ate at 3 buffets, walked 13km

tl;dr: spent the day eating, walked 13km in between going from one buffet to another.

Since we activated the buffet of buffets pass at 6.27pm last night, we have until that time today to fit as many buffets as possible. We figured we can do breakfast, lunch and dinner today and planned it out accordingly.

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Breakfast was at Flamingo, just across the street from our hotel. At 8am it was already very hot outside. A showed me how to crush up watermelon and add to iced tea, which was delicious. I had honey roasted ham, sausage, bacon, egg white omelette, and kale salad. Strange to have kale salad for breakfast, it was very tasty. There were blueberries, strawberries, quinoa, cheese and a sweet dressing. I went back for seconds. Also had small bites of a smores pie and cheesecake. Tried to be picky about what to get and stayed away from carbs.

The morning was spent walking south from Flamingo. Past our hotel, then to Planet Hollywood, eventually to MGM Grand. Escaped the heat by visiting the shops too–coke, m&m both have large presence. Caught a lot of common pokémons, and battled in gyms. Distance walked over 3km, including walking around inside casinos.

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At the MGM Grand we crossed the road to New York New York and explored inside. Walked back north via that side of the road, our destination was Spice Market inside Planet Hollywood, perfect timing for lunch. My immediate requirement was a large soft drink, it was hot work walking in the 40ºC sun. They had one of those machines where you can make your own soft drink so I mixed a vanilla, lemon and lime diet pepsi, then followed with root beer.

The buffet has a nice variety of food. Breakfast (brunch) items were still available and there was Mexican, Asian, Middle-Eastern. Started with shrimps and middle-eastern dips. The roast counter had lamb shish kebab, tandoori chicken and courgette on a skewer. The lamb went quickly and I had to wait till the next batch was ready, which was great because it came fresh off the grill and was nicely medium rare.

Dessert is the usual small cakes and tarts, the cheesecake was good. The ice cream was soft serve and melty so I only had one tiny spoonful then gave up.

Again, full but not stuffed. Between being careful what to get, lots of walking and the heat, having so many buffets didn’t seem excessive.

Walked back to Bally’s, stopping off at cvs to get two large 3l jugs of water. Rested in the room for a bit, to allow phones and cameras and people to recharge.

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Plan for dinner was the bacchanal buffet at Caesar’s Palace. There was an additional charge for this on top of the pass, and we could see why. There were so many different sections with enormous selection of food. Just the asisn food section is the same size as entire buffets at other places. The cold seafood section had oyster, clam, crab and alaskan king crab. I was lucky, when it was my turn at the alaskan king crab, the server just brought out a new tray. 10 legs gave a lot of meat, much more than at Paris yesterday.

I skipped the Asian and Italian food sections. The roast meat counter had 3-4 types of beef, turkey and bacon. I asked for small slices of wagyu hangar steak, prime rib and tri-tip and the slices were anything but small! There was also, to my utter delight, roast bone marrow. I think I had 6 portions, forget about cholesterol.

Dessert was again small portions of cakes, tarts, pannacotta, mousse, macaron and ice cream. By then I was pretty full and also full of alcohol. I ordered the all-you-can-drink package and had a mimosa, half a white sangria and 2 glasses of red wine already.

We entered the buffet around 4-4.30pm and there was no wait. By the time we left, around 6.30pm, the queue was extremely long. I can see why, the food is excellent and I’d go back there again.

So, we completed 4 buffets in 24hrs. Definitely worth it. With weekend and 4th of July weekend the price was $75 instead of the usual $50 and the upcharge at Caesars more than usual (can’t remember the exact price). Overall, I’d say around $120 per person for 4 buffets. Considering breakfast buffets are something like $30-40, we probably got over $200 value. But it’s not just about money, the food was enjoyable too. Normally when visiting buffets, there’s a pressure to stuff ourselves and eat too much; with the pass I was able to just get what I really want to eat and not feel guilty because I stopped eating. Highly recommend looking into the pass for anyone who like food.

According to A’s app, we walked over 13km all day. That definitely helped digest all the food.

What else apart from eating? We also saw the robot bartender at work, visited the conservatory and stayed for the fountain show at the Bellagio. When I signed up for the rewards card at the hotel I got a drinks coupon so I redeemed it for a vodka lime soda. The casino at the hotel was too noisy, too crowded and too bright. We sat at the foodcourt for a while and chatted with a few friends who had come in. Nice end to the night.

vegas day 01

Very, very early start. Up at 6am, having a bagel at 6.30am and all loaded and on the way at 7am. The motivation is under 4hrs’ drive to Vegas. We listened to a novella on the way, perfect timing.

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The conference hotel is Bally’s, which is opposite Caesar’s and Bellagio and next to Paris on the Strip. In other words, a very central location. It’s also a weekend so traffic was very busy, making it harder to get around with a trailer. We stopped at one of the hotel entrances to ask the way and were directed around the block (including going on the Strip) to the hotel loading dock. Unfortunately it wasn’t the right loading dock and we had to circle around another time to finally get to the right one.

It was a small loading dock and a hotel supervisor had to come help us reverse the trailer into place. There were 2 hotel workers helping us unload but I was the one who was inside the trailer, untying the rope and moving all the boxes to the back so they could take them. Thirsty and hot work.

Ran a few more errands after that–returned the trailer, found an ATM, at a couple of tacos (first food since 6.30am). Back at the hotel at 4pm to check-in. I received an email in the morning to use self check-in via QR code and was so glad I opted for it. There was a long queue for normal check-in but using the kiosk took 5mins. I scanned the QR code, scanned my passport, added A’s name and the machine printed 2 keys. I also got instructions on how to get to the room, and it was very much needed. Had to walk through the casino, find a sandwich shop, and find the right lift. The room is at the end of the corridor so a long walk.

Dumped my backpack and headed down to the lobby to meet A. Had to get one of our volunteers to help retrieve my suitcase. Finally all settled around 5.30pm.

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A had come across the buffet of buffets, a 24hr pass that allows holders to dine at the buffets at 6 different hotels within the Caesar group. It was $75 which is decent value. We’re planning on trying to fit 4 buffets–dinner tonight, and breakfast, lunch and dinner tomorrow. For round 1 we went to Paris. There were alaskan king crab, shrimp, prime rib, turkey, pasta, sushi, asian, crepes, dessert. The king crab legs were small and served cut in half. 10 half-legs gave just 1-2 tbsp of meat. The prime rib was very good, tender and tasty even though the gravy was far too salty.

Walked around a little bit after dinner. Glad to be back in the room soon because of the crowds, the noise, and the blinking lights.

roadtrip1 day 03

Another early start day, this time we simply had breakfast at the hotel. Lots and lots of driving.

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New states for me today: New Mexico and Arizona. I won’t count them as visited because the only time we stopped was at service stations. There was one along the way with many billboards advertising that they have ice cream, toys, guy stuff, girl stuff, cool stuff, and all sorts of stuff. From what the billboards said, we expected a huge shop full of lots of things to sell. But actually the shop wasn’t that large. The selection was very interesting though, most are handcrafted by local artists. The shop is in the middle of nowhere along the highway. It also had the only pokéstop for miles and miles. I found that there are pokémons around but very few stops because there’s simply nothing around.

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The scenery in New Mexico and Arizona changed to dry desert landscape. I wish the highway had scenic stops so I can hop out and take a picture. The ones I snapped from the car weren’t that good.

We had considered overnighting at Holbrook or Winslow because it was getting late. Then we got in touch with 2 friends who were also driving and they were already at their hotel in Flagstaff so we pushed on, met them at the same hotel and we all went to dinner together. With the time change, we gained 2 hours so it was only 7pm when we got there.

Long, long day but managed to make good ground. Finished listening to yesterday’s audible book, started and finished another one. Another good story.

roadtrip1 day 02

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Early start, 6am alarm. Made a cup of tea at the hotel breakfast but waited till we were on the road before having proper breakfast at Denny’s. I had blueberry pancake with bacon, eggs and hashbrown. Quite nice, the type of comfort food that is filling and familiar.

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The day was spent driving and driving and driving. No adverse weather or trailer issues, just a long way to drive. We passed through Missouri into Oklahoma. Because of the trailer, we had to stop to fill up often. And because of the trailer, we tried to stop at truck stops where the space is larger and can accommodate a large turning circle. Many of the stops are the same, with a shop of some kind that sold food, drinks, souvenirs, electronics, gadgets. This one somewhere along the way had more unusual souvenirs. We were travelling along the modernised version of route 66 so there were relevant souvenirs. I ended up buying a route 66 cup too. The shop also had a whole fridge full of old fashioned sodas in glass bottles, lots of nostalgia.

To pass the time, we started listening to an audible book. I found I paid more attention when I’m listening. May be it’s also a combination of a good book, good narration and nothing else to do.

At around 5-6pm we started looking at nearby hotels. Found a Hampton Inn near Clinton. The friendly front desk guy Robert told us where to have dinner–a nearby family-run Italian place. I ordered linguine with clams which was okay considering the clams and sauce all seemed to be from a can or jar. Huge portions too.

roadtrip1 day 01

Three things went wrong, but bad things come in threes so by the end of the day, our luck changed.

Early start, we went to the storage place to drop off more stuff to free up space in the back of the car. We were there around 8am, this is important for later.

Reached the U-haul place to pick up the trailer aroud 9am. It’s not a proper office but a car repair place that also rents out U-hauls. The guy there was busy so by the time we finished the paperwork and he got the trailer hooked up it was something like 10.30am. We were hoping that we’d be almost finished loading by this time so we’re behind schedule.

#1 thing that went wrong today: the road into the storage place was closed. It was open just a few hours ago and there were no signs to say it would be closed. We had to take a long detour, and ridiculously by the time we came back to the street the workers were reopening the section. We wasted more than half an hour driving in a circle.

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But there was work to be done. Had to transfer all the boxes in the storage unit into the trailer. Last year when we took out stuff from the storage unit there were 4 cars and 6 people. This year it was just the two of us. Since I was able to work inside the trailer without needing to bend down, it made sense for me to be the one packing the trailer. It was hard work in hot weather. Although the trailer was parked right outside the unit, we still needed to move may be 100 boxes–some very tall and a lot of them containing books–a few feet, lift them up, push them to the back, arrange neatly and tie them down row by row with a rope. Had to take 2-3 breaks in the car, sitting for a few minutes, rehydrating and cooling down in the aircon. Took 1.5-2hrs but finally got it done.

Estimate start of the trip: 1pm. Had to navigate out of Chicago and driving the trailer seemed quite hard. There were strange noises coming from the back whenever we hit the smallest of bumps on the road. We loaded the trailer as instructed, putting the heaviest items in front. The hitch and the towbar was very, very low and only 1-2 inches off the ground. Wasn’t sure what to do, the hitch and trailer were all installed by official U-haul people so what were we to say. The mpg was atrocious, and we had to drive slowly too. Not a very smooth start.

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#2 thing that went wrong today: as we continued south, around Lincoln and still in Illinois, the sky turned grey and dark, heavy clouds appeared. It felt like tornados would form. I checked the weather app and saw that there was a severe thunderstorm warning with heavy rain and winds up to 70mph. There was no way around the storm, the highway led us straight to it.

When it hit, it was really, really bad. Visibility turned to almost zero suddenly and everyone had to slow down and use their hazard lights. It got so bad that at one point, we pulled over to the hard shoulder, unable to continue. It was getting dark, we’d been up since 7am, driving for 5hrs and we couldn’t go on. At this rate we’d get to Vegas on Monday!

#3 thing that went wrong today: we finally limped into a service station, a truck stop. The rain was pelting down and many other drivers were doing the same.

When we checked the trailer we discovered to our horror that its lights weren’t working. Can’t drive in the dark. Actually, can’t drive at all because cars behind us wouldn’t be able to see brake lights and indicator lights. The call to U-haul roadside assistance was rather frustrating and involved a lot of repetition and waiting. Things looked slightly better when the conclusion was that we should make our way to the nearest U-haul place to get the lights and fuses looked at. The agent said it’s 3 miles away but in actual fact it was 15 miles. We had about 45mins to get there before it closed.

Driving carefully, we made our way to Springfield, IL. Got a glimpse of the capital building and was delayed for 10mins while a train blocked the road. We got to the place around 6.45pm.

The 2 U-haul staff proved to be our angels. They fixed the fuses so we had lights. They also looked at the hitch and said the other guy hooked it up wrong, it should face up and not down which was why the front was sitting so low. Using our jack, one staff raised the trailer, fixed the hitch and it looked so much better–no longer an inch off the ground and the overall driving experience was more stable and smooth. Without their help our trip would have been miserable.

