December 2008

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The Gift: II

My father was more Jackie Gleason than David Niven, more Walter Matthau than Fred Astaire. Sort of the blue-collar Frank Sinatra, I guess you’d say, a man who loved meatloaf, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, and playing ping-pong. He admired Steve McQueen, never owned a suit, and always won a free turkey around Thanksgiving in his bowling league. Always.

Oddly enough, his drink of choice was a Manhattan, which, even as a kid, I sort of admired and was embarrassed by at the same time. I’ll tell you a story: When I was 10, maybe 11 years old, I used to go with my dad on Thursdays, league night, to the bowling alley where I’d get paid a buck plus all the cherry cokes I could drink to keep score for my father’s team. All these guys—most a little younger than my dad—would down Coors all night, but not my father. He’d order a Manhattan from the gum-smacking bar girl, and she’d bring it to him on the rocks in a plastic cup. At this point my father would pull out from his shoe bag a ridiculous cocktail shaker adored with drink recipes. He would dump in the contents of the cup, then strain the drink into a ribbed martini glass, which he also kept in his shoe bag. Finally he would pull out an old jam jar of brandied cherries he’d preserved himself and plop one of the scarlet bombs in his glass and another in my coke.

He called my drink a virgin Manhattan—“Which, as you’ll discover, is a very rare thing”—chuckling as he clinked my glass. This is the part that always embarrassed me: the clinking of glasses, the lame joke. This is the part I admired: His bowling buddies always treated him as if he were a bon vivant and I a young prince. It left an impression.

But I came of age in a time of Harvey Wallbangers, tequila sunrises, and California wines hawked by a bloated Orson Welles. The first time I had a real Manhattan was at my father’s funeral. I liked it immensely, which rather surprised me. I liked the way the rosy hue of sweet vermouth deepened the amber color of the whiskey. I liked its smoky sweetness, the way just the slightest sip filled my mouth with lubricious lushness. Most of all, I liked the way it made me feel on a day when much seemed lost in my world: comforted, calm, stoically philosophical. From that day forward, my father’s Manhattan became my signature drink.

The Manhattan is the Cary Grant of cocktails. The most charming, the most elegant, the most sophisticated of libations you can order. It is, quite simply, the finest cocktail on the face of the earth. It’s the grandfather of the martini and the sine qua non of all French-Italian cocktails. It’s also inherently sexy (though I’ve yet to meet a woman who can actually tie the cherry stem into a know using just her tongue).

The Manhattan has gone through a number of permutations over the decades—from rye, originally, to Canadian whisky during Prohibition, to my father’s preference, bourbon. And there’s always been disagreement over the type of vermouth to use—and just how much. The story goes that the original Manhattan was made with equal amounts of both dry and sweet vermouths, and this is still called a Perfect Manhattan, though in my mind there’s nothing perfect about it.

My father made his with Italian vermouth, as called for on the recipe of his goofy cocktail shaker. Back then, people referred to dry vermouth as French and sweet vermouth as Italian because that’s where they came from. These days there are all sorts of vermouths out there, including sweet whites, so you have to be more specific.

Now, about the whiskey. Hardly anyone makes a rye Manhattan these days, largely because hardly anymore makes rye whiskey. But if you order a Manhattan back East and don’t specify the liquor, most bartenders will use a Canadian whisky—usually Canadian Club—which they will tell you is a rye whiskey.


Almost all Canadian whiskies are simply blended, which means they come from a number of different barrels (Crown Royal, for instance, creates its blend with as many as 50 whiskies). If you ask me, using a blended Canadian whisky to make a Manhattan is like using surimi to make a crab salad—please don’t do it. Order a straight bourbon. Something like Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek is fine.

