Macao/Macau – History, New Glitz, Sky Cranes and a Look Forward

The facade of St. Paul Cathedral, built by the Portuguese between 1582 and 1602 is a very popular tourist destination in Macao.

The facade of St. Paul Cathedral, built by the Portuguese between 1582 and 1602, is a very popular tourist destination in Macao.

In the opening scenes of the 1952 movie, “Macao,” starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, the announcer describes Macao as “the Monte Carlo of the Orient.” If that movie were to be re-made today, we would likely hear, “the Las Vegas of the Orient.”

Las Vegas has come to Macao, with plans to stay. Didn't like the 15 hour flights to the U.S. Mainland? We'll bring Las Vegas to you!

Las Vegas has come to Macao, with plans to stay. Didn’t like the 15 hour flights to the U.S. Mainland? We’ll bring Las Vegas to you!

The "new" Macao, called the Cotai Central District is a luxury hotel, shopping and casino district and construction continues apace.

The “new” Macao, called the Cotai Central District is a luxury hotel, shopping and casino district and construction continues apace.

On the reclaimed land of Macao’s Cotai Central district, a new gaming paradise is glittering-up the region and gaming enthusiasts from all over Asia (many with their families), are showing up for vacations and testing their luck at lavish casinos. The  Venetian, The Sands, The Galaxy, MGM Grand, Wynn are all there with more to come. And, yes, there will be an Eiffel Tower in Macao by 2016 in the new Parisian resort. Fact: In 2012 the gambling revenues of Macao exceeded the total gaming revenues of the State of Nevada.

We will come back to all this new-ness later;  but first, a little history and a little geography.

Macao (or Macau) is comprised of both a peninsula and an island on the south side of the vast Pearl River Delta. Hong Kong, to the northeast on the other side of the Pearl River, is a one-hour trip by fast ferry and arguably a world-apart.

How close is Mainland China to Macao? You're looking at it, across the river.

How close is Mainland China to Macao? You’re looking at it, across the river.

While evidence shows human presence dating back over 4,000 years, early Portuguese traders arrived in the early 1500’s and Macao’s long and fascinating history is rife with clashes between the Chinese and the Portuguese. Things became stable in 1582, with an annual “lease” signed.

The agreement also established the Portuguese administration of Macao, which lasted until 1999, when it became, like Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Area (S.A.R.) of the People’s Republic of China.

Portuguese influence lives on today, with many families having mixed cultures in their histories. Macanese cuisine reflects this culture as well. Gambling (politely called “gaming”) became legal in the 1800’s to help the local economy. Gambling is illegal in Mainland China and resonates favorably in the cultural makeup of many Asians, as they themselves happily acknowledge. If you build it, they will come. They did, and they did.

Casinos have been a part of Macao since the 1800's when gambling became legal.

Casinos have been a part of Macao since the 1800’s when gambling became legal.

A few words about getting there: Our EVA Air flight from LAX to Taipei was interesting for some comfortable reasons. What EVA has done is to create what they are calling Elite Class premium economy. They have managed to create unique comfort with a chair that reclines as though in a socket. This accomplishes two things: It allows you to get the feeling of more recline – with the use of the foot rests – and does not cramp the passenger behind you as much as a regular recline. We thought it was clever and reasonably comfortable (as much as a 12-hour flight can be called reasonably comfortable). The crew on the clean B-777 aircraft worked very hard to demonstrate an appreciation of our business and was clearly trying to deliver the best onboard product they could. The plane was full (one of two departures from LAX-TPE within 20 minutes of each other) so the Elite Class really helped. An easy EVA Air connection to Macao followed uneventfully…the best kind of flight. The Taipei Airport is modern, clean and traveler-friendly, as is the newish Macao airport.

So, we wondered, what are they doing in Macao’s Cotai Strip to attract families, other than the lavish, elegant casinos? For one thing, resorts like the Sheraton Macao Hotel are innovating with a connection with Dreamworks. Take in the “Shrekfast” – a lavish buffet which surrounds a stage full of bigger-than-life characters such as Shrek, Puss in Boots, the cast of Madagascar, with Alex the lion, penguins, and many more.

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The Sheraton Macao’s tie-in with Dreamworks is a huge hit with families who come to Macao from all over Asia.

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The lavish buffets at the Dreamworks shows feature cuisine stations for just about every ethnic palate.

Whether or not you know these characters already, they become even more lovable when surrounded by a lavish buffet of fresh and exotic fruits (dragonfruit!), juices, breads, pastries, dim sum, Macanese dishes, omelettes made to order, bacon and sausage, excellent coffee and tea – pretty everything you might want for breakfast or brunch, and then some.

Dragonfruit. Fabulous.

Dragonfruit. Fabulous.

We watched tables full of youngsters dazzled as the characters came to their tables and posed for photos with them. Further, the Sheraton Macao has themed some rooms, with bunk beds and other fun amenities for kids, all with a tie-in to the Dreamworks animated characters.

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The Dreamworks tie-in carries over to many of the on-request theme rooms at Sheraton Macao.

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We thought the standard rooms were well-done, with high-ceilings and comfortable beds and baths.

The Sheraton has nearly 4,000 guest rooms and suites and frequently is 100% booked, so some trip-planning is important. There will soon be a fast rail line from the heart of Guangzhou to Macau which will greatly increase accessibility from major parts of Mainland China. Convention and event business is growing as well and The Sheraton Macao has vast, beautifully appointed ballrooms that can handle meetings and events on a large scale.

As we have always suggested to our readers, become a Starwood Preferred Guest and be eligible for benefits and upgrades such as access to the lounge for breakfast or cocktails. SPG membership is free and the benefits are a real value. The roomy Starwood Club Lounge at the Sheraton Macao is a major enhancement to the resort experience here, and includes an elaborate breakfast buffet, a bar, indoor and outdoor seating, and orchids everywhere. The staff at this property is simply wonderful.

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Poolside dining at the Sheraton Macao offers a daily variety of multi-ethnic dishes, reflecting the international palates of the guests.

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The Sheraton’s restaurants are excellent and include Bene (Italian), Xin (hot pot and seafood) and Feast (international). Pool-side dining in the semi-tropical air of Macao is offered from the Sheraton’s healthful menus.

Don't forget a Tai Chi class!

Don’t forget a Tai Chi class!

A key fact to remember is that The Sheraton Macao is linked to the other elegant resort casinos by covered walkways, taking you through multistoried shopping areas with all the top global names represented. You could arrive in your bathing suit with a credit card and emerge from these halls of retail in a gorgeous suit or dress, with an elegant new watch, necklace, camera and a spectacular shoes, carrying the rest in a new handbag or roll-aboard.

The shopping opportunities in the well-connected buildings really is endless.

The shopping opportunities in the well-connected buildings really is endless.

Be sure to get tickets for “The House of Dancing Water” in the adjoining City of Dreams. This aquatic/acrobatic love story extravaganza will leave you breathless. A treat for all ages.  Hint:  Wait ’til you see the contortionist!

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Be sure to make time to visit “old Macao” and see some of the Portuguese-Chinese influence that has made this a unique destination experience.

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And what about seeing the sights? Macao has them. From the ruins of St. Paul Cathedral (built 1582-1602) to the A-Ma Buddhist Temple (1488) and all the wonderful vibrant streets and parks in-between, Old Macao has a rich experience waiting for the visitor. The old Red Market is a real chance to see the local Macanese shopping for fresh fish, poultry, beef and pork and vegetables. Chinese cooking culture demands freshness so be prepared to see chickens looking on as their freshly-butchered brethren leave, under the arms of home and restaurant chefs. There are two fresh fish deliveries per day so a great deal of slapping and flapping can be witnessed at the Red Market, too.

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The old Red Market is a great stop. The place bustles with 2 fresh fish deliveries a day, plus the regular meat, poultry and vegetable stalls.

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We also enjoyed two museums that share the same address. The first is the Macao Grand Prix Museum, which celebrates the annual world-famous race through the streets of Macao. The race marked its 60th year in 2013. The museum is full of classic race cars of various vintages and excellent dioramas of pit crews and drivers at work. Outstanding historical racing photographs line the walls and videos show some heroic highlights of the race.

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Its neighbor, the Macao Wine Museum, is a surprise and a delight. The museum goes on and on, with real wine-making equipment from another age on fascinating display. Mannequins in vintage regional dress of Portugal line some of the hallways. Because of the continued relationship with Portugal, and her influence on Macao culture, the museum’s tasting room offers dozens of varieties of Portuguese wine to visitors. These two museums are world-class in how they present their subjects. It is clear that a great deal of time and money went into these two attractions.

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The A-Ma Buddhist Temple in Macao dates from 1488 and is a peaceful and interesting stop on any tour of old Macao.

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Macau is small, unique and diverse. It could be thought of as “China for beginners.”  Macao is not the huge, overwhelmingly vast mainland, and yes, it has westernized aspects. That can be a good thing, especially for first timers. You can stay in contemporary luxury in Cotai Central while also having easy access to the culture and history of old Macao. It is a delightful and friendly destination with something for every traveler’s taste.

Links

Sheraton Macao

EVA Air

Macao Tourism Office  (Caution, slow and sometimes impossible to load)

U.S. Department of State Travel Info – Macau

 

 

 

Toronto Today – Art, Food, and Canadian Hospitality

The art starts at Toronto’s modern, light-filled Pearson International Airport with a delightful sculpture of a baggage cart loaded nearly to the ceiling greeting arriving passengers in baggage claim. It is a harbinger of that unique Canadian sense of humor and hospitality.

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Baggage sculpture in claim area of Toronto International Airport

Welcome to today’s Toronto.

The central Toronto skyline is much-changed in the last 10 years. While the CN Tower still dominates, new dramatic skyscrapers have sprouted in the downtown core and condo towers are going up apace.  There is a bustling of construction including a renewed Union Station, new shops and galleries in the rehabbed Distillery and Warehouse Districts, street upgrading and more.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

The CN (Canadian National Railroad) Tower casts a big shadow over central Toronto and offers wonderful views.

Places to see on a four-day visit might include a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with its Henry Moore sculpture collection and dramatic remodel by world famous Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. Recent exhibitions include Alex Colville’s engaging paintings and works by Michelangelo. Also In the AGO’s collection of over 80,000 works are European masterpieces and a very strong Canadian collection.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Art Gallery of Toronto with Henry Moore sculpture.

