Jun 092014
 
big ben IG

Actually, I wasn’t in a huge picture-taking mood this time ’round. This was the only photo I shared on Instagram in the entire 4 days of our London trip.

I still have one more London post up my sleeve in coming days. (And Amsterdam. And, well, every other big trip we’ve taken in the last few years that I never blogged about….) In the meantime, here’s a little photo tour of our four days in London.

parliament and big ben

We stayed at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, located just across this bridge from the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Most people don’t think of the South Bank of the Thames when choosing places to stay, but it was a highly convenient location, with Waterloo Station and subway lines two blocks away, bus stops right outside the hotel, or of course an easy stroll by foot across the bridge. We also really enjoyed the hotel. First morning’s check-in was a disaster, after a sleepless transatlantic red eye that left us too tired to do anything but sit in the lobby for three hours waiting for a room to be cleaned. I didn’t think any hotel could overcome that rotten first exposure (not technically their fault since we arrived many hours before check-in time, but still…), but really everything else about our stay was a delight. We paid with hotel loyalty points, and a shockingly low number of points at that (thanks to the Club Carlson credit card that gives you a free night for every loyalty stay), and they even upgraded us to a junior suite with a fold-out couch that made a whole separate bedroom for Vera.

Our hotel was also a block away from the London Eye, so we have plenty of photos that look like this:

london eye and aquarium

The area right at the foot of the London Eye was tourist central, but we were big fans of this carousel. Mr. T and I flipped a coin for who got to ride with Vera, and I lost. At least it was fun to photograph!

carousel near london eye

Other favorite spots included the Battersea Park Children’s Zoo. It’s small and pricey, but the animals were adorable, and there was a fantastic playground. We figured Vera spent enough time tramping with her parents past great buildings and museums — she should be able to spend an afternoon somewhere extra fun for kids. (And honestly, Mr. T and I are always up for a zoo visit. We love cute little animals at least as much as Vera.)

battersea zoo playground

Mr. T originally researched the zoo because it has meerkats. We used to watch Meerkat Manor every day before school, so we’re big fans. Seeing meerkats in person was just as exciting as we hoped, but the otters next door stole our attention and then stole our hearts. Their tiny otter heads peeked repeatedly over the dividing wall to check what was going on over in the meerkat pen. Once we walked over to the otters themselves, they squealed and came running over to us. We talked to then, they squeaked to us. Friends were made.

battersea park zoo otters

Of course we visited Buckingham Palace — which is to say, the fancy gates outside Buckingham Palace. Happy to see it, but we actually had a more memorable time at St. James’s Park next door. Just a few yards away from the tourist hordes, we stepped into this peaceful, lovely scenery.

st james park

And a playground with a big sandbox! Meerkats burrow underground in sand tunnels, so our new friend from the Battersea Park Zoo felt quite at home.

sandbox and meerkat

One morning, Mr. T got up early to see the Tower of London. He has a particular interest in ancient historic sites, and I could take it or leave it on this visit, so we figured he could move faster without a family entourage.

tower of london and skyline

Love the ultra-modern buildings across the river in the background. Well done, Mr. T!

We met up at Leadenhall Market — one of the random places I remember fondly from my first visit to London in 1993. There’s not much to see at Leadenhall, but it’s atmospheric and worth a quick look. (Sharp-eyed Harry Potter fans might recognize it as the setting for Diagon Alley in the movies.)

leadenhall market

On the night after our British Museum visit, we were all starving and Vera was campaigning for French Fries. We happened across Ed’s Easy Diner, which was fun and turned out to be quite tasty for burgers and fries. And if you don’t know Mr. T’s real first name … let’s just say we found the place extra amusing.

Ed's Easy Diner

Another favorite meal was at Cafe in the Crypt in the St. Martin in the Fields church off Trafalgar Square. The cafeteria meal was just adequate, but the atmosphere was relaxed and the setting so unique.

Cafe in the Crypt

The rest of the time, we spent many hours riding double decker buses around town, or just walking about catching sight of all the iconic London images.

phone booth

Our South Bank hotel location meant we crossed a lot of bridges. I love this “grainy black and white” built-in filter on our camera — even something as mundane as crossing a bridge starts looking like an outtake from an old European arthouse film.

BW bridge

And finally, more riverfront views, more crazy camera filters, and another favorite memory of the trip … just wandering along the river, enjoying the sights on a warm spring evening.

parliament at night

 

Have you ever been to London? What were your favorite memories?

May 282014
 

One of these days I mean to post about our favorite places here on Capitol Hill. In the meantime, the New York Times did a pretty good job of it last weekend. A bit heavy on the high-end restaurants, and a few strange choices (there is nothing to see in Lincoln Park), but they did name three of the places we’ve eaten this week (Seventh Hill, Ted’s Bulletin, and Eastern Market) and a favorite lesser-known activity (US Botanic Garden), so I give them credit. You can find the original article here.