The storm passed but there was still rain, and a lot of lightning. The sunset was very beautiful and we sad a full rainbow. mm and I always say rainbows are good luck. We certainly hope, and it certainly felt, that things were looking up and the trip would get better.

We drove past St Louis and it was 10pm when we found a hotel and checked in.

tl;dr: long day that started in the worst way possible; angels and double rainbow turned our luck around.

flight to chicago

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The flight is at noon, and we’re all told for US flights to get to the airport early. I also left home early to try to beat the rush hour fight for taxis. Of course there was no wait for taxi, no traffic, and no queue for check-in either. Sod’s law, eh. I also got upgraded to premium economy, bulkhead seat to boot. I was at the gate already at 10am, two hours before departure. Luckily the gate wasn’t busy and I had a relatively quiet corner where I could charge my phone and read for a bit.

The flight was completely full, so I was especially grateful for the upgrade. Didn’t really get a lot of sleep, just odd naps here and there. Watched Black Panther, The Post, Inside Out, Pitch Perfect 3, there was nothing interesting on the tv channel. Listened to Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto #1 twice too. Dinner was a nice beef tenderloin with chocolate ice cream. Lunch was seabass and fruit crumble. I only drank half a glass of red wine the entire flight.

Touched down around 2pm at ORD. Long 15min taxi, then 2 queues for immigration–one to scan passport, one for the human agent interrogation with only two agents there for the entire queue. The agent this time was more thorough than the past couple of years, sometimes I get the feeling they don’t want people to visit.

Luggage claim was utter shambles. Honestly, American airports are the worst I’ve even encountered, not even up to third world country standard. Every single luggage belt was full of people and bags. No staff there to organise the bags so they were stacked on top of each other. My first bag only came out when I reached the belt, considering I’d been at passport control for so long. I waited and waited for the second bag. Then the belt stopped, just stopped. Three times. With bags still coming out, stuck on the conveyor belt bit before they reach the carousel bit. The poor airline staff member there was trying to help passengers and talking on her walkie-talkie to get someone from the airport to come and restart the belt. She was saying she was tempted to get one of her staff to climb up and grab the stuck bags.

I finally managed to escape just before 4pm and headed to our usual meeting point at the car park to meet Car. Rush hour traffic meant a long drive. Dinner was pizza (yay!!!) and half of an Andy’s frozen custard. I got 4 of the seasonal blackberry concrete and stored them in the freezer. I find the blackberry one is available until around early- to mid-July so I want to make sure I have enough supplies for my entire trip.

Bed at 9.30pm.

shunde day 06

Travel day. Lounged around in the morning, did laundry, took out batteries and closed the flat down.

At the HK side interchange, we had to get on different buses to go home. I was the first one on my bus, it stood there empty and then all of a sudden scads of people got on until it was full. When it got into town, everyone but 3 people (including me) got off. Eventually it made it to the my stop, close enough for me to walk home.

shunde day 05

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Last full day, more errands. Bank, market, checked out mm’s other 2 flats. She’s had them a few years as an investment. The flats are completely empty. Not only no plastering or paint, the bathrooms are an empty concrete hole and there are only wires and pipes in the kitchen. Apparently that’s how property is sold, all the buyer gets is a shell.

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She’s not feeling 100%, with the beginnings of a cold, so we didn’t do anything more ambitious than poke around the local area. The most interesting thing was we tried steamed milk dessert served in a coconut. Very nice.

shunde day 04

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Met up with mm’s contractor, who is local and has a car so he can take us to places a little out of the way. This one is a farm restaurant that has its own fish pond, chicken, vegetable garden. Not the fanciest setting or tables, the most important thing is the food is fresh and homemade. We had roast duck, steamed fish, vegetables and a soup made from the stem part of the choy sum and chicken parts. Okay, I love me some offal and am not afraid of trying new organs. The soup had a part of the chicken I’d never seen before, it looks like it comes from a rooster, and that’s all I’m saying.

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After lunch he dropped us off at the large park halfway between town centre and mm’s flat. Very nice place, with a lake and very pleasant walking paths. Where we started wasn’t very crowded, but as we headed to the other entrance there were more crowds. People also enjoying a walk in the park, lots of people cycling, and families camped out on the grass. Like literally camped out, they brought their own tents. Pretty good idea, a tent provides shade, storage and shelter if it rains.

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We walked the whole afternoon in the park, something like 3hrs. Took the bus to the local market and rummaged around for what to cook for dinner. Ended up with a simple meal of rice, chicken and these round courgettes.

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The fruit and veg in the market is good, some vendors simply spread their produce on a mat on the ground. Some are more sophisticated, selling from the back of their bike-vans.

Watched some tv during dinner. I understood none of it, the program we settled on eventually was a feel-good reality program where several presenters took turns telling the stories of brave and patriotic individuals. A father built actual working models of robots for his daughter; a woman waited for her soldier who was teaching at the borders for over 10 years; a group of 80- and 90-year olds told the story of how they travelled to a rural area and started a university. A bit tear-jerky and definitely state-approved tv. Gave up after a while and read my book.

shunde day 03

We finally made it to the dim sum place. The problem today is their system is down and food orders aren’t getting through to the kitchen so customers are having to wait a long time for their food. We were in no hurry and still had to cancel a couple of dishes and get the bill.

Then it was bus adventure to Walmart. Buses are really cheap, equivalent to USD 0.25 for the majority of city trips. There are maps at each stop and I can just about decipher the stop names. Plus mm’s complex has 3 entrances and therefore access to different groups of buses.

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Walmart was a bust. There was nothing there we wanted to look at, let alone buy. The whole store felt depressed and empty. Much, much worse than US Walmarts. We walked around the rest of the shopping centre and it was a bust too.

The silver lining was, we found a nice café that had 20+ varieties of swissrolls and another 20+ varieties of fruit teas. Perfect. We had iced fruit teas and shared a matcha roll. Quite expensive, more like western prices. The contrast between this type of modern place and streetfood at the market is quite stark.

Dinner was at the same restaurant last night, same table, same people, same food. Saw the elders and children off home and went for a massage with mm’s brother and SIL. The place was pretty cheap but mm and I found it extremely tacky and downright tasteless. All massage places have staff who wear uniform, at this place the massagers were all young women in short skirts and high heels. Completely unnecessary. I didn’t talk to the woman who did my massage, I closed my eyes and napped. I suppose she may be relieved but I’m thinking they are numb to this exploitation.

shunde day 02

Mostly local day. Brunch at a small diner serving noodles. For breakfast they have cheung fun too but we were too late. The fried noodles were nice, not too oily or too salty. These hole-in-the-wall places can be very good here.

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Rest of the day was pretty boring for me, sitting for a long time at the bank whilst mm sorted out her account. The most interesting thing was seeing this postal delivery van. No pokemon to catch, nothing to read, the tv in the waiting area continually showing either promotional videos or public service announcements. Had no idea what they were showing, couldn’t understand the subtitles. This is the downside of visiting a country where I can’t understand the spoken dialect and can only read 5-10% of the written language. I can usually get by, mostly by ignoring people and trying to understand written stuff by context. Many menus have pictures which help.

After the bank, we attempted to go to Tesco but sadly discovered that it’s closed. Sniff. We were headed towards city centre, since we had time we walked instead of taking a bus or taxi. Taking advantage of the nice weather. Browsed around various shops in the city centre. Bought biscuits, and mm bought a bedsheet & pillowcase set.

Two things we noticed. One is there are dockless bikeshare bikes everywhere. The dominant one is called hello bike but we see some ofo and others. We figured we need a local phone number and local means of payment to sign-up and I don’t have those. Speaking of payment, everybody uses WePay on their smartphone. Paying by cash makes us look old-fashioned or tourists! We were buying sugarcane juice from a street vendor and another customer paid by WePay. We got talking to the vendor and he said it’s a must. The amazing thing is, he told us even beggars have a WePay QR code. It’s actually be fairly widely reported that it may be a scam to harvest personal data. Ugh, when is begging not a scam?

Dinner was with mm’s parents, her brother’s family, and her brother’s in-laws. They seem to go to the same restaurant, they know the food and they get good service too. We rated a private room and the food was the best this trip so far.

shunde day 01

We’re going up to mm’s flat in Shunde for the Easter weekend. The aim is to do very little and try to relax. We anticipate little or no internet, since eveything is blocked or not available. Can’t even play pokemongo.

Since we live in different sides, we bought tickets for different starting coach stops. All coaches go to the SZ border where there’s a huge interchange for onward journeys. My coach was at 9.30am. I left early in case there’s traffic but sod’s law happened–the bus arrived within 30sec and there was absolutely no traffic so I got to the coach station before 9am. The ticket collector waved me onto a nearby coach and I was ready to sit there for half an hour. But no, 5mins later the coach left. May be it was an extra one on the schedule? I dunno. I still had to wait a good 45mins for mm to arrive at the interchange.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. We arrived at the destination and got a local bus back to her flat. Dropped our bags and she tried to turn on all the appliances. Thought there was no hot water but actually she forgot she’d removed the batteries for the gas meter! Hahaha. No issue at the end.

Lunch was at the local shopping centre, the regular dim sum restaurant was closed for a private event so we went to a new one. Not as good. There are definitely more shops and restaurants at the shopping centre. Tried going to the bank but the branch had been replaced by a lobby of just ATMs. We looked around and discovered that the branch had moved across the road.

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Took a taxi to where the big supermarket is and went to the massage place nearby. Shoulder, back and foot massage for 2hrs. A little sore afterwards because I hadn’t gone to massage for a long time. We wanted to browse around the supermarket quickly then go to dinner; next time we looked at the time it was almost 8pm and we’d been browsing for way longer than we thought. One of the ‘interesting’ things we saw was low alcohol pineapple beer. Scary.

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Anyway, the restaurants near the flat would be closed, so we went to one opposite the supermarket. Most restaurants in Shunde are small and tend to specialise in one type of food. Our dinner was a hotpot place, and their specialty is pork parts. We didn’t have the pork offal, though we did get chicken gizzards in addition to the standard beef and lamb. All in all, not too bad but not a place we’d be in any hurry to return to.

Really nice to return to a completely quiet flat. It overlooks a park and a government building complex (office, library, museum) so there’s almost zero noise at night. We did buy a 1GB SIM card that goes through hk servers so we actually could access websites outside the great firewall. Not a lot of motivation to do that, I stuck to reading and mm played her game. Pretty relaxing.

bangkok trip day 06: sukhumvit area, flight

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We’re a little tired of hotel breakfasts by now. Noodles or congee seem to be the best choice. We had a few different noodles over the past few days, sometimes they have more condiments, our favourite is when salted eggs made an appearance.

Walked over to emporium and em quartier after breakfast, mainly to check out the gourmet supermarket. I bought mangos and mm bought a large bag of passionfruit. We had late check-out at 2pm so there was time to take a shower.

Enough time in the afternoon to go for a quick massage, this one at the place directly opposite the hotel. Small and other customers were quite noisy, but cheap and the therapists were okay. Definitely liking the location.

Our driver came at 4pm to pick us up, 1hr to the airport in the rush hour traffic. We’ll keep his contact details for next time, he has a fleet of cars and taxis and is knowledgeable and experienced. Check-in, wander around the duty free and early dinner in the airport–thai styled raw prawns, green curry beef, pineapple rice.

Flight was full again, but we got upgraded, yay! The plane arrived late, there was a delay boarding but it caught up so not substantially late. By the time we got our luggage and on the airport express it was past midnight. Got home around 1.30am.

bangkok trip day 05: river, chinatown

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A day on the river. Took a taxi to the shangri-la hotel, after the taxi driver didn’t understand we wanted the mandarin oriental–he took us to a smaller, local hotel called the mandarin. The shangri-la is located on the river, but the area didn’t seem as versatile as sukhumvit. Anyway, the itinerary today included going on the river.

There were different types of boats available. First to approach us were longboat tour guides. They advertised tours lasting from 1.5hrs to 3hrs in a private longboat. I’m guessing the sky’s the limit for price, they’ll hit you for as much as they can. Next to the private pier is the public pier. Two types of boats available. The tourist blue boat offers a day pass for ฿180 (£4), operates like a hop on hop off bus in other cities. Seems like a bargain? Nope. The public river taxis are ฿15 (35p) for a single trip, and it’s not likely anyone will need to take 12 trips to make the tourist boat break even. So advice is, stick with the public express boats.

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The orange flagged boat goes to the piers at all the tourist areas. We were able to get seats on our first ride from sathorn pier all the way to thonburi railway pier. Some of the piers are numbered, like sathorn is #1 and thonburi #11. The boats are quick and the river quite busy, especially at the central locations. There are schedules and route maps at all piers.