Part of architect Frank Gehry's masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Part of architect Frank Gehry’s masterful work in the Art Gallery of Toronto.

Street art abounds in Toronto and many of the artworks are sanctioned by the city. On our visit we met street artist Aurora painting a large mural. She told us that taggers leave work by other artists alone as a sign of respect. Random public art on telephone polls and other places will surprise and delight. A great place to see this is on a stroll through the Kensington Market area, which is a delightful walk through bargain-filled Chinatown from the AGO.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Street Artist Aurora works on her piece in the thriving Kensington Market area of Toronto.

Art galleries and unique shops in the West Queen West Art + Design district are plentiful and can easily absorb a full day. We found a walking tour led by Betty Ann Jordan to be practical and timesaving. We were able to learn about the history of the area and the support given these dedicated Districts by the city of Toronto. We were able to visit places like Artscape Young Place, a re-purposed public school building, now an art hub making studio and gallery spaces available to a wide range of individuals and groups. While open to the public, this venue might be off the beaten path and the walking tour made finding it easy.

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Betty Ann Jordan leads great art walks in Toronto. Links to her site at the end of the post

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

Artscape Young Place, a former school, has been re-purposed as studio and gallery spaces.

We also visited chic boutiques like Gravity Pope (best shoes in Canada) and BYOB (unique bar and hospitality wares) and galleries like Angell Gallery, the Edward Day gallery and Craft Ontario, all emblematic of the West Queen West District.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

BYOB, a great hospitality emporium in West Queen West Art+Design district.

Within a few blocks of each other downtown are the CN Tower, with spectacular views of the Toronto vicinity, the new Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Air Canada Center (Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors basketball team), the Toronto Railway Museum, the elegantly-sited Hockey Hall of Fame, the Toronto Convention Center and the TIFF Bell Lightbox (home of the Toronto International Film Festival). All of these attractions seem to have been designed in a worldclass fashion, befitting a historic center of finance, culture and commerce.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Home of the renowned Toronto International Film Festival with a ubiquitous Toronto trolley car.

Two historical standouts that we enjoyed visiting were the St. Lawrence Market in Old Town Toronto and the site of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall (built in 1850). There are over 120 vendors selling everything from fish and meats to baked goods and kitchen supplies. There is also a wonderful exhibit room on the third floor which rotates historically relevant exhibitions during the year. Bruce Bell, Toronto historian, writer and speaker, conducts walking tours of the Old Town area for groups and individuals and does a great job rounding out the historical perspective of the Market and Old Town Toronto. Don’t miss the North Market, across the street, site of a Saturday Farmers Market dating back to 1803 and a bustling scene with southern Ontario farmers bringing their goods to town. Bruce showed us the site of Toronto’s original town well and the place where offenders were placed in blocks by the harsh authorities in the early days of the city.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Bruce Bell leads wonderful tours through the Old Town and historic St. Lawrence Market. Link to his site at the end of the post.

Another highly-recommended stop is the newly-rehabbed Distillery District. Dominated by the huge Gooderham &Worts, Ltd. sign. This visionary re-purposing of Victorian industrial structures, a national historic site, is clearly a success with its preservation and the modernization. Starting as a grist mill in 1831 and through the storied distillery history until reopened in 2003 as the Distillery Historic District, this is a great place to spend a day and get a great meal. Which leads us to our next section: Food!

Because we only report on places we’ve experienced, let’s start with our first dinner in town at Luckee Restaurant, downtown at 328 Wellington St. West. Famed Chef Susur Lee calls it “Nouvelle Chinoise” and what it seems to us is a great new take on traditional Asian regional cooking incorporated into splendid menu items such as Long Xia Gow (lobster and asparagus dumplings), a jumbo shrimp plate with exquisite tastes and a blood orange and lemon curd tart for dessert. The menu is designed for sharing and the staff, like server Martin Bathke and manager Tiffany Knight, will guide you with informed suggestions. The decor is chic modern with an open kitchen. It is clearly a gathering place for urban-cool diners and families, too.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

The chic interior of Luckee Restaurant attracts a cosmopolitan mix of patrons and feeds them very, very well.

We took breakfast almost every morning at our hotel, Le Germain Maple Leaf Square, not just because it was included with the room, but because it is served, buffet style, in 2 large second floor great-rooms with big windows capturing alot of sky and the downtown buildings. There is abundant staff bringing you your favorite coffee drinks and juices and efficiently refilling the wide-range of breakfast offerings. This room was really well thought-out for the business and tourist clientele the hotel attracts and doubles as a business center 24/7 and accessed by room key-activated elevator. Located at 75 Bremner Blvd, just steps from Maple Leaf Center. Highly recommended.

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

Part of the dramatic lobby of the Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square .

We had a lunch at Drake One Fifty, close to Le Germain at 150 York Street, and the food was excellent with a great brussel sprouts dish, sautéed mushroom skillet, a delicious kale salad and a hefty, aged beef burger with hand-cut fries. A business lunch environment, judging by our fellow patrons, but not in the least stuffy.

The second dinner we had was a Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, a restaurant with an interesting Toronto history and located in the re-emerging and hip west end Liberty Warehouse District.  Noted cookbook author Chef Donna Dooher and her partner Kevin Gallagher bring decades of experience and innovation to their farm-to-table menu. We had a red wine poached pear salad with pomegranate vinaigrette with arugula frisee and blue cheese and an excellent mushroom skillet that included grape tomatoes and kale with a black garlic vinaigrette topped with grated Pecorino. O, should we mention the knockout, house-made Profiteroles? We tried the Eephus Oatmeal Stout from Toronto’s Left Field Brewing at Mildred’s and it was a star. Fun place and hugely popular on weekends for brunch.

Sushi anyone? Ki Restaurant offers a broad menu that includes a large sushi selection and other fare, as you’ll see. What’s more, you’ll find a Sake Sommelier in the person of Michael Tremblay (certified by the Sake Education Council in Tokyo) who can guide you through a tasty tutorial on Sake basics. We tried the unagi (eel) nigiri, roasted cauliflower with sesame and shiso gremolata, seared fresh scallops with shiitake, oyster and honey mushrooms with shiso furakaki and miso-kasu sauce plus the excellent strip loin with ginger sauce. Shiso, by the way, is a Japanese green. Think basil meets anise. This was all served by Eric Cash and colleagues who guided us through the choices with tempting descriptions from the menu. Ki is located in central downtown at 181 Bay St. and is a vibrant after-work cocktails scene.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

The very modern and popular Ki Restaurant even has a Sake Sommelier.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinth Fountain.

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie. Home of the tempting Absinthe Fountain.

Our last dinner in Toronto was in the aforementioned Distillery District at Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie at 35 Tank House Lane. No cars are allowed in this lovely walking area so reaching Cluny is a delightful stroll over cobblestones amidst historic, rehabbed industrial buildings. And a trip well worth it (and only minutes from downtown by cab – we liked Diamond Cab). Chef Paul Benallick oversees the kitchen and dining area beyond the stylish bar and retail boulangerie. The space is cleverly broken-up into unique seating areas which allows for banquettes and tables. There is an intimate oyster bar as well where a group could have some serious fun. We started with delicious martinis recommended by ace server Crysta Boytchuk. Our drinks were accompanied by a clever amuse of Kingfish ceviche and followed by a crisp dinosaur kale and queen kale salad, one of the best French Onion soups we’ve had and a remarkable gnocchi with escargot dish that we would fly back to Toronto for.  We moved on to the Drunken Tuna (seared ahi, red pepper pesto, pureed potatoes and a sherry vinaigrette) and the steak frites plate with a 6 oz. filet mignon served with lemon and garlic aoli.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

The Absinthe Fountain at Cluny Bistro.

But wait, there’s more: The Absinthe Fountain. Here’s how it works. You see it across the room at another table; a large glass samovar filled with ice water and you want it at your table. In our case it appeared by the hands of gracious floor manager Andrew Thisby. You are served a glass of clear Absinthe with your choice of a house made sugar cube. The ice water from the samovar is dripped through the sugar cube into the Absinthe. A great way to end a meal.

Adieu beautiful, exciting Toronto. We’ll be back. There is so much more to see.

When you go:

Tourism Toronto

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

Art Walking Tours with Betty Ann Jordan

Bruce Bell’s Walking Tours of Old Town and St. Lawrence Market 

The Distillery District

Luckee Restaurant

Drake One Fifty Restaurant

Mildred’s Temple Kitchen

Ki Restaurant

Cluny Bistro and Boulangerie

Hotel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square

PURA VIDA! Costa Rica’s Dreamy Peninsula Papagayo

Dinner on the beach at Four Seasons Costa Rica on the Peninsula Papagayo

Dinner on the beach at Four Seasons Costa Rica on the Peninsula Papagayo

“Costa Rica!” That’s what Christopher Columbus called it in 1502 when he showed up, still looking for gold in the New World, on Costa Rica’s east coast. Greeted by maidens bedecked in gold, cleverly sent out by the local chiefs to greet him, “Rich Coast” somehow came to Columbus’ mind and the name stuck.

Oscar Aguilar is a great example of the pride "Ticos" have in their country.

Oscar Aguilar is a great example of the pride “Ticos” have in their country.

“Ticos” (Costa Ricans) love their country, and so they should. This flower of democracy amid the banana republics of Central America has no army and no navy. Their “Guardia Civil” receives less funding than their schools and their roads. The right to vote is treasured and public education throughcollege is free, as is universal health care to citizens and permanent residents. Their National Parks are legendary and eco-tourism basically started here. Everyone speaks English from passable to articulate and Costa Rica’s literacy rate is over 90 percent. Of particular interest: Costa Rican presidents can serve unlimited, non-consecutive 4-year terms.

Costa Rica is divided into provinces and this trip takes us to a beauty:  Guanacaste, on the northwest coast, just south of Nicaragua. It is here, on the breathtaking Peninsula Papagayo that Four Seasons Costa Rica coexists in the natural habitat and, equally important, with the local residents.

The Arnold Palmer Signature golf course at Four Seasons is in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

The Arnold Palmer Signature golf course at Four Seasons is in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Most guests fly into nearby Liberia’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport, on one of the many daily flights from the U.S. Schedules can be seasonal but service is regular. The terminal is new and clean, Immigration officers polite and welcoming and Four Seasons folks outside the arrivals door are all set up for you.

