Friday, March 29, 2013

Hip + Urban Girl of the Week: Si Si Penaloza

The Si Si Salute!
There is an energy that I just love about Si Si Penaloza. When I first met her, I was drawn to her boundless energy and big wide smile. My jaw dropped as I gaped in awe as she told me about her latest press trip abroad. I'm sure she's heard over a thousand times now how she has the BEST job in the world. Well, it's true. Si Si is a travel writer with a spa and wellness specialty and a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail. Yep, that's right. She reviews spas, luxury hotels, samples decadent food and jets off to exotic destinations for a living. Someone's gotta do it right? Meet Si Si, our latest Hip + Urban Girl of the Week!

How did you end up with a job as a travel and spa writer (aka the best job in the world)?

Plucky chutzpah, good old fashioned gumption and a dash of sheer luck. I was recruited by a dear friend and magazine editor, securing my first travel column in a glossy publication by my early 20s. At the time, most journalists I traveled with professionally had a decade or more on me. I remain appreciative of their camaraderie on those maiden voyages, sharing insights on the industry at large. I obsess on fresh angles and avenues in which to contextualize contemporary travel trends. I’m constantly scouring travel memes, memorizing maps, brushing up on new venues. When reading biographies, fiction or pop culture, I find myself tethering all this new intel to travel.

I get a rush from jet-setting from one timezone to the next - cultivating a mosaic of disparate experiences into a cohesive narrative thread. Professional travel writing endures as one of the last “generalist” vocations, where one draws from the canon of all human study — history, geography, religion, language, culture, art, literature, music, architecture, ecology, biology, anthropology, sociology, politics, philosophy.

How do you deal with jet lag?

Hydration, hydration, hydration. Smartwater and Vitaminwater Zero are my go-to in transit feel-good fluids. Upon stressful re-entry to YYZ, I rely on Benourished's Hangover Helper. Pineapple, coconut water and ginger to the rescue - this combination of ingredients replaces missing electrolytes, rehydrates, re-mineralizes, soothes the stomach and reduces nausea. I also stay up when I need to, and tea to get me to sleep when I need to, adjusting my body clock to local time as quickly as possible.

20 hour flights wreak more havoc on my complexion than my biorhythms. As a natural skin-care junkie, I rely on 889 Wellness’s skin-care treatments. Unlike other status facials that rely on resurfacing your face, 889's orchestration of chemistry, botany and aromatherapy yields an all-natural, holistic experience that feeds skin on a deeper level. 889 Yoga and Wellness inspires a near evangelical following; I for one would not be able to live and work at this level without this positive influence on my well being.

What are the essentials that you always pack in your carry-on?

How to pack is often as important as what to pack. For starters, I will never travel with any carry-on other than RIMOWA. For me, RIMOWA is the gold standard by which all other suitcases are measured. The abnormally lightweight design and 'off-the-charts' durability is nothing short of an engineering marvel - meaning I can pack the ever mounting collection of press materials and still stay under ever tightening weight restrictions. I love spotting the various sleek, sophisticated cases in feature films, most notably The Avengers, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Transformers.

First in my carry-on is my trusted Olympus E-PM1. With this compact SLR quality camera, I’ve effectively shot everything from a race between Usain Bolt and Prince Harry in Jamaica to a rare baby kiwi bird in the New Zealand bush.

On my last jaunt to Eden Rock St Barth I brunt myself a pleasurable pink with my overzealous surfing hubris. I needed to calm my cheeks. With one roll-on of Tata Harper's Replenishing Nutrient Complex, I’m riding on a high of feel-good endorphins. And redness, all gone.

On the fashion front, I always pack a classic little black dress - from Pink Tartan or Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu, my Cavalli vicuña wrap, Banana Republic ballet flats. For winter gear, my go-to one stop shop is Mountain Equipment Coop. I am inspired by MEC’s design ethos - privileging social and environmental responsibility as an inherent part of their conceptual process. My MEC gear is streamlined to fit into my carry-on, inspiring and enhancing all my snowbound adventures.

What is your favourite destination in the world?

