22 November 2014

Travel : A Quick New York City

The star of New York City's skyline, The Chrysler Building

Sometimes we just cannot help it. Due to work or schedule, we sometimes ended up in one of the best cities in the world with just a few hours to spare. Between conferences, meetings and people to see, only a small gap of precious time available for leisure and while in a city like New York, you do not just chuck aside the opportunity to experience the city at least a bit. So, where do you start? How do you chose among the many sites and experiences to fit into your small frame of time? What to do to gain the most in so little time? Trust me, it is possible to experience the best part of the city and here are my best picks that will make your quick stay a memorable one.

Breathtaking colors of Central Park in fall

So the day is quite tight and you can only squeeze a couple of hours between a conference and lunch meeting. Why not decompress yourself by taking a walk in the famous Central Park? Not only it is one of the most magnificent man made urban park, it is also the most significant landmark of New York City. Every part of this 843 acres of the city's gem is unique and any trip to the city is incomplete without a visit. If you had to do one thing and one thing alone in the city it has to be the park especially if time is a factor. No queue, no hassle, no tickets needed, just you and nature!

The view from the Staten Island ferry ride

Have another hour to kill? How about fill it with a breathtaking view of the city on a 25 minutes ferry ride to Staten Island and back? Not only will you get a fabulous view of Manhattan and the New York Harbor, you will also get a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island! Once was the only way of transporting people between the city and its boroughs (Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten) before the construction of the bridges, the ferry now runs for free, around the clock everyday of the year. This ferry ride is by far the best way to see New York city on a short trip!
Halal Guy on 53rd Street between 6th and 5th Avenue

Street food carts are synonym with the city. Everywhere you go you're bound to bum into carts on the street side selling anything from pretzels to hotdogs. A few years ago I was on a vacation in New York city and while browsing the city, I saw this long queue that got my curiosity bubbling. I then found out the queue lead to a humble cart selling a mix menu of Middle Eastern street food of rice combination with meat (lamb, chicken) or gyros by a bunch of young man calling themselves The Halal Guys. These guys are so popular in the city that even the stars were spotted queuing to get a piece of them! Along the way I passed by the cart many times in multiple visits and the queue never stops. The queue actually gets longer at night right at the time when the pubs and clubs are closing. So, if you are up for a taste of Middle East right in the heart of the city while brushing shoulders with the locals, head to the 53rd Street between 5th and 6th avenue. Who knows you might bum into a celebrity? ;)

Hotdog and pretzel carts like this can be easily found scattered around the city

If Middle Eastern food is not your thing, you then must try the good old hotdog from the street vendors that can be found at any street corner in the city. Apparently it is the oldest street food in New York dated all the way to 1871 when a German vendor opened the first hotdog stand in Coney Island. There's nothing that spells New York more than a quick bite of 'mustard and ketchup' while on the go, in fact that was the first thing I learned about New York city from the movies way before I know what travelling was all about. Yes, it was a dream of mine to eat street hotdog like the New Yorkers! Now if eating on the go is not your kind of thing but still want to try the famous New York hotdog, try one of these joints here instead.

The Grand Central

The Grand Central Terminal, more than a hundred years old and the largest rail travel facility in the world is almost a small town on its own. Housing more than 60 shops, 35 eateries and connects trains, subways, buses and taxis together; there are so much to see here. The architecture is stunning which explains why Grand Central is one of the most filmed locations with movies like 'Friends with Benefits' to the Hitchcock's classic 'North by Northwest' and all the way to DreamWorks Animation's 'Madagascar' has chosen it as one of the locations. While the terminal offers an hour plus long tour (of which on a short stay might not be an option) you can still slot a quick visit to the Grand Central in your short trip in the city. Instead of taking a cab or hotel shuttle to the airport, why not head to the airport via Grand Central? This way you can kill two birds with a stone and get to experience the terminal on your way home!

