Category Archives: Destinations

Eat: Gettin’ Greedy in Mile End – East London

Greedy Cow - East End, London (Photo Courtesy of @greedycow - Twitter)

Greedy Cow – East End, London (Photo Courtesy of @greedycow – Twitter)

If you’re visiting London’s East End, you must eat at the Greedy Cow.  Period.

Let’s step back for a second.

A lot of first-time visitors to London may be worried about food choices given the long-held generalization that British food is bland and boring.

However, over the years, London has traded in its tarnished medal of culinary dishonor for a shiny gold star–and in many cases, several.  The city is culturally rich and there’s no better place to take advantage of its diversity than in the East End.

I mentioned in my last post that I had been traveling with my parents in London.  After a lot of walking and sightseeing, we needed a restaurant that served hearty food to accommodate everyone’s palates.

The Greedy Cow on Grove Road, located a block from the Mile End Underground Station (Central, District, and Hammersmith & City lines) offered fresh, satisfying food, a comfortable atmosphere, and choices ranging from new twists on old British favorites to the exotic.

The restaurant’s website states that its mission is to provide food that “fills your stomach without emptying your wallet”.  The Greedy Cow delivered on its promise.

We started with the fish cakes and an order of potato wedges.  The portion size was just enough to sample without all of the greasiness of traditional fish and chips.  The side condiments of garlic mayonnaise and dill sauce were great complements and didn’t weigh down the food.

On to the main dishes:  the Greedy Burgers.  The Greedy Cow serves beef that is raised in Britain, and also offers more exotic meats such as kangaroo and crocodile, to name a few.

I opted to stay a little on the safe side and ordered the Jamaican burger.  It had the kick of jerk seasoning mixed with a sweet, refreshing mango chutney.  I was overwhelmed by how clean and flavorful the burger was without the taste mixtures being too overpowering.

In addition to the new spin on old favorites, what I also liked about the restaurant was that it was intimate with well-paced service.

During our seven-day stay in Bow, we ate at the Greedy Cow twice for dinner and were not disappointed on either visit.

If you are staying in or visiting the East End and expect traditional food to be bland and unimaginative, think again.  The Greedy Cow delivers flavor, value, and pleasant service.

The Greedy Cow
2 Grove Road
London, E3
http://www.greedycow.com

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

 

 

 

Sleep: Bow Apartment in London’s East End

Bow Road - Underground

Bow Road – Underground

In my last post, I discussed some of the advantages of renting an apartment or house over staying in a hotel while on vacation.

A rental can be advantageous if you:  want creature comforts such as a kitchen or in-unit laundry; need more space if traveling with others; or are arranging a trip where you want to stay in a fixed location with opportunities to take day trips to nearby destinations.

Sometimes, you just want to stay in an unfamiliar part of a city to get away from the bustle and experience something new that the average tourist wouldn’t see.

All of the above defined our experience in Bow, in London’s East End.

The Bow district, where the Bow Apartment is located, is in the culturally rich Tower Hamlets borough of East London.  Suffering extensive damage from bombings in World War II and having a history of crime and poverty, the borough has been reinventing itself over the years and has become an attractive area to visit or call home.  In fact, nearby Stratford was selected to house Olympic Park, where the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games were held.

Bow shares the borough with nearby Canary Wharf, the redeveloped financial district of shimmering glass buildings; Whitechapel, home of the infamous “Whitechapel Murders” that took place in the late 19th century; and Mile End, to name a few.  The lush and expansive Victoria Park is also located in Tower Hamlets and offers plenty of green space for sports and relaxation.

The Bow Apartment is located less than a block from the Bow Road Underground Station on the District and Hammersmith & City lines.  It’s also a 10-minute walk from the Mile End Underground Station offering the fastest transportation to Covent Garden, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Oxford Circus.  The Bow Church DLR station, located minutes east of the Bow Apartment  offers transportation to Canary Wharf and Greenwich.  Interested in enjoying late night London while riding a double-decker bus?  The 25 bus stops in front of the Bow Apartment, runs 24 hours a day, and will drop you off in Central London.

