Friday, March 31, 2006
I picked up Eloise from school at noon brimming with enthusiasm. “How about a quick trip to the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum in South Ken?” Not knowing that she was now part of an important project, Eloise replied politely, “Not today, Mom. Today, I would like to go to Pizza Express.”
Which got me thinking. Let’s start the Kate/Eloise Project (KEP) with food. Food is huge. To some extent, travelling with children always involves the management of their having to eat new stuff away from home. Helping to solve the problem of dining well with children in a foreign city was a great place to start.
“OK, Pizza Express it is”. Over lunch, Eloise and I went over what we thought were the best “compromise” London restaurants, where parents and children could both have a good time, which were centrally located and easy to find. Here is what we chose.
Wagamama – A super hip, high tech chain of noodle bars that appeal to everyone. Lots of locations around London including Covent Garden, Bloomsbury and the City. Eloise likes it because “ the food tastes great and its fun to watch the people cook. It’s good for you too so you don’t have to argue with your parents about what you order”. I like it because it’s fast, delicious and appeals to my (limited) sense of design. By London standards, it’s also inexpensive. Order carefully and you can have a great meal for as little as £10 per person, £15 if you’re more extravagant. They have a special children’s menu where both the portions and prices are downsized. Eloise and I agree. If you like noodles and cool restaurants, you’ll love Wagamama’s.
Pizza Express – Nice pizzas in stylish surroundings. Good value for money too. Eloise likes this chain of restaurants “because the pizzas are good but they have other things too.” I like it because it’s reliable, attractive and always delivers a good experience, despite the fact that I’ve never met a waiter or waitress who could speak English. Still, there is always a nice Manager around who straightens out the orders and keeps the customers sweet. Numerous locations around London. About £10 to £15 a head.
Tootsies - Tootsies claims to have the best burgers and the most child-friendly atmosphere of any restaurant chain in London. They may be right on both scores. Eloise likes it “because there are crayons and balloons and there’s never a problem if you spill something”. I like it because the hamburgers are excellent, staff is cheerful and there is a really good “value for money” menu for children. If you need a burger fix and a fun time, head for Tootsies.
Yo Sushi - Conveyor belt sushi and other Japanese fare for westerners and small westerners. Not the best conveyor belt sushi in town (for that go to Moshi Moshi Sushi at various locations in the City) but a good compromise for children and parents. The expanded menu provides choice for those who like the idea of food going by on a belt but don’t like the raw fish. Eloise likes it “because you can choose what you like as it goes around” and I like it because the sushi is a nice change of pace from noodles/pizza/hamburgers. Various locations around London. The colour coded plates help you keep track of what you spend which is on average £20 a head.
We also have some “one-off” recommendations by neighborhoods:
In South Kensington – the Pizza Organic near the tube serves good pizzas at a fair price and provides crayons and art projects for children.
20 Old Brompton Road
London, SW7 3DL
020 7589 9613
For some of the best ice cream in London head for Oddono’s Gelati at 14 Bute Street which claims to be exactly like a real Italian gelateria, all the ingredients and even the cups and little spoons have been imported.
In Notting Hill – Try the Hummingbird Bakery who makes the most charming cupcakes in London right on the premises. They also offer brownies and chocolate chunk cookies whose chunks, this being Notting Hill, are made from the finest Belgian chocolate.
133 Portobello Road
London W11 20Y
020 7229 6446
In Fulham – You will find the best kebabs in London at Kebab Kid on a stretch of the Kings Road, a five minute walk from Parson’s Green.
90 New Kings Road
London, SW6 4LT
020 7731 0427
For a movie set Thai experience which includes carp swimming by your table, wooden bridges, melon carving and a souvenir orchid, you can try The Blue Elephant. It’s expensive, about £45 a head, and a bit over-the-top, but children love the exotic surroundings and parents like the quality of the food if not the size of the bill.
Photo of Eloise enjoying herself at Pizza Express
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Once upon a time, there was a bored New York secretary who needed a change. She decided to spend the next year of her life cooking her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and writing about it in her blog, the Julie/Julia Project. Now, she’s a published author of a best seller. Boy, do I need a project. And so, here it is.
