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Monthly Archives: August 2016

Off The Eaten Track in San Juan

Puerto Rican food is a varied mix thanks to its multicultural past. Influences from the peaceful hunter-gatherer Taínos manifest in the uses of cassava, ñame, yuca and other root vegetables, as well as the tradition of mashing corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other assorted ingredients with a maceta y pilón (mortar and pestle). West African culture also played a key role in shaping the island’s foodscape by introducing frying as a cooking method. Spaniards brought livestock and a couple of other items you might not expect mango and plantain. These fruits weren’t indigenous to the island, but are now an iconic part of it.

Señor Paleta

Tucked away in the southern section of Old San Juan, this tiny mom-and-pop shop would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the line of eager folks snaking around the block, happily waiting their turn to indulge in some of the tastiest and coldest treats this little islet has to offer: handcrafted paletas (www.facebook.com/srpaletaoldsanjuan).

Paleterias, or ice-pop stands, are a growing culinary trend across the US and in several parts of Latin America. Shop owners Ramon and Jennifer craft refreshing natural popsicles in a variety of both milk and fruit-based flavors. Nutella? Got it. Cookies and Cream? Sure. But you might want to hold out for their best-seller, strawberry mojito. The shop stands apart thanks to its emphasis on using fresh fruit and high quality ingredients many of their products are sourced locally, and they offer the only farm-to-table paletas in town.

Cuatro Sombras

Coffee first arrived Puerto Rico in 1736, soon becoming one of the dominant cash crops on the island; today, Puerto Rican coffee is known for its high quality and its strong, but not bitter flavor. Old San Juan is chock-a-block with several coffee spots, but Cuatro Sombras stands apart not only for its quality, locally grown beans, but because they are the only coffee shop in Old San Juan that roasts its own coffee fresh, right there on site. Cuatro Sombras is the “shop face” of the owner’s family coffee plantation, Hacienda Santa Clara, founded in 1846 and located in the mountains of Yauco.

These beans are single origin, which means they come from a single location and are not mixed with any other beans from other farms or even other countries. When you visit Cuatro Sombras, be sure to ask for the local’s drink, the cortadito. Think of it as the Puerto Rican version of the macchiato.

Princesa Gastrobar

Princesa Gastrobar (princesapr.com) is nestled in a beautiful garden patio at the edge of the famous city wall that historically encompassed all of Old San Juan. Founded in 2015, owner Jose Daniel and head chef Luis Freire were inspired by a historic cookbook that featured recipes dating as far back as 1859 the two decided to create a unique menu that blends Spanish and Puerto Rican dishes to make what they call ‘island cuisine’. These recipes are indicated on their menu with a local tree frog called a coqui.

The restaurant’s specialty is a Spanish staple: croquettes. These heavenly bites are made with chicken and Iberian ham and served over béchamel sauce  they require four days of prep and more than twenty ingredients. Fun fact: the recipe dates back 300 years to the kitchens of El Botín Restaurant in Spain, where Chef Luis completed his training.

La Alcapurria Quemá

Head to La Alcapurria Quemá for a big dose of local Caribbean charm (facebook.com/laalcapurriaquema); located in a foodie spot known asLa Placita, the restaurant is close to Ocean Park and Condado in an urban area known as Santurce. La Placita technically refers to the local market, the oldest operating farmers market in San Juan (dating back to the 1850s), but the surrounding area includes a number of bars and restaurants. For many years, this plaza has attracted locals who come for a long Friday lunch that often extends into the evening it’s a great place to dance to live music into the wee hours of the morning.

The restaurant’s menu changes on a daily basis, but some staples are always present; be sure to try their namesake alcapurria, a type of Puerto Rican fritter. These delectable dishes are usually made with a batter of local root vegetable yautia (taro) and guineos verdes (green bananas), then stuffed with crab, lobster, shrimp, ground meat filling or vegetables. Top it off with local piqué, a Puerto Rican hot sauce, but proceed with caution some piqués are on the mild side, while others set your mouth on fire.

Tresbé

If you’re looking for a dose of off-the-beaten path charm, Tresbé is the place to go (facebook.com/tresbecafe). It’s unusual name stands for three Bs – bueno, bonito and barato – translating to ‘good, pretty and affordable’ in English.

Tresbé is located off San Juan’s newly trending foodie street, Calle Loíza, which is holding tight to its reputation as a great place to find a variety of local, creative and delicious cuisines in a true urban ambiance. Another plus: the restaurant has parking next door, a rarity in that part of town.

