How I Wish I Spent My Summer Vacation

It’s inevitable.  Your children grow up and go off to do cool things without you.  As of today, I have one daughter working on a project in Haiti, another in India working with a start-up company and the Youngest One milking cows and making cheese in Switzerland.  The first two situations keep me awake at night, imagining every hideous scenario that might befall them.  The Switzerland project..well, I’m a little more comfortable with that, although I read that 481 people were injured by cows this year in the UK. Yes, I googled it.  I’m a worrier.

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

Afternoon hike near Bretaye

The Youngest One pitched her Switzerland WWOOFing idea right around Christmas break.  WWOOF-ing, an awkward acronym for World-Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms, pairs interested workers with willing farmers in a (hopefully) beneficial partnership. The wwoofer stays on local farm to learn the ins and outs of organic farming and the farmer gets an extra pair of hands to help with farm work.  Summer jobs are hard, if not impossible to find as a university kid on a Tier 2 visa and WWOOFing fit nicely with her Sustainable Development major at uni and her love of all things food.  One planned farm stay turned into 5 farm stays across the UK and Switzerland.

Farm #1  Shopshire, England, 1 Week

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“Woofers” work 6 – 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week.  In exchange, the host farm provides housing, meals and an opportunity to learn the basics of running a farm.  At this particular farm, responsibilities included building a 30 foot polytunnel and extending a fruit cage and feeding/caring for the chickens.

Walks along the country lane

Walks along the country lane

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

A world-class balloonist lands on the farm.

It isn’t all work, however.  Evenings/the occasional day off are spent socializing with other woofers and the family, exploring the surrounding areas and soaking up a new experience.

Farm #2  nr Bretaye, Switzerland, 2 Weeks

Goat face!

Goat face!

The second farm was spectacularly located in the Swiss Alps.  Paul and his wife, farm owners for over 30 years, started taking in wwoofers 7 years ago to help with the with goats, dairy cows and drives to morning market.  This “alpage” farm provided the full experience…milking goats, mending fences, making/flipping/selling cheese, rounding up and milking cows, chopping wood and washing farm equipment.  While wwoofers think about the travel/work/experience balance, host farmers worry about wwoofers that cancel at the last minute, don’t show up at all or prove unwilling to share the workload.  In the end, it’s about balance and a shared experience.  When it all works, it’s a beautiful thing…wwoofers contribute and learn about organic farming, farmers benefit from motivated and energetic learners and both parties have a mutually beneficial cross-cultural experience.

Making the cheese...

Making the cheese…

Moooving the cows up the mountain

Moooving the cows up the mountain

** Photo credits/Madeline Belt

Things To Know:

WWOOFing is an international phenomenon.  Each country or region has its own WWOOFing database and registration fee, which makes it a bit cumbersome when choosing a farm. It’s best to choose the region you’re interested in and send off for information and listings.

Farms and projects vary widely, so do your homework before choosing one.  Talk to other WWOOFers, email the farmers, ask questions.  This is NOT a vacation and you will work hard, but it is also a great way to travel inexpensively, meet the locals, try a foreign language and help others along the way.

There are bad woofing stories out there…farmers taking advantage of free labor, accommodations not suitable for human habitation and unsafe working conditions.  To avoid a bad woofing experience:  1. Set clear expectations about work hours, accommodations, meals, language requirements and time off.  Ask about the kind of work you’ll be doing. 2.  Have a Plan B and a stash of cash.  In our house, we call it “getaway” money.  In case you have to, you know, get away.  There are also good wwoofing stories. Do your homework. 

Wwoof Independents has a great FAQ about being/hosting guests through WWOOF.

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The Mister Has a Birthday

I had a hard time choosing a title for this post.  “How I Slowly and Methodically Froze My Husband to Death in Paris on His Birthday” was too wordy.  “Never Chase a Hell’s Angel Tour Guide With a Baguette”  was a close second, but again, too wordy.  Also, the tour guide was the one with the baguette.  I had a camera. Story to follow.

Booking St P

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris more than once.  Such are the joys of living in London where the effort required to go to Paris is similar to the effort expended taking the train to New York from Connecticut.  I had great plans for The Mister’s special, special big-number birthday, starting with pre-trip drinks in the fabulous Booking Office at St. Pancras station.  I love the vibe of St. Pancras, with the beautiful kissing statue overlooking the train platforms, the gloriously fancy hotel adjacent to the station and the bustle of people off to exotic locals (ok, some are just going to Wimply-on-the-Marsh, but it’s fun to imagine).  After drinks, The Mister and I would gather ingredients for an en-route picnic from the epicurean delights found in Marks and Spencer…wine, cheese, something lovely to share as we planned our weekend in Paris.

