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  • Ho Chi Minh Itinerary & Resour Ho Chi Minh Itinerary & Resources

    • From: laratada
    • Description:

      My husband and I took a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines last December. I plan to write a more detailed journal about our adventures, but thought I'd start with some handy resources for anybody planning a trip. Since we barely had five days in Vietnam, we decided to make Saigon our home base and take a couple of day trips beyond city life. Feel free to contact me with any questions!

      SUGGESTED ITENERARY

      DAY 1: Late night arrival and check-in

       

      DAY 2: Explore HCMC District 1 & 3

      • Grab a quick bite to eat at the city's largest covered market, Ben Thanh. Explore the maze of fruit, meat, food and shopping stalls. 
      • Walk or take a cyclo to the Reunification Palace 
      • Stroll through the shaded park filled with locals and students to Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office. This is near HCMC's high-end area with some of the fancier and more diverse dining options (albeit pricey by Vietnamese standards).
      • Spend the afternoon touring the collection of machinery and weapons and getting a different perspective of the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum. Be warned that some of the displays and exhibits can be very graphic. Make sure to bring water as there is no A/C and on a hot day, it can get quite muggy on the upper floors.
      • Jet lag may sink in so you may want to head back to the hotel for a break, or get a cheap foot massage at one of the many salons (stay away from ones with women in scanty outfits displayed in the window).
      • Enjoy dinner near your hotel or at a Bia Hoi sidewalk stool for a cheap and more authentic experience

      DAY 3: COOKING CLASS & MORE EXPLORATION

      • Arrange a cooking class or tour with Connections Vietnam. A local guide, usually a student, will meet you at your hotel and take you around the city or to a family's home where you can shop for ingredients at a nearby market and prepare a delicious, Vietnamese lunch.
      • Spend the afternoon visiting one of the city's many Pagodas. For an atmospheric, spooky experienceI recommend the Emperor Jade Pagoda in District 3. Cholon (Chinatown) also has a slew of temples to visit, including Giac Lam Pagoda.
      • If you have time, take advantage of one of the city's many cheap salon or spa services before dinner.

       

      DAY 4: DAY TRIP TO CU CHI TUNNELS AND CAO DAI TEMPLE

      Arrange a tour through your hotel or something more personalized with an operator like Connections Vietnam or Sinh Balo for a day trip out of the city. A popular day trip is to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels in the morning and Cao Dai Temple in the afternoon. The advantage of taking a personal tour is that you can start earlier and beat the crowds.

      • Meet your guide and take a 90-minute ride out of the city and through the country to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels made by the Viet Cong during the war. You start the tour with a funny, war-era propaganda film about its history and proceed to explore an outdoor exhibit of tunnels, bunkers, and traps. There's even a shooting range where tourists can pay to fire different weapons.
      • Head out to Tay Ninh to visit the spiritual center of the Cao Dai religion and observe a ceremony at the colorful temple around noon. Cao Dai is a popular religion in southern Vietnam that pulls from the pillars of Buddhism, Islam, Christiany, and Taoism.
      • Usually the tour will arrange for lunch nearby the temple before arriving back in the city in mid to late afternoon. Spend the rest of the day shopping or resting.


       

      DAY 5: DAY TRIP TO MEKONG DELTA

      We arranged our tour with Sinh Balo and were very happy with their personal service and expertise. Though a little pricier, our tour group only consisted of six people, unlike the many bus-loads you may encounter on your journey. There are several Mekong sites you can visit, we opted for a trip to the Can Tho floating market as described below.

      • Meet guide in morning and pick up remaining tourists before take a two hour drive south to Can Tho.
      • Board a small boat and explore daily life at the floating market.
      • Enjoy a tour where you get to watch how candies and rice paper is madewith free samples and tea afterward (in hopes of course that you'll buy more).
      • Set back out on the Mekong River and admire the countryside and local life. Eventually you'll arrive at a small canal area where each couple boards a sampang (Vietnamese canoe) to explore the area.
      • Hike through fruit orchards and sample exotic fruit in season.
      • Board back on boat and stop at restaurant for a late lunch.
      • Arrive back in Saigon in the early evening.

       Mekong Sampang

      RESOURCES

      HOTELS:
      • Lavender Hotel - Clean and comforable rooms (around $50) in District 1 across from Ben Thanh Market
      • Agoda - Booking site for Asian hotels owned by Expedia. Note that they have great prices, but often times is because it does not include extra amenities like breakfast or all inclusive options.

      TOUR OPERATORS:
      • Connections Vietnam - Responsible tourism operator that sets up tours with local students or young residents. Offers cooking classes in people's home. Highly recommended!
      • Sinh Balo: Adventure travel operator offering in-depth, small tours. I recommend booking with them a few days before you want to take a tour. The more people that sign up, the cheaper their rates become for the next people who join.
      GENERAL HCMC INFO:
      • Travelfish – Asian budget/backpacker site
      • Reid on Travel – Great itinerary and planning suggestions written by ex-pat living in Vietnam. Super helpful.
      • Any Arena – Guide for hip Saigon shopping, dining and nightlife
      • Spas Vietnam – Helpful listing of area spas

       

       

    • Blog post
    • 4 years ago
    • Views: 9737
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia at a Glanc Siem Reap, Cambodia at a Glance

    • From: laratada
    • Description:

      My husband and I spent a few days visiting Siem Reap in December, 2009. It was the second leg of our journey after a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and on our way to the Philippines via Bangkok. The following is a quick run-down of our itinerary and resources.

      ITINERARY

       

      DAY 1: HCMC to SIEM REAP

      • 45 minute morning flight on Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap. We spent more time in the long customs line  than we did in the air. Make sure you're in the correct queue if you purchased an online visa!
      • Find ride or taxi to bring you to Siem Reap and check-in to hotel. We stayed at the unique Hotel Be Angkor–a boutique hotel with only three, stylish rooms in the heart of The Passage in the Old Market area. It's owned by an American who promotes responsible tourism by employing Cambodians and working with the local hospitality training school.
      • Spend the afternoon exploring the city of Siem Reap. Start in the Old Market district to familiarize yourself with the area, make your way to the Central Market, then walk along the river and enjoy the scenery at the Royal Gardens. Loop back to Old Market area down Sivatha Blvd.
      • You can opt to see the sun set with the huge crowds at Angkor Wat or set up a sunrise tour to be introduced to the grounds for the following morning. A full-day tour at Angkor Wat with a private driver and tour guide usually only runs a total of $30-$40 for the whole day. If your tour doesn't include a snack, you can pick up sandwiches and treats-to-go at the Blue Pumpkin.
      • Enjoy a delicious and affordable dinner at a funky restaurant on Pub Street or the Passage. Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike should sample the delicious, flavorful food at Chamkar.
       

      DAY 2: ANGKOR WAT SHORT CIRCUIT
      • If you decide to greet Angkor Wat at sunrise (which I highly recommend), you'll have to wake up early to meet your driver around 5:00 am. Purchase a 3-day pass if you plan to return to the grounds again.
      • Watch the sun rise by one of the temple's moats as Angkor Wat magically reveals itself in the morning. Spend time discovering the temple with barely any crowds in the early morning while most people return back to town to eat breakfast or sleep
      • Grab breakfast at a nearby restaurant on the Angkor Wat grounds.
      • Head to Angkor Thom to admire the stone faces of the Bayon Towers and explore the extensive grounds.
      • Make your way towards the Terrace of the Elephants.
      • Enjoy a Khmer an early lunch at a cafe near the Sra Srang pool. For fresh food, I recommend Heritage Khmer.
      • While bus tours enjoy lunch, visit the temples overtaken by trees at Ta Prohm. This area is made famous by the movie Tomb Raider.
      • Spend the rest of your afternoon exploring some of the smaller temple areas on the short circuit.
      • Return to Siem Reap and arrange a massage or foot rub before enjoying dinner. Stop at Blue Pumpkin to pick up lunch for the next day or for some scrumptious dessert.
      • Shop for souvenirs at the Night Market.
       

      DAY 3: BANTRA SREY & RIVER OF 1,000 LINGAS
      • Hire a car or tuk-tuk (though it will be a longer drive) to bring you further north to visit the intricately carved Bantra Srey, aka Citadel of Women. 
      • Continue on to trail entrance for the River of 1,000 Lingas. It's a 40-minute, scenic hike up the mountain to the river that flows over ancient phallic carvings. There are a couple of benches where you can enjoy lunch and rest.
      • If you make it back down before 1:30, you can take a tour of the Angkor Center for Conservation & Biodiversity (if it's open). Tours to view rescued wildlife are free, but donations are expected.
      • Head back towards Siem Reap, stopping at Landmine Museum or visit some more smaller temples.
       
      • Bring donations to the Green Gecko Project in eastern Siem Reap and visit the inspiring facility that is working to change the lives of local street children. They have a list of items you can donate on their site–a highly recommended visit!
      • Treat yourself to an indulgent dinner at Aha ($7 for a 3-course tapas meal) in The Passage and peruse the contemporary McDermott art gallery next door.
       

      DAY 4: KOMPONG PHLUK & MUSEUM
      • Hire a tuk-tuk driver to bring you to the less touristy stilted village of Kompon Phluk situated 45 km out of town in Tonle Sap.
      • The tuk tuk driver will bring you to the ticket office to pay the entrance fee. From there, you will be taken on a 10-minute ride through dusty, bumpy roads to the boathouse on the back of the available motor bikes at the station.
      • Board your boat to set out through the aquatic vegetation of the Asia's largest fresh-water lake of Tonle Sap. Eventually, you will reach the stilted village and the boatman will let you off in the town for you to explore. It felt a bit intrusive for us to disembark and walk around the town to observe local life when it was obvious we were visitors.
      • Explore more of the lake and return back to your tuk tuk who can bring you to some nearby temples or back to Siem Reap.
      • Enjoy lunch and head to War Musuem or Angkor National Musuem.
      • Spend the rest of the day indulging in spa treatments at a facility like Bodhi. Enjoy your final dinner!

      DAY 5: SIEM REAP TO BANGKOK
      • Check out of hotel and head to airport for flight back to Vietnam or to Thailand via Bankgok Air. Those on a tighter budget or with more time can take a bus to another Cambodian city like Phnom Penh, Vietnam or on the newly paved highway to Thailand.
       

      RESOURCES

      GENERAL:
      Travelfish.org: Handy itinerary, transportation, and lodging tips throughout Asia
      Candy Publications: General tourism guide and listings of Cambodia and Siem Reap
      Cambodia Pocket Guide: Pick up this portable, handy publication when you arrive at Siem Reap for current listings of local business and helpful maps. The printed guide is much more navigable than the online version.

      HOTELS:
      Agoda.com: Site owned by Priceline with great deals on hotel rooms in Asia. Please note rates are low because they often do not include extra amenities like breakfast or all-inclusive options. 

      Angkor Be Hotel: Funky boutique hotel located in The Passage of the Old Market area in Siem Reap with only three rooms, each decorated by a different local artist. Fabulous service and neat setting for those looking for a unique experience. Not the cheapest room in town, but a great value by western standards and they often offer good last minute deals. We got the saffron room for $90 a night with free breakfasts, bottle water, ipod player, flat screen tv, wi-fi, and airport pick-up. They also run a neighboring hotel with one room called The One Hotel.


      RESTAURANTS:
      • Chamkar: Fabulous and flavorful veg restaurant located The Passage -- a popular alley in the Old Market area. Vegetarians and meat-eater unite!
      • Blue Pumpkin: Cafe serving coffee, light meals, pastries, and baked goods. Good place to grab meals-to-go for a day of sight-seeing. They have smaller branches at the Lucky Market mall off Airport Rd. and a branch near Angkor Thom.
      • Aha: Gourmet, tapas-style restaurant with locations in The Passage (by Central Market) and in Hotel de La Paix
       

      AFFORDABLE SPAS:
      • Bodia: Affordable yet stylish spa offering massage and spa treatments in the Old Market Area (near the pharmacy by Blue Pumpkin). After the first visit, they often give you a generous coupon for your next visit.
      • Happy Foot Massage: Cheap, and trust-worthy establishment offering foot massages available but the 1/2 and full hour. I can't remember if this is exactly the name, but it's on the same road as Blue Pumpkin on the other side of the street between the Passage and Pub Street. It has red interior with writing on the walls.
      • Shinta Mani: Hotel run by the Hospitality Institute with great reputation for service and quality.
      • Frangipani Spa: Professional spa with good reputation and moderate prices.

       

    • Blog post
    • 4 years ago
    • Views: 3243
  • The Tremendous Thai Tale The Tremendous Thai Tale

    • From: muzzyizzet83
    • Description:

      Hello everyone!  My name is Colin and my fiancée’s name is Sara.  We have been together for about three years now, and are currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea.  We recently took our first vacation out of Seoul and went to Thailand, and this is our account of the most perfect vacation!

      Our trip began early in the morning at a mosquito-infested bus station at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand.  We had maps, tickets and plans all in stow, but little did we know how our trip would venture off course.  We had been mapping out our vacation for weeks and finally settled on going to the islands of Koh Chang and Koh Maak before making our way back to Bangkok.  However, no matter how long or how extensive our planning, nothing could have prepared us for the vacation we experienced!

      From the airport bus terminal, we left for a five hour quest to Trat, where we would then catch a ferry to the first island, Koh Chang.  It was a warm, beautiful, cloudless day, and it wasn’t until after we finally arrived at Koh Chang that the amazing adventure, later realized as our most favorite vacation, truly began.  The beach was beautiful, the water was refreshing and clear, and the food was beyond words.  The staff at our resort was so kind and most helpful, our room was nice and quiet; there wasn’t one thing that we did not like about this island.  We fell in love within our first few hours on the island, and we knew that this vacation was going to be one well remembered!

      During our stay, we trekked through the jungle up to a waterfall.  We rode elephants, bathed with them and fed them.  We basked in the sun in all its glory and hunted for seashells, sand dollars and crabs.  We strolled along the waterline, hand in hand, just soaking in all of our surroundings together.  We had a few messages just feet from the ocean.  We ate some of the most delectable fruit and traditional Thai dishes.  We watched two young boys as they danced with fire in the darkness of the night.  We talked with and played pool with some of the locals.  We were enjoying our stay on Koh Chang so much that we decided not to even go to the second island as planned.  The resort was accommodating and as it turned out, it was friendlier to our budget to stay.

      With only one day remaining, we decided to make the most of it and go on a five island tour of nearby islands.  The tour began early in the morning and lasted for most of the day.  We swam, snorkeled, kayaked, saw a turtle farm, walked the beaches, and really had a great time. We got back to our resort in the early evening and were pretty exhausted from the day's activities. The sun definitely took its toll on us! After we returned, we had dinner and got an invigorating Thai massage on the beach.

      When we got back to our room, Sara was ready to go to sleep; however, it was our last night on the island and I persuaded her to take a walk. Reluctantly, she said “Okay”.  We walked along the beach talking for a while and then we sat down on some beach chairs before heading inside.  We were talking specifically about the future--what we were going to do when we got home from Korea?  What we are going to do for jobs? Etc.  This is something we've discussed often and she thought nothing of it.  Little did she know, however, I was about to propose.  I asked her if she was ready (to go back inside), and she said “yes”.  I grabbed her hands, for what she assumed to be help in getting up, and that's when I got down on one knee.  It was completely unexpected and much to her surprise.  She didn't think I could pull it off without her knowing because I am terrible at keeping secrets from her!

       It was truly a more-than-perfect end to an already perfect vacation, and the perfect beginning for what is to come!  It honestly couldn't have been any better than this.

       

    • Blog post
    • 5 years ago
    • Views: 1194
  • The Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reyn The Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation

    • From: Funkidivagirl
    • Description:

      *To view the photos that accompany this post, please visit Funkidivagirl.com and click on the category "T as in Tango".

      Recently we went to The Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee.  It’s here in Georgia, about an 1 1/2 drive from the city of Atlanta. This was our second visit there and once again we had a wonderful time.  True, we had to get over the fact that the resort has plantation in it’s name (which is why I think my husband “accidently” calls it Reynolds Town instead of Reynolds Plantation) and an incident during this last visit did remind us that we were indeed in Greensboro Georgia, but still it is a wonderful place.  Oh, and we don’t hold the resort accountable for some of their more questionable guests, like George Bush.

      Our first visit was taken in December 2007 a couple of days before Christmas.  We just wanted to relax and reconnect as a family before the hustle and bustle of Christmas fully descended upon us.  

       

      This is a review of our first experience at The Ritz-Carlton Lodge:

       

      The Atmosphere: The hotel looks like a lodge; it is new, but it was built to look old.  The lobby is huge and was decorated for Christmas with a gigantic (real!) gingerbread house and several Christmas trees.  There are also Christmas trees throughout the whole hotel. We loved the atmosphere in the lobby lounge and spent most of our time there on the sofa right in front of the huge (real wood-burning) fireplace.  There is also a terrace outside the lobby lounge with rocking chairs that overlooks the grounds and lake.  Outside at night thousands of white lights twinkle from the hotel and on all the trees.  We went for a walk in the night just to see all the lights.    The bellhop told us that the Ritz deliberately has “smells” piped in all over the hotel and it did smell wonderful everywhere.  

      The Room: We stayed in a standard room and while it was not very large (460 square feet), it was very well appointed.  The beds were incredibly comfortable with feather toppers, fluffy pillows and down comforters.  We had two double beds, an arm chair by the terrace window, a desk and chair, an armoire with the TV, dvd player and drawers for clothes and a huge closet.  In addition there was a unique coffee and tea maker and a honor bar (that we didn’t use).  The bathroom was beautiful and spacious with a separate toilet, marble shower and a huge tub.  There were 2 adult robes hanging and when my son tried to wear one, I noticed a note saying that housekeeping will deliver child-sized robes upon request.  Right away they brought a robe sized for my daughter and another one sized for my son to our room.  A request for more towels was met immediately as well.  Sliding glass doors opened up onto a small patio with two chairs.  

