Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Day After

Taj Hotel Mumbai, 27 Nov 2008Watching the incidents in Mumbai unfold in real-time over live television, this didn't seem like the kind of terrorism we have gotten used to. This was like watching Iraq and Afganistan - urban warfare, only it was happening here at home.

It is all over now, or is it really? Watching those baby-faced killers go about their gruesome errand, I was reminded of Obama writing about 9/11: 'My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.'

Even as we were coming to terms with the global economic crisis, we are reminded we have more than one time-bomb ticking, and one right here at home.

Note: Photo of the Taj Hotel by NDTV.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean

Calico Jack's pirate flagBesides it's sun-kissed beaches and the pretty coral reefs, the Caribbean is also known for its fierce inhabitants during the 17th century. While the Europeans were busy taking control of the New World and plundering its wealth, these lovely islands were home to pirates, privateers and buccaneers.

Much of the piracy was directed against the Spanish galleons that transported treasures from the South American territories to Spain through the Caribbean Sea. From the time Columbus discovered the Americas in the 15th century, Spain steadily increased their presence here with Cartagena, in modern Columbia, becoming their key settlement. From here the Spaniards mined silver (and gold) that were transported back periodically. As you can expect, the pirates wanted to intercept as much of these shipments as they could.

Paradise Island, Bahamas
Paradise Island, BahamasWhile I remembered some of this from history lessons, what I only now learnt was how England actively supported and nurtured the pirates because they were at war with Spain.

Blackbeard, reputed to be the fiercest of them all, actually operated from Paradise Island! With his evil looks and reputation of being the most cruel, stories of his exploits quickly filled the seafaring world. From what I found, he was the master of spin and created an image more terrifying than he really was.

Lazing around in and around the Atlantis resort, it is difficult to imagine everything that happened in these islands many years ago

Atlantis, Bahamas
Royal Towers, Atlantis, Bahamas
Atlantis, Bahamas
Splashers Pool, Atlantis, BahamasFrancis Drake, whose exploits were legendary, making him a hero to the English was but a simple pirate to the Spaniards. He ruled the waters of the Caribbean for a while terrorizing the Spaniards and capturing their treasure, sinking their ships and even burning down one of their key ports.

Paradise Island, BahamasThe other famous pirate Calico Jack is most remembered for his black flag featuring the skull and crossed cutlasses, which helped to popularize the design and associate it in popular culture with piracy. He also employed two notorious female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read - a rarity in those times (well, I guess this would be a rarity even today)! If you are interested in more, the Pirates of Nassau museum on the island takes you on a journey to the the golden age of piracy.

Related Posts: Arriving in Paradise, Cracked Conch and Bahama Mamas.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Arriving in Paradise

The Dig at Atlantis BahamasEven before our small airplane landed, we got a preview of what Paradise looked like. Turquoise waters, azure skies and the whitest sandy beaches. From the sky, the islands seemed like miles of long beaches seperated by only slivers of land. By the time we landed at Nassau on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, we were already pretty excited.

Bahamas from the skyLocated just off the southern tip of Florida, the Bahamas was once a bustling haven for pirates. It is now a popular beach destination for the rich - mostly Americans, especially those who live on the East Coast. Tropical weather, picture-perfect beaches, excellent resorts... everything you need for that perfect vacation.

Paradise Island, Bahamas
Getting a visa to the Bahamas turned out to be more complex than I had expected. While Bahamas is a soverign country, my visa was issued by the UK Counsulate. In the visa office at Pune and Mumbai, no one had ever processed a Bahamas visa application before, so it took some time while they figured out how the process worked. However, the whole process did not take more than a week.

Atlantis BahamasImmigration was a breeze (however, don't let this fool you; you need AT LEAST three hours to complete the immigration/customs process on your way out, especially if you are flying out via USA on your way back). As the bus took us to our resort, the Atlantis, we could see more of the oceans, beaches and glimpses of the downtown area filled with touristy shops and restaurants. People here are predominantly black with whites being the largest minority population; I didn't run into too many Asians here. In spite of a storm scare, the weather was perfect - bright and sunny, with a cool wind blowing in from the sea.