May 232014
 

Sorry to switch topics so abruptly from health issues, but … welcome to my blog! I get bored sticking to any one topic. Plus I’ve been extra sick this week and prefer not to think about illness when I’m at my worst. It might seem odd to go from describing a semi-homebound life to detailing transatlantic family vacations, but I deal with the downsides of illness by escaping into travel. Between researching future destinations, planning specific details, actually taking the trip, and then revisiting photos and warm memories, two good-sized trips can carry me psychologically through a whole year.

Our latest family escape was to London and Amsterdam this spring, and I’m excited to share a few tips and favorite photos over coming weeks….

The British Museum's stunning interior courtyard -- the largest covered square in Europe.

The British Museum’s stunning interior courtyard — the largest covered square in Europe.

My husband’s biggest goal for London was to see the British Museum. (“They stole all the best stuff, from all over the world, and it’s all in a single building!”) I was interested, but worried how that would go down with our 5-year-old. She’s in a tough zone where she’s too old to just toddle along with Mom and Dad but not old enough to appreciate museum exhibits in the way they were intended. We planned a weekend visit to take advantage of the museum’s Kid’s Activity Backpacks, but we got held up and arrived after they closed the program for the day. Vera was disappointed but still reasonably open-minded about the museum. We had ten minutes, tops, to come up with Plan B before she lost interest.

We sought out the famous Easter Island statue, which unexpectedly saved the day. I posed for a photo, copying the statue’s unique expression. Vera hid behind my leg:

First recorded instance of duckface??

First recorded instance of duckface??

But then, suddenly, Vera ran to another statue and said, “Daddy! Do like this one!” She and her father posed together, copying the position of the person in the statue. And then we did another. And another. And another.

Joining a friendly canine for a "play bow."

Joining a friendly canine for a “play bow.”

Meanwhile, Mr. T has his wrist mauled by a fiercer version.

In this way, we kept Vera busy through room after room. Mom and Dad were patient with the endless photo shoot (frankly, she wasn’t the only one having fun!), and in return Vera was patient (… mostly …) if Mom or Dad wandered off to look at something else or to read an explanatory card or two.

This picture cracks me up every time.

This one cracks me up every time.

We even managed to take a few regular museum-y photos. Though not always exactly as planned — see, e.g., the photo-bomber who popped up unexpectedly in Daddy’s artsy archway shot:

vera photobomb

Thanks to our super-tough, basically indestructible camera, we even handed the equipment over to Vera for some artistic creations of her own:

The young photographer at work.

The young photographer at work.

If you ever find yourself at a loss for how to keep a young one entertained at an adult museum, I highly recommend the family photo shoot! All it takes is a short lecture on respecting the artifacts (even mature kids may not realize they’re not allowed to touch), a camera, and your sense of imagination and fun.

Dec 052012
 
Holiday Gift Guide -- For the Traveler

Clockwise, from top left:

1. Travel-sized laundry bag. (Beats my oh-so-chic system of plastic grocery bags!) $5 at The Container Store.

2. “Joe’s Hair That Talk’s” — coffee table photo book featuring the signs of Ghana. $32 at Trade for Change, a web shop for fair trade products from Global Mamas in Ghana.

3. Cleansing grains — add water, and you have  face cleanser. Dry form means no trouble with TSA liquid rules. (Comes in a glass bottle, but easy to pour into another container.) $10 from Olimaxsoap on Etsy.

4. Cute toothbrush holder. $2.50 at Heliotrope Home.

5. Wet bags are useful for wet swimsuits, baby blowouts, travel toiletries, and more. This one is cheery and handmade. $20 from Foxyvida on Etsy.

6. “36 Hours” — a New York Times guide to weekend trips. $26 on Amazon. There’s also a European version. Other travel books from my own wish list: beautiful National Geographic books on Drives of a Lifetime and Journeys of a Lifetime, The Lunatic Express (“Discovering the World Via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes”), Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day (man follows 1963 travel guide), and a Book of Cities for kids.

7. Baggu zipped bag set. $16 at See Jane Work. (See also: Muji mesh travel bags.)

8. Dopp kit. $23 at West Elm.

9. Center: Airmail zipper pouch. $9 at Mxyplyzyk.

Nov 052012
 

Sorry, have been slow to update after last month’s San Diego trip. Before we move on, here’s a little (OK, not so little) photo summary of that trip.

We flew into LAX because of an amazing Virgin America sale. The drive down took about two hours, but we broke it up by meeting Vera’s uncle at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. It’s a smaller aquarium, but that worked out well for a quick stop with a 3-year-old.

