Sunday, January 3, 2010

Around the World in 60 Days

At the end of an epic trip, there is no place like home

To celebrate an early retirement from a long career in a financial firm, my husband and I last year planned a world trip that included some favorite places and also a handful of exotic new ones. It was to be the last word in passionate travel, this amazing 60 day journey that circumnavigated the globe by air, land and sea. We had stays in several lovely hotels and apartments, a river cruise down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam and a hundred new friends along with this, some memorable plays and concerts in London and New York, parties in five different cities, a bit of shopping indulgence in Strasbourg, very long lunches accompanied by too many bottles of burgundy in Paris, an emergency hospital stay in Delhi, and even a seat next to music superstar Fergie on the 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo.

The trip began, quite appropriately, with a lavish feast in Delhi hosted by an IT mogul for my husband and his eight investor friends from Japan on the first evening of our world trip. The sprawling estate in the outskirts of the city came with its own gigantic Japanese tea house and carp pond, which served as the backdrop for a private Indian cultural show featuring songs and dances from every region for ten guests. After the show, we were led to an adjoining garden the size of a football field, where the mogul and his friends waited and makeshift booths were set up as in a carnival, this time with chefs showcasing the delicious foods of different regions. It was quite an extravagant spectacle for ten visitors.

Next morning, this same mogul trotted out two private jets to fly our group to the state of Bihar, the poorest state in India, for a quick visit to the ruins of Nalanda University (5th century B.C.), one of the oldest universities in the world. The local government had arranged a welcoming committee of hundreds of villagers, who swarmed around each foreign visitor with overwhelming friendliness like followers of a demi-god. My husband counts this experience, along with a stay at the now rather infamous Taj Hotel in Mumbai, as one of the highlights of his trip.

In Mumbai, we were fortunate to meet one of India's famous movie directors at a dinner one evening, and he introduced us to his Bollywood world. Almost every evening in Mumbai after that fateful meeting involved a late night dinner and drinks session at some trendy Mumbai hangout with this famous director and his coterie of (incredibly beautiful) actresses and models. As you can imagine, the nine guys in our group of ten were all eyes and quite happy about this -- for some reason, I was always the one who wanted to go home early.

Fast forward to Paris some weeks later, where we were joined by Jojo and Fides, good friends from Manila, for a Paris holiday centered on a series of unforgettable meals. For our eight days together in an antique-filled apartment along the Avenue George V that had a marvelous view of the Tour Eiffel and an airy kitchen that faced the Four Seasons, we took turns choosing restaurants but also enjoyed visiting the local market on Avenue President Wilson to buy fresh food for cozy dinners at home. Perhaps it’s the quality of the produce, but even a simple roast chicken stuffed with herbs or sole pan-fried in butter tasted like heaven.

One of the best and most enjoyable meals we four had on this particular trip (we enjoyed being together in Paris so much that just over three months later, we four returned to Paris for a longer stay -- and again more great food and wine) was courtesty of Jojo, who very kindly took us to the famous Tour D'Argent restaurant along the Seine River, one of the most romantic restaurants in Paris. I can still remember everything about that fabulous day when we had a lovely table facing the Notre Dame and Jojo generously ordered bottles and bottles of amazing wine. The Tour D'Argent has pretty good food, but it has perhaps the best cellar in all of Europe, with many bottles sleeping in their cave underneath the restaurant for decades, if not centuries -- and in optimal storage conditions. We ate and drank and toasted to every good thing imaginable for over four hours, ending our meal with some lovely cheeses from their cheese wagon, to go with the last of our wines.

Afterwards, we were all very tipsy, but we walked across the Seine via the Ile St Louis and made our way to the Marais for coffee and chocolate.

