Short Stay: Nature Thrills in Belize

Green tourism can offer nonstop adventure,

Sean Drakes discovers the wild side and

soothing aquatic splendors of Belize

The vast, mysterious night sky silenced every thought in my head as I marveled at the dazzling blanket of low-hanging stars that lit our course across the New River.  It is the longest river in Belize and the 90-minute river ride is the most exhilarating route to Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-friendly sanctuary with 17 rustic cabanas nestled in a vibrant habitat teeming with wild black howler monkeys, crocodiles, and more than 250 species of vivacious birds.  The thatch-roofed structures receive crisp surround-sound of the restless wildlife.  The lodge is named after the region, which translates to “submerged crocodile.”

There are eight in our group of bird watchers, novice hikers, and seasoned thrill seekers who have ventured to a destination where roughly 50,000 Mayans lived between 1500 B.C. and the early 1700s.  Situated north of Belize City, it’s the jewel of the Orange Walk District, which offers nerve-tingling wilderness adventure and archaeological expeditions.

In the 20th century, major excavations of the area unearthed temples of an ancient Mayan civilization that survived the Roman Empire.  Hieroglyphic decoders believe the site carvings record sensational stories of war and peace.  The trails to the Mayan ceremonial site at Lamanai are swarming with ruthless mosquitoes that laugh at repellent, but the breathtaking view from the summit of the High Temple is worth the treacherous climb.

There are other excursions: At daybreak bird watchers in our group set out to scout for gray catbirds, great kiskadees, and mangrove swallows.  After dusk they revisited the riverbank to stalk nocturnal birds, while the rest of our group went crocodile hunting.  Well, we accompanied the guide who caught (and released) the toothy reptiles.


Leaving Lamanai we traveled by river, highway, and rugged dirt roads to our lunchtime pit stop at Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for migrating birds.  Crooked Tree is noted for its abundance of cashew trees which fuel a fledgling cottage industry that produces cashew jam, cashew wine and a weeklong cashew festival.  Guest house proprietor Verna Samuel served us a sampling of her cashew creations after a hearty lunch at Bird’s Eye View Lodge.  The forested Cayo District, 90 minutes southwest of Belize City, was our next overnight destination.  This region offers cool creeks and the dramatic Thousand Foot Falls that plunge 1,400 feet.

By day four we arrive at the bungalows and communal house at Pook’s Hill, a 300-acre reserve and rainforest near the Maya Mountains, which during our visit  serves as an ER for a weak young owl who lingered awhile then patiently grasped its last breath.  Here, our group geared up for a canoe tour through Barton Creek Caves.

Rainwater created underground rivers and carved cave systems that were inhabited by deities and Mayan ancestors.  In Mayan culture, caves (actuns) were a portal to the gods of the underworld and are where sacred rituals and sacrifices occurred.  Skeletons, footprints, pottery, and cathedral ceilings are discovered in Belize’s 250 cave systems.

Belize City is not the capital but it richly represents the pulse of the country—it’s also a hub for island-hoppers.  Belize is set between Mexico and Guatemala and is two hours by plane from Miami.  English is the official language though Spanish is widely spoken by its 325,000 residents.  At the Belize Legacy Beach Resort the cedar and mahogany condos are appointed with the modern comforts big city dwellers relish, and destination treats such as deep-sea excursions, aromatic spas, and fine dining by head chef Rafael Valdez.


Activities such as snorkeling in Shark Ray Alley in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve allows brave hearts to pet and feed stingrays and Nurse sharks.  Nightfall lures sleepless souls to the loud and festive Wet Willy’s in San Pedro Town, where two strong drinks of rum and the boat ride back to the resort serve as a relaxant.  I enjoy a sound sleep ready to wake to a new adventure with nature.  Visit for help charting your course through the wild and mild side of Belize.


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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.


Previously published.

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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:

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:

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:

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.


