day or half day to the palace. If you have limited time or would like to visit multiple sites in one day, you’re probably fine sticking to the state room tour.

A lion and unicorn surround the Royal Crest on an ornate gate at the front of Buckingham Palace.
The Royal crest on display at a gate outside Buckingham Palace.

Once you make your selection, be sure you know exactly what time you want to visit when you book. There is a £2 service fee for changes made after the fact (I learned this the hard way when I decided to change my tour time from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to accommodate a visit to the Westminster Abbey in the morning). For me, developing a sensible schedule was like solving a complex puzzle, so try to fit all the pieces together before purchasing tickets and committing to a specific time.

I created a google spreadsheet to outline each day of my trip and calculate the costs. I had a column that highlighted my scheduled time for each attraction and notes on when they opened and closed so that everything was organized in one place. Since I could access it on my phone, it was a convenient way to plan and keep track of things once I was in London. For solo travelers, it’s also a great way to put your family’s mind at ease since they can access it anywhere and see exactly where you’ll be at what time.

A dramatic image of the Queen Victoria statue in front of Buckingham Palace.
A decadent statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace.

Take Photos Out Front First

One of the biggest mistakes that I made when visiting the Queen’s home was skipping out on taking photos out front before my tour of Buckingham Palace. The estate room tour starts just past the front of the building on the left-hand side and ends by Victoria Station, which is several blocks away. After exiting the Palace at the back, you’ll stroll through the gardens (and past a Royal souvenir shop and ice cream stand) and wind up on what feels like a completely different side of town.

My tour was set for 2 p.m., so I made sure to arrive right on time. I spent the morning at Westminster Abbey and wandered up through St. James’s Park (which is amazing, by the way). If I could do it all again, I would have allowed myself about 15–30 minutes to walk around the front of the Palace before the tour and take photos. I ended up having to walk all the way back around to the front of the Palace after the tour (at around 4 p.m.) to admire the Buckingham Palace guards, study the architecture and see the giant statue of Queen Victoria. I definitely would have gotten better photos earlier in the day and saved myself quite a walk after the tour.

The big takeaway? Make sure you spend enough time out front before your tour time, because it’s one heck of a walk back after the tour of the staterooms at Buckingham Palace.

Thee of the Queen's Guards dressed in red coats and furry bear hats march in front of Buckingham Palace
The Queen’s Guards march outside Buckingham Palace.

Spend a Penny Beforehand

The only bathroom for guests on the tour is at the very end, next to the Buckingham Palace shop. In fact, it’s not even in the palace; it’s in a separate building, so make sure you’ve visited the loo before entering. Luckily, the attendants are very clear about this when you enter the line for security and will even point you in the right direction to a nearby public restroom (or “toilet” as they say in the U.K.). I had lunch in St. James’s Park shortly before the tour and made sure to make a pitstop while there. If you’re walking up through the park, it’ll fit perfectly into your schedule.

A photo of the back balcony of Buckingham Palace with covered areas including an interactive learning and play area for children and a cafe.
The back balcony of Buckingham Palace, complete with a covered, outdoor cafe and interactive children’s play area.

Zip Up Your Camera and Turn Off Your Phone

Unlike Kensington Palace, Buckingham Palace does not allow photos on the public tour. Before you enter the Queen’s home, you’ll stand in a line and walk through airport-style security. It’s at this point that we were instructed to stow our cameras and turn our phones completely off. For a Millennial, this step was a bit difficult. There are no photos allowed inside the Buckingham Palace rooms, for security reasons and to avoid unduly long lines and large crowds, I imagine. While I sorely wish I had been able to take photos, I can only imagine how much longer I would have been in there if I was trying to frame the perfect picture every few seconds.

