ADVERTISEMENT

A Stroll Through Dickens's London

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 27, 2022
Christmas Drawing Room at 48 Doughty Street
Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum
See the charming - and sometimes spooky - streets and alleys where Charles Dickens invented Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and, in many respects, our modern-day Christmas festivities.

On my first visit to London, a doorknocker spoke to me.

Back story: When I was eight years old, I played Tiny Tim in a grammar school production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Though I’m certain my stage debut was nothing remarkable, the experience was pivotal for me. It kindled a lifelong devotion to reading and writing, performing on stage, and studying the life and work of Dickens, who was not only a passionate and often hilarious novelist, essayist, and public speaker but also a social activist.

So, back to that talking London doorknocker. Upon my first arrival in London at age 23, I decided that the best way to see the city was to do as Dickens himself had done: Walk. Everywhere. For hours. I happily took in the city's sights and sounds from my hotel in South Kensington all the way to Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, an area where Dickens-related churches, residences, and courts of law still stand. I wandered up high streets, into little alleys and down courts (essentially scenic "dead-ends" to this native New Yorker), following Dickens-themed guidebooks (this was pre-smartphone) to find what remained of Dickens’s London, including landmarks from his life and a few places where scenes from his novels were set. In one court in particular (it may have been Took's Court, but I don't recall), I came across a cast-metal doorknocker in the shape of a man's face. Not just a man's face, but a smirking man's face. Of course, for this fan of A Christmas Carol, that slyly smirking doorknocker wailed, "Scroooooooooge!” And in that moment, my devotion to reading and writing melded with my budding love of travel. Here, before my eyes, was precisely the type of doorknocker that may have inspired my favorite writer to pen his most famous work.

SEARCH FOR EBENEZER SCROOGE

We know that, in 1843, Dickens conceived A Christmas Carol in a righteous, political frame of mind after reading an account of childhood poverty. But do we, could we possibly know whether there was one specific London doorknocker that inspired him to come up with the scene in which Ebenezer Scrooge imagines that the knocker on his own front door morphs into the ghostly visage of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley? This year, as Christmas approached, I decided to pose this decidedly niche query to Louisa Price, Curator at the Charles Dickens Museum. She did not disappoint me. “It was on Craven Street that Dickens got the idea of the famous scene,” says Price. “We don’t know which one (or if the knocker is still there!) but perhaps go down the street and see which one you think it might be.” Price also suggests that, to get a sense of what Ebenezer Scrooge’s counting house might have looked like, we should spend some time in London’s financial district, known locally as the City, where narrow alleys and courts remain (amid contemporary business towers) to evoke that December of 1843.

VISIT THE CHARLES DICKENS MUSEUM

The Charles Dickens Museum ($12, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, dickensmuseum.com) is one of the most popular Dickens-related sites in London, a short walk from the British Museum. The Dickens museum is housed in the Georgian townhouse where the author lived with his growing family as he finished The Pickwick Papers (which, like most of his novels, was published in installments, a bit like a 19th-century Netflix series) and wrote Oliver Twist in the late 1830s. “It is the only remaining family home of Dickens's in London,” says Price. “The house has retained many of its original features, including the washhouse copper, which we believe inspired the Christmas pudding scene in A Christmas Carol. The house has been restored to an 1830s interior as Dickens and his young family would have known it, and it is full of furniture, paintings, and other items that they owned, as well as other treasures from our collection which relate Dickens’s life and times.”

Among the “treasures” in the museum are a few items that will connect viscerally with anyone who has enjoyed Dickens’s fiction. “Certainly the most popular will be Dickens’s desk and chair on which the author wrote his later novels like Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend,” says Price.

Another popular item at the museum, from Dickens’s mid-career novel Dombey and Son, is a street sign known as “The Little Midshipman.” This item was my personal favorite when I first visited the museum, which was then known simply as the Dickens House. “Dickens once stood outside Norie’s, a shop that sold nautical charts, sailing directions, and navigation textbooks at 157 Leadenhall Street. Dickens was familiar with Norie’s and became so fond of the midshipman that he gave him a starring role in Dombey and Son as the sign of Sol Gil, nautical equipment maker. In the novel he is described as ‘the woodenest of that which thrust itself out above the pavement.' Dickens also describes in The Uncommerical Traveller [one of Dickens’s many collections of essays] how he would pass the figure and pat him on his calf for ‘old acquaintance sake.’”

