........... Weekend Warrior

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Tabacon experience in Arenal

Volcan Arenal in the Alajuela province of Costa Rica is considered as one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the most active in Costa Rica. This perfect cone structure spits out lava and hot boulders at regular intervals which makes for a spectacular display of natural pyrotechnics on cloudless days/nights. The surrounding regions are covered with dense primary and secondary rain forests interspersed with meandering rivers and streams. This natural paradise also treasures some of the best natural hot springs found anywhere in the world. These geo-thermal, volcano-heated waters are fed by fresh rainfall and are very rich in mineral content.

The healing properties of the warm waters and its de-toxification effects, combined with the enchanting surroundings of a lush tropical forest makes it for a surreal experience. Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort is one of the premier destinations for soaking in the waters of the hot-springs. The most amazing feature of Tabacon's hot springs is that the facility is built around several hot streams at varying temperatures forming tiny natural pools and several small waterfalls in an exotic tropical paradise. This setting is as natural as it can get, coupled with an impeccable service and well-kept grounds. Each pool or a waterfall gives a slightly different feel based of the depth, the temperature, the volume of water flow and the type of setting. The hot spring setting ranges anywhere from a swimming pool complete with a wet bar, to an intimate and a secluded pool well into the tropical gardens.

The Grand Spa facility is one of it kind in the world offering an array of world-class specialized services, the most notable being the Temazcal based on ancient rituals and the ever popular Tabacon massage. The Temazcal is intended to be a complete spiritual and a physical cleansing experience with the help of the forces of nature like the water, fire, air and the earth. The Tabacon massage for the couple is an enchanting experience that starts at a secluded bungalow that is set amidst gurgling streams and aromatic gardens. It's an hour long synchronized massage for the couple using warm Volcanic mud from Arenal, with a final soak in the comfort of a private thermal stream, only accessible for the Spa's guests. The Tabacon Grand Spa and Thermal Resort is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World and definitely the most luxurious in Arenal. The entry to Tabacon's Thermal Springs is free for Tabacon resort's guests while other visitors can access this facility with a day-pass.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The secrets of La Paz

Lush and verdant, misty and rainy, greens of all shades imaginable, the resounding thunder of waterfalls, abundant flora and fauna; that's how one would describe the La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Vara Blanca (Costa Rica). This Waterfall Garden Park is a well-kept facility that was built to give easy access to 5 magical waterfalls in the dense rain forest areas. The easily marked trails run from the main visitor center to the last waterfall with an option of trekking back on a steep terrain or climbing aboard a shuttle for a quick hop back to the visitor center. The access to these areas are mostly self-guided with a detailed map from the visitor center and clearly-marked directions on the trails. For an additional fee, guided-tours are also available.

The trails run around a number of attractions before actually leading to the waterfalls. The trail, first leads to a bird cage that houses a number of tropical birds including the colorful Toucans that Central America is so famous for. Though it's a huge netted enclosure, the grounds are lush, the birds fly free all around the visitors and give a sense of being in the middle of a jungle. After passing the main bird cage, there is an option to continue walking on the trail to see butterflies, insects, monkeys and humming birds in their own separate enclosures. Fishing enthusiasts often seek an alternate trail that leads to a trout lake and a trout bar. The Butterfly observatory is a unique setup which allows the visitors to witness the complete life-cycle of a butterfly (from egg to caterpillar to butterfly). They have used it as a breeding ground for a large collection of colorful butterfly species. Another unique aspect of this observatory is that student internship programs are available to learn more about their growth and behavior.

The hungry visitors on the trail can relax and catch a quick bite in one of the restaurants in the path. Casita de la Paz is a mock-up of a traditional Central American house and living. A friendly Tico offers delicious warm sugar drink and freshly made tortillas to sample. A ride on the Ox-driven cart takes you to a trip down the past. There are more offerings in the form of Serpantarium, Orchid gardens and a frog exhibit along the way. Venomous and colorful snakes of Costa Rica can be found in Serpantarium exhibits. Many snakes camouflage really well in their surroundings. Often, help of an experience eye is needed to spot them. Like the Ranario frog pond of Monteverde, this frog exhibit has a huge collection of Central American frogs such as the poison dart frog, the red-eyed tree frog and the flying frogs.

After all the exploration of the fauna, its time to see the waterfalls. This portion of the trail inside the rain forests that lead to the different waterfalls (El Tempo, Magla Blanca, the twin falls of Encantada & Escondida and finally the La Paz) is the longest, the steepest and the most scenic too. The trail traverses through the dense jungles that give a real sense of being in an exotic rain forest as seen in popular Hollywood blockbusters. It's a real treat to the senses as the eyes feast on lushness beyond comprehension and the body soaks in freshness beyond conventional belief. The real beauty sets in when it's raining in the gardens. Numerous other small waterfalls suddenly come to life and all the plants and trees in the forest seem to sway to the wind in a rhythmic pattern. In short, mere words just cannot describe the magical experience.

