Two sublime day trips from London

A few days into a recent 8-day trip to London I was spent. This followed Portobello Road and Covent Garden shopping sprees, a delicious Guinness-oyster pie at Borough Market, a night of clubbing in Shoreditch (the masterful DJ Carl Craig spun at Plastic People), and a day of intensive art immersion (including Christian Marclay’s excellent film “The Time” at the White Cube gallery). The perfect palliative to minding too many gaps and aching blistered dogs proved to be two sublime daytrips.

The picturesque medieval town of Lewes, about an hour south of London, is set on a hill above the River Ouse. Its winding cobblestone streets, lined with locavore-minded restaurants, traditional pubs serving locally-brewed ales, unique boutiques and antiquarians, lead up to the ruins of an 11th century Norman Castle. The town’s charms have attracted many, including Virginia Woolf, American patriot Thomas Paine, and the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, but my primary motivation for this jaunt was timing.

Each November fifth, for the past 405 years, Lewes has celebrated the fire-filled British holiday of Guy Fawkes Night with more fervor and pageantry than anywhere in the U.K. The evening’s incendiary bacchanalia includes throngs of torch-wielding and elaborately-costumed marchers, young men racing through town towing barrels of burning tar, whole roasted pigs on spits and massive bonfires. The holiday, which commemorates a foiled-attempt in 1605 to overthrow the British Government (and is rooted in ancient pagan rituals), is like nothing you will find in London.

%Gallery-111983%The same can be said for the Cotswalds, the gorgeous west-central English countryside roughly an hour-and-a-half west of the capital. This officially designated “Area of Outstanding Beauty” lives up to its billing with gentle rolling hills, idyllic villages and ornate churches built with indigenous honey-hued limestone. Here there are still single-lane roads slicing through pastoral farmlands dotted with sheep and thatched-roof houses.

The best way to take-in the Cotswolds is by car, which you can easily rent in the nearby town of Oxford. Driving on the left side for most Americans is certainly a challenge; but not nearly as treacherous as avoiding the brightly plumed pheasants swooping down kamikaze-like towards my oncoming windshield. My route along the northern half of the area’s famed Romantic Road provided an excellent overview. This included stops in Woodstock where I glimpsed the grand Blenheim Palace; Grand Tew, a speck of a village (pop. 152) with a 16th century pub; Bourton-on-the-Water, a.k.a. “The Venice of the Cotswolds;” and the wondrous Broadway Tower, a small 18th century castle that once served as a refuge for Arts & Crafts movement founder William Morris.


In the last decade the Cotswolds, much like the Hamptons, have become a haven for London’s boldface names. The likes of Lily Allen, Damien Hirst, Kate Winslet and Stella McCartney regularly come here to escape London’s bustle and recharge their batteries. There’s no reason lesser-known individuals on extended urban safaris can’t do the same-it certainly made my Indian food in Islington the next evening that much tastier.

God save the Queen, and London to be sure, but for excursions outside the sprawling capital, God save Britain’s National Rail. It is user friendly, affordable and surprisingly comfortable. You can easily purchase same-day round trip tickets. London’s Victoria Station to Lewes and back costs about $32; London Paddington to Oxford is $42. A rental car via EasyCar, a subsidiary of the low cost air-carrier EasyJet, cost about $75. The rental agency is located a block from the Oxford train station and operates through Avis.

Dayzipping Reinvents the Day Trip

Want to get away but don’t have the time or money to go on an extended vacay? Then log on to Dayzipping, a new site dedicated to finding great day-long getaways from anywhere in the world.

The site asks you where you’re located (or where you’re traveling to), and then offers up a slew of options in the area. Suggestions are sourced and reviewed by members (and membership is free) — which means that options are well-vetted and tested. A simple search for New York, New York offered a walk through lower Manhattan, a BBQ in Brooklyn, and a slightly-out-of-the-city foray to Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Home.