St P statue

Of course, this was not to be.  The Mister was flying in from a business trip, ended up on a late flight and had just enough time to switch suitcases before we raced out to catch a cab.  We arrived at the station with 10 minutes to spare.  So, instead of pre-travel drinks and a lovely picnic dinner, we had soggy horseburgers hamburgers and wine in tiny bottles. Not to worry…we had days of wine sipping and fine dining ahead of us.

The Eurostar is a modern day marvel. Fast train, comfortable seats, no airport check-in.  We were in Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes, which was barely enough time for me to practice my “hailing a cab” and “giving the hotel address” in French.  It turns out that my anxiety was totally unfounded since my French is clearly unrecognizable as a foreign language.  I did try.  The cabbie blinked, stared and asked if I had the address written down.  Oh well. He was charming and patient, although he kept looking back in the rear view mirror and laughing.  We just told him we were Canadian.  It was clear from the beginning that French cabbies do not possess The Knowledge required of London cabbies but after a few minor detours, we pulled up in front of our little hotel and unloaded our luggage.   

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We chose the Hotel Luxembourg Parc because of its fabulous location and intimate size.  I like the Left Bank, its proximity to restaurants, Luxembourg Gardens, metro stations and things to do.  The hotel has a little bar in the lobby, a library, an enclosed courtyard and a tiny, glassed-in breakfast room. It isn’t over-the-top fancy, but it’s pretty and the hotel staff is warm, efficient and multinational.  Jules graciously tolerated my abysmal French (I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of “Good Day. I am the reservation.”) and whisked us off to our room overlooking the courtyard where, instead of planning our next day’s adventures, we promptly passed out and dreamt of long walks, chocolate chaud and afternoons spent in steamy French cafes.

Betwitched by The Witchery

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I was obsessed with the idea of staying at this “restaurant with rooms” the moment I saw it mentioned in a travel magazine (thanks, Marissa). The Witchery by the Castle stands in the heart of the Old City, steps below Edinburgh’s beautiful castle.  Suites are often booked months in advance and fall into the “special occasion” price category with rare exception. I rationalized The Mister’s 50th birthday combined with Valentine’s Day combined with a visit with Daughter #3 qualified as a “special occasion x 3.”   I can rationalize anything if I want it badly enough and I’m sure you would agree a stay was justified.   Alas, we did not dine at The Witchery Restaurant, but we did have the good fortune to book one of the eight sumptuously decorated suites for our weekend in Edinburgh.

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The suites are housed in a collection of  buildings dating back to 1635 and restored to their present glory by brilliant owner and restauranteur, James Thompson.   After a fast and comfortable train trip from London, we walked up (and I mean UP) the hill to The Witchery. Roxy met us at reception and happily lugged our suitcases up the winding stone staircase and stopped at a heavy, wooden door with a brass plate stamped “The Library.”  It would be an understatement to describe the Library Suite as opulent, decadent, and luxurious. The antique-filled, almost theatrical decor wraps guests in a transformative experience.  It was hard not to “ooohhh and ahhhhh” my way around the suite as Roxy uncovered hidden door after hidden door.   Champagne upon arrival, breakfast hampers in bed, luxurious bathrooms hidden behind book-lined  doorways, bathtubs for two and discreet, attentive service are all part of The Witchery experience.

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Our stay at The Witchery was the first time in my life I ceased to care about touring schedules, event agendas or ticking off sites in a city.  I just wanted to stay in our fabulous little bolt-hole in Edinburgh and luxuriate in my surroundings. I suggest you do the same.

Things to know:

There are 8 Witchery suites:  The Library, Inner Sanctum, Old Rectory, Vestry, Armory, Semphill, Guardroom  and the Heriot.  No two are alike, so spend your time choosing a favorite here .  I’ll have to go and stay 7 more times to determine which suite I think is best.  I’ll do it for you.

The suites do book up quickly.  I booked 5 months ahead.  Check their website for offers.

The Witchery is centrally located on the Royal Mile.  It was very quiet when we were staying (off-season), but if you are concerned with noise from the potentially busy street, choose a suite without street-facing windows.

The Witchery has a “sister” hotel adjacent to Royal Holyrood Park, a short distance from the Royal Mile. You can find details at Prestonfield House .

Travel More, Spend Less

My last post included a travel list for 2013.  I created a calendar grid, started the requisite research and examined the travel budget. Sadly,my travel bucket list will max out my travel budget restrictions in very short order.  It’s time to get creative.  I sang the praises of home and flat rentals in a previous post and plan on staying in quite a few, but this year’s travel plans will require some additional financial and logistical creativity.  Enter Dalene and Peter Heck of HeckticTravels.