One child, 21 days of holiday, 2 cities and a budget
The idea for this project came out of a discussion with my sister, the Roman one – well I only have one – about the fact that there are lots of guidebooks out there focussing on children and they are, for the most part, crap. Ask any child. Or any parent.
My poor daughter does not know it yet, but she is the “one child” mentioned above (the other two in the photograph are her cousins) and we are going to spend her Easter Vacation collaborating on an epic piece of writing that will help improve the family travel experience. When Eloise marches back into Fulham Prep School on Wednesday, the 18th of April, the Kate/Eloise project will have delivered to NoCrowds the first really decent information on travelling with children in London and Paris.
We will tackle things from two points of view, parent and child, being sensitive to Eloise’s goals of sleeping late, spending her pocket money on rubbish and avoiding anything that smells like school as well as my need to prime the “get into a good University” pump while developing her appetite for Ingres and Hogarth. In addition, we will need to agree on things that we can both at least tolerate. No Disneyland Paris for me. No opera for her. The idea is to meet in the middle, where all good compromises and family vacations begin.
We will also be careful with our money. It’s part of the NoCrowds ethos. Anyone can buy their way out of a crowd, (well, some can) but when you do, you tend to be around people you don’t want to be with. So for those of us who can’t or don’t want to buy our way out, we’re going to have to think our way out. Being the Easter term break, it presents a special challenge as armies of families across Europe compete for cost effective ways to keep their darlings occupied.
One child, 21 days of holiday, 2 cities and a budget. In exactly 30 minutes, Eloise will be released from school. It's time to begin.
With special thanks to Julie Powell, from whose blog and book Julie & Julia, I shamelessly stole this idea.
Friday, March 24, 2006
Everyone should have a doppelganger. You feel less alone in the universe. I heard about my doppelganger from a school headmistress in south London. “Dear God”, she said, “do you know there are two of you. Same first name, both Americans, both work for banks, you both talk quite quickly (she meant too loudly and too much), you are both trying to get your sons (same age) into the same schools.”
“Stop”, I cried, “Who is this impostor?”
Naturally, over the years, the other Kate and I have become best mates and so, when she suggested we check out the newly opened Ben Franklin House, I jumped at the chance, especially as I had promised, in a NoCrowds posting on January 13, to rush right over there.
The Ben Franklin House, on a quiet street off the Stand, is a first class experience. The restoration of this Georgian terrace house has taken eight years and from what I saw yesterday, it is well worth the time and effort. Not because it is a “grand” restoration but because it appears to be a loving and faithful one. No surface is even or smooth. The floorboards, wide, imperfect and beautiful would make any modern day designer swoon. The Georgian atmosphere is pitch perfect.
But the ambitions of the house far exceed that of providing an authentic glimpse of domestic life in Georgian times. Through the use of actors and clever video and sound technology, visitors participate in the life of Dr Franklin during his London years. The museum does a wonderful job of bringing together both the big picture of his illustrious achievements during his years in London as well as the minutiae of his daily existence at Craven Street. It took me a minute or two to warm up to the room by room theatrics, but by the end, as they would now say in 21st century America, “It worked for me”.
The house opened in February of this year and there are still some logistical kinks to resolve. Our show started a good 15 minutes late. We were left alone in the first room with a small exhibit for way too long and I am not convinced that the current arrangement with a theatre strangely located in the arches around the corner where you pick up you tickets and wait in the unattractive bar is the right start to the experience.
But with that said, the Ben Franklin House is an exciting and welcome addition to the London museum scene and shows what can be achieved in simple surroundings using good ideas and state-of-the-art technology. While the Historical Experience held my attention, it would also be very accessible for a younger audience and I look forward to taking Eloise, age 8, in the near future.
