Family travel with flair

3 top tips for ice skating at Natural History Museum

TweetIce skating is a regular part of the Christmas season for us. Maybe it’s because I grew up with visions of myself twirling on ice like Dorothy Hamill (the US equivalent of Jane Torville in singles skating). This rarely happened. I grew up in a semi-arid desert, the nearest rink an hour and a half drive away. These days in London, you’re never far from someplace where you can get your skates on. Here’s a peek at the rink at the Natural History Museum this season. Plus, scroll down for my take on other London ice skating rinks.     The Ice Rink at the Natural History Museum, near Exhibition Road. Til 4 January 2015.  www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/ice-rink   Other great holiday ice rinks in London Somerset House – The classiest rink of them all, set in the courtyard, with club nights and a Fortnum & Mason affiliation. Less of a family feel but a magical setting. Til 11 January 2015. Westfield London indoor rink – No rainy weather, no chilly wind. Whether you think skating next to New Look, Topshop and a bustling food court out of the fresh air is a fun twist or against nature depends on your outlook. My daughter loves it. Just remember to do your shopping afterward as the lockers for stowing your stuff are in a different area of the building. Til 4 January 2015. Hampton Court Palace – It’s the location fit for a king, with the rink in front of the grand Tudor and Baroque building. There’s plenty of parking and if you book at the right time, you can combine skating with a palace visit. I think the rink seems a bit marooned on the vast lawn in front of the building and my daughter says this rink is “too small” although it seemed comparable to other temporary rinks to me. Til 4 January 2015. Canary Wharf Ice Skating Rink – It’s a strangely serene experience — skating amid the steel high rises in Canary Wharf. We find ourselves strangely drawn to this rink, which also seems less crowded than some of the others in town. You can read my full review of the rink here: The ice skating rink at Canary Wharf Other rinks I haven’t yet visited. Have you been to them? Broadgate Ice Rink Eyeskate at the London Eye Hyde Park Winter Wonderland        ...

11 British gifts to give Americans

TweetA couple of years ago I wrote a post about the 8 British gifts to get Americans (that I would never give to a Brit). Whoa! People went crazy for this post. It was the Strictly Come Dancing, the hit record of posts. Styles and tastes move on, so this year I’ve updated my (modestly) blockbuster post. These days so many gifts are the same no matter where you are. Living in London, that means I’m exposed to a whole different range of gifts that really feel novel and different to my American giftees. Only the most patriotic of Brits would want these under the tree, but Americans love them. 1. Revels – These are on my brother’s Christmas list every year. I once forgot them and he pouted for half a day. British chocolate is different from the American kind. I think it’s something to do with the sweeteners and pasteurised milk. In the UK, it says, “I got three packets of these for £2.” But in America, a gift of Revels says, “Have a Merry Christmas with this treat you only get once a year.”   2. Beach hut artwork – These sweet/twee/pastel images on this side of the pond sometimes bring up uncomfortable observations about the people who buy eye-poppingly expensive ones and commute to them via their vintage style VW vans. Yet for the vast majority of Americans, they are incredibly exotic. In the U.S. you have mere beaches, but in the UK you have the seaside, which is full of charm, 99 Flakes and these little beach huts. Also for Americans, the idea of a tiny hut on the beach, sitting check by jowl with a bunch of nearly nude people is utterly incomprehensible. Especially if it sits on a beach where cold weather and rain is a given for most of the year. Only the British would do this kind of thing, and do it with aplomb. Images available in posters, trays, tea towels, bird houses and other things they’ll find absolutely essential.   3. British-style toiletries – There’s nothing quite so lovely on a dressing table or in a well-appointed bathroom than an elegant bottle or container with olde worlde style writing that harkens back to the heyday of the British Empire. For real hardcore lovers of the English image, I’d love to give Penhaligon’s Maduro Leaf Candle, which fills the home with “a scent reminiscent of a smoking room in an elegant gentlemen’s club… wood panelled walls, soft leather armchairs, a fire...

