tentative holiday planning


Met mm at the travel agent’s to see what options we have for a European trip. We don’t have dates or destination, and this amount of flexibility is dangerous. Options include:

  • Spain and Portugal–we’ve never been, which adds to the attractiveness. So many cities and regions like Madrid, Barcelona, Basque country, Galicia, Lisbon, Porto…the list goes on
  • Italy–we want to spend more time in Tuscany, along the coasts, and to San Giovanni Rotondo (pilgrimage to St Pio)
  • south of France–we said after last time that if we returned to Provence, we’ll base ourselves at Aix and go further south
  • Normandy and Brittany–I still have lots of research notes
  • Holland and Belgium–can be combined with northern France, we can base ourselves at our friend L’s house and go from there
  • Scotland and Ireland–which of course includes London and distilleries

Airfares in april and may are okay, most of the airlines have open jaw or stopover fares. Another option is Emirates, but the cost is not that much different from KLM and Emirates has bad stopover times at Dubai.

The travel agent mentioned the possibility of spending part of the trip cruising. There’s one that goes from Hamburg to Southampton and passengers can embark either port which then goes to the Norwegian fjords. Not too bad, except it’s all Norway and it’s MSC. I’d rather mm’s first cruise experience to be with a better cruiseline.

I also asked him for summer Chicago tickets. He’ll look into it. The problem is again, the cheap fares don’t allow seat allocation and has no airmiles.

bbmm at travel agent


Met mm at the travel agent’s to get some information about cruises and resorts. Her mum’s doc says she can go on short breaks and it will likely be beneficial. But she can’t go too far away and preferably as little travel hassle as possible. It was the doc who suggested cruises. There are definitely advantages, mostly it’s the minimum amount of travelling and yet she can enjoy going away.

We’re limited by the total number of days, preferably under a week. There are only a few itineraries that fit the criteria. Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan. And the Japan one is only as far as Okinawa. I knew Okinawa is south of mainland Japan but I didn’t realise it’s that far south. It’s nearer to Taiwan. From brief research, it’s mainly a beach resort type of destination.

The Okinawa cruise is on the huge Ovation of the Seas. Over 4000 passengers, 167000 tons. One day at sea, then arriving at Okinawa at 1pm. Stay overnight then leave at 2pm the next day. Another day at sea. Truth be told, it’s an odd itinerary and doesn’t give a lot of time on the island.

We’ll see.

paris cake walk


Keeping this in my food and travel research file, food52’s paris cake walk. The plan:

We’re going on a cake walk, straight through the glamorous heart of the old school 7th arrondissement, steeped in Belle Epoch spirit, stuffed with gorgeous museums set in formal gardens (coucou, Musee Rodin). On the way, we’ll be collecting a grand assortment of the finest pastries, cakes, and chocolates that the City of Light has to offer. Then, we’re going to sit on a specific park bench and enjoy them.

The walk starts at Musée d’Orsay station. The walk itself according to google maps is around 15mins but the actual time taken will be much longer because of the stops. At least 10 pâtissières along the way where we have the option to get macarons, chocolate ganache, pralines, truffles, fruit jellies, cakes, tarts, breads and all manner of delectable goods.

The walk ends at the Square des Missions Étrangères with a marble bust of Vicomte Châteaubriand, politician, writer and who had a steak named after him. One of the best cuts of steak too.


There are so many great food destinations in Paris that it’s hard to go wrong. Each neighbourhood will have its greengrocer, butcher, cheesemaker and baker. Hope we can take a trip back to europe soon.

checked in, packed

I was in the middle of binge-watching bake-off when I remembered I have to check-in. The flight is either completely full or I didn’t put my number in so I can’t see available seats. Anyway, I have an aisle seat because the ticket let me pre-book seats. This is also a 100% mileage flight, so I start accruing miles for a change.

Finished watching all the bake-off episodes and it was time to pack. I was considering whether to bring the large suitcase or two medium. Opted for 2 medium to spread the weight out. One has almost all stuff that I’ll leave behind: whisky, timtams, souvenirs, gifts.


I also used the packing cubes I got from muji. Very neat, the medium cube fits into the bottom of the suitcase and the small one plus the toiletries bag take up the top quarter. I thought about getting compression cubes, but decided these light ones work just as well. The electronics grid-it holder will flip over and fit over the two small items. The large grey plastic bag top left is full of timtams and picnic.

chicago flight booked

Cathay Pacific Economy Class Cabin
image via flickr user lukelai under cc

I bit the bullet and booked my flight to Chicago. There are 2 airlines with direct flight and since one of the is UA, I only have one realistic choice. Been waiting and waiting for CX to come up with offers but no luck. I hate that they’re going the route of other airlines, nickel and diming passengers. The cheapest fare has no points, can’t reserve seats and is generally extremely inflexible. From what I can see, the flight is pretty full and available seats in that booking class are middle seats. Argh. Not for 16hrs.

Discussed with mm and we both agree it’s worth splashing out on the next booking class. 100% points, more choices and can pre-book seats. This is what economy class flying has come to, what a shame.

trip research: food

For our nagoya-takeyama-kanazawa trip (read the first post, there are beautiful pics) there will be the usual sushi, sashimi, seafood, ramen, izakaya food but on top of that the region has speciality food that we will want to try.

hida beef


Kobe and matsuzaka beef are famous all over the world for their tenderness, marbling and, well, high prices. Hida beef, or hida-gyu, is lesser known but have the same high quality taste and marbling. In order to be labelled hida-gyu, the meat must come from black-haired Japanese wagyu cattle bred in the Gifu prefecture and fattened for at least 14 months. The meat must be certified to be graded 3, 4 or 5 by the Japan Meat Grading Association. They take their meat grading very seriously in Japan.

Gifu cattle first started being reared as meat as opposed to use for work in the 1980s. Hida beef has won numerous awards in the Wagyu Beef Olympics. Yep, they do take their beef seriously in Japan.

The onsen hotel in Takayama where we will spend 2 nights includes the typical kaiseki dinner. The dishes page has numerous pics of hida beef and we think we’ll be able to enjoy at least one meal with hida beef shabu shabu or grilled. I’m sure we’ll want to try it more than once ao I’ve been doing research on other restaurants in the area that also offer hida beef and have a list.

There are also street stalls selling hida gyu-man or hida beef buns. These will be nice snacks. Or we may even be crazy enough to buy some to bring home.



Nagoya is one of the top regions for producing river eel. Hitsumabushi is a style of unagi-don that is ubiquitious to the nagoya region. The difference is in the preparation: the eel is grilled vs in other regions it’s steamed then grilled. I can just imagine how much more smoky flavour there is in the grilled eel.

The most well known hitsumabushi restaurant in nagoya is atsuta horaiken; they have been preparing eel over charcoal grill for 140 years. And being Japanese, they have suggestions on how to savour the meal:

  1. taste the eel as is
  2. taste the eel with condiments served (spring onions, ginger, nori)
  3. add green tea
  4. eat as you like — ie whichever favourite from the last 3 methods

Unagi has gotten expensive over the years, especially wild river eel which is fattier and more tasty than ocean eel. We’re thinking this will be dinner on our first night.

gold leaf ice cream


Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaves. The latest craze is wrapping soft serve ice cream in gold leaf.

Seems more of a gimmick. To me, edible gold is one of the Stupidest.Ideas.Ever because it’s literally flushing money down the loo. Gold leaf ice cream is around ¥1000, or US$9. Normal soft ice cream is probably 1/4 or 1/3 the price.

But we may still give it a try, if only for the instagram moment.

p.s. again, not my pics. Google image. No copyright infringement intended.

next trip: nagoya region


We just finalised our next trip. Mid-May, to Nagoya. We’re excited because it’s a new destination in Japan. We’ve been to the Kanto area (Tokyo), Kansai area (Osaka, Kyoto) and Hokkaido; the central Chubu area is a natural progression to add to the list.

We only have 8 days and poor Nagoya is basically going to be overnight stops at the beginning and end of the trip so we won’t get much chance to explore the city. We will be spending most of our time in the GIfu prefecture, at Tateyama 高山 and Kanazawa 金沢.

There are a number of absolutely stunning attractions in the area. In the Mt Tateyama area is the Tateyama Kurobe alpine route 立山黒部. This area is called Japan’s northern alps, and it gets a massive amount of snow because of the winter monsoon phenomenon. Atlas Obscura explains:

Frigid Siberian air streaming south and east across the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Japan generates snow clouds, which unleash their flakes as they approach land. The phenomenon is similar to lake-effect snow in the U.S. But while the Great Lakes can freeze over, effectively shutting off the snow machine, the Sea of Japan stays open all winter long. Coastal mountains such as Mt. Tateyama amplify the snow.

Parts of the region gets up to 40m (1500 inches) of snow a year. During winter, the area is closed. Every March, they start the arduous job of clearing the mountain road. Heavy machinery is employed and snow blowers blow snow off the road. By mid-April the road is clear, with a narrow path wending its way up the mountain surrounded by very tall snow walls. A few years ago, the enterprising local council had the brilliant idea of making this snow corridor a tourist attraction. In true Japanese fashion, the visit to the national park is well organised and there are a series of connecting transportation across the area: cable car, ropeway, bus. The stopping points include Murodo, which is 5mins walk from the snow corridor and also has great views of the surrounding mountains. The route ends at the eastern end at Kurobe dam, and there is the opportunity to walk across the dam to view the reservoir.