Following our visit, the doppelganger and I dashed over to the Paul Bakery and Café on Bedford Street in Covent Garden for lunch. Paul’s is one of the London outposts of the French boulangerie and patisserie chain that has been run by the same family for more than 116 years. The front of the house is a very French bakery which smells exactly as it should. The back of the house is a small and atmospheric “Salon de The” serving delicious, high quality omelettes, quiches, salads, sandwiches and the like. You can easily get out for under a tenner which is no small feat for Covent Garden. The other Kate and I had a fine time. After lunch we bought our husbands macaroons from the bakery. And, of course, being the husbands of doppelgangers, they both love them.
Ben Franklin House
36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NF
Tel: 0207 930 9121
To book tickets: 0207 930 6601 or online at http://www.benfranklinhouse.org/
House is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 – 5. Performances roughly every hour. Pre-booking advised.
Closest tube: Embankment or Charing Cross
Paul Boulanderie & Pattiserie
29/30 Bedford Street
Tel: 0207 836 3304
Mon-Fri; 7:30am-9:00pm, Sat-Sun; 9:00am-9:00pm
Closest tube: Covent Garden
Thursday, March 23, 2006
As our boat pulled up to the dock at Caye Caulker, a tiny island lying 21 miles off the coast of Belize City, a skinny, toothless smiling man straight out of central casting picked me out from the dozen or so people disembarking. “ I can tell from the look in your eyes that you are Katherine Hedges and that you want to go to the Iguana Reef Inn. I am Frederick and I will take you there.” Frederick then hoisted our backpacks into the basket of his bicycle and off we went. “Here you can eat – very economical, there you can wash your clothes. This lady will do your hair. Where are you from? My favourite book is I Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee. I have read it many, many times but I lost it. Have a nice time on Caye Caulker. See you around.”
Indeed, Frederick was the perfect introduction to this care free island. With the decline of the fishing industry over the years, islanders have come to depend more and more on tourism, but the place still feels relaxed and un-commercial. Most accommodations consist of guest houses, there are no cars but a comfortable amount of aging golf carts, no golf courses, but easy access to spectacular snorkelling, fishing and diving and plenty of laid-back restaurants serving super fresh seafood. On Caye Caulker, dressing for dinner means putting on a shirt.
Knowing that Jeff’s tolerance for rediscovering his non-existent hippie past was limited, I booked us into the only truly grown-up hotel on the island, the Iguana Reef Inn which has beautifully decorated rooms, air conditioning (important), a delightful sandy beach on the water, good swimming and a first class bar. While the Iguana Reef does not have a restaurant, they serve an ocean-side breakfast with homemade yoghurt, fresh tropical fruit, cinnamon rolls and pots and pots of steaming and very good coffee. Probably the best place on the island to watch sunsets is from the beach at Iguana Reef where the photo above was taken.
There are plenty of very informal places to eat on Caye Caulker. Our favourite was The Sand Box by the front dock where tables are set in the sand, both inside and out. The portions are generous and service friendly, although Jeff did rather shock our waiter when he asked him where he could buy one of those great Haile Selassie shirts he was wearing. Really cheap, really deeply fried and really good take-away food can be found at Pirates. We almost ate at Rasta Pasta based on its cool name, location and reputation, but they had had a big party there the night before, en-route to resupply them the drinks distributor was hijacked and so there was nothing to drink. We went elsewhere.
There are lots of great things to do on the island: snorkeling, diving, wind surfing, fishing, boating, you name it. We did none of that. We did manage to rent bikes and ride around, we walked on the beach, but mostly we dozed on the beach, read books and drank beer. Occasionally, Jeff would wander off to check his email at the internet bar. We took leisurely lunches. It was perfect. Go quick before tourism or a hurricane or both wash this laid-back idyll away.
Iguana Reef Inn
PO Box 31
Caye Caulker, Belize
The Sand Box
on the beach, near Front Dock
Rasta Pasta Rainforest Café
Tel: 501 226 0358 or 501 206 0356
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Jeff claims that I like to worry about stupid stuff because it distracts me from worrying about serious stuff. Maybe, he’s right. As evidence, take my life-long angst about Virginia Dare, the first European child born in the New World who vanished, along with 116 colonists without a trace. Ever since my parents took me to see, “The Lost Colony”, now playing in its 69th season on Roanoke Island in North Carolina, I have been worried about those folks.
