How an Evening of Chablis Made a White Wine Lover out of Me

white grapes on the vineI have a confession to make. Well, quite a few, probably, but only one that is relevant to my purposes here.

I’m not a wine expert. There, I’ve said it. My ignorance is not for lack of “research,” mind you, but what little I do know mainly revolves around the world of red and can pretty much be summed up in three sentences:

  • Nothing good can come from a £4 bottle of Cotes du Rhone.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, drink red wine on your friend’s new white couch. That second bit I learned the hard way—as did my friend.
  • I’ve never met a Chateauneuf-du-Pape I wouldn’t drink to the last drop. Then again, I’ll drink most anything to the last drop, as evidenced below.
IMG_0013

The current contents of my liquor cabinet. When I say there’s nothing I wouldn’t drink, I mean NOTHING. Well, except maybe my bottle of Spisska Borovicka, which I’m fairly certain is Slovakian for “liquid death.”

Years ago, however, white wine was my tipple of choice. Of course, back then, it generally came from a box. That all changed when a friend of mine vowed to turn me into a red wine woman by uncorking three beefy bottles in one night. (No, that’s not a euphemism). But anyway, it worked.

Now, over the course of an elegant evening at the Andaz London Liverpool Street hotel, my oenophilic education is about to come full circle at an event dedicated to the veneration of pure Chablis.

Douglas Blyde

My host is sommelier and restaurant critic Douglas Blyde. Clad in a velvet blazer and burgundy tie, he paces the room like the love child of a fevered poet and an evangelical preacher, passionately, extemporaneously extolling the virtues of tonight’s favoured French region.

First, though, the bad news. “Chablis has had an annus horribilis,” Blyde admits. The region has suffered hail, floods, frost—nearly every tragedy you can image, aside from a Biblical plague of locusts. Up to 50 percent of this year’s crop has already been devastated.

“But that doesn’t mean that what does come out will be troubled in taste,” Blyde maintains. “If anything, it will be the golden child, the survivor.”Read more: How an Evening of Chablis Made a White Wine Lover out of Me

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

Istanbul: Giving Thanks for the Kindness of Strangers

“Not again,” I thought, when I heard about the terrorist attack at Turkey’s Ataturk airport. “Not Istanbul.” I have friends there, you see–some of whom I keep in touch with on Facebook, and others whose names I never knew, but who treated me with unexpected kindness I’ll never forget.

Minarets dot Istanbul's skyline on a blue sky day

I don’t know what your perception of this city might be, but I admit that the first time I visited on a brief cruise ship stopover, I felt I’d been there, done that, bought the rug.

Rug vendors at Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Rug vendors at the Grand Bazaar

Yet I’d heard so many people rave about Istanbul, I wondered if they were simply smokin’ from a different hookah, or if perhaps I had missed something during my whirlwind tour of “must see” sites: the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace. It was architectural overload, like staring at the sun.

The intricately tiled interior of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The intricately tiled interior of the Blue Mosque.

Don’t get me wrong. Istanbul’s wonders are worth visiting, particularly the Blue Mosque, where worshipers pray five times a day. But for the most part, the de rigueur list barely scratches the surface of what I had come to suspect might be the true spirit of this city, where residents respect their history, but live, love, work, dance, play and party in the present.

After dark, crowds fill Istikal Caddesi, one of Istanbul's most popular shopping avenues.

After dark, crowds fill Istikal Caddesi, one of Istanbul’s most popular avenues.

So I went back. I slowed down. I walked. I wondered. I got lost…more than once, actually…and I let Istanbul weave its spell around me. Most of all, I took time to meet the locals, and I was utterly charmed by their warmth, hospitality, and joie de vivre.

I want to share a few of those random moments with you. These are the memories I cherish most from my last visit, and the reasons why my heart breaks now when I hear how its citizens have suffered yet another tragic blow.

The shoe shine man who could restore anyone’s faith in humanity.

When I saw him sitting in the shade of a busy street, I paused to ask why there were youths performing at a bandstand in traditional Turkish dress, and why television cameras were set up across from his stand. But here we reached an impasse, because I speak almost no Turkish, and he spoke almost no English. “German?” he asked, struggling for some common language. I shook my head. “French?” I suggested. He shrugged helplessly.Read more: Istanbul: Giving Thanks for the Kindness of Strangers

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

Positano & Sorrento: A Tale of Two Cities

Positano, Italy path from Spiaggia di Fornillo towards Spiaggia Grande, overlooking beautiful blue-green bay

Positano

For some, the ideal holiday means rest and relaxation, where “shop ‘til you drop” is regarded as a legitimate form of exercise. For others, R&R translates as “ready and raring to go”…on challenging up-hill trails, if possible.

