Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cavemen, Honey and Kim Kardashian

No Crowds reporter Gary pointed out to us recently that No Crowds had reached a commercial fork in the road and like Yogi Berra, a legend of baseball and malapropisms, we took it.

Yes, the post from and about onefinestay supported a commercial operation but no, we did not then nor have we ever received financial consideration for liking stuff. OK, that’s the disclaimer taken care of. Maybe we’re just jealous having recently seen that Kim Kardashian gets $10,000 per Tweet so someday we might want to reconsider – just kidding.

But on to the cavemen and the honey. Thanks to our son Leland who introduced us to the idea of eating like a Neanderthal, we are on the Paleo diet. Long story short, if a caveman didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. Everyone in our family has lost 20 unwanted pounds and feels great. If you want to find out more about it, put Paleo into Google. All I can tell you it that it works.

So when I bumped in to my friend Nina who told me about this great honey company, I listened because: 1) honey is one of the few sweet things on the Paleo diet and 2) because there was an interesting travel story attached to the honey and the story goes like this.

 Ogilvy’s Honey is on a mission to make us fall in love with fine honey from all kinds of cool and interesting places such as the Himalayan highlands and Zambezi plains. All of Ogilvy’s honeys are unblended - either monofloral (the bees feed off only one plant or tree) or polyfloral (the bees feed of a variety of plants and trees local to their flying range) which, according to Ogilvy’s, makes for better honey.  Having tried the stuff – and liked it – the unblended story makes good sense to us.  But what we really enjoyed about Ogilvy’s was the global terroir, the romantic notion that a tiny piece of the Balkans, or the Himalayas or the Zambia was in our morning cuppa and we think that folks who like great travel experiences with no crowds would enjoy it too. Take that Kim Kardashian!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

At.mosphere - the World's Hautest Cuisine

Gary and Lorraine, wining and dining in the world's tallest building - with some great tips on how to get to the top with No Crowds.

After 4 years in the most international city in the Gulf, we may have discovered our favorite bar.

If you want to experience the Burj Khalifa, currently the world's tallest building, you have two choices. You can follow the signs in the Dubai Mall and the endless ads on news media and queue up with hundreds of tourists to get jammed in a sweaty elevator to "At the Top", the observation deck, tchatchke shop and snack bar on the 125th floor. Or, if you have a bit of inside knowledge and you're willing to settle for the 123rd floor, you can have a completely different experience.  

At.mosphere consists of a very expensive formal restaurant and a wonderful, and quite romantic lounge, with what are unarguably the best views in the time zone. To get into either you must book ahead, when you are told that the dress code is "smart elegant", whatever that is. When you arrive you go through two checkpoints where they check you against the list...before you even get out of your car! Of course you are greeted by the expected team - young ladies in long black cocktail dresses slit up to here, and guys who look they moonlight for a Chippendale act. 

The beautiful people escort you to the lift, where you enjoy the quiet, if ear-popping ascent to 123 in a minute or less. As you step off, the floor to ceiling windows allow you to look out at the magnificent Dubai dancing fountains from quite a unique viewpoint. The lounge is small and intimate, with a short bar and a scattering of tables - not a mob scene, even on a Friday night, thanks to the reservation requirement. More beautiful people escort you to your table (we started at one that was a few feet away from the windows, but thanks to another couple who was on their way out, moved to one directly on the window a few minutes later). 

Then you get your next happy surprise - the menu.

First the drinks. My strangely named "Agua de Islay" was a masterpiece - Ardbeg single malt with fig and apricot juices and a slice of fresh fig on top. the other drinks were equally creative, including an 80% chocolate martini and several takes on the classic G&T. The wine and champagne lists were breathtakingly complete (and the high end was breathtakingly expensive), and so we will forgive the sommelier for his lapse in including a California white zin on the rosé list along with our chosen Côtes du Rhone. 

