Posted on

Taichung: Many Happy Returns

We have always meant to check out Taichung and we got our chance finally last month when we were invited to a weekend pow wow.  And we will definitely be back. Even our Taiwanese friends ask us in all seriousness why we like Taichung so much.  We think it is a bit obvious, don’t you?  You mean besides the abundant sunshine, the short flight (under 2 hrs), the seriously good grub, the laid-back attitude, and the more humane pace and quality of life?  Taichung are all of the above and more from what we have seen and where we have been.  So here goes.

IVETTE

A small cup of coffee can gauge the vitals of a city anywhere in the world.  We are half serious, but we have done this so many time and it has been quite indicative.  Ivette is located in the Xitun district (an area where it is experiencing the greatest growth) and their coffee is one of the best we have tasted in town.  The moment you walk into Ivette you feel like you have been teleported to a chic cafe in Melbourne.  Their honest food policy meant that they source locally and seasonally and let the food do the talking.  They even have a small urban farm on the top floor that provides the edible flowers, fruits, vegetables and spices for the restaurant below.  You don’t want to leave this place once you have sat down.

MOLECURE PHARMACY

Straight out from the dreamscape of an Ursula Le Guin sci-fi novel, this pharmacy across from the National Taichung Theater by Toyo Ito stands at the crossroads between nature and science.  Cutting edge and traditional skincare remedies from both East and West are set against the backdrop of hanging gardens and even a double helix staircase.  There is even a small contemporary art gallery on the second floor.  Oh, and the super friendly and knowledgeable pharmacists make a mean cup of hand-dripped coffee, too.

TSUTAYA BOOKSTORE

Ever wonder why Japanese read so much?  It’s not because they have more time or enjoy reading more but because of their beautiful bookshops.  Tsutaya (“one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world”) opened very recently and it is already a hugely popular tourist destination as well as a safe haven for all bookavores.  Of the tribes who belong there, we add foodies as well since you can now enjoy the famous Doug’s Burger from Okinawa at the adjacent Wired Tokyo cafe.  This is a place where you definitely would not want to starve your stomach to feed your brain.

KIITO KIITO

Channeling your inner bohemian or French girl chic?  With brands and one-off pieces from Paris, New York, LA and Japan, this select shop will inspire the most seasoned fashion week front bencher to the closeted fashionista alike.  The high fashion and home items culled from antiques markets around the world are gloriously displayed in a romantically gritty industrial space that nails the New York loft look to a T.  The small but quality cafe deserves a bigger presence.

RAINBOW VILLAGE

Are you brave enough to add this to your itinerary because you will need about an hour to compete with all the other Instagrammers for wall space for those endless selfies (which you don’t mind really at the end)?  Far from the madding crowd this place is not, but you will be so rewarded if you choose to head over to this truly unique neighborhood. For one thing, you might get a chance to see Rainbow Grandpa (a nonagenarian!) in action.  He is the brains and brawn behind the colorful makeover of this housing complex for retired military defendants.  This place is a reminder that great art and great artists can be found outside of the establishments.

Posted on

Bangkok: Lessons in Experimentation

This year we have chosen Bangkok as our retreat destination and really splashed out on our big anniversary!  Yes, it has been 5 years since we first brought the gift card practice to our city’s most esteemed and exciting shops and restaurants. Therefore, it is not a surprise that we picked the Thai capital as it is, like our fair city, no stranger to anything that is new, fresh and exciting.  And, boy, are we impressed!  This is definitely the place to be if you want to take a pulse of what you are missing out on around the world.  From hospitality to retail to F&B and everything in between, there is something that we can take away and learn from in every sector of this energetic city. And, here is our little cheat sheet. Shall we?

In line with our philosophy of “gift well, made easy from wherever you are”, we are always available 24-7 online, even when you are in Bangkok!

Park Hyatt Bangkok

No one does hospitality like the Thais and this is not an overstatement. From the moment we stepped inside this lush and modernist hotel, we felt completely at ease. Like other branches of Park Hyatt, you have to take an elevator from the ground level foyer up to the lobby (this one is located on the 10th floor). From there you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Sukhumvit neighborhood of downtown Bangkok. Luckily, we got in early in the morning as rush hour is quite an experience in Bangkok! There is a quiet buzz around the hotel that is a unique combination of both a city and resort hotel.

The Living Room

This space is so much more than just a place to take tea and coffee. It was teeming with energy with business people speaking quietly on their cell phones, clicking away on their tablets, a group of entrepreneurs webex-ing via a laptop or travelers just enjoying a chilled glass of wine after taking on the Bangkok swelter and they all come together under this cathedral of a space (ceiling-height windows) filled with site-specific art and sculptures. The focused but extensive menu will satisfy any discriminating palate. We recommend the special black tea from Thailand and the sumptuous to-die-for pancakes.

