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