The secure apartment is on the first floor of a historic residence with only a few steps to climb, making it perfect for those who have difficulty climbing stairs.  The main entrance and unit are secured and are accessed with separate keys.

Inside, the apartment contains two chic and well-appointed bedrooms with ample dresser and wardrobe space, a small but functional bathroom, modern kitchen, and a comfortable sofa to stretch out on after a long day of exploring.  Interested in cooking?  The apartment has a range, oven, microwave, and dishwasher.  Plates, cups, and utensils are also provided.

Nowadays, customers are demanding Wi-Fi in every rental.  Wi-Fi is included in the Bow Apartment rental and I found the signal to be strong.

One important selling point not found in many of the apartments we researched was the in-unit washer/dryer located in the kitchen.  Use of the washer/dryer is included in the rental and helps to lighten your load, so to speak, creating more room in your suitcase for souvenirs.

Finally, what made our stay particularly enjoyable was the welcome we received from the owner Babs.  Our flight arrived early on a Saturday and we were weary from our journey, not to mention exhausted from dragging our baggage halfway across the city from the airport on the Underground.

Babs accommodated our earlier check-in and gave us a detailed tour of the apartment with instructions on how to use all of the gadgets and appliances.  He also gave us his cell phone number in case of an emergency.

We only had two complaints.  While the neighborhood is plentiful with restaurants and pubs, it lacks a decent market.  We had our choice between a neglected Tesco and a mini-mart connected to a gas station.  However, we took advantage of the Tesco and Sainsbury’s in and around places we were sightseeing and brought back fruit and snacks.  We also visited the Borough Market near the Southwark Cathedral where we bought paella with chorizo and homemade meat pies to take back to the apartment.  (They also traveled well on the Underground.)

The other complaint (which is more of a suggestion) is that the owner requires the tenants to wash and dry all of the towels and linens, clean the kitchen and bathroom, and sweep the floors prior to departure.  Given the stress involved in repacking for an early flight the following day while wanting to enjoy the last night at the Bow Apartment, I’d suggest hiring a cleaning crew and either include it in the rental or give the tenant the option to choose if he or she wants to add the service or clean the apartment.

All things considered, our stay at Bow Apartment in the quirky and out-of-the way borough of Tower Hamlets provided us with an opportunity to live like a local, knock around a side of London not usually experienced by tourists, and bounce west within the city by tube and bus and even farther west by train to Wales.

Booking details can be found here.

Interested in snaps from London?  Visit the photo gallery.

Sleep: Your Home Away in London Town

Bow Apartment - London

Bow Apartment – London

A few years back, pop star Gwen Stefani’s song “Rich Girl” featured a line that talked about booking a first-class ticket to a fancy house in London town.  (I’m paraphrasing.)

Chances are, Gwen Stefani is neither reading this post, nor does she have to worry about money.  However, if you’re like me, are on a budget, and traveling with parents, you may be wondering how to maximize your experience without worrying about spending a lot.

Let’s put it out there.  The British pound’s exchange rate has been worse for Americans than the Euro’s. London is also an expensive city to visit.

Should that dissuade you from visiting and taking advantage of the history, culture, sights, and diverse gastronomy?  I’m biased because I love to travel, so I’ll say no; don’t let higher expenses stop you.

Aside from getting to London, your biggest expense will probably be sleeping in London.  You have several choices:  friends, hostels, hotels, guesthouses, or apartments.  Since I was traveling with parents, and none of us had ever been to the U.K., I wanted to set up house, so to speak, somewhere that offered space, good transportation, safety, and local flair.

Web sites like VRBO, Airbnb, and HomeAway, and Booking.com, to name a few, have exploded in popularity, offering several, often cheaper alternatives to hotels and hostels.  The sites offer anything from full-service aparthotels and studio apartments for one person, to larger apartments and homes for several.  To date, I’ve had positive experiences going the non-hotel route when staying in Brussels, Rome, Montréal, and London.

