London: A Tour of Middle Class Interiors

photo courtesy of Geffrye Museum
photo courtesy of Geffrye Museum

For nearly a century, the Geffrye Museum has been leading visitors-in-the-know on a thoroughly comprehensive tour of urban English interiors. A series of historic 18th-century almhouses offers a chronological array of period rooms that begins in the 1600s, and extends to the Victorian era. A newer wing moves into the turn- of-the- 20th-century with a look at Edwardian decor, then proceeds into the bleak privation of the 1940s, before emerging triumphantly with a 1950/1960s modern flat, and ending in the age of “cool Britain”: a converted warehouse from the ’90s.”

A special exhibit, “At Home in a High Rise,” peeks into the living rooms of 46 flats in one building in London’s Battersea neighborhood, ast they were when photographer Mark Cowper knocked on the occupants’ door. It’s on until the end of this month and brings the museum’s mission– to document ordinary British interiors– right up to the present.

Located off the beaten track in a funkily shabby East London neighborhood, the Geffrye is also well-regarded for its lovely period gardens, alive with roses, boxwood, and foxgloves in the summer, as well as a walled garden featuring 170 herbs.

Indoors, panelling, carpeting, paintings, decorative objects, and furniture also blossom, creating vignettes redolent of the daily lives of middle class Londoners. The Regency room, for example, features a mahogany sofa upholstered in Wedgwood-hued silk, and tables laden with silver lustre teaware, Reeves and Sons watercolors, and ivory and mahogany game boards. One room over, the mid-Victorian room with its autumnal colors and vibrant patterns offers a marked contrast to its serene neighbor.

It’s a perfect Geffrye moment, one where the spare and the cluttered, the light and the dark, the ornate and the simple engage in the ever-fashionable, ever-fickle dance of design sensibilities. Information: www.geffrye-museum.org.uk

Rathlin Island: Near, but oh-so-far, from Belfast

photo by Emilie Harting
photo by Emilie Harting

After driving up Northern Ireland’s dramatic coast to the Giant’s Causeway and the Glens of Antrim, hikers, birdwatchers and divers may want to take the ferry to Rathlin Island, a four mile by one mile nature reserve with a population of . . . eighty-two.

Stillness rules here, where all that is between man and the top of the world is the sound of buzzards, ravens, oyster catchers, wrens, snipes, white throats, and other birds. Seals slip on and off rocks in the bays. Yellow gorse, wild orchids, irises, and other wildflowers crop up among the rocks and rough grasses. White hawthorne flows over stonewalls and ruins of farms. Few trees grow on the undulating hills of grass and rock.

From April to August, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, and kittiwakes live and breed together in harmony on the western side, four miles from the harbor. When the young mature, they go out to sea for the remainder of the year. At the bird viewing point, the craggy basalt cliffs and rock columns rising up from the water are covered with thousands of swirling white dots. Mothers have burrowed nests in the cracks and hover about tending their young.

Bike and walking trails lead from the harbor to lighthouses, a cave where the Scottish king took refuge after being driven away by Edward I of England, and south past small lakes to Rue Point, and the open ruins of smugglers’ storehouses. There, seabirds cackle loudly overhead, while seals swim about, and views of the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland and the Antrim Coast are seldom far from sight.

An ardent hiker could walk fifteen miles in a day. However, small buses run intermittently to the bird sanctuary area, where it is a mile walk back and forth to the lookout station. B and Bs include Coolnagrock (http://tinyurl.com/lfazwl and the Manor House (http://tinyurl.com/lve5ew), a National Trust property whose pub offers a lively evening gathering place.

Paul Quinn, a knowledgeable local guide, gives walking tours. Information: www.rathlinwalkingtours.com

Paris: Ooh La La Lafayette

Its fabulous Belle Epoque stained glass and steel dome is only the beginning of the treasures offered at Galeries Lafayette, Paris’ oldest and largest department store.

photo by Stacia Friedman
photo by Stacia Friedman

If I could live (and die) in a department store, it would be Galeries Lafayette in Paris. The terrace offers a 360 view of the City of Lights– see my photo, left. The store’s three buildings– for les femmes, les hommes, and la maison (home decor)– each feature cafes, patisseries and wine bars. A beauty salon and a full service spa further tantalize.

You can walk in naked (with a credit card) and walk out in the height of fashion.

The first time I visited Paris’ oldest and largest department store I was nineteen years old and determined to trade in my t-shirt and jeans for some instant Parisian chic. I bought a filmy, yellow chiffon, A-line dress and had my hair cut and styled in the salon. (I swear that dress would still be in style today!)

