Hotel boom spreads across Eastern Europe

From refurbished palaces in Budapest and Bucharest to gems on the Baltic coast, hoteliers who are seeking higher returns in Eastern Europe are venturing outside the region’s saturated hubs.

With yields in Prague and the business districts of Warsaw dropping close to levels in Germany’s largest cities, it’s the capitals of Romania, Hungary and Serbia — as well as large secondary cities in Poland — that are increasingly attracting developers and investors, hotel executives said.

“Bucharest is what Warsaw was 10-15 years ago,” Adam Konieczny, development director for Europe at Paris-based Louvre Hotels Group, said at a recent hotel-industry conference in Budapest.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was among the sellers of a portfolio of 10 hotels, including four-stars in Budapest and Prague, to Indian conglomerate InterGlobe last year. There were 4.2 billion euros ($4.6 billion) in hotel deals in the region’s six main markets in the past five years, a third of it in 2019, according to CMS and Cushman & Wakefield.

Cranes dot the skyline in the Romanian capital, with projects including two Ibis hotels by Warsaw-listed Orbis SA. Apex Alliance, a Lithuania-based independent operator, recently completed a four-star Marriott in Bucharest and it has been turning an iconic bank building in the city’s Old Town into a five-star asset.

Courtyard Bucharest Floreasca opened as a 4-star hotel in the financial area of Bucharest in late 2019. The new Courtyard Bucharest Floreasca attracts leisure and business travelers for meetings and events (photo Marriott Hotels & Resorts) .

Major Polish cities outside of Warsaw are also booming. Over the next three years, nine hotels with a total of 1,900 rooms are scheduled to open in the Tricity area that includes Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot on the Baltic Sea, increasing the local stock by 30%.

Polish cities
Bialystok, a university town in eastern Poland, is meanwhile a favored location for Warimpex, another major developer, because it has more fresh workforce available than Warsaw, CEO Franz Jurkowitsch said.

Krakow, Poland’s second-biggest city, has for long been a popular tourist destination though a surge in business centers there and across the region has also boosted demand for hotels.

“Poland and Romania are key because these are the two countries in Eastern Europe which have strong domestic markets,” said Gilles Clavie, chief executive officer of Orbis, which develops hotels in the region under Accor SA’s brands such as Sofitel.

“Economic growth over the coming years is expected to stay bullish in the region; if not for any serious geopolitical issues, I can’t see investment activity slowing down,“ he said.

New mixed-use office and residential projects by Romanian real estate developer Iulius pioneered this close-to-nature approach in its projects in Timisoara, Iasi and Cluj-Napoca, cities which have seen increases in business travel and additional hotel development projects (photo Iulius)

There is ample room to boost the presence of international brands. The share of hotel chains is just 15% of the total in Hungary, 14% in Poland and 6% in Serbia, compared with more than 20% in many western European countries, advisory firm Horwath HTL said in a 2019 report.

Al Habtoor, W Budapest
Al Habtoor Group on Wednesday announced it would set up a regional office in Budapest to service its existing European operations, which include The Ritz-Carlton and InterContinental in the Hungarian capital in addition to hotels in London and Vienna.

“The less-explored markets in Europe are now gaining momentum, offering a competitive edge, an attractive investment climate and higher yield possibilities for foreign players,” Al Habtoor said in a statement on its website.

Budapest has about 3,000 new rooms scheduled for completion by the end of 2021. The Hyatt Regency will occupy a former post office building dating to the 1870s and W Budapest by Marriott will open in a palace that used to house Hungary’s state ballet school.

Budapest Drechsler Palace will be converted into a 162-room W Hotel by Marriott photo Marriott Hotels & Resorts

Last month, French real estate investment trust Covivio bought the iconic five-star New York Palace hotel in Budapest, part of a $685 million acquisition blitz of eight emblematic hotels across Europe, including the Carlo IV in Prague.

The group in November also purchased three hotels in Lodz, Warsaw and Krakow in Poland from B&B Hotels. Apex Alliance meanwhile is looking to buy in the Hungarian capital.

“There are three or four opportunities for us in Budapest, if I look at what we potentially have in the pipeline,” said Apex Alliance CEO Gerhard Erasmus.

Banner Photo: JW Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel has completed the renovation of the last four floors (220 rooms and 13 suites) after an investment of approximately EUR 4 million, as the hotel marks its 19th anniversary in Romania this fall. (photo Marriott Hotels & Resorts)

Bloomberg News

Review: Portland Harbor Hotel, Portland, Maine

by Ron Bernthal

* Banner Image – Two Lights State Park, Cape Elizbeth, Portland (photo Joanna Tricorache)

During the past decade Portland, Maine, has been going through something of a culinary boom. Travel + Leisure magazine has placed it on its list of the top 10 U.S cities for foodies, stating that “Portland has come into its own exciting cosmopolitan moment, developing an impressive collection of restaurants, bars, and breweries while remaining a historic icon of the Northeast.”

Eventide’s window on Portland’s Middle Street (photo Zach Bowen, Knack Factory)

Although lobster accounts for a big part of the city’s food culture, there is now so much more than that. The restaurant Central Provisions was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award in 2015; Bon Appetite also named Central Provisions to its list of the hottest restaurants in America in 2014. Other great restaurants include Eventide Oyster Company, with a wide selection of fresh, cold oysters on the half shell, tuna tartare with crispy rice cake, nori, and egg yolk, and lobster rolls on an Asian bun; Baharat, which recently opened a venue in Portland’s East End, offers Middle Eastern favorites like kofta, falafel and shawarma; Drifters Wife chef Ben Jackson offers a constantly changing menu that is built to pair with wine, and includes local lamb with cranberry beans and artichokes as well as fresh swordfish with marinated eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and basil.

Maine lobstermen brought more than 119 million pounds of the state’s signature seafood ashore last year, and with the Maine lobster catch valued at $484.5 million, the state is again the biggest lobster producer in the country. For the best lobster rolls in Portland I frequent all three outlets that go under the Portland-based corporate name Bite into Maine. The outlets include The Commissary, a small, 12-seat restaurant/take-out site located on U.S. Route 1 in nearby Scarborough, five miles west of downtown; Fort Williams Park is where the company operates its original and summer season food truck near Cape Elizabeth, five miles south; and Allagash Brewing Company (open May-December), on Industrial Drive out by Route 95, five miles north. All three venues have received top awards for their lobster rolls, including Food & Wine magazine’s “America’s Best Lobster Rolls” award. In addition to the lobster rolls, the chain’s thick New England clam chowder is the best I have tasted anywhere in New England.

Lobster traps on a Portland pier (photo Ron Bernthal)

Close to downtown Portland, in the city’s eclectic and beautiful Munjoy Hill Historic District, stop at the unpretentious Shop at Island Creek Oysters for expertly shucked oysters and a cold glass of lager from Portland-based Fore River Brewing Company. Sit indoors in the large, glass enclosed, ware-house style dining room, or outside on the family-friendly, picnic-tabled wood deck. Maine oysters are inexpensive and arrive on large trays of ice with lemon wedges, horseradish, cocktail sauce, and shallot mignonette. Caviar and Champaign are also available! The tinned fish, imported from Spain, includes silver sardines, octopus and squid, and served with slices of sourdough bread, spicy mustard, butter, chives, flaky salt, sauerkraut, pickles, onions, and saltines.

