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JOURNAL

CAN I TELL YOU ... TAKE A TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AND SEE THE CULTURES THAT INSPIRE MY DESIGNS.

Can I Tell You about ... Arles, France

Rafe Totengco

STAY

We initially booked rooms at L'Oustau de Baumaniere, famed for its discreet location and chic interiors as well a Michelin-starred restaurant. But when we checked in, we were informed that we had been upgraded to stay instead at their sister property, La Cabro d'Or. Upon arriving at our new accommodations we immediately felt at home. The proprietors, Jean-Andre and Genevieve Charial, have turned a former 18th century stone farmhouse into an elegant and comfortable boutique hotel with sprawling lavender gardens, a swimming pool, tennis court and a lavish spa. Genevieve handles all the interiors while Jean-Andre runs the hotel and restaurants. Our suite was luxurious and inviting, complete with a living room filled with books and a balcony overlooking the garden.  
 

EAT

Prix-fixe menus are very popular in France and this is definitely true when it comes to Michelin-starred restaurants. A friend who was in Provence recently was raving about L'atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel so I made reservations. It was a wonderful long, leisurely lunch. Every dish was presented so creatively I couldn't help but take photos of every plate! Chef Rabanel is known for using fresh ingredients including flowers from his own garden and concocting them into complex, delicious combinations. 
 

MUST SEE

The Arles Amphitheatre goes back as early as 90 AD when it was built by the Romans, and is still in use today. Over the years it has been used as a theatre, fortress and even as housing for over 200 families. Today the arena is used for plays, concerts and bull fights during the summer months. Climbing to the top you are rewarded with sweeping views of Arles and you can almost imagine what it must have been like during Roman times.
 

SHOP

I always say, "I haven't met a print I didn't like", and at Souleiado I fell in love with every single one I saw. This company has a strong history and is known for prints that evoke Provencal motifs and color combinations. In fact, the name is Provencal for "sun shining through the clouds after the rain". The store even houses a photo of Pablo Picasso wearing one of their shirts. Despite my meager attempt at self-control, I walked out with enough printed shirts to make a quilt!
 

DO

Follow the Vincent Van Gogh Trail. He painted and drew over 300 images depicting his impressions of scenes and landscapes during his time in Arles. The trail has 21 stops, each marked with a reproduction of the art he painted there. These allow you to enjoy the vantage point of where the artist set up his easel. 
 

WHAT I LOVED MOST

While walking along the narrow streets one afternoon we chanced upon Musee Reattu. The museum was a former Grand Priory of the Order of Malta and owns a sizable collection of 17th-19th century old masters as well as drawings and paintings donated by Picasso. Coincidentally, the museum was holding a costume exhibit curated by Christian Lacroix. The exhibition showcased Lacroix's work as a costume designer for the opera. I was enthralled to be able to view the garments up close and see the craftsmanship that went into each piece. The setting was like a costume party for  Scheherazade and was fabulously extravagant! Before leaving I stepped into the museum shop where they were selling limited edition lithographs of fashion illustrations by Christian Lacroix. Naturally, I had to have one!

Can I Tell You about ... Copenhagen, Denmark

Rafe Totengco

STAY

The Hotel Axel Guldsmeden is located at the edge of the former red light district in Vesterbro. It's known for serving the best organic buffet breakfast in the city and for their own organic shampoo and cream products. The look of the hotel is eclectic; a fusion of Balinese teak furniture, ikat pillows and bed spreads with Persian rugs and original art on the walls.
 

EAT

Noma. Before you even book your flight, make sure you've secured a reservation at this Michelin two star restaurant. Getting a table was no easy feat but perseverance finally paid off! It was certainly worth all the trouble. The food was inventive, delicious and awe inspiring. The total experience was better than I had imagined. I walked out satiated and completely giddy! Believe the hype, it's true!
 

MUST SEE

The Statens Museum for Kunst / The Danish National Galleryhouses over 9,000 paintings and sculptures as well personal collections from past Danish kings. An art installation entitled "We the People" by Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo was on exhibit. I also enjoyed viewing the fragmented full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. These pieces were scattered all over the world and some were placed in the Danish museum.
 

