An End of an Era?

Once the largest cruise ship in the world, Royal Caribbean’s first megaship, Sovereign of the Seas, sailed into the dockyards of Aliaga Bay, Turkey earlier last month to be broken down and scrapped without so much as a befitting goodbye or even a celebration for its 32 years in service. Sailing under Pullmantur Cruises, a lesser known cruise line based in Spain, Sovereign and her sister ship, Monarch of the Seas, were both transferred from Royal Caribbean in 2008 and 2013 respectively. Just weeks after it announced its insolvency in late June 2020, Pullmantur reported that both vessels will no longer be in service due in large by the current global pandemic.

Monarch of the Seas and Sovereign of the Seas (Pullmantur) awaiting at the scrapyards in Turkey.

With a volume of 74,000 gross register tons, the 2,282 passenger Sovereign of the Seas went into service on January 16, 1988, just one day after the ceremonial ship launching in Miami, where she was christened by former First Lady Rosalyn Carter. Sovereign was revolutionary back then with its multi-story atrium, glass enclosed elevators, sweeping staircases with fountains below, a theater with over a thousand seats, 2 large dining rooms, multiple lounges and bars, a casino with 171 slot machines, black jack and poker tables, central pool deck with 2 large pools, which was unheard of at the time. It even incorporated the 360 degree Viking Crown lounge around its funnel, a notable hallmark on every Royal Caribbean ship. Sovereign was also the first ship that gave way to how all the other Royal Caribbean ships are named with the suffix “of the Seas“.

Clockwise from top left: Vintage RCCL travel brochure. Viking Crown Lounge on a Sovereign Class ship under Pullmantur Cruise Lines. Hotel-like atrium on the Sovereign set a new standard for all large cruise ships. Photo credit: Unknown.

I grew up fascinated with cruise ships, somewhat in part by watching The Love Boat back in the 80s. I remember first hearing about Sovereign of the Seas when I came across a cruise ship magazine, which featured not only every cruise ship in service but those from the past, on the horizon and even fantasy ships of the future. I contacted my local travel agent to see if I can get the latest Royal Caribbean cruise brochures, showing all the beautiful ports-of-call in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and I would then pore over pages and pages of colorful deck plans for each ship. This was before we had the internet and I can recall owning several brochures from other cruise lines including Carnival, Norwegian, Princess, and American Hawaii Cruises. I also remember owning a copy of the inaugural video of the Sovereign of the Seas.

RCCL’s Sovereign of the Seas Maiden Voyage

My family and I went on our first cruise onboard Premier Cruise Lines Royale during our winter break in December 1987, just a few weeks before Sovereign set sail on her maiden voyage. I didn’t find out about Sovereign until a year later, and that’s when I became fascinated with the idea of cruise ship design. I sketched a few ideas on what it would be like to extend Sovereign’s 5-story atrium all the way up to the pool deck with an enclosed skylight and multiple expanses of glazing on each side of the ship, which would provide an abundance of natural light into the main space below. Lo and behold, this atrium extension was already conceived during the design development of Royal Caribbean’s Nordic Empress, which launched into service in August 1989. Her name was later changed to Empress of the Seas in 2004.

Atrium soaring 6 stories high onboard the Empress of the Seas.

We finally set sailed on the Sovereign of the Seas after my high school graduation in 1992. I was excited to show my family around the ship, as if I had gone on it before. One of the things I remember on that trip was when the captain announced that we would skip our port-of-call in Labadee, on the north coast of Haiti and instead steer off course to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Andrew’s destruction. Sadly, we saw the destruction Andrew had brought upon Miami when we arrived safely in port.

No longer one of the largest ships at sea, Sovereign of the Seas ushered in a new era of more kitschy, less elegant mega cruise ships resembling floating hotels. She was a precursor to all that has come since but not without its environmental problems in over consumption, waste management, carbon emissions and energy efficiency. Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines have been addressing these issues by improving the hull designs, using energy-efficient engines to reduce drag and fuel consumption, adding solar panels, energy efficient glass, and desalination systems, which convert salt water into purified, drinkable water.

Aside from utilizing alternative energy sources, one other possibility could be to simply downsize future cruise ships to help reduce emissions of green house gases. From an economic standpoint, smaller cruise ships can be accommodated at many exotic ports of call, thus allowing them to dock right at the port and providing passengers within walking distance to unexpected sightings. This also benefits local tourism and a more authentic, travel experience, which travelers on large cruise ships lack.

Royal Caribbean’s newest ship Wonder of the Seas is scheduled to sail from China and other parts of Asia in mid-2021.

There’s no doubt that these mega cruise ships offer plenty of entertainment (multitudes of pools and water slides, mini-golf, basket ball courts, rock climbing walls, zip-lines, ice skating rink, outdoor amphitheather to name a few) and dining options onboard, but I think that this is taking away from the art of cruising we once knew. With so many restaurants (sushi restaurants, 50s-style burger joints, steak houses, fine Italian dining, etc.) and cafes to choose from, eating a meal onboard the ship’s main dining room has nearly become a thing of the past. You could skip all the itineraries and still not have enough time to do every single thing on the ship. It is literally a floating resort. Who knows what the future may hold for the cruise industry after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps, this is an end of an era in cruise travel where bigger is not always better in favor of something smaller and more intimate.

Trip to the Big Island

It has been a few years since I posted my last blog. I have finally decided to write about our trip to the Big Island back in December 2016.

