How the other half vacations

Welcome to George Clooney Slept Here, the “IT” site for luxury travel! Pull up a Spazio lounge chair, pour yourself a glass of Krug Dlos du Mesnil 1995 and let us tell you what we’re all about.

Whether you just want to peek in on celebrities and their notorious indulgences or you’re ready to climb on through to the world’s most exclusive vacations, you’ve come to the right place.

It only makes sense to vacation where the A-list vacations. When you want a new great room for your mansion, you look to an architect. When only a pre-nup will do, you head straight to a lawyer.

When it comes to travel, what better experts than the unapologetically wealthy? With all their promotional junkets, film festivals and red-carpet appearances, celebrities not only rack up frequent-flier miles, but they have wallets big enough to do  it with panche. Enjoy!!

Making lemonade out of lemons at the Philippine’s Puning Hot Springs and Spa

The devastating eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 wreaked havoc on the Philippine island of Luzon. Blankets of ash, 650 feet deep, covered its slopes, hundreds died, homes and livelihoods vanished in what most volcanophiles believe was the largest eruption of the 20th century.

To this day, red tiled homes and even the 18th century church of San Guillermo, its third story windows now serving as doors, poke out of the debris in Balacor.

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But like the proverbial phoenix, an inspiring spa and jeep adventure has risen from the ashes. Puning Hot Springs and Spa, in fact, uses actual volcanic ash and sand for mud baths and massages. And one of Pinatubo’s eight pyroclastic flows (Mount Saint Helens had one) carved a hauntingly picturesque canyon for four-wheel adventures out to the hot springs and Puning’s three spa stations.

puningAt Station One (AKA base camp), Dr. Joy, Marina and I donned yellow hard hats for the 30-minute open air jeep drive through lahar fields and narrow gorges, past eerie cliffs (think Mother Nature meets Gaudi) and demonic gargoyles. At the second stop, which was actually the third station, we soaked in a series of 12 hot springs, courteously taking turns with Korean tourists who had already set up sunbathing camp for the day. Each natural springs, heated by the hot spring waterfall that cascades down Mount Pinatubo, offered a different temperature and the three of us shared stories as we lounged and splashed in the healing waters of the geothermically heated baths.

At Station Two, our third stop, we were presented with baggy tan shorts and tops and pointed toward the changing room. After donning our less-than-attractive duds (let’s just say Kim Kardashian wouldn’t be caught dead in them), we were led to the sand and ash beds, heated to a balmy 86-degrees by a layer of charcoal embers, and instructed to lay down flat.

puning2The indigenous Aeta, Pampanga’s first tribal people, who ran the spa used shovels to cover us up to our necks. I wiggled my arms, just to make sure I could escape if for some reason they decided this was the day to exact revenge on the whole colonial system and the white privilege that I, by a twist of fate, was born into.

Joy, who obviously has a less active imagination, fell asleep immediately as the Aeta women began massage walking across our buried bodies. As a second attendant waved a giant heart-shaped fan, woven from the Anahaw palm, I, too, began to relax into the rich mineral residue and the sand steam that, according to the spa brochure, improves blood circulation, lowers cholesterol and relieves achy joints.

Next, we were led to white plastic lawn chairs where we were slathered from face to toe with sulfuric mud, volcanic ash and eucalyptus oil. This, we were told, would tighten our pores and eliminate pesky skin allergies.

puning4After posing for pictures with our mud-covered bodies, we sauntered back to the jeep which whisked us back to base camp where, against a backdrop of lushly manicured gardens, showers and a Filipino buffet were waiting.

Happy Cows and the Five Foodie Must-Do’s in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities

I’ve heard of wine snobs (and avoid their wine-swirling, “raspberry nose with hints of leather” proclamations whenever possible), but last week, while visiting Lamers Dairy, a family run milk-bottling operation in Appleton, Wisconsin, I became a milk snob.

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Turns out, there really IS a difference between the commercially-produced hormone-laden milk you might get at a big chain and Lamers’ milk which regularly wins international awards, prohibits the rBGH hormone and works only with farmers who raise “happy cows.”

