Luxurious London

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:22 pm -

I should have been raised in a hotel. I would have been the consummate Eloise at the Plaza. I’ve met a lot of hotels I haven’t liked. But then, there’ve been the hotels I’ve loved — and London’s 51 Buckingham Gate would more than qualify. It has something for everyone: location, charm, comfort and intimacy. It essentially feels like a club.

Big hotels aren’t my thing. Invariably, I get lost in the corridors, and I hate hotels which resemble railroad stations, where guests feel as if they need to take numbers to check in or out. I cherish my privacy and don’t necessarily care having other guests keeping track of my comings and goings. However, the same doesn’t apply for the hotel’s staff members. I love being spoiled by them in an understated fashion.

Understated has a very special connotation for me. It signifies niceties such as having the room cleaned when I duck out for a couple of hours, half-used bottles of shampoo replenished and hotel concierges offering me directions without my having to ask. I appreciate being presented with a cup of tea when I return to the hotel looking frazzled. Perhaps I’m spoiled but I love evening turn-down service. So many hotels have put a stop to this luxury.

During visits to the United Kingdom, I’m invariably surprised. After all, English is our common language, but Americans are lingo-challenged. And, there’s no question that manners and customs are different and in many ways more formal. The British are simply different.

I should clarify that I’m an American who chooses to live in Paris. I arrived in the ‘City of Light’ seventeen years ago, on a six-month assignment, and never permanently returned to the US. I frequently go to Washington, DC because I have family there. I travel enough that I’m never quite certain where to set my inner time-zone clock.

On this trip, my departure city was the Nation’s Capital.   The British Airways Washington-to-London flight takes less than seven hours, so crossing the Atlantic feels like a proverbial snap once strapped in my airplane seat. For me, every trip is an adventure because I suffer from perpetual wander lust. Architecture may remain constant, but time never stands still. I’m always amazed by visible changes and trends wherever and whenever I travel.

Not long after clearing customs at Heathrow Airport, the driver pulled into the courtyard of 51 Buckingham Gate, less than five minutes from Buckingham Palace. The massive black wrought-iron gate protects the enclave and gives the entrance a regal appearance. In the center area, there’s a charming small garden that changes according to the season. There’s a story about the courtyard but you’ll have to ask.

Smiling staff members were on hand, and my luggage disappeared. I was handed a magnetic card to the room, attached to a black-and-silver key ring with the number 51. Little did I know that the key ring would be my checkout gift.

I was eager to go my room in the Kings section, one of the three restored buildings, which are striking examples of Edwardian and Victorian architecture. Former town houses, they were converted to long-term rental apartments and luxury suites by the Taj Group, which owns and manages a chain of luxurious hotels in India. The group decided to expand and make this property its London showcase.

Bernard de Villele became the hotel general manager in 1999 and converted the circa 1897 buildings into a five-star jewel of a retreat. This man doesn’t suffer incompetence, and although he’s usually onsite at 51 Buckingham Gate doing inspection tours, (you imagine he wears white gloves and has eyes behind his head), M. de Villele has been made Vice-president of Business Development & Operations for Europe and the Americas. He’s developed a stable crew of team members who know the clients and vice-versa. So many guests are repeat visitors because of the special environment, reception and attention they receive.

Prior to my arrival, I had requested soft down pillows. They were waiting and I fell into a profound sleep. I would have spent the day in bed if it weren’t for the guilt factor. The decor was stunning, and the living room had breathtaking flowers cascading out of a shopping bag from the chic Fleur Couture in the equally chic Mayfair area. The bedroom’s incredibly comfortable king-size bed was covered with a 100% down duvet with an Egyptian 600-thread count cotton cover and a bedspread that was nothing less than sumptuous. I’m a beige person, and I admired the suite’s clean design, which used modern furniture with subtle and never jarring color accents.

Rather than rooms, guest accommodations (82 in all) range from junior suites to four-bedroom residences, with full kitchens that are perfect for those who want to have champagne and goodies without leaving the inner sanctum.  Each suite’s kitchen includes a mini-dishwasher and combination washer/dryer. There’s also a DVD and a CD player, a printer/fax machine, a private telephone number with voicemail. All of the accommodations have data-ports but if you’re a computer addict, rooms are equipped with a high-speed or WiFi modem connection. Oh, and yes, there’s a safe in every room.

