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Ocean Attractions

Enjoying star treatment on Celebrity Cruises’ Summit

I was seated at the wall of windows that wrap the Waterfall Grill, enjoying cinnamon waffles and omelets, when a pod of playful dolphins sprung from the twirling sea, one after another, to kiss the warm morning sky.  Over the next five days of our sojourn aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Summit from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, I anticipated more magical experiences in a departure from the ordinary.

The Summit boasts 11 passenger decks and 1,059 suites that accommodate 1,950 guests, whose epicurean tastes are satiated with 45,000 pounds of beef, lamb, lobster, and fish.  The crew, made up of more than 60 nationalities, provides Vegas- and Broadway-style entertainment; prepares and serves 9,000 meals daily in three dining rooms; and facilitates socials, seminars, and shore excursions.  ConciergeClass is one of three unique brands of services—offering guests preferential pampering.  At this level of service, staterooms are appointed with 24-hour butler service, guests receive dining seating preference, VIP invites to onboard events, and a variety of in-suite comforts.

Each day at sea allowed for indulging in a tireless roster of fun opportunities.  To view the poolside cooking competition and live band, I joined Kathy and Gregg McCree from Brooklyn, New York, who had dropped anchor in a sun-kissed whirlpool spa.  “We usually cruise for birthdays and anniversaries,” offered Kathy as we ordered smoothies, “we were told Summit had a mature crowd; so far we’re in the whirlpools most of the day.”  That evening we dined in the plush, art deco Normandie, which is distinguished for its decoupage, flambé tableside service and dine-in wine cellar featuring 175 fine vintages.

The abundance of tequila factories in Puerto Vallarta, our first port of call, supports the popularity of this excursion. Mario, our guide, steered us to a crowded demonstration and sampling of two-dozen flavors of the legendary libation.  Later that evening, after dinner — and more tequila — we donned white attire and attended the masquerade ball in the whimsical Cirque du Soleil-designed lounge.  Roughly a dozen excursion options are crafted for each port.

A colorful folkloric showcase followed by sightseeing along the waterfront, then silver shopping in the Golden Zone, easily filled our itinerary in Mazatlan.  Founded in 1531, it’s Mexico’s oldest town.  Cabo San Lucas is the hot spot for aquatic adventures. Qevin and I chose the two-bay snorkeling experience for the chance to swim amid flamboyant fish and got a great adrenaline rush wave-running back to the ship.

Michelle and Stephen White of Quartz Hill, California, on their fifth and first cruise, respectively, were among the guests snapping farewell photos as the anchor lifted.  “I’m a casino girl myself,” whispered Michelle as we recapped the trip.  “I wasn’t looking for a 24-hour party boat [which Summit isn’t]; the costume ball, bingo, and Broadway show are a good blend of entertainment.”

The last dinner at sea is a regal affair with tailored tuxedos and elegant gowns.  A string quartet serenaded patrons as captain Michail Karatzas greeted his guests.  At our table, Sandra and Dexter Bryant of Orange County, California — usually fervid conversationalists — were still in sensory heaven from the romantic Cleopatra Slipper treatment they enjoyed in the AquaSpa.  To chart a course for your own divine cruise experience, visit Celebrity Cruises.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

LA Confidential: Brad Johnson fuels a Downtown revival

An appetite for dining out is integral to life in Los Angeles.  It’s pretty common for movie scripts and record deals to get the greenlight over a four-course meal.  For restauranteur Brad Johnson, success in the fine dining sector of the food service industry affords prized access to the pulse of Hollywood.

Brad Johnson atop Windows in Downtown Los Angeles.

Johnson, a native New Yorker, migrated west in 1989 and opened the Roxbury, an immensely popular restaurant and dance club that was immortalized in the movie A Night at the Roxbury.”  His follow-up contributions to LA’s nightlife, Georgia (co-owned by Denzel Washington) then The Sunset Room (both now closed),  helped spark the revival of the Hollywood business district.  These days his passion for dining is invested in Downtown Los Angeles where he manages an impressive net income turnaround for Windows restaurant, which is part of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s portfolio.

