Handmade Candy Canes at Hammond’s Candies

After TBEX2012, I made the most of my remaining time in Denver by visiting Hammond’s Candies.  This place has been making candy since 1920.  What’s truly remarkable is that the hard candy — candy canes, candy ribbons, lollipops, pillows, and sticks — are still  largely made by hand.  See how they make candy canes in my short video below!

Hammond’s Candies
5735 N. Washington Street
Denver, CO 80216
(888) 226-3999
http://www.hammondscandies.com
Free factory tours are available.  See website for details.

Yoga in Times Square

The Times Square Alliance held its annual Solstice in Times Square on June 20th, the day of the Summer Solstice.  Thousands of people descended onto the crossroads of NYC to participate in free yoga classes throughout the day.  One of the classes offered during the day was a Bikram class and this year, Bikram yogis got a special treat:  Rajashree Choudhury, the wife of Bikram Choudhury (creator of the series) taught the class.

A preliminary count of 3,260 people participated in last Wednesday’s class, arguably making it the largest Bikram class ever assembled. And I was there in attendance!  I ended up practicing in the fifth row from the stage with a clear view of Rajashree and the backdrop of Times Square behind her.

Practicing yoga in the heart of Times Square with thousands of yogis was a unique and exhilarating experience.  The sea of yogis stretched from 42nd to 48th Streets.  The added challenge was to find stillness in the total chaos. Cars honked, sirens roared, large TV screens flashed, the subway rumbled underground, and passerbys took pictures with their phones.  For more than 3 years, I have practiced concentration and focus in the serenity of a yoga room.  I was pleased to discover that after several “Oh-my-God-I’m-on-TV-Do-I-Look-Cute?” moments, I set aside the distractions and found my focus.

Lying in Savasana, Dead Body Pose, on Broadway in Times Square

View of the Sky from Savasana, Dead Body Pose

Stillness of the mind starts with stillness of the body. The most effective way to still the body is to still the eyes.  As Bikram teachers, we like to say “Where the eyes go, the body follows.”  When my students struggle to find physical balance, I encourage them to pick one spot with their eyes and focus on it.

In Times Square, the best focal point in my line of vision was ironically a billboard sign of a Corona bottle.  I stared at it and found my balance. I successfully managed to tap into my inner stillness amidst the chaos.  If I can find peace in the middle of Times Square, I can do it anywhere especially in the midst of the chaos of life.

Sunday Signs & Symbols: Denver International Airport

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This weekend I am in Keystone, Colorado for a conference called TBEX, Travel Blogger Exchange. When I attended TBEX last year in Vancouver, it helped solidify my decision to take a leap of faith, leave my job, and follow my dream.

This year’s TBEX location had me flying into Denver International Airport. I’ve seen airports offer a lot of amentities but this option is something new to me.

In your travels, what unique things have you seen in airports? Leave a comment below!

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Top 5 Obsessions of a Trainee

#5:  LAUNDRY

Eleven classes a week means you go through a lot of wet yoga clothes.  Keeping track of dirty clothes, wet clothes, half-dry clothes, and clean dry clothes is a juggling act.  You learn to soak, rinse, squeeze, hand wash, and hang clothes quickly.  If your turnaround time is slow then you’ll have a pile of wet/dirty/soaking clothes and nothing to wear.  This may be hot yoga not naked yoga.

#4:  NUTRITION

A balanced and healthy diet is important yet every BODY is different.  In the first week, trainees experience sudden loss or increase of appetite.  Palates change because bodies change in this process.  Some long-time vegetarians and vegans start craving the flesh of a carcass while others are repulsed by their favorite foods.  Some eat comfort food while others maintain the status quo.  Practicing 180 minutes of hot yoga almost daily burns a tremendous amount of calories.  The body craves what it needs. It is not uncommon to find ramen noodles, soda, potato chips, candy, and chocolate co-existing with coconut water, leafy green vegetables, fruits, and roasted seaweed snacks in the shopping carts of trainees.  Personally, I was addicted to Doritos, Cheetos, BBQ potato chips, and little sausage wieners.  By the end, I succumbed to drinking a can of Coca-Cola almost daily.

