Sunday, December 31, 2006

Beyond Airports

It is New Year’s Eve, and time for 2007 Travel Resolutions and Destinations. Here are mine:

2007 European Travel Resolution – Boycott Airports and Airplanes

Airports Suck. Flying Sucks. Not nice language but, hey, neither is the experience. I will remember 2006 as the year that every time I went to an airport, it was like Dante’s third circle of Hell. Weather delays. Security delays. Confusion. Cancellations. Chaos.

I love to travel and I even used to love to fly but this love affair is so over. For 2007, I’m going to think car, boat, train, horse, feet, anything but plane and if you think that will limit how far I can get for a weekend, consider this. I can catch the Friday 3pm Eurostar from London to Paris (£59 return), catch the 8:32 pm over night to Barcelona (£143 round trip with private cabin) which will get me into Barcelona on 8:24am Saturday morning. Return travel is equally civilised departing Barcelona at 9:20pm on Sunday arriving back in London on 11:55am on Monday. Et voila, a great weekend in one of Europe’s hippest and happening cities minus the horrible airport bit. When you consider that for £202 you get travel plus two nights accommodations, the economics work as well. If you’re interested, you can book this and other rail travel on

2007 European Travel Destinations

Bearing in mind my 2007 Travel Resolution, here are the destinations I have on my radar for the next year that I can get to without an airplance with a short explanation of why they interest me.

Islands - Harder to get to and better off for it

Ile de Re – France’s version of Nantucket (my friend Claude says nearby Ile d’Oleron and Ile d’Yeu are less crowded and even better)

Fano – Denmark’s version of plush primitive, stay at Sonderho, Denmark’s oldest inn

Sylt – Germany’s version of the wild but well bred retreat

Herm – 3 miles off the coast of Guernsey, family owned and only a mile and a half long

Ponza – Capri-like but less crowded

Ile de Porquerolles – the Cote d’Azur without the hoi polloi

Isle of Wight – to scratch my itch for an old fashioned holiday plus Osborne House

Corsica – France’s “mountain in the sea”, untamed and un-Gallic with great long distance hiking


Paris – because I can’t get enough
Rome – for the trattatorias and the churches

Venice – an off season gem

Vienna – music, history, whipped cream

Budapest - ditto

Berlin – hip, happening and relatively inexpensive
Salzburg – perfectly proportioned
Copenhagen – for Eloise (Mermaid, Tivoli)

The Great Outdoors

The Lake District – Landscape and literature

Maishofen – So I can hike from my favourite Austrian hotel, Landgasthof Schloss Kammer

Cornwall – to see what all the buzz is about

Hadrian’s Wall – all 78 miles of it

Slovenia – like Austria but less crowded and expensive

So there you have it, a short list of places I'd like to see in 2007. As you think about your own travel plans for this year, I encourage you to take the advice of my favourite philosoper, Yogi Berra:

"When you get to the fork in the road, take it."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Seductive One Day Christmas Shopping Spree

London’s Daily Telegraph recently published some scary statistics stating that the average mother (always the mother) spends 315 hours preparing for Christmas broken down into:

288 hours shopping
4.19 hours wrapping presents
3.03 hours decorating the house
4.27 hours preparing Christmas lunch
4.38 hours cooking Christmas lunch
11 hours cleaning up the mess

Just the thought of spending 288 hours shopping would send anyone, except my Aunt Gail and Mama Beuna, right around the bend, so here’s an idea that can help you desperate mothers out there cut down the time and increase the pleasure of the annual Christmas shop – abandon your family and head quickly for the Left Bank of Paris.

I can almost hear the intake of breath. Isn’t Paris expensive? Crowded? Aren’t the French difficult? What could you possibly buy in Paris that you couldn’t find in London or anywhere else? Well, here’s the thing. In Paris, it is the “experience” which makes the difference. In Paris at Christmas, women don’t look harassed. In the 6th District, at least, they look like Catherine Deneuve and the stores look like something out of the recent Sofia Coppola movie about Marie Antoinette and the food, don’t get me started on the food. Best of all, in the same amount of time the Telegraph’s survey was allocating for Christmas clean-up, you will be able to get most of your shopping done and eat a great meal. Et voila, your Joyeux Noel is ready to go.

Having been Christmas shopping in Paris every year for the past decade, I now have it down to a fine science and the key learning can be summed up in the names of two stores, Le Bon Marche and Monoprix. The first is a temple to what is chic and luxurious, while the second is the master of value for money. I love them both. Here’s why.

At Bon Marche, you can find something fabulous for everyone on your list. Back in 1870, Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of the world's first department store, stated that his aim was to “seduce the clientele” by presenting the newest products in the most stylish surroundings. Over one hundred years later, the store continues to deliver on that grand promise. The architecture, once described by Emile Zola as a “cathedral to commerce” is large enough to absorb the Christmas crowds but not so large that one feels overwhelmed. Yes, it is expensive, but no more so than you would pay for the same branded goods elsewhere.

From the excellent luggage, travel and ‘clothing for sport’ departments on the top floor to stationary, toys and glamorous children’s clothes in the basement, everything in Bon Marche seduces. In Housewares, even pots and pans look like art work and the area devoted to cleaning products and dustbins feels drop dead elegant. The Lingerie Department has everything from armament for buxom grannies to the flimsiest and most beautiful “what nots”. Throughout the store, people who serve you are, for Parisians, rather nice and decent linguists. Best of all, Bon Marche will wrap everything for you and the presentation is very smart.

After spending a morning in Bon Marche, I recommend that you head for Monoprix for food, stocking stuffers and lots of great inexpensive stuff. With outlets throughout Paris, the nearest Monoprix to Bon Marche is near St Germain des Pres at 50, rue de Rennes. Don’t let the tiny woman’s accessories area upstairs fool you. All the action is in the basement below.

If Le Bon Marche is all about luxury then Monoprix is about value for money and even though the food halls at Bon Marche, called La Grande Epicerie de Paris, are the finest I know and you shouldn’t miss taking a look, I always buy my Christmas food items at Monoprix. Over the years, financial constraints have taught me that you can purchase excellent quality Foie Gras, Marron Glace, Pain d’Epices, Pates de Fruit and all the elements for an elegant Christmas Eve dinner at Monoprix for considerably less than Bon Marche and I don’t think anyone has ever spotted the difference. Monoprix is also great for cheap but chic children’s clothes, socks and stockings and all kinds of “mess” that you need for Christmas. If Walmart were a manageable size and had some style, it would be Monoprix.

Having raided these two dramatically different stores, or perhaps in between raiding, it is time for a reward. There are lots of first class places to go for a drink and something to eat, but I always head for the Nemrod. It may look like just another brasserie, but the food, service and atmosphere are, as Patricia Wells wrote in the IHT “well above par”. Just around the corner from Bon Marche at 51 Rue du Cherche-Midi, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the atmosphere is bustling and very Left Bank. Everything is good, but the salads exceptional, especially the Salade Auvergnate. Lunch should set you back about €60 for two.

So there you have it, a one day Christmas shopping spree where at least you will enjoy your financial demise. If there is one thing the French understand better than anyone else, it is luxury goods and the one department store that has more luxury than all others is Le Bon Marche. If you fill in the gaps with goodies from Monoprix, Christmas, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, is a piece of cake.

Le Bon Marche
24, rue de Sevres
Tel: 01 44 39 80 00
Customer Service: 01 44 39 82 80
Metro: Sevres Babylone
Hours: 0930-1900 Monday through Wednesday and Friday. Open until 2100 on Thursday and 2000 on Saturday
50, rue de Rennes
Metro: St Germain des Pres

Hours: Mon – Sat from 9:00 to 22:00

Le Nemrod
51, rue du Cherche-Midi
Tel: 01 45 48 17 05
Open Mon – Sat from 6:30 to 23:00
Reservations at lunch and dinner recommended

Monday, December 04, 2006

How to Slow Down Christmas

At this time of year, I envy Eloise. For my nine year old daughter, Christmas comes too slowly and is filled with magic. Not for Eloise the seasonal “to do” list which seems to take over the experience and always ends in panic. This year, I am determined to recapture the Christmas that feels like Eloise’s, which comes too slowly and is filled with good cheer.

