Friday, 22 March 2013

Lincoln Dine-A-Round: #2 - If it’s Tuesday, it must be Tacos

Taco Tuesday. You don’t have to say where you’re going. If you’re in the Lincoln area of New Hampshire (that includes neighbouring North Woodstock) and you say you’re going to Taco Tuesday, then everyone knows where you’re going. It is now a well established local institution, part of modern-day après-ski folklore.
CJ's Penalty Box Sports Bar
Downstairs at the Kancamagus Lodge at the east end of Lincoln’s Main Street, CJ’s Penalty Box is a lively sports bar renowned as much for its friendly atmosphere as its après-ski specials. On Sundays it’s meatloaf, Mac n’ Cheese on Mondays.
And on Tuesdays, the special is Tacos. And not only are the Tacos special, so is the price – they’re just $1 each.
The taco bar is regularly topped up between 4.00pm and 7.00pm, and you simply help yourself to however many taco shells you want, add the chilli-con-carne from the hot dish, maybe a handful of nachos and cheese, some guacamole and salad. Don’t go too mad on your first visit to the taco bar, because you can go back as many times as you like.
I’d been promising Julie and Megan I was going to take them to Taco Tuesday since we booked the trip. Gosh, you know how to treat your family, I hear you cry, but of all the restaurants we visited and excellent meals we had during the week, this was probably our favourite evening. This was mostly because it was just a fun, family night out. Megan loved the novelty of going up to the taco bar to get her food, and we all enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. The fact that we managed to grab the last small available table is a sign of how popular the bar is (especially on Tuesdays...) and I spotted a couple of guys I recognised from Loon Mountain enjoying a beer and taco themselves after their day’s work on the hill, which is surely good testimony.
Great value daily apres-ski specials at CJs
After her first plateful of hearty Mexican fare, Megan took a little wander around to study all the sports items on display, from local ice hockey trophies to professional baseball memorabilia (mostly Boston Red Sox, naturally). She was then ready to head back for more chilli, and not wanting her to feel conspicuous by being the only one eating, I obligingly accompanied her (any excuse...), this time choosing one of the tortilla wraps which happened to be on offer that evening, also only $1. Julie declared herself suitably sated after her one taco and salad and so did not make the trip for another round, although I think she did help Megan out a little bit as the second helping would otherwise have beaten her.
Megan had had one eye on the two dartboards ever since we’d arrived, so once we’d all decided we’d eaten enough, the three of us spent a happy half-an-hour taking it in turns to step up to the oche. I think more darts ended up outside the ring than inside, but it was good, clean family fun. 

Preparing to leave, Julie wondered how we go about paying for our food as nobody had actually taken an order from us and we had simply helped ourselves. In a reflection of  local life (people don’t think twice about leaving car keys in their unlocked cars when they park in town), it’s all done on an honesty system, I explained – when paying for your drinks, you just tell the bartender how many tacos you’ve had and she adds them to your bill. So, three of us had dined out on a fun feast of tacos, tortillas, nachos, dips and salad all for just 5 bucks. Obviously drinks were extra, but the whole evening cost less than $30 and was very enjoyable indeed. 

So next time you’re in the area, make sure you keep Tuesday evening free. For Tacos.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Lincoln Dine-A-Round: #1 – All Around the World

The easy 2-hour drive up the I93 from Boston had got us into Lincoln in mid-afternoon, giving us plenty of time to dive into the Rite-Aid on Main Street to get a few basic provisions (mostly beer and wine, to be honest, but Julie also spotted some great value bottles of cranberry juice and apple juice at just a dollar each, so we could mix up a replica of the refreshing ‘Cran-Apple’ Megan had enjoyed on the leisurely flight over...). We could have gone to the Price-Chopper supermarket, but at the risk of going into too much detail Megan needed the loo and I knew I could just run her into Dunkin’ Donuts next door while Julie started putting a few things in the basket in Rite-Aid.

Actually the ‘run’ into Dunkin’ wasn’t that straightforward in the end – all the new snow that had preceded our arrival was piled a good couple of feet high and was obscuring the pavement (or should that be sidewalk...?), but hey, we weren’t complaining!

