Lionel Shriver

1. The American South, 1977


When I was 19 I did my first big bike trip, from New York to the South and back, with my younger brother. We’d grown up in Raleigh and Atlanta and had just moved to New York, so this was a return to our roots. Every now and then the stars aligned and the weather was decent and the scenery was beautiful, but there was a lot of suffering. I no longer have any appetite for doing 100 miles a day on a bike, in terrible heat, in driving rain or against a debilitating headwind. Or camping on the roadside – that was uniquely miserable. The end of the day is wonderful though – and whenever we got to a hotel or our destination, civilization felt sumptuous.


2. Western Europe, 1985


I was a young woman by the time I cycled around Europe, and part of the appeal was sometimes teaming up with other cyclists, of the male persuasion. That was fun. But the trip was demanding: Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. The best part was through France and Spain, with a guy from New Hampshire. We were in the zone – in good shape, used to clocking up the miles, then sharing a liter of wine. I’d arranged to speak to my agent with a pay phone and lots of coins. She told me I’d sold my first novel. I ended up in tears that night and I still don’t know if it was because I’d sold my first book or because she’d said I had to come home.


3. Israel, 1986


I took my bicycle along – I wouldn’t go anywhere without my bike in those days, and it never occurred to me that you could just get one on the other side. But I stayed in an old kibbutz, working in the factory making boots – an invaluable experience, knowing just how killing factory work is. I’m not cut out for communal living, I realized.


4. Belfast, 1987


I went to Belfast to write a novel, intending to go for a few months, but I ended up staying for 12 years. So what started out as a journey became a whole big part of my life. It was a very creative time – and also the first time I really fell in love. So I recall those years fondly, and I still have a profound affection for the city and the people who live there.


5. Kenya, 1991


I still had this fantasy about going around the world and writing books about wherever I was based – before I realized I was too much of a home body. I had a great time in Nairobi, living in a house with three foreign correspondents. I’d get jealous though. They’d get to go off to Somalia and get shot at while I had to stay home and write. I’m not cut out for that life, but I do admire it from afar. As long as they keep up their appetite and their nerve, foreign correspondents can have really fascinating lives.


6. Jerusalem, 2003


A friend had moved to Jerusalem and I thought would be interesting to visit. But I’d also been through a very confusing romantic situation, and I think had to go through a period of private mourning, getting over someone whose feelings I had hurt and who didn’t deserve it. I spent a lot of the trip in tears – and the novella I was writing was the only piece of fiction I started and never finished. So the trip ended up being about emotions, not work. Nothing wrong with that.


7. China, 2013


Most of my journeys now are to literary festivals. There’s no real risk, except maybe that you’ll be bored. I went to one in Beijing, with events in Shanghai and Chengdu, and came away with a feeling for China that was more personal than I’d expected. A lasting image is looking out of the plane at infinite apartment developments, each clump about 60 blocks, each building about 70 stories high. This is what a large population looks like. It’s miraculous that China sustains all these people and explains why the Chinese are obsessed with order and harmony. It was a short visit, but it changed my conception of the country – in exactly the way travel is supposed to.


Lionel Shriver’s short story, How They Turned Out, is published in A Short Affair, an anthology of original short fiction from Pin Drop Studio, out now




The Double Act

Perhaps even more difficult a task than dressing a royal bride is dressing the bride’s mother. So, when a vintage Rolls-Royce Phantom swept up the Long Walk of Windsor Castle at 11:58 on the 19th May 2018 bearing Meghan Markle, it’s little wonder the hawk-like gaze of the world’s fashion media settled also on her mother, Doria Ragland.


Her outfit – a mint-green Oscar de la Renta two-piece – was a lesson in mother-of-the-bride-decorum; zingy but demure, accented with the same florets of white embroidery as those scattered on the kick of her daughter’s dress. That Ragland chose Oscar de la Renta for such an important and momentous occasion “was extraordinary”, says Laura Kim – one half of the creative duo behind the brand – with an air of lingering bewilderment. “We were so honored.”


And yet, maybe it’s not that surprising that she turned to Oscar de la Renta for the occasion, given that the Dominican-born fashion designer was unofficial outfitter to a series of First Ladies, from Jackie Kennedy to Michelle Obama, and a peerless master of beguiling, gowns-and-gloves-style society wear. But since his passing in 2014 and the subsequent appointment in 2016 of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia as creative directors of the fashion house that still bears his name, the brand has also evolved to appeal to a younger clientele.


The design duo’s latest spring/summer collection, which featured a flurry of mannish tailoring – including one memorably distressed denim two-piece and a tulle gown notable for the legend “Oscar de la Renta” spelled out with conspicuously oversized sequin embroidery – might have left some loyal followers clutching their pearls. But evolution is the key word here – and every collection is Oscar de la Renta through and through, explains Garcia.


“I always remember Oscar wanting the newest thing,” he says of their early mentor – for Kim had worked with de la Renta since 2003 as studio director, while Garcia clambered his way up the ranks from intern to senior designer at the house from 2009. “I think he wanted us to move forward but keep it very Oscar. He was the one pushing us, to see the newest, youngest ideas and materials.”


After Oscar de la Renta lost a decade-long battle with cancer, it took a little while to find a suitable successor. The British designer Peter Copping briefly took over the helm, during which time Kim and Garcia left the company to set up their own label, Monse (named after Garcia’s mother). A far cry from de la Renta’s hyper-feminine gowns, Monse is best known for shirts – but shirts transmuted into Rei Kawakubo-esque deconstructed forms.


“We wanted to create a brand that wasn’t extremist; not too feminine or too masculine,” says Garcia. “The market needed more clothes that made a girl look like it took her five minutes to get ready,” he explains. “We didn’t think it was going to be like Oscar, and we didn’t want it to be.”


Monse was more or less an instant hit, with pieces worn by the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Amal Clooney – the kind of glamorous, influential tastemakers young designers dream of being worn by. Then, in 2017, Alex Bolen – Oscar de la Renta’s son-in-law and the house’s CEO – re-hired the duo, this time as joint creative directors.


