October 16, 2017

Random Acts… Be strong, stand up for the right to live

Posted in Politics, Travel at 11:57 pm by dinaheng

Las Vegas – Two weeks after the worst mass shooting in America’s modern history, tourists are gambling in the casinos and partying in the nightclubs, while locals are continuing to lay flowers at makeshift memorials near the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, not far from the site of the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting.

Fifty-eight died, and nearly 500 were injured, at the hand of a man who legally purchased an arsenal of weapons and fired into the crowd from his Mandala Bay Resort and Casino suite on Sunday night, Oct. 1.

Driving past Mandalay Bay a couple of days ago, it was hard to imagine how multiple rounds of bullets could fly from the 32nd floor and reach concert-goers more than 300 yards away. But the black banner, #VegasStrong, hanging from the top of the hotel is a reminder that the horrendous event really did occur.

Everywhere you go in Sin City, VegasStrong signs abound. Throughout the United States, “Name-That-CityStrong” slogans have no doubt appeared in towns like Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, and who knows how many more cities to come.

Reminding ourselves that we will survive is important. It’s also time to remind ourselves that we do not have to be the victims of mass shootings. We can stand up to the NRA and idiot politicians who would rather do nothing (or propose minor regulation changes for show) than tackle the problem.

There are no easy answers when people debate who’s to blame for mass shootings. Blame is not the issue. Needless deaths are the problem. So why can’t we just take one common sense step forward?

No one, other than military and law enforcement officers, needs to legally own an assault weapon. Period. In a democracy, nobody is out to kill you for holding whatever beliefs you hold, so unless your intention is to kill those who disagree with you, you don’t need to own an assault weapon. Period.

You don’t need an assault weapon to go game hunting – if you’re that bad a shot, you shouldn’t even pick up a gun. Period. Nobody is challenging anybody’s right to self-defense. The challenge is getting past our irrational fears.

One small step toward common sense would mean one large step toward a saner society.

Be strong. Tell Congress to ban assault weapons NOW. The life you save may one day be your own.








January 23, 2017

Random Acts… Everyone should attend Festival of Human Abilities

Posted in Art, Diversity, Entertainment, Health, Travel at 5:37 pm by dinaheng

Why does an aquarium have an annual festival featuring performances that showcase the creativity of people with disabilities?

“It’s all part of our outreach to many communities,” explains Peter Martineau, marketing events manager for the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif. “Our mission is about taking care of the animals, the ocean and the ecosystem by getting people engaged to accomplish that mission.”Dinah Eng

So in addition to cultural festivals that celebrate people from diverse racial backgrounds, the Aquarium decided to create an event highlighting the talents of those with disabilities. The great thing about these events is that people from all walks of life attend and learn from each other.

This year, the Aquarium’s 14th Annual Festival of Human Abilities (Jan. 28-29) will feature hip hop wheelchair dancers (Auti Angel, The Rollettes, and Infinite Flow); a sign language choir; Kodi Lee, a singer who is blind and has autism; Dat Nguyen, a guitarist who is blind, and other inspiring performers.

Along with music and dance, the event will include art demonstrations, like the making of mouth-stick art by local artists with disabilities. Diveheart, an organization that takes people with disabilities scuba diving, will do a talk and take divers into an Aquarium exhibit.

Free creative workshop classes, lasting 30 to 45 minutes, will teach participants how to sing in sign language, create wheelchair art, paint a hat, or try hip hop wheelchair dancing. The Aquarium will also give audio tours for guests who are blind.

Auti Angel gives a wheelchair dancing performance at the 13th Annual Aquarium of the Pacific's Festival of Human Abilities. Photo courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Auti Angel gives a wheelchair dancing performance at the 13th Annual Aquarium of the Pacific’s Festival of Human Abilities. Photo courtesy of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

“We all have challenges in our lives, and whether you have a disability or not, you’ll find yourself inspired by these performances,” Martineau says. “We usually get about 7,000 attendees each day, and one of the most powerful things is the opportunity for people who don’t have disabilities to feel comfortable around those who do.

“The more you can talk to someone and hang out with them, the more you realize that that person’s a human being you can talk to. Everyone at the festival is getting the ocean conservation message, and it’s going to take a diverse world of people to make it happen.”

Admission to the festival costs $29.95 for adults (12 years and older), $26.95 for seniors (62 and older); $17.95 for children 3 to 11; and is free for children ages 3 and younger. Members of the Aquarium are admitted free of charge.

For more information, check out http://www.aquariumofpacific.org/events/info/festival_of_human_abilities/.




June 19, 2016

Random Acts… Meet three memorable men in Florence, Italy

Posted in Dining, Spirituality, Travel at 10:15 pm by dinaheng

Dinah EngThe best part of any journey, for me, is talking with the locals, who know the best eateries, the best shops, and the places that define the soul of a city. On a recent trip to Italy with my sister, we met three memorable men in Florence. Their stories reveal the three best reasons to visit the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region – the Renaissance artistry, the warmth of the people, and the wonderful food.

The Maestro of alchemy and jewels

Hidden amid the narrow streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood is an unusual artisan workshop that takes you back in time to the Italian Renaissance. Housed in the 15th Century Palazzo Nasi-Quaratesi, jeweler-sculptor Alessandro Dari’s atelier has been recognized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a Museo Bottega (museum workshop).

Walking into the small showroom, I’m dazzled by all the intricate pieces of handcrafted gold jewelry and small sculptures made of precious metals in the display cases. Collections called “The Keeper of the Soul,” “Alchemy & Magic,” and “Space & Time” tickle the imagination, making me want to meet the artist who created them.

After a few minutes, the maestro himself appears, clad in dark clothes and an industrial apron. Dari, who speaks little English, smiles with warmth and gives me a look at his workbench area. His fianceé Antonella, who speaks some English, serves as the interpreter.

