New Zealand’s New Flag Apparently Will NOT be a Kiwi Shooting Lasers from its Eyes

When the government of New Zealand created a website to let citizens submit designs for a proposed new flag, they probably weren’t expecting a kiwi (the bird, that is) shooting lasers from its eyes–or a rainbow from its backside, for that matter.

"The laser beam projects a powerful image of New Zealand," Gray says of his design. "I believe it is so powerful it does not need to be discussed."

“The laser beam projects a powerful image of New Zealand,” Gray says of his design. “I believe it is so powerful it does not need to be discussed.”

“The Panel,” as the official flag deciderers have dubbed themselves–anticipating, perhaps, a “So You Think You Can Design a Flag” reality show judged by retired warrior princess Lucy Lawless and down-at-their-furry-heels ex-Hobbits–were tasked with whittling nearly 10,300 submissions to a mere 40.

On September 1st, they pared the remaining designs down to just four finalists. These, in turn, will be ranked in a binding referendum between 20 November and 11 December 2015.

How will the ultimate victor be decided? Given the enterprising, “anything goes” spirit of this endeavor, I’m still holding out hope for a televised cage match, where the participants will be judged not by the merits of his or her design, but by their Smaug-slaying skills (or, at the very least, their bikini mud wrestling abilities). The good people of New Zealand have certainly proven they have a winning sense of humour.

Let us take a moment now to honour the, er, “most creative” designs that DIDN’T make the cut.  

Read more: New Zealand’s New Flag Apparently Will NOT be a Kiwi Shooting Lasers from its Eyes

The UK’s UFO Hotspots

We’ve all heard about the Bermuda Triangle, that mysterious sliver of the north Atlantic that gobbles up airplanes and ships like so many bags of Doritos. Who among us hasn’t gripped their armrests just a little tighter when their plane passes through this treacherous territory, immortalized as alien stomping grounds in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

The best place to spot alien in a kilt is in a Scottish bar. They usually appear after about your fourth whisky.

The best place to spot alien in a kilt is in a Scottish bar. They usually appear after about your fourth whisky.

But sometimes, it seems, ET and his ilk like to exchange their Bermuda shorts for a kilt. Scotland’s Falkirk Triangle, which stretches from Stirling to Fife and the outskirts of Edinburgh, sees more otherworldly exploits than anywhere else on earth. (And seriously, what could be cuter than a little green dude sporting a tartan skirt?)

Aliens have also allegedly winged over the Broad Haven Triangle in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where a yellow UFO and a pointy-headed “humanoid” apparently dropped by in the 70s. A joy-riding spaceman…or Ziggy Stardust on tour?

If you’re up for some flying saucer-spotting, grab your binoculars and your aluminum foil hat and check out the UK’s top UFO hotspots. Read on for a round-up of where to go, with local hotels recommended by LateRooms.com.Read more: The UK’s UFO Hotspots

Notting Hill Carnival: England’s Most Outrageous Street Party

During the last weekend of every August, approximately one million punters rock up for Red Stripe and revelry at London’s Notting Hill Carnival. Originally introduced by Caribbean immigrants in the mid-60s, the event has evolved into one of Europe’s biggest street celebrations. Think of Mardi Gras…on steroids.

Comparing manicures?

Comparing manicures?

Picture parades of scantily clad dancers, undulating in sequins and feathers as they writhe and wiggle among the crowds or hover above the fray on elaborate floats, snaking through the streets of one of London’s buzziest multicultural neighbourhoods. Clouds of smoke rise up from BBQ stalls, perfuming the air with eau de jerk chicken and curried goat.

Gaz gets into the groove.

Gaz gets into the groove.

Giant speakers blast steal drums and reggae so loudly that the sound waves vibrate your very bones. Meanwhile, Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues Bandstand (the best free show you’ll ever see, or your money back) features live performances by costumed musicians on a set worthy of a West End theatre.

For the three years I lived in Notting Hill, I had a front-row seat for the carnival, taking in the action from atop the porch outside my window. (My rear windows overlooked the dumpsters of a Tesco loading dock, but I tend not to brag about that so much).

While some folks boarded up their shops and ground floor flats, fleeing the crowds, I locked and loaded my camera, knowing that many of the year’s most memorable moments were about to unfold in the neighbourhood I felt fortunate to call home.

Here are some of the strangest moments from Carnivals past.

Read more: Notting Hill Carnival: England’s Most Outrageous Street Party

McQueen, the King of Controversial Couture, Lives on at the V&A

Model wearing a hat that looks like a flock of butterflies

This butterfly headdress, created by milliner Philip Treacy for Alexander McQueen, is now on show at the V&A. Credit: Model Alana Zimmer, © Anthea Simms

Banish the beige, drop the drab, and refuel your fashionista spirit with a visit to “Savage Beauty,” a retrospective of the late Alexander McQueen’s sartorial extremes on display at London’s V&A.