Table at Windows with a drop dead gorgeous view.

When Johnson entertains visitors he avoids the beaten-track.  “I’ve taken friends to classes at Power Yoga, to dine along the Malibu coast, and to The Ivy or the Newsroom where you might find a fair number of [film] industry networkers.”  “I love exploring Chinatown and The Farmer’s Market on Main St. in Santa Monica on Sundays,” adds Johnson, who frequents the nine-mile bike path that starts in Manhattan Beach and snakes along the vibrant Venice Beach boardwalk.  Major boxing events and the uninhibited nightlife in Las Vegas provide an alternative weekend experience for Johnson who manages V Bar at The Venetian resort.  “Jobs and people are always turning over so there’s a constant search for what the next thing is,” he says, “since people [in LA] define themselves by where they go and who they’re sitting next to it’s important to know what place that is at any given time.”

Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Restaurant sales in California in 2005 tipped the $50 billion mark, in 2004 visitors to LA spent $12 billion, and LA ports handled $235 billion in trading activity.  “Obviously the entertainment industry is the hub of the wheel,” shares Johnson, “as for emerging opportunities, LA’s gone through its cycle there are a lot of Downtown developments going up [and fueling the construction industry], but we’re at the tail end of that boom.”  The Staples Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and Los Angeles Music Center have principal roles in casting Downtown as a hip destination for sports and performing arts attractions.  The 2007 arrival of LA Live, a sports and nightlife venue that houses the Grammy Museum, an ESPN studio, bars and bistros, should confirm LA’s new ‘It’ address.

“LA’s an easy place to live though it’s getting more expensive and congested,” admits Johnson, “it’s still a forward thinking city.  If you’re not in New York the only other place to be is Los Angeles.”  Learn more, visit the official site of the LA Convention and Visitors Bureau.

STAYThe Sunset Tower Hotel “Is low-key, a little more exclusive and a bit more expensive,” offers Johnson.  Its art deco architecture hints at the elegance of its suites that offer views of Beverly Hills and Hollywood Hills.

Petit Filet with Lobster Tail.

DINE: The unobstructed 360-degree penthouse view from Windows is as luscious as the Petit Filet with Australian Lobster Tail or Bone in Rib Eye, both specialties of this steak house and martini bar situated near Staples Center.

CHILL:  After lunch Johnson designs a relaxing afternoon in West Hollywood by perusing “spiritual, meditation and New Age releases” at Bodhi Tree Bookstore before drifting to Elixr for a mind-clearing herbal tonic.  Here a tranquil garden offers “a place to sit and read.”

ENJOY:  Downtown’s cultural jewel, Walt Disney Concert Hall, offers self-guided audio tours of this spectacular structure and year-round performances by touring choirs and orchestras.  Catch a free exhibit at California African American Museum, which preserves the legacy of African American culture in the western states.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

15 Minutes: Chef Franco Savors Argentina

Fernando Franco’s kitchen preps 400 dishes daily, 

Sean Drakes surveys the chef’s table

 

When you’re the executive chef of a restaurant situated at a premier address for conferences and international business travelers, expectations are high and distinction is everything.

Fernando Franco has been at the helm of Waterfront Restaurant since its January 2008 opening at Hyatt Regency Trinidad.  The native of Buenos Aires, Argentina has worked for Hyatt since 2001.  “I think it was a very good idea,” shares Franco, 43, “to open a hotel is like to have a baby, you see the baby from when it’s born.  To be here from inception was very exciting.”  Franco has created inventive courses at hotels in Europe, Spain and Portugal.  His culinary career was launched in 1989 at Alvear Palace Hotel in Argentina where he was a chef de partie.  He also served as chef at the US Embassy in Argentina.

Trinidad experienced a restaurant boom in the last decade.  The capital city’s allure to the international business sector was heightened after Hyatt catered to President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Franco reinvents menus every three or four months with innovative pairings and approaches using local ingredients.  He turned down his pots for 15 minutes to celebrate an Argentinian passion for beef.

