Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New York at Christmas

We love reading good travel blogs and we particularly enjoy dipping into National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel where we were recently introduced to Frances Coke Page and her website Christmastime in New York City.

After a few minutes on the site, we were poised to reroute our flights and head for the Big Apple: the Bronx Messiah, a Brooklyn Nutcracker, the Charlie Brown Christmas at BB King Blues Club and Grill and best of all, the annual reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in the Clement Clarke Moore Park, which is where Clement Clarke Moore wrote his famous poem.

Frances Coke Page, we’re homesick for New York City at Christmas and it’s all your fault.

Photo Credit: Kruhme's photo stream on Flickr

Friday, December 05, 2008

London Restaurant Offers

We’ve written a lot about the ridiculous expense of eating out in London. In May 2006, we whinged about the cost of a hamburger. In December 2007, we wrote about a five star London hotel that wanted to charge us £3,000 for Christmas lunch.

Christmas 2008 is a whole other story and London is filled with deals that attempt to lure us back through the restaurant door. Here are some of the best we’ve found:

Marsala Zone – As every Londoner knows, these restaurants offer stylish, delicious and inexpensive Indian food that is a great deal at any time. From now until December 9, Marsala Zone has a 2 for 1 offer that is terrific. Just download the voucher here, fill it out and take it along to the restaurant. A recent dinner for two set us back only £13. Branches in Soho, Covent Garden, Earls Court, Islington and Camden.

Babylon at the Roof Gardens – A breathtaking setting, 100 feet above Kensington High Street in a acre and a half roof garden with real flamingos! From now until December 23, you can have a two course lunch for £17.50 or three courses for £19.15. We took an American friend there yesterday. The atmosphere was glam, the food was delicious, service was excellent and the price was right.

Tamarind – This one star Indian in Mayfair has a 2 for 1 offer on its Sunday lunch tasting menu that means you are spending £13.50 per person to eat at one of London’s top restaurants. They also have a £28 per person offer for dinner which includes a bottle of wine.

And if that doesn’t wow you, how about a three course lunch at the Ritz for £35 or a pre-theatre menu for £43.

Monday, December 01, 2008

London at Christmas

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!”
Dr. Seuss

What’s the best thing to do in London at Christmas? That’s a tough question since there are so many wonderful Christmas-related events: the Carol services (we’re off to one tonight), the ice skating, the pantomimes. Despite the stiff competition, if we had to choose one single thing to do in London at Christmas time, it would be to pay a visit to the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye Museum on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch.

Every year for the past 19 years, this magical small museum of English interiors decorates its 12 period rooms in the festive style of the season, providing a wealth of information about the development of English Christmas customs. It’s a great way to learn about Christmas traditions and we never fail to come home without some new decorating ideas. But the thing we really love about the Geffrye at Christmas is how it makes us feel.

We always find it strangely calming, and at the same time inspiring, to observe these past celebrations. We’re transported back in time, theirs and ours, and instead of thinking about what we have to do to get ready for Christmas, we think about England’s Christmas memories and our own.

It’s a rich experience but, as is the case throughout the year, admission to the museum is free and we always think how nice it is, particularly at Christmas, to have a warm hearted and authentic experience without having to open one's wallet. The Geffrye does have a good small gift shop with tasteful decorations and books about Christmas, if you do want to spend some money.

If you are hungry and want a warm hearted and authentic dining experience that also won’t cost an arm and a leg, head out the door of the Geffrye, turn left and walk for a couple of minutes along Kingsland Road to the Mien Tay Vietnamese restaurant. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside you’ll find some of the best tasting food, nicest people and cheapest prices in all of London. For example, an enormous pho (a rice noodle soup with beef that is a complete meal), one of the best we’ve had in a long time, was a reasonable £5.50.

We were there recently following a visit to the Christmas exhibition with old friends from out-of-town. We were all completely taken by the charming staff and delicious, beautifully presented food. Being interested in food, we asked many questions and were rewarded with a master class in Vietnamese ingredients and techniques. At the end of our meal, we were presented with a special cake wishing us luck, happiness and prosperity forever.

Oddly enough, that cake pretty much captured our seasonal visit to the Geffrye Museum. It’s not often that we return from a Christmas event feeling lucky to be alive, happy to be together and prosperous in our relationships but such was the case this year and that is why the Christmas exhibition at the Geffrye museum will always be at the very top of our Christmas "must see" list.

The Geffrye Museum
Kingland Road
London E2 8EA
Tel 0207 739 9893

Open Tuesday – Saturday 10 am – 5 pm
Sundays and Bank Holiday 12 – 5 pm
Admission Free

The exhibition Christmas Past runs from Tuesday, November 25 through Sunday, January 4th.

Mien Tay Vietnamese Cuisine
122 Kingsland Road
London E2 8DP
Tel: 0207 729 3074

Monday, November 24, 2008

Le Jour de Merci Donnant and the Booze Cruise

No one can deny that the Jour de Merci Donnant is a grand fete
Art Buchwald

What do Americans in America do to get ready for Thanksgiving?

Start cooking we suppose. We don’t think they head for Canada or Mexico but over here in the UK, come November, we Americans head for France on a pre-Thanksgiving booze cruise. Wikipedia describes a booze cruise as “an English colloquial term for a brief trip from Britain to France … with the intent of taking advantage of lower prices, and buying personal supplies of (especially) alcohol or tobacco in bulk quantities.”

Now ordinarily, booze cruises are pretty straight forward affairs. You get on a ferry, shop-till-you-drop, eat a great lunch and go home. But, as we all know, these are not ordinary times. To begin with, our ferry company went bust which was a very bad beginning. Undaunted, we rebooked on Eurotunnel, which is still operating a reduced schedule following a truck fire in September. OK, shit happens but it’s still not comforting. Then the pound keeps falling against the Euro, wiping out lots of the savings. Then we remember that Monday is the wrong day to shop in France when the hypermarkets are packed and the cute little specialty stores are shut. But its too late to change the booking, and so, with nothing left to do but go on this ill-fated adventure, we headed for France.

The first piece of good news was that travelling to France via the tunnel was better than we remember. Years ago, we wrote off Eurotunnel as expensive and somewhat souless and stuck with the ferries. But the whole Eurotunnel experience is superior. Its faster (35 versus 75 minutes), smoother and the highway access and loading are much easier. At £27 each way for as many passengers as you can pack in your car, its also good value. As long as fares remain competitive, we see no need to ever get on a ferry again.

For our second piece of good news, despite the insanely crowded hypermarket, we hit pay dirt on the booze, finding a good inexpensive Cote du Rhone to serve at Thanksgiving from a vineyard we like that was 50% less than what the equivalent would cost in London. We also loaded up on good champagne for what you can pay for bad champagne in the UK and just for fun we threw into our cart some oysters, duck confit, unsalted butter, cheese, fancy salt and fois gras. Even with the exchange rate working against us, between the novelty, the quality and, in the case of the liquor, the savings, we more than felt our trip was justified.

After we finished our shopping, we had an inspiring lunch at the Restaurant Le Grand Bleu in Calais that on its own could have also justified a crossing. The chef, a young man who trained with Alain Ducasse, serves up sophisticated and beautifully presented seafood specialties, such as the scallops shown above, in a simple waterside restaurant for a fraction of the price you would pay in London or Paris. We can’t remember the last time we gasped in amazement at our food but such was the case when our ultra-finely shaved tuna, responding to the heat coming from below, began dancing and shimmying across the plate. The bottom line is that it is good for the soul to eat great food and for once not feel cheated when the bill arrives. We’ll be back.

Speaking of food, it is now the Monday before Thanksgiving, and time to corner the London market in sweet potatoes and pecan pies. As Art Buchwald put it in his 1953 Herald Tribune column where he explained Thanksgiving to the French:
"And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do."
Over here in London, thanks to the French and that great old tradition of the booze cruise, we expect our celebrations to be very grand indeed.
Le Grand Bleu
Quai de la Colonne
8, rue Jean-Pierre Avron
62100 Calais
Tel: 03 21 97 97 98

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Harvard Museum of Natural History

We have Boston on the brain.

