Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

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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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