The beige marble bathrooms have high-tech elements and a tub and separate shower stall. I showered using the Molton Brown bath amenities. I crawled into bed before my hit-the-road wake up call. There was so much to see in so little time.

For those who desire service equivalent to what you’d experience were you a guest at The Buckingham Palace, book an Ivor Spencer suite. You’ll have a personal butler for sixteen hours a day who’ll do everything required to make your trip stress-free. A limousine will be awaiting you at the airport, your suitcases unpacked, your bath drawn, dinner reservations and/or business needs will be attended to, always with the utmost of competence. If you’d like to have a private dinner served in your suite, all you have to do is ask.  The meal will be served on Wedgwood China and Villeroy and Boch crystal. If you want special activities to be arranged for your traveling companion, don’t hesitate to ask. That’s all part of these rarified butlers’ jobs.

I didn’t ask, but I suspect you can request to be tucked into bed. I wouldn’t be in the least bit shocked if more than a few guests had taken advantage of that service. After a long dinner including champagne, wines and cognac, it wouldn’t come as a surprise. Don’t be surprised if you spy a rock star or a head of state at 51 Buckingham Gate.

I certainly didn’t require this type of attention. Each time I returned from an outing, a goodie was waiting to welcome me. Tea sandwiches, cookies, chocolate strawberries and a box of chocolates from the French were just a few of the surprises in case I’d worked up a hunger while out on the town.

The first day was supposedly easy. After a buffet lunch in the hotel’s library, where you can always order something to eat, including a four tier silver tray of delectable sandwiches and different pastries for “high tea,” we set out to see London from on high. It was our second flight of the day as we climbed aboard the British Airway London Eye, a 450-foot monster Ferris wheel built for the millennium celebrations but held over by popular demand. Thirty-two glass capsules, each holding as many as 25 passengers, rotate for 30 minutes. During that time, passengers have privileged views of the Thames River and buildings and gardens rarely seen from the ground. It’s worth buying the guidebook in order to know what you’re seeing from this perspective.

Off we went to Fortnum & Mason, purveyor to many royal families over the years. There are a lot of gourmet markets, but Fortnum’s is an experience unto itself. Food sales are so brisk that the store is closing other departments because, when all is said and done, what’s better than gourmet indulgences?

I happily fantasized about spending a vacation in the hotel suite, reading, relaxing, and eating caviar and smoked salmon and other delicacies while living in the lap of luxury. The chocolate section is so vast that Fortnum’s has a dedicated buyer who spends her life traveling the world and assembling the most extensive chocolate collection anywhere. The chocolate buyer’s apartment is climate-controlled to accommodate chocolate tastings. And she is skinny as a rail.  Don’t think this was an easy job to land. There were more than 450 qualified candidates!

Returning to the hotel, I was booked to have a massage in the spa. After an hour-long treatment, I emerged feeling like a new person. Any jet lag had dissipated, and I was rejuvenated to go onward and upward. Well, almost.

What’s a London weekend without eating, sightseeing, shopping and lots of walking? During the weekend, I took a look-see into Buckingham Palace; the Victoria & Albert Museum; and the Tate Modern, the former Bankside Power Station, which was converted into a museum of international modern art. There are critics who feel more strongly about the museum’s architecture than its exhibits.

One of the highlights of my visit was a tour of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Seeing backstage, costume rooms and dance rehearsal halls gives the performing arts a new meaning. The Covent Hall has an excellent restaurant that is crowded at dinner but not at lunch, and the food is lovely. Once a month, there’s a tea dance where participants dance up a storm. Some of the women jitterbugged, wearing dresses and hats from the ’50s. Dapper men waited their turns to ask women to take a swirl on the dance floor, accompanied by big-band musicians.

I had visited the British Museum and so many other cultural landmarks. I’d done my fair share of shopping in London. But, I had never thought of London as a culinary-market town. How wrong I was. Since its opening in 1999, the Borough Market near Southwark Cathedral (subway stop is London Bridge) is worth a visit Friday and Saturday mornings. Many of London’s finest chefs can be spotted here, in addition to food aficionados. Gourmet selections are widespread, and many vendors have gone organic — even organic baby food.