“Alchemy was born centuries ago in China, Arabia, and Europe,” says Dari, pointing to various pieces around his laboratory. “In alchemy, the material has a soul. When you work with the material, you discover its soul.”

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Dari, who made his first ring at age 16, studied chemistry at the University of Siena, intending to become a pharmacist. But a fascination with metalworking led him down another path. Today, his work is exhibited at the Silver Museum in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and at the Cathedral Museum in Fiesole.

He teaches several students in the back of his workshop, using “sacred geometry” as the basis of his teachings. In other words, God created the universe with a geometric plan, and in the alchemic philosophy, he explains, “God and gold are the same. One lives in your soul, and the other in the material.”

Listening to him speak in Italian, I wish I could understand first hand what he was saying. One of the things that travel teaches you, though, is that when there is a will to communicate, there is a way. With each question I ask, the couple struggles to understand me, and shares the answers they think I am looking for.

Antonella explains that the techniques Dari uses stem from the Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance periods. He takes particular pride in his “Collezione Castelli” (Castles Collection), where the architecture of castles was celebrated in his jewelry.

It’s amazing to know that everything from melting metals to engraving and the setting of stones is done in the tiny workspace behind the showroom. As I get ready to leave, the master goldsmith shares one last thought.

“Everything I do is about the elevation of the soul,” Dari says. “When the work is finished, I put every piece in a collection. I don’t know why themes emerge. It is something I feel inside. The point of life is to share emotion.”

Alessandro Dari’s museum workshop is at Via San Niccolo 115r, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 244747; http://www.alessandrodari.com/en/.

The Concierge

“Bene! Bene!” You can’t help but beam as Paolo Mori, concierge at the Hotel Lungarno, gives you an approving smile when you make a request, or take one of his recommendations. This is a man who could sell bottled sunshine because his heart is so open.

One afternoon, he tells my sister and me about an artisan workshop near the hotel. Rather than just give directions through the labyrinthine streets, he walks us through the neighborhood. Along the way, he shares the story of his life.

On one block, he points to the apartment building where he grew up. His father has passed on, but “my mommy is home now,” Mori says, happily. “I go to see her every couple of weeks, and she still cooks for me. She was a chef in a restaurant in Florence, so we ate well.”

The Oltrarno neighborhood of his childhood was a quieter place where he and his friends would play soccer in the street because there were no cars, tourists, or pollution to contend with. The cobblestone streets are still lined with small shops that the locals patronize. We stop in front of a local cobbler’s store.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

“Here, they make handmade shoes,” Mori says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in that window, pretending to make shoes. It was great fun.” A few more feet and we cross the street. “And that’s where I went to church!” he exclaims. “On Sundays, we would visit the museums.”

He is proud of the neighborhood he calls home, and while he didn’t become a cobbler, he did try several other trades. He worked for a retailer, as a waiter, and tried plumbing before deciding to go into the hotel business. In 1997, he joined the Hotel Lungarno as a porter, was promoted to doorman, then concierge.

“I love my work,” Mori says. “Florence is my home, and I love to welcome everyone to my town. Every day is different because you don’t know who’s standing in front of you. It’s a universe of people from different countries and different perspectives.

“You have to figure out who’s in front of you, and what they’re looking for, in order to help welcome them. Florence is a warm town. It’s not Milan, where people are professional and stay cold.”

The oddest question he’s ever had from a guest? “One woman asked, where are the gondolas?” he says, laughing. “They are, as you know, in Venice. She was visiting so many different Italian cities that when we told her, she laughed, too.”

Mori has a fondness for America, having visited the United States on his honeymoon. He raves about the sights he took in at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Bellisimo!” he says.

Today, his wife works at IKEA in Florence, and they have an 11-year-old daughter. The family lives in the city suburbs, but Mori still loves the Oltrarno neighborhood of his youth.

“I love every single corner, because every corner has a secret, or something particular that only those who live here see every day,” Mori says. “A lot of the historical shops have been replaced by tourist shops and commercial places. Fortunately, Florence is still a wonderful town. Perfecto!”

The Oltrarno (meaning “the other side of the Arno”) neighborhood, lies south of the Arno River in Florence. Known as a historic, working-class neighborhood, the area is filled with local restaurants, small artisan workshops, and antique shops. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 27261; http://www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno.

The Food Connoisseur

One rainy afternoon, it was time for lunch at Irene Firenze, the restaurant inside the historic Hotel Savoy off the Piazza della Repubblica, The menu is different than most places in town, so Paul Feakes, the restaurant manager, stops to chat and explain why.

“We designed a menu for women,” Feakes says. “Men enjoy it, too, but we were very aware that people’s tastes and needs have changed. So while the menu is authentically Tuscan, the dishes are lighter, healthier, and address a number of allergies and intolerances. Vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, whatever you need.”

Irene (the name of hotel founder Sir Rocco Forte’s mother) was chosen to give the restaurant a feminine feel, rather than a masculine title that might suggest a bar.

“Tuscan food is traditionally very heavy and very meat-based,” Feakes explains. “Considering a female palate enabled us to get creative with the menu. As a result, we’ve seen huge growth in both Italian diners and new international faces.”

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Feakes, who has lived in Italy for seven years, is a food connoisseur whose journey has taken him around the globe. Feakes started in the catering industry in Great Britain, moved to work in California, then to an ashram mountain community in India, two hours north of Mumbai, where he cooked for about 300 people.

Eventually, he returned to the UK, where he helped to grow catering brands and re-styled food operations in the House of Commons when he was recruited to open Portcullis House, a building in Westminster that houses members of Parliament and their staff.

After a slight detour to become a psychotherapist, Feakes, and his partner of 21 years, gave everything up to move to Florence in 2009, looking for a total life change. There, Feakes started a private cooking school and opened an art gallery in Northern Tuscany’s Pietrasanta.

