Culture shock guaranteed (thank God!) at Kanatha-Aki in the Canadian Laurentians

We live in a culture defined by algorithms, divisions, repetitions. In this self-imposed echo chamber, we see and experience more of what we’ve previously chosen and less of the totality of possibilities. kana5

We begin to think everyone sees life as we do, that all people lust after the newest consumer products, the latest Netflix hit, the biggest house they can possibly afford.

That’s why visiting a place like Kanatha-Aki is so refreshing. Rather than reinforcing the closed system we believe is reality, this gorgeous nature preserve in the Canadian Laurentians opens us up to different ideas, different cultures, a competing narrative.


The guardians of Kanatha-Aki (using the word owners doesn’t quite seem appropriate) is a French outdoorsman named Stéphane Denis and Dominique Rankin, the Algonquin nation’s last hereditary chief.

Together, they respectfully oversee this piece of undisturbed wilderness, opening it up city folks like me who have a tendency to forget the deep connection we share with the natural world.


The word Kanatha-aki is an Algonquin term that means “guardian of the boundless earth” and its mission is for all humans to discover the most beautiful and wildest of Mother’s Earth’s offerings.

I felt so blessed to spend a day with Dominique, the revered chief, to hear of his adventures with Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, to hear how he has forgiven his early captors, to learn of his morning ritual committing himself to being in harmony with all living beings.

We shared a delicious cheese fondue in one of the log cabins on the property, a visitor’s center of sorts where people come for such outdoor activities as dog sledding and ice fishing in the winter and trekking and ziplining in the summer.

There is a tipi at the summit where visitors can overnight on pine beds and bison skins, trapper’s huts where they can sample balsam fir tea and maple syrup cooked over primitive wood-burning stoves and a Mikizi (it means Eagle) cabin where purification ceremonies and other healing rituals take place.

But mostly, visitors come to remember what it’s like to breathe uncarbonized air, what it’s like to be one with wolves and fox and even the sled dogs who are all treated with the same respect.

I took an expedition (led by a delicious guide whose long hair and beard created the spitting image of Jesus) on a dog sled to the Kanatha-Aki wood bison reserve, the first such preserve in Quebec. This Athabascae species, the largest bison alive, have been around since prehistoric times, having survived the Ice Age and contributing to mankind’s survival on the planet.

On the vernal equinox 2005, the herd gave birth to a white female bison, the seventh in the world, which according to Rankin, fulfills a prophecy about the healing of earth and mankind. In honor of this auspicious event, 25 sacred pipes were simultaneously lit by Amerindian chiefs and medicine men throughout North America.

So if the reverberation in your echo chamber is getting old, head to Kanatha-Aki, located in Val-des-Lacs in the majestic Laure ntian Mountains, adjacent to the Mont-Tremblant National Park.

T8aminik (that’s Dominique’s Algonquin name) delights in sharing the simple, profound Anishinaabe teachings in your choice of Algonquin, Cree, French, English, Odjibway, Atikamek and Innu.

If you’re any kind of epicurean, hurry posthaste to Mont-Tremblant in the Canadian Laurentians

So here’s the thing about ski resorts.


The good ones, the name brand resorts, the ones your ski buddies dream about all have a ridiculously large number of impressive restaurants.

You don’t have to like schlepping around mountains with giant boards attached to your feet. You just have to like eating, to enjoy experimenting with creative cuisine.

I’m particularly fond of Mont-Tremblant, an easy-to-get-to resort that readers of Ski Magazine regularly vote #1 in eastern North America. Because it’s in Quebec and has its own airport (it looks like a ski chalet and doesn’t even bother with a luggage belt), it has a distinctive European feel.

You get the French vibe, the intriguing ski instructors named Pierre and Jacques (back home, they’d be Peter and Jack) and a food scene that rivals anything you find in a big city. Only in Mont Tremblant, with its charming rues (or Pedestrian Village, as they call the main drag), the inspiring restaurants are right there, easy to walk to, brimming with intriguing choices. You might even see a red fox or a coyote on the stroll there.