Purchases made, we hopped back in the car and decided to take a drive past the restaurant we thought we might visit for dinner that evening. We had never been to the Gypsy Café before and, as it is just a couple of hundred yards down the road right on Main Street, we thought we’d just pull up outside to check the opening hours. As we did so a lady who was walking down the street stopped, turned and started heading determinedly towards our parked car. Expecting a gentle admonishing for perhaps being illegally parked, I lowered the car window and began mentally preparing my apology and excuse. “I’m sorry” came the friendly voice with a gentle, local lilt, “we’re not serving right now. Lunch was until 4.00pm.” It was now 4.10pm. Pleasantly surprised, I quickly established that the restaurant would be open again for dinner from 5.00pm to 9.00pm, we offered our thanks and headed off to check-in at our hotel, the Indian Head Resort. “That was nice of that lady to stop for us” commented Julie, and we both agreed that it epitomised the friendly welcome and attentive service we always get when we’re skiing in New Hampshire

After unpacking and taking a quick and refreshing dip in the hotel's year-round heated outdoor pool (and relaxing the muscles in the adjoining hot-tub) we showered and got ready to head back into town. The Gypsy Café was already busy with most tables already occupied and all the bar stools taken, but we were quickly seated in the cosy rear section. We had heard the food was of an international flavour, and the menu proudly proclaimed ‘food from around the world’. The specials were tempting, and we chose to share what turned out to be very plump fish-cakes as a starter, which were delicious. The value-priced kids’ menu offered fairly standard children’s fare and Megan was delighted with her burger, which was just want she fancied.

Julie and I both pondered long and hard over what to choose for our main dishes, the choices on offer being very varied both in terms of style and geographical origin, and all sounding very tempting. I toyed with the Black Angus New York Strip Steak, but decided I could tuck into a good steak in most restaurants in the area and decided I should go for something from a little further afield. The Jamaican Jerk Chicken perhaps, or maybe the indian-spiced Tiger Salmon with yoghurt sauce? I was more than pleased with my final decision – the Thai Red Curry Duck. Served on a saffron rice, the red curry sauce on the two duck breasts had just the right amount of fire in the spice and, being more of a red wine person, the whole dish was easily washed down by a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (or quite simply Cab, as the locals tend to order it). Julie was equally delighted with her Shrimp Piri-Piri: the attentive waitress has accurately advised that it wasn’t excessively hot (from a spicy point of view, that is) and that the citrus flavouring was not overpowering. And Julie is always partial to a glass of crisp, chilled Pinot Grigio and was not disappointed.

With fabulous food a little different from the normal offerings, in casual surroundings and a relaxed atmosphere, our first visit to the Gypsy Cafe will definitely not be our last, and next time maybe I’ll sample cuisine from a different part of the globe.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The Only Way From Essex - Southend to Boston

When you're heading off on holiday, especially a family ski holiday with all the stuff you need to carry, looking for the most convenient flight route might be up there towards the top of your priority list when making travel plans. For most, this will be the direct route, a non-stop flight, no change of aircraft, just get from A to B in one go; to others, it may mean flying from the most convenient departure airport, invariably the one closest to home.

To get to the ski slopes of New Hampshire – the closest skiing in the USA for visitors from the UK & Ireland - there are a number of options for flying into Boston's Logan Airport, the main international gateway to the area. And for next winter, particularly for those who live in Essex and East London, there will be a new route which will get you Stateside more or less from your doorstep...

...How about flying from Southend on Sea?

Formerly known as Aer Arran, the Aer Lingus franchise carrier Aer Lingus Regional is starting 3 daily flights from Southend Airport to Dublin, with onward connections from the Irish capital to major US cities, including Boston. It might not be a direct flight in the non-stop sense, but for those living to the east of London, it may be an awful lot closer to home than heading all the away round the M25 to Heathrow?

Commencing on 10th May, the airline – and London Southend Airport – are promoting the Southend to Dublin service as offering easy access to the USA. One positive point to note is that passengers flying to America from Dublin actually clear US Immigration and Customs in Ireland before departure, thus avoiding any possible queues on arrival.

Having said that, on the frequent occasions I find myself landing in Boston I have always found immigration clearance a well-organised and indeed speedy affair. I don’t think it has ever taken me more than 60 minutes from the wheels of the plane touching tarmac to being behind the wheel of my rental car – and that of course includes collecting luggage, skis and ski boots and all, and the short shuttle ride to the car rental depot. This is a pleasurable start to a New Hampshire ski trip.

Nevertheless, to have completed all the formalities before even boarding your aircraft could well be a bonus.

If you are among those who prefer the non-stop option, however, Boston is now served on direct flights from London Heathrow airport by no less than 4 airlines: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines and Delta Airlines all operate the route, whilst as mentioned above Aer Lingus operates a direct flight from Dublin .

