ALWAYS, ACAPULCO

ALWAYS, ACAPULCO

A favorite destination of the rich and famous, the Jet Set, was always Acapulco. Just a quick hop from Texas, it offered an oasis of an exotic stay for those who sought the new and different. Join our vintage travel expert Lori Duran, as she whisks us back to the glory days of the Latin destination of many prominent Texans.

STAR QUALITY

Glamorous Acapulco has, without exception, always been attractive, as not only Mexico’s oldest seaside resort but also because of its ties to the Jet Set of yesteryear. It was famous for its breath-taking topography, nearly flawless year-round weather, and its horseshoe-shaped bay with azure waters. So much so, that by the middle of the last century it was a regular destination for celebrities and the wealthy. It was also a dream vacation for many others. Hollywood immortalized it with the Elvis Presley 1963 film, Fun in Acapulco, 1965s potboiler Love Has Many Faces starring Lana Turner, and License To Kill, the 1989 James Bond caper. Besides the beautiful natural attractions the region offered, visitors could look forward to La Quebrada cliff divers, luxury hotels, cosmopolitan discotheques and swanky parties.

By the middle of the last century it was a regular destination for celebrities and the wealthy. It was also a dream vacation for many others.

Coincidentally, Acapulco helped introduce the Margarita cocktail, the Acapulco Chair, and trend-setting residential architecture that worked closely with the landscape and local nature. Braniff Airlines, with its flight attendants outfitted in colorfully bright Pucci uniforms, recruited a socialite party concierge, Sloane Simpson, for the destination…and Howard Hughes spent the last few weeks of his life in a penthouse at an Acapulco hotel.

Film star Merle Oberon was known to host legendary parties at her Acapulco home and often frequented the Las Brisas beach club. According to Slim Aarons, the famed mid–century photographer, Oberon was a popular hostess, and her tasteful villa was considered to be one of the most beautiful resort houses anywhere in the world. In 1979, Oberon became world news after the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, found temporary refuge in Mexico following intervention from former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger. The Shah was one of the wealthiest men on the planet and a target for revenge-minded Islamic revolutionaries. Reportedly, he was considering exile residence in Acapulco and possibly at the home that had been built for Oberon and her then husband, Bruno Pagliai. Despite all the speculation, the Shah ended up residing in a Cuernavaca mansion during his time in Mexico. San Antonio businessman John Agather spent a considerable amount of his youth in Acapulco and remembered Oberon as being especially gracious.

TEXAS TIES AND THEN SOME

Nearby and at the same time, Villa Arabesque was being built for Houstonian Baron Enrico “Ricky” and Baroness di Portanova. Villa Arabesque was a spectacular sight with Moorish arches along with other grand features. According to guests, the villa seemed to rise out of the water like the Taj Mahal. It was built with 32 bedrooms, 26 bathrooms, four kitchens, and two indoor waterfalls. A few years later it was featured in the Bond film, License to Kill. Baron Ricky Portanova was an heir of Texas oil magnate Hugh Cullen. Ricky’s father was said to be an Italian playboy who called himself a baron, and he passed on that title to his son and Cullen’s daughter, Lillie. For the scion, jetting from Houston down to Laredo’s Cadillac Bar for lunch was a way of life, so a jaunt to Acapulco was a natural extension of his love of the Latin culture.

When Braniff Airlines teamed up with the Dallas-born socialite Sloane Simpson, it was a match made in heaven. Braniff hired her as its Acapulco spokeswoman and hostess, with the catchy slogan Call Sloane, while the airline provided transportation to Acapulco.

Acapulco’s guest registry read like a Who’s Who of pop-cultural icons including Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, George Hamilton, Lynda Bird Johnson, and many other well-known people who vacationed there. Elizabeth Taylor married one of her husbands, Michael Todd, there. John and Jackie Kennedy and Henry and Nancy Kissinger all honeymooned in the town’s luxury accommodations when the resort city was at its zenith. Besides the hotels, Acapulco was also built-up with a proliferation of palatial homes constructed atop the rocky cliffs for such notables as Dolores Del Rio, Orson Welles, Johnny Weissmuller, and many others. And it’s still possible to rent Dallasite-turned-New York socialite Sloane Simpson’s expansive villa through a website home rental.

Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco celebrated the glamorous vacation site in 1963. Co-starring bombshell Ursula Andress, the film featured two things of note: Acapulco cliff diving and the Top 10 Billboard hit Bossa Nova Baby, sung by Presley, which reached #8 on the Billboard Pop Charts. The film would be Presley’s last release before the arrival of Beatlemania…and it was the top-grossing movie musical of 1963. Acapulco is also where Rita Hayworth filmed The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 with then husband Orson Welles, as the seaside resort was really catching on after WWII. The broad appeal of a Mexican beach vacation was even reflected in the cartoon animation in 1964 when the Flintstones coveted a trip to Rockapulco.

 

POP CULTURAL BEACON

Acapulco helped introduce a tequila-based Margarita. In fact, that drink may have actually been created by Dallas resident Margaret Sames who concocted the cocktail for her guests at her Acapulco vacation home in 1948. Hotel heir Tommy Hilton was in attendance, and he later brought what would soon be a ubiquitous drink to his family’s chain of hotels. The Acapulco chair is a stylish patio chair that was also popularized there. Cecilia Leon de la Barra, a Mexican designer, has made claims that she gave the chair its name. Meanwhile, the illustrious Guadalajara architect, Marco Aldaco, collaborated with nature for his designs when he built houses for Loel and Gloria Guinness and others. Loel served in the British parliament, and Gloria was a native-born aristocrat from Mexico who was considered to be one of the most beautiful and stylish women of her era, always landing on the International Best Dressed List.

John Agather remembers John Wayne in Acapulco with his “converted WW II former minesweeper, the Wild Goose.” He fondly recalls that the Duke was kind, showed interest even in kids he met, and  remembered names.

When Braniff Airlines teamed up with the Dallas-born socialite Sloane Simpson, it was a match made in heaven. Braniff hired her as its Acapulco spokeswoman and hostess, with the catchy slogan Call Sloane,  while the airline provided transportation to Acapulco. Simpson was the one to call to find out about what parties were taking place, where to go and where to be seen. According to San Antonio-based author and former Braniff employee, William Jack Sibley, if Simpson didn’t make an appearance at your Acapulco party, it never happened, baby.

Some of the world’s first discos were in Acapulco. Agather recalls the rise of the discos and the first real hotspot as being Armando’s LeClub. The sophisticated dance clubs are still a prominent feature of the seaside resort, and the Acapulco nightlife was chronicled in the media then as sometimes decadent. By the late 1970s, Acapulco purportedly may have become a little more depraved. Grace Jones is said to have put on an especially racy show for a New Year’s Eve celebration decades ago.

The signature tourist attraction, The La Quebrada cliff divers, began in the mid–1930s and this spectacle includes divers that first climb to precarious bases on steep cliffs before diving approximately the height of an 11–story building into a channel only four meters wide at high tide. La Quebrada divers thrill spectators with their dangerous descent into the narrow and shallow foamy waters of The Quebrada.