Nutrition is not only a matter of what to eat but also when to ­shove eat your meals.  Free time is extremely limited so finding the balance between eating what your body needs versus preparing a convenient meal is a challenge…especially when 400 trainees share only 2 microwaves at virtually the same time.  Now you see why I had to do this to prevent me from pulling my hair and scratching my eyeballs out?

#3:  ELECTROLYTES

After class, you ride the hotel elevator back to your room.  If a hotel guest not attending training (tell-tale signs include:  wears everyday, non-yoga clothes that contain little to no lycra or spandex; wears perfume; has well-coifed hair and makeup) has the misfortune of riding with your stinky, dripping, red-faced self, 8 times out of 10 they will look at you and ask, “Oh, how was the pool?”  What else would they think?  Your drenched mat and clothes are dripping sweat on the elevator floor and you look like a wet dog.

Important body minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sodium are lost in sweat.  Bodies need the right amount of these minerals for numerous reasons that include proper nerve and muscle functions.  Trainees turn to Gatorade, coconut water, or manufactured electrolyte powders or tablets to replenish these minerals.  An inexpensive method is to simply squeeze lemon and add a pinch of sea salt into your water.  Sea salt contains many of the minerals that your body needs yet loses in sweat.

In severe cases of mineral loss, there is Pedialyte.  Yep, it’s the same stuff given to dehydrated babies and young children because its main ingredients are sodium, potassium, chloride, and zinc.  If you are administered Pedialyte by staff, you have been relegated to that of a baby.  At this point, your body has started to shut down and most likely cannot move.  If this is the case, then it is served by being held up to your mouth by another person.  This experience can be frightening and equally humbling.

#2:  HYDRATION

Electrolyte imbalance has a direct correlation to dehydration.  Symptoms include:  headaches, prolonged tingling sensations that lead to cramping, claw hands (fingers and hands turn inward to resemble a claw), and perhaps even delirium, unconsciousness, or collapse.  In the first two weeks, it was not uncommon to see dehydrated trainees lifted up and carried out of the room by staff.

Incredible amounts of water get lost through sweat so drinking five to six liters of water daily is recommended.  Many trainees succumb to buying a “Tower of Shame” aptly named because we would never ever use a monstrous 2-liter cooler filled with ice water at home.  But the rules of the game change and what may be normal at home no longer holds any water (heh, pun intended) here at teacher training.  During very hot and humid killer classes, trainees skip the miniscule drinking spout of the Tower of Shame and instead, rip the lid off to gulp down ice water until the throat and esophagus are numb from the cold while the rest of the body feels like its on fire.

Here, Aussie trainee Kathryn Gregory of A Sweaty Adventure, proudly displays her Tower of Shame.  Note its size is bigger than her head!

Other trainees opt for the “cocktail bar” method, where they bring in a combination of the following:  water, Gatorade, coconut water, Vitamin water, electrolyte packets, a container of ice.  It is easy to identify these trainees because the bottles/containers are lined up near their mats.

And the #1 obsession of a bikram teacher trainee?????

((drum roll please))

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#1:  HOMEWORK

WHAT?!?!  Did you think it’s just yoga all day?

NO!

We have homework.

We study.

We get tested.

It’s overwhelming…and stressful.

It’s the number one cause of sleep deprivation, anxiety, breakdowns, and breakthroughs.  Read next week’s blog post to find out more.

A special thank you and credit to:  Kathryn Gregory for all hydration, electrolyte, and homework pictures and LaLa P for all laundry and nutrition pictures. 

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: First Class with Bikram Choudhury

“Check, check.  Check, check.  Let’s rock and roll!” said the slender Indian man into his microphone headset.  There he stood with a broad smile, atop a 7-foot mirrored podium in front of the room, rubbing his hands eager to start.  “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber where you kill yourself for the next 90 minutes,” he continued.

My teachers at home rarely started class this way.  If they did, they would surely strike fear in the hearts of their students especially the first timers.  But in a room of 400 yoga students training to be teachers, it was appropriate and even welcomed.  The energy in the room was electric.  Most of us never took a class taught by the guru who created the yoga series we sought to teach.

Bikram Choudhury wore his signature teaching outfit:  a black Speedo-like bikini bottom, a black headband across his forehead, and his long thinning hair tied up in a small knot on top of his head.  On the podium was an over-sized chair, covered in orange towels.  An adjacent small table hid a plastic bin of ice to keep bottled water and Coca-Cola cold.

