Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Newcastle: Geordie Territory

Last month I had a chance to visit Newscastle on a two-day work trip. For you Americans who still follow this blog, “Geordie” is a reference for people from the Tyneside metropolitan area of Northeast England. They have a distinct regional accent and a proud heritage, best known for Newcastle Brown Ale, Cheryl Cole, and the Great North Run.

We arrived in the early evening with the sunshine greeting. My colleagues and I made our way to the stylish Sandman Hotel, just opposite of the iconic St. James Park, home of Newcastle Football Club. As a nod to its famous neighbour, the hotel was decorated with old historic photos of the stadium as well as Newcastle, blending the historic and modern in a chic fashion. Being such a glorious evening, we met our gracious hosts who took us on an architectural tour of the city centre and along the Quayside for view of The Sage Music Centre, and finally to the spectacular Milleninum Bridge, a pedestrian path connecting Newcastle and Gateshead. On the tour, we learned that the Kittiwakes, a protected bird, is pretty much free to nest anywhere in Newcastle City Centre. They are everywhere!

On final destination was the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, previously a flour mill and now a modern art museum with fine views over the Tyne River. We had an enjoyable meal at Six Rooftop Restaurant where the food are locally sourced from the North Sea and the surrounding areas, and the beer menu consisted of only local microbrew. It was a great evening and good conversations on cities, urban innovation, electric vehicles, World Cup, and Tour de France.

Being so far north I didn’t expect the sun to rise so early at 4am – blackout shades was something they did not have at the hotel. But as I am training for a half marathon in September (yes, after a seven year hiatus from running) and it was a beautiful morning, I decided to go for a 4 mile run along the Quay. Then it was a long day of meetings, meetings, and more meetings.

It was then on to the Free Trade Inn, a beloved historic pub along the river with an impressive list of local craft ales.  Our final evening was spent at the Blackfair, another historic Newcastle landmark founded in 1239 by Dominican Monks.

It is true what they say about Northernerss, they are truly a friendly lot. I enjoyed my brief stay up north and next time I’ll be sure visit Northumberland National Park and that impressive Durham Cathedral. Until next time.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Royal Ascot 2014

This year’s Royal Ascot coincided with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Summer is was; it was a glorious day for horseracing with endless sunshine and blue skies. Royal Ascot kicks off the quintessential “British” summer festivities along with Glastonbury and Henley Royal Regatta; a high society event attended by HM The Queen and other members of the Royal Family who are given a royal procession around the course before the first race of the day.

A while ago, another American couple friend invited us to join the fun at Ascot with 20 plus people from their softball team. Being such a large group, we opted for the Silver Stand for a more informal, relaxed atmosphere. Whilst there’s no dress code, all spectators in the Silver Ring wore smart suits, knee-length dresses, and of course, a fabulous hat and/or fascinator for the ladies. After spotting the Queen in her powder pink outfit on the horse-drawn carriage during the Royal Procession, we got comfortable on the picnic grounds nibbling on grilled Portobello/ goat cheese sandwiches, drinking endless glasses of champagne, and catching up with friends on upcoming summer plans.

Whilst we’re not big gambler, Keenan and I put a few bets at the “bookies” to keep the day interesting. Knowing nothing about horses, we strictly picked the horse by the sound of their names rather than the odds. We were down for the better part of the day until the last and final race of the day in which we got a tip-off from a fellow racegoer to place our bets on Pique Sous. Indeed Pique Sous won the race and we went home 5 quid richer!