MUCHO MEXICO

Hotel Los Flamingos was the former private hideaway resort of John Wayne and his gang, which included Cary Grant, Richard Widmark, Johnny Weissmuller, and many others. Built in 1930, Los Flamingos was small and unpretentious when John Wayne and partners bought it in 1954 (why buy an avocado ranch in the San Fernando valley when you can buy something much more fun and exotic down Mexico way?).  The resort was known for its remarkable location with ocean waves smashing up against the cliffs below and some of the best sunsets in the area. For the next few years, it remained a private club of movie stars who came there to lounge by day and party by night. Agather remembers John Wayne in Acapulco with his “converted WW II former minesweeper, the Wild Goose.” He fondly recalls that the Duke was kind, showed interest even in kids he met, and  remembered names. So did Cary Grant. The Agather family got to know quite a few celebrities in Acapulco, along with the Apollo 11 astronauts, who were relaxing there with their families after coming out of quarantine from their trip to the moon.

Las Brisas was a favored hotel for luminaries like Frank Sinatra and Sylvester Stallone…and John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there. Las Brisas is known for exemplary customer service, clean white, and pink décor, all on a sprawling and lushly landscaped property with private pools for its visitors. The resort has deep roots in Acapulco’s Golden Era, having been built in 1957 at the dawn of the development of the Diamante area and lured the affluent and powerful to the city’s beaches, restaurants, and discothèques. The property has multiple terraced levels and a pink signature color that was worked into everything seemingly possible. They whisked customers up the hill in one of the pink and white jeeps, later named after Hollywood’s renown, to their private casita, a little house, with a pink and white striped roof where their customers could get settled. The property is designed to highlight its stunning hillside views over the surrounding bay and ocean, and Las Brisas remains to this day one of the top places to stay in Acapulco.

The Acapulco Princess has been an Aztec pyramid-shaped luxury hotel since 1971, with a unique design that included 15-stories and 1,011 rooms. The billionaire Howard Hughes, who always had a fondness for hotel living, left the Bahamas in February 1976 and moved into an entire floor at the Princess. Unconfirmed reports said that Hughes was in search of a readily available supply of narcotic pain medications, which he used daily to counter his agony from injuries sustained in a plane crash years earlier. While he was able to obtain the medicine he needed, the unfamiliar food and finicky air conditioning system further exacerbated Hughes’ anxiety. Already in declining health, Hughes nearly died at the Mexican resort hotel. On April 5, 1976, Hughes was carried out of his penthouse suite unconscious, and onto a chartered jet. He had stopped eating by the time he was loaded onto the plane, destined for Houston, and he weighed just 93 pounds. Hughes passed away while on that final flight. The Princess operates today as Hotel Princess Mundo Imperial.

Despite all the beautiful and interesting attractions, sunny Acapulco eventually lost its cool. It had become less alluringly exclusive over the years. Braniff and other airlines had made it more accessible as did the highway, built in 1955, that connected Mexico City to Acapulco. In the 1980s, Cancun became the new destination resort city where mega-hotels sprang up seemingly overnight. Cancun and other new resorts provided stiff competition as Americans headed to these new resorts for sun-soaked and value-filled vacations. Also, in 1982, Mexico devalued its Peso and the financial issues and instability that followed influenced foreign residents like Dallas socialite Sloane Simpson, who pulled up stakes altogether and abandoned living in Mexico. But, the final death blow to Acapulco’s international status as the place to go, has been the recent drug cartel fighting there with often deadly results. The fighting has spilled into all areas, and the U.S. State Department continues to warn Americans against travel to the region. Hopefully, this violence can someday be abated, and as the new generation of affluent travelers seek hot spots, they will rediscover the Acapulco that so many still look back on with fondness of the memorable times during the Jet Set era of years past.

 

AIX MARKS THE SPOT

AIX MARKS THE SPOT

France is such a vital part of chic European culture. Join our intrepid traveler Rose Betty Williams as she jets to the Provence region…and with her five-star point of view recommends only the very best for your next visit.

By Rose Betty Williams              Photography courtesy of author’s own and archival 

CINEMATIC BEAUTY

When dear friends asked my husband and me if we wanted to go to Provence and share a villa with them, we jumped at the opportunity. I bought and borrowed guide books about Provence. I also binge-read Peter Mayle’s books A Year In Provence and Toujours Provence, Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List, and Lost Carousels of Provence by Juliet Blackwell. I also watched movies about Provence such as A Good Year starring Russell Crowe, Loving Vincent and Lust For Life starring Robert Gubczyk and Kirk Douglas, respectively, as Vincent Van Gogh. 

 

We flew from Austin to Marseilles and then drove to Aix en Provence, which we felt was not only centrally located, but also the perfect spot to begin our exploration of Provence. We loved le Pigonnet, our fantastic hotel in Aix. Our accommodations were charming with a balcony and windows that commanded spectacular views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that Paul Cezanne depicted over and over again in his paintings. 

 

We relaxed in le Pigonnet’s stunning Versailles-like gardens and enjoyed a light repast of Provençal cheese, fresh fruit, black tanche and green picholine olives, olive tapenade, local charcuterie, and an assortment of bread and crackers. The sunny skies and comfortable September temperatures of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit were ideal and a short five-minute leisurely walk to Aix’s city center beckoned, but we chose instead to listen from chaise lounge chairs to the live music performed in the open air bar and to go to bed early. 

 

The next morning we were ready to explore. We engaged the services of Tours By Locals for private tours of the hilltop villages of the Luberon. Our superb guide, Nathalie Clairault, met us at 8am in the hotel lobby. Even though she had already advised us to wear layers and comfortable walking shoes, she gave us a quick inspection, and then strongly urged me to get my raincoat, and my husband, his hat. The weather and wind, or mistral, can change very quickly in Provence. The mistral is a strong, cold wind that often exceeds 40 mph. More about the mistral later. 

 

We drove to the southernmost Luberon village of Lourmarin to see the Renaissance Chateau de Lourmarin. When we entered the Chateau from one of its many large courtyard terraces, we were astonished by the decorated fountains, flowers and pools, and the sweeping views of vineyards, olive groves and almond trees. That explained why the Chateau is a favorite venue for weddings, special events, music and art festivals, and why Winston Churchill set up his easel there to paint. I was fascinated by the musical instruments that I thought were just for display but found out later are used regularly for concerts and recitals. 

 

From Lourmarin, we drove to Bonnieux. En route, we saw the Pont Julien, a three-arched 215-foot bridge built by the Romans in 3 B.C. and named for Julius Caesar. We also visited the Chateau la Canorgue Winery, which was where A Good Year was filmed. Clairault regaled us with stories about the transformation of this immaculate winery and chateau for the film and about Crowe, whom she called The Gladiator, eating, drinking and “more” in town. We went to the Caveau, also known as the tasting room, and of course, tasted and bought several reds and a couple of Rosés, all reasonably priced and delicious.

 

Our next stop was lunch. We went to La Bergerie that is located in a pastoral park setting surrounded by woods and lavender fields, and has suites, rooms, a spa and pool, and offers cooking lessons. We dined on an extraordinary truffle pizza, a goat cheese and ham platter, a mushroom tartine,  a beef carpaccio and artichoke candied with lemon olive oil, and the most delicious fleurs de courgettes—stuffed and fried zucchini flowers–all specialties of Michelin 2-star Chef Edouard Loubet. I ordered a pastis to drink, but alas, didn’t like it–too licorice-y for me. We easily could have napped by the pool but we had to work off the calories.

