Ch”eco” Friendly Shops Around the World

You don’t have to slum it in a hemp sack and sandals made out of organic, fair trade, freely-shed eucalyptus bark to cosy up to Mother Nature’s good side.  Check out these six shops around the world, where you’ll find fashions and nifty gifts that are as chic as they are eco-friendly.

NEW YORK, USA

Recycling old fabric into new fashions isn’t limited to tying on a tattered bed sheet and calling it a toga. At Geminola in New York’s trendy Greenwich Village, London transplant Lorraine Kirke is taking salvaged style to a whole new level.

Photo courtesy Geminola

Photo courtesy Geminola

Remember the scene from Gone With The Wind where Scarlett O’Hara, in the throws of poverty but eager to make a good impression, eyes her green velvet drapes and envisions a gorgeous new gown? Well, Geminola is a bit like that, but with a fizzy dose of Sarah Jessica Parker’s alter ego Carrie Bradshaw thrown in.Read more: Ch”eco” Friendly Shops Around the World

Heroes at Highclere: August 3 only!

Listen up, Downton Abbey fans. If you thought you had missed your opportunity to visit Highclere Castle this summer, now hear this. Tickets have gone on sale for a one-day only event on August 3, 2014.

Season 4 cast. (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

(C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

As most folks who follow the trials and tribulations of England’s most famous Edwardian family know, the 19th century stone mansion doubles as the Grantham’s ancestral home. Many of the interior and exterior scenes of the hit period drama are shot right here, 70 miles west of London.

Regular tour tickets sold out months ago, but to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Highclere is opening the grounds (although not the castle itself, unfortunately) for a special fundraising extravaganza.

In the spirit of an old-fashioned fete, “Heroes at Highclere” will feature vintage planes performing aerial acrobatics, a “living history” village with fairground rides and vintage shops, hot air balloon rides, a “give it a go” assault course and climbing walls, and live bands like the Spitfire Sisters singing classic swing tunes. Proceeds will benefit a variety of armed forces charities and humanitarian organisations.Read more: Heroes at Highclere: August 3 only!

Maui: Off The “Beach”en Path

Maui is a renowned beach-lovers’ paradise. With more than 30 miles of sandy oases, it’s the perfect isle to kick back and soak up some rays. But…what do you do if you don’t want to baste yourself on the shore?orange sail on beach_Maui0306A 100

That is exactly what my husband and I set out to discover during a visit to Hawaii’s most popular escape. You see, the boy simply can’t abide sunbathing.

Oh, you might be able to teach a penguin to tap dance while juggling flaming batons. You could, given enough time and a government grant, potentially train a chimpanzee to recite all 21 stanzas of Don McLean’s “American Pie” by blinking them in Morse code. But the odds of convincing my better half to spend a week lying on the beach are about as likely as winning the lottery or being flattened by a meteor in your backyard. You would sooner spot Dracula surfing in a Speedo.

Fortunately, much of Maui’s beauty lies inland—and up. The island was formed by eruptions issuing from two volcanoes—West Maui Mountain, located (you guessed it) on the west side, and Haleakala, to the east.

West Maui Mountain in the distance

West Maui Mountain in the distance

Read more: Maui: Off The “Beach”en Path

Fortnum & Mason Meets Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes

If you’ve ever considered swallowing the worm in the bottom of a tequila bottle or smacked your lips while watching “Fear Factor” contestants gobbling African cave-dwelling spiders alive, then Fortnum & Mason has a special section just for you.Scorpion vodka2_4059 (1)

This iconic British department store, founded in 1707, is renowned for its elegant food halls. It was the birthplace of the legendary Scotch egg (a hard-boiled egg swathed in sausage and bread crumbs), and during the Crimean War, Queen Victoria supplied Florence Nightingale’s hospitals with the store’s beef tea–no doubt inspiring many a wounded hero to get back on his feet, if only to escape another cuppa bovine brew. It also claims the distinction of being the first store in Britain to stock tins of baked beans, which have since become the culinary wind beneath the wings of the empire, as it were.

These days, Fortnum & Mason is perhaps best known for its gorgeous food hampers, which range from £27.50 for two quarter-bottles of champagne to £1,000 for the colossal St. James Hamper, containing a right royal spread including caviar, foie gras, and a magnum of vintage champagne.

However, in one quiet back corner, next to rows of colourfully-packaged kitchen cupboard staples like edible rose petals and dill pollen, you’ll find Fortnum & Mason’s own little shop of horrors.shelves_4069

It’s like Harry Potter’s Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes come to life. But instead of the Weasley twins’ Puking Pastilles and Nosebleed Nougat, displays include dubious delicacies like Edible Toffee Scorpion Candy and Thai Curry Crickets.

Here’s a look at some of the best…er, at least the most unusual foodie fare Fortnum & Mason has on offer.Read more: Fortnum & Mason Meets Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes

Saying good-bye to the Butterfly Queen

Normally, I write about travel–worldly adventures and destinations. But today, I feel compelled to write about a different sort of journey, because I want, I need, to honor my friend Michelle Taylor Shutzer. She passed away in San Francisco yesterday, April 9, 2014, after battling Stage 4 cancer for nearly four years.

Michelle in the middle, with my friend Kelley and myself.

Michelle in the middle, with my friend Kelley and myself.