Happy summer all and happy World Cup!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Shard

Guest post from https://insaeculo.wordpress.com

Sharply protruding into the London skyline is a glass tower that has invoked mixed reactions among Londoners.  Constructed relatively quickly, the Shard now occupies an iconic place in the image of London and I’ll admit, in my opinion, Renzo Piano’s famed architecture has added some much needed flare to London’s south bank area.
It occupies a relatively small footprint which is literally situated on top of London Bridge station, taking over the ruins of Victorian archways and tunnels and replacing some unique bars and pubs with what will eventually become a new shopping arcade.  From a land use perspective, London didn’t really lose any space.  The tower was simply dropped on top of a train station which was in desperate need of modernization.  Any morning commuter can attest to the fact that London Bridge station is bursting at the seams, so the station redevelopment and neighborhood regeneration is a welcome improvement.   It was entirely privately funded by a consortium of private Qatari investors, so no public taxpayer money was wasted.  So what is it about Europe’s tallest building that solicits so many disparate viewpoints?
The fact that London has three major central business districts in the West End, the City, and Canary Wharf raises the question of whether or not the addition of the South Bank as yet another business center is actually warranted.  The Shard, along with it’s sister building, The Place, known as the Mini-Shard, comprise the new London Bridge Quarter development, joining More London as the primary office developments on the south side of the Thames.  Combined together, along with additional improvements in infrastructure and further building projects, London Bridge and the South Bank will become a fourth CBD in London.
As it is vacancy in Canary Wharf has historically been higher than in other parts of London and still maintains competitive rental levels.  However, with the available stock of large square footage and the ability to customize modern fit outs, it is becoming an increasingly ideal location of banks with JP Morgan, HSBC, Citigroup, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley already headquartered here.   The West End office market is among the most expensive in the world and the stock of available space is limited, driving prices up and attracting the likes of private equity shops and hedge funds.  The City continues to remain the preeminent location for all other financial services, including those banks which have not decided to relocate to the docklands.  In a city built primarily around professional and financial services, where does this leave the Shard and the wider South Bank area?
Since it’s inception, the Shard has struggled to attract new tenants.  Still under construction and only a ten minute walk across the bridge to the City, the “Walkie Talkie” and “Cheesegrater” towers are already approaching stabilized levels of tenancy signings.   Despite it being one of the most interesting buildings in the city, is it that the Shard is suffering from an inherently dated anti-South London bias and the misconceptions that come with it?  More London has demonstrated its resilience and has performed well since its launching, becoming the new headquarters for Big Four firms Ernst and Young and PwC.  If it were purely a South London issue, then why have other projects been so successful at getting off the ground?
Her Majesty, The Queen's visit to the Shard
Believe it or not, one outrageous criticism of the Shard has been that it is a massive terrorist target.  How it is anymore of a target than financial meccas in the City or Canary Wharf, I am unsure, but that could explain away some of the hesitancy on the parts of firms looking for new space.  Others have claimed that the Shard, situated minutes from Borough Market and directly on top of London Bridge Station, is just too touristy to be a place of work.  As a tenant of the Shard for almost a year now, I certainly agree here.  Imagine working in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf or Pike’s Place in Seattle everyday for example.  Although Borough Market is a fun place to eat, its novelty wears off after a while.
However, my own experience is that the Shard has some very well known deficiencies and tenants can probably find better options elsewhere.   In a city loaded with sophisticated firms, news gets out quickly and my hunch is that people know more about some of the downsides that Sellar Group, the developer and management company, prefer to keep quiet.  Bottom line, coming from Canary Wharf, the property management company is sub-par at best.  The main lobby of the tower is not what you would expect of such a high profile skyscraper.  Small and cheaply fit out, there are only two chairs in the waiting area.  Although occupancy is currently low and we are nowhere near capacity, I can only imagine what this lobby will look like at 75 percent or even 50 percent occupancy.  While on the outside the building was clearly expensive, the inside was fitted out on the cheap and was clearly an after thought.  The lift bay, in an overly complicated automated system, does not set out to accomplish exactly what it is meant to do, streamline and speed up the task of getting upstairs to work.  As the only tenants in the building, I cannot figure out why the waiting times are so long.
Basic day to day maintenance is a head scratcher also.  As tenants, we have no rubbish bins at our desks and we are subjected to the constant noise of construction occurring below us in London Bridge Station as well as the floors above us.  We force our way through swarms of tourists every morning only to reach the revolving doors of the Shard to be met with skepticism by building security that we are in fact paying office tenants and not visitors trying to get to the viewing platform.  There is a serious lack of practical amenities in the area, so running lunchtime errands is pretty much impossible. Despite our constant feedback, the office seems too cold in winter and too hot in summer, the perils of working in a building made entirely of glass.  No, despite even having a visit from the Queen, working in the Shard isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds.  I won’t get into the story of the rat we encountered while occupying our temporary space last winter.  Even the Shangri-La Hotel has encountered it’s own problems.  The Financial Times revealed the other day that its double glass, floor to ceiling wall-window designs has resulted in patrons’ ability to see into the room next to them.  All rooms are now being fitted with blinding curtains, defeating the purpose of staying in a room with supposedly breathtaking views starting at a cost of GBP 500 a night.
However, for all of my criticisms, I am bullish on the overall development and regeneration of the London Bridge and greater South Bank area.  More London is the home of two of the colossal accounting firms and is a short walk from the Mayor’s Office. Residential towers have been approved with construction commencing shortly.  London Bridge Station, with the addition of Cross Rail and the completion of the large-scale National Rail and Underground redevelopment, will become one of the finest transport hubs in London.  The Mini-Shard is now 100 percent leased to NewsCorp and its subsidiary companies The Sunday Times, Harper Collins, and the Wall Street Journal, making it a major media headquarter.  These signings have also helped to get the overall London Bridge Quarter’s occupancy figure to 65 percent for the first time in 2014.   The Shard still struggles to obtain signings, but it will likely improve over time as the surrounding area is totally regenerated and becomes a more attractive business destination. We are probably a few years away from realizing this, but likewise Canary Wharf was a very different place five years ago than it is now.  As with all neighborhoods in London, they are constantly changing and evolving.  In the meantime, I will continue to navigate the crowds of lost tourists who are looking for the view from the Shard and will treat myself to the occasional overpriced Borough Market sausage to keep myself sane.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Reisling Tasting in the Moselle Valley

