Tip Sheet

Spending lazy country-house afternoons discussing the latest books isn't just for the landed gentry of eras past. This summer's literary festivals take place in more diverse locales--mansions, palaces, marquees and theaters across the world--but their relaxed surroundings still spark stimulating debate. TIP SHEET leafs through festivals for the smart set:

Brazil The coastal village of Parati is the unlikely home of Brazil's star-studded FLIP festival, where writers are feted like rock stars. This year, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk will descend on the town, 320 kilometers south of Rio de Janeiro; Rushdie will launch his new novel, "Shalimar the Clown." (July 6-10; flip.org.br )

Germany In Berlin, an international jury shortlists participants for the city's recently established Internationales Literaturfestival, putting together a cutting-edge cast of more than 100 authors. This year Mexico's most celebrated novelist and historian, Carlos Fuentes, gives the opening speech; Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe and dissident Cuban journalist and poet Raul Rivero also present readings and talks. (Sept. 6-17; literaturfestival.com )

Italy A more hedonistic air prevails at the annual Festivaletteratura in Mantua, near Milan. The town throws open lavish Renaissance palaces and private gardens, which form delightful backdrops to discussions with authors--including, this year, Jostein Gaarder, Nick Hornby, John Grisham and Roddy Doyle. (Sept. 7-11; festivaletteratura.it )

Scotland The highlight of Edinburgh's International Book Festival, which features 500 authors, will be a series of discussions titled "Nations Unlimited," covering such issues as identity, borders, immigration, exile and religion. Edinburgh's literary fortnight coincides with the city's Fringe Festival, the largest arts fair in the world, so visitors can also take in plays and concerts or just check out the street performers. (Aug. 13-29; edbookfest.co.uk )

Britain The grande dame that inspired many of these literary feasts, the Guardian Hay Festival, has already ended. But book early for next May; devotees return year after year for the acerbic late-night comedy, music and film as well as for the traditional quizzing of poets, pundits and politicians ( hayfestival.com ). Bucolic settings and country houses may set the literary scene this summer, but the meeting of minds creates the drama.

Cuba may be suffering an economic crisis, but the capital has plenty of stature--and moves to some of the world's best music:

SEE the Revolution Museum, a testament to those who died fighting for social change (entry $5; 537-861-3858).

STROLL along the Malecon, the breezy seafront boardwalk lined with crumbling art deco and 1950s architecture.

SHOP for Montecristo No. 4 cigars and two-year-old Havana Club rum at the Palacio de la Artesania (537-867-1118).

DANCE at one of the Casa de la Musica venues, where Latin dance lessons are available.

EAT at La Guarida, set in a private home and serving culinary fantasies like coconut-crusted tuna on sugar-cane skewers (537-264-4940).

SLEEP at Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway wrote much of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (doubles from $140; habaguanex.com).

For something that's supposed to be "without distinctive character," vodka sure has gotten pricey. That's especially true for two new products, Stolichnaya elit and Jean-Marc XO, which have broken the $50 barrier. What does this stuff taste like? We put the new booze up against old-school Smirnoff and upscale favorite Grey Goose.

Stolichnaya elit $60

Origin: Russia

Name game: 'Stolichnaya' means 'of the capital' in Russian; 'elit' means... nothing.

Selling point: A filtration process that simulates the one used by the tsars.

The verdict: It has an inviting smooth taste, with a hint of vanilla and a touch of grain. Would be nice for half the price.

Grey Goose $30

Origin: France

Name game: The guy who created the stuff had the rights to the name, which he once used for wines.

Selling point: It won a taste-off in 1998. Last year Jean-Marc took the prize.

The verdict: Creamsicle lite, with a teensy bit of a burn at the end. A tad overpriced.

Jean-Marc XO $50

Origin: France

Name game: The 'XO' adds a not-so-subtle hint of cognac terminology.

Selling point: Distilled nine times in pot stills normally used to make... cognac.

The verdict: A supersleek taste with plum and cinnamon accents. Worth every penny.

Smirnoff $13

Origin: United States

Name game: The name's Russian, but it's made in all-American places like Plainfield, Ill.

Selling point: Made in the U.S.A. but with all the finesse of a purveyor to the tsar.

The verdict: Slightly sweet, with a twist of pepper. How can something this cheap taste so good?

The best part of a picnic isn't the food or the great outdoors: it's the gear. A classic wicker oval picnic basket ($60; crateand barrel.com ) is perfect for a romantic date by the lake. If you want something a little easier to haul, try a compact picnic backpack ($70; redenvelope.com ). Complete with blanket and detachable wine cooler, it would be great for a crowded outdoor concert. If you need a little more room for beverages, add the softpack cooler from L.L. Bean ($15; llbean.com ). Once you're there, spread out a salsa-stripe blanket with water-resistant PVC backing ($30; crateandbarrel .com ) or a catalina-stripe blanket with grommets in the corners for securing against the wind ($50; restorationhardware.com ). Get cooking on the portable Weber Baby Q ($130; amazon.com ). It weighs just 16 kilograms, but with a 1,220-cm2 cooking area, you can grill up a lot of hot dogs. Picnic in style with dotted melamine (from $15 at cathkidston.com ). And let your kids commemorate the day by drawing in a snazzy suede compact drawing set ($34; flaxart.com ). Then all you'll have to do is pop open the wine, kick back and wait for the ants.

On a typical day in Los Angeles, where I live, I spot at least one celebrity, a dozen surgery-enhanced starlet wanna-bes and tons of freshly minted exotic cars. So I was stunned when I parked my CLS500 tester at a ritzy garden party in the Santa Monica mountains and watched as several west-side hipsters slanted their Guccis to check out my wheels. I'd thought everyone here was immune to automotive eye candy, but no. With its sleek coupe lines draped over a four-door body, Mercedes has blended the sexiness of a two-door with the practicality of a sedan. And what a looker it is.

Yet unlike an L.A. bubble-headed beauty, this Benz is loaded with substance. Massive power comes from a 5.0-liter, V-8, 302-horsepower engine. Combine that with smooth, seamless shifting between seven--yes, seven--gears, and I was down for some fun in the sun. Most impressive is the electronic shifting, which adapts to the driver's current driving style. When I hit the accelerator hard, it responded in a snap, and kept the transmission in lower gears, anticipating aggressive acceleration. When I pushed the pedal more gingerly, the CLS moved into higher gears and relaxed into the gas-sipping stage. I also liked the Active Body Control (ABC,) which reduced the car's lean and roll while cornering. Beauty and brains; what a concept.