“I devised a way to put my creativity, my love of food, and my need for another adventure together by teaching English through the medium of cooking,” he explains. “This led to teaching at the Savoy, and I returned to my roots of pure food and beverage when I took over as restaurant manager for Irene.”

Moving to Italy suits the food connoisseur, who learned to speak Italian gradually as he acclimated to his new home. “I make mistakes, of course, but I like to think that I make beautiful mistakes, or make mistakes beautifully,” he jokes.

He sees food changing in Florence and Italy in many ways, and dislikes the trend toward over-complicating traditional dishes. For his taste, Tuscan food should be simple, seasonal and flavorful. A simple bruschetta with wonderful fresh tomatoes under the Tuscan sunshine, he notes, is divine.

Yes, there are cultural differences between England and Italy, but Feakes is more than happy where he is.

“For me the Italian culture fits how I wish to live,” Feakes says. “I miss things from England — a great beer in a country pub and our sense of humor. But I just love life here – being outside under the sunshine, and the rhythm of the life. I feel like a new Florentine, not like a foreigner in a strange town.”

Irene Firenze, Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence, Italy 50123; Phone: +39 055 27351; https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/hotel-savoy/restaurant-and-bar/.













July 18, 2015

Random Acts… Life in a New York minute

Posted in Travel at 11:51 pm by dinaheng

Flying from Los Angeles to New York, I find myself seated near a woman who appears to have Down Syndrome. Someone had escorted her onto the plane, then left her to make the flight cross country alone.

I say hello, and try to open a conversation, but she stares off into space, then moves over to the window seat, so I leave it at that.

The United Airlines flight passes quickly enough, even if I have to put a book behind me for back support because the only real padding on the seat is in the headrest. (Are you listening, Jeff Smisek?)

After getting off the plane, I notice that the woman with Down Syndrome has left the gate area and is standing bewildered as other passengers rush past.

Yes, it’s late at night, but I still don’t understand how anyone can just walk past someone who’s obviously in need of help. Maybe the people rushing home, or hesitate to approach someone with a mental handicap. Maybe they just assume someone else will eventually help her.

Dinah EngSo I speak with the woman, and lead her back to the gate, where the agents look like they’re too tired to be bothered. When I explain that the woman is mentally challenged, they finally walk over to help.

There are many great things about life in New York, a vibrant city that’s a mecca for finance, media, entertainment and more. There are also a million ways for people to get lost in the frenetic pace of a town where humans are dwarfed by the skyscrapers.

My oasis in Manhattan is The Michelangelo Hotel, where Italian elegance meets New York hubbub on the corner of 51st and 7th Avenue. The soft wind chime sounds from the crystal light fixtures in the elevators are a soothing surprise. The rooms themselves are blissfully quiet, my definition of luxury.

Room rates vary, depending on the time of year and whether you use a discount booking site, but plan on paying upwards of $200 a night.

Even at that price, this is not a problem-free oasis. When I turn on the hair dryer one morning, a roach-like bug blows out of it onto the shower curtain. After reporting the surprise bug launch to the front desk, the manager’s response was, “Sorry to hear that. But this is New York.” Guess I was lucky it wasn’t something worse.

The country’s economic divide is evident everywhere in this town, from the homeless on the street to the suits on the Street. When I asked a friend to pick a place for Sunday brunch that’s moderately priced, she chooses Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien New York, a restaurant known for lavish breakfasts.

I appreciate that she wants to treat me to a real New York experience. But while the complimentary fruit smoothies are a nice touch, the menu could only be considered “moderately” priced in the Big Apple. My Seared Rock Lobster and Asparagus Omelet comes with breakfast potatoes and a croissant. While the portion is large enough for two, $33 is way too much to pay for a runny omelet with no flavor.

After a few business meetings and quick visits with friends, my long weekend comes to a close. I head back to Newark International Airport, where the spacious gate areas are much larger and nicer than the facilities in Los Angeles.

As I sit down to wait for boarding, I see a toddler playing soccer with his dad, joyfully kicking a small red ball around the area. When the ball roams into another gate area, a slightly older boy kicks it back to the tyke, who giggles with delight.

As the little one heads back toward our gate, he spies a shiny recycling can. Quickly, he picks up his red ball and goes for a slam-dunk into the can. His dad catches the ball, just in time. When I tell the dad that his son is so cute, he beams with pride.

We travel for vacation, for business, to visit family, to see new places and meet new people. If we’re fortunate enough to make a connection, the world becomes a smaller, friendlier place.

I think of the woman with Down Syndrome who made the trip here alone, and smile at the antics of the 20-month-old with his red ball. Life passes in a New York minute wherever we live. Don’t pass up the chance to connect with those you may meet along the way.

September 12, 2014

Random Acts… Meteor Crater offers out of this world experience

Posted in Travel at 12:54 am by dinaheng

Most of us will never get to walk on the surface of the moon, but if you want to see what an impact crater looks like, the world’s best-preserved site is at Meteor Crater, 35 miles east of Flagstaff, Ariz.

The giant bowl-shaped hole in the ground was created 50,000 years ago when an iron-nickel meteorite (or cluster of meteorites) hit the Earth, carving a crater 700 feet deep and more than 4,000 feet across. That’s about the size of a 60-story building deep and 20 football fields across.Dinah Eng

While tourists may flock to the Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater is a designated National Landmark that is easily overlooked by those who are not in the know.

“It’s a spectacular place,” says Dr. David Kring, principal investigator of the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration in Houston, who named the Chicxulub Crater that’s been linked to the mass extinction of dinosaurs on Earth more than 65 million years ago.

Kring says Meteor Crater is a relatively young crater, at 50,000 years old, that has been preserved in an arid region where little rain falls, preventing soil erosion.