Supposedly we were to scale back on all European travels for the remainder of the year, but I couldn't refuse the £40 RT per person tickets to Frankfurt Hahn, albeit on RyanAir {{shudder}} over the late May bank holiday. I must say, however,  RyanAir were surprisingly pleasant and allowed 1 luggage AND 1 personal bag. 

We got the idea for a relaxing weekend getaway to Moselle Valley, the Rhine River's low-key younger sister, from another couple friend who we travelled to Iceland with last August. Known for its lovely Rieslings and fairytale castles, the Moselle Valley is as picturesque as can be with steep vineyards, charming hamlets, and a 545 km ribbon-like river. 

Using the quaint cobble-stone town of Cochem as our base, on Saturday we took a leisurely drive up to Burg Eltz, a medieval castle perched on a hill about 30 minutes outside of Cochem. Dreamy and one of the most well-preserved German castles we've seen, although we have yet to see the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Burg Eltz makes for a great half-day trip. 

Back in Cochem, we spent the rest of the afternoon wine-tasting and exploring the medieval town centre. Unlike Napa/Sonoma where you drive to vineyard to vineyard, here in Moselle, all the tasting rooms are along the riverside promenade or hidden in narrow alleyways. My favourite winery was Knolls for their dry and crisp Reislings. 

The next day we rented bicycles and did a 60 km bike ride along the Moselle River from Cochem to the Saint Aldegund. It was a glorious day with perfect riding conditions, beautiful scenery, and easy flat terrain. On our bike ride back, we stopped off at Beilstein, a postcard perfect town often used as a film backdrop, for some wine-tasting in a cave tavern and ice cream. 

