Ultratravel: Spring 2019
Into the Amazon
France's Michelin scene
Shopping in LA
Africa, by train
What is luxury?
“Luxury, to me, has turned into a business classification, a price point, and lost all of its meaning,” hotelier Ian Schrager said when I interviewed him recently.
“Luxury is really a state of mind. It is about how something makes you feel – not necessarily how much it costs,” he elaborated. When it comes to travel, luxury can mean many things to many people and, in this issue, we have tried to include as wide an interpretation as possible.
For some, luxury will mean a stay at the new Lux North Male Atoll resort in the Maldives, which, in a departure from the thatched villas traditionally found in the archipelago’s resorts, has rooms styled to look like super-yachts.
For Hayley Skirka, who travelled deep into the Brazilian Amazon to spend one night under the jungle’s majestic canopy, the greatest luxury was being able to wander far off the beaten track and experience one of the planet’s last unexplored frontiers.
For many travellers, food will be the highlight of a trip, so John Brunton serves up a gastronomic journey that highlights the most exciting additions to the Michelin Guide France 2019.
Meanwhile, for those who have adopted veganism, it will be a luxury to know that they can now stay in a hotel room that supports their lifestyle choice – the Hilton London Bankside Hotel has created a suite that, from the key card to the pillows to the furniture and even the ink in the pens, is completely free of animal products.
Adriaane Pielou’s shopping trip to Los Angeles yields plenty of little luxuries. She scours the designer stores of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, the Disney-esque open-air mall that is The Grove, and the vintage boutiques of Melrose Avenue to bring us a definitive guide to the city’s sprawling, multifaceted retail scene.
And at the other end of the spectrum, Leon McCarron, who cycled 22,530 kilometres from New York to Hong Kong, walked the length of China and rode across Patagonia on horseback, maintains that, in actual fact, the greatest luxury of all is knowing that you “have everything you need to survive in a small backpack”.
The croak of a tree frog echoes in the air. I hear it, but only barely, so lost is it in the amplified hum of the rainforest’s cicadas. Famous for their drone, these insects can create sounds in excess of 90 decibels – that’s louder than the whirr of a motorbike. As we trek through the rainforest, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the din dips and peaks, mixing with the rush of a nearby river or a twisting squawk from a tree-perched macaw. The whistle of the wind through millions of fluttering leaves is the underlying bassline for these rainforest soundmakers.
Suddenly, Samuel – our jungle guide – stops, signalling with his hand for us to do the same. He looks around, his eyes darting from side to side, his body almost motionless. Slowly, he raises his head, pointing his nose in the air. He inhales deeply. “Can you smell it?” he whispers. I sniff the air. It’s a balance of damp soil, rotting plants, wet tree bark and pollen-filled tropical flowers. But I don’t detect anything different.
Samuel nods his head in a northerly direction. I try again, focusing my nostrils to where he’d alluded. I inhale deeply. Nothing. I look to the others in my group and am relieved to see they’re also sniffing bewilderedly. Samuel shrugs, as if he cannot comprehend our inability to detect the change in the air, and whispers one word: “Jaguar.”
At once, I’m both thrilled and terrified. My eyes scan the foliage-sodden ground, although I quickly realise this is futile – Samuel’s trained eye would spot any trace of an animal long before my dulled western senses would. As a second-generation descendent of an indigenous Amazonian tribe, Samuel is in awe of the largest of South America’s big cats, and it’s no wonder. The creature’s bite is deadly – its jaws can slice straight through bones. Just a few days previously, he’d told us about a distant relative who had been taken in the night by a prowling jaguar.
Jaguar versus human
“We didn’t try to kill it for revenge,” Samuel explains. “We respect the jaguar, so instead we hunted other animals, a boar and a capybara. Then we offered these to it in exchange for the bones of our friend.” In the jungle, jaguar trumps human.
A chill goes through me as I hear something move a few metres away. But as quickly as Samuel’s mood had altered, it switches back – the threat of the jungle cat apparently having passed. He takes a machete from his belt and hacks at a branch snaking across the floor in front of us. He grabs one side of the chopped tree, then tells me to open my mouth. I oblige and he tips the narrow edge towards my lips. Cold, fresh sap rushes on to my tongue. It is much appreciated. The humidity in the rainforest is stifling, and my bottle of water has long been emptied.
Samuel explains that the branch is in fact a root belonging to a Sumaumeira, the tallest of all the rainforest’s trees. Chopping it precisely where he did means that the tree root will seal itself off and, within a few weeks, another offshoot will have sprouted, without any impact on the tree itself.
We continue our trek, quieter now – perhaps conscious of a looming jaguar. Occasionally we slow down, stopping to watch Samuel craft a spear from a tree branch (“perfect for catching armadillo”) or wind a rope out of the internal bark of a tree (“for hoisting things into the trees at night”). At our last stopping point, he somehow creates a working bow and arrow that stands about a metre tall. “No need to worry about the jaguar now,” he jokes before adding, “No, but this would catch a paca rodent – they taste like chicken but fattier, tastier.”
Setting up camp
About an hour later, we clamber around an embankment and hear the rush of running water. We’re back at base camp. When we’d arrived at the clearing just a few hours previously, that’s all it had been – a scrap of jungle plain worn flat by years of river overflow and home to just a couple of palm trees. Remarkably, it now resembles a fully functioning jungle camp.
Using those trees as a base, the Amazon Emotions team had crafted a structure out of ipe wood. On this, seven hammocks were hung. Double-layered giant philodendron leaves had been draped across the top of the branches to act as rain shelters. In the centre, a table for barbecuing on had been fashioned out of wood salvaged from the jungle floor. Underneath it, a fire glowed orange. On top of the table, two giant tambaqui fish were already roasting, recently speared out of the river.
As dinner cooks, we make for the river, strip off our rain-soaked jackets and plunge into the cold Amazonian water. I lay back on a rock, dipping my sweat-soaked hair into the river below. As the cool water rushes over my ears, the din of the jungle melts to a hazy drone and I look up.
