A mogul's castle is his home

William M. Dowd photo

SAN SIMEON, CA --When media mogul William Randolph Hearst decided to create his own art-filled paradise on a mountaintop north of San Francisco, he selected a spot called San Simeon.

He preferred to call it La Cuesta Encantada -- the Enchanted Hill.

The fabulous Hearst Castle complex houses what was the largest one-person-owned art collection in the 20th Century. Hearst had individual pieces of art, tapestry collections, statuary -- even entire buildings -- he purchased on his many world travels crated and shipped back to the United States. So extensive was the collection, some treasures have never been unpacked, and remain warehoused off-site.

In addition, he had many species of plants and animals brought in to populate the mountaintop lair as well as on the land encompassed by the vast Hearst Ranch down at sea level on the surrounding flatlands.

Excavation on the project began in 1922, and in 1927 Hearst moved into the partially-completed complex -- the period in which he reigned as a Hollywood mogul and entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and his own mistress, actress Marian Davies. Work continued off and on through 1947.

On the main grounds is a series of "cottages" that actually are lavish guest houses, all of which at one time played host to the Hollywood elite for elaborate picnics, tennis tournaments, musical entertainments and private film screenings. The edifice and the lifestyle were the basis for actor/director Orson Welles' controversial and classic film "Citizen Kane" in which a fictitious character named Charles Foster Kane functioned as a thinly-veiled version of Welles' uncomplimentary view of Hearst.

The State of California now owns the complex, donated to it by The Hearst Corp. It is open to the public for guided tours.

One of the most fascinating aspects of seeing the castle and grounds is the realization that it is not just a trove of treasures from many of the world's great civilizations, but each room is in itself a work of art rather than simply a display case for the treasures.

We've all shared our memories of places we've visited, explaining, for example, lovely pieces of artwork we've seen hanging on walls of museums and mansions. At the Hearst Castle, however, the walls themselves are works of art. Some were moved whole from the Doge's Palace in Venice, some from ancient Egyptian excavations. Floors from Moorish castles are the floors of some of the Hearst rooms. Statues and columns lining the mosaic-tiled pools were not made for that purpose; they were repurposed from ancient Roman and Greek ruins.

The Hearst Corp., which still owns the ranch, has plans to create a resort complex there as well as continuing its cattle and agricultural pursuits.
Dowd's Guides



Beau Rivage bouncing back

The Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, MS, was hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina. Today, the complex wrapped up its $550 million comeback by opening the Beau Rivage Theatre.

The theater features a 1,550-seat showroom with a $3 million sound and lighting system.

Beau Rivage reopened in late August, overhauled after the hurricane with new interior design, 1,740 guest rooms and suites, a redesigned casino, 11 restaurants, four bars, 12 retail venues, a spa and salon, a convention center and a golf course.

"We are proud to be part of the resurgence of Gulf Coast tourism and to bring some of the biggest names in their respective fields to Beau Rivage," president George Corchis said in a statement.

The resort's newest show production is "Imaginaya," Russian for "imagine," which will run from Feb. 2 through June 3. It was created by Russian choreographer Alla Duhova and includes performances by Todes, the Russian circus and dance company.

The Beau Rivage Theatre has scheduled for 2007 the Four Tops & The Temptations (Dec. 29), Little Richard (Dec. 31), Bryan Adams (Jan. 5), Willie Nelson (Feb. 8), Howie Mandel (Feb. 16), Blue Man Group (Feb. 17), Julio Iglesias (Feb. 22 and 23), Gladys Knight (March 2), Wayne Newton (March 9), Kenny Rogers (March 16), Paul Anka (March 23), Lord Of The Dance (April 13, 14, 15), The Beach Boys (May 26 and 27) and Ron White (June 1).

Its main restaurant is OLiVES, created by chef Todd English, a two-time James Beard Award winner and Bon Appetit magazine "Restaurateur of the Year." It debuted earlier this month.


Catskills due for a casino

MONTICELLO, NY -- Tens of thousands of people love to build their vacations around the attractions of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Reno and other, lesser casino gambling communities.

Before long, they'll be able to add New York's ancient Catskill Mountains to their destination list.

A proposed Mohawk casino today received environmental approval from federal officials, a step that should speed up the long delayed $600 million project.

The U.S. Department of the Interior approved an environmental review of the St. Regis Mohawk Indian tribe's project, according to an announcement by Leslie Logan, tribal spokeswoman.

The site is a 30-acre parcel next to Monticello Gaming & Raceway in Sullivan County about 75 miles north of New York City and the same distance south of Albany.

The horse track is owned by Empire Resorts, which would build the new casino. The casino would offer blackjack, roulette, craps and traditional slot machines.

Monticello is in the heart of the old Borscht Belt that once was home to dozens of resorts catering predominantly to Jewish families from the New York metro area. They featured nightclubs that were the incubators for many entertainers such as Jerry Lewis, Alan King and Buddy Hackett who went on to international stardom.

Most of those hotels have been boarded up for years, or torn down, with one failed plan after another put forth to try to revive the economy of the region. Adding video gambling at the Monticello Raceway harness track was one step and proponents of casino gambling say the Indian casino will be a major shot in the arm.

However, don't try booking your rooms yet. Several more large hurdles need to be cleared.

For example, construction cannot begin until the governor -- in this case, Elliot Spitzer, who will be sowrn in next month to suceeded George Pataki -- signs off on the review and the Interior Department puts the land into trust for the Mohawks. In addition, the state must amend the gambling compact that allows the Mohawks to operate a casino in northern New York to include the Catskills facility.


Big Apple going trans-fat free

NEW YORK -- Health-conscious travelers will find the latest thing in the city to their taste.

New York today became the first city in the United States to ban trans-fats in restaurant food, a ban that takes place in the midst of debate over numerous studies proclaiming an obesity epidemic, particularly among younger and lower income people.

Trans-fats have been linked to heart disease, and blamed for raising levels of undesireable LDL in cholesterol while lowering the levels of desireable HDL.

Common foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a common form of trans-fats, include such things as processed foods, baked goods, pizza dough and cracjers.

"It's basically a slow form of poison," David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, told the Associated Press. "I applaud New York City and frankly, I think there should be a nationwide ban."

The ban isn't without its detractors. Many food industry representatives claim the city exceeded its authority in ordering restaurants to abandon an ingredient that is permitted by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

"This is a legal product," said E. Charles Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association. "They're headed down a slippery slope here."

As far as a phase-in is concerned, the city's Board of Health says restaurants will be barred by July 2007 from using most frying oils containing trans-fats, and one more year to eliminate trans-fats from all foods.
• Revealing trans-fats
Dowd's Guides


STATEN ISLAND, NY -- NASCAR fans who had hoped the stock cars would be coming to the Big Apple can cross that one off their to-visit list.

International Speedway Corp., which had hoped to construct a track here on Staten Island, one of New York's five boroughs, has called off the project.

"While we are disappointed that we could not complete the speedway development on Staten Island, our enthusiasm for the metropolitan New York market is in no way dampened," ISC president Lesa France Kennedy said in a public statement Monday. "We continue to view the region as a prime location for a major motorsports facility."

Kennedy runs ISC, the publicly-traded sister company of NASCAR. The two entities had hoped to create a $150 million complex that would seat at least 80,000 fans on a former oil tank farm. The company had purchased 676 acres to do so.