Just a few hours earlier, Bikram stood before us in the lecture room in a fitted shirt, slacks, an expensive wristwatch, and Italian leather shoes.  “This first week, take it easy honey!  Don’t kill yourself now.  Don’t worry, I will kill you later in week 4!” he joked.  We all laughed…nervously.  Later, I would learn that this man loved to tell jokes and stories…and that he always kept his promise.

A day after our arrival, we now faced him like an army, arranging our mats and distributing ourselves along ten white lines that horizontally cut across the floor of the Radisson’s main ballroom.  The high ceilings, glass chandeliers, and wood paneling were further accented with fluorescent lights and floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the entire front and left side of the room.  Several large air ducts at the back of the room transported heat.  Fellow trainee, Steve Landry, shot this one-minute video revealing the transformed ballroom where we would practice eleven times per week for the next nine weeks.

I looked over at Lala for reassurance. She stood on her mat next to me and smiled. We had enough balls to choose to stand in the front row, right next to Bikram and the podium! I was nervous and excited. It all felt so surreal. I dreamt about this moment for so long and it was hard to believe my dream became a reality.

I looked around the room.  My fellow trainees hailed from 40 countries (see list below)*.  About 85% were women and ages ranged from 19 to middle age and beyond.  Some trainees had a head full of silver hair.  We were single, engaged, married, straight, gay, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, atheist.  We were parents, social workers, carpenters, doctors, psychiatrists, dancers, actors, and graphic designers.  Find a label, we represented it.

Bikram was ready to begin.

Start please.  Toes on the line.  Pranayama breathing.

The opening breathing exercise requires students to inhale by the nose creating a snoring sound and exhale by the mouth creating a “HA” sound.  Its purpose is to open up the lungs to its maximum capacity thereby preparing students for the next 90 minutes of class.  Bikram was in a great mood.  On the podium, he danced, smiled, laughed, and joked.  After 20 minutes, Bikram sat down in his chair, crossed his legs, and taught the remainder of class with the same energy he had when he started.  Once in a while, he called out a student usually by pointing and identifying the color of his or her outfit in a sea of yogis.

Miss Pink!  Sit down more.

Boss!  Chest up, arms back!

He addressed the male students as “Boss” and the female students as “Miss” or “Sweetheart”.  If he got to know someone, he would assign him or her a nickname.

Miss Bushy Bushy (her hair).

Miss Chinese Chop Suey (her ethnic background).

Miss London (she lived there).

Lampost (he was 6’7”)

Class went by quickly.  When it was over, I lay still on my mat with my eyes closed.  I was so happy.  My heart screamed with joyous certainty:  I belonged here and this path I chose to become a teacher was the right one.  I smiled, looking forward to the next nine weeks.  I was finally going to get to call Bikram the way most of his teachers address him:  BOSS.

*Trainees hailed from:  the USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, France, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Holland, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, India, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Sunday Signs & Symbols: Harmony, CA

After visiting Hearst Castle near San Luis Obispo, California, I was driving on Highway 1 and came upon a sign for a town called Harmony (population 18).  What a unique name for a town so I stopped to strike a pose!  Tree posture strengthens the legs and improves balance.  When you practice tree pose, your standing leg remains strong and rooted to the ground as you stretch your spine up towards the ceiling, growing taller like a tree.

Beginning today, Sunday Signs & Symbols will be a weekly blog event, showcasing a picture and an explanation on this broad topic.  Every culture uses signs and symbols to interpret their environment, inject meaning to life, and attach value to an object or practice so that its people share a common understanding of the world and the social rules that dictate the behavior within it. 

Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Arrival

I craned my neck looking anxiously for the right shuttle at Los Angeles International Airport.  Forty-five minutes of waiting caused my neck and back to hurt.  Never mind that a 50-pound backpack strapped to my 5’2” frame and an equally heavy suitcase stood next to me.  Where was the damn hotel shuttle?!  I had only one hour left to register, settle into my hotel room, meet my roommate, and buy groceries for the week!

When the shuttle arrived, the driver helped with my bags and half jokingly said his back broke due to the heavy weight.  With embarrassment, I found a seat and started picking up the conversations around me.

I‘ve been practicing for 2 years.