But being without a phone and camera wasn’t all bad. I was able to focus on the beauty and grandeur of the each of the Buckingham Palace Rooms, all while interacting solely with the provided technology — a digital tour guide that offered historical context for each room and went into detail about some of the gifts on display. These audio guides are included with admission and help you navigate and understand the importance of each new location. There were also several staff members stations in every room, so it was easy to ask questions without being distracted by my phone or camera. Being in the palace was in many ways like being transported back in time, and not having my normal tech added to the illusion.

The back of Buckingham Palace peeks through the trees of the garden behind the iconic Royal home.
A view of Buckingham Palace through the trees in the back garden.

Check Your Bag

After going through security, everyone is given the offer to check their bag. It’s not required, but boy do I wish I had done so. They’ll store your bag (and camera) and return it to you at the end of the tour. I was hesitant because I didn’t want to part with my camera and other items in my bag just in case something were to happen to it. A quarter of the way through the tour, however, I was regretting that decision.

I carried my small backpack the entire day, which is usually manageable. With the added weight of my camera and standing for hours on end, it got a bit unbearable. I would have relished the opportunity to give my back a break while wandering around the lush lodgings. While there were plenty of benches to take a break throughout the Buckingham Palace rooms, it would have been nice to rest from the weight of my bag.

 Travel Tip: Make parting with your belongings simpler and ensure that you have all the important stuff on hand with an easy-to-transport lanyard. When traveling, I keep my license and important cards in a small ID keychain attached to a Lanyard. Mine even has enough room for a tube of chapstick. If I could do it again, I’d throw my lanyard around my neck and leave my bag checked with the Palace staff. 

Renee posing with the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace inside the children's play area,which allows you to recreate famous photos and learn more about the Palace.
Accidentally covered the Queen while recreating a Trooping the Colour photo inside the interactive children’s area.

Look Up (and Down)

There are details everywhere inside Buckingham Palace and it’s easy to miss them when you’re overwhelmed by the audio tour, crowds of tourists and massive paintings lining every wall. Take a minute to appreciate it all, even the ceiling. You can see touches of Queen Victoria throughout Buckingham Palace, as she had a huge hand in developing it into the masterpiece that it is today. From her elegant initials strategically placed throughout the Palace to wedding-cake-like ceilings and massive chandeliers, the Buckingham Palace state rooms are decadent. In fact, “decadent” is the word I would use to describe much of London’s architecture and culture, especially anything related to the Royal Family.

One of the most noteworthy and awe-inspiring moments of the tour happens early on as you ascend the great staircase. They audio guide encourages you to keep walking and not stop, but I couldn’t help myself. Everything from the floors to the ceiling was absolutely heavenly. Take your time and take it all in. The lighting is inspired. The gold details on the walls are lavish, but not gaudy. Even the carpet is luxurious. No detail is left untouched on this impressive staircase. It’s almost as if you could hear a triumphant choir singing. I wish I was exaggerating — It was that impressive.

Intricate stone carvings of men on war horses in battle adorn the outside of Buckingham Palace.
Details of the architecture of Buckingham Palace seen from the back garden.

Take Time to Reflect

After the tour, you’ll end up at the back of the Royal residence by the Buckingham Palace gardens. You’ll look out onto the lawn where the Queen hosts garden parties and have the opportunity to visit an outdoor cafe, interactive play area and the Buckingham Palace shop. This is also where you can break out your camera and start snapping behind-the-scenes pics of the Palace (outside, of course). Most are familiar with the formidable facade of the front of the Palace, but being able to see the back is just as impressive.

Before you rush off to the next attraction, take a few minutes to get as many photos as you like and look around at the architectural details. You can start to piece together the path you traveled through the windows above and speculate about what all the other rooms in the Palace must be like.

An image of the green back lawn of Buckingham Palace taken from the back balcony.
The rear lawn of Buckingham Palace where annual garden parties are held.

As you exit, you’ll meander through the Buckingham Palace gardens, past an ice cream stand (I got some, I admit) and even have a few more photo ops before you reach the gate to exit. Make sure you take it all in before you leave. It’s really something quit special to have walked the famed halls of the palace and have just an inkling of what it must be like to be a Royal resident, or at least a visitor, in the Queen’s historic home.

