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1945 words | 9025 total

Day of the flight. Car’s cousin Mike kindly took me to the airport and I was checked in and through security in no time. Bought a Balvenie triple cask 16 that we first tasted in Heathrow, then bought 4 pork buns at wow bao for lunch. Beer at the bar next to the gate was expensive, $11.

The flight was full, and I got upgraded to premium economy. Here’s the dilemma, which is the better seat: an aisle seat in economy or a middle seat in premium economy? I would have preferred an aisle seat but the lady sitting next to me was nice and slept most of the way. The additional seat width and leg room were good in helping to make 15hrs pass faster.



Disappointed that there wasn’t much to watch, no big action film, no Bake-off and too many old tv programs (Prime Suspect s1, Entourage s1, ugh). Watched Spy (funny, good) and The Hundred-Foot Journey, which was a real gem. An Indian family’s car broke down in the middle of the French countryside and they decided to settle down roots, opening a restaurant directly opposite a Michelin-star establishment. War ensued, but of course it was a happy ending in the end. Helen Mirren was brilliant in this predictable feel good movie, perfect for watching on the plane.

PE had better food. Filet steak and creamy shrimp on rice. I had half a glass of wine, but mainly stuck to coke zero and sparkling water.

Door to door was 20hrs, and I lost most of Wednesday. Got home around 9.30pm, showered and unpacked quickly.

My nano time is based in Chicago so when I woke up at 5am there was enough time to write and assign it to day 4. I wanted to get around 1000 words in, and am pleased that I got almost 2000.


in going places |

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via boredpanda, a cool place to consider next time we visit tokyo is the book and bed hotel, which will open in November. It’s a hostel which is based on a theme of a bookstore because:

dozing off obliviously during your treasured pasttime is the finest “moment of sleep”, don’t you agree?

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They will have 1,700 English and Japanese books and comics available, to be expanded to 3,000. The books are not for sale, just reading.

The accommodation is basic, more like capsules built inside bookshelves and shared bathrooms. Free wifi. At ¥4500 (USD37, £25) it’s aimed at the backpacker end of the market. Ikebukuro location is another positive. Then again, we prefer a little more comfort and private bathrooms. Probably not as suitable for us. Still very cool.


in going places |

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It was only about 30-40mins’ drive to the town of State College, where Penn State University is located. By located I mean the entire town is the university. I’ve visited some very large campuses in the US, and this one is one of the largest. So very different from tiny King’s.

We were early so we ended up driving up and down the main street several times. Visited the big stadium and Centre Furnace Mansion where the university was founded.

There was even more time remaining, so we ended up at the Hyundai dealership to get an oil change. We’re efficient!

We met with our friend Mary for lunch. It was so wonderful to finally meet her in person—we’ve known each other online for 7-8 years. Great conversation, she is smart and wise and articulate and observant. It was a pity that we only had lunch hour. Hopefully we get to see her in person again.

We finished lunch around 2.30pm. We hit the highway around 3pm. It was 560 miles / 900km back to Chicago. We’d decided that we would head back instead of breaking the trip into 2 chunks. Better to arrive home late. Even with breaks, and a longer break for dinner at a service station (I had turkey avocado BLT and chicken arugula grain salad at Panera) we got back to the house at midnight. Total distance driven to Ptown and back, around 2800 miles / 4500km.


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The destination today was Scranton PA and the purpose to visit several places that are relevant to my friend Carleen’s family history. The first destination was the Lackawanna Historical Society, located near the university. Unfortunately it was closed on a Monday, what a shame.

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The second destination was the cathedral cemetery. The lady there couldn’t have been more helpful, she found old records dating back to the early 20th century and were able to locate several plots using a couple of truly old maps. One was so old that it was almost undecipherable and was laminated to preserve its condition.

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The cemetery also had a section for the military. There was a plaque with a few verses of the poem Bivouac of the Dead and many, many US flags. Quite moving.

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At St Joseph’s we visited the chapel. The building was originally an orphanage and is now a medical centre for the mentally disabled, women and families. I took a couple of pics of the chapel because I knew mm will like them.

We also drove around to two locations where the family lived. One of the houses is no longer there, that part of the street having been demolished to make way for the highway. The houses were quaint and for the most part well maintained. However if we weren’t there for a specific purpose, there wasn’t much that Scranton can offer.

Overnight at a Hampton Inn along the road, around 45mins to our destination tomorrow.

in going places |

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We had tickets for whale-watching, so we set off early in the morning to the pier to board the boat. A last look at the beautiful harbour on a very cold day, temperature in single digits. I wore my hoodie as well as my coat with lining, and when I was out of the sun, it was very cold.

The ride out to the whale grounds was horrid, absolutely horrid. So choppy it was like riding a rollercoaster. The crew said 5-6 feet waves and there were times when we were propelled out of our seats. They gave us travel sickness pills which barely did the job. When we reached the spot, the boat bobbed in the waves and it was very unsteady too. I headed outside immediately so I could get some fresh air. Wah, so cold, my hands were frozen as I couldn’t put them in my pocket—one to hold onto the rail and the other to hold the camera.

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The naturist on the boat was wonderful, he gave us non-stop, relevant and educational commentary. We managed to find and track several whales and the pics turned out pretty well.

The trip back was a doddle, since we were going in the direction of travel. We were all very cold during the long walk from the boat back to the car. There were plans to get clam chowder to go, but we hopped into the car and decided to drive out straightaway.

From the cape, it was just a matter of finding the highway and going. I think the travel sickness pills cause drowsiness because I couldn’t keep my eyes open and slept for a while in the car. Overnight stay at Danbury, dinner at Denny’s.

in going places |

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Last full day in ptown. Started early with the annual wiffleball game—from what I can gather a casual game somewhat similar to baseball/softball. Afterwards we had breakfast at the post office restaurant—eggs benedict and bloody mary for me.

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The purpose of the day was mainly to catch up with friends and hang out at the bookstore, on the street and squealing pig bar. I had lots of beer—3 in total. I’d also been eyeing the local oysters so I tried half a dozen. Very nice.

Back to our hotel for more relaxation and packing. We’re mostly done, loaded the car except for overnight bags.


in going places |

The last day of our events, I stayed in one place for the readings and chats. Some were more interesting than others. It was thundery and rainy at the start so more motivation to stay put. After the last reading we broke down the room. Then off to find food. Ended up more than 40 miles away at Hyannis, at Olive Garden.

Visited some cemeteries on the way back. The most interesting one was Cove Burial Ground where several passengers from the Mayflower were buried, as well as their family members. It’s amazing to see gravestones of someone born in the 1500s and 1600s.

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It was around sunset, our final stop was a lighthouse located next to a golf course. Very pretty, like many of the landmarks in the area.

There was time to do laundry and watch TAR. Again, really good to relax and wind down.


in going places |

Attended several different events during the day at various locations: author readings, chats, meet’n’greet. The difference between ptown and the con is that I know only a small fraction of people attending, and I’m never sure walking down the street or even at events who the other participants are. There are a few familiar faces, and I gravitate towards them in a sea of strange faces.

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In between events, I walked around town taking pictures. Walked up to the distinctive landmark of the pilgrim’s monument but didn’t want to pay $12 to climb up. Walked to the library, the beach and other places. It’s a quaint town, still with character despite the high number of tourists.

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Spent a little walking on the beach. So peaceful, to watch and listen to the ocean.

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After the morning event, we had lunch at the lobster pot. I had clam chowder and lobster bake—boiled lobster, corn, mussels. The lobster was really good, fresh and sweet. The corn was average. The mussels were gritty. Overall, a good meal.

There were other events in the afternoon. I also caught up with a few familiar faces at the pig. Walked back to the hotel, wanted to walk off the rich food and drink, plus it was a nice evening.


in going places |

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Leisurely morning, didn’t do much except read, play with the ipad and eat leftover pizza. We left at mid-morning to visit the nearby beaches. First to race point then to herring cove. They are pretty beaches and it was peaceful just to stand still on the beach and listen to the sounds of the waves. It was a nice morning, warm and not windy.

Back to ptown and parked in the all-day car park. Headed to the squealing pig in search of a drink and food. Found friends in addition to the drinks and food. I had a couple of their pumpkin beer and a lobster roll for lunch. Found even more friends, walked around the shops and had clam chowder at the lobster pot. I’d been looking forward to the seafood here and I’m not disappointed.

The event we went to was the gcls meet’n’greet at the sage inn. A good turnout, and lots of people I don’t know. I started by hiding behind the registration desk but eventually managed to meet a couple of new faces. A couple of friends bought me wine, I ended the evening with 3 glasses of cab and a beer.

After the meet’n’greet was a comedy show by one of our esteemed members, Fay. I saw the show at the con in NOLA, it was just as great second time around. Instead of doing standup jokes, Fay told funny anecdotes of her own life. And what a life. She was a master at comedy, didn’t need any props or gimmicks, just sitting on stage and telling us the stories. It was a masterclass of comedic writing and timing.


in going places |

It was raining when we set off at around 8.30am, luckily within an hour or so it’d cleared up. The breakfast at the hotel was terrible so we stopped at a mcdonald’s, except that mcd wasn’t very good either. Ah well.

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At mid-morning we reached Albany. The state capitol building looks impressive. It’s within a complex with different buildings housing different departments plus a conference centre called The Egg. For a weekday there wasn’t a lot of people around.

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The reason for the stop was to visit the New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Carleen’s great uncle’s name is on there. It’s a sad reminder of the bravery and sacrifice given by firefighters. The memorial wall has over 2,000 names and in front of it is a very lifelike sculpture of 2 firemen helping a colleague.

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From Albany it was follow the highway to our destination. Driving through Massachusetts was pretty, the trees that lined the road have begun to change colours and there are splashes of red, orange and yellow amongst the green.

We reached Ptown at around 5pm. Our hotel is located about 1-2 miles from the town centre. It’s a nice hotel, our room is spacious with a small dressing area, fridge and microwave. Ran an errand into town centre but didn’t stay, even though we saw a few friends. Ordered pizza for dinner at our room, so we could rest, relax and have an early night. It will be a busy next few days so it’s a good opportunity to re-energise. Knee update: much better today, I was even able to jog around lightly at our stop in Albany. Mostly muscle soreness at this point.


in going places |

The alarm was at 3.30am, our aim was to leave at 4.15am. By the time we checked everything and loaded the car, we were close—left at 4.30am. The start of our road trip, with final destination provincetown. The aim today was around halfway, to western new york.

Snacked on hard boiled eggs, leftover pizza and cheese in the car. I also managed to nap for about an hour or so.

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Reached our friend R’s house in western new york state at 2pm. Great to see her and her son, I love their house—typical wooden cladding outside and even more beautiful wooden flooring inside. We also made time to visit the yoga studio of our friend L. More beautiful interiors, the studio is located in what looks like a warehouse and looked quite plain outside. Inside was pretty and peaceful, I can feel how great it would be to do yoga there.

Said goodbye to our friends and continued for about 3hrs. Overnight stop at Syracuse. Had a quick dinner (salmon and 2 sides for me) then spent the evening watching tv and relaxing. Nice to have time and room to veg out after a long day of travlling. I woke up with a swollen left knee and have been hobbling all day, I’m looking forward to putting my feet up—Carleen made me an icepack to ice the knee too.


in going places |

Woke up at 6am. Showered, did quick laundry. Out the door at 7.30am. I thought I’d beat the rush hour madness but every taxi that went past was either occupied or on call. It was raining very heavily (10cm this morning already) so chances of grabbing one off the street was zero. Had to call one at the end.

Already checked in so dropping my suitcases took less than 5mins. Two suitcases total less than 20kg, hahaha. I was meeting mm at the check-in counter, she was early and was already there. We had a nice breakfast, had time left so I treated her to starbucks.

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Security and immigration took another 5mins. Wandered around the duty free, but I know I can’t buy anything. There was Yamazaki NAS and Hakusu NAS, but nothing else. Texted mm and we decided that it’s not worth getting, since it’s NAS and not Nikka. Then again, to complete our collection I may, if I remember, get it on the way back.

Flight was around 80% full. If I’d just picked the row in front or behind I’d have a free middle seat. Unfortunately I was sat next to a young couple. And probably the only mainland people in the whole cabin. Ugh. Why do I have to be near those effing people. Ugh.

Food on the flight was forgettable. Beef with mash and beans plus ice cream for lunch. Chicken with more mash and beans and creme caramel for dinner. Had instant noodles in the middle. Watched Pitch Perfect 2, Entourage, Ant-man and 10 episodes of Veep. No bake-off this trip.

The flight was early. Landed at 1.30pm. Immigration was fast, now that I have a new passport I can use the machines. Luggage came out fast too. Carleen picked me up at the car park and we were heading back quickly.
Had food at our favourite steakhouse, then went to the supermarket. Lots of pumpkins out in the front, aha, it’s Halloween coming. Bought some stuff to take back, aiming at not too many purchases this trip. Unpacked, showered and relaxed. Lasted till just before 9pm, my eyes can’t close anymore. Time for bed.


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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.

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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.

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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.


in going places |

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Interesting idea, spotted via the guardian, book this bookshop at airbnb for £22 a night (adding on fees give £180 a week), at wigtown, scotland’s national book town. It’s described as the first ever bookshop experience:

We’ll give you your very own bookshop, and apartment above, supported by a team of friendly volunteers and bookshop sellers to make your trip as lovely as possible.

Basically, guests pay to run a bookshop for at least 40 hours a week including opening and closing the shop, welcoming customers, selling books, staffing, stocking, creating window displays, cleaning. Training will be provided.

Seems quite interesting, for people who’ve always wanted to run shops and especially bookshops. Wigtown is in the middle of nowhere in the lowlands just over the border, and having to keep the shop open during the day means time to explore is probably limited. That said, it can be relaxing and a different sort of time off.

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The shop looks cute and the flat (presumably above) looks like a typical UK home, cosy with well-used furniture. It’s very fully booked for the next few months, but no reviews yet. I place a lot of importance on airbnb reviews so I’ll check back later.

in going places |

Finally got the trip pics sorted and uploaded: new orleans | conference

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A few of my favourite NOLA pics are of the distinctive houses. Balconies, wrought iron decorations and, in general, very big. When we walked around the garden district, we looked at estate agent windows and these houses are expensive for the US market. The majority are well kept.

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Talking about the garden district, we paid a short visit to a small bookshop there. They have one shelf of books about NOLA, nice.

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We also came across an old bookshop in the French quarter.


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I posted a bunch of conference pics on fb already, I guess I should let people know I have more pics on flickr. I brought the big camera with me most days, and it seemed to do a better job than the little camera. I didn’t take many pics of panels and discussions, only ones I thought were interesting. Took quite a few during karaoke with people in masks. I was too busy during the awards to take many pics with others.

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One of the pics I thought turned out very well was the one of Dorothy Allison during her keynote. I was sitting almost immediately in front of the podium and took this before moving to the back of the room to get shots of the audience.


in going places |

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Flying west means losing the better part of the day. I boarded in the afternoon of Thursday and arrived on Friday night for a 15hr flight. On the way in, the route was along Japan then across first Canada then the mid-weat. The return flight took us almost over the north pole, at halfway point we were somewhere in the arctic circle.

Even thought the flight left an hour late, the pilots caught us up and we were only 5mins behind scheduled arrival time. Luggage was very slow coming out, people were standing around most belts and nothing was coming out; there were constant announcements of luggage delay, guess there was a general problem. It’s not really acceptable, waiting 30mins for luggage.

The great thing was, mm came to pick me up in ryan. We took a slightly longer route home, we were chatting and I was not in thinking mode to help navigate. Still probably faster than me taking the train then a taxi. Plus it was great to see mm. Easy unpacking, since one suitcase was almost all mum’s stuff. Showered then straight to bed.


in going places |

Left the house at 12.30pm and was at ORD punctually at 1.30pm. No problems dropping off my luggage, the nice counter person put priority tags on my 2 suitcases even though strictly speaking I’m no longer at a high enough level. There was a huge long queue for TSA passport check, although the queue for security wasn’t bad. I had my normal backpack stuff plus the large, heavy, breakable award in a tote bag. TSA wanted to check my award, and the agent even said to me as she was getting her swab ready, “is it an award?” Some of our winners had been stopped last year so I wasn’t surprised. Not much of a delay, so I wasn’t bothered.

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I looked at the whisky selection at the duty free—not much interest, may be balvenie 16 at $101 or laphroaig 10. Didn’t want to take more stuff on the plane. The flight had a 1hr delay because of late arrival from the incoming flight. I sat at the bar with a view to the gate and had an IPA from a local brewery. Debated on whether to order food, I was a little hungry but didn’t feel like any of the heavy burgers or sandwiches. Decided on a spicy tuna roll which was quite okay, if expensive for the portion.

Flight was uneventful. I had an aisle seat and sat next to two elderly Australian ladies. They weren’t familiar with the flight etiquette of closing the window blind so I had to ask them to, because the sun was reflecting off the wing straight into my eyes. The attendant for our section had the funny name of Sonic and he seemed quite inexperienced, if very polite and hard-working. Watched Insurgent, Kingsmen and the Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m glad I watched the entire Bake-off season on the way in, it disappeared off the menu this month. Didn’t sleep a whole lot.


in going places |

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Another no hurry day, I opened my eyes and it was almost 9am. We got underway quickly, at around 9.30am. Filled up the car, got some drinks and headed off. In no time at all we were back in IL and signs for chicago started appearing. Went for a short drive-by of southern illinois university at carbondale, where Carleen earned one of her many degrees. It’s a huge campus, so large that it’s like a town that needs its own map. Pretty buildings too. So different compared with King’s.

Uneventful drive. I had a small headache and fell asleep with the movement of the car. Ran into a small thunderstorm which was actually good because it got cooler for a while. Got back to Carleen’s house before 6pm.

Checked into my flight as soon as I got back and had wifi. Dinner was frozen custard, I had one with mint and melted chocolate. I think next time I’ll just have a plain one with raspberries and strawberries. Again a quiet night, catching up on sorting pics, posting and reading the dozens and dozens of notifications I had on fb. I had a post thanking the Director’s for the award and I got over 60 “likes” which is a record for me.


in going places |

There was no big hurry to leave, so I had a leisurely breakfast of croissant and tea in the lounge. I’d packed last night so I was all ready. We left around 11.30am to drive back to Chicago, with much less luggage than the way in. Had lunch at Cracker Barrel (trout, broccoli, beans, okra for me). Not a lot of traffic or construction so the going was smooth.

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Stopped overnight at Sikeston, having driven around 540 miles over around 8hrs. The nice desk person at the Best Western recommended a local pizza place so we got a sausage & mushroom pizza plus cheesy bread. The cheesy bread was really good; the pizza was okay. Read a bit then went to bed. Nice to be on the way with no slides to work on, no flat tires, no bad weather.


in going places |

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mint pic credit Pol Robinson @polrobin

The last day of the conference, sad sad sad. I managed to say hi to a few more people before the closing remarks by our ED. Brunch followed, and more socialising. Saying goodbye is the hardest part, especially since we only get to see each other once a year and some friends may not be attending the next conference. Our group managed to plan pranks for one of us with a giant bag of mints and come up with panel ideas at the same time. I also talked to one of the winners R about LL, and she says she will motivate me into finishing it.

Finally we had to leave the room so the staff can clear up. Helped break down one of the vendor tables—lots of physical labour putting books into boxes. Went to the foodcourt for lunch (shared a 25-piece chicken finger bucket and got a hurricane daiquiri with tequila shot). After getting our sustenance, we convened at armchairs in the hotel lobby for a game of trivial pursuit. We only played two games, but we looked up towards the end of the second game and it was almost 7pm. Great game; I’m usually not too bad at trivial pursuit, but the US-centric decks we were playing were less familiar to me. I had great teammates though, I was blown away by their general knowledge. The most fun part was watching my teammates and the other team confer and discuss possible answers. The final result: 1 game each.

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Dinner was at the hotel restaurant. A few of us shared a dozen chargrilled oysters—the garlic butter was yummy. I had lobster with spinach risotto—the lobster was fresh and I added some of the garlic butter for additional flavour.

We planned to play another game after dinner. Ended up chatting and sharing stories into the wee hours.

I was looking forward to the conference with a mixture of dread and anticipation. I managed to go to most of the sessions I wanted, skipped a few because of award stuff and because I just wanted a little time at the gym. I don’t know why, but I get more sociable during the conference. This was the biggest conference so far, at 350 attendees. This meant I wasn’t able to meet as many new friends, spending most of my social time greeting old friends. Need to do correct that in future conferences.

Next year’s conference is at Washington DC and the following year in Chicago. I plan on going to both, but it had crossed my mind that I should go every other year because it’s expensive in terms of both time and money. What I spend coming to the con can be reallocated to another trip with mm. Then again, the conference experience is so unique that it’ll be a hard decision to make.

in going places |

tl;dr: long day, great awards night, I got a huge surprise

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Too tired to go to the first session, and we had to convene to work through the presentation deck. We finished in time to go to the keynote speech by Dorothy Allison. I’d never heard of her before, although I understand she is a pioneer and very famous for both her body of work and her activism. Her speech was…there are no words to describe. Stunning, personal, mesmerising are the few that I can come up with. I started at the front then moved to the back to get pictures of the audience. At the end of her speech there was a tremendous standing ovation and I got regular pics and took a panorama of the room with the iphone too.

After lunch was a roundtable on reviewing. There were some very good discussions from the panelists and the audience. Not everybody agreed on every point, but that’s because we are not robots. The discussion was civil and passionate as it’s a topic we are all invested in. Interesting question, if there is absolute no redeeming qualities in a book whatsoever should the reviewer post a review? One camp says yes, to prevent other people from wasting their money; another camp says if there is nothing good to say, don’t say it.

We had awards run-through with the presenters at 3pm so we went over to the ballroom early to check it out. To our horror the hotel staff had only just begun to put out tables and equipment. They worked quickly and efficiently though, moved the tech table to where we wanted and worked out details of stage placement. Very professional. Carleen did a good job with the run-through, explaining the proceedings and expectations succinctly. Unlike last year we had more than 1hr to get ready. I’d grabbed spare lunch bags for dinner so I was prepared. A got me a diet coke too, so thoughtful. Had a sandwich, took a shower and went downstairs to set up. A bit of miscommunication with people coming in and out of the ballroom before official doors open was sorted quickly and we were ready to start the awards ceremony at 7pm.

The MCs this year were two of our own members and they planned funny sketches involving lost & found, tweets and cocktails in between announcement of winners in each category. We had planned theme songs for each category as well as each winner. As I ran the slides, Carleen ran the soundtrack. Everything ran smoothly.

The only part of the deck I didn’t have was the Director’s Award. This is the only non-writing award and is given to a volunteer for their contribution. When it was the category’s turn to be announced, I switched the main screen over to Carleen’s laptop and waited. It was nice to have a rest from tense pushing of the down arrow all night. Ha! Little did I know, I would have no rest, they gave the award to: me. My first thought was, what are you guys doing? Why me? What am I supposed to do now? Everybody had turned around and was cheering and clapping and standing up, Carleen had to tell them to sit back down to run the rest of the slides. I was still in shock and she had to tell me to go up to the stage to get the award. Easier said than done, it was like an obstacle course trying to negotiate tables. Apparently I said something like thank you to the board and told people to volunteer. Can’t remember. The only thing on my mind was to run back to the table to set up the slides for the next category, which was on my mba.

Deep breath. I’m incredibly honoured that the Directors think I deserve the award. I do a lot of running around during conferences—I take pictures, help move stuff, do the posters and this is my second year responsible for the award slides. But so do a lot of people. The entire organisation is staffed by volunteers and there are many others to put in as much, or even more than me. A big thank you to the Directors. Oh, the Exec Director gave me a bottle of Highland Park Dark Origins—if I had to buy a whisky right now, it’d be what I buy, perfect (okay, she actually asked me, under the guise of needing whisky adviceaas a gift for someone).

After my award, I had to focus again to get back to the tech table. The final awards are the big ones—two popular choice awards, one for cover design and one for a book. The Lee Lynch Classic award was presented by Lee herself to Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Rita Mae was there in person to accept it. Karin Kallmaker did the presentation for Trailblazer award to Joan Nestle which was accepted by Dorothy Allison.

Last year after the awards I packed up, stayed for a few minutes when the dance began then went back up to the room. This year I still packed up, but was too excited to go to bed so I stayed to chat with a bunch of people. There was copious consumption of wine, and someone bought me a Jameson 12. We closed out the dance floor, with the amazing Lee Lynch taking my hands and us doing a jaunty bouncy number together—can’t call it dancing, it was more like skipping.

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Actually set the alarm to go to a 8.30am session, about the changing landscape of the industry, with so many authors taking the self-published route. The panelists are both traditional and self-published, a couple of them having published both ways. The pros for self-publication are control and money as they get a higher percentage; the cons are time-consuming and it’s not always more lucrative—without the machinery of a traditional publishing house, sales tend to drop off after a couple of months unless the author embarks on intensive marketing. Interesting. I had plans to go to the next session but spent it doing some work and chatting with a couple of friends.

The mid-morning session was on the judging process. Not as well attended as hoped, since we were up against a bigwig reading. Still, it’s the first time readers, authors and publishers were given an insight into the book judging process, and kudos for transparency. Lots of good questions from the audience too.

Immediately afterwards was the author auction, which took a different format this year. Much more low key, much more mature. An author may participate in either the silent or live part, and during the live auction there was no need to come up to the stage and be treated like a product on sale.

Ali Vali was the special speaker was after lunch. She is one of the membership and she talked about her own writing process. She was funny and her speech had no dull moments. It’s wonderful to hear all these experience and amazing authors speak with authority and yet so much humbleness.

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There were a couple more sessions and the author autograph. I skipped them in favour of going to the gym, although I only managed 5k on the treadmill. A and I went for an early dinner at Drago’s, the hotel restaurant. After hearing stories about the “sexy” alligator nuggets we shared one as a starter. Tasted like somewhere in-between tough chicken breast and a dense white fish. I had crocodile before and didn’t like it, alligator was better. For mains I had the oyster and shrimp platter, since I had wanted to try the one at Mother’s yesterday. Nice food, but expensive, $50 each including a beer for me. I think I’ve had enough fried food on this trip for the rest of the year.

Team meeting was followed by a great stand-up show by Fay Jacobs (she was actually sitting on a stool but whatever) which recounted anecdotes throughout her life culminating in her and her wife’s involvement in the fight for marriage equality in their home state of Delaware. I was quite tired and embarrassed to report that I nodded off in the middle of the show, it’s no reflection on the quality of the show. I was determined to stay till the end.

gclstemp36pamtribute

Traditionally Friday night is karaoke night. Not as many attendees as usual, some regulars were missing. Most of the singers had great voices or sang with enthusiasm. We had the “I Feel Pretty” tribute to our friend Pam—the DJ didn’t have the music so we all got the lyrics on our phones and sang without music. I had been waiting for this one, I left immediately afterwards.


in eating and drinking , going places |

nolatemp012crabbys nolatemp013poboy

Moved hotels today, around 5-10mins walk from the Doubletree to the Hilton. Room wasn’t ready so left our stuff with our friends J&H, chatted a bit then went to lunch with them plus 2 other friends M&M. M is local so she took us to crabby jacks, a fried food casual hut dining place. A and I shared a shrimp & oyster po’ boy with fries. Even regular was a large portion. Basically fried food stuffed in a roll. Tasted very good, the seafood was fresh and the sandwich overstuffed. Freshly brewed iced tea too, the kind where the tea is still hot and melts the ice cubes. We were 6 people in the car, which was very cramped. I ended up in the boot (it’s an SUV so wasn’t like transporting a body.)

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By the time we got back to the hotel we were able to check in. Not the room A picked, but still on a high floor with a partial river view. We quickly unpacked and walked to the supermarket. Longer walk than expected, probbaly 20mins one way. Bought salad, hummous, roast chicken and soft drinks. Got caught in the heavy shower too so got soaked for the second time in as many days.

Rushed back to the hotel to change shirts then downstairs to meet with others who volunteered to help shift stuff. M (who took us to crabby jack’s) is the local liaison so a lot of boxes were shipped to her house. Took 4 cars and 9 volunteers to bring them all back to the hotel.

Dinner with Car and another friend L at the brewpub next to the hotel. I had a maibock and, since I’m all burgered and steaked out, a bourbon glazed salmon with kale quinoa pomegranate salad and grilled asparagus. Very nice, the vegetables especially. After dinner we had some official stuff to do, actually a lot; I didn’t get back to my room till 12.30am. Long day. Even longer tomorrow when the conference starts.


in going places |

Started out early, after breakfast of bagels at the hotel café. Took the streetcar to French Market, it was quite early, around 9.30am but the heat was already stifling and I was dripping. The market wasn’t very interesting, mostly stalls selling t-shirts, beads, masks and souvenirs. The Ursuline convent nearby wasn’t opened yet, so I had to be satisfied with taking pictures through the gate.

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A short walk took us to Jackson Square with the grand St Louis Cathedral holding court at one end. The inside was beautiful too, although we only spent a few minutes there. If mm were here, she would have wanted to stay for the mass at noon.

The famous Café du Monde was full of people, the queue weaved all the way around the front and side of the building. We decided against joining the queue. Walked a little bit along the riverfront and took pictures of the paddleboat Natchez, a tourist attraction. Most things in New Orleans seem to be tourist attractions.

It was around 11am and we were hot, sweaty and tired. Went inside Jax Brewery mall for a soft drink and to sit for a bit in air-conditioning. The brewery mall was uninspiring, consisting of galleries, tacky shops selling souvenirs and a foot reflexology place.

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Onwards to Royal and Bourbon Streets in the French Quarter. This is probably the most famous area in New Orleans. The architecture is amazing, houses with iron balconies and french windows. Interesting shops on Royal Street. Bourbon Street was kinda dingy and boring, the bars were either not open, in the process of opening or taking deliveries. The street looked like a seedy back alley taking deliveries with the number of lorries there. Perhaps we were there too early in the day.

Lunch was at ruby slipper café where we had eggs cochon—braised pork debris on buttermilk biscuit with poached egg topping. Very big portion, quite salty but still tasty. When we came out of the café it started to drizzle, then rain, then pour. We didn’t have umbrellas and the streets offered very little shelter so we decided to bite the bullet and run back to the hotel. Needless to say we were like drowned chicken when we returned to our room.

nolatemp005lafayette nolatemp006lafayette

Took a rest, changed clothes and packed up the dirty clothes for our afternoon outing first to the garden district then to do laundry. Normally we would have taken the St Charles streetcar, but it wasn’t working due to construction. The replacement bus travelled the same route, but was less charming. It was also very crowded. We got off at the garden district and headed towards Lafayette cemetery. It’s a small cemetery, and I had read in guidebooks to be careful when visiting cemeteries in case of muggers. Luckily there were other tourists there so we felt safe. New Orleans cemeteries are unusual in that burials are above ground so instead of headstones, there are crypts. The ones at the Lafayette cemetery were old, but some were still in use. We saw several crypts where family members who died from the 1800s to 2014 rested together.

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The houses in the garden district were definitely luxurious. Some were large plantation style houses with wraparound balconies. What I liked were on some houses, there were fans even on the balcony. Saw at an estate agent’s window that houses were in the US$1m region, which is expensive for the US, but not compared with London or Tokyo or HK. The same price as a tiny one bedroom flat gets a 4, 5 or even 6-bedroom house here.

Next destination was on another bus, to a bar called Igor’s buddha belly bar. It’s a neighbourhood dive bar that I wouldn’t want to visit too late at night. At 4pm-ish there were 2-3 other people there. The main purpose wasn’t to visit the bar, or to play pool at the tables, it was to do laundry. Yes, there were laundry facilities at the bar: 4 washing machines, 4 dryers, albeit having seen better days. Did the work though, so we were happy.

Dinner was at the food court next to the hotel. I opted for beignets, since we skipped café du monde earlier. I also got one of those big gulps of daiquiris: a flavour with mardi gras in the name and bourbon as one of the ingredients. The beignets were better than expected. I thought they’d be full of grease, but they had a nice savoury taste, once I shook all the icing sugar off. It’s actually a lot like 牛脷酥 which is served with congee. The daiquiri I can take it or leave it.

All in all, an interesting day. Very hot and very humid. Then rained heavily. Not ideal weather for walking, but that was what we did. A’s stepcounter app claimed 10km but we think it’s closer to 5-6km. We also bought a day pass for $3 which we fully utilised, between taking the streetcar and buses. I didn’t make it back to Bourbon Street at night to experience the atmosphere, hopefully I get the chance another night this week.


in going places |

nola009bayou

Woke up at 9.25am after sleeping through the night, so we were quite refreshed. Hot and humid start to the day. Lunch was quick, drive-thru mcdonalds. The scenery and greenery changed as we went into Louisiana; the closer we got to the coast the lusher the vegetation and we drove along rivers and lakes for the last part of the drive. Very different and stunning scenery. The route was clear all the way to New Orleans and we made it to the Hilton Riverside at around 3.30pm.

The front of the hotel was busy with people loading and unloading. The hotel wanted to charge us per box to bring up to the room, it’s ridiculous. By the time we got everything up to one room we were tired, cranky and hot.

Early dinner at the buffet at the casino opposite the hotel. Salad, oysters, prawns, roast beef, fried chicken, lots of asparagus and local specialities like crawfish étouffée and cajun shrimps. Dessert was disappointing. Lots of cake, almost all of them dry; cheesecake that we mistook for pannacotta; bread pudding that was okay if a bit stodgy.

Back to hotel, I did a little running in the fitness centre. Showered, caught up with my friend A and posts for the past few days.


in going places |

nola004mississippi nola005mississippi

The plan was simple: start at 8am, have breakfast around 9-10am, drive around 8hrs to somewhere around Memphis, stop at dinnertime to find a hotel and have an early night.

We did get on the road at 8am, 7.50am in fact. Stopped at a Denny’s at around 9.30am for breakfast. So far so good. The only problem was that cousin K’s car’s a/c broke down so she had to buy a fan. Then in the afternoon she suffered a flat tire and other issues with her brand new car.

Long story short, we spent the next few hours either waiting or frustrated or both. Eventually we had to leave her car at the dealer’s in Missouri, transfer her stuff over to our car, then all of us squeeze in for the rest of the journey. We were about 4-5hrs behind schedule.

When it came time to look for a hotel, we ran into fully booked issues too. After asking at 6-7 places, we finally found room at a Ramada Inn at Batesville south of Memphis. A long day, I was tired even though most of what I did was sit in a car. We did cross the Mississippi at Missouri and drove alongside it for a while. Hopefully a good night’s sleep and we will catch up tomorrow.


in going places |

chi201521art chi201524bean

I scheduled a meeting with my FA to go though finances and stuff. I was early so I detoured to millennium park on my way up there from the station. Of course I’ve taken many, many pictures of the park, the art institute and the bean over the years, but a couple more can’t hurt.

After the meeting I stopped off at naansense for a snack. It’s a great street food idea—naan, roti or salad with various fillings like chicken, lamb, vegetables, paneer. I had the lamb korma naan.

chi201526billy chi201527billy

I missed the train, and the next one was in one hour. I ended up at the Wells branch of billy goat tavern because it was opposite the station and it’s a Chicago classic I hadn’t visited before. Had a cheeseburger (“cheezborger” in their lingo) and their house dark. No chips, the burger was big enough. I liked that the condiments were on a table so we could serve ourselves. I couldn’t finish the burger, but I did finish the beer.

It was nice to walk around the streets where I used to hang out. I’d forgotten the geography, having to look up addresses. Once I got there, I sort of know the direction and the way. I didn’t have enough time to walk all the way to Sears Tower and the office, but I covered a fair bit of ground. Good day for a walk around town anyway.


in going places |

bc001hotel bc003casino

Overnight trip to Blue Chip hotel resort in Michigan City, Indiana. It’s a very large hotel that consists mainly of a casino and spa. We checked in mid-afternoon and wandered around to meet Carleen’s cousin inside the casino. Mainly slot machines with some table games. Not really tempted to play, I put in $5 each into 2 machines and lost very quickly. Ah well, it’s interesting to watch other people play anyway. Not too comfortable inside the casino as smoking is allowed, and towards the end of the evening when the place was crowded, the smoke was heavy.

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The hotel also had a buffet, and the daily theme was crab legs and steak. The crab legs were good, I had 2 platefuls. The steak was so-so, small pieces grilled and piled into a serving dish made them get cooked quickly. There were other food too, like chicken, pizza, a roast and chinese, but I didn’t try them. Dessert was ice cream and lots of pies: apple, lemon meringue, pumpkin, pecan, chocolate, cheesecake. There were also warm puddings like apple cobbler and bread pudding. I had a little of a pumpkin pie (standard) and bread pudding (good) as well as a root beer float. Overall, a good meal, definitely ate more than the meal’s worth in crab legs.

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Went upstairs to cousin’s room with a great view of the different fireworks going on around the hotel. Put my camera on the windowsill and set the shutter to 1 second. The trick was to press the shutter at the right time, I managed to get a couple of halfway decent pics.


in going places |

mortlach2015

Woke up at 6am, showered and went through the checklist. Morning called mm, and she drove over at 8am to take me to the airport, so nice!!

Check in was straightforward. The plane was full, so I got upgraded to premium economy. When I checked in 48hrs ago, there were only 3 available seats, so I thought something was up. We had a quick breakfast, then I had to go in. On the way to the gate, I stopped by the duty free out of habit. They had Mortlach in the new bottle, so I tried that. Nothing special, to be honest. May be too early in the day.

The flight was definitely very full. Even in premium economy. Looked like they upgraded a bunch of people from economy, because couples/familes weren’t seated together and there was a scramble with people swapping seats.

I couldn’t sleep very well even though they pulled the curtains so only around 30 people in the cabin and it was fairly quiet. So I spent almost the entire flight watching season 5 of bake-off. Great season as usual, very skilled group of contestants.

Flight arrived early, at 1.30pm. I was prepared for a long wait at customs, but now that they’ve gone electronic, it was so much faster. Luggage came out at a reasonable time too. Carleen came to pick me up (thanks, dear!) and we went for a quick Mexican meal before heading back to her house. Unpacked and showered.

Very tired, couldn’t open my eyes much longer. Went to bed at 8pm.

in going places |

shunde201507path

For the second time in a week, we’re off to shunde again. I stayed over at mm’s last night because we were catching the 7am coach from the stop near her place. I checked the bus schedule, the earliest bus that would go to the coach station is 6.30am, which doesn’t leave enough time for me. Didn’t sleep well last night, struggled to wake up at 5.30am. Slept a bit on the coach, compared to during the week, there were a lot more people, coaches and traffic. The journey took longer.

The purpose of going up was to visit the cemetery. They moved her sis up there last year, and it’s the first time either of us had visited. We paid our respects and said short prayers.

There was time after lunch before the return coach. We (me, mm, her brother) used the time wisely at a massage place opposite the coach station. Foot massage with additional head and shoulder massage. Perfect timing to catch the bus back. Traffic again but few people at the border so crossing was fast.

Quick dinner with her mum, then we went our separate ways home. Tired. But still needed to do laundry—hot day meant wet and smelly clothes.


in going places |

We hadn’t been back to mm’s shunde home for probably a year, and although she has a cleaner coming in regularly, there are some things that needed to be done. Most importantly, we had to change out all bedding last night and run a load of laundry. Then set the alarm for early today to run a second load. It still took us till 11.45am before we were able to leave.

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Lunch was at a dim sum restaurant. They served tea in a fancy clay teapot, which we thought was just a way of charging us more. We had a few dim sum dishes, not a lot. The most unusual was a red rice cheung fun stuffed with crispy…something that tasted like the scraps you get at a fish and chip shop. Nice and seems to be healthier.



Ran a few errands after lunch, including getting sidetracked at a tea shop. We were looking for tea for my friend A, which they didn’t have (I actually don’t know what the translation of the tea in question is, so it was a bit harder to ask the people at the shops). We saw some other teas and were able to taste two types of iron buddha and a selection of ginseng oolong. The girl made tea in the traditional way, brewing the tea in a lidded cup then pouring into a pot.

The actual destination was to get a massage. We stayed at the massage place for 3.5hrs, getting a Thai stretching massage, foot massage and head & shoulder massage. Dinner was back near mm’s place.


in going places |

We’re off to Shunde for a few days. Took a mid-afternoon bus, arrived around 5pm. Got a public bus then went straight to the restaurant to meet her dad for dinner. Chicken, fish, vegetables and a dessert of steamed milk in young coconut. No internet. No fb, twitter, bbc, guardian and all the websites I normally use.


in going places |

eutrip083trip

I finally got the trip pics sorted and uploaded. From 3267 I whittled them down to just over 2000 in 10 sets:
holland belgium: lily | almere, naarden, oostvaardersplassen, amsterdam | antwerp, brussels, mechelen
italy: florence | siena | assisi | rome
ireland, uk: dublin, cork, ring of kerry | london | cotswolds

in going places , on the relationship front |

After 2 months’ of inactivity, mm’s car’s battery died. The mechanic from roadside assistance arrived quickly and we all spent a considerable amount of time trying to find the battery!! The car is a hybrid so there are 2 engines under the bonnet; ah, modern engines, we couldn’t find the point for jump starting the car. The mechanic had to call in to his colleagues for help. The battery is actually located underneath the back passenger seat, strange.

rivervillage01farm rivervillage02farmer

Anyway, we got the car started and went off to charge up the car with a long drive to the countryside. We ended up at “village on the river” 河上鄉 where uncle wong lives. Had all-you-can-eat sweet tofu and walked around the canals and farms. Luckily there was a breeze otherwise it would have been a very hot day. The fields were photogenic and we saw a woman farmer crouched in the middle of the field.

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Between the fields and the canal there was a corner where we spotted a bunch of old pianos, just abandoned there. So sad. No clue how and why they were there.


in 101.1001 , going places |

eutrip012flrponte eutrip027stfrancis

Task #98 of 101.1001 is to visit one of the 101 wishlist travel places defined in task #27. I managed to check off two from that list: assisi and tuscany on our europe trip.

Not going to repeat the travel reports, linking:
florence: day 06 | day 07 | day 09 | day 10 | day 11
siena: day 08
assisi: day 12 | day 13 | day 14 | day 15

There’s a reason why these places are on so many bucket lists. We spent almost a week in florence and 4 days in assisi and barely scratched the surface of what there was to see and experience. We also were very blessed with the people we met, and got to take part in palm sunday in assisi. We agreed that we could have stayed much, much longer. Weeks, months. Tuscany has everything: beautiful scenery, culture, food, a magical vibe. Assisi has the spirituality, and beautiful scenery too.


in going places |

Technically today is still a travelling day so I’m calling it europe day 33. Fight was about 20mins early but the gain was completely wiped out by the slow-moving taxi queue. I had a lot with me—big suitcase, check-in backpack, hand luggage backpack, small bag with chocolates, duty free purchases. My major purchases were chocolate & snacks mostly for mum, tons of fridge magnets and 5 bottles of whisky. The heaviest were the whiskies at 6kg, I think I’ve done well to keep the weight manageable. I’m glad of mm’s silver status that gave us an extra 10kg.

Unpacked very slowly, then showered and did laundry. Another reason for airbnb: we did most of our laundry in London so our suitcases were mostly filled with clean clothes and I really only had 3/4 of a full load when I got home.

eutrip082pics

I’ll be jetlagged for a week or two while I work on post-trip stuff. Immediate concerns are to pay utilities and credit card bills. Trip spreadsheet is a matter of data entry and checking FX charged by credit cards. There are 3,267 images to sort and upload so this will take a while. I’m estimating around 1,500 when I’m done. At least we’ve had wifi throughout the trip so I’ve been able to post reports daily.

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The day before we set off, mm’s brother got us a simple fitness band and we have been tracking our steps and sleep all trip. We have to sync it to the mifit app, as there is no display on the tracker itself. According to mifit, I walked 285km at an average of 8.93km for 32 days; 456,276 steps average 14,259 per day. I read that the band may be 25% off, which may account for why mine would show 10,000+ steps while mm’s show 3,000. An average of 6.5km and 10,700 steps average per day seems more reasonable. There were days especially in Netherlands and Italy that we walked a lot; once we got to Ireland we had the car and in London we stayed in quite a lot.


in going places |

taliskerdarkstorm

I’m never this inefficient with packing or getting going. We spent the morning lounging around and lunch eating the last of our foods—lamb shoulder, fennel, bagel, rocket, pepper, yogurt. We simply didn’t want the trip to end, and were reluctant to get going, sigh.

But all good trips come to an end. Minicab and train to heathrow, speedy check-in and we had loads of time to browse around the duty-free. Bought a Talisker Dark Storm, which we had the opportunity to try. £42.99 for 1l is good value. I had in mind getting the Balvenie triple cask 16 at the airport, but was more drawn towards the Talisker. It’s also a lot cheaper.

The plane wasn’t full but there was someone sitting in our row which was a bummer. Dinner was chicken with rice (average) and breakfast sausage and eggs (fraction better than chicken). Watched Hobbit 5 armies and Hunger Games Mockingjay part 1. Slept for about 2-3hrs, a little uncomfortably.


in going places |

eutrip075lamb eutrip076lamb

Today is the last full day of our trip. Sad, sad, sad. In a way we are both happy to be going home; but we also don’t want the trip to end.

The plan today was to have not a lot of plan. For lunch I made the lamb shoulder we were going to cook yesterday but were too full. Plus roasted fennel and asparagus. There were salt, pepper and italian seasoning at the flat but the garlic on the shelf was too dry. I used bits of fennel and asparagus to add flavour to the lamb. It worked out very very good, may be needed 2 more minutes of cooking, but we like rare to medium rare. Served on this long wooden board, just like Jamie.

No plans, except to walk around. Walked down Kilburn High Road through Paddington Rec to Little Venice. My home grounds. I can’t help it, I gravitate towards Maida Vale whenever I can. It’s in my bones.

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We skipped the cafés at Warwick Avenue and the canal boat waterside café. It started to drizzle and get cold so we stopped at an aussie café along the canal for tea and cake. Afterwards we headed towards m&s—ended up buying a whole lot of stuff. Bus back towards Kilburn, bought more stuff for dinner and to bring back. We don’t have a huge baggage allowance and we’d been careful about what we packed and bought. There’s still space for important stuff like whisky, cereal, tea bags and even a couple of bags of kale.


in going places |

After dropping off the rental car we ended up sitting at a pub drinking tea and coffee for 2 hours. Mostly I listened while mm talked. We compared our favourite highlights of the trip—I gave short descriptions and she mostly stuck with long speeches.

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Lunch was at comptoir libanais at St Christopher’s Place. A semi-chain (like Leon and Carlucci’s I suppose) of casual Lebanese food in a colourful and cheerful restaurant. We had grilled halloumi and hummous to start, followed by a lamb tagine and lamb fattet. Originally I wanted to go to (pun intended) Orignal Tagines behind Edgware Road but I found out that it’s closed. We liked this new discovery, yes the tagine wasn’t as original or flavoursome—the lamb was cooked separately then spooned onto couscous—the couscous was still good. It was the first time we tried fattet—a layered dish with minced lamb, pita bread, pomegranate seeds and tahini yogurt. Quite filling.

Walked around Oxford Street a little, mainly at John Lewis. Admired the new routemasters that had a door at the back. When there is a conductor they remained open like the old style, but with only the driver the doors closed like a regular bus.

Went to Borough Market for a stroll to discover the layout had changed. Seemed larger with more corridor and walking space. The real destination was whisky exchange to buy that bottle of Ardbeg Supernova I saw the other day. Apparently it’s a committee release which supposedly made it even more special. We also discovered that a bottle of Mortlach 16, which I bought for £45 in Edinburgh 3 years ago, is now retailing for £95. And I was thinking of opening my bottle. I’m now going to put in safely back on the shelves.


in going places |

eutrip071bibury

Destination today was Bibury in the Cotswolds. We drove out to Cheltenham and Gloucester occasionally when we were living in London, and mm saw some pictures on fb about a village near Cheltenham called Bibury. Looked very idyllic and beautiful. Rented a car today from a slow and inefficient Hertz office and drove out on the A40 and M40—home turf.

Bibury was further than I thought, and it’s 8 miles off the A40 when I thought from google maps that it’s right on top. We parked at a quiet street and walked around the church and green. Had a picnic lunch of drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs and red peppers. Walked further to the picturesque part of the village. No wonder the Cotswolds attracts so many visitors. Definitely befitting the area being designated an area of outstanding beauty.

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There was a small river full of trout and ducks. A few bridges. And rows of houses made with Cotswold stone. We walked as far as the Swan Hotel, crossed the bridge and had a tea/coffee at the trout farm.

eutrip073bibury

The other side of the village, where the church is, is quieter. The church was pretty, with old tombstones in its graveyard. The village was extremely beautiful, yet it felt cold and the locals weren’t very friendly. Even for a weekday, there were quite a few tourists, including a couple of coachloads. Can imagine how busy and crowded it can get during weekends. There were quite a few houses for sale, but we weren’t tempted. Location is a bit in the middle of nowhere, there are virtually no shops and the place is crawling with tourists. Imagine dozens of people taking selfies in front of your garden or even at your windows. Sigh.

From Bibury it was a quick drive to Bicester Village. My sole purpose there was as a sidekick who nodded and helped pick out colours as mm did shopping. She bought a bag, a pair of shoes and a whole bag full of L’Occitane stuff. After the outlet village naturally we went to the Tesco next door. Bought veg, soup, crisps and a half shoulder of lamb for tomorrow—the plan is to return the car, walk around leisurely then come back to make dinner.


in eating and drinking , going places |

eutrip069dishoom

A day of meeting friends in London. Lunch with our friend CC at dishoom behind King’s Cross. The area had definitely gone through a lot of changes, now full of trendy restaurants and shops. Dishoom is an Indian small street food place that is pretty authentic. A mix of modern and Indian railway/godown type decorations. We had a few shared small plates—lamb kebab, fried okra, calamari, daal, naan, roti and the like.

I left mm with our friend and went off to meet my own friends. Met my ex-intern SM at Waterloo and did a tour of the pubs around the Old Vic. He is still working at my ex-ex-ex company and also had some good news to share with me on the family and house front and we had a fantastic chat. It was as if time hadn’t passed.

Dinner was with my friends JE and TH, more great conversation. We shared a 1.1kg prime rib plus sides at Hawksmoor. It was absolutely lovely to see friends, share recent news, and talk about future plans. Hopefully I’ll get to see them in the near future.


in going places |

Today is the second sunday of easter, or the sunday of divine mercy and mm wanted to go to this church in Camden town. It’s a nice small parish church where most of the attendees seemed to know each other. Good mass.