       

      The Club Level:  While I had wanted to book the Club Level initially, my husband talked me out of it.  But upon arrival he wanted to stay on the Club Level and when we tried to book a room, there were none available.  The front desk manager (Gail) was so kind and obtained Club Level keys for us to use the Club Lounge at no charge.  The lounge was beautiful with sofas, chairs, a fireplace and a Christmas tree; more intimate and much quieter than the lobby lounge.  There were tables and chairs and large windows with a view of the grounds. There was also a computer with internet access and several newspaper publications available. Five “snacks” per day were served: continental breakfast, afternoon snacks, afternoon tea, cocktails & hors d’oeuvres and chocolates & cordials.  There was always soda, water, coffee, wine and cookies (delicious!) laid out.  The “afternoon snack” was really fixings for sandwiches and salads; that was our lunch one day and the hors d’oeuvres were great.  We didn’t have the continental breakfast or afternoon tea, but we did go to the lounge often for drinks, cookies and dessert.  If you can swing the price, especially if you drink alcohol, the Club Level is worth the extra charge.

       

      The Lodge Restaurants: The food was excellent.  We only ate at the Lobby Lounge and Georgia’s during this trip.  We ate burgers and pizza in front of the fireplace in the Lobby Lounge one night (we really tried never to leave the fireplace) and all was very good.  Both mornings we had breakfast at Georgia’s.  There is a menu, but we chose the buffet.  There was an omelet station, grits and biscuits with all the fixings, pastries, meat, eggs, potatoes, fruit and a chef’s choice of the day.  Everything was delicious and plentiful. One night we ate dinner at Georgia’s, a  4 diamond restaurant.  Although it was the same restaurant that we ate breakfast in, the atmosphere was different with candles, dim lighting, and the fireplace burning.  We requested a table by the fire.  The service was incredible and the food was excellent.    Of course my son ordered the single most expensive thing on the menu.  It is a fancy restaurant, but kids are welcome and there was a kids’ menu; my daughter ordered the “bento box”.    Although we dressed up and most people were dressed in a similar fashion, the official dress code is “resort casual.”  We didn’t get to experience the famous and romantic Chiminea Dinner on the lake with our own private fire pit and blankets.  At $125 per person that will just be for my husband and I!

       

      Hotel Activities: The grounds are beautiful—even in the winter.  There are walking and biking trails and a playground.    Although it was too cold to be in the lake or pool, the pool was open and heated; it is an infinity pool and gives the illusion of dropping into the lake. There is a hot tub near the pool and lots of lounge chairs.   Our favorite activity was the bonfire every night!  That was so much fun roasting marshmallows and eating s’mores; everything is provided by the hotel as well as hot cider.  We don’t golf, but I’m sure most guests come to this particular Ritz-Carlton because of the world-famous golf courses.

      Indoors we spent most of our time in the lobby lounge and bar sitting by the fireplace reading books aloud and playing card games. There was a nearby table stocked with checkers, chess and playing cards. There was live music every night, flat screen TVs (my husband was in heaven watching sports), and plenty of comfortable leather sofas.  

       

      Especially for Kids: While this is a great hotel for adults alone, it was great for us as a family too.  Upon arrival my daughter was given a light-up ring and the both kids were enthusiastically welcomed. Besides playing on the playground, grass and lake beach or swimming in the pool, there were several activities just for kids.  There was Milk & Cookies with Mrs. Claus in the lobby; an elf passed around sippy cups full of milk and a basket of (delicious) gingerbread cookies to munch on as Mrs. Claus read Christmas books.   Breakfast with Santa was available and kids were encouraged to come in their pajamas.  There was a Gingerbread House Workshop that we didn’t attend because the advanced reservations were full.  At $75 per house (2 kids per house) I was skeptical anyway (especially since my kids had already made a $10 gingerbread house from Target), but I later saw someone’s house and it was very impressive.  The parents said it was worth the 2 hours that their kids spent doing an activity.    There were two ballrooms with kids’ activities going on: one showed movies all day and one was laid out with board games and air hockey.   

       

      The Spa: This was the best spa that I have ever gone to.  The service was incredible.  Upon my arrival I was given a tour of the facilities, a key, locker, robe and slippers.  In one area there is a dry sauna, steam room, hot tub (in front of a fireplace), cold plunge pool and several terry cloth-covered lounge chairs.  In another area there are several showers with towels at the ready outside each shower stall and all the toiletries that you could possibly need.    I arrived about an hour earlier than my massage appointment and took a dry sauna, steam bath and shower.  Afterwards I just read a magazine and relaxed on a lounge chair. With candles lit, the fireplace going and soft music playing, I was almost asleep.  After my massage (not the best one that I had, but good enough), I browsed the well-stocked boutique.  There is an indoor pool downstairs with a hot tub in front of a fireplace and several poolside lounge chairs.  I saw a towel station, kickboards and noodles as well.  We did not go swimming, but I did see kids in the pool.   I think the spa service charges are a little steep, but if you are staying at the hotel you can use the spa amenities without getting a service.

       

      This is a review of our most recent trip in October 2008:

       

      Our latest trip to The Ritz-Carlton Lodge was taken during a different season, so we experienced different things.  It wasn’t quite warm enough to use the outdoor pool, but our kids swam anyway (with the parents sitting on the edge) and we all used the hot tub.  There is a small beach on the lake and many kids played in the sand and in the lake.  The fireplaces throughout the property were not lit at all during this season, although it was fall and sort of cool at night.  There were canoes ($20/hr.), fishing poles ($20/hr.) and bikes for rent ($20/hr. or $35 for ½ day; no trailers for kids), but we didn’t do any of that.  Mostly we walked the trails and sat on the edge of the lake just talking and laughing.  Next time we have to bring our fishing poles and bikes. 

      The lounge was again lively at night with a great jazz band playing.  Friday night there was a chocolate buffet for $15 per person; we bought 2 buffets and ate chocolate until we were sick.  It was delicious and worth the money.  During this time there was also a chef sculpting a chocolate sculpture for 2 hours; that was a wonderful show and like watching a Food Network Challenge live.  The next night we indulged in the nightly s’mores at the bonfire.

       

      This was the first time that we ate at Gaby’s on the Lake (it was closed last winter).  It is a large open-air restaurant  and bar right on the lake and it is the only restaurant on the property that is open continuously from early lunchtime through late dinner.  The atmosphere and view were great and the food was delicious.  I’m not sure if it is open year-around because there aren’t any walls, but there were many fireplaces in there (although not lit).  This was the most popular spot to watch the many football games shown over the weekend.  We also ate at Linger Lounger Steakhouse; it’s right on the golf course and a short walk from the main lodge.   It has more of a “manly/club house” atmosphere with big leather chairs, but we all enjoyed it.  A valet took us back to the lodge in a golf cart; that was a fun ride for the kids.  

      Our only disappointment with The Ritz-Carlton was when we took the kids to the spa pool to swim (at about noon) and we were told that Family Swim time was from 7:30-9:00 p.m.  I was annoyed for two reasons: 1) I had asked when I called if the kids were allowed to swim in the spa and was not told that there was a special time for Family Swim and 2) the assigned time too late to have Family Swim as most kids are in bed during that time.  Or they are outside making s’mores.  I understand that the spa is for adults and they don’t want a bunch of screaming kids in there, but they need to find a better solution. 

       

       A few tips when staying at The Ritz-Carlton at Lake Oconee:

      • The ceilings are very high and the hotel is huge and therefore very cold.  Bring a heavy sweater to wear in the lobby or snag the sofa by the fireplace (in the winter) and never move.
      • There wasn’t a sign telling people of the $15 charge for the chocolate buffet although there was an employee stationed there.  A sign would have been nice.  I also ran into this problem during our first visit; I participated in a holiday workshop with my daughter that was $20 (and not worth it) and wasn’t aware that there was a charge.  In general, just assume that there is a charge for everything and you will be pleasantly surprised when they say “it’s complimentary.” 
      • There are many things to do and several special activities everyday at the hotel, but they are not readily marketed.  I don’t know why.   Ask at the concierge desk and pick up a calendar so that you won’t miss out on anything.  There is also a map with all the walking and biking trails, but again you have to ask for it.

       

    • Blog post
    • 5 years ago
    • Views: 3618
  • Amelia Island, Florida & The R Amelia Island, Florida & The Ritz-Carlton

    • From: Funkidivagirl
    • Description:

       *To see the photos and (funny) video that accompanies this blog post, please visit Funkidivagirl.com and look in the category "T as in Tango"

       

      The day after Christmas my family took a vacation to Amelia Island, after a couple of days first spent in Savannah (read our adventures in Savannah in another blog post).  This was our first time on Amelia Island and really our first family vacation in Florida that didn’t include The Mouse.  The weather was really nice, most days there was a high of 68 degrees; jeans, a tee shirt and a hoodie were our everyday attire.  

      The Ritz-Carlton, Ameila Island

      We stayed at The Ritz-Carlton (we are brand loyal fans of The Ritz), which is right on the beach and very casual.  Our room was very comfortable; the closet and drawers were big enough to hold ALL of our luggage and clothes (if you saw the video from the Savannah blog post, you would know that’s a big deal).   I found the beds comfortable and there always enough towels.  The bathroom was large and accommodated all of our toiletries.   We started off with a coastal view room of the dunes and the ocean around the corner, but we were upgraded to an ocean view room and it was very nice (we could see the sunrise).  Every room has a balcony with a table & 2 chairs.  There is a mini-bar in the room (that we didn’t use).   I’m not sure if there was a dvd player because we barely turned on the TV.  There was space near the terrace door for Girly to play on the floor. 

       

       The the rest of the hotel was just beautiful and decorated to evoke an elegant, yet relaxing atmosphere.  Because it was Christmas, all the common areas were  beautifully decorated for Christmas with greenery, lights and a Christmas tree; there was even a HUGE gingerbread ship in the lobby.  Unfortunately the decorations were taken down without warning overnight on Dec 30th and we didn’t get to take any photos. The hotel had 2 pools, 2 hot tubs (indoor and outdoor) and a kids’ pool with a rain umbrella.  There was also a playground near the pool.    Outside of the lounge on the patio was a big firepit surrounded by sofas.  Beyond the patio was a lawn perfect for playing and used for various programs.  Surrounding the green space were lawn chairs and fire pits.  We really enjoyed sitting by our own fire pit each evening talking and gazing at the stars.

      There are 2 restaurants on site and food could be ordered in the lounges and at a poolside grill as well (the poolside grill was closed for the winter).  We ate at the lobby lounge a couple of times; there is a limited menu of burgers, cheese plates, salads and chicken wings.  We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at Café 4750 and it was very good, if expensive.  The breakfast buffet was the best!   The lunch and dinner menus were similar, so  it was good that we were able to eat outside the hotel for variety (and less expense).  We did not eat at Salt, the 4 diamond restaurant, although we heard it was very good.  There was also an adult sports bar with a pool table.  We didn’t go in there because of our kids, but we did poke our head in; it was very nice and had a more contemporary vibe than the hotel lobby bar.

      This Ritz-Carlton is very family-oriented.   Although my kids didn’t take advantage of it, there is a Ritz Kids room that looked very welcoming and fun (for an extra fee); it was located just beyond the pool.  In addition, there is an unsupervised teen space for ages 13+ called “Our Space”; my son hung out there a bit and really enjoyed it.  There were video games, table games and a fantastic movie theater showing movies all day long; in the evening there were snacks and drinks as well.   Besides the dedicated kid spaces, there were 3 drop-in unsupervised ball rooms set up all week: a toddler room, a family game room (ping pong, pool table, basketball shot, air hockey) that we utilized every night and a movie room filled with bean bags, a popcorn machine and drinks; a different family movie was shown every night.  I got the feeling that these rooms are not in operation during non-holiday times.  

      If that wasn’t enough entertainment, there was a list of (complimentary) activities available throughout the day like shark tooth hunting, a puppet show, zoo animals brought in from the Jacksonville zoo, pool and beach games and an astronomer with a powerful telescope.  Daily activities were listed in the lobby or a schedule could be had from the concierge.   And my favorite: just about every evening there was a bonfire either on the beach or on the hotel lawn with marshmallows, s‘mores fixings and hot cocoa.  Sometimes these bonfires were accompanied by a ghost story-telling pirate lady. 

      Most of our time at the hotel was spent on the beach. The beach was right outside the hotel accessed by 2 boardwalks that crossed over the dunes.  There were lounge chairs already there and on the warmest days a hotel employee was available to set up beach umbrellas, distribute towels and bring water.   There are many shells on the beach up near the chairs, which some people don’t like, but since collecting shells is one of Girly’s favorite things to do, it was perfect for her.  Just know that you will need shoes on this part of the beach, although the sand was smoother near the water.   The water was freezing, so we didn’t go in, but some people did.   We absolutely loved the beach and it was perfect for flying our kite, collecting shells and making sandcastles.  The beach was pitch black at night, and when we went to the bonfire, we could have used a flashlight to find our way.   However, I believe that at certain times of the year, flashlights are forbidden at night because of the turtles hatching eggs.  The hotel has a sunrise watch every morning on the beach, but we didn’t make it (although we did watch it from our balcony).

       

      The spa was awesome!  Check-in was friendly and gracious.  Next I was taken on a tour of the facilities, shown how to use my locker and given a robe and spa slippers.  After putting on my swimsuit I went to Wet Lounge for a soak in the huge hot tub before my massage.  This room also has a steam room, sauna, showers and lounge chairs.  Cold towels laced with ice and cucumbers were a welcome treat after my soak.  Refreshed, I went into the lounge to wait to be called in for my appointment.  The lounge is very soothing, decorated in green and white tones, with spacious and comfortable lounge chairs.  There was tea, water and banana chips for snacks.  I got to peek into the co-ed lounge; it has a fireplace and looks very inviting also (James and I have to come back for a couple-only trip).  There is also an outside private spa pool and hot tub; you could really stay there all day.  My massage–a Signature Massage with hot stones on my back–was fantastic.  

      We were at the hotel for New Year’s Eve; there was so much going and it was packed.  There was a big bowl game the next day, so it was a strange mix of football attire and New Year’s Eve glamour.  The big deal at the hotel was the Masquerade Ball and people came dressed to the nines in tuxedoes, ball gowns and masks.   Salt also offered 2 prix-fix dinner seatings.  We didn’t do either of those things, but hung out in the lobby and had dinner there.  Ritz Kids and Our Space had special programs going on that night (pre-registration was required and it was an extra fee).  Even though it was expensive, it would have been nice to register our kids because all the children in the hotel were there and they looked like they were having fun.  After dinner we went to the bonfire, family game room and movie room.  Promptly at midnight the hotel had a fireworks show on the beach; we sat on our balcony and had a perfect view.  

       

      Restaurants on Amelia Island

       Even though the food at the hotel was good, we enjoyed other restaurants on Amelia Island as well.  Brett’s in historic downtown Fernandina Beach served the best fried shrimp basket that we ever had!   We stopped in there between meals, so it was a limited menu; we need to go back next time for lunch or dinner.    Sitting outside on the pier, watching the boats and huge pelicans, Brett’s was really nice.

       

      Another day we ate at The Happy Tomato Café, also downtown.  We were surprised that they served BBQ as we thought they only served sandwiches, but it was very good and we were impressed.  The Happy Tomato is very casual with counter ordering and courtyard (outside) seating.

       Not very far from The Ritz was Gourmet Gourmet near American Beach.  Although we didn’t eat there (we stopped in the use the bathroom and bought key lime bars), the food looked very good .  There is a small dining room, but this would be a good spot to get take-out to bring to the beach (we should have done that when we went to Fort Clinch).

       Our Activities on Amelia Island

      Besides eating in historic downtown Fernandina, we browsed the shops lining the main street.  It’s a cute town to walk around, but there weren’t really many stores that we would actually shop.   I bought an ornament at the Christmas shop and some books about seashells in the bookstore for Girly.  

      For us the highlight of downtown was the fudge at Fantastic Fudge.  Seriously this was the best fudge that we have ever eaten and we went back a few times!   To stop each other from giving sharp elbow jabs, we had to carefully equally divide the fudge; it was that good!

      The island is small and easy to get around, so we were eager to explore.  One day we went to Fort Clinch State Park; we were not sure what we would find, but eager to stay away from any alligators.   Initially we didn’t intend to go inside the fort, thinking that it was just a bunch of stones, but when we did go in we were pleasantly surprised by all the history and details (staged rooms, real canons and even a costumed soldier present to answer questions).    We really enjoyed the experience and stayed quite a long time (until theConfederate soldier started talking and we had to leave before my husband felt compelled to bring him back into the present).

      In the rest of the state park there are nature trails for bike riding or hiking, but after the fort we headed straight for the beach.  The beach was beautiful!   We stayed all day trying to fly a kite and collecting seashells (the sand was smooth and not full of shells like The Ritz-Carlton beach, but still plenty of shells to hunt).   We met a wonderful family on vacation from New York and the highlight of the day was seeing a beached jellyfish.

      Another day we went to American Beach.  Tucked away in a little neighborhood of the same name, it was hard to find but we were determined because this beach is part of African American history.

      There’s so much that we didn’t get to do on this trip to Amelia Island (more beaches, horseback riding on the beach, ferry to Cumberland Island, tour of the lighthouse, bike riding), that I’m sure that we will be back soon!  

