Friday, February 24, 2017
You know those travel bloggers who have profiles that are like, "Quit my job, sold my house, and love living life on a shoestring! 39 countries and counting! Love the great outdoors!" And their profile photo is a shot of them sitting on an incredible cliff edge, overlooking a mountain with the sun setting off in the distance?
Yeah, so not me.
In fact, you're more likely to find me hiking to the fourth floor of Selfridges or Nordstrom than the top of a mountain and wearing kitten heels than hiking boots. So, you'll bet your bottom dollar that John didn't even bother to stifle his laugh when I emerged from the bedroom of our Airbnb in Iceland wearing a pair of waterproof hiking pants and hiking boots, complete with a fleece-lined beanie and a Northface jacket.
"What?" I asked, as he snickered from his position on the couch. "Aren't we going for a hike?"
"Yes, yes," he said. "All the gear and no idea," he muttered under his breath (except, that saying only works with a British accent: "All the gear and no idea-r").
"Excuse me?" I asked, eyes narrowing.
"Nothing! Let's go!" he said, opening the door for me, still smiling.
So: Iceland with a carry-on only. In winter. Possible? Definitely.
Here's what I packed:
A swimsuit - or two.
If you plan to visit any geothermal pools or hot springs in Iceland, you should definitely bring at least one swimsuit. I brought this one from ASOS and a bikini from Victoria's Secret (they make amazing fitting bikinis). If you're visiting the Blue Lagoon, make sure to rinse your swimsuit or bikini thoroughly after your dip in the pool, as the silica will stick to the suit, leaving a residue.
Waterproof pants and jacket.
I bought these fleece-lined, waterproof pants before I left and they were terrific. I took them on a shoreline walk to the lighthouse near our Airbnb and a hike up Mount Hafnarfjall and they kept me warm and dry each time. I was so glad to have them! Buy your normal size, otherwise they'll sag as you walk, as I discovered after buying a size up. They have a nice, straight-leg fit so aren't too baggy or unattractive.
Uniqlo Extra Warm Heattech.
Uniqlo's Heattech range has been a long-time favorite of mine, but their Extra Warm range is ... well, extra warm and perfect for the changeable weather conditions in Iceland. One minute it'll be bright sunshine, and the next, snow will completely blanket the ground. I brought a pair of the Extra Warm leggings and a turtleneck with me and wore them often. The leggings are so thin, they fit snugly under skinny jeans too.
Uniqlo Ultra Light Down Jacket.
This foldable, compact jacket is perfect for layering. I treat mine like a cardigan and wear it over long-sleeve tees and sweaters. It's light enough to not add bulk, but warm enough to keep you nice and toasty when you're out and about - particularly when visiting places like waterfalls, where you're standing still to take photos, rather than actively walking/hiking.
A cashmere sweater.
If you follow me on Instagram, you'll know that I love cashmere sweaters and accessories. I brought along a big, fluffy cashmere sweater for lounging around in and I was so glad that I did. I'm also a big fan of Kit & Ace's technical cashmere. It's machine washable, thin, and some of their long-sleeve tees are brushed inside, which feels SO deliciously warm and cozy. I also love the flattering cut. It's a little expensive (okay, a lot expensive), but it's an investment for something that you'll wear again and again.
Hiking boots and a smart-casual pair of sneakers.
I lived in these Vivobarefoot hiking boots during our trip (John has the same pair - we're such nerds with our matching boots!) and these shoes by Ecco, which I wear in London a lot because they feel like walking on clouds - no joke. The Vivobarefoot boots are waterproof and were great for our shoreline walk to a lighthouse, plus our hike up Mount Hafnarfjall. They're quite different from traditional hiking boots and aren't for everyone, so I'd recommend you try them on in store (like we did) before purchasing them.
A fleece-lined beanie (or at least a hat with a fleece-lined headband).
I bought this one by Barts right before we left and was SO glad I had it with me (plus, I'll wear it a lot in London). It was a bazillion (that's right, bazillion) times better than the basic Zara one I had and it kept my head and ears warm during our mountain hike.
A good pair of insulated and waterproof gloves (though mine weren't) are a good idea.
