Archive for the ‘Featured Location’ Category

Celebrate Chanukah in Dublin

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

There’s half an aisle of kosher goods at  the local Supervalu Supermarket in Churchtown, a quiet section of Dublin, which makes it easy for former New Yorker Judith Charry  to find the items she needs to celebrate Chanukah in Ireland,  with her Irish born Jewish husband Carl Nelkin and children Jessica, 13 ½  and Sarah, 7.

Good New York bagels are elusive for the girl from Great Neck, sometimes hand carried over by relatives from the City.  But there’s a real upside at Chanukah time for a Jewish New Yorker living in Ireland. Judith, who speaks with a slight lilt after living in Ireland for 22 years, says ”Irish potatoes make tastier Latkes.”

While there are only approximately 1800 Jews in all 26 counties of Ireland, many Dublin Jews use the  Festival of Lights, and the weeks leading up to Chanukah,  to celebrate the eight nights of gift giving with family, eating traditional jelly donuts, dancing, performing “ Mitzvahs” or good turns and helping other people.

Like in New York, on the first night of the holiday on Tuesday, December 20, 2011, the lights of Chanukah are lit in homes and in public.  The small Jewish community will gather to light a giant menorah outside the City offices once occupied by Robert Briscoe and his son Ben, both who were Jewish Lord Mayors of Dublin.

During a recent visit in their contemporary Dublin home, Sarah and her mom were practicing lighting the candles, inserting the molded wax into a large silver menorah.  Nearby, a crystal Waterford Menorah awaits cleaning, a quiet message that spoke volumes of the household that blends the culture of Ireland with the religion brought from New York.

On the wall, there’s a “Ketubah,” a Jewish marriage contract between husband and wife.  It’s hand written in Hebrew but the letters form the strings of an Irish harp.  Charry proudly shows a Tony Carter tea kettle in the shape of a Sabbath table complete with wine and challah, rather than whiskey and scones

Both her youngsters have trophies for Irish dancing, the style practiced by freckled faced Colleens and made famous by Riverdance.  Upper body held rigid, hands straight down to the side with the energy coming from high prancing and tapping of steel tipped shoes.

On the Sunday of Chanukah, the Gaelic style of dancing will be put aside as hands and arms are wrapped around shoulders and joyous clarinet music replaces the wail of bag pipes.

Husband Carl, is a Barrister (lawyer) and a well-known “Chazzan”, or cantor who makes guest appearances on Long Island for the High Holidays.  He has recorded a collection of favorite Irish and Jewish songs that celebrates the commonality of the cultures, the “Missing of family and emigration” says Charry, songs that emphasize “Deliverance and escape from oppression” according to John O’Regan, a writer for Irish Music Magazine.

“Irish Heart Jewish Soul’ features unique Irish interpretations of Jewish songs and melodies from Yiddish theatre and Irish ballads like Danny Boy. Musically, O’Regan notes that “Pipes, fiddles, and flutes blend with Klezmer sounds and Irish flavors. The result is one of the most unique fusion albums of recent years.”

So what is the Charry-Nelkin family doing for the remaining nights of Chanukah?  They’re off to Israel, to visit other relatives and where the weather is better.

Judith Charry’s Irish Latke Recipe

2 lbs. flavorsome potatoes, e.g. Yukon Gold

1 lg. onion

2 lg. eggs

matzah meal

salt and pepper, to taste

olive or  sunflower oil, for frying

apple sauce, sour cream, plain yogurt, cinnamon sugar, etc., to serve

Scrub the potatoes well; do not peel. Peel the onion.  Cut both into 1.5″ chunks.  Process, in batches, in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, until the mixture is finely chopped. (Be careful not to turn it into puree.)  Empty into a large mixing bowl.  Drain off any liquid.  Mix in the eggs and enough matzah meal to give a thick dropping consistency.  Season well with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large, preferably non-stick, frying pan.  Drop rounded tbsps. of batter into the pan and flatten to 1/2″ thickness.

Fry until deep golden brown on both sides and drain on paper towels.

Serve hot, with your choice of accompaniment(s).

Note: These latkes may be made ahead of time and reheated.  They also freeze well.  Arrange on a baking sheet – slightly overlapping – and heat in a 350-degree oven until hot and crisp.

Ashford Castle Ireland offers a Unique Christmas Adventure

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Alan Moran is on his tip toes on a big ladder, reaching out to add a shiny silver butterfly to a 25 foot tall freshly cut Christmas tree as Catherine Kenny is suggesting the perfect branch for it to land on.  Trees this large wouldn’t fit into most New York apartment building lobbies but in this case, it’s perfectly to scale in the dark wood paneled foyer of 800 year old Ashford Castle, located in the small village of Cong, midway between Shannon and Dublin Airports.

Ireland’s green, rolling hills; storytelling, ancestry and whiskey enchant visitors at any time of the year but Christmas in a five star castle takes on a whole different flavor for an American exploring the holiday traditions of the Auld Sod. It’s the same holiday, just celebrated differently.

“Christmas Day is very family oriented” says Memphis born Kathryn Slatter, who owns Mount Gable gifts in Clonbur.  “It’s unheard of to not spend the day with family.  Everything is closed, including the pubs.  Most people spend day with friends and family.”

“By the next day,” Eamon Wilson, a Dublin Barrister who I met over dinner at the Crowe’s Nest Pub in Cong says “you’re going stir crazy with family, and many people head out for a meal.”

On December 26th, as part of St. Stephen’s day, families in Western Ireland celebrate “The Wren.”  Kids go door to door singing carols with a little fake bird in a cage, visiting neighbors and getting candy for their efforts and a donation for a local charity.

The celebration might have originated with the Druids, who give us another tradition…bringing a cut tree into the home.  That’s still a favorite family event in Ireland and both Ashford Castle and many local residences, like Catherine and Martin Concannon’s, are decorated with Norman Fir Christmas trees from Fintin Carney’s local farm on Houndswood Cross that has no name.

