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Dine and Dive, Visitor St. Kitts and Nevis 2010

By Zpolin · September 29, 2010 · 0 Comments ·

Dine and Dive

A Fresh Sea Urchin Meal

“So what’s for dinner,” I asked Conny Andersson, one of the partners at the Spice Mill the latest restaurant to open on Cockleshell Beach. I settled onto my favourite bar stool and signalled the waiter for a Stingray, a potent tropical drink that packs a punch, but is so refreshing it’s hard to stop at one.

“Sea eggs,” Conny said with a straight face. I looked at him, assuming he was joking. He laughed and explained, “That’s the Caribbean name. You probably know it as sea urchin or uni from your favourite Japanese restaurant.”

I took a long gulp of my drink and continued to stare at him. “So where are you getting this sea urchin,” I asked a bit sarcastically. “In there?” I gestured with both arms to the Caribbean Sea that started just a few feet from my stool and spread out across The Narrows to Nevis.

“Yes,” he answered, without missing a beat. “And you’re going to help me catch it.” With that, he pulled out snorkels, masks and flippers and then started laughing at the shock that even I could feel on my face.

I downed the rest of my drink, hoping for some liquid courage, and ordered another. Conny just waited. After a couple of sips from my second round, I shrugged my shoulders, smiled and said. “Why not?” I’d just been swimming with macho sea lions in Mexico, and I figured sea urchins that I could hold in my hand couldn’t be scarier. But little did I know that these white-spined creatures were going to wiggle and suck on my hand, making me (just about) as nervous touching them as I was around the sea lions.

The bed of sea grass, home to the urchins, began just a few feet from the shoreline, in about eight feet or so of water. Conny swam around and gathered up three spiky specimens as well as one smooth and beautiful pink shell, which was the casing to a dead one. We carefully tossed the creatures into a bag and made our way back to the beach to open and clean them.

One by one Conny brought them out of the bag. He handed one to me, but as I held it flat in my hand it started to suck on my palm. I looked down and the spines were wiggling as it tried to squirm off my hand. My bravery abruptly ended there, and I passed it back to Conny. He slowly and carefully cut a large circle in the shell and lifted the top off. Filled with sea gunk, it didn’t appear too appetizing, until he showed me the part we were going to eat. The yellow pieces of urchin did look very much like eggs.

A few minutes later, the inside was completely cleaned and the meat had been placed in shallow bowls of water, but the urchins were still wiggling. They would move like that until the dish was served 15 minutes later, only stopping after I dug in.

Conny waved at Curtis, Spice Mill’s chef, who brought over rice, seaweed and soy sauce, and soon I was eating a lightly flavoured, Japanese-style delicacy. The uni had the consistency and taste of custard and the soy sauce gave it just a bit of bite. The dish itself was beautiful and the pink shell set off colours of the food.

I gobbled up the dish, stopping only for a few sips of a crisp white wine that went perfectly with the uni. I was glad I was brave enough to try this Caribbean experience and vowed to tag along during the next dine and dive adventure.

Getting Hooked on Kittitian Cuisine, Visitor St. Kitts and Nevis

By Zpolin · September 29, 2010 · 0 Comments ·

“Miss, wanna try some souse? Or maybe some goat water? Or how about some cook-up?” the woman called out to me as she lifted up steaming pots of… well… of things I just didn’t recognize. With her singsong Kittitian accent, I could barely just understand the names of the dishes, so I just nodded. “All of them then,” she said and provided me with some samples of each.

I’m an adventurous eater so after a moment or two of adjusting to the colours and the lumps and bumps on my plate I dug in. The result? I love goat water. This thick stew made of goat meat is usually served on the weekends as well as late night at a typical Kittitian “lime,” where you party until the sun rises. Goat water is rich, meaty and delicious and with a little extra bit of Kittitian pepper sauce, I was hooked.

While souse is made with random parts of the pig, including (depending on the recipe and the chef) the head, feet, snout, tail and ear, cook-up can be made with just pork, just chicken, both pork and chicken or pork, chicken and saltfish… you get the idea. I was glad that I sampled before I learned about the ingredients. But truthfully, after two (or even eight) hours of cooking, the meat is moist and delicious.

And speaking of saltfish… My cravings for saltfish and Johnny cakes meant dragging myself out of bed bright and early to ensure that Sunset Café at Timothy Beach Resort, my preferred restaurant for this Kittitian breakfast, didn’t run out. If it did, I usually begged my friends to borrow their car so I could drive down to the Bay Road in Basseterre to order a bowl from one of the weekend vendors, who always smiled at my obvious delight at their native dish. Or even better, I would drive out to the countryside to Rawlins Plantation, which has a West Indian buffet lunch that includes my beloved saltfish as well as a wide selection of other traditional dishes, including sweet soursop sorbet.