Yes. Stage 4. That’s the “last” stage of cancer, meaning it has spread to more than one organ. That was the state of things when she was diagnosed…yet she lived with it for nearly four more years.

When I say lived, I mean lived, and through her incredible bravery, determination and humor, she showed her friends how to live by example.

I’d known Michelle since high school. She was the girl with the big red hair, the big bold laugh, at the center of our big group of friends. She was larger than life, even then.

Michelle (right) with our friend Katie in high school

Michelle (right) with our friend Katie in high school

But I don’t think I really got to know her until her diagnoses. That’s when she emerged as the Butterfly Queen, head of a devoted butterfly nation, whom she called upon to lift her up.Read more: Saying good-bye to the Butterfly Queen

Welcome to Bruges, Where Beer & Chocolate Are Good For You

If you’ve never fallen into a diabetic coma by breakfast and an alcoholic stupor by noon, then you’ve apparently never been to Bruges.cafes_4839

The first meal of the day typically consists of a giant waffle served with a pitcher of chocolate sauce and gobs of whipped cream—and that’s just a warm-up.

Breakfast of champions.

Breakfast of champions.

Chocolate shops and beer halls vie for space along virtually every cobblestone block and market square in this impeccably preserved medieval Belgian town, tantalizing tourists with scented tendrils of cocoa and hops that waft into the streets, playing tug of war with your taste buds.

Resistance is futile, but here’s the good news. You needn’t bother trying.

According to the locals, chocolate and beer can actually be good for you…when consumed in moderation, of course.Read more: Welcome to Bruges, Where Beer & Chocolate Are Good For You

Taking Big Risks On The Big Island Of Hawaii

Killer waves may be the least of your worries.

Killer waves may be the least of your worries.

“Do you get the feeling,” my husband hisses in my ear, “that maybe we shouldn’t BE here?”

We are standing in the middle of Kilauea Iki Crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii. Steam vents issue super-heated mist that rises, wraithlike, from the barren, lunar-like surface.

Kilauea Iki Crater

Here and there, giant slabs of crust are piled upon one another like asphalt after an earthquake, and deep fissures create jagged scars across the face of the crater.

I cautiously sidle up to the rim of one nasty gash and peer down, half expecting to see a river of red-hot lava, but it’s dark and seemingly bottomless. There are no barriers, no ropes, nothing to keep me from falling in but my own common sense.

Of course, if I had common sense, would I be hiking across a volcanic crater? I’m forced to concede that my husband may have a point.

That’s the Big Island for you. Bewitched by its wild beauty, you find yourself pushing your limits, drawn—quite literally—to life on the edge.Read more: Taking Big Risks On The Big Island Of Hawaii

Safari, Scottish-style, on the Isle of Arran

Now I know what it feels like to be a penguin swaddled in a girdle…not that I had given it much thought before. But as I waddle into the cool shallows of Lamlash Bay on Scotland’s Isle of Arran, lumpily sheathed in neoprene and dragging my bright red kayak behind me, I feel as awkward as that klutzy, egg-shaped comic. I’m hoping that when I finally reach deeper waters and launch myself into my craft, I, like the stubby-legged polar bird, will take on some measure of aquatic grace—but in my heart, I know better.

Lamlash Bay, courtesy Calum McNicol, Arran Adventure Company

Lamlash Bay, courtesy Calum McNicol, Arran Adventure Company

Just as I feel a chilly trickle filling my rubber booties, my jovial guide, Bruce Jolliffe with the Arran Adventure Company, suggests we board our crimson kayaks, and soon we’re gliding across the gunmetal gray bay. Well, my companions may be “gliding,” but my idea of an upper-body workout is brushing my teeth (flossing, too, when I’m feeling particularly hale), and I soon start to feel the burn.Read more: Safari, Scottish-style, on the Isle of Arran

Swimming with Sharks: Fear & Fashion in French Polynesia

Bora Bora view5_3426R“Friday, 9 AM. Depart for shark and ray feeding excursion (with snorkeling)… Wear appropriate swim attire.”

This hair-raising notice was printed discreetly atop the third page of my Tahitian tour itinerary. No exclamation point. No bold type. No suggestion that I complete my last will and testament before embarking on such an adventure. Just a note about donning suitable apparel.

But what, I asked myself, is “appropriate attire” for feeding a shark? A chain mail bikini? A Kevlar wetsuit?

This subject has never, to my knowledge, been broached between the pages of Vogue.Read more: Swimming with Sharks: Fear & Fashion in French Polynesia

A Southern Belle in Britain

Seven years ago, I kissed my grits good-bye. My husband had received a job offer in Great Britain, and after giving this international upheaval careful consideration (possibly the longest 10 seconds of my life), we made a tearful decision to leave our home in the warm and sunny South. Cheerio, Atlanta. ‘Ello, London town!

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Do you speak English?

Okay, so nobody in London actually says “Cheerio,” unless, perhaps, they’re asking for the breakfast cereal. And that’s just one of the linguistic surprises we’ve encountered.

Vocabulary quiz: Is this man wearing pants? (Yes, but NOT trousers). Is his outfit pants? (Debatable. I say it's fabulous).

Vocabulary quiz: Is this man wearing pants? (Yes, but NOT trousers). Is his outfit pants? (Debatable. I say it’s fabulous).

