Friday, June 24, 2005

Vacation Rentals

Where to stay is a big issue to resolve whenever you travel. Hotels can be wonderful, especially for shorter stays, and books like Karen Brown Guides can point you towards those hotels that are charming and original. I have used her recommendations often and never been disappointed.

For my money, if you are staying for a minimum of a week, for good value, authenticity and privacy, you can’t beat a vacation rental. I have rented apartments and houses all over Europe and am a huge fan of this option. With a good apartment in the right area, you have the best of all solutions. You can eat in or out, it’s up to you. Through shopping and the comings and goings of daily life you meet people and have experiences you just don’t have when you stay in a hotel. If you have children, it is almost always easier. Most vacation rentals today come equipped with internet access and the same cable TV options you find in a hotel. And if that weren’t enough, a luxury apartment for a week is usually cheaper than a mid-level hotel. A website that explains in detail the “ins and outs” of vacation rentals including useful trip reports and reviews can be found at

To find a good vacation rental in the right area, an agency can be a big help. From the internet, you can put together a short list of firms with good looking properties and attractive, well thought out websites.

I always look for the smaller agencies that are specialists in a particular area because, in most cases, they will have seen, inspected and approved all their apartment and offer a higher level of service. I also like websites that provide reviews from previous guests and lots of pictures of the actual apartment. More and more owners are marketing their own properties and dealing directly with an owner can also be rewarding.

Once you have identified your short list, you should pick up the telephone and talk to someone about what’s important to you. Things like amount of space, light, noise level, appropriateness for families, and proximity to public transport, sites, parks or restaurants are all relevant criteria. Good agents know their properties and neighbourhoods and can recommend the best apartments for your needs. If the entire process of choosing and booking is completely electronic, I always wonder who is going to actually help me if I am in the apartment and have a problem? It’s also good to know there will staff on location who speak you language if you don’t speak theirs.

Once you’ve found your apartment, most agencies will take a deposit to secure the booking. Of course, check the conditions carefully and pay attention to how long the firm has been in business. There always is a risk that something could happen to the property or the agency which has your money and where possible, I pay the deposit with a credit card so that I have some recourse via the credit card company. Nevertheless, I’ve paid plenty of deposits through wire transfers and checks and, knock on wood, never had a problem.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has had a good or bad vacation rental experiences and would love to know which resources you find useful. Vacation renters of the world unite.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Queen Maud of Norway's Coronation Dress

Forget Harrods – Try the V&A

My mother was in town recently and while we had fun poking around Harrods for a few hours, we had much more fun visiting the exhibition Style & Splendor: Queen Maud of Norway’s Wardrobe 1896 – 1938 at the Victoria and Albert Museum until January 8, 2006.

Before Diana, there was Queen Maud, a British princess who married a Danish prince who ended up becoming King of Norway. With an 18 inch waist, a generous budget, lots of occasions to dress for and a terrific sense of style, Maud amassed a fabulous collection of outfits spanning 40 years of fashion which are on exhibition at the V& A until January 8, 2006. Chic little hats, divine shoes, cross-country ski outfits and ball gowns galore are all beautifully displayed and described.

If you still have time and desire, also see the rest of the Fashion Collection at the V&A. My mother was in heaven revisiting the last 50 years of her own fashion lifetime and we had a great time discussing what we saw.

The exhibit is free to the public. When we were there, it was filled with noisy teenage girls on school field trips. They were discussing and drawing like mad and, I suppose, hoping to be the next British fashion phenomenon. For visitors who prefer a serene environment for viewing, it might be quieter on the weekend when all the would-be designers are safely at Topshop.