If you don’t mind doing a little research and asking questions, you can find your perfect vacation rental in London town or anywhere else you decide to visit.

Here are some tips:

  • Read reviews and cross-reference them.  If you are on one site such as Home Away, visit another like Trip Advisor to see what people are saying about the property that interests you.  Chances are, if it’s an apartment or house, reviewers tend to be honest and detailed about the location, check in/out process, and amenities.  Large hotels, on the other hand, can receive a smattering of positive and negative reviews simply because people have different experiences based on the room they’re in.
  • Use a reputable rental site such as VRBO or Home Away.  Both provide rental protection in case you need to cancel or if you arrive and the property is not as advertised.  I steer clear of Craigslist for rentals since many have been known to be scams.  You don’t want to arrive in another city halfway around the world with no place to stay.
  • Contact the owner with your questions first before booking.  Sites such as VRBO and Holiday Lettings, among others, have a contact form where you can ask a few simple questions and get a response by e-mail.
  • Be mindful of the check-in/check-out guidelines for each rental.  If your flight, for example, arrives at 7 a.m. and check-in is at 3 p.m., ask for an earlier check-in or if there’s a place to store baggage while the apartment or house is being prepared.
  • Most rentals I’ve used require a deposit for booking.  Never send cash or wire money that can’t be traced or re-claimed (e.g., money order, MoneyGram, Western Union etc.). Many proprietors in Europe, for example, ask for money to be wired to them through a bank transfer.  This process is safer because your money can be traced and you can take action to try to get a refund if you suspect fraud.  Always check with your bank first on their guidelines and ask questions about “what ifs” if you are using a wire transfer for the first time.  My experience is that transfers can cost up to $35.  It’s worth looking into to send money safely.  Other options are Paypal and Google Wallet.
  • Finally, be aware of your online “social presence”.  Airbnb, for example, asks you to create a simple profile when you register.  Property owners can get a glimpse of who you are and your interests.  Like any social media-related site you may use, impressions can be indelible.  Make sure you have an appropriate photo and description that shows you’re responsible and would be a good caretaker of a property rental.

There are certainly more and if you have any suggestions, leave them in the comments.

London town, or wherever you land doesn’t have to break the bank.  Your accommodations can even provide you with creature comforts of home if you want to just kick back and relax.  Isn’t that what vacation is for?

Up next, I’ll review our apartment rental in East London.

Weekender: Not the Standard Brunch & Brew

Starr Hill Brewery - Crozet, Va.

Starr Hill Brewery – Crozet, Va.

I haven’t owned a car for six years.  It’s both a benefit and a drawback.  Not owning a car forces me to be creative and make concerted efforts to leave Washington when I can.

Charlottesville, Va., home of the University of Virginia, is about a three-hour train ride from Washington and costs a fraction to visit compared to New York or Philadelphia.  Enterprise will also arrange to pick you up at the train station so you can rent a car to see the city and points nearby like Crozet, Barboursville, Ruckersville, and Stanardsville, to name a few.

Virginia is known for its wine and it produces some of the best in the country.  However, did you know that Virginia is home to over 60 breweries with several in the vicinity of Charlottesville?

If you like brunch and beer as I do, you won’t want to miss The Standard on Main Street in Stanardsville for brunch and Starr Hill brewery in Crozet for a tour and tasting.

The Standard - Stanardsville, VA

The Standard – Stanardsville, VA
Photo Courtesy of Kris Seale

In a previous post, I stated that I am not a food critic.  What I do know is that I enjoy clean, local food served in a welcoming environment.  While its name is a bit of a misnomer, The Standard offers both.

The Standard promotes community involvement.  The day I visited with my family, meals were being served by a group of middle-school students who were raising money to go to the Galapagos Islands on a service project.  Great food and the opportunity to encourage students to explore the world while helping others?  I couldn’t have tipped enough.