You might think we share the same tongue with our British brethren, but the first time you utter the words “fanny pack,” you will realize, to your shock and horror, that you are indeed VERY much mistaken. (Suffice it to say, a purse worn around the waist is called a “bum bag,” and let’s just leave it at that).

Except you should also know that pants are called trousers, underwear are called pants, and if something is deemed unsatisfactory, then it’s also called “pants” (pronounced with a sneering curl of the lip).

Presumably, when the elastic finally goes on the “pants” you’ve owned since the last millennium, they are “pants pants!” Confused? Me too.Read more: A Southern Belle in Britain

Paul A Young’s chocolate tea promises to be a sweet success at Grosvenor House

"Everything on the menu, I absolutely adore," Paul A Young insists.

“Everything on the menu, I absolutely adore,” Young insists.

There are few things in this world which chocolate can not improve, and those which it can not are probably not worth eating. Pigs’ feet, for example, would not be any more edible dipped in chocolate. Ditto for chicken livers, ox tongue, and jellied moose nose. (Yes, apparently, that IS a “thing.”)

While cucumbers would never have made the list of my top five “Fear Factor” foods, I would have thought them equally impervious to the embellishments of any incarnation of the cocoa bean. But then again, I’m not visionary chocolatier Paul A Young, who has been lauded five years running by the Academy of Chocolate. (Sorry to disappoint, but no, you can’t earn a degree at the academy by eating bonbons. I checked).

Young’s chocolate and cucumber sandwiches were among a host of delicious revelations revealed today at a preview tasting of Young’s new “Chocolate Inspired Afternoon Tea,” which officially launches 14 April at Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott Hotel on London’s Park Lane.

Chocolate and Cucumber Sandwich. The proof is in the pudding.

Chocolate and Cucumber Sandwich. The proof is in the pudding.

Read more: Paul A Young’s chocolate tea promises to be a sweet success at Grosvenor House

Dublin: To the Bars…and Beyond

In the early noughties, Dublin’s aptly named Temple Bar district was the stuff of legend. It was a Mecca for bachelor and bachelorette parties, and there were tales of cobblestone streets that ran with a river of Guinness and girls who would flash more than a smile. It was like Mardi Gras every weekend.

Temple Bar

Temple Bar

But given the state of the economy, how is Dublin faring today? Is Temple Bar still a hotbed of hormones, and what, in their soberer moments, is there for tourists to do elsewhere around the city?Read more: Dublin: To the Bars…and Beyond

It’s all about ME…ME London hotel, that is

If 007 were looking for a sultry lair where he could hole up with one of his sexy Bond babes, he could hardly hope for a more sensuous escape than ME London. Domino would certainly appreciate the black-and-white colour scheme of the 157-room hotel, tucked into the elbow-shaped intersection where Aldwych meets the Strand.

All photos courtesy ME London

All photos courtesy ME London

From the moment you enter the Marconi Lounge lobby, with it’s bed-sized curvilinear sofas, hula-hoop-style lighting fixtures and forest of floor-to-ceiling chrome poles, you feel as though you’re stepping onto one of the super-spy’s futuristic movie sets.

Read more: It’s all about ME…ME London hotel, that is

Drink a toast to Scotch Whisky Month

7Glenlivet whisky tasting_SCT0508 - 815As part of their 2014 “Homecoming” celebrations, Visit Scotland has dubbed May 2014 “Whisky Month.”

Whisky draws 1.3 million visitors and brings in £26 million to Scotland every year. “But above all,” says Fergus Ewing, Scotland’s Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism, “it allows people to see the world as a slightly kinder place, for at least an hour or two.”

Check out www.homecomingscotland.com/whiskymonth for details–and don’t forget to raise a wee dram “World Whisky Day,” May 17.

But why wait to get into the, er, spirit? Click http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=1825 to read about the Scotch Whisky Trail—and find out why every day is whisky day for me.

Following the Scotch Whisky Trail: A Spirited Tour of Scotland

Greek fire was one of the most powerful and mysterious weapons of Byzantium, almost mythical in its power to subdue and overpower enemies of the empire. The recipe for this legendary liquid flame—a highly combustible compound that was hurled through the air and could not be quenched with water—has been lost in the ensuing centuries.4Laphroig 27 year old_SCT0508 - 438

Modern historians believe it may have been a form of petroleum, but personally, my money’s on Scotch whisky.

Pour a finger of Scotch, swirl the tumbler, and watch as light plays across the amber fluid like dancing flames encased in glass.

Inhale the heady fumes, which may fill your nostrils with the smoky perfume of peat.

Finally, take a sip. Careful now, because this is where whisky really earns its reputation, searing your throat and warming your belly, tracing a course through your body so intense that you would swear it left a mark on your flesh.Read more: Following the Scotch Whisky Trail: A Spirited Tour of Scotland

Capri: Italy’s “StairMaster Isle”

I’m soaking up the warm Italian sunshine on a terrace at Villa Jovis, a Roman villa built for the Emperor Tiberius more than two thousand years ago on the isle of Capri. A lone cloud mars an otherwise faultless blue sky, hovering theatrically like a whiff of smoke above Mount Vesuvius, which towers over the mainland Amalfi Coast.