Lunch was my pick and I opted for…Nando’s. Hmmm. Remember when mum and I went to Vancouver and we had Nando’s, it’s the same situation. We had a sharing platter with 4 pieces of chicken and 4 sides. Unlimited soft drinks so I broke my coke zero semi-fast and had many, many glasses.

Camden on a Sunday was crowded. We walked through a part of the market then headed towards the tube station, our destination was London Bridge for The Whisky Exchange. We got there after 3pm so Borough Market itself was closed.

eutrip067twe

The nice people at TWE gave us samples from their bottle-your-own casks—craggenmore, ledaig, arras. Got talking to Duncan Ross, one of the assistant managers there and a fountain of knowledge. He gave us a small sampling of Karuizawa 30yr sherry cask. Wow, wow, wow!! I saw a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova on the shelf and was this close to snapping it up, without concern to how much my suitcase will weigh. Logic prevailed, we’ll see about our total weight first.

eutrip068soupbread

Dinner back at the flat: tomato basil soup with added kale, fresh toscana bread from whole foods, proscuitto from Rome. Laundry and relaxation.


in going places |

A day of errands. The most important task today, and one of the most important of the entire trip, was to renew our passports. Annoyingly, the process of passport renewals got moved back to the UK, so those of us who live overseas have to send our old passports through the mail and wait 6 weeks—some people report the wait is more like 10-12 weeks. Personally I simply don’t have a 12 week window this year that I won’t need my passport, so we take the opportunity of us being in the UK to go for the one day service. I hate, hate, hate having to pay 75% extra over the already extortionate passport fee. Don’t have much of a choice really.

There was also a palava about the passport photo. Again another price gouging exercise. Anyway, we got our application in the morning and our passports were ready for collection in the afternoon. One thing off our minds.

By lunchtime we were hungry. Had rough plans to go to tkts at Leicester Square to check out musicals, so lunch in the West End made sense. We debated between pub food, roast duck noodles or dim sum. When we got off the bus, my feet automatically made their way to Air Street where a dark wooden door had a simple sign above: Hawksmoor. Hahaha, our excuse was we couldn’t figure out where to eat in Central London so we had to find somewhere, anywhere.

eutrip063hawkspottedbeef eutrip064rump

The Air Street branch opened after I left so this was my first time. Liking the first floor location, sunlight helps. The place is also bigger and the tables not so squeezed together. We both opted for the express menu. £24 for 2 courses. To start, potted beef with yorkshires and onion jam. Unusual combination, the potted beef was scrumptious and the yorkies puffed and huge. For mains we had rump steak with baked sweet potato and buttered greens. The steak was a little overcooked so wasn’t perfect. I looked at the wine list, cocktail list and decided on a Rittenhouse Rye. The first time I tried this was at Seven Dials and the bartender there recommended it to me.

Nothing interesting or discounted at tkts so we trekked back to Victoria to get our passports. Back to our airbnb home. It was like going home, in a way. I used to do a lot of grocery shopping at Kilburn High Road too. We hit the shops we needed to get everything we wanted: poundland, superdrug, sainsbury’s, m&s.

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Bought biscuits, chocolate, crisps, popcorn, cereal, yogurt, fruit, juice, tea bags, veg, chicken drumsticks, mini scotch eggs, soup, eggs and a bottle of wine. We went a little crazy, we’re only in London a week, wonder if we can finish everything. Dinner was tomato and bean soup with added kale plus a bagel. Great to have a kitchen. We’ve been trying to keep to this one meal out and one meal at our retreat house / hotel / airbnb throughout the trip. It was also very important that the flat had a washing machine as we were both in dire need to do laundry. We did some handwashing in Assisi and Rome but anything larger than a t-shirt hadn’t been washed since Florence. Did one load, will probably need 2 more loads before we leave.


in going places |

eutrip061shepherdspie eutrip062beefpie

We had half a day in Dublin, so we took a stroll north of the Liffey, crossing the Ha’penny Bridge to the O’Connell and Henry Streets area. Another pedestrianised area with familiar shops. Bought a few more last minute souvenirs. Lunch at Brick Alley café at Temple Bar, back to the €8.95 special—shepherd’s pie, lentil soup and ice cream. Good value, homemade and tasty. This is the other good thing about Ireland—familiar shops, familiar foods, cheaper prices.

Returning the rental car was weird. The person took our keys, checked the car, mileage and fuel. Normally at this point, they’d use a handheld machine to print my receipt, but here at Dublin airport it involved going into the office. Long queue. I never had to queue to return a car. Not very efficient.

Queues at check-in and security too, but we allowed plenty of time. We definitely needed the cushion in order to browse the irish whiskey selection at the airport. Initially my plan was to get the Tullamore DEW 10 year that we tried yesterday. We ended up getting this one, and in talking to the informative guy there, also bought the Tullamore DEW Phoenix special release as well as a Bushmills 16. We have to figure out how to pack all these bottles on the way home.

Early dinner at the airport, shared a beef and guinness pie. I couldn’t resist, I had to get a pint of guinness. It simply won’t do, to spend 4 days in Ireland without tasting a drop of the good stuff. The pie was decent for airport food.

Our flight was about 30mins late coming into heathrow, quite a significant delay considering flight time was just over 1 hour. It was the third time this trip that we landed at heathrow and today we finally made it out of the terminals. From Paddington we took a taxi to the airbnb flat we rented in Kilburn. The host’s cleaning lady was still there, so we had to sit around while she finished.

The flat is a one-bedroom that looks like it’s someone’s home instead of those professional rentals that have infiltrated airbnb. Homely furniture and charmingly decorated. Funny thing is, many things don’t work properly, just like in someone’s home. One of the blinds in the living room fell down, the dishwasher is broken, some of the storage doors don’t close properly, the shower handle comes out when touched. We weren’t looking for anything slick, so this homely place works for us. During this trip we stayed at different types of accommodation, from retreat houses to hotels to airbnb to staying at friends’ home. I think at the end of this trip I can write articles on different types of travel accommodation and how to manage 1 month’s travel on 20kg luggage.

in being healthy , going places |

eutrip057tullamore

Checked out of hotel and were on our way at 10.30am. The destination was Tullamore D.E.W. distillery visitor centre. When we were at heathrow, we met a lady at the whisky tasting counter who had lots of whisky stories and suggested that we visited the visitor centre. She also gave us a note to give to their brand ambassador. Tullamore is 1hr west of Dublin and was a detour from our planned route, so we had high expectations.

eutrip058tullamore

We know better now to skip the tour, especially since it was an exhibition rather than actual working distillery. Enquired about the expressions that would be part of the tasting afterwards, and as usual were not impressed by the selection. The very nice lady at the cash desk gave us 3 even better expressions to sample, free of charge. Generous tasting portions too—12 yr sherry cask, 10 yr four casks, special reserve. First time we tried this whiskey. We were most taken with the 10 year single malt that had been matured in 4 different casks: bourbon, oloroso sherry, port and madeira.

Had lunch at the restaurant, just sandwiches and shared a rhubarb crumble. Sandwiches were good, the crumble was more like crumble pie. Finished with more whiskey tastings—bonded warehouse (available at the visitor centre only) and Phoenix (retail bottles sold out). Still liking the 10yr four casks.

Even though we didn’t take the tour, we enjoyed our visit to the visitor centre. The shop had cool stuff, the tasting samples were generous and the food was fine. Great location next to a canal, so peaceful on a sunny day. I’d recommend this to anyone visiting Dublin, it’s only about 1hr’s drive.


eutrip059bearsteak

When we got back to Dublin we hit a bit of rush hour traffic. Luckily we were booked in the same hotel as before so we knew the way. Checked in and were back out quickly. Strolled to Trinity College for pictures, then made our way to an early dinner at Bear. I’d read that this restaurant offered less popular cuts of steak like onglet, bavette and flank so we were keen to try it out. We were not disappointed. A huge (900g-1kg) bavette, chargrilled rare, arrived at our table together with the 2 sides we ordered—crispy kale and cauliflower cheese. Delicious and definitely different from the usual sirloin and rib-eye. We would definitely come again.

Still enough time before sunset to walk to St Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals then to Tesco before returning to our room.


in going places |

Breakfast at hotel—full irish breakfast (like full english with black & white puddings). Left later than expected at 10.20am. Delay on N22 with a 15-20min wait for convoy construction meant we reached Killarney after 12pm. Stopped at tourist information to get maps and wasted further time at the outlet shopping centre. Thankfully there were only a few shops there.

Set off on the Ring of Kerry route at 1pm. The scenic route is a 179km (111 miles) loop through the rugged coastline of the Iveragh peninsula. It’s one of Ireland’s most popular destination and can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise. Guidebooks say buses go anti-clockwise so drivers may want to go the other way but we ended up anti-clockwise anyway. Still early in the season and didn’t see many coaches. I drove quite aggressively through the initial parts of the ring to try to gain some time. First stop was at Caherciveen, a quaint little town which we thought was on the coast but was actually inland. Nixed the idea of lunching at a seafood restaurant; went to a local café instead and had homemade soup with brown bread and apple strudel.

eutrip054valentia

The Ring of Kerry led to the Skellig Ring, another loop through the deep coastal part of the peninsula. The car ferry that led to Valentia island was closed so we drove on and crossed via a bridge. Climbed up a very steep gravel road to Shepherd’s View viewpoint on Geokaun Mountain which offered a 360º view of the island and the ocean. Very spectacular. Very windy.

eutrip055portmagee

The bridge crossed back to the mainland at Portmagee, another quaint little coastal village. Wished we had more time to explore, but it was past 4pm and time to push on to finish the Skellig Ring and rejoin the Ring of Kerry.

eutrip056view

The route between Waterville and Catherdaniel was all rugged, dramatic coastline and secluded beaches. There were a few viewpoints and we stopped at a few. Again, feeling rushed so couldn’t stop for as often or as long as we liked. The sun was out, the sky and sea were blue and it was very windy. By then mm had taken over the driving and progress was slower. Headed back to Cork, reached hotel past 8pm, later than we wanted.

Not a lot of choices for dinner, so we opted for the hotel restaurant. The hotel was obviously recently renovated (some rooms on our corridor were still being stripped and we could see/hear contractors drilling and the like). The staff in the restaurant at both breakfast and dinner could do with more training—they were all very keen but service was not as efficient as an established restaurant crew. We had soup and mussels to start and lamb shank (mm) and pan-fried hake (me) as mains. Got a Bushmills 10 from the bar to take back to our room.

A full day at the Ring of Kerry. Felt rushed, even though what we saw was extremely beautiful. Definitely need a return trip.


in going places |

Didn’t sleep well (too warm, curtains didn’t close properly and pigeons cooing outside), woke up to lots of happy birthday greetings from family and friends. Trying not to get too unhappy about getting older.

Checked out, got car, loaded our luggage and were on our way at 10am. A short detour took us off course but we found the motorway to Cork eventually. The signposts were informative, it was a glorious sunny day, perfect for driving. Part of the motorway had tolls, in general the quality of the road was excellent and not too many cars and lorries.

First stop was for a loo break, then around 12.30pm we reached Cashel. Took pictures of the rock (a lot like rocca maggiore in Assisi), didn’t go inside the castle. Weren’t hungry so we pushed on. The destination was Midleton to the Jameson distillery experience.

eutrip053midleton

We weren’t interested in the tour, just browsed around the shop. Had a great lunch at the restaurant—lamb shank for me, irish stew for mm. Tasted a dram of green spot irish whiskey at the bar.

Drove the short distance to Cork, found parking and headed towards the English Market to catch them before they close. It’s a small indoor market with stalls selling fruit & veg, meat, fish and dried goods. Some of the stalls were closed and others were closing, we bought oysters from a fish stall. One of the fishmongers came to take a picture with me.

Visited a souvenir shop, then to M&S for dinner. Yep, for my birthday dinner I opted to get M&S chicken drumstick, noodle salad and rocket to have at our hotel. It was a good choice, we had some troubles finding the hotel and needed the directions of a friendly Korean chef at a pizzeria. The hotel, when we reached it, was a sight for sore eyes. Free parking, huge luxurious room, walk-in shower, air-conditioning and curtains that close. Had a drink (redbreast 15) at the bar brought to our room to have with our dinner.


in going places |

I’m quite proud that we booked the yotel at T4, because it was so convenient to take the free train to T2 to catch our flight to Dublin. Only 1hr and then we got the car rental shuttle. Quite a lengthy process to get our rental car, a toyota corolla. Somehow we got off the motorway and ended up in the north suburbs. I’ve only been to Dublin once, 3 years ago, and didn’t have a car then so it was a while before I got my bearings. Plus the combination of one-way systems and bank holiday traffic, it took us many wrong turns to find our hotel. Not helped by its obscure location at the top of Temple Bar, with the entrance next to Tesco..

Once we parked, unloaded and checked in, we went in search of food. Found a nice little casual café (the sort with shared wooden tables and artwork on exposed walls) that was still serving lunch. Had the special of shepherd’s pie, salad and ice cream. I had a local cider too.

eutrip050whiskeyshop

Had some time for a little shopping. Traditional sweet shop (the sort that should be called a shoppe) and Tesco. Walked down Grafton Street, aiming at the Celtic Whiskey shop. Ahhhh. So many Irish whiskeys, so little time.

eutrip051steak

Dinner was a special date, to celebrate both our birthdays. I booked Butcher Grill at Ranelagh. Last time in Dublin with RM, we made the trip especially to Ranelagh for this, and it was no different this time. Easy enough to get the tram from St Stephen’s Green. We started with half a dozen sweet Irish rock oysters (the sort with only needed a few drops of lemon juice). Then for mains we had their côte de boeuf for two, on Mondays and Tuesdays this is reduced to €45. Came with beans and onion rings which we substituted for fries. A delicious cut of steak: tender and succulent on the bone. Different from Hawksmoor steak, less intense, sweeter.

Tram then walk back to our hotel. Final celebration was birthday cake in the form of one-bite miniature red velvet cupcakes. Perfect.


in going places |

Early start, left retreat house at 8.30am. It’d been raining and thundery all night, and it was still raining quite heavily when we left. Nearer the Vatican, the crowds suddenly got very thick. There were plenty of bottlenecks and no one knew where to go. Whilst the other Italians were complaining at the volunteers, we struck up a short chat with a Canadian volunteer. He was there to open and close one gate. It was pandemonium, our new friend said that they were expecting 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square for Easter mass.

We had tickets but couldn’t find our way to the proper ticketed area. It was pouring, everyone was wet, anxious and cranky. We found a spot near the front of one of the non-ticketed sections and decided to stay put.

It was very cold and wet. We got to our spot at 9.30am, the mass started at 10.15am. The rain got heavier, we were trying to follow the readings and gospel and our mass booklet got so wet and ruined. Luckily around the Communion stage the skies cleared up enough for most umbrellas to be put away.



After mass ended, there was a sense of anticipation as everybody pushed forward towards the corridors. Pope Francis came by in his Popemobile, we saw him twice. Our spot was just behind a couple of shorter people so we had a great view of him coming by.

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The Pope returned to his apartment and came out to the balcony to give us the urbi et orbi blessing. It was definitely a blessing to be there in person for the day.

It started to rain again, and at 12.30pm we’d been standing outside for 3 hours. We were SHIVERING. Our hands and feet were numb and even with an umbrella and waterproof coats we were completely soaked. We were grateful that our retreat house was so near, we still struggled to walk back to the café opposite. Tea, hot chocolate and a hot meal of pizza and gnocchi.

Back across the road to collect ouf luggage and say goodbye to the sisters. Sister Donatella gave us each a book about the convent, so touched. The taxi came at 2pm and took us to the airport direct—would have cost around the same to get a taxi to the train station and a train. Check in was straightforward, boarding was efficient and the flight to LHR was 2.5hrs. We got our bags and went to M&S to get juice. Free bus to T4 and we were in our cabin at the yotel and settled.


in going places |

eutrip043navona

Our last full day in Italy, and the weather turned from blue skies to cloudy and rainy. Took the subway to the Coliseum and ran into a wall of people. Walked around the southern end and around Palatine Hill.

Happily came across a local market. Fruit & veg, cheese, meat, flowers, snacks. We bought breadsticks and biscuits from a very nice man. Had early lunch at the market too—sausages with greens and lasagna. Simple, homemade.

Walked through the city, heading towards Campo di Fiore market. Stopped for gelato and coffee. The market is supposed to be a big food market but we were disappointed. Yes it was big, with fruit & veg, pasta, cheese, sweets, oil, vinegar, clothing and bags. The disappointing part was that it catered purely for tourists, unlike the other market that was almost all locals.

It had started to rain, we headed to Piazza Navona, Santa Maria Maddalena church and the Pantheon. Found a small trattoria in a side street and had early dinner of stuffed courgette flowers, spaghetti cacio e pepe and fettucine funghi porcini. We were so early that the kitchen had barely opened, the cooks and waiters were watching football on tv.

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The route back to our retreat house took us across the river and a classic view of Ponte St Angelo with St Peter’s Basilica in the background in the evening sun. There was a commotion at St Peter’s, as the people who were attending tonight’s vigil mass almost stampeded inside the security area.

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Shopping at the supermarket then back to our room to shower and re-pack. Here’s a random pic in Rome, of a line of smartcars parked at the side of the street.


in challenges , going places , photography is life |

Started the day feeling dizzy with a heavy-head headache. Managed to walk a couple of blocks to a nearby bar café for some vegetables before needing to head back to our room. [TMI]Promptly threw up the food.[/TMI]. Slept for a few hours until around 3pm. Did about 12mins of mindfulness meditation, ate some pasta, drank lots and lots and lots of water and juice. Feeling a more human but still slightly dizzy. No idea why I suddenly got sick, and we decided it wasn’t worth speculating. The important thing is to quickly get better. I feel bad about wasting a day but mm, bless her, doesn’t see it that way. I leaned on her all the way walking this morning, and she ran up and down to the vending machine and across the road to the supermarket to get stuff. In a way, today Good Friday was as good a day to get some rest. We’re at halfway through our trip and aside from 2 masses (the next one is Easter Sunday mass) and the Sistine Chapel (which we covered yesterday), we don’t have anywhere pressing to go. If I continue to feel under the weather, I’ll try to hold on until London so I can go see my GP.

I did manage to upload the photos that were tasks #21-30 of 30.30: take 10 photos over 10 days. I set these tasks deliberately knowing that I would be travelling the second half of march and figured it would be easier. One would have thought that there were plenty of opportunities in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgium, Florence, Siena and Assisi to take 10 simple photos. I don’t know if it’s the subjects I picked but it wasn’t as straightforward, may be it’s because I kept forgetting. Managed to get 10 photos in the end. Posting thumbnails, click for full size.

21colour 22shape 23direction 24loud 25morning
26nexttome 27numbers 28old 29people 30water

  1. a colour
  2. a shape
  3. direction
  4. loud
  5. morning
  6. next to me
  7. numbers
  8. old
  9. people
  10. old


Challenge is done. I’ll post the final update.

in going places |

eutrip040chrismmass

9.30am mass at the Vatican meant leaving our retreat house at 8.15am, even though we were only 10mins’ walk away. Had to find the right queue, go through security and find seats. We sat around the middle of the basilica, together with many many faithful with tickets. Note to self: next time, apply for more tickets than needed because there were many fathers and sisters from all over the world without tickets. Hopefully they were able to watch the mass from outside in St Peter’s Square.

The mass was in Latin, with some Italian. We could follow as the mass booklet had English translation. This was the Chrism mass, or blessings of the oils—the oils that would be used for baptism, the sick and others throughout the year. They were containers as large as whisky barrels—must use up a lot of oil at the Vatican a year. Pope Francis delivered the homily in Italian, and it was quite lengthy, we wished we could understand it. It was still a blessed experience. Communion was very efficient, with many many fathers stationed at strategic points that meant we only had a few steps to move from our seats. Lots of people taking pictures, and we were a bit too far to take clear ones of the Pope. The mass was very long, finishing around 12pm. We didn’t mind, mm was a lot happier than me about it, obviously.

Quick lunch at a shady spot at the square next to the Vatican. Shared the St Francis bread we bought at Assisi. We probably looked like poor students, sitting forlornly there sharing one piece of bread, one of the the street vendors that were selling souvenirs, selfie sticks or fake handbags approached us, took one look at us, and walked away. Hahaha!

We’d pre-booked tickets for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel for an extra €4. Totally well worth the additional cost, the queue for tickets looked like it was an hour long. We breezed through, got our entrance tickets, audioguide and went the the bathroom. Then we joined the masses. Oh boy, it was crowded. Lots of slow moving tour groups as well as hundreds of thousands of visitors.

eutrip041vaticanmuseum

The whole place was a one-way system through the Vatican museum, full of ancient artefacts, sculptures as well as Renaissance paintings and frescos. The audioguide was helpful in explaining the history and story behind many of the exhibits. One of my favourite rooms was the Galleria delle Carte Geographie, with both sides filled with ancient and modern (for the period) maps of the world and Italy. The roof was more intricate frescos. I left the bottom of the pic intact, to show the sheer crush of the crowd. We were quite tired halfway through the museum, so we stopped for coffee, tea and a slice of cake at a strategically placed coffee shop.

The main attraction of the visit was the Sistine Chapel. For all the times I’d visited Rome and the Vatican, this was my first time there. There were signs before we reached the Sistine Chapel that it was a sacred place so everybody should be silent and no photography was allowed. The chapel was absolutely stunning. It was also as crowded as the Tube at 5.30pm. Difficult to find room even to stand. Every 5 minutes or so the staff had to announce to the crowds to observe the silence and no photography rules. The experience could have been ruined by the crowds, but it wasn’t, because of the unbelieveable brilliance of Michaelangelo’s work. The audioguide talked us through each aspect of the frescos, from the depiction of God’s creation of Man, Man’s temptation and the Original Sin on the ceiling; to the 12 frescos on the side telling various Biblical stories (Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus handing the keys to St Peter); to the entire wall at the entrance dedicated to the Last Judgement. We learned a lot, and didn’t want to leave.

Strolled through the rest of the museum, mainly consisting of gift shops and more exhibits. Since we’d only eaten half a St Francis bread the whole day we were famished. Went to the supermarket and bought a feast: lamb cutlets, rocket (on sale at 99c, we bought 2 boxes), tomatoes, burrata. Enough time to do some handwashing too. So happy to be back in our room before 7pm.

in going places |

Last morning in the retreat house in Assisi. Had breakfast, final packing then checked out. There was a 9am mass in the chapel, which mm attended while I used the internet in the sitting room. Our train was at 11.26am, so we left with plenty of time to catch the bus to the station. We’d scoped out the route to the bus stop yesterday—it was mostly pavement, about 12 steps up then 2 lifts through a car park so we figured we could manage.

The train was quite full, and the teenagers sitting next to us were quite noisy. The train stopped at one of the outer platforms at Rome Termini so it was quite a trek to the taxi stand. The taxi driver was helpful and friendly, we got to the retreat house without any drama. This retreat house is within walking distance to the Vatican, around the corner from the small market my parents and I visited twice during our two stops at Rome in the past 2 years. Yep, this is my third visit to Rome in as many years, and the area is becoming slightly familiar.

eutrip037retreathouse

Anyway, the retreat house is at the corner of a busy side street, with 5 storeys. Luckily there is a lift. The Sisters were so warm and nice, there was even a helper lady who translated for us. Sister Donatella spoke a little English, and we communicated with the other Sisters with lots of grazie and si. Our room is a very large twin with lots of room to walk around and a private bathroom. A very old 14” tv which we unplugged because we needed the plug for our charging station (I set up an extension cord so we can charge 2 iphones, 1 ipad, 2 cameras, 2 fitness trackers and occasionally 1 external battery). No internet in the room, we knew that when we booked. We asked the Sisters and heard the good news that there is internet in the common room. We don’t mind coming down here to use wifi every night, that’s what we did at Assisi.

Had a late lunch at the café bar opposite. Spaghetti alle vongole and a side of grilled vegetables. Glass of house red for me. The spaghetti was nice but ultra salty. It was past 4pm so it was probably early dinner / high tea.

eutrip038vaticantickets

Next stop was the Vatican. We knew we had tickets for the mass on Easter Sunday in my name, but the confirmation letter for mm’s application never arrived, so we thought we’d check with the office to see if she got lucky with her application too. There was the perpetual long queue for security, and we figured it wasn’t the right place. Asked the Swiss Guards and were directed to the side entrance to pick up tickets. No problem for the ones in my name, I had the letter and reference number. When mm explained that she was travelling and missed the confirmation letter, the nice guy checked her name and yay! we have tickets for mass tomorrow with Papa Francesco.

Strolled around for a bit. Had a gelato, bought some magnets, headed to the bridges and the river. So different from Florence and Assisi. Florence, though touristy, is still a small town. Assisi, again touristy, is an even smaller town and felt more intimate and peaceful. Rome, well, it’s Rome. It’s noisy, busy, full of beggars and people selling selfie sticks. You fight with cars and buses and a million other tourists when you cross the road. There is a special smell and atmosphere. It’s Rome.

in going places |

eutrip033porziuncola

For a change we were out relatively early, caught the 10.10am bus to Santa Maria degli Angeli near the train station. This was the site of Porziuncola, a church that was already standing in St Francis’ and St Clare’s time. This was the second church rebuilt by St Francis. The original church was still standing, a tiny sacred stone building with a simple altar and single pews. Over the small church in the 1500s they built the basilica which had many small chapels and ornate decorations. We went into a chapel for prayer, and, as per our experience so far this trip, the chapel filled with people and all of a sudden organ music rang out and we found ourselves participating in a mass. It was quite nice, even though we couldn’t understand any of the Italian.

eutrip034stclare

There was a lot to see at the rest of the cathedral. The various chapels, a rose garden, sculptures of St Francis and a statue of St Clare dedicated by mm’s mum’s school. It was quite moving to see the name of the school so prominently displayed amongst an exhibit showing St Clare’s life. There was also a small cinema and we caught a 10min film about the church and its significance in St Francis’ life. The Porziuncula attracts many pilgrims because St Francis obtained the Indulgence of Pardon, or total forgiveness for all temporal sins, from Jesus here.

eutrip035bosco

Lunch at at nearby café of pizza, pasta and salad. Caught a bus back to near St Francis Basilica so we could visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or St Francis’ Woodlands. This was where he went to pray and experience nature. There was a 1.5km trail to a small church Santa Croce, then another 2.5km roundtrip to Terzo Paradiso (three paradise), an art installation of 3 circles made from an olive grove. The hike was pleasant if quite long. Since the path from the basilica entrance to Santa Croce closed at 4pm we had to return to town via a tarmac road. On the map it looked less than the 1.5km trail but the map didn’t show that it was all uphill. We got back into Assisi proper past 6pm.

Refuelled with water and gelato. Bought tomatoes and peppers from a small greengrocer’s and wandered into a gourmet shop wanting porchetta panini. We got our porchetta sandwiches, the friendly shopkeeper gave us parma ham to try and we ended up buying a few slices which she packed in vacuum. Perfect to bring back for the family. Dinner was late, almost 8pm, in our room. Laundry was dry, suitcases packed for the next leg of our trip. Rome and the Vatican over Easter. I’m excited for the occasion but very wary of the potential crowds. We met a young Father from Michigan here at the retreat house and he says he will be at Easter Sunday mass too and they anticipate 50,000 or more people. Yikes.

in going places |

eutrip027stfrancis

We finally found the wifi password at the retreat house and spent the morning catching up, uploading and posting. Also took time to do laundry so it wasn’t until around noon that we set off. The first destination today was Basilica di San Francesco, the largest basilica and the primary attraction of Assisi. The basilica consisted of the lower basilica built in 1230 and the upper basilica built in 1239, together with other buildings dedicated to St Francis, St Clare, St Anthony and many other saints. We waited till after the weekend, hoping for thinner crowds. There were plenty of visitors still, although the complex was big enough for there to be space between groups.

eutrip028stfrancis

The iconic entrance to the lower basilica through a sloped pavement was like steps taken by pilgrims. The façade of the upper basilica overlooked a lawn with a statue of St Francis on horseback. Both basilicas were extensively painted with frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis. The lower basilica led to the tomb of St Francis, a sacred place. There was also an exhibition of Franciscian manuscripts.



While we were at the upper basilica, a group of teenagers and their teacher stood respectfully in front of the altar and broke out into song. Afterwards, we found out that they were a choir group from Minnesota on pilgrimage. The acoustics of the basilica was such that the song seemed to echo and reverberate around all of us who were there at the right place at the right time. Some of the kids were so overcome with emotions that they were in (happy) tears at the end of the spontaneous recital. As a bonus, photography wasn’t allowed inside the basilica, but with the choir singing, everybody took the opportunity to take pictures or videos without being scolded by the staff.

All in all, an interesting and meaningful visit. Almost all of Assisi was full of St Francis or St Clare, it was like we couldn’t turn around and there was another place where they were born / prayed / baptised / lived. Everywhere were stories. Every wall had a dedication. I could see why pilgrims flock here. Am I overwhelmed? Not necessarily by the spirituality, but by the sheer preponderance of everything associated with the saints. It’s like being immersed in saintliness.

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Quick late lunch of average pizza at the most unfriendly place this trip—the silver lining was free loo and free wifi. Hiked uphill to rocca maggiore, the highest point of Assisi and a fort located on the remains of defensive walls. We debated whether to shell out the €5.50 entrance fee and since we made all the effort to trek there, seemed a waste just to turn back. What appeared to be old walls made up of piles of rocks turned out to be really interesting. A dark, hidden doorway led via a spiral staircase up one of the towers. The walls were too high for us to see much.

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A secret passageway from the first tower ran underneath the walls and came out at to another tower, this one with breathtaking 360º views of Assisi, from the rocca minore furthest east, to San Ruffino Cathedral, Basilica Santa Chiara, almost the entire town and the Basilica San Francesco. It was quite scary as the fence was open, so eventually my fear of heights kicked in.

Like last night, we bought porchetta sandwiches to enjoy in our room while we relax in peace and quiet. Last day tomorrow, still have a lot planned.

in going places |



The clocks changed overnight, and we thought we would pre-empt by manually setting our iphones but somehow they updated themselves so we woke up way too early at 6.30am. Sat in chapel for a bit then back to our room to wait for 7.30am breakfast. Similar continental food as Florence retreat house. We noticed all (seriously, 100%) of the other guests were American, and the sort who: a) talk loudly even at 7.30am; b) talk loudly about themselves, about their faith, about how even they were the only member of their family who was Catholic, about how coming to Assisi for pilgrimage utterly change their lives; c) were quite demanding to the sisters and staff. Some stereotypes are true.

One of the sisters told us about the events today, Palm Sunday. We headed to the main square at just before 9.30am where a crowd had gathered around baskets of olive branches. We picked out a nice bunch each and waited for the fathers to appear and bless the branches. Mostly olive branches although there were a few palm fronds. After the blessing, there was a procession towards the Cathedral San Ruffino. The choir leader sang us up the hill and into the cathedral. The mass was in Italian and I was able to follow at least the procedures, if not the words. We could follow the Gospel because mm had it on her iphone. Mostly the mass was similar in structure to what we were used to. Afterwards a few nice gentlemen in official looking grey overcoats took pictures with us. We stayed behind after the mass to take pictures of the cathedral.

Early lunch at a sandwich shop next to the cathedral of torta with rocket & ricotta and pancetta & mozzarella. Back to the retreat house to deposit our olive branches and take a rest. The next stop was the long walk (1.5km) to San Damiano, the sanctuary where St Francis heard the voice of Christ and where St Clare established a convent. A crisp cold morning had turned into a glorious blue sky day. The sanctuary was locked when we got there, and we were afraid it was closed. But people kept appearing and sitting patiently outside on benches. It was 1.55pm so we figured it might open at 2pm. Yay, we were right!

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It was free to enter and we walked through the chapel, dormitory and cloisters. Supposed to be silence and no photography but people were taking pictures at will and this woman was talking on her phone (thought she got shushed).

A longer walk uphill back to town. Really tired so found a café and ordered a large bottle of water plus snacks of pizza and pasta. Further visits to S. Maria Maggiore and San Pietro churches. The churches were beginning to blend into each other. And it seemed everywhere we turned, it was someplace St Francis stayed at or did something. I guess it’s par for the course.

Souvenir shopping led us to St Francis Basilica. It was getting late and our plan was to visit it tomorrow. Not a huge amount of choices for dinner so we bought porchetta sandwiches and headed back to our room to relax and have an early night.

in going places |

Checked out of our room after breakfast and left our luggage in their sitting room while we popped outside to the supermarket to get lunch. There was a little time to visit the chapel and lounge in the sitting room. Sister Lucia called a taxi for us, around 10mins to the station. Waited at the concourse for our train to come up on the board. Departure was at 12.09, and it was a semi-fast regional train with no reservation. We snagged a 4-seater and wedged our suitcases in between the seats. There was space near the door but nothing to secure the bags, and too exposed with so many stops. Lunch was mushroom and pepper foccacia from the supermarket, with smoked cheese and a black (squid ink?) foccaccia.

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Arrived at Assisi around 2.45pm. The station is 4km from town so taxi seems to be the only option with 2 big suitcases. The retreat house is St Anthony’s run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement and we were greeted by Sister Sue. I think she’s from the US. She showed us to our room and we got settled down then explored the retreat house. Our room is the one at the bottom right with the balcony. This retreat house is different from the one in Florence. Seemed to be slightly more business-like with housekeeping staff. There is a chapel, a multi-level garden and a few more house rules. There were specific rooms we could go, the dining room was locked, whereas in Florence we had the run of the place at all time.

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We had a couple of hours of daylight left so we headed to Basilica Santa Chiara or St Clare’s Cathedral. St Clare has an equally important place in Assisi’s history as St Francis and the Basilica was very beautiful especially in the late afternoon sunlight. There was a service inside, we sat and listened for a while then visited the crucifix chapel and the crypt where St Clare was interred. Making our way to the central Piazza del Comune square we passed by Chiesa Nuova, site of St Francis’ paternal home and Santa Maria Dopra Minerva at the square. Assisi is a typical Mediterranean town, narrow hilly cobblestoned streets and stone houses. Very pretty in the evening light.

Dinner was at a touristy deli type place, the sort where the food is reheated and served on paper plates. Pizza margherita, penne arrabiata and grilled vegetables. The pizza was passable, the penne was from the packet and the grilled vegetables more like ratatouille. For a moment there we thought we were in south of France. A large house red was the best bargain. It was almost dark so we made our way back to the retreat house. There didn’t seem to be a supermarket in town, we stopped at a vegetable store and bought some tomatoes. They had wine on tap so I got a 1l plastic bottle of sangiovese for €2 (plus 0.90 for the bottle). Tasted fine.

Had to get used to a new room and new bathroom. This retreat house, aside from having no internet, also had no laundry facilities so we will be handwashing a few items a day. It was a completely clear sky tonight, chilly with lots of stars in the sky. Could see all of Orion.

in about me , going places |

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Rainy day plus a late start due to laundry meant we spent the day in Florence instead of taking a day trip out to Tuscany. It means we only get to go to Siena this trip. I’m a little disappointed although mm preferred to stay in town.

Headed to south of the river to Piazzale Michaelangelo. A long trek up steps brought us to a wide open square with spectacular view of the city. The rain stopped long enough for the sun to peek out to give us even better views.

Quite a lot to see and do over there. There were 2 churches next to the square, a small church associated with a missionary and the basilica San Miniato al Monte which had a spectacular view to the city as well as an extensive cemetery behind the church. In front of the square is a small garden with roses and citrus trees, very pleasant to sit there once the weather cleared up.

Back to San Lorenzo market and Duomo area for last minute shopping. Dinner at our usual restaurant and florentine steak again. Back to the retreat house for our last night, packing and relaxing. We weren’t as agressive as before, taking our time everyday, so it meant we saw fewer sights than how we used to travel. Then again, we didn’t feel as rushed and it was sometimes nice just to sit at a café and watch the world go by.

The retreat house we stayed in Florence is the casa per ferie regina del santo rosario run by Sister Flora, Sister Lucia and others. I can’t recommend it high enough. Yes, it’s fairly basic. There is no TV in the room, no room service and other fancy stuff. I found it very peaceful and pleasant. We spent a little time this morning in the living room with the door to the garden open for fresh air and it was as good as life can get. They are actually on booking.com, the Sister was using the computer the other night.

Train to Assisi tomorrow. From the website, the retreat house at Assisi has no internet. Let’s see how we manage.


in going places |

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Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their laundry facilities, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.

Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church is also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.

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I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruitiating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.

It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously the plan disappeared. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.

More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.

in going places |

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We woke up at 9am, too late for breakfast at the retreat house. Had our coffee and tea at a nearby coffee shop instead. Bought sandwiches from the street market—porchetta and lampredotto (cow stomach).

First stop was at the religious shop near the Duomo, to give the sisters there a cake we bought at Siena. They were so nice. Sister Stefanie invited us to visit their chapel above the shop. So peaceful and blessed.

The rest of the day was quite boring for me. Walked to the bus station to catch the bus for the outlet. The bus was full so we had to wait for the next one. Good timing to have lunch. The outlet had a number of brands—Prada, Ferragamo, Coach, BV, Burberry, Tods, Hogan, EA and the like. Honestly I have no interest in branded stuff, especially since most of the stuff for sale was handbags, shoes and accessories. There were a few wallets that looked alright, and mm as usual was tempted by handbags. I don’t get why anyone will buy wallets for €100-200 or handbags for almost €1000, nice thought they were. We didn’t buy anything at the end.

Walked through the market back at Florence and looked more carefully at things to buy. Came across a couple of stalls where the salesperson wasn’t obnoxious or pushy. Bought two handbags (mm) and two belts (me).

Bought chocolate at lindt then headed for dinner at the taverna near the retreat house. We shared a 1kg florentine shirloin steak on the bone, good taste and well cooked.

in going places |

When I was doing research for the trip, the dilemma was how to cover Tuscany. My first reaction was to rent a car, then drive around just like what we did at Provence, but mm didn’t want to, so the task was to figure out public transportation. Most of the websites and guidebooks said that if we only had one day and one destination to visit, we should go to Siena because it’s pretty and it’s relatively reachable by bus and train.

We had a leisurely breakfast then walked to the central station. The bus station is next to the train station and we saw a Siena bus leaving at 10.40am. I glanced at the clock and it read 10.39am, eeek. Hurried to the ticket office and sent mm to hold the bus. Thanks to the kind bus driver who wanted for us. Turned out that it was a local bus that stopped at a couple of towns before Siena. We got there around 12.20pm.

Couldn’t see a tourist information office so followed our noses and the crowd. Very beautiful, rustic Tuscan town with narrow cobblestoned streets and typical houses with tiled roofs, shutters and balconies.

Wandered into a small gourmet supermarket and decided to have lunch there. Porchetta sandwich with a little pickled peppers and we shared a whole burrata. Perfect lunch. We followed the signs to San Francesco church and accidentally went inside the university next door. Felt a bit like mature students. Useful since we needed to find a bathroom. The actual San Francesco was large if really empty.

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Followed the signs again to Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. The duomo had various combinations of entrance tickets including the main cathedral, the crypt, the tower, the museum next doors. We opted for just the cathedral entrance for €4.

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The standout for me was the library, which had a display of illuminated choir books and frescos on the ceiling. There were also many other works of art in the cathedral as well as painted mosiacs on the floor.

On the way back to the bus station, we bought a couple of local cakes for the nuns at the retreat house and the shop. Took photos at the Basilica Cateriniana. We had 20mins to wait for the bus, and in trying to find bathrooms again accidentally came across the small pretty St Andrea chapel. We ended up going into a hotel for bathroom so all was well.

Dinner back at Florence as at the mercato again. Had the local speciality of trippa (tripe), arancini with spinach and spelt salad. Didn’t feel like anything too heavy so the combination was good. I had a chianti reserve with the meal.

Lots of walking again, probably 3-4 miles today. I’m missing running and training but hopefully the walking is keeping me from losing all my fitness. Quite pleased that we managed a whole day’s exploration without a map. Would have been nice to find a tourist information office but it’s okay.

I remember when we were planning our Provence trip in 2012 we debated between Provence and Tuscany. We only had one day in the Tuscan countryside so it’s difficult to compare. Both are beautiful and well worth repeat visits.


in going places |

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Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.

The distinctive Duomo was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé as it was the same price as coke.

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From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.

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Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge. Not inside the jewellry shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace. One street over and we were at Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while.

From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that was handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.

Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3, which was cheaper than coke. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.

Walked a lot today, probably 3-4hrs. Helped burn off all the good food and wine.

in going places |

Travelling day. Early start, 6.30am alarm and out of the house at 8am. Had to repack at bag drop as our luggage was just a little above the limit. First time we fly easyJet and we can see the nickel and diming at work. Flight was almost 100% full and almost on time arriving at Rome. Picked up our luggage and leisurely made our way to the train station. We had a couple hours to wait for the direct train to Florence. It was fine, we found seats and had sandwiches we made at our friend’s house for lunch.

The train was very nice. When I was booking online, the first class (non-refundable) was the same price as second class (flexible) so I sprang for the first class tickets. For that we got comfrotable seats, a free drink and a small snack.

Florence train station was a big heaving mess. We had the option of taking a taxi or bus, and ended up at the bus stop. The bus arrived a few minutes later and we squeezed in with what seems to be the entire population of florence. I had the fare in my pocket but wasn’t able to figure out how to pay when we were pushed further down the bus. We knew we had 4 stops to go, and were glad the directions were correct.

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We found the retreat house with no issue, the only slight problem was pushing our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets. We were greeted by Sister Lucia and Sister Flora, both from India. Their warm and friendly welcome was a good sign already. Our room was a good size and basic, with our own bathroom. We took a peek at the breakfast room, sitting room, chapel and garden. More pics tomorrow.

After leaving our bags, we headed out to find dinner. Found the remains of a market at a nearby square selling baked goods, cheese, olive oil and balsamic. I bought some balsamic glaze for mum, as requested. We also found a small supermarket where we stocked up on water.

Dinner was a small café nearby. We both had spaghetti vongole and we shared a plate of grilled vegetables. The spaghetti was good if a little salty; the veg was very good. I also had a small carafe of house red, which was the same price as a large coke. Pretty good. The retreat house has a curfew of 10.30pm, we were back well in time.


in going places |

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Our 5-country trip will become 6-country. The great thing about living in Central Europe is proximity and ease of travel to other countries.

We started the day at a cash-and-carry supermarket, like costco. Had to be very restrained not to buy anything. We ended up getting ingredients for a picnic lunch of herring, smoked eel, smoked salmon and bread rolls. Herring was fatty and fresh, the eel was the star of the meal, could have just had it on its own.

Driving into Belgium was like driving into another state, there was a sign and here we are. We headed first to Antwerp, to Het Steen, a medieval castle where a tyrannical rich man ruled. He charged toll for people and boats passing by and if they didn’t pay, he’d cut their hands off. Such was the life then. Walked to the central square with the cathedral and cobblestoned streets. Stopped for coffee at a nearby coffee shop.

Next stop Brussels. Our friends go there very often and even know where to park without needing to pay. Yes, it’s a 15min walk, which actually was great after sitting in the car for a couple of hours. Brussels was busy, full of locals and tourists. We quickly took in the sights—main square, manneken pis and the all-important chocolate shops.

Dinner was at Mechelen, a town between Brussels and Antwerp. Hadn’t heard of it before and it was a revelation. So pretty! Again the central square with an imposing church and beautiful architecture. It’s off the tourist trail and looks like a place we will like to revisit.

We shared a white asparagus starter made apparaently in the flemish way—with what tasted like hot egg mayonnaise sauce. It’s similar to hollandaise with posched egg. For mains we both opted for the horse steak. Ordered rare, came medium rare. Very, very lean and tasty. There’s a stigma with meat other than beef, lamb, pork—our thinking is that if the locals eat it, it’s good enough for us.


in going places |

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Late start today, relaxed. Left the house at 11am, got the bus to the station to get a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Stopped by the free public piano at the station to watch people playing. Met our friend for lunch near Dam Square, nice café for sandwich and salad. Spent the afternoon walking around town, the first time we visited for almost 20 years. Lots of tourists and things have changed quite a bit.

Took a circular route from Dam Square to Westderkerk, around the canals to Rijksmuseum area—didn’t go in, took some pictures outside. Got some souvenir magnets after exploring the hard rock café shop. Stopped for just a minute at the bloemenmarkt before heading back to Dam Square area to meet our friend after work. Total time walked, around 3hrs.

She treated us to the most creamiest, richest ice cream at the tiny van der linde shop. Caught the train back to the house and I made dinner.

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Originally we wanted to make steak or lamb, but we couldn’t decide on the protein. I ended up making chicken & fennel with grilled courgettes and red peppers. For dessert I made a quick apple crumble. I was so happy that we finished everything. Nothing was left. Yay.


in going places |

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I was so tired last night I went to bed at 10pm and woke up at 9am. Still not quite over jetlag, it’ll take a few more days I suspect.

Breakfast was croissants and tea. First stop today was a garden centre, we’re too early to see flowers in bloom in the tulip and flower fields, so our friend took us to the garden centre to look at flowers. Lovely.

The actual destination was beautiful Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve next to the garden centre. It’s a really pretty marshlands with walking trails around a lake area. There are supposed to be deer, ponies and cattle—we saw a herd of something from afar. We did see thousands of birds. In fact the visitor centre has binoculars and bird watching stations.

We had lunch there at café at the visitor centre. I had a ham & cheese omelette that came with bread and salad; mm had ham & cheese toast. Freshly made, we thought it was good value. Worked off the food with a walk around the nature reserve, almost 2hrs we covered around 2-3 miles. Great weather, blue skies and fresh air. It’d be a brilliant place for running.

Went to a supermarket nearby and bought vegetables, snacks, diet coke, stroopwafels and I saw rivella (!!). Haven’t had rivella since Switzerland. I got 2x2l bottles for travelling as well as a 500ml bottle for immediate consumption which, hahaha, got me into a bit of trouble with mm.

For dinner our friends drove to Lage Vuursche to take us to a pancake restaurant. Posh area, beautiful surroundings and buildings. I had a bacon & mushroom pancake. We shared poffertjes (small, fluffy pancakes with icing sugar) for dessert.

We weren’t too ambitious today, it was nice to take it easy, take a walk and enjoy good food.


in going places |

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Woke up at 7.20am, after sleeping at 11pm and waking up 3 times overnight. Our friend prepared an absolutely delicious breakfast of croissant, roll, soft boiled eggs, cheese and freshly squeezed orange juice. I made tea from the PG I brought with me. We took our time and we left around 10am. Destination was Almere town centre to look at the shops and explore the market. Our love of markets is legendary. Great produce: fruits, vegs, meat, fish, sweets, baked goods and cheap household items. We bought some veg for home cooking. I even bought a pair of sneakers for €35, as the shoes I was wearing had a hole at the bottom. Lunch was unconventional—cake and tea at a tea shop. It was what we felt like.

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Originally the plan was to head to the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve but the lateness of the hour plus poor weather meant a change of plans. Instead, our friend took us to nearby Naarden, a village surrounded by a 17th century fort with pretty streets and buildings. We stopped at a whisky shop, sampled different types of genever and 5 millstone whiskies—5 year and rye. I did not like the genever, it tasted like medicine; liked the rye whiskies best.

Rested for tea at a bar café. I had a small bock beer and we all shared a plate of ossenwurst (beef tartare sausage) and bitterballen (like beef croquettes). Back to the house for shower and dinner at home: roast chicken, frites, salad and traditional dutch apple tart. Great to have homemade food.


in going places |

Travelling day. I set the alarm for 5.15am, showered, last minute packing, I was out at 6.30am to catch the bus to the airport express station. Check-in and everything was straightforward. The flight wasn’t full; the seat between us was empty (I deliberately picked the 2 aisle seats in the middle column).

It was a day flight so I couldn’t really sleep. Watched Imitation Game, Grand Budapest Hotel and Robocop. Enjoyed all of them, especially Imitation Game and Grand Budapest Hotel. There is a Japanese anime cartoon feel to GBH, it was atmospheric and funny.

Food was mainly forgettable airplane food. Decent quality, I only had about an inch of their cab with dinner, sticking with coke zero and soda water at other times.

The route was almost 1 hr longer than it used to be, to avoid Ukraine. Most of the flight was over Russia. We laughed when the map showed that we were almost directly over Amsterdam, and then we carried on to London. Going from T3 to T5 was okay, then it was a long queue at security. Definitely security theatre, they swiped my small flight toiletries ziploc—the same bag and contents have flown with me thousands of miles around the world, so why would T5 need to swipe it today? Hahaha.

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There was enough time to sit for a while. We shared a hummous wrap from eat and I had a much needed large cup of tea. Ahhhhh.

The flight to AMS was very short. BA gave us snacks (crisps and biscuits) and drinks (the other businessmen all opted for something alcoholic, I had diet coke). We spent about 15mins around the duty free shop, retrieved our luggage and our friends L&P picked us up. They live in the suburbs, and we picked up chinese takeaway on the way back for dinner.

A long travelling day, the sense of excitement is building. Getting a good night’s sleep then we’re ready for the trip proper.



in going places , outside interests |

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.

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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:

vatican


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?


in arts and media , going places |

tkts
flickr / conny liegl

Current musicals in London that I am interested in, and today’s availability at the “half-price” tkts booth at Leicester Square:

  • book of mormon at the prince of wales — not sold at tkts, there are more expensive seats available direct at the theatre
  • charlie and the chocolate factory at the theatre royal drury lane — £18.50-50.50 no discount
  • let it be at the garrick — £32.50 with discount
  • matilda at the cambridge — £36 no discount, I saw this in 2012, I definitely want to see it again and definitely think mm will like it
  • miss saigon at the prince edward — £28.50-38.50 no discount, saw it when it first came out (lea salonga!!), will be interesting to see it again
  • sweeney todd at the london coliseum — not at tkts, limited run closing on 12-apr; cheapest tickets are £86, I love Emma Thompson but…gulp
  • women on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the playhouse — £22.50-39.50 with discount

There are others playing I’m less interested in, like Beautiful, the Commitments, Gypsy, Jersey Boys, Lion King, Molly Wobbly, Once, Seven Brides; others I’ve seen already like Billy Elliot, Cats, Les Miz, Mamma Mia, Phantom, Wicked. The two I do want to see, Kinky Boots and Damon Albarn’s Wonder.land, are not on yet.