Strong local opposition, based on fear of traffic tie-ups and environmental concerns, stalled the project and led to the decision to forego it and sell off the land, which real estate experts describe as the largest undeveloped acreage in the five boroughs.
The schedule
The standings
The drivers
Dowd's Guides

Meanwhile, in downtown Ashgabat …

Update: In late December 2006, the subject of this story -- Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov -- died. Click here for details.

British comic actor Sasha Baron Cohen has, if nothing else, made most of the English-speaking world aware of the nation of Kazakhstan through his put-on film "Borat." But life sometimes trumps art, as in the case of Turkmenistan, like Kazakhstan a former Soviet satellite nation.

Should you plan to visit either of the Central Asian nations, check out Kazakhstan here and Turkmenistan here.

Or, pay attention to David Remnick's take on Turkmenistan as published in The New Yorker magazine. Here's how it begins. You can get the rest of the story on the magazine’s online archive.

“Of the 15 states of the former Soviet empire, Turkmenistan, just north of Iran, is the one that has turned out to be a cruel blend of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Not long after the Soviet collapse in 1991, a former Communist Party hack named Saparmurat Niyazov became President-for-life, dubbed himself Turkmenbashi — Leader of All the Turkmen — and commenced building the strangest, most tragicomic cult of personality on the Eurasian landmass.

“Doctors there now take an oath not to Hippocrates but to Turkmenbashi; the month of January is now called Turkmenbashi; and in the capital Ashgabat, there is, atop the Arch of Neutrality, a 250-foot gold statue of Turkmenbashi that, like George Hamilton, automatically rotates to face the sun.

“It is extremely difficult to get a visa. Journalists can visit only rarely. But imagine a society in which the ubiquitous, inescapable leader’s image (on the currency, on billboards, on television screens night and day) is that of a saturnine frump who resembles Ernest Borgnine somewhere between 'Marty' and 'McHale’s Navy'."

“Niyazov is a leader of whims. He has banned opera, ballet, beards, long hair, makeup (for television anchors), and gold-capped teeth. He demands that drivers pass a ‘morality test.’ At his command, the word for ‘April’ became Gurbansoltan eje, the name of his late mother. Evidently, he prizes fruit: there is now a national holiday commemorating local melons. And, as if the shade of Orwell were not sufficiently present in Turkmenistan, Niyazov has established, despite an abysmal human-rights record, a Ministry of Fairness.”


Indiana gets 3rd wine trail

Indiana has gained its third wine trail, a joint effort of seven different central Indiana wineries under the simple title Indy Wine Trail.

The member wineries: Buck Creek Winery (Indianapolis), Chateau Thomas Winery (Plainfield), Easley Winery (Indianapolis), Ferrin’s Fruit Winery (Carmel), Grape Inspirations Winery (Carmel), Mallow Run Winery (Bargersville), and Simmons Winery (Columbus).

Upcoming events will include celebrations around Valentine’s Day, a barbecue feast during the summer and visits with the winemakers. The new trail features a "passport" program which allows visitors to receive a free wine glass after visiting all seven wineries.

For an update and live links to wine trails in Indiana and every state in the nation, visit Dowd's Guide to American Wine Trails.


Irish coffee recipe has (gasp!) changed

If you're one of those travelers who keep putting off visitng offbeat icons of American cities, you've blown your opportunity to try America's original Irish coffee.

The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, the American home of Irish coffee and the single largest U.S. commercial consumer of Irish whiskey, has changed the recipe of its legendary drink.

According to my colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle, who seem rather exercised by the whole affair, "The BV has switched from its own private brand of Irish whiskey, made by the Cooley distillery in County Louth, Ireland, to Tullamore Dew, mass produced in Dublin. The change is so subtle it can hardly be noticed, but the difference between the two Irish whiskeys has sent shock waves though the world of Irish coffee drinkers."

The change was occasioned when cafe owner Bob Freeman decided that Tullamore is smoother and better than the whiskey he had been using.

The Buena Vista, says the Chronicle, "is where Irish coffee first came to America, 54 years ago this month" and it consumes "18,720 liter-sized bottles (of Irish whiskey) a year. The Buena Vista is the cathedral of Irish coffee in the United States."

Bartender Joe Sheridan invented the drink at Shannon airport in Ireland. Stanton Delaplane, the iconic Chronicle travel writer, discovered it there and convinced Jack Koeppler, owner of the Buena Vista, to bring it to the United States. Thus, when anything about the recipe changes, the Chron folks get antsy about the Irish coffee first served in the U.S. on Nov. 10, 1952.

You can read the Chron's story here. And, you can read the Buena Vista Cafe's full story here.


Jalisco becomes a world treasure

William M. Dowd photos

Mono's age was impossible to ascertain.

His naturally dark skin, dyed a deeper shade of mahogany by years in the unrelenting Jalisco sun, was creased enough to resemble a map of the Mexican state's meandering backroads.

But, it was his shoulders that drew the eye. Like large, knotted bunches of rocks, out of proportion to his physique yet supple enough to help maneuver the shovel-like coa de jima that helped him earn a living.

Again and again, the long-handled cutting tool flashed over the blue agave plant until the sharp outer leaves were gone and it was trimmed enough for other workers to pick up for transport to the nearby tequila distillery.

Mono, Spanish for monkey, got his nickname from his co-workers for his nimbleness in cutting and harvesting the huge cores of the plants used in making the best tequila.

The workers are known as jimadores. They are laborers who wield the coa, a long-handled tool with a razor-sharp curved blade, to chop off the long spiky leaves of the agave plants and sever the pina, the heart of the plant, from its shallow roots. A heart that can weigh as much as a man.

"Mire esto. Ahora, corte el aqui" -- Look at this. Now, cut it here -- Mono instructed an American visitor intent on slicing up his own agave plant. The visitor guided the coa in a downward swipe, again and again. One pina harvested and cleaned and his shoulders already hurt.

Mono and his fellow jimadores each cut loose and trim dozens of dense agave cores every day, destined for the nearby Don Eduardo processing plant on the outskirts of the city of Tequila. He sometimes harvests as many as 60 a day himself, starting at sunup and working quickly before the mid-day sun turns the sprawling fields into a shimmering blanket of heat mirages that blur into the soft blue haze created by the agave leaves.

The jimadores exist on one end of a food chain, or perhaps more accurately a beverage chain, that breathes life into the economy of Jalisco, the Mexican state recently named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations' UNESCO agency in honor of its agricultural and historical importance.

Jalisco (pronounced hah-lees-ko) is perhaps best known for its tequila and for several of its tourist-haven cities, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara, the latter the nation's second largest metro area after Mexico City.

The heralded tequila has as much of a national mystique as Champagne does in France or sake in Japan. And, it begins with Mono and his compatriots in the agave fields.

There are more than 130 types of agave, but it is the blue agave that is the epitome of the plant, the one whose pinas contain the clear sap from which the best tequila is made, a drink that supports an industry that supports a state that helps support a troubled nation.

Blue agave grows in various parts of Mexico, but nowhere more in abundance than around Tequila, the town that gave the drink its name. From a distance, the huge fields of blue agave give the illusion of water. Close up, they evoke more of a dessert-like feel, the spiky blue-green plants springing from rich, brownish volcanic soil.

Unlike the jagged peaks and thin air of the great plateau just to the northeast that sweeps up to Mexico City and its hideous urban blight, Jalisco offers valleys, sprawling vistas, clean cities, fertile farmland and a deep historical significance as a center of indigenous culture and birthplace of Mexican democracy.

