Nowhere in the southern Balkans has a region been so coveted by empires than Croatia with over 1,100 miles of photogenic Adriatic coastline. Although the ethnic Croats were themselves 7th century northern invaders, they could not stop a historical process that would come to an end only in late 20th century. The Romans, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans, Mussolini’s Italy and Serbs all lusted over this beautiful and strategic land akin to the biblical neighbor’s wife.
Today Croatia is invaded not by empires but by golden hordes of tourists…
Read more on my travels to Croatia in the Hellenic News of America
Leaving the sprawling modern city of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, Maurice Aymerich, director Small Distinctive Hotels and my guide throughout my stay in Costa Rica, deftly maneuvered the Toyota Rav4 on the winding roads as we ascended into the Cloud Forest. I was pleased I didn’t have to drive or else my field of vision would have been narrowed concentrating on the well paved but narrow mountain roads on our way to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Instead I could marvel at the panorama of the receding Central Valley as we entered the lush landscape for which this bio-diverse Central American nation is justifiably famous.
Costa Rica is a landmass equal to 0.03% of the Earth, about 20,000 square miles – the size of Vermont – but accounts for over 6% of the globe’s biodiversity. Just one hour from San Jose the emerald green mountain slopes are thick with coffee plants. Costa Rica leads world coffee production per acre because two trees are planted together.
Herds of cows and goats graze wrapped in swirls of misty clouds. Vendors selling large plump strawberries and the country’s ubiquitous balls of fresh mozzarella-like white cheese line village roads.
We stopped first at one of Costa Rica’s 27 national parks, which along with private wildlife and biological reserves encompasses nearly a third of the country – the largest percentage of protected national land on Earth. Central America is a seismically potent part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and Parc National Volcan Poas encompasses one of Costa Rica’s six active volcanoes. Exacerbated by the temperature differential of the venting volcano, the crater is often shrouded in mist that wafts up the steep walls of the caldera. Yet when the mist parts mineral rich turquoise lakes are visible.
The spacious modern visitor center at Parc National Volcan Poas has fine educational exhibits of the surrounding ecology. The gift shop displays top quality pottery and woodwork from some of Costa Rica’s most famous artists. I was particularly taken with the ingenious creations made from recycled materials such as a life-size toucan crafted from a single automobile tire.
Our objective for the day was a visit to the privately owned La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Peace Lodge – one of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica. Florida entrepreneur Lee Banks purchased this property with its five spectacular waterfalls with the intention of preserving its pristine biosphere. Visitors take self-guided tours along several miles of well-designed wooden walkways through the hills, along the La Paz River providing numerous vistas of the spectacular falls.
Within the gardens is a large butterfly house with a colorful collection of over 4,000 butterflies from 40 species native to this mile-high environment – only a small portion of Costa Rica’s over 1,200 species. The butterfly conservatory is part of an educational heritage village of pre-industrial rural life.
The visitor center complex is the gateway to the gardens and Peace Lodge. The architectural integration of the structures with their native wood and stone mirrors the surrounding environment. Like all Small Distinctive Hotels, the quality of the cuisine matched the beauty of the surroundings.
Lunch with Vanessa Gonzalez, restaurant manager, and Executive Chef Diego Seitour highlighted the quality of local ingredients and the creativity of Costa Rican talent. Diego’s French grandfather and Argentine born father were chefs. His Spanish mother added an additional culinary insight to his environment. Diego was born in Costa Rica and studied culinary arts in France and Costa Rica but worked in restaurants since he was a boy. I found this mix of talents and culinary backgrounds common in Costa Rica.
Lunch started with a sea bass ceviche. The paper-thin slices of sea bass were garnished with pajibaye – the iconic steamed bright orange Costa Rican fruit of the Peach Palm tree – and napped with a lime, orange juice and olive oil dressing that was bright and intense. Diego adds meat bones to the broth when simmering the pajibaye to provide a depth of flavor uncommon when the fruit is simply cooked in water.