I’ll cherish my tour of Buckingham Palace for years to come. For tickets to Buckingham Palace, visit the Royal Collection Trust website. While there are just a couple more days to see the palace this year, keep an eye out for next year’s summer opening times and other Royal happenings. If you’re even vaguely interested in the Royal Family or British history, It’s well worth the admission price in my book.

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3 Things I Love About ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812’

In honor of Josh Groban’s last week on Broadway as Pierre in the Tony-nominated “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” I thought I’d do a little roundup of some of my favorite things about the show. Like many longtime Josh Groban listeners, I fell into the Great Comet fandom by chance. I’ve been inspired by his music since middle school, so when he announced that he’d be starring in his first Broadway show, I knew that I was going to do everything in my power to see it (read: dip into that emergency savings account).

For most of 2016 (and all of 2017, too, if we’re being honest) I was obsessed with “Hamilton” like every other basic Broadway-loving gal. I bought my tickets to “The Great Comet” as soon as they went on sale in spring 2016, still not knowing quite what it was, and then went back to merrily singing along to “Helpless.”

During the week leading up to the big trip to New York, I gave Ham a break and switched over to listening to the original cast album for the Great Comet. I strategically rolled and stuffed sweaters, gloves and scarves into my carry-on (I’m a Florida girl and the idea of November in New York terrified me), all while soaking in the complexities of the music and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” plot.

This is … different, I thought as Spotify transitioned from song to song: poetic and literary, but decidedly not singsongy. There was a bit of rock, a bit of folk, a bit of electronica and at times a bit of cacophony. And then — a familiar voice. Is that Eliza Hamilton? I didn’t realize Phillipa Soo was in the original, non-Broadway cast. As the album ended I was perplexed, delighted and excited to hear Josh Groban’s take on Pierre.

After seeing the show during the last weekend of previews, I left the theatre awestruck and inspired. It was truly an experience like none other. And that’s exactly how I explain it to people — it’s not a show, it’s an experience. So, instead of doing a regular, glowing Great Comet review, I thought I’d try to narrow down some of my favorite things about this gem.

A Surprising Set

By now you know that the Great Comet is unlike anything else on Broadway, and a lot of that has to do with the set (for which Mimi Lien won a Tony). I was first introduced to the set months before I entered the theatre when I purchased my tickets online. Instead of just orchestra and mezzanine, there were also banquet-style stage seats and upholstered stage seats. I opted for the banquet stage seat, which was going out on a limb when I booked because I couldn’t actually choose my seat. We ended up with great seats, but honestly, I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house because the cast is everywhere (more on that later).

On the day of the show, the set was present as soon as my mom and I entered the theatre. It was a bit jarring at first. As we walked into the Imperial Theatre, the walls were green, gray and dingy, covered with what looked like leftover fliers from a decade of grunge rock shows. I had only been to one other Broadway show and that was a full six years prior, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I thought Broadway was supposed to be fancier, I said to myself as we made our way through the line to enter the theatre. As we got closer to the second set of doors, it became apparent that it was all part of the show. Affectionately named the “bunker,” the space was designed to evoke a soviet Cold War feel infused with a hint of an underground lounge vibe.

Mother and daughter in the lobby of the Imperial Theatre in New York City, where Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet is currently playing.

After our tickets were scanned, the majority of the audience headed to the left, while we were directed right, up a winding constructed staircase that was technically backstage. It led us through the infamous double doors that feature prominently in the set and onto the stage of the extravagant theatre. It felt like the furthest thing from the lobby. Instead of a war-torn dance club, it was like a decadent palace, draped with red velvet curtains everywhere. The walls were sprinkled with paintings and decorations, including a life-size portrait of Napoleon. We were ushered to our plush banquet seats, complete with an adorable little side table that separated us from the patrons sitting next to us. It felt like a luxurious, private theatre experience.