The four brothers who run Lamers are fourth generation descendants of Jacob Lamers who inadvertently started the dairy in 1913 when he began sending milk deliveries with his kids on their way to school.

One of the captions on their website, “Our president wears a hairnet,” pretty much says it all. The four hairnet-wearing brothers are on a mission. They work only with small farmers, all of who farm within 25 miles of the bottling plant, all who have what is known in the biz as happy cows

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So I could pontificate about how their farmer’s cows are treated SO humanely they follow them around like the Pied Piper. Or about Lamers chocolate milk taking first place at the 2016 World Dairy Expo. But instead, I’ll just say that the glass I recently enjoyed at their country store tempts me to sue Nesquik for impersonation.

Here are five other must-do’s for any foodie who’s lucky enough to get to the Fox Cities:

1. Fall under the great Houdini’s spell. Even though illusionist Harry Houdini was born in Budapest, he proudly claimed Appleton, Wisconsin as his hometown. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was Appleton’s first rabbi and his famous son’s legacy is everywhere from a grade school (Houdini Elementary) to the Museum at the Castle with an impressive display of the internationally-renowned illusionist’s life along with his handcuffs, leg irons, and lock picks.

The magical dishes at Houdini’s Escape Gastropub, prepared in an open kitchen, are no illusion. I’d don a straitjacket any day for another taste of the tuna crunch with slaw, wasabi, pickled ginger and sesame soy glaze. Posters of the magician are scattered throughout the restaurant, a fire table anchors the dining patio and, perhaps best of all, the magician’s mirror in the women’s bathroom makes everyone look thinner.

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2. Design your own candy bar at Wilmar Chocolates. I chose goji berries, roasted coconut and sea salt for my custom candy bar, but there were dozens of other choices from cayenne, coffee and curry to pop rocks, potato chips and gummy bears. Wilmar has been making small batch chocolate since 1956 when Wilbur and Mary Jane Srnka began hand-stirring, hand-cutting, hand-wrapping and hand-packing the mouth-watering treats. Although Liz Garvey and her brother bought the Srnkas out in the 1980-‘s and added truffles and Wilmarvels (turtles done right), all the chocolates are still made the same way, still under an old-time awning.

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3. Score a table at Fox Valley Technical College’s culinary learning lab. Three nights a week, chefs from the Culinary and Hospitality program dish up a gourmet feast at their student-operated restaurant. Ione’s Dining Room, named after a former dishwasher (she still eats there) who helped fund the program, features theme nights (Mediterranean, California Dreamin’, to name two) and students take turns acting as head chef, host and wait staff.

I got one of 30 seats (it’s competitive and fills up as soon as phone lines open for reservations) for French Country Fare night which included Riesling shrimp with asparagus, garlic and cream, cooked tableside. Locals try to keep it a secret (it’s hard enough getting a seat without having to compete with visitors) so please keep it on the down low. Whatever you do, don’t tell them we sent you.

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4. Get a lesson in Old-Fashioneds from mixologist Sean Hathaway-Casey at Town Council Kitchen and Bar. With just 45 seats, counting the tables and a 12-seat bar that doubles as a chef’s table, this downtown Neenah restaurant is worth its star billing. But go for the craft cocktails. Let’s just say Sean Hathaway-Casey is the Bill Nye of mixology. Not only did he school us on old-fashioneds, providing five different styles including his preference, which happens to be on tap, but he explained the long history of the unofficial state drink. If it wasn’t for Wisconsin, Hathaway-Casey claims, both Korbel brandy and Angostura bitters would have folded during Prohibition. He’s enthusiastic, fun and the perfect compliment to Town Council’s outstanding charcuterie.

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5. Have a root beer at Stone Arch Brewpub. It goes without saying that this historic stone brewpub has an inventive menu of tantalizing beers. But even more noteworthy, as far as I’m concerned, is its line of brewed gourmet sodas. The amber-colored, all-natural root beer (move over A&W!) is perpetually on tap and such flavors as vanilla cream, green apple, cinnamon, ginger ale and wild cherry rotate throughout the year. No artificial sweeteners or corn syrup within miles. There’s live music on Tuesday’s, a mug club for true aficionados and a locally-sourced menu that would easily meet the approval of Portlandia’s finicky Peter and Nance, as well as the chicken, Colin.