At 9:30pm on a recent Friday evening, conversation at a pub in Cong comes to a halt as the bartender raises the volume on the television.   Guinness in hands, all eyes are tuned to RTE Channel One as Host Ryan Tubridy and  a bunch of kids singing holiday songs spend the next two hours introducing the hot toys of the season.

The first Friday in December is eagerly anticipated by all of Ireland, young and old. The prime minister of Ireland was going to address the country about the growing European financial crisis, but he knew better than to compete with the Late Late Show.  His speech was put off til Sunday.

The Late Late Show is Ireland’s most popular television program and is the longest running chat show in the world.  Hundreds of kid’s toys are presented over the next few Fridays and there isn’t a single Santa believing lad in the Emerald Isle that doesn’t drag his parents in front of the telly to watch.

I hitch a ride back to the Castle with some pub mates.  It’s a majestic site as modern LED lights glow blue on the Christmas trees on the bridge leading to the castle.  With a bit of imagination it’s easy to imagine knights on horseback returning to the manor, crossing the River Cong to the fortress that sits alongside the shores of Lough Corrib.

Walk past the small nativity scene in between two suits of armor and up to the private reception area.  Paddy, the bellman is pleased to lead you through hallway labyrinth of corridors and stairways and the five giant doors that separate your palace sized room from the main lobby.

This place is gargantuan, inside and out.  Ashford Castle’s grounds sprawl over 450 acres and the giant rooms, fit for, well, royalty, offer 20 foot high ceilings, four post beds, and sofas the size of small foreign cars. There have to be ghosts here. Hell, if I was a ghost, I’d live here.

Morning comes and the sun rises after 8am.   After walking around the castle, built in 1228 in County Mayo, I stop for a full Irish breakfast, which is included in my room rate. There’s smoked salmon, black and white pudding, smoked kippers, freshly baked white soda bread and brown bread and eggs, sausage, bacon and fresh pastries, a heavy start to an outdoor day that promises unique adventures.

The weather is surprisingly good during my visit I’m often reminded that last December brought a rare snow storm that paralyzed most of Ireland.  Bright sun and mostly clear skies are perfect for a round of golf, an horseback riding lesson at the equestrian center, fly fishing, clay shooting , a walk through the gardens  or a cruise past the small islands that dot Lough Corrib accompanied by live music.

I meet Eoin Connolly, of Ireland’s Falconry School, who introduces me to a female adolescent Harris Hawk named Joyce. She’s about a foot tall and surprisingly light, with strong talons.
We go walking through the woods surrounding the castle, a leather glove on our left hand.  Joyce wears a small bell attached to her talon, which allows us to hear a Christmas sled sound when we can no longer spot her as she is flying high up over Ashford or sitting on bare branches of trees. Her eyes are always in motion, perfect vision scanning for prey or predator.

I sweep my left arm forward at shoulder level and Joyce goes off, a beautiful sight as her wings extend and propel her to the skies.  Eoin instructs me to turn my back to the bird, extend my arm and he places a small piece of meat in between my leather covered thumb and forefinger.  The ringing of the bell is the only indication that Joyce is returning.  Swooping down from the trees at speeds of up to 240 MPH, she comes in low and fast, just over the grass.  Rising at the last second, wings spread in a menacing fashion but she gently reaches down and grabs her reward from the glove with her sharp beak.

Despite the sun, the air is damp and cold and as I return to the Castle, I remember the sage advice of Niall Stewart at Jamesons Distillery in Dublin.   “Christmas in Ireland is usually a cold time of year,” he said, so “an Irish coffee or hot spiced whiskey is a great winter warmer.”

In search of the perfect winter warmer, I stopped in at The Old Kilbeggan Distillery.  Kilbeggen is the oldest continually licensed distillery in the world, dating back to 1757 and was conveniently on my route from Dublin to Ashford Castle.

I was lucky to meet Distillery manager Brian Quinn and Innovation Manager Alex Chasko.  The two share a passion for quality, a respect for  history and the desire to try something new and different with their whiskeys.    Today they are the only Irish owned Irish Whiskey company and are turning back to two centuries of distilling experience to create new versions of old spirits.

They took me through the distillery and I had the chance to try whiskeys that are not exported to the US.  Most notable was their Poitín, known as moonshine here.  Poitin is a clear Irish spirit famous for its alcohol strength, usually 130 proof, and is traditionally distilled in a small pot still.  They produced only 1800 bottles, and  have distributed none beyond the factory and one Dublin liquor store.

I celebrated the twelve days of Christmas in one day and the only bottle of Cooley Poitin in the United States is sitting on a shelf in my home now.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!
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For more information, please visit www.Ashford.ie.
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Guinness Cranberry Muffins
Ingredients
4oz cranberries (cooked in 2oz castor sugar)
6oz castor sugar
4oz butter
2 eggs
7.5oz Guinness
10oz Plain flour
½ teasp salt
½ teasp bread soda

1.       Cook cranberries in sugar
2.       Cream butter & sugar till white & fluffy
3.       Add 2 eggs slowly and keep beating
4.       Mix in the Guinness
5.       Fold in the flour, salt & bread soda

Bake for 20-22 minutes at 180C

Food and Wine in Pebble Beach, Food and Music in New Orleans

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

The end of April is a great time for foodies but those who truly love to eat are left with a tough choice.  Do you want great food, top notch chefs, amazing wine with a view of the Pacific or great food in a casual outdoor venue accompanied by an eclectic choice of music. Oh, the choices that people who live to eat have to make. Either way you can’t lose.

The Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival (www.pebblebeachfoodandwine.com) tees off on April 28th and runs through Sunday May 1st.   The top of the top chefs are available through the weekend, presenting lectures, cooking gourmet dinners, signing books and stopping to chat.