Every market worldwide has its own style of displaying products that invariably gives insights into the region’s culture. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss this market, which won the 2003 London Tourism Award as being the best “London experience.”  It was cold and raining when we left the market, so we sought refuge in the nearest pub, where numerous beers were on tap and bangers and mash — sausage and mashed potatoes — on the menu.

Speaking of food, all those years of thinking London had a dearth of good restaurants, are best forgotten. The city is full of top-notch eateries serving sophisticated and excellent food. The Bank Westminster Restaurant offers light and tasty bistro food in elegant and sleekly modern surroundings. Its bar, the Zander Bar (all of 140 meters long), is one of the places to see and be seen, especially if you’re young and hip. There are also seating areas should you tire of bar stools. If you’re noise-sensitive, this is not the place for you, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the music is blaring away.

The 51 Buckingham Gate complex also has a very good French bistro (aptly named Bistro 52) that serves classic French and British fare in an informal setting. If you’re into Indian food, Quinlon, the sister restaurant of the renowned Bombay Brasserie, is the “in” place in London to eat South Indian coastal cuisine.

There were so many places where we could have eaten but didn’t. One night, we were guests at a private dinner guided by wine expert Hugo Dunn-Meynell. Wine and food are not to be taken lightly, and Mr. Dunn-Meynell enlightened the group on which wines were compatible with various foods. Much to our surprise, they weren’t necessarily the ones we had predicted.

A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a walk in Hyde Park. After our share of such exercise, we returned to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park for tea and scones. Tea is served in the hotel’s dining room, which opens onto one of the most verdant views in the city. If you’re watching for more than a few minutes, you might well see a parade of horses being ridden in perfect formation.

The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park has opened a beautiful spa that transplants guests to Asia. If you’re the ultimate sybarite, you might want to book a series of treatments.

All I wanted was to return to 51 Buckingham Gate. It’s rare when I find a hotel where I’d definitely rather live than in my own home if only I could afford it. I guess I’m not alone in my choice. 51 Buckingham Gate has won the Conde Nast Johansens award for most excellent London hotel.

I have a confession.  I already have my next trip planned to “my home away from home. This time the start and finish destination will be Paris. What a pleasure it’ll be to hop on and off the “Chunnel” that takes just over three hours and there’s only an hour’s time difference. I think I’ll even time my arrival to have lunch in the Harrods’ Food Hall.  I suspect I’ve even take some Stilton cheese back to 51 Buckingham Gate – naturally with a bottle of Port. When in London, do as the natives do!

• • •

51 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E6AF; phone, 44/20-7769-7766; fax, 44/20-7828-5909;

British Airways London Eye;

Fortnum & Mason  181 Piccadilly, London W1A1ER

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Piazza
London WC2E9DD

Bank Westminster Restaurant and Zander Bar
45 Buckingham Gate
London, SWIE 6BS

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Posted in Around the World |

The Travel Bug

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:20 pm -

Many people think I should stay in France overseeing my “baby”, The reality is the more I travel, the more I want to hop on a plane and explore the world. And this time, my husband Victor was having none of this, “I’m going on a press trip. See you in a week.” He was adamant that I wasn’t leaving home without him.

I loved having the companionship but worried about certain things.  Victor is 20 years older than I and would he be able to keep up with my pace? The reality is that he did more than fine.  There were times he’d grabbed a nap but I could always work.

Around-the-world trips present special challenges. Had we not just finished one, I’d never have known just how complex and precise the planning has to be. Visiting Paris from the US is a piece of cake compared to circling the world. Next time (and there will be more trips), I’ll use a spread sheet to organize all the components laid out.

First key piece of advice: If you’re going long haul and clocking thousands of miles or doing multiple stops, flying business class is not a luxury. It’ll ensure that you can walk – and stay awake – the next day. Usually it also gives you a more generous baggage allowance and use of airport club lounges (see below). The problem, of course, is the cost.

My husband and I lucked out and found Dave, our new “best friend.”  For less than the cost of flying us west in business class from Paris to San Francisco, he was able to get us there by going in the opposite direction – through India, Cambodia, China and Japan, with LA, Washington and NY thrown in, before returning home to Paris. In other words, around the world.

The fat envelope with tickets arrived on schedule. It provided for thirteen stops, including some intra-country tickets – all in business class and all on major carriers. No trick tickets, changeable dates, valid for a year and yes, we’re earning frequent flyer points.