When my father died, I inherited two things: his old cocktail shaker, which I still use, and his recipe for what truly is the perfect Manhattan. Shake exactly one drop of orange bitters into a martini glass and swirl it around. In a cocktail shaker half-filled with crushed ice, add two shots of bourbon and one shot of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth (I find Cinzano a little too robust and Noilly Prat too cloying—you want to taste the bourbon, not the vermouth). Swirl the mixture around but don’t bruise it; you don’t want a cloudy Manhattan. Strain into a martini glass and add a maraschino cherry. Take a sip. Then start spreading the news. The perfect Manhattan. A gift from my father.


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Last call on Niue

The Air New Zealand flight from Auckland comes in tonight to whisk me away (supposedly) at 2:40 in the morning. I’m sad to go. When I arrived here two weeks ago—in total darkness, with no electricity at the Matavai or anywhere else on the island—I was thinking, Christ, I’ll never be able to stand a day here let alone two weeks.

Not so. I’ve rather fallen in love with this disheveled Garden of Eden. Even though it’s hotter than hell, the food is awful, and my hotel room—the best on the island—wouldn’t meet decency standards for a Motel 6. I don’t know why, but being on Niue has made me happy. Actually, happy isn’t the right word. More like serene. And I am not a serene person.

At first things like the only market on the island being closed on weekends drives you crazy. And then somewhere along the line…you let go. Maybe the little dumpy place with two computers in a stifling hot room—the only place to do e-mail on the island—will be open when it’s supposed to. Maybe it won’t. No matter. Maybe the Katuali coffee house will actually have coffee tomorrow. But probably not.

You stop expecting things to be the way they are at home. You take a shower not knowing if there will be any hot water or not and realize it doesn’t really make any difference. You go to bed wondering if the air-conditioning will go off in the middle of the night for lack of electricity. You realize that the dolphins will show up when the dolphins want to show up. And not a minute before.

Such is life on Niue. And that’s just fine.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I’ve circumnavigated the island at least a dozen times now and, as I’ve mentioned, every time I drive around it, I see something I didn’t see before. Or I see something differently. Or feel differently about it.

For instance, there’s the Sharissta Café. I can’t tell you how excited I was to come across this ancient, faded Trail*Lite trailer on the outskirts of Alofi and how I planned my entire day around having a lunch of donar kebabs as this fascinating looking eatery. Only problem is that, despite what the wooden sign in front always said, every day I went by Sharissta and every day it was closed. For two weeks. Had Sharissta packed up and moved back to Samoa or something? Was he or she on vacation? I’ll never know. At first, it all really annoyed me. Especially the “YES WE OPEN” sign. Then, for some odd reason, I started taking comfort in the fact that it was just there. And closed. I’d drive by it every day and think to myself, “NO WE NOT OPEN.” And I’d laugh about it.

Then there’s the Niue Gym. Unlike Sharissta’s, I never had any expectation of the gym being open. And it never was. Instead, it just became a repository for my wicked imagination as I tried to imagine just what sort of equipment might be in this odd little shack in the jungle and who, exactly, its customers might be. The church ladies from Tamakautoga doing pilates? Bare-chested fishermen pumping weights? Taso Tukunou, the church bell toller, riding a stationary bike while listening to rap music on his iPod?

And then there’s the Coconut Stop, a little thatched hut on the north end of the island near Matapa. There were a couple of things I liked about the Coconut Stop. First, the idea that on an island where coconuts seemed to plop heavily to earth no matter where you were, someone had the entrepreneurial spirit to open a stand and try to sell these giant nuts. Perhaps because they were free and easy to find everywhere I went, I badly wanted to buy one here. I wanted to meet the man or woman that was optimistic enough to set up a roadside coconut stand. But, alas, there was never anyone there (though if you walked two minutes into the jungle you could pick up all the coconuts you wanted).

I also liked how professional the sign was. Like maybe they’d gotten support from the Niue government or something. “Hey, why don’t we open a coconut stop on the north end of the island and get John Halapalapa to sell coconuts there to tourists? All in favor, say aye!”