Surrounding the base of a waterfall adjacent to the swimming pool at Peace Lodge is a large free form trout pond fed by the La Paz River. Chef Seitour uses the organically farmed trout in his menus. His impressive trout Napoleon is a pair of fillets sandwiched between grilled onions and eggplant resting on risotto cakes that have been pan seared. The accompanying vegetables and rice have a smoky flavor, which gives depth to the trout. The fish is glazed with a red and yellow pepper jam.
Papaya and Curry Soup blends the natural sweetness of papaya with the spice of curry creating a warm flavored soup.
Diego has assembled an impressive collection of craft beers for Peace Lodge. A local Escalante brew was dark and strong with a distinct hint of chocolate followed by coffee notes that worked well with the warm tones of the soup. Famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià created Estrella Damm Inedit for Barcelona based Damm S.A. that had strong citrus overtones with a light and effervescent mouth feel. It paired well with both fish dishes.
Hugging the hillside, the village-like complex of 18 rooms and suites of Peace Lodge are unique. Each is individually designed to integrate the Cloud Forest into the room while providing maximum privacy. Large log beds, stone gas fireplaces – Peace Lodge is 5,300 feet elevation – plant infused bathrooms with their own waterfalls and hot tubs on private patios and balconies are only a few of the serine elements that make Peace Lodge a sought after refuge and honeymoon haven.
I found it unique that Peace Lodge suggests no more than a three day stay. The expressed purpose is to encourage guests to explore the rest of Costa Rica. After over a week at five Small Distinctive Hotels I was no longer surprised at this sentiment, which seems to run counter to maximizing profits. What makes the Costa Rican experience memorable is the obvious pride both the owners of these beautiful hotels and ordinary citizens from scientist to street vendors have for their peaceful nation and their eagerness to share it with visitors.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive to downtown San Jose and an hour to La Paz Waterfall Gardens/Peace Lodge
As Thessaloniki has been at the crossroads of Greek history for 2,500 years then by all means walk the city. It’s not a small city but easy for anyone who enjoys a good low-impact hike. When that stroll includes stops at world-class historic sites, vibrant centuries old markets and unique cafes, the discoveries that are in store can be amazing.
What to visit:
Roman archeological sites: the 4th century triumphal arch of the Emperor Galarius still has a direct road connecting his palace to the Rotunda. For over 2,000 years the Rotunda served as a Greek/Roman temple, Christian church, mosque and now an Orthodox Church treasure.
The Archaeology Museum of Thessaloniki houses a wealth of culture that both Macedonia and the city fostered from pre-historic times to the golden age of Alexander.
Towering above downtown Thessaloniki up the foothills of Mount Chortiatis where the ancient acropolis was located, the massive fortress of the Heptapyrgion guarded the city for nearly two millenniums. Started by the Romans in the late 4th century it was substantially expanded by the Byzantine Empire in the 12th century and Ottomans in the 15th.
Down the hill the Monastery of Vlatadon in Ano Poli was built on a site already sacred where St. Paul preached to the Thessalonians in the year 51.
Until its near destruction in the great fire of 1917 the historic Ladadika district was the heart of Thessaloniki’s commercial activity and Jewish heritage. What survived both the fire and Nazi extermination is the heart of tradition and the city’s elegant beaux-arts pre-World War II rebuilding. Today it’s a trendy neighborhood of cafes and shops. Centuries old market arcades, the Modeano and Bezesteni in particular, still ply traditional goods such as textiles, flowers and jewelry.
Cafes surround the 15th century Bey Hamam, a preserved Ottoman public bathhouse.
The White Tower, built by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century on Roman and Byzantine foundations, is a popular icon and focal point of the new seaside promenade.
Tiffany conjures images of ultimate luxury. Diamonds and gleaming silver flood our minds at the sound of that name. Yet Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Tiffany & Company founder Charles, was an artistic polymath who put his stamp on paintings, shimmering glass, mosaics, architecture, pottery, bronze and objet d’art. He was the genius that reinvented interior design for the generation of the Gilded Age.
For lovers of Art Nouveau in America as envisioned by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) mecca is the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art owns the largest and most comprehensive collection of Tiffany art in the world. Like the era that fostered both Louis Comfort Tiffany and affluent Winter Park, the museum is the product of a vast Gilded Age fortune.