I was met in the terminal by Four Seasons representative, Eddy, who escorted us to their van, piloted by Esteban. All the guests in the van checked in on a provided iPad via SKYPE on the way to the hotel, so no front desk rigamarole was necessary. Nice.

Getting away from it all is one reason to visit Costa Rica.

Getting away from it all is one reason to visit Costa Rica.

After a 30-minute drive along sugar cane fields, pasture and out along the ridge of the Peninsula Papagayo, I was greeted at the hotel entrance by the charming Pascal Forotti, General Manager and his colleague, Yerilyn, who presented us with a small glass of “Juego de Bienvenido” (“Welcome Juice”), a tasty mixture of orange juice, cilantro and ginger.

The casual elegance of Four Seasons Costa Rica lobby.

The casual elegance of Four Seasons Costa Rica lobby.

Poolside at one of the haciendas available.

Poolside at one of the haciendas available.

Every hotel room has a gorgeous, screened lanai.

Every hotel room has a gorgeous, screened lanai.

To behold the entire Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo, I would suggest giving yourself over to the experience of The Spa, the Trail of Giants Tour along the Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course (set in a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary) and the water sports available. The latter includes kayaking, paddle-boarding and boat rides on the beautiful Bahía de Culebra.

Seclusion and privacy make for a restful stay.

Seclusion and privacy make for a restful stay.

Serious surfers can head over to numerous, seasonally good, surfing spots, including nearby Playa Tamarindo.  Four Seasons partners with Tropicsurf, staffed on-site with experienced guides and instructors. Tropicsurf can easily arrange customized surfing experiences, with local, licensed boat skippers.

The Surf Shack run by the Tropicsurf pros.

The Surf Shack run by the Tropicsurf pros.

Costa Rican wildlife is abundant and, seasonally, you’ll see tribes of monkeys, iguanas and amazing avifauna (birds). In fact, nearly 900 bird species have been identified in Costa Rica – more than in the United States and Canada combined!

Lots of iguanas.

Lots of iguanas.

Magnificent birdlife in great quantities.

Magnificent birdlife in great quantities.

The resort wants you to relax. They want you to come back. Hence the activities that there’s no shortage of. For example, here is the schedule for Mondays through October 31: Guided Kayaking Tour, Spa Exercise Class, Bay Cruise Tour, Spa Boot Camp, Guided Morning Hike, Coco Water Taxi, Cardio Tennis, Spinning, Beach Volleyball, Cooking Class, Dance Class “Latin Rhythms,” Explore Scuba Diving, Guided Snorkel Tour, Artisan Market and a Guided Nature Hike.

One of my favorite activities is Quiet Poolside Sitting. And then along comes staff member Oscar Aguilar as “El Pipero,” the guy who lops off the top of a coconut with a machete, pops in a straw and hands you a delicious fresh container of coconut water with a smile.  !Pura Vida!

Hot and cold Hydrotherapy pools at The Spa, with screened jungle views, offered free of charge to registered guests.

Hot and cold Hydrotherapy pools at The Spa, with jungle views, offered free of charge to registered guests.

A word about the Spa and its facilities at the resort. I chose the Rainforest Aromatherapy Massage with one of the 15 professionally-licensed staff. It was a very relaxing experience, with a choice of ambient music and scented massage oils. The hydrotherapy pools, hot and cold, and gender segregated, are part of the Spa facilities. They are open, free of charge, to all registered guests, as are the dry and wet saunas. The menu of Spa services is extensive and catalogued nicely in the brochures provided in each room.

Children. They are more than welcome, as demonstrated by both the Kid’s Club or the Camp Papagayo Program (these for the age 4-12 group) and the Tuanis Teen Center (12 years and up). These supervised activities and locations give kids a great place to bond and be engaged and are a credit to the thinking of the resort. It is one of the reasons families return to Four Seasons.

Tico's Lounge is a great gathering place for guests.

Tico’s Lounge is a great gathering place for guests.

Cocktail making classes are fun and sociable at Tico's Lounge

Cocktail making classes are fun and sociable at Tico’s Lounge

Food. Yum. Drink. Yum Yum. Because of its central location right below the stairs from the main lobby, Tico’s Lounge is a natural place for guests to congregate for lunch, cocktail hour and beyond. They’ve got a zesty drink here called the Guajito, made with Cacique (“chief of the tribe”) rum, mint, Midori and lemon juice. Wow, where did that first one go? Like that.

The local brews are wonderful, too, with rich ales and pilsners. Tico’s features a mixology class and I found that to be fun and a good way to meet your fellow guests. A couple I met at the class was on a journey to play the most beautiful golf courses around the world. They picked a good stop. Adjacent to Tico’s is Papagayo Restaurant with a great breakfast service.

If you want to dine a little more formally, Di Mare Restaurant, located near Tico’s, is an elegant, Italian-influenced establishment with some creative platings of local, fresh seafood. Loved the sea bass. Another equally elegant restaurant is Caracol, located at the dramatic Ronald Zürcher-designed Golf Clubhouse. At Caracol I had a remarkable comparison offering of local and imported grilled beef, prefaced by a poke-like Ahi dish, and a delicious salad with greens locally-sourced, many right from the restaurant’s nearby herb garden which is worth a look.

Dinner in Caracol's herb garden.

Dinner in Caracol’s herb garden.

Early one night during my stay, some Four Seasons staff gathered children on the beach and launched paper lanterns, taken aloft by small flames into the dark sky. The staff explained that the local tribes used this custom to send off the souls of tribal members who had passed away. We all made wishes as the lantern kites were launched and the sky filled with ethereal bright objects as they drifted off in the night breeze.

An old Guanacaste custom is re-enacted at the beach.

An old Guanacaste custom is re-enacted at the beach.

Another highlight of this trip was Chocolate Making Class, conducted by Henrik Bodholdt who owns the nearby Beach Chocolate Factory.

Henry Bodholdt, Chocolate Maker, offers great hands-on chocolate-making classes.

Henry Bodholdt, Chocolate Maker, offers great hands-on chocolate-making classes.

A native of Denmark, Bodholdt came to Costa Rica over a decade ago and fell in love with the cocoa industry and its end product. Starting with roasting the sustainably-farmed organic cocoa beans, he took the class through the history, shelling, sifting, grinding and mixing process to produce our own chocolate. Mr. Bodholdt gives classes regularly at Four Seasons. It is very educational (and you get to eat your own handmade chocolate).

Two of several pools and beaches you can walk to easily at Four Seasons.

Two of several pools and beaches you can walk to easily at Four Seasons.

Be prepared to experience what returning guests have found:  Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo doesn’t fit into any traditional resort niche.  Sure, there is the usual attention to detail that comes with a world-class destination (such as a staff member asking a perspiring guest, “Would you like a cold towel”); but beyond this is the destination itself. The feeling of inclusion in the culture and the environment of this treasure of a country, even during a short stay, is palpable. The “Ticos” really love that you are visiting their country and want to let you know it. ¡Pura Vida!

Links:

Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo http://www.fourseasons.com/costarica/

Playa Tamarindo: http://www.tamarindo.com/

Tropicsurf: http://www.tropicsurf.net/

Costa Rica Surfing Spots: http://www.coastalspanish.com/surfing.htm

The Beach Chocolate Factory: http://www.beachchocolatefactory.com

Desert, Ocean and Luxury at the Tip of Baja, California

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

Sunrise at Cabo San Lucas

When you go to “Cabo”, the first phrase in Spanish you should know, after “Gracias” and “Por Favor” are, “¿Es Usted Choyero?” This is a great conversation starter as it means “Are you Baja born?” “Choyero” derives its name from the beautiful and ubiquitous Cholla cactus of the Baja Peninsula. Choyeros are very proud of their State of Baja, the youngest state in the Mexican federation. Before becoming the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California in 1953, it was a wild, sparsely populated territory ruled by the powers in Mexico City.

Our AirTran flight from the very traveler-friendly Orange County Airport took us over enough of Baja to convince anyone it is still very sparsely populated. Most of Baja is still a wild expanse of desert, mountains, washes and tiny clumps of ranch houses and small towns beautifully sandwiched between a blue Pacific Ocean and an equally “azul” Mar de Cortez. It is easy to shake one’s head and wonder why this gorgeous 27,000 square miles has not been developed more. But, then, it wouldn’t be such a treasure of a place. A good exercise is to open a Baja roadmap and see what that 1000 miles between the U.S. border and Cabo San Lucas looks like. You can draw your own conclusions.

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

Los Arcos, Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

But let’s get to the luxury part before our thoughts get too parched. Most readers have a good sense of Cabo San Lucas’ location at the tip of Baja; but CSL is only half the story. San Jose Del Cabo, where most people arrive by air, is a wonderful old Mexican town that anchors the other end of the ocean road along Baja’s southern tip. The visitor accomodations that sit, beachfront, along this corridor are our next topic.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

The Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar.

Our two most recent experiences included a pair of Starwood resorts, the Sheraton Hacienda Del Mar Golf and Spa Resort Los Cabos and the Westin Resort and Spa Los Cabos. Both sit on dramatic beaches (mind the color of the cautionary flags) and offer distinctly different styles of accomodations.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Colonial styles at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Apply named because of its “old Mexico” ambience, the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, on Tortuga Beach, gave us a cozy feel. We appreciated the use of tile, wrought iron, cobblestones and fountains incorporated into the overall concept. Some beautiful artwork and artifacts also enhance the feeling of a traditional Mexican establishment. One could imagine a honeymoon here and, yet, we saw families enjoying the amenities such as the “Kids Pool” and the “Kids Club,” candidly a relief for those of us who seek the quieter aspects of a resort. Clearly, the Sheraton folks have this figured out. We were impressed with the tranquility of this property from the moment we checked in.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Infinity pool at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar.

Our first night’s meal was a splendid one at the resort’s 5-Diamond De Cortez Mesquite grill, with its lovely terrace by the ocean. With lower Baja’s dependably good weather, meals like this are dreamy. We experienced Executive Chef Manuel de Luca’s menu executed by Chef Salvador Campozano. We began with a creamy lobster bisque followed by a salad of pear, blue cheese, nuts and truffled honey. Before the main course, we tasted a delightful lamb ravioli served with morel mushroom foam and dill.

