Monday, September 18, 2017

Kyoto, Japan: 24 Hours Discovering the Thousand Year Capital - September 2017

One day is never enough time to explore any city properly, but if one day is all you have, Kyoto is definitely worth the visit.

Located on the island of Honshu, Kyoto is a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo and is easy to navigate by both foot and bus. Kyoto translates to "capital city" in Chinese and is referred to as Japan's "Thousand Year Capital" because it served the designation until 1869.

Kyoto boasts more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and countless palaces and gardens. With only 24 hours to explore the ancient city, it's important to build your itinerary to make every minute count.


8:00 a.m. Breakfast at the Kyoto Inn Gion. After a comfortable night's sleep at this centrally-located hotel, grab a bite to eat and head out the door. Gion is Kyoto's most famous Geisha district and also home to numerous restaurants, shops and tea houses. Stroll the narrow alleys to try to catch a glimpse of a Geisha or Maiko, Geisha-in-training, before making your way to the nearest bus station to purchase a 500 yen day pass.

9:30 a.m. Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Not many establishments in Japan are open early but this top attraction begins welcoming tourists at 9 a.m. Located a bit out of the way in the northwest, the Golden Pavilion with its numerous gardens and reflecting ponds is perfect for a morning stroll. Known officially as Rokuon-ji, the Zen Buddhist temple was originally built for powerful statesmen. It's extensive gold-leaf coating is believed to dispel negative feelings towards death.

12:00 p.m. Lunch at Ramen Sen no Kaze. Head back to the center of the city to enjoy lunch at the number one ramen restaurant in the world according to TripAdvisor. The small restaurant has received well-deserved publicity in recent years so be prepared to take a number and wait for your turn for a seat at the bar. If you have more than a few minutes to spare, pop into the Bengal Cat and Owl Forest located nearby in the Nishiki Market.

1:30 p.m. Fushimi Inari-taisha. After a satisfying lunch, hop back on the bus and make your way to this popular shrine situated at the base of a mountain. Dedicated to Inari the God of Rice, the worshipping spot is a favorite of businessmen, merchants and manufacturers. The highlight of this shrine is the thousands of  torii, or orange-colored entrance gates, that line the path up the mountain. 

4:00 p.m. Kiyomizu-dera. One of the signature UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, this Buddhist temple in the east is not to be missed. Founded in 778 and with many of its buildings constructed in the 1600s, it is believed that not a single nail was used in the construction of this complex. Before trekking uphill to walk the grounds and indulge in a paper fortune, stop by one of the many shops selling traditional snacks and souvenirs.

6:00 p.m. Dinner at Kikyo Sushi. Following a full day discovering the beauty of Kyoto enjoy a delicious meal served at this family-run restaurant. Fresh fish is their specialty with traditional sushi offerings as well as Kyoto-style.

With its traditional beauty and deep-rooted history, Kyoto is the cultural epicenter of Japan. A day well-spent will invite you into the enchanting city but will most certainly leave you yearning to discover more.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Tokyo, Japan: Seven Step Guide to the Tsukiji Tuna Auction - September 2017

Tsukiji Market is the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood retailer. More than 400 different kinds of seafood can be found at the market from seaweed and sardines, to caviar and tuna. The total value of the merchandise handled on the premises surpasses 600 billion yen or nearly 6 billion U.S. dollars annually.

The market opens daily beginning at 3 a.m. to greet ships, planes and trucks delivering catches from all over the world. Aside from strolling through the market stalls, the most popular visitor attraction is the tuna auction. If you are interested in observing the world-famous auction, follow this seven-step guide to make the most of your visit.

1.) Get your plan together ahead of time. The day you plan to visit will start early. The auction begins before the Tokyo metro starts service so you'll need to either stay at accommodation within walking distance or pre-arrange a taxi service. Check the schedule ahead of time; the auction doesn't take place on Sundays, many Wednesdays and when a tropical storm is looming.

2.) Get there early. While the actual auction begins at 5 a.m., visitors begin queuing outside of Osakana Fukyu Center as early as 1 a.m. in peak season. Only two groups of 60 visitors are permitted into the auction each day and no reservations or group tours are allowed.

3.) Get in line. When you see a line forming for the auction, get in it and stay in it. Spots are precious, and policemen take their jobs seriously monitoring tourist behavior and regulating the number of visitors permitted. Anyone suspected of being intoxicated is not allowed into the auction so forget about your plans to stay up all night.

4.) Get comfortable on the floor. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 120 visitors granted a spot, you'll be sequestered inside a small building. You'll be provided a high-visibility vest and instructed to wait. Secure a spot on the floor and try to get as comfortable as possible. About thirty minutes prior to being escorted into the market, an experienced bidder provides an orientation about the market, the auction and the tuna trade. Have your questions ready.

5.) Get up close. At 5:25 a.m. the first group of visitors is escorted into the industrial area where the tuna auction takes place. The tuna are put on display for perspective bidders to survey prior to the event. Both fresh and frozen tuna are included in the auction and buyers analyze the fish quality by evaluating core samples placed atop the fish. The auction begins with the ringing of a bell and is an intense display of yelling and rapid fire hand gesturing. Try to finagle your way close to the front to get the best view of the action.

6.) Get out of the way. On your way to and from the auction, your group will be escorted by policemen through a massive industrial warehouse complex. The area is a buzz with motorized carts, wheel barrels and forklifts. The vests are no defense against the moving equipment and rushed workers so watch where you are going and respect the business going on around you.

7.) Get out of there. By 6 a.m. the auction is over and it's time to leave. Most likely you'll have had enough of the fishy smell and noise, but if you still haven't gotten your fix, stop outside the auction area at one of the many seafood stalls to sample a fresh catch.

The Tsukiiji Market and tuna action is an incredible display and worth the time to enjoy the show. Due to its popularity and safety concerns associated with the current arrangement, the local government is considering moving the market outside of Tokyo. Ensure you have the latest information before planning your visit.