Penthouse Bar & Grill

What do you get when you mix modern art deco with ‘Metropolis’ a la Fritz Lang? The answer is Penthouse Bar & Grill. Perched on the 34th floor of the Central Embassy, this restaurant-cum-cocktail lounge-cum-rooftop bar is truly a tour de force synthesizing what is best in F&B, hospitality, destination anchor and luxury.  The piece de resistance not to be missed is the vertiginous black-and-white striped grand staircase featuring a site-specific chandelier and vintage motorcycle. The futuristic decadent interior goes surprisingly perfect with the solid French cuisine and a selection of grill mains.  All of this is done in the hush-hush tone of a speakeasy set inside the plush lair of a modern-day dandy.

Open House

Touted as an eating deck, bookshop, co-thinking space, art tower, movie theater, design shop and open playground, Open House probably has the longest title ever when it comes to experimental spaces. It wears many hats and truth be told, excellent in every area imaginable. In fact, it is a microcosm of Bangkok – of all the things that they do so well here – like combining retail, co-working spaces, entertainment and F&B and somehow the whole is even more fantastic than the sum of its parts. Bravo!

Everyday Karmakamet

What is happiness? That is the million-dollar-question that this super cute local independent design concept shop is asking everyone and the answer offered is simply to ‘love your life’ and we suspect – lots of smiley faces. Building on the multi-purpose one-stop shop idea, Everyday has a tight and focused line of clothing, body care, home ware, stationery and lifestyle accessories and cafe that will have you feeling at your personal best. We recommend the quirky personality totes and tongue-in-cheek snow globes.

Posted on

The Short and Sweet Guide to Saigon

It was our first time in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) albeit a short trip and boy were we pleasantly surprised! The city is quite hectic with scooters coming at you from every direction (look both ways!), but we can definitely see why this has become the new hub for startups. We met entrepreneurs from all over Asia as well as those well-traveled ones from Europe as well as the US who’ve made this their new home to work on their startups. The city seems to be in a constant state of flux with construction at every corner. Getting an Uber here takes less time than in San Francisco, if that is even possible. Or you can get your Uber on a motorbike for about half the price. The co-working facilities and cafes are legit – the wifi is super strong with plugs everywhere and the serious coffee culture means you can pretty much work anywhere.

Here are some of our favorites that we’ve discovered along the way, let us know what you think!

L’Usine

We loved it here so much that we went to all 3 locations! Each location is unique in their own right. Our favorite is the one on Dong Khoi as it had the best coffee. Hint: The hidden entrance is through an unmarked arcade then up a serious flight of stairs. It has the most complete range of products of all the 3 shops.

We love their private label Trois Filles that offers day-to-night separates that are stylish yet comfortable in the humidity! A really great place for souvenirs for the design conscious as well.

Merci

Ladies with a penchant for self-pampering and everything pretty and colorful will feel in their elements here. You can get your personal housekeeping in order from head to toe (with champagne!) all without chipping your newly lacquered nails. We love their Brazilian de Luxe waterless manicure and pedicure. They get booked up fast so better to call in advance.

Maison Marou

We are not big chocolate eaters but this place is a must-visit for aficionados and tourists alike.  This is where we bought all our gifts for our besties – you know who you are! You can handpick your own flavors of chocolates if you go with their gift boxes so it’s as personalized as it gets.

The shapes of their chocolates are also thoughtful and kudos-worthy. Our favorite is shaped like a Vietnamese straw hat. Their red and blue gift boxes also make the dark chocolates stand out beautifully.

Must try their sumptuous chocolate chip cookies (perfect if you like your cookies soft rather than crunchy – they can heat it up for you) and iced chocolate. Everything is sourced, made, and designed in Vietnam – way to go!

The Workshop

This was one of our favorite spots. A serious co-working space for serious coffee people. Bring your labtop here to work and you will fit right in or sit here the whole day and sample the pages and pages of different coffee beans they have here.

A beautiful factory loft-like open space that will get your creative juices flowing. Get the window seats for an intimate tete-a-tete or try the bar for the ultimate handcrafted coffee experience with the knowledgeable and friendly baristas.

Le Spa Des Artistes

We tried quite a few different spas here and we always ended up coming back here. We stayed at the hotel too but didn’t realize at first that it had an award-winning spa!