That’s right, mushroom foam. We chose, for our main course, the Seafood Skillet, in which a delightful menage of lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels and sea bass soak flavorfully in a rum-hinted sauce, served in a fresh coconut. The wines we enjoyed most were reds and whites from Valle de Guadalupe, east of Ensenada in Northern Baja. A passion fruit mousse with fresh berries in a peppercorn crust provided the perfect palate relief after the richness of the main meal. These folks know what they are doing and you are on vacation. Go for it! They will even arrange for your large group to dine on the beach. In a world-class resort, usually all you have to do is ask, and many things can magically be arranged.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

Artifacts at the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar emphasize the colonial feel of the resort.

General Manager Renato Mendonca, with 30 years in the hotel business, and 5 years at the Sheraton Hacienda, recently oversaw an extensive renovation and the rooms show it. Our ocean-view room had its own terrace and we went to sleep that first night with the doors open to the sound of the dramatic surf. Delicious.

Of particular note at the Hacienda are the wonderful infinity pools and spas that are beachside, with the palapa bar happily nearby. Elbows up on the edge of the infinity pool, gazing out at the ocean, watching the waves break is a tonic. Time for reflection and a soul recharge. This is a good place to do it.

And, on a different scale and style, so is the Westin Los Cabos, our next destination.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

Part of the dramatic setting at the Westin Los Cabos.

The entrance road to the Westin Los Cabos, winding down from the main (now 4-lane) Los Cabos-San Jose Del Cabo highway, doesn’t quite prepare you for the dramatic plaza that adjoins the grand open-air lobby of this Javier Sordo Madaleno-designed resort.

The colors. As Westin Tour Sales Manager Edward Burgos says, ” The colors of the hotel are blue for the ocean, yellow for the sun and pink for the warmth of the Mexican culture. We couldn’t agree more. It is a stunning architectural achievement.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Soothing colors at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view and, like the Sheraton, the Westin is set on a remarkably dramatic beach and sleeping with the sound of waves each night adds value to your stay.

If you are not, by chance, a Starwood member, be sure to join as it is a huge benefit when you stay at a Starwood property such as the Sheraton Hacienda or the Westin Los Cabos. A good example of this is a the great buffet breakfasts at the Westin’s Royal Beach Club. Located in an oversized private suite with a long terrace overlooking the beach, it is an extra treat just for being a Starwood member.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

Every room has an ocean view at the Westin Los Cabos.

During our Westin stay we observed a couple of lovely beach weddings and I asked Westin Event Specialist Juan Pablo Colmenero about their wedding business. He told me that they do about 52 weddings per year but never more than one wedding per day. Recently, he said, they had been hosting as many as 300 people in week-long international wedding celebrations.

We wished we had timed our visit to see one of these wonderful, colorful mixture of cultures on the tip of Baja, California. Mr. Colmenero said the Westin’s kitchen staff had been having a great time working with the East Indian chefs who had been added to the mix. Sounds like a great movie!

In addition to the large weddings, the Westin frequently has a full buy-out from corporate event planners, making the resort a great, private club for a large business gathering. Both the Sheraton Hacienda and the Westin offer complete golf packages with excellent courses and amenities.

The remarkable executive chef Manuel Peruyero oversees all of the food at the Westin. We dined at the La Playa Restaurant and tasted our first “Westin Margarita.” As Margarita aficionados, we agreed that there was a little something extra to them. Fish tacos. Gotta love them, and La Playa serves some great ones, typically made with fresh local sea bass. We also had a chance to enjoy one of the “dinners on the beach” that these hotels are renowned for. The buffet was comprised of nearly more choices than we could handle. Everything from grilled (a la parilla) meats and fish to delicious salsas, fresh guacamole and taco makings, all under the stars, with a lovely firepit nearby. The stunning views from the Westin’s Arrecifes Restaurant is also a must during your stay with its cocktail patio especially appealling. Service throughout the hotel and restaurants is a serious staff committment and a joy for guests.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

Like the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar, the Westin Los Cabos can arrange a meal on the beach.

The spa at The Westin Resort & Spa provides the pleasurable services you hope for in this soothing destination. Relaxing manicures, pedicures, massages, facials are available in calm, quiet, elegant surroundings. La Señora enjoyed an hour of classic Swedish full body massage in a clean, simple room with delicious aromas. The therapist was an experienced and excellent professional. Other restorative massage types are offered, including deep tissue, hot stone, reflexology and sports massage. After the massage she reluctantly floated off the massage table and downstairs to wake up with sauna, steam, and shower. Fresh, iced water is always handy, and white towels, robes and slippers are provided for comfort and harmony. The Westin is justifiably proud of this spa by the sea.

Importantly, both the Sheraton Hacienda and Westin Los Cabos are fully committed to sustainability and the community. The former sponsors and mentors a charity for parentless children and both hotels make sure extra food gets to both employees and members of the community in need.

So, you want to leave the property? What? Well, if you do, you are in for various wonderful treats. A walk around San Jose del Cabo’s historic district is a rich experience. Clean streets, colorful buildings and a great deal of art. This is an historic Mexican town, a port, and sister city to Cabo San Lucas at the other end of the corridor at the tip of Baja. San Jose del Cabo has some excellent restaurants and even some new places like Rock and Brews for the rock and roll crowd (they serve some good pizza, too).

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Rock and Brews, San Jose Del Cabo.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

Cabo San Lucas fishing fleet will take you deep sea fishing.

At the other end of the sea road corridor there is Cabo San Lucas, with its huge charter fishing fleet, Lover’s Beach at Los Arcos (the arches at the very tip of Baja) and numerous bars and restaurants, including the legendary Squid Row and Giggling Marlin. Our favorite Cabo San Lucas restaurant has long been Mi Casa, serving some delicious authentic Mexican cuisine in a less raucous atmosphere than some of the party bars.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

Fresh breads at the Penny Lane Cafe in Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe's weekly farmer's market.

Rancher Lisa Whitt with fresh goat cheeses at the Penny Lane Cafe’s twice-weekly farmer’s markets.

And here’s a special insider’s tip: Penny Lane Cafe on Camino del Colegio in Cabo San Lucas. Breakfast, lunch and dinner with the best locally sourced, organic ingredients. Twice a week owner Monica Diaz Rivera manages an adjacent organic food market with fresh breads, cheeses, vegetables and other wonderful local foods all sourced from local farms. It was here I met Lisa Whitt who, with her husband, produces a remarkable range of exquisite goat cheeses on their farm about 2 hours from Cabo San Lucas. Another tip: Try the take out pork from Los Michoacanos Carnitas.

For activities such as tours, boating trips, outback adventures etc., the folks at Terramar can arrange everything. Terramar’s website is worth a visit and the experience we had with them was professional and fun. Their staff all speak excellent English (and will help you with your Spanish).

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

Water tours are easily available from the Cabo San Lucas waterfront.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

And booking a whale-watching trip, in-season can be rewarding.

Of, course, don't forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Of, course, don’t forget to learn about the grades of tequilas!

Finally, for those of you who are curious about renting a private home in the area (and there are some spectacular ones), Cabo Dreams Rentals impressed us with their offerings and Property Manager Cesar Claro seems to have some of the best places to show. Our favorite was Casa Miramar, which sits high in the exclusive Pedregal community, directly above the beautiful Playa Solmar stretching out to internationally famous Land’s End.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas.   Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Beautiful Casa Miramar in Cabo San Lucas. Many homes like this are available for vacation rental.

Baja, California. Always a great idea for a getaway. ¡Buen Viaje!

 

Sheraton Hacienda del Mar: http:/www.sheraton.com/haciendadelmar

Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos: http://www.westin.com/loscabos

Terramar: http://www.terramardestinations.com

Baja Outback: http://www.bajaoutback.com

Penny Lane Cafe: http://pennylanecafe.com

Cabo Dream Rentals: http://www.cabodreamsrentals.com

Mi Casa: http://www.micasarestaurant.com.mx

AirTran: http://www.airtran.com

Chef Tylun Pang, Kō Restaurant and Farm to Table in Maui

Executive Chef Tylun Pang has successfully brought the traditional Plantation Cooking of Hawaii to his customers.

Executive Chef Tylun Pang has successfully brought the traditional Plantation Cooking of Hawaii to his customers.

Those of you who have traveled to Hawaii for a while might remember when your dining out was frequently limited to a steak and lobster house, but you knew there was really good local chow being served in home kitchens and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

Times have changed as a wave of foodies and innovative chefs have discovered ways to make a good living serving trendy, fancy cuisine to island visitors. That said, it has still been hard to find da kine food that represented the cultures making up Hawaii.

On the island of Maui, Chef Tylun Pang and his talented coterie of multi-cultural chefs have created Kō, a place we came to call a “teaching restaurant,” where you can dine the way Mauians have for generations. It is a place where treasured family recipes have been adapted to principles of elegant cuisine and presented with service respectful of the histories and cultural influences of the food.

Ko Restaurant entrance at the Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui.

Kō Restaurant entrance at the Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui.

It has been a long time since the first sugar mill started operation on Maui in 1828. Lewis and Clark’s historic cross-country trip across North America was still being evaluated and America was still forming, with a Civil War yet to come. Yet there on Maui, immigrant workers were arriving from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and other nations to provide labor for the expanding sugar operation.

Workers lived in camps on the sugar cane plantations and most raised a few vegetables and prepared family meals in the style of their homelands. From these very ethnic beginnings, combined at times with Native Hawaiian cooking, a unique “plantation-style” food style was derived. Hardy, nourishing food was required to restore the body from the arduous work in the cane fields and the sugar mills. The homemakers saw to it to provide sustenance in their home kitchens.

Chef Tylun Pang grew up on Oahu in a family that loved food and, in Chinese tradition, every meal was a family event, with cooking done by his father and grandmothers. He says he can “close my eyes and still see Dad in the kitchen.” His father took him shopping for food in Chinatown and inspired young Tylun with his amazing wok skills. “The wok is still the first pan I reach for,” says Pang.

Beginning his formal cooking career, Chef Pang started at the Ilikai Hotel in Honolulu, then, with generous mentoring from some European chefs, he went on to the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles before returning to Hawaii, the place he really feels at home. With this experience and resume, Chef Pang eventually became Executive Chef at the Fairmont Kea Lani in Wailea, Maui and here is where the evolution of Kō started.