The first thing you will notice when flying into Hawaii are the vast lava fields; a Mars-like landscape that was once covered with lush vegetation, only to be scorched by lava flow leaving behind a barren wasteland of razor-sharp lava rocks. Occasionally, you will see bright green ferns growing out of the dark lava rocks. Only Mother Nature can be so dangerous yet beautiful at the same time.

 (left) Sunrise behind Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that is located on the northern half of the island of Hawaii. It last erupted sometime between 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. (right) A delicate yet resilient rabbit’s foot fern sprouts out of a lava rock.

We left the desolate landscape behind as we turned off the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway towards the beautiful Hilton Waikoloa Village, a 62-acre oceanfront resort on the Kohala Coast. It is located near one end of Waikoloa Beach Drive, a 2-mile stretch of road that is lined with Monkey Pod Rain Trees, manicured golf courses, timeshares, shops and beachfront resorts. The drive there reminded me of Wailea in Maui.


(above) Hilton Waikoloa Village. Photo credit: Hilton.

Located on a 62-acre oceanfront resort, the beautiful Hilton Waikoloa Village is made up of 3 low-rise towers – Lagoon, Palace, and Ocean, the latter of which is where we stayed. Transportation between the towers is linked by a man-made canal and a monorail system. Beyond the 2-story lobby is a 4-acre ocean-fed lagoon teeming with a variety of tropical fish and rare green sea turtles. As beautiful as this resort is, there is no sandy beach on the property. The beachfront (and the area from which the resort is built upon) sits on lava flow erupted from Mauna Loa between 1800-1801.


 (above) Spacious lobby. (bottom left) Private lagoon. (bottom right) Canal. Photos credit: Hilton.

On the second day, we drove 15 minutes north to Mauna Kea Beach, a secluded white sand beach that fronts the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Golf Course. Although I love the beachfront property of the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu with its stunning views of Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon and Diamond Head in the distance, Mauna Kea Beach is probably ranked my favorite of all time. Unfortunately when we got there late in the morning, we started to experience wind gusts of up to 30 mph. We thought we were going to lie in the sun and hear the gentle waves lapping onto the shore… but instead we were literally getting sandblasted. We later found sand in our bags! Luckily, the water was warm enough for us to jump in and escape the lashing wind and sand. At one point, a wave came from behind and knocked me down with my Oakleys. I searched frantically for about 15 minutes and nearly gave up until I saw the reflection of my lens underwater! I couldn’t believe I found them!

Mauna Kea_02_0

(above) Mauna Kea beach. Photo credit: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.


(above) The drive along the beautiful Mauna Kea Golf Course to the Mauna Kea beach resort.

I was planning on doing some toy photography but that didn’t pan out so I came back  alone the next morning at the crack of dawn when the winds were calmer. As suspected, there was a slight breeze and a few sun bathers enjoying the morning sun.

 (above) Some of my toy photography that I shot on Mauna Kea beach.

One of the most memorable parts of this trip was our day trip to see the Kilauea caldera, one of the largest and most active volcanoes in the world. It is also the youngest of five volcanoes found on the Big Island of Hawaii. On our way there, we cut across the island heading east with Mauna Kea looming to our left. From our hotel, we could see snowy patches at the summit. It is the surprisingly the “tallest” mountain in the world when measured from the ocean floor to the summit at 33,000 ft while it is 13,802 ft above sea level. Mount Everest has the “highest altitude” measuring 29,029 feet above sea level. Mauna Kea is so massive that it and its neighbor, Mauna Loa, cause the ocean crust beneath them to settle by 4 miles!


(above) Summit at Mauna Kea. Photo credit: unknown.

It was sunny at the base of the mountain and then it started to hail as we made our way to Hilo, the largest town located on the eastern side of the island. It has a local vibe with many of the locals living there since it is more affordable and less touristy than Kona and many of the resorts situated on the west side.  We stopped at Naung Mai Thai Kitchen on Kilauea Avenue at the center of town near the crescent-shaped waterfront. The food was delicious, inexpensive and most of all locally sourced organic ingredients to help support their local farmers. As always, we can never get enough Thai food when we’re on vacation. We didn’t get to see any of the tourist spots as we were in a hurry to get down to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

It was an ordinary road that led us to the entrance of the Volcanoes National Park, but as we drove a little further down, the scenery started to change. The barren lava fields were dotted with bright green ferns with steam vents rising out of the ground fissures. A park ranger at the visitor center gave a very informative and amusing talk about all there is to know about Kilauea and the continuing seismic activity on this island. Kilauea, translated to “Much Flowing” in Hawaiian, is located on the southeastern portion of the Big Island with a 10 mile long river of lava flowing south into the sea. What was once a 4,090 ft tall volcano neighboring the slopes of Mauna Loa to the west and north, it eventually subsided into a 3 mile long and 2 mile wide depression with an area of approximately 4 square miles. This is known as the caldera, a plateau resembling a miniature version of the Grand Canyon with a current depth of about 500 feet. The Halema’uma’u (“Fern House”) Crater, Kilauea’s most active vent, is located near the center of the caldera. According to Hawaiian legend, Halema‘uma‘u is the home of Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess. You can see Halema‘uma‘u from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory at the Uwēkahuna Bluff on the western rim of Kilauea.

(clockwise from above) Flora sprouting through the lava rocks. Photo credit: unknown. A fellow photographer was super nice enough to let me use his zoom lens to capture the caldera from a distance.