A place in the ecosystem
A Towering lupunas crisscross above, diffusing the hot Brazilian sunshine in a million directions. A scarlet macaw sits on a branch up above me. I catch a glimpse of movement high in the trees and see a tiny flash of monkey tail disappear beyond the canopy. In that moment, I feel at one with the jungle.
A tap on my shoulder snaps me out of my thoughts. A giant boa has been spotted downriver, so it’s time to come out and dry off. As I do, I notice that the light is changing. Within a short space of time, the jungle has gone from a sunlight speckled emerald forest to a shadowy space touched by the mist of twilight. And so it’s time to eat. Samuel hands out palm tree leaves to use as plates and wooden spoons that he has just carved out of fallen branches.
Fed and watered, it’s time to turn in for the evening. Before we make our way to our hammocks, Samuel scours each one with his flashlight and then beats the surrounding branches with a thick stick – a technique used to deter snakes. He scoops up a scorpion perched on the end of one of the other camper’s tree straps and releases it on the riverside of the camp.
When he returns, he has a fiery orange rainbow boa curled around his muscled bicep. Non-venomous and spectacularly beautiful, even by torchlight, the reptile is gently set down on the dense jungle floor where it can slither into the night, hidden from birds of prey.
When night falls
I don’t expect to sleep much, but I stretch out into my hammock and close my eyes. Somehow soothed by the night-time din of the jungle, I drift off. Around 1am, my eyes flash open. Samuel is already in alert mode, machete in hand and flashlight scouring the trees that back on to our camp. A thundering sound, like someone sawing through a thick cut of wood, fills the air and the vibrations cause my hammock to sway. I turn on my headlamp and catch Samuel’s eye. He smiles and mouths “jaguar” and it’s impossible not to detect his excitement. I watch him prowl for a while, but somehow drift back to sleep, the swinging of my hammock rocking me gently back to dreamland. I wake a few more times in the night, but on each occasion, I’m calmed by the sight of one of our guide’s trusty flashlight beam, methodically scanning each swaying hammock.
When I wake again, the light of morning hovers and the air fills with the scent of coffee. I join some of the other early risers to sip steaming mugs of the thick brown liquid, served to us on the blade of Samuel’s trusty machete. It’s set to be a hot day, so we rouse the other campers and get to work dismantling the camp. It’s a part of the journey that’s pivotal on an Amazon Emotions trip.
For one night only, people are taken out of their comfort zone and placed into the rainforest ecosystem. Everything is natural; sleeping in a camp constructed from trees and using fallen leaves as shelter, bathing in a freshwater river that’s shared with all the jungle’s creatures and eating food foraged or hunted using native methods. As quickly as the camp had been erected, it’s gone – the branches returned to where they had fallen, and the leaves back on the forest floor.
For Vanessa Marino, managing director of Amazon Emotions, this is critical. “We want to give people an ephemeral experience. To be in the rainforest and to truly experience that, but without disturbing anything. It’s a beautiful pop-up experience, but it’s temporary,” she explains.
Our trek back to the Amazon Emotions lodge takes around two hours and then there’s a rush to get under the outdoor showers and wash off the scent of the jungle. Bowls of fresh açai and mango juice are devoured greedily.
Located in the rainforest of Presidente Figueiredo, about 120 kilometres from the Amazonian capital of Manaus, Amazon Emotions is a truly family-run affair. Originally from Venezuela, Marino and her partner Leo Principe – a Franco-Italian conservationist and photographer – purchased the land, before building a house, small vegetable farm and guest lodgings on it. The couple call the tree-shrouded lodge home and live here with their three children and Marino’s mother. I felt like I was being invited into a family home, rather than staying at a lodge.
An open kitchen serves as the central hub. This is where grandmother prepares the vegetables brought to her from the family farm, and where Kinan, 17, bakes the most delicious tapioca bread I’ve ever tasted, while his older brother Geo, 18, brews his own kombucha tea. Every morning a colourful breakfast of hand-picked fruit, eggs and vegetables appears, always with at least one ingredient I’ve never seen or heard of before.
Another crucial part of a trip with Amazon Emotions is the concept of daily hammock time. Perched high above the rainforest canopy overlooking a landscape so spectacular that it’s emotional in itself, the guest lodgings are fitted with coloured hammocks upon which visitors are encouraged to lounge. This morning, as I climb into my hammock looking at the clouds gathering above the rainforest canopy below, I cannot help but feel a huge sense of privilege.
Having spent a night beneath her canopy, I feel that I’ve learnt some of Brazil’s best-kept secrets. Of course, there are so many more – many of the Amazon’s largest tributaries remain unexplored and thousands of its species have not yet been classified. But, for one night only, I was part of an ecosystem that ignites the imagination like no other place in the world.
Above photo: In Thailand, it’s the season to get wet as Songkran kicks off Thai New Year celebrations. Expect water fights galore across the country, but for the biggest and most colourful spectacles, head to northern Chiang Mai.
It’s still summer in Brazil and wet season in the Amazon Rainforest, which shines at this time of year. It also means that river cruises are able to venture much further and deeper into the smaller tributaries of the Amazon and Rio Negro, guaranteeing up-close encounters with wondrous indigenous wildlife.
Closer to home, it’s the start of the dry season in the Maldives, meaning it’s the best time to take a trip to the archipelago nation to get the most sunshine for your dirhams. You’ll be greeted with excellent diving visibility, so it’s a good choice for waterbabies. If you opt to stay at JA Manafaru, you can also spend some time feasting on Michelin-starred Chinese food as celebrity chef DaDong is hosting pop-ups at the resort throughout the year.
If Japan is on your radar, now is the best time to go. Head to the ancient capital of Kyoto, where cherry blossom season is in full bloom and rainfall is low. If you can, try to get tickets to the Miyako Odori festival. It’s one of the best attended festivals in the country and offers a rare glimpse into the secret world of geishas and their performance art.
