Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dream Trip: My Recent Travels in Northern Rajasthan

THE SERAI JAISALMER in the Remote Indian Desert. A Beautiful and Magical Discovery. The Perfect Escape.

The world is too much with us today. The news is unbearable. The Internet makes our lives magical—and it also makes the world too present.

It’s time to take an inspiring break with me today to The Serai Jaisalmer, an ultra-private luxury desert camp near the dusty old fort town of Jaisalmer.

I rather chanced upon it—and stayed for a few days of midnight reverie, daydreaming, writing, wandering, bird-watching, slowing down, watching the wind drift across desert grass. It’s a rare retreat—amid a monochromatic landscape that is the opposite of India’s wonderful cavalcade and clamor of noise, color, and the loud symphony of music and excitement. The Serai is silent.

Come with me.

Earlier this year, I had the great good fortune to travel to Northern Rajasthan, into the Indian desert. Yes, there is a vast desert way up in the far north of India. It’s a desert of centuries of legends and myths—and a place of mystery and fascination. The unknown. Look on the map…north of Jodhpur, far to the west of Delhi.

Come with me to escape to a remote hidden corner of India—into the silence and tranquility and peace of the open desert.

The Serai (designed and owned by Sujan, the brilliant private family-owned luxury hotel company) is a place of quiet elegance with just the sound of the wind, birds chirping, palm leaves rustling, or distant muted voices.

The Serai Jaisalmer is a desert camp where guests sleep in traditional Anglo-Indian luxury tents. I was enticed by camel safaris, sunbathing around the pool, visits to historic Jaisalmer, a wander in the organic vegetable garden, a Jeep ride to watch the sunset, or reading in the library. Or doing nothing but watch native birds. I even found a bird-watching book in the library--and started making lists of cheerful bulbuls, looming crows, and chatty finches. I tossed (naughty) breadcrumbs so that they would swoop onto my terrace. It's amazing how time flies on golden wings when you are engrossed in birdwatching. Come and visit this dream camp with me.

An elegant tented camp in the fabled Thar Desert of Northern India is the newest destination for design-lovers and travel style connoisseurs.

Fiery rays of sunset illuminated The Serai Jaisalmer luxury desert camp in remote northern Rajasthan. One evening I listened spellbound to a group of turbaned manyanigars, traditional nomadic musicians, singing tributes to their centuries-old desert culture. The sounds were intensely emotional. (Look up ASMR...and you will find traditional Rajasthan desert music as a definition. Well, not quite but I can tell you that the voices of the turbaned young men, the thrumming of the tabla, the jangle of percussion, and the soothing harmonic accordion-like instruments had the effect of autonomous sensory meridian response in the cool, clear midnight air and desert stillness. A thrill.

The Serai Jaisalmer, twenty-one elegant tents on a hundred-acre private estate in the regal Rajasthan region, offers the newest way to experience traditional Indian camp style. Guests can follow mediaeval royal caravan routes through magical dunes.

The style: think Hemingway or Anglo-Indian raj camp style, with mahogany furniture, camp seating, canvas walls and seagrass floors. Each tent is on a permanent base, and each tent is outfitted with a terrace, an indoor sitting room, a very large bedroom furnished with grand beds, wardrobes, club chairs and roll-up screened windows (no glass) with views out to the desert. The bathroom is luxurious, with showers and beautiful washbasins. Most tents also have an outdoor plunge pool and terrace, all very private, including the sunbathing terrace.

The Serai’s superbly-equipped classic canvas tents are arrayed in an elegant symmetrical formation adjacent to a dramatic swimming pool. From the raised pool terrace, styled like a desert fortress, guests gaze out over miles of pale taupe trees and desert scrub. The monochromatic landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, and the camp blends in.

The natural canvas tents, expansive enough to feel like a residence, offer Indian desert life that’s relaxed and tranquil. All camp facilities including the tented restaurant, the library (with wi-fi available), the spa and the reception tent are furnished in Anglo-Indian safari camp décor. The feeling is Hemingway-esque, authentic, ultra-discreet and low-key, and full of discovery. 

Each of the twenty-one luxury tents has a terrace for enjoying the desert landscape.