Atlantis Bahamas
Atlantis BahamasAtlantis is an impressively large resort - like something out of Las Vegas. Owned by the South African hotel magnate who also created Sun City, this magnificent resort boasts of the world's largest open-air aquariums with sharks, manta rays and many other marine creatures. The resort also has some amazing water rides, lagoons and pools that will keep adults and kids engaged all day long. The property is surrounded by three pristine beaches, which can get somewhat crowded during the afternoon. And if you can bring yourself out of water, there is the casino, nightclub, cinema, and the upscale shopping and celebrity chef-run restaurants - all within the resort itself.

The Dig at Atlantis Bahamas
Atlantis BahamasThemed after the lost city of Atlantis, the whimsical architecture of the buildings, exhibits and the water rides are very imaginative with a Disney-like attention to detail. None more so than The Dig, located within the Royal Towers where we were lodged. Apparently, this marine habitat(along with the Predator Tunnel) is home to over 200 species of marine life totalling more than 50,000 creatures large and small.

Atlantis BahamasOn most days, we woke up early to stroll on the empty beaches to watch the sun rise and hunting for sea-shells, with only sea gulls for company. Breakfast at The Marketplace was sumptuous - and expensive! The buffet here was elaborate and tastefully laid out. Fresh waffles, pancakes, breads, made-to-order eggs, a variety of breakfast meats, six types of fruit juices, and almost everything you can think of!

Marketplace at Atlantis Bahamas
Marketplace at Atlantis Bahamas
Atlantis BahamasWe spent most of the days in the pools and lagoon, venturing out only for the excellent strawberry Daiquiries or Bahama Mamas. The rides in the 140 acre Aquaventure includes something for everyone. A few of these slides drop you straight into a pool of sharks and other predators (well, actually there is a glass tube that keep you seperated from them, but the effect is pretty good). The poolside shacks serve pretty good cheeseburgers and hot-dogs.

Mayan Temple water slides Atlantis Bahamas
Atlantis BahamasOn one evening we walked over to the Marina Village watching the fancy boats that were docked there. The Dolphin Cay, another popular attraction, didn't impress me too much; I found it too commercialized to be fun.

When I had researched this destination, I read a lot of negative comments on message-boards regarding service quality and food prices. Let me point out that the service at all times here was excellent. The staff were friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. However, food prices are indeed high; though, the quality of food is pretty good.

All in all, you can easily spend a week here with the family without needing to venture out of the resort. And the kids will not want to leave!

Related Posts: Pirates of the Caribbean, Cracked Conch and Bahama Mamas.


Friday, November 07, 2008

Stone Water Grill

Stone Water Grill PuneAnother welcome addition to Pune's burgeoning casual dining scene is the classy Stone Water Grill. Located in a swanky, new suburb of Koregaon Park, this lounge-restaurant has a large open-air lounge and an indoor dining room. We walked in late in the evening, and the ambiance was very chic, with trees, water bodies and the bar area set in geometric patterns, all lit with a warm red glow.

As is (almost) always the case, we had walked in without a reservations. Therefore, the hostess couldn't get us a seat in the dining room. However, the evening was wonderful, and the outdoor option suited us just fine. This place is very pretty; right now, I think this is easily the best-looking lounge in Pune. Comfortable seating areas are spaced out and spread over a large area allowing ample privacy between tables. The music system was high-quality too but was thumping out techno/rave music on this night.

Stone Water Grill Pune
Stone Water Grill PuneStone Water Grill serves food with a Mediterranean touch. They also have a comprehensive wine and cocktail menu in the lounge, but only serve starters and wood-fired pizzas here. We ordered Long Island Iced Teas that turned out pretty good (and potent!).

Along with our drinks we ordered Moroccan Chicken Skewers and Spiced Lamb and Jalapeno Kibbeh. The Lamb was so good, we had to order another plate. While the chicken skewers were good too, the lamb was just terrific!

Moroccan Chicken Skewers at Stone Water Grill Pune
Spiced Lamb and Jalapeno Kibbeh at Stone Water Grill PuneWe finally ordered a Spiced Chicken Pizza which was again wonderful, with a crisp, thin crust and ample amount of mozzarella. I haven't tried their dining room yet, but if the lounge food was any indication, the food here is definitely worth trying.

Spiced Chicken Pizza at Stone Water Grill PuneAs for prices in the lounge, they are higher than Thousand Oaks, but not too much, especially considering the upscale ambiance. The drinks came for Rs:400 each, the starters Rs: 250 each, and the pizza for Rs: 380.

