Shopping has been an integral part of travel since the world’s earliest adventurers traversed the ancient silk route; and to this day, nothing recalls travel memories more than purchases acquired on tour. Clothing you can wear or objects that can be integrated into your home’s décor reflect the essence of a city, a region or a remote corner of the globe. But shopping abroad represents more than accumulating possessions.
Even if you never buy a thing, shopping offers one-on-one communication with real people you wouldn’t get to meet on the street or in museums. That dialogue produces tips on restaurants, cultural activities and under-the-radar spots that can’t be found in guidebooks. More important, it provides insights into the local mindset, heritage and culture. We asked four seasoned travelers, all cultivated shoppers, to tell us about their latest discoveries and treasures.
Sarasota mogul Michael Saunders finds beauty in Bhutan.
Though Michael Saunders visited both India and Bhutan last Christmas, it was the tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled on the slopes of the mystical Himalayas that captivated her. “Bhutan’s isolation was an absolute joy after leaving India’s crowds, pollution and everything that goes with masses of humanity in confined spaces,” says Saunders, the head of a Sarasota-based real estate empire.
About the size of Switzerland and sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan had been under the radar—reserved for trekkers, not luxury travelers—until the beginning of the 21st century. Now it’s an up-and-coming travel hotspot where the remoteness is part of the cachet for early adapters like Saunders—high-powered execs who want to get away from it all. There is only one airport, and only one airline is allowed to operate in the kingdom. Visitors are limited to 20,000 a year; they must spend a minimum of $200 a day and travel only with an approved tour operator. It’s all in the name of preserving pristine forests and a centuries-old culture.
Saunders confirms Bhutan’s reputation as the world’s last Shangri-La. “We flew over Nepal, which was incredibly beautiful, and as we approached Bhutan the scenery was just as striking—nothing but green canopy,” she recalls. By law 60 percent of the land will remain forested; another 26 percent is protected as park land.
“Bhutan is pure, primitive, honest, open and friendly,” Saunders says. “Most of what they make, they use; they don’t produce for export. What they weave, they wear. What they grow, they eat.” And what did she eat in Bhutan? In a word, “rice!” “Rice is king, but I’m an adventuresome eater. We ate in restaurants, and I didn’t always know what I was eating,” she says.
Those less bold can find Westernized food at the new luxury hotels. “Bhutan has five Amanresorts; they all very unusual: simple, honest and pure Bhutanese,” Saunders explains. She stayed at the five-star Amankora hotels (owned by Singapore-based Amanresorts) in the capital city of Thimpu and in the more remote settlement of Paro.
Although she did her real shopping damage in India, Saunders acquired mementos in Bhutan as well. “We were in foothills of the Himalayas. The climbing is strenuous, and coming from Florida, I am not used to that,” Saunders says. “So while my traveling companions trekked, I walked the rice paddies. The women invite you into their homes for tea and set out rice in huge wooden bowls on scarves on the ground.”
Back at home, she now creates table vignettes with handcrafted objects similar to those she saw those Bhutanese farmers use at family meals: a wooden rice bowl, hand-woven table scarves and an ancient herb flask. She also wears an old silver bangle-wrap bracelet that unscrews at one end— Bhutanese trekkers once used this functional jewelry to store lime as a food preservative on long journeys, she explains.
Saunders bought her beautifully turned burl wood bowl at a government-run craft store. “We wanted to use Amex or Visa or traveler’s checks,” she recalls. “But they said they could only take cash because of the turmoil in the United States and our banking troubles. I never had that happen before anywhere in the world.” Her guide fronted the money for the bowl. “I paid him back when we got home,” she says.
Stay at Amanresorts. The unique lodges are designed in harmony with the environment. Amankora creates itineraries with complimentary private car, driver and guide for stays over seven nights. Because Paro has the kingdom’s only airport, most tourists begin and end their visit there. Saunders stayed at the luxurious Uma Para.
Shop in Thimphu. The Government Handicraft Emporium and the few privately run stores feature items by local artisans trained at the crafts college (The Institute of Zorig Chusum) in the middle of the city, also worth a visit. “Chusum trains students in the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan: everything from fresco to embroidery and enameling in techniques of the students’ forefathers.”