This state of 6.7 million people -- which stretches from central Mexico west to the Pacific Ocean -- is increasingly attracting foreign tourists as well as expatriate American and European residents drawn by the mild climate, relaxed pace and inexpensive living conditions (about 10 pesos to the U.S. dollar).

Tourism is a major economic necessity for Jalisco, but its attractions are markedly different from each other. Puerto Vallarta, for example, has grown from a seaside fishing town to a glitzy, international tourist haven of 180,000 residents, thanks to its Pacific location and sophisticated marketing. Inland, Guadalajara, a city of 3 million in a metro area of 4.7 million, is a tourist
attraction that has remained very culturally Mexican.

Greater Guadalajara, which includes the adjacent city of Zapopan, is a place of side-by-side cultures -- a proud show of modernity with signs for Sony, Reebok, McDonald's and Blockbuster, but a reverence for displaying the elements of pre-European influence in museums and galleries.

It also is a place that can literally be taken several ways. Just as mimes must have fans somewhere on this globe, not everyone thinks of mariachi music as a musical form of joke despite the best efforts of late-night American television comics who love using those bands as props.

Mariachi was born in Guadalajara, springing from the stuff of wedding bands into a full-blown art form complete with its own music, costuming and protocols. Large crowds gather in mariachi halls that resemble European beer gardens to listen to, and sing along with, the mariachi bands. Even the elaborate clothing of the charro, the traditional cowboy of Mexico, owes its design sensibilities to the form-fitting, embroidered mariachi suits and wide-brimmed sombreros.

Events revolving around churches and church traditions still are extremely prominent in this Catholic country. One of the most festive times is Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead festival which actually covers both Nov. 1 and 2. It is a time for cheerful remembrances of the departed with cemetery visits, restrained festivities, and literally thousands of makeshift altars springing up in homes, businesses and on the streets.

Even the steps of one large cathedral in Guadalajara are turned into a temporary altar each year, festooned with bright orange flowers, candles and photographs of the dead. Streets leading to churches and cemeteries are lined with vendors selling fresh-made foods and handicrafts and youngsters sell coffee cans full of water for a peso to visitors who want to wash down tombstones.

"It's tough to scale down the list of things to do here," local twentysomething businessman Javier Orendain Hernandez told a visitor. "We have the traditional things like the charreadas" -- a type of rodeo -- "and the Sunday bullfights, and of course the museums and the churches and festivals. But, the nightlife is great and getting bigger all the time with dance clubs and bars. That might exhaust you so much you won't want to do a lot of walking the next day.'"

Orendain Hernandez's cautionary advice is an object lesson about the emerging younger generation of which he is a part. It is helping create a larger, stronger middle class in a nation traditionally divided into haves and have-nots.

Increasingly college educated, demonstrably entrepreneurial, and relentlessly in search of modern diversions, they are helping build a society that attracts international travelers and financial investment, fueling a continual growth that demands better choices and improved infrastructure.

Water quality, long a bad joke in many parts of Mexico, is quite good in Jalisco with hygienic, well-maintained municipal supplies, although visitors usually are advised to stick to bottled water as a precaution.

Huge swaths of streets in most cities are being upgraded with modern cobblestones that maintain the historic look but offer more durable pathways, accented by lush plantings of flowers and shrubs. Street sweepers are commonplace. Graffiti is so rare it startles you when it's evident.

The toll highways between cities are in good repair and well protected against bandits by federales, well-armed federal police, things that cannot be said of some of the free highways where lawlessness is common.

Guadalajara also offers an international airport, well-regulated taxi and bus services, numerous well-tended parks and intricate fountains, plus innumerable cafes and restaurants that are inviting stopping places on sultry afternoons for anything from a beer or soft drink to a tequila tasting accompanied by fresh cheeses, salted pineapple chunks, spiced nuts and crisp breads.

Many first-rate hotels are hidden behind rather plain facades that don't tend to attract unwanted attention. The same goes for homes of most of the financial upper class. Behind the walls, like a pampered senorita freed from the presence of a strict chaperone, courtyards burst loose with flowers and plants and shade trees.

Guadalajara's historic city center is dominated by Spanish colonial architecture, its ornate churches presenting the most striking examples. The main cathedral there is home to the state tourism office where you can pick up a free walking-tour
map. If your feet hurt, catch a calandria, a horse-drawn carriage that can be hired at the historic enter or at various other stations.

There also is a top-flight children's zoo and a connected amusement park, called Selva Magica, that has 35 rides, a marine park, and various water and bird shows. Tennis courts and golf courses are readily available at various points around the city.

Perhaps the two must-see parks in the city are Los Colomos and Parque Agua Azul (Blue Water Park). The former is located in a forest within the city and includes the Japanese Gardens, donated by Guadalajara's sister city of Kyoto, Japan. The latter is divided into two parts connected by a bridge and usually offers strolling musicians as well as the adjacent Archaeological Museum of Western Mexico that holds exhibits of artifacts used by the ancient peoples of the surrounding area.

The town of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara on the road to Puerto Vallarta, is a comparatively quiet one, its population of 45,000 a mere shadow of Guadalajara's. But it is the home of the Tequila Museum, an interesting place if one is at least somewhat conversant with Spanish. Oddly for an institution that was created to explain the tequila tradition and industry to visitors, it is presented only in Spanish.

Some of the local tequila manufacturing facilities are open for tours, but they should be booked ahead of time because production is not always at full throttle.

When it is, don't expect the sharp, sometimes off-putting smells of distilleries and breweries. The aroma of the tequila process is quite pleasant, a light mix of citrus and flowers.

As one female American visitor was overheard saying, "Forget about drinking the stuff. If they could bottle tha fragrance they'd make a fortune.''


Location: Jalisco, one of Mexico's 31 states, is located in the center of the country, stretching west to the Pacific Ocean.

Key Cities: Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Tequila.

Main Airports: Don Miguel Idalgo Airport in Guadalajara, Gustavo Diaz Orzaz Airport in Puerto Vallarta.

Language: In Jalisco state, you'll hear mostly Spanish even though Mexico has 62 living indigenous languages, second in the world only to India's 65. English is common in major cities and at all hotels and restaurants.

Currency: The peso, worth approximately 10 U.S. cents.

Documentation/Fees: Effective Jan. 1, 2007, all persons traveling by air between the U.S. and Mexico will be required to present a valid passport. Visitor exit document provided upon arrival is necessary for departure or $43 fee is charged for replacement. Departure tax of $10 must be paid at the airport when not included in the cost of the airline ticket. Customs declaration forms, available from airlines, required upon entry and departure.

Driving in Mexico.

Emergency medical care in Puerto Vallarta and in Guadalajara.

Best tip of all: Bring your own toilet paper. Most public facilities dole it out by the square, for a price, and this is the home of one-ply tissue.

Learn a New Language: Rosetta Stone


New vodka museum in, where else?, Moscow

For most visitors to Russia, there probably is no more culturally iconic a thing than vodka. Which bodes well for a new Moscow museum devoted to the national drink.

The Vodka Museum -- new to Moscow, but originally located in St. Peterburg -- displays more than 50,000 bottles of vodka, including many special versions of the drink, including some bottles produced more than two centuries ago. Visitors are offered samples of 10 different vodkas.

Vodka and Russia have a mutually intertwined history. In addition to being the drink of choice for celebrations and general socializing, there was a time when a bottle of vodka became a kind of national currency, "preferable to cash payments," according to the museum's curators.

They note, "In the beginning of the 1920s during a serious financial crisis when there was a shortage of monetary units, vodka labels served as cash in Siberia. This drink also plays a significant role in the Russian language and folklore. In other words, vodka is an important component of Russian life, an element of national identity and everyday culture."