You can ride the shuttle bus from The Inn at Spanish Bay and sit next to Chef Jacques Pepin and his daughter Claudine.  You can taste an exquisite California red and chat with the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller who will sign your copy of his cookbook. Take a class with Ming Tsai, who is more personable in person than he is on TV.

Bottega’s Michael Chiarello is all over the place, cooking, dining and chatting in between events leading up to his lunch at the Lexus Grand Tasting.  Sip, savor and enjoy as you watch one of the most amazing chefs in the country,  Michael Chiarello of Bottega in Napa, working his culinary magic right in front of you.

Chefs Terrance Brennan, Jacques Pépin and Roy Yamaguchi are part of the opening night event Thursday where 23 chefs and 100 wineries offer up their best for noshing, sipping and savoring.

There are wine, champagne and port tastings.  Play winemaker for a day in a master blending class to see if you can produce the next great, must have wine.  It’s like a science class for wine aficionados as you take vino from several different grapes, use beakers, pipettes and suggestions from Winemaker Ashley Hepworth and you mix your own vintage.

Sit in on cooking class with Dan Dunn as he talks about “ Booze, Blues & BBQ” or let Laura Werlin educate your palate on pairings with “A Love Affair Between Cheese & Wine.”

The Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival is not inexpensive but several package options will fill your body with food, your mind with cooking tips and your soul with contentment.

Speaking of soul, foodies option two is to head to Jazz Fest in New Orleans (www.nojazzfest.com), which is held the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May.

It’s difficult to tell if Jazz Fest is a music festival with the best food around, or the most yummylicious food festival surrounded by the greatest music on Earth.   There are seven full days of music over two long weekends and  more than 1,000 blues, rock, jazz, country, gospel and other musical performers pick guitars, strum banjos, blow horns and beat drums  and join voices on 11 different stages.

10,000 of your newest and neatest friends have more than 100 food vendors to tempt the taste buds, quench their thirst and satiate the tummies of those moving to the beat.

Sure, you can satisfy the basic yearnings for the New Orleans staples: po’ boys, beignets, muffuletta, crawfish etouffée and ribs are all here. But Jazz Fest foodies are famous for trolling the fairgrounds and spying on people’s plates looking for something new and different, as the sweet sounds of music mix with the aromas of things baking, broiling, frying, roasting and grilling on Toyota-size smokers.

There’s always someone pushing the limits with traditional Cajun ingredients. Look for crawfish strudel, or white chocolate bread pudding or the spicy crawfish sushi roll. You’ll find several different versions of gumbo, but none more upscale than the pheasant, quail and Andouille sausage version. Make sure you sample the crawfish sacks from Patton’s Caterers.

Try the crepe beggar’s purse stuffed with a spicy crawfish mixture and tied with a leek string. They sell more than 25,000 of these handmade delectables during Jazz Fest and you can be sure there will be a long line in front of their booth as an army of Patton relatives and their friends toil to serve the masses.

New Yorkers will feel at home listening to waiters scream out orders in a Brooklyn-like Cajun Patois in the food tents that surround Jazz Fest.

But the real strength of Jazz Fest is the music, the big names that show up every year and are consistent crowd-pleasers: Buckwheat Zydeco, the Neville Brothers, Tower of Power, Marva Wright and the BMWs to name a few.

This year, Bon Jovi,  Cyndi Lauper , Jimmy Buffett ,  Kid Rock ,  Arcade Fire, John Mellencamp , Willie Nelson, The  Strokes, Robert Plant, Lauryn Hill , Jeff BeckWyclef Jean , Cyndi Lauper and Mumford & Sons are  scheduled to perform.

But the real fun is wandering from tent to tent all day, hearing old-time jazz musicians or the glorious singing at the gospel tent or catching shows by undiscovered newcomers and eating great snacks all day long.

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See photos from the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival at:

http://www.flyingmanatee.com/photogalleries/pebble-beach-wine-and-food-festival/

See photos from Jazz Fest at:

http://www.flyingmanatee.com/photogalleries/jazz-fest-new-orleans/

Amsterdam:The Dutch Bought Manhattan For $24 But What Does $24 (or less!) Get You in The Netherlands?

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Four hundred years ago Henry Hudson and the Dutch ship Half Moon sailed past Manhattan in search of a shortcut to the Far East. In 1626 Peter Minuit, the Dutch Governor of Nieuw Amsterdam, bought the island from the Indians in Manhattan’s  Inwood Hill Park for $24 dollars in beads and trinkets.  The Flying Manatee recently visited Amsterdam in search of things to do for $24 or less.

Amsterdam is perhaps the most easily wandered city in Europe, on foot, by boat, trolley, train or bicycle, with much to see at every turn. Most everyone speaks English and is glad to help with directions. Go off on your own or join a free, three-hour guided tour. (www.newamsterdamtours.com/nat/)

It’s easy to follow the history of the beautiful, gabled homes that line the waterways if you carry the “Amsterdam Canal Guidebook” while you stroll. Go by the Tower of Tears, where women once bid farewell to the sailors who left in search of riches. Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon departed from here, and a plaque commemorates the date.

The Monday Fabric Market, the Noordermarkt,  in the Jordaan section of Amsterdam is Filene’s Basement in an open stall. Designer clothes, fabric, buttons, shoes and everything a stylish European woman would wear, at bargain-basement prices. Haggle with the vendors and you’ll walk away with a deal.

Take a brief respite with a stop in Cafe het Papeneiland, a bar dating back to  the 1800’s, where grilled cheese sandwiches and small plates of steak tartar, cheese and liverwurst go down easily with a cold beer. Lunch costs around 12 Euros ($15.75) a person.