It was a happy homecoming, of course, but pulling together nine collections a year across two brands brings its challenges. When the pair aren’t at the Oscar de la Renta studio in Midtown, they’re in Tribeca, working on Monse. “It’s like being in two different movies,” says Garcia of the parallel worlds he and Kim inhabit. And surely there are moments in which the pressure becomes insurmountable, when they’d rather just be in the one movie.


Key to successfully juggling both labels is the pair’s mutual affection and the convergence of their design approaches; for Garcia is a University of Notre Dame architecture graduate, while Kim is a South Korea-raised fashion design alumna of the Pratt Institute, New York. That, and a canny division of labor.


We make “the perfect combo. I tend to be very balanced and tough, whereas Fernando goes for more of the drama and romance,” muses Kim. “Budgeting and managing is Laura’s turf,” says Garcia, “Public relations and marketing is Fernando’s,” Kim echoes, resolutely. And the rest? “We divide and conquer.”




 Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim




FW18DLR_NY, Derek Lam,New York


 Above and below: highlights from the Oscar de la Renta Fall 2018 collection



FW18DLR_NY, Derek Lam,New York

Family Affair

The Learning Vacation

In the late 16th century, young aristocrats (well, the males ones at least – young women did not have this option) were sent off to France and Italy to complete their educations by immersing themselves in classical art and architecture on trips that became known as the Grand Tour. Today, Petits Tours can begin at any age, as long as parents are willing to give, give, give, sacrificing themselves by, for example, limiting their travels to only Francophone countries so that their children might be able to practice their French. Pity the poor parent who simply must suffer through a stay in Paris, followed by a lengthy beach holiday on Mauritius. But in this day and age, any self-possessed young person should know how to order a local drink in the local tongue. Taking an art history-themed vacation in Italy with a child has literally no downside: everyone gets to see magnificent cathedrals and sublime works of art and usually right around the time that your store of knowledge on a given subject is running out, your child will become bored or hungry, which helps to ensure that days assume an appropriately leisurely pace and one has time to digest Great Works as they were meant to be digested: slowly, and with relish.


The Wedding Vacation

You love them, so you go to their destination wedding, and you don’t even grumble about the fact that it’s halfway across the globe. That’s the deal. And if you’re a member of the inner circle – close family, best man/maid of honor, bridesmaids and the like – you can now expect to show up a few days early. For the wedding vacation is becoming a globally recognized trend – with large parties gathering at the resort of the happy couple’s choice for prolonged socializing and celebrations. Perhaps this isn’t going to please everyone, and coming on top of the bachelorette party in a prime spa, or the bachelor party in some far-flung city, this constitutes an investment of time and money we’re only inclined to make on someone we really care for. Still, if you have come all this way to meet up with people who live all over the world, who you seldom see, perhaps the wedding vacation is the perfect solution. And since you’re already in a beautiful spot – really, it would be foolish not to tack on a few extra days to enjoy yourself, entirely on your own schedule, with your own dress code. After all, just because you’re not the one getting married it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fabulous honeymoon – or reunion, or a few days of golf, all in the name of love.


The Skip-Gen Vacation

There might be no better “job” than that of grandparent (unless it’s grandchild). This magical role offers the opportunity to enjoy the delightful bits of family ties while largely avoiding the button-pushing too often perpetrated by one’s children or siblings, who also rarely appreciate one’s wisdom and charms in the same way that grandchildren do. Bringing your beloved wee one on tour offers so many opportunities for the two (or three, perhaps, if your partner joins) of you to bond in a new way, experiencing adventures that will provide memories for years to come. Naturally, the youngster will benefit from the education travel brings. while you will reap the rewards of having someone on hand willing and able to help you with your smartphone, reach beneath your table for runaway coins and, oh yes, enable you to see each day through fresh eyes. No, they cannot help to book flights, but you will score many Best Grandparent points by involving the youngsters in the planning. Choose activities you’ll both enjoy, and luxuriate in the knowledge that your young charge – at least for a few golden years – will adore being the center of your world, while seeing the world, without those pesky parents around to tell either of you what’s what.


Your address: The St. Regis Florence; The St. Regis Rome; The St. Regis Mauritius Resort


To Rome With Love

It’s no small task, accomplishing the makeover of an iconic hotel – and the renovation of The St. Regis Rome has taken multiple teams more than two years to complete, at a cost of €48 million (approximately $56 million). All this, as general manager Giuseppe De Martino puts it, to equip the hotel for “a new generation of luxury travelers to the Eternal City”. De Martino was the man with the daunting task of managing this Roman epic of a “refurb” job, while the creative lead came from the celebrated interior designer, Pierre-Yves Rochon. And as both men would readily concede, it is both a privilege and an added source of pressure when the property getting this, the most loving of face-lifts, is a quintessential European grand hotel of the Belle Époque, opened as “Le Grand” in 1894 by none other than César Ritz, the leading hotelier of his time.


A great metropolitan hotel isn’t just a place for visitors to stay in, it must also be part of the surging life of the city. And, true enough, Ritz’s hotel was the stage for some extraordinary moments in the modern story of Rome – beginning with its gala opening, which was attended by the Pope, the German Kaiser and the King of Italy. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Italian royal family used the hotel as a kind of convenient and more modern extension of the nearby Quirinal Palace, hosting court occasions in its public rooms. Alfonso XIII of Spain spent his gilded exile in one of its luxurious suites, while the parents of his eventual successor, King Juan Carlos, met at a reception celebrating a family wedding held here. For a time, Mussolini had an office in the hotel, which, within days of Rome’s Liberation in June 1944, hosted the first meeting between Italy’s provisional government and the triumphant Resistance. Gianni Agnelli – Fiat boss, arbiter of style and architect of the Italian post-war boom – kept a permanent suite here for many years, and poached the head doorman when he finally bought a home in the city. And it was here that Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and other Hollywood stars stayed and partied and tapped into Rome’s glamorous La Dolce Vita era while filming at the Cinecittà film studio.


