Top Choices in Chinatown

In case you can’t get enough of New Year celebrations or if you just hate New Year’s as a concept altogether, the vastly superior celebration is just around the corner. That’s the Lunar New Year, of course, which is celebrated by the Chinese and many other Asian cultures. Illuminated lanterns. Excellent food. Snappy fireworks. Far fewer hang-ups about what to do on New Year’s Eve. The Lunar New Year is the New Year we should all really get behind.

London's Chinatown gets ready for the Year of the Horse
Festive New Year lanterns in London’s Chinatown

While you may find yourself in or around London’s Chinatown to ring in the Year of the Horse next week, Chinatown’s always a good place to visit for some great food. In fact, unlike other Chinatowns, London’s almost solely features food– nearly every shopfront is a restaurant or some type of food supply emporium. However, the sheer number and variety of choices can overwhelm– particularly if you go with hungry, tired guests from out of town. Don’t give up! Here are three really delicious options that are guaranteed to please picky and adventurous palates alike.

Manchurian Legends is the most exotic of the three, and purportedly, one of the only restaurants in London to specialize in Dongbei cuisine (the type of food common in Northeastern China). Think: amazing handmade dumplings, flavorful grilled meats, hearty stews and some real spice or even weird offal offerings for the adventurous. There’s truly something for everyone. The vegetable dumplings are soft bundles of perfectly cooked and lightly seasoned veggies; little tasty lamb skewers were succulent and savory; the house chicken specialty was a delight with some extra kick in the form of complex layers of real chile heat. (NB: I, like some, like it hot. While Manchurian Legends has many dishes that are not spicy, like the aforementioned dumplings, a man sitting near us was clearly on a first date and began pouring with sweat when he requested something to be “extra spicy.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you if you try and be similarly macho. Sadly, I don’t think our fellow diner had a second date after having to ask for towels from the kitchen to mop himself off with. Lots of towels.) If you’re a culinary adventurer or one of those people who likes to pretend they’re on a reality show, you can also order a few special offal dishes, which is apparently quite the done thing in Manchuria. As for me, I’ll stick with the veggie dumplings, lovingly handmade by chefs in the front window of Manchurian Legends as you walk in.

Yummy scallops at Haozhan
Scallops do the wave at Haozhan

 

Another favorite is Haozhan, right on Chinatown’s main drag, Gerrard Street. Haozhan does a lot of the cross-cultural classics very respectably. Think: crispy duck, sweet and sour chicken and all those Anglicized or Americanized Chinese dishes that we all love because they’re so amazingly good and comforting. However, as you can see from the picture, Haozhan also pushes the Pan-Asian and modern cuisine boundaries on a few dishes, like this one– a tasty creation of seared scallops and asparagus nestled in a dramatic noodle wave. Haozhan’s menu is fairly vast, so this is a good place to visit when you need to please a group of people with disparate dining interests. And unlike a lot of places that do noodle art and vegetable sculpting, dinner here is really affordable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mr. Kong, a Chinatown staple for over two decades. With really friendly service and excellent food, it’s easy to see why Mr. Kong seems to have a lot of regular customers. Mr Kong does a lot of the classics really well, but it’s the specials that really shine. On one visit, my husband and I had a crab hot pot that was really amazing, like a Chinese cioppino. Utterly delicious! Mr. Kong is also fairly quiet for a restaurant in Chinatown, which is nice if you’d like to have a conversation with your dining companion(s).

Taste:
Manchurian Legends, 16 Lisle Street WC2H 7BE

Haozhan, 8 Gerrard Street W1D 5PT

Mr. Kong, 21 Lisle Street WC2H 7BA

A Great Reef, but No Snorkeling

Rainbow Vista from the Best of the Westerns
Rainbow Vista from the Best of the Westerns

Though there is no snorkeling in Utah’s Capitol Reef, it is one of the best places for an introduction to the geology lesson that the Great American West provides from the Western edge of Colorado to the chasm of the Grand Canyon. Along with impressive insights into the natural forces that made the 100-mile long monocline known as the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park also provides a glimpse into the people who have left more temporary traces on the area’s landscape, including the First Nations, pioneer settlers, the likes of Butch Cassidy, and the modern ranchers whose cattle are the most dominant life-form in the area.