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Great views of Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Royal Grand Palace. We also saw a number of other wats, the church of Santa Cruz, the 24hr flower market and lots of other sights along the river. It was so nice we didn’t want to get off.

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When we did get off, we headed towards wang lang market, around 10mins from the pier walking through a teaching hospital. Late lunch at a café at the market with river view. Tom yum soup, stuffed squid, sea bass & pineapple yellow curry. Not too bad, streetfood would have been tastier but this place had more comfortable seating.

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The market was part indoors and part outdoors. Mostly clothes, accessories, decorations that were on the cheap and cheerful side. There was a section that was distinctively camden like and we weren’t sure if the clothes and shoes on sale were second hand or new but grubby from being on display for a long time.

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The pavement outside the market was lined with streetfood stalls. Again, either fried food or salad. Not that the food we’ve tried hadn’t been tasty, I may lose weight if I lived in thailand for a long time because the style of food isn’t altogether suited to my palate. Or may be it’s because I’m sick this trip, dunno.

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Here’s a pic for my friends J&T, they’ve reached Australia in their trip. They posted pictures of entire families on motorbikes when they were in SE Asia, and here’s one with 4 members of the family on one motorbike. By and large, motorbikes in Bangkok have been well behaved and it seems motorbike taxis are very prevalent. Not sure if I dare go on one: no helmet, pretty precarious, can’t speak language so have to haggle for price. Seems to be used a lot by locals. Still have never been on a tuktuk.

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We headed to a nearby pier and caught another orange express boat downriver. This one was more crowded, still a nice experience to see the sights on the other side. Destination was Chinatown, and we stopped by sampeng market along the way. Nothing much to see, cheap goods and many stalls closing.

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The main stretch of chinatown is yaowarat road, which looks like nathan road in he 1950s. Houses are still in mid-20th century style, and it seems every shop is either an eatery or a gold shop. The neon lights are pretty though, the area really came to life after dark.

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We stopped at one of the side streets and took obligatory pics of the streetfood cook with his woks, and the vendor selling edible insects. If I were feeling better, I would have tried the insects: I’m especially interested in grasshopper and the worms though not quite there with the scorpion and large bugs. Actual dinner was satay at a stall where the auntie grilling the sticks wore plastic bag covered sneakers. My friend T told me to look for an auntie with camo shorts and wellington boots, may be this is the right one, or may be it’s another stall at the other side of yaowarat. Ah well.

Followed up the satay with a bowl of bird’s nest soup. Long time since we tried and it was pretty good.

Taxi back to the hotel. Had to walk outside the chinatown area to find one, and had to agree to fixed (no meter) price. No massage tonight, we had one every night on this trip. Resting and packing.

bangkok trip day 04: chatuchak market

Spent the whole day at chatuchak market, the largest market in Thailand and probably the largest in the world. Around 5mins walk from mo chit bts and no need for a map, just follow the crowd. It has over 15,000 stalls divided into sections and hosts something like 300,000 visitors.

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So much to buy and see! Accessories, decorations, clothes, shoes, socks, hats, bags, kitchenware, furniture, lights, herbs & spices. Plus much, much more. The best thing is, the products were rarely repeated. Which also meant, buy there and then because we’d forget and can’t find the stall again. Some stalls allowed bargaining but many didn’t. The only places we tried were when we were buying a few more items.

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There’s a whole section of art too.

Let’s see if I remember what we bought: t-shirt for mm, sneakers for both, notebooks, passport holders (with personalised decoration), tuk tuk souvenir, elephant souvenir, fridge magnet, bookmarks, lemongrass wardrobe scent packet, aromatic oil for room, handkerchief, slippers, belts.

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Lunch was quick noodles and we stopped at a craft coffee place to rest. The people at the coffee place really knew their stuff and seemed passionate about coffee. The beans come from thailand and they recommended me a blend that was quite light, fruity and not bitter at all for my iced coffee. It tasted more like tea than coffee, a big plus in my book. After more walking, we stopped for mango sticky rice and coconut ice cream.

By the time we headed out, I was exhausted and could barely put one foot in front of the other. We went to emporium supermarket and got rice paper rolls. My lack of appetite continued and I could only eat a few rolls.

Massage at a small place virtually next to the hotel. My back and legs were hurting from previous massages and walking all day, so I was a bit worried. Lots of time spent on feet and legs, and that was really great. The therapist said I felt hot and may be running a fever. Showered back at the hotel and put a cold towel on my head, and yes it felt like I had a temperature. Hopefully I can sleep it off.

bangkok trip day 03: city

The original plan was to visit ayutthaya, the old capital city around 80km from bangkok. We’d even arranged the car for the day. But with me being sick, we cancelled the day trip. I slept till 10am. Didn’t feel dizzy but not much of an appetite. Good thing for noodles for breakfast.

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Since we suddenly had more time in the city, we headed to the central shopping areas. Found a pop-up street market next to siam square station. Half the market had stalls selling mainly clothing and accessories. I didn’t have much interest in clothes but the accessories were cute. There were shoes, bags, watches, toys, keychains, and one stall selling nothing but pens.

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The other half of the market was all streetfood. We noticed that much of the streetfood was fried with some grilled. Pork is the main meat product with some seafood too. Vegetable selection mainly fresh and spicy looking salads. Pomegranate juice and sometimes mango. We were tempted by grilled prawns and they also had huge slabs of pork belly with crunchy looking crackling. The prawns were okay, some fresher than others. The pork was room temperature, the crackling was good and the meat was quite tender. Also ordered a vegetarian pad thai too. Today’s pad thai was made with the normal noodles, not spaghetti at the treehouse. All in all, a decent enough streetfood lunch.

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Took the bts one stop to chit lom. This was our first trip on the bts this time and i must be still sick because we got on the wrong train. This should be hard to do because there are only 2 lines, but that’s what we did, got on the wrong line. Ah well.

There’s an elevated walkway from chit lom station to the shopping centres around. Very much needed, because of the sheer amount of traffic. The elevated walkway went past Erawan shrine, so we stopped there for a minute. I vaguely remember the shrine being in the middle of the road, but I guess its location at a busy junction is similar. The small enclosure was heavy with smoke and incense from worshippers. We hadn’t planned on visiting any of the landmark shrines and wats during the trip, though it was nice to view it from the walkway.

Stopped at Central World and had two fresh coconuts. I’m not allowed cold drinks for the time being (no alcohol either, naturally) and fresh coconut water was perfect. Not a lot to see inside central world so we made our way to the Big C hypermarket. Two stories of food and household items. And extremely crowded with tourists. Compared with the frenzied mob, we were very restrained. I bought two boxes of cereal bars for mum and some snacks; mm bought coconut oil to make body lotion. We also saw bottles of 100-count paracetemol for some ridiculously low price and got that too.

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For dinner we headed back to central world where we saw a pop-up streetfood market. They had grilled salt-crusted whole fish, and we got grilled squid too. Took it back to the hotel to eat while resting. The fish we picked was tilapia, suited me because I still didn’t have much of an appetite. Came with an awesome dipping sauce that had a great balance between sweet, sour, and spicy.

The day wasn’t over! We’d booked a massage at another place nearby, this time it was four hands thai massage. It’s the first time either of us tried four hands and it was great. Normally I tend to focus on where the therapist was massaging, and sometimes would sub-consciously tense up in that area. With four hands, it was too distracting because too much was going on. My team worked well together and were quite synchronised; I could tell one was more experienced than the other but both were good. The two hour session was equivalent to a 4-hour session, so we came out feeling very relaxed.

bangkok trip day 02: bang krachao

More noodles for breakfast.

Destination today was the articifial island of bang krachao, located south of the city on the chao praya river. Technically it’s in another province, phra pradaeng, so when we asked the front desk manager, she was a little confused. Luckily, there is plenty of online information by other travellers. The island is mostly car-free and no commercial or high-rise buildings are allowed, to preserve its nature and culture.

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We took a taxi to Wat Klong Toey Nai and walked through a small street market with the wat to one side. We weren’t sure the instructions were to walk through the temple grounds or continue on the street and a kind elderly gentleman pointed us down the street. We weren’t even asking and he knew where we wanted to go! At the end of the street is a small pier for boats going to the island, just across the river, ฿10 per person. We let a bike tour group go through first, they all fit, together with their bikes, on a flat long boat.

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Our boat was much smaller and narrower. The trip across the river took just a couple of minutes. We walked outside the pier and found that there weren’t much in the vicinity that was walkable, so we rented a bike. ฿70 for the whole day; if ฿10 is 20p, then ฿70 is £1.40. That said, the bikes were pretty basic gearless models aimed at simply getting from one place to another. Good enough for us. We had to leave one ID with them for security deposit though. We hadn’t cycled for a while so both of us were rusty in the beginning. The island isn’t completely car-free and there are also lots of motorbikes so initially we were very careful on the narrow roads.

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We were given a hand-drawn (and later discovered to be not-to-scale) map, and I’d also printed one before we left so we had a good idea of our first stop. Sri Nakhon Khuan Khan park, otherwise known as bike park, is around 1km from the pier. Lots of trees, vegetation, a lake and a few bridges.

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Really picturesque, especially around the lake. Difficult to take good pics because of the intense midday sun and everything was green. We were in the park for around 30mins, then headed back to the main roads. Stopped at a roadside stall to get fruit, and skipped a few coffee places. There’s a weekend floating market on the island, which would have been interesting to visit. May be next time.

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From research and according to the map, a good place to head for is the bangkok treehouse, which has a restaurant and is also a hotel. We used a combination of the paper map and google maps, which took us along alleyways and eventually a narrow, unmarked path.

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It was worth it. The treehouse rise above surrounding trees yet blends in harmoniously. There’s an honesty bar selling snacks and drinks, and the restaurant has two upstairs decks with good views across the river to the mainland.

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There was a long wait for food, they told us there were a lot of back orders. It was okay, we found a table in the shade and enjoyed our drinks: watermelon smoothie and lime-mint smoothie; the smoothies are more like slush puppies made from fresh fruit. Eventually when the papaya salad and spaghetti pad thai arrived, they were tasty and just what we wanted. I ordered a local leo beer to try it out, tasted pretty bland. Anyway tt was nice to sit and relax after cycling for a couple of hours.

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It took us much less time to get back to the pier, because we weren’t looking at the map every few minutes and by then were more confident on the road. The boat had one stop on the island before making its way across the river and it gave us another view of part of the island, of the stilted houses overlooking the river. So much greenery and nature so near the city, it’s a must see and we’ll keep it on our itinerary for future visits.

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We’d booked a massage in the sala daeng area so we took a taxi there. Early enough to wander around the shopping centres around the station and dinner was chicken rice and mango sticky rice at streetfood stalls. The massage was at a place called chiwe chiwa, a small family-owned place. We had thai massage this time and the therapists were absolutely phenomenal. Took care of the stiff muscles from a day of cycling and hit the acupressure points on our feet perfectly.

The only issue was, I got unwell near the end of the massage. One minute I was dozing while having my head massaged, the next minute there was a loud buzz in my head, the room spun around and I was literally sick. The aunties took really good care of me, giving me sweet tea and their local tiger balm ointment. Got us a taxi and I sat on the chair in our room to try to get better. Hot shower helped for a minute but I was dizzy and sick again when I tried to lay down in the bed. We think it’s dehydration and heatstroke from the island. It was a hot sunny day, I guess I didn’t drink enough water. Sigh.

bangkok trip day 01: sukhumvit

Bangkok airport at 2.30am was surprisingly busy, lots of flights arriving. We detoured to the duty free, found nothing special, and proceeded to passport control. Our luggage got to the belt just as we arrived. We read that the best exchange rates are at the airport but weren’t impressed with the rates on offer. We had enough cash to last us a day, so we decided to check out the forex places in the city.

When I was changing my sim card, I discovered to my horror that the casing on my iphone had cracked open on the long side, the screen was warped and the inside circuit boards were showing. The phone still worked fine so there’s nothing I can do until I get home. Fingers crossed it keeps working.

We’d booked a private car transfer with a driver recommended by someone mm knows, and he’d texted us his picture, a pic of his car and the licence plate. We texted him when we arrived and went out to the pick up area to wait for him. It probably was a little more expensive than a regular taxi but there was no danger of him taking the long way (agreed fixed price) and he was polite and nice. Got us to the hotel around 4am. The street outside looked dark with not many streetlights, so we may have to be a bit careful.

