Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Our Favourite London Loos

NoCrowds has been thinking a lot lately about toilets. The topic has been on our mind since we read last month that the Mayor of Paris was taking the matter of public urination in hand (no pun intended) by inventing “le mur anti-pipi”, a special kind of wall which undulates and miraculously sends the jet of pee back in the direction of its creator. Now that is a man of action!

Here in London, we take a more considered approach with the London Assembly conducting an investigation into the alarming decline in public toilets. The 53 page document makes depressing reading. Did you know that the number of public toilets in London has decreased 40% since 1999 with each toilet now serving approximately 18,000 Londoners? The Association of Professional Tourist Guides and Guild of Registered Tourist Guides have formed an “Inconvenience Committee” to challenge the poor state of toilets in this country and the impact on the tourist industry. OK, we’re convinced. There is a real problem.

In response, we are working on a definitive guide to the best places to go to the toilet in London which we plan to complete by the 2012 Olympics, thus saving the government from total embarrassment and earning us a fortune. In the interim, here is the list of our current favourite places to go. Being former New Yorkers, we’re not big users of the public facilities, which, for the record, is a stupid prejudice since public loos in London, diminishing though they may be, are pretty nice. What we prefer, though, are pleasant, hassle-free places that we have counted on over the years. Quicker than Starbucks (always a queue) and classier than McDonalds. Here’s our list of some nice loos in London. Feel free to add your own.

Around Piccadilly/Green Park

Waterstones Piccadilly
203 -206 Piccadilly
Open 10 to 10 Monday through Saturday and 6 on Sunday

Waterstones on Piccadilly is the largest bookstore in Europe. Housed in what was once the Simpson’s Department store, toilets are amply distributed though out the building. This is a great place for a pit stop and peek at the new titles and best of all, Waterstones stays open until 10 pm.

Around Mayfair

Brook Street

Of course, all the grand London hotels have great loos but this is our favourite. A nice place for a break when Central London makes you crazy. Ladies loos conveniently located near the entrance. A great place for an expensive drink if you want to restart the whole process.

Around Oxford Street

John Lewis Department Store
Oxford Street
9:30 to 7, Thursday until 8 and Sunday 12 until 6

You gotta love a store that is still owned by its employees. This large quintessentially English retailer has plenty of loos with the quickest and easiest to be found to the rear of the building off the stairwell. Also great for home furnishings, fittings and appliances.

Around Sloane Square

Peter Jones Department Store
Sloane Square
9:30 to 7, Wednesday until 8 and Sunday 11 until 5

Call me old fashioned, but I also love the atmosphere in Peter Jones, part of the John Lewis Partnership. If you are looking for middle England, here it is in all its glory - properly dressed ladies, helpful staff and sensible products. And the loos reflect this sensibility. They are plentiful and sensible and to be found on alternating floors of the main stairwell. Take your granny. She’ll love it.

Around High Street Kensington

Whole Foods
63-97 Kensington High Street
8 to 10, Monday through Saturday and 12 to 6 on Sunday

The loos at recently opened Whole Food ( up the stairs and at the rear of the food court) have yet to be discovered by shoppers and are infinitely nicer than the ones at Marks and Spencer. Good for a break and a baguette. Stays open late and if you spend over £100 ( three or four heritage tomatoes should do the trick) the parking is free.
Photo of Marcel Duchamp's Fountain by Alfred Stieglitz, 1917

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three Emails = One Good Hotel

The countdown to Thanksgiving has started. The fact that 34 hungry pilgrims are coming for dinner on Thursday has distracted NoCrowds from the business or researching and writing. Instead of scouring the countryside for the undervalued and overlooked, it’s time to check the chairs, cutlery and glasses and corner the London market in sweet potatoes and pecan pies. With so little time, imagine our delight to open Outlook this morning to find three emails that did the job for us.

Let’s begin with the email from Sandy.

The dollar’s unstoppable decline will make our premise - Europeans want to wander through the ‘real America’ - more compelling and actionable every day.

Here’s my precise prediction of what happens next:

1. The Saudi's will finally realize it's silly to recycle petro dollars--$20 Billion per shot--into the U.S. economy, via Chelsea Clinton's Hedge Fund. They'll get a better return by digging a hole in the ground than investing in S&P 500 and Russell 2000 equities.

