Oxford Mommy’s one-year anniversary

I’ve been blogging for a whole year! Thank you to all my readers – you have given me wonderful feedback and encouragement as the Baberoo and I discover Oxford’s baby-friendly and toddler-friendly venues. I hope we’ll continue to unearth the city’s treasures and give you useful tips and guidance for navigating those first important years while having fun in Oxford!

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Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens

I’ve never been much of an animal lover. Zoos and wildlife parks have never held any appeal for me; I prefer cultural and culinary adventures rather than getting up close to nature in all its glory. So I very nearly didn’t go along when the Baberoo’s Gran and Oxford Daddy planned a trip to Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens (near Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4JP; £14.50 for adults, £10 for children 3-16 and seniors, free for under-3s). And that would have been a shame – because as it turned out, it was more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.

And there sure were monkeys. Monkeys, marmosets, lemurs, tamarins, and gibbons! They were all so interesting up close – I never thought I would enjoy observing  small primates so much. The Baberoo loved the smaller animals, especially the meerkats and the squirrel monkeys. She also enjoyed seeing the penguins and tropical birds as well as the larger mammals (although I’m not quite sure she can distinguish between most of them yet: the wolves, warty pigs, and capybaras all elicited a ‘woof woof’ sound).

Cotswold Wildlife Park penguin

What struck me most about the Cotswold Wildlife Park was how nicely it was laid out and how beautiful the vegetation was – both in the animals’ habitats and in the landscaped gardens. The gardens are as finely and professionally cultivated as any botanical garden, although they prefer to refer to their style of horticulture as ‘theatre with plants’. We were lucky enough to go on a beautiful sunny day that was not too hot, but I imagine that the gardens are equally lovely in different seasons. Since nearly everything is outdoors, make sure you plan accordingly with umbrellas, stroller covers, sweaters, jackets, and/or sunscreen, depending on the weather forecast.

Cotswold Wildlife Park landscaped gardens

The Cotswold Wildlife Park is an easily walkable size, and for those who don’t want to walk the whole time there’s a narrow-gauge railway (£1, free for under-3s) that will take you around the park. (Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to fit a stroller onto the train, so it’s not suitable for babies or toddlers.) If you have an older toddler or child who likes crafts, you can also visit the Brass Rubbing Centre, located in the Victorian Manor House in the centre of the Park (open school holidays and summer weekends; £1-£2.50). There’s a Children’s Farmyard where young ones can pet the animals and an Adventure Playground so they can run around, and a new ‘Skymaze’ adventure playground is set to open on July 19th.

Cotswold Manor House

Judging by the number of strollers and small children, Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is no secret to families around Oxfordshire. We loved it and will definitely be back. Here’s how it rates for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Oak Tree Restaurant is the main eatery at the Wildlife Park; it offers standard cafeteria-type dishes such as chilli con carne, jacket potatoes, burgers, or chicken nuggets, with chips as a side for most meals. A few of the dishes can be eaten one-handed if you are holding a baby in one arm. The restaurant offers children’s portions as well as baby-sized portions of most of the main meals. There are also three kiosks serving ice cream and snacks. But frankly, your best bet, for price as well as for ambiance, is to bring a picnic and eat in the gardens or at one of the picnic shelters or picnic tables around the park. We laid our blanket out on the Anniversary Lawn and ate a lovely picnic while we watched the train circling the park.

Space: There’s plenty of space in the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, and even double strollers – of which we saw plenty – will fit comfortably into all the entrances, paths, and facilities (although pushchairs are not allowed in the Madagascar exhibit, so you’ll have to take your little one out if you’d like to visit that one). The hard part is getting there: the Park is two miles south of Burford on the A361, about 20 miles west of Oxford. Coming by car is by far the best (some might say it’s the only) option, as buses to Burford are few and far between. The bus route from Oxford is the Swanbrook No. 853, operating three times daily on weekdays, four times on Saturdays, and once on Sunday, and you need to get a taxi from Burford to the Wildlife Park after getting off the bus. If you don’t have a car, it might be an idea to hire one for the day. Parking is excellent, with staff directing drivers to the next available space in the grass car park.

Ambiance: This is definitely a place for kids and it’s geared towards their enjoyment, from the signage to the Adventure Playground. Whoops of delight and happy faces everywhere made it clear that families were enjoying themselves, and the commercial aspects of the Park were kept very clearly within the shop and the eateries. The animals we saw looked like they were thriving and happy in their surroundings. All the staff we saw were pleasant and knowledgeable.

Facilities: There are four toilet blocks around the park, one of which is in the restaurant. All of them have baby-changing and disabled facilities. The baby-changing in the large block of toilets nearest the shop (shown at left in the picture below) is bigger than the one in the restaurant (shown at right). All of the baby-changing facilities I saw were clean and well-aired.

Cotswold Wildlife Park baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If your little one is eating solid food, you can get a child- or baby-sized meal at the restaurant. If you’re breastfeeding, there are many places to sit around the park, including picnic tables and garden benches, or just on the grass. If you’d like a secluded area for breastfeeding, you’ll be able to find one somewhere around the park.

In total the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens gets an 8.25 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. Although it’s much more geared towards school-aged kids than towards babies or toddlers, I’d highly recommend it as a great day out for even the youngest of babies. Most little ones will be thrilled to get a close-up look at the real-life counterparts of the toys they snuggle with and the animals they read about in books.