One final thought, my mother found really glamorous scarves in the V&A Gift Shop that looked like they came straight from Harrods and cost significantly less. The jewellery is clever and correctly priced as well. Fashion inspiration and retail therapy all under one roof. We recommend it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Smallest City in Britain

The Cathedral and Bishop's Palace in St David's

Monday, June 20, 2005

Historic Wales Delivers Family Fun

It’s a real invitation, emailed my friend Liz. We’d love it if you would visit us in Wales. Be careful what you wish for, I fired back, we’re coming. With a child to occupy during the school holidays in early June and a fierce determination to finally explore the Britain outside of London, we set off.

As it turned out, Wales is a first class “No Crowds” destination with a rich offering of things to do and see. There are stretches of dramatic, pristine coastline, superb sandy beaches, small villages undamaged by modern tourism, hazardous country lanes that put the thrill back in driving, and enough castles and fortifications to satisfy the most romantic history buff. Although we did not make this a sporting holiday, we saw much evidence that Wales is an athlete’s paradise with lots of opportunities to hike, bike, ride and sail.

As we were only in Wales for 3 nights/4 days, we confined our explorations to the south and the west. We saw lots of castles in various stages of disrepair. We visited a beautiful beach with well built surfers ( these people are hardy), went swimming ourselves ( we’re less hardy and didn’t last long ) and spent a lovely afternoon in St David’s which has been an important monastic site since 500 AD. The village, which qualifies as the smallest city in Britain due to its medieval Cathedral and once magnificent Bishop’s Palace, sits in a romantic position on the coast which is, in turn, part of the 250 miles of unspoilt coastline which make up the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

We also spent a blissful afternoon in Laugharne, a well preserved seaside town of pretty Georgian houses immortalised by Wales’s most famous poet, Dylan Thomas. In addition to visiting the medieval castle which was later transformed into a Tudor mansion, you can visit several important landmarks in the life of Thomas, his writing shed, the house where he spent the last years of his life, the pub where he perfected his enthusiasm for drinking which ultimately killed him and the churchyard where he is buried. Not yet a fan of Thomas, my 7 year old daughter nevertheless found his seaside writing shed inspiring. She noted that it contained crumpled up and discarded drafts thrown casually on the floor. “So you mean this famous writer had trouble with his writing too.” She was incredulous but relieved.

That evening we had dinner in Laugharne in one of the most remarkable and singular restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. Located in a romantic manor house set in lush and spectacular gardens, this small restaurant is presided over by Nick Priestland, who was once an artist. The artistic sensibility is visible in everything Nick does from the drama of the gardens, to the decoration of the house and the artful presentation of the food. The night we were there two local and seasonal specialties were on offer and they were delicious, wild Towy Sewin (sea trout) and a rack of Welsh “salt marsh” spring lamb. The Cors can be found on Newbridge Road in Laugharne. Booking on 01994 427219 is essential as there are a limited number of tables. Dinner for 5 came to £175.

All in all, we had a great time in Wales. My daughter, who always worries about going back to school with a competitive holiday story to tell (we hope we didn’t teach her that), understood perfectly the understated chic of Wales versus Malaga or Mauritius. The Welsh were a helpful, straightforward bunch. The historic sites, National Trust properties, National Parks and beaches were beautifully maintained. These sites were well attended but by no means crowded. Prices for food and attractions were reasonable. At our first castle we purchased a 3 day family explorer pass which gives free admission to more than 30 historic attractions which more than paid for itself. The weather mostly co-operated and we returned to London happy and refreshed.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sir John Soanes's Museum

If it is raining, or worse, on the day you visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum, pause to consider your good fortune. In Sir John Soane’s day, when he opened his home and collections to amateurs and students of painting, architecture and sculpture, you would not have been admitted in “wet or dirty weather”. Today, whether in rain or shine, from the moment you pluck up the courage to ring the bell on the imposing door of Number 13, Lincoln Inns Fields, you enter one of the most surprising and atmospheric museums in London.