For an island escape, chic Caribbean haunt St Barths hosts a five-day spectacle of regattas, luxury yachts and seafaring revelry in its turquoise waters at this time of year. Kicking off on April 14, Les Voiles de St. Barth Richard Mille is celebrating its first decade, so expect some of the biggest names in sailing to make an appearance.
This month sees one of the world’s most enchanting wildlife spectacles take place when the great migration swings into action in the African valleys of the Serengeti. May is typically the second wettest month of the year and, as the herds move west, guests at the andBeyond Grumeti Serengeti can enjoy a prime position on the banks of the Grumeti River to watch breathtaking river crossings.
This year, it’s been all go in Hong Kong with the rejuvenation of the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, which includes the much-anticipated Hong Kong Avenue of Stars, inspired by Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. From May 9, take the ferry out to the tiny island of Cheung Chau to join the annual bun festival, complete with carnival-like processions, drums, music and colourful costumes.
Taking temperatures in the other direction, Canada’s Newfoundland waters fill with giant chunks of Arctic ice at this time of year – cast-offs from the great glaciers of western Greenland. Towards the end of the month, whales also begin to arrive in the Canadian waters. Fogo Island Inn sits on an island, with spectacular views of Iceberg Alley, and the entire sum of its profits are reinvested into the surrounding community.
For a taste of history, Sharjah commands attention. Formerly a Capital of Islamic Culture, the emirate’s cultural and heritage offerings evoke the days of Arabia gone by. This year’s Sharjah Biennial 14 runs until June 10, and takes a deep dive into the era of fake news. Elsewhere, the vast desert of Mleiha offers archaeological wonders.
Sir Winston Churchill spent a short time in South Africa as a “klein koerant skyrwertjie”, or “a little bit of a newspaperman”, reporting on the Anglo-Boer War. He later said: “My tastes are simple. I am satisfied with the very best.” One imagines, then, that he would have loved “the most luxurious train journey in the world”, Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa. As most do; even at well over $1,000 (Dh3,672) a day, excluding flights.
The train travels opulently and exclusively between Cape Town in South Africa and Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, covering 5,742 kilometres in 15 days and passing up the spine of Africa, through Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. It takes in Pretoria, the Kimberley diamond mine, the highly rated Tau Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve on the Botswanan border, Victoria Falls and its 1904 hotel, Lusaka, the Selous Game Reserve and the Great Rift Valley.
Like Churchill, fellow Englishman Michael Merten is addicted to luxury. And Rovos. He was one of 46 passengers recently on board. “I like to pose elegantly and dress for dinner. The train deserves it. I like being pampered,” he says. “In the hands of Mr Vos, I can park my brain, such as it is, and relax. In Rovos, I am in heaven.”
Rohan Vos, who made his money through automotive parts, started Rovos Rail in 1989, buying up abandoned engines and carriages from scrapyards. The historic trains have all been lovingly done up, and the bygone glories and romance of rail travel have been reinstated. Many of the salubrious train’s jungle-green and ivory coaches and cabins were restored in Witbank, where soldier-hack Churchill hid after escaping jail in Pretoria.
“The train is an institution,” says Nicholas Schofield, Pride of Africa’s resident historian, tour guide and lecturer. “And a great social leveller. Friendships are formed in the dining saloon, bar, lounges, wingback chairs and on the observation deck.” In 25 years, Schofield has clocked up “450,000km of clackety-clack”.
The train also has an on-board doctor and a hair stylist, Craig Geater. “I tell guests not to book me in Zambia. It’s a bit wobbly. And switchbacks can play havoc with your fringe. And ears,” he says. In addition, The Pride offers 24/7 laundry, maid service, air conditioning and en-suite showers. And its 12 square metre royal suites even boast expansive clawfoot bathtubs.
Tasmanian Christine Bell travels on her own because her husband is a hypochondriac, she tells me. “I’ve done The Ghan, Indian Pacific and Machu Picchu. The Bejiing-Moscow Tsar’s Gold Train was special. The Pride is up there. I loved the under-bridge walk at Victoria Falls. It’s worth every buck of hard earned. It’s an experience, or perhaps series of experiences – social, historical, geographical and culinary.”
After canapés and chamber music, Vos personally waves our 31 coaches off from Platform 23 of Cape Town’s Mother City station. The collective age on board is upwards of three thousand, with 16 nationalities represented. The guest list includes a South African nougat mogul, a honeymooning Japanese professor of accountancy and his new bride, an Argentinian doctor, a Swiss Air Ambulance nurse, a Titanic heiress and two Russian lawyers who are personal friends of the mayor of Moscow. As well as a British lord and lady now resident in Switzerland.
The quarter-of-a-mile long train stops at Pretoria for a tour of the city, where we all pose under a giant Nelson Mandela statue in front of government buildings. There is a quick tour of the Rovos workshops and a sit-down lunch on the platform.
Next stop is two nights and four game drives at the malariafree Tau Game Lodge & Spa. From the breakfast terrace, we watch an elephant bathing; the crocodiles, meanwhile, watch the human buffet breakfast. On our dawn and dusk drives, we learn that you can make a 28-egg omelette from one ostrich egg and that a group of zebras is called a dazzle.
On board, “the big five” are often sighted in the shape of dozing Swedes, snoring Austrians, cat-napping Italians, power-napping Americans and languid Brits. Once we pass through the vineyards and Hex Valley, we reach the far horizons of the great Karoo desert, the “land of thirst”. We get off at the former tuberculosis sanatorium town of Matjiesfontein, where we have an eight-minute tour in a 1968 London double-decker bus and the opportunity to admire the location of South Africa’s first flushing toilet.
Everyone does their own thing on board – reading, snoozing or watching the track roll away. The landscape varies little. There’s scrub then more scrub, so you begin to look forward to a bridge, or inselbergs, lone hills in the middle of flat nothing. You are supplied with goggles if you want to stick your head out of the window. Children wave at the train all along the line. It is an occasion when the Pride of Africa passes.
The most dramatic topography is encountered on the last few days, when we join the scenic Chinese-built Tazara line. Between Makambako (“place of the bulls”) and Mimba (“place of the elephants”), the train drops more than 1,000 metres through matted jungle. And suddenly, Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains appear.