On Labor Day, we were still in Paris and we four were invited by my Parisian friends – a French architect, his American novelist wife Sarah and their sommelier-daughter Issy who had trained at La Pergola, one of Rome’s top restaurants -- to their charming home in the 7th arrondissement for a very authentic French meal of fresh white asparagus, roast cuts of beef and, again, just too much wine. We also met Peter, the daughter's boyfriend, who is known as a legendary wine expert in France, and this began a great friendship over food and wine. We didn't know then just how respected Peter was in France's wine world until we read about him in various books and websites that mentioned him in the same breath with Robert Parker. Also, a few months later the four of us were back in our favorite Paris again, and over lunch with him at the Michelin two-star Carre des Feuillants, we observed with amusement as the chef came out to greet Peter like royalty and how the sommelier quaked with pressure over his wine recommendations.

After France, we took a train to Basel, Switzerland to board a river boat that would take us down the Rhine from Switzerland to the Netherlands via Germany. It was our first time on a river boat, and it was certainly very different from being on a Silversea cruise ship, although equally enjoyable. For starters, the rooms, which were all the same in size, seemed unthinkably compact to us -- especially at the outset. Amazingly, we found space for our five pieces of luggage and all its contents in this closet of room, and actually lived happily here for over a week. River cruises, of course, don't have the same standard of luxury or amenities as the bigger sea ships -- but they have their own charm all the same. Because it's such a small ship, people are friendlier and the atmosphere is much more congenial. Also, river boats are able to stop anywhere along the way, in the quaintest of towns; and more often than not, the town and all its attractions are just a few steps away from the boat. This isn't the case with large cruise liners that often have to dock several miles from town because of their size, in the middle of nowhere, and then passengers just get bussed to the city center.

Up until this point, I'd been quite good about shopping, conscious of the fact that I should not buy stuff I would have to lug around the world for 60 days. So I only bought things I absolutely couldn't resist like a sari in Agra (which I wore to the Peninsula New Year's Eve party) and a Goyard travel bag in Paris, when Fides and I visited the Goyard shop along Fabourg St Honore. But during our boat's stopover in Strasbourg, I happened to pass by an Hermes shop while taking a morning walk, and they just happened to have a Birkin in my favorite size (30) and in the Hermes color Havanne, which is a mix of coffee and brown. I was taking all of an hour to decide whether to buy it or not, prancing between one mirror and another in the store with the bag in the crook of my elbow, when my husband became impatient waiting and finally said, "For goodness' sake, just buy it!" Well, that was all the push I needed to take out my credit card and leave the store with a large orange box -- a nice souvenir from our cruise.

Later, we spent two weeks in London, where we met up with friends at lunch and walked to the theater for a play or a musical almost every evening. London, of course, is expensive for any kind of entertainment. But with the help of, we were able to enjoy famous musicals, serious theater and experimental plays in the West End, and even a concert at the Royal Albert Hall (my favorite venue) for a fraction of normal prices. One Friday night, though, we hosted a cocktail party at our St. James apartment for friends new and old, including many we had not seen in years. The weather was unusually fine for London, and not a few of the guests stayed way past eleven o’clock having wine and cheese on our rooftop terrace overlooking St. James’ Palace.

Our final stop was New York, home to the best aged beef steaks in the world. Angelique, my best friend from college lives here with her Canadian husband, and our regular New York routine has always involved hosting a drinks party, seeing a play, driving out to the outlets for some retail therapy, and eating as many aged beef steaks as possible. For the latter, we try different restaurants but always seem to gravitate to one: Gallagher’s, an old and very New York restaurant that is Angelique's favorite in the theater district -- a large establishment with cozy interiors and snappy service that doesn’t really make you feel like returning, caricatures on the walls and some great aged rib-eye steaks that are grilled on the outside and all tenderness inside. Ageing beef is a tedious, complicated process rarely successful in Asia, so this is one indulgence I allow myself with gusto in New York. I almost always order a T-bone and bring half home to have with rice and Peter Luger steak sauce for breakfast the next morning.

From New York, we planned to visit Boston and to drive around Maine before returning to Asia. However, one day we woke up with similar feelings after almost two months of living in a suitcase (or rather, in five large suitcases...): Boston could wait till the next trip to the East Coast – whenever that would be. It was finally time to go home.

This originally appeared in the July-Aug 2008 issue of Travelife Magazine.


1 comment:

  1. I have that magazine issue and I have not really read it thoroughly. I should read it soon.