On our last day, we hiked up to the hilltop castle above Cochem for wonderful views of the town before driving back to the airport. The castle was reconstructed so it lacks the authenticity of Burg Eltz. A lovely bank holiday weekend of sipping Reisling, hiking, and cycling. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hong Kong & Macau 2014

For me, a trip to Asia is never complete without a weekend stopover in Hong Kong to indulge in my favourite past time: eating and hanging out with the niece! As per usual, we ate our weight in suckling duck, dim sum, Shanghai dumplings, sushi, and hot pot. 

 In between our eating extravangzana, we also did some shopping, mostly at my kid sister's request as she was on the market for new eyeglasses, perfume, and make-up from her favourite shop - the ubiquitous Sasa. On our shopping list was upgrading our iPads, picking up a Chinese TV pad for my father, iphone and camera accessories, and new eye glasses. Buying electronics in Hong Kong is fun and not to mention a bargain! 

My kid sister, Keenan, and I also took an excursion to Macau, a former Portuguese colony about an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong. Macau is often dubbed as the "Las Vegas of the East." Whilst the gaming industry in Macau is 7x larger than Vegas, thanks to visiting Chinese tourists who are serial gamblers,  however, it lacks the vibe and entertainment options of Vegas. I'm not a fan of gambling but Vegas has always kept me entertained with its shows, concerts, and celebrity sightings, whereas in Macau, it's all about gambling and high-end shopping for the growing middle class in China.  

With street signs in both Portuguese and Chinese and walls adorned with the classic Portuguese azulejos, the central parts of Macau can be easily covered in a few hours. The highlight of course is visiting the ruins of St. Paul Cathedral which was destroyed in a fire in 1835. Fortaleza do Monte, a fortress overlooking Macau's numerous casinos including the tacky Grand Lisboa, is worth visiting as is the nearby Museum of Macau. 

On Largo do Senado with the classic wave-black-and-white-patterned streets is flanked by baroques buildings and churches. Closer to the waterfront are all the casino hotels. We visited a few, including the Grand Lisboa and Hotel Lisboa, both were packed with Chinese tourists because of the week-long holiday period known as the "Golden Week" as well as the Wynn and ending at our final destination for MGM Grand where we had a Las Vegas style buffet lunch. All in all, it was great to finally visit Macau.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Thailand: Island-Hopping on the Andaman Sea

After Bangkok we took a short flight to Phuket where we met my family who flew in from Hong Kong. As the middle child with sisters both 7.5 years older and younger, growing up I never thought we would ever holiday together in our adult life, but we do and we have fun together.  Unlike our Greek holiday back in 2011, this year we have a tiny tot in tow -- my adorable niece. 

We rented a fantastic 3BR/2BA 2,400 sq. ft. villa with a pool on the west side of Phuket on Bangtao beach near the Laguna Complex which was perfect for us -- family-friendly, secluded, nearby amenities, powder white beach, and private:

We had no agenda and five days looked something like this:

Sunbathing on Bangtao and Surin beaches:

Alfresco drinks:

Beachside dining:

Gazing at sunset:

Pool time:

And repeat x 5 = pure bliss. 

It wasn't until my kid sister, Keenan, and I headed to Koh Phi Phi where we had a more active holiday. Koh Phi Phi is a car-free island made popular from the movie, "The Beach". It's a photogenic island with calm sparkling aquamarine and towering limestone cliffs. As we went during off season, Koh Phi Phi wasn't heaving with tourists but Maya Bay where The Beach was filmed was impossibly busy with day-trippers from Phuket. Be prepared to be disappointed if you are looking for a secluded sandy beach. 

We rented kayaks and even encouraged my kid sister to try out scuba diving with us! In between the fire shows and short walks around the island (OK, the island is so small, you can walk it in less than an hour), we found ample time for lounging on Long Beach and two hour back massages. 

It was a perfect way to round out our amazing two weeks in Thailand. But first, it was back to Hong Kong/Macau for eating and shopping before embarking our long-haul flights back to London and San Francisco.