But what about those who want to land as close as possible to their resort, minimising the transfer time to the slopes? The drive up from Boston is an easy 2 hours, following the sublimely quiet I93 all the way. But fly into Manchester, New Hampshire and your onward journey up to the resorts included on the New Hampshire Ski Group's multi-mountain lift pass is only just over an hour. Manchester is served by United Airlines with just one change of aircraft en-route from Heathrow as well as from a wide choice of regional airports (namely Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin and Shannon). These flights are via New York’s Newark airport and were previously operated by Continental Airlines but now come under the United banner since the two airlines merged in 2010.

Whichever route you choose for your ski flight to New Hampshire, its location in the heart of New England on America’s north-east coast means the transatlantic flights are the shortest possible into the US, and with easy transfers which are shorter than those to many European resorts, New Hampshire really is the closest US skiing to the UK and Ireland.

And the only way to get there from Essex just might be from Southend!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Sounds Like A Job For...Snowplough Man

That’ll be another 40 bucks then. Or possibly 80 after today. Adam, one of my US colleagues who works at Loon Mountain, moved house in the summer to a property in a lovely forest setting with a long drive. Whilst Adam, along with the rest of us, thinks snow as often as possible, the problem he has is that, every time there is heavy snowfall, it costs him $40 to get a guy with a snowplough over to clear his drive.

Carving it up on Loon yesterday
Friday saw a fantastic snowstorm blanket the White Mountains (wow, they are really living up to their name this season!) of New Hampshire, with the number of inches (will our Atlantic cousins ever go metric?) of the white stuff recorded reaching double figures in just a few hours across all 5 mountains which are covered by the multi-mountain lift pass. It would have been a busy weekend up at Loon, and I did wonder a couple of times on Saturday if Adam had had time to call Snowplough Man before heading off to work. With further significant snowfall yesterday, Loon alone has picked up 17½” of fresh pow in the past 7 days, adding to an impressive total picked up in January, and to poor old Adam’s bill from Snowplough Man.

The house in question is actually around half way between Loon Mountain and its near neighbour Waterville Valley. Another peek at the snow reports this morning revealed another huge dump had covered the region again yesterday, and whilst all 5 mountains were blessed with this, Waterville Valley seems to have been the major beneficiary, receiving 10” in just 24 hours. Did Snowplough Man have to call round to Adam’s again?  

Calm after the (first) storm - Cannon Sat 26 feb
With 20” of new snow in the past 4 days, Cannon Mountain, just 15 minutes or so to the north of Loon, has breached the 200 inch mark for the season so far – and we’re only just over half way through! An annual average snowfall of 160” alone is well worth shouting about, but they’ve now got 202” on the board and counting!

Now I’m lucky enough to be heading over to NH myself in exactly 2 weeks’ time. (Yes, I know, I am really lucky - to quote an old adage, “it’s a dirty job, but...). With a small group of Virgin Holidays staff in tow, after hitting all above-mentioned slopes, we’re also going to be spending a couple of days in the Mount Washington Valley. With the rustic charm of Merrill Farm Resort as our base, where I know we’re going to be so well looked after by Carin-Ingbeborg and her team, I’m already itching to get up to Cranmore  and Wildcat Mountains.
Through Cranmore's trees
When playing on Cranmore Mountain’s beautiful south-facing slopes, overlooking the town of North Conway nestling below, I’m going to testing out the new South Quad, whilst some of the first-timers in the group will doubtless be honing their newfound skills on Beginner Basin, served by the new C’More Double chair. With Cranmore’s 20” of fresh fluffy stuff over the past 4 days, I can’t imagine there can be a better place for them to do that. And hopefully Snowplough Man won’t be needed to clear the way when I get to take my first exhilarating ride on the Mountain Coaster, installed for this season near the extended tubing park.
(Wild)cat's got the cream!
Whilst I love a snowy day, the views from Wildcat Mountain are regularly rated among the best in eastern America, and I can’t help but agree whenever I gaze on a clear day from the feline-named trails over Mt Washington, the highest peak in the north-eastern USA. The last time I skied Wildcat Mountain was on a bluebird day in late March last year, with the slopes beautifully groomed after some hefty late season snow. The past week’s accumulation of 19” of snow in this stunning area of National Forest must surely bode well for a great day’s skiing (sorry if I’m starting to sound a little excited..., but wouldn’t you be?)

