Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Gardens at Highgrove

I visit gardens the way most folks watch MasterChef, I love to watch someone else perform but I haven’t a clue how to garden. Still, when the announcement arrived from my daughter’s school that tickets had been obtained to tour the Prince of Wales's gardens at Highgrove, I leapt at the chance. MasterChef Grand Finale here I come.

It’s a bit complicated getting oneself to Highgrove southwest of Tetsbury in the Cotswolds. First, you must pre-book a ticket from the website or you can call the booking office on 0207 766 7310.  I’ve been told tickets for the season go fast. On arrival, you must show a photo ID to get in. Public transport involves a train journey and a pre-booked taxi. Highgrove maintains a strict timetable so don’t be late. No phones, no cameras, no binoculars. But then, this is the home of the heir to the British throne so with that in mind, the rules seem pretty reasonable.

And the gardens? In a word - wonderful - and completely worth the effort. For the past 30 years, Prince Charles has engaged in an environmental project so full of vision, passion and empathy for nature that it totally lifted my spirits about the sorry state of the world.

The guided tour takes about 2 hours. Groups are small and the feeling is intimate. Our guide was terrific, knowledgeable and lots of fun. We had a delicious light lunch after our tour and of course, an opportunity to buy very tasteful things from the shop where all the proceeds go to support the Prince’s many charitable endeavors.

If you are a gardener beg, borrow or steal a ticket. If you are travelling in the Cotswolds, ditto. Even if you are a garden nincompoop like me, go. After 20 years of living in the United Kingdom, I would rank my day spent at Highgrove as one of the very best.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Chef, a TV Show and Flash Fried Collards

My daughter loves Master Chef. It’s charms are somewhat lost on this old curmudgeon. I haven’t been excited about a TV cook since Julia Child - until I was introduced to the award winning public broadcasting series “A Chef’s Life” featuring an eastern North Carolina girl, a Yankee husband*, and a backwater called Kinston that has a real Civil War ironclad the CSS Neuse washed-up in the center of town. Does this sound like the makings of a fabulous TV show? Honey, it’s a cracker.

I was introduced to “A Chef’s Life” by my friend Mase who would send to London DVDS and internet links and promises to take me to Chef and the Farmer, the restaurant featured in the show, the next time I was in North Carolina. And he did.

We arrived on a Tuesday night in July after a long journey with great expectations. Chef and the Farmer sits right across from that famous sinister ironclad across a large parking lot already filling with cars. It was an exciting start. We were early hoping to grab a table before our 7:45 reservation as Mase had a 3-hour drive home. So we started out in the wine bar and shop, had a lovely glass of red, got to study the evening’s menu and met some nice folks who had driven all the way from Raleigh. In my usual “sotto voce” I let it be known that I had come all the way from London and Mase all the way from Greensboro. That impressed the Raleigh folks.

It also caught the attention of Susan, a member of staff from the show who took wonderful care of us. Such is the charm of “A Chef’s Life” that we felt like we already knew her before she appeared, in real life, at our table. And there was a film crew all over the place shooting Season 2. How fun was that.

Throughout the night, Mase and I would spot all our favorite folks from the program. “There’s Vivian!” “Look, it’s Ben.” “Oh, her parents just arrived.” I acted like a complete idiot and boy did I have a good time. The lovely Susan realized we were besotted and brought Vivian and Ben over to the table. We were shameless in our praise. They were just as wonderful as on film.

And what about the food? Reader, it blew me away. Describing the cooking as a farm-to-table symphony of local classics just doesn’t do it justice. We had country ham with peaches, pork belly, flash fried collards (incredible), gazpacho (also incredible), squash casserole and tomato pie. We ate our way through the summer gifts of eastern North Carolina. We ate our way through the filming of our favorite TV show. We ate our way through an inspiring direction for a town that had fallen on hard times.

And as the sun set over the ironclad and vast parking lot of Chef and the Farmer, I asked myself, not for the first or last time, what the hell I’m doing in London when my tribe – and flash fried collards – are here in North Carolina. Well, I’ll always have Season 2 of a “Chef’s Life”.  

It’s not home, but for now, it’ll have to do.

