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.  (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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!”

“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.”

Chad William

Chad William

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.

(more…)

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). (more…)

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.

(more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

Reading the Riot Act: Reading Music Festival

Heading to Reading Music Festival this August? Sure, there are plenty of amazing acts lined up—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 from years past.

(more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

(more…)

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. (more…)

Maui: Off The “Beach”en Path in Hawaii

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

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

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

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

West Maui Mountain in the distance

West Maui Mountain in the distance

(more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

(more…)

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? (more…)

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.

(more…)

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 - 438Modern 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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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 on for details about some of the best foodie offerings in this hip west end neighbourhood. (more…)

For Cheap, Cheeky Bunks, Check Out Buzzing Generator London

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

bus_2964

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

Welcome to Generator London, one of the UK capital’s hottest hipster hangouts. But it’s not a club. It’s a new generation of hostel. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. 

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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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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

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. lion walk

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.

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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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

view of Lisbon from Crystal Serenity's Lido deck

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. (more…)

Good Gaudi! Barcelona, A Feast for the Senses

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.

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

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

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.

Chef Albert Adria

Chef Albert Adria

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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.

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. (more…)

A 007-style Adventure in the Swiss Alps

“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.

Paragliding in swiss alpsThe 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. (more…)

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.

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

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.

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.