Hakone, Japan: Bathing in Coffee and Swimming in Red Wine - September 2017

A two-hour train ride from Tokyo transported us to the mountainous town of Hakone within Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. This area is popular with locals for its hot springs resorts, referred to as onsens, and is home to the world-famous Yunessun Spa and Resort.

Yunessun is a multi-level waterpark, hotel and retail complex situated in the mountains. The main attraction is a number of hot spring-fed pools mixed with popular beverages.

Accommodation is available at Yunessun or neighboring hotels associated with the spa. We elected to stay at Hakone Kowakien Ten-yu and were wowed by the experience.

While English wasn't prevalent, the luxury hotel provided an authentic Japanese experience. The rooms were ryokan style, traditional Japanese accommodation originating in the 8th century characterized by tatami-matted floors, cushioned ground seating, communal baths and public areas were visitors wore yukata, or closed robes, and geta, wooden sandals.

The stay included half-board, dinner and breakfast, both of which may have been the finest, multi-course meals we enjoyed during our visit to Japan.

While in Hakone, we spent an afternoon at the Yunessun Spa. Crowded with families and young couples, we were surprised that there were only a handful of people who appeared to be foreigners.

We flew down the water slides at the park and watched synchronized aerobics in the central pool, before taking a dip in the famous mixed baths. The beverage baths available were coffee, red wine, green tea and sake with each varying in temperature and color. Aside from the overwhelming aroma, the coffee pool was our favorite and left our skin feeling especially soft.

We also peaked into the mori no yu area of the resort where swim suits are forbidden and bathing is segregated by gender.

The beautiful town of Hakone offers much more to see and do besides the spa. We didn't have time to sail across Lake Ashi on a pirate ship, walk across Mishima pedestrian bridge to gaze at Mount Fuji or sample the black hard boiled eggs said to add seven years to your life, but we did make a note for next time before heading back to the big city.
 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tokyo, Japan: Bumping Bellies at Sumo Practice - September 2017

Our last morning in Tokyo, my sister and I wanted to experience something a bit more "traditional Japan." There weren't any sumo tournaments scheduled but we managed to get in on an early morning sumo practice at a local stable. Along with only a few others, we watched for more than an hour as the wrestlers stretched and trained. During the session we also learned about the life of sumo wrestlers and some of their training techniques.

According to our guide, Kiyo, the qualifications to be a sumo wrestler include a middle school education, a height of at least 170 centimeters or 5.5 feet, and a weight of 70 kilograms or 154 pounds. Only ten percent of all sumo wrestlers are white belt wrestlers who get a salary from the Japan Sumo Association. All others are considered black belt wrestlers in training who receive no salary and live in sumo stables that pay for their accommodation, clothing and meals.

The regimen in the stables is structured and highly disciplined. Wrestlers train for hours in the morning and then eat lunch. A common lunch for a sumo wrestler is several bowls of rice and chankonabe, a weight-gaining Japanese stew; the wrestler's bowl is three to five times as large as a normal bowl. Following lunch, it's customary for the wrestlers to take a two-hour nap so that their bodies can use the food to make them bigger and stronger. Following naptime, training resumes.

Traditional sumo training techniques include:
  • Shiko: a sumo wrestler lifts each leg high in the air and stomps the ground with his legs to stabilize his center of gravity and toughen the legs and loins
  • Teppo: the wrestler faces an exercise pillar and slams his hands and feet into it alternately to toughen his upper body and upper arms
  • Mata-Wari: opening both legs wide, the wrestler puts his upper body down to the floor to improve his flexibility and help prevent muscle injury
  • Suri-Ashi: a shuffling walk without separating the feet from the wrestling ring floor also called the centipede
  • Koshi-Wari: a squat that helps improve flexibility and strengthens the loins and legs
  • Udetate-Fuse: push-ups to strengthen the upper body
  • Sanban-Geiko: a row of training matches with the same opponents
  • Butsukari-Geiko: head-to-head training where the wrestler tackles an opponent pushing him to the edge of the sumo ring, followed by the opponent pushing back and throwing the attacker down

During the session we also saw a few mock matches between the junior trainees as the more seasoned sumo wrestlers advised and conserved their energy.

While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. As with any sport, excelling at the art of sumo requires discipline and dedication, and in Japan it is a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby.
 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Only in Japan: Top Ten Extreme Experiences I had this Week - September 2017

I'm in love with Japan. From the tranquil gardens and artistic sashimi plates, to the bullet trains and beer vending machines, it's a land where imagination flows freely.

This week my sister and I set out on the ultimate adventure to take part in as many only-in-Japan experiences as possible. Whether you'd describe them as wild, cute, silly or bizarre, here's the list of our ten most unforgettable escapades.

1.) Cuddling a hedgehog, locking eyes with an owl and drinking pink milk with a maid. Themed cafés are all the rage in Japan right now. The lucrative sub-culture made its debut more than a decade ago with its first cat café in Tokyo; now there are 57 additional establishments where you can sip your coffee while petting a furry feline, along with others themed with bunnies, penguins and snakes. We visited hedgehog, Bengal cat and owl cafés which each provided the opportunity to interact with the animals and take photographs. We also grabbed a pink-colored milk drink at a maid café, @Home World, where the staff dressed in costume, talked with us at our table and performed on stage.

2.) Fishing for Lunch. Why just order lunch when you can catch it yourself? At Zauo Fishing Restaurant you eat what you hook and can have it prepared the way you like. During my fishing expedition I had my sights set on a mackerel that would run me about 9,800 yen, or about $10 dollars, unfortunately the seas were angry that day and I hooked a rather large sea bream setting me back nearly $75 dollars. Luckily my sister helped enjoy the catch which we had prepared half tempura and half sashimi style.