Little Italy

If your hotel happened to be in the Lower Manhattan area, a quick swing over to Little Italy is surely a must, whether to dine at one of the many authentic Italian restaurants or stop by for a quick grab of gelato, cannoli and espresso or just to browse around the blocks. Get lost in one of the fascinating gift shops with so many interesting items on display, you're bound be get out with some great stuff to remember the trip by. For me the uniqueness of Little Italy is in its people - the ushers of the restaurants, shop keepers, these characters are so colorful! Sadly Little Italy is shrinking and it is not surprising if one day it will cease to exist. So, grab an opportunity to stop by while you can!

The Last Ship, now playing at Neil Simon Theater

If your night is not so busy, why not try and catch a Broadway show? There are so many productions playing, sometimes it is hard to choose what to watch. The best is try and contact the concierge of your hotel for the list of shows or visit broadway.com for the full listings and timing of the shows. You can also book your tickets online or head directly to the box-office to try your luck and get the tickets. On my last trip to the city, I managed to watch a play based on Sting's latest album called The Last Ship and it was worth the price of the tickets! I would watch it again, anytime.  

Do not fancy Broadway? How about being in the live audience of a TV show instead? If you know the dates of your trip way in advance, you can try and request for tickets to be in the taping of these shows. New York city is the home of shows like Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live to name a few. If you are a fan, you might have a chance to watch them live by applying for free tickets on the website. The downside is this taping would normally take some time and unless you do not plan to do much, it might not be for you.

There is no easier way to take in the spirit of New York city than just to walk along 5th Avenue. With so many stores like Tiffany & Co, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Apple store, and great structures like NY Public Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State Building and St Patrick Cathedral, you will never be out of things to see. It is amazing how an avenue can offer so much. It is best to know where to start as 5th avenue is 7 miles long! Unless you have the whole day to spare, you might want to plan your walk accordingly.

I believe that no stay is too short to experience New York city. As intimidating as it can be, New York city is actually quite easy to navigate even for an out-of-towner. I suggest that you download an app on your smart phone (Ulmon City Maps To Go is fabulous) to help you with the navigation and find places you wish to go. Know what you want to do and plan properly, I am sure anybody can have a good time and bring home some fabulous memories from this great city.

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15 November 2014

Quest for The Perfect Cold Weather Parka

Burberry *drool*

The downside (among the many perks) of being in the airline family is the leave allocation. It is not like we can just decide to have a vacation anytime in the year and it will happen. It is the other way around, actually. Captain will be given a block of weeks or days in a year to choose from together with hundreds other pilots and see who gets what. This year we have scattered leave days, a few days here and there and this makes planning for a long vacation a problem. We have been wanting to go to Amsterdam for a while and decided this year will be it and because of the problem with the leave, it has to be in November. 

Now, Amsterdam in November can be quite intimidating with low temperature and  a lot of rain. To tell you the truth, I am not equip to brace this kind of weather. Since I live in Dubai, my outerwear section in my wardrobe is kind of limited. Let see.. I have a long wool coat, a mac or trench for spring, a ski/mountain jacket and few short leather jackets. Now, the wool coat is nice and warm but it is NOT waterproof or water resistant. The trench is too light, so are the leather jackets plus, I will not compromise my Balenciagas in the rain! This leave me with the ski/mountain jacket. I will look really odd walking around the city in ski jacket. Nope, not willing to. 

So I decided it was time to add another outerwear to my closet. So happened I was in new York City for a couple of days last week and off shopping I go for the perfect cold weather, water resistant parka.

Canadian Goose Expedition Parka $845

The 'holy-grail' of cold weather coats/jackets has to be Canadian Goose. Who would know more about cold weather than the Canadians, right? Plus Canadian Goose has been sponsoring expeditions in Alaska, the Everest and even the Arctic so they definitely know their stuff. Hands down Canadian Goose is the best for warm outerwear. I loved the style of this jacket and the color was lovely too (came also in orange and white) plus it was warm alright. It came with the fur trimmed hood (important must have as I hate the look of my head in hats!) but I looked 3 sizes bigger than my real self  in it! Sadly, I had to say no to it because after all I am not going to Alaska or the South Pole anytime soon, just Amsterdam.  Note : Will definitely buy this one when Alaska popped in my travel list!

