Mount Rushmore handcrafted in solid milk chocolate at the World of Chocolate Museum & Cafe'. photo by Karen Kuzsel.

Mount Rushmore handcrafted in solid milk chocolate at the World of Chocolate Museum & Cafe’. photo by Karen Kuzsel.

Russell Crowe’s movie, “Noah” has me seeing things in pairs.

I first noticed that the small strip mall near my house contains three sets of restaurants: Chinese, barbeque, and Italian. I thought it odd that a second restaurant would come into the same plaza with a similar menu, but then noticed venues recreating in the same manner.

As an active member of both the Orlando area chapters of MPI (Meeting Professionals International) and ISES (International Special Events Society), I attend meetings at many newly-opened venues that cater to corporate and leisure groups. The latest pairs are upscale bowling alleys, museums about chocolate, and the unfolding of Diagon Alley, the famed street favored by wizards, witches and now muggles.

I was frankly curious how an upscale bowling alley would differ from the ones I used to frequent. And what exactly does one do at a museum about chocolate other than dream of mouth-melting morsels sans calories? Will the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley be as skillfully-replicated as its Hogsmeade counterpart at Universal Orlando Resorts’ Islands of Adventure?

So here’s what I’ve discovered.

Both Chocolate Kingdom and The World of Chocolate Museum & Café are surrounded by the trappings of Orlando’s famed tourism districts. Both museums offer amusing and educational guided tours of how chocolate went from being a drink only the wealthy could afford to the favorite reason to crash a diet, including the ever-popular “It’s dark chocolate so its oxidants are healthy for you” excuse. Both museums offer limited chocolate samples along the roughly 45-minute interactive tour, have event space, and each has a convenient gift store. That’s where the similarities end. Here’s what makes each of them stand out. Read the rest of this entry »

Salmon with merlot omniSpring is within striking distance, contrary to vicious storms still harassing the U.S and abroad. Here in Florida, where I am based, blue skies, light breezes and temperate weather in the 80s draw crowds to art shows, the beach, sports fields, and barbeques. Just like the colourful flowers and vegetables bursting from awakened shoots, people are eager to break from indoor venues and unwelcome routines to greet Spring with renewed vigor. Corporate clients and leisure travellers are ready to be enticed by exciting offers, and boy, are destinations, resorts and venues ready to deliver. Here’s just a sampling of what’s coming.

Omni Hotels Wine & Resorts Wine about their new partnership and property

Omni Hotels & Resorts just gave me another reason not to care if it’s 5 pm somewhere in the world as an excuse for imbibing in a hearty glass of fruit of the grapevine.

Their culinary series, “Flavors of the World” turns its Spring spotlight on the wines of Washington State, thanks to a new partnership with the Washington State Wine Commission. The promotion, running through May 31, pairs 10 Washington State wines (in 6 and 9-oz pours) with specialties of the state, such as artisan Washington Cheeses served with fig jam, honey and olives, Dungeness crab fritters, Dungeness crab and snap pea soup, apple and fennel salad, roasted salmon served with wild Mushrooms, and apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. Omni food and beverage professionals sacrificed their time and taste buds in February to crisscross Read the rest of this entry »

The Venetian Room's version of Caprese Salad. all photos by Karen Kuzsel

The Venetian Room’s version of Caprese Salad. all photos by Karen Kuzsel

Romance  in The Venetian Room whispers like butterfly wings across the white linen tables, ornately carved dark woods, dim lighting and the hushed tones of the tuxedoed wait staff. Yes, we could have been part of the post-convention corporate crowd meeting at the Caribe Royale Hotel (Orlando, FL) where The Venetian Room is secluded behind heavy wooden doors and a whimsical entry, but instead we were one of the many couples cuddled in plush booth seats, curtained from the other tables by etched glass and wood walls. We were there to recapture the romantic aura emitted by both the elegantly sophisticated décor and the artistically divine creations of Chef Khalid Benghallem that we had first experienced last September for our anniversary.

Our first visit to the Four Diamond restaurant– routinely voted the most romantic restaurant in Orlando in various foodie surveys and publications, was during the Visit Orlando-sponsored Magical Dining Month when the prix fixee’ 3-course meal was $35. We’ve tried to return many times, but each time they were already booked up, so we were thrilled to get this reservation. Imagine how significant my husband Russ and I felt when two head waiters who had served us six months prior greeted us warmly and remembered roughly where we had sat and when we had been there. It doesn’t matter if their “remembering” had anything to do with our being in their customer system now; we felt “special.” Our main server for the evening was Matsi, a well-spoken knowledgeable server who proffered wise meal suggestions.

Once again, the ambiance created the mood that we were in for a sensory treat. The meal began with an amuse bouche of a delicate pesto cream gently tucked into a tartlet and kissed by a balsamic reduction. Five Read the rest of this entry »

From feathers to full period handcrafted clothing, these are Just some of Natasha, The Psychic Lady's finds at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in Tampa.

From feathers to full period handcrafted clothing, these are Just some of Natasha, The Psychic Lady’s finds at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in Tampa.

When I was very young, taking a vacation nearly always involved a road trip. With my Dad in the Air Force and subject to frequent transfers, we found ourselves packed tightly into our car of the moment, traversing the country from one base to another. It wasn’t much different when we took a vacation. In the years before my brother arrived on the scene, my sister and I would either share the back seat with piles of boxes and luggage that rose like a wobbly tower from the floorboard, or we’d find ourselves nestled snugly in the back of the station wagon, sitting on blankets and playing board games to pass the time… at least when I wasn’t suffering from motion sickness and forced to just meditate to sleep. (And yes, I know kids sitting sans seat belts are no longer a viable option.) Vacations weren’t luxury resort destinations. They were sightseeing glimpses of the state or country we were in or near at that time. Each journey created indelible images of ethnic cuisine (which my Mom would later strive to duplicate), unusual architecture, or the cultural stamp of the local populace.

Even now, when I travel for work or pleasure, those memorable Read the rest of this entry »

Rose petals and hearts heat up Valentine's Day romance at Capella Pedregal in Los Cabos, Mexico.

Rose petals and hearts heat up Valentine’s Day romance at Capella Pedregal in Los Cabos, Mexico.

Is it just me, or is the year already resembling a white water rafting trip, where one hurdles along a swiftly-moving river, past dangerous obstacles, barely allowing enough time to catch your breath? Albeit the weather which has played havoc upon lives across America, I am seeing strong signs that business is rebounding across the globe. Hotels are putting more heads in beds; airport traffic is heavier; and business meetings are rediscovering that face-to-face conferences initiate more business creativity and closed-sales than do virtual conferencing. On a personal note, as an entertainer (when not working as a journalist), I am elated that companies are signing off on contracts for parties and trade shows months ahead instead of waiting until the last moment for fear their attendees may opt not to attend.

As January slips into February, I wish you warmer weather (if you’ve been plagued by the polar vortex), more business, and the time to embrace love (not just work) in your life. For those of us in the hospitality, travel, lodging, meetings & events industries, the approach of Valentine’s Day heralds romantic promotions and the crunch of conference bookings. Here are some grand deals for which you may want to consider.

PUT YOUR HEART INTO THESE PROMOTIONS

Cold weather dashing your warm thoughts of love? You may want to catch a flight to Los Cabos, Mexico, on the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula, where love will indeed be in the air and in the romantic possibilities. The 96-room Capella Pedregal’s “Month of Romance” offers an arrange of activities created especially for lovebirds in mind, such as Movies Under the Stars and Romantic Culinary Delights, which includes a romantically themed five-course dinner. There’s also A Chocolate Love Affair for couples who want to mix up a scrumptious chocolate fondue, or Romancing the Moon, a romantic spa experience based around the cycles of the moon.

Escape to Las Ventanas al Paraiso, a Rosewood Resort whose Valentine’s Weekend includes everything from the special Hearts and Hands couples massage on the suite’s terrace to private rooftop dining under Los Cabos’ star-filled skies. A weekend isn’t long enough to express your sentiments? Maybe the four-night Passion in Paradise Package is a better fit. There is an option for a 5th night at 50% off. Hurry though. Travel must be booked between February 12th and 18th. The package includes breakfast in bed daily, delivered by your personal butler, as well as Moet rose champagne and strawberries.

If your budget doesn’t quite stretch as far as you’d like, the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos has a (minimum) three-night option from Feb. 9-21,that won’t break the bank. It includes 15% off a private champagne beach dinner, a bottle of premium wine and cheese platter, an upgrade to a Ziva Ocean View Junior Suite (subject to availability) and free access Read the rest of this entry »

Sweet treats from Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the goampi Meeting Planner All Stars program. photo by Lauralee Shapiro CMP

Sweet treats from Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at the goampi Meeting Planner All Stars program. photo by Lauralee Shapiro CMP

What does a meeting planner want?

That question is as enigmatic as a clueless husband wondering what more could his wife could want after his birthday surprise of a new vacuum cleaner didn’t go over quite as expected.

The answer to what a meeting planner wants varies as much as who may be asking. Is the person pondering the hotel coordinator who’s servicing a group’s meeting or trying to solicit that business, or is it the AV tech/florist/caterer/transportation or furniture décor rep? Is the planner working for a corporation, association, or independent?

The simple answer to what a meeting planner wants is a smoothly-run event, surrounded by attentive and reliable vendors in a fantastic venue that was generous with incentives, and to have the client’s attendees wowed by the entire experience.

Easy peasy to pull off, right?

Or not, which is why an audience of about 85 were so intently focused on the questions and responses given by a panel of six Meeting Planner All Stars at the January luncheon meeting of the Greater Read the rest of this entry »

Elevate your palate in Elevage, the fine dining restaurant in the new Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, FL. Amy Pezzicara, Pezz Photo/Epicurean

Elevate your palate in Elevage, the fine dining restaurant in the new Epicurean Hotel in Tampa, FL. Amy Pezzicara, Pezz Photo/Epicurean

The weather may be putting much of North America in a deep freeze, but across the globe, hotels opening or in transition are heating up the environment. There are so many hotels changing owners or under construction that it’s difficult for me to keep track of property names, but as folks often check out my blog before doing site visits, booking groups, or even booking their own vacations, here are some of the latest of my discoveries.

HOTELS ARE DEFINITELY HAPPENING!  

Finally, the long-awaited Epicurean Hotel opened in Tampa in December. The 137-room boutique hotel, with a focus on fine foods and fine arts, is located across from the renowned Bern’s Steakhouse. The new hotel’s 80-seat restaurant, Elevage, is joined by Chocolate Pi (a patisserie, or for those who don’t speak French… a bakery), a Bern’s Fine Wines & Spirits shop on the first floor, and the Epicurean Theatre, a culinary classroom I hope to find myself dicing and splicing in very soon in the future. The Grand Awakening Weekend is coming up January 17-19 and stars the hotel’s Chef, Chad Johnson, and celebrity chefs such as Norman Van Aken. Developed by Mainsail Lodging & Development in collaboration with the legendary Bern’s Steak House, Epicurean Hotel is the first newly-constructed property in the United States to join the prestigious Autograph Collection® of Marriott International, Inc.www.EpicureanHotel.com; (855) 829-

Two new Tampa hotels are slated to open this year. What do you call a former Mercantile Bank building when it’s been converted into a 130-room boutique hotel situated along Tampa’s famed Riverwalk? You get Aloft Tampa Downtown. It’ll feature a terrace pool deck overlooking the Hillsborough River, the picturesque University of Tampa minarets, and downtown Tampa. Aloft won’t be the only boutique hotel to emerge from an historic property. Once a 108-year-old Federal Courthouse building,  Le Meridien Hotel gains new life as a 130-room hotel with 4,800 sf of meeting space, including a 2,200-sf ballroom set in the old courtroom with 18-foot ceilings, two breakout rooms, and a board room that seats 12.

