November 26, 2011

‘A Country Christmas’ of hope

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Travel at 3:20 am by dinaheng

Winter may signal chilly weather to most of the country, but it also brings the holiday season, filled with the promise of joy and hope. My friend Christine, who lives an hour outside of Nashville, has often told me about an amazing exhibition of ice sculptures that is held annually at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, carved by artisans from Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, across the border from Siberia.

This year, in celebration of her second year of remission from ovarian cancer, we went to Opryland for a girls’ weekend, and were able to get a preview of ICE!, an indoor wonderland of larger-than-life sized sculptures and ice slides that kids and the young at heart can play on.

The attraction, now open through Jan. 3, 2012, is part of the resort’s 28th annual “A Country Christmas,” which includes shows with The Radio City Rockettes, Louise Mandrell and interactive events with animated characters from various DreamWorks movies.

This year’s ICE! show — “DreamWorks’ Merry Madagascar,” featuring interactive scenes from the movie — will be held in a new 40,000 square foot building on the resort, erected in the aftermath of last May’s flood.

“We used to do it in an old theater, but the flood took it away,” says Ken Groneck, special events director for Opryland. “This is our 10th anniversary show. In the beginning, International Special Attractions (ISA) approached us with the idea for the show. It was so popular the first year, we brought it back. We did generic water ice scenes for the first few years, then added the ice slides.”

By the mid-2000s, colored ice was added to accentuate the designs, then interactive exhibits, like an ice train that kids could walk through. Each year, 40 master carvers from Harbin arrive 30 days before the show’s opening to begin work on the masterpieces.

As we walk through part of the exhibit, dressed in thick parkas against the chilly 9 degrees, we catch glimpses of an amazing ice castle and giant ice slide. Some of the artisans, busy at work, stop to look curiously at us as we walk by. Others are too absorbed in their task to glance up.

My request to interview an artisan is denied, with time being short before the show opens, and I wonder how much of the reluctance is due to fear of Chinese government reprisal for any misinterpreted comments. It’s sad that there isn’t more interaction between the Americans and Chinese while they’re here to bridge our cultures, but at least visitors to the show will gain an appreciation for the artistry that comes from China.

After saying farewell to some icy “Merry Madagascar” characters, Christine and I leave  the building to get some lunch at the Cascades American Cafe, back at the hotel. Talk about change of scenery.  As we sit in an alcove under tropical greenery, we listen to the sound of a cascading waterfall nearby and peruse the menu.

Appetizers here range from a trio of artisan cheeses for $14 to Korean barbecue lettuce wraps for $16. We choose to share the low country crab cake appetizer for $18, which is easily the best thing on the menu. Made of pure crab meat with a little filler of panko bread crumbs, the crab cakes are a taste from seafood heaven.

Soup and salad offerings are fairly typical, including crab bisque for $9 and a Caesar salad with chicken, steak or shrimp for $16.  Entrees, in the $17 to $22 range, run the gamut from San Diego fish tacos and a grilled cheeseburger to a Tuna Caponata salad, with seared tuna and warm eggplant.

Chef Seth Kondor, who used to run the Old Hickory Steakhouse at the resort, is changing the menu at Cascades to center around Southern comfort food. As a result, the Blue Plate Special, which Christine orders, is macaroni and cheese with pulled pork and barbecue sauce. It’s an interesting combination, but needs more cheese.

I get the griddled Monte Cristo sandwich, a ham, turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on brioche bread, with French fries. For $17, the sandwich is tasty, but disappointingly small in portion size.  Traditional desserts, priced at $8, include seasonal fruit cobbler, Southern pecan tart and chocolate toffee layer cake.

As we finish our meal, Christine and I talk about the things we’re working on in our lives — my next magazine project, Christine’s next Humane Society fundraiser — then the conversation turns back to the things we need to do to stay healthy.

“One of the first things my oncologist said to me was to be serene, and live in the middle of the road,” Christine says. “It’s taken a long time for Americans to understand the Asian philosophy of living in the middle of the road, not being frenetic all the time, or angry all the time.”

Being a former space biologist for NASA, Christine added the scientific rationale behind the philosophy.  “Cortisol levels rise when you have anxiety or are frenetic,” she says. “It acts like an acid running through your bloodstream, and undermines the health of everything — your heart, your arteries. Constant noise increases cortisol levels, too. We need time for serenity, peace, and quiet, and in today’s society, that freaks people out.”

It’s sad that creating time for rest and relaxation can be frightening to some, since all work and no play just makes crazy, stressed out people.

After lunch, Christine and I head for the resort’s Relache Spa, where Christine enjoys their 50-minute signature facial ($145) and I get a 50-minute Swedish massage ($140). It’s hard to get up after your muscles have turned to mush, but Christine heads to the indoor pool for a swim, and I catch up with spa director Yolanda Harris-Jackson.

“While some consider us to be a luxury business, I consider us as fostering wellness in  life,” Harris-Jackson says. “The economy’s been crazy, but business is getting better for us. People are coming in to take better care of themselves because they’re stressed out. Conventions are adding new rejuvenation breaks during their meetings.”

The spa created a three-hour mind-body-spirit session that convention groups can add to their program. Sessions include meditation, education on skin care, and a yoga, pilates or stretching class. The spa also organizes 5K runs around the property early in the morning for convention-goers.

“Groups are learning that these things help with productivity,” Harris-Jackson says.

That evening, Christine and I head to the Old Hickory Steakhouse for dinner. The restaurant, which features certified Black Angus beef from the Harris Ranch in San Joaquin Valley, is in a replica of a Southern mansion.

The menu here offers appetizers ranging from escargot with Shitake mushrooms ($13) to a poached duck foie gras with lemon cornbread cake and blackberry jam ($19). Soups and salads are standard fare, with side dishes like asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, or blue cheese and thyme potatoes au gratin, served family style for $10 each.

This time, Christine opted for the filet mignon ($39) with a crab oscar topping ($14) and a tomato salad of heirloom tomatoes, arugula, and Maytag bleu charred onions in tomato vinaigrette ($12). While the salad was light with a nice blend of flavors, the filet was overdone, which was disappointing for a steakhouse.

I chose the cast iron seared salmon with grilled romaine, summer squash, and panzella  salad ($36), which was delicious. Bits of fried zucchini blossom and roasted pepper gave the dish a nice texture, and the salmon was done perfectly.

When it came to dessert, I couldn’t resist the chocolate hazelnut bar with espresso anglaise ($12), which was scrumptious. Can you tell I have a sweet tooth?

The resort has a good blend of restaurants that offer fare at various price ranges, but as our experience at Old Hickory Steakhouse shows, what you get on any given day is only as good as the cook and waiter on duty.

For example, we had a very nice meal at the moderately priced Jack Daniels, where we stopped in for breakfast before checking out. Designed to be a night spot in the evenings, Jack Daniels is experimenting with breakfast fare, and offers a buffet for $13.95.

The scrambled eggs, biscuit and gravy, fried green tomatoes, hash brown casserole and Texas toast give a nod to Southern tastebuds, with some Southern grits that had Christine swooning.

It was hard to leave after two days of eating without restraint, getting pampered at the spa, and enjoying the holiday sights at Opryland. Clearly, we picked the right place for our girls weekend.

For room rates and special packages, check out http://www.gaylordhotels.com/gaylord-opryland/.

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