       

       

       

       

       

       

    • Blog post
    • 5 years ago
    • Views: 3161
  • Peru without Luggage? Peru without Luggage?

    • From: kevindube
    • Description:

      Planning

      Machu Picchu has been on our list of places to go for a long time. So, after using books, websites from "40 Best Deals", and many hours on Google, we had an itinerary. We planned to fly into Lima, Peru via Miami from our home just north of Ann Arbor, Michigan. We would spend one night in Lima and catch an early flight to Cusco so we could acclimate to the altitude and tour the area for 4 days. We decided to do the short Inca Trail hike and spend 2 days at Machu Picchu. After taking the train back and staying 1 more night in Cusco, we wanted to fly to Juliaca and explore Lake Titicaca for 3 days before relaxing in Lima for 2 additional days before heading home.

      Machu Picchu all to ourselvesExecution

      This is where we ran into a bit a a hitch. Before we had even left Miami, we received a call from the airline to notify us that one of our bags was sent to St. Maarten and they didn't know where our other bag was. Niiice, rain gear, hiking boots, toiletries and EXTRA clothes?...who needs em? When we got to Lima and this was confirmed we headed off to our hotel resolving to make the best of it, we were in Peru, weren't we? My bag arrived 2 days latter with our hiking boots and bathroom bag, Laura never saw her bag until we were boarding our return flight home, but thats a whloe nother story.

      The Trip

      We spent a very short, uneventful night in a hotel near the airport in Lima, and flew (luggageless) to Cusco the next morning. Cusco and the surrounding area are beautiful. Accomodations are varied and plentiful. We chose to stay at a moderatly priced hostel as we planned to spend our days exploring and our nights reveling. White water rafting on the Urubamba RiverAs always we met a lot of interesting people from all over the world. To the left is a shot of the group we went white water rafting with on the Urubamba river. Fantastic ride, but that water was cold. We also took a full day trip of the Sacred Valley. Amazing ruins, beautiful scenery and great shopping. One of the other things not to be missed while in Cusco, is the massage. Two weeks before this Peru trip, we had taken the family up to Boyne Mountain for a long weekend of snowboarding and had to pass on massage because they wanted $120 for a 50 minute treatment. When we were initially approached on the streets in Cusco, we were skeptical. Hour-long massage for $10!! Our girls did a great job, and after paying them twice what they asked for, we had no trouble getting reservations with them every night we had time for it while visiting Cusco.

      It was time for our sojourn to Machu Picchu. Hoping for good weather we boarded the train to kilometer 104 where we were to meet our guide, Ruben. While we were there we never met anyone else taking this trip. It's not well advertised, and that is unfortunate, because this is a great option. My wife and I are pushing 50 and dont work out as often as we should, so the 4-day Inca Trail with camping and extreme elevation changes would have been too much for us.Inca Trail waterfalls just outside Winaywayna Taking a train, then a bus didn't sound like us either.  On this tour we hiked almost all day on the last section of the Inca Trail through Winaywayna and got our first glimps of Machu Picchu from high above, at the Sun Gate. To the right is a picture of my wife and I at one of the beautiful falls near Winaywayna This type of tour also allowed us to hike down into this sacred city getting views very few people have the opportunity to experience and arrive in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have gone. We stayed at the El Pesidente ( a must while in Aguas Caliente) with the River roaring right outside our balcony. This also allowed us to take the first bus back up to to ruins the next morning for our guided tour with Ruben, who has lived in the area all his life and is very knowledgeable  and passionate regarding the history of this once great capitol.Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate After a long tour of the city and some lunch we found a secluded spot, took a short nap, unzipped the legs off our pants and still had time to hike all the way to the top of Waynapicchu, which is the tip of the taller peak behind us in the picture to the left. This looked intimidating and I douted we would make it to the top, but after MANY reststops, we finally made it to  and were rewarded with astounding views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains. The cost of this 2 day tour was $ 375 pp, included the train ride to km 104 and from Machu Picchu back to Cuscu, Entrance fees, accomadations, some meals, transfers, our private guide for both days and is some of the best travel money we have ever spent.

      We reluctantly flew to Juliaca and transfered to Puno the next day. We arrived to find they were gearing up for a Religious celebration and the town was in full party-mode. There were hundreds of participants in bright, loud parades with extrvagant costumes dancing through the streets.My wife?, Laura on Lake Titicaca On one of our days here we took a cruise out on Lake Titicaca and visited the reed islands, visiting the local people who live on man made islands built from harvested reeds growing in certain parts of the lake. These island people trade fish to those living on the mailand for the few things they can not produce themselves. They showed us how they harvest and join the reeds to form their floating islands, boats and houses. This is a shot of Laura after they hustled her into one of their homes and dressed her up as a local.

      After we arrived back in Lima, we checked into a little bit nicer hotel with a pool. We usually try to leave a couple days at the end of a busy vacation to just lay around and relax so we can go back home and to work unstressed. This worked out well and we had a couple of enjoyable Days  laying in the sun and nights going out for excellent seafood dinners. Lima is huge, with apopulation of about 9 million people. There are some areas to avoid and we ran into people attempting to pick-pocket us on a few occasions, so be mindful of your situation.

      This was a Fantastic trip to a wonderful location and I would recomend it to anyone wanting to see a different part of our planet.... but you might want to consider it with a carry-on?     

      Have fun and let us know if we can help with any details,

                                                              Kevin and Laura

       

    • Blog post
    • 6 years ago
    • Views: 2755
  • Bali - Island of the Gods Bali - Island of the Gods

    • From: Kahealani
    • Description:

      Lotus PondCeking FarmerBlessings at Tanah LotTaman UjungDeath by KrisElephant RideCeking FarmerAnyone who knows that I'm a bonafide Francophile and Italophile was surprised by my decision to take my first trip to Southeast Asia.  What could possibly lure me away from my beloved France or Italy?  The answer is…  Anthony Bourdain.  His show on Bali intrigued me; it looked like a beautiful and peaceful destination.  My second influence, however, did come from France.  My friend, Jacques, had been missing in action (i.e. absent from E-mails and texts) in Paris for awhile.  When he finally got back to me, he confessed that he had just spent three weeks in Bali.  Knowing me as well as he does, he insisted that it was truly the Island of the Gods and the perfect place for me.  Based on that and the appropriate number of miles in one of my frequent flyer accounts, I booked a ticket to Bali with the slightest bit of apprehension.

       

       

      THE SPIRITUAL SIDE

       

      Traveling alone through Seminyak, Ubud, Candidasa and Legian was a very spiritual experience for me.  Bali was healing, yet it was Ubud that gave me inner peace. I would arise when darkness still veiled the flora & fauna. Sitting on the porch of my bungalow in my sarong & listening to the cacophony of the frogs, roosters, ducks, crickets, locusts & everything else relaxed me. Then when the dawn began to creep in, the scent of incense would assail my nostrils & I would walk amongst the flower-strewn pathways.

       

      Bali is filled with temples, the most famous probably being Uluwatu, Pura Ulun Danu and Tanah Lot.  I’ve visited all three & had different experiences at each of them.  My friend & I had gone to Uluwatu to witness the kecak dance that is performed every evening.  Watching a “tribal” performance being danced & chanted at sunset with an ancient temple as its backdrop is truly amazing.  When my boyfriend & I arrived at Pura Ulun Danu with our driver, the weather was cool & overcast.  Even so, many tourists were still there.  I didn’t get any particular feeling of spirituality there, & merely ran about taking pictures as quickly as I could.

       

      Tanah Lot was another experience altogether.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, Tanah Lot is a temple that is surrounded by the ocean.  It’s only accessible at low tide.  My boyfriend & I were there on a particularly hot & humid afternoon, while our driver opted to sit in the shade in the parking lot.  We saw the temple in the distance, took several pictures, then somehow managed to lose each other in the crowd.  I ended up going back to the parking lot, where our driver volunteered to go in search of my boyfriend.  Once he was located, my boyfriend wanted me to go to a particular restaurant with him because it had a gorgeous view of Tanah Lot from its terrace.  While sitting on that terrace enjoying an ice cold beverage, we noticed that it was now low tide & several tourists were making their way to the temple.  According to my guidebook, non-Hindus are not allowed at the temple.  Yet I sat there & watched as more & more non-Hindu tourists walked through the ocean to Tanah Lot.  Of course, my boyfriend & I immediately decided to join them.  We walked to the temple, where we were told to wash our faces with the holy water.  The priests then blessed us, placed rice on our foreheads & gave us a flower.  Next we waited at the “gate” to the upper temple.  While waiting, the priests informed us that we would need sarongs in order to be allowed at the top of the temple.  Even more determined, we raced back to the shore, bought sarongs from the nearest vendor & returned to the “gate” to wait our turn.  A solitary priest eventually led us to the top of the temple where we sat in the open air.  He instructed us in the proper way to pray with him, then he also blessed us & placed rice on our foreheads.  There was something immensely moving about sitting at the top of Tanah Lot with waves crashing all around us while the Hindu priest prayed.  Both my boyfriend & I were nearly speechless afterwards, yet we both agreed that it had been quite a stirring experience.

       

      THE PARTY CIRCUIT

       

      Can you say Hu’u?  While you’re at it, what about Ku De Ta and/or The Living Room?  When my friend traveled to Bali with me, we arrived in the afternoon.  By early evening, we were already fighting major jet lag.  Yet as soon as one of us would lay down on the bed, the other would rouse them & guilt them into going out somewhere.  On that first Thursday, we had dinner at a local warung, had drinks at Sawasdeekha, then dozed off in the cab on our way to Hu’u!  Once the house music woke us up, however, we had a few drinks there.  As gorgeous as it was, the place was not exactly happening on a Thursday night.  Drinks were in the San Francisco range (i.e. about $15 for a bellini) and the bartenders seemed immensely bored.

       

      We walked across the street to The Living Room.  We crossed the candlelit outdoor seating area, then a beautiful interior seating area before coming across the bar in the back.  Even though it was a Thursday night, the moderate crowd was lively and dancing around to the DJ spinning her tracks.  Bartenders were extremely friendly and the crowd was mostly ex-pats.  We were having such a good time that we closed the place down at 3:00 a.m. on a THURSDAY, mind you!  We also met several European & Oceanic ex-pats, a few of who ended up partying with us later on in our vacation.

       

      Many of the trendier bars/restaurants/clubs in Bali are partially open to the elements.  They may be covered, but the sides are open to the sun and the sea.  That being said, my two favorite  restaurants/bars/clubs in this genre are Ku De Ta & Anantara.  You can sit in the “lounge” area of Ku De Ta which, as to be expected, is open to the elements on 3 sides.  On one of those sides, chaise lounges are provided for those who want to swim before eating or drinking, or for those who wish to chill & watch the sunset.  My favorite spot at Anantara is the extensive “sofa” on the beach, stocked with fluffy pillows & a small table every 5 feet or so to set your drinks.

       

       

      MORE TOURISTIC STUFF

       

      Ubud has plenty of museums.  Though I went to both the ARMA and the Neka Museums while there, my favorite was the Antonio Blanco Museum.  The museum is what used to be part of his actual living quarters.  The green space surrounding the museum is filled with many exotic birds.  His works, many of Balinese women and dancers, are most definitely erotic.  Even the frames the paintings are framed in are highly decorative and unusual.

       

      The first two times I went to Bali, I hadn’t realized that there was an elephant park.  Once I read about Taro Elephant Park, it was at the top of my list of places to visit.  We each paid a fee of approximately $US57, which included admission & a half hour ride on an elephant.  We walked in & immediately started hand feeding bamboo to the elephants, under the supervision of the mahouts.  We petted them & took several pictures.  Some of the elephants even drop a flowered wreath around you.  The mahouts are there to supervise & answer any questions that you may have.  There was 30 minute show where the elephants, among other things, painted, played soccer and played basketball.  Then it was time for our ride.  Our mahout explained that our elephant’s name was Sengiggi & that her temperament was a bit naughty.  We rode through the jungle area & through water.  True to her nature, Sengiggi got a bit testy at one point.  She trumpeted & ran over to the side of the path, where she grabbed a trunkful of bamboo before getting back in line.

       

      Three sites which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting were Tirta Gangga, Tirta Empul and  Gunung Kawi.  Tirta Gangga is considered a water palace dominated by an 11-tiered lotus fountain.  There appeared to be two main sacred, spring-fed pools where locals can swim and bathe. The complex is surrounded by lush gardens, beautiful fountains and many statues.   Tirta Empul is a sacred spring where twelve water spouts pour holy water into a long pool.  There is a huge courtyard with various shrines and pavilions.  It was reputed to be President Suharto’s summer residence.  My guide told me to wash my face with the holy water as it would banish all nightmares and bad things.  Though many children had been playing at Tirta Gangga, Tirta Empul seemed more hallowed.  Gunung Kawi is the site of an ancient monument.  I walked down many, many steps passing by terraced rice paddies, ducks and vendors selling drinks and souvenirs along the way.  There are two distinct areas where you will come across huge niches carved out of the rock, which are known as candi.  A local was trying to point me towards a waterfall, but the path led along a narrow ridge above two rice fields.  I tried to explain that I was a bit afraid of heights, so he held my hand and led the way.  When the path became slippery, he carried me on his back until we arrived at the waterfall!  Of course, he expected some small monetary compensation for my manual transport, but I gladly paid him!  Be forewarned that the long walk back is uphill and seems torturous in the humidity.  Don’t forget to bring your own bottled water or be prepared to pay double the normal price to the vendors along the way.

       

      DANCE PERFORMANCES

       

      I am enthralled with legong, kebyar, kecak and other dances of the Balinese.  Most of these performances are found in Ubud or in smaller surrounding villages.  The average price of tickets were from US$7.00 to US$10.00.  Their colorful costumes, the classical movements, their flashing eyes and the way the women kick the long train of their dresses as they turn mesmerized me.  These dances are usually accompanied by gamelan music.  The gamelan is an ensemble of gongs, xylophones, chimes, cymbals, etc.  The music may sound like organized chaos to many.  In fact, I distinctly remember a woman holding her head as though she had a headache when the music began at a dance performance.  My first impression was much the same, but I became not only used to it, but hypnotized by it.  Even now, when I hear gamelan music, I feel as if my soul has left my body and transported me back to Bali.

       

      ACCOMMODATIONS

       

      There are all types of accomodations to be found in Bali.  Homestays (where prices can be $7-$15 per night), hotels (usually from $20-$80 per night) to luxury villas.  I mainly stayed at moderately priced bungalows for $35 per night which included either air conditioning or a ceiling fan, as well as breakfast.

       

      Honeymoon Guesthouse in Ubud is a beautiful place.  There is an on-site restaurant, pool and massage area.  My friend & I stayed in one of their Dewi bungalows for approximately $44/night, including breakfast.  Our bungalow had a porch with daybed, & a table & chairs for breakfast.  The interior offered a bed with a mosquito netting canopy, a ceiling fan & a mini bar.  The open air bathroom featured a separate shower and bathtub, and a gorgeous Venetian mirror adorning the wall.  Since this beautiful hotel is associated with two restaurants, Casa Luna and Indus, breakfast was wonderful.  Some of the breakfast choices were banana/coconut crepes and nasi goreng.  The owner, Janet de Neefe, offers cooking classes in the family compound for approximately $27 per person.

       

      On the most recent stay at Honeymoon Guesthouse, my boyfriend & I stayed in one of their Krishna bungalows for approximately $50/night, including breakfast.  Our upstairs bungalow had a huge terrace with a massive carved doorway, Balinese statues, a drying rack for clothes, & a table & chairs for breakfast.  Once again, the interior was outfitted with a bed with mosquito netting, air conditioning and a mini bar.  The bathroom, though not open air, still had a separate enclosed shower and bathtub, along with another drying rack for clothes.

       

      Temple Café and Seaside Cottages in Candidasa is owned by an Aussie, but the Balinese hospitality is apparent.  This little place has everything – seaside cottages, a restaurant and bar on-site, as well as a boutique and spa/salon attached/next door.  Temple Café serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.  The bar offers a full bar with Happy Hour prices.  My cottage fronting the ocean had carved wooden doors, a porch, air conditioning and hot water in my own private bathroom with shower for RP190,000.

       

      TRANSPORTATION

       

      In comparison to the United States, taxis are so affordable in Bali.  In Legian, nearly anywhere I went cost the equivalent of US$2.00 or US$3.00.

       

      Of course, you can also hire drivers off the street and negotiate prices with them.  When I found a driver I liked, I kept using him.  For day trips, it is common to hire a driver for approximately US$40 to transport one to four people around in excess of 10 hours.  This price generally includes gas, mileage, bottled water, parking, temple clothing (if required), umbrellas (in case of rain) and possibly entrance fees.

       


      SAFETY

       

      One of my concerns about Bali was wondering if I would be safe traveling alone.  After the initial day of adjustment, safety never crossed my mind again.  The Balinese tend to be respectful and reserved in nearly any situation.  Hiring a driver off of the street and getting into his car never made me uneasy.

       

      FOOD AND DRINK

       

      For a traveler to Bali coming from the United States, there are no required vaccinations for entry.  Many were suggested, but I had no inoculations whatsoever on any of the trips, and I never became ill.

       

      Every type of food and drink are available in the major tourist areas of Bali.  I stuck mainly to Indonesian/Balinese food, which is flavorful and spicy.  My favorite discoveries have been mie goring (fried noodles with chicken & vegetables), grilled red snapper with sambal and sate lillit (minced fish with spices served sate-style on a lemongrass stick).  Normal water is not drinkable in Bali.  Therefore, I only drank bottled water and preferred my drinks at restaurants/bars without ice cubes.  Bottled water is very affordable and easy to find.