Saltfish is simple and satisfying and exactly what it sounds like – dried, salted fish, usually cod, which is soaked overnight and then stewed with tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and other “secret” ingredients. Johnny cakes are basically pan fried flat or circular dough balls that are occasionally flavoured with grated coconut. When made right and eaten just out of the pan, it’s impossible to eat just one. The outside is crisp and the inside is soft and doughy, perfect for mopping up the juice from the saltfish. I love that a hard-boiled egg and spicy plantains are also often included. And always, always, there’s hot sauce; scotch bonnet pepper sauce is the hottest I can handle.

Another Kittitian favourite is the roti. Much snobbery surrounds this simple dish, with friends from St. Kitts, Trinidad and Guyana fighting long and hard over which are the best, whether the chicken must have bones or not and who makes the perfect “skins.” Others insist on beef, goat, conch or even shrimp roti. The love of one’s hometown roti is so strong that one friend stuffs a dozen frozen ones into a Dora the Explorer insulated lunch bag whenever he comes to St. Kitts from Trinidad.

However, the culinary surprises on St. Kitts don’t all come from a boiling pot. What also amazes me about this small island is the wealth of international chefs who craft Creole and continental dishes using local ingredients and flavours. One of the most well known of these is Verral Marshall, chef/owner of Marshall’s (now in both St. Kitts and Nevis) as well as Diamond Cut Steakhouse. His Caribbean Ackee and Saltfish is a salute to his Jamaican roots, while the Seafood Coquille St. Kitts is a wonderful play on traditional French cuisine.

George Reid, executive chef of the new Beach House on Turtle Beach, comes to the island from Cap Juluca in Anguilla and several Michelin-starred restaurants. The Beach House’s inventive dishes wouldn’t be out of place in any of the world’s best restaurants.

Serendipity’s view of Basseterre Harbour is only one of the many reasons to visit. Personally, I like the tapas-style appetizers that Chef Alexander James makes in all shapes and sizes using the freshest ingredients. He playfully serves some on a plate that dangles on a banana holder and displays others in equally creative ways.

Whether you’re looking for a real Creole feast or a five star-style dining experience, St. Kitts can satisfy your every craving.

Filed in: Caribbean, Food
By Zpolin · May 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

Galapagos - The Enchanted Islands

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

published in The Washington Times: http://www.ecuadornumismatics.com/numisphily/dollarization/washtimes/28.html

 "During my wandering I met two giant tortoises, each could have weighed at least 200 pounds; one was eating a cactus pad. When I approached, it stared at me conspicuously, then moved slowly away. These huge reptiles, surrounded by black lava, by shrubs with no leaves and tall cacti, looked like real antediluvian beasts." Charles Darwin, 1835.

As a young man, Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands as part of an around the world trip on the HMS Beagle. In late 1835, after exploring the coasts of Chile and Peru, he landed on the Archipelago of Ecuador, as the Galapagos were then called. From his trip he realized that species did not change but evolved due to natural selection, the environment and genetics. His studies, mainly of finches, led to his theory - the Evolution of the Species. Twenty-four years after his visit to these islands, Darwin's book, The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, and his theories rocked the world.

Though Darwin spent five weeks on the Galapagos, our trip, on Klein Tours' Coral 2, would only be five days. During this time we would look for sea lions, hawks, marine and land iguanas and blue-footed boobies. Boobies with blue feet? This I had to see.

As the plane came closer to the Galapagos, we looked down into clear, blue ocean. We kept an eye out for shapes that we thought could be sea lions, sharks and giant tortoises. The plane landed on the runway at Baltra Airport, our bags were handled by Klein and soon we were on Coral 2, the small, luxury yacht that we would call home.

Our first stop that afternoon was on Bartolome Island where we snorkeled at Pinnacle Rock. The green-bottomed ocean looked like a field. Hundreds of exotic fish swam by, around and through us. While moray eels peered out from crevices, sharks, mantas and other more ominous creatures were nowhere to be seen.

Soon, sea lions jumped into the water and the braver among us went to frolic in the water near them. Shouting at each other and diving down, we would try to catch the sea lions as they swam by. A warning: get out of the water when a larger male becomes possessive of his clan. The macho sea lions are a bigger danger than the four-foot white tip reef sharks that swam within a foot of us. The sharks were curious, but harmless. Even so, when I saw the whites of their eyes, I decided to hightail it back to shore. Too bad, those that were more courageous saw puffer fish and mantas.

We would do a lot of hiking and climbing on the islands of Bartolome, Fernandina, Rabida and Santa Cruz. Although the Galapagos is known for its wildlife, the terrain is equally as fascinating. On our first day, however, we had to don rain gear to climb the 350 steps to the top of Bartolome. It was too rainy to see much; normally, we would have had a wonderful view of 19 islands across miles and miles of ocean.

