Tag Archives: New york city

Of humpback whales and dolphin pods, in NYC

As incredible as this may sound to some, for the past few years, humpback whales have been making a regular appearance in the waters off New York City. Once driven to the brink of local extinction during the city’s whaling years, the whales are said to be back in these waters, after nearly a century.

One of the key reasons attributed to the return of the whales is the decades of efforts invested in cleaning up the city’s waterways. This improvement in water quality has led to an increase in the numbers of marine microorganisms like zooplankton and algae, which in turn has rejuvenated the entire food chain. Thriving numbers of menhaden (also known as bunker), a small fish that feeds on these microorganisms, has enticed the humpbacks to return to NYC’s waters to feed. Other initiatives like enforcing catch limits for industrial fishing, have also helped maintain the number of these small fish.

The last time I saw a whale in its natural setting was in Kaikoura (NZ), over 11 years ago. Kaikoura is one of the best places in the world to see sperm whales all year round. More recently, in 2016, I wrote about a sperm whale carcass that had washed up on the shores of Singapore, possibly the victim of a ship strike in the South China Seas. The skeleton of this female sperm whale found a final resting place in the local natural history museum, and is used to educate visitors about the many dangers faced by these behemoths in today’s waters, the main ones being ship strikes and plastic pollution.

During my recent visit to NYC, between visiting family and meeting old friends, I managed to squeeze in not one, but two (!) whale watching trips (on two separate days, of course).

The journey from my hotel in Tribeca, to Riis Landing from where the American Princess ferry departs for its whale watching tours, took about two hours. Getting to Riis Landing can seem a little daunting for a first-timer to the city, so I’ve included directions at the end of this post.


View of the ocean from the ferry


Catherine Granton from Gotham Whale, the naturalist on board, was terrific with educating visitors on onboard about whale protection programs like ‘See a spout, watch out’ as well as simple things one could do in daily life to protect the oceans, like not using plastic bags or straws. Here are some more easy to do tips for protecting the ocean.

Gotham Whale lists 59 different individuals in their Humpback Whale catalog but sadly, none of them made an appearance on either of my tours. I sat staring at the horizon, recalling every image of lunge feeding humpbacks that I had seen on social media, hoping the scene would unfold before my eyes any second…. but it didn’t! 😦

I’m completely aware that we cannot control nature, but I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. We did see plenty of bottleneck dolphins though…..


A surfer off Rockaway Beach, cannot believe his eyes as dolphins swim by him!


More bottlenose dolphins! Empire State Building is in the background.


A close-up of the bottlenose dolphins 



Another pod of dolphins swims by

There have been some spectacular humpback whale and cownose ray sightings on the trips after mine. Hopefully, the city will continue to control shipping traffic and pollution in these waters, and some day in the future, there will be another opportunity to see NYC’s humpback whales. Till then, fingers crossed!


Directions to Riis Landing: Take the A train to Far Rockaway and disembark at the 67 Beach Street station. Walk out of the station, past the line of stores, towards the Shop ‘n Save/YMCA and take the Q22 bus from outside the YMCA. Get off at the very last stop, Fort Tilden and walk back to the main road (where the bus turned). Cross the street and walk to your left for a few seconds. You will see the Riis Landing signboard, right opposite the main entry gate of Fort Tilden.


The Riis Landing entry gate


Bonus tip: There’s a food truck outside Fort Tilden, Breezy Dogs and Shakes, that’s a real lifesaver after 4 long hours at sea! Refuel there before heading back.



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A Himalayan Retreat in NYC – The Rubin Museum

Like most seekers, and artist of every kind, I’ve been drawn to the Himalayas for as long as I can remember. Thanks to my recent relocation to Amsterdam, it’ll be a while before I can even think of undertaking a trip to this wonderous part of the world.

During my last trip to New York City (Dec 2015), I was thrilled to hear about a museum dedicated to Himalayan art, right in the heart of the Big Apple. The Rubin Museum of Art focusses on the preservation and promotion of Himalayan artistic traditions, and has a permanent collection of over 2,500 paintings, sculptures and textiles from the Tibetan plateau as well as neighbouring areas in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China. The private collection of Donald and Shelly Rubin forms the core of the permanent collection but the museum is a non-profit, public one.

One of the highlights of the museum is the recreation of a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. I could have spent hours in this serene haven. If at anytime, you are looking for an oasis of calm in the midst of the NYC chaos, this is the place to visit.

More about the Rubin Museum in my article for the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore.

Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

Rubin Museum_NYC

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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Pastry hunting in NYC

Dec 2015. I was back in NYC after nearly a decade. Anyone who’s been here knows that every nook and cranny of this megacity is crammed with eateries that come highly recommended – from Michelin-star restaurants to exciting ethnic cuisines, traditional diners and delis to hip food trucks, humble hot dog stands to gourmet food places – the choice is endless. And honestly, a bit overwhelming!

But after a long day sightseeing or at the museum, there is no better place to reenergize than at one of NYC’s favourite pasticerrias (Italian pastry shops).

It is estimated that nearly 5 million Italians immigrated to America between 1875 and 1925. Many settled in the New York area and a few went on to open pasticerrias, making and selling food items they were familiar with back home in Italy. Some of these pastry shops from the late 19th / early 20th century are still operational today and retain an old-world charm that is so endearing in an ultra-modern city like NYC.

