NYC from Hotel Americano
So good they named it twice… so the saying goes… but there really is something rather marvelous about the City that Never Sleeps. On a recent business visit I was pleasantly surprised by the urban-chic hospitality at the Hotel Americano (518 W 27th Street) which although small is absolutely perfect for a short 4-5 days stay. The rooms are very simply furnished in a utilitarian manner, with a Japanese-style raised bed platform defining the sleeping area, and a small table and chair providing a space to eat from room service (which is all served in bento boxes) or to work. Every room has a pre-loaded iPad2; when I arrived into my room mine was playing the theme from Grease which made me smile. In the lobby is a smart cafe bar serving snacks and drinks and a full-service restaurant and terrace complete the facilities.

Round the corner from this hostelry is another find worth knowing about – a really great neighbourhood restaurant called Bottino (248 10th Avenue) I had their golden beet salad to start followed by grilled salmon… simple but very well put together and dinner for one (I had a copy of New York magazine for company) came in at 45 bucks including a “seasonal” lager and sparkling water. The service was absolutely impeccable and lightning-fast… I noted that it was much more sedate for those dining a deux showing a thoughtful approach to tailoring the experience for those eating because they didn’t fancy another room service supper (me) and those that wanted to make their evening last.

One of the best things about Chelsea aside from the rather nice galleries however has to be the Chelsea Market which is to be found on 9th Avenue between 15th & 16th Streets. Occupying a former biscuit factory, this space is now home to a catwalk of food shops, selling such deliciousness as fresh lobster (The Lobster Place) and heavenly chocolate brownies (Fat Witch Bakery). There are enough places here to provide novelty at lunchtime for over a fortnight as well as shops selling gifts, foods, wine, flowers and books.

New York isn’t all about skyscrapers and uptown shopping… areas such as Chelsea and The Village are deserving of being destinations-within-a-destination in their own right and I delighted in experiencing their unique and friendly environs.

Bottino NYC

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Photo taken by The ClientOverindulgence is somewhat difficult to avoid in France. Foie gras, smoked duck, and delicious cheeses were to be enjoyed in abundance on my last visit when I was treated to a few nights away in Normandy. We stayed at the charming Chateau Villeray; a large house which had clearly enjoyed many a heyday some decades past. The welcome was warm and genuine and it felt very much like staying at the home of a distant relative. We were left almost entirely to our own devices and the rich velvet upholstery of the sofas in the salon enveloped us as we read, caught up on email and idled away an afternoon. There is a nice pool and sun terrace at the sister property, a mill house at the bottom of the steep hill atop which the chateau sits, and the weather afforded us a couple of late afternoon hours sunning, swimming and drinking very generously proportioned G&Ts.

Apart from the sheer joy of being away for a few days R&R, the highlight of our trip was an afternoon at the Fondation Claude Monet in Giverny. Monet’s house and pretty gardens are open to the public and for €14 your ticket also permits access to the Impressionist museum nearby.

The gardens close to the house (despite being formally laid out) are a riot of chaotic planting. Blurry borders spill over with multicoloured flowers and foliage. An ancient gnarled apple tree espaliered at waist height along the edge of a border was particularly memorable. Further into the gardens a tunnel leads the visitor under the road and up into the famous water lily gardens for which Monet is probably best known. He painted some 250 works on this theme alone. There is a strong Japanese aesthetic which I personally find very beautiful and there are several places along the winding lakeside path when one feels one has been transported to a Japanese temple garden. It goes without saying that the water lilies themselves are a major feature and their delicate pink and white petals floating on the still surface of the water cast mesmerising reflections which captivate the visitor as entirely as they did the artist.

Photo by The ClientThe house itself was very busy partly because of intermittent heavy rain showers causing great scrums for shelter inside. I could happily have not ventured in and avoided the slightly voyeuristic sensation of snooping around someone else’s gaff. Aside from the extensive collection of Japanese prints, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the interior and following the other visitors around felt slightly obligatory.

The jewel of this place is without doubt the water lily garden with its towering bamboo forest, Japanese maples, still waters and everywhere dazzling dancing light.Photo by The Client

Chateau Villeray
61110 Condeau au Perche
France
www.domainedevilleray.com

Fondation Claude Monet
Rue Claude Monet
27620 Giverny, France
www.fondation-monet.fr

Every now and then my mind wanders off into a little daydream, and a recurring theme for me is to think about what I would do for my perfect dinner party. I think about guests, linen, crockery, flowers, the menu… and of course the surroundings. Fuel for this fantasy fire has been well and truly dispensed by a visit this week to the artful surroundings of One Aldwych, just off the Strand.

