Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Antarctic New Year

This afternoon, when I got to New York's JFK airport, I shared a van into Manhattan with other recent arrivals. We chatted to pass the time. "Where are you coming from?" we asked each other. Indianapolis. Brussels. Miami.

I said, "Antarctica."

"How did you get there?" someone asked me.

"I flew to Miami," I explained. Then I flew to Buenos Aires, where I stayed overnight. Then I flew to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Then I boarded the MS Fram and spent two days crossing the Drake Passage. Then, I was in Antarctica.

"And how long did you stay there?" my van mates wanted to know. Five days, I told them.

"All that travel for FIVE days?!!!"

"Yes," I said. The journey was long, strenuous, risky, costly and sometimes uncomfortable — and I wish I could do it again.

Antarctica is like no place else on Earth. Surrounded by Manhattan's skyscrapers and traffic, I could hardly believe that this city and that frozen continent are on the same planet.

Though more tourists are going there than ever before, the numbers are still limited. Around 35,000 people visited Antarctica this year; several thousand of those were on large cruise ships that couldn't land. The population of our planet is now around 6.7 billion. Few people have ever seen Antarctica, or ever will. Even fewer have ever landed there as I did.

The intricacy of the life chain on this continent largely unmarred by civilization provokes awe and wonder as does its history. Antarctica was once part of a larger continent called Gondwana that included what we now know as Australia, New Zealand, Africa, South America, Madagascar and the Indian sub-continent. Fossils have been found in Antarctica that are identical to those found in South Africa and elsewhere in Gondwana, which began to break up around 167 million years ago.

Between 251 and 200 million years ago, Antarctica was warm and covered with forests where dinosaurs lived. Later, came a variety of reptiles and amphibians. Around 34 million years ago, the continent that we think of as locked in ice and snow began to get colder.

What the visitor sees there now is one of the harshest environments on Earth, beset by winds of enormous force that suddenly surge from the glaciers. Within an hour (or less) the winds can drive ice into previously tranquil bays and lock even a large ship helplessly in place until the winds change again or the ice melts.

The creatures that manage to live in this environment include millions of penguins and other birds who may spend years of their lives at sea without ever touching land. Seals bask on the ice floes. During the austral summer, migrating whales bring their young to feast in Antarctic waters, dense with tiny krill.

Ours is the briefest of moments in the Earth's life, which is ever-changing and intricately balanced beyond our imagination or comprehension. Antarctica gives us a glimpse of this majestic process.

As one man said to me on the ship, "This trip has been too short and too long." I asked him why. He said, "I would have liked to see more but what I've seen, I'll be thinking about for many years."


Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Handle on Montreal

I recently returned from a long weekend in Montreal, where I had a great time. I've visited Montreal before and wouldn't have said that. I would have said it was OK, but not that it was wonderful and that I looked forward to going back.

What's the difference?

I finally figured out how to visit a large city! (Finally! After 14 years of travel writing....)

This time, I had a starting point and no obligation to be anywhere else in particular thereafter. I went to see the Magic of Lanterns show at the Montreal Botanical Garden. This annual event, during which a thousand silk lanterns handmade in Shanghai are positioned around the Chinese gardens, among the pagodas and reflecting pools, had enchanted me on a brief visit last year and I wanted to see it again. (This year's show will be up until Oct. 31.)

The next day, I decided to visit Montreal's Chinatown, which is small but very interesting. I had a long talk with Johnny K.F. Chin, who makes Dragon Beard candy at his open-air stall on De LaGauchetiere West (this candy used to be made for Chinese emperors, he said, and Mr. Chin learned the technique in his native Hong Kong) and then wandered into My Cup of Tea, a chic, little shop that sells loose leaf and bagged tea from China. After sampling several kinds of tea and buying some to take home, I walked back to my hotel, the Opus at Sherbrooke and St. Lawrence Streets (if you know Montreal, you know that this is about as centrally located as you can get) and had dinner in its terrific restaurant, Koko, which serves pan-Asian food.

The chef at Koko came out to say hello, and I mentioned to him my interest in tea. He told me about a tea shop that he liked near the hotel in the Latin Quarter — so the next day, I walked down to Camellia Sinensis at 35 Emery St., and it was, indeed, fabulous. Camellia Sinensis has a tranquil tea room and an adjacent shop that sells around 180 kinds of loose leaf tea from all over the world as well as beautiful tea ware, including pottery handmade in Quebec Province.