Jeannette Genius (1909-1989) was the granddaughter of Chicago industrialist Charles Morse. Charles had a keen appreciation for art and warm Florida winters. First wintering and then retiring to this wealthy suburb of Orlando in the late 19th century, Charles Morse became a major benefactor and real estate baron in Winter Park.
Jeannette’s mother, Elizabeth Morse Genius, was an accomplished artist and patron of the era’s modern art – American impressionism, and Tiffany Studios. Jeannette inherited both wealth and an artistic passion, pursuing her own successful career as an interior designer. After spending much time with her grandfather in Winter Park she chose the town as her permanent residence.
Her family’s philanthropy had already made a mark on Winter Park’s Rollins College, and at the age of 27 Jeannette started a decades-long association on the Board of Trustees. More importantly she met and married a dashing Rollins art professor, Hugh McKean (1908-1995) who himself had an intimate connection to Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany had designed his magnificent Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, in 1903 as a showcase for everything he loved. He intended that it would eventually become a residential institution to foster young artists. In 1930 a young Hugh McKean spent months at Laurelton Hall as one of Tiffany’s students. Although Hugh’s family was well to do, it was the match of love, art and Jeannette’s vast fortune that allowed the couple to fulfill their dream.
It’s difficult to believe that even before the death of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1933, his designs had become passé. During the 1940s and 1950s Jeannette and Hugh amassed a personal collection in every medium of Tiffany Studios designs. They established the Morse Museum and the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation, which owns and funds museum operations. More importantly, through their work they revived the keen international interest in Louis Comfort Tiffany that grows stronger as time passes.
Upon hearing in 1957 of the tragic fire that destroyed Laurelton Hall they set out to salvage and restore everything they could from stained glass windows, architectural artifacts and Tiffany’s masterpiece, the Byzantine Chapel he designed for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. The chapel was a creation of love and a marketing tour de force that catapulted Tiffany’s career to international fame. From its hand carved door, shimmering mosaics, stunning blue baptistery window to the revolutionary eight by ten foot, three dimensional Byzantine cross, the Electrolier, electrified with the aid of Thomas Edison, the chapel alone is worth a visit to the Morse Museum.
A visit to the Morse Museum is more than just gazing at beautifully displayed art. It’s meant to be an educational experience on Tiffany’s life and genius. Free detailed booklets in each gallery meticulously explain the exhibits. The lighting is stunning, illuminating objects in the manner intended for their original owners and eliciting sounds of awe as glass comes alive in shimmering glory. Archival videos and displays demonstrate the actual methods used by Tiffany Studio artists to create these magnificent objects.
An entire wing of the museum recreates as much as possible the feel of Laurelton Hall as Louis Comfort Tiffany would have wanted his guests to experience from the impressive entrance hall, his very modern dining room and what was salvaged of his beloved Daffodil Terrace. The Daffodil Terrace highlights Tiffany’s love for that flower and his skill in ceramics. In a glass walled enclosure complete with comfortable wicker chairs, the terrace invites museum visitors to relax, read and contemplate beauty. Contemplating beauty is the successful legacy of Tiffany, Jeannette, Hugh and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
Denis Roy emigrated from France with a dream somewhere in his head that materialized into creating a fantasy in Costa Rica. On over 700 acres of improbable, undeveloped coastal and mountain wilderness, using building methods that hearkened back to the days of the pyramids, the hotel, restaurants and spa complex of Villa Caletas and the Zephyr Palace emerged over time. A fusion of river stone castle and tropical Victorian architecture, the 50 rooms range from stunning to awe inspiring.
Sunsets from the amphitheater are legendary and views encompass forested hills and ocean from many angles. Yet those beautiful hills required total reforestation due to cattle overgrazing. The lush peaks of today were barren, rocky and eroding into the clear Pacific below. Fifteen hundred trees were planted from the beach up the mountain, and Villa Caletas continues to spearhead major reforestation projects in the region.
Ten percent of electricity is solar powered and all hot water is provided through a system of air conditioner heat transfer. Each room’s air conditioning system uses smart technology reducing the temperature automatically when no one is present and increasing it to a guest’s pre-set comfort zone when they enter their room.