Happily, the chef has not showered all of his attention on the fine dining restaurant across the hall, and has come up with a wonderful tapas menu that is the perfect accompaniment to the glorious setting. We selected the green pea falafel with three sauces (astounding), scallop ceviche with a tart white sauce that matched perfectly, but we still can't figure out (lemongrass and coconut milk? Yogurt? Creme fraiche?),and a softshell crab, slivered and served with fresh scallions and hot peppers, rolled in Chinese Peking duck-style pancakes. Truly a unique experience.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Out of the Ordinary in London and New York

Readers ask us all the time about accommodations in London and New York and we rarely have a good answer. Hotels are expensive, and, well ... hotels. We have all stayed in plenty of them and no matter how fabulous, a hotel room is never a home. Recently we were approached by the company onefinestay with an offering that got us really excited. That's why we have invited them to share their story with No Crowds. Caveat emptor - we haven't stayed in one of their properties yet, but we are sorely tempted and we think you will be too.

With London and New York ranking amongst the most crowded cities in the world, they don’t seem the obvious choice of holiday destination from someone looking for the quieter life, however London based accommodation company onefinestay is offering travellers the chance to escape the crowds and live like a local in upscale homes while the owners are out of town. The collection of homes is ever growing, with over 600 in London, and now 77 homes in New York since launching there in May 2012.

This idea of sharing resources, known as collaborative consumption, has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, and after all the greenest hotel is the one that you never build. Many of the homes that onefinestay offers accommodate larger groups or families so room-for-room are actually a cheaper option staying in a hotel, plus the added bonus of being able to eat breakfast in your pyjamas without having to worry about getting odd looks!

For families with children, staying somewhere like Lambton Place or Hilary Street, both in west London means that children get to explore whole rooms of new and exciting toys and games giving parents some well needed time to relax! If you are really looking for something out of the ordinary then Russell Gardens Mews, a very stylish home owned by a DJ turned architect and his family, comes complete with a dance floor and DJ booth, cinema room, Jacuzzi and sauna!

If that’s not your style then there are plenty of other interesting choices.  Hidden away in the clock tower of St Pancras station is a two bedroom apartment where you can climb the spiral staircase to the tower sitting room and watch the people below through the arched brick windows. Or if you are on a more historical trail then Albert Terrace, a home built for the doctor of Queen Victoria, can be your own private museum.  For those heading to New York, the selection is just as eclectic: warehouse chic in a converted rubber factory in Tribeca, or for those looking for a room with a view then 4th Avenue certainly delivers.

Each of the homes comes with its own iPhone loaded with local recommendations from the home owner which means you can avoid the usual tourist haunts and head straight to the more hidden places off the tourist trail. With all the services of a 5 star hotel, but with the charm and personality of a home, it is a great accommodation option for someone looking for something a little different.

Photo of Albert Terrace - the home of Queen Victoria's doctor

Friday, October 05, 2012

Mark Twain's House in Hartford but Mr Clemens is Out

This is the final post in a series on Connecticut museums by Laura Sanderson Healy, a great No Crowds traveller.

   “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad 

 Ain’t that the truth! I must confess a total devotion to Samuel Clemens here, and in the way that I had to see the IMAX film about Mark Twain’s life, so I had to take myself and family to visit the shrine that is his home and museum in Hartford, way off the beaten track in the most unsalubrious neighborhood I have ever seen (it, and the Harriet Beecher Stowe house next door, sit high on a hill smack in the middle of a bombed out ghetto). If you can make it through the neighborhood, you can park in the lot for the museum, and the adventure is worth it.

  The Mark Twain House and Museum is such a wonderful destination for his fans; there are some 16,000 artifacts assembled. The house, a National Historic Landmark, does not have its original furnishings as it served as a school after the Clemenses but it is well appointed with the period detail. It’s a hulking edifice of Victorian splendor, and the interpretive center adjacent to it is full of interesting items, including a giant LEGO of Mark Twain himself. I would love to know what the great man would have had to say about that, and I’m sure he would love the ghost tours they do. Happenings are always going on at the museum and house, and it’s quite a busy presence on social media. I’m sure he would have liked that.

The family has a great takeaway from the trip to the Twain house: My daughter, who has read Tom Sawyer, was fascinated by a trick Mr. Clemens played on stray callers. If the polite author was working and did not want to be disturbed – he could write thousands of words a day – he simply stepped out onto an upstairs porch and his servant would tell the visitor that “Mr. Clemens is out.”

