Friday, November 25, 2011

Occupy Thanksgiving

This year's remarks for our London Thanksgiving celebration:

I want to welcome all of you to the London encampment of Occupy Thanksgiving. – a movement dedicated to changing the public’s discourse about holiday inequality.

So I ask you, should 1% of the world’s population keep this holiday to themselves with their pilgrims and Indians and pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes. Hell no! For twenty years we have been out fighting the undue influence of America, and the banks, on Thanksgiving. We just didn’t know then that a small turkey dinner in Frankfurt would become what it is today. – an encampment and the center of a movement that will change the world. And I have a message for Boris Johnson and the Bishop of London. This house is private property and we’re not going anywhere.

Many of you, especially our friends from Germany, were present when we set out our manifesto– Thanksgiving is not just for Americans. Thanksgiving inequality will no longer be tolerated. It is a basic human right that should be available to all.  And since the politicians refuse to take on this task, my friends, the job has been left to us.

Now over the years, we have worked hard to grow our movement, as you can see, but despite our best and honest efforts, we can not keep up with those greedy, corrupt, fat cat Americans back in America racing ahead with their football games and parades and day off. Now I ask you, who couldn’t produce a lousy turkey dinner if the whole country was given the day off to do it. We are the 99% who had to go to school today. We are the 99% who had to go to work today. And, honest, hardworking holiday makers that we are - we must go to school and work tomorrow. Yes, it is true. We are the Thanksgiving 99%.

And our efforts have not gone unnoticed. I have here emails from leaders around the world: Gorbachev has compared us to perestroika, the Peoples Republic of China’s State News Agency said the thanksgiving protests exposed fundamental problems with the US economic and political systems. The Canadian Prime Minister expressed solidarity noting that Canada has its own Thanksgiving that is fair, progressive and favors the vulnerable.

Speaking of which, we know it took courage to come here tonight. From all over the world, you had to endure Heathrow, the M25 and the District Line. You had to schlep oysters and chairs and pies. You have to converse and eat in battle like conditions. Health and Safety laws have already been breached and more will be breached before the night is over.

But someday, when the history books have been wriiten and people from every corner of the globe and walk of life take time to share their bountiful tables with others, when children ask their parents, “Is it true?  In the olden days that only 1% of the world’s population celebrated Thanksgiving?” and those children will be told stories of you – the original occupiers - who understood that to make everyone’s life better, we need a global day of thanks where the virtues of togetherness, cooperation and community are embraced by all. And so now I ask everyone to raise a glass and drink to us, Occupy Thanksgiving, and the movement that changed the world. 

Friday, November 04, 2011

Rome Revisited

I tell my friends all the time, “You don’t need to send me a masterpiece, if you have been somewhere great and have some useful info for like minded travelers, just send me the stuff in a list, or an outline. No Crowds isn't about prose, it’s about free spirited experiences. If you are short on time, just send me the stuff, in any form you like."

Today, I am going to follow my own advice because distracted as I am by home renovations, it would be a shame if I did not report on a trip to Rome last September which proved, once again, that it is possible to get off the beaten trail – even in one of the world’s most visited, arguably ove- visited cities.

June 2008 was our last trip to Rome. Not much has changed except that the city is even more crowded. Here’s what hasn’t changed:

1)   The Hotel Locarno off the Piazza Popolo is still timeless and still our favorite
2)   Frescatteria – a restaurant on via del Croce, two blocks in from the Corso still has no credit cards, no phone and no coffee but continues to serve up good food at a great price in one of the most touristy parts of town.
3)   The Trattoria da Settimio all' Arancio (via dell Arancio 50 - Tel: 06 68 76 119) still offers a bistecca florentina so obscene that they have to hang a side extension off your table to fit it all in and if that does not appeal, everything there is good.

And  what’s more

1)   The Carravagios in S. Maria del Popolo and San Luigi dei Francesi still offer a thrill without waiting in line or paying a fee
2)   The murals on the ceiling of St Ignacio provide a good proxy for the Sistine Chapel with none of the craziness of the Vatican.
3)   The Church of St Maria in Tastevere with its dazzling  Byzantine mosaics has loads of wow factor and no crowds

But here are some of the other places where we had a fabulous time with no crowds

1)     The Keats-Shelley House on the Spanish Steps should be crowded, but it isn’t. While  pandemonium reigns outside, you can enjoy the house and wonderful collections in relative peace and quiet. The most poignant bit is to stand in the tiny bedroom over looking the Steps where Keats spent his last days in a vain attempt to fight off consumption. Whether you are a  fan of the romantic poets or not, the house is magic.
2)   Villa Farnesina – The frescoes, by Rafael and others will knock your socks off and when we visited on a Thursday morning, no one was there
3)   The National Etruscan Museum – Villa Giulia – a fabulous building and collection where we spent a perfect afternoon all by ourselves
4)   A stroll down Via Margutta, a delightful street made famous by artists who can no longer afford to live there. Check out the apartment where Gregory Peck lived in Roman Holiday - no 51 (5) - pictured above.

And there you have it, some very rough ideas on how to have fun in a crowded place. So go on and send me yours – in any form you like.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Matjiesfontein – You Must Remember This

A South African road trip delivers an unexpected 'Casablanca' moment for No Crowds reporters Gary and Lorraine

Most tourists who have been to Cape Town know the well-trodden  Garden Route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, with its share of beautiful sea vistas, stunning mountains…and the attendant crowds.  But the No Crowds aficionado will want to sample a parallel, inland route, known locally as “the 62” after the main highway it follows.  The road winds through the Klein Karoo, a vast scrubland with the beauty and desolation of the badlands of the American west.  It’s only the elands, impala and occasional complaining wildebeest that remind you that you are somewhere on the other side of the world by latitude as well as longitude.