My personal preferences: the Book of Mormon, Matilda, Women on the Verge. The ticket booth doesn’t have tickets or offer discounts for the more popular musicals, not even on the day. Disappointing. I’ve always thought of the booth as a tourist attraction anyway, and now even more so with the new look booth and the twee phone box next to it. Seriously, apart from escort services, who uses phone boxes?.

Anyway, I think we’ll probably end up seeing Matilda, if we were to go to the West End. Which is more than fine with me.


in challenges , going places |

keepcalmholiday

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.


in going places |

eutrip2015

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.


in going places , on the relationship front |

southbay003beach southbay007castle

Had lunch with mm’s family, then we went back to her place to plan our easter trip. It looks like our original plans will need to be changed. Ah well.

Drove out to isolated south bay beach for a bit of peace and quiet. The beach was virtually deserted, the whole time we were there we saw only 2 other groups of people. By the time we left we were the only car there.

The weather was great, the sound of the gentle waves hitting the beach quite soothing. People had been there earlier, there were the remnants of a sandcastle.

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We found a bench and sat there for a while. So wishing we could enjoy such quietude and fresh(-ish) air more often. The beach was deserted, even the lifeguard tower looked lonely. We even managed to catch the sunset.


in going places |

hkvictoriacitylimit1903

13.08km (8.12mi) 1:40:08hr 7.39min/km (12.19min/mi)

Did the 8-mile long run scheduled for the weekend today, I mix up days, as long as I get all the runs in sometime during the week. From home to the end of the bowen road running path is 6.2km or 3.8miles, so I did a few short doubling back at straighter parts of the path.

It’s been a while since I ran all the way to the other end. I’d forgotten about the city limit marker over there. The marker is dated 1903, and the plaque says that it’s one of the remaining markers that marks the then city of victoria. Not a lot of history available, the city of victoria was established in 1843, and this marker is one of seven placed in 1903. As a sign of the attitude towards history here, one of the seven disappeared in 2007 during slope renovations.


in going places , on the relationship front |

hkcchau002beach hkcchau003beach

We’ve been meaning to go over to the outlying islands for a while, so we met up at the pier and took the ordinary ferry over. It took around 1hr, twice the time of the fast ferry at half the price—we weren’t in any hurry. Surprisngly for a weekday there were quite a substantial crowd. We had a leisurely lunch at a small café and then headed out for a walk along one of the beaches at the side of the island away from the crowds.

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After the beach we headed inland with a soft target of one of the retreat houses. There are a few retreats there on the island—away from the main streets it’s peaceful and quiet. The Salesian retreat wasn’t actually open, but the hike was pleasant and we came across some nice views.

We came back to the main street and spent some time at a tea shop that was closing down. Dinner was quick noodles and congee. Another slow ferry back and we discovered that we both had direct buses home. A great day out.

in going places |

nam002farmbridge nam014farmlily

Good day for an outing to the countryside. We drove out to near the wetlands area (actual wetlands is enclosed and needs a ticket). First stop was an organic farm. They have vegetables in a hydroponics system, vegetable patches all over the place that were growing lettuce, carrot, turnip, beetroot, bok choy and even a jackfruit tree. They also have goats, rabbits and carp, more like for pets I think. The main attraction of the farm is a lily pond that has a rickety walkbridge made from wooden crates and plastic pontoons. We were trying to spot lilies hidden amongst the leaves. Nice.

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A short drive along a single lane road brought us to a dead end lane with a small parking area for 5-6 cars. Just beyond that end point is a walking path along ponds and fields. A rickety broken wooden pier is a popular spot for wedding photographers. Beyond that we could see tin huts of a village through the tall weeds.

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The village has a few houses and a store selling soft drinks, sandwiches and noodles. The village sits on a narrow river (more like a stream) with a sign advertising the shortest ferry crossing. And the crossing is very short. A boat takes passengers and bikes across in 1 min. Seems to be quite busy, while we were there 3 sets of people crossed already, two sets on bikes, we think it’s because it’s on a popular bike route. Next time we’ll explore where to rent bikes.

The area has many shallow ponds. We spotted an elderly woman casting her nets from her little boat. She was wearing the distinctive fishing hat worn by the local people.

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It was almost sunset when we left. Birds were beginning to stir and we saw some water birds around. Not having enough knowledge we guess they are herons?

We loved our day out. Good weather. Clean air. Greenery. Lots of wildlife, we could hear cicadas, birds, crickets along our walk. Great to get out of the polluted city.


in going places |

201501stanley04

We met with a couple of college friends for tapas lunch, then took a bus ride to the southern beaches, finding ourselves in Stanley. Weather wasn’t great, it started raining the minute we got off the bus. We took cover in the indoor mall and then mcdonalds for a while.

201501stanley01 201501stanley02

It was also sunset when we came out. Cold but the rain had gone. We walked around the stalls (not full of tourists, must have all gone), the harbour and the watersports beach. Stayed a while at St Anne’s church, mm wanted to see the inside and say some prayers.

Took another bus back out to the central area and had noodles for dinner. Raining again.


in going places |



Houshi Ryokan in Awazu Onsen is the oldest family-owned hotel in the world and second oldest owned hotel. Beautiful ryokan, beautiful onsen, beautifully shot video. Sad too. The ryoden passes down through the eldest son and the current owner, Zengoro Hoshi, is the 46th generation. His son died suddenly, and the film also focuses on Hoshi-san’s daughter, and her struggle to take responsiblity for the business, responsibility and pressure she hadn’t thought was hers.

in going places |

ststephensbeach01

On sunday we drove out to st stephen’s beach for a bit. It’s a small beach near Stanley that is as uncrowded as you can get here. A small sandy beach with a pier for people to try fishing. One small bar-café and a few bbq pits. Accessible by car only. Or yacht — there were a couple anchored outside the swimming area.

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We sat at a free bbq pit facing the sea and did a little planning for Christmas presents. We got there at 4.45pm and by 5.30pm the sun was going down. We had a good view of sunset.


in going places |

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The good thing about having decent hotel connection is I managed to write up the trip daily, just like when we went to Tokyo. So the experience feels fresher. The trip summary merges all the daily posts.

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The slight negative is I had to pick just a few daily pics to upload and post. The entire set of 521 pics and videos didn’t take long to sort and rename, but I forgot to upload them when I was at home and using mum’s slow internet it’s taken almost a week to upload since I had to do them in batches of no more than 30 at a time, and when no one else is using the internet. Anyway, set 1 and set 2.

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Some more that didn’t make it into the daily posts. Doors at bukchon, decorations and from ihwa wall mural art village. We were there almost 5 full days and didn’t make it to any of the palaces, world heritage sites, parks, river walks and a few areas like itawon and gangnam. I like our new style of travelling, not in as much hurry as before, trying to fit everything in. Because you can’t. We’d wake up whenever, have brunch, walk around our destination of the day, stop for coffee tea and take our time.


in going places |

hklym01typhoon hklym05house

We joke that one of the benefits of #occupycentral is the lower pollution level. We wish. Still, it’s been marginally less hot so it’s feasible to go outdoors without getting completely soaked or needing a ton of anti-histamines.

We met up at a fishing village called 三家村 (three families village) that is one of our favourite places to visit. I took the subway and mm took a ferry from near her place. There is still some fishing there, but mostly it’s tourism and seafood restaurants nowadays. We had lunch at a local diner then walked to the tip of the village. The stilted houses and narrow alleys are interesting and pleasant.

Afterwards we visited a shopping centre nearby and had tea/coffee. It’s a nice day out.

in going places |

ICNbeefbibimbap

We don’t know if it’s a blessing or curse, mm woke up with severe stomach pain and suffered the whole day with diahorrea. We stayed in our hotel room as long as we could, left at 11am. Got the airport bus, checked in and through immigration. By then it was past 1pm and I was really hungry, but she wasn’t. We found the food court, I wolfed down a beef bibimbap (stone pot mixed rice) and she went to the lounge to find something she could eat. The flight was very full, I watched Transformers 3, ate her portion of fish dinner. Luggage was out before us.

With #occupycentral blocking the main road, my taxi home was twice as long and double the normal price, but I don’t mind. It a small inconvenience for me, and it’s far more important to keep the big picture. Quite tired, need a shower and took me a while to unpack. Tempted to walk down to see what’s happening with the protests tonight, but decided against it.

in going places |

kor0023mask

We woke up late again, heehee. Brunch was at myeong-dong, the main shopping area. We had ginseng chicken congee which was very good. Then it was almost the whole day of shopping nightmare for me. Socks, jewellry, clothes, clothes, bags, clothes, accessories. Cosmetics, including these silly named masks. Ack. None of which was interesting for me, and I had to maintain a neutral / happy face. I did manage to buy a few socks and a bag myself but it took me 1 minute to decide on what I wanted, then it was 20 minutes of waiting. The worse thing was having to pick different earrings, I don’t wear earrings, I have no interest in earrings, they all seemed the same to me. Torture.

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In between all the shopping I got an ice cream cone for myself and we visited a cat caré for coffee. There were something like 20 cats there. I took an anti-histammine before we went in so I was okay for allergies. They were mostly docile but not too friendly, they wouldn’g come up to us on their own. The owner gave us small dollops of cat food and only then did the cats rouse themselves and came up to us. Mostly a teenaged / twenty-something girlie thing to do.

kor0025ginseng

Shopping at myeong-dong was supposed to be an hour or so, it was 5 hrs before we left. Next stop was back to gwangjang market. No, we didn’t try the dog soup (because we didn’t have room). We had pancakes at a different stall as yesterday — more beanspouts and crunchier, we liked this one. Just as we were about to leave, these 3 drunken korean men came to sit at our table and proceeded to chat with us in broken english. I was having none of it, but mm was chatting back to them. Ugh, I put my foot down and we said our polite goodbyes.

kor0026pickles

Bought small ginseng pieces and pickles from 2 separate stalls. Small melons completed our grand total purchases. I ended the day with some socks, a small bag, some chocolate and 200g ginseng. All of the rest were mm’s purchases. We went back to the hotel to dump all our bags then headed for dinner at the barbeque place a few doors down. Highly recommended, today we had beef short ribs and pork ribs. I’d had enough for the day so I ordered a soju to go with the meal. Back to the hotel to finish the fruit in the fridge and packing.

in going places |

kor0020pancake

We’ve woken up too late every day for breakfast, just as well because it means we can have more lunch. Today’s destination was gwangjang market’s meokjagolmok (food alley). Plenty of choices — pancakes, mixed rice bibimbap, traditional blood sausage, tteobokki, noodles, soups, even one stall that had just one big tureen bubbling with a meat soup. We didn’t see the sign at first, then we spotted it “healthy dog soup.”

Like many people who headed for this meokjagolmok, it was for the pancakes made with ground soy bean, flour and fried with a little onion. Really good, would have loved another one except we were saving our appetite for other food. We walked around some more and decided on a stall that offered traditional meat dishes. Most of the stalls were small, with benches in front seating at most half a dozen people. Some stallholders were very enthusiastic whilst others were too busy chatting on their mobiles. This one had a nice friendly lady. We had blood sausage (they call it sundae), a plate of spicy mixed pig’s skin and chicken feet, and a stew that was definitely offal (we think stomach or lung). All were nice, although admittedly not to everyone’s taste.

When we came out of the market it was raining somewhat, but we decided to walk to our next stop because we were full from lunch, and it looked complicated by subway. Only 1.6km (1 mile) but 2-3 changes involved. Iniitially it was nice but the rain started getting very very heavy, we had to take refuge in a coffee shop, and then the lobby of a hyundai car showroom.

kor0021mural

Despite the rain, it was worth the effort to go to the mural village at ihwa-dong. The village was located on the hillside and many houses, walls and signs were painted by local artists. Cute bunny rabbits, flowers, children, one wall was painted black with the title before i die but most were of happy themes.

kor0022mural

Part of the fun was traipsing around the village’s narrow alleys and stairs trying to spot the murals. With the rain we probably walked through half the village, and we had to remember to look left, right, up, down and even behind us. This flower painting was on the steps and if we hadn’t looked behind us when we walked down we would have missed it.

The rain eased a little after we finished, so we walked to dongdaemun. Early dinner of soy sauce crab and beef tartare. The so-called market there was several buildings full of shops for clothes, accessories, shoes. We bought a sweatshirt each, some bags and accessories for gift. By then it was 8.30pm but we had one final stop at lotte mart near seoul station. Reminded us of a chaotic superstore. We bought a case of noodles and some ready meals of ginseng chicken and soup. Tempted by the fruit. Too many shopping bags, we took a taxi back to the hotel.

in going places |

kor0013fishmkt

A tale of two markets today. Lunch was at Noryangjin fish market. A huge place, with hundreds of stalls on the ground floor selling fresh fish, crab, prawn and all manners of shellfish. On the first floor were small restaurants that would cook the fish customers bought at the stalls.

kor0014fish kor0015fish

After watching the action and a short debate, we decided on a plate of assorted sashimi, spoon worm that looked and tasted like pig’s intestines, fresh steamed fish and one of the food items on all adventurous food challenge lists: sannajki or live still moving octopus.



Yes, the tentacles were still moving and the suckers made it difficult to remove from the plate. People who tried it always said the tentacles stuck to the inside of their mouths but I didn’t get that. It was pretty much like a gimmicky octopus sashimi. The head was awful though, I chewed and chewed and chewed and didn’t get anywhere, had to spit it out. Not the taste but the fact that it was unchewable. Everything else was great, especially the steamed fish.

kor0017namdaemun

Market #2 was the famous namdaemun market. Namdaemun means south gate and the gate formed one corner of the ancient seoul fortress. The gate burned down in 2008 after an arson attack, it was meticulously restored and I couldn’t tell the difference between the old and new one.

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The market itself was your standard street market with stalls selling clothes, snacks, household items, accessories and souvenirs. There was a street with food and another area with a few snack carts. We bought some dried cuttlefish, sweet potato and chocolate from a nice lady who let us try everything and gave us some sweets as freebies. We were quite tired by then so we found a coffee place to rest for a while before heading back to our hotel.

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Dinner was at a barbeque place a few doors down from the hotel. Belly pork and beef ribs, the meal total came to KRW25,000 (USD25). We walked around the Ewha University shopping streets after dinner and bought a few small accessories. It started raining so we made our way back to the hotel.

in challenges , going places |

kor0012bukchon

Task #2 of 30in30 is to run/walk/bike for 60mins.

We spent the day exploring the bukchon hanok village area followed by the Insadong area. Total walking probably more than 2hrs. I’m counting 2-3miles,

in going places |

kor0007crab

We didn’t set the alarm, woke up at 9.30am. By the time we got ready it was around 10.30am. First stop was myeong-dong to exchange money, our friend recommended a place called embassy forex that had no commission and good rates, and we found that this was the only place with a queue and the rate was good.

A few stops on the subway brought us to the samcheon-dong area, the guidebook that mm borrowed from her friend recommended a great restaurant for soy sauce crab or ganjang gejang — blue swimmer crabs marinated in a special soy sauce, served raw. The sauce marinates the flesh and gives it a fantastic flavour and texture, the swimmers were full of roe. I’d never heard of this dish, apparently it’s part of a traditional royal palace meal and I can see why. Not cheap, KRW93,000 (USD93) for two of us, but well worth it. The crabs were super fresh and the banchans really nice.

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The area around the crab restaurant was full of small souvenir and craft shops. Socks for KRW700 (70cents), clothing and accessories. I like these lego keychains.

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Apart from shops the area was also near to the historical bukchon hanok village. Traditional houses still occupied. Very neat and pretty and well kept.

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We stopped for coffee at a café called the hanok, mm had americano coffee and I had a red bean ice. I was quite thirsty by then so the shaved ice was perfect.

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South of bukchon area was insadong, a touristy pedestrian street with traditional craft shops and galleries. It was quite busy when we got there around 5.30pm, we browsed around souvenir shops and craft shops, bought some small souvenirs and a couple of painted cups. We wanted to go to the same small family restaurant we went to in 2006. We found the alley no problem, and the women there still couldn’t speak english. We weren’t able to ascertain whether they were open, so they cleverly brought us to a nearby shop. Funnily the other person told us that they were too expensive, which was right. In 2006 it was KRW20k per person and now it was KRW40k (USD40). Considering our crab was double that, we could afford it, but we decided to explore other places.

We found another food alley off insadong. Several restaurants including ones that looked touristy and the one we ended up at, which was run by 3 family members. A traditional set was KRW13k per person, including banchans, porridge (delicious), soup, spicy pork, pancake. I had a soju and we totally enjoyed our dinner. Walked around the night stalls a little, then made our way back to our hotel. Another nice day.

in challenges , going places , on the relationship front |

kor0003spasalt

Task #83 of 101.1001 and task #19 of 30in30 is to do a new activity with mm. We are in seoul for holiday and as soon as we got off the plane and deposited our luggage at the hotel, we headed to a jjimjibang spa to rest and pamper ourselves. We got the deluxe package at KRW100,000 (USD100). We ended up staying from 10am to 5pm so it was worth it.

The spa says it’s the largest in Korea. At a sprawling 7 floors I can believe it. There are sauna, steam areas, baths, massage rooms, sleeping rooms, relaxation hall, restaurants, a rooftop garden, internet café even a cinema.

First we got keys to our locker. The key was a regular locker key as well as a smartchip that recorded any purchases or treatments. We had a quick shower at the large bath area. Korean baths are like Japanese baths, sexes are segregated and you don’t wear anything inside except a small towel to strategically cover certain areas.

First stop of our treatment was the herbal steam bath. We were seated on wooden stools with an opening in the middle. The herbs and water were heated and the steam rose up through the opening. We were covered in a sort of plastic tent to keep the steam in. Quite surreal, the herbs smelled really nice though.

After the shower and steam we changed into standard issue pajamas—t-shirt and shorts. Everyone inside the facility was dressed in these pajamas. The massage part was 90mins of a mix of acupressure and thai style. The young technician got almost every troublesome spot in my shoulders, lower back, arms and definitely hit the ITB around my left knee.

At the end of the massage it was around 1pm so time for lunch. The spa had a cafeteria and 2 restaurants. We went to the self-service korean restaurant and had tofu soup and beef rib soup. Came with banchans and I had a tasteless beer.

We found massage chairs in the main hall and fell asleep for around 1.5hrs. One of the features of traditional korean spas is the sight of people asleep at sleeping rooms and areas. Admission is 24hrs so some people stay the night.

Then it was time to check out the heat rooms. The traditional pine scented one was so hot inside we could barely walk, our soles were burning up. Lasted 10 seconds inside there, max. The himalayan salt room was a pleasant 52°C, blankets were provided so we lay down and rested on pink salt crystals. The charcoal heated rooms were good too, we went into the high temperature one, around the same as the salt room. In between rooms, we sat in the ice room to cool down, and then on the floor.

Last stop was the baths area. There was a steam room and half a dozen baths at different temperatures. We like the outdoor ones for the fresh air, the ones with jetstream massage and the cold 24°C cooling pool.

Great day, and the perfect cure for a night spent on a red-eye flight.

in going places |

kor0001spa

Early start, flight at 1am arrived 5.30am. Didn’t get much sleep on the plane, slow moving immigration meant we were out at arrivals after 7am. After a little walking around, we finally found the right stop for the airport bus to take us to our hotel. Trip was over 1hr, so we managed to nap a bit.

Way too early to check into hotel, so we left our luggage and headed to the subway. Got a t-money (like octopus) and our brains weren’t working, we initially only filled up for KRW1,000 (USD1.00). Hahaha. Caught the mistake easily. The destination was dragon hill spa, a traditional korean spa occupying 7 floors of a building. There were spas, steam rooms, dry heat rooms, saunas, massages, restaurants, resting area and even arcade games and a rooftop garden. We went for the massage package at KRW100,000 (USD100) including 30mins of herbal steam bath, 90mins of acupressure massage. The steam bath was interesting, and the massage was excellent. Lunch was typical korean food of tofu soup and beef rib soup. We got to the spa around 10am and we left at 5pm. Lots and lots to do in term of rest, pampering and relaxation.

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We took the subway at rush hour back to our hotel area at Ewha Women’s University. The night street vendors were just starting and we grabbed a bowl of extremely spicy tteokbokki (aka topoki) and freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.

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Hunting around the street market area looking for dinner led us to a homely upstairs place serving tofu hotpot with spicy squid. Wow, food in korea is hot! The tofu was wonderfully silken. Of course, walking back to the hotel we saw many other restaurants, but we were happy with our choice. Popped into a supermarket to get water and green tea for the next few days.

The hotel is new, it’s more like a serviced apartment with a small kitchenette, a full sized fridge, a washing machine, a closet and even a shoe cupboard. Happy with our choice and happy to be settled in early.

in going places |

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Checked out early and had breakfast at a bakery café at the station. Today’s plan: last day shopping.

My niece’s request for a pokemon soft toy at the shop at the station was checked off first. I took a video of the shelves and she picked the toy she wanted, way to go social media.

tok0031icecream

Back to Ueno and bought a case of giant peaches, ikura, unagi, pickles, snacks, popcorn and scented sys masks. We made time to stop for green tea ice cream at a specialist green tea shop that was delicious. They had benches inside the store, and also served us green tea to follow the ice cream.

Back to the hotel to repack, both of us managing to squeeze everything aside from the 5kg case of peaches into our suitcases. Wheeled the heavy suitcases to the other side of Tokyo station to go back to Hanamaro conveyor belt sushi. More tuna, salmon, scallop, squid and ikura sushi.

Narita express train to the airport, a little more complicated and harder than the limousine bus, but we prefer to skip the traffic. Dropped our bags, went through immigration and onto the duty free. There was whisky and sake tasting, we bought more yoichi 15, so value for money at ¥5,500. Final shopping was for snacks, there was a potato snack that was limited to 5 per person and we saw people with their full limit. We were more restrained, only one each. Chocolate popcorn, green tea roll cake and mm bought kitkat cheesecake.

Loaded with shopping and happy memories, we were just in time for boarding. I’d checked us in early on Sunday and grabbed exit row seats. The flight wasn’t full so we had the whole row. The flight was 45mins early but bags were delayed. I was home just after 11pm.


in going places |

tok0024sushi tok0025soup

Rain most of the day, pretty miserable. We started the day late as usual, headed to Kitte mall next to Tokyo station for brunch at Nemuro Hanamaro conveyor belt sushi, this is our favourite place in Sapporo and I was happy to see that they have a branch at Tokyo. We had ikura, scallops (3 plates), tuna, salmon, hamachi, some other white fish and a bowl of yummy crab soup. 15 plates including the soup for ¥5,000.

tok0026shrine tok0027shrine

Took the subway to Asakusa, one of the older areas of Tokyo. The major landmark is Sensō-ji, the oldest shrine in Tokyo, founded in 628. The pedestrian street leading up to the shrine is lined on both sides with stalls selling souvenirs, kimono, fans, snacks and sweets. The area surrounding the shrine is also made up of small streets lined with shops and restaurants.

It had been raining throughout the day and it got steadily heavier. We sought cover at a coffee shop where we enjoyed a coffee (for mm), tea (for me) and cakes. The place only had one table occupied when we went in, but it filled up quickly with people with the same idea.

We walked around a little more in the area, both at the small streets and at a couple of department stores. Found a supermarket and bought some snacks and cakes. There was a food store at the basement of Seibu that turned out to be a Walmart branded supermarket, wandered around there too.

tok0028puffer tok0029puffer

The reason we stayed in the area and waited around for dinner was because we came across a restaurant that served fugu, or puffer fish. This is the highly poisonous fish that requires very careful handling, that chefs must be specially trained and certified before they are allowed to prepare it. The waitress told us that a set is enough for two, so that’s what we ordered. Small dish of starter, fugu sashimi, fugu hot pot and congee made from the soup. One set, with two drinks came to just over ¥5,000. No one said fugu is cheap.

Stopped by the whisky place near the station to sample some more whisky. In addition to the Amrut fusion I bought earlier, I bought a Yoichi 15, a 500ml Miyagikyo NAS and the green Ichiro’s malt.

Our last night at the hotel, same routine of going downstairs to the onsen then peaches for dessert.

in going places |

tok0015ramen

Did not sleep well last night, woke up between 3-5am, didn’t wake up till 10am. Luckily we had no particular plans. It ended up being decent timing, we went to Rokurinsha at Ramen Street Tokyo Station, which supposedly serves the best tsukemen in Tokyo, if not the country. This style of ramen is called dipping ramen, with the noodles (absolutely excellent) and soup (thick, full flavour) are served in separate bowls. We take some of the noodles, dip it into the soup and slurp to our heart’s content. There is a permanent queue there, we got there around 10.50am, just in time for them to reopen at 11am for lunchtime service. Still had to wait around 30mins, totally worth it.

tok0016shibuya

Next stop was shibuya, the pedestrian crossing outside the station is arguably the world’s busiest intersection. The best view, from my research, is at the 1/F window of the starbucks right at the crossing. Good view.

tok0017market tok0018market

A 10min walk from shibuya is the weekend farmer’s market at the united nations university. Fantastic looking produce — fruits, vegs, flowers, honey, bread, pastry as well as small food trucks that look exactly like the ones at the real food market in London. We rested for a while with a drink of sangria from one of the trucks (alcoholic for me, non-alcoholic for mm).

tok0020shrine tok0021shrine

From the market we walked around 20-30mins through the harajuku champs elysee (same wide street with trees either side, same designer shops) to the meiji shrine set inside yoyogi park. A pleasant walk in the grounds, we stopped for a drink — coke float for me, coffee for mm. The shrine consisted of several large buildings, when we entered we joined the locals in the hand washing ritual. No photography was allowed at the main shrine, where people were praying.

tok0022yakitori tok0023yakitori

It was already 5pm so we debated where to go for dinner. At first we thought of going back to tsukiji but since we were only 1 stop from shinjuku we decided to go to Omoide Yokocho, otherwise known as memory lane or the more local name of piss alley. The narrow alley is situated next to shinjuku station and consists of dozens of tiny yakitori stalls. We went to one that proclaimed that it serves the best yakitori in Tokyo. A mother and daughter team ran the place and we had a mixed chicken and pork platter, green peppers and squid grilled skewers. Washed down with a beer. The place started getting busier as we left.

Back to the hotel later than the past 2 nights, by the time we made it downstairs to the onsen it was 8.30pm. Soaked for half an hour, had peaches and yogurt back in our room.


in going places |

tok0006lake tok0007shrine

Breakfast at the hotel, buffet of rice, soup, stewed vegetables, salad, fish and fruit. Filling enough for us to skip lunch. We were in no hurry and didn’t leave till around 10.30am.

The destination today was Ueno 上野 to visit the park. Inside the park were several museums — the national museum, museum of science & nature, children’s library, art museum, a concert hall, a zoo and a few shrines. Didn’t go into the museums or the zoo, took a few pictures at a small shrine.

tok0004lotus tok0005lotus

A major feature of the park was a lake, divided into three sections. Two of the sections were in fact lotus ponds. Not all the flowers were in bloom, there were a few visible, very pretty. It took us a couple of hours to walk around the park.

tok0008alley  tok0009freak
tok0010fish tok0011fruit

A few minutes from the park was Ameya-Yokochō アメヤ横丁, a rabbit warren of streets and alleys that make up a crazy open air market. The street is also called candy shop alley, but nowadays there are shops selling clothes, shoes, fish, fruit, toys, bags and many other things. Crowded on a Saturday. We stopped at a conveyor belt sushi place for a few plates of sushi, bought a few odd items from a pharmacy, some clothes and socks from the Uniqlo across the way.

tok0012unadon tok0013peach

Early dinner of unagi don (grilled eel on rice). It was only around 5.30pm so the place was a quiet oasis from the bustling street outside. Very delicately flavoured eel, really nice and not too filling.

Got back to the hotel early and went down to the spa again. Not too busy, at 7pm most people were probably out at dinner. Soaked in the spa for about half an hour, then back to our room for dessert of giant peaches we bought at the market. Very juicy, really sweet and delicious.


in going places |

Long day. Flight was at 1am so we were at the airport at 11pm on Thursday. Check-in and everything else were quick so we found ourselves sitting at the gate with 2 other 1am flights. The plane was full, and the crew turned the lights off as soon as the plane levelled at cruising altitude. We were given a sandwich box which we saved till we landed at the airport. Landed around 6.15am, we were out at arrivals by around 7am. We sat, had breakfast of ham & cheese roll, chocolate muffin and a few pieces of fruit.

My research told me to get the NEX express train, by showing our foreign passport we get a 50% discount for the one way ticket to Tokyo station. A good deal. Our hotel is right across the road from the station. 9am was too early to check-in, we left our luggage there and made our way to Tsukiji fish market. We were too late to see the world famous tuna auction or any of the wholesale activities, but there was lots going on at the market.

tok0001chirashi

We joined the queue for one of the small restaurant stalls for lunch — it took about an hour of queuing until it was our turn, there were lots of people and the restaurant only sat 12. We ordered hamachi, uni and salmon roe chirashi. The ingredients were fresh and we were pretty hungry, not as good as the fish in Hokkaido though. After lunch we had coffee in a very old-fashioned counter café. I had a milky coffee which tasted great even to this non-coffee drinker.

tok0002egg

Walked around the market some more, both the wholesale area and the more familar outside area with dozens of stalls and restaurants. Had a snack of tamagoyaki (egg roll) for only ¥100. Washed down with green tea.

tok0003whisky

Walked to Shimbashi station and took the Yamanote line back to Tokyo station. Still too early to check in so we visited the department stores as well as the maze of underground shops at the station. Found an absolutely amazing liquor store with shelf upon shelf of whiskies, rum, brandy, vodka and all sorts. The best thing, they let you taste 10ml of many bottles for a small fee (¥100-200). We tried Amrut single malt and fusion — award winning from India and a Revival (3yr) plus Komagatake 10 from Mars distilery. All 4 are very unusual and hard to find. The Revival is supposed to be limted edition but at 3yrs it was like grain whisky and not worth the ¥10,000+ price tag. Our favourite was the Amrut fusion.

Dinner was tempura and soba from one of the station restaurants. We were really knackered by then, it was only 6pm. We went back to the hotel to find that they had already placed our bags in our room and everything was sorted. After choosing our pillows we made our way to the small spa to wash away the day’s dust and tiredness. Early to bed.


in going places |

tokyo201408

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

GO TO FUCKING ROBOT RESTAURANT, IF YOU DON’T GO WHILE YOU VISIT TOKYO GO KILL YOURSELF

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.

in going places |

tky036night

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.

in going places , habitat |

tor040cntower mpngra171ngralake

According to the OECD I should live in Canada and Australia. So I was wondering where exactly, which led me to think about which states I’ve visited. In Canada I’ve only visited 2 states: Ontario and BC. I’ve been to Toronto twice, neither times I’ve been that impressed honestly. Niagara Falls was impressive, I won’t want to live there. Niagara-on-the-Falls was pretty, and again not somewhere I want to live. I liked Vancouver much better and really liked Victoria, so may be somewhere on the west coast.

syd156gap mel074station

In Oz I’ve been to NSW, Victoria and Queensland. The usual suspects, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Since I’ve been to Sydney many times, I’m partial to it. That said, I’m not Aussie enough to appreciate the rivalry between Sydneysiders and people from Melbourne, Brisbane and other parts. I love Australia, it’s like the UK with better weather and great wine. A bit far away from everything though.

visitedstates

I have a map of places I’ve visited in the world, but the other big map is of US states visited. I was very tempted by the big magnetic map with magnets shaped like the various states, but too large to carry home. Lots of online map making sites though. I made one that shows states I’ve spent time (at least stopped at an attraction) vs states I’ve only travelled through. 30 states visited and 8 travelled through. I think it’s correct, I should look back to our big Chicago—>Fort Worth—>Washington DC in 2007 to double check.



in 101.1001 , challenges , going places , on the relationship front |

taio017houses taio010bridge
taio026village taio028village

Tasks #85-6 in 101 in 1001 are to do 3 new things with mm. This is 2 of 3.

We met up after mm’s piano lesson and took the train all the way to the end of the line, then another bus for almost 1hr to go to the fishing village of Tai O. It was an extremely hot day, the queue for the bus was long and it was crowded. We discussed for half a second whether to go, and decided that we should persevere since ee’d been talking about going there for ages. The village itself is more a tourist attraction now, although some of the traditional activities like fishing and preparing dried seafood still remain.

We walked to one end of the village, doubled back and shared a snack of fried rice and squid with shrimp sauce at a local place. Walked to the other end and went through the market and the pretty waterways area. One of the attractions of the village is houses on wooden stilts, many were destroyed in a fire in 2000, thankfully some are still standing. Other houses in the village were constructed from metal, tin or aluminium I think. They must be scorching inside, although some have been modernised with air-conditioning.

Right at the end of the waterfront is a hotel converted from the old police station. Very colonial in architecture and with great views out of the pier and sea.

A nice afternoon out, very hot and we were grateful for some shade and areas where we could feel the breeze. I didn’t have my camera, so everything was taken using the iphone. Not a bad set.


in going places , photography is life |

Finally the trip pics are sorted and uploaded. From the 1846 pics and 11 videos it’s now 977 pics and 10 videos:

  • general road trip — misc pics taken during drive, platte river archway museum, lincoln highway monument, salt lake city, antelope island, twin falls, columbia river, coeur d’alene, old montana prison, wall drugs
  • portland — city, waterfront, foodcarts, distilleries & wineries
  • gcls 2014 — mostly private set of a few pics I took or with me in them
  • yellowstone national park — beautiful scenery, waterfalls, geysers & volcanic activity areas, a vast lake, and buffalo
  • devils tower & deadwood — iconic devils tower including the prairie dog colony, mount moriah cemetery, days of 76 museum, deadwood historic main street, winery
  • south dakota — custer, crazy horse monument day & night, mount rushmore, badlands


Some favourites that haven’t already been posted:

in going places |

By the time I got home it was almost 10pm, so most of the day disappeared. Unpacked, showered and went to bed. Can’t really report on a day that felt like it only had 2hrs in it.


in going places |

micheladacocktail

A partial day today. Left around 12.30pm, Carleen dropped me at O’Hare. No queue at checkin, the lady told me I was the first person to check in on Friday. I’ve been 0004 before, but this is the first time I was 0001. I don’t know if I was distracting her, or she did it on purpose, but she gave me priority luggage tags. Yay! I won’t complain.

Security was quick too. Terminal 5 only has a tiny duty free so I wasn’t tempted. Since I didn’t bother going out to town during the week, I bought a Chicago magnet for mum at the airport.

Plenty of time till boarding so I found myself at the mexican bar. Had a michelada cocktail — lime, hot sauce, corona. Would have preferred more hot sauce and may be some worcester sauce but in general a good drink.

The fligtht was about 80% full, the middle seat was empty and I shared with a frequent flyer businessman — one of the better types of fellow passengers. Lunch was chicken cacciatore, mashed potato and vanilla ice cream. Watched Captain America, which was pretty good, a nice loud action film perfect for a long flight. Then watched a horrendous train wreck called Grand Piano. Not even Elijah Wood or John Cusack could save this, with an unbelievable and frankly stupid storyline and poor performances. Watched part of Walking Dead season 4 and Divergence until we needed to land.

Pork chop and pearl cous cous for the next meal. Instant noodles during the flight too. Don’t like the new practice of serving the second meal in the middle of the flight instead of 2hrs before landing. Difficult to sleep. Didn’t sleep very well, may be 2-3hrs overall. Crossed the international date line, so most of today and tomorrow are lost.


in going places |

roadtrip201407

google maps mileage: 4510 miles (7258km)
trip meter mileage: 5097 miles (8203km)

states visited: 9 — iowa, nebraska, wyoming, utah, idaho, oregon, washington, montana, south dakota
of which new: 7 — nebraska, wyoming, utah, idaho, oregon, montana, south dakota
days travelled: 19, including 5 days at conference
actual stops: 11

  • lincoln NE: motel 6
  • rock springs WY: best western
  • twin falls ID: days inn
  • pendleton OR: red lion
  • portland OR: red lion (8 nights)
  • spokane WA: quality inn
  • bozeman MT: mountain view inn
  • sheridan WY best western
  • deadwood SD: best western
  • custer SD: americas best value dakota cowboy inn
  • mitchell SD: ramada inn

national parks visited: 5 — antelope island, yellowstone, devils tower, mount rushmore, badlands (crazy horse is private non-profit)
waterfalls seen: 5 — twin falls, shoshone falls, horsetail falls, firehole falls, lower falls yellowstone canyon
animals seen: 18 — elk, moose, bison, bear, prairie dog, mountain lion, arctic wolf, timber wolf, reindeer, big horn sheep, mountain goat, antelope, pronghorn, badger, otter, lynx, coyote, fox (plus birds and farm animals: cow, horse, sheep)
animals walking close to car: 5 — bison (x2), arctic wolf, bear, cow, deer

wineries, distilleries, breweries visited: 5 — hood river wine, eastside distillery whiskey, stone barn brandyworks whiskey & rum, bridgeport beer, prairie berry wine

conference sessions attended: 11
weddings attended: 2

pictures taken: 1846
videos taken: 11
magnets purchased: 16


in going places |

frenchtoastbfastihop

Driving day. I had breakfast at the hotel, mostly since I needed my cup of tea. On the road at 11am. This was the only pic I took, lunch at IHOP. I had berry brioche french toast, hash brown, sausages and scrambled eggs.

We drove from South Dakota through Iowa. I took over driving midway through Iowa. At 8.25pm we finally reached Illinois and back in Blue Island just before 11pm. Overall trip over 5,000 miles.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Tasks #31-33 are to visit 3 new US states. Tasks #31 and 31 ware Wasthington and Alaska respectively, when Mum and I went on the Alaskan cruise. I had to decide which state to use as task #33; on the roadtrip from Chicago to Portland and back I visited 7 new states: nebraska, wyoming, utah, idaho, oregon, montana, south dakota. Nebraska was a drive through, wyoming had yellowstone, utah had salt lake, idaho had twin falls, oregon had portland, montana had part of yellowstone and an interesting prison museum. I decided on south dakota, the last new state, because of: a) it’s a state I’d never expected to have the opportunity to visit and b) there were so many things to see.

Trip posts: deadwood and crazy horse, mount rushmore, bear country, badlands | flickr sets: deadwood, mount rushmore, bear country, badlands

We stayed in a motel straight out of the 1950s called dakota cowboy inn:

sd133custerhotel

ate buffalo steak:

sd144buffalo

visited Deadwood, a wild west gold rush town with a dubious history, which it tries to maintain today:

sd111deadmain

got a rock from the crazy horse mountain, knowing that the monument won’t be completed in our lifetime:

sd177crazy

suitably awed by the mount rushmore national monument:

sd237rushmore

drove amongst bears at bear country:

sd301bear

and entered an alien landscape at badlands national park:

sd347badlands


in going places |

trip14rushmore

Quick breakfast at hotel: half a waffle and a little eggs. Short drive to Mount Rushmore. At the crazy horse monument yesterday, they superimposed all 4 presidents onto the head of crazy horse, to show how large it is. I’d also read that people found mount rushmore to be smaller than expected. Wrong. I found the sculptures of the presidents very impressive. They were visible already from the car park and there was the grand viewing terrace which brought us very close to the sculpture. They also had one of the best gift shops of this trip, souvenirs weren’t as tacky as some places, there were lots of varieties (over 10 types of magnets) and quite reasonably priced too. I bought a baseball for gis, shot glasses, magnets and 10 tote bags ($2.99 each) for gifts.

trip15bear

On the way to the highway we passed by bear country usa, a small safari park. They had deers, goats, reindeers, an arctic fox, mountain lions and lots of bears. The drive around the park was slow as they were busy, this gave us lots of photo opportunities. At the end of the drive they had a small enclosure area with baby bears and other small animals like fox, otter. Most were asleep in the hot midday sun.

trip16badlands

A short ways along the highway was badlands national park. Terrific landscape. We’d be driving along flat farmland and then in the park there were cliffs and ravines and canyons formed from clay and mineral deposits. It was extremely hot, desert weather and the haziness made the entire place seem like an alien landscape. We stopped at almost all the viewpoints along the 24-mile loop around the park, I jumped out and took pictures with our cameras.

And then my s110 developed lens error. Argh!!! Luckily I had the big camera with me, and it was towards the end of our trip.

We drove on until around 9pm and stopped at Mitchell. Most hotels were full, probably due to a rodeo or event in town. We managed to get the last room at the ramada inn. Dinner was takeaway pizza. There was no internet and we had problems with the front desk guy so I gave up and went to bed.


in going places |

trip06boothill trip07boothill

We checked out of our western style hotel early and drove a short distance to mount moriah cemetery. $1 admission. The cemetery dated back to the days of the wild west and was where characters like WIld Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Preacher Smith were buried. There was also a spot where the US flag flew day and night and a good view of the town of Deadwood.

trip08museum76 trip09museum76

Drove to the other end of the town to the days of 76 museum. There were exhibits of early wild west days, parade, rodeo, native american artefacts, a trading post replica and a room full of stagecoaches. Outside the museum marked the spot where supposedly the first gold was found. We drove around the historic main street to take pictures of the buildings, then we were off.

trip10winery trip11winery

Next stop was prairie berry winery. Free tasting of 5 wines, I tried their fruity whites and reds. Bought their signature red ass rhubarb, made from 90% rhubarb and 10% raspberry to temper the acidity. Really great, smooth fruity red.

trip12crazyhorse trip13crazyhorse

The destination today was the crazy horse memorial. I’d vaguely heard of it before and didn’t realise how significant the site is. The sculpture of chief crazy horse was begun in the 1940s and even today there is a long way to go to completion. The fact that it’s a work in progress adds to the atmosphere. Lots of useful educational information and a show too.

We found our hotel at Custer, more a motel straight from the 1950s that was quite charming in an old fashioned way. Hadn’t eaten all day so we headed to the nearby cattleman steakhouse where we had buffalo sirloin. We thought it was a fitting revenge on the buffalo encounters at yellowstone.

We relaxed for a bit back at the hotel, then headed out at 8pm back to crazy horse monument to see the light show. With our ticket earlier we got a return ticket so it was free. The guide at the information booth also advised us to park at the upper car park and he was right. We got a perfect head-on view of the monument from the car. We set up cameras and camcorders and tripods inside the car and waited till the show started. It lasted about half an hour of laser show with sound effect. Very cool.


in 101.1001 , being healthy , eating and drinking , going places |

sd121winery sd127winery

Task #63 of 101 in 1001 is to go to a wine/beer/whisky tasting. This was at prairie berry winery located between deadwood and custer in south dakota.

The first sign for the winery was a large poster of a red donkey, words that said “red ass rhubarb wine” and encouragements to turn here. The large main room served as a combination of shop, caf&233; and two long bars facilitated tasting. By no means a sit down tasting, each visitor could taste 5 small samples free of charge.


sd131prairieberrytasting

I was given a form to indicate my choice of 5. There were three main types and the prices were also helpfully included:

  • crab apple — semi-dry white with a tart aftertaste, good clean finish
  • gold digger — made from 100% pear, quite sweet like riesling or gewurtztraminer I bought one as a gift and was lucky enough to taste it when she opened it
  • buffaloberry fusion — dry white, like chenin blanc, my least favourite
  • chokeberry medley — red, from chokeberry with some elderflower to combat the bitterness, but I could still taste the fruit’s skin
  • red ass rhubarb — 90% rhubarb with 10% raspberry, the winery’s most popular wine and it isn’t just because of the catchy name, it really is very good, I bought a bottle to try with mm


in going places |

trip04devil

An easy day. Woke up after 9am, had breakfast and left the hotel at 11am. Still had a headache throughout the day due to late night, but it’s okay.

The target today was Devils Tower National Monument. The 856 ft high tower is made of magnum and the columns of rock are very distinctive. The tower is also recognisable from close encounters of the third kind. No aliens or mothership were seen though. There are several trails around the tower area, I scrambled up to the bottom of the rock pile, up to the point that climbing wasn’t allowed without permission. It is possible to climb the tower, with permission from the park rangers.

trip05prairiedog

Within the national park was a small area where prairie dogs roamed. People could get really close to them, they were probably so used to people and cars. Quite cute.

We visited the gift shop and headed to nearby Sundance for a looksee. Nothing much to see there so we headed to our overnight stop of Deadwood. After last night’s experience we made reservations this morning. Good thing, the hotel was fully booked. Dinner at the hotel diner-restaurant. I had steak tips — deep fried tips of tenderloin. First time I tried deep fried steak, quite juicy but I don’t think it’s too healthy. Finished with apple pie and ice cream that was very good.

We reached the hotel by 5pm and by 8pm we’d finished dinner. There was time for laundry and to sort through some of the trip pics.


in going places |

Since we decided to go to Yellowstone National Park, we set off early from Bozeman. Ran a few errands first — oil change for car, staples, shopping for sandwiches, mcdonalds breakfast. The drive to the west entrance of YNP was through trees and valleys. We passed by Big Sky where I got a map and some helpful hints from the staff at the information center.

ynp01falls

Fee for YNP was $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 days. What a bargain. We followed an anti-clockwise loop, first stop was Madison (9 o’clock) and photo op at Madison river, then a small detour to Firehole Falls. That set the tone for the rest of our visit.

ynp03biscuit

Next on the loop was the geyser area. The first few geysers were too crowded, no parking available. We were able to find parking at biscuit basin. The colours were spectacular there, with 3 small blue pools of the clearest blue colour, the water flowed to yellow and orange and brown caused by sulphur.

ynp04faithful

One of the highlights in YNP was Old Faithful geyser. By the time we reached there it was 2.30pm. The car park was completely full. I jumped out and joined the hundreds of people sitting around the area waiting. Within 5-10mins someone shouted “it’s starting” and true enough, the geyser blew a high pillar of steam into the sky. Everyone scrambled for their cameras. After the show, which lasted about 5mins, we went into the shop. At the back of the cashier was a notice that said they predicted the geyser will blow +/- 10mins of 2.50pm, so we were just in time.

ynp05lake

It was around 4pm when we stopped a picnic table at pumice point along the shore of the yellowstone river for a late lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches. It was so quiet and peaceful there, just watching the lake and then a lone fisherman came by casting his line.

ynp06dragon

After the lake we headed to fishing bridge but didn’t stop. The next stop was at mud volcano and the oddly mesmerising dragon mouth. A huge mass of steam blew out from a cave as a result of volcanic activity inside. The combination of water waves and steam made a roaring sound that was like the roar of a dragon.

ynp07canyonfalls

The destination was canyon village and a short ways along the south rim drive were views of the canyon and the lower falls. The red colours of the canyon walls were also quite spectacular.

ynp08valley

By that time we knew we had to head out of the park. We drove through some treacherous narrow steep roads and descended into the lamar valley. Pretty sunset views of the valley and wildflowers.

ynp09bison

We saw wild animals in the park. An elk, a bear and several herds of bison. We had a bison cross the road in front of the car and another bison walking along the middle yellow line towards our car. They were so close we could have reached out and touched them.

We left the park at almost 9pm. Drove through some difficult roads to reach Cody. The bad news was there there were absolutely no hotel rooms at Cody. Desperate times called for desperate means. We continued driving another 130 miles and made it to Sheridan at 3am. Thankfully the Best Western had vacancies. I showered, downloaded pictures and was in bed around 3.45am. Thank you to Carleen for driving all day in the park, and then driving the long dark route to Sheridan.

in going places |

trip02coeurlake

Left fairly early and was at Staples to print out flat versions of our friends to take with us on the road trip.

Only about 1hr to the state line at Idaho. Stopped at Coeur d’Alene to: a) wash car and b) visit the very beautiful Coeur d’Alene lake. Stunning scenery, a marina, water sports including parasailing and float planes. Quite touristy and I can see why.

Continued on the I-90 and entered a new state, Montana, around mid-morning. The clock changed back to Mountain time so by the time we stopped for lunch it was past 1.30pm. Stopped at a small travelcenter complex at St Regis and had lunch at a small diner type restaurant. I had deep fried prawns, peas and rice. At the shop next door I got huckleberry ice cream, yummydelicious.

trip03roadmontana.jpt

The scenery changed from desert like in Norhern Washington to more mountaneous with thick forest in Idaho to flat with rolling hills in Montana. Not many big towns, mostly small villages and communities. Farming for the most part. A very pleasant drive indeed. Even the weather was ever changing. We started the day with hot weather around 30°C, then it cooled to warm 20s. At times there were isolated heavy rain and I saw lightning at another patch of rain some ways away. Sunset was late, almost 9pm.

Dinner at IHOP, I had chicken and spinach crepe. After studying our stack of maps we decided that it was feasible to detour to Yellowstone national park tomorrow. So very excited about this opportunity. Have to get our cameras ready.

By the time we finished dinner it was getting later than usual. We were at Bozeman MT, which had a lot of shops and hotels. As usual we went to the hotel to get a room but for some reason everything was fully booked! Finally the nice receptionist at a Residence Inn called another place nearby and got us the last room available. Relieved.


in going places |

trip01wabridge

Loaded the car and had a late breakfast with friends who were still at the conferene hotel. It was around noon when we started out on our return trip. This time we will take a more northerly route. The instructions from AAA took us to a scenic route in the mountain roads north of the columbia river. We crossed back to the I-84 via the bridge of the gods ($1 toll). We went through Oregon and to Washington state, from forests to desert.

Around mid-afternoon we started looking at the map to see where we might stop for the night and Spokane was at the right spot. Found a Quality Inn by the highway and checked in quickly. They had an in-house restaurant so we just ordered a pizza from them.


in going places , how the day went |

weddingrainbows

The last day of the conference is pretty much wrap up by the exec director, brunch (bacon, eggs, muffin) and lots of hugging. Sad that I won’t see my friends for another year, but happy to have the opportunity to see them at all.

I did do something I’ve never done before, and likely never have the opportunitty to again. I was invited to two weddings!

The first one was at the hotel deck. The couple were both in white and the ceremony officiated by a great, great friend of everyone. It was lovely and warm and I could see the emotions clearly on the face of the couple. People cried good tears and I felt honoured to have attended. I don’t know the couple very well, a friend of theirs asked if I could help take pictures at the last minute.

The second wedding I had been invited to earlier, also to help take pictures. It was again, full of love, emotion, warmth and happiness. It was indoors, at a chapel across the way at Vancouver WA. Many family and friends attended, as did a group of us from the writing community.