These days, I’m not looking for “chic” as much as for unique brands not readily available in the states, like Reny Durhy. Very Bo-Ho. No matter what your age or size, check out Galeries Lafayette’s junior department in the basement. Fun stuff at rock-around-the-clock prices. This time I also took advantage of the free Friday fashion show. This is a hot ticket, so make reservations in advance online.

When you hit that wall of shopping fatigue, head to the food court- which, needless to say, is nothing like the local mall. Its selection of gourmet cuisine is as seductive as the store’s eye-popping lingerie department. Only here, you get plenty of ooo-la-la without melting your wallet.

Best time to go? When everything in Galeries Lafayette– and “tout Paris”– is on sale at 70% off, from January 15th through February. Hotels and airfares are also at their lowest. No lines at museums. Show your passport and receive a 12% tax refund when you spend over 175 Euros — don’t worry, you will! Information: www.galerieslafayette.com

For a look at another Parisian shopping experience, join Caroline Tiger on a tour of the City of Light’s “puces,” or flea markets.

Philadelphia: On Bike and Skate

A Saturday morning in August finds me swishing across Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion Bridge on my skates, heading for West River Drive. Cyclists pass in both directions but there’s plenty of room for us all. Every weekend from April to November, the drive along the Schuylkill River’s west bank is closed to vehicle traffic so cyclists, joggers and inline skaters have the luxury of four asphalt lanes winding past the tree-lined river.

View of the Fairmount Water Works and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Cathleen McCarthy
View of Fairmount Water Works and Philadelphia Museum of Art from West River Drive. Photo by Cathleen McCarthy

Philadelphia has a quirky beauty: part old-European elegance, part urban funk. It’s a city designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and that intimacy of scale makes it nice for bikers and skaters too. According to the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, bicycling in the city has doubled since 2005 and is about to get even more popular. This summer, the city approved a plan to turn a traffic lane of Pine and Spruce streets into one-way bike lanes, which will make it blissfully easy to get from Rittenhouse Square to Society Hill on two wheels.

For a more adrenaline-fueled tour, join the Philadelphia Landskaters on one of their weekly city skates. Bladers meet at the steps of the art museum—yes, the ones Rocky ran up—then dash, en masse, through picturesque old neighborhoods and zoom through a subway tunnel. I’ve tried the advanced Tuesday night skates—whoosh!—and the more leisurely Sunday morning version. Both offer a fun way to meet adventurous locals. Warning: Skating over Belgian blocks can be a bit tricky and watch out for those subway grates.

On a sunny weekend, I recommend the trails along the Schuylkill. If you’re staying at a hotel downtown, you can access the Schuylkill River Trail from Walnut Street. Benches along the riverbanks present a perfect vantage point to watch the regattas on a summer weekend, or you can do what I do and join the race. It’s pretty easy to outrun scullers on a bike or skates.

A four-mile stretch of West River Drive takes you from the traffic barrier at Strawberry Mansion Bridge to the golden columns of the art museum. From this side of the river, the Fairmount Water Works resembles a mini-version of the neoclassical art museum looming above it. Spin around Eakins Oval and head back up the west bank or opt for the bike path along Kelly Drive. This trail gets crowded on the weekend, creating an obstacle course at times, but the mood is jovial and the views spectacular. You’ll pass the boathouses and tombs tucked into the hillside of Laurel Hill Cemetery. If you’re feeling ambitious and have time, you can follow the bike path to Manayunk or all the way to Valley Forge, 20 miles northwest.

One recent morning, I knelt beside West River Drive to take a picture of the Water Works. A few yards away, a tattered fellow with a long, straggly beard parked a shopping cart full of empty bottles and began waving his gnarly, rolled-up sleep mat at me. My first instinct was to bolt. Then I realized he was offering it as a kneeling pad. Ah, Philly, city of brotherly love. I thanked him and skated on with a smile.

David Byrne knows urban biking. Cathleen McCarthy reviews his new book, Bicycle Diaries.