The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue
Hartford, CT 06105
Phone: 860 247-0998

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Best of British at Yale

More on Connecticut museums from Laura Sanderson Healy

Over in New Haven, the spectacular collection that is the Yale Center for British Art was philanthropist Paul Mellon’s gift to the university (he selflessly did not want it named for him). Free to the public, it is filled with fantastic works by Old Masters – the horsebreeder Mellon particularly adored equine painter George Stubbs’ work --  and has contemporary rooms as well, thanks to the endowment left for ongoing British study.  The modern boxy building of steel and glass by Louis I. Kahn and is over several light floors right in the middle of downtown New Haven. Mellon’s British collection – strongest in the 18th century, his passion -- includes 2000 paintings, 200 sculptures, 20,000 drawings and watercolors, 30,000 prints, 35,000 rare books and manuscripts. It is a treat to duck in from the hustle of New Haven and find yourself in this treasure trove where you can look at medieval incunables, no appointment necessary, and nose around the 30,000 reference books on British art.

  One staff member was quite imperious when he rushed over to tell me I was too close to an oil. I had been pointing out a detail on a marine painting to my teenaged daughter, and the poor guard was just doing his duty. He could not have known that I grew up the daughter of a gallery director and that I learned not to touch displayed art before I learned to floss my teeth.

The Center has events throughout the year, including the upcoming “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” directed by John Malkovich and starring Julian Sands (remember him in “A Room with a View”?) Chamber concerts, dance performances, endless lecture series, you name it. I’d like to visit here more often.

The Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel Street,
New Haven, Connecticut 06510
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 5, Sundays noon to 5

Photo of Thomas Rowlandson, watercolor, “An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre,” 1785


Thursday, September 27, 2012

No Crowds visits some Connecticut museums

Laura Sanderson Healy is back on the road exploring some Connecticut museums that are long on interest and short on crowds. First up is the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport.

Visiting museums in Connecticut can be great fun thanks to the vast array of historical collections, art galleries and noble edifices across the Nutmeg State. Three on the list for my husband, daughter and me were the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.  

  A stroll from Bridgeport’s Metro North rail station and the Port Jefferson Ferry, The Barnum Museum was founded in 1891 as The Barnum Institute of Science and History. Usually the ornate structure boasts a huge stash of art and artifacts pertaining to Bridgeport’s most celebrated son, the outrageous impresario and circus showman P. T. Barnum. The museum building was closed by 2010 tornado damage, but that has not stopped it from exhibiting its peculiar treasures – the show must go on! Out loaded oddities from the 25,000 that found emergency storage are shown two days a week -- free -- at the back of the Barnum in the People’s United Bank Gallery. While the museum undergoes restoration and conservation. the exhibition “Recovery in Action” shows its wares in their “disaster mode,” including the Baroque furnishings from Barnum’s home, the midget Tom Thumb’s 1865 miniature carriage, Ulysses S. Grant’s personal items, and ephemera about the Swedish protégée of Barnum’s, singer Jenny Lind.  It may not be the Greatest Show on Earth, but it possesses a fiery chutzpah in showing off some wonderful stuff against all odds.

There is also the worthy “virtual” Barnum Museum that offers on-line exhibitions such as “Heroes of the Home Front” in honor of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and the main exhibits, “Phineas Taylor Barnum,” “Humbugs and Curiosities,” “Jumbo the Elephant,” and “Egyptian Exhibit: Pa-Ib”. A wide range of lectures and seminars swirl around the Barnum, including “Mummy Dearest,” looking into past peoples’ lives.

The Barnum Museum, 820 Main Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut
Hours 11-3 Thursday and Friday

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hadrian's Wall in Four Easy Steps

I once met a journalist in London who was about to retire. She had been at the forefront of world events over a long career. “So what are you going to do next?” I asked her expecting a reply about consulting and board membership. “Walk Hadrian’s Wall” was her response.

And boom - the idea was planted. It sounded so iconic. Hike across England along a wall marking the northern edge of the Roman Empire. But not the kind of thing one would do by oneself. So I mentioned this cool idea to a good friend who was (conveniently) 5,000 miles away in North Carolina.