Not surprisingly, the Charles Dickens Museum goes all out from December 1 through January 6 (Twelfth Night), including an exhibition devoted to A Christmas Carol, candlelit tours, evening readings, and decorations typical of a 19th-century London home.

Guided tours of Dickens’s London run weekly from the museum. Reserve your tour for your next London trip at the museum website.

EAT AND DRINK LIKE A VICTORIAN LONDONER

There may have been no writer before or since Dickens who was as fond of food and drink and the camaraderie of like-minded friends; the novels are filled with accounts of huge dinners, toasts, and revelry. I asked Price if she could recommend a true “Dickens of a pub” in London. “The George and Vulture Pub is the site of the Pickwick Club’s meetings in The Pickwick Papers (it is mentioned about 20 times in total in the book),” she says, referring to Dickens’s first published novel, which relates the travels and extremely funny mishaps of the iconic Mr. Pickwick, his cockney servant Sam Weller, and their friends. “The George and Vulture was built in 1746 as a public house in Castle Court, near Lombard Street, City of London. There has been an inn on the site since 1268. It was saved from demolishment in 1950 by the great-grandson of Charles Dickens, Cedric Dickens. It has been the site of the City Pickwick’s Club meetings and the Dickens family Christmas gatherings ever since.” (Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale, Oatmeal Stout, meat pies, and other traditional pub fare, 3 Castle Court, 020-7626 9710)

VISIT THE MUSEUM OF LONDON

The Museum of London covers the city’s history from prehistoric times to the present, covering the Roman settlement, medieval times, plague, fire, and various revolutions, with a healthy dose of Victorian-era artifacts and works of art. One exhibit brings a 19th-century London street vividly to life, and one painting in particular will resonate with Dickens aficionados: “The Crossing Sweeper,” by William Powell, depicts one of the young boys, like the character Jo in Bleak House, who made a meager living by sweeping mud, rubbish, and manure off the streets for pedestrians (free admission, museumoflondon.org).

GET TO KNOW DICKENS'S OTHER CHRISTMAS STORIES

While A Christmas Carol is by far the best-known of Dickens’s Christmas-themed fiction, in subsequent years he published several other short novels with holiday themes, including The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. I asked Price if she had a favorite Christmas piece, and I was delighted that she recommended a story I hadn’t read yet. “My favorite is his first bit of Christmas writing, ‘A Christmas Dinner,’ which he first published in 1835,” she revealed. “‘A Christmas Dinner’ begins with: ‘Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused - in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened - by the recurrence of Christmas.’ The whole piece brims with all of Dickens’s enthusiasm and love of the season and describes a gathering very similar to the ones we know and love now.”