3.) Dining with Ninjas. Hidden down a dark alley, Ninja Akasaka restaurant provided the ultimate themed fine dining experience. We were greeted at the door by a masked ninja who took us to our own dimly-lit, bamboo-walled room with a traditional Japanese table and floor cushion seating. While various menu options are available, I went with the "All Black" set menu and was treated to eight courses of sublime, black-colored cuisine. The highlights included black soup with black dough shrimp dumplings, chicken cutlet with black panko crumbs and for dessert a custard covered in black berry syrup and garnished with black beans. Aside from preparing much of our meal tableside, the ninjas performed an incredible magic show in our room.

4.) Bidding at the Largest Tuna Auction in the World. We weren't involved in the actual bidding, but we were onsite by 2:30 a.m. to watch the flurry of locals survey and attempt to procure massive quantities of tuna at Tsukiji Market, the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood market. The auction began with the ringing of a bell and was an intense display of yelling and rapid fire hand gesturing. By 6 a.m. it was over and we needed to artfully dodge motorized carts, wheel barrels and forklifts to escape. For a full post on the Tsukiji tuna auction click here.

5.) Renting a Puppy. In Japanese cities, real estate is pricy and limited; most people can't afford to own pets especially those that require outdoor space. Enter the rent-a-dog business. At Dog Heart beagles, poodles and golden retrievers are available to rent so that people can take them on walks to a nearby park or stay inside and play. The day we attempted to walk a rented dog it was raining so unfortunately the puppies couldn't come outside to play but we patted a couple and took a few doggie business cards for next time.

6.) Sleeping Overnight in a Space Capsule. Never have I been so excited to stay at a one-star hotel than after booking at the 9 Hours capsule hotel. Referred to as a human recharging station, this minimalistic accommodation has a futuristic design that includes 43 inch wide by 43 inch tall sleeping pods and lockers accessible by QR code. While the bed was hard and temperature warm, the capsule met expectations and provided for a solid night's rest.

7.) Cheering on Warring Robots. No visit to Tokyo would be complete without taking in a night show at the  Kabukicho Robot Restaurant. An hour and a half of warring robots, psychedelic monsters, animated dancers and blinding lasers will have you questioning if someone slipped something into your beer and which way is up. While we didn't run into many locals, the show was surreal and we left with our heads spinning.

8.) Bathing in Coffee and Swimming in Red Wine. A two-hour train ride from Tokyo transported us to the mountainous town of Hakone within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The park is popular with locals for its hot springs resorts (onsens) and is home to the world-famous Yunessun Spa. During our afternoon at Yunessun we indulged ourselves in hot spring baths mixed with coffee, red wine, green tea and sake. Aside from the overwhelming aroma, the coffee pool was our favorite and left our skin feeling especially soft. Read more about our visit to the spa and Hakone area by clicking here.

9.) Playing Pachinko in a Retro Arcade. While gambling is illegal in Japan, there's always a way to beat the system. Pachinko is the nation's alternative to slot machines where players win prizes - some of which can be "sold" at neighboring establishments for cash. Pachinko is similar to pinball in that it involves the pressing and releasing of spring-loaded levers to launch metal balls into targeted slots. I didn't win any prizes this time but may try my luck again at one of the many noisy, fluorescent-lit pachinko parlors found on nearly every city street corner.

10.) Bumping Bellies at Sumo Practice. Our last morning in Tokyo, my sister and I wanted to experience something a bit more "traditional Japan." There weren't any sumo tournaments scheduled but we managed to get in on an early morning sumo practice at a local stable. Along with only a few others, we watched as the wrestlers hit each other to allow evil spirits to leave their bodies, and also as they stretched, trained and took part in mock matches. While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. We also learned about the life of sumo wrestlers and some of the sport terminology which you can read by clicking on this link.

While we were together in Japan for less than a week, the time my sister and I spent there was intense cultural immersion. We each now have a greater appreciation for the Japanese people and the extreme interests which truly make them unique.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Top Ten Tips for Traveling Coastal Croatia - August 2017

With picturesque red-roofed towns dotting its nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, the south central European country of Croatia has become a hotbed for tourists over the last decade.

Flying, busing and sailing in from all corners of the globe, Croatia now welcomes more than ten million visitors annually and intends to double that number by the year 2020. While the influx of foreigners means big bucks for the travel industry, not everyone is smiling.
If Croatia tops your list of holiday spots, take heed of these travel tips to ensure an optimal visit.

1. Chat up a local. Whether you're coming to soak up the history or the rays, your stay will be more enjoyable if you take an interest in the local culture. Did you know that Croatia was once a part of former Yugoslavia? How about that the popular dog breed, Dalmatian, hails from the region? While the majority of people under age 40 or in the tourism industry speak English, try out "zdravo" which means "hello," and "hvala," Croatian for thank you, to show respect and appreciation.

2. Keep your shirt on. Remember those ten million tourists who descend upon Croatia each year? Unfortunately, not all have had the reputation for being courteous and polite. After mounting tensions between locals and tourists, the popular island destination of Hvar enacted several purse-lightening laws to help morally-confused visitors. As a result, sleeping in public will get you slapped with a 700 euro fine. Shirtless while walking through the city? 500-600 euro fine. Drinking in public? That will cost you another 700 euro and the list goes on. Know the rules and honor the local customs.

3. Beware of tourist fatigue. Is it that too many locals are tripping over drunken, unconscious tourists on their way to church? Or possibly because the techno music echoes through the old city walls until 3 a.m.? Whatever the trigger, there is a serious case of tourist fatigue blanketing Croatia. Symptoms include a surly demeanor, impatience and a permanent scowl plastered across the face. Tread carefully.

4. Shoot for the shoulders. Peak tourist season in Croatia is July and August. During this time you'll have to push through crowds and clutch your belongings while navigating alleyways and waterfalls alike. Depending on your interests, check the weather and explore options to visit in late spring or early autumn when there are fewer visitors and more breathing room. And, as an added bonus, prices tend to fall during these times as well.