Claire Wilcox, the V&A’s senior Curator of Fashion, has considerably expanded upon the original exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the London show, which continues through August 2, Wilcox sourced 66 additional pieces and included a new section focusing on McQueen’s early collections.

The result is an extraordinary selection of 240 ensembles dating from 1992 to 2010, displayed over ten themed rooms.

Here are a few “do’s” and “don’t’s” to bear in mind if you’re planning a visit.Read more: McQueen, the King of Controversial Couture, Lives on at the V&A

In the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck

Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen at London's 45 Park Lane hotel.

In the kitchen at 45 Park Lane, home of Wolfgang Puck’s first European restaurant, CUT.

When I was invited to London’s 45 Park Lane hotel for a cooking lesson with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, I wondered if I should warn him about “the incident.” That is to say, the day I set my kitchen on fire. (I saw no point in muddying the waters by revealing the time I nearly blew my head off with a pressure cooker, too).Read more: In the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck

Mud, Music and Mayhem at Glastonbury

With glorious Glastonbury descending on the fields of Worthy Farm once again, here’s a photo essay of some of my favourite moments from Glasto 2014. You’ll laugh (I hope). You’ll cry (probably not). But you will, undoubtedly, be very grateful that you have indoor plumbing.

The Pyramid Stage

The Pyramid Stage

Read more: Mud, Music and Mayhem at Glastonbury

Scilly Escape: The Land that Crime Forgot

A bench on Tresco on the Isles of Scilly overlooks teal blue waters.Approaching my table at The Turk’s Head pub on St. Agnes with a glass of Cornish Rattler cider in hand (for who can resist a pint pulled from a tap shaped like the head of a snake–wearing sunglasses), I’m shocked to hear that the conversation has turned to talk of a murder here on the Isles of Scilly, a tranquil beach community off the southwestern coast of England.

Cornish Rattler on tap at the Turk's Head pub on St. Agnes, part of England's Isles of Scilly.What?” I am incredulous. “When did this happen?”

“1976,” replies Katharine Sawyer, an archeologist who leads guided walks around the islands.

Considering that the islands’  second most notorious incident in nearly four decades was the case of the Knicker Nicker—a man who was convicted of stealing ladies’ underwear in 2005—it’s hardly surprising to learn that the Scillies claim the lowest crime rate in the country.

When Police Sergeant Colin Taylor posted a Facebook advertisement for a new constable on the Isles of Scilly this past April, candidates from as far away as Thailand, Australia, South Africa and the Philippines threw their cap in the ring for “quite possibly the most enviable policing post in the UK or even the world.”

As Taylor explained, this “unique opportunity” requires the ability to “issue a parking ticket to your spouse so tactfully so as not find dinner in the dog thereafter” and “unflinching confidence to know what to do when you are alerted to an abandoned seal pup making its way up the main street.”A colorful boat on St. Mary's, England's Isles of Scilly

Read more: Scilly Escape: The Land that Crime Forgot

Starmus 2016: Scientists, Astronauts and Rock Stars Gather for Celestial Festival

Talk about star power. World-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Brian May of Queen, who holds the rare distinction of being both a rocker and an astrophysicist, are among the celebrities throwing their weight behind Starmus III, a unique Tenerife-based festival devoted to science, art and music.

Starmus founder Garik Israelian, rocker Brian May, Stephen Hawking and President Carlos Alonso at the Royal Astronomical Society in London

Starmus founder Garik Israelian, rocker Brian May, Stephen Hawking and President Carlos Alonso at the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

The pair appeared at London’s Royal Astronomical Society, alongside the Tenerife Island Government’s President Carlos Alonso and festival founder, astrophysicist Garik Israelian, to promote the next Starmus. It will be held on June 27-July 2, 2016, encompassing a stargazing party at Tenerife’s Teide National Park, a round-table discussion at the GTC Roque de los Muchachos Observatory Dome on La Palma, an astrophotography competition and a live concert.

starry skies over Tenerife

Starry skies, courtesy of Tenerife Tourism

Read more: Starmus 2016: Scientists, Astronauts and Rock Stars Gather for Celestial Festival

London Fashion: Where Every “Don’t” is a “Do”

Growing up in the Southern United States, I learned the fundamental fashion rules from my mother. Never wear white after Labor Day. Always match your shoes and your handbag. There’s no such thing as a bow that’s “too big.” And do not, under any circumstances–not even on a triple dog dare–sport a duct-taped box on your head. (Like I said…the basics.)

But when I moved to London eight years ago, I found folks around every corner who not only broke the rules. They burned them, smashed them, and jumped up and down on them in Doc Martens that–get this–clashed with their handbag.

Girls in Doc Martens and funky shoes in London's Notting Hill

I have a couple of theories about Londoners’ funky fashion sense. One is that you’ve got to push the boundaries if you want to stand out in a city of more than eight million.