Sam Hudson Parka $795

This one by Sam was really cute. It was slightly longer than the one from Canadian Goose but lighter. I loved the gold tone hardware and the cute fur trim hood and how tapered it looked . Not as warm as the Canadian Goose but with nice cashmere sweater inside it'll do the job. I was not thrill by the outer material that was made by waxed canvas and the sleeves were quite narrow and that could be a problem for layering. I had to pass.

Mackage Cynthia Parka $1,150

Aaah, this piece by Mackage was a beauty! 10 out of 10! It was filled with down, making it quite warm but sans the bulky look I try to avoid. Also came with the cute fur trimmed hood, leather sleeves with ribbed elastic cuffs to block the cold wind (a plus) and it was very well made. The lack of unnecessary buttons and frills made this jacket looked elegant and expensive.  The problem was, it WAS expensive. Since I made a cap of $1,000 for this parka project of mine, this one here was way out of my league. Bummer!

Rag & Bone Waterloo Parka $ 995

If there was such a thing as love at first try, this would be mine. I was browsing Saks on Fifth Avenue and saw this jacket from far. The first thing that caught my eyes was the perfect green. It was made from nice sturdy water resistant material, no coating or anything like that. To me simplicity is best and this parka has simple buttons with extended leather button holes, hidden ribbed cuffs to block the cold wind and hood with removable fur trim (super!). This jacket was quilt lined and warm enough for European winter months. There were plenty of room in the sleeves area for layering purposes. Priced at slightly below my $1,000 cap, I have to admit looking at it hanging on my closet door, I kept thinking if I made the right decision spending that much. Well, for a well made piece, I think it was an investment especially when my last outerwear purchase was many years ago and it will be many more years before the next one.

So, what is your go-to cold and wet weather outerwear? I would love to hear all about it :)

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08 November 2014

Travel : A day in Pompeii

This picture was taken from the middle of the Forum. Notice the Vesuvius looming in the background? This Forum was a huge 'piazza' or square surrounded by shops, temples and it was where the Pompeians spent their time socially. The Italians still have this kind of squares in every city and town until today. Piazza Navona in Rome is one of the examples.

This post is so overdue but hey, better late than never, right? Part of the trip we made to the south of Italy last June was spent in Naples/Pompeii and the highlight of these days were the ancient city of Pompeii and the culprit that wiped it off forever, the Mount Vesuvius (watch this space for more of it!) I have always been intrigued by Pompeii ever since I first read about it when I was small. A few years back on one of my trips to Los Angeles, I managed to catch an exhibition on Pompeii and I knew then that I have to make a trip to the city itself to see more. We were all excited - me for my reason, the boys, as they studied volcanoes last year that partly touched the topic of Vesuvius and its destruction and Captain, for being an Italian but never actually been to Pompeii! So, you can imagine the excitement here.

We were immediately taken by the size of the city.. it was HUGE! So big that even when we spent a day wondering around, we still didn't get to see many. Knowing that we would never be able to see all of them, we decided to list down a few places that we want to see and go from there. My tips for visiting Pompeii is first to try and be there early. Second, decide before hand what are your priority sites to see based on the map that you can get from the ticket counters. From there plan your tour so that you would make a circle rather than going from A to B without any planning that could cost you time walking and backtracking. Also bring a lot of water or buy some at the ONLY cafeteria in the ruin. We had early lunch in order to beat the crowd that flocked the small eatery and hit the city when most were having lunch. Bottom line is, plan your tour. We did not take any tour guide with us but instead we each had an audio guide which we preferred better. This way, we could choose where to go and what to listen to instead of letting the guide to decide and go with the crowd. We didn't get to see some of the sites we wanted to see as they were under maintenance but with the audio guide we could actually learn a thing or two about them. Better than nothing in my opinion.

