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Brooklyn Gal

Lady of the Desert

We recently came across a story by Claudia Roth Pierpont about the Victorian adventuress Freya Stark in the special April 18 travel issue of The New Yorker and we must admit, it we have not stopped thinking about this extraordinary woman ever since.

How is it possible that we knew nearly nothing about the Dame (yes, she held that lofty title) who lived such an extraordinary life and died at age 100 in 1993?

Born to bohemian parents in England in 1893 and raised in Italy by her mother and her mother’s paramour, an impoverished Italian count, Stark was one of the first Westerners to travel to many parts of the Middle East and she wrote about her escapades in 24 travel books and autobiographies, not to mention eight volumes of letters from the 1930’s to the 1980’s.

We were not only captivated by her wit, charm and incredible accomplishments — we were also taken by her obvious style. This intrepid nomad, who suffered a horrendous factory accident as a child that ripped off her right ear camouflaged her damaged side with marvelous hats and imaginative hairstyles. But even such a catastrophe could not keep her down. Stark was apparently a fearless, idealistic woman whose spirit knew no bounds. We can just imagine her tying on a fabulous bonnet, perhaps donning a utilitarian outfit in pristine white to guard against the sun, and riding her camel across the desert.

We here at the Brooklyn Gal plan to dive into one of her extraordinary tales, straight away, starting with her first book, The Valleys of the Assassins. Thankfully many have recently been reissued.


The Washington Post – The Impulsive Traveler: A Vermont town straight out of Currier & Ives

On weekends when my husband and I feel the need to leave our urban lives behind for a spell, we drive about four hours from Brooklyn, N.Y., to southern Vermont, where we’re greeted by my mother-in-law and her handsome golden-haired dog. Luckily for us, she owns a lovely vacation home in a rambling residential community called Chimney Hill, just a short drive from the quaint village of Wilmington. Come holiday weekends, when the guest ranks quadruple, we rent a house next door and enjoy the best of both worlds: family togetherness and a dose of privacy.

On a recent visit, after lolling in front of her wood-burning stove and taking a stroll through the woodsy, secluded Chimney Hill roads (eyes wide open for errant black bears), I joined the family pack and ventured, as tradition dictates, into town to bop around the inviting boutiques and galleries.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, the historic district on (and off) Wilmington’s West Main Street never loses its magical aura. Beautifully preserved landmarks include the cedar-shingled Crafts Inn, which once welcomed such famous guests as President William Howard Taft, and adjacent Memorial Hall, where we saw folk singer Odetta perform a few years ago. Both built by architect Stanford White in 1902, they evoke a bygone era. When it snows, the white-blanketed streetscape feels like a Currier & Ives print sprung to life, and it’s easy to imagine that the Yankees of yore still inhabit the late-Colonial and Colonial Revival buildings.

“There’s a warm, classic New England feel to the downtown area,” says Laura Sibilia, executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, noting that village zoning has put the kibosh on big-box commercialization, so the town is historically intact. And it’s not uncommon in the winter, she says, to see people snowshoeing or skating on the Deerfield River, which runs through town.

Another local sight: Dot’s, a retro-perfect neon-signed diner in a former Wilmington post office building dating back to 1832. “Even on a cold January morning, there’s a line out the door with people waiting for their Berry Berry pancakes – with good reason,” says Sibilia. When we join the throngs, I order spicy Cajun scrambled eggs, with a pile of homemade sunflower cracked-wheat toast. That bread, manager Mitch Soskin tells me, is as popular as those mixed berry flapjacks and the blue-plate specials served at dinnertime.

Such affection for the reassuringly familiar also extends to the Anchor Seafood restaurant, which burned to the ground a year ago on Martin Luther King Day weekend. The new, historically correct incarnation, which opened on Oct. 21, mirrors the 1850s original and fits right in with its venerable neighbors. “When you look at it from the outside it’s almost like it was never gone,” says owner Susan Lawrence. She says that business has been brisk since it rose again, and the former menu remains unaltered. “Our customers would probably have our head if we changed things up on them,” she explained.

