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May 18, 2007

Free Things To Do In New York City

Our September 2006 cover, shot by Jonas Karlsson.

by Wendy Perrin

A couple of days ago I posted a thank-you to National Geographic Traveler's Web site for compiling a nifty list of great things to do in New York City for free.  Then I removed it because a cyberrific reader pointed out that the site that actually deserves our thanks is, the home of New York City's tourist board. NGT's list is remarkably similar to the tourist board's, only less comprehensive. 

As a native New Yorker born and raised in midtown, I grew up doing many of these free things myself -- from Friday-night films at the Museum of Modern Art to afternoons at the Sony Wonder Technology Lab to evening concerts in Central Park. The list includes many attractions, museums, walking tours, cultural institutions and events you should not miss -- even if you've got money to burn.

For a list of NYC activities that cost money but are well worth the price -- from kayaking on the Hudson River past the Statue of Liberty to flying through the air on a trapeze with views of Manhattan's skyline -- see Conde Nast Traveler's Insider's Guide to New York City. You can also see the slide show that tells the story of how we managed to shoot movie star Naomi Watts standing on one of the Chrysler Building's gargoyles for our September cover.

March 15, 2007

Italy for Easter

Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy
The Doge's Palace, just off the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.
Photo: Steve Allen, Brand X, Corbis

By Wendy Perrin

Question from reader MarcMehl:

"My wife and I are planning a trip to Italy during Easter vacation from school.  Is there any good way to check what will be open on Easter weekend (April 7-9) in Rome or Venice?  Will museums be closed the Saturday before Easter or the Monday after?"

Whenever I'm headed to any foreign country over a holiday, I check two sites:
1., for national holidays when banks and government offices are closed (which does not mean that museums are closed, but is crucial trip-planning info nonetheless). Fri. the 6th and Mon. the 9th are Italian public holidays.
2. What', for colorful local events and festivals that might be fun to attend.

Continue reading "Italy for Easter" »

February 23, 2007

Children's Museum in Fort Lauderdale

Dc9 cockpit at Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale
Inside the cockpit of a DC-9 at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Feb. 22, 2007

By Wendy Perrin

Regular readers of this blog know that the kids and I rarely miss a children's museum. Yesterday we hit the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale. The highlight for Charlie and Doug was the MarsQuest exhibit, on display through April 30:

Continue reading "Children's Museum in Fort Lauderdale" »

February 11, 2007

Museum Mystery Solved!

By Wendy Perrin

Congrats to winner Seafarer and runner-up Tracker1312 for guessing the mystery museum pictured in Thursday's post: Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.  Its collection contains 750 replicas of the "world's best art":  About a century ago, the head of Moscow State University decided that his students, who were too poor to travel outside Russia, ought to be exposed to the world's artistic masterpieces anyway. So he sent Russian artists to museums and monuments worldwide and had them create exact replicas of what the University deemed were the greatest sculptural and architectural works.  Pretty weird, huh?

As you stroll through the Pushkin, you see everything from the Louvre's Venus de Milo to the Accademia's David to the British Museum's Elgin Marbles to parts of the Parthenon, Assyrian palaces, and medieval churches. It's a real trip -- and, surprisingly, a distinctly Russian experience.  My article about Russia--which lays out the perfect 8-day iconic itinerary for exploring the highlights of Moscow and St. Petersburg--is in Conde Nast Traveler's upcoming March issue.

In the meantime, you can read one of the many first-hand accounts of travel to Moscow at Real TravelUser Matthew's highly-rated account describes the city as "one of the oddest places I've been to in my short, untraveled life."

Hopefully tomorrow I'll be able to post the first photos in the WHERE IN THE WORLD IS WENDY?  game. Since I'll be on the move and in a different locale each day, you'll get to make a new guess daily. Good luck!

February 10, 2007

Mystery Museum, Cont'd.