Keep reading
Inspiration

25 affordable last-minute romantic getaways for Valentine's Day

Baby, it’s cold outside, and we’re fantasizing about going on “love leave” this February to the coziest, quietest corners of the world. We tapped our savvy friends in the travel biz and found four amazing deals to some of the most luxurious, romantic (and now totally accessible!) spots. From the cud­dle-worthy New England coast to the white sands and turquoise waters of the Caribbean, we’ve got your back when it comes to impressing your SigOth this Valentine’s Day. NORTHEASTERN GETAWAYS Boston, Massachusetts, is one of America’s best cities for new music, and if music be the food of love, play on! Aloft Boston Seaport presents some of Beantown’s best local talent at its live, intimate performances each Thursday evening in the WXYZ Bar. Ask for a room with a water view. From $169/night. Boston is also one of the most design- and technology-forward cities, and Element Boston Seaport is “green from the ground up,” with water-efficient fixtures, kitchens with Energy Star-rated appliances, in-room recycling, and design details like picture frames fashioned from recycled tires. From $179/night Cape May, New Jersey, is one of our favorite oceanside destinations, an easy escape from NYC and Philly. Peter Shields Inn will impress even the most jaded travelers with its 20th-century Georgian Revival mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, nine luxe guestrooms, and one of the city's best fine-dining restaurants. Maybe most impressive of all, rooms start at $99/night. Clayton, New York, feels like a trip back in time, with shop-lined Victorian-era streets along the St. Lawrence riverfront. The 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel will lavish lovebirds with Champagne, chocolate-covered strawberries, cheese, and gourmet nuts on arrival, plus rose-petal turndown service and breakfast for two at Seaway Grille. From $189/night. Edgartown, Massachusetts, combines old-world charm with sleek contemporary fixtures and amenities, and in winter you can experience the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard minus the summer crowds. Harbor View Hotel offers a farm-fresh prix-fixe Valentine’s Day menu at its signature restaurant, Lighthouse Grille (named for the classic Edgartown Lighthouse in the harbor outside the hotel’s windows. Browse Edgartown’s beautiful shops and galleries. Film fans will recognize Edgartown’s old-timey New England storefronts from Jaws, which was filmed on the VIneyard in the 1970s. From $109/night. Kennebunkport, Maine, wants to be “New England’s Most Romantic Town,” and its “Paint the Town Red” festivities have the whole town decked out in red twinkly lights, with great deals to get you there. Kennebunkport Resort Collection is offering the “Love KPT” lodging package that includes a two-night stay for two people at The Boathouse Waterfront Hotel (starting at $373) or the Kennebunkport Inn (starting at $405), arrival goodies of red wine and chocolate-covered strawberries, a three course dinner for two, and a late check-out at noon. And since romance isn’t limited to Valentine’s Day, the package is available through March 30, 2017. Lake Placid, New York, is one of the coolest towns in Upstate New York, with great opportunities for cross-country skiing in the Adirondacks, Whiteface Mountain’s 284 skiable acres, and great food and shopping. Hotel North Woods, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, is an indulgent lodging with views of charming Main Street, Mirror Lake (right in town!), and the Adirondacks’ legendary High Peaks. From $99/night. Mystic, Connecticut, boasts The Whaler’s Inn, a charming New England classic that offers a romantic dinner for two, floral arrangements, assorted local chocolates, and a bottle of sparkling wine for couples. The town of Mystic is home to some of the coolest living history experiences in America, with its Seaport and great aquarium. From $195/night. Stowe, Vermont, offers a gorgeous setting in the Green Mountains (near one of America’s great ski destinations). Field Guide, a new boutique B&B, provides Instagrammable guestrooms, and indulgent amenities for your romantic escape. From $139/night. Westport, Connecticut, is one of the Nutmeg State’s coolest towns, with great theater, food, the Connecticut Audubon Society’s guided nature tours, and Sharpe Hill Vineyards award-winning wines. Westport Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, will pamper you in sweet serenity. From $127/night. SOUTHERN GETAWAYS New Orleans, Louisiana, is known for its incredible music, food, and party scene, but its charming old-world streets and thriving gardens make it a wonderful place to take a “love leave.” Canal Street Inn is located along the city's most iconic thoroughfare, Canal a 30-minute ride on one of the city’s iconic streetcar lines to the French Quarter, and an easy walk to exceptional restaurants. The inn’s gardens will charm you with live oak, fruit, and pecan trees—a nice break the Big Easy's bustle. From $145/night. Williamsburg, Virginia, is known for Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg, and many more local attractions. The Kingsmill Resort puts couples up in style with its Bed & Breakfast Special, including a cozy guestroom, homemade breakfast, a free shuttle around the resort and the amazing local Williamsburg attractions, plus indoor pool and spa. From $171/night. Wimberly, Texas, is one of the gems of Texas Hill Country, known for its great wines and proximity to hotspots like Austin and San Antonio. Blair House features an art gallery highlighting the work of local artists, a day spa with a sauna, and even a cooking school. From $160/night. MIDWESTERN GETAWAYS Chicago, Illinois, may be the ultimate “shockingly affordable” American city, with culture, food, and activities that are second to none. Villa D' Citta offers luxury in a 19th-century Greystone mansion in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood, including a kitchen fully stocked with Italian meats, imported cheeses and fresh bread that is always open to guests. Insider tip: Ask for a made-to-order pizza cooked in the inn's stone oven and served with a complimentary carafe of house wine (from $129/night). Chicago is also home to the Magnificent Mile’s amazing shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities, and Cambria Hotel & Suites Chicago Magnificent Mile gets you right in the heart of the action, including nearby Michigan Avenue, Navy Pier, legendary Wrigley Field (home of the world champion Chicago Cubs), Millennium Park, and Soldier’s Field (from $105/night). WESTERN GETAWAYS Golden, Colorado, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is a historic Old West town nearby some of the best skiing in America. The Golden Hotel, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, looks out over Clear Creek, offers shuttle service within a five-mile radius for taking in the best of Golden’s local history and culture, plus a cozy indoor fireplace perfect for snuggling after a day in the snow. From $169/night. Grand Canyon, Arizona, is, of course, a jaw-dropping national park, and it also makes for an off-the-beaten-path romantic escape. Ride the scenic railway for 50 percent off for Valentine’s Day, a gorgeous 90-minute ride across high desert plains, arroyos, and ponderosa pine forest from Williams Depot to the Grand Canyon Depot, a short walk from the South Rim. The Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel starts at $120/night. Taos, New Mexico, with its artsy Historic Plaza, Taos Mountain, and incredible history and culture, will melt stress upon your arrival. Hacienda Del Sol offers 12 large guestrooms among several adobe structures, decorated in Southwest style. You’ll love the private outdoor hot tub. From $160/night. Whitefish, Montana, is beautiful year-round. In winter, Good Medicine Lodge is your cozy, charming gateway to Whitefish Mountain skiing and Glacier National Park’s winter wonderland. Guestrooms and suites are beautifully appointed, and you can order your breakfast each evening for the next morning. From $130/night. PACIFIC COAST GETAWAYS Anderson, California, is an epicenter of outdoor activities in California’s unparalleled great outdoors. Gaia Hotel & Spa Redding, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, offers a heated pool, complimentary Wolgang Puck coffee and tea, free WiFi, and a fitness center. From $93/night. Cloverdale, California. This Sonoma County town is smack in the heart of wine country, overlooking the vineyards of Anderson Valley. The Auberge on the Vineyard offers seven rooms in an early 20th-century Queen Anne Victorian with a lovely wrap-around verandah and the remodeled Carriage House. You’ll love the three-course breakfasts, and you’ll even love the bill, from $140/night. Napa, California, isn’t exactly “under the radar,” but it is one of the most romantic escapes in America. Napa Winery Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, is near the beautiful Napa Wine Trail, several well-known vineyards (including Robert Mondavi Winery), the historic Napa Valley Opera House, and much more. From $185/night. Seattle, Washington, is one of our favorite affordable cities for its Pike Place Market, stunning views, and design-forward aesthetic. Sleeping Bulldog Bed and Breakfast boasts a central location, freshly baked cookies, and innkeepers who are Seattle natives who are happy to dispense locals-know-best tips. From $141/night. CARIBBEAN GETAWAYS El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico, is the setting for the stunning El Yunque Rainforest Inn, on five acres that draw birdwatchers, hikers, and horseback riders for its beauty and tranquility (not to mention the inn’s luxurious claw-foot bathtubs and fireplaces). From $165/night. Nassau, Bahamas, is home to Paradise Island, which is genuinely as awesome as its name suggests. Enjoy all the splendor of the island without breaking the bank at A Stone's Throw Away, with its luxe lounge spaces, wraparound verandah, and welcoming staff. From $180/night. MEXICO Tulum, Mexico, is a short flight from the U.S. and an enticingly romantic escape. Casa Jacqueline will spoil you with stunning views (including star-gazing), jacuzzi, pool, and a quick walk to Cenote Manatee and a short drive to Tulum’s iconic Mayan ruins. From $140/night. COSTA RICA Las Catalinas is an innovative seaside town on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. The car-free community is being built as a walkable beach town between the ocean and the mountains on the wildlife-rich Guanacaste peninsula. Studio Casa Indigo offers an intimate hideaway with complimentary sparkling wine and brigadeiros (irresistible Latin American chocolates), from $195/night. (To make reservations or for more details, visit lascatalinascr.com.)