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Filipino Boodle Fight–maybe the only “fight” worth having

I try to avoid any activity with the word “fight” in it. But when my Filipino hosts explained that a Boodle Fight involves food, friendship and fun, I decided to reconsider.boodle

Especially when I saw the long festive tables covered with dark green banana leaves and enough food to, as the saying goes, feed an army. Turns out, a Boodle Fight, a long-standing tradition throughout the 7500 island-country of the Philippines, originated at the Philippine Military Academy where indeed it did feed an army and its commanding officers eating together as a symbol of camaraderie, brotherhood and equality.

They call it a “fight” because everyone eats with their hands, no utensils allowed. Everybody grabs what they want as fast as they can. I was invited to participate in this unique ceremony in the small rural village of Victoria in the Filipino province of Tarlac. Not included on the typical tourist itinerary, Victoria happens to have the country’s first bamboo bicycle factory.

Calling it a factory is a bit misleading. It’s more like a small workshop where villagers hand-make the most ecofriendly bicycles on the planet. Bambikes, as they’re called, is a social enterprise started by Bryan Benitez McClelland, a Filipino American who is trying to make a difference in the lives of the Philippines’ rural poor. He never dreamed he’d end up in his mother’s home country while growing up in Connecticut or attending college at the University of Pennsylvania, but now he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Today, he divides his time between the factory in Victoria and Manila where Bambike rents and sells the sustainable bikes and offers two-hour history tours of Intramuros, the 16th century walled city of Spanish colonial Manila.

According to McClelland, bikes made out of bamboo are every bit as sturdy as steel frame bikes, as light as aluminum and surpass European standards for durability and crash worthiness. Barack Obama is just one of the proud owners of this unique bicycle that takes Bambuilders, as McClelland calls the employees he provides with fair wages and health insurance, about 50 hours to build.

After touring the “factory” and seeing the site for McClelland’s planned Ecopark,we gathered for the Boodle Fight with students from the school that Bambike supports.

It began with every one lining up around the pump to wash their hands, an important tradition before any Boodle Fight begins. As the students entertained us with dancing and singing, a blanket of steamed rice was spread on top of the banana leaves, followed by heaps of traditional Filipino dishes including lumpia (fried spring rolls), grilled eggplant, fish, crab, green mangoes, Kilawin (a vegetable and fish dish marinated in vinegar), chicken and all sorts of Adobo.

The signal is given and the delicious combat begins. As far as I’m concerned, a Filipino Boodle Fight is one fight—and maybe the only fight—worth having.

Just like Juliet, I’m head over heels in love

Like Juliet, I fell madly in love in Verona, Italy. My romance was not with a strapping young Romeo in tights, but with a local family and the fresh pasta they’ve been making since 1962.Giovani Rana with heart of pasta

Nearly 50 years ago, Giovanni Rana, patriarch of this big, Italian family that invited me to join them in Verona, began selling fresh stuffed tortellini to post-war housewives. Having tasted the freedom of a career, these liberated women were more than happy to snatch up the homemade products Giovanni peddled door-to-door from a basket attached to the bright red used Moto Guzzi bike he bought for a whopping $10.

As far as his customer’s families (and even disapproving mother-in-laws) could tell, Giovanni’s pasta was every bit as fresh and delicious as the pasta they’d previously spent long afternoons mixing, rolling and stuffing.

Before long, Giovanni couldn’t keep up with the demand. He had to hire helpers to join him on his long table covered in flour.

By the time Giovanni invited me to visit his Verona home and the factory he erected one building at a time around it (it literally surrounds his original homestead), his stuffed tortellini has been joined by 200 other products and spread to 38 countries. And that long floured table now has 2500 employees.