Street food in Amsterdam is plentiful, inexpensive and a nourishing alternative to a sit-down restaurant. Treat yourself to fresh herring served up by a street vendor on Albert Cuyp straat, who will slice it onto a paper plate, along with sweet pickles and fresh bread for three 3 euros. ($4)

Satisfy your sweet tooth with tiny pancakes fresh from the pan, with butter melting under a thin layer of jam or powdered sugar. (2 euros ($2.65) for 10 pancakes) Wash them down with a pineapple-blueberry or strawberry-guava drink. (1.50 euros or $2.00)

Don’t forget a stop at Febo, the Dutch equivalent to New York’s old Horn and Hardat Automat.  Throw a few Euros into a wall mounted turnstile and select the fresh food you want from the glass case.  Tres yummy!

You can’t visit Amsterdam without stopping at the Anne Frank House, a handful of rooms tucked behind a business where several Jewish families hid for two years during the Nazi occupation. It’s an emotional tour. Both families were captured, and only Anne Frank’s father Otto survived to share his daughter’s poignant words with the world.

Finish your trip to Amsterdam with a visit to the world’s largest flower market, where admission and the self-guided tour will set you back just five Euros ($6.50).

Board the train at Amsterdam’s Central Station by 6am to catch the train to Aalsmeer, where the  auction process brings millions of fresh-cut, top-quality tulips, roses and other blooms from a field or greenhouse in the Netherlands to a florist on Sixth Avenue in 24 hours.

Watch the bidding process as buckets of flowers ride into the cool auction room on a trolley and buyers, wearing headsets and punching their bid controls, fight furiously for quality blooms.

Grab a slice of apple pie and a coffee (4 euros or $5.25) before heading back, wishing a happy anniversary to Hudson and the Dutch East India Trading Company and thanking them for visiting New York in 1609. We’re glad to return the favor!

Spooky, Scary, Ghostly & Fun! The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

The ghosts of the murdered twin girls were nowhere to be seen, nor was the cackling, naked old woman with decaying flesh.

Yet the little hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end and my shaking legs were telling me to make a quick exit from the 100-year-old Stanley Hotel in Colorado – otherwise known as the real-life inspiration for the eerie old hotel in “The Shining.”

I was sitting in the dark at one o’clock in the morning with four strangers, in the midst of a seance meant to conjure the many spirits said to inhabit the haunted hotel.

But while I didn’t really expect to see the bloody specters of the twin girls or the old lady who taunted Jack Nicholson in the 1980 movie, I was hardly prepared for what did occur during a recent ghost tour of the stately old hotel.

The table that we were holding during the seance started moving – clockwise, counter-clockwise and side to side.

By itself.

If you’ve seen “The Shining” or read the Stephen King novel it’s based on, you’re already somewhat familiar with the Stanley Hotel, although it’s called the Overlook Hotel in the book.

King’s stay in the huge, nearly-empty hotel at the end of the tourist season was his inspiration for the scary story of a frustrated writer who slowly starts to lose his mind during a long, lonely winter at the fictional Overlook.

High in the Rockies, at 7,500 feet above sea level and located in Estes Park near Boulder, the Stanley is said to be among the most haunted hotels in the U.S. thanks to a horde of paranormal residents who regularly drop in on guests.

Among them is F.O. Stanley, an inventor who built the hotel in 1909. His phantom has been seen playing pool and wandering the bar. The spirit of Flora, his wife, still enjoys playing the piano for guests who notice a strong, pleasant scent of roses, her favorite perfume, when she breezes through.

The room where King stayed, 217, is said to be a hotbed of paranormal activity and is usually booked months in advance. The ghost of Mrs. Wilson, a maid, has pulled pillows from under the heads of sleeping guests and has made the bed with visitors still under the sheets.

I spent the night in room 401, which has a king-sized bed, a Jacuzzi and a beautiful view of the Rockies. Seems that spirits enjoy luxury as much as the living – guests have encountered the ghost of Lord Dunraven, the original owner of the land, in 401, which is considered to be the most haunted room on the overly-creepy fourth floor.

Though the dead kept their distance from 401 when I visited the Stanley, other guests on the floor did report having otherworldly visitors that night.

Lisa Cafiero and her daughter Livi, 13, were woken up repeatedly as the bathroom door in room 413 kept jiggling throughout the night.

The Cafieros, who have visited the Stanley three times, have seen unexplained shadows on staircase walls, felt spirits running their fingers through their hair in the middle of the night, and swear that the ghost of a child was jumping on Livi’s bed one evening.

But most interesting is a photo Lisa took outside the Stanley. It shows a white mist in the upper left side of the image, swirling in the air with no apparent explanation. Could it be what paranormal investigators call ectoplasm, the residue left over by a ghost?My own close encounter of the spiritual kind occured during the five-hour ghost tour led by Callea Sherrill, the Stanley’s resident paranormal investigator.

We started in the basement of the concert hall, armed with KII meters that measure electromagnetic fields (EMF) said to emanate from ghostly entities, and a spirit box – a modified radio that captures ghostly voices – in an attempt to contact Lucy and Paul, apparitions frequently encountered at the Stanley.

According to lore, Lucy had been living in the basement of the hotel when workmen evicted her during a renovation. She was found frozen to death that cold winter but often returns to the warm rooms of the concert hall – where she’s known to slam doors shut.

Paul was a maintenance man who died while shoveling snow. He often appears after 11 p.m., when he seems to get irritated by the fact that people are still in the building.

“People have reported hearing a deep, gravelly voice say ‘Get out!’” says Sherrill. “We’ve also seen a figure which appears to come halfway up the back staircase to the main floor, check things out, then disappear back down the stairs.”

Our group of 15 slightly scared, yet still-skeptical ghost hunters sat silently in the dark on the floor of Lucy’s room. The glow from our ghost-detection equipment and a red exit sign were the only light sources in the building – which of course had me thinking of the little boy in “The Shining” chanting “Redrum!” “Redrum!” Not to mention the theme from “Ghostbusters.”