At first, Vera was a little weirded out by the fish. The aquarium’s many hands-on kid activities eventually won her over. This touch tank was photogenic but only a semi-success — Vera wasn’t going anywhere near those weird ocean animals, though she was willing to grab Mama’s finger to wield as a poking tool.

The aquarium also offered an aerial view of La Jolla itself. Vera’s grandmother used to work at the Scripps Institute, on the right side of this photo, so it was fun to see a bit of family history.

Day Two was spent at the San Diego Zoo.

Vera was in a mood, and frankly so was Mama. We forgot to rent a stroller at the entrance, and someone didn’t want to walk. The first half of the visit went badly, but eventually we made our way back to a central area with lots of animals and the day picked up. Even the grumpiest kid can’t resist wild animals. This bear was my personal favorite. Mauling potential aside, don’t you just want to give him a hug and a scratch?

Vera loved the giraffes. They were close to the fence, and very cool about receiving visitors.

Vera begged to try her hand at her own animal photography. I eventually gave in, nervously clutching the camera strap and praying nothing would get dropped. Her first effort actually turned out pretty well!

Coolest sighting of the day was this cheetah, out for a walk with her special friend. The dog companions keep skittish cheetahs calm when they leave their enclosure or interact with strange people.

On Day Three, we headed to Coronado Island. My mother visited many years ago and loved it enough that she hung a painting of the Hotel Del Coronado in our guest bath. So I was quite excited to finally see the famous Victorian hotel in person.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed. What a beautiful place. We wandered around for an hour or two, enjoyed the ocean views from the outdoor patio, and downed iced coffee and a cream puff as big as Vera’s head.

Coronado is an island, so we assumed there were beaches. But we didn’t expect the hotel to boast such a great beach, or the day to be quite so warm. We weren’t prepared with swimsuits or anything beach-y, but we rolled up our pants and made the best of it.

We jumped around in the shallows, Vera yelling “I’m so EXCITING!” over and over again. Took a few hits from larger-than-expected waves, but what’s a little water and sand in your pants in exchange for such a happy adventure?

Day Four = last day. Since we were visiting family, I didn’t do much San Diego research before the trip. Luckily, two happy accidents pointed us toward the makings of a great day.

On a timely tip from the blog The World is a Book, we started by exploring Balboa Park, a 1200 acre home to lush gardens and beautiful Spanish Renaissance style architecture. (The San Diego Zoo is technically in Balboa Park, but on zoo day we never made it beyond the parking lot.) We didn’t have time to explore the many museums clustered throughout the park, but we did have a great time riding the free trolley for an ersatz tour.

I was particularly taken with the Botanical Garden. Talk about a feast for the senses — it was green and lovely, it smelled nice in a plant-y sort of way, and there were even the sounds of a flamenco guitarist filtering in from outside. I was ready to move in!

Thanks to a friend’s glorious Instagram photos, we also discovered Extraordinary Desserts just in time to visit their Balboa Park location on our way out of town. We’re dessert lovers for sure, and this place was just as extraordinary as the name promised.

We acquired some very rich tortes, plus a giant bowl of ice cream for Vera and a boxful of other pastries to take on the road. (Did I mention we’re dessert lovers? ‘Cause we’re dessert lovers.) There was one tragedy now remembered in our family as “ice cream elbow,” but Vera soldiered on. Having a giant bowl of ice cream helped on that front.

In all, a 5-hour flight and 2-hour car drive were quite possibly insane for a 4-night trip. At least in a family with a 3-year-old and one sickly grownup. But we had a great time, made some new memories, and best of all Vera got to spend time with an Uncle that she’s now crazy about. Worth it!

Sep 282012
 

Ah, the thorny issue of packing shoes for travel: If you bring too many, they’re bulky and heavy. But paring down means you have to plan your wardrobe extra carefully so that everything matches in color and style.

Or, you could just do as our then-2-year-old did for one memorable cruise to the Bahamas — pick your favorite pair, and wear it every day.

Rain boots by the pool.

High fashion? Break out the rain boots.

You know what keeps sand off your feet at the beach? Rain boots.

Oddly, the rain boots actually worked with every outfit. Apparently, it’s all in the attitude — you’ve just got to commit to your look. How do you choose your travel shoes? Do you ever just pick a single pair and run with it?

Posted as part of Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday — a fun weekly peek at photos from all over the world.

Sep 202012
 

These occasional reviews may not interest regular readers of the blog, but I rely heavily on hotel reviews when planning my own travels and try to occasionally return the favor for the folks out there on Google. We paid full (if shockingly low! see below) price for our stay, and the Fairmont staff did not know that I’m a blogger.

In a display of terrible timing, emergency renovations forced us out of our home during our daughter’s first week of preschool. We would have been more upset, except that it was an excuse for our second visit to the Fairmont DC. We love the Fairmont DC.

