prelude to a kiss

IMG_2239Across the road from The French Laundry is what appears at first glance to be a public park. On closer inspection, however, it reveals itself as the restaurant’s extensive chef’s garden. Interestingly, it’s neither gated nor guarded, giving anyone and everyone free rein to roam the planted beds and see what a handful of lucky diners might be feasting on that evening. Tonight, one of those lucky diners is me – turning my early evening stumble into a serendipitous aperitif.


valley of the vineyards



in the garden with cindy

IMG_2224Chef Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the original Napa Valley trailblazers. On the eve of her pioneering eatery Mustard’s Grill celebrating it’s 30th anniversary of dishing up heaping plates of honest American fare with worldly sophistication, she took time out to take me through her gardens and sound off on what it’s like for a one-time hippie to suddenly find herself part of the establishment, the importance of educating diners about what’s on their plates, and why she can’t stand reality shows like Top Chef. Alas, you’ll have to wait until the story is published later this year; I can’t give away everything here for free.


walks along the seine

paris plageThe banks of the River Seine in Paris might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but that historical marker hasn’t stopped the city from indulging in a little creative adaptation. This summer the city’s ongoing initiative to reclaim the river comes into its own. Les Berges, literally The Banks, is part of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s greater plan to reduce car traffic and increase “soft” methods of transportation. (Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Sadik-Kahn, take note.) Transit options like the Velib bicycle share program and the Autolib electric car sharing form one pillar of the plan. Pedestrianization of the banks of the Seine and of Place de la République are another. Cultural programming and spot infrastructure aim to bring people back to the river, while activating sites with new functions: the Georges Pompidou highway, on the right bank, has been transformed into an urban boulevard in an attempt to share the public space between motorists and pedestrians; the Left bank quays, between the Royal Bridge and the Alma Bridge, have been closed to traffic and turned into an 11-acre promenade. What makes the plan unique, aside from the macro strategy involved, is a requirement for flexibility: temporary structures must be capable of being moved, extended if popular, taken down quickly if ineffective. This applies even to large-scale proposals like The Emmarchement, a 600-seat amphitheater which links the Musee D’Orsay to the river and serves as the starting point for an immersive riverside walk. (Flexibility is also useful for environmental reasons. Paris is overdue for its “100-year flood,” which last crippled Paris in 1910.) Some portions of Les Berges will become part of the programming for this year’s Paris Plage, the popular annual beach that takes over the banks of the Seine between July and August. (Originally criticized as an excess of public expenditure, the Plage has become a beloved tradition, expanding to three different areas along the river.) Another part of Les Berges includes a series of floating barges called Archipel, which opened next to the Sewer Museum in late June. The five barges are planned in accordance with the biodiversity map of Paris. The semi-aquatic vegetation between the barges cleans the banks of the Seine while the landscaping offers different opportunities for the public to experience the space. Each island barge – archipelago, get it? – has a different theme with plants native to Paris. According to project’s website: For the lazy, the chairs of the island mists are waiting for you; for the wild, find the open aviary bird island; for the romantic, walk in the tall grass prairie of the island; for those seeking the country, sit in the shade of an apple orchard on the island. And for anyone interested in the future of what an urban experience could entail, walk along the banks of La Seine.


there’s a bright golden haze on the (sheep) meadow



time for tea (towels, that is)

thornback & peel

If you’ve seen my kitchen, you know there are only two things I collect with anything approaching regularity: silver teaspoons (mostly stolen from hotels) and tea towels (the kitschier the better). Nothing beats a commemorative tea towel with the faces of Wills and Kate smiling up at you or a view of the Horse Guards on parade outside Whitehall. The English really know how to do a proper tea towel. (The French on the other hand – though their linens tend to be superior - are infinitely more subdued, favoring botanical images and oenophilia over the pageantry of empire.) Tea towels are an entirely maligned yet practical item of kitchenalia, too: more than just a dishrag, they can be used for wrapping sandwiches and bottles of wine for a picnic, for coddling a pot of tea, and if you’re of the mind that an apron should be worn while cooking, a clever, colorful tea towel makes a smart and handy addition to your ensemble. Suffice it to say that when I recently discovered the fabrics at London’s Thornback & Peel, I went as mad for them as a hatter late for a tea party. Victorian-inspired images, hand-screened on linen, they are an eccentric celebration of quirky British humor and design. Who could resist a noble stag gazing heavenwards, a stalk of objectively humble Brussels sprouts, or a wood engraved rabbit having a jolly traipse through the cabbages? Not me.

