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Richard Branson’s Ever-Expanding Universe

Richard Branson Interview Virgin Galactic

I had the ‘lightning strikes’ chance to interview Richard Branson for a second time. I first met with him on-board Virgin America at the time of the then-new airline’s inaugural LA/New York flight. This go around,  on the precipice of his Virgin Galactic commercial launches, I chatted with him for a cover story for Delta Airlines’ Sky Magazine’s April 2014 issue, which is now out… Check it out below…

Richard Branson has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he carries it as if it’s draped casually over one shoulder—befitting a man whose workday is punctuated by tennis and kite surfing on Necker, his private Caribbean island. And he will temporarily shrug off that weight when he and his children, Holly and Sam, are thrust into zero gravity at the edge of space during the inaugural launch of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this year—making them the first private space-bound passengers in history.

After a series of delays, the press-fueled pressure is on. Such are the unpleasant side effects of trying to conquer this world and the next—from climate change to banking monopolies. “The program has taken longer than we’d expected,” the Virgin Group CEO admits dryly, “but it is rocket science, and rocket science, as we’ve discovered, is difficult.” It’s a challenge Branson is happy to take on—even for a mere 30 seconds of bobbing around in 4.5 g loads—as the long-term ramifications are vast.

Clearly, others are willing to do whatever it takes to hitch the ultimate ride as well—wheelchair-confined physicist Stephen Hawking chief among them. “[The space flight] is going to be challenging for him and for the people who go up with him,” says Branson. Environmental scientist and author James Lovelock will face his own set of hurdles going into space at 95. “He’s keeping himself as fit as he can to make sure he can enjoy it.” The list of luminaries who’ve paid the extravagant $250,000 ticket price for a chance to follow in Branson’s free-floating footsteps reads like the table of contents of an issue of Vanity Fair, which has added to the media scrutiny.

The British entrepreneur dismisses the notion that Virgin Galactic’s flights will merely be joy rides for billionaires, citing the history of the first transatlantic flights. “It cost the equivalent of $250,000 in the 1920s to fly across the Atlantic,” he says, “It was those people who could afford it who were the pioneers and enabled hundreds of millions of people to fly across the Atlantic in the years since.” The roughly 800 individuals who have bought Virgin Galactic tickets so far, concedes Branson, are “all wealthy people, but without them our program would never have gotten off the ground.” Besides which, he is already brainstorming a way in which thousands of everyday people, “cleaners, dustbin drivers, coal miners or whatever, will have a chance to go to space.” The modest goal: “to democratize space travel.”

For decades, space tourism has been positioned as the next big thing in travel—from journeys to the moon to space station hotels. Although Branson doesn’t yet have any plans to launch a trendy five star in the stars, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico, designed by British starchitect Norman Foster and his team, certainly looks the part. And that’s not all: “We will be building a very sexy spaceport hotel in New Mexico next to our spaceport,” Branson divulges.

In the meantime,  a bit closer to home, Virgin will launch… Read My Full Richard Branson Article on Delta Airlines’ Sky Magazine Website

3D Printing’s Tipping Point Tour: London, New York, Paris

This is a little shorty I wrote up for British Airway’s High Life magazine on the 3D printing revolution. This has been going on for years but only hit the tipping point into mainstream consumption in the past year or so.

The stuff looks outlandish like it’s out of a Luc Besson film or something so I’m not sure how mainstream it will get (after the initial novelty wears off) but I’m sure the tech will advance quickly and we’ll see more wearable stuff come out in the years to come.

My only gripe with it is that so far the rudimentary tech produces garments that look like they’re all cut from the same cloth, so to speak – a kind of uniformity that exists in tech which I abhor (pret-a-porter for the net-a-porter generation).

