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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Family, Kids & Senior Travelers’

Exploring THE HEATH

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It’s difficult to imagine, as you are pinned against the window of a stuffy underground car at 8:30 am on a Wednesday, your nose embedded in a strange man’s cheap, polyester pinstripes, that vast, wide open spaces, full of oxygen and trees actually exist in this world.

It’s also easy to forget, while you are charging through a rush hour umbrella war, what all the rain actually does (besides ruin our ‘dos) in the first place. It keeps things GREEN.

London is actually one of the greenest cities that I have seen (in leafy terms), especially in comparison to New York and Paris. Most famous for its Royal parks—Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, St James’s Park, Green Park, Regent’s Park, etc.—it also boasts a range of commons, greens, greenways, and, perhaps most significantly, Hampstead Heath—a 791 acre (3.2 km²) expanse of woodlands, ponds, sports grounds, rolling meadows, sandy ridges and untamed foliage—all nestled just a few tube stops away from central London.

Now, with bits of spring (summer?) sunshine teasing the damp crowns of 6 million Londoners, the tubes are getting stuffier, the beer gardens are overflowing, and the green spaces are becoming increasingly…pink.

I’d been hearing so much buzz about ‘The Heath’ ever since moving to London, that I had to go up (yesterday) before the beautiful weather streak ended (today)…though tourists often find their ways to Hampstead (Parliament Hill) to catch a famous, stunning panoramic view of the city, it seems that only Londoners and extended-stay visitors (one in the same?) find the time to fully experience The Heath.

Even if you are on a short visit to London, I definitely, definitely recommend spending at least a day exploring this gorgeous expanse of green, which offers, truly, ‘something for everyone’—from pond swimming and picnicking…to lido lounging and garden dining…to cycling, kite flying and even bird watching (a skill that I am now ‘quite keen’ to master—they even offer educational sessions for beginners on some weekends).

I should quickly emphasize that the region commonly recognized as ‘The Heath’ actually contains several sub-areas and parks, each with its own ‘personality’.

Most prominent is the private, English Heritage site of Kenwood, which, with its stately mansion, intricately-manicured flower gardens, immaculately-trimmed lawns, sparkling ponds and upscale garden cafés, poses a lovely contrast to the untamed wilderness of the surrounding Heath. The Kenwood Estate and Gardens tends to attract older visitors (and nearby residents) seeking a picturesque spot for an afternoon tea and stroll. (I couldn’t help but notice that it would be a fantastic spot for a wedding. Sound good, Harry? xx).

Right…

Also worth a visit is Golders Hill Park, which, with its deer park, animal enclosures, playground equipment and huge picnicking lawns, is the perfect place for a family day out.

But, the best way to fully discover The Heath, in my opinion, is to grab a little map from the park office by the Parliament Café (southeast corner, accessible from Kentish Town Tube station) and embark on a quasi-aimless trek; the park office even has a few trails mapped out—I chose the 6 mile (9.7 km) route and inevitably strayed from the red dotted line about halfway through. But getting a bit ‘lost’, in my opinion, allows you to really experience and appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the wooded areas—to observe the lively movements of the squirrels and (as cheesy as it may sound) to listen to the songs of the birds.

Within thirty minutes, you will find it hard to believe that, just a few kilometers down the road, thousands of passengers are crammed into a stuffy, dark underground tunnel…

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The Search for Prince Harry

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Last weekend, I took a day trip to Windsor and Eton with one obvious objective in mind: to have a royal sighting.

I know, I know—lame, BUT I’m convinced that the chivalrous young prince would have fallen for my “lost tourist,” damsel-in-distress act.

Right?

According to our chirpy Windsor Castle guide Penny, the Queen was in residence that day…

Windsor Castle Tour

But what about our favourite royal soldiers? Where was Harry hiding?

Among the guards?

Changing of Guards at WIndsor Castle

At Eton College—his old stomping ground?

Eton College, UK

We finally decided that the princes were most likely cruising down the Thames in a yacht. It was, after all, a beautiful day. So we set sail ourselves, in a classy rowing boat:

Rowing on Thames in Windsor

Rowing On Thames in Windsor

 

No luck, unfortunately—we were hoping for a royal rescue when we crashed into the bank (Twice! Oops!)—but I still have high hopes. That’s why I am leaving this blog open for responses and comments.