The Shop at Island Creek Oysters, Munjoy Hill Historic District, Portland (photo Ron Bernthal)

For accommodations and hotel dining go to the 101-room Portland Harbor Hotel, located in the Waterfront District within walking distance of downtown’s many boutique shops, art galleries, eateries, museums and Portland’s several wharfs where fishing, ferry and sightseeing boats make the harbor a vibrant and exciting place to visit year-round.

Portland Museum of Art (photo Ron Bernthal)

The hotel itself was built in 2002, and a new addition in 2008 added six rooms, a fitness center and retail space. In 2018 the hotel completed a new 17,000 square-foot annex, a five-story contemporary steel and glass structure, between the existing hotel and a historic brick building on the corner of Fore and Cross Streets.

Portland Harbor Hotel, lobby (photo courtesy Portland Harbor Hotel)

After the Four Diamond property underwent extensive renovations in 2017, the interior became more distinctive, with its navy, khaki, and white nautical décor, including custom made Thomas Moser furniture, hardwood floors, and individual pantries on each floor offering Starbucks touch-screen machines with complimentary coffee for guests. The light-filled lobby has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Fore Street. Original artwork from Maine artists hangs from the lobby walls, hallways and within guest rooms, and Geoff Herguth’s kinetic lobby sculpture in the grand stairway welcomes visitors with abstract elements of fish swimming with the flow of air. Angela Adams created handcrafted nautical flags that hang in frames above the hotel’s beds and spell out DREAM, Thomas Moser designed the chairs in the hotel’s pantry; and Jim Dugan’s monochromatic maritime photography graces public spaces throughout the hotel.

King front guest room at Portland Harbor Hotel (photo courtesy Portland Harbor Hotel)

The property’s signature dining venue, BlueFin, offers a varied menu of locally caught seafood and seasonal dishes. When the restaurant announced in 2019 that Gil Plaster will take the helm as the new Executive Chef, and introduced a fresh culinary perspective with a more refined menu items, it was bound to attract more locals and visitors to its cozy dining room, and reservations are definitely recommended for dinners, especially during the busy summer season. In keeping with it’s uniquely Portland point of view, menu choices here strongly highlight Maine’s bounty of fresh seafood and local ingredients.

“I’m thrilled that my career has brought me back to Maine to lead the team here at Bluefin,” said Chef Plaster. “There’s nothing better than locally caught seafood, and we are featuring Maine seafood exclusively on the new BlueFin menu, as well as some fun, new items such as BlueFin bowls, pork belly lollipops and house-made seafood ravioli. Our goal is to create a more refined menu that will appeal to both locals and tourists alike.”

Seared tuna at BlueFin (photo courtesy Portland Harbor Hotel)

My dinner at BlueFin included lobster salad and a nice halibut and roasted potatoes. My companion had the seared tuna with bok choy and soba noodles, with crème bruleé for dessert. There is an extensive wine list offering an impressive selection of refined classic dishes such as pistachio crusted rack of lamb with herbed fingerlings, halibut with mushroom ragout and seared scallops with parmesan risotto. The BlueFin dining room boasts a fireplace for winter evenings, and overlooks an outdoor courtyard for dining alfresco in the summer months, when the courtyard transforms into a lush garden oasis with an arbor of grapevines, crab apple trees and a decorative pool.

Portland Harbor Hotel
468 Fore St, Portland
ME 04104
Phone: 207-755-9090

Best New Hotels & Restaurants in Tel Aviv

By Ron Bernthal

Israel has 3,000 years of history, warm and sunny weather for most of the year, and a trendy culinary scene –  but never enough hotel rooms for its increasing number of business and leisure visitors (over four million in 2018).

That’s been good news for investors and hoteliers, who never tire of creating, renovating, restoring and constructing new accommodations for tourists to Israel.

New hotels, whether in the trendy city of Tel Aviv, the historical Jerusalem region or in the farr-flung regions of  the Negev and Galilee range from intimate boutique offerings to beach-side resorts. As interest in Israel expands from North American and Europe to Asia, there has been a push in recent years to cultivate a new era of high-end travel to Israel. Israel reported a record 4.4 million visitor arrivals in 2018, an increase of 13.6% over the previous year, according to the country’s Ministry of Tourism, and those visitors helped fuel a 3.9% increase in hotel occupancy, according to the bureau.

Below are some of the best new hotels and restaurants in Tel Aviv.

The Levee

The Levee, Apartment 1, ground floor (photo Sivan-Askayo)

Situated in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, The Levee offers eight, spacious and stylish apartments available for short-term rental, for travelers seeking space, comfort and a home-away-from-home experience when visiting the White City. Featuring an on-site concierge, turndown service and valet parking, The Levee offers many elements of a hotel but with the space and feel of a private home.

Originally built in 1913, the property, which is part of Tel Aviv’s UNESCO World Heritage Site underwent nine years of meticulous restoration before reopening in April 2019 as The Levee. The interior design couples the building’s loft-like interiors, untreated cement walls and high-windows and ceilings with European furnishings, warm wooden floors, design-savvy accessories and minimalist lighting schemes. Each apartment is finished with the highest level of amenities, top of the range kitchens and technological gadgets, en-suite bathrooms and Egyptian cotton linens, and furnished with luxury, European brands including Minotti, Molteni, Cassina, Moroso and Paola Lenti to name a few.

The Lighthouse

View of Tel Aviv beach from guest room at The Lighthouse ( Assaf Pinchuk)

The Lighthouse, which opened in October 2018, is located in the center of Tel Aviv, just a two minute walk from the beach. Occupying several floors of the Migdalor (“Lighthouse”) office tower, the hotel combines a savvy architectural attitude with a fresh and innovative design, creating a stylish, unconventional hotel experience.

Part of the Brown Hotels Collection, the 102-room hotel’s design was created and carried out through the collaborative vision of Leon Avigad and Argentinian-Israeli architect, Nestor Sandbank. The Lighthouse offers a stunning rooftop bar (see banner photo at top of article) on the 18th-floor with a 360 degree view of the city. It is one of only a few rooftop bars in Tel Aviv. The “Haiku SkyBar” offers top-shelf bottle service, a Japanese-style menu, panoramic views, and rotating DJs.

Dave Levinksy

Bedroom at Dave Levinsky hotel (photo Max Kovalsky)

Open since August 2019, Dave Levinksy is the latest hotel to open by Brown Hotels, an affordable, urban boutique hotel collection. Offering just 27 cozy, trendy rooms in a neighborhood just south of downtown Tel Aviv, the proopety is a few steps from Rothschild Boulevard and the bustling Levinsky Market. The property is a “playful” hotel with a sleek retro design by Alona Eliasi known for its minimal, clean lines with a pink, beige and oak color scheme.

All rooms are outfitte with sophisticated, tiled bathrooms with high-quality linens and bath robes, waterfall showers and toiletries by the Israeli brand, Maapilim.
Situated on the 5th floor, the rooftop is a space where guests can relax on sunbeds or take a dip in the jacuzzi, with a stocked bar and views of Tel Aviv. In addition, there are two popular cafes nearby where guests can enjoy the complimentary breakfasts, as well as the lively streetscape.

Opa Restaurant

Unassuming front facade at Opa restaurant (photo Yoav Gurin)

In a country considered a destination for food lovers, the new restaurant Opa offers amazing Israeli cuisine without a pita or falafel in sight. On a nondescript street in the vibrant and bustling Levinsky Spice Market, a plain, unassuming white facade marks the entrance to Opa, a 35-seat restaurant that combines the minimalist of European design with one of Israel’s most vibrant menues. Opened in 2018 Opa’s interior design is owed to the firm Craft & Bloom and the interior designer Vered Kadouri.