Another must-see destination in the area are the remote villages of Shirakawa-go 白川郷 and Gokayama 五箇山, famous for their distinctive farmhouses constructed gassho-zukuri styled, which means “like hands in prayer.” The sturdy structure and steep thatched-roofs means the houses can withstand large amounts of snowfall. They are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites:

The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.


The third notable attraction would be #1 on any other trip. Kenrokuen has been described as one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Set in what was the grounds of Kanazawa castle, its name means “garden of the six sublimities” or spaciousness, tranquility, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and magnificent views. According to traditional landscape theory, these are the essential attributes of a perfect garden design.

We realise we do not have enough time. The trick is to enjoy the trip, try not to rush and spend more time in fewer places rather than trying to hit everything.

p.s. these are not my pics; I haven’t been there yet. Gakked from tourist information sites.

hotel hunting in japan

I’m helping out a friend who will be travelling to Japan for 2-3 weeks. Tokyo–>Hakone–>Kyoto–>Osaka. Her first time in Japan so I’m sharing my notes of places to visit, things to do, food, markets, transportation. I hope it’s useful.

The current focus is hotels. Budget is €80. What we found out, and are advised by frequent travellers to Japan, is to consider business hotels, or bizunesu hoteru. Seriously, read that out loud and marvel at the Japanese language. These business hotels, quite a number are part of a chain, are not only for business people. They’re no frills, reasonably priced and well located (next to a train station for instance). No frills means no gym, no room service, and some only change bedding every 3-4 days. The rooms will be functional and, since it’s Japan, quite small. But also since it’s Japan, they will be clean and the service polite and efficient.


We stayed at a Tokyu Stay hotel last time and there was a small kitchenette and a washing machine in our room. A small seating area in the lobby served simple breakfast in the morning and a coffee machine served free coffee the rest of the day; there were also the ubiquitious vending machines for drinks and snacks. A helpful notice board showed nearby restaurants. The front desk helped us book a taxi for 5am check-out. The trip several years ago we stayed at a Superhotel and they had a daiyokujo hot spring bath on site. Next time I’ll also include Daiwa Roynet and Dormy Inn when searching for hotels.

That’s in cities. What we are finding is that Hakone hotels are much more expensive, €100 rooms are really basic. Not a big surprise because hotels there are mostly hot spring resorts that also include dinner.


Sigh. Hakone. Now I want to go there again. Go to Moto-Hakone, stare at Mount Fuji, go back to the hotel and have a full course kaiseki dinner, soak in the onsen and sleep on tatami mats. Heaven or not.

trip day -01


The travel agent confirmed the changed itinerary this morning, and I gave her an earful. Not her fault but NCL and their cruise department dropped the ball. It’s not acceptable to notify the customer of changes less than 24hrs before departure. Hopefully we can enjoy the remaining ports. There’s also the additional nights at Sydney and Auckland so plenty to do.

Met up with mm for a drive, catch-up and shabu shabu dinner. Borrowing her suitcase because it’s the large size. I repacked and put my small cabin trolley inside the suitcase for shopping. We havd 30kg each on SQ so shopping is okay. Speaking of SQ, sigh, I have to grudingly admit that their website and check-in process are vastly superior to CX’s. I’m supposed to be loyal to CX but in this case, really can’t.

Leaving at 6am tomorrow so I’ve set the alarm for 4.45am. Still doing laundry, turned out we needed to run 2 loads. Ah well, I’ll sleep on the plane.

next trip


I have to switch gears quickly. Just as I finish sorting and uploading Tokyo Hakone pics and get the trip written up, I have to go to the travel agent to pick up cruise tickets. First world problem, I know. I deserve no sympathy. 😛

Although the destinations will be really nice, I’m not looking forward to the trip at all. I’ve only been back home for 2 days and I’m already wanting to scream.

nyt 52 places to visit in 2017


One of my fb friends, R, generously gifted me a free 12-week subscription to the new york times. I can add it to my daily news reading list. I love the guardian, but I’ve missed the NYT. They just published their 52 places to visit in 2017 and it’s really inspiring. Bold means I’ve visited.

  1. canada — like that they basically say, visit the whole country. I’ve enjoyed every visit and even though it’s only been vancouver (a little victoria), toronto and niagara falls, I know there is a whole lot more. The country is pretty high up on my to visit list, I’d love to go there for a month or two and drive/fly around
  2. atacama desert — looks awesome, not in my immediate future unfortunately
  3. agra — there was a time when I wanted to explore more of india, but india doesn’t seem safe anymore
  4. zermatt — it took me till I left switzerland for me to visit zermatt, it was great
  5. botswana — safari, nice
  6. dubrovnik — seems to be the new prague, and every picture i’ve seen shows a beautiful city
  7. grand teton national park, wyoming — another wishlist is to go on a roadtrip of national parks
  8. tijuana — it’ll be great to add mexico to my countries visited list
  9. detroit — very surprised it’s #9, i don’t even remember if I’ve been
  10. hamburg — I’ve been to munich and a bunch of other german cities, but not hamburg. every year I say to mm we should go to a christmas market in germany. No, I’m not afraid of terrorist attacks
  11. marrakesh — i suspect like tunisia, I may be disappointed in morocco
  12. greenville — hmm
  13. pedregal, ecuador — that’s a real destination destination
  14. penzance — I wouldn’t base in penzance, last time we were based at marazion and it was much nicer
  15. osaka — absolutely, everyone should visit the kansai region at least once in their life
  16. stockholm — beautiful city, if a little boring
  17. sikkim — see agra above re: india
  18. ile de porquerolles — wow, a total off-the-beaten-track find, of course now it’ll be full of tourists
  19. madagascar — hopefully it doesn’t become like the maldives or seychelles and get spoiled by tourists
  20. sanya — no desire to go back, nothing to see
  21. cyprus — should be able to find good package deals when i’m back in the uk
  22. great barrier reef — sigh, have to see it before it disappears, what a shame
  23. minneapolis — i guess it’s a stretch to say i’ve been, i was at the conference and went to the mall
  24. kingston — jamaica is one of the destinations of a caribbean cruise, right? one of these days
  25. comporta — like canada, portugal is a all country visit wishlist
  26. kazaksan — so many new countries that need visiting, we used to be more adventurous
  27. gabon — that’s a dark horse
  28. athens — simply no competition in terms of heritage
  29. north west puerto rico — to be perfectly honest i never know where puerto rico is
  30. chiang mai — thailand has gone down in terms of countries i want to go to, for political reasons. they’re way too close to the CCP nowadays
  31. napa valley — wine! food! weather!
  32. puerto escondido — mexico, see above
  33. sedona — hopefully next year’s conference in las vegas i can get a chance to visit some of the south west US states
  34. madrid — increasingly I’m thinking madrid goes before barcelona
  35. ketchum — a hidden ski resort in idaho, how fabulous
  36. maldives — like the great barrier reef, go before the islands sink
  37. calabria — food and weather in italy
  38. antequera — the stonehenge of spain
  39. lofoten islands — northern lights in norway
  40. ibera wetlands — low chance of me making it to argentina
  41. istria — looks like the venice of croatia
  42. placencia — one of my ex-colleagues is from belize and she was always saying come visit
  43. langtang region — nepal is getting towards the quite unlikely part of the travel wishlist
  44. bozcaada — turkey is on the not feeling too safe to visit list unfortunately
  45. birmingham — as in alabama not the midlands. they’re putting these hitherto unimpressive US cities on the list, must be something interesting happening
  46. sacred valley — the whole of peru is worth visiting
  47. laikipa — a newer region to visit than the masai mara
  48. busan — it’s the one place on this list I have a high chance of visiting in 2017. I want to take mum to korea and may be bbmm can make a short trip there too
  49. portland — very impressed with portland, i have friends who live there and other friends who moved there after visiting, how much more of an endorsement is that
  50. budapest — will be interesting to revisit, we went there shortly after the fall of eastern europe, it’s likely very different now
  51. south bronx — um, okay
  52. ryukyu islands — we keep saying we need to try out new places and not go to tokyo or osaka or hokkaido all the time

tokyo all you can drink sake


Met mm yesterday for tea and walking around the last day of the brands expo. We also had decisions we needed to make prior to our tokyo trip. Hotel, train, pocket wifi. She brought her mb so i showed her kurand sake market which offers unlimited sake tastings for ¥3240 per session. Considering the evening session is from 5-11pm that’s pretty much unlimited time.

They have several branches and operate on a standing bar basis. Looking at the pictures, they have bottle upon bottle of different sakes in a wall of fridges and the idea is to drink all we like. Food not included, we’re encouraged to bring our own.

She was scrolling around and saw that they also offer tasting lessons. Two hours during the unlimited session. The lesson is conducted by a British sake expert and looks very comprehensive. There is a guided tasted of 10-12 sakes afterwards. Cost ¥5950.

I filled in the booking form and we’re in. Our first day is sorted; we get off the plane, hop on the airport limousine, check-in to our hotel, grab something quick to eat and head over to the sake market. Hopefully it will be a perfect start to the trip.

cruise trip research

More trip research. Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Not only where to go but transportation to, from and around each destination.