5. Count your kuna. Just because Croatia recently gained its independence in 1991, doesn't mean the country didn't learn quickly how to attract and exploit tourists to make an easy buck, or kuna in this case. It's not uncommon for taxis in Croatia to charge triple the local fare and restaurants and shops in popular areas to ask significantly more than you're used to back home. Look at prices before committing and if you can, get off the beaten path to find more reasonable options.

6. Uber on water. This summer UberBoat launched on the Croatian coast offering speedboat service between coastal towns and islands. While UberBoat is a bit pricey for most budgets, there are other more economical options including traditional water taxis and ferries. Plan accordingly, however, when using Croatian public transportation as ferries and buses are notoriously tardy and ticket sales often exceed seating capacity.

7. Slurp up the seafood. Oysters anyone? Boasting a far-stretching Adriatic coastline, Croatia's selection of fresh fish and shellfish is top rate. The local cuisine also favors its Venetian past with menus rich in pastas, risottos and pizza. While you are at it, try some of the local wine made from grapes grown in some of the country's 300 distinct regions.

8. Sleep in someone else’s bed. For those of you who are kuna-conscious it may be hard to stay in or near the old cities in many popular destinations. Unless renting a car or public transport is part of your plan, a viable option is staying in a home share or hostel. In Split check out options in the Veli Varos neighborhood steps away from Diocletian's Palace, or the areas of Ploce and the Lapad peninsula adjacent to Dubrovnik's Old Town.

9. Stop and smell the flowers. In Croatia you don't have to actually stop because you can't escape the fragrant scent of lavender swirling as you walk past sidewalk vendors hawking everything from oils to petal-stuffed puppets. Not into the purple stuff? Other popular Croatian souvenirs include olive oil, items made from Brac island's white stone and Game of Thrones merchandise.

10. Don't skip the top spots. Croatia is a large country by European standards and it's nearly impossible to see it all in one visit. A few of the top spots include: the well-preserved 16th century Old Town of Dubrovnik where much of the Games of Thrones series has been filmed; the city of Split which contains a Roman palace and sprawling beaches; the party island of Hvar with its hilltop fortress; the Dalmatian coast city of Zadar claiming the world's only sea organ; the historical county of Istria where truffle hunting is a popular pastime; the coastal villages of Ston and Mali Ston home to a world renowned variety of oysters; and Zagreb, Croatia's capital city with its Gothic-inspired and Austro-Hungarian architecture.

Andorra la Vella, Andorra: The Hidden Land with Two Princes - August 2017

Not the smallest country in Europe but quite possibly the most difficult to reach, Andorra is nestled in the Pyrenees mountains between Spain and France. Only one road enters and exits the landlocked country into Spain and another connects the nation with France. Steep mountain slopes dominant the landscape, many dressed with steel netting to capture falling rock.

Nearly ten million visitors flock to Andorra annually to enjoy its ski slopes, natural beauty and duty-free shopping. It is also a tax haven which contributes to goods and services being significantly less expensive than in other parts of the world. The microstate of Andorra is a member of the European Union and uses the euro as currency, but is not a member of the Schengen agreement and therefore provides refuge for visa-constrained travelers.

Andorra is the world's only co-principality partially governed by two princes: the president of France and the Catholic bishop of Urgell in Spain. Throughout the country many villages are perched atop mountains and others carved into rock faces, but the capital city of Andorra la Vella lies in a valley not far from the Spanish border. Andorra la Vella sits at the highest altitude of any capital in Europe and is fragmented by the flow of the country's largest river, the Gran Valira.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Airport and Airplane Etiquette: Twenty Tips to Keep You Friendless

Fixed schedules, tight connections, long lines and communal spaces, air travel creates the ideal environment for making friends. If you aren't in it to chat up your neighbor or add a new name to your contact list, try one of these handy tips to lock in your friend-free status.
  1. Bring more luggage than you can carry or baggage too heavy to lift yourself.
  2. Cut in queue.
  3. Berate airport employees or flight attendants when things don't go your way.
  4. Take your time going through security.
  5. Casually stand with your partner or group on the moving walkway.
  6. Talk loudly on your phone.
  7. Let your children run freely through the terminal.
  8. Stand closely behind strangers withdrawing money at bank machines.
  9. Nudge others with your baggage cart and count how many toes and heels you roll over.
  10. If terminal seating is scarce, secure a full row; lie across the seats and sprawl your belongings.
  11. Take pride in being the last person to board the plane keeping it from an on-time departure.
  12. Select a window seat if you have a small bladder.
  13. Bring odorous foods into tight quarters; don't share.
  14. Maintain full control of the shared armrest.
  15. Extend your seat back as far as it can go, especially during the meal service.
  16. While enjoying the in-flight entertainment, push the screen forcefully and frequently.
  17. Don't mind your hygiene; feel free to remove your shoes.
  18. Kick or knee the seat back in front of you.
  19. Sleep with your head on the shoulder of the stranger seated next to you.
  20. Complain about the flight seating, temperature or food selection.
Practiced diligently and consistently, these tips will almost always guarantee you remain friendless, and as a bonus, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a scowl or disparaging remark. And while convenient for airport and plane use, many of these maneuvers can be applied on any form of public transport to ensure those around you are uncomfortable and inconvenienced.

What tips would you add to ensure others' an unpleasant travel experience? Feel free to share your stories.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Saint Petersburg, Russia: Scarlet Sails on the Neva River – June 2017

Bidding farewell to memories of a dark, frosty winter and embracing the long, summer days, the people of Saint Petersburg, Russia enjoy “white nights” every May through July. Due to the city’s latitude, during this period the sun only sets for a few hours each day with some nights only seeing a hazy twilight. Energized and grateful, the locals have devised a number of ways to celebrate the extra hours of light.

The city of Saint Petersburg hosts the White Nights Festival which features the “Stars of White Nights” program at the Mariinsky Theatre consisting of a series of classical ballet, opera and orchestral performances, and numerous carnivals and concerts throughout the city and its suburbs. But of the many events, the most famous public celebration is Scarlet Sails which takes place the weekend closest to the summer solstice.