Here’s a scavenger hunt of do-not-miss-these:

1. Down an Extreme Onction at La Diable. La Diable, named after the river that runs through the nearby Mont-Tremblant National Park, is a cozy microbrewery that also happens to have a decadent menu. Think poutine, sausage with homemade sauerkraut, lamb burgers and pork ribs that fall right off the bone. The Extreme Onction, one of many devil-themed craft beers that are brewed on site, is a Belgian Trappist-style ale with 8.5 percent alcohol.

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2. Try cooked scallops wrapped in carpaccio in wasabi and avocado sauce at Gypsy. Yep, there’s loads of tapas (flank steak on caramelized onion is another fav) at this magical, Spanish-inspired eatery inside Le Westin Mont Tremblant. They also have a killer brunch and lots of vegetarian options.

3. Meet the real Catherine of Creperie Catherine. With more 60 varieties of old-fashioned crepes, this long-time favorite with long-time skiers (Mont-Tremblant has been around since 1939. It’s the second oldest ski resort in North America) even offers gluten free waffles. Catherine Schmuck who honed her skills in the Merchant Marines often comes out to greet regulars, some of who refuse to eat anywhere else (for all three meals) during their Mont-Tremblant vacation.

4. Sample a beaver tail. No, not that kind. Beaver tails are basically Canadian donuts, made with whole wheat, stretched into the shape of a beaver’s tail and topped with such yumitudes as maple butter or cinnamon and sugar. Popular throughout Canada, beaver tails Mont-Tremblant style (sold at a takeout stand near the ski hill) often feature ham and cheese or steak.

5. Enjoy temperature diversity at Fairmont Hotel’s outdoor spa pools. It doesn’t quite seem fair. The giant hot pools, open to guests of the hotel’s Moment Spa, are massive enough to need a life guard who, during the winter, is suited up in winter parka, mittens and hats and shivering under a blanket while happy spa-goers are luxuriating in the steamy pools. The spa, where I had one of the best massages of my life (Ask for Denis), has 15 treatment rooms, a beauty salon with natural light and a cosmetics boutique.

diable46. Have a spring roll of the moment at O Wok. I’ve heard of soup of the day and weekly specials. But O Wok, an Asian-inspired restaurant not far from the free, open-to-everyone gondola, is so Zen they change their spring rolls by the moment.
So sure, Mont-Tremblant has everything a skier could want—nearly 100 downhill trails, four snow parks, more than a dozen ski lifts—but the real reason I go is for the lively patios, pubs, upscale restaurants, microbreweries and unbelievable food.

The O’Brien House, a Canadian Heritage Treasure, opens next week as B&B

Be the first guest at this boutique hotel in Quebec’s uber-gorgeous Gatineau Parkobrien

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. The 8200-square-foot mansion in Quebec’s Gatineau Park that was slated to open last year for Canada’s 150th birthday didn’t quite make the deadline.

That can happen when you’re taking on a project of this magnitude. The $3.9 million renovation of the cliffside summer home, built in 1930 by Ambrose O’Brien,  founder of the National Hockey Association (later the NHL), is worth the wait.

Let me count the ways:

1. It’s not every day you get to be first. Last year, when every history buff on the planet was rushing to celebrate all things Canadian, Gatineau Park was let’s just say, busier than usual. Busy, of course, is relative as this National Park is big—130-square-miles big with 103 miles of hiking trains, 56 miles of mountain bike trains and 120 miles of cross country ski trails. Enjoying its pristine natural charm is sort of a no-brainer. And even better is how easy this much awesome wilderness is to access. The main entrance is a short 2.5 miles from Ottawa.
2. Perfection, as they say, takes time. O’Brien House had time to get things right. Each of the 11 suites, the ones you can be the very first to frequent, and the two treehouse suites are all individually decorated and have panoramic views of the park. We’re not making any promises, but it’s very likely you could catch a glimpse of the more than 100 species that call Gatineau Park home including wolves, bears, porcupines and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (well, his second home, Lac Mousseau, is located on Harrington Lake). And again, no guarantees, but the tattoed hunk has been known to explore the trails shirtless.