The weather is unpredictable in Iceland - which is great. I'll tell you why: even if the forecast says "rain", this might only last for half an hour or so, before the sun breaks through the crowds and you're treated to gorgeous sunshine ... before getting caught in a snowstorm. Sunglasses are essential if you're walking, hiking, or driving, especially if there's snow, as the sun's reflection on the snow can make driving really impossible (or dangerous!) without a good pair of sunnies.
A down jacket/coat.
I ended up not bringing my down jacket/coat because the forecast was warmer than expected when we went, but had it been a few (or several) degrees colder than it was, I would have brought my L.L. Bean down coat, which has seen me through several Massachusetts winters (East Coast winters are BAD).
I. Cannot. Stress. This. Enough. I didn't have any body moisturizer with me during our trip and my skin was crying out for moisture after spending days on windswept mountaintops and beaches before spending hours inside with central heating. This one by Caudalie is my favorite, but Avene has a fantastic one too. Just decant some into a container if you're bringing a carry-on only.
I hope this post was helpful! I scoured dozens of blogs while packing for this trip. Have you been to a winter-y, cold destination lately? What did you pack?
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
We arrived to the Blue Lagoon's Silica Hotel late on a Friday evening. Excited to take a dip in the hotel's private lagoon but deterred by our growling stomachs, we dropped our bags in our room and settled down for a light dinner in the Bistro instead, assured by staff on check-in that the private lagoon would be open until midnight that evening.
The restaurant was quiet; considering there are only 35 rooms on the property (a second hotel and spa will be opening in October), this wasn't unusual, though we cherished the quiet attention from the intuitive staff, who brought us a basket of warm bread and Icelandic butter (with the promise of more on request), which we gratefully wolfed down. Scanning the menu, our eyes slightly watering at the prices, we both chose the seafood soup, which - at 2,800 Icelandic Krona - I joked roughly translated to £1 per spoonful. But oh, what glorious spoonfuls they were: a wonderful medley of fresh prawns and fish sat in a deep, earthenware bowl with the consomme poured over it. The soup had none of that artificial, overly-creamy taste that most dishes billed as "seafood soup" have. This was different: delicate, subtle yet wonderfully warming.
I remember being caught by the surprise of the feeling of silica between my toes - a pillowy, but strange sensation, like melted taffy that doesn't quite stick (or, as I overheard another guest describe, "It's like ... it's like, butter that's been left out too long!"). We avoided the inflatables provided (rubber rings and pool noodles - in a minimalist black or white, of course), though these were a great idea later on, as they help you float effortlessly in the water, allowing for full relaxation. By the way - rain feels amazing when you're in the pool. There was a light drizzle that evening and the sensation on my skin (in contrast to the piping hot water) felt incredible.
Although we negotiated some unexpectedly rocky bits at the bottom to get there, the private lagoon extends into a wonderfully secluded corner, where the water from the lagoon itself runs into a stream. The trickling sound of the stream, plus being bathed in very warm (and, in some places, hot) water while floating on your back and looking up into the night sky - is a feeling I'd like to preserve forever. I remember floating like that next to John for a long while, without speaking, and thinking it was the most perfect moment in time.
I don't think I've ever slept better than that night. Eager to make the most of the day, we set our alarms for 7:30 a.m. and headed to breakfast soon after.
The hotel's minimalist, but sleek design can only truly be appreciated during the day. From textiles by HAY to Scandinavian-designed furniture, the hotel's architecture and interiors evoke a sense of calm in its purest form: earthy tones with an occasional blue accent, and narrow slivers of window that allow for just enough light to permeate the corridors make you feel as though you're on a wellness retreat - without the regime.
Indeed, breakfast was laden with fruit, muffins, fresh waffles made-to-order, and a hot buffet of eggs, sausages and crispy bacon. There's room for indulgence here.
Our room was a continuation of this quiet meditation: the seamless transition from the shower to the bathroom floor, from the bedroom floor to the private veranda, meant that you could close your eyes and navigate the room virtually without thinking (I hate bumping into sharp bed frames in the middle of the night!).
After one last long, luxurious swim in the private lagoon, we forced ourselves out of the water to pack up and check out.