       

      SPA TREATMENTS

       

      Spa treatments are inexpensive and plentiful in Bali.  I had a facial and/or massage nearly every day; sometimes twice a day!  To spell it out, many of the massages I had cost the equivalent of US$6.00 to US$15.00 for one hour, and these were NOT the massages that tourists are offered when they’re on the beach at Kuta.  All of my spa treatments were performed in nice facilities.

       

      Zen Bali Spa is located in the vicinity of the ARMA Museum in Ubud.  I received the hardest/strongest massage of all of my trips here.  It was actually painful at times.  This may have been due to the fact that my calves and thighs were still suffering from my trek to Gunung Kawai three days earlier!  One hour massages were RP75,000, exfoliating body scrubs were Rp30,000 to RP35,000; facials were RP75,000 to RP80,000.

       

      Eve Body Treatment Centre on Monkey Forest Road in Ubud gave me the best massages on both trips.  The first time I had the white jasmine lulur body scrub, which included a traditional Balinese massage, shower and soak in a flower petal bath for RP125,000.  When I returned the following year, I had a fantastic 90 minute combination massage.  A few days later, I went for a body mask, specifically the Balinese boreh.  This most interesting technique included a massage, then being covered by spices, wrapped cocoon-style and being left to "marinate" for 10-15 minutes.  During this time, I became very hot and my body began tingling.  I think this is because the boreh is reputed to remove toxins from the body.

       

      SHOPPING

       

      I'm a self-proclaimed shopaholic.  It's evidenced by the fact that my entire apartment is furnished with souvenirs from trips abroad – oil paintings, watercolors, wood carvings, masks, mirrors, wall hangings, photos.  In Bali, it's a good idea to pack an extra, empty suitcase.  Believe me, when you return home, it will be overflowing.  As with every place, you can find the generic souvenirs in Bali that can be found most anywhere.  These include T-shirts, baseball caps, key chains and magnets to name a few.  Yet Bali is filled with beautiful items for your home, as well as to adorn yourself with.  The Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area is best to find swimsuits, funky clothing and home furnishings.  Ubud is the perfect place for clothing such as silk dresses, handbags and jewelry.  The surrounding villages are in full supply of kites, paintings and wood carvings.  I would personally skip Celuk, however.  I think the prices are better and the selection just as good in Ubud.  In fact, much of the jewelry that I saw in Celuk was higher priced than Indonesian jewelry that I've seen at the Jewelry Mart in Los Angeles.  To sum it all up, my major purchases were shadow puppets, silk dresses, handmade purses from Tenganan, silver and shell jewelry, sandals and slippers, textiles, stunning trays and bowls of mother of pearl and other shell, and paintings/drawings.

       

      CONS

       

      Be prepared to drink plenty of bottled water in Bali.  Regular tap water is not drinkable.  I carried bottled water everywhere I went.  I also brushed my teeth with bottled water.

       

      If you’re into French or Italian wines, you’ll slightly out of luck in Bali.  French, Italian and Napa/Sonoma wines seem to be few and far between at most restaurants and bars.  When one does come across them, they are rather exorbitantly priced.  What I found in Bali were mostly Australian or South African wines.  The Balinese do have their own winery, Hatten, but (in my opinion) the wines were horrible.

       

      I don’t know about you, but mosquitoes love me.  I’ve been known to return from Hawaii with 30 bites on a single leg, so you can only imagine how I was basically eaten alive in Bali!  The Balinese recommend a cream called Autan.  They told me that “American stuff” (I can only assume they mean Off) doesn’t work.  I would also advise travelers to purchase mosquito coils to burn inside or outside your room in the evening.

       

       

      THE PEOPLE

       

      The people of Bali define its core.  I found them to be sincere, gentle and pleasant.  Following are just a few examples of kindness I’d encountered.

       

      In Ubud, I’d hired a tailor to make a few dresses for me.  Once I’d sketched them out and chosen the fabric, she promised that they would be ready within 3 or 4 days.  When I returned on the 3rd day, one was ready, but the other was not.  She had not finished my second dress because her mother had passed away.  Even so, she apologized profusely and assured me that it would be finished the following day.  I, of course, felt bad and assured her that she could take all the time she needed for the second dress, but it was finished the following morning.

       

      Also in Ubud, I’d hired a driver to take me to a restaurant.  While in his car, there was a song on the radio that I’d heard all over Bali.  When I mentioned it to him, since we had extra time before my dinner reservation, he insisted on taking me to Ubud Music.  Inside, he hummed the song to the employees.  They found the CD and played it for me to make sure that it was the correct one.  Then the driver insisted on paying for the CD and giving it to me as a gift because he wanted me to always remember Bali.

       

      One afternoon I was having lunch at a small café in Legian.  The waitress noticed the swollen mosquito bites on my arms.  She went in the back and came out with some type of cream which she applied to the bites; she told me that it would make the swelling go down.  When I thanked her and tipped her upon leaving, she asked me why I tipped her!  Why indeed?!  I am not used to such kind treatment in the United States.

       

      IN CLOSING

       

      Although Bali definitely remains a third world country in many ways and is filled with poverty, I still find it to be a personal paradise for me.

    • Blog post
    • 4 years ago
    • Views: 1329
  • Our Nicaraguan Spring Break - Our Nicaraguan Spring Break - 2008

    • From: nselph
    • Description:

      Sailing in NicaraguaDo you and your family enjoy tropical weather? Wildlife? Or outdoor activities, such as sailing, kayaking, hiking volcanoes, horseback riding and canopy tours? If so, I recommend visiting Nicaragua before the secret gets out.

      My family and I spent our 2008 spring break exploring Nicaragua. It is a very safe, friendly and inexpensive family getaway. We traveled through Miami, and a short two hours later, we landed in sunny Managua. Our hotel arranged an easy airport pickup, and we were swimming in Granada within the hour. Granada is a wonderfully walkable colonial city with many good restaurants and interesting day trips.

      Every type of accommodation is available in Nicaragua but it is impossible to beat Pelican Eyes Resort in San Juan del Sur. It has on-site restaurants, infinity pools, scuba instruction, sailboat excursions, Spanish lessons, massage in your private cabanas, etc.

      We continued our adventure traveling by ferry to Ometepe Island, where we had a beautiful, rustic two-night stay on the beach. There were monkeys and colorful birds everywhere.

      If you crave an easy family escape, Nicaragua has it all. No adapters needed, U.S. dollars accepted, short flying time, plus you can brush up on your Espanol!

    • Blog post
    • 5 years ago
    • Views: 964
  • Open-air massage cabana at Can Open-air massage cabana at Caneel Bay

    • From: SharonNaylor
    • Description:

      Had a honey massage at the new open-air massage cabana at Caneel Bay, USVI, and it was sensational to have the ocean sounds and breeze going through the room. Total heaven.

    • 2 years ago
    • Views: 525
  • Bangkok- A traveler friendly m Bangkok- A traveler friendly must visit destination

    • From: Brianmcquillan
    • Description:

      Bangkok, a tropical metropolis is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities which will surely impress you with its magnificent Buddhist temples, authentic canals, busy markets and vibrant nightlife. The city is now turned out to be a hub of Thailand’s spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, diplomatic and educational activities. All these make Bangkok as one of most traveler- friendly cities in Asia. Just take a bangkok Cheap flights and visit Bangkok city which is full of hidden gems waiting to be explored.

      Saim Niramit

      While enjoying Bangkok holidays guests can come across several amazing things that they can’t afford to miss. The high levels of humidity and warm temperature helps in growth of exotic orchids and delicious fruits everywhere makes it even more beautiful. The city offers its guests a sophisticated dining experience. Thai cuisine is justifiably famous, varied, and affordable .Various cooking style traditions, exacting chefs, aromatic ingredients and demanding consumers have contributed to make Bangkok a great food city. Don’t forget to enjoy a memorable dinner cruise adrift the Chao Phraya River. Tuck tuk ride, Ladyboy show, Thai Massage, Muay Thai are some amazing things that you can only enjoy in Bangkok.

      Temple of Emerald Buddha

      A cycle tour is the best way to explore the corners of Bangkok. With little more than the clank of your bicycle gears, a cool breeze touching your face and company of locals, there is nothing more adventurous then this two wheeler journey.

      Floating Market

      So book your cheap Flight London to Bangkok and do visit

      • Temple of Emerald Buddha
      • Saim Niramit
      • Damneon Saduak Floating Market
      • Chinatown
      • Candle light Dinner by Grand Pearl Cruise
    • Blog post
    • 2 years ago
    • Views: 258
  • 2009 Grand Tour -- Part I 2009 Grand Tour -- Part I

    • From: dni
    • Description:

      August 2009 -- After almost 3 months in Japan, no job in site, and rain rain and more rain, I was more than ready to plan my escape. First must-do on my list, visit Mt. Everest. I was first turned on to the idea of Mt. Everest back in 2007 when a friend of mine mentioned he was going to climb Mt. Everest. He asked if I'd like to join him, and of course, I would -- I'd do anything once. Then I started to google. It's pretty much physically impossible for me to climb Everest being in the shape I am, so I was surprised that my friend thought he could do it. So it turned out, he just meant hike the trails along Everest Base Camp. OOHHHH... ok, neat.

      Two years later, I'm looking into going to Everest. My scape started with me leaving the heck out of Japan. And the Japanese really makes this hard because airfare from Japan to China is around $800. It's only a two-hour flight! You can fly from East Coast USA to China for less. I was stunned. My next option -- to China by boat. Oh yes, 26 hours of boat ride from Shimonoseki to Qingdao. I coordinated my cousins and relatives and off I went. Conditions on the boat weren't bad, it needed a renovation, but everything was clean -- and that's all I could have asked.
      Qingdao is the home to the famous Tsingdao beer, the only famous Chinese beer outside of China. I never knew there were so many different brews, but my cousin made sure I tried every one of them with an expansive and delicious seafood dinner on the beer street strip of the city. Afterwards, it's only reasonable to do a little karaoke and a little shopping on the city's late night street market.
      The next day with a slight hangover, we hopped on the train from Qingdao and headed towards Beijing. If Beijing were like Washington, DC, Shanghai would be its New York City. I'm from Shanghai, so I'm not a huge fan of Beijing -- but Beijing has changed so much in the past 10 years. Some for the good and some not so good. There are a lot of new construction that were built for the 2008 Olympics, and a lot of old houses and historical parts of the city were destroyed as a consequence.
      I stayed in Beijing for about a week. My cousin showed me the pet street (an incredible place where they sell dogs, cats, to scorpions as a pet), we had mongolian BBQ dinners and beers, and ending the night with a massage and cupping. Please note that cupping should not be attempted at home, and it was extremely painful -- see pictures below. Raymond caught up with me later on in the week, and we visit the good o' Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven... the usual suspects. And we were off... next stop Xi'An.
      Xi'An was not pleasant. It was dirty (but so is the rest of the China), crowded (yes, also the rest of China), humid as heck, and extremely touristy. It was the perfect timing for me to get sick, so I stayed at our hotel for two days while recovering from my cold. Food in Xi'An was great. We went to a few restaurants that were recommended by my cousin, and then tried a few muslim street vendors, all excellent. When I did feel better, we visited the Terra Cotta Warriors outside of the city. And then we hopped on a flight straight to Lhasa, Tibet.
      I was forewarned about Lhasa about 100 times by my family to not visit there. My mom insisted that I would get high altitude sickness, that I almost believed her that I would die there. And my girl cousin insisted that it is extremely dangerous territory and Tibetans are violent people and would kidnap foreigners. Neither happened. As soon as I arrived in Tibet, I easily noticed that the air was cleaner and brighter. Not the smog in Beijing or dust in Xi'An. Clean air to breath was a refreshing change in China. The air did feel thin, but as long as I wasn't trying to run 6 miles under an hour, I was feeling quite fine.
      We spent 3 days in Lhasa, visiting temples, palaces, me taking a ton of pictures, and Raymond buying souvenirs for his friends. I picked up a pretty but an over priced bracelet that I would probably never ever wear. And we dined in hole in the wall restaurants trying yak butter tea, yak fried rice, yak fried noodles, stir fried yak, yak yak yak, until we were yak-ed out. Yak is almost like a high-altitude buffalo, the meat is very lean and healthy, but not necessarily tasteful. We just had to try everything, of course.
      After our bodies have climatized to the current high altitude, we were ready for our ascend to Mt. Everest. We had hired a driver and a guide for our tour in Tibet, not because we wanted to but it was required by the Chinese government. And we headed west towards our destination. The journey was roughly two days, and along the way, we made stops at temples, temples, and more temples, lakes, stone carvings, sky burial grounds, prayer flag posts, etc.
      This happy Tibetan lady is carrying a basket full of yak dung, but she is happier than all the faces I've seen in China.
      We finally reached Everest at dusk on day three. The air was already chilly, and I wrapped myself in a heavy jacket and cashmere blanket to keep warm. I was happy. The mountain had barely a cloud in sight and the sun was slowly setting. The air was chilly but clear and clean. It just felt great.
      Before I get too far entertaining you with how great Tibet is, I'd like to add a few things I don't like about Tibet. The air is dry -- very dry. I drink about a gazillion bottles of water all day, but my mouth is still thirsty. The food is no gourmet. I suppose it would be hard to cook in such high altitude, so don't expect much. Even fancy looking restaurant food aren't good, they just charge you more. TOILETS, or lack of what we think are toilets. It's just a hole in the ground, literally. The nice ones will provide you with a shovel and some dirt to filling the hole after your done for the next occupant. After my first bathroom break, I was kind of glad that even with all the water I was drinking, I still rarely needed to use the toilet.
      There isn't much to do at the foot hill of Mt. Everest except to bask in its glory. We were extremely lucky that the two days we were there, there wasn't a cloud in sight and the mountain was just amazing. Some unfortunate souls often have to endure the rough ride there without ever setting their eyes on the mountain after days or even a whole week here. On day two, Raymond started to feel the effects of high altitude. It started with insomnia, headache, vomiting, and just general feeling of death and then contemplating if death is actually better. After he took a few high altitude medicine offered by a friend from Amsterdam, he felt better and decided he will go hiking with me.
      The hike was not hard from our base camp to the other base camp closer to the mountain. But no matter how hard we try, we were always lagging behind our tour guides. The air was thin, making breathing slightly harder, and us more tired, but we persevered no matter. After our hike, we were ready to head back down the mountain towards Nepal. After a week of the dry Tibetan climate, it was a nice change of scenery to see green grass, waterfalls, and puffy white clouds. By the second day, we have reached Zhangmu, the Chinese border city with Nepal.
      Zhangmu would have been a great resort city, built on the side of a mountain, just gorgeous. From our hotel window, we could see the border and straight into Nepal. The surrounding is lush and full of life. Unfortunately, the city looks more like a dump. Trash piles are everywhere and the general feeling is DIRTY. We got up extra early the next day to be the first ones in line to cross the Chinese-Nepalese border. The process went rather smoothly, and quickly we were shuttled towards the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu.
      Along the way, we stopped at a great homey Nepalese restaurant for some lunch and another for a quick banana lassi, and then I fell into a deep slumber in the car. When I woke up, I found myself in another world. Where the countryside of Nepal was lush, green, beautiful, full of wheat field terraces, quant villages, the city of Kathmandu was dirty, dusty, full of noise and traffic, it was like waking up to a nightmare.
      I was disgusted immediately. The traffic in the city was so bad, that we didn't arrive to our hotel until late in the afternoon. Since we were only going to be in Nepal/Kathmandu for one night, we hurried off to see the major sights. Wait, what major sights? The UNESCO world heritage sight was in the middle of the city grid. Ancient temples that are supposed to be protected, were in the middle of a 6-way traffic corner. The temples weren't protected, restoration has obviously not ever taken place, and the city just ate it all up. It was sad to see the temples in such bad condition.
      Oh a brighter note, I was happy to have found good and cheap indian food, yummy lassi, a nice massage, a good enough bakery, and a million cheap freshly squeezed juice stands. I immediately begged Raymond to take money out of the ATM and bought myself two freshly squeezed whatever fruit I felt like having fruit juice. It was delicious going down my throat. And I was in my nirvana.
      The next day, we decided to visit a near by municipal called Bhaktapur. The entire walled in city of Bhaktapur is pedestrian only. If you can ignore all the touts that are attracted to you immediately like moth to flame, you would find this place to be a real gem. The Hindu/Buddhist temples are well preserved, the locals are known to sell cheap and simple crafts. It's just a beautiful place to wonder and spend your morning/afternoon. And a quiet place to recollect your thoughts.
      That night when we arrived back at the hotel, we were ready to make our next stop -- Shanghai. It will be nice to be back in civilization, where I will be able to find a decent cup of coffee and pastry, and enjoy the city where I was born and know "somewhat" well.

       

    • Blog post
    • 4 years ago
    • Views: 697
  • Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne

    • From: Funkidivagirl
    • Description:

      *To see the photos that accompany this post, please visit Funkidivagirl.com and click on the category "T as in Tango."

       

      I recently spent 3 nights at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Florida.  As I have posted before, my family has enjoyed a couple of different Ritz-Carlton resorts over the last year, but this was my first time at this particular location.

      Did you know that you can book vacation packages on the Ritz-Carlton website?  I booked my flight and hotel as a package for considerably less than if I had bought them separately.  The only drawback to this arrangement is that the reservation is paid in full at the time of booking and is non-refundable (however, travel insurance is an available option for purchase).  I was emailed my travel documents; it was all very straightforward and easy.