Curtain Road Rebecca_7019

She’s got a distinctive style, but her best accessory is her megawatt smile.

Another is that closets here are so small, you’re pretty much forced to mix and match the few items you own with maximum…let’s just call it “creativity.”

Or maybe it’s down to the city’s unofficial motto: “London: The City Too Busy To Do Laundry.” So just wear whatever smells least like stale sweat and spilled beer. Even if that means donning a sombrero and flippers.

Read more: London Fashion: Where Every “Don’t” is a “Do”

Truth and Spies: Tongue-loosening cocktails at The Stafford London

Eric Rychnausky, head mixologist at The Stafford London, divulges his secrets for a trio of truth serums created especially for the Spring.

Eric Rychnausky showcases three new cocktails in the wine cellar of The Stafford Hotel.

Eric Rychnausky in the wine cellar of The Stafford London.

Read more: Truth and Spies: Tongue-loosening cocktails at The Stafford London

Meet Harry’s Potter’s Special Effects Wiz(ard) John Richardson

With 50 years experience in the film industry, John Richardson makes movie magic look as simple as a wave of the wand. He served as special effects supervisor on all eight Harry Potter films and also worked on such iconic film franchises as the James Bond movies, Superman, and Alien, for which he won an Academy Award in 1986.

Recently, he paused for a chat on Platform 9 3/4, the latest Harry Potter set to be installed at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London. The new addition, which features the original Hogwarts Express steam train, opens March 19.

Richardson talks about making wizards fly, the pitfalls of computer generated effects, and the one item he most wishes he could’ve taken home from the set. Watch our interview on YouTube here:

To see my interview with Mark Williams, who played Mr. Weasley, click here: http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=4163

For more on the Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour London, click here: http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=770

All Aboard the Hogwarts Express!

Pack your trunks. Round up your rats, and get ready for a new wand-waggling adventure. On March 19, 2015, Harry Potter’s own Hogwarts Express steams onto a resurrected Platform 9 3/4 at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London.

Mark Williams, also known as "Mr. Weasley," with the Hogwarts Express

Mark Williams, also known as “Mr. Weasley,” with the Hogwarts Express

I had a track-side chat with Mark Williams, a.k.a. Mr. Weasley, about movies, memories and magic.

For more info on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and “The Making of Harry Potter” experience, check out my story: http://amylaughinghouse.com/?p=770

Off To See The Wizard: Harry Potter Studio Tour

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?

Ride 'em, cowboy---er, wizard.

You can take home a movie of your aerial adventure, with you on your bouncing broomstick, superimposed on the London skyline.

Boarding a bucking Nimbus 2000 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.

Unlike the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida, the U.K. doesn’t feature theme park rides like roller coasters.

Instead, Leavesden offers a true behind-the-scenes look at the Harry Potter movies, which were primarily shot on a soundstage next door.

It embraces 170,000 square feet of space bursting with the actual sets, costumes, props and magical machines, including the original Hogwarts Express steam engine, which arrives at a recreated Platform 9 3/4 on March 19.

Read more: Off To See The Wizard: Harry Potter Studio Tour

St. John: The Wild Child of the Caribbean 

On my way to breakfast my first morning at St. John’s Caneel Bay resort, I pass several wide-eyed deer, an iguana basking in the sultry Caribbean sun, and a herd of donkeys, casually scratching their backsides on the trunks of palm trees. But something’s missing here. There’s not another human being in sight.

A donkey takes a break in the shade at Caneel Bay.

A donkey takes a break in the shade at Caneel Bay.

Just as a vague sense of panic sets in—have I missed the Rapture?—I near the waterfront breakfast pavilion, where I catch a reassuring whiff of bacon. So unless Noah’s menagerie has learned to use opposable thumbs and toss a skillet—or a wayward boar has spent too much time tanning in the sun–I’m relatively certain there are at least a few lost souls lingering about.

Lounging at Cinnamon Bay.

If a haven of such solitude seems improbable in the ever-popular Caribbean, consider this. More than half of St. John is devoted to national parklands, making it arguably the wildest and most pristine of the U.S. Virgin Islands.Read more: St. John: The Wild Child of the Caribbean 

Craft Beer Rising Festival 2015: 22 February

This is your brain on beer.

If someone says “bottoms up,” and you don’t know whether to bend at the elbow or the waist, you’ve probably had enough.

Great news for thirsty Londoners. This Sunday, 22 February, you can sample more than 530 beers from 80 breweries at one location.

Okay, so it might be physically impossible (and certainly inadvisable) to try ALL of those beers, but the Craft Beer Rising Festival at the Old Truman Brewery in Shoreditch offers the opportunity to wobble among a wide variety of stalls serving up lip-smacking suds from as far away as Mexico and as close as London itself.

You can also groove to tunes in the Music Room, nosh on street food like incendiary-sounding chorizo bombs, smoked BBQ and schnitzel, and check out the latest industry innovations.

