Tag Archives: Experience

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.

Scheveningen – Come Again?

Scheveningen - September 2013

Scheveningen – September 2013

Scheveningen may be the one of the most difficult Dutch words to pronounce for English speakers.  However, this beachfront destination shouldn’t be missed when visiting The Hague.

Scheveningen is located on the North Sea.  Its roots date back to the 12th century and before it became a travel destination for beachgoers, its main industry was fishing.

In fact, the painter Henrik Mesdag captured life in Scheveningen in 1881 in his famous work,  Panorama Mesdag.

***

I arrived in The Hague after a speedy two-and a-half hour train ride from Paris via Thalys, a Belgian rail company that serves Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne.  I checked into my hotel and decided to take a much-needed walk to stretch and enjoy natural air.  Plus, the skies were clear and the air was crisp, which was a welcomed change from my gloomy stay in Paris.

I’ve been to the North Sea three times, twice to Ostend, Belgium, and now Scheveningen.  Like most coastal areas, the weather can be erratic.  In the U.S., especially in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where my family lives, I’ve experienced these swift weather changes during hurricane season.  In the few hours I was in Scheveningen, I experienced sun, heavy cloud cover, drizzle, and strong gusts of wind.

Take an umbrella.

Shops, restaurants, and markets pepper the winding streets and it’s obvious that they swell with people and bustle during high season from June to August.   I was able to enjoy an intimate street market where I found food vendors, artists, and a guy selling old vinyl records.  Score!

In late September, Scheveningen was hushed and drawing its season to a close.  In any weather, however, The Hague is walkable with comfortable terrain.  If you’re adventurous, it’s also bikeable.  Trams and buses stop nearby making it a must-see destination while in The Hague for business or pleasure, in high season or low.  You’ll want to visit during your stay and you’ll definitely want to learn how to pronounce it to try and fit in with the locals.

Don’t miss the Panorama Mesdag.  You can find it here:

Zeestraat 65
2518 AA  Den Haag

Interested in snaps from The Hague and Amsterdam?  Visit the photo gallery.