2. The market, reacting sharply to this betrayal, will fall, quickly, by 10-15%...a few 1,000+ point daily drops.

3. Like the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who reportedly refused to accept payment for her services in dollars, the Saudi's might just do the same, prompting a grave dollar crises.

4. At this point, Michael Bloomberg, who's been lately silent about his Presidential ambitions, will step forward, propose a turnaround plan and figuratively AND literally buy the Presidency. Like Abraham Lincoln before him, Bloomberg will assemble a all-star coalition government, and hopefully attract the best and brightest minds from both sides of the aisle.

5. By 2010, the dollar will begin to turn around. The Saudi's will resume their petro-dollar recycling. The market will stabilize and also turn around.

6. In summary, we've a three
year window to get the nocrowdsamerica blog off the ground!”
He’s right, we thought. We need more content about America!

We then opened the email from Jeff about the Carolina Inn which stated:

The Carolina Inn and Carolina Crossroads Restaurant Earn AAA Four Diamond Ratings
11-15-2007 CHAPEL HILL, N.C.
The Carolina Inn, one of the state’s most renowned hotel properties, continued that elite status with recognition as a 2008 AAA Four Diamond Hotel Rating. Meanwhile, its signature Carolina Crossroads Restaurant also was given an esteemed 2008 AAA Four Diamond Restaurant Rating.
Befitting the good news, The Carolina Inn will open its doors for five weeks of holiday activities during its 10th Annual “Twelve Days of Christmas Celebration” from Dec. 2-Jan. 6. A 10-ton sand sculpture depicting the final verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol, Breakfast with Santa, Teddy Bear Tea Parties and three community fundraisers highlight some two dozen events.
Long recognized as one of America’s “cultural resources worthy of preservation,” The Carolina Inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and recently broadened that lofty stature with the announcement that it was among the Historic Hotels of America members joining the Preferred Hotel Group Brand.
He's right, we thought, the Carolina Inn is a perfect place to feature in NoCrowds America.
Then we opened the email from Gary where he suggested:

Some interesting things you can do when pointing out new destinations to people. You can include a “Google Earth” type map which has photos pinned to it from people who have been to the area and have posted them. Here are a couple of examples—note that the little blue markers are pictures that people have taken and posted online.

The cinqueterre:


Kew Gardens Henry Moore sculptures:

The catacombs of Paris:

Gators in Myakka River State Park in Sarasota:

Basically, you can see these places through the eyes of ordinary visitors before you, rather than tour book authors. It’s kind of cool. That means that as you post new no crowds destinations, you can create a link like this to allow readers to explore on their own.

Well, at least this geek likes it.
He’s right, we thought. What a cool tool and so here is the link for Chapel Hill:


And here’s why we think the Carolina Inn is worth a visit from Europeans in search of the “real” America. The Inn is old fashioned, in the best sense of the word, reeks of southern hospitality and gracious living and the food is absolutely superb. For much of the year this hotel is informed by the energy and enthusiasm of alumni who return again and again to the university town to relive the glory of their youth. While all of this luxury and ambience comes at a price, with an exchange rate of 1 US$/ 1.46 €, the Carolina Inn start to look pretty reasonable. Tonight, for example, you could have a large room for as little as €81.05. Not bad for a top rated hotel in a really fun town. With American Airlines offering direct daily non-stop service from London to Raleigh Durham, Chapel Hill is closer than you think.

The Carolina Inn
211 Pittsboro Street
Chapel Hill North Carolia 27516
Tel: 919 933 2001
Fax: 919 962 3400

For information on Chapel Hill, click here and for more information on travel in North Carolina click here.

Photo of the interior of the Carolina Inn courtesy of the hotel’s website.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mummies, Dodos and a Dead Philosopher

How would you like a peek at the world’s oldest gynaecological papyrus? What about a long extinct dodo? Care to commune with a dead philosopher? All this and more is waiting for the intrepid visitor to the collections of University College London with a free afternoon and a sense of adventure.

University College London (UCL) was founded 180 years ago to provide higher education to anyone not served by Oxford and Cambridge, which in those days meant anyone who was not male, prosperous and a member of the Church of England. Over the years, the UCL has amassed more than half a million artefacts and specimens. Much of this material is available to the public and all the collections are free of charge. NoCrowds spent an afternoon at UCL recently and now ranks the collections as one of the top undervalued attractions for visitors to London.

