Hipster Holiday in Brooklyn

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 by Chris


Brooklyn Bridge

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t been to New York City since the mid-1990s. I caught up with the place over Labour Day weekend when my man and I headed to his “spiritual home,” Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


In case you’re not up on such things, Brooklyn is widely regarded as the hipster capital of the world. Think Toronto’s Queen Street West to the power of five.


What’s a hipster? This huckster at the Williamsburg Flea checks most of the boxes (beard/haircut/glasses) although his lack of tattoos is deeply suspicious. Hipsters wear their tats in the MOST conspicuous places, not the least.


The Williamsburg Flea has the requisite hipster amenities: live DJ, amazing food and booze and a super-cool crowd. The great view across the East River to Manhattan and the Empire State Building is a bonus. We spent a superb, sunny Sunday morning at the flea admiring pieces like the gargantuan 1970s sectional, below (asking price, $1,100 USD).

1970s blue velveteen sofa at Williamsburg Flea

When I spotted the large ceramic lamp, below, I knew it was coming home with me even before I dickered the seller down to $25. The shade was a leftover gathering dust in my storage locker.

Vintage ceramic lamp from Williamsburg Flea

We wandered into furniture shops selling new and vintage wares but like everything else in New York, the prices were mostly out of reach. Quality and provenance cost money no matter where you are and Williamsburg is no exception.

Allswell in Brooklyn

Fortunately, it’s free to meander and Brooklyn has enough great street art, open bars and charming cafés to keep it interesting. The streets really come alive in the evening as the hordes head out for dinner. As my mate observed, nearly everyone looks like a local but you’re constantly hearing foreign languages – unlike Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, in Brooklyn, the tourists blend.


On Saturday we headed into Manhattan for an early stroll on the fabulous High Line, a formerly abandoned railway trestle that’s been converted into a 2.3 km park. The walk wends its way through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea from Gansevoort Street all the way up to West 34th Street.

Modern architecture along New York's High Line

The High Line attracts 5 million visitors per year and it gets mighty crowded which is why we decided on a morning visit. The views from the walkway are incredible and the path is lined with spectacular modern architecture, much of it residential. What impressed me so much about the High Line was the hardscape which has been beautifully designed.

High Line hardscape

After an hour-plus strolling we made our way back to the southern end where architect Renzo Piano’s new Whitney Museum of American Art, below, beckoned us on a tour of American modern art since 1900.

Whitney Museum

The current exhibition, America is Hard to See, is on until September 27. It’s an excellent survey of U.S. modern art featuring more than 600 works culled from the museum’s permanent collection. The show gave my man and I lots to talk about but we were just as blown away by the building’s expansive terraces with their spellbinding city and river views.

View of NYC from the Whitney Museum

At the Whitney, even the elevators are canvases: the Museum commissioned artist Richard Artschwager to decorate four lifts with a work he called Six in Four. It was Artschwager’s last major project before his death in 2013.

Whitney Museum elevator by artist Richard Artschwager

Between the High Line and the Whitney we squeezed in an outrageous brunch at the glorious Santina, a sunny, Amalfi-coast-inspired resto that drew us inside with its sublime Murano light fixtures fashioned after flowers.

Murano flower light fixtures at Santina

The room is anchored by a large Julian Schnabel plate painting depicting an island in the Mediterranean. I was just as smitten by the bathroom with its Dorothy Draper-style cabinet and effusive Majolica tiles. Never mind that brunch for two without drinks set us back nearly $100 CAD. I was in too good a mood after the High Line to worry about pinching pennies.

Interior shots of Santina restuarant, NYC

Otherwise our weekend was spent walking, shopping, and eating and drinking. Eating and drinking well for not that much money, brunch aside. Yes, the exchange rate is killing and it hurts most on accommodation where you really feel it.

There’s something almost otherworldly about New York City, that magical combination of modern architecture and 19th century authenticity. You never, ever doubt that you’re in one of the world’s great cities, possibly the greatest. I guarantee it won’t be 20 years before I get back there. In fact, there’s a Picasso sculpture exhibit that just opened at the MOMA that’s already on my radar. Stay tuned.