In London, I can think of no better way to get into the Christmas spirit than by paying a visit to the Geffrye Museum’s exhibition of Christmas Past. Now in its seventeenth year, this exhibition provides masses of interesting information about 400 years of English Christmas traditions and decorations. This scrupulously researched exhibit shows Christmas in all glory and depravity and drives home the point that, as the Guidebook to the exhibition states, "people have been complaining for centuries that Christmas isn’t what it used to be.”

As opposed to running around stores and getting anxious, I found it hugely instructive and entertaining to spend a couple of hours last Friday looking and thinking about our changing attitudes to Christmas. I was amazed by the Tudor’s enthusiasm, the Parliamentarians disdain (From 1644 to 1660, Christmas was outlawed by an Act of Parliament) and the Georgian’s disinterest. Equally engaging were the nostalgia of the Regency period and the family focus and revived musical interest of the Victorians.

In each of the twelve rooms, which are decorated in the festive style of the period, you get a wonderful sense of how people felt about Christmas and what it meant to them. As I wandered through the Post War rooms, I was charmed by the older visitors who were sharing with each other what Christmas had been like for them during the period. “Well, in those days, we didn’t have a fridge or a washing machine so …”

The Geffrye Museum of English Interiors, located in Shoreditch near the City is always an uncrowded and pleasant place to visit but never more so than at Christmas. The “Christmas Past” Exhibition makes you happy to be part of age old traditions and customs that reach far beyond frenetic shopping and partying. Each of the twelve rooms gave me at least one good idea of something I could do in my own home to make the holidays more beautiful and special. The gift shop has lovely books about Christmas plus plenty of tasteful and well priced decorations. Best of all, on a busy afternoon in the run-up to Christmas, my life really did slow down for a while and was filled with good cheer.

The Geffrye Museum
136 Kingsland Road
London E28EA
Tel: 020 7739 9893

Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 AM – 5 PM
Sunday and Bank Holidays 12 – 5 PM

Christmas Past: 400 Years of Seasonal Traditions in English Homes will run from 28 November 2006 – 7 January 2007

Picture of Elizabethan strips of "bacon" made from sugar and served as a delicacy at Christmas from the Geffrye Museum Advent Calendar for December 4.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

100 Today

Today marks the 100th post for NoCrowds. Such a metric might not mean a lot to Matt Drudge, but it means a lot to me. Over the 1 ½ years that I have been at this, plenty of people have been highly encouraging, about the same number have, with little success, tried to get me to focus on some kind of business model. I have shamelessly used my family and friends as narrative devices. I have exhausted the good will of my husband/editor for this time consuming “not-yet-for-profit” project and my children, some grown, some not, who look for ways to describe what I do to their friends - “Aging hippie, former Corporate Communicator is now a Blogger. Don’t ask.”

I hold the travel industry responsible. If they had done a better job at protecting the experiences they were hawking, then I wouldn’t have a job. But they don’t, so I do, and now I am completely fired up with ideas for the next 100 posts.

At the moment, like everyone else, I am focussed on Christmas and for the next few weeks I’ll be covering how to put authentic experiences back into the holiday season in London, Paris and Rome. For desperate last minute shoppers, I’ll also be offering some ideas on how to choose the perfect trip for that special someone.

But before closing this 100th post, I want to thank some of the people who have kept the faith, forwarded ideas and supported me in this hare brained but beloved project. Here you are:

The thousands of readers I haven’t met who love to travel but hate crowds
My long suffering but fabulous husband/editor
My children – well at least the ones who read my stuff – you know who you are
My father who gets it
My sister who sends me ideas and her husband who, in the nicest way, tries to get me to think a bit bigger and a little bolder
My loyal friends, who, along with the porn spammers, were my earliest readers

And to travellers everywhere who insist on "taking back" travel from the forces of evil, one experience at a time.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

London - the Ultimate Destination for America's Best Holiday

As I mentioned in my post from last year, we run the best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen in London. This year we fed thirty-three pilgrims hailing from France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, the UK and all parts of the United States, even Montana! And I’m confident that everyone who celebrated with us this year would agree, London is the ultimate Thanksgiving destination.

For the uninitiated, London might seem like an unlikely place to eat turkey with friends and family but in fact, with roughly 150,000 hungry Americans living in greater London, along with tourists and curious Londoners, it is relatively easy to find an excellent turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Villandry in Marylebone, Christophers in Covent Garden and the Chesterfield Hotel and Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair all had special Thanksgiving menus last week with more informal places like the Arkansas Cafe and Bodeans (with live NFL action for diehards) offering more down home options.

If you were to rent an apartment and prepare your festivities yourself, the best butchers such as Lidgate in Holland Park and Randalls in Fulham can source you a fabulous turkey at even more fabulous prices that puts the American butterball to shame. Just be careful about size, most English ovens are smaller than in the States. Cranberries and sweet potatoes are in the supermarkets and Harvey Nichols has drop dead gorgeous pecan pies. Molly Blooms, also in Fulham, can supply you with a fantastic Thanksgiving-themed table arrangement. This year mine contained Indian corn, peppers, apples, orchids, oranges, nuts, berries and cotton (they know about my penchant for the South). To look at it, you’d think you were Williamsburg.

If you are not yet sold on the idea to come to London for Thanksgiving, here is some more ammunition. Late November is a relatively inexpensive time to fly to London. By contract, moving around the United States over Thanksgiving is congested and expensive. In fact, being at least 5,000 miles away from the 25 million Americans who travel on Thanksgiving Day is a pretty good idea. Also, the day after Thanksgiving is a quite normal shopping day in London. You can have a very pleasant time wandering around the stores which are already beautifully decorated for Christmas and not particularly crowded. Compare that to the riots taking place in malls across America.

In addition, you will receive the warmest welcome from your London hosts. Londoners are rather intrigued with the whole notion of Thanksgiving and they are a bit envious of the fact that Americans take the day off just to ”count their blessings” with family and friends who eat themselves silly and all of this without having to buy any presents. In the run up to Turkey Day, UK papers are filled with articles pointing to the advantages and benefits of our great American holiday. Of course, there is always the story that the Friday after Thanksgiving is the only day a poor Brit with a hyper-active, vacation- hating American boss won’t notice if he is late to work. Well, you can’t win them all. In my experience, just like the original pilgrims, if you invite representatives of the indigenous people to join you, they are always happy to oblige.

And finally, you can achieve the ultimate Thanksgiving experience by paying a visit to the Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe in southeast London from which the original Pilgrim Fathers set sail for Plymouth in 1620. This historic pub is authorised to sell both British and US stamps so come armed with postcards to confuse your family and friends.

After hoisting a pint at the Mayflower, pay a visit to Southwark Cathedral to see the new memorial where Queen Elisabeth recently paid tribute to the Mohegan tribal chieftan, Sachem Mohamet Weyonomon who had travelled to London in 1736 to complain directly to George II about British settlers encroaching on tribal lands. Sadly, Weyonomon died of smallpox before getting to see the King and was buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Thames near John Harvard and William Shakespeare. Weyonomon’s letter to George II finally reached the hands of a British monarch on Wednesday, November 22, 2006. Yes, one day before Thanksgiving.

So forget the traffic jams, the football games, the shopping malls and the Butterballs. For free spirits who want to “connect to their inner Thanksgiving”, next year, go back to where it all really started and have the time of your life celebrating America’s greatest holiday - in London.
Photo Credit of Queen and Indian Chief at Southwark Cathedral: AP

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Kenwood House: Spend a Day in English Arcadia

Certain artists attract huge crowds. Right now in London, Velasquez packs them in at the National Gallery while Leonardo da Vinci and Rodin reek similar havoc at the V & A and Royal Academy. But if you are fed up with all that craziness (after all, it is only art) thirty minutes from central London, in a particularly lovely corner of Hampstead Heath, you can stand in one of England’s finest stately homes and admire the work of superstars such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Turner completely and utterly by yourself.