Whilst the Savoy was going through its root-and-branch refurbishment, this place was the only decent hostelry in an area which is congested and profoundly overbusy with tourists and theatre goers… nothing wrong with that of course, but does make it a little inconducive to a relaxed evening when you can’t get a taxi outside for love nor money and navigating a chewing-gum strewn pavement in your best pumps rather takes the edge off. So I haven’t been to this place more than a handful of times before.

However, once through the doors and greeted warmly by the doorman, I was reminded that One Aldwych is home to a room which has given me a new backdrop for my fantasy dinner… The Dome Suite… formerly the boardroom of the newspaper company which was this listed building’s original occupant… is a truly intimate and elegant space. Off an amply proportioned suite of bedroom, bathroom and sitting room,  it is circular, which lends itself perfectly to a feeling of inclusiveness and friendship, and the round table in the centre is perfectly aligned with, you guessed it, a soaring dome above. One feels that sitting at this table with nine of your best people would be somewhat akin to being a Knight of the Round Table, except you’re more conveniently located than in Camelot.

Flowers can be supplied by the creative in-house team, and if the display in the Lobby Bar is anything to go by… they are capable of truly great things. A chaotic, firework-esque explosion of Phoenix Palms, Agapanthus, Alliums, Monstera leaves and hanging Vanda orchids currently towers above the drinkers, creating the feeling as though one is the temporary inhabitant of a tonally-managed lilac rainforest.

If stopping by briefly, a cocktail in the Lobby Bar gives visitors the opportunity to enjoy a sculpture by one of my all time favourite artists, Emily Young. Dionysus – Goddess of Chaos & Wine  is an object of great sensitivity and beauty which if I could lift my own bodyweight in stone I would happily pop into my tote and take home.

One Aldwych
http://www.onealdwych.com/
London WC2B 4BZ
Tel: +44 (0)20 7300 1000

Emily Young, Sculptor
www.emilyyoung.com

Those renegade Royals Edward & Wallis lived a life of luxury-in-exile and this version of their monogram is my favourite. W and E are both angular letters and therefore work brilliantly together as modified regular hexagons. I have seen this monogram applied to a clutch bag belonging to the Duchess in the catalogue of their belongings… I am trying to find an image of it. In the meantime, I noted that the Duchess had her own stationery engraved with this same W by itself…

W Monogram with Crown, Wallis Duchess of Windsor

Whilst mentioning the Windsors it is worth noting that the Duke & Duchess’s French country house, Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, has been bought by The Landmark Trust and is now available to be enjoyed by everyone as a holiday let. Located 35km south west of Paris,  the house and several guest cottages provided the backdrop for weekends attended by such luminaries as Cecil Beaton, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor, who no doubt talked jewellery with her hostess during cocktail hour. The gardens are said to be charming and were tended by the Duke himself, who loved to potter about in the flower beds. The main house, Le Moulin, is actually the beautiful converted 18th Century grey stone mill house pictured below and looks perfect for a holiday with friends.

The Landmark Trust was founded in 1965 to rescue and restore noteworthy buildings and, once returned to their former glory, to let them out for holidays, thereby making the buildings pay their way. In this respect it is a really fantastic charity and if you are planning a holiday in the UK or France this year, do have a look on their website. They might have the perfect place.

The Landmark Trust
http://www.landmarktrust.org.uk

De-licious Delaire.

10/03/2011

So THIS is Cape Town, a truly remarkable city right at the bottom of the world. Looking out over the expanse of blue South Atlantic ocean with the unfathomable mass of Table Mountain at your back, the realisation strikes that there is nothing standing between you and South America, far far away to the west. Upon disembarking from the comfy Virgin Atlantic flight which swept over the vast expanses of sub-Saharan Africa beneath us,  a glance at the Arrivals board showed a later 3pm landing expected from Antarctica. I like this place already for its adventurous spirit and I haven’t even left the airport.

I keep forgetting that this blog is not about travel… But bear with me. For this post isn’t about Cape Town at large, rather an exceptional place outside the city which everyone should come to at least once to experience an all-encompassing, delightful, beautiful and soulful dining experience which when I think back about how divine it was, the whole afternoon seems like a dream.

The Delaire Graff Estate might sound familiar, and if it does that might be because the owner is Lawrence Graff, the famous diamond dealer who has bought and sold many of the world’s largest and most precious large stones. The diamond business clearly pays well, for he has created an utterly magical winery estate an hour from  Cape Town using my favourite uber-designer to realise the vision, David Collins.

Collins has surpassed himself in the creation of a series of spaces which link seamlessly to the natural beauty of the mountains and valley which surround you.  The interiors are, at the risk of sounding breathlessly hyperbolic, sublime. The main dining room opens onto a terrace which is perfectly orientated to take in the glorious surroundings, and appointed with elegantly comfortable furniture. An hour here feels like ten minutes for each turn of the head brings the eye to rest upon another, lovelier, more engaging object, artwork, fabric or landscape, so much so that it is almost hypnotic.