From there, I walked down to Old Montreal to visit some boutiques in the Bonsecours Market and another tea shop, Ming Tao Xuan, at 451, St-Sulpice in the shadow of Notre Dame Basilica. By then, a light rain was falling, and I welcomed a pot of Eight Treasures Tea accompanied by some delicious cookies. This shop also sells loose leaf tea and tea ware, including a fascinating range of Yixing teapots, selected by the proprietor, Lee Kwok Kgung, on one of his many trips to China.

I was leaving Montreal late the next afternoon, but I still had a few hours to look around. At breakfast the next morning, I talked to my waitress, Anne, about bagels and she recommended the Fairmount Bagel shop, which she said she preferred to the more famous St-Viateur bagels. (I discovered that in Montreal, food is taken very seriously and everyone you meet will recommend a favorite restaurant or two.) So I hopped in a cab and within 10 minutes was on rue Laurier, where I looked in several boutiques and talked at length with lovely Louise Royer, owner of Royer Objets et Trouvailles, where she sells artwork, crafts and gifts handmade in Quebec Province (another interest of mine). Then it was around the corner to St-Urbain Street, once the heart of the Jewish Quarter, and up one block to Fairmount Bagel, where a line snaked out the door and the bagels were warm and delicious.

I ate one immediately and kept one for the plane. Alas, it was time to go. I hadn't had time to visit the museums that I had hoped to see or to explore some of Montreal's many other interesting neighborhoods, but I had learned that in a big city, you can't see it all -- not in one trip, and maybe not ever -- so the thing to do is to keep talking to people and to let the trip unroll like a ball of twine, leading you from one thing to another. Of course, you'll miss a lot! but you can't see everything, and that's a good reason to come back.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Orleans Evacuates

My last entry in this blog was almost five months ago, when I wrote about exotic, mysterious, heart-broken New Orleans. Today, I am watching video of people fleeing again as hurricane Gustav approaches. I see photos of adults with sacks carrying whatever they could stuff into them, waiting for buses, and frightened children clutching their little backpacks. I listen to a woman who owns a car but doesn't know where to go. She has a vague idea of going to Baton Rouge, but the TV commentator interviewing her tells her all the hotels there are full.

Having been to New Orleans and taken it to my heart, I am with these people. I await the storm with dread. I wonder what I would do if I were down there now, with little money, young children or elderly relatives, perhaps, about to leave behind what little I have. I see video of people on a bus. They don't know where it will take them or what they will do when they get there.

Travel. A luxury? In one sense it is, of course. On a physical level, we can survive without it. But on another level, we can't.

New Orleans is no longer an abstraction to me.

As I write this, I'm thinking about the nurse I met there, who sank her life savings into rebuilding her house after Katrina. I'm thinking about the artists I met who seethed with passion and anger after Katrina, and threw it into their work. I'm thinking about the restaurateur whose restaurants never fully recovered after Katrina, but who, five months ago was hopeful, because New Orleans was his home. I'm thinking about the beautiful houses on the Esplanade that last time, were spared. I'm thinking about the Ninth Ward, which wasn't. I'm remembering the jazz musicians marching through the streets and in the clubs, the beignets and coffee, the lacy, wrought iron balconies.

There's nothing to do now but wait.


Some New Orleans people:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New Orleans Now

I just returned from my first visit to New Orleans — a beautiful and complex city — and yes, still there despite the destruction caused by hurricane Katrina.

You could easily visit New Orleans today and not see that anything was amiss. The revelry continues in the French Quarter day and night. The music clubs are open and there are more restaurants in the city now than there were before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. The food is exceptional. At Bacco's in the French Quarter I had some crawfish ravioli that I yearn for right now. The food at the Royal Sonesta hotel redefined what hotel food can be. In fact, I can't remember a bad meal anywhere during the few days of my visit.

Plus there is music everywhere, literally from birth to death when jazz bands accompany the deceased to their final resting place. And art in museums and galleries. And horse-drawn carriage rides along the Esplanade where tall houses with wrought-iron balconies are elegant and mysterious. And small, charming houses in the Marigny, where many artists live. And mansions in the Garden District, shaded by live oak trees. And steamships on the Mississippi River.

Yes. It's there. Still there — but this is a city with a broken heart. When Katrina struck, thousands of people lost their homes and everything they owned. Around 1,400 people were killed immediately; others died in the aftermath of heart attacks, stress-related illnesses, hunger, dehydration, suicide and violence. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated and many have still not returned.

Those areas of New Orleans that are below sea level have not recovered, almost two-and-a-half years later.

"Lakeview is the neighborhood furthest along," said James O'Byrne, features editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "When people visit, we take them there first and they think that's the worst they're going to see. Then we take them to the Upper 9th Ward, the Lower 9th, Gentilly, St. Bernard Parish."

