Of all the art movements to use as inspiration in hotel décor, I'm not sure surrealism would be my first choice. (If I woke up in the morning to the sight of a melting alarm clock, I think I'd summon an ambulance.) So although I'd long known that the artist Salvador Dalí had been a design inspiration during Philippe Starck's renovation of Le Meurice, Paris' most venerable palace hotel, the whole proposition sounded somewhat dubious.
After all, surrealism is about thought unhampered by reason. And I like a luxury hotel that is, at the least, reasonable in its décor if not in price.
What's more, "reasonable" would not be the first adjective associated with Dalí, as a guest of Le Meurice. In his month-long annual stays, he requested a herd of sheep and then proceeded to shoot them with his pistol -- blank bullets, otherwise what a mess. He also requested a horse for reasons unrecorded in hotel history. And freshly caught flies, from the handily placed Tuileries Garden across the street.
It's never too early to start thinking about outfitting your beach house, so might I suggest that The Regent Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, France, offers an idea worth copying.
If you love to eat those delightful sea crustaceans, and who doesn't, you will want to do like the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pressoir d'Argent, and acquire a lobster press.
There aren't very many of these devices in the world -- it's 90 pounds, made of silver, and looks like a cross between something Willy Wonka might dream up and a torture device -- but it's also shiny and adorned with lovely lobster sculptures as it's meant to be used tableside.
The idea is similar to a duck press -- after removing tail and claws, the rest of the lobster is inserted into the press, where a two-person team works the device to press out the lobster juices. (See the gallery for an action shot.) The result: lobster jus, much stronger in flavor than you'd get from the most developed lobster stock. At The Regent, the chef adds the jus to bearnaise sauce, and serves that on top of roasted lobster meat.
The lobster press is are custom made by Christofle, and take 150 hours of labor by ten master craftsmen to create -- they cost 30,000 Euro, just or around $40,700.
Or you can just book a table at the restaurant, and after such grand meal, you'll certainly require a room. It's hard to beat the view at the Royale Suite, which has a terrace jacuzzi -- but I like the Prestige Suites, which come with their own private wine bar within rolling distance of (the very comfy) bed.
Which, come to think of it, is another fine idea for your beach house.
When people ask me for luxury travel advice, usually along the lines of "I want to plan a perfect trip to XYZ," I have two responses: a) there ain't no such thing as perfect in this world, no matter how much money you spend; and, b) you always know exactly how to make a trip as perfect as possible after you get home.
Still, the following trips I made in 2010 pleased me greatly, which is basically what I count as sublime perfection -- and should you plan to follow in my footsteps in 2011, note the tips I've added for making terrific travel even better.
If there's any time of year that can bring on a yearning for nostalgia, it's this one. But not everyone wants to take a step back into their own past at the holidays -- sometimes it's just more fun to go back even further, like into another era.
So how do the 1940s grab you? In Chicago, Sable Kitchen & Bar at the Hotel Palomar is hosting Zoot! New
Years Eve 2011. It's an homage to the era of Swing...and not, of course, to all the other horrendous things that happened worldwide in the 1940s...but this is no time for glum thoughts, just dig out your best vintage to rock out to a nine-piece swing band "The Pin Ups", bottomless champagne bar all night long, unlimited small plates from 8 to 11 pm (if they're serving their truffled deviled eggs you'll definitely want to forget all about your waistline), unlimited dessert from 11 pm to 1 am, and all the other usual trimmings of the New Year's Eve gala. Cost: $125 per person, including tax and gratuity.
It'd totally break the spell to drive anywhere in your modern wheels, and so if you and your main queen (or king) crash at the hotel that night, you get two tickets to the party and the room for $419. Just don't get startled out of your nostalgic reverie by the instant-dryer in the hotel's jacuzzi tubs -- they do click on without much warning.
Better still is to go elite, and reserve the VIP Sable Swing Lounge for the 'NYE Anti-Prix Fixe' Dinner. You and your closest nine friends get to create your own dinner menu in a private dining room. The tab: $250 per person.
Hotels that prominently make condoms available to their guests have never really screamed "class".
Sure, you might see a condom in the minibar, next to the in-case-of-emergency, absurdly expensive liquor, or for sale in the hotel gift shop. But other than hotels that are going for edgy (like, say, the Hard Rock Hotel) or those that offer rates by the hour, condoms can be as hard to locate as that last elusive light switch.
Which is silly if you think about it, because sex is definitely happening in hotel rooms, even classy ones. If you're shelling out the bucks for a high end hotel, to ensure that you will not have to slide your body between anything but designer sheets, chances are you're concerned about what you or your partner wear...everywhere.
PROPER ATTIRE is a condom company that seeks to position prophylactics as an essential accessory. (Apparently the company name is meant to be rendered in all caps. Slogan: Required for Entry. ) Charlotte Ronson is the latest to collaborate with the company, joining Alexander Wang, Keith Haring and others. "Charlotte Ronson for PROPER ATTIRE condoms" will be available at Thompson Hotels including 60 Thompson, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and Thompson Beverly Hills as well as at Ronson's boutique and online. Sales benefit Planned Parenthood.
So what's so designer about these condoms? Apparently, it's mostly the wrapper, which in the case of Ronson is rather subtle. The Ronson line includes three different styles, including Color -- three bright pink condoms, for "a small splash of color that can brighten the drabbest of outfits". A rather deflating sentiment, no? Certainly not something that would inspiring to quote while in flagrante delicto.
Frida Kahlo is an icon -- as an artist, as the inspiration for the 2002 Academy Award winning biopic starring Salma Hayek, as the center of a cult of personality.