Empire State Building from the High Line

Photos by iPhone 6 (except Whitney Museum exterior courtesy Whitney Museum)

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Palm Springs Comes to Muskoka

Monday, June 29, 2015 by Chris



Oakville, ON-based interior decorators Margo Haines and Jill Finney have teamed up to take on the vintage furniture and accessories market and they’re kick-starting their empire with a pop up shop in Muskoka beginning Canada Day (Wednesday) and continuing through the weekend.


Haines grew up vacationing in Palm Springs and her design practice is heavily influenced by desert modernism. She takes cues from the 1970’s and from designers like Jonathan Adler, Tory Burch and Kelly Wearstler. Finney is the “uber efficient, fast-talking sales person. Together we make a great team,” says Finney, below right.


“In January we decided to give ourselves a deadline and we chose July in Muskoka. Some of the shops there are beautiful but it’s all blue and white and grey, and it’s what everyone else has. The whole Margo mentality is not taking an interior too seriously, you have to add those character pieces that give a space energy and style, that make it a happy space.”

“Now that all the pieces are coming back from the upholsterer and the painter and the custom lamp shades, it’s blowing our minds. We’re confident it’s going to be spectacular visually, now we just need to connect with the right clientele.”


The ladies aren’t interested in doing a full-time retail store so they’ll be organizing pop-up shops in well-heeled locations like Muskoka, Collingwood and this fall they’re planning one for Oakville/Burlington.


“We’re bringing a lot of Muskoka-appropriate furnishings for this week’s sale,” says Finney. “This will be more cottagey, bamboo and wicker in crazy colours with Sunbrella fabrics, perfect for the sunroom.”

bambooWickerIf you’re in Ontario cottage country this week/end look for the Margo Inc. tent at the SWS Marina in Port Carling (112 Juddhaven Road). Happy Canada Day!

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Southeast Asia: It’s a Wrap

Monday, April 27, 2015 by Chris



This may be as close as I ever get to Hong Kong but by golly it felt cool to be sitting in the departure lounge Thursday afternoon knowing I was in HONG freaking KONG. Until recently, the script of my life didn’t contain any scenes set in the Far East, let alone shots of me screaming through Hanoi and Saigon on the back of a motorbike, or sweeping dew from a deck chair at 5:30 AM as the sun snuck up on Halong Bay.


Thanks to Vietnam’s ludicrously low airfares I can now say I’ve been a jet setter. I took five flights in three weeks, not including the trans-Pacific trips to and from Toronto. It was pretty great to be on the move jumping from country to country, from city to island, from south to north and back again. I barely scratched the surface of Vietnam but I feel like I’ve seen it, seen a lot of it.


And now here I am at 3:44 in the morning, trying without success to get back on schedule after living on the opposite side of the clock for the better part of a month. Not even my best friend had a tear to spare: “Poor baby,” she texted. “I feel no sympathy given the amazing trip you had.”

Phu Quoc beach at dawn

And it was an amazing trip. These are a few of the shots I wasn’t able to squeeze into other posts; memories come flooding back when I see them again. There are lots of reasons people opt not to travel alone and I think one of them is because they want someone to share it all with. Fortunately, I have you, dear readers, and it’s been a joy to share my travels with you even though my globetrotting has nothing whatsoever to do with real Canadians decorating.

In Saigon I was touring “antique street” in search of a post but what really charmed me was the shopkeepers out front playing a board game, killing time on a slow afternoon. From inside the shops I could hear the clink, clink, clink of dice spinning in a bowl and the cheers and guffaws of a game in progress.


I bought nothing because I had no way of knowing whether things were legitimate antiques or replicas that were made yesterday. Certainly haggling over price is a given but I had no frame of reference for what the smalls were really worth. And smalls were all I could possibly take home with me. If you travel to Saigon and want a Buddha head or a celadon vase, Duong Le Cong Kieu is the street you want to find.


My souvenirs were clothes. Everyone buys a t-shirt when they’re abroad and I could not resist the cheeky humour of the iPho shirt below. The trouble was finding one that fit me. The Vietnamese are small people and their sizings reflect this. At the first shop where I tried to buy the shirt the sizes only went to XXL and even that wasn’t big enough. Eventually I found an XXXL but can you imagine? I wear a 42 jacket and have a size 16 neck and this constitutes triple X?