Twenty-five years ago this lush location had no roads, no water and no electricity. Denis had an initial concept to construct a 25 room hotel on this spectacular site with its panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean’s Herradura Bay on Costa Rica’s Central Coast. But cost and engineering reality limited his first venture to eight rooms. Yet Denis was not deterred.
Denis Roy is a dreamer who understands that demanding clients will pay for luxury if unique. Waking in the king size bed of my suite, room 88, a panoramic view unfolded through the expansive glass wall overlooking Herradura Bay. After a quick call to the front desk I was picked up in an electric golf cart to meet General Manager Frederick Nepveu and whisked off in a four-wheel drive car down the mountain to the beach for breakfast.
The slow drive down the steep hill passed Villa Caletes’ hydroponic farm growing herbs and produce. No contact with soil controls pest infestation of the produce. The lush forest teemed with animals and birds in the cool of the early morning.
The beach complex offers privacy, the well designed El Pelicano Snack Bar on the Beach and an array of comfortable beach chaise lounges. The shuttle runs every 30 minutes from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Breakfast included fresh extracted organic kale juice, an artful fruit salad and a typical Costa Rican breakfast plate – gallo pinto (black beans and rice) eggs, sautéed sweet plantains, fresh avocado and a wedge of fried white cheese. The gentle lapping of Pacific Ocean waves was the only music necessary.
Villa Caletas is a complex of buildings set among the lush restored mountain landscape. Small Distinctive Hotels are not for the budget traveler, but if seeking bang for the buck, Villa Caletas delivers in spades. While river stone buildings dominate most of the complex, a graceful Victorian glass and wood filigree building with the Mirador Restaurant tops a jungle of exotic plants and expansive window walls that bring the outside indoors.
A massive traditional open air palapa with hand carved wood pillars set on the edge of a cliff is dedicated to Denis’ passion for yoga, yet has become popular for events up to 300 guests. The Serenity Spa, tucked behind the palapa, is a haven of calm. Providing all the services one expects from a luxury spa, I nearly drifted off to sleep under relaxing hands, scented oils and the soft sounds of water fountains.
The Zephyr Palace is the crown jewel of this luxe property. Seven massive individually designed and decorated suites provide luxury befitting a palace. Private dining rooms, hand painted ceilings, in room exercise equipment, hand crafted furniture, exotic woods, marble tiles, original art, private infinity pools and televisions that slide into the foot of king size beds at the touch of a button are among just a few of the luxuries in the Zephyr Palace. On the day of my visit the suites were fully booked by a wedding party, not an uncommon occurrence.
Providing an atmosphere of effortless comfort requires attention to detail from the eyes and hands of dedicated employees. Many of the managers live on site, including Denis Roy and general manager Frederick Nepveu. Over 150 employees, including 20 gardeners, maintain the 50 room Villa Caletes/Zephyr Palace complex.
For a culinary travel journalist Denis Roy, Frederick Nepveu, Chef Fernando Adaniz and food and beverage manager Pablo Lombardo oversee a cuisine that matches the style of Villa Caletas. Lunch started with a trio of ceviche: mango, sea snails and fish paired with a light and lemony chardonnay. Grilled rare yellow fin tuna was accompanied by a timbal of yucca and napped with pipian sauce – roasted pumpkin seeds. A salad included flor de Itavo (yucca) leaves that taste like artichoke hearts. Dessert was a light and cooling sorbet of nancy mirabelle plum.
Pre dinner drinks at sunset commenced with an orange martini cocktail created especially for me. A long peel of orange rind twisted around the stem of the glass and dipped into the fragrant drink. Its color mimicked the setting sun’s display. The steep Greek inspired Villa Caletas amphitheater adjacent to the open-air Anfiteatro Bar and Restaurant is a local destination for observing beautiful sunsets for which Costa Rica has a well deserved reputation. Soft ambient music added to the charm.
