Hygge in the Hill Country


Glamping in Texas

By Sarah Ivens

Texas, I know, isn’t a state one usually associates with phrases like ‘less is more’ or ‘it’s the simple things that matter.’ Texas, stereotypically, is all about big hair, big boots, and big horns – well, longhorns. After living in the Lone Star state for six months I was getting used to this mindset – everything was sold to me as bigger and better in Texas and, as for a Brit whose upper lip is always stiff and tongue is permanently wedged in my cheek, I kind of admired the brash, bold, bootilicious OTT-ness of it all. But then the nights drew in, the amplified humidity dialed down to a bearable degree, and I longed for the comfy, cozy, low-key creature comforts of my European heritage. I needed to nestle.

The concept of Hygge is having a moment in my motherland right now. This festive season in the UK alone, ten books are being published on the art of it – how to Hygge, when to Hygge and how to out-Hygge your friends. Overwrought, wrung-out, over-loaded and ready to simplify, Brits in their droves are looking for the Hygge experience at home, on their dining table and in their wardrobes. But what is it, you may wonder?


Matilda gets cozy in the tent

A Scandinavian concept meaning to enjoy the ritual of life’s simple pleasures – family, friends, graciousness and good food. It means to create a warm atmosphere – warm hearts talking in the glow of candlelight, hot chocolate mysteriously appearing from a warm stove and placed in your hands. This coziness of the soul was what I was craving, but in Texas? 6,000 miles from my extended family and old friends in London? How could I possibly get my Hygge on here?

Thankfully, tucked away in Spring Branch, a picturesque village in the Hill Country (70 miles from Austin, 30 miles from San Antonio) I found my soul solution: the Texas Bell, a glamping experience designed by Leslie Shurbet, a reiki healer and holistic health coach who – having always enjoyed hosting and cooking for friends and family – decided to erect a designer tent, 20’ diameter and 12’ tall in the center, in her back garden. Set upon a custom deck capturing long distance views across the glorious landscape, the Bell comes with A/C and a  fireplace (plus a fire pit just outside for serious s’mores action), and a full bathroom with an instant hot water shower and linens. Leslie would deliver hot coffee to the tent at sunrise, before guests could traipse at their leisure uphill past her clucking chickens and roaming deer, for a fine breakfast in her kitchen overlooking a fish pond. Wowzers. Why camp when you can glamp? And what could be more Hygge-y?

“The important thing to me when people walk through the door is that they feel like they have arms around them,” Leslie told me over a slice of her warmed apricot jam-stuffed French toast on my first morning at the Bell (and yes, that is as divine as it sounds). “I want everyone to leave here relaxed and unburdened.”


Are those chickens?

Relaxing is difficult when you’re traveling with a five and three year old as I was. My five year old was so excited by the assortment of games offered in the tent, and collecting still-warm eggs from the hen coop, that he was a pleasure to be with but my threenager was having a rough time of it. I was embarrassed but Leslie was having none of it. She enticed me and Matilda into her ‘healing room’, me for some lavender oils that would help with the headache that was fast developing and Matilda for a concoction called ‘Peace.’ “I call this my ‘Toddler Oil’,” Leslie said, as she lightly rubbed it into Matilda’s palms and showed her how to breathe deeply. The air filled with a sweet and delicious aroma, and my dramatic daughter suddenly became a bit more inviting too. Leslie found her a sparkly gold bottle, poured her some oil, and gave it to her a gift. Matilda was thrilled – “a fairy bottle, a real fairy bottle” – and my headache lifted. We returned to the Bell for a nap as rain lashed down in a rhythmic pitter-patter around the Bell, the glow from the fire warming our toes as we wrapped up under piles of woolen blankets and embroidered throws. We all regrouped for a family supper on the deck, before tucking in for the night at 8pm. Fresh country air does that to you. No television? No Netflix? No problem.

Time does stand still at the Texas Bell. And don’t we all need that occasionally? The two cities that sit either side of her are bustling metropolises, filled to brimming with great dining choices, unique entertainment experiences and shopping malls. But here, just over an hour from the hip hub that is Austin and half an hour from the history mecca that is San Antonio, I found my Hygge. I already can’t wait to get back there – just to lie down and let the wind blow around me, while Leslie’s hospitality holds me tight.

