Monday, December 23, 2013

"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…"

New York at Christmas time is just great.  The stores are all decked out in their Christmas finery and people are in holiday mood.  The Rockefeller Centre's ice rink is full, there's Christmas activities going on all over.  And as for us, Viv had organised our seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in their Christmas spectacular.

Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

It was a business trip for me but business would last only a morning so I'd asked Viv to accompany me for the weekend.  We wanted to shop, watch movies, go to shows, shop, eat and socialize. Not necessarily in that order but that was just about the plan.

We stayed at the Langham Place Hotel on Fifth Avenue near the Empire State Building in mid-town where the bellhop told us that every store was on sale -- the hangover from the Thanksgiving Sales and the current pre-Christmas sales.

Sales used to be after Christmas and the January sales, nowadays its constant. This isn't good.  Trouble is that the US recovery has been relatively jobless -- at the end of 2012, 75% of US output had been recovered but only 21% of the jobs.  Companies simply aren't hiring enough people and those that are hired are substantially under-employed or on contract.  The headline rate may have declined to 7% but factoring in under-employed and those that have given up looking doubles it -- this is why the discount stores and dollar shops are doing so well.  And why even big name stores are on forever sale.

First thing though was another subway trip to Chelsea Market in the Meat Packing District to eat lobster with Viv and again just like last time it was great… once I'd walked Viv around the block a few times to get my bearings, that is!

Trouble with eating a late lunch like that though was that it pretty much killed any appetite we had for later on.  Still we were able to hit a past favourite restaurant Carmine's at Time Square for a cocktail and appetizer and finish off with some ramen noodles at a place called Sapporo.

So we're ticking all the 'eating' boxes then!

Next day was my meeting just off Wall Street.  It's always a great feeling to be where the action is.  Trouble is after 9-11 most of the big finance firms moved their main offices to mid-town so these days there's a few rep offices on Wall Street as well as the NY Fed and NY Stock Exchange, but that's pretty much it.  Goldman Sachs as usual bucked the trend and built a new building further down Broad Street beyond where my meeting was, but everyone else was in mid-town.

Outside the NYSE with my business partner, Robert

After the meeting we went for lunch to a terrific chop house called Harry's on Pearl Street, all wood panels, starched table cloths and waiters in aprons.  Americans do chop and steak houses really well I think.  Far better than we in Britain but that may be because of the cuts of meat they work with -- particularly steaks -- but also because they give you very large chunks of meat too!

Still ticking the 'eating' box!

But the real excitement was when I discovered that Delmonico's Restaurant was just round the corner.  It may not mean much to some but if you read stories of old NY or watch movies depicting that era, the bigshots always end up in Delmonico's to eat.  I thought the place had closed long ago but no, it had reopened within the last 10 years and was trying to recover its place as the premier fine dining restaurant in NYC and the entire US -- for Delmonico's was the first fine dining restaurant in the US when it opened its doors in 1837.

Be that as it may, the rest of Viv's and my day was elsewhere -- in fact shopping and the crowds, most of whom so it seemed like London were speaking a language other than English. It seems that the great big cities of the developed world have become more and more cosmopolitan.

But first thing first.  It was cocktail time!  After yesterday's debacle when we walked around looking for cocktail bars recommended by the Concierge without luck, we decided to stroll up 5th Avenue as the snow was filtering down and arrived at the Peninsular Hotel where we decided the Roof Terrace was the place for us!  It was freezing however the hotel had set up heat lamps and provided blankets for the hardy cocktail bunch, us included.  The ice in our Negronis did not melt!

The forecast for Saturday was a blizzard and as we woke up we discovered that 'they' had got it dead right.  Blizzard it was!

This was shop till we drop day and we gave it our all to shop at all the big stores -- most if not all were on sale.  Macy's were 50% off with another 20-50% more off at the till.  We did a lousy job though as the crowds were immense and whilst we did buy some things, it was nowhere near what we'd thought.  But we did get to walk in the snow through Bryant Park where a winter Christmas village had been set up.