Captain Cook was among the English and British pirates who used the Galapagos as a hideout in the 17th century. But, not all sailors liked the islands. Captain George Vancouver and his crew visited the in 1795 and described them as “the most dreary barren and desolate country I ever beheld.” On Fernandina, pirate graffiti from as early as 1826 can still be seen. On this island, we had a wet landing onto a small cove where a dozen sea lions of all sizes were resting near the pirate's signatures. We made our way around them, jumping quickly around the huge males and cooing over the babies.

We wound our way up and around the island on a narrow, dirt path. At one point we looked down to see a green saltwater lake that was narrowly separated from the blue ocean. At the top of the island, we sat and looked over miles of lava fields, young enough to not allow any form of plants to grow upon it.

Our favorite days were when we walked on the islands filled with life. Oystercatchers, flightless cormorants and yellow warblers searched for food in the little pools of water that gathered in the lava. Only a couple of feet from us, orange land iguanas nibbled delicately at the grass. Galapagos hawks sat in trees, while colorful Galapagos grasshoppers startled us by jumping across the path. Bright red, Sally Lightfoot crabs scrambled along the black lava rocks. Like all crabs around the world, they scurried away as we came upon them. However, these were the only animals that knew fear.

One morning, as the sun baked down on us, we jumped out of the launch to walk around James Island. Hundreds of marine iguanas awaited our arrival. From head to tail they were anywhere from one to five feet long. These slate-gray colored animals sunbathed on the rocks and each other, spitting salt onto their heads to keep them cool. When they got hot, they would slowly saunter into the water, walking with all the confidence of an animal who knows no fear. Once in the water, only their spiked crowns, tiny heads and long tails were visible. The tails swayed back and forth to propel them through the water.

We headed over to take a look at Darwin's toilets, a set of holes through which the sea flushes. In the middle of the foam were furry sea lions, their long whiskers flowing from their noses. Years ago, tourists could swim with the animals. Now environmental concerns only permitted us to take pictures of the sea lions who appeared to be mugging for the cameras.

The cutest animals of all were the tiny penguins, the second smallest in the world, after the Australian fairy penguin. Food was plentiful for these little guys who were hanging out in a pack. When life is tougher, they swim and feed individually. This rare glance of a group delighted even the guides, who report on what kinds and how many animals they see on each tour.

Blue-footed (but not red or masked) boobies abounded on rocky ledges. Their feet, a bright, baby blue color seemed incongruous next to their brown and white feathers. We sat in the dingy admiring the birds who felt no need to move. A few feet above us, one male started the mating dance, hopping on one foot, then the other and bopping up and down. His target female ignored his show, so he moved to another and began again -- throwing his neck back, opening his mouth, shaking his feathers and dancing. One foot, two foot, red foot, blue foot - perhaps Dr. Seuss had visited the Galapagos and seen these colorful creatures.

On the last day of our trip we stopped at the Charles Darwin Research Station where we were both awed and saddened. Here rare, sub-species of giant tortoises are kept as breeders. There is a tortoise breeding house and a pen for baby tortoises to live in until they are five years old and can be released back to the proper island. But, one island will never get back its tortoise. Lonesome George, the last of his species, sits out his days (he is already almost 100 years old) on Santa Cruz, never to return to his homeland of Santa Pinta.

The Galapagos is all about contradictions. Wonder and sadness. Beauty and beasts. Life and extinction. While a trip to the Galapagos is a treasured memory, it is important to realize that each footprint leaves an imprint that in the long run may be damaging to the animals and plants. The Galapagos should teach the tourist to respect nature. As the guides are fond of saying, “Take only memories; leave only footprints.”

Thanks to: www.kleintours.com


Cuenca - The Athens of Ecuador

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

published in the Washington Times: http://www.ecuadornumismatics.com/numisphily/dollarization/washtimes/29.html

During the rest of the year, Cuenca is a peaceful town and one of Ecuador's most beautiful. The skyline is filled with shining church domes, cathedrals and museums. In the Monastery of the Conception, nuns create intricate wax pieces. The El Rollo monument is a pyramid, dating back to 1787, which was a symbol of justice during the colonial period. Visitors stroll down cobblestone streets and plazas full of flowers.

As the intellectual center of Ecuador and the birthplace of many artists, philosophers, writers and poets, Cuenca has been nicknamed the Athens of Ecuador.

Cuenca is also known for its craftsmanship. “Panama” Hats are their specialty. Worn in movies such as Billy Bathgate, they can cost up to $5,000 in Germany. The elaborately woven hats were first made in Montecristo, Ecuador and sent to the workers on the Panama Canal, where President Teddy Roosevelt gave them their moniker. This old art is still practiced at Homero Ortega, one of Cuenca's best known factories. Here the deveined leaves of tropical palm trees are woven, beaten, colored, and pressed into hundreds of different styles. Artisans use magnifying glasses and can take up to a month to weave a finely woven masterpiece. The most expensive hat at Ortega costs $250. These same hats sell for around $3,000 in the United States.