3. The food is peerless, made in one of the most scenic hotel kitchens on the planet. I know. You don’t normally count on gourmet food when enjoying primo wilderness. But because O’Brien House is helmed by Patrick Marion who has a thing for sourcing ingredients from local artisans and a thriving community of small scale farmers, the food is creative, inspiring and the perfect reward for a day of enjoying the park’s outdoor offerings. Although he’s not saying, Marion was likely lured to O’Brien House because of its unique kitchen with giant windows (who does that in a hotel kitchen?) with the same panoramic views enjoyed by guests.

4. It’s minutes from North America’s largest spa. Purists, of course, can find more than enough to do right within the park. There are numerous beaches (one’s even an unofficial nude beach), a fabulous ice skating rink and the pesticide-free village of Chelsea that was once an ionospheric observatory for the Royal Canadian Navy and now sports the iconic Chelsea Pub that just happens to brews its own homemade craft beers. Or you can visit Camp Fortune that has downhill skiing in the winter and a zipline in the summer.


But whatever you do, leave time in your schedule for a visit to Nordik Spa, the largest spa in North America. It’s hard to describe the enormity of this outdoor spa, nestled within Canada’s forests, except to say it has a ginormous selection of Nordic baths and waterfalls, saunas with varying temperatures, steam baths, cold plunge pools, hot tubs, quiet rooms, restaurants and enough offerings that it would be impossible to do them all in one day.

Savvy adventurer that I am, I opted for the Kalla, an underground salt-water pool that gives 20 guests at a time (a counter before you descend 16-feet into the rock keeps tabs) the relaxing feeling of weightlessness much like floating in the Dead Sea. There’s only one other pool like it in the world.

I also indulged in a rare Aufguss Ritual, announced six times a day by a deep, resonant gong. Once inside the sauna, an Aufguss master enters with wooden pails filled with snowballs, each infused with essential oils. Accompanied by music (there are three carefully-selected songs), the master, one-by-one, drops the snowballs on the hot rocks and fans them in a belly-dancer like dance throughout the chambers.

“Hurry hard” to Le Chateau Montebello for free Olympic curling lessons

Chateau Montebello offers what may be the most unusual hotel amenity yet. Free curling lessons offered every morning at 10 a.m.

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If you’re not up on the Olympic sport that the IOC added to its official roster in 1998, this baronial log castle in the wilds of Canada is the perfect place to polish your skills or at least the lingo.

Curling, the sport that clutters the Pyeongchang calendar for longer than any other (18 full days), uses special brooms, special shoes and special commands (“hurry hard” is an exuberant exhortation shouted at the skips), all of which can be mastered at Le Chateau Montebello.curling

Of course, if you don’t relish the idea of hurling a 42-pound polished granite orb across a long sheet of ice, this romantic getaway also offers cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, dog-sledding as well as Land Rover Off-Road Driving school. And that’s just in the winter.

But here are four more reasons to “hurry hard” to Le Chateau Montebello:

1. Le Chateau Montebello is set on 65,000 acres of ooh-la-la wilderness. Bordered on one side by the wide waters of the Ottawa River, it’s one of the last surviving land grants from a 17th-century French king and it is gorgeous, a true respite from big city life. Harold Saddlemire, the Swiss-American entrepreneur who built it in 1930 as a private club for prime ministers, bank presidents and foreign dignitaries, conceived it as Lucerne-in-Quebec.

2. From the beginning Le Chateau Montebello has inspired awe and an anything-is-possible mentality. In order to open on July 1, Canada’s Independence Day, Finnish master builder Victor Nymark, hired an army of 3500 laborers to work around the clock. To assuage the local cure’ who insisted it was a sin to work on the Sabbath, Nymark sent him to Rome to get a dispensation from the Pope. Of course, by the time he returned (going by boat, it took a while) the 10,000 huge pine logs and the cathedral-like lobby with its massive six-sided, six-story stone fireplace were already in place,  just in time for the grand opening masquerade ball.