As you’d expect, given the hotel’s unique provenance and storied past, this Roman renovation was conducted under the watchful gaze of various eagled-eyed guardians. First there was the Accademia di Belle Arti – Rome’s fine art academy – which was involved throughout the whole process, but most especially with the restoration of the fine frescoes adorning the vaulted ceiling of the ballroom. And, as is always the case with a hotel makeover, there are also the opinions of regulars to consider: the guests who stay whenever they visit Rome, and the Romans who have been wining, dining and marking important family occasions here for years, perhaps across several generations, all of whom have a deep affection for this much-loved building.


“This hotel has an extraordinary, evolving legacy,” says De Martino, deftly signaling the need to embrace the future while respecting the property’s heritage, for every generation has its own notions of what constitutes luxury. When we’re staying at a grand hotel from this era, we might expect high-tech facilities – but surely not at the expense of grandeur, elegance and a slightly old-school decorum? It is telling that more than a century after César Ritz’s death, we still use the word “ritzy” to describe an environment that is plush and fancy and serviced to the hilt. Yet Ritz was just one of several brilliant innovators of this era who transformed the way the wealthy traveled, and who collectively established many of the luxury codes that we still follow today – and whose innovations provided the context for Ritz’s Le Grand Hotel.


Some of these luxury innovators were Europeans. Ritz himself was Swiss, rising through Paris’s restaurant scene to emerge by the 1890s as Europe’s most celebrated, sought-after hotelier. Indeed, his new hotel in Rome was in direct response to a request from Italy’s prime minister, who buttonholed Ritz in the lobby of a London hotel to ask him to build a hotel worthy of Rome’s still relatively new status as the capital of unified Italy. Ritz’s culinary partner in Rome was French – the master chef Auguste Escoffier, who modernized French haute cuisine and codified fine-dining as we still know it, with distinct courses, à la carte menus and “brigade service” in the kitchens.


But another popular space in Ritz’s new hotel was the American bar – a nod not just to the freshly imported cocktail culture, but also to the fact that much of the drive for the new luxury came from the US. For the wealthy scions of America’s Gilded Age were crossing the Atlantic in ever greater numbers – in search of pleasure, art, or a titled European for their heiress daughters – and these latter-day Grand Tourists were also traveling in ever greater comfort and style. Ocean liners were becoming faster and more elegant, as were the trains pulling into Rome’s Termini station, just a conveniently short carriage-ride or stroll from Ritz’s new hotel. And the entrepreneur who had transformed train travel was an American: George Pullman. Pullman invented the vestibule train – that is, one where the carriages are interconnected – and with it, the sleeper car and the dining car, while at this time the private train carriage was a must-have for kings and emperors, maharajas and plutocrats alike. Superbly appointed and way beyond the means of most train travelers, these “Pullmans” were the Belle Époque equivalent of the private jet.


And then of course there were the Astors, the American dynasty who for more than a century led New York high society – and led hotel-keeping in the city, with a series of hotels that introduced generations of New Yorkers and visitors to now-standard innovations such as the in-room phone, the en-suite bathroom, or that singular blessing on a humid summer’s day in Manhattan, air-conditioning. The ultimate expression of Astor opulence and savoir faire would be The St. Regis New York, opened by John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV in 1905, within a decade of Ritz’s Grand Hotel in Rome. True, the footprints of the hotels are different: Rome was modeled on a Roman palazzo, while Jack Astor’s palace on 5th Avenue was an early skyscraper, dwarfing the townhouses of “Millionaire’s Row” beside it. But they visibly share what we would now call “luxury DNA” – and all the signature qualities of the grand hotel, combining a great address with splendid interiors and superb service, which Ritz famously defined. “See all without looking,” he urged his staff. “Hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile; anticipate without being presumptuous.”


As a gifted amateur inventor and the author of a bizarre but oddly prescient science fiction novel which predicted, among other things, the era of mass air travel, Jack Astor would certainly have understood the need to update a hotel, as would César Ritz. Pierre-Yves Rochon and his team began the process by spending time in the Roman property – and looking at the blueprints, which is surely the interior designer’s equivalent of fashion’s “mining the archive”. And in two of the largest public spaces – the ballroom and the grand foyer – Rochon’s aim has been to return the building to something much closer to the hotel that Ritz and his architect Giulio Podesti created.


In the ballroom, the restorer Patrizia Cevoli and her team set about cleaning the frescoes commissioned by Ritz from the Roman artist Mario Spinetti – and removing the work of previous, less authentic restorations. The process took Cevoli and her team of 12 specialists some six months of “intense and painstaking” work. “I develop a special bond with an artwork when I’m restoring it,” explains Cevoli. “Once it is finished it is a very emotional moment, seeing the original work of art come back to life.” And today Spinetti’s mythological scenes once again possess the vivid hues in which he painted them more than a century ago.


Color had a major role to play in Pierre-Yves Rochon’s re-imagining of the other public rooms, in which he used what the designer describes as an “aristocratic Roman palette” of white, dove gray, yellow and powder blue, “enriched with noble shimmers of gold and silver”. The aim, he explains, was to celebrate the light of Rome in all of its forms. The effect of this is especially striking in the grand foyer, which Rochon returned to its original concept as a kind of winter garden, once again on a single level as Podesti had designed – in the process rediscovering an airy, piazza-like space which truly bursts with light from the glass cupola above.


Also put into play was the keen eye of Parisian gallerist Françoise Durst, who sourced works of art that adorn the public spaces and the 100-plus rooms and suites that have been renovated. Meanwhile, Rochon’s team oversaw a kind of aesthetic audit of the hotel’s collection of furniture – in Louis XV, empire and art deco styles – to assess what needed to be restored, replaced or else redeployed. These included some exceptional pieces from a previous refurbishment in the 1960s by the celebrated Maison Jansen studio, which also worked on Jackie Kennedy’s redecoration of the White House. And the team commissioned some spectacular new decorative highlights to add a contemporary feel, such as the blue Murano glass chandelier in grand foyer. It’s one of Rochon’s many contemporary touches that chimes elegantly with the hotel’s fine proportions and those traditional Roman materials of travertine, mosaic and Italian marble. For this is, after all, a grand hotel in the Eternal City.