Italy’s Sorrentine Peninsula offers the perfect setting for both extremes. If six-inch stilettos are your style, choose Sorrento. If your “good shoes” are the pair least caked with mud, you’ll probably prefer Positano. Read on for tips on making the most of la dolce vita, however you define it.

Getting Your Bearings

On the north, overlooking the Bay of Naples, Sorrento is a civilized little city, filled with interesting stores, scores of restaurants, and cafes tailor-made for a sunset aperitif. Above all, it is beautifully, blessedly flat.

A sunny square in Sorrento, Italy

A sunny square in Sorrento

Walking more than 100 feet without encountering a steep slope or an even steeper set of stairs is something you’ll quickly learn to appreciate when you cross over the Lattari Mountains, the spiny backbone of the peninsula, and arrive on the Amalfi Coast.

This is perhaps Italy’s most scenic stretch of coastline. The road is curvier than Marilyn Monroe in a bikini, with hairpin turns that snake between jagged mountains on one side and eye-popping drops to the sea on the other.

A mind-bending stretch of road along the Amalfi Coast

A mind-bending stretch of road along the Amalfi Coast

The village of Atrani on the Amalfi Coast

Atrani

Even more impressive than the road are the villages themselves, which cling to cliffs with the tenacity of cacti in the desert.

Some seem to have been designed by an especially sadistic fan of M.C. Escher, with endless staircases leading to, well, more endless staircases, as epitomized Atrani, one of the tiny gems along the coast.

But the most famous of them all, with its Jenga-like jumble of gravity-defying bungalows, bougainvillea-draped terraces and jaw-dropping views, is postcard-perfect Positano. Read more: Positano & Sorrento: A Tale of Two Cities

Top Ten Wildest Styles at The Met’s Fashion Exhibition in New York

New York, New York: It’s hard to upstage a dress made from plastic drinking straws or a bridal bikini composed of strategically placed roses—two of the more far-fetched creations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Costume Institute exhibition, “Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology.”

straw dress & bride bikini

Left: Dress hand-embroidered with black drinking straws, by Gareth Pugh. Courtesy of Gareth Pugh. Right: Floral bridal bikini by Yves Saint Laurent for Saint Laurent, Courtesy of Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Paris. Photos © Amy Laughinghouse

Yet somehow, the ladies who walked the red carpet at the Met’s Costume Institute Gala managed it.

Kim Kardashian’s metallic ensemble drew comparisons to Star Wars’ C3PO. Taylor Swift was mocked for rocking up in a cocktail dress that looked like a swath of aluminum foil, and social media mavens suggested that Beyonce’s figure-hugging, flesh-colored latex gown was actually the skin of her husband’s alleged mistress. WHOA.

#metgalamemes on Instagram

#metgalamemes on Instagram

Now that the stars have receded back into the heavens, it’s time to take a closer look at the equally outrageous outfits actually on display through August 14. “Manus x Machina,” which showcases more than 170 designs, examines how innovations like 3-D printing, computer modeling and ultrasonic welding (whatever that is) are blurring the lines between haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear styles.

Want to see what else is a la mode in Manhattan? Here are the top ten ogle-worthy fashions I spotted at the Met during my recent visit.Read more: Top Ten Wildest Styles at The Met’s Fashion Exhibition in New York

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

When the government of New Zealand invited citizens to 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.”

But that’s what they got, and sooooo much more. Approximately 10,300 more wanna-be banners, to be exact(ish).

After months of unflagging (ahem) anticipation, the results are finally in. This week, Kiwis voted on their favourite design. But before “the big reveal,” let’s take a moment to see how the contest shaped up—and review the best of the bizarre designs. (Hang in there. I promise you, it’s worth it).

The initial task of whittling all those thousands of submissions down to a mere 40 fell to “The Panel,” as the official flag deciderers 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.

Personally, this flag would've got my vote. But that's probably because I designed it--and also, I've just got back from the pub, so my judgement may be slightly impaired.

Personally, I would have voted for this flag. But that’s probably because I designed it–and also, I’ve just got back from the pub, so my judgement may be slightly impaired.

Given the enterprising “anything goes” spirit of this endeavor, I had hoped that the ultimate victor would be selected in a televised cage match, where the participants would not be scored on the merits of their designs, but by their Smaug-slaying skills (or, at the very least, their bikini mud wrestling abilities).

In fact, voters selected what they deemed the best option from a field of five in late 2015, and the winner of that referendum—a triumphant fern—was then pitted against the old flag in a final vote in March 2016.

