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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 megapolis is crammed with eateries that come highly recommended – diners, burger joints, delis, Michelin star restaurants, ethnic food places, steakhouses, food trucks, hot dog stands, artisanal food stores – the list is endless. And honestly, a bit overwhelming!

I’ll be doing a series of posts about the food in NYC but I’m starting with something that is universally appreciated and loved – pastries!

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 St

After a long evening at Rudy’s Music, hubby and I took a brisk 10 min walk to get to Ferrara Bakery. A family owned business operated by the 5th generation, it has come a long way since it opening in 1892, when it served opera goers returning from late night shows.

The choice at this place was mind-boggling, to say the least! 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’).

Hubby added Baba Rum (sponge cake soaked in a rum flavored syrup and filled with cannoli cream) to the order. With its roots in a much older Italian bakery, Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Espresso Café was started by Rocco Generoso in 1974.


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

Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé, 342 E 11th St,

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. It was late morning when we got to Veniero’s and though their take-away pastry shop was crowded, we were the only customers in the café.

Halfway through our 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 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! You may recognize Veniero’s from the many TV shows it has been featured in, including the acerbic Larry David’s show ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (Season 8, episode 76).


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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Historic Philadelphia

Philadelphia – a city of many firsts. The first major industrial city in America, the first hospital in the country, the first modern skyscraper in the US…. the list is endless. This is also where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the American Constitution was drafted in the late 1700s.

I lived in Philly for about year. Many a weekend was spent walking around the Historic District, re-living the centuries gone by.

Here’s a glimpse into American history via some key Philadelphia landmarks:

The William Penn Statue

In the late 1600s, William Penn, an Englishman bought land from the native Indians. He envisioned a place where people of different religions would live together in harmony and established a city on those lines. He called it Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love (from the Greek ‘Philos’ meaning love and ‘adelphos’ meaning ‘brother’). This religious tolerance attracted colonists and immigrants alike and the city prospered.

Today, William Penn is visible atop the City Hall Tower where he stands over 36ft tall. The bronze statue was installed in 1894 and till recently (late 1980s) was the highest point in the city.

The William Penn statue atop City Hall

The statue of William Penn atop City Hall

Independence Hall

You may remember Independence Hall from the Nicholas Cage starrer, National Treasure.

July 4th, 1776. Representatives from the 13 American colonies gathered at Independence Hall and signed the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration heralded the colonies’ independence from the British Crown and the formation of a new nation, the United States of America. July 4th has since been celebrated as Independence Day.

About a decade later (in 1787), the Constitution of the United States was also adopted at the same place.

A must visit for any history buff.

Statue of George Washington outside Independence Hall

The statue of George Washington outside Independence Hall

The Betsy Ross House

This colonial house is believed to be the place where Betsy Ross, the seamstress made the first American Flag. The facts are highly debated among historians but the house remains a popular tourist destination.

Betsy Ross House

A busy afternoon at the Betsy Ross House

Now for some fun-stuff! A couple of must do-s in the Historic District:

Eat at the City Tavern

Have a leisurely meal at the City Tavern and get transported back in time to colonial America. The proprietor/chef Walter Staib has recreated an authentic 18th century American culinary experience. Even the table settings and cutlery/glassware reflect colonial times.

City Tavern signage

The City Tavern signage

Colonial style table setting at the City Tavern

Colonial style table setting at the City Tavern

Rustic breads served at the City Tavern

Rustic breads served at the City Tavern

City Tavern's staff dressed in colonial costumes

City Tavern’s staff dressed in colonial costumes

Toss a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s grave

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground. The quote ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’ is attributed to him. Visitors toss pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave for good luck. I’m not sure how this practice started but a bit ironic, don’t you think?

Pennies thrown on the grave of Benjamin Franklin for good luck

Pennies thrown on Ben Franklin’s grave for good luck

This historic city holds a special place in my heart. Truly, a museum without walls.

In a future post, I explore the artistic side of Philadelphia.

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