Mr. O'Byrne, who had nine years left on his mortgage, lost his home. "If you didn't have the assets to absorb that blow, there was no way to get back," he said.

In the 17th Street Canal neighborhood, I met a registered nurse named Kathy Singleton whose story was typical. Because of Katrina, she and her husband lost their jobs. They fled to Baton Rouge, where they lived in one room for four months with their two teenage daughters and five pets. The hurricane left eight feet of water in their house, which was underinsured and the insurance companies are still refusing to pay more than a token amount for the damage. "They say the damage was caused by wind and rain, not by flooding," Ms. Singleton said. The family has used their entire retirement savings to rebuild.

Some money has been available from the federal government under a program called "The Road Home," but the aid has been slow to arrive, modest, and it has been taxed. Many homeowners had to fight for grants, which were at first denied or set too low, with the award decision only reversed after a lengthy and costly appeal.

Much of the rebuilding in the devastated areas has been the work of volunteers and organizations like Habitat for Humanity. In fact, there's a new word in New Orleans: voluntourism — referring to people who visit the city to help as well as to sightsee.

Whatever your reasons for going to New Orleans, it's a city worth your time. And even if you don't want to pick up a hammer and paintbrush, you can feel good knowing that spending your money as a tourist will help the city come back.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Irish New York

New York City has the largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country. Every year on March 17, legions of high school and college bands, policemen, firemen and fraternal societies led by vote-hungry politicians march down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan from midday to dusk, when everyone disperses to their favorite watering hole.

New York’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through the city on March 17 — the anniversary of the saint’s death. But for a more recent back-story on Irish New York, drop by the Irish Hunger Memorial overlooking the Hudson River at Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan.

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 killed more than a million people and drove hundreds of thousands out of Ireland. Many settled in New York and Boston. By 1850, the population of New York City was one-quarter Irish.

The memorial, which was dedicated in July 2002, was erected to record the suffering of those who perished and the courage of those who came to the United States to start over. It was also designed to raise awareness about hunger that still afflicts large parts of the world. It is sited on a half-acre, the maximum amount of land an Irish farmer was allowed to own if he were to receive any government assistance during the famine.

From the west side, the entrance to the memorial is through a passage whose walls are made of 300-million-year-old Kilkenny limestone interspersed with glass strips bearing quotes from eyewitnesses to the Irish famine and statistical information. This is accompanied by an audio track.

Just beyond is a roofless, two-room, stone crofter’s cottage that once stood in County Mayo. The cottage was built in 1820 and used by an Irish farming family until the 1960’s.

A field planted with Irish clover, grasses and heath slopes gently upward to yield views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the portal for so many immigrants to their new life. Large stones from each of Ireland’s 32 counties are placed in the field, with an ancient pilgrim’s stone at the top, inscribed with a cross associated with St. Brendan of County Kerry.

You can follow in the footsteps of the Irish immigrants with a walking tour created by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Download it at

The tour starts in Lower Manhattan at St. Peters Church, at 22 Barclay St., which was founded by an Irish priest in 1785 and is the oldest Roman Catholic church in the city. Next it takes you to 280 Broadway, where a boy named Alexander Turney Stewart who emigrated to New York in 1818 from County Antrim grew up to found America's first department store.

Some of the other sites on the tour include the Brooklyn Bridge, largely built by poor, Irish laborers, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank on Chambers Street, which was founded expressly for Irish immigrants and the Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street, which served the desperately poor people of nearby Five Points — a slum so filthy and dangerous that even Charles Dickens was appalled. (Five Points is now perfectly safe and is on the edge of Chinatown. Several courthouses long ago replaced the tenements.)

This informative tour ends at McSorley's Old Ale House on East 7th Street, founded in the mid-19th century by an immigrant from County Tyrone. Here you can rest your feet and have a pint. Or two.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Tea at the Plaza

When the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South in Manhattan was sold in 2004 and closed for conversion to condominiums, many New Yorkers were sad — really sad. They remembered tea in the Palm Court, drinks in the Oak Room, masses of crystal and flowers, celebrities awash in swank and mischievous Eloise, who had the run of the place.

However, after a $400 million overhaul, parts of the century-old Plaza have reopened. The hotel now consists of just 282 rooms, with most of the building allotted to condos and time-shares. But a harpist is again on duty in the Palm Court and tea is being served under a stunning stained glass ceiling that replicates one that was there between 1907 when the hotel opened and 1944, when it was replaced. Happily, the mirrors and caryatids on the rear wall are also still there, reflecting the room's new furnishings. Diners now sit on heavy, tall-backed blue velvet chairs that make each table seem private, though moving those chairs to get in and out of them requires the help of a waiter!