In fact, Kenwood House, established as a museum by an Act of Parliament in 1929, offers visitors to London the ultimate English experience: world class art in a premier country house with loads of history and atmosphere unmarred by crowds. On a weekday, you might encounter the odd group of school children and the random tourist touring the house but for the most part, the place belongs to very English looking ladies in sturdy boots walking their very English looking dogs around the grounds. Even if you have only a few days in London, I recommend that instead of fighting it out in the centre of town, take the Northern Line to Golder’s Green tube stop, hop on the 210 bus and spend a blissful day in English arcadia.

The story of Kenwood House begins with its remodelling between 1764 and 1779 by the pre-eminent architect, Robert Adam, who transformed the original brick building into an impressive country villa for Lord Mansfield, a prominent judge. The house was later bought by the brewing magnate Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, in 1925 and upon his death in 1927, he gave the estate and a portion of his pictures to the nation. The fact that these pictures are magnificent and look all the better for being displayed in a stately home rather than a purpose built gallery is, for my money, the icing on this wonderful cake. And if that weren’t enough, unlike most English Heritage properties which can be quite expensive, this one is absolutely free. For hunters of tasteful souvenirs to take home, the Gift Shop has plenty on offer.

If you have finished in the house, do not miss the opportunity to visit the grounds with park, lakeside and woodland walks and if you venture farther, you can walk for hours on the immense Hampstead Heath, one of London’s largest open spaces.

I also recommend having a drink or a pub lunch at the historic Spaniards Inn which has been operating since 1585, was mentioned in Dicken’s Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula and has been patronised over the years by Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Hogarth, Reynolds and Constable. The Inn is also famous for having been the hideout of the highwayman Dick Turpin and his equally famous horse, Black Bess during the time that Turpin’s father was landlord. I had a good soup and sandwich there recently for a reasonable £8.50. The Spaniards Inn is about a 10 minute walk from Kenwood House.

To get back to central London, retrace your steps (210 bus to Golner’s Green) happy in the knowledge that while everyone else was waiting in line to see Velasquez, you were alone with Vermeer.

Kenwood House
Hampstead Lane
London, NW3 7JR
Tel: 020 83481286

Spaniards Inn
Spaniards Road
Hampstead Heath
London, NW3 7JJ
020 8731 6571

Monday, November 13, 2006

Responsible Travel

Every year I visit the World Travel Market in London which brings together 50,000 buyers and sellers from every sector in the global travel industry. From a NoCrowds perspective, this business-to-business travel extravaganza typically provides a useful opportunity to see where mass tourism is headed and how not to go there.

This year, there was a very encouraging emphasis placed on the whole concept of “responsible tourism” which aims to minimise the negative economic, environmental and social impacts of travel. But I was interested in the overlap between people who are interested in this trend and the old NoCrowds values of being fed up with mass tourism and travellers looking for more fulfilment and enrichment from their travels.

I was particularly interested in stress testing the usual “blah blah” about protecting environments, respecting local cultures and benefiting local communities, to see if, and how, these ideas were being delivered in the products and services of the travel industry. And I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, there were quite a number of companies at WTM who are practicing what they preach and adding real value for travellers. There are also more and more sources of good information to help all of us make better travel choices and therefore have better experiences. Here is a list of some of the organisations I saw at WTM who seem to be actively making a difference in an interesting way.

An Innovative Tour Operator
Intrepid Travel – an Australia-based small group adventure tour operator established in 1989 and winner of this year’s Best Responsible Travel Company. My sense is that if you want to travel with a group, this outfit does a good job in insuring that you get off the beaten track and have authentic experiences with like minded individuals. You can also take comfort from the fact that this company works hard to benefit local communities.

A Responsible On-line Tour Agent – an online travel agent established in 2001 claiming to have pre-screened over 270 businesses for their “responsibility” credentials. There is a wealth of useful information on their website and they seem to be leading or involved with most of the initiatives that are working to push the industry to clean up its act.

Responsible Ski Resorts
Ski Club of Great Britain’s Respect the Mountain Campaign – The Ski Club of Great Britain takes a serious look at the whole issue of safe guarding the alpine environment and the long-term future of skiing. Included on their site is environmental information on all the major resorts. In a related note, Whistler Blackcomb Mountain Resorts in British Columbia, Canada, won this year’s Responsible Tourism award for Best Mountain Environment, Jackson Hole was nominated for its ISO 14001 accreditation and Aspen in Colorado won the award for Best Destination based on the town’s many green “firsts” which is hard to imagine with all the private jets and mega-chalets, but the award was sponsored by Lonely Planet and they should know.

Environmentally Friendly Train Travel
The Man in Seat 61 – Another winner at the Responsible Tourism Awards, this really engaging site provides everything you need to know to take a train to almost anywhere in the world, and if you think switching to trains won’t make much of a contribution to improving the environment, consider this; one round trip plane journey from London to Barcelona emits 277 kg/Co2 per passenger versus 44 kg/Co2 per passenger by train. Source: the Observer).

Responsible Safari
Ol Malo, Kenya – Based in Samburuland, this lodge and charitable trust offer authentic experiences to travellers while helping to reduce poverty in the local Samburu community. Much grander and more expensive, although also commendable for its work on conservation of endangered species, is the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa.

Volunteer Programs
Adventures with a Conscience and a Purpose – Both Biosphere Expeditions and Blue Ventures offer hands-on volunteer conservations expeditions that are highly commended.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Paris - If you Need a Reason, Go for the New Museums

When I was a student in Paris, I loved to spend lost afternoons in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in the Marsan Wing of the Louvre Palace on the rue du Rivoli looking at dusty cabinets full of ceramics and fraying tapestries. It was a quiet oasis in a bustling part of Paris which had masses of beautiful objects but little popular appeal. Those days are long gone.

Following a 10 year, €35 million refurbishment, the recently reopened decorative arts museum is a stunner, and if ever there was a case to be made that France has “owned the luxury goods space” for the last 500 years, the case is made brilliantly in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Each one of the 6,000 objects on display literally screams at you, “Look at me! I am beautiful”. This may be the stuff of everyday life, furniture, fabric, porcelain, wallpaper and toys, but it is definitely not life as we know it. From the “over-the-top” bed of the courtesan who was the inspiration for Emile Zola’s scandalous novel “Nana” (just imagine what went on there) to the re-creation of Jeanne Lanvin’s 1920s apartment, this is all fabulous stuff fabulously displayed.

The excellent English language audio guide tells the story of 500 years of French savoir faire and style with just the right combination of detail and narrative. There is now a restaurant in the museum that serves lunch and dinner daily and a huge and very good gift shop. If you are of the persuasion that “knick knacks” could never be as interesting as paintings, this museum will change your mind. Interest has soared since the museum reopened on September 15 and if you do not want to wait in line, be sure to either purchase a museum card or pre-book a ticket on the website or through FNAC .

But such is the richness of Paris’s cultural offering that the Musee des Arts Decoratifs is only one of three superstar museums to open or reopen its doors to the public this year. Jeff, Eloise and I made half-assed attempts to get in to see both the new Musee du quai Branly, Jacque Chirac’s €200 million monument to ethnic and primitive art on the Left Bank and the recently reopened L’Orangerie where, after long delays, a completely new space has been built for Monet’s mesmerising water lilies, but in both cases, with no museum passes and no pre-booked tickets, we took one look at the lines and went elsewhere. We also did not go during the late nights which both museums offer. The bottom line is that these places are too popular for spontaneity.