Maybe it was Icelandair. They’re offering flights from London and three night in a Boston three star hotel for £384 and you can throw in an overnight stay in a four star hotel in poor, bankrupt Reykjavik for an extra £15. Maybe it was the thought that Barack Obama went to Harvard, which got us thinking about bumming around Cambridge which has the largest number of bookstores per capita in the world. Or maybe it was the fact that the Director of Communications and Marketing from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, with the memorable first name of ‘Blue’, sent us an email encouraging us to visit the museum on our next visit across the pond.

Blue makes the case that the Harvard Museum of Natural History is a No Crowds destination par excellence as the museum contains world class collections without world class crowds. Taking a look at the website, we have to agree with Blue.

For starters, we’re smitten with their cool looking zoological collection. They have amazing looking animals, fish and reptiles including dinosaurs and dodos and the world's only mounted Kronosaurus, a 42 foot long prehistoric marine reptile. They have a breathtakingly beautiful collection of more than 3,000 glass flower models (see the photo above) created by a father and son team over the course of five decades. The mineral and gem collection is also impressive with a huge 1,600 pound amethyst from Brazil and lots of meteors from outer space.

Current special exhibitions include “The Language of Color” through September 6, 2009 which looks at the use and meaning of color in animals, “Looking at Leaves” through February 8, 2009 containing black and white photographs by New York photographer, Amanda Means and “Sea Creatures in Glass” through March 1, 2009 by the same father/son team who created the Glass Flowers.

As I combed through the website, I kept asking myself how it was that I had studied in Boston, taken my children there many times and missed this fabulous place. Thanks to Icelandair, I may be fixing the problem shortly. If you are headed to Boston, don’t make the same mistake.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford Street (just pat Harvard Yard)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tel: 617 495 3045

Open 9 am to 5 pm, seven days a week
Except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Day and New Years

General Admission
$9 for adults
$7 for students ( Harvard students are free) and seniors
$6 for children

Admission also gets you into the adjacent Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Photo credit: Hillel Burger via the Harvard Museum of Natural History Flickr pool

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Library of Congress - Politics with No Crowds

"All is Politics in this Capitol"
Thomas Jefferson

As much as we love the Smithsonian museums and the Phillips Collection, we feel visitors to Washington DC would be missing a trick if they came to town and did not pay a visit to the Capitol, a working legislative body and one of the most recognized monuments in the world. Here’s the problem with that idea. Tickets. According to the U.S. Capitol Guide Service website:

“Tickets are distributed each morning beginning at 9:00 AM … Tickets are required for all tours of the Capitol. … personnel distribute the tickets on a first come, first serve basis … Tickets … are for the same day admission only …During the busy months of Spring and Summer, the line for tickets forms quite early in the morning, so please plan accordingly.”

When NoCrowds reads something like that, we run for the hills but we are happy to report that on our last visit to Washington, we did find in the Library of Congress an easier way to get the Capitol Hill experience without a ticket and with far fewer crowds.

The Library of Congress, housed in three buildings directly east of the Capitol, serves as the research arm of Congress. It is America’s oldest cultural institution and with 138 million objects stored on 650 miles of shelves, it is the largest library in the world. Being a research library, most of the books and objects are kept secure in closed stacks but are available to anyone over the age of 18 who wishes to conduct research.

All the action for visitors to the Library can be found in the glitzy, spectacular Jefferson Building which has more gold, marble, mosaics and statues than any government building we’ve ever seen. During our visit, we were able to wander through several exhibitions including “Creating the United States” which looks at the ideas, collaboration and compromise involved in drafting America’s founding documents and “Exploring the Early Americas” about encounters between native Americans and Europeans. There is an inspiring exhibition on Thomas Jefferson and a recreation of the Library he sold to Congress in 1815. Popular culture is well represented in the Bob Hope exhibition on American entertainment. A lot of effort has gone into making these exhibitions interactive, so they are ideal for younger audiences.

Free guided tours lasting about 45 minutes and requiring no advance reservations are offered at 10:30, 11:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 (but no 3:30 tour on Saturdays). If tours aren’t your thing you can take yourself around the building. There is Discovery Guide for children and a gift shop for the “If you behave yourself, I’ll buy you a treat” routine.

So what’s the verdict on the Library of Congress? A visit is an excellent way to get a Washington political fix without getting on a tourist hamster wheel. The pomp and circumstance of the Library speaks volumes about political life in the nation’s capitol. The exhibits do a good job of presenting America’s view of itself and the world. You can pop in or linger as you like. If you are like us, you will leave thinking that regardless of one's view of the US government, it sure does know how to organise a great library.

The Library of Congress
Jefferson Building – The Library of Congress Experience
1st Street SE (between Independence Avenue and East Capitol Street)
Tel: 202 707 8000

Hours – Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5pm
Closed Sunday and federal holidays
Photography by Carol M. Highsmith from the Library of Congress website

Monday, November 10, 2008

Goodbye Speedferries

Bummer! Our favourite discount English Channel ferry service, Speedferries, falls victim to the economic crisis.

According to Speedferries’ website, on November 7, the port of Boulogne impounded the company’s only vessel, a former Royal Australian Navy catamaran, for non-payment of port dues and taxes. The company states that “it is unable to inform its customers, employees or business partners, of a firm date for the resumption of service.”

We reckon Speedferries will never, ever get their boat back, and if they do, who would use them? NoCrowds mourns the loss of this fast, cheap and reliable service. We’ll miss Boulogne – Europe’s largest fishing port with its one star restaurant, La Matelote, the fine chateau Hotel Clery and the terrific French national sea experience Nausicaa. As the Editor said wistfully while quickly rebooking our next crossing with Eurotunnel, “it was just too good to be true”.

Ah, but it was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Day After the Election

The business of NoCrowds is travel. But not today. On the day after the election, we stop for a moment, to reflect on what just happened.

The phone rings. It’s 6 am Wednesday morning in London. I answer because it might be one of the children in trouble. It is one of the children. He is screaming. “Mom, Mom can you hear me.” In the background, everyone is screaming. “I’m in front of the White House. The cops have shut down Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s CRAZY.”

I turn on the television and there they are. Thousands of jubilant college kids, celebrating. I am happy for my son. “Remember this moment, I shout down the line, and write it down.” Don’t worry Mom, I’ll send you something.” I know he won’t.

The rest of the day feels like a party. I am congratulated by everyone who hears my American accent. An English friend drops off some cupcakes (fairy cakes in the UK) with American flags on top. I think about Corrine, an African-American woman who did not live to see, as Thomas Friedman put it, that “on November 4, 2008 shortly after 11 pm Eastern time, the American Civil War ended.” I send an email to a political activist in the Green Party in southern California asking him how things look in Orange County.

His response comes back, and he clearly wants me to post it on NoCrowds. I don’t know what to do with it. The first time I read it, it seems awfully long. And yet, it is an American story about a dream for a better American future and so, on this day of all days, inspired by the notion that we can build a more perfect union, NoCrowds publishes the unedited (because I wouldn’t know where to begin):

My Day as a Green American
by Sandy Stiassni

As one who spent last week in a mostly awakened, alert posture, abbreviated by quick catnaps and momentary non-political diversions, I greeted the day after Election Day with profound relief, intermingled with wistfulness and hopeful expectation. As a politically active Green, my own perceptions differ in substance and kind from those of my elated Democrat and chastened Republican brethren.

We Greens believe in bottom-up grassroots democracy and community-based economics, which place us in a political jurisdiction even more remote than the most distant NoCrowds destination. Recitation of my past twenty-four hours in Orange County, California may offer your European and American NoCrowds readers a glimpse into the world of a newly-minted Green, and allow them to be transported to political Greenland; a quiet, undisturbed isle, truly distant from the madding crowd!

An intriguing, enigmatic, misunderstood part of Americans are the often naive, uninformed conformity with which we present ourselves to the world, which masks a rich diversity of ideologies, perceptions, purposes.

Election Day began in my own my two-car garage. My home’s one of hundreds of official Orange County polling places. I was greeted at 645am by a smiling team of volunteer poll workers, who allow me to cast the first vote. I worked my way through a plethora of national, state, local voting choices, press the electronic "Cast Vote" key, and proudly place my "I've Voted" sticker on my lapel. Today there's an amazingly long line of neighbors eager to cast their votes; this, in one of the top ten wealthiest precincts in Orange County.