 

Bonnieux is a high-perched village located on the northern slopes of the Luberon across from Lacoste. The Vielle Eglise, which means old church, is a 12th-century Romanesque and Gothic styled 1400-foot high church at the top of Bonnieux and the village’s most identifiable landmark. To visit it requires a steep climb up 86-stone steps, which without good walking shoes and if the mistral is blowing, can be very treacherous. Nevertheless, the climb is definitely worth it. The old church, also known as the high church, is small but the views are incredible. Quite a few of the trees around the church show the effects of the mistral. They lean sharply to one side and look very eerie. The new church also known as the low church, incidentally, was built when villagers didn’t want to make the climb from the valley below. Another interesting site in Bonnieux is the Louve Gardens, a private French contemporary garden open to the public, but privately owned, and created in 1986 by Nicole de Vésian, the textile designer for the Paris fashion house of Hermès. La Louve, by the way, means She-Wolf, and should not be confused with Musée du Louvre.

OMNIPOTENT OCHRE 

We drove to Roussillon. This Luberon village sits atop Mont Rouge and is situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world and is famous for its magnificent red cliffs. We had every intention of hiking the Ochre Cliffs Trail but the mistral was too strong and the trail was closed. That did not stop us from enjoying the many shops, galleries and picturesque maze of streets and squares. The red and orange ochre facades of the buildings and the brightly painted shutters and doors make Rousillon a magical mosaic of color and charm. 

 

In a gallery on Rue Richard Casteau, my husband and I were drawn to a few paintings that depicted familiar scenes. It turns out the artist Francoise Valenti came to Texas and painted the Hill Country. She now has a growing Texas fan club and for good reason–her paintings are lush with color and movement. We considered buying one but found another painting at the nearby Galerie Porte Heureuse that really appealed to us. Not sure how we’d transport it, we decided to exchange contact info and follow up later, and indeed we did. When we returned to the US, the gallery sent us photos of a stunning landscape of Maussane les Alpilles and we bought it.

 

From Roussillon we went to Lacoste. The Savannah College of Art and Design has a campus there comprised of 40-plus houses where students live and study for a trimester. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who now owns much of the village and resides in the lower part of the Marquis de Sade Castle, helps sponsor an end-of-trimester fashion and art event for the students and also sponsors a summer opera festival. We talked to a student from New Orleans who explained that many of the buildings in Lacoste are closed because Cardin purchased them to store his enormous collections but that his collections are not managed, maintained nor available for public viewing. Nevertheless, it is a treat to visit the castle and admire both Cardin’s renovations and the large sculptures on the property. The word sadism, incidentally, comes from the Marquis de Sade’s notorious pornographic novels and his alleged evil “Sade”-istic behavior.

Also, stone that is currently being used to help rebuild Notre Dame comes from a quarry in Lacoste that is worth visiting. We went to Gordes next. It was an active resistance village in WWII and where Marc Chagall and his wife hid from the Nazis. Gordes is the stunning setting for the movies Mistral’s Daughter, A Year In Provence and Mr. Bean’s Holiday, among others.

 

It is interesting to note that in the Luberon, each village has rules regarding the colors of buildings and the shape of roof tops. Homes built in Bonnieux have to have terra cotta rounded tile roof tops. New buildings in Gordes must be made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls. With a few exceptions, all electrical and telephone cables have to be put underground. In Roussillon, natural ochre–red, orange and yellow, not synthetic ochre colors of blue and purple–must be used on the outside. Also, throughout the Luberon, calade limestone tiles that were first used by the Romans are still used today. Roadways are paved with long stones placed vertically with their sides facing upwards to help with drainage and to enable traffic circulation in all seasons. The steps leading up to Bonnieux’s Vielle Eglise are calade as are some of the streets in Gordes and Uzès.

 

After our private tours in the Luberon, we decided to self-guide in Aix-en-Provence. We visited Cezanne’s Atelier, the Hotel de Caumont and the Musée Granet. We loved seeing Cezanne’s studio, watched the video of his life, ate lunch at Les Deux Garcons on Cours Mirabeau (the ChampsÉlysées of Aix), and were stunned beyond words at our good fortune at being able to see the Solomon Guggenheim Thannhauser Collection From Manet to Picasso on loan to the Hotel de Caumont. We could have spent days there. The exhibit and the Caumont Centre d’Art are phenomenal.

 

Our villa in Maussane les Alpilles was the next stop. Villa Jolie is gorgeous with private quarters for four couples, a kitchen and a large living-dining area, a pool and very tranquil surroundings overlooking vineyards, olive groves and les Alpilles. Laurence Vedder of Exclusive Resorts arranged a welcome snack for us that was almost too beautiful to eat, but eat we did, enjoying every delicacy and a couple of bottles of divine Cotes du Rhone and Gigondas wine.   

À VOTRE SANTÉ

In the early morning we drove to Domaine de la Verriere, owned by my friend Nicole Rolet and her husband Xavier Rolet. La Verriere is a majestic estate and winery nestled in the foothills of Mont Ventoux in Crestet that produces the award-winning Chêne Bleu wines. We toured the organic vineyard and the state-of-the-art winery, learned about the history and terroir, tasted Chêne Bleu’s critically acclaimed Abelard and Heloise, Super Rhone, Viognier, and Rosé wines, and then enjoyed a Farm to Fork luncheon with Chêne Bleu wine that was expertly paired to complement each course. Absolutely delightful. 

 

The following day we immersed ourselves in everything Van Gogh. We started with a visit to the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux. Van Gogh’s clouds, suns, stars, portraits–his greatest masterpieces–are brought to life on cave walls that are more than 16-yards high and also on the cave floor and ceiling. It was a visual and musical tour de force. The constantly changing projections of Van Gogh’s most famous canvases illuminated the enormous Carrieres space and the accompanying sound gave every visitor the opportunity to journey into Van Gogh’s very “emotional, chaotic and poetic inner world”. The paintings pulsated with color and depth and gave me an entirely new perspective and admiration for Van Gogh’s genius. This experience for me was truly one of the most memorable highlights of our trip. I hope to return for the next exhibit that opens in March 2020 and will feature the art of Monet, Renoir and Chagall. Fantastique.  

 

We went to Arles and ate lunch at the Café la Nuit depicted in Van Gogh’s painting of the same name. The restaurant is definitely a tourist trap and the food very mediocre, but it was kind of fun to be there anyway. We visited Espace Van Gogh, the site of the hospital where Van Gogh was admitted after he cut off a portion of his ear. It has classrooms, a library and surrounds a courtyard that Van Gogh often painted. Then we visited St. Paul Monastery and Hospital in St. Remy where Van Gogh as part of his therapy produced more than 100 paintings. We visited a replica of his room and could see the same views he painted more than 120 years ago. The hospital still treats patients today with art therapy. 

 

No visit to St. Remy would be complete without going to its chic boutiques, especially the store Souleiado, considered by the fashion savvy to be the unofficial ambassador of Provence with gorgeous dresses, blouses, skirts and home décor items, in vibrant fabrics that showcase the culture and traditions of the region. 

