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.