Lunch here lasted for hours in an almost semi-conscious wave of deliciousness. For those interested in such things I started with a carpaccio of tuna, followed by South Africa’s signature fish, Kingclip. I finished with a pistachio nougat served with rose geranium ice cream.

There is something about this place which defies description. It helped that the assembled lunch party was vivacious and fun, but if there is a God for all things beautiful, delicious and exceptional then I think I just found out where he lives.

Delaire Graff Estate
Helshoogte Pass
Stellenbosch
South Africa
www.delaire.co.za

One of my birthday presents back in the summer was a beautifully wrapped and ribboned set of Nancy Mitford paperbacks. The thoughtful giver of said gift had mentioned his love of the Mitfords over a cocktail at the Connaught and following that delightful evening had (very generously) sent me a copy of The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Moseley. It was with great enthusiasm that I began delving in to their gossipy world, first of all with the letters and subsequently Nancy’s novels. I started with The Pursuit of Love, followed by Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and finally Don’t Tell Alfred.

Discovering that another friend of mine is a devoted Mitford fan, I arranged an afternoon tea at the Wolseley so that the two of them could meet. What better than to sit and chat about these delicious books over a glass of champagne, some delicious scones and a pot of Jasmine tea? It really could not have gone better. From our original three we became five, two of whom were unknown to me until meeting that afternoon. It was so enriching to be among both friends and strangers alike, each bringing their own knowledge (dwarfing my own) and perspective on a shared interest.

I have decided that afternoon tea is the perfect interlude to conduct such an enjoyable few hours discourse and henceforth shall make a point of arranging such gatherings more frequently. I quite understand why all the big hotels make such a fuss of it – The Berkeley with their “Pret a Por-tea” fashion-themed offering, and Claridge’s of course setting the benchmark. Apparently The Ritz has rather gone off of late… ever since they allowed photography according to my friend in the know who described the scene recently as like “feeding time at the zoo”.

Nancy would not approve.

“…I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.”
Spencer Tracy

I will make any excuse to go to Claridge’s. Walking through the polished marble foyer ignites the imagination and energises even the weariest soul. It is not surprising that this is the home-away-from home for many of London’s elite visitors and is perceived by many to be the natural choice for visiting royalty and heads of state (when not staying at Buckingham Palace). More egalitarian elite include such recent guests as Marc Jacobs, who was in town to launch the new (and magnificent) Louis Vuitton Maison on Bond Street last week.

Thierry Despont re-interpreted the foyer’s interior to create a new perspective on ’30’s luxury back in 1996. Over a decade later the space could not look more timeless. His vision must have been massively enriched and inspired by such exquisite antique fixtures as the Lalique light fittings to the right and left as you enter from the revolving door.  However such rich heritage did not constrain him from commissioning the American glass artist Dale Chihuly, of whom I am a fan, to create a new chandelier for the central seating area which has to be seen to be believed. Each element of the design is hand-blown and the whole is assembled piece by piece. (For another more freely accessible and impressive example, head over to the V&A where the Main Entrance Dome is home to a chandelier of similar but more massively proportioned manufacture.)

Upstairs, the private interiors are just as sumptuous if not more so because they can be enjoyed on a more domestic (if uber-luxe) scale. Some time ago the hotel invited David Linley and the team at his eponymous furniture atelier to design a series of rooms and suites in the Deco style. The result is an inspiring lesson in interiors which don’t just look glamorous but feel calm, comfortable and enveloping.  The restrained, elegant furniture and neutral palette foil the show-stopping extravagance of art-deco inspired light fittings and huge light-bouncing mirrors as well as the most sensational and sensuously rich fabrics.

Linley’s furniture can be bought retail from his two shops; Pimlico Road and Mayfair. They can also be commissioned to create your heart’s desire be it a beautifully framed mirror or an entire panelled room. I particularly love the Max chair (pictured) for its deco-inspired proportions and utterly chic lines which would look very much at home in a Claridge’s suite. This furniture is absolutely top end and the prices reflect the craftsmanship and expertise which goes into making each piece (a max chair starts at £1,025 if you supply your own fabric, and goes up to £2,125 upholstered in Linley leather). But one should not simply take cost as a measure of value. With a bit of attention every decade or so this chair will last a lifetime.

The latest news from my favourite hostelry is that they have invited veteran fashionista Diane von Furstenberg to bring her flair for pattern and colour to a new series of rooms. I can’t wait.

Claridge’s
Brook Street, London W1
www.claridges.co.uk

David Linley
Pimlico Road and Mayfair stores
www.davidlinley.com