One night is spent at the famed Victoria Falls Hotel. Guests can go on a sunset Zambezi river cruise (in our case, in the pouring rain) and have the option of walking the length of the Falls, bungee-jumping off the bridge (111 metres in three seconds) or passing over in a helicopter.
We are served three meals a day featuring the very best South African food, presented by liveried waiters in the refurbed cherry-panelled, teakwood pillared Belle Époque-style restaurant, with cut crystal glasses, starched linen napery, solid silver cutlery and tassel-tied curtains.
Menus include traditional South African bobotie; spiced beef mince oven-baked with a layer of savoury egg custard served with peppadew; kiwi fruit and banana chutney; melktert – a sweet pastry crust with a dusting of cinnamon served with fruit coulis; and a small syrup-coated South African doughnut known as a Koeksister. For the more experimental, there is also ostrich, crocodile tails and springbok. For dinner, tie and jackets are compulsory for gentlemen, tiaras and national costume optional for the ladies.
The Japanese bride arrives one night in a kimono. She receives a standing ovation. As does the dessert. Allan Richards runs a timber business in Eden, New South Wales, Australia, with his Kiwi wife, Jan. “We like train journeys because we can become part of the furniture. You meet a diverse mix of fellow passengers and staff and create some linkage. Usually humorously. Elegant and inelegant conversation is encouraged. There’s no radio, TV or WiFi. You make your own entertainment, seeing parts of Africa you’d never see in any other way in such comfort.”
The Pride of Africa should be on everyone’s bucket list. At least three passengers on board had been on it before. Luxury is addictive. And Churchill knew you shouldn’t ever settle for anything less than the best.
A native's guide to New York
Brooklyn-born Ian Schrager co-founded Studio 54 before going on to launch Edition Hotels. The man credited with transforming the hospitality industry offers some tips for visiting the city he calls home
Where in New York should everybody go? Manhattan. I feel there is a bustling energy and intensity that you don’t feel in many, if any, other places around the world. The pace is so fast and so furious that it’s incredibly special. It’s very difficult, if you live in New York – and I was raised here – to live in any other place, because everywhere else feels like it is in slow motion in comparison.
Battery Park City Promenade
Where do you go in the city to switch off? Central Park, which is a masterpiece – it was created by somebody who had never done landscaping before. I also like the path by the Hudson River, which goes up the full length of Manhattan. You can get very close to the water and very close to nature, while you are right in the heart of the city. It’s a very special place.
Nobu Fifty Seven
Where are your favourite places to eat? It depends on the food. If it’s steak, I think Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn; for Italian, I think it would be Patsy’s in Manhattan; and for Asian food, it would be Nobu. I go to those three restaurants quite a lot.
Where do you shop? I like the boutiques that are downtown, on Elizabeth Street and Howard Street. They are one of a kind; they are the anti-brand. They are the kind of shops that you might find in Saint Tropez – curated, special. I enjoy that more than the branded things that you find in every city in the world today.
Where's your favourite place to grab a coffee? At home.
What three words would you use to describe the city? How about four words? Centre of the world.
The Empire State Building in New York City
Is there anything people should avoid? I think, because of globalisation and because cities are becoming more and more alike, everything that’s unique and distinctive about New York is worthy of a visit.
What's the one thing everybody should do? Well, they have to make a reservation at The Edition or the Public Hotel.
And after that? I think the nightlife here is still very exciting.
Are there any downsides to the city?
Sometimes the intensity of the pace can be a little overwhelming. I guess when you live here you get used to it. But sometimes, visitors might think the pace is a little bit too fast.
I’m spoiled for choice, yet I see no attractive options. The Brazilian rainbow boa is beautiful but it’s also big – really big. The Honduran milk snake has a cute name yet looks highly venomous. The Baron’s green racer is slender but has truly creepy eyes. “They are not dangerous,” says Hisamitsu Kaneko, clearly sensing my trepidation at the prospect of holding a snake.
As the manager of Tokyo Snake Center, the city’s only snake cafe, he is used to dealing with jittery guests, who pay a Dh35 entrance fee and then another Dh20 to briefly hold one of the reptiles. “A lot of people are scared to hold it but if you relax the snake will relax too,” he tells me.
I settle on the Baron’s green racer, which Kaneko removes from its glass tank in the centre of this busy cafe in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s hippest suburbs. By the time this business opened in 2015, Tokyo was already in the grip of the animal cafe craze, with establishments dedicated variously to dogs, cats, rabbits and owls.
At first these places were quirky. Nowadays they’re very popular with locals, judging by the crowd inside this cafe watching me squirm under the weight of a bright green snake. As the serpent crawls on my arm and turns its head to stare me in the face, Kaneko asks if I’d like a cappuccino. “That sounds nice, thank you,” I reply. “But first let me deal with this snake.”
Standing on a street corner in the city’s upmarket Ginza district, a Japanese businessman does a double take. Clearly, he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. Weaving through the road traffic, past gleaming BMWs and Japan’s renowned Toyota Crown taxis, is a toad, a princess and a dinosaur. These three eye-catching characters are each driving their own small, motorised go-kart as they let out squeals of excitement.
It is no wonder the businessman is confused. Tokyo is a very reserved place, so much so that in some public spaces, even speaking on your mobile phone is frowned upon. Yet somehow a group of tourists is allowed to zoom through the city’s streets while dressed as gaudy characters from the Nintendo video game Mario Kart.
This activity has become so wildly popular that tourism company MariCar, which came up with the idea, now has branches all over Japan. For about Dh300, tourists can drive a 95kg kart for two hours through downtown Tokyo. The tourists taking part who I speak to say that the experience was “like living out a childhood fantasy” and the “most Tokyo thing ever”, in reference to the city’s reputation as a hub for all things quirky.
This is no ordinary sneaker shop. I’m perusing the stock at Worm, one of the hottest sneaker shops in a city that takes this casual style of shoe very seriously. How seriously, you may ask? About Dh5,000 worth of seriousness.