The only caveat: to save $1600 each, our trip had to originate in Stockholm rather than Paris. The additional tickets from Paris to Stockholm cost $80 each. No big deal. We seized the opportunity and spent the night at the elegant Grand Hotel overlooking the harbor. What are another two hours of air time and a relaxing overnight in a historic hotel?  We were starting our vacation in elegant style.

Dave’s air travel planning service was impeccable and very personalized. He swears computers help but aren’t essential to his company. Maybe it’s because he started the business when they didn’t exist.

In retrospect, ticketing may be the easy part. I won’t get into reserving hotels now. Just let me say this: that’s part of the fun – or the horror — depending on the places, dates and circumstances, and whether or not you’re the last minute type.

Some major considerations in planning your RTW adventure

Before leaving home:
Be sure to have a list of all of the medications you normally take. If you have any ongoing medical problems, ask you doctor to write a medical summary in the event another doctor needs the information.

Visas. Don’t forget that for some countries they’re still essential. If you require more than one, a visa service is often the way to go. Our current trip required three.  Rather than standing in line at three consulates, we used an expediter that charges a fee for their efforts plus the cost of the visas, etc. But, unless you have unlimited time (not to mention patience) and live in one of the few cities with all the consulates you need, you’ll be glad for the service. The expediter will require your passport, so be prepared to part with it for a minimum of ten days. Be sure to send passports by a tracked shipping service.

Vaccinations. Check which ones are required as soon as you’ve booked your trip, and whether your doctor can do them. Be sure you have them early enough to be effective. Road warriors to developing countries make sure to keep them up to date. It had been a while since I’d been inoculated for polio and Hepatitis B so after my boosters and shots for ominous new diseases, I felt like a pin cushion.

Travel Insurance. Buy repatriation insurance if your company or travel agent doesn’t provide it. If you plan more than a couple of overseas trips a year, it makes sense to buy a one year policy instead of the one-trip version. A year’s repatriation insurance policy costs about $200. It will make sure you don’t get stranded in a place that doesn’t offer the right medical facilities. If needs be you‘ll be flown to a hospital that does, and by a well-staffed medical jet – a sort of flying ambulance. All arrangements (they can be very complicated) and costs are taken care of by the insurer. Keep in mind that features and benefits vary by company and by price level.

Health Kit. You may need one some day – really need it — so you might as well have it with you. During these days of increased health concerns, here’s a list of things you may want to pack (but please check with your doctor and/or consult

Cipro (a powerful wide-spectrum antibiotic)

Tamiflu (not that you’re planning to kiss any live chickens). Some countries such as Vietnam are pulling it off the open market so that the ten-day treatment can now be administered only by a doctor.

Anti-malaria pills (for Africa and India plus some other countries)

Airborne (an herbal remedy that some people swear by) that allegedly keeps people from getting sick while sitting on plane breathing re-circulated air.

Boroleum (a great ointment to keep nasal passages clear and for superficial cuts and sores)

Anti-Diarrhea medication (a MUST!)

Purell hand sanitizer (1/2 ounce bottles are the easiest to pocket)

Lip balm

Baby Wipes (you’ll be glad you brought them along under so many circumstances…’nuff said).

Some doctors recommend taking packaged syringes from the US or the EU. We didn’t go that far.

Red Tape and Other Aggravations:

Getting to and from airports, clearing security and customs… some airports are clearly better than others when it comes to minimizing bureaucratic hassles. If only airports would standardize methods. But after 9/11, dream on.

Some airports require you have all your baggage x-rayed and given the security officer’s stamp of approval even before arriving at the check-in counter.  If you’re traveling heavy, your back may be aching by the time you get to the front of the security line – especially when it feels as if the word “line” isn’t anyone’s vocabulary. For example, Delhi.

Our first airport in Asia, Delhi, was a nightmare. From the time we hit the ground to when we were greeted (thank God)! by our Taj hotel driver, nearly three hours had gone by. We were extracted from the crowds, relieved of our luggage and rushed into a car where there were hot towels and bottles of cold water waiting. Total chaos as people had to push and shove to get to immigration control. There were no provisions for queues or cops to keep order. While we were in India, numerous outraged letters were printed in the Hindustan Times over the situation the airport. Authorities clearly weren’t anticipating times of high influx. To add to the traffic, this past November two additional non-stop flights – Continental and American — from the US to Delhi were inaugurated.

