THE PAPARAZZI HAVE NEVER snapped her with a baby bump. Yet, Czech model-turned-charitable-superpower Petra Nemcova claimed, “I have 44,000 children.”
In 2005, Ms. Nemcova, who has appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and in countless fashion magazines, established the Happy Hearts Fund. The not-for-profit, which rebuilds schools after natural disasters, says that it has helped thousands of kids around the world.
The organization grew out of her own tragic experience. Ms. Nemcova was vacationing with her fiancé, photographer Simon Atlee, on the coast of Thailand in 2004 when a series of devastating tsunamis hit. He was killed. Ms. Nemcova suffered a broken pelvis and internal injuries; her recovery took months. In the aftermath of the tsunami, she learned that children affected by such events tend to be forgotten after first responders leave.
Still committed to her philanthropic work, Ms. Nemcova is also building a business—a home-décor brand, Be the Light New York, which she started a couple of years ago with branding expert Christian Hosford. Their first offering, a series of scented candles inspired by travel, launched this month at Bergdorf Goodman and bethelightny.com.
Ms. Nemcova, who’s also a brand ambassador for Clinique and Chopard, worked with a team of fragrance masters to create the six Be the Light scents. One candle smells of Spanish saffron, another of Czech holiday cookies. A hibiscus version celebrates the national flower of Haiti, where she now lives. “I love the people, I love the land, I love the culture,” she said.
This frequent flier said she is on a plane “every second or third day.” On a recent stopover in New York, she shared her secret island escape, the snacks she carries on flights and the South American remedy she will never, ever try.
My first big trip was: to Vienna, after the Velvet Revolution. I was probably 12, and I was with my mom and her girlfriend. We went to the Wiener Prater, an amusement park, and it was also my first time on a subway. That was weird. I think I experienced Vienna in a very touristy way. I grew up under communism, and we were not allowed to leave the Communist Bloc, so as a family we traveled a lot within the Czech Republic, which is a beautiful country. Oh my God, there are so many castles—it is absolutely astonishing.
I always travel with: a lot of food, mainly snacks—almonds, some sort of flaxseed crackers and green tea, since not every plane has it. And I travel with chocolate. My favorite is Green & Black’s Dark 85%. It is my must every single day.
To pass the time on planes: I catch up on emails. I can be on the longest flight, 17 hours from New York to Bangkok, and at the end I’m typing and typing and I’m, like, don’t land yet—I need to work! If there’s a really, really long flight, I maybe squeeze in a movie, and that’s a treat. Send me to Australia, please.
The world’s best hotel is: hard to choose. I love the Aman resorts. The Amanjena near Marrakesh is by a lake; you have these cottages around a swimming pool. I love the feeling of mystery there. Then there’s Ananda, an ayurvedic spa in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. You can have your own little house with its own pool. There is also a beautiful hotel on an island next to Haiti called Île à Vache. The hotel there, Abaka Bay Resort, is very simple but when you wake up, you take one step and you are on a beach. Very calm water. You can take a boat to where the fishermen are fishing, and they will bring conch to you. It is not Aman, but it is really in touch with the island vibe.
I keep returning to: Haiti. It’s where I feel the most at home. I might be very tired on the plane, but I land and I just feel energized. It’s not just me—many other people have the same experience. Donna Karan’s chief of staff says that when Donna lands in Haiti, she gets 10 years younger!
My go-to travel outfit is: just jeans and a T-shirt and flats—and my leather jacket. I’ve got a few Diesel leather jackets. I grew up on rock ‘n’ roll—Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses. Maybe I’m trying to stick to my youth.
I take photographs with: a Leica camera. But these days I often snap with my iPhone because it’s available. I love lines, a kind of graphic element. I need everything to line up. Often my colleagues will see me crawling around somewhere in a miniskirt, because I want to a capture a specific angle.
My favorite souvenir is: not something you could put in your handbag. In Morocco I went to some antique stores and I got a beautiful old chest and this tiny antique door, more than 100 years old. I had a table made out of it—before that was fashionable. I moved the furniture to Paris, where I lived at the time, and then I left Paris so it traveled to the Czech Republic. Now my parents have it in their home. All my family was like, what’s with that table? It has all these carvings in it and is not quite straight.
On my travel wish list is: French Polynesia, which I would love to visit. Argentina and many other Latin American countries are also on my list.
Wherever I travel, I always visit: the market. At the market in Cusco [Peru], you see women selling flowers, wearing traditional Peruvian hats. The way they wear their hair, in two braids with the ends tied together—it’s so beautiful. They sell magic potions in the market, for love, for money. There is this healing liquor that’s a broth they make for asthma, for colds, any kind of sickness. It’s supposedly made out of the testicles of different animals. I have not tried it myself, and I don’t plan to, either.
The most unusual place I’ve slept was: in Indonesia, after the 2006 earthquake. It was in a hotel that had huge holes in the walls. I was working very late, kneeling on the tile floor and typing on my phone, and I fell asleep. When I woke up I could not feel my knees.
What I love most about travel is: that you learn so much and grow. If you stop growing, it’s like you’ve stopped living. When you learn about other countries and culture, it also brings more understanding, and therefore tolerance and more peace in the world. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: We want to be loved and be happy.
My secret jet lag remedy is: I like to think I have my own time zone.
—Edited from an interview with Sara Clemence