Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Affordable London?

Dear God, how can you afford to live in London?

As the third most expensive city in the world after Tokyo and Osaka, it is one of the questions I am asked all the time. Which London, I always fire back, the London of investment bankers, football players and Russian oligarchs or the other one? The first London is financially ruinous. The second London is far more affordable.

What is true for the resident can also be true for the visitor as was shown by Jennifer Conlin in her recent article in the New York Times, “A Family Vacation in London, Guided by Scrooge”.

I like this article a lot. Conlin delivers useful advice on how to tackle London’s main budget busters: housing, food, transport and entertainment. If you have time, read the article. If not, here are the headlines: rent an apartment, eat in ethnic restaurants, take public transport and make use of freebies like parks and museums.

But I think NoCrowds can take this idea to a whole new level and since I’m on a roll nicking other peoples good ideas, I’ve decided to write a series of posting on my favourite ways to save lots of money in my favourite city. Since most visitors to London begin with a shockingly expensive trip in from the airport, I’ll begin with the whole topic of moving around London.

NoCrowds Top Tips for Saving Money on London Transport

Save roughly £40 ($70) simply by taking the Underground, not a cab, from Heathrow Airport to Central London. It can take up to an hour but it is a straight shot to Piccadilly. If you land at Terminal 4, take the free portion of the Heathrow Express to Terminals 1,2 and 3 where you can pick up the Underground. The Heathrow Express train to Paddington is fast but costs £13.50 and then you still have to get to your final destination. Bus service from National Express to Victoria Coach Station costs £10.

Take Southern Trains service from Gatwick Airport instead of the Gatwick Express. The Gatwick Express charges £14 for a single economy ticket while Southern charges £9. Both services run every 15 minutes. Both services have special group rates and other offers but Southern is always cheaper. Southern also offers 2 for 1 deals on tickets to London attractions such as the London Aquarium, the London Zoo and London Dungeon. Spend the money and take the Gatwick Express during rush hour because the crowding on Southern is diabolical.

Buy an Oyster Card for £3 from Transport for London at any Underground Station or Tourist Information Centre and save on each and every fare. The card will have paid for itself in just a few rides on the Underground or bus as substantial discounts apply depending on distance and time of day. You can pre-pay and avoid waiting in line and the cash on the card has no expiry dates. Also be aware that children under 16 ride the bus for free all day and those under 11 ride the Underground for free after 9:30 A.M. when travelling with an adult. There are also good deals on Travel Cards but I prefer the freedom and flexibility of the Oyster. Ask at the station which is the best fit for your needs.

Take the bus. Even Kate Middleton, girl friend of Prince William was snapped recently waiting for a bus in Sloane Square, so how fashionable is that! Buses are the cheapest, most efficient and nicest way to get around London. For example, from the top of #23 bus, you can see most of the same monuments you would get with an expensive guided coach tour (without the inane commentary). With an Oyster Card, you can travel anywhere on a bus for a £0.80 (under 16s are always free) and even though our Mayor, Ken Livingston says a lot of really idiotic things, bus service has improved dramatically during his term. Bus maps are available at Underground Stations and there is a route planner on the Transport for London website which is a bit cumbersome to use but gets the job done.

Walk. A blindingly obvious statement but walking remains the best way to see London and the best way to work off all the affordable meals I will talk about in tomorrow’s post.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Au Revoir Kate & Eloise

At 7:00 yesterday morning, Eloise bounded out of bed, eager to return to school, her friends and her life before the Kate/Eloise Project. On our walk to school, I asked her to recap the highlights of what we had done over the last 21 days. “Do you want the truth, Mom?” Probably not, I thought. “Of course”, I replied.

“The Chinese exhibition at the Royal Academy (China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795 at the Royal Academy of Arts which closed on April 17) was the best thing we did.” There was stunned silence from me as I surely had not expected that answer. Eloise explained. “It was the kid’s audio guide. It was fabulous. The stories were really interesting and I liked looking at the stuff they were talking about. It’s the first time you and I took the same amount of time to finish a museum. I liked the place too. You can get a nice cup of tea there.”