Clean and subtle interior design of Opa (photo Yoav Gurin)

Directing the kitchen at Opa is 28 year-old, Culinary Institute of America graduate Shirel Berger, who combines health and sustainability with innovative cooking techniques using a limited, strictly vegetable-only ingredients. By using organic and locally sourced produce, Opa’s kitchen features a nine course, seasonal tasting menu of carefully curated, plant-based dishes. Believing that fruits and vegetables should be the focal-point of each dish, Chef Berger ages all fruits and vegetables for 3-5 months, salting and vacuum packing with olive oil to preserve the cells, yet maintaining the structure and hydration. Through salting, dehydrating, braising and fermenting techniques, Chef Berger manipulates the flavours and essence of the produce with fascinating results.

Herzl 16 & Disco Tokyo

Calamari, shrimps and scallop with shallots in yuzu and yaki onigiri (seared rice cubes) at Disco Tokyo (photo Anatoly Michaello)

Through a narrow walkway and lots of foliage is a courtyard resembling an urban garden, in what was formerly Tel Aviv’s first shopping mall, and with Israel’s first elevator. Originally built in 1921, the four story eclectic architecture-style building, re-designed and renovated by the Tel Aviv-based hospitality group, R2M, opened in 2018 is Herzl 16 & Disco Tokyo, where two of the city’s most desirable dining locales are located. This unique, multi-used location with a garden terrace, restaurant, bar and concert venue, offers a great experience in the city for music, food and people watching.

Disco Tokyo offers an intimate dining experience with an open kitchen and Japanese-industrial style decor. If you look into the central kitchen will notice Chef Ido Lev preparing Pan-Asian inspired dishes with an Israeli twist, like his famous Fried crab, pistachio miso, with sake and coconut milk and robata grilled drum fish with bok choy, spinach, sake and dashi.

A portion of the bar at Herzl 16 (photo Anatoly Michaello)

Herzl 16 gives a new meaning to the term, ‘eating out’. Hot coffee and spicy shakshuka breakfasts are served for early risers, mid-day diners choose from the business menu, supper suggests Pan-Asian inspired dishes, and as the evening gets closer, local and international DJ’s and musical artists take the stage. Herzl 16 hosts a weekly line up of live concerts and performances open to the public, free of charge. Since opening in 2018, this all day dining and event space has emerged as one of Tel Aviv’s most trendy and upscale venues for tourists and locals alike. In addition, Herzl 16’s upper floors are split up into office spaces, inhabited by creative agencies, architects, and tech/start-ups companies.

The Drisco

Exterior of The Drisco (photo Assaf Pinchuk)

Located in the historic American Colony neighborhood of Tel Aviv, close to the port of Jaffa, The Drisco Hotel is a landmark heritage property that opened in 2017, revived as a grand hotel. The Drisco hotel is comprised of two perfectly restored Ottoman-style buildings from 1866: the historic Jerusalem Hotel and the adjacent Norton House.

Built over 40 years before the establishment of Tel Aviv, the property had been empty since the 1950′s, but after 10 years of meticulous renovations by designer and architect Ari Shaltier, the building has been converted into a luxury hotel in Tel Aviv’s dinstinctive and historic American Colony neighborhood. The original stone building, built in 1866 by American Colony members, brothers John and George Drisco, was later bought by the leaders of the Temple Society, Christoph Hoffmann and Georg David Hardegg, who turned it into the prestigious Jerusalem Hotel, now renamed The Drisco.

The hotel’s George & John restaurant serves dishes inspired by modern Israel, paired with broader Mediterranean influences, and served in the unique atmosphere of the historical and luxurious property. The restaurant and its chef, Tomer Tal, have received numerous awards since its opening, including Best New Restaurant in Israel (2019, and Most Promising Chef of the Year (Gault & Millau guide 2020). The hotel’s Israeli-style breakfast buffet in the authentically restored dining room, offers a generous selection of freshly prepared vegetables and salads, yogurts and fresh fruit, meats, cured fish, fragrant cheeses, cereals, irresistible sweet and savory pastries, a variety of breads and eggs, washed down with a choice of juices, gourmet teas and coffees.


Image courtesy JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District Hotel & Residences

By Ron Bernthal

On August 1, 2019, when Marriott International announced the opening of the highly anticipated 346-room JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District Hotel & Residences, in the heart of the city, it was almost 80 degrees downtown, so why the ‘all-caps’ ICE in the hotel’s name, and omnipresent in all the district’s signage?

Edmonton’s relatively new ICE District may be named after the city’s winter weather, many locals actually enjoy the often below-zero winter nights, but most likely ICE has to do with the Edmonton Oilers, the city’s revered National Hockey League team, and Rogers Place, the team’s ice hockey home arena and entertainment complex that opened downtown in 2016. Rogers Place is also physically connected to the new JW Marriott’s ICE District Hotel. Ironically, despite the use of the word ICE, both venues are currently the “hottest” destinations in Edmonton’s revitalized center city neighborhoods. (For non-Canadians reading this review, Rogers Place is named after Rogers Communications, a major Canadian communications and media company)

Rogers Place with skyline including JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District Hotel (image courtesy OEG Blackhawk Aeronautica)

Ice hockey to Edmonton is what soccer is to Rio, or rugby to Auckland. Attendance at Oilers’ games averages 100% every season, so when the Oilers’ moved the team from its former, somewhat isolated, suburban ice hockey arena to the new downtown venue, followed by the opening of the 55-story JW Marriott Hotel and its next-door neighbor, the mixed-use, 60-story Stantec Tower (the tallest Canadian building West of Toronto), the stage was set for the ICE District to begin attracting not only local residents, but healthy increases in domestic and international visitors as well.

“Over the years, I have watched the ICE District come alive and I am proud of the hockey community that has embraced it,” said Wayne Gretzky, a Hall of Fame NHL player who starred for the Oilers from 1979-1988, and continues with the team as a front office executive. “Edmonton carries a proud hockey history and this sport has truly become a cultural benchmark for the city.”

I arrive at the hotel on a late, mid-week afternoon, after driving through the flat and expansive landscape from the airport, 18 miles from downtown. A treeless, Sienna-colored, wind-blown terrain stretches for hundreds of miles from Edmonton in all directions, with cattle ranches and vast farms giving way to suburban malls, housing developments, office parks and, finally, the gleaming glass skyscrapers and green river valley of downtown Edmonton. The large Alberta sky is mesmerizing.

The path of the North Saskatchewan River forms the Edmonton river valley, 22 times larger than New York City’s Central Park, with more than 20 major parks and hundreds of miles of biking and hiking trails. (photo courtesy Edmonton Economic Development)

At 5:00 p.m. the hotel’s busy lobby is the first indication that the new property is attracting both local office workers, fancy-suited business travelers and leisure visitors wearing hockey jerseys and Bermuda shorts. The crowd is drinking and snacking at the popular Lobby Bar.  With its high ceiling, comfortable furniture and large marble bar, the area is sleek and modern, casual and sophisticated. During the evenings of my visit a DJ or live band will keep the “party” going strong until last call. On the “plaza” side of the lobby, just behind the glass windows, an outdoor skating rink was nearing completion, to be re-purposed as an outdoor extension of the Lobby Bar during the short but sweet summer months.