Harry: next time you’re in London, I should be free for a drink. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights are pretty good for me. I’m also up for the weekend countryside adventure…but I’ll let you decide.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Carrie x

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Oxford May Morning 2008: Behind the Scenes

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On the evening of April 30th, there’s no better place to be than inside Oxford’s Magdalen College.

The institution has been leading the surrounding community in May Day tradition for over 500 years. And tomorrow morning, hundreds of locals and tourists will, once again, flock to Magdalen’s picturesque High Street buildings just before dawn to be serenaded from above.

At 6:00 sharp on May 1st, the Magdalen College School Choir will sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from atop the college’s majestic Tower.

Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, UK

In a beautiful, sweeping moment, the buzzing crowds will be silenced. The choir’s hymn will take over, enchanting the entirety of the crowded city block below.

And then the much anticipated performance will end, just like that.

But the festivities will carry on for several hours, with Morris Dancing and impromptu street performances scattered throughout the city centera truly memorable parade of fun for the whole family…

And that’s the fairytale, glossy brochure version of Oxford’s May Morning.

As I mentioned, no better place to be than inside Magdalen College on the eve of May Morning, when the fun really begins…

The party usually starts around 9:00pm in the college’s common rooms and bar, with students dancing, drinking and celebrating the coming of May (and summer!) until the wee hours of the morning.

Why sleep? A champagne breakfast awaits on the rooftop terrace at 5:45am, from which students can listen to the choir in hazy solitude, away from the crowded High Street.

Magdalen College Tower on May Morning

And of course, we can’t forget the traditional May Morning daybreak toast on the Cloisters lawn…

Oxford May Morning champagne toast

No point in leaving college grounds prior to the toast/breakfast, as most gates have been locked; the police have also blocked off the Magdalen Bridge from 3:00am and will refuse crossings until 2 hours after the event, so as to prevent drunken crusaders from leaping into the shallow waters of the Cherwell…

The famed jumping tradition used to be quite common, with hundreds impulsively plummeting over the walls each year; however, now, only a few sneaky stragglers are able break through the barricade. Last year, I (sadly) only witnessed one courageous jumper.

But rumor has it that students will actually be leaving the college this year for a VIP party at Club Escape ; we’ll see if they are re-admitted for breakfast in their intoxicated stupors.

Who knows, maybe they will band together in drunken revelry and rekindle an age-old tradition…

Come on, you crazy Magdalenites, let’s start the summer off with a splash!

Happy May Day.

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UK Cultural Festivals

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Hidden away in the most seemingly ordinary of countryside villages and isolated of coastal towns are some of Britain’s best kept secrets—unique cultural traditions that can be witnessed nowhere else in the world.

My advice for the whimsical and curious traveller in search of new sights: it’s time to think beyond location. Seek to experience. The most fascinating things can happen in the most unexpected of places, many of which are easily accessible, affordable and perhaps even a short car or boat trip away.

Think eccentric; think outlandish. Make 2008 a year of cultural adventure, and discover some of Europe’s most bewildering and unconventional pastimes…

A guide to some of the UK’s greatest cultural secrets. continue reading

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Lisbon: a city for everyone!

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The westernmost capital city of continental Europe is more than just a rowdy cluster of nightclubs and beach bars. With its lively summer schedule of cultural festivals, unique, kid-friendly events and oceanfront activities, Lisbon, Portugal is the perfect destination for young singles and extended families alike.

Kick off your summer with a rockin’ getaway.

It’s true—thousands of party-seeking youths will flock to the city in late May for the third annual “Rock in Rio Lisboa—For a Better World” Concert. But come on mom and dad—live a little! The concert is, after all, for charity. With appearances by Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Lenny Kravitz, and Alanis Morrisette, there’s a little bit of rockin’ fun for everyone.

Not convinced? Not to worry—your family will find its niche in this beachfront cultural mecca. Where else in the world can you find sun, sand, nightlife, experimental theatre, international dog shows, fresh seafood and delicious pasties de nata??