The first stop on our self-guided tour was the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. After navigating a building site, signing-in with security and dodging a student here and there, we made our way up a flight of stairs and through a study area to emerge into a gloomy room filled with crowded cabinets. It took a while for our modern sensibilities to click into this old fashioned way of displaying antiquities, not to mention the run-down state of the facilities, but half way around the first room we were hooked.

What makes the Petrie so interesting is the way the “stuff” of daily life in the Nile Valley sit alongside some of the greatest finds of Egyptian archaeology. Funny drawing on small chips of limestone, think of scratch paper, can be found near a fragment of Egypt’s oldest calendar. The museum includes both the world’s oldest dress and the world’s largest collection of Roman period mummy portraits. Despite the fact that only a portion of the 80,000 objects are on display and that the facilities are atmospheric but decidedly shabby, we were nevertheless able to imagine daily life in Egypt in a new and exciting way.

While the quality of the Petrie collection compares favourably with the Cairo and British Museums, unlike those immensely popular institutions, the Petrie was completely empty for the duration of our hour-long visit. Plans are underway to move the collection to purpose built galleries in a new University building which will do much to improve the Petrie’s profile and accessibility so if you want to see mummies without kiddies, get over to the Petrie sooner as opposed to later.

After the Petrie, we backtracked through the building site, around the corner and into the Grant Museum of Zoology. It’s the kind of place that if you hate asking people for directions, you’ll probably never find it. Go on and ask because you really don’t want to miss this Victorian time capsule. Crammed into a space not much bigger than your kitchen, the Grant is a crazy, Noah’s Ark collection of pickled, preserved and mounted creatures. Weird looking lungfish that can breathe air, a huge elephant’s heart, rare dodo bones and approximately 55,000 specimens all vie for your attention.

The last remaining zoological museum in London, over the years the place has been flooded, bombed and threatened with closure but on the day of our visit, a class of art students were intently working on drawing specimens and it added to the experience that the museum was still being used for research and teaching. In fact, we were the only tourists there which meant the volunteer guide was delighted to explain everything to us in colourful detail.

Saving the best for last, after the Grant Museum we headed for UCL’s main building where the weird and wonderfully preserved body of Jeremy Bentham sits in a cabinet prominently displayed in the main hall. The philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, one of UCL’s spiritual founders best known as the father of utilitarianism, had stipulated in his will that his body be preserved for posterity. In 1852, the glass fronted cabinet with Bentham’s “auto-icon” (his terminology) was donated to UCL.

Many stories surround what UCL describes as its “most famous possession”. One story goes that Bentham is regularly wheeled in to attend meetings of the College Council and that his attendance is always recorded as “present but not voting”. Another version of the story claims that Bentham does vote in cases where the Council vote is split, in which case, Bentham invariably votes for the motion. Another legend states that King’s College London stole the head and used it as a football. The truth of the matter is that Kings did steal the head but returned it after a ransom of £10 had been paid to the charity, Shelter. After the incident, the head was moved to the college’s vault. Are these stories true? We hope so. In any event, we now are of the opinion that no university worth attending should be without a dead spiritual founder in the front hall. In a word, awesome!

For London visitors with big appetites for the unusual and undiscovered, the collections of University College London deliver on so many levels. They’re fun, free, atmospheric, uncrowded and perfect for anyone of any age. Get there quick before the rest of the world figures it out.

Useful Addresses

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
UCL Malet Place
London, WC1e 6BT
Tues-Fri 1-5pm & Sat 10-1pm
Tel: 020 7679 2884
Fax: 020 7679 2886
Email: petrie.museum@ucl.ac.uk

Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy
Darwin Building, ground floor
UCL Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Mon-Fri 1-5pm
Tel: 020 7679 2647
Fax: 020 7679 7096

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon
UCL South Cloisters
Mon-Fri 7:30-6pm
Photo of Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon courtesy of the UCL Bentham Project website.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Last Chance Museum

NoCrowds is always on the prowl for London’s undervalued treasures. Some of our favourites include Dennis Severs’ House, the Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Old Operating Theatre. These are places where you can have a big experiences, as judged by their uniqueness, without big crowds. Yesterday, we found another, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art in Bloomsbury but you are going to have to really hurry if you want to see this wonderful small museum. On December 21, 2007, the Percival David Foundation museum will close forever and the finest collection of Chinese ceramics outside China will be put into storage. According to the notice tacked to the museum’s entrance, the collection will be “unavailable for 2008” while a new wing is built to house the objects at the British Museum. Having some experience with British builders and completion dates, we don’t expect to see this collection any time soon.

