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On the 12 Days of Christmas the Ham Yard Gave to Me

Ham Yard Hotel was recently named one of London’s funkiest venues. hamyard 3

Like all Firmdale Hotels, it’s five-star and splashy enough for business glad-handing, post West End theater noshing and people watching–especially if you’re partial to young, beautiful, rich people.

I had one of my top two best London dinners within its gilded pillared restaurant. But the reason Ham Yard made the most funky list is the same reason it offers art enthusiasts a two and a half-hour curated tour and the reason I’m nominating it as the #1 London hotel for a 12 Days of Christmas scavenger hunt.

With Kit Kemp-designed wall fabrics, crazy mad colors and art by Turner Prize winners, Ham Yard Hotel gives us inspiring eye candy throughout. But for the sake of the song and my self-designed scavenger hunt, here are the 12 eccentric gifts Ham Yard gave for us to find:

1. A two-story orange juice squeezer. Rube Goldberg would be proud of this fresh juicing machine that, like a marble track, sends 397 oranges spiraling to their destiny in glasses of fresh-squeezed OJ.
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2. An Attack of the 50-Foot Women movie poster. Although the 1958 horror film was made in black and white, this four-color poster hangs in the corridor right outside the Ham Yard’s au courant movie theater.

3. A 50’s Brunswick bowling alley imported all the way from Texas. It’s called the Croc Bowling Alley and not only does it feature old-school hand warmers and solid maple lanes, but it has a bar, dance floor, silver baby grand and two crocodiles made from driftwood. As Kit Kemp says “I’ve never been in a bowling alley I wanted to be in for more than two minutes.” In this one, you could stay all evening.hamyard 2

4. Vintage costume drawings from the Paris Opera. Not to give their location away, but these cleverly-framed drawings provide definite conversation starters over afternoon tea.

5. An African chandelier made from mud beads. This unique chandelier made from sun-dried, kiln-fired clay beads adorns what designer Kit Kemp calls the Dive Bar. Let me just add that the Dive, in this case, means plunging into water and there’s a neon sign to prove it.

6. A Freak Show in neon. Built on a three-quarter-acre site of one of the 60’s most electric basement jazz dives, Ham Yard pay homage to The Scene, as the club was called, with a whole series of bright neon signs.

7. Glowing porcelain pots. These 32-pots were custom designed by Sigmund Freud’s great great granddaughter, Martha Freud.

8. A signature Tony Cragg bronze. You can’t miss it, but hint-hint, it’s in the hotel’s tree-lined courtyard.

9. A grand piano that doubles as an icebox. Ham Yard’s rooftop that unlike many London rooftop bars is open 365 days a year, also has an herb and vegetable garden, bee hives and killer views.

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10. A private screening room with 190 tangerine leather seats. It has silk fuchsia curtains, two bars, two green rooms (for the likes of Taylor Swift, Sir Mick Jagger and other celebs) and Sunday movies sometimes open to the public.

11. A spa that can train Mount Everest-bound mountaineers. With the exception of the London Eye, the elevation of Britain’s capital is about 70-feet above sea level. But at Ham Yard’s Soholistic Spa, there’s a Hypoxic Chamber that stimulates training at high altitudes with limited amounts of oxygen. Or you could just get a massage.

12. Black margaritas. Ham Yard’s extensive cocktail menu features homemade syrups, bitters and tonics. Its signature black margarita is concocted from thyme-infused tequila, blackberry puree and black sea salt.

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If only Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney had suited up at London’s Soho Hotel

Barney Stinson, Ted Mosby’s barfly friend on “How I Met Your Mother” had a thing for gin tonics. But in one episode, when asked to bartend himself, was forced to confess that he had no clue which ingredients were in his favorite cocktail.

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Obviously, he has never been to afternoon tea at London’s five-star Soho Hotel. Afternoon tea, held daily at the hotel’s Refuel Bar & Restaurant, not only includes the quintessential British cocktail, but a waiter rolls over a fancy cart, gives an animated gin and tonic (G+T) history lesson and lets customers choose between a wide variety of gins and an even wider variety of tonics.

Barney no doubt would have dubbed Soho Hotel’s afternoon tea–wait for it–legendary. It has all the customary accoutrements–scones, cream, cucumber sandwiches–but because it’s a Kit Kemp hotel and because whimsical twists on old traditions are Kit’s trademark, it also comes with a G+T “appetizer,” vegan options and a comfy, inspiring setting that, like all Kit’s properties, provide a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

The only word that comes close to describing Kit’s Firmdale hotels (there are eight in London and two in New York) is well, art. Or at least if you use the dictionary’s definition: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.