My next Election Day job was an email to another Southern California Green. Like me, Santa Monica-based Mike Feinstein wants to grow Greens from a tiny fringe clique of semi-dysfunctional, aging, white, hippy males, to a robust, diverse, politically frothing caldron of forward-thinking, environmentally convicted, new-age activists. In a state with 15 million voters, Greens have but 160,000 registrants scattered across a majestic sovereign realm one-sixth the size of the entire 27 state European Union:

Good Morning Mike,

It's SHOW TIME! November 4, 2008!

It's a somewhat hollow performance for we Southern California Greens, with only three (3) local Green races; Tom Lash in 46th Congressional District, the erstwhile Jack Lindblad in 39th California Assembly District, and Linda Piera-Avila in Santa Monica City Council race. This, in an seemingly never-ending metropolis, which includes over 5 million voters, encompasses one of the largest urban fabrics in the world, and spans a humungous, staggering, environmentally significant, culturally diverse land mass.

But it's all good!

The small lessons we've learned in each of these small political campaigns, we'll refine and endlessly duplicate! I've particularly enjoyed watching Linda P-A's blossoming, who exhibits many of your clever, quiet political embellishments. The Greens are an interesting bunch! Everyone in Green circles seems to have an opinion about me, which runs the gamut from "Sandy's an articulate, Churchillian war-monger, probably a CIA plant." to, "Sandy, like Mahatma Gandhi, needs to work on his wardrobe!" In terms of my efforts to galvanize our miniscule political particle, it's more like herding cats. Sunday, I organized an outreach phone banking session to Orange County registered Greens to ask them to vote Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney and Tom Lash. There was much resentment and controversy over my cold-calling scripts, with several OC Greens mounting a silent protest by angrily staring at the rest of us making calls. I had to bring in 'scabs'--Progressive Democrats who love Cynthia--to 'break' the so-called strike!

Together, Mike, we'll permanently change the direction of this political party from an endless cycle of indifference, inaction, unproductive internal squabbling, to a perennially repetitive pattern of localized party recruitment, commitment and discipline, home-gown leaders poised for appointed, elected offices, and constant, community-based campaigns! Together we WILL make it happen!

Mike, maybe you can dial me into California Green Party Campaigns & Candidates Working Group meeting this January in The Bay Area.

Let's get together. Soon!


Sandy Stiassni

P.S. You'll just love Green prospective council candidate, Viviana Franko in Hawthorne. She even has Green eyes!

Having dispatched this message of hope and change, I move to my next Election Day assignment; to spice up a radio spot promoting our Green Party Presidential candidate. As we almost exclusively learn about U.S. elections from corporate-controlled American media--more focused to sell soap, sex, Hollywood celebrities than offer authentic news--truths about candidates, campaigns and political issues are an often an untold story. Six-term former Democrat Congresswoman, staunch back-bench Bush protestor, and the first women of color elected to Washington from the deep Southern state of Georgia, Green Party Presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney is one such hidden news item.

Other than Senators McCain and Biden, Ms. McKinney has more national legislative experience than all other Presidential candidates combined! Yet, in true NoCrowds style, scarcely a mention of this charismatic, knowledgeable, Tufts-educated International Relations expert can be found in American media, other than an infamous, highly publicized incident, where Congresswoman McKinney was reported to have angrily slugged a Capitol Hill police officer who mistakenly (not!) confused her for a charwoman!

Today's broadest venue is KPFK 90.7, a small oasis of public radio on the left end of the FM dial, which stands out as one of a handful of LA public stations not peppered with incessant corporate sponsorship promos, a trend which undercuts the original idea of public radio being financed primarily by the public. Reduced contributions and listeners have whittled this station down to maybe 150,000 loyal, politically aware, influential Angelinos.

At noontime, comedian and Green party convert Roseanne Barr co-hosts a call-in Election Day show. It's been arranged for Cynthia McKinney to be introduced as a 'special radio guest'. After twenty-five dials into the radio phone line, I reach senior producer Christine Blosdale. "Are we all good, Christine?" I inquire, "Oh yeah," opines the overworked, underpaid producer, currently juggling a full panel of expectant call-ins. "We got Cynthia waiting in the wings. I'll bring you into the conversation only if Cynthia doesn't go on." I'm the back-up, the also-ran, the voice of last resort, to communicate the otherwise unheard Green message to Election Day listeners.

The Roseanne-Cynthia connection comes together as naturally as peas ‘n’ corn. Conversation seems as spontaneous and unrehearsed as girlfriends meeting at Nordstrom gushing over a Prada sale! Instead of promoting a consumerist agenda, though, the two discuss deepening troubles of American working people, the bleak economic forecast, and empty promises made by the two Big political parties. "A Green vote for Cynthia McKinney is what I'm gonna do," says Roseanne, "How about you, listeners?"

Another Election Day responsibility is GOTV, Get Out The Vote. As the fastest-growing, least experienced and often most interfered-with Orange County voters, Green Party members like me work hard to make sure Latinos, as a group, vote early and often. I meet with young political activist, Jeanette Vazquez, who grew up in Fullerton's barrio, and currently is the elected President of the 10,000 member Cypress College Associated Students.

Jeanette and I pick Knepp Avenue, composed of neat, post-war stucco bungalows and small apartment complexes, and go door-to-door to ensure residents Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200, but go to nearby Richman School polling place and re-elect Sharon Quirk Fullerton's Mayor, a dynamic Latina, and Jeanette's former 4th Grade teacher. People are cordial and receptive, even when Jeanette wags her finger at them and says, ¡Usted debe votar, o sea!

Another job is at Registrar of Voters as a Green Party Election Day observer. A fringe party like the Greens must define 'winning' on its own terms. Cynthia McKinney's Presidential goal is 5% of the national popular vote, which automatically places Greens on all 50 state ballots, offers Secret Service protection, and renders Greens a more potent force with which the other Big Parties must deal

In a rush to quickly certify the looming election outcome, sometimes Green votes are lost, unaccounted for, or occasionally suppressed by overzealous Registrars throughout the U.S. In our case, OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley is a sincere, though colorless functionary who blandly assures ALL votes will be counted, and encourages me to walk freely throughout the cavernous factory which collects, tabulates and issues Election Day results on the hundreds of races voted on by hundreds of thousands of Orange County voters. Color-coded workers quickly shuffle incoming paper votes and voting machines though an endless maze of chain-gangs, code-scanners and fast moving conveyers. I note high-decibel Hip-Hop tunes are the exact same music played by Guantanamo Bay interrogators to break down suspected terrorists.

The waning hours of my busy day as a Green activist raise another important question; do I gloat on our paltry outcomes with other Greens, or build bridges with progressives of other political stripes? If I decide to remain separately, defiantly Green, one choice is to attend a large virtual party by Bay-Area Green activist, Marnie Glickman, Executive Director of Green Change, Says Marnie, “Green Change is a community of people with Green values and a website to help people to create together, to solve problems, and to build a culture based on Green values. We provide information and articles to learn more about what it is to be Green, live Green, act Green, build new Green communities, and help one another."

I choose instead the beautiful villa of Kim and Brad Sanders, Democrat Party loyalists and strong fellow Sharon Quirk for City Council supporters. Nestled high upon a verdant Fullerton hillside, we politically elite activists casually sip white wines and nibble at finger foods with Sharon Quirk. Promptly at 930pm every evening, a beautiful fireworks canopy display from Disneyland explodes on the vista around us, located about 7 miles away. You know, I say to myself, life in the OC ain't so bad, at least not for me! Shortly afterward, Barack Obama’s declared Presidential winner and delivers a somber but moving Yes We Can tribute to his supporters.

America's Election Night 2008 showcased a nation unified by acclamation of Barack Obama, its first African American President. A short concession by a tired, aging Senator John McCain, was marked by conspicuous absence of innuendo, depth, rancor. Tears, emotional intoxication, adulation by millions of American voters are what we saw. It was far more encouraging, tho' less inspirational, than the blood, toil, tears and sweat offered the free world by Winston Churchill two generations ago.

As I drive home, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I reflect upon the amazing events I've witnessed, and the simple yet profound moments I experienced. I think back to A.A, Milne's "In the Dark", and its pertinence to my fledging efforts to become a true Green:

I’ve had my supper
And had my supper
And HAD my supper and all;
I’ve heard the story
Of Cinderella,
And how she went to the ball;
I’ve cleaned my teeth,
And I’ve said my prayers,
And I’ve cleaned them and said them right;
They’ve all of them
And kissed me lots,
They’ve all of them said “Goodnight.”