Fourth of July in Yosemite

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” – John Muir

There is nothing quite like the stunning beauty of Yosemite. From the stillness of dawn to the shimmering, golden hour under a purple starry sky, Yosemite is a natural wonder to be seen and explored. It is a rewarding sight to get up at the crack of dawn and witness the pale sunlight peak behind the mountaintops as it spreads over the misty valley floor. At dusk, the glow of the setting sun dances across the vertical faces of towering granite behemoths. These are some of the iconic moments that have long been treasured before social media helped further promote the everlasting beauty of Yosemite and America’s beloved national parks.


After many weeks of anticipation, we finally made it to Yosemite for the first time as a family. Thanks to President Obama and his Every Kid in a Park Initiative, every fourth grader in America gets a free one year admission to all the national parks for them and their family members. Despite having saved $15 per individual and $30 per vehicle each time we entered the park, we ended up staying at a Best Western Plus in the town of Oakhurst, about an hour and 20 minutes south of Yosemite valley. I couldn’t justify spending $400 or more per night at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwanhee Hotel), which is located a stones throw away from Yosemite Falls in the heart of the valley. So we opted to have a fancy dinner instead at the Ahwanhee and soak in its intimate views of the valley and the surrounding mountains from inside the double height, rustic-styled dining room.

Well, that hour and 20 minutes ended up more like 3 hours due to bumper-to-bumper traffic inside the Yosemite valley loop! Once we made it pass the Tunnel View and onto Southside Drive, there was no way of turning around, because it’s a one-way road. At first, we were in awe of the beauty surrounding us, especially the 3,000+ feet high granite cliffs looming over us from a distance but after nearly 2 hours we started fidgeting. And plus, the heat was unbearable. (It was 90 degrees in the shade!) We were pleasantly surprised when we called the hotel dining room to tell them that we were going to be an hour late and they said they will still hold our reservation! When we arrived, we noticed that the 89-year old hotel was undergoing some major renovation but that didn’t seem to faze us as we were greeted with warm smiles and a lovely piano serenade inside the restaurant.

Ahwahnee dining room IMG_5084 copy(left) The Ahwahnee Hotel dining room features a cathedral-style ceiling with structural log trusses, stone walls and hanging wrought-iron chandeliers. (right) The Great Lounge reminded me a lot like the one from the fictitious Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining.

The food was fine but not exceptional although I have to admit that my daughter’s petite prime rib au jus was very tender and delicious. After dinner, we took some more pictures and then headed back to our hotel. On our way out of the parking lot, we were surprised to bump into some friends who were staying at the Tenaya Lodge, just outside of the park along the way to Oakhurst.

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In order to avoid the traffic again, we managed to get up really early despite coming back late last night. We ate a light breakfast and filled up the gas tank before heading back up highway 41 into Yosemite. It was 55 degrees but we knew today was going to be another scorcher. When the turnoff onto Glacier Point Road appeared, I made a last minute decision to follow that route instead of descending into the valley. This is one of the most scenic routes overlooking Yosemite valley. We drove for about a half hour until we passed Sentinel Dome to reach Washburn Point, where we took in the amazing panorama of Half Dome and Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap. The sun was relatively high above the horizon at 7 o’clock in the morning and the temperature had already reached 65 degrees. It felt even warmer as we were facing the sun and the reflection from the snow on the other side of the valley. We gazed silently while listening to the distant thundering roar of the Nevada and Vernal Falls flowing down the Merced River below.

IMG_5114 13606905_10153917640506492_8282138619045336436_n(left) Soaking up the view of Half Dome from Washburn Point. (right) A photo of Half Dome taken from Glacier Point Road by @tiffpenguin on Instagram.

We drove a few minutes down to the end of the road and parked our car at Glacier Point, another well-known scenic spot where you can get a 180 degree view of Eagle Peak from the west to Half Dome and Mount Broderick in the east with the valley in between. There is a famous ledge that juts out from the rock face at 3,200 feet above the valley floor. Apparently, thrill-seekers walk out onto it and take pictures or have their pictures taken even though there are signs that prohibit you from doing so.

IMG_4475 IMG_5186(left) View of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and Yosemite valley from Glacier Point. Note the precipitous ledge on the left hand side of the image. (right) Photo of sunrise behind Half Dome by @everchanginghorizon.

There are two similar ledges on Half Dome, one known as the Diving Board and the other called the Visor, the former located westward on the shoulder of Half Dome just below the 2,000′ northwest face. It is this location that Ansel Adams shot one of his most famous photos in 1927 titled ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. Adams was drawn by this location and described it as a “wondrous place… a great shelf of granite, slightly overhanging, and nearly 4,000 feet above its base… the most exciting subject awaiting me.” The Visor is a 30 foot overhanging lip that is located near the summit and can only be accessed by climbing up the eastern face’s 45 degree ascent on a cable route, which requires a permit, adequate hydration and just plain grit and determination. This is one hike on my bucket list.

diving07(above) Photo of Half Dome taken at sunset by Leor Pantilat on Flickr. Note the ‘Visor’, the overhanging lip near the summit.

There were so many people up at Glacier Point that we didn’t get to take a proper family photo. I managed to take a few shots of my 1/12 scale Stormtroopers with my Canon DSLR as we hiked 1/10 the way down to Yosemite Valley on the Four Mile Trail. A few people stopped and asked me if they can take pictures of my figures and I happily obliged. It’s always nice to run into so many Star Wars fans.