As I said, when I first visited The Whitby in New York, one of her latest projects, I felt like I was hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club for the first time or finally seeing Picasso’s Guernica. Hyperbole  maybe, but her quirky, inspiring design sense is a beacon to humanity (or at least to me) to “Wake up! There’s so much more possible.”

Maybe that’s why Harper’s Bazaar just named her one of the most influential female leaders in the UK alongside Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham.

The Soho Hotel, situated on a quiet street (that’s saying something in this neighborhood) in the heart of London’s most happening entertainment district, has 96 individually designed rooms and suites and it hosts such celebs as Ethan Hawke, Sean Penn and Tom Hardy.

And while I have no idea if they imbibed G+T’s, I do know that gin is definitely trending, as they say, in London. Hipsters frequent the city’s many gin distilleries and Junipalooza, a huge summer festival celebrating all things gin and juniper, is one of London’s hottest tickets.

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Although afternoon tea at Soho Hotel always celebrated London’s mascot spirit with the pre-tea G+T cart and the history lesson (who knew gin originated as medicine to improve circulation and that London became its capital after William of Orange ousted the Catholic King James in 1688 and imposed high import duties on French brandy?), it’s spotlighting a new Christmas G+T this December with Monkey 47 gin, an exotic handcrafted gin inspired by Germany’s Black Forest.

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Using the 47 herbs, berries and other botanicals used in the distilling of Monkey 47 (it’s also rumored to be 47 proof), Refuel chefs have concocted a special December tea menu. Expect brie and cranberry relish on walnut bread, ginger and cinnamon cupcakes with spruce frosting, cheesecake with bilberry compote and other delectable that complement the special gin’s notes and aromas.

As for Barney, if he really wants to woo women, he should forget the Bro Code and take them to Soho Hotel for afternoon tea instead.

Stockholm’s Junibacken brings Pippi and pals to life

With only a week in a city as fascinating as Stockholm, you have to make choices. No easy task for a fangirl like me. There’s the ABBA museum with its legendary stage costume, gold records and flashing dance floors. There’s Steig Larrson tours of Sodermalm that visit the haunts of Mikael Blomqvist and dragon-tattoed Lisbeth Salander.
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But the hero I most wanted to visit was the red-pigtailed, superhuman nine-year-old named Pippi Longstocking. As you may remember from Astrid Lindgren’s popular books, Pippi not only has a pet monkey named Mr. Nilsson, a suitcase full of gold coins and her very own lemonade tree, but she lives fearlessly by her own rules, relishes nonconformity and regularly sticks bullies and other unreasonable, condescending adults up in trees. That’s my kind of champion.

In the 11 books, Pippi’s colorful home resides in the middle of a forest, but lucky for millions of her fans, Villa Villekulla has been recreated right in the center of Stockholm. It’s on Djurgarden Island, just steps from the Vasa Museum, and easily accessible by bus and ferry. Although Junibacken, as it’s called, is technically a children’s museum, it is by far one of my favorite Stockholm attractions. The carrot cake alone is worth the visit.

The highlight of the museum is the Storybook Train that whisked us and other guests through miniature landscapes of Astrid Lindgren’s many books. In wooden houses with lights twinkling in the windows, we met Alfie Atkins, Festus and Mercury Max, we watched the Lionheart Brothers slay Katla, the dragon and, of course, communed with Pippi and her friends, Tommy and Annika.

The 15-minute adventure is available in 12 languages and, if you happen to know Swedish, you can hear Lindgren herself reading the narration, allegedly the last text she ever wrote. Junibacken also has Sweden’s largest children’s bookstore, a Children’s Theater that stages more than 1500 shows per year and a restaurant with stunning views of Stockholm’s Nybroviken Bay.

The most remarkable thing about the restaurant (at least if you compare it to the average junk food dispensed at most US children’s museums) is that its entire menu is made fresh from locally-sourced, certified organic produce. Whether you want lingonberry pancakes or classic meatballs, just-picked asparagus or autumn’s chanterelles, Junibacken’s restaurant prides itself in being sustainable, conscious and worthy of its young customers and their parents. There’s even dairy and gluten-free cakes options and a staff master baker who dishes up delectable bread, cakes and pastries.