A beautiful and very thoughtful ceremony. The couple (and their son) poured coloured sand, exchanged lighted candles and were bonded by a series of rainbow ribbons. So symbolic. We stayed for the reception, the dance and even got to try the wedding cake. Great day.


in going places |

gcls2014logo

Lots of running around getting the award presentation done. First thing in the morning checking projection connection, then with the team to go through the presentation one last time.

Attended 2 sessions: one with food with writing and the second one the annual panel with new writers and their journey towards publication.

More awards meeting and by the time we broke off we had just over 30mins to get something to eat, have a shower and changed. A little bit disappointed at the lack of time and everyone else (including those in charge) seemed to have just gone off for their own happy dinner whilst abandoning the awards team. I mean, we also needed to eat and we had no time. I only had time to pop into taco bell across the road to get a burrito which I had to literally shove down my mouth.

The tech desk was at the back of the ballroom where the awards were to be held. I was nervous and stressed because the slide order had to be spot on. 237 slides total. I also had to be careful I didn’t hit the arrow button too early especially when the winners were announced. By the time the ceremony was finished I was knackered. I stayed to congratulate people and to watch a couple of dances. Needed quiet time.


in going places |

Attended two two-part master classes today. One on historical fiction research and one on what to include in a good manuscript. The historical fiction one included a hands-on exercise where we were split into small groups, given a scenario and told to research and write a passage. It was fun and I think my group did really well. Then again we had 3 editors who write, and a writer…and me.

Today was also special speaker day and our special speaker was Ann Bannon, a true pioneer and an icon.

port14wedge port15scallop

Lunch was chicken sandwich, potato salad, cookie and an apple. Dinner was at bj’s brewpub. Had a red jeremiah (quite dark but not hoppy), wedge salad and for mains seared scallop with rice and asparagus.

Evening activity was karaoke. Mainly sat around chatting and drinking the wine I got from Mt Hood winery out of a coffee paper cup. Took part in the annual “I feel pretty” group sing in honour of a lost sister. Stayed quite late.

in going places |

The conference proper started today. A welcome from the exec director then it was to sessions. I went to one called “I wish I’d written that” followed by one about different mystery genres. I learned the difference between cozy (American spelling) and hard-boiled mysteries and which one contains knitting. Lunch was roast beef sandwich, potato salad, cookie and an apple. After lunch it was the members’ meeting followed by a well attended panel with several illustrious editors.

gclsaward2014vol

At the members’ meeting they were giving out awards and certificates for volunteers and I was honoured to be one of the recipients of an award.

Didn’t go to the next session. My friend, editor P, gave me some great advice about LL. I did manage to catch the board meeting and by then it was past 6pm.

port13bbq

A and I went to dinner at the nearby boomers barbeque restaurant. Between the two of us, we ordered ribs, beef brisket, pulled chicken, pork loin and hot links. I had a beer and sides of corn and coleslaw. I liked the ribs and brisket best. $45 total with tips.

in going places |

Couldn’t sleep last night until 5am, so didn’t wake up till 9.30am. Finished some work then hung around the vendor area helping a little with set up. Lots of volunteers completed the task quickly.

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Spent the afternoon watching Holland vs Argentina world cup semi-finals. Disappointing result for us, as Argentina won on penalties. Ah well.

My stomach wasn’t feeling well, A and I went to Safeway and got some soup. Then it was time for the Meet and Greet at the vendor room. Not much to do, said hello to more people. Early escape back to the room to watch tv.

in going places |

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port11bridge port12museum

My friend A and I went into Portland today. The hotel shuttle took us to the light rail station and it was straightforward to Pioneer Square. We walked around, went to Powell’s for a little while then walked to the waterfront park. Pretty park and good view of the bridges.

Opposite the waterfront park we rented bikes for the remainder of the afternoon so we could take in more of the city. I was a little nervous as I’m not used to cycling around city streets but by and large it was okay and drivers in Portland tended to respect cyclists more than in other parts of the world (ahem, London).

We explored a few food cart areas and ended up at the same pod I was at yesterday. I thought about Ethiopian but I was hungry so I had a grilled cheese sandwich with 4 cheeses. Very rich, very stodgy, way too fattening. Plus I had it with a vietnamese condensed milk iced tea.

With all the calories I needed to cycling exercise. Went south all the way to Portland State University, stopped at a frozen yogurt place then headed back to the waterfront.

The hotel shuttle came back to pick us up, then I was at meetings. Didn’t get to eat dinner which made me cranky. One of my friends gave me cheese, whiskey and wine and I felt a bit better.


in going places |

My friends M and C picked me up from the hotel in the morning; they moved to Vancouver WA, just across the river from Portland and I hadn’t seen them in years and years. We hung out at their house for a while, catching up.

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They took me to lunch at the food carts, street food is distinctively Portland—there are over 500 food carts all over the city. At this spot, carts are lined up along 4 sides of a square and there was a great selection to choose from: japanese, thai, vietnamese, indian, mexican, mediterranean, kebab, hawaiian, sausages, waffles. Originally I wanted to try the ethiopian truck but at the end I decided on the one offering georgian food. I’d never tried food from georgia, and it turned out to be typically eastern european. I had the combo plate — eggplant roll, mushroom dumplings, cheese flatbread, bean-stuffed bread, tomato salad. Very nice, the meatless option felt healthy.

After lunch, we walked a few blocks to Powell’s, one of the largest bookstores in the country. It was big. Bookshelves filled with all sorts of books in different sections they called rooms. I took a quick tour around most of the rooms, then settled at the cookery and food section. Lots of selection.

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After Powell’s we did some tastings around distillery row. First stop at eastside distilling where we tried potato vodka, spiced rum, marionberry bourbon, cherry bourbon and their premium double barrel bourbon. I really liked their double barrel bourbon but at $55 was too expensive for a bourbon.

The second tasting was at stone barn brandyworks, the smallest distillery in Portland and located at a small warehouse unit in a commercial block. The very friendly and knowledgable person there generously let us sample straight rye (clear, very strong), oaked rye, spelt whiskey, grappa and various fruit liqueurs including rhubarb, quince, apricot. I did buy a bottle of the quince liqueur, it was very special and I couldn’t resist.

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Took a break from the alcohol and visited the rose garden. It is a test garden where different species of roses are cultivated. Very pretty, and we were just in time to catch the blooms.

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Early dinner at bridgeport brew pub. I had a strong (9.2%) but delicious old knucklehead ale, a much needed spinach & salad and hummous. Everything was yummy. My friends were telling me about their adventures, in particularly going hiking and travelling around this part of the country. So wish I could live here. I already know I love Seattle, and now I can add Portland to the list.

Back at the hotel, I was just in time to help out with unloading conference materials. Joined a couple of people for dinner, only had salad. Without intending it, I ended up with an all vegetarian day. Well, vegetarian plus lots of whisky and beer day. Went running on the treadmill for 5k to compensate for the beer.

in going places |

chiport13columbia

Early morning set off, breakfast on the way. The landscape started as dry and rolling hills but once we hit the columbia river gorge it turned totally gorgeous. Stopped at the first viewpoint next to the highway to take pictures. It was hot and sunny but with a nice breeze.

Made a stop at the columbia river gorge discovery center to get information about where to go in the local area. The girls there suggested that we took a drive along the fruit loop, a 35-mile circuit that takes in farms, pyo fruit farms and wineries. An awesome experience, if I were with mm, we would have spent the entire day there wine tasting and going to pyo farms. It’s cherry season and the cherry trees were bursting with fruit, both the regular dark kind and the delicious rainier cherries. I bought a bag, I couldn’t resist.

chiport14winery

I was able to go to one winery, the aptly named mt hood winery which was indeed at the foot of mt hood. Tried 5 wines for $5, ranging from a sharp pinot noir, an even more sharp zinfindel, a nice blend, a granache and a pretty decent syrah.

Next stop was the waterfalls area, one of the biggest attractions of the gorge. Unfortunately we only saw one waterfall, the horsetail falls. Too much traffic in narrow roads prevented further exploration. A bit disappointing.

chiport15crab

Drove onto Portland and reached the hotel just after 2pm. Rooms were ready so we unloaded. I unpacked a little, then took a break. Dinner was at joe’s crab shack. I had a mixed pot of snow, queen and king crabs. Plus a beer.

The end of the first part of our road trip. Something like 2,500 miles.


in going places |

Breakfast included at the hotel. I had half a waffle, half a slice of toast and half pot of yogurt. Tried their tea but had to give up and switch to PG.

It was a good decision to stay overnight at Twin Falls, because there are several things to see around the town. Just off the main road was a scenic viewpoint overlooking the snake river canyon. Awesome gorge, right there by the road.

chiport09twinfalls

It got better. A few miles beyond town was the Twin Falls Hydroelectric project. The grounds near the plant was open to the public; the view of the gorge, the lake, the dam and small waterfall was breathtaking.

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And we weren’t finished. Within the same Snake River canyon area was the Shoshone Falls. Its brochure describes it as the Niagara of the West and at 212 feet high, it’s actually 45 feet taller than Niagara. Not as wide though. The viewing platforms were close to the carpark and gave spectacular views of the falls and also back towards the gorge. There was also a double rainbow when we were there. When we exited the state park, there was a queue of cars waiting to get in, so our timing was perfect.

chiport11idaho

After a quick lunch at IHOP back at Twin Falls, it was time to continue on our way. The landscape was still flat, mainly farmland or grazing land. We could see mountains in the distance. As we drove closer to Oregon, the landscape changed and it became more desert-like. The flatness gave way to hills and valleys.

chiport12oregon

The elevation increased and we found ourselves driving close to 9,000 feet mountains on both sides. Beyond the mountains was a national forest, the landscape changed yet again to trees.

Overnight stop at the Red Lion at Pendleton. Dinner at the hotel restaurant, watched the replay of Holland vs Costa Rica quarter-finals, had nachos, prime rib and a beer. Stomach wasn’t feeling too wall, a bit bloated. Food was good but service was extremely slow. Relieved to be finally in our room and showered.

After 4 days of travelling, we are just over 200 miles from Portland.

in going places |

Leisurely wake up, had breakfast in the hotel: cheerios, pancake, sausage and tea that tasted okay at first but wasn’t very good after a bit. Asked for directions to car wash, the automatic one was closed so had to use the manual one.

chiport05wyoming

Continued on our way acoss Wyoming. The landscape was pretty, the flat farmlands gave way to cliff-like rock formations. The weather was gorgeous, blue skies almost all the way.

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Since we were ahead of schedule, we decided to detour to Salt Lake City. The main attraction was Temple Square, and we were able to find a parking space close to the entrance. The visitors centers and the Tabernacle were open, but none of the other buildings were. Took pictures of the main temple and other buildings on the grounds. Grand buildings and a very neat site.

chiport07saltlake

Stopped long enough at the state capitol to take a picture, then drove out of town to look for the Great Salt Lake. Got directions at a petrol station for antelope island. $10 entrance fee per vehicle to the state park was totally worth it. The island is the largest island on the lake and accessible via a narrow causeway. It was hot and the effect of the heat and may be salt made the road seem like it was shimmering. Apparently there are bisons, pronghorn antelopes, bighorn sheep and many other animals but we didn’t see any. Stopped at various points to take pictures, some of the pictures turned out to be like paintings, the scenery was so pretty.

Continued on our way and entered Idaho late afternoon. The landscape changed again, from small mountains to wide expense of land that could only be described as vast. There were few buildings and built up areas. We had a little adventure when we almost ran out of petrol before finding a station. All was well though.

Overnight stop at Twin Falls. Had a nice steak and seafood dinner, saw some fireworks on TV.


in going places |

Leisurely start today, I was a bit bummed that they didn’t have hot water for me to make tea but it’s not a big deal. We were on our way around 9am. Drove for a bit then stopped for petrol and Wendy’s. I had a bacon burger and a few fries. The big cup of coke zero lasted me the rest of the day.

chiport02arch

We took a quick stop at the great platte river road archway near kearney, still in nebraska. It’s a big arch that spans across the road, may be there’s a museum inside, not sure as we didn’t go in, just took a few pictures in the vicinity.

More than 300 miles of Nebraska. Not a lot to see along the highway, just farmland and more farmland. Very flat. Pretty though. At one point we drove past a cattle facility and the smell was quite overwhelming. All the “fun” of travelling.

chiport03wyoming

Sometime in the afternoon we entered Wyoming. Yay, another new state. The landscape was similar to Nebraska with lot of flat farmland. Gradually it became more brown as crops and grass gave way to rock and clay. The elevation was higher and there were hills and rock formations as we travelled west.

chiport04lincoln

Another quick stop when we came across the lincoln memorial along the highway. Very impressive bust of Lincoln sitting on a pedestal looking out to the road. It was also quite nice to sit out in the open for a few minutes, it was hot but not muggy, with a comfortable breeze. A few people asked me to take their pictures on their smartphones, I tend to get asked that a lot, hmm.

We stopped for the night at 7.30pm when we reached Rock Springs. Got our room, got settled and was very happy to see that the hotel restaurant had a take-away menu. Prime rib with salad, potatoes and vegetables. Took it back to enjoy in our room, and a beer too. Very nice.

Total driven over 9hrs and 700+ miles.

in going places |

chiport01nebraska

Woke up around 7am. Took it easy, I was pretty much packed except for last minute stuff. Made sandwiches, took out the rubbish and loaded the car. Set off around 10.20am.

I spent the day being a grateful passenger, Carleen did all the hard work. I just sat there occasionally getting drinks or sandwiches. We stopped at an outlet, I bought a pair of socks because the pair I was wearing was worn out. Stopped for petrol twice as we drove all the way across Iowa. Entered Nebraska in the evening, stopped at a motel 6 at Lincoln after driving around 500 miles in 9 hrs. Good driving. I can add another state to my US states visited map.

Dinner at Cracker Barrel, I had a nice rainbow trout with 3 sides. Then back to our room to battle the slow internet, watch tv, relax.

in going places |

chicagoportlandmap01

Mostly stayed inside today, apart from going out to lunch. The bad storm (and tornado warning) last night appeared to have taken down power in several places, an entire strip mall was without power, including the place we wanted to go for lunch. The petrol stations and supermarkets were open, may be they have their own back up generators.

Finished making the last of the pound cakes. Final count 47 small, 11 medium and 2 large, 8 flavours.

Final packing tomorrow morning. Make sandwiches, pack toiletries and the like. It’s hard sometimes for me to fully realise how large America is, our trip is 2/3 across the country and is 2,100 miles. Two thousand miles. To put things in terms that I recognise, Land’s End to John O’Groats is 874 miles. From London to Rome is 1,200 miles and from Edinburgh to Istanbul is 2,300 miles. We’re going to drive the same distance across Europe. Gulp.


in going places |

Woke up at 6am, showered, finished final packing. Out at 8am. I didn’t need to leave so early, since my flight wasn’t until noon, but I needed to fight with people going into work for taxis. As it was, it was 15mins before an empty one came by. Checked in already, so dropping off luggage and getting the boarding pass was straightforward. Interestingly, the queue for regular economy class was shorter than for members. I got the train to the airport and walked around duty free.

The flight was completely full. I had the aisle seat in the middle column and even the middle seat was occupied. Food was okay, better than the Vancouver flight. I had chicken and ice cream for lunch and fish and blueberry cheesecake for dinner. I don’t quite like CX’s new practice of serving the second meal in the middle of the flight vs 2hrs from landing. Means we had to wake up. Anyway, I didn’t get much sleep, just a little here and there. Watched Lego the Movie, US masterchef and found an interesting BBC drama, The Escape Artist. Only 2 eps, it was very good.

Landed at 1.45pm, so only 1.45hrs seemed to have elapsed since I got on the plane, when in reality it was a 15hr flight. We had to taxi for a long time because another plane was at our gate and we had to wait till it left. Surprisingly I was out of immigration very, very quickly — I was 3rd or 4th in line. I was at baggage reclaim at 2.30pm. But what time I saved at immigration was useless because the luggage took a whole hour to come out. There’d be a few bags on the belt, then nothing for 5mins. So frustrating.

So it was 3.30pm before I finally escaped. Checked email to see where Carleen was, called her and she picked me up at the carpark. Very easy. We went straight to the car rental office near her place so I could pick up my rental car for the next few days. We were at her house around 5pm so door to door it took 22hrs.

Dinner was steak at longhorn, a little overcooked but still very nice, I had about 2/3 and took the rest away.

For some reason I could not log into the wifi, even though I was able to last time I was at the house. Neither the mba nor the iphone worked, but the ipad was able to get a signal. Strange. Still, I wasn’t totally without internet. Too tired to do much, went to bed even though I wasn’t sleepy by then. I was tired, but my brain was on a different timezone. Early start tomorrow.


in going places |

Mashable had a list of world’s 10 best parks according to tripadvisor. Poor article, with no labels to the entries and I have to guess some of them. They had the usual suspects of Central Park, NY high line, Millenium Park and Stanley Park — together with an unknown park it makes 5 of the 10 in North America, not what I’d describe as representative of the world. No Hyde Park and not a single one from Asia, Africa or Australia.

ldn100greenpark hok323flowerclock

Nowadays when we travel, we look for markets, water and parks. It’s always great to visit a new park in a new city, or revisit a park in a visited city. Just sitting on a bench, watching the world go by, how wonderful and peaceful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big urban park or a small neighbourhood park, parks are the best. Here’s Green Park in London and Tokachigawa Park in Hokkaido.


in going places |

gold002dock

Finished writing up the cruise trip and uploading pics.

posts:

  • day01: seattle — flight, arrival, hotel, night walk
  • day02: seattle — pike place market, space needle, chihuly garden and glass
  • day03: embarkation — seattle, cabin, sailaway
  • day04: at sea — exploring the ship, food, formal night
  • day05: juneau — mendenhall glacier, tracy’s king crab shack, whale watching
  • day06: skagway — white pass, emerald lake, carcross, skagway
  • day07: glacier bay — margerie, grand pacific, lamplugh glaciers
  • day08: ketchikan — river, creek street, king crab takeaway feast
  • day09: victoria — butchart gardens
  • day10: disembarkation — seattle outlet, vancouver night market
  • day11: vancouver — capilano suspension bridge park, granville island market and brewery
  • day12: vancouver — grouse mountain, lonsdale quay market
  • day13: vancouver — flight home

flickr sets:


in going places , photography is life |

I’m at parents’ to monitor the internet; they haven’t had internet or cable tv since the weekend. The repair guy came, changed the modem and within 10mins of him leaving, the connection dropped again. I reset and fingers crossed the connection has been stable so far. I’ll keep an eye on it for a couple of days.

With no wifi or tv, I was just using my iphone which okay for email, fb and reading. I had wanted to get started on the design stuff I said I’d finish this week, but without internet to download graphics the design is still in my head. I was able to get started on writing the cruise posts; even without access to flickr I can get the text sorted and then just add the pics afterwards.

It’s quite nice to partially unplug for a bit.

skag082emerald

Anyway, I uploaded all 1,556 pics and videos when I was home last week. I basically discarded about half of the almost 3,000 I took. I can’t stop looking at the glacier pics, but there are others favourites too. This is Emerald Lake in the Yukon on Skagway day. The turquoise green colour apparently is light reflecting off maristone at the bottom of the lake.

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Other colourful things we saw were the gum wall at Seattle, the #2 most unsanitary attraction in the world (the blarney stone being #1). In contrast the macchia forest glass sculpture at chihuly garden & glass is a thing of absolute beauty.

yvr462birds

We saw plenty of animals on the trip: whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bears and bald eagles in the wilderness or semi-wild settings. Saw a couple of birds of prey demos too; hawks and falcons and owls were familiar and very impressive. I’d never seen, nor heard of turkey vultures before, they had one at Grouse Mountain. Pretty mean looking beast.


in arts and media , going places , techtalk |



I’m working on sorting the cruise/Seattle/Vancouver trip pictures. From almost 3000 photos and videos I’m down to around 1600. Seattle set is uploaded and part of Juneau is uploaded. I have to wait till I get home to upload the rest because mum’s internet is too slow.

I made a few panoramas, not having the latest camera or iphone means I have to do it the old fashioned way in photoshop. I also wanted to make something interesting of margerie glacier calving. We were lucky the break was right in front of us when we were on deck, and with the camera in sports mode I was able to capture the action.

It’s easy enough to make an animated gif in imageready, although it’s been so long since I did it, I had to google the steps. With modern technology, everything that can be done with expensive software can be done with an app, usually free. So I made another one using gifmaker, the only downside is that gifmaker couldn’t handle large file sizes and I had to resize the images to 600x450. Otherwise, no difference.

But wait, there’s more. How about turning the animated gif into a video? This is what gfycat does. They converted my 11M gif to a 2M html5 video, or gfy (“jiffy”) and I can embed it.

Okay, this post has turned technical. Turning back to the glacier. We were on deck 14, port side, and everyone on the ship had their eyes and ears out for possible calving events. We were expecting a boom, but it was more like a crack followed by scratchy noises, we knew a calving was imminent. A cheer went up when it finally happened. So pleased we were there to see it.

in going places |

More packing in the morning. Had breakfast at Tim Horton’s again, after looking around the area immediately next to the hotel and deciding it was the best option: blueberry cream cheese bagel. We then loaded the car and drove to Richmond in search of king crab legs. Even at the wet market they were nowhere to be found. Why doesn’t Vancouver have an awesome seafood market like Pike Place in Seattle?

Dropped mum off at departures, returned the car, then went to check in. Two bags each, no problem getting through. The nice lady at the counter even offered us the middle 3 seats—the flight wasn’t full so we had all 3 seats to ourselves and 2 aisle seats. Nice.

Lunch at the terminal after security. Mum opted for roast pork noodles and I looked at the burgers at A&W before going for the noodles too. I did get the root beer. At the duty free I deliberated on whether to buy a whisky but eventually I did get a bottle of Glen Breton, Canada’s only single malt whisky. I figured I probably won’t have the opportunity to get it in the forseeable future and it’s in the 101 whiskies book.

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Our flight was slightly delayed, and so our trip has come to an end. Final pic of Vancouver, the rainbow crossing at Davie, I had to get my camera out quickly to snap this while the light was red.

in going places |

Our last full day in Vancouver and our trip. We wanted to buy some frozen king crab legs back for my dad, so we’ve been looking for supermarkets and such like. First stop today was Walmart at Norh Vancouver. Breakfast was Tim Horton’s again, I had a cream cheese bagel and a way too sweet iced green tea. We ended up spending a loooooong time at Walmart, and we came away with vitamins, cereal bars, marshmallow and…two new suitcases. Sigh.

yvr381cablecar yvr393peak

The real destination today was Grouse Mountain. We got the cable car up from the car park to the top, caught the end of the lumberjack show and proceeded to the chairlift to go up to the peak. The chairlift was long, took 12mins to get up. The views were great. It was a really sunny day but there was still blocks of ice up there. We didn’t go up the Eye of the Wind windmill, it was fine to go to the top of the chairlift.

yvr474owl yvr514beargrinder

After coming down we applied sunblock and saw the birds of prey demo, saw a grizzly bear playing in the water and caught the first part of the lumberjack show. All really interesting and great. Different from Capilano, I must admit I prefer Capilano because there was more nature and trails and things to see rather than shows that came on at preset times.

Got the cable car back down, we were lucky because for some reason they suspended the cable car right after us. May be mechanical issue, may be hot weather. We ate the whole pack of strawberries we bought at Walmart, it was perfect for the hot day.

We saw a leaflet at the hotel for lonsdale quay market so I drove over there with nothing more than what I remembered was on google maps and the small map on the leaflet. Managed fine. The carpark was free for the first 2hrs. The market was smaller than Granville Island and less crowded. One seafood stall, a few fruit & veg, arts & crafts and a few snacks and sandwiches.

yvr534greenbrew yvr545greenbrew

Totally unexpected, there was another craft beer brewery. This one was called green leaf brewery and their flight was 4 small glasses. I had sour weissbier, pale ale, magnificent bestard, sour apple. We were hungry so we ordered sandwiches which they called from another stall. The sandwiches took a long time, I had grilled cheese & bacon and mum had salmon.

Drove back to Walmart to get strawberries and swiffer liquid—I should have gotten more stuff as soon as mum decided to buy suitcases.

yvr573stanley yvr578stanley

The final destination was Stanley Park. At 1000 acres we knew we wanted to drive around and may be park somewhere. We ended up driving around and stopping at various points to take photos. After Stanley Park we drove to Chinatown, the old one. By that time it was early evening and everything was closed. Went back to the hotel, wasn’t hungry so I jsut finished the honey lager I bought yesterday at gib.

in going places |

Woke up at 8am, Mum was pooped so she was still asleep. I let her sleep while I caught up with online stuff. She woke up after 9am and we went off for breakfast at Tim Horton’s. Sausage egg muffin, hash brown and I had a chai tea while mum had a hot chocolate. The chocolate was way better than the tea.

Got the car keys from the hotel valet as well as a $3 off coupon from the front desk and we were off to capilano suspension bridge park, about half an hour’s drive from where we were. It’s one of the top attractions in Vancouver and it wasn’t hard to see why, though of course it meant it was awfully crowded.

yvr092capilano yvr108bridge

Next to the entrance were the totem poles. Can never get tired of seeing them, I should study them in more detail. Then it was the suspension bridge, which stretches 450 feet across and 230 feet above Capilano River. There were a lot of people on the bridge which made it swing quite a bit, especially at either end. I was too focused on taking pictures I had no time to be scared of heights. The way the foot traffic went, and with me holding the camera with my right hand, I couldn’t actually hold onto the rope so I ended up walking near the middle of the plank without support.

yvr131treetops yvr135treetops

On the other side of the river was the Treetops walk, a series of small suspension bridges attached to huge trees 110 feet above the ground. This was really great fun and I did not feel any vertigo at all.

The nature walk was back on ground level, a trail through the forest that passed the river, lots of trees, a bird of prey demo and with views of both the suspension bridge and the cliffwalk.

yvr201cliff yvr215cliff

The cliffwalk was back over the other side, so a return on the suspension bridge. I had envisioned the cliffwalk as like the one in the grand canyon but this one was less scary. The floor wasn’t glass but more solid wood. Really really odd that I did not feel vertigo like I normally would. May be it was because it wasn’t a straight drop down, the high treeline and treetop canopy gave an illusion that we weren’t as high up as we were.

We had a great time at the park. Bought souvenir magnets and I had gotten stamps at various points so they gave me a “I made it” certificate. Happy.


yvr248falsecreek yvr244aquabus
yvr269granmkt yvr277granmkt
yvr291granmktlunch yvr294granmktcrab

Went back to the hotel, parked the car and walked to Horton Street dock for the aquabus to Granville Island. The trip across false creek took 5mins. Now this is what we expected of a market! Fruit & veg, deli, bakery, seafood, arts & crafts. We had a late lunch there at the food stall area: halibut & chips, clam chowder, dungeness crab. The crab wasn’t as sweet as king crab, we still enjoyed it and were glad we got to try another type of crab.

yvr316granbrew yvr317granbrew yvr318granbrew

It as a nice sunny day with lots of visitors and street performers, I was glad we didn’t drive because parking looked horrendous. We wandered around the rest of the island and came across granville island brewery. Oh I was in heaven! A small craft beer brewery just when I needed a beer. They were only licenced for tasting so they offered a flight of 3x4oz tasting glasses. I tried the maple cream ale, IPA and potato stout. The stout was nothing like guinness or murphy’s or porter, it was still quite dark but wasn’t as bitter. Mum had a ginger ale.

We retraced our steps on the aquabus and walk to the hotel. Mum took a nap while I got online again. Had a late 8pm dinner at one of our favourite places that we spotted yesterday. Alright, we went all the way to Vancouver to go to Nando’s but it is a favourite. We ordered double leg, which isn’t on the UK menu, 5 wings and garlic bread. Yummy yummy yummy, and much needed after walking the whole day.

in going places |

Woke up around 7am, the ship was already docked back at Pier 91 at Seattle. We didn’t have to vacate our cabin till 8am so we got breakfast from deck 14: cream of wheat, croisant, fruit. After breakfast and a last check, we took our luggage and bade farewell to our cabin. We had to take our own luggage down to the casino for assembly, our bags were full so it was a little bit strenuous, not helped by idiots who don’t even hold the lift doors. There was a short wait till our turn was called. It was less comfortable than using the ship’s services but it meant we were inside the terminal a lot faster.

Shuttle back to the carpark was uneventful, we were in the car and on our way by 9.15am. We’d rather struggle a short way with our luggage than have to wait around for a couple of hours on the ship.

On the way to Vancouver, on the I-5 we stopped at the outlet. Mum and I both bought jeans at $19.99, and mine were 501s to boot. Additional shopping at Gap and I also bought a pair of brightly coloured Kinvara 3s.

I delayed our stop and lunch till we were less than 30 miles from the border. Petrol (okay, okay, gas) is cheaper in the US than in Canada so I wanted to fill up as late as possible. We ended up having lunch at a Denny’s. After a week of good quality seafood and delicious king crab legs, we were pleasantly surprised at what we ordered. A three course set with salad, prime rib skillet and mini apple crisp for me, mini banana split for mum plus one diet coke came to $30 with tips. The skillet tasted quite alright.

There was no delay at the border, just a couple of standard questions, and we were back on BC-99. There was quite a bit of traffic in the city as soon as we hit the airport, we found the Ramada Inn on Granville with little problem and were checked in by 4pm.

yvr021canadaplace yvr034steamclock

We left the car with the hotel and walked about 30mins to the waterfront near Canada Place. Mum sat down to rest while I ran over to Gastown to take pictures of the steam clock.

yvr052richmondmkt yvr075richmktcane
yvr062kebab yvr066richmktsquid

Got the skytrain to Bridgeport and walked to the Richmond night market. From our research seemed to be a really great must-see market full of international food and events. Small $2.25 entrance fee for me and mum was free. Just as well, because we were extremely disappointed. Reminded us of the carnival fair around CNY, with stalls selling cheap, tacky stuff like toys, jewellry, household goods and iphone covers. The food stalls were the same—unmemorable Asian food like noodles, fish balls, yakitori sticks. We opted for the best we could find: a middle-eastern stall selling kebabs and grilled squid. It was really hot and I was dying for a beer, but I guess because of licensing they only had sugary, artificially coloured concoctions they called mocktails.

It also got way too crowded so we took the train back downtown and walked back to the hotel. Saw a 7-eleven nearby and bought some water.


in going places |

Woke up at 8am, buffet breakfast: egg white omelette with vegetables, 2 sausages, baked apple. As we near the end of the cruise, time to start packing our luggage. It didn’t take me long, but it did take mum a while. So i left her in the cabin and went to the chef’s demo at the theatre. The head chef demonstrated how to make gravalax, potato pasta and black forest cake. The banter with the maitre d’ seemed a bit forced. Afterwards they led us to tour a small part of the galley. It was very clean and there were some chefs working there, I guess the real work was done in areas out of bounds for passengers.

Lunch at the restaurant: clam chowder, spaghetti aglio e olio, tilapia taco, baked apple. I was looking forward to the pasta, but it was overcooked and underseasoned. The fish was really good, as was the dessert.

The afternoon was sunny so I walked around deck 15 while mum did deck 7. Stopped by one of the bars at the end of my walk and got an ultimate cooler cocktail — vodka, passionfruit puree, cranberry juice, watermelon juice. Good one to sip while reading.

gold364fish gold363vongole
gold365floating gold366souffle

Early dinner at 5pm: seafood trio, curry pumpkin soup, linguine vongole, curry fish (can’t remember name of the fish, it wasn’t one I recognised), floating island, sorbet, milk chocolate hazelnut soufflé. The soup, pasta and main were disappointing for our last meal — too much curry, not enough clams and too tough respectively. Dessert completely redeemed the meal. We had the same waiter as our first dinner, he remembered, and brought us extra dessert. We hadn’t ordered the soufflé and were mighty glad he brought it because it was great.

We docked at 7pm at Victoria. Apparently the Jones Act mandated that ships stopped at a foreign port so Victoria BC became part of many Alaskan cruise itinerary. Lovely evening, we assembled in the theatre for our excursion to butchart gardens. We had to join the excursion to ensure we got back to the ship. Our bus driver was a weirdo, she talked a lot of hot air and drove very slowly.

vic031sunken vic046sunken
vic058flowers vic125flower
vic155japanese vic148rose

Eventually we made it to the gardens at 8.30pm. Really neat, almost too neat, gardens with lots of separate garden areas, fountains and even a carousel. It became a race to see as much and photograph as much as possible before it got too dark. There was enough time to souvenir shop for magnets and we were back on the bus at 10.15pm. It would have been very expensive and difficult to go there on our own, it was obvious the gardens were opened specially after hours for the cruiseliners. It was one of those excursions where there was no other choice.

A quick tour around Victoria confirmed that it was somewhere worth returning to for a more in depth visit. Back on ship quite late. We opted for express walk off disembarkation so we didn’t have to leave our luggage outside.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Tasks #31-33 are to visit 3 new US states. #31 was Washington, this is the second one, I went to Alaska.

Alaska is the biggest state and one that is on many, many bucket lists. I read several books set in Alaska and the theme is very similar—city slicker goes to Alaska, has adventures, falls in love with the environment, perhaps even fall in love with someone living in Alaska, ends up moving there. And no wonder, the scenery is fabulous and it’s so peaceful. That said, it can be rough, lonely, cold and living standards isn’t as high as the US mainland leading to a high crime rate. So there are romantic notions, but reality may be very different.

It’s all moot anyway, I was only there as a tourist. Going on an Alaskan cruise is also on many, many bucket lists. We did a roundtrip from Seattle to the Inside Passage and saw the usual places: Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan.

There was water in its liquid form:

jun015channel

Water in its solid form:

glcr067margeriecalf

There were whales:

jun241whale

and bald eagles:

ket006porteagle

and we ate a lot of delicious king crab:

jun185tracycook

The Inside Passage is only a small sliver of the state, there is still vast areas of Alaska worth exploring. Definitely worth returning.

posts: Juneau | Skagway | Glacier Bay | ketchikan
flickr sets: set 1 | set 2

in going places |

ket006porteagle

Woke up at 6.45am, the ship had already docked at Ketchikan. We didn’t have many plans so we had breakfast at the buffet: egg white omelette with vegetables cooked to order with grilled tomato, baked apple and watermelon. While waiting for Mum to get ready I saw a couple of bald eagles flying past.

ket012welcome ket013street
ket084creekstreet ket108creekstreet

By the time we made it to shore it was 8.30am. We got a walking map from the information centre and caught the free shuttle bus to the totem heritage centre. There was an entrance fee of $5 so we didn’t go in. Walked back to town along the river, to married man’s trail and then to creek street. Creek Street was the main attraction of Ketchikan, a boardwalk built over the Ketchikan creek with houses on stilts. Most of the buildings were touristy shops selling souvenirs, t-shirts, jewellry, salmon. We bought a 4-pack of smoked salmon to go with the canned salmon we bought in Juneau.

Mum decided to shop at this one store for a long long time, and I got impatient. There was very little time left before all aboard, sigh. It was a rush to go to the fish place to get takeaway king crab legs and to get final souvenirs.

ket161lunchfeast ket166kingcrab

In any event there was a long queue to get back to the ship because the forklift that was supposed to lift the gangplank malfunctioned. It took over an hour to clear the queue. We enjoyed our lunch feast of king crab legs together with some salad from the international café and salmon with salmon cakes from the salmon bake on deck 14.

gold331escargot gold332tianshrimcrab
gold335lobster gold334rockfish

Spent the afternoon reading, got an alaskan amber ale and a knob creek from the bar. Dinner at the restaurant, second formal night: escargot, tian of shrimp & crab, salad, cold apple & goat’s cheese soup, lobster, rockfish, baked alaska, cherry sorbet. Our waiter brought us extra portions of lobster so altogether we had 5 portions of mains. That needed some walking on deck 7 afterwards.

I put a load of laundry in, we got changed and went to see a show. This was called British Invasion and this time I recognised the songs: mainly Beatles, Queen and the Stones. Finished the last of the wine, two bottles was more than enough.


in going places |

glcr035margeriepan

Whole day cruising, the majority of the day was spent inside Glacier Bay National Park, part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site and one of the world’s largest international protected areas. It was probably the highlight of the entire cruise.

We woke up at around 7am but still missed sunrise. Rangers were already on board with commentary, we’d been inside the national park for a couple of hours and were headed straight to our glacier viewpoints. Didn’t want to waste any opportunity to watch the scenery, I went to the buffet and got breakfast back to the cabin. Didn’t feel like a heavy breakfast so mainly watermelon, melon, baked apple with some grits.

glcr004bay glcr012eagle

The inside channels were quite narrow, no wonder only 2 ships were allowed in the national park every day. There were pieces of ice debris floating everywhere. The ranger spotted the bald eagle quietly perched on a piece of ice.

glcr031grandmargerie glcr039margerie

First stop were the Grand Pacific and Margerie glaciers. The GP did not look like a glacier at all, just a big wedge of black soil. The main attraction was Margerie, and it was magnificent.

glcr066margeriecalf glcr067margeriecalf

The ship stopped a quarter mile from the glacier and for the first 30mins the port side had the view. We went to deck 15 and joined everyone to watch. First sign of calving was a soft rumble, then a scratchy cracking, and then pieces of ice broke off. I was lucky enough to get the pictures on sports mode.

The second 30mins the captain turned the ship around so starboard faced the glacier. We went back to our own balcony to absorb more of the beautiful glacier, no more calving but it didn’t matter. Did not want to leave.

glcr103lamplugh glcr107lamplugh

The next glacier stop was Lamplugh glacier. The ship faced it head on so we went to the bow and got great views. Could see the ice in great detail. It was pretty windy so we didn’t stay long. The ship turned slowly and after about 45mins headed back down glacier bay. What a wonderful glacier experience.

Lunch was at the restaurant: grilled veg & cured meat, gazpacho, salmon cream cheese bagel, blueberry roulade, mint choc ice cream. Everything was good except the gazpacho tasted like diluted ketchup.

After lunch we went to a ranger presentation about why people come, return and stay at Alaska and Glacier Bay. The love of nature and the national park was so evident, I can definitely see the attraction. Fresh air, beautiful scenery, at peace with nature, very few neighbours. Perfect.

Walked about 25mins on deck 7, then spent the rest of the afternoon in our cabin reading or out on the balcony hunting for whales and other animals. Saw a sprout very very far away. There were quite a few seals that swum next the the ship, and birds too. All too far away and too fast to photograph. The memories are just fine.

gold311goatcheese gold312terrine
gold316scallop gold318choctrio

Got a pre-dinner snack of bratwurst and fries, just because I wanted to try the deck 14 grill. Opened the second bottle of wine, a really nice cabernet franc. Dinner at the restaurant: goat’s cheese soufflé, quail & venison terrine, salad, strawberry sorbet, diver scallop with cream sauce, chocolate trio, orange sorbet. The soufflé was rich, the terrine was the first fail I tried on the cruise (too salty, weird texture), everything else, especially the seafood, was good.

glcr154sunset glcr159sunset

Looked for our pictures at the picture gallery, at $19.95 it was too expensive to buy. Ran on the treadmill for about half an hour. Waiting for sunset at 9.39pm. The sky turned gold, then pink and purple. I thought I saw a dolphin; no one else seemed to be around, I felt like it was just me, the water and the dolphin.

in going places |

Woke up early for 7am arrival. Breakfast was cream of wheat, bacon, egg and baked apple. At dockside by 7.30am to wait for our tour bus to arrive. I’d booked the Emerald Lake bus tour with Dyea Dave Tours, another local company. Our driver Saskia arrived at 7.45am as promised, and there were 12 of us in the bus, the small group (and lower price) another advantage of booking independently.

skag016railway skag031welcome

We drove up the Yukon highway in fairly overcast weather, stopping at various points to see waterfalls or valley views. The biggest draw for Skagway is the White Pass & Yukon Route train and the bus route mirrors the train tracks on the same side or opposite side of the valley, with the advantage that we could stop whenever we wanted. The train ride itself was of course a draw, but well, it’s a train, we’ve been on the Flamsbahn so we weren’t bothered. After about an hour we got to the top of White Pass and the welcome to Alaska sign. Beyond that was the Yukon and Canada. The customs post was at Fraser, and we all held up our passports while the agent walked through the bus to check, the process took only a few minutes although there was a wait while we waited in line.

skag055railway skag061tutshi
skag071desert skag088emerald

Past Fraser we had a pitstop along the Chilkoot trail, a stop at Lake Tutshi, Carcross desert and then finally reaching our destination Emerald Lake. So pretty, the weather had cleared out and we could see the green of the lake clearly, caused by light reflecting through the deposits of calcium carbonate and clay at the bottom of the lake.

skag096carbakery skag107carbakerylunch

Backtracked to Carcross township, formerly known as Caribou Crossing. Tour excursions had grilled chicken buffet lunch at a big canteen type place, our tour guide brought us to a small bakery that offered homemade sandwiches, soup and baked goods. We had corn beef (our salt beef), swiss & sauerkraut sandwich, salmon chowder, rhubarb strussel and blueberry cake. $24 almost, not cheap. I also noticed I was the only one in our group to pay in CAD, so many posts in cruise forums from Americans asking if they can pay in USD, sigh. Places like Carcross will definitely accept, mostly because of the thousands of Americans who arrive without realising you use another country’s currency when you are in their country, but the clueless still get a shock when they get change in CAD. Again, another country.

skag127carstation skag141carbridge
skag152store skag159passportmoose
skag176carcross skag186carchurch

There was about an hour after lunch to explore the township. Carcross was the base of operations for many gold rush miners, and the haphazard and slightly desolate feel remained. The township was more like clusters of buildings that were a mix of old and new. The church, general store and station looked older while there was a newer block that had the information centre, a fish & chips place, a coffee place and a first nation store. In Canada what is known in the US as American Indians are referred to as first nationers. The pink general store was were most people headed for souvenirs and ice cream; they also had a little table where people could stamp their passports with a couple of cute stamps, self-service.

I bought a mini cinnnamon roll from the bakery before getting back on the bus, it looked so enticing on the tray. The journey back to Skagway was about 1.5hrs, and we napped for part of the way. We stopped at a lay-by and came across another tour bus where the driver had set up a spotter scope on a mother-and-kid mountain goat duo way up on the cliff. I could see them through the scope but could not see even a tiny white speck with just my eyes. We stopped at another viewpoint above Skagway and our driver dropped us off in town at around 2.30pm. WIth tips, it came to $200 for the two of us.

skag224house skag247redonion
skag277train skag267trainplough

We took our time walking around town back towards the ship. Bought magnets, hats, key chains and I got a free penknife. Like in Juneau there was an old timey saloon, this one called the Red Onion which was also a brothel. Difficult to go to drinking places with mum so we passed. The white pass train arrived back in town and I took some pictures. They also had this huge red drill engine parked at the yard, this was what they used in winter to clear snow.

gold275vealscaloppini gold277cassata

We were back on board at 6pm and headed to dinner. Our usual deck 5 place didn’t have any tables for two, so we were sent to Canalto restaurant at the back of deck 6, nornally used for traditional dining. We had a pair of great waitstaff but were seated in the middle of a noisy group, ah well. Dinner: seafood antipasti, cold peach bellini soup, veal scallopini, fettuccine alfredo, cassata with limoncello sorbet. It being Italian night we also got limoncello in the souvenir glass.

Ran a bit on the treadmill, read, and finished the bottle of pinot noir.


in going places |

jun007sunrise jun015channel

For some reason, woke up at 4.15am, just in time for sunrise. Took a few pictures then went back to bed, waking up at a more civilised hour of 8am. Breakfast from the buffet: bacon, hard boil egg, french toast, watermelon. Not bad, but I don’t think I want to have such heavy breakfasts all cruise.

Watched as we sailed through the fjords towards Juneau. Peaceful and pretty scenery. Disembarkation was noon. We didn’t book any excursions, I had prepaid the glacier express bus for Mendenhall glacier. The blue bus was distinctive and easily recognised from the tramway car park, about 5-10mins’ walk from where we were docked. $20 round trip, around 20mins to the glacier. They dropped us off at the car park, across from the visitor center.

jun075glacierfalls jun132glacier
jun121kayak jun111nuggetfalls

Just 5 mins from the visitor center and we were at the edge of Mendenhall Lake with already great views to the glacier. A friendly park ranger was there to give informed commentary. We followed the 1 mile nugget falls trail for even better views. Easy paved hike that was really great on a pleasant day, we didn’t see any bears although some reviewers commented that they had. Both the glacier and the falls were so huge, we got close enough to the falls to feel the spray. There were kayakers on the lake too. Very impressive and a must-see in Juneau.

Got the blue bus back to Juneau town and checked out the rows of independent tour groups there. I had at the back of my mind to take mum to a whale watching cruise, and we signed up for one at 5pm. That left us enough time for a late lunch. We both did research before the trip and agreed that we had to go to Tracy’s king crab shack.

jun192tracycombo jun198tracycrablegs

The crab shack was actually 3 shacks. Order at one, pick up drinks at the second and they cook the crab at a third shack. The line was long, but as the greeter said, study the menu and by the time we decided on what to order we would be near the head of the line. We ordered a combo of 1 king crab leg, 4 crab cakes and carb bisque plus an extra order of 1 leg. I was grumpy and thirsty so I ordered both the alaskan amber ale and the summer ale. Total bill just under $75. Not cheap, but it did not disappoint and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.



jun241whale jun245whale

There was just about enough time to quickly explore the shops in town. Another popular destination would be the red dog saloon, but a) I’d just had 2 beers and b) it was too crowded. We met up with the whale watching group near the tramway carpark. The bus took us 25mins to Lake Auke to board the boat. We speeded to where whales had been seen and we ended up seeing humpback whales, orcas, sea lions and bald eagles. The whales were quite far away, and difficult to photograph. I got a nice video of the trail flip. The humpbacks started breaching, I was too late and only got the splash but later got the action pic from a fellow passenger. This was a really enjoyable evening out; there were only 14 passengers in the tour (vs 100-200 on a ship’s excursion), it was a nice evening and even if we only saw one whale it was worthwhile.

There was around 45mins after we got back to do more shopping. Bought magnets, salad paws, oven glove, ulu knife for me and spent a fortune on canned salmon. They were delicious canned salmon though.

The dining room was still open when we got back onboard so we had a late dinner: king crab provençale (yummy, more king crab), chilled apple soup (more yummy smoothie goodness), surf & turf, burned rhubarb napoleon with redcurrent sorbet. The prawns in the surf and turf was good if a bit salty; the steak came medium well even though I ordered rare. We’re coming round to the thinking that we should avoid red meat and stick with fish and seafood.


in going places |

Breakfast was at the restaurant. I had a some fruit followed by salmon cream cheese bagel. All pretty tasteless unfortunately. The tea was english breakfast but not strong enough—usual American mistake of adding the tea bag to not-boiling water instead of water to teabag.

There was a shopping event, with apparently low prices. Mainly clothes like t-shirts with Soutn America logos (guess that’s where the golden was previously), accessories like belts, scarves and hats. Really boring. I went and did laundry. $2 per load, I brought laundry sheets myself.

gold225mussels gold227mixedgrill

Lunch was at the restaurant: green lipped mussels, cobb salad, mixed grill, ice cream. Again, the seafood was good and the meat overcooked. I asked for a second helping of the mussels and I got a second helping.

gold121piazza gold143vines
gold136intcafe gold138intcafe
gold232rouladepistachio gold233cheesecakechoc

What’s new on Princess is the international café on deck 5, open 24hrs for soup, sandwiches, snacks, cookies, pastries and dessert. We got blueberry roulade, pistachio pudding, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate opera to enjoy in our cabin. There is zero possibility of going hungry on this cruise. Had to burn off some of that by walking around the deck, even though it was very windy.

gold259shrimp gold260bananasfoster

Formal dinner. Most people had changed, although I didn’t see many tuxedos or evening gowns. Mainly suits, ties, neat tops or sparkly outfits. Some were in normal casualwear but no one was bothered. Dinner was nice again: stilton mousse with waldorf salad, asparagus soup, shrimp danielle (grilled with rice), bananas foster. I had a glass of rosé.

There was a champagne waterfall show in the piazza after dinner, plus a crew presentation. The captain said a few words too. We went back to change before going to the show at the theatre. It was called Stardust and had songs from the 1940s-1960s. Mum recognized many of the songs but the only one I knew was Unforgetable.

Got a john jacob rye from the bar to try. It was okay.

in going places |

We woke up early, at 6.30am. Had breakfast, checked out and went to the Whole Foods nearby. Bought cous cous, salmon and a couple of bottles of wine. Princess allows one bottle of wine per person without corkage, so I was pleased to see local Washington and Oregon wines. We had time, so we thought we’d go to Pike Place market again, but there wasn’t a lot of parking.

Drove to pier 91 cruise terminal to drop off Mum and the luggage. Then proceeded to find our parking slot. I’d pre-booked parking at cruise parking that was about 5-10mins from the terminal, has free shuttle and was about $30 cheaper than the official terminal parking. Check-in at the cruise was straightforward, we were at the waiting area a little after 11am. At around 11.45am they started letting people onto the ship. Priority and disabled boarding came first so it was about 15-20mins before it was our turn. By 12.15pm we were in our cabin.

gold011stateroom gold015balcony

We had a balcony cabin, and it looked like the MSC balcony cabin. In fact, it turned out that cruise ships were pretty much all the same in terms of layout and deck arrangement. Just some cosmetic or small differences. I thought the cabin was a bit bigger, there was more storage space and the space between my bed and the balcony was larger, enough for 2 people to move around.

We learned a tip from online forums, that the buffet on embarkation day would be a scrum. Instead, we made our way to one of the dining rooms for lunch. We were seated at the same table as a wedding party. They were also experienced Alaska cruisers so we got a few pointers. Lunch was avocado & bay shrimp, beef tenderloin and apple tart with mint tea. Food was definitely better than MSC, the shrimp starter was really good although the beef was overcooked.

gold031deck gold069indoorpool
gold063sanctuary gold071chess

Unpacked in our cabin, then it was time for the muster station drill in the theatre. After that, we took a walk around the decks, taking pictures and watching the sailaway party.

gold212crawfish gold213loveboat

Although we opted for anytime dining, we were outside the restaurant promptly at 5.15pm just before it opened. There was no problem getting a table for two. Dinner was red snapper ceviche mojito, frozen pineapple soup, crawfish etoufflé, flourless chocolate cake and we shared the signature Princess love boat dream which was a chocolate mousse. The seafood was really good and the frozen pineapple soup more like a smoothie. The chocolate desserts were good too. Turns out, corkage applies in the restaurant, even with the “free” bottle of wine. Doesn’t matter, they bring us water, so I’ll just have the wine in the cabin.