The problem with thank you cards

TweetThe gifts are unwrapped, the leftovers are in the fridge covered in foil, and Christmas songs have lost their lustre. That means only one thing in our house: the race to complete thank you cards is on. On my husband’s side of the family, we draw names and everyone buys one “big” present for someone else. This is good, since there are 5 siblings along with their partners and children. That also in theory reduces the number of thank you cards to be written. In practice, granny can’t resist giving the grandchildren something, Auntie R. and the kids always like to exchange a little something. And on my side of the family it’s a gift-giving free for all, which means cards galore. Writing thank you cards is a good practice for children, helping focus their little minds on the giver as much as the gift. While my family aren’t big thank you card-writers, occasions like anniversaries, weddings, new babies and the like merit them. In my husband’s family, it’s considered a basic tenet of good breeding and not to be overlooked at any time. There’s so much emphasis on them, I always feel the clock ticking. The card mustn’t arrive too late – almost as bad as not arriving at all. But then a part of me thinks, if the card is just a pro forma gesture, is it really sharing a heartfelt thank you at all? If you haven’t had time to wear, use or appreciate the gift before sitting down with pen and card, are you simply ticking a self-serving box that merely reflects on the writer’s demonstrating good manners? Then again, what’s wrong with demonstrating good manners, the way we do everyday when we say ‘please’ and ‘how are you’? All this back-and-forth inner dialogue has meant thank you notes in our house tend to either be written and sent before the wrapping paper hits the floor, or they languish without stamp or address for weeks on end. My copy of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette (yes, I do have one) has advice for parents. Start children writing notes from age 6, with the parent drafting a simple message the child can copy. Weirdly, it gives this example: “Dear Aunt Nancy, Thank you for the magic set. It’s the best present ever. Love, Oliver”, which seems to me an over-the-top description of a magic set from dear old Aunt Nancy who probably doesn’t know that Oliver has totally grown out of that whole magic...

The best holiday ice skating in London

TweetOver the past several years my family and I have criss-crossed the city trying out different ice skating rinks. I’ve loved it since childhood, when I would force my mother to drive from 2 1/2 hours to the nearest ice rink so I could pretend I was an ice princess. (I have a great picture of me trying to do an arabesque on ice — the minute my mother hit the shutter, I hit a chink in the ice and she captured me on my way down.) This past weekend we went to a press preview of the Canary Wharf ice rink. We’d visited this one before in 2011 while reviewing a family weekend at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf. I keep hearing that the Wharf is transforming into a destination great for visiting with families. Just in the course of a year it’s become more bustling with children and parents and fun things to do. This year, the Canary Wharf rink has changed from a big square skating space to a smaller main square and a little route – an ice lane that winds around a sculpture by Ron Arad that looks like a giant flying saucer, past the windows of the cafe (a pop-up Boisdale) and back to the other side of the main ice section. While there’s less space for a triple salchow, going “round the lane” kept the kids entertained for most of our session. I like this part of town on the weekend as well because you’re not battling huge crowds. On Tuesday nights there are live jazz sessions, and you’re just above the big underground shopping mall, where you can also visit a Santa’s Grotto. “I’m not going in to see Santa!” both kids kept saying as we queued to see the jolly one. “Oh yes you are!” my husband and I said firmly. Helper elves worked the line, entertaining the children. Eventually we were ushered into a small room decorated in a homey style with a tree, wooden toys and Father Christmas in an old fashioned white-trimmed robe.   He invited the children to sit on the bench and chair and had a good line in friendly patter about their names, if they’d written a wish list and if there was something they really want. There’s always the chance that an encounter with Santa is a forced cheer moment, but this one had a very nice feel and the children got age-appropriate books as little gifts after their visit. The Olympics got...