About the only thing that hasn’t changed is Giovanni’s commitment to making the world’s freshest and best pasta. He still shows up every day to sample and give his nod (along with full-time taste testers) to the fresh ingredients that go into his products. Even the chickens who lay the eggs for the pasta dough are provided with a special nutritious feed. Not just any old eggs will do.

And while many big companies have begged to buy Giovanni out over the years, he simply can’t trust his products and indeed his Rana family to a corporate entity.

“I don’t make pasta so I can rake in the most money I can. I do it because I want people to love the pasta that I love. To me, my customers are all family,” he explained through a translator.

In Italy where food is practically a religion, Giovanni, thanks to clever TV ads, is a bona fide celebrity, second in name recognition, he jokes, only to the pope.

And this year, Giovanni is inviting 150 Americans and their guests to Verona to dine with him and his family. I was among the lucky second group to take Giovanni up on his offer of an all-expense paid trip to the cobblestoned streets of this medieval city.

Not only did I meet his entire family and dine at his family’s estate (the one they bought on Lake Garda after the company became the number one fresh pasta brand throughout Europe), but I visited Juliet’s famous balcony, the 12th century frescoes of Basilica Saint Zeno, Verona’s patron saint, and the 16th century Antica Bottega del Vino that has one of Italy’s largest wine cellars with, among may other rare wines, a cognac from 1840.

The final gala, hosted by Giovanni, his son Gian Luca, his wife Antonella and his grandkids, Giovanni and Maria Sole, was held at Villa San Viglio, a16th Century estate that, over the years, has also hosted Winston Churchill and Princess Di. I got the chance to play food stylist, to dance to a 12-piece orchestra oozing Frank Sinatra tunes and, best of all, to sample dozens of Giovanni’s pasta recipes, all created right in front of me.

Romeo and Juliet’s Verona romance didn’t end well, but the love affair I began with Giovanni Rana and his warm and welcoming family is destined to last forever.

Five reasons to beat the Pope to Egypt

Pope Francis is heading to Egypt the end of April to visit President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar.

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taz horse pyramidHere are five reasons every savvy globe-trotter should try to get there first.

1. Egypt is a bargain right now. Last November, Egyptian Central Bank devalued its currency by 48 percent. So everything’s cheap, cheap, cheap. I visited four weeks later and couldn’t believe the prices: gorgeous scarves for $3, an hour-long horse and buggy ride in Luxor for $4, luxury hotels for $50.

2. You get Ramses IV and King Tut to yourself. Thanks to events I need not recount here, tourism to Egypt has been down the last few years. The lines to enter the Great Pyramid of Giza and Luxor’s Valley of the Kings are non-existent. My daughter and I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of standing alone in Ramses tomb, being able to ogle the hieroglyphics and gilded sarcophagus with no pressure to move along for the next ogler. It’s truly a magical time to be in a truly magical country. Yes, some of my news-addicted friends worried for our safety, but I felt completely at ease, never threatened in any way. The news media does all of us a great disservice in its nonstop reporting of anomalous events. To give some perspective, what tourist would now avoid Charleston because of one fanatic racist? Again, look up the definition of anomaly.

3. Ancient antiquities are still being found. Less than two weeks ago, a nearly 3000-year-old statue was found under mud in a Cairo slum. The 26-foot (that’s nearly three stories tall) yet-to-be-identified statue made international headlines, but according to Khaled al-Anani, Egypt’s antiquities minister, only 30 percent of Egypt’s glories have yet been unearthed. That means 70 percent of who knows what is still buried under the sand. A couple years ago, for example, in Saqqara, two dozen mummies turned up in a 36-foot shaft. The point is, the excavation is just beginning. It’s like being in Silicon Valley in the 90’s.

tomb24. Locals are warm and welcoming. Perish any notion you might have about Middle-Easterners not liking tourists. It’s a myth, kinda like the Easter Bunny. Upon arrival in Cairo, it took a grand total of 15 minutes for me to realize this stereotype is misguided and downright insulting. Hospitality is an art in the Muslim world, a cherished virtue that encourages practitioners to view every person who comes across their path as sent by Allah himself. After spending a couple weeks with Sarwat Hegazy, a long-time guide and co-creator of Egypt Unveiled, any crusty idea I might have had about being unwelcome were quickly dashed against the seven-story granite sides of the infamous Sphinx.