The Texas Bell accommodates up to 4 people. Weekend price $150 per night for the entire tent, included breakfast.




Retreating to Bali: The Floating Leaf Hotel

The Floating Leaf Hotel, Bali

The Floating Leaf Hotel, Bali

This just in from Asia. The proprietors of a new Balinese property recently reached out to us about an interesting little hotel in Bali called The Bali Floating Leaf Hotel. Described as a “peaceful retreat in a lush oasis in which to nourish, recharge and heal your mind, body and spirit, holistically,” they’ve combined ancient Balinese wisdom with modern convenience and luxury to offer a safe place for relaxation, personal enrichment and wellness.  If you’re looking for a true retreat, they’ve got just the sort of amenities you need; an open air yoga center with views of the Indian Ocean and Mount Agung Volcano, Bali arts and culture, photography, surfing, and an onsite Balinese spa.

A Room at the Floating Leaf

A Room at the Floating Leaf

Guests can look forward to an ultimate relaxation pool complete with waterfalls, hidden meditation areas and more. The grounds also feature an organic permaculture garden (hurrah!), as well as a large kitchen where their private chef will prepare delectable healthy meals, juices, and snacks with locally grown organic nutrient-rich food. And to top it off, world-class surf is steps away!

The Yoga Studio!

The Yoga Studio!

Floating Leaf Eco-Resort is rooted in a deep commitment to Bali’s environment; it’s people, and sustainable tourism so their eco-tourism efforts are aimed at conserving precious natural resources and diverting waste from landfills. They also strive to involve the community in deciding exactly which philanthropic efforts will be of most help and interest to them. Other projects include building water purification facilities, playgrounds, greenhouses and subsidizing local farmers so they can grow nutrient rich foods using traditional and organic methods. As they say in Bali, “Bagus!”

Currently offering soft launch opening prices for individuals and retreats, prices are are as low as $150 a night and some retreats for approximately $1000 for a week-long package.


A Thanksgiving Deal at one of Costa Rica’s Finest

The Parador Pool... not too shabby!

The Parador Pool… not too shabby!

Looking for something adventurous to do over Turkey Day? Parador Resort & Spa’s Stress-Free Thanksgiving Trip – Turkey Included, just might be your jam. Located on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica in Punta Quepos, this is the perfect retreat for guests who are sick of Aunt Betty’s dry stuffing and want to spend the holiday in a luxurious resort with a backdrop full of howler monkeys, birds, and sloths (and no, we’re not talking about your husband). With a privileged location above the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by 12 acres of tropical rainforest, Parador Resort & Spa believes it is duty-bound to maintain, preserve and improve Costa Rica’s abundant natural assets.

A Parador Room

A Parador Room

The resort institutes property-wide recycling, water and energy conservation, composting and biodegradable soaps. Manuel Antonio National Park, a world-famous nature and wildlife preserve, sits just next door, offering adventures by land and sea. Because of its commitment to providing excellent service and high quality standards, Parador Resort & Spa was named “Mexico & Central America’s Leading Hotel 2011”, “Costa Rica’s Leading Hotel 2011” and “Costa Rica’s Leading Resort 2011” by World Travel Awards, the travel industry awards program that has been described by the Wall Street Journal as the “Oscars of the Travel Industry.” World Travel Awards was launched in 1993 to acknowledge and recognize excellence in the world’s travel and tourism industry. This is the sixth consecutive year that the resort has won this important recognition. In 2012, Parador Resort & Spa received Platinum Level “Leader in Sustainable Tourism” Adrian Award from HSMAI and National Geographic Traveler.  The resort was also recognized by TripAdvisor as one of the “Top 25 Luxury Hotels in Central America” in 2012.

Package includes:

·         4 nights stay in Tropical Room category

·         Daily buffet breakfast

·         A complete Thanksgiving dinner including a turkey

·         Two 50-minutes massage one for each

·         Welcome Dinner

·         15% off certificate for Pacifica Spa

·         Complimentary WiFi

Package is priced at $999.00 USD including taxes and service charges.


