Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Greatest City in the World

If you ask me what is your favorite city, New York is definitely one of them. There is something about that city that just makes my heart sing and puts a smile on my face. I catch myself walking the streets saying out loud “I love, love, love New York” every time I am there. And although I love it no matter what time of year and every season has its own attraction, during Christmas time New York City is my absolute favorite and to me without a doubt the most beautiful city in the world. So when earlier this year a friend told me she would love to go Christmas shopping in New York, I didn’t hesitate too long. So tickets booked, hotel reserved and in the middle of December off we were for three days of fun, food and shopping.

An uneventful flight from SFO put us in Newark at 5 and by 6 we were in Manhattan. After checking into the hotel, we decided to walk to 5th Avenue to have a first look at the Christmas tree on Rockefeller Plaza, figuring that would get us into the Christmas spirit. It was a real winter evening, no snow but cold and clear. Rockefeller Plaza was crowded, but the decorations were as always stunningly beautiful and worth battling the crowds.

Walking out in the cold night and standing at Rockefeller Plaza watching the people ice skating under the tree, we realized that we were not prepared for the New York winter and our first stop after Rockefeller Plaza was the Esprit store on 5th avenue to buy gloves, scarves and hats. Bundled up and warm now, we walked down 5th avenue, admiring the beautifully decorated shops and windows. Our plan was to have dinner in the Campbell apartments in Grand Central Station. I had been there during one of my previous trip in New York with my friend Bina and I thought the cozy atmosphere with the wooden panels and comfy couches would be the perfect place for our first night in the city. Unfortunately, when we got there, they had a private function so we had to come up with a backup plan. We had walked by a tapas restaurant called La Fonda del Sol just before we got to the Campbell Apartments and as it was already 8 and we were hungry, we decided not to look any further so tapas it was. It was a Thursday night and the place was buzzing but we were lucky and they had a table and could seat us immediately. We ordered drinks and studied the tapas menu. It all looked really good and we ordered several small plates: the queso croquetas, braised lamb sliders and the empanadas. Our stomachs filled with food and warmed up by our drinks, we decided to brave the cold and walk back to our hotel.

Early Friday morning I walked from the hotel the 10 blocks to my business appointment. My purchases from the previous night proved to be money well spent as the temperature had dropped to 24 degrees. Dressed in my business suit, wool coat with my new scarf, gloves (no hat as it would ruin my hair) and my red purse over my shoulder, walking on 8th avenue I felt like a real New Yorker. That afternoon after I got back from my meetings, we checked out of our hotel as we were staying at the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station the next 2 nights. After checking in the hotel and dropping off our bags, we decided to walk to Central Park and on our way take some more pictures of the Christmas decorations on 5th avenue.

I had tried to get reservations at Balthazar for that night, but they were booked and browsing the internet earlier in the week, I had come across another French bistro, Artisanal ( It had really good reviews and it was close to our hotel, so that was the plan for dinner on Friday night. And we didn’t regret our choice, we had a great night. After we got seated at our table we looked around the busy restaurant and agreed you could easily imagine yourself to be in a brasserie in Paris.

The food was excellent. I had the Foi Gras Rilettes as a starter, my friend had the salade frisee with bacon and poached egg; both to die for. For my main course I ordered the steak tartare with frites. I normally don’t order steak tartare unless I am in France but I have to say that although my favorite is still at Brasserie Lipp on the Blvd St. Germain, this was a great steak tartare. And the French fries were exactly the way they are supposed to be. Too full and satisfied to walk back, we took a taxi back to our hotel where we had a night cap in the new hotel bar to wake up the next morning ready for a day of shopping.

We started our day at the Starbucks on Park Avenue on our way to Macys on 34th street. After a joyful morning shopping on 34th street we were drawn back to 5th avenue. That proved to be a mistake. We could barely move among the masses that were out. We managed to see the windows at Saks and admire Trump tower, drop into Tiffanies and do some shopping before we decided to leave 5th avenue and walk down the relatively quiet Madison Avenue back to the hotel. Saturday night dinner was booked at Mr. Chow in Tribeca (  another restaurant introduced to me by my friend Bina. We had planned to taking the train down to Tribeca. From our hotel we walked into Grand Central Station and took the shuttle to Times Square where we got out so we could look around and take pictures.