Anjali and Jaisal Singh, the worldly young New Delhi couple who direct The Serai, designed and created the chic camp that has attracted travelers from around the world. Their company, Sujan, focuses on protecting and conserving the wilderness as well as introducing guests to the setting and local cultures.

“We created The Serai for the travel connoisseur who is looking for a very private and rare exploration deep in the Rajasthan desert,” said Anjali, who studied art in London. “We’ve created soft luxury here—Egyptian cotton sheets, comfortable leather club chairs, fresh organic cuisine, private pools, as well as bird-watching excursions, and safaris to study indigenous flora and fauna.”

Each tent, with a terrace in front, can accommodate two guests. Tents are crafted of heavyweight natural cotton canvas, an attractive pale ivory color. Windows, with screens, can be adjusted for air circulation, or closed against cool desert air in the evening.

There’s a shaded terrace for evening relaxation, and a sitting room with traditional mahogany campaign-style chaise longues and handwoven plaid wood blankets to ward off evening chill.

The camp swimming pool is surrounded by a terrace from which guests may view the open desert. Other facilities include a well-stocked boutique, a spa, and a library with excellent reference books on India. 

The classical architecture of the tents, which stand on a permanent stone foundation, feels very substantial yet at the same time their simple silhouette and slight movement of the walls gives them a delightful ethereal feeling. It’s like sleeping in a cloud.

Décor was inspired by traditional Anglo-Indian hunting camps of the Raj. Floors are covered with seagrass carpets, with handsome traditional Indian woven rugs in red and rust added a dash of color in the bedroom. Interiors include antique mahogany wardrobes, stacks of reference books on local birds and plants, and a desk for writing postcards or studying Indian culture.

Bathrooms, with showers crafted from indigenous pale ivory sandstone are spacious and well supplied with herbal-infused toiletries.

A highlight of the visit is a sunset Jeep safari to the camp’s viewing point on a desert overlook, furnished with a tent, chairs, tables, and drinks. Twilight in this hushed region is dramatic and mysterious. The secluded wilds of The Serai and guests may see migrating cranes taking refuge there before flying to northern climes. 

Cuisine is taken seriously. The Serai property includes a flourishing organic garden, where vegetables, fruit, and flowers are grown. Cows offer fresh milk, and chickens supply daily eggs.

Chefs and bartenders visit the garden several times a day to pick mint or lemons for cocktails, and to gather baskets full of lettuces, along with delicate flowers to decorate salads and fragrant rice dishes.

Cosmopolitan daily menus at The Serai may include roasted vegetable bisque, colorful salads, duck leg confit with sautéed potatoes, or a pan-seared pork loin with glazed carrots, with classic French deserts. Guests can request any dish and the hotel is very accommodating.

Tents are arrayed on the property to create maximum privacy. Camp staff uses special bicycles to deliver breakfast or afternoon tea or fresh towels.

Camp staff wears crisp white linen tunics and trousers, with a signature red turban, all characteristic of Rajasthan. 

The Serai is open from September 15 through March 31 each year. High season, when days hover around 75 deg F, is from November to February.

Jaisalmer, a twelfth-century stone-walled fortress with historic palaces and temples, is a half-hour drive. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, makes a fascinating half-day excursion, but guests are happy to return to the tranquil setting of The Serai. As darkness falls, stars are as bright as Maharajahs’ diamonds. Magical, indeed.

Many guests arrive from the nearest city, Jodhpur, which is 142 miles south from The Serai.

Others make a Rajasthan circuit and visit two other Sujan tented camps, and arrive from either the tiger camp, Sher Bagh, in Ranthambore, or Jawai, a SUJAN camp north of Udaipur in a remote western Rajasthan region noted for leopards.

I propose flying to Delhi, spending a few days there (perhaps at The Lodhi hotel, my favorite) and then flying on to Jaipur and heading to Sher Bagh. Then it’s onward to Jodhpur and heading north to The Serai from there.

Note that it is not possible to fly from Delhi to Jaisalmer (for security reasons as the fort town is close to the Pakistan border).

This trip does involve some driving (it is ideal to have your own driver and car) and it’s a fascinating way of seeing India up-close. Roads in Rajasthan circle past old villages and the trip explores the countryside of India.