“We use it to train planetary scientists and astronauts,” explains Kring, who goes out to the crater several times a year. “We’ll be there throughout the month of October with a group of graduate students to do training in the field and research.

“We oftentimes want to compare and contrast what we can see on the moon with samples from craters made by these types of impacts, which also have biologic consequences on Earth. Humans are part of the biology of the planet, and there will still be impacts like Meteor Crater, which is at the small end of the scale, that are likely to occur in the future.”

In other words, when the next big meteorite hits, the strike could have the capacity to destroy an area the size of Kansas City. The meteorite impact would also produce a shock wave and air blast that would radiate out at least 20 kilometers in all directions, which could knock down buildings or destroy animal life.

Meteor Crater. Photo by Dinah Eng

Meteor Crater. Photo by Dinah Eng

The scientist notes that the Earth’s atmosphere protects the planet from small impact incidents, but meteorites do continue to hit the planet five to 10 times a year, with two to three fist-size meteorites falling every year in Arizona.

“Impact craters occur once per 6,000 years on the Earth,” Kring says. “It’s once per 100 million years for the dinosaur-killing size event.”

Beyond the impact of space rocks hitting Earth, scientists are using research at Meteor Crater to help prepare for future journeys into space.

“On the moon, the Apollo astronauts had only minutes to research the lunar samples,” says Kring, who notes that many other nations in the world have named the moon as their next destination. “Both the Chinese and Russians have said they’re going to put their own explorers on the lunar surface.

“Missions to Mars are not easy or inexpensive. In my opinion, there’s no way to do that without exploring our own moon first. It has a better geologic history than Mars for understanding our own solar system. We have to train a new generation of engineers and scientists, and the moon is only three days away.”

Kring notes that since the end of the Apollo missions, most of the nation’s space activities have been limited to work on the International Space Station. But with the development of Orion, NASA’s next exploration spacecraft, “we’re looking forward to human exploration of the moon in a decade,” he says. “We’re actively studying landing sites on the moon, and testing equipment, like a new lunar rover. The long-term objective is going to the moon and beyond.”

Having Meteor Crater as a research site and training ground is an invaluable resource in that effort.

Meteor Crater is privately owned by the Barringer Crater Company, which was founded by Daniel Moreau Barringer, a Philadelphia mining engineer who believed that the crater was formed by the impact of a large iron meteorite. The family has dedicated itself to maintaining the scientific integrity of the site, and awards four to five grants to students doing impact crater research each year. For information on how to visit Meteor Crater, see http://meteorcrater.com/.







July 7, 2014

Random Acts… Sisters sample Big Apple in quick getaway

Posted in Dining, Entertainment, Travel, Women at 5:47 pm by dinaheng

If you only have two and a half days to sample the Big Apple, what do you do?

My sister Linda and I decided to get a small taste of our favorite things, and alternated cheap with luxurious along the way.

First off, we arrived the cheap way, taking a Newark Airport Express Bus ($16 fare) from the airport to the Port Authority Bus Terminal at Times Square, then grabbed a cab for a quick ride to the nearby Michaelangelo hotel on 51st and 7th Avenue.Dinah Eng

When it comes to luxury in the city that never sleeps, there’s nothing more luxurious than a truly quiet hotel room. The Michaelangelo, a midtown boutique with an Italian theme, offers wonderfully quiet and spacious rooms in a prime location. The elegant chandeliers, tufted sofas, and marble floors in its lobby are echoed in the plush carpeted rooms with marble bathrooms and gilded mirrors.

Complimentary coffee and pastries are available for breakfast in the lounge, as well as a 24-hour fitness center. This is not a hotel for business travelers, as there is no business center, but there is a multilingual concierge and a friendly — albeit understaffed — front desk that makes up for having to wait in line at various times. Summertime rates can run from $294 to $608 a night.

After walking through Times Square, looking for souvenirs for our nieces and nephews, we settled on t-shirts for the New York Yankees fan and some generic Big Apple symbols for the others. In search of a movie theater, we then wandered into the AMC Empire 25 on W. 42nd Street.

When three ticket machines didn’t work, we got in line and bought tickets for “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” The ticket seller forgot to give a receipt for the tickets, so I ended up in another line at guest services for that. Standing in line is something you get used to in this town. After the show, we grabbed a late take-out dinner of a burger for Linda and an omelette for me at one of the city’s ubiquitous, and totally forgettable, all-night diners.

The next day, we made up for the diner disappointment by checking out the $15 lunch special at Pazza Notte (1375 Sixth Avenue near 56th Street), an open-front restaurant with a lively bar crowd, even at the noon hour. This sweet little Italian eatery offers generous portions, so Linda and I shared some delicious Calamari Fritti and tried a couple of pasta entrees. Lunch was carbolicious, reasonably priced, and totally yummy.

To waddle off some calories, we took the subway (still a bargain at $2.50 for a single ride) in search of shopping. A friend gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vince Camuto handbag showroom, then took us to the Vince Camuto store on 34th Street, where we browsed through shoes, handbags and jewelry by the designer who launched the Nine West brand, and picked out a few goodies.

Camuto, who now has his own brand, is also the design talent behind other brands like Jessica Simpson and BCBG. If you’re like me, and love flats, I can’t rave enough about his Louise de Cie shoes, made with soft, supple leather that makes you feel like you’re walking on a cloud.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Linda and I joined rush hour commuters on a subway down to the Financial District where we took in the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. The National September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center honors the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and those who risked their lives to save others. Walking toward the entrance, I thought about that terrible morning, and the event that shocked the world. I was in Washington, D.C., attending a meeting, and turned on the television in time to see the second plane strike the Twin Towers.