Airport Lounges:  If you’re flying business or first class, you’ll automatically be presented lounge passes with your boarding tickets. If you’re flying coach, invest in a Priority Pass. Being able to relax or work, have something to drink or just snooze in a quiet place is a godsend especially if there’s a delay, as often happens in developing countries.

Reserving cars to meet you:

I used to think this was an unnecessary extravagance. But if you’re arriving in a country where you speak not one word of the language, a hotel driver greeting and delivering you to the airport and facilitating your check out and can be well worth the extra money. The drivers and the hotel representatives have an on-going relationship with the airline counter personnel. Probably they’ll be able to sneak through a few extra pounds of luggage.

Too Much Luggage … Never again!

Traveling light may not be an option if you’re going to be away for an extended period; or, more specifically, jumping from one climate to another and back again. During this trip, we’ve needed to be dressed for all climates – from tropical to cold-and-snowy, and for social situations from utterly casual to prim and proper. (Thank goodness for silk long underwear and permanent press!)

Another pitfall: If you are traveling to China, Viet Nam, Thailand and other low-cost countries, acquisitive types may not be able to resist the urge to buy.

We ended up doing our gift shopping for the next 22 years — including having to buy an additional mega suitcase to transport all of our treasures.

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Posted in Around the World |

On Your Own … Make Solo Dining Anything Less than Lonely

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:14 pm -

As president of Bonjour Paris I field a lot of questions. The majority are France-related but are applicable no matter where you are traveling.  This is especially true when it comes to meals. Even people on a diet must eat! I’ve listed some favorites in Paris but the same types of restaurants exist everywhere.

There are two types of single travelers.  Some are delighted to call it a day, whether it’s business or pleasure travel, and seek solace and sustenance by calling room service and vegging out.  They may have done too much shopping and/or sightseeing or had too many meetings and are peopled out. Their rooms are havens and their destinations of choice.  They want to be ready for what the next day brings. They’re delighted to have the opportunity to read, watch television and/or prepare for the following day’s meetings. Some people have eaten large lunches and prefer a light snack (or nothing) before they hit the sack.

There’s the second type of person traveling alone who isn’t the solitary type and wants to eat out. Their idea of eating is not McDonalds. In Paris, as is the case in most cities in the U.S. and the EU, there are places where you can go and have wonderful meals and not feel alone.  Some single women travelers are more restaurant-challenged, not wanting to appear on the prowl.

The reality in Paris is that unless a woman is on the hunt, she’ll rarely, if ever, be bothered… unless she’s wearing come hither clothes. There’s a recent trend and it’s becoming global. Bars in some chic Paris restaurants have place settings during meal times.  Why not squeeze in a few extra covers?  It’s essential you reserve at some; however, it’s more than likely the restaurant manager will be able to squeeze in a solo as contrasted with a couple.

Wine Bars:
Wine bars generally serve food at the bar. Sometimes the food isn’t a five course dinner but often it is. People should always take something to read. But wine lovers share an affinity and frequently end up discussing the merits of different appellations. Some wine bars that score high on the lists:

47 rue de Richelieu
01-42-97-46-49Closed Sundays and Monday lunch.
The owner is Scottish Tim Johnson and the bar attracts a lot of Anglophones.

Jacques Melac
42 rue Leon Frot
Closed Sundays
This wine bar is an institution and the owner is a character.
The plats du jour are hearty but most people stick with the wooded boards loaded with charcuterie.

Willie’s Wine Bar
13, rue des Petits-Champs

Oeniphiles hang here to sample good to great wines. British owner Mark Williamson servers up more than presentable bistro fare.  Another favorite among the Anglophone group: Cuban-American Juan Sanchez opened a wine store and soon after, followed with a restaurant called Fish.  Don’t get the wrong idea that only fish is served – rather, its connotation is “drink like a fish.”  The wine selection is extensive and the food is actually good. Regulars from the neighborhood stop by for a glass of wine and/or something to eat. The bar scene attracts all ages and it’s hard not to end up speaking with a neighbor.

69, rue de Seine
Open for lunch and dinner everyday but Monday.   It’s the hangout for Anglophone expats and the food is much improved, thanks to a new chef. The wines have always been first rate.