The La Paz Waterfall Gardens is open every day of the year between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm. The last shuttle pick up is at 5 pm from the exit trail near the La Paz waterfalls. The entrance fee for an adult visitor is $32 (Child - $26) for the self-guided tour. Costa Rican influenced Lunch buffet is available at the Colibries restaurant near the visitor center.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Amphibian sightings in Monteverde

The Puntaneras region of Costa Rica treasures an area of cool and misty cloud forests at high elevations of 4000+ feet above the sea level. Known as Monteverde, it is a region of lush forests teeming with numerous plant, mammal, bird and insect species. Among the various unique wildlife in Monteverde, the frogs deserve a special mention. Ranario's frog pond in Santa Elena - Monteverde houses some of the most interesting frogs from Monteverde and other regions of Costa Rica. There is an entry fee ($9 per adult entry) to visit the frog pond. The entry fee includes a 1 hour guided tour to the numerous terrariums and an additional second entry. The frogs are kept in various Terrariums, where the environment is simulated to be as close as possible to their natural habitat. This provides an opportunity to witness their true behavior and interactions.

The 25+ species of frogs here include the dart frogs, crowned frogs, leopard frogs, marine toads, the red-eyed tree frogs and the rare glass frogs. Certain frogs like the colorful dart frogs are quite poisonous to the predators. The crowned frogs get their name because of the characteristic crown like protrusions on their skull. The red-eyed tree frogs inhabit the high canopy ares of Costa Rica. They have bright-red colored eyes with orange feet and they are considered one of the most beautiful species of frogs.

The glass frogs have very thin transparent skin on their bellies and limbs which almost exposes the internal organs to the naked eye. These bright green tree frogs are mostly found in the rain forests of Central and South America. Most frogs are nocturnal and are very active in the night time. So, its highly recommended that one of the 2 allowed visits per ticket is in the night time. The gift store in the frog pond is a very interesting shop set in a kind of natural surrounding with pebbles and gravels on the ground instead of conventional flooring.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Holiday notes

It's that time of the year when heartful wishes and thoughtful gifts are exchanged. Holiday vibes is evident in every corner; at the workplace, in the shopping arenas, around the travel hubs, at the food joints, the schools, the places of worship and many more. Family re-unions happen everywhere to celebrate Christmas festivities and the upcoming New Year; Houses are decorated with creative fixtures and innovative light-work. Theme parks and other public gathering areas are spruced up with Christmas trees, colorful lights, festive activities, musical bands and parades. Cinema halls feature several kid-friendly movies that are themed on the festivities. Cities, towns and villages sport an energetic and a lively atmosphere. With that, 'Urbancell' wishes its readers, a Merry Christmas and a New Year filled with joy, energy, happy anticipations and fulfillment of many dreams. Please look forward to more exciting posts in this space in 2008. Till then, cheers and happy holidays !!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Red rocks and the holy connection

Sedona in Northern Arizona is not just famous for its amazing red-rock formations; its even more popular for its Vortexes as they call in Sedona. These Vortexes are spots of high energy and are found in abundance in the red-rock town. The doses of high energy emanating from the several Vortexes, combined with breathtaking scenery, the sounds of oak creek and year-round mild climates sort of create a natural healing effect. It's no wonder that Sedona's residents are highly spiritual and religious. Most of the shops are filled with aroma of incense sticks, sounds of cosmic music and stocked with new-age religious material. Psychic readings, aural pictures, and healing massages are quite a common ritual. Visitors are intrigued by the mysticism in the air.

In a region that is teeming with such high energy levels and spirituality, its also natural to find several centers of worship. Two of the most enchanting ones are the 'Chapel of the Holy Cross' and 'Kunzang Palyul Chöling'. Chapel of the Holy Cross is an impressive architecture perched on the red rocks and among more red rocks. A small drive up the hill on the Chapel Road leads to this stunning building in a very serene setting. The panoramic views from the hill and the naturally-lit church rejuvenates the body and the soul while inducing a powerful sense of holy presence. There is also a small gift shop attached to the church that sells religious items.