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Bill’s

One thing you never realize until you’ve lived with a toddler is that regular-people lunchtime falls exactly during toddler naptime. That means that going out for lunch at a normal hour is pretty difficult indeed. Never mind: there’s still breakfast, brunch, tea, and dinner!

Our most recent breakfast was at Bill’s (Northgate Hall, St Michael’s Street, OX1 2DU). I went to the original Bill’s in Lewes when it was the only one and rushed with excitement to try the one in Covent Garden when they opened in London; now there are more than 40 branches. They’re definitely doing something right, but as with most endeavours that start out small and get a lot bigger pretty quick, there’s a bit of a sameness to the newer branches that will never match the homegrown ambiance of the original.

Bill’s does a good job of offering tasty food throughout the day; there are menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and teatime. I ordered the blueberry and buttermilk pancakes (£5.95) with a peach and fresh mint iced tea (£2.95), while Oxford Daddy opted for the Bill’s Breakfast (£7.95) and the Baberoo got the eggs on toast from the kids’ menu (£2.95). The pancakes were light and thin – much better than your average stodgy thick pancake – but there were only three of them, which left me still hungry. This is unusual for Bill’s, where I’ve always found the servings quite generous.

Bill's pancakes

Luckily, I had also ordered a Jaffa cake (£2.55) from the teatime menu, so I wolfed down most of it – revelling in the squidgy, tangy jelly – and exchanged the rest for part of Oxford Daddy’s breakfast (the sausages were delicious). I also scarfed most of the Baberoo’s eggs, since she was enjoying the toast more. I was finally full, but I wouldn’t order the pancakes again because of the small quantity.

Bill's Jaffa cake

I’m a longtime fan of Bill’s and it will always be on my list of places to go for something tasty at any time of the day. But is it baby- and toddler-friendly? Here’s how it rates based on the five elements I always look for: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The breakfast menu offers a few choices suitable for those who need to hold a baby in one arm while eating with only one hand; the lunch/dinner menu does less well, since most of the offerings will require both hands to eat. Your best bets, if you need to eat one-handed, are risotto, mac’n’cheese, and some of the mezze, starters, and small plates. But you can always get one of the cakes or sweets from the teatime menu (which I highly recommend), so it’s a great choice of venue for afternoon tea. Bill’s offers a kids’ menu that offers a larger selection than the usual children’s menu, including six breakfast dishes (priced from £1.95 to £4.95) and seven lunch/dinner dishes (all £5.95, including ice cream for dessert). Many of the dishes will appeal to even the smallest toddlers.

Space: Your first hurdle will be getting up the stairs; there is a set of five stairs to get into the restaurant, which may deter those with large prams. It put me off for months before I finally went in! The staff are always happy to help you lift your carriage up the stairs, though. Once you’re in, you have only a few choices for seating where you are not blocking the way for other restaurant patrons and staff, especially since tables are set close together. There are a few tables that have regular chairs; these are your best bet. The booth seating doesn’t leave much room for a pushchair (and if you also need a high chair then there’s hardly any room at all). We sat at a regular table and removed two chairs so we had room for both stroller and high chair.

Bill's interior

Ambiance: The style is industrial-cozy: reclaimed wood, exposed piping, leather armchairs in lounging areas. The restaurant is also bursting with displays of Bill’s packaged specialty foods, which are available to buy right from your table, where you can fill out a little form while you eat. The service is friendly enough, although our server didn’t talk directly to the Baberoo or bring us a kids’ menu until we asked for one. He also suggested a table that would have put us in everyone’s way; we vetoed it in favour of one that was a little easier for a pushchair to fit in. On previous visits our servers have been much more on the ball about catering to our little one’s needs.

Bill's food to buy

Facilities: There are no baby-changing facilities at Bill’s. This is partly a product of the space (the restaurant is housed in a former Methodist church and I guess it was impossible to change some of the layout), but it’s too bad that they didn’t try harder to accommodate parents who need to change diapers. The toilet space is quite small even for adults.

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding there are some comfy leather armchairs you can lounge in, although they are right at the restaurant entrance so you will be on view. The bench seating will probably only be OK if you’re feeding a smaller baby, while the chairs will be fine for breastfeeding any age of baby/toddler but may not be that comfortable. If your little one is eating solids then it’s a safe bet to say the kids’ menu will have something they will enjoy.

By my ratings system, Bill’s gets a 6 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness – the low score stemming from its lack of baby-changing facilities. It does have the advantage of being open all day long, and if you have a fairly small baby carriage or are using a sling or baby carrier, you’ll be able to enjoy it. However, it’s a much easier place to take an older kid rather than a baby or toddler.

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From Baby to Toddler

Well, it’s official. The Baberoo is 18 months old and I can no longer call her a baby. The last few months have seen her shed the last vestiges of babyhood and grow into a walking, running, talking (or at least starting to), joke-loving, happy little girl. She’s certainly a toddler now. I’ll still be calling her the Baberoo in my posts (the Toddleroo just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but she’s no baby any more, and she’s very different to the 7-month-old she was when I started this blog.