Of course, hard to pick just one, so here’s my trifecta of hedonism:

1) Two Seasons Coron, Palawan. The hotel is a family venture, brilliantly led by my visionary cousin Jonathan Penaloza. His first hotel - the much-buzzed Two Seasons Boracay - is celebrated for its cool vibe and happening scene. Both Two Seasons delivers above and beyond in the most vital categories – prime beach location, gracious hospitality, beautifully appointed suites and incredible dining. Sure, there are other beaches where you can stretch out in golden, bone warming heat and swim in a healing saltwater sea. But where else can you do it in complete 5 star privacy and service? As far as Palawan is concerned, Two Seasons Coron is the only option in the region. Think multiple deserted sandbars with only the local birds as an audience. With its convulsive and rugged coastline – a thousand islands fanned out like a meteor trail – the Philippine islands offer a dizzying
combination of history and sun-drenched beaches. The most captivating jewel in this archipelago is most certainly the Two Seasons Coron (above).

2) Laucala, Fiji. Carved from a jungle that could dwarf King Kong, the sheer physical accomplishment of Laucala (above) literally blows my mind. In 1972, Malcolm Forbes bought the island as his private refuge; now its owner, Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz, has spared no expense to create one of the world's top tropical private islands. Laucala certainly changed my perception of the luxury category in Fiji, or anywhere else for that matter. It is one of a handful of hotels I have visited that defies categorization. Redeveloped at a staggering $30,000,000, the island now boasts some of the most stunning facilities in the Pacific, along with 25 unique over-the-top villas—all glamorous versions of traditional Fijian dwellings. I enjoyed touring Laucala's organic farm, equestrian stables, private jet hangars, and a James Bond–worthy collection of posh marine vessels
for trips to fertile reefs. There is also a sublime spa. Treatments here mean unwinding in secluded pavilions tucked into a lagoon, each one opening up to a garden worthy of a Paul Gauguin painting.

3) Kauri Cliffs, New Zealand. Poised above Matauri Bay with panoramic views to the Cavalli Islands, Kauri Cliffs epitomizes what I consider a pin-up property, evoking the same gut reaction as a pictorial spread of Bettie Page – unwitting drool followed by heart palpitations. Simply put, it’s the most desirable 6,000 acres on New Zealand’s north island. I can’t think of a more impressive trophy lodge on the planet, where you spoil yourself silly just by waking up in the morning.

Best spa you've ever been to?

Ananda in the Himalayas is my gold standard for the world's best authentic ayurveda wellness experience. Ananda is the go-to health hub for those in the know - flipping through the leather clad guest book, I spot the distinctive, gushing scrawls of Oprah, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie. A big part of reaching your newfound elevation is the spa’s unique brew of camaraderie and cheerleading. Ananda’s staff are, ultimately, its most meaningful asset. Earnest, affable service sans servility. The talent of young therapists – including many Tibetan refugees – offers a glimpse of an ancient tribe that reveres the gentle gesture.

What is your typical schedule like?

I spend on average 3 weeks a month researching 2-3 destinations, with 1 week at my home base in either Toronto or Southampton, England. In winter months, I use YYZ as my hub to  cover invitations to the Caribbean, Latin American and South East Asia. In the summer season, I base myself in the UK using LHR and GAT to cover off hotel openings in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Once a year, I will go long haul to Asia, Australia and/or New Zealand on 3 month editorial bender, banking stories for the year.

Tell us about some cool opportunities you've experienced because of your job!

I fell into travel writing via a joyful career in on-location celebrity interviews and film festival reportage. Career highlights include: Interviewing the cast of Babel and Shortbus in the same day at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. From Brad Pitt to John Cameron Mitchell in under an hour – social surrealism at its best. Catching a breathless moment with George Clooney at the Dubai International Film Festival on the eve of the Michael Clayton premiere. Nabbing a quote from Elizabeth Hurley at the Chopard gala and chatting with Halle Berry and Hugh Jackman at the XMEN 3 red carpet as an On-Air Host for Living the Life on CTV, E! and SKY.