There’s a “No Strings Attached” policy being offered by The Langham Huntington Pasadena, located nine miles north of Los Angeles for groups who book before March 31 and arrive through December 31 of 2015. The historic property can accommodate up to 350-person conferences. Lots of indoor and outdoor space, a resort style setting, no resort fees, no attrition and no F&B minimums. Industry specific offers are available for Pharmaceutical, Financial, Insurance, and Associations. www.alhi.com/LanghamHuntington

Omni Hotels & Resorts just bought its 6th property from KSL Capital Partners, LLC, a leading private equity firm. The reflagging of the Montelucia Resort & Spa as theOmni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia extends the Omni’s Read the rest of this entry »

Hoo has personality!

Hoo has personality! photo by Karen Kuzsel

If wishes were dreams that come true, being able to take culinary classes in high school would have been near the top of my list. As easy as it would be for me to be envious of the 193 students who participated in the competition segments of the Orange County (FL) Public School’s 4th Annual Hospitality and Culinary Competition, I am instead grateful to have once again witnessed the incredible creative and skilled talent they exhibited.

The December competition held annually at the Orlando World Center Marriott broadens the number of categories and participating schools and tech centers each year who offer culinary and/or hospitality training. Competition categories include: gourmet meals, desserts, knife skills, decorative centerpieces, edible centerpieces, and waiter’s relay. The hospitality portion, which I didn’t see, includes room inspection, case study analysis and project presentation.

This was my fourth year of judging. The first time I agreed to sample desserts in the early morning. As lovely as some of those sweets were that crossed my lips and went straight to my hips, I have happily judged the presentation of edible centerpieces for the past three years if for no other reason than to stand in awe of what these students craft in an hour.

penguin holiday

penguin holiday. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The Marriott prepared an amazing buffet in multiple stations for the judges and students and then awards are presented for the top places in each category. After smelling the aromas of gourmet meals and desserts being prepared tableside across the cavernous ballroom for a few hours, you can understand why there’s a mad rush for the buffet tables when given the OK signal.

Before I name the participating schools, tech centers and winners, I encourage anyone who would like to witness or impact future generations of hospitality and culinary stars to contact Patricia Breeding for next year’s team of volunteers. 407-317-3200,ext 2690 or  Patricia.breeding@ocps.net.

Don’t take just my word that this program is beneficial. Dave Robitaille, MS, MT (ASCP) and Program Specialist and Administrator for the Health Science Career and Technical Education at OCPS says, “The data overwhelmingly shows that students enrolled in CTE programs have a greater chance of completing high school and going to college than non-CTE students. So, CTE programs should not be looked at as an alternative for students not bound for college. On the contrary, if parents want their children to go to college, they should encourage them to enroll in a CTE program.”

 

The high schools who participated are: Colonial, Cypress Creek, Freedom, Wekiva, Winter Park, Oak Ridge, Gateway School, and Dr Phillips. Tech centers include  Mid Florida Tech, Westside Tech, and Orlando Tech. Sponsors included the Marriott, Keiser University, Johnson and Wales University, and the CFHLA.

The edible Christmas tree and friends. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The edible Christmas tree and friends. photo by Karen Kuzsel

 

 

Event

 

School Home School Student Name
Non – Edible Centerpiece      
First place Cypress Creek HS   Riani Pokipala
Second place Dr Phillips HS   Cassidy Brown
Second place Dr Phillips HS   Sofia Fernandez
Second place Dr Phillips HS   Madison Fitch
Second place Dr Phillips HS   Tia Humphries
Edible Centerpiece      
First place Mid Florida Tech University HS Christine Hernandez
Second place Mid Florida Tech Edgewater HS Kristopher Davis
Third place Mid Florida Tech Cypress Creek Jamie Pena
Dessert High School      
First place Gateway School   Heriberto Lopez
First place Gateway School   Josue Cabrales
Second place Cypress Creek HS   Grant Baldinger
Second place Cypress Creek HS   Jessica Butler
Third place Winter Park HS   Daniella Sauri
Third place Winter Park HS   Raham Elsayed
DessertTech Center      
First place Westside Tech Wekiva HS Zakoya Hall
First place Westside Tech Evans HS Devante McDonald
Second place Westside Tech West Orange HS Kristi Caruana
Second place Westside Tech West Orange HS Lauren Harms
Gourmet Meal      
First place Winter Park HS   Melissa Morales
First place Winter Park HS   Antonio Cepero
First place Winter Park HS   Angelique Allison
Second place Winter Park HS   Joey Goldberg
Second place Winter Park HS   Laura Johnson
Second place Winter Park HS   Foley Flood
Third place Winter Park HS   Caleb Johnson
Third place Winter Park HS   Julie Phicien
Third place Winter Park HS   Amber Negron
Gourmet MealTech Center      
First place Westside Tech West Orange HS Angela Cippilone
First place Westside Tech West Orange HS Brandon Santiago
First place Westside Tech West Orange HS Abby Johnson
Second place Mid Florida Tech Cypress Creek Emmanuel Arboleda
Second place Mid Florida Tech University HS Raquel Amador
Second place Mid Florida Tech University HS Desiree Perez
Knife Skills      
First place Orlando Tech Winter Park HS Yafreicy Rodriguez
Second place Mid Florida Tech Dr Phillips HS Fransheska Whittington
Third place Westside Tech Wekiva HS Latasha Morris

 

Waiter’s Relay      
First place Freedom HS   Luis Alvarado
First place Freedom HS   Ysenia Palomino
First place Freedom HS   Lourdes Sanchez
Second place Colonial HS   Christine Ortiz Hernandez
Second place Colonial HS   Nathaniel Morales
Second place Colonial HS   Angel Dones
Third place Orlando Tech University HS Jessica Rivera
Third place Orlando Tech University HS Gabrielle Tursi
Third place Orlando Tech University HS Adrianna Colon

 

A cantelope tiki hut shields birds of a feather. photo by Karen Kuzsel

A cantelope tiki hut shields birds of a feather. photo by Karen Kuzsel

 

Hospitality Competition Winners

 

Event School Home School Student Name
Hospitality Competition      
First place – Overall Dr Phillips HS   Tia Humphries
First place Dr Phillips HS   Cassidy Brown
First place Dr Phillips HS   Madison Fitch
First place Dr Phillips HS   Sofia Fernandez
Second place- Overall Colonial HS   Yarissa Pena
Second place Colonial HS   Meagan Ojeda
Second place Colonial HS   Noe Hernandez
Second place Colonial HS   Lesly Lopez
Third place – Overall Mid Florida Tech Lake Nona HS Angie Grunskyte
Third place Mid Florida Tech West Orange HS Jadia Johnson
Third place Mid Florida Tech Cypress Creek HS Sasha Gatti
Third place Mid Florida Tech Wekiva HS Deja Miller

 

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com. @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

 

Castle Hotel shimmers with royal attitude

Castle Hotel shimmers with royal attitude

There have been two stately Castles in Orlando. Both at one time have been pink, but unlike Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the Castle Hotel on International Drive encourages overnight stays. In fact, after the Castle Hotel became the 9th Kessler Collection  boutique hotel to become part of the Marriott Autograph Collection on October 17, those overnights have gotten cozier.

Two of the 216 guestrooms have magically morphed into the three-treatment room Poseidon Spa and Garden Bistro. The remaining 214 threw off their mantle of yore and are now dressed in modern European furniture and soothing colors. The Castle didn’t shed its spires, turrets or twin rooftop balconies (some of the best viewing of area theme park fireworks and the perfect size for a reception for 120 max), but inside it now more closely resembles an upscale hunting lodge adorned in fine art work. Many pieces—such as the gorgeous chandelier hanging in the Palace Ballroom, came from Chairman and CEO Richard C. Kessler’s private collection.

Upon my visit to the grand re-launch of The Castle as the only Marriott Autograph Collection hotel on International Drive, I couldn’t stop drooling over the two rhinestone-encrusted black-and-white curved chairs enhancing the lobby. I have costumes (for my alter ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady) that aren’t this bejeweled.

As with all 10 Kessler Collection properties in Florida, Georgia, Colorado, New Mexico and North Carolina, this one features local, regional, world-renowned and Kessler Signature artists. The $6.5 million, months-long renovation has repositioned The Castle from a luxury leisure property to one focused on attracting corporate business. There is now more than 9,000 sf in meeting and event space. The new Palace Ballroom can seat 180 in rounds. There is also the Read the rest of this entry »

 

You're never too young to learn to ski at Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows, CA.

You’re never too young to learn to ski at Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows, CA.

I smell the cookies baking. It must be December. Not that I don’t bake cookies all year, but from the time I was young, baking for the holidays began early in the month. My Mom, sister, and then my daughter and I would begin our ritual of selecting which favorites and which new recipes would warm our kitchen. They were meant to be sampled and mostly, meant to be shared. In the last two years I had last minute writing assignments and performing gigs that made my life too hectic to spend casual time listening to holiday music while I kneaded, mixed, and decorated an assortment of goodies. Cooking and baking are cathartic. They feed my soul, not just my belly. I already “sense” this December will be different. We have one trip planned to visit relatives, parties to enjoy, and two cookie exchanges for which to prep. I’m feeling merrier already.

May you have the holiday you either remember or one you wish to have. Here are some possibilities that may stoke your imagination or get you to pack your bags for a new adventure.

HOLIDAY HAPPENINGS

Even I, a complete chicken when it comes to anything involving heights and the possibility of me hitting the bottom in an unintended splat, might consider taking advantage of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows’$49 Learn to Ski and Ride Weekend, December 14-15. The package includes lift tickets, a half-day lesson and full rental packages for first time skiers and riders. Reservations are required for kids’ lessons (ages 12 and under). 13 and over can register online. Walk-ins Read the rest of this entry »

Expanded Ka Maka Landing, a popular Waikolohe Valley water play area at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii

Expanded Ka Maka Landing, a popular Waikolohe Valley water play area at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii

You don’t have to go over the rainbow to find otherworldly adventures. Somewhere in our world, hotel resorts are renovating or building, meetings are occurring and families are gathering to create memories. In America, we’ve begun the holiday crush that begins with Halloween and rushes past New Year’s Eve. Elsewhere, other holidays occupy heart, mind and wallets (as if you expected someone else to pick up the tab?) For many businesses, this is an opportune time to regroup, fill out next year’s RFPs, or scope out destinations for next year’s conferences. For the leisure industry, the next two months are make-it-or-break-it for sales, promotions, or capturing imaginations that live on past packing one’s bag to head back home. With that in mind, here are some destinations, resorts, events, and opportunities that you may want to consider.

Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa in Ko Olina, Hawaii, knows that even adults need time to play, so the imaginative folks at Disney have expanded Ka Maka Landing, a popular Waikolohe Valley water play area. There’s an infinity pool with a realistic grotto, a dynamic fun splash zone for smaller kids, and a new dining location for poolside and beachside dining. No worries, meeting plannners, the new Hālāwai Lawn provides a 16,000-sf lushly landscaped environment for outdoor events. The new lawn is part of the resort’s total 36,000 sf of function space, including a 14,000-sf conference center. “With Aulani, we’ve introduced an entirely new Disney experience for incentives and meetings,” said Anne Hamilton, vice president, Resort Sales and Services, Disney Destinations. “In keeping with the rest of the resort, events on the new Hālāwai Lawn will immerse Read the rest of this entry »

Elegant dining at Coquina del Mar, signature restaurant of Esperanza, an Auberge Resort. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Elegant dining at Cocina del Mar, signature restaurant of Esperanza, an Auberge Resort. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Los Cabos oozes exotic imagery like a romance novel set under vivid pink sunsets.

From the sultry summer heat beading one’s brow to the azure waves cresting and spilling onto pebbly beaches or splashing against the Easter egg turquoise water of infinity pools, this Mexican paradise on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula defies typecasting. Most assuredly there are the expected iced margaritas, thrumming salsa music and platters of tacos and guacamole, but you won’t see men sporting sombreros or women swishing colorful peasant skirts.

Los Cabos is the Mexico of today’s visionary businessmen. Magazine cover-worthy resplendent resorts rise or are renovated at a dizzying pace. Stylized cuisine reflects the recent emphasis on organic farm and sea-to-table ingredients, and there’s an innate savvy response to what leisure and corporate business visitors find appealing, whether it’s Sea of Cortez water adventures, walking through the galleries crowding the narrow cobbled streets of San José del Cabo, or studying the hundreds of indigenous plants that form its landscape.

Many visitors flock to Los Cabos’ two main cities, Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, in the hottest months of August through mid-October to take advantage of the lower rates, to fry by the pool, slurp frothy tequila or rum concoctions, and if on an inclusive plan, eat whenever they’re hungry. With the Resort Corridor an easy connecting road between the two cities, a night of clubbing or a day of shopping or snorkeling is never more than an hour away.

I was in Los Cabos in early October for a press familiarization trip sponsored by the Los Cabos Tourism Board.  As much as I am accustomed to the hot, sunny and humid weather we encountered, I think next time I’d prefer from November to April when I’m told whales swim and frolick just offshore.

While the appeal for corporate and incentive groups may include some of the same elements that lure tourists, there are four factors that predicate group bookings.

  1. 1.       Hoteliers say groups account for 50 to 80% of their business. Of that, roughly 70 to 80% are from California and Texas. The reason? Easy maneuverability through the San José del Cabo and an increasing number of direct flights from the U.S. Dollars are accepted currency. No need to worry about exchange rates.
  2. 2.       Most resort hotels that cater to groups are boutique properties whose attentive service and exceptional safety considerations are notable. One such exclusive property is Esperanza, a 57-room Auberge Resort.During the recent G20 Summit in Los Cabos, President Obama was their honored guest.
  3. 3.       Los Cabos temperatures average mid-70s all year and about 10 inches of rainfall, so inclement weather rarely disrupts events. Outdoor venues with the beach, sky or sea as stellar backdrops equal saved dollars on décor.

From the time I was picked up from the airport and through all of our adventures, we were escorted and given guided commentary by Tony Kayser, customer care manager for Epic Group, DMC/DCO, and her capable, amiable crew. Here’s what I liked most about them: they were always prompt and courteous. When each of us was to return to the airport, we were individually handed a card spelling out our name, pick up time and flight info. There was no fear that a driver would fail to greet me, as has happened on two other trips (but that’s a discussion for another day).

ADVENTURES

Chopping cilantro and garlic with Chef Enrique Silva at Huerta Los Tamarindos

Chopping cilantro and garlic with Chef Enrique Silva at Huerta Los Tamarindos

Anyone who has ever read my blog posts knows how passionate I am about cooking, baking, and taking classes from chefs sharing their culinary recipes, so it should come as no surprise that my favorite adventure was at the 17-acre Huerta Los Tamarindos organic farm/restaurant and cooking school in San José Del Cabo.            

Before we set about chopping, dicing, mixing and marinating our four course meal from just-picked produce and locally-sourced fish, Chef Enrique Silva gave us a rundown of how he converted a sugar cane plantation kitchen built in 1888 into this sought-after school. He described his role as co-founder of the Organic Market and member of the co-op Del Cabo, the first Mexican organic farm to export herbs and vegetables to the U.S. Tired of the myriad of rules and regulations needed for exporting, Silva now just sells locally.

His college degree was in agricultural engineering but his passion for cooking was learned from his mother. He follows culinary styles (Peruvian cuisine is trending) and refreshes his skills with visits to Oaxaca, considered the center of Mexican regional cooking. Staples of Oaxacan dishes include corn, beans and chile peppers, but local standouts include stylized tamales and varieties of mole sauce.

The farm is situated off twisting, narrow dirt roads. Dining is al fresco on a wide porch overlooking the fields of more than 100 vegetables and herbs and an event space for 250 under a canopy of cissus and passion fruit vines which act as a natural cooling shield. Next to one of the two kitchens is a small gift shop selling artisan goods, spices and canned goods prepared onsite. The restaurant menu changes every two months or with the harvest.

Los Tamarindos specializes in group cooking classes. The upper level outdoor kitchen we used, with a traditional pizza oven and a long community table for splicing and dicing, could hold 18. The kitchen in the grove can hold 85. In his typical team building challenges for about 10, recipes are assigned and teams then have to harvest and clean what they’re going to prepare. “One of our most popular quick team building challenges is making fresh salsa,” says Silva. “They have to pick, chop and plate the salsa for a blind tasting.” 100 max.

A toast of the house special lemongrass tea formally began our cooking lesson. Over the next two hours we prepared a spiced herb oil to marinate five different types of eggplants that we roasted (amazing the varied tastes and textures), an arugula and mango salad, a mahi al achiote and green rice entrée, and dessert of boiled and sweetened fresh pumpkin called dulce de calabaza. We refreshed our palette with the tea and tamarind margaritas rimmed in chile pepper. Do I need to tell you how delicious this meal and drinks were?

While you’re envisioning that, here are two of Silva’s cooking tips:

1.       To add a smoky flavor to your food, bake whole peppercorns for 15 minutes in a 250-300 degree oven. Then grind the peppercorns as coarsely as desired. They rimmed the margarita glass and were sprinkled over our meal.

2.       Mexican rice is fried first on a medium-hi heat for three to four minutes so it’s not sticky. The grains whiten and make a hissing sound to signal when to add water. Steam it, don’t drown it.

My second favorite adventure was speeding across the Sea of Cortez on a zodiac, heading to a rock-strewn area known for great snorkeling. Along the way, we took a brief side trip to view El Arco (The Arch), Cabo San Lucas’ iconic rock formation at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. One side is the Pacific Ocean and a section of beach known as Playa Divorcio (Divorce Beach) due to rough currents. Zip around the arch and you’re in the calmer Sea of Cortez. Nestled up to the base of the rocks is Playa del Amour (Lover’s Beach). Our host group, Cabo Adventures, prepped us on what our boundaries were for safety and what activities were available: snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding.

This was only the 2nd time I have successfully snorkeled and only the first in open waters. (The other time was at SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove.) The salty water teared my eyes and I can’t name the colorful fish I spotted, but I loved it until our Cabo Adventures guide chummed the water so we’d see even more fish. I loved spotting them… just not having them literally on top of me!  Did some kayaking, but the push of the waves battled my arms more than I was willing to endure for long, so I re-boarded the zodiac, drank lots of water and nibbled on the wafers and oranges Cabo Adventures provided. 

One afternoon, a Terramar (DMC) guide led us around San José, a quaint town crowded with art galleries. We took a quick walkthrough Casa Natalia Hotel and Cocina Restaurant, a favorite venue of travel magazines like Conde Nast. A tiled walkway lined with dining tables elegantly clothed split the hotel’s overhanging balconies. Each bore baskets of colorful flowers and greens.

We passed by the famed Wirikuta Garden, home to over 1500 varieties of desert plants from around the world, but didn’t have time to stop this trip. The botanical garden has more than a million plants and three pyramids built from gigantic granite boulders.

Over the span of five days, I stayed at two resorts and visited two others. At each we dined and checked out the amenities. Each property’s uniqueness would appease particular tastes. In each case, privately-owned residences form an upper ring around the edges of the hotel.  Those residences often handle overflow registrations.

PUEBLO BONITO SUNSET BEACH

The host hotel was Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach, a sprawling mammoth complex that required calling for a cart to shuttle from one location to another when in a hurry. The carts were in perpetual motion, so waiting was never long. Sidewalks are only located near the lobby. Vacationers would love this complex. Seven beautiful landscaped pool areas, including their Sky Pool with a rain wall plummeting into the curved structure. Guests can choose inclusive or European plans. The latter means you’re paying for room only. As you should with any resort offering an inclusive plan, be aware of which restaurants are actual participants. Not all are. Also, there are only two free WiFi hot spots. Internet and cell service were almost non-existent.

Do try their upscale La Frida Restaurant, which is $20 a person extra if you are on the inclusive plan. The margaritas were terrific and the food great. The 80-seat restaurant resembles a traditional hacienda with heavy carved furniture in dark tones, an abundance of flowers, and live music. Oh, and check out their spa, Armonia. Unlike most resort spas in light, breezy colors, this one is low-lit with darker colors and stained glass sunbursts in the waiting area. They make their own toiletries under the Armonia brand.

ESPERANZA, AN AUBERGE RESORT

It doesn’t get much more exclusive and intimate than Esperanza Resort. The stunning 57-room boutique hotel’s most recent claim to fame is hosting President Obama when he attended the 2012 G20 summit in Las Cabos. That security level has attracted many world leaders and celebrities such as Jennifer Anniston. Even with the small number of rooms, there are seven outdoor venues. Each can hold up to 150 and small boardrooms can accommodate 40. Sales & Events Manager Hector Hernandez says, “Eighty percent of our group business hails from California. The two-hour flight from Los Angeles, our exclusivity and security are strong attractions.”

Every room comes equipped with binoculars during whale season.

You know those romantic foreign romantic movies where the loving couple is always dining al fresco on some tiled patio overlooking exquisite scenery? That’s just how I felt dining at Esperanza’s signature restaurant, Cocina del Mar. The patio area could likely accommodate a couple hundred, but niches were created to make small groups feel like they were alone under twinkling lights, overlooking the sea. We sat on the second curved tier of one section of the patio. There were a couple of larger areas with intimate dining to our left and then around the bend, a section for a larger group to have privacy. That night a bridal party had decorated everything in that latter area in pink, from the lights to their tablecloths.