Package: Loews' "Cultural Getaways"

photo courtesy of Loews Hotels, New Orleans
photo courtesy of Loews New Orleans

Experience accommodations at participating Loews Hotels and receive bonus passes to local museums and attractions, dining credits, parking and more through the end of the year. In Montréal, for example, the package includes two passes to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a picnic lunch for two packaged in a keepsake backpack. In Nashville, visit the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum and enjoy complimentary valet parking And in the Big Easy, a two nights package gets you and a lucky partner welcome cocktails, admission to the Preservation Hall Jazz Club, $150 dinner credit at Café Adelaide, and a must-do chance to sample the world-famous beignets and cafe au lait at Café du Monde. In New York City, the package includes admission to the Guggenheim Museum, while in Philadelphia, guests can check out the special “Star Trek” exhbition at the Franklin Institute. Information: www.loewshotels.com

.

News: First D.C. "W" Opens

wdcLos Angeles-based designer Dianna Wong has tempered the historic Hotel Washington– located in an 1888 Beaux Arts structure– with edgy shots of vibrant color and jazzy textures. Highlights include W’s signature Bliss® Spa and J&G Steakhouse (oh no, not another one!) from three-star Michelin Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, as well as POV, a destination rooftop bar and lounge boasting unparalleled views of the White House and the city’s soaring monuments. The new and the old mix first in the lobby, where a digital fireplace, crackled paint, and deconstructed fixtures and artwork greet guests. In the W Living Room, many of the building’s original architectural elements have been restored to their former luster, including plaster moldings, playful chandeliers and majestic arches. Wong’s duality of masculine and feminine, or as she deems it, “pinstripes and lace,” serves as a design theme throughout the new hotel and symbolizes power in its many forms– a recurring motif everywhere inside the Beltway.



New York City: Towing the High Line

cityravelerart
photo by JoAnn Greco

The High Line has been a tantalizing promise for so many years it hardly seems possible that a substantial portion is now actually open. Approaching from West 14 Street, its black iron appears a lot less rusty and its vegetation a lot less random than in its  formerly derelict state. Refurbished, the elevated rail track looks inviting, but not sissified and not too new. A block south, at Gansevoort Street– past the chi-chi outdoor patios of the new Standard Hotel– a wide sturdy concrete stairway hosts a steady stream of the curious (at this visit, strollers were allowed to walk in both directions, not just north as during the first week).

But it’s not until reaching the top, some three stories above ground, that visitors feel the impact of this exciting and very successful public space. It’s a priceless and welcome combination of beefy vintage civic architecture, decidedly modern landscape design, and picture-perfect views of both the Hudson and of a great swath of Manhattan (check out the Empire State Building).

The High Line also offers peace (so far, no bladers or bikers are allowed– they’ve got another recent and excellent development, the Ninth Avenue bike lane, down below), billowing greenery (a heady mix of native and hardy grasses and wildflowers), and a playful and thoughtful variety of seating options.

Best of all, though, the space gifts us all with that most intangible of big city assets: the palpable opportunity to indulge in the sheer pleasure of one another’s company. Walk it and leave behind any sense of grit, grumpiness, or gracelessness. Information: www.thehighline.org

Promotion: Biking Around Town

photo courtesy of Park Hyatt
photo courtesy of Park Hyatt

Whether it is taking a leisurely ride around the city, or getting acquainted with the global trend of urban cycling lanes, Park Hyatt makes it easy to enjoy the ride with its new Bicycle Valet program, which launched worldwide on August 1, 2009. Available through hotel concierges, the service invites guests to uncover the city’s best sites with the use of a bicycle and the following amenities: a lock, helmet, lights, pump, kickstand, bottled water, and biking map (all based on availability).

“We launched the Bicycle Valet program as a pilot at Park Hyatt Chicago in 2008,” said Sara Kearney, vice president sales and marketing, international operations, Global Hyatt Corporation. “We have found that many guests enjoy using bicycles to explore a city from a more local point of view, while remaining environmentally friendly.”

The Park Hyatt Bicycle Valet program will be complimentary at most of the 25 worldwide Park Hyatt locations with a refundable deposit. Bicycles will be available in four-hour increments and guests will be required to complete a waiver before checking out a bicycle. Guests using the Bicycle Valet service at select locations will also be able to request a gourmet picnic lunch to take with them on their urban exploration.

Roundup: Offbeat Museums

If you live in the Northeast, you’ve probably visited the important museums along the Eastern Seaboard by now. Boston, New York, Washington and Philadelphia are among the oldest cities in the U.S. and they have the venerable museums of art and science to prove it.