3D Printing Show London New York Paris

The Global Coffee Cult: A Magical Circle

Global Coffee Cult Barista Magic in London

It’s a certifiable fact of life that a life without coffee is not worth living. But for me, the quotidian quest for caffeine goes beyond this. It intoduces a much needed ritual, something that has been dying a slow death in the digital age. It also gives one something to seek out. So with each new city or town visited comes the search for the perfect cup of Joe.

However, in my daily life in London, my little coffee treks (near and far) seem to have an added element: a sense of serendipity and grace found in simple transactions and connections with strangers — also a rarity in this increasingly ‘faux connected’ yet disconnected post-FB world.

Walking into an Italian restaurant for my morning fix and accompaniment and finding that the bill came to £3.01, a stranger in the queue handed me 1p so that I could avoid every Londoner’s nightmare: the clump of small but heavy change. His kind (but obviously not incredibly valuable) act made my day. For the rest of it, everything seemed to go — stemming from this minor coffee-related act.

Another time, I ordered a cappuccino and the server was about to get me my change when an elderly woman came up and paid for some baked goods with exact change (amounting to what I needed to get back in exact change, right down to ‘and 20 p’).

The other day, after I’d received my coffee at a neighborhood coffee spot, a man asked me if I collected loyalty card stamps and let me take two of his. It’s easy (for me) to assume that these funny little insignificant incidents amount to some kind of divine symetry when it comes to the purchasing of coffee. I have a Buddhist heart and so it’s the simple ‘little things’ that bring me joy. And I’m not even talking about that truly miraculous occurrence: the gratis cup of coffee.

But I’ve also befriended plenty of baristas (the good ones with integrity, who labour over the perfect single cup of coffee) and gotten the chance to hear their life stories and philosphies over a cuppa — from Lilly’s Coffee Cart in Laurel Canyon (LA) to Tania’s Coffee Cart in Hampstead (London).

Such conversations are not always so serious and heavy. One of my favourite baristas, an adorable hip fellow in Notting Hill took to loaning me DVDs of his favourite films so we’d have something to chat over when I came to coffee — a sort of cinematic coffee club à-deux.

Ultimately, I believe, that rich nutty aroma, the warm but perfectly bitter taste, the perk you get from that first cup of coffee in the morning, collectively amount to magic — a magic that finds a way of spreading into everyday mundane and profound transactions.

Escape From Notting Hill — A London Staycation Adventure

Great Northern Hotel lounge, King's Cross, London

Great Northern Hotel lounge, King’s Cross, London

Each year, over the late August UK bank holiday weekend, residents and merchants in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood batten down the hatches and prepare for a storm of sorts — nailing large sheets of wood to buildings’ facades and sealing off fences and access points to their residences and retail outlets.

Despite the local multicultural traditions that the annual Notting Hill Carnival upholds and its aim of fostering community, many residents experience the raucous event like the prospect of an out-of-control party being held in their homes, and pack up their bags, leave, and brace themselves for the worst upon their return.

Likewise, each year, I join the mass exodus, taking off for some nearby locale. One year it was a stylish B&B in a small Cotswolds town; another, a two-day sojourn in Thames-side Richmond Hill. I have come to realize that there’s no sense fighting it; my annual departure from W11 has become both a personal tradition, and an unexpected means of discovering nearby areas and new hotels and inns — some practically on my proverbial London doorstep.

This year, I got the opportunity to experience a couple of new hotels in two very distinct London quarters — South Kensington and King’s Cross.

I breezed through the former upscale museum-side area for a dosage of culture, fresh, creative food and a visit to the relatively new 111-room Ampersand Hotel. The artistic and botany and ornithology-inspired boutique property (opened in late 2012) is more modern than its 19th century facade reveals.

Staying in The Ampersand’s deluxe room presented the rare London luxury of space in which to sprawl out. For about £40 more than a superior chamber, it offers plenty of room in which to luxuriate; my favorite self-pampering spot being its comfortable and luxe double-sink bathroom with rainfall shower, tub and in-tub telly, featuring handy bath-time accoutrements like a loofah and hotel-branded rubber ducky.