thornback & peel detail


four freedoms

Four Freedoms Memorial2

Louis I. Kahn is widely considered one of the masters of 20th century architecture. Infusing the International-style with a poetic humanism his monumental, often monolithic, works respond to a human scale without hiding their weight, their materials, or even the manner in which they are assembled. They are not so much the work of a builder, as a philosopher. When Kahn was found dead of a heart attack inside the men’s restroom at New York’s Penn Station in 1974, his briefcase contained the completed renderings for a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Four Freedoms Park, so named for the wartime speech in which the President looked forward to a world founded on four human freedoms – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – would remain, like many of Kahn’s controversial proposals, unbuilt. Until now, that is. 38 years after plans for the park were first announced, the daunting project has been realized at the tip of Roosevelt Island, honoring the man who guided the nation through the Depression, the New Deal and a world war. It can’t help but be a de facto memorial to its author, too: an open room and garden at the bottom of the island, framing the United Nations and the Manhattan skyline. Allées of linden trees on either side define the green space and highlight the triangular shape of the site, emphasizing the feeling of a ships prow and forcing a perspective that draws focus to a colossal head of FDR at the threshold of the water. It’s magisterial in its simplicity, like a roofless version of a Greek temple. Unfortunately nobody has seemed to give any thought as to what visitors might actually do at the memorial. After a pleasant promenade there is little incentive to linger. The site abuts the ruins of New York City’s abandoned smallpox hospital; above that there is a nursing facility fallen into disrepair. If the powers behind the memorial don’t discover a way to synthesize the project with the surrounding island it might very well suffer the epithet Five Freedoms, due to a freedom from visitors.

Four Freedoms Memorial

Linden tree allee


spa break: la costa

la costa spa

In what has become a cherished January tradition, I’m ducking into the spa at La Costa for a day of steam, massage, lunch, and sunning myself under the orange trees. Wake me when the cold snap in the northeast is done and dusted, please. Then again, don’t bother.

spa pool


the nature of art

Little did I know until today that the Canadian city of Calgary is actually named for a small village on the western coast of Mull. Originally called Fort Brisebois, the future home of the famous Stampede was later christened Fort Calgary in 1876 by Colonel James MacCleod, a local boy from nearby Dornoch who later emigrated and made good, rising to become Commissioner of the Royal Mounted Police. Aided by a transcontinental railroad and the discovery of oil, the Canadian city quickly grew beyond its namesake in terms of global importance, yet the little Scottish town nevertheless kept a few charms in store that continue to remain real gems. One of those is Calgary Art in Nature, a by-donation sculpture park within a coastal woodland. Set up to provoke an awareness of art in nature, the park has evolved into a product of both nature and man’s efforts, a working environment, a cultural landscape chockablock with site specific stimulation. And it makes for a really pleasant stroll, too – especially if you continue walking onwards to the pristine white sand beach of Calgary’s sheltered bay.


to the lighthouse

A pleasant half hour hike out of the port side of Tobermory harbor led me through woods worthy of the Cottingley fairies before emerging onto the headland and a lighthouse built by the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson who, apparently, built a lot of the lighthouses still operating across the Scottish highlands. I feel like I need to make a point of saying that these photos are unadulterated. At 10 o’clock in the evening the sky still glowed with a diffuse, rosy light. I’d always supposed the UK as being on a parallel plane with New York, yet once I’d traced the lines of longitude I discovered that, in fact, I am currently in line with exact center of Canada’s Hudson Bay. That would explain why it has yet to get truly dark here: by the time the backlight dissolves over one horizon, the sun is rising on the opposite one. That’s going to make for some wonderful post-prandial strolls.