Just standing outside the enormous and radical Musee du quai Branly sitting outrageously in the 7th District, one of the grandest of grand Paris neighborhoods, is enough to signal that something completely different and exciting is going on here. Everyone says, as they have with the Tate Modern in London, that the building, not the collection, is the experience. In a way, who cares? I just want to get in and see the thing. Ditto for the Water Lilies.

It may seem counter-intuitive to the NoCrowds ethos to recommend going to precisely the museums everyone else is trying to see and yes, sooner or later, the crowds will lessen as the opening of some other celebrity monument steals their thunder, but I can’t help believing that if the Branly and the rebuilt L’Orangerie are half as fun and exciting as the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, then it is worth fighting to get in to see them while the paint is still fresh and they still have their mojo.

Musee des Arts Decoratifs
Tuesday – Friday, 11 am – 6 pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am – 6 pm
107, rue de Rivoli
Metro to Palais-Royal, Pyramides or Tuileries
Admission - €8 - €6.50 for students and seniors
Phone – 01 44 55 57 50

Musee du quai Branly
Tuesday – Sunday, 10 am – 6:30 pm
Late opening on Thursday until 9:30 pm
37, quai Branly
Metro: lena, Alma-Maceau
Admission - €10
Tel: 01 56 61 70 00
Fax: 01 56 61 70 01

Musee de L’Orangerie
Open everyday except Tuesday, 12:30 – 7:00 pm and 9:00pm on Friday
Jardin des Tuileries
Metro: Concorde
Admission: €6.50 - €4.50 for students and seniors
Tel: 01 44 77 80 07

Photo of "Nana's Bed" by Philippe Chanoel from the Musee Les Arts Decoratifs' website

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Take your Parents to Paris

To borrow a phrase from John F. Kennedy, we are the parents who accompanied Eloise to Paris and we have enjoyed it.

According to Eloise, Paris is Europe’s most parent-friendly city. She argues that parents are contented and easily distracted because the city is beautiful, the food is good and romance abounds. She goes on to say that contented, distracted parents make easy prey for the hidden agendas of children. Looking back on our recent visit, and the fact that we hardly ever disagree about what to do in Paris, I think she is on to something.

Take, for example, our visit to the Jardin des Tuileries. On the surface, this expanse of formal, neo-classical greenery smack dab in the centre of the city between Concorde and the Louvre feels like a place built for grownups. You might imagine that we strolled around enjoying the aesthetics, and we did. But we also ended up financing several carousel rides on a lovely belle époque “work of art” and several sessions of enthusiastic jumping on the in-ground trampolines. We did get to sit on the benches in the autumn sun while Eloise played in the action playground with all the children who were also on their school holidays and Jeff got to admire their mothers. Everyone was happy.

You can also take as an example our lunch at the Grand Colbert where we retreated after the morning in the Tuileries. Again, you might think the Grand Colbert, housed in a historic monument with a fabulous belle époque interior that was featured in the movie “Something’s Gotta Give” with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, is best for geriatric trysts, but, Eloise knows that a renowned and bustling brasserie is always a fine place to take your parents. While we were busy with our excellent lentil salads watching the midday show, Eloise was able to do unmentionable things to her plate of snails (one of which flew across the room) without invoking the attention or irritation of her parents or the maitre d’hotel who took rather a shine to her.

This was also the case the morning we devoted to shopping. “Mom, why don’t we go to Bon Marche?” (the most fabulous and exclusive department store in Paris). Of course, I’m a sucker for that approach. The fact that we spent most of our time in Bon Marche in the toy department buying these little animals known as Sylvanians (Calico Critters in the U.S. and “Sill van knee yan” in Bon Marche) is not surprising. The fact that later on we also managed to find a very chic and inexpensive Christmas dress down the road at Du Pareil au Meme also speaks to how well a girl can do when her mother is carried away by the elegant retail experience that is Paris.

In the Luxembourg Gardens, Eloise also managed to keep us busy. We got to watch her set a new record on the carousel where children collect rings on a stick as they go around. We got to enjoy a perfect Gallic display of pique as the British school children on holiday took over the action playground from the beautifully dressed pre-schoolers and even better dressed Mamans. Afterwards, when we suggested going to Polidor, (where a three course lunch during the week will only set you back €11), she conveniently reminded us to be sure and go to the bathroom before hand as “this is the place where you have to go standing up”. She also, conveniently, ate the desserts from our three course menu.

And finally, it was Eloise who suggested that we make a special visit after Polidor to see the Unicorns at the Cluny Museum of the Middle Ages. Unlike my not-so-brillant idea to try and get into the Branly ( the new museum of tribal art) where the line wound around the building and down the street, the Cluny was an oasis of calm, no lines, no crowds, just impressive architecture, a good gift shop and some very good unicorns.

So if you are looking for a city where it is easy to keep your parents contented and entertained, where they will be well treated in restaurants and where spending money in stores comes easily, Eloise strongly suggests you look no farther than the City of Light.

The Grand Colbert
2, rue Vivienne
75002 Paris
Tel: 01 42 86 87 88

Cremerie Restaurant Polidor
41 rue Monsieur-le-Prince 6e
Tel: 0143-26-95-34No credit cards

Le Bon Marche
24, rue de Sevres
Tel: 01 44 39 80 00

Du Pareil au Meme has branches throughout Paris

National Museum of the Middle Ages – the Baths and Hotel de Cluny
6, Place Paul Painleve
75005 Paris
Tel: 01 53 73 78 00

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Happy Buddha off the King's Road

What’s fast, delicious, fun, cheap, perfect for children and will get you in all kinds of trouble if you say the name out loud. Phat phuc – which in Vietnamese stands for Happy Buddha.

Phat Phuc is an authentic noodle bar which can be found in an open air courtyard just off the Kings Road in Chelsea where seven days a week, the genial proprietor serves delicious rice noodle soups and a generous dose of philosophy from a decorative noodle cart brought over from Ho Chi Minh City. And you've got to love the fact that this is a cart with its own website!

You can sit outside either around the cart or at the few small tables nearby. If you like your food with conversation, sit at the noodle bar. Powerful heaters are fired up when things get cold but eating outside is all part of the novelty.

The menu is pretty much soup made with “pho” a clear broth with a choice of vegetables, beef or chicken, but the price is extremely reasonable ( about £6) , the bowls are large and the quality and freshness of the ingredients is excellent. Springs rolls are on offer for £2.20. As the lady sitting next to me yesterday remarked, “I live here. This is so much better than a sandwich.”

Phat Phuc is a real gem that drives a bulldozer through the conformity and pretentiousness of its surroundings. Students, ladies in Hermes scarves, shopkeepers and shoppers all communing over steaming bowls of healthy fare. Brings the kids but not lots of cash and enjoy the show.

Location - opposite Heals and next to the Chelsea Farmer's Market at 151 Sydney Street down the steps by the flower stall.

Tel: 07870 393863 or

Open daily from 12:00 to 5:00

Thursday, October 19, 2006

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

1001 Guidebooks and How to Select the Best

Standing in front of the shelves marked “London” in my local bookseller, I already knew I was in trouble. I was planning to write a quick survey of London travel guides but faced with hundreds of titles, and with no developed criteria for selection, I ended up sitting for two days in the basement of Nomad Books, a good independent bookstore with an excellent travel section, going through their inventory. It was a daunting experience. Of course, the usual suspects were there: Fodors, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Insight, Time Out and Michelin Green Guides, but so were the guides for every variety of person or interest: London for Children, for Grannies, for Gays and Lesbians, for Food Lovers, for Teenagers, for Design Freaks and Shoppers. I began to wonder how one city, even a city as vast and varied as London, could support the 1,712 guides which I found on Amazon.

After two days at Nomad and countless hours on Amazon, I’ve tried to boil my survey down to the following observations:

There is not a huge difference amongst the big players.