Some 250 km along the route from Cape Town you will find Matjiesfontein (pronounced Mikeys-fontayn), a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it whistle stop, population 300.  The town is literally in the middle of nowhere, with nary a settlement within 50 km either way.  Started in 1884 as a rather unlikely spa by Jimmy Logan, a young Scot who came to work on the railroad, it housed a garrison of British soldiers for a time, but is today a perfectly preserved (actually rebuilt) Victorian town. Every building up and down the main (and more or less only) street is a perfectly restored period piece.  The lovely Lord Milner Hotel with its dark wood, brass fittings and old portraits will convince you that you stepped out of a time machine 100 years ago.  The impression will be reinforced as you walk into the back garden, with its bowling lawn, lily pond and (slightly anachronistic) massage tables under a tree filled with calming crystal amulets and weaverbird nests.  A classic London Routemaster bus doesn’t quite fit the fin du siècle charm, but is available to transport people from one end of town to the other (walking time:  5 minutes).

The real treasure of Matjiesfontein, however, is a guy named John, who, like his father before him, has worked all his life in the town.  A self-described “tour guide, bartender, sweeper and musician”, John led us through Jimmy Logan’s carefully preserved suite at the Lord Milner and through the gardens over to the Laird’s Arms, which can only be described as a wild west saloon.  No sooner had the barkeep pulled our Castle Lagers than John sat down at the player piano, switched it to manual, and jammed his way through Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and any number of blues classics.  Like Sam in “Casablanca”, he’s the real deal, and as much a fixture as the plate glass mirrors behind the bar.  Next time we pass by Matjiesfontein, we’ll ask him if he can play that song the way Sam did, at the other end of this vast continent.  Because in Matjiesfontein, I’m not at all sure that time goes by.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Sh*t Happens

Godparents are much in the news these days, what with Tony Blair donning white robes on the banks of the Jordan River, just like Jesus, for the christening of Grace Murdoch. So I am thinking about my own godmother, Gerd, and what she taught me many years ago.

When I was six, Gerd lived with us because my mother was in the hospital. Everyday, Gerd picked me up from school and said:

“It is important to have fun every day. Let’s do something fun shall we.”

So when the email exchange below came in, and with my godmother’s words ringing in my ears, I thought, this is so much fun that it must be shared.

For every partner who needs an excuse for a messy house, for anyone who has ever thought 'shit happens' was just an expression and for anyone who wants to have some fun today, this post is for you.

We have had a neighbourhood peacock (actually pea hen, so not even
attractive) hanging out outside the patio door for a few days now, pooping
constantly on the terrace outside. Smart guy that I am, I decided to sic
Turk on him to get rid of him once and for all. The ample reasons why Turk
will NOT be nominated for Rescue Dog of the Year now follow... 

Turk headed out the door, ambling by the peahen who looked at her curiously
and decided she posed no threat. Just to be on the safe side however, she
figured it would be smart to come inside ( while Turk flopped on the lawn).
I tried to chase her back out, but now she was scared and started to fly
around the house, perching on counters, bookshelves and other high objects
while trying to get away from me. In the process she is knocking over
objects, scattering feathers everywhere, and oh yes one other thing. When
peahens are upset, they poop constantly. When they are feeling calm and
peaceful, they poop constantly. I'm sure there is no change in behaviour
when they are flying, mating or anything else.  

So meanwhile I'm trying to catch her, which is not easy-this girl is the
size of a thanksgiving turkey, and very strong. I'm trying to grab her and
hold her wings in so she doesn't break them, but there is a lot of muscle
behind wings that can make a turkey fly, so she continually escapes. Plus
she's clearly experienced at this. I'm sure she has got a rap sheet as long
as your arm (wing) with counts of home invasion, creating mayhem, defecating
in public and heaven knows what else. 

Finally I get her calmed down enough so I can grab her (staying away from
her claws), take her outside and release her over the garden wall. I know
she can fly back over it, but I'm thinking she might not be that excited
about doing so any more...

I give you this story in all its detail because a) I know you'll find it
amusing and b) when you return and find feathers in the strangest places, I
want you to be sure that I have not been dating a feather-festooned gogo
dancer in your absence. I mean, imagine me proffering this explanation in
response to a suspicious question from you!

Love, me 
Sent from my iPad

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Exploring Jurassic Life in LA

Laura Sanderson Healy, writer, reporter and friend describes a visit to LA's Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Tourists in Los Angeles herd like mustangs to Hollywood Boulevard to stamp across the stars embedded in its “walk of fame” (Rudolf Valentino looks very much alive / as he looks up ladies’ dresses as they sadly pass him by” – The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes). Cinemas still show movies there in the restored American Picture Palaces the El Capitan, The Egyptian Theater and Grauman’s Chinese Theater (I Love Lucy featured its collection of movie actors’ foot and hand prints). Aside from the prowling mad and bad, there is the wax village of Madame Tussauds Hollywood and Ripley’s Believe it or Not’s odditorium to tempt those who wish to part with their dollars.
I have attended several fun film premieres with my family here. I have braved the day-to-day scrum of gawkers when I am of the mood to be hospitable to guests who wish to partake of this famous but people-choked strip. When a more discerning, curiousity-craving friend visited L.A. this spring, however, I led her by the magnifying glass to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, far from Hollywood in Culver City. Known officially as the “heart of screenland” (it’s on their recycling and garbage bins), Culver City is the locale where my most favorite comedies were produced – the Our Gang and Little Rascals films of the Hal Roach studio, the Marx Brothers’ A DAY AT THE RACES and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA on the M.G.M. lot that now houses Sony Pictures, and I Love Lucy at Desilu, now The Culver Studios.
My friend and I visited the MJT  (, located at 9341 Venice Boulevard, and it completely blew her mind. It’s a real “cabinet of curiosities,” some real, some not. It’s for you to discover which is which, and there is a book “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” dedicated to the place David Wilson and his wife created in the ‘90s. “The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles California is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the Lower Jurassic … it provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts … with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities and serves the general public by providing the visitor a hands-on experience of “life in the Jurassic.”
One can look at a grain of rice that is carved and decorated to resemble Pope John Paul II, or learn what “halcyon days” refers to, with an exhibit of kingfishers’ eggs. The dark rooms feature all manner of projection and lighting and audio displays that highlights oodles of information about the strangest things. It is a temple to the weird, and there is a library within where one can study why Mayans had that sacrifice thing going or why animals can be so fascinating.
The museum is right next to the famous hamburger eatery “In-N-Out” and near the reborn Culver City pedestrian district where arts and restaurants make it a veritable toytown to those who want to have fun.  
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Walking the Cotswolds

