Friday, May 27, 2011

Welcome to A New Advertiser



If your idea of camping is bug bites, sleeping bags and baked beans, think again.

How about roughing it in a three-bedroom “caravan” with a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom (with tub or power shower) and air conditioning throughout? It also has private garden area, barbecue and dining furniture on the deck…and a bakery just down a wooded path for fresh croissants in the morning.

Or perhaps you’d prefer a large furnished tent, yurt, tree house, wooden chalet or “camping pod”?

When planning a European vacation, many travelers believe that hotels and home rentals are their only lodging options. Camping and caravanning, however, can be a wonderful and often more-affordable way to travel in Europe. It’s a trend that’s on the upswing and I’m not surprised.

The terms “camping,” “caravanning” and “self catering,” I recently found out, refer to a wide range of venues called campsites, holiday parks, caravan parks, vacation villages, mobile home parks and more. Depending on the size of your group and your idea of fun, you can choose from rustic to five-star. Most facilities have, at the least, a pool or beach, laundry, a restaurant, a bar and some form of organized activities for kids. Other amenities might include horseback riding, rock-climbing, snorkeling and other water sports, full-on water parks, mini golf, football, tennis courts, kids clubs, day trips and evening entertainment.

But how to find the right place?

ISpyCamping.com is a price-comparison website featuring camping and caraving vacations in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Croatia. Whether you’re an experienced camper or first-timer, it can be an extremely useful tool. It’s also just fun to browse.

Not only does I Spy Camping help you choose the ideal vacation spot, it shows you which tour operator (Siblu, Eurocamp, Keycamp, etc.), offers it at the very-best price.

I Spy Camping was co-founded and is now run by Will Goodridge, a travel industry vet who has won numerous industry awards. The former Head of eCommerce for Siblu Holiday Villages, he left last year when he saw a niche and decided he could fill it. He partnered with the French-language site Toocamp.com and launched ISpyCamping.com in November 2010.

“Camping is becoming more and more popular,” Will explains. “But families looking for camping holidays were visiting five or six websites to compare prices. In August, two weeks camping can cost more than £2,000. If we save you 10% or more by finding the cheapest price, that’s substantial. Now you do all that research quickly on one convenient site.”

Born in Valladolid, Spain (his mum is Spanish, his dad English), Will moved to England aged seven. His passion for camping blossomed early, when his family traveled back and forth by car between Spain and the U.K., sleeping at French campsites. Today Will is based in Northhamptonshire and he loves nothing more than camping with his own kids, Isabella and Thomas.(An avid outdoorsman and athlete, he also loves “challenges” such as triathlons, running, hiking and long-distance biking, often with the kids in tow.) 

All the campsites Will promotes are privately run, mainly by a family business or by a company like Siblu or Europarcs. “There are a good number of municipal campsites in France,” he says, "but these are generally regarded as stopovers rather than somewhere to actually have a holiday. You can’t really compare them to a five-star campsite with indoor and outdoor pools, slides and spas, tennis courts, kids clubs and evening entertainment.” Most facilities on his site have a three-night minimum, Will says, and the typical stay is 10 days.

“No matter what your dream destination is, we want to save you time and money,” he adds. “From a family holiday in the South of France to an adventure around the Italian Lakes to a forest retreat in the Charente-Maritime for under £300…we provide the widest choice available. We help you narrow the selection and choose the holiday with the best facilities, location and accommodations for your needs.”

Photos: Will and his kids, Isabella (7) and Thomas (4), atop Snowdon in Wales, the second highest mountain in the U.K. Plus, three examples of the hundreds of camping options on ISpyCamping.com.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tout Sweets


Sunday May 29th is Mothers Day in France but I think these personalized chocolate letter boxes, from Jadis et Gourmande, would delight any mom, anywhere, any day. Compose your short message in French or English; they'll ship your gift out tres vite no matter where mama lives. Jadis et Gourmande makes all their own chocolate, using 71% cocoa and pure cocoa butter, in their workshop not far from Paris. It used to be that you could only buy their products in their five Paris shops, but since January, 2011, the full range is available online. And certain must-haves--such as the dark-chocolate clutch purse (pictured above) that "no woman will be able to resist"--are online only. Don't worry if you don't speak French: the company has English speakers ready to help whether you buy in the shop, by phone or online.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Welcome To A New Advertiser

When I was first looking for a house to rent in Provence, I realized quickly that it wasn’t going to be easy. “Cela n’existe pas!” was pretty much the standard response each time I explained to yet another realtor what I wanted: a small, traditional, renovated village house, with two bedrooms or more, a garden and plenty of charme.