So, Adam, how many times has Snowplough Man been round to visit in the last few days? Whilst I’d like to say I’m sorry to hear about your snowplough bill, I’m sure all that new snow has put a smile on your face which is much bigger than the frown caused by the odd snow-clearing bill. And, if I’m honest, I can’t really say I’m that sorry.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Perfect Family Ski Holiday

The simultaneous beeps heralding text messages on both my wife and my phones normally means my sister-in-law has sent a viral joke, but this time it was British Airways advising us, over our starters at Pizza Express overlooking Windsor Castle, that our flight to Boston the following morning had been cancelled. Overcoming a short bout of mild panic, one quick phone call had us re-booked onto the American Airlines departure at a similar time. The Quattro Stagioni could now be enjoyed and properly digested, and perhaps more so the large glass of house red....  

Our 7-year old daughter was mildly disappointed as the choice of in-flight entertainment was not as extensive as we had promised she would have on BA (thank goodness for portable DVD players), but a punctual flight had us up in Lincoln, New Hampshire at the originally expected, and very civilised, time of 4.00pm local time (and once again it had only taken one hour from the moment the aircraft touched down for me to be behind the wheel of our rental car – Boston Logan Airport is always such a pleasure: Officer Selecky at immigration even let Megan stamp her own passport!). A quick bite to eat in the restaurant of the Indian Head Resort and an early night had us all ready for our week on New England’s finest slopes.

Monday morning, and the breakfast was a true, all-American feast of a buffet, with sides of most things you could wish for available to order. It’s not always a buffet, but apparently there was a large group in house (the hotel’s spacious public areas meant you hardly noticed they were there). Well-fuelled and a short drive later (8 minutes!), we were being attentively kitted out in the rental shop at Loon Mountain, with the ski school meeting place conveniently sited right outside the slope-side exit.  

Typical of mid-week New Hampshire days, the mountain didn’t look too busy and this was reflected in the size of Megan’s ski school group, which comprised the grand total of 3 – and that included Rosie, the pint-sized instructor! With our child in capable, English-speaking hands, Julie and I were whisked quickly up the hill on the Kancamagus Quad high-speed chair and were soon warming up on Grand Junction and Bear Claw, these forgiving green trails leading us straight to the Gondola.

A busy day on Boom Run...
Quiet slopes meant absolutely no waiting time at the lifts, and with the sun peeping occasionally through the slightly overcast sky, we did a couple of circuits around North Peak before cruising the fabulously long Cruiser and Boom Run intermediate trails of South Peak, accessed by the short Tote Road Quad. Perfect conditions and outstanding grooming made the skiing feel almost effortless, so it was time for a run down Loon’s only black double-diamond, Rip-Saw, where you may be forgiven for thinking they’ve got the signage wrong as you cruise along the gentle top section, until you come to the ridge – a steep pitch not for the faint-hearted! Joining up with Cruiser at the bottom, I was straight on the Lincoln Express Quad with a grin of which the Cheshire Cat would have been more than proud.

The afternoon was a gentler affair as we collected Megan from her morning lesson and took some steady turns with her in the slow-ski Family Zone, ending up with a fun trip back to the car on the J.E. Henry Railroad which runs between Loon’s two main base areas. And there could be few better ways to round off such a perfect day of skiing than to take a dip in the hotel’s ultra-heated outdoor pool and soak in the hot-tub, overlooked by the Indian Head profile atop the crest of the surrounding mountains. Contented was not a strong enough word for any of the three of us.

An inch or so of fresh snow overnight was followed by a windy and slightly chilly Tuesday. Rosie took her 2 charges off once more, whilst the tree-lined Picked Rock and Rampasture provided a perfect playground for Julie and I. Lunchtime and Megan tucked into the local delight of Chili In A Bread Bowl in the base lodge (Julie & I sensibly didn’t order anything – there was plenty of Megan’s huge portion left for us all to share), and another gentle family afternoon cruise on Lower Bear Claw preceded another swim, this time in the indoor pool, and a sumptuous dinner in the wonderfully rustic and traditionally New England atmosphere of the Common Man restaurant.   

Group lessons - just for 2!
Wednesday seemed to bring a few more kids to the ski school meeting place, but a reallocation of instructors and Megan was now a group, and got the totally undivided attention of the analytical yet laid-back Thomas. After another fabulous morning on South Peak, heading back to base lodge on the twisting and turning Speakeasy, Julie and I were amazed at how Megan had improved as she took us off after lunch (one portion of Chili In A Bread Bowl....for 3) to parts of the mountain we hadn’t been ourselves. As we cruised down Brookway, Megan confidently took the lead, throwing in a few short jump turns as she extolled the virtues of her teachers.