Yes, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Michelin Green guides, Insight, Fodors and Time Out have probably worked hard to differentiate themselves but from an information perspective, they all do a good job of providing lots of background and detail, covering the sights, accommodations, shopping opportunities and restaurants in different price categories and neighbourhoods. They all provide good summaries of the city’s history and stuff that is useful to know when you are planning your visit. They all cost more or less the same thing, somewhere in the range of £10/$18.50. They may think they are different, but they do pretty much the same thing. Once you start drilling down, you can make your selection based on criteria such as:

If you want lots of good graphics and visuals – Go for either DK Eyewitness or the AA Key Guide

If you like consistent rating systems – Go for Michelin Green Guides or Fodors

If you want your guide to have some energy and attitude – Go for Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or Time Out. If you don’t like ads in your guidebooks, feeling as I do that paying full freight for the book is enough, then Lonely Planet is the way to go.

The London e>>guide offers on-line updates but I went online and saw nothing special about the website. This format also promotes the use of podcasts as part of self-guided walking tours, a topic that I would like to explore in a subsequent post.

Many of the main providers also offer stripped down or condensed versions such as Lonely Planet’s “Best of London” and Time Outs “Shortlist” but I would argue that unless you are an absolute fanatic about the weight and size of what you carry around, there is no real reason to buy these formats. Go for the full monty and make your own selection.

The specialists guides rarely seem worth what they cost or weigh in your daypack.

I plowed through them all, Grannies, Lesbians, Children, Food Lovers, Museum Lovers, Design Lovers and more and found most either fall back on the same information that can be found in the comprehensive guide (just arranged differently) or suffer from annoying formats or amateurish production values, or are loaded with ads. Most are too limited to rate the real estate or weight they would claim in your day pack.

In general, I think Time Out does the best job of slicing and dicing their stock of information for London into specialist formats such as Time Out “Eating and Drinking”, “Health and Fitness” “Shopping” “Students” and “Gay and Lesbian”.

But as a rule of thumb, when in doubt, go for a comprehensive guide from a major provider and slice and dice according to your own interests and whims.

There are exceptions to every rule.

If I were to go to London with only one book in my bag, it would be the tiny City Secrets - London edited by Robert Kahn which is a highly subjective, wonderful little book about London written by contemporary novelists, artists, playwrights, curators, poets, architects and others of similar status. Like a typical guidebook, City Secrets divides London into neighbourhoods, sometimes reporting on a major monument or popular restaurant but also providing a massive amount of quirky, idiosyncratic and useful information. It is also the most beautifully written of all the guides.

For example, the section on Hyde Park covers the Serpentine and Albert Memorial but also provides a useful piece about how to find and participate in the softball game which has been played by expatriates Americans opposite the Knightsbridge Barracks for more than 40 years (April to October). And as many times as I have been to Osterley Park, before I read City Secrets, I never knew that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had been turned away in 1786 for their failure to acquire tickets in advance – even in the 18th century it pays to call ahead.

There is a surprising amount of information packed into this tiny book. Many would say it is no substitute for a proper guidebook, but when I was last in Rome, the only book in my bag was City Secrets - Rome and I was delighted with the way this book helped us discover the city. If you want to see London through the eyes of articulate people who know and love this town, for my money, City Secrets London is all you will need.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Shopping for Children's Clothes in London

Years ago, my husband visited a Gap store in Washington, D.C. while in the US on a business trip with an arm long shopping list. He proceeded to buy dozens of pairs of pants and t-shirts in different little boy sizes. The sales girl had seen it all before. “So, you must be from Europe. You’re the fourth guy in here today buying like that. Hey, don’t they have kids’ clothes in Europe?”

Well of course they did, but at the time, European children’s clothes cost at least twice what was on offer at Gap, were not as durable and could not match the peerless informality which became Gap’s trademark.

But the tables have turned and now I am often asked by both continental and American friends visiting London where to go for low cost, high fashion children’s clothes. It’s not that London is an inexpensive town, perish the thought, but it has become a great place to pick up some cutting edge children’s fashion at bargain basement prices as well the more expensive English classics.

Top Ten Stores for Childrens’ Clothes in London


Fast-forward fashion at rock bottom prices. Everything from ski wear to party dresses and accessories. Don’t expect great quality but children tend to grow out of their clothes before they wear out anyway. My nine year old daughter found most of her favourite things here this autumn. We bought bags and bags of stuff for £50. With outlets throughout London, the nicest children’s branch is at High Street Kensington. Alas, it is always crowded.


Similar to H&M but with better made and nicer things at slightly higher prices. Zara is famous for getting copies of high fashion designs from the runway to the shops at lightening speed. If you want the latest trends for very competitive prices, Zara is hard to beat. Nicest children’s branch just opened off the King’s Road at the Duke of York Square and was completely empty when I was there last week.

Marks & Spencer

Always good for staples such as jumpers (sweaters), underwear and socks and well worth checking out because occasionally M&S has something that is so good you can’t believe it. For example, Eloise and I recently found a £34 faux sheepskin fur coat that is so glamorous, the lady at the till (cash register), told Eloise she would look just like a movie star, and typical of M&S, its machine washable as well. Best children’s branch is either at the main Oxford Street store or High Street Kensington.


Similar inventory as in the US and the look does get tiring but if the sales are on, and to compete with the likes of H&M and Zara they often are, 50% to 70% discounts are common and it is hard to argue with the quality.


Trendy to the point of tacky, but when they get it right, the clothes can deliver good value.


Well made, good looking classic clothes for the aspiring middle classes at prices that are high enough to be reassuring. No bargains here but nice stuff if you need it. More selection in smaller sizes. A good shoe department where we were able to buy a perfect pair of trainers (sneakers) that no one else had in stock. They also have a children’s hair salon. Stores can be found on the King’s Road and Kensington High Street


For pint sized bohemians. Lots of sequins, silks, fancy knits and bright colours. Good party dresses at reasonable, but certainly not cheap, High Street prices.


Similar to Monsoon but a bit more conservative. Best children’s branch is on the Fulham Road near the Brompton Cross and Bibendum.

Rachel Riley

If price is no object, but romance is, then this is my favourite children’s shop in London. Sadly, Eloise won’t touch the stuff. Too tasteful. Beautiful smocked dresses and pinafores, round collared shirts, Fair Isle sweaters and smart night clothes. Stores in Knightsbridge and Marylebone.


And finally, this is the catalogue retailer who has become a one-stop shop for the British middle classes. The clothes are well made, fun, smart and sensibly priced. What they are not is trendy, cutting edge or complicated. Perfect for holidays in Cornwall or Martha’s Vineyard. If you, like me, hate to shop from catalogues, then you can visit their only shop (in London) which is on Hanger Lane and next door to the Park Royal tube stop on the Piccadilly Line.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Let's Do the Time Warp - Again

London in the 80s, Lady Diana Spencer and the rise and rise of the Sloane Ranger. Well, social archaeologists, it is time to brush off your head bands and head for Foxtrot Oscar on Hospital Road in Chelsea where the tribe of Sloane is alive and well and enjoying two squares a day in their eminently likeable canteen.

I joined a group of friends there recently for lunch during the week. It was a hoot. The room and décor are nothing to write home about but the unpretentious, almost scruffy feel of the place is relaxing and club-like, as if it would be bad form to try too hard. The menu is full of English schoolboy favourites which the regulars have enjoyed eating since birth. Old menu stalwarts such as eggs benedict and hamburgers were really well prepared and reasonably priced. I read somewhere that even Gordon Ramsey, whose 3 star restaurant is nearby, can sometimes be found at Foxtrot Oscar enjoying a hamburger. Since we are on the topic of celebrities I should mention that everyone who has reviewed this restaurant, except me, seems to have been seated next to Prince William. It’s that kind of place. And even though, with our big broad American accents, we were obviously not members of the tribe, the service was friendly and welcoming. As I was sitting there with my girlfriends, it struck me that this was the absolutely perfect place to go for Sunday lunch, read the paper, nurse a wicked hangover and time travel.