We have less than 24hrs in Singapore. There’s time for a short walkaround in between checking into the hotel and dinner. May be over to the gardens by the bay for views of the marina bay sands. Dinner either at the east coast lagoon food village or at the food court in the mall next to the hotel. The places at east coast are better (aka the stalls are more famous): chilli crab, popiah, bak kut teh, satay but it’s outdoors. At the mall it’s a food republic although I also saw that it has a Nando’s. Argh. We love Nando’s but go all the way to Singapore and the only meal we have is Nando’s, that doesn’t make sense.

Sydney we arrive late in the day so something quick that night for dinner. Our first full day is a saturday so we can find some markets. Carriageworks market which used to be eveleigh market, seems to be a perfect candidate: half an hour from the hotel, great looking produce and apparently Kylie Kwong has a stall there and may make a personal appearance.


Fish market naturally. And Harry’s pies of course. Yum. I came across Mr Crackles for roast pork and crackling sandwiches. Yum yum. That doesn’t leave time for proper sit down meals so no time for Colin’s restaurant 4fourteen or the one at Darling Harbour where mum and I had this awesome seafood platter that year we visited.

The other destinations are day trips along the cruise. I detest that we only have limited time and always have to aim at getting back to the ship before 5pm. None of the excursions are any good. Too expensive, too guided.


Melbourne has either a shuttle bus or tram to CBD. Plan is Federation Square, free tram area and Queen Victoria market. Lunch at the market hopefully. If there’s time we can walk around the park along the river. I remember it being very pretty.

Last stop in Australia is Burnie in Tasmania. There are excursions to Cradle Mountain and other scenic areas. If it’s running, I want to go on the hop-on hop-off bus that goes to a couple of scenic areas but most importantly, the Hellyers Road distillery. There are now 22 distilleries in Tasmania and Sullivan’s Cove near Hobart won best single malt in 2014.

First stop in NZ after 2 days at sea and one day cruising Milford Sound is Dunedin. There is a shuttlebus to city centre. Enough places to walk around, including Cadbury World and a couple of craft breweries. We’ll have to rent a car or go on an excursion to Penguin Place. We loved it when mm and I went, but I wonder if it’s worth it this trip.

Akaroa is a tender port and can be explored in around an hour. Or see what local tour companies offer. There are dolphin tours, nature exploration and specialist tours in vintage cars, for example. We’ll probably do what some guides suggest, find a nice restaurant and enjoy a glass of wine portside.

Wellington has a walkable city centre. A cable car goes uphill for views and the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. Back downhill, the waterfront is walkable and I came across a couple of seafood places for crab, oysters and native green-lipped mussels. There’s also a chocolate factory / store and something I’ve never seen, a craft soda shop.

Our first stop on north island is Napier. Doesn’t seem to be much there aside from art deco architecture, aquarium and Hawke’s Bay wines. People take excursions to Christchurch which doesn’t interest me.

My biggest dilemma is the next stop, our last full day, in Tauranga. There’s a beach and a walkable route around Mount Maunganui where we dock. This is one destination where I’m tempted to go for an excursion. Rotorua is less than an hour away and another popular excursion is to Hobbiton movie set. The Shire is pristinely preseved there and they have a 2hr walking tour around the set. It’s 2hrs from Tauranga and since we’re not allowed to explore the set on our own, the options are to join a tour (ship or local) or rent a car and book a tour beforehand. OTOH, it’s 2hrs from Auckland and we can go there ourselves. May be visiting the geothermal areas around Rotorua works better, it’s 3hrs from Auckland and I don’t want to drive that far.

We have a couple of nights in Auckland. If we take a day trip to Hobbiton, we’ll have one day left for CBD, which I remember there isn’t much to see or visit one of the outlying islands.

Research mostly done. Most days are planned and we have a few decisions to make.

tokyo trip research

Started doing consolidation and research for the trips. No need for Tokyo, have notes from last time. Cancelled the superhotel in favour of an apartment hotel in ginza, overall ¥17k savings, or one night. Yes, it means we won’t have onsen bath in Tokyo but since we’re at an onsen hotel in Hakone I’m okay with it.

Spent a lot of time on Hakone research. We last visited Hakone last century when we first started working. My ex-boss’ secretary’s husband owned a travel agent that was one of the first ones to specialise in Japan, and they’ve grown so much since then. Anyway, I have vague recollections of the trip–our first Japanese onsen, riding the local bus, visiting a volcanic valley–but no notes or even photos. It was before the days of evernote, flickr or even my website. I hadn’t switched to digital camera then so there may be physical photos in one of the boxes.


I remember going on a cable car and a gaudy pirate ship on a lake. Turns out they’re part of the hakone loop. The hakone free pass covers all transportation in the area and they even recommended a circular route:

  • hakone-yumato –> gora by tozan train 35mins
  • gora –> sounzen by cable car 10mins
  • sounzan –> togendai by ropeway 30mins get off at owakudani
  • togendai –> hakone machi by pirate boat 30mins
  • hakone machi –> moto hakone by boat/bus 10mins or walk 30mins
  • moto hakone –> hakone-yumato by tozanbus 30mins

We’ll likely do the loop, or part of it. If we have time, I’m going to suggest visiting yunessun hotspring amusement park, which has 2 sections: a regular onsen and a swimsuit area that has wine, sake, coffee, green tea baths as well as waterslide, sauna and pool. Found a discount coupon for 39% off a combined ticket. Must remember to bring swimming costume.

We’ll have 3 full days in Tokyo. Depending on how cold it is, we’ll go outside or stay inside at department stores. We went to ueno, shibuya, asakusa and meiji shrine last time. This time may be shinjuku, ikebukuro (pokemon mega center!) and the articificial island of odaiba. Fish market of course.

hotel planning

Spent the entire afternoon booking hotels. First for the cruise trip in feb. Need 1 night in Singapore, 3 nights in Sydney and 3 nights in Auckland.

The criteria for Singapore is not too far from the airport and food options nearby. We arrive early afternoon and leave first thing the next morning, so I wasn’t even looking at Orchard Road, Esplanade area. There’s a new Holiday Inn Express along the ECP, 15mins taxi from the airport, next door to the i12 mall. That’s perfect. If I were by myself I may not even have booked a hotel. I will likely store my luggage at the airport, go out somewhere to walk around, hawker centre for dinner then back to the airport to spend the night. There are spas, showers and transit hotels at Changi.

Anyway, Holiday Inn Express it is. The odd thing is, hotels.com was showing me hotels in Johor and Batam when I searched for Changi. I mean, geographically those places are near, but…they’re in another country! What good is a hotel in Malaysia or Indonesia when I’m transiting for one night in Singapore.

flickr peter hardy

Sydney I was initially looking at airbnb, but they’re not that much cheaper than hotels. All in all, expensive either way. The one I liked, near Darling Harbour, mum didn’t like because they’re doing construction work outside. I reserved a hotel by the curious name of the Tank Stream. A little googling tells me that the tank stream was originally a fresh water tributary that provided water to the new colony in the 1800s. The stream is now a drain channel but there are commemorative signs dotted around.

Auckland was the worst. Expensive airbnbs. Hotels were split into 2 types: expensive brand names and motels outside the city. Must be some event going on, so many hotels are already booked. I reserved a serviced apartment near the ferry terminal that had really good reviews. Hopefully it’s okay.


Started looking at airbnbs for our tokyo trip in jan, mm found one that is in a residential area with its own sento (public bath) but not available on our dates. I saved it in my wishlist for next time. There are a lot of availability, so it was a matter of too many choices.

Our flight home is 9am so I was also looking at how to get to the airport that early. The NEX train arrives at 7.17am, the TCAT has 6.45am and 7am arrivals and the limousine bus 6.45 and 7am too, from Tokyo station. The other alternative is to stay at the capsule hotel the night before. I was looking at Shinjuku but I realise I should be looking at Tokyo station for the limousine bus. I should also check out superhotel lohas where we stayed at last time, near Tokyo station, and with its own spa.

cruise 2017

Mum needed to go to the clinic so I went with her. After she finished, we debated where to go for lunch. Ended up getting on a bus and going to HMV café. Nice john dory fillet, very healthy.


Went to the travel agent to look at brochures and ended up booking a holiday!!! Australia and NZ cruise next February. 12 days, with extra days in Sydney (embarkation) and Auckland (disembarkation). They only had 2 inside cabins left at that price and if we booked by 30 nov we could pick 1 out of 4 offers:

  • unlimited drinks
  • speciality dining package
  • free wifi
  • pre-paid service charge

We opted for the service charge. They charge ridiculous servce charge on cruises so we’re saving a lot.

After the travel agent we went to Ikea to get salmon only to discover they’d sold out. Sold out. Incredible. Have to try next month. Then went to the cold meat place and bought a whole steak filet. Grabbed a few pieces to take to sis’ place. She has a function tonight so I’m teenager-sitting. I made two potato mash and fried up the steak. Veg was cherry tomatoes. Mostly I was watching tv or reading in the living room and gis was in her room. Sis and R came back at 11pm, I waited downstairs and took their uber home. Had to re-book but since he was the nearest driver he naturally responded. Chatty guy, a professional by day who liked driving so he usually did weekend nights. Clean and comfortable Tuareg.

taiwan trip research


Spent the day researching for our short trip to taiwan next week. Just 4 days. Last time we were in taipei was 2004, excluding business trips in between. Our priority is time off and relaxation so not planning on doing the sightseeing thing. Food is probably the biggest focus. Hopefully we can hit a night market or two. New discovery is 上引水產 addiction aquatic development, a fancy name for a fish market/restaurant that apparently serves great sushi on counters and has a supermarket onsite too.