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The hotel is hyatt place sukhumvit. It’d recently reopened after renovation, which was why the price was so good. There’s a small sitting area on the ground floor and the lobby is on 3/F. Nice modern and spacious area with sofa seating, a small bar, and a vending machine area. We never saw anyone buy anything from the vending machines the entire time we were there. Even the front desk staff told us that we’re better off going to the 7-eleven opposite. The room is large, with a bench at the end of the bed which meant we could both put our suitcases up. Long table with lots of space for me to put my mba and us to put food and other stuff. The best feature of the room is that there are SO.MANY.SOCKETS. For the first time in my memory, I didn’t need to use my extension cord, we were able to plug in all our electronics. There were 2 sockets at each side of the bed, and 2 sets of two at the table. What’s more, the sockets are multi-whatever the name is for being able to take different types of plugs. Our three-pronged UK plugs, my flat US charger for idevices, and if needed, circular European plugs too. I think only Aussie slanted plugs or less common plugs need an adaptor.

After some basic unpacking and shower, time to take a nap. Yes, booking the room the night before sounds like a waste of money, but believe me, it’s worth it simply because we didn’t have to worry about asking if there’s a room available (almost 12hrs before offcial checking in time) and we could get a few hours’ rest.

And since we were booked in the night before, we could have breakfast. The usual selection: bacon, sausage, eggs, salad, fruit, breads, cereal. There was an omelette station and a noodle bar. The noodle was really nice, and I wisely asked for the spicy looking chili sauce on the side. The other food was pretty unremarkable. I didn’t have to break into my own tea bags, they had english breakfast.

The plan today was to take it easy. We explored our street, sukhumvit soi 24, from one end to the other. There’s a 7-eleven across the street from the hotel and several more walking down the street. A couple of other hotels, a smattering of restaurants, quite a number of posh looking apartment blocks, and lots of massage places. One of the places that we noticed when we were researching was a large restaurant called seafood market, with a logo that said “if it swims we have it” where customers pick their seafood and bring it to the chefs to be cooked. We looked inside and were definitely not impressed. The counter was very, very long with lots of choices, from alaskan king crab to lobster to clams to fish. Didn’t look very fresh and pretty expensive too. All the way to the end of the soi was a petrol station and a tesco’s. Not very large supermarket, typical of service stations, we wandered around and headed back.

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Had our first street food! Skewers of chicken heart and liver from a street cart halfway down the street. Very tasty and fresh, no horrible stale offal taste. ฿10 each, that’s like 20p (30c for Americans). Looks like we’ll be streetfooding a lot.

The top end of the soi is phrom phong bts station, and the big emporium shopping centre complex. We found the forex place we were looking for at the basement of the emporium, giving a much better rate than at the airport. Explored around the kitchenware department and the gourmet supermarket.

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Walking around, trying to find more streetfood. Came across a noodle shop hidden behind cars and a huge sign. The owner waved at us when we stopped and the shop was definitely a land of curiosity. Obviously family owned, half the shop had tables for customers and half looked like their home, with tables, chairs, shelves and stuff everywhere. There were magazines were for sale, displayed on shelves at both sides of the shop. English, French, Italian versions of Hello, Vogue and such like. Wrapped in clear plastic, and looking pretty recent. There was a Hello with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle prominently displayed.

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The menu looks like it has 3 items plus a few add-ons but it’s in Thai so we couldn’t read it. So mm went up to the front and picked out what we wanted. I think she pointed at what someone else was eating and said we’ll have that. The proprietors spoke a little english so we weren’t completely lost. We got bowls of noodles with wonton and charsiu, plus coke in a bottle for nostalgia. The noodles were simple yet delicious. Love the place. It’s at one of the sois north of sukhumvit (33, 35 or 37). Total cost of the meal ฿100, or £2.

Rested back at the hotel for a bit, then headed to the asia herb association 5mins down the road for the massage we’d booked in the morning. This is one of the more expensive places we found when researching, but even the longest package that we picked was only around ฿3000. For that we get 4.5hrs: body scrub, aromatic oil massage, herbal ball, foot massage, head & shoulder massage. In most countries, that price (around £60) gets a 60min standard massage. Overall, the massages were good, but not spectacular. Mostly aimed at relaxation, so light pressure instead of the deep intense massages we usually like. Suited the occasion though.

Past 10pm when we finished. Had late dinner at nearby ramen shop.

bangkok trip day 00: waiting to go to the airport

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Mostly waiting. Flight is tomorrow at 0040 so have to leave for airport today. Google maps says it’ll take 1.5hrs on the bus so I left at 8.15pm to get to the check-in area to meet mm at 10pm. Turned out, google maps was being overly cautious and I got there around 9pm. Meanwhile, mm was waiting for her bus for so long that we decided she should get the train instead. I got a mint tea at the agnès b café but didn’t have to wait long.

Check-in and everything else was quick, we had plenty of time to browse around the duty free. I’d thought of getting a bottle of sake so we can enjoy it in our hotel but couldn’t find any. Whisky selection was okay, nothing special. I got a bottle of octomore that I’d been eyeing for a while.

Flight boarding was at 0000, very full. 2-4-2 and I got the last two seats at the window side when I checked in on sunday. Not a huge selection of films or tv, but the flight’s only around 2.5hrs. I watched ep7. They fed us a hot dog and it was perfect because we were getting peckish.

Napped for a bit, and then we arrived already.

shortest day

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Flying this way over the international date line means my ‘day’ started at 8.45pm when the plane landed. I was out at luggage claim by 9.10pm when I called mum. Luggage came out quickly too.

Airport express then taxi. Home at arond 10.15pm. Door-to-door 21 hours. I remember there were times when it was over 24 hours.

I was tired. Too tired to eat even though I was hungry. Too tired to unpack, other than food that needed to go into the fridge, which is unusual for me.

Talked with mm for about an hour, eventually I had to cut her short because I was about to fall asleep. It’s good to be back in my own bed.

flight

Left around 12.15pm, got to the airport around 1pm. No wait for bag drop. No upgrade unfortunately but the counter agent said they were having a special offer for premium economy upgrade, only $650. I was like “only” $650, you’re kidding. When I checked in on saturday I saw that the flight wasn’t that full so I passed.

There was a queue at security, nothing unexpected. I wandered around the duty free; I’d decided that I wasn’t going to buy anything no matter how tempting. I have no room at home. I got to sample the standard Jack Daniels and got chatting with the gentleman in charge of the tasting table. He gave me a small sample bottle of brandy!

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Decamped to the bar. A glass of wine and spicy tuna poké for lunch. Interesting, this poké trend. I like it, the tuna was marinated, a little spicy which balanced out when mixed with the rice and avocado. There were also two large rice cracker pieces. Felt like I was eating something healthy, most people around me were having a burger.

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The flight was definitely not full. My bulkhead aisle seat gave me lots of legroom and the seat next to me was empty. If i’d stuck to my original selection of seat D I would have gotten the whole row but that was always a risk. I was able to sleep for about 5-6hrs in total on the flight. The film selection was one of the poorest in recent trips. Nothing I wanted to watch at all, and the ones that appealed to me were old films like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Iron Man. I ended up watching the two John Wick films and some old tv series. The John Wick films were surprisingly good, mindless action. And surprisingly good reviews too. Food was mediocre, beef stew with potatoes that had no flavour for dinner and chicken stew with mash that had spring onions for lunch. Didn’t touch either potato sides. At least the cup noodles was consistent and there were plenty of snacks.

chicago trip day 27

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I’ve packed almost everything, just the last minute items to go in before leaving tomorrow morning. For the longest time I thought I was flying on tuesday, because I usually fly on a tuesday. I checked my ticket a few days ago and realised I was actually flying monday, so one less day than I thought.

Went to Aunt C’s house for lunch. So wonderful to see so many family members there! The kids have grown so much. I remember little A when she was a baby and J is now an adult and sporting a beard too (it’s for an event and he said he’ll shave it off afterwards). The spaghetti and salad were delicious as always and I had two generous helpings.

Day 27 of my trip and looking back, I didn’t do a whole lot. Except for the week of the conference it was mostly staying in or doing laundry or going to the supermarket. Went out to the city twice, once to walk around and another was yesterday’s disasterous go fest. I feel rested and not stressed until this past few days when I started thinking about having to go home. There’s a part of me that can’t wait to go home, to see mm, read at my own desk and sleep in my own bed. There’s another part that has been enjoying how laid back staying at Car’s house has been. We went out or called out for meals a few times, to the usual places–steak, mexican, beggar’s, portillo’s, cracker barrel. We also cooked a few meals at home–pasta, potato frittata, cheeseburger. Sometimes I simply made ham & egg sandwich or toasted some waffles. We would be sitting at the dining table reading, and it’d be peaceful. There was no schedule, no anxiety. Grateful to my friend Car and her cat Midi for making me feel so at home (and I’m not saying this because I know she will be reading this, waves to Car).

day out in chicago

Went out to the city to walk around, check out new places, do a little pokehunting.

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I got to la salle station around 11am. Bought the return ticket and headed out. I really wanted to go to Girl and the Goat but they open at 4.30pm, no lunch service. After researching various other options, I decided to go to revival food hall. It’s a glorified food court, much like the Smorgasburg at south street seaport in NYC. The idea is

an all-local dining concept spotlighting the best of Chicago’s acclaimed culinary scene under one roof

There are 15 stalls, featuring hipster fast food like artisan pizza, ramen, salads, seafood, barbeque, poké. I heard good things about the barbeque so I got a brisket sandwich that came with 2 sauces, I picked memphis and luling, TX to give some tang and a little spice. Didn’t order the sides because instead I got the medium poké with salad. Tuna, edamame, avocado with a spicy yuzu sauce. Can’t get more extreme american food than this–southern vs fusion hawaiian. Combined, came to around $20 so not cheap.

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I wanted to go out to grant park and the lake. Missed the bus so I got the divy bikes. $10 for a 24hr day pass and 30min free rides. Same model as NYC citibikes. It was really nice to bike along the lake on the bike path. I went all the way to adler planetarium. It gave a great view back to the skyline and the lake.

The reason I headed to adler was because I’d read that it’s a good pokemongo spot. And there were quite a few. Two problems: mostly commons, and I spent more than half my time there trying to get a decent signal. I’d get no service, or no data, or 2G. Even tried switching to the brand new simcard. The coffee shop in the planetarium had wifi but it screwed up the gps so much that I was either jumping all over the place or it had me out in the water. Overall, did not meet expectations.

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Biked back to the loop and ended up at Miller’s Pub. It’s been YEARS since we went there for happy hour. Asked the bartender to recommend an amber ale and he served up a good one. I’d been walking or biking for over 2hrs and the drink was much needed.

Walked over to Sears Tower because again I read that there may be tauros there. Guess what? Nothing. Zero. Zip. The pokemon experience in chicago so far has been atrocious. Needing to restart every 2 mins, the app crashing every 5 mins, nothing worthwhile to catch. Disappointing.

Instead, I biked around a little more. The streets are okay for biking, traffic is slow and the roads are straight. Drivers aren’t that crazy. A couple of streets have dedicated bike lanes.

Got to the station at 3.47pm and was able to catch the 3.50pm. No waiting. We had tacos for dinner and it was yummy. Great day out, had fun walking and biking. I sure hope saturday’s pokemon fest isn’t a complete disaster.

chicago trip day 08

Woke up at 5.30am because we had an early start. We loaded up my suitcase and muji bag of things for people and the silent auction and were off at 7am. It being a public holiday the roads were relatively clear. I took a chance and asked reception if the room was ready and it was. I dumped my bags and joined the group for breakfast and part of their meeting.

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Very interesting meeting but I and another meeting attendee had to leave at 11am to get a lyft to Wrigley to see the baseball game. A was at a downtown hotel and would meet me at our seats. I’m not sure why we needed to get to the park so early, we got there at 11.45am and they wandered off to their seats. I walked around the outside of the stadium, made my way inside and explored the concession stands. Lots of food–beer,hot dogs, snacks. Souvenir shops too. I got a goose island beer (had to look for it, it was mostly budweiser) and a giordano’s pizza–I asked for cheese and got pepperoni, sigh. Our seats were in the shade behind first base. The game started at 1.20pm, I had over an hour to wait. Again, not sure why the friends took that lyft so early.

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It being Independence Day, there was a parade of military personnel, a display of an American flag that covered most of the field, and we stood for the National Anthem.

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To be honest, I found the game boring. There’d be short bursts of action then long periods of waiting around for teams to get organised or change positions or talk strategy. It’s not continuous and makes the game very long, total I think this game was 3 hours.