Hubby was determined to find himself a 12-string guitar in NYC. Just the thought of one more guitar in the house drove me straight into the arms of the closest pastry shop. So on most days, hubby’s guitar search and my pastry hunt went hand in hand. I bring you 3 of NYC’s most loved Italian bakeries.

Ferrara Bakery & Café 195 Grand Street (between Mulberry & Mott Street)

After a long evening at Rudy’s Music, hubby and I took a brisk 10-min walk to get to Ferrara Bakery, NYC’s oldest pasticerria. A family owned business, it is currently operated by the 5th generation of founder Antonio Ferrara’s family. It has come a long way since its opening in 1892, when it served opera goers returning from late night shows, with coffee and cookies.

One look at the display cases at  Ferrara, will have you screaming “Holy Canoli!”, a phrase that this legendary pastry shop is credited with inventing. This landmark Little Italy establishment offers a mind-boggling array of classic Italian pastries.

A hot favourite here are the biscotti (twice-baked, oblong, almond biscuits). One portion consists of four assorted biscotti, which you can choose from the six available flavours – chocolate, almond, prato, anise, chocolate dipped and hazelnut. Dunk the biscotti in your Cappuccino and you have yourself a coffee break to remember.

When celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli was asked to choose her ‘last meal’, she preferred to skip the main meal and instead chose this hallowed pasticerria’s Sfogliatella (a flaky, ricotta filled-pastry resembling a stack of leaves) and Lobster Tail (similar to a Sfogliatella but larger, and filled with cream). Such is the allure of Ferrara’s delicacies!

Ferrara is best visited at Christmas time, when the festive décor adds an extra shot of charm to the experience. Here’s what we sampled at Ferrara…..


Italian Rhum Cake ‘Gateau’ (vanilla sponge cake with layers of coffee & chocolate custard cream and topped with fresh whipped cream)


An assortment of biscotti (chocolate, almond, white chocolate dipped & hazelnut)


Ferrara at Christmas! 

Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Espresso Café 243 Bleecker St

Ardell at Matt Umanov Guitars, Greenwich Village directed us to Rocco’s and even gave his recommendations on what we should try there. He suggested the French Lulu (pastry shell filled with vanilla french cream and topped with chocolate coconut macaroon & cocoa powder) and their freshly made Cannoli (a Sicilian pastry meaning ‘little tube’).

The pasticerria is the handiwork of Rocco Generoso who came to NYC in 1957. He learnt how to make authentic Italian pastries from the owner of the bakery he worked at, and mastered the art of making Cannoli, for which he became very famous.

Rocco purchased the bakery in 1974 and Rocco’s Pastry Shop was born. The business is currently managed by Rocco’s children, and Rocco Jr. who is now the Head Pastry Chef, sticks steadfastly to his father’s recipes. Cannoli is still the speciality here; the crispy, fried shell provides a delightful contrast to the soft cream filling. Customers can choose from regular or chocolate shells and the cream is piped in fresh, on order. To make it even more decadent, toppings like pistachio or chocolate chips are added. Another item to try here is their Baba Rum, a sponge cake soaked in rum-flavoured syrup and filled with cannoli cream.

The pasticerria also has an overwhelming selection of cheesecakes, cookies, gelato and other Italian delicacies. A new Brooklyn location was added in 2014 (9402 4th Ave), making Rocco’s pastries even more accessible to New Yorkers and tourists alike.

At Rocco’s, Hubby didn’t hesitate for a second to add Baba Rum (sponge cake soaked in a rum flavoured syrup and filled with cannoli cream) to our order 😀


Ricotta filled Cannoli (on the left), Baba Rum (on the right) & French Lulu (on the top)

Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé 342 E. 11th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenue)

This was by far the most warm and inviting experience we had, as far as Italian bakeries in NYC go! Established in 1894, it is run today by Robert Zerilli (the great nephew of Antonio Veniero, the founder) and his siblings. This pasticerria began its life as a confection store before taking the city by storm with its baked Italian goodies.

It was late morning when we got to Veniero’s and their take-away pastry shop was crowded. We had to pull ourselves away from the tantalizing 40-foot display counter and headed straight to its café, appropriately called the Venetian Room. Here one is immediately transported to old Venice – the room complete with a bright stained-glass ceiling, Italian marble flooring, mirrors and all. Luckily, we were the only customers in the café.

Halfway through our quiet yet scrumptious breakfast of Sfogliatella (a clam shaped pastry filled with sweet ricotta) and a slice of Fruit Supreme (sponge cake infused with raspberry brandy and filled with bavarian cream and fresh fruits), Robert Zerilli joined us for a long chat about travel and food.


A divine slice of Fruit Supreme!


Sfogliatella (a clam shaped pastry filled with sweet ricotta) washed down with Sambucca Cappuchino

Robert also, very generously treated us to some of Veniero’s favourites – Strawberry Shortcake and Zuppa Inglese (sponge cake soaked in rum and layered with chocolate custard). Complete calorie overload but I wasn’t complaining!


Strawberry Shortcake


Zuppa Inglese (sponge cake soaked in rum and layered with chocolate custard)

Definitely one of the highlights of our NYC trip! Of all the pasticerrias in NYC, this East Village mainstay has made the most number of TV appearances, including NBC’s Law & Order and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. But the real reason for its popularity are the 200+ varieties of Italian pastries, cakes and cookies that are baked fresh on the premises every day.


Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed my sugar-laden journey! Do let me know about your favourite Italian bakeries in NYC. Ciao!


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