We toasted the dinner to come with Sala Vivé, a sparkling wine made in Querétaro (central Mexico). From a menu created just for us and paired with appropriate adult beverages, I first chose Seafood Tortilla Soup with poached lobster, scallop shrimp, little neck clams, crispy tortillas and avocado. It was a delicate broth unlike any Tortilla Soup I’ve ever had. That choice was paired with the Sala Vivé. My entrée was called Inspiration, and it was. The chef’s grilled creation was served with D.O Valle de San Antonio of Chile, my preference over a Chardonnay.  I was sure I was much too full for dessert until I saw the chocolate lava cake with cardamom ice cream and hibiscus-plum sauce. That arrived with a glass of Cream of Tequila from Oro Azul. I meant to just take a bite or two…

EL GANZO HOTEL

El Ganzo Hotel's latest rooftop artwork. photo by Karen Kuzsel

El Ganzo Hotel’s latest rooftop artwork. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The next day’s visit to El Ganzo Hotel in the Puerto Los Cabos area was filled with firsts. It was the first hotel I’d ever seen painted completely white. It was the first time I ever sat next to a rooftop concert stage to hear a Grammy-nominated singer perform, and it was the first time I I’ve ever visited a recording studio built inside the lower level of a hotel. Oh, it was also the time I ever tasted Tajín Clásico with lime, a popular Mexican seasoning that we liberally sprinkled in our margaritas and on fresh pineapple and coconut. (I was so impressed with the seasoning that I immediately sought a Mexican grocery on my return home to purchase it.) As I said: a day of firsts.

El Ganzo (meaning goose) is a living ode to art. The hotel opened in the Puerto Los Cabos area in December as the newest in the Grupo Questro Hotels family. El Ganzo caters to groups of about 150, with a clientele generally in the 30s to 60s and who are creative and appreciate art. (No one under 18 is allowed to stay there.) Creating a living monument to art is the motivation behind their artist and musician-in-residence programs.

 “Think of El Ganzo as a blank white canvas,” says Ines Munoz, PR and business development director. “Each month we host two or three artists in residence. In exchange for their stay, the artists leave a piece of their artwork on a wall, door or furniture.” As each of the 72-guestrooms is imprinted with art, that artist’s name replaces the room number.

The musician-in-residence program swaps a stay and the opportunity to use the hotel’s underground, state-of-the-art private recording studio for a one-night concert. That’s how our group landed rooftop, stage-front seats for Mexican actress-singer Ximena Sariñana’s concert. I didn’t know what she sang as all but one song was in Spanish, but her warmth, congeniality, and tender ballads didn’t need interpreting.

Cleverly, the hotel records the concert for El Ganzo Sessions and then airs it on the Ganzo Channel, an in-house station available on each guest’s room television. Up next is a filmmaker and videographer-in-residence program to document the artists and musicians as they develop their work.

Many features about El Ganzo Hotel struck me as smart planning. When you step inside, you notice immediately the reclaimed wood and white walls, with occasional splashes of color from the artwork already finished.  Each first floor guestroom has both a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom and one on the balcony, overlooking the ocean. There are three restaurants, one of which is across the marina at the hotel’s Beach Club and accessible by a boat that shuttles back and forth all day.

Also across the marina and opposite the beach club, the hotel built a fisherman’s wharf. The fishermen have a nice place to hang out, clean and filet their fish says Rafael Sanchez-Navarro, director of sales & marketing for Grupo Questro. “They supply us with fresh fish for our restaurants.” The public has access to fishermen’s wharf and boats are frequently chartered for deep sea fishing. “We believe it’s very important to preserve the traditions of our community, not impose our ways on them,” says Sanchez-Navarro.

He says their beach area is one of the spots along the Sea of Cortez that is entirely swimmable, thanks to jetties that form a natural barrier. The hotel offers paddle boarding, kayaks, bikes and outrigger canoes. “Nothing noisy, like jet skis. We encourage a more natural environment.”

Note: Right now there are discounted pre-opening prices. Those rise in February, 2014.

WHAT’S COMING NEXT?

Before the end of 2014, Grupo Questro expects to build a recreated Mexican village with multiple restaurants, nightclubs and a museum around the marina. With the vision to attract larger conferences than the area has ever been able to support, Grupo Questro is also developing at least four new hotels around their marina, totaling more than 2,000 rooms, according to Sanchez-Navarro. Here’s what’s expected:

Secrets opens December, 2013, with 500 suites, a convention center and a ballroom with up to 8,000 sf that will be able to hold up to 800 people, theater style. Secrets will have ocean view restaurants  and a golf course. The building resembles a modern hacienda.

JW Marriott opens the end of 2014 with up to 270 rooms.

Ritz Carlton Reserve opens in early 2015 across the marina from El Ganzo with 100 suites. The Reserve is a new brand for the Ritz Carlton family.

Grupo Questro also plans to open three more luxury boutique hotels, totaling about 400 rooms, on another section of the marina and if all goes well, a 500-room Fairmont will rise by 2016.

 

FIESTA AMERICANA GRAND LOS CABOS GOLF & SPA RESORT

Relaxing at one of the pools at Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cobos Golf & Spa Resort

Relaxing at one of the pools at Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cobos Golf & Spa Resort

Luxurious decadence was the 24 hours I spent at Fiesta Americana Grand Los Cabos Golf & Spa Resort. Never have I felt so pampered. Never have I had my favorite three tangible “loves”—amazing culinary creations, full-bodied yet silky-smooth red wines, and a massage that leaves one euphorically stupified, all come together in one glorious experience.

 Fiesta Americana is 10 minutes from Cabo San Lucas and 15 from San Jose del Cabo.  I didn’t come there to wallow in “me time” though. The property has a solid reputation for impeccable amenities that has make it popular for corporate and incentive gatherings.

 Fiesta Americana is just one of 110 Grupo Posada properties, Mexico’s largest property investment group.   “A planner once described us as having a leisure property with group amenities. It’s a perfect combination that will make our attendees feel like they’re on vacation,” says Mauricio Moncada, associate director of group sales.” The oceanfront resort caters to groups who book 150 to 200 rooms of the 249 available in both the main hotel and in the upper scale Grand Club section. I stayed in the Grand Clulb section, in one of 13 suites. Mine had two bathrooms, large bedroom and full living room. Most groups who come bring spouses, so extended stays are frequent. He says, “We don’t sell rooms. We sell experiences.”

Indeed they do. Take for instance their three-hour Barefoot Experience theme party. Moncada explains that a past GM created a unique party by combining the great wines of the Baja Peninsula region, treatments from Somma Wine Spa and their private, swimmable beach (a rarity on that coast, don’t forget). After guests remove their shoes, they are led to half-barrels filled with grapes… which they then stomp. Twenty minutes of foot reflexology is followed by a tasting of regional wines and dinner on the beach, with the chef centered in the midst of the group.

Of course, if you’re not one who likes getting sand in your toes, maybe you would prefer dining on the Whales Terrace at the Peninsula Restaurant, so named because “From November to the beginning of April you can have lunch and watch them swim by,” says Moncada. 150 max, banquet style.

Wine pairings are de rigueur  for group events, but how about ice tea pairings, an invention of Chef Gerardo Rivera to spice up luncheons. While Moncada and I sat on the Peninsula Restaurant terrace, gazing at the waves breaking against the shore, we dined on a customized four course meal, each paired with tea. We began with peach tea and cerviche, simply the best I’ve ever had. That was followed by the lightly breaded, delicate flavors of pirate fish and shrimp taco served with Bugambilia (bougainvillea) tea.  Third course was seabass with beans, cactua and chilo ancho accompanied by green tea with ginger. Vanilla tea, cardamom ice cream, chocolate and strawberries finished the meal (and me) off.

The group experience at Fiesta Americana actually begins with registration at a private reception area, an automatic amenity earned with a confirmed booking. The area is an open expanse of marble tile in soft earth tones. Moncada says they shiatsu massage chairs and hospitality tables can be brought in for the welcome. Occasionally the golf concierge will be provided.  “We’re in the Cabo del Sol development with two golf courses: ocean and desert courses. Both are designed by Jack Nicklaus. Golf can be charged to the master account for convenience to planners so they only have to pay one bill and not many.”        

Fiesta Americana has two boardrooms, one with desks in a u-shaped setup that remain fixed and one room that is bare. Two ballrooms totaling 10,900 sf have 21’ ceilings. Both have natural lighting, beautiful woods and overlook the Sea of Cortez. One of the cleverest ideas I’ve ever seen a resort do is that Fiesta Americana keeps one ballroom set up with tables and décor highlighting their various themes, such as Oaxaca night, mystic night, a night under the stars, or the popular barefoot experience . On the wall, holographic video footage screens teasers of the fun that could be had with each theme. Outside The Grand Slam ballroom is the Fairway Terrace, a favorite location of group breakfasts and luncheons of up to 300. One level below, the smaller Star Terrace overlooks both the ocean course and the ocean. 120max.

Fiesta Americana is horseshoe shaped. All the rooms have balconies with a view and include both a tub and a shower. The palette is done in contemporary shades of sand and earth. There are three restaurants and three bars, each with ocean views.

One of the perks of my job is to experience spa experiences and write about them. (I you’re your whispers of “Poor you,” but someone has to do it.) Somma Wine Spa is my idea of the perfect spa. They use grapes from the Guadalupe Valley and Santo Tomas area of Baja California to fuse into their oils and lotions. I had the 80-minute Le Vin, the resort’s signature massage. Chardonnay grapes were used in the oils that were generously applied to my body using a combination of Swedish, mio-intensive and lomi-lomi techniques. When the treatment ended, my legs felt as rubbery as if I’d just walked off a speeding boat. My therapist rang a sweet gong to reawaken my chi and then escorted me to the lounge, placed a warm coiled towel beneath my neck, and asked whether I’d like a glass of red or white wine. It arrived with a creamy cheese ball and frozen green grapes.

If I had my way, I’d spend days in Somma Wine Spa trying out exotic treatments such as the Choco-Coco Wrap (from the cacao seed) that begins with a mint-white chocolate and coconut granule exfoliation, followed by a cocoa mask and moisturizer. Or maybe I’d want to do the coffee extract and seaweed wrap, or maybe the Chardonnay Clay Wrap or the Lambrusco Red Wine Wrap.

Fiesta Americana was a treat… one I’d love to repeat.

www.huertalostamarindos.com

http://www.visitloscabos.travel/

www.loscabosguide.com/epicloscabos

www.esperanzaresort.com

www.pueblobonitosunsetbeach.com

www.elganzo.com

www.fiestamericanagrand.com

www.cabo-adventures.com

www.terramardestinations.com

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com. @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

California Grill Dragon Roll with spicy and tataki tuna, shrimp tempura, bell pepper, avocado and chili-soy glaze.  California Grill in the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World Resort. (Jimmy DeFlippo, photographer)

California Grill Dragon Roll with spicy and tataki tuna, shrimp tempura, bell pepper, avocado and chili-soy glaze. California Grill in the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World Resort. (Jimmy DeFlippo, photographer)

September in Florida (where I’m based) is hot, sticky, humid, rainy and for those of us in the hospitality, meetings & events, and entertainment industries—it’s a time of hanging on til convention season reappears. September also means Magical Dining comes to Orlando for the entire month, whereby upscale restaurants host a three-course prix fixee’ meal for $33 and my husband and I celebrate our anniversary by enjoying as many of these meals as we can. Visit Orlando and the participating restaurants partner to both highlight their cuisine to locals during this corporate and leisure shoulder season and to raise money ($1 from each meal) for Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

I know most of you aren’t in Orlando, but for those of you who are, I’ll talk about these restaurants later in this blog. Last year I covered them after the month ended and by then it was too late for you to personally check them out.