The fern is nice and all, but can we all just agree that Xena and Gollum would've kicked some serious derriere?

The fern is nice and all, but can we all just agree that Xena and Gollum would’ve kicked some serious derriere?

And the winner is…the original New Zealand flag, first adopted in 1902.

Seriously, New Zealand, you chose this over the rainbow-farting kiwi?

Seriously, New Zealand, you chose this over the rainbow-farting kiwi?

That’s right. The whole business cost $27 million dollars, and absolutely nothing changed.

The competition wasn’t a total waste, however. At least the good people of New Zealand proved they have a winning sense of humour.

So, lest their efforts be forgotten, here are the most, er, “creative” designs, which, unfortunately, will not be waving proudly over New Zealand’s parliament building anytime soon. 

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

Beluga Vodka at Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel in London: A Superior Sipping Experience

Flash back to the last millennium. (Wow, that makes me feel old). I’m standing on an Atlanta street corner outside the Metroplex, a grimy mosh pit of a music venue that never aspired to a title as noble as “nightclub,” waiting to see a punk band with a rude name that I wouldn’t repeat in polite company…if I ever kept any.

I’m drinking clear rot-gut fluid—ostensibly vodka, which tastes as though it was brewed in the bathtub of a flophouse—out of a Coca-Cola can. Why? Well, I’m technically a wee bit underage to be seen drinking alcohol, and hiding the contraband liquor in a soda can seems somehow classier than slurping out of a bottle in a paper sack. Not that anyone else cuing at the Metroplex is terribly bothered about keeping up appearances. They’re more concerned about keeping up their spiky, gravity-defying mohawks in the Southern humidity.

I have no pictures of the Metroplex, but this pretty much sums up how you felt after a night out there.

I have no pictures of the Metroplex, but this pretty much sums up how you felt after a night at that infamous venue.

Fast forward to last Friday. Now I’m sitting beside a marble fireplace in the Donovan Bar at Brown’s Hotel in London. This Rocco Forte property is a paean of wood-paneled elegance, lit by flickering candles and bright laughter.

Donovan's Bar, courtesy Brown's Hotel

Donovan’s Bar, courtesy Brown’s Hotel

Beluga Gold Vodka at Brown's Hotel

Beluga Gold Vodka at Brown’s Hotel

Once again, I’m drinking vodka—but this time, it’s served in a respectable shot glass emblazoned with a sturgeon, and the fluid is so smooth, it slips past my lips and glides over my tongue like a warm, breathy whisper.

While the stuff I guzzled outside the Metroplex may well have been poured from a gasoline can, this nectar comes in a limited edition bottle with an embossed silver and gold label.

It’s sealed with wax and opened with a tiny, Barbie-sized hammer and brush, for heaven’s sake.

This, my friends, is Beluga Gold Line Vodka.

It’s made by the Mariinsk Distillery in Siberia, and it’s not even the same species as any vodka I’ve tasted before. It is, quite simply, dangerously delicious stuff. Read more: Beluga Vodka at Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel in London: A Superior Sipping Experience

Scotland’s Search for a Fetching Ambassadog

Tongues—and tails—are wagging over VisitScotland’s canny new campaign for an “ambassadog.” Does your rambling Rover have what it takes to be Scotland’s V.I.P. (Very Important Pooch)?

Will Scotland's new "ambassadog" be a Tartan Terrier, or perhaps a Loch Ness Labrador?

If you’ve got a wee beastie as cute as this lassie, you’d be barking mad not to apply. (You knew that was coming). Photo courtesy VisitScotland.

The lucky dog chosen for the role over all other competitors will be treated to a holiday around Scotland with his or her owner. Canine applicants must be “outgoing and sociable,” and the winner will have the opportunity to blog about the experience on www.visitscotland.com. So if your pup can type, he’ll probably win paws-down.

The position is open for all dogs from any region of Scotland, whether he’s a West Highland Tartan Terrier or a Loch Ness Labrador. To bone up on details, click here. The deadline is April 6, 2016.

May the best man…er, make that “man’s best friend”…win.

 

 

Stargazing in Dubrovnik, Croatia: Game of Thrones

Lovrijenac Fortress (left) and Bokar Tower (right) flank Dubronik's Pile Harbor. All have featured in scenes from "Game of Thrones."

Lovrijenac Fortress (left) and Bokar Tower (right) flank Dubronik’s Pile Harbor. All have featured in scenes from “Game of Thrones.”