Darlene and Peter gave up corporate life to travel the world.  Does it sound inspiring, but impossible?  I thought so too until I discovered that they are “expert” world travelers/house-sitters and wrote a book to guide potential house-sitters through the process. Their blog outlines their motivation for their slow-travel lifestyle, includes stunning photos and advice about living a life of travel.  Honestly, it’s a great read.  You should subscribe. I’ve spent hours during the holidays on their site and  I blame them for my lack of posts lately (that and the fact we are back in the US for a bit).

Inspired by their advice, I researched two housesitting sites TrustedHouseSitters.com  and Housecarers.com.  Both sites allow non-registered users to peruse their listings before deciding to (or not to) register on the site as official house-sitters. There were intriguing opportunities for long weekend and multiple month sittings in the UK, France, New Zealand and Italy.  Most listings required pet-care responsibilities, which suits me just fine. I love the idea of living someone else’s life for a week or two or ten in exchange for a little dog/cat/sheep/chicken watching and gardening. It doesn’t even matter where…I registered with TrustedHouseSitters, created an online profile and paid my registration fee.  I wonder where our first housesitting experience will be?!

Are you a house-sitter with a little advice or experience?  Have you ever taken on a house-sitting opportunity ?  I’d love to hear from  you!

No Room at the Inn? Accommodations in London

The New Year is nigh and that means only one thing in our household…time to update the travel calendar.  We are sorting through bucket lists, reading our new travel books and preparing to beg for vacation time.

In the meantime, we are blocking off sections of our “in London” calendar and making arrangements to host a steady stream of visitors, commencing with Youngest Daughter’s university friends.  I love uni kids…all they care about is a place to sleep (actual bed not required) and  a lot of home cooking. They have no standards for decor or space, which makes them perfect guests in The Closet.

We’re also excited to have and host guests throughout the spring and summer. How exciting and, well, a little stressful.  The Closet is perfectly suited for The Mister and Me.  Or The Mister and Me and The Children.  Or The Mister and Me and 2 guests who really, really, really like each other.  Anything in excess of that gets a little hairy.

Our solution?  Alternate accommodations.  I have a handful of favorite hotels in London (there is a post in the making) but when we travel en masse or need to host a family or large group, we let houses and flats.  It allows everyone to spend time together and it can be quite cost effective in places that only allow 2/3 people in a hotel room (I’m looking at you, London). Renting a holiday home is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I adore it.

luxury service hotel

Before considering a flat or home rental, do an honest assessment of your traveling personality.  Do you require nightly turndown service or are you happy to fluff your own coverlet and eat chocolate from a tin? Do you want your breakfast delivered by Pierre via trolley or are you content to munch muesli downstairs with the kids? Does the idea of exploring the local markets and making dinner every night (not necessary, but an option in a home rental) make you weep or rejoice?  Do you mind paying extra baggage fees to ensure you have enough clean knickers for a 2 week vacation or are you willing to risk the vagaries of a foreign washing machines?  Think long and hard about renting a home instead of booking a hotel.

favorite manor/somerset

The benefits of letting a holiday home/flat?  It allows you to live vicariously in someone else’s home/town as a local.  It allows you to have a nap in the afternoon without interrupting the housekeeping staff.  It allows you to have coffee in your pajamas or fix a snack at 1:00am when you are jetlagged and most importantly, it allows you some personal space.  We’ve rented tiny, thatched cottages in the Cotswolds, the wing of a manor house in Somerset (it had an Opium Den…long story), a manor house in its entirety in the Yorkshire Dales and a mill house (dated 1120!) in Devon.  All in all, we’ve let over 30 homes in the UK alone. Well over that if we include the US and other countries. Our children often told us that the houses we let were the most memorable part of our holidays!

Great Tew

Some of the most important issues when considering a letting is budget, location, quality of letting and the size of your party.  Ask questions, deal with reputable agencies, check property reviews online if available.  We’ve had consistently good experiences with the following agencies for country properties and plan on using them again for our spring travels.

Rural Retreats

English/Scottish/Wales Country Cottages

I find city flat and home lettings a bit more difficult, usually because there are fewer properties available. I am excited about investigating One Fine Stay, a relatively new company with an extensive collection of well-vetted properties and an excellent reputation.  You can use their website to search by location, party size, type of property, view, architectural and/or design preference.  If I win the lottery, I’m staying in all of them.

I’ve already written a review of the flat we stayed in when we first moved to London.  You can read my review about Bridge Street King’s Wardrobe apartments here...

If you have any questions, feel free to send an email @ explatLondon (dot) gmail (dot) com