That’s the price for one single pair of trainers stocked by Worm – the highly sought-after Nike HyperAdapt 1.0, a cutting-edge shoe embedded with technology that senses the dimensions of your foot and then laces itself. Worm is one of more than a dozen shops in Tokyo that specialise in vintage or limited edition sneakers, ranging from modern designs like the HyperAdapt to 1970s versions like Adidas Stan Smiths.
Collecting such rare sneakers has been a popular hobby for decades and Japan has been at the centre of this subculture since the mid1990s. Sneaker collectors from around the world travel to Japan to find uncommon designs released only in Asia.
This is really embarrassing. Forget being able to skilfully wield the weapon I’m holding, I can’t even manage to put it away properly. I did not know this until now, but there is a specific manner in which a Japanese katana sword should be worn. By holding it by my left leg, I am giving a sign of aggression, whereas it should be on my right side, to let those around me know I mean no harm.
I’m surprised by the seriousness with which I’m alerted to this mistake by Mr Matsuzawa, my Samurai training instructor. This young Tokyo man has been a Samurai for more than five years and, even while passing on his knowledge to tourists like me, he has no time for fools. Central figures in Japanese society from the 12th to 19th centuries, Samurai were highly skilled warriors who became revered throughout the country for their swordsmanship.
These days, Samurai are pop culture figures, thanks to their dynamic roles in comics, movies and television. That’s why so many tourists join Samurai lessons, where they are taught about the warrior’s combat techniques, etiquette and customs.
Suspended in animation
I suppose you could call what I’ve just done a drawing. Perhaps even a sketch. But this wonky pencil design certainly isn’t art. Yet Nao Yazawa disagrees. She tells me I’m being too hard on myself, that I’m not too far from producing something worthy, and I suppose I should listen to her, considering she is a professional Manga artist. This style of comic book is one of Japan’s most significant cultural exports. Undoubtedly, it is the country’s most famous pop culture product, thanks to the dynamic style of its art and the outlandishness of its storylines. Manga comics can be found in children’s bedrooms in virtually every nook of the world.
Many aspiring Manga artists travel to Tokyo to be tutored by accomplished comic artists such as Yazawa. There are also many tourists with limited artistic ability, like myself, who attend more basic lessons on comic art in Japan. As she describes the history of Manga, which extends to the 12th century, Yazawa reminds me that the eyes are the key to drawing an engaging character. Right now, my own eyes are telling me I’ve messed up the character’s eyes. I erase them and start again.
Picking out some of the best additions to the Michelin Guide 2019, John Brunton serves up a gastronomic tour of France
At the glamorous Parisian awards ceremony for the Michelin Guide France 2019, there was a serious buzz as the guide’s new director, 38-year-old Gwendal Poullennec, took to the stage. In less than six months at the helm, he has initiated a revolution at the venerable “guide rouge”. In a shake up of the French foodie world, old-guard establishment chefs like Marc Veyrat, Pascal Barbot and Marc Haeberlin all lost one of their precious three stars. An unheard of 68 restaurants were awarded their first stars, including a new generation of female chefs, while five young chefs were moved up to two stars. Of the two restaurants elevated to the exclusive three-stars club, one is run by an Argentine chef, the first foreigner to attain France’s gastronomic holy grail. Here are 10 of the top new addresses for the perfect gourmet Tour de France.
1. David Toutain
Parisians have been waiting for the day when Michelin gave its two-star seal of approval to everyone’s favourite chef, David Toutain. He has been wowing foodies with his inventive 20-dish menus from when he oversaw the cult Agape Substance (while it was still open) and, since 2014, at his eponymous fine-dining restaurant. Brimming with natural light, the oak-, concrete- and glass-filled space is designed to be “creative, convivial and open”. Toutain acquired his first star in 2015, and in 2017 was recognised by the Gault & Millau guide. His cuisine is theatrical, but full of surprising flavours, beautifully presented like a work of art, but delicious too; imagine a marriage of salsify, parsnip mousse and white chocolate. 29 Rue Surcouf, 75007 Paris, +33 1 4550 1110, www.davidtoutain.com
2. Restaurant Lalique
The man behind Lalique crystal, the Swiss wine and food lover Silvio Denz, has lovingly restored the monumental 17th-century Château-LafauriePeyraguey, which is surrounded by vineyards and just a stone’s throw away from the legendary Château d’Yquem. Six months after opening, chef Jérome Schilling was awarded a first star and you feel that this is just the beginning. The menu is a tempting mix of classic French cuisine – veal sweetbreads roasted with black truffles and cep mushrooms – and surprising vegetarian creations, like a beetroot tartare, quail egg and ewe’s cheese. Lieu-dit Peyraguey, Bommes, +33 5 242 28011, www.chateaulafauriepeyraguey.com
3. Am Par Alexandre Mazzia
When I visited Marseille recently, the godfather of the city’s fine-dining scene, the three-star legend Gérald Passédat told me to eat at the restaurant of rising star Alexandre Mazzia. The chef cooks in front of customers in his casual dining room, where there is no written menu, although some 20 to 30 dishes appear through the meal. I was so knocked out by the cuisine that it was no surprise when his name was announced as one of the new two stars. It was daring for Michelin to promote a decidedly nontraditionalist chef who uses manioc and tapioca from Africa, and kumbawa and satay sauce from Asia. 9 Rue François Rocca, Marseille, +33 4 9124 8363, alexandremazzia.com
4. Le Coquillage
A short drive along the coast from the Mont Saint-Michel, a family tradition is being firmly renewed with the rise of young Breton Hugo Roellinger to the privileged rank of two Michelin stars. His father, Olivier, was one of France’s most respected chefs, but sensationally relinquished his three stars back in 2008. Hugo forsook a career as a naval officer to follow in his father’s footsteps, taking over the family restaurant three years ago. Continuing the Roellinger tradition of a cuisine inspired by exotic spices from across the globe, Hugo prepares surprising recipes like local langoustines served raw with Sansho pepper, rhubarb and elderberry. Le Buot, Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes, +33 2 9989 2525, www.maisons-de-bricourt.com