So, with food ever-present on my mind, I think I’ll just jump into news about a hotel whose opening I’ve been eagerly awaiting, with dreams of spending a bit of time there.

HOTEL HAPPPENINGS     

The hotel is called Epicurean and it officially opens in December in Tampa, FL. As you may expect by the name, food will be a central theme of the 137-room boutique hotel. There’ll be cooking classes in the Epicurean Theatre, wine tastings, craft cocktail courses and celebrity appearances. The food-centric Epicurean Hotel, the first newly constructed property in the United States to join the Autograph Collection®, is in collaboration with Bern’s Steak House, a Tampa gastronomic icon since 1956. Epicurean Hotel’s website has launched and is taking reservations for stays, booking meetings or social events in the 2,000 sf Grand Cru Ballroom, the Epicurean Theatre or the second Read the rest of this entry »

Native American statue on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, NM

Native American statue on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, NM. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The rich, the famous and the infamous pinned Santa Fe, NM to the pages of history, but it’s the arts that have solidified its reputation for the future. Whether we’re talking about paintings, sculptures, Native American handcrafted jewelry, bohemian clothing, books, movies or its distinctive cuisine, Santa Fe’s art rises from the desert floor like scented steam from one of its many spiritually sacred spas. You can see it. You can breathe it. But what matters is how it makes you feel.

The Southwestern city of 70,000 is a smorgasbord for the senses wrapped in an eclectic blanket of Spanish, Cowboy and Native American influences. It made me feel alive, refreshed, awakened, attuned, energized and wired during my recent visit. (And that’s without the light-headedness that comes from being at 7,000-ft elevation. Drink water until you feel squishy to avoid headaches or nausea.) I felt it immediately upon reaching the city limits, an hour’s drive from the easy-to-maneuver Albuquerque International Airport (20 from the Santa Fe Airport) and saw how the zoning-mandated and culturally-authentic brown adobe buildings that blend seamlessly into the inescapable desert terrain also serve as a blank canvas to the vibrant displays of art bursting like wildflowers in the Spring.  

In this flourishing city now ranked as the third largest art market in the world, there are 250 art galleries (more than a 100 of which cram the one mile stretch known as Canyon Road), 250 restaurants, 1,400 (mostly boutique) hotel rooms, and statues elegantly defining its cultural roots. My beaded braids, gypsy attire and personal spirited philosophy of life fit into the landscape as if I were a resident.

The core of the oldest U.S. Capital city, established in 1610, is a squared plaza and the oldest marketplace in the country. Across the street, Read the rest of this entry »

Food Lovers' Guide to Orlando  I am not sure if Orlando has ever had a food guide before Ricky Ly took on the task. I had heard about Ricky Ly before meeting him at two food events where we were both invited as food critics. Ly is a food blogger who can be found at @tastychomps or on FaceBook at tastychomps. His book is the Food Lovers’ Guide to Orlando: The Best Restaurants, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings.

Like Ly’s day job as an engineer, he tackled this food guide with meticulous organization and verve at getting the project done in a timely manner. Unfortunately, as with a guide of any kind, the listings start to become outdated by the time the guide is published. I noticed that with several of the restaurants mentioned here that are no longer in business.

Nonetheless, for someone looking for descriptions of a restaurant’s cuisine, a bit of background, and where it’s geographically located within the metro Orlando area (which is divided in food zones), this book is a winner. He articulates Orlando into downtown, central, north, west, east and south areas, as well as breaking down further into Universal/International Drive, Restaurant Row/Sand Lake Road, and Disney/Lake Buena Vista. The surprise is a separate listing for Winter Park and for food trucks. He told me he had visited all 300 restaurants listed here. I wish I could more plainly see the evidence of that. I like when he mentions dishes he personally favors at these restaurants. There just should have been more of that.  Instead, many of the restaurants are relegated to general information about what style of cuisine is prepared; information that could be found elsewhere.

I can see this guide as very useful for someone unfamiliar with Orlando restaurants, or someone just looking to try something new when out of their usual vicinity for dining out. Restaurants are delineated as to their price, type of attire (dressy or casual), and which are hid favorites. Specialty markets and stores are also categorized.

The book sells for $14.95 and can be found on Amazon or you can just contact Ly on his Facebook page or twitter name to get updates on where it can be purchased. Tell him you heard about the book in my blog.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com. @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

 

 

 

Food Lovers’ Guide to Orlando

 

Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati opens new restaurant

Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati opens new restaurant

This has been one of the busiest Augusts I can remember in many years. When I was younger, having a mid-August birthday meant families were taking end-of-summer vacations and not around to celebrate, or we were moving from one Air Force base to another so I could start yet another school without missing any lessons. As I aged, August meant, “Oh no, another birthday is rolling around,” or it meant corporate work for entertainers had nose-dived and thank goodness, the start of “season” was just around the corner. Unlike all those other years, (except for my birthday crash landing with a chronological number that I have yet to comprehend could be mine), this August has flown by like our backyard ducks when a predator bird comes swooping in. I’ve been on several press trips (which you’ll hear more about in next blog post), worked some fun gigs as Natasha, The Psychic Lady, and visited with friends & family. Next week we attend the annual Central Florida Film Festival in Ocoee, FL: 3 days of non-stop independent movies and after-glow events.

September looks like it’s ready to burst onto the scene, so before that occurs, here are some final summer activities, hotel promotions, and planning tips for the fall.

 ACTIVITIES

 Just in time for a thrilling summer conclusion, Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino opens VooDoo Zipline, a ride that will send guests soaring higher than 400 feet in the air at electrifying speeds, offering 360-degree open-air views of the Las Vegas Strip. “Rio has always been known for having some of the best views in Vegas. Now thrill-seeking guests can enjoy the legendary views that VooDoo Steak and VooDoo Rooftop Nightclub are best known for – from an entirely new Read the rest of this entry »

Pix Photos © 2013 Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. LONE RANGER ™ & © Classic Media

Pix Photos © 2013 Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. LONE RANGER ™ & © Classic Media

Summer is in full swing in many parts of the world. The extreme natures of the weather, with tornadoes, fires, floods, snow and drought has created stress and doubt about planning getaways. Fortunately, there are options available if you just need to get away and remember what it’s like to laugh, enjoy, rest and relax. Hope these discounted vacations put a smile on your face and get you packing.

Just saw “The Lone Ranger”, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Totally fun and campy and even though it ran about 2-1/2 hours, it kept my attention. The fact that I happen to be going to Santa Fe, NM soon, where the film was shot, is thrilling, especially now that I know that the New Mexico Tourism office now offers tours of sites where movies and TV shows have been shot. www.newmexico.org/filmtrails is the new travel planning resource created by the state’s tourism department to help groups and individuals plan their itineraries around film history and lore. Filmmakers Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski chose New Mexico’s Rio Puerco as an authentic setting for their own version of a Wild West town. The movie’s thrilling train sequence in Cimarron Canyon was filmed near Angel Fire, N.M. For further information and a list of other films made in New Mexico, visit www.newmexico.org/filmtrails.

Fancy a train ride through East Anglia in the United Kingdom? If so, Read the rest of this entry »

Family fun in the Despicable Me Kids Suite at Portofino Bay Hotel

Family fun in the Despicable Me Kids Suite at Portofino Bay Hotel

June: the time of replenishment, relaxation, and revving up for the (hopeful) onslaught of fall corporate business, unless you happen to be immersed in the tourism market or taking an overdue family vacation. For any, and all of the above, here are some deals to be done, places to ponder, and events to excite.

RESORTS AMP UP FUN FACTOR FOR FAMILIES

How cute are the new Despicable Me-themed kid suites at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando Resort? It was a no-brainer to renovate all 18 kid suites in time for occupancy on October 1. Holidays will fast approach. The Despicable Me 2 will have opened July 3, and Universal’s Despicable Me Minion Mayhem attraction has already proven to be a hit for the family. What fan of the animated movie wouldn’t love to sleep in missile beds on Minion-inspired bedding just like Gru’s three adopted girls: Margo, Edith and Agnes? The two-room suites keep the parents happy with a luxurious Italian design. Save 30% with the Stay More, Save More promotion. On-site hotel guests receive early park admission and free Universal Express Unlimited ride access. http://universalorlando.com/portofinobay; (888) 273-1311.

It’s going to be a happening summer in Central Florida. The theme park-aphile in me is ready to check out Busch Gardens’ annual Summer Nights programs, now through Aug. 18. (Hey… that’s my birthday. Wouldn’t that make an awesome birthday gift?) The event includes Cheetah Hunt (which I have yet to brave) with an after-dark twist, Kinetix music and acrobatics show on the Gwazi Park Stage, and the nightly fireworks finale. For a more “natural” adventure, you might want to get in on The Florida Aquarium’s Summer Fun Nights program. The mermaids do what mermaids do in a spectacular show, or you can hop aboard the Wild Dolphin Cruise for a sunset cruise. Love Lowry Park Zoo, especially now that summer hours go til 8 pm. The June 29 Read the rest of this entry »

Goat cheese salad with Yukon gold potatoes from James at the Mill, AR

Goat cheese salad with Yukon gold potatoes from James at the Mill, AR. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The last things I expected from a weeklong trip to the Arkansas Ozarks were haute cuisine or elegant, preserved Victorian architecture in a city seemingly populated by a contrasting mix of retro hippies, spiritual wellness gurus and European fashionistas. Nor did I expect to be awed by the largest museum in the country dedicated to American art.

So, you’re probably wondering what I did expect. My husband and I were in AR for a family vacation. Usually when visiting those family members we stay in the Little Rock area. From those repeated trips, I can testify that none of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten would even be considered mediocre by Orlando standards. This time we were meeting family in the mountains, to lodge for four days in a cabin not far from the Buffalo River. To translate that into terms most of you will relate to, we were miles from the nearest cell phone service and a good half-hour drive to a grocery store.

The cabin was loaded with amenities like cookware (no dishwasher), flat screen  (DVD’s,no TV), comfy bedding, plush towels and the requisite dead animal skins and carcasses lining the two-story dark wood walls. The weather was chillier and grayer than hoped for, but not as bad as predicted. (Do weathermen ever get it right?) We soaked in the hot tub, charred s’mores over the outside fire pit, hiked to waterfalls over rocky terrains and steep slick steps, read, played games, and spent quality time with one another.

All that was terrific, but what I want to share is the Arkansas I didn’t know was there.

My husband is a primo travel guide and arrangements-maker. He studiously researches roadways, attractions, weather patterns Read the rest of this entry »

WORLDLY ADVENTURES

luxury tented suites at Mahali Mzuri, which opens in August

luxury tented suites at Mahali Mzuri, which opens in August

You’ll need more than driving gloves, a good sense of direction, or a love for speed to compete in the annual off-road race held in the Kenyan bush or the world’s most challenging wheelbarrow race, held at Hell’s Gate National Park, Naivasha. The 25-year-old Rhino Charge, an off-road motorsport competition sponsored by The Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, has been raising money for conversation of Kenya’s Aberdare Ecosystem since 1989. The event is June 1.  http://www.rhinocharge.co.ke/ The wheelbarrow race, June 7-8, raises funds for a new Kenya Wildlife Service Education Center. http://www.kws.org/info/events/2013/Details/26mayhellgate2013.html

If you haven’t visited Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, CA in the past couple of years for top-notch winter sports, this may be the year to make it a planned vacation. The resort area is investing nearly $8 million in improvements this winter and next. The investment totals more than $46 million in year three of the resorts’ five-year, $70 million renaissance. Money is being poured into new snow cats for smoother, carve-able slopes, a new Wanderlust yoga studio, Spruce, a new home furnishings store, and comprehensive room renovations at The Village at Squaw Valley, as well as new on-mountain and valley signage for increased way-finding and accessibility. In the past two years, the base village was renovated with restaurants, bars and firepits. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Read the rest of this entry »

Musicians played. Actors orated. The audience listens. Shakespeare Lives!