Lots of visitors come to London in search of lost time. You can find them hanging around the “Old Curiosity Shop” near Lincoln Inns Fields and the crosswalk on Abbey Road. That’s all fine if you are chasing Dickens or the Beatles but if you harken back, as I often do, to a moment when the world’s attention was drawn to a young woman in wellies who worked in a kindergarden, you can recapture it all, plus eat a pretty good meal at a fair price at Foxtrot Oscar in Chelsea.

Foxtrot Oscar
79 Royal Hospital Road
London SW3
Tel: 0207 352 7179
Reservations recommended

Photo of the cover of the 1982 "Official Sloane Ranger Handbook"

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Shopping for Little Saints

Every husband comes with baggage. Some have sports fixations or Blackberry addictions or children from other marriages, but me, I have the little saints. Millers and bakers, fishermen and bear trainers, village idiots and water carriers, you name it, I’ve got it, and it was always thus. It’s not everyone who can boast a fascination with “santons” (the word comes from santouon which means ‘little saint’ in Provencal), the 70 millimetre high, hand painted clay figures representing 19th century Provencal characters. It’s really not as kinky as it sounds. Having spent time as a child in Marseille, my husband and his whole family acquired a passion for collecting santons, which actually began as a popular act of resistance to the closing of churches during the French Revolution.

Before the French Revolution, crèches were big business in Provence. Churches put on magnificent nativity displays and people flocked to see them. With the closing of the churches, the population was denied access to their beloved crèches and perhaps more importantly, crèche makers had no work. Along came Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) from Marseilles who seized the market opportunity and began to make figures for people to display in their homes at affordable prices. Using the fine clay from Marseille and Aubagne (10 miles down the road) Lagnel and his followers perfected a technique of using small molds, the casts from which would then be hand painted. As these were crèches “for the people”, santon makers looked to local characters, trades and activities for inspiration. The idea for crèches which used ordinary people on their way to pay homage to the Holy Family was an instant success, with santon fairs springing up throughout the region. The largest and oldest of these fairs, founded in 1803, still exists and can be visited in Marseille from Advent through Epiphany.

Today, the ancient art of santon making is lovingly practiced in workshops across Provence and for visitors to the region, santon shopping presents the rare opportunity to bring home something that is really made in the region instead of China and is a small work of art in its own right. The santon you buy today is made using the same techniques that have been practised for centuries. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories from which to choose. Most families add a piece or two every year and santon collections are considered family heirlooms which are passed down lovingly from parent to child.

For the uninitiated, there are a few aspects of santon collecting that could seem confusing. First, you need to decide whether you are interested in the “santons d’argile” which are the hand painted clay figures that come in six different sizes ranging from 1- 6 inches or the “santons habilles” which are more like small dolls dressed in cloth and carrying implements such as baskets and fishing nets. To a degree, what you are willing to spend will drive the decision. No santon is cheap, there’s too much hand labour for that, but the price varies a lot depending on the size. A woman from Arles, for example, costs €14.45 in Size #2 and €89 in Size #5. In case you were wondering, the most popular size and type for French collectors is the “santons d’argile” in Size #2.

For anyone interested in purchasing a crèche, a good place to start is at one of the workshops which offer visitors the chance to watch the santons being made as well as having sales outlets. One of the oldest and most famous santon makers, Marcel Carbonel, has a workshop, boutique and museum in Marseille, along with another store on the main square in Aubagne. You can visit the santon workshops and boutiques any time during the year. The best time to shop for santons is during Advent when the fairs are in full swing. My recommendation would be to make a weekend of it, staying at the wonderful Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine which is just outside of Marseille and close to Aubagne where you can eat and shop to your hearts content. If you happen to be in Paris, there are plenty of santons and accessories for sale at the religious shops on the square next to the St Sulpice cathedral. Most of the major workshops also sell from their internet sites.

On our recent trip to Provence, we made the pilgrimage to Aubagne in pursuit of this year’s additions. We bought a woman with lavender, Monsieur Jourdan, one of the characters from the Maurel ‘Pastoral’ and a woman with snails. We spent an interesting morning discussing santons with the lady running the Marcel Carbonel shop and in addition to being introduced to the newest pieces in Carbonel’s collection, we also know what Madame thought of the weather this summer, how it impacted the trade and where Madame will be taking her long deserved holiday. In roughly two months time, these new members of our santon family will join dozens of others who will be arranged and rearranged around the Hedges dining room because it is always difficult to decide if the brigande should be next to the woman with a chicken or the one with the keg. As for husbands with baggage, I’m glad I went for the one who brought along an entire village of little saints.

Santons in Marseille
Atelier Arterra
Cabanon des Accoules
Marcel Carbonel

Santons in Aubagne
Lei Santoun Castelin Peirano
Santons Magali
Santons scaturro Daniel

Santons in Aix en Provence
Santons Cavasse
Santons Fouque
Santons Jouve
Santons Richard

Most of the workshops and boutiques are closed on Mondays

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Romance on the Riviera

St Tropez. Who wouldn’t want to go to St Tropez? The name conjures images of film stars, money, glitz, Brigitte Bardot in her prime, gleaming white yachts, cruising sports cars, topless beaches and perfect sun tans. That being the case, you can imagine how thrilled Jeff and I were to receive an invitation to the most glamorous wedding on the St Tropez peninsula since Mick married Bianca in 1971. I had my doubts, however, whether the Cote d’Azur would turn out just too Over The Top for someone hoping to turn a dislike of crowds into a career.

As it turned out, La Croix Valmer, the village where the wedding ceremony was to take place, is only a short drive out of St Tropez, but light years away in terms of temperament and tempo. If St Tropez is the place to see and be seen, then Croix Valmer is a lower key alternative for those who want to get away from the hoi polloi and relax. I was charmed.

La Croix Valmer sits at the southern end of the St Tropez peninsula and is surrounded by vineyards, has several really beautiful sand beaches, and a substantial nature reserve perfect for hiking and getting away from everyone. At the suggestion of the bride’s family, we, along with most of the guests, stayed at the Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie, just outside of town, which must have been very “non plus ultra” during the Belle Epoque and is now a comfortable three star set in a park with a great pool and spectacular views over the bay. Staff are accommodating (and we certainly stress tested their ‘bonhommie’ during and after the festivities) although services are limited. The hotel does not have a restaurant or a bar but the receptionist will happily sell you drinks from the front desk. Our pretty double room with a fabulous sea view was a reasonable €126 per night in low season and although breakfast at €12 was steep for what it was, the fact that it was served out in the garden with such lovely views seemed to help justify the cost.

What makes La Croix Valmer and its beaches truly special is their position next to a vast tract of coastal land that has been set aside as a nature reserve, backing onto the justifiably famous and fun Gigaro beach with its surfers, lively bars and surprisingly good restaurants. The night we arrived, the groom’s family had an informal drinks party at the unpretentious beach bar and restaurant ‘Pepe Le Pirate’, at which point I stopped worrying about the entire Code d’Azur being too OTT. We also had several wonderful, informal and reasonably priced meals at the pretty beachside restaurant Couleurs Jardin, also in Gigaro. Although parking regulations are enforced, parking was hassle-free and plentiful. This was hardly the yacht choked, jet setting set-up I was expecting. I can’t speak about Gigaro in high summer, but in September, this place is blissful. I have been told that if you are willing to hike, even in high season, you can escape to empty beaches in hidden coves within the nature reserve.

On the Saturday morning of the wedding, hopeful that September 16 would be late enough in the season to take the topspin off the crowds, we set out for the famous Place des Lices market in St Tropez. But, of course, we underestimated the appeal of this world famous former fishing village, underestimating as well the fact that huge amounts of people wait until September to take their holidays. By late morning, the place was heaving, traffic was at a standstill and parking spaces were long gone. With that said, this is a really fun market and September is the perfect time to buy dirt cheap, incredibly sexy bikinis and knock-off Vilebrequin swim trunks. There’s lots of tourist tat and tee-shirts but you can also find keenly priced, good quality linens and cashmere as well as soaps, lavender and all kinds of fabulous food, much of which can be eaten as one strolls the rows of stalls. As the mother of the bride had so correctly cautioned us the night before, if you want to go to the market, be sure to get there early.