Consisting of three rebuilt houses, the museum was the private residence and Museum of Sir John Soane, one of England’s greatest architects. Born in 1753, Soane acquired a passion for collecting while studying architecture in Italy. Returning to England, he married, had two sons and demonstrated his considerable talent by winning the prestigious commission to design the Bank of England in 1788. It was during his time as the Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy that he decided to display his collections to educate and inspire his students. In 1833, by means of an Act of Parliament, he established the house as a Museum, open to the public, asking that the house remain “as nearly as possible in the state in which he shall leave it”. From the old smell to the arrangements of objects, everything you will find in this house contributes to the sense that Soane’s wishes have been well respected and that your experience resembles that of the eager amateur of the early nineteenth century.

It is not surprising that as the premier architect of his day, Soanes would have come up with some remarkable solutions for displaying such a vast collection of Egyptian, classical, medieval and renaissance antiquities, gems and casts, clocks, a massive library, architectural drawings and prints, two striking series of Hogarth’s paintings, a Reynolds, some beautiful Canalettos and much, much more. Throughout the house, the abundant use of mirrors and skylights deftly deals with the problem of flat London light. There is a crypt in the basement intended to have the atmosphere of Roman catacombs, and a smallish picture room containing more than 100 works on hinged screens. Every surface of the house is engaged in the display of art and it is the density of the work and the cleverness of the architecture that makes this museum so much fun to visit.

On the day I was there, the house was pleasantly filled although certainly not crowded. Staff took a casual approach to us interlopers, gossiping amongst themselves about the affairs of the day. I now know that museum staff is preparing for a Trustees meeting, which staff member will be working from home for the afternoon and all the intricacies of scheduling lunch breaks. Instead of detracting from the experience, it made me feel even more like a visitor in a private residence and less like another tourist in another museum. This sense was enhanced by the fact that as new visitors arrived, the doorbell could be heard throughout the house. “Here comes another amateur or student to be inspired and educated, I thought.” Interestingly enough, just as the Museum is like no other in London, it attracts a type of tourist you will not see at the more famous monuments. On the afternoon I was there it was a mostly British crowd with a smattering of continentals (you could tell by their clothes – very British looking but too clean and perfect) and Americans ( you could tell from their shoes and their accents) who remarked that the house and contents could make you a fan of Victoriana. The fact that Soanes died in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, had escaped them. No mind, they were having a wonderful time and so was I.

When you have finished your visit, you can continue your atmospheric encounter with the past by wandering through the peaceful and dignified Inns of Court. On your way, you might encounter a harassed clerk loaded down with legal briefs or a barrister on his way to or from Court with his robes flapping in the wind. It was Thackeray who observed that “Colleges, Schools and Inns of Court still have respect for antiquity and maintain a great number of the customs and institutions of our ancestors”. For a moment, you have found that illusive London of our imaginations, which is the perfect finish to a visit to the John Soanes Museum.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Late Nights in London Museums

As an old friend once remarked, “I’d rather see a mediocre exhibition on my own than a good one in a crowd.” Blockbuster art shows are not for the faint hearted, ordering tickets, waiting in line for security, waiting in line for the coat check, waiting in line for a gallery guide only to finally arrive in a room heaving with people bunched up uncomfortably in front of the artwork. Even as you move through the over-heated galleries, you begin to wonder - was it worth it. I often console myself with the thought that even if I can not see the paintings, at least mankind has not completely surrendered to “reality TV” and all is not lost when Raphael, Whistler, Turner or Monet can still give Rupert Murdoch a run for his money.

Still, thanks to the late night option at most major museums in London, there is the possibility to view many great exhibitions in relative privacy. A while back, I had the chance to see a popular exhibition “Encounters - the meeting of Asia and Europe” at the Victoria and Albert with 3 other viewers, one being my husband. We arrived at the V&A on a Wednesday evening shortly before 9:00 following a reception at a law firm. We had an hour before the museum closed. There were tables set up in the foyer with people drinking and listening to live music. It was not crowded. We bought our tickets to the exhibition ( no line) and were encouraged to go straight in. An hour was just enough to see and enjoy everything. As the announcement was broadcast that the museum was closing, we were in the last gallery, stimulated by what we had seen and delighted with the experience. It was a small epiphany. “From now on”, I thought, “I’ll go to museums at night.