Learn a New Language: Rosetta Stone


Best beer spots in the U.S.

If you're on the road and looking for outstanding places to have a beer, Beer Advocate.com has drawn up a list of what it says are the best "50 Places to Have a Beer in America."

The list is a result of site users' comments on BeerFly. It includes both brewpubs and beer bars. Here's the top 15, with the whole list available here:

1. The Moan and Dove, Amherst, MA

2. The Publick House, Brookline, MA

3. Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn, NY

4. Toronado, San Francisco, CA

5. The Map Room, Chicago, IL

6. Cock & Bull Pub, Sarasota, FL

7. Papago Brewing, Scottsdale, AZ

8. O'Brien's Pub, San Diego, CA

9. Stuffed Sandwich, San Gabriel, CA

10. Capital Ale House, Richmond, VA

11. Six Pax & Dogz, Swissvale, PA

12. Mahar's, Albany, NY

13. Selin's Grove Brewing Co., Selinsgrove, PA

14. Capital Ale House At Innsbrook, Glen Allen, VA

15. Brick Store Pub, Decatur, GA


Big Apple gets the TV-food link

NEW YORK -- The city is headed into prime tourist season, that bustling time between Labor Day and New Year's Eve when the world comes to the Big Apple.

A couple of familiar faces will be plying their trade in person, furthering the growing connection between TV and food.

Anne Burrell, who you see as celeb chef Mario Batali's sous chef on various "Iron Chef" segments, will be cooking at the new modern Italian restaurant Centro Vinoteca. It is scheduled to open at 74 Seventh Ave. S. in November.

And, we segue from a quiet TV performer to a bombastic one. Manic Brit Gordon Ramsay ("Hell's Kitchen") will make his American real-life debut with a restaurant named for himself, planned for a November opening at The London NYC Hotel. It's located in the former Rihga Royal Hotel at 151 W. 54th St. His new adjacent bar/lounge, The London Bar, will offer a small-plates concept.


Discovering Mauritius (and its rum)

Unless you're fond of map reading for pleasure, even the most traveled world tourist can be excused for not knowing the location of Mauritius.

If, however, you're a fan of fine rums, check your globe. The island nation off the east coast of Africa -- actually off the east coast of Madagascar which, itself, is off the east coast of Africa (see map)-- is showing signs of coming into its own as an international purveyor of fine rums.

Some months ago, as a judge in the first International Cane Spirits Competition, held in Tampa, FL, I had the opportunity to sample Starr African Rum, perhaps the best Mauritius has to offer. The judges awarded it a gold medal in the white rums category (including spirits aged less than a year).

The three other gold medalists in that category were more mainstream labels -- Santa Teresa Blanco, from Venezuela; Prichard's Crystal Rum, from the U.S., and Ron Botran White Rum, from Guatamala.

My tasting notes for the event called the Starr African Rum "peppery; floral; and, with a long finish." There are hints of cardamom and citrus, all of which work well in various rum punches.

Now, Mauritius will be expanding its sales in India as part of a new trade agreement signed between the two countries. (About 70% of Mauritius's population is of Indian descent.) The agreement allows Mauritius to triple its rum exports to India.

The change is part of a steady growth in the presence of Starr African rum. It received a "Superb 90-95 (Recommended)" rating from Wine Spectator last year, then the godl medal in Tampa, and has been popping up at various "beautiful people" events at which clever PR types have been managing to link the names of show biz luminaries.
When that happens, mainstream success probably can't be far behind.

If you ever plan to visit Mauritius, what can you expect?

Well, there is more to Mauritius than one might think. The republic includes the main island as well as the islands of St. Brandon, Rodrigues and the Agalega Islands. (Mauritius actually is part of a grouping known as the Mascarene Islands, which includes the French island of Réunion 125 miles to the southwest.)

Mauritius (pronounced mah-REE-shus) is known for its scenic beauty. Mark Twain, in "Following the Equator," wrote of it, "You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then Heaven, and that Heaven was copied after Mauritius."

Although frequently visited by mariners from many nations, it was not inhabited until the Dutch colonized the island in 1638. It was later governed by France, then Great Britain, achieving independence in 1968 as part of the British Commonwealth, then became a republic in 1992.

It comes by rum making naturally, since about 90% of the cultivated land area is given over to sugar cane, which accounts for 25% of export earnings.

English is the official language, although French is heavily used in the business sector and in the media.


Discover Mauritius
CIA World Factbook
HRW World Atlas


A true whisky club under way in Scotland

While Americans were busy resting from their work and enjoying the long Labor Day wekend, workers in Ladybank, Scotland, were just beginning a unique construction project.

Scotland's first "private club" whisky distillery (shown here in an architect's sketch) began its $1.9 million first-phase construction at a location near St. Andrews on Thursday, the project funded by subscriptions from a global network of whisky fans.

The Ladybank Company of Distillers Club was dreamed up by James Thomson, 46, who ran a whisky distilling school at Bladnoch in Dumfries and Galloway. It is located on a former farm, and is expected to produce just under 9,500 gallons a year. It is planned that the membership will be closely involved in production decisions such as length of aging and type of casking, affecting the taste of the product.

Thomson, in an interview with local media that seemed part Q&A, part anti-establishment polemic, said the idea for a "co-creative" distillery came from his disillusionment with the distilling and production practices of an industry dominated by "inflexible multinational conglomerates," and his experience of training enthusiasts in the art of distilling.

The Distillers Club is limited to 1,250 members. Participants or their heirs are entitled to six bottles of whisky per year for the next 30 years. The 300 founding members each paid a one-time $6,000 for membership. Subsequent members will pay a higher fee.

Thomson plans to produce gin and other spirits along with single malt Scotch whisky. He said the total project cost is projected at $4.8 million.


Cape Cod Beer x 2

HYANNIS, MA -- Heavy tourism areas usually have their own food or drink that people remember year-round and can't wait to have during the next visit.

Cape Cod Beer, brewed in this mid=Cape city, is such a beverage. The brewery (motto: "A Vacation In Every Pint") opened its new facility in March, then found its product so successful it had trouble meeting demand during the summer.

Technology to the rescue: Three new fermentation vessels have been installed, doubling the facility's production capacity. Two tanks came from China and one from the Czech Republic. They were ordered some time ago, but there have been shortages in the stainless steel industry, creating a tight market.

Beer Advocate.com has a full report on the Cape Cod operation.

Cape Cod Beer offers tours of and tastings at its 1336 Phinney's Lane facility. Details: (508) 790-4200. Prior to moving there, owner/brewmaster Todd Marcus had been making his brews in shared Main Street quarters with the Hyport Brewing Company Restaurant until that business closed.

Marcus produces two standard offerings: Cape Cod Red and Cape Cod IPA, plus seasonal brews such as Berry Merry Christmas Ale, Spiced Red Ale, Stellwagen Stout, and Cape Cod Summer.


The Great Foie Gras War

CHICAGO -- If you like foie gras and are heading to the Windy City, don't get your tastebuds set for the pricey delicacy.

Chicago has become the first city in the nation to place a legal ban on the sale of the goose or duck liver product opponents claim is made from maltreated fowl.

The state of California already had a foie gras ban pending, but it won't become effective until 2012. Bans are under discussion in other states, such as New Jersey and Hawaii, and come up periodically in New York and elsewhere.

