November 20, 2012

Blissful relaxation comes with getaway

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 4:08 pm by dinaheng

Nothing defines a weekend getaway for me more than having no plans, no deadlines, and no pressure to be anything but lazy.

On the second day of a girlfriends’ weekend at the Arizona Biltmore, my friend Jonelle rose with the sun while I stayed in bed till 8 a.m. When I finally join her in the Ocatilla lounge for breakfast, she’s going out on the patio to feed a stray cat some milk. After I get some juice and danish, I join her at a table outside.

It’s a beautiful fall morning, and work is the farthest thing from our minds. Instead, our conversation centers around the meaning of our lives. Both of us have had near-death experiences, though we didn’t really share them until this weekend.

At 18, I was driving in the rain when a school bus stopped suddenly. The car behind it stopped short of hitting the bus, but I skidded into the back of the car. I felt myself rise out of my body, and looked down at my body, covered with blood. I heard a voice that said, “It’s not time for you to go yet. There are still things you have to do.”

I was then jerked back into my body. I’ll never forget the feeling of being encased in skin again. The experience set me on a path to explore the meaning of life, why we are here, and how to heal our wounds.

For Jonelle, the experience happened at age 20 on her first mountain climb.

“I got hypothermia climbing Mt. Rainier, fell in the snow, and didn’t want to get up,” she shares. “We were in a snowstorm and set up a tent. It was a group climb, and we were at 11,000 feet. I experienced being above the storm, and could see my body and the others in the group. I felt it was perfectly fine to move on without being involved in the scenario below, but also knew that I could complete something within this body, if I could hang on.

“I had to calm my heart down to regulate it, and force myself to breathe. There was no separation between me and the universe. Meditation’s the only thing I’ve done that’s expanded that. If I lose my life tomorrow, I can say I’ve found my true nature, even if it is just a baby glimpse.”

Not many people can say that, particularly since our daily lives usually keep our focus on what’s right in front of us. For the last six months, Jonelle’s focus has been on recovering from her hip surgery.

“I had to put things in perspective,” Jonelle says. “By focusing less on myself, I naturally opened myself to the rest of the world. When I was focused on my pain, I had to remember that pain is not a permanent state, just like happiness isn’t permanent. When you’re happy or suffering, both have ebbs and flows.”

Fire pit outside Ocatilla lounge

After a long, thoughtful conversation, we decide to focus on our surroundings and take a walk around the hotel. The property, which boasts two 18-hole golf courses, tennis courts, life-size lawn chess and other recreational activities, feels like a playground you would never tire of enjoying.

We poke our heads into a row of boutiques off the main building, which offer everything from sunglasses and apparel to jewelry and gifts. The stores are filled with fun finds, but none that cause us to open our wallets.

After lunch, we enjoy the highlight of the day — massages at the Biltmore Spa. Built in 1998, the spa, fitness center and beauty salon offer an array of services designed to pamper and relax.

After changing in the women’s locker room, we wait in a relaxation lounge for our massage therapists to come get us. Both of us choose to get the Hands of Healing Massage, a 50-minute treatment combining Swedish movements with other techniques for relaxation and well-being ($135).

Spa at Arizona Biltmore

Yunven, the massage therapist who works on me, is amazing. Not only does she work out all the knots in my body, she shares insights and health tips that make me grateful to have met her.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen more men come for treatments than women,” she notes. “Women have taught them to take care of themselves, yet we don’t always take care of ourselves enough.

After our massages, Jonelle and I lounge a bit in the steam room area before dressing. While the treatments were wonderful, the spa itself is in need of renovation and expansion, so we didn’t linger.

For dinner that evening (and lunch the next day before leaving), we eat at Frank & Albert’s, a lovely restaurant that serves comfort food with organic produce from local suppliers. We’re seated in the outdoor patio area by a warm fire, and take a deep breath, the weekend nearly over.

Jonelle orders Garlicky Hummus ($11.65) and Angel Hair Pasta ($17.85), while I get the Crispy Salmon Filet ($32.55) and a side order of Mac & Cheese ($6.75) and the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad ($11.55), a different version from the original recipe, to taste.