Sarwat’s partner, Jane Bolinowsky, an Australian flute player who bought a second home within sand-blowing distance of the Giza Pyramid, knows all kinds of fascinating folks. Each of their tours are custom-designed, but expect to meet belly dancers, costume makers, perfume purveyors and Egypt’s best koshari chefs.

5. You get a priceless chance to uplift the world. Pope Francis, of course, is going to Cairo to cement the “spirit of tolerance and dialog,” to continue thawing Catholic-Muslim relationships that began when he lovingly embraced the Imam during last May’s visit to the Vatican. Seems to me, there’s very little more important that any of us could do than to hug our foreign brothers and realize we are all the same.

Egypt’s Siwa Oasis casts an enchanting spell

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley

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I love anything that smashes to bits a crusty, no-longer useful notion. The presumptions we make about other cultures, other countries are top of the crusty notion list. Which is why I so loved my recent trip to Egypt.

I will be writing a series of articles about this magical country and why I believe everyone should add it to (maybe move it to the top of?) their bucket list.

Even those lucky and ballsy enough to visit Egypt often miss one of the most unique destinations.

Pyramids? Check.

Cairo? Check.

Luxor, Valley of the Kings? Check. Check.

But unless you’re Alexander the Great, it’s doubtful you’ve made it Egypt’s Siwa Oasis. The chief reason being that it’s hard to get to. You have to really want to go. In fact, when the 55,000-man Persian Army tried to visit in 550 BC, they were swallowed by the immense desert, never to be seen again.

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Now at least, there’s a road. Even still, from Cairo, it’s a good six-hour drive and that’s if you didn’t have to stop every couple hours to produce your passport.

Even I, intrepid traveler that I am, started wondering after the fifth stop by armed guards: Why was it again I wanted to visit this remote outpost?

But within 15 minutes of arriving in this fertile Berber enclave on the edge of the Eastern Sahara’s Great Sand Sea, every concern, every bumpy mile evaporated into great gratitude.

oracle-distanceAccording to legend, Alexander the Great made it to Siwa in 332 BC by talking with snakes and following crows across the desert. He traversed the 150,000 square mile ocean of sand to consult with the Oracle of Amon, the great Sun God who is honored with a 3000-year old temple that stands yet today. Unlike Mr. Great, who was told by the ancient Oracle that he was the Divine Big Cheese and the rightful head of the gods and Egyptian pharaohs, I was told I should keep writing books.

I can’t complain. Standing on the edge of the limestone temple that sits like a floating white island above green palms, I was struck wordless as I looked out over the palm tops of date and olive trees and the Montana-sized white sand ocean that separates Egypt from Libya.

sarwat-oracle Even though it’s now possible to safari out into the Great Sand Sea, finding words to describe the experience is virtually impossible and, for my money, the genesis of the phrase, “You really have to be there.” The dictionary has yet to add words that can adequately describe the pure hugeness, the expanse, the colors, the sounds, the thrill of roller-coastering up and down the dunes as fast as your jeep will drive. Even photos, with their 1000-word value, can’t convey the experience, the immersion of silence found in this ocean of soft white sand.

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After finally managing to close our gaping mouths and rise from our knees where we knelt in awe, we spent our day in the Great Sand Sea lounging in hot springs (there are hundreds, many with medicinal properties) sand boarding down 70-foot dunes and sipping lemongrass tea as the sun spread its magnificent setting colors across the landscape.

Even though Siwa is located on the old date caravan route (sort of a no-brainer when you have 300,000 date palms), it wasn’t much explored by the west until World War II, when clandestine German and British desert patrols including Count Laszlo Almasy (you might know him as the English Patient) came to spy.