IMG_4477 IMG_4488(left & right) Whenever we travel, I try to make use of my toy photography.

Like typical tourists, we went into a gift shop and bought some over-priced souvenirs and sandwiches and then ate lunch in the shade. We headed back on Glacier Point Road and down into the valley as we did the night before, only this time we were going to stop off at Bridal Veil Fall. We wanted to visit El Capitan and check out the Ansel Adams gallery and all these other attractions but we realized that we would need to spend at least a week here to do everything. Which explains why I was running on adrenaline the past 24 hours with barely 5 hours of sleep the night before.

We were lucky enough to find parking outside of the Bridal Veil Fall parking lot along the side of the main road, just past the tunnel view before it turns into a one way road. Being that it was the Fourth of July, which I forgot to mention, the trails leading up to the waterfall was jam packed. It was not terribly hot as the day before but it was definitely nice to feel the cool mist on our faces as we neared the base of the waterfall. A ton of people made their way up the slippery rocks with the occasional stumble and fall into the rapid, icy cold stream. My daughter and I scaled a couple of large boulders further up the base so that my wife can take a picture of us, but we did not climb further up for fear of getting wet and possibly stuck.

We decided to head back to our hotel and have dinner early before meeting up with our friends at the Tenaya Lodge. I was contemplating about driving back out to Glacier Point sometime after dinner so that I can take some breathtaking photos of Half Dome as the sun is setting over the valley. So I did just that while my wife and daughter were hanging out by the pool with their friends. I looked at my watch and had another hour and a half left before the sun started to go down. I got in in the car and drove 10 minutes up to the south entrance of the park and the ranger said I cannot use the free admission pass without my daughter present with me. He added that I probably wouldn’t be able to make it up to Glacier Point on time although I disagreed. Feeling dismayed, I could either pay the $15 admission plus the $30 vehicle fee and run the risk of missing the sunset or not go at all. I begrudgingly chose the latter and tried to convince myself that at least I didn’t waste any more money on gas and that there were no cloud formations in the sky to justify an amazing sunset shot. This only confirmed that next time we would have to shell out the extra cash to stay at some place inside the park. The hotel industry knows exactly how to persuade you to pay more to enjoy the experience. Otherwise, we can opt for camping, which is fine but I have a natural tendency to get bitten by mosquitos. Another reason to find accommodations inside the park is the fact that we would end up having to pay the admission & vehicle fees each time we entered the park.

Glacier Point sunset(above) Beautiful sunset over Yosemite valley. Photo by Jim Patterson Photography.

I feel lucky to have spent this Fourth of July with my family in one of the most beautiful locations on earth. When you visit natural wonders such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, the Swiss Alps, etc., you can’t help but feel so infinitesimal and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If and when you do visit Yosemite, observe around you the city-sized granite rock formations that have been around for over 114 million years. The passage of time is evident when you see how large house-sized boulders have fallen off the cliffside and onto the valley floor below, dramatically changing the landscape. Boulders that have accumulated lichen and moss indicate that they have been part of landslides some time ago relative to those without any vegetation on their surface. Even standing in the presence of 2,000 year old Giant Sequoias at the famous Mariposa Grove (and the less visited Tuolumne and Merced Groves) is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, we also did not get a chance to see these living giants, considering Mariposa Grove is fairly close to where our friends were staying. But I definitely sense that a fall and/or winter visit to Yosemite is beckoning. I have to agree with John Muir that “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”


(above) Photo taken of the Grizzly Giant, a Giant Sequoia that is estimated to be 1,900 – 2,400 years old. Counted to be the 25th largest tree in the world, this living giant stands 210 feet (64 meters) tall with a base circumference of 92 feet (28 meters) or a diameter of 30 feet (9.1 meters). It pales in comparison to General Sherman, another Giant Sequoia that is located in Sequoia National Park and is the largest known living tree in the world. Photo & source: Wikipedia.


Memorial Day weekend hike to Alamere Falls

This past Memorial Day weekend, my wife, daughter and I decided to go on a 4.2 mile long hike along the Coast Trail from Palomarin Beach to Alamere Falls in the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. We thought to ourselves that this little adventure shouldn’t be too hard. After driving an hour and a half through the city and to our final destination, we finally got on our way at a quarter past three. Scores of people were passing us left and right as we attempted to scramble up and down the rugged terrain. As hikers traversed from the opposite direction, there were several instances where we would take turns letting each other squeeze by the narrow pathways that are surrounded by poison oak, redwood trees, wildflowers, and other native flora. Scorched by the summer heat, we took refuge in the cool shade whenever possible while cursing and swatting the mosquitos with little success. Despite these insignificant annoyances, we pressed forward with great enthusiasm by knowing what beautiful discovery lie ahead.

Alamere Falls is a 40-foot tide fall that drops down onto the beach and flows into the Pacific Ocean. The upper Alamere Falls consists of 3 separate cascades upstream from the main waterfall. They range from 20-30 feet in height and are fed by the Alamere Creek.

IMG_4259 (above) Looking down the steep hillside from the Coast Trail about 1/4 of the way to Alamere Falls.

IMG_4261(above) About the halfway point

IMG_4265.JPG IMG_4271.JPG(left) Trail surrounded by beautiful coastal redwood trees and lush ferns. (right) View of the California coastal range.