Conrad New York’s Grand Opening

Conrad Rooftop Bar

Conrad Rooftop Bar

Did you know that on March 19th, The Conrad New York opened it’s doors? Our friend, Mark Ricci, just informed us that, located in the heart of lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City (102 North End Avenue) and rising 16 stories along the Hudson River waterfront, this almost 500 room all-suite luxury hotel is also the very first New York address from Conrad Hotels & Resorts (global luxury brand of Hilton Worldwide). We have to say, with magnificent views of the Hudson River, this exceptional hotel is adjacent to Hudson River Park, and in close proximity to many of the city’s important and historic landmarks and prominent neighborhoods, including TriBeCa and SoHo. Rooms average over 450 square feet (that’s probably bigger than my apartment!), each outfitted with integrated technology and flat-screen TVs, of course.

The artist roster is also impressive. Sol LeWitt, Pat Steir, Elizabeth Peyton, Sara Sosnowy, Mary Heilmann and many more have lent their talent in mediums ranging from painting, lithography, silkscreen and aquatint to woodcut, intaglio, heliograph, etching and mixed media. All works have been documented in coffee table books through a partnership with the Public Art Fund and are available for perusal in suites and for purchase in the atrium gift shop.

Conrad New York Standard Room

Conrad New York Standard Room

The hotel’s dramatic atrium is anchored by Loopy Doopy Blue and Purple 1999, an abstract work by conceptualist painter Sol LeWitt. It’s a work that The New York Times described as “invigorating eye-candy; the lines and shapes of color twist, dance, and battle playfully for dominance.” This is the most dramatic piece of artwork at the hotel, towering 13 stories high and custom designed for the space. A bit of fun around Loopy Doopy: It was painted by 50 peoples, required more than 100 gallons of paint, and took 3,000 hours to complete. That’s why I call artistic stamina. Surrounding the atrium is Yellow Flag and Mennige (Polygon) by Imi Knoebel, an internationally renowned German artist. It’s vivid burst of red cartwheeling across the wall blends minimalist austerity with high-spirited exuberance  – suggesting a collection of rectangular forms in motion.

The hotel also features a striking rooftop bar (affectionately called “Loopy Doopy” which pays tribute to the Sol LeWitt painting), and stellar views of New York Harbor, Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, as well as the Ken Smith-designed “green roof.” And, for corporate meeting and convention planners looking for a great corporate retreat that still in Manhattan, there’s 30,000 square feet of adaptable meeting space, including the 6,200 square-foot Gallery Ballroom. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events will be the exclusive food and beverage partner of the hotel’s onsite conference and event facilities and… what else? Oh yeah… Conrad New York is pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Duh.

Conrad New York's Green Roof

Conrad New York's Green Roof

For grub? Conrad New York’s signature restaurant, Atrio, serves contemporary Mediterranean cuisine prepared in an open kitchen with a wood-stone oven. What’s not to like? Atrio has a full bar featuring wines from around the world and Executive Chef Anthony Zamora, who recently came from Four Seasons Hotel New York to inspire with dishes from his Italian and Lebanese roots using farm fresh ingredients. 

Opening rates start from $249.00


A Chic Pop Up Caribbean Cabana Camp? You betcha.

A Pop Up Cabana Camp!

Design Hotels strikes again! Papaya Playa, a Design Hotels Project, has developed a genius idea. For several months, they’ve been working with a small team on realizing an idea: a temporary “pop up” camp with 99 rustic cabanas on a 900 meter stretch of pristine Caribbean coastline in Tulum, Mexico!

Taking inspiration from the pop-up phenomenon happening around the world in the form of retail, art and gastronomy, they cleverly felt that now was the time to translate it into hospitality. So from December 6, 2011 – May 5, 2012, the Papaya Playa Project welcomes adventure seekers and creative souls to join them in shaping a temporary, and they think, extraordinary environment.

Simply. Chic.

Their idea was to create a transitory, yet culturally-rooted experienceCapitalizing on the natural environment and multicultural character of Tulum, they’ve put together an international team of real visionaries, each enriching the experience with their own food, music, design or wellness concept. They’ve got KaterHolzig of Berlin’s Bar 25 fame, 42°Raw, Mampapacola, as well as a spa incorporating Mayan shamanism. A playful communal concept is at the fore here – whether it’s spontaneous creativity at the amphitheater, beach jam sessions or inviting innovative companies to explore the ultimate green workspace.