5. Chateau de Vault de Lugny
In the heart of rural Burgundy, this grand castle has long been a luxurious bolthole, and now its discrete restaurant has come on to Michelin’s radar. A star has been awarded to a young couple of chefs from the island of Mauritius. Karina Laval handles desserts and patisseries, while Franco Bowanee guides the main kitchen. In the summer, diners sit out in the château’s splendid grounds, and many ingredients come from the chef’s own garden, especially highlighted in his five-course vegetarian tasting menu served at the venue. 11 Rue du Château, Vault-de-Lugny, tel:+33 386340786, www.lugny.fr
6. Le Mirazur
France’s Riviera has not boasted a prestigious three-star Michelin address for some time, but now the Côte d’Azur is firmly back on the gastronomic map, with Michelin awarding its highest distinction to 42-year-old Argentine chef Mauro Colagreco. Despite holding third place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, it was clear at the awards that this was the ultimate consecration for an emotional Colagreco. On the Mediterranean waterfront of Menton, better known as the birthplace of Jean Cocteau and the colourful annual Lemon Festival, the chef blends his cosmopolitan heritage with seasonal local products, in dishes such as scampi carpaccio with crunchy apple and zesty lemon vinaigrette. 30 Avenue Aristide Briand, Menton, +33 4 9241 8686, www.mirazur.fr
7. Le Clos Des Sens
While Colagreco represents a new generation of chefs, the other new three star is a much more old-school, discrete restaurant in the Savoy Alps, surrounded by lakes Annecy, Le Bourget and Leman. Laurence Petit, who looks more like a bookish professor than a chef, has made his name cooking unique freshwater fish like char and féra from the deep lakes. He also offers dazzling vegetal dishes such as tarte de légumes d’été using freshly picked ingredients from the restaurant’s permaculture garden, where he cultivates 40 varieties of herbs and 160 different fruits, vegetables and edible flowers. 13 Rue Jean Mermoz, Annecy-le-Vieux, +33 4 50230790, www.closdessens.com
This fashionable diner is a symbol of how the Michelin Guide has metamorphosed this year. Located far from the elegant neighbourhoods around the Champs-Elysées, where most of the classic starred restaurants are located, Virtus is near the Bastille, a stone’s throw from the funky Aligre food market. The cuisine is created by the fashionable four-hands system – two chefs cooking together, in this case, Argentinian Marcelo Di Giacamo and Chiho Kanzaki from Japan. Working directly with producers, they propose a diverse, daily-changing menu, which could feature a juicy duck fillet with confit pumpkin and black sesame, or line-fished tuna, Jerusalem artichokes and a tangy anchovy sauce. 29 Rue de Cotte, 75012 Paris, +33 9 8068 0808, www.virtus-paris.com
9. La Mirande
Just a few steps from the landmark medieval Palace of the Popes in the heart of Avignon is luxury hotel La Mirande. Its restaurant is the domain of maverick chef Florent Pietravalle, who has made his name with innovative locavore dishes such as organic pigeon, smoked on hay and served with a spelt risotto. The lemongrass baba au rhum is also to die for. Diners can choose a gastronomic meal in the romantic 18th- century dining room or the more casual buffet at La Table d’Hôte, especially popular during the annual Avignon Theatre Festival. 4 Place de l’Amirande, Avignon, +33 4 9014 2020, www.la-mirande.fr
A new generation of female chefs has been recognised this year by Michelin all over France. This idyllic lakeside locale, hidden away in an ancient village of 150 inhabitants in the Languedoc hills, is a zen retreat where the 30-yearold chef, Amélie Darvas, creates a daily-changing menu. Only arriving in 2018, Darvas was rapidly anointed chef of the year 2019 by the more alternative Le Fooding Guide, and Michelin has decided to follow suit by giving her a first star. Many ingredients come from Darvas’s garden, with local farms supplying organic produce like plump pigeon, gently braised in her recipe with a tonka bean jus and white figs. 1 Rue de l’Eglise, Vailhan, +33 4 6724 7649, www.aponemaubergedupresbytere.fr
Adventurer Leon McCarron: 'I’ve never found a place I didn’t like'
The writer, filmmaker and explorer tells Saeed Saeed about his most memorable and most uncomofortable travel experiences
Leon McCarron has cycled 22,530 kilometres from New York to Hong Kong, walked the length of China, ridden across Patagonia on horseback and, as recounted in his 2017 book ‘Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East’, hiked from the West Bank to the Sinai desert. The Northern Irish writer, filmmaker, adventurer and Royal Geographical Society fellow tells us why a slow and simple approach to travel is always best.
How often do you travel?
Last year I was in 34 different countries and that was the busiest year of my life. I’m probably travelling six to eight months of the year and the rest is spent in London, where I technically live, even though I’m never there.
Do you have a favourite city?
I really don’t. Because my job is essentially to travel and appreciate places, I’ve never found a place I didn’t like. But if I’m really pushed to say my absolute favourite, I always say the north of Ireland, which is where I was born and grew up. I don’t have a favourite destination, but the place I’ve spent most time in is the wider region of the Middle East, because it fascinates me and I could keep going there continuously.
What three things do you always take on your travels?
I take two quite boring things: I always travel with my notebook and I always travel with my camera, because those are the tools of my job. And I always travel with a comfortable pair of walking shoes, because if I get the chance, I want to be able to go out and experience a place on foot.
What’s the most uncomfortable travel experience you’ve ever had?
The most uncomfortable travel experience I’ve ever had – and not really for me, but mostly other people – was after my friend and I had walked across the Empty Quarter, from Salalah to Dubai. We had spent 46 days walking and, as you can imagine, there weren’t many shower facilities or ways to get clean along the way. We finished on top of Burj Khalifa, but we couldn’t take the steps so we had to get in an elevator. Everyone else in there was, of course, looking very normal and very glamorous, because they were on vacation. And we stepped into the elevator after 46 days in the wilderness. We all had to stand there for a couple of minutes, or however long it takes to get to the top, and you could see people starting to smell these two strange men who had just come out of the desert. That’s the most awkward I’ve ever felt. So I’d like to apologise to all those people.