The Stupas of Kunzang Palyul Chöling in Sedona is in a secluded residential area of Sedona; providing a perfect spot for meditation and prayer. Access to the actual Stupas are through a gate and a small hike up the hill. Tara Stupa is about 6-foot tall and was the first one to be built in Sedona. This is also the first stupa the visitors would come across in their walk. The second Stupa is a towering 36-foot one and is called the Amitabha Stupa. A Buddha statue on top of a small hill near Amitabha Stupa radiates a sense of calmness. These Stupas, rightly located in Sedona harmonize the energy of the environment similar to its famous Vortexes.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Visit to the rock arts

If you are cruising on north I-17 from Phoenix in Arizona, a leisurely 2.8 mile drive east on exit 298 takes you to a charming little visitor center (with friendly staff and stocked with useful books, maps and information), a large un-paved open parking space, a mobile caravan with satellite dish and an old chimney on the ground. That's the gateway for one of the largest Petroglyph sites in a region called Verde Valley in Arizona. Called the V-Bar-V Heritage site, it depicts the rock art of the prehistoric Sinaguas who occupied regions of Arizona between the 6th and 15th centuries.

A short 0.4 mile stroll from the visitor center around the chimney and through the grasslands leads to the rock art site near the Beaver Creek area. The actual site with 1032 petroglyphs on 13 panels is in a nice shaded region. The style of rock art depicted on the red rocks is known as the Beaver style. It's a very distinctive art style noticed through various studies of rock art sites in the Beaver Creek area. This style is indicative of the Southern Sinagua between the ages of 1150 and 1400 AD. Some of the art work that can be seen here are that of animals, birds and reptiles. They are very clearly etched on the red rocks. A knowledgeable guide at the petroglyph spot takes time to educate and answer various queries of visitors. This historic site is open for visitors Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 9:30 am to 3 pm (Closed on certain holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Anatomy unleashed

Since the dawn of Homo Sapiens on the planet, they have always been fascinated with the human body. It is always thrilling to know what happens inside us, what we are made of and how the different parts of the body work in harmony to maintain the most complex organic life form on earth. That's why Biology and Medicine are such engrossing subjects as they expose our knowledge banks to some of the most complicated interactions even taking place. How would it feel if common people who have had no exposure to the study of human bodies get a chance to quickly learn and nurture their curiosity?

Bodies...The Exhibition is created exactly to address this inquisitiveness of human mind. This exhibition makes several globe-trotting trips; San Diego, Las Vegas, New York, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires and Framingham being the current stops. Real life bodies and organs are chemically treated to create permanent polymer preserves. The San Diego exhibit features 21 whole-body specimens and more than 260 organs meticulously displayed with pertinent text to educate. The exhibition consists of several partitions/rooms, with each room pertaining to a theme based on functional systems like digestive systems, circulatory system, nervous system, respiratory system, excretory system, skeletal system, reproductive system and so on. There is at least 1 whole-body specimen and several smaller dissected sections on display in each room providing an in-depth view and understanding of the different organs and their interactions. Enthusiastic kids and adults are fascinated as med-students and other physicians in-house de-mystify their perspective on the human body.

As much as the displays induce valuable knowledge about our human body, certain displays also encourage us to follow healthy living habits. Displays of diseased organs are showcased to discourage people from indulging in over-eating, smoking and the like. Fetus displays are though-provoking as several stages of pregnancy are taught in one of the most practical methods. The complete network of nerves spread on the display table mimics an intricate thread work and is awe-inspiring. The final exhibit hall displays several cross-sections of the complete human body laminated in a glass sheet. This MRI-eye view is mind-blowing to say the least. This hall also leads to a gift store stocked with numerous books, models and multimedia paraphernalia. It is a must-see for all the curious minds out there.

Bodies...The Exhibition in San Diego is in UTC Wesfield Mall.
(Displays from May 8, 2007 to January 13, 2008)
4425 La Jolla Village Drive
San Diego, CA 92122
Ticketing over phone: 1-877-BODIES5
Sunday - Thursday (10 am - 7 pm)
Friday - Saturday (10 am - 10 pm)

* No photography and food allowed inside the exhibit halls
** AAA discounts offered

Monday, November 12, 2007

Decadent tastes in a luxe setting (in Chennai)

When a renowned French chef dishes out his delectable concoctions in an ultra-chic pastry boutique in the heart of Chennai, you'd feel pure Ecstasy. That's exactly what Chef Mickael Besse brings to you in Ecstasy, the newest pastry shop in town. Located inside Sathyam Cinemas, the first thing you'd notice about Ecstasy is its trendy urban styling and a cool contemporary decor. Once inside, you are transported to a juxtaposition of international brands with cheerful Maitre D' welcoming you to sample some of the most delicious creations in this part of the world. Ecstasy is just a beginning to creating more such international experiences in Chennai. Chef Mickael Besse takes time to share some views about his creation.