What’s your take on the Cotswolds - pretty and picturesque or crowded and commercial? No matter what side of the argument you are on, you’re right. I can say this after touring for two days this week while the Editor was at a conference near Chipping Norton.

Determined to have a No Crowds experience, on Day One, the first thing I did was get rid of my car. That is an easy thing to do in Chipping Norton because this handsome market town has lots of parking. The next thing I did was head for the Tourist Information Centre in the Guildhall and asked the nice gentleman manning the desk for a good circular walk lasting a couple of hours that I would be fine doing on my own. He printed out an annotated map and sent me on my way. For the next two hours, I meandered and explored. There’s a lot to see. A lovely church and an amazing looking factory are highlights. I passed a couple of folks also walking but not many and I had a lovely time. The walk was not at all difficult. On the way back into town, I did pass a couple of traffic jams.

On day two, I became even more adventurous and drove to Bourton on the Water and again, got rid of my car. I chose Bourton because I read they had lots of parking, which they did but I didn’t like the town much. It was packed, and I mean packed, with busloads of tourists who looked a lot like the morbidly obese space refugees in Pixar’s Wall-E. But walking from Bourton-on-the-Water to the villages of Lower and Upper Slaughter was wonderful – meadows, streams and two of the loveliest places I have ever seen. If you are looking for the Cotswolds of your imagination, with the honey-coloured stone houses and delightful views, look no further than Upper and Lower Slaughter. Best of all, there is no place to park a big bus.

So here’s my verdict on the Cotswolds. It’s a lovely, lovely destination as long as you stay out of your car. The villages with lots of parking make great jumping off points. The Tourist Information Centres have lots of useful suggestions about walking and cycling. Now I am really psyched to walk the 100-mile Cotswold Way that runs from Bath to Chipping Campden. But I need a walking buddy. Anyone interested?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gardens Galore

What better way to experience London than by visiting its garden squares? But most of these spaces are private and not open to the public. Ah, if only one could gain access to these magical places, what a wealth of culture, history and romance would suddenly be accessible to London residents and visitors alike.

Well, thanks to the London Parks & Gardens Trust, you can. For one weekend in June, London throws open its most lovely, fragrant, intimate and historic outside spaces for any one to enjoy. And it’s a great bargain. For 10 pounds a head, you gain access to more than 200 green spaces over the course of 48 hours. Today, we managed to visit 9.

Highlights for us included the three-acre Edwardes Square, that was built between 1811 and 1819 by a Frenchman rumored to be an agent of Napoleon. This oasis of calm between High Street Kensington and Earls Court has meandering paths, a croquet lawn, a rose pergola, and grass tennis court. The full time gardener still lives in the Grecian-style lodge at the entrance.

We also loved visiting the beautiful and serene Islamic garden on the roof of the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. It’s a little bit of the Alhambra right in the centre of London. And we learned a lot about the Ismailis as well.

In all of the nine gardens we saw today, we were generously welcomed by volunteers who are rightly proud of what they have cherished and preserved. For anyone who loves gardens and loves London, the Open Square Weekend is unmissable so start planning now. Next year’s Open Garden Squares Weekend is 9-10 June 2012. More information available on

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Mom, Henry Miller Was One Wacky Guy

Today is Henry Miller's birthday. In his honor, I am reposting a story about how a mother and daughter spent a perfect afternoon at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California during a memorable road trip.

“Look Eloise, is this not the most gorgeous, undeveloped, uncrowded stretch of road you have ever seen in your life?”
“It’s great Mom. How long until we get to our hotel?”
“Not too long, but first I want to stop at the Henry Miller Library.”
[Silence from the back seat.]
Don’t worry, it’s not a real library. It’s more like a Henry Miller experience. He was a really interesting writer who lived around here and a friend of his turned his house into a memorial to Henry Miller except he didn’t like memorials so it’s kind of a cultural happening. You can get a cup of tea and we don’t have to stay too long.

As it turned out, we stayed all afternoon. Eloise played ping pong in the garden with anyone who found it hard to tell a little girl “no”. We chatted with fellow travellers. Eloise met a teacher from New York and they discussed schools. I read “Travels with Charley”. We looked at books, the Paris and Beat Generation memorabilia, the crazy, larger-than-life crucifix made out of computer monitors. We sat in the sun and drank tea. On the way out, I asked Eloise what she thought of the whole thing. “Mom, Henry Miller was one wacky guy.” As we got back in the car, I imagined a much older Eloise, sitting in a literature class and holding forth on the Tropic of Cancer’s place in the American literary canon. Right then I made a wish that she would remember that once, when she was small, she spent a perfect afternoon hanging out with her old Mum at Miller’s anti-memorial memorial. I really hope she does remember.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Emirates Hotel that Time Forgot

Gary and Lorraine at the Sandy Beach Hotel and Resort. So how do they find these places?

Talk about off the beaten track.  Fujeirah is one of the Emirates of the UAE, but one that you don’t hear so much about...primarily because it has no oil.  However, it is probably the most naturally beautiful, with its own set of mountains (the Hajar Range) that come almost to the sea, and an unbroken line of beaches on the Indian Ocean (technically the Gulf of Oman, but the waves are ocean waves, not Gulf waves).