It doesn’t exist, I was told over and over again. It’s impossible to find. Of course it exists…but not in St. Remy! A house like that would be beyond your budget. We have many for sale but not rent. We had one like that last week but it was just rented. And so forth.

When they did have a listing with potential, the owner always seemed to be in Paris with the only set of keys. Or caught up in messy divorce proceedings pour le moment. Or at the beach with her children until we-don’t-know-when. Or not quite sure that she wanted to rent after all.

Finally I realized that no realtor was going to go out of his way for me: rentals don’t generate much commission and my being a foreigner probably didn’t help. So I set out to find a house on my own, through friends, word of mouth and “social media”—which, in 1998, meant the bulletin board at the local grocery store.

Later, looking for a place to buy, things were a bit easier…but not much.

That said, renting and then buying a house for myself in Provence is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m so glad I was persistent because I found exactly what I wanted. But I could definitely have lived without the time-wasting drama and almost certainly would have gotten a better deal if I had had someone to help.

Someone like Jackie Pressman, for example.

An Englishwoman in Cannes, Jackie (pictured above) has had an impressive career spanning the worlds of real estate, finance, antiques, telecom and insurance. Jackie and her husband Burt, a New Yorker, made the move down from London in 2000 and Jackie set up shop the following year. Through her company French Riviera Property Search, she offers comprehensive, tailor-made services to help would-be renters and buyers find the perfect place. She works up and down the Cote d’Azur, from Frejus to Menton, specializing in Antibes, Juan les Pins, Cannes, La Napoule and the hills behind them, such as Mougins, Valbonne, Plascasier, Opio and Biot.

Jackie works at no charge to her clients—her fees come off the advertised price of the property.

“Working with French estate agents can be challenging,” she says with a laugh. “They seldom share listings and many don’t speak English. Plus, they represent the seller, not the buyer or the renter--and so their goal is to obtain the highest price. Having us represent you creates a better balance.

“One of the key benefits of using us,” she adds, “is our local market expertise. We’re a particularly useful resource for buyers from outside France. Finding a home here presents different legalities than those in your own country and, specifically, different tax regimes.”

Offering confidential and discreet service, Jackie will help you source your dream property and negotiate the price. She’ll ensure that all documents are signed in the most tax-efficient way and guide you through the entire purchase process. With ten-plus years local experience, she’s confident recommending English-speaking notaries, insurance agents, banks, tax advisors, surveyors, architects, interior designers, project managers, property managers and more.

Jackie can evaluate your new property in terms of potential rental returns, quality of location, potential for renovation or redevelopment and more. Plus, she loves to share her local knowledge to help you find the best schools, restaurants, markets, festivals, cultural events and organizations.

At the present time, Jackie works only in the Cote d’Azur region. “I’m in and out of properties continually,” she says “and going too far from the coast would make daily visits difficult.” She will however, offer a couple tips for Provence house hunters in an upcoming guest post.

Whether you’re still dreaming of “some day” or you’ve already begun your search, Jackie would love to hear from you. References are available on her website.

Jackie Pressman
jackie@frenchrivierapropertysearch.com
FrenchRivieraPropertySearch.com
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 38 22 24
Fax: +33 (0)4 93 38 22 69
Cell: +33 (0)6 98 12 89 00
Skype: jaknburt

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where to Propose in Provence?


I received this charming email the other day.  Anyone have any ideas to share?

Dear Julie,

I found your blog while researching food and restaurants in Provence. I'm in need of some serious recommendations.  I will be proposing to my girlfriend during our trip to France this summer.  We'll be spending our time all over Provence (Marseilles, Cannes, St. Tropez, The Luberon, etc.) and also on Corsica.  I'd love to propose to her in either Provence or Corsica, but I want it to be unique and one-of-a-kind.  I want to find that perfect place that just "sets the stage" for the most romantic proposal.   I want her engagement to be so memorable that no other will ever compare. Do you have any recommendations on where to propose in either Provence or Corsica?  The perfect restaurant, or natural setting, or experience?  I have a solid budget, but I'm am more concerned about the uniqueness of the setting. 