There are lots of reasons why you want to hurry and see the Percival David Foundation museum before it closes. For a start, the ceramics, many of which belonged to Chinese emperors, are exceptionally beautiful and you can learn a lot about Chinese history and culture as you work your way through the cabinets of rare objects dating from the 9th to the 18th century. To get a taste for how exquisite these ceramics are, click here.

More importantly, this may be the last chance to see this world class collection in blissful solitude in a peaceful house on a romantic square in a part of London favoured by the writers, artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury Group. When we visited the museum yesterday afternoon for over an hour, we counted only two other visitors. We even enjoyed the “its all over” atmosphere conveyed by the friendly staff and the shaggy condition of the building. In an age of blockbuster art shows and all the discomfort that goes with them, it was wonderful to see a blockbuster collection in a calm setting. At the end of our visit, we stepped out onto leafy Gordon Square, dogging the students hurrying to class at University College London while admiring the houses next door that had once belonged to John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Wolf, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey.

If and when this collection reappears at the British Museum, (and we can find absolutely nothing about the plans or arrangements on either the British Museum or Percival David websites, which makes us suspicious) you will probably have to fight for a timed ticket and wait in line to see such extraordinary objects. I am basing this assertion on the current hullabaloo to get in to see the The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army and when one considers the countless number of Emperors who ate, drank, worshiped and admired the 1,700 objects in the Percival David collection, our advice is to go now and beat the crowds.

Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art
53 Gordon Square
London, WC1H OPD
Tel: 44 (0)207 387 3909

Opening times
Monday – Friday 10:00 – 12:30 and 1:30 – 5:00
Admission Free
Image of Yuan Dynasty Temple Vase (1351) from Percival David Foundation website

Monday, November 05, 2007

Hey, Burger TV - We're Not That Stupid

I know that many NoCrowds readers are expatriates and when I read in Friday’s newspaper about the launch of a new television channel called Burger TV targeted at expatriate Americans, I paid attention. According to Patrick Brunet, a director of the channel, “When you are an American living outside your country you miss two things: your television shows and a good burger.” Mr Brunet, you cannot be serious.

Ask any American expatriate what they miss, and it won’t be that. Nine times out of ten the response will be, ‘I miss my parents or brother and sisters or children’, sometimes we reminisce about places, landscapes, or times of the year, but in the 15+ years that I have lived ‘outside my country’, I have never once heard anyone say they missed “homely US dramas, game shows and news programmes.” For that matter, I rarely hear anyone say they miss a good burger. Food can loom large in one’s memories of home but a good burger, Mr. Brunet, is not my heart’s desire. More to the point, I’m not as stupid as you think, nor is any expatriate I have ever met.

Burger TV’s attempt to sell rehashed populist rubbish to overseas Americans deserves to fail and I’d put good money on the fact that it will. But I am really intrigued with the whole idea of national longings, what are the things we miss when we travel or live abroad and why? I’d love to begin a discussion of this topic and invite every reader to send me (either via email or the comments section) a description of the two things you miss when you are living or travelling outside your country. I would love to publish this material which I know will be much, much more interesting than anything on Burger TV.

And what do I miss most? I miss driving up to our farm in North Carolina under the long line of now grown live oaks, which my mother planted when I was a child. And not a day goes by that I don't miss eastern Carolina barbeque.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ratatouille's Paris

We were in Paris last week and I had a really big idea about using film “hooks” to create better travel experience for children. In my role as children’s travel anthropologist, I would take Eloise to all the places immortalized in Pixar’s charming new film, Ratatouille, which is set in Paris, to see if the connection to the film could be used to enhance both the fun and the educational impact of travel.

We would visit the Eiffel Tower, the sewers, the Catacombs, the Alexander Bridge (where Remy forms his partnership with Linguini) and perhaps splash out on a meal at one of the restaurants the animators used as inspiration for the kitchen and dining room of Gusteau’s. All I can say is Pixar must have awesome expense accounts because the list includes the crème de la crème of Paris restaurants: La Tour d’Argent, Guy Savoy, Taillevant, Helene Darroze and Le Train Bleu. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I was on to something. There was only one intractable problem. A problem I did not want to recognise or accept. Eloise had absolutely no interest in experiencing Paris from a rat’s point of view.