Nestled down the road from the new super-luxury Rotanas and Meridiens in Al Aqqah sitsthe Sandy Beach Hotel and Resort,  a throwback to the old days of the UAE.  In fact, squint your eyes a little, and you could be in a tourist court on the coast of Maine or a B&B down from Blackpool, with the year being 1965.  Ask about wifi here, and the quizzical tilt of the head tells you that you are a time traveller who set the Wayback Machine to “back in the day”.

The thing to do at Sandy Beach is to book into one of the “chalets” or “bungalows”.  These are detached little one-bedrooms and efficiencies  (bedsits?), each with a very basic kitchen (sink, electric kettle and fridge) and a barbeque out front to grill your dinner.  If you’re smart, you’ll stop at one of the Carrefours or Spinneys markets in Dubai before the 2 hour drive over the mountains—you can find magnificent  food from anywhere in the world (we had Australian organic steaks for dinner, and crisp, fresh California blueberries the next morning).  The beach, the pool, and the funky tiki bar await you and the friendly and helpful staff throughout will assist you in chilling out. 

If you are up for a bit more activity, the PADI-certified diving centre on site can take you out to the reefs, or you can take an easy swim out to the small reef around Snoopy Island (locals have no idea why it’s named that, but any American knows instantly).  Diving or snorkeling, your choice.

Finally, for those of you who haven’t travelled a great deal to this part of the world, there are certain times to come, and certain times not to.  Generally, avoid January (can be chilly and most of the rare UAE rainstorms happen then), and June through September (brutally hot, both air and ocean).  The rest of the year is glorious, and the weather will be spectacular.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Missing Venice

“Venice misses you already! crossing our fingers that we make the blog...”
Facebook wall post from Amy

Well, Amy, you are right. No Crowds should cover Venice, a district on the Westside of Los Angeles, California because it is super fun and surprisingly charming. Who knew? Tourists know about the circus-like Boardwalk and Muscle Beach. We go to see the freaks and the show. But most of us don’t know about the absolutely lovely Venice Canal Historic District (pictured above) or the delightful walk streets. We don't know that in this part of Los Angeles you can walk or bike almost anywhere.

Sadly, I haven’t a clue where you would stay in Venice because I stayed at Amy’s but I did eat a fantastic, albeit expensive, meal at the Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Drank a lot of good coffee there too. Mostly, I just walked around, enjoying the laid back vibe, peeking into peoples homes and gardens and imaging a different life.

And yes, Amy, I miss Venice too.

Photo credit: Wikipedia,_Los_Angeles,_2008_02.JPG 

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Meditation on Visiting Children

When my parents come to town, I can get a little whigged out. I love seeing them but I want them to be happy and comfortable and I know that when travelling, stuff happens that I can’t control. Like the last time my parents went through Heathrow and the airport was having one of its  ‘meltdown moments’. That’s not a safe place for anyone, much less an intrepid couple in their 80s. So when my parents come to town, I try to hyper-manage their visit and I worry – a lot.

Having just returned home after spending two weeks visiting my own children, I wonder; how was it for them? Do they get whigged-out when I roll in to town? Was I a good visiting parent?

Being a good visiting parent ain’t as easy as it looks. First , there is the whole role reversal thing. You are on holiday but they are working. You are in a strange place but they’re at home  - a new home, not their old home, sniff, sniff. Yup, there is nothing to bring home the fact that your chicks have flown the nest like visiting them in their new nests. And lets get down to the tough stuff. You are there to check up on them and they, in turn, know that you are there to check up on them.

All of this is true. But so is the fact that you can experience remarkable moments, like when you meet your children’s friends and you realize that they are surrounded by folks who care about them almost as much as you do. Even if you are unintentionally stressing them out during their work week, it’s great to get a glimpse of them in work mode.  Who knew they were so competent? How did they get their hands on such good housing without your involvement? And how did they learn to take care of their old Mum with such good grace.

So here’s my advice for being a good visiting parent. Come early and often. Travel light. Don’t stay with them. Offer to pay for everything but allow them to pay for somethings. Let them drive. Admire what they have built, on their own. Have fun. Your job is done.

Photo: Leland and I, after running Bay to Breakers together in San Francisco, a real highlight of my trip. Photo credit – thanks Erinn!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama and Our Response

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. 
-Martin Luther King, Jr in part*

Yes, No Crowds is a travel blog. No, this is not about travel, but I wanted to make a comment about how some of us have been responding to the demise of Osama bin Laden and when this quote arrived, this morning from my wise Uncle Brian in New York, I thought,
yes, that is what I want to say.

* Despite the whole hoo haw about whose quote this is, it remains what I want to say.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Dress Rehearsal at Westminster Abbey

Last week, I was invited to a dress rehearsal at Westminster Abbey. No, not that dress rehearsal.

The dress rehearsal I was invited to was for In the Beginning, a performance event about the King James Version of the bible that celebrates it’s 400th anniversary this year. The ever-innovative Bush theatre produced a “tour as theatre” or maybe it was  “theatre as tour” – I couldn’t decide - that took small audience groups on a journey around Westminster Abbey, celebrating both the book and the building. Before you get too excited, this was a one-night-only event that took place on the 24th of March. Before you get too sad that you missed it, let me point out three things:

First, Westminster Abbey isn’t going anywhere and you can and should visit or revisit this magnificent monument.  This is how the Abbey describes itself on it’s website: Kings, queens, statesmen and soldiers; poets, priests, heroes and villains - the Abbey is a must-see living pageant of British history. I agree. Pity about the entry charge that has now reached an eye watering GBP 16. If you are cheap like me, time your visit for one of the Sunday services that are supposed  to have wonderful music.

Second, the Bush Theatre in Shepherd’s Bush remains a great place to see new and exciting theatre and I highly recommend a visit to see one of their productions. Here’s their website.