Scarlet Sails, or “Alye Parusa” in Russian, is a late-night affair centered around a tall wooden ship with scarlet-illuminated sails navigating down the Neva River with the backdrop of a spectacular fireworks and light show. The city’s main drawbridges open for the sail which takes place after midnight and attracts several million onlookers annually. The tradition, commemorating the end of the school year, began in Saint Petersburg after the end of World War II. The legend surrounding the event is tied to a novel with the same name which tells the story of a young girl who is promised by a wizard that one day a prince will come on a ship with scarlet sails and carry her away.

Due to its popularity, if you'd like to catch a glimpse of Scarlet Sails, it's best to plan ahead. A few options include:
  • Enjoying the display from the comfort of a dinner boat. The Volga-Volga restaurant is housed on a two-story riverboat with an open top deck and enclosed lower level. A full bar and dinner menu become available at 10 p.m. and guests can enjoy live entertainment on the boat which undocks for a short period during the evening. The Gollandec is a stationary restaurant set on a ship and has a special prearranged food and drink menu for the event.
  • Viewing the sails from an aerial perspective. Professional roofers gather small groups to admire the evening’s festivities from one of the many building rooftops along the river. The viewing area is flat but revelers should take caution of the height and dress appropriately.
  • Braving the crowds along the embankment. While several areas are reserved for Russian graduates, if you are able to stake out a spot early enough, it’s possible to find a place along the river’s edge to partake in the festivities. If you elect to go this route, ensure you bring identification and if you are visiting from another country, your passport or at minimum a copy of your photo and visa page. Police stage barricades closing many streets to both vehicle and pedestrian traffic throughout the day and night.
However you decide to view Scarlet Sails and enjoy white nights, the experience is sure to be unforgettable and will undoubtedly affirm the notion that Russians know how to put on a breath-taking show.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Ancient Temples and Tarantula Kebabs - March 2017

Would you like to watch the sun rise over temples that date back to the 12th century? Does a tarantula kebab, scorpion salad or ant-stuffed spring roll sound appetizing? Are you in the market for a holiday where you can get by on less than $50 a day?  

If you answered yes to any of these tantalizing questions, and are down for seeing some buffalo racing in your spare time, the country of Cambodia in Southeast Asia just may be the place for you.

I visited Cambodia for the first time ten years ago. From the moment I stepped off the plane until I waved goodbye, I was showered with smiles and hospitality. The Cambodian people are welcoming and eager to share their rich and unique culture.

I attribute much of my positive experience in Cambodia to my friend, Peou. When I met Kanh Peou he drove a taxi cab and offered to show me around his hometown of Siem Reap. Now Peou is a professional guide and licensed tour driver who operates his own business. Angkor Family Taxi provides one to four-day tours throughout Cambodia with options for any budget. Here are a few of the attractions and activities you can enjoy in and around Siem Reap with Peou:

Angkor Wat. Built in the mid-12th century by King Suryavaraman II, it's the largest temple in the world and Cambodia's most well-known tourist attraction. The structure is a three-tiered pyramid crowned by five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters from the ground and surrounded by a moat. Nearly 2,000 distinct carvings decorate its walls depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology and historical wars. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and served as the state temple under Khmer rule.

South Gate of Angkor Thom. The best-preserved entrance to the ancient city, it extends about fifty meters across a moat. Each side of the causeway is fashioned with 54 stone figures telling a famous Hindu story.

Ta Prohm. One of his first major projects, this temple was dedicated to Khmer King Jayavarman VII's mother. It was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery and was enormously wealthy in its time boasting control of over 3,000 villages. This temple was also the location for the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Bayon. Constructed in the 12th century, Bayon is a Buddhist temple known for its giant stone faces with serene and smiling expressions.

Baphoun. Built as Hindu temple and later converted to a Buddhist temple, this structure has unique animal carvings at the entrance and a large reclining Buddha on the west side.

Neak Pean. An island temple that sits at the axis of a lotus pattern created of eight pools. Named for the surrounding coiled serpent sculptures, its waters are believed to have healing properties.

Preah Ko. The first temple to be built in the ancient city of Hariharalya in the late 9th century. Its six towers and their carvings are beautifully preserved as are the statues of sacred bulls staged at the temple's entrance.

In addition to this sampling of ancient sites around Siem Reap, Peou can customize your tour to include a visit to a floating village, the Angkor National Museum, Kulen Mountain and waterfalls, or any number of other interesting places in the region. So whether you're into sunsets or scorpions, temples or waterfalls, Cambodia is well-worth a visit, and Peou is just the guy to show you around.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Almaty, Kazakhstan: Don't Whistle After You Drink Milk Champagne in a Yurt

Thinking about whistling in Kazakhstan? Think again.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991, however we learned at the airport that Russia continues to regard the country as a domestic destination.

Nonetheless, a five-and-a-half hour, overnight flight from St. Petersburg took us to the world's largest landlocked country and specifically to its former capital and most populated city of Almaty.

Almaty is located in the southeastern part of the country at the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains. Literally translated, Almaty means "a place of apples" and is believed to be where the first apple trees grew around 20 million years ago.

Upon arrival, the locals advised the thing to do was to go up into the mountains. In addition to enjoying incredible views of Big Almaty Lake and the forested surroundings, the Medeo Sports Center is housed in the mountains boasting the highest skating rink in the world at 5,545 feet above sea level.

While the country isn't yet on many tourists' radar, the city of Almaty does have a few notable attractions including Holy Ascension Cathedral, the Green Bazaar, Republic Square, Central Almaty Mosque and Park of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

While visiting we learned that Kazakh refers to both the country's people and its language, and that the language is of Turkic origins with many Russian and Arabic words. It was not written until the 1860s where it was captured in Arabic script, and then in 1940 the country adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with a few extra symbols.

The names of seven countries in Central Asia end in "stan:" a suffix meaning "land" in Persian. The word Kazakh itself means "wanderers" or "outlaws," and is fitting for the nation comprised of formerly nomadic tribes. Traditionally, Kazakhs lived in yurts, or collapsible tents with wooden frames covered by felt which they could carry along in their travels.