Tea, I'm happy to report, is better than ever with an exotic tea selection, beautiful, mini- open-faced sandwiches, superb scones, jam and clotted cream and a tempting array of exquisite pastries served on a silver, three-tiered tray. The service is impeccable and there is absolutely no pressure to finish up and move along.

All of this comes at a price — quite a price. Tea starts at $60 per person, and is more if you order champagne or a heftier complement of sandwiches. (Tea at the old Plaza used to cost $29, or $35 if you ordered caviar blinis.)

Of course, for visitors with Euros in their pockets, at the current rate of exchange, tea at the Plaza would only cost $39 — in my opinion, a bargain — and conveniently located near the high-end stores of Fifth Avenue, which offer additional bargains to those with foreign currency.

I predict that for the foreseeable future, there won't be too many New Yorkers in the Palm Court, but lots of overseas visitors having a wonderful time.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Side Streets: New York City Firehouse

I had turned off Broadway, a main thoroughfare of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, onto 83rd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues yesterday when a building on the south side of the street stopped me in my tracks.

Amid West 83rd Street’s late 19th-century tenements and down-at-the-heels walk-ups was a five-story, brick firehouse with a broad, red door trimmed with gold. It was decked out with carved, stone trim, stone lintels above the windows and a lovely iron pulley at the top to hoist hay for the horses that pulled the fire trucks in 1888 when it was built.

A plaque named the fire commissioners at that time, and the architect, N. Le Brun & Sons. When I got home, I looked them up. Napoleon Eugene Henry Charles Le Brun was born in Philadelphia, which is where I come from, and was the architect of several beloved Philadelphia landmarks, including the Academy of Music and the vast Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul on Logan Circle.

Le Brun moved to New York City during the Civil War, and by 1888, was in business with his sons, Pierre and Michel. They designed many New York City firehouses as well as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, one of the city’s first skyscrapers.

The other names on the firehouse plaque were equally interesting. All were Tammany Hall politicians — Tammany Hall being the organization that ran New York City politics for almost a hundred years, dispensing graft and patronage in exchange for votes.

Richard Croker, for instance, whose name appears on the firehouse, was two years old when he came to the United States from Ireland. Eventually he became the leader of Tammany Hall, where he became enormously wealthy off the bribe money he took from the owners of brothels, bars and gambling dens. He spent the last years of his life in Ireland, where he died in his castle.

When you travel, I recommend leaving yourself enough time to turn down the side streets. Often they are as interesting as the attractions touted by the guidebooks!


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Arctic New York

Twice I've traveled north of the Arctic Circle, but yesterday visitors from north of the Arctic Circle came to my neighborhood in New York City.

After a heavy snowfall, I was walking in Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan when I spotted some handsome birds swimming in the Hudson River. They proved to be brants — sea geese who summer in the Arctic and winter on the East Coast of the United States. I learned that they have glands that enable them to drink sea water and filter out the salt and that they like to eat eelgrass and crustaceans. I hope that New York gave them a friendly welcome.

My walk was rewarding in other ways as well. The architecture of trees and grasses was particularly beautiful against the snow, and the cold, moody skies seemed to suit Battery Park's war memorials and the sculpture formerly in the plaza of the World Trade Center, which is now in the park.

In general, I find there's a lot to be said for off-season travel. In addition to smaller crowds and lower prices, as I found yesterday, there can be wonderful, unexpected experiences.


Thursday, January 31, 2008

To Cruise or Not to Cruise

Some of my friends tell me that they don't like cruises. Too much food. Too many people on the ships. Expensive shore trips that provide a glimpse of a destination with no real insights.

"Chacun à son goût," as the French say. But I rise to the defense.

I've said similar things myself in the past, and with the exception of a couple of trans-Atlantic voyages on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (which doesn't really count as cruising), have mostly confined my cruise experiences to small ships that go to out-of-the-way places like Cape Horn at the tip of South America and the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles south of the North Pole.

However, I've just returned from a week aboard Cunard's newest ship, Queen Victoria, and I want to report that I had a good time. This is not a small ship. It carries 2,014 passengers and around 1,000 in crew, but I never felt as though I was on the Lexington Avenue subway at rush hour. If I wanted to be around others, I could be, but it was also possible to be alone — and there were quiet places, such as the 6,000-volume library, which gets more use on this ship than the casino.

Yes, there was a lot of food — but no force feeding and numerous exercise opportunities. Just walking around the ship would burn some calories. Deck 3, which goes most of the way around, is one-third of a mile. In addition, there are two swimming pools, a nice-sized gym, with classes and lots of equipment and those shipboard favorites, shuffleboard and paddle tennis. If you haven't tried shuffleboard, you might think this could raise as much sweat as a polite game of croquet, but a couple of Type A personalities playing shuffleboard will get a workout.