* Mase says that since Ben is from Chicago, Illinois, he doesn't really qualify as a Yankee. I say that hailing from the land of Lincoln qualifies him for sure. The Yankee description stands.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I'm ready Bill Cunningham

It’s hot and sunny here. World Cup enthusiasm is in the air. It’s Friday and I am about to hit the streets of London. Get ready Bill Cunningham. But wait. He takes sartorial snaps on the streets of New York for the New York Times. There is absolutely no reason to dress for Bill Cunningham here in London.

Oh yes there is. I always choose my outfits for Bill. His women stride across New York ‘expressing their personal style’. They’re having fun. They’re confident, cool and interesting. I want to be part of that tribe, those confident and interesting urban creatures here in London. So I’ll try to dress the part - just in case.

Many years ago, Bill Cunningham took my picture (above) with my glamorous sister (on the left) at a society wedding. I put to you this: Bill Cunningham knew that we were the original New York gossip girls. No one at that wedding was safe from our withering comments. No TV show can compete.

So here’s to you Bill Cunningham and just in case, I want you to know that I’m off to the dentist on Wimpole Street. Best to catch me after I’ve had my teeth cleaned. I’m the one who looks like I’m ready.

Friday, May 09, 2014

It's Mother's Day Somewhere

Yikes! It's Mother's Day in America on Sunday.  Today, I am republishing something that I wrote in 2009 when it was Mother's Day in the UK but not the US. Five years later, my mother is still up to her old tricks, I'm still getting my dates mixed up and it's still Mother's Day somewhere. 

It’s Mother’s Day in the UK. Sure, the economy needs stimulating but this year’s commercial badgering to remember, love and shop for Mum is a bit much. Microsoft just sent me this. “Make her day even more special with Windows Live.” Hey Bill Gates & Co., I’ve got news for you, my mom’s not here. It’s not like she’s gone to heaven or gaga or anything like that. She’s fine but she lives in the US of A so today is not her day. But all this Mum marketing has made me miss my Mom.

I love my Mom. She rocks. Give her a worthy battle and she’s good to go. I was a pretty impossible child and she certainly never tired of trying to straighten me out. She did all kinds of cool stuff that I didn’t appreciate at the time, like climbing Everest or hanging out with the Touareg tribe, or drinking Brezhnev under the table. But even then I knew that my Mom was the best “get out of jail free” card a girl ever had. The bigger the trouble I produced, the more heroic was her response.

So here’s to you Mom in America from daughter in England. Today’s your day. You rock.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Baatan Death March? No, our baby is going to college

Meaning no disrespect to the real American and Filipino victims, my husband and I just finished a deadly march of sorts – down the east coast of the US to look at universities with our daughter. We saw 10 in 12 days. That’s a lot of universities and a lot of travel. I can’t tell you which ones or what my daughter thought about them. That’s her story. Our story is about what will be probably our last road trip together. We always knew she would leave but now we’re accompanying her on her shopping trip for the next chapter of her life. At Heathrow airport, she’s excited. We’re a little sad.

We start in Boston – America’s ultimate college town containing 50 college and universities with 250,000 students. What a party. And here’s the good news. Logan Airport, the car rental facilities and the drive in to Boston are much improved from our day or even the days of her older brothers. Of course we had trouble finding our hotel off Boston Common because 1) there was a huge Greek Independence Day Parade taking place and 2) it was “off the Common” in an uncommon way so after a stressful time in the car, we unloaded, unpacked and hightailed it to Radio Shack to buy a GPS thinking that would solve our navigational problems. Hahahahahahah.

The Boston Park Plaza Hotel was awful by the way. If you have never been roused at 2:00 in the morning in the same room as your teenage daughter unhappy to be sleeping in the same room as her snoring parents (that should have been a suite with privacy) to race down 9 flights of stairs to find a lobby full of clueless guests and staff and fire department, to go back up and have it all happen again at 3:00 – well, you just haven’t lived.

But the universities were great. Our child, our little Chouchou, was off and running towards her future. After all the discussion, meetings and SAT practice, our very English daughter was getting her first real taste of the American university experience and it looked, as we hoped it would, very appealing. She’s thinking of her favorite films -  Good Will Hunting and the Social Network. We’re thinking of Animal House. Everyone’s happy.

So back in the car and on to Providence. An easy run. No arguments. The Hotel Providence was as wonderful as the Boston Park Plaza was awful and Providence has gone through a rejuvenation that we found inspiring. Go America!