The salmon was delicious, as was the Waldorf Gala Apple Salad. Unfortunately, both Jonelle and I found the angel hair pasta and Mac & Cheese too salty for our taste. Since we both have sweet tooths, the best part of the meal came last, as Jonelle swooned over the Butterscotch Pudding ($7) and I finished all four of the miniatures on the Sundae Tasting Menu, with the Caramel Banana and Butter Pecan Brittle my favorites ($7).

Frank & Albert’s

Service here is exemplary. For lunch the next day, Jonelle craved a Portobello Burger and Sweet Potato Fries ($14). While it wasn’t on the menu at Frank & Albert’s, the wait staff got it for her from the kitchen that handles guest room dining, where it was on the room service menu.

It’s that kind of care that has no doubt given the Arizona Biltmore its “Jewel of the Desert” reputation. Before leaving, I take a history tour of the hotel, which is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 10 a.m., complimentary for hotel guests.

Becky Blaine, the resort historian and public relations and marketing manager, gives a fascinating glimpse of the landmark hotel that opened in 1929. We visit the Biltmore History Room, once the hotel library, that holds items ranging from a wake-up call clock for hotel operators to an original desk designed by Warren MacArthur, one of the hotel’s original owners.

“Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ when he stayed here in 1939, and Marilyn Monroe called the Catalina Pool her favorite,” Blaine shares. “Every U.S. President since Herbert Hoover has stayed here, and we’re working on getting President Obama to come.”

When it’s time to pack up and leave, Jonelle and I are both sad — to leave the Biltmore, and each other. Even though it was a quick weekend trip, we are nourished by the time spent together. We know we’ll stay close, even when far apart, because our hearts are connected.

It may be time to get back to work, but living a meaningful life means spending time with  the friends and family you love, speaking from the heart, and feeling what connects us as human beings.

As Jonelle puts it, “What’s in your heart will always be heard. Maybe not by the people you want to hear it, or expect to hear it, but it will be heard. It just has to come from the heart. If something remains intellectual and never becomes part of your heart, how can anyone hear you?”

So stop procrastinating, and plan your weekend getaway.

Rates at the Arizona Biltmore change seasonally, and range from $99 to $229 for classic guest rooms. Ocatilla rates range from $149 to $299. For more information, check out http://www.arizonabiltmore.com/.

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November 19, 2012

Girlfriends’ weekend feeds the soul

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Health, Travel, Women at 6:16 pm by dinaheng

My friend Jonelle and I are sisters of the heart. We’re both single, we’re both writers, and we both hold spirituality at the center of our lives. At the same time, I’m a city gal and she’s a country girl, so we each have different things to share.

Six months ago, Jonelle had a hip replacement — apparently due to a hereditary condition, the hip didn’t fully form, and after years of athletic activity, it needed to be replaced. Since we hadn’t seen each other in seven years, we decided to have a girlfriends’ weekend in Phoenix to celebrate her recovery from the surgery.

So one Saturday, I flew in from Los Angeles, and Jonelle drove up from south of Tucson. As  she picks me up at Phoenix Skyharbor Airport, we share a quick hug before she warns me that there is hay in the trunk of her car.

“I’ve got two goats and a horse,” she reminds me. “I couldn’t clean out the stall after my surgery, so I left it a couple of days, and the horse learned to clean it out himself. He just kicked it out of the pen, and it’s dooty-free. So I told him, ‘I’ll buy the feed, and you take care of everything else, because this is all I can do.’ “

In the same way, she notes, that’s how she looks at taking care of her physical body. “I say, ‘I’ll take you to the doctor and get surgery, but you’ll need to heal yourself, too, because I can get along without you. I’m not just this body,’ “ Jonelle says.

This weekend, though, we agree that we’re going to pamper ourselves — body, mind and Spirit — as much as we can while enjoying each other’s company. For our retreat, we chose the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, a luxurious resort designed in the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright, who served as the consulting architect.

Driving up to the lobby, we’re struck by the unusual look of the “Biltmore Block,” pre-cast blocks made from desert sand on-site, that are interwoven with blocks of glass in the walls, bringing natural light into the hotel. Framed by lush greenery and palm trees, the hotel is an historic oasis in the desert.