It is believed that ancient Kazakhs were the first to domesticate and ride horses, and horses are still a dominant theme in their culture today.

Kumis, or what the locals refer to as milk champagne, is a traditional drink made of fermented mare's milk, and the national dish is beshbarmak which is a collection of noodles, boiled horse meat and spices. A popular sport in the country is kokpar in which riders on horseback play a variation of polo with a headless goat carcass.

The adventure to our first "stan" was memorable and educational. Of all the cultural facts, likely the most critical was the local belief that whistling a song inside a building will make you poor for the rest of your life. A word to the wise: keep your whistling lips on lockdown or stick with humming unless you are riding horseback through the mountains!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Tenerife, Canary Islands: Carnival in the Canaries - February 2017

Located off the western coast of Morocco, the Canary Islands are an autonomous community of Spain. The archipelago includes seven main islands and several smaller islets all with a pleasant subtropical climate. When considering a weekend getaway to the Canaries, each of the islands has unique offerings and it's important to do your research.

Because we were visiting during Carnival, or Mardi Gras, we chose Tenerife. The island of Tenerife is known for having the second most popular and internationally well-known carnival after Rio de Janeiro.

As the majority of Carnival festivities aren't scheduled until after dark, we were able to spend the days exploring the island. We stashed our suitcases in the northwestern port town of Puerto de la Cruz and rented a car so that we could easily navigate the island.

A scenic spot to walk along the ocean and grab some fresh seafood, we stopped by the area around Castillo San Felipe before driving south along the coast. It takes approximately two hours to drive the entire perimeter of Tenerife. The largest and most populated of all of the Canary Islands, its most well-known attraction is Mount Teide which is the highest elevation in Spain, the third-largest volcano in the world and located in the center of the island.

The roads on the western side of the island wind in and around small coastal towns and climb to high elevations before dropping down to sea level in the south.

We spent the afternoon in the town of Los Cristianos on the beach and admiring the elaborate sand sculptures. The beaches in the south are golden compared to those in the north with black sands.

Based on the architecture we saw, Tenerife's heyday was in the 1970s and coincidentally many of the island's visitors looked like they may have peaked during that time as well.

Nevertheless, no matter your age, when the sun went down the party started. Drinks in hand, we stood next to the live band and watched as the Carnival Announcement parade moved into the main square. Marching bands and dancers flooded the streets and the Carnival Queen sparkled from head to toe waving to the crowds as her feathered float passed by.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fez, Morocco: An Afternoon Navigating the Medina - February 2017

In many North African cities the "old town" is referred to as a medina. Medinas are typically surrounded by a wall and characterized by narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Having spent hours lost in the medinas of Tunis and Marrakech, we wised up on our visit to Fez, Morocco and hired a local to guide us through the maze.

Inside the medina it's dark. The light of day is blocked by towering walls, shop awnings and smoke billowing from open fires. The alleys are lined with stalls and crowded by donkeys carrying heavy packs, chickens clucking and hoards of people.

Some people are scurrying through, others are resting with a smoke or a tin cup of tea, and yet more are grabbing you by the hand to escort you into their shops to have a look "for free." Fortunately, inside the Fez medina, the locals are not as aggressive, and touching and shouting is not commonplace.

Within the walls of the Fez medina car traffic is prohibited, and it's actually the largest car-free urban area in the world. Surrounding the mosques and near the decorated communal fountains, stalls sell everything from camel meat by the kilo and shovelfuls of snails, to leather goods and copper pots.

On our way through we grabbed a pita stuffed with cow's tongue and splashed with hot sauce and tried our best to keep up with the guide as he darted uphill through the crowds. The heart of the city, the medina is exploding with life and has a culture of its own that's undeniably engulfing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Jerusalem, Israel: 10 Days in the Middle East - January 2017

The Middle East. Just uttering the phrase causes some to lament on the conflict and instability that has tormented the region throughout history. Others think to the setting of religious stories they've held close throughout their lives. And yet, tens of millions of people call this turbulent area of the world home.

After years of sidestepping the region due to fear, we decided the time was right. With the goal of having a more historical and cultural experience rather than to embark on a religious pilgrimage, we set out to make the most of our short time.

Day 1: Arrival/ Tel Aviv, Israel
In planning our trip and not knowing what to expect, we elected to arrange for an airport transfer service offered through the hotel. Upon arrival into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion international airport, we were met planeside by an airport employee who immediately whisked us off the tarmac and into a sedan. We were driven directly to the entrance of the border control area and escorted to the front of the line. Within moments of touchdown we were met by our hotel car. It was definitely easier than we anticipated without any heightened security delay. That afternoon we spent relaxing and getting acquainted with the area. 

Day 2-3: Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan
After an early start to the day, we took a bus south to the Eliat crossing near the Red Sea. We were able to obtain a visa at the border and met a Jordanian guide on the other side. For the next two days we explored the lost city of Petra, camped in the desert under the stars and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes in Wadi Rum. Currently Jordan is one of the safest Arab nations in the Middle East. Not only was it exciting to experience the culture and see the country's most well-known treasures, but it was the perfect timing to escape Israel while the country was observing Shabbat.

Day 4: Tel Aviv, Israel
Our only full day in Tel Aviv, we began by walking south on the beach promenade towards Jaffa. Towards the city we saw incredibly-unique architecture and significant construction along the way. Even though we were wearing jackets, the beaches were filled with families sunbathing and crowds watching volleyball. At the Jaffa Market we grabbed a falafel and fruit juice and walked the stalls selling fruits and vegetables, home goods and souvenirs. We could have easily stayed longer in Tel Aviv with its host of international offerings and laid-back vibe.