The artificial fattening process used to produce the duck or goose liver has the birds being force-fed starting at the age of 12 weeks through metal tubes pushed down their throats. After two to four weeks of feeding, when their livers are up to 10 times normal size, they're slaughtered.


Asia's largest beer festival planned

Interested in a beerfest in an exotic locale? The largest beer festival in Asia has been scheduled for Feb. 2-4, 2007, in Singapore.

The organizers of Singapore International Beer Festival 2007 hope "to attract brewers from around the world to showcase their products to buyers and distributors in Asia, and at the same time, to create wider consumer awareness about the quality and diversity displayed by the various beers of the world."

At the moment, brewers have signed up from the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

The three-day event, to be held at the Singapore Expo, also will feature live entertainment, a dance competition and, of course, a beer drinking contest without which no brewing event can be held, apparently.

Details are available online, by e-mail or by phone at (65) 62263818.

Other international beerfests:

International Berlin Beer festival

Qingdao International Beer Festival

San Francisco International Beer Festival


Don't card this guy in a bar

NEW YORK -- Most visitors to the city like to take home tales of seeing its oldest sights. For those who like to frequent famous watering holes, Hoy C. Wong may be the best thing to see.

Wong has been working at the legendary Algonquin hotel in Manhattan as a bartender for the past 27 years. But, he has plenty of other experience on his resume. He should. He's 90 years old.

Management at the Algonquin, where writer Dorothy Parker and other wits of the 1920s-40s held forth at their famous "Round Table" dinners, think he is the city's oldest active bartender.

Fame is nothing new to Hong. In the 1970s, he was featured on the cover of Life magazine as the best of America's great bartenders.

"I like this job because one man behind the bar can make everybody happy," Wong said at the time.

The Daily Record in Morris County, NJ, just across the river from New York, offered this profile of Hong that I found quite informative.


Long Island's bargain dining week

Restaurant weeks are becoming the
big thing in New York State. In addition to such industry co-op events in Manhattan, Albany and the Hamptons, visitors now can experience a full-scale Long Island Restaurant
Week, which will debut in a Sunday-to-Sunday period, Nov. 5-12.

The time span was picked because it is the end of the harvest season when numerous local items are available to participating restaurants.

Each establishment will offer its own version of a three-course prix fixe for $21.95 all night, except Saturday when it will be offered only until 7 p.m.

As restaurants are added to the list of participants, they will appear in regional groupings online.

Organizers say the inspiration for the event came from the successful New York Restaurant Week that runs annually in Manhattan every January and is modeled after the Hamptons Restaurant Week that takes place on the South Fork of Long Island. In the past four years of Hamptons Restaurant Week, restaurateurs there reported a major surge in business, some by more than 50% during the promotion.


Sizing up your travel destinations

If you're the type of traveler who likes to visit places with special distinction, we have a few for you here, both domestic and foreign.

Sam’s Bar in Colorado Springs currently holds the title of smallest bar in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

However, its 109 square feet seem positively cavernous compared to the 64 square feet of space taken up by the Signal Box, a tiny pub in the English seaside town of Cleethropes that just opened in a century-old, 8-by-8-foot structure that used to be a railroad signal box for the Cleethorpes Coast Light Railway.

The box now is a four-seat pub that is open from 11 to 11 each day, serving customers --preferably skinny ones -- inside as well as at the 30-seat outdoor beer garden adjacent to it. Owner Andrew McCall says he will submit his site for inclusion in the Guinness book.

"We're so small some drinks companies won't fit equipment for us because they think we won't do enough trade. But business is booming," McCall said.

In an interview with the Yorkshire Post, McCall, who runs the pub alone, said, "I would have to refuse to serve someone if the bar and garden were full, and if there is trouble I can just push them out of the door – it's not too far."

On the other end of the spectrum, the Heartland Brewery has opened the largest beer garden in New York, at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport. The temporary waterfront beer garden is being set up for Spiegeltent, an entertainment extravaganza that runs through Oct. 1. The beer garden includes cabanas, tents, daybeds and night lighting, with views of the East River, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, Fulton Landing and Governor’s Island. The 600-seat venue will be open from noon to 2 a.m. seven days a week.

Heartland, a microbrewer of such items as Apricot Ale, Cornhusker Lager and Indiana Pale Ale, has created a new brew for the event – Spiegel Light, made with Belgian yeast, orange oil and coriander.


A book of stamps, an address form and ... some vodka, please

In the remote Republic of Tatarstan -- yes, there is such a nation -- the post office has gotten into the vodka business.

The autonomous nation within the Russian federation has pretty much run out of the traditional alcohol. In July, state legislation forced individual vendors and traders to either obtain a license to sell alcohol or close up shop. Faced with the overwhelming bureaucracy and the new cost of doing business, many folded.

The demand for vodka, however, has not diminished. It has just made the alcohol a de facto unit of currency in the barter-dependent economy.

"Vodka has been established as a very good currency," explains Alsu Kurmasheva of the Tatar-Bashkir Service unit of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Rustem Arslanov, deputy head of Tatarstan's State Alcohol Inspectorate, says, "The lack of places selling alcohol in the villages is leading to illegal trade -- that's to say, trade has begun in bootleg alcohol. So, we need places that are licensed to sell alcohol."

The village post office serves many needs in rural Tatarstan -- post office, library, general goods store, and general meeting place. Olga Kuznetsova, director-general of the nation's postal service, says, "We have 58 shops and we are selling alcohol in 24 of those. When we have shops, they sell everything: milk, bread, and alcohol."

She plans to expand alcohol sales to 1,058 post offices around the country.


One more state joins re-corking brigade

Several days ago I reported on Rhode Island passing legislation to allow re-corking of restaurant wines purchased as part of a meal. Today I can tell you that, come Jan. 1, 2007, you can count Illinois among the growing number of states allowing such a practice.

More than 30 states now allow restaurants to re-cork unfinished portions of wine bought by customers. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation Monday that will allow patrons to take one partially consumed bottle with them, providing all laws involving transportation of alcohol are followed.

In most cases, that means the bottle must be recorked, put in a secure bag, and carried in a locked glove compartment or trunk of the vehicle. Otherwise, the Illinois Vehicle Code still prohibits transportation of alcoholic beverages in open containers.

John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who sponsored the legislation in the state senate, said he did so because it may reduce the number of drunken drivers because diners would no longer feel the need to drink the entire bottle before they leave the restaurant.


Hold the fries, PLEASE

If you're headed for the Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Mashantucket, CT, you may want to consider walking part way just to build up an appetite.

Fuddruckers restaurant at Foxwoods holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for largest hamburger, a 29.5-pound behemoth. (Guinness reps are seen weighing the monster in the accompanying photo.)

However, that title may be shortlived. The 50-pound Beer Barrel Belly Bruiser (pictured below) from Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, PA, has its claim pending. Denny's has held the title before and is obviously serious about getting it back.

A FOOTNOTE: Since this original posting above, one more gigundoburger has weighed in. See it here, then check out the details in the "comments" section below.


Rhode Island joins recorking movement

I recently reported on new laws approved in Maryland and Ohio to allow restaurant patrons to carry out unfinished portions of wine purchased by the bottle.

Add Rhode Island to the list.

Gov. Donald Carcieri has signed into law what statehouse denizens in providence have been referring to as a "merlot-to-go" bill. It lets restaurants recork and seal unfinished bottles of wine. Supporters of the law say it should reduce drunken driving because people will no longer feel that they must finish a bottle of wine.

As in the 30 other states allowing such activity, the bottles need to be recorked and transported in an inaccessible area, such as a car's trunk or behind the last upright seat in a van.