One of the most famous souvenirs people bring back from taiwan is pineapple cakes and one of the best of by sunnyhills. Around 20mins walk from our hotel according to google maps. They serve free samples with tea, so a good destination for relaxation.

We may take one day to travel outside the city to either danshui or jiufen. Danshui is a fishing village with shops and a famous fisherman’s wharf. Jiufen has cobblestoned streets. Or we may take the cable car at maokong, hike a bit and visit the teahouses there.

Also researched either sim card or pocket wifi. Either option is good and not too expensive. The more practical and value for us is to get a sim card when we arrive at the airport. I can put it in my iphone 5c and we can both tether. The problem is, niantic just disabled functionalities for trackers so it’ll take the fun out of hunting.

insurance claim update


Finally chased the insurers enough for them to give me a breakdown of the insurance claim for the Paris/London trip. Apparently they paid into our accounts already but never sent us any communication. Now I have to go to the bank and request a statement for May.

Anyway, they paid everything I claimed for. I didn’t have proof of forfeiture for the Brittany ferry tickets, I should have tried to claim it too by sending in the receipt. Ah well.

trip change of plan


Had lunch with mum and mm, then went with mm to the travel agent so she can ask about packages with her mum. It was getting near to the time that I could check in, so I tried to check my booking. Argh, couldn’t login and the agents there were having problems too. Left my mobile and they said they’d call when they sorted it out.

We went to the nearby Langham for happy hour (except no actual hh discount). Got a call from the travel agent that there was a problem with my ticket. Argh.

In the end they rebooked me on another flight. So instead of leaving Sunday afternoon, it’s Sunday midnight so I have to go to the airport Saturday night. At least I’m flexible. I have no idea what went wrong, and I’m not interested in finger pointing. The agent checked me in and got me a seat, I’ll be able to print the boarding pass when I get home.

This means I arrive at NYC 7am instead of 10pm, which in a way is a blessing although it makes my total journey time to DC very very long. I’ll see if I can check-in at the JFK hotel early, or at least store my luggage. I’ll have the rest of Sunday to explore aroud NYC. Thinking of going to Brooklyn since I’ll be in Manhattan when I come back. May be visit hipster heaven aka Williamsburg; or Prospect Park; or the Brooklyn Brewery.

getting ready for the con


Finished packing. Only bringing the duffel this time. More than half is occupied by stuff I’ll leave behind: 2 bottles of wine, empty whisky bottle, loads of tim tams, picnic, silent auction stuff.

Enough clothes for a week, so I’ll need to do laundry once or twice. Not bringing anything special for the awards ceremony or evening events, it’s not worth using up precious space for something I’ll wear for 3 hours. It’s different for people driving or flying domestically with 2 bags.

july trip flights & hotel

I talked to Mum and Sis and they both said I should go to the conference in July. So I got my travel agent to check flights. I want to fly to DC, then on the way back stopover at NYC. Very interesting results.

Option 1
The easiest option, book everything through CX: DCA via JFK, with stopover at NYC = $1,872

Option 2
There’s a CX special offer to JFK only, ending today = $960
I have to book JFK to DCA separately myself. I looked through kayak, expedia, trivago and found AA flight = $323 (with one checked luggage)
The flight to JFK arrives at 10.40pm so I’ll have to stay overnight at a hotel in the JFK area, cheapest = $110

Total = $1,393

Definitely cheaper taking option 2 even though travel time is much longer. It’s worth it, I haven’t seen flights to the US cheaper than $1,000 in high season for a long time.


Looking at NYC hotel for 6 nights. Wow, anything halfway decent is expensive, even the chains are at $200 a night. Plus tax it works out to be $240. More affordable options on airbnb, although most are over $150 a night in Manhattan. Found this one for $139, including fees works out to be $167. The pics look nice, there are good reviews and it’s a studio which will be fine for me. And yes, I’m a creature of habit, I picked this one because of the location on 88th between 1st and 2nd. It’s been over a decade but it’s still near enough to 96th and 3rd that I feel comfortable with the area.

So even before leaving I’m at almost $3000 for just flights and hotels. Then add on food, transportation, spending money. Sigh, it’d better be a good conference and trip.

travel insurance claim


I went to the travel agent to pick up their letter to confirm we cancelled our trip. The flight+hotel package was non-refundable so I have to claim through travel insurance. This was the biggest expenditure on the trip and the largest forfeited amount.

Even though I opted for prepay, which meant I could cancel but needed to pay a £40 admin fee, Avis refunded my entire car rental in full. Airbnb in France refunded less admin fee (which I won’t bother claiming). Airbnb in the UK refunded only 50% so I’ll claim the rest.

Brittany ferries refunded all except £35 deposit. But I couldn’t find any receipt or documentation. Ah well, it’s a small amount.

Lots of paperwork. A 4-page form and they also asked for everything under the sun. Insurance policy, receipts, itinerary, refund paperwork as well as medical certs and proof of relationship. I ended up having to type up a list of document to keep things organised. I’m hoping they approve the claim.

it’s cloudy in Paris


I should be on the plane. May be I’ve been watching episodes of bake-off, or a noisy adventure film, the type I love to watch on the plane. Or I’ve managed to sleep and am just waking up. Flight is due to arrive at 0655, my plans were for us to get the Roissybus to Op&#232ra and then either taxi or metro to our hotel. If we can check in, great. If not, we’ll leave our luggage there and go to the nearby Treilhard covered market, which on google maps is 10mins’ walk away. In the afternoon, I was going to let Mum rest at the hotel while I go to the expo to pick up my stuff. Then we’ll venture out in the evening.

Ah, plans.

I’m not on the plane. I watched this week’s bake-off on tv and there’s no available noisy adventure film. My dad is still in the hospital so the entire trip is cancelled. What’s more important, his health or my piddly marathon? Do I even need to ask this question? A part of me is disappointed, of course. But mostly, it’s the right decision.

I contacted the travel agent to cancel the flight+hotel package. Not sure if we’ll get the refund as it’s the cheapest class ticket. The French airbnbs I was able to cancel and get a refund less fees, the London airbnb I only get 50% refund. Car rental: refund less fee. Ferry: refund less deposit. Just by cancelling online I get around 25% back. What I can’t get refunded, I’ll try to claim travel insurance. All this comes later.

A bunch of really fantastic people sponsored me for the race and we’re up to around USD500 already. The Board is helping me contact them with the latest news and to give them a couple of options. Hopefully everyone isn’t too disappointed, I hate that I’m not delivering my part of the bargain. I think they will understand, my friends are good people who all agree that family and health takes precedence. There will be other races.

cruise next week

I’ve been on several cruises and generally don’t really enjoy them. The scenery is nice, especially on the Alaskan cruise, but being in close proximity to thousands of people with no escape is not on my favourite things-to-do list. That we’re usually at a location for limited time and have to rush back to the ship for dinner is another dislike.

So why did I agree to go on a cruise again with my parents? Argh. Because I need to add a new country to 101.1001, that’s why. A silly and illogical reason, but perhaps given my obsession with checking items off lists, not entirely surprisingly.

It’s a 5-day cruise starting Monday, with days 1 and 5 embarkation and disembarkation respectively. Day 2 is at sea so there are only 2 stops: Halong Bay and Sanya.

Halong Bay in Vietnam.jpg
Thomas Hirsch / User:Ravn – own work under CC BY-SA 3.0

All right, the prospect of visiting UNESCO site Halong Bay, with its distinctive limestone formations, pillars and caves, is quite enticing. I just have to get over the fact that it’s only a day visit and parents have booked us on an excursion. Ugh, I hate organised tours. I have no idea what to expect in Sanya, thankfully we haven’t joined any excursions but I have done exactly zero research.

I’m sure I’ll be socially miserable on the cruise, especially one that has a high chance of swine encounter. Hopefully it’s limited contact. Also hoping for our own table at the restaurant. Parents are managing expectations, jokingly calling this an easyjet cruise.

london planning


I haven’t sorted out where we will stay in London; it’s been very difficult to find an airbnb that is in a convenient area, looks like it’s actually someone’s home (vs crappy short lets managed by rental companies) and within our budget. I’m not only looking at W9/NW6, I’ve gone all the way up the Northern and Bakerloo lines as well as west on the Central line. Forget about hotels, way too expensive.

My plans for London:

  • hawksmoor: it’s been way too long since I had a chateaubriand there; and sticky toffee pudding
  • dishoom: must take Mum to this Indian street food restaurant
  • this new £10 steak place i found on twitter, flat iron
  • franco manca pizza
  • pollen street social or wahaca
  • whatever new restaurants I come across
  • saveloy and chips
  • go to the supermarket and to get food to cook at ‘home’ especially lamb shoulder, veal chop, rainbow trout, asparagus (is it even in season?), samphire, savoy cabbage, kale, celeriac
  • go to the supermarket in general
  • borough market
  • matby street market: this is new for me, looks like lots of food
  • the new whisky exchange shop in covent garden
  • collect mail from my friend cc
  • see if any friends are free for a meal or drink
  • watch tv

Mum’s plans are similar, except her list of shops is longer: Waitrose, John Lewis, M&S, Primark, Body Shop, Holland & Barrett, Whole Foods, Hotel Chocolat and other chocolate places. Okay, I want to go to some of those too.