Obviously it didn’t work, but, hey, they tried. Which, it seems to me, should be the island’s motto: It May Not Work—But We Tried.

I’ll take that spirit off with me to Lanai where I’m headed next. In search of more island culture. 

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Swimming with Annie and the dolphins

Annie tells me I just missed the humpback whales, which breed and calve around Niue roughly between July and November. Last year, she said, some yachty tried to ride one of the humpback whales. Which really pissed the Niueans off. Riding whales, Annie says, is very bad form.

Annie and her husband, Ian, own Niue Dive. They’re good-hearted people but I think they’re probably a little nuts. Trying to run a business on an island like Niue (and raise two little kids at the same time) has got to be challenging. Particularly when you’re dealing with stuff like having no electricity. Or cyclones. I asked Annie if she and Ian thought about moving after Heta hit the island in 2004, destroying a good chunk of the island. 

“We did,” she admits. “But then we decided to stick it out. Not sure why.”


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

I think that sums up the attitude of a lot of the people on the island. Yes, it’s incredibly rustic, but it’s also stunningly beautiful. So your head tells you to go but your heart says stay. You know what Woody Allen says about irrational desires—the heart wants what the heart wants.

The first day I met Annie and Ian they suggested they take me swimming with one of the pods of spinner dolphins that hang around by the Matavai. When they say “swim with the dolphins” that’s exactly what they mean. You hop into the water with snorkel gear and a diving glove and then hold on to the side of the Zodiac while Annie guns you around the cove. With your free hand, you point out where the dolphins are heading. And you do this while trying not to drown.

The only problem is that the dolphins have been hanging out somewhere else all week. Every morning I walk through the jungle to Annie and Ian’s house and every morning they tell me they haven’t spotted any dolphins that morning. “I reckon they’ll be showing up soon, though,” Annie always says. “They always do.”

You’ve got to love her optimism. I wonder if she also thinks the parts for the generator are going to be arriving soon and we’ll get the electricity back?

Yesterday I was sitting out on the deck of the Matavai drinking my coffee when Annie popped by to say the spinners were down in the cove and she was taking a couple of the other guests out in an hour or so and did I want to join them. Hell yes.

So I got my snorkel gear and met her over at the dive shop. We loaded the Zodiac and drove down to Avatele Beach where there are the sad remains of a small fishing wharf largely destroyed by Heta and a rusty winch, that looks like it’s going to fall apart at any minute, that Annie used to lower the inflatable into the water.

Five minutes later we were in the middle of a large pod of spinner dolphins. They rode the wake beside the boat and, just for the hell of it, launched themselves out of the water, leaping five or six feet in the air and doing acrobatic twists and turns that would make a 13-year-old Chinese gymnast proud.

 I put on my snorkel gear and quietly slipped into the water, not wanting to freak out the dolphins. There were like 20 or 30 of them all around the boat. I grabbed onto the side of the Zodiac and pointed straight ahead with my free hand and we were off—zipping off with the dolphins. Not to get all anthropomorphic here, but it sure seemed to me that the dolphins were getting as much pleasure out of this encounter as I was. They’d intentionally let me get just a few feet away and then zip off, do a flip or two, and then come back to stare me in the face as if to say Wha’ cha think of that, mate? Every so often a dolphin would come and swim with me (instead of the other way around), sidling up right next to me and adjusting his or her speed so that we were in sync. Almost as if inviting me to let go of the boat and grab ahold of him instead. Which, of course, I would never do. Mostly because I know it would piss Annie off. Bad form and all of that, you know.   