Step Number 1 – Just mention Hadrian’s Wall to one keen hiker and watch what happens

Before I could say ‘lets think about this a little more’ there were 10 keen Carolinians, mostly from the mountains, mostly lawyers who were all packed and ready to go.

Now what?

Step Number 2 – Get support

 You could organize a walk by yourself. But you don’t need to and, I would argue, you don’t want to. There are several companies that can help you organize your walk providing everything from itinerary planning to accommodation booking and luggage transfers.  We used Hadrian’s Wall Ltd run by Gary and Stacey Reed whose passion for the region, local knowledge and organizational skills turned our experience into something much more than a walk along a wall. From the company’s extensive range of services, we chose the 7 Nights Part Guided group option that included a custom itinerary, an orientation meeting on arrival, top of the line B&B accommodation, baggage transfers and 2 days of guided walking with Gary. It was an article in the Observer by Jane Dunford that convinced me that we had to hike with Gary and you can read that article here. And yes, he was every bit as good as his press.

Step Number 3 – Take your time

There are several ways to trek Hadrian’s Wall. You could focus on how quickly you can do the distance but then you will probably miss the full experience. Hadrian’s Wall Path is really an 84-mile encounter with the Roman Empire filled with some of the most important archeological sites in Europe such as the Roman Vindolanda fort. Go too fast and you miss the chance to revel in the history. If you are short on time or don’t want to walk too far each day, go for the middle bit considered by many to be the best of the wall. Our group did a wonderful 47 mile stretch from Carlisle to Chester Fort near Hexam which allowed us to walk a reasonable 8 to 10 miles a day (with the prevailing winds to our back – this is important), enjoy the landscape, explore the antiquities and meet the  people.

Step Number 4 – Meet people

I am a city mouse so my natural instinct is to be wary of strangers. But I learned something on this trek from the gregarious Carolinians and thanks to them, we did meet just about everyone.

From the young barkeep at the Hallmark Hotel in Carlisle who was so chuffed (UK slang for a state of delighted satisfaction) to have made his first American friends, to the ‘Miss Marple’ pair of ladies we kept bumping into on the trail to innkeepers Dee and Gary at the marvelous Battlesteads in Wark, we made so many new friends and exchanged countless stories.  In the pantheon of great walks, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Laura Sanderson Healy reports on a 'pioneering' road trip in the California desert with Mama Jane and nephew Benjamin

Looking over the photographs I took on a recent trip to the former Western movie set called Pioneertown, California, I realize it is the perfect No Crowds destination if you happen to be visiting either the stunning Joshua Tree National Park in the High Desert or the well-attended Palm Springs and its neighboring desert city resorts. Pioneertown is the perfect antidote whether you’ve been hiking, pool lounging or hitting the parterres of the El Paseo shops in Palm Desert.

There was nobody around the “Mane Street” when we visited, though a few storefronts were open (a pottery, a saddle store) and a lone horse stared at us from his dusty paddock. You can swing through saloon doors while admiring the Ghost Town effect of it all. Pioneertown was built in 1946 and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were among its investors; both movies and television shows were shot here, where the authentic homes were lived in by actors. There are 350 residents today and there is a tiny post office on the unpaved street, selling Stars of the West stamps.

The real draw of this off the beaten track locale is Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a vibrant bar/restaurant/music club founded in 1982 that boasts a talent list from the Arctic Monkies to Vampire Weekend to Gram Rabbit:. I was bound and determined to make a pilgrimage to this indie rock paradise, even if just for lunch, which proved to be delicious (barbecued pork sandwich plate and a Sioux City Sarsparilla soft drink).  Pappy and Harriet’s location was once a façade for a cantina when filming was going on, and after that, according to its website, it served as an “outlaw biker burrito bar” until it was closed down.

My fellow travelers were my 86 year old mother and my 7 year old nephew, and we had a fine time playing pool in the saloon at Pappy and Harriet’s and promenading down the street. Things really get popping when they have festival days, but that might be a bit crowded.