Tom Cruise. Kevin Spacey. Beyoncé. Jay-Z. John Malkovich. Richard Gere. Catherine Zeta-Jones. Michael Douglas. Oh, and pretty much the entire cast of “Game of Thrones.”

No, that’s not a list of celebrities who have been papped tumbling tipsily out of taxis, or who eat only organic macrobiotic algae or insist on traveling with an albino pet monkey named Zoolander. Rather, it’s a red carpet rundown of stars who have been spotted in one of Europe’s hottest destinations—the historic walled city of Dubrovnik, abutting the Adriatic Sea. Read more: Stargazing in Dubrovnik, Croatia: Game of Thrones

Explore the Real World of Downton Abbey in England

With the airing of Downton Abbey’s final episode, avid viewers may be feeling bereft. But take heart. You can still follow in the footsteps of your favorite footmen, comely maids and high-spirited heiresses when you head to England to tour this hit series’ most atmospheric film locations.

Downton Abbey cast (C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE

(C) Nick Briggs/Carnival Films 2014 for MASTERPIECE

HIGHCLERE CASTLE

Read more: Explore the Real World of Downton Abbey in England

Tallinn: Rock up to Estonia’s Cool Capital

Tallinn is making up for lost time. After being bandied about by the USSR and Nazi Germany before finally gaining independence 25 years ago, the Estonian capital today is like a freshman at university, relishing a taste of freedom, revved up on Red Bull and ready to party.

A DJ spins tunes at Must Puudel (Black Poodle), a retro bar in Tallinn's Old Town. Copyright Amy Laughinghouse.

A DJ spins tunes at Must Puudel (Black Poodle), a retro bar in Tallinn’s Old Town. Tragically, Cliff Richards’ “Devil Woman” was not on the playlist.

Yet wherever you go, there’s history, smacking you on the back of the head like that last ill-advised shot of Jagermeister at one of the city’s late-night dance halls, all juxtaposed against a kind of frenetic, youthful joy and capitalist ambition. If you want to experience a society teetering at a cultural and temporal crossroads, this is the time to visit Tallinn. Read more: Tallinn: Rock up to Estonia’s Cool Capital

How it Feels to Save a Life

Michael Bobich doesn’t consider himself a hero. But when he discovered he had the ability to step forward and save someone’s life, he didn’t hesitate.

Michael and Rita Bobich

Michael and Rita Bobich

Twelve years ago, Michael became a living kidney donor.

Today, the recipient is still enjoying the incredible gift of a new lease on life, thanks to Michael’s selfless act.

I hope his story, told in his own words, will motivate others to do the same.

Maybe it will even help us find a kidney for my dear friend Jennifer Hasty.

With her unflagging cheer and irrepressible smile, Jen continues to be an inspiration to everyone she meets, despite her deteriorating health. I’d like to see that smile shine for many decades more.

Jennifer Hasty and her husband, Clint

Jennifer Hasty and her husband, Clint

Right. I’ll let Michael take it from here.

Read more: How it Feels to Save a Life

The Cheesiest Way to Say “I Love You”

Some people boycott Valentine’s Day, denouncing it as “too cheesy.” Yes, too cheesy–like that’s a bad thing. But, taken literally, I say, “Amen, and pass the pressed curds.”

display of French goat's cheese camembert, mini log and fresh French chèvre

French goat’s cheese camembert, mini log and fresh French chèvre

That’s right, people. I’m suggesting eschewing bouquets of wilting red roses and giving the gift of cheese for V-Day. After all, who can resist a hearty hunk of fromage? Unless, of course, your lover is lactose intolerant–because, let’s face it, nothing kills the mood like stomach pains and flatulence.

Now, I’d never recommend that you simply sling a block of shrink-wrapped cheddar in a plastic sack at your sweetheart’s feet, and if a bit of canoodling is on the menu, by all means bypass the blue. (Although it’s one of my favourites, I think we can all agree that it smells a bit like unwashed feet).

No, I’m talking about preparing a romantic meal–wine, candlelight, cloth napkins, the works–with French goat cheese, better known as chèvre. Why chèvre? Because it’s mild, versatile, and your lips kind of pucker when you say it.

Admittedly, ever since I set my kitchen on fire, I rarely attempt anything more challenging than uncorking a bottle of wine. Fortunately, my better half, the Silver Fox, is a culinary wizard, and he’s perfected three recipes, using three different types of chèvre, to accommodate varying levels of ability. (Or inability, in my case.)  Read more: The Cheesiest Way to Say “I Love You”

London’s Dishoom Packs a Punch

Dishoom is, apparently, the Indian equivalent of “kapow”–and I can confirm that breakfast at the Bombay-inspired eatery certainly packs a punch. In fact, it’s so popular that, even on a cold winter’s day, crowds are lined up thirty deep outside the King’s Cross location in London, waiting for their chance to belly up to a heaping plate and bottomless tumbler of warm spiced chai.