Your address: The St. Regis Rome; The St. Regis New York 


A 1930 gala evening

(© Archivio Luce)


GEG 1784968

A postcard from the Grand Hotel

(© Historic Hotels Photo Archive)


Party at Grand Hotel

Kirk Douglas and Elizabeth Taylor, 1961

(© Getty Images)


Vittorio De Sica and Sophia Loren at the Silver Ribbons award ceremony

Vittorio de Sica and Sofia Loren at the Grand Hotel in 1955

(© Bridgeman Images)



A postcard from the Grand Hotel showing Rome’s Piazza della Repubblica

(© Historic Hotels Photo Archive)


Gabriele Ferzetti buckling a necklace around Brigitte Bardot's neck, Italy, 1956 (b/w photo)

Brigitte Bardot attends a cinema awards ceremony in 1956

(© Historic Hotels Photo Archive)

Mexican Wave

A couple of years ago, a Bolivian chef told me he wanted to reclaim the chili for his country. The argument, that hot peppers were first cultivated in the Andean high plains and spread north from there, is supported by food archaeologists.


If the message could only get out, it might actually do Mexico a favor. Because the concept many people have – that Mexican food is mainly about heat – is totally outdated. “Mexico has the most misunderstood cuisine in the world,” says Edgar Núñez, chef and co-owner of Mexico City’s Sud 777, a regular fixture on the annual S. Pellegrino Top 50 Latin American Restaurants list. “It’s extremely complicated and sophisticated, with avocado, vanilla and chocolate, and dozens of other flavors at least as important as hot spices, which we may or may not provide as a side dish at the end. Mexican chefs rely on a lot of produce only available here, which is one of the reasons why great Mexican cuisine is not always available globally. We have more than 60 distinct cultures in the country – many with their own language – and all influence our cuisine.”


The menu at Sud 777, in the upscale El Pedregal district, entices with dishes like smoked watermelon, guajolote (turkey) with mole negro and beef tongue with local beans. “When I cook, I’m aware of deep connections with the soil, our farming traditions and my own memory. But our clients are well-traveled foodies, and they’re increasingly looking for more than traditional food.”


The epicenter of culinary experimentation is Mexico City – the nation’s inland food hub. At Quintonil in the leafy Polanco embassy district, Jorge Vallejo crafts edgy – and extraordinarily beautiful – concoctions from cactus, heritage corn and escamoles (ant larvae, also known as “Mexican caviar”). At Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, the tasting menu includes wonders such as octopus with habanero ink, salt made from toasted maguey worms and a juiced white corn that goes by the evocative Náhuatl name of “cacahuazintle”.


In some respects, “mole” – which simply means “sauce” – is the essence of Mexican cooking. Olvera’s “Mole Madre” – Mother Mole – evolved from the standard seven-day process of reheating fruit, nuts, bitter chocolate, tomato and peppers and other ingredients in a comal, a heavy cast-iron griddle – into an ongoing experiment. “We continued heating it indefinitely,” he says. “We found that the mole never stopped evolving.” At the new Pujol, which opened last year – modeled on Olvera’s New York restaurant Cosme – you can try moles slowly heated for well in excess of 1,000 days. “Mole is a universe in itself, so we present it only with tortillas,” says Olvera. In this he’s emulating the Mexican capital’s superb street-food vendors; when a busy office worker needs a fast fix of good food, simplicity and flavor rule over image or presentation.


Mexico is larger than Indonesia, more topographically diverse than Canada – and it has an odd shape. To go overland from Cabo San Lucas in Baja California to Cancun, without catching a ferry, would involve driving 3,730 miles. It’s unsurprising then, that regionality remains a powerful force. Oaxaca does its own type of mozzarella. The chile poblano – a mild green pepper used in chiles en nogada, the de facto national dish – takes its name from Puebla. Tequila was a place before it was a drink. From Yucatán comes the pit-oven technique known in Mayan as p’ib – and responsible for the al fresco fiesta classic that is cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pig seasoned with annatto seeds).


To simplify things, chefs and guide-writers, have grouped produce and techniques into seven main regions. But for visitors, every state, every city, every beach-stop, signifies an opportunity to savor something different. That said, Mexicans of the past – Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs or Spanish Conquistadors – were tireless travelers, and it’s notable that you can usually obtain fish dishes even when deep inland, eat steak in the desert, and, along the Pacific coast at, say, Punta Mita, enjoy suckling pig as well as ceviche. Beyond Mexico, several globalizing trends are afoot, from the ubiquitous burrito bar to the ever-replicating chains with vaguely Latino names and logos featuring cacti, sombreros and lizards. But, thanks to chefs such as the aforementioned Mexico City superstars, Val Cantu in San Francisco and Copenhagen-based Rosio Sánchez, a meal of “Modern Mexican” has become a highly desirable night out in all the world’s coolest cities.


You cannot, of course, have great cuisine without a proper drink. Baja’s wines have long been held in high esteem, not least in the “other” California north of the border, which seems to import more bottles of Valle de Guadalupe vintages than does the rest of Mexico. But the real revolution right now is taking place in the realm of stronger, more spirited beverages.


Tequila and mezcal are distillates made with agaves; the key difference is that tequila is made exclusively from the agave tequilana (blue agave), and can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and in small areas of four other states. Some 30 agaves can be used to make a mezcal. Once a farmers’ drink, new artisanal varieties of mezcal have started to appear on bar menus around the world. Smoky notes, deep bodies and complex aftertastes characterize the experience of slowly sipping a premium mezcal – with neither a worm nor a long mustache in sight.


Your address: The St. Regis Mexico City; The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort



Elotestiernos PUJOL

Smoke without fire

Modern Mexican cuisine is “complex and sophisticated”, like this dish, Baby corn with chicatana ant, coffee and costeño chili mayonnaise, from Pujol

Dream City

On 12 September 1965, shortly after Singapore had been cast out of the recently formed Malaysian federation, and had declared its independence, the fledgling nation’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew stood before a crowd of supporters and declared, “We made this country. From nothing! From mudflats! Ten years from now, [Singapore] will be a metropolis. Never fear!”


