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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Submergers and acquisitions -

Anyone fancy a dip - down to to 300m

Submergergers and acquisitions
Triton 3,300/3 submarine

Oceanic: Triton 3,300/3 submarine

As I look out over the calm sea, a transparent bubble breaks the surface like an enormous jellyfish. It rises as our inflatable dinghy pulls closer, until water is cascading down the two-metre-wide glass dome and a bright yellow deck appears.

This is the first Triton 3,300/3, a new model created by Florida-based Triton Submarines, one of only a few companies in the world building submersibles for personal use. The company has brought it here, to the Atlantic off Barbados, for testing and to demonstrate it to industry colleagues and potential buyers.

Our dinghy deposits me on deck. I climb a metal ladder attached to the dome and shimmy down through a hatch in the top. I settle into one of two passenger seats and we begin to descend, the water rising from chest to eye level and soon closing above my head. We have been swallowed up by blue.

Until very recently the notion of submarine tourism was pure fantasy. Over the past six years, though, Triton and companies such as Netherlands-based U-Boat Worx have been changing the game. The new submersibles are two-or-three seaters with windows on the sea, making the experience less like being a German sailor trapped in a U-boat and more like being Captain Nemo surveying the aquascape from the Nautilus, the submarine in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And now, for the right price and about four weeks of training, you can buy one and pilot it yourself.

“I think there’s a healthy market for submarine tourism on these kinds of subs,” says Mike McDowell, who heads the company Deep Ocean Expeditions and has come to watch the 3,300/3’s debut. He’s been in the adventure travel business for 35 years, having co-founded a company that takes tourists to Antarctica and another, Space Adventures, that takes them to the International Space Station.

This year, using a Russian research submarine, Deep Ocean Expeditions will take passengers to visit the Titanic, which lies 3,800m below the surface. About 80 people will take the eight- to 10-hour trip, which costs $60,000 a head. The company is also offering upcoming trips to the Bismarck, to ocean-floor hydrothermal vents and, for $375,000, a 35-day, 15-dive journey across the north Atlantic.

Triton, meanwhile, says its revenue is growing as new models sell for higher prices. It had sold four submersibles in total before designing the 3,300/3. One earlier model, the 1,000/2 (which takes two people to just over 300m), went for $2m. The 3,300/3 is priced at $3m and already one customer has ordered two, intending to charter out one of those for between $5,000 and $7,000 per day.

Since its launch in 2005, U-Boat Worx says it has sold eight submarines and its range runs from the C-Quester, which can dive to 100m and sells for €875,000, to the C-Explorer, which can reach 1,000m and costs €2m. As of last year, one of its submarines is available to charter from a Marseilles-based firm.

These companies are counting on high-end adventure tourism remaining a growing segment of the tourist market despite the prevailing economic climate. Nearly 80m Americans will retire in the next 20 years, argues Triton president Patrick Lahey, who is at the controls for my test dive. “A good portion of these people are well-heeled and looking for something more than just lying on a beach in Cancun drinking margaritas.” He points to the fact that tourists’ desire to go where few others have been before is already helping recreational space travel become a viable business – seven tourists have now visited the International Space Station, paying tens of millions of dollars each, while Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-flight business has nearly 500 bookings.

Sir Richard Branson with his prototype submarine

Sir Richard Branson with his prototype submarine

The submarine makers believe that personal subs will increasingly become the billionaire’s must-have plaything. And, as if to underline that point, Branson is also working on his own under-sea project, Virgin Oceanic. It has developed an innovative one-person submarine that Branson hopes will reach 11,000m in the Mariana Trench. After that, he says he will take the controls himself for a dive to 8,000m in the Puerto Rico Trench.

Triton claims the 3,330/3’s touchscreen-and-joystick control system makes it simpler to operate than previous generations, and despite being able to reach a depth of 1,000m it is relatively lightweight, making it easier to hoist on and off a yacht.

But most spectacular, from a passenger’s point of view, is that it has the largest acrylic sphere ever made for a manned submersible – and also the thickest. Even though the membrane between passenger and water is 17cm thick, it’s so transparent that it feels like looking through an ordinary pane of glass.