I also bought an amazing bike helmet for a fraction of what it would cost here at home and some smart summer sandals for a little more than $10 USD each. And then there was my custom clothes odyssey. In the pic below I’m being fitted for a light wool blazer, which sadly went off the rails. When I went to pick it up, the jacket was a mess, the sleeves were puckered and the sides did not hang flat. The tailor worked and worked to make it right but in the end I was disappointed. I agreed to take the flawed jacket for half price, $90 USD, and will see if my Toronto tailor can do anything with it. Next time I’ll buy in Hoi An.


I did strike gold, however, with my custom linen pants. I’m a big fan of summer linen and I badly needed some new trousers for work this season. At a linen specialty shop I had three pairs made from their finest quality fabric. The pants are gorgeous, they fit like a glove and cost a little less than $50 USD each, a fraction of what I would pay at home and I’d never find the same quality. What’s more, the tailor assured me they would keep my measurements on hand and I could order subsequent pairs by email if I ever felt the need.


The Vietnamese are uncommonly fond of Chihuahua dogs and I saw one get his ass kicked by the rooster above who felt it necessary to remind the pooch who was boss. My camera, like the Chihuahua, was too slow, but the rooster was ready for his close up.

In Hanoi I stayed at the very good Art Trendy Hotel in the old quarter, an urban setting to be sure, yet still I was awakened each morning at 5 am by the crowing of cocks followed by the sounds of motorbikes and the pho shop across the street setting up for the morning rush. I’m not complaining, I found the experience to be part of the charm of the place, so old world and yet so new all at once.

In Vietnam I was constantly amazed by the jumble of tangled cables and wires adorning virtually every street pole (see below). There’s a popular t-shirt with a silhouette of a similar image and the slogan, “Vietnam Telecom.” I pity the cable guys in Hanoi and Saigon, honestly, can you imagine trying to make sense of it?


I was also struck by how deeply the Vietnamese are attached to their iconic, conical hats, which keep the hot sun off their faces and necks. It’s not some quaint tradition, you see them in the fields and in the streets no matter where you go in Vietnam.


On a sadder note, I have to acknowledge the desecration that has befallen most of the ancient temples in Angkor. The sculpture below greets you at the gate of the amazing Angkor Thom, also known as The Bayon. The sculpture depicts a Hindu myth, the churning of the sea of milk, but most of the demons and gods working together have lost their heads to treasure hunters.

headless stone statues

Inside the temples, it’s the same story, over and over and over again. My guide assured us that the robbers would receive the worst of black marks on their karmic records but the damage is done and it’s very sad to see.


At least the 200 towering heads of the Buddhas of Bayon are mostly intact, an advantage of their being too enormous to steal. The elements are taking a toll on some of them but I’m certain they’ll survive for many, many generations to come.


And I’m going to leave you with this shot of an alter in front of a shop in Hoi An. Virtually every retailer in this city of retailers ends the work day by burning incense alongside offerings of fruits and flowers. It’s a charming custom and the night air is pungent with sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.


I give thanks of my own for the sensory memories I accumulated in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was the trip of a lifetime and it inspired me to adjust my personal priorities, to travel more, to seek out adventure, to suck as much juice out of this life as I possibly can. Toronto is a wonderful city but it’s just one tiny corner of a very big planet. I’ve got some catching up to do.

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Magical Hoi An Has It All

Monday, April 20, 2015 by Chris



The small city of Hoi An (population 120,000), on the central coast of Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stuffed with architecturally significant buildings, the vast majority dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. Clay-tiled roofs, temples and snug alleyways dominate the old town, which has more recently been taken over by shops and restaurants, virtually all of them strung with silk lanterns.


But if lanterns are the defining motif, shopping is the dominant activity. Hoi An is known for its tailors with shop after shop after shop competing to custom fit you with a new ensemble.


Custom suits and frocks are turned around in as little as 24 hours although two or three days is more typical. And the custom trade is by no means limited to clothing; stunning shoes and bags also compete to empty your wallet. Which is not to suggest that the prices are high, on the contrary, they are shockingly low by North American standards.


I did succumb to the lure of the custom fit although I had my blazer and pants made in Saigon in order to give the tailor lots of time to turn the job around (more on this later).