Minutes later, all grinning ceased as we experienced our first ghostly encounter: A strange noise that started as a low growl in the distance and seemed to move closer.

Thankfully, we all remembered Sherrill’s earlier instructions – “Don’t anyone run unless you see me running” – considering a woman in the group admitted the scary noise was actually emanating from her stomach, not another dimension.

But in Paul’s room, a flashlight was seemingly turned on by a spirit, then turned off when someone in the group asked the ghost to do it – which scared the wits out of a woman in the group.

“I was ready to run out of the room when that happened,” says Sara Darrow of Boulder.

The seance turned out to be the scariest encounter of them all. Sherrill has us onstage in the concert hall, holding hands and trying to conjure the Stanley’s many spirits.

With the only illumination coming from a flashlight, we stood transfixed as the table started moving and the KII meter was jumping off the end of the dial.  It was at that moment when even the skeptics on the Stanley Ghost Tour started believing.

Beyond ghosts, Estes Park and the surrounding area offer limitless outdoor adventures.  Spend a day hiking some of the 350 miles of trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, exploring more than 250,000 acres that are home to Elk, Deer, Moose, Coyotes, Bobcats, Bears, Bighorn Sheep, Hawks and Eagles.

You can fish in the high Alpine lakes, snowshoe in winter and tent or RV in the five vehicle accessible campgrounds.  Take a ride up Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuously paved roadway in the United States and enjoy the view from Long’s Peak.  At 14,259 feet, you’re above the tundra line and the view and peaceful quiet of the wind take you far away from the New York City noise we’re used to.

Challenge yourself physically and emotionally by climbing the Rockies with   Jonathan Wright and Diana Lyn at the Estes Park Mountain Shop.  We did two climbs and a rappel down under clear blue skies one recent morning and with

Jonathan’s encouragement I was up the North Rock and East Rock with as much sure footed confidence as a Rocky Mountain goat.

He helped steer me to small cracks to use as hand holds and minute ledges on the rocks, to push myself up.  Of course all the time you’re roped in, on belay, where Jonathan was able to minimize the rate and length of my fall, if I slipped.

With stunning views of Mary’s Lake, the Rockies and the Continental Divide and confidence in my equipment and instructor, the day on the rocks passed quickly.  The thin air had us hungry and a beautiful sunset and great meal at The Chalet Room at Mary’s Lake Lodge was the perfect end to a spooky and exciting visit to the Rockies.

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If you go:

The Stanley Hotel, at 333 Wonder View Ave., Estes Park, CO can be reached at 970-576-3371 or at http://www.stanleyhotel.com

There are Ghost Tours both day and night and they book up quickly.   Day tours are $15.00; the five hour paranormal experience is $50.00 and can be booked online, as can an appointment with Madame Vera, the resident psychic of the Stanley.

For Estes Park information, contact the Estes Park Convention and Visitors Bureau at http://www.estesparkcvb.com/

For info on Rocky Mountain National Park, go to http://www.nps.gov/romo/

For climbing, fishing, biking and other outdoor adventures the Estes Park Mountain Shop is at http://www.estesparkmountainshop.com/

Visit Veneto for history, architecture, theater – and a human chess game

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Marostica, Italy, has a quaint town square, as do many villages in the Veneto region west of Venice.

But on the recent weekend of Sept. 10-12, Marostica’s square was filled with knights on horseback, castles that move, pawns that breathe and a real-life “king” and “queen.”

Every even-numbered year on the second weekend in September, Marostica hosts a “living” chess game using human pieces – more than 500 townsfolk in authentic medieval clothing play the parts of the pieces on a massive chess board.

The outdoor tradition, which originated in the 1920s, takes place in the shadow of the town’s castle and protective walls rising from the crest of a nearby hill.The popularity of the living match soared after WWII when a local playwright created a historic love story about a chess duel for the hand of a princess.

Although there is a limited opportunity to see the actual tournament, the costumes are on permanent display in town and the the giant chess board in the middle of the town square can be visited any time.

But while the living chess game is a great excuse to visit, the Veneto region offers many more things to do in this beautiful, hilly region of Northern Italy that is off the beaten path for most tourists.

Fly into Venice and head towards the city of Vicenza, past acres of grapes ripening on rows of vines. It’s a historic, Old World city that’s a great central point for your visit to Veneto.

Walk the winding cobblestone streets, past statues and frescoes that adorn 500-year-old buildings, and dine at reasonably-priced restaurants that are so off the usual tourist path, menus are usually offered only in Italian.

All roads lead to the Teatro Olimpico, the oldest fully-enclosed theater in the world. If you time your visit right, you can catch one of the theatrical productions that only take place twice a year, in spring and fall.

Dating from the mid-1500s, the theater was designed by Andrea Palladio, the preeminent architect of the era. The original painted backdrop – a street scene that was installed in 1585 – has been carefully preserved since the theater’s first opening night.

Palladio’s work reverberates throughout Veneto, and can best be seen by visiting a collection of luxurious villas he designed. For students of architecture, a visit to Veneto is a pilgrimage rather than a vacation. The Palladian style is alive here and has influenced other architects worldwide.

(Purchase a Palladio Card at www.palladiocard.it, and pay one admission to tour five villas, plus reduced admission to seven others.)

Outside of Veneto, the Vicenza region offers many other architectural and gastronomical delights. The Villa Valmarana ai Nani is a Palladio-designed, 16th-century home with stables, guest house and gardens added in later years. Visitors can admire the frescoes and the dwarf statues that line the high walls outside the Villa.

Local lore has it that the family only hired dwarves to work there, to bolster the confidence of a height disadvantaged daughter. When she killed herself, the employees turned into the stone statues that surround the property today.