I traveled through the Caribbean with Prince Harry and his entourage, as part of the official Buckingham Palace sanctioned press corp. I’ve raced the Top Gear team through the vineyards of Stellenbosch, South Africa on the launch of the Jaguar XK. I’ve also been known to trek the Himalayas in seersucker pajamas, track and cuddle baby kiwi birds at Cape Kidnappers, observe octopus at 80 feet below in Curaçao, surf mammoth waves in Byron Bay, frolick with the frisky penguins of Cape Town's Boulder Beach.

One of the greatest highlights of my career in travel writing? Getting to know the incomparable David Copperfield over a 5 day stay on his private island, Musha Cay. He is truly one of the most charismatic visionaries I have ever met; and such a warm, wonderful character to match. One part Casino Royale to two parts Blue Lagoon, add a splash of Vilebrequin swim trunks and you have Musha Cay, the ultimate lifestyle cocktail for movie moguls and captains of industry alike.

What is a disadvantage of your job that maybe we don't think about?

Little control over what I eat on group press trips. Every executive chef is intent on doing pirouettes to please us, serving up his or her greatest hits - which inevitably include rich and calorie-laden dishes. There's only so much seared crispy pork belly my BMI can take.

Where did you go for college/university and what did you study?

I graduated Magna Cum Laude in Literature from Bowdoin College, an elite private college in New England. I was drawn to studying with Professors William Watterson and Franklin Burroughs in the English Department, two of the top scholars in the region at the time. I then moved to Manhattan to study film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Is there anything you would have done differently or advise others about?

Find an area of expertise early, the earlier you find your niche the better. An area of expertise might be a physical or geological - Africa or Scandinavia, or coastal travel; or it may be an adventure specialty, such as extreme sports, soft adventure, golf, surfing or
Where are your favourite places to hang out in Toronto? 

As a founding member of the new Soho House Toronto, I often find myself there at the end of the night, after attending various industry or media events. The service sets the gold standard for the city.

Who inspires you?

Christine and Emily Russell, the sister entrepreneurs who founded 889 Yonge, are a major source of inspiration. Their love and devotion to our community and the environment is unparallelled. This is what gives their wellness repertoire a singular presence... a sense of vitality, an openness to the possibility of wonder in themselves and others. They also happen to be social geniuses. 

Carlos Lopes, General Manager of Hotel Bel-Air, is one of the most impressive hospitality pros I’ve ever met - a true maven. Kevin Brooke, General Manager at Aman Sveti Stefan, is gracious living personified.

What would you tell your 20 year-old self?

In the media industrial complex, engaging in inventive collaborations with a mentor is 90% of getting a solid start. But when it comes down to it, your writing skill and intellectual verve makes or breaks you. You can experience the most over-the-top adventure on earth, or speak five languages, but unless you can tell a story well, your career will stall.

What life advice do you have for hip + urban girls out there trying to figure out what they want to do?

Travel adventurously, read religiously, explore the craft of writing. Until you’re committed to developing your own narrative voice, you’ll be outdone by people who have. Professional travel writers earn their cred and expertise by traveling on their own steam, using their own
resources. So be prepared to take on of some of these expenses. Live overseas, even if for just a summer. Snag a magazine internship or work as an English teacher abroad to viscerally experience a culture at street level.


Looking for more inspiration? Meet some of our past Hip + Urban Girls of the Week


  1. Whoa, best job ever! Great feature with solid advice. Really enjoyed this one.

    1. Thanks so much Maria, and thanks for reading Hip Urban Girl! These girls are so very inspiring - I love what they do, and the community they have built. Thanks for your lovely comment.

  2. she has my dream job. she looks like one sassy lady.

  3. I hung onto every single word of this article! So well written and some great advice in here. Talk about a dream job!

    1. Thanks - every day is total blessing and I am so very appreciative. Thanks for your cool feedback Jenna!

  4. Natalia DziubaniwskyApril 18, 2013 at 12:38 AM

    Wow, I can't believe this job exists. Sounds amazing! As does that facial at 889! After 2 months of travel, my skin can use one of those! :)

    1. Natalia, the facial at 889 is totally off the dial - completely worth it. Enjoy a cocktail on the Thompson rooftop afterwards! :)