Third, events celebrating the King James Version of the bible will take place throughout the year across Britain. Here is a listing of some of those events.

And finally, if, like me, you love a wedding, any wedding, a wander around Westminster Abbey right now is a great way to get excited about the upcoming events of April 29th. The fact that you will also encounter the resting places of Henry James, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling and Elizabeth I as well as Mary, Queen of Scots, makes it, as they say, a great day out.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Eureka, Verona!

Before leaving the subject of skiing in the Dolomites for another season, a word about getting there.

We have tried it all. We have flown into Venice, Bergamo, Bologna and this year - Verona. From these jumping off points, we have rented cars, taken taxis and taken combinations of trains and taxis.  If you want the bottom line after 7 years of trial and error of getting to Alta Badia from London, Verona is by far the best access point.

Its got an excellent airport that is big enough to have services but small enough to be efficient. The city is fantastic if you want to spend some time (more on that later). There are frequent, inexpensive train connections to Bolzano from which you can get a moderately priced, comfortable cab to the resort. (We’ve decided to leave the business of driving mountain passes in winter in all kinds of weather to the locals.)

A good local taxi company is Pescosta Alfredo, Taxi-Bus Alta Badia Tel: 0471 836393.

If you are interested in how Verona compares to other things we tried, here is a summary:

Venice – Good airport, great city but don’t go during Carnival and getting all your ski luggage on and off boats is not ideal. From there, it’s best to rent a car or use an expensive taxi service. Train connections not great.

Bergamo – Serviced by Ryanair. As they say, there is a sucker born every minute,  but we’ve had enough abuse and will not fly them again so bye bye Bergamo.

Bologna – Good airport. Nice city but longish train ride to Bolzano.

If you do decide to spend some time in Verona, here are some recommendations:

We loved the Hotel Accademia, a lovely well run hotel in the best possible location.

You won’t regret eating at any of these 3 restaurants that offer wonderful food and good experiences with excellent value:

1)   Antico Tripoli, Via Spagna 2 Tel: 045 8035756
2)   Hosteria La Vecchia Fontanina, P.tta Chiavica 5 Tel: 045 591159
3)   Al Pompiere, Vicolo Regina d’Ungheria 5, Tel: 045 8030537

Buy a Verona Card (1/3 days Eur 8/12), it pays for itself almost immediately.

Go inside Juliette’s house (as in Romeo & Juliette) even though 1) she never existed, 2) it is chaos outside and 3) looks cheesy. Inside is atmospheric and very nice. 

Photo: Holy Water Font (1495) from the Church of St. Anastasia, Verona

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

A Ski Resort Where No Man is Left Behind

If you have been skiing since before you can remember, if you like your slopes challenging and extreme, if you catch the first lift in the morning and ski through lunch and meet your less capable friends for dinner – read no further.  This story is not for you.

Instead, this is a tale for all the unheralded fans of the great alpine sport who have been toiling away in ski schools and on beginner slopes while your friends  have been wizzing around fabulous resorts telling you all about how great it was over dinner. Yes, you who have taken up a difficult sport at a late age. You, who no matter how cold, tired and frustrated you are, come back year after year for more. You deserve better and guess what? It doesn’t have to be painful or boring, uncomfortable or ungastronomic. You can ski in one of six Italian towns in the Alta Badia in the Dolomites: Corvara, Colfosco, San Cassiano, La Villa, Badia and La Val with the best being, in my view, Corvara.

I have written about Corvara before – in 2008 2007 and 2006 – and if you need information about hotels, restaurants and transportation, check out these posts as not much has changed since then. That’s part of the charm of the place. The region still offers massive intermediate terrain – 460 lifts connecting 1,220 kilometers of pistes across three regions of Italy – with few lines, good food, good accommodations and good value. After all this time, we even figured out a better and cheaper way to get there which involved a flight into Verona, then a train to Bolzano and a taxi to Corvara.

But what struck me this year was how perfect this resort is for a group of skiers of mixed ability, in particular for those skiers who often get left behind. In our group, we had everything from rank beginners, to gung-ho fanatics. There were skiers returning after twenty years, skiers returning after surgery, someone who first learned to ski in Morocco and mostly people who learned to ski as adults. In many ski resorts, most of the members of a group like ours would have been confined to a boring, small part of the mountain. But not in Corvara and the other towns of the Alta Badia. In this alpine arcadia, almost anywhere you would want to go can be accessed via a blue run.

And I offer as evidence the expedition we made together to the Church of Santa Croce; a day-long ski tour that offers some of the best natural beauty and gastronomy in the Dolomites. Our group set off in the morning, happily making our way from hamlet to hamlet via lifts with views and along easy to moderate slopes until we eventually reached Pedraces and the lifts that took us up to the Church of Santa Croce and its fabulous panorama.

After our visit to the sanctuary, we skied down to a man with a horse and old fashioned carriage who took us to a hut (Trattoria Oies 0039 471839671) filled with teddy bears, witches and the hardest partying Italians I have ever seen on a ski slope, where we had an amazing lunch of local specialties with lots of wine. After lunch, those who were tired took a taxi home, those who were not skied.

And here’s my point. Everyone in our group, regardless of ability, had the chance  to ski from village to village. Everyone could particpate in a real ski tour. No one was left behind or excluded. It was for all a perfect day.

So the next time you go skiing with someone who says, “I’ll meet you for dinner” tell them “No way. We’re going to Corvara where, like Black Hawk Down, they leave no man behind.

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Costa Rica: How One Family Changed Coasts in Search of the Sun

How to Find a High Season Reservation

We took over three of the four machines at the friendly Manzanillo internet café, searching, searching for a path to the sun.  We didn’t know  how far we could push the Kia in one day, and decided that it made sense to make a stop overnight in the Arenal area, which seemed to have a good selection of hotels.  Would any be available?