      A short flight from Atlanta, a 30 minute taxi ride from Miami International Airport, and I was in Key Biscayne in no time.  Check-in was not so pleasant as my room was not ready (at 4:00 p.m.) and the desk clerk seemed confused and unsure about her duties, but at least my wait was nice in the opulent hotel lobby.

      Finally I made it to my room and while it was very nice and newly renovated, it was small and dark; I wouldn’t be spending much time in this room.  No matter, I had come to Key Biscayne to be on the beach anyhow.   The bathroom, by contrast was a very nice size with a separate shower and bathtub and nice bright, lighting.  I had requested a balcony and received one; it had a “bay view”—the bay being way off in the distance—so it really was a view of the front of the hotel.  Since I wasn’t in my room but to sleep, I didn’t sit on the balcony at all.

      After checking out the hotel boutique, spa and various lounges, I made my way to the beach—just a short walk along the fountain, past the Great Lawn and pools.   The beach is very narrow; there isn’t much room between the dunes and the water, but it’s very nicely kept.   The Ritz hotel staff will set you up with a lounge chair and towels, while an umbrella could be rented for $20/day.  I do think that the umbrella rental fee is very steep, but there was no way around it for me; I don’t like to bake in the sun.   Although it was very hot in August, the beach breeze with the shade of the umbrella made for an enjoyable time outside. The ocean water was warm and shallow for a long time and the waves were gentle; there were many kids and adults in the ocean playing games and wading around. Both days of my stay I got the to beach in the morning and didn’t leave until the evening because I loved it so much.   I mostly read a book and people-watched.  The view, breeze and total beach experience compensated for the lack of great service by the Ritz beach employees; once they set up my chair and umbrella, I never saw them again.

      Preferring to spend my time on the beach, I didn’t use the pools at all; however I checked them out for future reference.  The family pool has a waterfall; it was always full and families were having a ball.   The adult pool on the other side of the Great Lawn was quiet and not very full at all.   I don’t know why, but the hot tub was next to the family pool, so I never used that.

      But I did use the hot tub in the spa several times; the spa can be used by hotel guests, even by those not receiving a spa treatment.  Like the other Ritz-Carlton spas that I have visited, this one was very nice and well appointed with a lounge area, hot tub, sauna, steam room, showers, locker room and all the toiletries that you could ever want.  The cold cumber-laced towels are my favorite.  I received a massage one day and while it wasn’t that great (she hurt me pretty bad), the lounge area for awaiting treatments is worth the price of admission—cushy chaise lounges, tea, coffee and fruit—I could have stayed there all day.  Although I didn’t use it, I toured the gym and concluded that my husband would have loved the weight area and cardio machines with televisions and complimentary headphones.

      Besides the beach and spa, I hung out in the hotel lobby lounge one night and listened to a Cuban band; they were great!  Unfortunately, there was only one night of entertainment, so I would assume that guests looking for nightlife drive to Miami.   Dune, a burger lounge, was pretty happening but it closed at sunset.  Located right on the beach, it was very groovy and also served a fantastic burger.

      I paid for the Club Level and I think it was worth it.  Unlike the beach employees, the staff working the Club Lounge was fantastic.  The continental breakfast was sufficient and very good; I ate breakfast every morning on the lounge balcony while reading The New York Times.  Most days I brought sandwiches from the Club Lounge lunch display down to the beach with me.   Sometimes I made the before-dinner appetizers my actual dinner and I never missed the dessert buffet.   The lounge itself was very lovely and a nice place to read a book.  But the real reason I loved the Club Lounge was the champagne that I had every evening!

      While the hotel had iffy customer service and it’s not as family-friendly as Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton, the location, beach, and hotel amenities makes me want to visit this Ritz-Carlton again either alone or with my family. With such a short flight and inexpensive last-minute fares from Atlanta to Miami, I’m sure that I will soon return.


    • Blog post
    • 5 years ago
    • Views: 2241
  • Thailand: The Land of Smiles Thailand: The Land of Smiles

    • From: patrickmurphy
    • Description:

      THAILAND

      I am very fortunate to have been able to visit Thailand three times in the past two-and-a-half years to visit my friend, Jake, who has been working/living over there during that time. This time, I enjoyed three separate 30-day stints between February and July, as Thailand served as my "base" in exploring SE Asia. So, where to start with describing Thailand? I could very easily dive right in about the mouth-watering and spicy food, the great islands/beaches in the south, the ancient temples/wats spread throughout the country, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the April Songkran festival, or enjoyment of a $6/hour traditional Thai massage. However, I don't think one can begin to talk about Thailand without first talking about its amazing people.

      THE PEOPLE

      Never has a country been dubbed with a more appropriate title than Thailand, "The Land of Smiles." From the first moment you are greeted by a Thai person with a smile that can simply light up a room, coupled with a wai (a prayer-like gesture where hands are placed in front of the nose followed with a small bow of the head), they have won you over. And it doesn't stop there. Thais are soft-spoken, respectful, and polite people. In my travels to many countries on this trip and previous trips, I can state there are no finer people than the Thais. Thai life is centered around their respect for Buddha, their respect for the King (oldest reigning monarchy in the world), and commitment to their families. They tend to live for the moment and like to enjoy life to its fullest.

      THE FOOD

      My mouth is watering while I'm thinking about this. Thai food is something special in my book. From the myriad of choices available (noodles, rice dishes, bowls of soup, tasty meats, etc.) each dish includes a mind-boggling combination of, spices, herbs and sauces which typically includes four main seasonings/tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy which usually leaves me with beads of sweat dripping from my forehead. The food is so good that you will always see locals (as well as foreigners, such as myself) eating all throughout the day. It is a rarity, however, to see an overweight Thai person. To help offset the sweat experienced by the food, there's always a cold beverage close at hand...from a cold Singha, Chang, and Leo beer, to the ever-popular Thai rum (Sangsom). One of the highlights of each of my visits to Bangkok is a trip with friends to our local Thai friend's outdoor family restaurant in a part of the city that sees very little foreigners (farang). Each time we visit we are greeted with smiles, hugs, great food, lively music, wonderful service, and a great Thai experience.

      BANGKOK

      Thailand's capital, Bangkok (pop. 9 million) can be quite intimidating at first, as it fits the bill of an urban jungle. Yes, there are some incredible traffic jams with cars vs. tuk-tuks vs. motorbikes and it's a city known for "anything goes". In the end, though, it is chaos that works. The vibrant city really does have it it all, from fantastic history and culture, to fine food, to great entertainment. It is also very safe, clean, and comfortable. Staying at my friend's apartment overlooking the skyline of Bangkok served as my "Club-Med" stop of my world journey. Along with the great view, my "home away from home" included a rooftop swimming pool, exercise room, and sauna. It is also centrally located to be either walking distance or a short motorbike taxi ride to the BTS (elevated rail) or MRT (subway), restaurants/bars (including wonderful sidewalk food stands), massage shops, fruit vendors, bookshops, music venues, and all sorts of shopping. I was also very lucky to have my stay overlap with the vacations of some other friends from California. It was great to see so many familiar faces. Many, many laughs were had. One of my favorite day trips in Bangkok is to head down to the Chao Phraya River and hop on a water taxi (long boat) which makes stops at various temples, the Grand Palace, and other interesting sights. It's a great way to see life on the river and to people watch.

      I was also in Bangkok for the annual Songkran Festival held each April (my second year in a row) which is the celebration of the Thai New Year, which is a time for cleaning and renewal. Locals may go to a wat (Buddhist monastery) to pray and give food to monks. Buddha images are also cleansed by pouring water and fragrance over them to bring good luck and prosperity for the New Year. Thais also wash away all of the "bad" with water and bring good luck by putting powder (or a white paste) on peoples faces. Fairly recently, this celebration has also become the world's largest waterfight. All across the country, for three days, no street is safe between mid-morning and about 6 p.m....everyone is "fairgame" when it comes to getting doused with water. It is an all-out war with water canons, hoses, buckets of water (including ice water) coming from kids and adults on the street, shopkeepers in their doorways or on sidewalks, or from bar staff and patrons. In a time where it seems like every fun festival or event gets ruined or canceled from unruley behavior or a crackdown from police, Songkran is a freshing experience. It shows that people can have a great time without altercations of any kind and is a testimony to the goodness of the Thai people.

      NORTHERN THAILAND

      I took a train north from Bangkok to explore northern Thailand. Chiang Rai, at the northernmost portion of Thailand is a relaxed town with fantastic restaurants and, like all Thai cities, has some very interesting temples to explore. The area is known for some great treking and exploring some hillside villages, however, it was sweltering hot when I was there in April, so I passed on jungle treks and just explored enjoyed the city. A few hours to the south, Chiang Mai is the north's largest city and is surrounded by a ring of mountains. The city is home to over 300 temples dating as far back as the 13th century. Between many of the city's main streets are a network of small alleys with fantastic little neighborhood restaurants, bars, shops, markets, and hostels to explore. One of my more interesting afternoons was spent talking with a couple of monks for a few hours at a temple where they provided me with a great overview of their structured daily life, the teachings of Buddha, and life in Thailand overall. They had many questions about the U.S. economy and the upcoming presidential election. I spent the second hour helping them with their English reading and pronounciation as part of their afternoon study session. West of Chiang Mai is the small hillside town of Pai, which is reached via a very curvey road. It's a very laid-back town popular with backpackers and artist-types. It's a nice place to just relax in a bungalow along the Pai River and also a great place to rent a bike and explore the nearby villages.

      CENTRAL THAILAND

      Sukhothai and Kampaeng Phet in central Thailand contain some great ancient temples and both have been designatd world heritage sites by UNESCO. The ancient ruins are just as impressive as those found in Ayutthaya (visited last year). For my visit to Sukhothai, I stayed in nearby Phitsanuolok which is a very comfortable city on the Nan River which also contains some nice temples and restaurants. One of the highlights was getting a Thai massage right in the nice park next to the river for only 100 Baht an hour (3 dollars!). Kampaeng Phet is located southwest of Sukhothai and is a bit further off the normal tourist path. The small town itself is definately a Thai town, as there are very few signs in English. Kanchanaburi is a few hours west of Bangkok in the mountains fairly close to the border with Myanmar. Another nice town, it is located on the bank of the River Kwai with a number of interesting sites both in town and in the vicinity. In town, there are a couple of war memorials and cemetaries for foreign soldiers who died during work on the Death Railway during World War II while imprisioned by the Japanese. The railroad includes the famous Bridge over the River Kwai (as in the famous book and movie). An hour or so outside of town is Erawan National Park, which includes Erawan Falls, a seven-tiered waterfall surrounded by jungle which is simply gorgeous. At the base of many of the falls are small swimming lagoons, some of which also include natural rock slides. Lopburi, located about four hours north of Bangkok, is a city beseiged by monkeys. They are absolutely everywhere....on the sides and tops of buildings, on telephone lines, on the sidewalks and streets (even crossing busy intersections), underneath fire trucks in the fire station, and at two of the ancient temples in the middle of town.

      SOUTHERN THAILAND

      The area south of Bangkok between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Thailand is blessed with beautiful green mountains,jungle, and fine beaches. Hua Hin is lively city on Bay of Thailand about three hours from Bangkok. It has long golden beaches and is a good place to break up journey between Bangkok and Krabi. Krabi, Phang Nga, and Ao Nang are located on, or close to, the Andaman Sea. The area around Ao Nang is stunningly beautiful with great beaches and limestone peaks that drop straight down into the water and right onto the beaches. I took a great boat ride over to some nearby beach resorts (Railay Beach). One of my excursions from Krabi brought me to the Tiger Cave temple. To get to the temple at the top of the mountain requires a trek up 1,237 steps....which I had to climb in the hot/humid sun. Along the trail, monkeys are everywhere. I then made my way back over the Bay of Thailand to the island of Ko Samui which has different areas for different folks. The north end of island at Maenam Beach looks across at Ko Pha Ngan island and is more serene with few people and long white beaches lined with nice beach cottages/bungalows. On the east side of the island are the more developed tourist towns of Chaweng and Lamai, both of which have fine beaches and turquoise colored waters.

      As always, Thailand was an incredible experience...it is a real special place. The Thai experience is best summarized by the folks at Lonely Planet, who definately "get it" when they state in their SE Asia guidebook that "...the Thai experience enters the sole. The hardest part of the trip is working out how much longer you can extend your stay and how long it will be before you return." It is so true. I'm already looking forward to my next visit.

    • Blog post
    • 6 years ago
    • Views: 1180
  • Family Trip to China with Chin Family Trip to China with China Highlights

    • From: Kami
    • Description:

      Family Trip to China
      with China Highlights
      6/15-6/29/11

       

      This trip came about due to a desire to introduce our grandchildren to China.  My husband and I became interested in the country after living in Taiwan among the Chinese in 1966-67, when he was stationed there during the Vietnam War.  We had since made 3 trips to China—the latest in 2000, and felt it was time to visit again, before the country was irrevocably changed.  Our grandchildren, ages 14 and 12, were at a good age to take this trip—old enough to appreciate and enjoy the sights, but young enough that they weren’t too tied up with their own activities at home.  After we invited them, our daughter and son-in-law decided they would also like to accompany us, so we had a family group of six.  

      Although we had traveled independently on past trips to China—a process made considerably easier by my husband’s ability to communicate (at a basic level) in Mandarin—we decided to get some help with the logistics this time.  We had only two short weeks due to other commitments, so we didn’t want to waste any time.  I searched the Internet for tour companies, and came upon China Highlights—a branch of CITS.  They offered both group and private tours, and one of their stock tours was quite similar to the itinerary I had in mind.  The price seemed quite reasonable compared to some other tour companies I researched.  Also, the reviews I found online were all positive.  When I Emailed the company, a tour advisor named Grace Wang responded.  She was my contact throughout the process, and, if she was out of the office, one of her colleagues handled my inquiries.  I must say I was impressed with their quick follow up to my questions and concerns.  I selected the tour which was closest to my desired itinerary to get a price, and then made a few changes in destinations, hotels and activities.  One of the things I did was to eliminate all the planned shopping stops, so we would have more sightseeing or free time.  China Highlights had no problem with this.  They also arranged all my requested hotel and itinerary changes with no problem—and made helpful suggestions.   It all worked out very smoothly. 

      I arranged our own International air, and it took awhile to find what I considered a reasonable fare.  I booked with ANA in February, although I wasn’t entirely pleased with the schedule—it contained layovers both to and from China, with an overnight in Narita, Japan, on the return.  I was especially concerned about the overnight after the big earthquake and possible nuclear disaster.  Since I could cancel these reservations for a $300 pp charge, I continued to search.  About a month before our departure, I found a better schedule with Continental on Orbitz, with a price that just about covered our cancellation fees.  The flight to Beijing was direct, and we had only a 1 ½ hour layover in Narita on the return from Hong Kong.   Although our flights were long and uncomfortable, they were on schedule. 

      China Highlights:  I really can’t say enough about our satisfaction with them.  I’ve already mentioned that the planning process went very smoothly.  In the execution, our guides were all excellent.  They were always prompt, helpful, flexible when we wanted to change or add to our itinerary, and very knowledgeable about the cities and sights.   We were ferried around in comfortable air-conditioned vans or small busses.  Of course, the drivers were Chinese, and their way of driving is sometimes a little (or a lot) frightening.  However, except for a small fender-bender, we survived intact. 

      Cities & hotels:  3 nights in Beijing at the Park Plaza Beijing, 2 nights in Xi’an at the Grand Noble Hotel, 1 night in Chengdu at the Haiyatt Garden, 3 nights in Guilin at the Guilin Bravo Hotel, 1 night in Yangshuo at the Green Lotus, and 3 nights in Hong Kong at the Salisbury YMCA.   I feel this itinerary was just right for us, and I wouldn’t have changed any of it.

      I was pleased with all our hotels.  They ranged from 3 to 5 star hotels, and all in good locations, which is the most important thing to me.  At all of them we were just short walking distances from pedestrian shopping streets, night markets, and interesting restaurants.  Our included breakfasts were excellent in all but the Green Lotus in Yangshuo, which fell a little short in this category.   Winner for best breakfast would be the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong, with its great service and sunny restaurant with a view of the harbor. Winner for best view from our rooms was the Green Lotus with its stunning view of the Li River.   I didn’t get the lake view I had expected at the Guilin Bravo, but we were upgraded to nicer rooms in their new wing.  And they had a very nice outdoor pool and fitness center.  The kids also enjoyed the pool at the Green Lotus and at the Salisbury YMCA in Hong Kong, although the pools at the latter were not really geared to hotel guests and my grandson were rather disappointed that he had to pay extra to use the fitness room there.  The rooms were small and simple in the YMCA, but we couldn’t beat the price for the location--a couple blocks from the harbor and Star Ferry and across the street from a subway station. 