Now that her needs and abilities are different from a small baby’s, my reviews will start including ratings based on both baby-friendliness and toddler-friendliness. These are worlds apart, as I’m discovering daily. While some things won’t change much in our life (we still use our huge stroller most of the time, so we still need a lot of space to manoeuvre within restaurants and attractions), some things have changed for good (there’s no way this kid is ever going to nap through a meal again, so no more luxurious uninterrupted lunches for Mommy!).

I’m going to keep on using Menu, Space, Ambiance, Facilities, and Feeding as the points I look at when rating an eatery, activity, or attraction, but within those categories if the needs are different for babies than for toddlers, I’ll discuss both. I hope the blog will continue to be useful for parents of both babies and small children!

If there are any places you’d like me to review, please let me know at oxfordmommy@gmail.com.

Baberoo in the sand

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Brookes Restaurant

Oxford Mommy turned 40 today. Yup, FORTY. I thought I’d be dreading it but actually I was quite gleeful. I had a great decade in my 30s and I’m looking forward to another one as I enter my 40s. To celebrate, the Baberoo, her Daddy, Gran, Grandpa and I all went out to Brookes Restaurant (Oxford Brookes University, Headington Campus, Gipsy Lane, OX3 0BP). I’ve been wanting to try this place for ages, especially since Oxford Daddy is a lecturer at Brookes and I’ve passed the restaurant countless times on the way to visit him at his office.

The Brookes Restaurant is part of the university’s School of Hospitality Management, so the students work alongside professionals in the restaurant as part of their training. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasons and the dishes showcase British ingredients from artisan producers. Because it’s part of the hospitality course, Brookes Restaurant is only open on weekdays from 12 to 2 pm. It’s also one of the only restaurants in the area – it’s in Headington but not near any of the other eateries or main shopping area. But if you enjoy fine dining it is definitely worth going.

For my starter, I chose the Oxfordshire asparagus trifle, which was a mousse topped with a brilliant green jelly, fresh asparagus pieces, pea shoots, and a Spenwood cheese straw. It was refreshing and springy, a perfect beginning to the meal.

Brookes restaurant asparagus trifle

My main was the Gloucestershire rump of lamb, which was meltingly tender and juicy. It was served with roast onion puree, spinach and wild garlic, turnips glazed in red wine, and a mystery croquette that was tasty but didn’t appear on the menu, and I forgot to ask what it was! The whole dish was delicious and also nicely presented.

Brookes restaurant lamb

With giddy disregard for our waistlines, we ordered dessert too – since a 3-course lunch is an unbelievably cheap £15.95 (it’s £13.95 for two courses if you are being more restrained). I chose the brioche bread and butter pudding with apricot ice cream, which was unlike any other bread and butter pudding I’ve had. It was much less stodgy, but it was extremely sweet because it contained so many apricots. It was a nice finish to the meal, but if I’d had it on its own I think it would have been too sweet for me. Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of it before I started eating!

The Baberoo had her own lunch brought from home, since we had checked out the menu before and we didn’t think that any of the options would appeal to her toddler palate, but she did eat quite a good amount of the pre-meal bread and some of the vegetables we passed her from our plates, without too much landing on the floor. I think we did try her patience by having a leisurely lunch of three courses, but she did pretty well while we were there and then immediately conked out in the stroller on the way home. Be warned that it does take a while between courses, so do try to engineer your lunch to coincide with naptime or plan ahead with snacks to stave off a baby-boredom crisis.

We enjoyed the food and I had a lovely birthday celebration. Now, how does Brookes Restaurant rate for baby-friendliness? My criteria, as explained on my About page, are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Brookes Restaurant menu changes monthly and is clearly posted on their website, so you can have a look at the options in advance and see if there is anything that you are able to eat one-handed in case your baby needs to be held. Sometimes there may not be anything that’s suitable for one-handed eating. On the May menu there was one starter and one main that I would say could be eaten if you were holding a baby in the other arm, but for the most part the dishes will require both knife and fork.

Space: There is a huge amount of space between tables – more than I’ve ever seen at any other restaurant. This is fantastic for getting through the restaurant with a stroller. There is plenty of space to park a buggy anywhere around most tables and there’s also lots of space elsewhere; we parked ours under the specials board. The Baberoo enjoyed toddling around the restaurant exploring some of the vacant tables and looking out the plate-glass windows.

Brookes restaurant interior

Ambiance: There is certainly a fine-dining vibe in the restaurant, but it’s definitely not a snooty one. Staff were pleasant and helpful and spent a long time chatting to our party about how the restaurant works and some of the cooking techniques that were used for our meals. They were friendly with the Baberoo, who was really enjoying flashing her toothy grin at everyone who passed by our table.

Brookes restaurant interior 2

Facilities: Brookes Restaurant doesn’t have a baby-changing facility yet. They are in the process of ordering a baby-changing table, which will be installed in the disabled toilet. They did offer us a private space for baby-changing, but as it was within earshot of the restaurant diners and the Baberoo sometimes loudly protests any changing session, I thought it wiser to wait until we were home.

Feeding: The restaurant was quite happy to have us bring our own food for the Baberoo. We were also asked if we would like anything for her (in the way of side vegetables, etc), but we decided that we would just give her some of ours. Her high chair was already set up before we arrived; it was a nice wooden one with a higher back than usual, which gave extra support. If you’re breastfeeding, there are some comfy-looking bucket chairs at the entrance. The chairs at the dining tables are also padded and comfortable, and there are also some bench seats if you prefer.