The cubs were playing tampa bay rays. Cubs took a 1-0 lead but rays in one innings went up 1-6. It wasn’t till the end of the 9th innings that things got exciting. Cubs fought back to 5-6. Two out and two strikes there were people on bases. If the batter hit the ball far enough they’d have a chance to win. But in the end they didn’t so final score cubs 5 rays 6.

We took the red line to A’s hotel, stopping off to get some stuff at walgreens and visit cheesecake factory. Taxi to a blue line station, L to rosemont then taxi to the hotel.

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A little tired but hungry. Walked over to the retail park 5mins from the hotel. There was a band and food stalls as people celebrated the holiday. We found seats at a mexican place and I had blackened shrimp quesadilla which was quite good.

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Had a wine at the hotel bar and joined others to watch fireworks. Long day and tired.

chicago trip day 03

Carleen had a hair appointment so I went with her to the mall and walked around during her appointment. Didn’t by anything, although towels and a suitcase ($109 only) were tempting.

Mostly, I hit the 4 pokestops in the middle of the mall. Pokemon go is very disappointing here, now I understand what people are saying about suburbs and rural: I can see pidgeys and spinaraks around the house and there is one stop at the now-empty Radioshack store. That’s it. St Walter’s is a gym and there are 2 stops there. There are no chance for raids. I’ll have to figure out a way to go to a stop once a day. That said, I think I’ve evolved all the gen 2 level 2 that I can and for the others I have the evolution item and need more candies. I’ll have to find a way to go into the city one day to try to find tauros.

The salad I bought at the supermarket was nice and the fried chicken too.

chicago trip day 01

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Left at 8.15am and should have remembered it’s rush hour. Took around 15mins to get a taxi, I was looking at uber when one arrived. The driver was joking that he was looking for a public bathroom, so I told him about the one in the small park. He was okay, he could wait till we get to the station. Hahaha, TMI.

Check-in was fast. The plane was full, I got upgraded to premium economy. But no lounge access.

Had breakfast in the airport, made an attempt at walking around the shops and sat at the gate for over an hour. Not bored, though. Because it was a US flight, there was secondary screening security theatre. Another queue, and then another to get on the plane. The seats are 2-4-2, so not that much extra width; slightly more legroom than regular economy. I was in seat D and the 3 seats next to me were a group of three colleagues so they never got in my way.

Saw Hidden Figures, Passengers, Star Wars ep 7 and 5 eps of X-files 2016 season. Not sure why they only had 5 eps instead of all 6. Hidden Figures was wonderful, justifying every positive review I’ve seen about it. Passengers was meh, it was the best of the meagre superhero/sci-fi film selection that I like watching on the plane.

Food was okay. Overcooked beef filet for one meal and sea bass with skin still on and bones for the other. Ate everything because I was hungry. Got instant noodles too.

Arrived at around 1.30pm, taxi to the terminal was around 10mins. Got through passport control super fast–the e-passport really works. One suitcase came out relatively quickly but the other one was almost the last one out, after a long wait. Another queue to hand in the custom form at the end. Carleen met me at the carpark and we were on out way soon.

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Carleen had been tracking my flight. Look at all the planes over US airspace at one moment on a weekday afternoon.

Early dinner at the steakhouse. Then back to the house. Rested, read, washed the sheets.

I lasted till 9.30pm, then my eyes started drooping and it was bedtime. Tired, long day but glad to have arrived.

nagoya trip summary

ngo061car

Finished writing up trip and uploaded pics. This was a fantastic trip, and I’m very glad I insisted on going to a new destination rather than Hokkaido or Tokyo. It was a bit hectic, we tried to cram probably one or two stops too many, but we both agree it was worth the hassle. Having a car really, really helped. Some numbers:

  • duration: 8 days, 7 nights
  • hotels: 4 total
  • distance driven: 882km (548 miles)
  • pics taken: 976 original, trimmed to 696 in 6 sets

201705nagoyaexpenses

Total spend excluding personal shopping around USD2,200 per person. The package was decent value, notwithstanding the 4 nights that the agent incorrectly booked. They confirmed they will refund my credit card, so it’s all good. Transport was expensive, between car rental, tolls, and the alpine route ticket. Looking a past Japan expenses, transportation is always expensive.

Posts:

flickr sets:

Some more interesting pics. Takayama traditional house:
tak033house

Saw a group of customised motorbikes in a car park at Takayama:
tak183bike tak185bike

Cannot get enough of the view from our onsen hotel room:
tak322roomview

Koi kites at Shirakawa-go:
shi032koikite

Tilt-shift Shirakawa-go village:
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Sake, sake, sake:
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tak112sake tak233sake

Trolley bus through Tateyama tunnel felt like something out of a sci-fi film:
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Waiting for the bus, and then two comes at the same time:
alp141snow alp142snow
alp143snow alp144snow

Kenrukuen panorama:
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Lanterns:
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Manhole covers:
ngo008manhole shi187manhole

nagoya trip day 08: flight

Checked out at 10am. We had loads of time, slowly wheeled our luggage across the station to catch the train to the airport. In retrospect we should have left our bags with the hotel and gone looking for chicken wings, but ah well.

ngo059sushi

The counter wasn’t open so we took our luggage with us to the food court. Had a decent local fish chirashi, then some shopping at muji and the pokemon store.

Flight was full, but we’d strategically picked aisle seats in the middle section and the seat between us was vacant, so yay. Watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them which was very enjoyable. Too tired to get the bus home, took a taxi.

nagoya trip day 07: suganuma, nagoya

sug021village

Sniff sniff, our last full day. It’d been a hectic trip, we probably tried to cram in too much. But all of the places we visited had been worth it.

Went to a bakery café at the station for breakfast, bought additional bread and doughnuts for the road too. Went to the supermarket to get apples, and bought a small bottle of sake.

sug032roofworkers

The drive to nagoya was just over 3hrs so we had plenty of time, setting off at 10.45am. Around half an hour in, we saw the signs for gokayama so we decided to take the detour. Gokayama is another world heritage gassho heritage village like Shirakawa-go. Somehow we ended up at Suganuma despite following the signs. No matter, what a revelation. Smaller than Shirakawa-go but so much more peaceful and with only a handful of tourists. All the houses were concentrated around a small area and there were even workers working to replace the roof of one of the houses.

sug114camp

Lunch was soba, fried tofu, hida beef buns and unfiltered sake. All the delicious food we have been trying on the trip. The other side of the main village, through a short tunnel, were more gassho houses. Completely empty, until we noticed a map that said it was a youth camp. Probably the off-season and it seemed like a great place to camp in the summer. Both Suganuma and Shirakawa-go offered ryokan accommodation; next time it’d be something we will consider. Tha facilities would be basic, no air-con and likely shared bathrooms, but the villages offered tranquility and the opportunity to get away into nature.

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Long drive back to nagoya and the GPS took us to some odd building, not our hotel. Google maps to the rescue, it was just a few blocks out. The hotel was a higher class business class hotel than the no-frills one we were supposed to be booked into. Double the price. Really nice room with large beds, a sofa and a large bathroom. Top floor with floor length windows offering views of the city. Just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We went to the petro station, returned our car (882km total, less than one tank of petrol and an eye-popping ¥18650 in tolls), walked to Jins to get our glasses and did some drugstrore shopping.

ngo053wings

Seemed like the Chūbu region is more famed for cooked food than sashimi so we walked around the station looking for chicken wings. This izakaya we came across was cozy and had a great Friday evening atmosphere. Our new favourite drink was umeshu soda and we ordered 10 chicken wings, plus an assortment of other small dishes. Another new favourite was cucumber with miso, this we could make at home easily.

Last minute shopping at lawson’s then back to hotel to pack and rest for the night.

nagoya trip day 06: kanazawa market, kenrukuen, higashi chaya

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At last, a leisurely day with no huge pressure to wake up early. First stop was the fish market, which after more walking than we preferred, we found a place that served sushi. We both got the tuna, ikura and crabmeat chirashi. Some Korean tv crew came into the restaurant whilst we were eating and filmed some tv star eating the restaurant’s largest sushi dish at one of the outside tables. It attracted a crowd, but we were never sure who the star was so we focused on eating our meal. The sushi was okay, nothing special. Had grilled eel and fish at another nearby stall and then we left for our next destination.

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The highlight of Kanazawa was Kenrukuen garden, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens. It had all the elements of great garden design like tranquility, harmony, water feature. Although it was fairly crowded, we never felt bothered and we could always find a quiet spot. There was a beautiful lake, and the trees and flowers were in perfect harmony with each other. A great place to walk around, breathe in the fresh air and take in the features.

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Even the shops outside were nice, we bought even more folders and I got a salty soda which tasted like upmarket fizzy pocari. We saw a group of three women in kimonos, whether they were geishas or just women in traditional costumes we didn’t know.

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From the garden we drove to higashi chaya tea house district. Traditional wooden houses in a pedstrian district, the houses used to be inhabited by geishas, hence the tea house aspect. Lots of picture opportunities and we stopped at a teahouse–iced matcha for me, hot matcha latte for mm and we shared a tea-flavoured chiffon cake. One thing we did resist throughout the day was the gold leaf covered ice cream that seemd to be everywhere. Kanazawa produces the majority of Japan’s gold leaves and these ice cream are supposed to be unique. Problem was, gold leaves are tasteless and we didn’t see the point of trying plain vanilla soft serve. We had green tea and sesame ice cream near kenrukuen and it was much better.

A few minutes from higashi chaya across town was a shopping district. We hadn’t done much shopping on this trip so it was nice to stop by tokyu hands. Bought some stationery and mm bought more cosmetics. Looking at google maps we saw a nearby chicken restaurant. We were early so were the only customers. The chicken skewers and chicken wings were nice, but nothing to write home about, so we went back to the hotel for ramen, bath and dessert in our room.

Our travel agent had been in touch throughout the past two days, trying to find a hotel for us in nagoya. Not successful, so we’re keeping the one we reserved ourselves.

nagoya trip day 05: tateyama-kurobe alpine route

6.30am alarm, we set off before 7.30am. The destination was tateyama-kurobe alpine route 立山黒部, or alpenroute as they shortened it. This region of the japanese alps get huge amounts of snow every winter and the buildings at the top of tateyama are snowed in until they can get snow ploughs going in march. A narrow corridor gets opened along the road up to the hotel at the top and the snow can reach 20m. A few years ago they realised they could turn this into a tourist attraction, and in typical Japanese fashion, came up with a route that goes from Tateyama up the mountain, along the snow corridor, down via ropeway and cable car to Kurobe dam on the other side. Several different modes of transport on one ticket. There are also a couple of companies that lets people drop off their car and then pick it up on the other side. We opted for a return from Tateyama to Kurobe dam and I bought the ticket online earlier, with a specific start time of 10am.

The GPS guidance up to now had been stellar. The navi systems in Japan allows us to enter a phone number of the destination as well as name. There was a hiccup this time round to Tateyama, almost at the end it took us to a steep footpath with an abrupt dropoff on the driver’s side. I shouldn’t have followed it but I did. Luckily we got through and rejoined the road, but it was scary for a moment.

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We had experience with a planned, organised route through a sightseeing area before when we did the Hakone loop, but that didn’t prepare us for the sheer mayhem that was the alpenroute. We joined the queue at 9.55am for the 10am cable car, which was completely full. It took us up a 24% incline to the next stop where we joined another queue for the bus, which was also full. So full that a few people had to sit on the additional tour guide seats that opened up between the regular seats. The bus trip was almost one hour, and it took us from temperate temperatures to snow. Then we drove through the snow corridor, literally a corridor opened up with walls of snow either side of the road.

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We made an executive decision once we got to Murodo, the end of the bus leg and where the snow corridor attraction was. The place was pandemonium, people everywhere. The reason was it was around noon, and people who started their journey on both the east and west points on the route were converging at the same time on Murodo. Since we were going roundtrip as opposed to one way, we decided to get to our end point, Kurobe dam, then make our way back, to avoid the crush. So it was a matter of hopping on even more modes of transportation: a trolley bus that went through a tunnel in the mountain, the ropeway and another cable car.

alp064dam

It was a good decision. The dam was really peaceful and the weather was good. Took around 15mins to walk across to the other side and then it was time for lunch; I had katsu-don and mm had tempura udon. Probably the most disappointing food on the trip so far, definitely below par and tasting like fast food. Served its purpose, filled us up considering we didn’t have a proper breakfast.

alp153snow

Went through the clouds on the way back up and down the mountain, which was an interesting experience. By the time we arrived at the snow corridor it was around 3pm and the crowd had thinned out somewhat. The snow corridor was basically a stretch of road leading to the bus stop, with one side of the road roped off for pedestrians. A sign at the end of the roped area showed where the snow was highest, 16m this winter. People queued up for pictures and the gentleman who took our picture tried to get a bus in the background. As it was nearing the end of the tour day, there were plenty of buses along the road, which was the perfect way of showing how high the wall was. To be honest, at that point we were quite tired from all the travelling and found the snow wall a bit underwhelming. The light didn’t give pictures as good as postcards and the snow wall itself wasn’t pristine white. Still very nice and an interesting sight.

alp193snowroad

The map showed a trail to a small lake at the back of the building and we thought we might try going there. Problem was the path hadn’t been ploughed and it was slippery to negotiate. We needed boots and poles. Gave up after about 100m and took the bus and cable car back to the bottom of the mountain. I like this pic that shows a bus coming up through the corridor. When we got back down the mountain to Tateyama station we still had a 1.5hr drive back to Kanazawa but it was a good day out and we were back in our room by 7pm.