Most of the major museums in London offer late night openings. The British Museum stays open until 8:30 on Thursdays and Fridays, the National Portrait Gallery until 9:00 on the same days. The National Gallery is open until 9:00 on Wednesday and as previously mentioned, you can enjoy the V&A collections until 10:00 on Wednesday and the last Friday of the month. It is a good idea to call ahead to make sure that what you are going to see is open as not all of the galleries are. In fact, calling is always a good idea. The last time I dragged my 9 year old niece across London with the promise of a great morning of Egyptian antiquities, we sadly discovered a one day strike of the museum guards. An emergency switch to shopping and street theatre in Covent Garden almost made up for the disappointment but from now on, I’m going to call - and, whenever possible - go at night.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Nantucket - Great Off Season

For good reason, Nantucket is the hideaway of choice for America’s investment bankers and captains of industry. The island is gorgeous, in that Ralph Lauren kind of way, removed, but not too far, and blessed with several charming towns, lovely heaths and moors and 50 miles of beachfront. You can choose from a surfer’s beach, a children’s beach, a nude beach and scores of others with waves ranging from tiny to titanic. There are golf courses, tennis and yacht clubs, bike paths, stables and plenty of gourmet food. But do not visit this magical paradise in summer. During the high season of June, July and August, traffic and parking are a nonsense and prices are insane. By contrast, Nantucket in the off-season offers a premier US holiday destination for the independent traveller who loves to travel but is highly allergic to tourism.

However you come to Nantucket, once you arrive, you will begin to relax. For me this feeling results from the smell of ocean and scrub pine, the sound of waves and birds and an old-fashioned scruffy Yankee ethos that even the island’s new money enjoy imitating. Old but cool cars, dogs with bandanas, bleached red trousers and beat-up shoes are the order of the day.

Although flights are quick and easy, I prefer the romance of arriving by boat. The ferries ( or ), which depart from Hyannis, Massachusetts, have gotten faster over the years. It now takes just an hour, except for the car ferry which takes just over 2, although sadly the ships have lost some character. The cell phone brigade keeps calling their offices and the interior seats and tables resemble fast food furniture. Still, there are fun moments that remind you that you are off to a far away place. The crew look weather beaten and speak with a Massachusetts accent so thick it almost begs for subtitles. On my last passage from Hyannis to Nantucket, I saw a team of high spirited girls with lacrosse sticks returning to the mainland after a game on the island. I thought at the time, “This sure beats getting on a school bus.”

Perfection is carefully managed on Nantucket and for an island full of marauding capitalists, the town fathers have taken quite a socialistic approach to community living. No matter how much money you have, your house can not be seen to mar the good taste of the island. You may not change either the colour of your window trim or the shingles on your roof without permission. Anything built today is clad in cedar shingles and creeping roses are everywhere.

While the style police seem to be holding back the tackiness tide on the micro side, on the macro side, the amount of building going on all over the island is disturbing. With 30% appreciation in real estate prices per annum, according to the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce, the pressure to build is immense. The beauty and special character of the place drives the understandable urge to own a piece of this paradise. But, one wonders, how much more can be added before one reaches the tipping point. I take comfort in the idea that Nantucket has been grappling with development issues since the whaling boom of the 1700s and can only hope that it will survive this boom as well.

With all this building going on, you still will be challenged to find affordable accommodation on the island. If you have followed my advice and stay away from high season, most of your troubles are solved as hotels, guest houses and bed & breakfasts are on offer at 50 to 60% less than the top rates. Good negotiators may be able to do better than that. The Nantucket Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start narrowing down the type of accommodation and island location you prefer. All class and category are available from small and charming B&Bs to ultra-luxe hotels.