IMG_4272.JPG(above) Surveying the steep inclined pathways down towards the beach. Note that the people in the background are actually standing on a 40 foot cliff that overlooks the beach and the main Alamere Falls.

13346494_10153850824294775_8658635938479173807_n 13310613_10153850846809775_5520998734404206026_n (left) Posing in front of one of the three upper cascades. (right) My wife caught a photo of us doing our toy photography! You can check them out on my Instagram page @russ_berrie.

At around 6 pm, we decided to turn around and climb back up the same steep cliff. It was a bit of a challenge gaining our footing on the loose rock while balancing on narrow ledges. Once we made it to the top, we continued onwards, crossing off familiar checkpoints along the same, windy route back to the parking lot. In great spirits, we managed to make it back before sundown despite having been bitten by more mosquitos… well, mostly me.

All in all, the hiking trip and the drive getting there and back was worth it. We have already set our sights for Point Reyes later this month and Yosemite in July!

IMG_4299.JPG(above) View of Bass Lake along the Coast Trail.

Toy Photography

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about my latest obsession with Instagram. What grabbed my attention is the fascinating interest in toy collecting/photography, particularly of the Star Wars genre, from mostly males between their mid 20s and 40s and a slightly smaller percentage of younger females. Action figures, scale models and replicas have been around for years, but why the growing interest within the past decade? Over the years, the Star Wars franchise has increasingly stepped up their game with regard to their retail merchandising of toys, video games, books, theme park attractions, apparel, etc. Months leading into the anticipated world-wide release of its seventh film ‘Star Wars – The Force Awakens’, die-hard fans were just as excited for the announcement of its new Hasbro merchandising, ranging from 1:18 (3 3/4″) to 1:12 (6″) scale figures. These are not the average toys that many of us from generation X grew up with. They are highly articulated and poseable, especially the ones in the 1:12 scale, where you can get them to pose in certain ways you can’t quite do with the smaller scales. Currently, the Star Wars franchise in the 1:12 scale is dominated by the Hasbro Star Wars Black Series, followed by SHfiguarts, Mafex, Revoltech and Bandai. The Black Series is not quite as articulated as say, Revoltech, but their figures are true to the films in terms of their shape, color and size, and they are also not as costly.

BS6-Boba-Fett Star-Wars-Revoltech-Boba-Fett-001(left) Bounty Hunter Boba Fett in the Hasbro Star Wars Black Series. (right) Same character in the Revoltech series. Most of us would see subtle differences (paint color, for ex.) but to the trained eye, it is quite noticeable. Notice on the right, you can see the ball joints in the shoulders and elbows and knees (not shown). This gives the figure a wider range of motion than its leading competitor although it isn’t as sturdy and durable. The disadvantage is that the Revoltech figure looks more machine-like than human because of its dislocated ball joints.

(above) Boba Fett by Bandai. This is a model kit in 1:12 scale. The only downside is that it is not as durable and solid as the Black Series figures. Although it is fairly easy to put together, you still need to custom paint it to give it that authentic, worn look.

IMG_8166 IMG_8218(left) Bandai model kit Boba Fett. Notice the gap between the hips and the torso. (right) Mafex Boba Fett from the Return of the Jedi. This is by far my favorite version of this figure. The proportions are anatomically correct and the detailing is phenomenal.

The hyper realism that comes from these toys allows us to feel closer to the films and recreate our own fantasy in the Star Wars universe. It is as if we have become our own directors, cinematographers, and editors, to recapture the film as best we can or to tell the stories in our own unique ways. Social media has allowed us to connect with one another, to share not only our photos but our experiences as well.

IMG_2913 EDEU6051(left) Photo taken by @actionfiguresnotdolls. It depicts a scene from the battle of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) using fake snow, LED lights, exposed wires, and lots of extra figures. (right) Photo taken by myself @russ_berrie. I used my laptop as a background and set the figures on top of an iPad, using a white screen on the brightest setting.

I am amazed at the talent that many of these individuals have. There are so many things to consider: how many figures in the frame, the poses, camera angles, location shots, storyline, special effects, etc. Currently, I am posting mostly toy photography, even outside of the Star Wars universe, as well as outdoor photography and minimalist architecture. I am glad that this hobby gives me a sense of enjoyment when I am not working, cycling or spending time with my family. It keeps me motivated and inspires me to create more.

IMG_2374 IMG_2375(left & right) These photos were taken by @sgtbananas on Instagram. They cleverly represent ourselves in toy form.

13731213_1732609620312530_2035514651_n 13768151_1675185296136404_840831292_n(left & right) Photos taken by @non_1072, one of the few toy photographers on Instagram who knows how to best capture realism with his 6″ Star Wars Blackseries line of Stormtroopers.



Who is Casey Neistat?

If you don’t know who Casey Neistat is, then you, among many of us, have been living under a rock in the world of social media. Neistat is a film maker, producer, director, entrepreneur and a co founder of Beme, a New York-based social media company. If that wasn’t enough, he also juggles his busy life as a husband and father, a daily running fanatic all while making daily vlogs on his famous YouTube channel. He caught his first break when he and his brother made a three minute film about Apple’s lack of battery replacement program for the iPod, which went viral with a million views in less than six days.

I am not going to talk about his entire life story thus far so I will post a Wikipedia link below if you want to read more about it later.

