Thursday, January 29, 2009

Try London from the suburban side

Image courtesy of Wendy Bumgardner,
About Walking Guide

Think of London and what pops to mind? Big Ben, the West End, Piccadilly Circus?

That's how many tourists experience it, but most Londoners themselves live in rather more ordinary surroundings. And, if Monty Python is to be believed, few are more ordinary than the suburban Sussex town of Esher. (In one Python episode, Eric Idle named it as the sort of place that appealed to "middle-class stockbrokers' wives" seeking identical tract homes.)

In other words, if you want to live like a local when visiting London--a well-heeled local, mind you, as the Home Counties aren't exactly a cheap part of the U.K.--then Esher may be just the place. A half-hour direct train trip will bring you from Esher to London's Waterloo Station.

Esher is popular with the horsey set, as it's home to Sandown Park Racecourse and just 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Big Hat Central, Epsom Downs. (On the Epsom Downs website, dress code instructions for the famous Epsom Derby include "Ladies are asked to wear formal day dress, or a trouser suit, with a hat or substantial fascinator" and "For the avoidance of doubt, sportswear and trainers are not permitted in the Queen's Stand." Gosh, no one else does formality quite like the Brits.)

The news hook for this paean to Esher is the fact that The Apartment Service, a U.K.-based rental outfit, has just started offering two-bedroom, two-bathroom furnished apartments in Orchard Place, a complex opposite Sandown. The minimum rental is one week, starting at £875 a week. (I told you the town wasn't cheap.)

By the way, if you do visit Esher and really want to sound like a local, pronounce it "ee-shah" rather than trying to rhyme it with "mesh-er." And don't forget your fascinator.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Long-term house swapping

Until very recently, if you Googled "house swapping," you'd generally uncover sites such as HomeLink and Intervac: organizations that focus on helping vacationers switch homes for a few weeks at a time.

Lately, however, I've been hearing about more people arranging longer exchanges. Swaps of six months to a year have long been a small niche of the home exchange industry, but they appealed mainly to professors, who connected on specialized sites such as Sabbatical Homes. Now, according to the Shelter Offshore blog, more people are considering long-term swaps as a way to "test out" a foreign country for a year or so before buying property abroad.

Probably due to the upheaval in the worldwide economy, particularly in the real estate industry, a growing number of people also appear to be swapping homes permanently. The legalities of such a large-scale barter deal must be complex, to put it mildly. However, at least one social networking site, Domuswap, has popped up to help people do permanent trades.

By the way, if you're interested in doing a shorter term trade, do check out my tips for house swappers at

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bus tours: Beyond the half-day city package

OK, I hear you saying. First she writes about some posh resort (see my post earlier today about reggaelates), and now she's writing about bus tours? Isn't this the blog for people who want to get beyond the usual tourist spots?

Bear with me. These bus companies appear to go far beyond the usual "And on your right you'll see our beautiful city hall" ordeals.

In Los Angeles, Esotouric offers a bunch of truly off-the-wall itineraries. This Sunday, you can take a three-hour tour of South L.A. that hinges on the enthusiasms of architecture prof Reyner Banham. Highlights include an 1808 mansion marooned in the middle of a trailer park, a ruined train station that showed up in the film-noir classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and a Cuban bakery.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, a division of the Chicago Office of Tourism called Chicago Neighborhood Tours hauls visitors way outside the Loop. If you take the new Albany Park tour, for instance, you can check out the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and the trapped-in-time Superdawg Drive-In.

Reggaelates: Now I've heard everything

OK, this post deviates a bit from my standard "like a local" fare, but a press release just crossed my desk that made me laugh. The world has officially gone mad.

The spa at Jake's, a boutique hotel in Jamaica, has just launched "Reggaelates": Pilates classes set to reggae music.

Somewhere, Bob Marley is sighing a big, puzzled sigh.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

See the world as a pet sitter

I've heard of people travelling from city to city as serial house sitters, but I'd never heard of someone doing so as a pet sitter...particularly when the "pets" in question include rabbits and chickens as well as the more common dogs and cats. But a recent story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune profiles Minnesotan Anne Estes, who has done pet sitting gigs in Ireland and London. Estes tells the whole tale on her blog, complete with pictures of her animal charges. She's currently in Buenos Aires taking a break from pet sitting, but scroll through the archives and you'll get the scoop on the animal gigs.