Visit Bassano Del Grappa, home of the Ponte degli Alpini wooden bridge, and enjoy a snack and a glass of grappa – the local spirit – along the same streets that once charmed the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

You can’t leave Veneto without a visit to the the preserved historic castles of the two families that inspired the Italian tale of tragic young lovers Giulietta e Romeo – better known as Romeo and Juliet.

Breckenridge

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The sound of frozen snow being chipped from 20 ton blocks fills the cold, crisp air from all corners of the Riverwalk Center, in the middle of Breckenridge, Colorado. More than a dozen teams of ice sculpting artisans, working in teams of four, are busy using hand driven implements of mass creation to form majestic 12 foot high sculptures.

The snow sculpture competition is opening the next morning and some of these dedicated masters of snow artisanry will be working all night, to finish their projects.

Competitors from New York State, Germany, France, Canada, Mexico and other countries head to Breckenridge to carve blocks of snow into pieces of art using only hand tools and great imaginations.

The actual sculpting is open to the public and its fascinating to watch as the competitors use ice cream scoops, potato scrapers, small saws and other hand tools. No power tools are permitted and the snow has to remain in its natural state without dyes, paints or colorings.

The next morning, we get up early to view the completed snow sculptures and then head for the slopes for a day of schussing downhill or looking for big air at the terrain park.  But first we stop at a local favorite for a hearty breakfast.

We’ve just been seated at Daylight Donuts when the front door opens and two people wearing ski masks enter.  As a New Yorker, I’m looking over my shoulder to see if the guy with the shotgun is coming in the back door, but Breckenridge is laid back and easy going and no one looks up from their giant chocolate chip pancakes or yummy sausage rolls in blankets.   .

“Dressed up” in Breckenridge means jeans and a fleece, whether you’re headed to a bar for drinks or the finest dining in town.  Millionaires and snow boarders share cocktails and great food at Modis, a hot new restaurant on Main Street.

Early morning or late at night, there is always a line at Crepes ala Cart, where super thin, hot, fresh crepes meet great conversation among new friends.  We stopped by there several times, fascinated by the range of crepes from vegetarian- fresh spinach to sweet-milk chocolate raspberry to dinner in a portable pocket-their Monte Cristo is a crowd pleaser.

Put Breckenridge on your list of places to visit, whether it’s the City of Breckenridge, to dine, shop or stay in or Breckenridge, the ski area, for some of the best snow, trails, lifts and runs I’ve ever experienced

Located at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet, make the O2 Lounge and Oxygen Bar your first stop as soon as you arrive.  Altitude sickness affects some visitors to Breckenridge so a visit here might minimize your chances of suffering shortness of breath, a pounding headache or an emergency room visit.

Surf the net, have a snack and sit for 45 minutes, hooked up to 90 percent pure oxygen, mixed with various aromatherapies, on their comfy sofas or at the bar.

There’s always a festival or event in town that will give you another reason to head to Breckenridge.  Whether it’s Ullr Fest, which celebrates the Norse god of snow, a wintry version of Mardi Gras or the International Snow Sculpture Championships, Breckenridge does fun right.

This year, the International Snow Sculpture Championships take place from January 26-February 7, 2010.   Artists sculpt from Tuesday, January 26 at 11:00 a.m. until Saturday, January 30 at 10:00 a.m.  Judging  starts at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, January 30 and sculptures will remain standing until the night of Sunday, February 7, 2010

Off the slopes and away from the sculpture contest,  you can try dog sledding  with Good Times Adventures or take a carriage ride on a hand crafted horse drawn carriage  through the woods at sunset over at Breckenridge Sleigh Rides.

Owners Paul and Cindy Hintgen encourage guests to pet and “talk” with their 2000 pound, eight foot tall Percheron and Belgian draft horses.   Originally bred to take knights into battle, these gentle giants have no trouble towing the sleigh for your 40 minute ride.

Snuggle up under a heavy blanket and watch the scenery as kids skate and play hockey on frozen lakes and the setting sun turns the snow covered peaks a bright orange.   The sleigh bells will tempt you to sing carols and the clear view of constellations offer a good time to plan for tomorrow’s fresh powder on the slopes.

If you go:

Breckenridge is an easy 90 mile drive from Denver and the environmentally friendly town and resort offer alternatives to renting a car and driving from the airport to the slopes.  You can take a shuttle from Denver airport to Breckenridge and ride the free bus in town that runs from early morning to just after midnight.

You can book your lodging, lifts and airport transport through Breckenridge website, www.gobreck.com or by phone at 877.593.5260

Dog sledding can be booked at GoodTimesAdventures.com and Breckenridge Sleigh Rides is at BreckSleighRides.com

Quebec Winter Carnival

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

It’s really cold and snowing hard, but who cares?  I dash into a corner bar where the windows are steamed up and a friendly game of pool is in progress and muster up my best fourth grade French. Je voudrais un verre de caribou.  I would like a glass of caribou.

Panic sets in.  Did I just order a large, antlered animal companion?  No silly, we just requested the provincial drink of Quebec, a beautiful, French speaking province of Canada just a short one hour plane ride from New York.

An often homemade fiery blend of red wine, vodka, cinnamon sticks and maple syrup, our small shot glass of Caribou gave us the bravado required to brave the howling winds and falling snow as we strolled the streets of the walled city, open to outsiders by three gates which date back four hundred years.

Quebec is a great walking city, even in the cold of winter and has the feel of a village, where streets are narrow but joie de vivre, an enjoyment of life, resonates through both the upper and lower sections of this historic city.

Bonhomme, the Winter Carnival mascot, brings serious delight to those chilly visitors.   Where else in the world can an overweight, middle aged man be greeted with hugs and kisses on both cheeks and achieve rock star status among young and old alike? After learning the Bonhomme song and dance, which could pass for graceful aerobics, we set off to explore.

Our two feet provide the best manner of transport, while strolling on St. Jean street as we window shop for shoes, clothing, leather goods and check out dining opportunities in the many fine restaurants that line the snow covered roads.