Because it’s so remote, Siwa is quite distinct from other parts of Egypt and has retained a mostly Berber culture for some 13 centuries. Girls tend to marry by age 14, so the winding dirt streets with more donkey carts than cars are mostly filled with young children, veiled women and hospitable men selling local produce, finely-embroidered woven crafts, Berber jewelry and salt lamps and candle holders.

siwa-marketSlouching mud and salt brick buildings provide storefronts (we were even able to buy a pair of fake Armani sunglasses), quaint restaurants and charming hotels and B&B’s.

After visiting the Temple of the Oracle, we headed out to Cleopatra’s Bath, Siwa’s most famous spring that, despite the rumor, never actually hosted the famous Egyptian Queen. The springside Tanta Waa (it basically means OMG in the local Siwian language) juice bar is owned by a delightful English-speaking Egyptian who attended the same prep school as Omar Sharif. He was playing Wanda Jackson hits and I sat there drinking a mango smoothie listening to her rockabilly version of Kansas City, I thought to myself, it certainly is a very small world.

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I’ll be forever grateful to Jane Bolinowsky and Sarwat Hegazy at Egypt Unveiled for introducing me to this amazing place.

To find out more, check out their website: www.egyptunveiled.com.

Barcelona with the A list

I might as well warn you. You’re going to want to live in Barcelona.

6h0p0216Unlike the crack dealer who fails to mention how much you’re going to eventually need him, I prefer to start with the truth. One vacation to this gorgeous Catalan city is usually all it takes to make you desire it….again and again.

With its endless list of hip bars, inspiring food, whimsical architecture and people who know how to carpe the heck out of every diem, Barcelona gets under your skin, provokes a commitment, makes you consider a permanent address.

So here’s what I suggest. Stay in a place that feels like home. A place that oozes everything that’s cool about Barcelona.

37011_el-palauet-living-barcelona_Stay at El Palauet, a five-star boutique hotel right on Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s leafy answer to Rodeo Drive.

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Nothing wrong with the W or the Mandarin Oriental or the Intercontinental. Except for one thing. They’re hotels.

El Palauet is where you’d stay if you’re Madonna or Neil Patrick Harris or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Here’s why:

1. It has a fascinating history. Designed in 1906 by the famed architect, Pere Falqués, El Palauet (it means “little palace” in Catalan) is a stunning example of Barcelona’s Art Nouveau architecture. Original stained glass, molded ceilings, carved wooden doors, decorative ironwork and dramatic staircases have all been painstakingly preserved. And each of the boutique hotel’s six suites feature high ceilings, ornate balconies and sleek contemporary furnishings by Charles and Ray Eames, Ero Saarinen, Philippe Starck, Antonio Citterio and other designers you can also find in the permanent collection of MoMa New York.

2. Did I say suites? They’re really more like apartments. Each of El Palauet’s six offerings rings in at a whopping 1600-square feet and has a fully-stocked kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

3. George Jetson would feel right at home. You’ll be grateful that each suite also comes with a personal assistant, because well, the technology is so space age that, unless you’re Steve Jobs, you might need help. There are mirrors that turn into TV’s, bathroom lighting that adjusts to suit your mood and iPads that control everything from the lamps to the air-conditioning to the in-house music system.

4. You don’t need a cab. La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s Unesco World Heritage Site and the one must-see on every tourist itinerary, is a short fifteen-minute walk. Other Gaudi masterpieces, La Pedrera and Casa Batllo, are also in the neighborhood. And if Gaudi’s name doesn’t excite you, add these neighbors to your Christmas card list: Hermes, Jimmy Choo, Prada, Louis Vuitton.

5. You can be famous without anyone noticing. From the rooftop terrace where you can soak in a hot tub, lounge on chic white leather sofas or sauna the day away, you can look out over your newly-appointed city without anyone noticing. And if you really want anonymity, you can come and go through a discreet back door entrance.

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6. Your wish is your personal assistant’s command. Christian, our personal assistant, had a little black book with gourmet chefs from around the city were just waiting to come to our suite to prepare meals. He also had a line on babysitters, hair dressers, masseurs, personal shopping assistants. As I said, if you can dream it, El Palauet can make it happen.