By Wendy Perrin

Okay, I've managed to wangle a brief Internet connection unavailable to the other guests here (without telling anyone I'm from Conde Nast Traveler; I'm here incognito, of course, per the magazine's policy of "Truth in Travel").  Although I can't start the WHERE IN THE WORLD IS WENDY? contest yet, at least I can provide some feedback about your museum guesses (click to see the mystery museum pictured in Thursday's post).

Nobody's put their finger on the right museum yet. It's not the British Museum in London, the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Accademia in Florence, or the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. 

So let me give you another clue:  Think Eastern Europe.  And remember my first clue: It's a museum in a city I've blogged about while traveling there. (Since this blog is less than six months old, that means I was in that city within the past six months.) 

Hang in there, Seafarer. You too, Kiwiwriter, SuzR, Dmerchant, 2ruse, Rdcerini, JNelson113, Maryjane, and Susan2. Love your guesses!  And I promise, Gadejens, it is absolutely not the Louvre!

February 09, 2007

Mystery Museum

By Wendy Perrin

Good guesses, everyone, but no cigar . . . yet.  The museum pictured in yesterday's post is not the Capitoline, the Uffizi, the Louvre, or the Victoria & Albert. Here's a clue for you: Although reader Seafarer's guess is not correct, she's definitely on the right track!  Good thinking, Seafarer. More guesses, anyone?

February 08, 2007

"WHERE'S WENDY?" starts tomorrow!

Can you guess where this is?

Or how about this?  Hint: It's downstairs inside the same museum.

By Wendy Perrin

Like guessing games?  You'll love what I've got planned. Starting tomorrow, we'll be playing a game called WHERE IN THE WORLD IS WENDY?

Every day, for the next 11 days or so, I'll be posting a photo (or maybe a few) from the trip I'm on, but I won't tell you where I am.  You'll have to guess.  Since I'll be hitting several different countries, you'll need to make several different guesses.  Just click on "Post a Comment" below to share your guesses. (It's a very informal contest.) The winner will be the person who comes closest to guessing my exact location on the greatest number of days of the trip. The prize: Lunch with me at the restaurant of your choice, either in New York or wherever you live.

As for the location of that museum pictured above, here's a hint: I took these photos on one of the trips I've blogged about. Mull it over for a couple of days, and I'll give you the answer this weekend.

January 27, 2007

Art and Pizza in L.A.

The Magritte and Contemporary Art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo: LACMA (L.A. County Museum of Art)

By Wendy Perrin

On my flight to L.A. yesterday, I happened to share an empty middle seat in coach with Milton Esterow, the editor and publisher of ARTnews. He was on his way to L.A. to give a lecture at the Los Angeles Art Show on "How to Look at Art Without Feeling Inferior." The topic of his speech was on my mind today as I tried to make sense of the cryptic curatorial explications at LACMA's exhibition on Rene Magritte, the Belgian surrealist painter. The show's highlight, in my opinion, was the guards dressed in bowler hats, dark business suits, and red ties to look like the famous bowler-hat men of Magritte's paintings. Never before have I seen museum guards costumed to match the theme of an art exhibition!

After LACMA, I took the advice posted on this blog yesterday by L.A.-based reader Crashbpm:

"The best new restaurant here is Mozza, which Mario Batali opened with
Nancy Silverton. Great for a late lunch (it opened in December and is PACKED at night)."

Hot new pizzeria Mozza at Melrose and Highland, Los Angeles, Jan. 26, 2007

Crashbpm, you'll be happy to know I ate lunch there today at 2:30. First I swung by the offices of Variety and asked Dana Harris, who writes The Knife -- the restaurant blog for Variety's movie-mogul readership -- what to order. She insisted we try the bruschetta with chicken livers, pancetta, and capers; the littleneck clam pizza; the prosciutto and arugula pizza; and, for dessert, the butterscotch budino (pudding). She was right on target, as were you in recommending the restaurant. Many thanks for the excellent tip!