So - here I am in the dark alone,
There’s nobody here to see;
I think to myself, I play to myself;
Here I am in the dark alone;
What is it going to be?

I’m talking to a rabbit…
I’m talking to the sun…
I think I am a hundred…
I’m one.
I’m lying in a forest…
I’m lying in a cave…
I’m talking to a Dragon…

I’ll play a lot tomorrow…

I’ll think a lot tomorrow,,,

I’ll laugh…
A lot…

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Phillips Collection: Washington's Other Museum

For visitors to Washington DC, there is an art collection just off Dupont Circle that is miles away from the Smithsonian museum complex in both scale and temperament. In a town of state institutions and memorials, the Phillips Collection is all about a private individual and an intimate space. Reminding NoCrowds of the Wallace Collection in London and the Jacquemart-Andre Museum in Paris, at the heart of the Phillips Collection is a romantic story involving a visionary collector and a grand house. In this case, the visionary collector was Duncan Phillips, the grand house was his Georgian Revival home and the story involves his appreciation of then little known artists who went on to become the masters of 20th century art.

Dashing into the museum between meetings, we were able to view works from the permanent collection, including the iconic Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and lots of wonderful European and American impressionists and post impressionists. We also visited the special exhibition Christo and Jean-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress. Ever since these two artists transformed New York’s Central Park with “The Gates” installation, we’ve wondered how they ever got such a project off the ground. The Over the River exhibition provided lots of interesting information about how Christo and Jean-Claude conceive and bring about one of their installations.

We didn’t have lots of time for our visit to the Phillips Collection but it still sticks in our mind. We like the fact that in a town full of huge state-supported institutions, there is also room for a premier private initiative. Being a private institution, there is a somewhat complicated charging system for admission on the weekend and for the special exhibitions, but admission to the permanent collection during the week is free and all the time for under 18s. In any event, we feel the bottom line is that the setting, the house, the art and the story are first class. We enjoyed the scale and lack of crowds. By all means, visit the museums on the Mall but save some time and energy for the Phillips Collection, Washington’s other museum.

The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm
Thursday – until 8:30pm
Sunday – 11am – 6pm

Admission to Christo and Jean Claude: Over the River and to the permanent collection on the weekend is $12
Photo 0f Marjorie and Duncan Phillips by Naomi Savage in front of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party from the Phillips Collection website

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Best Value Outing in America

NoCrowds received an email recently from a Danish friend on a business trip asking where she should spend a few free hours in Washington D.C.

“I was thinking of taking a tour of the White House”, she wrote.

“Forget it. You need to plan months in advance. Besides, you are nationality-impaired. You’ll never get in,” we wrote back.

We advised her to head instead for the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. The museum complex, the largest in the world, with more than 136 million objects, has something for everyone. All the museums are within walking distance and free. Some of the museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, are crowded. Some, such as the Freer and the Sackler Galleries are virtually empty. The choice is so vast; you can wade in or avoid the scrum according to your mood and interests. For foreigners, it’s a great place to watch Americans and for Americans, it’s a great place to watch yourself.

Following our own advice, we spent a half day on the Mall during a recent visit. As we always do, we popped in to the Freer and Sackler Galleries to see the world’s largest collections of James Whistler's work, as well as the world's largest collection of 19th century Hokusai prints. Having been to mobbed (and expensive) shows for both artists in London and Paris, we love seeing the work in such a tranquil and intimate space – and for free.

Until January 4, 2009, the Sackler also has an exhibition of newly discovered royal paintings of Jodhpur from the 17th to the 19th centuries entitled “Garden and Cosmos” which is worth a visit, especially since this is the first time many of these works have been seen by anyone besides a maharajah!

We headed next for the imposing National Gallery of Art, created by a joint resolution of Congress in 1937, which has one of the largest and finest collections of Western paintings and sculpture in the world. On the day of our visit, the place was packed with vacationing American families in shorts and sneakers taking pictures of themselves next to famous works of art. Outside, financial markets were crashing, just as they had when the museum was founded, but inside, we were all on holiday. Eavesdropping on some of the conversations was as much fun as seeing the art. For example, a man standing in front of a massive Anthony van Dyck portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, from 1633, turns to his wife and remarked, “Honey, you know this photograph over here. I like the frame.” Good for you, we thought, here’s a man that in a middle of a crisis, still knows what he likes.

After an hour's wander through art history’s greatest hits, it was time to head home but not before we sampled a really good barbeque sandwich from a funky bug-like zero-emission kart outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

NoCrowds has often wondered why Washington street food, particularly what you can find around the Mall, has always been so bloody awful. Well it seems that a long standing moratorium on vending licenses made the existing hot dog and soft drink sellers complacent. A recent lifting of this moratorium has provided a company called On the Fly with the opportunity to sell more interesting and healthy “grab and go” food from environmentally friendly karts around the city. The company has hired a chef trained at The Inn at Little Washington, one of the nation’s top restaurants, and partnered with such well known local providers as Rockland BBQ and Julia’s Empanadas. The results are impressive. Being from North Carolina, we were sceptical that some boys from DC could pull off a decent barbeque sandwich, but for $6.50, On the Fly produced a succulent sandwich along with some good, not-too-sweet coleslaw.

In 2006, NoCrowds had this to say about the Smithsonian National Museums:
“I know of no other place in the world where you can see and learn about more things with greater ease, for less money, than on the Mall in Washington.”
In 2008, this is still the case, but now we have an even greater need for both the savings and the inspiration that visiting these national treasures can provide. With the addition of good and well priced food from On the Fly, a visit to the Mall in Washington wins the NoCrowds award for the best value outing in America.

Smithsonian – most museums are open every day from 10 to 5:30 except Christmas.

On the Fly karts in front of the Portrait Gallery, Hirshhorn and Natural History Museum. Click here for location and times.

Photo of Queen Henrietta with Sir Jeffrey Hudson, 1633, from the National Gallery collection.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Better on a Bus

"I'd rather go by bus."
Prince Charles

On a recent trip to the United States, NoCrowds needed to travel from New York City to Washington D.C. We considered all the usual options: rent a car, fly or take the train, but each option seemed either a hassle or expensive or both.

We consulted our children who regularly ride the Chinatown bus services (Fung Wah and Lucky Star) operating between the two cities.

Their response. “You guys are past it. It’s cheap but you are way too anal to put up with the chaotic service. Try Vamoose, they’re a bit more expensive but more your style.”

A harsh but accurate assessment of our aging inflexibility prompted a review of the discount bus services that have cropped up along the Boston to Washington route in recent years. In fact, there are lots of companies, such as Vamoose, Megabus and Boltbus, offering cheap, scheduled service on clean, comfortable vehicles. Pricing and amenities vary and we ended up choosing Boltbus which boasts power outlets and free wifi with fares starting as low as $1 each way plus a booking fee. The earlier you book, the cheaper the fare. We paid $15 each. Walk-up fares are $25.

And what was our experience? The bus arrived and left on time. Our driver told lots of bad political jokes. The wifi and power outlets were great. The bus was clean and comfortable. We arrived on schedule (four hours and 15 minutes later) and since we could work on the internet for the entire journey, we hardly noticed the time. For the record, we were the oldest folks on the bus.

no phone

Tel: 877 393 2828

Tel: 877 462 6342

Fung Wah
Tel: 212 925 8889

Tel: 888 881 0887

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Treasure of the Flat Rock

More ideas from Laura Sanderson Healy on ways to enjoy North Carolina with No Crowds.

Do you believe in Shangri-La? I have found mine again -- the blink and you’ll miss it Village of Flat Rock, North Carolina. Set amid crystal lakes, steep mountains, and musical streams, Flat Rock became the preferred refuge of Charlestonians over 100 years ago when they sought the cooler hills when their city steamed up in the summer. Flat Rock is a joy today whether you like quiet nature hikes or art gallery and boutique browsing, and there is also pleasurable gobbling to be had all around.

The place must have incredible ley lines of psychic creativity, because situated alongside one of the huge “flat rocks” in the middle of town is the Flat Rock Playhouse, AKA The State Theater of North Carolina. This thriving establishment boasts a respectable repertory company which produces brilliant work year round.