View of Vesuvius from Villa Jovis

View of Vesuvius from Villa Jovis

“That was put there by the tourism office,” quips a French tourist, who fell into step alongside my husband Scott and I on our arduous trek to the ruins. Considering all the huffing and puffing we had to do to reach this impressive maze of crumbling walls and archways, I wonder if there’s not a nimbus of steaming perspiration rising from my sizzling flesh, as well.Read more: Capri: Italy’s “StairMaster Isle”

Touring the Real World of Downton Abbey

With the fourth season of Downton Abbey having just wrapped up in the US, avid viewers may be feeling bereft. But take heart. While you’re whiling away the months until your favorite footmen and high-spirited heiresses return to the airwaves, head to Merry Ol’ England to visit the actual Downton Abbey film locations.

HIghclere Castle, a.k.a. Downton Abbey

HIghclere Castle, a.k.a. Downton Abbey

The ITV/PBS MASTERPIECE hit series is shot largely at Highclere Castle, the ancestral seat of the Carnarvon family, 70 miles west of London. This year’s summer visitors’ dates are already sold out, with the exception of a special fundraising event on the grounds on August 3. But fevered fans can still visit other key locations on a variety of tours.Read more: Touring the Real World of Downton Abbey

Soon, We’ll All Be Drinking Sea & T

When my diminutive bottle of Dà Mhìle seaweed gin arrived this week in the post, I wasn’t sure what to expect of it. I know that it’s organic, that it’s made from seaweed gathered on the beach at New Quay in Ceredigion, Wales, and that this boutique brand officially launches on 1st March. Seaweed Gin_3647

Yes, yes, yes…but would I actually like it?

So for two days, it has sat on my kitchen shelves amongst the half-filled (okay, mostly empty) bottles of whisky, cachaca, elderflower liqueur, absinth, rum, Campari, more gin, and Harvey’s Bristol Cream of questionable origin. (For the life of me, I don’t remember where the sherry came from, but there it sits, gathering dust and daring me to pour it down the kitchen sink).

But now it’s Friday, and I’m feeling that familiar weekend recklessness coming on.

Time to pop the cork—or rather, unscrew the little gold cap—on my mysterious sample of gin. Dà Mhìle has been drafted for active duty.Read more: Soon, We’ll All Be Drinking Sea & T

Noshing in London’s Notting Hill: A mix of native tongues yields exotic ethnic fare

If you think that “British cuisine” is an oxymoron, think again. There may have been a time when the Brits’ four basic food groups were “fish, chips, boiled and fried,” but an influx of immigrants has introduced English taste buds to a rich variety of food from around the world.

A trio of tykes enjoy street food along Notting Hill's Portobello Road.

A trio of tykes enjoy street food along Notting Hill’s Portobello Road.

Ethnic minorities comprise approximately 30 percent of London’s population, and Notting Hill is one of the metropolis’ most popular melting pots. In this funky multicultural community, you can practically circumnavigate the globe in terms of cuisine without walking more than 20 minutes in any direction.Read more: Noshing in London’s Notting Hill: A mix of native tongues yields exotic ethnic fare

For Cheap, Cheeky Bunks, Check Out Buzzing Generator London

guy with guitar_2983Down a narrow alleyway about a ten minute walk from London’s Kings Cross station, it’s all kicking off inside a former police station. A young man strums a guitar just inside the entrance, while another shaggy-haired fellow tickles the ivories of a white piano emblazoned with a rainbow-hued outline of the city’s iconic skyline. Across the room, two 20-something girls giggle inside a photo booth, and a DJ will be spinning tunes later inside a red Routemaster bus that seems to have burst through the corner of the bar.

bus_2964

Nobody spins their wheels while the DJ is spinning tunes from his booth inside Generator London’s Routemaster bar bus.

Welcome to Generator London, one of the UK capital’s hottest hipster hangouts. But it’s not a club. It’s a new generation of hostel.Read more: For Cheap, Cheeky Bunks, Check Out Buzzing Generator London

Unexpected Pairings for the Palate: G&C, anyone?

Okay, children of the 80s. Does anyone out there remember those old Reeses Peanut Butter cup commercials featuring improbable mishaps between slippery chocolate bars and peanut butter jars?

“Hey, you got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” the offended parties exclaim after colliding on a random street corner, tumbling down a flight of stairs, or bumping into a robot on a space ship’s elevator. (Indeed, it beggars belief, but I’ve got YouTube to back me up here).

The only thing more unlikely than any of these pratfalls actually occurring—while one party is nose deep in a tub of peanut butter, no less—is that anyone could ever have doubted that the culinary union of these two delicacies would result in gastronomic bliss.

Dodd's Gin & Rococos' white cardamom chocolate

Dodd’s Gin & Rococos’ white cardamom chocolate

The notion of mixing chocolate with gin, however, requires considerably more imagination. Yet a G&C (gin and chocolate, that is) may be equally destined to become a classic, as I recently discovered.Read more: Unexpected Pairings for the Palate: G&C, anyone?

I SPY: Espionage exhibit reveals the hidden lives of secret agents

Want to feel like you’re part of James Bond’s posse–without the risk of being fed to sharks, cremated alive, or sliced in half by lasers?

“SPY: The Secret World of Espionage,” draws you into the realm of 007′s real-life contemporaries, getting you as close to this dangerous occupation as possible…without signing an insurance waiver, at least. 

The traveling attraction, which features more than 200 historical spy gadgets utilized by the CIA, FBI and KGB, opened at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle on March 29.

