Seven Heavens: Jonathon Ramsey's Year of Empyrean Experiences
"Every day above ground is a good day" is the saying, and it depends entirely on how much latitude you give the definition of "good." There are other days, however – certain days, special days – that cannot be denied their inclusion in the ranks of The Best of the Good Ones. While we have no problem admitting that even the least among our days on the job are still pretty good, there are others that clearly and simply take their places at the front of a very competitive line. In no particular order, then, here are seven places and pleasures that have meant the most to us in 2010.
1. DISCOVERING THE LAND OF CHARLES STEWART ROLLS IN A ROLLS-ROYCE DROPHEAD COUPE
The sceptered isle has been well dressed in the feats of its sons and daughters. However, it's not often remembered that many of those children came not from England, but Scotland and Wales. So is the case with Welshman Charles Stewart Rolls, whose feckless academic career wouldn't stop him from becoming the premier half of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars (gee, where have we heard that one before – oh yeah, Vanderbilt, Burke, Einstein, Gates, etc...).
All right, so Rolls was born in Kensington, one of the smarter London postcodes, but his family home is a Tetris-like fortress of brick called The Hendre, in Monmouth, Wales. Details aside, we retrieved a Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe from the factory in Cheshire, England and piloted it to the home of the co-founder, which is now a golf resort.
It was mythic. The Drophead Coupe is marvelously engineered, a wheeled battleship with steel on the outside, sovereign plush on the inside. We enjoyed a slow, top-down cruise through Cotswolds cottages and pastures (after it stopped raining...), tea at St. Paul Malmesbury Without, stopping in a field for photographs only to be discovered by a farmer in a vintage Land Rover wondering why there was a droptop ship parked on his grassland, espied the dwellings at Badminton House, then hooked up with the M4 and crossed the Severn River bridge into Wales.
We reached The Hendre, about 40 miles NE of Cardiff, and stayed in a cottage on the 18th green that was so distressingly quaint we thought we might wake up in a waistcoat and breeches. A weekend of touring and dining affirmed one thing: that country of singers, golfers, rugby mavens and jumbled consonants is a cinematic sea of grassy homesteads and hummocks, which everywhere matches what's on offer in the tourist haven Wye Region and Tintern Abbey.
We haven't written this one up yet, but the full tale will be coming soon. One other wee discovery from the trip was that Charles Rolls' current creations are as wide as both lanes of Welsh back roads, so to any who had to make way for us on those narrow, stone-lined thoroughfares, drinks are on us next time we're in town.
2. JOCHEN70 MAKES THE BAG OF BAGS
Our openness to being impressed is reminiscent of James Herriot's embrace the animal kingdom: we welcome all pleasures great and small. In that latter category we discovered Jochen70 bags, and their minor material size doesn't constrict the voluminous pleasure they provide. Designed to fit the ethos and trunks of classic cars, we grabbed a 2009 Mille Miglia Copilot for our Rolls-Royce trip and found it not only spectacular, but not at all out of place in its modern surrounds.
It's ballistic nylon and thick, supple leather outside protect a red velour interior with pockets for a laptop, magazines, and the various instruments of aristocratic racing, which conveniently happen to be much the same instruments of aristocratic business. And then there are those red stripes. Still, there's nothing all that special in the description – but in the daily use, the way it looks and feels, the thing is just right. It is subtle, solidly built, sexy. We have an absurd number of bags, but this is the one that has floated to the top of the heap and stayed there, such that when we our acquisitive tendencies left us with too many goods for the bag to hold, we didn't get rid of the bag, we got rid of our possessions.
We then picked up a Jochen70 Reporter – it has a protected zipper to resist fluids and even odors – and we have never felt so good about keeping our daily life organized. Nor so stylish...
Gallery: Jochen70 Mille Miglia Bag
3. VODKA DONE RIGHT IS A SYMPHONY CALLED CHOPIN
We have a Luxist reader to thank for this one: in response to the perhaps cynical tone of yet another post on yet another new vodka, a reader wrote in to suggest we take a look at Chopin, the Polish vodka distilled in the plains outside of Warsaw. As it happened, the advice coincided with a trip to Warsaw we already had planned, and while there we got the chance to meet Tad Dorda, the CEO of Chopin.
Belvedere, Chopin's former sister brand, had been our vodka of choice until we spent a day with Mr. Dorda. And in that one day, from the moment we took off in the Chopin helicopter to fly to the source, he gave us the most sincere, straightforward, delicious and intoxicating education in vodka, potatoes, liquor laws, Polish luxury, cereals and column distillation – with a few pirogis and pre-Glasnost-era tales thrown in – that Belvedere is now our former vodka of choice.
In a multi-billion-dollar industry where our favorite spirits are made in multi-million-dollar factories that challenge anything from Merck & Co. or GlaxoSmithKline for clinical industrial sterility – despite the handcrafted theme of marketing materials – Chopin is the anti-juggernaut: you can follow every step of a bottle of Chopin being distilled, from the pile of raw potatoes out back, walking through each of the seven stations in a small, early-19th-century edifice that renders a humble tuber into a towering spirit. And it is all presided over by one man who just wants to make the best vodka he can.
We don't know the Polish word for "serendipity." But we do know which vodka we ask for by name. Stay tuned for the details...
Gallery: The Crafted Charm of Chopin Vodka
4. ANTIPODEAN BEATITUDE AT LAKE OKAREKA LODGE
We never get tired of writing about Rotorua, New Zealand's Lake Okareka Lodge because we never get tired of plotting ways to return. For four straight days we arose, cocooned in massive thread counts and down duvets, to surises through The Cut in distant, sheep-flecked hills. Morning ablutions in the heated-stone bathroom were imperial, the Sonos system casting our chosen sounds through the steam while our private chef prepared the day's first sustenance.