To reach Pioneertown, take Pioneertown Road at California State Route 62 in the town of Yucca Valley and go four miles until you reach Pappy and Harriet’s. You’ll be traveling a meandering California Scenic Drive past cactus and tumbleweed.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Night at the Museum

On August 28th 2012, we went to bed in the 21st century but woke up in the 18th. How? By staying at the Petit Hotel Labottiere in Bordeaux, France. The Petit Hotel Labottiere is many things: a private museum, an historic monument, an upscale bed and breakfast and the life’s work of a family.  Best of all, it offers a totally unique travel experience. I know ‘unique’ is an overused word but this is the real deal.

The story goes like this. Back in the 1960s, Liliane and Michel Korber purchased an elegant 18th century hotel particulier that had fallen on hard times and spent the next 30 years bringing it back to life. They then decided to share this passion for the Age of the Enlightenment with like-minded travelers by creating two period rooms in an outbuilding of the property.

When we arrived, hot and dusty from a long drive from Spain, we were greeted by Daniel, the charming and urbane son of the proprietors who helped us settle in to our rooms, which were also charming – a bit like a Boucher tableau with modern cons, and some thoughtful treats in the little fridge courtesy of our hosts. (Caveat emptor. If you are looking for the standard luxury boutique experience, this ain’t it. It is more like staying at someone’s house who is very concerned about your comfort but it hasn’t been ‘designed’.) We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening enjoying the elegant streets and sights of handsome Bordeaux, a city with over 350 classified buildings, lovely restaurants and of course, lovely wine.

But our time travelling adventures really began the next morning when we awoke, threw open the heavy wooden shutters with ancient hardware and saw our breakfast waiting for us in the mansion courtyard.  Rich, gorgeous, abundant – I felt like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette – but much happier. Throwing my Paleo Diet to the wind, I ate heroically, from another century. I ate it all.

After breakfast, we were given a sublime private tour of the mansion by Daniel. I have taken countless tours of countless mansions all over the world. Reader, this was something else. Here we have a son explaining both his parent’s life  – their choices, decisions, acquisitions and the same for the life of the original owner – an 18th bachelor property developer whose aesthetic aspirations live today thanks to the Korbers. This tour is a great time travelling experience. It is great social history. If your favorite thing to do is to imagine the past, I think you will love it too.

Petit Hotel Labottiere
14 rue Francis Martin
33000 Bordeaux
Tel: 00 33 556 484 410

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Shining Moment in the Middle of Frickin Nowhere

Driving South through Florida? Heading to Miami or onward to the Keys?  Heres a No Crowds Option to considerin the middle of frickin nowhere!

Florida is rarely thought of when considering a No Crowds destination, but there are alternatives to the crowded Atlantic and Gulf shorelines. If you drive two hours directly south from Orlando, down the center of the Florida peninsula, youll see some lovely farmland, and eventually find yourself in Highland County, Floridas little known lake district. At only about 100 feet above sea level, the highlands of Florida arent too lofty by global standards, but the residents like to say that if we don't do something about global warming, they will,soon be the only ones above water. The main attraction, though, is the plethora of natural lakes that cover this area. They range from the deep and sandy lakes that attract the water skiers and swimmers (they haul out the gators when they get to be large enough to bother anything larger than a medium sized bass), to the shallow, mud bottomed lakes that yield some of the best bass fishing in the United States (or so our local fishing guide tells us, and he has some impressive pictures to back his claim). 

Be sure to stop in Sebring, a little town of 10,000, which is rather unusual.  For one thing, it has an active railway station, where trains stop 4 times a day as they make their way between New York and Miami.  For those of you who know how common actual functioning railway stations are in the US, even in big cities ( meaning not very), this is quite unique.  Especially since Sebring is, to coin a phrase, in the middle of frickin' nowhere.

The second weird thing about Sebring is, it has its own Grand Prix race.  In the middle of frickin' nowhere.  So, just like Monte Carlo, race week and the weeks leading up to it are a beehive of activity. All the Major Grand Prix teams roll into town, and for a short period of time, Sebring is the center of the racing world. For those interested, the next 12 hour race is scheduled for Saturday, March 16, 2013.  Let me assure you, however:  there are absolutely no other similarities between Sebring and Monte Carlo.  None.