Dessert at Mozza: butterscotch budino (left) and caramel coppetta, Jan. 26, 2007

December 01, 2006

Travel With V.I.P. Access Worldwide

By Wendy Perrin

Each year for the December issue of Conde Nast Traveler I and my team, fellow staffers Brook Wilkinson and Kathryn Maier, compile "The Fabulous 50" -- a list of 50 of the best insider-access travel experiences worldwide.  "Insider access" means access to places, people, and events that are off-limits to the general public -- from museums and monuments to archaeological digs, royal families, indigenous peoples, and traditional festivals, all of which give you special insights into a foreign culture.  You too can have these experiences . . . IF you know the right sources to contact (which, of course, we provide).

I'm amused to see that the blogger behind lifeasdaddy seems ready to book himself on the experience Brook tested for this year's feature article accompanying the list. She patrolled Sydney Harbor by Jet Ski, helicopter, etc., tracking down sharks with Australia's ace Surf Life Savers.  Mr. LifeAsDaddy expressed zero interest whatsoever in replicating MY experience.  Then again, all I did was discover a lost civilization in ancient Mesopotamia.

Continue reading "Travel With V.I.P. Access Worldwide" »

November 11, 2006

Shopping In Washington, D.C.

By Wendy Perrin

If you live in Washington, D.C., you have one day left to attend this year's Museum Shop Around at the Strathmore Mansion. It's a nifty idea: 19 museums in the D.C. area bring the unique merchandise from their gift shops to one central location and set up shop. Today I found art books and apparel from the Corcoran Gallery, music-oriented toys and books from the Kennedy Center, funky scarves and mittens from the Textile Museum, train games from the B&O Railroad Museum, political books from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, cool necklaces from the Bead Museum, contemporary gadgets from the National Building Museum, amber jewelry from the Hillwood Museum & Gardens, holiday knick-knacks from the National Museum of Women in the Arts . . . . And I managed to get all my Christmas shopping done in an hour and a half!


November 11, 2006

Children's Museum in Baltimore

By Wendy Perrin

En route to Washington, D.C.--where Tim and the kids and I are visiting friends this weekend--we discovered Port Discovery, the children's museum in Baltimore. It's easy to reach off I-95, and boy was it an excellent mid-drive pitstop.  We ended up spending 4 hours there . . . and hated to leave!  Whoever designed this museum had restless, athletic young boys in mind.  There are countless ways to work off random excess energy, what with three stories filled with contraptions for climbing on, crawling through, jumping in, running around, sliding down, and pulling yourself up in.
Doug, 2, on a rope bridge 3 stories high. Charlie, 4, on Clifford the Big Red Dog's conveyor belt.

Tim remarked that this kids' museum really should be called a Daddy Museum.  There are no weight or height limits for the equipment, which means Dads get to climb and pull and jump too. 

Continue reading "Children's Museum in Baltimore" »

November 02, 2006

Getting Into Museums In Russia

Moscow's St. Basil's Cathedral

By Wendy Perrin

The other day I warned about the endless lines and countless tour groups that jam-pack Russia's museums, monuments, and palaces in the tourist season of mid-May through mid-September.  I lamented that the Russian government doesn't extend museum hours, which are typically from 10:00 or 10:30 till 5:00 or 6:00. A reader responded:

"I think the reason the Russians will not extend the visiting hours for the museums is that the later hours are for people who have connections and can visit the museums alone by paying the 'right' people."

Yes, that is indeed one of the reasons for the relatively short hours.  And it is why I asked Exeter International, a travel firm that specializes in Russia, to arrange my trip.  Exeter can get you into museums and monuments before or after hours, and into sections that are closed to the general public. It also books tickets in advance, which allows you to skip the lines.  But in Russia such advance arrangements can cost 10 times more than if you were to just show up, stand in line, and buy a ticket.

I wanted to have immediate entry at some museums, but I also wanted to experience what is encountered by non-group travelers who can't afford Exeter's arrangements.