The best thing about the set design is that, while we technically sat on the stage, the entire theatre acted as a stage. Stairs led up from the main stage to the mezzanine and a runway snaked through the orchestra clear to the back of the theatre. The staging is truly immersive and innovative. As the composer, Dave Malloy, has said, it’s like being in a Russian supper club. And how I love to dine in Moscow!

Music That Doesn’t Rhyme

The music of “The Great Comet” is so uniquely diverse that it can be a bit disarming to listen to it for the first time. There is a full breadth of musical experiences, from your traditionally breathtaking aria to full-on dance party numbers and choral hymns. It’s powerful and meaningful and breaks all of the rules, all while being distinctly profound, and in some cases, just for fun.

“Pierre” introduces you the titular character and drops some major truth bombs that might just make you rethink the way you look at life — all without the traditional rhyme structure that we’re accustomed to in musical theatre. Instead, there’s a deliberate literary quality to it all. Characters narrate their actions, sometimes quite literally. And did I mention that it’s completely sung-through?

Glittering, shimmering lights illuminate the marquee for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.

The sung-through musical is a frightening and powerful thing, and no doubt taxing on the cast. But the performers in “The Great Comet” pull it off flawlessly while being on stage almost the entire time. And despite having a large, diverse cast, Malloy ensures that each character is featured and stays at play throughout the show. As an audience member, you go on a journey through stages in life as you understand the actions of each character through song: the unabashed and wide-eyed innocence of Natasha, the existential longing of Pierre, the fierce friendship of Sonya, the shrilly protective wisdom of Marya, the jaunty frivolity of Anatole and even the spiteful lasciviousness of Hélène. I left without looking at anyone as a villain, but instead commiserating with each character’s unique background and outlook. And because this show is all about the complexities of human nature, I found myself reflecting on my own life experiences, seeing a bit of myself in so many of the characters and the songs they performed.

But the musical characterization doesn’t end with the human characters. Even the comet itself has a voice all its own. Spoiler alert, but my favorite moment of the experience came during “The Great Comet of 1812,” at the very end of the show. During a moment of enlightenment, there is a subtle rise as an angelic chorus joins Pierre, gazing at the comet. At first, I didn’t know where the voices were coming from: Normally the ensemble cast and accompanying musicians are clearly visible. But as the lights changed and the voices became stronger, I realized that the cast members were strategically sprinkled throughout the audience, harmonizing from lone seats around the entire theatre. It was a rapturous moment of beauty that I will never forget.

A Cast of Friends

While some ensemble casts are just part of the background, at “The Great Comet,” they’re not just in the foreground — they’re on the main stage, in the orchestra and the mezzanine.  There truly isn’t a bad seat in the house, because no matter where you sit, the cast will be there. Before the principals came out, we were welcomed by the lively cast with dumplings, the first taste of how interactive the show would be. From then on, more and more characters swung by to interact with us — whether it was passing out handwritten love letters, egg shakers, or Dolokhov asking my mom to hold his guitar so he could go dance. We were uniquely connected to the show from every angle.

A sign from the inside of the Imperial Theatre featuring the cast of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 in alphabetical order.

So, back to the beginning. The cast members who passed out dumplings to our section hyped us up, so we felt like we knew them as the show went on. They’re more than just background singers and dancers. The talent is through the roof, as part of the ensemble is actually the orchestra. Throughout the show, they’re running around, dancing and playing instruments. And I don’t mean “playing” instruments just for appearances. They are part of creating the music that fills the entire theatre. Not to mention the Principals who also play tunes in between singing. Josh Groban’s Pierre switched back and forth between the accordion and the piano, Lucas Steele as Anatole played the violin and Nick Choksi joined in on the guitar as Dolokhov. The skill and talent of the cast is unbelievably boundless and you can tell that they put their heart and soul into it every night.