Across the road is the massive property that holds Connemara, a National Historic Site better known as Carl Sandburg’s home. Do you remember his poem “The fog comes in on little cat feet?” The Swedish-American powerhouse, a compulsively prolific poet and biographer (one Pulitzer for his Complete Poems, one Pulitzer for his LINCOLN biography) came South with several boxcars of his library collections and spent 22 years based in Flat Rock. The tour of his home is 5 dollars and I learned that his wife was the photographer Edward Steichen’s sister. She made Connemara her own dairy goat empire, and the farm is maintained today for the petting zoo types. You can also visit the flat rock that Carl sat on in his chair with pen and paper, never stopping that otherworldly output.

If you just want to roam around the property and take one of several suggested hikes up to Glassy Mountain behind the farmhouse, you are welcome to do so, free of charge.

photo credit: Laura Sanderson Healy

Monday, October 06, 2008

PSSSST! You Can Go Home Again

Today's post is from Laura Healy, writer, southerner and friend.

“All things on earth point home in old October; sailors to sea, travellers to walls and fences, hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of the hounds, the lover to the love he has forsaken” Thomas Wolfe quotes (American short story writer and novelist, 1900-1938)


This summer I lingered several days in Asheville, North Carolina, re-acquainting myself with this sublime town of dreamers and artists in the hilly western part of the state. Pubs and eclectic restaurants, music spots, galleries, antique shops and bookstores abound. It is still a quiet place, surrounded by the splendor of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Number One on my list of attractions was the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, a museum set in Wolfe’s childhood home, a former boarding house his mother ran and which he immortalized in his autobiographical novels LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and OF TIME AND THE RIVER.

Tourists swarm to the chateau-like Biltmore Estate south of town, but I enjoyed taking the $1 tour at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, expertly led by a knowledgeable young man. The house nearly succumbed to an arsonist’s torch a few years ago but was restored and now boasts an elegant Visitors Center with screening room, shop, and exhibitions. As our small group visited each room and heard its stories, a summer school group of children sat on the front steps doing a writing workshop.

To see the angel sculpture that features in LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, visit the very quiet Oaklawn Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC, just down the less traveled Highway 25 from Asheville, and stop for cool shopping at the Mast General Store on Hendersonville’s Main Street and have an ice cream across the street.

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial
52 North Market Street
Asheville NC 28801
(828) 253-8304

For great barbecue: TWELVE BONES, in the river arts district of town.

Photo credit: Laura Healy

Friday, October 03, 2008

La Matelote and the Bearded Lady

You have to love a chef who is a descendant of a gingerbread selling hermaphrodite.

Such is the case with Tony Lestienne, the one star Michelin chef, who presides over the Hotel and Restaurant La Matelote in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

We visited La Matelote recently following a nine hour car journey through France and were delighted with the professional reception we received upon arrival being whisked out of our car and into our room in record time. Overlooking the port and beach of Boulogne, our room in the 4-star hotel was chic, contemporary and comfortable. We were damned happy to be there but too tired and lazy to make much use of the sauna and pool.

We did rally for a fine dinner at the Michelin one star restaurant. As one would expect, service was to a high professional standard but without the “sturm und drang” that often accompanies a high Michelin ranking. We immediately stress tested the staff’s conviviality by asking that our table be moved, given its proximity to the kitchen. Instead of treating us like trouble makers, we were moved, very charmingly, from the better room (filled with mostly French people) to a less atmospheric room (filled with mostly “rosbifs”). As an aside, the Editor hopes that the deft handling by Matelote will convince me, once and for all, to keep my mouth shut about choice of tables. We'll see.

Happily settled in what we now think of as the “rosbif” room, all three of us took the menu for €33, which in the case of the adults included fish soup and cod, and for our fish adverse daughter, featured carpaccio of veal and roast duck. Following our hard drive and with only a flight of stairs between us and our bed, we did manage to drink a lot which bumped up the bill, but as the Editor put it, “This may not be the best one star we have ever tried, but it certainly represents the best value.” Despite having consumed two bottles of excellent wine, dinner for three came to a relatively reasonable €181.

But what about the gingerbread selling bearded lady? Tony Lestienne is justifiably proud of this ancestor and has made a little brochure about Madame Lestienne, born in 1834, proudly cutting gingerbread in all her hairy splendour. It seems she was quite a celebrity in her day, selling in all the markets of northern France. In 1919 at the age of 85, she died on the job at her stall after, as the brochure puts it, “having made many young gourmands very happy with her cakes and sweeties”. In 2008, we can report, Tony Lestienne continues to make young and old gourmands very happy with his cooking and keen sense of hospitality, but, sadly, without such a fine, full face of hair.

La Matelote Hotel & Restaurant
80, Boulevard Sainte-Beuve
62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer
Tel: (33) 03 21 30 33 33
Fax: (33) 03 21 30 87 40

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Wellcome Collection

Idle hands are the work of the devil. Ask any parent.

If you find yourself in London this winter, either as a resident or a visitor, a great way to entertain your children without entry fees or crowds is to head for the Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road.

The Wellcome Collection is a museum about the human condition as seen through the prism of medicine, the body and art. Well, that’s how grown-ups see it. Children will see it as a very cool place to look at weird and wonderful stuff such as artificial limbs, fake eyeballs, diagnostic dolls, amputation saws and male anti-masturbation devices.

This treasure trove of artefacts once belonged to Henry Wellcome, a boy from America’s Wild West who ended his days as a great philanthropist and knight of the British Empire. The museum also brings medicine forward since the time of Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936, with galleries that focus on current issues such as genomes, new ways at looking at our bodies and modern maladies such as obesity.

There are frequent special exhibitions, and a free Young Explorers Pack which helps children engage in the experience. The Wellcome Library, including 2.5 million books, manuscripts, archives, films and pictures on the history of medicine, serves as a great reminder to our kids that there is more to human understanding than can be found by a quick search on Google.

From a NoCrowds perspective, this place is a real winner. Particularly on the weekends, when the Science and Natural History Museums in South Kensington are heaving and unbearably crowded, the Wellcome Collection, by contrast, offers a superb experience for families where you have the peace and space to enjoy it. It’s easy to get there, being just around the corner from the Euston Station, and there is a pleasant café if your brood becomes peckish as well as a gift shop for the ubiquitous, “If you behave, I’ll get you a nice treat at the gift shop.”

Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Raod
Tel: 0207 611 2222

Galleries open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00. Sunday at 11:00. Library closed on Sunday.

Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection webite.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

There's No Such Thing as a Free Flight

Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I know this. I've heard it from my parents and told it to my children. So why did I waste an hour of my time chasing an illusion?

I was supposed to be working on an article for my church magazine but found it hard going and decided to reward myself with a bit of distracting email. In my inbox was this weeks Top 20 travel deals from Travelzoo where the editors comb hundreds of companies for their best sales and offers. It’s a bit of middle class travel porn, fun to look at but I’ve never been tempted to do more than that.

Then one of those offers from Ryanair caught my eye

£0.02 return flights to Europe including ALL taxes.

Wow, I wonder where you can go? Maybe I’ll surprise the editor with a quick trip somewhere if it really is only £0.02 per round trip flight.

I do lots of research and spend lots of time doing it. Then I decide I will only use the airport close to our home in southwest London because the expense and hassle of getting to the northern airports ruins the fun and savings. This pretty much limits our options to Ireland. So I find some free flights to Dublin, spend lots of time filling out stuff and declining the extra charges for priority boarding, luggage and travel insurance. I confirm that I am a citizen of an EU country and have the docs to prove it (you can’t check in online unless you are, otherwise, there is a charge for airport check-in). I provide all my credit card details and then, Ryanair hits me up with £16.04 of handling charges for using a credit or debit card – or any card for that matter.

OK, I've had enough. I exit the Ryanair site having successfully wasted an hour and not bought any free tickets which really cost £16.04.
You were right Dad, about a lot of stuff and especially about those lunches.
Image courtesy of the San Diego Zoo website.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Renting Cars in Europe

The Sorellina called the other day.

“Hey, where is the link and info for that good car rental company? I’ve been all over NoCrowds and I can’t find it.”