What I will say is that Neistat is one of those few people who achieves their many aspirations as we learn from watching his daily vlogs. Unlike other YouTube vloggers, his edited video content, often mixed with alternative hip hop, electronic and other remixes, is relatively short yet concise, which is a reflection of his driven personality. He has a tendency to record himself from different angles; setting the camera(s) down to capture him running or coming and going out of a building, for example, as if there is a camera man following him 24/7. It sounds so tedious but that’s what makes his videos so interesting.

Having dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and never returning to school or graduate, Neistat is not only a talented film maker but also a prolific speaker. He is known for his many ‘Neistat’ aphorisms such as, “Free time is the enemy of progress” or “If you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re doing it wrong” or “The most dangerous thing you can do in life is play it safe.” In the past, he was obsessed with crafting his film making to the level of perfection but he realized that was hindering his learning process, wasting valuable time and producing less. He claims he has since become a better film maker.


Neistat has a weekly Q & A session in which he answers a few questions from his fans on Twitter. Some of his fans regularly ask him what is the best advice he can give to people who are struggling to find their calling in life. He believes the answer to this is by doing something you hate, such as taking on a ‘cushy’ or comfortable job, which inevitably leads to complacency and eventually stagnation. You eventually get married, get pregnant, buy a car, have mortgage payments, and so forth, and then you end up with these ‘golden handcuffs’. You have a day job that you never loved, and there is no way out of it. If you are young and not married and don’t know what you want to do in life, then this approach might work. It will get you to think hard about what you want to spend the rest of your life doing instead. This is the same reason why he didn’t encourage his teenage son Owen, who will be going off to college next year, to get a cool job like at a production company or something. Instead, he works as a cashier at a Krispy Kreme at 6 in the morning. Not only will he focus on what he wants not to do in life, but he will learn the value of money and end up treating people that work behind a counter with the level of respect that they deserve.

Neistat has two office spaces in the same building in lower Manhattan, one for Beme and a smaller studio for his film projects. The latter resembles a highly organized bike mechanic’s workshop with everything from hammers, wrenches and screws to endless shelves of box-like containers, DVDs, old VHS tapes, digital cameras, and various video monitors placed throughout his domain to record people coming and going from his studio. “The studio is a microcosm of my world in New York City. It’s the epicenter of my professional world,” says Neistat. And it is only this neat when he isn’t carelessly dropping his camera equipment on one of his many workspaces or tearing open his mail packages without a care in the world, a personality trait he has been known for by all of his YouTube fans.


screen-shot-2013-11-01-at-4-16-24-pm casey4

Neistat regularly gets up before the crack of dawn to go on a 7-8 mile run across the Brooklyn Bridge or occasionally head over to his local gym. A seasoned triathlete, the 34-year old has completed 4 Ironman triathlons, with a best time of 11 hours and 10 minutes, and 22 marathons in just over 3 hours! If he isn’t running or riding his bicycle, you will find him zooming around lower Manhattan on his Boosted Board with his DSLR and iPhone and selfie stick, or he will be using time lapse photography to capture one of many perfect sunsets over the Manhattan skyline.

casey neistat running tumblr_nv8w0cgxkg1qdtwy3o1_1280

Here are a few of my favorite videos from Casey’s YouTube channel.



A Week in New York

I love NY.

Wall Street, the Empire States Building, the NY Yankees, riding the subways, authentic New York style pizza, New York hot dog, hot pastrami sandwich at one of their famous New York delicatessens, the U.S. Open on a balmy September evening, ice skating at Wollman Rink… these are just a few of the things that remind me of the city that never sleeps.

Whenever we travel to New York, it has become a tradition that we spend an afternoon in Central Park, one of my favorite places in the world. It has been the beautiful backdrop to many classic films, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Annie Hall, Kramer vs Kramer, Ghostbusters, Home Alone 2, etc. I fell in love with it long before I actually visited New York.

Recently, my wife, daughter and I took the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station from Bayside, Queens and then hopped on the A, C subway line to 81st Street, Museum of Natural History. We spent 2 hours going through the Rose Center for Earth and Space and revisited the Hall of Dinosaurs and the Hall of North American Mammals. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to go inside the Hayden Planetarium, which is located inside the upper half of the 87-foot diameter sphere of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. We did, however, walk along the 360-foot long Harriet and Robert Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway, which spirals downward from the exit of the Hayden Big Bang Theater (at the base of the sphere), laying out a 13-billion year journey of the universe itself. One’s stride represents millions of years, whereby the end of the pathway finally reveals the existence of human evolution, depicted by a single strand of human hair! I remember watching Cosmos on Netflix and American astrophysicist (and director for the Rose Center for Earth and Space) Neil DeGrasse Tyson described that if the formation of the universe was condensed into one year’s time, our species would not appear until the very last second on New Year’s eve. That is amazing.

IMG_0954(above) The Hayden Sphere and the Cosmic Pathway with a view of the pre-war apartment buildings on the Upper West Side.

IMG_1018 IMG_0985(left)  Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Hall of Dinosaurs. (right) Hall of North American Mammals.

IMG_1034 IMG_1057 (left) Bow Bridge in the distance. (right) Making large bubbles at the Mall.

Bethesda_Fountain,_Central_Park,_New_York,_USA-1Aug2010(above) Bethesda Fountain

1332897_orig(above) The Conservatory Water is a pond on the Upper East Side of Central Park, between E. 73rd and E. 75th Streets along 5th Avenue, where people come to race model sailboats.