Don’t miss talking to the Bhutanese people. “They speak English because their king (King Jigme Singye Wangchuck) was educated in the United States and determined English was necessary if the kingdom were to flourish in the modern world. We were in Bhutan at the end of the monarchy; the king stepped down and the Bhutanese were like children afraid to leave home. They loved him like a parent.”
Kodak moment: “Many Buddhist temples are exquisite. But I loved the rice terraces of the Paro valley and the red peppers hung on the roofs of home after home to dry.”
Designer Robert Neal shops ahead of the crowd in Luang Prabang.
“I have a file on every trip I’ve taken since I was 18 years old,” reveals Robert Neal, a nationally acclaimed interior designer who peppers his own Sarasota home (and those of his clients) with handicrafts and art discovered while touring the globe. “I’ve been influenced by Asian design,” he explains, “and I frequently use artifacts from Bali, India and Thailand to make my contemporary interiors more interesting.”
After circumnavigating the world eight times as a Crystal Cruise passenger, Neal says he chose to visit Laos this year on his own. “I’ve been all over Asia, but had never been to Luang Prabang, the crown jewel of Laos and the best-preserved traditional city in Southeast Asia,” Neal says. “It’s considered a stronghold of Laotian culture, and was awarded world heritage city status in 1995 by UNESCO.”
Neal says he loved the splendid scenery and sense of timelessness. But those were anticipated. Real serendipity was found in the shops, many of them collectives where owners share profits with local artisans. That’s the case at Ock Pop Tok, one of his finds (a favorite of singers Mick Jagger and Kylie Minogue, as well as renowned textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen).
“Ock Pop Tok has a sophisticated selection of hand-made silks, cottons and other artistic items, including wall hangings, scarves, bedspreads and throw rugs,” Neal reports. In town Neal discovered another beautiful shop called Laha, named for owner Laha Sinh, who sources everything from Laotian weavers and directly supports more than 400 households in more than 15 villages. “They have a Western director who makes use of browns, blacks, golds and colors more indicative of the West. They also sell beautiful wood items that are exceptionally handsome,” Neal says.
But the most serendipitous textile finds came from a sightseeing tour. Neal discovered the most beautiful silks at Boualay Silk Handicrafts, in a village area near Luang Prabang. “The silks are hand-woven by women whose mothers teach them the process as young children. Threads are products of silk worms, which are visible in all these weaving places. They use natural dyes, and their silk items are really beautiful and not so expensive. Some designs are historic, and there are also many more modern designs. And in that same village beautiful hand-crafted paper is made in a series of huts.”
What did he buy? “Three beautiful silk stole-type scarves that have traditional patterns in them—I gave two of them away to Charlene Neal and Carol Gilbert,” he says. “Also, a hanging with historic patterns that I kept but haven't hung; a beautiful wood plinth from Caruso Lao (on which I placed two Galle' vases); silk pillows and some hand-woven cotton napkins.”
Neal’s Luang Prabang
Eat at 3 Nagas. “Salads are excellent and made from fresh vegetables and herbs that grow on the banks of the KhamRiver at the foot of dense jungle. I ate fresh salads with no bad effect, which I don't usually do in underdeveloped countries.” (Sakkarine Road, 856-71-253-750)
Stay at the Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel, formerly the home of Prince Souvanna Phouma, who was deposed by the present government. “The main house has a lovely open loggia for dining overlooking the swimming pool, and the modern rooms are attractive, comfortable and rather contemporary.” (Chao Fa Ngum Road, 856-71-254-609)
Shop at Caruso Lao Home Craft (60 Sakkarine Road, 856-71-254-574); Fibre2Fabric Gallery (71 Ounkham Road, 856-71-254-761); Ock Pop Tok, (73/5 Ban Vat Nong, 856-71-253-219); and Laha (Main Street, 856-71-254-767).
Kodak moment: “Arise at 5 a.m. to view a procession of saffron-clothed monks collecting sticky rice, money and other items from local people and tourists. There are many monks in Laos; many of them are young children.”
Don‘t miss: “The high point of my visit was a trip on a long, skinny boat up the MekongRiver to the Pak Ou Caves. High in the cliffs above the river and a place of pilgrimage, the caves contain more than 1,000 statues of Buddha in varying sizes. Water buffalo graze along the banks of the brown water in the MekongRiver, and the dense jungle comes to the edge of the river's bank.”
Jean Renoux plans the ultimate antique shopping tour of Paris.