But after visiting Belize and Guatemala, I can take worrying to a whole new level. Now I have the disappearance of an entire civilisation to keep me busy. And not just any civilisation. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Maya, spread across what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, without benefit of metal tools or beasts of burdens, built massive cities filled with palaces and temples, developed sophisticated systems of astronomy, mathematics and calendrics, and outperformed the heck out of a slumbering Europe mired in the Middle Ages.
Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania called the collapse of the Maya one of the most profound cultural failures in human history. While most scholars agree that the collapse was probably due to some combination of the effects of prolonged warfare, overpopulation and sustained drought, these same scholars are also in agreement that the demise of the Maya remains a cracking mystery yet to be resolved. Even Mel Gibson is about to release a major motion picture about it.
For a NoCrowds traveller, visiting Mayan sites presents the perfect opportunity to see intriguing ruins in sublime privacy. Compared to the scores of people you usually find traipsing around Roman or Egyptian antiquities, you can pretty much climb on, in, and around the Mayan monuments all by yourself. Rent a car, buy a guidebook and get lost for a day in the jungle. Or you can join a small group with a guide and have the story told to you. Either way, you can’t help but share in the excitement of discovery.
With four days to fill and with hundreds of Mayan sites distributed across five countries, we made our choices based on budget, time and accessibility. In Belize, we visited three sites: Actun Tunichil Muknal, Xunantunich and Cahal Pech. For the grand finale, we drove across the border into Guatemala, spending the night at the ancient ruins of Tikal.
We spent our first day “Exploring the Place of Fright”, as National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine described it in 2001. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a 5 kilometer cave first discovered in 1989 and filled with objects left by the ancient Maya including over one hundred and fifty ceramic vessels and implements, a variety of animal remains and the skeletons of 14 individuals believed to have been sacrificed. To visit the cave, you must ( and believe me you need to) join a group. We used PACZ Tours (the same outfit used by National Geographic) out of San Ignacio who did an expert job of guiding us through the eerie netherworld while expertly highlighting the geological and archaeological treasures along the way. When we began to worry that we would drown, fall off a ledge or never see daylight again, our guide, Jamal, carefully encouraged us forward.
To reach Tunichil Miknal, we first hiked for 2 miles through the jungle. We then approached the cave, strapped on our helmets with flashlights and swam into the deep water pool at the entrance. After the heat of the jungle, the water was shocking. Following an hour of climbing over boulders and wading neck deep through the flooded cavern, we arrived at the main chamber filled with the pots, implements, vessels for bloodletting and the most remarkable of all, the human skeletons.
I don’t think this cave will stay open to regular tourists much longer. The impact of so many humans is taking its toll. The objects are too important and the visitors are too exposed to injury. If you are in Belize, I would encourage you to make every effort to see Tunichil Muknal while you still can. Throw caution to the wind, be sure to wear closed shoes (we didn’t) and have the time of your life “exploring the place of fright”.
For a less demanding but very interesting experience, we also recommend Xunantunich (pronounced shoe-nan-too-nich ) and Cahal Pech, two sites which you can see in one day from San Ignacio. One of the best ways to see these sites is with a rental car. You are in control of your itinerary and timing and the driving was easier and more enjoyable than I expected. We rented from Crystal Auto Rental at Belize’s International Airport. The company provided excellent rates and service and is the only firm in Belize that allows its cars to be driven into Guatemala.
If you want to join a tour to any of the sites, including Tikal, Caracol and Tunichil Muknal , the best place to get oriented is Eva’s on Burns Avenue which is San Ignacio’s unofficial tourist bureau and the social equivalent of Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Sooner or later, everyone ends up there and whatever you want to do, Bob Jones can sort you out.
From our base at Ek Tun, it was a short drive to the ancient city of Xunantunich, situated near the Guatemala border in the oldest archaeological park in Belize. You reach the archaeological park via a free, hand cranked ferry which takes you across the Mopan river. There is an excellent visitor’s center. When we visited the site, there was absolutely no one there which was spellbinding.