We all fear dying on some level, but I think it’s the fear of losing loved ones, more than the fear of leaving this Earth, that grips our heartstrings. The tragedy of that day brought us together as a nation, and while nothing can take away the pain that resulted from those terrorist acts, I wish that unity would return and wipe out the partisanship nature of today’s political landscape.

9-11 Memorial Museum

9-11 Memorial Museum

Entering the museum at ground level, Linda and I walked down the ramp of an introductory exhibit that leads to the original foundation level of the Twin Towers. The atmosphere is dark and somber, appropriate for the space, yet overwhelming with all that is on display. Boxes of Kleenex are placed in various corners, and clearly used.

Tickets, which can be purchased three months in advance, are timed for entrance each day, and run from $15 for Youth (ages 7 to 17) to $24 for adults. If you can plan ahead, admission is free on Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. to close. Same day tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the ticket window starting at 4:30 p.m., and a limited number of free tickets can be reserved online two weeks in advance. Be sure to get online promptly at 9 a.m. Eastern for those.

After trudging back to the hotel in the rain, we decided to try Rosie O’Grady’s, an old-fashioned steak and seafood place in the Broadway Theatre District (800 7th Avenue at 52nd). There, we had a wonderful dinner, sharing the Braised Spring Lamb Shank with Mashed Yukon Potato ($25.95) and Traditional Fish & Chips with French Fried Potatoes ($20.95).

On our last day, we headed to Lord & Taylor for a touch of old New York department store shopping, then walked around Times Square again before grabbing dinner and catching a show on Broadway.

There’s nothing I love more than musicals, and we were lucky enough to see “Newsies The Musical,” a Disney Theatrical Productions creation inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York, which forced Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers to increase pay for the child labor force that delivered their papers. The line into the theater wound around the block, but amazingly, everyone got in before curtain.

In the musical, newsboy Jack Kelly (Corey Cott) joins forces with reporter Katharine Plumber (Liana Hunt) to fight the greed of newspaper baron Joseph Pulitzer (John Dossett). The two, of course, fall in love in the process. Winner of the 2012 Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Choreography, the show closes on Broadway August 24, and starts a North American tour in October. (For more info, check out http://www.newsiesthemusical.com/.)

The next morning, we left the city under rainy skies, and took an unexpected $110 cab ride back to Newark International Airport. Traffic was slow, with part of the cost being a $20 surcharge since the Yellow Cab driver wasn’t allowed to pick up passengers at Newark on his way back to the city. A car service might have been a better deal, but at least we didn’t have to have to wait in line in the rain.


October 10, 2013

Friendship drives day-trip to Nashville

Posted in Art, Between Us column, Dining, Travel, Women at 10:34 pm by dinaheng

Take two girlfriends who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years, one day together, and where do you go?

My friend Christine and I decided to spend that day in Nashville, Tenn., an hour from her home and a four-plus hour plane ride from my home in Los Angeles. For two women who love to talk about everything, it was a sweet, albeit brief, reunion of two kindred souls.Dinah Eng

Arriving on Friday afternoon, we checked into the Loews Vanderbilt, a contemporary haven in Nashville’s Midtown, a charming and bustling area west of downtown by Vanderbilt University (2100 West End Ave.). The hotel, which has completed a $17 million renovation, features a new lobby, new guest bathrooms, a new Mason’s restaurant and Mason Bar, and an updated outdoor patio space.

The lobby has a definite masculine feel, with straight, square lines reflected in the furniture and dark wood paneling. A floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace adds warmth to the space, along with The Rehearsal Room, a group gathering space off the lobby. In the great room, a Hank Williams mural wall is a clever nod to country music singers, whose faces make up the little squares in the mural. Seating includes connectivity for those who need to stay plugged-in online.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

After checking in, Christine and I made our way up to our room, stopping for a sip of “welcome fruit punch,” which was a great idea, but unfortunately, tasted like watered down Kool-Aid.

Upstairs, however, we were delighted with our room, which was both spacious and beautifully decorated in rust and beige colors. We were impressed with the layout of the room, which featured two comfortable beds, a side table with two lounge chairs, a desk and entertainment center. The wall by the bathroom door was angled, giving easier access to one of the beds, and a place to hang a full-length mirror, a creative use of space. The bathroom, which featured Lather Inc. toiletries, a walk-in shower, and tiles that looked like washed white Birchwood, was well-appointed and stylish. (Our room ran about $239 plus tax for a Friday night.)

After unpacking, we headed out to see The Parthenon in Centennial Park (2600 West End Ave.), just a few blocks from the hotel. The Parthenon, the world’s only full-scale replica of the famous Athens’ temple in Greece, was an impressive sight. The structure houses the city’s art museum and Athena Parthenos, a massive sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire that stands nearly 42 feet tall, making it the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the Western World.

The Parthenon in Nashville.  Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Parthenon in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I love it that a city known for country music decided to call itself the ‘Athens of the South,’ “ Christine said.

Before long, it was time to head out to Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art (1200 Forrest Park Drive), a beautiful 55-acre estate in West Nashville built by the Cheek family, owners of a wholesale grocery business that invested in Maxwell House Coffee and made a fortune. Cheekwood offers lectures, special events, exhibitions and more yearround.

We were fortunate enough to catch part of Bruce Munro’s “Light At Cheekwood,” an amazing large-scale light-based installation that covered the grounds, along with a more intimate exhibit in the Museum of Art, a 30,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion that was built for the Cheek family.

Inside the museum, we walked through works that Munro had designed, inspired by personal experiences, childhood memories, literature and popular culture. Each piece played with light, and as we walked past the word “Light” in different languages (“Lumiere,” “Luz” and “Licht”) on the wall above us, it was a reminder that when we see the light in everyone, we will understand that inside, we are all One.