The third strange thing about Sebring - strange in a wonderful way - is the Sebring Diner.  It's a real life, 25 page menu, open 24 x 7 x 365, American Diner.  In the middle of frickin' nowhere.  It's out on the highway, just a few minutes from the center of town (which is easy to miss).  But it is easy to see from a half mile away because it's a stainless steel art deco masterpiece, and every inch of that steel has been shined until it glows.  Inside, it's stainless and neon all the way down.  This IS American Graffiti.  Classic clocks from Budweiser and others adorn the walls, and the chairs are the real thing--stainless and naugahyde.  Fine Corinthian leather would not be welcome here.  Of course there are booths where you can drink your milk shake and talk about who was kissing who at the hop, but sadly, the juke boxes on the tables seem to be missing.  Even for a techie like me, the free WiFi just doesn't make up for this.

I don't know what this place is like at 3 in the morning, but I hope I'll get to find out somewhere along the way.  My guess is that the enormous parking lot in the back fills up with the big rigs making their way south from Orlando, their drivers looking to take a break with, as it turns out, some truly first class comfort food. No surprise the diners refreshingly simple slogan is Save Money, Eat Better, Leave Satisfied.

Before you get a chance to choose from the 8 kinds of pie, with or without ice cream, you will find a surprisingly sophisticated menu, populated with fresh fish and shrimp from the Gulf, crabcakes with remoulade, and some of the best prime rib weve ever tasted.  A little known fact is that Florida is now the leading cattle raising State in the U.S. bypassing Texas since the drought of the past few years has caused Texas herds to dwindle. 

We started with an order of Fried Green Tomatoes ($3.99) the crispy crab cakes with choice of cocktail or tartar sauce (4.99).  The tempura coating on the fried tomatoes was light and lacey, making us consider another order.  The mini crab cakes were crispy and delicious, but couldnt outshine the tomatoes.  We followed this up by eyeing the prime rib, (king cut, 18 0z for 15.99, Queen size something less for $13.99), and decided that we still had a long drive ahead  so went light and ordered the prime rib sandwich for $7.99, which included fries and cole slaw.  When the 9 oz serving of rare prime rib arrived, we congratulated ourselves on our self-restraint.  It was perfectly cooked, and the coated fries were irresistible.  As it turned out, so was the apple pie with ice cream, though it wasnt easy to decide between the many pies on offer.

So if you're visiting the States, especially if you're visiting Orlando (which recently passed New York City in annual tourist visits, go figure), you have an unusual opportunity, especially if you decide to sample the delights of the Keys, South Beach or Little Havana in Miami on the same trip.  Don't, I beg you, drive down the over-commercialized shore route.  Instead, go directly south through the colorful spine of the state, only returning to the shore in Palm Beach for the final trek to Miami and beyond.  If you start out at a relaxed 10 am, you'll reach the Sebring Diner just in time for a glorious lunch, and you'll still make Miami before the sun goes down. And you will have spent a brief, shining moment in the middle of frickin' nowhere.


Gary and Lorraine, best know for their coverage of the world's authentically exotic and unknown places have even figured out how to have a No Crowds experience in one of America's top tourist destinations. And yes, they saved money, ate better and left satisfied.

Photo courtesy of the Highlands County Visitor and Convention Bureau

Saturday, June 09, 2012

What about North Korea?

In the Financial Times  today, I read something that got me really excited. It was a full page article about Political Tours, a company run by a former Balkans correspondent for the New York Times who runs tours to former and current conflict zones such as North Korea, Bosnia and Libya. What also got my attention was the fact that the Bosnian tour described in the article was led by Kate Adie. For those of you unfamiliar with her career, she was the BBC’s premier correspondent in conflict zones such as Rwanda and Saravejo. British soldiers used to say that they knew they were in big trouble when she arrived on the scene. In short, she is about as serious and knowledgeable as it gets.

In the FT article War Stories, the author Catherine Nixey makes the point that No Crowds has been making for years. She writes, “Travel may broaden the mind, but so homogenized is the international tourist experience, so perfectly do the high-end hotels and galleries replicate one another, that often all I learn is that I can be as bored in a museum in Istanbul as I can in London.” She goes on to ask the question: Political Tours is offering a different kind of travel experience, but is war tourism the right way to go?