With so much going on in the area — effectively the playground of the young Sloanie set who once partied at nearby Boujis — less socially adventurous culture vultures seeking a tranquil night’s sleep may want to request one of the hotel’s back rooms. However, the property is perhaps best suited to those wanting to zealously drink and dine.

Just steps away from Madsen, a laid-back Swedish restaurant with fresh, clean food and a short walk from lively Old Brompton Road tapas spots like Tendido Cero, and campy after-hours watering holes like the Nam Long Le Shaker, The Ampersand is well-positioned for cool night crawls.

However, visitors stopping by for more low-key creative inspiration thanks to the close-by Victoria & Albert and Science Museums, are likely to revel in one of the hotel’s best features: its charming Drawing Rooms restaurant. There, amidst lilac hues and playful and vibrant furniture, afternoon tea, lunch, coffee are served, including a cornucopia of sweets like raspberry hazelnut meringue slices and ‘Intense Chocolate Tarts.’ Although it’s not specifically offered, breakfast can (and should) be requested in this Wonderland-esque salon.

The next stop on my Notting Hill exodus/London staycation was the Great Northern Hotel. Opened in the spring of 2013 in the burgeoning and culturally exciting King’s Cross/St. Pancras railway station neighborhood, it is an uber-stylish high-end boutique hotel gem. Although there are some intriguing up-and-coming spots worth checking out in this hip quarter — like French chef Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store restaurant and the craftsy-cool Drink, Shop & Do — one could almost use the Great Northern as a city resort and barely leave its pleasant confines.

The hotel’s destination restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk is lorded over by none other than Mark Sargeant, who did a 13-year head chef stint at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred Claridges restaurant. The rich and tasty food consists of elegant and upscale takes on traditional British fare — a fine example of which is the creamed smoked haddock with poached hen’s egg (a small but indulgent meal in itself).

The cuisine is only perhaps upstaged by the stunning dining setting replete with a privy corner view of the railway station area (soon to be more glorious upon completion of its refurbishing), dangling hand-blown glass lights and neo-Deco furnishings. The adjacent petite bar (also upstairs) with its charmingly cluttered paintings and fragrant signature cocktails feels a bit like a literary lounge in which a contemporary Zelda and F. Scott might imbibe libations and playfully pontificate, sans the undignified distraction of tech devices.

There is a private club feeling to the whole establishment with its much-appreciated double-glazed windows and locked (to non-guests) floor entrances. The hotel’s extra-wide hallways are also a rarity. They were fashioned during Victorian times to accommodate the full-style dresses women often wore. An added modern, communal touch: pantries on every floor, stocked with gratis tea, coffee and edibles for guests.

The rooms — masterfully designed by the architects at Archer Humphryes, featuring hand-crafted furnishings– also delicately straddle the line between modern/contemporary and retro (’20s/’30s).

Of the hotel’s three room styles, two pay homage to the property and area’s historical railway past: the Cubitt (named after Lewis Cubitt, the master builder behind the property’s first iconic incarnation in 1854) and the Couchette (a small, contemporary rendition of a train sleeper carriage with a geometrically riveting view of the top of the King’s Cross concourse). The other is the oaky and masculine Wainscot.

Although there is no traditional central front entrance to the railway-side boutique hotel, I originally accidentally discovered it through its downstairs bar, which feels a bit more modern and night owl-conducive than the aforementioned literary lounge. Thankfully, serendipity and happy accident led me there… and continue to lead me to explore new areas and hotels like The Ampersand and the Great Northern, each year at Carnival-time.

Originally Published in Huffington Post | Travel

Chic Trek Videos: Cape Town – 2014 World Design Capital (VIDEO)

A visit to Cape Town, South Africa, home of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, The Table Bay Hotel and designated World Design Capital for 2014.