"SPY" facial disguises on display.

“SPY” facial disguises on display.

I had a chance to peek behind the veil of this shady profession when “SPY” premiered in Manhattan. Here’s what I uncovered. 

Read more: I SPY: Espionage exhibit reveals the hidden lives of secret agents

Need a bigger boat? P&O’s Got You Covered with Cool Britannia.

Artist's rendition of the Britannia's atrium, courtesy P&O Cruises.

Artist’s rendition of the Britannia’s atrium, courtesy P&O Cruises.

Given the United Kingdom’s biblical rainfall recently, this week’s preview of P&O Cruises’ extravagant new “ark” couldn’t be more timely. Of course, Noah never dreamed of the luxury awaiting passengers aboard Britannia, the largest ship built for the British cruise market. 

Although the ship’s maiden voyage isn’t scheduled until March 14, 2015, P&O offered a glimpse of on-board life at the Britannia launch party, held on Wednesday night at Foreman’s riverside restaurant in East London.

Limber-limbed performers set the stage for Britannia's launch gala this week.

Limber-limbed performers set the stage for Britannia’s launch gala this week.

With a length of 1,082 feet and a capacity of 3,647 passengers, Britannia’s got a big ol’ bow, oh yeah.

As you might imagine, squeezing the 141,000 ton boat into the River Lea would’ve been akin to stuffing an elephant into a kangaroo’s pouch—awkward, and incredibly painful for all involved. So guests were greeted instead by a dazzling recreation of the ship’s key public spaces.Read more: Need a bigger boat? P&O’s Got You Covered with Cool Britannia.

The Attendant, London: You’ve Really Got to Go

This is a story about public toilets. And food.

At The Attendant, regularity is rewarded.

At The Attendant, regularity is rewarded.

Right. Is anyone still with me here? Because I promise, it’s not as unsavory as it sounds. In fact, it’s both sweet and savory–and a downright terrific spot for a cup of coffee.

Attendant ws1_2878

I’m referring to “The Attendant.”

It may seem a bit potty, but this pocket-sized bistro, serving breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, is tucked into a renovated gents’ restroom under the streets of London’s borough of Westminster.Read more: The Attendant, London: You’ve Really Got to Go

Born To Be Wild, If Not Wise: Walking with Lions in Mauritius

lion walk

                                                                                     

 

 

When I began plotting my escape to Mauritius, all I wanted was sun, sand, and fruity drinks served beneath an umbrella on the beach. Potential maiming by lions wasn’t on the itinerary. 

But here I am on an open-air bus, bumping along a dirt road on a steamy isle off the southeastern coast of Africa, quite possibly on the way to being mauled by predators.Read more: Born To Be Wild, If Not Wise: Walking with Lions in Mauritius

Lanes of London: Embracing Culinary Diversity

Lanes of London - Banquettes seatingHotel restaurants often fall into one of two categories: break-the-bank celebrity chef affairs, reserved for expense account dinners and special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, celebrating your new multi-million-pound winning lottery ticket), or dreary courts-of-last-resort, when the thought of wading out into the rain after a transatlantic flight is only slightly less appealing than facing whatever warmed-over goulash is on the (sticky, plasticized) menu.

Lanes of London ExteriorThe new Lanes of London, which opened last month in the 5-star London Marriott Hotel Park Lane, is neither of the above–and thank heavens for that. Not only are the prices reasonable, but the atmosphere of low-key sophistication is inviting enough to tempt clientele beyond the captive audience of the hotel, especially given its location across from Hyde Park, around the corner from Oxford Circus Tube station.Read more: Lanes of London: Embracing Culinary Diversity

Explore Malta on a Mediterranean Jeep Safari

Traditional Maltese boats bob in the harbor of Marsaxlokk.

Traditional Maltese boats bob in the harbor of Marsaxlokk.

“I’m not boasting, but I know practically everything about Malta,” says Charlie Micallef, gunning a seen-better-days jeep along the bumpy back roads of Malta. “You’re very fortunate.”

So I must remind myself, as Charlie, a ringer for Robert DeNiro, steers us down a spine-jarring Second World War-era runway—complete with the original asphalt, judging by the potholes.

World War II-era runway.

World War II-era runway.

“This tour is like a medical exam,” my guide says, his sunburned face etched with a wicked grin. “If you survive it, you know you’re in good health.” And like some medical exams, your backside might be a bit sore afterwards, I reflect with a wince.Read more: Explore Malta on a Mediterranean Jeep Safari

Cornwall: A Walk on the Wild Side of England

Bedruthan Steps

Bedruthan Steps

GOING COASTAL

A fierce wind is wailing in my ears, buffeting me back from Cornwall’s cliff tops and a deadly drop to the sea with all the force of a nightclub bouncer. Still I lurch stubbornly (stupidly) onward along the muddy path toward my goal, the slope-shouldered stone giants known as the Bedruthan Steps, hunkered menacingly on the beach below. 

England may be better known for the gently undulating hills of its more civilized interior, but here on the isle’s extreme western edge, nature is altogether more wild and unpredictable. With 300 miles of the South West Coast Path hugging Cornwall’s wave-lashed shore, it’s heaven for surfers and a haven for hikers.Read more: Cornwall: A Walk on the Wild Side of England

Top Destinations for 2014

From Burma’s Buddhist temples to the blazing beaches of Brazil, here are my top picks for this year’s hottest holidays.