You will find no fault with the environment. Super relaxing and calming. The massage is more of a therapeutic type so don’t expect an acupressure rubdown! The hibiscus hot tea at the beginning and end of the treatment was very yummy.

Hotel Des Arts Saigon

Service was just so so and uneven but more than made up for with a beautiful Indochina elegance that is both clean and modern that is hard to find in the city. The restaurant on the second floor is perfect for breakfast and late dinner (thank you Phuong for all your expert advice on what and where we should be getting our Vietnamese delicacies from!).

There is also an infinity pool and glass bridge at the top of the hotel that is not for the faint-hearted! Room is spacious and they give you handmade afternoon snacks and artisanal chocolates each day!

Posted on

Postcards from Bali

Bali has always been one of our all-time favorite vacation spots - the people, their generosity, the creativity, the rich culture and craftsmanship, the never-in-a-rush vibe (except during rush hour on a scooter). This is a place where we can stay for months at a time (and we really wish we could!) and a place anyone would be hard-pressed not to fall in love with. There are simply too many places that we love on this island, here are some of our most repeated and frequently-visited spots. Discover yours and let us know your favorites too!

Les Biches
A departure from the resort / beachwear focus of most of the boutiques (think modern Japanese avant-garde reminiscent of Yohji Yamamoto), Les Biches (means female deers) is a refreshing change where you can find a more edgy look that is also extremely wearable, but also make you stand out from the beach crowd.

Canaan
A one-stop shop for all your souvenir needs and picking up something interesting and beautiful from the local brands along the way. Everything here is carefully filtered and expertly edited – you won’t be able to find the goodies here anywhere else. We loved everything from the intoxicating sweet-smelling Balinese candles to the modern rattan bags. It’s also just a stone’s throw away from Potato Head and Katamama.

Nebula
A great place for brunch and breakfast and smoothies and everything in between. We love the chic monochrome interior, high ceiling, and the wonderful hospitality!

Jari Menari
At first, we were skeptical of any place that’s voted “best massage in Bali” but that went out the door as soon as our massage started. They are known for their all-male masseuse concept, but what makes this place truly amazing is the authentic Balinese method and technique of massaging your knots away that leaves you toned, calm, and rejuvenated. Leave your worries at the door and walk out with a sense of well-being and renewal. If you are pressed for time, the 45-minutes foot massage is a godsend. 

Souq
One of our favorite places for … well everything! There’s goodies from A-Z for the home and your closet. Be sure to stop by the cafe for the coffee and cakes – all handmade from their own kitchen. We recommend something savory such as the sausage rolls and chicken thyme pies. A great place to get some remote work done (we all work guys – even in Bali) or just to wile away the hours!

Dough Darlings
It’s not just donuts – it’s Dough Darlings! You never thought donuts can be this fresh and heavenly until you tried the ones here. We loved the caramel but why commit when you can have them all. The pop-up shop at the conveniently located Seminyak Village is a bonus … Darlings, you had us at hello.

Temu Coffee
Hidden behind one of the busy streets in Seminyak Square (watch your toes), this is the perfect place for a hideaway from the crowds. There is an uber cool stadium-like seating area on top of the see-through roof overlooking a courtyard. The iced cappuccino with ice cream here is to die for and worth coming back for everyday – which we certainly did!

Johnny Ramli
You can immediately tell how talented Johnny is when you walk through the doors. There’s something really exciting about Johnny’s designs – simple, classic shapes that are somehow made not ordinary. Whether it’s a play on texture or colors, it’s all communicated in a subtle, minimalist, edgy way. You would think you had walked into a boutique somewhere on the left bank in Paris known just through word of mouth. We loved this store so much we almost wanted to keep it to ourselves, but Johnny’s talents should be shared and enjoyed! We left feeling inspired …

 

Posted on

Congrats, Class of 2017!

It's that time of the year again, moms and dads. The end of the school year is fast approaching and the start of summer just around the corner! Before we get ahead of ourselves (summer camps and pool parties, anyone?), let's celebrate and give thanks to the educators who have helped our little and not-so-little ones through their ups and downs throughout the past year. Nothing new under the sun to gift? Here are some ideas to help you come up with something unique and personal ...

For the Teachers and Teaching Assistants: 

You know who they are, these are the people you and your kids have daily contact with for most of the year. They are the ones your kids depend and count on on a daily basis. They give encouragement to your little ones’ slightly wacky science project idea or come to their rescue when they’ve accidentally injured themselves during a baseball game. They are the constant supporters and cheerleaders.