After a filling and lazy brunch, we hopped in the car and headed for Crozet, which is a scenic 50 minute drive from Stanardsville.

Crozet, Va., is the home of Starr Hill brewery.  Starr Hill was founded in the late 90’s and I’ve found their products in Washington at Whole Foods Market and other restaurants and bars around town.

What marked the experience as a “must do” was the well-organized tour of the facility where you are taken through the brewing process from grain selection to distribution.  Starr Hill also offers a tasting room where you can sample their year-round and seasonal brews.

Did you grow up in the Mid-Atlantic and want to feel nostalgic?  Grab a bottle of Starr Hill malt vinegar to put on home-cooked French fries and remember those days spent on the boardwalk at the Maryland and Delaware beaches.

Charlottesville isn’t your standard college town.  Drive around and you’ll see.  Be sure, however, to ask residents about their favorite destinations.  You may find some out-of-the-way treasures like The Standard or Starr Hill brewery just a short distance from Charlottesville, Washington, and Richmond.

Also, don’t sweat not owning a car.  Get creative and get there:

The Standard
76 Main Street
Stanardsville, VA

Starr Hill Brewery
5391 Notch’d Road
Crozet, VA

Flying with the Aigles

Leysin, Switzerland

Leysin, Switzerland

Aigle, situated in the Vaud Alps and resting on the eastern side of Lake Geneva, serves as a base for poking around points skyward like Leysin and Berneuse.

What drew us to the area was the opportunity to view the impressive Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the EU.

Aigle (translation:  eagle), is reachable by train from Lausanne in about 30 minutes.  The area offers opportunities for sightseeing, hiking, skiing, and relaxation.

From Aigle, you will need to hop on a cog wheel train to get to Leysin.  Not familiar?  Cog wheel trains act like the hook and chain mechanism of a roller coaster–guiding cars up steep grades.  In the U.S., you can experience a cog wheel train in Colorado as you climb to the top of Pike’s Peak.

During your journey to Leysin, make sure you take advantage of the slow-moving train by capturing photos of the postcard-perfect towns below.

Being a gloomy Monday during the shoulder season, I didn’t think Leysin was going to offer much.  We were also coming off of a pleasant-weather high from the weekend.  Honestly, we were just looking for something to do and see with few expectations.  We were both wrong and impressed.

A short walk from the resorts and international schools of Leysin is a cable car system that seats four people per car.  Now, I don’t like heights and I don’t like confinement.  In fact, I get panicky in either situation.

Don’t let either stop you.  You can handle it and the payoff is worth it.

Berneuse, Switzerland

Berneuse, Switzerland

Even on a cloudy day in Aigle and Leysin with zero chance of burn off and an ever-increasing chance of rain, Berneuse offers a dry and snowy atmosphere for gazing and picture taking.

The summit sits 6,700 plus feet above sea level.  It’s a little less than half of the elevation of Pike’s Peak which is 14,114 feet.

Berneuse offers views of the plush, green valley, town of Aigle, Lake Geneva (when clear), and Mont Blanc in the distance.

Hungry?  Warm up at Kuklos, a revolving restaurant atop Berneuse that offers regional food and lunch specials.

Berneuse provides an astonishing view during your stay in Lake Geneva and an alternative to visiting Mount Pilatus if your stay is limited and you can’t get to Lucerne.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Cruise to Switzerland

bdennisreid

Nyon, Switzerland – May 2013

Switzerland is landlocked by France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and Liechtenstein.

However, it’s not difficult to enter and exit the euro zone by boat when staying in the Lake Geneva area.  In fact, during our trip, my parents were disappointed that there was no checkpoint in France to add another stamp in their passports.

Lake Geneva (locally, Lac Léman) is surrounded by the Alps and Jura mountain ranges.  While we were able to admire the mountains high atop Berneuse and at the overlook of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Old Town Lausanne, we gained a different perspective of how vast and glorious the jagged and snow-capped mountains were by boat.