Segueing to a cliff side table Chef Fernando Adaniz opened dinner with an amuse bouche of avocado and salmon with crème fraîche on toast. Seafood terrine of lobster, shrimp and mussels with chipotle mayonnaise was followed by an entrée of red snapper rolled around lobster. It was napped with a light egg and mustard seed sauce. A smooth pinot grigio with citrus hints tied together this dinner of fresh seafood.
Befitting a luxe hotel dinner, dessert was preceded by a mouth cleansing sorbet of passion fruit. Dessert was an appropriately dense chocolate cake garnished with strawberry and kiwi sauce and cubes of fresh pineapple, papaya and watermelon. Did you know that Costa Rica is the world’s largest grower of pineapples? Villa Caletas, naturally, makes all its breads, pastries and desserts in house. Food and beverage manager Pablo Lombardo’s Mexican roots shined when he presented an after dinner tasting of smooth premium tequilas.
I had to remind myself that with the gentle evening breeze and lush vegetation surrounding all that it was not long ago that this site was a barren wasteland. That’s why the many infinity pools dotting Villa Caletas become a metaphor for the group of Small Distinctive Hotel owners, managers and chefs this travel journalist interviewed during an eight-day tour – the visions they conjure gazing into infinity. Villa Caletas and Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica provide luxury with a conscience transforming what we destroy into what we desire.
When you go: Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) is served by many airlines worldwide and is within an easy 20 minute drive of downtown San Jose. Hotel Villa Caletas on the Central Pacific Coast region of Puntarenas is an hour and fifteen-minute drive from Juan Santamaría International Airport.
Much is written in the media today concerning the inability to disconnect while on vacation – professionals glued to email and cell phones around the pool. Yet that’s hardly unique to the 21st century. In 1885 when Thomas Edison purchased 14 acres along the Caloosahatchee River as a winter retreat in the remote southwestern Florida farming hamlet of Fort Myers he had no intention of turning his mind off.
Although Thomas (1847-1931) Mina (1865-1947) and their children spent most winters at their Seminole Lodge estate, his office provides ample evidence he was still connected by correspondence to his invention laboratory at Menlo Park, NJ. Along with good friends Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford the Edison Botanical Research Corporation was established and a laboratory constructed on the estate in the 1920s. The goal was to make America independent of foreign rubber.
Edison dubbed Seminole Lodge his jungle. He and Mina surrounded their home with lush gardens. But first, they had to construct the houses.
The railroad was not extended to Fort Myers until 1904, which meant convenient travel was by ship. A 1,500 foot pier was built as a landing for family, guests and the materials necessary for Seminole Lodge. Prefab houses were also not new to the 21st century. The lumber for the two identical mirror-image houses that are Seminole Lodge was fabricated in Maine, shipped to Fort Myers and assembled on site.
The adjacent second house was originally the winter home of business partner Ezra Gulliland, but was bought back by Edison after a serious split with Gulliland. The spacious, airy wood structures were connected with a pergola and the second house turned into combination guest quarters, dining room and kitchen for Seminole Lodge. Both houses were electrified, of course, with power from both generators and batteries – all the product of Edison’s fertile mind.
Children of America’s great industrial age, Thomas and Mina were friends with other magnates of the day, especially Henry Ford. A frequent guest of the Edisons at Seminole Lodge, Ford purchased the beautiful yet modest Craftsman house in 1916 adjacent to Seminole Lodge. Although the Fords only used the home for two weeks each winter to celebrate Edison’s birthday, their friendship and business partnerships were life-long.
After Thomas Edison’s death at age 84 in 1931 Mina continued to winter at Seminole Lodge. Mina was Edison’s second wife having been widowed in the early 1880s when only in his 30s. The daughter of an inventor, university educated and an employee at the Menlo Park lab, Mina was as much an intellectual equal to her husband as a wife.
Mina was active managing their households, the botanical gardens and the Edison business ventures. Edison was said to greatly appreciate Mina’s intellect and input in discussing his many theories for everything from the phonograph, electric batteries to motion picture cameras. In 1947 Mina deeded the estate to the City of Fort Myers on condition that it be preserved as a public memorial to her husband’s genius.