We got back on the train towards Brooklyn. I felt even more like a real New Yorker when a family on the train asked me for directions. We got out at Chambers Street and walked the couple of blocks to Mr. Chow on Hudson Street. After we got seated the waiter brought us our menus and to my surprise he recognized me and said “you were here a couple of months ago and sat at that table over there.” Pointing at the round table in the corner and then when I tried to order the chicken curry appetizers, he shook his head and told us “no, you tried to order those last time and I told you no, it’s still no.” I have to say that I was impressed. We ordered the duck pot stickers, the scallion pancakes and the glazed prawns with walnuts as appetizers and the duck with fried rice for the main course. As the last time it was all excellent and the service was impeccable.

Sunday morning we had planned to start the day shopping in SoHo and then go to Eataly. But overnight the rain had arrived. We decided to take our umbrella and brave the weather, so we took line 6 down to Spring Street. But after we got out and started walking and were blown away by the wind and felt miserable in the rain, we decided this was no fun and that we would go for breakfast and then take the train back up, skip SoHo and go to Eataly instead. We found a nice restaurant called Delicatessen on Prince Street and we both had the eggs benedict. Our next stop was Eataly, the new Italian indoor market in the Village on 23rd and 5th created by Oscar Farinetti, Mario Batalo, Joe Bastianich and Lydia Matticchio Bastianich . I was a bit skeptical when I had read about it a couple of months before, but it is a very nice set up. Various food areas with tables so people can sit and eat and try Italian food and wines, alternated with areas with groceries, fresh pasta, Italian kitchen accessories and even a fresh bakery, meat and fish section. We happily browsed for a couple of hours regretting the fact that we had just had breakfast so we were too full to sample any of the food.

After some more shopping at the mall on Columbus circle, regretfully it was time to leave and fly back to California after a wonderful couple of days in New York City.

If you ever want to get into the Christmas feeling, go to New York in December, I can ensure you, you will have an absolute blast.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The closest you can get to Paradise

One of my first bucket list projects several years ago was to buy a place in Hawai’i. Actually, at that time, it wasn’t even a bucket list yet, it was part of my New Years resolutions. Every year sometime around the first of January I would sit down and look back at the year, think about the things I did and didn’t do, compare it with the things I had told myself the year before I should achieve and set my new goals for the year. So although not a real bucket list, the intentions were kind of the same. And one year a condo on Hawaii was 1 of my goals.

This one all started with my first vacation to Hawaii in September 1998, 2 years after I moved to California. I had not been to Hawai’i, but friends were talking about going and so I decided I might as well. My expectations were low; Hawaii to me sounded as a clichĂ©. I had only heard of Honolulu and thought it would be a commercialized destination, like Benidorm and other tourist traps, but a couple of days of sun and beach were just what I needed. I am ashamed to admit to my ignorance and never really having made an effort to read about Hawaii. And what happened on that first trip: I fell in love with Hawaii, the people, the food, the smell, the flowers, the language and the lifestyle. My first trip was to Maui. I finally settled on Kauai’i.

It took me 2 years between deciding that I wanted to buy a place in Kaua’i and before finally buying my condo in Kahalani. I had been looking mainly at Poipu and Princeville, but on one of my trips cruising the island with the real estate guy, he said he wanted to show me 1 other resort. We were on our way back from Princeville and he pulled into a road just outside Kapa’a and there, nestled in between Lydgate state park and the Wailua golf course right on a white sandy beach, was Kahalani.

At that time nothing was for sale but 4 or 5 months later he called me to let me know that 1 unit was going to be up for sale and if I was interested I had to decide quickly. I had already lost 1 opportunity in Poipu a year before. By the time I had made my reservations to go over to check it out, it was sold. I asked him to send me the details and pictures. After receiving them, I slept on it for 1 more night and the next day I called him back and told him to send me the paperwork so I could sign it. I remember I was nervous as hell. I bought a place that I had not even seen.