For baby-friendliness, Brookes Restaurant gets a 6.75 out of 10. That score will improve once they get a baby-changing table installed, and it certainly is no reflection upon the food, which was excellent. If you are interested in fine dining at a reasonable price this is one of Oxford’s top places to go.

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Two guest posts by Oxford Mommy

This week I’ve been writing a couple of guest posts for two fantastic Oxford-based websites. The connections I’ve made with other bloggers in this city has surpassed anything I could have imagined, and I feel privileged to know the writers of these websites and to contribute in my own small way to their interesting and useful content.

My first guest post is on Oxfrognews, a blog about what to do and where to go with kids in Oxford, with musings on the differences between England and France – not only in terms of parenting but on daily life as well. It’s charmingly written in both English and French by the lovely Frogette, who you can follow on Twitter at @oxfrognews. My guest post is on my favourite family-friendly restaurant in Oxford. Maybe you can guess which one it is!

My second guest post is on the newly-launched Bitten Oxford, a fantastic guide to Oxford’s restaurants and food culture. The site is co-written by the indefatigable Jacqui (@foodieontour), Katy (@kalicer), and Becca (@Ox_Bex), who realized that there was no comprehensive online guide to Oxford’s eateries, and set about making one themselves. I’m pleased to contribute a guide to the best baby-friendly restaurants in Oxford.

If you are a parent or a foodie or both, do give them a follow! I hope you enjoy my posts.

Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

Our trip to America with the Baberoo began with 36 hours in New York, then continued on to Princeton, NJ. We left Oxford Daddy there for the week while he did his archival research, and the Baberoo and I took a train trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I had never been to Washington before but I had heard good things about both its baby-friendliness and its amazing sightseeing opportunities. And of course, it was great to see my sister and also to be able to sleep and eat in a real house instead of being in a hotel and restaurants all the time.

Hands down, Washington DC wins the baby-friendliness award when it comes to transport. The Metro, its underground/subway system, is fully accessible to all strollers (and wheelchairs), with elevators at every single station so that you can get from street level to platform without folding your buggy, even if it’s a huge one or a double stroller. Are you listening, other cities? Every. Single. Station! Just look for the elevator entrance on the street (a dark brown structure with a big M) and you’re on your way down to start your journey. Sometimes it’s a little complicated, with a few elevator changes before you reach your chosen platform, but most of the time it’s straightforward and easy to use. The signposting is also very good and the fares are quite reasonable – most of the time they were $1.70 or so, depending on the time of day and distance travelled. There’s even a section on the Metro website that gives you elevator and escalator status, updated 24 hours a day, so you can see if there are any outages before you travel.

Washington DC Metro

With such a great transport system, I nearly didn’t try any other ways of getting around, but for the sake of thoroughness I decided I better check out the city bus and the taxi service. The city bus requires you to fold up your stroller – which I didn’t know before I attempted to get on, but it does say so right on the door of the bus. So I folded up, but it would have been an easier journey if I’d taken the Metro instead. Unless you’re travelling light and can fold your stroller easily, go for the Metro rather than the bus. Taxis were fine, and not very expensive. It was easy enough to hail one from the street, although by mistake we got one that had been pre-booked by someone else! One note about being in a taxi or walking on the street: drivers in DC are completely nuts and will drive into the intersection even though they have a red light. Be very careful when crossing the street.

Washington DC is a very pretty city, especially in April, when the cherry blossoms are out. We were lucky and picked the exact week when the blossoms were most on show, and we also lucked out with temperatures soaring as high as 26 degrees. It was so beautiful and sunny that everyone seemed in a good mood and the sense of fun was heightened. We decided to take a walk to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It was gorgeous, but there were so many people walking along the same path that it was also really crowded and slow. Lack of  sunscreen and pretty hot weather made us turn around before we even got to the Jefferson Memorial – but we enjoyed the short walk anyway.

Cherry blossoms

 

We took refuge in the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonian museums (all free). Our exhibit of choice was the First Ladies, which was an amazing look at the contributions made (and the dresses worn!) by Presidents’ wives from Martha Washington onwards. As a fashion lover I found it fascinating, and the Baberoo seemed to like it too – although, as one of the museum docents pointed out when we asked, there is really nothing for under-5s at the museum. The museum has two Family Rest Rooms where you can change your baby. We didn’t manage to make it to any of the other Smithsonian museums, but if you are planning a visit, especially if you plan to stay all day and see many of the museums, your first stop should be the Smithsonian Visitor Center, in the Castle, which is open 1.5 hours earlier than all the museums so you can plan your day. The Smithsonian is great for children and families, but the Baberoo is still too young to enjoy most of it.

We did find a very baby-friendly activity, however, in the form of Story Time… at the Library of Congress! I was so excited to find that the Library has programmes for even the youngest of audiences. The free Story Time for Infants and Toddlers takes place every Friday (except holidays) at 10:30 am. Roll up early, because they only have 50 places (including adults) and they hand out numbered admission stickers on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am. If you are there early and have got your stickers, you can browse the collection of children’s books and play with the toys in the Young Readers Center. The Jefferson Building, where the Young Readers Center is located, requires everyone entering to go through the security system, so leave time for that, especially since you’ll have to put your baby and your stroller through the metal detector separately. Storytime is a fun half-hour with sing-alongs and some books read aloud by the librarian. You get a handout with the words to the songs, so you’ll always know what’s coming up – the theme the day we were there was Springtime. The room was a little warm on the day we went, so the Baberoo got a bit hot and bothered, but she enjoyed most of the experience and if we lived there I’d be first in line every week for this lovely event.