The Lobby Bar is the hub of the hotel property, with leisure and business travelers enjoying food and drinks, and often live music. (photo Ron Bernthal)

I make my way to the check-in desk, located in front of a lovely “green” wall in a quiet corner of the lobby, and was in my room within a few minutes.  All 346 guest rooms at the new JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District are decorated with three iconic works of art — a framed, multi-panel work of oil rigs on the Alberta prairie, from Crow Design, created with gold leaf on black paper, each panel hand rubbed, and two small sculptures that symbolize the “fire, ice and snow” design concept of the hotel.

King Guestroom offers views of ICE District buildings and Rogers Place hockey arena. (image courtesy JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District)

The wall-to-wall carpeting is in nice, muted colors, and a 55” Samsung Smart TV offers many Canadian, American and international programming. A beautiful “distressed” wood bench sits at the foot of the bed, and the room contains a comfortable couch as well. Large windows overlook ICE District streets, Rogers Place, and into the windows of the Stantec Tower. Like several other North American cold-weather cities, many of Edmonton’s downtown buildings are physically connected to each other via the city’s 2ndfloor, glass-enclosed, Pedway bridge system.

The above ground Edmonton Pedway connects the JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District property to Rogers Place and downtown office buildings. (photo Ron Bernthal)

There is lots to explore within the hotel property. I enjoyed visiting Archetype, a cutting-edge health and fitness club that shares the 20,000 square-foot 5thfloor duplex space with The Spa by JW. Occupying the space’s lower level, Archetype would be unique even without all the brand- new equipment, including Sorinex rig systems, Keiser compressed air technology, Woodway treadmills, ICG 7 spin bikes and a high-end Somadome meditation pod. There are also numerous rooms for group yoga, boxing, spin and HIIT style classes.  The fitness  equipment is so high-tech, and the workout spaces so large, that the facility has been organizing fitness visits from Edmonton Oiler players as well as visiting NHL teams that have time in their schedule.

New equipment at the spacious Archetype fitness club is lined up for guest use. (photo courtesy JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District)

The Spa by JW is located in a quiet area above Archetype, accessed by a private interior stairway. It is Edmonton’s only full-service luxury hotel spa, offering many types of facial and body treatments and massages in five treatment rooms, some with private, outdoor balconies. Sauna, steam rooms and a beautiful indoor swimming pool are also within the Spa by JW facility. Both the Spa and Archetype are open to hotel guests and Edmontonians with club memberships.

The indoor pool and Jacuzzi at the Spa by JW (photo Ron Bernthal)

The spinning room at Archetype, with a wall-size image of the Canadian Rockies to encourage the bikers. (image courtesy JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District)

Guests at the JW Marriott Edmonton have access to four restaurants and bars, including Braven, a high-end dining destination offering Alberta-sourced steaks and fresh seafood flown in daily; Kindred Food + Drink is an all-day eatery focusing on locally sourced, seasonal cuisine; Alchemy is a cocktail bar, with the look of a speakeasy, and with access to its own outdoor patio; and the Lobby Bar is a food and drink venue for business and social gatherings.

Kindred Restaurant is one of four drinking and dining venues at the new JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District Hotel (photo courtesy JW Marriott Edmonton ICE District)

I also checked out the hotel’s meeting and conference space, which includes the Wayne Gretzky Ballroom, the city’s largest all-event, high-tech ballroom.  In addition to Wayne Gretzky, all the 3rdfloor meeting rooms are named after former Edmonton Oilers players, including the Jari Kurri Ballroom, the Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Sather and Mark Messier meeting rooms.

The JW Marriott’s Executive Lounge, on the 22nd floor, offers guest members complimentary breakfast, late afternoon hors d’oeuvres, and comfortable surroundings for work or socializing. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Dialog, the Canadian firm that designed much of the hotel’s interior spaces, says that the concept of “fire, ice and snow” influenced the design of the hotel. The company’s promotional materials describe how the concept was incorporated into the hotel’s interior design by stating that “icy-blue marble floors juxtapose against towering vertical elements highlighted in glowing metal. Carpets emulate snow drifting across ice. On the walls, mica white pops against glimmering metal screens. Natural materials and neutral textiles provide depth and texture throughout the public spaces, while subdued Oilers’ blue and orange are used as accent colors, sure to make the hotel a hit among the city’s adoring sports fans.”

View through the glass in Rogers Place as Edmonton Oilers take pre-game warm-up on the ice. (photo Ron Bernthal).

When fully completed the ICE District will be the largest mixed-use sports and entertainment district in Canada, and already offers major concerts, NHL and WHL hockey, casino gaming, shopping, dining, and winter ice skating in the public plaza. Within walking distance of ICE are other downtown neighborhoods with museums, a new modern library, art galleries, live theater, and a light rail line.

The Royal Alberta Museum recently opened in its new downtown Edmonton location, just six minutes walk from the JW Marriott ICE District Hotel.
(Image courtesy of the Royal Alberta Museum)

Review: Hotel X Toronto

Sunset from pool deck at Hotel X Toronto (photo Ron Bernthal)

By Ron Bernthal

In the middle of January, 2017, as a biting wind off Lake Ontario blew across the 30th-story rooftop of the not-yet-completed Hotel X Toronto, the property’s director of sales at the time, Celso Thompson, and I were bundled up in winter coats, hard-hats and gloves, buffeted by the freezing gusts.

It was a clear day and as I surveyed the 360-degree rooftop view, which included downtown Toronto’s gleaming skyscrapers and the cold, gray expanse of Lake Ontario, I realized that because of the hotel’s location along the lakefront, two miles west of downtown, it was the tallest structure in the area, and only the observation deck on the top of CN Tower could offer such a spectacular panoramic view. It was even possible to see the distant water plume of Niagara Falls at the edge of the lake’s horizon, 36 nautical miles away. Less than a mile from the property, below the hotel’s roofline, the small  jets from Porter Airlines looked like toys as they took off and landed at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

Guestroom view showing downtown Chicago, CN Tower (left side), Lake Ontario, and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (right side) (photo Ron Bernthal)

In early summer, 2019, I returned to the new 400-room Hotel X Toronto as an overnight guest, to see if the completed project, including the promises of a rooftop sky club and swimming pool, and an adjacent four-story athletic center, had been fulfilled.

On the five-minute drive from the arrival terminal at Billy Bishop Airport to the front entrance of the hotel, I could see shimmering glass façade of the structure towering over the lake and the adjacent group of meetings and exposition buildings at  Toronto’s Exhibition Place.

Check-in desk from 2nd floor stairway leading down to lobby. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Check-in at the front desk was efficient and I am in my room within a few minutes, the floor-to-ceiling windows filling the room with natural light. Large glass barn doors separate the bedroom from the bathroom’s glass shower stall and tub. A smaller bathroom is part of the sitting area, along with a work desk, two leather chairs, a coffee table and a blue velvet couch that could be opened into a double bed.

The view from the bedroom windows was of downtown Chicago, Lake Ontario, and the runway and terminal at Billy Bishop Airport. All rooms have wonderful views, and all windows are soundproof. The room fridge in every room is stocked with a few bottles of complimentary in-room water bottles, and a Nespresso machine is a convenient amenity. Complimentary WiFi is available throughout the property.

