Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Friday, September 19, 2014

Gardens, Glamour & Getaways of the US East Coast

You know how some places in the world sneak under your skin and into your heart and never really leave? Well, I have a few of those, and particularly in the US. There are some corners of America that are so startlingly beautiful – so unexpectedly beguiling – you can understand why some Americans don't feel the need to travel far.

In fact, when my two kind-hearted but slightly bossy business partners (and fellow tour guides) suggested I needed to do a post on our fantastic US tours in 2015, I was a little reluctant to reveal these travel gems. (It's also only fair to keep some 'secrets' for the tours.) But they persisted. And so I'd like to show you why everyone should visit the US at least once in their lifetime. Even if you're a diehard Francophile, places like New York and Nantucket will seduce you in ways you couldn't have anticipated.

This is my love song to a country I never thought I'd like as much as I do, and now can't bear to leave.  

Oh – and if you're thinking of travelling somewhere next year and don't know where to go or have anybody to go with, come along with us on our Gardenesque Tours. 
Please visit for more info and some lovely testimonials.

Nantucket is arguably one of the prettiest villages in the world. It is so perfect, it's like a stage set. You almost can't believe a place can be so sublime.

It's island neighbour Martha's Vineyard is rather fine too, but first let me show you why Nantucket is worth a peek. Put your walking shoes on. We're going for a wander.

The island has one main town (confusingly, both are called Nantucket) and its stunning streetscapes will test your camera card. The place has a timeless feel, with cobblestoned streets and authentic architecture: even the lampposts have a gas-light look when they glow. The island has done a superb job of preserving its past, despite the challenges.

There are dozens of grand Neo-Classical, Greek Revival and Federalist mansions (most still private homes) lining the tiny beach lanes, all built by ships' captains, and all now being bought by people like John Kerry and Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.

I heard a great story about a local who owned one of these beautiful mansions. This man received a phone call one morning asking how much he'd sell his house for? Nonplussed, he plucked an unrealistically high figure from the air. "Done!" said the person on the other end and the house was sold.
It turned out to be Google's Eric Schmidt.

I don't know how true the story is, but Eric's wife Wendy bought the local bookshop to save it.
I think that's more impressive than the first story.

Nantucket is the kind of place you can wander (or cycle) for hours. Rose-covered cottages and sandy lanes lead to more hydrangea-filled gardens and dolls-house-cute dwellings – complete with wicker baskets on front doors for postmen to drop mail into. 

The wharf area is lined with gorgeous waterside cottages, some with names like 'Mostly Quiet' or "Almost Happy', while in one street – 'Joy Street' – all the houses are called 'Joyful' or 'Jump for Joy'. Don't you just love the sound of that?

There are also a lot of great bars down on the wharves, which have fantastic views out over the water, and the boats, and that soft sea light.

I've been lucky to have visited both Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard four times now for work, and have befriended a few gorgeous people – one of whom is a wonderful designer who's going to show our tour group around. She's Hilary Clinton and Martha Stewart's favourite milliner. 

This is her studio, above, which her son now manages. Gorgeous, non?

 There's a gentle rhythm to Nantucket; a lovely, languid island feel to the place.

Sure the boutiques are stylish, but you can tootle about on a bike in flip-flaps and nobody cares.

In fact, despite the huge wealth, it's surprisingly egalitarian. My friend, the designer Gary McBournie, has a house on Nantucket and says his summer parties are a mix of tradesmen and businessmen/politicians, gay and straight, rich and happy. Apparently they're a blast. 

Our tour group has a whole weekend on Nantucket, staying at this beautiful new hotel with a side trip to Martha's Vineyard. 

They're going to love it. 

If you think Nantucket is lovely, wait until you see Martha's Vineyard. 

Larger and with more villages to explore, it has a different 'feel' – it's less intimate than its neighbour and harder to get around, but full of contrasts. 

Edgartown is full of black-and-white houses that will make an architecture lover gasp.

The island's beach houses, meanwhile, will make you mute. 

This one was one I photographed for a book on beach houses. 
Such a treat to see inside, but you can gain just as much from the beach. 

I actually preferred the colourful cottages of Oak Bluff. But people are allowed to make up their own mind. I suspect our tour is going to have a great time...


New England as a whole is homespun America: authentic, mostly untouched in its landscapes, and utterly beguiling in its simplicity. At first glance, the poise and lack of pretension is refreshing. It's the original beauty queen; the America of lobster bakes and red buoys and rosy lighthouses; of postcard harbours and charming hotels with sailboats bobbing out front. It's dignified, and understated. Vegas is a long, long way away. 

Perhaps my favourite parts of New England are the gardens. 
They're worth flying across the world for. Honestly.

Legendary New York designer Bunny Williams, who opens her garden for charity every year (our tour group is going), is so ambitious it's breathtaking. Her head gardener told me she came home from Villandry and announced she wanted to design something similar. So he did.