Story Time at the Library of Congress

We mainly took a much-needed break from eating out while we were in Washington – I do love going out to eat, but not twice a day every day for a week! – so we only went to one restaurant. But it was probably my favourite meal of our entire trip to America. We ate an early dinner at Founding Farmers, a restaurant showcasing American cuisine (and owned by a collective of American farmers) in eco-friendly settings. I ordered the Skillet Corn bread ($5) to share with the Baberoo as a starter, and we were presented with a huge cast-iron pan full of the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever had. It came with whipped butter in a pool of honey, with sea salt on top. What a revelation! It was so good that the Baberoo, a big fan of corn and anything corn-based, wolfed it right down, although it was such a big portion that you could actually order it as your meal and not be hungry afterwards. Luckily, I had ordered us a main to share as well, and it was equally good. The Founding Farmers take on Macaroni and Cheese ($14) includes Gouda, Gruyère, ham, peas, and apples, and is a very sophisticated dish for such a comfort-food favourite. We both loved it, and there was enough left to take home and eat for breakfast the next day. The only strike against Founding Farmers is the lack of baby-changing facilities in its bathrooms, which is a shame because they could easily modify the disabled bathroom to include a changing table. Still, they do cater well for babies with good booster seats (that strap onto a regular dining chair) made by Stokke, so I felt that the Baberoo was comfortable and secure while she was eating – more so than with your standard restaurant high chair. Note: the restaurant books up well ahead, so make a reservation!

Founding Farmers

We had a wonderful time in Washington DC, and it was very easy to get around thanks to the brilliant Metro system. There were some opportunities for baby-friendly activities, and I am looking forward to going back sometime when the Baberoo is older so we can really appreciate the museums together. For now, I’m just happy to be back home in good old Oxford, so we can resume our regular schedule of testing the city’s offerings for baby-friendliness.

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Princeton, NJ

Our family trip to America began with a quick 36 hours in New York City, then continued on to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oxford Daddy spent the week ensconced in Princeton University’s Firestone Library doing archival research. The Baberoo and I explored the lovely Princeton town centre and found as many baby-friendly places as possible.

Princeton Campus

Our first recommendation is the Princeton Public Library. Reopened 10 years ago in a state-of-the-art building, it has an entire floor for children that includes books for all ages, an exhibition area, a special play room with lots of toys, and a separate room for storytime and other educational sessions. We visited three times in two days and met some very friendly parents and their babies. The play room was wonderful; lots of parents and nannies were using it with their babies and small children and the Baberoo enjoyed all the toys, while I appreciated not having to chase her around the bookshelves and re-shelve all the books that she would be pulling out. We went to the storytime session on a Tuesday morning and the presenter, Martha, was wonderful. We had to step out a bit early due to a diaper emergency, but that was OK because there is a baby-changing facility in the bathroom on each of the library’s three floors (in the ladies’ rooms; I’m not sure whether there is something similar in the men’s rooms). The changing table is right outside the doors to the cubicles, so when it is pulled down it obstructs the entrance to some of the cubicles, but other than that it works fine. The Princeton Public Library also has a café and lots of comfy seating areas within the stacks, which came in handy when the Baberoo was napping and I wanted to sit and read for a while. It’s a wonderful resource and if we lived there we would be there almost every day. I think it may be the most baby-friendly public library I’ve ever visited.

Princeton Library

Another lovely baby-friendly place we found in Princeton was the Bookscape at the Cotsen Children’s Library, located on the ground floor of the Firestone Library on the Princeton Campus. The Bookscape is a reading space for children, populated with topiary animals, a wishing well, and a hollow tree full of books to read. There’s also an activity area for free education sessions. Lots of comfy chairs and whimsical furnishings make this a wonderful space for both children and adults. We were the only ones there when we visited, so we had the run of the whole place. The Baberoo loved exploring all the nooks and crannies and having some of her favourite books read to her. There is a baby-changing table in the nearest ladies’ room (just off the main entrance to the Firestone Library), although it’s a small room and you won’t be able to fit your pram inside. The Cotsen Children’s Library has a space at the entrance for you to leave your pram, which can’t be brought into the Bookscape. Don’t forget to also have a walk around the Princeton University campus, which is beautiful.

Cotsen Children's Library

Our third find in Princeton was the fabulous Labyrinth Books (can you tell that we love books in our family?). This bookshop has a great selection of both adult and children’s books, and it has a small space in the children’s section with beanbags and some wooden toys for children to play with. The Baberoo loves beanbags so she had lots of fun, but she’s also at the age where she loves whacking books off of bookshelves, so we only had a short playtime. Still, it’s great if you want to sit and read some books before you buy (you will definitely leave with at least one book!). They also have a baby-changing facility in the women’s bathroom; it’s in one of the cubicles and it’s big enough to fit your pram in.