Table Mountain provides an iconic backdrop for Cape Town, World Design Capital 2014. Credit Amy Laughinghouse.

Table Mountain provides an iconic backdrop for Cape Town, World Design Capital 2014. Credit Amy Laughinghouse.

Mankind seems to possess an innate desire “to explore strange new worlds.” Just ask Captain Kirk–or Lewis and Clark, for that matter. While there aren’t many places left where you can “boldly go where no one has gone before” (without the aid of a warp drive, at least), 2014 promises plenty of novel experiences to satiate your inner-adventurer.Read more: Top Destinations for 2014

Forget the North Pole. This holiday, we’re off to see the wizard. (Harry Potter, that is).

A wee wizard & his brother, a mini-Aragog, strike a pose in Diagon Alley.

A wee wizard & his brother, a mini-Aragog, strike a pose in Diagon Alley.

LEAVESDEN, ENGLAND: I’m whizzing over the Thames, the wind in my face, so close that I can dip my hands in the water. Then suddenly, not of my own volition, I’m soaring heavenwards, only to rocket back down to earth moments later, dodging cars and buses on London’s busy streets. Oh, and did I mention, I’m riding a broom?

Sasha Jourdan takes a spin on a broomstick.

Ride ‘em cowboy…er, wizard.

Boarding a bouncing broomstick in front of a special effects green screen is just one of the hands (or in this case, bottoms) on attractions at the “Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter” experience in Leavesden, 20 miles northwest of London.Read more: Forget the North Pole. This holiday, we’re off to see the wizard. (Harry Potter, that is).

Free-wheeling Amsterdam

crazy bike_5015 (1)I’ve walked with lions in Mauritius, paraglided over the Swiss Alps, and swum with sharks in Tahiti, but nothing could have prepared me for bicycling in Amsterdam.

You see what I mean?

You see what I mean?

For natives, who practically roll out of the womb on two wheels, it’s no problem. They view their bikes as an extension of their bodies, and they’re able to engage in any activity you can imagine without taking their feet off the pedals, from texting on their mobiles to cycling in high heels while tweezing their eyebrows and juggling chainsaws.

According to statistics, there are more than a million bicycles in the city—far more than the population of 700,000, suggesting that some residents can actually ride two bikes at one time.

For me, however, it’s a different story. Having rarely saddled up since my training wheels came off, I’m attempting to stay within a narrow bike lane while simultaneously avoiding oncoming cars, women ambling along with baby carriages, and little old ladies stepping blindly off the curb.

Pimp my ride.

Pimp my ride.

If I live through this, I reckon I’ll be ready for anything life might throw—or wheel—at me in the future. (If I have a future, that is).

While cycling in the Netherlands’ capital isn’t for everyone (and definitely not for me), there are plenty of less death-defying ways to experience Amsterdam.

Here are a few of my top picks.Read more: Free-wheeling Amsterdam

Glitzy Gstaad: Swish Swiss ski resort not just for celebrities.

The view atop Gstaad's Glacier 3000

The view atop Gstaad’s Glacier 3000

Gstaad: It’s hard to imagine Satan in bowling shoes. But whoever named the stony pinnacle atop Glacier 3000 the “Quille du Diable” (The Devil’s Tenpin) must have managed it. Maybe he was affected by the thin air here in the Swiss Alps, 3,000 meters high in the sky–or perhaps he had imbibed too much gluhwein.

Quille du Diable

Quille du Diable

Drinking in the views atop this icy moonscape, I find it puts me more in mind of heaven than hell. Fog fills the valleys below, while snow-capped mountains serrate the blue sky in every direction.

The openness of the landscape—from the glacial expanse where I stand now to the wide vales that stretch out like fingers at its base—set Gstaad and the surrounding Saanenland apart from other popular resorts in the Alps.Read more: Glitzy Gstaad: Swish Swiss ski resort not just for celebrities.

Serenity Now! Cruising Europe on a Luxury Liner

Crystal Serenity, viewed from a hillside in Lisbon.

Crystal Serenity, viewed from a hillside in Lisbon.

I’m sitting beside a pool in the Bay of Biscay, sipping a gin and tonic as a Thai band plays a vigorous rendition of Van Halen’s “Jump.” A life-sized Barbie in a black-fringed thong bikini has just lowered herself into the water, no doubt inducing heart palpitations and several cases of whiplash among the men relaxing on the Lido Deck loungers around me.

That might seem like sufficient excitement for one afternoon, but all eyes are directed upwards when a crimson-coloured helicopter appears overhead, dangling two black-clad men from cables. For a moment, I wonder whether our ship—Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity—is being commandeered by airborne pirates. But no, these two naval ninjas are deposited aboard the bridge to navigate our vessel up-river to Bordeaux.

You never know what you might see on the Crystal Serenity's Lido Deck--from Barbie in a fringed bikini to Lisbon's stunning skyline.

You never know what you might see on the Crystal Serenity’s Lido Deck–from Barbie in a fringed bikini to Lisbon’s stunning skyline.