And then she answers the question by describing the group’s visit to the war crimes section of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina where one of the judges insists that this kind of travel is valuable and makes a difference. “If it’s not on the front page of the newspaper, people don’t see it”, he says. “People should know.”

When I took a course on Peacekeeping Operations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 2009, I was amazed by how much I didn’t know about Bosnia and Sierra Leone and the Congo and Kosovo and East Timor and Afghanistan. How so much could go on for so long with my only having a vague awareness, So I’m excited to know that there is a serious travel company doing these kinds of tours to parts of the world we should know more about. Conflict tourism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but what Political Tours is offering sure impressed me.

Political Tours
Tel: 0843 289 2349

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Miracle at Camp Nou or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Crowds

It all started innocently enough.  My husband attends the Barcelona/Chelsea Champion’s League Semi Final football (soccer) match at Stamford Bridge stadium - capacity 41,000 - in London. Against the odds, Chelsea beats the legendary Barcelona with the next leg of the competition to take place at the Nou Camp stadium – capacity 96,336 - in Barcelona.  An ecstatic but lonely husband (I was away in North Carolina) returns from the match, goes online, finds match tickets, flights and a hotel and so I found myself heading for Barcelona to spend some time with 96,336 impassioned, inebriated football fans. How’s that for a No Crowds experience? Had he forgotten … I hate crowds.

No he hadn’t. So the first thing he did right was book us into the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos – a luxurious hotel close to the stadium. It’s a massive place and not in the center of town. Not the kind of place I usually like.  My first surprise on this journey of discovery was that I liked it a lot. The staff were quite delightful – well, I’m a sucker for a charming concierge - the room was quiet and comfortable but best of all, the place was crawling with football celebrities including the Chelsea players and most of the 824 accredited members of the media from 199 press outlets from 28 countries. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun at a hotel bar. Plus, we were a 15 minute walk from the stadium so no concerns about transport on match day.

The next thing my football-loving husband did right was to get us to Barcelona in time to eat some fabulous food and see some sights. The first night we headed for the well-known seafood restaurant Botafumeiro (Gran de Gracia, 81 Tel: 932 184 230). It’s huge, it’s loud, it’s expensive and once again not the kind of restaurant I usually like but we had a blast helped by the fact that the place was heaving with football stars – Jamie Rednapp, Gary Neville and Lauren Blanc to name a few. If you like your restaurants buzzing and aren’t too worried about cost, Botafumeiro is big fun. The seafood was outstanding.

With the match not starting until 8:45 in the evening, we spent the next day focusing on artistic pursuits with a three hour architectural walking tour of the modernist masterpieces: Manzania de la Discordia, La Pedrera, the Palau de la Musica and many more extraordinary buildings. Sadly, the crowds and lines to get into the buildings were extraordinary as well. Between the student groups and the cruise ships, we didn’t stand a chance. So we satisfied ourselves with viewing the exteriors and that was pleasure enough.

Lunch was a delight. The concierge at the hotel had spoken so enthusiastically about the restaurant, La Pepita, that I was skeptical but the place was terrific – lovely food in a friendly, fun atmosphere at a great price. Plus, the best gin and tonics in town. We’ll be back. (Carrer Corsega 343, Tel: 93 238 4893)

But on to the main event. The game. Let’s start with the fact that Jeff insisted that we get to the stadium 1 ½   hours before kick-off. I thought he was nuts but he certainly wasn’t. Let’s put it this way, there were 90,000 of them and 5,000 of us and if that wasn’t scary enough, we were so high up, it was like watching the game from a blimp.

But what a game. An upset for the ages. Ordinarily, I’m not that interested but this was epic. I loved it. Yet the best was yet to come. After Chelsea’s miraculous victory, 5,000 of my new best friends and I had a love-in for the next 40 minutes while we were held in our pen in the sky so the stadium could be cleared of the 90,000 people who now hated our guts. Screw them. After 40 minutes of cheering, singing, hugging and chanting, the stewards opened the gates and we few, we chosen few, marched triumphantly, like gladiators, still singing, still in disbelief, out into the Barcelona night.

Monday, March 12, 2012

You Can't Go Home

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…"

Thomas Wolfe

“You can’t go back to Parkhotel Planac.”