We suggest something Restorative and Therapeutic: Almost anyone can enjoy an hour-long hand and nail massage (perfect for the sports or arts teacher). Or a therapeutic hair detox which is really great for anyone, I mean – everyone – who has to give 120% in this humidity on a daily basis!

 

For the Principal:

We have always gifted fabulous bouquets (personally arranged by our aunt who is an expert in the Japanese art of flower arrangement known as Ikebana) or giant exotic plants to our principals. The look of genuine, if not slightly embarassed, surprise on their faces and the look of envy on everyone else’s faces when the flowers are hand-delivered is priceless. They might not be the ones who have day-to-day contact with your kids, but their behind-the-scenes work and dedication are felt in every nooks and crannies of the school. Yes, they are the strategists and visionaries.

We suggest Shock and Awe: Get the biggest bouquet for maximum effect or use different colors, numbers, types of flowers or plants (being on good terms with your plant nursery helps) to convey your own personal message. Work with your own florist to create a one-of-a-kind bouquet! Never gift “as is” off the shelves! Your thoughtfulness or rather thoughtlessness will show.

Last but not least, the Graduates: 

This group is most deserving of a gift since they ARE the ones who actually did all the hard work, right? This group is your harshest critics and your biggest fans.

We suggest Digging through the Family Archive: Art is said to be edifying and corrupting to the young. It’s a double-edged sword that is perfect as a graduation gift. That long-forgotten favorite photograph taken by your kids during a family trip to Bhutan years ago will have the wow factor you want when properly magnified, printed, and framed. The more trouble you go through to do this (preferably the non-digital kind), the bigger the surprise. 

Note:  If you opt for a group gift, then our gift vouchers are your most stylish solution. With many parents all chipping in and coins flying around (yes, we’ve seen that quite a few times!), a gift voucher amount can easily be determined and divided equally amongst the parents. Plus, they’ll get the gorgeous packaging and the flexibility to choose their own shop or restaurant. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Congrats class of 2017! You’re almost there (parents too!)!

 

Posted on

Smile, You’re in Okinawa!

This was our first time in Okinawa and we loved the relaxed, easygoing, and anything-goes positive vibe. It's as if we’ve traveled back in time to when life was slower and less complicated. It’s a place so full of creativity, culture, and pride.

We especially love that at many of the spots we went, the only folks working there are the owners themselves – delivering a product they believe in to you, with heart and passion. We think this creates a connectedness and togetherness, a sense of neighborhood and uniqueness that can’t be easily replicated. In some places, we even saw the 2nd and 3rd generations working together on the floor. That just about made our trip.

And they’ve all figured out how to do this by having workable, sustainable hours such as 11 am – 7 pm or 10 am – 6 pm – so that they can take the rest of the day off. There was a restaurant we went to that’s only open in the morning for a few hours. What a concept. 

Say hello to some of our favorites, enjoy!

On Off Yes No

The philosophy behind many juice spots, or any health food shops for that matter, is to preach what they consider as healthy living. The idea for On Off Yes No, and where the name comes from, is not wanting to force a certain way of living on anyone. You can come here to get energized or you can come here to unwind at the end of the day – anything goes, hence the name On Off Yes No. You are free to choose…..not to mention the first-class juices that you can get here. (Their Facebook link)

Mahou Coffee 

A really serious coffee shop given the very specific way in which the owners want to present the coffee – from the zen atmosphere and a light jazz music in the background, to the very detailed process in the making of the coffee that uses specific utensils for each of the different drinks, down to the specific cups used to serve each type of drink, even the shape of the ice cube is considered! You cannot leave here without trying the dessert. The panna cotta has a generous layer of coffee jelly at the bottom, which contrasts so nicely with the sweeter creamy layer at the top. Literally to die for. (Mahou Coffee’s web site: link)

Faidama 

This was probably one of our favorite meals in Okinawa. We walked in at around 5 pm and felt so lucky when we were told that everything on the menu was sold out but there were still 2 dishes available, and they had just enough ingredients to make 1 plate of each! The 2 dishes turned out to be a soba and a pork with ginger set, which were completely unbelievable. The vegatables were so fresh they must have just came out of the garden. The food is served in beautiful signature Okinawa-style pottery. There’s also local Okinawa jewelry and produce sold in the restaurant that’s worth checking out. Magical. (Their Facebook link)

Mana

We really enjoyed our meal at Mana, which is a vegan interpretation of Okinawan cuisine done in a very cute and relaxing environment. Everything on our table was jam-packed with flavor and so colorful it was like a work of art. It was hard to believe that the “chicken” we were eating was not chicken at all, and that the curry lunch set was made entirely from beans! Everything was hearty and yummy, the ultimate comfort food. (Their Facebook link)

 

 

Posted on

The Growhouse Revolution

Nowhere in Hong Kong can you find a more tranquil and cozy local bookstore and one that's under the same roof of a cutting-edge enrichment program for children . . . until Growhouse. We're so lucky to have Jannie Tam, the Founder of Growhouse, talk to us about doing something no one has done before, what "content" means in today's selfie world, the best gift she's received, and why there's no better time than now to be in the book and education business.