Musicians played. Actors orated. The audience listens. Shakespeare Lives!

When I was met at the door by a woman wearing a bedazzled plum Renaissance dress and circlet headpiece and the gym I was stepping into resembled market day in King Henry the VIII’s Court, I knew my expectations of Winter Park High School’s 9th Grade Center’s annual Shakespeare Festival had already been exceeded. What magic is this at a public school that so captures students’ imagination by thrusting them headlong into an immersive celebration of Shakespeare and the times in which he lived and created?

Weaving is a time-honored craft

Weaving is a time-honored craft

What better way to end the school year than by following up the required study of Romeo and Juliet than by having students attired in Elizabethan period costuming listening attentively to others who had to audition for the chance to orate prettily in sonorous tones?  What matter of mayhem hath the English department wrought that for 25 years, the annual Shakespeare Festival now crowds a gym with pennant-and-cloth draped booths in rich colors, artisans weaving on a loom or molding clay into a pot? There’s henna, caricaturists, calligraphers, and of course, majestic King Henry VII (Orlando actor Michael Marzella) robed in puffed cloak and furred crown presiding over the day’s events.

Natasha, The Psychic Lady reveals the mysteries in palms

Natasha, The Psychic Lady reveals the mysteries in palms

The band plays, someone gets locked up in the stockade, and pirate hatted men bow as they pass. There are fairies and queens, hand-servants dressing the tables laden with donated food.

The day begins in the wee hours of morn, but the organization begins anew for the next year. Each year the festival has grown in its offerings, thanks to the voluminous hours and money donated by students and parents. The Orlando Shakespeare Theater lends costumes. Teachers and administrative staff are costumed. Students are required to dress up and a collection of donated costumes are available for those in need. Each designated English class hour, that class attends the festival. They drink in the words and music of Shakespeare’s days. They revel in the pomp of the festivities.

I was hired as Natasha, The Psychic Lady to amuse, entertain and awe with my readings. Instead, I was the one who was entertained and awed by this splendid array of trappings and high spirits. My own booth bore signs hand-crafted by students. My gratitude goes to English teachers Sondra Dunlap and Stacy Julian, co-organizers of the event, for hiring me.

a student created my sign

a student created my sign

King Henry VIII says, "Huzzah"

King Henry VIII says, “Huzzah”

With so much negativity surrounding schools and the people we entrust with our most precious asset—our children, I couldn’t have been more inspired to witness the powerful impact of dedication, imagination, and community action that is still possible. I wish all the naysayers and budget-cutters could see first-hand what a difference the arts and engaging our young people’s minds can render.

Spinning a pot

Spinning a pot

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; http://www.ThePsychicLady.com

NEWS UPDATE FROM Orlando that has me so excited I just had to share immediately. Rumors have been flying as steadily as quiddich broomsticks that an expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter would occur inside the Universal Studios Florida theme park. Now it’s official. Universal Orlando Resort and Warner Bros. Entertainment are building Diagon Alley, set to open in 2014. It will earmark the world’s first centrally themed, multi-park experience. If you’re a fan of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series (as I am) and have been to the park (love, love, love it!), then you know the extreme detail and immersive authenticity that has been created. Diagon Alley will be no different. And just like in the movies and books, guests will be able to travel between ‘London’ and Hogsmeade aboard the Hogwarts Express. Now where did I put my cloak and wand?

The magic of Diagon Alley appears at Universal Orlando Florida theme park in 2014.

The magic of Diagon Alley appears at Universal Orlando Florida theme park in 2014.

Summer’s coming to North America and Europe and with its imminent arrival comes the soft season discounts. I’m all for saving some of my stash on the upfront hotel costs so that I feel free to splurge on activities I may not find elsewhere. I’ve heard about some incredible deals, such as book two nights and get one free or book 5 nights and get two nights extra. At least 29 European countries are offering these savings. Here are just a few of the choices I found enticing.25Hours Hotel at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna, Austria: 219 rooms & suites. Located in the 7th District, a progressive artsy area, the décor embodies a fantastical world of circus, spectacle and extravagance, with just a touch of madness. Hang out in the rooftop lounge or dine in the terraced restaurant that faces Wedhuberpark. There are meeting and convention facilities.

Hospes Palacio de los Patos in Granada, Spain: 32 double rooms, 10 suites including one Presidential Suite. The interfusion of Arabic influence and native Iberian tradition are apparent. Situated almost adjacent to the Puerta Real, Hospes Palacio de los Patos is an urban oasis housed in a reconstructed 19th-Century town palace. Designers retained the architectural beauty of original elements such as the grand staircase.

Hotel Unique in São Paulo, Brazil stands out from the rest of the city
Hotel Unique in São Paulo, Brazil stands out from the rest of the city

Hotel Unique in São Paulo, Brazil stands out from the rest of the city

Hotel Unique in São Paulo, Brazil: 85 rooms & 10 suites. Unique’s green copper façade alone makes this hotel stand out even in the upscale residential area of Jardins. Just meters from Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo’s largest green area, the building is dark glass and a desert garden of mini, sand-toned cubes of rock, palms and agaves. The lobby is illuminated with beige marble walls embellished by dramatic geometric themes in the décor, sleek white furnishings and transparent glass tables and fittings. City views from the rooftop terrace fascinate, but ooooh… that crimson red swimming pool is an eye-popper. http://www.designhotels.com/summerspecials

Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, the largest full-service beach-front resort on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, is offering a VIP Passport Package for meeting planners organizing conferences, conventions or tradeshows. Bookings must be actualized August 1 through February 28, 2014. Room nights booked determines bonuses but check out some of the incentives.

* Three (3) percent rebate to the master account for guest rooms posted to the master account; Read the rest of this entry »

Karen Kuzsel

Karen Kuzsel

The prognosis that one small area of my hip had crossed the border into osteoporosis has landed me in the sticker shock hell of questionable medicine and its cost. What price are you willing to pay for your health when it’s not a matter of life and death?I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so my recent experiences have made me question whether I am being treated this way because I have “women issues” or are these concerns generated from society’s reluctance to adhere to anything other than conventional Western medicine Read the rest of this entry »

Hearst Castle pool looks down the valley to the ocean.

Hearst Castle pool looks down the valley to the ocean.

Today is one of those sticky humid days for which Florida is famous… or is that infamous? I’ve recently returned from a glorious vacation to the Central Coast region of California, where we imbibed in the riches of cuisine, wine and destinations for which that area is known. It was our first for many experiences in the Central Coast area as we usually roam the grape-vined hills of Sonoma and Napa. As I wanted to be in the moment, I chose to play tourist and not overburden myself with notebooks and scratched hasty words of reporter prose.

Nonetheless, when I do write about the experiences from a fond after-glow, you will hear about the Starlight Coastal train ride from Oakland to Santa Barbara (don’t wait… do it! Ask me about the roomette advantages), Cielito Restaurant in Santa Barbara and Novo Restaurant in San Luis Obispo, Hearst Castle, Sextant and Cypher Wineries (the latter was so amazing we actually became club members), and The Read the rest of this entry »

House Hotel Galatasaray is a 19th-century boutique hotel in Instanbul

House Hotel Galatasaray is a 19th-century boutique hotel in Instanbul

When I was a child, my family travelled on a pretty regular basis. We moved on a fairly regular basis from one end of the country to the other, or from one country to another, depending on the whims of the Air Force, to which my dad belonged. I knew even then that our worldly adventures, geographical awareness, and exposure to many cultures was something to be relished like a fine wine paired with the right piece of cheese. My love for travel continues today, even when I find the vagaries of airline restrictions often inconvenient. I feel blessed to share travel opportunities with you. May you find the opportunity to pack your bags for an exciting learning and fun experience in the near future.

HOTELS & RESORTS

If you left your heart in San Francisco and are yearning to go back for it, the San Francisco Marriott Marquis would like to check out their $90 million redo of the lobby, meeting space, fitness center, Bin 55 Restaurant and Wine Bar, Mission Grill, Starbucks Cafe, second floor atrium, and all 1,499 rooms and suites. The 39-story Marquis lies next to the Moscone Convention Center and just steps away from Yerba Buena Gardens, renowned museums and cultural attractions, world-class shopping in Union Square, and AT&T Park — home of the San Francisco Giants. 415-896-1600 or www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/sfodt-san-francisco-marriott-marquis

If I can’t get to San Francisco (one of my favorite cities), then will someone please book me passage to Istanbul so I can stay at The House Hotel Galatasaray. This place looks stunning. Tucked away among the antique stores of Read the rest of this entry »

Perfect parties are held at Tejas' private deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean

Perfect parties are held at Tejas’ private deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean. photo by Karen Kuzsel

When the invitation to attend a press trip for Panama arrived, I immediately thought how cute I’d look in one of those darling Panama hats and that I’d finally get to see the famed Panama Canal that was the highlight of one of my parent’s many cruises. Not until after I arrived on COPA Airlines into Panama (a three-hour direct flight from Orlando) did I discover that those Fedora hats worn famously by Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper, were actually Ecuadorian Read the rest of this entry »

The Thief... an upscale hotel in Oslo, Norway

The Thief… an upscale hotel in Oslo, Norway

No disrespect to Vicksburg, MS but I was more than surprised to learn it was named as one of the top 13 places to visit in 2013 by “AAA Southern Traveler” and “AAA Midwest Traveler.” Some of the other cities named were expected, such as Orlando (bring on the tourists, please), Ireland, San Francisco (always a favorite) and Las Vegas. Panama made the list. I just returned from a glorious press trip to Panama, so I can understand why this city is so intriguing. On that trip, we stayed at Trump Ocean Club (stunning architectural beauty surrounded by the Pacific Ocean) and visited hot spots like the Panama Canal (undergoing an impactful expansion) and the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum, which is so colourfully exquisite in both the architectural conception and what will be contained within, that I am sure when it opens later this year (keep your fingers crossed) the world will be beating a path to its door. More on Panama later… after I write my story for “Prevue Magazine.” Other destinations named in the top 13 to visit are Christchurch, New Zealand, Read the rest of this entry »

hollywood the band coverThere’s a relic of an ironic joke that if you can remember the 60’s, you weren’t really there. The drugs were psychedelic and mind-expanding, the clothes worn as a defiant costume of flowers, paisleys and neon colors, and the arrogance of youth permeated the atmosphere like a clashing haze of ideas and ideals that rose upward and outward from a center core of music that can still be heard on any classic oldies station. The same could be said for the early 70s. Bands that etched their genius onto the landscape like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Seger, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfinkle, The Buffalo Springfield, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Santana, and Rare Earth were just some of the names that regularly vied for #1 on music play lists.