SHOP

Illums Bolighus. This is heaven on earth for any interior design aficionado. Their roster is a who's who in the world of Scandinavian design from Arne Jacobsen to Georg Jensen and Verner Panton. If you can't buy an actual chair don't fret because they sell miniature versions of these modern classics!
 

DO

Rent a bike. Copenhagen is famous for its biking culture and is has officially been deemed the first bike city in the world. The Danes are well known for their love of cycling and cities all around the world are now looking at ways to emulate this phenomenon. Last year, it was also voted the "Best City for Cyclists" and the "World's Most Livable City".
 

WHAT I LOVED MOST

The Danes believe that "only the best is good enough" and design is a way of life. This aesthetic consciousness permeates in everything from lighting, furniture, clothing to waste cans. Each store, gallery and restaurant has a restrained elegance in the way everything is presented. Nothing is superfluous and everything is carefully thought out and resolved.

Can I Tell You About ... Tulum, Mexico

Rafe Totengco

STAY

The Mayan Riviera is lined with eco-chic hotels with beachfront restaurants. Playa Azul achieves both with the rustic decor and spare furnishing and is situated in the center of the Tulum beach which makes its location ideal. Our room had an open terrace with a great view of the sea. The cabanas on the beach provided ample shade, and excellent bar service, and made napping in the afternoons a required time in our schedule.
 

EAT

Believe the hype about Hartwood. Everything we ordered was delicious. The pulled pork was tender and deliciously spiced. For dessert I had their home-made sweet corn ice-cream which was just perfect for me, as it brought back fond childhood memories. To be sure of getting a table arrive before they open and line up - otherwise you risk being turned away. Another foodie favorite is El Tabano. The restaurant serves tasty and spicy traditional Mexican fare minus the long line of people.
 

MUST SEE

Get up at the crack of dawn and drive to Chichen Itza. If you get there early enough you will avoid the worst of the busloads of tourists that swarm daily to this historical site and the midday heat. The ancient city was founded around 400 AD and was one of the greatest Mayan centers of the Yucatan Peninsula. The site is huge with multiple temples, pyramids and marketplaces that give a real insight into the power and sophistication of the Mayan civilization. The massive Kukulkan Pyramid has been partially restored, allowing visitors to see how it would have looked when in use as well as the more tumbledown state in which it was found. It is deservedly one of the most iconic images associated with the Yucatan and Mexico.
 

SHOP

La Llorona is a treasure trove full of hand-embroidered fabrics, clothing and accessories sourced from all over Mexico and Guatemala. There was so much to choose from I could have stayed there for hours going through every pile of fabrics. I was in print heaven.
 

DO

Snorkeling through Dos Ojos Cenote is a fun activity to do while you're in Tulum. It is called Two Eyes because of the two large circular cenotes with cave systems underneath. On a sunny day you can clearly see the rock formations of the underwater cave. You'll need a guide and a flash light swimming through the labyrinth of tunnels while carefully avoiding stalactites, stalagmites and other snorkelers. 
 

WHAT I LOVED MOST

I love waking and sleeping to the sound of the waves and feeling the sea breeze that wafted through our balcony. Tulum is a perfect place to unwind and decompress. I can't wait to go back.

Can I Tell You About ... Beijing, China

Rafe Totengco

STAY

I stayed at the Temple Hotel, a 600 year old former Tibetan Buddhist temple, that saw service as a factory after the revolution and has recently been converted into a chic boutique hotel. It was rescued from demolition by a trio of entrepreneurs who spent 3 years restoring it into an 8 bedroom gem, hidden in a traditional hutong district within walking distance of the Forbidden City. The hotel has a popular, high end, 'contemporary European' style restaurant, a description that would normally have me running for the hills, but that in this case served me a wonderful tasting menu that I can't recommend highly enough. The complex also houses a permanent light installation titled 'Gathered Sky' by James Turrell, the only one in China.