This was also the case at Cahal Pech, down the Benque road from Xunantunich and only one mile from downtown San Ignacio. During the Classic period, Cahal Pech was the palace of an elite Mayan family. The site was continuously occupied from 900BC to at least 800AD. Hundreds of figurines have been found there, many of which can be seen in the visitor’s centre.
Saving the best for last, on our fourth day, we left Ek Tun early and headed for the Guatemala border. There is a complicated set of procedures and payments to exit Belize with a car and enter Guatemala. Once we crossed the border, we had about a two hour relatively easy drive to the Tikal National Park, a 370 square kilometre protected area which forms part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the largest tropical reserve in Central America.
When arriving at Tikal, it is the scale of this mighty megalopolis rising above the forest canopy that is so impressive. Covering an area of roughly six square miles, central Tikal contains over 3,000 separate constructions including temples, palaces, shrines, ceremonial platforms, small to medium residences, ballcourts, terraces, causeways and plazas. In addition, there are over 200 stelae ( carved stone monuments) and altars.
In response to the daunting size of these mighty ruins, we hired a guide for the afternoon who did a wonderful job bringing the ancient city to life as well as explaining the interesting plants and wildlife. Our guide, who found us at the entrance with a very charming marketing pitch, charged US$40 for roughly four hours of touring and we felt he added real value to our experience.
Having heard so much about Tikal, I expected large crowds, but they weren’t there. We saw plenty of tour buses when we arrived but the site is so large that we viewed most of the ruins with only a handful of people. By 3:00, the buses were long gone and the ruins were left to a rugged group of backpackers, bird watchers and others who elected to overnight in the three rather crummy hotels in the park.
We stayed at the Tikal Inn which is a small hotel with a nice pool that serves lousy but cheap food. Rooms range from $40 to $80 a night. I insisted on this option, although others tried to warn us against it because I thought it was the best way to beat the crowds in the early evening and late afternoon but you really don’t need to stay in the park to have a NoCrowds experience. If I had it to do over again, I’d stay in the nearby picturesque city of Flores which sits on a small island in Lake Peten Itza.
After our night in the Tikal Inn, we left the next morning to go back to Belize. Somehow we missed a turn and were half way to Guatemala City before we sensed something was wrong. A quick u-turn and we were back on our way to the border which was much easier to cross in the other direction. After an uneventful drive to Belize City, we returned the car, headed for the docks and caught the next boat for Caye Caulker.
Reading List - With the 2 books below and buying the guide books at the sites, we were well equipped:
The Rough Guide to Belize (includes Tikal and the Bay Islands) by Peter Eltringham
The Maya (7th Edition) by Michael Coe
Tel: 501-804-2267 or 501-824-2477
Crystal Auto Rental
Tel: 501-223-1600 or 800-777-777
Eva’s Restaurant and Bar
22 Burns Avenue
Tel: 804 2267
Hotel Tikal Inn
Tel: 502 7926-1917 or 502 7926-1950 or 502 7926-1953
Fax: 502 7926-0065
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
For our stay in the Cayo District, after doing tons of research on the many options for accommodation, we chose Ek Tun on the Macal River, 12 miles upstream from the visitor-friendly town of San Ignacio. We chose Ek Tun because it seemed the most authentic and unusual of the higher end jungle retreats. Not really a “resort”, nor a bed and breakfast, Ek Tun defies categorisation. With only two traditional stick and thatch cabins, and spectacularly situated on 200 acres backing onto a large jungle reserve, Ek Tun feels like your own private paradise. But being gringos from London, of course, we needed a local interpreter to this Garden of Eden. That’s where Phyllis, the owner and host, comes into the picture.
Now Phyllis is as authentic and unusual as the retreat she has carved out of the jungle. A passionate gardener, formerly from Colorado, she is a woman of strong opinions who runs an idiosyncratic operation with expert local knowledge, superb cooking skills, and a big heart. Everything at Ek Tun is informed by the personality of this “larger than life” individual.