Back in the car. The GPS doesn’t do its thing. An unholy row breaks out in the front seats. In the back, Eloise puts on her headphones and settles in to watch Game of Thrones on her laptop –  less violence and more interesting than what was transpiring up front.

We spent a fun and relaxing night with my brother in Rye, New York where I grew up. I walked by our old house, and by all the houses of my childhood that have quadrupled in size. Progress they say. Monuments to consumption I say. Where are the city planners? But enough whinging. On to the train and into Manhattan.

Manhattan looked great.  Our hotel, The Jade on 13th between 5th and 6th was really nice. Eloise went guitar shopping at Mat Uminov on Bleeker Street with Brian Cullman, world music expert and Uncle. And of course, our London-born child fell hopelessly in love with New York. You go girl but a mother worries. Is she tough enough? She thinks so. Let her go Mama Bear.

Back in the car and on to Philadelphia. Talk about rejuvenation, Philly looks amazing. We stayed with children of friends in a fab house on Lombard Street who are managing careers, babies and renovations with aplomb. Hooray for all the young families who are reclaiming American cities and for the cities that are embracing them.

Back in the car. GPS argument. Out come the headphones. On goes Game of Thrones.

We arrive in Washington, DC without that much nasty traffic and have a great dinner with all our friends and family who live there and who have known Eloise since she was born. Of course everyone is interested in what she has seen, liked and will see in the next few days. They are supportive. Eloise is diplomatic. It’s all good.

Back in the car. Monsoons. GPS argument. North Carolina, more wonderful family and friends. And then we were done. 12 days, 10 schools, 690 miles. Through it all, Eloise was good spirited. We saw so many wonderful universities. We had lots of fun. Last night Eloise flew back to London with her father to get ready for the start of school. I am spending an extra week in NC to see family and friends and check on the farm.

This morning she sent me a Facebook message. “Do you miss me yet?” followed by a weeping emoticon.

She has no idea.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The World's Nicest Hotel has a Baby

Every year since 2006 we have argued that the best skiing in Europe can be found in the Dolomites. The posts can be found here and here’s a summary of why we have never felt the need to go anywhere else:

·      One ski pass = 1,200 kilometers of trails, 510 lifts across 12 valleys encompassing 3 regions of Italy. That’s the equivalent of skiing from New York to Chicago in an area so special it has been declared a World Heritage Site
·      Dramatic scenery and delightful villages that offer the very best of Austrian and Italian traditions and culture
·      An almost infinite number of mountain huts and restaurants with exceptionally wonderful food and drink at attractive prices

And now there’s another reason: The Berghotel Ladinia. This small, charming 3-star hotel has been recently taken over by the Costa family who own and run the fabulous Hotel La Perla next door. (Our recent post about La Perla can be found here).

 Ladinia was always a great little hotel with its perfect ski-on, ski-off position and chalet coziness but now with the Costa’s imprimatur, it has been taken to a whole new level of specialness. It’s bijou but everything reflects the family’s passion for quality - from the d├ęcor, to the staff, to the food and drink. For the price, you will not find better value. And if you wish, for an additional charge, you can use the spa facilities at Hotel La Perla that my ski buddies describe as lovely and very restorative.

So another year and No Crowds skiing advice holds firm. If you want to impress someone, go to Zermatt but if you want to ski more, eat better and spend less, head for Corvara where the world’s nicest hotel and its new berghotel baby await you.

Photo Credit: Gary Ransom

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Costa Rica's Playa Santa Teresa - Lake Wobegon with waves

Great news.  No Crowds reporters Gary and Lorraine are back. This time in a magical spot in Costa Rica.

Off on Costa Rica's western coast - a hair-raising light aircraft flight and/or hair-raising car and ferry journey from the capital - sits Malpais, home to Santa Teresa beach. Because of its remoteness, it appears that time is indeed standing still, sometime in the 90's. If Lake Wobegon had an awesome point break, this would be it.

In Malpais, everyone has abs that are above average. Everyone has exactly your doctor's recommended body fat percentage - no more, no less. Every woman looks good in less than the average yardage of fabric required for a pocket hanky, and every guy wears only cool board shorts that don't expose his knee. Light tanning is universal, but melanoma is unknown. Everyone is bilingual, if not tri. The main street looks for all the world like a Victoria's Secret/Abercrombie & Fitch runway show, all day, every day.