Where was the last place you went for an actual holiday?
I don’t think I’ve really been on holiday for a very long time, even though I’m always travelling. The closest I get to holidays is when I go back home to Ireland to see my family. I’m planning a holiday for this summer, although I haven’t decided where. I think I’ll probably end up going somewhere in the Middle East – I’d like a mixture of something cultural and relaxing.
What is your least favourite part of the travel process?
I don’t like airports. I enjoy being in a place and getting to know it. I enjoy the slow travel, the movement of walking or cycling or kayaking or horse-riding or camel trekking. So as long as I’m in a place or moving slowly from one place to another, I’m happy. The logistics of airports are a hassle of the job – a privilege but also a hassle. I would much rather be in a desert with a camel than in a plane over an ocean.
Simplicity or luxury?
Definitely simplicity. I love luxury once in a while, but I also like to feel like I’ve earned it. One of the greatest feelings in the world is having everything you need to survive in a small backpack and being able to just go somewhere with that, knowing that everything you need is on your back. That minimalism and simplicity is probably the best feeling. It’s also nice, though, at the end of a long journey, to have a five-star hotel and a cold shower. So maybe a combination of the two is best.
What’s your top travel tip?
It’s probably obvious by now, but it’s to go slow. Just slow everything down – slow movement down, slow ambition down, in terms of how much you want to fit in. Try to really be somewhere and to immerse yourself in that place. Walk around instead of driving around. When you are exploring a city, spend an hour in a café instead of 15 minutes; or three hours over dinner instead of one. There’s nothing worse than going away for a week of travel and trying to fit too much in, and coming back home exhausted, not feeling like you’ve seen anything properly. There’s always going to be more things to do than we have time for. Experiencing everything fully and getting to know a place properly is infinitely more valuable.
Flitting from Disney-esque malls and Rodeo Drive’s designer boutiques to the vintage shops on Melrose Avenue, Adrianne Pielou samples LA’s laid-back lifestyle
Something happens to you soon after landing in Los Angeles, home of Hollywood and the entertainment capital of the world. Perhaps it’s the effect of having so many hypergroomed beings sauntering around, lean and lovely in their Alo athleisure wear and lightweight Dh735 TechLoom Bliss trainers. Perhaps it’s the light, somehow soft yet piercingly clear, which as well as the year-round blue skies and balmy climate, is why film studios set up here – but which also puts everything, especially your face in the mirror, into unnerving HD. Whatever it is, it’s hard to be here for more than a few hours without being seized by an urge to lose five kilograms, get a facelift or, as a shortcut to the new you, go shopping.
Given the slow, dense and terrible traffic across vast, sprawling Greater LA, most local residents aim to live as close to where they work as possible – eating and shopping there, too. But for visitors keen to browse and buy, there are just two key neighbourhoods. The manicured, ultra high-end Beverly Hills, where on the three palm-lined blocks of Rodeo Drive, international designer labels – Gucci, Balenciaga, Dolce & Gabbana – stand shoulder to elegant shoulder; and the neighbouring, more youthful, laid-back West Hollywood. That’s the home of Melrose Place and its little beauty boutiques, the fashion, vintage and homeware stores of Melrose Avenue, and The Grove. Set up in 2002, this Disney-esque, open-air mall is among the most visited destinations in the whole of California.
If you want to see the Pacific, you can go out to Venice late one afternoon to watch the skateboarders and sunset, before browsing the boho shops on Abbot Kinney Boulevard and eating excellent Japanese at MTN. If you want to dip into mainstream America, get yourself over to Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, three pedestrianised blocks lined with cinemas, cafes and every US mid-market brand, from Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel onwards.
But it is quite possible that you will not want to leave Beverly Hills and West Hollywood until you have to head back to LAX. Three tips: one, you need an Uber or Lyft app on your phone. West Hollywood is known as the most walkable city in California, but streets run for miles and many stores are stand-alone destinations. Rates are low, though, about Dh26 for a 10-minute ride. Secondly, don’t drink the tap water – it’s so loaded with chemicals, you’ll feel ill within days – and eat only organic. And finally, The Book Soup book shop on Sunset Boulevard is an oasis of soothing sanity.
Sushi and coffee stops
Shopping and strolling then sushi: that’s the LA way, with coffee stops as and when you require. In Beverly Hills, worthwhile stops include Kreation for syringe shots of organic juices; the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel for A-list people watching, but indifferent food and service; and excellent sushi and seafood at the newly reopened Beverly Hills institution, Crustacean.
On Melrose Place, Alfred’s often has a celebrity or two waiting for their coffee. On Melrose Avenue, the big hangout is Gracias Madre – great coffee and a vegan, organic, Mexican menu. And after a wander around The Grove, if you haven’t overdone the free samples at See’s Candies (the perfect present), there’s the neighbouring Farmer’s Market, a covered collection of 100odd cafes and stalls set up during the Depression and an LA institution.
Essential stops for clothes shopping
Maxfield mixes contemporary high fashion from brands such as Kith, Yeezy, Gucci and Chanel with vintage Hermès bags, art books and jewellery. The late Karl Lagerfeld once said it was his favourite store in the world.
Outdoor Voices is dedicated to wellness and athleisure wear.
Opening Ceremony is the only West Coast US branch of this multibrand art and fashion empire.
Intermix is a multibrand wonderland of fashion finds.
Reformation is a boho destination store where sustainability is the watchword. The company does tours of its LA factory at 10.30am on the first Friday of each month (email@example.com), and for its floaty dresses and leopard-print
tops, uses fabrics such as Tencel, which is made from eucalyptus and uses a fifth of the water that cotton requires.
Decades is the famous Melrose Avenue vintage store, known for its glamorous 1940s dresses.