According to the Star-Tribune piece, she got the idea of travelling as a pet sitter after serving as a volunteer at a Montana sheep ranch. Estes finds leads through sites matching home owners and house sitters, such as the Caretaker Gazette and

As with any travel option involving matches between strangers, caution and intuition are important. has a good online house sitting guide. Aimed more at home owners than house sitters, it nonetheless spells out some tips that will stand both in good stead. As a house/pet sitter, you should be prepared to provide references and a security deposit, and to be bonded. And, oh yes, get everything in writing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The view from Cameroon

British ex-pat Steve Jackson writes a somewhat colourful, often cranky and usually entertaining blog called Our Man in Cameroon, documenting his life as a VSO worker in Africa. In a recent post, he wonders why the development charity is having trouble recruiting the 10 people needed for his location in Bamenda, and grouses that many people are willing to pay lots of money to join a voluntourism project but are loath to sign up for a paying VSO gig.

I can see his point, in a way, but I also think he overlooks the fact that not everyone can commit months or years of their lives to serve with non-profit groups abroad. And while some voluntourism projects may well be little more than "singing Kum by Yah and painting murals," as Jackson pithily puts it, others do provide willing hands to work on valuable projects that might otherwise go undone. (National park trail maintenance projects and Habitat for Humanity builds are two examples that spring to mind, but there are many others.) And the money voluntourists pay to join these projects sometimes goes to support the underlying non-profit groups in their other work.

So while, yes, it's indisputable that people who stay abroad for several years doing aid work get a deeper experience than those who spend a week or two hammering nails or clearing brush, I don't think it's an either/or sort of situation. Not everyone is suited for both types of travel. And perhaps some of those who get a taste for a week might come back for a year.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Johnny Cash strikes a chord in Afghanistan

I've always wished I could play a musical instrument. But I'd never thought much about how music can bridge the gaps between cultures until a friend passed along a link to this video at Global Post, an online digital news service. Reporter and accordion player Gregory Warner gets an auditorium full of Afghans clapping along...with a little help from Johnny Cash.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Under-the-radar vacation rentals

Interested in renting a house or apartment for your next vacation, but nervous about dealing with total strangers in a rent-by-owner arrangement or a big agency? Don't despair. According to a new PhoCusWright study of the vacation rental market, there are 1.26 million homes available for short-term rental in the U.S. alone and--here's the interesting thing--about a quarter of those are rented out on a casual basis. In other words, they don't show up in home rental directories and websites.

So how do you find out about them?

In many cases, the owners rent them out only to friends, acquaintances, friends-of-friends and relatives. So if you're interested in staying in a chalet in Vail, a cottage in the Muskokas or a villa in Tuscany, get the word out among your social network.

Ah, I hear you say, "I don't know anyone who owns a second home."

Don't be so sure. Once you start (discreetly!) letting it be known that you'd like to rent a vacation property, you may well be surprised. Where I live in Ontario, for instance, few people don't know someone--a neighbour, a business colleague, a cousin--with some sort of stake in a nearby lakeside cottage. And don't forget that it's not just who you know, it's also who your friends know. Six degrees of separation can take you a long way from home.

Of course, not everyone who owns a second home is keen to rent it out. Also, not everyone wants to rent to just anyone. Many people will be justifiably nervous of casual acquaintances who are overly pushy about their desire to move into their foreign pied-a-terre.

And while there are many advantages to renting from someone you know, there are also particular pitfalls. What happens to your relationship, for instance, if the house's microwave breaks down on your watch?

All of this being said, many people with second homes are eager to earn a little extra income from them when they are not in residence. And a private rental from a friend can be the perfect way to get your feet wet in the vacation rental market. Just approach it as you would a rental from a stranger, complete with written contracts and the understanding that this is a business arrangement.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Failing pound inspires British to travel more like locals

A recent article in The Independent by Simon Calder successfully puts a cheerful spin on the dire state of the British pound. Calder points out that cash-strapped Britons can economize while travelling by taking public transit, shopping in local markets and pursuing all sorts of other "like a local" strategies. He argues they'll not only save money; they'll also have a more enjoyable vacation.