Continue reading "Getting Into Museums In Russia" »

October 27, 2006

Dispatch From Moscow

Red Square
Photo: Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

Still in Russia for an article for Conde Nast Traveler.  Spent the last two days in ancient towns along the Golden Ring that are the cradle of Russian culture, then got to Moscow a few hours ago.  Can't give away what my article is about--you'll have to wait to read it in the magazine--but I can share a few of the weirdnesses I've encountered:

1.    Tonight I was checking out rooms at the Hotel National, close to the Kremlin and Red Square, and the employee who showed me a balconied suite told me that you can't use the balcony without getting permission from the front desk first, since the Kremlin might consider it a security threat. 

2.    I was in a McDonald's in Sergiev Posad (Russia's most sacred ancient town), taking a photo of the big neon menu above the counter, when the manager jumped on me, saying that taking photos is strictly forbidden . . . although she could not explain why. Now, I've photographed dozens of McDonald's menus the world over, and never before have I been reprimanded for it. (To anyone tempted to post a snarky comment about why I was wasting film in a McDonald's: It's the fastest, easiest way to document (a) the cost of a Big Mac--a telling economic indicator; and (b) the local specialty reflecting popular taste. In Sergiev Posad it's something called a Greek Mac--two patties with yogurt sauce wrapped in pita.)

3.  My hotel concierge, handing me a map for my walk in Moscow this evening, advised me to carry my passport with me.  In other countries I typically leave my passport in the hotel-room safe, since why risk losing it or having it stolen?  But here in Moscow, where street crime is not uncommon, you're supposed to walk around with it -- in case you get stopped by a policeman.  Apparently some policemen will accept a photocopy of a passport, but some won't.

4. Museums, monuments, and other tourist sites in Russia are a mob scene in high season (May through September), with endless lines to gain entry (which is why I'm here in October), yet the government won't rectify this problem by opening places a couple of hours earlier (opening time is usually 10:00 or 10:30), closing them a couple of hours later (closing time is usually 5:00), and/or cleaning them at night rather than shutting them down for an entire day each week just to sweep up.  According to two English-speaking guides I've used here in Russia, museum and monument workers are on fixed salaries.  The government doesn't extend hours because it won't pay the workers for the extra hours, nor would it hire extra employees to work those extra hours.

My humble opinion:  I think this country needs a minister of tourism.


October 25, 2006

St. Petersburg, Day 4

Catherine Palace
Photo:  Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

I've got to wake up in 5 hours to catch a 7:20 am flight to Moscow, so I'll be brief. Today's biggest surprises: 

1. The contrast between Catherine Palace now and how it looked after the Nazis destroyed it. This 56-room residence of the czars, who were the richest royal family in Europe, has been restored to its 18th-century splendiferousness.  But inside are photos showing only a shell of the building. The pics were taken after the Nazis--who turned the palace into a soldiers' barracks during WW2--stole all its treasures (except the priceless antique furniture, which they used as firewood) and then set half the place on fire, leaving only a shell of the building.

2. The Hidden Treasures Revealed collection at the Hermitage.  To get back at the Germans, Stalin decided to steal some of Germany's treasures.   He sent a group of art connoisseurs and strongmen to Berlin; they returned with 87 French Impressionist paintings, which then sat in the Hermitage's vast storage rooms for 50 years.  The horde was kept hidden until 1995, when the Hermitage revealed it to the world.  All this according to my English-speaking guide.

3. Learning from my guide that Catherine the Great, who began building the Hermitage--the world's largest museum--in 1763, was the only person allowed inside!  "Hermitage" means "place of solitude," and that's what Catherine wanted.  Her first acquisition was 336 paintings of Western European masters. Five years later her collection numbered 2,500.  All for her eyes only!  Her countrymen had to wait till 1917 to get a glimpse. (Today the collection numbers 3 million.)  When I told my guide that such selfishness on Catherine's part was unconscionable, she thought I was nuts.  "Look at how Catherine left us this wonderful gift!" she said.   "I want to thank every one of those czars and aristocrats who made these acquisitions."