We discussed the other highlights:

The Palaeontology Museum in the Jardin des Plantes was fun because it is so old and funky. We hope they always leave it that way.

Basildon Park, where they filmed the recent Pride and Prejudice movie, was OK but not as much fun as Jane Austen’s real house and, thanks to the filming, way too crowded .

Musee Jacquemart Andre was a nice museum and had done everything right by offering a treasure hunt in English but the prize for completing the treasure hunt was disappointing.

The treasure hunt at the Cabinet War Rooms & Churchill Museum was good and so was the prize. Eating lunch at Inn the Park in St James Park afterwards was fun.

The Jardin d’Acclimatation was excellent and some of the rides were good enough to make Mac (Eloise’s older brother) feel really sick.

Re-reading the first post from the Kate/Eloise Project, I am reminded that we promised to deliver an epic piece of writing that would improve the family travel experience and now I am scratching my head as to how to deliver on that commitment. OK, here goes.

The Collecive Wisdom of the Kate/Eloise Project

Reverse the Roles - Eloise and I worked best when I presented the options of what we could do and she made the decisions. What she learned is that not all choices work out exactly as you think they will (the disappointing prize at the Jacquemart Andre or the lack of Keira Knightley at Basildon Park) but if you own the decision, you can always find something to like if you are in the mood to look for it. What I learned was to reverse the roles. It occasionally made me nuts but it was very rewarding.

Play it by ear – We had more fun when we took our decisions on what we should do on the day. Chopping and changing our plans was a welcome relief from life during school term. We followed our whims and it was fun. Also, there’s something to be said about only doing things you can do on short notice. Activities that demand lots of advanced planning tend to be crowded.
Children should write the reviews - It’s a blindingly obvious observation but in looking through the 4,973 travel guides for children on Amazon and dozens of the 69,300,000 websites offering advice on travelling with kids, I couldn’t find a young author. Thinking back on the fact that I would never had predicted that Eloise’s favourite activity during the Project would be a sophisticated and immense exhibition of Chinese art nor that her favourite West End show would have been the Blue Man Group, I’m beginning to think that the reason children often are bored and disagreeable when travelling is that we don’t have much of a clue of what they like, although, as Eloise pointed out, we think we do. I’m also beginning to think that what the world needs now is a children’s version of Trip Advisor. Maybe the Kate/Eloise Project has a second life.

Children prefer apartments – OK, there should be full disclosure here. We have a fabulous apartment in Paris which we rent to vacationers via the excellent agency, Rentals in Paris. But that is precisely where Eloise and I learned that renting is the best way to go. From Eloise’s perspective, it feels more like home, there is normally more space and most importantly, when Eloise has had enough of being a tourist, we can stay in our temporary home and eat a “home cooked” meal. I like the apartment option for similar reasons plus it gets you closer to the lifestyle of the country and is almost always cheaper than two rooms in a hotel.

Children like contests – Eloise will agree to do almost anything as long as there is a treasure hunt, a maze or a contest attached to it. The English are really the masters at this and it is the rare museum or stately home that does not offer an activity for young visitors. In a pinch, you can make up your own. For example, thanks to good advice from J.G. Links in “Venice for Pleasure”, Eloise and I furiously competed for the “Who Can Find the Most Madonnas” during our visit to Venice. This simple device gave us both a lot of satisfaction. I was shocked at how many churches she was willing to visit to win the contest.