But I have never regretted it. After more then 5 years of returning to Kahalani as often as I can (not as often as I want to), this is still as close to paradise as I can imagine it can get and I feel fortunate that I have this place to come back to.. So what do I do while on Kaua’i…..not much but that is a lot. I just read this book, “A Month of Sundays” by Ira and Barbara Spector and in their foreword they talk about the difference between how Americans vacation versus the French. Americans try to do and see as much as possible in as little possible time, while the French try to do as little as possible in the longest amount of time possible….different mind set. They call it farniente, which translates literally to “doing nothing”. That’s what I do on Kaua’i, farniente. I don’t plan much, I don’t book anything, I go with the flow. Some trips I will not make it any further then the beach in front of Kahalani, the pool and my lanai, some trips I will do a little more, but not much, never much.

Like this last trip. I arrived on Thursday evening. My friend Sue, who got to the island a couple of days earlier, had already emailed me that they would have dinner ready so I didn’t have to worry about groceries and food. I landed in Lihue at 4.30, picked up my car at Hertz and drove the 10 minutes to Kahalani. I dropped my bags, put some stuff I brought with me in the fridge, put on my flip flops and walked over to my friends place. I gave Sue, her husband Dave and his brother Fred a hug, accepted a glass of wine and I settled into island rhythm. After a wonderful dinner, they told me they had booked a t-time for the next morning so if I wanted to, I could play but I didn’t have to if I didn’t feel like it. Farniente had started. After dinner over which we caught up on the last 6 months, I said goodnight and went back to my own place, where I sat down on the lanai, reading my book while enjoying the warm air and scents of the island.

The next morning we played a relaxing round of golf at our local Wailua course next door. On the second hole I looked over the golf course to the white beach and the blue ocean and took a deep breath thinking how happy I was to be back.

After golf I spent a leisurely afternoon reading by the pool. After that I drove to Safeway as I was in the mood for fresh Ahi Poki, one of my Hawaiian favorites and had dinner out on the lanai, relaxing and enjoying the view and sounds of the ocean with a glass of wine. I had not hiked the Kalalau trail on the northshore for years and when I mentioned it yesterday we decided if the weather was good we would do the hike on Saturday. I woke up around 6.30 when the sun was just getting up over the Pacific and at 7.45 (15 minutes behind schedule, but who cares) we were on our way to Hanalei. The plan was to hike to Hanakapeau beach, also referred to as dead beach as so many people have died due to strong currents and waves.

From there we would hike on to what Fred refers to as Space Rock, another 1.8 miles further along the coast. It’s one of my favorite hikes, with spectacular views of the Napali coast, where so many famous movies were filmed, to name a few: Indiana Jones – Raiders of the lost ark, Six days, seven nights, Jurassic park.

I stopped several times to take pictures and we reached the beach about 1 ½ hour after we started.
When we got to the beginning of the second part of the trail from the beach onwards, we noticed to our disappointment that it was closed. We debated for about 3 minutes before sneaking past the fence. Rules are meant to be broken, we were meant to go up to Space Rock today to have our P&J sandwiches for lunch.

So after another 45 minutes we were sitting on a rock below Space Rock looking down on the Pacific Ocean and the Napali coast. In the far distance we could see Ke’e beach at the end of the road from Hanalei.

We made it back out without being shot or arrested and after a refreshing swim at Ke’e beach, we had a late lunch at the Hanalei Gourmet. If you ever go there, order the Gorgonzola and mushroom burger and add avocado, it is so good. Back home I had a long relaxing bath and spent the rest of the night on my lanai, writing and reading.

Sunday was a day of true farniente. After an easy 3.5 mile run I spent a couple of hours at the beach finishing one book before retiring to the pool for the rest of the afternoon starting another one. God created Sunday to rest and so I did.