During my trip, we did a Panama Canal transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, which was interesting and something that you couldn't see unless on a ship. The transit was preceded and accompanied by lectures, which greatly helped with context and understanding of how the canal works.

And we had one day in Costa Rica — also interesting and sufficient to let me know that I would like to return. In the morning, I went on a jungle river trip and saw a lot of crocodiles and water birds and in the afternoon, visited a nature reserve where a gondola takes visitors from the forest floor to the forest canopy. Deep insights? No. But I learned that almost one-third of Costa Rica is a national refuge harboring examples of 6 percent of the animals and plants in the world. I also learned that the country is well off because of coffee and other agricultural products, has a high degree of literacy and has social programs in place for its four million citizens that include health care and retirement income.

Sounds good to me, and I didn't know this before.

But what I especially liked about the cruise was the soothing motion of the ship (yes, I know that you can hit rough patches, just as you can on airplanes, but mostly it was like being gently rocked, day and night), the sunrises and sunsets and the moonlit nights and — well, mostly just the sense that time pressures dropped away. After a while, I didn't know what day it was and I didn't care. We were going forward to some new port, and that was enough for me.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Cunard Coda

On the evening of Jan. 13, 2008, the three Cunard Queens assembled for the last time in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The Queen Mary 2 got there first from her nearby berth in Brooklyn and waited for her sister ships to come down the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. They arrived a half hour late. The 40-year-old Queen Elizabeth 2 requires tugboats to get her in and out of the pier and to guide her down the river. In former times, pilots were famous for their skills in handling the big ship in tight situations. Newer ships can be maneuvered with a joy stick and don't really need tugs. So the Queen Elizabeth 2 held up the show. By the time she and the Queen Victoria arrived, a cold, steady rain had started to fall and the fireworks were just a gasp against the low-lying clouds. The ships didn't linger. The Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Victoria headed out first. Then the doughty Queen Elizabeth 2 steamed once again into the open sea. According to Carol Marlow, Cunard’s president, this had been her 802nd visit to the Port of New York, with one more to go in October before she becomes a hotel in Dubai.

Queen Victoria Tour

Yesterday afternoon, I toured the Queen Victoria. The last time I saw her up close was in the Fincantieri shipyard outside Venice, where she was built. She was then around seven weeks short of completion — there in the bones but without her finishes. I was amazed at how beautifully she came together. The public rooms are gracious, warm and elegant. Teresa Anderson, the designer, said that she kept Cunard history in mind, with paintings, furnishings and Art Deco motifs that recall the 1920's and '30's, when trans-Atlantic ships were the last word in glamour. The QV has a 6,000-volume library, a theater with private boxes, a small museum, a Queens Room where afternoon tea is served, accompanied by a harpist and other musicians. Evening dress on the ship is usually formal or semi-formal. Queens Grill and Princess Grill passengers have their own dining room and lounge, "just like on airplanes," explained Philip Naylor, a Cunard official, "where there are first class and business class passengers." And the others. I will be sailing on the Queen Victoria later this month among the "others" and will let you know what that's like.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cunard in New York

This morning at 5:45 a.m., I was alone on the Battery Park City esplanade, scanning the dark water of the Hudson River. The tide was gently flowing out. The lights on the Verrazano Narrows bridge sparkled in the distance. Had I come too late? Had the three Cunard queens — Elizabeth 2, Mary 2 and Victoria already made their way into port? But, no. There they were. Three great ships, small and glittering in the cold night air. The Queen Elizabeth 2 approached first, pausing in front of the Statue of Liberty and then pulling near, her sleek lines and strong engines propelling her like a youngster and not like a geriatric relic. At 40 years old, she is still the fastest passenger liner on the sea, built for trans-Atlantic runs, with a top speed of 32 knots an hour. I waved to her, a lone figure in a red coat under a street lamp. Mary, behind her steamed toward the Statue and then turned to her berth in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Helicopters circled overhead and fireboats came down the river, spewing tall plumes of water into the air as Queen Victoria came abreast of the Statue. Then slowly, she made her way up the river. I waved some more, and she sounded her horn. Did someone see me or was she saluting the fireboats and New York City? I walked along the esplanade as far as I could, keeping pace with her, and then saw a few other people who had come out to greet the Queens. I met a man and a woman (not together) who had come over from England just for this moment, and a young man who had driven in from New Jersey. Passionately, we watched Victoria head for her midtown berth as the dawn broke and we could see her no more.