Inspiration

5 Reasons Why Chinese Food in America Is Better Than Ever

No matter where you live (and eat) in the United States, chances are you’re no farther than a short drive from a spot where you can get wonton soup, scallion pancakes, and General Tso’s chicken. Chinese restaurants, it seems, are as ubiquitous as pizza parlors and Irish pubs. And while Peking duck will never fall out of fashion, a new crop of chefs are offering some pretty inventive, if not radical, twists on familiar dishes.  1. UPSCALE NOODLES You could make the case that David Chang started it all. The New York chef’s name remains synonymous with his first venue, Momofuku Noodle Bar, a lively, funky joint he opened the East Village in 2004 that famously offered modern versions of his favorite dishes from Chinatown’s gritty old-school noodle houses. Later came Momofuku KO (ko.momofuku.com), offering more polished selections, including Asian morsels enhanced with foie gras, truffles, and other global morsels. Now he’s gone on to open a veritable empire of clever Asian eateries—throughout New York but also in Sydney, Toronto, and Las Vegas. 2. A FRESH, GREENMARKET SENSIBILITY These days, though, Chang hardly has a monopoly on intriguing Chinese fare in Manhattan. A few years after Momofuku opened came RedFarm (redfarmnyc.com), a project by Joe Ng and Ed Schoenfeld, both notable figures in the New York dining scene. Today there are three outposts in the city. Billing itself as “Innovative, Inspired Chinese Cuisine with Greenmarket Sensibility,” the menu runs the gamut from dumplings that are a far cry from classic, what with they’re being shaped like Pac Man and those ghosts, to a full papaya/ginger/soy-sauce-marinated rib steak and the most New York-y eggroll you’ve ever seen: stuffed with Katz’s pastrami and served with honey-mustard and kaffir-lime sauce. 3. REGIONAL FLAVORS Chefs elsewhere around the country add their own regional accents, like Ryan Bernhardt, who opened TKO (tkotn.com) in Nashville in the fall of 2016. He brings a strong southern influence to his recipes, making creative use of pickles, porridge, buttermilk and other classic flavors. To wit: the kale salad, cruciferous veggie du jour, appears here adorned in shallots, cashews, crispy pork and chili vinegar. A buttermilk-dressing-slathered medley of broccoli, raisins, spicy peanuts and lemon. A cocktail list that leans heavy on rum- and rye-based drinks seals the deal.   In Atlanta, Chef Wendy Chang offers something not often associated with the deep south: soy beef and soy chicken. Herban Fix (herbanfix.com) is her airy and modern vegan restaurant, where she fuses traditional Asian tastes with all the wholesome elements frequently found in cafés in San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont. There’s Pan seared soy fish w. organic kale simmered in spicy curry noodle soup as well as a mushroom/quinoa/cherry tomato/kale. All the classic preparations are along for the ride, too—in vegan form, of course—like scallion pancakes and sweet and sour tofu.   4. WEST COAST INNOVATORS Regional obsessions play into the style at HRD (hrdcorp.com), a longstanding coffee-shop-style restaurant that bills itself as serving “global fusion” cuisine, but regardless of what you call it, it’s uniquely San Franciscan, as beyond the rice bowls, curry plates, and salads, the menu offers a wide range of burritos and tacos with inventive fillings, like spicy pork, organic tofu, and panko-crusted pork, each with kimchi and a few other eastern-leaning flavors. While we’re on the west coast, Portland, Oregon can always be counted on to throw some creative culinary mojo into the ring. We were particularly taken by Expatriate (expatriatepdx.com), a hip, dimly lit cocktail lounge with inventive craft drinks alongside a menu of inspired bites that fuse all sorts of global tastes and traditions. China meets the American South the Chinese sausage corn dog, a heat-fiend’s fantasy with hot mustard and “xxx death sauce.” Consider yourself warned. A tremendous nachos platter dubbed the Expatriot Nacho with a wink is a tremendous pile of fried wonton chips, thai chili cheese sauce, spicy lemongrass beef, crema, kaffir lime, and tomato salsa, and herbs. A feast for the eyes and the body.  5. DINER KITSCH MEETS ASIAN FUSION CUISINE Moving north, Joanne Chang broke the mold in Boston in 2007 when she opened Myers + Chang (myersandchang.com, pictured above), an eatery that blends American diner kitsch with a down-home Chinese style in terms of both food and décor. You can also spot Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese touches on the menu, which, in addition to a roster of noodles and familiar dishes, includes options like fish tacos with kimchee sesame salsa and fried chicken with ginger waffles, an elevated spin on the country classic. Chang told us she recommends Bao Bei (bao-bei.ca), a self-styled “Chinese Brasserie,” in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. The small shabby-chic spot puts a premium on local, seasonal, organic ingredients and the thoughtfully designed menu blends Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese traditions, with a little French flare tossed in for good measure. The result: dishes like spicy noodles flat wheat noodles swimming in chili lamb mince, pork fat, sesame sauce, cucumber, and preserved yellow bean. Steelhead trout is adorned with crispy squash and cumin gnocchi, rapini, and velvety shiso butter clam sauce. A far cry from beef noodle soup, to be sure. And certainly only a hint of what's to come from this new generation of chefs.  