Monday was another stressful day: golf again in the morning and to my chagrin I played bad just stressing about having to leave that night to go back to work the next day. After golf I walked to Lydgate park, just down the road from Kahalani for a swim in the tide pool. Beautiful clear water, the waves kept out by rocks, plenty of fish, perfect for swimming;

another hour by the pool and then it was time to pack and change. We had decided to have drinks and dinner at the Barefoot bar in the Marriott at Kalapaki Beach. This is one of my favorite places on the island to have a drink and watch the sunset while the surfers try to catch the final waves for the day in Nawiliwili Bay. I will not leave Kaua’i without coming here. My favorites are the crab and macadamia nut wontons, the ahi sashimi and the fish tacos.

Kaua’i weather forecast

Sitting on my lanai on Friday night, a friend sent me a txt asking me if I was partying it up in Hawaii and my answer was “sort of……..I am sitting on my lanai with a glass of wine, watching the flames of the torches around the pool and listening to the sound of the waves rolling in from the ocean, that’s my idea of a party” and I was thinking “Life doesn’t get much better then this….”

Friday, September 3, 2010

Rome and an Italian Wedding

When my dad died unexpected 4 years ago I realized that I had spent too much time working too hard, missing out on the more important things in life. I had missed too many important occasions: time with family, friend’s weddings, birthdays and baby showers; all because I was working and couldn’t miss a meeting or I was on one of my many business trips. Shortly after his death I changed jobs and promised myself to have a better work life balance. So over the past 3 years I slowly started to make changes to my life: making an effort to spend more time with the people I care for and on things that matter in life.

And so when my friend Andrea told me last year to mark my calendar for August 27, 2010 for her wedding in Spoleto, Umbria, I didn’t have to think twice. I would be there. Earlier this year I started planning my trip to Italy. I had never been to Rome. I took Latin in high school and had always been fascinated by the stories of the old Roman Empire. Also as a recovering catholic, I felt I had to see the Vatican at least once in my life. So I decided that after the wedding I would stay in Rome for a couple days. Another thing I would be able to check of my bucket list.

I arrived in Spoleto on Wednesday before the wedding. We stayed in Hotel Clitunno in the old town and from the first evening I fell in love with the beautiful little town.

Still relatively unspoiled, it feels like time has been standing still here and life is still slower and less complicated. Shops still close for siesta in the afternoon; instead of our efficient supermarkets you still find people buy their groceries at the local butcher, cheese shop and bakery. It was August so holiday season but most people, except for the Irish crowd that had descended on the town for the wedding, were Italian. The day before the wedding I enjoyed walking around the town, sitting down at one of the squares for a cappuccino or a slushy and watching the people in town, the way they were living every day life in a little town in Italy.

I walked over the famous old bridge, the Ponto della Torre.

It was the perfect wedding. And it was not just a wedding, it was a three day celebration. It started with the family dinner the night before in a beautiful setting outside with wonderful food. The official ceremony was in the Duomo del Pietro in Assisi.

We didn’t have time to look around the town of Assisi, and I will have to go back some day as from what I have seen it is a beautiful old town. And thanks to Unesco it will be kept like this as it is a world heritage site.

The reception and dinner was in an old mill a couple of miles outside Spoleto. They always say it’s all about location, and for this occasion, the location couldn’t have been more idyllic.

Anti pasti and Prosecco in the front of the mill, were followed by a dinner in the back of the mill to the sounds of the river, calmly floating on both sides of the garden and the light of tens of paper lanterns hanging from the trees.

After dinner we danced till late in the warm Italian night first to music played by the Italian band and later to the playlist from Tony’s ipod. The celebration ended with a 3 hour lunch on Saturday, the after day the wedding, after which I went back to the hotel and lazed away the rest of the afternoon outside in the hotel courtyard, not being able to eat another thing.

Hotel Clitunno is a gem of a hotel. While offering all the comfort of a modern hotel (including air conditioning) they have managed to keep its traditional Italian atmosphere with beautiful furniture and decorations. The outside sitting area they have created offers a nice place to waste away a warm afternoon with a book or have a night cap (or two) before going to bed.