3. It regularly hosts bigwigs. Although it’s no longer a private club (it’s now part of the luxury Fairmont chain, a AAA Four Diamond hotel), it still attracts people you read about in the headlines. It has hosted the G7 Summit, a NATO Summit, the Bilderberg Group and lots of movie stars.

4. The food, the food. Suffice it to say, you don’t find many fine French restaurants in the middle of rustic wilderness. Aux Chantignoles offers an extensive wine list to accompany such dishes as pan seared foie gras with pear tarte, goat’s cheese crusted rack of lamb, pan-seared Arctic char and wild mushroom roasted beef tenderloin. Whatever you do, don’t miss the maple crepes at breakfast or the Sunday brunch that’s probably more famous that the celebrity clientele.

Five top reasons to say “Si” to San Antonio’s recently renovated Hotel Valencia

On one hand, you want a quiet getaway. But aren’t vacations meant to be riveting, at least worthy of a Snapchat story or two?  It’s the quintessential hotel booking question. Especially when expectations of experimental dining figure into the equation.

hv2I’m happy to report that, in San Antonio at least, I’ve found the perfect solution. Hotel Valencia is smack dab on the world famous River Walk. You can see the boats, the ducks and the happy wanderers from your beautiful tiled Spanish veranda. But because it’s at the intersection of the River Walk’s later-added 1.3-mile Museum Reach, it feels private, luxurious and oh-so-relaxing.

Most of the rowdiest partiers never get past the cypress-lined walkways and bridges near the Main Plaza which leaves the murals, the outdoor public art, the museums and the CIA cooking school for you.

And as for experimental dining, you don’t even have to leave the boutique hotel’s premises. Dorrego’s, named after the lively Plaza Dorrego in the historic San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, offers such Argentine-influenced dishes as smoked short rib ravioli, quail meatballs, duck confit empanadas and proveleta flamado, a tequila flamed Argentine provolone.

Here are four other reasons Hotel Valencia is the perfect choice:

1. It’s the little things. Chef Anthony Mesa, who designed the innovative menu at Dorrego’s, (Did I mention the charred corn, cilantro and signature red chimichurri sauce in the duck empanadas or that the beef raviolis take four and a half hours to make?), has become a bona fide Argentine evangelist. After a stint in Buenos Aires, he brought back the Argentinean tradition of Un Poco Mas. It means “one more thing” and this something extra is incorporated into the entire guest experience. The morning coffee comes with a fresh-baked cookie or biscotti. Cocktails are accompanied by candied pepitas or house-made potato chips. Tea comes with a choice of flavored syrups.

2. Breakfast is included. Although customary in Europe, most American hotels try to gouge guests with every meal they can. At Hotel Valencia, guests get a full line-up of homemade breads, granola, yogurts, fruits and more. The breakfast “un poco mas” was “un grande mas,” at least in my book, because all-you-can-drink fresh-squeezed orange juice could easily set you back $20 or more.

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3. You get a fast track to two former Texas breweries who have been given hip new lives. Remember that Museum Reach I mentioned earlier? Because of Hotel Valencia’s perfect location, you can easily walk from Hotel Valencia to these two San Antonio icons.

Lone Star Brewery, built in 1884 by beer baron Adolphus Busch, left a big gap along the San Antonio River when it fell victim to an unfortunate corporate merger. But rather than raze it or allow it to crumble into a hazardous eyesore, the city turned the historic brewery into the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Just a few steps further is Pearl Brewery, Lone Star’s competitor that, in 2001, was also shuttered after more than 100 years of beer-making. Thanks to the far-sightedness of Kit Goldsbury, the Pace Salsa billionaire, the 22-acre complex roared back to life as an edgy foodie destination.

The post-industrial riverfront complex hosts several of San Antonio’s best restaurants (La Gloria which riffs on the Mexican street vendor scene and Il Sogno Osteria, an always crowded Italian restaurant with an open kitchen and a wood-burning oven, to name a couple), a twice-weekly farmer’s market (featuring everything from lavender soap, watercress and free range eggs to heritage pork, grass-fed bison and sour cream pecan muffins), a kitchenware store owned by famed cookbook author, Melissa Guerra (look for such hard-to-find items as authentic Mexican molcajetes, hand-embroidered dish towels and mesquite rolling pins) and a 30,000-square foot Culinary Institute of America cooking school.


