Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Birthday Tea at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh

They wouldn't let me this close in London
Queen Elizabeth turned 88 on Monday and I can't think of anyone else I'd rather sit down and have a cocktail with. Or maybe she'd prefer tea (I won't judge, promise). Her adorable diminutive mother was well known for her nightly tipple but I'm not sure what HRH likes in her crystal glassware. Hopefully the invite would come while the Queen is at her Scottish residence in Edinburgh and we'd have quite a bit to talk about, plus a whole lot of whisky to sample.

Holyrood Palace lies all the way at the end (or you could argue, at the start) of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is the Queen's royal residence when she visits Scotland (annually at the end of June into early July) before she heads up to Balmoral for the summer. Holyrood is open for tours year round, unlike that other little royal residence back in London. Buckingham Palace might be the most grand residence in the entire world but tours only run from the end of July through September.

Built on the site of an old abbey and in the shadow of craggy Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Palace is the perfect mix of gothic and royal and a definite must see with the kiddos when you're in Edinburgh. It's not nearly as big and overwhelming as the iconic Buckingham Palace and the special kids audio tour (free, be sure to pick them up after you walk through the entrance) will keep them entertained with tales of kings and queens through the ages.

Holyrood is a working palace, with the first two floors being used for official and state events. The third floor is private and reserved for the royal family (notice the drawn curtains in the photo). Swords, shields, and beautiful artworks and portraits line the halls as you work your way through the State Apartments. Guides in full Scottish plaid are on hand to answer any questions but you'll have to listen carefully to decipher their charming brogue. Two red velvet and gold trimmed chairs sit roped off in the Throne Room, have your kiddos ask a guide what the initials embroidered on the thrones stand for.

Mary Queen of Scots spent much of her turbulent life at Holyrood Palace and you can climb the narrow and steep spiral stone staircase to tour her chambers. The little C&Gs got a real feel for castle living and decided they would not want to make that trek on a nightly basis. Her chambers are filled with displays of her personal effects and the kids audio tour gave a nice story of her history.

The Mary Queen of Scots chambers is the end of the tour inside the palace and you'll continue outside in the ruins of the old Holyrood Abbey. Built in 1128, parts of the old walls of the Abbey are still standing. The boys told us the legend (via their audio tour) of King David I who was thrown from his horse while out hunting in the woods in 1126. A crucifix appeared in the air above a charging stag, distracting the stag and saving the life of the King. The Abbey was built on that site and have the kiddos search out the old stone plaque that commemorates the event.

There aren't many options for lunch (or cocktails) down at the bottom of the Royal Mile but the Café at the Palace in the courtyard has some good options. They have special kids lunch boxes with a choice of sandwich, fruit, and special treat which we made the little C&Gs finish before they could run across the courtyard to the gift shop.

Soups, salads, and sandwiches feature locally grown produce and the baked goods are especially delicious. They do offer an afternoon champagne tea, but I'll wait for my invitation from the Queen. I'd rather be sipping bubbly on a red velvet tufted chair inside the gates rather than outside the gates. Cheers and happy birthday to my beloved Liz!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Marathon Monday

The marathon is your victory lap. It's the celebration of all your hard work and the months of sore muscles, sweat, and tears. It's the triumph over your inner voice that told you to quit when you didn't want to go on. It's high-fiving the kids on the side lines as your run past. It's thanking the volunteers handing you little cups of nuclear yellow Gatorade. It's 26.2 miles of happiness, pain, joy, survival, and success. This has never been more true than for all those running and cheering along the route of the Boston Marathon today. No matter if you've never run a mile in your life or you regularly lace up your sneakers and pound the pavement. Today we all stand and run together. Boston Strong.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Cocktail du jour: Cocktails For a Crowd

April seems to be the month of large gatherings. Whether you celebrate Passover, Easter, or you've invited the parents over after yet another Little League baseball game I've got the easiest cocktail solution for you.

We recently hosted 18 people for dinner and as talented a bartender Mr. C&G is, there's no way he would have gotten to everyones order before the dessert course. So instead he came up with a limited (but still impressive) cocktail bar.

Line up your champagne flutes, pop open a few bottles of bubbly (we went with Prosecco), and put out a few options to fancy it up. You'll look like elegant hosts without much effort and everyone loves to start the evening with a festive glass. Our mixers were a small selection of our favorites, Cherry Heering, Chambord, and Aperol.

Cocktails For a Crowd
Kir Royal-ish: add 1/2 oz Cherry Heering, fill flute with Prosecco
Kir Imperial: add 1/2 oz Chambord, fill flute with Prosecco
Aperol Sans Spritz: add 1/2 oz Aperol, fill flute with Prosecco

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Adventures in Art at Grounds for Sculpture

Chamber of Internal Dialogue, Seward Johnson
Where can you step into Edvard Munch's famous The Scream? Or get between courting couples in a scene straight out of a Monet painting? Or join the Depression Era men on the bread line? The unique Grounds for Sculpture is 42 acres of rolling gardens and outdoor artworks just perfect for exploring with your kiddos.