Next was Roma. You can find my detailed Rome explorations at

After walking Rome for 3 days, I realized that my Rome is not the famous attractions like the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Steps. Of course when in Rome, you have to see them, but my Rome is the tucked away piazza’s you find by surprise when turning a corner, the narrow cobblestone streets, sipping a cappuccino outside in a local cafĂ© on a little street corner, watching the people go by.

Strolling around a local market on Tuesday on another nameless piazza or simply sitting on a bench in the Gardens of Villa Borghese with the sun on my face, letting the world go by for an hour or so; eating a straciatella gelato from a corner store, drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio in the afternoon at Sloppy Sam's on the Piazza Campo Dei Fiore;

having dinner outside at 9.30 at night at Piazza Farnese with only Italians surrounding us; Prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella, home made gnocchi with walnuts and gorgonzola. For 3 days I was drinking in Roma. I smiled at the people, loved the looks while walking the streets and the "ciao bella”. Rome is alive, Rome is warm.

Italy and Roma: I will be back, you can count on that.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bon Jovi: Live at Soldier Field Part II

Saturday morning July 31, 6.30. I wake up out of a deep sleep to the sound of Livin’ on a Prayer. I am disoriented and it takes me a couple of seconds to realize that it’s my wake up call on the morning of the big concert day and the radio is playing one of my favorite Bon Jovi songs. I shake my head, smile and tell myself this can’t be real, it definitely must be destiny. I bought tickets for the concert 3 weeks earlier when I started the bucket list after one of my colleague’s wife died at the age of 38. Seats close to the podium at a Bon Jovi concert was one of the things on the list.

Chicago seemed for now the last concert in the US and I decided that I might not get the chance again to see them any time soon so I convinced my friend Virginia to come with me. I searched online for tickets and decided that if we were doing this we might as well go all the way so I was ecstatic when I found tickets in the circle, Pit 4, row 3. On the left side of the stage, the side where Richie normally plays as Virginia is a big Richie fan. For me it has always been Jon.

It’s a beautiful Californian morning when I leave the house; the clouds are starting to lift as I drive over to pick up Virginia. Top down, wind in my hair, sun on my face and Bon Jovi on the speakers, life is good! When I arrive at her house and see Virginia outside the house, I can’t help laughing. We look like twin sisters: both wearing black skirts with cream colored jackets…..She shakes her head and tells me she should have checked with me. Too late now, we are on our way.
Just before 9am and we are in the United Red Carpet lounge at SFO , sipping our mimosas, toasting each other that we are crazy enough to fly to Chicago for less then 18 hours, just to see Bon Jovi. After a quick 3 hours and 15 minute flight, we land in Chicago. I have booked the Hyatt Regency at O’Hare as we have an early flight back on Sunday morning. The shuttle takes us to the hotel and by 5pm we are checked in. Time to get ready and I take out my jeans and white shirt that I had planned for tonight. Virginia has one look and shakes her head in horror. “I can’t believe it; I was planning to wear jeans and a white shirt as well, are we really going to the concert looking like the bopsie twins?”, she asks me. So I compromise and decide to wear my black shirt instead.

I had it all planned out (of course, after all I am little miss efficient), we would land at 4.20, get ready and leave the hotel by 5.15. The plan was to have a real Chicago dinner at the original Morton’s of Chicago Steakhouse. We were supposed to be at Morton’s at 5.45 to make it in time for the concert at 7, but my careful planning had not counted on a traffic jam on Saturday afternoon, damn! I am sitting in the taxi cursing myself and impatiently checking Google maps on my Blackberry to see how far away we are. I also check what tonight’s opening act is so when we finally make it to Morton’s by 6.10 I start to relax and decide I can enjoy dinner as I don’t mind missing part of Kid Rock.

We have a great dinner and a great time talking to our waiters about our Bon Jovi adventure. They give us advice on what is the best way to get to Soldier Field from the restaurant. They tell us that last time Bon Jovi played in Chicago they had dinner right here in Morton’s.