      Food:  Breakfasts at our hotels were generally excellent with lots of food choices and made-to-order omelets.  Lunches were included with our tour, and the restaurants chosen were generally good and included local specialties.  We could order from the menu or enlist our guide’s help.  Since the menus are so large and the dishes so unfamiliar, it was usually more efficient to have our guide’s recommendations.  Meals were a special challenge for me, because I have Celiac Disease, and am “allergic” to anything containing gluten (wheat, rye, barley).   During the planning process, I had a card with instructions for the restaurant translated into Chinese characters by Grace Wang.  This helped a lot—especially for dinners, where we were on our own.  I must say that China is a pretty tough country for those with gluten-sensitivity, but our guides all did their best to insure that I had something gluten-free to eat.  The main problem is the soy sauce which is used in so many dishes, and which almost always contains wheat.  I brought a bottle of gluten-free soy sauce with me, and some of the restaurants would use this to make a dish for me.  Generally, I ate mostly steamed rice, fried rice with egg (without soy sauce), and sautéed vegetables.  So I didn’t starve, but I couldn’t partake of some of the more interesting dishes.  The rest of the family loved the food.  Only once in awhile, toward the end of the trip, did anyone choose a pizza or hamburger instead of Chinese food.  The guys reported that the beer was also very good, but, again, I couldn’t partake because beer contains barley.  And, unfortunately, the wine in China still leaves much to be desired.   Meals which were especially memorable were our Peking Duck dinner at the Da Dong Restaurant in Beijing, lunch at the Xin Shuang Quan Restaurant in a garden setting near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the lunch of locally-grown organic foods at Longji Ping ‘an Restaurant at the Longsheng Rice Terraces near Guilin, Nomad’s (Mongolian Barbeque) in Hong Kong, and our final dinner splurge at the Hutong Restaurant with an unforgettable view of Hong Kong Harbor.  There was only one restaurant—in Chengdu—that was not good.  I don’t have the name, because our guide changed the itinerary restaurant to one in which she felt it would be easier to get some gluten-free dishes.  Although the food was fine, the atmosphere, service, and the restroom cleanliness left a lot to be desired.

      Shopping:  My daughter and son-in-law made their largest purchases at the Terra Cotta Warrior site near Xi’an.  This included a terra cotta warrior replica about 18” high, and a lovely celadon tea set.   For artwork and general souvenirs, we had the most luck in Yangshuo, Stanley Market and the Lady’s Market in Hong Kong.  We were more receptive to shopping there because it was near the end of the trip, and we wouldn’t have to cart our purchases around so long.

      Memories:  Oh so many, but here are some of the highlights.

      Beijing:  Of course, hiking on the Great Wall—the Mutianyu section.  The expression on my grandson’s face after he tried a snake skewer in the night market on our first night (he was a little more cautious in his food choices after that).   The grandeur and history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.   Having our photo taken in Chinese finery at the Summer Palace.  The beauty of the Temple of Heaven.  The pedicab ride through a hutong (the old traditional housing area), followed by tea and conversation with a local resident.  Our first attempts at bargaining with the vendors at the Great Wall.  The traffic and crazy driving.  The hordes of people—especially at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on a hot, steamy Saturday.  The forests of new apartment buildings to house all those people.  Our Peking Duck dinner at Da Dong.

      Xi’an:  Of course, the awesome Terra Cotta Soldiers.  My husband’s hilarious terra cotta warrior photo.  Biking along the city wall early in the morning.  Our auto accident which we knew was bound to happen (luckily, it was minor).  The tea ceremony.  The very entertaining Tang Dynasty show.  Walking in the rain through the Muslim Quarter.

      Chengdu:  Of course, the Panda Research Center.  My granddaughter having her photo taken holding a baby panda.  We couldn’t believe the number of people who were willing to fork over the equivalent of $150 to have this photo.  Of course, it was for a good cause.  Wu Hou temple and the restored old Jinli Street.

      Guilin:  Of course, the gorgeous scenery of the Li River Cruise.  The huge Reed Flute Cave, in which President Clinton once held a dinner party.   The visit to several classrooms in the Children’s Palace.   The visit to the boathouse of a local fisherman, who plied us with his homemade wine, peanuts, watermelon and lychees.  Our visit to the offices of China Highlights and our lunch with Grace Wang.  The colored lights and entertainment along the shore as we enjoyed a night cruise through the 4 lakes and under numerous bridges.  The view of the Longsheng Terraced Rice Fields, and my husband being carried in a sedan chair (he has bad knees) up the mountain while enjoying a beer.  The firecracker “welcome” in the minority village.  The relaxing foot massage enjoyed by the entire family—except my grandson, who luxuriated in his first full body massage. 

      Yangshuo: The awesome limestone karsts (mountains) which line the rivers and surround the city.  The cart ride into the countryside and visit with an old woman in her ancient home.  The “WOW”of the Impressions Light Show with its 600 actors and 2500 spectators.  The efficiency of our guide and driver in getting us in and out through the mobs of people at that show.   Being slowly poled down the Yulong River on bamboo rafts.  Souvenir shopping on West Street.  My husband’s hilarious Chinese hamburger incident.  The anxiety of almost missing our flight to Hong Kong followed by disbelief when they held the plane for us for more than a half hour—a delay that was extended because the security officers wanted to have their photos taken with my grandson!!!!!

      Hong Kong: Of course, Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry, Repulse Bay, Aberdeen Harbor.  Shopping & lunch by the water at Stanley Market.  Our evening harbor cruise to see the lights along the shore.  (For the girls) shopping in the pouring rain at the outdoor Lady’s Market.   (For the guys) shopping for electronics at the huge Golden Mall.  The view of the city and laser show and our farewell dinner at the Hutong Restaurant.  Listening to jazz at Ned Kelly’s Bar.

      In summary, our itinerary offered a wide variety of sights and experiences that were of interest to all the different generations of our family.  Although my husband and I had seen most of the major sights before, it was so enjoyable to experience them again with our children & grandchildren.

      Much has changed since my husband & I last visited most of these same cities 15 years ago.  The people enjoy considerably more economic freedom, and there are many signs of conspicuous consumption—such as upscale malls, designer labels (not always fakes), very expensive cars and small dogs (we rarely saw any sort of pet before).  They consider themselves more Socialist than Communist these days.  However, they are still subject to the political control of the Chinese Communist Party.  The one-child policy is still in effect, with some unavoidable consequences, such as an increasing surplus of bachelors.    Before, the streets were thronged with bikes, while autos have now taken over.  The traffic is so heavy, especially in Beijing, that the government has taken measures such as banning certain cars from the city on certain days of the week—depending on a number on the license plate.  Crossing the street can be dangerous, and we were warned not to rely on a green “walk” signal for safety.  The smog wasn’t as bad as we had expected—a result of the continuing dismantling of old coal-burning power plants.  However, rain shortly before we arrived probably also helped.  There also wasn’t as much littering and spitting as before.  Even cigarette smoking seems to have abated, and is not allowed in numerous public places.  These latter improvements came about in preparation for the Olympics which Beijing hosted in 2008.  Many of the old hutongs (housing areas) have been razed to build skyscraper apartment buildings, but the government seems to be more aware of the importance of preserving some of the old areas.  We didn’t get nearly as many stares as before; the Chinese people are much more used to seeing Western tourists.  Still—there were several instances where Chinese wanted to have their photos taken with us.  One thing that hadn’t changed was the friendliness we encountered everywhere.

      I’ve always said China is my favorite country for travel, and, although I’ve traveled to many different countries in the past few years, I would still rank it Number One.   

    • Blog post
    • 3 years ago
    • Views: 493
  • First Class Greece: Mother-Dau First Class Greece: Mother-Daughter Trip Compliments of Airline and Hotel Points!

    • From: Hanlgt
    • Description:

      Beach in Macriyialos, CreteLong ago I went to a bookstore talk by a well-known frequent flyer who had written a book on how to collect points and get free vacations.  I purchased the book and started in on the project of getting myself, and my 20-year-old daughter to the Greek Islands as cheaply as possible, but first class all the way. This was mainly because, when I was 20 years old, I took a solo trip to Greece that I have never forgotten. I have talked about it for years with my daughter, and we planned this trip since the day I walked out of that bookstore, guide in hand. I was a quick study and worked obsessively toward this goal, and happily achieved it over a year ago. We flew first class for the first time (roundtrip from LA to Athens), stayed in fabulous hotels, and, all in all, gamed the system in such a extraordinary way that we are now hooked on deluxe travel on the cheap. Here’s the report of our incredible two weeks:


      LA to LONDON: A Salad Cart, “The Sanctuary” and an Overpriced Pedicure


      The first leg of the trip had me stopping in London for a few hours, which was fine with me, as I was certain I would need a break to stretch my legs.

      I had decided, out of fear of the last time I flew through Heathrow and they lost my bag, that there was no way I was checking luggage. So, even though I was meeting my daughter in Athens (who was coming from Tel Aviv) and she had requested all sorts of American lotions and beauty products, I didn’t bring them unless they were 3 oz or less. I managed to fit everything I needed for my trip into a 20-inch carry-on, along with a tote bag for use on the plane.

      I was rather amused by the American Airlines fawning flight service on the way to London as I had never experienced it before. I was especially bemused by “The Salad Cart” that the menu stated was “Fresh seasonal greens with an assortment of fresh vegetables offered with Pepper Cream Dressing or Castello Monte Vibiano Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar” which I thought was rather funny since the dude just came out with a little cart with what looked like a bag of grocery salad in a bowl and some sticks of celery, carrots and some sliced green peppers that he was carefully selecting with silver tongs as if it was something quite extravagant. At least that part was actually fresh—the rest of the food—including the “cream of chicken” soup was particularly…uh, bad…with the exception of a really (huge) nice ice cream sundae for dessert.

      I don’t know the different airplanes and how the seats are configured, but I do know that although I was thrilled at the seats that turn into sleepers, I was not particularly comfortable and only slept a couple of hours. (When I compare this to the incredibly comfortable seats I got when I returned with British Airways—I know now to try to get BA when going across the ocean.) Upon arrival in Heathrow, I had to make my way with hordes of others to terminal 3—lucky for me I had a number of hours to kill before my flight to Athens—otherwise I may have suffered from an anxiety attack by the amount of wait time to get to the different terminal. I know they have since opened another terminal, and this will hopefully solve that horrid Heathrow congestion problem.

      Upon arrival at Terminal 3 I found the pleasant BA lounge and got some lunch of pasta salad and a particularly nice tomato soup, and then asked where I could sleep until my flight to Athens. They told me about a place called “The Sanctuary” which was a door in the back into a room with low lighting and various comfy couches and soft music and not a soul was in there, so I plopped down my stuff and slept for a couple of hours. When I awoke I still had time to kill, so I decided it was time to get a pedicure (vacation being what it was at this point) so I found the beauty spa at terminal 3, which was surprisingly occupied by some men who were sitting in the very pleasant waiting area, relaxing and having tea. The price of the beauty treatment was outrageous, since it included entrance into the place, which in itself is a “sanctuary” from the noisy and crowded terminal—and you are allowed to stay there as long as you want. I realized that if I don’t fly first class in the future through Heathrow, (quite likely!) this place, for the entrance fee, would be worth it if I found I had to wait a number of hours for my next flight. Anyway, the pedicure was adequate and relaxing—but they offer massages and facials and a whole spa menu—at high prices of course.

      ATHENS: The Hilton and Bus #400Hotel Treat at Hilton Rhodes

      In the evening I got on my BA flight to Athens, which was in Business Class since that particular plane doesn’t have anything higher. The service was excellent and flight uneventful and we arrived at 2:30 in the morning. I had been reading the helpful online guide “Matt Barrett’s Greece Travel Guide” (www.greecetravel.com) and I had arranged for the taxi service he recommended to have someone be there to pick me up and take me to the Hilton Athens, which took about 30 minutes at that time of night.

      The Athens Hilton is a super sleek modern hotel, although not exactly near anything you want to go to, so you have to rely on the metro (and the stop is not a place you want to exit at night, as it comes out in the middle of a rather lonely and dark park and you have to walk up a somewhat rocky path to get to the hotel) or a taxi to get around. I stayed here two nights on Hilton Honors points and, being a good student of points collecting, I had managed to become a gold member, and they put me on the 11th floor. This floor has its own concierge and check-in area and a wonderful little lounge area with a great view of the Parthenon from the little balcony. My room was on the other side, so the only view was of the street below, but the room was very comfortable and the bed and bathroom were great, especially the bathtub. There was a large fruit plate and a bottle of white wine waiting for me in the room, along with a bottle of water, and upon awakening the next morning, I went to the lounge where I had some free light snacks for breakfast along with my fruit and enjoyed the fabulous view and the beautiful weather.

      Right outside the hotel there is a bus stop for the bus number 400, I think, which is the bus that takes you around the whole city in a loop and you are allowed to get on and off with one ticket price of 4 Euro, if I remember correctly. Lucky for me, when I got on and asked how much to pay, the cashier woman said that "Today is National Arts Day" or something to that effect, which meant that all admittances to tourist things were free. So I rode around and decided to just take it right back to the hotel after seeing the city from the bus, since I was planning to meet my daughter the next day and do sight-see with her then. The whole circle is less than 90 minutes, and the bus is supposed to come every half hour, but I waited about 45 minutes at the stop and I don't know if that is typical.

      I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, and besides being overpriced, it was excellent food and service and when I ate there around 6 pm there were about 5 people in the whole place. I wanted to use the Internet and the hotel business center was too high-priced so I walked to a nearby Internet cafe that was cheap.

      ATHENS: The Grand Bretagne, Stray Dogs and Grafitti


      The next day I took a cab (5 Euros) to Syntagma Square--the center of Athens, to switch hotels and meet my daughter at the Hotel Grand Bretagne, which I got free on Sheraton points and is indeed the classiest hotel in Athens. On the way, we were caught up in the very unusual looking “Changing of the Guard” ceremony at the Parliament Building, (every Sunday at 11 AM) which, to me, was a mixture of small town charm and tourist gawking annoyance. A band of some sort (that would have been rejected at the Rose Parade) follows various official looking people through the streets who are holding a wreath to lay at the unknown soldier’s tomb, They all follow dramatically behind the most absurdly dressed soldiers I have yet to see (think skirts and a feather-duster hat) while large numbers of foreigners crowd around snapping pictures and getting in the way of scurrying stray dogs. After the fun, I checked into the hotel, which has an old-world feel, and after the modernist Hilton, was a real change. The points rate did not allow for breakfast (too bad!) which was an incredible, huge, buffet, but I don't eat enough for breakfast to justify paying the equivalent of about $35 or so. I did request an upgrade to a bigger room, and got it, along with a truly great bathroom. The fixtures alone were worth seeing, as they are all marble and gold and quite grand. The room itself was smaller than the Hilton, but the place is old and dripping with hanging chandeliers and old-world charm. It is frequented by many cruise ship passengers who have add-ons to their cruises for a couple of days, and the well-heeled and smart looking English-speaking tourist is to be found everywhere. I witnessed the very able concierge at his desk with a line 5 people deep, with two phone receivers to his ear--in one he was speaking to an airlines to arrange ticketing in Greek, while the other he was talking to a "Madame” somebody ...", explaining directions in French, while showing me the address of a particular restaurant in English. They hype up the fact that anyone who’s anyone in European history has stayed there (Churchill, various Counts and Tzars, etc.) but they do neglect to mention that it was used as German Headquarters in Greece during WWII and Hitler was also a guest.Hercules in Archeolgical Musuem, Athens

      Syntagma Square is a great location for a tourist in Athens, as the metro is literally downstairs from the hotel, basically, and one can walk to many restaurants or tour agencies. I know that many people notice and comment upon the unusual amount of stray dogs (often quite flea-bitten and mangy and sorry-looking) simply wandering around Athens and I was puzzled as to why they allow this as I have been to many cities and have not seen this phenomenon. But, to me, the most annoying aspect of modern Athens (which has potential to be a beautiful city) is the ridiculous amount of graffiti that is evident in almost every possible blank space that one could think to deface. I guess one could expect to see graffiti on those metal garage doors that you have to pull to cover up your little store--and every single one of them has been sprayed--but some of the owners seemed to have gotten the better of the graffiti artists and commissioned a sort of painting on their garage, and these were left alone. However, the amount of spray painted blank spaces are overwhelming. In Syntagma Square there are marble stone steps leading up to the street where the Parliament Building is located, and on each of these steps, as you climb them, you can see black spray painted Greek words, along with almost every other wall or side of a building, bench or sign. I noted that authorities managed to prevent the defacement of the actual Parthenon and, unbelievably, the entire brand new Metro system (good for them!), so clearly there is a way to stop this from ruining a city and it just makes Athens so sad-looking, in my opinion.

      After meeting my daughter and having a wonderful walk around the center of town, we slept happily in the “sweet sleeper bed” offered by the hotel, and the next day walked to the fabulous Parthenon, and the temple of Zeus ruins, and ate lunch in a sidewalk café, ordering Greek Salad, of course, and stuffed peppers—the least expensive things on the menu and they were delicious. We found out that Feta cheese is actually branded as such only if the cheese is made in Greece, sort of like the sparkling wine called Champagne only if it comes from that region. The Greeks are quite unhappy that others call their cheese “feta” when it clearly isn’t homegrown, and they sponsor resolutions in the European Parliament to deal with the problems of the imposters!

      We enjoyed our visit to the Parthenon and were awed by its beauty. We were also struck by the seeming unfairness of the issue of the Elgin Marbles, which are Greek statues taken long ago from the Parthenon and placed in the British Museum.  Although I would love to have seen those sculptures in their true setting, I can’t help but think that perhaps their present climate-controlled environment is keeping them safer. The general look of the area around the Parthenon did not strike me as being particularly that well looked after.


      THE ISLAND OF RHODES: The Hilton Resort, and a Jewish Quarter with no Jews


      Acropolis at Lindos on RhodesAfter enjoying a couple of nights at the Grand Bretagne, we got on the great Metro system for a direct train to the airport (comes every half hour) and got on an Aegean Airlines flight to Rhodes, which took about 45 minutes and the flight left exactly on time. We took a cab to our hotel, which we shared with another couple, but the rule of the game is that both pay the 13 Euros and you don’t “share” the cost, which is, of course, quite convenient for the driver. We checked into the Hilton Rhodes Resort, which, again, I got on points for 4 free nights. Actually, I was even able to get these at a discount, since this resort was participating in Hilton's ValuePoint Awards, so it was totally worth it. This property is an all-inclusive resort, with a huge buffet breakfast (which we were allowed to have--even with the points rate--quite nice), evening entertainment, gym and spa, activities for children, and beach access and a few pools. The place is frequented by many Brits and Scandinavians--and quite a number of them are on staff there for the summer. In fact, there were many young staffers who did not speak Greek who were clearly from Northern Europe that use this job as a yearly summer camp type thing, I think--meeting the same friends yearly and living in staff hotels and generally having a good time away from their parents and schools.