Day 5: Jerusalem, Israel
A short drive from Tel Aviv, we reached Jerusalem in late morning and were anxious to explore inside the walls of the Old City. After entering through the New Gate and passing by the Tower of David, we wandered the city's quarters through markets and down winding cobblestone alleys. We spent time admiring the Western Wall and parted crowds to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After following the path of the Via Dolorosa, we took an elevator to the top of the Austrian hospice to enjoy a spectacular view of the ancient city.

Day 6: Masada and the Dead Sea, Israel
On our sixth day we decided to get out of the city and see the surrounding area. Two of the top tourist attractions in Israel are the hilltop fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea. We spent the morning walking the ruins and had lunch at a traditional Jewish kibbutz, or communal settlement. We walked off our meal in the desert oasis of Ein Gedi where according to biblical story King David hid from King Saul and wrote the majority of the Book of Psalms. After hiking through the waterfalls, we stopped off at a beach resort to spend a few hours floating in the Dead Sea and covering our faces in silky gray mud.

Day 7: Bethlehem, Palestine/ Jerusalem, Israel
With help from an Israeli friend, that morning we ventured into Palestinian territory. On the other side of the wall was the Church of the Nativity which is believed to be built over the birthplace of Jesus Christ. While in Bethlehem our Christian Palestinian guide shared with us the difficulties of being a Christian in a Muslim-led and majority country. In the afternoon we returned to Jerusalem to see some of the sights outside of the Old City including the Mount of Olives.

Day 8-10: Cyprus/ Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
After a fast-paced week spent seeing as much as we could of Israel and the surrounding lands, it was time to relax. We hopped a short flight to the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. During our stay at a Limassol beach resort we were able to visit the birthplace and temple of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, witness the locals celebrate Epiphany Day and even mustered the courage to venture into the area of the island occupied by the Turkish Army.

Our visit to the Middle East was unforgettable. In ten days I learned more about western religion than I had over the course of my life. During our many adventures, there were moments when we were fearful and times when we were humbled, but we came away from the experience with a greater appreciation for the region's rich history and culture, and a hope that somehow its people can find enduring peace.

Jerusalem, Israel: The Collision of Religion - January 2017

The ancient city of Jerusalem is one of the most contested places on the planet. A volatile epicenter of the three Abrahamic religions, its history dates back the fourth millennium B.C. and the controversy that surrounds the land is beyond measure.

Referred to as the Holy City, Jerusalem is of great historical significance in Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Jewish people consider Jerusalem the central symbol of importance due to biblical tradition which tells that King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established it as the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel, and that his son, King Solomon, commissioned the building of the First Temple.

In Sunni Islam, and according to the Quran, Jerusalem is prized as the third-holiest city behind Mecca and Medina because of the belief that Muhammad, the Holy Prophet, made his Night Journey to the city and ten years later ascended to heaven where he spoke to God. Jerusalem was also the first Qiblah, or focal point direction used for Muslim prayer.

Also a pilgrimage site for Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus, the Christ, was arrested, tried and sentenced by Pontius Pilate. He walked the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion and, according to the New Testament, was resurrected.

In large part due to its religious importance, the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed at least twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times. Despite it's storied history, there remain numerous sites to visit of historical, cultural and religious importance:

The Old City. Believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world, Old City Jerusalem is contained within stone walls and divided into quarters belonging to the Armenians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each quarter has its own distinct flavor and several notable sites. The entrance gates to the city and numerous markets contained inside are also worthy of a look.

Temple Mount. The hill located in the Old City is one of the most important religious sites in the world. Presently the site contains three monumental structures: the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain. The site can be reached through eleven gates, of which ten are currently reserved for Muslims and one can be accessed by non-Muslims only during specific hours.

The Kotel. Also referred to as the Western or Wailing Wall, this section of the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site and for 2,000 years was the closest Jews wanting to pray at the place where the Holy Temple once stood, were permitted to approach.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The holiest site in Christianity and currently controlled by six Christian denominations: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Armenians, Coptics, Syriacs and Ethiopians, the church was built in 330 on and around Golgotha, the hill of crucifixion or Calvary, and the tomb of Jesus' burial. The original church was destroyed twice and the structure which stands today dates back the 12th century.  

Mount of Olives. A mountain ridge east of the Old City houses Jewish graves dating back 3,000 years and is also believed to be the site of several key events in the life of Jesus. According to the Acts of the Apostles, it is also where Jesus ascended to heaven.

David's Tomb. Located on Mount Zion, the area is viewed as the burial place of David, King of Israel.

Via Dolorosa. Latin for "Way of Grief," the Via Dolorosa is a street within the Old City believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. The 2,000-foot route from the Antonia Fortress west to the Church of Holy Sepulcher is marked by nine Stations of the Cross.

Whether you are visiting the city on a religious pilgrimage or to learn more about the culture and history of the area, you will not be disappointed.

Today in Jerusalem amid the tension, all three of the dominant religious groups appear to be co-existing harmoniously. For the sake of the Holy Land and the world, let's hope that continues and somehow a peaceful, sustainable resolution is reached.

Masada, Israel: Climbing a Jewish Stronghold & Floating in the Dead Sea - January 2017

While visiting Israel, Masada and the Dead Sea are destinations not far from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that are well worth the stop.

Towering over the Judean desert on a rock plateau, Masada is a spectacular fortress built by Herod the Great between 37 and 31 B.C. Home to several magnificent palaces, Masada earned notoriety after the First Jewish-Roman War.

According to the biblical story, Jewish rebels who escaped war-torn Jerusalem found refuge on the rock mountain and formed the last stronghold against the Romans. The zealots survived for some time in the fortress before Roman General Flavius Silva led a siege by amassing a 375-foot rock ramp up the western face of the plateau in 73 A.D. Upon reaching the top and breaching the fortress of Masada, the Roman troops discovered the mass suicide of 960 Jewish men, women and children.

Accessible today by both foot path and cable car, the remains of the fortress are well-preserved and in many cases have been reconstructed. The most impressive structure on Masada is King Herod’s northern palace built on three rock terraces overlooking the gorge below. There are many other places of interest, such as the luxurious western palace, several Jewish ritual baths, storerooms, cisterns, watchtowers and a synagogue built into the casemate wall.