The hotel’s “Library Club Lounge” on the 3rd floor contains books to borrow, but it’s main purpose is as an extra amenity for guests with Library Club Lounge access, offering an extensive breakfast buffet, snacks during the day, hors d’ourves from 5 pm – 7 pm. with wine and spirits, and comfortable indoor and outdoor terrace seating, all complimentary. Other great venues within the hotel include the tri-level, rooftop Falcon SkyBar with its great views, bar and 50-foot, heated outdoor pool. As there are no tall buildings to block 360 degree views of the downtown business district, the lake and downtown views of the city of Toronto open up. Every room and suite offer spectacular views in all directions. Several large ballrooms, 11 multi-function meeting rooms, and a private business center with printers and computers are available for meeting participants, and business or leisure guests. Another unique feature of the property includes the complimentary movies shown at its 250-seat Cinema or in the 56-seat Screening Room.

View of Library Lounge Club, a venue providing access to VLC members for breakfast, and pre-dinner hors d’ouerves, wines and spirits. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The hotel is part of the Library Hotel Collection brand of deluxe properties, joining other hotels in New York City (Library Hotel, Hotel Giraffe, Hotel Elysée and Casablanca Hotel), Prague (Aria) and Budapest (Aria). “We had a very big challenge when we confronted the Hotel X Toronto large footprint, how to translate the operating style of the Library Collection to a hotel that was as immense as this one is,” said Stephen B. Jacobs, design architect on the project. “Our approach was to break it down into smaller components.”

In order to infuse the large lobby with intimacy and warmth, Jacobs and Andi Pepper, interior designer on the project, used eclectic elements to generate excitement within the space. The hotel’s neutral color palette is splashed with vibrant pops of royal blue and magenta throughout the property, and laser-cut Moroccan-style metal discs are suspended from the ceiling next to a modern marble staircase.

Over 800 landscape images by Neil Dankoff, a Canadian photographer, can be found throughout the hotel, including a strikingly large piece in the lobby, and the hotel’s Kandy Gallery exclusively showcases more of Dankoff’s work.

In addition the artwork, the main focal point of the lobby is the green wall, which houses over 2,500 individual plants located behind the reception desk. “The purpose of the green wall is the key to the narrative of all of the live plants that have been brought into the interior,” said Jacobs. “This whole project started with putting a hotel in a garden, so we brought the garden inside. We’re using live plants throughout the hotel, which is an iconic element of what a Library Collection hotel is.”

Ten X Toronto is the name used for the hotel’s 90,000 square-foot, four-story sports and fitness center, a free-standing building that is physically connected to the hotel via a short hallway. Here are four hard-core tennis courts, nine, glass back squash courts, a basketball court and several racquetball courts. There are also several rooms offering Pilates, Group Cycle, Hot Yoga and other group activities, along with a fully equipped fitness center with 50 Technogym machines. The Guerlain Spa offers seven treatment rooms, with pre- and post-treatment lounges with lake views, as well as sauna and steam rooms.

The TEN X TORONTO sports center is a separate, four-story building with sports courts, fitness centers and other recreational venues. (photo TEN X TORONTO)

For F&B services, Maxx’s Social Kitchen provides all-day dining overlooking the lake, while Pétros82 restaurant and bar, featuring upscale Mediterranean food, overlooks Stanley Gardens. is the perfect setting in which to enjoy an upscale meal, fine wine, and fantastic views. For breakfast on-the-go, or a quick healthy lunch, the Nespresso Café offers chef-prepared sandwiches, gourmet paninis, fresh salads, yogurt parfait, homemade pastries, and desserts. food and drinks are also offered from mid-day to late evening at the Falcon SkyBar, which occupies various levels of the 27th, 28th, and 29th floors. A Starbucks outlet is also available next to the Ten X Toronto sports complex.

Although the property is somewhat walkable (30 minutes) to downtown Toronto, it is best to take Uber or taxi or reserve a ride in one of the hotel’s comfortable black SUV’s. The cars are generally used to shuttle guests to/from nearby Billy Bishop Airport for Porter Airlines flights, and to the city’s downtown Union Train Station, but the cars are also available for other close proximity rides. The interesting parts of King and Queen Streets West are close to the hotel, as are several eclectic neighborhoods, like Kensington, that offer art galleries, boutiques and small cafes and restaurants. Several of the city’s bike rental docking stations are also nearby, with flat, lakeside bike paths a few minutes away. Within a few minutes walk from the property is BMO Arena, home of Toronto FC (Major League Soccer) and the Toronto Argonauts (Canadian Football League), as well as the major conference and trade show venues at Exhibition Place.

Night view of Exhibition Place area from 28th floor swimming pool deck. In picture is BMO Field home of Toronto FC and Toronto Argonauts. (photo HOTEL X TORONTO)

The Hotel X Toronto does not levy a resort fee, although there is a charge to use the tennis courts.


SoHo NYC Restaurant Review: Piccola Cucina Estiatorio

(photo Ron Bernthal)

By Ron Bernthal

Chef Philip Guardione used to spend his days and nights on Manhattan’s Prince and Spring streets, where his two popular restaurants, Piccola Cucina Enoteca, 184 Prince, opened 2010, and Piccola Cucina Osteria, 196 Spring, opened 2013, attract locals and tourists who love his Sicilian-inspired cuisine as well as the street scene in the vibrant SoHo neighborhood.  A European venue, Piccola Cucina Ibiza, operates on the Spanish island of Ibiza from April-October; Piccola Cucina at Ox Pasture is a seasonal “pop-up” in Red Lodge, Montana; and an Eastside Manhattan restaurant is expected to open in the near future. These days, however, chef Guardione can also be found on nearby Thompson Street, where his latest culinary venture, Piccola Cucina Estiatorio, at 75 Thompson, opened in 2017, and has no trouble filling all 23 tables for lunch and dinner. Almost all the produce served to customers at his restaurants is shipped in from Sicily, a point that chef Guardione stresses during media interviews. “Everything tastes different in Sicily. The Mediterranean waters around Sicily is different. It has more salt. The fish tastes different,” he said.  “We import everything, even the people,” he added, speaking about his mostly-Italian wait-staff and the cooks in his restaurants’ open kitchens. Because fish and seafood is so central to the cuisine of Sicily, where chef Guardione grew up and, thus, to the menu in all his restaurants, my companions and I as Piccola Cucina Estiatorio definitely wanted to try several of the fish items on the menu,  served in every way – raw, grilled, baked, broiled, in salads or pasta. . The raw fish, called crudo di mare, included salmon ceviche, tuna tartare, yellowtail carpaccio, and salmon sashimi.  These were all fresh and cold and easy to share among the group. The yellowtail, topped with orange and fennel was especially good.  The seafood appetizers were also wonderful, with portions of grilled octopus and fried sardines crisp and delicious as was the bruschetta with guacamole and lobster, which seemed to be a popular appetizer at the other tables as well. The menu offered ten different pasta plates, including pasta alla Norma (maccheroni with eggplant in tomato sauce with ricotta cheese), and spaghetto nero (black ink spaghetti with scampi langoustine and zucchini flowers). For those who like pasta with seafood, it was not a problem to find sea urchins, or clams, or cured fish roe in pasta dishes, served in huge bowls of course, with warm bread on the side.