One of the best and most “western” hotels in the Best Western chain, The Capitol Reef Resort, can be found right at the gate of Capitol Reef National Park. A great base camp for park exploration, the hotel even has a hot tub where you can contemplate how the changing light alters canyon hues while soaking hike-weary bones.

To wash down the trail dust and fuel up for back country exploration, a bar/restaurant across the street from the hotel, The Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe offers some of Utah’s finest beers and a very satisfying pizza. The outdoor dining area has some of the nicest dart set-ups I’ve seen in any bar, and, if you’re able to extend your arms after a full day’s hike, it’s a fun way to spend the evening. The night we visited, the very kind-hearted woman proprietor showed us where we were on her groovy, vintage topographical wall map on which decades of rubbing fingers from all over the world had lovingly erased our location.  

Before and/or after getting beered, hot-tubbed, and generally satiated, you will, of course, want to visit the main attraction, Capitol Reef National Park. You could spend one or several days hiking, biking, and off-roading in this geologic marvel.

One of the best ways to get oriented to the park is the self-guided drive. A map of the self-guided drive stops (along with fabulous fun facts) are available at the park’s visitor center for a nominal fee. At the end of the self-guided drive’s car-based route, a 4-mile round-trip hike takes you through Capitol Reef Gorge, where you can see some of the park’s odd sandstone formations up close, along with the signposts of people who came before.  

The most visible of the earliest human traces in the park are amazing

Fremont Petroglyph on Capitol Reef Gorge Trail
Fremont Petroglyph on Capitol Reef Gorge Trail

petroglyphs, left by the Fremont people, some of the area’s earliest inhabitants. On the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can get right up close to a few of these rock carvings, and ponder whether they were made for religious and/or informational purposes. It’s hard not to ge excited when standing inches away from something carved by human hands thousands of years before. Elsewhere in the park, on a large canyon wall, giant Fremont petroglyphs are visible from hundreds of feet away. Gigantic shaman, bighorn sheep, and other animals carved into the red rocks leap off the rocks.

After the First Nations, pioneers traversed the area to head Westward, and on the Capitol Reef Gorge hike, you can also see their names lining the walls, some dating back from the 1840s and 1850s. Butch Cassidy didn’t sign any rock walls, but he allegedly hid out in the area. (Butch Cassidy connections are touted a lot in this particular neck of the woods.)

Later in the 1800s, Mormon settlers recognized that the valley’s ample water supply would be good for farming, particularly fruit trees. Orchards of apples and other fruit trees planted by these intrepid settlers still line Capitol Reef’s valley.

Apple Tree in Capitol Reef
Apple Tree in Capitol Reef

The National Park Service still maintains these fruit trees, and, when the trees are bearing fruit, you can eat an apple, pear, or other fruit for free when you’re in the orchard. If you’d like to take any fruit with you, bags and picking equipment are available, along with a box to leave payment.

If DIY fruit picking’s not up your alley, or if you visit out of fruit-bearing season, you can always enjoy the valley’s fruits at the Gifford Homestead. Located in the old Mormon settlement in the valley, the historic home sells pies made from fruit grown in the area, along with other baked items and preserved goods– great for a pre or post-hike picnic.  (The pie made from apples grown in one of the orchards was particularly tasty after hiking the Capitol Reef Gorge trail.)

Though the apple trees and the settlement and the pioneer grafitti and the Fremont petroglyphs all seem to point to the permanence of man’s hand in the landscape, Capitol Reef leaves you with the feeling that we humans are newcomers and short-timers on the planet. The greater permanence of nature, as evidenced by Capitol Reef’s 100-mile long sandstone monocline, endless canyons of every color, harshly dry landscapes that suddenly swell with water– all formed over eons– dwarves our feeble human efforts to leave a mark. In short, we should enjoy the apples, and the apple pie, while we can.  

Do:
http://www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

Eat:
Rim Rock Patio/Spaghetti Western Cafe, Right across from Best Western

Stay:
Best Western Capitol Reef Resort, 2600 East Highway 24
http://www.bestwesternutah.com/torrey-hotels/ 

In the Land of Giants

Grant's Tree in Parts, Sequoia National Park
Grant's Tree in Parts, Sequoia National Park

When you hear words like “the largest living thing,” or “the widest,” you know you have to see them, though you’re also slightly afraid that the object(s) in question may not live up to the hype.