 

The next day we visited Moulin Castelas, an olive mill at the foot of the Chateau des Baux. We toured the facility, “blind” tasted the olive oils and learned which flavors, aromas and complexity most appealed to us. No surprise, my husband loved the ail (garlic) olive oil. I loved the Classic AOC Provence. I bought two cans. Yes–cans because I didn’t want bottles to break in my suitcase. I definitely will order more but in the meantime, Central Market carries a couple of selections of Castelinas Olive Oil. AOC, which means Appellation d’Origine Controlee, is found on the labels of wine and olive oil bottles and is the government’s seal of approval that the wine or olive oil has met specific requirements. AOP on olive oil labels means Protected Appellation of Origin and refers to the specificities of a terroir: geographical area, climate, geology, olive varieties, and know-how.

ROME’S LEGACY 

Our next day consisted of Avignon, Uzès and the Pont du Garde. Rome’s lasting legacy is evident everywhere. Avignon is busier, grander and more urban than the Luberon villages. It was the capital of Christendom for nearly a century beginning in 1309 when the French Pope Clement V left Rome for the security of Avignon. Nearly three miles of walls and 39 towers were constructed for added protection, and the Palais des Papes was built with 10-foot thick walls, large ceremonial rooms and accommodations for 500 people. Seven popes lived in the Palais until 1403. In 1378, however, the Catholic Church had two popes, one in Rome and the other in Avignon. Eventually, Rome prevailed. Today the Palais is pretty much empty of its original furnishings and paintings. We were given “Histopads” (like tablets) to help us imagine what each room probably looked like. We were impressed with the Romanesque cathedral next to–and also predating­–the Palais. Its modest simplicity provided us a serene and comfortable place for prayer, meditation and rest.

 

Seeing the Pont d’Avignon, also known as Pont St. Benezet, was a sentimental and surprising experience. As a child I sang the nursery tune, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse, sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse tous en rond”, which means, “On the bridge of Avignon, we will dance, we will dance, on the bridge of Avignon, we will dance all in a circle.” Not sure what I expected but I was surprised that the bridge ends halfway across the Rhone. That’s because only four of the original 22 arches of this half-mile long bridge exist today. 

 

The Jardin du Rocher des Doms is on a bluff overlooking Pont St. Benezet and is a great place to take photos. We could see the shuttle boat going to the Ile de la Barthelass, an island retreat in the middle of the river. We could also see Mont Ventoux, which means Windy Mountain. It is known as the Giant of Provence or Bald Mountain because its barren peak appears from a distance to be snow-capped but is actually bare limestone without vegetation or trees due to the mistral that on average on the summit blows more than 56 miles per hour, 240 days a year. 

We drove to Uzès that for us was a welcome break from the more touristy and bustling Avignon. Nevertheless, because we were there on a Saturday and that’s market day, we wandered through a labyrinth of stalls and shopped for lavender, soap, ochre, textiles, nic-nacs, and looked at the fruit, veggies, cheese, breads and meats that were a kaleidoscope of color, texture and aroma, and made us hungry. We stopped for gelato in a café shaded by big Plane trees. Uzès dates back to Roman times. All the buildings are made with the same pale and porous limestone and have beautiful ornamental fountains. However, it’s Uzès’ location near the source of the spring that fed the very important Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct that give it real historical significance. The Romans built the 30-mile long Pont du Gard in the first century A.D. It is considered one of the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere and has the largest main arch ever built by the Romans–80 feet, which is the width of the Gardon River. It is hard to believe the Romans didn’t use mortar to build the arch, and that the Port du Gard supplied the city of Nimes with nine million gallons of water every day. What a remarkable engineering feat. 

 

When we returned to the United States, we reflected on the history and beauty of Provence and were exhilarated by our memories of the extraordinary food, wine, art, architecture, sunshine, and people of the region. Beyond c’est magnifique

THE VERVE OF VICTOR

THE VERVE OF VICTOR

Houston native fashion designer, Victor Costa, is as much responsible for Texas’s pop-cultural rise in the 1970s and 1980s as the T.V. series Dallas, or the big oil boom that cemented the state’s place in history. Here, in an exclusive, our culture-savvy chronicler Geoffrey Connor, reflects on the era’s party that never seemed to end… and how Victor Costa’s designs remain timeless.

Portrait photography by John Conroy – Photography courtesy of Victor Costa, archival

 In 1987, at the apex of his career, Victor Costa’s fashion line was once described by The New York Times as “flamboyant, super-feminine dresses that bare the shoulders, hug the waistline, and billow and swirl over the hips”. With good reason. The name Victor Costa has been famous in international fashion circles for over a half-century now, bringing acclaim to Texas and his hometown of Houston, in particular. He has not only created beautiful designs but also is well-regarded for his commercial acumen and marketing brilliance, combinations not always found in fashion design circles. “He’s one of the most famous names in women’s fashion,” said Houston philanthropist Joanne King Herring. “He’s made many women look fabulous over the years, and I’m so proud he’s a Houstonian.” 

 RISING HEIGHTS

He’s come a long way, baby, in the vernacular of the 1970s stylish cigarette branding slogan. Costa was born in Houston’s Fifth Ward in 1935 in very modest circumstances during the height of the Great Depression. As the middle child born to a Sicilian metalworker, who, with his American wife and family, lived in three rooms behind his grandparents’ grocery store. Although Houston was not exempt from the impact of a sagging global economy during that era, the city’s port and shipping channel benefitted greatly from the Texas oil boom and a corresponding growth in rubber, plastics, and chemicals. Additionally, the World War II era saw a surge in manufacturing and shipping, which added thousands of jobs and greatly expanded the city’s economy. The Texas Medical Center was also established in the 1940s, initiating a transformation of the city’s image into a more modern, refined era.

During this time of rapid change in Houston, Costa’s family enabled him to see and experience the elegant side of the city, even if it was not their personal circumstance at the time. He has often recounted stories of shopping as a boy in downtown Houston with his mother, who had an eye for fashion, though she may not have purchased much then.  It was the time of lavish department stores like Sakowitz, Battlestein’s, Foleys, and many others, that carried clothing and accessories previously available only on the east coast or in Europe. Costa was inspired by the beauty and elegance of what he saw in lavish display windows and learned to draw and recreate such style on paper dolls that he then sold to his school classmates. In high school, he even made prom dresses for his classmates.

Costa also drew upon what he saw on the big screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood. “I had access to twice-weekly tickets as a boy to see movies” said Costa. “I saw such stylish stars as Joan Crawford in some of the most spectacular clothing of the era”, he said. In fact, as destiny would have it, Crawford, for whose persona he would design paper doll dresses as a child, would later become a private client of Costa’s label. 

As an adult, Costa’s natural talents were refined at the Pratt Institute in New York. He also trained at the prestigious Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture in Paris, whose other famous graduates include Valentino, Karl Lagerfeld, and classmate Yves Saint Laurent. Costa learned the fine art of design, and the imaginative use of fabric and decoration, while also understanding the nature of the fashion business and marketing.

COMPREHENDING COUTURE                                                                                            

Costa then began working as a designer in New York, adapting French high fashion to the American market. According to Myra Walker, of the Texas Fashion Collection of the University of North Texas,  “It helped that he had a photographic memory and a quick hand at sketching, and was able to translate what he saw on the Paris runways into successful designs for the Suzy Perette company during the 1960s. His ability to comprehend couture and ready-to-wear fashions is a complex and masterful talent. He is not content with only a quick sketch or photography, but often goes so far as to purchase the original couture design to study the construction and fabric.” It was an era of voluminous skirts, matching lining, and smart tailoring…all variables that would serve him well to design for glamour’s big comeback in the 1980s.