By any yardstick, it was a bold prediction to make. Granted, 150 years of British colonial rule had created a thriving entrepôt based around the port, a first-rate civil service, and a picturesque skyline of neoclassical and art deco piles clustered around a central business district on the southern tip of the island. But outside this area were mudflats and swamps, and dirt-poor kampong villages. Most of the population lived in squalid, crowded tenements. There was no reliable water supply. In real terms, the average Singaporean in 1959 was as poor as the average American in 1860. Against this sobering background – a metropolis in a decade?


In 1975, I was still a child; but now, looking back through my family’s photograph albums, I see the clear outline of a city in mid-transformation. By that time, most of the kampongs had disappeared, and my family lived in a two-story colonial-era terrace house on Emerald Hill Road, just off Orchard Road. Day and night, there was always the pounding noise of construction – the buzz of a city tearing itself apart and recreating itself.


I come across a photo of a relative standing proudly at his balcony in one of the fancy new condominiums that were sprouting up all over the island. And here’s one of me and my mother standing on Orchard Road, against a backdrop of Christmas lights, smiling brightly at the future. As a treat, we would visit my uncle in his office in Raffles Place – then, as now, the city’s Central Business District – with its mix of gleaming new skyscrapers, art deco piles and 19th-century shop-houses along Boat Quay. In all the photos, everything looks bright and shiny. If there were any mudflats or swamps, I don’t remember them.


For almost without anyone noticing, Lee had actually achieved a metropolis in a decade. He was bang on schedule. Admittedly, no one pretended that Singapore was anything like New York or London, but it certainly wasn’t a hardship posting either. What not many of us realized at the time was just how fast the wheels were turning behind the scenes, and how hard Lee was pressing his foot on the accelerator.


Almost immediately after that landmark 1965 speech, he had set about rehousing the population. The surest way to create a sense of identity, and for ordinary Singaporeans to accumulate wealth, he felt, was to give them a home of their own. Ownership grounded people. So he put in place sweeping new zoning laws. Entire neighborhoods of grim tenements were razed. In their place rose rows of utilitarian public housing blocks that have become a familiar part of Singapore’s modern skyline. By 1970, the housing problem was, in the government’s own memorable parlance, “licked”.


Meanwhile, the island was transforming itself into a commercial and logistics hub, luring both business and human capital with attractive incentives and tax breaks. New buildings were springing up everywhere, though Lee was careful to intersperse all this dizzying renovation with large-scale botanical projects. So much so that today nearly half of Singapore is green space. By the time the new millennium swung around, Singapore had achieved First World status in less than two generations.


Today, the skyline continues to morph at an astonishing speed, but beneath the 21st-century gloss, old Singapore still pulses. In 1995, Lee offered a canny stock-take of the symbiosis between commerce, Singapore’s modern built landscape and its past: “We made our share of mistakes… [In] our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint Singapore buildings. Then we realized we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage… we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique in Singapore. We halted the demolition… The value of these areas in architectural, cultural and tourism terms cannot be quantified only in dollars and cents. We were a little late, but fortunately we have retained enough of our history to remind ourselves and tourists of our past.”


That past is why I like to walk in Singapore. I love wandering through Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown for their cacophony of sounds, music and chatter; their temples and markets; and their narrow alleys lined with period architecture – all remarkably intact nearly 200 years after Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, first demarcated these quarters for the diasporas of Indians, Malays and Chinese.


But it’s the area around Raffles Place that I love the most. Whenever overseas guests ask me where they should start their tour of Singapore, I bring them to the middle of Boat Quay’s Cavenagh Bridge. From this graceful cast-iron suspension bridge, opened in 1870, the island’s past and future segue into an extraordinary skyline. Though the sleek, gleaming skyscrapers with their soaring steel-and-glass frames dominate the horizon, the greater pleasures, for me, are to be found in the older, lower-slung silhouettes that hug the east and west banks of the Singapore River.


Here, in the shadow of towers built by IM Pei and Kenzo Tange, is the same stretch of multi-hued shop-houses I remember from my childhood. Hugging the curve of the Singapore River, these narrow 19th-century buildings – once shops, warehouses, offices and homes for the coolies and businessmen who made their fortunes from the trading barges that docked here – have been converted into lively pubs, cafés and restaurants.


And just across the river, the imposing civic offices of the old colonial British administration have been meticulously restored and repurposed into the Asian Civilizations Museum, soigné eateries and drama centers, alongside the mid-19th-century Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall.


I walk another block north to take in the neoclassical glory of the early 20th-century Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, which were made over in 2015 by the Paris-based Studio Milou into the National Gallery Singapore. The bones of the original interior spaces – the old courtrooms, public corridors, and timber-paneled judges’ chambers – have been preserved as a sequence of generously proportioned gallery spaces that house the world’s largest collection of southeast Asian contemporary art.


And just beyond the Padang – the city’s central playing field – is Marina Bay. When I was growing up, the waterfront was a hive of sampans (traditional Chinese wooden boats). Today, its eastern flank has been enclosed by a new Central Business District, the futuristic biodomes of Gardens by the Bay, and the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort. From the Padang, I like to walk on towards St Andrew’s Road. Two hundred years ago, this was a bucolic stretch of pastoral land framed by dirt tracks and orchards. In 1835, GD Coleman, the Englishman responsible for so many of Singapore’s early colonial buildings, built St Andrew’s Cathedral in an early English Gothic style with a softly glowing white façade made of shell lime, egg white, sugar and water from soaked coconut husks.


Though St Andrew’s Road is now a busy thoroughfare, Coleman’s masterpiece – with its elegant interior of fine filigree plasterwork – remains one of my favorite quiet spots in Singapore. Stand in front the National Gallery, I tell out-of-town guests, and look out over the green expanse of the Padang. On weekends, the field – book-ended by two of Singapore’s oldest private clubs, the Singapore Cricket Club, which was founded in 1852, and the Singapore Recreation Club, founded in 1883 – echoes to the whistles and cries of a rugby match, and the baritone whack of cricket balls.