The sequoias at Sequoia National Park do not disappoint. The fact that they adjoin a valley, Kings Canyon, that rivals Yosemite (and may actually be superior due to lack of crowds), makes this location all the better. (Warning: if you’re driving from SF, you will most likely take Highway 198 to get to the park. On Highway 198, you will encounter a series of bad smells until you reach the town of Three Rivers. These smells include, but are not limited to: the massive stench of industrial stockyards, an overwhelming aroma of pressed garlic, an acrid sulfuric chemical odor,  and more oppressive odors emanating from super-sized stockyards. However, in spite of these perils, Sequoia & Kings Canyon are well worth the trip down the Road of Bad Smells.)

The Sequoia visitor center provides a lot of interesting background about the world’s largest trees, along with a good orientation to help you plan your visit.  Though there are several hikes to take through the various groves, you shouldn’t miss the two most notable walks: the Sherman and the Grant. The Sherman Tree walk takes you on a descent to the base of the world’s largest living thing by volume. The walk through the lovely grove around Grant’s Tree (the widest of the giant Sequoias) has some of the prettiest tree specimens and a lot of amazing sites, including an old, dead sequoia, “The Monarch,” you can walk through that was once a miner’s refuge and a bar.

When you’re peckish in Sequoia and in need of a food/wine stop, Wuksachi Lodge has a nice restaurant with a lovely mountainside view. (Thankfully, food has come a long way in our national parks since the days of foil-wrapped cheeseburgers.) The wine list has a good variety and is surprisingly reasonable given the relative remoteness of the location.

Don’t miss a good hike or two in Kings Canyon, even though it’s a bit off the beaten path. The majestic peaks frame a verdant valley with a babbling river running through it, culminating in lively falls rolling over large boulders. Camping spots seem a lot sweeter in Kings Canyon than in Sequoia, so if you’re up for a few nights in a tent,  do the Kings thing.

For nights with a roof over your head, a good base camp outside the park can be found in the town of Three Rivers. The affordable Comfort Inn has shuttles into the Park (shuttles are mandatory at certain times of year), along with a swimming pool and hot tub. 

Two great places to spend your post-hike evenings can also be found in Three Rivers. The Cider Mill Restaurant stays open later and has outdoor seating. Many of the selections are grilled by a nice guy tending the BBQ out front. The wood-grilled Carne Asada (along with several ice cold Tecates) was the dining highlight.

The River View Restaurant & Lounge has a nice perch above a perky river run, where you can sit outside and listen to the river race by. There’s often live music here, and if there’s not, the kind folks at the River View were playing some awesome live concert Grateful Dead tracks the night I visited. Even better, the beer was ice cold, and the onion rings were some of the best you’ll ever have.

Cold beers. Big trees. Bigger canyons. Fewer crowds. Sequoia/Kings Canyon are definitely worth a visit.   

Do:
National Park Info, http://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm

Eat:
Cider Mill, 40311 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198)
River View Restaurant & Lounge, 42323 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198)

Sleep:
Comfort Inn, 40820 Sierra Dr. (Highway 198), http://www.comfortinn.com/hotel-three_rivers-california-CAA26

A Guide to the Outerlands

Ocean Beach Sunset, San Francisco, California
Sunset in the Outer Sunset

Having lived out in the Avenues for a decade, I always enjoyed it when the rest of SF came out to our neck of the woods for events like Outsidelands and the Bay to Breakers. There’s something amusing about drunk people asking how far away Haight-Ashbury or the Ferry Building is, when most of them have just walked from there.

But you shouldn’t wait for a special event to bring you out where the streets have numbers and alphabetically sequenced names. The Outer Sunset (also indicated on old maps as the Outerlands when it was a somewhat barren terrain of rolling sand dunes) is one of San Francisco’s most original, authentic neighborhoods– a groovy mix of surfers, artists, folks starting cool local businesses, and just plain ordinary people (if anyone residing in San Francisco can ever be described as merely ordinary).  Here’s a few things to do before or after a good walk in Golden Gate Park or on the beach, or anytime you’re lucky enough to find yourself out in OB (Ocean Beach).