Vision Quest Shoes is the place to go for practical, stylish, slip-on Babouche sneakers in rose gold or cheetah-spot hide (Dh730).
Gladys Tamez is a purveyor of fabulous hats, including big, wide-brimmed Isla straw hats, plastic berets and Lady Gaga’s pink fedora.
Tyler Ellis offers ravishing little evening bags such as the rose Swarovski Lily clutch (Dh12,892), and silver chain-mail Grace bag (Dh6,758).
American Rag’s World Denim Bar features a humongous selection of jeans from the US, Europe and Japan. Cropped bootcuts are currently hot.
Fred Segal is famous from films such as Legally Blonde and Clueless, for its glamorous clothes, homewares and beauty products.
Just One Eye is a boutique/gallery, located in an art deco building that once served as Howard Hughes’s headquarters, selling top-end clothes from niche brands such as Maiyet, Wanda Nylon and Pierce d’Arnarchive.
American Rag Cie offers designer clothing, niche-brand homewares, beauty lines and art books.
RTH is best for leather jackets, cowboy boots and vintage jeans. The coolest store in America, according to GQ.
The newly reopened Beverly Centre on Beverly Boulevard is the best: it went upmarket during its recent refurb and is now home to everything from Apple to Zara via Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Balenciaga, Banana Republic, Gucci, H&M, Maje and Sandro.
LA has become a major interior design centre, helped by the many New York creatives who moved from the east coast in search of more comfortable climes, a less stressful pace and lower rents.
The commanding Pacific Design Centre on Melrose Avenue is the heart of a new design quarter, where cutting-edge companies such as Circa Lighting, Luminaire and Nicky Rising all try to inspire you to order something wild, such as a gorgeous green velvet Charlotte sofa (Dh83,744) from Ralph Pucci or wallpapers of whimsical novelty by Maison C.
On Beverly Grove, the shop OK is good for eclectically well-curated gifts of the kind you may end up not handing over – Carl Aubock bookends, for example. And perhaps the ultimate interiors experience is Casa Perfect, in one of Elvis Presley’s former mansions in Beverly Hills, decorated as a fully functioning home.
In West Hollywood, the healthy everything Erewhon remains a source of organic skincare brands, and cult online brand Glossier now has a new bricks and mortar boutique (with an unmissable pink exterior) on Melrose Place, where customers can play with everything.
In Beverly Hills, at the gloriously expensive beauty departments at Neiman Marcus and Barneys, Crème de la Mer’s Genaissance Serum Essence (Dh2,350), with the healing power of the Crystal Miracle Broth, please note, flies off the shelves and you can eavesdrop on 30-minute deliberations over the nude lipsticks essential for the athleisure look. Not surprisingly, facials are a big thing in LA, but it’s essential to book ahead of your trip if you want an appointment with favourite Gina Mari.
The newish 200-room London West Hollywood Hotel, popular with film companies, is very comfortable, with its large rooms, extra-deep baths and great roof terrace restaurant and pool (doubles from Dh1,653).
Nearby, the 23-room, homey, new boutique Number 850 hotel (from Dh1,194), and the Sunset Tower Hotel, opened in 1929 and home to the walnut-panelled Tower Bar, a celebrity hideout, have a retro Hollywood feel (from Dh1,506).
In Beverly Hills, the 395-room Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons hotel; the 195room Peninsula Beverly Hills; and the 233-room Beverly Hills Hotel vie for top billing (all from around Dh2,700).
Inside the Vegan Suite at Hilton
London Bankside Hotel
Pineapple leather, natural cotton, Moso bamboo and non-animal-tested cleaning products feature in this all-new vegan room in the UK capital
Pineapples lie at the heart of the new all-vegan suite at Hilton London Bankside hotel. Pinatex, a “ leather” crafted from the tropical fruit’s cellulose fibres, was used in everything from the upholstered seating and botanical-themed artwork to key cards, cushions and headboards, which were then painstakingly hand-embroidered by local artist Emily Potter.
In placing the pineapple front and centre, the design is a celebration of London’s botanical heritage – the fruit was first brought to the capital in the 17th century by botanist John Tradescant, and representations of it appear on architectural structures across the city, from Lambeth Bridge to the filials of St Paul’s Cathedral.
All the materials, fibres and surfaces in the Vegan Suite are natural and plantbased, from the furniture and fittings all the way down to the ink in the pens. There is no real leather, feathers or wool in sight.
Pillows are stuffed with a choice of antibacterial, non-allergenic and environmentally sourced materials, such as organic buckwheat or millet hulls, kapok or bamboo fibres. The solid stone-grey flooring is made with 100 per cent renewable and sustainable Moso bamboo, while carpets are crafted from cotton, rather than wool. The suite was designed by Bompas & Parr, in consultation with The Vegan Society.
“The hotel has carefully selected different plant-based features with exceptional attention to detail, and we’re pleased to see that those who live the vegan lifestyle are now able to expand their plant-based options with the opportunity to enjoy vegan travel,” says Danielle Saunders, a spokesperson from The Vegan Society. “We are excited to be able direct our followers and supporters to a hotel that incorporates the whole lifestyle experience, from checking in to sleeping in plant-based linen and furniture.”
The mini bar is stocked with locally sourced vegan treats, including Graze protein powder, Naked snacks, and Deliciously Ella energy balls, while the in-room dining menu features vegan breakfast options such as fruit juices, muesli, hummus and vegetables, potato hash, grilled Portobello mushroom, avocado and scrambled Quorn and quinoa. Lunch and dinner options include cucumber salad, cauliflower steak and five-bean dhal.
Even the hotel’s housekeeping trolleys have been stocked with eco-friendly, non-toxic and non animal-tested cleaning products, and all linen is washed with environmentally friendly detergent.
“Veganism is not just a dining trend, it has become a lifestyle choice for many and, in turn, we want to be the first hotel to be able to offer those who follow the plant-based lifestyle, the chance to fully immerse themselves within it from the moment they walk into the hotel,” says James Clarke, general manager of Hilton London Bankside.