Tickets are available from £17, including a £5 beer token, a choice of glassware, and a token.

Here’s a taste of what’s brewing.

Read more: Craft Beer Rising Festival 2015: 22 February

Chatting with Peter Greenberg, Travel Editor of CBS News

My first meeting with Peter, March 2014

My first meeting with Peter, March 2014

It was an honor and a privilege (and a heck of a lot of fun) chatting with Peter Greenberg yesterday about my favorite walking tours of London.

This globe-trotting legend and his crew produce a Worldwide Podcast airing from a different location every weekend, in between Peter’s duties as Travel Editor of CBS News and his television appearances.

I’ll let you know when our most recent interview will air. In the meantime, you can check out my last chat with Peter, touching on everything from Scotch whisky to the “F” word. (That would be “fanny,” folks. Be forewarned; it means something very different in Britain than it does in the US!)

That interview starts at 38:30 here:

For more expert travel revelations from around the world, subscribe to Peter’s podcasts here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/travel-today-peter-greenberg/id519899844?mt=2 

For more on London’s top five walking tours, check out my article on LonelyPlanet.com:

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/great-britain/travel-tips-and-articles/exploring-londons-secrets-five-great-walking-tours

 

London’s New Twists on Afternoon Tea

From “Prêt-à-Portea” repasts offering catwalk-worthy cakes to, well, cakes with cats, London is reinventing this traditional culinary indulgence.

So forget stuffed shirts and raised pinkies. Today’s teas feature everything from fishnet stockings to whisky and gin. (And suddenly, your boyfriend is expressing an unprecedented interest in copping a cuppa, am I right?)

Is that gin in their cups? Hmmm...could be, if they're drinking Dukes' new "G & Tea." Courtesy Dukes St. James.

Is that gin in their cups? Hmmm…could be, if they’re drinking Dukes’ new “G & Tea.” Courtesy Dukes St. James.

Here’s a taste of what’s brewing around the city. Read more: London’s New Twists on Afternoon Tea

On the Trail of Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

“History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it,” Winston Churchill predicted.

This year, as England commemorates the 50th anniversary of his death, a host of new exhibitions prove his droll prophecy has held true.

Key sites around the country form what might be dubbed “the Churchill trail.” From his labyrinthine War Rooms to the baroque palace where he was born, visitors can take a closer look at the legacy of one of Great Britain’s most revered statesmen—and perhaps still catch an ethereal whiff of his cigar. Read more: On the Trail of Winston Churchill

Auschwitz-Birkenhau: 70 Years after the Liberation

It’s the suitcases that finally reduce me to tears. A pile of suitcases behind a glass wall in one of the endless cell blocks at Auschwitz. Each is carefully labeled in bold letters with a name—the names of men, women and children who probably thought that they had already experienced the worst that life could deal them, being forcibly relocated from their home.

suitcases_3507“Jews were told they were going for resettlement in the East,” explains my guide, Dagmara Wiercinska. They couldn’t have imagined the horrors that awaited them here, about 40 miles west of Krakow, Poland.

Auschwitz skull sign_3557I’ve already seen too much. Touring block upon block, Dagmara has explained how Holocaust prisoners here were treated like commodities. Whatever few possessions they brought with them—things they thought they would need to build a new life—were taken from them upon their arrival and stored in warehouses which guards called “Canada,” because that was viewed as a place of enormous wealth. What remains here now are those items that the Nazis had not yet sold when Auschwitz was finally liberated on January 27, 1945.Read more: Auschwitz-Birkenhau: 70 Years after the Liberation

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

This New Year, resolve NOT to resolve. Beer and chocolate can be good for you, and there’s no better place to start your “health” regime than Bruges.

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

A Surf and Turf Eco-Adventure Tour of St. Lucia

I’m not even halfway up Gros Piton, the taller of St. Lucia’s signature twin peaks, and I’m already starting to perspire from places where I didn’t even know I had pores. My shins. My elbows. My earlobes.

St. Lucia's UNESCO World Heritage listed Pitons

St. Lucia’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Pitons

It’s an inauspicious start to what I’ve dubbed my “Surf and Turf” tour of St. Lucia, a lush 238-square-mile isle in the West Indies’ Lesser Antilles. Over the course of a week, I plan to scale the 2,619-foot summit of Gros Piton, scuba dive along the coral reefs, and horseback ride through the waves. But at this moment, my body is screaming, “Abort! Abort!”

Chad William

Chad William

“Please tell me this is the steep part,” I gasp, scrambling up yet another massive pile of rocks behind my guide, Chad William, a lean, taciturn man with a sparse, bushy beard. “If not, just lie to me, man,” I implore him. “Keep hope alive.”

Hailing from the tiny village of Fond Gens Libres, founded at the foot of the mountain by freed slaves more than 200 years ago, William hardly breaks a sweat as he negotiates the trail, which was carved centuries ago by villagers seeking high ground as the invading British threatened to capture and re-enslave them.