Determined to be his own designer, especially after a mentor advised him, “Don’t just promote a fashion house–promote yourself.” Costa acquired the Dallas fashion house, Ann Murray, and used his Texas operation to manufacture his designs. His clientele grew quickly to include many top buyers, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and later, Nordstrom’s and Bergdorf Goodman. His extraordinarily glamorous clothing was worn by the stars of the popular 1980s television series Dynasty and Falcon Crest, and by such stars of the era as Joan Collins and Brooke Shields. By the late 1980s, his business was grossing over $50 million annually. “I adore Victor,” says Houstonian philanthropist Carolyn Farb. “He is a designer who focuses on his most important goal–to make his clients look and feel beautiful.” His presence was so ubiquitous in the 1980s pop culture that he even designed Holly Hunter’s Cinderella-esque transformation gown for the hit 1987 film, Broadcast News. Besides his commercial line, he continued designing for private clients, including Hollywood stars and American socialites who wanted their own distinct look. His appeal was as broad as the shoulders he designed because of its beauty, and deep because his clothing line was priced less than comparable designers. 

Victor Costa paid particular attention to costs early in his career in order to make his fashion line available to a wide base of style-conscious consumers. Importantly, he acquired the facilities and staff needed to manufacture his own creations in-house thereby eliminating markup from a third party manufacturer. Next, he looked for ways to emulate certain design elements with a more economical approach. For example, his designs sometimes have a machine jeweled lace instead of a hand jeweled lace used by a more expensive designer, or even using an expensive trim on an inexpensive fabric to give it a glitzier look. Or, replicating a forty-dollar floral embellishment he found in Paris for just $1.50. In modern times, Costa has cultivated skilled bead workers, detailed embroiderers, and other artisans in China in order to incorporate brilliant new elements into his designs, but his bottom line was always to make beautiful clothing and, while the prices per piece are comparatively low, he sells volumes of each creation. 

 SOCIAL SWIRL

Although very trendsetting, Victor Costa was careful to never fall into the trap of making successful designs only for the runway or the entertainment industry. His designs were worn by women in business and society, like Estée Lauder and Betsy Bloomingdale. He helped popularize the return of the shoulder pad favored in political circles by such women as Lady Bird Johnson, Rosslyn Carter and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. “Victor has always been a gentleman and respectful of his clients,” says Farb. “He is very attuned to the place a woman holds and dresses her sumptuously, but appropriately, for her lifestyle as a business executive, political leader, social leader…or any role she has chosen.” 

Costa’s skill at surveying style trends and quickly translating those into his own fashion line has sometimes provoked the criticism that he relied too much on other’s inspiration for his designs. But, of course, fashion has always been a cycle of taking another’s design and adapting and remaking it in a fresher, more practical or  accessible way. Ralph Lauren famously marketed his Polo shirt for daily wear, which was much the same shirt René Lacoste originally designed for the tennis circuit decades earlier. In the same way, Costa took European haute couture and made it accessible for generations of women by using cost-effective fabrics and decoration…but with no less style and flair. The result was year after year of spectacular designs that women clamored to own. The outfits didn’t just look good on a mannequin but made the wearer look good as well.

Author Mimi Swartz once wrote that “in the right Victor Costa, a plain woman becomes a pretty woman, and a pretty woman becomes a knockout.” As Costa has said, “Special occasion dresses have always been the hallmark of my business. My quest for what is new sends me around the world. It is a sense of pride and fulfilment that some of the most noted and important women in the world are wearing my clothes. But also a young girl of 13 may get a Victor Costa dress which will have name recognition and make her feel special. Women adore how they look in their Victor Costa dresses.”

Victor Costa’s life is so easily compared to the life of his native Houston. They both started out humbly but stretched to reach around the world in spectacular fashion. Both drew on their natural resources and talents, but as they grew, they began to draw the world to themselves. Costa was always at ease in Paris and New York while being professionally successful and inspiring. Yet Costa’s roots in a city like Houston enabled him to see a market need in the fashion industry, particularly the middle-class woman with good taste and a desire to look resplendent in a crowd. Not that the wealthy elite did not also covet the Victor Costa label, but it was the mainstay consumer that really distinguished Costa in the world of international designers.

DRESS-UP MOVEMENT

While Houston has become quite the global metropolis, it has done so in a relatively short amount of time and always with the solid foundation of an industrious middle-class. The succeeding waves of Houston’s success in international shipping, oil and gas, medicine, manufacturing, technology, and space exploration have produced many millionaires and famous names. The same economic expansion has produced a huge number of middle-class buyers who want the same look and quality they see on the pages of the leading fashion magazines but at a more reasonable price and availability. For this market need, Costa has consistently delivered and with tremendous success. The New York Times reported in a 1987 profile, and Costa noted, “It’s very pleasing to me that women who can afford to buy anything feel secure in my clothes. I’m hooked on this whole crazy dress-up movement. I hope it will last, but I know the tape of fashion has speeded up. I’m going to enjoy it while it’s here.”

It’s no surprise that Victor Costa has always been well-regarded by his peers despite the occasional controversies over his designs. For years, he has been a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America based in New York. This prestigious invitation-only organization has fewer than 500 members but includes all the biggest names of the industry including Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, and Donna Karan. The organization is not just about prestige in an already status-conscious business, but also provides scholarships, business funding and serves as a fashion incubator program intended to help young designers launch their own businesses. Victor Costa loves the attention given to the next generation of fashion talent. Costa’s fellow native Texan, Tom Ford, is the chairman of the organization now, following a thirteen-year reign by Diane von Furstenberg. The Council has worked successfully to strengthen the influence and prosperity of American designers in the global economy, and Victor Costa has been an important part of that triumphant effort.

Now, at a spry 84, Costa has slowed only slightly. When not at his mid-town Manhattan apartment, or  his home in Connecticut, he spends time in Houston, where he and his wife, Jerry Ann Woodfin-Costa, returned a few years ago to a palatial home on the twelfth tee of the Houston Country Club where they love being a part of the social community. People still talk about Jerry Ann’s triumphant chairing of the Houston Ballet gala in 1992 when she raised over a million dollars for the worthy cause, and the décor was highlighted with life-size balletic centerpieces on each table.

It’s also true that Houston and the Costas are very comfortable with each other. They are active in the Houston arts and culture scene and quite visible at society events.  hey have also generously established an endowed scholarship for Retailing and Consumer Sciences students at the University of Houston.

Costa is optimistic about the future and is enthusiastic about the next generation of designers. “The key thing is to have a dream, and to know you’re going to achieve it,” he said. “When you get knocked down, you’ve got to get up again.” It’s good advice for people in general who, like Victor Costa, seek to create beauty and success in the world. 

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR

Holiday shopping for those near and dear has never been more exciting than now. Join our team of expert gift givers, led by Jake Gaines, Tori Johnson, Alexandra del Lago, and Lance Avery Morgan, who have gathered the finest of the finest to make gift giving even more special this season.

