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