Why did you want to start Growhouse?  I have been working in the content business for a very long time.  My major professional involvement included Disney, Time Warner and Dymocks.  Through such experience and exposure, I see the power of content.  It has been disheartening to see many bookstores gone.  What we do now is to stretch what a bookstore can do apart from selling books and merchandise; the decision is to extend into education retail.

How did the concept of Growhouse come about?  I realise books, films and any good content can work wonders if we know how to master the craft of reading and thinking.  It is no longer just showing you a movie, a TV show or a book. We need to demonstrate how to form our own opinions while we resonate with the moral of the stories and how to effectively express ourselves.  It is no longer a product driven business but a balanced product / service offering.

There are so much learning programs in Hong Kong, how is the Growhouse concept different from other enrichment programs?  Our programme is about “critical reading”, “cultural capital” and “global citizenship” through in-depth engagement with text in books and films.  No one has done it until London Gifted and Talented devised it exclusively for Growhouse through extensive research.  It is the first of its kind in the world.

What do you love most about the education and book business? What excites you about it? I am a book lover simply because it takes my mind to places way beyond my imagination.  And the education we are now engaged in is to show students not just to read for pleasure, but to analyse, empathise, resonate so as to find their own voice in this world.  There is no better business to be engaged in than this; it stirs my heart.

How do you cultivate the love of reading in children who have too much to do and too little time? Read what you resonate with; read it more than once.  Movie helps too.

I’m most proud of ….? My family which consists of two men (one old; one young) that are gentle and fun, both with a big heart.  They are the driving force of my life apart from myself. 

Best gift ever received? A mini plant from my son.  He knows me and Growhouse!

What would “happiness in a box” contain for you?  A mini photo album, a CD and a book of my choice. 

Books or e-readers?  Both.  Depends on if I want people to know what I am reading. 

My motto is….?  Take root below; bear fruit above.

I last celebrated….?  Mother’s Day and Growhouse’s second branch in Repulse Bay.  What a gift!

Which fictional character from a book (film) would you like to sit next to at a dinner party? Amelie; she might enjoy my company.

Hong Kong is like…..a fusion buffet restaurant.

If you could do one thing with a friend visiting Hong Kong, what would you do?  Dai pai dong lah, assuming it’s a western friend.

What do you do when you’re not working? Food, reading and social service with my family.

I’m happiest when I’m …..having my personal quiet time before a well-planned day either for family or for work.

Binged or paced reading? Depends on the day.

Find out more about Growhouse in person and online!

G/F BASKERVILLE HOUSE
13 DUDDELL STREET / 
22 ICE HOUSE STREET
CENTRAL, HONG KONG

G106 – 107A, THE REPULSE BAY,
109 REPULSE BAY ROAD,
HONG KONG

WWW.GROWHOUSE-LGT.COM

 

Posted on

Your Modern Country in Hong Kong

Yup, you heard it here - "modern country" is not an oxymoron. Fresca is something Hong Kong has been waiting for! Two Giftwellers happened to be on Hollywood Road on a Saturday and decided to pop in, and were lucky enough to meet the owner Ivy. Read on!

Ivy described the philosophy of Fresca as “modern country” – a concept that is oh-so-refreshing for Hong Kong.  She wanted to create a feeling of community, a neighborhood hangout. The vibe is clean, wholesome, not hurried, and full of positive energy – not a surprise to hear that even the customers volunteer here!

The food is all vegetarian, obviously with a healthy bent full of natural herbs and spices that will surprise the palate – such as the very yummy bean paste tofu, gluten- free muffins; the soups are also very nice with a lovely, velvety texture, SANS cream! Many of the vegetables and spices used in the food are even home grown by Ivy!

Even though we didn’t order anything on this first visit, Ivy was generous enough to give us samples of pretty much everything they had that day – not something you encounter every day in Hong Kong.

Also check out all the super cute and amazing ceramic pieces (both very large and small) – all of them handmade by the talented and differently abled folks at St. James’ Creation Ceramics Gallery.

There is a second floor of seating space and books on the shelf that you can read. You are what you eat and think, and Fresca’s got it. You will walk out glowing.