4. The horse that came onstage durings Acts I and 2 of the Kirov Ballet's Don Quixote this evening.  The horse carried Don Quixote; a tiny donkey carried Sancho Panza.

5. The cab driver who drove me to the ballet.  When I saw there was no meter in the taxi, I steeled myself for an extortionate fare and an argument in a language I don't speak.  To my surprise, when we got to the theater, the driver charged me a reasonable fare, hopped out of the car to open my door for me, and asked in English if I would like him to pick me up after the ballet.  Sure enough, the moment the ballet ended, there he was waiting for me, again getting out to open the door.  A more polite taxi driver I've never encountered. 

October 24, 2006

St. Petersburg, Day 3

The Hermitage
Photo: Exeter International

By Wendy Perrin

My English-speaking guide in St. Petersburg has a talent for getting into places after they've closed for the day.  Yesterday it was the State Russian Museum.  Today it was Tikhvin Cemetery, where many famous Russian artists, composers, and writers are buried (Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Glinka among them).  We arrived at 5:30 only to learn that the cemetery had closed at 5:00.  The guard eyed me skeptically.  Whatever my guide said to him, he ended up letting us in.  For half an hour we were the only (live) people in the cemetery. Then my guide explained that the guard would be expecting payment.  On the way out he named his price: 200 rubles (about $8).

We were running so late because I'd had to spend six hours this morning checking out hotels.  Anyone who thinks the life of a travel journalist is one giant vacation should spend a morning with me scrutinizing hotel rooms and trying to cut through the marketing spin dished out by hotel sales managers.  I chose six properties, ranging from 3-star to 5-star, that are good bets for Conde Nast Traveler readers, and at each one my goal was to determine which room category (e.g., superior river-view) or line (e.g., all rooms ending in "05") or floor or single room represents the best value for your money.  Try doing this with a hotel like the Eliseev Palace, where no two rooms are the same, or the Kempinski Moika 22, which has 17 different room categories.

Only after completing this hair-raising task could I start my sightseeing day -- at 2:00 pm!  By the time we had zoomed outside the city to Peterhof -- Peter the Great's summer palace and gardens -- and zoomed back, it was 5:30 and we had missed our can't-be-missed appointment at the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory.  Since I'm more into dead composers than dinner plates, I wasn't devastated.   But if you think the cemetery visit was the end of my work day, you're sorely mistaken.  Since then I've checked out two restaurants and a Russian Orthodox church service. I've also switched hotels.  Had to flee the affordable Petro Palace because, after many wasted hours battling the world's most bizarre hotel Internet-access system, I could not get onto the Web from my laptop.  Which made blogging tough. I'm now at a five-star classic that is totally unaffordable (a large bottle of Evian in the restaurant costs $15),  but whose ace business center got me WiFi-enabled within three minutes.  (Can't tell you where I'm staying, of course, since I'm here incognito.  I'll spill the beans after I check out on Thursday.)

Okay, enough throat clearing. Today's highlights:

1. Peterhof's 28 over-the-top rooms, which I might describe as Versailles meets the Hofburg, only with even more floral silk upholstery.  Peter the Great's decorator, Catherine I, clearly believed that more is more.
2. Learning that Peter never even lived there!  Way too grandiose for him. He preferred his four-room log cabin in the city. 
3. Finding out from my guide that Rimsky-Korsakov was actually a naval officer by education, that Borodin was a chemistry professor, and that Rachmaninoff, who fled to the U.S. when the Revolution started, "died of homesickness."
4. Learning--again, from my guide--that the theft of 220 works of art from the Hermitage about a month ago was an inside job perpetrated by the husband and son of one of the curators.
5. Being told by the Grand Hotel Europe's sales manager during this morning's hotel inspection that Tchaikovsky honeymooned at the hotel.  Talk about marketing spin:  My guide told me later that this is not possible, since Tchaikovsky was gay and never married.

It's now 1:00 a.m. St. Petersburg time and I'm still at my laptop.  Yup, the life of a travel journalist is just one giant vacation.