Heading a kitchen staff in the hotel’s then-upscale Italian restaurant, “I looked around and realized we didn’t have one Italian in the kitchen,” he says. This was also the moment when the Kea Lani wanted to make a change and the collaborations that ensued percolated the idea of a restaurant representing Maui by its traditional multicultural home cooking.

Chef Pang, with his culinarian colleagues, including Chefs Richard Ramirez and Richard Hoang, started collecting recipes from Maui families and other contributing chefs.

Pang’s team made multiple visits to the exhibits at the Maui Sugar Museum in Puunene which depict the cultures that helped build the sugar industry. Distilling and adapting the recipes into the new Kō menu turned into a labor of love as Chef Pang and his colleagues realized they had found, to a great extent, the down-to earth, honest cuisine of Maui.

Some items that made the Kō menu include starters such as Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl, Oishi Sushi, Lumpia Filipino Spring Rolls and Maui Cattle Company Kobe Beef Poke and Banana Ketchup BBQ Pork Skewers (an island street food favorite).

Soups and salads range from Portuguese Bean Soup to Chop Chop Sesame Chicken Salad (with Won Bok Cabbage and Won Ton Chips). Among the adapted Plantation traditional items are Sugar Cane Skewered Prawns and Scallops, Zarzuela (a kettle of lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and chorizo in a saffron broth – wow!) and Maui Cattle Company Korean BBQ Strip Loin (with tempura shrimp and house made Kim Chee).

There is also the delicious Lavender Honey Macadamia Nut Shrimp and Painiolo Bone-In Rib-Eye Steak. Fresh fish, from local Hawaiian-waters, weather permitting, are offered with a range of preparations that include: Ginger Steamed, Macadamia Nut Crust, Kea Lani Garden Herb and Wok Seared. We tried Monchong (a deep sea Pomfret) and local Lehi, served with a delicious side of purple, Molokai mashed sweet potatoes.

Rounding out this multi-cultural mix are interesting items like edamame humus, Portuguese taro rolls and desserts like Maui Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee, Chantilly Cake and Coconut Gelato. Check out the entire menu at http://www.korestaurant.com

So where do all these ingredients come from? Chef Pang has long been committed to local sourcing (remember, his Dad took him shopping in Honolulu’s Chinatown as a small boy). He knows most of the small farmers on Maui and many of the fishermen people like Chauncy and Teena Monden who run Kula Country Farms on the slopes of Haleakala and produce amazingly sweet Kula Onions and delicious Kula Strawberries.

Chauncy Monden, 4th Generation Maui Farmer, Kula Country Farms.

Chauncy Monden, 4th Generation Maui Farmer, Kula Country Farms.

Chef Pang knows when Hana fishermen are catching Ahi Tuna, for example, and regularly talks by phone with chefs across the islands to find out how their fish and produce sources are managing.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention an over-arching awareness of local food  sourcing by the Maui restaurant community as a whole. From top-flight, award-winning establishments like Kō to smaller quality establishments such as Colleen’s at the Cannery in up-country Haiku, chefs are regularly receiving supplies from local growers such as Kula Country Farms, Otani Farms and even smaller boutique farmers like Patnode Farms, Haiku Organic Farms and Rainbow Specialty Organics. As veteran restaurateur Colleen Nicholas says, with a smile, “people walk in all day and sell us lemons, limes, avocados, star fruit, etc. They are the real unsung heroes because local citrus and produce is so much better.”

Colleen's Beet Salad with fresh organic Kula greens, organic grape tomatoes, candied walnuts and goat cheese.

Colleen’s Beet Salad with fresh organic Kula greens, organic grape tomatoes, candied walnuts and goat cheese.

A trip to Maui these days is not only a trip to an astonishingly beautiful place, but it can be a great opportunity to learn more about Hawaiian history and the modern Mauians’ embrace of sustainable agriculture coupled with fine dining, plantation-style. Trip planners and resort concierges are available to help you plan farm tours and other excursions that will put you right on the farm-to-table route.

 

Luxury, Sustainability and Aloha+ in Wailea, Maui

 

All suites at the Fairmont Kea Lani have ocean views.

All suites at the Fairmont Kea Lani have ocean views.

When we think of big resort hotels, we sometimes default to thinking there will frequently be waste issues in food, trash, laundering and energy. It is with delight when we discover a major destination property that has figured it out and made a commitment to sustainability principles.

As guests at the Fairmont Kea Lani, set on lovely Polo Beach on the Valley Isle of Maui, you might get a hint of this commitment with your first Mai-Tai by one of the pools, served in a “glass” made of corn (and 100% compostable).  It doesn’t stop there.

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Poolside Mai Tai in a “glass” made of corn tells part of the story of the Fairmont Kea Lani’s commitment to sustainability.

During a recent stay, we learned a great deal more about the Kea Lani’s sustainability efforts on Maui and the significant corporate commitment by the Fairmont’s global properties.  For example, by the end of 2013, Fairmont’s goal is to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below their 2006 levels, the equivalent of taking 19,777 cars off the road annually.  Look for Electric Car charging stations coming later this year, a developing addition to Maui travel.  Leftover food donations to local food banks, farm-to-table sourcing and on-site “Green Teams” prove that this is not just a “trendy” corporate nod, but a way of life for the Fairmont culture since 1990.

We found the poolside service to be excellent.  The nicely tranquil adult pool is great for guests who wish to, well, be without kids for a little while.

The "adult" quiet pool at the Fairmont Kea Lani is tranquil with excellent Mai Tais poolside.

The “adult” quiet pool at the Fairmont Kea Lani is tranquil with excellent food service poolside.

Snacks and beverages are brought to your small chaise-lounge tables. Hint: Go for the Kalua-Pork Quesadilla with Mango Salsa.  Zesty!

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The spacious and comfortable lobby of the Fairmont Kea Lani is a great place to relax and meet with friends.

The Fairmont Kea Lani actively engages its guests to be partners in the sustainability effort and we found ourselves easily tuned-in and mindful, thanks to the hotel’s examples, led by General Manager Charles Head, a cheerful host, custom-made for the modern hospitality industry.  He is the real deal.

 

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Live bamboo incorporated into the lobby ambience at the Fairmont Kea Lani.

 

Amenities.  Big ones, small ones, lots of them.  The little touches that you remember.  Have you ever been to a WSUE Resort (World’s Slowest and Ugliest Elevators)?  The Kea Lani’s elevators arrive quickly and are beautifully designed.  Expect top of the line Rose 31 eco-products by Le Labo in the spacious bathroom(s), great in-room coffee and tea service, and high-quality linens and down pillows. Staff attitude?  Aloha says a lot but let’s just say “Aloha-Plus” for this staff. How do they remember who we are by name?  Do they have chips installed?

 

Whoever came up with the all-Suite resort concept was brilliant.  With 413 of these 800 square-foot-plus ocean-view suites and 37 very private ocean-view villas (each with their own small pool), the Kea Lani is a sweet-spot in resort size.  Add to that a very unique location tucked in the Polo Beach cove and you have a feeling of privacy in the heart of Wailea.

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Polo Beach Cove gives the visitor a feeling of coziness. Beaches in Hawaii are public but this setting has a sense of privacy while not being “uppity.”

 

The whale-watching, in season, from your private lanai, libation-in-hand, is, well, the stuff of dreams.  Speaking of Lanai, that’s the island right out your window.

Service gets to you fast because the resort is adequately staffed with well-trained and motivated employees (each of whom is imbued with the culture of the property and Hawaii by going through a comprehensive cultural training program run by the resort’s own cultural advisor).

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The welcoming lobby and adjacent lounge at the Fairmont Kea Lani is a great place to meet friends for an afternoon libation.

There is, of course, lots to do on Maui: from the top of Haleakala to the snorkeling and myriad water sports; to the great helicopter tours, upcountry touring and the gorgeous marathon drive to Hana…but, if you just want to stay put, the Kea Lani makes it easy. This property clearly wants you to relax and enjoy everything.  For off-property adventures the Concierge desk is at your service, and will arrange for just about any activity.

The best deal is to get the Sunnyside Breakfast Package when you reserve.  This is a real value.  We’re not normally big buffet fans, but the Kea Lani Restaurant somehow re-wrote the book on resort breakfast buffets.  From Chef Irwin or Chef “Smiley” at their made-to-order omelet stations, to the huge fresh fruit bar and fresh pastries (the apple strudel and the mango cobbler), with staff bringing fresh pots of coffee, refreshing your water and juice (or mai tai)…well, maybe you’ll be lounging at the hotel today.  And if you are off for an adventure, this breakfast will fortify you.  (You can also order from the menu, but value-wise, go for the Breakfast Package).

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Chef Irwin works his magic at the Fairmont Kea Lani Restaurant omelet station.

Later in the day, other dining options will tempt you to stay on the property:

Nick’s Fishmarket Maui is a seafood and steak establishment, with a great terrace and a lively bar; the Polo Beach Grille and Bar is a poolside, casual daytime place where friends gather and includes a handy swim-up bar; and Caffe Ciao Bakery and Deli is open from early morning to late night and has a wide range of food options including custom picnic baskets.

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Caffe Ciao makes a great picnic lunch, wonderful coffee drinks and is a great place to pick up those sundries you might have forgotten to pack.

Overseeing all food at the Kea Lani is Executive Chef Tylun Pang.

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Chef Tylun Pang oversees all of the food at the Fairmont Kea Lani and is the driving force behind the “Plantation Cuisine” at Kō Restaurant at the resort.

He is also the driving force behind one of Hawaii’s great authentic restaurants, Kō, which was the dining highlight of our Fairmont Kea Lani stay.  There is so much to say about Kō and the integration of Hawaiian home cooking that we are dedicating a separate article in this issue to the restaurant and Chef Pang’s commitment to local food sourcing and environmental stewardship.  That said, one meal at Kō will open your eyes and palate to the cultural influences on contemporary, Hawaiian cuisine.  Move over fusion; let’s get down with some plantation-inspired home cooking.

An over-arching quality for any deluxe property is the amount of return business.  At the Kea Lani we asked staff members about this and the story was consistent:  Families have been coming here year after year.  In fact, many employees have worked at the property for many years and have seen children grow, and return with their own families.  These are qualities of a destination property that can’t fit into any metric but are as important as any.

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Along the never-boring Wailea hiking path, easily accessible from the Kea Lani.