Christmases Past’s Ghost

 A quintessential Christmas with Krampus in Austria

I traveled to Vienna and Salzburg right before Christmas in 2010 and it was the most magical Christmas experience of my life. It had snowed heavily right before our plane landed, so the whole country was covered in a soft blanket of white – a perfect backdrop for its numerous bustling Christmas markets, where we drank a fair amount of gluhwein and ate too many holiday sweets. This American also had her very first run-in with the European-style St Nicholas and his more threatening counterpart Krampus; both happened to be walking down the streets of Salzburg like old chums, and I had to consult a local pretzel maker to figure out who Santa’s terrifying monster pal was.

Strange stocking fillers and a Christmas safari in Malawi

My mum’s cousin lived and worked in Malawi and in 1996 my parents decided to spend Christmas with them. It was both the best and strangest Christmas ever. We couldn’t bring many presents with us, so I remember getting a stocking filled with a toothbrush, Tic Tacs and some banana chips (things readily available in Malawi or the airport!). Our Christmas tree was basically a twig and we didn’t have a turkey, but we did run barefoot across boiling-hot sand to go for a swim in a lake and went on a safari to see the tallest giraffes we’d ever seen. It was definitely a Christmas to remember.

Four’s a crowd on a honeymoon in Thailand

I went to stay with my friend in Bangkok last December, and over Christmas we decided to head down to Phuket for a couple of days. Checking Facebook upon arrival, we realised that some friends of ours were in town at the same time – on honeymoon. After a day drinking Singhas on the beach, we decided to surprise them by crashing their first Christmas dinner as a married couple at Baan Rim Pa. Looking back, I imagine they didn’t much appreciate us joining them at probably the most romantic restaurant in Thailand. Still, it’s not every Christmas you get to spend catching up with friends on the other side of the world.

The unexpected guests of honour in Fiji

We were on a catamaran hopping between islands in the Yasawas, Fiji, when our names were called over the tannoy. Dutifully we reported to the nearest staff member and were told we’d been upgraded. Off the boat, it turned out we were less upgraded and more abandoned – we were the only guests staying in our bure (a Fijian cabin made from wood and straw) and it was also the only bure on this section of the island. We had planned to spend our Christmas Day lounging around, drinking cans of Fiji Gold beer and swimming in the sea. However, the bure‘s chef had other ideas. On Christmas morning he had us hiking up over the headland to attend church in the next village with his family. The tiny airless church was packed with the faithful and my partner and I – the sweaty guests of honour – were made to sit at the front, facing the congregation for the whole two-hour-long service.

A Seasonal Alternative Ways to Spend The Festive Period

 Surfing in Hawaii

Hitting the waves rather than huddling around the hearth is the order of the day in Hawaii over Christmas. This US state’s surf is spectacular all year round, but takes on legendary status in December on Oahu’s North Shore. Pros and world-class board fanatics head here for swells of more than 30 feet. If that seems a tad too intense, why not join the New Year festivities and feast on whole roasted pig, a tradition which dates back to the native Hawaiians’ end-of-year Makahiki Festival, when locals took a whole four months out to party. Whether you opt for surfing or stuffing that tummy (or both), we’re sure you can squeeze in a few hours of post-Christmas dinner sunbathing.

An Antarctic cruise for Christmas and New Year

A cold Christmas doesn’t have to mean hunkering down when the sun sets at 3pm. Antarctica’s brief summer coincides with the festive period, making it the perfect time to hop on a boat and cruise along the icy continent’s peninsula and the South Shetland Islands. Polar Cruises (polarcruises.com) operates a 10-night trip which starts in Port Stanley on the Falklands and makes its way south for hiking stops on the mainland, plus the chance to see penguins, humpback whales and albatross up close. The constant daylight means the views are often relentless, so be sure to wrap up warm and spend as much time on deck as possible.

Christmas and New Year safari in Namibia

After November’s rains, Namibia’s parched earth begins to turn a lush green. Newly replenished watering holes are a magnet for wildlife and the drier days of December make it the perfect time to visit. Etosha National Park, in the north of the country, is the classic destination for first timers, where big game, black rhino and some of Africa’s largest elephants roam in search of sustenance after months of dry and dusty conditions. Throw in huge views of the Etosha salt pan and the chance to drive through the ethereal red desert in the far south and this is a festive adventure as far removed from mince pies and wintry walks as you can get.