The Fairmont is located at 24th and M St. NW, a few blocks from George Washington University and within hiking distance (~ 1/2 mile) of Georgetown’s main drag in one direction and Dupont Circle in the other. The immediate neighbors include the Westin and Park Hyatt, plus a handful of office buildings like the WWF and American College of Cardiology. Despite the corporate neighborhood, we found the area surprisingly welcoming for our daughter and our dog. One block north is an elementary school with swingset and play structures. One block west is a dog park. (The streets near the school and dog park also have regular openings for street parking, but beware the strictly enforced 2-hour time limit on weekdays.)

The Fairmont’s lobby and seating areas are lovely and relaxed, with marble floors, golden fixtures, and seating arranged in intimate groupings with views of the courtyard garden. As night falls, the abundant natural sunlight is replaced by a profusion of twinkling fairy lights around the courtyard. There’s an evening piano player, and the wingback chairs are surprisingly cushy. There’s something about the relaxed and welcoming, yet oh-so-posh, atmosphere that makes you want to settle in with a Fairmont specialty cocktail and a friend for a chat. (I settled in for a Diet Coke and the crossword. That was nice too.)

Before our first stay, we worried about bringing a preschooler and a dog somewhere so fancy. But in fact, both were given the utmost welcome. The Fairmont chain is so pet-friendly that some locations have “ambassador” dogs that guests can borrow for walks. There are no additional pet fees – just a damage waiver to sign and a promise that Fido won’t be left alone in the room. They even gave us a bag of handmade dog treats courtesy of the Executive Chef. And our daughter was given the royal treatment from everyone we met, from the doormen to the desk manager.

The standard guest rooms are … standard hotel guest rooms. However, every aspect is beautifully designed and the materials themselves are equally beautiful. During our first stay, my husband and I jokingly catalogued our complaints: after careful study, we found some scuffs on the baseboard paint in the closet and noticed that the clothes-drying line in the bathroom was a bit dingy. That was the extent of it. Everything else was thoughtfully perfect, from the tiny reading lights beside the beds to the well-located hidden outlet strips.

The standard room offered the choice of a king or two double beds, a desk work area, armchair, and mini-bar alcove. The bathroom was basic but decorated with the same thoughtful touches (right down to the hammered-metal holder for the spare toilet paper roll). The bureau revealed a Keurig with Green Mountain Coffee and electric tea kettle with Fairmont tea.

Our second stay was in a Corner Suite, so it was fun to compare the room options. The suite was much larger, with a full sitting area and tons of windows. Otherwise, the furnishings and overall feel were similar.

The hotel sent up a bottle of wine and some chocolate-covered strawberries as a treat for our first night in the suite. The accompanying card had a quote from Edgar Allen Poe about enthusiasm, which seemed well chosen for the Fairmont. All of the staff members that we met had a cheery attitude that spoke of enthusiasm for their surroundings.

There is a health club with pool / hot tub / saunas on the hotel’s lower floor. We had varied experiences in the pool — one visit was all older professionals swimming laps and the other was overrun by small children. The health club was swanky, with extensive locker rooms and a fancy coffee machine in the sitting area. Unfortunately, the health club charges a $15 fee to hotel guests. President’s Club members have the fee waived.

We also enjoyed fancy buffet breakfasts at Juniper during each stay. The food was perfectly prepared but very pricey. Sunday brunch was $48/person; weekday breakfast around $27. We took advantage of free dining credits from our Fairmont credit card. For less expensive options, I’d recommend the nearby Bread and Chocolate cafe (2301 M St.) or Trader Joe’s (1101 25th St.) for self-catering. If you do try Juniper, be sure to sample anything honey-based. The Fairmont has its own hive of honeybees on the roof.

So what does it cost for all this luxury? You might be surprised! Rates vary greatly according to occupancy and the existence of any specials. Regular rates can top $500/night for a standard room. But our first visit was on a $149/night special. Our most recent visit, during a week when DC was completely empty, saw rates fall to $103/night. My husband has the Fairmont credit card, which comes with perks like a complimentary upgrade certificate. He called in his upgrade and nabbed a 700-sf Corner Suite. For $103 night. And we were treated just as royally as if we’d paid the $700+/night regular price. We checked everything on Hotels.com before we thought to check the Fairmont site, and this rate was actually cheaper than chains like the Holiday Inn. I can’t guarantee that you’ll find a bargain for your travel dates, but the Fairmont is definitely worth checking!

Also, if you’re a Fairmont fan, I highly, highly recommend signing up for the President’s Club. It’s free, and at least in DC, membership gets you free health club access, free wireless Internet, and free newspapers in the morning. Totally worth a few minutes to fill out the form. We also love our Fairmont Visa credit card, which carries a $95 annual fee but doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and comes with a handful of valuable bonuses like 2 free nights at any Fairmont property in the world.