Underwater, the first thing I notice is how peaceful the downward drift feels. The second is that while I was nervous about becoming claustrophobic, that hasn’t happened. If anything, it’s the agoraphobic who should be wary of the 3,300/3, because it’s like floating in space. As we descend, the sea above us is still turquoise and below it is cobalt. I peer into open water, uncertain of how far I’m seeing. A reef shark sails overhead.

Lahey calls out the depth – 45m, 75m, 105m. We won’t be diving to her full capacity but we’re deeper than I’ve ever been scuba diving and the encroaching darkness becomes an indigo dusk. Triton also has a two-person submersible down here today and as we approach a wall in the sea floor Lahey radios the other captain to turn his lights on. Two pinpricks appear between us and the wall and I realise how colossal the vertical surface is, extending up, down and sideways as far as I can see. It’s the island of Grand Bahama, sloping steeply down to the ocean floor. When we turn our light to the wall we see lionfish, angelfish and squirrelfish minding their own business, and a curious barracuda.

Forty minutes go by in an instant and I don’t want to surface but this ride is just a teaser. The 3,300/3 can go for up to 10 hours, to deep shipwrecks or seamounts teeming with life.

Next, Lahey hopes to start working on the Full Ocean Depth Triton, capable of reaching 10,973m. “This is comparable to the ships built by the British, Spanish and Portuguese in the late 1400s,” he says. “They offer human beings an opportunity to visit vast areas of our planet that we have never explored and know little or nothing about.

“People are sceptical,” he adds. “But we’re used to that.”

Read the story online at the FT here: Submergergers and acquisitions -

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jay Weston: Venezuelan Food in Beverly Hills... and Dudamel's Favorite Breakfast Dish!

Venezuelan Food in Beverly Hills... and Dudamel's Favorite Breakfast Dish!

Restaurateur Camelia Coupal and Musical Director Gustavo Dudamel backstage at LA Phil!

Huffington readers may recall my review last week of the stunning Mahler 8th "Symphony of a Thousand" conducted at the Shrine by the 31-year musical director of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Dudamel, accompanied by that orchestra, hundreds of vocal musicians, and the Simon Boliver Youth Symphony from his native Venezuela. Following that concert, where I was hosted by L.A. Symphony Board Member Ginny Mancini, the musicians boarded a chartered 737 jet, all 117 orchestra members, 9 soloists, and 26 staff members, to fly to Caracas, Venezuela, to continue their Mahler cycle there.

Mrs. Mancini and 30 other board members and patrons flew via American and Delta to Caracas on Monday to join the Mahler festivities. Before leaving, she told me that a famed Caracas restaurant, DOC, was hosting a big party for the group... and did I know that they had a Beverly Hills branch? No, I didn't... So this week I gathered my reviewing friends, Penney McTaggart and David Rapoport, and we dined on exciting Venezuelan food at Camelia Coupal's COUPA CAFÉ (419 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills (310) 385-0420, parking at the adjacent city lot).


The charming owner told me that her lively Venezuelan restaurant, open since 2006, featured a completely new style of international dining combining the best of Venezuelan dishes with the philosophy of the modern Slow Foods movement. That's the group which promotes the use of organic and fair trade ingredients. Knowing that I am a coffee fanatic, she said that her beautiful little restaurant on Canon Drive was the only place outside of Venezuela where patrons can enjoy and purchase the nation's shade-grown, hand-picked, patio sun-dried super fair trade organic single-estate Arabica coffee beans roasted in small batches. And, yes, I did consume cup after cup of the very best coffee I have ever had!

It's a gorgeous restaurant featuring an original California Bow Truss ceiling with resort-like spaciousness. The large outdoor seating area in front is like a tropical garden with an exotic water fountain and hand-painted tiles. I know that I will be here most mornings now at a sidewalk table people-watching and sipping a cappuccino ($3/3.50/4), macchiato, or one of their luscious iced drinks. Hot chocolate, hot tea, chai lattes or special Venezuelan drinks will keep me -- and you -- coming back for many more. Such an incredible find in the heart of Beverly Hills!