The Serai is a Relais & Chateaux property, and the standards of comfort are ultra-high and guests are very beautifully pampered. Menus have modern Indian and continental offerings, chic cocktails, and fresh vegetables and herbs from the garden. The pool is enticing and there is an excellent boutique with lovely block-print kaftans, jewelry, décor, and gifts for family and friends.

The luxury here is in the privacy, the tranquility. It’s so quiet, so calm and silent, I am certain you will not want to depart. Let me know.

For more information:

Note that The Serai is open from September 15-March 31 each year.

All photography here by Anjali and Jaisal Singh, Sujan. Used here with express permission.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Introducing San Francisco Designer Jen Kelly Wick: A Family Telegraph Hill Penthouse, Light As Air

Perched at the top of Telegraph Hill, Jen Kelly and Will Wick’s San Francisco penthouse offers escapist pleasures and a stylish setting for family life.

Telegraph Hill is one of the most fascinating neighborhoods of San Francisco. Strategically, it surrounds columnar Coit Tower and it crowds across a rocky cliff overlooking the vast expanse of the cool grey Bay.

At night it’s a noir-ish scene from Dashiell Hammett, all lurking shadows and whispers. On California-bright mornings, the vertiginous neighborhood wakes up to fragrant wafts of Chinatown cafés and shouts and murmurs from the Embarcadero far below. Bohemian North Beach is a strenuous up-and-downhill workout away, past nasturtium-bright stairways and plum trees full of hyperactive lime-green Telegraph Hill wild parrots shrieking and gossiping before they fly off to terrorize the tourists.

It was here that an enticing morsel of real estate on one of the highest points of Telegraph Hill was offered to designer Jen Kelly, VP of Creative Development at RH, and her husband, interior designer Will Wick.

It took the glamorous couple less than a minute to decide on the light-filled penthouse with its expansive terrace, alluring bay views, and airy rooms.

Private and quintessentially San Francisco, the penthouse on two levels, would be perfect, they agreed, for the couple and their four children, Miles, 19, Sabine, 17, Luisa, 12, and Isabela, 7. 

Jen Kelly and Will Wick and their children, Miles, Luisa, Isabela (on piano), and Sabine. 

“It’s like being on vacation, every day of the year,” said Kelly. ”It’s heavenly. We’re up so high, and we see the sun rise over the Berkeley Hills, and watch aircraft carriers and cargo ships gliding past in the afternoon.”

The flickering Bay Lights artwork on the Bay Bridge is so close it feels like their private entertainment. Alcatraz, with its looming presence and heavy history and now the dramatic Ai Wewei art exhibit, is just a short swim across the water. Bohemian North Beach is a strenuous ten-minute hike over vertiginous pathways, and past nasturtium-bright gardens and plum trees alive with the squawking and gossiping bright acid green Telegraph Hill wild parrots. The penthouse is indeed a magical place.

In the living room, Gio Ponti chairs covered in off-white wool sateen were acquired in Florence. The classic Donghia wool mohair sofa was purchased in 1998 and has original upholstery. Photography (car and landscape) by Grant Ernhart from Battersea (Will Wick's chic San Francisco design gallery). The large-scale oil portrait of Sabine is by Berlin artist Nick Flatt.

Love at first sight can seem such a cliché, but their instant attraction was underpinned with practical matters like five large bedrooms, an open kitchen, a large family room, space for a twenties Steinway grand piano, and acres of private terrace for ping-pong, sun-bathing, birthday parties, and family dinners.

Each room, highly biographical, includes collections of paintings and furniture gathered around the world over two design-mad decades. The crisp and superbly delineated architecture offered Kelly a perfect canvas for her collections of sculpture, exuberant vintage classics, and carpets by Ben Soleimani for RH.

Their modernist building was designed in the forties by noted San Francisco architects Hertzka and Knowles. The penthouse was updated and remodeled twenty years ago by Walker/Warner and most recently renovated and refined by Kuth Ranieri Architects. With each fine-tuning, the penthouse took on a more glamorous, svelte and timeless look.

Two highly opinionated interior designers under the same roof might suggest a clash of styles, but under Kelly’s direction, the décor is dramatic, frisky, and cohesive.

"Yes, we are two married designers living together, but the penthouse was my responsibility and the current look is very much my design, my styling, my approach,” said Jen. “Will was generous enough to let me take it on. We have plenty of heated debates but generally agree with each other.”