The site also allows users to connect with their friends and share reviews and suggestions within friend networks. As with any user-generated site, the suggestions are only as good as the people using the service. So as Dayzipping continues to grow, expect to see more and more options. It’s a great way to rediscover your own town, or get an insider’s perspective on a spot you might be visiting.

Affordable Beachy Day Trips from NYC

Memorial Day weekend in New York City is either an excuse to barbecue or to hit the beach. From Manhattan, reaching a decent beach can become quite the odyssey, especially if you don’t have a car.

Even if you’re not lucky enough to summer in the Hamptons, you can leave the city and lounge on a beach without spending a fortune. Not all beaches around New York City, however, are created equal. Depending on your mood, here are four beaches that are within a day trip from Manhattan and accessible by public transportation.

Coney Island

Good for: Nathan’s hot dogs, a boardwalk with carnival games and rides (the new Luna Park opens Saturday, May 29), the New York Aquarium (the sea lion show is surprisingly fun), and the bone-rattling Cyclone wooden roller coaster.
Beach quality: Expect cigarette butts in the sand, virtually no waves, and murky water that’s OK for dipping in your toes. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who has actually jumped all the way into that water.
Cost from Manhattan: $4.50 for a round-trip subway card. Give yourself at least an hour in travel time by subway.

Fire Island
Good for: Relaxing on (comparatively) uncrowded beaches.
Beach quality: Rougher waves (beware of swimsuit malfunctions — wear a suit that can take the beating), but don’t expect too much in the way of amenities. Bring a beach umbrella because there’s little to no shade.
Cost from Manhattan: Long Island Rail Road train from Penn Station to Bay Shore (from $21.50 for an off-peak round-trip ticket) then a ferry (from $10 for a round-trip pass). Check the train and ferry schedules carefully, and make sure you don’t miss the last ferry back. For one-way travel times, allot two hours for the train and at least 20 minutes for the ferry.

Jones Beach
Good for:
Summer music concerts, lots of junk-food concession stands, some picnic tables, and decent waves.
Beach quality: Serviceable but crowded with families. Beach umbrella rentals are available.
Cost from Manhattan: $16.50 for the MTA’s Jones Beach package with discounted one-day round-trip LIRR tickets to Freeport and a bus connection to the beach. This year’s service is available on weekends May 29-Sept. 12 plus Memorial Day (May 31); weekdays June 28-Sept. 6.

Atlantic City, NJ
Good for: Gambling, strolling the boardwalk, and people-watching.
Beach quality: Obviously not the Caribbean, but not bad for a quick getaway. Keep in mind that you can easily sit in three hours of traffic trying to get to the Hamptons.
Cost from Manhattan:
The Atlantic City Express Service train from New York’s Penn Station is the fastest route by public transit. One-way tickets start at $29 for the 2.5-hour trip.

Having visited each of these beaches and mostly by public transportation, I feel obligated to share these seven seemingly obvious tips. Feel free to add your own.

[Image Credits: Amy Chen]

Check the schedule. When traveling by train, bus, or ferry, double-check the schedule for any service changes or delays. This is especially important if you need to connect by bus or ferry to reach the beach.

Have a Plan B. If you know you’re the type to dawdle, aim to catch the second-to-last departure on the way home. That way, in the event you lose track of time, you have a buffer and won’t have to stress about finding your way back.

Do the math. Depending on the size of your group or if you’re traveling with a lot of kids or gear, it may be more cost-effective and easier to rent a car. In the New York area, car-sharing companies such as Zipcar and Connect by Hertz offer hourly rentals with gas and insurance included. (Expect to pay a membership fee and familiarize yourself with any mileage limits — I once exceeded the daily mileage limit with my Zipcar rental and paid a penalty that effectively doubled the price of the rental). Don’t forget to factor in any parking fees or tolls.

Lighten your load. Can you rent chairs or umbrellas at the beach? Then don’t bother schlepping all that gear on the subway, train, bus, or ferry.