Amidst all the "Fridamania", and the countless key chains and trinkets that her paintings grace, the pioneering aspects of Kahlo's art can get somewhat lost. But she was a pioneering female artist, breaking new ground for women to use their own life experience as legitimate subject -- and a new book called Face to Face: Frida Kahlo, published by Prestel, seeks to put her work into that perspective.
Written by the artist Judy Chicago, along with art historian Frances Borzello, this lavishly illustrated book considers Kahlo's entire ouevre without, as Chicago writes, constantly referring to Kahlo's biography. It's a surprise to realize, for instance, that only one-third of Kahlo's paintings are self-portraits.
Face to Face includes essays by Chicago and Barzello, and then several sections where the two have a conversation in print about various aspects of Kahlo's work. They draw connections between the art that inspired the self-taught Kahlo, as well as showing Kahlo's influence on artists that came after her. And unlike other books on art with serious intent -- or, for that matter, wall text in many museums -- you don't feel like you need an advanced degree in art criticism to understand what Chicago and Barzello are saying. If you know what the phrase "picture plane" means, you've got all the lingo you need to appreciate this book.
The book may be a little heavy to tote along if you're planning to hit the Frida Kahlo highlights on your next trip to Mexico City. (See the gallery below.) But if you're a fan of Frida, I'd say it's essential pre-trip reading.
Gallery: Frida Kahlo's Mexico City Highlights
Mexico is having a big historical moment, at the moment -- celebrations marking its 200th anniversary of independence, and the centennial of its revolution reached a fever pitch this month.
Such anniversaries are a great time to reflect on the past, and New York City's Aperture Gallery, in Chelsea, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, have just opened shows on that theme. American photographer Paul Strand spent extended time in Mexico in the 1930s and the 1960s, and during these journeys, made photographs now considered to be among his best. The Chelsea gallery displays more than 100 photographs by Strand, including a remastered version of his 1936 film, Redes. The Bronx Museum shows twenty gravure prints from Strand's 1967 travels in Mexico.
And if you just can't get enough of Strand's Mexico photographs -- or you're not in New York -- next month brings another way to experience the exhibit. Paul Strand in Mexico, will be published by Aperture and the Televisa Foundation. The book, which will sell for $75, reprints 234 of Strand's photos from both of his trips -- of these 123 have never before been published.
You may have heard that many citizens of Stuttgart, home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, are protesting the destruction of their old railroad station, right in the heart of downtown.
The New York Times reports that the protests have been large -- from the thousands to as many as 60,000 people on the street. The city is largely conservative, not really given to taking to the streets. When I visited last year, many of the people I chatted with characterized the spirit of Stuttgart as an engineering department at a good university: logical, hardworking, steady -- not given to extreme passion.
Yet it was also very clear to me that Stuttgart has its softer side. I saw it as I walked around its downtown, with lawns and trees and families a-frolic. (Most of it rebuilt after World War II, pictured above in calmer days.) I saw in the vineyards, right inside the city limits -- as an aside, there's also a vineyard behind the old train station, and I'm not sure of its fate. I saw it in the obvious appreciation and use of the town's old market hall by its locals. Check out the gallery to see what I saw.
I'll admit, these amenities came as a surprise to me, an American traveler who pictured the city as a warren of factories. But after my visit, the news that Stuttgart's citizenry would object to the demolition of their historic and beautiful railway station -- that didn't surprise me much at all.
Gallery: Stuttgart's Softer Side
There is such a fine line between tacky and spectacular -- sometimes over-designed is over-the-top and sometimes it just makes you feel, well, over it.
I was musing on this distinction as I toured Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson's Moroccan hotel, a few weeks ago.
The setting, it has to be said, is uncontroversially spectacular. It's about an hour from Marrakech in a town called Asni. This is in the Atlas Mountains, and it's not a well-developed area for luxury travelers. (Most of whom stay in plush accommodations in the city and make Atlas Mountain forays -- which in fact is what I was doing, at the decidedly fabulous La Mamounia.) If you want to stay in style in the Atlas Mountains, this is your hotel. But you've really got to like it, because once you're there, you're really there. If you want other high-end dining, spa or shopping options, you're driving the winding road to Marrakech.
Kasbah Tamadot offers suites of the traditional variety, and then there are the Berber Tent suites, which have their own private decks and plunge pools. "Restrained" would still not be the word I'd use for the décor, but the color palette is more towards the khaki and cream, and the tents skip some of the touches in the other rooms that set my tacky-o-meter aquiver -- like pillows upholstered in pinkish-purplish feathers. Yes, a tent's what I'd book if I were to stay here. But do check out the gallery and see what you think.
Gallery: Kasbah Tamadot: Tacky or Fabulous?
Although I'd never before been to the Schwarzwald, or the Black Forest, in Southwestern Germany, it felt immediately, and somewhat eerily familiar. It turns out that these woods were the setting for many of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and as I drove from Baden Baden to my destination, Traube Tonbach hotel in Baiersbronn, I half expected to see Hansel and Gretel threading their way through the tall pine trees, or Little Red Riding Hood making her way to grandmother's house.
I didn't see any of those characters, but I did find a fantasy of food at Traube Tonbach. It does look a little like Ye Olde Hotel when you pull up to it, and that's because it is. The first lumberjacks were offered sustenance in 1789, and it's been a destination since the 1920s.
While you might not expect to find world-class cuisine in the middle of a fairy tale forest, and in a property that is an antique, albeit elegant and well-maintained, one of the hotel's restaurants Schwarzwaldstube is three star Michelin, and among the best in Germany. Young chefs come to train at the property, so even at the hotel's everyday dining room, you'll find a fresh touch is applied to traditional Swabian dishes, which can be somewhat heavy.
And no matter how sophisticated your palate, it's still something of a thrill to eat Black Forest ham and Black Forest cake in the Black Forest -- without fear of either wicked witches or wolves.