So I guess that’s it. One child, 21 days of holiday, 2 cities and a budget. Eloise is now back in school. I am now back at my desk. Thank you, Julie Powell of the Julie/Julia Project for the idea and thank you Eloise for your enthusiasm and high spirits. As the old Italian proverb goes, “Good company on the road is the shortest cut.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Jardin d'Acclimatation

I hate amusement parks. Eloise loves them. For her, they are pleasure palaces of excitement and gratification. For me, they are money grubbing, soul destroying hell holes. Yesterday, as we were driving around a blissfully empty Easter Monday London, a representative of the Global Association of Theme Parks (or something like that) was on the radio extolling the virtues of her employer. “Theme parks are wonderful places for multi-generational experiences … where families have a chance to communicate … if you calculate your spend per hour, it represents excellent value for money.

“Dear God”, was my agitated response, “as a species, we are doomed.”

But then I remembered our experience last week in the Jardin d’Acclimatation. Located just outside the walls of Paris in the northern part of the Bois de Boulogne, the Jardin d’Acclimatation offers exactly what that disturbing woman on the radio suggested parks could provide. It’s the kind of place where lovers of nostalgia (me) and fans of Nintendo (Eloise) and everything in between can enjoy themselves. Even our 18 year old son, Mac, had a pretty good time accompanying his sister on this expedition.

Let me set the scene. The park was opened in 1860 by Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie and if you squint a bit, you get a sense of the original belle époque atmosphere. There are canal boats in a “Peter Pan like” lagoon, elegant wooden horses which “canter” along a large ring, an old fashioned house of mirrors, a puppet theatre, zoo animals and more thrilling rides such as a roller coaster, bumper cars and twisters for the older children. Even the ubiquitous “shooting gallery” seemed more benign, and the attendants less like “carni folk", than in other places. The landscaping is lovely, the atmosphere bucolic.

As was the case all week, Eloise was impervious to either the aesthetics or the history lesson but she thought the Jardin d’Acclimatation was first class. She enjoyed the rides, ate some junk and tried to win something in the shooting gallery, which, of course, she did not win. Mac sauntered along, sucking on his beloved Coke, demonstrating a jolly tolerance for the old fashioned quaintness of it all. Jeff paid the bills in a better mood than he normally is in when shelling out cash( after all, this is France and the place is subsidised by the state – well, what isn’t in France?) We were there when the French children were in school. The place was empty. It was fabulous.

After our visit, we drove out to visit friends in the lovely western suburb of Villennes-sur-Seine. “So what did you do today, asked Claude?” When he heard we had visited the Jardin d’Acclimatation his eyes grew misty. “I love it … ah, the little canal boats … it reminds me of my childhood … how charming.”

And so, dear disturbing lady of the airwaves, I’ll buy your argument in so far as it extends to one old fashioned amusement park on the outskirts of Paris. Spare me and my family the pre-packed “multi-generational” experience. Give me, instead, a glorious afternoon in the northern corner of the Bois de Bologne that can remind us all of the delights of being a child, even if we have not been one for decades.

Jardin d’Acclimation
June to September daily 10 –7; October to May daily 10-6
Located in the Bois de Boulogne 16e
Tel: 01-40-67-90-82

Admission €2.50 (rides are extra) free for children under 4

Take the little train from Porte Maillot through the Bois de Boulogne which leaves roughly every 10 minutes when the park is open

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Paris Parks - The Love Affair Begins Here

In the spirit of the Kate/Eloise project, we spent most of our time last week in the parks of Paris and had a perfectly wonderful time. Both of us.

Like all parents, I made most of my mistakes with the older children. Back when my sons where small, I would never have agreed to “going all the way to Paris to lounge around in parks all day when we have perfectly nice grass and trees at home. We’re here to see and do something different.”

For the record, boys, I’m truly sorry, because I’ve now changed my approach to Paris parks. In fact, a key learning from the Kate/Eloise project is that Paris parks are the most instructive places for introducing children to the many pleasures and possibilities of the City of Light. For parents, Paris parks are living museums of French culture. For children, they are pure unadulterated fun. I’m sure now that the most effective way to begin a lifelong love affair with Paris is to have spent time as a child in a Paris park.