Farther down the street, I poke into a restored and repurposed church that now houses the Young & Constantin Gallery. Proprietor Liz Wheeler features mostly local and regional artists, showcasing everything from wooden kaleidoscopes to New England landscapes in the airy two-story space. The work is arresting and the white clapboard setting equally so.

I detect a buoyancy in the air as I make my customary trek from the gallery to Manyu’s, a fashionable women’s boutique with a city edge, and Quaigh Design Centre, renowned for its Scottish capes, to the Incurable Romantic, a historic white house bursting with silk flowers, stylish women’s wear, sparkly jewelry and intoxicating lotions, and to Bartleby’s Books, teeming with browsers. “I think the downtown here, the village, is feeling reasonably vibrant,” muses Lisa Sullivan, proprietor of Bartleby’s, president of the Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Book Cellar in Brattleboro, about 20 miles away. “When the Anchor burned down it was ‘Uh-oh, is that going to come back?’ and it did. There are a number of restaurants to go to and a number of unique little shops. I think that travelers like that little piece of authenticity.”

Sullivan says that she has seen a 15 percent uptick in business since moving into more prominent West Main Street quarters last year. With tables and chairs scattered about and shelves appealingly crammed with such bestsellers as David Sedaris’s “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” the low-ceilinged digs exude a cozy air that’s catnip to book junkies like me. Lending local flavor: a wealth of titles from Vermont-based authors, including Archer Mayor, who pens a popular detective series, and books such as Jeremy K. Davis’s newly released “The Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont,” which appeal to the winter sports folks who swarm the town between alpine adventures.

The big-mountain pleasures of Mount Snow, about seven miles north in the Green Mountain National Forest, are of course close at hand. Skiers and snowboarders whoosh down what Vinnie Lewis, Mount Snow’s events and public relations manager, calls “the best snow surface possible,” the result of $10 million in fan guns – state-of-the-art snowmaking technology – installed over the past three years. Then there’s Adams Family Farm in Wilmington, with traditional sleigh rides pulled by Belgian draft horses, and a skating rink at the handsome Hermitage Inn in nearby West Dover.

My snow sport of choice: tubing down the sloping hill in front of the White House Inn, a picturesque, amenity-laden 16-room property that sits right outside downtown. “We have the best tubing hill in southern Vermont,” maintains owner Stacey Tabor. Though it’s a bit of a nail-biter, I find the ride to the foot of the incline an exhilarating rush, and the hike back up a workout for the hamstrings.

Such exertion calls for a reward, and the recently renovated inn offers many, including rejuvenating spa treatments, cocktails at the cozy tavern’s new mahogany bar beside the wood-burning fireplace and a just-launched game room.

Plenty more reasons for this city mouse to return to Wilmington – again and again.


Fairmont Hotels Magazine – Bermuda story – Winter 2011

Afternoon tea in Bermuda perfectly encapsulates the entire vibe of this island. A pot of Earl Grey and a shrimp and watercress-stu!ed mini-croissant, plus a rum scone with Devonshire clotted cream and lime jam: everything is properly British – yet with a distinct island accent.

Though Bermuda’s stormy beginnings are rife with stories of treasure-laden galleons and plundering pirates, civilized serenity reigns here today, as evidenced by its neat lines of colonial cottages in sherbet shades overlooking the crystalline Atlantic. The 54 square-kilometer (21-square-mile) archipelago is the oldest of the British overseas territories. Yet still, like the Bermudian businessmen I see everywhere wearing smart blazers with colorful knee-socks and the country’s namesake shorts, beneath its orderly Anglo-Saxon-isms, the maverick origins of this place are ever present.

After nibbling on sweets and savories, I take in the sights of the capital city, where my teatime oasis, the resplendent Fairmont Hamilton Princess hotel, is situated. The bustling capital is flush with restaurants and boutiques. Mopeds zip by and cruise ships rest in the ferry terminal. The venerable hotel, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is a beloved fixture of this urban environment. The “Pink Palace,” as it’s known locally, was bestowed its offcial moniker in honor of Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, who had extolled the glories of Bermuda as a kind of paradise. True to form, The Fairmont Hamilton Princess has its own dishy history. During World War II, it was intelligence HQ for allied secret agents and served as temporary home to a real-life Commander Bond (reportedly the basis for Ian Fleming’s rogue agent 007).