Family Adventures

Upon arrival, you may want to slap on your sunscreen and head straight for the shore. Go right ahead—there is much to do and see on the beaches surrounding Lisbon. You might consider a coastal tour, complete with an excursion to Cabo de Roca, Europe’s westernmost point, where you will capture a stunning, kaleidoscopic sunset. Or get active: join in on the Praia Grande Beach games (ongoing, for all ages) or embark on an Atlantic Coast bike adventure.

Be sure to explore the diverse city sights on a guided historical and cultural tour, which will take you to the famous, 15th century BelémTower, along with the burial site of explorer Vasco De Gama. Then, capture the picturesque cityscape and its natural surrounds on a cruise down the Tagus River.

Depending on when you visit, you will encounter a range of family-friendly activities, including the Ericurea Seafood Festival (June), the Equestrian Show at Queluznate Palace (weekly) and the Estoril International Dog Show (August).

Culture, culture, culture.

The arts are booming this summer in Lisbon. With an extensive calendar of music, theatre, dance and film festivals occurring between late May and mid September, there are copious opportunities to experience both local culture and international collaborations through a variety of mediums.

You are bound to encounter something of interest during your stay, from the experimental street “encounters” of the Alkantara Performing Arts Festival (22 May – 8 June) to the classical and contemporary jazz performances of the Estoril Music Festival (2 July – 3 August). Also popular are the FIA Lisboa International Handicrafts Fair (June – July), the Almada International Theatre Festival (July), and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (September).

The city, of course, truly comes alive at night! Get a taste of local culture on an evening tour, complete with a traditional dinner and folkloric show. Then, head to the oh-so-chic Bar do Rio and join the fiery locals on the dance floor at Lux until the wee hours of the morning.

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Salzburg: a destination for the whole family.

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The planning, booking and execution of a family vacation/holiday can often be a complete nightmare. I can remember, as a little girl, only ever wanting to go to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World and not understanding why my fairytale frolicking had to include, by my dad’s rules, some historical or educational component. Why should I care about the life and times of a dead cartoonist? No, I don’t want to go to the museum, and Epcot Center is boor-riiiing…

My mother (like most) played martyr, trying to make everyone happy with stupid road games and chocolate bars. The only thing she required in a destination was a place to shop. And no one was to interrupt mom’s sacred retail ventures (we learned this the hard way!). My big brother, of course, crafted his vacation interests in direct opposition to mine, demanding to ride the rides that I was too short for and refusing to indulge me with “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” sing-a-long. (Cruel, I know).

When selecting a place to haul your family away to for a week, or even just a weekend, you need to ensure a diverse range of convenient tours and activities. You probably want to include an educational component in your itinerary: good luck drumming up enthusiasm for Historic Williamsburg or Auschwitz. You need to find a destination that you can easily sell to your children—a place that, like Disney, has some fantasy or adventure appeal. If, mixed with all the frivolity and merriment of your chosen locale, there is lots of history to be absorbed, even better!

Planning an exciting, yet culturally enriching, family trip is like experimenting with a healthy recipe: if you succeed, then you can delight your children with a tasty batch of Deceptively Delicious brownies. They won’t pick up on the well-masked, pureed vegetable ingredients, and you probably will even savor a few yourself.

Salzburg, Austria is the perfect such destination in which you can create a full proof family “recipe.” Simply mention the Sound of Music Tour, and you’ve got the attention of your youngest. Ask your “Sixteen going on Seventeen”-year-old daughter about Summer Strallen’s recent departure from the hit TV show Hollyoaks to play Maria von Trapp on the West End stage, and she’s all ears. And what movie-loving kid wouldn’t be delighted to visit a real Hollywood film location?

Now that everyone’s on board, you, as a parent, will be delighted to learn that Salzburg is one of the most culturally rich, and easily navigable of European cities. It is much smaller and more manageable than nearby Berlin and Vienna. And it is the birthplace of Mozart, for crying out loud. Walk through the charming Old Town district, and you will be immersed in the historical sights and melodious sounds. Turn a corner, and behold the famous Baroque cathedral (with its Romanesque basilica remains) and perhaps even a Mozart string quartet. And of course, there is the unforgettable, medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress, which towers the city, offering fantastic views of the surrounding countryside.