So, Pippi, thanks again, for making my childhood and now even my adulthood so adventurous and memorable.

Five top reasons all of us should give a flying fika

According to a 2017 report by the United Nations, Sweden is right up there in the top 10 of the world’s happiest countries.

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And I’m pretty sure it has to do with its reverential obsession with fika. The Swedes will fika anytime, anywhere, with any person.

This long-standing Swedish institution, considered a non-negotiable right, is even written into employee contracts. To fika (although the Swedes are loath to translate their proprietary word) basically means to have coffee and a pastry.

But fika, which can be a noun or a verb, is way more Zen than that.

Here are the top five reasons all of us should fika every chance we get:

1. It’s a caffeine-fueled siesta. It’s one thing to zip around a Starbuck’s drive-though. But to fika is to drop everything, to sit down, take a break, energize and meditate with your homies. It’s the Slow Food movement for coffee drinkers.

2. It creates social capital. Theoretically you could fika alone, but to a Swede, that would be like tango without a partner, like wearing one mitten.

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3. It’s completely rule-free. British tea is usually taken in the afternoon. Likewise, happy hour, is an after-work phenomenon. The Swedes, on the other hand, fika in the morning, in the afternoon and really any time they need a breather. It’s no wonder the average Swede consumes 864 cups of coffee per year. Anyone who read Stieg Larsson’s dragon tattoo trilogy couldn’t help but notice the sheer volume of coffee consumed by Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.

4. It’s rebellious. Five times, over the past centuries, Swedish kings have outlawed the consumption of coffee. King Frederik I taxed it, banned it and even confiscated cups, pots and other “paraphernalia.” In the name of science, his grandson, Gustave III, commuted the death sentence of identical twins, sentencing one to instead consume 3 pots of coffee per day and the other 3 pots of tea. His hypothesis failed miserably. Not only did the physicians monitoring the experiment die long before either of the twins, but the coffee-drinker outlived the tea-drinker by several years.

5. By definition, it comes with a treat. If you’re fika-ing properly, your coffee is accompanied by fikabrod, a slew of baked goods ranging from croissants and coffee cakes to bulle, a knotted, buttery pastry, often with cardamom.

Stockholm’s new Hobo Hotel is off-the-chain

I haven’t been hip since I was in my 20’s, wearing cut-offs and hair down to my waist. Least of all, to my 23-year-old daughter.hobo yes x2

So how fa-jeezy that the hotel I chose in Stockholm happens to offer the swassest, buzziest scene in town. I’m talking (finally in language that everyone can understand) about Hobo, a just-opened hipster haven in the Brunkebergstorg area of central Stockholm.

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Here are five reasons it’s totally off-the-meat hook (it’s the last aphorism, I promise):

1. It’s near everything that’s anything. Because it’s minutes from Stockholm’s best sights, you can walk–or take the townie-style bikes that, of course, a hotel this cool would offer.

Opened in March, Hobo overlooks the overhauled Brunkebergstorg Square, close to Gamla Stan, hop-on-hop-off boats and buses and Drottninggatan, a lively pedestrian street that runs between Old Town and Observatory Hill. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect jumping off point for touring this city of 14 islands.

And because Hobo’s bar, café and pop-up studios pull in locals (all part of the community vision), we got to sip smoothies and sample small plates and trade itinerary suggestions with a wide assortment of the city’s millennials and artists.

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2. Prices are millennial-friendly. Hobo’s vibe, as friendly and as let’s-consider-hooking-up as a tinder account, resembles a hostel except for the Scandi-cool lobby with its flip-dot message boards, barber’s chair and combination of vintage and contemporary, museum-quality artwork. While not quite hostel-cheap, Hobo is notably affordable for such a brand new, innovative hotel.

3. Breakfast, which doesn’t end until 11 a.m, is amaze-balls. Think fresh, organic juice, chia seeds with honey and yogurt, espresso drinks and just-made sandwiches with avocado, tomatoes, lettuce and herbs grown right in the main lobby’s forest of hydroponics. After breakfast, the two-floor restaurant dishes up such communal plates as porchetta (with gnocchi, sage and tomato), torched carrots (with green curry, coconut and crispy rice) and polenta with lemon confit and trevisano.