Set on 39 acres, the Biltmore has guest rooms and suites spread across several wings, a residential complex called the Villas, and Ocatilla, a “boutique hotel within the hotel.”

We check into Ocatilla, which has numerous additional amenities, including its own concierge service, a club lounge with complimentary continental breakfast, beverages during the day and light fare at night, daily newspapers, and WiFi Internet and computer access.

Our room is spacious and comfortable, done in soothing desert colors of sage, paintbrush and copper tones. The sensibility of Craftsman design can be seen in the built-in media wall with flat-screen TV and work area, and an enchanting Art Deco touch is found in the embossed translucent blocks of glass that light up in the paneled wood headboards. My only criticism is that there’s no mirror in the guest room, which makes it harder to get dressed when the bathroom (where the mirrors are) is occupied.

The first order of the afternoon is a cabana lunch at the Paradise Pool, one of the resort’s eight pools. We sit at a table for four under a shady awning outside the cabana, which sports a full bath, refrigerator, phone, TV and robes. Rock music is playing over the sound system for a lively crowd that’s enjoying the pool and the nearby 92-foot-long water slide.

Paradise Pool

For lunch, Jonelle orders White Bean Hummus ($11) and a Very Veggie Rice Paper Roll ($13), while I try the Turkey Wrap “Waldorf Style” ($15). Jonelle, who’s a low fat vegetarian, pronounces her meal perfect. I have to say the same about mine. I love the combination of cubed turkey bits, crunchy lettuce, nuts, and sweet grapes in the wrap.

As we talk about our daily lives, we agree that people work too much and hurry too much to really appreciate the things we have. Stress contributes to ill health, and when we don’t take care of ourselves, well… we all know where that leads.

“I got more upset with my computer crashing than I did with the diagnosis of my hip,” Jonelle says. “You take care of your computer and your car. When your body’s working well, you don’t pay attention. But when it doesn’t, you suddenly realize what you could have been doing all along to remain healthy.

“When my body was in pain, I had to ask, what is the most helpful thing in this situation?  The answer — to not be cranky with an arthritic body.  How do you do that? By getting acquainted with who you really are. You can use pain as a focus to keep your negative thoughts from taking over your mind.”

Jonelle, who does Tibetan meditation, would focus on her pain in meditation and ask that her pain take away the pain of all beings — people and animals, both.

“All of a sudden, my pain is useful, and if you have faith in that, it’s extremely helpful,” she adds. “If you ask Christ or Buddha to help, it helps even more. I received a steady confidence that what I was going through was okay, and everybody goes through things like this, so why not me?”

After lunch, we decide to rest in the room a little, then head to the Ocatilla Pool for some exercise. The sun is getting lower in the sky, and the guests at this pool are much quieter than those at the Paradise Pool. We swim for awhile, and Jonelle enjoys the hot jacuzzi spa.

Before long, it’s time for dinner. As we walk through the property toward the main building, we pass beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens, framed by the evening silhouette of the mountains.  Outdoor fire pits are lit as we walk past The Wright Bar patio into the main lobby, which feels like a blend of Wright influences and modern conveniences.

The hotel’s signature restaurant, Wright’s at the Biltmore, features fine dining that has reimagined classic dishes like Beef Wellington and Veal Loin Oscar, adding trendy accompaniments like lemon scented asparagus and wild mushrooms. Large and small plates are offered for everything, which is a nice touch.

Jonelle chooses the small Waldorf Salad ($11.25), based on the original 1896 New York City recipe, with sliced apples and celery, candied walnuts and grapes, and the Root Vegetable Risotto ($18.50). I order the Filet “Au Poivre” ($41.50), which comes with blue cheese au gratin potatoes, buttered root vegetables, and broccoli rabe.

A server comes to the table and makes the Waldorf salad, sharing information about the preparation, and a little entertainment along the side.

As we ate, I could imagine being a guest decades ago when guests like Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and George Burns walked the lobby, and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. might give an impromptu concert in the piano bar.