Do dress properly, as actual temperatures often hover just above zero.  Proper boots, with waterproof outsides and warm liners are a must, if you want to avoid a chill.  We found that wind pants added an important layer and coat checks will look after your wind pants when you get to well warmed restaurant and meetings often take place in stocking feet as boots are left to dry in office corners.

Looking for serious outdoor fun?  Try Quebec’s Winter Carnival from January 29th through February 14th this year. Held throughout the old city, outdoor festivities include a zip line that will have you flying over the Carnival grounds on the Plains of Abraham, snow rafting in giant tubes, and an International snow sculpting contest.

There’s a dogsled race that starts in front of Le Château Frontenac, the historic old hotel that is the heart of the old city.  There’s a nice package for Winter Carnival that includes one night hotel, admission to the Carnival and buffet breakfast for two for approximately $282/night.

If you go:

http://www.carnaval.qc.ca/en

http://www.bonjourquebec.com/qc-en/accueil0.html

http://www.fairmont.com/frontenac/

St. Kitts

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The plane banks at an unusual angle hard to the left and the passengers, more out of surprise then fear, emit a collective “ooh  aah”.  It wasn’t the barnstorming maneuver of the pilot though, that caused the sound, it was the gray, ominous clouds low over the lush green mountains.  Vacation dreams were momentarily put on hiatus.  “Is it raining?” asks one passenger. “ We thought the forecast was good,” says another.

Looking over our shoulders, out the window of the small propeller plane carrying us to St. Kitts, passengers strained to take in the unique view. Yes, it clearly was raining but as the beachfront of this tropical eastern Caribbean paradise came into view, the red, then red and orange, then red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet layers of a growing, spreading rainbow appeared.

And there, at 14,000 feet over St Kitts and Nevis, the tone for our visit was set.  That rainbow came to define and identify a small (69 square miles) friendly, unique, sparsely populated (31,000 residents) island where monkeys dance roadside and scatter as the occasional car comes through their living space and different oceans deliver surf on one side and serenity on the other.

The trip to St. Kitts is a must,  on the depressurization tour for those of us who bounce between work, kids, little league, more work.  You get the picture.  Its an unhurried island, atypical of Caribbean vacations by the prompt delivery of creature comforts and amenities that we look for, accompanied by warm, genuine smiles from the residents of the island.

That warmth is delivered by housekeepers and hotel managers, wait staff and beach towel people  who have recently entered the Nation’s small but growing tourism industry. Until 2000, St. Kitts was an agricultural island and sugar cane was the leading crop.

One day the unprofitable sugar cane refining industry was closed and the government became the island nation’s largest employer.  Unemployment was high until the Marriott St. Kitts and Golf Resort came in and built a 600-room oceanfront hotel behemoth.

While the hotel’s size could be overwhelming, the individual attention from staff is truly awe-inspiring.  Guests are remembered by name and there is always a genuine smile.  The food is amazing, and the hotel’s six restaurants offer enough choice to keep from repeating a meal during your stay.

We owe the fine cuisine to Chef Andreas Mahl and sous chef Matt Tabla, who took us shopping  for the fruits, vegetables and spices they need for an eight-course VIP dinner for 25 guests tonight at Brimstone Castle.

We rise before sunrise and meet Chef and Matt at the entrance to the hotel, where a taxi is waiting to take us to the market in Basseterre.  Andreas has a cigarette in one hand, a can of Red Bull in the other and is just completely exhausted.  His days are running into each other as he rises early to shop for produce and spices for his kitchen at the St. Kitts Marriott.

We’re starting tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and no real menu set in stone.   If the produce is fresh, plentiful and available now,  then Andreas will use it on tonight’s menu.

We hop out of the taxi at 7am and the market is already crowded.  Kitians make their Saturday morning market trip an adventure, socializing, catching up on politics, gossip, family and life.

Several market goers immediately greet Mahl and Matts.  It’s a small island, and Marriott is the largest private employer on the island.  Many of the hotel staff is marketing today too, bringing family with them as they peruse the painted green wooden stalls or bright blankets overflowing with produce that was on the vine or in the ground just the day before.

We walk through open stalls and a myriad of vendors displaying their wares to the accompaniment of praises to god,  broadcast by large speakers pointed skyward, that come  from an open air church meeting behind the market.  The words seem appropriate as the naturally raised, un-waxed produce is displayed for our viewing.

We head across the street and enter the covered part of the market just in time.  The skies open up and the heavy rain drums a strong pitter-patter beat on the corrugated tin roof .

We take in the smells during the rain break in our  shopping.  Unusual fragrances fill the air as Mahl and Matts sort through limes and papaya, root vegetables and fresh mint.  We’re sniffing many  unfamiliar items that are unavailable outside the Caribbean.

We walk through the fresh meat market as energetic women with cleavers hack apart whole goats, lambs and sides of beef.  That visit is more for curiosity’s sake then shopping, as Marriott chef’s can only work with meat from purveyors who have gone through the strictest of quality and sanitary checks.  While mesmerizing and unique, the meat here just doesn’t reach those standards.

Shopping done,  we’re heading back to the hotel, talking menu on the ride.  What sauce goes with what dish? What order will the creations be served in?  Are there any special dietary requirements for either individuals or the entire group?

Chef and  Tabla are laden down with plastic bags  as they head through the hotel’s ornate lobby to their oceanview kitchen. They change into their chef’s  whites, and get to work, chopping, slicing, blending and  prepping.  There is no kitchen outside at Brimstone Castle and the entire restaurant and kitchen must be transported an hour across the island.

———————————

The guests arriving for dinner are energized by spectacular views of the setting sun over St. Kitts and neighboring Nevis that are visible from 400 year old Brimstone Castle which guards the highest vista in St. Kitts.