Fake snow and Christmas lights in Hanoi

Vietnam doesn’t stop for Christmas. But that doesn’t mean the locals don’t go in for all the usual festive brouhaha. Wander along Hang Ma Street in the city’s labyrinthine Old Quarter and you’ll find a huge selection of tacky decorations, with Christmas trees and snowmen lit up outside every shop. Fake snow is blown across parks, while many of the city’s moped riders don Santa outfits once 25 December comes around. And if you love a spot of bargain hunting, the city’s malls go all out when it comes to the festive sales, flogging off high-end goods at knockdown prices.

Canada’s Yukon After the Gold Rush

 Despite a century’s worth of miners striking it lucky, there is still enough gold in these hills to have made Tony a rich man. His straggly hair and beard may disguise it but his net worth is estimated at over $5 million. ‘We strictly came here for the money,’ he says. ‘Let’s say that worked. We’re a little spoiled now, but like I always say…’ He holds up those dusty articulated fists. ‘It was earned.’

Tony mines near the Klondike River, where gold was first discovered on Rabbit Creek by Skookum Jim, George Carmack and Tagish Charlie in August 1896. The area proved so rich that when the prospectors arrived back in San Francisco in July 1897 their ship’s cargo was worth over a million dollars. The news sparked a Gold Rush that led 100,000 people to attempt the long, punishing journey to the Klondike.

Realising that these stampeders would be even easier to mine than the hills, a barkeeper named Joseph Ladue built a sawmill and staked out a townsite on the mud flats at the confluence of the Klondike and the Yukon. He named this Dawson City, and it became home to the miners, and to the pimps, hustlers and dancing girls who followed in their wake. Dawson City remains an outlaw town. ‘You can do things the way you want here,’ says Tony. ‘A lot of places are regulated and over-regulated, but here they still let you get away with stuff.’

Wandering Dawson at dusk the only thing missing from the scene is a pair of duelling gunslingers. The buildings of wood and tin haven’t changed since the 1900s, the saloons still have swing doors and the streets are little more than dirt tracks.

Dawson is still the end of the road. Keep going north and the only settlements you’ll find are in the Arctic Circle. That means a certain breed of character washes up here, like nuggets in the bend of a river. On any given night, in bars like The Pit at the Westminster Hotel, you’re likely to hear tall tales from guys like Duncan Spriggs, the former landlord who’ll tell you about the time he rode a horse from Vancouver to San Francisco. Or about Dana Meise, who walked across Canadafrom the Atlantic to the Pacific and claims to have fought no fewer than three grizzly bears along the way.

No bar sums up the spirit of Dawson quite like the Downtown Hotel. The signature drink here is the Sourtoe cocktail, served with a genuine severed human toe resting in it. Dawson is not a place concerned with Health and Safety regulations. The story goes that in the early 1970s a man named Captain Dick Stevenson came across the toe of a Prohibition-era bootlegger pickled in a jar of overproof rum. Yukoners refer to anyone who hasn’t spent the harsh winter here as a ‘cheechako’, while anyone who has survived one becomes a ‘sourdough’. Captain Dick decreed that in order to become an honorary sourdough, one must kiss the ‘sourtoe’. To date, over 67,000 have.

Like the miners, the dancing girls are still here too. Most nights in Dawson end at Diamond Tooth Gerties, Canada’s oldest casino and home to a can-can show hosted by the eponymous Gertie. One of the most famous dance hall stars of the Gold Rush era, she’s currently played by Amy Soloway, a singer from Nova Scotia who moved to Dawson eight summers ago to take the role.

‘Gertie was a smart lady, and she knew what men liked, especially lonely men: liquor, ladies and gambling. ‘She was the baddest chick in 1898,’ says Amy. ‘When I mingle after the shows I meet miners and feel transported back. It’s still very much alive.’

Not everybody comes here for the gold, but it has a way of pulling you in. Leslie Chapman and husband Bill just wanted to live off the grid when they moved from Calgary in 1974 and built a cabin near the Alaskan border. Soon they started finding gold dust and after staking their claims built a house in Dawson where Leslie now works as a goldsmith making jewellery, mostly from the spoils of their own mine. She has an electronic scale on the counter, accurate to 1/100th of a gram, and miners often pay her with dust pulled from their pockets. It’s not what keeps her here though.

‘The Yukon means freedom,’ she says. ‘That’s the reason I came. We still have so much open, unclaimed land in its natural state. So many people in the world can’t even see the stars anymore. That’s not a problem here.’