Inspiration

Witness a Total Eclipse

When the moon slides between the earth and the sun at just the right angle to create a total solar eclipse, astonishing things happen: "As the sun disappears, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," says Vicki Buchwald, a dental hygienist from Crystal Lake, Ill. "I've cried and screamed. It's like looking into the eye of God." She and her husband, Greg, an electrical engineer, have traveled to see five eclipses and can't get enough. Let others chase tornadoes or the northern lights; for these fans, there is no better show, and the next one to catch is July 22 (July 21 if you're in the South Pacific). What makes this eclipse extraordinary is that it'll create the longest stretch of darkness in the daytime that the planet will see for more than a hundred years. Even though it takes about three hours for all the phases of an eclipse to unfold, totality (when the moon entirely blocks the sun) is stunningly brief. This year, it'll last up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The next one to come close isn't until 2132. Of course, being in the right place at the right time is key. As July's occurrence travels from India to the South Pacific, it will be visible along a 150-mile-wide swath. Since eclipses are lengthiest at the midpoints of their routes, the prime viewing destinations this summer will be on the coast of eastern China, a day trip from Shanghai. There, you'll see how local perceptions have also come a long way: What was once considered a bad omen is now cause for celebration. Eclipse viewing 101 No matter how well you plan, catching an eclipse is a game of chance—clear skies are hard to predict a week ahead, much less months in advance. Nor does it help that the event takes place during monsoon season. Uncontrollables aside, here's how to maximize the marvel: Reach for higher ground Head to a roof or a mountain to get away from buildings and ambient light that interfere with visibility. Wear protection It's safe to look at the sun only when it is completely obscured by the moon. Staring at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can give you retinal burns and even cause temporary or permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses won't protect you, so play it safe and wear a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses—they may look like 3-D movie specs, but they actually contain specialized filters (seymoursolar.com, shades $1.50). Snap away Regular digital and film cameras are fine for capturing the event, as long as you place a filter on your viewfinder to shield your eyes while shooting the partial stages (rainbowsymphonystore.com, filters from $10). For best results, use manual focus, turn off the flash, and remove the filter for totality. First-time viewer? Put down the camera and just take it in. Be at ease Since you'll be staring skyward for hours, bring along snacks and a pillow or a folding chair. Then get comfy. Let them take you there These outfitters are offering expert-led eclipse trips in July: TravelQuest International has a 15-day cruise through the South Pacific with lectures by Harvard astronomy professor Owen Gingerich and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine Rick Fienberg (800/830-1998, tq-international.com, from $6,995 without airfare). Spears Travel hired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak to head a 10-day trip from Beijing to Shanghai, with stops at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. On July 22, the group will be in the seaside town of Haiyan, on a hotel roof directly in the path of the eclipse (800/688-8031, spearstravel.com, from $3,695 without airfare). Ring of Fire Expeditions called on Paul Maley, expedition coordinator for NASA's Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, to guide a 10-day journey through China and Tibet. The itinerary includes a ride on the Xining–Lhasa train, a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, and an eclipse-viewing at a spot determined by Maley on the day of the event (281/480-1988, eclipsetours.com, from $3,789 without airfare).