It isn’t cheap to travel with Jean Renoux. But if Paris represents your ultimate shopping fantasy, he’s the guy. Renoux has been an interior designer in Sarasota for 27 years, a lecturer on art and architecture at universities around the country, and for the past two decades, the creator of custom tours that cost groups of six A-list clients $60,000 each to fly by private Gulfstream jet to the destination of their dreams.
Renoux grew up in Paris, where one of his first jobs was as assistant to film maker Louis Malle. Though you won’t get continuing education credits for this trip (as many of Renoux’s architect-guests do), his black book is filled with the stuff interior designers’ dreams are made of, for nowhere in the world is antiques shopping as diverse and as spiced with culture as it is in Paris.
In fact, Renoux begins his Paris shopping trips (whether they’re focused on couture apparel or home furnishings) with breakfast at the Louvre, followed by a private tour of the museum before it opens. “We go to Le Café Marly inside the museum,” Renoux says. “It faces I.M. Pei’s pyramid, and I love to go when sunlight first hits the building or very late at night when it’s quiet for a glass of Armagnac.”
Renoux’s shopping sprees are pre-arranged with appointments set well in advance. “Usually clients give me photos of what they are looking for—Louis XIV, Empire, Art Deco furniture; paintings, objects—so I can plan ahead,” Renoux explains. “There are hundreds of antiques dealers on both the Left and Right banks of Paris, and another 2,800 dealers in flea markets.”
Among his favorites: “Gabrielle Laroche specializes in medieval, Renaissance and 17th-century furniture. Not only does she find superb pieces, but she is nice and unpretentious. Another favorite is Camille Burgi, a gallery with extraordinary pieces from contemporary and impressionist art to furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries.” There Renoux recalls spotting a piece by Weisweiler, who made furniture for Marie-Antoinette. “They said if I were interested in buying that day, they would give me a $250,000 discount. Though it was an enticing gesture, I said I probably couldn’t afford the balance. I was right: The price was $1.5 million.”
He also takes his clients to Hotel Drouot, the oldest public auction house in the world. The 100-plus auctioneers operating here are visited by 5,000 professionals and amateurs every day. “I’ve seen everything from rusted bicycles to wonderful diamond art deco jewelry,” Renoux says.
At the other end of the spectrum are les puces (the flea markets) of Paris. Here, too, the range is extreme, from bric-a-brac to fine antiques. Renoux recommends Rosette Ridel at the Marche Biron for 18th- and 19th-century furniture and art objects, and Marie-Louise Roussat at the Marché Paul Bert. “Roussat has been the doyenne of the second-hand dealers there for nearly 40 years,” says Renoux, who makes a point of lunching at the market’s restaurant, Le Paul Bert, on every visit. “They have huge, delicious salads and the onion soup is famous,” he explains.
But for Renoux, no antiques shopping spree is complete without a detour to the countryside. “Really, my favorite antiques dealer is Alain Clerc, who has a beautiful house/gallery near the fabulous Chateau of Cheverny. Dealers come from Paris to buy from him. We have been friends for years, and when I visit he always has a great bottle of Cheverny [white wine] ready for me.”
Jean Renoux’s Paris
Eat at small French bistros and restaurants that are more for locals than the tourist crowd: Thoumieux, Le Bombis, Chez Michael, Chez Georges and Vaudeville (which is loaded with non-Parisians, but the food is decent, the price right and the Art Deco simply beautiful).
Stay at hotels that are classically elegant. For ultra-luxury, the George V, Hotel de Crillon and Hotel Plaza Athenee. But for a small hotel, the Hotel de la Tremoille is elegant but hip, a gem near the Champs-Elysées.
Shop at antiques stores that are welcoming, like Camille Burgi and Gabrielle Laroche. “I steer my guests away from some famous dealers of the Louvres des Antiquares who are far from warm; their attitude could spoil a wonderful trip.”
Kodak moment: “The sun rising over I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre at an early breakfast at Café Marly at the museum, or the same shot at night, with lights illuminating the pyramid as you sip a glass of the finest Armagnac.”
Don’t miss the unpretentious food at the romantic Coupe Chou. “After dinner you can have dessert, coffee and your favorite digestif in le petit salon, a sort of overfurnished living room.”
Jet-setting designer Adrienne Vittadini haunts fashion hot spots in Milan.
