Author Archives: aleavitt77

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

One Pen, Please

P1030927

We planned 3.5 weeks in India, and most of our time was TBD but for two places: Varanasi and the backwaters of Kerala.  I had read that spending time on a boat in the backwaters was a relaxing experience that also offered a glimpse into village life in southwest India.  My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Kochi fully intending to arrange a two-night motored houseboat out of Alleppey, about an hour and a half south.  There are many options for a backwater experience including a day trip on a public ferry between Kollam and Alleppey.  My comments on all except the trip we did is from reading and word of mouth, so I will write as though it’s fact but I cannot confirm.

Alleppey is by far the most popular place for booking houseboats, and these days there are hundreds if not more than a thousand.  Many of these are fairly luxurious with air conditioned bedrooms and an upper deck with sofas.  It sounds great, but word is at least at this time of year the Alleppey area has gotten so crowded that you might wait in a line of boats to make a turn.  And the water is oily.

In Kochi we popped into Walton’s Homestay to see if they arranged backwater tours, and Mr. Walton fortuitously directed us a couple doors down to his friend Stanley Wilson.  Stanley told us that he worked for years in Alleppey, but that the original intent of a relaxing float had become a victim of its own success.  As more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, wanted a houseboat tour, the boats became bigger and more luxurious and the area more crowded and polluted.  He offered a simpler and more eco-friendly alternative.

Stanley arranges punted boat tours from a village about halfway between Kochi and Alleppey, with solar power during the day when the boat is out on the water.  Punted means that men propel the boat by pushing long bamboo poles on the water bottom.  Except when we passed through a canal lined with stone walls, when the boat men disembark and pull the boat using a rope.  They do this because punting is hard work, as Jenni and I both learned when we gave it a try.

There is no air conditioning and no upper deck, but also no noise.  Stanley promised our money back if we saw more than three other boats, and I am happy to say he still has our money.

After an hour drive from Kochi, we arrived in the village and boarded the boat at 10:30 am.  We were accompanied by two boat men and Manu, a great cook who speaks English very well.  The boat is made of wood and bamboo and has a simple kitchen in back, a basic bedroom and toilet with sink, and a front area with a dining table, some comfy lounging chairs and a side table.  The front is covered so you do not roast in the direct sun all day.

As we glided through the backwaters we passed between wider and narrower channels, surrounded by palm trees and many birds including ducks, egrets, cormorants, storks and kingfishers.  We saw tiger prawn farms and men in canoes laying out fishing nets in a circle.  There were lots more Chinese fishing nets like those we saw in Kochi.

The villagers onshore always stared and almost always waived and said hello.  Kids were full of smiles and relentlessly asked for “one pen, please.”  So if you can fit them in your luggage, bring a boatload of pens to throw to these adorable youngins.  And one group of boys who walked alongside our boat for a while said they love Justin Beiber, so maybe bring some Belieber paraphernalia while you’re at it.

While much of India is frenetic, the backwaters epitomize relaxation.  Jenni and I each commented that we could not recall the last time we felt so relaxed…perhaps on the second half of our honeymoon in the Maldives.  The food was delicious and enormously apportioned.  Coffee and tea were offered multiple times.  We had fresh fish with each lunch and dinner plus rice, okra, curries, freshly made chapati or paratha and watermelon, pineapple or banana for dessert.

The first night we drank a bottle of Sula chenin blanc that we purchased in Kochi.  We knew Sula from the bubbly we had the first night of our honeymoon last year in Jodhpur.  The winery is located in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra, India’s burgeoning wine region.  Time may tell, but for now Napa and Bordeaux ought to rest easy.

The one thing about this arrangement that may be better on the Alleppey boats (I am not sure if it is the case or not) is that at night we are anchored yet also docked back at the village.  In other words, the boat is pointed out towards the water so you still get some of the feeling of sleeping out on the water, but it is not the same as being anchored in the middle of a lake.  On the bright side, when docked there is electricity so you can charge devices and you can take their dugout canoe for a spin.

We could also hear music and fireworks both nights, as if to remind us this was still India.  But the noise subsided before bed time.  Some of the fireworks were so loud.  Remember that if you are in India and it sounds like war is breaking out, stay calm.  Most likely it is not.

On our first day before lunch the boat docked across a wide waterway and we walked five minutes to the Arabian Sea.  There were so many colorful wooden fishing boats and I helped push in a new arrival loaded with mackerel and catfish caught in a chicken wire like net.

On the walk over one of the boat men pointed out a fruit tree that looks exactly like mango, only this one he said is poisonous.  Good to know…

We had made arrangements with Stanley to spend the first day and night on the boat and the second day onshore and sleeping in the village home stay.  We so enjoyed being out on the boat that on Saturday morning we called an audible and switched to the one of their three boats that was free that day.

As I wrote above, I have no personal experience with a motored houseboat from Alleppey and I imagine it could be wonderful.  Among other things, two-bedroom houseboats are offered which is not so at Stanley’s village.  These boats might also anchor out in the water, which sounds nice.  If you are interested in going that route, this post from globetrottergirls.com seemed sensible and helpful.

Our taxi from Kochi cost Rs 600 and each night on the boat was Rs 4,000 with all meals included.  Had we stayed in the village that night would have cost Rs 2,500 without AC or 3,000 with AC.