BALLROOM TO ASCOT

Every gentleman deserves custom suiting and from Texas to London, bespoke clothiers are measuring up so you can look like the lord of the manor. Prices upon request. Photo courtesy of Neal & Palmer

BOXING DAY

This blue embossed Shagreen jewelry box with brass trim is the perfect size for any vanity area. Or, perhaps in the pool house. $850. At Aerin.com

REALITY? REALLY.

Impress even the best gamer teen in your house with this new virtual reality all-in-one gaming headset for breathtaking you-are-there VR experiences. $499. At Oculus.com

DELIGHTFUL & DIVINE

A chocolate truffles gift box is a grand gesture in every way. This package is as sumptuous to view as it is to open and enjoy. Eighty of the finest chocolate truffles are brought together in one extraordinary gift box from Houston’s favorite chocolatier. $165. At Cacao and Cadamon

LET’S STAY IN TONIGHT

For those special evenings at home, this limited-edition lounging robe in the classic Tish Cox style speaks to the glamour of yesteryear that  can be yours right now. The exaggerated kimono-style sleeves give glimpses of the gorgeous colors on the backside of the mint green silk fabric. Go ahead, start the fire. $495. At ShopTheSil.com

SMOOTH OPERATOR

This Angle razor is made from lightweight anodized aluminum, holds a single disposable blade, and will be the coolest thing in your bathroom as you revive the art of shaving. $110. At Mr. Porter

PADDLES UP

For the beachcomber who has everything, these two wooden beach rackets and a leather ball with a pouch, will have you wanting to hit the sand immediately. $810. At Berluti.com

IT’S IN THE BAG

What Texan doesn’t have boots worth preserving? This monogram-able boot bag is a high style way to travel with them. $463. At William & Son

SPEAK TO ME

The Xoundbar Bluetooth stereo speaker is the perfect size to take the music party with you anywhere you go. $40. At X-mini.com

DIVE, THEN DRONE

PowerVision aqua drone is an intelligent water drone equipped with 215° dual-joint rotation 4K camera. Ideal for recording water sports or capturing magnificent seascapes to remember. $799. At PowerVision.me

EVENTFULLY WE’LL KNOW

Special times of your life can now be preserved for you and your loved ones in this Ticket Stub Diary that holds memories from concerts, sporting events, museums, and more. $14. At UncommonGoods.com

WHICH WAY IS UP?

This Voyager Expedition flask with compass in blue mother of pearl will keep your favorite spirit handy in the best of locations. $105. At Dalvey.com

SURF’S ALWAYS UP

With a timeless allure and palpable cool, this decorative art piece captures the spirit of California in iconic style. Made of Russian Birch plywood and finished with genuine surf resin. $8000. At Kelly Wearstler.com

RESORTING TO GREAT LENGTHS

As the winter resort beckons, be prepared in this oversized hat that’s sure to garner shade, compliments—and second glances. $550. At Eliurphi.com

CONVERSATION STARTER

This Michael Aram chess set is the sleekest one we’ve ever seen. Not only  does it look gorgeous on any table, you’ll be flexing your strategic brain muscles as you play. $1800. At Neiman Marcus

ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

Colorize any room instantly with this party-ready wooden lacquer tray with a wave effect metal trim and ball feet for a pretty presentation. $555. At MelissaGoad.com

SILKY SENSATION

 

Texans Brandon Maxwell and illustrator Jules Buck Jones collaborated to create this colorful silk scarf as the perfect accessory to any winter outfit. $295. At Brandon Maxwell

LET’S BE PERFECTLY CLEAR

The clear It bag of the season is one of our favorites. This Valentino Garavani Rockstud purse will see you through anything. $2445. At Neiman Marcus

SAILING THROUGH LIFE

No one captures sun, sport and surf better than photographer Gray Malin. Have an endless summer with  this limited-edition print, The Sailor, Tucker’s Town, Bermuda. $2999. At GrayMalin.com

TWO OF A KIND

These XL Grand Tour God Busts are the perfect accessory for any tabletop in any room. Brightly colored, these glass objet d’art can add a light whimsy to the most serious of rooms. $795 each. At Jonathan Adler.

STANDING TALL

Cowboy boots as style must-haves are back and never have we seen such colorful interpretations as by the West Texan-native designers and sister duo founders of Miron Crosby. With their signature  handmade, perfect fit, you’ll want several pair of these beauties. Prices vary, $1900-$4000 a pair. At MironCrosby.com

CARRY ON, STYLE GURU

The Royal Check Bistro bag is built to go from city to country and back again. We’ can’t resist the multi-print blue that’s always right. $180. At Saks Fifth Avenue

COME ON IN

This witty doormat sets the tone for a fun time ahead. We couldn’t resist the vintage 80s vibe with the cassette tape motif. Personalize with your own message. So, go ahead, stay awhile. $38. At UncommonGoods.com

COASTING TO SUCCESS

The perfect hostess gift  will be a year ‘round visual feast for the eyes in these semi-precious agate coasters that are hand-polished in Brazil. Set of 4. $80. At Saks Fifth Avenue.

TINY TREASURES

Perfect for any last-minute gift, this Original Garden Jewel Succulent Garden will delight any recipient with its presentation box full of green goodness. $35. At LulusGarden.com

SWEET DREAMS

Guarantee the perfect night’s sleep every day of the week. Made from only the finest materials, Savior’s luxury beds help regulate body temperature and improve the quality of REM sleep. Custom made to order at SaviorBeds.com

LET’S WRAP THIS UP

Protect your hair from heat damage, but still create the best curls of the season with Dyson’s Airwrap hair styler. Each set comes with interchangeable attachments to achieve the style you desire. $550 at Dyson.com

CHIC STORAGE

Kick your stainless appliances to the curb. This Dolce Gabbana and SMEG Carretto refrigerator is the kitchen addition you’ve been yearning for. $10,000. At Bergdorf Goodman

SIP & SERVE

Add elegance to any table with this Franco Lapini centerpiece. The top includes six cylinders for serving vodka, surrounding a small container to house caviar. Now that’s a perfect combination. $3,360 at Artemest.com

THE FUTURE IS HERE

Keep the kids entertained without having them glued to a screen.  Codi is an AI-enabled toy that provides children with classic songs and stories, and even encourages good habits (like naps, clean-up, and brushing teeth) to provide developmental support while they aren’t in the classroom. From Pillar Learning. $99.99. At Amazon

BOTTLE SERVICE

Designing a dream wine cabinet is easy with the help of Grandeur Cellars. Create a custom design that’s the perfect display for your home and budget. Price upon request and consultations at GrandeurCellars.com

BREATHE IN, BREATHE OUT

Nobody likes to be stressed around the holidays. NuCalm is a safe neuroscience technology that quickly calms you, and naturally brings your body to the pre-sleep states through deep relaxation and idleness. Packages include noise-cancelling headphones, relaxation discs, light-blocking glasses, eye-mask, and more. $4,695 at NuCalm.com

RAINING CATS AND DOGS

Harsh weather never looked so inviting. Shield yourself from the rain in style with this Pasotti umbrella. The enamel brass handles are available in a number of designs. $285 at PasottiOmbrelli.com

SLIP INTO SOMETHING SOFT

Loro Piana’s cashmere slippers are taking loungewear up a notch. The quilted cashmere fabric provides warmth and comfort over an anti-slip suede sole. Pair these with one of Piana’s luxurious cashmere robes as a gift for any loungewear lover. $3,650 for robe and $690 for slippers. At LoroPiana.com.