Very lovely it was too with people skating, strolling and generally getting in the mood.  There was a big Christmas tree too of course.

Bryant Square

The key event of the day though was the theatre, namely a show called A Prairie Home Companion which was the showcase of Garrison Keilor.

Viv's dad loved Garrison Keilor's Tales from Lake Woebegone, an imaginary country town with stories rambling along endlessly but entertainingly.  Viv saw the show advertised so that was it.

The Town Hall Theatre set up for the radio broadcast.

Now we hadn't realised this was to be a recorded live radio broadcast for PBS stations and the US Overseas Armed Forces Network.  The 1,377th such weekly show in fact!  Our first such live broadcast. It was a fabulous show even though choreographed into 2 one-hour blocks.  There were singers, great music and musicians, an opera singer, comedy skits and of course Garrison Keilor's weekly update from Lake Woebegone.  Great stuff!

As the show started at 5.45 pm to be ready for the 6 pm live broadcast, it was over by 8 pm so I'd booked a table at Delmonico's for 8.30 pm.  Being so far downtown, this meant a long subway ride but we made it although the snow was immense.

Great steak too but as we came out, the snow had ended as the temperature had gone up 10 degrees so it was now hammering down with rain!  Talk about getting wet!  But what a great day.

Our final day was all around the Rockettes at Radio City.

Viv had booked the 11.30 am show -- they do 5 each day!  My goodness they have to be fit… or have 2 sets of Rockettes.  Located near Rockefeller Centre, Radio City is yet another magnificent piece of 1930's art deco Americana.  It looks nothing much from outside alongside the other skyscrapers but when you get inside it is immense!

These days everything's in 3D
If you like singing and dancing and lots of fun, you'll love the Rockettes.  It is a real institution as our show was jammed like all the others Viv had tried to book us into and everyone in the audience was really into it.  Great stuff again.

The wurlitzer guy in Radio City

As our flight was at 5 pm, we only had time for lunch at Cipriani's in Grand Central Station before heading for the airport and home.

Grand Central Station from Cipriani's on the balcony

Wonderful time.  Merry Christmas New York!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Undiscovered Cayman

When people come to Cayman they think golden sands and Seven Mile Beach.  Well OK, that's a fair comment as both are pretty nice on SMB but really there is more to Cayman than just this.  Thankfully.

The Seven Mile Beach corridor with its condo on the beach developments and attractions is admittedly the big draw, but there is more out east where the swamps and mosquitos and the deadly diseases used to be... but that was years ago.  Things have moved on and with regular aerial spraying, the bugs have largely gone.  Well at least those with deadly diseases have.  So that leaves the largest chunk of the island available for use.

Grand Cayman. To the left is the Seven Mile Beach Corridor. To the right the large chunk of land is the formerly malarial east end -- now site of the Shetty Hospital.  At the top right is the magnificent Queens Highway.
Topographically Cayman is or are the 3 tips of a huge undersea mountain so there are massive trenches just offshore which make it a fabulous diving location.  But onshore realistically the largely undeveloped east end is what is called here 'iron shore' except that it's inland dividing large areas of mangrove swamp, small lakes and the odd fertile field where crops are grown and livestock raised.  To develop this area, you have to both want to and have to know what you're doing.

So it was really nice to see that something that had long been talked about was actually happening and actually happening really soon.  This is the new Health City or to be precise the Shetty Hospital complex out in the east end.

I'd been here before and seen the signs -- the ones that say "Site of the Future Health City" -- and rolled my eyes.  So much talk, so little action but this time on the advice of a government surveyor I'd played tennis with I drove off the beaten track, up the hill and over the top and there it was in almost its complete glory -- the new Shetty Hospital.

And very impressive it was.