EAT

Escape the crush of people at the Summer Palace and head to the Aman at the Summer Palace. Their Chinese restaurant serves traditional Cantonese cuisine along with Peking duck, a must if you're in Beijing. The property is serene and the decor is super chic. I could almost imagine the Empress Dowager Cixi walking down the corridors with her entourage.

MUST SEE

First on my agenda was the Great Wall , a sight I missed on my first visit. I took a car to the Mutianyu section, which is a longer drive from the city but reputed to be less crowded than other locations. It was a hot and humid summer day but the sky was blue, a very rare occurrence in Beijing I was told. I braved the hour long hike up steep steps up to the highest watchtower, and was amply rewarded by the spectacular, and iconic, view of the wall snaking its way through the rolling country.

SHOP

I'm a flea-market aficionado so the Panjiayuan market was on my 'must do' list. The market is comprised of over 3000 vendors and separated into sections so if you're looking for semi-precious beads, blue and white porcelain vases, vintage books and photographs or furniture you'll find it there. I found some great curiosities among the vendors without regular stalls who had laid their blankets loaded with objects outside the designated market area. The items they were selling were disorganized and largely junk but felt more like the ˜flea market" I had come for. I bought an antique embossed brass cigarette case for 40 dollars,  a bargain for an item that will inspire the next iteration of my minaudieres.

DO

Entering the National Centre for the Performing Arts or The Giant Egg is like walking into a spaceship but instead of flying off to outer space you are going to an opera. The iconic design by French architect Paul Andreu is especially photogenic at sunset when the lights inside illuminate and reflect against the water surrounding the structure. Several photographers stand in position at the same spot just to capture the perfect moment when the building reflects the egg shape perfectly. Unfortunately the audience was so noisy it was impossible to enjoy the performance.

WHAT I LOVED MOST

I woke up early to take a leisurely stroll to Jingshan Park . This thousand year old park (formerly a private imperial garden) is a hub of activity for people of all ages playing badminton, rehearsing folk dances and practicing martial arts. The senior citizens doing their morning Tai-Chi reminded me of my Mom, who can be seen doing the same thing in New York's Chinatown at 6am every day. Not all globalization is the US exporting movies and fast food! A hike up the hill to the Wanchun Pavilion resulted in the expected magnificent views of the Forbidden City. I jostled with the locals to get the best spot for my selfie.

Can I Tell You About ... Mexico City

Rafe Totengco

 

STAY

Las Alcobas is a chic boutique hotel situated in the posh Polanco district surrounded by designer shops, restaurants,interior design stores and nightclubs. The international design firm Yabu Pushelberg created the luxurious contemporary look of the hotel and that is enough reason in my opinion to stay here.

EAT

Contramar is the place to see and be seen in Mexico. Get there at noon and you will be able to get a table but arrive an hour later and you will have to wait another hour. From our table it looked like everbody knew everybody. The scene was social, jovial and super chic. The tuna tostadas are so popular the dish is even the password for their wifi!

MUST SEE

Museo Soumaya is the iconic museum designed by Fernando Romero showcasing the private art collection of Mexican business tycoon Carlos Slim. The entrance is free and it is even open on Mondays when most museums are closed. Do not miss the top floor that displays a large collection of Rodin sculptures. The outside structure of the museum is quite inspiring. Grab a drink at one of the bars behind it at sunset and you'll see the building glows like seashells with the sun's reflection. La Casa Azul is Frida Khalo's home where she grew up and lived with Diego Rivera. It has now been converted into a museum where you can get a glimpse of how they lived. The furniture and the gardens are well maintained but there isn't a lot of her artwork to see. Walk over to Mercado de Coyoacan and grab a spot at Tostadas Coyoacan. It's a fun convivial place that is packed with people eating their famous tostadas.

SHOP

Carmen Rion works with artisans in Chiapas to weave her traditional textiles and she transforms them into contemporary silhouettes with a nod towards current fashion trends. Her shop is conveniently located within the Downtown Hotel shopping complex.