Lake cruises can be expensive especially when you factor in the luxury lines that serve meals.  I say this not to suggest that you shouldn’t take a cruise along the lake.  There is a cheaper alternative for your journey.

The CGN’s Navimobilité runs passenger ferries to points in Yvoire, Évian-les-Bains, (yes, that Évian), Thonon-les-Bains, and Chens-sur-Léman, France, and Nyon and Lausanne in Switzerland.  The CGN Mobilité is a public transportation system that operates ferries year round via the N1, N2, N3, and N4 lines.

Some things to remember:

  • Take your passport.  While we didn’t encounter checkpoints, we also didn’t want our excursion ruined if stopped.
  • Pay careful attention to the line you want to use for your destination across the lake.  Each line only connects to one destination.  For example, if you are in Lausanne, and want to get to Yvoire, France, you may want to consider taking the train to Nyon and crossing the lake on the N3.
  • Beware that although the ferries run year round, schedules may be reduced or cut on the weekends during low season.
  • Save some money and skip the first-class ticket, which runs about CHF32 to CHF77 depending on the destination.  Second-class tickets (CHF 32 to roughly CHF55) still offer comfortable seating and chances are, you’ll want to move around and take pictures during the cruise.
  • Want to hop through France during the day?  Trains from Thonon-les-Bains to Évian-les-Bains, for example, run frequently and only cost roughly €12-15.  Be sure you don’t miss Yvoire, a medieval city that is said to be one of the prettiest destinations in the Rhône-Alpes region.
  • Regarding currency, remember that crossing in and out of the euro zone means that you’ll be using different currency.  While some proprietors in France, for example, may accept Swiss francs, many do not.  You should have some Euros on hand for shopping or grabbing food.

Above all, be sure to look out and up at your surroundings.  Your journey to either country offers a picturesque landscape at sea and on land.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.

Weekender: Autumn Running

U.S. Capitol - Washington, DC

U.S. Capitol – Washington, DC

In my opinion, autumn is the best season in Washington for outdoor enthusiasts.  By late September, winds and lingering summer storms have swept the haze and humidity out of the city making room for crisp days and chilly nights.

For someone who loathes summers in Washington, I welcome autumn not only for the weather but for the abundance of races like the Army 10-Miler and neighborhood Turkey Trots on Thanksgiving.

Last week, The Washington Post ran an article about Washingtonians’ obsession with running.  The article suggested that the reason there are so many runners in the city is not due to the climate and terrain, but because Washingtonians are (stereotypically) more competitive and driven.

I don’t necessarily agree.

Washingtonians deal with extremes:  oppressive summers, crippling traffic, and self-induced job stress, to name a few.

We also know how to blow off steam, whether it’s checking out the newest neighborhood watering hole or getting up early to run on the mall, through Rock Creek Park, or along the Potomac River on the Mount Vernon Trail.

This autumn, consider walking, running, or biking the sights and take advantage of Washington’s history and flat terrain while lifting the mood and reducing stress.

Our days are numbered as we inch closer to the gray winter months.  Set a personal goal, sign up for a race, and get out there.  The city’s sights, set against blue backdrops and accented with vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows are yours for the taking.

Eat & Sleep: Francs and Beans

bdennisreid

bdennisreid

Switzerland can be yours for fewer francs than you may realize.

The landlocked country offers limitless opportunities for sightseeing and experiences for those who love to get out and explore the natural world.  From hiking through the snow in Leysin, to climbing a church tower in Bern or Fribourg, boredom has a scant chance of creeping in during a visit.

Ask a person what they think of when you mention Switzerland, and they’ll probably respond with:  The Alps, chocolate, knives, and watches.

However, how do you respond when the person clutches his or her proverbial purse strings and responds with “a post-vacation diet of beans”, like a friend of mine did when I mentioned I was traveling to Lake Geneva with my parents last May?