Labyrinth Books Princeton

Princeton also has a few baby-friendly restaurants in the town centre. During our few days there we visited PJ’s Pancake House (where the Baberoo had some macaroni and cheese, plus some of Mommy’s spaghetti marinara), Teresa Caffe (where the chef made the Baberoo a special dish of peas in brown butter – utterly delicious and only $1!), and the Blue Point Grill (where the Baberoo had some buttered pasta and then ate the side dish of rice that came with Mommy’s hazelnut-and-cherry-crusted tilapia). Most of the sit-down restaurants in town have high chairs and baby-changing facilities.

Blue Point Grill crusted tilapia

There are definitely some baby-unfriendly elements to Princeton, though. In the downtown area, which has been kept very pretty and only has high-end shopping, there’s no supermarket. If you want to buy fresh food like fruit and snacks that a baby will like, there is very little available. There are some great delis (Olives and D’Angelo Italian Market, to name a couple) where you may be able to find a few things that appeal to babies, but if you want a supermarket it’s in another part of town.

Our biggest problem, though, turned out to be where to stay. There is only really one hotel in the middle of Princeton and it’s quite an expensive one, so we went for the less pricey Hampton Inn, which is one of a string of about 20 hotels outside of town that are located up and down the Brunswick Pike (US Highway 1 South). Although it was a fine hotel and we got an absolutely huge room, we realized we had made a big mistake in picking our location. The taxi ride from the hotel to the Princeton town centre is $25, which means $50 a day to get into town and back. This is no problem for most visitors if they don’t have babies, because there is always a hotel shuttle bus that can bring you wherever you want for free. However, we found out upon arrival that the shuttle bus doesn’t take babies. It doesn’t have any car seats, and being a private vehicle it can’t operate by the same rules that taxis do (where you can just seat your baby on your lap). The Hampton Inn were very nice about it and were even up for buying a car seat to use in the shuttle bus, but then discovered that the law required the parents to provide the car seat and even be the ones who installed it in the vehicle every time the baby needed to travel, just in case there was an accident. What a litigious country America is! I would have been very happy to sign a waiver form every time we travelled, but it wasn’t possible. Car seats being the price they are, it wasn’t worth buying one there and just using it for a few days. And there was no alternative to taxis, because there are no city buses that run along the highway (there are hardly any buses in Princeton at all).

So the upshot was, although Oxford Daddy got to take the shuttle bus for free whenever he needed it, the Baberoo and I had to take a taxi every time we went somewhere. On one of the days she was able to nap in her stroller in the afternoon, but on another day I knew she would need to go back to the hotel in the middle of the day to get a good two hours of sleep in an actual bed, so I shelled out an extra $50 to get us back to the hotel from downtown and then back downtown in time to meet Daddy for dinner. That’s $100 that I spent on taxis that day, folks. It was most unexpected and it really put a dent in our finances. We did meet a couple of lovely taxi drivers, though.

I had heard that in America, especially small-town America, it’s assumed that everyone owns a car. In Princeton that seems to definitely be the case. If you’re travelling to Princeton, either bring a car seat with you, drive your own car with a car seat attached (hard to do if you’re coming from across the ocean!) or prepare to spend lots of money on taxis, because there is no other way to get from many of the hotels to the actual town centre. I can recommend Princeton as a nice place to visit for families, but it’s pretty tough getting around with a baby. It was much easier in our next stop, Washington DC, as I will relate in my next blog post!

 

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Oxford Mommy’s 36 Hours in New York City

New York has been one of my favourite cities for a long time, and I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to pass through for a weekend on our way to Princeton, NJ.  I did wonder, having never been there with the Baberoo before, how it would rate on the baby-friendliness scale. Of course, since we were there for only 36 hours, this review isn’t exhaustive ( I’d need a whole New York Mommy blog for that!) but we did discover some things about the city – or Manhattan, to be exact, since we didn’t have time to visit the other boroughs – that may be useful to parents travelling in from out of town.

First things first: transportation. We were travelling with our fold-up umbrella stroller (the Uppababy G-Luxe), which is a very light and fairly small.  After doing some research on the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) site, I figured using the bus seemed like a good option, and being so familiar with the buses in Oxford I figured it would be a similar experience. Not so. Apparently you need to fold up your stroller when you board a New York bus, which to me cancels out the convenience of not having to go underground and contend with subway stairs. The bus did get us places fairly quickly, although that was probably because it was early Saturday morning and there wasn’t much traffic.  It’s also good for sightseeing – on our ride up Madison Avenue from Midtown to Harlem we saw lots of great New York buildings. But if you’re carrying lots of bags or by yourself with a stroller you have to collapse when you board, the bus can be tricky.

NYC busSince we had to fold the stroller on the bus, we figured we would try the subway the next time we were going out. Not too many stations are equipped with elevators giving access to the platforms, but our hotel was near Grand Central Station, which is wheelchair accessible, as was our destination station. In theory that meant we didn’t have to fold up the stroller and take the Baberoo out. However, it’s not easy to actually locate the elevators that bring you down to platform level, and at our connecting station we absolutely could not find an elevator to get us off the platform, and we had to fold up the stroller and carry the Baberoo up the stairs. We then found the (very grotty) elevator down to our connecting train’s platform, but had to wait several minutes in a queue of strollers. Basically, the speed of a subway ride is compromised by the amount of time it takes to locate and wait for the elevator, so a trip that would have taken 20 minutes at most took us at least 45.

