Monday, February 16, 2015

Stealing Some Time With the Crown Jewels

I'm re-running this post on visiting the Crown Jewels in London for some friends who are heading to England this summer. With Valentine's Day having come and gone (and nothing crown-worthy tucked in amongst my chocolates) it's always fun to think about spending a little time with the world's greatest collection of baubles.       

Just how I like my jewels, all to myself
Everybody in the world wants to see the Crown Jewels, and if you're visiting London with kiddos you don't want to be waiting in line behind all those everybodys. I've got a few tips to share to get you in, get you to the goods, see some swords and battle armor along the way, and then be off for cocktails. Yes the Cullinan diamond is magnificent, but you're going to need a glass of bubbly to cheer yourself up when the guard doesn't let you take it home.

The Tower of London lets you buy your tickets in advance and gives you a seven day window in which to use them. Which is awesome (and rare) because when you're traveling as a family you need a bit of flexibility in your schedule. Print out your tickets from home or use the hotel printer (there's always a station for printing out boarding passes) before heading out the door and you will be so much happier when you see the masses outside the Tower Hill tube station.

Like a jewel thief planning a heist you've got to grab a map (free at the info and ticket booths), plot your course, and stay focused. Try to get to the Tower as soon as they open, 9:00am Tues - Sat, 10:00am Sun & Mon. Head straight through the entrance gates, make a left at the Bloody Tower and straight back to the Waterloo Block and home to the jewels. Don't let the kiddos (or you) get distracted, the Beefeaters have been there for more than 600 years and they'll still be there after you tour the Crown Jewels.

A Lego version at Hamley's (no pics allowed)
You can see in the first photo (at 10:10am) we didn't have to elbow our way through the displays with hundreds of tourists from around the world. And let me assure you it was not the case as we exited the building 20 minutes later. Crowds were already winding their way through the barriers as the hot sun beat down (there's no shelter, no matter what the weather) and the boys were thankful I made them rush.

A moving conveyer belt whisks you past the greatest treasures of the British Empire. I lost count of how many times I rode it, while the little C&Gs (and Mr. C&G) waited patiently by the exit. The diamonds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, crowns, scepters, orbs, rings, swords and diadems were dazzling. There's no nose pressing or photos allowed so the best I could do is share with you the Lego version of St. Edwards crown. I think the boys found this one much more fascinating than the real thing.

We grabbed a quick snack and some drinks from the cafe (raspberry tarts with powdered sugar crowns should be the official C&G dessert) and then made our way to the White Tower. If you see a Yeoman Warder (the dark blue and red coated Beefeaters) giving a tour, they're free and you can come and go with the group as you please.

The White Tower is much more entertaining than the sparkly bling of the Crown Jewels (for the kiddos, not me) with the endless displays of arms, armors, and life-sized carved wooden horses. Check out the many different versions of armor made for Henry the VIII to accommodate his changing size.

On the top floor you'll find a giant dragon made from old weapons and lots of hands on activities for the kids. Move the kids out of the way and channel your inner Braveheart (or Brave) with the arrow shooting challenge. Those tiny eye slits make it virtually impossible to hit your mark.

By the time you've worked your way around the rest of the Tower of London it will be time for a drink. And maybe some food. Escape the crowds (after taking the requisite photo in front of Tower Bridge, aka London Bridge) by heading for the St. Katherine Docks where you'll find the very popular chains StradaZizzi, and Côte Brasserie. Chains in the UK are nothing like what we have at home, they're all very good, fresh, delicious and fast. With a full wine list. And cocktails. Yet another reason I want to move to the UK. . .

Monday, February 9, 2015

Cocktail du Jour: Double Coconut

It's time to double up on the coconut, because things are looking a little bleak outside my front door. My usual nightly hot toddy or Stormy Scot just reminds me that a good five months stand between me and seeing my green lawn again. The sun hasn't poked out from behind the clouds in days and I'm really regretting our decision to not join my mother for her annual Mexican vacation this year. Darned Big C&G and his education!

Mr. C&G clearly misunderstood me the other night when I mentioned St. Tropez, I was talking about booking us on the next flight to the South of France and instead he headed for the drinks cabinet to start making a St. Tropez Spritzer. Or more likely he just has very selective hearing. With no pineapple juice in stock he dusted off the bottle of Cirôc coconut and improvised a new cocktail that deserves to be sipped under a striped umbrella on a pebbled French beach. Now back to the Air France website . . .