But it’s not just the mountain’s historical relevance that has brought me here today. It’s the promise of unparalleled panoramas. Read more: A Surf and Turf Eco-Adventure Tour of St. Lucia

Giving the Gift of Life: Join the Organ Donor Registry

Let’s call her Laura. She’s one of those people that everyone loves, with an irrepressible laugh that makes you laugh along with her, even when you missed the joke, and a huge grin that rarely leaves her face. She’s one of my best friends in the world, and she needs a kidney.

Laura’s kidneys first began to fail years ago. Why? The doctor’s best guess is that it’s due to an infection that she picked up while doing charity work in Haiti, when she was still a teenager. (Yep, that’s Laura. When the rest of us were mooning over posters of Duran Duran thumbtacked to the bedroom walls of our comfortable middle class homes, she was off helping people in a third world country).

She had her first kidney transplant 20 years ago, but no matter how much you coddle them–and Laura has treated hers with all the care you’d afford to a vintage Aston Martin–organ transplants don’t last forever. Her creatinine levels, which measure kidney function, are rising fast, and she’s going to need another one very soon.

Her life depends on it–and in many ways, so do the lives of those people who love her. She’s a terrific mother, a wife whose husband adores her, and an only child. She’s also one of the most amazing women you’d ever hope to meet.

This holiday season, as we’re bombarded with “gift guide” suggestions, please consider this. The most wonderful gift you could ever give anyone is the gift of life, and it won’t cost you a cent.

If you haven’t done it already, please sign up to be an organ donor. I mean, you won’t be donating them NOW, mind you…but, y’know, when you’re done with them.Read more: Giving the Gift of Life: Join the Organ Donor Registry

Celebrating the Fall of the Berlin Wall: One Man’s Experience of a Family Divided

The site of the former Berlin Wall, one foot in the East and one in the West.

The site of the former Berlin Wall, one foot in the East and one in the West.

“Berlin is not Germany. It’s a very important sentence. Berlin was always something special.”

Christian Tanzler would know. Although he’s a spokesperson for Visit Berlin, Tanzler isn’t just a media mercenary hired to promote the city, which recently celebrated 25 years since the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall. He’s one of the many whose family was torn apart by those cruel miles of concrete erected in the 60s. But even during those darkest days, Tanzler says, Berlin’s denizens on both sides of the wall harboured a rebellious, irrepressible spark.

The Topography of Terror Museum. At ground level, you see a remnant of the former wall. Below are former Gestapo cells.

The Topography of Terror Museum. At ground level, you see a remnant of the former wall. Below are former Gestapo cells.

Read more: Celebrating the Fall of the Berlin Wall: One Man’s Experience of a Family Divided

Scotch & Smoked Salmon: A Match Made in…East London

Bogie and Bacall. Gin and tonic. Cuddly kittens and viral videos. There are some things that seemingly couldn’t—or at least, shouldn’t–exist without the other.

Add to the list one more match made in heaven…or, more specifically, in East London: Scotch and Scottish smoked salmon, as demonstrated by last night’s celebrated pairings of Glenfiddich and fruits of the sea at H. Forman & Son.

Credit Forman & Field and Glenfiddich

“The Double Scotch Hamper,” available from Forman & Field. Photo credit Forman & Field.

Located on the aptly named Fish Island in Stratford, H. Forman & Son features an on-site smokery, a restaurant and bar, art gallery, hospitality venue, and the Forman & Field artisan foodstuffs venture, delivering goodies right to your door.

According to London Mayor Boris Johnson, as renowned for his off-the-cuff quotes as his unruly thatch of hair, “Forman’s is not just a smokehouse. It’s a salmon theme park!” (Never change, Boris. Never change).Read more: Scotch & Smoked Salmon: A Match Made in…East London

Exploring the Scottish Highlands: A Lesson in Overcoming Common Sense

I’m cringing on the edge of a tiny wooden platform less than one meter square, contemplating a leap from the equivalent of a three-storey building.

Preparing for the big leap...

Preparing for the big leap…

I’m not suicidal, only slightly insane. In theory, you see, the cable that a fresh-faced young lad strapped to my harness will allow me to make a controlled, but nonetheless stomach-churning, descent into the abyss.

My is in this lad's hands--or at least, my crotch is in his harness.

My life is in this lad’s hands–or at least, my crotch is in his harness.

The “Skydive,” one of the most popular attractions at Landmark Forest Adventure Park in Carrbridge, Scotland, didn’t look so high from the ground.

But as I stand frozen to my perch, where I’m treated to a bird’s eye view of energy-sapping pursuits guaranteed to exhaust even the most hyperactive children and their parents (a rock-climbing pillar, water slides, mini-racetrack and the like), I’m beginning to regret the black pudding I had for breakfast.

