London...Somewhat off the Beaten Path
The Tower of London
I never get my fill of Greater London’s 600 square miles. Each time I traverse the pond, I realize I have crossed five things off my dog-eared list, and have added another 12. I have visited the Museum of Brands, Packaging, and Advertising in Notting Hill (well worth the tube ride); the idiosyncratic Dennis Severs’ House (a still-life of a Huguenot family’s dwelling); the John Soane’s Museum, the quirkily- acquisitive, eponymous collector’s townhouse; the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (think: charming, historic board games among the intriguing mix); the fascinating Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons (watch videos of operations!), and of course, all the usual suspects, from the V & A (with its stellar jewelry galleries) to the National Portrait Gallery, Somerset House (and its cousin, the Courtauld Gallery), and the Tate Modern. I could go on and on.
With all my planning, I still have managed to miss a few wonderful, wacky, or weird destinations that I am itching to see, including the British Dental Association’s Dental Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden (founded by the Society of Apothecaries to study the therapeutic properties of plants), to name two still on the list. I rue that when I was in the Lake District I had no time for the Cumberland Pencil Museum and similarly, had to pass up the National Motor Museum in Hampshire, with the largest collection of original James Bond cars in the world.
So, imagine my delight, when on my last trip, I was able to score a visit to the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. (You have to do a bit of planning well in advance to land the free tickets.) This nighttime securing of the tower gates is a 700-year-old ritual. While the Henrys, Williamses, and Georges no longer reside here, the Crown Jewels still twinkle in the coffers, so nightly, the Yeoman Warders follow the ceremonious process to lock up the property and it’s truly an entertaining, late-night adventure to witness.
The O2 Arena lit up at night
I decided on this trip to also take in the somewhat touristy British Music Experience at the O2, which is London’s answer to Madison Square Garden and the Barclays and the Javits Centers, all rolled into one. (Throw in the Hollywood Bowl and a bunch of eateries and novelty and souvenir shops, and you get the idea.) Here you can relive the glorious history of British music, from jazz or pure pop. The experiential museum houses over 3,000 images, 600 video clips, 3,000 artist videos, and over 600 artifacts/memorabilia: Elton John’s outrageous glasses; dresses from Geri Halliwell and Dusty Springfield; an Ozzy Osbourne stage cape, and more.
The Cutty Sark clipper ship in Greenwich
I usually like to do one slightly afield outing each trip and this time I chose to venture to Greenwich, a short boat ride away on the Thames. I had wanted to go here for some time, to see not only the renowned Royal Observatory (home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian of the World), but also the Fan Museum. (Yes, another museum that has been on my list for years.) Greenwich does not disappoint. For starters, there is the graceful ship, the Cutty Sark, the last surviving tea clipper and the fastest vessel of her time; the ship’s collection of figureheads is a colorful array of witty characters and damsels of the sea. The Royal Maritime Museum (the world’s largest) is extremely well organized and among the clever exhibits are a few interactive ones, where you can steer a ship into port and fire a cannon at a dastardly pirate frigate. The Royal Observatory offers the UK’S largest refracting telescope.
I’m a fan of fans, so the visit to the world-renowned Fan Museum, home to more than 4,000 predominantly antique fans from around the world, dating from the 11th century to the present day, was a highlight. The themed exhibits reflect historical, sociological, and economic periods and further mirror the fashions of the day. Fans are arguably among the most elegant of women’s accessories and to see hundreds of them displayed at once is thrilling for anyone who loves the decorative arts. (And speaking of decorations, don’t miss the open markets in Greenwich, as there is “brilliant”—as the Brits say—shopping; I’m still getting compliments on the $10 scarf I bought there.)
The renowned American Bar at the Stafford, decorated with all things American—sports mementos, photos, historical memorabilia
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one meal; it’s not always about museums (and shopping). This visit I stayed at the charming Stafford Hotel (a Kempinski property), tucked away discreetly, with its picture-postcard-perfect, 17th-century, cobbled courtyard in genteel St. James’s. Be sure to arrange for a banquet in the vaulted, 350-year-old legendary wine cellar. I cannot even begin to describe the delicious six-course meal we savored underground; cap the evening off with a Manhattan in the hotel’s celebrated American Bar. Cheers! Or as the French say, à votre santé!...which brings us from London to Paris...
THE DETAILS: visitlondon.com; hrp.org.uk; britishmusicexperience.com; rmg.co.uk; royalgreenwich.gov.uk; visitgreenwich.org.uk; thefanmuseum.org.uk; thestaffordhotel.co.uk; fly direct to London/Heathrow on British Airways in Business/Club or the very comfy Premium Economy, britishairways.com
Paris…the Art’s the Thing
A sweeping view of Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background. © Paris Tourist Office. Photographer : Amélie Dupont
Since it appears I cannot get enough art and museums when I travel, it seemed a no-brainer to choose the exquisitely renovated Royal Monceau-Raffles Paris as my base in the City of Light. Situated in the chic 8th arrondissement, it is a stone’s throw from the Arc-de-Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées. But a core draw is that the hotel is art-centric. It’s not just that designer Philippe Starck has imbued each room with welcoming art (arresting prints, paintings, mirrored art, and in addition each room proffers an acoustic guitar among other interesting cultural amenities). In fact, the entire hotel is like a grand art gallery, and even boasts an art bookstore that is every bit a destination as La Tour Eiffel.