Elegant waiters in formal ware are serving drinks but in the small white tent alongside the elaborate dining tent for guests, Chef Mahl is wrestling with the challenge of pan searing two dozen prime filet mignons over a trio of one-burner propane stoves that are being blown out by the strong winds.  Iron Chef competitors have never cooked against logistical challenges such as this.

Ever the pro, Mahl and staff are seasoning, cooking and tasting flavors, performing miracles as they cook by skill, dogged determination and a desire to “wow” tonight’s diners.

And wow they do, as giant prawns emerge from the chef’s tent, followed  filet mignon

Mahl is on center stage tonight, and he never lets the crowd see him sweat.  Ever the gentleman, the 37-year-old Austrian born chef  comes out from the kitchen and introduces each course.

Few of the diners know the back-story on their dinner.  While the tastes draw many “oohs and ahhs” most are unaware of the passion that went to create the little mushroom filled raviolis.

At the end of the night, back at the hotel, chef unwinds with sous chef Tabla and his sommelier.   Another cigarette is lit and the meal is dissected and critiqued.  Every meal is a learning experience and Andreas is determined to do it better next time.

The 1994 Sauterne goes down nicely and the early morning conversation is punctuated by smiles and laughs framed by exhaustion.  Tomorrow is Sunday and Chef can sleep.  At least til dinner prep comes around one more time tonight.

If you go:

http://www.stkittstourism.kn/

http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/skbrb-st-kitts-marriott-resort-and-the-royal-beach-casino/

Cedar Point Amusement Park

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

The seat belt is buckled and padded bar comes down across our laps.  With a metallic click, the coaster car slowly starts forward up to the starting line.

I’m staring at a yellow and red steel structure in front of me, a daunting 42 stories high.  At that very moment the realization takes hold.  I am not afraid of the rapid climb to the top of the 420-foot high metal structure.

It is the thought of the sharp, almost 90 degree left turn at the top and then the second quick left that sends us hurtling to earth at 120 miles an hour, corkscrewing 270 degrees as the ground approaches.

The lights at the starting line change from yellow to green and we’re flung forward, flip skyward and all we can see in front of us is the deep blue of the Ohio sky.  But just for a brief second.

We reach that 120-mile an hour speed in less than four seconds.  Its that rush to the top of the world’s second fastest, second tallest roller coaster that brings thrill aficionados to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio from all over the world.

Bob Coker, author of “Roller Coasters – A Thrill Seeker’s Guide to the Ultimate Scream Machines” says “For anyone who loves roller coasters, Cedar Point is among a handful of parks worldwide that simply can’t be missed.   Their collection is massive, but it’s also filled with superlative rides. ”

Coker has ridden on hundreds of coasters around the world.  He calls Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster  “probably the scariest and most exhilarating roller coaster I’ve ever been on. I’ve never seen nor heard people scream harder than they do on this monster.” It’s a popular ride that many visitors hit more than once,  on their journey through Cedar Point.

The excitement level rises for Cedar Point visitors as you cross the causeway leading to the Sandusky, Ohio Park and tall towers of wood and steel create a New York City-like skyline of twists, turns, sharp drops and zero g rides.

This is Mecca for coaster enthusiasts, a pilgrimage that is considered “coaster heaven” due to the overwhelming collection of rides. Cedar Point added their 17th roller coaster this year, giving them the most coasters of any amusement park in the world.

There are coasters here for riders of every age and taste.  Old wooden coasters such as Blue Streak, built in 1964, which offers that bone shaking, rattle around fun for the whole family or Mean Streak, which is almost a mile long and features a stunning 161-foot-tall first hill and a top speed of 65 mph.

There are metal coasters, including Maverick, the newest addition to the Cedar Point Family, which gives riders eight “airtime-filled hills,” three inversions and a second launch through a dark tunnel that will leave you in awe as riders reach speeds of 70 mph!

There are thrill rides like Power Tower, which provides one heck of a ride as you drop straight down at 50 miles an hour for three seconds. Fans of twisting and screaming will love Wicked Twister, the tallest and fastest “double-twisting” impulse roller coaster ever created.  Wicked Twister takes you up and down the track five times at 72 mph and twists riders 450 degrees.

Millennium Force rises 310 feet in the air and takes its passengers over 6,595 feet of steel track that includes three hills, two dark tunnels and two 122-degree turns.

On Raptor, guests ride in cars that are suspended from the track above and go upside down six amazing times.  If that’s not enough, Raptor riders flip over, get spiraled upside down into a 180-degree roll and then repeat the twisting motion in reverse.

And for those younger coaster fans, Woodstock Express was built with families in mind. Designed so that parents can ride with their children, Woodstock Express is less than 40 feet tall and travels at a top speed of just 25 mph.

Described as “the roller coaster version of a bike with training wheels”, Junior Gemini offers children as small as 36 inches tall the opportunity to break into the big league of coasters.

And for those of you who look at coasters as “just ok”, Cedar Point offers guests an opportunity to leave the rest of the world behind you, according to coaster enthusiast  Chris Godsey.

“ Once you enter the midway, you experience the sights, smells, and sounds of a traditional style amusement park as well as the new advanced ride technologies.  The old blends with the new so well at Cedar Point”, says Godsey.

If you go:
Cedar Point Amusement park can be reached by air into Cleveland or Toledo, which are both around 65 miles away.  Cleveland is a Continental Airlines hub city and often can be found on their weekend special for $99/round trip.

There are several hotels on or near the property including the Breakers, Castaway Bay or Sandcastle.  There is a RV campground in the shadow of the park and many chain hotels a short distance away.

For food, you have to hit “Famous Dave’s” for ribs.  Located right on Cedar Point Marina, Famous Dave’s delivered one of the most mouth watering slab or ribs that I have ever eaten, complete with a half dozen bar-b-que sauces that must return home with you.