Located halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, the Grounds for Sculpture is in Hamilton, New Jersey on the site of the old New Jersey Fairgrounds. A visit here is a totally interactive experience and almost everything is designed to be touched and explored. If you're staycationing in the New York area or headed south from Maine and Massachusetts, definitely add it to your list for an afternoon of fresh air, exercise, and artwork come to life.

Seward Johnson (of the Johnson & Johnson family) created this unique outdoor museum in 1992 and has contributed more than twenty sculptures to the grounds. He's most known for recreating famous Impressionist paintings as life sized bronze statues and you can join Matisse's dancers as they twirl on top of a hill. Or pull up a chair and dine in Renoir's The Luncheon of the Boating Party come to life as the sculpture titled Were You Invited? The little C&Gs thought this was the most brilliant way to experience paintings and you can imagine how disappointed they were on our next trip to a museum.

The Bathers, Issac Witkin
Abstract sculptures will engage your kiddos as you stroll through the beautiful gardens and everything is labeled to let them know if the art is hands on. Be sure to stop at the musical chairs and let them bang away to create their own symphony.

There's no climbing on the sculptures but they can play on and around almost everything and you'll need to be on the lookout for peacocks. The stunningly plumed birds wander freely throughout the grounds and keep an eye out for the rare white peacocks.

The grounds are ideal for picnicking, especially if you've ever wanted to step inside Manet's Le Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, but you'll have to get your supplies from the Peacock Cafe. No outside food is allowed into the gardens although they'll happily pack your lunch to go (for a small fee) and you can go off on your Impressionist way. We grabbed a quick lunch at the Peacock Cafe (not fabulous but easy) and then headed out for adventure.

Lunch in a cozy French style cottage
For more of a treat make a reservation at Rat's Restaurant, a country style French restaurant named for Ratty, the cultured rat in Seward Johnson's favorite book, The Wind in the Willows. Outdoor tables overlook Monet's bridge and it's the perfect place to sit back with a glass of bubbly.

I wish we could have spent a leisurely afternoon amongst the willows and water lilies but we were headed south to vacation in Philadelphia. There was to be no bubbly for me, although I'm sure it would have made the New Jersey Turnpike much more enjoyable.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Maine Monday: Mocktails With A View

Top of the East was a Maine Monday feature back in February, but I've got a few new things about this hot spot to share with you which is why it's making a second appearance here on C&G. In the bleak mid-winter you can sip your cocktails while watching the sun set over the snow covered rooftops. But now the view at 5:00 is very different and you'll need to keep your sunglasses handy. And maybe even some sunscreen.

The most important piece of information you need to know about the Top of the East at the Westin Harborview Hotel is they are now open at 4:00. Which might seem a bit early for cocktails (obviously, I'm fine with it) but if you can get there before 5:00 you're almost guaranteed your choice of seats.

We were the first ones in last Saturday and I think the word hasn't gotten out yet (or nobody is as anxious for cocktail hour as we are) because the crowds didn't show up until 5:00. As we head into high tourist season (and high hotel occupancy rates) this is a good thing to know. Waiting and kids don't go together well, and even less so if it involves waiting for your beverages.

Also new on this visit to Top of the East was a special kid friendly (or designated driver friendly) cocktail list. Even though the little C&Gs usually don't branch out from their Shirley Temple or lemonade orders it was nice to have some new fizzy and festive options. I'm thinking next time I draw the short straw I'm going to order a blueberry mojito. Fresh blueberries, mint, lime, and some bubbles sound like a lovely combination, and I probably wouldn't even miss the alcohol.

After you've picked your prime viewing seats (the tall tables next to the window are always first to go) a bowl of snacks will be delivered to your table along with some carafes of water. Warn your little ones the popcorn is mixed in with wasabi peas and will not be the sweet treat they were expecting. Also unexpected is the cucumber water, it's delicious and refreshing but might take your thirsty kiddos by surprise.

Cocktails at the Top of the East are a must and it's nice to know you don't have to leave the kids at home. Be sure to follow it up with dinner either downstairs (we haven't tried it yet) or somewhere in the neighborhood (read my past review of nearby Grace). There's not much for young palates on the lounge menu, unless your young foodies like lobster rolls and smoked swordfish bellies. The little C&Gs are adventurous but I think that's where they'd draw the line.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cocktail du jour: L'Orange L'Oren

This beautiful cocktail is the color of persimmons, a gorgeous shade of pinkish orange that just says spring to me. Once the weather turns nice I always ask Mr. C&G to bring out the bottle of Aperol. It makes me long for a lazy afternoon lounging around an outdoor cafe table in some European seaside town. This drink would be the perfect accessory to match my giant sunglasses and silk scarf head wrap. Very Sophia Loren. Cheers!

L'Orange L'Oren
1 oz Grey Goose L'Orange
1 oz Cointreau
1/2 oz Aperol
1 oz orange juice

Add all ingredients to a shaker filled with ice
Shake and strain into a cocktail glass, add ice

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tips for the Tower

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 Strada, Zizzi, 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. . .