I live in Vancouver.  How about you; where are you from?

My husband has been very supportive of my decision.

It was the chatter of Bikram yogis arriving to attend 9 weeks of full-time teacher certification.  Many were smiling.  Some already seemed to be best friends as they talked about the family and pets they left behind, the homes they wouldn’t see, and how they got to this point.  Some kept to themselves.  I decided to do the same.

The main lobby of the Radisson LAX Hotel resembled an ant colony.  Four hundred yogis descended upon the hotel simultaneously, all seemingly moving with purpose.  Some pulled large suitcases, others hauled bags of groceries and boxes of coconut water and bottled water.  We looked like refugees, carrying the few possessions we had and stocking up on food to last for weeks.

This frenzy brought me back to moving day on my first day at college.  What the hell did I get myself into?  I am too old for this.  But then I saw the welcome sign with Bikram Choudhury in the spine twist posture.  The words “teacher training” beneath his contorted image reassured me that I was in the right place.  I chose to be here…and paid an exorbitant amount of money to do so.

In the sea of yogis, I looked around for Lala, my roommate.  We had never met in person, only on Twitter.  Online, we would passionately exchange tweets about food, Filipino culture, and Bikram yoga.  She seemed like my perfect match but would our online harmony translate into good roommate material?  Maybe she had a weird crazy habit.  Maybe she would drive me up the wall.  I thought I had written off temporary roommates after deciding to have a permanent one by getting married.  It’s funny how life turns out sometimes.  My phone vibrated.  It was Lala.  She texted saying she was returning from the Filipino grocery store and would see me soon.

Knowing nobody, I gathered my courage to explore the second floor of the hotel, which was solely dedicated to our group.  The registration line snaked around the 250-square foot room.  The chatter of yogis created a loud, indistinguishable noise.  Zico representatives were giving away free coconut water.  A Trader Joes’ rep gave away free reusable shopping bags.  Interested in weekly bottled water delivery?  Laundry service?  Sign ups were available!  This feels like a convention.

When Lala arrived with the groceries, we also snuck in our most precious contraband:  a microwave.  The hotel did not allow us to cook in the room but we did not care.  We borrowed the microwave to save our sanities.  Otherwise, we would be forced to share TWO microwaves with 400+ other yogis all eating at the same time in a designated common room.  Oh, hell no.

Lala and I arranged our hotel room to accommodate our needs for the next 9 weeks.  The writing table became the prep area for food.  The desk lamp and telephone shared space with the rice cooker, mini grill, and electric water kettle.  Two dresser drawers held our clothes but a third dresser held dried and canned food, ramen noodles, seaweed packs, condiments, and teas.  We hid the microwave under a wooden luggage rack whose surface held the dish rack and coffee maker.  The surface of our mini-fridge served as our hydration center where our Brita pitcher sat along with our towers of shame (more on that later).  We pinned two ends of a clothesline to the window curtains to hang the two sets of yoga clothes we would both use daily.

Knowing that we had a lot of unpacking still left to do, we begrudgingly headed back to the second floor for orientation.  Seats in the conference room were arranged theater style and faced a stage in the center.  Three 2×3 framed portraits flanked the stage, each depicting an Indian man.  Two of them had a fake lei of flowers draped over the top.

Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi and founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship is on the left and on the right is Bishnu Gosh, younger brother of Paramhansa Yogananada and Bikram’s guru.

The third portrait portrayed Bikram sitting shirtless in lotus position atop a tiger rug, both of them staring at you with a steady gaze.  I met Bikram once in May 2010 and during that first meeting, I thanked him for creating this yoga series that healed my knee.  I told him it was my goal to one day become a teacher.  Two years later, that dream became a reality.  I looked around for the man who would be my guru but Bikram and his wife, Rajashree, were out of town.  Instead, we were greeted by their daughter and other senior teachers.

After the usual logistical housekeeping items, they prepared us for the intense physical, emotional, and mental journey ahead.  Regardless of what lay ahead, we were advised to “trust the process.”

Little did I know that this phrase would be my daily mantra for the next 9 weeks.

Photo of Paramahansa Yogananda is courtesy of Eladio Garrido.  All photos of the hotel room are courtesy of Lala P.