Eureka – Dan struck gold on If we were ready to share a “junior suite”, there was a cancellation at four star Mountain Paradise Hotel.  The website looked good and the emergency price was right.  The website, which works via chat so that the entire interchange can be saved in case of dispute, was having more trouble with Guanacaste.  The rains everywhere else had added to the demand.  Very little available, and what there was didn’t sound too appealing.

Back to VRBO.  Six houses/condos were listed as being available for our dates in all of Guanacaste. (There is a very useful tool on the site where you can just plug in your dates and they’ll show you what is showing a vacancy – saves loads of time in a situation like this.) I sent out my emails and within two hours had three responses back.  Of these, there was one, “Tres Hermanos”, that looked as though it would fit the bill – walking distance to the protected Playa Junquillal in a gated community; three bedrooms, two full baths, and an intriguing-sounding third floor terrace that boasted views of the mountains and the sea.  No reviews, but we took it, fingers crossed.

The Drive

The next morning we saddled up the poor Kia – four adults, four bags and various leftover groceries,   all a little heavier for the damp – and set off over what was left of the road to Limon.  Back through the cloud forest, and into the mountains.  The axels lived through the potholes, we lived through the anxiety (no thanks to you, Avis rent a car) and the GPS held true.  We arrived at Mountain Paradise Hotel ( on a trying-to-be-sunny afternoon.  Hummingbirds in the flowering bushes!  Friendly helpful staff, happy to book us into the twilight nature walk! Dry sheets!   Heated pool with swim-up bar!  On-premises spa treatments! Commodious, impeccably clean shower room on a waterfall theme with real vines! Restaurant with what would be a stunning view of the volcano if it weren’t for that pesky cloud!  Fifth Dimension and other hits from the 60s and 70s blaring over the restaurant intercom…  Well, almost perfect.  Over dinner, we missed Chena and Mommie.  And, as we tromped on our nature walk leapfrogging half a dozen other tourist groups along the same trails, spotting the same birds, we missed the tranquillity of the Manzanillo jungle, and Omar.  The volcano never appeared.

We set the GPS and drove off again in the morning, Guanacaste or bust.  By noon we arrived at the gates of Tierra Pacifica and were shown the way to Tres Hermanos.  Wow.  I had somehow not realised that the picture on the web was of just the one house.  Large, set apart, and boasting all the modcons.   Leather sofas, an indoor shuffleboard table (!), even a TV.  Terraces here,  terraces  there, and plenty of sun.  Landscaped communal pool with classy lounge chairs.  Secret back pathway to the beach (key required).  If we were looking for a change, we certainly had found it.  And never have I seen my family so enthusiastic about laundry – all our disintegrating cottonwear came out for a wash and a stint in the sun, as did we.

The Guanacaste Rental

The development in which Tres Hermanos sits is not all that developed yet.  Buildings stood on perhaps 20 of the 73 building sites.  Most lots were sold, though.   At this point it’s kind of perfect, because there aren’t too many houses, and what was probably once a ranch remains much as it was -- perfect for birding from that third floor terrace.  In the morning, there were frigate birds over the water.  As the day progressed we watched mangrove blackhawks rising on the thermals, pelicans, orange-chinned  parrots, white-throated magpie jays, cedar waxwings in from the States, grosbeaks, flycatchers.   There were nesting Inca doves in a palm tree near the front door and rufous-naped wrens squabbling over a site on the back terrace.    In the evening kiskadees flocked to the dead tree across the way. One evening, we looked down just before sunset to see two streak-backed orioles snuggled into a gently swaying palm frond, fast asleep.
But there this thing about being in a gated community.   I guess it comes with the beautiful  Italian tile and the modcons, but it made it kind of difficult to feel part of the scene, as we had on the Caribbean coast.    I felt safer where I didn’t need a gate, I have to say, especially on New Year’s Eve, when it seemed that some Tico (or at least Spanish speaking) dignitaries were partying in the complex, and the guards were packing some serious-looking firearms.

We were warned repeatedly during  our stay to watch our belongings, but I never felt personally unsafe in any way, and I think the frequent warnings were partly a function of a very hospitable people who would have been mortified if you lost your mobile phone.  Pilfering may be “a fact of life in Central America”, as one of the VRBO owners put it – but you wouldn’t leave your passport lying around at a tourist attraction in London either. 

Caribbean or Pacific Coast?

Guanacaste is a different scene from the Caribbean coast.   There is surfing in both places, but you’d be well-advised to bring your board to the Carribean side.  By contrast, if you ever want to learn to surf, you must go to Tamarindo.  I don’t know how the waves are, but it must boast the highest concentration of surf schools in the world.  If you can’t learn here, take up pinnocle.

Tamarindo has all sorts of stuff that Puerto Viejo doesn’t have, like souvenir shops with items you might convince yourself to want, shapely beach bunnies with no tattoos (or at least smaller ones), T shirts that do not mention Bob Marley, an incredible Auto-Mercado with not only tortillas but filo pastry, and the only overpriced and terrible restaurant we encountered in Costa Rica (except at the airport hotel on the way out, which doesn’t count).  Needless to say, we missed Puerto Viejo --  although I must say that the entertainment value of the resident iguana at the overpriced and terrible restaurant was worth something.

Playa Junqualill is worth a visit, too.  It’s a protected white sand beach, and aside from a much-appreciated café and a house or two, there is no building on the shore.  (There are a couple of camp grounds, which is how Ticos tend to take in the beach.)  Even at the height of the holiday, there were not very many people and by 3 January it was all but deserted.   Scuba and snorkelling are available from Tamarindo,  although we wouldn’t recommend travelling here for scuba or snorkelling.
More real than Tamarindo was nearby Paraiso, which may not offer a lot in ordinary times but over the New Year’s holiday had a fiesta each night featuring a rodeo.  On New Year’s Eve, the crowd was buoyant and easy – young couples trying out their moves on the dance floor, kids bouncing on the trampoline, giant grasshoppers flying overhead (thankfully pretty far overhead), and excited descriptions of the ferociousness of the bull and the expertise of the rider issuing from the loudspeaker.  In between bull riding were dazzling equestrian displays, complete with rope tricks.  Every possible sort of person seemed to be there.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from that upper terrace, which came equipped with a grill, but we did try one restaurant, Villa Deevena, in nearby Playa Negra, which we can wholeheartedly recommend.  Lovely continental (European) menu poolside at a pretty little hotel. 