Brittany planning

France-001130 - St-Malo
flickr: archer10 under CC

Our base in Brittany is St Malo. It consists of a walled city built in the early 1700s, a port and a long stretch of beach along the coast. Nearby are many picturesque villages: Cancale famous for its oysters; Pointe du Grouin with a view of Mont St Michel to the east and beaches to the west Dinard which is right across the mouth of the river but 20mins drive away, offering the best view of St Malo.

West of St Malo is the Côtes d’Armor. So many places to visit, but we’ll see how far we can drive in one day. One hour west and a good destination is Cap Fréhel peninsula, with cliffs, heather marshes and two lighthouses. 1.5hrs away from Cap Fréhel is Île-de-Bréhat, called the island of flowers, accessible by boat and full of nice walks. If we’re truly ambitious, we’ll aim for Ploumanac’h, two hours from Cap Fréhel which has breathtaking views of rock formations and lighthouses. I’m not sure if we can get that far, but if we’re really organised.

Inland from St Malo is the regional city of Rennes, an hour away. There is a large market on Saturdays so we’ll aim for that. On the road to Rennes are plenty of typical Breton villages and towns like Dinan, Combourg, Bécherel and Hédé that can be nice stopping points.

We will have one more full day in the area. We can revisit some of the places, or take a longer drive out to other parts of Brittany. In the 2.5-3hr range SW are Quimper with a daily covered market, a cathedral and timber houses and Concameau with a walled town and fishing harbour. Directly south of St Malo, also in the 2.5-3hr range are Carnac with iconic standing stones and Vannes on the Golfe du Morbihan with more beaches and islands. It’ll be good to see the south/southwest coast in addition to the north coast.

From St Malo we’ll head to the UK for a week. Instead of going back to Paris and getting the Eurostar, I’ve booked us on an overnight ferry to Portsmouth. Ahhh, back to the good old days of crossing the channel via ferry. Remember those £1 vouchers for Dover to Calais, hahaha.

Normandy planning

flickr: catherine ¨MOSINIAK-PAILLIER under CC

Our base in Normandy is Honfleur, arguably the artistic centre of Normandy. At least, according to the artists who formed l’école de Honfleur: Gustave Courbet, Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet and Johan Jongkind. It’s been said that

if you’ve spent any time in major art galleries, then you’ve already seen Honfleur

Aside from art galleries, there is the Ste Catherine church, the Vieux Bassin old harbour as well as markets. It’d be wonderful if we can catch a returning fishing boat and buy seafood directly from them. We’re staying at an airbnb so we will have our own kitchen.

Day trips planned from Honfleur:

  • Côte Fleurie: the stretch of coastline extending from Honfleur, with a dozen seaside towns and beautiful views of the English Channel
  • Lisieux: France’s second most important site for pilgrimage, in honour of Sainte-Thérèse. St Teresa’s is my local church (admittedly I don’t go often) so the Basilica will be a place both Mum and I will want to visit. I read that the whole town is a bit like going to the cult of Ste Thérèse, I think the level of devotion and craziness will be similar to what we saw in Assisi over St Francis and St Clare
  • Camembert, Pont l’Evêque, Livarot: cheese, cheese, cheese (and cider too)
  • Bayeaux: there’s this really famous tapestry there
  • Normandy landing beaches: just to see a part of world history, there still bunkers, the remains of Mulberry Harbour and the D-Day Monument at Omaha Beach, not to mention cemeteries

Mont-St-Michel is in Normandy, but closer to our next destination of St Malo in Brittany. We’ll either visit on the way from Honfleur to St Malo, or as part of a day trip there.

normandy impressionists


On the way from Paris to Honfleur in Normandy, I was going to stop at Rouen to visit the cathedral and the market. There is plenty enough to do, and it means a leisurely drive to Honfleur so we will have enough time after we get settled to walk around the town.

Then I read about the Normandy Impressionists Festival, which starts mid-April, one week after we leave France. But still, it reminds me that just one hour outside Paris and on the way to Rouen is Giverny, home to Claude Monet’s house and gardens.

flickr: shogunangel under CC

The gardens close in the winter, but will just have reopened when we are there. According to the Indy:

his house is unchanged and his garden is very faithful to his plans, and truly spectacular. Corridors of brilliant orange, carpets of mauve, shimmering water and hanging curtains of willow

It certainly looks extremely pretty, and is an important destination for anyone interested in the arts. Even Mum and I, who aren’t really that artistically inclined. I can imagine the photo ops. Ah, dilemma dilemma.

paris marathon prep

Am I still going to Paris marathon next April? France has extended its state of emergency for 3 months, and Belgium is on lockdown. Germany, Holland, the UK, Spain and all European cities are on high alert.

If I’m still going, training starts next week. 18 weeks isn’t a long time for the state of alert to die down. Then again, if we give in to our fears, then the terrorists have won. I’m going to go on the basis that I will be there, unless the organisers and/or the French government say otherwise. Last year’s race went ahead 2 months after Charlie Hebdo, so I think they will try to keep business as usual as much as possible.

Flights are still expensive, they’re mainly booking for Christmas now so I’ll look later. There are plenty of options on where to fly into. Aside from Paris itself, London, Barcelona, Geneva, Brussels, Amstersdam are all reachable by train. The problem is, it’s the week after Easter so I have to be careful of blackout periods.


What’s more pressing is finding somewhere to stay for the weekend, starting from expo to at least the day after the race. I started looking in the area close to the start and end of the course. The race starts on Champs, just down from Arc de Triomphe (blue circle centre right of map) and ends on Avenue Foch, near Port Dauphine (red checkered circle left of map). All the red blobs are hotels that are fully booked, and of the blue ones left many are expensive.

The good thing about making hotel reservations is I can hold it till nearer the time and keep searching. I made 2 reservations, on the basis that mum will be travelling with me. One is within walking distance of both start and end (white label)—perfect location but €240 per night, yikes. I’m only holding onto this one in case there is nothing else. The other is €150 per night, one stop NW of the map on line 1. I’ll keep looking, and at first glance on airbnb there may be something more affordable.

getting ready, checking weather

I checked in as soon as the 48hr window opened up. The flight looks around 90% full already, but I got the seat I wanted. Since I’ll be travelling for almost 1 month, and into November, I figured I need to pack my coat and a couple of sweaters.


The forecast for race day is 15-23ºC, feeling like 25ºC. Ugh. Too hot, with no clouds. It’d be great if it’s 10 degrees cooler. The 2 days before and after are supposed to be cooler, so I’ll keep an eye out on the weather.


The weather in Ptown looks variable too. From 20ºC down to 10ºC. Add the windchill from the exposed position, definitely need my coat and fleece lining.

Packing is done. Taking enough clothes for 7-10 days. Hopefully we can find laundry facilities in Ptown, and I can handwash if necessary too.


final day packing


The only thing on my schedule today was last minute packing, which was completed in no time at all. The weather was too unpredictable (one minute thunder/lightning warning, one minute heatwave) to go running so I stayed in all day. By lunchtime we were all packed. If we weren’t going with Car’s cousin we could have just loaded the car and left, but we stuck with the planned departure of Saturday morning.

Frozen custard for dinner, yum. The last thing to do was to make a poundcake for ourselves. We were doing that at 10pm, hahaha.

Early day tomorrow. I’m setting the alarm for 6am; we will leave the house at 7am and should be on the road by 8am.

easter sunday papal mass at st peter’s square

Since we will be in Rome over Easter, we investigated whether it was possible to participate in a mass at the Vatican. Turns out, general audiences and liturgical masses conducted by the Pope are free and open to the public. Over Easter there are special masses:

  • Thursday 2, Chrism Mass, at 9:30 am, in St Peter’s Basilica
  • Friday 3, Celebration of the Lord’s Passion, at 17.00, in St Peter’s Basilica
  • Friday 3, Way of the Cross, at 21.15, in the Coliseum
  • Saturday 4, Easter Vigil Mass, at 20.30,, in St Peter’s Basilica
  • Sunday 5, Easter Sunday Mass, at 10.15 am, in St Peter’s Square

The Prefecture of the Papal Household is responsible for administering the tickets. Application involved downloading a form at their website and completing it precisely indicating:

  • Date of the General audience or Liturgical celebration
  • Number of tickets required
  • Name / Group
  • Mailing Address
  • Telephone and Fax numbers


The form then has to be faxed over. Argh. Printers and faxes, how 1990s. My printer is at my parents’ place so it was straightforward. The problem was faxing. In the past we would have just used the fax at work, but we can’t do that anymore. And who faxes nowadays?!

I googled and found a few free online fax services. Some limit the number of pages; others only send to certain countries. I ended up using myfax which offered one free fax to 41 countries per 24hr period. We wanted to apply for all the masses so I split the applications into 2 faxes over 2 days.

That was about 3 weeks ago. We aren’t sure how we’d know if we are successful. The website said tickets are to be collected the day before at the Prefecture office but does it mean we automatically get tickets? There was nowhere to put our email and we’re sure if we called or faxed to enquire, no one will be able to help us (imagine thousands of people calling up to ask about the status of their application). Our plan is to go to the office once we get to Rome and hope that they have our names on a list or something like that.


Imagine my surprise when I received a letter in the post. I recognised the stamps—one had Pope Francis on it. A paper letter. Can’t remember the last time I got one. The first paragraph:


Perfect timing. This is an absolute blessing indeed.

We’ve seen the Pope’s Easter and Christmas masses and address on the news. This year, we’ll be there in person. How cool is that?