Wright’s Bar

Today’s Wright’s at the Biltmore was designed with wonderful little touches that remind you of days gone by — whether it’s the globe lighting that hangs from the ceiling, or the stained glass oil lamp holders on the tables. The service, as expected, is impeccable.

Jonelle and I talk about the future of food, and the issue of genetic engineering. While intellectually, I understand the need to grow food efficiently for a growing world population, I can’t stomach the thought of eating food that may have long-term side effects we know nothing about today. Happily, Wright’s utilizes fresh ingredients for its menu, including herbs from the Chef’s garden outside the dining room.

For dessert, we indulge with a signature dark chocolate souffle ($17.50) and a chocolate trifle ($12.75). The chocolate trifle turns out to be layered chocolate with the look of a Frank Lloyd Wright building — creative in design, but more candy than a trifle.

The surprise ending to the meal is freshly-spun lime cotton candy. As Tom, our server notes, “Whether or not you order dessert, we like to leave you with something sweet.”

One of the nicest bonuses to dining at any of the Arizona Biltmore restaurants is getting the recipe for any of its dishes. Jason Allen, Sous Chef at Wright’s, was happy to give us the restaurant’s Root Vegetable Risotto, which we both aim to try making at home.

Dinner over, Jonelle and I walk back to our room, totally satisfied. It’s impressive to find a restaurant where nothing is overly salted or too heavily seasoned, and Wright’s offerings are exemplary. Jonelle’s only wish is for more vegetarian options on the menu. While servers say anything can be made vegetarian by removing the meat or seafood from the dish, vegetarians know that’s not as satisfying as an entree designed with vegetables as the focal point.

At 9 p.m., Jonelle is yawning, but stays awake with a book while I check e-mail and do a little writing. When I tell her I’m usually up until 11 p.m., she says she’s usually in bed by 8:30 p.m. and up at 4 a.m.

All I can say is, I’m glad we’re on vacation.

Next: Relaxation comes from sharing

November 18, 2012

Hallmark’s holiday movies always a joy

Posted in Between Us column, Movies, Television at 4:09 pm by dinaheng

Laughter, joy and love are at the heart of good holiday movies, and no network airs more original Christmas movies than the Hallmark Channel.

This year, Hallmark will air 12 new holiday films, along with five original specials, that are sure to please those looking for family-friendly entertainment and a positive message of hope.

“This is such a joyous time of year,” says Elizabeth Yost, vice president of original programming for Crown Media Family Networks. “Christmas is a season of hope, when miracles happen. It’s a time when we do things for others, and celebrate as a family. That’s what we try to give viewers in our movies.”

There’s something for everyone in the mix of movies, ranging from romantic comedies to dramas, and befitting the holidays, all come with guaranteed happy endings.

This Saturday, Nov. 24 at 8 p.m. Eastern, there’s “Naughty or Nice,” starring Hilarie Burton as Krissy Kringle, a holiday humbug fired from her job who happens to discover Santa’s “Naughty or Nice” book, left behind after visiting a child. When she realizes the magical book really works, she sets out to expose the bad deeds of everyone around her. What she learns about her long-time boyfriend Lance (played by Matt Dallas), however,  leads her discover to that the book also reveals the nice in people, a balance that makes all the difference.

The Christmas films, which began airing November 3 with “Christmas Song,” “Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade,” “The Wishing Tree,” and more will repeat throughout the season.

“When you have 12 movies, it’s easy to mix different styles,” Yost explains. “We have comedies, romantic comedies, drama, warm weather settings and cold weather settings. The romantic comedies and romantic dramas are very successful for us. We try to offer themes that are different. Otherwise, there’s no surprise.”

While the movies center around Christmas movies, a cross-cultural romance is at the heart of “Hitched for the Holidays,” which airs Sunday, Nov. 25 at 8 p.m. Eastern. The film stars Joey Lawrence and Emily Hampshire as a young Italian man and a young Jewish woman who are under some family pressure to find a mate.

“They decide they’ll be each other’s mate for the season,” Yost says. “So they celebrate Christmas with his family, and Hanukkah with her family. It’s something many people will relate to, with some real laugh-out-loud moments.”