No Crowds

Every year since 2005, we have skied in a wonderful, undiscovered region of the Dolomites called the Alta Badia. The advantages are many. It is a massive area of dramatic scenery, easy skiing, few lines, excellent food and comparatively low prices. For most of those years, we stayed at a brilliantly positioned hotel on the slopes outside the town of Corvara called the Parkhotel Planac. A comfortable 3 star with good food and charming staff, we were happy as clams and if you care, you can read about those halcyon days here.

But how it pains me to write the next sentence. Reader, they sold it. Yes, our hotel was sold and is under new management. All the things that made the place convenient and charming – the shuttle bus into town – gone. The gala dinner where the chef paraded something on fire around the dining room – gone. The carnival party (even during Lent) when we danced the night away with Chez Guevara and Scooby Doo – gone. What is left is a rather soulless place, desperately in need of renovation.

In fairness, the new staff tried to make us happy, the food was still pretty good, the rooms were clean and the position on the slope still fantastic. But now that the shuttle bus has been axed, you really need to bring a car if you are going to stay at Planac. As far as No Crowds is concerned, this was our last year.

As for Corvara, we still love it – for all the reasons we written about over the years. So we are searching for a new ski-on, ski-off 3* hotel in the Alta Badia filled with good food and good cheer..If you know of one, please do get in touch.

Photo Credit: Dubai Gary

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Happy Lord Howe

In his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton immortalizes Shangri La, an earthly paradise where humans and nature live in perfect harmony – a utopia one never expects to find in the real life. But it exists.

Lord Howe, a tiny island in the vast Pacific about 600 km northeast of Sydney Australia is just such a place. I was there recently with my husband, daughter and two nieces. And here’s the thing. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we never uttered a cross word nor did we hear one. We never made or received a phone call because there is no mobile reception. We never needed a car because everyone rides bikes. Remarkably, in the 5 days we were there, we never had an unpleasant moment.

Every inch of the island is gorgeous and much of it spectacular. The wildlife seem to know they are protected - like the large turtle who spent a lazy morning swimming with my girls in the lagoon. And even though Lord Howe is idyllic, it is hardly precious. Instead, the vibe is super relaxed and friendly. Everyone knows everyone and after a day or so, they know you too. Everyone on the island, whether walking, biking or in a car, waves.  Snorkel equipment lies around in a hut at Ned’s beach and is based on an honesty system. The fish swim right up to you in the hopes of being fed and are way too smart to get caught by young girls with fishing poles.

The harmony that is Lord Howe owes much to the fact that it was one of the last islands on earth to be discovered. Uninhabited until 1834 (so no displaced humans), the real natives of Lord Howe are birds, fish and plants, many of which are found nowhere else on the planet. With a limit of 400 licensed tourist beds and an airstrip that restricts flights to 36 seat aircraft there is little humans can do to destroy this earthly paradise.  But there is still tons of stuff for humans to do and everything seemed easy to organize. You can swim, surf, dive, hike, climb, bike, fish, golf, lawn bowl and play tennis. (There is not a decent tennis ball on the island so be sure to bring your own.) Or you can happily do nothing.

As for food and accommodation, there are three main resorts: Capella, Arajilla and Pinetrees and an assortment of apartments and guest houses. We stayed at Arajilla and recommend it highly. We loved the location nestled in a banyan tree grove steps from the beach.  The staff is some of the nicest and most accommodating people I have encountered. The food was consistently excellent and I loved the fact that the owners were present and engaged in our having the best possible time.

Down the road from Arajilla is Pinetrees, operated by the same family since 1848 and the original place to stay for generations of Australians coming to Lord Howe. Capella Lodge at the other end of the island looked very smart but our girls enjoyed being closer to the “action” at Arajilla.

But no place is perfect, right? If there is a fly in the ointment on Lord Howe, it is the question of price. No Crowds does not often endorse really expensive travel experiences because the folks who tend to go to terribly expensive places are often not much fun. Well, that’s not the case on Lord Howe plus some things are worth the expense and I would argue that it is far better to save up for Lord Howe than to go somewhere else. Never has the notion of no crowds been more delightfully delivered than on this happy, harmonious island.