I was stopped at the gate by 'Panama' the security guard who said I couldn't go further but was happy to chat and tell me the story.  The hospital is 170 beds and is phase 1 of the development (apparently phase 2 won't be built until government lengthens the runway and upgrades the airport) and is built of cork with poured concrete supporting it. As the building is on top of a small hill I suppose it's clear of storm surge like the island suffered during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Panama waxing lyrical

Panama waxed lyrical about the fact that the workers on the site were mainly ex-cons who couldn't otherwise find work and that the entire crew plus contractors and sub-contractors had been hired by the Imperato family who were going to build a 10-story hotel on top of the hill just outside the hospital for patients' families.  He showed me the dividing line of the property between hospital land (owned by the Thompson family) and the Imperato land.  Apparently on February 14th 2014 once the hospital opened for business the crews would be working full time on the new hotel project.  Certainly a lot of land had been cleared and graded ready for work proper to start.

This is an amazing positive for the island's economy.  Better known for its financial services background, what the island needs (as does Bermuda) are big infrastructure projects that employ hundreds of non-financial people and with this they have them.

Seeing projects like this (and of course the many Dart family projects that are ongoing in the SMB corridor) convinces me that Cayman has seen the toughest of its days post Ivan and the follow-up Great Recession which decimated the funds industry, a cornerstone of the Cayman economy.  Brighter things lay ahead.


I really like the north shore.

OK its a bit cheesy but anyone that calls the road the 'Queen's Highway' has me won over.  What I like about it is that it isn't anything like the SMB corridor.

The road is empty, the beaches lead onto iron shore for the most part, swimming is all reef and rock and there's pretty much nothing there on the other side of the street except well ... nothing.

The heritage people have done a fine job since I've been coming to Cayman by putting up information signs all over the place.  Great idea.  They add loads of local color to what could be thought of as boring swamp or endless iron shore and scrub.  The Mastic Trail sign for example is fascinating.

There's no fields like you understand fields.  Just swamp and scrub.  But between them are bits, small bits admittedly of fertile ground that can be cultivated.  And the farmers of old got there by cutting down trees and laying them laterally across the swamp/scrub to make a footpath they could then take into and out of the fields.

What the sign doesn't say of course is how hard this must have all been and how little they could actually produce from inefficient scraps of land.  But still an eye into the past and a fascinating one at that.

This said though walking along Seven Mile Beach doesn't make you a bad person!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Alive, Alive-O"

I just downloaded these photos from a couple of months back so can write about our day at the Old Leigh Regatta, a once a year event in my home town.

Old Leigh is a great place and a first stop any time I visit the town.  It has great old pubs and of course the cockle sheds, the most famous of which is Osborne's across the street from the best pub there, the Crooked Billet.  Really what could be better than a pint and some local cockles, whelks or oysters?  My mum and dad used to bring my brother Jan and I here when we were young.  In those days you'd also eat the mussels but now the local mussels have some bacteria and are a health hazard so those on sale are imported from Chile.

Jan had told us of this event and we'd promptly advised our Bermuda friends Keith and Judy as well as the friends we were staying with, Kevin and Gill, who needed no second invitation to come down for the event too.  Jan suggested that we should all enter the cockle eating competition -- something he'd won a year or so back and which involved eating a pint glass filled with cockles as fast as possible.  He said that his son Rupert would take part whilst his daughters, Zophia and Gabriella, would be on hand to film the event and provide moral and other support.  This was a real treat as we don't see anywhere near as much of our nephew and nieces as we'd like.

Rupert, Jan, Me, Gabriella, Zophia

The intent was to turn up around 12 noon, ease into things with a pint or so and some palate opening plates of shellfish before facing the main event.

Interestingly none of Jan's children had ever tried oysters before -- and having eaten some with Jan a short while before and seen how many he could hoover away, this was not surprising.  I imagine there'd be none left for the children!  So first order of the day was to rectify that.  The oysters weren't Southend oysters, but they were Essex oysters -- from Maldon in fact which is just up the coast.

Gabsy's first oyster experience

They were really nice too and I felt opened the palate nicely.

Rupert's too

Preliminaries over the next step was the coconut shy that Gabriella apparently always insisted on trying out each year.  I hadn't done this for years but Gabriella showed uncanny skill and combined with Rupert managed to snag the cuddly toy of her dreams!