After dinner I went running on the treadmill for half an hour, then opened the bottle of cooper hill pinot noir, from Oregon. Nice.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

sea319chihuly

Tasks #31-33 are to visit 3 new US states—visit, as in stop, go to places, photograph and experience as opposed to drive through. This is the first one, where I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time.

I travelled to Seattle via Vancouver with mum to go on an Alaskan cruise. Got there a couple of days beforehand as we’d never visited that part of the US before. Saw Pike Place Market, Space Needle, Chihuly Garden & Glass. People say it rains a lot in Seattle; aside from a little rain in the morning, we had really good weather so no complaints.

The highlight was definitely Chihuly garden. Well worth the price of the combo ticket with Space Needle. On the whole I liked Seattle (notwithstanding the homeless behind Pike Place market). It’s relaxed, pretty and doesn’t have the manic busy feel of New York or LA. They have fresh seafood at Pike Place market, access to great wines from Washington state and Oregon plus lots of craft beer choices. If I were a coffee drinker, it’s a big coffee city too.

Full writeup: here | flickr set: here

in going places |

Breakfast at the hotel, ham steak, scrambled eggs, waffle made from machine. They also have english breakfast tea so I could save my pg stash. By the time we were ready to had out it was already 10am. Sigh.

It was raining a little. Short walk to Seattle Center to take the monorail downtown. $2.25 for me and $1 for mum, the trip was around 1 mile, there were only 2 stops and took all of 2 minutes. Kinda fun, especially when the driver took one curve at a fast speed.

sea047chocwine sea045chocwine

First stop after we got off the monorail? Gap, Old Navy, A&F so mum could look for…I don’t know what she was looking for. It was boring. We finally made it out of the shops and walked towards the seafront. Found a nice shop that sold chocolate and wine, they had a wine and truffle tasting for $20, with great-looking local wines, but it was too early in the day. I wanted to go back later, but never got the chance.

sea052pikemkt sea055pikemkt
sea067crableg sea086crab

We spent a long time at Pike Place Market, for good reason. Great place, with stalls for fresh seafood, fruit & veg, flowers, snacks, nuts, souvenirs and trinkets. Bought apple chips and mum bought nuts. Opposite the market itself were specialist food stores including salmon, oil & vinegar, desserts plus the original Starbucks with a long, long queue. Apparently they still make coffee the original way, whatever that means. We obviously didn’t join the queue, but we did join the queue for piroshky piroshky bakery, a Russian bakery selling sweet and savoury pastries made onsite. We bought a salmon pât&233; pastry and a cardamom apple cinnamon roll.

sea112pikelunch sea114cinroll

We went back into the market to buy 2 portions of ready-to-eat alaskan king crab legs and apple cider. The area just behind the market at the sort of park/promenade was an uneasy mix of tourists and homeless; we found a table, ignored the people around us and enjoyed our lunch.

Underneath the market in post alley was the gum wall where people stuck pieces of chewing gum on the wall. Pretty disgusting. We left the market and walked up Pike. No hard rock shirt, it was a repeat. We found a Target and mum went to town buying vitamins and stuff. I bought a shower curtain liner. We carried our loot quite a few blocks uptown to the cheesecake factory. Shared our favourite red velvet cheesecake and I got a glass of an oregon pinot noir at $4 happy hour price. Happy.

sea163needle sea175needleplane
sea185needleview sea202needleview

Took the monorail back to our hotel to drop our shopping. I went to the lobby to print a combo ticket for space needle and chihuly garden to take advantage of the online discount. It was great to have our hotel so close to Seattle Center. By then the day had turned into a glorious blue sky evening. Even though our Space Needle slot was 6pm, it was still very much light outside and we took our time going around the observation deck. Great views.

We saw that part of the park had a bunch of stalls in what looked like a pop-up market so when we came back to ground level we walked over to explore the folklife festival. We heard music and saw a bunch of people dancing on stage to what turned out to be the anzanga marimba ensemble. Nice. There were stalls selling folksy clothing; the food stalls in contrast were all about deep fried food, hahaha.

sea301chihuly sea292chihuly

The visit to Chihuly garden and glass was higher on my to-do list (if the weather wasn’t nice, we wouldn’t have even bothered with space needle). The entire museum was a showcase for the studio art work of Dale Chihuly. There were separate galleries for different projects and works of art. So skilful, so intricate, every piece was interesting and fascinating.

sea312chihuly sea342chihuly

Great timing as we came to the outdoor garden part of the museum it was almost sunset. The highlight of the museum was the glasshouse with an intricate piece from the ceiling that allowed the space needle to act as background. Outside were many other pieces that reflected the space needle, very clever. We sat for a bit, visited the gift shop and wandered out.

By the time we left it was around 9pm, still a little light. Didn’t feel like eating but we went to walgreens again to get coke and I bought a beer from Pike Brewing company from the gas station around the corner. Interesting label, a tripel ale.

flickr set: seattle 251 photos, 6 videos


in going places |

sea016needle

Final packing done quickly in the morning. Had salmon spread on crackers and oatmeal for lunch, then left at 12.30pm. Taxi, check-in, train and I was at the airport in less than 1 hour. Parents arrived about 10mins after I did, and I took Mum to the senior check-in counter so she didn’t need to queue up. Got through security with plenty of time to spare so we browsed through duty free. Tried a taste of Aberfeldy 12 and 21 plus Jack Daniels Honey, can always rely on duty frees for whisky tastings.

The plane arrived late at the gate so the flight was delayed about half an hour. It was a very full flight, even the middle seats were taken. I’d booked 2 aisle seats at check-in, G and H, and it proved to be a good decision because we both had a little bit of space and we could move around without disturbing other people. Lunch was fish, ice cream and beer. Pretty bland and forgettable. Watched Hobbit 1, I’d seen it before on a flight and I wanted to see it again. Then I discovered there was the entire season of The Great British Bake-off, so I started watching it, episode after episode. Wonderful. Breakfast was sausage and eggs with weak tea. At least CX knows the concept of tea.

Arrival at YVR was uneventful although there was a long wait at the luggage carousel, which stopped at one point. Luckily (or not), most passengers were waiting still, so it wasn’t our luggage specifically.

Car rental places was just across from the terminal in the car park. I’d booked through avis uk which gave me a better deal than avis us, so I used my uk licence and lloyds credit card. Hyundai Accent in white, a neat little car. We set off at 3.15pm with the mileage reading at 20,997km.

An easy drive down BC-99 to the US border, we got there at 4pm. Then there was an hour’s delay while we had to park, go into the customs building, queue up for a long time to wait for immigration. And all this despite us having visa waiver status and ESTA, plus they charged us $6 each admin fee. We never get charged admin fee at airports.

We got to Seattle around 6-ish. One way system and a bit of map misreading meant we got a tad lost. I wasn’t that worried, because I saw from the map I printed that the hotel is near the Space Needle and it was just a matter of finding the right street. And without a map or GPS I actually did, ha! The hotel was a modest Quality Inn, which worked out to be just over $200 per night including room, taxes and parking. Fairly large room, if a bit dark.

sea009fivepoint sea011fivepoint

It was getting late so time to find food. Walked to a nearby Walgreens to get toiletries and coke. The friendly cashier directed us to the 5 point café which is somewhere between a diner and a bar. I had chicken fried steak and Mum had the steak dinner. Large portions and even though we were pretty hungry after our long day we couldn’t finish the large mound of mash that came with each dish. The food tasted okay, no complaints. They also had nice craft beers, I was thirsty so I had 2: a Maritime Pacific dark and an amusingly named Northwest Crazy Bitch IPA. The bill came to $50 including tips.

Walked back to the hotel via the Space Needle, which looked very impressive at night. Showered, got on internet, pretty tired.


in going places , how the day went |

essen030bedroom

Could not sleep last night. At all. Gave up at 5am and moved to the living room, watching tv. Same programs as usual, just repeated. So so tired for the rest of the day.

Did some more research for the cruise. Checked with roll call at cruisecritic, checked I have everything printed, checked hotel prices, which resulted in a switch in hotels in Vancouver to the rather boring Ramada Inn—but they are having a 20% sale, so that sealed the deal.

Had to stay awake in the evening, with a back to back 2 episode run of junior masterchef US. Love masterchef, love love love junior masterchef Australia and the US version isn’t bad.

Time for bed. Sleep, sleep, sleep.


in going places |

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.

in going places |

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.

in going places |

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.

in going places |



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.

cruisemap

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.

in going places , on the relationship front |

nikka101tastebar

Finished uploading pics and writing up the hokkaido trip. 790 pics, 8 videos. The trip can be summed up as: great food, great whisky, great scenery, great relaxation, great company.

Day by day:
day 1: travel, sapporo
day 2: sapporo clock tower, tv tower, nijo market, ramen alley, cake, pre-birthday dinner
day 3: sapporo curb market, jozankei onsen
day 4: jozankei dam, lake shikotsu, onsen
day 5: jozankei shiraito falls, nikka distillery, otaru at night, sapporo
day 6: sapporo historical village, outlet, nikka bar, kushidori
day 7: otaru
day 8: sapporo central wholesale market, travel home

Condensed into 2 parts:
hokkaido 1: sapporo, jozankei
hokkaido 1: nikka, otaru, sapporo

flickr sets: sapporo 1 | sapporo 2 | jozankei | nikka | otaru

in going places |

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sap232cuttlefish sap236crab

Woke up at 7am and left the apartment at 8.15am. Drove to the central wholesale market, which turned out to be immediately behind the curb market. Huh. Lots on sale there, at wholesale prices and unfortunately quite large portions too. Walked over to curb market for brunch: uni & ikura rice (never get tired of it), live cuttlefish sashimi, whole crab. Bought some fresh seasonal asparagus, nicely wrapped up for the flight. Went back to central market and was a little panicked when many stalls had already closed. Oh no!! The stall i wanted to get king crab legs from was still open, but we couldn’t find one that sold soy ikura. With the language problem we resorted to fishing out a pic on my camera and we were so blessed that the young man we asked led us to another stall and talked to that stallowner for us. Phew. Must remember next time that the wholesale market closes before 11am.

sap530ichiro sap531ichiro

Then it really was time to head to the airport. Returned the car, got the shuttlebus and was at the terminal by 1pm. The check in counter wasn’t opened yet so we browsed around the shops and then looked for a place where we could sit and have a drink. Our blessed trip continued when we walked into a bar, thinking we’d have a yoichi or miyagikyo and then discovering, hidden on the top shelf, several bottles of ichiro’s malt. Wow. Ichiro’s malt is produced by the chichibu distillery, a smaller, independent distillery unlike the corporate suntory or nikka groups. We opted for a glass of the oak barrel blend and a glass of the ten of diamonds of the card series. The oak barrel was smooth and full of character, the outstanding one was the ten of diamonds which was rich and packed a punch. Sigh. What a great end to our trip, to find rare whisky at the airport.

We were probably overweight at check in, but the nice counter agent let us through. She also suggested to us that we should check in our seafood, wrapped in cold bags because the ice pack was considered liquid and couldn’t be taken as hand luggage. Combining our suitcases, the pillows and the seafood we checked in 5 pieces.

After check in, there was just about enough time for last minute chocolate and snack shopping and then duty free. Sigh, the prices inside the duty free were much lower of course. By then we were both whiskied out and didn’t dare buy any more. For future reference I guess.

Like the flight coming over, the flight was around half full. We had 3 seats between us, so we were comfortable. Dinner was fish, rice, macadamia biscuit and I had a beer. Watched Hobbit 2 and some of the Fall. Divided our seafood shopping at the airport then caught the airport express and taxi home. Tired, loved the trip and can’t wait to go back.




in going places |

otaru011road otaru026market

We slept in a little today, no onsen or laundry to do early morning. Left at 9.45am to drive to otaru. Since we were going to be there more or less the full day, we drove a little further from the central canal area and found a reasonably priced car park. Maximum for any 24hr period was ¥1000, which was acceptable. The car park was also near the central market, and we did some seafood shopping there with a friendly shopowner. Bought salmon roe, mentaiko (pollock roe 明太子), squid pickle and nori pickle. We were close enough to the car to be able to take our shopping back. It was cold enough, I wasn’t worried they they would spoil.

otaru042lunch otaru049crabbroth

The walk to central otaru was around 20mins, by then we were quite hungry as we hadn’t had breakfast. Lunch was at a branch of the same restaurant we went to at sapporo curb market. More uni & ikura rice, grilled cuttlefish, abalone sashimi and a sweet bowl of crab legs in clear broth.

otaru077chocstraw otaru057icecream

The main attraction of otaru’s main street is shopping. Our shopping was mostly chocolate and snack focused, although mm also bought 2 handbags. Instead of getting large boxes, we found small individual packs of chocolate and biscuits to bring back to our families. The thinking was that we didn’t need the fancy box packaging. Bought chocolate covered strawberries, mochi and truffles. Sampled a fair number of chocolate, cake and biscuits too at various shops.

Tea treat was ice cream. They had one with 7 flavours, but we were quite full so we opted for 3 flavours: grape, milk, melon. More chocolate shopping, glassware browsing, we slowly made our way back to the car.

On the way back to central sapporo, we stopped at shiroi koibito chocolate theme park. The park itself had closed so we just went to the shop to buy their famous biscuits.

Headed to susukino and double parked so we could visit a whisky shop. I bought a miyagikyo NAS 500ml and miyagikyo 12. Didn’t dare buy anymore because of the weight, eeek.

sap491hanamara sap515price
sap497fishroe sap503searsalmon

Dinner was back at hanamaru, we got the hang of filling out the order sheet and I even managed one myself. Back to the apartment to pack our bags, really not wanting our holiday to end.

in going places |

We woke up early to do laundry, which was one of the advantages of staying at an apartment as opposed to a hotel. All told the apartment wasn’t that much cheaper than a hotel, we wanted a different experience for our trip. We had bought brioche from café denmark yesterday so we had breakfast in the apartment while waiting for the laundry to finish.

Destination in the morning was the historical village of hokkaido. I’d read about it on my research and really wanted to go. Luckily we had the car, it would have been a bit of a hassle to go by public transport. We were also lucky to have a coupon from the shiraito onsen hotel.

sap300street sap311noodle
sap349grocery

sap398temple sap420stationmaster

The village consisted of 50-60 buildings from all over hokkaido, dating from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s. There were all sorts of buildings: inns, shops, post office, distillery, newspaper building, temple, church, farmhouse, residental homes. Some, if not all, the buildings had exhibits inside of furniture or equipment from that time. A guidemap suggested a 1 or 2 hour walk, but to explore the outside and inside took longer. We didn’t mind, we were completely enjoying ourselves. It rained and dropped sleet and was very windy so we were running from building to building. It also felt like we were the only visitors at times. Again, we didn’t mind.

sap388lake

We were quite cold by the time we finished the tour, having covered about 75% of the village. Stopped at the cafeteria for much needed coffee and tea.

Next destination was outlet shopping. We had lunch at the food court, a great value meal of seafood donburi, tempura and soba for only ¥1080. The outlet itself was a bit of a let down and we quickly finished browsing through all the shops including the more interesting farm shop.

nikkabar192barcollection nikkabar206flights

Parked the car back at the overnight car park near the apartment and took the subway to susukino to visit the nikka bar. It was still quite early so we were the first customers. A nikka whisky fan’s dream bar, it had all the nikka whiskies plus a lot of other whiskies and liquors. We sat at the bar and had 2 flights: yoichi 10, 12, 15 and miyagikyo 10, 12, 15. It was the first time we tried miyagikyo and I like it better than yoichi. Guess we’ve decided on the next distillery visit, heehee. To finish, we tried a simple taketsuru NAS.

sap472kushidori sap477beefveg

Took the subway back to JR sapporo and had dinner at kushidori, a chain yakitori restaurant. Even after 9pm we had to wait for a bit, and were lucky to sit at the counter with an unimpeded view of the grilling stations. Had beef, ox tongue, chicken gizzard, chicken gristle, pork with asparagus, okra, mushroom, pepper and I had a half & half beer (half dark, half light).


in challenges , going places |

00sap10lunchset 00sap11tempura
00sap12mushokra 00sap13pepper

Task #11 in 30 in 30 is to have five different vegetables in a day.

I didn’t specify 5 portions or 5 different vegetables. If I were at home I’d aim for 5 portions, but since we are still on vacation and eating out, having 5 different vegetables is okay for this task.

Lunch was at the food court of an outlet. Sushi rice bowl, tempura and soba for only ¥1,080. There were green pepper, carrot and lotus root in the tempura. Dinner was at kushidori, a yakitori place. We had grilled mushroom, okra and small green peppers. So actually, six different vegetables in a day.


in going places |

joz331bfast joz337tofu

Another early wake up day to soak in the spa, we went back to the outdoor one. Breakfast was as delicious and as extensive as dinner. Salmon, rice, tofu, egg and bacon cooked at the table, natto, soup and orange slices. We said goodbye to the proprietors, who were so fantastically hospitable and old fashioned they waited till we were in our car and bowed goodbye to us.



Our last exploration in Jozankei was the small shiraito waterfall the hotel was named after. Very small falls, and the bridge was not accessible because of snow. A very pleasant half an hour walk before we left for our next destination.

nikka008building nikka027distillery

About 1.5-2hrs’ drive brought us to the nikka yoichi distillery where they make, duh, single malt yoichi. What a magnificent distillery. Architecturally looking like a distillery in Scotland, with many of the same features and equipment. We were free to walk around the grounds ourselves to see the mill, mash ton, fermenter, pot stills and warehouses. A series of videos in various languages inside many buildings gave commentary on the whisky making process.

nikka106tastebar nikka116taste

The walk ended in the tasting room where we sampled yoichi 10, tsuru blend and an apple wine. Beautiful view of snowy mountains from the tasting room, it gave the whole tasting an unforgettable atmosphere.

We had lunch at the onsite restaurant. Lamb shabu shabu in two broths — whisky and red wine. After lunch we went to the museum bar for more selection. We picked special ones and were pleased that the bartender was generous with his pours:

  • yoichi single cask 15 — cask strength, quite strong
  • yoichi 20 — slightly peaty, smooth
  • yoichi apple brandy barrel — bit rough, not our favourite
  • taketsuru 21 — no wonder it won all sorts of awards
  • taketsuru 25 — brilliant, brilliant blend, at ¥1600 for a shot pretty expensive but top quality

Spent a lot of time at the shop deciding on what to buy. They had everything and we wanted to buy everything. Had to balance want against space in our luggage. In the end I bought:

  • yoichi 20 — one of the ones on my list
  • single cask 10 — small 180ml bottle
  • single cask 15 — small 180ml bottle
  • single cask 20 — small 180ml bottle
  • yoichi 10 small 180ml bottle — may be for silent auction
  • taketsuru 17 small 180ml bottle — also for silent auction
  • taketsuru 21 4x180ml bottles — worked out to be cheaper than 700ml


otaru004canal

On the way back from yoichi to sapporo we passed otaru and we couldn’t resist stopping. It was around 5pm and many shops were closed or were closing so it was just a short visit. Went to the canal to take night time pictures as we had never been to otaru after sunset.

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By the time we got back to sapporo it was dark. Luckily the gps found our apartment easily, we double parked while we unloaded. I found this apartment on airbnb, on the 10/F of an apartment block near hokkaido university. Quite dorm like the building and the apartment, which was very small with a tatami room, a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We went back downstairs and spent a little time trying to find an overnight car park. The saving grace was the pocket wifi that came with the apartment which meant we could use google maps.

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sap275ikurasoy sap271bluefintuna

After we got sorted and parked it was around 8.30pm already. We headed to 6/F stellar place to see if the famous hanamaru conveyor belt sushi. We only had to wait for about 10mins because it was late. No wonder there is a permanent queue outside. The sushi was fresh and fantastic. We observed other customers who didn’t take their plates from the belt, instead ordered freshly made by writing their order on an order sheet. Undeterred, we asked for an english menu and were happy that it came in 5 languages. We were able to copy the mainly kana (as opposed to the more familiar kanji) characters from the menu to the order sheet. Elated when the chef delivered our plates, meaning they understood our writing, yay! Okay, mm did all the writing, but I contributed by helping to read the menu. We had uni, squid, ikura, ikura soy, crab roe, salmon, blue fin tuna, medium tuna, scallop — total stack of 14 plates.

Did some basic grocery shopping at the station kiosk — milk, coffee, snacks. Negotiated the tiny shower and went to bed, another happy day.


in challenges , going places |

00sap08waterfall

Task #8 in 30 in 30 is to take a walk somewhere with fresh air.

Did more walking yesterday around lake shikotsu and jozankei itself. This morning after we checked out of the ryokan we walked to the small waterfall that the ryokan is named after. We could see how much snow there had been, the roads were all ploughed but parts of the pavement had a bank of snow and ice more than 3 feet high. There is a bridge that crosses the part of the river in front of the waterfall but it was inaccessible, all iced in. There was an access road that led to an electricity plant that was behind the bridge so we could take pictures — the bridge is in the foreground.

Not too cold, definitely lots of crisp, fresh air.

in going places |

joz136spa joz138spaoutdoor

Woke up at 7am to soak in the other onsen at the hotel. They switch in the morning, so this one was the male onsen at night. Two indoor spas, an outdoor one and a steam room. I like this outdoor one, the temperature was perfect. We tried them all before breakfast.

joz143bfast joz152salad

Lots to enjoy at breakfast too. Salmon, stuffed squid, rice, soup, fish balls and freshly squeezed apple and vegetable juice. We weren’t in any hurry so after breakfast we decamped to the lounge to chill before it was time to checked out. After we paid our bill we even managed to fit in a visit to the shop and bought massage pillows. Then it was off to explore the Jozankei area for the day.

joz169road joz178snowtrees

First stop was the dam, which also had a viewing platform over the valley. Unfortunately it was still closed for the winter. We could see how the area had much more snow than in Sapporo proper. The roads were all ploughed, but the packed ice at the side was quite thick. There was also an extremely loud continuous announcement that sounded ominous — probably telling whoever was in the area that the dam was closed, or perhaps it was so loud to scare off the bears, who knows.

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joz193shikotsuko joz198shikotsuko

Drove about an hour to lake shikotsu 支笏湖. When we rounded the corner and saw the lake for the first time we said “wow” at the same time. So beautiful. It’s the second deepest lake in Japan and is surrounded by 3 volcanoes. There is a small touristy development with hotels, a visitor centre, some restaurants and in the summer there are paddle boats and sightseeing cruises. Not a lot open at the off season, still nice to walk around the breathe crisp fresh air.

joz238soba joz237tempura joz252owlcafecoffee

Lunch was tempura and soba at one of the few restaurants there. Simple family style restaurant producing quality food. Stopped off at café owl for coffee and tea. Another small quaint place we had the whole place to ourselves. Ah, that’s the life.

joz289hotelroom joz295spa Drove back to Jozankei and there was enough time to explore the park and part of the river. There was a suspension bridge over the river but access was blocked by ice. So we went ahead and checked into our next hotel, shiraito onsen, a small family-run ryokan. It was funny, communicating with the elderly lady who ran the place. Mostly using sign and body language.

The tatami room was more basic than at the shogetsu grand, as was the onsen. The so-called outdoor spa was one bath probably max 3 people with a glass door opening out to a courtyard. Enjoyed the soak though.

joz303dinner joz318grill Another fabulous kaiseki dinner, and we realised we were the only guests at the hotel. Lovely dinner, huge menu with course after course after course served. Starters, salad, sashimi, chawanmushi, tempura, soba, rice, soup, a gigantic platter of grilled crab, fish, ribs and finished with yuzu ice cream.

Tried the indoor onsen after dinner — two spas that were quite, quite hot. Long day, quite tired so we turned in early. This hotel was small enough not to have wifi, so it was a good excuse to get some rest.


in going places |

Woke up to mm wishing me happy birthday, yay. Breakfast was a the café denmark inside the station shopping complex — egg curry roll, brioche and I had a royal milk tea which was basically normal tea made stronger than their normal weak standards. Checked out of the hotel, not before trying the free massage chair at the lift lobby and also discovering they had a lounge with free coffee. Ah well. Had some difficulty finding the car rental place, we were a little confused with google maps before realising that the office was next to Sapporo subway station and not the JR station. It was actually just a couple of blocks from our hotel on the same side of the street. Ah well.

sap184curbmkt sap191curbcrab

Drove 20mins to curb market and found a parking space around the shops. Unlike the covered nijo market, curb market had seafood shops lining both sides of a stretch of the road. Lots and lots of crab, crab and more crab. We had lunch at an upstairs restaurant, which we remember from last time. Uni & ikura rice, grilled cuttlefish, grilled corn and a bottle of beer to share. Yummy. Dessert was melon slices from one of the shops on the street.

joz011cafe joz014cake

After lunch it was off to leg 2 of our trip, to Jozankei onsen. It’s only about 45mins’ drive from Sapporo, on a regular main road. Small village with several hotels, a couple of shops and some cafés. It was too early for check in so we stopped at a traditional café. Tea, coffee, toast and pound cake. Very quaint and European style, down to the delicate china and wooden tables.

joz022hotel joz046honey

We were staying at two different onsen hotels at Jozankei. The first is the Shogetsu Grand, a more commercial and larger place. Lovely view of the river valley from our tatami room. We unpacked and made our way to the lounge for tea, coffee and to sample their honey bar. They had something like 15-20 different types of honey to try, from flowery ones like lavender and rose to fruity ones like apple and pomegranate to odd ones like sunflower and something woody. Crackers and yogurt were available to go with the honey. So relaxing, just sitting there at the lounge.

joz065spa

joz070spaoutdoor joz072spaoutdoor

Even more relaxing was the onsen itself. A very large spa with 3 indoor pools at different temperatures, an outdoor spa and a steam room. Obviously you’re not supposed to take pictures in an onsen, but we sneaked them while no one was around. Great soak for about an hour until it was time for dinner.

joz083setting joz101papillote
joz115riceeggsoup joz122dessert

Dinner was amazing. It was served in our room, and like all kaseki meals it consisted of neverending courses. Umeshu appetiser with small plates of starters, fish, sashimi, pork meatballs cooked in broth at the table, pumpkin and pork rib en papillote, chawanmushi, flavoured rice, soup and a seasonal sakura pudding with blueberry vinegar. Even though we were full it wasn’t the type of bloaty fullness associated with overeating. Most of the dishes were vegetable or seafood, only a small amount of red meat.

After laying around and allowing the food to digest, we headed down to the onsen for another soak. The relaxation was topped off with 10mins at the massage chair (¥100) and then it was time for bed. What a great day.


in challenges , going places |

00sap05onsen

Task #9 in 30 in 30 is to do something relaxing.

Day three of our vacation, drove a short 45min down from sapporo to jozankei where we have 2 nights at 2 different onsen hotels. Today is at shogetsu grand. We visited the onsen before and after dinner. The onsen has 4 different spas and a steam room. One large spa, a cooler one with space to lie down, a really hot one and our favourite, the outdoor spa. Although outside, it is covered and secluded so there is privacy. Very important since at japanese onsens no clothes are allowed. We’re also not supposed to take cameras and mobile phones inside but we sneaked our iphones and took some pics and video while the place was empty.




in going places |

sap031bfast

Buffet breakfast at the hotel. We saw the offer yesterday when we checked in, of ¥1030 per person and thought we should try it. Great Japanese breakfast of rice, fish, noodles, salad. Went back to our room to call around for car rental and got a good offer at Nissan, we’ll pick the car up tomorrow.

sap036govtbldg sap044clock sap053tvtower

Lots of walking today. First to the red brick former government building, clock tower, odori park and nijo market. It was a little cold and because it’s low season, not so packed with tourists everywhere. Nice. We even found a large ¥100 shop where we bought some chocolate, bargain chapstick, coke and folders.

sap081nijooyster sap088nijoclam

At nijo market, we stopped at one of the shops and had the most exquisite oyster and clam, freshly shucked in front of our eyes. Less than ¥2000. One thing great about Japan, even the public loos at a market are clean and have heated toilet seats.

sap100susukino sap117ramenalley
sap125ramencrab sap126ramenpork

We continued walking to tanukikoji shopping arcade. By that time my knee was started to be a little painful so we took things slowly. Not too much to see or shop, although we walked almost the length of the arcade. Next stop was susukino, the entertainment district. A kindly traffic policeman directed us to the ramen alley, we picked one place that served miso ramen and watched as the chef made the dish in front of our eyes. I had crab leg ramen and mm had pork ramen. Delicious late lunch.

sap140cake sap146cake

It started snowing a bit as we walked back towards the station. Stopped at mitsukoshi to scout out their whisky selection — not extension although we tried this great ¥5400 sake that was tempting. A little further along we spotted a sort of dessert food court, just in time for tea and to rest my knee. Out of the large selection, we both picked strawberry cake. One was a feathery chiffon cake and the other had an outer wrapping of pancake, interesting and gave a different taste and texture.

sap155uniikurarice sap157squidriceokra

Back to hotel and rested for a bit. Dinner was at a restaurant on 6/F Stellar Place, one of the station shopping complex. It was a pre-birthday treat for me, we had deep fried asparagus, live squid sashimi, uni & ikura rice and umeshu. Lovely peaceful setting, with a window seat looking out at the city lights.

Walked around the shops after dinner and got some coffee, dessert and a beer from the convenience store.

Lots of walking today, from 10am to 4pm, with rest stops. My knee survived the day, the discomfort wasn’t as much the actual walking, it was more to do with wearing the brace all day.


in going places |

sap002station sap006hotel

Woke up at 5.30am, showered and out of the door at 6.20am. Already checked in so depositing bags was easy and fast. I had 12kg and mm had 13kg, fully prepared for lots of shopping.

Breakfast of macaroni and toast at the fast food place opposite the station, then it was train to the airport and a looksee around the duty free. Tasting of various Glenfiddich samples before boarding. The flight was only about 40% full and we had first row bulkhead. Lunch on the plane: vegetarian pasta, pickled salad, macadamia biscuit. I watched American Hustler for the first time, it was good.

Arrived at Chitose around 3pm. Fast immigration and luggage retrieval. We walked around the huge airport shopping mall, trying to resist starting our shopping. JR train to Sapporo station and our hotel was located directly across the station. The room was a semi-double, we declined to upgrade for an additional cost.

sap011yakitori sap015chickenveg
sap017friedcheese sap022tofu

We collected a bunch of leaflets from the lobby to figure out where to eat. Decided on yakitori and identified a place north of the JR station. About 10mins’ walk through the station shopping complex. It was a nice meal: chicken skewers, vegetable skewers, sashimi, grilled fish, fried cheese, tofu and umeshu. I also had a glass of fuji blend whisky that was cheap and quite strong. One thing about izakaya places is that they allow smoking, so when we started getting surrounded by smoke, we beat a hasty retreat.

Walked around the shopping complex looking for dessert. At the ESTA food court, found gelato. I had blueberry and mm had mint choc. Then it was back to the hotel, shower and rest.


in eating and drinking , going places |

hok041melon hok007sappshop

Only ten days till our trip to Hokkaido. Yay! This time we are not being overly ambitious and just staying in and around the Sapporo area. Every time we go to Hokkaido, we land at Sapporo then travel immediately to elsewhere on the island and miss that area completely. We’ll still have our onsen experience, with 2 nights at Jozankei, which is 75mins away by bus; and Otaru / Nikka whisky distillery, only 30mins by train.

The biggest draw for going to Japan is the food. Not just the fresh seafood — king crabs, snow crabs, scallops, sashimi — but also the fruits. Sweet melons are a speciality of Hokkaido, and the beautiful displays at the shops!

I’ve been reading a lot at medium recently, and was interested to see this post about why japanese food is better. Sound arguments:

  • there is no need for special “organic” labels because most food is organic, seasonal and often sourced locally
  • simplicity — most dishes are cooked and presented simply and separately, no overcrowding a plate with 20 ingredients; there may be many, many small dishes, but they are intended to be enjoyed on their own
  • presentation is everything — each dish is treated as an artform, down to the pattern on the bowl to the placement of garnishes
  • and most of all, they respect food and treat food as part of life

Yep, agree with all these points. Japanese food is fresh, tastes clean and looks enticing. Definitely prepared with respect and pride. Yes, it’s still regarded with suspicion by some (“raw fish, ewwww!”) but as more people try it, I challenge anyone NOT to fall in love with it. There’s more than raw fish, sushi can be prepared with cooked ingredients, and what about yakitori, tempura, teppanyaki, ramen and don’t forget the yummy sesame dressing they use in salads. Plus, I’m trying to introduce US friends to delicious tasting, oddly named Japanese chocolates and sweets.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Task #29 in 101 in 1001 is to visit a new country. Israel makes it new country #2 of 3 for this challenge.

jer027oldcity jer102sepulchre

I never planned on visiting Israel. Never thought I’d have the chance. Yes, I know people who have gone on pilgrimages to the holyland, but those are not for me. I’m not Jewish, nor is Israel on a layover route.

I’m so glad I got the chance to visit. To me, Jerusalem is holy. To be immersed in so much spirituality and so many places that are mentioned in the Bible, it’s impossible not to be moved. The old city, the wailing wall, the church of the holy sepulchre, the different atmospheres in the different quarters. Probably too risky to visit on our own, but part of me wanted longer at the holy sites.

haifa306panorama

In contrast, Haifa was a pretty port with a world heritage hanging garden. Great to spend half a day because there wasn’t an excursion to the Dead Sea. Like the saying goes, Jerusalem prays, Tel Avia plays and Haifa works. It’s true.


in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Task #28 in 101.1001 is to visit a new country. As part of the cruise, I visited Greece for the first time.

There are a few places I’m surprised I hadn’t visited, or taken me so long. Spain, Portugal, Greece, the land of packaged holidays (may be that’s why). But Greece’s history and significance means it has to be visited, someday, somehow.

gre054olympia gre165shop

First stop was ancient Olympia. Coming 2 years after personally attending the Olympics, and in the middle of a WInter Games, it’s poignant. I was surprised at the sheer size of the site, imagine the thousands upon thousands of spectators cheering their champions. Sports has changed a lot since then of course, and Olympia will forever have its place in sports history.

Second stop, Heraklion in Crete. No time other than to go to the market and do shopping. The market was fascinating, a mix of tourist shops and local shops. We bought €1 coin holders at a local shop, went to a supermarket, then doubled back to a touristy shop to buy ouzo, spices and typical souvenirs. There are other sights on Crete, hopefully I get a second chance.

gre325parthenon gre358view

Third stop, Athens. And to stand in front of possibly the most important structure in the history of earth. The parthenon was obscured by a giant crane and it was an awful rainy windy day, but its grandeur was no less diminished.

I thought what I saw and experienced was only the tiniest tip of what Greece has to offer. There wasn’t even an opportunity to have a sit down meal, I consider it luck to have at least tried a few pastries and a souvlaki to take away. It’s not merely checking the country off on a list, I really hope I get another chance to visit and see the sights as they are meant to be seen.


use 1 mar as post date

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

fan003kata

Task #38 of 101 in 1001 is go on a cruise. This was carried forward from the 2007 challenge; in those days we hadn’t started our cruise career.

I finally finished uploading 860 pics and writing up the entire cruise. I have different feelings after this cruise than after the Norway cruise. I loved the Norway cruise, the fjords, the mountains, Bergen, Oslo — all places I wanted to go to and enjoyed going. I was oddly indifferent going into this cruise, even though the itinerary was stunning — Greek islands, Athens, Jerusalem, Rome — all the classics and so many important world heritage sites. I think I was just (correctly) dreading how frustrated I would be because of the lack of decisions and therefore the need for me to be free tour guide throughout.

Anyway, enough complaining. You get given such a chance to travel, make the best of it. And aside from family frustrations, the places we visited were definitely awe-inspiring. Highlights for me: running at the athletics stadium in ancient Olympia, touching the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem, everything in Jerusalem, stepping on the marbles at the Acropolis.

Posts for the trip:


flickr sets:
msc fantasia
greece: katakolon, heraklion, athens
holyland: jerusalem, bethlehem, haifa
rome

in going places |

gre008island

A lot of time after each holiday is spent on sorting pictures. I had 1,400 total for the trip, and around 860 are keepers. They sort nicely into 4 sets: ship, greece, holyland, italy. Now the monumental time suck to upload them. So far mainly snaps, not many outstanding favourites. These islands were on the other side of the ship when we sailed past Stromboli, which google maps tells me are possibly Santa Maria Salina and Lipari.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Tasks #35, 36, 37 in 101 in 1001 are to visit 3 new world heritage sites.

The cruise actually took me to 5 (new ones, vatican and rome have already been checked off the list), so I’ll group by country. More detailed description in daily cruise trip reports.

cruise001olympia cruise002parthenon

#35 greece: a) archeological site of olympia, visited 23-feb-2014. This was where the ancient olympic games were held and some of the temples as well as the stadium ruins remain; b) acropolis athens, visited 01-mar-2014. One of the most important historical sites in world history, with the parthenon and the erechtheion both still standing


cruise003westwall cruise004crucifix

#35 israel: a) old city of jerusalem and its walls, visited 26-feb-2014. The prayers at the wailing wall, the ancient via dolorosa (road of sorrows) that traced Jesus’ path up to his crucifixion, the church of the holy sepulchre which marked the crucifix and tomb. Very crowded, but still very significant and powerful;

cruise006bahai

b) baha’i holy places in haifa and western galilee, the baha’i hanging gardens at haifa visited 27-feb-2014, although only from the outside as we didn’t go inside to the shrines


cruise005stargrotto

#37 palestine: birthplace of Jesus church of the nativity and the pilgrimage route bethlehem, visited 26-feb-2014. Going into bethlehem involved crossing the border into palestine-held west bank. We were able to squeeze into the church before it closed for service and there was a scrum down to the grotto. It did not take away the emotions that came with touching the spot where Jesus was born.


in going places , on the relationship front |

hok199sulphur

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.

in going places |

I have no idea what timezone I’m in. There was about 5-6hrs from milan to dubai, more sitting around then 7-8hrs from dubai. Bought laphroaig at dubai airport. The leg from dubai was on an A380 so I’m glad parents have the opportunity to fly in one. We were in the front of the plane, it was roomier and taller. I finished watching the walking dead season, saw frozen and some other tv programs.

Home at around 11pm. Shower. Bed.

in going places |

This is without doubt one of the most stupid and waste of time day in my life. We were on one of the earliest groups to get off the ship, so we sat at the lounge waiting for our 8.25am group call. The bus to milan airport left at 9am and we were at the airport around 11-11.30am. Couldn’t do early check-in because they didn’t have early check-in at milan airport. Stupid. The counter would open at 6.10pm for our 9.10pm flight.

So yes, the entire day was spent sitting around at the airport. Stupid. At least there was free wifi and wall sockets. So many idiots travelling on the same flight as us, I do not ever want to see or hear any of their face or voice again. Disgusting people.

in going places |

Civitavecchia for Rome 9am - 7pm

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Quick exit at 9am, no delay today. A free port authority bus took us to the entrance of the port and we got a day pass for €13. 10min walk along the pretty promenade to the train station and we were on the 9.43am train to rome in no time.

rome032vatican rome040vatican

The guidebooks told us to get off as rome ostiense station then change to the metro to the colosseum. We realised we didn’t want to go to the colosseum, so we got off at san pietro station, which i figured out was st peter’s, ie the vatican. Couldn’t resist taking pictures again. Tried to find a map but the tourist information kiosk had run out, so i was quite bummed. We did manage to find the market we had lunch at last year, but no reaction from anyone so we were stood there like idiots with no directions. So frustrating.

Walked along the street and eventually bought a map from a roadside newsagent. We were near the palace of justice. Visited a spar supermarket and bought biscuits and more balsamic.

rome071pizza rome066lasagna

Lunch at a snack bar: potato pizza, lasagna and an artichoke. Came to €17 without drinks. The pizza was really really delicious. Simple thin crust with potatoes — crispy, nicely seasoned.

rome092river rome099church

Walked to the river, it was I think my first time seeing the river tiber. The thing about rome, you walk along a street and all of a sudden there’d be some ruins or a church or a nice square. I wish I could enjoy it more and not constantly be pissed off.

rome114trevi rome136spanish

There was time, so we walked to the trevi fountain and then to the spanish steps. Very crowded and dangerous metro, first to the hard rock café to find a shirt (duplicate of stockholm, didn’t buy) then to termini train station. Long trek to the platform to find the right train back to civitavecchia, everyone was relieved when the train finally got going and we returned to the port.

fan338falsomagro fan339cannoli

Dinner at restaurant: aracini, salad, falsomagro (beef meatloaf), cannoli, bread pudding. Our last night on the cruise, luggage had to be outside by 1am and everything packed and ready to go.

in going places |

My newest breakfast concoction, bacon and egg waffle sandwich, with waffles as bread. Baked apple and semolina again. More walking on deck, it was quite cold and windy so not as many people outside. The disembarkation briefing was mid-morning but nothing interesting about it.

fan321pasta fan322beef

Lunch at restaurant: potato mozzarella croquette, salad, penne, beef pizzaiola (beef in pizza style, very dry), melon tart, ice cream. A little sick of all the food now, but still couldn’t resist ordering big when presented with the menu.

Started to come back nearer shore, in the afternoon we were sailing along the calabria coast then past sicily. Kept to my cabin most of the time.

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Dinner at restaurant: stuffed fried olives (interesting idea), salad, cannelloni stuffed with swiss chard & ricotta, chicken cacciatore, apple tart, mascarpone cream. Running treadmill again. Ran out of zombies run episodes, couldn’t download new one until i have wifi.


in going places |

Piraeus for Athens 8am - 4pm

Very skillful parking by the pilot into a narrow berth at Piraeus, Athens’ port. Arrival was 8am and we were already lined up ready to disembark by 7.45pm, wanting to avoid the excursion scrum. Unfortunately there was a delay of almost 1hr in disembarkation. The official reason was they had to wait for permission from the land authorities, but we saw someone being stretchered off from the medical centre so may be that had something to do with the delay.

We walked to the entrance of the cruise terminal and got a day pass for €4. The #843 bus took us to the metro station and from there we took the train to Acropoli station. Quite straightforward once we got the hang of it, and managed to avoid the idiots from the ship. Acropoli station was, no surprise, next to the Acropolis. Entrance was €12, and parents got in half price. Idiots following us tried the same trick but they didn’t have EU passports, stupid people.

gre306parthenon gre325parthenon
gre337erechtheum gre293theatre

It had been raining all morning and would continue to rain all day, so not ideal to visit an outdoor site with slippery marble paths like the acropolis. But we perservered. There was a giant crane at one side of the parthenon, part of the restoration project, but the other side was clear. Also noteworthy and still in good shape were the erechtheum, the temple of athena nike and the theatre of dionysus. If the weather was nicer, I would have enjoyed staying longer to appreciate the ruins even more.

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Came out on the other side of the site and walked around some of the streets. Made our way to the planka district which was behind the acropolis and made up of pedestrianised streets lined with shops and restaurants. Not a terribly great experience, with one parent utterly bored and giving no opinion or contribution; and the other parent not knowing when to stop shopping and just generally being inconsiderate. I was able to hurriedly buy some balsamic vinegar and some baklava in between trying to navigate and not lose my temper.

gre483cheesepie gre485sweetpie

Bought some strawberries and a greek pretzel for snack. Metro back to Piraeus, and we decided to look for kebab. Instead, we came across a bakery where we bought a cheese pie and a custard pie smothered with chocolate sauce. Flaky pastry and absolutely delicious. A helpful customer (she was the one who recommended the custard pie with chocolate sauce) also got us directions to a nearby kebab place. Or they call it souvlaki in greece. Bought pork doner and skewers. Got the bus back to the ship and had the souvlaki with cafeteria salad for late lunch. The strawberries were sweet and juicy too.

fan308medprawn fan316alaska

Rested in my cabin, did a few bw exercises. Dinner at restaurant: smoked marlin, gorgonzola mousse, pasta with veal, mediterranean grilled prawn, baked alaska (with waiter parade), tasteless jelly. Ran a bit on treadmill, there were very few people at this time of day, so I might have hit upon the optimum time.

in going places |

Woke up early, so went over to the treadmill and did 30mins, showered then breakfast. Now my breakfasts are bacon and egg sandwich, baked apple and semolina. Back to my cabin to read and rest.

fan290surimipie fan294cordonbleu

Lunch at restaurant: surimi (fake crabstick) pie, salad, clam chowder, gnocchi, cordon bleu, linzer torte with ice cream. The surimi pie was surprisingly good, the cordon blue dry and not enough cheese. It’s always their mains that disappoint.

Walked around the deck and went with papa to a behind the scenes presentation. Quite amateurish powerpoint slides of the bridge, control panel, engine, galley. Just as the most interesting video of the kitchen came on, they had technical difficulties. Just have to laugh.

fan298lambrack fan301sachertort

Dinner at restaurant: fried baccala (salted cod), salad, pasta, rack of lamb, pear tart, sacher torte. Now this time the rack of lamb was good. More walking around the deck, which was quite windy.


in going places |

haifa overnight - 4pm

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It would have been great if there was an excursion to the Dead Sea, but it was only available on day one of our stop and it was more important to go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. There was a €250 overnight excursion to all three places, but would have been too much hassle for the seniors and it wasn’t even considered.

So we spent half a day at Haifa. I made a bacon and egg roll for breakfast, plus the usual baked apple. Walked outside to the terminal and the very helpful information desk gave us maps and travel directions. Went to the FX place to change some shekels, then it was a straightforward trip on the #136 bus to the top of the Baha’i Gardens.

Another world heritage site, these terraced gardens built around the shrine of the báb were only open to the public going to one of their tours or people going into the shrine. We took plctures at the top looking down, got the #136 bus again and took more pictures looking up from the German Colony.

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We walked around trying to find a market and discovered a small one that was very local with a few stalls selling fruits and vegs. Not very successful and in the absence of any input from anyone else we walked back to port.

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Lunch at restaurant: courgette stack, salad, spaghetti aglio e olio (always good, although it was about 30sec too al dente), meatballs, chocolate tart. There was time before departure for mum and I to visit the duty free. I bought a magnet and mum bought some dead sea mud stuff.

Departure time was 4pm. I went to deck 7 for another zombie run and the engines still hadn’t started a 3.45pm. Then it became clear, the overnight excursion group arrived back at just before 4pm. Wow, they must have had some delays. Yet another good reason why it would have been too tough on mum for 2 long travel days.

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Dinner at restaurant: asparagus beef, salad, prime rib, ricotta pie, clafoutis. Up to the cafeteria for more of the chocolate tart from lunch.

in going places |

Haifa 8am - overnight

Assembly for the shore excursion to Jerusalem and Bethlehem was at 6.30am so it was 4.45am alarm and 5am breakfast. Too early for appetite so I just had a croissant and a baked apple. Saw a German cruiser at the next table making sandwiches so I copied him and made a few ham and egg rolls. Only mum and I with our friends on this excursion, papa wasn’t interested so there wasn’t any point spending the whopping €110 on the excursion.

We were on bus #22 and left Haifa port at 7am. The drive to Jerusalem was 2.5hrs on the highway, initially free of traffic though we did run into rush hour traffic near Jerusalem. Our guide gave us some spiel at the beginning, and he told us that the best guidebook for Jerusalem (or the whole Israel) is the Bible, and it did help to have knowledge of biblical events throughout the day.

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The first stop was Mount of Olives where we spent all of 10mins looking at and photographing the view of Jerusalem old city. My first view of the holy city was quite impressive. All the houses were built with stone, giving the city a uniform off-white look.

jer035westwall jer051westwall

Then it was a short journey down to the actual old city and the famed western wall. Our guide told us to leave everything on the bus — backpacks, wallets, money — and just take our cameras. Security (we were able to breeze through bypassing bag check) and pickpockets were his reason. The wailing wall was divided into male and female sections. It was strange, while the devout were praying against the wall, tourists were rushing around and climbing on chairs — the two groups seemed to co-exist yet completely ignore each other. A group of schoolboys were in the male section chanting, but the women’s section was crowded with people praying.

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jer110cross jer117crucifix

Next stop was via dolorosa or the way of sorrows, which traced the path that Jesus took when he carried the cross up to his crucifixion. The pathway supposed hadn’t changed in 2000 years, with the same market stalls and old houses lining the route. The path ended at the church of the holy sepulchre, marking where Jesus was crucified and buried. There had been a church on the site since 300AD, when it was built by Helena, mother of Emperor Constatine. It was definitely a holy place, although seemed to be shared between all the different branches of christianity.

Our guide led us up some dark narrow steps and we were at the shrine that marked the crucifixion. There was a queue to get closer to touch the statue and altar but our group didn’t enter. It was a whirlwind tour, crowded and a mix of tourists and pilgrims. It was best to ignore the touristy aspect and focus on the religious significance. Everybody was suitably respectful which was good.

On the way back to the bus along the Christian and Armenian quarters, there were interesting stalls of souvenirs, breads and sweets. But of course none of us had any money. Lunch was included in the excursion and it was at a hotel. Roast chicken, potatoes, vegetables, salad, assorted cakes and jellies. Probably the most neutral and unoffensive type of food to serve.

The stop after lunch was for souvenir shopping. Now I realised why our guide told us to leave our wallets on the bus. The place we were taken to was a small dilapidated hut that had olive wood items, crosses, jewellry at rip off prices. Typical. I did manage to buy a few mother of pearl crosses for a reasonable price. There was no chance of shopping elsewhere, that was my assumption.

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Next stop was Bethlehem, which involved crossing a heavily armed checkpoint into the west bank. This was palestine controlled territory and there was a sign forbidding israeli citizens from entering. Our guide had dual nationality so he came with us. A local guide also joined, and he hustled us off the bus hurriedly into the church of the nativity without giving us a chance to stop. There was a reason, because we were one of the last groups allowed in before the doors were closed for a service, so thank you to our local guide.

It was an unassuming semi-circular opening with steep steps into a tiny space. The star grotto marked the spot where Jesus was born, and again it was extremely crowded. I could ignore everything because I was able to touch the spot, and mum too. There were cameras around me, but I could still get a small moment of peace and thanks.