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Short Stay: Beyond Bangkok

Road trip across Northeast Thailand

offers wild and mild encounters,

Sean Drakes savors the variety

In the land of fragrant orchids and happy Buddhas, Bangkok is a city of stark contrasts:  Humble shacks with sheet metal roofs bookmark concrete-and-glass towers.  It is the industrial hub and capital of Thailand, which explains the population of 8 million that’s comprised largely of migratory workers who support the manufacturing of furniture, textiles, electronics and processed foods.

My visit to Bangkok is brief because my goal is to journey off the popular path.  The Siam@Siam Design Hotel delivers design swag with straw sculptures, mahogany furniture and varnished concrete, and it’s the launchpad for my road trip across northeast Thailand.  It is convenient to public transport, after dark attractions and the Grand Palace–a must-do tour.  To align mind, muscles and joints for the adventures ahead I book a 60-minute treatment at S Medical Spa.

Nakhon Ratchasima (or Khorat), the mountainous gateway to the northeast region, is 163 miles from Bangkok and my first destination.  Half the fun of a road trip occurs on detours and pit stops.  On this first leg, curiosity steers me to taste test strange fruit at Klang Dong, a roadside market with a bounty of durian, betel nut and dragon fruit.  Nearby is another intriguing site: Wat Thep Phithak Punnaram.  As we approach a snow-white spot on the plush mountainside grows, it’s Luang Pho Yai Buddha, it spans 150-feet by 90-feet and is the largest Buddha in this region.

By lunchtime I’m near Khao Yai National Park and sitting before a plate of stir-fried fillet of ostrich at PB Valley Vineyard.  This vineyard embodies Thailand’s vision to produce world-class wine–Japan consumes 25% of its export.  At the first rest camp my senses uncoil then whisper ‘Ooh-la-la’.  Kirimaya is a high-end nature resort that specializes in guiltless pampering with affordable luxury.  The open-air layout is outfitted with the sort of contemporary Thai design imported by chic lounges in New York and Paris.  Attentive staff and majestic surroundings, including a Jack Nicklaus golf course and National Park, assure a heavenly stay.

Seeking a thrill, I drive to The Jungle House and shell-out U$6 to be strapped atop an elephant for a fear-inducing trek through a muddy forest trail and murky river.  Half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants work, the others are wild, according to my guide Yui.  Government frowns on locals who bring elephants to urban streets to entertain tourists.  To complete an exhilarating day I scour a lively night market for vendors selling flash fried crickets, grasshoppers and beetles. The crunchy critters are not bad if you avoid smearing their gooey guts across your tongue.

Back on the road, I roll toward Surin, a province famed for its annual elephant roundup and nearby Ban Tha Sawang silk-weaving village, where I tour the weaving process and buy original souvenirs.  A driver and car for a road trip costs 2,500 baht per day (U$50)—not including gas.

My final detour lets me explore the Phimai sanctuary—a Hindu temple conceived in the 16h Buddhist century.  Visitors tour its dark chambers and probe sculptures and carvings, and marvel at what this monumental remnant from an early civilization has endured.  Ubon Ratchathani, the easternmost Isan province borders Cambodia and is where my extraordinary road trip ends.  The Tohsang Khongjiam Resort is set along the serene Mekong River, which churns a gentle serenade at breakfast.

All week I yearned to get face-to-face with those gentle men in saffron-colored robes.  My only sightings were when they scrolled pass my window.  On my visit to the Koo-Har-Sa-Wan temple, curiosity drew me to a cliff with a tiled staircase.  A gong sounded and lured me down the steps into a spacious room overlooking a valley.  On the linoleum-lined floor were eight monks-in-training kneeling before huge, golden statues, as a small group of villagers shared breakfast.  They invited me in to join their meal.  The road less traveled offers wild and mild encounters, don’t delay to chart your Thai adventure.