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The hotel recommended a nearby izakaya, around 5mins’ walk. Unfortunately it was full and everyone was smoking so we left and went to one across the road. It was a good choice. I had a much needed beer and we ordered yakitori, chicken wings, chicken cartilege and a really yummy asparagus-mushroom dish. They were sold out of beef and gizzards, and chicken wings too when we tried to order a second portion. We went back to the hotel, went to the bath and had the hotel ramen. Did laundry too, the washers were free and the dryers ¥100 for 20mins.

nagoya trip day 04: shirakawa-go

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We asked for a window seat at breakfast and were not disappointed. What a view! The server told us that we were looking at umbrella mountain, the #1 mountain in Gifu Prefecture (Fuji is #1 in Japan, he acknowledged). The breakfast was even more satisfying than yesterday’s, if that was possible. The tray was positively brimming with smal dishes and we got to grill our own fish too.

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We set off at 10am to head to Shirakawa-go 白川郷, around 1.5hrs. The village is a UNESCO World Heritage site of gassho thatched cottages, or steep high-sided thatched roofs intended to withstand the heavy snowfalls in winter. The name gassho meant prayer hands, because of the shape the roof made.

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The entire site was quite crowded with many tour groups. There was the inevitable commercialisation of the village, with the main street full of souvenir shops and food stands. Didn’t detract from its natural beauty though; after the region attained world heritage status, the houses had to be maintained using thatched roofs but we could see a few that had been modernised before they got the status. We stopped at one of the shops that had a sake bar and ordered one sake and one unfiltered sake. The unfiltered one was absolutely delicious. The intense taste of the rice that was still present in the liquid, so sweet and so satisfying. We bought a jar to take home with us.

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We didn’t go inside the houses that were open to the public. At the top of the village was a steep path that led to a viewpoint up the hill. Good exercise and worth the walk. Stunning views of the village, surrounded by green mountains and there was still snow at the top of the mountains in the background. I played around with the tiltshift app on my phone, the small lego-like houses were perfect for this purpose.

shi145house

Despite the commercialisation, it was still a working village. Away from the main street, villagers were farming the land or in greenhouses. It wasn’t as remote as it seemed–there was no part of Japan that was truly remote–the villagers went about their business, there were plenty of cars around and we saw the post being delivered throughout the day. Lunch was soba with a small bowl of flavoured rice. The cold, refreshing soba dipped in sauce was the perfect lunch, not too heavy and no need for meat.

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Explored the lower end of the village and stopped at a café-shop. I had iced matcha latte and mm had coffee. The matcha latte was just like green tea milkshake and better than ice cream. The shop sold cute accessories and stationery; I bought a couple of notebooks for my niece. We’d been stocking up on folders along the way and I had a good selection already.

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The last stop of the day was the open air heritage museum. By the time we got there we were the last people to enter and the place was completely empty. Didn’t think the tour groups went there anyway. There were around 20 thatched houses that we learned were transported from the village to the museum and faithfully reconstructed. The interiors were large and open plan. We ventured up to the first floor of one but didn’t go to any more because the stairs were pretty steep and precarious. A couple of houses were showing videos of the village’s history and there was one video of how the thatched roofs were made. Very manual and intensive. Takes a lot of skill and knowhow to add the thick layers in the right way to ensure support and protection. Thick ropes and needles secured the bundles to interior beams.

From Shirakawa-go we headed to Kanazawa for the next 3 nights. When we got to the hotel we discovered to our horror that our agent had booked us on the wrong dates (June instead of May). The hotel front desk staff were wonderful, they got the manager’s approval to let us have a vacant room they saved for emergencies even though they were officially full. Additional cost, but we would claim this from our agent. We discovered the next hotel was also booked for the wrong date and the staff called for us, even though it was a different chain. Unfortunately there were no rooms so first thing we did when we got to our room was hit up hotels.com. Pretty full but I was able to find a room near the station. It was nice to have a bigger room for 3 days, the room was probably saved for VIPs as it was on the top floor and larger than the usual rooms.

Pretty tired after the long day so we walked to the station, found a supermarket and bought sushi to eat back in our room. The hotel had a sento, aka public bath. A small indoor pool, an even smaller outdoor pool and a sauna. The water didn’t feel like onsen water, we could smell chlorine. The sauna was great and much needed after a long day’s walking and driving.

nagoya trip day 03: takayama

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Breakfast at this hotel was served in the restaurant, which was a change. A nicely presented selection of small dishes, with fish as the protein. What was outstanding was the miso heated over shiso leaves: a combination of salty, sweet, smoky. Yum.

Drove out to Takayama, parked in town today. Typical efficient Japanese carpark, only a few spaces with automatic sensor. A ramp comes up underneath the car when it senses movement, when we leave we pay at the machine and it tells us how much. The ramp lowers and we have 3 mins to move the car. We had been noticing yesterday, so were on the lookout for cheaper hourly places.

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The destination this morning was miyagawa morning market by the river. Mainly stalls selling fruit, vegetables and some craft. A mix of local and tourists. We bought really huge juicy apples and sake from a sake shop. Stopped at a coffee stall run by an elderly lady. Two things on the menu-coffee and iced coffee–I was even okay with the coffee provided I added lots of cream. There was a sign that the stall had been in business since 1975. We felt proud to be part of its history.

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Lunch was at a butcher shop-restaurant. Weekday lunch special, A5 hida beef that we grilled at the table, this time cut in cubes. The best beef on the trip so far in my opinion. Polished off with a bottle of cold sake.

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There was more time to walk around Takayama old town, and by the end of the afternoon we had covered almost all of it. It being a monday, there were definitely fewer people than yesterday and we were able to spend more time exploring the souvenir shops, sake shops or take pictures of the traditional wooden houses.

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There was even a visit to a miso / soy sauce shop and they were serving samples of miso soup. Discovered the souvenir find of this trip–plastic folders! We’d gotten to the point of not wanting to buy too many souvenirs, and tired of always buying the same mochi or sweets. Folders are cheap, useful and make great souvenirs.

We saved enough time to drive to a drugstore we saw yesterday. Bought tea and mm bought some cosmetics.

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Time for onsen before dinner, and a little time to sit at the rest area to have a cup of tea or coffee too. The rest area looked out onto the deck, if we had more time at the hotel it would be so peaceful to sit out there and absorb the mountain view.

Kaiseki dinner started with a really refreshing yogurt liquor. The starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling. Hida beef was cooked as a shabu shabu, and the soup was used to make udon at the end. We were both full by then but the udon was so good we managed to eat a bowl each.

Time to pack and sleep.

nagoya trip day 02: takayama, onsen

Our hotel included breakfast. It was pretty much a mad scramble with around a hundred people in a canteen-like dining room with long tables and everything self-serve. Curry, rice, scrambled eggs, sausages, heaps of salad, fruit. I made tea from hot water. Even though it was a mad scramble, everyone was well-mannered and organised. No shouting, no pushing, no cutting in line. There was even a queue to return dirty trays and people wiped the table after them using the cloth provided. This is what I love about the Japanese people.

We checked out and crossed the street to pick up our rental car from the toyota rent-a-car office. Spending time on research means picking the correct location. Our car was a blue Aqua, which is the local equivalent of a Prius C so basically we were renting Ryan for a week. Added ETC card rental because we knew there would be lots of tolls.

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Attempted to go to the central market but it looked closed so we headed straight onto the motorway towards Takayama. Easy 1.5hr drive. We drove around the town, through the middle of the mass of tourists at the old town area and ended up at a shopping street 10-15mins’ walk from the station. Parking there was free, ostensibly for the shopping street only so we made sure to visit there first. Already we saw stuff we love: Japanese sweets and local sake. The nice lady gave us samples and we tried valiantly to communicate with each other using broken English and copious domo arigatou gozaimasu.

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We walked around the old town quickly to find lunch. We knew we wanted hida beef, the local speciality that has similar marbling to kobe and matsuzaka beef. We chose the grilled thin-sliced A5 grade hida beef rice set. It was served hitsumabushi style, with condiments and broth. Fantastic. Tender and juicy beef and everything so well balanced.

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We had around 2 hrs after lunch to explore around town. Saw part of the old town main street, bought cute ceramic ornaments, sampled more sake. Ate green tea ice cream that was disappointing (too icy). Bought fruit and tea at the supermarket. Walked back to the shopping street to buy souvenirs and a bottle of sake from the nice lady.

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We were on a schedule. It was around 1hr’s drive to the onsen hotel and we wanted to get there before 5pm. It’s a big sprawling hotel with several wings. Luxurious lobby and an entire shelf of yukatas so we could pick the pattern we liked. We found out our dinner slot was at 8pm so that meant we had time to rest. Our room was absolutely wonderful and totally exceeded our expectations. It was a suite! The bedroom was tatami, with low mattresses and more than enough room to lay our suitcases out. Then there was a sitting room with sink and fridge, and a massage chair. The view from the sitting room out to the garden was spectacular, there was a small stream and daffodils just beginning to appear. Best of all, we had our own onsen bathtub, wow. Everything was clean too, so it wasn’t a case of not wanting to touch or use the tub.

There was time before dinner to go to the onsen. There was a large indoor pool, a couple of tubs outside and an outdoor pool. Not too crowded and all very nice. Oh, a low temperature sauna too. We needed the relaxation of an onsen, it was great to just soak in the hot water. Fresh milk was available for free in the small sitting area outside the baths, we shared one bottle so as not to ruin our appetite.

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The restaurant was quite posh and as usual the kaiseki menu had lots of courses. Started off with an alcoholic aperitif, then starters, sashimi, sticky dumpling before the main course. It was the local attraction, hida beef, which we grilled ourselves at the table. Really yummy. Finished off with beef pot, rice and dessert.

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Even though we’d already used the onsen, I wanted to wash my hair because of the grease and smell from dinner. So I used our private onsen tub. It was okay, took a long time to fill, by then I was bored so I only soaked for a few minutes.

Long day travelling, picturesque traditional town and an outstanding hotel room. Totally worth it.

nagoya trip day 01: flight, nagoya

Early start, 5am alarm because mm was setting off before me and I wanted to make sure she got up. I was planning on catching the 6.30am bus, managed to catch the one before that. It was standing room only! Seemed like I was sharing the bus with airport workers going to work and a few travellers catching early flights. Since I was early I went to get the pocket wifi before meeting mm. Check-in was easy and we were inside quickly. Breakfast was eggs I made yesterday (perfectly soft boiled if I may say so myself) and sandwiches mm made. The alternative would have been Mcdonalds and we only got tea and coffee from them.

The flight was almost full. I got us adjoining aisle seats when I checked in, on purpose. Watched La la land which, for all the hype, was a little disappointing. Not the sort of film I watch on planes.

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The plane was a litte early. We checked the transportation board and confirmed that the limited express train was the best way. The information centre had a helpful hand-drawn leaflet too, so cute. Only 30mins to Nagoya main station. Our hotel was around 10mins’ walk and the only difficulty was figuring which direction. Pocket wifi and google maps took care of that. We were only there for one night, so the no-frills business semi-double room suited our purpose.

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The area around the station was full of modern buildings and posh shops. Our first destination was Jins glasses shop. My research showed us it was at the station mall and we found it easily enough. Quite comical, trying to get my eyes tested and barely able to communicate with the optican there. I have the frame which I bought in Tokyo and it’s ¥5000 per feature–I needed graduated lenses and I added UV-sensitive coating. Economical price, and I’ll get the new glasses in 1 week.