SCENTED MAGIC

Fill your home with scents of rose and saffron with the Catene Scarlatto candle by Richard Gionori. There are more than 12 different designs to choose from for all your candle-loving friends. $205. At RichardGinori1735.com

SET SAIL WITH REGAL HISTORY

Cruise the Galapagos Islands like a celebrity on Grace Kelly’s honeymoon yacht. This 18-guest cruise will give you a taste of the ship’s history while enjoying activities like kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, stargazing and much more. Starting at $6,900 at Quasarex.com 

Image courtesy of Vogue.com

ON DISPLAY

Setting sail, soon? This Venezia Royal Trunk is the storage piece for any antique lover. The exterior is covered with leather and solid brass hardware, while the soft interior compartments house the trinkets. $40,350 at Artemest.com.

CELESTIAL CIRCLET

Add some sparkle with the Vespera Circlet by Jennifer Behr. This delicate headband features crystal stars and is so lightweight that you’ll forget you have it on. Each circlet is made by hand and crafted to perfection. $575. At JenniferBehr.com

PRECIOUS SCENTS

Inspired by Bulgari’s most precious gemstones, this selection of six perfume scents comprise  the perfect set. These exquisite scents are made in Italy. Que bella. $280. At Bulgari.com

NOW, FOR A ZEN MOMENT

The Buddha Board is a relaxation tool that encourages creative expression, being in the moment, and letting go using only water, a bamboo brush and a clean slate. Each brush stroke transforms your worries into a work of art and then is sent off into the universe as the water dries and the image disappears. Like magic. $34.95. At Amazon

TWO ON THE AISLE

Broadway is better than ever. With a play or musical to suit every taste, the experience of a major league production will stay with you forever. Priceless. At Broadway.com

THE ROYAL TREATMENT

THE ROYAL TREATMENT

Shabby chic? More like regal elegance. That’s what you’ll find when you cross the pond to visit London and stay at its grande dame Ritz Hotel…and other aristocratic pursuits on a long weekend getaway that you will always treasure, according to our intrepid fun follower Lance Avery Morgan.

CROWN ROYAL

Think back to your college literature class. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, wrote Shakespeare in King Henry IV. With the upcoming season three debut of The Crown, the world once again has Anglophile fever, wanting to know what it’s really like to be in Great Britain’s Royal Family. Who wouldn’t with all the pomp, the circumstance, and the real life drama that’s unfolded over the last 67 year reign—and the fact that the world has become an almost otherwise unrecognizable planet than it was in 1952 when Queen Elizabeth began her long run as monarchy-in-chief. If you want to get a glimpse of how the Londoners live in the present with a regal nod to the past, try some of the things they do when guests visit from across the Atlantic.

 

London is one of the hippest, most international cities in the world. Period. And its residents love Texans. It may even rival Paris and Milan based purely on street style alone. In London, style is serious business and it is  indeed that way at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. For me, arriving there brought as much drama as an episode of the country’s longest running primetime T.V. drama, Coronation Street. I had just stayed at a country estate in the Hampshire region of the South of England, which would have been perfect had my luggage arrived before the third of my fourth day staying there. Borrowed from a friend since I needed a large suitcase for all the clothing changes for croquet and the country house life, the bag went missing in transit. Once the airline delivered it extremely late, the exterior zipper had apparently gotten caught in gosh-only-knows-what type of conveyor belt. So, what to do? The generous team in Hampshire were kind enough to lasso the shredded mass of black nylon together, with yes, a winding lasso rope. Then off I went up from the English coast, squired directly to the height of London glamour.  

 

I’d called ahead to see if I could arrive through the rear entrance of the hotel since my bag was so unsightly and upon checking in would momentarily, if not sooner, have to be replaced from the nearby Selfridges. New luggage now purchased, from the moment I crossed the threshold from the revolving door at the Ritz, I realized its fabled existence lends itself to the feeling that time has stopped­—or at least drastically slowed down. Suddenly I felt like cavorting about as if a Noel Coward play was dictating the future, complete with a Cole Porter soundtrack. And, perhaps, clowning around the royals debonairly played in The Crown.

 

LEGENDARY LEGACY

It may feel like time has stopped, yet the five-star hotel’s legendary reputation of representing the best of the best never has. With its French chateau-style architecture and Louis XVI furnishings, the hotel was created as, according to renowned founding hotelier César Ritz, “a small house to which I am proud to see my name attached.”

 

The Ritz Hotel in London is so legendary that many incarnations of its name have permeated into popular culture over the years. Think Puttin’ on the Ritz and A Diamond as Big as the Ritz. The native and visiting international aristocracy made it an instant hit when it first opened in 1906, and it has been star-studded ever since. Famed Russian ballerina Pavlova danced there. Charlie Chaplin needed 40 English Bobbies to escort him into the hotel from his throng of chasing fans during a Hollywood film promotional visit in the 1920s. Eisenhower, Churchill and deGaulle conducted wartime summit meetings there. Broadway actress and movie star, Tallulah Bankhead, even sipped champagne out of her own slipper at the Ritz. How’s that for a celebrity antic?

 

Back at the hotel, it’s like a world unto its own. If one feels pampered there, it’s with good reason. The staff to guest ratio is about three to one, so every detail during your stay is attended to with promptness. Want to be unpacked upon your arrival? Not a problem. Desire some chocolates, a fruit bowl, and champagne awaiting your appearance? Consider it done. Five-star service is abundant and a way of life for each employee in the hotel. Michael de Cozar, the Head Hallporter (Concierge) who is almost as much of a legend as the hotel because of his 46-year tenure, explained, “I’ve welcomed guests to The Ritz for decades and have formed friendships with families that span generations.” Included in those relationships are plenty of Texans who always end up at the posh hotel.

 

Well rested, the next day we pop off to Buckingham Palace, strolling through the leafy glade of Green Park, in natty business attire. A tour of the Queen’s private art collection had been arranged, yet there was just one catch:  the tour must be taken before the palace opens to tourists. A palace to oneself? Yes, please. The art collection, comprised of primarily English and Dutch artists of the mammoth masterpieces on high, was a wonder that might rival the Louvre’s collection of 17th and 18th century works. After we toured other parts of the palace that are rarely seen, we were ready to celebrate our good fortune beyond the regal gates, beyond the miles of red carpeting we had just walked.

 

Squinting in the bright sunlight of day, little did I know that the tourist queue to enter would be blocks long. Then, all the tourist eyes narrowly settled on our small group as we exited the front manor entrance. The tourists, obviously not knowing who we were, began applauding us as if we lived there somehow. Mistaken identity indeed, but always much appreciated. Then we were off to an early light lunch at The English Grill, near the palace,  and onto High Tea later in the day, which is a true experience.

TEA, ANYONE?