The Sicilian wait staff were friendly and efficient, explaining the menu and delivering food and wine with smiles and good humor. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The fish of the day, whole filleted sea bass, was moist and tender, served with grilled vegetables, while the baby lamb chops (the only other meat available was ribeye steak) were accompanied by lemon potatoes and steamed spinach. The table went with bottles of Sicilian red and white wine, with other Italian regional wines listed as well.  I had to order a bottle of Arianna Occhipinti 2016 Il Frappato Igt Terre Siciliane Vittoria, the full name of which, coincidentally, includes my daughter and step-daughter’s first names, and the last name of friends from Scranton, PA. For desserts the table shared wonderful cannoli, tiramisu, and crème bruleé with fruit.

The dinner crowd at Piccola Cucina Estiatorio will often fill the 58-seat venue, reservations are encouraged. (photo courtesy Piccola Cucina Estiatorio)

On a warm, summer night the SoHo neighborhood was alive with bicycles, motor scooters, slow moving cars looking for parking spaces, groups of couples strolling arm-in-arm, and single Village women with ice cream in one hand and a dog lease in the other. Inside, a friendly, very noisy group of diners filled the restaurant, conversations were shared among tables, wine was flowing, Sicilian spoken among the wait staff and between the cooks in the lively open kitchen. The scene and atmosphere looked and felt like Palermo’s Piazza Olivella, and there’s nothing wrong with that.     

Nassau Journal: The Pointe and other projects revitalize Bahamas capital

Umbrellas hang above part of West Hill Street, in Graycliff Historic Village, a Nassau neighborhood that is being revitalized with new businesses and beautiful historic restorations. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Story & Photos by Ron Bernthal

The islands of the Bahamas are the closest Caribbean islands to the U.S. mainland, and have long been a favorite winter weekend flight destination for sun-starved Northeastern residents, or for year-round cruise passengers from U.S. or European seaport cities.

In the past few years however, the historic city of Nassau, the Bahamian capital located on New Providence Island, has made great strides enticing more visitors to stay for longer periods of time. In 2018 the island nation of the Bahamas hosted 6.6 million visitors, the most in any year, including 4.9 million cruise passengers, another new record.   

Atlantis, on Paradise Island, connected to Nassau by a road bridge,  has been bringing in thousands of visitors since opening in 1998,  adding new accommodations and amenities ever since. Another mega-resort, the $4.2 billion, 1,000-acre Baha Mar, opened in 2017-2018, with three hotel properties, 42 bars and restaurants, a 100,000 square-foot casino, 11 swimming pools, tennis, golf and spa  facilities, and dozens of retail outlets, just six miles outside Nassau along Cable Beach. A new water park and other facilities are expected to open late 2019. The three hotels in the resort include the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar, the SLS Baha Mar, and the Rosewood Baha Mar, offering a total of  2,300 rooms, suites and villas.

View of the Caribbean from a balcony in the new Baha Mar resort complex, opened in 2018 just six miles from downtown Nassau.

Fred Lounsberry, CEO of the Nassau Paradise Island Promotion Board said that the new Baha Mar hotels and an ongoing revitalization project in downtown Nassau called The Pointe, are expected to attract additional visitors from the U.S. and Europe.  “Baha was barely open a year when we saw tremendous increases in North American visitors coming to New Providence,” said Lounsberry. “These properties, along with the increase in air lift and new development in downtown Nassau, have helped the Bahamas in general to increase visitor arrivals by 21% in mid-2019 over the same period in 2018.”

“People were becoming more and more jaded with the retail shopping strip along Bay Street in Nassau, so they wanted new experiences” said Dionisio D’Aguilar, Bahamas Minister of Tourism & Aviation, during the International Travel Partners Conference, held in Nassau with airline and tour operator representatives. “We felt the time had come to really give that refresh, to invest resources into reinvigorating the Port of Nassau’s stature in the Caribbean.”

The SLS Baha Mar Skybar, a sleek and modern rooftop bar overlooking Cable Beach, is among the 42 restaurants, bars, and lounges at the new Baha Mar mega-resort near Nassau. (photo SLS Baha Mar)

Private and public investment in downtown Nassau is revitalizing parts of the city center that has not seen new hospitality projects of this size in decades. This sun splashed port, founded in 1670, has had many of its historic, blue and pink stone houses beautifully converted into boutique hotels, restaurants, and art galleries. The Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant  is a stunning, mid-18th century,  colonial mansion set in lush tropical gardens with 20 lovely guest rooms, two swimming pools, the Graycliff Restaurant (the Caribbean’s first 5-star restaurant), and, with over 250,000 bottles of wine, the world’s third largest wine cellar. At Graycliff’s sophisticated/casual restaurant a recent lunch menu offered grilled octopus with sweet potato salad, tuna tataki with sesame seeds and prime filet with Graycliff coffee beans.

Original paintings and period furniture in one of the public rooms at the Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant on West Hill Street.

The small Graycliff Cigar factory rolls and sells Bahamas cigars that rival Cuban cigars in a workshop adjacent to the Graycliff Hotel.

The property is located in the center of Graycliff Historic Village on West Hill Street, and includes the heritage museum, and small workshops that sell and produce handmade cigars and chocolates.  A few blocks away is the 288-room British Colonial Hilton Hotel, originally opened in 1923, now offers newly renovated rooms and suites overlooking the harbor entrance where cruise ships sail past bedroom windows entering and leaving the port.

Cruise ships move past a guest room window at the British Colonial Hilton Hotel, along the passage connecting the Caribbean to the Port of Nassau.(photo Ron Bernthal)

Adjacent to the British Colonial is where The Pointe project is quickly progressing, with local residents anticipating a slew of new employment opportunities, and the Bahamas Tourist Board expecting even more additional visitors in 2020 with the opening of the $250 million Margaritaville Beach Resort, Jimmy Buffett’s first residential resort in the Bahamas.  Other new projects at the seven-acre The Pointe will be One Particular Harbour luxury oceanfront residences, as well as new retail and entertainment options. Owners at the 126-unit One Particular Harbour development will have access to all the attractions and amenities at Margaritaville, which will be the second Margaritaville resort in the Caribbean, joining the Margaritaville Beach Resort in Grand Cayman.

“The Bahamas, one of the most beautiful places in the world, is an absolutely perfect location for a Margaritaville lifestyle destination,” said John Cohlan, chief executive officer of Margaritaville. “We’re excited to combine our casual-luxe brand with the local Bahamian culture, known for its warmth and hospitality, to create a one-of-a-kind paradise to vacation, visit, live or just kick back and relax. Nassau is an ideal destination for our lifestyle brand as we continue to expand our global hospitality footprint.”

The Pointe project One Particular Harbour, of course, gets its name from Buffett’s popular song One Particular Harbour and the album by the same title.  The venue celebrated its topping off ceremony in late April, 2019, a milestone that included the debut of the new Seven Entertainment Center at The Pointe, which includes a movie theater, bowling lanes, a bar and a karaoke lounge.

The Pointe is Nassau’s most visible transformation, but the city’s new art galleries, cafes, and upscale restaurants have captured the attention of resort guests in other areas of New Providence Island, as well as cruise passengers who have always strolled among the gift shops of downtown Nassau, and will soon have a new and more exciting environment for their port call.   “It’s been a gradual change,” said Fred Lounsberry, about the new development projects in Nassau as well as the newly opened Baha Mar resort complex. “If you had taken pictures of these areas five years ago, then looked at them today, you would say ‘wow.’”

Fresh conch salad is available at this small shop in Graycliff Historic Village.