“Milan is my home away from home,” says Adrienne Vittadini, the former apparel designer who lived in Italy’s fashion capital during the early years of her marriage to Milanese native Gianluigi (Gigi) Vittadini. Now, with homes in New York, Sarasota, and Livigno, Italy, the couple still finds time to visit Gigi’s family in Milan five times a year as they travel the world for inspiration for AV Casa, their business venture building and designing luxury homes.
Vittadini hones her shopping list of Milan boutiques with the hard-nosed precision of a Vogue editor or Neiman Marcus buyer. “In Milano I look for things I won’t find in any other city; stores like Gucci don’t interest me there,” explains the Coty Award-winning designer, who was elected to Vanity Fair magazine’s International Best Dressed List in 1995.
In a city whose lifeblood is fashion, no one is more qualified to be a guide. Vittadini’s standard itinerary includes a day and a half of kamikaze shopping. “I can do the center of Milan in one day because I go in and out of the stores very quickly,” she explains. “On another day I hire a car and driver or a taxi to do all my little stores in the periphery—wonderful stores like 10 Corso Como, Biffi and La Tenda. They are all in different parts of the city, so you can’t take the subway. The traffic in Milan is so heavy this takes a whole afternoon.”
In a city where you can walk out of any hotel and find dozens of couture boutiques before crossing the street, super-shopping requires precise organization like Vittadini’s. She shops first in the fashionistas’ mecca known as the Qaudrilatero d’Oro (golden fashion rectangle). It includes two long parallel streets, Via Monte Napoleone and Via Della Spiga, which are connected to form the rectangle by Corso Venezia to the south and via Manzoni to the north.
“The heart of the Qaudrilatero is Via Monte Napoleone, and one should do it from beginning to end. Start at Piazza San Babilia and go all the way to Corso Venezia for all the big names from Prada to Gucci, Versace, Tod’s and Hogan for shoes,” Vittadini advises. Next she does the equally chi-chi but quieter Via della Spiga. “It’s the same thing; you are supposed to do it from beginning to end because each time you will find new stores popping up. Two of my favorites are Marisa, a small, wonderful boutique, and Marni,” she says.
Connecting Monte Napoleone and Via Della Spiga are tiny must-see streets on Vittadini’s itinerary. “The streets have holy names: Via Santo Spirito, Via Gesu, Via Sant’Andrea. If you cover these, you’ll find everyone from Jil Sander to Pomellato, a fantastic jewelry store that just opened its first shop in the United States on Madison Avenue,” Vittadini says. Pomellato reminds her of other favorite jewelers: “A great one is Al Gingillo on Via Gesu, and Cusi on Monte Napoleone is a find—I have all my rings set there,” she says.
Vittadini likes Banner, a boutique designed by renowned architect Gae Aulenti on Via Sant’Andrea for original trend-setting sportswear, and she recommends Biffi on Corso Genova in a shopping district outside the center to the south. “Both stores are owned by the same company,” she explains. “I go to Biffi all the time because it carries wonderful lines.”
Above all, Vittadini does not want you to miss the experience of 10 Corso Como. “The owner is Carla Sozzani. Her sister, Franca Sozzani, runs Vogue Italy, and so the trends in the magazine are seen here first. Upstairs they have an art gallery and a bookstore. They even have a small hotel and a wonderful restaurant,” Vittadini enthuses.
Adrienne Vittadini’s Milan
Take a shopping break with lunch at Bagutta. “It’s a fantastic place with great salads and wonderful pasta on Via Bagutta right behind Prada; everybody knows it. Also full of fashion people is Paper Moon—they have salads, too, and wonderful pizza.” Bagutta, Via Bagutta, 14, 02-76-00-09-02; Paper Moon, Via Bagutta, 1, 02-7602-2297.
Stay at the Four Seasons Milano; it was converted from a 15th-century abbey with beautiful Renaissance frescoes in the lobby and a cloistered garden. “It is on Via Gesu (Jesus); all the streets around it have holy names and the best couture in Milan.”
Shop at stores you can’t find at home. For jewelry, Al Gingillo and Cusi; and fashion at La Tenda, Biffi, Marisa and Marni and Banner. “I always stop to look at the jewelry at Pomellato.”
Kodak moment: “Bulgari has opened a stunning new small hotel by the famous Milanese architect Antonio Citterio, who is also known for product designs for Vitra and Kartell.”