Sushi – Sushi! And more Oriental
Part of the fun of sushi restaurants that serve brochettes is sitting at the bar watching the chefs perform their culinary show. Again, singles don’t feel lonely even when they’re alone. If you want to strike up a conversation with your neighbor, you know what to talk about.  If you don’t feel like talking, tant pis. That’s up to the diner to decide.

3, rue Andre-Mazut
Closed Sunday lunch and all day Monday. This Japanese restaurant is very upscale and the prices reflect it. As is the case with Japanese food in Paris, it’s expensive compared to the US. If you’re having Japanese food withdrawal, financially you’ll make out better if you go for lunch where there are moderately priced formules.

41 Monsieur-le-Prince 75006, 01-34-29-00-54
Open every day and moderately priced.No matter where you look in Paris, there appear to be Japanese restaurants popping up. The adage that you can tell how good a restaurant is by the number of Orientals sitting at the counter may not be a bad one. When Japanese tourists come to Paris, they eat as if there’s no tomorrow.  Americans may find Japanese food expensive in the City of Light.But the Japanese pig out since it’s so much less expensive here than it is in Japan. Plus, they can order salmon which isn’t available at home.

Noodle Shops
If you’re on a budget or simply love Oriental noodles, you will think you’ve died and  gone to heaven if you walk down the Rue St. Anne in the first arrondissement.There are noodle shops everywhere. If you can’t read the menu, all you need to do is sit at the counter and point. Do bring your own reading material unless you can read ideograms.

French Diner with a Flair!
Leave it to Christian Constant to decide he wanted to open place with good food and no pretensions. Don’t be surprised if you see the master cusinier holding forth, meeting and greeting. Some people in the 7eme swear the affable (not to mention, mega-talented) chef is running for mayor. There’s counter service and you can eat lunch and dinner there for a fraction of the cost of his flagship restaurant, Le Violen d’Ingres,

Haute Cuisine
Alain Ducasse was among the first to introduce an eating bar in one of his restaurants, Spoon.  Just because you’re on a bar stool, don’t expect the tab to be cheap.

14, rue de Marignan
Open Monday- Friday Lunch & dinners.
Even though it’s only a small bar at the restaurant’s entrance, reservations are needed. You might luck out but why take the chance?    This is the closest rendition of French cuisine a la tapas style. There are 40 seats around a multi-sectioned bar where it’s nearly impossible for four people to hold a cogent conversation. Diners watch the chefs perform and go “oh la la” at all of the vertical food presentations. Reservations are accepted exclusively at the beginning of the lunch and dinner service. If you don’t want to eat at 11:30 or at 6:30, be prepared to stand in line. It’s definitely a plus to be single here.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
5, rue de Montalembert
Open daily.
Guy Savoy (actually his incredibly handsome son) has taken over the helm of this chicer than chic restaurant where the food is some of the most innovative in Paris. It also has a bar where to eat. Both the food and the people watching are out of this world.

3, rue Arsene Houssaye
Closed Saturday lunch and Sundays.

There are so many “single friendly” places in Paris that I wouldn’t hesitate to set out on my own and frequently do. Even starred restaurants don’t mind when a person is sitting alone. If you’re a woman, so much the better; most waiters show a bit more interest and are often likely to bring you a kir and make sure you’re comfortable. It’s advisable that you leave a supplementary tip because normally the waiter would have been serving two people.

There are plenty of Irish bars in Paris when you can grab a beer and a burger. Or, you can sit in a “palace” hotel bar or lounge and enjoy dinner alone. Most Europeans don’t think it’s bizarre if you’re traveling alone and not staying in a super business-style hotel. Take a book or a magazine as your companion.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve ended up in pleasant conversation with people from around the world. If you’re in the mood to talk, more than likely, your eating “companions” will be as well. If the truth be known, there are times when it’s a pleasure to eat “alone.” Most especially, if you’re curious by nature and like to know what other people are thinking!

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Posted in Around the World |

Tokyo on the Run

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:09 pm -

The adage that you take yourself wherever you travel couldn’t be truer albeit sounding trite. Visiting Tokyo was a prime example of integrating my American and French backgrounds with a bit of Japan. No two cities are identical but Tokyo struck a chord in incorporating some of Paris and much of New York City, while maintaining its powerful cultural uniqueness. Plus as a Caucasian, there was no way we weren’t going to look like tourists.