San Jose

A few words about San Jose:  they’re right that there isn’t a lot to recommend Costa Rica’s capital for the tourist.  Very little shopping unless you are interested in a pair of trainers and some new sweatpants – we were told that well-to-do Ticos and westerners shop out in the suburbs at gated malls that have lots of American products.  And the architecture is…functional at best.  If you are just going to Guanacaste you may want to come fly into Liberia, which is less crowded.
That said, we liked Hotel Fleur de Lys (, which is pretty (lots of old, burnished wood), well-situated for the museums and within walking distance of a good Italian bistro (Roma) and a great Argentine steak house (La Esquina de Buenos Aires).  We enjoyed awaiting our children’s arrival on the street-facing terrace.

We took in two of the three “must see” San Jose museum:, the Museo Nacional and Museo de Jade Fidel Tristan Castro, which is located at the bottom of the headquarters of Costa Rica’s foremost insurance company, INS (different Fidel Castro).  Both have interesting displays of artifacts and a history of Costa Rica from pre-Columbian times.  Museo Nacional takes a not entirely optimistic view of recent history as well.  If you have time for only one, you may wish to choose on the basis of your political orientation.  Museo de Jade gives the capitalist interpretation (“These jade pendants were worn by important persons”) whereas Museo Nacional has a Marxist slant (”These jade pendants were used by the chiefs to distinguish themselves from the workers.”).  If, like us, you want to see both with a lunch in between, we recommend the lovely  tiled Hotel Don Carlos, which also has a nice terrace looking out on an unusually attractive street.
There are taxis everywhere in San Jose, and they are very reasonably priced, so there is no need to have a car.  The cash machines here and elsewhere give a choice of colones and dollars, and most businesses accept either – although we can only guess that you are more likely to get the Tico price if you pay in colones.
If you do find yourself in San Jose, we found that it was one of the few places that you could get a Costa Rican sim card for your mobile.  Try the ICI (national phone company) offices near the cathedral.  You will need to take your passport (here or anywhere you try to get a sim card), as they will need to take a photocopy of it.  We found having a Costa Rican sim very helpful, although it is much easier to just buy a phone card if you have access to a landline.  

Final Thoughts

Will we go back to Costa Rica?   Yes, we will definitely be back, and we don’t say that about many places, given how many parts of the world we have yet to see.  The luxurious natural beauty and the gracious people really make Costa Rica a special place.  We would not, however, recommend going seat-of the-pants without a Spanish speaker on board.  People generally speak English about as well as I speak Spanish, which is to say, with a command of a few nouns that are useful in food contexts and limited familiarity with verb tenses.   Had the kids not been proficient, the experience would not have been as smooth.  If you have a plan to begin with and stick to it, however, I think you would do all right without a lot of  Spanish, relying on vociferous hand gestures and  the goodwill that you will encounter. 
We may have some arguments about which coast to return to, and I think we will be consulting the weather maps a little more assiduously next time, but we will be back.

In fact, we hear that they have a special “pensioners visa” that might be just the ticket in a year or two….

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lessons Learned on Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast

More travel adventures from Penny, our No Crowds reporter last seen in North Africa, this time with her family in Central America.

You may come across a crowd or two in Costa Rica – but it won’t always be a human crowd.  It could, for example, be a crowd of howler monkeys.  Or hummingbirds.  These crowds, I think, are okay.

Manzanillo – the last town along the Caribbean coast before the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a 12 kilometre bicycle ride south along the only road from relaxed surfer town of Puerto Viejo, right on the ocean…perfect.   I booked a house (, asked the caretaker to find me a turkey for Christmas, and considered our plan settled.  When a second place, down the road and (as it turned out) over a river from the first came available, we decided to extend our stay and take that one too.  Our farflung family (we are in London, with offspring on the east and west coasts of the States) would be together again in warmth and beauty).

We arrived a couple days before Christmas, after a 6 hour drive from San Jose along some roads that I have to say weren’t in the very best shape. 

CR Lesson No. 1:  Do not, under any circumstances, let anyone(this includes you, Avis Rent A Car) talk you into taking a “brand new” Kia instead of the four wheel drive that you ordered.  But in any case we made it, through the cloud forest and along the Guapiles Highway to Puerto Limon, and then south along the sea.
The house, “La Patita” was everything, well nearly everything, we expected – burnished wood, outside living, right in the middle of the jungle.  However, the only place to cook a turkey in the “full” kitchen was the toaster oven.   Oh well, cancel the turkey.  I was going to feel funny eating it in front of the toucans anyway.
Morning 1, 5:15 am.  What the hell was THAT?  Okay, I had just started Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” (recommended reading for any Latin American adventure, and really, just generally), so I knew that howler monkeys could be scary.  But I thought they howled, like “aawoooh”.  This was more like roaring, and we seemed to have one in the bathroom.  Evidently time to get up.

CR Lesson No 2:  People rise with the sun and go to bed early…for a reason.

As soon as the sun was more or less up we snuck through the grounds of Congo Bongo ( to the beach.   The houses of Congo-bongo, which are available to rent, looked comfortable and beautiful and the path to the beach is amazing: sloths overhead, every kind of bird and butterfly,  frogs, crabs,  and lovely, flowering vegetation.