1) When did Ecstasy open in Chennai? Is this concept the first-of-its-kind in Chennai/India?
Ecstasy opened to the public on the 7th of September 2007. Yes of course, it's the first in terms of an exclusive pastry shop outside the hotel. The concept of Ecstasy is to give the best international food experience to our guests.

2) Ecstasy's USP seems to be the convergence of the best in the world of food, lighting and furniture. That's an amazing concept. Could you elaborate a bit on the lighting and furnishing aspects?
Yes, we use the best ingredients in the world like Mascarpone cheese for Tiramisu, Philadelphia cream cheese for Cheese Cake, Valrhona chocolates for all chocolates bonbons, pastries, ice cream etc. Concerning the furniture, we have chairs imported from, Italy. All the crockery and cutlery are from the worlds' leading brands like Nambe, Guy Degrenne, Rosenthal, Spiegelau and Sambonet.

3) Looks like you procure the chocolate ingredients from Valrhona. Does that include cocoa beans and flavoring ingredients like vanilla, caramel etc.? Are the chocolates made in Ecstasy's kitchen though?
No. Unfortunately we cannot buy the cocoa beans as it is necessary to have some heavy machine for making it and it is a long process. The Valrhona factory has a very good selection of Grand Cru chocolates and I don't think it is absolutely necessary to customize the raw chocolate for getting better quality. We have selected the Grand Cru chocolates only from different beans that have origins in the likes of Forestaro from Amazonie, Criollo from Central America, Trinitario and others from the world over.

All chocolates and bonbons are made in house with the best of ingredients like pistachio, almond, Illy Arabica coffee, crushed roasted cocoa beans, Earl Grey tea, and many others only to be discovered at Ecstasy.

4) Ecstasy takes pride in using the freshest ingredients for its food. Are these imported on a very frequent basis from Europe and other countries? How about fruits like blueberry, strawberry etc.? Does Ecstasy use a lot of locally available ingredients as well?
The first idea when we create a new shop is to use on priority all best ingredients available locally (figs, vanilla pods, Alphonso mangoes and the like). If it isn't available, we try to customize them.

For the rest of the products (Valrhona chocolates, Mascarpone and Philadelphia cheese, blueberries etc), we import them via certain agencies in India according to our consumption.

5) Does Ecstasy plan on offering any daily specials? What are the most popular sweets in Ecstasy and is there a plan to also carry flower/herb-flavored or liquor infused chocolate truffles in the future?
We don't have any daily special dishes but we change the menu, display, drinking desserts, tea and coffee, beverages, chocolate bonbons and ice cream three times a year.

The most popular sweets are undoubtedly ''Tiramisu'' and ''Le Chocolatier'' for Display desserts, ''Fraises au Vin Epic é et Glace a l'Huile d'Olivee'' for plated dishes, ''Chocolat Liegeois'' for Drinking Dessert, ''Hawain Blue Mountain Kona'' for Coffee, ''Darjeling White'' for Tea, ''Les Trois Roses'' for the ice cream dessert, and ''Freezing'' and ''Palou'' for chocolates bonbons.

We have planned to bring some new ideas in the next menu, something with herbs, but I cannot tell you where and how as I want to keep it as a surprise for the customer.

6) Is there an Asian-style tea-tasting bar for sampling premium teas that Ecstasy offers?
No we don't have a tea tasting bar but you can enjoy some of the premium teas with or without a dessert. A chocolate bonbon can also be a very good compliment for tea.

7) Could you share a bit of your professional background? Did you specialize in baking and pastry making in a French pastry school?
I have learnt pastries and kitchen during 3 years in a French pastry school. I have worked as pastry chef in some of the biggest Michelin Star Hotels like Mister Régis Marcon at ''L'Auberge et Clos des Cimes'' in Saint Bonnet le Froid in France, Mister Henriroux at ''La Pyramide'' at Vienne in France, Mister Roger Souvereyns at ''Le Scholteshof'' in Hasselt in Belgium. I have also travelled to different countries for demonstrations including Saint-Petersburg in Russia, in Tokyo and Kyoto in Japan ....

8) Why did you decide to take up a culinary career in Chennai? What attracted you to a relatively traditional city like Chennai? How do you rate Chennai among the most popular culinary destinations in the world like France, Italy, Spain, Tokyo , London , New York and Las Vegas?
I have decided to come to Chennai because I got the opportunity to take care of the inter projects from A to Z in a multiplex for the first time. I have travelled to many countries but had never come to India. I heard a lot about this country and it presented me with a wonderful opportunity to give the best of my knowledge to every body. Mr. Kiran Reddy (owner of Sathyam Cinemas) was a big influence in my final decision to come since he wants the best for his customers. Sathyam Cinemas has a lot of projects in the pipeline and it is a privilege and honour to be associated with all of them.

