Travel ~ Represent Cuba!

Since diplomatic relations relaxed between the U.S. and Cuba, leisure and business travelers (remember the Rihanna cover story in Vanity Fair) have been traveling to the Caribbean.

Known for white sandy beaches, cohibas and rum, Cuba has a variety of historical culture to offer surrounding the beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture.

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Crocodile shaped since Christopher Columbus landed in 1942, this warm and welcoming country has changed over time. From Fulgencio Batista‘s dictatorship to Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara overthrowing the government, fearless Fidel Castro led the nation to a prominent place. Now President, Raúl Castro is maintaining the Communist rule of the sovereign state with style. Hopefully, the country will keep its creative charm while the infrastructure is transitioning its marketplace from foreign investment interests. You notice the little things here.

Leaving Jose Martí International Airport, where will you stay? Well “hello Havana” or should we say, “Hola”. For accommodation, Hotel Florida is a cosy colonial casa featuring a cute courtyard with authentic Cuban cuisine in Old Havana. Hotel Saratoga which I know from my first visit is a great location for exploring on foot and by eye at their rooftop bar that has numerous cocktails and excellent service.

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El Malecon. My favourite memory of Cuba. Photo: Niya Sinckler.

Then Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where I previously stayed on my second visit is a lovely luxury gem over 90 years old in the middle of Vedado. Amazing art deco, beautiful blue skies, exclusive eats, seaside views, a gorgeous garden, a cool cabaret room and celebrities strutting through the lobby are what got me. This is the place to be! Taking a walk along the magical Malecón, you’ll find the Museo de la Revolución, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana and Museo Nacional de Historia de Cuba where one can learn about the art, culture and history of Cuba.

When looking for a casual lunch, support the locals by going to a paladar (family-run restaurant). La Galería (moderate) has amazing fresh fish or Atelier (splurge) offers Cuban continental cuisine, both in Vedado. For the art lovers, you will admire every inch of this island. From the classic vintage cars to locals painting portraits on the cobblestone streets, there is something for everyone. Business is also flourishing more now and I’m rooting for Cuban entrepreneurs. Fashionistas are even in town for Chanel‘s Cruise 2017 collection runway. Follow on Instagram for updates. Who knows you may even brush shoulders with the master of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld or Brasilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, rumoured to be walking the show by the Paseo del Prado promenade claims Harper’s Bazaar.

Two blocks away, El Capitolio designed by Eugenio Rayneri Piedra stands grandiose with neoclassical architecture. Often a friendly guy, Miguel is hanging out on the steps who will take your photo with an old fashioned camera which I loved since photography is one of my passions. Say queso and smile as you’re taken back to the 1950s. Local music can be found in numerous neighbourhoods. Soon enough, the Latina in you will come out as you hear different beats and sounds around the city. Prepare your Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC, local currency) for drinks at El Floridita to delve into the era of Ernest Hemingway and sip the best daiquiri in the world.

Dinner at the popular eatery, El Aljibe is the best. It’s the pollo (chicken)! Also the open concept and again this is a family run restaurant. I love it. And of course, you get a special treat at the end of your meal. Can you say Cuba Libre y cigarro? I think yes! Dance the night away at Café Cantante Mi Habana with a range of artists representing real rumba, heavy hip-hop, rock and sassy salsa in a mixed crowd of locals and tourists aged early 20s to late 40s. For that midnight bite, stop by Cafe de los Artistas. Lastly, I would be recommend venturing to Varadero in the northeast Matanzas Province, Trinidad in the midwest Sancti Spíritus Province and the second largest city in the southeast, Santiago de Cuba to enjoy the ocean coastline.

Today marked an emotional moment as well. According to Reuters, it was the first time in decades that a U.S. cruise ship entered the Havana Bay area. Get ready to travel. Check flights and peruse hotels. Dare to discover colourful Cuba.

 

 

Culture ~ Japan Week 2016

Today starts Japan Week, a promotional event organized by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) in New York.

Visitors can discover and experience art, crafts, clothing, food, technology and travel in Japanese culture through their five senses at Grand Central Terminal.

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Broadcasting organization, NHK World sharing the scenes of Japan Week. Photo: Niya Sinckler.

Hearing:

Listen to artistic instructions of how to apply Kabuki makeup. Create crafts such as lovely Kinchaku hand purses, beautiful Kaga Yuzen handkerchiefs and cool origami configurations. Win collectible items or a Hatsune Miku concert ticket, Japan’s favourite fictional character who changes the way music is made today.

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Hatsune Miku. Photo: Google.

Sight:

Watch JNTO feature performances from Ishikawa. Participate in kimino fittings, I remember when I wore my first one as seen below. Learn about the traditional symbol of beauty, cherry blossoms or sakura (桜 or 櫻; さくら in Japanese) that bloom every spring. View the beautiful pink petals in Vanderbilt Hall. Guess the cherry blossom blooming date in Hirosaki to win a trip to Japan!