Dozens of other crafts are practiced in and around Cuenca. Gold and silver are combined with emeralds, diamonds, topaz and opals to create original jewelry. Yapacunchi, one of Ecuador's best known ceramic companies, creates hundreds of pieces of handpainted ceramics. Other local artists use a potter's wheel or their own imagination to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces. Artisans at El Centro de Bordados Cuenca hand embroider t-shirts with traditional scenes. The once lost art of IKAT has been rekindled and is again practiced in this region. Hemp or plastic is twisted around chunks of thread and only specific areas are dyed. The yarn is then used to create clothes, blankets, and many other items.

After a few days of walking around Cuenca, stopping to admire the elegantly adorned cathedrals and the extensive museums, buying flowers, pottery, hats, textiles, and gold, it's time to relax. The soothing baths of Hotel Duran are a ten minute drive from downtown Cuenca. You can spend all day soaking in the mineral pools, getting refreshed in the polar baths, relaxing in a Jacuzzi, stopping for a Turkish bath or a sauna and sitting in the sun with a refreshing fruit drink.

On the way back to the hotel, which may be the quaint Oro Verde located on a lake filled with ducks, and only a few minutes from the Old City, don’t forget to stop in the Cava San Miguel. Tours show how rum is produced from the most pure and select sugar cane. In the cave, hundreds of caskets of rum are aged. The tour ends with a tasting of their four types of rum Plata, Oro, and 5 and 7 year. The Plata, a light rum, is actually aged at least two years and begins to take on the color of the cask. The color is then removed, which produces a white rum ready to be added to the many varieties of fresh Ecuadorian juices.

Cuenca is not known for its active nightlife, but it does have its share of delicious restaurants. From the Oro Verde's fondue restaurant to El Jardin's local specialties to the dozens of restaurants that served delicious grilled meats and fish (especially the local trout), there are plenty of places to go to spend an evening with friends.

As a priest and chronicler of folk customs wrote about Cuenca, “I would be sorely tempted to say it is Heaven on Earth.”


Dining in Ecuador

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

The menu at the “Middle of the World” might as well have been written in Japanese. I could have understood it better if it was in Greek; it had nothing to do with any Spanish that I had ever learned. As I was about to take a chance and just point to a few items, I flipped over the plastic covered menu and saw my choices were in English. The translation was a little rough, but soon I had a better idea of the offerings, and thankfully, before I ordered.

As I slowly became a ccustomed to Ecuador's delicacies, I learned to love some of the items that I first saw on the menu at the Equator. Locro de papas (potato and cheese soup, usually with a creamy avocado in the middle), mote (burst corn), empanadas de morocho or verde (corn or plantain shells filled with meat or cheese), humitas (ground corn steamed in corn leaves and usually served with strong coffee) or quimbolitas (like humitas but made with corn flour and steamed in banana leaves), washed down with fresh fruit juices such as blackberry, watermelon, passion fruit or papaya.

Locro de papas

On the other hand, I could have chosen something a little more daring, like the roast cuy with potatoes and vegetables. I was actually leaning towards the cuy because saying the word was fun (kwee). But, then the other side of that plastic covered menu said it was roast guinea pig. I would see guinea pig often during my travels through Ecuador. Outside of Otavalo, a town with a massive Indian market, whole stands are set up and dedicated to cuy. It is served roasted on a stick, cut up and fried or it sits on the countertop in a basket so the customer can see the freshness. But, I didn't try guinea pig up there on the exact spot of the equator. I chose something a little more familiar - ceviche.

Ceviche in Ecuador is not the same as the ceviche that most Americans know. In Ecuador, the ceviche is marinated in a sauce made from orange juice. Then popcorn, plantain chips and roasted corn are mixed inside. Ceviche can be made with a wide variety of seafood. Except for the black clam and fish versions, ceviche is cooked before serving and is safe to eat. For a delicacy, try the crab ceviche, mouthfuls and mouthfuls of fresh crabmeat. Then have a bowl of crab in garlic sauce.

When I finally tried the cuy, on a rainy day at one of those roadside stands near the indigenous market, I discovered it tasted a lot like….well, pork. Actually, it was similar to very fresh, juicy pieces of pork and was served with roasted potatoes, just like mom's. Unfortunately, I wasn't as brave the second and third bites, and even though the cuy was delicious, I couldn't finish it.

Nighttime in Ecuador usually means a delicious dinner at one of the many restaurants specializing in local dishes, or a combination of local and international cuisine. Many hotels have their own first class restaurants. The Swissotel in Quito is known for its wide selection of Italian, Japanese and French. The brunch and lunch buffets at the Café Quito attract locals, tourists and businesspeople alike.