Community Coffee Klatsch
If you head down in the morning to enjoy the beach, you may need some caffeine. For some of the best espresso in the city, head to Trouble Coffee, on Judah between 45th & 46th Avenues. You can also recharge with the excellent toast and the refreshing juice from freshly cracked coconuts.

At the end of Judah where the street car turns around is Java Beach, which offers coffee, some light fare, and beer when the time’s right. The outdoor patio and garden across the street are perfect places to sip a beverage and watch the neighborhood go by if it’s a sunny day. (Some nights, Java Beach also has music, and you can check out the calendar here: http://www.javabeachcafe.com/)

Picnic Items
The Outer Sunset is a zone of independence against the tyranny of encroaching chain stores. So much so that the neighborhood’s residents successfully got chain stores banned from the neighborhood when the mermaid-logo people from Seattle tried to muscle in.

The epicenter of this independent, up-with-people movement in the Outer Sunset is Other Avenues (http://www.otheravenues.coop/),  a worker-owned co-op offering natural and organic foods and merchandise since the 1970s. Other Avenues is located on Judah between 44th and 45th Avenues, and you should pick-up a kombucha drink, micro-brews, or organic vino along with cheeses, fresh breads, and great organic produce for a beach and park picnics here.

Surfer Gear
If you left your board at home and want to catch some sets at OB, swing by Mollusk Surf Shop at 45th and Irving (one block toward Golden Gate Park from Judah). The apparel’s also great here, particularly the brilliantly designed t-shirts with sea/surf motifs. Year-round, Mollusk hosts a lot of fun events, from yoga classes to art shows to movie screenings. You can find out more here: http://www.mollusksurfshop.com/

Eat Your Veggies (It’s a Treat)
For organic, contemporary fare, Outerlands, at 4401 Judah (on the corner of 45th), offers a menu that changes with the seasons, with a real focus on vegetables that will make you forget they’re not the main dish. (I had brussel sprouts here once that would have changed any sprout-haters mind!) The soups and fresh bread are super-stars on an already tremendous menu, and the wine list offers several interesting options, along with a beer menu that changes daily.  Take a look at what’s on offfer at Outerlands here: http://outerlandssf.com/

Currying Favor
Good, solid Indian food can be found at Golden Gate Indian & Pizza, in a little strip mall on Judah, right off 46th. The veggie samosas are some excellent fried goodness, and you can get your chicken tikka as spicy as you like, if you ask. The Indian pizza is also a novel combination of two awesome foods: pizza and tandoori chicken. Mmm. When worlds collide.

The Locals Local
If you’re out in the avenues for a special event or on a banner weather day, don’t try to fight the crowds and claw your way back downtown. There’s a place for you called Pittsburgh’s. One of the only places that’s open until 2 a.m. in the area, Pittsburgh’s attracts an eclectic crowd: surfers, sports fans watching a game or two, locals shooting pool, and professional drinkers who could give Bukowski a run for his money. The bartenders are always friendly, and never bat an eyelash if you walk in wearing cowboy hats or other costumes. As long as you’ve got the green to pay for your ice cold PBR, it’s all good.  Cruise over to 4207 Judah, at 47th Avenue for a solid, old-school American local.

Festivals that Find You in the Outer Sunset
If you’re an SF resident who’s skeptical of the Avenues, you’ll already know about these festivals. If you’re a tourist, here’s some things you should definitely take part in when you come to SF for a visit.