Our stay at Silica included two premium admission tickets to the Blue Lagoon (which is just a short walk away), which we used the next day after checking out of the hotel. John had an in-water massage scheduled (a belated birthday treat!), so we headed over after packing up the car and were met with ... huge crowds. Granted, we were visiting at peak time (12 pm), but after being spoiled by the virtually empty, luxurious private lagoon at Silica, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.
Still, we waded into the lagoon and enjoyed the experience for what it was. By now, the clouds had parted, giving way to bright blue sky and a brilliant glow from the sun. I headed to the "Mud Bar", where we applied the silica face mask (complimentary for all Blue Lagoon guests) and ventured further out into the lagoon, where the water is significantly deeper - about neck height for me (I'm 5'4").
I don't know how many photos we photo-bombed that day, but we must be in several. Tripods, selfie-sticks, and other clever waterproof solutions were abound (there were lots of phones kept in plastic Ziplock bags off to the side).
While John was whisked off (literally: in-water massages are performed on floating mats) for his treatment in the lagoon, I washed off the silica on my face and applied the algae mask (included in the Premium admission ticket), which was deliciously soothing and moisturising, particularly after the silica mask, which draws out impurities and can be pretty drying (NB remember to put loads and loads of conditioner in your hair before entering the Blue Lagoon - your hair will turn into a tangled mess of straw, no matter how long or short it is!).
Our stay at Silica Hotel was a meditative experience; there were countless opportunities for relaxation and contemplation. I thought of this as we watched the sun rise over the lava fields from the deck of our private veranda, a light acting as a natural saturation filter on the moss-covered stones. I marvelled at how something so otherworldly, so - at times, unremarkable, or even, dare I say, ugly - could evoke such beauty and peaceful serenity.
Have you ever been to Silica Hotel or the Blue Lagoon? What did you think? I'd love to know. It's been on my bucket-list for a very, very long time!
Friday, February 17, 2017
We're off to Iceland today and I can't wait. We're staying in a beautiful black timber house Airbnb in a remote location and treating ourselves to a stay at Silica Hotel at the Blue Lagoon.
Ordinarily, I'd say, "Follow along on Instagram!" But I've decided to delete my social media apps for this trip, which includes Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
I've heard the most amazing things about Iceland and I want to experience it fully - without the distraction or pressure of photo editing and uploading and caption-writing and comment-responding. I'd love to travel in a way I haven't travelled for years - i.e. as a non-blogger.
But most importantly, I want to spend time with my husband and be totally, completely present. I've brought books, magazines, cozy socks, and a journal (I've got a magazine article to write, so I'll be doing a bit of work too).
I'll share photos and posts when I'm back, but for now ... I can't wait to see what adventures and discoveries await.
Monday, February 13, 2017
If you live in London and suddenly have that urge to run away - to escape the frenetic pace of the city, to trade the stark, grey buildings for green countryside instead - Down Hall is the perfect escape.
I'm often asked for recommendations of country house hotels that are situated within an hour's drive of London, but I have a hard time coming up with suggestions. But Down Hall is ideal: just 45 minutes by train (from Liverpool Street station) and a short cab ride after that to Hatfield Heath on the Essex/Hertfordshire border, this stunning hotel is set in 110 acres of parkland, woodland and gardens. And, if like us, you happen to live in East London, it makes the "great escape" all that easier.
We arrived at Down Hall on a Saturday afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to set, giving the hotel's beautiful facade a warm, lovely glow.
We'd barely checked into our room when I ran outside to explore the grounds, since we had a terrific view of the main drive and gardens just outside our window. It looked incredibly enticing when bathed in sunlight, and I spotted another hotel guest leisurely reading a paper and enjoying an espresso outside. Bliss.
We stayed in a beautifully furnished deluxe room, with pale grey and dusky pink cushions and a gorgeous marble bathroom (which I made note of for our current bathroom renovations at home!).
I promptly sank onto the bed for a nap and a flip-through of my newest issue of Conde Nast Traveller, while watching the sun go down outside our window. After a particularly crazy week at work, it felt amazing to relax and have a change of scenery.
Just outside our room was this gorgeous "gallery" sitting room - perfect for reading or enjoying a cup of tea. Down Hall is a popular venue for weddings and, during our stay, a bridal party was based in the rooms around ours, making me think that it would also make a terrific place for a girls' holiday or a reunion weekend with friends.