Inspiration

Supermarket Souvenirs

Love foreign supermarkets as much as we do? Now you can prove it. Send your supermarket souvenir photo and caption to Letters@BudgetTravel.com with the subject line "Supermarket Souvenir," and we'll consider your photo for our slide show. Each spring, Cambodian farmers hold their breath as trays of food are set before a pair of oxen. The specific dishes the beasts choose to eat predict the bounty of the next harvest. The maker of this jerky has given the bovine an even greater ability—the power to fly. —Naomi Lindt In Mexico, cleaning your clothes is a sultry affair thanks to Tango soap ($2). A dancer seduces you with her bare shoulders (is her bra in the dryer?), while the product promises to "express passion." Added bonus: clean undies. —Andrea Sachs In Italy, cool design pops up just about everywhere, even on packages of $1 snack food. Each bag of Virtual chips features a lone corn chip, lit as if it were on display in the Uffizi Gallery. At a mere 154 calories per bag, it also leaves you feeling virtually no guilt. —Sean O'Neill There really is something in the bottled water sold in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain. Not only is Al Kamel's cardamom water ($1) used as a flavoring for milk and coffee, but its label claims that if you drink the water three times a day it will function as a "digestive inducer, sexual stimulator, tranquilizer, and tonic for the heart." —Summar Ghias In Colombia, the health benefits of soy can't be oversold. Not only do packets of Leche de Soya, a powdered soy milk ($2), sport a spokesman who looks a bit like Richard Simmons, but the instructions include illustrations of sports that are ideal for soy-milk drinkers—bodybuilding, rollerblading, desk jockeying.... —Liz Ozaist These Gluco-Max tea biscuits look like they should be from Japan, but they're actually from Uganda. Munch on enough of them and you might end up sumo-size, too. (18¢) --Laura MacNeil Here's one way to stand out in a market flooded with bottled water: Replace the streams and mountains usually found on labels with a snarky sense of humor. Another Bloody Water is about $1.75 in Australian groceries. --Celeste Moure Swing Ernie is a curvaceous, heart-stamped sponge that seems to be romantically involved with a hedgehog. In commercials, the two dance and roll around on a countertop to Paul Anka's "Put Your Head On My Shoulder." Why use sex to sell a sponge? "It's very French," laughs Spontex's marketing manager. Sold for $4 or so across France. --Ellise Pierce Bottled in St. Kitts, the honey-based (and nonalcoholic) Giant Malt is sold at island supermarkets for around a dollar. But what's with the buff bod on the label? "Giant Malt makes you strong," claims Mark Wilkin, Carib Brewery's managing director. --Amy Chen This makes twist-off caps look traditional: Iron Wine sells malbec cabernet and chenin blanc in aluminum cans. The 12-ounce cans ("When a bottle is too much but a glass is too little!" says ironwine.com) are available at upscale shops and bars in Argentina for $2 to $6. --Celeste Moure There's nothing minor about a candy bar that combines the rich cocoa goodness of Swiss chocolate with chopped, roasted hazelnuts. It comes in various shapes and sizes--including this 46-gram bar made solely for rest stops and kiosks ($1.20). Yes, in Switzerland, even the snacks sold at gas stations are fancy. --Mike Iveson In Greece, people tend to eat dinner at 10 p.m. or later, which explains the large number of light mezes (small plates) on most taverna menus. Thessaloníki-based Zanae has been canning traditional appetizers--such as grape leaves stuffed with rice, and giant butter beans or meatballs in tomato sauce--for nearly 70 years ($2). --Laurie Kuntz Guidebooks say that in Portugal, food without wine is a snack, not a meal. But carrying a bottle for lunch isn't always practical. The solution: a single-serving box of white or red wine from the Estremadura region in western Portugal, available for 80 cents each. --Tom Berger When the competition