Incidentally, in the 20 years that I have been coming to Nantucket, I have never brought over a car. If you have a bike, bring it, or you can rent one easily at the dock when you get off the ferry. There is also a shuttle bus service and cabs are easily available if somewhat pricey ( From the ferry to an outer destination like Madaket is $15. Siasconset might be more.). Cars can be rented on the island as well. But my advice is to stick with the bike. There are wonderful bike paths to virtually any place you would want to go and even riding with small children is safe, easy and relaxing.

If you do bring or rent an off road vehicle, one of the surprising things you can still do, even though the island suffers from terrible erosion, is drive on the beach. And if you get stuck in the deep sand, Harry of Harry’s Towing, who has stapled his business cards onto little bits of driftwood and twigs in all the locations on the island where a car is likely to get stuck, will get you out. He can find you anywhere and strangely knows where you are, even if you do not. My friends on the island have all used Harry at one time or another. They love him, even if his prices are painful.

On Nantucket, food can be delicious but is always expensive. Even the grocery stores pack a wallop. We spent $45 for a (good) picnic lunch for 3 consisting of some chicken salad, guacamole, chips and drinks. Still, you can source fresh fish from local waters at fair prices that are terrific. Restaurants range from simple to ultra serious. The newly reopened Brotherhood of Thieves is a popular bar and restaurant downtown named after an abolitionist pamphlet attacking the Island’s clergy for not doing enough to free the slaves. The restaurant serves a good selection of informal fare and everyone in town is likely to be there. The SeaGrille Restaurant , located just outside of town and open for lunch and dinner year round is a great place to go for fresh and well prepared seafood.

For holiday makers who like activity, Nantucket accommodates with a full calendar of events. The day I arrived in early May, one could attend a “Dancing with Dogs” class advertised as a Canine Freestyle demo and workshop. During the same month, one could visit a chocolate tasting, listen to the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club Concert, go on a Bird-a-thon walk and much more. Not bad for off-season.

But my final and most important advice for navigating this latter day Garden of Eden - be sure to watch the weather reports.

While my visit to Nantucket was near perfect, getting off the island became a drama of huge proportions. With a birthday and the university graduation of a son to attend on the mainland, I was asleep at the wheel as a large storm known as a “Nor’easter because of the direction of the strong winds, blew in overnight, shutting down all transportation on and off the Island. Even Captains of Industry and Directors of the Global Economy were stuck. As the weather worsened, the number of panicked people trying to get off grew, including nine guys with tickets to a Red Soxs baseball game for that night who were prepared to swim.

After 24 unsuccessful hours at the airport, I took the decision to go for the sympathy of the airline personnel. I tell them my story. Mother of four, who has travelled all the way from London to be at her son’s graduation, desperately needs priority handling to get off the island. The young man who made the mistake of sending my bag, but not me, on yesterday’s only flight out, (he went for the Red Soxs fans) has decided to take on my quest. And, when the first 10-seater plane arrives from Hyannis, I have Seat Number 1 and all the airport personnel cheer as I board the plane.

The wind is howling at 50 MPH and my pilot looks like Woody Allen. I like Woody Allen and his films just fine, but I would feel better if this particular pilot looked more like Harrison Ford. As we take-off, blowing first left and right and then up and down, I found religion. “I’m in God’s hands now”, I thought. In the end, we landed safely, I had an uneventful drive to New York City, made the graduation and had this story to tell.

Despite the departure travails, my off-season visit to Nantucket was holiday bliss. The residents were happy to see me which would probably not have been the case in high summer. The weather, glorious for most of the time, did take a dramatic turn for the worse but I’ve had that happen in plenty of places that had none of Nantucket’s charms. I was able to walk for hours on beaches and moors without seeing another human being, although I saw plenty of wildlife. I ate great food. I enjoyed the architecture, the cobbled streets, and the independent and very good bookstores. I love this island rich in history, tradition and natural beauty and I'll be back as soon as the summer crowds depart.