Bruce Munro's "Light" exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

Bruce Munro’s “Light” exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

“So often, people don’t take the long view,” Christine said, looking at Munro’s pieces of light. “They’d rather talk about terrorists than who’s going to grow their food when the land is a desert because of climate change. People don’t want to change their behavior even a little because it’s inconvenient.”

After an all-too-short walk through the gallery, we returned to the hotel to rest and have dinner in our room. We talked about our lives, the need to make time for relaxation, and the blessing of our friendship. Before long, it was time to go to sleep.

The next morning, we decided to have breakfast at Marché Artisan Foods, a small cafe and marketplace in East Nashville (1000 Main Street). A popular neighborhood eatery, the place was filled with people waiting for a table. As diners waited, they could peruse the bakery case or look through cabinet shelves filled with items like Drew’s Brews, hand-roasted coffee made in Nashville and Apple Jams from the midwest.

The restaurant, which does not take reservations, has both individual and community tables. While it’s a charming space, be warned that the crowd is noisy and there are no acoustic features to dampen the din.

The breakfast menu runs the gamut from pastries and oatmeal to crepes and omelettes, with entrees reasonably priced around $10. I ordered an almond croissant ($2.75) and the Anson Mills Organic Oatmeal with plums and cream ($5). Christine had the Crepes du Jour ($10), made with roasted chicken, spinach and goat cheese, with roasted red pepper tomato sauce. We both ordered the Noble Blood Orange Juice ($4).

Sadly, the food was nothing special. My almond croissant tasted like it had sat in the case overnight. The oatmeal was fine, but not memorable. Christine called her crepes “ordinary.” We were both disappointed to discover that the orange juice was not fresh-squeezed, but was packaged.

All too soon, it was time to head out to the airport, and to say our good-byes. Nashville was a great rendezvous point, and as we hugged each other farewell, we promised that it wouldn’t be so long before we got together again.

That, of course, is the way all good visits should end.

September 16, 2013

AquaKnox features seafood treasures

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 4:24 pm by dinaheng

The soothing sound of a waterfall cascades down the wall at the entrance to AquaKnox, hinting at the peaceful culinary treasure tucked away amidst the noise of Restaurant Row in The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Seafood may not be top of mind for all diners, but the offerings in this fine dining establishment go beyond the typical fish and shrimp menu. Executive Chef Steve Aguglia calls the concept “global water cuisine,” prepared with influences from Asian and Latin cuisines.Dinah Eng

“All our seafood is fresh, flown in from places like New Zealand, France and Hawaii,” Aguglia says. “Our branzino comes from Greece. Our scallops are from the Georges Bank. We go around the globe to get the best fish, which must also be sustainable.”

Aguglia, whose restaurant experience started with washing dishes and working the tray line at UMC Hospital in Las Vegas, moved to Chef Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Brasserie at The Venetian Hotel, and gained experience in various stations before being named sous chef at the French eatery.

When AquaKnox beckoned, Aguglia accepted a position as line cook and helped open the seafood restaurant in 2003. Over the years, he worked his way up from kitchen manager to sous chef, then executive sous chef to executive chef. The Korean adoptee, who grew up in an Italian-American family, strives to create menus with a variety of tastes.

“We change the menu with every season,” he notes. “Everyone will find something to love here.”

Rob Menefee, general manager of the restaurant, says since AquaKnox is not a celebrity chef-driven restaurant, the food and the dining experience are the star of the show. The restaurant was recently awarded the 2013 Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Award, which recognizes AquaKnox as being “an outstanding establishment, offering guests a truly exceptional level of luxury and service” in the Las Vegas upscale dining scene.

“We’ve cultivated a great staff, with culinary chefs who have stayed through the years, which is unheard of on The Strip,” Menefee says. “Our average dinner is usually around $100 per person, but you can have an amazing meal here if you’re frugal, as well.”

Appetizers here range from $15 for the Lobster Bisque Soup to $18 for the Prince Edward Island Mussels. Seafood entrees range from $32 for the New Zealand Ora King Salmon to $46 for the AquaKnox Fish Soup, a Mediterranean tomato-saffron broth, with Maine lobster, John Dory, mussels, clams, prawns and Sardinian couscous.

AquaKnox Wine Tower.  Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

AquaKnox Wine Tower. Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

For land lubbers, the U.S.D.A. prime steaks are mesquite charcoal grilled, with shishito peppers, grilled onions and potato puree, with prices ranging from $49 for the 14 oz. New York Strip to $56 for the 20 oz. Bone-In Ribeye.

Vegetarians will find a nice selection of entrees, salads and sides.

On a recent evening, we sampled the Tuna Tartar “Gangnam Style,” ($18), which featured the taste of Korean chili vinaigrette, Asian pear sesame, shiso and tempura crunch, creating an interesting kick for the palate. For a salad, we had the Sweet Shrimp and Lump Crab ($18), which was served with a lovely combination of Asian greens, cantaloupe, and avocado with sesame-citrus vinaigrette.

When it comes to seafood, the New England John Dory ($45), served with lobster succotash, fava beans, sweet corn nage and summer truffle was superb. The fish was nicely done, and its slightly sweet accompaniments were wonderful. The Pacific Blue Prawns ($35), with golden pearl couscous, lobster cream, and cherry tomatoes in scampi garlic butter, was also delicious.

The dessert menu seemed a little pedestrian, compared to the rest of the menu, with standards like Ice Cream & Sorbets ($8) and Flourless Chocolate Cake ($12).

Service here is truly impeccable, with an attentive wait staff, and nice touches like getting warm towels after handling messy crab claws or lobster legs.

The nautical decor feels a little dated with blue portals (filled with bottles of liquor) behind the bar, and a dining room meant to evoke the feeling of sailing, with sheer drapery above the intimate booths that sway a little with the air conditioning. Menefee says a $1.5 million renovation is slated for next summer, which hopefully will retain the Wine Tower of 2,000 wine bottles at the entrance that doubles as a very private (and chilly) dining room for small parties.