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza

A Weekend in Queens in Pursuit of the American Dream

This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corporation.  UPDATE:  On July 18, TBEX tweeted this announcement that I was one of the three winners!  Thank you to TBEX and Choice Hotels! 

In honor of Independence Day (July 4th) in the United States, I want to celebrate one of the many things that makes this nation great:  its people.  All of us who have ever lived in this country can trace our histories back–even the Native Americans, who crossed on land over what is now the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia–to that first arrival in America from a different shore.  Some came of their own volition while others by force.

For centuries, New York City has been the destination of choice for explorers, traders, immigrants, and tourists.  But a visit to New York City today is too often limited to the borough of Manhattan.  Even people who live here are hard pressed to explore the vast city they live in!  So hop on the subway, bus, or ferry and cross the East River to visit Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the United States!  Below I have tailored a special weekend itinerary in Queens that celebrates New York City’s past and present, and honors the people who have settled here in search of the American dream.

Strap on your walking shoes, prepare your senses, and come on an empty stomach!  Queens will enthrall you.

SATURDAY:  WESTERN QUEENS
Ride the N or Q train to the first stop and walk to the remaining destinations.  Travel time is built into the itinerary.

8:00 am – Breakfast at Artopolis Bakery (Greek)
[23-18 31st Street, Astoria]

As a teenager, all my high school Greek friends hailed from Astoria.  Before the Greeks arrived in the mid-20th century, the area had previously been settled by the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and Italians.  Since those high school days nearly 20 years ago, people from the Middle East (particularly Egypt), Brazil, Japan, the newly formed Eastern European countries, plus whites escaping escalating rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn all flocked to Astoria, due to its close proximity & easy access to Manhattan.  Despite this diversification, Astoria is still synonymous with Greek immigrants.  For the 2004 Olympic Summer Games, the Olympic Flame first traveled all over the world before arriving in Athens.  As one of four US cities to host the Olympic Torch, it only made sense to commence the NYC relay in Astoria, in Athens Square Park.

Start your day off at what is arguably the best Greek pastry shop in the neighborhood!  Your eyes will be bigger than your stomach when you see the seemingly endless displays of cookies, pastries, bread, and delicacies.  Remember to order a coffee!  The bakery is located in a mall, just follow your nose.

Coffee at Artopolis - Photo Courtesy of Petit Hiboux (Flickr)

9:00 am – Steinway Piano Factory Tour (German)
[1 Steinway Place, Astoria]

Walk through a residential part of Astoria to get to the industrialized northern tip of the neighborhood.  The famous piano maker still creates and refurbishes Steinways in its original Queens factory.  Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later anglicized to “Steinway”), emigrated from Germany with his family in the mid 19th century.  Shortly thereafter, Steinway started manufacturing pianos and by the 1880s, the Steinway family built its new factory and village in Astoria.  The Steinways were influential in the development of the neighborhood, hence a major thoroughfare is named after them.  The three-hour tour highlights the history of the family and the neighborhood, the one-of-a-kind quality of each instrument, and the craftsmanship of the workers past and present reminding you that historically, Western Queens was a major manufacturing area as a result of its close proximity to the East River.

1:00 pm – Lunch at the Bohemian Beer Garden (Czech & Slovak)
[29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria]

Established in 1910, the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is the oldest beer garden in the City.  Munch on grilled kielbasa or bratwurst and wash it down with one of the Czech or Slovak beers on tap.  My personal favorite?  The Krušovice tmavé (dark) for its roasted, malty flavor.  The scene is always packed on weekends and it is not uncommon to see families enjoying themselves while they let their young children run round.  Many of the outdoor picnic tables are shaded by old trees, allowing for a relaxing and refreshing afternoon break from the summer heat.

Photo Courtesy of WallyG (Flickr)

3:30 pm – The Noguchi Museum (Japanese/American)
[9-01 33rd Road, Long Island City]

If you are not a lover of sculpture, a visit to the Noguchi Museum may just change your mind.  Born to a Japanese father and a white American mother in 1904, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan as a child and moved to America as a teenager.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was in his late 30s living in NYC as a sculptor.  He created the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy in 1942, a group dedicated to raising awareness of Japanese-American patriotism.  He also asked to be interned as an act of solidarity with his brethren Japanese-Americans.  He spent 7 months in an internment camp and his work during this period clearly reflected his personal turmoil and sadness.  The gallery, which includes an outdoor garden, was created by Noguchi.  His primary studio was across the street, which he often biked to from his Manhattan residence; he also maintained a studio in Japan.  His pieces are strategically placed so that you sometimes feel like they belong in the “natural” landscape.  Somehow, serenity manages to envelop you during your visit.