So, here we go, enjoy the pictures and be prepare to be blown away ;)

This was at the entrance to the city. The climb was steep and we could already feel the energy of it. For a city that was hit by a vicious volcano and buried under thick ashes and volcanic rocks for thousands of years, I must say it was well preserved.

This was one of the many streets that lined the city. Houses, villas and shops were neatly arranged and numbered along the streets that were using the grid system. Pompeii was a very systematic city with running water, 'street light', elevated sidewalks (notice one of the boys walking on the sidewalk?) and other facilities that we all enjoyed today including gyms, spas, theaters, court house, temples, bakeries, shops, street names, sports centers, brothel (ehem!) and many more.

This was the Basilica, one of the public buildings which was used as the court house where tribunals took place. From the ruin itself, one could tell what a magnificent structure it must have been.

The Pompeians really knew how to chill and pamper themselves. While the rich had bath in the privacy of their homes, the mere mortals were frequenting the many gymnasiums and spas (or bath they called them) Pompeii were famous for. This one here came complete with a swimming pool, laconicum, hot and cold bath (frigidarium and tepidarium), and changing area for men and women that came with cubicles or lockers to us today. 

The pool

Laconicum or sweat room

The biggest of many bakeries in the city, The Modestum's Bakery was complete with ovens, storage rooms, service counter and machines operated by mules. While the Pompeians loved their breads, their other staples include beans, olives, eggs, cheese, more fish rather than meat and of course, lot of wine.

This Grand theater could easily fit 5,000 people and it was where the comedies and tragedies were performed. Attached to it was a small square that served as social area in between acts which later was converted into a gladiator's quarters.

If there's one single thing Pompeii was famous for, it has to be its collection of luxurious villas. From The House of Vettii to House of Tragic Poet, Pompeii was filled with them. This image of the iconic bronze statue was taken in the courtyard of House of Faun, one of the biggest and most impressive villas in the city. This Villa sported 2 dinning areas for summer and winter, courtyards, private rooms, servant quarters, its own bath, kitchen, gardens with stage for recitations/pantomimes, reception rooms and even an office. These people really did live well, didn't they?  

Of course as we strolled this ancient city, we bumped into the many reminders of the devastation that ended the glory of the city. This plaster cast of the original volcanic ash covered victim was one of many that can be seen. The biggest one was the group of 13 plaster casts with very touching story in The Garden of Fugitive.

So little time and so mush to see!

The deserted street of Pompeii. Notice the 3 stone blocks on the street? That serves as the pedestrian crossing. Clever, right? Made me think that even thousands of years ago, already this city served the community well and now in the modern day, some cities like Dubai, people fail to respect pedestrian crossing! Shame..

Close up
One in every few corners, these water fountains still serve the public

The entrance of the amphitheater where the 'action' took place. It was said that this amphitheater was the first of its kind and was the inspiration behind the Coliseum in Rome. Unlike the Coliseum, this amphitheater was built on solid ground with no underground rooms. The gladiators would march into the arena from this tunnel here from the outside of the amphitheater and not elevated from underground like in the Coliseum or its kind that was built after. Many gladiator perished and triumphed here and the spectacles could sometimes last for days. 

The city is so big and still there are more that have yet to be discovered. In some parts of the city, it was so quiet, far away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world and we could really 'feel' the city, almost eerie.We didn't get to see a lot of site including the biggest villa, Villa of The Mysteries and its famous wall frescoes. That gives a reason for us to return again someday. Whatever it is, if you are planning a trip to Sorrento, Naples, Capri or are on your way down to Bari from up north, I would highly recommend a day spend in ancient city of Pompeii for an experience of a civilization that was left in the past. 

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