Every Thursday, the chefs write the upcoming week’s menu with the freshest, locally-sourced ingredients they can find.

room-view-from-bed-hobo-hotel4. The compact rooms are more than offset by the cool factor. Peg walls offer hanging space for overalls and flannel shirts, had we brought any, next to, of course, curated city guides that detail vintage shops, trendy museums, pop-up restaurants and gypsy breweries. Beds come from Swedish designer Anders Hilding. Telephones have been replaced by flat screen TVs that allowed us to stream content from our phones. And, of course, there was a squirt gun in our bathroom and a comic book next to the bed. Not to mention that the efficient size enabled us and other forward-thinking guests to feel noble for not contributing to environmental waste.

5. The owner channeled Houdini for the grand opening. Norwegian entrepreneur and billionaire Petter Stordalen, outbid 75 international operators and ponied up 53 million pounds to buy the former red light district that become Hobo and a second hotel (stay tuned for more on At Six). To draw attention to the project that, as he argued, offers a great escape, he swang from the rooftop in a locked safe attached to a rope. The rope was set on fire and Stordalen, an amateur escapologist, had to free himself before it plunged to, as he says, a project worth dying for, to the ground.

So like Stordalen, who has opened 180 other hotels, some by skiing or jet skiing in, I got to be hip..at least for a couple beautiful days in Stockholm.

Can afternoon tea inspire you to be a better person?

I know. Most people don’t put afternoon tea in the same category as having a life coach or reading a self-help book. But hear me out.

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Anytime, I witness human creativity, innovation and really, any form of great art, I’m inspired to make my own life more beautiful. And that’s exactly what happens at Tim and Kit Kemp’s Firmdale hotels.

The Whitby, the latest in their mad genius collection, opened in upper midtown Manhattan on March 1. And while I suspected the 10th addition to their boutique hotel portfolio would demand to be Instagrammed (Kit’s quirky design sense is just so much fun), I had no idea their afternoon tea would feel like hearing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the first time or like finally seeing Picasso’s Guernica.

Every detail from the collection of 52 British Isle baskets hanging over the 30-foot pewter bar to the mythical creature’s Wedgewood china on which the Brown butter hazelnut cake and Elderberry-Meyer lemon crisp is served screams “wake up! This is what’s possible.”

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Here are four other reasons to have afternoon tea in Manhattan’s new Whitby Hotel.

1. You could potentially win a free night in one of the hotel’s 86 rooms or suites, each with floor to ceiling windows. Although you can indulge in afternoon tea in any number of beautiful spots in the hotel, the Orangery with its dramatic vaulted ceilings and skylight gets my vote.

Not only is it adorned with vintage English platters, but it has 47 illuminated porcelain pots, each etched with the outline of a New York landmark.

They were designed by English artist Martha Freud, great great grandaughter of Sigmund, and Kit told Women’s Wear Daily that anybody who can correctly identify them all scores a free night in the hotel.

2. You can easily forego dinner. Not that I would ever willingly choose to waive any meal when there are this many great restaurants nearby (in a three-block radius alone, you’ll find Nobu, Ma Peche and The Modern), but the goodies that accompany the Whitby’s three choices of afternoon tea include walnut pesto palmier, pretzel bite rarebit, grilled hanger steak tartine with horseradish cream, baby beet salad with saffron-marinated fennel…and that’s just on one tier of the three-tiered tray. There’s also black forest quinoa puffs, bananas foster coconut dream cake, key lime icebox cake and, of course, warm scones, clotted cream and preserves.

3. You might score the new Spider Man’s autograph. Thanks to the Whitby’s oh-la-la screening room (it has 130 leather seats and state-of-the art lighting, sound, digital and 3D technology), the photo call for Spider-Man: Homecoming that debuted July 7 was held at the Whitby…and, yes, Tom Ford, Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr. were all there.

The Whitby’s basement theater has also screened (and held press junkets for) for this year’s The Mummy (Tom Cruise), The Hero (Sam Elliott), Guardians of the Galaxy (Zoe Saldana and J.J. Abrams) and Diane von Furstenberg “Cezanne et Moi.”

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4. You’ll kill two birds with one stone. The Whitby and MoMA are practically neighbors, but why not get your contemporary art fix all in one place? Although the $1.5 million bronze cat by Fernando Botero ended up outside Kit Kemp’s other New York hotel (the Crosby in Soho), the Whitby’s art collection has everything from mosaic reproductions of Boris Anrep to a grandfather clock with an animated 3-D timekeeper who manually changes the time.

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.