Photo Courtesy of RocketLass (Flickr)

7:00 pm – Gantry State Park at Dusk
[Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue, Long Island City]

View the Manhattan skyline while strolling along the now refurbished waterfront piers of Long Island City, where the landscaped park offers you welcoming chairs to take in the scenery.  Watch as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, feel the last rays of the day hit your face, and listen to the river lapping on the shore.  If you’re lucky, sometimes hammocks are there.  Snag one, close your eyes, and take in the silence.  Burn this memory into your brain:  you are swinging in a hammock, by the water, in NEW YORK CITY!

Manhattan Skyline from Gantry State Park

8:30 pm Dinner at Manducatis Rustica (Italian)
[13-27 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City]

On the outside, this squat Flatiron-shaped building looks like a residential house with a non-descript white door.  The only possible clue offered is its big bay window with curtains pulled shut and a sign.  Blink and you could miss it.  Once inside, you still feel like you are entering a residence, since in many ways, you are.  Couple Vincenzo and Ida Cerbone, have been feeding artists and working-class folks from the neighborhood for approximately 20 years, well before the arrival of the sleek luxury condos and chic, hip restaurants that now inhabit the area.  Let them and their staff welcome you and help you pair the right kind of wine with your Neapolitan meal.  Try to resist the urge to plant a kiss on each check when you say good-bye, but if you can’t, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.

If you still have some energy left and want an after-dinner drink, there are a bevy of bars within several blocks of each other, including Domaine Wine Bar, Dominie’s Hoek, Dutch Kills, and LIC Bar.  You could even stroll back to Gantry State Park to view the lights of the Manhattan skyline at night.

SUNDAY:  CENTRAL QUEENS
The second day, you’ll ride the 7 train and hop on and off in both directions.  Again, travel time is built into the itinerary.

8 am – Breakfast at Ihawan (Filipino)
[40-06 70th Street, Woodside]

Filipino food reflects the countries that have heavily influenced the culture,  usually China, Malaysia, Spain, and the United States.  It comes together clearly in a typical Filipino breakfast, consisting of a cured meat or fish (tapa), garlic-fried rice (sinangag), and eggs over easy (itlog).  Combine each underlined portion of the Tagalog words and you come up with its name: tapsilog.  Ihawan is run by the Bacani Family, who hail from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, widely accepted amongst most Filipinos as the home of the best cooks in the country.  Fuel up now, because you’ll need it for your next stop.

Photo Courtesy of Kitakitts (Flickr)

9:30 am – Flushing Meadows Corona Park

Once the site of the “valley of ashes” as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel The Great Gatsby, a rush of urban beautification measures in the early 20th century created this 1,255-acre park, and site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.  Today, the park offers many outdoor activities.  Walk, or even better, rent a bike to cover more ground.  You’ll definitely want to see remnants from the World’s Fair such as the Unisphere and the New York State Pavilion observation towers, more recently made famous in the movie Men in Black as the place the aliens apparently hid their spaceships.  Be sure to stop by the Queens Museum of Art where you’ll see the Panorama of the City of New York, a 3D model of the city’s buildings and structures since 1992.  See also the memorabilia from both World’s Fairs and the exhibit on Tiffany glass, produced in neighboring Corona.  The park is also home to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the US Open and Citi Field, home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets.

The Unisphere with Observation Towers in the Background

1:30 pm – Flushing (Chinese, Korean, Dutch, English)
[137-16 Northern Boulevard, Flushing]

Wander around the neighborhood that is home to Queens’ Chinatown and Koreatown.  If you are feeling peckish from your time at the park, you could get some cheap street food to tide you over to dinner.  You’ll find the majority of storefront signs here not in English, and perhaps you’ll start to wonder if you’re in another country.  Before your mind starts playing tricks on you, stop by the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, built near the end of the 17th century, and considered to be the oldest house of worship in New York State.  Even back when Flushing (then known by its original name, Vlissengen) was a Dutch colony, residents clamored for religious freedom in response to rampant discrimination by the colonial Dutch government.  This vocal protest resulted in the signing of the Flushing Remonstrance by local residents in the mid-17th century, a document that inspired the right to freedom of worship as enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.