IMG_1069(above) View of Central Park South from the massive schist bedrock above Wollman Rink. In the years to come, Central Park South will become home to several supertowers, skyscrapers reaching 1,500 feet high and casting long shadows on the park. This has sparked a lot of controversy between real estate developers, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, and the general public.

1280px-Central_Park_West_jeh(above) Central Park West. No matter which side you’re on, the sounds of the city slowly disappear as you enter further into the park. Like guarding sentries, the rising cityscape stands in the distance behind the dense foliage lining the park perimeter. It is a wonderful thing to experience for a first time visitor.

A few days later, I met up with a few of my past co-workers near the Roosevelt Island Tram Station (Manhattan Side) to go see the FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. I didn’t know much about the memorial at the time, only that it was designed by architect Louis Kahn, the same man who masterfully designed the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The tram ride was a nice break from riding the subway or taxi, especially when we got to see the city from up high.

New York City from Above - Midtown Skyscrapers and Queensboro Bridge-XL IMG_1139(left) View towards Manhattan. (right) Roosevelt Island.

IMG_1143(above) View of the Queensborough Bridge and Manhattan. I love how the smoke stack for the Con Edison steam plant just stands in between the bridge and the apartment buildings.

IMG_1147(above) View of the United Nations building across the East River.

FDR_Warchol+13-large(above) Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park


Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial on Roosevelt Island, NYC.(above) The Room, a 60-foot square plaza, is located at the southern end of Roosevelt Island, which has a view towards the Lower East Side.

IMG_1153 IMG_1155(left) Tree-lined gravel pathway. (right) Close-up detail of the granite plinths inside the “Room,” a 60-foot square open plaza. The FDR Four Freedoms Park is the heaviest stone-setting job ever to be undertaken in New York City. Inside the Room, there are 190 individual monoliths, 70 of which measure 6 x 6 x 12 feet and weighing 36 tons! There are 7,700 tons of stones placed within the park. All of the granite, which was specified by architect Louis Kahn in his original design, was quarried in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

IMG_1173(Above) Another shot of the Queensborough Bridge and Manhattan.

Afterwards, we decided to go check out the World Trade Center Memorial down at Ground Zero. We took the F train down to Washington Square and transferred on the E train to the World Trade Center stop. We meant to go see it last year but we ran out of time. I saw documentaries about the construction of One World Trade Center, currently the tallest building in the U.S. and designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The original design, which was conceived by architect Daniel Libeskind, went through so many revisions because of the disagreements with developer Larry Silverstein, who thought that the total office space would have been reduced by more than 3 million square feet in comparison with the original complex.

IMG_1180 IMG_1183(Left) Santiago Calatrava’s $4B World Trade Center terminal station for the PATH Hub. (Right) One World Trade Center.

Reflecting Absence, the concept for the North and South Pool Memorials, was designed by Israeli architect Michael Arad of Handel Architects and landscape architect Peter Walker. The recessed pools outline the original footprints of the Twin Towers, where streaming water along the edges of the sunken walls flow towards the center of the void. Cut out from the metal parapets surrounding the perimeter of each pool are the 2,977 names of victims who perished from the 9/11 attacks, including those on board American Airlines Flight 11 (North Tower), United Airlines Flight 175 (South Tower), American Airlines Flight 77 (Pentagon), United Airlines Flight 93 (Pennsylvania), and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

IMG_1185(Above) Panoramic view of the North Pool. The base of One World Trade Center is on the far right side of the image.

IMG_1196(above) Panoramic view of the South Pool.

We didn’t go out to eat as much as we had liked since we were staying with my in-laws in Bayside, Queens. My mother-in-law makes the best homemade Korean beef radish soup Muguk (무국) and ox-tail soup Gom Guk (곰국). As soon as we arrive from JFK International, all the delicious Korean side dishes are laid out on the dinner table in a colorful spread of flavors.

IMG_0904 IMG_0908(left) On our first night, we had Korean beef radish soup Muguk (무국). (right) The next day, she made us ox-tail soup Gom Guk (곰국). The secret is that after the ox-tail meat is cleaned and soaked in cold water for an hour, it is boiled and the step is repeated and then simmered for hours, I mean overnight, until the broth is white and rich with flavor. Then top it off with the cooked meat, sliced green onions and some black pepper and it’s heaven in a bowl.

IMG_1129(above) Spicy beef soup Yuk Gae Jang (육개장)

Luxury Ski Chalets

Award-winning international designer Nicky Dobree is well known for designing luxury ski chalets, villas and contemporary residential interiors. In 2003, she converted a 300-year old ski chalet in the Alps, which was featured on Grand Designs Abroad. Host Kevin McCloud described the chalet as the “ultimate James Bond pad.” Located in the Portes du Soleil area, between Geneva and Mont Blanc, the town of Les Gets is home to Dobree’s luxurious chalet, Ferme de Moudon. Fancy spending a week in this beautiful haven? Then prepare to shell out about £10,000 a week, or £1,439/night ($2,182/night) – comes with a personal concierge and staff, newly renovated contemporary spaces, and of course breathtaking views of the alpine scenery.



ferme-de-moudon-2015_2 ferme-de-moudon-summer-9a(above) images from Nicky Dobree’s ski chalet Ferme de Moudon in Les Gets

a5091200a4772799ddac9a147bf45f5aPrivate residence in Gstaad, Switzerland by Nicky Dobree

45e3eba850e14eaee797eaddc379fe57Private residence in Gstaad, Switzerland

898abad9ccaf3a00394829c0705588e9 849a32cd02955e4e932f919a09dddb75(left) Alpine hideaway in St. Moritz. (right) Private residence in Val d’Isere