Some current ideas are the cactus garden in Eze, a hot air balloon ride in the Luberon or in Bonifacio, Corsica.  I'm leaning towards a place on the coast because she loves the ocean, but it's much more about the uniqueness of the experience/location.  I'm really trying to find a place that I could not find on my own with just internet research.  I hate the term "off-the-beaten-track" but I guess that's the best description...although I'm open to a more "touristy" location if there is a special experience I can arrange there.  Thank you in advance for any advice you can provide!

**Note from Julie: If you've never left a comment on my blog, this is a great time to do it! Let's help this adorably romantic man find the perfect place to propose. Leaving a comment is super easy. Click comments below.  Write your comment in the box.  Choose an identity. If you don't know which option to choose, tick "Name/URL." Then type in your name. Full name, first name, fake name: whatever. If you want your name linked to a website, type in the website or URL when prompted. Click "Publish your Comment." Et voila! 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Talented Tartelette

Check out the beautiful blog Tartelette produced by Marie-Helene Dujardin. Born and raised near Aix-in-Provence, Helene (as she refers to herself) has been living in Charleston, South Carolina since 1998. She launched Tartelette (it's a family nickname) after leaving her restaurant pastry-chef job and today makes her living as a food writer, stylist and photographer. Her first book,  a how-to guide to digital food photography called Plate to Pixel, hit bookstores on May 1st. You can order it direct from the publisher Wiley or find it on Amazon here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Rainey's Night in Avignon: A Reader's Restaurant Review

Rainey Vivier (American, from Florida) and her husband Pierre (a retired French pastry chef and chocolatier), recently moved from Tallahassee, Florida, to their home in a small village near Uzes in Provence. Their daughter, Dominique, and her husband, Christophe, also live in France and lead culinary tours. Rainey came to me late this winter asking for Avignon restaurant suggestions; with input from my dream team of Avignon experts I sent her a list. Rainey came back to report that the family had loved their meal and so I asked her to tell us about it. Other suggestions appear under comments, following Rainey's post.
     
Looking for a nice Saturday night out with Dominique and Christophe, we thought Avignon would be fun. Well through the wonders of email, I received a great list of recommendations. (One of the recommendations used the word "tasty!"  I love the word tasty--it sounds kind of sassy.)

The restaurant we chose, L'Isle Sonnante, is in the center of Avignon, right behind the opera--a perfect location. We called on Friday afternoon and were able to get a table for the following evening. Glad we did: when we arrived the sign on the door said "complet"--meaning full. 

Chef Boris Chevtchenko and his wife Ann have been in this location for eight years. The name may be Russian, but Boris is second-generation French.  We actually forgot to ask if they speak English, but I read somewhere that they do.

The interior is charming and tiny, with lots of antiques, dramatic accents of bright pink, shiny brass and simple but elegant table settings.  There's a small patio, but it was too cold for that.  We were warmly greeted and felt relaxed and welcome. Good start to our evening.

The menu reflected Avignon's southern location and the winter season, so the emphasis was on truffles, olive oil, tapenade and winter vegetables. Everything we ordered was delicious and beautifully presented.  The lamb was cooked to a perfect rosé color, as was the foie gras; the vegetables were so fresh and yes, "tasty!"  The only negative comment we had was that the taste of truffles was almost overwhelming in the duck confit dish.  But that's probably just personal taste anyway.  

Wines come from the Rhône Valley and were obviously carefully chosen because Ann knew every one on the list.  She was very helpful and willing to answer our questions.  While talking with Ann we learned that L'Isle Sonnante is listed in Rick Steves' Provence book.  It was charming how naïve she seemed as to the power of Rick Steves.  Refreshing, actually.