Where to shop this weekend to help London children

TweetWhen you go out shopping for affordable, thoughtful and delightful gifts for family and friends this weekend, you can also help give to Kids Company, the charity that helps disadvantaged children. The usual sidewalk scrum at Oxford and Regent Streets will be replaced with a completely pedestrianized experience, with the streets closed to traffic. It’s called the American Express Shop West End VIP (very important pedestrian) Weekend, and every time shoppers use their Amex card at retailers in the area over the weekend, American Express will donate £1 to Kids Company. At the centre of the weekend is a 30-hour West End Christmas Carol-A-Thon  (featuring singers named Carol), also raising money for Kids Company. I met Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the inspirational founder of Kids Company, recently and she spoke movingly of the work Kids Company does. Many of the 4 to 18-year-olds they help look after has suffered severe emotional or physical neglect. It provides meals, counseling, activities and support for children that they don’t get at home. While Kids Company works with children throughout the year, over the holidays its work is especially vital. These children often are left out of holiday celebrations, some looking after themselves or siblings on their own. It organises a Christmas Day meal and activities all through that day – including transportation for the children to come, games, gifts and friendship. It’s impossible to read about the work the charity does and the children it helps without being moved. You can sponsor elements of the Kids Company Christmas party (turkey, baubles, stockings), then give additionally while doing your shopping in the festive and fun atmosphere of West End VIP Weekend. Kids Company American Express West End VIP Weekend    ...

Review: The ice rink at Westfields London

TweetJust as blockbuster screenwriters all get the same idea at the same time (annihilating animal virus almost wipes out humanity, obscure comic-book hero gets reimagined as self-consciously cocky metrosexual), several years back a lot of the premier tourist attractions in London all had the same brainstorm: let’s open an ice skating rink! In truth, you wonder why they waited so long. As winter fun goes, ice skating hits the holiday top-notes – sparkly lights, cheerful music, a pleasant hustle-hustle, entertaining for children and adults – without amplifying the anxiety about what to buy Granny Annie. In the past years we’ve skated at Somerset House (the grand dame of holiday rinks), the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Canada Square Park in Canary Wharf (which also offers lessons), Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens. Kew and Greenwich have packed up their blades. But this year Westfields London and Westfields Stratford City have launched rinks, indoor and outdoor, respectively. My 7-year-old and I visited Westfields London to try out the new rink, opened late November. Set in the middle of the atrium, it’s undeniably a performative experience – you can expect to be watched by shoppers standing at the railings, by diners at the tapas bar on the mezzanine above, by people riding down the escalator – while you whizz round the 450-square-metre oval. Overhead Christmas lights are wound round the branch-like ceiling struts (“Those aren’t real trees,” my daughter told me solemnly. “They’re attached to the building.”) and shoppers rush to and fro. Disco lights swirl across the ice; on Wednesday and Thursday evenings live DJs from either KISS FM or provided by rink sponsor HP spin tracks. The ice is of reasonably good quality, getting a brush down between each session. The staff were friendly and efficient on our visit – very important when you have to change everyone’s skates at least once to get the right size. There are a few drawbacks. Unlike the rink at, say, Canary Wharf, where there are lockers just beside the skate counter, cloakrooms at Westfields London are in another part of the mall. You’ll want to ditch your bags before going to the rink if you don’t want to leave them in the seating area for changing. The walker-type Penguins to help the little ones learn cost £5 to rent – almost as much as a child’s skating session itself. The big question for the Westfields rinks is whether you find the prospect of ice skating amid the shops appealing. For some, it’s...

All I want for Christmas is this song inserted into my brain via microchip

TweetI can safely say that until about a month ago I had never heard of the band Bowling for Soup, but suddenly I’ve heard about them from a couple of sources, which for me – in my “so not hip to the music scene” zone – is a LOT. (It might also mean that BfS is not cool. I find I’m OK with that possibility.) In catching up with my blog reading, I found Him Up North’s Musical Advent from Dec 11, which features this frankly awesome Mariah Carey song All I Want for Christmas by Bowling for Soup. This is a tune that unites the generations in our family. My daughter knows the words, I’ve watched the end of “Love Actually” just to see the performance of it (along with the scene when Emma unwraps the Joni Mitchell CD – watch it here in dubbed Italian!). It’s even been known to set my husband’s toe tapping. I love that Mariah writes her own material and I love that Bowling for Soup totally rocks this song. What the hell – it’s Christmas and I’m in a good mood!...

The best flash mob ever

TweetI saw this video on @allisonpearson’s Twitter feed and I was something like the 14,489,882nd person to see it, so I’m hardly on the breaking crest of its popularity. But the juxtaposition of the food court and the singers’ clothes with the beauty of the song somehow really brings Christmas to life....