On none of those lists would you have found the band, Hollywood, a ragtag group of wanna-be rock ‘n roll stars who fought through their drug-induced sex haze long enough to let their creative musicality and stumbling managers guide them to their dream. You wouldn’t have found Hollywood listed because author Steven Jordan Brooks hadn’t yet imagined them on paper. But the band lives as surely as any fictional character representing a time, a place, and an era. “Hollywood The Band, A Tale of Sex, Drugs, And Rock And Roll” is a story of that band’s journey to secure a record deal. To get there, they had to survive the issues of the day: politics, music maneuverings, unlimited designer drugs, unbridled sex, homosexual awareness, the Viet Nam war, and racial tensions.

Brooks is a classically trained musician who transitioned from rock ‘n roll performer to management and production. Those years before he eventually morphed into an English and drama teacher became the research of his saga. He uses Hollywood, The Band, as the catalyst for telling a story of the 70’s, name dropping real bands and real-life situations into the fictional mix. While the story rings true and is likely a composite of characters Brooks lived and partied with, Read the rest of this entry »

Read the rest of this entry »

You can see forever from Scrub Island

You can see forever from Scrub Island

The beginning of January is a lot like Spring cleaning. There’s a forced necessity to let go of the old to make room for the new. In the hospitality, meetings & events industries, January rushes at you like an Amtrak disgorged from the tracks. While you’re still purging old emails, there’s a plethora of conferences, association meetings you meant to attend last year and never found time for but this year is going to be different, and a reassessment of how to bring in more business in 2013. So, here’s my belated gift to you: some destinations you may want to travel to, hotels to book, and promotional offers that are enticing, whether you are a planner looking to bring your group or an individual seeking new experiences.It’s no surprise that millions of people around the world either travel to NY’s Times Square or watch on television the New Year’s Eve countdown to midnight. That iconic ball drop may be why New York City ranks number 1 as Americans’ most romantic holiday destination in December, at least according to a survey of 8,000 readers of destination-dating site, MissTravel.com. See if you are as surprised Read the rest of this entry »

car track5_GMH_0521Here are my holiday wishes for you—at least, those I can immediately come up with. Don’t feel guilty when you can’t find time for friends and partying because you’re crazy busy with work that pays the bills. I’ve been fretting, feeling as if I’m disappointing all you wonderful folks who have filled my inbox with newsy items. My intent has been to get this written, but the truth is, I have been slammed with an incredible amount of work that had to be my priority. Of course, now it’s near to the end of December and I am torn between family obligations, gift buying, limited party going, and fulfilling my obligations to everyone I’ve been ignoring these past two months.

#2. Enjoy what you have with those you care about. My husband is one of the aforementioned people who thinks I haven’t devoted enough waking hours to his care and pampering, but who is simultaneously thrilled that I am getting the work. My perspective is that that the corporate life has settled into post-election let’s-get-back-to-business attitudes and money is loosening and it is imperative and wise to take advantage of every moment. Read the rest of this entry »

Whimsey meshes with preserved history at QT Sidney in Australia

            If you had an unlimited budget, an adventurous spirit, and the time needed to just explore different parts of the world, would you pick somewhere you’ve never travelled to, or somewhere more comforting in its familiarity? If the former, have I got some thrilling news to share with you.Mention Australia and automatically you might mentally think “Outback.” True enough, but Australia is also rich in culture, history, arts, and fashion. The 200-room QT Sidney capitalizes on history, the arts and cultural by preserving two of Sidney’s most iconic buildings set in the heart of the central business district and then doing a head-to-toe makeover to attract jetsetters. Set within the historic Gowings department store and heritage-listed State Theatre, the QT Sidney honors its past by carefully restoring the original stone cladding, gargoyles, façade detail, and original timber floors on its lower levels. The hotel is in close proximity to Darling Harbour, a tourist and nightlife area, The Rocks, Australia’s finest restored historical district, Circular Quay as well as Chinatown.

Tired of crowds and want something more from your vacation than shopping trips and fighting through mobs of tourists? Then Fabriken Furillen, a lime factory and eco-friendly design masterpiece created by photographer Johan Hellström, may be the destination to remember. Set into the northeastern corner of the Swedish island of Gotland, Furillen was a military area until the early 1990s. Tourists aren’t commonly drawn to its craggy limestone formations, deserted beaches, or sea birds nesting among the ruins of an old gravel quarry. A high-speed ferry or plane from the Swedish mainland drops you off in the medieval city of Visby, Read the rest of this entry »

 

Pui Chan, the documentary, won Best Documentary and Audience Favorite

Ron Howard and his Oscar nominated daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, were at the Central Florida Film Festival (CENFLO) over Labor Day Weekend. OK, so maybe they weren’t physically there, but the movie he executive produced and she directed, When You Find Me, was not only there, but later won for Best Short Film.

Over the course of the Friday-Sunday festival, more than 80 features, shorts and documentaries from 14 states and eight foreign countries were shown to more than 2,000 film fans and movie industry folks. Held each Labor Day weekend for the past eight years, this was the third time it was sponsored by the City of Ocoee’s Community Redevelopment Agency (administered by my husband, Russ Wagner) and held at the newly-expanded West Orange Cinemas (WOC) in Ocoee.

MovieMaker Magazine recently named CENFLO in the “Top 25 Film Festivals worth Read the rest of this entry »

        

roasted beets surround the Duck Confit Salad. photo by Karen Kuzsel

  Some people eat to live. I live to eat. OK, so maybe I should qualify that a tad. I vigorously exercise on a fairly consistent basis so that I can eat what I want, (and almost) when I want. When travelling, I studiously ponder restaurant menus, ogling descriptions of mouth-watering dishes combined in an inventive manner that utilize that region’s flavors and locally-produced ingredients. Food fascinates me. I want to taste, touch, smell, and ingest ethnic flavors and chef-crafted creations.

            You only have to watch the Food Network for a day, or peruse the limitless selections of cookbooks pandering to diverse diets to know food has become so much more than a simple meal prepared quickly. A hamburger doesn’t raise eyebrows unless it’s been stuffed with artisan cheeses, farm-fresh bacon, shredded glazed meats, exotic mushrooms, caramelized onions, or sauces. Even with a suffering economy, a fine dining experience (and whatever that means to your personal palette) is still a beacon that draws one through a restaurant’s doors.

            I am not alone in wanting to awe my taste buds. Convention & Visitor Bureaus and city governments have discovered that defining dining districts attracts arts, entertainment and shopping businesses, which then creates a community persona that’s easy to market.   

            Fort Worth has the West 7th Street Corridor, formerly a light industrial space converted into hip eateries and bars that becomes a raucous block party for private groups. Uptown Charlotte (NC) is actually their downtown, Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t ski, but I have been to Squaw Valley many times during my life. The last time was a few years ago as my husband and I were travelling from the Sunnyside Lodge on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. We were pre-snow season, so Squaw Valley was a stop to see what the area looked like post-1960 Winter Olympics and what fun we would miss during the upcoming winter. It was also a nostalgic moment. My family lived in Reno, NV at the former Stead AFB. During our sightseeing travels, we often stopped at Squaw Valley. To this day I think of it as the place where we were in shorts and sandals and walking through snowy areas under a warm, shiny sky.

The Squaw Valley I remember just got a $24 million facelift that “those who ski” or “those who lodge” will appreciate. Since last year’s investment of $15 in base area and on-mountain improvements, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have added another $24 million in improvements, including a new high-speed, six-passenger chairlift subtly titled Big Blue Express, improved High Camp beginner experience at Squaw Valley, and a mile-long terrain park at Alpine Meadows.

“We are very excited about the significant investment devoted to capital improvements for the upcoming season,” said Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. “Snowmaking improvements, in particular, for this season and in the future, Read the rest of this entry »

Individual Vegetable Pizzetta from Golden Door (Spa)–a savory snack to put a smile even on a meat-lover’s face!

If money and time were as plentiful as the weeds trying to overtake my yard, I’d take cooking classes around the world from culinary master chefs –particularly if they share delectable but low-calorie recipes, and I’d wallow in spa service treatments bent on improving my emotional spirit while unknotting muscles cramped tighter than a woman wearing high heels during a day-long shopping binge across tiled floors.

With the impending escalation of activity that scurries in with Fall, time seems to becomes as stretched thin as a resistance tube just before it snaps harshly apart. Menu selection and preparation becomes as painstakingly deliberate as planning battlefield strategy: how many people, what’s the occasion (school lunches, executive dinner, client meal, tail gating party, or holiday banquet), the budget, the environment, and for goodness sakes, how many different dietary selections should be offered?

Don’t panic. Even if you’re not a gourmet cook, don’t have the budget Read the rest of this entry »

PART 2: where to stay

In the first of this three-part series on Napa City, in the heart of the famed Napa Valley, I told you what to see and do in this city of 75,000. In Part 2, the focus is on lodging, from intimate B&B’s to grand resorts.

The history of Napa Valley and Napa River plays out in a meandering river of Italian mosaic tile leading to this fountain and the Napa River Inn. photo by Karen Kuzsel

 An intricately-woven mosaic-tiled river meanders lazily across the outside courtyard of the Napa River Inn, telling the history of Napa as it routes to a steep climb up and across a bubbling fountain, designed and constructed by Napa artist Alan Shepp. The Italian glass-tiled mosaic led from the Napa General Store (originally a mill)– where my party had just eaten a hearty breakfast in the middle of the store, and across the courtyard, where we were headed outside to gaze at the Napa River. My first thought was what a charming place to hold a reception. In fact, the Napa River Inn frequently uses the exquisite courtyard for receptions up to 250 people. My personal preference when travelling is to stay at B&B’s, particularly those with quaint, historic charm, individually-decorated rooms, lavish custom breakfasts with hot-from-the-oven muffins and piping hot coffee, and other amenities that make me feel as if I’m partaking in an experience I couldn’t find elsewhere. While larger than a typical B&B, the pet-friendly 66-room Michelin-starred independently-owned boutique hotel (the only one in Napa) qualifies for stardom on so many other levels. The re-imagined 1884 Hatt Building now houses three separate buildings, individually decorated and themed. I lost my heart in the Victorian-era decorated building with its beaded lamps, laced curtains, and dark wood furniture. Although small corporate groups and wedding parties succumb to the beauty of the Hatt Hall as an event space, with its 14’ high ceiling of original pressed tin Read the rest of this entry »

Of course I’m happy. I won the Build-a-Blend blind taste contest. photo by Agatha Gilmore

PART ONE – WHAT TO SEE & DO

When the invitation came for a press trip to Napa City, I was sure the PR agency must have mucked up the destination.  I’m not exactly a newbie to California’s renowned Sonoma and Napa Valley wine regions. Have sipped enough wine in tasting rooms to numb my palette and blur where I was when. I distinctly remember driving on Hwy 29 or the Silverado Trail on my way to this or that winery or to return to San Francisco and passing through a non-descript town, but what on earth were we going to find inspiring enough to do for days in that forgettable burg?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the year since my last visit, Napa City has undergone a transformation into Read the rest of this entry »

 

If you like what you read enough to visit or take advantage of any of the promos, please let them know where you read about the offers and information.