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More research told us foodwise we should be trying the unagi hitsumabushi. The eel in Nagoya are fatter and tastier river eels and they grill the entire fish instead of steaming then grilling in other locations. The idea is to add flavour and smokiness. Hitsumabushi means to sample three ways: plain, then with condiments, then dipped in a dashi broth. We found a restaurant in a mall next to the station and gave it a go. It was definitely tasty, as expected from well executed unagi. Plain, with wasabi and with broth were all great. I ended up mixing the eel and rice with wasabi then eating with the broth.

On the way back to the hotel, we visited drugstores we noticed earlier. Bought snacks and a 2l bottle of tea for travelling. We only started noticing drugstores last time in Tokyo, turns out they have an enormous selection of toiletries, cosmetics but also snacks, household goods, gadgets and interesting stuff.

cruise trip posts and pics

the cruise trip is written up and posted.

  • day 01: singapore gardens by the bay, east coast food village
  • day 02: singapore to sydney
  • day 03: sydney farmers market, harbour, barangaroo, watsons bay
  • day 04: sydney fish market, darling harbour, harry’s
  • day 05: sydney fish market, embarkation
  • day 06: at sea, eating
  • day 07: melbourne cbd, qvm
  • day 08: melbourne: fitzroy gardens, mcg, docklands
  • day 09: adrift at sea with no propulsion
  • day 10: on tow
  • day 11: st kilda festival, beach, melbourne riverside
  • day 12: melbourne city circle tram
  • day 13: yarra valley fruit farm, winery
  • day 14: melbourne to auckland
  • day 15: rotorua lake, kuirau park
  • day 16: wai-o-tapu geothermal area, waimangu volcanic valley
  • day 17: hobbiton
  • day 18: waiheke island
  • day 19: auckland mission bay
  • day 20: long flights home

flickr sets:

some of the more unusual pics. The markings on this tree at gardens by the bay in singapore looks like a human face:
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door 5, sydney carriageworks market:
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sculpture on waiheke island:
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penguins taking a selfie, waiheke island:
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cruise trip day 21: home

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Got home tuesday, or rather, wednesday 1am. By the time I showered and put the perishables in the fridge it was 2am. Woke up around 6am for a bit, finally woke up 11am.

I usually unpack the minute I get home, but last night was an exception because I was simply too tired. I made up for it this morning as I was having my tea and my suitcase is already back in the wardrobe. Mum’s stuff is naturally everywhere, all over the dining table and sitting room. Lunch and dinner were food I’d cooked and put in the freezer before we left, I thought it’s a good bit of planning on my part. Two loads of laundry, Mum did some cleaning, I sorted letters that had accumulated in the postbox, paid bills.

There are a total of 1923 pics to sort and upload. Trip posts beyond Sydney have to be typed up. I’ve kept track of spending, so may be I’ll put it all in a spreadsheet if I get past the fear of finding out the final actual cost. The travel agent says the cruise refund may take 6-8 weeks, but in the meantime there’s the flight, hotels, car rental and additional spending to pay for.

The NYT had one of those short meaningless interviews with Chris Hemsworth about Australia. When asked which one souvenir travellers to Australia should get, he answered

Tim Tams

as it should be. I bought 16 packets of TimTams in total, including 2 of the larger value packs. They are selling special Gelato Messina flavours–salted caramel, coconut & lychee, choc mint and black forest–and I bought at least one packet of each. I also got dark, mango and of course original. Most will be gifted as souvenirs. I also got vegemite and NZ marmite for my niece.

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The one thing I bought for myself was an unexpected surprise. I knew before we flew out that the ship will miss Burnie, which was a disappointment because Tasmania is a huge bucket list destination and also because there would have been a visit to Hellyers Road distillery. I was over the moon to see the whisky on sale at Melbourne duty free. The choice was between full-sized bottles of 10 or 12 year or a box of three 250ml bottles: 10, peated, pinot noir cask. I decided on the 3-bottle pack.

cruise trip day 20: flight

Checked out at 9.30am, drove to airport, returned car. Total 701km driven this trip.

Finished the remaining fruit we had and did some shopping. Mum bought eye serum and I made friends with the people at the whisky counter. Tried aberfeldy 12 and 18, craigellachie 13 and 19. Bought a 1l bottle of craigellachie 13 for NZD99. Bought some more chocolate.

The only lamb we ended up eating in NZ was the turkish sandwich at the airport. Ah well, we have plenty of NZ lamb at home.

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This was at the airport. The sign says, “On loan from Middle-Earth, Do Not Touch.” Heh.

First flight was almost full. We asked for 2 aisle seats and luckily had empty seats next to both of us. I watched thor 2, edge of tomorrow and a bunch of rizzoli & isles. Food was okay. Chicken thingh and lemon shortcake ice cream for lunch and chicken curry and panna cotta for dinner.

We landed at singapore at 6.40pm. Our next flight is 7.55pm so it’s tight. But of course the gate is at the other end of the terminal! And of course mum’s foot is hurting. We got there during final call, but luckily weren’t the last ones to board. The entertainment system isn’t as extensive as the previous flight, they didn’t have the entire season of rizzoli & isles so I watched veep and part of suicide squad. Dinner was seafood pasta and magnum ice cream. Kept falling asleep.

Arrived 11.45pm, thank god our luggage came out quickly. Taxi home, fruit in fridge, will unpack tomorrow.

cruise trip day 19: auckland

Drove out to the fish market in the morning but only one or two shops are open. Someone told us the market’s closed for earthquake strengthening. That’s a disappointment, we thought we’d have brunch there. The good thing was I got a refund of the NZD4 I paid for parking by buying something — a $4 bottle of apple juice.

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For want of somewhere to go, we drove east towards mission bay. Beautiful views back to the city skyline at okahu bay. Mission bay itself is pretty nice too, a beach with long stretch of sand and plenty of restaurants. Quite hectic even for a monday, can’t imagine how busy it can be at weekends.

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Lunch was mussels. Took longer than expected because they forgot mum’s order of steak. By then we were full from my pot of mussels so we just ordered a smaller pot of mussels. The one with cream sauce was better, and the sauce was perfect for dunking chips. Dessert was ice cream from the movenpick next doors.

Back to the city and we found newcastle, a local shopping area. Walked around, again trying to find somewhere to eat. Not finding anything good, and still full, we went back to our room to finish up all the food we have in the fridge.

cruise trip: day 18: waiheke island

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Since trains aren’t running and there is a lot of parking in the city, contrary to what the motel receptionist told me, we drove out in the morning and parked near the harbour. Long queue to get on the ferry to waiheke island, one of the most popular outlying islands in auckland. The ferry ride was 45mins and apart from a brief heavy shower that got everyone on the ferry soaked, the rest of the day was bright and sunny.

After some faffing around, we got on the #1 bus towards onetangi. I have no idea what to expect or do on the island. There’s a hop-on-hop-off bus, bikes, scooters and car rental. Public transport seems to work better for us.

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Onetangi is a long beach with one café restaurant. I’m glad I bought pies at the ferry terminal and mum brought nectarines. We walked along the beachfront admiring the beautiful houses, then took the bus to the nearby winery district.

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Found a nice secluded table in the tasting area of one of the wineries. Nice views of the vines and olive trees in the garden. Mum ordered sorbets and I had a taste of the rosé and pinot noir. Not earth-shattering. Ordered a full glass of the luna negra malbec. May be the sorbet affected my palette, found the wine too tannic.

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Stopped at oneroa village near the ferry terminal. A few shops, a small grocery and good views.

Ferry ride back to auckland and quickly walked around the cbd. Souvenir shops and saw the sky tower. Not a lot of places to eat though. Either fast food or asian food, neither of which interest us. Went to countdown and bought roast chicken, cooked prawns and ingredients to make dinner back in our room.

cruise trip day 17: hobbiton

tl;dr: I originally planned on missing hobbiton. Big mistake; it was so fantastic.

Originally I wasn’t planning on going to hobbiton movie set because we didn’t have a car and there were only a couple of days in auckland. But with the revised schedule, it was the perfect opportunity to go. One hour from rotorua and 2 hrs from auckland, on the way back to auckland. When I was booking online last night, I was only able to get a slot on the 12.40pm tour. Just as well, it gave us leeway. We had time to stop by a blueberry farm outside of rotorua for frozen yogurt and to sample their stuff. I bought blueberry wine, mum bought chocolate and a punnet of fresh blueberries.

Once we got to hobbiton we asked if they had an earlier slot and found ourselves on the 12pm tour, yay! We joined our guide on the bus for the short journey from the visitor centre area they call the shire’s rest. We quickly learn that the site is part of the alexander farm, still a working farm, and was rebuilt after the film crew left. When filming, the props were made of disposable materials like polystyrene. When they rebuilt, they used permanent materials. Peter Jackson asked the NZ government for financial assistance, but the government wasn’t able to provide $$$ however they sent in the army to help construction. The site attracts an average of 2000 visitors a day and everyone had to join a tour.

Our guide was Nathaniel from the US who is a superfan and extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the entire middle-earth universe. Our group was around 20 people and we discovered 2 fellow Star survivors.

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From the first step into the shire, it was magical. There were plenty of other tour groups so lots of people but it never felt contrived, for want of a better word. So realistic, so obviously a labour of love.

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There were so many hobbit holes they seemed like real homes. Any minute now a hobbit would come out and go about his business. They were built to 75% or 100% scale depending on the needs of the films, to fit the actors in order to emphasise the small stature of hobbits. Most are just façades or with a small empty space behind the door so no, the hobbit holes aren’t real homes. There was still a lot of attention to detail placed on windows, doors, chimneys and gardens. The fishmonger has fish drying outside the door, the baker has loaves of bread, we could see blocks of cheese through the window of the cheesemaker. Real fruit and veg grow in the garden and there are even hobbit-sized clothes lines.

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At the top of the hill is bag end, the baggins residence. Property taxes in the shire are calculated based on number of windows and bag end has the most windows. This is the most complete home because they filmed around its exterior a lot. A little further down is Sam’s house with its yellow door.

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We stopped at most homes, took pictures and imagined living there. The end of the tour went past the mill and onto open views back to the shire.

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There was enough time to stop at the green dragon inn for a complimentary (as in, included in the NZD79 admission) mug of beer or ginger beer. I had the stout, which was very nice. The tour was 2hrs and time totally flew.

Late lunch in the café of sandwiches and we got on the road again towards auckland. We got to the motel around 5.30pm and I was pretty tired by then. If I had to drive another half an hour I would have needed to rest. The receptionist told us not to drive out to the city but to take the train. When we got to the train station we found out trains were being replaced by buses this weekend. The bus got to britomart just in time for us to see the Star depart for the next cruise to singapore. So they had made it from melbourne.

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Dinner was at the crab shack next to the pier. Chaotic waiting process which involved putting our names down then being shunted to the bar. Eventually someone came up to lead us to our table. Long wait to get served too. On the other hand, the food is good. The daily special crab is mud crab, and we also had a small pot of clams and mussels to start. There’s enough crab there for 3 people, they gave us 3 sets of claws and legs. Total silence as we each worked on our portion. Just steamed, nothing fancy, nothing needed.

It was quite late when we finished. We took the bus back and I recognised the location enough to know where to get off. Don’t have a map on me aside from google maps.

cruise trip day 16: wai-o-tapu, waimangu

Torrential rain meant the 20min drive to wai-o-tapu geothermal area was more like 30mins. We timed our arrival to coincide with the 10.15am eruption of the lady knox geyser. Organisation can be better. Everyone got back in their cars to drive over to the geyser carpark at 9.30am, splashed through the mud, watched the geyser and drove back to the main carpark. A mini-traffic jam in the making.

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I would describe the geyser show as underwhelming. A park ranger poured some surfactant into the hole and some steam splurged up. May be 20m high and 10 seconds duration.

The rest of the park made up for it. Wai-o-tapu has the largest area of surface thermal activity in the taupo volcanic zone and we followed the guidemap that showed us 3 walks. Craters, sulphur caves, mud pools and boiling springs could be seen everywhere.

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Artist’s palette is a flat pool with mineral deposits showing different colours at different spots. Green, yellow, orange, grey, white. We could walk on a wooden boardwalk through the area which gave a different perspective. There is sulphur in the air, not overpowering.

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Probably the highlight of wai-o-tapu is champagne pool. 65m in diameter and 62m deep with surface temperature at 73-76ºC. The name comes from bubbles of CO2 that break out on the surface. There are gold, silver, mercury, arsenic, antimony, thallium, sulphur in the water and the distinctive orange deposit at the side is from arsenic and antimony sulphide. And since it’s been a while since I wrote out compound formulae: orpiment As2S3 and stibnite Sb2S3.