dangerous advice



The Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden is experiencing a riot of dazzling spring color as part of the 10th annual Orchid Show, running now through April 22nd. French botanist and vertical landscape artist Patrick Blanc has showcased the seductive plant – along with ferns, epiphytes, and other exotic plants – in gravity-defying displays that fuse horticulture with architecture. Plus there’s the olfactory assault of room after room of fantastically fragrant flowers, too. Orchids, it should be said, are found all over the world. They’ve adapted to survive in a variety of climates and growing conditions. Yet there’s something wonderfully anachronistic that comes from realizing you’re in the  middle of the Bronx surrounded by thousands upon thousands of exotic blooms.



feeding my soul

“If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone are left.
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”
- Saadi (13th century Persian poet)

smells like me

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve breathed in that fragrant mix of flowers, fruit and tropical Caribbean wood and wished I could somehow capture it and take it home. Just a little something to get me through the dog days of winter. So imagine my excitement at discovering how the Spa at Four Seasons Resorts Nevis  – intoxicating in its own sublime way – has partnered with noted organic alchemist, Ajne, to take those smells a flacon further and create 100% natural, one-of-a-kind perfumes. Typically a customized formula takes weeks or even months to complete – and often costs a small fortune, too. Yet Ajne’s ingenious blending process takes a cool 90-minutes while lounging by the Spa pool or taking in the Nevis sunset, cocktail in hand. To create my bespoke formula a Melangeur, or mixer, administers a quirky computerized fragrance analysis based on Sanskrit chakras, which divide the body into energy centers. Test questions determine fragrance preferences and help find areas of the body and psyche in need of balancing. The Melangeur works like a private scent sherpa, guiding me over the fragrant terrain and assisting me in discovering ingredients ideal to my body chemistry. Working one-on-one she mixes combinations of rare and precious plant oils – some worth their weight in gold. Not only do I walk away with a greater understanding of myself, but the real results are delivered to my room an hour later: a hand-blended smell that is individual and entirely me. And totally Nevis, too.


lounging at la costa

For all the time I’ve spent taking up space in spas around the world, I must admit I’ve never quite understood the practice of spending a full day at the spa. Until La Costa, that is. The Spanish mission-style resort just north of San Diego in Carlsbad, California was once the first of its kind: a lifestyle resort, where the concept of well-being was at the heart of the guest experience. Ok people, it was a fat farm. But what really distinguished the village-like ambience at La Costa – aside from the celebrities who trekked down the coast from Hollywood – was the innovative spa. A resort within a resort, the spa was more in keeping with the design of a European spa retreat, complete unto itself. When it opened in the mid-1960’s La Costa Spa was the largest in the world, housed on its own private 22-acre spread which accommodated an unbelievable 150 guests at a time. That heyday has since evaporated and now – following a $50 million dollar renovation – the resort caters more to families than fatties, yet there’s still more than a quantum of solace to be found in the thoroughly new spa. The 28,000 square feet of indoor treatment space is complemented by a 15,000-square-foot outdoor courtyard, where a heated lounge pool, Roman waterfall massage pool and reflexology path round out the offerings. Notoriously distracted and prone to boredom, I managed to while away an entire workday without even blinking. Stumbling in bleary-eyed and just a little bit hung over I first took the water cure – an invigorating circuit of steam, cold plunge, and jacuzzi – before grabbing my book and heading to pool for some sun. And a nap. By the time I woke up it was time for lunch. While waiting for mango quinoa cups with grilled chicken and a glass of organic Sauvignon Blanc in the adjoining Spa Cafe, I decided to investigate the curious stone path winding through the fragrant herb garden. A reflexology expert on property consulted on the choice and placement of coastal stones from the nearby Pacific beach interspersed with other local stones of different shapes and sizes. Walking the path – one of only a few in the US, by the way - provides a deep-working stimulation of pressure points in the feet, encouraging vital energy and blood flow throughout the body. Curiosity satisfied, hunger sated – yes, I had dessert, too – the moment had come for daydreams and digesting in the warmth of the California sun. A scant five hours after my arrival came the purported reason for my visit: the Tea-Tox Trio, a mix of organic rosemary, cypress, lime and geranium oils designed to energize the lymphatic system and encourage metabolism. To get your blood going it starts with a bracing sugar scrub, followed by a clay body wrap to promote circulation. Next you sit in a hydro-massage tub for a green tea soak that stimulates cellular drainage. Invigorated, the treatment ends with an application of lotion that will leave you refreshed and hydrated. Or in my case, wondering where the day went – and ready for dinner.


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