The project may come as a surprise for those who associate Design Hotels™ with bold architecture and striking design. Fear not, that will continue to hold true, yet equally important are the intangible qualities – like the sense of community, connection and belonging, as well as the personality and vision – which make each hotel so one-of-a-kind. With this project they’re peeling off a few layers to expose the heart and soul of great hospitality experiences. Their ultimate goal?

To give guests a deeper understanding of what Design Hotels™ stands for, and why their Made by Originals core message rings true in so many shapes, places and forms.


Casa de la Flora on Thailand’s Khao Lak

Casa de la Flora

Take me to Casa de la Flora! For a beach holiday among lush vegetation in private unspoiled surroundings, Casa de la Flora is one of Design Hotel’s finest. With 36 glass-front villas to the azure waters of the Andaman Sea, it’s located on Thailand’s Khao Lak, and all eco villas feature private pools and secluded patios.

Their sexier than thou pool bar

There’s also the resort’s amazing pool bar (see above) with double loungers and La Arunya restaurant, which offers excellent Thai and international cuisine. Great weather, beach yoga, island hopping from one sun-kissed beach to another using the resort’s private yacht (a romantic dinner onboard is a must for couples), and exploring the lush jungles along Khao Lak’s wild rivers…

What more do you really need?


Part II: The Maine Event

Saar Harel - Contributor/Husband Extraordinaire

Part II of Saar Harel’s three part East Coast Road Trip series takes us from New York City to the great state of Maine where he’s sampling some of the best seafood shacks, lobster rolls, and savory clam chowders along the way. Romantic B&B’s, seaside inns, fireplaces, and a metallic blue 2012 Porsche Cayenne Hybrid… what more does a fun, married couple need?

Before we left Kennebunkport to head further up the Maine coast, we had to stop to eat at The Clam Shack, a local favorite. Great for fried clams, they were also featured on the Travel Channel’s show, Food Wars, last year, winning for their Lobster Roll (which is no frills, but very fresh). We didn’t have a chance to try Nunan’s Lobster Hut in Cape Porpoise, but that, too, came recommended as another old school lobster house, only open for dinner and seasonal.

The Clam Shack's Lobster Roll

Back on the road, we headed further north. As an avid outdoorsman, we decided to take a break and stretch our legs to check out the “Costco of the Outdoorsman World” – Cabela’s. Now, for most people in the world, an outdoor/camping store is around the size of 3-4 rooms. Cabela’s, like any red-blooded American, believes that bigger is MUCH better. From the huge elk statue at the entrance to the multiple displays of old trucks, deer, lion, gazelle, and anything else you can legally hunt, you have to pay attention and try keep your mouth closed. It’s a veritable cornucopia of taxidermy bliss.

Cabela's Gun's 'n Deer Heads

After seeing gun racks with well more than two thousand guns, my wife whipped out her camera to take photos (no doubt struck by the image of so many guns in one place). Then, we headed straight for target practice where we spent 30 minutes shooting at targets with a laser shotgun as we watched them pretend to be shot. The locals were amused. I purchased a gallon of the buck scent to bring back to my friend (since he needs all the help he can get with the young does).

Layla at the Shootin' Range

Back on the road and two quick hours later, we reached the Inn by the Seaa romantic luxury seaside resort in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. The name itself is a great description because, well… it’s an inn and it’s by the sea. It’s exactly what you want it to be – comfortable and cozy with tasteful modern rooms and fireplaces set in rustic “historic” seaside architecture. All of this, of course, comes with sweeping views of Maine’s rugged coastline. Hungry from the drive, we dropped our bags before rushing off again to another seafood shack.

Inn by the Sea - Cape Elizabeth, Maine

The Lobster Shack was a bit touristy, but with a lovely view of the sea, a lighthouse, and their own foghorn to warn ships. I guess not all ships have Porsche GPS. I had the illustrious clam bellies and Layla had the crab roll. Although we weren’t blown away (and we were already getting tired of fried seafood and bread rolls), we had to try the local delicacies, of course.