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We followed walk 2 down the sacred track to the frying pan flat and oyster pool. Another boardwalk let us close to the natural features. We didn’t stray from the marked paths; signs for 100ºC water warned us of the danger. There were parts where the path met water and when I stuck my hand in the stream the water was cold. Left a sulphide deposit on my fingers though. Told mum not to touch it. I can pour conc H2SO4 from one bottle to another without gloves and without spilling, but it doesn’t mean lay people should do it.

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We completed part of walk 3 and headed back to the visitor centre. The last interesting sight was devil’s bath, a crater filled by excess water from the champagne pool. It changes colour from yellow to green depending on light and cloud cover. Today it was green and quite sickly.

We walked for almost 3hrs and every single minute was worth it. The rain had abated somewhat although we were glad we wore our waterproof coat and I borrowed a large umbrella from the motel that acted as walking stick for mum. They charge NZD32.50 for entrance, we had a 10% voucher from the motel and it was well worth it. I was skeptical when I was trip planning, all the geothermal areas charged hefty admission and I realise it’s for maintenance, to keep the area pristine. I also realise that had our cruise went ahead per the original itinerary, we would be stopping at tauranga today and I had booked our own excursion to wai-o-tapu, so we made it.

Lunch was at the café. Pies and I had L&P lemonade.

We had the rest of the afternoon. The option was to go back to rotorua or go to another geothermal area. We found ourselves at waimangu volcanic valley. They offered senior discount, so NZD30 for mum and NZD37 for me.

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The straight route from the visitor centre to lake rotomahana is supposed to be around 2hrs. We made it to echo crater and frying pan lake faster than recommended. May be the same people explored the region, the craters and lakes are all named the same.

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Cathedral rock was originally named Gibraltar rock because of its resemblance to the latter. There was an eruption in 1917 that changed its shape so they renamed it. Steam coming out all around it makes it look like it’s magic.

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Mum didn’t take the steep 60+ step climb to infernal crater lake. It claims to be the largest geyser-like feature in the world even though the geyser itself is hidden beneath the depths. The lake empties and refills every 35 days or so. There’s a hiking trail from inferno lake to other craters but the trail is closed due to mud.

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To save time and energy, we took the bus part of the way to warbrick terrace, formed from silica flowing from the stream. The green colour is due to algae formation.

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The walk to the lake was unremarkable and would have been more pleasant if we hadn’t walked for hours already. Mum rested while I explored around the lake. We waited for the last bus of the day to take us back to the visitor centre.

Overall, if we had only visited waimangu we would have been disappointed in the area. I didn’t think the entrance fee is worth it and much preferred wai-o-tapu.

Back in rotorua we stopped at a petrol station, hit a souvenir shop (12 kiwi keychains for NZD9.90, and we have a 5% off voucher), and dinner back in our room finishing off the food in the fridge.

cruise trip day 15: rotorua

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Homemade fry-up for breakfast. I didn’t want to leave the b&b, it’s highly recommended.

But onward we go.

It’s three hours to rotorua and it rained the entire time. I’m driving without a map, hahaha. Only have handwritten instructions I copied off google maps. It was pretty straightforward, just follow roadsigns. Thing about A roads in NZ, they don’t have a lot of places to stop. Not talking about service stations, there weren’t even villages on the way with shops or petrol stations. We did stop at around the 2hr mark and arrived in rotorua at around 1.30pm. Stopped at the tourist information centre to get a town map and various leaflets.

Checked into our motel, definitely several grades below the b&b. The whole strip is full of motels, I guess it’s the luck of the draw whether we get a good one. It’s not bad, I’ve stayed in worse but mum clearly wasn’t impressed.

It hadn’t stopped raining but we decided to go out, find something to eat and sightsee a little. Nando’s is following us so we had chicken again; the other options were pub food or asian. NZ nando’s don’t have sweet potato fries, the portugese roll was good.

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Rotorua is situated on lake rotorua, there’s a viewpoint 5mins’ drive from the town centre. It was still raining and hard to distinguish between the sky and the water. Can imagine how pretty it looks when it’s sunny.

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The museum is closed; the building itself an impressive tudor building. It overlooks government gardens, which will be worth visiting in better weather.

On the other side of town is kuirau park. We drove past it on the way in and spotted pockets of steam coming out from behind the trees. There are several hot springs and mud pools in the park. These look the same no matter the weather and we happily walked around looking at each one. To have hot springs and mud pools in your local park, that’s something.

Dining options are limited, or may be we weren’t looking closely enough. We decided to go to countdown and get food to eat in our room. Bought rocket salad, avocado, peach, two flavours of wraps, hummous, pâté, brie, pear paste and wine.

cruise trip day 14: melbourne to auckland

The hotel is separated from the airport terminal by a multi-story car park, but it’s a weaving 10mins walk so we took the hotel shuttle. For some reason I thought the flight didn’t provide food so we bought sandwiches before boarding. I think it’s because I booked via virgin australia which is a sort of budget airline and the flight was operated by air new zealand. Air NZ has the best safety videos, including one set in middle-earth; the newest is called summer of safety.

Arrived at auckland 5.15pm. We breezed through e-passport but it was pandamonium at the luggage belts, there was a long queue and bottleneck to get through customs and we had to fight to even get to our belt. The long lines was for biosecurity, which is even stricter than australia. The agent grinned when I said we bought timtams, and waved us through.

It was great to drive the SUV yesterday, but it cost almost the same as one day’s rental to fill it up when I returned it so I’m glad I opted for a more economical yaris this week. Our b&b hosts had emailed me detailed driving instructions which I wrote out for mum. The drive from the airport through the city to the northern suburb of hillcrest was around 45mins, took us longer because we turned the wrong way and had to go back on the motorway, take the next exit and google map to the destination.

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The b&b is called birdwood house and it’s run by Barbie and David Scott. Absolutely wonderful. Our room is on the 1st floor and comes with its own lounge. Such a romantic setting. The living and dining room downstairs is also beautifully decorated. Very English, down to the bottles of port which we were encouraged to partake.

The hosts gave us a list of places to eat so we headed to the nearby village of birkenhead, found a pub and had the special small plates for dinner: chicken wings, pork belly, arancini, cheesy garlic bread. Many of the shops were already closed and most other eating places were asian or italian food.

To get some peace and quiet, I escaped to our lounge to read. If I could find spare blankets I would have slept on the sofa. Sigh, I really need my own space.

cruise trip day 13: yarra valley

We aimed at getting the 10am shuttle to the airport (5am and 7am were simply too early). A bunch of other people had the same idea so it was a group of anxious people queuing up. The bus was late but it didn’t matter. We all managed to fit on it and we were cheering and clapping as we left the port. Someone said, “we’re free!” It’s been stressful, but it could have been a lot worse if the weather was poor or if they had problems towing the ship. The frustraion is the slowness and lack of communication from NCL. I still don’t know how we’ll get the 100% refund, how the future cruise credit will work and how to get reimbursed for the flight. Plus the Star is now known as the unluckiest cruiseship at sea.

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We got to the airport at 11am, picked up our rental car and headed to yarra valley. The drive itself is around 1hr, but the area is large so it took us a while to find a destination and drive to it. I found a leaflet for rayners orchard and that’s where we headed. Luckily we just missed a coachful of visitors so the place was empty. Peach trees could be seen from the car park, and peaches too, very tempting to just pick them.

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It was that in-between time between lunch and tea. Their café is quite basic, mum had ham sandwich and I had scones. The ham sandwich was really delicious, must be the butter. The scones were great too, normal cream rather than clotted cream. The best part of the meal for me was the tea that was strong and came in a proper teapot. We bought peaches and nectarines from the shop.

Seems to be off-season, several of the other fruit farms we visited were closed. We bought strawberries from a stand and made a few scenic stops. I didn’t have a detailed map so we muddled along. It’s okay, I was driving a big SUV and the valley is very pretty.

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We wanted to go to a dairy farm and ended up at a winery. There was time for some tasting while mum shopped. Tried the sparkling wine, pinot noir and riesling. Tiny portions, and I spit most of it out. Quite nice, but not nice enough to buy.

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The last scenic stop was near kangaroo grounds cemetery. Pretty farmland and rolling hills. I was looking in one direction and when I looked in the other, I spotted a group of wallabies. I think they’re wallabies as they are smaller. Mum was in the car so I dragged her out to see them. There’s a fence between us so I wasn’t worried. They were quite a bit away anyway. Such a nice bonus to end the visit.

Drove back to melbourne airport, checked into the hotel and returned the car. Not too many choices for dinner so we had nando’s again. This time I remembered to order sweet potato fries instead of regular fries.

cruise trip day 12: melbourne

The golden princess in in port, embarking passengers, so we can’t go into the terminal until after 10.30am. Pity the people who were planning on leaving the ship today. We took it easy, I spent the morning reading. It was nice to see the golden princess again, our alaskan cruise was on her.

Finally ventured out at noon. Got the tram and visited the tourist information centre to ask about airport bus. Have to figure out how to get from the port to the airport hotel tomorrow. Taxi of course, but the lady at the counter suggested we taxi to the city and catch the bus, which will be cheaper. In the end, it wasn’t needed. When we got back to the ship they told us there will be several free shuttles to the airport.

Not much to do; we’d seen all of melbourne that we wanted to see. Did some shopping at daiso, of all places. Got the hob scouring pad that worked so well, and some other ¥100 type stuff. Lunch was at nando’s. Shared half a chicken with fries. I got a beer and a ginger beer for mum.

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After several attempts over the past few days we finally got ourselves on a #35 city circle tram. Melbourne has a free tram zone and this one that goes around the central area is completely free. One circuit takes 1hr, we’d already travelled on more than half the route so it was kinda boring.

Tram back to port. I packed quickly and went upstairs to read while mum did her packing. I have a whole bottle of wine to finish today so I sipped while reading. The deck was almost empty, people had either left or still out in the city.

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Dnner at Le Bistro. Escargot, rack of lamb. Huge portion of lamb, 6 chops in total. The most I usually have is 3 chops. No dessert in the restaurant, tried the trifle at the buffet. No good so switched to watermelon instead.

Last task of the day is to settle the bill. Nothing to pay, I get US$89 OBC refund.

cruise trip day 11: st kilda

We woke up to a ship safely docked at melbourne. Seems like déjà vu to walk into the terminal and get a map. A volunteer greeter gave us lamingtons and told us about the st kilda festival. St kilda is the beach alongside port; the town centre is about 2-3km away. Except to get there on public transport means going on the tram to the city and changing to another tram.

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The festival takes place everywhere in the town. Various stages where bands played music, lots of food stalls, craft stalls, kid’s playground and amusement rides. All spread out along the entire beachfront so there was plenty of walking. The best part of the walking was I caught a porygon. I had the app open for some odd reason and it popped up suddenly, wasn’t on the nearby list. The beach is beautiful, a long stretch of white sand. There was a group of people playing beach netball and another group playing beach volleyball. And on the stretch of sand in between the two groups, a woman doing yoga.

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Lunch was free sweet potato fries from the nando’s truck and gozleme with lamb, spinach and cheese filling. I’ve been wanting to try gozleme, saw it at various places in sydney and melbourne but never have the appetite or time to try. It’s very nice. The flatbread crispy and the filling tasty and hot.

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I wanted to slowly walk back to port, so we started off doing that. It was very windy and lots of people were kiteboarding. Looks like it’s a lot of fun, probably takes considerable upper body and leg strength.

Took a couple of videos. Can hear the roar of the wind. Keep watching till around 28s, he gets lifted up above the water by the kite.

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In the end, the wind was too much and when sand started drifting everywhere including all over our faces we called it a day and took the tram back to the city. It was still early so we walked along the yarra for a bit. Riversides are always pretty.

Tram back to port. Late lunch / high tea at the buffet. It’s bavarian night so they had roast pork, cabbage salad and I was dying for a beer. Proper dinner was at Le Bistro, I cancelled the other restaurant reservations and we’ll focus on Le Bistro for the rest of our dining package. Mussels with cream sauce, crevette and crème brûlée. The mussels were so-so, although the sauce was great. The crevettes were meh, I still hanker after L’Ecluse crevettes after all these years. the crème brûlée was okay. Finished the 3rd bottle of wine.

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Full moon tonight.

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Played around with the camera. Hit the shutter as it was trying to autofocus, to get some nice bokeh-like effect.

Got a notice that the ship will leave melbourne on the 14th. We had planned to stay onboard till the 15th so now we have to find somewhere to stay on the 14th. The best option is airport hotel, so I quickly went on hotels.com. Not many choices, got holiday inn at the end. I also booked a hotel at rotorua for a couple of nights so we go somewhere other than auckland.