CARTHAY CIRCLE at the Disney California Adventure park os an exciting new event venue. It’s modeled after the site of the 1937 world premiere of €œSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort)

 We don’t usually discuss software and apps, but this one is so specific to the events & meetings industries, we thought it should be mentioned. VenuesOnline, in partnership with imbookin.com, now has a simplified tool for searching more than 10,000 event venues. Planners and marketers can sign up at VenuesOnline.com to search and book events. Venue managers can sign up to sell their spaces. Searches on VenuesOnline can be filtered by date, budget, guest count, location, privacy, amenities, age group, and keywords. There are map-based searches, videos, user profiles and reviews. Check it out at VenuesOnline.com or contact Lee Elman at lelman@red7media.com.

I’m a Disney-phile and proud to admit it. From the many miles I’ve walked through Disney World resorts and parks, the endless numbers of chocolate-covered frozen bananas I’ve devoured, and the thousands of convention parties I’ve performed for (as Natasha, The Psychic Lady), I am continuously surprised by the creative possibilities that exist unbeknownst to me. For instance, I just learned that Disneyland Paris Read the rest of this entry »

Whereto take your group and what to do when you get there are intriguing possibilities challenging planners. Looking to add some sizzle to your summer happenings or freshen up your fall offerings?

Scallop scooping at The Plantation at Crystal River

Scallop scooping at The Plantation at Crystal River

 Fast Facts: Fleming’s is already one of Orlando’s premier steakhouses. Like a smooth creamy peppercorn sauce ladled on top of a charred filet, Fleming’s in the Sand Lake Road location adds sizzle to their steaks with a discount designed to encourage large family gatherings, corporate executive boards and rehearsal dinners. Book any event by June 15 for at least 15 guests and get a $50 dining card for every $500 spent on the event. Andrea Chang, Private Dining Director, 407-352-5706, PDSandLake@FlemingsSteakhouse.com

Read the rest of this entry »

 I’ve never been to Aruba, St. Martins, St. Thomas or Nevis (St. Kitts’ smaller, sister island), which are some of the area’s better-known vacation draws, so can’t tell you how St. Kitts compares. What I do know is that if you’re a history buff or botanist, a connoisseur of unusual foods (provided your point of reference are U.S. supermarkets and farmers markets), love sailing on a brisk catamaran at sunset under usually-clear skies, browsing among affordable quaint shops with batik attire and colorful coconut shell jewelry, dancing to calypso music at late night local clubs, or Read the rest of this entry »

Ducks swimming in a pond of blueberries

 “Add a pinch of this. A dash of that. Smell it. Taste it.” That’s how Mom taught me to cook the family’s dinners when I was 12. Baking lessons began earlier. I made my first totally-from-scratch apple pie when I was five. Standing elbow-to-elbow on my stool, clad in the frilly apron my aunt had hand-stitched (and which I still occasionally wear), I replicated her every step in my own tart tin. We worked the dough to the right elastic consistency, rolled it out, and filled our pie pans with sliced apples moist from lemon, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. By 12 my mother returned to the daily workforce and I became responsible for the evening meal. I planned the menu around favorite dishes at which my mom excelled. Her phone call directions stipulated boiled, baked or roasted, at what temperature and for roughly how long.  The pinches and dashes were up to me.

None of the passion, curiosity or creativity learned from my family of former restaurateurs prepared me for the business side of being Read the rest of this entry »

 This story was published in the December-January 2012 issue of Facility Manager magazine, an official publication of The International Association of Venue Managers, Inc.  It is reprinted with permission from Editor RV Baugus.

Face it. When it comes to using social media to get traffic through your doors, the concern now is how to use it more effectively than should you be using it at all. In a world where software changes more quickly than a teenager’s moods, the successful arena manager begins by pondering  these questions.

Which social media platforms work best for my audience?

  1. How do I build brand trust and loyalty?
  2. What incentives should I offer to engage and hold their attention?
  3. What’s next?

Deciding which social media platforms work

If Facebook and Twitter aren’t your new best friends, they should be.  “Facebook currently has 800 million active users, who in turn each have about 130 friends they actively share information with on a daily basis,” says Ryan Sheehy, Advertising & PR instructor for the Nicholson School of Communication for the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

What does that mean to you?

“Facebook allows you to directly connect with folks invested in your product.  Research shows that those connected to Facebook are more likely to purchase your product,” she noted during a session on Building A Social Media Strategy for Every Type of Facility at the 22nd annual Area Management Conference in Orlando.

For the 18,000-capacity Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, social media has been a gift for reaching an audience beyond their regional area. Social media collects personal information from users that “allowing us to customize what we’re sending,” says General Manager Michael Marion. “Email is being replaced by social media sites as the preferred Read the rest of this entry »

I love when certain words slide off my tongue as easily as dipping aforementioned tongue into a delectable Carvel soft chocolate ice cream cone on a hot summer day. Take synergistic, for example, a word that has been rolling around in my head for the past hour, just begging to be released. Synergy to me is when at least two diverse entities converge and the result is more powerful and wonderful than either part individually. Today my past and my present and my future all collided. When I was very young, I had a favorite uncle who was both a widely-respected newspaper editor and a prodigious national book reviewer. When I’d go to visit him, the walls were literally lined with books he’d reviewed. With each visit, he’d stimulate my thirst for knowledge with gifts of these treasures and encourage me to write about what I knew, what I saw, and what I wanted to be in this world. Never did I dream that one day I’d be on publicists’ lists to review their authors’ efforts, Read the rest of this entry »

Cobra Kai sushi roll

 “If you’re expecting Dragonfly to be a traditional sushi restaurant, then you need to think again,” utters my friend Julienne, a once-a-week sushi-holic with whom I recently dined at the year-old hot Orlando spot. “Sushi restaurants usually focus on the food, not on the décor. This place has the ambiance you’d expect in a San Francisco restaurant, with mood lighting and modern high-style. The music is contemporary and low enough you can have a conversation. The long couch in the lounge bar area invites mingling. This place is visually stunning. Perfect for date night or with all the indoor and outdoor private space, great for groups wanting to meet in a fashionable, comfortable setting.” 

 Dragonfly does indeed have ambiance. The restaurant is designed with three key elements in mind: sensual, spiritual and savory. Sensory is easy. There are those deep red spots of color on pillows, seat backs or drop down curtains that shield private spaces for group dining and the contrasting smoothness of river rock crusted cabinets and scalloped baseboards.  Cork flooring pads against clicking heels. Latticed wood screens contribute to the gentle flow of the restaurant. A European walnut tree previously cut down was creatively reimagined into an expansive sushi bar counter. “We believe in sustainability, both in our décor and in our food,” notes Dave Talpasz, GM for Dragonfly. Even the restrooms havea zen spa quality, with stall walls of hand-painted gold swirls and stone basins.

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It’s like squeezing into a too-tight dress when it’s the only one that will work for the event you’re headed to tonight. There’s just too much to cram into one small space and too little time to do anything more about it. That’s how I think of all the information I’m privy to about hotel and destinations promotions, event announcements, software that sweetens success, and people of distinction in the hospitality/meetings & events/entertainment industries. I know you’d like to know what I know, but the collection of knowledge doesn’t fit into the formats of publications and organizations for whom I already write.

Here’s where you come in.

I will give a $25 check to the person who comes up with a title for a new blog I feel compelled to create. Whoever dishes up the best Read the rest of this entry »

 

Mahi Mahi Picatta

                I was willing to celebrate my anniversary night celebration on the wrong night just so I could indulge in Big Fin Seafood Kitchen’s Monday night $13.95 special for a one-and-a-half lb steamed Whole Maine Lobster. I even fantasized about eating two of them by myself just to mark the occasion as extra special. My husband had a better idea as it turned out. Celebrate on the correct night, but begin the feast of food during Big Fin’s daily happy hour, from 5-7 pm. Big Fin is located in the Dr Phillips area at the Dellagio Town Center. Whether you dine in at the Trophy Bar or outside at the Bar-A-Cuda Patio and Bar, cocktails and appetizers were a pocket-pleasing $5 each.

                As the weather was muggy that night and we dressed up, we chose to sit inside at the Trophy Bar, a casually-friendly eclectic mix of décor. Rich dark woods frame contemporary light fixtures that render a subdued glow.  A large blackboard states the night’s fresh offerings. An eye-popping checkered black & white floor design runs into the white marble bar counter and the column bases separating the bar area from the main dining room. I like the whimsy of Big Fin. The food is seriously good, but the décor has a relaxed feel Read the rest of this entry »

               My Mom used to say that if she cut her finger while cooking, the dish would turn out sensational. I feel that same parallel with movies. If one cuts into me emotionally—whether the result is to laugh, sit on the edge of my seat, or cry—then I know it was sensational. I don’t care if it wins awards or wins over critics. Did it win over my heart? 

                There were a lot of films at the sixth annual Central Florida Film Festival, or as those in the know refer to it—CenFlo, that were five tissues worth of sensational. Some of them did become audience or critics favorites, but by the time the four-day September festival wrapped, they’d left an imprint I have yet to erase.

                There were six that stood out to me like a bright beacon on a starless night, casting a soft halo that radiated in spreading directions. Five of the six had me dabbing at my eyes, Read the rest of this entry »

             Wine is like fine art. Can’t explain why I like it. Just do, or don’t. I studiously strive to understand the complexities, savor the nose, taste the underlying notes, or chew each velvety drop to assay whether it is fruit forward. I know what I like, which usually tends to be bold, brassy reds like cabs, merlots, zins and syrahs from California or Australia. My palette was recently tested during a tasting tour through Oregon, Napa and Sonoma Valley wineries.

Through these handcarved doors lies Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards' wine cave. Photo by Russ Wagner

            Every couple years, my husband Russ and I visit my daughter, Gabrielle, and her husband, Steve, in the San Francisco area. As they are the ones who ultimately converted us to bolder wines, we inevitably make tasting treks to Sonoma County wineries they frequent. Occasionally Russ and I plan routes to wine regions with which we want to become much better acquainted. This trip we revisited some favorites, checked out some Napa Valley area wineries recommended highly by our friends, Julienne and Ross, and discovered gems in Oregon’s central coast. You already know I’m a foodie, so no surprise that our road trip likewise involved uncovering mouthwatering culinary delights.

            Grab a snack. Sip some wine. Read the rest of this entry »

Fire performers Lucent Dossier Experience. Photo by Russ Wagner

            The Crucible was on fire! OK, maybe not literally, but the erupting jets from flame cannons shooting across the cavernous Oakland arts complex were thunderously spellbinding. Then Steven Young stepped onstage wearing a top hat tricked out with feathers, tuxedo tails, and a cloth-fringed spangled neck scarf in fiery reds and oranges to introduce the evening’s entertainment, Lucent Dossier Experience’s presentation of Inferno: A Fire Circus. I knew I wasn’t in Orlando anymore.

            Face it. As much as Central Florida is known for diverse high-quality entertainment (and I definitely include my alter-ego as Natasha, The Psychic Lady among that elite group), the rules are just different in Oakland, CA. Sure, we have theme parks, corporate parties and charity events that fundraise by showcasing art and entertainment, but I can now tell you unequivocally that we don’t have a 56,000-sf non-profit industrial arts educational facility that biannually presents fire ballets, fire operas, and this year’s fire circus, a 3-night event demonstrating The Crucible’s fire arts (welding, glass blowing, glass slumping etc) classes and instructors and a red-hot show that defies prediction. Read the rest of this entry »

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