If anyone feared that our days at sea might be, well, a bit too serene, we’ve just discovered that shipboard life is full of the unexpected. Perhaps they should consider rechristening the boat the Crystal Surprise.Read more: Serenity Now! Cruising Europe on a Luxury Liner

Head to Scary Ol’ England for a Ghoulishly Good Time

For thrills and chills on Halloween, pack up your pumpkin and your Ghostbusters’ proton pack and check out this spirited trio of historic escapes.

York has been dubbed "Europe's most haunted city."

York has been dubbed Europe’s most haunted city.

There is a death match brewing between the English cities of Chester, Durham and York, the likes of which the (nether)world has never seen before. While most places try to tempt tourists by touting themselves as “lively” destinations, these three cities take pride in vying for the title of the most (un)dead.

The Ghost Research Foundation International once named York “Europe’s most haunted city,” but HauntedChester.com insists that Chester “can rightly and justly claim to be the most haunted city in England,” thanks to a series of turbulent and tragic events. (While “Chester: Famine, plague, war—and more!” is hardly the sort of tagline you’ll find on promotional t-shirts and bumper stickers, it would seem to serve as a veritable primordial soup for spooks).

A cross in Durham silhouetted by the sunset.

A cross in Durham silhouetted by the sunset.

But if you think Chester and York are swamped with specters, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. According to ParanormalDatabase.com, Durham has been besieged by dozens of phantoms, including a Pekinese, flying pitchforks, an impregnating chair, and the, um, “limbless worm.” (Is there any other kind?) Aside from being “limbless,” this critter is described as “a long, hostile worm which inhabited an oak wood, attacking man and beast,” much like the killer rabbit from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

I only hope that my tour of Chester, Durham and York will finally allow the whole matter to, er, rest in peace.Read more: Head to Scary Ol’ England for a Ghoulishly Good Time

Good Gaudi! Barcelona, A Feast for the Senses

Tickets Tristan Lopez with Miniairbags and quail eggs_4346

Tristan Lopez, a chef at Tickets, serves up “mini-airbags” and quails’ eggs.

"Liquid olives" are served one at a time at Tickets.

“Liquid olives” are served one at a time at Tickets.

Barcelona – Gripping a pair of long, lethal-looking tweezers, chef Tristan Lopez is hunched over a plate of pale anchovies, painstakingly applying tiny silver-powder-coated potato paper “scales” to each slender sliver. Beside him, waiter Manel Vehi Mena dispenses “liquid olives”—just one at a time, presented on its own plate. He serves them with such reverence that I sense, even before tasting star chef Albert Adria’s invention, that they aren’t snacks to be absent-mindedly gobbled, but miraculously soft, melt-in-the-mouth bursts of flavour that deserve to be savoured.

Watching the action at prep stations around the restaurant is all part of the “show” at Tickets. One of Barcelona’s most revolutionary tapas bars, it’s the brainchild of Adria’s brother Ferran, head chef at Spain’s legendary El Bulli. With that three-Michelin-starred establishment having closed in 2011, tastemakers turned their attention to the brothers’ Barcelona venture, where reservations are among the hottest tickets in town.Read more: Good Gaudi! Barcelona, A Feast for the Senses

Playing Castaway on Peter Island

Peter Island, BVI–Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me. As Johnny Depp so convincingly depicted in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, there was an undeniable allure to the life of those seafaring swashbucklers in centuries past: the freedom, the adventure, the really cool clothes.

Drake Channel, British Virgin Islands.

Drake Channel, British Virgin Islands.

Sure, there was a downside. It was a cut-throat profession (har!), and there was always the chance you might be doomed to sail the ocean forever as one of the insatiable undead, like the crew of Jack Sparrow’s ship–or in a far more likely scenario, be abandoned on a lonely spit of land.

 

Pirates poetically dubbed the latter punishment “being made governor of your own island.” But, as I’ve discovered, that’s not such a terrible fate after all–if you happen to be marooned on Peter Island.Read more: Playing Castaway on Peter Island

Going “Solo” on a 007-style Adventure in the Swiss Alps

Boyd. Bill Boyd. Okay, so the name may not ring a bell—yet—but British author William Boyd is certainly stirring up a media storm with the recent publication of Solo, the 45th novel featuring the world’s sexiest superspy, James Bond. (Sorry, Jason Bourne).

Solo is set in 1969, the same year that “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” starring George Lazenby was released. Eager to undertake my own double-O exploits, I head to the jagged Swiss Alps to follow in the stealthy footsteps of Lazenby’s Bond.

Amy paragliding_76880007 (1)Interlaken, Switzerland–“Okay, get ready. Run!” Heart pounding, I heed the command, leaning forward as I break into a jog, feeling the hot breath of a stranger on my neck. Seconds later, as my orange-and-white paraglider catches the breeze, I’m like a cartoon character treading thin air.

The rolling foothills of the Alps quickly recede beneath me, and the palm-sweating terror I felt just moments ago is replaced with goggle-eyed awe. As the silent pilot strapped in behind me maneuvers us towards an updraft, following a pair of circling hawks, the only sound I hear is the wind rushing in my ears.

At 7,500 feet above the chilly blue-green waters of Lake Thun, the quaint Alpine chalets below resemble Monopoly houses on a field of velvet, and my feet dangle above–ABOVE!–snowcapped peaks. Glancing down, I feel as if I’m orbiting the earth in a swing.