The Radisson Hotel has thick cuts of steaks and other top quality meals. And for Sunday brunch, the Hilton Colon has been a favorite for decades. Another hotel with outstanding restaurants is the Oro Verde in Guayaquil. The Spice Grill relies on local produce, such as fish, crayfish and crab to create delicious delicacies. The blue crab empanadas are a definite favorite.

But, it’s the desserts that are real surprises. Ecuador has some of the best chocolate in the world, thanks to its high quality cocoa. Famous Swiss and American chocolate makers, such as Nestle and Nabisco, use Ecuadorian cocoa to make their candies. But eating the chocolate fresh from the source is a real taste treat. Some of the best chocolate is available at the Swissotel and the Oro Verde. The truffles, made with dark or milk chocolate, are filled with a variety of flavors or are eaten pure. They should be savored, but it's easy to gobble them up in one bite.

La Universal has been creating candies, chocolate, bonbons and cookies for almost 110 years. Their refreshing, glacial mints are so popular that almost every restaurant brings them to the customer with the bill. The little green candies are often used as change when people are a few coins short to pay for something. Everyone has their own La Universal favorite. The Manicho bar, filled with peanuts and chocolates, is an energy booster to get you going for the late night dance clubs. Huevitos, another best seller, is a little maraschino cream and cookie filled chocolate. Instead of a coffee to accompany dessert, a better choice might be a steaming cup of rich, hot chocolate, perfect for a cool, Quito evening.

If these sweets are a little too much for after dinner or if you are looking for something more familiar, Nabisco™ Royal can provide you with all sorts of cookies, crackers, jellos, flans, puddings and other similar desserts, which can be made at home or eaten fresh from the well-known boxes. In Ecuador, Nabisco adds a bit of local flair. Look out for blackberry jello or “pan de yuca,” a local bread that can be made from a mix in 15 minutes.

Wherever and whenever you choose to eat in Ecuador, you are guaranteed a dining experience with interesting dishes, always made with the freshest ingredients.

Wines of Uruguay

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

The tiny country of Uruguay, with a population of only 3.2 million, has joined South America’s world-class viticulturists. Winemaking is not new to Uruguay, where the first grapevines were planted in the year 1680. Uruguay began experimenting with commercial wine growing in1830. The business remained generally stagnant until 1870, the year a European businessman, Pascual Harriague, brought the rare and obscure Tannat grape to Uruguay from his native France.

(a lazy sea lion in Punta del Este reflects how I feel after my share of wine)

For the next 120 years, until 1990, the wine was sold primarily in-country. To this date 95% of the wine produced in Uruguay is still consumed domestically. However, since the inception of the National Institute of Viticulture (I.N.A.V.I.) in 1987, the industry has been growing exponentially. Uruguay has become the world’s leading producer of both red and white wines made from the Tannat grape. In addition to production of the wines mixed with other varietals, Uruguay is the only country in the world to produce 100% Tannat wine.

Its ideal climate, soils rich in nutrients and combination of flatlands and hills make Uruguay a perfect region for cultivation of the Tannat grape. Located between the wine-producing countries of Argentina and Brazil, its coasts touch the Atlantic Ocean on the East, the Rio de la Plata on the South, and the Rio Uruguay on the West. These diverse geographic and climactic conditions enable selection of specific areas for each type of grape. The moderate to subtropical climate makes irrigation unnecessary. In fact, an amazing 90% of Uruguay’s soil is arable, allowing production of its many varieties of red and white wines in its 280 wineries.

Finally, 100% of the grapes are harvested by hand, an amazing feat in this technological day and age. According to Francisco Carrau owner of Bodegas Carrau, “All grapes are picked by hand in small quantities, in respect for traditional methods. This is done in order to create the sophisticated wine flavors demanded by our international markets. The grapes are taken from vines more than 20 years old.” The Carrau wineries, “Bodegas Carrau,” are leaders in using the Tannat grape for wine production and among the first family to export its wines to other countries. Their Tannats began winning awards in 1888 - a tradition that continues today.

The Carrau family began to grow grapes in the wine region of CatalunaSpain on April 2, 1752. In 1930, the family moved their winery to Uruguay and settled in Las Violetas, about 10 miles from Montevideo. They began growing Nebbiolo and Tannat, whose vines are some of the oldest in the country. They also became pioneers in the production of sparkling wines (methode champenoise) in South America. Today their Xacrat Extra Brut has a lively fruit complexity and is sophisticated enough to be served as a refreshing aperitif or with a meal.

In 1976, the family continued their quest for new regions in which to grow grapes. They discovered that the deep, sandy red soils of Cerro Chapeu-Rivera, in the northeast region of Uruguay close to its border with Brazil, would yield grapes with intense varietal character.

In the past, Tannat wine required either a long period of aging or mixture with other varietals to be drinkable. This meant leaving the wine barreled for several years before it could be marketed. Uruguay’s viticulturists are currently developing methods of getting the wine to market in a much shorter time.