NYC Subway

Having tried the bus and the subway and having found both lacking in baby-friendliness, we bit the bullet and on our next trip we hailed a cab. Or rather, a very savvy New Yorker cousin of ours hailed it for us, and managed to snag it despite the fancy young woman in polka-dot skinnies and Louboutins also trying to flag it down (sorry, lady). The cab turned out to be a great option. It got us back to our hotel fast, and it was easy enough to pre-fold the stroller on the sidewalk before hailing the cab so the we didn’t have to do it on the fly while also trying to load bags and baby in. The Baberoo loved sitting on her daddy’s lap for the ride, and it took us right to the door of our hotel. No wonder so many New Yorkers are standing out in the street trying to get cabs. They really top the buses and the subway. But of course, they add a cost to your trip – our average cost was $16 per ride and we did it four times, so there goes half a week’s grocery money.

NYC Taxicab

The other option, of course, is to walk. We really enjoyed a 45-block walk from Harlem to the Upper East Side, going through parts of Central Park (although we had to go back to the sidewalk when it got too hilly). We also walked through Greenwich Village and Soho, and hoofed it to the bus station on our way out of the city. Some streets can be extremely crowded and annoying, so it helps to know which routes to take and some alternatives. (Tip: never try walking down 42nd Street in a hurry.) On the Upper East Side, in very chichi residential areas, we saw what seemed like hundreds of parents walking with their babies in strollers, and at least half of those strollers were Uppababy Vistas – which is the kind we have at home. The Vista is as big as a tank and can’t be folded up very easily, so I wondered how those parents travelled around the city. We came to the conclusion that people have more than one stroller – a big one for walks closer to home, and a fold-up one that they can bring on public transport. (In fact, we were approached on the street by a guy who wanted our opinion on a new stroller he was inventing that could roll down stairs! Only in New York!) Or maybe they drive cars. Or maybe they wear the baby in a carrier when they’re on the bus or subway. In any case, walking is a great option as long as you know your route and an alternative route, and the baby isn’t in dire need of food or a change.

Speaking of diaper changes: that was the most baby-unfriendly part of  our experience. There is almost nowhere to change a baby’s diaper. Even restaurants don’t necessarily have baby-changing facilities. We were lucky that we managed not to have to do any baby-changing in public restrooms, but that was because I scheduled in some nap times back at the hotel, and we also visited friends with a baby (it was a super-fun play date!) so we were able to change the Baberoo at their house. None of the restaurants we went to or cafés we visited had baby-changing facilities. It makes you wonder where anyone changes their baby’s diaper. Does everyone with a child under 3 have to go home every time their kid poops?

The restaurants we visited, while not having any baby-changing facilities, were very welcoming of babies. Our first one was B.Cafe, where we had brunch with the taxicab-hailing cousin. They provided a high chair and stowed our stroller away so that we could get through the restaurant (it would have been impossible to get through with the stroller because of tightly-packed tables). My burger was good and the fries were excellent. The Baberoo didn’t appreciate the stack of pancakes we ordered her, but she did enjoy my burger bun. She was flirting with the staff and with the other patrons at nearby tables and got a whole bunch of compliments, too. In fact, all over town New Yorkers just couldn’t stop gushing about how cute she was, which made us feel pretty chuffed (but also confused: if they love babies so much, how come they don’t make it easier for parents to bring their little ones around the city?)

B.Cafe burger

The next place we ate out, again for brunch, was Eastwood, on the Lower East Side, with some friends who are in the know about the best new places to eat. It has a lovely vibe and a fabulous Scottish-Israeli menu. My fish tacos were great and the Baberoo enjoyed her scrambled eggs. Service was fantastic and really quick, which is always useful when you have a hungry little one clamouring for food. There were no high chairs so she had to sit on my lap, but there was a lot of floor space for the stroller, which she started snoozing in as soon as she finished her meal. I would definitely go back to Eastwood to try some of their other delicious-sounding fare.

Eastwood

We found some fun things for the Baberoo to do while we were visiting the city; one was a simple but really enjoyable trip to the park for a swing ride. There are lots of public parks in New York – the one we visited was Seward Park on the Lower East Side – and the ones we saw were pretty well kept up and quite clean. And only in a New York park can you also spot a contingent of older ladies doing outdoor aerobics to Chinese music.

We also visited a great bookstore, McNally Jackson. They have a fantastic children’s section, with a toy theatre kids can play in, and a great selection of old and new classics. The children’s section is in the basement so you do have to fold up your stroller to get down there, but it’s worth it.

As for where to stay in New York: there are many hotels, from reasonably-priced to over-the-top expensive, but since we only stayed in one of them all I can’t tell you what others might be like. But I can highly recommend the one we chose – the Library Hotel in Midtown. It was excellent in every respect and it went beyond my expectations for baby-friendliness. They provided a very good travel crib, there was ample space in the room to create a baby-changing station, and they had high chairs and great service in the breakfast room, which also served as a 24-hour Reading Room and quiet space (the Library Hotel’s rooms are based on the Dewey Decimal System, each room having a different subject; our bedroom was the Classic Literature room). The hotel’s public bathrooms didn’t have any changing facilities so after we checked out of our room and then suddenly needed to do a diaper change we were a little stuck – but then the staff recommended that we use one of the benches up in their rooftop Poetry Garden, which worked out just fine and was probably the best view the Baberoo will ever have while getting her diaper changed. The Library Hotel isn’t cheap, but it was our anniversary weekend and I decided to splurge, and was it ever worth it.