Just as I’m beginning to feel at home in my airborne perch, strapped atop the lap of a blue-eyed enigma who holds my life in his hands, he motions to the right. There, fifty yards away, another paraglider has swooped alongside–and he is SHOOTING at us.Read more: Going “Solo” on a 007-style Adventure in the Swiss Alps

Get Lost! In the nicest possible way…

sunset over Istanbul_5296

Ditch the itinerary and the check list. Getting lost in a city can be the best possible way to explore it.

“So, what do you like to…do…when you travel?” my mother asked me recently. She posed the question with a slightly furrowed brow, in the sort of dubious tone you might otherwise reserve for quizzing the man next to you on the Tube about why he’s wearing a lime green mankini and clutching a jar filled with human hair and toenail clippings—except, of course, that you would never speak to that man, or, in fact, even look him in the eye.Read more: Get Lost! In the nicest possible way…

Fear and Loathing in the Sky—and Why You Should Marry the Girl in the Middle Seat

I have a confession to make. I don’t like to fly. I love going places. It’s just the getting there I’m not that fond of.

That might seem like a strange admission for a travel writer—but then again, maybe not. I mean, the more often you’re required to shoehorn yourself into a seat that wouldn’t comfortably accommodate a malnourished hamster, the less likely you are to look forward to it. If I actually enjoyed crumpling my body into a defeated wad of human origami, I’d take yoga, and at least I’d have the skull-cracking thighs and six-pack abs to show for it.

Luton cowboy_3215.JPG

If ever there were a guy begging to be strip-searched by security…

You’re not even awarded the privilege of painful bodily contortion until you’ve already been through the soul-sapping process of submitting to airport security.

Shuffling sock-footed through the metal detector, grasping at your unbelted trousers to keep them from falling down around your ankles, you still have to run the gauntlet of heaven-knows-where-those-hands-have-been rubber-gloved officers who might randomly pull you aside for a pat-down.

Every time this happens, I’m tempted to ask them to at least treat me to dinner and a movie first…but somehow, I doubt they would be amused.Read more: Fear and Loathing in the Sky—and Why You Should Marry the Girl in the Middle Seat

Love, Loss & Letting Go On The Road

In my last post, I wrote about a few “essentials” I never travel without, but there was one very personal item (yes, even more personal than the nose hair trimmer) that I didn’t mention—a delicate sliver of a silver charm.

On one side, it bears my name. (“Amy,” that is. “Laughinghouse,” as you might imagine, would be a bit unwieldy). The other side is embossed with three hieroglyphics which supposedly signify my name’s meaning. It’s elegant, unusual, and most importantly to me, a gift from my sister, Kimberly.

Kim passed away four years ago, but wearing that pendant, hooked around my neck on a slender chain, I felt that she was there, seeing the world with me.

My pendant gets an airing at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon, September 7, 2013.

My pendant gets an airing at the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon, September 7, 2013.

Kim with one of her last paintings. She could capture the beauty of a place even if she hadn't been there.

Kim could capture the beauty of a place in her paintings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could imagine her wicked cackle of a laugh, the expressive arc of her eyebrows, which communicated her thoughts like semaphores, and the hilarious stories that she could have woven from even the most commonplace event.

So when I happened to notice the chain dangling, unhooked and bereft of its charm while wandering around the tangled maze of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic quarter this week, I felt the weight of a loss much greater than the actual mass of that feather-light talisman.Read more: Love, Loss & Letting Go On The Road

Making a Case for “Disaster Packing”

Tearing it up--literally--in Tenerife.

Tearing it up–literally–in Tenerife.

Being a travel writer, you might expect that I’d be an aficionado of efficient packing, able to cram enough gear for a trek to Mt. Everest in a bag no bigger than a lunchbox. “Just the essentials,” you might suppose—a camera, a spare pair of socks, and a handful of breath mints to stave off Donner party hunger pains and simple chronic halitosis.

In fact, over the years, I’ve become what you might call a “disaster packer.” My suitcase overflows with obscure items meant to slap a Band-Aid (metaphorically and otherwise) on any problem, however improbable, that I might encounter on the road.Read more: Making a Case for “Disaster Packing”

Who am I? What am I? Where am I?

Paragliding over Interlaken, Switzerland.

Paragliding over Interlaken, Switzerland.

“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” Well, probably, Mom–if I thought it would make a good story…and if I was sure the bungee cord was tied on really, REALLY tightly.

To that end, and to my mother’s chagrin, I’ve paraglided 007-style in the Swiss Alps, walked with lions in Mauritius, swum with sharks in French Polynesia, dangled from chains on Scotland’s Fife Coastal Path, and–my most terrifying challenge ever–taken ballroom dance lessons in London. (Fortunately, that’s the only incident that nearly ended in a bloodbath).

As a London-based globetrotting freelancer (and natural coward attempting to conquer my fears through my travel adventures), I’ve contributed stories to Qantas Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Australia’s Vacations and Travel magazine, The Irish Times, The Scotsman, The New York Post, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Globe and Mail, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and Virtuoso Life magazine, among other publications.

Beyond travel, I’ve written about historic homes for BRITAIN magazine, and I previously worked as a television news producer in the Cayman Islands, as a freelancer for People and Teen People magazines, and as a regular contributor to Better Homes and Gardens and other architectural magazines while living in the U.S. I also wrote “The Orvis Book of Cabins,” which was published by The Lyons Press.