One method is “micro-oxygenation.” The process allows small quantities of oxygen to be slowly released into the wine during fermentation. Similar to decantation of bottled wine, this allows the wine to breathe, rounding its flavor. The second method is to remove the pips earlier than is done with other grapes. The pips in Tannat grapes are more numerous than in most other grapes, accounting for their high tannin content. The goal is to allow the fermenting juices as little exposure as possible to the pips.

Uruguay wines are currently distributed in 30 countries throughout the world. Major consumers include the United States, theUnited KingdomGermanyFranceItaly, Brazil Argentina and others, many of which are wine-producing countries themselves. In addition, Uruguay’s wines are demonstrated at international fairs and routinely-scheduled wine tasting events for media personnel, importers, distributors, corporation leaders and general consumers.

To respond to the demand for Uruguay wines, the wineries that do export are expanding their offerings. Bodegas Carrau now exports Sauvignon Blanc, Tannat, Tannat Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinto Noir to the Washington DC metropolitan area as well as Ct, Mass and other states of the northeast in the United States. They also do small bottling and labeling for specific clients around the world. One of Poland’s top sommeliers orders his Tannat Reserve wine from Bodegas Carrau.

Foreign corporations have been responding to the growing profitability and competitiveness of Uruguay’s viticulture, especially within the past five years. Investors have been focusing their attention on Tannat wine, called by many “the wine of the future.”The wine has won many local and international awards and gold medals since the year 2000 as its unique climactic conditions and wine production methods become known and respected throughout the world.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are among Uruguay’s other red wines. For white wines, one can choose Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Muscat and others. Uruguay’s Tannats, however, are uniquely its own. They are all robust, full-flavored wines, ideal with steak and beef. These are wines to complement a hearty meal.

For more information on Wines of Uruguay in the Washington DC metropolitan area, contact: Michael R. Downey Selections, mrdvino@aol.com, 703-875-0426 phone.

From yoga to hiking to gourmet dining

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

Today, I had a private yoga class, climbed a mountain, had breakfast with the Prime Minister and got married. None of these things were planned, but in St. Kitts one sunny Sunday filled with options filled up just this way.


My hotel offers two yoga classes every morning. I tend to take the 8 am class, which means that very few tourists are up and ready to go. It’s conducted outside next to one of the villas, on a stretch of grass where the cool ocean breezes flow by to keep you refreshed. I think it sets my day right and gives me energy. The class is not as difficult as my Ashtanga class that I take back home and Its Yoga Puerto Rico, but its solid mix of yoga poses, with some Tai Chi balances and Pilates core exercises gets my blood flowing.


My yoga class is particularly fun when Elston, my favorite instructor, teaches it. He is a large, perfectly- muscled instructor who calls out each pose using the Indian name and then tells me specifically which muscles are being worked on. Most of my poses get a sing-song "beautiful" at the end of each of them. Since the East Meets West flow, a more vigorous workout with resistance bands, isn’t until 9:30, we usually have a class that lasts somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes. That includes the closing meditation where every part of my body from the top of my head to the tip of my toes is talked through a guided meditation, which reminds me to take some time each day for myself and physically release the built up stress in my system.


After class, I went back to my room, made some coffee in the coffee maker (Café Britt – a wonderful specialty coffee from Costa Rica is free in the rooms) and relaxed. But since I had actually made caffeinated rather than my regular decaf, I was ready for more exercise. I took my iPod and headed out the door to climb the nearby hill that leads to the unpopulated South East Peninsula.


I hiked my way up and down the hill, about an hour total. As I walked, I passed dozens of mountain goats who bleated a good morning to me and some fat cows munching on dry grass. I grabbed some rocks just in case I had run- ins with the green "Vervet" monkeys, but the only other living creatures I passed were some people in their cars heading to snorkel and drink a Brinley's Rum Punch at the beach shacks of South Friar's Beach, visit with Wilbur the pig at Reggae Beach Bar or dine at the Spice Mill.



With my workouts over, I was famished, so I headed out in my pink rental car for Ottley’s Plantation and its champagne brunch. I should have listened to the Caribbean music playing on just about every radio channel, but I turned again to my handy iPod and some Country and Western instead.


Driving on the left side of the road, in an American style car with the steering wheel also on the left, was not as difficult I expected. I felt more as if I was in a toy car zipping along the well paved roads. Every now and again I had to slow down to come around a river curve, avoid a curious cow or allow some goats to cross to where the grass was greener.

Though there is really only one main road, when I got confused at the roundabout (or a traffic circle for us Americans), I simply rolled down my window and asked the first person I saw. In less than half an hour I was arriving. As I took the turn to head up the hill to the plantation, I made my first mistake of the day, I chose the paved, rather than well- worn, road. A quick phone call that instructed me to look for the coconut trees quickly got me back on track and I pulled up to a beautiful 18th century sugar plantation laid out on 35 acres.