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Bats and lobsters at Avaiki

The pools and lagoons around Niue have the most shockingly crystal-clear water I’ve ever seen. It’s not unusual to have 100-feet visibility. And the colors are so dramatic you feel the fish swimming around you can’t be real. They must be plastic or something, like in the submarine ride at Disneyland. There are anemone and butterfly fish and Moorish idols and brightly colored wrasse—some with yellow tails, others with bands of blue or red. And even lobsters. Look at this guy.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

He moseyed over to me when I was standing in about two feet of water in the Avaiki pools. I don’t know if you can tell from this photo or not, but this sucker was big. Like maybe four or five pounds. I was tempted to reach down and grab him, bring him back to the Matavai and let Levu cook him up for my dinner. But it just didn’t seem right. I figured it would be like having Bambi walk up to you while you were hiking in the forest so you put a noose around his neck to lead him home and roast him. What fun is that?

The other thing you notice about the water, besides how impossibly clear it is, is that it isn’t very salty. That’s because Niue is made up primarily of limestone, which is quite porous, and when it rains, the water literally disappears on contact, seeping straight down into the ground and then percolating into the sea at spots like the Avaiki pools. So the water here is a mixture of fresh and ocean water.

This is true all over the island. You can actually see the fresh water pouring into the sea from the porous limestone rock. Yesterday I spent all afternoon at Avaiki where a large deep natural pool has etched its way into an open-mouthed cave, facing the sea, that is overhung with giant stalagmites. I swam back into one of the caves where the water was so clear and fresh that I felt like I was swimming in a resort pool. Like an exotic, but artificial, pool at Club Med or something. But then I let out a shout, just to hear the echo, and a hundred bats came swarming off the roof of the cave, scaring the hell out of me while making me realize just how real this environment is.

If you look at this shot I took of one of the Avaiki caves I’m talking about, you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see all those intense colors—the turquoise pool, the purple rocks—and you’ll think, God, he must have Photoshopped the hell out of that. Nope. That’s just the way it is. Untouched (except for a slight increase in contrast). No filters, no special settings. Nothing. And the only other person that showed up during the two or three hours I was there was this Polish woman who was crewing on a sailboat moored offshore (which brings up an interesting point: As far as I can tell, I’m the only American on the island at the moment). While she was paddling around in the cave (I didn’t tell her about the bats), I explored the shoreline a bit to the south, walking through fairly shallow water, and found a private little beach—no more than 20 feet long—where I took a snooze.

Which leads me to Rule Four on Niue: Pay attention to the tides. By the time I was ready to leave the sandy cove at Avaiki where I’d fallen asleep, the tide had come in over the outer reef. Which made it difficult to keep my camera dry while I dog-paddled back to the sea track. 

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Cow etiquette

I didn’t really have anything to do today so I decided to drive around the island. Again. I think I’ve already gone around the island 9 or 10 times, but what the hell. The thing is, even though the road around the island is only 30 miles long, you always see something new. Like last time I came across these bee hives in the jungle. And when I got out to check them out, the bees, which were the size of hummingbirds, chased me back to my car. Jungle bees on steroids.

This afternoon I came across two things I hadn’t seen before. The first was a cow that was tethered to a rope that was strung out across the road. I’m not even sure you could call this beast a cow. I don’t know what it was. Except that it had horns and was cross-eyed and did not seem happy to see me. Here it was, in the middle of nowhere, tied up in the jungle, with absolutely no interest in letting me by. So I stopped the car in the road, got out, and made some ridiculous noises to get it to move. Which it eventually did. After giving me the cross-eyed stink eye.


photos by David Lansing

photos by David Lansing

Then, a few minutes later, I came across this boulder beneath some coconut trees in the jungle. As first it caught my attention because of its weird blue color. Then I realized that someone had actually carved a relief on the boulder. If you squint and look carefully, you’ll see that the figure on the rock is a Polynesian superwoman (it has small boobies). Sort of leaning back and staring defiantly at the sky. As if she’s going to take off into the wild blue yonder any minute now. But the black lichen growing on her suggests she’s been thinking about this for some time now. And flying ain’t gonna happen anytime soon.

So that was my day. After all that excitement, you can understand why I was anxious to get back to the Matavai in time for cocktail hour. And to sit on the deck with the handful of other guests and watch the sun fall into the ocean. 

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