For a quieter table, ask to be seated in the rear of the restaurant, where a peaceful looking curtain (made of intricate chains, patterned with aqua circles), separates diners from the open kitchen and the noise of Restaurant Row.

If you’re looking for a wonderful seafood meal in Vegas, AquaKnox is not to be missed.

For more information, check out http://www.aquaknox.net/ on the Internet.

September 8, 2013

La Brea Tar Pits full of scientific wonder

Posted in Between Us column, Travel at 3:04 am by dinaheng

The bubble slowly rises from the dark slime, growing larger and larger, giving a graphic reminder that the Earth we live on is alive and kicking.

Here at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, visitors can still see what the land looked like 30,000 years ago, complete with native plants and fossils from the Ice Age in the Page Museum on its grounds.Dinah Eng

Researchers have figured out that hardy bacteria, embedded in the natural asphalt, are chewing away at the petroleum and burping up methane.  Underneath all that gunk, they’ve unearthed the bones of mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and more, making the area the richest late-Pleistocene site in North America.

The natural asphalt acts as a preservative, so the tar has preserved fossils ranging in age from 11,000 to 40,000 years old, explains Ashley Fragomeni, gallery interpreter at the Page Museum.

“Back in 1913, the Hancock family had an asphalt mining base here, used for paving,” Fragomeni says. “As workers were digging, they found lots of bones that were determined to be Ice Age fossils. Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County came in and dug 96 pits. The oil field, which is 1,500 feet below us, accounts for the preservation of what we’ve found.”

The Hancock family donated the land to the County of Los Angeles, and today, paleontologists from the Page Museum continue to excavate the site, discovering new things every day.

If you walk through the museum, you’ll not only see an extensive collection of Ice Age land animal fossils, you can watch researchers in the Fishbowl Laboratory, cleaning the bones found in the tar pits.

“From selective carbon dating, we know that not all the deposits formed at the same time,” explains Shelley Cox, laboratory manager at the  museum. “We’ve found large bones, like a saber-tooth cat hip bone, and small things, like freshwater snails, beetle leg segments and a mouse toe in the sediment.”

The big specimen in the lab, affectionately dubbed Zed, is a 35,000-year-old Columbian mammoth, whose  skull sits in a plastic jacket in the lab, oil still leaking from the bone into the soil around it.

“There were lots of freshwater snail shells around him, so one possibility is that he may have washed here in a river,” Cox notes. “We know he was in his late 40s, early 50s, when he died — from the teeth — in elephant years. He was a robust individual who would have had 12 to 15 years to go if he hadn’t stepped in a tar pit.”

Excavation site at La Brea Tar Pits.  Photo by Dinah Eng

Excavation site at La Brea Tar Pits. Photo by Dinah Eng

Behind the scenes, researchers and volunteers are digging away in sheltered excavation pits on the grounds, explains Aisling B. Farrell, collections manager for Rancho La Brea, who notes that “the typical LaBrea asphalt deposit is jumbled with bones. We use dental picks to dig them out.”

While you can’t watch them work, you can visit the viewing station at Pit 91, where you can see one of the sites that was excavated, with goo still bubbling up to the surface.

Don’t worry about stepping into the muck, though. The museum’s grounds are immaculately landscaped.  If you walk around the Lake Pit, though, you might just see a life-sized mammoth family and American mastodon.

For more information on the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, check out http://www.tarpits.org/.

August 23, 2013

Birthday surprise makes Disneyland visit special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Entertainment, Travel at 12:30 am by dinaheng

You can celebrate all kinds of special occasions at Disneyland. People go to commemorate wedding anniversaries, first job, first baby, you name it, and the folks at the park will do their best to help you celebrate.

When my dear friends Lesley and Shane decided to come to Los Angeles for a visit, the dates turned out to be the week of Lesley’s birthday, so Shane and I conspired to create a Disney experience fit for… well, a grown-up princess. Dinah Eng

This is a couple, after all, who spent their honeymoon at Disneyland, and over the years, have tried to bring their two children, Mikhaila, 12, and Ben, 8, to the park as often as possible. We told Lesley that we’d be going to Disneyland for the day and staying overnight in the area, but didn’t tell her that the folks at Disneyland had arranged for that stay to be at the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

When we drove up to the entrance of the elegant hotel, designed as an homage to the Arts and Crafts era, Lesley was shocked. As Shane parked the car, we checked into the stunning hotel that has its own entrance to Disney California Adventure Park, the sister park to Disneyland, and Downtown Disney. Walking into the lobby, which features a massive fireplace, natural cherry wood floors with ebony and mahogany accents, and wood columns and walls of African mahogany veneer, is like walking into a grand lodge from another age.

As soon as we told the clerk we were celebrating Lesley’s birthday, he made her a personalized birthday button to wear, “so that everyone here will know to wish you a happy birthday.” Talk about being made to feel special…

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby.  Photo courtesy of Disney.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa lobby. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The kids, of course, couldn’t wait to get into Disneyland. A few hours later, after going on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Lesley and I sat in New Orleans Square as Shane took the kids to climb Tarzan’s Treehouse.

“We got married in October 1993, and we were working two jobs,” Lesley recalled. “Shane was working at a process engineering company, and I was at a newspaper in Arizona. On the weekends, we’d clean the offices he worked at. It was a year after the wedding, when we’d saved enough to go on vacation, that we decided to take a delayed honeymoon. We both wanted to go to Disneyland. You come here, and everybody’s smiling. All you have to do is have fun, and eat good things.”

As the years went by, Disneyland became a vacation destination with the children whenever possible. The two use Disney-branded credit cards to take advantage of the loyalty rewards, even when, as Shane jokingly told a customer service rep on the phone, “It’s humiliating to have Tinkerbell on my card.” The rep immediately asked, “So do you want Woody and Buzz?”