“The hills are alive…”

Perhaps most significantly, you can let your children’s imaginations run free as they trace the footsteps of the von Trapp family through several of the actual sites used in the making of the Sound of Music on a behind-the-scenes tour. You will visit the Mirabell Gardens, where Julie Andrews (as Maria) can be seen singing “Do-Re-Mi” with the children in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. Also included is a trip to Leopoldskron Palace, which was used in the movie as the von Trapp family home. For the more active and restless among us, there are plenty of walking tours and excursions to the surrounding mountains, indeed climbed by Julie Andrews while singing the title song.

And to all the shop-a-holic mothers out there: the historic city center boasts a range of jewelry, high fashion, book, music and souvenir shops.

Oh, and one final thing: Mozart Chocolates = deliciousness. Nothing deceptive lurking in the green colored nougat centers—just 100% sweet marzipan, pistachio and chocolatey goodness!

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Orlando for Dummies

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My American friends call it Orlando, Florida, which means there are probably tens of other Orlandos across the US? But this one is the holy grail of consumer tourism. Theme parks have popped up like mushrooms with a symbiotic generation of hordes of hotels and restaurants to welcome fun hungry tourists.Beyond Disneyworld, EPCOT, Animal Land, Universal Studios, and Sea World, there must be other 20 parks: the pirate’s park, the water park, the fear park, the parrot’s park…And rolling across Orlando by car is an endless sequence: hotel, restaurant, hotel, restaurant, park, hotel, restaurant, t-shirt shop, restaurant, park, hotel..At the airport, I ask for a map to find out how to get to the hotel. I get offered a free, 150-page guide. The requested map is one on one thin page, and the other 149 pages are dedicated to ads for parks, restaurants and hotels. The last page is the pearl – a tipping guide, teaching Europeans how to tip! 15% for cabs and restaurants, 1 buck for suitcase handling, 1 buck for asking the concierge for directions, and 2-3 bucks if the directions are complex.Orlando, Florida: Land of the Tip.Restaurants are competing in a permanent race to put more stuff on your plate. We spent the first evening at a conference buffet. Great idea: you can pick, choose and pace your meal. But the second evening, we had a team dinner at a famous steak house, where obviously, they do steaks. The waiter carries a large tray full of fresh meat cuts – it’s the menu. WaiterShe goes on to tell us every detail about every cut: age, weight, texture, taste, most appropriate cooking method. She’s fighting for her 15% tip. (I should have recorded the speech).I go for a respectable, 23 ounce filet mignon (there are only 2 in each cow, I learn). It’s called “The Fabulous.” When I order, she nods in confidence: “The Fabulous – good choice.” I feel important. The slab of meat, which lands on my dish 5 minutes later, also looks important. Perfectly cooked, melts in your mouth.But my ears start buzzing half way through. My body can’t take a full Fab.

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The Hunt for Easter Cheer.

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I have barely recovered from the overwhelming sea of red Hallmark that was Valentines Day. I haven’t even thought about which Irish pub I will be visiting on March 17th, but nonetheless, this morning, I was jolted into the future by the ultimate Americanization of Easter Cheer: an advertisement for a McDonald’s Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurry. ‘The hunt is over’, it read.

If the hunt is really over, then I’d better forget my planned spring beach trip and go get fat on some ice cream blended with chocolate, sugary Easter goodness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am just as fond of chocolate eggs as the next girl with a sweet tooth. In fact, I kind of love them. But not for a third of the year, and especially not the third that falls before prime swimsuit weather. The consuming public does not need to be chased with bunnies and creative milkshakes just days after stowing away their Christmas wreaths.

And what is all of this sneaky rhetoric? Is the ‘hunt’ really over? The hunt for what? Fast food chains? Cadbury Eggs? Happiness?

As joyful as I feel after the occasional Happy Meal, I would rather make my personal quest for Easter Cheer a bit more mysterious and exciting. How fun is a holiday hunt if you can spot the glowing yellow prize from 3 blocks away…every 3 blocks? Not so much.

So today I have decided to embark on a global Hunt for Easter Cheer. Do join in! There are over 31,000 McDonald’s franchises worldwide. The least we can do is find a dozen or so interesting places to spend our Easter and/or summer holidays. Here’s what I’ve found so far: continue reading

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Film Tours: Hollywood and Beyond

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The post-Oscar buzz has likely reached your office desk over the past few days. You have probably overheard the break room chatter. Who showed up with whom? Did George Clooney match his world peace accolades with a shiny gold trophy? Will Amy Adams outdo her 2005 Caroline Herrera getup with an ‘Enchanted’ fairytale gown? Oh, and who won the award for Best Sound Mixing? Right.