Much of Nassau’s restoration projects is due to a group of community leaders and organizations that joined together almost four years ago to create Historic Charles Town (the city’s original, 17th-century name) to restore and revitalize the historic quarter. Not only did the organization help improve resident and visitor safety in the downtown area, but gave the tree-lined neighborhoods a walkability that wasn’t there before.

New mixed-use building in The Pointe area will provide residential and office space in revitalized area of downtown Nassau (Instagram photo Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate MCR Bahamas Group)

The transformation of Nassau has certainly revitalized the city, a big plus for Bahamas tourism, but it may also be a model for other Caribbean cities where similar revitalization and historic preservation projects are sorely needed.

The “Mixed-Use” Concept: A View from South Africa

Melrose Arch Smart City, Johannesburg (Image courtesy Amdec Group)

By Ron Bernthal

In urban areas, different types of properties evolve at varying rates. Coffee shops and small eateries might spring up in a gritty area before the appearance of shared work spaces. Studio apartments might be drawing in more people and leading to round-the-clock activity in places where once there were desolate areas after dark. Or, perhaps start-ups and entrepreneurs might emerge initially, followed by food markets and cafés, then shops and accommodations. There is no set sequence, but the property mix is ultimately, and usually, similar — commercial (offices), retail (shops) and residential (apartments).

Whether economically or through legislation, local authorities and city planners can do only so much to address urban decay by supporting regeneration through new building projects, and often through historic preservation as well. Ultimately, areas will go through peaks and valleys at their own pace, and the unfortunate reality is that more often than not, growth and regeneration cannot be sustained as tastes change and trends move on.

However, there are areas within modern cities around the world where conditions are more favorable for prolonged prosperity and where property and lifestyle trends can be more closely aligned such that areas can continue drawing people in, versus falling out of favor over time. These are mixed-use developments, where different types of properties co-exist and each can thrive thanks to the connection and integration of uses with the others. No matter the size, the boundaries of these neighborhoods are fixed and daily operations are centralized, bringing many benefits to residents, businesses and visitors, chief among them security and convenience.

The Yacht Club, Capetown (Image courtesy Amdec Group)

“If a mixed-use development is planned and managed well, it has the capability to move with the times. Through ongoing evolution, it can renew and reinvent itself, remaining relevant and sought after,” says Nicholas Stopforth, Managing Director of Amdec Property Developments, owners and operators of Melrose Arch in Johannesburg, Harbour Arch and The Yacht Club in Cape Town, and projects in Australia and other locations. They acquired the Melrose property in 2005, long before the mixed-use concept was as prevalent as it is today. In the interceding years, they’ve managed to turn it into the popular and thriving mixed-use neighborhood that it is today, a perennial favorite with residents, tenants and visitors.

“In an era where time is scarce and crime is often a concern, the mixed-use concept has a lot to offer, not least because it can keep evolving,” Stopforth said. “We believe in it because our aim is to build communities by creating environments where people can live, work and relax, all within close proximity, and with the peace of mind that they are safe.”

Habour Arch, Capetown (Rendering courtesy Amdec Group)

Mixed-use developments in other countries are changing the way we live, and positively impact our lifestyle because they have the potential to become communities in and of themselves. If you live and work here, you get to know the other people who live and work here too. This leads to social interactions among neighbors and local businesses, which in turn improves quality of life and is known to boost longevity. If you spend leisure time here, you’re likely to get to know other people who do the same. And so, these positive cycles are perpetuated and eventually become the norm.

As the Amdec Group’s largest and best-known property, Melrose Arch is a prime example of the mixed-use property model. Over time, the initial investment has shown exceptional growth. Today, Melrose Arch comprises over two-million square-feet of mixed-use property, with an additional four-million square-feet in the planning phases.

Along with a large component of commercial office property on-site, the development also includes dozens of bars, restaurants and coffee shops. More than 100 top retailers, ranging from major national and international brands, to small, independent stores, call Melrose Arch home. There is a flagship Virgin Active gym in the neighborhood, as well as the high-end Daytona automotive dealership.

Five new restaurants have opened at Melrose Arch recently, including the popular Tiger’s Milk, reflecting the vibrancy that continues to draw people in. The new arrivals coincide with the first residents at One on Whiteley, the latest apartment block to be added to the Melrose Arch neighborhood. The response to the building has been overwhelmingly positive, underlining the market demand for high-quality, safe and secure apartment accommodations.

Harbour Arch, aerial street view, Cape Town (Rendering courtesy Amdec Group)

In the future, we could be living, working and relaxing in close proximity, spending much less time commuting in traffic, and more time enjoying the things we love, with the people we care about. Through constant improvement and progression, mixed-use neighborhoods are reshaping the way we live for the better.

Atlas Kitchen: Hunan style on Upper West Side NYC

by Ron Bernthal

Before I moved out of Manhattan in the 1970’s I spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side, between 110th and 116th Streets.  So it was nice to return for a visit to a “newly” opened (fall 2018) restaurant on 109th Street and Broadway called Atlas Kitchen.

Perhaps it was because the restaurant’s name was similar to the name of my father’s former chinaware business, Atlas China, and the fact that the new restaurant was actually serving Chinese cuisine persuaded me to visit my old neighborhood.

The restaurant has a lovely interior, with a beautiful mural of mountains and towers by the artist Qiu Anxiong in the style of traditional Chinese watercolors. The staff was welcoming, and very patient explaining to my dinner companions and I the various menu items, many of which were unfamiliar to us. Yes, they do serve the more common Kung Pao chicken, beef with broccoli, and sesame chicken, and white or brown rice was served upon request in small, white china bowls.

photo Qingshan-Wang

But most of the menu at Atlas Kitchen is adventurous and interesting, and includes appetizers like spicy duck togue, chicken feet with two spices, and sour & spicy white and black fungus. There are eight main poultry items, including Hunan style spicy duck with pork blood, and braised chicken wing, feet and gizzard with vinegar sauce, and 17 items are listed under the noodle/rice category, which also includes a selection of dumplings and soups.

photo Marisa Bernthal

My table ordered a mixture of the familiar – sliced pork with garlic and sautéed chicken with ginger, along with a few of the restaurant’s more popular dishes – Hunan style braised rice noodle, organic cauliflower in drywok, and a wintermelon with pork ribs soup.  All dishes were excellent, especially the soup (a meal in itself) and the cauliflower.  The crunchy rice pudding dessert was also good, and the selection of beverages – Chinese beer, Wong Lo Kat iced tea, coconut water, Wang Wang milk, and watermelon juice was very diverse!  Next time I will try some of the seafood – braised fish with perilla (a healthy, Asian leaf with the flavor of anise), sautéed spicy Little Neck clam, or the steamed whole fish with green pepper. Also available are lobster, sea cucumber, coral shrimp and king-crab.

photo Marisa Bernthal

The chef, Kaiyuan Li, has worked at New York City restaurants for more than 20 years and his specialty, as noted in the names of many of the menu listings, is cuisine from the Hunan region of China, although culinary styles from the six major regions of China are also available.