30.30 #17: keep calm and…plan your holiday


I set a task in 30.30 that was a play on the keep calm and carry on posters that were a hit once upon a time. The idea was to take some time during our holiday to get into a peaceful state of mind.

I find, though, that I needed to remind myself to keep calm and not get too stressed out the past few days. The reason I’m stressed out? I’m doing all the bookings and planning for our trip.

To give a scale of the amount of work done:

  • 7 flights on 4 different airlines — interesting to note the difference between carriers like BA/CX who behave normally and EI/EZ (Aer Lingus, easyjet) who nickel and dime everything, £16 for luggage, £5 to select seats, admin fee, online fee…but are still cheaper than the regular airlines — it’s something that has been around for a while in US domestic airlines and budget European airlines, I guess I’ve just been shielded from the madness
  • 1 long distance train journey + seat reservation — top tip, use italiarail rather than the official trenitalia because a) english; b) ease of navigation
  • 2 regional train journeys that I have not booked, but have gotten times and details
  • 1 car rental — as usual, go to the UK site, avis UK gave me a 15% discount
  • heathrow express — duo express return saves £20 for 2 people if booked online
  • 3 convent stays — monastery stays booked everything and sent a comprehensive package that included an introductory letter in italian for each convent, list of amenties and travel directions; very impressed with the service and promptness (I booked on saturday, got everything on tuesday which basically meant a 24-hr turnaround)
  • 4 hotel bookings — top tip: browse on hotels.com or bookings.com but check out individual hotel websites for offers like free wifi or further discount if booked on their site, I also paid attention to reviews and took posted pictures with a grain of salt
  • 1 airbnb booking (another one was unexpectedly unavailable so had to switch to hotel) — we specifically didn’t want Central London and went through around 10 potential choices, the flat we booked is 2 stops away from where I used to live, quite happy about our choice
  • 1 restaurant booking — for our birthday dinner I chose butcher grill, I visited in 2012 and said it’s worth returning, they have a special offer of côte de bœuf for two at €45 on mondays and tuesdays
  • maps and directions for airports, train stations and accommodation
  • 8 notes in evernote for each city / region we plan to visit with research on sights, transportation, food & drink – I’m quietly amassing lots of EN notes on travelling
  • expenses spreadsheet — because there will always be a spreadsheet, especially for a trip this long and this complicated


I haven’t even started the packing list. There is still stuff to do, like get EUR, arrange travel insurance, take passport photos, book appointment at passport office, get haircut, pay/pre-pay bills.

europe trip mar-apr 2015


We had been planning our long trip for a while, and because of external factors, had to push the timing up. We went to the travel agent earlier in the week to finalise our in- and outbound flights but there’s a lot of other stuff in between to research and book. We fly in and out of London, then we get extremely ambitious:


  • Amsterdam — will be staying with our friends L&P, whom I haven’t seen for something like 20 years (mm has seen L more recently, L is more her friend really) — a bit too early for tulips unfortunately but can’t be helped, there’s still a lot to see and do and catch up
  • Florence — have to figure out the best/cheap way to get there, currently looks like easyjet to Rome then train. We are looking into staying at monasteries and convents; which are fairly abundant in italy, offering peaceful and safe b&b accommodation. Of course not 4- or 5-star hotels but a special experience, and at €75-100 per night with en suite bathroom, good value. We’ll spend a few days in Florence, then take day trips out to Tuscany, probably Siena and hopefully Lucca and the Chianti region
  • Assisi — train from florence; this is the sort of pilgrimage part of the trip, another monastery stay, we found a convent directly opposite St Francis’ basilica
  • Rome — more monastery stay near the Vatican, we’ll get tickets for general audience or mass with the Pope. I’ve been to Rome twice in the last 2 years so it’ll be repeat visits to the main sites. Interesting, despite visiting Rome for so many times, I’ve never been to the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel, will try to brave the crowds this time
  • London — markets, food places, Bicester and may be a musical or even a day trip if we have time. No convenient monastery stays, may have to do airbnb if regular hotels are too expensive. We keep saying we don’t need to stay in zone 1 or 2 but I keep gravitating to W9 and NW3. I saw a garden flat in little venice that got me excited, until I noticed it’s a sofa bed. We’re frugal, but not that frugal. While we are in London, we may as well renew our passports so need to call for appointment
  • UK / Ireland side trip — we debated between Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District and tentatively decided to look into Dublin then driving around southern Ireland. That doesn’t leave us much time in London, perhaps we are being too ambitious

There’s all the flights and trains to book; car rental; all accommodation except amstersdam to find. And then to build research notes on every destination. Lots to do, not a lot of time.

more tokyo trip planning


Flight is confirmed, just need e-ticket. Hotel is booked. We decided against ryokan: the ones with availability weren’t as conveniently located as we like and we like the hot spring bath in the hotel we found.

So most of the day was doing research on things to do, possible day trips, food and, very important, where to drink and buy whisky. Everything is neatly organised in my evernote notebook. We’ll be there for almost 5 full days, arriving on the red eye at 6.25am and leaving on an evening flight. Even found some bargains: the NEX from Narita is half price for non-Japanese and sanrio puroland (aka hello kitty land) is almost half price after 3pm.

Then I remembered to check out /r/tokyo. Thanks reddit for the monthly travel megapost of ideas. Attractions, getting around and lots of tips. I know this already, that there are very few free wifi hotspots in Japan, but I didn’t realise there is free wifi at 7-eleven and starbucks, providing we pre-register. Other options are renting sim card or pocket wifi.

This being reddit, I learn that sumo season hasn’t started but we may be able to go watch the training, there’s a place in shinjuku with ¥120 beers and we must


The robot restaurant in shinjuku can only exist in Japan. It seems to be an insane combination of giant robots, flashing neon, cosplay, dancing, wrestling and more. Hmm, may be we’ll see if we have time.

tokyo short trip planning


Possibly the only good thing about living here is the proximity to Japan. We can go to places like Hokkaido or Kansai or Tokyo at a moment’s notice. Which is what we are doing, Tokyo for a long weekend, this weekend. Every time we plan a holiday, we skip Tokyo in favour of other more unusual places, because in our minds it’ll always be there. We’ve both travelled to Tokyo for business, but it’s been many many years since we actually visited for holiday.

I had to remind myself of the various districts and what to do:

  • tsukiji fish market of course
  • ginza for shopping
  • shinjuki 新宿 for more shopping and busy area
  • shibuya 渋谷 for the iconic busy crossing, shopping at Tokyu Hands and Takashimaya plus proximity to the Meiji shrine
  • ebisu 恵比寿 for restaurants and izakayas
  • roppongi 六本木 for bars and clubs
  • akihabara 秋葉原 for electronics and otaru stuff
  • ueno 上野 for park and zoo
  • asakusa 浅草 for a bit of history, culture and religion
  • odaiba お台場 artificial island with a bridge, beaches, exhibition halls and shopping

And that’s not including Tokyo Disneyland, Sanrio Puroland (aka Hello Kittyland) and day trips to places such as Hakone, Fuji and Yokohama.

I also had to remind myself how enormous the entire greater Tokyo area is. Superimposed on a map of the UK, it takes up most of the Midlands. Almost 40 million people. We are looking at a hotel near Tokyo station, which is 60mins by express train from the airport and 25-30mins from the popular areas like shibuya and shinjuku. It’s a newer hotel, good price and has its own hot springs bath.

getting ready for alaska

weather weather

I’m almost packed, just last minute electronics and stuff to put in. Flight’s checked in; car booked; hotels booked; even parking at the cruise terminal is booked; printed everything that I could. I got replies from a couple of hotels I sent enquiries to, but it’s too late. If I make an enquiry, don’t take 2 weeks to respond, you’ll lose your potential customer.

Looks like the weather is pretty warm, mid- to late-teens, cooler in Alaska and in the mornings. Hoping for more sunshine. Probably just shirt sleeves in Seattle and Vancouver then my fleece rain jacket for Alaska. Mum is taking warmer clothing—she feels the cold much more than me. Happiness is flying to North America, with the 2 pieces luggage allowance it’s basically double what we can take usually.

What I’m looking forward to: scenery, scenery, scenery. A different cruise company, hopefully none of disgusting passengers from we-know-where like on Med cruises. We’re sure to go looking for places that serve king, snow and dungeness crab, have identified a few restaurant possibilities.

Talking about king crab, Discovery is celebrating its 20th anniversary by showing the first episodes of their most popular shows. I managed to catch The Greenhorn, S01E01 of Deadliest Catch. This is one show I’ve followed on and off over the years, and have tried harder to catch the last few seasons. Amazing to see all the boats from the first season and even more amazing that the Hansens and the Northwestern are still here, after 10 seasons.

There’s a crab boat excursion on board the Aleutian Ballad, which has now been converted to a tourist destination with crab pot demos and such like. It’s nothing like the original boat, and I don’t think sitting on plastic seats in calm waters is the same as watching the show. It’s in Ketchikan and we want to spend our half day there exploring the town so we haven’t signed up for any excursions.

us sim mobile broadband


Trying to look for a way to stay connected whilst I’m in the US, both for the cruise and for the con later. There will be voice roaming on the ship but I’m not paying $69 for 100mins internet, especially since shipboard internet is notorious for being slow. It’s mainly for when we’re ashore, driving and at Seattle and Vancouver but mostly it’s for the trip to Chicago and Portland.