Whether you are willing to admit it to your co-workers or not, you do hold a place in your heart for Hollywood glamour. Many of you are still recovering from the all-nighter you pulled in order to catch a live feed of the 80th Annual Academy Awards. Some of you have since wasted hours of valuable work/Facebook time ogling red carpet wire images and fashionista ratings. Let’s face it, a noteworthy portion of your Google searches are dedicated to pop culture happenings (after all, how did you end up here?) .

More significantly, you may even dream of one day journeying to the motherland of fame and fortune—strolling down Rodeo Drive, embarking on a behind-the-scenes tour, and, if you’re lucky, spotting a celebrity or two in person.

It is here that I provide some new inspiration for adventure-seeking film buffs. Why not replace your celeb-stalking hour with a bit of online travel planning? A rapidly increasing number of Hollywood films are being made in beautiful and exotic destinations across North America and around the world. With some research and careful budgeting, you could turn your next trip abroad into a personalized, unique ‘Hollywood’ tour—without having to brave the Los Angeles freeway in a cheap rental car. I can get you started now with a few suggestions:

Some new frontiers for film lovers…

The American South: Berendt’s Mysteries Unveiled
If the U.S. is your vacation playground, you may want to forgo the usual big city jaunt for bit of southern charm. Savannah, Georgia is arguably the friendliest and most picturesque city in the country; over sixty motion pictures have been filmed amidst its captivating tree lined streets and majestic antebellum mansions. Take a guided bus tour and search for sites from Forrest Gump, Cape Fear and, most famously, John Berendt’s novel-turned-blockbuster film: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Trace the murder mystery plot (based on true occurrences) by visiting the Mercer House, former home of the legendary Jim Williams, and catch a performance by the real “Lady Chablis” at Club One. If you’re lucky, you may encounter other book and movie characters—old acquaintances of Berendt’s—who still reside in Savannah today. continue reading

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Lucky Irish Getaways

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Feeling lucky this St. Patrick’s day?

Hungry for a bit of Irish culture?

Why not plan an adventurous getaway to the land of g’ luck and greenery?!

1. ‘Tis the season of abundance
Lucky you: we’re now approaching peak salmon fishing season! Embark on this 7 day, 6 night journey to the rivers of the gorgeous Shannon region to try your hand at salmon and trout fishing. You will stay at the charming, historic Millbank House, along the banks of the Mulcair River—one of the best places to reel ‘em in while immersing yourself in the lush, natural landscapes of the region. Your trip will include various salmon and trout fishing excursions, as well as a unique visit to the Castleconnell Salmon Fishery, where you can hone your current skills and experiment with new fishing techniques.

Minutes away from the shops, amenities, and outbound tours of Limerick, your lodgings in Shannon will be the perfect, peaceful travel base for a family with diverse interests. Be sure to double your luck at one of many nearby golf courses!

2. A lucky kiss!
For a bit of magic and mystery, you may want to embark on a trail to the famous Blarney stone near Cork. Bend over backwards and pucker up to the famed “Stone of Eloquence,” and you will, according to Blarney legend, never be at a loss for words. Explore the mystical, 600-year-old castle and lovely surrounding grounds—the perfect place to spend the afternoon with your family.

And if you make it on Sunday, March 22nd, you will get to partake in the Annual Easter Egg Hunt!

3. Sláinte (Cheers!)
Perhaps your heart lies in the most happy and humble place of all—the Irish pub. Why not experience Dublin’s most famous landmarks, on a three day sightseeing trip through beer and whiskey tasting paradise?

Explore the birthplace and brewing process of your favorite pint at the Guinness Storehouse; discover the step-by-step procedure of whiskey malting, milling, mashing, fermenting, distilling and maturing at the Old Jameson Distillery. Sip your way through the evening, and embark on a lively, downtown pub crawl!

Right now is the perfect (and lucky!) time to experience the nature, magic and welcoming vibrancy of the Emerald Isle.

G’Luck and Happy Planning!

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