Dessert was copious.  Since Dominique is pregnant (due in mid June) and has a serious sweet tooth right now, she was tempted by both the chocolate terrine and the pot de crème à la vanille with caramel.  We decided to order both, plus the baba au rhum.  All were delicious, but the chocolate was our favorite. It was a perfect evening and we're looking forward to returning, maybe in warm weather when we'll sit out the patio. Dinner for four with wine was 200€...good value for money...and delightful atmosphere.

L'Isle Sonnante
7, rue Racine 
84000 Avignon
Tel:  04.90.82.56.01
The restaurant has no website, although many reviews appear on TripAdvisor and other sites. You can see it on the Avignon map here.  More Avignon restaurant suggestions appear in the comments section below. Click 'comments.'

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Major Hotel Renaissance in London

After standing empty for years, the spectacular Midland Grand Hotel, overlooking one of the world's great train stations, has been restored to its former Victorian Gothic glory. It officially reopens as the 245-room St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel London on Thursday.

The dramatic red-brick building, first opened in 1873, was designed to cater to travelers coming in and out of St. Pancras, the major train hub opened five years earlier.

The new hotel—a 12 year project that cost £150 million--marks the completion of the regeneration of the St. Pancras International Station, which was completely restored and reopened in 2007. It’s now the home of Eurostar, the high-speed train connecting London to Paris, Lille and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. (From July 9 to September 10, you can take the Eurostar direct from St. Pancras to Avignon in Provence in just under six hours. The Saturday-only service is direct and does not require a change; it leaves at 7:17 a.m. and arrives Avignon Centre at 2:08 p.m. The return train leaves Avignon Centre at 4:24 p.m., arriving St. Pancras at 9:09 p.m. Other days and times you connect in Lille or Paris. For info, click here.)

While the hotel began welcoming guests since mid March, the official grand opening will be May 5th, exactly 138 years to the day after its predecessor. Many original areas and features have been meticulously renovated and restored, by a team of hundreds of craftsmen and painters. “Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott designed every single window in the building with a different surround,” says general manager Kevin Kelly, who left the five-star Marriott Grosvenor Square (London) to run this hotel. “In our restoration, we’ve tried to do justice to this great building.”

There’s also a 120,000-square-foot extension featuring original artwork and contemporary design. 

The hotel has restored gold-leaf ceilings, ornate wall murals and a Grand Staircase that’s widely revered as the most majestic in England, with windows measuring more than 50 feet and crowned by an elaborate vaulted ceiling. It’s been featured in many films (such as Batman) and music videos such as the Spice Girls’ debut single Wannabe.

And what about the food ? Top Michelin-starred London chef Marcus Wareing (a Gordon Ramsay protégé) is in charge of the restaurant The Gilbert Scott, which offers what he calls “an original yet familiar menu of Great British inspired classics."  He continues: “Inspired by the history and architecture of the building we’ve looked at old-style cookery books of Great Britain and done a lot of research on the traceability of dishes which are no longer recognized today as their names have changed." Dishes on the opening menu include Nettle and watercress soup; Dorset Jugged Steak (braised featherblade with Port, pork dumplings and red currants ; featherblade is a braising cut from the shoulder); Tweed Kettle (sea trout with a lemon, nutmeg and an herb crust); Yorkshire fish cakes; Manchester tart (custard, bananas, puff pastry, jam); and treats such as a “sweet shop bag” and chocolate cigars. 

In the second bar/restaurant, this one called the Booking Office and located in the train station’s original ticket office, Julien Maisonneuve (formally of the Michelin-starred Tom Aikens Restaurant) is the chef. The food there is seasonal, market driven and simply prepared, with dishes such as mushroom and leek Wellington with curly kale and hollandaise and a sea bass with wild mushrooms, new potatoes and lemon butter. Maisonneuve oversees banquets and room service as well.

The hotel also has a spa with swimming pool (in what had been the hotel's old kitchen), a 500-person event hall, a “gentleman’s grooming salon” and a “Ladies Smoking Room”--a renovation of the original room, the first place in Europe where it was acceptable for women to smoke in public. Rates begin at £225 ($371, €250).

Click on each photo to enlarge. Caption Info: The Grand Staircase during, after and before renovation. The hotel exterior today and in a 1884 painting by John O'Connor. The old booking office, now the Booking Office Bar. The view from the hotel's Chambers Suite bedroom.

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