Days in the company of Graham, our concierge, were a View Master slideshow of landscapes and lunacy: afternoon runs through the packed, barked columns of the the Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest, luge runs down a concrete track with alpine steeps, quiet dips in the hot sulfur springs at the Polynesian Spa beside Lake Rotorua, Maori enlightenment at Te Puia, five-star lunches and five-course dinners, New Zealand wines, sunsets in a canoe on Lake Okareka. And New Zealand wines. And yet more New Zealand wines.
Lake Okareka Lodge, along with Paris and Iceland, is the third locale on our list of Places We Absolutely Must Visit Every Year. To us it suffers from only one thing: the misnomer of the word "Lodge," for we no more 'lodged' at Lake Okareka than we 'lodge' in our own home. Speaking of which, when we do get back there, that is what we look forward to making it again: our 7,000-square-foot home away from...
Gallery: Lake Okareka Lodge by lebua
5. THE RIZK RA
The calefaction of a Phoenix summer is such that could make Satan retort, "Really? Don't you think that's a bit much?" Sure, there are hotter places, but they aren't destinations – they're freak shows where you pop in to marvel at nature's furtive horrors (or, in the case of Vegas, mankind's glaring horrors). It was during that volcanic season that we were offered the Rizk Ra, a go-fast two-seater with bygone looks sculpted over futuristic tech. And no top.
Still, we drove it every 114-degree day and 98-degree night, our temerity rewarded with the anti-racoon tan of a sunglasses-wearing outdoorsman. The Ra has no comforts: you sit bolt upright in a Herman Miller Aeron chair; the turn signal is a toggle in the center of the dash that requires manual cancellation; there's no radio, not that you could hear one over the engine even if there were; the hood rivals Baja, California for length; and there are no cupholders molded into the carbon fiber center tunnel.
What it did have, though, was a way of making us feel heroic, like Lindbergh above the Atlantic or Captain Nemo in it. There was nothing to prove or to win: to keep driving was our only aim. Aerospace build techniques kept the Ra's structure from obscuring the connection to its Jaguar engine and the road, and with a burst of vintage "brap-brap" from the twin-tip exhaust just ahead of the driver, we felt the giddiness of Mr. Toad (of Toad Hall, who was not kidnapped by brigands...) and often had to fight the urge to swing the wheel from heroic to hapless.
But fight it we did, and in doing found that the Rizk Ra is everything driving can be, and in that, it's quite a bit of best of life itself.
Gallery: Luxist Drives the Rizk Ra
6. THE GUMPERT APOLLO
On the other side of the heroic scales is the Gumpert Apollo. Whereas the Rizk Ra makes you feel heroic, the Gumpert Apollo is itself heroic, and unless you've been keeping up with Phase 4 of your Superhero Training Curriculum, you will not be able to keep up with the car. If we had to have something with a roof – well, something not a Bentley Continental Supersports or Aston Martin DBS Carbon Black – this is it. Not in orange. But this is it.
No, it is not pretty. No, it is not plush. No, it is not cheap. It is, rather, the most nimble missile you can press into service on the track, a brutal, 800-horsepower test of your sternocleidomastoid that is also street legal, so you can drive it straight from Victory Circle to Nobu to celebrate your victory.
More importantly for us, it is the product of one man's dream to build the finest no-holds-barred car he could. And that it exactly what he did, the German precision of which gives the feeling of straddling a beast of meshing titanium with rubber feet. And it took so much out of him that he admitted he might not do it over again if given the chance – which for us, is the best and most beautiful kind of dream to have. Especially when it's successful.
Gallery: Luxist Drives the Gumpert Apollo
7. MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN
A recent venture whose story is yet to be told in these pages, no one is more surprised than us to have Northern California's Mammoth Mountain on the list. The chosen snow-capped backyard playground of Los Angelenos – and in keeping with LA's commuting philosophy, the backyard is a six hour drive – we'd gotten used to ignoring any mention of it during our years in the city. But on being invited to take the first flight up of the 2010 season, the village of Mammoth delivered unexpected delights every single day.
There was snowshoeing in low double-digit temperatures and higher double-digit winds, a three-hour binge on alpine evergreen and sideways snowfall made possible by the glorious discovery of Arc'teryx winter gear. There was Shields and Kathy Richardsons' Side Door restaurant, a boutique oenophile's Shangri-la where you pass through the savory melange of buckwheat crepes and the sweet lava of Swiss chocolate fondue to get to tiny, impossible-to-find-elsewhere wines like Moraga, from a vineyard in Bel-Air. Yes, that Bel-Air. There was Chef Frederic Pierrel from the Lakefront restaurant who, having lugged fine dining and fresh seafood up to 8,600 feet, was full of Gallic quotables like "Three years ago no one here knew how to pronounce Loup de Mer! Now everyone has it!"
There were the constant hellos from jovial strangers. There was the constant sage and humorous advice from Skiing magazine's Kevin Luby, a colleague on the trip (among which: spend the money to buy a good set of boots, and couples should never, ever take skiing lessons together). And there was the constant snow that shuttered the airport, which led to the extreme kindness of Outside magazine's Alicia Carr, who wasn't on the trip but graciously drove a stranded scribe back to Los Angeles.
And then there was the mountain, bathing in a bounty of nearly two inches of snow every hour for four days (and then some, in fact, but we were adios muchachos after 96 hours), resulting in so much frozen fluff that it completely recalibrated a Southern Californian's definition of "powder."
Oh, and there was a howitzer for an alarm clock, a dawn ritual that, for four days at least, we really can't recommend enough.
It has been a very, very good year.
Gallery: Mammoth Mountain 2010