Wrapping up this intro to the Fairmont Kea Lani, let us add that evening walks along the Wailea hiking path (which passes through the beachfront of the resort) is another delight.  Because of the Kea Lani’s location, the foot traffic seems modest and there is never a feeling of being crowded, even during high season.  That feeling of seclusion and tranquility carries through this unique property.  Couple this with the Fairmont’s leadership in Maui’s environmental stewardship and we give this great family destination a big thumb’s up!

http://www.fairmont.com/kea-lani-maui/

Richmond, B.C., Asian Food Lover’s Paradise

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The Richmond Night Market runs May thru September

With so many readers traveling through Vancouver B.C. we like to inspire side trips and special places that we think our readership would like.  Richmond, B.C., is one those special gems we want to share with you.

Minutes from the Vancouver, B.C. airport, Richmond is an Asian food lover’s dream.

With a setting along the famous Fraser River, Richmond has about 400 Asian restaurants for its 200,000 residents, or, one for every 500 people, and the quality bar is very high, even in the mall food courts.

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The bar is set very high for Asian food in Richmond, B.C., and that includes mall food courts.

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Great store, with products not easily found in the U.S., abound in Richmond, B.C.
Yes, you can stock up on Malteesers, too!

With a nearly 70 percent Asian population, almost half of which are from China, a visitor can count on some scrumptious and varied fare.  Add to this amazing variety of restaurants the renowned Richmond Night Market with its 80 food stalls, and you’ve landed yourselves in the middle of a foodie heaven!

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Many Richmond, B.C. restaurants put their fare right on the window.

We checked into the Radisson Hotel, just a short walk from the Aberdeen light rail station.  There are plenty of well-known hotel brands in Richmond, but the Radisson is particularly handy to the airport and light rail.  What this also means is that you can get to downtown Vancouver without getting into a car by walking the short distance to the light rail.

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The Radisson at Richmond, B.C. is steps from the light rail station that will take you to downtown Vancouver.

A foodie friend and I found ourselves dining a deux on the first night of a 3-night stay and headed for the Shanghai River Restaurant after walking the borders of the main restaurant district.  Note: Walking, very good idea.  Much food. Fortunately Richmond is flat and great for burning off a big meal on foot or bicycle.

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The Parker Place BBQ store.

The first thing we noticed at the Shanghai River Restaurant was that its gorgeous dining room was full of happy Asian families and tables full of intriguing looking plates of food.

Courteously greeted and seated, we tried the soup dumplings which were absolutely delicious, followed by vegetables wrapped in bean curd, pork with preserved vegetables and Black Cod.  That’s about all two people could handle, but it was exquisite and, reminded us that the best way to eat Asian food out is with a larger group so you can sample more menu items.

Soup Dumplings at the Shanghai River Restaurant

Soup Dumplings at the Shanghai River Restaurant

The large group issue was handled the next morning when the gracious hosts of Tourism Richmond gathered a table full of us for Dim Sum at Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant in the sprawling Aberdeen Center, another short walk from the Radisson.

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O, boy!  And out came the prawn dumplings, 3 mushroom soup, pork buns, barbecued pork pastry. tapioca cake, turnip cake, deep fried prawns, egg custard and steamed mini-sponge cake, to name a few items.  A hearty Richmond, B.C. breakfast!

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Dim Sum Breakfast at the Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant.

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More of that Dim Sum at the Fisherman’s Terrace.

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The OMG Egg Custard at the Fisherman’s Terrace Restaurant.

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Yes, all of this!

Not only does Richmond have remarkable gastronomic attractions (more on those in a moment) but a short bus, bike or taxi ride will get you to Steveston Village, an engaging working seaport steeped in regional history. Plan to visit the beautifully restored historic Gulf of Georgia Cannery, built in 1894, at the Steveston Harbor. The Cannery reflects the multicultural heritage of the area and the guided tour will convince you of the rough and tumble life of the Gulf of Georgia fishing and canning industry.

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Gulf of Georgia Cannery, Steveston, B.C.

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Take the guided tour of the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. The history of Steveston, B.C. is fascinating.

As you walk along the wharf on your walking tour of Steveston, check out the fresh fish being sold right off the docked fishing boats.  On the wharf numerous restaurants specialize in fresh seafood dishes and the friendly locals are welcoming. (It’s Canada!).

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Fresh fish for sale along the Steveston, B.C. fishing docks.

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And don’t forget the crabs!

Heading back to central Richmond, just about 2 miles away, perhaps it might be time for your afternoon Pineapple Bun at the intimate Lido Restaurant and Bakery.  This place is so popular that sometimes you have to order and pay for your Pineapple Buns in advance and the hostess will tell you to come back in 10 minutes when the next batch is due out of the oven.  The buns are a real treat, with a nice pot of tea.  There is no pineapple in them, but the tops resemble pineapples, hence the name.

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Pineapple Buns at the Lido Bakery in Richmond, B.C.

While we are helping you burn off all this wonderful food, it is time to guide you over to the spectacular Richmond Olympic Oval, just west of central Richmond.  Built for the 2010 Winter Olympics and the speed skating events, it has been transformed into a public fitness center, in true Canadian fashion.  It is chock-a-block full of exercise machines, basketball courts, a climbing wall, badminton and, watch out, the best ping pong players you’ve ever seen up close!  You can get a day pass to use the facilities and it is big enough to not feel crowded.  The refreshing groups of young people engaged in athletics was wonderful to see.  This really is a “worth your time” attraction like Steveston.

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You’ll see some rocket ping pong at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

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The climbing wall at the Richmond Olympic Oval, now open to the public daily.

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Exercise bikes open for public use at the Richmond Olympic Oval.

While on the subject of athletics, if you have ever been curious about Dragon Boating,the Richmond Rowing and Paddling Centre at the nearby University of British Columbia Boathouse offers visitors the opportunity to get out on the Fraser River, under the supervision of veteran coaches and trainers.  See sidebar for contact information.

All of these attractions can be reached comfortably by bicycle and there are several bike rental outfits in the Richmond/Steveston area to serve you. A good cycling map is available listing additional resources.

Returning to our foodie world, along Alexandra Road, (aka “Food Street”), are a couple of notable restaurants to try (among many).  The first is Jang Mo Jib Korean Restaurant.  The name means “grandmother’s house” and serves very traditional Korean cuisine and the excellent claypot cooking.

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Pork neck soup at Jang Mo Jib Restaurant in Richmond, B.C.

We tried Pork Neck Soup, the delicious short ribs and Korean traditional sausage (Soon Dae Jub See).  The kim chee was varied and delicious as well.

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East meets Northwest at Richmond, B.C.

Our moveable feast then lurched a block away to the Claypot Hot Pot and BBQ restaurant to have some fun with this great Cantonese-style cooking.

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Claypot Hot Pot BBQ in Richmond, B.C.

In the middle of the large tables are gas burners divided into sections so that different broths can be used to cook the varied food items, which on our visit included soup bases of Szechuan Spicy, Parsley and Preserved Egg, Satay and Peppered Pork Stomach.  Into these sauces we cooked: Short ribs, pork belly, sliced lamb shoulder, and meatballs of fresh prawn and minced dace (fish).   We also deep fried some fish skin and spicy pork ear.   For our vegetarian palate we also cooked tofu, gluten, garland chrysanthemum and lotus root.  The tastes were amazing and this style of cooking is especially fun when you have a table full of people.

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Famous Chef James, with his wonderful food and sparkling personality at the Richmond Night Market.

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Lovingly cooked octopus at the Richmond Night Market.

 

 

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Insanely delicious fried potatoes at the Richmond Night Market.

Lastly, if you are traveling to Richmond, B.C. between May and September, you are in for a special treat if you visit the Richmond Night Market, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.   During our visit, there were 80-plus food stalls, ranging from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese and varieties in-between.  Bring your appetite and be prepared for some real fun.  It teems with people from all over the region as well as tourists and the management monitors food prep and keeps the grounds very clean. The Richmond Night Market is accessible via the light rail (Bridgeport Station) and sits close to the Fraser River, so bring a light jacket or sweater to keep the night chill at bay. Be prepared for lots of food and fun.

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The wonderful, colorful and meditative Kuan Yin Buddhist Temple in Richmond, B.C.

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Some of the extraordinary art at the Kuan Yin Buddhist Temple, Richmond, B.C.

From now on, spending at least 2 days in and around Richmond, B.C. is going to be part of our trips to Vancouver.  Discovering the convenience of the light rail system and recognizing that Richmond is a full-on Asian food celebration were two highlights of our visit.  One thing that stands out is how most people of Asian descent appreciate a wide range of cooking styles from around Asia.  This translates into a large community support base in Richmond and it is enjoyable to see.  Food brings the world together.  Perhaps that accounts for the happy families we saw in Richmond.  Don’t miss it!

Some helpful links for you:

Tourism Richmond: http://www.tourismrichmond.com

Richmond Night Market: http://www.richmondnightmarket.com

Richmond Olympic Oval: http://richmondoval.ca

Steveston Village: http://www.steveston.bc.ca

Gulf of Georgia Cannery: http://gulfofgeorgiacannery.com/

Carmel-by-the Sea: Art, History and the Sea

 

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The beautiful cove at Carmel-by-the-Sea

 Carmel-By-The-Sea! Oh, how that rolls off the tongue so easily. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. Nestled in the shore of Carmel Bay, on the south end of the larger Monterey Bay; one of Northern California’s natural wonders and marine life habitats. With a heritage of the Old World, this natural artist’s colony, hub of wealth, comfortable homes, and culturally engaged society, still manages to throw open its arms to visitors from all over the world.

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One of the many galleries in Carmel

With big brother Monterey just over the hill to the north, and the enchanting Highway One route to Big Sur to the south, Carmel simply says, “Stay and rest awhile.” It is very easy to comply. All are welcome here.

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The venerable drug store in downtown Carmel

Having weathered some criticism for “commercialization” over the years, (if the easy-on-the-eyes architecture, and brilliant merchandising skills in the shop and gallery windows is to be criticized), drive down to your local strip mall before you make a judgment. Sure, we all miss the truly funky artist’s colonies that flourished along the California coast, but let’s face it, things change, and sometimes they get better. Carmel is a case in point.

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Get ready for some treats here.