A myriad of generations of the Brits certainly know about the ritual of teatime. That commitment carries over to the famed Afternoon Tea at The Ritz, an institution in itself served in the spectacular Palm Court at the center of the hotel. Birthdays are celebrated there. Proposals of marriage have been made there. You’ll find tea served on fine Limoges china, with an array of 17 teas offered from silver-service tableware. A choice of finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam, potted cream and a range of pastries, all combine to make it an unforgettable afternoon. It is reputed to be the best tea service anywhere, so to enjoy the high tea, you’ll want to make reservations ahead, as it books up quite far in advance–about three to six months. While sipping both tea and champagne, a former potentate wearing a head-to-toe powder blue dress ensemble, whisked by us. Ah, London and all its colorful characters who appear seemingly at every turn at The Ritz.

 

You will also indeed find some characters in the very private Ritz Club downstairs. High rollers only need apply. It has a casino and some of the most beautiful rooms ever designed for any hotel. With the room’s themes, such as the Amber Room, and the Blue Room, ornate chandeliers and fancy finery are within arms reach at every turn. You’ll think you were at a Versailles salon party as well. And if you’re in a Bond-like gambling mood, hands start at a cool $100,000, which surpasses what you’d find even in Monte Carlo.

 

Dinner in the club, as in the hotel’s main restaurant, is impeccable…with every five-course meal being better than the one before it. John Williams, the longtime revered executive chef told me, “I have always had a great love for The Ritz and for its time-honored traditions. Escoffier, the chef, and his forward-thinking methods and beliefs have influenced my entire career and it is a pleasure to be cooking in the very kitchens where it all began.” Williams’ staff is impeccable, too. Expect to see morning cutaways on most of the hosts in both the restaurant and the lobby. It’s easy to see why the dress code for patrons in all public areas is strictly enforced.

 

To match the public spaces, the private rooms and suites are decorated in full French splendor. A suite life indeed. My suite of rooms, swathed in gold brocade with Wedgewood blue accents, lived up to the hotel’s reputation for having only the best. A small, discreet umbrella was waiting on the bed, along with welcome goodies. The Brits seem to think of almost everything.

 

PIP PIP CHEERIO

In between time, I found time for a VIP, skip-the-crowd tour of both the National Portrait Gallery that always makes me wonder what life must have been like for its subjects who lived in a much physically harsher world than we do now. Then, it was time for the Tate Museum that is the epicenter of the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport–talk about cutting edge art in the complex of its four museums. I had been to see Houstonian Carolyn Farb’s loan of Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer and this time was just as exceptional.

 

In between all the outside engagements, within The Ritz London you can enjoy the orchestra quintet playing in the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights, and everything from Strauss to Sinatra can be heard. This complements the pianist in the Palm Court lobby, Ian Gomez, who tickles the ivories. If he likes you and knows where you are from, with a friendly conversation, he will play a personalized homage when you walk by. For a Texan like me, he played Don’t Fence Me In. I’m not sure it gets any better than that. Until my next trip…after I have watched how season three of The Crown unfolds with what will likely be waist coat deep in regal mayhem.   

THE HEIGHT OF LOVE

THE HEIGHT OF LOVE

Claire Cavender And Easton McNab Marry In Aspen

By Jake Gaines
Photography by Robin Proctor Photography

Claire Cavender, the daughter of Suzanne and Rick Cavender and Easton McNab, the son of Connie and John “Sandy” McNab, were married at Chaparral Ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado near Aspen, in a ceremony surrounded by family, friends and sky-high mountain ranges. The native San Antonians have known each other since they attended St. Luke’s Episcopal School and St. Mary’s Hall High School together. The bride, a graduate of the University of Texas, who later moved to the West Coast, and the groom, a graduate of the University of Southern California, said their move to Los Angeles solidified their relationship.

Together since 2009, the couple wanted their nuptial festivities near the groom’s family home. A favorite summer destination for nine years and the beginning of their 14-month engagement, the venue set the tone. “I was getting ready for dinner and Easton asked me to go down with him to check out the Roaring Fork, which is the beautiful river that runs by their home,” says Clair McNab. “This was not a giveaway at all because every time we arrive we like to enjoy a cocktail by the river. However, this time it was different because he instantly got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. It was a moment we will never forget in a place that means so much to both of us.”

The busy planning of the wedding took many months and the couple chose to select their hometown favorites to be involved from the beginning. The bride’s handmade engagement ring and the groom’s wedding band were both designed by Nicole Mera in San Antonio. The bride’s diamond wedding band was by JB Star, along with her rehearsal dinner and wedding jewelry, all from Shetler Fine Jewelers in San Antonio. The wedding planner for the events was Suzanne Dupre and her team from An Aspen Affair, while Luc Haughart at Premier Party Rentals helmed the décor, and Carolyn’s Flowers created the floral environment.

The rehearsal dinner was at the St. Regis’ Aspen Velvet Buck restaurant and its after party occurred at the Caribou Club. The couple flew in an LA-based DJ to spin the tunes for the event so that all the guests, wedding party and families could  meet each other after the rehearsal dinner. The bride’s rehearsal dinner dress was designed by San Antonio-based Creviax et Cie.   

For the ceremony, the bride walked down the aisle wearing a stunning Carolina Herrera dress from Julian Gold Bridal and colors of dusty rose and dusty blue were seen everywhere. The groom chose to wear a custom Knot Standard suit for the occasion. Reverend Jill Pidcock officiated the ceremony as the couple was encircled by 250 of their guests who flew in for the wedding festivities.

The bride chose her sister, Courtney Cavender Smith to be her matron of honor and her bridesmaids were: Brittany Blonkvist, Alexandra Clark, Felice Coon, Laine Deutscher, Ashley Fatjo, Georgie Ferrell, Sarah Geibel, Brenna Hart, Clare Holden, Emily Honigblum, Amanda Lodge, Nicola McLauglin, Sita McNab, Hallie Swope, and Kellye Thomas. The house party consisted of Kate Dawson, Rachel Jonkers, Alicia McNab, Stella McNab, Chloe Shands, and Leah Sheesley. The groom’s best men were his bothers, Ian McNab and Charles McNab, and serving as his groomsmen were: Cadell Alexander, Hank Cavender, Tod Cavender, Ben Ghez, Joe Martin, Joey Maloney, Tucker Oelson, JJ Rubin, Jack Sertich, Eli Tash, Beau Townsend, and Chase Wirth. His ushers were Maxwell Atherton, Hal Guggolz, Phillip Halliday, Tobin Smith, and Paul Swann.

The reception that followed the wedding at the Chaparral Ranch was a seated dinner with the duo’s signature drinks, Moscow Mules and Negronis, offered to guests upon arrival. As the evening progressed, especially touching was the bride’s father, Rick, who sang the opening song to the couple. The Denver-based band, Tunisia, provided the dance numbers for the guests before the wedding send-off surprise of confetti machines (artfully planned by the mother of the bride and the wedding planner).

The bride is the granddaughter of Judy Cavender and the James “Jimmy” Cavender and Sybil and Robert V. West, Jr. The groom’s maternal grandparents are Charline and Red McCombs and his paternal grandparents were Ian and Sita McNab. The couple’s honeymoon was spent in Lake Como, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. The couple reside in San Antonio where Claire works at the Cavender Auto Family and  Easton is employed by McCombs Enterprises. They spend their time playing and traveling with their Maltese/Shih Tzu mixes, Hadley and Harper, and supporting Blue Star Contemporary, Southwest School of Art and The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio’s vibrant art scene.