Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Finding Inspiration from Grand Travels and Quiet Corners

A few weeks ago, I went to the Dominican Republic for three days, to look at some gardens for a new book. It was my first time to DR. This is what happened.

The tiny Puerto Plata Airport on the north coast of DR was barely more than a cheery steel band bashing out a welcoming tune, a relaxed chap holding his hand out for $10 for a visa, and a gaggle of grinning Immigration men hanging around the luggage carousel. With no checked luggage, I was off the plane and into sunshine in 8 minutes. (If only Heathrow was like that.) Then it was a two-hour drive down a coastal road so quiet that often the only 'traffic' was a herd of cattle and some carefree chickens. A few hours down the coast, my driver and I finally landed here, at Playa Grande; one of the most beautiful, most extraordinary places I've ever been. It was, quite simply, astonishing. Let me show you.

Conceived by New York designer Celerie Kemble, Playa Grande is a remarkable place -- more of a private estate than a resort -- which is made up of collection of exquisitely designed beach houses that are so sweet, so irresistible, it's as if Tim Burton had gotten together with Karl Lagerfeld to create a Chanel show for the Caribbean. It's also so well hidden that not even the chap next door, whom we asked for directions, knew it was there. I mean, how often do you find a place like that? Where even its neighbours don't know it's there?

Now the architecture here is eye catching, but it's the interiors where the exclamations really begin. Everything at Playa Grande is inspired by gardens and botanical motifs, so lights are shaped like palm leaves, lanterns look like exotic tropical pods, and even the smallest light switches resemble sweet lily-of-the-valley bouquets and new spring buds. Most were made by a local metalworker, and most are done in copper, so that when they age and patina turns to green, they'll look even more like leaves. It's ingenious.

There was also, surprisingly, a lot of timber, which must mean a lot of maintenance given the tropical weather. Even the table 'tassels' were done in timber. Like so:

Another interesting aspect to the estate was that the gardens were allowed to grow wild in some places, particularly over the verandahs, leading to a kind of 'lost in time' feel that didn't feel messy or unkempt but fantastically, memorably romantic.

The second destination was older but no less beautiful; a small hideaway called the Casa Colonial, which was in fact an ode to the grand, colonial hotels of yesteryear. With acres of white louvres and ceiling fans inside and gardens full of tropical palms and foliage outside, it was a dream of a place, and even though I was the only guest there by the end -- hurricane season had emptied the rooms -- it still felt cosy and intimate and elegant and welcoming. 

There were other places on The Reccy List too, but after three days in the Caribbean heat, travelling on remote roads, with few tourists around, and no G&Ts (I never drink while working, and even while not working, but the tropics makes you long for it), I was well and truly ready for something stiff in a tall glass.

So I packed up, took one last look at the beautiful beaches, and boarded the plane back to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the heat was like nothing I've experienced in that city; raw and angry and full of honking horns and irritated people and on-edge traffic. (The queues to get up to Connecticut one weekend were insane!)  But there was one place where calm and civility reigned; The Beekman, an amazing new hotel carved out of an equally amazing historic building in the previously-dull-but-now-buzzing district of FiDi. (Vogue has also moved into this area, as has Cos, so you know it's officially cool.) 

The opening of The Beekman Hotel is one of the year's most anticipated New York hotel unveilings. Its amazing, semi-derelict, nine-story atrium was for years used in fashion shoots and parties (Jay Z had a brill soiree here) until Thomson Hotels swept in and restored it. There are some beautiful images here. The rooms are expensive (and not particularly sexy), but the restaurant by Keith McNally is beautiful, so just go for dinner and enjoy the interior. 

From there, it was off to the cool, green countryside of Sussex in England,  and what a welcome change it was. There were a few garden shoots to look at here too, including one at one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen; a gentle, enveloping embrace of a place that reminded me why I loved gardens so much. And how lucky I am to do the job I do.

Owned by two of the kindest, loveliest, funniest, and most gracious men I've ever met, Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen (for those who don't know them, they are the design talents who bought Nicholas Haslam's legendary store / business in Pimlico and made it into their own, and now do the interior design for dozens of extraordinary estates over the world), this country retreat is the kind you always hope to own one day. It's a perfect blend of country house and garden, where both merge into the other in such a way that you're constantly wandering from room to terrace to greenhouse to courtyard to parterre to pool and back to the library and parlour / sitting room again in a happy daze. Look at the blue-and-white library. And this comforting guest room. 

We had a long and memorable luncheon here on the terrace, which lasted for far too many glasses of wine. Paolo and Philip told a very funny (but still respectful) story of how Princess Diana visited one summer's day, which made me laugh until I had a stitch. As they chatted, I was reminded of how nice some people are. Here were two men who have met just about everyone I idolise (they even stay in Oscar de la Renta's old estate in the Dominican Republic), and who didn't need to spend time with a stranger from Australia (who was weary beyond belief and trying desperately to remember her social skills through the haze of jet lag) and yet they did -- and they made it an afternoon to remember. Courtesy and chivalry are not dead, after all.

There were a few more gardens, such as this dahlia-drenched one in Dorset... 

And this gorgeous castle and its grand farmyard and kitchen garden in Oxfordshire... (I loved the onion drying rack the best). 

But that's enough stories for one blog post, I think

I'm home now for a little while -- and how happy I am too, after three round-the-world trips in three months! There are books to be written, edited, expedited through the production process. But there are also beautiful ones to be ordered for Christmas. (Have you seen all the lovely new titles out there?) As well, the new fashion collections for Spring / Summer 2017 are appearing in the media, and they're heralding a glamorous new year. Just look at Jasper Conran's designs, above and below. Thank goodness glamour is still in fashion.

Until next time, happy travels, happy reading, happy frock shopping, and happy gardening, wherever you are.


  1. Love your update Janelle! I admit the DR sounds a bit scary - I wouldn't drink there either for fear of drink spiking. One always has to be extra cautious when travelling alone in unfamiliar places. Loveee the Sussex estate. Gosh I love England...though only in summer ;) Last trip did the Cotswolds. Heaven on earth. Now been watching a fabulous doco on some English gardens on SBS - 4 part series called British Gardens in Time. Can't wait for your Hanging Rock book - will it be available on Kindle as sounds like more of a novel?!

  2. Lovely to hear from you Anne, thank you for your kind message. To be honest, I don't think DR is that dangerous. It was just that, for one of the places I had to visit, I had to travel to a remote corner where few people go. But I was so glad to see it all. It's such a beautiful part of the world!

    The Cotswolds is glorious too, isn't it? I hope you had a lovely trip to England.

    As for the Joan Lindsay biography (which does sound fiction, but I assure you is very much a 'serious' biography), I'm fairly sure it will be out on Kindle as well as paperback, however I will check with my publisher just to be sure. Next year is gearing up to be a big celebration of Picnic at Hanging Rock; even Fremantle Media has bought the rights to the (original) novel for a new TV series. I will post more details of my biography when it's closer to the publication date.

  3. That's quite a contrast in places--I'm sure your head was spinning a bit, and not just from jet lag. Hope all the writing/editing/expediting goes smoothly for all your projects, and you are able to get some rest and replenishment at home before your next adventures. I do so enjoy reading about your travels, even though I don't always comment.


Thank you for stopping by. It's always lovely hearing from The Library's readers.

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