I made my way to the Royal Palm Restaurant, which is on a balcony and nestled into the remaining stone walls of the plantation’s old sugar factory. Once seated, I was presented with a menu that included: Eggs Benedict with passion fruit hollandaise, French toast stuffed with pineapples and fruit and covered with a guava sauce and surprisingly, Mexican huevos rancheros. I chose my favorite, the Eggs Benedict.


First out was a fruit tray filled with skewers of fruit and home baked breads. The moist chocolate chip coffee cake was studded with mini chocolate chips, the lemon poppy seed cake was meant to be slathered with the accompanying lemon curd and the sticky cake was rich with butter and glaze. I was almost full and I still had a whole course to go! While I was finishing my scrumptious, perfectly poached eggs on cured ham and French bread served with spicy chunks of potatoes, a family walked in.


A few minutes later as I finished my goblet sized mimosa that comes with the meal, the owner came over and filled me in. It was Prime Minister Douglas and his family. They were relaxing and out for a Sunday drive.


Since I knew I’d be meeting the Prime Minister later in the week, I decided not to go over and bother him on his day off. However, when I told people at the hotel that I had “breakfast with the Prime Minister” they all asked me why I hadn’t said, “hello.” It’s a small island,” they all explained, “and we always stop and speak with Dr. Douglas, as he is fondly called.”

Later that evening, a walk along the beach at the hotel led me to the last item of the day, getting married. I was walking with my significant other when he suddenly said that the view to the mountains and out to the ocean was so romantic that we might as well get married. We headed into the hotel and found out that it was easy to get married in paradise.



Both parties need to be in the country for two full working days (unless you come on a cruise and exceptions are made) and an $80 marriage license needs to be purchased (only $20 if you’ve been on the islands for 15 days). We didn’t even have to leave the premises to get things together. The hotel would arrange everything and we could buy or order the rest from the concierge, including a tiered wedding cake, duty free rings, an elegant dress and of course champagne.


But well, it was only a thought. Instead we had room service sent up from the Italian restaurant and ate a light dinner of mussels in white wine and Caesar salad served on my personal patio. A movie and an early bedtime were next on the list. It had been a long day and tomorrow I planned to meet my new local friends and eat grilled Caribbean lobster on the beach at the legendary Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack.



Craving the Caribbean - Filming w. Emeril for Planet Green

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·



Making a traditional Puerto Rican meal with a travel writer.

There's nothing quite like the food of the islands, and tonight Chef Emeril is making a traditional Puerto Rican meal to remember. He's joined by Zena, a travel writer whose fond memories of Puerto Rico inspire her at her desk, but not in the kitchen. Together, they'll enjoy a fantastic and flavorful Seafood Ceviche and then make an authentic Pork Mojo with Black Beans, Tostones and Coconut Rice. And no trip to the Caribbean would be complete without a refreshing Orange-Basil Mojito. Salud!


Amansala/Bikini Boot Camp

By Zpolin · March 1, 2009 · 0 Comments ·

published in Mexico Xpatz: www.tinyurl.com/TulumHR    (page 44)

Moving from a New York minute to the mañana syndrome was a lesson in patience for Melissa Perlman, co-owner of Amansala, an eco-chic resort in Tulum, Mexico. Known better by its nickname, Bikini Boot Camp, the resort was started by two friends who were living in New York City and decided to shift gears and live their dream of the perfect holiday.

“I wanted to create a place where people could come to relax, to renew and to recharge,” Perlman explains from her beachfront office overlooking a perfectly unspoiled beach. “I moved to Mexico because I had a great idea for a healthy holiday, and I chose Tulum because it is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”

Perlman is originally from Phoenix, Arizona, but she traveled the world purchasing interesting items for her import company, studied Tibetan Buddhism in Asia and owned a restaurant in Tokyo that sold healthy food before ultimately settling in New York City. While living there, she toyed with the idea of starting a traveling spa, but after September 11, 2001 that idea lost its appeal. She decided, instead, to open a place people could go alone or with friends and have an adventure where they could meet “other like minded people.” Her goal was to create an inviting place where it would feel more like staying at a friend’s beach house than a hotel.

Perlman literally stumbled upon the current location of Amansala. She was out for a walk on the beach and found an overgrown patch of land, covered in trees and weeds. Whereas most people would have simply walked by, Melissa saw promise. She called her friend Erica Gragg, a public relations and marketing executive in New York City, and told her she had found their future home. Gragg jumped on a plane, left the big city behind and joined Melissa in Mexico.


The partners had enough funds to build only one bungalow, Luckily, just as they were running out of money, someone showed up to rent the barely finished room. They were able to use that money to build another bungalow and then another. The transition, however, was shocking. “Things don’t move fast here, and there is a whole different culture of business,” she says, which partly explains why it took about five years to complete 14 bungalows and “really get it all together.”