Read more: Exploring the Scottish Highlands: A Lesson in Overcoming Common Sense

Ever Wondered How You Would React in an Airline Emergency? Now I Know.

There are a few things that you really, REALLY hope you will never experience on an airplane—and recently, one of them happened to me.airbags first class_5941

I’m not talking about the usual colicky infant (at least one guaranteed on every flight, or your money back), nor the chatty, close-talking seat mate whose entire diet, from the time he was first able to digest solid food, has consisted solely of raw onions and three-day old fish. I’m not even referring to the inconsiderate oaf who reclines his seat so far into your lap that you’re forced to eat your dinner off a tray on his forehead.

No. This was one of the biggies, one of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments that makes you wish you had put down your magazine, wrenched the ear phones blasting LMFAO’s “Sorry for Party Rocking” from your waxy canals, and listened to the safety announcements featuring cartoon characters demonstrating the technological complexities and mind-boggling intricacies of the aircraft, such as how a seat belt is not only fastened, but…whoa, duuuuuude!…unfastened. (One can only imagine that if Charles “Survival of the Fittest” Darwin had been called upon to compose those scripts, they would be considerably more concise).

airbag man_5905In short (or rather, in long-winded, round-the-houses-on-a-rusty-bicycle-with-a-slowly-deflating-tire essence), the oxygen masks deployed…about three hours into a trans-Atlantic flight to London, over the dark, fathomless depths of the ocean.Read more: Ever Wondered How You Would React in an Airline Emergency? Now I Know.

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

Reading the Riot Act: Reading Festival 22-24 August 2014

Heading to Reading for the music festival this weekend? Sure, there are plenty of amazing acts lined up, from Queens of the Stone Age to Vampire Weekend and the Arctic Monkeys. But sometimes the most amusing entertainment isn’t on the stage; it’s in the fields around you.

My Chemical Romance....viewed from outer space.

Here’s a peek at some of my favourite examples of Reading Festival freakiness.

Read more: Reading the Riot Act: Reading Festival 22-24 August 2014

Beatles Fans Come Together in Liverpool

The Cavern Club Beatles play the band's greatest hits every Saturday night at Liverpool's Cavern Club.

The Cavern Club Beatles play the band’s greatest hits every Saturday night at Liverpool’s Cavern Club.

“So, are you a Beatles fan?” Normally, this would seem an easy enough question to answer. Sure, I like their music. Yes, I burned through a cassette tape of their greatest hits as a teenager, twisting and shouting as I tootled around town in my second-hand wheels. But when you’re talking to a man who carries a British Beatles Fan Club Card in his wallet, displayed with pride of place in the little plastic window typically reserved for a driver’s license, it comes across as rather a loaded question.

This is Liverpool, after all—the Beatles hometown, a Mecca for Fab Four aficionados—and I’d bet the contents of my own wallet (expired receipts, a few empty gum wrappers, and a video rental card for a chain that’s gone bust) that half the tourists in town are carrying similar Beatles-branded ID.

So if you say, “Yes, I’m a fan,” then you’d better be prepared to go toe-to-toe on band trivia. For instance, did you know that Paul McCartney used to play a right-handed guitar strung left-handed, because it was cheaper–or that George Harrison was actually born on February 24, 1943, NOT February 25, as noted on his birth certificate? Nope, me neither.

Watch where you walk in Liverpool, or you're likely to tread on a Beatle. This is John, or a close facsimile there-of.

Watch where you walk in Liverpool, or you’re likely to tread on a Beatle. You’ll find this statue of John (or a close facsimile there-of) on Mathew Street.

Beatlemania reaches epidemic levels in the city every August during International Beatleweek, when fans from across the universe—or at least around the world—come together for exhibitions, memorabilia sales, guest speakers and live music by Beatles tribute bands.

If you’ve got the Beatles’ bug, read on for a list of five fabulous attractions you can rock up to year round.Read more: Beatles Fans Come Together in Liverpool

For Weird Souvenirs, You Can’t Beat Paris’ Super-Sized Marché aux Puces

You'll find everything you need to furnish your own Little House of Horrors at the Marché aux Puces de Paris-Saint-Ouen.

You’ll find everything you need to furnish your own Little House of Horrors at the Marché aux Puces de Paris-Saint-Ouen.

There may be only one place on the planet where you can find ancient French tapestries, intricately carved African fertility statues, a moth-eaten orangutan and a copy of Barry Manilow’s “Paradise Cafe” (on vinyl, no less). With a selection of antiques even the Smithsonian might envy, France’s Marché aux Puces de Paris/St-Ouen beckons bargain hunters, interior decorators, and the just plain curious.

You know  you want it, ladies.

You know you want it, ladies.

Widely considered to be one of the largest antiques and second-hand markets in the world, the marché embraces more than 1,700 stalls sprawled over 10 hectares in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.

Flea market aficionados flock here to snap up deals on everything from silverplate to crystal balls to 17th-century suits of armor.