This year is the Hallmark Channel’s 10th season of airing original Christmas movies, and fans have no problem taking note of their favorites. In a recent Facebook poll, nearly one million fans named “The Christmas Card” as their favorite Hallmark Channel Original Holiday Movie of All-Time. The film, which aired in 2006, starred John Newton as Captain Cody Cullen, who gets a “Dear Soldier” card sent by a stranger named Faith Spelman (played by Alice Evans). Drawing strength from her note, he survives the war in Afghanistan and sets out to find her.

“ ‘The Christmas Card’ was about giving back to others, and was one of our most meaningful movies,” Yost says. “Audiences really resonated with it. My niece recently got married, and when her father-in-law learned that I work for the Hallmark Channel, he started talking about ‘The Christmas Card.’ The military theme resonated so much with him, he started crying.”

Yost says holiday celebrations are synonymous with the Hallmark brand, and the network aims to air movies at Christmastime that reflect the meaning of the holidays.

“The movies are about the wishes we make to Santa, and how they can come true,” Yost says. “They’re about learning that what you give, instead of what you get, is really what’s important. Audiences can tune in every week for a new one through the holidays.”

For listings of Hallmark Channel movies, check out http://www.hallmarkchannel.com/.

November 1, 2012

Design forecasts more than fashion

Posted in Between Us column, Politics, Women at 5:44 pm by dinaheng

How we look says a lot about us. It can give clues to our personality, our economic status, and how we want to be seen. When it comes to political statements, most candidates dress conservatively and speak liberally about opinions they think will please the voters.

As we near the end of this year’s Presidential campaigning, it’s interesting to see the impact that opinions about First Lady Michelle Obama and the GOP nominee’s wife, Ann Romney, have on their husbands’ candidacies.

The First Lady was a working mother of two girls, accomplished in her own career. Romney was a stay-at-home mom of five boys, who’s fought successful battles against multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. Both have qualities that the public admires. When it comes to their taste in fashion, there are clear differences.

“They’re both classic women,” says Vince Camuto, founder of the Nine West brand, who  now runs a line under his own name in 28 categories ranging from shoes and handbags to dresses and jewelry. “Michelle Obama is tall, elegant, and secure within herself. She’s got great style. One day, she can wear J. Crew, and the next, up and coming American designers like Jason Wu.

“Ann Romney is beautiful, and she wears a lot of classic clothing. I don’t see much in the way of designers on her, but she has a beautiful face, and red is a great color for her. Both women have a passion inside that American women can look up to.”

In today’s uncertain economy, Camuto says women are looking for great style at affordable prices.

“Women are smarter than ever before,” Camuto says. “They’re more educated, more informed, and you can’t fool them.”

When it comes to footwear, the designer says 50 percent of female buyers will pay full price for fashion footwear, but want great prices. Twenty percent look for shoes at the first markdown, and the remaining 30 percent will shop only for deep sales prices.

Vince Camuto

“The cheapest fix for a woman is to buy a pair of shoes,” Camuto says. “She can make her outfit look fresh, and it’s instant gratification. If the economy isn’t great, buying a metallic evening sandal can be fun. Today, it’s amazing how very expensive things sell, but the customer wants high-low dressing. Maybe she has a Chanel bag from three years ago, so she buys a new pair of shoes to go with it.”

Emerging from a recession has made consumers wary of what they spend their money on. Maybe that’s reflected in today’s trend toward more medium-heel shoes, flats, and single sole shoes, rather than those with platform heels.

“Bright blues are the hot color of the moment,” Camuto says. “Houndstooth is refined and lady-like. Metallics and glitter, classic pumps are in. Women love the long skirt, which is a trend, and they love a shorter skirt, so it’s a mixed bag.”

What will the trends for spring include?

“We like salmon, muted pastels, black and white, and a touch of red,” Camuto says. “We’re in a difficult period now with a lot of people still unemployed, but a down economy also represents opportunity. You better be on your game.”

Given the partisan tenor of the times, whichever candidate is elected to the White House next week will have to bring his A-game to the Oval Office in order to move the country — and the economy — forward.

Hopefully, the style of the First Lady who partners with him will inspire us all to be more open to new perspectives as we look toward the future. That, after all, is the definition of truly being fashion forward.