Double Coconut
2 oz Cirôc coconut vodka
sparkling coconut lime soda*
Rose's lime juice (or fresh lime)

Raise the flag to attract the attention of your garçon
Tell him to add the vodka into a cocktail glass filled with ice
Top with soda and a squeeze or two of lime
Stir and à votre santé!
(* if you don't have a Hannafords near you for their private label soda, Lorina French sodas are the exact same thing)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dreaming Of Drinks & Dinner In Aruba

Warm sunshine on my face, the sound of palm trees rustling in the light ocean breeze, and the sound of ice clinking in a cocktail glass. . . Just a few scenes from the movie I've been playing in my head since the start of winter storm Juno. The snowbank outside our door is up to my shoulders and we've got more snow on the way. I'm not sure where it's all going to go or how long the contents of our wine fridge will last.

Aruba is blessed with perfect weather year round, it sits just outside the hurricane belt and you could easily make it through your vacation never swapping dollars for Aruban florins. It's a very busy port for the mammoth cruise ships traveling from the East Coast and you can get cheap, direct flights from most major cities. If you're looking for a quiet, relaxing Caribbean island, Aruba is not it. Chain restaurants and cheap bars assault your senses as soon as you exit the arrivals hall (or step off the boat) but in true C&G fashion I found some small local gems on our visit last November.

An absolute must visit is Gelatissimo, a cocktail bar AND a gelato bar. What a brilliant combination, who would have thought? You can't miss it on the main hotel strip in Palm Beach, a purple and white oasis between Señior Frogs and the Hard Rock Cafe. Pull up a wicker lounge chair and order a mojito or a mangotini while the kiddos go press their little noses against the gelato case.

There's a small panini menu at Gelatissimo but Amore Mio and Gianni's Restorante Italiano are next door and both offer delicious and authentic Italian cuisine. If you're too comfy with your cocktails and gelato all three restaurants share the same owner and our waitress said we could order food off any menu without leaving the lounge.

Amore Mio is a tiny and popular spot for thin crust authentic Neapolitan pizza so if the lines are long stay put and order while you sit in Gelatissimo. Gianni's Restorante is huge with plenty of tables to choose from, indoors or out. Our dinner at Gianni's was delicious, sometimes when we're away from home I just want a big, comforting bowl of pasta and the rigatoni ai quattro formaggi was perfect. For a real treat order the spaghetti al formaggio parmiggiano (serves two) and a giant cheese wheel is brought table side and your dinner is cooked and flamed (thanks to a few dashes of whisky) right in front of you.

Local favorite Madame Janette requires a rental car and a very good map (even with 4 phones and GPS we got lost) or better yet have your hotel call you a cab. But the adventure is totally worth it for their classic European cuisine with a touch of Caribbean flair. When you make your reservation ask for a table in the back pebble garden, very little wind makes it this far inland and the rooms up front can be very stuffy. Bring bug spray for your ankles but if you forget the staff is happy to share.

Madame Janette is known for their saucey dishes, locally caught seafood, and famous plate-sized schnitzel. Ask them to downsize their schnitzel for the kiddos or order just plain pasta, there's no kids menu but the friendly staff will happily accommodate picky eaters. Big C&G had a caesar salad with steak and Little C&G ordered the shrunken schnitzel, but as you can see from the photo above it was still almost as big as his head. Save room for dessert, because the other part of my "escape to Aruba" movie always ends with Madame Janette's delicious coconut cream cake . . .

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cocktail du jour: The Hot Toddy

March is the new January I've decided. There's no sticking to resolutions, no matter how well intentioned, motivated, or inspired I am in the beginning of the new year. The days are just so dark and polar vortex cold that it feels like I'll never see the sun or the thermometer hit double digits.

The return to school inevitably exposes the little C&Gs to all sorts of fun germs and already one of them has missed a week of school. Which explains why I give up right around the mid-month mark every year and dust off the martini glasses. January just doesn't work for me and February is a short month with yet another school vacation to look forward to, so March will be my month to swap out the cocktail shaker for the Vitamix.

With all the illness going around (I've stopped Facebooking, too many posts about friends with flus) Mr. C&G and I have been boosting our immune systems with nature's Nyquil, the hot toddy. Whiskey is an excellent decongestant and germ fighter, which we learned from this great article on Vinepair "Your Drunk Aunt Was Right: The Hot Toddy Is The Cure To The Common Cold". Whatever whiskey or bourbon you have on hand will work to ward off the winter chill and any cold germs your kiddos have brought home. Plus it certainly tastes better than vile cherry flavored Nyquil!
Hot Toddy
2 oz whiskey
1/2 oz lemon juice
2 cubes of sugar
6 oz hot water

Add all ingredients into a heat-proof glass, stir, enjoy, and stay healthy!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cocktail du jour: Mexican Manhattan

There's nothing like a little tequila to take away the chill of winter. And by chill I mean arctic blast. Last week it wasn't just us Mainers freezing our Bean boots off, even our friends in the South were approaching single digits.

