Tag Archives: USA

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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In the land of Barbecue & Rum – Puerto Rico

The drinking world is divided into those that absolutely love piña colada and those that absolutely dislike it! It’s a bit too sweet for my taste but its popularity is undeniable. This delectable mix of white rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice; is after all, the national cocktail of Puerto Rico.

Did you know that nearly 70% of the rum sold in America comes from Puerto Rico? The island prides itself as the ‘rum capital of the world’, with Bacardi being one of the largest rum producers on the island. No surprises then, that Bacardi’s distillery in the town of Cataño is known as the ‘Cathedral of Rum’. Nearby is Casa Bacardi, a museum unlike any other museum you know! It offers exciting tours of the distillery, a heady rum tasting session as well as a mixology class, among other fun activities. http://www.visitcasabacardi.com

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

During Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493, he reached the shores of the island we know today as Puerto Rico and named it San Juan Bautista, after St John the Baptist. The capital of the island, founded in 1521, was called Ciudad de Puerto Rico, which translated into English means the ‘rich port city’, alluding to all the gold that was found in its rivers. In a strange twist of history, the capital city came to be later known as San Juan while the entire island was referred to as Puerto Rico.

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) in Plaza de Colon in Old San Juan

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) at the Plaza de Colón in Old San Juan

The indigenous people of Puerto Rico (and the larger Caribbean region) are the Taino Indians. They were the first people that Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in the New World in 1492.

You’d be interested to know that the word ‘barbeque’ comes to us from the Taino people. While this cooking technique has been around since prehistoric times, the Taino used the word barbicu to refer to a wooden rack built above the ground for smoking food. Spanish conquistadors took the word back to Spain and by the 18th century, English speakers were using the word ‘barbecue’ to refer to a late afternoon social gathering where the highlight was the grilling of meat.

In fact, several commonly used English words come to us from the Taino people. Hammock, potato, hurricane, canoe, potato, cassava and maize are just a few examples.

Spain surrendered Puerto Rico to the US in 1898. While it is officially known today as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it is an unincorporated US territory.

There is so much to experience in Puerto Rico – it’s luscious coffee, the El Yunque National Forest, the Arecibo Observatory (the world’s largest single aperture telescope, featured in the James Bond movie Golden Eye), its stunning beaches (it’s an island after all!), its many underwater treasures. For now, I leave you with these snapshots of Puerto Rico….

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp at Raices, a local restaurant

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, Puerto Rico

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, a fine dining restaurant in San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan - the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan – the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

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Postcard from Panama

Everyone’s favourite Panama souvenir? A Panama hat, of course!

Well, if you thought Panama hats came from Panama, it’s time to do some research. In reality, Panama hats have been made in Ecuador since the mid-1600s. In the 19th century, they began to be shipped from Ecuador to the rest of the world, via Panama, thus creating the myth that they were made in Panama. Well, now you know!

The label on the inside of my Panama Hat - still made in Ecuador!

The label on the inside of my Panama hat – still made in Ecuador!

Made from the leaf fibers of the Paja Toquilla (a palm-like plant), a Panama hat at its finest, is said to be able to pass through a wedding ring! And yes, you can buy them in Panama.

Panama City, the capital of Panama, was originally founded in 1519 by the Spanish. After it was attacked and looted by a British buccaneer by the name of Captain Henry Morgan in 1671, a new city was established 2 years later not too far from the original location. This historic town is known today as Casco Viejo (which means ‘old quarter’ in Spanish) and was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (old quarter)

The quaint streets of Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter)

On a separate note, if you thought the name Captain Henry Morgan sounded familiar, that’s because the world famous Captain Morgan Rum is named after him 🙂

No trip to Panama is complete without a visit to the pride of Panama, the Panama Canal. It is after all, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

A ship approaching the Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

After much political manoeuvring surrounding the creation and control of the canal (that’s a post for another day!), the Panama Canal opened on 15th Aug 1914. It took the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nearly 10 years to build (1904-1914) and more than 75,000 workers were involved.

This feat of engineering connects the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, saving ships sailing from New York to San Francisco (and vice versa) nearly 13,000km (8,000 miles) as compared to going all around Cape Horn in Chile, South America. Panama assumed full control of the canal in 1999.

30-40 ships cross the canal every day and a ship takes roughly 8-10 hours to cross the 80km canal. Interestingly, the ship captain isn’t allowed to navigate the canal on his own. A specially trained pilot steers the ship through the canal. The system of ‘locks’ used by the canal is an impressive phenomenon to watch and an engineer’s delight!

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

A ship getting lifted at the Miraflores Locks to enable it to transit the Panama Canal

2010 was a landmark year in the history of the canal as the millionth vessel transited through the waterway.  Ships that use the canal pay a toll based on their size and cargo volume, with large ships paying as much as half a million dollars. Richard Halliburton, the American adventurer holds the record for the smallest toll ever paid when he swam the canal in 1928 – 36cents. There are many jokes about where he could have possibly kept his change 😉

The canal generates nearly $2 billion in annual toll and along with allied industries, is a significant contributor to the Panamanian economy. You can either watch the ships navigate the canal (http://visitcanaldepanama.com/en/) or book an actual boat trip along the canal.

All the buzz around the canal completely overshadows the fact that Panama is home to dense rainforests (the forest cover is almost 50%), which in turn house nearly 1,000 species of birds, more bird species than the US and Canada combined. With 2,500kms of coastline and nearly 1,500 islands, Panama also has a rich and thriving marine life. That calls for another trip to this fascinating country – the only country in the world where the sun rises in the Pacific and sets in the Atlantic.

I leave you with some fun snapshots of Panama….

A food platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

A sampling platter with ceviche, carimanola, empanadas and much more @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

Local beer, Cerveza 507 @ Diablicos, Panama City

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

A local painting purchased from Casco Viejo, Panama

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

La Catedral Metropolitana (completed in 1796) in Casco Viejo is one of the largest cathedrals in Central America

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

The church-school complex of Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús (completed in 1741) , Casco Viejo

Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal

The Miraflores Locks Control Tower at the Panama Canal


Hasta la vista amigos! 🙂

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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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