Jen’s design approach is to create contrast, with refined and rough hewn or glamorous and folkloric creating tension and harmony.

She deftly juxtaposes textures and finishes, including the contrast of African tribal carvings with seductive sixties Carlo Ponti curves.

”I typically go with my gut instinct, putting the unexpected together, throwing in warmth, color, lots of art,” she said. But it’s also about the kids, with family portraits in every room—and more portraits commissioned, one in glitter. 

On weekends, there is always someone practicing guitar or playing the piano, a Steinway Will inherited from his grandfather. It was craned up over the roof.

“Musical instruments are a big part of our family and they incorporate well in our home design,” said Jen.

“I travel a lot for my work for RH and I’ve collected pieces from around the world—Florence, Brussels, London, Los Angeles, Morocco—and I love to start with one amazing piece, like the canopy bed in Isabela’s bedroom,” said Kelly. “Then I found the dramatic brass chair, an homage to J.B. Blunk. It’s like a child’s drawing, comical almost. I saw it at Organic Modernism in Los Angeles and I had to have it. I have always had a mad love of brass. Isabela loves it.”

Bedroom with Turkish bedcovers from Sue Fisher King has a dramatic bronze chair by Organic Modernism in homage to J.B. Blunk. The pink and navy rug is by Ben Soleimani for RH Baby & Child. 

Clearly, the push and pull of two avid designers creates great energy.

“Will's and my styles are quite different but we influence each other and appreciate each other,” said Jen. “I notice that under Will's subliminal influence I've calmed down, gained more restraint and edited with more polish and authority. I learn endlessly from Will's breadth of knowledge about architecture and furniture designers”

Jen’s touch is evident in her family-friendly approach, with rooms that are at once stylish and relaxed and always welcoming to their children’s friends. Sunday mornings the couple often awake to a troop of teenagers asleep on the floor and sofas in the living room.

Sixties dining room chairs by Gio Ponti are covered with silk/linen tiger pattern by Scalamandre. Rug, Abbey Carpet. 

“I love rooms with black and brass and color and print, as well as a tribal pieces and organic elements, and we’ve mixed them with more classic and sleek pieces,” said Jen. “Will's design energy has never been greater. That’s inspiring for me.”

In addition to offering pure escape, the penthouse was their perfect canvas.

“Will and I challenge each other to see beauty in a different lens,” noted Jen. “We share a constant curiosity about design and art which our kids would call an obsession. They’re right. It’s our absolute passion. ”

In the family room the Milo Baughman sofa is covered in longhaired sheepskin.

On the terrace, sofas and tables are from RH, with Perennials fabric.

The bedroom offers views over the bay, mysterious and sparkling by night. The understated simplicity of RH vintage washed Italian linen sheeting, a Turkish cotton bedcover, and the custom-designed linen canopy give the bedroom a soothing mood. Jen raided Will’s vintage gallery Battersea in San Francisco’s Design District for the forties white glass lamp, the pair of beaded white linen chairs from Africa, and two glamorous Karl Springer ‘Onassis’ parchment desk/dining chairs. 


All photography here by Douglas Friedman, published with express permission.

Douglas Friedman, one of today’s great portraitists, is well-known and admired by editors and photo editors (and readers) of magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, C, Architectural Digest and many other international magazines.

Douglas recently created exquisite and glamorous portraits of designer Ann Getty, and ranch owner Denise Hale, for profiles I wrote that were published in Harper’s Bazaar. Douglas also has an avid and devoted following on Instagram (#thefascinator) and on Facebook, where he publishes glamorous and witty images of his professional life. Lunch break images reveal him to be an enthusiastic carnivore. And hedonist. Typically he will start the week shooting a house in Los Angeles (cue the glamour shots), and then it is on to Marfa, Texas, where he is building a glass house in a remote property at the end of a dirt road. Then it’s onward to Mustique where he photographed a residence (and experimented shooting with a camera on a zip wire). Then he’s shooting Ken Fulk’s house in Provincetown, and taking a detour to Cornelia Guests’ residence. Back in California, he’s attending the opening of the new Burberry store (hello, hello, Denise Hale), and after a quick meeting to plan the upcoming FOG Design + Art fair, he’s on a plane heading east.

Thank you, Douglas.