Executive Chef Fernando Franco at Waterfront. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

Franco’s approach to fusing culinary traditions of two cultures onto one menu:

“When I make menus it’s funny,” begins Franco, “with the chef you know all the different ingredients…the produce, you know the taste you know the flavors, and when we talk about new menus and we invent new dishes you mix together ingredients, but you think in terms of flavor.  The lamb is good with this herb and this carrot, and then you put the mash, because you know the different flavors and combinations, you don’t need to try the dish.  You know when it’s good and it’s not good; take a carrot sauce and you put a sausage with too much herb it’s not that good a combination.”

Franco observes the divergent food habits of three cultures:

Upon arriving in Trinidad his first task was to scour local cookbooks to acquire a primer on indigenous ingredients.  Chadon beni, bhagi. dasheen bush, curry and coconut milk are the ingredients that are now fixtures in his culinary arsenal.  “The big difference between [Trinidad and Argentina] is breakfast,” suggests Franco, “here you have the doubles, it’s spicy and fried, in Argentina it’s just bread or croissant and coffee, nothing else.  It’s not like in the States, they eat eggs, bacon, sausage.”

Sun-dried tomatoes herbed risotto with seared sea bass and fresh organic arugala lettuce. Right: Roasted lamb loin, sweet pumpkin "coo coo" with organic cherry tomato and a merlot reduction. Photos: SeanDrakes.com

Franco factors in geography and creating an experience to feed meat lovers:

“It’s different here than in Italy, France, Miami or Buenos Aires, we have different kind of guest in each place,” he notes.  “In Trinidad we have plenty products.  You put on a list all the products you can find here, then start doing the combinations,” explains Franco in his slightly patchy English.  To construct menus he considers: “If I use white fish and salmon [on a current menu], I find another fish, like sea bass and snapper [for a new menu].  If I used before lamb chops and now lamb legs, next menu I use lamb shank.”  Hyatt Regency Trinidad recently unveiled themed dining nights with Argentinian feast for meat lovers on the first Wednesday of each month.

Shrimp and papaya salad served with organic mixed greens with a lime vinaigrette. Right: Dessert trio of steamed chocolate and banana pudding with caramel sauce and vanilla gelato. Photos: SeanDrakes.com

Franco embraces culinary traditions that preserve the bond to his homeland:

“My father cooked on holidays, weekends, special days,” recalls Franco, “all the family worked together in the kitchen.”  Franco apprenticed with Francis Mallman and El Gato Dumas, who are credited with launching a culinary revolution in the ’80s that converted aspiring engineers into celebrated chefs, and spawned a slew of culinary institutes in Argentina.

“We are famous in Argentina for beef,” claims Franco, “the rib eye is one of the best cuts now, the strip loins is very good.  In Argentina parrillas (bistro-style eateries) serve every cut of beef.  On Argentina Night we have the parrilla on two large outdoor grills, we grill beef, lamb, pork, sausage.”  Another new fine dining attraction at Waterfront is Brazilian Night.  The black bean-based feijoda, explains Franco, is a traditional Brazilian dish served for lunch on Saturdays.  For feijoda, most items on the menu are cooked with black beans.  Once cooked, the beans are extracted from a black liquid which is separated into six to eight pots and used as stock to cook sausage, bacon, dried meat…all the different parts of the pork.

Franco spends 12-hours each day in a kitchen with his staff of 55.  Though he finds time to visit Maracas Beach for a shark ’n bake treat, Franco’s charge to be a creative leader at Waterfront Restaurant keeps his plate full.

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

Short Stay: Casa de Campo

Casa de Campo is an extraordinary island outpost,

Sean Drakes samples the beautiful life


If I try to picture what a replica of a 16th century Mediterranean village situated on a coastal bluff in the Dominican Republic would feel like, I couldn’t have visualized Altos de Chavon in Casa de Campo.  This ultra-exclusive resort and residential community is a Caribbean destination that is part 16th century, part 21st century and passionately devoted to the arts.