Well, baby sister, the name of the company is Auto Europe and the link is

Auto Europe is a company that acts as a broker for rental cars in Europe and many other international destinations. They always have good prices and good customer service, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have used Auto Europe for years. I have rented every thing from economy “micro” cars to enormous mini vans. Their rental contracts are all inclusive and I’ve never had a surprise, a dispute or a problem when using this company.

There’s nothing particularly glamorous about renting a car but if you are looking for good value and service, check out Auto Europe.

From the US –
From United Kingdom –
From Australia –

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Reluctant Yankee at Crook's Corner

When we were growing up in New York, my mother, the transplanted southerner, did a good job of convincing me that as privileged and glamorous as things were “up North”, the real business of life was all happening down in North Carolina. She was never explicit about it, but I got the message.

Take for example, funerals. The funerals for each of my southern grandparents were memorable affairs. They took days. There were tons of relatives and food and stories. By contrast, when my “larger than life” Aunt Carol died up north, the poor old girl got an hour’s slot at the Frank Campbell funeral home on Madison Avenue. Well, that was all I needed to know about the difference between North and South. I am, I confess, a reluctant Yankee.

I am even a more reluctant Yankee when it gets down to food. New York food is fine in many ways. But everyone is in such a rush or on a diet. How come everyone eats at their desk? You usually get only one dessert with your meal. Nothing on your plate was grown, picked or prepared by someone you know.

Southern food, on the other hand, is mythic, defiant and endless. “We’ve raised it and grown it and now we are going to eat it – lots of it - right now!” That was the attitude I remember from my southern summers. I sure did love those platters full of fried chicken and country ham, the corn bread and biscuits, the butter and snap beans and field peas and fresh-picked corn and those glorious pies and cobblers. “Oh yes, I’ll have some of everything, thank you very much.”

And that is why, whenever I am in North Carolina, I love to visit the legendary Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill.

You’ll find Crook's Corner at the western end of Franklin Street, the main artery of Chapel Hill. It’s in a funny old building with hub cap siding and a pig on the roof. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. When the weather permits, you can choose between the 1950s interior or the outdoor patio. It’s the same choice you would face at any family reunion or church picnic. Inside = air conditioning and noisy southerners talking up a storm. Outside = fat indolent flies made drowsy by the heat. Take your pick.

I was there recently with my daughter and aunt, a mini YaYa Sisterhood convention. The conversation with our charming server went something like this:

“Are the tomatoes good this evening?”
“ Yes Mam.”
“What about those figs with country ham?”
“Yes Mam, they’re delicious.”
“And the jalapeno cheddar hushpuppies?”
“Well, everyone loves those. They’re very popular.”
“OK, we’ll have tomatoes and figs and hushpuppies and shrimp and grits and some crab cakes. Oh, and bring some okra too while you’re at it. By the way, are you married?”
“Yes Mam I am.”
“Too bad, I have a son who graduated from Chapel Hill. He lives in Charlotte now.”
“Yes, Mam”

The evening went on like that. Swatting flies, eating, trying to fix up our sons, and telling stories. The food was all wonderful and nostalgic but kind of expensive. With tip, we spent $112 which is pretty good when you consider how much we ate but pretty expensive when you consider we were eating tomatoes and okra and grits and hush puppies. Never mind. As the New York Times put it, “this is sacred ground for southern foodies.”


Crook’s Corner
610 W. Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC

Monday, September 08, 2008

Provence without Crowds

Provence in summer can make you crazy. On the one hand, the region offers one of the world’s most seductive landscapes and sensuous lifestyles. On the other hand, the entire charmed experience can be ruined by the crush of tourism and the problems which arise when lots of foreigners with lots of money invade. Between the high prices, the traffic and parking problems and the irritated locals, it is easy to decide that Provence in high season is oh so lovely but just not worth it.

This year, while driving back to London from northern Spain, we stayed with some savvy friends in the Luberon, made famous by British author, Peter Mayle in “A Year in Provence”, who introduced us to a magical village that seemed to solve the problem of how to visit Provence in high season without crowds.

Goult, located near the famous hilltop towns of Menerbe, Bonnieux and Lacoste, is a delightful place tucked up on the side of a hill that has somehow escaped the attention of tour buses and groups. That’s not to say that you won’t find tourists in Goult but you won’t find many. The atmosphere of the town was surprisingly quiet, chic, in an understated way and decidedly slow. We visited on a warm day in August and had our pick of parking places in the Place de la Liberation in front of the Romanesque church. The fact that we could park so easily was already a huge advantage, as was the fact that the children could wander safely through the narrow, quiet streets. A few tourists, like us, were wandering around appreciating the splendid views from the ramparts, admiring the windmill and photographing the lovely ancient stone houses.

The highlight of our visit was a long lunch on the terrace of the Café de la Poste which was filled with a jolly mix of locals and their dogs, tourists of every nationality and lots of children. It’s best to reserve or arrive early as the place fills up quickly. We had a wonderful time. Service was incredibly slow and slightly haphazard which bothered absolutely no one. More importantly, the plat du jour and several lunch menu options offered very good value. Everything was delicious.

Whiling away that blissful afternoon on the terrace of the Café de la Poste with all the sensual tastes and smells of Provence, we gave serious consideration to returning to Goult for a longer stay. Located in the Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon, Goult is a wonderful jumping off point for walking and bicycling. Surrounded by some of the most fertile agricultural land in France, the food in the markets really is too good looking to eat. An internet investigation revealed that there are several places to rent in and around Goult including the town’s rather fabulous chateau which can accommodate up to 14 adults and 10 children. Compared to the prices of hotels, even the Chateau ends up looking like a bargain. There’s no doubt about it. We’ll be back.

Café de la Poste
Rue Republique
Tel: 04 9072 23 23

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Baffled about Barcelona

Dear Dr. NoCrowds,

Our son has requested that we celebrate his 21st birthday in Barcelona. At the same time my mother-in-law will be turning 80 and my husband wants to assemble the family for a big reunion. The young people want to be in the center of the action., preferably near the Ramblas. The old folks want something comfortable, quiet and safe, preferably away from the crowds. Safety for my mother-in-law is a big issue as she has already had her purse snatched several times in Barcelona. Given current exchange rates, we are also mindful of cost. Can you recommend a solution that will keep everyone happy?

Baffled about Barcelona

Dear Baffled about Barcelona,

You are in luck. Here’s the way to meet everyone’s needs, have a ball, stay safe and keep to your budget. Put the young people up at the Hostal Opera which is superbly located just off the Ramblas next to the Liceu Opera House. This small hotel provides basic accommodations and is perfect for the hard partying members of your group who are just looking for a place to sleep. With prices ranging from €46 - €90 depending on type of room and season, Hostal Opera represents excellent value for the location and at the same time is clean and safe.

A few blocks away from the Hostal Opera, you can put the rest of your party at the wonderful Hotel Montecarlo. Located directly on the Ramblas, the Montecarlo is an oasis of calm in the center of town. From the moment you step into this refurbished 19th century palace, you will be struck by how the pandemonium outside simply disappears. Décor is cool, serene and elegant. Staff is charming and helpful. Rooms are well equipped, spotless and absolutely silent. There is a good bar downstairs and a sun deck with lounge chairs and great views of Barcelona on the roof. If you need it, secure underground parking is available. For this quality hotel, rates are reasonable with a standard double running €175/night.

For a fun place to sample the tapas action near the two hotels, duck into La Boqueria, Barcelona’s large public food market with an entrance off the Ramblas near the Liceu Opera. An especially lively opportunity to sample local seafood plucked straight from the sea and grilled in front of you is the Bar Boqueria where a generous seafood sampler for two will set you back €28. You may have to wait a while to find a seat but the experience is worth it.

For getting around town, check out Go Cars, for GPS guided and narrated tours in a cute Wall-E kind of mini car.

While in Barcelona, do keep an eye on granny’s bag and tell the young folks to stick together as the Ramblas in the wee hours can get dicey. Enjoy your family reunion in one of Europe’s most exciting cities.