  • Bay to Breakers – Third Sunday in May traditionally. People walking, running, and drinking from the SF Bay to, you guessed it, the “Breakers” of Ocean Beach. Wear a costume. Mexican wrestling masks count as a costime. The Beach/Park Chalet is a hot spot on the finish line. I’d give you the link, but every year, they annoyingly/intelligently change the URL to include a corporate sponsor’s name. Google will show you the way if you’re game.
  • Outsidelands – Mid to late August, this music festival combines top name acts with the best up-and-coming artists. For the festival’s first year, I saw Radiohead play at night when the fog rolled in, and I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the deep-fried fancy macaroni and cheese sticks with a side of spicy tomato sauce. It’s like all the other festivals…without the crappy camping! Get details on the upcoming hoo-ha at: http://www.sfoutsidelands.com/
  • Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Mid to late September/Early October, the park plays host to multiple FREE venues where you can hear acts like Joan Baez sing “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” It’s free because a very nice man made a lot of money in Silicon Valley/investment banking and decided to put on a music party for his favorite kind of folk/bluegrass tunes. I have never heard of a better expenditure of cash, which probably makes Warren Hellman (the funder of said festival) the smartest money human on the planet. Bravo, Mr. Hellman. Bravo.  

Coastside Weekend – Ano Nuevo & Half Moon Bay

Yellow Flowers in Pescadero
Yellow Wildflowers in Pescadero

In addition to the myriad delights of the city itself, one of the best things about San Francisco is the ability to get away from it all fairly quickly. In just over 25 minutes, you can find yourself in the Marin Headlands, in the middle of the Bay, or, if you head south down the coast, to the charming enclave of Half Moon Bay. On weekends when everyone in San Francisco seems to be heading up to Marin for a daytrip, cruising south is a great way to get out of town while fighting less traffic and crowds. The towns of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero help you instantly forget city stress, and get the cool, chill vibe of the coastside lands.

Day One – Elephant Seals & Pocket-Sized Pescadero
Starting out from San Francisco on a Saturday morning relatively early in the a.m., head south on the Great Highway and keep following signs for Highway One. The drive’s a beautiful one, particularly once you get to the open stretches of coastal road that dramatically hover above the coast past Pacifica. The coastline’s dramatic, the water’s blue, and there are scads of lovely little beaches if you want to get out for a leg stretch, or just to marvel at the great waters of the Pacific.  

Your destination this morning is Ano Nuevo, a California state natural reserve. Ano Nuevo is a beautiful landscape, representing coastal dune vegetation and the NoCal coast as it was before modernity began to forever change these habitats.

Though Ano Nuevo is a beautiful place for a nature hike anytime of year, the best times to visit coincide with the presence of the elephant seals. Ano Nuevo is an important spot for elephant seals, where they haul out to recreate, reproduce, and rest. And they do need some rest; Ano Nuevo is also a popular haunt of Great White sharks, who feed on the abundant elephant seals here. Marine scientists have deemed the sharks of Ano Nuevo a significant population for understanding the mysterious Great Whites’ behaviors overall. Before you go, be sure to check out any permit requirements. Because Ano Nuevo is so important for the elephant seal population, there are times of year when visitation of the beaches is restricted: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=523

After 2 or 3 hours at Ano Nuevo, the sea air and the hiking should have amply whetted your appetite, preparing you

Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero
Yum. Duarte’s Tavern.

 for one of the best meals you’ll ever eat at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Also affectionately known as “Doo-arts” by some SF locals.) To get to Duartes from Ano Nuevo,  just need to head north on Highway One, and after about 30 minutes, turn right when the sign for Pescadero appears. The restaurant’s one of the only things in the sweet, pocket-sized town of Pescadero, so you can’t miss it. Give your name at the front of Duarte’s for a table, and then, go wait in the wood-paneled, wonderfully old-school bar. Sample a local beer, Anchor Steam, or try one of their refreshing bloody marys.

Once you get your table, prepare to be delighted. This James Beard award-winning restaurant serves some of the freshest seafood around, along with the best of local ingredients in general. Start with a cup of “half and half” soup, a combo of their cream of artichoke (made from chokes growing down the road) and chile soups. For your main course, the cioppino (the Italian fisherman’s stew) never disappoints, nor does the abalone sandwich. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for pie; pies served at Duarte’s are nothing short of fantastic, particularly the ollalieberry. For more detailed directions or some other info, check Duarte’s out online at: http://www.duartestavern.com/

After lunch, you’ll need to walk off whatever you gorged on at Duarte’s. You should check out the shops on Pescadero’s main street, which showcase crafts made by local artists, and also, foods featuring local ingredients. Stop in Arcangeli Grocery/Norm’s Market (http://www.normsmarket.com/store/) to pick up some wonderful breads and foccacias, cheeses (especially the local, delicious, Harley Farms goat cheese), more pies, and local treats like pickled garlic, artichoke spreads, and more.  (Be sure to stock up on items that will keep until tomorrow to enjoy at a picnic.)