Let’s talk a little about Carmel’s history. As with many California coastal areas, tribes of Native Americans, the Esselen and Ohlone along the Central Coast, flourished before the Europeans showed up in the early 1600’s, claiming the area for Spain. Carmel Valley was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The big names showed up in the mid-1700’s: Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junipero Serra, and soon the historic Carmel Mission was established. As usual, in spite of some frequent good intentions, European diseases decimated the Native Americans and they either died out from illness or fled to the mountains to the south due to the treatment by the Spaniards. Father Serra died in 1784, but not before helping to establish the famous chain of missions throughout California. Highway One is called El Camino Real, “The King’s Highway.” as many have known it, and many old missions can be visited along its beautiful route. In 1848, after the Mexican-American war, Carmel became part of the United States, ceded by Mexico, with California becoming a state two years later.

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Some of the treats!

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Clint in the window.

An art colony was born, seismically, if you will, after San Francisco’s disastrous 1906 earthquake. Artists of all disciplines fled San Francisco for the south, coincidentally supplementing another growing art community in Los Angeles, which continues to enjoy worldwide renown. But many artists simply stopped, agog, in Carmel, and there they stayed and worked. New venues such as The Arts and Crafts Theater and The Forest Theater evolved and a visual arts community that included early photographers such as Arnold Genthe, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, arrived and thrived. Musically, among other events, the Carmel Bach Festival has been celebrating J.S. Bach since 1935. The feeling of an artist’s workplace still permeates the quiet streets.

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One of the many working artists’ studios in Carmel-by-the-sea.

It would be hard to imagine a more connected place to stay in Carmel than The Cypress Inn; wonderfully linked to the town’s history, warmly preserved by the ownership of Doris Day and Dennis Le Vett, and managed with a big smile by the very capable Fiona VanderWall and her accommodating staff.

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The wonderful Cypress Inn.

Checking in to the 44-room establishment, at the corner of 7th and Lincoln, is to step into a 1920s building suggesting a Mediterranean-Moroccan style, rich in wood, window treatments hung from forge-twisted iron rods and venerable tile floors. Doris Day memorabilia are tastefully displayed in the lobby and other parts of the Cypress Inn and are enjoyable to review. Our suite overlooked Lincoln Street and had a delightful balcony facing west, and a spacious circular Jacuzzi tub in the large bathroom. Top shelf linens and a lovely inset fireplace also set an elegant tone.

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The Cypress Inn is very pet-welcoming.

If you travel with your dog, The Cypress Inn especially welcomes you, as they are one of California’s most pet-friendly establishments. While we were sans pet, we thoroughly enjoyed the well-behaved dogs that came to the abundant continental breakfast with their owners. Dogs and their humans also showed up for the afternoon Yappy Hour at Terry’s Lounge, the Cypress Inn’s great bar/restaurant. You could feel the popularity with the locals who gather daily for some libation, and fun pet sharing. Yappy Hour is fun, remarkably quiet, and entertaining.

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The Cypress Inn lobby with some Doris Day memorabilia.

Terry’s Lounge, named for Doris Day’s late son, music producer Terry Melcher, is a cozy, elegant place to eat and drink. Mixologist Will Larkin, whose family roots are deep in Northern California history, has an amazing grasp of wines and liquors with a solid knowledge of beers. Not to be missed is the cocktail menu, which features wonderful quotes from famous movie stars. My favorite is Mae West’s, “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” Cocktails at Terry’s Lounge are fun and edifying!

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One of the public rooms off the Cypress Inn lobby.

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The walk along Scenic drive.

We ate at the bar two nights in a row and Will was generous in sharing his knowledge of food and drink. Food and Beverage Manager Jonathan Bagley has made the most of a small-plate concept in keeping ingredients as local as possible and Terry’s Lounge is signed on with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, which monitors species threatened with overfishing. Among the items we enjoyed were delicate, briny Miyagi oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Farm at Tomales Bay, seared Ahi Tuna with a light butternut squash cream sauce, house-roasted beet salad with goat cheese, and a stand-out watercress and apple salad. The burger and fries on the menu is enough for two! Finally, Will recommended a delicious Hahn Winery 2010 Santa Lucia Ridge Pinot Noir, a smooth, fruit-forward vintage that rivals any California or Oregon Pinot Noir we’ve tasted. Terry’s Lounge has a comfortable, local feel to it and it became our favorite place to eat in Carmel.

Now for a nice walk. You won’t find too many more picturesque strolls than along Scenic Drive in Carmel-by-the-Sea. With the Cypress Inn being located right in the middle of Carmel, it is a short drive or walk down the hill to Carmel City Beach.

Scenic Drive takes off to the south, and the walk, either on the easily accessible beach or on the lovely street-level path, is dreamy. Kelp, Cypress trees, a distant fog bank, and the odd sea lions and sea otters make Carmel Bay a signature of this part of the California coast.

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The ubiquitous Cypress trees of the Monterey Peninsula.

Along Scenic Drive, oceanfront homes, some modest, some daringly cantilevered over the water, dazzle, but the sea is the real star. The fresh ocean air is a tonic for the soul and this walk is one of the things that draws visitors back time after time. Forget your other concerns for a while, breathe in this air and enjoy the moment. Hug your partner a little closer and feel the gratitude for being able to be right there. You’ll find shared smiles among strangers along Scenic Drive.

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Just a touch of Carmel’s arty nature.

Returning to the town center, possibly via a big loop including Mission Ranch and the Carmel Mission, nosing around the art galleries can be a lovely way to spend an afternoon. The bar for art in Carmel, as historically noted above, is set high. Gallery representation is precious to working artists, and the vetting process for exhibition in this artist’s colony is comprehensive. Explore! The surprise of looking down a small alley and seeing a metal sculpture studio, or finding the precise seascape for your living room in a gallery window, awaits.

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Along the famous 17-Mile Drive.

Unless you’ve decided to stay forever in Carmel-by-the-Sea, the time comes to leave.  When you do, please do yourselves a favor and pay the fee to drive the world-famous 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach to Pacific Grove. The sea vistas, the famous Del Monte Lodge, the Inn at Spanish Bay, Del Monte Forest, the generous turnouts along the rugged shoreline, and the spectacular estates that speak of wealth, old and new, make this trip worthwhile. We gazed at the breaking waves for what seemed a very long time on The Drive. Two sea otters were busy in a cove, acting like the clowns they are, and a couple of deer ambled along, completely comfortable with passing cars.

Carmel remains a very special place in the hearts and minds of world travelers and locals alike. And when you go, here are some references for you:

http://www.carmelcalifornia.com/

http://www.cypress-inn.com/

http://www.stayincarmel.org

http://www.pebblebeach.com/

Along the Wine Road in Northern Sonoma County

Geyserville signage pointing the way!

Geyserville signage pointing the way!

And more signage!

And more signage!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healdsburg welcome!

Healdsburg welcome!

You’re a wine lover. You have arrived in a wine-growing region full of hundreds of wineries, big and small. What do you do? How do you choose which ones to visit in the time you have? Sure, research is great and fun, too, but for many of us more casual winery aficionados, it would be wonderful to have some help creating a stress-free itinerary. The northern Sonoma County wine-growing area of California presents this kind of challenge.

With so many wineries in the region (including the Alexander, Dry Creek, Green and Russian River valleys and the Chalk Hill and Rockpile districts), someone had to come along to help manage the experience for visitors who might otherwise find visiting 150 wineries a bit overwhelming. Not only that, but vetting through the countless lodgings can be arduous as well. Thankfully, The Wine Road folks are here to help!

When we had the opportunity to let The Wine Road set up an itinerary for us, what followed was one of the best and varied three days of wine education and tasting we’d experienced.

Some of the highlights:

Dr. Stew Lauderbach does some sampling.

Dr. Stew Lauderbach does some sampling.

There was Dr. Stew Lauterbach up on a ladder in his unpretentious Lauterbach Cellars tasting room in the Windsor, CA countryside. As he took a plug out of the top of a barrel and siphoned out a sample of his delicious 2010 Pinot Noir, it was clear that this smiling ER Doc was having a lot of fun with his wine-making passion.

Dr. Lauterbach shares his wine with a visitor.

Dr. Lauterbach shares his wine with Amy Sherman of Cooking With Amy.

The same was true as the charismatic Bill Myers grilled some fresh salmon and expounded on his love of wine making in the Alexander Valley, home of his beautiful Mediterranean-style White Oak Winery and tasting room. The White Oak Chardonnay is remarkable. These folks are having too much fun!

Bill Myers at his White Oak Winery.

Bill Myers at his White Oak Winery.

Bill Myers at White Oak Winery.  He knows his wine and knows his salmon.

Bill Myers at White Oak Winery. He knows his wine and knows his salmon.

And while all this fun is going on, they are making world-class wines. In fact, along the Sonoma Wine Road, there seem to be a huge number of winemakers, in facilities large and small, enjoying a robust relationship with the earth, the vines and sharing their passionate interests with their visitors.

Yoakim Bridge Winery.

Yoakim Bridge Winery.

Virginia Morgan and David Cooper hosting at Yoakim Bridge Winery.

Virginia Morgan and David Cooper hosting at Yoakim Bridge Winery.

A tip of the hat to Virginia Morgan and David Cooper at their quaint Yoakim Bridge Vineyards and Winery, near Healdsburg, for serving up their “Hearts and Minds” meatballs while we tasted their 2008 Dry Creek Cabernet and 2009 Dry Creek Zinfandel. This outgoing, charming couple met at a cooking school and took the big leap and founded a winery because, well, the passion is there for them as well.of the wineries have huge production, but some, like Lauterbach, produce less than 500 cases a year and the Yoakim Bridge folks a relatively modest 2500 cases.

 

We visited B&B’s such as The Honor Mansion, run for 18 years by Steve and Cathi Fowler, complete with croquet, putting green and inviting bocce ball courts beyond the huge pool. Honor House is the only 4-Diamond property in Healdsburg and the Fowlers work hard to make sure their guests really understand and feel the value of their stays.
The Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA.

The Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA.

Breakfast at the Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA

Breakfast at the Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA

A room at the Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA.

A room at the Honor Mansion, Healdsburg CA.

Another gem to visit in Healdsburg is the Grape Leaf Inn, complete with a cozy “speakeasy” wine tasting room downstairs and, like The Honor Mansion, very good value and excellent customer service standards.