Not a lot of time although we stopped at the catholic chapel for a little while and there was time to take a couple of pictures at manger square. A wait for our bus driver meant I was able to get a bottle of coke (I’d stuffed a couple of dollar notes in my pocket). A long drive back to Haifa with a stop at a service station along the way.

I’m not as outwardly religious as mm or some others. It’s important to me, and mum, when we are at a holy place, to say a prayer. I know the significance of the sites we visited today, although they still seemed to suddenly appear without warning. Like all of a sudden, we were climbing the steps to where Jesus was crucified. I don’t think I had enough mental preparation for that, and the importance hits quickly. But the tour group also didn’t hang about, so I had to be both spiritual and efficient in getting pictures. It’s quite a balance.

When I was doing research beforehand, I thought about whether we needed to join the expensive excursion. There’s a train that goes from Haifa to Tel Aviv, then an express bus to Jerusalem. There were enough tourists there for us to have been able to walk around. But I’m glad we opted for the safety of the ship excursion. We didn’t know Hebrew or Arabic, and there would have been a high chance of us being hassled or targeted by pickpockets. I didn’t like that our guide told us to leave our money on the bus for all the stops before bringing us to an obviously rip-off place. That said, once we got back on the ship, we overheard other people saying that their group didn’t have the same warning and someone did lose their wallet and perhaps even passport. If I had to do it again, I still say go with the excursion, leave our bags and money on the bus but keep $10 or so in a pocket for small purchases.

Dinner at the restaurant, which opened later due to the excursions: salad, spaghetti bolognese, veal layered with spinach, black forest (full of cream), white chocolate mousse (more cream). Had to go upstairs to the cafeteria afterwards to eat a large plate of rocket to compensate.

full flickr set: holyland


in going places |

fan250eggsbenedict fan253carrotcake

Nice to have an at sea day after 2 ports of call. Had breakfast at the restaurant rather than the cafeteria: toast, eggs benedict, grilled tomato, sausage, croissant. One of the eggs was overcooked, the other was nicely runny. Typical of the kitchen — mostly hit and miss.

Everybody felt noticeably heavier so went for a walk around the deck. Mum found a stretching class so she joined it. I ended up doing 55mins for around 2.5miles — took 5mins for each circuit which I attributed 0.25 miles. Booked our excursion for tomorrow and retrieved our passports. The Israeli authorities gave us a landing card instead of stamping in our passports.

Lunch at the restaurant: salad, ham & mushroom pasta, grilled squid, carrot cake, ice cream. As usual the dessert was the best course with the main course mostly forgettable.



We were each entitled to one free photo, so we opted for 3 of the same one of us at dinner. Quite a lot going on to keep people occupied on a sailing day, dance classes, quizzes, and most bars and lounges were filled with people drinking or chatting. The music at the atrium lounge was always worth stopping for a few minutes.

It was sort of raining in the afternoon so I went to deck 7 (lifeboat deck) to try out the zombies run app. Wonderful! Plus it didn’t need GPS to work, although I had to guess and enter the distance manually.

fan216wine fan258papardelle

Another gala night dinner: beef carpaccio (more like ham), asparagus, salad, pasta, guinea fowl (dry), chocolate parfait, yogurt cream. We ordered a carafe of red wine (€7 for 500ml, good value) and they gave us a glass of champagne after the meal. The cheap red was much more palatable than the dry tasteless sparkly. I tried the ouzo back in my room while reading and watching Euronews. Ack, just like aniseed, it’ll be hard to finish even this small bottle.

in going places |

gre170cafe gre165shop

Heraklion 8am - 4pm

Docked 8am at Heraklion, Crete. Breakfast of hardboiled egg white, bacon, melon, porridge and honey. The port authority provided a free shuttlebus to the terminal, from where it was about 20mins’ walk to the city centre. There was even a very helpful yellow line that led from the cruise terminal to the city centre.

Windy and rainy day. The biggest objective was to go to Odos 1866, the pedestrianised market street. It was a mixture of souvenir shops for tourists and actual market for locals. There was a nice supermarket, fruit stalls, fishmongers, a butcher and even a €1 store. Lots of cafés and bakeries too. Then in the middle were shops selling olive oil, ouzo, spices and souvenirs. Bought some coin holders for €1 and bought lots at the supermarket — balsamic vinegar, spices, honey, biscuits. Bought local raki, rather like ouzo.

Followed the map guide around to a bakery, where we bought cheese pie — this one with shortcrust pastry wasn’t as good as the one with puff pastry from Olympia. I thought we might find a restaurant to have kebab, but it started raining and they wanted to go back to the ship. Sigh, I know lunch is included in the cruise, but why not take advantage of the 4pm departure to stay onshore a little longer? That’s why I prefer travelling with mm.

Lunch at the restaurant — ox tongue, salad, gnocchi, awful tofu ratatouille, chcolate almond tart, creme caramel. Went to the gym to use the treadmill for 25mins, yes definitely fewer people and the ones who were there looked like they knew their way around a gym.

Mid-afternoon there was an ice cream decoration demo at the piazza coffee shop. Turned out to be extremely silly. The “expert” decorator proceeded to place slices of fruit on a dish where there were already 3 scoops of ice cream, then he squirted whipped cream from a can and the final flourish was an umbrella. Seriously? And a group of 50 people, mostly adults, were being entertained by this. We’ve lost our minds.

fan240antipasti fan247tiramisu

Dinner was italian night: antipasti plate, salad, pasta with tomato & seafood, seafood mixed grill (prawn, swordfish, cuttlefish), cheese, tiramisu, ice cream, artificial mint sorbet.

Thought we’d go check out bingo (see above re: losing our minds) but it was €20 per card. We hadn’t lost all of our minds just yet. Back to cabin early.

in going places |

gre021katakolon gre034katastreet

Katakolon 9am - 3pm

The first port of call on this trip. Docked at Katakolon at 9am. I had to go earlier to the customer service desk to retrieve my passport, which had been taken from us when we boarded for Israeli immigration. I thought I needed the passport to pick up the rental car, but actually they didn’t need it, just my driver’s licence. (That said, I deliberately used my UK licence and credit card, so may be it was an EU thing.)

Anyway, the port was pretty. There was a short walk from the terminal to the main street. I’d booked the car at Avis, €65 for an Astra. Originally for 5 people it would have been a bargain, for 3 it was more comfortable but less value for money. Still, the excursion to Olympia was €65-75 per person, and they didn’t tell us about the €20 per person shuttle until we got on the ship. It was a good opportunity to drive, and it gave us freedom to move around and stop. The rental office told me that to fill the tank back to its original position would be €15, and we decided to fill up on the way rather than the way back. Cute little petrol station, surrounded by orange trees and with a few cats wandering around.


gre054olympia gre066olympia
gre082olyarch gre099olympia

The drive to Olympia was around 30mins, very easy and straightforward. When we got there the car park was overrun with cruise tour buses so we parked around the corner away from all the chaos. Entrance to the site was €6, mum and I went while papa waited outside. The site was very big, even with all the tour groups it didn’t feel all that crowded. The important sites were the temple of Zeus, the temple of Hera, the semi circular Philippeion and the remains of the Stadium. The stadium wasn’t like the modern ones, there were no seats—although 45,000 people could have sat on the embankment either side. The most popular activity was to run along the strip of track where athletics took place, and I duly did 10m while mum took pictures of me pretending to be an Olympian.

gre120pie gre122cheesepie

Olympia village itself was a short high street full of touristy shops. Bought a couple of cheese pies at a small bakery—very delicious! Puff pastry filled with feta cheese was just right. Returned the car back at Katakolon, then walked the whole length of the village high street. It turned out that small souvenirs at Olympia were cheaper than Katakolon, to note for next time. Went to a small supermarket and bought some biscuits and a small bottle of ouzo to try.

Late lunch back on the ship and the cafeteria was crowded as most people had the same idea. Long queues to get roast beef, mini burger, cous cous and panna cotta. Returned my passport, walked a little around the ship, read and watched Euronews. Then it was time for dinner: proscuitto & melon, salad, basil risotto, terrible boiled leather steamed fish, zuppa inglese (italian trifle), rice pudding.


in going places |

fan147bfast fan210croquette

There are many at sea days on this cruise, distances between stops are longer. Good to have a day to rest after the stupid long flight. Familiar breakfast buffet — bacon, sausage, all sorts of eggs, my favourite baked apple, semolina, croissant, fruit. I’d forgotten there were cakes and pies for breakfast too.

Headed to the gym, which was extremely crowded and I didn’t even get my full 25mins on the treadmill. Hopefully it’ll be less crowded later on in the cruise.

Already time for lunch, which we took at the restaurant. Cheese croquette, salad, pasta chicken ragout, ricotta stuffed vegetables, fruit tart and ice cream.

gre003stromboli gre013sunset

In the afternoon we sailed past the volcanic island of Stromboli, which looked quite surreal with a ring of cloud surrounding the volcano. Also managed to catch a rather pretty sunset.

fan219lamb fan222pannapear

Gala dinner, which meant free drinks at the bars at 5.30pm. Dinner was veal salad, greek salad, seafood bisque, ravioli, roast lamb, pannacotta and poached pear. We’d already mastered the trick of ordering multiple desserts.

After dinner show at the theatre was a presentation of officers followed by an acrobat show with a Zorro theme. Their shows tend to be a bit…simple, but the performers are enthusiastic. Nice to go back to my cabin, read and relax.

in going places |

fan006kata fan011cabin

Transit at Dubai was 3-4hrs, from midnight to 3-4am, so it was tough and tiring. Looked around the duty free for whiskies to buy on the way back, but spent most of the layover sitting mindlessly at the gate. Flight to Milan was around 5hrs. Had chicken sandwich, chocolate muffin, cheese omelette, croissant, fruits and a very milky tea. Why is it that no one outside the UK knows how to make decent tea? Watched more Walking Dead eps.

Arrived Milan airport 7.30am. Breezed through customs only to be confronted with the scrum to get onto the bus transfer. The nightmare about so many other cruisers is true. Ugh. Transfer to Genoa about 2.5hrs, and there was another scrum to check in and board. Something like 7-8 coaches arrived at the same time so there was a long queue to check in.

MSC Fantasia is the same class as the Splendida, with capacity for 3,000 passengers. Everything looked familiar and we were able to find our way around quite easily.

Our cabins weren’t ready so we headed to the cafeteria for lunch. Ha! It’s EXACTLY THE SAME FOOD as the other 2 MSC cruises. The same roast, pasta, pizza, salad. I guess it’s good in a way that we are familiar and know what to expect.

I have my own cabin, and the inside cabin is larger than the ones with balconies. Didn’t feel too closed in, yes having a balcony would be great, but since we’re paying for the single supplement, we didn’t want even more additional costs. The luggage took a long, long, long time to arrive, and I immediately took a shower as soon as it did. Then it was straight to the emergency drill. We sat opposite a group of nice German cruisers and they gave us a couple of tips.

fan205mussels fan208deliceopera Dinner at the restaurant on 6/F: mussels, salad, spaghetti carbonara, cod, limoncello delice, opera. The starters, salad and pasta were okay, the cod was terrible, the desserts redeemed the meal somewhat.


in going places |

Flight in the afternoon, so I cleared everything at home, cleaned up and headed to the airport early. Not happy to see all the other fellow cruisers at the airport, felt like going on a packaged tour with all these idiots. I’ll have to spend the next 2 weeks avoiding them.

First leg of the flight was 7hrs. Had chicken and rice, rice pudding and no alcohol. Watched Bones, Brooklyn Nine-nine and got started with some Walking Dead. Saved the tuna mayo sandwich for the stopover at Dubai. Say what you will about Emirates, they have lots of entertainment.


in going places |

cruise01

Will be away for 2 weeks, going on another cruise with parents and family friends. Greece, Israel, Italy, a few at sea days.

cruise02

No idea why I agreed to go on a cruise again, there was so much I didn’t enjoy about being on a cruise: at close proximity with people I absolutely detest, the horrible scrum at the cafeteria, the rip-off excursions, and the fake formality of the MDR. Parents and family friends have very different style of travelling to me, and it’s more frustration than relaxation. I just feel like my time and money could be better spent on other holidays.

Sigh. Look on the bright side. I’m sure that the sights will be great. There is a potential to see Olympia, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the Acropolis. I’ll get lots of pictures.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

guidebooksgreece

Task #9 in 101 in 1001 challenge is to use my library card. This is carried over from the 2007 challenge, mainly because I was working and travelling and moving countries during those 1001 days that I never got round to using libraries.

Going with parents and family friends on a cruise next week. Cruise #3 for us. Itinerary is Greece (Olympia, Crete, Athens), Israel (Haifa with shore excursions to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Dead Sea possible), Italy (Rome). Time to do some research.

Mostly, I research online and summarise my findings in evernote. Additional research for cruises is always necessary because some ports are not next to town. The cruise company obviously hardsells their excursions, but personally I hate the cattle herding feel of guided tours. Interesting to read cruise forums, most people are not DIYers, I would say they err very much on the safe and timid side. I guess it’s the sort of people who go on cruises a lot.

That said, I’m travelling with 4 seniors, so that needs to be factored in.

Guidebooks are useful, and have lots more information than a webpage. Afterall, they’ve done the research already. The problem is that guidebooks become outdated and there’s a limit to how many you can buy and carry.

Sometime during my stay in London, when I was making lots of small trips, I started getting guidebooks from the library. I’d get a few before a trip and may be bring one with me during the trip. It has worked absolute wonders, and I’m so glad libraries stock such a great selection of travel books.

These are from the small local library. Also came with maps, which is super helpful. I find it’s easy to borrow English books here, even in a small library like this one. It’s the minority language afterall. I have to go to a bigger library to find an Israel guidebook though. Off to start reading…

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Task #27 of 101 in 1001 challenge is to list 101 wishlist travel places and experiences. I have deliberately left some places vague. For example, burma or baltic states: i want to visit, I don’t have specific itineraries or destinations in mind. Activities, then by country (** world heritage):

    Barges on the Canal du Midi at Argeliers 2
    image courtesy flickr user DBarefoot

  1. activity: cycling holiday
  2. activity: canal boat norfolk broads, provence or portugal
  3. activity: clam/abalone fishing
  4. activity: cookery class france, italy or thailand
  5. activity: go into space
  6. activity: marathon/ destination race
  7. activity: ski in canada or usa
  8. activity: ski in japan
  9. activity: ski in norway
  10. activity: sports game, baseball, basketball, cricket, rugby
  11. activity: stand on the tropic of capricorn
  12. albania
  13. antarctica: cruise or visit, this will make it 7 continents
  14. argentina/brazil: iguazu falls and national park**
  15. austria: concert at wien musikverein
  16. australia: great barrier reef**
  17. australia: tasmania


  18. Pinnacles Desert Nambung National Park Western Australia
    image courtesy flickr user iansand

  19. australia: western australia food and wine country, pinnacles desert, nambung national park
  20. baltic region: estonia, latvia, lithuania
  21. bhutan / nepal (kathmandu**)
  22. bolivia
  23. brazil: amazon rain forest
  24. cambodia: angkor, siam reap area, kampong fishing villages
  25. canada: poutine in old quebec
  26. canada: vancouver and other parts of BC
  27. caribbean island
  28. central asia: azerbaijan, georgia
  29. chile/argentina: patagonia region
  30. chile: easter island


  31. Huangshan 黄山 - View from Flying-over rock 飞来石
    image courtesy flickr user Kwong Yee Cheng

  32. china: anhui hongcun ancient village (安徽宏村), huangshan (黄山)
  33. china: sichuan jiuzhaigou (四川九寨沟)
  34. china: terracotta army xian
  35. christmas markets in europe
  36. croatia: old city of dubrovnik**
  37. cuba: sip rum and smoke a cigar in havana**
  38. egypt: pyramids**
  39. finland: dog sledding
  40. finland: northern lights and lakes
  41. france: brittany
  42. france: long stay at provence, camargue
  43. france: wine tasting
  44. germany: brandenberg gate
  45. germany: oktoberfest in munich
  46. gibraltar
  47. greece: acropolis athens**


  48. Santorini Cliffs
    image courtesy flickr user andos_pics

  49. greece: santorini, island hop
  50. greenland
  51. india: taj mahal agra**
  52. indonesia: bali
  53. iceland: blue lagoon, surtsey**
  54. israel: holy jerusalem**
  55. israel/jordan: swim in the dead sea
  56. italy: assisi**
  57. italy: carnivale at venice
  58. italy: mount etna and pompeii**
  59. italy: south coast campania, calabria, puglia regions


  60. Tuscany Cipresses
    image courtesy flickr user maarten van hoof

  61. italy: tuscany
  62. japan: cherry blossom festival
  63. japan: hiroshima peace memorial**
  64. japan: hitachi seaside park hitachinaka, ibaraki prefecture
  65. japan: ice breaking ship and sapporo ice festival hokkaido
  66. jordan: petra rock structure**
  67. korea: jeju volcanic island**
  68. malaysia: penang
  69. mali: timbuktu
  70. malta: valletta**
  71. mexico: chichen-itza**
  72. mexico: drink tequila, eat real mexican food
  73. myanmar
  74. norway: hurtigruten cruise
  75. norway: north to svalbard, lofoten islands, finnmark


  76. Trolltunga Hike
    image courtesy flickr user aram k

  77. norway: trolltunga overhanging rock
  78. pacific island: tahiti, fiji, samoa, png
  79. peru: try cuy
  80. peru: historic sanctury of machu picchu**
  81. portugal: aveiro canals
  82. russia: st petersburg, kremlin and red square moscow**
  83. sahara: sleep in the desert with bedouins
  84. seychelles: beaches
  85. south africa
  86. spain: barcelona (works of gaudi)**
  87. spain: san sebastian 3-star restaurants
  88. spain: coastal regions
  89. sweden: stay at the ice hotel
  90. switzerland: geneva (seriously)
  91. taiwan: bike around sun moon lake
  92. tanzania: kilamanjaro national park**
  93. tanzania: wildebeest migration
  94. thailand: songkran (water festival) or loi krathong (floating flowers festival)
  95. tunisia: star wars canyon
  96. turkey: grand bazaar istanbul**
  97. turkey: step between asia and europe
  98. ukraine: klevan tunnel of love
  99. vietnam: halong bay, danang, dalat
  100. vietnam: pho at a street stall
  101. uk: distillery on scotland mainland
  102. usa: alaska
  103. usa: grand canyon national park**, antelope national park or any other national park
  104. usa: new orleans
  105. usa: one world trade center
  106. usa: pacific northwest


in 101.1001 , going places |

Task #26 of 101 in 1001 challenge: make a list of landmarks visited and travel things done. I’ve included destinations on typical bucket lists as well as some things I’ve done. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been able to see, experience and live in all these places. (** means a World Heritage site.)

  1. 3 countries in a day — drove from alsace france to schaffhausen switzerland, the route home to zurich took us through germany; also drove through lichtenstein to get from switzerland to austria, those countries are so near each other
  2. abbey road zebra crossing — it’s up the road from my flat; hate the tourists who cross and re-cross that zebra crossing causing traffic to standstill, they also stand like stupid idiots on the entire pavement, how is anyone supposed to walk past them *smh
  3. an aquarium — sydney aquarium was an uexpected find, and was surprisingly fabulous
  4. backstage at the theatre — my friend took me to visit her friend who was working backstage at wicked chicago, it was (pun intended) wicked


  5. places005bangkok

  6. bangkok floating market — interesting experience, have to get up early in the morning to go, the sales pitch can get pushy
  7. bath** — to think i almost ended up going to college there, the roman baths and the georgian architecture make it a worthwhile destination
  8. beijing: great wall of china** — part of a tour with parents, all I remember is that it was overcrowded with unruly people and a tourist trap
  9. beijing: imperial palace, summer palace** — it’s probably changed a lot since I last viisted
  10. beijing: tiananmen square — is as big as you see on tv
  11. burj al-arab dubai — didn’t stay or go inside because they charged a fee, just stopped and took pictures from the gate
  12. channel tunnel — drove through it, took eurostar


  13. praha133charles places013gruyere

  14. charles bridge prague — yes there are touristy stalls all along the bridge, but between the view of the river and the holy statues there are spots of great beauty
  15. cheese producing place — cheddar with its gorge and the pretty, pretty village of gruyeres
  16. christmas market in germany — lots of seasonal and traditional stalls in the huge square in munich
  17. christmas tree at rockerfeller center — that was the last year of the millennium 1999
  18. chicago architectural boat tour — my frist visit to chicago
  19. cruise the mediterranean — barcelona->tunis->palermo->rome->genoa->marseille


  20. mpchi055dinosaurs

  21. dinosaurs at the field museum chicago — wow, wow, wow
  22. dinosaurs at the natural history museum london — a bit faded now, and last time I went was under construction
  23. disney park #1: disneyland LA in the 1980s
  24. disney park #2: disneyland paris in the 1990s
  25. disney park #3: tokyo disneyland in the late 1990s - early 2000s
  26. disney park #4: hong kong disney in the 2000s
  27. disney park #5: walt disney world orlando 2009-2011
  28. distillery: bourbon trail kentucky — drove down from chicago, visited 8 distilleries
  29. distillery: scotch whisky — islay over the long easter weekend, visited almost all the distilleries
  30. distillery: world whisky: yamazaki at the beginning of our kansai trip


  31. nz0551minus nz1610zorb

  32. drinks at an ice bar — queenstown new zealand, at a place called 5-degree
  33. extreme sport 1 — did one run in a zorb in new zealand
  34. extreme sport 2 — paragliding at pattaya beach, just for about 5-10mins, the most enduring memory was how quiet it was up there
  35. fjords norway** — waking up and seeing that we’d cruised into geirangerfjord and then walking around the village was one of the highlights of the cruise


  36. places032azur

  37. france: côte d’azur — drove from zurich, stayed at nice, pebble beach at cannes, beautiful coast
  38. france: paris sights — eiffel tower, champs elysée, place de la concorde, notre dame, sacre coeur, le louvre (the mona lisa is smaller than expected and hidden behind hordes of people and a thick, thick glass case), musée d’orsay, seine cruise
  39. france: provence — no wonder people want to spend all of their holidays there, or move there entirely
  40. gamble in las vegas — mostly slots
  41. gamble in macau — slots too and i think some craps, hated the smoke
  42. glacier — franz josef glacier new zealand, probably one of the top 3 best experiences in my life, we took a helicopter up to the glacier, had a 3 hour walk and helicopter down
  43. glass floor up high — cn tower in toronto
  44. greenwich meridian (part of maritime greenwich**) — one foot on either side of GMT, fun
  45. ground zero nyc — just a year before 9/11 I was a new yorker, it was too close to home and i still feel so sad about it
  46. guinness in dublin — the guinness factory is the #1 attraction in dublin but more of a touristy museum, the admission included the oppotunity to pull and enjoy your own pint (bonus: jameson and redbreast in dublin too)
  47. hawaii — went when I was quite young so I don’t have many memories aside from pristine beaches
  48. hawker centre singapore — so much food, so little time


  49. hkhome005nightview

  50. hong kong — it’s on some people’s bucket list, stuff like peak tram, normal tram, star ferry, big buddha, night markets; i can also see part of the symphony of lights from my living room
  51. hot spring — onsen hotel in japan, hokkaido and shirahama. cameras are not allowed but i took some during the day when the onsen was empty
  52. independence day fireworks at the mall washington dc — wow
  53. japan bullet train — we travelled from tokyo to the fuji mountain area on the shinkasen
  54. kangaroo and koala in australia — just petted them, didn’t hold the koala, do people realise how stinky they are?
  55. kyoto temples and palaces** — beauty, tranquility, dignity
  56. lavender fields — farm tomita at furano japan
  57. legoland — the one at windsor with sis and gis
  58. little mermaid copenhagen — smaller than expected
  59. loch ness — no, there is no monster there, only a very pretty highland landscape
  60. london — it is one of the most important cities in the world, and so much to do. did the touristy stuff but what i see when i think about london are the parks, the markets, the architecture, restaurants, pubs, theatre, museums, street performers, the history and the people


  61. places055lendl places055martina

  62. major sporting event — went to wimbledon, the players that day included ivan lendl, martina navratilova, chris everett, those days a ground ticket got us into court 2
  63. maze — completed the maze at hampton court
  64. monaco grand prix — drove part of the grand prix circuit in a volvo estate — okay, the monaco grand prix circuit is basically the roads in and around monte carlo so anyone can do that but still, I can say I’ve been to monte carlo
  65. museum of modern art nyc — enjoyed it very much, even though not a big art or museum person
  66. new zealand — we were there for 2 weeks, it was nowhere near enough time


  67. mpngra002amfalls tor190falls

  68. niagara falls — has been on mum’s wishlist for a long time, so I made sure she got her wish
  69. niagara falls completely frozen — the entire waterfall was frozen, and some of the lake too, it was awesome


  70. aus012koala

  71. night safari — in singapore and australia, so different to be going around in pitch darkness and keeping very quiet
  72. olympic games — sigh, London 2012 Team GB. saw the torch, beach volleyball, archery, 2 diving finals, not forgetting the paralympics athletics, tennis, rugby, football, goalball and boccia, table tennis, fencing, volleyball
  73. outdoor concert event — hard rock calling london, lollapolooza chicago
  74. pisa — climbed to the top of the leaning tower, did not do the stupid tourist optical illusion of propping it up
  75. rome historical sites** — including colosseum, wedding cake (vittorio emanuele monument), spanish steps, trevi fountain
  76. safari — we went to the masai mara reserve in kenya — africa changes people, we saw giraffe, elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, servor cat, baboon, monkey, zebra, rhino, wilderbeest, topi, gazelle, impala, hartbeest, eland, waterbuck, bushbuck, hyena, jackel, warthog, wild pig, mongoose, vulture, eagle, malibu, flamingo, pelican, ostrich, camel
  77. safari park — disney’s animal kingdom doesn’t count? anyway i’ve been to woburn and longleat
  78. san francisco — mission, haight/ashbury, the castro, lombard street, cable car, ferry building, fisherman’s wharf, golden gate bridge — personal motorbike tour


  79. ork181brodgar

  80. scottish island — the main purpose of going to orkney was to visit the highland park distillery but the rest of orkney blew us away (metaphorically and quite literally)
  81. sears tower — no, not willis tower, sorry, and not a tourist attraction for me cos the office was a few blocks away, visited the observation deck when i had visitors
  82. ski on fresh snow — sigh, beautiful, at st anton austria
  83. sleep in an airport — it was that epic journey 15hrs to JFK then the connection to ORD was cancelled and I slept overnight on the floor next to a vending maching at JFK. still no flights the next day so I rented a car and drove 16hrs to chicago
  84. sleep on a train — overnight sleeper from zurich via leipzig to prague with my friend ah tan, quite an old train, it said Deutsche Bahn but we thought it was an east german train 2001
  85. sleep under the stars — on safari in kenya; technically it was a tent, with beds and a basic ensuite bathroom; it was completely dark outside, we could hear animals in the wild and see the sky filled will stars
  86. smithsonian washington dc — awesome


  87.  

  88. snow and beach together — visited chile, went skiing one day then to the beach another
  89. souk — the souk at tunis was part of a shore excursion and honestly we felt ripped off
  90. st peter’s vatican** — there is a chapel at the side for prayers only, this was my favourite place it was so quiet and spiritual
  91. stand on the equator — even got a certificate
  92. stand on the tropic of cancer — on the east coast of taiwan
  93. statue of liberty nyc** — we could climb all the way to the inside of the crown, a very cramped space with enough time for a quick look around and a picture
  94. stay in a capsule hotel — not quite as small as the ones in japan, I stayed at the yotel at heathrow a couple of times
  95. stay in a tatami room — our first choice in japan, if a hotel offers traditional vs western rooms, is to opt for the traditional tatami room
  96. stonehenge** — back then it wasn’t roped off and we could walk around the stone circles




  97. swiss alps — i left it till quite late in my switzerland residency to visit the matterhorn, drove over to zermatt, stayed overnight to see the mountain in the morning; also been to lauterbrunnen valley, skiing at st moritz, davos and a few other places on the mountains; spent christmas at murren, a hamlet accessible only via cable car, no cars, 2 streets
  98. swiss lakes — luzern, interlaken, thun, lugano not to mention lake zurich isn’t bad either
  99. switzerland panoramic train journeys — did glacier express and the train to jungfraujoch
  100. sydney opera house** — first time in 1999, then many subsequent visit
  101. times square on new year’s eve — okay, I cheated, I went during the afternoon of 31-dec-1999 and had a look-see before the crowds; at midnight at the end of the millenium I was at a rooftop party somewhere in east village NYC
  102. tokyo tsukiji fish market — tiny stalls with the freshest sushi, long queues but definitely worth the wait
  103. tree top walk — at the macritchie nature reserve singapore


  104.  

  105. uk historical buildings — let’s see, buckingham palace, windsor castle, tower of london, parliament, westminster abbey, canterbury cathedral, leeds castle, hever castle, blenheim palace, woburn abbey, edinburgh castle, longleat house, too many to name
  106. uk museum: british museum, natural history museum, science museum, national gallery, national portrait museum, victoria & albert museum, the museums at greenwich, RAF museum at hendon
  107. vasa museum stockholm — the most visited museum in scandanavia and I can see why, lovingly restored the only remaining 17th century boat in the world
  108. venice** — there were the canals, the lagoon and the bridges, and crossing from one side of a canal to the other on the standing gondola. we also found small squares and wine bars just outside the hustle and bustle of the main tourist spots
  109. vienna historic centre** — who says the city of romance is paris, it should be vienna: from the cathedral to the opera house to the parks with graves of mozart, beethoven, strauss — small enough city for walking


  110.  

  111. vineyard — australia, new zealand, alsace, chateauneuf-du-pape, sonoma valley, wine train chile
  112. waitamo caves new zealand — glow-worms, and our timing was so lucky
  113. whale and dolphin watching — kaikura new zealand
  114. wizarding world of harry potter at universal orlando — the dizzy hogwarts ride and butterbeer



in going places |

Weekend trip to mm’s apartment in shunde. On the list of things to do: fix water heater and tv cable. Nothing much to do with me, but I thought I’d tag along. Early morning 8.10am coach got us there at around noon so we headed straight to the restaurant for lunch — we only had backpacks for the overnight stay so minimal luggage.



It’s a dim sum restaurant and they served tea a little more sophisticated than usual (so they can charge more) — the hot water continued to boil in a kettle, the tea is made in a small purple sand teapot before pouring into a jug to dispense into tiny cups. Nice tea. Pretty nice lunch too, we had dim sum and congee.

Back to her flat to wait for the gas tech while I sat around reading. No internet, but I had the kindle. Late afternoon we headed out again to the nearby market. Very local, with both a main covered market and other sellers selling fruits, vegetables lined up on both sides of the pavement.



This woman sold us green vegetables for ¥2 (20p or thereabouts) a catty, which filled the whole small plastic bag. She was still using those traditional scales, which arguably can be inaccurate, but for that price, who cares?

I got a new screen protector for the iphone and we snacked on fried tofu flavoured with cumin, salt and a little pepper. The epitome of steet food and it was delicious. Another ¥2.



We bought loads of veg, sweet potatoes, sweetcorn, ginger, bread, sweets and biscuits. Very heavy bags walking back to her place.



Dinner was hotpot at a nearby restaurant. Pumpkin soup base and we ordered pork balls, minced fish, sun fish, tofu, dried tofu and vegetables. The fish was fresh, the filets went into the hotpot and the heads and tails were steamed in a separate plate. Perfect dinner.

I didn’t bring my camera, I just used the iphone. Between vine and instagram I have everything I need for casual record of the trip.

shun201401tea shun201412tofu
shun201404cane shun201405mandarin


in going places |



via mashable, this video is called “Sixth Element” and produced by the production company Level 4. I so hope I have the opportunity one of these days to see the northern lights with my own eyes.

in 101.1001 , challenges , going places |

Task #35 of 101 tasks in 1001 days challenge: make a list of World Heritage sites visited. This is as of January 2014. 45/981, by country:

  1. australia: blue mountains — first visit was 1999
  2. australia: sydney opera house — same visit in 1999, then many many subsequent visits


  3. wh003schonbrunn wh004vienna
    schönbrunn | vienna

  4. austria: palace and gardens of schönbrunn outside vienna — visited twice, once when I was very small on a tour with parents, then in 2001 with mm, but I never wrote up that trip
  5. austria: historic centre of vienna — same as schönbrunn visits, such a beautiful, walkable city
  6. belgium: la grand place brussels — twice in 2012, once during chip and choc walk and then with mum
  7. chile: historic quarter of valparaiso — part of my big trip in 2007 to visit my friend K
  8. china: imperial palaces beijing — beijing tour, sometime when I was still at school
  9. china: summer palace bejiing — same tour
  10. china: temple of heaven beijing — tour again, this was actually quite nice
  11. china: great wall — all I remember was how crowded and unruly the people there were, a tourist trap
  12. czech republic: historic centre of prague — first visit was in 2000 when the eastern european bloc were just opening up subsequently visited in 2011 and 2012
  13. france: palace & park of versailles: with parents on that european tour
  14. france: banks of river seine at paris: not going to count how many times, most recently in 2012
  15. france: historic centre of avignon — avignon was our de facto base of operations during our provence trip, beautiful historic town
  16. hungary: banks of river danube at budapest: same trip as vienna in 2001 that I never wrote up
  17. italy: historic centre of florence — been there several times, first with parents then the fortnight with mm in 1997
  18. italy: piazza del duomo at pisa — parents tour trip, pisa was a bit of a tourist trap


  19. wh018venice wh020verona
    venice | verona

  20. italy: venice and its lagoons — long weekend from zurich 2001 with my friend tan
  21. italy: historic centre of rome — so many places to visit, colosseum, spanish steps, wedding cake, trivoli fountain, something to see everywhere; multiple visits, most recently during mediterranean cruise in 2013
  22. italy: city of verona: long weekend from zurich 2001, really a city of romance
  23. japan: historic monuments of ancient kyoto — there are so many historical sites, temples and palaces it will take several visits to cover them all, we did a few on our first trip 2013
  24. korea: changeokgung palace complex at seoul — on our birthday trip 2006
  25. macau: historic centre of macau — usually don’t associate macau with world heritage sites, but it is worth visiting and there are more to see than casinos and furniture shops
  26. new zealand — te wahipounamu south-west new zealand including mount cook national park and fjordland national park visited during the two week driving trip 2005


  27. berg109harbour wh030lauterbrunnen
    bergen | lauterbrunnen valley

  28. norway: bryggen — the old wharf at bergen was part of the cruise trip 2013 with parents
  29. norway: west norwegian fjords — also on the same 2013 cruise trip we sailed around the fjords with geirangerfjord being one of the highlights
  30. switzerland: st gallen abbey — easy train ride to st gallen from zurich 2000, we went there to visit the olma, an agricultural fair
  31. switzerland: old city of bern — the swiss capital was kinda boring, but worth a visit
  32. switzerland: 3 castles, wall and ramparts of bellinzona, switzerland — the italian part of switzerland was a bit further to drive but so beautiful, went there a few times either to lugano or on the way to italy
  33. switzerland: swiss alps jungfrau-aletsch — took the train up the jungfrau during christmas 2000 and then with mum
  34. tunisia: medina of tunis — what we visited was a world heritage site? perfume shop, carpet shop, tourist traps
  35. uk: city of bath — to think that I almost did my first degree there — bath accepted me for chemistry before king’s came through the last minute
  36. uk: blenheim palace — back when we felt like we were tourists we did blenheim and oxford in a day


  37. wh034canterbury wh042stonehenge
    canterbury | stonehenge

  38. uk: canterbury cathedral — my college friend came from there and she invited me to stay, and then of course mm went to school nearby
  39. uk: cornwall and devon mining landscape — what a beautiful part of the country, last visited cornwall
  40. uk: devon and east devon coast: pretty sure we’ve stopped off there
  41. uk: old and new town of edinburgh — first visited when young, then with mm and a bunch of friends, then with RM and mum 2012
  42. uk: maritime greenwich — lots of changes there, much more to see now
  43. uk: royal botanical gardens at kew — in my mind kew = M4 roundabout, but there is the renowned Kew Gardens there
  44. uk: heart of neolithic orkney — even though the purpose of going to orkney was to visit the highland park distillery, the standing circles at stenness were very impressive when we visited 2012
  45. uk: stonehenge, avebury and associated sites — went to stonehenge when we first came to london, in those days it wasn’t roped off and we could walk inside the stone circles
  46. uk: tower of london — visited when we first came to london, then never again
  47. uk: palace of westminster and abbey — seen it, ran past it, drove past it
  48. usa: statue of liberty — visited when young, when we could climb all the way up to the crown
  49. vatican: vatican city — every catholic should go at least once


in going places |

shira004beach

Finally all 900+ pics are uploaded to flickr and the 8-day trip written. Trip report is organised by day on main page and into the 3 centres in the travel section. Same content. Easy reference listing here.

Main page:

  • day 1 part 1 — friday 13 sept — flight, car, yamazaki distillery
  • day 1 part 2 — friday 13 sept — wakayama market, shirahamakan onsen hotel
  • day 2 part 1 — saturday 14 sept — shirahama beach, engetsu island, toretore market
  • day 2 part 2 — saturday 14 sept — sandanbeki, senjojiki, public onsen, sunset
  • day 3 — sunday 15 sept — shirahama errands, nasty weather, rinku premium outlet, kyoto
  • day 4 — monday 16 sept — kyoto koyamizu temple, sannen-zaka, ninen-zaka, philosopher’s walk, nishiki market
  • day 5 — tuesday 17 sept — arashiyama flood cleanup, tenryuji temple, bamboo forest
  • day 6 — wednesday 18 sept — breakfast at kyoto, travel to osaka, shopping, dotonbori wagyu beef bbq dinner
  • day 7 — thursday 19 sept — osaka kuramon market, doyugasuji, takashimaya, uniqlo, dotonbori kobe beef shabu shabu dinner
  • day 8 — friday 20 sept — osaka kuramon market, underground shopping street, heading home

In travel section:


Flickr sets:


in going places , photography is life |

Links and sets on flickr.

Main page:

  • day 1 part 1 — friday 13 sept — flight, car, yamazaki distillery 山崎蒸溜所
  • day 1 part 2 — friday 13 sept — wakayama 和歌山 market, shirahamakan onsen hotel 白浜 館
  • day 2 part 1 — saturday 14 sept — shirahama 白浜 beach, engetsu island 円月島, toretore market 南紀白浜 とれとれ市場
  • day 2 part 2 — saturday 14 sept — sandanbeki 三段壁, senjojiki 千畳敷, public onsen, sunset
  • day 3 — sunday 15 sept — shirahama errands, nasty weather, rinku premium outlet, kyoto 京都
  • day 4 — monday 16 sept — kyoto koyamizu temple 清水寺, sannen-zaka 三年坂, ninen-zaka 二年坂, philosopher’s walk 哲学の道, nishiki market 錦市場
  • day 5 — tuesday 17 sept — arashiyama 嵐山 flood cleanup, tenryuji temple 天龍寺, bamboo forest
  • day 6 — wednesday 18 sept — breakfast at kyoto, travel to osaka, shopping, dotonbori 道頓堀 wagyu beef bbq dinner
  • day 7 — thursday 19 sept — osaka kuramon market 黒門市場, doyugasuji 道具屋筋商店街, takashimaya, uniqlo, dotonbori kobe beef shabu shabu dinner
  • day 8 — friday 20 sept — osaka kuramon market, underground shopping street, heading home

In travel section:


Flickr:


in going places , on the relationship front |

osaka kuramon market, underground shopping street

osa242uni osa253oyster
osa267teashopkan013osakaramen

We packed up all our shopping, tearfully left our old sneakers behind and checked out of our hotel in the morning. They were fully booked so couldn’t offer us late check out. Stored our luggage at the concierge and headed back to Kuramon market for breakfast. Smarter this morning, we didn’t over-order. Got the same fatty tuna as yesterday, supplemented with a freshly opened uni.

The rest was snacking along the market street. Freshly shucked large oysters, red bean sweets and extensive tea tasting with a really nice proprietor at the tea shop. Bought powdered green and barley tea as gifts.

Went back to Uniqlo to pick up our trousers and walked around the underground shopping streets. Bought onigiri for home, mochi for Mum and had a quick lunch of ramen at a small place underground. Never knock these small home-styled places, the soup for the noodles was tasty, I had the pork bones one and it was milky white as it should be.

heading home

kan040farewelldrink

All good things must come to an end, albeit briefly. All too soon it was time to head back to the hotel, get our suitcases, repack and make our way to the airport. Taxi to nearby Namba station, where we had bought reserved seats on the rapi:t airport express yesterday. It was a little more expensive, but we were guaranteed seats in a comfortable, fast train as opposed to fighting against ordinary folks on a commuter train. Worth the extra, especially since we were both very tired and fell asleep for most of the 30min journey.

Ah, back to the scene of our original crime. The bench where we had our first breakfast a week ago, the vending machines, the Toyota car rental counter. Sigh. Check in and immigration were straightforward and soon enough we were inside strolling through the duty free. We had reserved space for duty free purchases but were slightly horrified to find mostly Suntory products. Yamazaki 12 or 18, Hibiki and Hakushu. Where were the Nikka products? We didn’t want the fancy samurai warrior bottle, and was really hoping for a Yoichi or Taketsuru.

Thankfully, it was mm’s sharp eye that spotted the Taketsuru 21. Phew. We had enough time to sit at the bar for a farewell drink of Hakushu 12. And then it was time to board. Cry, cry, cry.

A bit of silver lining. We both got upgraded, mm to business class and me to premium economy. A bit bummed that we couldn’t sit together but it was just for 3.5hrs. The flight was actually too early, the gate wasn’t ready for us and we had to wait while they found some staff to put blocks on our wheels and drive the passenger bridge out. Hilarious. Luggage came out fairly quickly and we called a taxi to take us directly home.

kan050purchases

Our suitcases were full. Lots of biscuits and mochi and sweets. Powdered tea and blueberry vinegar. Plus a lot of heavy bottles:

  • special edition umeshu from shirahama
  • mature umeshu from wakayama market
  • miyagikyo 15 from the wine shop at nishiki market kyoto
  • taketsuru pure malt 21 from kansai airport
  • sample bottle of suntory old whisky, from family mart
  • sample bottle of royal whisky, from family mart
  • mars komagatake 22 from takashimaya osaka
  • nikka black clear from family mart

The sample bottles are for fun and probably will never be opened. Same with the Nikka Black Clear. The umeshu I’ll treasure and hoard until a special occasion. The whiskies will get added to the masterlist, currently at 46 so making it 49. They will be opened, eventually. I’m still working on the currently opened bottles of Glengoyne Burnfoot, Ardbeg 10 and Yoichi. Next on the list is a bourbon or rye.

The last time we went to Japan was to Hokkaido in 2008, just before I left for Chicago. Japan is and will always be one of my favourite holiday destinations. It’s one of the very, very few reasons that makes Asia tolerable for me.

in going places , on the relationship front |

osaka kuramon market 黒門市場

osa183market osa188bento
osa201peach osa197wasabi

The hotel rate didn’t include breakfast, but we weren’t bothered. We took the subway to Kuramon market 黒門市場 and had brunch there. It was a covered market with fruits, vegetables, pickles, seafood, grocery shops, everyday utensils, tea, coffee and sweet shops. A mix of where locals did their shopping and where tourists congregated. English was widely spoken, but there was also one stall that had a sign that said they did not serve non-Japanease speakers. No photos allowed at that particular stall, where a fierce looking uncle sat glaring at passers-by. Other stalls were much more friendly, one even asked us to please take pictures and share on facebook, twitter and everywhere.

osa212tunasushi osa215eelrice

We didn’t mind being tourists and bought our brunch at probably the most touristy place. The reason was the box of fatty tuna that looked so fatty and yummy that we couldn’t resist. Also had unagi on rice, grilled pacific saury 秋刀魚 and grilled scallop skewer. Very full after that, we should have just ordered one unagi rice to share.

Other stalls had oysters, grilled scallops, and a few fugu places. The puffer fish was larger than expected, but we still couldn’t gather enough courage to try the fugu pieces on sale.

osaka shopping — doyugasuji 道具屋筋商店街, takashimaya, uniqlo

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A short walk from Kuramon market was doyugasuji 道具屋筋商店街, yet another covered shopping street. Loved this one, most shops there sold kitchenware. Cups, plates, containers, serving dishes, pots. And not just for home use, most were for professionals. There were all sorts of kitchen equipment, ovens, mixers, ice cream makers, and a few shops selling fierce-looking knives. I did want a new chef’s knife but they looked expensive, and my bag was rapidly filling up. Another trip.

I hadn’t had tea, so was very tired for some reason. Got to Takashimaya department store, found a chair and promptly fell asleep, leaving mm to walk around the clothing department for half an hour. Actually, that suited both of us. I was a poor clothes shopping companion anyway, and it meant she had time to look at stuff she liked.

Refreshed by my nap, I was better able to walk around the department store with her. Spent a lot of time at the basement food department. So many food and drink items, absolutely fabulous. Bought sweets and dried fish. Then at the whisky counter, sigh! We had the privilege of tasting a Benriach 30 year special bottling, so smooth, so wonderful. Also tried a Corryvrechan and an Ardbog. Wished we could buy them all. There was also a bottle of Ardbeg Galileo, a rare sight indeed. We could buy none of it because we saw something else. A whisky we’d never seen or heard of before, Mars Komagatake 22. Mars whisky is part of Hombo distillery, a maker primarily of shochu. They don’t make a lot of whiskies, and whatever they have, was worth snapping up. We already had the rare Miyagikyo, some umeshu and blueberry vinegar, we could afford just one more bottle of whisky and Mars it was.

Took the subway back to the hotel to rest and eat up some of our remaining snacks. Opened a bottle of sake too. Yums. I was going to stay at the hotel but decided to go with mm to the Uniqlo nearby. Ack, we ended up staying there 1.5hrs while she looked at and tried on what seemed like every single item of clothing in the store. I bought one pair of black trousers and she bought altogether 12 items — tops, trousers, sweater and a jacket. The store had trouser alteration for ¥300 overnight so we left our trousers with them. Took the rest of the shopping back to the hotel and went back to Dotonbori for dinner.

osaka dotonbori kobe beef shabu shabu dinner

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We wented beef shabu shabu dinner tonight, and managed to find a nice enough place. This one was AYCE, and on the 7th of 8th floor of a building. Kobe beef tonight, which was what we focused on. The rest, vegetables, mushroom, tofu, we got a little to flavour the broth.

The beef was really nice, melt in your mouth and took on the flavour of the soup. The first plate was good, but subsequent plates were quite fatty. The server told us that leaner beef was better and more expensive, and we had opted for the most expensive choice on the menu. I guess the other cuts of beef were even more fatty, huh. Undeterred, we polished off 4 plates of the beef, yay. Rounding off the meal, which had to be finished in 1.5 or 2hrs (can’t remember) was quite nice green tea ice cream.

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Walked back to the hotel via Shinsaibashi covered shopping street. Some shops were already closed, at 10pm. Heh, the large drugstore we went into, for a change didn’t have stacks and stacks of milk powder crowding its entrance. I’m so glad the idiot hordes have not discovered Japan. Stay away.

What was interesting throughout the trip were the small convenience stores. Not just the chain 7-eleven, Lawson or Family Mart, though they were always great for a wander, we never knew what we’d find. We would go inside every convenience store we saw to look at the whiskies. It’s all part of the learning process. Suntory dominated the market, with lots of their blends like Suntory, Torys, Royal. Saw some 5 litre plastic jugs of Suntory Whisky, for commercial use, guessing it was for making cocktails or as a mixer. The single malts we saw were generally limited to entry level Yamazaki no age or 12yrs. Nikka, which is becoming more our favourite, had a smaller presence. Nikka Black blends we saw quite often, and I saw All Malt occasionally but we were hard pressed to see any Yoichi even. Fascinating.


in going places , on the relationship front |

breakfast at kyoto, travel to osaka

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Breakfast was at a vegetarian buffet restaurant we saw whilst walking home yesterday. Breakfast was ¥480 and although we only had an hour due to later than planned waking up, it was more than enough. Pumpkin, natto, tofu, chickpeas, salad, rice and soup. Filling and healthy. They had lunch and dinner too, options to keep in mind if/when we return to Kyoto.

Check out was at 11am, and Sayuri-san very kindly called a taxi for us to take us to Kyoto station. Not too bad, ¥860, it saved us hauling our luggage to the main road and hailing a taxi there. Trains between Kyoto and Osaka were plentiful. We missed one, deliberately missed the next one (a local) and got on a semi-express to Osaka 15mins later. Only half an hour, it was a commuter journey.

shopping in osaka 大阪

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osa040trunk osa007line

Big difference in cities. Shirahama was like a provincial town, quaint and pretty (but a hotel that had no internet, which in this day and age is unacceptable). Kyoto was full of history and had an underlying sense of peace and dignity. Osaka was busy and loud and crowded. Taxi to the Nikko hotel took us through Mido-Suji Ave. I turned to mm and said, “we’re living on Champs Elysées.” The hotel was opposite a huge LV which was next to Cartier and Omega. The other side of the LV was Chanel, Dior and a Daimaru complex. Like I said, very different.

We also went from a spacious Japanese style tatami room at Shirahamakan to a wonderful homely apartment in Kyoto to a bog standard business hotel in Osaka. Though we explored other hotels, we came back to the Nikko which was part of the vacation package. The semi-double room was actually quite roomy, the bed was lined against the wall but there was enough room for both of us to spread out our suitcases. The bathroom was also a decent size, we could move around in it.

We hopped on the subway back to Osaka-Umeda station, heading for the shopping mall at the Grand Front Building which opened in April. Huge mall with three towers and all sorts of shops. Our first target was the Suntory Whisky House. Unfortunately the bar was closed until the evening, and we could see available entry level whiskies only. The decision to hit the Yamazaki distillery first was looking better and better. Most of the shop was dedicated to an exhibition area of bottling samples and prizes. The rest of the shop sold accessories and furniture. Brilliant furniture, tables and chairs and wine racks and storage boxes made of whisky barrels. The garden furniture was comfortable and we wished we could take them with us, sigh.