      Upon checking in to this hotel, we were greeted warmly by a staffer who saw we were Hilton Gold members and for some reason this seemed to matter a great deal as we were personally escorted to the room after being offered various snacks and drinks and maps and schedules and all that. We had been given an upgrade to a sea view room, which was lovely and one could watch the huge cruise ships gliding by and also see the coast of Turkey.View from the Hilton Rhodes The beds and bathroom reminded me of a 3 star hotel in the States, but in general, we liked this hotel, particularly because of the excellent service we always received--and the free and bountiful breakfast. The beach right there is not particularly good--it is quite pebbly and the water is not pristine as other areas around the island are, so we only went there for about an hour one day.

      The rest of the time in Rhodes was spent going to various tourist destinations by bus that picks up from the front of the hotel, down by the main highway. We went to the town of Lindos where there is an ancient acropolis, the Valley of the Butterflies, where the views are beautiful although the butterflies were gone by then, and the old town of Rhodes, which is quite fascinating and historical. We walked around the old city area with our Frommer’s guide, looking for a recommended restaurant for about an hour, until it occurred to us that this restaurant has long since closed down. But there seemed to be hundreds of good eateries in the city and the food was excellent therer. We decided not to go on the day trip by boat to Turkey, as it was pricey and we had things we wanted to see on the island and not enough time. We only caught the nightly “show” at our hotel one evening when we got back early enough (a Beatles cover band that was cute) but the shows cater to families (acrobatics, magicians) and those who may not know English, I guess. Basically everything we encountered in Greece was in English, though.

      One comment about Greece in general that I need to mention is the total lack of interest in trying to accommodate people with disabilities. My husband is disabled and I often thought of the fact that I could not have brought him anywhere I went and therefore, it seems to me that he is simply not welcome in Greece as a tourist. Each national archeological site or tourist venue had stairs or rocky paths (with no banisters or concrete alternate paths), or any one of many obstacles that could not be overcome by the average disabled person. I don’t know if others have written on this subject, but it is why I vacation with my husband only within the US at this time.

      One thing I regret not seeing in Rhodes was the small Jewish Museum in the old Jewish Quarter of the Old City. I had looked it up online and the website (which is run by a South African now living in Rhodes, I think) stated that they would be open Saturday, along with the one synagogue that is left there, so we chose to visit on a Saturday, but everything was closed. We found an old Jewish guy who spoke to me in Hebrew and said that usually it is open, but…oh well..not today. He told me there were 34 Jews left in Rhodes today. Quite sad, as Rhodes had historically housed a large and vibrant Jewish community from even before the time of the Spanish Inquisition, that had created a unique brand of Jewish ritual and observance, but they were all deported to Auschwitz. (I had seen a documentary about those who had escaped to Los Angeles from this community, and I was curious about it.) In the main tourist area, before you get to the Jewish Quarter, you can find a small central square now called “The Square of the Martyrs” with some fading plaques in different languages attesting to the facts.


      THE ISLAND OF CRETE: A Big Goof, a Car Ride and Agios Nikolaus


      From Rhodes, we got on a flight with the commuter express airline of Crete called Sky Express, which is not my thing, nor my daughter’s. It is a 22 seat plane that is highly claustrophobic to even people like me who don’t mind tight-enclosed places with intense noise while you fly over open ocean. We had to literally squeeze into our seats, while listening to the pilot having some sort of screaming fit over the radio to someone, and while I looked sheepishly at the bored lone flight attendant, who was munching on a peach, she just shrugged. I asked her how many times she makes this trip daily and she said “two or three” which made me feel better considering that it is unlikely anyone would continue to put their life in danger repeatedly.

      The flight lasted 40 minutes and we arrived in Herakilon, Crete at a quite modern airport at 9 in the evening. This is when my first trip planning screw-up occurred. I had booked the well-reviewed Hotel Lato on the Internet at an incredible price—30 Euros for the night when all other websites had offered that hotel for about $150. We took a taxi there—about a 10-minute ride—and when I showed my voucher, the guy said, “Wrong Hotel Lato—you see here? You need the one in Agios Nikolaus” So it turns out that the town of Agios Nikolaus is about an hour away, and when I had entered “Hotel Lato” in my Internet search along with the city “Heraklion” the Hotel Lato located an hour away came up and although I noted the address, in my stupidity, I thought that was the name of the street and did not check the address with the Hotel Lato in Heraklion. OK, then, what to do? I had made plans to have a rental car delivered the following day to this Hotel Lato, and so I reluctantly decided to just stay the night there and forgo the 30 Euro I had already paid to the other hotel. Bad news: I was informed they are full. But the guy behind the desk was helpful, and so he called the rental company and told me to wait and they would come by to give me the car, even though it was almost 10 pm by that time. So, we went upstairs to have dinner in the pleasant (small, nice view of harbor) but overpriced and underwhelming restaurant with mediocre food. lunch in Santorini45 minutes later the car company shows up with my little car and two extremely helpful ladies who spoke no Greek and seemed to be Serbian and Danish or something, but they showed me a map and explained (wrongly, sigh) how to exactly get to Agios Nikolaus, and to the correct Hotel Lato. Our final destination the following day was supposed to be a small village called Macriyialos, which was on the south-eastern part of Crete, and at least going to Agios Nikolaus would be “on the way” and we would just get there earlier. Of course, the issue is that I would have to drive a tiny car with manual transmission (it’s been a while) about an hour in the dark, to a hotel in a town where I was surely going to get lost finding a small hotel by the sea. Which is exactly what happened, of course. The car rental ladies were more than gracious in that they actually had me follow their car to the main National Highway rather than assume I would have found it from within the one-way alleyways they call streets in Heraklion. Realizing I had an hour on this highway, and also realizing I was perilously close to the sea and Cretan drivers discourage people from going the speed limit, I found out the custom is to actually drive in the shoulder of the road to let people pass you---and it guess that way it turns out there are actually two lanes….!


      Upon seeing the signs for Agios Nikolaus, we promptly got lost and..well..eventually asked enough people for the accursed Hotel Lato, that we found it finally. We were rewarded with a pleasant pension-type hotel that we settled into after midnight. Weirdly, the guy asked to keep our passports up in the little receptacle where people leave their keys and I saw no one else’s there, and refused to do it. My daughter suggested we offer him our California driver’s licenses instead, which he took and they were still right there in the box in the morning. I also thought there was no electricity in our decent and clean room until the reception guy said to leave the key in the slot at the light switch, which turns on the electricity and then turns it all off when you take the key to leave. Later, we saw all our other hotels used this tactic, so I got used to it, and appreciated it for the energy saver it was. Now, how do I install this sort of thing in my son’s room….??


      CRETE: The Village of Macriyialos, Best Beach in Crete, An Olive Oil Lecture


      We had a nice breakfast at the Hotel Lato (included in the cheap-o rate—but the AC was not, and we were going to be charged to turn it on, but I complained that it was already 1 AM and we were only staying one night, so he gave me the remote control device at no charge) then did a quick tour of the lovely beach town and skedaddled out of there on the way south to our little Cretan village that I had found on the Internet. Agios Nikolaus is quite nice, in fact, a very pretty small town with a touristy feel and a pretty “lake” right at the harbor which it is known for. I didn’t think we needed to hang around as we were looking for our week of relaxation and a bit more pampering.

      It took about an hour to arrive at the small village of Macriyialos. We had received excellent directions from the owners of the Villea Village Hotel, which is surely the nicest place in this village, which is probably home to just a few hundred people, I would guess. It is near absolutely nothing at all, and if you want to have some adventures in Crete, you have to drive an hour this way or a couple hours that way—whatever—we didn’t care. We settled into our room, which was a very appealing apartment-style place with a little kitchenette, bathroom, dining area, and bedroom. The surrounding gardens were beautiful olive groves and bougainvillea, with many other flowers and trees that created a relaxing atmosphere. We were located near the pool on the lower level—surely the best pool for miles around—olympic size and pristine. There are numerous tavernas within walking distance and a fabulous beach across the road. The water was completely clear and the sand was soft and smooth (not rocky, like other beaches in Greece) and the slope upon entering the water was so gentle that I kept wondering why there weren’t families everywhere with their kids. I was able to walk out many yards –all the while able to see my feet in the sparkling clear water---and I never got to a point where I wasn’t able to stand. There were beach lounge chairs available right there and no one asked us for any money to use them. It was very lovely.
      Breakfast at Villea Village
      We spent the next days enjoying the quiet and the various activities offered by the hotel (a hike at the nearby gorge, a “quiz night” ping-pong, a bike ride, massage, happy hour at the pool bar, and a lecture (and free tasting) from a local farmer about the history and benefits of olive oil), going to the little markets and bakeries to buy food, various local tavernas to eat dinner with people we met at the hotel, walking to an English style pub to use the Internet, etc.  One day we drove to what we were told was the easternmost point of Europe, a tiny beach town named KA, which consists of a beautiful vista, a small resort, a Palm Forest, and lots of European tourists walking to the top of the rock at the edge of the sea. It was about a 45-minute drive through super-windy small roads, with stunning views that were unequaled. We enjoyed our accommodations for the week in this small, unspoiled Greek village. We were able to find this place at an excellent price on an Internet auction website, and it was indeed worth it.  I would expect it to become quite commercialized within about 5 years, as I saw a number of hotels and buildings in the early stages of being built.


      SANTORINI: A Legendary Sunset and a Dive Center that Should be Shut Down


      We woke up at 6 AM to drive the 2 hours back to Heraklion and get on the “Flying Cat”, which is a fast ferry to Santorini that takes 1 hr and 45 min to get there. We had purchased business class seats and were led up to an upper deck and sat comfortably in Amtrak-style seats, where we promptly fell asleep and woke up about 10 minutes before arrival. Both of us have issues with seasickness on boats and so we took a Dramamine (another reason to be sleepy), which was unnecessary since the ride was really smooth.

      Arrival at the port in Santorini is quite dramatic. One look up at where the buses need to take you is enough to make you wonder why you didn’t think to fly in from the other side of the island. bus to the top at Santorini portWe had arranged a pick up by our small hotel staff, The Villa Manos, which is right outside the main town. I had picked it out from the Internet mostly due to cost (cheap--$30 a night!) and good reviews, and the fact that they pick up from the port.

      Poppy Filitis, the owner, sent her sister-in-law to pick us up (the whole place is a family affair, and quite friendly) and we arrived and were offered a glass of homemade local Santorini sweet wine, which was nice and then settled in to our Spartan, but clean, room, with an extra charge for the A/C, which luckily we didn’t need, as the weather was perfect.

      The hotel is located outside of the town of Fira, where the action is, and walking there on those narrow roads was not something I particularly enjoyed. There is a bus stop right outside the hotel and the bus comes every half hour, which is what we did one day after the first time we walked to town.

      Poppy signed us up for an island tour for a reasonable price for the next day and we got picked up right at the stop and really enjoyed the day long trip to the famous Santorini volcano on a boat and then to see the sunset in Oia, which is legendary.Sunset in Santorini

      The breakfast Poppy and her brood provide for 5 Euro is delicious and affordable and the décor of the outdoor patio by the pool is lovely and we took advantage of the offer for this breakfast. There wasn’t anything like a restaurant within walking distance anyway.

      On our third day, I elected to stay back at the pool, while my 20-year-old daughter wanted to go scuba diving. We looked up the only dive center on the island (www.divecenter.gr) and she decided to buy the half-day trip and go there, as it wasn’t too far. She is an experienced diver, but realized that we would be flying that evening back to Athens, so knew she would not be able to dive that day, and therefore she just decided to go snorkeling from the boat and see the sights.

      Here is what happened:

      She got picked up at our hotel and taken to the dive site about half an hour away. There were 5 men on the boat: 2 guides and 3 tourists. One tourist was somewhat drunk or stoned, she said, and he continually made sneering comments and leered at her in her bathing suit, and no one said one thing to him to ask him to stop annoying her. The guide threw her a HALF wet suit only, while giving everyone else a full one and the water was not particularly warm. When they got to the dive site, the lead guide told her that they were all diving there and she could snorkel right above them. The boat would always be in view and they would all be back in about an hour. She assumed the assistant guide would stay in the boat, but he went down too. So they left her above them for 60 minutes, completely alone and she couldn’t believe it and said it all happened very fast and she felt she couldn’t protest. They were not in a secluded cove. She was able to see and hear ships (passenger ships) were sailing nearby and realized that she was not far from some sort of shipping lane. She felt quite uncomfortable, considering she was in the open Mediterranean, and considered getting back on the boat, but she wanted to see the reefs, etc, so stayed out for most of the time before climbing back into the boat, again, completely alone. They never once considered that they had left her in a dangerous situation smack in the middle of the sea. Again she was bothered on the way back or completely ignored, she said, with only one man (Australian) who attempted to fend off the leering creep and tried to be social. She was mostly astonished at the behavior of the two guides. The younger one, she said, was her age, and American, to boot, and he never said more than 3 words to her the entire afternoon. It was the most uncomfortable trip she ever experienced, she told me upon her return, and we told our new friend Poppy, the hotel owner, who was shocked, as she said there are occasionally sharks in the waters there, which she called “dogfish” and showed us a picture of them. We had a flight to catch to Athens, so we couldn’t do too much, but…we learned a great deal about what to avoid for future trips!!


      Home Sweet Home after one more night in Athens

      We flew back to Athens on Aegean Airlines, which was a simple half hour flight. We arrived in Athens at 9 PM and had to get the flight back to the States at 8: 30 AM the next morning, so we stayed at the Holiday Inn, Athens Airport, for the night, which I happily paid for with points, yet again. It was a very comfortable and modern hotel, with really modernistic décor—our room had 18 different lights—not counting the bathroom—we thought the décor was just a bit over the top. We ordered room service, which was quite mediocre, but the beds were comfortable and the big reason to select this hotel is that there is a free shuttle from the airport which is super convenient. The points rate for this nice hotel were on a special rate that I found as a diligent points hound -- 5,000 points a night, which is like free of charge.

      All in all, we loved our Greek vacation and we would love to go back again—next time trying different islands and also seeing the other side of Crete, which we were sorry we had to miss. So…I am busily hording points and cleverly exploring ways to fatten up those frequent flyer accounts. Maybe in about 2 years, I’ll have enough for a repeat performance.  If I made it happen once, it proves that hard work pays off, and anything is possible!

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    • 6 years ago
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  • Fiji Contest: Thailand, the l Fiji Contest: Thailand, the land of a million smiles.....

    • From: ilprincipe
    • Description:
      I think I slept all the way from LAX to Bangkok, about 16 hours. I only got 2 hours of  sleep the night before leaving due to not being "packed and ready"... Planning is my forte, but I must have slowed down a bit in my mature years...
      I am already in love with Thailand.
      Thailand means literally the land of the free. I would add, the land of the gracious and the land of smiles. They seem to be a happy people in general. They have a great sense of pride in their history and their figurehead king, Rama VII.  Thailand has never been colonised by other nations, unlike her neighbors Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
      Spent a couple of days in Pattaya, a seaside resort about 2 hours ride from Bangkok,  well known for its pornographic services.  
      The Thai people I met, and especially my guide Suri, seem to be proud about their "sex tourism". You have got to be number one at something. This is hard to understand since the country is about 85% Buddhist. Moslems make up most of the rest. This population, in general, is quite conservative socially and quite religious. This is quite puzzling. I guess, when money is involved, it becomes a matter of supply meeting the strong demand, mostly by male tourists looking for everything Thai.
      The Lady-Boy Show, presented by boys who have converted their sex into girls.
      The Vagina Show is no monologue. They demonstrate all kinds of vaginal skills, talents and capabilities I have never imagined were possible.
      It set a new paradigm and bar level when it comes to vaginas.
      And I thought I knew all there was to know about vaginas...
      I missed out on the "Penis Show".... too close to home.... I feel inadequate enough, thank you. What I do not know, will not hurt me....
      Saw a traditional song and dance show that included live elephants.
      A separate Elephant show showed elephants playing basketball, soccer, painting,
      A monkey show where monkeys were allowed to be monkeys.
      A cobra snake show, a prelude to try sell us "snake oil" for medicinal purposes.
      No thank you.
      A Jewelry factory, focused on the use of locally mined rubies and sapphires. Word of advice, to get the best deal on Jewelry, shop at Macy's during a sale. The quality and prices were no better than those in the US.
      Last, but definitely not least, a traditional Thai Massage that lasted 2 full hours was a great experience. It utilizes a lot of stretching, kneading, pushing and pulling, similar to Physical Therapy. All were fully clothed.
      Of course, there are numerous massage parlors, everywhere you look.
      They offer a variety of massages.... full body oil massage, water massage, massages with a happy ending and massages tailored to one's fantasy. All massages are offered at a very reasonable price.
      Every day, at the end of the day, for close to peanuts, I get my
      traditional Thai Massage, which takes away the stress and pain by focusing on
      stretching that is a lot more intense that what I ever got at Physical
      Therapy. It is a great way to unwind, get rid of the stress and pain of sightseeing all day, and provides for a wonderful and deep sleep.
      On the other hand, there is so much culture, arts, traditional music, dance, theatre, beautiful temples. great natural resources, the biggest supplier of orchids to the world. Thailand is also a big exporter of seafood and other food products.
      For fair balance, I did visit a museum, a couple of Buddha
      temples and most importantly the Grand Palace, which used to house the royal
      family. Currently it is the home of the Emerald Buddha, the whole
      sculture made of good green emerald, mined locally. This Buddha has 3 gold
      embroidered robes, for the summer, the winter and the rainy season. Only
      the King, currently, Rama the ninth, can dress up the Buddha. The huge
      palace is full of beautiful traditional architecture which relies
      heavily on gold. Another popular Buddha, is the 4 faced Buddha.
      No, he is not twice double faced as you might have concluded.
      He actually has one head and 4 faces, facing north, south, east
      and west, all in gold.
      This temple is located at a busy square in downtown Bangkok.
      These temples are full of devout Buddhists kneeling , lying prostate,
      burning candles, incence, spraying themselves with holy water, bringing
      food to the monks...
      Bangkok is overcrowded, crammed with traffic and very noisy.
      The best mode of transportation is by bicycle.
      One may use a "Bicycle-Taxi", meaning you ride behind the driver
      and hold on to him for dear life. Don't worry, he has an extra helmet for you.
      A ride for about half an hour is no more than a dollar.
      You may also rent a bicycle or a motorcycle, and appreciate the thrill of danger....
      I spent a day at a coral island, (just off Pattara), where my quest for a formidable tan has just begun. The water was crystal clear and the fish seemed to be enjoying it. The entire length of the beach was full of souvenir shops, peddling pretty much the same merchandise. Lots of stuff with an "Elephant" theme. The elephant is a well revered animal in Thailand. It helped the Thai build their country by doing the heavy lifting. It helped them defend themselves in times of war. It is still being used in the north in the Teak Wood logging industry.
      Bargaining is a part of the fun of shopping, and a strong expectation. The shopkeepers inflate their prices so much that it is quite acceptable to start the bargaining game by offering a quarter or a third of the asking price..... My policy is not to pay more than half the asking price, unless the product is quite unique and I fell in love with it. 
       