Stone Water Grill is located at Pyramid Complex, 81/82 North Main Road, Koregaon Park. If you are coming from Koregaon Park or Kalyaninagar, take the first left turn after you go past the sports complex. It is in the same complex as Hard Rock Cafe. Phone: 41030303/41030300

March 2009: Updated review of Stone Water Grill, this time of the dining area here.

For a comprehensive list of the best drinking places in Pune, check this post. I have also updated my post on New Dining Options at Pune with more photos and phone numbers.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Eating in the City of Lakes

La Belle Vie in MinneapolisI flew into Minneapolis late at night and drove straight to my hotel in Roseville. Northwest charged me $15 to check-in a bag, a first for me! My cab driver helpfully pointed out The Mall of America on the way to the hotel. This mall, the largest in the USA is the size of 78 football fields - 9.5 million square feet. But this city is known as much for its lakes as it is for being the home of large retail chains and malls. Minnesota has so many lakes, its shoreline is larger than California, Florida and Hawaii combined!

I was in Roseville/Minneapolis only for a day, which didn't leave me time to discover the great outdoors, resplendent with fall colors. For lunch, my hosts took me out to Sawatdee, a pretty good Thai restaurant in the downtown area. We drove over the new bridge over the Mississippi that had opened only a week back; the old one, as some of you may remember, created headlines by collapsing during peak hour traffic last year. I ordered pineapple red curry with chicken and rice. They asked me to select my spice level on a range of 1 to 5; I selected 4, which was spicy enough for me... :)

New Bridge MinneapolisIncidentally, during this trip, I saw both ends of the mighty Missisippi River which cuts through the USA from north to south. Like New Orleans, a lot of this city's importance in the past, derived from it's location on this river. This city and the area around it has a history of flour mills and lumber industries that depended on hydropower to run and the river as a means of transport.

Museum in downtown Minneapolis
Fall colors in MinneapolisFor dinner, my hosts me took me to a very upscale French Mediterranean restaurant called Le Belle Vie. Named as one of the top 20 restaurants in the US, this restaurant is located in the interesting Hennepin County. This county was named after the famous French explorer, who among other things, also discovered Niagara Falls. The restaurant is located close to some very interesting buildings: a Gothic cathedral across the road and a very contemporary museum building nearby. The restaurant itself is housed in a stately building with a large, regal dining hall. Guests dine from expensive China and sip from Riedel crysal.

Gothic Cathedral in downtown Minneapolis
La Belle Vie
La Belle VieWe decided to go a la carte instead of selecting from the 5 or 8-course tasting menu. Our waiter was an elderly chap, very friendly and funny. I began with Carmelized Foie Gras with Apple, Fennel and Calvados. It was lovely!

Foie Gras at La Belle Vie
Breads at La Belle VieThe salad came next, White and Green Asparagus with Parmesian-Lemon Sabayon, Pancheta and Butter Poached Egg. This was perfect too.

Salad at La Belle Vie
Salad at La Belle VieFor my entree I wanted to try a fish that was native to the waters in this part of the world. I chose the Oven-Steamed Arctic Char with Fresh Porcini Mushrooms, Burgundy Truffles and Red Wine. I loved this dish! The Arctic Char is a freshwater fish found in Arctic waters and tastes very much like salmon (even though it has many similarities with trout).

Arctic Char at La Belle Vie
Scallops at La Belle VieThe Seared Scallops and Grilled Beef Tenderloin my companions ordered looked great too. This restaurant certainly deserves its standing as one of the Top 50 restaurants in the USA. BTW, this restaurant has a large lounge area too where you can nurse your drinks or even order off the same dinner menu.

Sweet endings at La Belle VieWe had no appetite left to sample the desserts after that dinner. Instead, we chatted over cappucino for a while before getting up to leave. I had to wake up early for my flight to California where I had one more day of meetings before I would catch my long flight back to India.

The Big Sur at Heart my Pizza CupertinoBTW, if you are in Cupertino, try the pizza at Heart My Pizza. I love their Big Sur with large cloves of garlic, pepperoni, sausages and portabello. Just make sure you aren't getting into a meeting after having all that garlic! :)