Bucolic Wales

Thought I would share my photographic moments at Primrose Organic Centre in the Powys (Wales). The place was manned by this amazing character named Paul. I believe he was English and he was wholeheartedly committed to permaculture and growing veggies the natural way. After he proudly displayed his solar panel, I told him he’d have to pay a visit to California as there are loads of people who share his sentiments.

Paul Benham Primrose Organic Centre Wales

Photo by Shana Ting Lipton

Photo by Shana Ting Lipton

Primrose Organic Centre Wales

Photo by Shana Ting Lipton

Of course, I got the vibe that this part of Wales–Brecon Beacons–was a place where many non-Welsh (or perhaps English) tune in, turn on and drop out of their fast-paced city lives. Like the Cowichan Valley (in British Columbia) it seems to attract both yuppie entrepreneurs ready to cash out and set up farm-related businesses (vineyards and apple orchards) or die-hard old hippies still living the dream of living off the land.

Brecon Beacons in Wales, Primrose Organic Centre

Photo by Shana Ting Lipton

Primrose Organic Centre Wales

Photo by Shana Ting Lipton

An American’s Search For London’s ‘Personal Bubble’

American Expat Living in London England

By Shana Ting Lipton

[originally published on Huffington Post | Travel]

…Any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally…

Anyone who has ever lived in Manhattan is familiar with the term “personal bubble.” Although invisible, it is the nucleus of a New Yorker’s life. It promises — in a city of 8.2 million — a safe zone, not to be penetrated by the masses.

You may be centimeters away from four sweaty people in a crowded space, so close you can smell what they ate for lunch — yet, despite this proximity, eyes shall not meet, actions shall not be acknowledged and personal space shall not be violated. Such unwritten codes keep urban denizens from going mad via overwhelm and confrontation in such overpopulated milieus.

So, masses of Manhattanites grumble to themselves, exhale after a long day, roll their eyes when seeing something irritating and so on, with little fear that their private expressions shall be viewed and then confirmed by another humanoid. Quite simply put: They are ignored.

I’m quickly learning that although there are crossovers between London and New York living, the rules are essentially different in the former. Actually, when I first moved to London, I found the cultural learning curve quite flat — compared to my move to Amsterdam. London, like New York, is highly populated (7.8 million, I believe) and of course a very sophisticated, international city. Londoners are busy, busy, busy and that’s a good thing.

People are generally not too needy but rather independent. There’s a group social dynamic, but because everyone is preoccupied with juggling the many facets of London life, adjustment (for a international city-dweller like myself) is fluid…save for one social no-no I have inadvertently engaged in time and again.

Although stiff upper lips abound around these parts, I have found the aforementioned “personal bubble” to be, generally speaking, absent (save for during Rush Hours on the Tube). However, any externalization of emotion — through sighs, furrowed brows, and general visual signs of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. — seems to be frowned upon, figuratively if not literally, as that would be engaging in said no-no. Such gestures are also called out.

Sometimes this can be heart-warming. You’re having ‘one of those days’. Soaking wet from a windy rain. You have an asthma attack whilst chasing a bus. Its doors close in your face, the driver grins wickedly and peels out. You’re soaking wet, have ripped your stockings and finally, wheezing like an old man, you manage to hobble onto another bus when an ornery driver berates you for swiping your Oyster card when the machine is broken.

That final straw, along with hormones, drive you to tears. Then, a kind stranger leans in and says, “The bus driver was quite rude. Are you ok?” You have no desire to engage as the combination of your tears and mascara have transformed you into ‘The Crow’ but you’re thankful for his concern, nevertheless.

On other days, the lack of ‘bubble’ feels intrusive. Your computer has randomly sent out multiple emails to the same people transforming you into a spammer in the eyes of esteemed colleagues. It crashes. You spend three hours waiting in the Apple store only to hear ‘iCan’t’ (fix your laptop). Downtrodden, you shuffle home, slumped over, exhaling as you think of ways to erase the day’s events when a complete stranger looks you in the eyes and blurts out, “Cheer up mate, it might never happen.” He means no harm but his scant few words have externalised and validated your internal worries.

