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Anya Targets Team Morale

Recap of episode 6 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

Armchair critics in the land of Carnival anticipated mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee’s team would slam-dunk a challenge to construct wearable designs inspired by costumes in a Roman gladiator flick and the Greek ambience of a palatial villa.  Anya’s foray into Carnival costume design, following her reality TV show win in 2011, is useful on a challenge where a minimalist approach trumps design that is too literal.

ImageThat might be the issue for Carnival enthusiasts who expect substance from bikini mas, they’re thinking too literally.  “Where the design?” jabbed a New York-based, Trini-born designer at an after party last week.  “She is a designer but what is that she calling mas.  Look at K2K mas, I see more fashion from those untrained twins than in her bikini and feathers.”  Such interrogation of design integrity and value has long shadowed Trinidad’s bikini mas movement.  Surely, it wasn’t an oversight by Anya.  In the age of the hustle for Twitter popularity, substance seldom precedes the quest for profit.

To steer her mentees toward the elusive prize, Anya acknowledged, “I recognize how morale can suffer from stagnation.  It’s time to step it up.”  During her workroom visit to guide garment construction, Anya attempted to nudge her team into kick-butt mode: “I feel you’re all holding back in effort to harmoniously get through this, I don’t think compromise is the right place to start, I think complimenting is what you’re trying to do.”

Image“In my experiences, there are a lot of moving parts when you’re dealing with a team challenge,” noted Mr. Gunn, “and you have to oversee all of those parts.”    In the workroom mentors scope the competition to compose their views.  Anya had a mouthful: “Mondo’s group looks a bit costumey.  [They] went a bit more literal, perhaps the judges will see something that I’m not seeing.”  She added, “Nick’s team seem to be very incongruent.”  The harshest stinger was slung by Mr. Gunn, “I’ll be honest, it was a pile of hot sticky diapers,” he said of Team Nick’s garments during construction.

Image

Top: The winning design by Oscar Lopez. Above: Oscar Lopez and Natalia Fedner collaborate to make it work for the team challenge. Here: Mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee with mentees Nicholas Komor and Blake Smith.
Photos courtesy: Under The Gunn/Lifetime TV

Mentor Mondo Guerra assumed Anya’s team would be safe since their designs weren’t “conceptual or literal,” but safe translated to being picked for elimination.  Team Nick stole the show.   “Oscar became the king of my Pompeii,” cheered mentor Nick Verreos.  Oscar Garcia-Lopez pinned his imprint on each design in the three-look mini collection and took the overall win for his modern Grecian goddess look.

Judges lathered praise on Nick’s motley crew: “The romper is on trend,” “love how you layered a solid over the watery fabric,” and  “the minute elements of the studs, are the things that bring it together.”  The takeaway from Team Mondo: Avoid looking arts and craftsy. The spirit of comradery is good, even among competing designers, and always aim to be sophisticated and dynamic.

Sounding like a broken LP, Anya lamented: “Unfortunately, someone is going home from my team, that’s hard to wrap my mind around.”  Mentees Shan Keith and Nicholas Komor got slammed for delivering “a resounding failure.”  But Mr. Gunn threw Anya a lifeline, no one was eliminated.  Perhaps Anya needed to bait her struggling mentees with the incentive of a trip to taste the VVVVIP life in Trinidad, and share that shuttle service she gets on Carnival Tuesday so she can air kiss cameras at judging points.  We’ll be tuning in to see who gets drop-kicked from the A-List.

© SEAN DRAKES

Recently published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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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 ]

Short Stay: Jo’burg Rising

South African capital grows

as business tourism attraction

My first mission upon landing in Johannesburg was to find a perch from which to soak in a South African sunrise.  Equally warm greetings showed up all along my itinerary which was packed with mild adventures of dining on stewed ostrich, trailing springbok in the wild, and visiting historical sites.  There is a glow around Jo’burg, as it’s fondly called.  The city feels like a phoenix rising from an ominous spell.  Dozens of cranes are weaving towers into the skyline, an underground subway is on a fast track to realization, and the country’s GDP growth rate hit 4.7% in the third-quarter of 2006.  Confidence is strong and infectious.