From our banquet seats on the stage, we had a great view of even more intimate audience interactions. Natasha (shoutout to the Central Florida native Denée Benton, pictured above at stage door) and Mary squeezed in between patrons sitting at a little bistro table, while Anatole leaned into an audience member as part of a “Russian custom.” It’s a surprise every night as you never know how the audience will react to the action being so close. I feel like you could see the show ten times and have a different experience because you’ll be interacting with and seeing actors from new vantage points every time.

I could go on and on about why I love this musical. The more I listen to it, the more I enjoy it. Even if you can’t make it out to New York to see the show, give the album a listen and appreciate the unique mix of Russian folk music with just about every other genre imaginable. Bringing Josh Groban’s fan base to the show crossed so many barriers and introduced countless people from far and wide to a new perspective on musical theatre, including this gal right here. With innovative shows like “The Great Comet” as a new standard, I can’t wait to see what else theatre has to offer us in the years to come. If you can’t see Josh Groban before he takes his bow on July 2, don’t fear. Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan will take over as Pierre on July 3. Tickets are available online through Telecharge.

 

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Navigating Ambiguity

So, here I am having a go at this whole blogging thing again. Like many twenty-something writers, I’ve tried my hand a couple of times, but never kept up with it. I started by chatting it up about newly wed life before I took a stab at documenting all the hilarious things that my nephews, cousins and nanny kids said. Several jobs (and years) later, I’m at it again. So, naturally I decided to start a travel and lifestyle blog because, why not?

A Big Ol’ Lie?

“But wait a minute, Renée,” you might say. “You’re not a full-time traveler. Heck, you haven’t even traveled that much. In fact, you’re nothing more than a vacationer.”

Well, you’re right. I haven’t dropped everything to travel the world. I’m not a digital nomad trekking the globe in search of the most Instagram-worthy photo spots. Heck, I don’t even have my next plane ticket purchased or a definite destination in mind.

I started working on this blog feeling empowered and charged, imaging all the exciting posts I could write. I thought back to all the questions I’ve had every single time I’ve traveled and imagined answering them all here for other adventures.

But then I started to feel a bit like a fraud. I’m an introverted office monkey and all those other people with valuable things to say are full-time bloggers who have woven through traffic in tuk-tuks in Southeast Asia or communed with elephants in India. My coworkers, friends and peers have traveled more than I have. What could I possibly have to offer that hasn’t already been put out into the ether.

Well, we’re going to find out. Maybe my passport is lacking stamps, but I do love traveling. Or vacationing. Or holidaying— whatever you want to call it. And I want to share what I have done and what I do know with you. And I love writing and gosh darn it, I’m gonna do it one way or another. So whether you think I’m a sham because I haven’t reached frequent flier status or that my 8-year tenure in Orlando makes me qualified to discuss traveling, we’re doing this. Buckle up (because I’m a grandma at heart and won’t drive until everyone has their seatbelt on) and let’s ride!

The Road Ahead

A camel named Chocolata sits in the sand on the beach of Essaouira, Morocco.
Hanging out with a camel on the beach in Morocco during one of few international adventures.

While I’m not entirely sure what this blog will become, I can tell you my intentions as of today. I hope to inspire you to get out there a bit, and remind myself to do so. I want to offer up some tips and hard-won wisdom I’ve gained while traversing this world, whether it be from traveling, attending my first “real” concert at 27, or a making horribly stupid mistake. I plan on sharing some of my favorite semi-local locales. I live in Florida, after all; there are tons of destinations within driving (and walking) distance. And just for the fun of it, I might even sneak in some musical theater references because this is a place for me to share some of my passions and joys with you.

So, maybe this is a travel blog. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s more about wandering through life in general, not necessarily traipsing across cobblestone streets in remote European cities. But then again, maybe it is. There’s only one way to find out.

Will I ever turn in my two weeks and buy a one-way ticket? Who knows? But the more I experience, the more I realize that I don’t want to leave this world without seeing as much of it as possible, even if it’s in my own backyard.

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