Need a medieval crown from the South of France? Chances are, they’ve got that, too.

Even if your expense account doesn’t cover jewel-encrusted headgear, it’s an amusing way to spend an afternoon.

Lose yourself in the labyrinthine alleyways and simply soak up the atmosphere as you browse for deals on some of the strangest stuff to ever clog a closet.Read more: For Weird Souvenirs, You Can’t Beat Paris’ Super-Sized Marché aux Puces

Wading Through the Lake District: Bring Your Hiking Boots—and Maybe Your Flippers

Grasmere viewed from Loughrigg Fell

Grasmere viewed from Loughrigg Fell

“Caution! Fast Rising Tides! Hidden Channels! Quicksand!” The simple white sign, with its bold black lettering, seems oddly out of place posted along the Victorian-era Promenade of Grange-Over-Sands, a sleepy seaside town on the southern border of England’s Lake District National Park. While the warnings might evoke the sinister setting of an Indiana Jones action flick, the broad paved path which skirts the grassy marshland of Morecambe Bay would appear to provide the perfect family day out.

Sheep on the marshes

Sheep on the marshes

There’s a little girl with blonde pigtails wobbling along on her Pepto-pink bike, pint-sized roller-bladers as padded against bumps and bruises as the Michelin Man, and proud parents pushing prams plumped with mewling babies. With all the lolling-tongued canines straining at their leashes, there might, admittedly, be a slight risk of stepping in a steaming pile of unpleasantness—although with plaques threatening £1000 fines for “non-removal” of dog droppings (illustrated by a stooping stick figure with a shovel poised beneath his pup’s pert behind), I would wager that is unlikely.

Yet as I discover on a seven-day walking tour with English Lakeland Ramblers, during which we’ll meander nearly 40 miles on foot through the southern part of the rural county of Cumbria, the Lake District isn’t as blissfully serene as it might seem on its surface. Read more: Wading Through the Lake District: Bring Your Hiking Boots—and Maybe Your Flippers

Six Top Tips for Food Photography

A flock of photographers, myself among them, is gathered on the roof of the Queen of Hoxton pub in London’s hipster Valhalla of Shoreditch. As each of us elbows for a better angle—now on one knee, then doubling-back for a view from behind–you might well wonder what could inspire such a frenzy among snap-happy paps. Kim and Kanye? Brangelina? Britney Spears gone commando again?

Rosé d’Anjou Loire Valley wine 2 bottles_4923

As it transpires, the object—or rather, objects—of our intense interest are a bevy of wine bottles and a table topped with delectable looking platters.

No one cares that the feast has gone cold. We know chef Daniel Ashley will be providing plenty more plates later on, all washed down with a tipple (or ten) of Rosé d’Anjou Loire Valley wines.

For the moment, however, our focus (ahem) is on a food photography tutorial. Our host Douglas Blyde, himself a writer and sommelier, has invited Paul Winch-Furness, one of London’s most sought after food photographers, to share his tips with us this evening.

Read more: Six Top Tips for Food Photography

How To Taste Wine Like A Pro

Douglas Blyde–food writer, photographer, sommelier, and professional bon vivant—demystifies (and amuses) with his tips on the proper way to taste wine.

Lucie Kerley of lucieloves.co.uk gives her glass a swirl as Douglas Blyde shares his top wine-tasting tips.

Lucie Kerley of lucieloves.co.uk gives her glass a swirl as Douglas Blyde shares his top wine-tasting tips.

Read more: How To Taste Wine Like A Pro

Cheese-Rolling Competition in Gloucestershire. That’s just crackers!

Every May, thousands of spectators gather alongside a steep and daunting slope in Gloucestershire, England to watch competitors from across the globe battle to become the big cheese. Or rather, to try to win it.

Spin the wheel...

Spin the wheel…

In an event dating back to the 1800s, hapless participants, outfitted in everything from Spiderman suits to Borat-style “mankinis,” run and tumble head-over-heels down the 650-foot-long Cooper’s Hill after an 8-pound wheel of Double Gloucestershire. The first to reach the bottom takes home the cheese. Runners-up (or rather, other rollers-down) go home with bruised pride—and the occasional broken bone.

This year’s event, held on May 26, drew an estimated 5,000 people, with some hailing from as far away as Australia. There were four downhill races, interspersed with presumably less perilous uphill races for children.

There has been no “official” event since 2009, due to health and safety concerns (high-cholesterol and lactose-intolerance being the least of them.) But that hasn’t deterred dairy-devils from turning up to spin the wheel.

In 2013, when police ordered the usual supplier to withhold her cheese, a plastic version was drafted as a substitute, and races commenced as usual at midday.

In Britain, that’s just how rebels roll.

For photos and a detailed account of this year’s winners, visit www.cheese-rolling.co.uk/index1.htm.

Tourism info: www.visitbritain.com, www.visitengland.com.