Located in the south central part of the Chinese mainland, Hunan is known for its natural beautify, surrounded by mountains on the east, west, and south, and by the Yangtze River on the north. It is one the most beautiful provinces in China, but does not receive many American visitors.  Its capital city, Changsha, is hardly a well-known name, but for thousands of years, the region has been a major center of agriculture, rice and tea production, and orange groves. Most of Atlas Kitchen’s menu is dotted with one or two little red chili symbols (spicy or very spicy), indicating that the many Hunan-style dishes are hot and peppery, just like most of the cuisine consumed by the 67 million people in Hunan province.

photo Marisa Bernthal

The restaurant space is a good size, with about 15 tables in the main dining area, and a pleasant communal dining table in a private area in the back. The décor is mostly beige and brown, with a light wood ceiling, nicely designed drop-down light fixtures, and of course the delicate and beautifully illustrated Qiu Anxiong artwork on the walls.  It is a simple and serene atmosphere, quite soothing actually, perhaps to off-set the fiery nature of the Hunan cuisine.

 Atlas Kitchen


CATALINA ISLAND JOURNAL: Twenty-two miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island struggles to maintain its bison herd.


Bison roam the backcountry on Catalina Island (photo Catalina Express)

Ron Bernthal

Twenty-two miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina Island is more than just a one-day tourist destination.  It is a stunningly beautiful island for environmentalists, history buffs and – any folks who love the American bison!  In 1924, the film “The Vanishing American” was being filmed on Catalina Island and several of the scenes required bison. The Hollywood crew used trucks and boats to move 14 bison onto the island from the Great Plains with the intention of eventually returning them to their prairie home. But the bison never made it off the island.

At the end of the film’s production schedule the company’s funds dried up and the studio did not have enough money to transport the “extras” back to the mainland, so the bison stayed on Catalina, ate the grass and, with no local predators, had lots of babies. Since their original stranding, many efforts have been implemented to help manage the growing population, not only to protect the natural environment but to keep the bison herd healthy and happy.

From 1924 to about 1996, 59 additional bison, mostly males, were added to the general population, to improve herd genetics, and the program has worked surprisingly well considering Catalina Island, a more Mediterranean-feeling destination than the American prairie, was not their original habitat. But the bison took to the mountainous California island so nicely that Catalina officials have had to draw down the herd over the years to lower the high birthrate. From 1969 to the present, more than 2,000 bison have been taken off of the island and brought to a Native American reservation in South Dakota. This method of “selective culling”  has helped keep the bison population on the island quite healthy and still somewhat wild, they are confined within a very wide area of grazing land by a complex system of fences, but can also appear quite close to humans at any time of the day or night, like right outside a guest room window at the Banning House Hotel in Two Harbors (see photo).  In the 1980′s the herd’s numbers were in the 500′s, but have since been brought down to about 150 in an attempt to better manage the herd.

Larina Cassidy (L) owner of Catalina Backcountry Tours and tour guide Pastor bring visitors into the island’s wild and hilly backcountry and its beautiful beaches (photo Ron Bernthal)

Catalina Island is privately owned. Chicago entrepreneur William Wrigley Jr. (yes, the chewing gum magnate) was able to purchase the entire island in 1919 during a bargain priced “fire sale” after Avalon, the island’s only town, burned to the ground during a fire four years earlier. Wrigley wanted to create a recreational paradise on his beautiful island and built a magnificent Art Deco waterfront casino in Avalon that opened in 1929, turning the small town into a famous destination that attracted Hollywood celebrities as well as one-million visitors each year, who arrived on the huge steamers Wrigley built to carry them over to Catalina from the nearby California coastal towns.

He even arranged for the Chicago Cubs, his hometown team. to play spring training games on Catalina every year from 1921-1941, and from 1946-51. The island was controlled by the U.S. military during the war years. Today, only a plaque noting the location of the Cubs’ training facility remains on the grounds of what is currently the Catalina Island Country Club, although its clubhouse is the same structure that Wrigley built for the Cubs in the 1920′s.

Avalon Harbor, c 1900 (photo courtesy California Historical Society)


Of course, one of the most popular attractions on Catalina, then and now, were the bison who wandered around the interior of the island without a care in the world. The present owners of Catalina Island, William Wrigley’s descendants, still have a strong passion for protecting endangered species, as well as Catalina’s fragile ecological terrain. In the 1970′s, as the island became an even more popular tourist and part-time residential destination, the family turned over 80 percent of the island into a conservation area managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Wrigley family allowed the bison to stay on the island, and their presence continues to attract curious leisure travelers as well as ecology scholars, painters and photographers. Catalina is also home to 22 Sensitive Ecological Areas as well as 26 endemic plant species. The island hosts a variety of native subspecies such as the Catalina Orangetip Butterfly and the Island Fox. However, the introduction of a non-indigenous species like bison is almost always destructive to native species and the bison herd, with their massive grazing levels, are no exception.

Private home in Avalon (photo Ron Bernthal)

Presently, Catalina Island Conservancy officials, local biologists, tourism managers, and business owners are debating two different bison management plans.  Everyone agrees that the “tourism-friendly” plan would let the bison roam freely, and could support a total of 189 bison, but this plan can possibly damage more of the native ecosystem. The more “eco-friendly” approach would restrict bison movement to a small portion of the island, keeping them out of the Sensitive Ecological Areas, but would allow only 17 bison to live on Catalina. Not only would this much smaller bison population disappoint many visitors and history buffs, but the rapid removal of so many bison would make the island’s dry grass grow to levels not seen in decades, possibly resulting in more wildfires.

Morning view of wandering bison and Two Harbors from guest room screen window at Banning House Hotel. (photo Joanna Tricorache)

The 74 square-mile island has very few paved roads and 90 percent of its 4,096 residents live in the island’s one true town, Avalon, the commercial, tourism and transportation hub on the island’s southern end. Thus, the interior of the island is extremely lightly populated, with few structures.  Most visitors stay in the small hotels and BnB’s built close together along the narrow streets of sun-splashed Avalon harbor.  The Banning House Hotel (, one of the few properties outside Avalon, was constructed in 1910 by the Banning Brothers, early island pioneers, and is located on the northern side of the island, in an area called Two Harbors. Banning House is a casual, 12-room hotel overlooking the harbor, with visitors arriving by taxi along the unpaved road from Avalon (60-75 minutes), or via the year-round Catalina Express (, a fast and comfortable ferry service that operates from San Pedro, Long Beach or Dana Point, on the California coast, to Avalon or Two Harbors.  The trip takes about one hour, tickets can be reserved online. Another option for travelling between Avalon and Two Harbors is the Cyclone, a seasonal boat that operates daily from mid-May to end-September, weekends only during off-season.  

Catalina Express ferry arrives into Avalon Harbor (photo Catalina Express)

Believe it or not, this rural island with its bison, fox, scrub brush and cacti, scenic harbors, and isolated beaches, lies within Los Angeles County. The Catalina Island Conservancy restricts travel by car, even for residents. It is impossible for visitors to rent a passenger car on the island, and locals have to wait years for permission to bring a private automobile onto Catalina — many residents travel around by golf cart. Taxi’s can take visitors anywhere, but individuals or groups with bicycles, and campers and hikers on the Trans Catalina Trail will need to arrange backcountry visits with the tourism office or backcountry tour operators as the island’s system of roads and gates play a unique role in preserving the ecosystem of this private island.

The Santa Catalina Island Company ( maintain the strict environmental and preservation regulations because of the large amount of visitors who arrive into this fragile environment by ferry every day during the summer high season. There is also a small airport on the island, with a few scheduled air carriers flying in from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. Private planes also make use of the airport, which is located at the highest point on the island, at an elevation of more than 1,600 feet, and has gained the nickname “Airport in the Sky”.