The eating in Hoi An is also superb with some nationally recognized chefs and what world-beating foodie Anthony Bourdain swears is Vietnam’s best banh mi sandwich at Bahn Mi Phuong. In Halong Bay my fellow traveler, Luke, recommended the No. 9 with pork, pate, veggies and pickled slaw, so that’s what I had. Twice! The best part? It cost just under $1 USD.


And if great shopping and eating aren’t enough, Hoi An also boasts spectacular beaches just a few kilometers out of town, an easy bike ride along a road less-traveled. I got sunburned to a crisp at gorgeous An Bang Beach, below, even though I barely strayed from the shade of my beach umbrella. I stayed at the beach as long as I did because the town was roasting, 37 Celsius and humid as stink: An Bang was breezy and about 10 degrees cooler, in short, it was heaven.


The floating baskets above harken back to a time when boats were taxed to the hilt so the Vietnamese built baskets big enough to let them harvest the sea and beat the taxman.


Hoi An is at its best in the evening when the streets throng, especially on weekends when a lively night market takes over the riverside. Tourists buy candles to float upon the water, a nod to the town’s monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival when only lanterns and candles are permitted to augment the moonlight (2015 festival dates).


Vietnam was governed by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years and Hoi An’s architecture reflects that legacy. Chinese lattice and embellishments give the town an incredibly exotic flavour; the place is steeped in it.


I’d never heard of Hoi An before coming to Vietnam but nearly everyone I spoke to here raved about it. Now I know why. If you’re planning a trip to the region, don’t miss it!


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Natural Wonder of Halong Bay

Saturday, April 18, 2015 by Chris



Vietnam’s Halong Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it did not disappoint. Located off the northeast coast, the bay boasts more than 2,000 limestone pillars and islands rising sharply out of the Gulf of Tonkin.


I cruised Halong Bay for two and a half days — I shot it at dawn, I shot it at dusk, I shot it at the height of the day, and still I could not take a photo that captured the majesty and scale of the place.


Halong means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese and the rocks and islets do look vaguely like dragon’s backs emerging from the water. The bay was one of the reasons I decided to come to Vietnam; I wanted to see the grandeur for myself and it was a bit surreal to actually be there after seeing so many photos of the place, to be gazing across the emerald waters from the rooftop deck of a chartered boat.


Hanoi is the main jumping off point for Halong Bay, which is a three-hour bus trip from the city. After some online research I booked a two-night cruise with the well-reviewed Kangaroo Cafe Tours. We were six in total: a German couple in their late 50s, two young, female friends from Dubai (Kristen from Miami, and Natalie from the UK), and a young English chap named Luke. The Germans were polite but mostly kept to themselves while the rest of us became fast friends.


A cycling trip on Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the gulf, was just one of the activities we enjoyed as part of our Halong tour. There was also daily swimming, a sunset kayaking paddle and a trip through Vietnam’s second largest cave, Hang Sung Sot.


The cave was enormous although its authenticity was dulled somewhat by flagstone paths, stone steps and artificial lighting. Better than a broken neck, I suppose.


And the kayaking was fun, too, although there were no water level grottos or rock arches to paddle through in that particular part of the bay.


The best activity by far was our bike ride through the forest on Cat Ba Island to a tiny, lowland village in the interior. It was so great to be off the boat and moving through the air on a hot summer day. The “jungle” was lush and dense all around us with a staccato whine of insects that Kristen compared to a horror movie soundtrack.


After 15 or 20 minutes the bush opened into a fertile valley carpeted with lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens. The village is home to maybe 200 souls and our guide, Frank, noted that the people are largely self sufficient, raising enough animals, fruits and vegetables to sustain themselves. The small homes mostly consisted of a single, sparsely furnished room but in many cases we saw TVs blaring and noted several satellite dishes.


Back on the boat we headed for Cat Ba Town and one last night before setting sail for the mainland. This is the wind down portion of my trip with one more stop in the seaside town of Hoi An before a last hurrah in Saigon. Halong Bay was a breathtaking climax to a trip that’s been loaded with highlights.


Adventures aside, we found time to sun ourselves and relax as the islands swept slowly past our prow. Special thanks to my trip mates who made Halong Bay such an enjoyable part of my journey. Together we climbed to the lookout atop the island below where we discovered camaraderie as good as the view. Thanks Natalie, Kristen and Luke, I hope the rest of your travels were safe and fulfilling.



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