Crowds gather outside the windows at Dishoom's King's Cross location.

Crowds gather outside the windows at Dishoom’s King’s Cross location.

Here’s a top tip, though. Make a reservation, and you can breeze past the crowds. Don’t forget to channel the graceful spirit of Princess Di, offering a bashful, apologetic smile as you sidestep the queue, who may collectively raise a frozen finger or two in what you can opt to interpret as a “salute” to your clever forethought. Read more: London’s Dishoom Packs a Punch

Best London Walk: Time-Traveling Along the Thames

With the British pound plummeting to its lowest value against the dollar in years, London is currently a bargain for American travelers. If you want to stretch your budget even further, it’s as easy as a walk in the park…or, rather, along the river.

London Eye viewed across the ThamesAs I’ve discovered while entertaining visitors in the city I’ve called home for nearly a decade, one of the best (and cheapest) ways to acquaint yourself with the capital is by pounding the pavement along the Thames.

With this four mile, self-guided walking tour, you can experience 1,000 years of history, without the aid of Dr. Who’s TARDIS. You might opt to spring for admission to some of the sterling attractions along the way, but you aren’t obliged to burn a lot of cash…just calories. Read more: Best London Walk: Time-Traveling Along the Thames

Croatia: Taster Tour with Abercrombie & Kent

Some seasoned travelers may cast a weary eye upon Europe. London, Paris, Rome…check, check, and check. But if you think you’ve “been there, done that,” it may be time to consider Croatia.

A ferry awaits passengers in Split, Croatia. Beyond, the palm-fringed Riva promenade skirts the edge of the harbor and the Mosor Mountains rise up behind the city.

A ferry awaits passengers in Split, Croatia. Beyond, the palm-fringed Riva promenade skirts the edge of the harbor and the Mosor Mountains rise up behind the city.

Since joining the European Union in 2013, this slice of the former Yugoslavia has officially hit the big time. Twenty years after the Croatian War of Independence, its once battle-scarred cities have been beautifully rebuilt, and the country wants the world to know: it’s open for business.

If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in the sapphire Adriatic Sea abutting its shores or discovered the museum-packed capital of Zagreb, Abercrombie & Kent’s nine-day Connections tour–“Croatia: Jewel of the Coast”–offers a tantalizingly moreish taste of this croissant-shaped nation. Read more: Croatia: Taster Tour with Abercrombie & Kent

Chatting with CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg about Murder, Mystery and Whisky in London

Whether you want to know where to go to see Scotland Yard’s original evidence and artifacts from London’s most notorious crime scenes–or if you’re curious about the best Scottish single malts to whet your whistle with (something I’d never attempt to say after a wee dram or two)–check out my interview with the world’s most charming Travel Detective, Peter Greenberg.

Travel writer Amy Laughinghouse with "The Travel Detective," Peter Greenberg

We’re probably the only people ever to drink single malt out of plastic cups at the uber-elegant The Goring Hotel in London, where he recorded his show.

As always, he’s got a terrific line-up of guests, but if you only have 7 minutes, you can fast-forward to our chat (<–click here) which begins 1 hour, 13 minutes into his show.

To hear my first interview with Peter, where we discuss the words you should NEVER say in Britain, click here.

To learn more about “The Crime Museum Uncovered” exhibition at The Museum of London, click here.

If anyone out there was wondering, the website ABroadInBritain.com was already taken. D’oh! Guess I’m sticking with AmyLaughinghouse.com. There’s only one of those!

Maison Assouline: A London Bookstore…With a Bar (and a Sultan’s Den)

Dozens of hardback tomes, as big and sturdy as a fleet of family Bibles on steroids, line theatrically lit shelves. Banquette sofas fill one corner of the double-height room, which is cushioned underfoot by a plush Persian rug. A barman is slinging cocktails behind a polished mahogany bar, and on this particular night—a special event for the luxurious Aman resorts—waiters are circulating with bijoux nibbles.crowd of people viewed from above at Maison Assouline, 196A Piccadilly, London

And, oh yes, a nude, nubile nymph pores over the pages of a book in the midst of it all. Read more: Maison Assouline: A London Bookstore…With a Bar (and a Sultan’s Den)

#KIDNEY4JEN: You Could Save A Life

One organ donor can save up to eight lives. One of them could be my best friend.