Know the rules. Does the train, bus, or ferry allow coolers or glass bottles? What about the beach? If certain items are prohibited, you could find yourself dragging unnecessary stuff and then being forced to dump all of it.

Bring a cover-up and a change of clothes. If it took you two hours to get there, you’ll want to be comfortable on the ride back.

Oh, and
don’t forget to wear sunblock.

Overcrowded Venice may ban day-trippers

There’s no question that Venice is a city overrun with tourists. 20 million people visit the sinking city each year, yet only 60,000 Italians call Venice home. It’s no wonder then that the city starts to feel more like an open-air museum, a well-preserved relic of the past, rather than a living, and lived-in, city.

The residents of Venice put up with a lot (though or course, many of them profit greatly from the massive tourism industry too), and many are fed up with the overwhelming crush of tourists that descend on the town each year. And they aren’t above fighting back. Last year, the city created a (short-lived) locals-only vaporetto line from the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. Technically, anyone with a 3-year Carta Venezia pass could ride, but at 40 Euros each, most visitors wouldn’t buy one.

The latest tactic in the battle of locals vs. tourists is to ban day-trippers. Only about 30% of Venice’s annual visitors stay there overnight. The rest stay outside the city, stop by on their way to or from other destinations, or come for the day by cruise ship. The proposal would limit visitors to the city to those people who have a pre-booked hotel reservation.

Enrico Mingardi, the head of public transportation in Venice, is the mastermind of the proposal. He says that Venetians can “no longer tolerate the discomforts” caused by the influx of thousands of tourists each day. He didn’t say exactly how the system would work, what rules would apply to cruise ship visitors, and if those without proof of hotel reservations would be locked out of the city.

Proposals that would limit the number of Venice’s tourists have been brought up before, but always defeated. If the policy does take effect, I have a feeling Venice will feel even more like a historical theme park. What’s next – turnstiles and a ticket window?

Amster-done? Visit a castle

In my last Amster-done? post I talked about taking a day trip to the beautiful city of Delft. Today I’m featuring two medieval castles far from the noise and pungent smells of Amsterdam, but still less than an hour away by public transport.

Muider Castle, known to the locals as Muiderslot, is a twenty minute bus ride from Amsterdam’s Amstel station. Get off at the stop for Muiden and take a short walk through a park, then the village of Muiden, and along a harbor where you’ll see the castle in the distance.

It’s a pretty sight. This castle was founded around the year 1285 to protect Muiden harbor. It was expanded over the years and now appears much as it did when major building was completed in 1450. There’s a peaceful garden off to one side, and an open area where falconry demonstrations are held. If you’ve never seen a falcon doing its stuff, this alone is enough to make you glad you came. These regal birds are amazingly quick and well-trained, and can pluck a bit of meat out of their trainer’s hand while swooping past at blinding speed.

The interior of the castle is made up like it was in the olden days, with chambers for the lord and lady, an armoury for the soldiers, a creepy dungeon for people who use their cell phones in restaurants, and even some primitive privies. The privies are noticeably lacking in the dungeon. Serves them right.


The Castle de Haar (Kasteel de Haar in Dutch) is another fine relic of the bad old days. If you don’t have a car, the easiest way to get there is to take a train or bus to Utrecht Centraal Station and then take bus 127 in the direction of Breukelen/Kockengen to the “Brink” stop at Haarzuilens. It’s only a 15 minute walk at that point.

This is one of the most attractive castles I’ve seen in Europe. It was built sometime before 1391 and expanded in the following century before falling into disrepair. A massive restoration project of the castle and nearby town brought it back to its former glory. Around the castle is a large baroque garden filled with flowers and dotted with ponds, perfect for snuggling with that special travel companion.

Both of these castles make for a fun, easy day trip from Amsterdam, and their close enough that you can be back in time for the nightlife.

Do you have a favorite day trip from Amsterdam? Post a comment!