But, as with so many places in Singapore today, there is a less bucolic palimpsest. In 1942, during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, Singaporean and British civilians were rounded up here before being taken to the notorious POW camp in Changi in the eastern corner of the island. Three years later, Lord Louis Mountbatten stood on the grand steps of City Hall and accepted the official Japanese surrender from General Itagaki. And in 1959, the newly elected prime minister Lee Kuan Yew chose those same steps – this time, facing a Padang filled with celebrating locals – to declare Singapore’s independence from Great Britain.


When Lee died in 2015 at 91, long lines of Singaporeans crisscrossed the Padang and along the Esplanade all the way to Parliament House where he lay in state. Almost half a million people stood in the searing heat and into the night – some for as long as ten hours – to pay their respects to the man who had dominated every aspect of modern Singapore. On the day of the state funeral, 100,000 mourners jammed the route of the cortege, soaked to their skins in the heavy tropical rain. The sense of loss was palpable.


Later, someone said on Facebook: “It was really something to be a part of. It was the Singapore zeitgeist, both on that historic field and online, for a long crowded night at the end of a stirring week. But I think we’ll be OK.” I couldn’t help thinking not many people would bet against that prediction.


Your address: The St. Regis Singapore


NGS Picture Id:1511612


Detail from Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple

(© National Geographic Creative)

Kitchen Confidential

Hailing from Toulon in the South of France, chef Sébastien Giannini has spent the last 20 years honing his craft under some of the world’s best chefs, reaching the final of the prestigious Bocuse D’Or Culinary Competition in 2010. Last year he was appointed executive chef at The St. Regis Washington, D.C., heading up its new Mediterranean restaurant, Alhambra.


What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Bouillabaisse. I grew up in the South of France and my grandmother taught me how to make it. Now it reminds me of home.


What do you eat when you’re home alone?
Seasonal fruit – I like to eat directly with my pocket knife. Every Saturday, I go to Potomac Farm Market with my wife and daughter. It reminds me of the markets I grew up with in the South of France.


Which dish that you’ve created are you most proud of?
Salmon stuffed with langoustine and turmeric potatoes. This was the dish I created at Bocuse D’Or in 2010. To perfect the final dish, you need to have practiced it 40-50 times, trying different iterations each time.


Are there any foods you think are overrated?
I feel like burgers in hotels are generally overrated. There is often too much playing around with the toppings, and the original concept is lost. There is a chain of hamburger restaurants originally from Arlington, VA, where I am proud to be a regular guest. They make a classic American burger.


What’s the best thing to eat in D.C.?
It’s not exactly D.C., but you can’t beat Maryland crabcake. The crab feast is a longstanding tradition. Whether it’s in a seafood restaurant on the Eastern shore or in the backyard with paper-wrapped picnic tables, the residents of the Chesapeake region can be found cracking crab legs all summer.


If you could revisit a meal you’ve eaten in the past, what would it be and why?
One of my best memories from when I was young is eating cantaloupe. In the South of France there’s a region called Cavaillon that has incredible melons. Try this once and you’ll never think of cantaloupe in the same way. We eat them with a crisp glass of rosé, and gressin (breadsticks), relaxing by the sea with friends. There’s simply nothing better!


What was your favorite food as a child and do you still eat it now?
Pieds et paquets (“feet and packages”) is a Marseille specialty, one that’s certainly not for everyone. It’s a stew with sheep’s feet and sheep’s tripe. My grandmother would make it for me and I still love it, especially in the winter.


Can you remember the first thing your mother taught you to cook?
Banana tart. I don’t make it any more because I want to keep the memory of the tart and the taste clear in my mind. I do not wish to alter it in any way, either intentionally or otherwise.


What is your guilty pleasure food?
Strawberries and whipped cream with Grand Marnier.


How long does it take you to create new recipes?
It can take up to a month – you need the feedback from your guests and your team. Sometimes we do up to 20 tastings before we perfect a recipe.


Is there a culinary trend you detest?
Molecular cuisine. It’s too cold and far removed from the product. For instance, if you receive a perfect strawberry, picked at the perfect time, perfectly ripe and juicy, but you blend it and make it into the form of a tomato, the product is wasted.


Who is your greatest inspiration?
Alain Ducasse. He lets young chefs grow, while teaching them to respect the products, the season and the region where the products come from. He also has a clear vision of where his team is going and how to mentor his protégés.


Your address: The St. Regis Washington, D.C.


St Regis DC 33274-grey

 Sébastien Giannini

All That Glitters

“I like things that shine,” jokes Glenn Spiro – fittingly for a man who makes exceptionally fine jewelry. One of Spiro’s shiny things was recently donated to the prestigious permanent collection of important jewelry at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum by none other than Beyoncé, who is both a friend and a client of Spiro’s. It’s a spectacular piece, a “Papillon”, or butterfly ring, with wings – which flap as the wearer moves her finger – crafted from titanium, diamonds and green tsavorites. This is an undoubted coup for Spiro, 55, long recognized by his peers as a superb craftsman and designer of high jewelry, but who until recently operated largely under the radar, as many of his pieces were made for older, more famous houses.


But as well as making things that shine, Spiro also collects them, especially shiny things by Cartier – from the gilt silver model of a Model T Ford made for Henry Ford in the 1970s in the lobby of his atelier to the framed gouaches on the walls behind Spiro’s desk. A shelf houses a good 100 or so presentation boxes containing anything from a silver and crystal caviar service to a cigarette case, while on Spiro’s desk are two silver frames containing signed portraits of George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother.