Grape Leaf Inn, Healdsburg CA

Grape Leaf Inn, Healdsburg CA

 

"Speakeasy" wine bar at the Grape Leaf Inn, Healdsburg CA

“Speakeasy” wine bar at the Grape Leaf Inn, Healdsburg CA

One more stop deserving mention is Everett Ridge Vineyards and Winery, sited on a lovely slope above Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg. Three generations of the remarkable Sterling family run this engaging operation, producing about 15,000 cases of superb wines annually. The family story is epic. When you visit, be sure to ask how the “Diablita” label got its name.

Let’s face it, you need two or three days to cover the northern Sonoma County wineries in a quality, memory-making way. You’ll learn a lot about wine and the personalities of the winemakers. The tasting room staffs are throwbacks to an age of courtesy and are well- informed and share their knowledge with pride and generosity. The commitment to sustainable agriculture here is notable and the desire to preserve the region in agrarian and viticulture endeavors is strong and pervasive throughout the valley.

With the Santa Rosa Airport offering service to major cities and SFO just a little over an hour south, the northern Sonoma County wine region is a convenient destination and The Wine Road is a best bet to make your visit memorable.

Quivera Vineyards in the Dry Creek area of Sonoma Valley.

Quivira Vineyards in the Dry Creek area of northern Sonoma County.

The beautiful tasting room at Kendall-Jackson, Santa Rosa CA.  Check out their herb garden!

The beautiful tasting room at Kendall-Jackson, Santa Rosa CA. Check out their herb garden!

Tasting at Quivira Winery along the Wine Road.

Tasting at Quivira Winery along the Wine Road.

New York New York, It’s (always) a Wonderful Town!

Taking a break, Central Park, New York City

Taking a break, Central Park, New York City

It was a long sweeping approach to JFK, almost like an IMAX movie. Clear Spring afternoon, freighters queued in the offshore anchorage, Manhattan stolidly anchoring the backdrop. I come to New York with the spirit of a pilgrim. I love the place. Love the people. When I saw Lady Gaga’s Madison Square Garden show on HBO I was struck by the love she has for New York and New Yorkers. I’m with her.

On this trip I might have been crunched in the coach cabin for 5 hours, but the rest of the trip was prima classe, starting with the very reliable and competent folks from EmpireCLS Worldwide . Having a car meet you at JFK is a real treat and once you’ve done it, you’re hooked.

And if, as on this trip, you can stay at The Peninsula Hotel, at E. 55th and Fifth Avenue, well, it is hard to go back to that last “thrifty” hotel you tried to save money on. The suites will leave you breathless as will the culture of service. The art of good service is deft; not obsequious, never overdone. From General Manager Jonathan Crook to Guest Services Manager Johnny DeBrito and Front Desk Agents like Marie-Anne Pain, the hotel hums with quiet graciousness and elegance. The Concierge desk and room service personnel are just, simply, on it.

The Peninsula Hotel, New York

The Peninsula Hotel, New York

Add in the scene at Salon de Ning, the rooftop bar atop The Peninsula and Fives Restaurant ,serving breakfast lunch and dinner, plus the swimming pool and the Peninsula Spa by ESPA on the 20th floor, and you’ve got yourself a great base of operations in New York City.

Sundeck at the Peninsula Hotel, New York

Sundeck at the Peninsula Hotel, New York

Living room in Peninsula Hotel Suite, New York

Living room in Peninsula Hotel Suite, New York

 

Swimming Pool at the Peninsula Hotel, New York

Swimming Pool at the Peninsula Hotel, New York

Some huge extra value accrues if you use your American Express Platinum card at The Peninsula. The card gets you a complimentary room upgrade, when available, a daily continental breakfast for two and a $100 hotel credit that can be used anywhere in the hotel, Spa and restaurants. I figured that these benefits alone pay for the card’s annual fee. Just in one stay! And Amex has over 700 Fine Hotels and Resorts partners around the world offering these benefits, plus dedicated Platinum Cardholder concierge services, travel desk and lots more. I’m still trying to figure out how they can possibly offer so much on one card, and they are still adding benefits. I’ve recently been assisted by Danielle Van Dinter in the Atlanta office of American Express Travel and she is a total pro.

PJ Clarkes, New York City

PJ Clarkes, New York City

As I arrived and got settled in the very late afternoon, I decided to walk down E. 55th St. to 3rd Avenue and dine at the venerable P.J. Clarke’s, after a many-year hiatus. Somethings never change, thank heavens. And that includes P.J. Clarkes’ exquisite burger. Manager Brian Carter was overseeing a very busy night but made the time to talk with me a little bit about some of the restaurant’s history and point out the wedding photo on the wall at table 53. The photo is of Buddy Holly kissing his bride Maria Elena, and was presented to the restaurant by his widow. P.J. Clarke’s table 53 was where Mr. Holly proposed to Maria Elena.

Dessert Menu, PJ Clarke's New York City

Dessert Menu, PJ Clarke’s New York City

In the morning I headed down the stairs of the MOMA subway station on W. 53rd, and, pushing a few right buttons on the MetroCard machine, I purchased a 7-day unlimited ride ticket good for buses and subways.  And off I went to meet a friend for lunch at a French bistro-in-New York called Pastis. Great noisy place at the corner of 9th Avenue and Little West 12th Street in the West Village area.  Loved the fish and chips and the fluffy herb omelet on two visits. Ask for an outside table on a sunny day.

It is a short walk from Pastis to The Highline, and this is a must-see. In the 1930’s, in order to get railroad freight switching operations off the city streets, the tracks were elevated 30 feet above the street and some spurs ran directly inside the factories and other buildings. This went on for 50 years until the tracks were abandoned in the 1980’s and fell into decay. A group of influential “Friends of the High Line” got together in 1999 and today The Highline is a wonderful above-the-street promenade for all New Yorkers and visitors. It is another example of what makes New York a world-class city.

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

The Highline, New York City

A stroll on The Highline is a great feeder event for a visit to the thriving Chelsea Market, 9th Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets. This fun and delicious food hub is housed in the old National Biscuit Company complex, dating from the 1890’s. Just walking through the former hallowed baking home of Oreos, Saltine Crackers and Barnum’s Animal Crackers is a treat and the preservation that went into morphing this property into The Chelsea Market is remarkable. You’ll find professional kitchen supplies, special pastas, fancy cookies, fresh seafood, a great wine store and bakeries galore. Bring a shopping bag and an appetite because you are in for treats and dazzling foodie visuals.

Chelsea Market, New York City

Chelsea Market, New York City

Chelsea Market, New York City

Chelsea Market, New York City

Back to The Peninsula for a swim in the 21st floor pool. Heaven. Joining friends at A Voce Columbus, 10 Columbus Circle, it is easy to see why Executive Chef Missy Robbins and Chef di Cucina Adam Nadel have made this modern, chic eatery a success. A light focaccia lands on the table right away, service staff are prompt and polite and my Corzetti (hand crafted pasta coins, crab, specks of pancetta and a hint of lemon) is delicious. The Misticanza salad, arugula, herbs, citron vinaigrette with a little ricotta is a reminder of how delicious simplicity can be.  And off to the theater.

The reason we were able to get tickets for “The Best Man,” starring James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury and Candace Bergen at the Schoenfeld Theater, was that the American Express Concierge service pre-reserves a lot of theater and event tickets. Who knew? There were no more tickets available for this particular performance but they were available for Platinum cardholders. I’m not sure all those Platinum cardholders out there realize all this, but it is really terrific. Absolutely wonderful and funny show with Gore Vidal’s sharp-pointed humor well-delivered by a top-notch cast. Best surprise: Kerry Butler’s performance as a candidate’s wife.

There is a pilgrim’s route I always like to take on my New York visits. I take a subway (either the 2 or 3 train) to Clarke St. Station in Brooklyn (you can also take the A or C to High St. station) and then, depending on time, I like to walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which offers spectacular views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Dumbo Neighborhood

The Dumbo Neighborhood

After this stroll I like to walk around the Dumbo neighborhood and see the progress being made on the beautiful riverside public park, that now features a classic, glass-enclosed carousel in full operation. The re-habing of of old warehouses in Dumbo continues with many shops and eateries starting to move in. A bakery I love is Almondine at 85 Water St. Very French with a friendly staff and great pastries and sandwiches to take down to the park, just a block or so away.

Park on the East River in Dumbo Neighborhood

Park on the East River in Dumbo Neighborhood

Now the pilgrim heads towards the Brooklyn Bridge foot and bike path for the return to Manhattan. Get yourself to the base of the bridge and you’ll find the stairway up and then you’re off, above the traffic on the deck below. There is a separate bike lane so most of the time there is no problem with space issues. On a recent sunny Saturday, though, I think at least half of the population was on the bridge. Weekdays are nice.

One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center

As you come into Manhattan on the bridge, you’ll go by City Hall and then turn south towards the new One World Trade Center building going up at Ground Zero, and the Monument to the lives lost on 9/11/2001. This is, of course, an extraordinarily moving location. We will continued to be affected by the enormity of that tragic day and, for many, it will be a regular destination of remembrance.

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Central Park, New York City

Finally, a morning walk in Central Park soothes the mind and soul in a special way. The trees in the Park are so well-tended that the views in the tree canopy is especially beautiful. The tranquility of the park is enhanced by the amazing amount of birds and other wildlife giving you a glimpse from time to time. Benches in the Park have nameplates that hint of wonderful stories and it is interesting to speculate on what the whole tale is of a bench whose plate might say, “I love you Annette.” Central Park is to some a national monument. It has endured so long now, and continues to thrive, inspire and comfort. Thank you, New York, for keeping this gem polished.

Bench Plaque, Central Park, New York City

Bench Plaque, Central Park, New York City

Bench Plaque, Central Park, New York City

Bench Plaque, Central Park, New York City

Just a note about the fabulous museums in New York. You’ve got them on a big list, I hope, but just in case, here are just a few starting with the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St. There is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park at 82nd, then along “Museum Mile” are The Frick Collection, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Guggenheim Museum, Cooper Hewitt Museum, The Jewish Museum and the Asia Society Museum on Park Avenue. One of my personal favorites is, you might guess, the International Center of Photography at 1133 Avenue of Americas at W. 43rd Street.

So, adieu New York City and let us be lucky to return to your busy and always interesting streets, parks, theaters, museums and culture…And a very special thanks to the folks at American Express who hosted much of this trip.  The value is there and I’ve used my AMEX card for years.