I should have figured it out early in the week when we descended twenty five meters underground and began our hour long tour of the Catacombs. There is some pretty cool stuff down there including the artfully arranged remains of about 6 million people and a warning over the entrance which states, “Halt, for this is the Empire of Death.” There are even Parisians called Cataphiles who are considered experts on the 300 kilometers (roughly 186 miles) of underground tunnels and special police called Cataflics who chase down and issue fines to any unauthorized visitors.

Now I would have expected this spooky netherworld to appeal to any child, especially ones imagining that they were part of Remy’s happy rat family scampering about, but what was Eloise’s reaction? “Mom, maybe we should have gone to the sewer museum.” It was all so disappointing, but I had much more rat magic up my sleeve. Or so I thought,

In fact, I was totally unsuccessful in interesting Eloise in another underground adventure (too smelly), or the Eiffel Tower (too crowded) or the Alexander Bridge (too boring). I was becoming quite desperate. My whole film hook concept was coming apart at the seams but then I noticed an ad for a museum that I had never heard of, the Palais de la decouverte, which claimed to have a L’Ecole des Rats.

Wow, I thought, a school for rats, how fantastic! Already wary of trying to sell the rat idea to my daughter, I pointed out that this science museum, located in the heart of Paris, was offering a special exhibition on volcanoes, a topic about which Eloise would shortly have to make a presentation for her class back in London. I argued that it would be a fun way to do her homework.

“Yeah right, Mom, the whole thing is probably in French.”
“OK, then you can practice your French at the same time.”
“Mom, we don’t talk about volcanoes in French class. We talk about the colour of my clothes and how many brothers and sisters I have and stuff like that.”
“OK, but they have this really great School for Rats. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Mom, you have rats on the brain but OK lets go to the science museum. How long do we have to stay?”

As it turned out, we stayed all day and had a fabulous time. The Palais de la decouverte was the big revelation of our trip. It’s a huge barn of a place, lost in time, but conveniently located right behind the Grand Palais. It is relatively unknown, virtually empty and has a 1960s Doctor Demento meets “Back to the Future” feel with museum staff who look like mad scientists in white lab coats. Some of the exhibits, such as the ones on volcanoes and tsunamis are state-of-the art, hands-on displays while other parts of the museum have been left in a dusty, old fashioned state.

Surprisingly, the highlight of our visit was getting the chance to see the rare 1932 film of Inuit life, Palos Brudefaerd (Palos Wedding), which tells the story of the rivalry of two contestants for the love of an Inuit woman. Filmed in Greenland and written by the famous anthropologist and explorer, Knud Rasmussen, the hour long docudrama bears poetic witness to the ancient customs and traditions of a lost way of life that completely captured the imagination of one 10 year old girl from London – and her mother. In a million years, we never expected to be swept away by a 75 year old black and white movie about Eskimos but such is the nature of the many unexpected pleasures of the Palais de la decouverte.

And what about the School of Rats? It was great too with more white coated staff getting rats to perform in front of an appreciative audience of school children. There were neat mazes and puzzles to play with that taught humans how to think like rats. We may not have had a “Ratatouille moment” but we sure learned a lot about rodents.

And it was in the School of Rats that I finally realised why my whole Ratatouille’s Paris idea was rubbish. Ratatouille may be a delightful movie. The way Pixar depicts Paris may be stunning. The French may have embraced this film as their own and I may want badly to eat at the Tour d’Argent, but no little girl wants to follow in the footsteps of a rat. More importantly, no child on a school holiday wants to be a guinea pig for a rat obsessed mother determined to raise every child’s “sentimental” education through better travel experiences.

On the drive back to London, Eloise did her best to make me feel better. “It’s OK, Mom, it really was a good idea but just in case you want to put it in your blog, my favourite things were shopping and that weird Eskimo movie.”

Useful Information

The Catacombs of Paris
1, avenue due Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Tel: 33 (0)1 43 22 47 63
Fax: 33 (0)1 43 22 48 17
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm
Metro – Denfert-Rochereau

Palais de la decouverte
Avenue Franlin Roosevelt
Tel: 33 (0)1 56 43 20 20
Tuesday to Saturday from 9:30 to 6 pm
Sunday and public holidays from 10 am to 7 pm
Metro – Champs-Elysees Clemenceau or Franklin Roosevelt