Driving from the airport to the Conrad is a minor case in point. The Japanese drive on the on the wrong (e.g. British side) of the road and battle incredibly heavy traffic no matter the hour. Contrasted with their French counterparts, drivers are incredibly well-behaved. Even though the JAL trip took more than 13 hours, we weren’t dreaming as we passed the “Magic Kingdom.” Disney’s theme park loomed over the distant horizon. I was so well rested that had there been time, I would have been curious to compare it with Euro Disney on the outskirts of Paris that opened in 1993. Whereas EuroDisney has taken years to be accepted, Disney-Tokyo was an immediate hit since opened in 1983. It’s a big dating destination among the younger Japanese and tourists from all over the world.

Skyscrapers are spouting like mushrooms as is the pollution level. Areas that were previously water are now landfills where some of Tokyo’s most expensive real estate sits. Some of the architecture and “public art” are examples of architectural muscle. When a building is showing wear and tear, rather than renovating it, it’s torn down and another is built. Some say this is an attempt to protect the city’s buildings from earthquakes and typhoons, which are more likely to hit the Pacific Rim as time progresses and Tokyo’s density increases.

During our stay at the Conrad, we took a quick cruise along the waterfront. Passengers were able to get on and off at various stations. We might have been riding on a Bateaux Mouches and were privy to seeing a replica of the Statue of Liberty at the Rainbow Bridge. We had a glimpse into the type of housing where the Japanese live – if they’re lucky enough to be able to live in the city. It’s not usual for people to commute more than an hour each way to work. For the time being, the buildings on the waterfront are low-rise; they have balconies where the residents hang their laundry to dry, a sign of prosperity since it signifies that the apartments are south-facing. Mixed-use development is forbidden as it’s been the cause of devastating fires.

During our four day stay, we attended a tea ceremony in a beautiful timbered shelter situated in a relaxing garden. Tea salons have made the Paris scene but there’s no comparison when it comes to the Japanese ritual. We first removed our shoes and were given white anklets. The mistress of the tea house stated it takes three decades to learn to serve tea properly. I tried to feel a sense of spirituality. Rather, my legs hurt from sitting with them under me for over an hour. Japan also is going more modern and has a Mariage Freres tea room that Parisians know and love.

We walked through the very beautiful and peaceful Hama-rikya Gardens which was the official hunting grounds for the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century. The garden is an enigma with its duck ponds, an inner moat, the only sea-water pond in Tokyo and 1200 peony bushes showcasing 57 varieties of the flower that blooms in late April. The garden offers a complete sense of tranquility and is home to a 300-year-old pine that’s reputed to have been planted by the sixth Shogun.

Why the Japanese come to Paris is shop is a mystery to me. Racing through the Matsuzakaya and Mitsukoshi department stores, it’s easy to find more French labels than at Paris’s Galeries Lafayette or New York’s Barneys. I bought the few souvenirs I needed at the Oriental Bazaar which has a good selection of traditional gifts. The Japanese are very upscale label oriented by now that Paris’s Louis Vuitton has placed a quota of two leather items per customer without having to pay the VAT. Coming to Paris to buy for your sister, cousin and best friend no longer makes sense. Born to Shop Suzy Gershman (URL for Paris Shopping Guide) reports that the Japanese have been known to hire “buyers” at 100 Euros each, the Vuitton label is so much in demand and costs approximately 50% of what it does in Japan.

New things I’ve never done in Paris or in the US.

Going to a tuna auction at 5 a.m. and then visiting the fish market. This gives new meaning to sushi or sashimi – something for which the sushi restaurant at the Conrad is already famous, since they hired the most revered sushi master in Tokyo. Forget mundane things such as California rolls. At the Conrad, the fish is a delicacy like none other. It is so beautifully prepared it’s an art form. Be creative and order a hand roll specifically prepared for you.

No tourist goes to Tokyo without visiting the colorful stalls of the shopping alley Nakamise that leads to the Asakusa Kannon Temple complex.  There we first inhaled incense that’s said to have curative powers. We then bought fortunes. If you didn’t like your fortune, you tied it on a wire so as not to take it with you or your journey through life. Luckily, there was a wedding taking place that day and the bride and groom were all too happy to have us snap away with our digital cameras.