Today Amansala, which is the union of two Sanskrit words that mean peace and water, is an all-inclusive destination resort, sort of “Robinson Crusoe meets New York Chic.” But, it’s a far cry from neighboring Cancun. Mornings start with journal writing in a shabby chic cabana; a three mile, conversation-free walk and a healthy breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit and homemade granola. Coffee is gratefully allowed.

Days are spent in yoga, weight training and body sculpting and on excursions via bicycles to the Mayan Tulum ruins and Sian Ka’an, a protected ecological center.

Massages and a cleansing Mayan clay treatment are also included. Throughout the day high protein, low fat, chemical free meals are served. Hungry visitors need to simply call, “Bikini Boot Camp snack,” and freshly squeezed juices and vegetables with guacamole magically appear.


The journey to successful business entrepreneurs was not an easy one however. “There were so many challenges. As in any business there is a huge learning curve, but amplify that by 1,000 by being in a different culture, in a different language and off the grid, and it’s a lot to tackle,” Perlman explains.


Perlman admits her biggest mistake was not hiring the appropriate people to look out for interests, specifically an office manager, an accountant and a lawyer. “You need to hire a good experienced office manager and to educate yourself about so many things. If I was starting all over again, I would have found someone I could trust that was highly recommended from someone who had been living in the area for some time, and I would have hired them to assist with permits, contracts, labor laws and everything else.”


Since Perlman hadn’t yet learned this lesson, she had to navigate the myriad of laws herself, and instead learned that patience was more than a virtue. “One needs patience, patience and more patience to work in Mexico. There are so many rules and regulations that people don’t expect to encounter.”


Perlman was also surprised about the dynamics between employees and employers and the laws that guided them. As a successful business owner in the United States, Perlman had an “American” mentality of trying to work in collaboration with her employees and to help them have better lives. “It was a rude awakening to find our employees would often threaten to sue the company and that the labor offices would assist them. You really need a lawyer to advise you.”


One challenge that never seems to end is the mañana syndrome. She believes that in Mexico it is often taken to extremes, explaining that she had to return to a government agency several times before getting her issues resolved, including multiple visits just to get a driver’s license. “You can spend years working through the system as I did,” she laments still frustrated at bureaucratic obstacles, such as a lack of respect for people’s time and strict government monitoring of her business.


A last complaint was the feeling that rules were enforced selectively and that despite her best efforts to promote Tulum, Mexico and Amansala that the government continues to place roadblocks in front of her. “I do publicity, create jobs and assist my employees to better their lives and yet I have to work so hard just to keep the business running due to so many permits and regulations. In many countries, I would be given incentives and assistance to be there, yet in Mexico they almost make it more difficult to do business in their country.”


One pleasant surprise, however, is the cost and quality of medical services. While Perlman pays insurance for her employees, she normally pays doctors directly for the services that she and her son need explaining that a specialist costs only around $40 a visit. “The prices for medical care are very fair in comparison to the prices we pay in the U.S. for a doctor’s visit,” she says. However, she does maintain U.S. health insurance for her and her son as a precaution.


Despite all of these challenges, Perlman has no plans to leave Mexico. Instead, she continues to think like an entrepreneur and to adjust to whatever government, and nature, throws at her. Constant maintenance and repairs are needed in a region that has been hit by several severe hurricanes. In addition, she strives to create new ideas about how to expand the business and how to bring the philosophy of helping people to get fit spiritually and physically to a wider audience.


First up was an expansion. The partners purchased Casa Magna, the former home of Colombia Drug Lord Pablo Escobar, which consists of two villas on a pristine private beach. The resort is a luxurious escape on one of the most exclusive properties on the Yucatan peninsula. To cater to these guests, Perlman created a special six night program called The Cleanse, which is designed to rejuvenate and balance from the inside out.


In 2007, Bikini Bootcamp: Two Weeks to Your Ultimate Beach Body was published. The book brings boot camp right into the home – minus the ocean views unfortunately. From recipes to exercises to meditation to spa treatments, the book promotes a holistic approach to health and wellness.


Two years ago, Melissa gave birth to Dylan, her own little Tulum prince, and he motivated her to create a new program, designed particularly to help new mothers focus on themselves “physically, spiritually and emotionally.” After the Baby Boot Camp is a six day program that allows moms to bring their babies to take part in specially designed classes.


Dylan has been an inspiration to Melissa in many other ways; he has made her even more dedicated to her job and her way of life. Since Day One she loved living on a beautiful beach. Today, she wakes to “the sound of the sea and my two year old looking out the window to watch the fisherman heading out for the fresh catch.”

Although opening such a high-end resort in a country and atmosphere completely foreign to her was a challenge, Melissa never looks back. “I love doing what I love in Tulum, Mexico, my favorite place in the world,” she says.


Her advice to anyone looking to relocate and to open a business in Mexico is straightforward. “Really research what you are getting into, hire a highly recommended lawyer and accountant and most of all: Be Patient.”