Get Wet and Wild on the Thames

It’s a blazing, blue sky day in London, and I’m hanging on for dear life inside a speedboat that’s whipping the Thames into a rabid froth. If both my hands weren’t locked in a death grip on the metal bar in front of me, I could easily dip my fingers into the water, which spritzes me and my fellow passengers like a well-shaken bottle of celebratory champagne.

Photos courtesy London Rib Voyages

Photos courtesy London RIB Voyages

This certainly isn’t your typical pleasure cruise. It’s the Thames as only London RIB Voyages offers it up—a wet and wild white-knuckle tour that tackles the river at 35 miles per hour, leaving passengers as giddy as kids on a roller coaster.Read more: Get Wet and Wild on the Thames

Be Your Own James Bond In Great Britain

If you’ve ever dreamed of walking in the wingtips of the world’s sexiest super spy–or tottering along in the sky-high stilettos of a Bond babe–read on for a list of Great Britain’s most 007-worthy adventures. Whether you’re burning up the road in an Aston Martin—or burning big bucks on London’s aptly-named Bond Street–these top six tips will leave you feeling more stirred than shaken.

A Bond-babe would never be caught dead in my snazzy blue jumpsuit--but it's worth committing a fashion faux-pas to go up (and up..and UP) at the O2.

A Bond-babe would never be caught dead in my snazzy blue jumpsuit–but it’s worth committing a fashion faux-pas to go up (and up..and UP) at the O2.

Up at the O2Read more: Be Your Own James Bond In Great Britain

A Film-Themed Tour of the Cote d’Azur

As the French Riviera celebrates the 67th annual Cannes Film Festival, fasten your seat belts for a whirlwind ride along the Cote d’Azur.

Villefranche with cruise ship_2762

Villefranche-sur-Mer

“Belle! Belle!” a man calls out from a corner café as I round a bend in my 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster. Whether his hoot of approval and accompanying wolf whistle are for me or, more likely, for my rented wheels hardly matters. With the top down and the sunshine of the French Riviera casting a golden glow across the landscape, I’m smiling ear-to-ear either way.

I only hope I’m out of sight when I stall the car on a slope, the gears grinding and growling like an angry grizzly as I try to cajole the temperamental stick shift back into first.

Amy 1956 Porsche 356 Speedster from_1638

Photo by Connie Wang

Never mind. I’m going to enjoy my movie star moment, ensconced in a red bucket leather seat as I clear the coast and head into the pine-scented hills.

This is silver screen country, after all, where dozens of seminal films have been shot since the 1950s.

My hired ride from Rent a Classic Car is the same model favored by James Dean, and my hair is pulled back into a wind-defying blonde bun, a la Grace Kelly. All that’s missing from this picture is Cary Grant…and a snazzy score by Henry Mancini to drown out the carnage I’m inflicting on the motor.

Cruising in a vintage car is the perfect complement to my cinematic tour of the Cote d’Azur, which will take me from Cannes to the ridiculously picturesque mountaintop village of Eze, with stops in Antibes, St. Paul de Vence, Nice, and Villefranche-sur-Mer along the way.Read more: A Film-Themed Tour of the Cote d’Azur

Five Facts You Never Knew About Pompeii

From phallic signposts to quirky personal hygiene, here are five facts which your high school textbook never revealed…

Pompeii arch iPhone_4350

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (volcanic or otherwise), you will have certainly heard of Pompeii.

I’m referring not to the widely-panned recent film release, which even the actors probably hope you’ll soon forget, but to the ill-fated Italian city which was covered with up to 20 feet of ash and pumice when Mt. Vesuvius blew its lid in 79 AD. An estimated 16,000 people died in the cataclysmic eruption.

Every year, 2.5 million tourists make the pilgrimage to walk among the ruins north of Naples.

Last week, I joined the throngs, treading the same cobbled streets as this city’s ancient denizens, touching the two-thousand year-old bricks and marveling at the wealth of recovered artifacts, including casts of many of the volcano’s victims, frozen in time as they drew their last breaths.crouching figure among artifacts_4343

The man who really made the city come to life for me was my guide, Salvatore Spano, who has been leading tours of Pompeii for 42 of his 66 years.

He’s a walking Wikipedia, a master of historical minutia, but I’ve boiled down his wealth of knowledge to a wee list of “Top Five Entertaining Facts,” which you can whip out at your next cocktail party to amaze and delight your friends…or bore them into a hasty retreat if they overstay their welcome and threaten to empty your liquor cabinet.

I’ll let you be the judge.Read more: Five Facts You Never Knew About Pompeii

Ch”eco” Friendly Shops Around the World

You don’t have to throw yourself on the sartorial sword by dressing in a hemp sack and eucalyptus bark sandals to cosy up to Mother Nature’s good side.  Check out these six shops around the world, where you’ll find fashions and 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

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

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.

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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, is on display at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington through September 1.

"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