Jennifer Hasty with her husband and son. #KIDNEY4JEN

Jennifer Hasty with her husband and son. #KIDNEY4JEN

Her name is Jennifer Hasty. 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 smile that rarely leaves her face.

She’s one of my dearest friends in the world, and she needs a kidney.

Jennifer’s Story

Jennifer’s kidneys first began to fail years ago. Why? Her doctors think it was due to an infection that she acquired as a teenager while doing missionary work in Haiti. Yep, that’s Jen. While most of us were mooning over posters of Duran Duran tacked to the walls of our comfortable middle class homes, she was volunteering in poverty-stricken communities.

Read more: #KIDNEY4JEN: You Could Save A Life

Christie Country: The Queen of Crime’s Legacy Lives on in Coastal England

Greenway ©NTPL-Mark Passmore

Greenway ©NTPL-Mark Passmore

Devon, England: On an isolated promontory above the River Dart, a Georgian mansion hunkers down amid dense, tangled woods and gardens.

Tucked well away from any major road, it seems like the perfect place for a murder. In fact, it’s been the scene of several.

One man perished of hemlock poisoning in the garden. A girl was strangled in the boathouse, and a body was once concealed in a studded chest that dominates the hallway.

Fortunately, those dark deeds took place only in the fertile imagination of Agatha Christie, who featured her holiday home, Greenway, in Five Little Pigs, Dead Man’s Folly, and Ordeal by Innocence. The trunk was also a key element in her short story The Mystery of the Spanish Chest.

Located half an hour south of Torquay, the “English Riviera” town where Christie was born on September 15, 1890, Greenway will look familiar to fans of the Hercule Poirot mysteries. David Suchet, who played the brilliant, mustachioed Belgian detective for 13 seasons,  filmed one of his last episodes, “Dead Man’s Folly,” here in 2013.

Hercule Poirot, courtesy The National Trust.

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot © National Trust.

But beyond the macabre thrill of finding yourself at a fictional murder scene, visitors to the home have a rare opportunity to read between the lines and ferret out fascinating clues about the famous—and famously shy—Dame Agatha.Read more: Christie Country: The Queen of Crime’s Legacy Lives on in Coastal England

Calvia, Mallorca: Top Ten Reasons to Visit This Mediterranean Island Oasis

With its silky beaches, chic shops, luxury marinas, and eclectic dining scene, Calvia is a favourite European escape. Discover the top ten attractions of this sun-soaked municipality on the southwestern coast of Mallorca, one of the hottest hideaways in Spain’s Balearic Islands.Two parasailers float over the water just off the beach at Magaluf on the Spanish island of Majorca.

Read more: Calvia, Mallorca: Top Ten Reasons to Visit This Mediterranean Island Oasis

Europe’s Crackin’ Christmas Markets

Lose the “bah humbug” blues with a walk through these winter wonderlands

A Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. Credit Christophe Hamm, Greater Strasbourg Tourist Office.

A Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. Credit Christophe Hamm, Greater Strasbourg Tourist Office.

An evening spent mingling with the pink-cheeked crowds at festive fairs throughout Europe could transform the most curmudgeonly Scrooge and the greenest of Grinches into stocking-stuffing, carol-crooning converts.

Imagine rustic chalets overflowing with handicrafts that might have been fashioned by elves themselves; historic town squares illuminated by twinkling strands of lights; and local delicacies, from bratwurst to pastries, washed down with mugs of mulled wine.

Nutcrackers in Hamburg, Germany. Credit www.mediaserver.hamburg.de/C. Spahrbier

Holiday gifts in Hamburg, Germany. Credit www.mediaserver.hamburg.de/C. Spahrbier

Here’s a look at some of the best cities to stoke your holiday spirit.

Berlin, Germany

Read more: Europe’s Crackin’ Christmas Markets

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, you would never speak to that man, or even look him in the eye.Read more: Get Lost! In the nicest possible way…

A Ghoulishly Good Time in Scary Ol’ England

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: A Ghoulishly Good Time in Scary Ol’ England

Be Your Own James Bond In London, England

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 London, England

Secrets of London’s Crime Museum: Rare Evidence Finally Revealed

A handgun used by notorious London gangster Ronald Kray is one of the items featured in the Museum of London's "The Crime Museum Uncovered" exhibition.

A handgun used by Ronald Kray is featured in new exhibit.

The Museum of London is giving amateur sleuths and clued-in fans of television mystery dramas an unprecedented opportunity to see how real British detectives have solved some of the UK’s most infamous crimes.

“The Crime Museum Uncovered” exhibition, which opened on October 9, features around 600 artifacts from notorious cases involving the likes of Jack the Ripper and London gangsters Ronald and Reggie Kray, portrayed by Tom Hardy in the new film Legend.