Monday, January 12, 2009 evolves, a peer-to-peer site for arranging short-term room and apartment rentals, is expanding. The site, founded last fall, matches travellers with renters in several North American cities. Its new incarnation--dubbed, not surprisingly, Roomorama 2.0--adds a new calendar, new pricing options and a jazzier design, among other tweaks.

The latest upgrade also expands the service to Vancouver, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. (The site already covered Toronto, Boston, New York and Chicago.) The owners plan to extend it to other American and international cities, including London, in 2009.

Roomorama gives travellers access to a wider range of accommodations than many similar vacation rental sites, including long-term sublets and bedrooms in occupied apartments.

Peer-to-peer camping

Is couchsurfing is too cushy for you, with all that central heating and indoor plumbing? Then check out, a Swedish-based site that matches DIY travellers with the owners of backyards and garage entrances where wanderers can pitch their own tents. You still meet locals--you just don't have to sleep under their roof. For more, see this TreeHugger post.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Microlending with

None of us can go everywhere we'd like to visit. But in some cases, our dollars (or euros, or pounds, or whatever) can go there instead.

I rarely plug causes on this site, but I'm a big fan of, a microlender that supports entrepreneurs in developing countries with small loans advanced by people all over the world. Here's a video (with great music!) that shows how Kiva's loans work:

A Fistful Of Dollars: The Story of a Loan from Kieran Ball on Vimeo.

If you're not in a position to lend to Kiva right now, you can still support the cause. At the Small Things Challenge site, sponsored by Intel, just click a button and Intel will give 5 cents to a combined fund for Kiva and Save the Children. Easy peasy.

Top five Ottawa secrets

Ottawa is one of those tourist towns with a pretty standard circuit of sites. Visitors tend to come and check the iconic places--the ones that show up on stamps, money and calendars--off their list. Parliament Hill--seen it. Rideau Canal--done it. Big spider at the National Gallery of Canada--check.

But as anyone who lives here knows, there's more to this burg than meets the eye. As a local since 1983, I humbly offer my top five Ottawa secrets.
  • The cat man of Parliament Hill. By all means, take the official tours of Ottawa's most famous site. But when you're done, stop by and say hi to Rene Chartrand, the retired lumberman who cares for the colony of feral cats that lives in the woods between the West Block and the Centre Block. He's even built cat-sized replicas of the Hill's buildings to shelter his feline charges. If you're a cat lover, leave a donation to cover Chartrand's cat-care expenses, which tote up to about $6,000 a year.
  • Wellington Village. Sure, the Byward Market deservedly gets lots of press as a great place to shop and dine. But this neighbourhood on the west side of downtown (centered on the intersection of Wellington Street and Holland Avenue) is a popular haunt for locals, who come here to shop for fresh veggies at the Parkdale Market, nosh on lox at the Ottawa Bagelshop and check out the latest plays at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. (The term "Wellington Village" is a recent creation of real estate agents; if you get a blank look when asking for directions, ask for "Hintonburg" instead.)
  • Bike path along the Rideau River. Ottawa is famous for its large network of recreational paths. Visiting cyclists usually head to the admittedly gorgeous paths along the Rideau Canal, which snakes from the foot of Parliament Hill to Hog's Back Falls, just south of Carleton University. On beautiful summer days, though, these paths can be jammed. Avoid much of the traffic by picking up an equally beautiful route a few kilometres to the east. Begin near Rideau Falls, off Sussex Drive near the French embassy, and continue south along the Rideau River through residential neighbourhoods and quiet parkland. You'll eventually reach Hog's Back Falls this way, too. It just takes 12 kilometres instead of eight.
  • The Newport Restaurant. Headquarters of the Elvis Sighting Society (actually, a tongue-in-cheek group of public-spirited locals who raise money for charity), this unassuming diner is crammed from top to bottom with memorabilia related to the King. The pizza is pretty good, too.
  • The Bank of Canada Building. A glass cube designed by Arthur Erickson to enclose an earlier building, it's home to my favourite indoor garden in Ottawa. You can't miss the Yap stone, a giant stone disk (now ensconced in the garden's pool) once used as currency on the Pacific island of Yap. The Currency Museum, also in the building, is a surprisingly fascinating place to while away an hour or two. Apparently, playing cards signed by the governor were once used as currency in cash-strapped New France. Who knew?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Five places to find foreign language schools