These have a particular resonance, as these rooms were formerly the atelier of Norman Hartnell, for several decades couturier of choice to British high society and royalty, especially Queen Elizabeth and her daughters, the present Queen, Elizabeth II, and Princess Margaret. The Queen Mother was a close friend of Hartnell’s – he made her laugh – while it was in these rooms that Elizabeth II was fitted for her wedding and coronation dresses. “It has a very special atmosphere,” says Spiro, who first visited the atelier as a teenage apprentice to Cartier, when he was asked to accompany an important client to a fashion show. He was struck by the “incredible elegance of the place”, and decades later, when he was looking for an atelier and showroom of his own, “I kept going past and seeing that there were no lights on – and when I heard it was empty, I took it right away, without seeing it again.”


He takes a similar approach to buying both gemstones for his jewelry and to his collecting habit. “You have to buy what you like,” he explains, and follow gut feeling, even if that leads to the occasional mistake. “Or you buy too much... I sometimes buy too much,” he laughs. As a collector, Spiro has always been drawn to mid-century “furniture, photography, jewelry, also fashion. I like that era – it was clean, it was cool. The Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties… actually not the Sixties. I think they tried too hard in the Sixties.”


Given that the mid-century was precisely Norman Hartnell’s heyday, there’s something entirely appropriate that Glenn Spiro should be the custodian of the stunning art deco interiors that Hartnell commissioned for these rooms. And in another pleasing piece of symmetry, his old boss from Cartier, Arnaud Bamberger, is now honorary chairman of Spiro’s jewelry house. He has just two other sales points: London’s Harrods and New York’s Bergdorf Goodman. But the splendid atelier on Bruton Street is surely the heart of the house. And here, once again, just like the couturier, Spiro entertains a clientele that might be small numerically (he has spoken in the past of only needing 30 or so good customers) but wealthy and demanding in their quest for jewelry as stunning as Beyoncé’s butterfly.


Glenn Spiro in his London atelier 



Losing It

For some of us, vacations are an opportunity to indulge in bacchanalian delights. Others view them as a chance to kick-start a healthy routine, with advice from spa experts and access to fresh, healthy menus. We might think of this focus on weight and body shape as a fairly modern concern, yet there’s nothing new about dieting. The ancient Greeks understood that the secret to losing weight was time and moderation (though also, unfortunately, avoiding sex, running naked and post-lunch vomiting). For early Christians, gluttony, displayed on the body in the form of excess flesh, was one of the seven deadly sins – and you could say we’ve been feeling guilty ever since. The rise of mass media in the 19th century brought us a nascent celebrity culture, diet ads and seductive before-and-after images, and it fed and bred the shame and anxiety that still drives our weight-loss mania. It remains big business.


In 1829, William Wadd, one of many new diet gurus, advised chewing tobacco, horseback riding, reading aloud, sweating, sprinkling your body with hot sand and eating a bar of soap a day to “reduce exuberant fat”. He also recommended a low-carb/high-protein diet – sound familiar? He was one of the first in a long chain of diet-mongers, leading up to the likes of Robert Atkins and Pierre Dukan, selling regimes that are ostensibly revolutionary, but many of which are not new, and not necessarily harmless.


Quick-fix fad diets first took off in the Victorian period. The Victorians took weight-loss pills too, just as many dieters do today. Preparations such as Dr Gordon’s Elegant Pills contained either deadly or useless ingredients including arsenic, strychnine, lard, soap, Epsom Salts and dessicated thyroid extract. Tape-worm pills speak for themselves. A century ago, tens of thousands were taking the deadly Dinitrophenol – a carcinogenic dying agent also used in First World War explosives – to speed up their metabolism, and fatalities still occur. Today’s costly over-the-counter slimming pills suggest you’ll lose a few pounds over recommended periods, measly amounts you could manage by ditching biscuits. In the early 20th century, you might have swallowed Bile Beans or Figuroids, or masticated laxative-laced chewing gums such as Silph or Elfin Fat Reducing Gum Drops. Dieters could bathe in Every Woman’s Flesh Reducer or the Lesser Slim-Figure-Bath – with the useless ingredients of table salt, alum, camphor, baking soda, citric acid, cornstarch, and borax – or scrub away fat with a Slenmar Reducing Brush and La-Mar Reducing Soap. Melting your fat was popular, too, with a luminous light or hydro-electric iodized bath (which sounded scientific but had no discernible effect). Skin-macerating rubber knickers enjoyed a vogue, as did fat-bashing trunk rollers, stomach beaters, vibrating chairs and electric shocks. Now you can buy cellulite-reducing crystal-infused tights or a Slendertone for “electrical muscle stimulation”. There really is nothing new in the unpleasant business of “fat cures”.


One of the oddest diet gurus of the era was Horace Fletcher, the “Great Masticator”. Fletcherism involved chewing every mouthful hundreds of times – even Henry James and Franz Kafka were devotees – and its creator was hailed as a medical icon. Today, some diet businesses still follow his basic tenets. Massage, too, remains popular – in the 1930s, Sylvia of Hollywood massaged stars, including Jean Harlow and Gloria Swanson, so that fat came out through their pores “like mashed potato through a colander”. The group approach, including Weight Watchers (founded in 1963), has been shown to be relatively successful and effective, much more so than the plethora of mad fad diets we’ve been sold, from the Baby Food Diet to the Russian Air Force Diet, the Zone, Paleo, Blood Type, Better Sex Diet, ad infinitum.


In February this year, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who ate vegetables and whole foods while cutting back on sugar and highly processed foods, lost significant amounts of weight over 12 months. This without counting calories or limiting portions. Our reliance on calorie-counting, with us for some 120 years, has been sidelined. There was no significant difference in weight loss between those on a healthy low-fat diet and those sticking to a healthy low-carbohydrate one. Success didn’t seem to be influenced by genetics or insulin-response to carbs, meaning that the increasingly popular idea that different diets should be recommended based on one’s DNA makeup is also now in doubt. Rather, if we want to lose weight we should concentrate on sustaining a diet of minimally processed whole and fresh foods. In fact, why not simply follow the ancient Greeks, and eat moderately, healthily and regularly over a long period of time. A lifetime, in fact.