Then there are the times when someone has shoved you and stepped on your foot, without so much as an ‘excuse me.’ A verbal, “ouch!” is your regrettable knee-jerk reaction. At that point, you’ve invited someone to step inside your bubble and proverbially stomp around with careless abandon in Doctor Martin boots. You will be confronted, and firmly reprimanded, as I discovered: ‘What are you complaining about? It was as much your fault as it was mine’!

Curious and perplexed by these and other confrontations in such a mannered albeit highly populated metropolitan centre, I asked some of my English friends for illumination. They all seemed to concur that this behaviour relates to the ubiquitous ‘stiff upper lip’ philosophy. The idea of expressing displeasure through facial gestures would be the opposite of holding it together, I learned. What was easily ignorable in New York, displays as a neon light festooned billboard in London–especially for someone like me whose face betrays her emotions.

As someone who was born in London but has moved about from Hong Kong to LA to New York to Amsterdam, I’ve spent my life studying cultures and analysing how my behaviours are received in them. I try to adapt as much as I can without being dishonest about my quirks and God-given flaws.

So, I wouldn’t say that this essay amounts to a gripe or a public complaint, but rather an attempt to understand it for myself. But I suppose it’s quite the opposite of keeping a stiff upper lip. Instead, mass-blogging about my take on such social mores is quite simply the literary equivalent of furrowing my brow and expelling air.

The Micro-Light, Super-Fast Private Jet of the Future

Lisa Akoya Amphibious Jet

I have to admit that private two-seater jets usually give me a bit of a fright…but not the Lisa Akoya, perhaps because it’s so aesthetically engaging and its specs make me go gadget-gaga.

Like so many stylish things before it, it was born in France. While other mere mortal commercial airplanes travel 500 mph, this one goes a whopping 1300 mph! It’s super-lightweight as is visually evidenced by its positioning on the yacht below with Seafoil tech and folding wings.

Lisa Akoya Amphibious Jet

The price tag is a decadent 300,000 EURO (approxiately $390,000). But that gets you the turnkey special, including maintenance and so on.

It’s being introduced to North America later this summer at the EAA Air Venture (the largest air show on the planet), and is apparently predicted to become the new international standard in its class.

And yes, it’s often rented out to eccentric James Bond villains… Did I mention it has two seats? One for you and one for your fabulous hairless cat.

Richard Branson Really is Mr. Cool!

Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic Launch Special Ice Cubes

Is it a coincidence that the first four letters of the tirelessly cool Virgin founder’s surname are the same as the first four letters of the word ‘branding.’ Branson and branding go hand in hand. And apparently they also go ‘ice cube in glass.’

Now Richard Branson, maestro of marketing has fashioned an ice cube in his image to be placed in drinks on Virgin Atlantic flights. Yes, it’s also a wee bit disturbing. The details go right down to his Cheshire Cat-like toothy grin. But it’s also kind of brilliant.

Apparently, Sir Rich wants passengers to feel as though he’s flying with them or at least finding a way to melt in their mouths… eeuww!

The cubes do look pretty state-of-the-art fantastic and that’s because they are just that. Virgin enlisted four designers to work on the degradable works of portrait art. It took them six weeks to create the crafty cubes using detailed photographic techniques and laser scanning tech.

What next? The sky’s the limit…literally. Perhaps they could find a way to embed Branson’s likeness in some freeze dried space food for Virgin Galactic.

Chic Trek Videos: Marrakech – The Red City Rises (VIDEO)

Snapshots of sights, sounds and the biennale, from my first trip to Marrakech. I got the chance to stay in a palatial 19th century suite at Angsana Riads Collection in the heart of the Médina. The three-day trip was a whirlwind, but I managed to capture some initial impressions of the fantastical North African city whose crimson and ochre hues and purple haze inspired the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, The Rolling Stones and, more recently, Sofia Coppola.