The current online issue of The Atlantic Monthly includes an article by Lisa Abend on the charms of learning Euskera, the ancient Basque language that has no apparent links to any other tongue. Whenever I read about people studying a language--any language--abroad, I'm immediately gripped by a desire to run away to another culture. I picture myself perusing menus with fellow students in an Italian caffe, learning the spoken and unspoken language of tango in Buenos Aires, or graduating beyond "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto" in Kyoto.

These dreams persist despite the fact that my earliest language immersion experience--a high school trip to the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec--involved me failing to learn the basics of downhill skiing in either of Canada's official languages and seriously bruising myself in the process.

If you share my dreams of counting to 100 and declining verbs in some exotic locale, here are five places to start your search for language schools abroad.
  • Transitions Abroad. The respected website for independent travellers, which began as a magazine, has detailed information on countless schools, as well as lots of articles about language immersion.
  • STA Travel. This worldwide travel agency, aimed mainly at the under-30 crowd, promotes a range of language-learning packages, including trips for U.S. and U.K. travellers, and trips for Aussie travellers.
  • This site is aimed mainly at American college students seeking credit programs overseas, but it also offers some good information on non-credit immersion programs for people of all ages.
  • Sprachcaffe International. This German-based company runs more than 25 language schools around the world offering instruction in eight languages, including Arabic and Chinese.
  • BridgeAbroad.This company, with offices in the U.S. and South America, offers language classes in almost 50 cities on five continents. The website is simple to use: just enter the language you'd like to learn, where you'd like to learn it, the type of classes you'd like (group, private or immersion), and the type of accommodation you'd prefer (homestays are available) to get an instant quote.

Video about value of house swapping

Stacy Johnson of is the latest in a series of reporters who have realized that house swapping makes financial sense in a tough economy. His video focuses on a Florida couple who have swapped 20 times.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Vacation rentals more appealing in tough economy

On both sides of the pond, vacation rental companies are reporting a spike in business from value-conscious travellers. In particular, people seem to be looking for self-catering digs close to home.

Boston-based FlipKey says that vacation rentals in ski resorts that draw largely from a local area--such as Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, whose clients are mainly New Englanders--are up, while those in "long-haul" spots such as Aspen are down. Not surprisingly, the company cites economic woes as one reason for the trend. However, the firm also thinks new airline baggage regulations are playing a role, since a family of four could face extra charges of over $300 to check all their skis, boots and gear. According to FlipKey, at least some of these people are choosing to drive a few hours for their vacation rather than fly.

Meanwhile, The Telegraph reports that self-catering holiday rentals within the U.K. are up as well. Even though U.K. rental prices aren't always a clear bargain--a randomly chosen two-bedroom cottage in Cornwall, for instance, costs more than similar properties in Spain and Italy--travellers don't have to fly or drive long distances to reach their holiday home. In addition, the unfavourable exchange rate between the pound and the euro is causing more Britons to think twice about that year (or week) in Provence.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dine with locals in Italy

"Dispatches," one of my favourite CBC Radio programs, recently re-ran reporter Nancy Greenleese's piece about Home Food (scroll down to "Culinary wrongs made right"). The Home Food organization, which started in Bologna and has now spread to other parts of Italy, allows travellers to enjoy a meal in an Italian home for roughly the same price as a good restaurant dinner. The focus is on traditional dishes and local ingredients, and it sounds fabulous.

For a great peek into one Home Food dinner in Milan, check out Jessica Spiegel's piece at BootsnAll's WhyGo Italy site.