      On to Chiang Mai, a city in the north, an hour flight from Bangkok, that
      used to be the capital of Thailand.
      I attended a beautiful traditional dinner show from various
      tribes in the area. I was asked to get on stage and participate in the
      dance show. I obliged. The dance looked a bit like a Cambodian
      traditional dance I had learnt recently. it is a slow undulating walk ,
      with the couple side by side in harmony,
      around a circle while focusing on hand movement at the wrist and finger positioning.
      Each position of the fingers and the wrists have special sybolic meanings
      such as grace, love, peace, generosity etc.
      Dinner was served on a tray, on the
      carpeted ground, and the food is mostly eaten by hand.
       
      I saw the old city wall, and a couple of temples and pagodas, on top of
      the mountains overlooking Chiang Mai. One of the tribes in the area
      decided long necks on women is sexy and sophisticated. They train the
      young girls to "grow their necks" long by having them wear metal necklaces.
      They keep adding more and more necklaces until their girls look like
      giraffe. I tried to talk them out of this tradition, but failed. I
      tried to "Free the girls" but was chased out of town.... 
        
       
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    • 6 years ago
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  • Thailand 2011 Travel Guide by Thailand 2011 Travel Guide by BodhiKai Imagery

    • From: islandhopper808
    • Description:

      You’re lying down on a terry cloth massage table as a skilled masseuse applies aromatic herbal infused massage oil to your weary body.  You sip a perfect ice cold Mai Tai and inhale the warm ocean air as you watch a crimson sun descend into the Andaman Sea, the sky becomes a canvas of vibrant reds, oranges and bold blues, the ocean seems on fire.  You have arrived.  This is Thailand.

       

      Situated in the heart of South East Asia, between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, this tropical country, dubbed “The Land of Smiles,” is just north of the Equator.  There are a variety of things to do and see to satisfy those seeking Adventure, culture, history as well as world class cuisine.

       

      The first stop for many visitors is the capitol city of Bangkok, which is renowned for its street food, culture and nightlife.  Many Thais believe the best food is to be had from street vendors who serve up a variety of curry and noodle dishes for the equivalent of two to four thousand Won.  The one major detraction from this experience is the ever-present scent of exhaust fumes from the aforementioned and ceaseless traffic jams. Walking best does getting around the city, though you can take a chance and hop on a “tuk-tuk” scooter taxi and sit in traffic.  Bangkok is also home to the immense reclining Buddha at the impressive Wat Pho temple. Upon entering you will be taken back to an era gone by as you catch a glimpse of this revered masterpiece, often forgetting the hustle and bustle beyond the temples walls.

       

      A perfect contrast to the chaos of Bangkok is southern coastal Khao Lak, which has undergone a large reconstruction following the 2004 Tsunami.  Khao Lak has pristine beaches backed by mountains with a relatively low number of visitors when compared to more popular areas such as Phuket.  The main town is a two-lane affair with a variety of small shops, restaurants and a small supermarket.  A number of small beachfront hotels operate on the south end of Khao Lak beach, with open air beach side dining, massage, and swimming pools.  Khao Lak is the destination of choice for those seeking a quite beachside escape.

       

      Phuket, located an hour and a half south of Khao Lak is Thailand’s largest and most developed island resort area.  Phuket’s western shore consists of numerous beautiful, crescent shaped beaches.  The most developed beach area is the notorious Patong Beach.  Patong is reminiscent of a large scale Waikiki mixed with a double shot of one part scandal and one part shame.  For hard partying 20-somethings, Patong could quite possibly be the best place to find trouble.  Bang Tao beach, located to the north is one of the better areas for families, devoid of the psyche scarring imagery of the Patong nightlife. One of the most family friendly resorts at Bang Tao is the beachfront Best Western Premiere, whose staff will bend over backwards to accommodate guests and children.  Surprisingly, the hotel food here is actually both excellent and cheap and a beachside massage will only set you back $10 per hour. 

       

      There are numerous tour operators on Phuket with popular destinations including the Phi Phi islands; Maya Bay, where cult classic The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed; the world class dive sites of the off the grid Similan and Surin Islands; as well as tours which will take you on Elephant safaris.  If you go on only one tour, go on the Twilight Sea Canoe tour with world renowned, eco-conscious John Gray’s Sea Canoe.  You’ll explore sea caves, interact with bioluminescent organisms, examine unique geological features, and experience a beautiful Phang Nga Bay sunset, all while dining on a phenomenal Thai Seafood Dinner.  Following dinner, board a sea kayak with a ceremonial kratong, paddle out and light the kratong’s candles and incense before releasing it, and all your worries, into the sea as the last of the sun’s rays finally fade beyond the horizon.  Although this trip is one of the most expensive in the area, setting you back about 275,000won for two people, the service, professionalism, and show that this tour provides pays for itself.

       

      finding serenity in a city of madness

      So if you’re ready to venture off into a place that offers a little bit of everything, the Kingdom of Thailand is where all your dreams of paradise, become a reality.Summer Flowers in Wat PhoLone Kayaker

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    • 3 years ago
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  • Thailand Day 15 - this is a li Thailand Day 15 - this is a little risque...

    • From: johng807
    • Description:

      Thailand day 15 ……(ok so this one is a little risqué)

       

      Last morning here in the beautiful mountain community of Chiang Mai which sits near the Laos boarder just south of China. 

       

      For those of you that enjoy going to swap meets, eating from the food vendors, haggling over the price of that one thing that you really don’t need, then you have a good feel what it is like in the tourist area of Chiang Mai.  A large swap meet with 1.8 million people trying to get you to buy their product.   So I did buy some of their products.  I enjoyed dealing with the sellers and dealing with the language difference.  Made offers, they refused, I walked away went back again and we got closer.  Finally on the 3rd visit, we agreed on a price.  A couple of things I purchased “guaranteed authentic” Gucci, Prada etc. purses for my sisters.  A couple of hours walking in this warm humid climate make one welcome the cool air conditioning of the hotel room.  I was looking out my window this morning and noticed a hotel about 2 blocks away advertising rooms for 150 – 500 baht.  ($4 - $14 nightly) it is just as tall as this one but not too sure about the rooms and since I am leaving tomorrow I will stay in this hotel. 

       

       

      True I should have not spent the extra money, but this time I wanted free in room internet. This room came with free breakfast, daily fruit basket, free mini bar, robes, house slippers, (why a hotel supplies robes and slippers I don’t know – sort of useless), the usual amenities in the bathroom, free in room coffee/tea, 2 free bottles of water, and what I love most, hot water (even if it does take a good 5 minutes running to get it).  This hotel is located perfect in the middle of the tourist area and only 4 blocks from the 5 and 6 star hotels.  (3 blocks from my favorite massage shop – where the owner brings out 3 possible masseurs to the front as you sit on a couch drinking your hot green tea after removing your shoes at the front door, showing them off sort of like in the old west days when the madam would parade her available “workers” to the guests…… The best I can relate how easy it is here to find….. if they were candy, and you were a diabetic, you would be dead or in a comma because it is so cheap and available). The girl at my hotel tour desk girl knows me by name now, the doorman the same.  Now if I could just teach the elevator to know what floor I want automatically I would be set.  This is the most I have paid for a hotel on this trip which is about $50 night.  (but on the other hand it is the cheapest and sweetest “candy” available anywhere I have been in the world).

       

      I had to stop by an eyeglasses repair shop to see if they had a screw for my frames.  No luck but she did put a temporary repair on the frame.  I used hand signals and it worked well in telling her what I wanted, as it does with most of what I need here.  She charged me nothing. I still had to come back to the room and use my trusty ole’ dental floss as a screw. That stuff works so well on so many things.  I have a repair kit in my suitcase back in Bangkok and this will hold it till then.  The weather here has been great.  No rain at all.  I personally would have loved to have some thunder and lightening.  But it seems the God of no rain has put a curse on me.  Everywhere I go, no rain.  I have noticed the street curbs are about 18” tall.  I was told in the rainy season the streets get flooded so fast that the 18” clearance is required to keep it out of the stores.  The doorman also said the river that I was on usually raises a minimum of 2 meters (6’) and causes a lot of flooding.  There is currently a large project working and should be done soon to put the New Orleans style levy barriers up.  I hope this country has better luck and faster progress with those than the U.S.

       

      In the afternoon I decided to relax for once, snack on all the stuff supplied, and then have a relaxed cheap dinner from one of the street food vendors.  Sleep early and go from there. Ok so I forgot about walking down to the pastry shop about 3 blocks and buying another piece of cheese cake with blue berry topping.  I think I paid about 75 cents for it.   I am packing (yes even filling the new suitcase that I will only use for this trip back to Bangkok because I bought too many things).  But the new suitcase was only about $20 and that is cheaper than paying the over weight charges by Bangkok Air.  I sort of hate having to leave this community.  It is cool, mountain atmosphere, and the people are very friendly.  But I can do without the bats chasing the mosquitoes with needles the size of a bull’s horn, the lizards clawing to the interior walls of the lobby hiding from the mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes trying to find those lizards to have for a snack.  If anything changes, I’ll let you know but otherwise this will end my Chiang Mai journal but only to continue with my Bangkok experience in the afternoon.   See ‘ya soon in Bangkok……. (now you tell me – how appropriate is the name of this city…….… hmmmm) J

    • Blog post
    • 6 years ago
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  • Into the Mystic - Paris to Bal Into the Mystic - Paris to Ballycastle, No. Ireland

    • From: EdSilveira
    • Description:

      The Paris chapter of our trip is coming to an end. We are left with impressions of Paris, a city that never ceases to amaze with it's charm and beauty. We were hardly surprised for instance to see massage students learning their trade on one of the bridges over the Seine. Without an agenda and no lengthy list of sights to see, we have been able to absorb rather than analyze. It's been a pleasure.

      Tuesday - September 22, 2009 - Ballycastle, Northern Ireland

      We spent a relaxing morning washing and drying our last batch of clothes and returning the apartment to it's pre-Silveira state. We think we've finally mastered the machine, though there are still a few settings that we haven't figured out. A little mystery is good. We even learned that you have to shut off the water before trying to clean out the filter (the hard and wet way).

      Rich and Lu were celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary (major congratulations) and planned lunch at one of the most talked about new bistros in Paris: Itinéraires. The New York Times review made it sound like a great adventure. Kat and I decided to return to an old favorite, Pétula Cafe. As it turns out the two restaurants are almost neighbors. Pétula is just south of Blvd. St. Germain on Rue Ciseaux, and Itinéraires is north of the boulevard, in any case a short walk from our apartment (what isn't?). We have been to Pétula three times and each visit was a pleasure.

      As we approached the restaurant, we noticed a "City of Paris" employee painting what looked like the door to a private residence. He carefully matched the color and painstakingly worked the ornate trim. Perhaps this was a door to a city office, or maybe he was covering the ubiquitous graffiti that has made taking a pleasing photograph so much more challenging. (Not to go off on a rant here, but my idea of the appropriate punishment for a graffiti "artist" would be the application of the paint can as a suppository.)

      At the cafe we were met by a lively young woman name Kamelia, who spoke wonderful, clear, English and bubbled with enthusiasm as she helped us with our French. She reminded us of Sarah, Rich and Lu's daughter, and our 'Princess" niece. We perused the menu and were glad that we had made a point to come back. I had a seafood brochette with risotto and asparagus (done to perfection), Kat a salad with chevre. Totally enjoyable. We chatted with the owner (Mr. Norbert?) and learned that we were a couple of his earliest customers back in 2006 when he opened. We also learned that in an attempt to reduce unemployment the city has hired people to wash store and restaurant windows and paint the trim of any private residence that needs it. Pretty good. Before we left, pictures were taken, emails exchanged, and I vowed to send Kamelia her picture. Let the record show that I have done that.

      We followed our lunch with a metro ride to the Gobelins stop; only our second time on the metro this trip. Emerging from the metro you immediately encounter a beautiful and well maintained "hotel particulier" that houses some of the finest tapestries in the world. Not only is this mansion a museum but part of a complex of buildings that are a working factory. Named after a family of French dyers, Gobelins tapestries are world famous and hang in many palaces and museums. These are not small sissy wall hangings, we're talking about very large rugs on the walls. This one is 10 feet by 10 feet.

      The guided tour of the factory was in French but it made no difference, as the processes and work spoke for themselves. We were able to stand a meter or so away from the weavers as they created their masterpieces. They weave from the back so they are constantly looking through the vertical cord backing material at a mirror to check their progress. Whatever they get paid it's not enough. This short video shows how it's done. Since no pictures are allowed, thanks Wiki.

      As we exited the museum we took a peek at the large neighborhood map mounted at the entrance to the metro. Lo and behold we saw that our old friend Rue Mouffetard started just a block away. During the daytime this neighborhood is bubbling with as much energy as it does at night. At the bottom of the street are fish stalls, falafel stands and an open air market filled with a wondrous variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is noisy, fast and fun. All this a short 10 minute walk home past a beautiful turreted church that was hidden by the Pantheon.

      Back at the apartment Rich folded up his map, we grabbed our suitcases, and headed up the street to the Metro/RER stop for our trip to CDG airport. For €8.5 (about $13) you can get from downtown Paris to the terminal in about 35 minutes (well, 40 if you take the wrong train ... sorry, my bad). We arrived early for our 9:20 pm Easyjet flight to Belfast, and after a not very bad airport dinner settled in at the front of the waiting area at the gate (open seating like Southwest). Two points of interest noted: since Rich and Lu take carry-ons he was wearing at least 4 layers of clothes (to shrink the thickness of his bag) and looked like the Pillsbury dough-boy, and when our section of the seating was called we stood up (we were at the front) and unknowingly cut the line on about 50 nicely queued Irish lads and lassies waiting to board. Oops, sorry.

      The flight was good and short (only slightly longer than the hour time change we picked up), the wait to get the luggage was bad and long as we wanted to get on the road. Our car hire people were very pleasant (I had no idea what one of the lads was saying as he was from the "tyne" (town) and even his mates here in the city couldn't understand him very well. It was dark, (very dark) when we bundled ourselves into the little 2 door VW (I had requested a 4 door but all I could do was nod at the tynie like one of those bobblehead dolls as he described the car to me).  I was in the right seat, the gearshift was on my left, and Rich was my co-pilot with the map.

      The roads were dark (very dark) and deserted and I negotiated the first round-about successfully (look to the right, drive on the left became our mantra). We quickly realized it was going to take all four of us to navigate ourselves to Ballycastle. The ladies in back were great pointing out route signs, and peppering us with encouragement. Even though I hadn't driven a manual stick shift car on the left for over 25 years, the necessary coordination came back. Oh by the way, Ireland, you might consider posting speed limit signs, and an occasional lamppost wouldn't hurt.

      We arrived in B'castle just about an hour later. Not bad, and pretty proud of ourselves, we just couldn't make it the last 200 meters without help from the local constabulary (anyone driving around B'castle at 11:00 at night is suspicious) who guided us to the Strand. Mary and Paul (the owners) greeted us and could not have been more thoughtful or nicer. They lived down past Belfast and were staying at a local B&B overnight. Their weekend home is beautiful with a spectacular view. We settled in (after some soda bread, dessert wine and absinthe) for our first night's sleep in the mystic.  

    • Blog post
    • 4 years ago
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  • Mobile Massage and Soccer? Mobile Massage and Soccer?

    • From: peghaz
    • Description:

      An interesting business concept in the Mission District of San Francisco.

    • 2 years ago
    • Views: 730
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