Bluebird skies and crisp corduroy combined for a perfect day on Cannon Mountain, another short 10-minute drive from the Indian Head Resort. Rightfully known locally as a ‘skiers’ mountain’ (Bode Miller grew up and learned his racing skills here), Cannon does offer some of the more challenging terrain that New Hampshire has to offer, with narrower trails and some good steeps to make sure those knees are kept nicely tucked. But with a bright sun enhancing the stunning scenery of Mount Lafayette and endless views over neighbouring states and up into Canada, we took uninterrupted runs on Middle and Lower Cannon and Julie really warmed up on Rocket, one of Cannon’s imposing Front Five, before more than successfully negotiating her first ever black diamond in the form of Zoomer, making for a thoroughly exhilarating morning.     

Lobster Bob had been keeping a watchful eye over Megan in her huge [!] ski school group of just three over on the sublime learning area of Tuckerbrook. Totally separate from the rest of the mountain, Megan made huge progress here in just a couple of hours. The lack of faster skiers and boarders in this family zone helped her confidence grow in bounds and we revelled in watching her cut some neat turns down Rabbit Path and Moose Alley in the afternoon, remembering Lobster Bob’s cute little rhyme “bend your knees to turn your skis” (I might try and remember that myself...). I hesitate to tell you what happened to me on Tuckerbrook, though, as I over-confidently launched myself off the top of the third in a series of ramps designed to practice freestyle skills...I have none of these, and as I took what seemed to be a quite significant amount of air, I suddenly realised I had no idea how to land and did so most ungracefully, flat on my back. All part of the fun!  

Aerial Tramway flying in a Bluebird Sky
The Cannon staff were injected with a sudden sense of urgency when the Cannonball Quad to the summit suffered a technical problem and had to be temporarily closed, but to their immense credit they reacted very quickly and opened the Aerial Tramway, a 70-passenger cable car which normally operates Friday to Monday when the mountain is a little busier. Cannonball did start again as well, so a ride up there gave me the chance to take in the views from Vista Way and admire the tram itself as it soared above Tramway.

I always enjoy the drive to Waterville Valley. It’s only 30 minutes from Lincoln and travelling down Route 49 is serene as you pass by the mix of pine and beech, punctuated by the sometimes babbling, but on occasions such as this frozen and snow-covered, Mad River. We knew straight away that Megan and Lyndy, today’s instructor once again in charge of a group of just 3 children, were going to hit it off. After a quick warm-up on Valley Run, the 1½ mile novice run served by its own high-speed quad with the wonderfully whacky name of Quadzilla (only in America....), Julie and I covered some ground today. We really got the legs working with non-stop runs down Oblivion and Stillness, and rode the High Country double to the summit for a top-to-bottom cruise, slowing down just a little to navigate The Boneyard, Julie’s second ever black diamond...which was quickly followed by her third, a rather speedy (steady, girl!) but very controlled descent of Gema.

Time to meet Megan for lunch. Well, here she comes – hand-jiving to the music pumping from the adjacent freestyle park as she skis very nicely down Valley Run back to base. The debrief from Lyndy seemed pretty positive, apparently Megan is cutting some lovely controlled parallel turns and has learned to do a ‘hockey stop’ rather than just using a pizza wedge to slow down and come to a halt. Great, thanks, we say. Little did we know how much she had learned until she took us back down Valley Run in the afternoon – skis straight, knees bending into the turn, hips over the skis, uphill ski slightly forward...At the bottom, Julie declared that she was not only watching her, but was actually trying to copy her style. Learning from your daughter who has just progressed from level 2 to level 4 in a few half-day lessons makes you feel quite humble, especially when the 7-year old announces that she wants to now go up the main lift to do Oblivion and Stillness. Who were we to deny her?

Evenings were all fairly low-key, but just what we wanted on our family ski holiday. Enormous portions at dinner were always backed up by the kind of friendly, attentive service you only get in North America, and all the staff throughout our stay at Indian Head Resort were friendly and efficient. Oh, and the 50” HDTV in the room certainly kept Megan amused (and me, to be honest – I hadn’t realised that Spongebob Squarepants is actually quite funny).

Our first family ski holiday to New Hampshire was rounded off by a visit to the Tanger Outlet Shops just off the I93 in Tilton en-route back to Boston, where we particularly bagged some bargains for Megan in the form of some pretty cool t-shirts and tops, and jeans for just $5.99! We asked Megan what she had thought of her week’s skiing, and the single word answer was, rather predictably, “Awesome!”, echoed by her very satisfied parents.