Tequila's home is sacred ground

Planning a trip to the many historical sites in Mexico? Consider adding one more area to your itinerary.

UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has named the agave growing area of Mexico's mountainous Jalisco state a World Heritage site.

Agave, the basis of the production of tequila liquor, has helped fuel the local and national economy. The state is dominated by distilleries, breweries, cantinas and liquor stores. The majority of the 60,000 residents work in the drink industry or in its spillover tourism industry.

"We are very emotional. There is a lot of joy among people here because we have been waiting for this for a long time," said Yadira Gaytan, assistant mayor of Tequila.

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, which met last week in Lithuania, is responsible for implementing the 1972 U.N. Convention on the protection of cultural and natural sites around the world.

The specified area is located between the foothills of the Tequila Volcano and the Rio Grande river valle. It includes an archaeological site nearly 2,000 years old and colonial distilleries going back to the 16th Century.

"We are very happy," Ramon Gonzalez, director of the Tequila Regulatory Council, told Agence France-Presse. "It will help about 10,000 families in the region whose livelihood depends directly of the agave root."

Gonzalez said local authroities hope to turn the area into a major tourist attraction similar to California's wine Napa Valley or the wine Rioja route in northern Spain.

It is one of numerous World Heritage sites in Mexico. The others:

* Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila
* Ancient Maya City of Calakmul, Campeche
* Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco
* Archeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua
* Earliest 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatépetl
* Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco
* Historic Centre of Morelia, Michoacán
* Historic Centre of Oaxaca, Oaxaca, and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán
* Historic Centre of Puebla, Puebla
* Historic Centre of Zacatecas, Zacatecas
* Historic Fortified Town of Campeche, Campeche
* Historic Monuments Zone of Santiago de Querétaro
* Historic Monuments Zone of Tlacotalpan
* Historic Town of Guanajuato, Guanajuato, and Adjacent Mines
* Instituto Cultural Cabañas, Guadalajara, Jalisco
* Luis Barragán House and Studio
* Pre-Hispanic City of El Tajín
* Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque
* Pre-Hispanic City of Chichén Itzá
* Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan
* Pre-Hispanic City of Uxmal
* Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco
* Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve, Quintana Roo
* Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino
* Franciscan Missions in the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro
* Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California

Here are links to some good sites for Mexican travel information:

Lonely Planet's Mexico
Mexico Travel 101
Interactive Mexico Travel Resource


Wine centers aimed at the tourists

COPIA photo

See event and contact information below.

Wine tourism has become commonplace now that every one of the United States has at least one winery, and most of them many more.

The majority of states have created wine trails to entice tourists to tour various vineyards and wineries. Pamphlets for self-guided tours are usually free and areas are marked with unique signage to keep motorists from wandering too far off course.

But certain wine-intensive areas in the U.S. and elsewhere are taking advantage of the global boom in wine consumption to push interest to a higher level by creating centers to educate and entertain the masses.

The New York Wine & Culinary Center project, for example, opened this month after a whirlwind 10-month construction schedule.

As the facility, located on the shores of Canandaigua Lake near Rochester, begins its opening programs, a similar facility is under way on the West Coast with a projected May '07 opening.

It's the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center, a $9.2 million project located in Prosser, Wash., in the Yakima Valley wine region.

The Washington facility's backers foresee it as both a destination for tourists and a place for winemakers to gather. It will have a 17,500 square-foot building, vineyards, organic gardens and a public park.

The main building will have a restaurant, exhibition galleries, a theater, a demonstration kitchen, wine bar and a retail shop.

The center's namesake is the late Walter Clore, regarded as the father of Washington wine. The state is the No. 2 producer of premium wine in the United States, trailing only California.

To the south, in California's storied Napa Valley, is the 10-year-old Copia against which all other wine-centric facilities are measured.

Neighbor to such commercially popular wineries as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Stags Leap, Coppola, Domaine Chandon and Sterling, Copia and the nearby West Coast branch of the Culinary Institute of America have helped make the region an eating-and-drinking mecca that helped fuel the rebirth of Napa, the valley's anchor city of 53,000.

Copia's subtitle is "The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts." It's a not-for-profit cultural center and museum that has been open to the public for about four years. It includes sprawling herb, flower and tree gardens (seen above), as well as several restaurants, museums and galleries in am 80,000-square-foot building on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Napa River.

"We're a non-collecting museum," said Daphne L. Derven, curator of food and assistant drector for programs. "That keeps us on our toes to continually come up with new ways to educate and entertain our visitors."

Two years ago, on the other end of New York state, Stony Brook University came up with a different model by establishing its Center for Wine, Food, and Culture.

The idea is to split its efforts between its main campus on Long Island and its facilities in Manhattan, offering wine- and food-tasting classes, cultural lectures, and interdisciplinary symposia.

The Canandaigua wine and culinary center is more of a destination place, like its California cousin Copia, although decidedly smaller.

While the exterior is on the plain side and the landscaping news and, therefore, undersized for now, the interior has an impressive upscale Adirondack-style design, utilizing multi-hued, handworked wood wainscoting, stair railings, display shelving and counters. A 36-station kitchen and views of the lake are other highlights of the roughly $7 million project.

Director Alexa Gifford said the final look will include entrance landscaping geared toward representations of indigenous plants from the region.

William M. Dowd photo

"We'll have local flowers and shrubs, grape vines and the like that will set the mood for visitors," she said. "Americans in general are used to pulling into a parking lot that leaves you right up to the door. We'll be guiding people along a path that creates a mood, and then they'll walk into this beautiful facility that will build on that atmosphere."

The 15,000 square-foot center will offer hands-on courses in culinary science; interactive exhibits on New York State agriculture, foods and wines; demonstration space; and a live garden outside of the building. And, it has a tasting room with a
rotating selection of wines from New York's major regions (Niagara/Lake Erie, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island), a wine and tapas bar for light meals and wine-and-food pairings, a theater-style demonstration kitchen, a training kitchen for hands-on cooking classes, and industrial kitchens for credited culinary classes and corporate training.

No wine is sold at the facility, but visitors can use a computer right there to order directly from New York wineries.
Dowd's Guide to American Wine Trails
Dowd's Drinks Events Calendar
• Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts
New York Wine & Culinary Center
Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food & Culture


Sip transit glorious Finger Lakes

One of the problems with the rapidly expanding number of wineries in New York's Finger Lakes is tourism.

Not that the area doesn't want visitors. Just the opposite. Trouble is, too many of them are potentially dangerous drivers as they move from winery to winery, tasting their wares.

Some enterprising types have been offering a combination of a rental car complete with driver, and even a linkup to a bed-and-breakfast with that service. However, that doesn't do much for the many boaters who pull up to shore and want to visit more tha one winery but have no wheels.

Thus, the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce has begun offering weekend bus tours to local wineries -- four wineries on the west side of Cayuga Lake on Saturday, and four on the west side of Seneca Lake on Sunday.

"The wine tour was in response to boaters coming in not being able to get a limousine or a rental car because they were booked up for the weekend. So they were stuck in the harbor," said Dominic Christopher, the Chamber's executive director. "We're ready for big groups anytime."

Traffic is particularly heavy during the summer months when boaters show up at the state's canal system harbor in Seneca Falls. For $25, they now can take the bus right at the harbor. Of course, the weekend tours, which began June 3 and will run through Oct. 8, aren't limited to boaters. They're available to anyone on a space-available basis.