Looking for the cuddly toy

The event itself was a highpoint for the regatta and had 6 entrants -- 3 of us (Jan, Rupert and myself) and 3 others (2 no hopers and last year's champion).  The idea was to eat a pint glass filled with cockles as fast as possible.

Ready, Get Set…

They were horrible.  With no seasoning allowed, you relied on the taste of the cockle itself.  They are tasteless without seasoning and felt like chewy, sinewy, things.  I could barely manage a couple of mouthfuls but the champ and Jan's technique was the way to go: open the gullet and pour. By the time the champ had finished both my cheeks were stuffed full of an undigested mass of part chewed cockles that I surreptitiously returned to the pint glass -- Rupert had had the same problem with the cockles and did the same.

"How do you swallow these things?"

But it was all good fun and a great day out with family and friends.

Next time I'll bring my own seasoning!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If you look…

The day my meetings ended I made it back to Chelsea Market and the High Line Park but this time walked it all the way up to 30th street where it ended.

The soon to be extension of the High Line
Great views all along the trail though.  You don't often get the chance to look down on New York from 3 or 4 storeys up!

Chrysler Building from the High Line

Next day was the first of the two Living Social events I'd organized a week or so before.

I've blogged about Living Social before but really I am so impressed by them.  On one of the events, I had a problem reserving the actual day/time that I wanted -- there was a language 'misunderstanding'.  People that know me know what I mean here!  It would have been all rather embarrassing if I'd ever met the people again, but thankfully this is a big world!  I contacted Living Social's help desk and they resolved it, just like that.

The premise behind LS is the deal of the day (at least 50% off the ticker price).  They and a listed company called GroupOn are the leaders in this field but I chose to follow LS after reading a review of their competing styles.  Each time I visit a city, I try to see what is on LS as a special event and of course with larger cities the options are far more.  New York was jam packed!

My first event was a walking gastronomic tour of the West Village offered by a firm called Sidewalks of New York (see  They do loads of other neat tours too so do check them out!  Everybody on the tour had the same LS voucher as I did!!

Meeting place was near the West 4th Street subway station on Bleecker Street outside 'Porto Rico Imports', a business incorporated in 1907 and really spelled that way!  Our guide, Dante, told us that as they've been there so long and own the building, their prices are lower than anywhere else.  I bought some of the 100+ types of home roasted coffee and found he was absolutely right!

The tour was great in that Dante gave us history, some exercise and some pretty nice food -- not big slabs of it to be sure, but the combination of tastes was pretty good.  First stop was Mamoun's Falafel Restuarant on MacDougall Street, next to the renowned Cafe Wha where every major name musician in the world had performed.  Dante told us that clubs in the Village turn out at 4 am so this place and the pizza shop down the street (Artichoke Basille's our last stop on the tour) had their best custom between 4 am and 5 am.

This area of New York is old with many buildings dating back to the 18th century, in fact 1727 when a large fire rampaged through the city and destroyed all but one wooden building.

18th century apartments, these days very, very expensive indeed
We crossed 6th Avenue and went into the Italian quarter -- not Little Italy, but another one.  We passed a lovely little off-Broadway theatre called the Cherry Tree and discovered the first piece of memorable trivia of the day.

Definitely 'Off Broadway'

Whether a theatre is considered 'On' or 'Off' Broadway is nothing to do with location.  Its all to do with audience size.  On Broadway is 500+, Off Broadway is 100-499 and Off Off Broadway is under 99 -- who knew about 'Off-Off'?  Not me.

Next stop was Faicco's Italian Specialities where we had some antipasto after we'd walked past the Soprano's favourite lobster roll restaurant -- called Pearl, clearly they'd never heard about Chelsea Market! -- and Mario Batali's first New York restaurant -- he's moved on now but it's still Dante's favourite Italian restaurant in the area.  It's called Po at 31 Cornelia Street.  Sadly I never had a chance to try it this time around.

Not on the tour but right next door to Faicco's.  Looked great though!