I have been three times Japan already in 2006, 2007 and 2008. It’s truly an amazing country with warm hospitality. Missing my Japanese friends now and memories of karaoke during the weekends. The JNTO Tourism Booth can provide you with information on city highlights, castles, temples, hot springs and festivals across Japan with free maps and brochures in English and Japanese.

Touch:

Venture to the Hokkaido booth to try on traditional clothing from the Ainu, (アイヌ in Japanese) indigenous people from Japan  and understand the natural wonders of the region.

Smell:

The 120 year old company, Kubara Honke is showcasing their Japanese seasonings and locally sourced natural products such as Dashi cooking broth, dressings and tea. Sip on tradition. From there, your nose will wonder over to the delicious or oishii (美味しい/ おいしいin Japanese) offerings.

Taste:

Food and innovative technology combine to provide a traditional cuisine serving of kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). Restaurants will recommend their renowned seafood. Then my favourite place, Mitsuwa Marketplace will be selling Hokkaido ikameshi (rice stuffed squid), corn soup and Tohoku’s local root vegetable, dried gobo. Cosmopolitan items including miso ramen noodles, chocolates and candy are available too. At these stands, visitors will learn why Hokkaido is a major agricultural and culinary center.

Travel:

Delta Airlines, New York’s ever-growing carrier will be offering non-stop flights to Tokyo. Visitors can experience Business Elite Seat and receive vouchers for travel. Additionally, you can learn about JR-EAST, Japan’s largest railway company and the high speed train, shinkansen coming soon to connect Tokyo, Tohoku and Hokkaido.

Japan Week is a collaborative event between JNTO and over 40 exhibitors from New York and Japanese governments, businesses and travel agencies are in attendance. Walk around and find what excites you. Who knows the international television network, NHK World might even interview you. Join now from 10-12 March 2016. Follow the latest updates on Facebook and Twitter. For more information on travel to Japan: www.us.jnto.go.jp

Culture ~ Bar Goto

After devoting a few years at Pegu Club, talented owner Kenta Goto unveiled a new summer destination this week in New York.

The Lower East Side welcomed Bar Goto as a Japanese style cocktail bar accompanied by delicious dishes.

From the moment of arrival, there’s a bouncer checking ID – like you really need it but in we go. Dim lighting and moderate conversations fill the space around the dark furnishings. Bar stools or small tables are the option for seating.

The bar menu consists of quintessential Japanese beers and creative cocktails with an Asian twist including sake, wasabi, shochu and miso. Try the sakura martini or matcha milk punch to cool down. My drink of choice was the watermelon cucumber cooler shown below, a very light and refreshing mix.

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For food, chef Kiyo Shinoki prepares comfort bites such as tasty kobu celery and spiced miso wings. Practice using those chopsticks! Then the okonomiyaki (grilled as you like in English translation) is the highlight of the visit. These savory pancake small plates are offered in five different varieties. My choice was the Fisherman’s (octopus, shrimp and squid) accompanied by ginger and bonito flakes photographed above. To be fair, it was the best I’ve had outside of Tokyo.

If you’re looking for a Friday night lounge, quick drink with a colleague or first date venue, this Japanese restaurant is the place to be. Walk ins are welcome, enjoy!

Address: 245 Eldridge Street bet East Houston and Stanton Street. Tel: 212 475 4411

Culture ~ OIJI

There’s a new restaurant in town luring young couples to the East Village.

Headed by chef, Sehong Brian Kim, Oiji is a destination for authentic Korean cuisine.

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Ready to dine? Photo courtesy: OIJI.

From the moment you enter, the amazing aroma of Asian spice fills the air. Spotting the exposed brick wall and ambient lights, there is a cozy feeling to the setting. Friendly waiters and excellent customer service adds to the charm.

The selective wine menu entertains the eye. I chose a semi-dry Riesling to cleanse the palette during my girls Friday night date. Examining the menu, I wanted to order everything but then asked the waiter for recommendations. Below photographed from left top to bottom right: Slow cooked pork belly and kimchi (entree), chil-jeon pan seven flavours (awesome appetizer), fried chicken with spicy soy vinagrette (tasty appetizer) and slow cooked oxtail and root vegetables (tender entree).

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Photograph from dinner with my bestie, Yi Lu.

The meal was absolutely delicious. One could savour the mixture of flavour and texture. The prices are reasonable for the portions as well. I believe that many patrons agree as there are multiple likes on social media outlets including Facebook and constant increase of followers on Instagram with beautiful and artistic snapshots of their dining occasions.

OIJI is a wonderful contemporary addition to the neighborhood. Highly recommended for solo dining with bar seating, couples and groups. Located at 119 First Avenue between 7th Street and St. Mark’s Place in New York.