Henry Ford sold his house in 1947, and it remained a private home until the city purchased it in 1988. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is operated and maintained as a non-profit offering a plethora of tours and activities including an extensive museum dedicated to the genius of these two men. A visit to Edison’s jungle is to step back to an age where great ideas were conjured in the mind rather than by an electronic device – although Thomas probably would have invented the computer if he’d had time.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan may be less than a century old, but like many Bedouins, the Hashemite family share histories stretching back to biblical times.
For millenniums the river valleys, highlands and vast deserts of the Cradle of Civilization were the epicenter of the legendary, lucrative and infamous caravan trade linking Asia with the Mediterranean world. In an age before GPS pictographs were road signs directing caravans that could include up to 700 treasure laden camels.
One enterprising tribe, the Nabataeans, carved the city of Petra (300s B.C.E. – 800s A.C.E.) into sandstone cliffs and created the wealthiest financial center in the ancient world. With only one public entrance at the end of a lengthy, towering, narrow, canyon road, the Nabataeans made Petra immortal.
Coupled with its commercially strategic position, the Jordan region had been fused, either through mutual interest, religion or conquest, with the great powers of the day from Greece to the Ottomans. The Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, founded by Alexander the Great (331 B.C.E.) and continuing as a major city within the Roman Empire, is one of Jordan’s archeological gems. Heavily damaged by earthquakes in 749 A.C.E., the city continued, and the remarkably preserved site is surrounded today by Jordan’s modern city of Jerash.
The Jordan River of biblical fame still defines a land that has stirred great passions in human history from Moses to today’s conflict concerning the West Bank. People that share an ageless history are divided by a thin, slow moving stream of brown water.
Jordan’s storied history has created a legendary cuisine with variations of many dishes it shares with Spice Route neighbors. From breakfast to late night dinner a bounty of mezze (small plates) to aromatic wood grilled lamb and Bedouin ash bread baked in hot sand will be but a few of the dishes in a culinary repertoire as vast as the Kingdom’s deserts.
For the modern traveler there has never been a better time to enjoy hospitality as stunning as Jordan’s natural beauty. Despite surrounding turmoil, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan enjoys peace within its borders and goes to great length to ensure security for its citizens and visitors. Tolerant and democratic Jordan allows the 21st century traveler a rare glimpse at the entire history of the Cradle of Civilization from iconic archeological sites, ageless Bedouin lifestyles, the roots of modern cuisine, phenomenons of nature, accommodations from Bedouin tents to the heights of luxury and even newborn baby camels.
Discover Jordan for yourself.
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Yet tranquility reigned on these soft days of late August showers that alternated with brilliant sunshine. Everyone on the streets – punctuated by bright red, deep blue or even burnt orange painted houses – settled into the rhythms of the photo perfect port town with the distinct sounds of seagulls and a charming child-size waterfront amusement park.
Kinsale was founded in the early 1300s by the Plantagenet dynasty of England. Based on the success of Celtic Mediterranean sea routes, for the next 500 years Kinsale would become the wine distribution center for Europe generating vast fortunes….
…and attention as it was fought over for centuries with the very independence of Ireland in balance. Read why
The legend of Irish ‘pirate queen’ Grace O’Malley – Ó Máille Clan chieftain – is in the history books, yet as important as that was it would be passing down her entrepreneurial pluck and the aristocratic titles and privileges conferred on succeeding generations that would perpetuate Grace O’Malley’s family into the 21st century.
Adding to this allure is the photogenic village of Westport and elegant Westport House creations of enlightened 18th century concepts in estate planning.
So morphing Westport House estate during the 1960s into a family-oriented tourist attraction made perfect entrepreneurial sense.
Walk down any Charleston street and you’ll be acknowledged. Stop and ask a question and be prepared for a lengthy and enthusiastic conversation. As one gentleman said, “Charleston’s always been unique.”
Richmond’s elegant Jefferson Hotel used to stock live alligators in the fountain of the Palm Court lobby. How does Christmas top that? Old Pompey, immortalized by a taxidermist, was the last and after his passing in 1948 the fountain was removed.
Richmond residents as well as visitors are drawn to both the lobby and hotel restaurants akin to New York’s Time Square – it’s the city’s Christmas focal point. Read why at…