My friend’s response was somewhat fair.  According to Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, Geneva, Zurich, and Bern have found themselves in a Top 10 list of the most expensive cities for expatriates in 2013.  A quick cost-of-living comparison on Numbeo, a site that itemizes expenditures such as meals at restaurants, transportation, apartment rentals, and groceries, among others, confirmed that our destination in Lake Geneva was going to be higher than Washington, DC and much higher than coastal North Carolina where my parents live.

Even though other countries in the euro zone surround Switzerland, its form of currency is the Swiss franc, abbreviated as CHF.  Back when I was planning the trip, research confirmed that compared to the U.S. dollar, there was about a one-dollar-to-one-Swiss-franc exchange rate with a few extra pennies thrown across the Atlantic in the direction of Switzerland.  The comparison gave me some relief that the trip wouldn’t result in being “travel poor” even though goods and services are more expensive than what I was accustomed to in Washington.

I argue that frugal travelers can live rich while on vacation when they subtract expensive hotels, extravagant meals, and pricey tourist traps, and add free outdoor sightseeing excursions, low-cost cultural activities, and flavorful regional meals at cafés, sandwich shops, and walk-up food kiosks.

Minus a few meal splurges, we used our trips to the Coop and Migros supermarkets to our advantage.   First, we bought fresh fruit and non-perishables for breakfast and on-the-go snacks.  Second, several supermarkets have restaurants where we ate salads, quiches, sandwiches, and hearty meals (served on ceramic dishes and not on paper plates or in wrappers) while overlooking Lake Geneva into France.  Compared to full-service restaurant dining, we dined on fresh food for about 15-20 CHF per person.

Lodging wise, Geneva was out of the question not due to price, but availability.  Affordable hotels and apartments just weren’t available for the dates we selected.  Widening the search, I discovered Lausanne, the second-largest city on Lake Geneva.  Staying in Lausanne proved to be the best choice because it offered easy access by bus, light rail, train, and boat to the sites surrounding the Lake since it’s location is a little more than halfway between Geneva and Montreux.

Out of our choices, the Ibis Lausanne Centre won. Like any chain, I had heard good and bad things and had experienced excellent service and cleanliness in one city, and near paltry conditions in another.

The Ibis Lausanne Centre is a newer property with modern room decor, fresh bedding, wood floors cleaned daily, a large shower, and best of all, a price tag that allowed for separate rooms for my parents and me.  Much like its environs on Lake Geneva, the hotel is immaculate.  It also offers an efficient check-in/out process and coffee service in the morning that complemented our light breakfast.

As a bonus, the property throws in a public transportation pass (Lausanne only) for the duration of the stay, which came in handy for those days when we were too sore to hike from the train station uphill to the hotel via Avenue de Beaulieu.  The 3 and the 21 buses service the Lausanne Gare station and stop next to the hotel.  Also, the Riponne light rail station on the m2 line is a short walk from the hotel in a bustling shopping district and in a six stops will take you Lake Geneva.

The only complaint was that the rooms didn’t cool off during the first few days of the visit.  We were told by a front desk attendant that there was a hotel-wide outage with the air conditioning system.  However, the issue was fixed within a day and lucky for us, the remainder of the trip was cool and rainy making sleeping at night comfortable in an otherwise stuffy room.

One word about the flight cost to Geneva…I am not United Airlines’ biggest fan.  I’ve been delayed several times when traveling overseas and have found the response from employees to be lackluster as if delays are the norm and not the exception.  However, my non-stop flight from Washington, Dulles was only $950, and my parents’ flight that originated in Norfolk and connected through Dulles was around $925 per ticket, making it a cheaper destination for the time of year over other destinations such as Paris.

Therefore, consider Switzerland and rest easy knowing that you can fly, buy, eat, and sleep without becoming “vacation poor”, thus allowing you to experience all that this stunning  country offers.

In my next posts, I’ll discuss “leaving” the EU and high-altitude anxiety.

Interested in snaps from Switzerland and the Lake Geneva area?  Visit the photo gallery.