When I woke from my nap, we headed to Down Hall's Eden Spa, known for its luxurious ESPA treatments, which feel amazing after time spent in the steam room and sauna.
John relaxed into a 55-minute deep tissue massage (which he definitely needed after a 5-cities-in-5-days business trip to the US the week before) while I enjoyed a heavenly ESPA "Skin Solutions" facial, targeting my dull, dry and dehydrated winter skin.
I emerged from Eden Spa with a glowing complexion and feeling somehow lighter on my feet, after being treated to some much-needed facial massage.
But before we could tumble into bed, we headed to The Grill Room at Down Hall for a three-course dinner. The restaurant was still full when we sat down at 8:30 (I'd recommend booking ahead!) and everyone looked like they were having a great time. I remember thinking it was so nice to be in such a fun, laid-back atmosphere!
And, oh my goodness, the food did not disappoint. I chose the pigeon to start, followed by the roast chicken, while John had the pork belly for his main course with a side of mash that I couldn't stop picking at - it was so indulgently buttery and creamy.
Each course was beautifully plated and served in generous portions. Although we'd arrived to The Grill Room ravenous, I found myself admitting defeat about two-thirds of the way through my main course, especially as I'd wanted to leave room for dessert, which was caramelized apples with crumble and sherry ice cream.
With more depth and flavor than the typical apple crumble, this dessert was one that I'll remember for a long while.
Although we were just a short distance out of London, we felt miles away at Down Hall, in both mind and spirit. It's so rare to find a place that has it all: great food, beautiful grounds and rooms, terrific service (staff were friendly and helpful at every turn), and a well-equipped spa. But Down Hall does have it all, which made me very, very reluctant to leave.
But after a deliciously filling buffet breakfast, I had to say goodbye to this unbelievably comfortable bed (and to bid farewell to our amazing view too - sob!).
In fact, by the time we got home (45 minutes in a cab, since the earlier trains were delayed due to planned engineering work), I was feeling so relaxed, I fell asleep on our couch within minutes of coming in the door! Sometimes, I find it so hard to properly unwind on the weekends - my mind won't stop racing, I'll wake up at 6 to do laundry or to write - that enforced relaxation is often a good thing.
With its proximity to London and its lovely surrounds, Down Hall is where I'll be going for my next "enforced relaxation" retreat.
Special thanks to Down Hall and Eden Spa for our complimentary stay and treatments! All opinions are my own. Book here. Down Hall, Matching Road, Hatfield Heath, Bishop's Stortford, CM22 7AS.
Friday, February 10, 2017
I caught the train home with John the other day and, because it was so delayed, we got home later than we'd expected and ended up rushing to our dinner reservation at the pub.
"Man," John said, as we pushed past commuters and sped walk to the pub. "Do you remember what it was like to start a new job in your 20s? And how devastating it felt when you were going to be five, no, ten minutes late? And how you'd be like, so apologetic, even if it wasn't your fault - even if the train was late?"
And yeah, I did remember. I remember rushing to my job at Penguin Books when I first moved to London and texting my manager with multiple status updates before apologizing profusely when I arrived late due to a tube station being closed, or the boiler breaking down in our rented flat. Her response was always the same: "Don't worry. We'll see you when you get here."
And yeah, I do think that that's the time in your career when you should stress about those kinds of things. But although our jobs are more demanding today than they were back then, we're also a bit more experienced and senior in our respective roles to not sweat the small stuff as much anymore.
Last year marked 10 years in London for me. I can't quite believe it.
Looking back, there's so much I'm thankful for; so much I'm proud of. But I also have so many regrets.
Here's what I wish I could tell my 23-year-old self:
Be brave. Even when it's hard.
You're doing so well. Just keep going. Take that boat to Greenwich Market. Visit the Wallace Collection on your own next weekend. Apply for that job. Pitch to that magazine. Know your own worth. Go on that friend date, even if you have nothing in common. You'll get through it.
Deciding not to move in with your boyfriend right away is the best decision you'll ever make.