After walking through the ruins of Masada and learning of its tragic history, it seemed appropriate to spend some quiet time reflecting. Fortunately, fewer than 12 miles from the base of the plateau is the Dead Sea which provides the ideal setting for relaxation. Well-known for being one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, the Dead Sea is ten times as salty as the ocean. It is also the deepest sea in the world with surface waters being 1,400 feet below sea level and its banks the earth's lowest elevation on land. The salinity of the waters create such an inhospitable environment that no plant or animal-life is able to flourish, hence its name.

Tourists flock to the Dead Sea to float in the waters and also to test the medicinal benefits of the salt and minerals found in the water and mud. To cater to the crowds, health spas and resorts line the beaches and countless stores sell products touting miracles.


Bethlehem, Palestine: Three Christmases and a Broken Tree - January 2017

Despite the ever-present tension and sporadic violence recently, we were so close to Palestine territory already being in Jerusalem that we felt we needed to see what life was like on the other side of the heavily-armed wall.

Knowing that it may be too complicated and dangerous to do on our own, we contacted an Israeli for help. Our friend Charles said that he could pick us up from our hotel and drive us to a checkpoint into the Palestinian Authority, but that is as far as he was allowed to go; he would arrange for others to meet up with us and show us around the town of Bethlehem.

With passports in hand, we jumped into his Israeli white-plated jeep and hoped for the best. The checkpoint hand-off could easily be compared, or mistaken for a sketchy drug deal. At the unmarked crossing we pulled in next to an old sedan with a green license plate and the letter P in the corner; unlike Charles' license plate, the green plate permitted vehicles to travel both in Israeli and Palestinian jurisdiction.

We were shuffled from one car to another in an empty, barbed-wire enclosed parking lot. Our new driver didn't speak much English but sped through the town past the run-down block houses and litter-filled streets. Due to the license plate and most likely the way we looked through the car's backseat windows, there was no formal security check and no need to present our documents.

After a few minutes the driver abruptly pulled over and a man in an oversized black coat slid into the passenger's seat. The man glanced over his shoulder and said, "so you want to see the church? My husband and I both nodded and exchanged hesitant glances. "So it's under construction right now," he explained. "So you won't see much but I'll take you there anyway."

"The church" was Bethlehem's most notable attraction and more accurately referred to as the Church of the Nativity. In 327 Constantine the Great commissioned the church to be built on the site traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Today a large basilica is housed on the site along with a smaller church and several chapels. Beneath the basilica is an underground cave referred to as the Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus' birthplace is marked by a 14-pointed silver star underneath an alter. Not far from the grotto is the underground Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children murdered by King Herod, which is believed to be on the site of the two to three-bedroom inn in which Mary and Joseph paid a visit.

The basilica is currently under construction and much of it is hidden by scaffolding. Our Christian Palestinian guide explained that under Muslim law whoever fixes the roof of a structure owns it. Therefore for a long time the Church of the Nativity lay in disrepair while the leaders of the area's Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities debated how to best handle the situation.

Fortunately, in 2010 with the help of U.S. aid dollars, a plan to restore the basilica was agreed upon by all parties. Now all three Christian religious communities share the Church of the Nativity and stagger services to accommodate all parishioners. Upon our visit we learned that Christmas would be celebrated on three separate occasions at the church: December 25th for the Catholics, January 7th for the Greek Orthodox and January 17th for the Armenians.

After touring several buildings on the church grounds, we got back into the car and headed towards the de facto border. Watching the depressed town pass by, I asked our guide what it was like to be a Christian living in Bethlehem today. "It's hard," he replied with a long face. "Just last week before our Christmas celebration the main Christmas tree in the public square was broken in half. It made us all very sad. Please don't tell anyone in Jerusalem though; I don't want to start any trouble."

He went on to explain that only twenty to thirty percent of the Christian Palestinian community remain in Bethlehem. Most have fled to more-welcoming communities in Chicago, Chile or El Salvador because they felt that they were losing their identity in the Muslim-led Palestinian territory. As he spoke I stared out the window at the cement-paneled wall which divided the contested land. Covering the graffiti that has collected over the years, mounted placards quote residents still hopeful for change and hopeful that peace will someday blanket the land.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Petra, Jordan: Exploring a Lost City - January 2017

From the glowing red sands and towering rocks, to its bustling cities and trendy beach resorts, Jordan is a hidden gem nestled in the turbulent Middle East. During our two-day excursion to the Arabic country, we explored the lost city of Petra and ran with the Bedouins along the dunes of Wadi Rum.

Often referred to as the "Red Rose City Half as Old as Time," Petra, Jordan is an ancient city carved entirely from rock. The city was built between 800 B.C. and 100 A.D. by Nabatean Arabs as a virtually-inaccessible fortress. Centuries later after the Romans rose to power, Petra became a famed stop on the Silk Road and amassed great wealth. After the sea trade slowly displaced caravan routes, the city's importance began to diminish and eventually it became lost to the world until a Swiss explorer re-discovered it in 1812.

Today Petra is Jordan's most-visited tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with being listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World next to the Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal.

The city covers an area of about 100 square kilometers and contains more than 800 monuments. Its most iconic structure is the Khazneh, or Treasury building, but there are a number of other well-preserved structures to explore. Dodging the donkeys and carriages as they speed through the city's narrow passages, it's easy to see why Petra has been featured in several blockbuster films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Not far from Petra in southern Jordan is the valley of Wadi Rum. Also known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is a vast desert formed of sandstone and granite rock. The area's almost supernatural landscape has invited a host of films to use it as a backdrop including: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Martian, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and Lawrence of a Arabia to name a few. Bedouin families call this area of the world home and welcome visitors to share in the secrets of the desert.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. And with its historical and architectural treasures, and unique arid landscape, it's well worth a visit during your trip to the Middle East.