But sometimes, ordinary exhibits just won’t shake those rainy-day blues. Time to check out one of those other museums, the eccentric ones that exist on the fringes of many cities. For an intimate look at some of the more bizarre aspects of human nature:

Museum of Sex, New York City. Erotica museums have been popular in Europe since the late sixties. This country got its first, on Fifth Avenue, in 2002. The Museum of Sex claims an educational mission and displays are presented with plenty of academic research. Indeed, you can find out anything you ever wanted to know, in explicit detail, about subcultures from homosexuality to sadomasochism and prostitution. On display now: “Sex Lives of Robots” and “Action: Sex and the Moving Image.” Information: www.museumofsex.com

International Spy Museum, Washington, DC. Opened in 2002, the Spy Museum explores the history of espionage since World War II. If you really want to “come in from the cold,” take the two-hour interactive Spy City Tour of downtown DC, exploring two dozen sites of espionage triumphs and disasters from the last 65 years of U.S. history. Information: www.spymuseum.org

Drug Enforcement Agency Museum, Arlington, VA. At about the same time, another museum opened across the Potomac River, shedding light on a different aspect of American history: substance abuse. The DEA Museum offers a surprisingly entertaining if cautionary look at recreational drugs, from the quaint Victorian packaging of “cocaine toothache drops” to an exuberant display of bongs, pipes of and vials from the seventies and eighties. Information: www.deamuseum.org

Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities, Philadelphia. This one has been around for a century and a half but not many know about it outside city limits. Founded in the mid-1800s when surgeons could collect body parts like trophies then put them on public display—the more famous the patient, the bigger the draw—it’s a trove of ghoulishness. Among the 20,000 objects displayed in this regal gallery of the Philadelphia College of Physicians is a tumor removed from Grover Cleveland’s jaw when he was president, brains of murderers and epileptics, a giant colon and a plaster cast of conjoined twins. Information: www.collphyphil.org/mutter.asp

National Museum of Dentistry, Baltimore. Similar in theme but created in 1996 for a modern audience, this museum features George Washington’s (not so) wooden dentures, Queen Victoria’s gilded mother-of-pearl personal dental instruments, and a jukebox shaped like a giant gaping mouth that plays dental product commercials from television’s early days. Information: www.dentalmuseum.org

San Francisco: The Multi-Faceted Presidio

bridge

photos by JoAnn Greco
photos by JoAnn Greco


With hundreds of historically-designated structures, acres of pine- and eucalyptus-scented forests which merge into coastal wetlands, a military cemetery, a municipal golf course, and even a “clothing-optional” beach, the Presidio of San Francisco is unlike any other national park.

Today, about 2,500 people actually live on this former army base, and the detritus of everyday life– plastic patio chairs, beribboned tricycles– dots the lawns of its bucolic neighborhoods. A handful of eateries– including The Warming Hut, a popular bookstore/cafe– as well as a rock-climbing gym, a spa, and a kids’ swimming school have also opened. Such amenities, while welcome, shouldn’t detract from the Presidio’s major appeals: its role as witness to a continuing strand of events that traces the development of the United States, and its spectacular natural setting.

The Visitors’ Center, located in the former Officers’ Club, retains elements– most notably, an adobe brick wall– of the base’s origins as a fortress established by Spanish colonists in 1776. The two bronze cannon that flank the entrance were once positioned on the harborfront; cast in the late 1600s and brought over to the New World, they are among the oldest known cannon in North America.

Less than 100 years after its founding, the Presidio– and San Francisco– began growing, thanks in no small part to the California Gold Rush of 1849. At the outbreak of the Civil War, newly-constructed Fort Point offered state-of-the-art protection. Today, it’s best visited for its unique vantage of a certain iconic orange bridge that rises right over it.

In 1915, all eyes again turned to San Francisco. Fresh from the disastrous 1906 earthquake, the city was selected to host a world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal. More than 600 acres of bayfront tidal marshes were filled, and nations from around the world built exhibit halls.

Although the Presidio was to remain an active army base until 1994, its last major significant role ended with World War II. It was here, in the Italian Renaissance-style “Building 35,” where Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, issued the orders to relocate more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants from the West Coast.

End your visit with a stop at Crissy Field , a meadow that once served as the base’s landing strip- but today is a playground with beaches and a restored ecosystem that more closely resembles the land as it looked when it was inhabited by a tribe of Native Americans called Ohlone. Shutterbugs can choose between sweeping vistas of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge, or dramatic shots of the city. A visitor favorite, the base’s Pet Cemetery, offers some charming photo ops, too, while the undulating hills of white government-issue headstones in the nearby military cemetery, San Francisco National Cemetery, are inspiring– and quietly moving. Information: www.presidio,gov