Library Hotel Reading room

Our trip to New York was over in a flash, but we still managed to cram in a whole bunch of activities and it was a lovely stay. It’s not the most baby-friendly city in terms of baby-changing facilities and transportation (and now I understand why lots of Manhattanites move to Brooklyn when they have kids), but boy, do New Yorkers know how to compliment babies. If you’re travelling there, I recommend using cabs for convenience and factoring the cost into your budget. Having a great, well-located hotel helps too. I can hardly wait to go back when the Baberoo is out of diapers; I suspect that will be loads easier and she’ll be able to appreciate more of the great things about the city.

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Jacobs Chop House

There is no greater pleasure than to meander around my neighbourhood on a beautiful spring day, pointing out the blossoms and buds to the Baberoo – who giggles and claps with joy to see such beauty – and then to continue into Headington for a leisurely breakfast. Today we tried out Jacobs Chop House (3 Manor Buildings, Osler Road, OX3 7RA), our newest neighbourhood establishment. The Chop House is the third venture for the partners behind Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and it’s a welcome addition to Headington, taking over the premises of the now-closed Cafe Noir (which lives on at Coco Noir just down the street).

I’ve given favourable reviews to both Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and I was hoping that I would enjoy my experience at Jacobs Chop House just as much. And I sure did. I ordered the steak, eggs, and spinach (‘Breakfast of Champions’, £8.50) and was treated to one of the best steaks I’ve had in ages, brought up to me from the basement kitchen by the chef himself. You might not expect a breakfast-dish steak to be as tasty and succulent as a dinner steak, but boy, was it ever. I enjoyed every bite, except for the one tiny corner I permitted the Baberoo to have. She was more into the eggs anyway: she commandeered them and I hardly got any. The spinach was served raw and was bursting with freshness.

Jacobs Chop House steak and eggs

In my book it is just fine to order cake no matter what time of day, and there was a pretty tempting-looking lemon poppyseed cake on the counter. It was nice and moist and the icing was excellent.

Jacobs Chop House cake

Jacobs Chop House, as the name suggests, revolves mainly around meat, and their menu offers lots of chops: lamb chop, veal loin chop, bacon chop, steak, etc. But there are also some other interesting dishes on the menu: slow-roasted beef short rib, grilled cod cheeks, and ‘London particular soup’, which I may well have to investigate very soon. I think it’s settled: I now have a go-to restaurant in my neighbourhood.

So, how did Jacobs Chop House rate for baby-friendliness? My ratings system takes into account menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: As mentioned above, the menu is mostly meat, with lots of chops that definitely require the use of both hands. So if you need to hold your baby in one arm, there are only a few large plates that you can comfortably eat using one hand. There are a few options available in the ‘smaller plates’ section of the menu. But still, if you’re going to go to a Chop House, you might as well go for the chops – which means making sure that your baby is either sleeping or happy enough to sit in a high chair so you can use both hands for eating.

Space: It’s a small space but it seems bigger than it is because of its high ceilings and clever use of mirrors. Still, there’s probably only room for a maximum of three pushchairs in the whole restaurant, otherwise there wouldn’t be room for anyone to move around. We used the lone table on the left side, near the counter with stools, and there was plenty of room for our quite large Uppababy Vista, but that was also because the place wasn’t full. I imagine that at lunchtimes, and especially dinnertimes, it can be a very tight squeeze. There’s more seating downstairs but unless your pushchair folds up easily it’s probably not an option.

Jacobs Chop House interior

Ambiance: This feels like a place where you could hang out for hours, nibbling at various plates, sipping a coffee, and just reading a book or talking with friends. It has an easy, relaxed feel about it. The staff were very friendly and our server asked the Baberoo’s name and was interacting with her the whole time. They were helpful in getting a high chair set up and opening the door for us to get in and out (although it’s a pretty easy door and there are no steps, which is great).

Facilities: Kudos to Jacobs Chop House for providing a baby-changing facility in what are some pretty tiny bathrooms – I had originally feared that there might not be a changing facility, but there is. It’s in one of the unisex loos downstairs (the one on the right), so you’ll have to leave your pushchair upstairs and walk down with the baby. The changing table is in a very small entry space outside the actual toilet cubicle. Remember to lock the outer door, otherwise you might get whacked by someone else trying to get into the bathroom. The changing table itself is a wooden shelf with one leg supporting it, very much like the one at Jacobs Inn but sturdier-feeling. There isn’t anywhere to put your bag and the changing table is quite small, and there also isn’t any access to the sink, which is inside the toilet cubicle behind a fairly heavy door. But they have made the effort and done a pretty good job with the space they have.

Jacobs Chop House baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re a breastfeeding mother, the bench seats will be pretty comfy, although the tables are quite close together so you may not get much privacy. The wooden chairs are fairly small but you could probably manage with them too. If your baby is up for some food, they need to be good with eating meat; it’s not up every baby’s alley so you may want to have some snacks handy. The high chairs are actually a padded booster seat strapped to a regular chair. It was the first time the Baberoo had used one of these but it worked just fine. (Remember to put the baby’s bib on before doing up all the straps, though!)

The final score for baby-friendliness for Jacobs Chop House is 7.0 out of 10. They do very well with the small space they have available, and the ambiance and friendly service makes it a place you’ll want to return to again and again.

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