I’m not worried about voice, roaming isn’t expensive, calls are short and people will only call in an emergency. It’s getting wifi while on the go. In almost any major city in the world, it should be possible to walk into a telco store and buy a iphone-ready sim and a pre-paid data plan of some sort. The one potentially problematic country, Japan which isn’t on the GSM network, proved to be no problem at all because of the widespread usage of pocket wifi.

Oh, the biggest exception to this case is the US. I’ve come to the conclusion, as several have commented, that there is no such thing as a cheap, prepaid SIM in the US. There are 2 HUGE stumbling blocks: a) half the country isn’t compatible with the rest of the world, with Verizon and Spring on the CDMA network; b) AT&T, which is on GSM and the primary network provider as far as iphones are concerned, doesn’t like prepaid plans and, like most things US, doesn’t care about non-locals.

A bit of digging around shows that AT&T has a prepaid service called GoPhone that works out to be around $50-60 per month for 1GB data. The setup sounds very complicated and there are reports that they may refuse to sell the SIM for iphones, partly because of legacy monopoly issues and partly because they really want you to buy one of their phones.
There are AT&T powered companies like H2O, black, readysim, straighttalk that sell SIMs online, sometimes at stores like Best Buy, Walmart and supposedly can deliver to hotels. Cost is the same as official AT&T so I’m not sure what the difference is. The other GSM carrier is T-mobile, which also has a prepaid data plan costing around the same.

So $50-60 a month average. That’s steep. They are all phone oriented and not really user friendly. One other option is mobile broadband. There’s some good comparisons. After the initial cost of the hotspot, usage is generally cheaper. And several devices can be used. Seems like a lot of people use Virgin’s plan currently at $25 a month for 1.5GB. The device runs from $70 to $99.

The conclusion is, I’m still undecided. For the cruise I’ll probably just rely on whatever wifi I can catch and for the con, there’s time to research further.

cruise planning alaska: excursions

Mendenhall Glacier Skagway White Pass Railway
images from flickr users bill & vicki T and michael bennett

One of the most pleasurable activities in trip planning is to look at sights and activities. We will have a total of 6 stops, so I was furiously looking them all up. Online resources as well as library—Fodor’s Alaska Ports of Call is a very, very useful book although it focuses too much on cruise excursions.

Juneau — we have the whole day there 11am-10pm. Most excursions are to Mendenhall Glacier, perhaps combined with whale watching. The glacier excursions are to the visitor center, with a view of mendenhall across the lake. To get on the glacier it’s either by helicoptor or a hiking expedition. I did the helicoptor to glacier trip in new zealand and mum doesn’t want to risk walking on ice so we are just aiming at going to the visitor center. Looking at pictures and videos, it’s definitely not second best, there are numerous trails that offer spectacular views of the glacier and the chances of seeing bears is quite high.

Ship excursions allow about an hour there, and the universal lament is that there is not enough time. There is a bus that goes there every 30mins $20 roundtrip. This means we can stay there as long as we want. We’ll go there straight after getting off the ship, then aim at getting back to town in the afternoon for an early crab dinner. If we see afternoon whale watching tours at the dock, we may go for that otherwise we’ll just stroll around town, visit a tourist trap bar or tour the beer brewery.

Skagway — whole day 6am-8pm. So many things to do. The main excursion is the white pass & yukon route train that goes between Skagway and Fraser in British Columbia. Add-ons include the suspension bridge, gold panning and dog sled rides. Suspension bridge sounds interesting, I’m a fan of Gold Rush and although the idea of dog sled rides is appealing it involves getting too close to dogs so yuck.

We will likely need to join a tour for our preferred option of train and bus combo that takes us to Carcross and Emerald Lake. There is a ship excursion option of course, and I’ve emailed a couple of independent tour companies. It’d be great if the independents have space, much prefer the smaller group.

If we can’t find an appropriate bus/train combo tour then I’ll want to go on the Jeep adventure where we drive ourselves to the summit.

Ketchikan — half day 7am-12.30pm. I thought we can walk around historic creek street, visit the heritage center or take a bus to one of the parks. More strenous activities include ziplining, karting, kayaking. There’s even a crab tour on board one of the early deadliest catch boats.

Mum likes the look of the wilderness cruise and crab fest for the all you can eat dungeness crab part. Plus we get to pull crab pots. Sounds good and we’ll have to go with the ship’s excursion on this one.

Victoria — evening 7pm-midnight. We want to go to butchart gardens but it may not be open—they only open till 10pm in the summer. If that is the case, we’ll just do a quick hoho bus tour or even better, walk inside the empress hotel and around the waterfront.

Seattle — 2 nights, 1 full day. A definite is pike street market, I envision us being there for hours. Space Needle, we’ll see. People flock to viewing points all over the world, from eiffel tower to empire state building, we always find those experiences a bit meh. Waterfront or may be the olympic sculpture park.

Vancouver — 3 nights, 2 full days. Mum did the homework on Vancouver and the first thing she identified are the markets — richmond night market, international night market and granville public market by day. We like markets. It being our last stop, the plan is to see what we can buy to bring home.

Activity-wise, there’s the capilano suspension bridge, especially if we skip the one at skagway. They also have a cliff walk, a treetop canopy walk as well as walking in the forest itself. Looks fantastic and at least half a day.

Another day can be spent at grouse mountain with a cable car, walking, bears and a 5-line zipline. The zipline takes 2.5hrs, even though mum won’t go she said I should. For some reason, I’m scared of heights, rollercoasters and bungee jumps but I went zorbing and I’m okay with the idea of ziplining.

cruise planning alaska: hotels

To recap, in Seattle I need to find hotels that offer park-and-cruise packages so I can leave the car there whilst we are on the cruise. I spent a lot of time looking and the results are disappointing, either because there aren’t many places with this package or the available ones have already been booked up. People plan and organise for their cruises, especially a big ticket one like Alaskan cruises, months or even a year in advance. We’re leaving in 2 weeks.

I found offers at Quality Inn, Knights Inn and Econolodge—motels around the Sea-Tac area, which is to the south of the city. The cruise terminal is around the middle and towards the north. These places say they have transportation to and from the terminal, but from online reviews and thinking about it myself, I’m not altogether convinced. In one case, their so-called transportation is to give you a link to book a town car or a minivan with Shuttle Express. Riiiiight. Of course, worst case scenario, there are taxis which potentially may be $50 or more one way.

The one place that is closer to the cruise terminal is hotel nexus in North Seattle. No wonder they still have places, the package, which works out to be around $450, doesn’t seem to be cancellable once booked.

Back to the drawing board. Find a hotel that is wallet-friendly, has parking for 2 nights and I’ll park at the cruise terminal. If the park-and-cruise package is in the $500 region and cruise terminal parking is at $140 then I have $360 for a regular hotel. Which sounds like a lot but is hard to find in Seattle during cruise season.

What is my bottom line? Given a choice, I prefer to be nearer downtown. One of the Kimptons, or the W is currently on special offer, or a b&b, or a real home at airbnb. These didn’t work. Too expensive, no availability or rooms with only 1 bed (no, Mum and I don’t share very well so we need a twin room). I did find a Quality Inn a few blocks from the Space Needle for $375. I consider the task complete. With a confirmed reservation, I can keep an eye on other offers in the next 2 weeks.

Burrard Street 2009 The Burrard Hotel
images from flickr users gord99 and miss604

Vancouver next. No complications with cruise parking and such, all I need is a decent place with 2 beds and parking. By now I’m getting tired of searching so I picked one that seemed reasonably priced, in a central location and has good reviews. The Burrard, according to its blurb, dates from 1956 and has been updated to a mix of fun, retro and design-chic. One of the tripadvisor comment says that it’s not for

stodgy and old people

which I find unfair to old people and a stupid comment in general. I think Mum will enjoy the modern design, if the pictures I found online are really indicative. It may be a bit noisy, if the guests are really as hip and young as they claim; plus they are pet friendly so…dogs, yuck. Anyway, I can cancel before arrival, so again I can look for others.

cruise planning alaska: car rental

I started doing research on excursions and activities, all organised in evernote. Then I realised I should do the hard stuff first — making sure all the logistics are in place. Even more research:

  • car rental vancouver—>seattle
  • hotel in seattle
  • how to get from hotel to cruise terminal
  • how to get from cruise terminal at the end of the cruise to car rental
  • car rental seattle —>vancouver
  • hotel in vancouver

Car rental first.

scenario 1
The logical thing is to do a one-way rental from YVR, then another one way from Seattle cruise terminal. Cheapest at kayak is Hertz at $116. I tried avis, budget, alamo—the usual suspects and got higher prices. Okay.

The trip back from Seattle I want to rent all the day to departure from YVR. For a 3 day one-way it’s $360 at Alamo (again via kayak). But I really want the car for a few more hours because of the timing of disembarkation and the flight but I don’t want to pay for an extra day. So we’ll hang around Seattle for a few hours, no biggie.

Total for 2 one-way rentals $482. Then I have to add taxi to and from the cruise terminal, around $60. Total for this scenario $542.

scenario 2

I have a really neat trick up my sleeve. I find from experience that it’s almost always cheaper booking through UK sites. And, bingo, avis UK gives me £35, or $56. Not getting a good bargain for the trip back though, around £370 or almost $600 pushing the total to $656.

scenario 3
I can pick the best of both scenarios though. Be a Brit one way and an American the other, which gives me a total of 56+360+60=$476.

scenario 4
Out of interest I checked how much it’d be to keep the car for the entire trip, to avoid one-way charges. Avis UK at £265 or $425 is a good bargain. But there’s also parking at the cruise terminal pushing the cost to $556.