The beach runs south to the town and then to just nothing to the north almost as far as you can see.  It’s littered with… driftwood.  Palm trees come down to the shore, and there are no buildings at all, just the occasional path from tourist lodgings or houses.  Talk about no crowds – that morning, it was just us.  And some sandpipers and willets, and a couple of circling blackhawks and a flock of parrots.

CR Lesson No 3 – Can’t imagine more romantic beaches!

Manzanillo village is a  thrown together, one-story beach town that is somehow instantly accessible.     The anchor of the village is Maxi’s, a multi-level restaurant and bar that seems to serve as the communication centre.   Gringo-type tourists tend to sit down upstairs and have a meal (the food is very good).   Ticos tend to have a beer and watch football (that’s soccer to some of you) on the widescreen TV, or queue downstairs for carry out  to be eaten on the beach.

CR Lesson no 4:  Female Costa Ricans are Ticas and male Costa Ricans and mixed crowds are Ticos.  In December, many of the tourists will be Ticos.
Because the town is small and tourism a bit tenuous, an informal network of friendly and interesting people were happy to show us their paradise and help us have a good time.  Because many of the residents are descendants of Jamaican immigrants, there are even quite a few who speak English.
Did we want someone to come and cook for us?  Okay, we’ll tell Chena.  Chena and her friend Mommie were waiting for us when we first arrived, cooking incredible freshly caught fish. Delicious.  For Christmas, it was Caribbean lobster.  Unfortunately, I’ve lost Chena’s number, but if you ask for her at Maxi’s, they’ll know how to find her. The songs Chena and Mommie sang as they cooked come back to me even as the colours and smells of Manzanillo fade.

Did we want someone to take us around the refuge?  Omar would stop by. In addition to knowing the terrain from childhood, Omar has trained up on the local wildlife.  He showed us how to look for sloths, and vipers, identified all those bird calls we had been hearing, and is clearly expert on medicinal plants (telephone 506 2759 9143).  I do not often go walking with a man with a machete, and was interested to learn that, unlike a Glock, a machete has many uses.  Omar really knew how to use his, deftly punching a coconut for its juice and then carving it for us and some passing hikers at Manzanillo point. (He also leads kayaking expeditions around the lagoon, which I was sorry to miss, and rents cottages.)
Did we want to go horseback riding?  Michael brought a couple of his own and borrowed another, so that we could ride out on the beach.  (Delicate, responsive horses they were.)
Scuba diving? Semi-bespoke lessons available at the dive centre in Punta Uva, a bit north of Manzanillo  (  Snorkelling?  The best spot is just off the beach near the phone tower, and equipment can be rented in town.

But here begins our tale of woe. Snorkelling and scuba diving require smoothish seas.  They are not very good in the rain, and impossible when there is a lot of turbulence, especially here where the currents can be a bit tricky.  And it rained every day we were there – usually all day.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re Londoners.  Rain does not stop us.  We hiked  in the rain, biked in the rain,  rode horses in the rain, canopy toured in the rain (try Terra Aventura or ATEC in Puerto Viejo), tried out the yoga centres in the rain, watched the surfers, who thought the stormy waves were great.  We took in the inaptly named Jaguar Rescue Center (, which actually rescues primates and sloths and is well worth the visit, but doesn’t have any jaguars.  We were told repeatedly that it is unusual for it to be so rainy in December. 

CR Lesson No 5:  It can rain a lot in a rainforest.

We ate a lot of good food in the rain, and in beautiful places.  Arrecife Lodge is a lovely little place that serves tempura-style fish and chips on the beach at Punta Uva.  We had a great meal at a four-table Argentine grill, “El Refugio”, and a spectacular one on Christmas Eve at Pecora Nera.  And we enjoyed talking to the proprietors --in this neck of the woods, he or she is likely to be an expat who came on holiday and, understandably, just had to stay. 

True story:  one (rainy) night we drove ourselves into a ditch.  Within 45 seconds, the proprietor of a nearby restaurant runs out – not to worry, he has a four wheel drive and will get us out.  60 seconds later, a white van stops, the passenger jumps out with a strap that he fixed to our bumper.  Within no more than 5 minutes of our having arrived in the ditch, we were back on the road.

CR Lesson No 6:  Pura vida! 

Good meals, rampant nature and pleasant people aside, we were getting a little bored with the wet factor.  We played bridge and bananagrams at our burnished open-air tables with the house dog Congo and his hopeful friend, a rotweiller mix, and listened to the rain.  We watched our resident howler monkeys, hummingbirds and butterflies when the rain stopped.  No mosquitoes (we were told it was too wet for mosquitoes, go figure).  But we wanted sun!

A trip to the internet café was discouraging – no sun for another five days, at least.  In quiet desperation, I wrote to my friend Katharine, who was VRBOing on the Pacific coast.  “What’s the sun situation over there?” Word came back that there was sun in Guanacaste, on the Pacific coast.
Surveying the house we had rented just outside the Manzanillo for the second half of our stay: “Paradise Found”, we weren’t so sure we were ready for it.  “Paradise” is situated alongside another VRBO property “Dolphin Lodge” 200 or so meters up the dirt (now mud) road into the reserve, and wasn’t really very …convenient.  The description on VRBO had mentioned a  “creek” at the entrance to the reserve --  but where we come from “creeks” aren’t 3 meters across and shin deep.  It must be gorgeous there on a moonlit night, but when it rains you are essentially trapped in the dark.    We had paid for “Paradise”, but we were going to have to move on.

We had already been immensely lucky – Dan and I got out of Heathrow on one of only four flights that had left on the 19th.  But we were of one mind – time to press that luck further.  Time to find a place to stay on the west coast during the busiest season of the year, when not only snowbirds from America, but the Ticos all head for sunny Guanacaste.  We had avoided that side, as we had been told it was developed, American, and altogether too much like Florida, complete with gated communities.  So be it.  Sun.  What could be found at the last minute there? 

To be continued.