After more happy (for mm) torturous (for me) clothing and accessories shop, we came across another furniture shop with a trunk that was again oh so tempting. Alas, couldn’t take with us. I even managed to restrain myself when we visited the international beer shop and bar at the basement. My thinking was, I’d tried many of those German, Belgian, British etc beers on sale at a premium. I was more interested in Japanese beers, which I could get at the convenience store.

osaka dotonbori wagyu beef dinner

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osa152dotonbori osa139sake

Dotonbori 道頓堀 is the Piccadilly Circus or Times Square of Osaka. Large amounts of neon, restaurants and shops. We wasn’t sure where to have dinner, but we knew we wanted some sort of beef bbq, so we picked one place on the hotel guidemap and headed there. Lucky that mm asked to see the menu, it wasn’t what we expected. Yes, it was AYCE but mostly it was chicken, vegetables and noodles. The good beef was extra, so what was the point?

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osa108filet osa117tripe

A little nosing around led us to a side street, where the better places are usually found. A small place offering beef bbq, only about 8 seats, with grills on each table. A la carte, which suited us, because we decided to treat ourselves. The restaurant served wagyu beef from osaka itself, at different premium grades. We ordered the superior plate of filet, back and belly; also from the menu tongue, diaphragm, cheek, stomach and tripe. The most expensive piece, the filet, was unsurprisingly the most boring. The diaphragm and cheek were great cuts, succulent and had great taste and texture. I tried the lime shochu, the potato shochu and mm stuck with umeshu. Even with all the indulgence the bill was a reasonable ¥14,000, or around USD140 for 2.

Walked back to the hotel, about 15mins. Explored some of the shops (and a liquor shop) nearby before going back to our room.

in going places , on the relationship front |

breakfast, arashiyama train adventure and flood cleanup

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Breakfast was at a fast food place that sold rice bentos. The menu was displayed on a machine next to the entrance, we selected what we wanted, got our tickets and gave them to the cook. ¥200 for rice, a fried egg, miso soup and some seaweed. Add ¥200 for a piece of grilled salmon we shared. We liked rice for breakfast, good for the rest of the day. Much healthier fast food than burgers.

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The plan was to go one stop on the Hankyu line to Shijo Omiya station, then change to Omiya station on the Randen line for the small, quaint electric trains. What we didn’t count on, was we got on an express train that bypassed Shijo Omiya, ending up at Katsura, 4 stops away. Normally it was just a matter of retracing our steps at the opposite platform. We were ecstatic to see signs at Katsura for Arashiyama directly, so we got lucky. It wasn’t the Randen line, just another branch of the Hankyu line. No matter. It got us to Arashiyama.

Rented bikes at a shop next to the station. Touring bikes, large and heavy with no gears. Easy to ride.

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ara051flood ara041flood

We rode a little in a park area and then crossed a small bridge. The sight that greeted us was unexpected. Tourist brochure pictures showed the famous Moon Crossing Bridge nestled across a pretty river with green hills in the background. Instead we saw debris everywhere. The storm had hit the area hard, the houses and restaurants alongside the riverbank had obviously flooded. Furniture was drying outside, tatami mats were ruined, glasses and crockery were completely covered in mud. The smell of mud permeated the whole area. People from the restaurants were hard at work cleaning every piece of salvagable item, or throwing away mats that were soaked, or brushing their floor and the pavement outside. The river was still raging with storm waters from upstream bringing tons of mud with it. The press was still there, reporting on the aftermath.

It was heartbreaking to witness, but also encouraging to see the community spirit. Hopefully insurance covered the damage and the people could get back to their lives quickly.

arashiyama 嵐山 tenryuji temple 天龍寺, bamboo forest

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ara127grounds ara136lake

Leaving the river area and cycling inland brought us to Tenryuji, the most important temple at Arashiyama and another world heritage site. Happily paid the ¥500 entrance fee, leaving our bikes outside in the car park under some shade. Beautiful, beautiful temple. Distinctive architecture, zen gardens and a spectacular sweeping lake. Much needed walk and peace. Found a bench in the shade, snacked on sponge cake from Shirahamakan and lemon tea from the flight.

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Retrieved our bikes and rode the short distance to the bamboo forest. A narrow walking path lined on all sides by tall, imposing bamboo trees. Slow going, having to avoid pedestrians. Very picturesque.

From the bamboo forest, we went downhill at the park back to the river and bridge area. Returned the bikes, ¥600 for up to 6hrs, and walked back to town. The flooding extended up to the bottom of the main street, we could see that shops there only managed to open in the morning.

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Late lunch at a local restaurant of tofu set for ¥1,300. I had cold tofu whilst mm had hot tofu. Simply served cubed with a clear dipping sauce. Small plates and pickles, rice and soup. I had a large beer, much needed for a hot day. Dessert was ice cream further down the road, mm had a soy milk ice cream from a tofu skin place and I had a swirl of green tea and roasted red tea ice cream. Both were perfect for the hot day and great after our cycling adventure.

We were destined not to go on the Randen line. We returned to Kyoto on the JR, having decided to spend some time exploring the shops at Kyoto station. Accessories and clothing for mm, food and drinks for me. We went one stop on the subway to Gojo station and visited first the ¥100 shop then the local supermarket. Bought shoe inserts (yes, really), grapes and chestnuts. Back to the apartment to rest and cook the chestnuts before heading out to dinner. Same place as our first night, the yakitori place. Mostly the same food which we liked. Shared a sake this time.

Laundry, resting and packing the rest of the evening.

in going places , on the relationship front |

koyamizu temple 清水寺, sannen-zaka 三年坂, ninen-zaka 二年坂

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kyo101temple kyo118temple

The sky was still overcast when we woke up, with some drizzle. The internet in the apartment wasn’t working so we had to trouble Sayuri-san to come fix it. She brought good news, that the rain would clear up mid-morning. Based on this, we didn’t even bring umbrellas out when we left.

First order of business was to return the car, just behind Kyoto station. Bought onigiri (rice triangles) and drinks at a convenience store. A visit to the tourist information office at the station netted us maps and bus info. The recommendation was to rely on buses rather than the subway as the subway didn’t go to sightseeing places. A one day bus pass was ¥500, which we did end up using quite a bit.

A sign of what was to come was evident on our first bus journey from the station to Koyamizudera temple 清水寺. By then the skies had cleared up and it was looking to be a good day. Just a few blocks from our stop and we hit traffic. The sort of gridlock that simply did not move. Took half an hour to crawl to our stop, ack.

Koyamizudera temple was located at the top of a hill, walking up the narrow street lined with traditional houses and shops was nice. Already shopping started when mm stayed half an hour at an earring shop. Ouch, for me. We ate the onigiri at the top of the hill at the temple entrance, then proceeded inside. A few of the shrines charged entrance fees, so we skipped them. It was nice enough to walk around the grounds. As per tradition, at the entrance to the shrines were basins for people to wash their hands and mouths. The idea was to purify before entering the sacred space. The shrines were ornate and even though the place full of tourists there was a sense of peace throughout. No wonder the temple is one of the most visited places in Kyoto and one of the many world heritage sites around the city.

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kyo139sweets kyo148kitkat

Leading from the entrance of Koyamizudera temple was a narrow pedestrianised cobblestone road completely choc-a-bloc with traditional houses and shops. This was their tourist strip, but done in impeccable Japanese manner. Traditional sweets, tea, pickle, earthenware, clothing, even a knife shop. Most gave samples too and we gorged ourselves with free tea and sweets. So much so that we couldn’t eat lunch, we were so sugared up.

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At the end of Kiyomizu-zaka were steps leading to the stone-paved roads of Sannen-zaka 三年坂 and Ninen-zaka 二年坂. More narrow roads full of shops and houses. We even spied a few maikos (Kyoto’s geishas) in traditional kimonos enjoying the day. A highlight of the walk was a brief stop at a place that sold soy milk products and steamed buns. We shared a soy milk ice cream that was simply full of smooth soy flavour. A sign of Japanese style was the simple plastic tub of ice cream and plastic spoons came on a tray together with two cups of tea. For a simple tub of ice cream. There were also seats outside the shop for us to rest and enjoy our snack.

Our initial plan was to walk from Koyomizudera temple via the stone-paved roads to Maruyama Park and ending at Chion-in Temple. At the end of Ninen-zaka and checking our map told us that we’d only done 1/3 of that walk and it was already early afternoon. It was either stay in the area or to find our way to the main road to catch the bus to another destination. We decided on the latter, got to Gion intersection and hopped on the #100 bus.

philosopher’s walk 哲学の道

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The bus hit yet another traffic jam, this one even worse than the one in the morning. Eventually the bus driver had no choice but to open the doors and let people off. We were only halfway to our destination, so we walked the rest of the way and reversed our plan. The Philosopher’s walk was located at east Kyoto along a canal, named after a famous philosopher who took walks there, mediated and presumably came up with deep thoughts. It was about a mile in length running north-south and lined with cherry blossom trees that would be so beautiful in April.

We hadn’t had lunch, and were quite famished. Luckily we had the sweets we bought at Kiyomizudera-zaka to tide us over. There was a small café at the beginning of the walk but it looked closed, and was expensive too. There were other tourists on the path, as well as local residents living at the houses on the canal and the side streets. The middle of the walk was a part of the canal that looked to have been flooded by the bad weather over the weekend. Sandbags, wheelbarrows and maintenance workers in abundance.

The walk took about 45mins, total about an hour taking into account stopping for sweets, photographs and hopping inside some of the small shops along the way. The end of the walk was Ginkakuji temple, which we didn’t visit. For another time.

nishiki market 錦市場

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Bus #32 took us back to Shijo area. All the large shops, department stores and the covered shopping street at Teramachi. Parallel to Shijo was Nishiki market, the main market at Kyoto. It was different from the other markets we visited, this one more everyday, with shops selling ready-to-use food such as pickles. The few fish and seafood shops were less interesting and some of them were closing already. We did get a snack of octopus wrapped in quail’s egg and grilled, it was interesting and tasty.

The market wasn’t a disappointment, not by a long way. At a wine shop, mm was looking at the sake and umeshu at the front of the store when I spotted something and dragged her over to see. A few bottles of Miyagikyo whisky. This is the distillery at Sendai that was briefly closed during the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Some rumours that its products may be affected in years to come, and on our list of whiskies to try and get. We bought a 12 and a 15 year, to the delight of the shopkeepers.

Dinner was a quick one, at a local ramen place between the market and our apartment. Stopped by the neighbourhood pub, the Man in the Moon, for a whisky. Then to family mart for water, yogurt and dessert. Quite tired after a long day, we took turns soaking in bath salts in the deep tub at the apartment.

in going places , on the relationship front |

shirahama errands

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Another lovely Japanese breakfast at the hotel. Today’s cook yourself item was omelette, with the egg already beaten and in a pot ready to be poured onto the small stove grill. We weren’t ready to leave quite yet so we stayed in our room as long as we could, soaked in the foot spa for one last time.

It had been raining all night, we could tell. There was a break in the weather when we couldn’t put off leaving any further and checked out of the hotel. Lots of errands to run this morning. To the small neighbourhood shop for cider and beer. Back to Sandanbeki shop to get more blueberry vinegar and sweets. The wine shop for umeshu, the lady there recommended a special umeshu for ¥2,000 which we thought was worth it. We did have plans to go to the market to get some food for the trip, but we got caught in a hour-long traffic jam and had to skip that part. Oh, and get petrol too.

So, goodbye to Shirahama and Wakayama Prefecture. What a great discovery, we’d never heard of this region before we booked our holiday, and we are sure to want to return. There’s so much more to explore further inland — the beautiful Kii Peninsula, hiking in the Kumano area and visiting traditional religious shrines.

travel through severe storm to rinku premium outlet

The weather turned nasty. Really nasty, with terrible visibility, high winds and rain so heavy it was like a wall of water. But we had to drive through it, mm took the wheels. The highway thankfully had only a few cars, the speed limit which was 80kph had been reduced to 50kph (around 35mph) and it wasn’t that safe to go much faster than that.

Eventually we reached Rinku premium outlet village just outside Kansai airport. Despite the poor weather, the place was packed. We had ramen and tea/coffee at the food court and planned our route around the place. If it weren’t for the clientele, we would have thought we were at an American outlet — most of the shops were recognisable names like Nike, Burberry, Polo, Coach. I bought a pair of air force sneakers at nike to replace the ones I was wearing; mm got a bargain 2 pairs of skechers for only ¥6,000-ish. We had to hurry, because there was still a long way to drive to Kyoto.

travel to kyoto 京都

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The way GPS units worked in Japan, you entered the phone number of the destination and that was it. It was fine with commercial places, but we could not get it to register directions for our apartment. Even after calling Sayuri-san, our landlady, we couldn’t get it to work. So we programmed it to the nearest landmark, Kyoto station, and hoped for the best.

My turn to drive from the outlet. Heavier traffic and fading light but I got some respite from the rain in pockets. It had been a while since we visited Kyoto, and not by car. Got to Kyoto station and somehow eventually we found the right street corner. Sayuri-san came out to greet us, and direct us to her apartment.

It was an inspired decision to go for an apartment rather than a hotel. Yes, it was more difficult to find being on a side street, but the street even in the terrible rain, felt quiet and nice. We parked overnight at one of the many small parking lots dotted around the area, dragged our bags 5mins to the apartment, located on the 8/F of a block. It had a kitchenette, small living area, carpeted tatami area which we used to set out the futons, a double bedroom (that we never slept in) and clean bathroom and toilet. And the best thing while travelling — a washing machine. Sayuri-san spent a patient half hour explaining to us how things worked and we chatted about nearby restaurants.

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kyo032chicken kyo039veg

We hadn’t had much to eat since the ramen at the outlet, so we braved the late hour (it was almost 9pm) and the still heavy rain and walked outside in search of food. Not many places around and open. A couple of fast food places, a couple of restaurants. I remembered the map in the apartment that pointed us to a yakitori restaurant, and was able to get us there. We had to wait about 5-10mins, a good sign that it was a popular restaurant.

What a find. We got seats at the bar, and they had an English menu. All the skewers were either grilled or fried and the menu was illustrated anyway. We ordered crab claws, chicken set (mince, pieces, skin, gizzard), fatty pork, lotus root, maitake mushroom, asparagus and a few more. Served as soon as they were ready and dipped in a tangy salty sauce. I had a couple of half-and-half beers (half lager, half dark) and mm had a umeshu.

The day started great at Shirahama, the middle part was horrendous with the weather, but we managed to get ourselves to Kyoto and a great end to the evening at a restaurant we wanted to return to the next day. Even though it was late when we got back to the apartment, we put in a load of laundry and set it out to dry overnight. Knackered, but feeling blessed and happy.

in going places , on the relationship front |

shirahama — coastal sights, sunset, onsen

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After a leisurely lunch, we drove south along the coast to see the sights there. First it was a brief stop at the marine lookout tower. Just a quick snap from the entrance. Then it was sandanbeki 三段壁 which means three parts cliff. A short walk brought us to a lookout platform with 180° views of both sets of cliffs. There was a tunnel inside one of the cliffs that led to underground caves, but we didn’t have time to explore them.

Parking at the cliffs was ¥500, which would be refunded if we spent at least ¥1,000 at the shop. Thinking that we didn’t have anything particular to buy, we thought we’d walk around the shop anyway. Ha! Ended up spending over ¥4,000 on a bag of green satsumas and bottles of blueberry vinegar. At least the bottles were plastic, our liquid haul was beginning to build up. We had 30kg allowance, but we were still relatively restrained in our shopping, there were still whiskies to buy.

Another few minutes’ drive from sandanbeki was senjojiki 千畳敷, flat slate-like rock formations on the coast. Worth spending a few minutes taking pictures and walking down to the bottom. No car park fees or shop temptations.

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We had a voucher for one of the public onsens, and we had about 1.5-2hrs till dinner back at the hotel. We had assumed that everything was provided for, but forgot towels. Ah well, ¥250 on a towel souvenir is okay.

This onsen was spread over a large hill, with spas at different levels. We started with the indoor one next to the showers and quickly moved onto a secluded one outdoors. That one was very nice and peaceful, sitting in the hot spring we could hear the wind through the trees and birds calling too. Well, until the peace and quiet was shattered by a group of mainland tourists. Ugh. These idiots are everywhere, can’t escape them.

We changed back to street clothes and went to explore the spas at the upper levels. What a shame we didn’t have time to try them out, some had great views and seemed a lot quieter than the main ones downhill. What we did manage to catch, with perfect timing, was the sunset. Spectacular colours over the bay witnessed from a wonderful vantage point, it was fate.

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Dinner back at the hotel was sukiyaki tonight. A huge platter of one small lobster, a variety of fish, squid, pork, chicken, beef, mushrooms and green vegetables. Sashimi, small plates and pickles at the side of course. There was enough for 4 people, especially if we took up the offer of additional rice. Could only try a small amount of udon at the end. Umeshu with the meal, as usual.

After dinner, we re-organised our bags. It was funny, we didn’t discuss it, didn’t agree on anything, but as soon as we got back to our room, we went to our respective corners and started the repacking process. It was a good use of the rest time between a meal and going to the onsen.

We didn’t have exclusive use of the onsen tonight, a few other people came and went. One woman brought her baby to shower and soak in the indoor spa for a while. We still went through each of the spas, even when it started raining we stayed at the outdoor one. Didn’t want to leave the comfortable hot springs, a bit sad, our final night at the onsen.

in going places , on the relationship front |

shirahama 白浜 — beach, engetsu island 円月島

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I’d set the alarm for 7am, our breakfast was at 8am. We went to bed around 10pm last night so we got a decent amount of sleep, hopefully catching up on lost sleep because of the red eye flight. One thing we had been looking forward to very much was Japanese breakfast. We were not disappointed. Another splendid selection — 6 small dishes including salmon roe, mashed potato, pickles and small mushrooms; pickles, grilled fish, salad, rice, miso soup. On the table was also the small grill on a stove from last night, already with slices of ham and sausage. Next to it was an egg. Aha, we were to make ham and egg ourselves, loving this cooking yourself business. A small bowl of yogurt and a slice of orange to finish.

We were in no hurry to go out, so we tried out the foot spa in our balcony. It was just above lukewarm and quite relaxing. Would have been great to enjoy with a cup of tea but I didn’t have milk.

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The hotel had valet parked our car safely in one of the covered spaces next to the entrance. We got the key but our first destination didn’t need the car. In advertisements and on tripadvisor we read that the hotel was 3 minutes from the beach. It’s an exaggeration! The beach is literally across the road so no more than 1 minute away. Perhaps the 3 minutes refer to actually hitting the sandy part and not just the pathway. Anyway, pedantic.

The beach was a revelation. Research before the trip had registered that there was a beach, but we did not expect the pristine white sandy beach and a sweeping secluded bay that greeted us. Not too crowded on a Saturday morning either. There were palm trees and tree parasols. There was even a public onsen with views across the beach. We walked all the way to one end and walked back, it was so pleasant.

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Coming out from the beach, we continued exploring the shopping streets behind the hotel but it seemed like it was off season as most of the shops were closed. Not just closed for the morning, but closed for a longer period. We visited a family mart opposite the hotel and a small shop selling fish cakes and sweet biscuits. Bought coffee, tea and coke zero at the former and biscuits for souvenirs at the latter.

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Back in the car, we drove north to see Engetsu island 円月島. A natural arch located along the coast, apparently sometimes the sunset hits it just perfectly at the arch. At the coastal point closest to the island were a couple of parking spots, but they charged money so we parked at a nearby small shop. The mean granny defending the shop wasn’t all that pleased at our presence, even though we ended up buying things from her. This was the only unfriendly Japanese person we met on the whole trip. Strange woman.

We tried to drive further up the coast but there was nothing more to see. So we headed back towards town in the direction of the market. But not before finding a wine shop and having more tasting. This time, we couldn’t get away from the Japanese insistence on no drinking for the driver so only mm was able to taste the sake and umeshu offered. She sneaked me a few sips when the shopkeeper wasn’t looking though. Ended up buying honey umeshu, so much choice.

shirahama — toretore market 南紀白浜 とれとれ市場

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shira110tuna shira101sushi
shira135juice shira141salt

Toretore market was exactly the huge food market we expected. It was full of people and full of great stuff. Seafood stalls selling fresh fish, prawns, lobsters, crabs, oysters and even whale, some of the food were for cooking at home but a lot of it was packaged and ready to be eaten as sashimi or sushi straightaway. Fruit and veg. Pickles. Juice. Sweets. Wine. Cooked food. Cans and jars. It was foodie heaven. We even managed to catch the fishmonger cutting up a whole tuna, down to gouging out the eyes and the delicious cheeks.

shira151lunch shira156uniroe

We bought a large selection of sashimi for lunch — fresh whale, which I’d tried in Bergen but mm has never tried. Large scallops, white fish and fatty salmon. Chirashi of salmon roe and uni, two of our favourites. Got a cup of umeshu each from the giant glass tank displayed at the shop.

Would have been great to find space to picnic, but the available tables and chairs were part of existing eating establishments. So we made the quick and easy decision to head back to the comfort of our hotel room, only 10mins away. What a life, eh.


in going places , on the relationship front |

wakayama 和歌山

waka006market waka037grapes

I managed to nap for a few minutes while mm drove us from Yamazaki distillery to our next destination, Marina City at Wakayama 和歌山. A longer drive than from Kansai, about 2.5hrs.

We were aiming for the Kuroshio market that supposedly had a tuna cutting demo everyday. We knew we’d miss it, but was hoping to see stalls with seafood, sweets and local produce. True enough, there were stalls at two buildings — the fruit and veg nearest the car park was full of delicious looking fruits, juices and jars of honey. The main market building was a bit deserted, some of the fish stalls were closed for the day already.

waka016chirashiumeshu waka023umeshu

It was almost 2pm so the first order of business was to find lunch. Disappointed that the only restaurant that seemed to be still open wasn’t serving anymore but very grateful that the fast food section was still open. One stall selling grilled food — raw seafood and vegetables, that customers grilled themselves. The other was the typical Japanese fast food of seafood rice bowl. No brainer in terms of choice. Sushi wins every time. We had salmon, salmon roe and uni chirashi, and although not the best we’ve ever had, it hit the spot.

For drinks we each ordered a umeshu, famous local plum wine. I had a mature umeshu and mm had a yuzu umeshu. The mature umeshu was sweet, just how I liked it. Again, perfect for the time and place.

The good thing about an almost empty market was that we were free to wander around. Bought some sweets and visited a umeshu shop. They charged a nominal amount for a small sample and we tried umeshu flavoured with honey and another flavoured with tea. Bought a few bottles too, the start of our bottle-collecting holiday.

shirahama-kan onsen hotel 白浜 館

shira030hotel shirakan007roomspa
shirakan004room shirakan010tatami

I took over the driving to Shirahama 白浜. We’d been awake since 5am after 2 hrs sleep so it was a long, tired 2.5hrs on a highway that was peppered with tunnels and tolls. The GPS brought us to the back of the hotel and it took us a few minutes to find the entrance. An old fashioned, rather basic hotel, it was well tended and we liked our room. Japanese style room with tatami floor, the living area converted to futon beds at night. A small balcony looked out to the main road and there was even our own private foot spa on the balcony.

shirakan032dinner shirakan034sushi
shirakan040beef shirakan043beef
shirakan044tempura shirakan046rice

Dinner was included, and it was a fantastic spread that greeted us when we were shown to our table. Not quite kaiseki style, but close. Lots of small dishes already set out — starters, sashimi, pickles, vegetables. We ordered more umeshu with the meal, mm had one with soda and I had one on the rocks. The dishes were delicious and intricate, small bites and portions of food that is now familiar to us.

Hot dishes included tempura and the meat / seafood course we cooked ourselves. They provided tiny grills powered by burning fuel blocks and we had a few small slices of beef, prawn, seafood and vegetables. Nice to cook food ourselves and to be able to control timing and flavours. The rice was flavoured with mushrooms and vegetables; it too cooked in its pot at the table.

shirakan016onsen shirakan024onsen

By then we were tired so we couldn’t wait to go to the hot springs. Japanese styled, so segregated by gender and no clothing or towels allowed. Not our first time at onsens so we weren’t bothered. After showering, we visited each spa in turn. There were 4 different ones: an indoor one next to the shower area, a semi-outdoor “longevity” one, an outdoor one underneath trees and a tall tub accessed via a wooden staircase. Our favourite was the outdoor one underneath the trees — enough seclusion from the elements but with fresh air and breeze that made the hot water even more relaxing.

Needed to do some research on where to go and to get phone numbers for the GPS. No internet in our room (our biggest complaint) and even worse, the advertised internet in the lobby didn’t work. I couldn’t connect on either the iphone or the mba although somehow mm got through on her iphone 3GS. Says something about older models. I was too tired to function and was very grateful when she took advantage of the small window to gather much needed information. Was out as soon as the lights were off and my head hit the pillow.

in going places |

flight, car

kan003bfast kan008car

It’s very rare that I start a trip report at midnight, and on Friday the 13th to boot. Technically our holiday started at around 11pm yesterday, when we got on the taxi to go to the airport. It was quick, only about half an hour from my place. We were checked in and passed through security fairly quickly too, and headed straight to the duty free to look at whiskies. Got kicked out after midnight because they were closing, so we found seats near the gate. Boarding was uneventful.

It being a red-eye flight (dep 1.45am) we tried to get as much rest as possible. They gave us a snack box that had a sandwich roll, muffin and lemon tea but we just tucked it away. Fell asleep watching Grand Designs; altogether probably slept for 2 hrs.

Arrived 6am. Direct path through immigration and baggage meant we didn’t see any duty free. Breakfast was the sandwich and muffin from the flight, supplemented by drinks from the vending machines. Ah, how could we forget about the vending machines in Japan. They will be lifesavers.

We had a car booked for the next 4 days, a Toyota Sienta. Solid, boxy thing with high ceiling, sliding rear doors and lots of space. More practical than cute. Took us an hour to get out of the airport — first had to get them to switch to an English GPS, then couldn’t get the audio working, then it was fixing the bluetooth. A patient young man from the rental place helped with all that.

yamazaki distillery 山崎蒸溜所

yama004distillery yama008statue
yama025safe yama033warehouse

I took first driving shift from Kansai airport to Yamazaki distillery. Our original plan was to visit the distillery on Sunday, when we come up from Shirahama to Kyoto, but when mm called they said the tours were full at the weekend. We changed our plan and routing, deciding to detour north and hit the distillery before heading south. Google maps told us the drive would be 1.5hrs, the GPS was more conservative at 2hrs. All in all, with traffic jam and finding our way, it did take us 2hrs.

We were just about able to make the 10am tour. They asked us how we arrived and at first we were too honest and said car. The lady at reception then attempted to give one of us a badge that said driver. Ack, no tasting, no way. So we declined and changed our method of transport. The tour was in Japanese, but we were given an English audio guide, which wasn’t as animated as the guide but equally informative. The tour passed by the entrance with statues of the founding fathers of the distillery before heading to where the mash tun, fermenter, stills and warehouse were located. Honestly, aside from the language, the distillery reminded me of a smaller Bowmore.

yama058taste yama057taste

The tour ended at the free tasting bar where they served up Yamazaki no age, Yamazaki 12 and Hakushu no age. Entry level stuff, diluted with water and soda. Also some snacks and chocolate. We only sipped a little of each, saving our quota. They had orange juice and green tea for non-drinkers and actually I really liked the green tea.

Even though the tour was finished there was still a lot to explore. The shop sold entry level Yamazaki, Hakushu and Hibiki as well as blends we saw for the first time. From small sample bottles to mid-sized bottles to regular sized bottles. There were also other souvenirs and we both bought a tasting glass with the distillery name.

yama081bar yama098taste

Beyond the shop was a small exbition area which we skipped. A balcony and staircase led down to the very impressive library. Shelf upon shelf of whisky samples, not only Suntory but from all over the world. Ah, despite the quaint Japaneseness of the distillery, never forget that Suntory owns Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch. Not to mention Orangina, Ribena and Lucozade.

Within the library was another bar, this a paid one. Out of so many choices we decided on 4 samples:

  • Royal — at ¥100, we wanted to try one of those entry level blends, the bottle is supposed to be based on the arch in the distillery grounds and that was the only good thing about it. Pretty sharp taste on the tongue, we each had one sip and put the glass away
  • Single grain whisky — also ¥100, worth trying a grain liquor, the first for us
  • Yamazaki 1984 25yr special edition — ¥2,300 typical Yamazaki, a little kick after the distinctive taste, my favourite
  • Hibiki 30 — ¥2,300 per glass of this prize winning best blend, normally £900 a bottle so it was well worth the try. Honestly, it did not taste like a 30 year, it was pleasant but couldn’t compare against the Yamazaki. I find this consistently with Hibiki, I want to like all the ones I try, I do like them but I always go back to Yamazaki

In case anyone is thinking we drank whisky and then one of us drove off in our car, we never finished any of the whiskies we purchased at the bar. I’d brought small containers so after sipping (that didn’t even add up to one whole glass), we poured the remainder into the containers to bring to our hotel. We didn’t want to be limited by their “no drinking for the driver” rule, but it didn’t mean that we would deliberately drink and drive.


in going places |

adil081000

It’s now 9.45pm on Thursday. The taxi is coming at 11pm to take us to the airport. Flight is at 1.45am Friday morning, arriving 6.25am. We will pick up our car, drive 1.5hrs to Yamazaki distillery. Then another 3.5hrs to Shirahama via Wakayama. It will be a long day, we need to keep awake, which should hopefully be okay with the excitement of travelling. We will be tired by the time we reach our hot springs hotel. Will need cups of tea and snacks. But sooooo looking forward to everything. Yay!

in going places |

Kyoto
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.

in going places |

nam018pond

flickr set

We drove out to a place near the wetlands park called Nam Sang Wai 南生圍. Just over an hour’s drive from my parents’ place, where mm picked me up. Could have saved 20-25mins by going through a tunnel, but the toll was too expensive and we weren’t in a hurry.

Turned into the side road once there and soon we came across a farm. They sell vegetables they grow themselves, not sure if it’s for commercial or tourists. They serve lunch and dinner at the outdoor space too. The nicest part of the farm was the lotus pond, with a rickety bridge made from planks, plastic crates and empty jerry cans. Apparently the flowers were out in the morning but like sunflowers they disappear in the afternoon. It was a nice enough day, not excessively hot and overcast, it made being outdoors more tolerable.

Drove down the single lane road to the end, where there were a few free spots for parking. Nice peaceful area full of hikers, runners and cyclists. There was a tree-lined path along a river that is apparently the favourite of magazine and wedding picture photographers. It’s been raining so the path was really muddy and we only managed about 100m before having to turn back. Walked a little along the asphalt road and stopped for a wee dram that mm brought along with her. Heehee.

Stayed in the district, found a church 15mins away for Saturday mass. Not hungry so we found the busy dessert place and had a little snack before heading back into the city.

in going places |

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.

shiraraso

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.

arishiyamahanare

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.

in going places |



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.

in going places |

hok523tomita

After much deliberations, we think we’ll go to Japan this year for our big holiday. Looking back, the last time we visited was 2008, just before I went to Chicago. Wow, time flies. We are partial to the Osaka/Kyoto area this time, with possible day trips to Nara, Kobe, Arima spa and the Yamazaki distillery.

in going places |

sunsetplane03

Arrived NRT at 2pm. Long line at additional security, looked like several flights came in at the same time. I didn’t have my boarding pass yet, and the CX counter said it’d only open 1hr before boarding. I didn’t want to wait so I went over to the gate of an earlier flight and got it from the agents there.

Didn’t shower. Bought a Yamazaki 12yr at only ¥4,500. Watched the plane arrive, boarding was a little late because of late arrival but we ended up arriving early anyway. Caught a nice sunset on the way, the pink clouds were just like candyfloss. My trolley bag came out relatively quickly but there was a longer wait for the duffel. Home at around 10.15pm. Total travel time 26hrs door to door.


in going places |

dal144dfwbfastbbq dal145dfwbeerita

Even though my flight wasn’t till 11am, the airport shuttle pickup was 7.15am. Got to the airport around 8am, had to queue for counter check in after not being able to use the self check in terminals. There was a woman who wanted to take her 2 dogs and there was a problem with either their cages or taking them in general, she was screaming and in tears. Probably didn’t do research or notified the airline beforehand. Typical entitled dog owner.

Plenty of time after security. Had a brisket barbeque sandwich, it satisfied my hunger but was pretty dry. Tried a cocktail called beerita — regular margarita with a bottle of corona stuck in the glass. The beer came out as we sipped the margarita. Pretty nice.

I only had my backpack so was able to board early with the “small bags” group. I’d changed to an aisle seat so I could walk around. Watched some films, had meatballs & rice, sandwich, pizza and my neighbour offered me a big piece of chocolate. Lots of diet coke.

in going places |

dal042skyline dal011wildstore

Breakfast was at Whataburger, another fast food place. I had one of their popular burgers, and it was…a burger. Service was pretty poor too. Took the shuttle to the DART light rail station, the nearest one was Lovers Lane. $5 for a day pass. The trains were new and, well, I was impressed there was public transport at all.

I wanted to go to the hard rock café so we got off at west end station. This is the historical district with restaurants and stores selling western stuff. Didn’t buy anything at hrc because they had a repeat design. Continued walking in the sun and heat around the city, pass the museum of nature of science and to the central district. Stopped at a CVS and then at a square to rest.

dal072cityhall dal093cattle

Continuted south towards city hall and the pioneer park cemetery. There were old plots there at the cemetery. One thing that struck me was how deserted the city seemed, on a weekday. Although most working people would be indoors, there were a lot of empty shopfronts and office buildings. We saw a sign for a supermarket and got excited, by the time we reached the entrance we saw that it had closed down. We also got excited about a steakhouse, which was also closed down when we got there. Perhaps the local economy isn’t doing too well. What a shame.

Next to the cemetery was the huge convention center. We went inside to look for the loo, and to enjoy some aircon for a bit. Was absolutely surrounded by teenage girls, there was a schools volleyball championship going on. Actually even at the hotel there were parties of volleyball kids so we weren’t surprised to see them. We made our way out of the convention center and walked back north. Stopped by an outdoor sculpture of a herd of bronze cattle, cowboys and horses that showed a typical cattle drive scene. Very lifelike and as they say, everything is bigger in Texas.

dal112jfkmemorial dal124logcabin

Back near the west end district was the JFK memorial. An imposing square of concrete walls that surrounded a simple granite block. Our final stop was at the Bryan log cabin, a historical landmark associated with John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas.

It was mid-afternoon, and we had set our hearts on steak. Went to one place that was closed and ended up at Palm’s. Shared a strip steak, fries, spinach, potato gratin and I had a beer. Back at the hotel by late afternoon, had a drink with a couple of friends still at the hotel, rested in the room for the rest of the day.

flickr set here, including the barbeque sandwich and beerita cocktail I had at DFW when I flew out.

in going places |

gcls13313confbrunch gcls13322sake

Sunday wrap up at the con. Always sad to say goodbye. The day started late, but with quick announcements and goodbye the brunch was served. Lots of food, we were very hungry by then.

Staying behind so saw lots of people leave. Sniff. Hugs all round.

Took the shuttle to Target to start personal shopping. Vitamins, shower curtain liner, chocolate. Back to hotel and shuttle again to the mall. Met up with another group to see The Heat. Very funny, but I fell asleep a little because I really was tired. Dinner at Kona where I had a sushi roll and a sake flight.

in going places , random words |

gcls13172auction

Starbucks breakfast of sausage sandwich again. On the program today: keynote speech, membership meeting and more sessions. It was an emotional meeting, our ED announced she was stepping down after having done a brilliant job in turning around the organisation. The silent auction ended at lunch, with lots of donations like books, photos, paintings and souvenirs. I brought a selection of “unfortunately named Japanese chocolate” like collon and melty kisses.

By the afternoon I was getting irritatble and tired. Running around the sessions and being alert constantly whilst jetlagged was quite taxing. Plus a couple of people had been a little rude. They probably didn’t realise we weren’t professionals and not exactly being paid for this. We gave up our time, and our opportunity to attend sessions to help out. I only managed during the whole con to attend one full session, the others I only caught a snippet. So I took a rest in the main room.

Ha! Rad comes in and I had to get to work again. Sigh.

Dinner with A at iHOP. I had chicken and waffles and a salad. And the root beer float I wanted from In-N-Out. All in all, too much fast food.

Highlight of the con was the awards ceremony. I was allowed to go inside the closed stage area early to set up the tripod and camera. Turned out to be a good spot, I caught a few winners as they came off the stage and got them grinning happily. So happy for them.

After a few pictures at the dance, I declared myself off duty. Not much of a dancer, besides no one asked, heehee. Left at 11pm, well before the best bits.

in going places , random words |

gcls13210whisky

Breakfast was from Starbucks opposite the hotel. Needed the energy for the running around today. Special speaker, author auction, author autographs as well as all the sessions. The author auction brought in over $8,000 for the scholarship fund, with 3 authors going for $1,000 (the top bid was $1,050). Needed the early afternoon rest and early dinner of steak at Humperdinks.

Karoke night theme was western so there were many hats, boots and costumes. Singing and dancing. And photography. And whisky. Adrian brought a bottle of Glenfiddich and I brought small bottles of Yamazaki and Hibiki. We were happily drinking away when the hotel intervened and told us off. Guess they only wanted us to buy from their bar. We put the whiskies away in a bag.

I was pretty wiped out with all the running around. Stayed for the traditional “I Feel Pretty” tribute and left before the end. Was going to shower and sleep but ran into a problem reading my CF card. Panic stations. After an hour, of poking into the card reader with my swiss knife and restarting the mba, it was fixed. Phew. We’re up to 4,500 pics between us so far.

in going places , random words |

gcls13007program

The proper start of the conference. Welcome from the Executive Director, welcome to the newbies, then lots of sessions. Very organised — track 1 was master classes, usually with 2 parts; track 2 was panel discussions and track 3 chats and readings. A and I decided that we’d both try to go to all sessions to get maximum chance of getting good pictures. The one challenge was that tracks 1 and 3 were at lobby level but track 2 was up at the top floor. Lots of riding up and down on the lift.

Honestly, I couldn’t remember which sessions were which. Some I stayed longer, some I just stayed long enough to take enough pictures. Lunch was included, sandwich buffet, chips and dessert. Soft drinks were plentiful and constantly in supply.

There were more sessions in the afternoon. I skipped one because I met up with Adrian for our whisky exchange. I got a VAT 69 at DXB and she got me a Blanton’s. We ended up opening the VAT 69, teehee. I love my Blanton’s.

gcls13305allrobbq

Dinner was at Sue Ellen’s, a small party hosted by Allison and Ro. Had barbeque with lots of sides. Really nice, I went for seconds. I was pretty tired when we got back to the hotel, in bed by 9.30pm.

in going places |

gcls13016toast

9.30am in the hotel lobby to join a small convoy to pick up boxes from one of the Dallas committee members’ home. The ground committee had been outstanding this year, the first time there was a ground committee. They did so much on the ground stuff, organised airport transportation, sourced great hotels, researched information, and even donated space in their home for boxes to come in the post. It didn’t take long for the boxes to be loaded, transported to the hotel and unloaded.

The hotel has a shuttle that brings you to anywhere within a 3 mile radius, so A and I went to the mall to look for a hat. Not much choice, so we decided to give up. Lunch was salad and frozen yogurt from the food court.

Back at the hotel and the conference preparation started. I had volunteered to help with setup and packages but was invited to a board sub-committee meeting. Well, it’s still helping with the con and group as a whole.

Nice chicken sandwich with pesto from the hotel bar which we ate in the room. The conference started properly with the meet’n’greet. So many friends and new faces!! A and I were asked to step in as the official photographers this year, so we roamed the room and did our thing. There was news that DOMA had been repealed, with perfect timing, and we all made a toast in celebration. The meet’n’greet had ice cream and an open bar, I ended up having neither, just some water. Hopefully not a sign of things to come in the next few days.

in going places |

fw030tcufrog gcls13291inout

Early start 6am, driving to Fort Worth to have breakfast at Ol’ South for pancakes. This is where we went last time. Afterwards it was visiting TCU, which had really expanded and changed. Then to Staples where Car got official stuff done.

For lunch I dragged Ann to In-N-Out because of all I’ve read about their burgers and the not so secret menu. I had a double double, mustard grilled with well done fries and peppers on the side. The burger was…a burger. The fries were nice and crispy even though I only ate a quarter. The peppers were hot!! Didn’t have the appetite for a root beer float, next time.

Rested in room until around 4.30pm where we were picked up by the Dallas committee members for dinner at El Fenix with a group of people. I was full and tired, so I opted for a margarita and a salad. Then it was back to the hotel for a book club reading. Originally the reading was at their usual location but they moved it to our hotel for a bigger room and so more people could come. Lee Lynch read and chatted, it was so great to see her in such great spirit.

in going places |

nrtwhiskytaste gcls13272humpbbq

I set off at 7.30am from home, knowing that it was coming up to rush hour and there won’t be too many taxis. I was right, it still took me a good 5-10mins to get one. I thought the check in process would be straightforward, but for once in my travelling life, it was a nightmare check in. My flight goes via NRT to DFW, and the first leg was a codeshare with CX. Turned out, the CX flight had not run for months, so AA tried to rebook me onto a JL flight that took over that particular timeslot. For some reason they never completed the booking and I wasn’t on the JL passenger list. Very alarming.

So I sat and stewed around for almost 2 hours. Basically neither JL nor AA were any help. No effort made, nothing. CX did their utmost, above and beyond, 3 people got involved in calling. Finally I had to drag my luggage to the train and rush to the airport, where another CX staff waited for me at the platform to rush me to the JL counter 5mins before check in closed. Thank you CX.

Other than that, the JL flight was uneventful. Arrived at NRT tired and hot. So I splashed out ¥1,000 (around $11) for a shower. Best ten bucks or so I’ve spent. There was time to walk around the duty free and even try free whisky samples.

Next leg to DFW was 12hrs and I wanted to be as clean as I could. The AA flight was okay. I’d paid extra for an aisle seat at the front section, the configuration was 2-5-2 and I was in seat B, with a nice enough neighbour. Had salmon pasta, bad red wine, turkey sandwich and bad pizza. Watched some films and TV, slept about 3hrs.

We were almost 1hr early, arriving at 3.10pm CST. Just as well, because the queue at immigration took 2hrs. Very slow moving, only 6 or so counters open, and people allowed to cut in because they have connecting flights. By the time I got to the conveyor belt, the luggage had been moved to the floor. Car and Heather came to pick me up, and as usual I was too tired to spot them. So grateful to them for coming all the way, and it was so very nice to see them.

Very fast check in at the hotel. I dumped my stuff, went downstairs and already started seeing friends. We’d arranged to have dinner with Erica and her husband and we headed over to Humperdinks, near the hotel. I had a barbeque plate and a medium beer called Buttface. Of course I picked it for the name.

More socialising at the hotel lobby, I sneaked back upstairs for a shower and a change of clothes. Around midnight people started dispersing, I went back upstairs and Ann came in around midnight. Caught up a bit, but was started to fade. I’ll fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.

in going places |

prov181gordes paris057clermkt

I’m still unhappy that I lost my camera in Paris because I lost all my Provence and most of my Paris pictures. Luckily we have mm’s pics, so it’s a blessing. I’ve had a mental block against dealing with them so they’ve sat in a folder on my desktop for 10 months. Can’t delay any more, so I hunkered down, sorted the pics and wrote up the trip.

Posts start at Provence and continue to Paris.

Pics: provence, paris

in going places |



So finally all the pics are uploaded and the entire trip written up. No thanks to flickr not working half the time. The posts are backdated, which means unfortunately the posts won’t show up on the RSS feed. Links to posts:

Sets:


The video is of the mini avalanche I caught from our balcony when we were about to sail out of Geiranger. I heard this roar, and a bunch of snow and ice started falling down the cliff. When it was over, it was as if nothing had happened.

in going places |

Back home in the afternoon. First thing was to shower — I hate going over 24hrs without a shower and we were out all day in Dubai, then off to the airport straightaway. Luckily the flight was only 6 and a bit hours which made it bearable. I have 1,650 pics and 10 videos to go through so it’ll be a project to sort and write up the trip. But there are highlights that have stuck in my mind.

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  • quiet morning at Rosenborg Castle and grounds — we had time before boarding and the beautiful King’s Garden was the perfect place to rest after a couple of days of walking in Copenhagen

  • finding a huge flea market at Kiel that turned a potentially boring Sunday when nothing was open to a more interesting day


  • cruise0002geiranger cruise0003flambahn
  • breath-taking fjords: the rainy, foggy morning at Geiranger that turned into a beautiful blue sky evening cruise down the fjord; descending Stalheim’s hairpin bends in a coach; the too-numerous-to-count waterfalls and topped off with a ride on the steep Flamsbahn

  • catching a mini avalanche at Geirangerfjord and even better, it was right across our balcony

  • sampling caviar from a tube, whale meat and black cheese at the fish market at Bergen harbour, walking along the UNESCO listed Bryggen area


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  • sailing down another beautiful fjord to Oslo — this was when I had this thought that life is unfair, why can’t I have been born in Norway and able to live in this wonderful country. (Oh wait, I’m an EU/EEA citizen, I can.) Anyway, who wouldn’t want to have their own house on their own island like this one


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  • crossing the Dubai Creek in a watertaxi called abra, only AED1 for a 10min ride from one side of the creek to the other, a bit like the traghettos in Venice

  • souks were interesting, I finally get to see the “mountains” of spices that I didn’t get to see in Tunisia



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Food on the trip was a game of two halves. The food on the cruise was exactly like the last one. So now we know, all MSC cruises have the same menu: same broken fatty bacon, same baked apple for breakfast, same pizza in the cafeteria, same overdone beef in the restaurant, same soggy vegetables, same no sugar added ice cream, same wines, same baked alaska for gala night. The few highlights were grilled prawns and chocolate tart in the restaurant, pan-fried calamari and rocket in the cafeteria and pots of honey so I could make endless honey & lemon for my flu.

Food at the stops was better. Hot dogs in Copenhagen brought back memories from last time I visited, over 10 years ago with mm. We were poor students and hot dogs from street carts were one of the few things we could afford, we didn’t complain because they tasted great. This time, the cart at the side of the station near our hotel was our favourite, so much so that we visited it twice.

Other food? Bratwurst, strudel and beer at Kiel, delicious salmon at Voss as part of our excursion, grilled king crab claw at Bergen fish market, prawns direct from the fisherman on his boat at Oslo harbour, lamb shawarma with three types of rice in a Dubai food court, Cheesecake Factory next to an indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert. We all must have gained weight, although hopefully not too much because we also did massive amounts of walking.

in going places |

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Slept till 9.30am again. Checked into our flight, deposited bags with concierge. Off to foodcourt for breakfast. This time I had falafel in pita with salad, halloumi and tahini sauce.

Got a taxi to Palm Atlantis (AED34), but turned out there was very little to see for non-residents. The water park looked fun, we were able to peek at the monorail station. By pretending to want to shop, we got into an area where we would look at the aquarium. The monorail is a bit of a joke, AED15 for 4 stops, 2 of which were closed. May be it’s too new.

Jumped into a taxi again headed to the Burj al Arab, the iconic luxurious hotel. To get inside anywhere near the building we had to pay at the welcome centre, so we opted to just quickly take pics while the taxi was waiting. Back to the Mall of the Emirates, cheesecake factory, carrefour and hanging around the food court till it was time to go to the airport.


in going places |

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We were so tired, slept till 10am. Mum had to wake me up, heehee. Walked next door to the Mall of the Emirates for breakfast, only 5-10mins and I was soaked. So hot after the nice northern European weather. Quite a few choices at the food court, I opted for a mighty kafka, like a pizza with mixed meat kebab and cheese. With a drink it came to AED32 ($9), happy with it.

Bought a daily metro pass (AED16, which turned out to be a bargain) and took the train to Dubai Mall. And now I realise even though on the map everything is close, it’s really more like Las Vegas and actually the distance between places and buildings is large. The walk from the station to the mall was 20mins, and already they had travelators.

The mall was huge, easy to get lost. It’s as if whoever built it was a world traveller and brought back all their favourite stores — Bloomingdale’s, Galeries Lafayette, M&S, Boots, Pottery Barn. Inside the mall is the aquarium, people stood mesmerised at the huge glass staring at the sharks, stingrays and thousands of fish. Opposite the aquarium is the 10,000 sqft Candylicious store, truly a kid’s heaven. Lunch was at Cheesecake Factory. Really. Shared a red velvet and a chocolate hershey’s. I had iced tea and it was nice to go back to the free refills mindset.

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Train to Al Ras station in Deira, the old town. Got a bit lost before finding our way to the spice souk. Too many storeholders harassing for business for us to be comfortable making any purchases. As well as the spice souk, there was also a souk selling kitchen and everyday utensils that was equally interesting.

Deira is separeated from the other parts of the city by the Creek, and there were watertaxis called abras crossing the creek. Only AED1 for a 10-15min journey that was lots of fun and huge value for money. There was another souk, this one sold clothing, material and “alibaba” shoes. Didn’t buy anything either.

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Took train back to Dubai mall. Dinner was at the foodcourt. Parents got an Indian curry set (tandoori, lamb, biryani) and I got an Iranian lamb set with 3 types of rice. AED32 again. Caught the 9.30pm Dubai Fountain show at Burj Khalifa, next to the mall. Nothing like the Bellagio show, only 5mins but still it was nice to relax. Train back to Emirates mall, walked quickly around Carrefour and bought some halloumi.

Total walking: 3-4hrs.

in going places |

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Had to be out of our cabin by 8.30am so we camped out at the cafeteria. More baked apple and doughnuts. Went to sit at the theatre to wait for our turn to disembark. Now we know the drill, but it was a long and impatient hour long wait till our group was called. Massive scrum to exit, get luggage and onto the double-decker bus to transfer to the airport. The bus was huge, and had a trolley in tow for bags. Quite sad to be driving through the familiar streets to the airport. It was another scrum to collect our bags and another massive queue to check-in. A youth orchestra in front of us had lots of musical instruments and lots of luggage problems. I could have paid for 10mins of internet (EUR3.50) on the ship to check-in online, but didn’t anticipate this long a queue.

Walked through duty free and bought salami and coke with my remaining coins. Ate croissant at the gate from the ship, but there were no water fountains so had to wait till we were on the plane. Seated in row 18, just behind business class so it was okay. Lunch was roast beef salad, lamb medallions, new potatoes and banoffe pie. Also had a much needed beer. Watched Silver Linings Playbook and Grand Designs. Arrived at DXB at 11.15pm, long transfer via train, long queue at immigration, by the time we got to the luggage belt our bags were one of the last remaining.