The Perico Platter-Dudamel's favorite breakfast dish... scrambled eggs with sweet peppers, tomatoes, onion and spices.
Although Dudamel has not been able to visit the Beverly Hills location, Camelia said his favorite hometown dish is the Perico Platter, a traditional breakfast dish of scrambled eggs with sautéed mini-sweet peppers, fresh tomatoes and chopped onions, served with a Venezuelan arepa (wheat and gluten-free!) corn cake and a side of fresh fruit ($11). I have not been to Caracas since the early '70s, but I still remember falling in love with arepas, white cornmeal stuffed griddle cakes, here $10 with a side salad, offered with shredded chicken, shredded beef, ham, cheese, veggies... in many combinations. Empanadas are also gluten/wheat free, with many fillings, and there are a handful of Venezuelan specialties which will entice you forever.

You must experience their version of chicken pot pie called polvorosa de pollo ($18), shredded chicken in a crumbled crust pie, the crust with a touch of raw sugar cane pulp, one of the most delicious, savory dishes in memory. I learned that Venezuelans are the second-largest consumers of pasta in the world after Italians, so one of their pasta dishes is a 'must.' A seafood pasta Spaghetti Del Mar ($16) with grilled shrimp and calamari is mildly spicy, but she told me that their best-seller is the Rigatoni Bolognese ($14), beef ragu with tomato sauce. Of course, this being Beverly Hills, there is an extensive menu of traditional lunch and dinner dishes more familiar to the natives of this area -- "Think One Way Wild Salmon" ($23) done the way I like it, medium rare and juicy, a "Coupa Burger" with frites ($13) which I'm told is fabulous, steak frites ($28, ribeye) and "Roasted Rocky Jr. Chicken" ($21).


Pabelion -- the national dish of the country.

Spaghetti Del Mar -- seafood pasta with shrimp and calamari.

Camelia, member of the Coupal family, told me that they have six Coupa cafés, which includes one in downtown Palo Alto, four on the Stanford University campus, as well as here.

Venezuelan food is not a spicy hot cuisine. It uses ingredients like sweet peppers, garlic, onions, and coriander as base flavors. "Corn is a staple of Venezuelan food and Cachapas are corn griddle pancakes served with fresh white cheese." She made a point that arepa is a corn-based food, which is gluten/wheat free, something which many people today are seeking. "Pabellón is the national dish of the country, a delicious platter made with shredded beef, rice, black beans, sweet fried plantains, nata, queso blanco and arepitas." ($19, chicken/veggie option available)

At the next table a bunch of youngsters were eating Tequeños. Their mother smilingly said, "It's fried white cheese sticks wrapped in home-made flour dough ($7), and is named for a city just outside of Caracas called Los Teques."

Tequenos are deep-fried cheese sticks... addictive.

Polvorosa de Polo -- their chicken pot pie, my favorite dish.
The best cappuccino I can ever recall drinking... an example of the superb coffee served here.

Back to their coffee! Our waiters, Shane and Nick, said that no one does coffee like Venezuelans. I later learned that coffee was introduced to Venezuela from Martinique in 1730 by Spanish missionaries in the Ciudad Guayana region, and is mostly the more precious Arabica beans. I'm drinking a cup of fresh drip coffee made from the beans I bought last night and it is so rich and aromatic I will be giving up my Cuban Café Bustelo for this from now on.

Carmelia in front of the romantic fireplace niche at the rear of the restaurant.
The luscious tres leche dessert-rich cake and three kinds of milk, topped with meringue.

A programming note from Deborah Borda, president of the L.A. Philharmonic: On Saturday, the 18th, the combined two orchestras and a massive chorus will perform Mahler's 8th symphony in a concert in Caracas which will be broadcast live and in hi fi back to some 350 movie theatres in North America. Actor John Lithgow, who traveled to Caracas with them, will emcee the visual event. I understand the theaters are almost sold out but perhaps you can garner a tix or two. Believe me, having seen this concert, it is worth it!

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Jay Weston: Venezuelan Food in Beverly Hills... and Dudamel's Favorite Breakfast Dish!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Affluent Foreign-Born Parents in N.Y. Prefer Public Schools -

Between the prices and the lack of any ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, most foreigners living in NYC are preferring to send their kids to public schools.

Affluent Foreign-Born Parents in N.Y. Prefer Public Schools

Miriam and Christian Rengier, a German couple moving to New York, visited some private elementary schools in Manhattan last spring in search of a place for their son. They immediately noticed the absence of ethnic diversity, and the chauffeurs ferrying children to the door.


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