The objects are culled from the London Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, founded in 1875 as an educational resource for the police. For more than a century, its contents have been shrouded in mystery, earning it the nickname “the Black Museum.” Access to this facility in New Scotland Yard is strictly controlled and typically reserved for members of law enforcement. Mere curiosity seekers need not apply.

images of display cases from Scotland Yard's Crime Museum

Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum © Museum of London

Now, for the first time, the Museum of London is shedding light on this collection, enabling the public to see how actual cases were investigated and examine damning evidence used to secure convictions.

Read more: Secrets of London’s Crime Museum: Rare Evidence Finally Revealed

PerfectCellar.com: The Match.com of the Wine World

wine glass on grand piano

Making time to wine and dine: A PerfectCellar event in The Clock Tower at St. Pancras.

Here’s a common enough scenario. You’re searching for a soul mate–or hey, maybe just someone to share a Tinder moment with–so you turn to the Internet to  peruse your options.

You quickly skim through descriptions provided by potential partners. “Likes puppies, sunsets, and long walks on the beach. Never clips toenails on public transportation. Master of the back massage. Mildly obsessed with feet. Afflicted by a paralyzing fear of clowns.”

Aside from a questionable foot fetish and the clown thing (although honestly, who doesn’t think they’re creepy), this could be promising, right? (Hey, it’s a Saturday night, you’re lonely, and you’ve just polished off your third G&T. It’s possible your standards are slipping slightly).

Anyway, you think you might give this one a shot. But let’s be honest. No way are you going to commit to a drink together until you sneak a peek at a photo.

Now, imagine choosing a wine like you might choose your next date. That, in essence, is the concept behind PerfectCellar.com. This boutique online service, which is the exclusive UK importer for 25 wine producers from around the world, understands that a juicy photo is the best way to whet one’s appetite.

Read more: PerfectCellar.com: The Match.com of the Wine World

Berlin Comes to Ol’ Blighty

For one week only, Londoners can travel to Berlin for the cost of an Overground ticket.

Berlin sign at pop-up shop in Shoreditch, London

No, this isn’t one of those crazy flight deals on a “bargain” airline that makes its money back by charging for oxygen, seatbelts and toilet paper sold by the square inch.

Rather, there’s a new pop-up shop on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch showcasing nifty gifts and high-octane bottled libations made in Berlin. The store is open through Sunday, October 11, 2015…not-so-coincidentally coinciding with London’s “Cocktail Week.”interior of Berlin pop-up shop in Shoreditch, London

“We wanted to create a place where you can feel the spirit of Berlin,” explains Burkhard Kieker, CEO of VisitBerlin, who is heading up this European pop-up promotional tour for Germany’s capital. The tour began in Stockholm on 21 September and will up sticks next for Vienna, followed by Amsterdam and Paris.

Kieker attributes Berlin’s appeal to “the three T’s: talent, technology and tolerance. This is our recipe for success.” 

So what happens when the best of Berlin—a city renowned for its liberality and creativity–meets achingly hip East London? Here some highlights from today’s grand opening.

Read more: Berlin Comes to Ol’ Blighty

Ireland’s Ashford Castle: Historic Grande Dame Gets a Facelift

If you’ve never walked into a hotel room and burst into tears—of joy, that is–then it’s time you visited the newly refurbished Ashford Castle in Cong, Ireland. The 800-year-old stone stronghold, recently named “Hotel of the Year” by the Virtuoso luxury travel network, reopened in Spring 2015 following a US $75 million dollar roof-to-cellar renovation.

aerial view of Ashford Castle on the shores of Lough Corrib

Courtesy Ashford Castle

Frankly, its super-luxurious makeover has left some folks feeling a bit verklempt. Duty Manager Emer Mulcahy has actually seen guests cry when they’re shown to their rooms, “because they’re so beautiful,” she explains. “They’ve got the ‘wow’ factor.”

Ashford Castle room 326

Room 326, courtesy Ashford Castle

Read more: Ireland’s Ashford Castle: Historic Grande Dame Gets a Facelift

Amsterdam: The West of the Story

life-sized cutout sign of nearly naked pin-up posing next to a tattoo sign in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

XXX action, scantily clad women, mind-bending substances and tattoos. That pretty much sums up Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

Amsterdam is best known for its risqué Red Light District, where working girls pose in neon-lit windows and “coffee shops” sell substances substantially more mood altering than a Starbucks’ triple venti no foam latte.