Everyone seems to be carrying a cell phone taking and taking . Even though I have a tri-band, I couldn’t get it to function.  Only after returning home did I learn I needed a quad-band or a new phone with a local Sim card.

Four days in Tokyo is only a glimpse into a country and civilization begging to be explored.

When (not if) I return, I want to be spoiled by flying on Japan Airlines, ( stay at a dream hotel such as the Conrad (

For that matter, Tokyo is a city comprised of dream hotels ….

And, I’d want to explore much more of what there is to be seen.

Visit the Japan Government Tourist Office in NY Site ( and however much time you’ve scheduled to be in Japan, you’ll realize it isn’t enough.

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Les Ambassadeurs: Brunch Fit for Royalty

Written by admin on January 13, 2006 – 4:07 pm -

There’s brunch. And then there’s brunch. And Les Ambassadeurs, a mini-mirrored Versailles-style restaurant at The Hotel de Crillon, gives the meal an entirely new meaning. In spite of the grandeur, men aren’t required to wear ties.

Every French foodie magazine is promoting brunch as if it were a new discovery. However, Chef Jean-Francois Piège has created the ultimate Brunch du Monde, a sophisticated and elegant presentation of what can be a mundane meal. “It’s somewhat of a revolution in the world of haute cuisine,” he admits. Piège (of Michelin** fame) continues that people who weren’t habitués of The Crillon, now pop in for Sunday Brunch. It’s not unusual to see a three generation family of mainly French. Because it’s so memorable, they return for lunch/dinner. “The link between the formality of lunch and the simplicity of breakfast,” is how Piège defines his brunch concept.

As you’re seated, a glass of Tattinger champagne appears and you’re offered a hot beverage.  Guests immediately choose from a selection of fresh juices, including just-pressed apple juice that has a green tint. In the table’s center is a silver cake plate filled with a plethora of miniature croissants, pain au chocolat and other scrumptious breads, all baked in the Crillon’s kitchen. Waiters wear their usual full-dress attire; service has not been sacrificed.

The setting is magnificent, having recently been updated and refreshed.  Franka Holtmann was appointed General Manager in 2004 and since then, she’s softened the décor without sacrificing the hotel’s grandeur. Mme. Holtmann felt the “palace” hotel needed to attract a younger clientele and a unique brunch was part of her plan.

Returning to food, everyone raves about the gateau de voyage au gout, (travel cake without crumbs), home-made vanilla yogurt, and samples of four fresh fruit preserves, two different types of butter, plus a small glass of what looks likes but, has no taste similarity, to Nutella.

The buffet table has smoked salmon (carved to order), Joselito Reserva ham (carved for each person), as well as a cheese tray with perfectly aged cheeses.  Contrasted to some buffets, no one piles plates sky-high.

The meal begins with an oeuf en cocotte en parfait (egg with a mushroom, tomato and spinach mixture) sitting on a bit a of mesclun greens. All of this is followed with choices of a Caesar salad, a risotto, salmon and a memorable grilled chicken. To top it all off, and after the dessert cart full of miniature pastries and tiny glasses filled with every conceivable dessert, three little pancakes with bananas and caramel are presented just in case you might still be hungry.

You can even order Eggs Benedict. Controversy still abounds over who and where the dish was conceived.  Credit is frequently given to Delmonico’s, the first restaurant, or public dining room, ever opened in the USA (1860). A rather grand lady who lunched, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict (so the story goes, believe it or not) found nothing she liked on the Delmonico’s menu and summoned “Executive” Chef Charles Ranhofer, and threatened to have him dismissed. The terrified cook ran back into his kitchen and, instead killing himself, invented Eggs Benedict! Of course, Mrs. LeG loved them; you can find the original recipe in Ranhofer’s cookbook, “The Epicurean”, published in 1894.

Even though Jean-Francois Piège is one of the finest chefs in Paris, it’s not unusual to see him peeking out from behind the screen, which shields the kitchen from the dining room. He’s sneaking a look-see to gauge whether or not the assembled are enjoying his fare.

Readers are advised to reserve a table for the second seating. If you’re like most people, you won’t even want to eat dinner.

“Brunch du Monde”
The Hotel de Crillon,
10 place de la Concorde
Metro: Concorde
Tel: 331 44 71 16 16
Sundays:  Seatings at noon and at 2 pm.
Adults 60€ – Children 30€

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