As the lazy afternoon melts into evening, teatime gives way to happy hour. Now I find those Bermuda-clad %nanciers in relaxation-mode, mingling with women in breezy casual-chic attire while children scamper on the lawn. The live band lets loose with Fleetwood Mac and Coldplay covers, and I get into the local sway, ordering a Dark ’n’ Stormy, the island signature made with Gosling’s Black Seal Rum and Stormy Ginger Beer. Settling into a seat on the terrace, I cap off the evening by dreamily watching boats breeze past Hamilton Harbour.

The feeling of Bermudian intrigue resonates with me again the next day as I explore the sprawling Fairmont Southampton, a few parishes and an entire mindset away from Hamilton. The country resort, set on the island’s highest point, overlooks the pink-sand idyll known as the South Shore. Here, I join 11th-generation Bermudian Peter Frith and his wife, Chrissy, on the outdoor terrace of the Ocean Club, where we hoist signature Ocean-tinis (vodka, rum and vibrant blue Hpnotiq liqueur). My host (who happens to be the resort’s former director of sales) is descended from legendary seafarers: Christopher Carter, one of two Brits who settled in Bermuda after the shipwreck of their vessel, the Sea Venture, off the east coast in 1609 and Hezekiah Frith, a plucky privateer. “That’s like a legal pirate,” winks Frith naughtily. “The King of England gave them permission to raid any ship with which they were at war.”

My own treasure arrives on a plate: harissa-spiked tuna tartare, and rockfish, in a complex kaffir lime leaf sauce, revealing the worldly palate of Sanjay Leeme, senior chef de partie, whose résumé includes a stint working with a French master chef.

Tableside, the Sri Lankan talent confides that he uses local catch whenever possible and “mixes Asian flavors into European cuisine.” Each bite is as transcendent as the view of towering black rocks over azure water.

By day, the seascape is just as mesmerizing. As I splash along Horseshoe Bay Beach, near the Fairmont Beach Club, the ocean, like the Miles Davis classic, is a harmony of blue in green. I saunter along the pinkish, powdery sand of one of the world’s most photographed coastlines, then up the dunes, encountering dramatic coves that create pockets of privacy dotted with sun worshippers and shutterbugs. This beach reminds me of the dreamy interlude I enjoyed at the luxe Willow Stream Spa at The Fairmont Southampton: the smooth stones used in my hot-stone massage were black like the island rock; the rose- and cedar-scented oil reminiscent of Bermuda’s heady flora. A facial with sea algae and the invigorating salt used in a body scrub are both inspired by this sea and this air. A bikini-clad adventuress ambles atop a striated black boulder, waving her arms. She’s the queen of the world, for a moment in time.

Another sensory encounter awaits in the Town of St. George, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in St. George’s parish. The town crier is off duty as I walk past King’s Square and follow the narrow, cobblestone streets, past storybook houses, to Stewart Hall. Here I find The Bermuda Perfumery, which has been making its own distinctive fragrances under the Lili Bermuda brand since 1928.

Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone, the French-Canadian owner and master perfumer, leads me to the maceration room, where essential oils commingle in enormous bottles, then to an atmospheric, cedar-beamed room boasting perfume-making paraphernalia from bygone eras and jars stu!ed with orrisroot, oak moss and musk seeds. As I sniff paper blotters infused with single notes, Ramsay-Brackstone explains how she strives to capture the island’s “lush greeneries and flowers, the ocean, the fruits,the wind, the sand and the sun” in her artisan fragrances. One of her latest is South Water, a coconut milk, sea salt and juicy guava blend. “I call it Liquid Bermuda because to me it smells like the beach. It’s incredibly sultry and flirty.”

I dab it on my wrist; like Bermuda itself – from its blush-hued beaches to its unconventional cuisine – it’s perfection, with just a hint of wild abandon.