Just look at her chicken coop, above. 
Wait until you see her pool house. And her garden library.

Many of the owners of the grand mansions and homes in Connecticut kindly open their gardens each year for charity. This was one we visited. The garden was astonishing. 
(Our group will be visiting four just-as-beautiful private gardens.)

New England's villages, particularly those in Litchfield and the Sharon corner, are also charming to the point of ridiculous. 

One village is so famous for its idyllic homes and stylish shops that New Yorkers make the weekend trek just to buy garden gear.

This was my favourite store. 
Look at the beautiful chartreuse colour of the walls. 
It reminds me of Nicole Kidman's controversial Galliano dress at the Oscars one year.

Even the village waterfalls are spectacular.

But there is heartache here too. 

The story of author and heiress Edith Wharton's tragic life will make you pensive, and grateful for your own happiness, health and home, however humble.

If there was one thing she had that brought her joy, it was her enormous garden. 
In fact, I think Edith Wharton was a better gardener than a writer. 

Before she left the US and fled to the French Riviera, she created a haven of formality and grace in this corner of Massachusetts. Her mansion is serenely elegant and full of delicate colours (and alarming ghost stories), but it's her garden where the magic really happens. 
(This is on the tour too.)

Two other unmissable places in this corner of the US are Trade Secrets and Brimfield. 

The former is a gardening fair, a horticultural hideaway loved by Carolyne Roehm, Oscar de la Renta, Martha Stewart and more. The latter is an antiques fair – the largest outdoor antiques fair in the world – where stylists from Ralph Lauren and J Crew stores trawl the stands for quirky vintage bits and pieces. Great info is here.

They're difficult to get to, and it pays to have a guide to organise the logistics. But they're fantastic places to pick up unique treasures.

They're on our tours too. Come with us; we'll chauffeur you there.


And at last we come to one of my all-time favourite places, New York. You haven't seen the world until you've been to New York. 

I adore New York, particularly the flip side of the city, away from the tourists and cliches. This is the 'real' New York you need to see: the secret gardens and the sweet little fashion and design museums; the gorgeous cafes (just Google Caffe Storico), and the glamorous under-the-radar hotels.

New York is a city that, like Melbourne, takes a little while to get to know. Just as you can with some people, you can get the wrong end of the stick here, but don't let the wrong impression put you off. Try again.

 Just as people do, New York will surprise you.

'Rome may be a poem pressed into service as a city,' as Broyard once put it, but New York is an energised, entertaining and stimulating editorial, bashed out with Carrie Bradshaw-style zeal. It's a collection of cliches and exclamation marks that surprised and enlivens you in equal measure. 

If you're looking for inspiration, this town's your place. 

In fact, go over and claim the trip as tax! (R&D) You'll get all sorts of ideas and inspiration here. 

I first saw New York when I was eight: my adventurous schoolteacher parents had taken us around the US for 2 months, but all I remember was getting lost in a Shaker village called 'Intercourse' and arriving in Manhattan. I understood neither, but was thrilled by the names all the same. 

Anything can happen in New York and always does. Once, a town car stopped when he saw me trying to hail a cab. It was one of Martha Stewart's regular drivers. He said she was lovely, and told me stories that made me admire her all the more, despite her faults and failures. Then he told me how he'd recently driven Rod Stewart around, accompanied by two blonde hookers in states of undress. They all wound down the windows and sung 'Forever Young', very loudly, as they drove uptown.

That's New York for you.

New York's going through a huge revival at the moment. The Flatiron Design Quarter has become a buzzing neighbourhood, Bryant Park and the Garment District is being reinvigorated with fabric-focused hotels and great hideaways, and the Upper East Side has found its old glamour, after a few years of being pushed aside in favour of downtown. (The UES is FULL of great houses, architecture, museums, boutiques and gardens. Don't miss it on your visit!)

I'll post some some of my New York places on the blog this weekend, in case you're considering going next year. 

So pop into the blog this weekend. 
We'll get rid of those "little town blues" for you!

(Or buy the new book, which MUP is offering 30% off via their website. 
Go to, and enter the promo code  NYSTYLE30  on checkout.)


  1. I agree Wendy saving the bookshop is more impressive, wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to do that ? ...talking of books I'm so impatient to read Picnic...

    New England looks fantastic , sandy lanes ? those I'd love to see , sounds very Summer of 42. Nantucket has a fascinating history too.

    You never know Janelle one day I just might join you, in the meantime keep the pics coming (please)

  2. I'm quite sure I'd love your garden tour.. but planning on going to France next year, so will have to put it on the bucket list... in the meantime I really enjoy reading about the proposed itinerary - it sounds wonderful.
    I went to Martha's Vineyard last year, and we were only there for a day. It was so beautiful. The lanes, flowers and houses were all picture perfect and such a contrast to the mansions in Newport RI.
    Enjoying your blog as always.


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