The ocean is consistently at the same temperature that I keep my pool - refreshingly cool, yet not too cold. Every wave from the mighty Pacific is better than the last, yet none are big enough to hurt you too badly if you're a beginning surfer. Horses canter on the beach at sunset every day. Every restaurant, and I mean every restaurant, has romantic tables in the sand, and gorgeous flipflop-shod servers, who are of course, better than average.

Economists will puzzle for years over the strange economy. Well stocked grocery stores offer all manner of food and alcohol (spectacular sauvignon blancs from Chile, great local beer and dark rum, etc), but the food especially is very expensive. On the other hand, eating great food at a local soda (mom and pop restaurant with outdoor tables) will set you back an average of $10 per person, including wine and beer. Even higher end restaurants are very well priced, and there are dozens. Oh, and order at least one mojito while you are there - for 6 bucks, you will be transported.

And the funny thing is, there are lots of people, but no crowds. Even at sunset (which is a truly religious experience), the beach is only sparsely populated. The longest line we waited in consisted of three people in a grocery store. Every restaurant seems to be perpetually 50% to 80% full, so there is always a buzz from happy diners, but they always - always - have a table for you, regardless of the size of your party.

If you go, a few things to remember.

1. Eat the fish. Red snapper, tuna, and mahi bear no resemblance to the previously frozen, processed and shipped stuff we eat elsewhere. The supply chain runs from the local dock 2 miles away directly to every restaurant in town, and you can taste it in every bite. Sushi and ceviche places abound, and they're safe.

2. Rent an SUV with 4wd. Nothing else can handle the roads that you encounter in the last 10 km to Malpais. You could get a taxi from the local airstrip, but it's very helpful to have a car in town.

3. There are many options for accommodations, from high end resorts to surfer shacks. Research carefully, since price does not always reflect quality. Air conditioning is widely available, but believe it or not, you may not need it. It's comfortable in the shade in the daytime, even with temps in the 90's F, and everything cools down at night.

4. Remember you're in a tropical country. Costa Rica is well developed and cleanliness standards are high - we ate ceviche, salads and raw fruit with abandon, and didn't suffer, but others did. Ask your doctor for a Cipro prescription before you leave, and if you need it, it will cut the duration of a case of "la Tourista" from a few days to a few hours.

5. There are plenty of tourist activities (ziplines, trail riding to hidden waterfalls, cantering on the beach, etc), but be sure to leave yourself plenty of downtime to soak up the local vibe and walk/run the glorious beaches.

6. ...and finally, start working out now! Given how little you will be wearing, you will want to make sure you are above average when you arrive.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back to Belize

In 2011, I wrote a post entitled “Can you handle 18 – From 13 to 88?" about a family reunion in Belize that was a huge success, so huge, we went back. Again, we numbered 18 and if you do the math, this time the age range was 15 to 90.

Once again we went straight back to the oldest jungle lodge resort in the country, Chaa Creek. Why, you might wonder would we not want to try somewhere new? The answer can be boiled down to one word – people – because that is the secret sauce of Chaa Creek that you can’t get anywhere else. Just like the Costa family and their staff in the previous post made the Hotel La Perla in Corvara the nicest hotel in the world, Mick and Lucy Fleming and their daughter and staff make Chaa Creek the nicest resort. Nothing is impossible or too much trouble. Nothing is refused or denied. Whatever can be done to make your holiday wonderful, the Flemings and their team will do it.

For this family reunion, the weather was a challenge. It rained a lot which meant some of the sites, roads and activities were either closed or the access was incredibly difficult. But such was the ‘can do’ and adventurous spirit of Chaa Creek that if we were game, they were game. We forded rivers (and got stuck) drove through impassable roads (and got stuck) and came back every night with wild stories to tell. There is nothing that brings a far-flung family together like an adventure and we had many. Aunt Mary braved the zipline through the forest canopy. We went deep into the Mayan caves. My mother (in her 80s) once again demonstrated her horseback-riding prowess. My father, in his 90s, was a great walker.

And through it all, the people of Chaa Creek pampered us, rescued us, fed us, mixed wickedly good drinks and made sure that our family had a wonderful, wonderful time. And in the end, that's what it's all about.