Signs along Union Street between Northern Boulevard & 37th Avenue

4pm – Louis Armstrong House Museum (African-American)
[34-56 107th Street, Corona]

Catch the last tour of the day at the home of jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  He and his wife, Daisy, lived in their modest Corona home for nearly 30 years, from 1943 to his death in 1971.  No one has resided in the house since then and the interior decorations have been preserved to show how the Armstrongs lived.  Listen to audio clips as you walk through the home and wander through their Japanese inspired garden.  See photographs and learn about the man whose career spanned a time in American history when racial discrimination blatantly segregated blacks and whites in society.

5:30 pm – Dinner at Rincon Criollo (Cuban)
[40-09 Junction Boulevard, Corona]

In recent decades, Corona became the home to people from all over Latin America.  And while you may have your pick of cuisines from Guatemalan fast food to Mexican chain restaurants, I recommend Rincon Criollo because it has been around for 30 years and the story of the family who owns and runs it exemplifies the American Dream realized.  The Acosta Brothers opened the original Rincon Criollo in Cuba in the 1950s as a modest room consisting of four wooden planks for its floor and palm branches as its roof.  Years of hard work led to the restaurant’s successful growth and expansion, while becoming a favorite of Cuban celebrities.  However, life changed dramatically in Cuba as the brothers had their restaurants seized following the Cuban revolution of 1962.  Fourteen years later, the brothers re-opened Rincon Criollo in Corona, Queens.  The restaurant walls are lined with photos from the old country, a reminder of their past and their roots.  Regular patrons of Rincon Criollo have been coming with their families for years, savoring the tastes of a home that exists today only in their memories or in the stories of their [grand]parents.

The Acosta Brothers and all the people and families who have been highlighted on this tour of Queens are living testaments to what we celebrate most visibly on July 4th:  the American spirit of innovation, creativity, hard-work, determination and hope.  Regardless of their backgrounds, immigrants have come to America with a dream for a better life for themselves and their families, and millions have started that dream right here in Queens.

Artopolis Bakery
23-18 31st Street
Astoria, NY 11105
(718) 728-8484
www.artopolis.net
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard

Steinway & Sons Factory
1 Steinway Place
Astoria, NY  11105
(718) 721-2600
http://steinway.com/
N, Q train to Ditmars Boulevard
Call in advance to schedule a tour.

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
29-19 24th Avenue
Astoria, NY  11102
(718) 274-4925
www.bohemianhall.com
N, Q train to Astoria Boulevard

The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Road
Long Island City, NY  11106
(718) 204-7088
www.noguchi.org

Gantry Plaza State Park
Center Boulevard between 47th Road & 49th Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11109
7 Train to Vernon Boulevard-Jackson Avenue or
G Train to 21st Street/Jackson Avenue
http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/149/details.aspx

Manducatis Rustica
13-27 Jackson Avenue
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 729-4602
7 train to Hunters Point Avenue or
G train to 21st Street

Domaine Wine Bar
50-04 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 784-2350
www.domainewinebar.com

Dominie’s Hoek
48-17 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 706-6531
www.dominieshoek.com

Dutch Kills
27-24 Jackson Ave
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 383-2724
www.dutchkillsbar.com

LIC Bar
45-58 Vernon Boulevard
Long Island City, NY  11101
(718) 786-5400
www.longislandcitybar.com

Ihawan
40-06 70th Street
Woodside, NY  11377
(718) 205-1480
7 train to 69th Street
www.ihawan2.com

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
7 train to Mets-Willets Point

Flushing Quaker Meeting House
137-16 Northern Boulevard
Flushing, NY  11354
718-358-9636
7 train to Main Street
http://www.nyym.org/flushing/hmh.html

Louis Armstrong House Museum
34-56 107th Street
Corona, NY  11368
718-478-8274
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza
www.louisarmstronghouse.org

Rincon Criollo
40-09 Junction Boulevard
Corona, NY  11368
(718) 639-8158
7 train to 103rd Street-Corona Plaza