sports names like Rockstar and Monster, why link your energy drink with unwanted e-mail and a potted-meat product? Because that's living on the edge. Spam Energy Drink, $1, throughout Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands. --Mike Iveson Caviar for breakfast? It sounds like something out of a Jackie Collins novel, but there it was at the hotel buffet in Stockholm: creamed cod roe cut with potato flakes and tomato paste. Toothpaste-size tubes are sold at supermarkets for $1.40. Evidently, it's a popular after-school snack (on bread) in Sweden. Somehow we don't think Skippy has much to worry about. --Erik Torkells In Myanmar, née Burma, people love tea so much they eat it--pickled, no less. Ah Yee Taung (which means "big aunt basket") steams and ferments green tea leaves, then pairs them with roasted sesame seeds and fried beans. "Pungent" is the kindest way to describe the concoction, which can be bought throughout the country ($5). --Laura MacNeil It's only a .78-ounce bag of crispy puffed kernels, but if the peppy hiker on the package is any indication, Quinua Pop is all the fuel you'll need to trek across the Andes. Called the mother grain by the Inca, quinoa is heavy on protein, iron and vitamin B. Four-packs of the breakfast cereal are sold for 75 cents at Metro and other grocery stores in Peru. --Laura MacNeil Despite the packaging, Leverpostei is actually not a puree of a small blond boy. Rather, it's a Norwegian pork liver pate best paired with salty crackers. It's sold in seven-ounce tins--some are decorated with girls, but contain the same tasty contents--for $1.70. --Litty Mathew With these animal crackers, there's no question who sits atop the food chain: kids. Wildlife Cookie Company makes foxes, bears, and mountain lions (available at Yosemite and other national parks, $1.75), while Oahu-based Diamond Bakery opts for bite-sized Hawaiian sea creatures such as humpback whales, octopi, and dolphins ($1). --Brad Tuttle Made with Scotch bonnet peppers, a Caribbean favorite, Hell Sauce, is named for the Cayman town of Hell. (According to the label, nearby rocks resemble "the smouldering remains of a Hell Fire.") The sauce is a kick, even if Hell is a tourist trap, just as one always suspected. It costs $4 for a five-ounce bottle at Foster's Food Fair on Grand Cayman Island. New Zealand has four million residents, and about as many dairy cows. So it's small wonder that milk shows up everywhere, including the candy aisle. Heards Milk Chews ($2 for a seven-ounce bag at Foodtowns across the country) taste like milkshake-flavored Tootsie Rolls. Sweet. --Paul Brady Slow-cooked, marinated quail eggs are considered fertility boosters in Taiwan, where they're sold as pang ti neng (in Taiwanese) or xiang tie dan (in Mandarin). Both translate as fragrant iron eggs--not that you can smell a thing through the serious vacuum packing. (Come to think of it, that's just fine.) They cost $6.50 at supermarkets and convenience stores. --Christine Y. Chen Kranky and Crunky aren't just descriptions of hip-hop star Lil Jon after a long night. In Mexico, Kranky is a brand of chocolate-covered cornflakes; and in Japan, Crunky is a Nestle Crunch-like bar. Each brings attitude adjustment for under $1. A mix of Indian spices and German sausage, Curry-Wurst is popular with munich clubgoers looking to line--and test?--their stomachs. A sliced pork sausage is doused in tomato sauce; toothpicks and a curry packet are tucked underneath. Plke holes in the lid, microwave, and sprinkle on the spice. It's sold refrigerated in grocery stores, including the MiniMal chain ($1.80).--Marilyn Holstein With Toreras (female bullfighters), cocktail onion company Kimbo combines two Spanish signatures--bullfighting and tapas--in one neat tin. On the inside, toothpicks skewer stacks of olives, pearl onions, and hot peppers. On the outside, saucy chicas in matador pants play coyly with spears. Olé! Available across Spain at El Corte Inglés Carrefour, and Eroski supermarkets. 1.50 (about $2). --Lisa Abend

ADVERTISEMENT