Useful Addresses

Hostal Opera
Sant Pau 20
08001 Barcelona
Tel: + 34 93 3188201

Hotel Montecarlo
La Rambla 124
08002 Barcelona
Tel: +34 93 3188201

Bar Barqueria
Mercat de la Boqueria
Tel: 93 4126462

Go Cars

Monday, July 28, 2008

Anyone Who Don't Sing is a Communist

America. 2008. The summer of $4 a gallon gasoline, a mortgage crisis, expensive groceries and the stay-at-home vacation. As Barack Obama addresses crowds in Berlin, we are in a park in Clayton, North Carolina, a former farming community morphing into a suburb. The small park is full of families sprawled on blankets and lawn chairs listening to beach music. We are a good 120 miles from any beach.

The night is warm, but not too hot, with a soft, nostalgic sky and curiously, no bugs. The band plays the old stuff, the Temptations, the Drifters, and anyone over 50 remembers himself young. We sing along. Teenagers look pained. Little children gyrate and prance before the stage while their parents take pictures of them with cell phones. No one thinks about unpaid bills.

The crowd, as befits a town sitting at the intersection of old and new south, is a casual mix of races and cultures: good old boys and girls, African Americans, Hispanics, Yankees. Most people look like they work at tech companies,  not on farms. You can buy liquor by the glass. There's not a mule in sight. And then, the lead singer announces that everyone must sing along and that anyone who doesn't is a communist. The crowd laughs because communists aren't threatening anymore. The Cold War is over, Senator Jesse Helms is dead and Joe Stalin has been run out of town by Osama bin Laden.

But no one seems to be thinking about politics on this fine night in Clayton, North Carolina. Close to an Interstate, full of new development, commutable to the cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, this is a town that senses it has a bright future, even as the economy collapses around it. New restaurants have opened beside such venerable institutions as the Jones Lunch Room where the finest hot dogs in America can still be had for under $1.75. There's a snazzy new tennis club with beautifully maintained clay courts and top tier instruction. There's a brand new bypass that get the Interstate traffic out of the town. Despite all the problems of this summer, Claytonians are an optimistic, forward looking and friendly bunch, at least that is the way they seem to this insider (related to lots of folks in town) and outsider (she doesn't even live in America).

NoCrowds has written extensively about holidaying in eastern North Carolina. It's not just that we spend every summer here, we think everyone looking for authentic travel experiences would love it too. Entering the United States via Raleigh Durham Airport still beats the socks off JFK or LAX. With new international arrivals facilities opening next summer, it will be even better. Eastern North Carolina barbeque is still the best in the world. Ask anyone. So are the beaches. (North Carolina has the east coast's longest stretch of undeveloped coastline) but the best reason of all to visit North Carolina are the Carolinians. The real ones, not the New York imports, are congenitally hospitable. Even if they have not a clue about where you are from or wonder why you would want to be from there, they will take care of you. It's just their nature.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Green, Sex, Cancer, Secret, Fat

Well actually, this post is about the Hotel Clery, located just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France. Having read in the New York Times recently that “green, sex, cancer, secret, fat” are magic words that can catapult a story to fame and fortune instead of the spam file, we decided to see what magic words could do for NoCrowds.

If you are travelling in northern France, perhaps on your way to or from a ferry to the UK, you will find a comfortable chateau hotel set in a twelve acre GREEN and verdant park just outside the town of Boulogne. Built in 1766, the chateau is a fine example of 18th century romantic architecture and was once the residence of General Berthier when the town was under siege by Napoleon.

The 27 rooms are decorated to a high standard with very comy beds making them perfect for SEX. The only thing that might interfere with your lovemaking, or sleep for that matter, would be the naughty but elegant peacocks which have the run of the place. They like to stroll through the bar, peek into the restaurant, perch on the roof of the outbuildings and cry through the night. Their presence, while loud at times, nevertheless added a bit of glamour and fun to the experience.

As for the food, we had a first class dinner in the conservatory overlooking the beautiful park. The menu featured healthy, CANCER fighting ingredients from the region with many seafood options such as sea bass on a bed of mashed artichoke with fennel emulsion. We also enjoyed some particularly delicious local snails served in filo parcels with maroilles cheese, basil and parsley coulis. Dinner for three with wine and service came to €160 which seemed correct given the quality and sophistication of the meal.

In any event, the SECRET is out for British travellers wanting to overnight near Boulogne. On the evening we were there, the hotel was packed with fellow countrymen heading back to the UK. Despite the British invasion, hotel staff were in good spirits, although there was just a whiff of Faulty Towers about the place. Service in the restaurant was uneven, the machine at the desk had problems processing our credit card. But these were minor distractions from the overall good experience. We left feeling rested from our long journey, FAT and happy after our fine dinner and hoping to return again soon.

Hotel Clery
Rue du Chateau
62360 Hedsin l’Abbe
Tel: 03 21 83 19 83
Fax: 03 21 87 52 59

Photo courtesy of the Hotel Clery website

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hartland and the North Devon Coast

The Hartland Quay Hotel on the North Devon coast of England is a romantic kind of place. Not the romance of the pampered paradises featured in travel magazines. The view at Hartland Quay may be just as spectacular as a luxury five star hotel perched on a seaside cliff, but the appeal of this simple and quirky hotel is all about the location. A hotel since 1886 but before that a bank, an oast house and a stable, the hotel exudes the romance of Treasure Island (the 1950 version was filmed there) of shipwrecks, rugged coastline and crashing seas. This is a place for ancient mariners and seafaring tales. On a good day, you can easily imagine Long John Silver striding up the pier exclaiming “Aaarghh, them that dies is the lucky ones.”

The Editor and I spent the night there recently based on the recommendation of a local resident. We arrived late in the afternoon, just in time to see the Hartland Quay Museum opposite the hotel. This small, independent museum, devoted to the rich history of the Hartland Coast, provided the perfect introduction to the area. Shipwrecks, smuggling, fishing and the old coastal trades of lead, lime and coal feature prominently in the meticulously documented displays. After our visit, we retired to the bar where we met backpackers from all over Europe who were there walking the 630 mile long South West Coast Path. Everyone took their drinks outside to sit by the cliffs on a particularly beautiful evening. The atmosphere was friendly and informal.

For dinner, we made our way to the Red Lion Hotel in nearby Clovelly which is an extraordinary village hanging off of a 400 foot cliff. The carless main street descends spectacularly through flower festooned 16th century cottages ending in a restored 14th century quay. All of Clovelly is owned by one family which is one of only three since the Norman Conquest. Being too steep for motor vehicles, for centuries, donkeys were the main form of transportation. Today, each cottage has a sledge in front which is still used to haul goods up and down the street. Nowadays, the donkeys spend their time ferrying children and posing for pictures.

Dinner at the Red Lion Hotel was magic It was June 23rd, one of the longest days of the year. The sun was shining over the picturesque harbour. We ate red mullet and turbot which tasted as if it had just been pulled out of the sea and watched the boats go in and out. The waitress laughed at the Editor’s jokes although I suspect she thought he was “unusual”. The local teenagers provided the after dinner entertainment, diving off cliffs, throwing each other into the still freezing water and pulling off each others pants. I couldn’t decide which I enjoyed more, the food or the show.

After dinner we retired back to Harland Quay, grabbed some beers and watched a spectacular sunset. Breakfast the next morning was full-on English which we walked off on the coastal pathway. In honour of Jane Austen, we hiked over to see the cottage, part of the Hartland Abbey estate which was recently used in the recent BBC version of Sense and Sensibility. Watching the film at the time, I wondered, “Where did they find such a beautiful, remote, unspoiled location to make this movie?” Now I know, they made it in Hartland on the North Devon Coast. If you are looking for something beautiful, remote and unspoiled, you will find it there too.

Useful Addresses

Hartland Quay Hotel
Hartland, Bideford, North Devon
EX396DU, England
Tel: 01237 441218
Fax: 01237 441371

Red Lion Hotel
The Quay, Clovelly, Bideford, North Devon
EX39 5TF, England
Tel: 01237 431237
Fax 01237 431044

Hartland Abbey
Hartland, Bideford, North Devon
EX396DT, England
Tel: 01237441264

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Warwick Castle - History Lite at a Price

Recently, the editor invited me to tag along on a business trip to Warwickshire. Boasting two of Britain’s leading tourist attractions, Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle and tons of other historic sites, there was plenty to keep me busy.