This recipe comes from Mr. C&Gs (other) favorite cocktail resource, Kindred Cocktails and it's a very tasty winter warmer. The sweet orange of the Cointreau cuts the bite of the tequila and the few dashes of chocolate bitters add an unexpected finish. I'm not a huge fan of tequila (there's only one other tequila cocktail here on C&G) but waking up to -11ºF is enough to make me reach for the Sauza around cocktail hour.

Mexican Manhattan
1 1/2 oz añejo tequila
3/4 oz sweet vermouth (Cocchi di Torino)
1/2 dry vermouth (Dolin)
1/2 oz Cointreau
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Aztec chocolate bitters

Add all ingredients into a shaker filled with ice
Shake and strain into a martini/coupe class
Cheers & keep warm!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Other Guggenheim (Venice On My Mind)

It was 2°F this morning on the school run. So I haven't left the house since and instead have been dreaming of warm sunshine and an Aperol spritz on a canal-side palazzo. I'm re-running this post from last January, clearly this "summer in Venice" movie has played in my head before . . .     

A Kandinsky in the living room
An unfinished palazzo directly on Venice's bustling Grand Canal hides one of the most magnificent collections of 20th century modern art. Bohemian socialite Peggy Guggenheim opened the doors to her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1951 to share the works of her friends, unknown artists named Pablo. And Jackson. And Salvador.

After her death in 1979 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (yes, that would be Peggy's uncle Solomon) turned the palazzo into a museum and opened it to the public. All of the artworks were left in their original places, which makes for a fascinating museum experience. It's a perfectly manageable size for your kiddos and the rooms are filled with iconic works that represent the best of modern art.

No doubt he's wishing for a return visit
Strolling across the peaceful courtyard is a wonderful way to escape the tourist crowds on your trip to Venice. Be sure to say hi to Peggy and her dogs (buried in the corner) and stop by Yoko Ono's Wish Tree, where you can write down your own wish and attach it to the tree. See how many languages your kiddos can find on the paper "leaves". Sculptures surround the courtyard and gardens and it's fun to have art the kids can interact with and contribute to.

Pull open the heavy iron scrollwork doors to enter into the palazzo where you'll be greeted by a few Picassos and a hanging mobile by Alexander Calder. Can't you just imagine the elegant Peggy greeting you at the door, wearing a flowing caftan and bearing champagne glasses? She was known for her elaborate parties and eclectic guest lists, with artists, actors, composers and dancers all gliding across her terrazzo floors. I would have loved to have had a few cocktails with her.

The collection is displayed mostly in chronological order but let your kiddos lead the way to things that spark their interest. Enthusiastic art students can be found in almost every room and they're very happy to answer any questions or share their knowledge. We had a charming young Italian student approach the boys to ask if he could tell them something about a Chagall and to practice his English. I'm sure the boys didn't understand a word, but I was very proud that they remained attentive and even asked a few questions.

Don't miss the excited boy sculpture
When your crew is done with art head out to the canal side terrace for a stunning view of Venice. You can see why Peggy chose to remain in Venice until the end of her life. Be sure to share the story of sculptor Marino Marini's The Angel of the City with your kiddos. The figure on the horse is very excited (I would be too if the Grand Canal was my permanent view) and a certain body part stands at full attention.

Peggy had the sculptor make the body part detachable, just in case she had some prudish guests over for drinks she could simply remove it. I'm sure one night the martini glasses were overflowing and in the morning Peggy found it had been unscrewed and stolen. So a new one was quickly made and welded on and there it still is today. The little C&Gs thought it was the funniest story and I can't help wondering who has the bronze piece on their mantle.

There's an excellent gift shop with great kids activity and art books and a small but expensive cafe. We headed out for cocktails and gelato in Campo San Barnaba, the square best known for its library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The boys ran off to grab gelato at the highly recommended Grom Gelateria while Mr. C&G and I found the nearest shady table and ordered a few Aperol and Campari cocktails.

Lounging under the Pollock
Honestly I don't think the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was on our list of things to do on our trip to Venice, we were looking for a place to escape the heat and crowds and decided a cool palazzo was it. But it was truly one of our best adventures, the boys even listed it in their top three.

The building and grounds are gorgeous, and the artwork is a nicely curated collection. Plus who doesn't love a few splattered Jackson Pollocks? Check the website for opening hours and the schedule of family friendly art activities. Admission is €14 ($19) for adults, €8 for students ages 11-26, and under 10s are free.

Thursday, January 1, 2015