A magical night of Christmas storytelling in Henley

TweetAvril Lethbridge was disenchanted with Christmas seasons animated by the latest Nintendo or Apple accessory. As a result, this granny decided to do something about it. “I dreamt up this very silly idea of a walk around trees, which are lit, and the trees tell you their stories.” A simple idea: to create a holiday experience connected to nature and storytelling rather than frenetic stores and shopping. And she’s realised it with Britain’s big-time, brand-name thespians and theatre-folk, all to benefit charity. In the gathering darkness of the evenings of December 1 -4, guides with lanterns will lead groups round the grounds of Henley Business School, along paths that lead to trees festooned with lights. At each stop, the tree tells its story, via short clips recorded by a host of talent. Barry Humphries voices the spirit of the old oak tree. Mark Rylance, the actor, theatre director and playwright, recounts a Cherokee story of why some trees are evergreen. Bill Nighy, Andrew Wincott from the Archers, Zoe Wanamaker, Miriam Margolyes, Lucy Fleming, and Rolf Harris, among others, have volunteered their voices to the project, which benefits KidsOut Charity as well as Oxfordshire Playbus. “Each person feels that they’re talking to them,” Lethbridge explains. “I hope that one day someone looks back and says ‘Do you remember when that tree spoke to me?’” In addition to the trees there are also Christmas-themed mise-en-scene: a nativity scene (Natascha McElhone tells a French nativity story), elves working on toys and pretend reindeer. Everyone is a volunteer, Lethbridge says, including the lighting designer, Mike Atkinson (he’s also in charge of lighting at a little thing called the National Theatre). The program runs rain or shine and booking is essential. Tickets are £2.50 each, free for under 5s. The entire walk takes about 30 minutes. There are still slots available but act fast. While it was created with children in mind, Lethbridge says they’ve even had adults booking their tickets to experience an evening of magical storytelling on their own. “If you don’t have children, borrow some or let the child in you take over,”she says. Stories by Starlight 1 – 4 December, 2010 01525 385 252 Henley Business School, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 3AU If you’re interested in Stories by Starlight events, contact Avril Lethbridge at avril (dot) lethbridge (at) googlemail (dot) com....

8 British gifts to get Americans (that I would never give to a Brit)

TweetI’ve updated this post with new ideas and links. Go read it here. In an era when every shopping mall and high street plays host to the same set of shops, one of the exciting things about living in a different country from your family is that you can actually give them gifts that surprise, astonish and delight – things that they would never buy themselves because they couldn’t. This year I’ll be spending Christmas in my hometown, which means lugging over two changes of socks, three changes of underwear and 22.95kg of gifts in my suitcase – all of them carefully chosen to delight my American giftees. It’s just as well that I’m exporting these presents from the UK – because these are things that I could never put under the tree here in England. 1. Revels – My brother loves these. I pack-mule in bags when I visit. And as everyone knows, British chocolate is very different from the American kind. Don’t ask me how. Ok, I’ll tell you – it’s better. I could transport some Green&Black’s or other high-end choccies. But he loves the variety of Revels. He totally gets the Deer Hunter commercial.  In America, a gift of Revels say, “Have a Merry Christmas with this treat you only get once a year.” In the UK, it says, “I did my holiday shopping at the petrol station.” 2. Keep Calm and Carry On –The simple design and duo-chrome palette is stylish even if it was never officially used during wartime. This slogan has become so ubiquitous here – posters, tea towels, mugs, cringe-making versions that say Keep Calm and Carry On Shopping – it makes you want to bomb Dresden. But in the US, Keep Calm reacquires its stiff-upper-lip charm. I’ll eventually buy one for myself…when I move back to America. Until then, I’ll be going historical and giving the poster. 3. Cookware by Nigella Lawson – The hues in Nigella’s classic range are all so gorge – but I have a mother-in-law who’s a professional cook and a husband who can whip up dinner using only two sticks and a couple of rusty nails. So Nigella’s designer cookware cuts no ice in the kitchens I visit, which are stocked with professional quality mixers and industrial-size rolls of tinfoil. Americans have heard of Nigella and still clamour for her finger-lickin’ goodness. Plus admirers of Georgia O’Keefe’s work will adore her “little man in a boat” citrus squeezer. 4. Cath Kidston – My god, she’s everywhere, isn’t she? Everything’s coming up roses...

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