Take, for example, the Luxembourg Gardens which has succeeded in seducing both my husband as a child and my daughter. In this gorgeous setting, Eloise can:

Go to the marionette theatre and shriek, clap and boo the bad guys just like a native
Meet and interact with natives in the huge playground
Beat her previous record on the merry-go-round with the rings
Sail a boat in front of the palace built by a homesick Marie de Medici surrounded by statues of the Queens of France
Ride a donkey
Eat something bad for her or worthwhile – both choices are available
Visit the beehives and the orchards
Find the bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty
Use a clean, nice bathroom (it’s nice because there is a small charge)

While Eloise is having the time of her life, I can:

Enjoy the fact that she is hearing and speaking some French and meeting French children
Be happy that she is getting plenty of exercise
Introduce some feminist history via the Queens of France
Talk about how the Statue of Liberty got into the Luxembourg and some of the history of Franco-American relations (It wasn’t always strained)
Watch the best mother and child fashion show in town (after all this is the Left Bank)
Get a decent cup of coffee
Read a good book
Use a clean, nice bathroom

The culture and history lesson can continue by taking lunch at one of the historic and traditional bistros in the area, either at Aux Charpentiers or our new favourite, the Cremerie Restaurant Polidor, a French restaurant still frequented by students and artists and once favoured by Andre Gide, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac. The straightforward food, bustling atmosphere and excellent prices make Polidor a great choice when dining with children. Lunch should run you about €20 per person. Be sure and bring cash as credit cards are not accepted.

It should be said that while I revelled in the historic atmosphere, imaging where Joyce or Hemingway would have sat and what they would have ordered, Eloise, of course, took no notice of it.

What she found memorable and quite shocking about Polidor was the plumbing, which probably hasn’t changed much since the restaurant’s inception in 1848. Upon her return from visiting the toilet, she regaled us, and the neighbouring tables, with news of her cultural adventures. And yes, when you look at it from a certain angle, even the plumbing at Polidor is an important part of the living history of Paris.

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

Aux Charpentiers
10 rue Mabillon 5e
Tel: 01-43-26-30-05

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Kate/Eloise Project Takes Paris

According to Eloise, it’s simple. The problem with most museums is that “you don’t get to do stuff”. In response, the Kate/Eloise Project spent most of last week doing cool stuff in the fabulous parks of Paris, oblivious to the millions of students marching across France for the right to retain their impressive 25% unemployment rate.

First on our list of favourite Paris destinations, and a winner with children every time, is the Jarden des Plantes. Founded in 1626 by Louis XIII’s physician as a medicinal herb garden, this huge public space located in the 5th District has enough things to keep a child happy and busy for a whole day.

On the pedagogical side, there are a collection of museums focussed on Natural History which despite being educational, Eloise loves. At the Gare d’Austerlitz end of the park is the funky “Jules Vern-esque” Palaeontology museum (Musee Paleontoloqique), where collections of skeletons of Siamese twin animals and brains in jars compete with the bones of brontosauruses, woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers for your attention. There's not much to do here, but the stuff is so weird and wonderful that it somehow charms everyone.

At the other end of the garden is the spectacular, newly renovated palace devoted to Zoology (Grande Galerie de l’Evolution) which has exciting, modern exhibits of every kind of animal and habitat. There is the latest hands-on technology for younger audiences but this being the same country where Chirac stormed out of an EU Summit because Frenchmen were speaking English , you can imagine that no concessions are made for little English speakers. Still, this does not seem to interfere with Eloise's affection for the place.

As well, there is a politically incorrect Zoo (Menagerie) (bored animals in small spaces) which we think is great, dating back to the time of the French Revolution. Residents include a newborn orangutan whose antics kept us entertained for a long time, a very old Seychelles tortoise named Kiki and an alligator someone left in a Paris hotel room.

If that weren’t enough, there is also a maze, a merry-go-round of endangered species, greenhouses of exotic plants, an alpine garden, an aquarium (never found it) and more.