Sure, you'll live with flatmates for a bit longer than you'll want to in the end, but in doing so, you're building the foundation for your future in London - and for your future with John. In finding a gym, a favorite yoga class, an orchestra to perform with, your own friends - you're making this place your home. It's important.
Don't feel guilty for being so far from your family.
This is the life they've always wanted for you. They love you. They're proud of you. There's also this thing called the internet ... and FaceTime will be a thing in a few years' time. You'll see more of your dad than you would at home. Every Sunday. Guilt will just suck the enjoyment out of the best years of your life. Trust me on this one.
You'll be that woman you secretly admire on the tube someday.
You'll have a career. You'll write. You'll have the handbag. You'll wear the heels. You'll own a home. You'll wear the clothes you've always wanted to wear. But for now, just enjoy being where you are. Who you are. Live in the moment. Stop aspiring. Because it'll never feel enough and - trust me - you are good enough just the way you are. Right here, right now.
Buy the dress. Wear the dress.
No matter how short or low cut it is. Because one day, you'll wake up on your 27th birthday, and you will have a paunch, which (spoiler alert) won't be going anywhere. And your legs will never be as cellulite-free as they are right now. So, seriously. BUY. THE. DRESS.
What advice would you give your younger self? I'd love to know.
I wish I could go back in time and give myself a big hug! I'd tell that girl to stop worrying - that she's on the right path.
That she always was.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Every time I think the brunch scene in London couldn't get any better, someone comes along and flips the table over, turning everything upside down. This time, it's three Michelin-starred chef Eneko Atxa's newly launched Basque-style brunch at Eneko at One Aldwych that left me dazzled and awestruck.
Now, I know my reaction might sound ... I don't know, over-the-top, but let me ask you this: when did you last have perfectly seared prime rib for brunch, washed down with a chilled glass of cava? Or scrambled eggs with jamon so delightfully creamy (the eggs) and wonderfully salty (the jamon) that every bite was a pleasure?
Eneko's menu is divided into four Basque culinary styles: street food, eggs, "classics", and grill. And the same thought given to this menu was afforded to the interior decor: as guests are led down into the chamber of the main restaurant via an impressive, copper-toned staircase, each table resembles a painter's palette - and the dishes (similarly shaped), the paint.
We visited on a Saturday morning on a blustery, rainy day. But still, enough natural light trickled down into the atrium where we sat and we eagerly perused the menu while sipping a green juice (for me) and a glass of cava (for John).
But I'm going to skip to the good part and tell you what to order:
- The traditional talo for the deliciously fresh heritage tomatoes, herbs and crispy corn talo, not to mention the swoon-worthy presentation.
- The scrambled eggs with sauteed potato and jamon for its incredibly creamy texture, which tastes incredible when slathered on a crunchy piece of toasted sourdough (this was my favorite!).
- Slow-cooked oxtail on milk bread - two bites for two people to share. These little sliders nearly taste like Chinese char siu bao, with the slightly sweet, pillowy-soft buns and the savoury, rich filling.
And if you really want to push the boat out ...
- The Txuleta: Basque-style prime rib of beef with haystack fried potatoes (think: mandolin-sliced thin fries), served pink. The beef is locally sourced (less than an hour out of London, to be precise) and every bite was one to be savoured ... or washed down with a complimentary glass of Mas Macia Cava Brut, which is included in the brunch menu.
For dessert, head straight for the torrija - a traditional vanilla sponge with caramel crumble ice cream. Better yet, order an espresso to go with it - the bitterness of the coffee complements the sweetness of the milk-soaked sponge beautifully.
Chef Atxa's brunch is a treat: a sensory delight and something to be indulged in, remembered, and celebrated. If you're feeling stuck or undecided, staff are knowledgeable and eager to help guide your tastebuds, depending on your mood. Although John's prime rib looked (and tasted) out-of-this-world, I preferred the shared street food, which seemed in line with the restaurant's vision: to bring traditional, authentic Basque-style cuisine to be shared amongst friends and family around the table.
To me, this newly launched brunch menu at Eneko represents something so much greater than the once-feted minimalism of avocado-on-toast or pancakes and bacon. The food speaks for itself; and the statement is louder than ever.
The brunch menu at Eneko at One Aldwych is available on Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sundays from 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. We were guests of Eneko at One Aldwych. All opinions are my own.