Louise Foxcroft’s Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over two thousand years is out now, published by Profile Books



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A Little Slice of Heaven

Many conventional investments nowadays offer poor financial returns and zero excitement. So it’s no surprise that many of us dream of putting cash into something that sets the pulse racing – diamonds, a classic car, fine wines or contemporary art, perhaps. But what if what you desire is simply too rare, too precious, unless you have unfathomably deep pockets?


One answer is to share ownership with other investors. This spreads the risk and puts possessing a slice of a coveted trophy asset like a winning racehorse, top winery or prestigious property tantalizingly within a broader reach – not just the preserve of billionaires. Shared ownership is especially common in the world of executive jets, horse racing and property. Indeed NetJets, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway since 1998, built its business on offering quarter shares of aircraft – hence QS is emblazoned on the tails of the US-registered fleet.


In the case of a jet, part ownership may confer some bragging rights but there is little sense of fun; co-owning a costly asset otherwise likely to be idle simply makes practical sense. Many private investors are looking for something different, something that combines investment with their personal passions and lifestyle choices. Own a part-share in a vineyard, for example, and you may perhaps be invited to relaxed private tastings or even to make suggestions about the style of wines and – come harvest time – you can always make yourself handy with a pair of secateurs amid the vines.


The good news is that there are myriad investments out there, with new opportunities presenting themselves all the time. But squaring the circle is not easy: the unsentimental approach of the hard-nosed professional investor is far removed from the hobbyist’s enthusiasm. So a good starting point for anyone interested in dipping their toe into a shared investment is to be clear from the start what your goals are. What financial returns do you expect? Do you want to contribute more broadly to the venture and maybe see your advice or expertise heeded? Above all, do you expect to have occasional access to the asset or draw some valuable perks?


Shared ownership of course involves building relationships – and that’s complicated. One salutary tale comes from a lawyer, now retired, who agreed back in the Eighties to buy a quarter share of a horse from a close friend; the friend’s three family members held the remaining share. The horse was a winner and ultimately became a household name in fence-jumping races; there were joyous moments as the four owners gathered around the victorious horse after races – and innumerable trips to the winners’ enclosure. The glorious winnings became almost secondary.


He then joined a formal syndicate where 40 people took stakes in a new mount. This horse was also a success on the racetrack, yet disenchantment set in swiftly. “It was a dismal experience,” he admits. “There was no emotional bond at all with the animal, which is what I realized I had come to value. You had to book paddock visits in advance and the crush after races was awful. To try to get access to the winners’ enclosure you had to draw lots with the other stakeholders.”


One would imagine that sharing is less of a problem in the wine world. Although older vintages can command stratospheric prices, a single bottle of most current vintages should be affordable to a connoisseur at least on an occasional basis. But what if an enthusiast sets his or her sights not on a lone bottle but on ownership of the winery itself? France’s most esteemed vineyards may be beyond reach. But in many parts of the world, shared ownership of wineries is pretty common – and to some investors, the idea of a wine label of one’s own is irresistible. In the new wine-making region of Ningxia in the north east of China, up-and-coming winemakers have set about meeting this need. Twenty years ago, there was scarcely a vine under cultivation here. But a tourist wine route to rival Burgundy’s is being developed while one of the grandest plans is at the spectacular Ho-Lan Soul winery. Here there is to be one central château surrounded by 200 smaller private châteaux. Buyers will be able to acquire a plot, bottle their own wine and place their name (or whatever they choose) on the label.


Another approach to “democratizing the exclusive” is currently underway at the St. Regis Hotel in Aspen. The owners, Elevated Returns LLP, are planning to sell a 20 per cent stake in the Colorado property they acquired eight years ago. The first round of the offering is going to investors deemed by the Securities and Exchange Commission to be well-informed “accredited” investors.


A new departure is that it will use the blockchain technology often employed in cryptocurrencies to “tokenize” the assets. This would in effect transform the tranche that has been sold off into coin-like units that could be split into ever smaller parts. The company ultimately hopes that in the near future the SEC will then give the go-ahead for allowing non-accredited investors to buy the tokens. Once that happens, the company would either embark on a second round or simply enable the tokens to be purchased and sold without restriction.


Stephane De Baets, president of Elevated Returns, comments, “The St. Regis Aspen is a remarkable hotel – even if you haven’t stayed there, you will have heard about it. The opportunity to own a part of it appeals to everyone from our most regular guests to moms and pops. We are democratizing real estate investment by making it possible to trade in much smaller amounts in our hotel.”


According to the owners, the St. Regis Aspen investment will display many of the advantages we associate with cryptocurrencies, but unlike them, it will be backed by a tangible asset: the hotel. And it’s hoped the tokenization will increase the ease of buying and selling, thereby pushing up values. However, there will be no perks: the owners have ruled out room discounts or other incentives, in part because of the complications this would introduce to smaller trades in the tokens.


A final option for investors trying to align their hearts and their heads could be diamonds – more particularly, fancy colored diamonds. Diamonds are precious, but colored diamonds are rarer and can be still more precious. Naturally tinted from the presence of elements such as nitrogen and boron deep in the earth when the diamonds were first formed, fancy diamonds come in a range of hues. Among the most highly prized are certain “intense” and “vivid” reds which can sell for more than a staggering $3 million a carat.


Normally, such exotic stones would be the preserve of ultra-high-net-worth individuals. But funds now allow others to buy into the market. Philip Baldwin, managing director of Sciens Coloured Diamond Fund, comments, ”These stones are extremely rare and hard to find. Few people will have the expertise to buy or sell them. We do that, plus take on all the other responsibilities such as insurance and ensuring individual members of the fund are treated equitably. And we have created a liquid market.” Those sharing in the ownership can legitimately claim to own what, by mass, is just about the most expensive natural thing on earth. Alas, shared ownership does not extend to invitations to wear the diamonds personally – even for an evening.


Needless to say, it’s worth ensuring that the satisfaction in prospect with any of these is enough to offset matters if the financial returns disappoint – since the value of any investment, shared or otherwise, can of course go down as well as up.


Your address: The St. Regis Aspen Resort


Images: Alamy; Getty Images; John Bishop for St. Regis