The Lobster Shack - Cape Elizabeth, Maine

The lobster is said to be some of the best in the area and I don’t doubt that it is, but you can’t go wrong with lobster anywhere in Maine. That all said, the view was certainly worth it as you can grab your food and sit inside this cute little rustic area or outside on park bench tables overlooking the Cape.

The Lobster Shack - Interior

As the weather was getting colder we headed back to the Inn and headed straight for the paths. The luck of the draw is that the resort is surrounded by two national parks, so, instead of paying Smokey the Park Ranger for parking, you can just walk into the parks after a few hours of amazing Atlantic scenery mixed with changing weather. Alas… after a few hours of walking along Cape Elizabeth’s craggy coast, hunger again reared its head. So, after enjoying a refreshing rainforest shower – which drenches you as it revives you – we headed over to the Cayenne which was parked at the entrance. Yes, the Inn by the Sea has been awarded a Silver LEED certification and part of that means there’s special parking for hybrid or eco-friendly autos at the entrance.

The Inn by the Sea's Beautiful Garden Flowers

They’re the only hotel in Maine to heat with biofuel, waste food is sent to a local pig farm, they use high efficiency CFLs, recycled rubber makes up the cardio room floor, all paint is low VOC, wall coverings are made of recycled sheet rock, they have recycled key cards, and… they safeguard the area by planting different flowers and plants like milkweed for the Monarch butterfly. They also have Green Weddings with sustainable choices for gifts and organic menu options. Pretty impressive. And, for all of you pet lovers… Fido’s invited too – complete with a special doggy menu of goodies like Doggy Gumbo with Angus beef trips, steamed rice and dog biscuits or Meat “Roaff”.

HoneyMaker Mead Wine - For the Homo Sapiens

For a pre-dusk drink, I recommend trying their Maine HoneyMaker Meads. Mead is honey wine and this one right here is made with 100% Maine wildflower honey. Flavors like Cranberry, Blueberry, or Apple Cyser aren’t as sweet as they sound and it’s delicious, different, and smooth on the palate.

David's 388 - South Portland, Maine

Next up, we punched the address of David’s 388 into the Porsche Cayenne’s trusty GPS and were on our way. David’s is another restaurant you would never find if you didn’t know who to ask. We were lucky that my girl has the gift of gab because she’s always able to find the sweet spots. This little gem in the city of South Portland was fantastic. The décor was modern, the live band the perfect touch, the lighting ideal, the service both friendly and superb, and, although the place was full, the crowd was not nearly as noisy as New Yorkers – who often seem like they’re yelling at each other instead of talking. David’s 388 is your comfortable, casual neighborhood nook where diners can enjoy a range of bold flavors in an intimate space. The menu changes frequently and is separated into five categories: salads, starters, mains, neighborhood classics and desserts.

Ricotta Stuffed Shrimp

The food was incredibly good and, although the head chef was off at an event for one of his kids, judging from the apprentice’s cooking, the master is truly an expert. To start, we had a selection of delicacies. Blackened shrimp with honey Cajun sauce, shrimp stuffed with ricotta and wrapped in prosciutto (seen above), Pacific Rim tuna tartar with coconut chili truffle oil and sweet potato pommes goufret (our favorite) and crispy vegetable pot stickers with grilled Asian marinated beef in Peking sauce (okay, maybe tied with this). As a salad, the Peeky Toe crab and avocado salad with fresh mozzarella and tomato and avocado vinaigrette is stellar. For our main courses, we sampled the pork tenderloin with caramelized onion and grilled apple barbeque, mashed potato and crispy onions – something that my wife normally isn’t fond of, but, in this case, was all over. Slurp, slurp.

Peeky Toe Crab Salad

We also tried the beef tenderloin wrapped in double smoked bacon and, let’s just say, it’s a wonder they didn’t have to roll us out of there. It’s also a wonder we had room for dessert… a chocolate brownie napoleon with vanilla ice cream and, my wife’s favorite part, rum flambéed bananas. The plates were practically licked clean. And, of course, for the conclusion?

Mine! All mine!

A flight of three Taylor-Flagate Tawny Port!

Stay tuned for Part III of Saar Harel’s drive up the Maine coast in the brand new 2012 Porsche Cayenne. He’ll be weighing in on Boston’s Clam Chowder, as well as a few fine dining options courtesy of the Morgans Hotel Group.