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Short Stay: Knoxville Renaissance

News anchor Tearsa Smith is never

bored in an emerging tech town

By Sean Drakes

“As long as I am in this field my life is never going to be boring,” says  Tearsa Smith, a morning and noon news anchor for ABC affiliate WATE–TV 6 News.  That sentiment also applies to her adopted hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.  Charming and quaint with a population of about 174,000, Knoxville is noted for its contributions to country music and the 1982 World’s Fair international expo.  Among its acclaimed locals are poet Nikki Giovanni and William Henry Hastie, the first African American federal magistrate judge and governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Anchorwoman and city insider Tearsa Smith. Photo: Sean Drakes

Smith points to the new convention center, Turkey Creek shopping district and the $25 million restoration of the Tennessee Theatre as indicators of Knoxville’s diligence to develop.  A $2.5 million business incubator at University of Tennessee is one of three high-tech support projects that defines Knoxville’s reputation as Innovation Valley.  Originally from Miami, Florida, Smith says Knoxville is a burgeoning media hub with several production companies that support cable TV producer Scripps Networks, which is headquartered in Knoxville and whose presence creates employment for writers, marketing professionals, producers and production crew.

Restaurant chain Ruby Tuesday’s, movie theater chain Regal Cinemas, and processed foods producer Bush Brothers & Co. are also based here.  Expansion Management has Knoxville on its 2007 list of 50 Hottest Cities for Expanding Companies.  The nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory, according to Smith, attracts computer science professionals, researchers and engineers to the metro area.  But registered nurses, elementary school teachers and auditors outnumber other professions in Knoxville.

“I’m a big shopper, and actually ran the Knoxville Expo 5k/10k,” shares Smith.  The Knoxville 100/Casey C. Jones Golf Tournament hosted by 100 Black Men of Greater Knoxville “is a great time for golfers to visit or plan a business trip, tournament proceeds provide “Promise for the Future” scholarships for young men in the mentoring program.”  The Knoxville Opera Rossini Festival [has] “an Italian wine tasting hour, it is one of my favorite events that showcases the city’s love of the arts.”  The Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival and Women Today Expo are other uniquely Knoxville events, visit City of Knoxville for a full lineup.


Tearsa Smith’s City Insights:

STAY:  Built in 1799, the Maple Grove Inn 8800 Westland Drive is a Georgian-style house, each of its seven suites is uniquely styled and some have a fireplace.  “My favorite room is the Maple Suite,” offers Smith.  “Rooms are spacious and don’t feel [like] commercial hotels.”

Four Points by Sheraton Knoxville Cumberland House Hotel 1109 White Avenue is a centrally-located swank, boutique property in the Fort Sanders Historic District.  It’s just steps from the Knoxville Convention Center and University of Tennessee.

DINE:  It’s tradition at Pasta Trio 119 South Central St. (865) 540-3970 to bring a bottle of wine for your dinner.  You sign the empty before adding it to the installation that’s a centerpiece of the decor.  Entrées such as the Cajun pasta which Smith says, “is extremely spicy and beyond good,” are mid-range at $20.

Baker Peter’s Jazz Club 9000 Kingston Pike “is an old mansion converted into a jazz club/restaurant with intimate lighting,” describes Smith.  “It’s like eating in someone’s home.  The food is consistently good.”  Her recommendation: the port wine duck confit with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and port wine-blueberry syrup.

SHOP:  Bliss Home & Art  24 Market Square (888) 809-2424 is a cozy shop trading in vintage home accessories, glassware and novelties.  It stands out in Knoxville’s charming Market Square district.  “I got a funky wine holder there.”

Knoxville Soap Candle & Gifts 4889 Broadway (865) 689-6545 “is one of my personal favorite [shops], it’s a pamper-me-shop with every type of cream you can imagine, it’s like being at a spa.”

SEE:  “I recently went to see the opera Carmen,” at the Tennessee Theatre 604 South Gay Street.  “Every time I go there it takes my breath away, the Theatre brings old Hollywood glamor to Knoxville.  Bill Cosby, John Legend and Clay Aiken have performed here.

The Comedy Zone 9246 Park West Blvd.  “My husband and I double date here quite often.  You will leave with a pain in your side from laughter!”


Previously published.

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