Monday, February 6, 2017
Do you ever feel like you're on autopilot? The other day, I went to brush my teeth at work and realized that I'd brought my toothbrush and a calculator into the bathroom.
Then there was the time I was supposed to meet Udita for dinner after work ... I jumped on the Piccadilly line and went in the wrong direction for about four stops before I noticing I was going the wrong way (the way I'd usually take if I was heading home).
Living and working in London for a decade has made me thrive on autopilot: I fall into routines too easily; walk paths to and from work without thinking, focusing on the next minute, and the one after that, and the one after that.
The mind-readers over at Penguin Random House sent me two books to snap me out of my autopilot mode: Wake Up!: Escaping a Life on Autopilot by Chris Barez-Brown and Ruby Wax's A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.
I spent January dipping in out of these books and my curiosity was piqued! Here's what I thought:
Wake Up! was the book that probably "spoke" to me the most. Structured like a journal (with lines for you to jot down notes and/or to complete particular "experiments", it offers practical suggestions for activities to forcefully break you out of autopilot habits - mundane, everyday actions like making a cup of tea, for example, become an exercise in "staying in the moment" as Barez-Brown instructs you to, "Notice how your arm moves towards the tap."
Each activity is prefaced by an explanation called, "The Insight", which offers the reasoning and logic behind it, followed by short instructions in "The Plan" and finally, a reflective summary in "The Payoff".
Granted, some of the experiments were a little eye-roll inducing (like "Write a song"), but Barez-Brown anticipates this in the preface: "If you skip some, don't feel guilty. If some of them don't work for you, that's only to be expected - there's no way they could all be suited to one individual."
Perhaps the most effective experiment I tried was the suggestion of "no TV for one week". Far too often, our default mode after dinner is channel surfing like zombies on the couch before retiring to bed and waking up to do it all over again the next day. So, for one week, we banned TV (that included short clips on YouTube, but did not include Obama's farewell speech, btw) and ... well, it made me recognize my addiction to television!
So, what did we do instead? Well, John read (he's been on War and Peace for about three years now, no joke) and I did some writing - plus, caught up on chores that are usually saved for the weekends, so it was nice to feel a little more organized. Without the TV on, we talked to each other more about our day, planned holidays, and fell asleep feeling more relaxed than usual.
I didn't get along as well with Ruby Wax's book, Frazzled, but I could see it appealing to others. Divided into chapters ("Mindfulness: Who? What? Why?", "How Our Brains Work and the Science behind Mindfulness", etc.), the book also gives tips on practicing mindfulness, but it didn't seem novel or inspiring to me - more like a fact sheet given out at doctor's offices.
Still, the narrative is quite enjoyable to read: like sitting with a friendly mentor over a cup of tea. Yet, so much of what Wax relates seems so obvious, I had a hard time keeping engaged with the text. Take this passage, for example:
"So with mindfulness, you become aware of awareness. This state is not to be confused with being in the zone, where you're so concentrated on a single activity you have absolutely no awareness of the outside world ... the question is: how do you keep that single-minded focus while staying aware of your inner state? I don't think you can be on both planes simultaneously ... the ideal state would be to be able to be in the zone yet notice, even for a hair's breadth of a second, when it's time to pull out, to give yourself a pause to re-energize your brain."
Yes, we know.
I suppose when I read these types of books on "mindfulness", I'm searching for a new or different perspective to help me shake things up a bit - not repeating what I've already read/heard somewhere else. By the time I reached Wax's suggestions for "normal mindful movement" exercises, I was chomping at the bit for something ... I don't know, more.
Instead, I got: "Head roll. Stand with your feet slightly apart, your spine straight but not rigid ..." Sounds familiar ... what's the next exercise? "Shoulder roll. Bring your attention to both your shoulders."
And I shut the book.
Having said that, I know someone who would suit this book perfectly - and I'm passing it on to her as soon as I finish writing this post.
It just wasn't for me (but it might be for you!).
Have you ever read a book or an article on mindfulness that really had an effect on you? Do you find yourself on autopilot lately? I'd love to know!
Books provided courtesy of Penguin Random House. All opinions are my own.