After another taxi ride, this one a lot quicker, followed by a ride in a bicycle taxi for the final leg to the stadium, we are inside Soldier Field by 8PM, just in time to hear Kid Rock sing last years hit “All Summer Long”. This was my favorite summer song last year and I sing along while we make our way thru the stadium trying to find our seats. We get to our seats and for the first time I realize how close to the stage we really are: the last 2 seats on row 3, next to where the stage ends and the circle begins.

Kid Rock plays for another hour and it’s actually a good show. We take pictures and chat with security and smile at the little girl behind us that has a sign that says “I picked this” a BJ logo “over this” a picture of Chuck-e-Cheese. The new generation Bon Jovi fans are here! The next day her picture is actually on the Bon Jovi Facebook.

Then it is finally time: the show we came here for is about to begin. The stage has been changed after Kid Rock, the lights go out and I have goose bumps on my arms and realize I am holding my breath…..and there they are….kicking it off with Happy Now and We Weren’t Born to Follow from the latest album, followed by Bad Name.

I look around after the first song and don’t think there is one person in the whole stadium still in their seat. And they are close…so close it is a dream come true. We could not have had better seats except maybe front row. Richie is close and even Jon seems to be more on this side of the stage and comes right over where we are, right there in front of us.......

Born To Be My Baby, Lost Highway, Blaze of Glory and Its My Life, one great song after another. Virginia and I smile at each other as we sing along with It’s my Life. Her 3 year old daughter recognizes it from my ring tone and will sing along with it and ask "can you play life again”, after it finishes and she will add “I like Jon Jovi”. We are singing and dancing and I am hoping the night will never end. Bad Medicine is meshed up with Pretty Woman. I had hoped for the version with Old Time Rock and Roll, but they did that the previous night. The security guy pulls me aside and tells me we should go to the back of the circle now as Jon is about to go up there for the next song. He tells us to give him our purses and he locks them next to the stage….its good to make friends with the right people……

We are pretty close when Jon comes to the front of the circle. One song with Kid Rock and then “Something For the Pain” and “I’ll Be There For You”.
We are at the edge of the circle and Richie walks right by us both on the way there and back and touches Virginia’s hand both times, mine on the way back. We look at each other and smile….this is good, this is better then good.

The night ends with Dry County. I have to say that the set list tonight is not my favorite. I had hoped for at least Always, which is still my very special Bon Jovi song, Blood on Blood, Hallelujah and Superman, but it doesn’t matter in the end, the songs are all great, the band is great and the show is great. Although they thank Chicago after Dry County, we know the night isn’t over as they haven’t played Prayer yet. The question is: how many more songs will we get. It’s almost 11.30 by now.

And they are back for the encore: Wanted, followed by I Love This Town.

And then there are the first notes of Livin’ On a Prayer and although I love the song, I don’t want to hear it as it means the night is over. Jon starts without any music: “you got to:……. hold on….. to what you got… it doesn’t make a difference if you make it or not….. we got each other and that’s a lot for love, so we’ll give it a shot…and oh..” and then lets just the crowd finish the first chorus “oh we’re half way there…..oh oh living on a prayer, take my hand, we’ll make it I swear…oh oh livin’ on a prayer”. Around 60,000 people singing what is probably the most classic Bon Jovi song. I cannot describe what it is like; you have to be there to experience it. It is absolutely fantastic and I cannot imagine a better way to end this wonderful night.

Thank you Bon Jovi for putting up a fantastic show. You have been my inspiration thru the years: thru the good times and the bad, the laughter and the tears and after all these years you guys still rock….. and definitely not in chairs yet :-). I panicked when Jon tore his calf muscle on July 9 and I they posted it on FB that Sunday. That was a bad day: first my country lost in the world cup final and then I saw the post on FB about Jon and I was afraid the concert was going to get canceled. But Jon being Jon, had them, as he said on FB, put Humpty Dumpty back together to finish this part of the tour and tonight he was his usual charismatic and passionate self. Tonight truely was a dream come true.

Thank you Virginia for putting up with me and joining me on this crazy journey.

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