There are pros and cons with doing two one-ways vs keeping the car throughout. Convenience is a big factor. With scenario 3, there’s a lot of schlepping and taxiing of luggage and because I’m travelling with mum convenience has to be factored in.

There is another option. A few hotels offer park and cruise packages where guests who stay a night can get up to 14 days free parking while they go on the cruise. They are usually located outside the downtown area, although with a car it’s not a problem. I need to look into this, so I can keep the car rental cost to the $425 from avis UK.

Just as well, it’s taken me hours to get this far. I need to start looking at hotels.

cruise planning alaska: routing

Mum wants to go on another cruise, this time to Alaska. It’s one of the most popular bucket list items—it’s on my travel list. I had always thought it was way too expensive. Mum did all the initial research, talking to the travel agent and getting all the information about cruise companies and destinations. Many of the cruises are one-way north or southbound, starting or ending at Anchorage in the north and Seattle or Vancouver in the south.

The cost of the cruise itself isn’t too bad, it’s the cost of the flights that turned out to be prohibitive. Open jaw including a leg to or from Anchorage pushed the base total to over 30k (almost USD4,000, before tips and excursions). Mum wasn’t deterred, she kept looking and looking. She wanted Princess, and she found round trip cruises.

The choice between starting at Seattle or Vancouver was supposedd to be a no-brainer. Vancouver is a direct flight away whereas Seattle required a layover at LAX or SFO, pushing the cost back to 30k. I looked quickly on google maps, and it’s only 2.5 hours’ drive between the two cities.


We decided on the cheaper Vancouver flight and roundtrip cruise starting at Seattle. This means we can stay over at both places, which neither of us had visited before (layover at YVR doesn’t count). The ports on the cruise will be the usual: Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan with VIctoria thrown in. We get to go into Glacier Bay too, Princess being one of the companies with the required licence.

Total cost is less than 25k, or just over USD3k. Still expensive, will need to be disciplined with excursions.

next trip


I just got back from the cruise, the pics still need to be sorted and the trip written up. Already planning the next trip. Met with mm for korean lunch, then to travel agent to get information. Retreated to happy hour place to work out what we wanted. Too much information! Too many choices! We’ve narrowed it down to either Tokyo and surrounding or Hokkaido. Both we hadn’t visited for a long time. In any event we will end up in the land of fresh seafood, beautiful scenery and relaxing hot springs.

japan trip almost here

photo courtesy flickr user tokyo times

Last minute prep for our trip. Mostly packed, checked in. Despite all the planning, we ended up going for different hotels.

Rough itinerary is planned and google map directions printed. We weren’t able to secure a firm reservation for the weekend at the Yamazaki distillery so we’ll head there straight from the airport. A little bit of a detour before heading south to the wakayama peninsula for hot springs, beaches and nature. Back north to Kyoto and then Osaka. Kyoto for temples and Osaka for big city stuff. It’ll be whisky, hot springs, fish markets, temples, cycling, walking and a bit of shopping. I’m hoping to get some whiskies (obviously) and may be a really nice Japanese chef’s knife. My suitcase is only half full so there is room.

trip planning hotel

Trip planning moves onto finding hotel accommodation. We will split our trip into 3 centres, and hopefully stay in 3 different types of accommodation.

In Osaka we will go for a regular hotel, as it is part of the package. Two nights at a Nikko, Best Western or the popular Hearton. Hotel rooms in Japan are small, very small. A lot of hotels offer a room type called semi-double where the bed is somewhere in between a single and a double. This is for a single person or a couple who, in the words of a commenter on tripadvisor, still enjoy close contact with each other. While I’d like to say we will go for this for romantic reasons, the actual reason is that this is the cheapest room rate.


In Shirahama we will stay in an onsen, or hot spring, hotel. The one we are looking at is the Shiraraso Grand. They offer Japanese style rooms with tatami mats. A table and chairs occupy the room space during the day and at night it’s converted to a sleeping area. Technically it’s sleeping on the floor, in reality it’s sleeping on a comfortable futon mattress on a clean bamboo mat. This hotel doesn’t have in-room spa, rather there are 2 large communal spa areas with features like massage waterfall, mist sauna and bubble bath. Imagine soaking in this huge spa overlooking the beach. Meals are included. Japanese breakfast (we hope!) and either traditional kaiseki style of many small dishes, or shabu shabu for dinner.

In Kyoto we are looking at staying at a converted machiya, or traditional wooden townhouse. In Kyoto in particular, there has been a movement to restore and convert some of the houses to holiday rentals. Though both are traditional holiday accommodation, there seems to be a subtle difference between a machiya and a ryokan, the general name for traditional Japanese inns (machiya isn’t listed as one of the ryokan types). The best western analogy is a ryokan is a b&b while a machiya is a self-catering apartment — much cleaner and better quality of course.


We managed to narrow down to 2-3 possibilities. Our favourite is the Arashiyama Hanare. This house was built in 1935, restored to very high standards and is certified as one of the Important Cultural Properties of Kyoto. I know we need to take online reviews with a grain of salt, but this one has consistently gained high scores everywhere we looked. Beautiful rooms, hot tub bathroom overlooking a zen garden shared with the main house where the owners live. Look at the white goose down duvet, so soft even on the picture. Since it is a standalone apartment, there is a kitchen which means we don’t need to eat out all the time, and can definitely have breakfast at “home.” It’s not located in the centre, about 20mins by train to Kyoto train station. We’ll likely have a car, and it’d be nice to stay in a more peaceful area to experience more local flavours.

trip planning

Our long trip this year will be to Japan. Originally planned for November, we’ll now go in September because of work. Been doing research and planning. We’ll go to the Kansai region to include Osaka, Kyoto and Shirahama onsen. Lots to do, lots to see, have to loosely plan but not get too structured.

Osaka is Japan’s third largest city and so has all the expectations of a typical Japanese metropolis. Things to do include shopping, going to the fish market, and finding some quiet time at the castle park. There’s also Universal studios and the 24 hr Spa World.

Kyoto is more cultural, as befits the former capital and where there are something like 17 or 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Temples and shrines galore. A lovely Philosopher’s Walk along the canal. Further out, the bamboo forest and moon crossing bridge at Arashiyama will be worth a visit.

Shirahama Beach
photo by flickr user foilman

Shirahama is about 3hrs from Osaka and the name translates to white beach, so one of its attractions is the beach and seaside. We’ll be there for its other attraction, the onsen or hot springs. Will stay at an onsen hotel, and plan on visiting the public ones.

We also plan to visit the Yamazaki whisky distillery, which has a museum and tasting. In one of the shopping malls in Osaka there is a newly opened Whisky House comprising of a small exhibit, restaurant and a bar. Not forgetting sake, since Kyoto is one of the bigger sake producing areas, the Gekkeikan sake museum is hopefully a good destination.

cruise 2 prep

Finished packing over the weekend already. Got the final stuff like toiletries and chewing gum. Our second cruise of the year, Mum had been doing lots of research into our destination — the Norwegian fjords. We’ll be staying additionally in Copenhagen and Dubai, so the challenge is to pack 2 weeks’ worth of clothes for both hot and cold weather.

It’s another MSC cruise, this time on the Musica. I expect the staterooms and most things to be similar. I think we have balconies also this time, and that will be great when sailing into the fjords. There are a couple of excursions we may join, because it’s not as easy to do ourselves — the railway at Flam and possibly an excursion at Geiranger. The rest, like the stops at Kiel, Bergen and Oslo, we’ll explore the cities by ourselves.

cruise prep

So tonight I fly out with my parents and a couple of family friends to Barcelona and will join the MSC Splendida for a cruise around the western Mediterranean. The routing is: Barcelona -> Tunis -> Palermo -> Rome (Civitavecchia) -> Genoa -> Marseille -> Barcelona. Apparently my parents sometimes go on holiday with Auntie F and Uncle H, who are both retired and have been our family friends for decades. I have never been on a cruise, nor have I travelled with both my parents and people my parents’ age so it will be interesting. Or, in other words, a test on my patience. The ship will sail at night and dock during the day, so there’s a few hours every day to go onshore. We intend not to join the official excursions; we know Italy and France well enough, and it seems fairly straightforward in Tunis.

I’ll bring my kindle and even though wifi will be costly, I’m bringing the laptop, if only to download pictures. Never want to repeat the experience of losing a camera towards the end of a trip, like I did when mm and I went to Provence and Paris last summer. If I manage to get online, it’s a bonus but I’m thinking I’ll be out of contact. Like I said, test on patience.

The online reviews for this cruise ship and cruise line are mixed. It’s an Italian company, so most of the staff and probably customers are non-English speaking. There are negative reviews of nickel and diming, which I guess is only to be expected since the cost of the cruise is pretty reasonable. They don’t serve tap water, and tea/coffee after meals are extra. I brought my travel kettle so we can boil water in our cabin. Most of our meals will be at the buffet or may be we will try the restaurant. There are also a couple of gala nights, and supposedly there is a dress code. Well, all I have are a couple of shirts.

I’m trying to contain my expectations — going in with no, or lower expectations means things can only look up, right? Check back in 9 days.