In Search of Architectural Minimalism

It is not surprising anymore to see the number of minimalist house extensions that get built in London and pretty much around the UK. This includes the painstaking restoration and refurbishment of grade-listed structures that incorporate the old and and the new in a meaningful way that is well-designed and sustainable. In a country that has a long history and is steeped in tradition, it is exciting to see this forward-thinking conversion of old barns, mills, towers, and other agricultural buildings into habitable and sustainable residences. Is it the culture or society in the UK that seem to have a genuine interest in architectural minimalism? Considering that the definition of architectural minimalism is very subjective, I can name a handful of award-winning UK architects whose stunning minimalist designs are quite similar to one another in a positive and responsive way. They have an understanding of marrying existing traditional spaces with contemporary spaces that are airy and spacious yet intimate for social interaction. Perhaps this is why Londoners seek comfort with the idea of connecting with the outdoors while being indoors at the same time than building an addition that loses that connection.

37955_RIC120093_IMG_00_0001Kew Residence by Gregory Phillips Architects

I became enamored with architectural minimalism when I saw an article on Dwell magazine about a residential project in Kew, just outside of London, by Gregory Phillips Architects. (This was around the same time I took an interest in the work of British architectural designer John Pawson, who is known for designing monastic spaces using a minimal material palette of smooth, white plastered walls, wide Douglas Fir hardwood planking, natural limestone wash basins and full-height glazing. His recognized body of work include the Calvin Klein flagship store in NY and the Novy Dvur monastery in the Czech Republic.) I absolutely love how these minimalist glass pavilions extend from beyond the footprint of existing 19th century brick structures, creating a dialogue between traditional and modern, indoor and outdoor spaces. For these house extensions, the location of the open-plan kitchen and informal living room are often situated in the rear of the house where the glazed curtain walls open all the way to blur the boundary between inside and outside. And this is considered a luxury to have, especially when the weather is nice in the UK, where it receives an average of 34 inches of rain a year and raining one third of the time. The extensions are not noticeable at first glance when entering upon the vestibule of a typical Edwardian home. The aperture out back suddenly comes into full view as you make your way past the wainscoted staircase hall and formal salon.

08-home-chiswick-london-571x575 06-home-chiswick-london1-622x575(above) Private Residence in Chiswick, London by Found Associates

One project that is high on my list is Home Farm, a grade II listed country estate in Gloucestershire by De Matos Ryan Architects. Suffering from years of neglect, the 16th century farmhouse and the two outbuildings required a complete restoration of internal exposed stonework, timber-framed lath, plaster walls and ceilings, extensive repairs to the original lime mortar repointing, and replacement of windows from a previous renovation to match the original traditional lead windows. A single level contemporary glass pavilion with a butterfly roof is cut into a sloping hillside and connects the main house with the outbuildings to an open barn structure. This link, which runs parallel with the stone retaining wall for the upper level churchyard, houses an open-plan kitchen and informal living room along with a guest bedroom and bath and an underground tunnel to the main house. A separate stone building was extended to make room for a concealed garage with a green roof and a home office on the upper level.

c795e2a465a47815548d17587e95f1c6 2c4a215fc4fb148778d3532b675824dd(above) Contemporary glass pavilion

Contemporary interventions which involved both wooden and concrete stairways, bathrooms, doors, cabinetry, 3-sided glass corridor, and other joinery were designed to be carefully ‘inserted’ into the shell of the existing structures. Natural limestone, oak timbers, and slate roofing were selected to match the original building materials so that the extension reads as part of the whole.

9fac17e79099c2303ea816d7fcb4d11e b7f5fb80e9d663cb465c3a03c45c2bbb



Architectural transformations

The beautiful English countryside is littered with historical-registered buildings ranging from barns, old mills, monasteries, and derelict utility structures, which some have been converted for residential use. These architectural minimalist transformations are a brilliant and ecological way of reusing what is already there in order to preserve the beauty of their past, present and future in context with the surrounding bucolic landscape.

2b0eabfb2179b1360f76e63ca314a215(above) Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire by McLean Quinlan Architects

cotswold-house-06-655x575 cotswolds-house-020-675x513(above) Private Residence, Cotswolds by Found Associates

cotswold-house-10-366x575 cotswold-house-11-362x575(above) Private Residence, Cotswolds by Found Associates

IMG_6150 IMG_6155(above) Park Corner Barn, Oxfordshire by McLaren Excell

tilty-barn-horse tilty-barn-main-room(above) Tilty Hill Barn, Essex by John Pawson

0bd35f72e99b3c71a7ea56f999c02b06 aaa84f4ff8366cb66da153e9cd1fa561(above) Home Farm, Gloucestershire by De Matos Ryan Architects

DMR4-SWC8 cbe9bbb911ac70fcbbc805e7d04bcecb(above) Home Farm, Gloucestershire by De Matos Ryan Architects

stringio Dezeen_The-Round-Tower-by-De-Matos-Ryan_3(above) Round Tower, Gloucestershire by De Matos Ryan Architects

05aedbf8ff708b6693000d4ae43e9359 the-round-tower-06-pic(above) Round Tower, Gloucestershire by De Matos Ryan Architects

51rt(above) From a bird’s eye view, much of the extension of Round Tower is hidden underground so as to not detract from the beauty of the grade II listed folly.