After we finished with the market, we walked down to the port which was heaving as well, which seemed to be the point of the place. We, like the rest of the plebeians, strolled along the space between the yachts and the bars and restaurants, hoping to see someone famous but only glimpsing lots of folks like ourselves looking hopeful. Jeff spent much time checking out the posted menus and prices and quickly began to lobby for heading out of town for lunch. We passed lots of boutiques which you can also find on Bond Street/Madison Avenue. The architecture in the old town is lovely. But I don’t feel we need to go back.

Still, later that day, after a beautiful ceremony, we did head back towards St Tropez for the reception at Les Moulins de Ramatuelle, a small inn and fabulous restaurant set in a lovely garden, only five minutes out of town. And as the French dramatist, Jean Anouilh, once remarked, “In France, everything, from weddings to duels, is merely a pretext for a good dinner." And what a brilliant dinner we had, set in an elegant dining room of white, blond and beige opening on to the a romantically lit garden. With five rooms, the intimate Moulin de Ramatuelle would be an good alternative for couples who want to be near the action of St Tropez but at the same time, stay out of the scrum.

So what’s the verdict on the Cote d’Azur? Maybe it was the charm of the young couple getting married, the attractiveness of their friends and family, the sun which finally came out after an ominous deluge, the lunch at Coulers Jardin or the dinner at the Moulin de Ramatuelle, but in any event, I loved it. And here are my tips to make sure you love it too. Go any time except July and August. Stay within walking distance of Gigaro beach. Have a sunset drink at Pepe the Pirate’s, stay off the road to Nice and get to the Lices market early.

Parc Hotel L’Orangeraie

Route de Ramatuelle

PB 33

83420 La Croix Valmer

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 55 27 27

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 54 38 91

Coulers Jardin

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Tel: 04 94 79 59 12

Pepe Le Pirate

Plage de Gigaro – La Croix Valmer

Les Moulins de Ramatuelle

Route des Plages

83350 Ramatuelle

Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 1722

Fax: 00 33 (0) 4 94 97 85 60

Place des Lices Market

Tuesday and Saturday from 8:00 - 1:00pm

Photo of the beach at Gigaro

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Traditional Country House Hotel Near Marseilles

On the outskirts of the small town of Gemenos, near Cassis in the South of France, you will find another family owned and operated four star hotel which really delivers on the values of tradition, ambience and service.

And it speaks for the magic of the Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine that after a harrowing journey from chaotic London Gatwick airport where the computer system was down, followed by a 45 minute wait in line at the out-of-control Europcar agency at Marseilles Airport ( never use this place - the staff laugh at their discontented customers and argue amongst themselves), and an impressive Marseilles rush hour traffic jam, our travel weariness melted away the minute we made the turn into the driveway of this stately 18th century country house. The fact that we were soon sitting outside on the elegant and beautifully lit terrace with drink in hand discussing dinner with a knowledgeable young man who had brought us our menus, did much to soothe our many irritations.

The Relais de la Magdeleine has been run by the same family since 1932 and one senses immediately the benefits of their experienced, hands-on approach. The house, which is set in a large park full of ancient trees, is beautifully decorated with country antiques and period reproductions. The public spaces, both inside and out, are wonderful. There are comfortable areas to sit and read, fireplaces for chilly evenings and impressive settings for dining. Our room and bath were spacious, well appointed and decorated.

The hotel has a first class restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner which is presided over by another member of the Marignane family who focusses on serving the specialties of the region. There is a large pool in the garden perfect for sun bathing . Best of all, prices are more reasonable than an equivalent Relais and Chateau property and the atmosphere is less pretentious. We spent €124 per person which included breakfast and dinner but not drinks. The hotel is perfectly located for touring Provence being close to Marseille, Aix en Provence and Toulon-Cassis.

This was our second stay at this hotel which we visited roughly five years ago. I liked it then. I like it even more now as I grow in appreciation of the meticulous attention to detail and traditional values on offer at the Relais de la Magdeleine, which results in a stay that is restful, romantic and good value for the high end. We’ll be back.

Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine
RN 396 13420 Gemenos
Tel: 04 42 32 20 16
Fax: 04 42 32 02 26

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Fear and Loathing on the Tourist Trail

My mother once flew across the United States with Hunter S. Thompson. I know this because I met her at the airport in Colorado where she came off the plane happily and intensely engaged in conversation with the King of Gonzo Journalism. She had absolutely no idea who he was, but let me know she had had a most entertaining flight. Thompson seemed smitten with the elegant lady in the Chanel suit. I was beside myself. Those were the days when you could smoke on planes and there was no telling what they had gotten up to. In the pantheon of cool things my Mom has done, that moment looms large.

The image of Mom with Hunter Thompson came back to me yesterday when a friend of mine sent an email in which he paid NoCrowds the highest of compliments, describing it as “Gault Millau does Hunter S. Thompson” The sender is a senior communications executive and can therefore whip off these ‘bon mots’ without breaking a sweat. But I was stopped dead in my tracks by David’s little elevator pitch because it is, in fact, the ultimate description of what I am trying to accomplish with NoCrowds, combining the detailed reporting, strong opinions and irreverence of Gault Millau with the super subjectivism of gonzo journalism. I haven’t found anyone doing this kind of writing and reporting in the ‘travel space’ yet and that’s why I started NoCrowds. Good, gonzo travel information is what this is all about.

Tomorrow we’re off to St Tropez and I’m looking forward to reporting on the scene on the Riviera in what the trade calls the “Shoulder Season”, that golden moment just before and after high season, when the weather should still be good, but the crowds mostly gone. On the plane, I’ll keep a sharp eye out for weird people to engage because, as my uber-cool mother once proved, gonzo moments are everywhere.

Photo of Hunter S. Thompson, New York City, 1979 by Allen G. Arpadi

Monday, September 11, 2006

Eating Art in London

If hunger strikes in central London, my advice these days is to head for a museum. It is remarkable how many art venues have opened serious alternatives to the “soggy sandwich” cafeteria and for visitors, it is wonderfully convenient to consume great art and good food all under one roof.

Last week, the doppelganger and I rushed over to the stately Wallace Collection on Manchester Square to be one of the first to try out Oliver Peyton’s newest addition to the eat/art club. Not that the Café Bagatelle, the previous offering at the Wallace, had been inferior. Run by the same folks who own the Jules Verne restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, Bagatelle was pretty good. But Peyton seems to be launching a one-man take-over of London museum restaurants and after our good experience at the National Dining Rooms, we were eager to see what he was up to at the Wallace.

The restaurant describes itself as “the modern answer to a typical French brassiere” which is really PR speak for the fact that they have tweaked the traditional formula. To begin with, the place doesn’t look or feel like a brassiere but the location in the central courtyard with lots of foliage and a beautiful glass ceiling make it a very pleasant venue and the colder, wetter and darker London becomes this winter, the more pleasant the Wallace will seem. The menu pays homage to some brassiere classics such as steak tartare, bouillabaisse and fruit de mer. Just back from Spain, I was tempted by the cod with beans and ham and the doppelganger had the bouillabaisse. Both dishes were good, neither were exceptional. The service was keen if not yet very efficient. We spent £45 for two. In addition to lunch, the Wallace serves breakfast from 10 to 12 and afternoon tea as well as dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.

Maybe I’ve overdosed on Oliver Peyton’s cultural formula but my “take-way” from my Wallace Collection lunch was “been there, done that”. Everything was well prepared and executed but hardly new and not exciting. Still, the Wallace is a nice place to take your mother-in-law and despite being formulaic, I really appreciate the fact that London museums are filled with good restaurants. I’m particularly eager to try the Afternoon Tea at the Wallace which could be a breath of fresh air after the stuffy and increasingly commercial experiences at the grand hotels. With an exciting looking new show featuring drawings from Versailles about to open in October, in the immortal words of The Terminator, “I’ll be back”.