Veer west off the tourist trail, however, and you’ll encounter a completely different city. Picture buzzing local restaurants and cafés, one-of-a-kind shops and hipster havens that have brought previously derelict areas back to life.

Read more: Amsterdam: The West of the Story

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: London, 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: London, England’s Most Outrageous Street Party

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 

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

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, 2015, 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 London

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

Scilly Escape: The Land that Crime Forgot in Cornwall, England

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 in Cornwall, England

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! Warner Bros. Studio Tour London

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 London 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?

green screen broom ride at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London in Leavesden, England.

You can take home a video of you riding a Nimbus 2000 superimposed over London’s 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, parked alongside a recreated Platform 9 3/4.

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

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 in England

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 in England

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

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, England

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, England

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 England’s 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 England’s Lake District: Bring Your Hiking Boots—and Maybe Your Flippers

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, England. 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 London’s River 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 London’s River Thames

A Film-Themed Tour of France’s 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 France’s Cote d’Azur

Five Facts You Never Knew About Pompeii, Italy

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, Italy

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

London’s 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: London’s 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, Tahiti

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, Tahiti

A Southern Belle in Britain: Life Lessons in London

In 2007, 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: Life Lessons in London

Paul A Young’s chocolate tea promises to be a sweet success at London’s 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 London’s 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”

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

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

Say WHAT? On the Road with Foot in Mouth

New Year’s Resolution: Improve Your Foreign Language Skills–But Beware Those Slips of the Tongue.

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that your pig is fat. It's just ugly.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that your pig is fat. It’s just ugly.

As a traveller with a love of foreign lands, I’ve often wished for a Babel fish.

This ingenious invention, proposed by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, would enable anyone to understand anything being said around them, no matter what the language.

While I’m waiting for reality to catch up with Adams’ imagination, I’ve turned to Duolingo. Named Apple’s App of the Year in December 2013, this free tool offers instruction in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese and English.

With cartoon-like graphics and cheerful trumpets rewarding every minor triumph, it exudes all the fanfare of a video game, albeit with considerably less violence than most…unless you count the broken hearts that crumble when you fail a lesson.

I signed up for Duolingo’s French tutorial in early January, and so far, très bien. I don’t expect to find myself waxing poetic, Parisian-style, over the collected works of Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert anytime soon. But I do think that when travelling in another country, it’s only polite to learn the most basic phrases.

Fortunately, some signs, like this one in Thailand, need no translation.

Fortunately, some signs, like this one in Thailand, need no translation.

“Hello,” “thank you,” “good-bye,” and “another beer, please” (which quickly necessitates the question, “Where is the bathroom?”) will go a long way, baby. And no, speaking English loudly and slowly doesn’t count.Read more: Say WHAT? On the Road with Foot in Mouth

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

One Sweet Ride: Forget flat tires. Just hold onto your (Boa) Thong.  

My mahout, Leim

My mahout, Leim, with Boa-Thong

Phang Nga, Thailand–How do you mount an elephant? It is not, as you might imagine, a conundrum I’ve often considered, but as I survey the vast acreage of a 6,500 pound female at an elephant camp in Phang Nga, I realize this is not going to be a walk in the park.

In fact, it’s supposed to be 90 minute-long ramble along a dirt and gravel road threading through a rubber plantation a few miles inland from Thailand’s famous golden beaches.

A mahout—as the elephant guides are known—makes it look easy, of course.

How do you mount an elephant? Well, you can wine her and dine her and take her to a movie--or skip the foreplay and just scamper up one of these wooden structures to hop in her basket. (Not a euphemism).

How do you mount an elephant? Well, you can wine her and dine her and take her to a movie–or skip the courtship and simply scamper up one of these wooden structures to hop in her basket.

Using the animal’s bended knee as a step, he’ll swing himself up, Tarzan-like, with a rope. Fortunately for greenhorns like myself, Sairung Elephant Camp—where half a dozen mahouts squat in the shade of primitive huts, their laundry flapping damply in the humid breeze–provides a wooden platform the approximate height of the elephant, allowing you to step right onto the back of your ride.

My husband, Scott, sensibly ensconces himself on a bench strapped upon the back of our lumbering beast, Boa-Thong (which I believe is Thai for “tiny underwear”), and while it would easily accommodate two, I’ve decided I want the “real” experience, riding on Boa-Thong’s neck.

Gingerly, I scoot forward until I’m planted just behind her ears—and instantly regret it.Read more: One Sweet Ride: Forget flat tires. Just hold onto your (Boa) Thong.  

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

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

Caribbean 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: Caribbean 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

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 one of my earlier posts, 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 on June 10, 2009, 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 one day, 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.