The grand entrance to the Royal Monceau-Raffles Paris
The hotel’s art concierges (yes, you read that correctly) had already set up an itinerary for my arrival. (That is, after I first had a detox, jet-lag-fighting treatment at the hotel’s sumptuous Clarins Spa.) Then, I went to Art District, the hotel’s charming art gallery, to discuss my day of art. The art concierges can advise on must-see exhibitions, openings, and galleries, and can also custom-tailor private excursions to cultural institutions that normally do not allow visitors, trips to artists’ studios and private collections, and arrange for personal guided tours of museum exhibits with the curators. The hotel’s own art collection comprises over 300 impressive works. (The art concierges maintain the hotel’s enjoyable, trendy art blog.)
My first stop on the itinerary (all in the Montparnasse district) was Idem Éditions, a lithography workshop founded in 1880 and the go-to lithography press for the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Cocteau; present designers include Karl Lagerfeld and David Lynch. In this vast, 15,000-square-foot studio, with its gleaming glass canopy, collaborators innovate and experiment with an exceptional stock of lithographic stones. Work printed at Idem may be found in museums, international exhibitions, and in public and private collections.
Chiens feature prominently in the Parisian street scene. © Paris Tourist Office. Photographer : Amélie Dupont
My next stop was the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, a creative hub for artists and an exquisite exhibition space. Then it was on to La Maison de la Revue Noire, the publishing house for Revue Noire, a highly regarded publication for African contemporary art. Though the magazine ceased publication in 2001, the organization maintains a lovely exhibition space few know about, showcasing artists and designers from developing countries.
On my own, I managed to take in the Musée National d’Art Moderne (housing the largest museum for modern art in Europe) at the Centre Georges Pompidou, which is a five-minute hop (on the edge of the Marais) from the children’s Musée de la Poupée, or the Paris Doll Museum, a charming destination, with over 500 French dolls from 1800 to the present day. Musée Marmottan Monet is another off-the-beaten-path destination, in the 16th. It’s a bit of a hike from the Métro, but you’ll amble through a pretty park along the way. The museum is a treasure trove of Impressionist paintings and will astonish.
On a sunny Sunday, join the tourists for a reverential afternoon at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th, where you will find over one million internments in a bucolic, verdant setting. It is a pantheon of who’s who in worlds literary, musical, theatrical, political, and then some. Here is but a sampling of the folks with whom you could have a tête-a-tête with: Honoré de Balzac, Vincenzo Bellini, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Max Ernst, René Lalique, Yves Montand, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Rafael Trujillo, Richard Wright, Gioachino Rossini, and even Jim Morrison of the Doors!
The serene garden restaurant and bar, The Terrace, as viewed from Raffles’ Il Carpaccio restaurant
I cannot overlook exceptional cuisine—after all, it is France, birthplace of the revered Michelin star! Raffles offers not one, but two, Michelin-starred restaurants under executive chef Laurent André, and you’ll want to dine in both. Il Carpaccio (the only Italian restaurant in Paris with a Michelin star), under the whisk of Roberto Rispoli, takes inspiration from generations-old, traditional family recipes with an emphasis on fresh, regional Italian produce; seafood features prominently on the menu, and the walls leading to the restaurant are awash in seashells, setting the maritime tone. From Gabriel Grapin, chef for La Cuisine, the hotel’s extraordinary French restaurant, come flavorful, sophisticated twists on the classic. Pastry genius Pierre Hermé proffers desserts like you’ve never seen or savored and you’ll want to save room for everything his ovens produce.
A new shop worth mentioning: Nose, a perfumer’s parfumerie! Here, six seasoned fragrance pros have combined their savoir-faire and offer dozens of hard-to-find scents, guide you to pinpoint your olfactory profile, and even create personal fragrances.
Leave Nose smelling like a rose as you head to the airport, where you can keep that blush on the fleur, if you’re flying with British Airways’ subsidiary, Open Skies Airline (out of Orly West and JFK and Newark). It is a value-oriented airline, with real amenities (including an iPad with 70 hours of entertainment loaded in), and a Premium Plus cabin that rivals any top-tier airline’s Business Class, for a fraction of others’ tariffs. On the way over to Paris, fly Open Skies’ Biz Bed, which again offers great value for a cozy 180-degree flat bed—not to mention comfy jammies, slippers, and top-flight service.