The levels of luxury accommodations here aim not to be outdone.  After all, some of the richest business tycoons own palatial homes here, and both a famous Bill [Gates] and an infamous Bill [Clinton], along with a host of Hollywood highbrows, have deplaned in the private airport here.  Name-dropping isn’t part of the accepted local culture, if you want to feel welcomed.  I learned this from Angel, the resort agent I befriended and who personally arranged my VIP access.  My tour of this 7,000-acre sprawl in La Romana, which is 130 miles southeast of Santo Domingo, starts in the 16th century.

Altos de Chavon at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

Altos de Chavon is a replica of a traditional Mediterranean village, it was built on the highest point overlooking the Chavon River.  Construction of the coral block and terracotta buildings that frame narrow cobblestone walkways, began in 1976 under the stewardship of Italian artist Roberto Copa.  The final stone was laid in 1982.  Walking the site at midday feels like a Hollywood set for a movie involving a romantic tryst in Europe.  You can dine at bistros or three specialty restaurants: El Sombrero, La Piazzetta and Café del Sol.  The site houses a 5,000-seat Grecian-style amphitheatre that has hosted Dizzy Gillespie, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, Alicia Keys’ music video shoot and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  There is a Regional Museum of Archeology that is home to a collection of pre-Columbian ritual artifacts.  And an art gallery and craft ateliers that make ceramic and silk-screened souvenirs, and The Altos de Chavon School of Design caps the effort to market Casa de Campo as an arts-friendly destination.  You should note: The School of Design offers degrees in design fields and the fine arts, and is affiliated with Parsons School of Design in New York and Paris.

The Dominican Republic, is the Spanish-speaking territory of the island of Hispaniola, a border with a treacherous history separates it from Haiti.  Puerto Rico is just 60 minutes east by plane.  In order to deliver me to the resort’s doorstep, my driver surrendered his license at a security stall that has the span and scale of an interstate toll booth.  That was the first cue to the grandeur that is a staple at Casa de Campo.

I am in a chic suite, but Casa de Campo resort offers the option to supersize your accommodation with a rental villa tastefully lathered with luxury.  Exclusive and Oceanfront Villas host up to 12 guests at roughly $840–$2,445 per night ($577–$1,345 off-season), that includes maid and butler service, breakfast prepared in your villa, a pool or whirlpool, and concierge service for sporting and dining reservations, and private airport transfers.

Private residence at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

I won’t name-drop, but I have the good fortune and pleasure of photographing two gorgeous private residences during this visit.  Both homes reside on an 18-hole golf course.  There are three here, each designed by Pete DyeTeeth of the Dog has seven holes skirting the ocean and is ranked #17 on Golf Digest’s list of top 100 courses in the world.  Links is a hilly inland course with five holes that tangle with lagoons and lakes.  The Dye Fore course is positioned 300-feet atop the bluffs of the Chavon River, it is a mesmerizing masterpiece.  Its 7,800-yard par 72 layout attracts and challenges pro golfers who shell-out $90 – $215 per person per round.

Marina at Casa de Campo. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

I grabbed lunch at Chinois at the marina fashioned after Italian portofinos.  I am passing on shopping at designer boutiques, shooting sporting clays and playing tennis (there are 13 courts).  My visit is out of season for the polo matches hosted

Cuban artist Bibi Leon (2nd from right at top) toasts guests at her home. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

November – May at the equestrian facility, which has five fields and 70 trained ponies.  Instead, I’m bound for a day trip sail to Catalina Island.

After sailing, a dinner party at the home of Cuban artist Bibi Leon is a great wrap to the day.  Walking through her elegant front door, my feast begins.  My eyes are restless, in every room, there’s original creative expression by Spanish artists to admire.  Tomorrow, I will ride Bibi’s coattail as we soak in the decadent interior design of her friends’ vacation homes, a collective that can fill two coffee table books.  This is la dolce vita, where the air always feels rare.

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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