On day one, I decided to see what Merlin Entertainment Group (owners of Legoland and Madame Tussaud’s) had done to Warwick Castle, Britain’s most magnificent medieval fortress. I had last been there 15 years ago, travelling with three small boys who had found the dungeons and torture chambers very inspiring. They purchased plastic swords; beat the living day lights out of each other while the adults ignored them and soaked up the 1,000 years of English heritage. I don’t remember it being terribly expensive.

The first indication that things had changed came when I entered the courtyard where you pay for tickets. The place had the look and feel of the Magic Kingdom with a lot of focus on line management. On the day I was there it was mid week and pissing down rain so that the control barriers weren’t really necessary. Still, when they asked me to shell out £17.95 for an Adult Walkup ticket ( discounts are available if you book online), I was not amused. What on earth can you do to a castle that can justify such a price?

Well, you can turn it into a wax work exhibition. Warwick Castle has two – the Kingmaker which tells the story of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who helped depose King Henry VI in favour of King Edward IV and a Royal Weekend Party which recreates the time when Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick would entertain the likes of Edward, Prince of Wales and Lady Randolph Churchill. Following on the wax theme, you can also have your picture taken with a wax model of Queen Elizabeth for £9 which, I have to say, was absolutely hilarious.

For £17.95 you also get a tour of the Ghost Tower where Sir Fulke Greville was brutally murdered. The tour includes a cast of ghostly actors whose remit is to scare the living daylights out of you and they are pretty good at it. One American lady on my tour burst into tears and assaulted her husband for forcing her into the tower “when you know how much I hate these things”. She wailed all the way to the finish line.

For £17.95 you also get special exhibitions of jousting, birds of prey and demonstrations of siege machines. Conveniently located throughout the site are opportunities to purchase the dear little plastic swords and weapons which are such a hit with the kiddies.

Arguably, the least commercial thing you can do at Warwick is to take the ramparts walk. The best thing about it is that anyone with “mobility issues”, “heart conditions”, “fear of heights” and the like is discouraged to attempt this daring athletic feat which involves climbing some steep narrow stairs. This conveniently eliminates both the tour groups of retirees and the families with small children leaving a much smaller subset of visitors to enjoy the experience. The views over the Warwickshire countryside are terrific.

So what’s the verdict on Warwick Castle? Frankly, it was disappointing. If you don’t mind spending £17.95 and you are not turned off by history lite, I suppose you could do worse things with both your time and your money. But for my money, don’t bother. A much better bet, if you do find yourself in Warwick, is to head for the Collegiate Church of St Mary, the historic church of the Earls of Warwick containing the magnificent Beauchamp Chapel, often described as the most important medieval chapel in England. The Beauchamp Chapel, which was built between 1442 and 1460 for the then phenomenal cost of £2,481 contains a fabulous gilded bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp, the man who presided over the trial and burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Of course they don’t charge for entry.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Roman Romance

“What would you say to a weekend in Rome?”

Having sworn off short haul air travel, trying to save some money and bearing in mind we’d been there before, I did not hesitate.

“Sure, that sounds great, let’s go.”

But to go to Rome without the children, to go, as they say, “a deux”, that would be a new experience. This was to be a travel story about romance, about ardent emotional attachments, about dreamy, imaginative habits of mind. We were going to Rome for 48 hours in search of romance but would we find it?

We got off to a bad start thanks to the inexplicable failings of Heathrow’s new Terminal 5. Leaving aside the confusing signage (don’t they test this stuff), you can’t convince me that queuing for 30 minutes for security at 6 o’clock in the morning in a flagship terminal that cost 8.4 billion dollars and 100 million man hours to build is anything short of pathetic. We were told there were problems with both the machines and staffing but this is what got me mad. EVERY store in the beautifully appointed and glamorously lit mega shopping area, including Prada, Dior, and Gucci, was fully staffed at 6:00 am and open for business. So how come the security staff can’t make it on time but the Prada and Gucci staff can? I’m sure I’m not alone in saying - I don’t want a damn handbag, I just want to get on my flight. After cursing air travel in the 21st century and promising never to buy anything at Heathrow ever again, we finally took off for our romantic weekend in Rome.

Things instantly took a turn for the better when we arrived at the atmospheric Hotel Locarno, a 1920s time capsule located on a small street just off the Piazza del Popolo. The Locarno is so bathed in sepia tones, so “out of time” and has so much faded charm, that you can’t help but think you have stepped onto a film set. In a way, you have, something that was recognised by the film director, Bernard Weber, who made the hotel both his home in Rome and the star of his 1978 film, Hotel Locarno, about a collection of characters who sought refuge from the modern world within it walls.

We were hooked instantly although our room, despite high ceilings and old fashioned furnishings, was nevertheless rather poky. Well, we did ask for their cheapest room. La Sorellina (the baby sister now living in Sydney but also back in town for a visit), who knows the hotel well, assures me that the deluxe rooms and suites are grand affairs. In the end, we were ridiculously happy at the Locarno, despite the poky room. Every thing else, the location, the public spaces, the bar, the roof terrace, the free old fashioned bicycles (perfect for riding in the nearby Borghese Gardens) put us in a wonderful, and yes, very romantic mood.

And what do people in search of romance do for fun in Rome. They eat. Thanks to the La Sorellina, we had one of those lunches that you can only have if you know someone. In this case, the restaurant was on the via del Croce, two blocks in from the via del Corso and I think it was called “Frescatteria” although it’s hard to be sure since the place has no number and no sign. There also was no phone, no credit cards and no coffee. The food was great. We had excellent stracetti and at €18 per person in one of Rome’s most expensive neighbourhoods, it was an absolute bargain.

Don’t you dare write about this restaurant, La Sorellina admonished at the end of the meal. Of course, writing about something and being able to find it are two different things but if you head down the via del Croce at lunch time and you see a small room crammed with people eating, go in. You’re probably there.

After lunch and to satisfy our desire for more romance, and a cup of coffee, we headed for Caffe Greco, Rome’s oldest and most atmospheric cafe on the via Condotti. Yes, its touristic and expensive but at the same time, the place still has much of the incomparable elegance that made it a favourite of the intellectual giants of the times. Chopin, Berlioz, Wagner and Mendellssohn, Goethe, Byron, Shelley and Keats, they all took their coffee there. Hans Christian Andersen lived upstairs. Blink, and despite the hordes of Japanese tourists, you are transported to another time when it was common to wile away the hours in Napoleonic splendour. The ageing waiters in frock coats (ours had a large bandage slapped up the side of his head) add to the old world atmosphere. La Sorellina reports that Caffe Greco is at its best in the early evening when the tourists have mostly departed and the Italians like to meet for a post shopping aperitivo.

That evening, we ate fish with La Sorellina and family at the Monserrato. It’s an intimate place where the day’s catch is prominently displayed as you come in the door. Needless to say, you would only put your fish out for all to see if they were very, very fresh. The Italians would spot a bad one in a heartbeat. We ate spaghetti vongole with gusto. Throughout the meal the Sorrelina’s children were clucked over and indulged and gazing down the table crowded with food and lively with conversation, I reflected on the fact that in Rome, even family dinners have a romance all their own.

On day two we continued our pursuit of great meals and civilising experiences. We spent a interesting morning at Trajan’s Market which has been newly reopened after a $7.6 million renovation. The results are impressive and go a long way to help visitors visualise what is no longer there. Later, we had lunch on the terrace of Da Giggetto in the old Jewish ghetto, stuffing ourselves on fried artichokes, zucchini flowers and bucatini all’ amatriciana and dinner at Trattoria da Settimio all’Arancio where the bistecca Florentina is so huge and obscene that they have to hang a side extension off your table to fit it all in.

Sadly, after 48 hours of indulging our appetites, admiring beauty and celebrating civilisation, it was time to return home. We had gone to Rome looking for romance and had been seduced, yet again, by that singular experience that is the Eternal City.

Useful Addresses

Hotel Locarno
Via della Penna 22
Tel: 39 06 361 0841
Fax: 39 06 321 5249

Somewhere on the via del Croce
No phone

Caffee Greco
Via Condotti 86
Tel: 06 67 82 554

Ristorante Monserrato
Via Monserrato 96
Tel: 0668 73 386

Da Giggetto
Via del Portico di Ottavia, 21a
Tel: 06 6861 105

Trattoria da Settimio all’ Arancio
Via dell Arancio 50
Tel: 06 68 76 119

Photo: Couple in MG, Ruth Orkin, 1951, Florence