4. Hotel Valencia just had a $10 million, top to bottom facelift. I wasn’t privy to its first incarnation, but I certainly dig what acclaimed architect Lauren Rottet did with the place. Plus I have abiding respect for any place that refuses to rest on its laurels and believe me, Hotel Valencia has many from USA Today’s “Most Romantic” to Conde Nast Reader’s Choice to AAA’s four-diamonds.

Top five reasons to visit Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Pundits have already branded 2018 as the “year of the woman.” Indeed, women across the country have become increasingly engaged and energized in using their voices to demand glass

As New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says, “We can no longer wait for some white knight in Washington to ride up and save us.”

Great advice and if anyone needs a tutorial in just how to do that, they should head to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin where for several decades, women have been innovating, leading and proving that the last thing anybody needs is a white knight.

Most of the businesses in this charming village near Kettle Moraine State Park are run by women. Lola Roeh helms the venerable Osthoff Resort and its Aspira Spa that in 2017 was ranked second best spa in America. Chef Lynn Chisholm restored a hardware store from the 1880’s, turning it into the award-winning Paddock Club. Across the street is Vintage Elkhart Lake, a wine shop owned by Jaclyn Stuart, a certified sommelier who wrote The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wine & Food. Most of the hotels, restaurants and businesses are women-owned.

Here are four more reasons to visit this delightful little tourist town:

1. There’s a French cooking school. L’Ecole de la Maison, in the Osthoff Resort (thank you, Lola), offers culinary classes on everything from truffles and chocolates to casual Italian. While I was busy cooking lemon curd and rolling out homemade baguettes in the cooking school’s gorgeous kitchen, a fellow chef-in training insisted she’d been to the Cordon Bleu in Rome and this was far better.
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2. It sports the longest raceway in the United States. Road America, the four-mile, 14-turn masterpiece originally carved out of 640 acres of rolling Wisconsin farmland, draws hundreds of thousands of race fans for more than 450 events each year. There’s NASCAR, American Le Mans, a vintage race with such classics as 1928 Bugattis and million-dollar Shelby Cobras.

road americaNeedless to say, it’s a great place to spot celebrities. Although long-time regular Paul Newman is gone (he’s still memorialized at Siebkens Stop-Inn Tavern), fans can still spot such stars as Mario Andretti, Patrick Dempsey, Bobby Rahal who likes Road America so much that he constructed a slot car replica of its twisting turns in his basement and Ashley Judd who danced on the table in celebration of her now ex-husband Dario Franchitti’s victory.

3. It’s better than a doctor. According to the Potawatomi Indians, the 292-acre Elkhart Lake not only contains curative powers, but swimmers step out of its pure clear waters “handsome once again.” I’ve yet to see photographic evidence of this before-and-after pulchritude, but I do know I feel 100 percent rejuvenated after walking its four-mile perimeter and partaking of its beachside Aspira Spa.

Just spending a few restful days in this tiny town with its impeccably manicured grounds, vibrant gardens and friendly residents who, for fun, hold International Jazz Fests and Christmas Markets and Top Chef competitions diminishes stress lines.

4. It’s a quintessential foodie destination. There are at least two theories on how a town with a population of 967 can support so many great restaurants (more than a dozen) and a wine shop with more than 250 hand-picked wines.

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Theory number one goes back to Road America that draws wealthy Europeans and discerning vintage car racers, many who likely ascribe to the motto, “Life’s too short to eat boring food.” The other stems from being 18 miles away from the posh American Club, the only five-diamond resort in the Midwest.

I’d like to add my theory to the mix. Any time you find women running the show, you’re bound to find creativity, excellence and awe-inspiring food.

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.
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.

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.

soho tea

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.
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.

Swedish fika

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.


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.