Slice of Jo’burg.

South Africa’s profile as a destination for meetings, conventions and incentive travel is poised to soar.  “The reasons for optimism,” offers Cameron Brandt, International Markets Editor for Emerging Portfolio Fund Research, “include the government’s conservative and consistent economic policy, the rapid expansion of the Black middle-class, forecasts for 10% GDP growth in China [which has] positive implications for commodity demand, and planned public infrastructure spending tied to the [2010 FIFA] World Cup.”  On the flip side, caution is encouraged because of “the expansion of household debt and lack of experience many of the new middle-class have when dealing with credit, still very high levels of unemployment, and the country’s large current account deficit.”  Visit www.southafrica.info for more insight on doing business in South Africa. Travel is about the journey not just the destination.  On our 15-hour intercontinental flight from Atlanta in Delta’s BusinessElite Class ($6,600-$7,900) the pampering began at the gate with VIP compliments in Delta’s Crown Room Club.

Blue Dot performs at Moyo.

On-board service deflects jet-lag and pleasures your senses with personalized five course gourmet dining and flavorful wines, all-leather luxury sleeper seating equipped with a state-of-the-art entertainment system, private video monitors, and a slew of comforts that make for a faultless five-star experience. Sandton, Jo’burg’s gleaming uptown district, bustles with Mercedes-Benz taxis shuttling folk to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Sandton International Convention Centre, restaurants in Nelson Mandela Square; among them is Lekgotla with its tribal chic ambiance, and a massive mall with designer boutiques like Shakur Olla and Sun Goddess, all set near our hotel, the Michelangelo Towers.  Italian heels and Swiss timepieces adorn guests who zip from tables at the lobby restaurant “8” to suites like my tech-savvy duplex ($715 per night).  The ultra-swank Cupola suite has a 360-degree view of Jo’burg, private rooftop pool, butler and security staff and commands $5,700 per night for unrivalled luxury. Considered the ‘urban heart’ of South Africa, Johannesburg is set like an axle in the center of eight provinces:  Cape Town, on the picturesque southwest coast, is famed for its lush winelands and whale watching, Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans lock arms, and the historical site Robben Island.  The North West province is home to the super-sized extravagance of Sun City which contains four hotels, that offer family attractions, casino gaming, two 18-hole par 72 golf courses and conference facilities.  The ultimate safari adventure is in Mpumalanga in the northwest, where 10,000 elephants and prides of lions roam Kruger National Park.  My guide, Joe Motsogi, owner of JMT Tours, charted a fulfilling excursion that included shopping at Chameleon Village and an exhilarating sunset safari drive. Seasons in South Africa are distinguished by precipitation rather than severe temperature changes.  Rain or shine there are eventful attractions year-round: Durban July is an illustrious horse racing event steeped in aristocratic tradition; young and celebrated musicians rule the spotlight at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival; golf enthusiasts flock to majestic greens for the Million Dollar Golf Challenge and the Nelson Mandela Invitational Golf Challenge; and wine connoisseurs attend Winex to sample and shop for vintages from over 200 South African wineries.

Apartheid Museum.

Near downtown Johannesburg is the Apartheid Museum, a sleek, modern structure that houses a comprehensive and riveting chronicle of South Africa’s journey to democracy.  It also invokes optimism for South Africa, a country as a democracy that is only 13-years-old.  It’s a new day.  Contact South Africa Tourism to facilitate your convention, vacation and incentive travel needs.

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© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

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.

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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 www.travelbelize.org for help charting your course through the wild and mild side of Belize.

© SEAN DRAKES

[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 ]

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 ]

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.

© SEAN DRAKES

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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.

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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!”

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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