If you still feel like a little more nature as you leave Pescadero, on the way back out of Pescadero at Highway One, there’s a wetlands for bird watching and a beach with some tide pools. If you go to this beach, be careful: the surf is treachorous here, and the rocks very jagged. Make sure you know which way the tide’s running so you are more certain to keep sure footing. (Particularly if you’re one of the lucky passengers who got to have more than one Anchor at Duarte’s.)

Smoking bus at Camerons Pub
Double-decker bus at Camerons Pub

Once you’ve enjoyed all of Pescadero’s delights, you’re heading back to Half Moon Bay, and after the intersection with 92, you will see Camerons (http://www.cameronsinn.com/) on the left of Highway One. You should definitely stop for a pint, and, if you’re hungry even after Duarte’s, some decent pub grub. (Camerons also has a little shop with British goods, should you need a Cadbury Flake fix.) You won’t be able to miss it, as the pub is surrounded by double-decker buses from England. (You can even smoke in one of them, if you’re one who still indulges in tobacco products.)

After a quick pit stop at Camerons, continue north on Highway One, until you get to the Beach House on the north side of Half Moon Bay, where you’re staying for the night (http://www.beach-house.com/half-moon-bay-hotels.html) Rooms are spacious, and can sleep 4 if you’re trying to save a penny or two, as they have living areas with pull-out beds. Enjoying a bottle of wine on your patio while the sun sets from your perch right on the coast is a very nice way to end a busy day. You can also soak your troubles away in the hot tub or the small pool.

If you feel a bit more peppy in the evening hours, walk on the coastal path a short distance to Sam’s Chowder House, conveniently located just next door. Sam’s has good seafood staples, and really nice ambiance outdoors, where you can sit on a deck above the sea next to communal fire bowls and enjoy a cocktail or several. Sam’s also has music on weekends, and you can see the schedule here: http://www.samschowderhouse.com/ 

NB: Though there are many fine places to go in Half Moon Bay for drinks and/or dining, particularly in the charming downtown that’s inland from the coast, Sam’s is the best evening pit stop when staying at the Beach House, as you can walk back to your bed rather than driving after imbibing. If you actually have a designated driver with you, your evening options are a bit more open, though Sam’s is a very worthy place to spend an evening regardless of its proximity to the Beach house.   

Day 2 – Beach Walk & Bocce
In the morning, be sure to make the most of your coastal location, and have a great walk on the shore and/or coastal path from the Beach House, after enjoying the complimentary continental breakfast. Have a soak in the hot tub, and enjoy yourself until check-out.

Before you leave your hotel, pack up your picnic lunch that you assembled yesterday. You’ll head south a bit on Highway One to 92, and turn left, going to La Nebbia Winery.  (The entire trip will take you about 15 minutes.) On 92, you’ll pass by a lot of the garden/farm supply places that Half Moon Bay is known for, and see a lot of pumpkins if you’re here in the autumn before Halloween. (Half Moon Bay is the pumpkin capital of NoCal, and has a festival to prove it.)

La Nebbia gets surplus juice from a lot of different wineries in Sonoma/Napa/Santa Cruz and bottles it, meaning you get some wines that normally cost $40 for more like $10 when you buy them at La Nebbia. The folks who work here are always really informative about what’s being poured and very fun and friendly. The property has picnic tables and a great bocce court, so have your picnic, raise a glass or two, and enjoy some bocce for the afternoon. La Nebbia also has many events, so see what’s on before you go: http://www.lanebbiawinery.com/

Depending on the weather (fog or lots o’ fog in the summer), after La Nebbia, cruise home on Skyline or take Highway One back. For either route, signs of city life will appear quicker than you think, shaking you out of the cool, laidback coastside ambiance. You’ll be so restored you won’t believe you’ve been gone from the city for only 24 hours.

A Day at the Mosquee – (Couscous & Hammams Too!)