Meanwhile, a trackless Wine Tour Trolley will also be offering a similar service for visitors in the Geneva area starting Saturday, June 10.

Mike Fitzgerald, who owns a limousine and private tour coach service, bought the trolley which had been used in tourism businesses in New Orleans and Buffalo. Tours on the 26-seat vehicle will cover five wineries in a six-hour period through Dec. 2 at $45 per person.
Finger Lakes Tourism and Travel
Dowd's Guide to American Wine Trails
Dowd's Guides


NY Wine center opening day set

The New York Wine & Culinary Center will open to the public on Saturday, June 17.

Executive Director Alexa Gifford calls the $7.5 million facility perched on the shore of Canandaigua Lake the "physical and electronic gateway to New York's food, wine and agriculture.


Canada's no-smoking area expands

Visitors to Quebec liken it to visiting France without all that pesky trans-Atlantic travel.

One other big difference now is evident. Today -- Wednesday, May 31 -- a no-smoking rule went into effect in what one Montreal writer calls "the unofficial smoking section of North America."

Businesses won a brief reprieve from a province-wide smoking ban when the Minister of Health pushed back the start date of the ban from Jan. 1 to May 31.

The ban on smoking is effective in all public places, including restaurants, bars, brasseries, taverns and bingo halls. Hotels can reserve up to 40% of their rooms as "smoking permitted" rooms.

Meanwhile, next door in Ontario province, a "transition" to a no-smoking society got under way today.

Bars in Ontario that let smokers light up after a provincewide ban takes effect Wednesday will get off with a warning for a first offence.

"With any law, there tends to be a transition period," Ontario Health Promotion Minister Jim Watson said of the new ban on smoking in all restaurants, bars, casinos, bingo halls and virtually every other indoor public space. "We think a reasonable approach is the phased-in approach, with the education, warnings and then fines."

Most municipalities across the province already have local anti-smoking bylaws. Watson, a former mayor of Ottawa, which five years ago implemented a strict municipal smoking ban, acknowledged there will likely be those proprietors who either aren't clear about how the law impacts their particular establishment or who openly defy it. Those who consistently break the law will pay the price, he said.

New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have already banned smoking in public places. Nova Scotia's ban takes effect at the end of the year.


Texas speed limit hits 80

In some parts of Texas, it now is legal to drive at 80 mph.


Here's the story, as published in the May 30 edition of The Washington Times.

DALLAS -- One of the fleetest critters in western Texas, so they say, is the kooky-looking bird called the chaparral, or "roadrunner." The main tourist attraction in Fort Stockton is a huge statue of an 11-by-22-foot roadrunner called Paisano Pete, who greets visitors from atop the town's "Welcome" sign.

But on parts of Interstate Highways 10 and 20 around Fort Stockton -- heading west toward El Paso and east toward San Antonio and Dallas -- the gawky bird no longer will be the fastest thing going.

Last week, state highway officials in Fort Stockton unveiled the first 80-mph speed limit sign -- reportedly the fastest posted speed limit in the nation.

Rep. Pete Gallego, who represents a district bigger than Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined and sponsored the bill, said it will only add to the comfort of drivers who travel the desolate highway.

"Probably the only difference might be that police write fewer speeding tickets," he said.

Some safety officials and energy conservationists predict the additional speed allowance can mean nothing but more fatal accidents.

"People don't survive crashes at that speed," said Tom Smith, director of the Texas office for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.

"This will result in more deaths," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "You get somewhere faster, but at what cost?"

Mr. Gallego said Texas Department of Transportation specialists had studied the situation and found that in the three years since the speed limit in that area was increased from 70 to 75 mph, the number of fatalities had actually dropped.

The highways, among the most remote in the U.S., are generally four-lane, well-maintained and straight as an arrow mile after mile. It is often 10 to 15 miles between exit ramps. The affected highways total about 400 miles.

Although much of the traffic on these east-west thoroughfares is heavy freight-bearing trucks, the limit remains 70 mph for them. The speed limit at night for all drivers is 65 mph.

State transportation officials say they tested the effects of the new law before it was even passed in the Legislature and found that 85 percent of drivers traveling in that area already were driving between 76 and 79 mph.

Told that some opponents say that most American drivers routinely drive 5 to 10 miles over the marked speed limit and that police officers generally allow at least a 5 mph leeway, Mr. Gallego laughed:

"Doesn't work that way out here. We've got some really lonely stretches of highways out here. If the speed limit is 65 and they catch you going 66, they'll stop you, just to have somebody to talk to."


New York wine & food center on a very fast track


... TO THIS ...


William M. Dowd photos

CANANDAIGUA, NY -- The New York Wine & Culinary Center project has gone from groundbreaking ceremony in August 2005 to under roof and 10 weeks from a projected soft opening.

I toured the facility, on the shores of Canandaigua Lake near Rochester, NY, this weekend and -- confession time -- was amazed at the rapidity of construction.

Walking through construction-dust-coated corridors, offices and public spaces, the impressive upscale Adirondack-style design was unveiled -- from multi-hued, handworked wood wainscoting, stair railings, display shelving and counters to a 36-station kitchen, slate-floored rest rooms and views of the lake, the roughly $7 million project is coming together at a pace that some doubters, me included, have difficulty believing.

The center, noted director Alexa Gifford, will include entrance landscaping geared toward representations of indigenous plants from the region.

"We'll have local flowers and shrubs, grape vines and the like that will set the mood for visitors," she said. "Americans in general are used to pulling into a parking lot that leaves you right up to the door. We'll be guiding people along a path that creates a mood, and then they'll walk into this beautiful facility that will build on that atmosphere."

The center is being financed by $2 million in state funding and the rest from various private funds. The major private backers are Centerra, formerly known as Constellation Brands, the locally-headquartered company that is the world's largest manufacturer and distributor of alcoholic beverages; Wegman's Food Markets, a five-state chain based in Rochester, and Rochester Institute of Technology's Hospitality and Service Management School.

The mission of the Center will be to foster knowledge in the wine, agriculture and culinary arts industries across New York State. To do so, the Center will offer hands-on courses in culinary science; interactive exhibits on New York State agriculture, foods and wines; demonstration space; and a live garden outside of the building.

"We have been doing a lot of talking to various businesses and organizations that, understandably, are asking, 'What's in this for me? Aren't you competition?',' said Gifford. "We've been explaining that in no way will we compete with private businesses. We're here to enhance an understanding and support of New York's wonderful food and wine products. They like knowing that, and we're planning to work with schoolkids as well as tourists and businesses."

The 15,000 square-foot facility will include a tasting room with a rotating selection of wines from New York's major regions (Niagara/Lake Erie, Finger Lakes, Hudson Valley and Long Island), a wine and tapas bar for light meals and wine-and-food pairings, a theater-style demonstration kitchen, a training kitchen for hands-on cooking classes, and industrial kitchens for credited culinary classes and corporate training. It also will house the offices of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.

Agriculture is one of New York's most vital industries, encompassing 25 percent of the state's landscape and generating more than $3.6 billion last year. It has 7.6 million acres of farmland with 36,000 farms and is the nation's third-largest wine-producing state after California and Oregon.

The project marks a major step in increasing the visibility of New York's wine industry to tourism and agribusiness interests. How significant the industry is to the state is shown in a just-released report from MKF Research, a California-based consulting firm analyzing New York's situation.

With 31,000 acres of vineyards, 212 wineries and 1,384 grape farms, New York is the nation's second largest wine producer after California and the third biggest grape grower behind California and Washington.