At least the taxi queue was manageable. The drive to our hotel was 20mins, at 120kph! Fare was AED80 ($20), pretty good. Hotel is the Ibis at Mall of the Emirates. Check-in at 12.40am, and we were too tired to argue that our rooms were on different floors. Quickly showered and went to bed. Hot already.

in going places |

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Sailing into Oslo was a different experience than sailing through the fjords. Just as beautiful, but not as wild. There are houses in locations that are simply amazing, perched on the coast or on its own island. Walked around the deck 5 times after breakfast then settled to watch us sail in. Early lunch at cafeteria of lasagna, spinach, beet and rocket. Half a key lime pie and part of a chocolate mousse. Had gelato on deck with Mum, there’s a german beer festival too, with free sausages.

The cruise terminal is only a short walk into the city. Got a map and headed towards the parliament building and royal palace. Stopped by hard rock café and bought really expensive polo shirts (NOR499 $86 each, gulp). Small, neat, walkable city. We were back at harbourside in no time and continued visiting the Nobel Peace Center and the Brygge wharf area. Lots of restaurants and a marina, very cosmopolitan. The end of Brygge is the Astrup Fearnley museum, great architecture, didn’t go inside.

Spotted a fisherman selling seafood off his boat. Bought 250g prawns for NOR50, using the last of my coins. Shared the prawns back on the ship, sitting comfortably on deck. The hop-on-hop-off bus was parked right next to the ship, and it gave me free wifi for an hour, yay!

Yesterday’s dinner was one of the nicest, tonight’s dinner was disappointing with nothing to eat: beef wrapped asparagus, calamari risotto (only ate the calamari), potato crusted salmon, ricotta pie. Had a carafe of white wine and limoncello in the souvenir glass. Had to pack for disembarkation, bags out in corridor by 1am. Mindset adjustment needed, almost the end of the cruise.


in going places |

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Early morning arrival at Bergen, 7am. Running out of things to eat at breakfast, settled for coco pops and hash browns. Rainy and cloudy day, plus the view from the deck was different from the last 2 days — Geiranger and Flam were the countryside destinations, and now we’re back to cities. Quite industrial and not much to see.

Here’s something the cruise companies don’t tell their passengers. When we got off the ship, there was a free shuttle bus right there. I’m sure it’s laid on by the city and not the cruise line, who would much prefer that we took their excursions. The bus to the city centre took only 10mins, and we were deposited by the lake. Just a short walk to the central square and the harbour. We stopped by a 7-eleven to get strepsils (they are called repsils here) and some chocolate for souvenir. I also replenished my coke zero supply.

The ultimate destination was the fish market. And what a market! There were lots of stalls both inside the market building and outside by the harbour. All manners of fresh seafood: fish, prawn, king crab, mussels, oysters, even whale meat. Free samples too, I tried fish soup, brown cheese, smoked salmon and whale meat which tasted like venison.

Walked onwards to the Bryggen district, which is UNESCO listed, with very pretty wooden houses. Didn’t linger too much, went back to the fish market. Ordered one large king crab (NOK140, $24) to share, the nice Italian lady at the stall grilled it for us and served it with some salad. Also bought 4 tubes of salmon caviar (NOK160) from them. The king crab was so fresh, so yummy. Sigh. If only it weren’t so expensive.

Back to the indoor market to buy brunost, or brown cheese, an intensely caramel-flavoured soft cheese that is quintessentially Norwegian. It’s one of those love it or hate it foodstuff, and we all loved it. Brown goat’s cheese was NOR89, they also had a black one flavoured with aquavit for NOR95.

By then it was raining steadily so time to head back to the shuttlebus stop. Only a morning at Bergen and it was really nice. We were back on the ship by 11.30am. Lunch at the restaurant: salad, pea & ham soup, spaghetti aglio e olio (excellent), trout with celeriac puree (good) and chocolate tart (also excellent). Went running for 30mins and did a few weights sets. Another gala evening. Dinner: gorgonzola mousse, tagliatelle with veal ragu, grilled king prawns (been waiting for this), cheese plate, baked alaska. Back to cafeteria for rocket and beet, having decided to skip the restaurant salad.

Total walking: 1.5-2hrs.

in going places |

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Our stop today was Flam, yet another beautiful fjord village. Went on deck after breakfast to watch the ship sail into the village and dock. Tiny village, so the ship dominated the village and I was in awe at how the people worked together to get us docked. Small boats came to get the thick ropes which they took back to the pier and wrapped around the stakes.

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This was the only place on our cruise that we joined an excursion. Full day, assembly at 10.15am. We got on a coach that took us to Gudvangen and the Naeroy valley. A brief 20min stop at a tunnel while construction was going on enabled us to stretch our legs a little. To Stalheim and down a 18% steep, narrow road with 13 hairpin bends that took us past the Sivlefossen waterfall. The coach stopped a few times for pictures but we couldn’t get off. There was even a rainbow at the bottom of the falls, so wonderful.

The next stop as the Tvindefossen falls, aka twins. A quick 15min break, so we had to move fast. One person on our coach was late and was almost left behind. Typical. Lunch was at the hotel Fleischer at Voss. The entire MSC excursion group, 6-7 coachload of people, for a buffet lunch that was really, really good. Salmon, salad, prawns, vegetables, jelly, caramel, fruit and even free beer.

There was some time after lunch for a little exploration around the hotel and station but soon we were all off again. Train to Myrdal then to what they advertise as the highlight, the flamsbana railway. 20.2km, 10 stations, 20 tunnels, one bridge and a 863m (2,831ft) drop, and the third most visited tourist attraction in Norway. The only stop where we could get off was at another waterfall, Kjosfossen. Then we rumbled all the way back to Flam. There was just about enough time to walk through the village and the shops before boarding at 5.30pm.

Italian night at the restaurant: antipasti, salad, seafood grill (swordfish, cuttlefish, prawn) and tiramisu. Went back to the cafeteria for rocket and their cuttlefish — better than at the restaurant! Walked 30mins with Mum on deck 7 and did some laundry.

in going places |

geir101harbour geir051storfossen

Greeted at breakfast by the sight of us sailing through the fjords towards our port today Geiranger. Rainy, or perhaps low clouds, but it didn’t deter everyone from going out on deck to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. We anchored in the harbour but not next to the dock so transfer to land was via tender. We queued up at the travel desk to get a number that corresponded to our tender, which could take 150 people onshore at a time. We were early so managed to get #3. Didn’t join any of the excursions.

Geiranger is a small village right next to some mountains. Reminded me of Kirkwall when the 2 cruise ships arrived, the village was suddenly overran by a swarm of tourists. There were local tours available, like ferry tour, bus tour or electric bike. I was interested in the kayak tour, but…it’s difficult with the rest of the group.

The walk up to the Fjord Centre was a nice 45min stroll past the church and the storfossen waterfall. Really stunning views. The sky cleared somewhat by the time we came back down to shore level. Lunch options weren’t great — burgers, waffles — so we finished exploring, did some shopping and returned to the ship.

Lunch at the cafeteria was rocket, beets and cheese salad, very bad spatzle, tiny bit of pasta. almond tart and profiteroles where the caramel topping completely stuck to my teeth.

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Went running in the gym again, showered and went back up to deck to watch us the rest of the passengers come back and the ship start sailing. Almost 30mins late, compared with the advertised time of 4.30pm. The sun came out and it was so, so, so amazingly peaceful and beautiful to sail through the gorgeous fjords.

Dinner was proscuitto & melon, salad, basil risotto, quiche (not very good), italian trifle and rice pudding.

Total walking 2-3hrs.

in going places |

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Happy that today we were at sea. Time to get some rest and try to deal with the sore throat. Fewer people at breakfast, I ended up having tomato, hash brown, baked apple, semolina and tea. I gave up on their tea bags, broke out my own supply of PG. Read till lunchtime. Lunch at the restaurant: salad, pasta with chicken ragu (too salty), bratwurst with sauerkraut and a terrible fruit tart that was falling into pieces.

Went to the gym and ran on the treadmill for 25mins, then tried out a few of their machines. No yacht club on this boat so the gym was at the bow with a straight view of what’s ahead of us.

Gala dinner tonight. Free cocktails at the bar. From experience we won’t get the chance to meet the captain so we weren’t bothered and sat around to relax. Hate the dressing up part. Dinner wasn’t that different from usual: salad, oxtail consummé, ravioli with spinach & ricotta (dry), leg of lamb, cheese plate, pear in red wine and chocolate no sugar ice cream.

Managed to catch a nice sunset though. This time of year, so far north, the sun doesn’t set till past 9pm, 10pm.

in going places |

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After the predicted scrum at breakfast, we disembarked in Kiel at 9.30am. This was going to be a bad day, I woke up with a very dry throat that worsened through the day. It’s like my throat was on fire. Ah well, have to soldier on.

It being a Sunday in Germany everything was closed. We hadn’t joined a tour, none of them sounded interesting. What luck that almost the whole of the centre of the town turned into a giant flea market. It was full of people and stalls selling junk, antiques, clothes, plants, toys, books, even empty wooden crates. We stopped and tried two different types of bratwurst: a traditional one from a traditional cart and one grilled over charcoal. There was another stall selling pea soup and sausage that I wanted to try but didn’t get a chance.

The end of the flea market was a shopping mall where everything was closed. We had a loo break then headed back. Before boarding we stopped at the Kiel Brewery and shared a strudel and beer. Really nice, very relaxing.

Late lunch on the ship at the other restaurant L’Oleandra. Seafood cocktail, salad, fried scampi on fish with saffron rice, apricot tart. Back to cabin to read, do laundry and drink honey & lemon. Dinner was mussels (salty), salad, risotto (okay), veal (very dry), limoncello sponge delizia (light).

in going places |

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No late check-out so we deposited our luggage in the lockers at the station and had breakfast at the bakery again. Headed to the Rosenborg Castle and its grounds, King’s Garden. Very peaceful, really quiet and a good way to spend a morning. Walked back towards Stroget and visited the cathedral, Trinity church and another supermarket. Hot dogs for lunch at the station, where Mum struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to us who had just gotten off a RCL cruise from Florida.

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Taxi to port, embarkation was really quick as we were pretty early. This time we’re on the Musica, a smaller ship than the Splendida. Except the cabins were exactly the same! We had 2 adjoining cabins. Another same-ness: the cafeteria food and the safety drill. We had 1st seating at Le Maxim restaurant and the food was also the same. I had rice balls, salad, wiener schnitzel, cannoli and orange sorbet.

Explored a little, back to cabin for shower and reading.

in going places |

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For $200 per room per night, there wasn’t even breakfast. There was a leaflet in the room advertising breakfast buffet at the Vietnamese restaurant a few doors down. Not for us. We headed to Andersen Bakery, which we spotted yesterday. Great location next to the station, prices that weren’t outrageous. And what great bread! We had 6 to share between 4 of us, a mixture of sweet pastry and multigrain rolls. Really enjoyable.

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Headed back to the station to purchase a 24hr city pass (DKK70) and got the #26 to the Little Mermaid. The walk wasn’t as far as last time, probably cos we went from the right direction. The statue itself is small, perched on a rock next to a nondescript harbourside strip. Tons, and I mean tons, of tourists milling about but enough of a gap between people posing to get pics without people. Just when one group would leave, another group would arrive on a coach, it was never ending.

The park next to it is nice, neat flowerbeds and a few statues. A bridge, what looks like a government building, a church and a fountain. Lots to see. Got the bus 1A back to near the Palace attempting to find lunch. I also managed to exchange DKK350 worth of old notes to new ones, enough for lunch. Nothing really appealed so we got another bus back to the station and got smorgsbord and hot dogs which we ate back in our hotel room. The hot dogs were great, the smorgsbord so-so.

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Another bus #9A to the opera house next to the harbour. Very pretty, although very quiet and not many people. Next stop was Christiana which is described as a freetown. It’s basically a bohemian commune full of graffiti, stalls selling typical hippie stuff and I wonder if my parents recognise the smell of pot. Hmm. There are also “no photo” signs so I had to be discreet. Not very interesting, to be honest.

And then a wonderful discovery: the harbour bus is included in the city pass. Instead of paying for one of the harbour tours in the glass boats, we just got on a harbour bus which took us all the way north to the end point, didn’t get off and rode the boat until the library. Saw the same sights, even more than the tours I think. Bus back to the hotel, brief visit to Lidl and dinner was takeaway kebab and beer.

Another long day with lots of walking. Over 3hrs.


in going places |

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Flight was actually at 12.35am, so the trip started today. Flight to Dubai was around 8hrs, can’t remember. Watched the Hobbit, enjoyed it. There was a midnight snack of chicken foccacia and breakfast was mushroom omelette. Slept for about 3hrs. Arrived at Dubai at 5am, next flight was 8.30am so a long wait. Walked around the duty free sussing out which whisky to buy on the way back, found one of those lounge seats and napped for an hour or so. Flight to Copenhagen was 6-7hrs. Watched Pitch Perfect, Django Unchained and old eps of Gold Rush. Breakfast of mixed mezze and lunch of chicken and potatoes.

Finally arrived at 1pm. The queue at the 2 immigration counters was long but got going finally. Very pretty airport, we were admiring the wooden flooring especially. A big crowd at the ticket counter for the train, but we finally got our tickets and were on the train in no time. DKK144 ($25) for 4 people. The journey was quick and efficient, as we expected. Only 15mins and 3 stops. Our hotel is one block over from the station, but it meant we had to schlep our luggage over, sigh. It’s more like a glorified hostel than hotel, there is no reception and check-in/out is automated. I did manage to get someone on the phone to check in early. The room is basic, bed, desk, a couple of chairs, a couple of hangers on hooks. Clean and functional though. No keys or key card, everything opened via door codes we were given at reservation. Copenhagen is extremely expensive and this basic room was $200 a night.

Have to admire my parents for their energy and stamina. After freshening up we were out already. Beautiful afternoon for strolling. First stop was Tivoli Gardens. It’s an amusement park now, I remember going there with mm during the winter and it was so cold! We didn’t go in, just snapped a few pics at the entrance. Then it was City Hall and the pedestrian zone called Stroget, a mile-long shopping street and side streets. Eventually we made it to Nyhavn, a pretty harbourside strip heaving with people, bars and restaurants. Much as I would have liked to sit for a beer, they decided not to.

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Dinner was actually at a Turkish buffet because we couldn’t find anything and were getting tired. Upstairs, following a guy with a placard. Neater and prettier restaurant than expected. The buffet was okay, just what we needed: salads, lamb, chicken, cous cous. Had a Tuborg beer too, but horrified to learn that they charged for water. Ah well, need to adjust mindset.

Total walking: around 3hrs.

in going places |

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The good thing about a late night flight is you have the whole day still to do stuff. The bad thing about a late night flight is you’re all set and then you have to wait a whole day before setting off.

Seriously, nothing much to do. Met with sis and gis for a bit, had a glass of wine then bought takeaway home to eat. That’s it. Dubai next.


in going places |



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.

in going places , how the day went |

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Went with Mum to Sai Kung, a bit out in the countryside. Still quite crowded. There’s a pier, a walk to a small sandy beach and traditional shopping streets. Saw a guy flying a kite made up of more than 100 small paper pieces.

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There was a normal covered wet market, but alongside the pier fishing boats come right up to sell their catch direct to customers — fish, lobster, crab, prawn, clams, whelks, all sorts. Most of the restaurants offer seafood. We had a set dinner for 2: lobster with noodles, steamed small prawns, steamed fish, steamed abalone. All in all a good meal and a good day.

in going places |



I finally got all the cruise pics sorted and uploaded: set 1, set 2. Lots of potential favourites. There are only 2 videos, one of the waiter presentation at the MDR on the ship and this one of a busker playing Ave Maria at Notre Dame de la Garde at Marseille.

in going places |

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Going to mm’s holiday place with her family. Her brother booked a car that would take us there — 6 adults and 3 kids squeezed into a people carrier, plus the driver. The trip normally takes 1.5-2hrs, but we hit terrible traffic and ended up being on the road for 3.5hrs. Ugh. After everyone got settled, we went to the supermarket and back to his place for hot pot gathering. He bought 2 side-by-side apartments and knocked down the central wall so the living room is huge and there are bedrooms on either wing. Interesting.

in going places |

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Over 800 pics from the cruise to sort, delete, rename, touch up, resize and upload. Yes, I rename all my pics in an organised manner and check each one in photoshop. It will take a while. Progress so far — put each batch in separate folders for easier handling. 12 folders, eg 00ship, 09rome. One per location visited and another one especially for food.

Here’s a teaser. This was from Sidi bou Said just outside Tunis, Tunisia. All the houses in the village have uniform white walls and blue doors. Together with the cobbled streets set on a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, it makes for an extremely pretty and photogenic location. Even though it was full of tourists and the usual tourist trappings like souvenir shops and street sellers it didn’t take away the charm.

in going places |

med001dxb

Long layover at Dubai, and in the middle of the night. At least there was enough time and we weren’t rushed. I hopped into the duty free and bought a bottle of Dalmore 18 that also came with a bag. Explored the other shops. There’s a Mcdonalds there selling chicken big mac. The food shop had the usual chocolate, biscuits and nuts but also milk and cheese. Lots of people waiting for planes there, seems to be a big hub. There’s a flight to Manchester and another to Gatwick. I wish I were on those.

in going places |

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We had to leave our luggage outside our door by 1am and check out of our cabin early. After a long leisurely breakfast we headed to the theatre to wait for our turn to disembark. It was pretty boring, waiting. And then we were off, and had to claim our luggage from the carousel and find our bus to the airport. I guess they had to stagger the process to avoid overcrowding, but it just seemed to drag on and on. We were too early at the airport and had to wait for the Emirates desk to open. After that, it was getting on the plane to Dubai and on our way home.

So, end of my first cruise. Interesting experience. What I liked — different ports every day, watching the ship slowly arrive and leave was mesmerising. The food was okay, the ship was pretty. What I didn’t like — far too many mainland tourists, every drink had to be paid for and the rip off excursions. I brought a couple of bottles of coke with me, and managed to buy them at convenience stores at the ports, so I was sorted.

in going places |

med573marboat med590marboats

After 3 days in Italy, we come to France. And I knew there’s a reason I like France, and especially this part of the country, in Provence. It’s like coming home. We didn’t venture this far south last summer, but next time we’re in Provence I think we’ll stay in Aix and then I’ll get to take mm to Marseille. Sigh.

Shuttle from the ship to town was €15 return. The bus stop was just around the corner from le vieux port, and even though it was sunday, there was an interesting fish market underway. Fresh fish from boats that were sold a meter from where the boats docked, how fresh is that?

med612marcoast med640marnotredame I would have liked to walk, but after so many days, the rest of the group was tired. Opted for the open top bus. I got on, asked for tickets for 1 adult and 4 seniors, and the driver charged us for 5 seniors. Hahaha!! In this occasion, I don’t mind being a senior, if it meant saving a few euros. The bus took us along the scenic, if very windy, coast and up the hill to the Notre Dame de la Garde. Beautiful cathedral and beautiful views of the city. Glad we took the bus, would have been more difficult to wait for the regular bus.

We went to the other side of the port to hunt for lunch. Even though the restaurants looked quite touristy, they were busy and we found a decent one. The set menus at L’Ecailler were only €12-15, and for that we got 3 courses, can’t complain. I had mussels, bouillabaisse and lemon tart. The fish in the bouillabaise had a lot of bones, so may be I should have had something else. Tasty enough though. Ordered a 50ml bottle of rosé for the table which also went down well. The best thing was I understood almost 90% of the menu and was able to translate and order for the group.

Got instructions for a small supermarket, more food shopping. Tried to find lavender but wasn’t very successful. More excuse to return to Provence. Got the 4pm shuttle back to the ship. Finished packing and went on the balcony watching other people come onboard. The last shuttle was 5pm and there was only 1 passenger, everyone was safe and punctual. I like watching the ship leave every port; the pilot would come up in the fast small boat and then we were off.

Last dinner at MDR — moules, salad, bean & pasta soup, veal, bread pudding and a carafe of house red.

in going places |

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Absolutely gorgeous sunrise at Genoa, was watching it on our balcony. I’m quite happy we had a balcony cabin, I enjoyed watching us dock and leave. We didn’t join any tour today, and our friends were tired so it was just parents and me. As soon as we stepped off the boat we were accosted by the open top bus tour at €10 per person. Grabbed their map and I said I saw a sign for the metro so let’s look for that first. It’s only literally across the road from the dock! For €1.50, it’s only one line with a few stops.

The centre of town at Piazza de Ferrari was quiet early in the morning and we ended up walking around in circles. Found a charity stall selling oranges and honey. We asked about market and was given instructions to go to the mercato orientale. On the way we found panettone on sald €15 for 2, yay! The market was not a disappointment. Easily spent an hour looking at the stalls and being annoyed we could only buy spices and a little fruit and veg. Lots of produce and seafood.

Found a discount supermarket and a Coop (wow, remember them?) to stock up on chocolate, more balsamico and I bought a bottle of grappa. Rested at Mcdonalds before metro back to ship. Again, they didn’t bother with my grappa. Late lunch, rest and more reading. Italian night at MDR — cold cuts, salad, osso bucco with risotto, steamed veg, rum baba, lemon sorbet. I had a glass of chianti and limoncello in the souvenir MSC glass.


in going places |

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The ship docked at the port of Civitavecchia, which was just a port. We hopped on an excursion that took us 1.5hrs to Rome, transport only. The coach drop off was conveniently located next to the Vatican, which was a lovely as I remembered. Could have spent a lot more time inside. There were a couple of chapels that didn’t allow photography, for praying only, and they were the prettiest of chapels. Sent a postcard to my niece, with Vatican stamp and all.

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Asked at the tourist information for the way to a street market. Ended up at one, which I think wasn’t the one we were told, but was still nice. Covered market selling fruits, veg, pasta, dried goods. Bought polenta, porcini mushroom and dates. Had lunch at the snack bar inside the market — simple sandwiches and pasta.

Took the subway and continued our walking tour of Rome, hit Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, wedding cake building and Colosseun in quick succession. Subway back to Vatican and back on the coach for transport back to the ship. Our coach was one of the last to arrive back, almost 6.30pm. Late dinner in MDR again — rice ball, salad, fish soul, beef roll with cous cous, cannoli and a sugarless ice cream.

in going places |

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Palermo today. The ship docked right next to town so no need for excursion. It was a rainy and dreary day so it spoiled a little. We got right off the ship and got a map at the tourist information booth, and another map from a hop-on-hop-off stop. Headed straight for the street market. Very nice! Lots of fresh fruits, vegs, meats, fish. Just a shame we couldn’t buy any of it. We did end up at a shop that sold spices, sweets, oils, vinegars and such. Mum asked the young man if he knew somewhere we could grab a snack and he directed us to the café next door, run by his mother and sister. Had calamari, potatoes, pizza and gratin. €20 for 5 people.

Visited small church opposite, very pretty. Then walked to the cathedral, which was actually not as pretty. There was more walking, and most of the group was tired so they headed back to the ship. Mum and I had a final bout of shopping at a deli near the dock, bought limoncello and balsamic. The ship’s policy is that they take your alcoholic purchases away and give it back to you when you leave, but they didn’t touch our purchases so all was well.

Read a bit in our cabin and then it was another gala evening, which we didn’t know about. Marlin salad, tagliatelle with veal, grilled king prawns, baked alaska and a chef parade.

in going places |

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I had been looking forward to today, but ended up feeling ripped off. The cruise offers lots of shore excursions, and we thought that this was the one location we should join, because none of us had been to Tunis. For €70 they would take us to the souk at Medina and then to a pretty Mediterranean fishing village.

I had visions of mountains of spices and coffee at the souk, but we were just taken to tourist trap shops — a perfume place, a carpet place that also sold tacky souvenirs. Seems like that particular corner of the souk was for tourists only. Even walking outside the designated carpet souvenir shop, all we could find were more souvenir shops and gold shops. Nothing of interest. Where are the spices?

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Then it was on the coach again for a 20 min ride to the village of Sidi bou Said. The village was picturesque, with its whitewashed houses and uniform blue windows and doors. But again, very touristy with pushy sellers of souvenirs. A tiny mixed pack of herbs and spices was €7. There were isolated spots of beauty, thankfully. The sky was gloriously blue and the sea and the view was fantastic. Look away from the main street and the houses are postcard perfect. Even the orange trees were photogenic.

Late lunch on the ship, more comfort food. Found the gym and ran a little. Only 25mins allowed per person, so only 3km. Dinner at MDR — cod, salad, awful penne not homemade, pork escalope, clafoutis, ice cream. Went to theatre for a show of mediocre tribute singing, altogether a day that had so much promise but ended up falling a little flat.


in going places |

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Today was an at sea day whilst we sailed from Barcelona to Tunis. Good day for rest after the long flight. Up early at 7.30am after a pretty good night’s sleep. Big breakfast at the buffet — sausage, bacon, ham, eggs, baked beans, baked apple, waffle, tea. Did some walking around the ship. Can’t find the gym but there’s a sort of walking trail around the top deck.

Lunch at the other dining room — salad, cheese croquettes, five cheese penne, turkey schnitzel, pistachio ice cream. Gonna gain 10 pounds on this cruise. Afternoon rested in cabin, started reading Sea Legs, and finally connecting the dots for some of the terms and cruise experience.

Gala evening, supposed to dress up. Okay, no jeans for me. Free cocktails at the bar and chatted with a few UK guests. The ship is mainly Italian, German, Japanese and mainlanders so not so many English speakers. The captain never showed up so we headed to dinner. Roast veal salad, ravioli, lamb, pear in red wine and I ordered a pannacotta for the table to share.

in going places |

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Sunday night I left home at 8pm for a 12.35am flight. Early yes, but because it was a group ticket I couldn’t check in online and besides, my parents and friends H&F were getting to the airport early too. I did not expect to be all checked in and on the train by 8.20pm.

It’s the first time I’d flown Emirates. Being at the back in steerage class is pretty awful actually. Watched tons of 30 Rock, tried to sleep, arrived at Dubai at 5.45am. The plane was parked all the way out at the edge of the airport and took 10 mins on the shuttle to get to the terminal. Then it was walking to the other side of the terminal only to get on a shuttle again to somewhere remote to board another plane. Dislike. Impressions of the terminal — crowded, pretty run-down, definitely not what I expected of Dubai.

Watched even more 30 Rock, had an interesting mezze breakfast, before finally arriving at Barcelona. Flew past the port and thought I saw our ship. Shuttle direct to the port meant no chance of exploring Barcelona at all, this was one of the biggest regrets of this trip.

Embarkation to the MSC Splendida was straightforward and we were in our cabin by mid-afternoon. Or should I say stateroom. It felt more like a cabin. Like a Best Western hotel room, small compact bathroom and a balcony. I had the sofa bed and my parents had the main bed.

Had tea at the self-service buffet, explored the ship a little, then went to the emergency drill. The buffet was okay, filling but not exciting food. The ship is huge — several pools and whirlpools at the top deck, shiny atrium with crystal staircase, long corridors with plenty of cabins. A little drama when we sat down for dinner — we’d been seated with other people in a table of 9 and we wanted our own table. Food was okay, I had salad, risotto, beef and ice cream. There are 2 fixed time seatings for dinner, we had the first one at 6pm. The menu had 6-7 courses and we could order all courses or just a few. Had to order water with our dinner, and we had a bottle of gewurz too. There are drinks packages available, but no one in my party drinks so I’m going to have to no think about the lack of wine and beer all trip.

in going places |



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.

in going places , how the day went , on the relationship front |

hkleiyuemun

Didn’t sleep very well, ended up getting up and reading. Sigh, unfamiliar bed at mm’s. We didn’t get up till 10.30am. Had brunch of bratwurst and fried eggs, I played on her mbp and she practiced piano for a bit. Leisurely headed out to catch the ferry to the “opposite side” — a sort of traditional fishing village that served lots of seafood. Nice view of the boats moored in the typhoon shelter.

Caught a minibus into town, aimlessly walked around, then found another ferry to take us back. Dinner at a market restaurant, very very busy but very very good food — golden prawns, stir fried squid thai style, vegetables, fresh fish congee. I ordered a beer, which came served in a chilled bowl. Heh.

in going places |

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A day of travelling. Early breakfast and the lady owner took us to the station to catch the 8.39am train that mm so diligently and persistently booked against a lot of competition. Reached Taipei at just after noon. We deposited our suitcases and went to eslite bookstore to browse around. Lunch of noodles at their foodcourt too. Then to Sogo to visit the supermarket and to buy sausages. Flight was at 9pm, so there was plenty of time to get to the airport, even with getting lost whilst looking for the airport bus terminal. We again had exit row seats so we were comfortable. Was pretty late getting home though.

in going places |

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The morning was spent at the east coast. A nondescript cave with bats followed by a nice hour or so climbing the rocks on the coast. Just something so simple brings so much pleasure. Watching the waves pound on the rocks, feeding the fish with bread. Nature at its best.

After lunch of noodles, we rented bikes and headed out on a bike path next to fields and behind houses. Nice ride, very easy. We went on a bridge that spanned the eurasian and philippine geo plates, and there was even a sign that showed where the 2 plates met. Shopping after we returned the bikes — whisky and local sweets for souvenirs as well as a favourite activity of ours: visiting the local supermarket. Waited at a stinky tofu place before it opened at 5pm with other people. Dinner of noodles again.

More spa at night. This time it was a millipede, also in the bathroom. Also only seen by mm. Yikes. That’s the peril of living so close to nature but we are both too much city folk to enjoy this sort of experience.


in going places |

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Self drive car hire turned out to be challenging so we ended up hiring a car and driver for the day to go to taroko national park. The driver was good, he’s a hiker himself so he knew all the places to go. We stopped at the famous (and quite crowded) swallow grotto, then after lunch did a little hike ourselves to the water curtain cave. 2km through tunnels and along the river, good hike. The cave itself was fun! We brought flip flops and rain ponchos. so were able to walk inside and play with small water columns that leaked from the roof of the cave. Too wet and dark for pictures though.

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After the national park we headed to the seven stars beach on the east coast. It was just coming up to sunset so it was pretty. We looked for distinctive rocks for a bit. Dinner was at a night market were we had bbq cuttlefish, filled toast and sausage hot dog (a meat sausage in a rice sausage acting as the bun). More spa at the hotel, downstairs at the big one after mm saw a cockroach in the bathroom! We had to get the friendly Indonesian helper to battle the beast. Scary.

in going places |

tw005hotel tw026hotelspa

I had airmiles that needed to be used up by January, so we were plotting on where to go. Settled on hualien county on the eastern coast of Taiwan. Woke up at 4.30am to catch the 7.30am flight. 30mins delay, which for a flight that was only over 1hr was impossible to catch up, so we were late. Got the airport bus to the main station, queued up to collect our tickets and went in search of food. There wasn’t enough time to sit down so we got a couple of nice bento boxes.

The train journey to the town of Yuli took 4.5hrs. Nice scenery but we were glad to reach our destination at last. We are staying at the new life spa resort. They had to come fetch us, it’s on top of a steep road 15mins drive from the station. We had dinner at the hotel of home-styled food. There is an in-room spa but we made use of the one outside instead.


in going places , on the relationship front |

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Breakfast at Mcdonalds, which is of better quality here than in the US or UK. Then it was off to find markets. We have great memories of going to markets in Paris, but weren’t able to remember where. Went back to the one we tried going to yesterday, at Place Monge. Lots of fresh fruits and veg, but not many stalls. When we asked the stallholders, it turned out that it was a holiday so not as big a turnout. Ah well, still some good stuff. There’s a cheese shop nearby that is open, so we bought some cheeses as well.

The market at Rue Cler was also mostly closed, but we did find a patisserie and some stalls selling fruit. Ended up going to Carrefour to pick up pâté and stuff. Then back to hotel to drop off our shopping.

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Lunch back at Dame Tartine, where they recognised us. Lovely steak and (I think) swordfish tartare. Walked over to Notre Dame, queued up to get inside. Crowded and we had to hush a lot of noisy tourists. There was an exhibit of St Theresa, which pleased mm a great deal. More walking all the way to louvre, tea at Mcdonalds, then it was back to the hotel to pick up our luggage.

Metro to Gare du Nord was pretty tough. First, we had a total of 7 bottles of wine between us. Then there were so many stairs and not enough escalators. Finally it was a very kind, and strong, soul who helped us with the final steps to the platform. Once to Gare du Nord it was fine. We even had time for a rosé at the station before boarding. It was late when we got back to St Pancras so we took a taxi home.

flickr set, again mm’s pics. Not as annoyed as losing the Provence pics, we’ve been to Paris many times and she took over photography the last couple of days.

in going places , on the relationship front |

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Tried going to the market at Place Monge but it wasn’t open (tomorrow apparently). Headed to Sacre Coueur and Montmatre area, bought some magnets at a souvenir shop while sheltering from the rain. At the bottom of the hill, bought pastries at a Carrefour supermarket to enjoy at a small park.

Metro to Opera. Lunch of moules frites at Leon. Yes, it’s a chain but it’s still pretty good. Shopping at Lafayette where mm indulged her love of brand name handbags — Longchamp, BV, Maison. Big crowds, especially of rude Chinese tourists, I wasn’t happy.

Off to rue cler to look for another market. Even more unhappiness. This was the point where I lost my camera. My beloved s90. With all our provence pics in the memory card not downloaded because I didn’t bring the mba. Next trip, bring the damn mba. We traced our steps back to Leon but no luck.

Pretty dejected. Went back to hotel, ate some melon. Went out to Pompidou area and found a restaurant called Dame Tartine that served wonderful steak and salmon tartare. Cheered me up a little.

in going places , on the relationship front |

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Easy metro trip from Gare de Lyon to Châtelet, although there weren’t any escalators and we had to haul our bags up the stairs to street level. We were staying at hotel louvre rivoli at Châtelet, within walking distance to the river and pompidou.

Late lunch at the bistrot near the hotel, salad and wine again. Took the metro to champs to visit LV, and then to the office where mm met with some of her colleagues. Shopping at Le Printemps near Opera.

Dinner at another bistrot near Le Printemps. Moules and steak. Although a touristy place, the standard was still high. Back to hotel area, walked around Pont Neuf, Notre Dame and back to the hotel.

in going places , on the relationship front |

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Very early start, checked out at 7.30am. On the way, we stopped at Gordes for another view of the gorgeous village and valleys of Provence. Stopped at Auchen at Avignon for petrol and supplies. Returned the car and onto the TGV to Paris.

Au revoir, Provence. Lovely region. We’ll miss it and will want to come back. Base at Avignon next time. Or Aix.

flickr set, all mm’s pictures. I lost my camera in Paris. Don’t care about the camera as much as the memory card that had all our trip pictures.

in going places , on the relationship front |

prov092sorgue prov011aptmkt

Sunday market at L’Isle sur la Sorgue. It seemed to be the norm to park on the pavement, so that’s what we did. If possible, the market is even larger than the one in Apt yesterday. More crowded and touristy, stalls selling souvenirs, herbs, soap and honey. We stopped at a café to have tea and a rest, then set about exploring the vast market. Bought dried sausages, lavender, jam, bread, melon and pizza.

Returned to Avignon for a late lunch (salad and a cold meat platter). Bought lavender oil and wine at that shop near the Papal Palace we spotted on Friday. Time was getting short and we were somewhat in a rush.

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The next destination was Abbaye de Sénanque, which is where that notable picture of a church and rows upon rows of lavender comes from. It’s too late in the season, we’d missed the lavender. It was still nice to walk in the grounds and visit the souvenir shop. Too late in the day to go inside the abbaye.

From the abbaye, we headed back towards central Provence, to Gordes and Rousillon. Great scenery on the way. We got to Rousillon very late in the day, thank goodness for it being summer and long days. Lovely sunset pictures in the village on top of a hill and the sun hitting the clay cliffs. Time for more souvenir shopping and exploring the narrow streets on foot. We had dinner at a restaurant there. I had veal, mm had lamb and we had wine of course.

A delay leaving, an ambulance blocked the street for a long time. The streets were cobblestoned and narrow and the way back to the hotel was via that street where the ambulance was. At the end we couldn’t wait and used our instinct to drive the other way out of the village and double-backing back to our hotel.

in going places , on the relationship front |

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Breakfast at the hotel, croissants, ham, bread. The hotel has a small book that describes the markets in the Provence region. In French, but we were able to read it. So following its advice we headed to Apt for the market. It was very busy, and we had a hard time finding parking. At the end, I had to reverse down a steep unpaved slope to a narrow space between other cars. Heh, Mum taught me well.

Loved the market. Lots of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, crafts, just fantastic. Bought sun-dried tomatoes, honey, olive wood board, grapes. We could go crazy at these markets, everything so fresh and so tempting. No wonder people want to come live in this region.

In the middle of the market is St Anne’s Chapel. Very small, quiet and peaceful. We walked around, prayed and made a donation. Made friends with one of the volunteer ladies there. Didn’t quite know what each party was talking — our French wasn’t good enough and she didn’t speak English. However, the warmth and friendship shared with fellow catholics didn’t need language.

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Bought a big slice of watermelon, which we took back to the hotel to enjoy, as well as offloading our purchases. Next stop, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Lunch in the car was apricots and peaches we bought yesterday. Parked at the tourist office, and had a late lunch of salad and the châteauneuf wine. Perfect food and drink for an extremely hot day, the temperature gauge in the car read over 40°C.

Visited a few caves for wine tasting, learned about the traditional 13 grape varieties allowed in a châteauneuf wine. Also found out they had whites and rosés. Walked up to the top of the chaâteau for the amazing views. There were weddings galore in town; a wedding party was taking pictures at the top of the château, and we stumbled across a wedding in a church while exploring. It could be the same wedding party, dunno.

Visited one of the wineries at the bottom of the steps and bought a bunch of wines. Red and white. They are able to ship overseas too, and it was soooo tempting to get a couple of cases. Such a lovely, wine-focused town. Beautiful Provencal architecture, great food, wonderful wine. We visited another winery on the way out of town, and we can safely declare our love for this region. Dinner was back at Avignon. Moules frites, dorade and we’re becoming addicted to rosé. Quite a long, dark drive back to the hotel which mm did, I’d finished most of our wine.


in going places , on the relationship front |

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We took a minicab to St Pancras and were on the Eurostar in no time. I was a bit concerned looking at the timing that timing may be a little tight. We had to get from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon with our luggage, via the RER. But it turned out to be quite straightforward although we didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until we were well and truly on the TGV to Avignon. It was hot in Avignon when we arrived, took us a few minutes to find the rental car area. I’d already prebooked and prepaid our car so it was just a matter of getting the keys. It’s a small Citroen C3, good enough for us.

We made our way to Avignon city centre, parked our car in the car park near the papal palace and went in search of food. There were a row of outdoor restaurants in what looks like the main square, so we settled into one. Lots of shops in the pedestrianised district, had ice cream, hit a small Spar for soft drinks and supply. There are more shops and things to see than expected, so nice. Found a small wine shop that looked interesting, saving it for later.

The drive to Rousillon was about 1-1.5hr. Our hotel is supposed to be near Rousillon, but we got to the town and couldn’t find our way round. Had to use our basic french to ask directions. Turns out, the hotel is pretty much in the middle of nowhere on a tiny D-road. We finally found the entrance, drove up the hill and there it was. Very well decorated, rustic yet modern. Our room led out to a small patio, and the whole place screamed style and coolness and Provence.

We opted for dinner at the hotel, which was served outside by the pool. A few other guests were also enjoying dinner. Proscuitto & melon, roast veal and vegetables, rhum baba and fig tart for dessert.

in going places |

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After breakfast at the hotel, we went to the market to pick up honey wine. Checked out, left our luggage and went to the Paladium mall behind the hotel. Visited a glassware shop and ended up buying a really nice set of Schott decanter and wine glass set. Also got some tumblers.

Had a last piece of roast ham, some sausage and beer then headed to the airport. Had a bit of problem claiming VAT off the glassware, bought sausage for mum, had a piece of honey cake with our last coins then finally we were on our way home.

in going places , on the relationship front |

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Breakfast at the hotel was included, a buffet with the usual. Quite crowded too. Revisited the market at the square. Tried blackcurrent wine and honey wine, very nice. Bought some tomatoes for the day. Walked through the main square and onto Charles Bridge. The river is as beautiful as ever. Continued towards the castle, stopping for ice cream and cake at the foot of the hill.

We bought a short visit ticket that allowed us to visit St Vitus Cathedral, the old palace, St George’s basilica and Golden Lane. Quite worthwhile. The cathedral is very imposing, with lots of historical saintly statues. The old palace was pretty old and empty. By the time we reached the small basilica it was raining so we took shelter. The rows of colourful houses at Golden Lane were either sealed off as a museum piece or converted to shops, quite a commercial feel and not so quaint.

Walked the back way down, had kolbasa hotdog at the stall at the bottom. Walked back to town and rested at hotel. Lots of walking today.

Prague is full of advertisements for concerts. We decided on one at the Clementium church near Charles Bridge. It was okay, quite student-y, sort of amateurish.


in going places |

prag008mktbread prag033pottery

Had breakfast of halloumi toastie at LHR, and ham & cheese sub on plane. Uneventful flight, we got the shuttlebus to republic square as before. This time I booked the Hilton instead of the Marriott I stayed with mum last year.

There was a market at the square, yay! Bread, fruit, veg, wine, beer, honey and sausages. Proceeded to the main square to see the astronomical clock and the lanes. Shared a ham from the spit, sausage and a potato chip stick. I hope mm is liking the city. We went from shop to shop, lots of glassware to be seen.

Dinner at the restaurant at the square: beef goulash, dumplings and red wine. Went back to the supermarket to get water, coke, cheese. Had a drink at the bar.


in going places |

I left at 5am, earlier than I needed, just in case there were delays in traffic and in returning the car. You never know. I took the tollway I-294 and it was surprisingly busy so early, lots of crazy fast cars and trucks. Returning the car was straightforward and I also managed to catch the Hertz shuttle to the terminal. My suitcase ended up at 57lbs, almost 26kg, and I had to transfer some stuff to my backpack because they only allowed 52lbs. Lucky that I have both my backpack and trolley as carryon items.

I did pay an extra £36 for an exit row seat. While it bristles that airlines are nickel and diming us, and making extra money off us, I can’t help feeling that the £36 was money well spent. I had something like double the legroom of an ordinary economy class seat and didn’t disturb my neighbour when I went in and out of my seat.

Food was okay, nothing special. The first meal we had, breakfast, came with a packet of snacks (biscuits, dried fruit) in a narrow cardboard container that fit perfectly in the seat pocket, wonder if it’s on purpose. One thing about American, they give you the whole can of diet coke instead of a tiny amount over ice in a glass.

We were only 5-ish minutes late arriving, even though it was pretty late, almost 11pm. Long, long walk to immigration and a short wait at the baggage carousel. The duty free shop had closed by the time I exited. I had already booked a minicab, and I spotted the card with my name quickly. At this late hour the drive home was quick. £30 plus parking is pretty good for the minicab.

Showered and unpacked. Could have waited till tomorrow to unpack but I usually can’t wait. Bedtime.


in going places |

makers mark bridge booker noe at jim beam

Woke up at 6am, had breakfast (plain waffle today), checked out and was on the road before 7.30am. I’d planned the day last night with military precision, and I needed the early start. The destination was Barton distillery at Bardstown, an hour away. I hadn’t heard of them at all, and they’re not on the official trail, but I saw a leaflet and I was able to work them into the day.

Barton is actually owned by Buffalo Trace and has a huge, huge, huge site. BT bought it not for the distillery but for the warehouses (a new one will cost $2m to build) and the bottling plant. They were bottling tequila and other stuff today, it was a big operation. The bourbon wasn’t bad either. Oh, backup, they had the only 9am tour and there were only 2 of us on that tour — a girl from London who is living in New York and is taking a 3 week drive across the country to Alberqueque for a wedding. Imagine meeting another Londoner all the way in the deep south, heh. In a typically British way we chatted very amicably but did not exchange personal details, nor did we “promise” to keep in touch. It’s just not done.

Only 5 miles and 10 mins away is Heaven Hill. Unfortunately their tour was due to start at 11.10am, 10 mins later than the advertised time and I was under time pressure. This was the one distillery were I wasn’t sure if I could stay, and it turned out that I only had the chance to browse around the shop and get my passport stamped. Ah well.

Another 45 mins drive and I was at Makers Mark. A very slick operation indeed. Not in production, and a tour group that numbered at least 30 people. Tasted 4 varieties: their new make spirit, aka white dog; normal Makers Mark; an over-matured expression to show how it didn’t work; and Makers 46, which I bought a couple of years ago at ORD when it first came out. Very smooth, very nice. Bought a souvenir glass with their signature wax detail.

There was time for lunch. Everything is in the middle of nowhere, and it was perfect timing and location to lunch at the café at Makers. Pulled pork sandwich was pretty standard, nothing special but it filled me up. Interestingly in the café were a bunch of Japanese people having a casual meeting with obviously people from the distillery. The Japanese contingent presented them with a bottle of Hibiki. Not sure if the bourbon people quite understand that this is one of the best single malts in the world, they did seem a bit unsure. I think they were talking about business partnerships, I wish I could eavesdrop more, but it was time to go.

Doubled back to Bardstown and further to Jim Beam. They don’t have a production tour, just a demostration model of the stills and tuns. Did go into the warehouse though. Got to try their double aged black label and one of their small batch labels, Bakers. Wow, their small batch labels are absolutely fantastic. I’ve already tried Bookers, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek. Bakers complete the series and I can say I totally love all of them.

The only large bottle I bought on this trip was the bourbon cream at Buffalo Trace. I have a few miniatures, it’s the only way I can fit everything in my suitcase. Sigh. I have a glass from each of the distilleries, and I’m very pleased with my souvenirs.

Tonight I’m at Clarksville IN, just north of Louisville. I looked at hotels last night, and I guess I could have reserved one even further north along the I-65. As it was, there was a big delay on the highway because of a couple of accidents and broken down vehicles, so I’m glad I didn’t have far to drive. Another Best Western. Had a sizzling steak and a margarita at the Mexican restaurant opposite the hotel and I’m back in my room watching food network, reading and messaging mm. Back to Chicago tomorrow.

in going places |

woodford reserve

The hotel has breakfast included, I made blueberry waffle and tea from their hot water. Set off on the longest day of the year to my first stop, Woodford Reserve. About 15 mins away, and I was parked and in their visitor’s center in no time. Beautiful grounds. They charge $7 for the tour, the only one that charges on the bourbon trail. For this we got an hour long, detailed tour. And technology, we had these spiffy earphones and the guide had a mike, so no problem hearing him even in the noisy distillery. They only make one product, and we got a nice shot glass to take away with us too. Since I’m driving, I only had a tiny sip and then took the rest with me to the car.

The second stop, about 25 mins away, Wild Turkey. Hahaha, the same people are on the tour!! The distillery is huge, and I got to taste 4 different spirits: wild turkey 101, kentucky spirit, russell reserve 10 year and this fabulous liqueur called American honey. The car is filling up with samples in shot glasses for enjoyment later, can’t wait.

Wild Turkey gave us directions to a nearby bakery for lunch, I had a reuben sandwich. Nice. Then onto the final distillery for today, Four Roses. I’d never heard of this brand before, apparently it’s the best selling bourbon in Japan and there are 2 Japan export only expressions. Interesting, I must look out for it when I’m next in Japan. The distillery wasn’t in production so we just briefly toured the premises. There were 3 tastings: standard yellow label, small batch and single barrel. I got a miniature bottle of single barrel for souvenir.

Dinner was at the Cattleman steakhouse near the hotel. Now I know why Americans are so wedded to their cars. It’s a 5-10 min walk from the hotel to the restaurant, which in any other part of the world I’d happily walk. The problem is that here, there is no pavement and I would have had to cross a busy 8 lane highway that makes no allowance for pedestrians. Argh. I couldn’t finish the steak, only 11oz. Either it’s the heat or the salad bar I had as starter I don’t know. I did take it away and finished it at the hotel later while I sipped the rest of the whiskey samples I’d saved earlier.

Booked tomorrow night’s hotel, planned tomorrow’s schedule and did laundry. I discovered another distillery, Barton that isn’t on the trail but also worth visiting so I have to plan the day almost to the minute. Let’s see how it goes.

in going places |

buffalotrace00casks buffalotrace00warehouse

I have a extra week in the US after the con, and I decided that I really needed to do something so as not to waste the airfare. So I did research and internet booking yesterday. This morning I picked up the rental car at 8am and started the drive to Kentucky. Yep, going on the bourbon trail.

Google maps said 6 hours to the hotel at Frankfort, and it was pretty correct. I stopped at a McDonalds outside Louisville for a quick lunch. By the time I approached Frankfort it was around 2pm, which turned into 3pm because of the time change. 10 miles before the supposed exit for the hotel there was a sign for Buffalo Trace distillery so I followed it — it was in the plan to go to Buffalo Trace today so I just reversed the schedule. Correct decision given that I hadn’t realised I lost an hour.

I’d missed the beginning of the tour, but managed to join when the group visited the warehouse and the bottling plant. My first impression of the distillery is how huge it is! The warehouse alone is 9 storeys high, and where a barrel is housed will make the bourbon. Those higher up will mature quicker in the hot Kentucky weather; those in the lower floors are the premium bourbon. Then we were at the bottling plant, where a small group of workers were hand bottling Blanton’s. Even the wax and stickers were done manually. We got a small taste, a choice between Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace. I picked the Eagle Rare but only had a tiny sip. The second glass was bourbon cream, the bourbon version of Bailey’s. Our guide taught us how to enjoy it with root beer and bourbon chocolate. Yummy!

Checked into the Best Western Park Inn at Frankfort, a nice clean standard room. It was only 5.30pm so I drove to downtown Frankfort. Most shops were closed, with the exception of a bookstore, a café, a craft shop and a few bars. I had pizza from home so I just went to CVS to buy iced tea and a beer. Also bought a few bottles of miniatures for souvenir. Time to watch tv and plan tomorrow’s visits.

in going places |

Plotting and planning 2 trips at the same time. Bourbon trail for the next 4 days — rental car, hotel, route planning and map printing, trying to get the best deal at short notice. Then finalising the Provence hotel with mm. An exhausting day that I spent sitting in the same chair for hours.

in going places |

The last day of the con consists of saying good-byes and having brunch. It’s been a good event, well organised and smooth. Everyone is looking forward to the next one. All of a sudden though, I just wanted to go home. Home as in where my stuff is. I’d had enough socialising for this week, this month. I worked myself up