The Wallace Collection
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London W1U 3BN
Tel: 020 7563 9500

Photo of Hertford House taken from Wallace Collection website

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

La Villa Duflot - One for the Road

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Last summer (how sad that sounds), while waiting to meet my brother for lunch off 5th Avenue in Manhattan, I spent an unproductive 30 minutes in Borders searching travel guides for a pleasant place to stay off Interstate 95 on my return trip to North Carolina. The whole damn highway seems to have been colonised by Mariott Courtyards and the like. What I was looking for but couldn’t find was a hotel that wasn’t a chain, which was connected to its location and was run by owners. In the end, I spent a dreary night in a Hampton Inn in Spotsylvania.

By way of contrast, later in the summer, I spent a charming evening at La Villa Duflot, an individually owned and operated four-star hotel in Perpignan, France that was also just off a major highway (the A9 which links Montpellier to Spain) and next to one of the ugliest commercial zones you will ever encounter. Formerly an architect’s villa, the hotel consists of 25 rooms built around a beautiful park-like garden with sufficient foliage to hide the fact that the next door neighbour is the Auchan hypermarket.

Set in a secret garden, the retro building and eccentric artwork immediately communicate that this is a hotel run by and for “individuals” and that’s what I like about it. The rooms are of generous size, well equipped and decorated in a slightly weird but appealing art deco style. The nicest rooms are located off of the garden which has striking and unusual statues and a large and pretty pool where you can lounge around in white robes like film stars and order drinks. In summer, the glass dining room doors open completely and tables spill out into the garden beside and around the pool which provides a really romantic dining experience “en plein air”. The food is sophisticated and delicious and the restaurant is consistently filled with tables of celebrating locals.

As for cost, La Villa Duflot provides good value for money in the luxury category. We went for the Mini Suite (on the garden) with half-board which for €256 for two, considering how good the food was, seemed more than fair. In years past, we have stayed at the Domaine d’Auriac, a Relais and Chateau property down the road near Carcassone that cost double what we spent at Villa Duflot, granted it was next to a golf course rather than a supermarket.

And on a note related to its commercial location, I would be withholding information if I did not tell the little story about cavorting rats. Yes, that’s right, rats. The story goes like this. I was sitting beside the pool admiring the garden and enjoying a brilliant breakfast, when my attention was drawn to a number of small objects scurrying about on the far side of the garden. It took the longest time to believe my eyes. Mon Dieu – these are no little woodland creatures – these are rodents from next door! Anyway, it seems the rats know their place and restrict themselves to providing breakfast time entertainment on the far side of the park.

In any event, the cavorting rats did not put me off Villa Duflot. On so many criteria, this hotel delivers. It is an oasis where you least expect to find one. It is idiosyncratic and at the same time has a retro glamour that is big fun. It is comfortable, has an excellent kitchen, attentive staff and fair prices. Compared to the offerings of Interstate 95, it is paradise. What it does need, however, is a cat.

La Villa Duflot
Rond-point Albert Donnezan
66000 Perpignan
Tel: 04 68 56 67 67
Fax: 04 68 56 54 05

Monday, September 04, 2006

Beating Crowds at Cadaques

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My mother-in-law tells the story of once being seated next to a woman at Bar Meliton in Cadaques who was stroking a pet leopard. That was back in the 1950s when the picturesque fishing village on the Costa Brava was not only the home of Salvador Dali and summer magnet for artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Max Ernst, but also a fashionable destination for well-to-do bohemians.

It may be difficult to find much of that raffish charm in modern day Cadaques, which has become very popular and crowded, but the area is still breathtakingly beautiful and saved from many of the horrors of mass tourism by the tortuous access road which winds along the spine of the Pyrenees, finally plunging down to the isolated, white-washed village. For stylish surroundings with artistic sensibilities and a spectacular Mediterranean setting, Cadaques offers a real alternative to the Riviera that is as beautiful, less snooty and less expensive.

I should come clean here and say that I know nothing about restaurants or accommodations in Cadaques, since my leopard-friendly mother-in-law was fortunate and forward looking enough to acquire a share of a fisherman’s hut above Cadaques in the 1950s and while the hut has been extended and modernised since then, it is still the kind of place that once you get there, which isn’t easy, you rarely leave except to buy provisions, hike, swim, ride bikes (Lance Armstrong lived and trained nearby) and fool around in boats.

And my advice to anyone considering Cadaques is to also try to rent a house outside of town where you can delight in the intoxicating Mediterranean scenery and climate, leaving behind the aggravations of finding a parking place or listening to the folks who like to party all night. If you like to party all night, then go ahead and rent a house in Cadaques. Some good sites for finding Cadaques rentals are, and .

As for restaurants, what I do know is that the legendary restaurant many critics consider the best in the world, El Bulli, is roughly 45 minutes away in neighboring Roses. Of course reservations are beyond impossible but this year I plan to follow the advice of Clothide Dusoulier in her delightful food blog, Chocolate and Zucchini, send an email on October 15 and pray I get a table.

Once accommodations are sorted out, there are plenty of wonderful things to do in Cadaques. Here are my top recommendations

 Hike from Cadaques towards the lighthouse through the spectacular Cap de Creus National Park on an ancient, but well marked trail. Bring your swimsuit and drinking water. The nicest coves and beaches are along the way. There is a bar/restaurant at the lighthouse, the view is spectacular and the walk should take roughly 2 ½ hours each way.

 Rent a bike and take the road to Cap de Creus and reward yourself with a drink at the lighthouse. Stop along the way and marvel at the beauty of the dramatic landscape and the amazing rock formations caused over the centuries by the wicked “Tramuntana” wind which can blow you right off your bike.

 Go snorkelling. There’s plenty to see under the sea but be sure to wear something on your feet. Sea urchins are everywhere. There are also several dive centres in town.

 Visit the Salvador Dali House-Museum in Port Lligat. Even if you are not a huge fan of Dali, the house where he and his wife Gala lived from the 1930s to the 1970s will blow your mind, from the life sized polar bear that greets you in the entry to the psychedelic, El Hambra-esque swimming pool with its hilarious matador-doll fountain - it's great theatre. Reservations are essential.

Rent a boat and explore the spectacular coastline. Postpone this idea if the tramuntana is blowing. You can also rent kayaks and windsurfers.

 Sit at Bar Meliton, like Marcel Duchamp, and watch the world go by. I like to think that this is the closest thing to “Rick’s Place” from Casablanca you’ll find in the real world. Don’t miss the wall inside with Duchamp memorabilia. The lemon granitas are delicious.

As I read back over what I have written, I start to feel a little guilty. For years I have resisted writing about Cadaques. First, I promised our neighbours that I would not exacerbate the overcrowding problem by touting the areas considerable charms but this year I had a small epiphany. I finally realised that in addition to my mother-in-laws “petite paradise by the sea”, there must be other charming places to rent. Secondly, I realised that Cadaques would benefit from the interest of NoCrowds travellers. We may not all be world famous artists or celebrated bohemians but we do raise the tone of a place and appreciate getting off the tourist treadmill, valuing what is authentic and interesting about a destination. With a little luck finding a nice house and armed with the right information, it is perfectly possible to have a first class NoCrowds experience in Cadaques and the rewards are simply amazing.

Cadaques is accessible from several airports including Perpignan in France via Ryannair (one hour’s drive to Cadaques), Girona also via Ryannair (75 minutes ) or Barcelona (2 1/2 hours) in Spain. All things being equal, I would go into Perpignan and stay at one of my favourite, rather funky, hotels, the four-star Villa Duflot which I will cover in my next post.

Bar Meliton
Tel: (34) 972-258-201

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain
Tel: (34) 9 7215 0457

Blue Rent Cadaques (boats)
Tel: (34) 972 259 029

Bike Rentals
C/. Fontvella, 2
Tel (34) 972 25 91 01