As far as the practicalities are concerned, be aware of the following. First, the cottages do not have electricity. Forget the hairdryer. Instead, oil lamps are lit at dusk and the effect is archly romantic. The bats and geckos eat the bugs so they don’t eat you. On top of that, the beds are comfortable, and the hot showers were the best we found in Belize.
And what Phyllis is able to whip up in a simple kitchen, where all the ingredients must be hauled in from San Ignacio, puts us “big supermarket, sub-zero freezer and fancy oven” cooks to shame. Meals are generous, thoughtful, beautifully executed and delicious. Even my French educated husband who measures most experiences by the quality of the cooking was charmed.
Finally, when Phyllis says Ek Tun is remote and private, she’s not kidding. After a tortuous ride on a bumpy dirt road, the last leg of our journey was by small boat. - sort of a “Dr Livingston, I presume” experience. On our first day at Ek Tun, while Phyllis and the other couple in residence busied themselves with kayaks, we went hiking, swimming in the beautiful natural mineral pool ( pictured above) and ended up tubing down the Macal with beers in hand. We saw not a single soul all day and I decided there and then that in the firmament of NoCrowds destinations, a new standard had been set by Ek Tun.
If it’s a “proper” resort you are after (which you have to share with other people, perish the thought), Cayo has several very good ones. We took a look at The Lodge at Chaa Creek, downriver from Ek Tun and in business since 1981, which seemed to offer the full range of services and activities in a lovely setting. Also well known and ultra-luxe is Francis Ford Coppola’s former hunting lodge, Blancaneaux, in the Pine Ridge Reserve.
But for my money, Ek Tun offers something more valuable and interesting than service and amenities, although much has been done in this “middle of nowhere” place to make you feel comfortable. Ek Tun somehow takes you outside your comfort zone. It encourages you to see things a bit differently and in the end of the day, sticks in your memory like a book or a song that is different from all others.
n.b. Ek Tun has a three day minimum stay. No children. No singles. Our cottage was $190 per night. Meal plan (breakfast and dinner) was $29. Phyllis charges very fair prices for your liquor. If you drink as much red wine as we do, best to let her know in advance. I'm afraid we cleaned her out.
Photo is of the Ek Tun swimming pool built from local stone and fed by a natural spring.
Macal River, Cayo District
Tel: 501-820-3002 (best between 7 – 8 AM and 6 – 8 PM CST)
Monday, March 13, 2006
I once worked for a bank with a specialisation. We devoted endless time discussing if deals should be done outside the institution’s focus. The bottom line for the bank was that if enough money was on the table, “opportunistic” transactions were OK. I had that discussion with myself about Belize and reached the same conclusion. It’s not within my European focus, but it is too good an adventure not to tell you about it.
Whether you see yourself as Indiana Jones, Bob Marley, Jacques Cousteau, Charles Darwin or Howard Carter ( of King Tut fame), you will find your bliss in Belize. Within a landmass the size of the State of Massachusetts, you can have adventures in the jungle, be a bum on a beach, see some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife, dive and snorkel on the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and visit some of the most interesting and spectacular ruins of a lost civilisation. The fact that you can do all these things in a Central American country where English is the official language, where per capita income is relatively high and where the development of tourism represents a top national priority ( i.e. everyone is happy to see you ) is the icing on the cake.
To organize our trip to this part of the world we knew nothing about, I depended almost exclusively on the insights of Peter Eltringham, author of The Rough Guide to Belize. According to someone we talked to at The Guatemalan Maya Centre near us in London, Eltringham if far and away the best authority on the region. This book is filled with tons of "spot-on" practical advice and I highly recommend it.
Like most visitors to Belize, my husband and I elected to divide our time between the jungle and the beach which ultimately lead us to focus on two districts: Cayo in the western interior which we would use as our base for exploring Mayan antiquities and the “cayes”, a collection of islands located in the northern most waters of Belize with easy access to the barrier reef.
Since this post would be ridiculously long if I covered our 8 day trip in one go, over the next few days I’ll be breaking the Belize story into three sections: accommodations in Cayo, exploring Mayan antiquities and the fine art of doing absolutely nothing on Caye Caulker.