Minaret from the Grand Mosque of Paris
A Magical World...in Paris

With all the dreary headlines in the news about the West, Islam, Muslims in France, and related topics, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of inter-cultural interaction. However, when you visit the Great Mosque of Paris (La Grande Mosquee de Paris), you’ll come away understanding how positive (and relaxing) it can be when great cultures interact, and appreciate the true genius of Islamic art, architecture, and hospitality.

The mosque, located in the 5th arrondissement, is surprising for its immensity and authenticity. An Islamic culture center in Paris’ intellectual heart, the mosque was built after World War I, to thank Islamic members of the French empire who fought to help France be among the winners during the “War to End All Wars.” For more about the mosque’s history and the beautiful art and architecture you find there, this Web site, in French, has lots of info. The great photos speak for themselves even if you don’t speak French: http://mosquee-de-paris.net/

When you visit the mosque, you’ll feel like you left Paris for an enchanted world. The mosque has a really cool minaret to gaze at, a mini-souk where you can buy North African wares, a restaurant where you can eat some of the best couscous and tagines in Paris, along with a tearoom where you can drink mint tea and munch pastries in amazing ambiance. (Just remember, there’s no alcohol served here, so you’ll have to have your cocktails after dinner if you decide to dine here. And it’s worth eating here even sans alcohol. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I once tried to order a gin and tonic here. They were very nice about it, but it showed me why I needed to spend more time at the Great Mosque of Paris.) 

The mosque also houses one of the best hammams in Paris. For a fairly small fee, you can enjoy the lovely steam rooms and baths. For additional money, you can get that access, plus a body scrub, a massage, and mint tea or dinner afterwards.  The massages are worth it.

Bring flip-flops and swimsuit bottoms. It’s not “au naturel,” but perhaps a little less covered up than American or British spas might be, even in gender-separated areas. Use but beware of the strong soap you are given. It stings pretty bad if it gets in your eyes. Like a lot of places with communal bathing in more traditional communities worldwide, it’s girls only on certain days, guys on the other days. I’ve never been on a Saturday, but I’ve been told it’s a miss, as it gets way too crowded. (Like most fun, relaxing things on Saturdays.)

For days of the week for males and females, price lists for treatments at the hammam, menus for the restaurant/tearoom, and contact info for the more commercial side of the mosque, visit them online at:  http://www.la-mosquee.com/index.htm 

On the ground, the mosque is located at 39 rue St.-Hilaire in the 5th. Metro stops Monge, Jussieu, or Censier are all decent stops, unless you walk over as a part of a nice stroll around the Latin Quarter, part of which is in the 5th. 

Best Fondue & Lively Atmosphere in Montmartre

Though often full of tourists of all stripes, the Refuge de Fondues still draws its fair share of French, and it is the French who are, in fact, the folks who took me here in the first place.

It’s popular with most everyone who visits, as the Refuge is an awesome and funny place. You will surely strike up conversation with someone next to you as, quite frankly, it is so packed, you have no choice. The proprietors also do what they can to keep the conversation and good times rolling. (Such as asking 10 people to stand up and move down one seat to accomodate a few other visitors, all while happily passing hot oil and molten cheese briskly around the room.) 

It’s only about 18 Euros for the entire menu which includes a kir to start, lots of good little appetizers, beef or cheese fondue (which is very very good hence the popularity), followed by your choice of cheese or fruit salad for dessert (though you can have other desserts) AND (why this is a supremely funny place) a baby bottle—yes—baby bottle full of white or red wine. Even if you don’t drink, you will walk out laughing. I have brought everyone who has ever visited me in Paris– of all ages– and they have all loved it. (There’s something very special about watching your parents drink wine from a glass baby bottle, which cannot be explained in mere words.)

If you have to wait to get a table or even if you don’t, go to the bar right next door and have a pre-dinner drink (“apero”). The cute little bar is a pleasant Montmartre haunt, typical of the many small, convivial bars that you can find throughout the neighborhood.

Get your cheese on at the Refuge de Fondues in the 18th, 17 rue des Trois-Freres (between rue Yves le Tac and rue la Vieuville), Metro: Abbesses or Anvers. You must make a reservation: 01.42.55.22.65.