That evening, we had dinner at Cafe Orléans, which offers everything from a Monte Cristo Sandwich to a Seafood Herb Crepe in a casual setting.  Dinner entreés range from $15.49 to $19.49 for adults, with a kids’ menu under $9. After a satisfying meal, Lesley was surprised with a birthday cake, topped with a piece of white chocolate, embossed with Mickey Mouse (prices start at $52), and the kids each received a mini-birthday cake ($15), which came in a Disney Princess Jewelry Box and a Disney Pirate Treasure Chest.

“When you make a reservation at any of our table service restaurants, you can order a cake, as well as through hotel room service,” explained Karlos Siqueiros, food and beverage concept development manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. “If you celebrate at Ariel’s Grotto, you may be surrounded by princesses, and there’s a mix of characters who’ll celebrate with you at Goofy’s Kitchen.”

Siqueiros, whose department is responsible for designing all the food novelty items in the park (think Dumbo or R2D2 as a popcorn bucket), says Disneyland has fulfilled many different birthday requests over the years.

There was the 84-year-old woman who got a meet-and-greet with Cinderella, her favorite princess, or the little boys who want to meet Buzz Lightyear. One year, a child got to ride in a fire truck down Main Street with Mickey, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Birthdays here are about being a kid, no matter your age,” says Siqueiros, who celebrates with his wife and kids at the park every year. “When I turned 50, the goal was to do 50 things in one day, and we did it. Birthdays are a way to celebrate people, to say to them, ‘The best thing that happened today was that you were born.’ ”

Lesley's birthday dinner at Disneyland's Cafe Orleans.

Lesley’s birthday dinner at Disneyland’s Cafe Orleans.

While a day at the park may mean tired, achy feet from standing in lines and running from one ride or live show to the next attraction, Shane says it’s all worth it to share moments of joy and wonder with the family.

“It’s a part of our family history to come to Disneyland,” he says. “It’s having a whole day of adventure with the kids. When they’re really young, it’s about chasing down the autographs with all the characters. Then it was how many times we could go on a ride. There was a Pixar Parade where the floats would shoot Nerf balls, and we collected them. Our rule was that we’d have to give away half of what we picked up to other kids who didn’t get one.”

And then, there’s the Matterhorn, a roller coaster ride not for the faint of heart.

The day after Thanksgiving 2008, an errant golf ball hit Mikhaila on the side of her head above the temple. A doctor in an urgent care center said the little girl’s eyes were dilating, so nothing was wrong. But Lesley’s intuition said otherwise, so they took her to a hospital emergency room.

“The doctor there said Mikhaila was fine, and he would not recommend that insurance cover a brain scan,” Lesley says. “I said I don’t care, we’ll pay for it. So they took a scan, and the doctor came to us to apologize, and said at that point, her condition was probably fatal. Her head was full of blood. By then, we’d whittled away three hours, and she was dying the whole time.”

An emergency helicopter took the little girl away to a trauma center, with the parents racing by car to follow. Mikhaila was diagnosed with an epidural hematoma (the same condition that killed actress Natasha Richardson after a skiing accident in 2009).

“Fortunately, one of the best neurosurgeons in the West was on call, and that probably saved her life,” Lesley says. “They cut the top of her skull off, got the blood out, and secured her head with metal. A year later, they took most of the metal out. Everything was too much for her at first — having a shaved head, sensitivity to noise, dizziness and nausea from fast motions — but she was determined to lick it. Now, the headaches have ebbed, and we just watch her carefully.”

As Mikhaila recovered, her parents decided a trip to Disneyland would lift her spirits.

“After her injury, she asked to get back on the Matterhorn, which was a big healing moment,” Shane says. “We wanted her to know she’s still the same little girl, and would  go on to have adventures in her life. It was a big confidence thing for her to ride the Matterhorn again, and we did it six times in a row.”

After dinner, we headed back to the Grand Californian Hotel to freshen up before catching the “World of Color” nighttime water and light show in California Adventure Park. Walking into the room, the kids were delighted to find chocolates on the bed, and a “Giant Sequoia” seed germination kit. Not only that, there was a huge Disney birthday gift basket for Lesley.

The kids, who wanted to stay up, talked Shane into doing another hour of rides before the park closed. So the three of them took off, while Lesley and I relaxed at the hotel. Before long, Lesley’s phone rang. Shane told her to go out on their room balcony, and watch the track below. It was pitch dark, and as the monorail rushed by below, we could see hands waving out of an open window and heard yells of “Hi, Mom!” below.

When everyone re-grouped, it was nearly midnight. One of the nice things about being a Disney hotel guest is you can get into the parks for select attractions an hour earlier than the general public. So Lesley and Shane agreed to get up early, if the kids would go to bed — immediately.

At 7 a.m., Mikhaila dragged Lesley off to Disneyland. Shane resisted Ben’s tugs to leave until about 8:15 a.m.  Me, I just slept in and met them later. The rest of the day zoomed by as we took in Disneyland’s newest show, “Mickey and the Magical Map,” rode “Star Tours” in Tomorrowland, and headed back to California Adventure Park for “Soaring Over California.”

Before leaving the Happiest Place on Earth, we had to do one last thing. We stopped at the pavement between the entrances to Disneyland and California Adventure Park to search for a brick paver that Lesley had bought as a Christmas gift for Shane in 2006, engraved with their family name.

Family's paver found at Disneyland.

Family’s paver found at Disneyland.

I volunteered to take a photo of the family with their brick, and they promptly laid down on the ground, with their heads surrounding their little piece of Disneyland. Now that’s a birthday picture they’ll never forget.

For information on how to celebrate birthdays at Disneyland, check out http://disneyland.disney.go.com/special-occasions/birthdays/

Next page