For lunch, Eloise and I always eat at the bistrot L’Ecureuil Oie et Le Canard across the street from the Jussieu Entrance to the Jardin des Plantes. This restaurant which, features the specialties of Southwest France, is run by a fabulously grumpy, rugby-loving curmudgeon who renews ones faith in France’s ability to ignore any effect of globalisation. The food is traditional and excellent, the décor is funny and Eloise seems totally oblivious to the glaring gargoyle behind the bar. Lunch should run you about €25 per person. For a cheaper and faster alternative, there is a pretty good café in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution.

Jardin des Plantes
Entrances on rur Geoffroy-St-Hilaire, rue Civier and rue Buffon
Metro: Jussieu or Gare d’Austerlitz
Tel: 01-40-79-30-00
Museums open Wednesday – Sunday from 10 – 5
Zoo open daily June – Aug from 9-6, Sept-May from 9-5

L’Ecureuil Oie et Le Canard
3 Rue Linne
75005 Paris
Tel: 01 43 31 61 18

Photo taken in the Musee Paleontologique by Eloise

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Kate/Eloise Project Hits the London Stage

My buddy, Laura, called early on in the Kate/Eloise Project with the suggestion that we take out daughters to see Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a hilarious troop of 15 male dancers who interpret the great moments of classic ballet “in size 12 pointe shoes”. Let it be said upfront, I was the idiot who talked Laura out of Ballets Trockadero and into going to see the musical, Mary Poppins.

I should have known better (when was the last time Disney did anything fabulous?) I just couldn’t help it, being infused with so much Project enthusiasm for children’s entertainment. At the time, Mary Poppins seemed to be the classic choice. I didn’t listen to Laura’s impeccable instincts, I didn’t consult Eloise and here is the result. Mary Poppins was OK , but not better than that. Laura’s daughter, Lucy, left the theatre humming a song from Chicago if that gives you any idea. I contend that any visitor to London with children can and should do better, particularly when theatre for children in London can be outstanding

For example, when my nieces from Rome where last in town and went to see The Lion King (and yes, that was the last time Disney did something fabulous), they were so thrilled and amazed by it that they could hardly believe such experiences were available to London children all year long. London even has theatres dedicated to children such as the Unicorn Theatre in Southwark, the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon and the Puppet Barge Theatre which spends the winters in Little Venice.

I can recommend two ways to take children to London shows. The first method is all about chance and luck, the second method is all about research and planning. And here’s the best news of all, both methods work equally well.

Method One entails buying a copy of Time Out, London’s guide to what’s in town, and heading with your child for the bottom of Leicester Square (near the National Gallery) and the tkts kiosk selling same day tickets at 50% discount. In the line, with the reviews from Time Out in hand, you and your child can choose from a large list of shows on offer, buy the tickets, get something to eat (see the previous post) and go to the show. It feels good to save the money. Children like being involved in the selection. I’ve never waited in line more than 10 minutes and we’ve never failed to find tickets for something we wanted to see.

The tkts ticket booth is open from 10am to 7pm Monday to Saturday and 12pm to 3pm on Sundays. Just make sure you are at the real tkts booth run by the Society of London Theatre. There are countless ticket outlets in the area which misleadingly prey on unsuspecting tourists claiming to offer half price tickets. They are rip-offs. Don’t use them.

Method Two entails buying tickets on-line in advance, often at a discount. Here are the websites you can use to do this:

The website of the Society of London Theatres at is very good for reviews and information.

I have used all three sites, found the information about the shows useful and secured good seats at great prices.

And accordingly to Eloise, “make sure you give your kids the chance to choose what they want to see. Moms think they know what is interesting, but they don’t always know what you really like. I REALLY LIKED THE BLUE MAN GROUP.”

Which, for the record, was another show recommended by my buddy Laura.

Photo courtesy of The Blue Man Group website.