Wineries, grape producers and related businesses in New York, from liquor stores to makers of bottles, glasses and labels, account for almost 36,000 jobs and a $1.3 billion payroll, the state-funded study reported.

In addition, it said that wine sales alone generate $420 million in sales, but the state industry's multiplier impact on the economy came to $3.4 billion in 2004.


Alexa Gifford discusses the Center's progress with Jim Trezise, head of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.


Wine center under way in Washington

Wine tourism marches on. As western New York sees construction proceeding at a rapid clip on a center for wine and food near Canandaigua Lake that it hopes will draw tourists, ground has been broken in Washington state for the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center (seen here in architect's drawing).

It's a $9.2 million center, located in Prosser in the Yakima Valley wine region, that its backers foresee as both a destination for tourists and a place for winemakers to gather.

The facility, expected to open in May of next year, will have a 17,500 square-foot building, vineyards, organic gardens and a public park. The main building will have a restaurant, exhibition galleries, a theater, a demonstration kitchen, wine bar and a retail shop.

The center's namesake is the late Walter Clore, regarded as the father of Washington wine. The state is the No. 2 producer of premium wine in the United States, trailing only California.


Whiskey Trail views on display

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “Views from the American Whiskey Trail,” a collection of paintings by Scottish artist Ian Gray showcasing the culture and heritage of America’s distilled spirits, opened today at the National Press Club.

Gray’s collection of paintings captures scenes from America’s most celebrated and significant whiskey distilleries, many of which are National Historic Landmarks. The images focus on the distilling process and unique character of each distillery including Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey and Jack Daniel’s.

“While touring the distilleries of Kentucky and Tennessee, I was captivated by the beauty and the legacy of the distilled spirits culture and heritage in America,” said Gray, whose paintings will be on display through Friday, April 7.

Views from the American Whiskey Trail will mark Gray’s first exhibit in the U.S. His work has been featured in galleries in London, Germany, Canada and Scotland. His unique style of art has been recognized worldwide for his mix media technique of photography of paints. Gray’s clients include German Parliament, the Singapore Government, Citibank, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and Glenmorangie among others.

Take an online tour of Gray’s views from the American Whiskey Trail.

Rare treat at NYC's Tartan Week

A bottle of what is believed to be the oldest unopened bottle of Scotch whisky in the world could be yours. If, that is, you can outbid all others on April 4 when the Glenfiddich Rare Collection 1937 goes up for auction in New York's Grand Central Terminal as part of Tartan Week celebrations.

The annual week-long festivities celebrate Scottish culture and heritage. Glenfiddich is partnering with City Harvest, a New York-based charity, to auction one of the four remaining bottles of this exceptionally rare spirit.

Rare Collection 1937 comes from one cask at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland, that yielded 61 bottles. Company officials explain that import laws required a special 750ml bottle to be made, so the item being auctioned is, therefore, the only 750ml bottle of this particular whisky ever produced. The spirit was cask aged for 64 years and bottled in 2001.

If you're interested in reserving a seat at the auction, call (212) 982.8300 ext. 111. Really.


Amsterdam museum reopening delayed

If a visit to Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was on your list of spots to visit, move it down a few notches.

The reopening of the Netherlands' most famous museum has been postponed by a year for revisions to its renovation plans. For example, Dutch Culture Minister Reny van der Laan told parliament, security measures were being reviewed because of recent art thefts at several other European museums.

The museum was closed indefinitely in 2003 after an asbestos scare. Renovations estimated at $190 million are to begin early next year and include a cycling route under the building. The museum's collection has been on limited display since 2003 in the building's Philips Wing. Van der Laan said the main museum is tenatively to re-open by the end of 2009.

A collection of more than 400 works from the 17th century will continue to be on view under the title "The Masterpieces." The famous collection of dolls' houses, Delftware, as well as paintings by such masters as Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Vermeer and Rembrandt have been moved for the first time since being acquired by the Rijksmuseum. Rembrandt's "Night Watch," for example, has rarely left the main building designed by Pierre Cuypers since it opened in 1885.

The museum is taking the opportunity to show another side, literally, of the art world to visitors with its "Really Rembrandt?" program. As explained by the governors, "For the first time, the Rijksmuseum will be presenting paintings that were originally attributed to Rembrandt and were bought as such by the Rijksmuseum, but about which doubts have arisen over the years. In the Philips Wing of the Rijksmuseum.

"During the presentation, visitors will be shown what elements of a painting lead us to believe that it is, or is not a Rembrandt, using methods such as infrared- and X-ray images. The presentation will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Rijksmuseum Rembrandt study, whereby new insights will also be revealed. In all, 13 works will be displayed at the presentation. "Really Rembrandt?" will give visitors the opportunity to learn about of the opinions of various experts, but most of all to have a look for themselves and to form their own opinions."


Amsterdam Museums & Galleries
Lonely Planet Guide to the Netherlands
Europe for Visitors: Netherlands
Netherlands Board of Tourism


Scotland wine and food center is open

DUNDEE, Scotland -- Tourist alert! Scotland's first food and wine center is now open.

The Tasting Rooms, as the center is called, was created by Scott's Wine World, a Dundee wine importer.

The center is international in scope, offering virtual wine tours, a deli, café, wine trading floor, corporate conference facilities and an art gallery. Director Graeme Scott said inspiration for the project came from visits to the wine warehouses of Australia and Hong Kong.

"There's a lot of investment here at the moment and the timing is just right," Scott said, explaining why Dundee (seen above) was selected as the initial Scottish site.

Events planned for The Tasting Rooms include specialized dinners pitched at the corporate market and featuring wine producers and celebrity chefs.

The complex blends the historical and traditional jute building with a rustic wine warehouse where people can wander, buy, relax, eat and learn.

“There’s nothing like this in the UK and there’s definitely nothing like it in Scotland,” Scott said. “We want to take the snobbery out of wine and make it more accessible. I experienced this when I was living abroad where it was all about tasting wine in a relaxed environment and in a more tactile way, and I wanted to bring that to the UK.”

Visitors to the Tasting Rooms can access virtual tours of vineyards around the world as well as tastings of the produce of some of those wineries from Italy, Spain, France, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Food is provided mostly by Scottish suppliers for the on-site deli counter and mezzanine café that overlooks the wine trading floor.

Scott, born and raised in Dundee, says of the city, “There’s a lot of investment here at the moment and the timing is just right. Currently our main focus is Dundee, but if it’s successful we have not ruled out similar concepts in other cities.”

BBC Scotland Travel Guide
Bus & Coach Travel
Scotland's Golf Courses
Scottish Tourist Board
The Clans of Scotland
Scottish History & Culture
Distillery tours, tastings, information

Only the best in the world

As Bogie might have put it, out of all the whisky joints in all the towns in the world, what makes The Pot Still the best?

Whisky Magazine has named the Glasgow, Scotland, establishment the best whisk(e)y bar in the world, a title announced at the prestigious magazine's Icons of Whisky awards in London.

The Pot Still, with a history that dates to the 1870s, features walls of just about every whisky imaginable, such as the one seen here, with 483 bottles and adding. Whisky lovers from around the world have traveled to The Pot Still, some for the pub fare and ales on tap as well. So, if you're planning to visit teh ancient Scottish city, it seems only logical to include a stop at The Pot Still.

Of course, calling something the best in the world isn't something Whisky Magazine shys away from. For some examples, click here.


Whisky Distilleries of Scotland
Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre
Map to Scotch Distilleries
Whisky Tours of Scotland

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