9) Are there any plans to expand the food range in Ecstasy to include savory items like panini, quiche, soups, salads, savory crepes etc.?
Not presently. As I have mentioned above, we have many others projects coming up inside and outside the complex, and in some of the other south Indian cities.

10) What is your vision for the future, in terms of making Ecstasy a global brand?
We have just begun looking at some other options.

Ecstasy is open daily from 12 noon - 11 pm.
Photos copyright: Ecstasy

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Grilling fine food in Sorrento Valley

The Sorrento Valley hi-tech area gets a brand new eatery in the form of Skewers, the brain child of Ahmad Sakha. Having spent 10 years of professional life in corporate finance and global business development of a wireless semiconductor company in Sorrento Valley, and over 4 years in privately held companies, Ahmad always looked for fresh, healthy and tasty eating options. That motivated him to bring healthy and quality food to the market place and corporate clientele in the area.

He started working on a concept a couple of years ago while earning valuable experience in the food industry with a Quiznos outlet. His ideas finally formed shape on October 1st 2007 as he opened Skewers to the general public. With a strong focus on offering a healthy food with rich flavors, Ahmad and his wife Latifa have worked on an innovative menu with infusion of Greek, Persian and Afghan tastes. Ahmad's globe-trotting to land of exotic food and spices coupled with an Mediterranean connection further helped him perfect the tastes. He has also taken great care to hand-picked chefs well-versed in Greek and Persian cooking.

Ahmad and Latifa have a strong commitment to using only the freshest ingredients. The food at Skewers is cooked fresh at the time of order. The patrons who dine here can be rest assured that Skewers never uses frozen/caned produce or artificial coloring and flavors in their cooking. Even the meat is trimmed by the chefs everyday.

Skewers also caters to guests with varied food habits by offering a huge selection of vegetarian appetizers, entrees and sides. Skewers even alters spice levels to suit individual tastes. Early next year, patrons will also have an opportunity to taste some specialty dishes as part of Skewers' daily and weekly specials. There are plans to add wine and beer to the menu in the near future. Breakfast will soon be served between the hours of 6 am and 10 am .

In terms of the setting, Skewers is spacious and aims to provide a close-to-fine-dining experience in its ambiance and tastes, but at very reasonable prices. The decor is chic with HDTVs and soon-to-be added wifi hot spots. Apart from dine-ins, Skewers is also fully equipped to handle catering and hosting parties/events. With the patrons already appreciating the tastes and quality, Ahmad aims to expand Skewers into a popular restaurant chain to continue offering the same high-quality food at reasonable prices.

Skewers is located in
9254 Scranton Road, #106
San Diego, CA - 92121
Phone (858) 658-0109
Fax (858) 658-0107

Hours of Operation
Monday through Friday - 10 am to 7 pm
(Breakfast coming shortly - 6 am to 10 am )
Saturday - 11 am to 4 pm
Sunday - Closed
Available "after hours" for private events

Food Photos copyright: Skewers
Decor Photos copyright: Bhadri

Presenting "Skewers coupon" for your savings !!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Leaning towers, dam and a lake

It's not the leaning tower of Pisa. These are electric lines running on the side of the road that leads to Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam is a gravity-arch dam built in Black canyon on the Colorado river in the border of Arizona and Nevada. Taking just 4 years to complete construction, it is considered as an engineering marvel. Also called as Boulder Dam, this monolithic structure is considered a National Historic Landmark and is maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation. The dam forms Lake Mead which is a reservoir as well as National recreation area.

Featured in such talkies like the James Bond action flick Golden Eye, Hoover Dam has been a major tourist attractor since its opening. Having Las Vegas in its proximity definitely helps in bringing local and international visitors throughout the year. A good portion of the drive from Las Vegas is scenic and the final stretch is prone to traffic as tourists try to locate vacant parking spaces in the Visitor center. Discovery Tour of Hoover Dam and the power generators are conducted to provide an enriching educational experience. The Hoover Dam Visitor center is open between 9 am and 6 pm everyday with the exception of holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Lake Mead being the largest man-made lake in the United States, offers a wealth of activities like boating, water skiing, swimming, fishing, hiking along the lakes and wildlife photography. It is believed that Lake Mead attracts about 8 to 10 million visitors every year. The Alan Bible visitor center in Lake Mead is opened 8:30 am to 4:30 pm everyday with the exception of few holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.