Things became a bit of a blur after this point as the streets started to look the same and in fact as it turned out they were as we'd walked around in a great big circle!

Don't often see 4th Street intersecting with 10th Street
But Dante was a good tour guide and brought to life the first Prohibition bar in New York -- Chumley's   -- before the only fine dining establishment on the tour, called Fatty 'Cue, a Malaysian fusion barbeque joint if you can believe such exists!

Chumley's -- soon to be a new 'Speak Easy' so called because if you weren't polite to the doorman, you wouldn't get in!
We sat at the bar and the GM described the endless time it took to marinade, brine and then air dry the pork belly before they simply deep fried it and slathered it with salsa verde.  Sounded great but the taster was little pinky finger size and tasted like deep fried falafel!

We also had a New York bagel and the best canoli in New York at Pasticceria Bruno -- he'd made them for the Pope last year and beaten Bobby Flay in a canoli throw down too -- before we all parted ways.  Good fun and I was able to take note of where a lot of great jazz and blues clubs were hopefully for another time.

Some of Bleecker Street's blues clubs

I then moved hotels to Pod 39 -- a take on the Yotel hotels in Heathrow and Gatwick, small but comfy. The literature said "75 square feet of luxury" and it was just that!  But really nice and funky too.  I liked the bar area downstairs as each time I came back late it was jammed with a nice party feel.  Young people, tourists, and $200 a night.  Great deal!!  Check it out here --

Love the iPads in the wall!

The following morning my event was a 2-hour pizza making class at AOA Bar and Grill -- check them out here: -- in Tribeca.  Again all but 4 of the packed house were Living Social customers like me -- no they aren't listed like Groupon, but maybe they should be!  The class was great though, did take 2 hours and the pizza was really nice too -- my pizza that is!!

There really is a process in making a pizza.  It looks like you mash lots of stuff together, stir vigorously, then stretch the dough out, lob more stuff on top and then bake.  But there's way more than that.  As its baking you really do have to measure things out properly otherwise it turns out … well it actually doesn't turn out at all.  The teacher and pizza supremo, Robert, tossed out loads of wrong 'uns along the way.

I took the subway down to the new World Trade Centre building but found every tourist in the world there at the same time and endless lines so turned left and walked to Wall Street to see if I could get a tour of the New York Stock Exchange.

The security guard told me nobody gets in after 9-11 but I apparently could call someone.  This was annoying so I went to the Museum of American Finance opposite -- check them out here:

Its not everyone's cup of tea of course but finance has been central to my life for at least the last 25 years so of course I found it interesting.  It really is amazing how one dedicated and clearly mad person can do so much with an empty canvas.

That was Alexander Hamilton by the way, an ex-Scot and Caribbean islander who because of his great intellect was sponsored into school in the North East just at the time when the fledgling US kicked off the warm embrace of their colonial overlords.  He met and fought with George Washington and came up with the idea of pretty much everything financial after the war when the US was broke and their great allies, the French, were about to collapse into bankruptcy and then revolution.  Where do we start?  Bank of New York in 1784, bonds, currency -- "let's call it the … ah, ah, I know… the dollar.  Sounds like the German 'Thaler' but with our accent…"

Oh yes, nearly forgot.  He bought that too.

He was president, and apparently a good one, and then died under 50 in a duel with a friend.  Hamilton hadn't loaded his weapon but his 'friend' did!  What's the old saying about being aware of keeping your enemies close but in particular your 'friends'?

The current score…

I closed off the day by going to BB King's Blues Bar on 42nd Street to see a British band called The James Hunter Six.  Not a blues band, more swing or R&B but still great fun.  Don't go there for the food though.  I had fried chicken that was raw in the middle!  They replaced it but I didn't really fancy it much after that.

My last morning was all about corned beef hash at Bloom's, a Jewish deli style restaurant close to Pod 39 on Lexington.  I'd had that itch since arriving in New York and I hadn't been able to scratch it until then.

Great way to finish my trip.  Thanks Noo Yawk, I had a blast!