DO

Hire a driver and go to Teotihuacan (about an hour away from Mexico City.) It is otherwise refered to as the "City of the Gods" and home to some of the largest ancient pyramids in the world. Climb up to the top of the Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Sun to see the vast area the site covers and you can almost imagine what it must have been like when the Aztecs found these ruins which were abandoned hundreds of years prior.

WHAT I LOVED MOST

Diego Rivera's incredible murals depicting the history of Mexico at the Palacio Nacional were everything I had imagined them to be. The murals swarm with symbolism, detail, emotion, and political commentary. I walked around the murals several times, and each time I saw something new and fascinating.

Can I Tell You About ... San Sebastian, Spain

Rafe Totengco

STAY

Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra has the best views of Playa La Concha at any time of the day. Morning, noon and night you can sit at the cafe in front and watch people promenade along the bay. The rooms at the top floor each have a balcony where you can relax and watch the sunset before heading out to dinner. Every morning we woke up to the beautiful vista of the beach and the sea.
 

EAT

Dining at Arzak was a dream come true - but it wasn't easy to get a table. It took a few emails and connections to squeeze us into one of the world's best restaurants but it was so worth the trouble. Believe the hype, this family run restaurant is a must if you're in Donostia. Chef Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Chef Elena Arzak Espina have a culinary research lab on the premises where they have a comprehensive library of spices collected from all over the world and use them to experiment with new dishes. I was privileged enough to get an inside peek of the laboratory and the cavernous wine cellars that hold over 100,000 wine bottles. The cuisine honors traditional Basque cuisine but with a modern twist. They procure the best local ingredients and have some producers who sell exclusively to them. My favorite dishes were the Beet Root blood apple, apple injected with beetroot accompanied with creamy foie gras and potato “mother of pearl, the Ovo-lacto, egg with semi crunch shell with lactic leaves and curds and the grilled monkfish fillet with a crispy lobster roll and sea buckthorn. Each dish came with a glass of wine that complimented it. Needless to say it was an unforgettable feast.
 

MUST SEE

The Balenciaga Museum is a must if you're interested in seeing couture clothes from a bygone era. The trip to the town of Getaria is a pleasant drive along the coastline and if you leave in the morning you'll be back in Donostia by early afternoon. The museum is a modern statement built right next to Palacio Aldamar, a historic residence in the town. The foundation owns over 1,600 garments of which some are displayed through several floors according to themes and eras. A highlight worth noting were the digital animations showing the complexity of construction and patterns of some of the pieces on display. Through these micro-movies you could begin to understand and appreciate how his creative mind worked.
 

SHOP

Espadrilles are the footwear of choice for men, women and children all over Spain. Kokekoko is conveniently located a block away from the beach and is stocked with a rainbow of colors and patterns like a candy store. The prices are so reasonable it would be a crime to leave the store with just one pair.
 

DO

Pintxo Crawl is the equivalent to bar hopping. Start at Atari Gastroteka then move on to Bar Zeruko and A Fuego Negro as you work your way down the alley zig-zagging from one bar to another and end at La Cuchara de San Telmo . Each spot has a different specialty written on a chalkboard behind the bar. We tried a few items from every bar and took cues from what the locals were ordering. In case you're wondering how we made it to the end of the night without getting smashed: order the small beers called Zurita to make it through all the bars with your sobriety at least partially intact. We had an incredible evening, mingled with the locals, enjoyed little bites of decadence and lived to tell. The best dish we had was a plate of local mushrooms lightly fried in butter, with a raw egg cracked onto the plate, perfection!
 

WHAT I LOVED MOST

I love nothing more than to meander when I'm on vacation and Donostia is the perfect city for that. Everything is walking distance, especially from the Hotel Londres. We started down the promenade along Playa la Concha all the way to El Peine del Viento to see Eduardo Chillida's sculptures then made our way through the quaint area of La Parte Vieja lined with pintxo bars and shops, hiked up Monte Urgull, checked out the excellent San Telmo Museum , had a long lunch at La Cuchara de San Telmo, and ended the day watching the sunset with an Aperol. That's my idea of a vacation.