It is worth noting this was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust people.  We paid Stanley in full in advance.  This is slightly unusual, but he came recommended from a hotelier who seemed trustworthy and was recommended in my guide book (the hotelier, that is), and Stanley has a permanent office on a busy tourist street in Kochi.

Two nights on the backwaters was perfect for relaxing, reading and writing.  I made it through 500+ pages of Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom.  If you want a quintessential south India experience, I highly recommend unwinding here for a couple days.

You can find Stanley at www.wilsontours.co.in, stanley.wilson@rediffmail.com, (+91) 98474 76750, or the old-fashioned way on Princess Street in Fort Cochin

December 19-21, 2013 (Thursday-Saturday)

Texas: Austin

Drive friendly my arse

Drive friendly my arse

Yes, I am in India right now.  But I must finish my US posts for some peace of mind!

I visited Austin last March for the first time for Josh’s bachelor party and loved it, so I was happy to return for Jenni’s inaugural appearance.  This time was a tad tamer.

We drove straight from New Orleans, and you know Texas is big when the first exit you see on the 10 Freeway is # 878.  Despite the welcome sign suggesting that driving friendly is the Texas way, I would say the drivers on this leg were undoubtedly the most aggressive and consistent left-lane-for-no-reason offenders of our entire road trip.

Our first night we sought a quick bite after a long day and ended up at Surf N’ Turf Po Boy.  It is more of a bar with lots of TVs and Skee-Ball and a lively atmosphere for the Texans MNF game.  They were out of fried oyster and the buffalo shrimp was good but paled in comparison to the firecracker shrimp po boy we had at Parasol’s in New Orleans.

Monday was one of the very few rainy days of our trip so we erased any thoughts of renting bikes.  We crossed under I-35 to the grittier part of town for an excellent, cheap, authentic Mexican breakfast at Juan in a Million.  I got the machacado and the migas breakfast tacos and they were so good.  Chips and salsa at 10 am is a nice touch.

Austin has several pockets of hip and/or fun areas, including dirty 6th, west 6th, east of I-35, 4th street, Rainey, Red River around 7th and South of Congress.  We hit this last one first, parking by Elizabeth to walk around.  It is a great stretch of several blocks with restaurants, bars, funky shops and vintage looking signs.  More in “Practical Info” below.

This is also one of the many Austin neighborhoods with several food trucks.  These are very popular here, and is with Portland they are slightly more permanent vs. those in Los Angeles that actually drive around each day.

From here we passed Hula Hut on the lake, a fun place for beverages on a sunny day, and took Scenic Road near the water through nice neighborhoods.  We parked on Mt. Bonnell Road and ascended the ~100 steps of Covert Park to the highest point in Austin at 775’ elevation.  This spot has nice views of downtown and the river with some spectacular homes.

Covert Park

Covert Park

We continued through the University of Texas campus which is nice if a little more urban than I realized.  Oh, on my last visit I had breakfast at the Torchy’s Tacos by campus and it was awesome.  Though Franklin was on tomorrow’s agenda, I figured why not double up on BBQ so we lunched at Iron Works, which I wrote about here.  On my last visit I ate at the Salt Lick in Round Rock, which was a fun outdoor place that I’d locate behind Franklin and ahead of Iron Works on the spectrum.

Dinner at Chuy’s was better than Hangover 3 on Jenni’s computer.  It has some bright moments but the trilogy’s temporal order certainly matches quality.  At Chuy’s I tried the Texas Martini which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt and jalapeño stuffed olives.  The meal was solid overall, and when they bring chips to your table be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce.

After dinner we met Sam’s friend Jamin on Rainey Street, which stands out in a city that oozes cool.  Within a couple blocks are perhaps 10 houses that were converted into bars/restaurants.  Most have substantial outdoor space and there is also a food truck square.  I would be sure to check this out.

Our final day in Austin lasted much longer than expected due to the crazy line at Franklin BBQ, but as I explained in detail in my BBQ Post it was worth it, and then some.

Capitol dome

Capitol dome

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at the Extended Stay Hotel at 6th and Guadalupe because it was reasonably priced and well-located.  The Driskill is a classic property with a fantastic location, and there is also a W.  There are a couple spots on South Congress and I’m not certain which looked interesting, but I think it’s Hotel San Jose.

Areas:

South of Congress…some food spots that caught our eye include Amy’s Ice Cream and Hopdoddy.  Uncommon Objects has tons of antiques.  The Big Top Candy Shop had a most impressive selection, including things like pimento olive chocolate almonds and gummy fried eggs.  Allens Boots has an astounding selection of cowboy boots and attire.  Nearby is Barton Springs Pool, a very popular natural springs swimming area which wevwould have visited were it not cool and raining.

Rainey…we had drinks at Bar 96.  Kaitlyn had recommend G’raj Mahal food truck, which is so popular that it has now taken over one of the old houses.

Dirty 6th: refers to 6th street east of Congress which is packed with bars and at times nears a Bourbon Street feel.  Though technically east of Congress, the Driskill is a classy hotel with a bar and restaurant.

West 6th: refers to 6th street west of Congress which also has several bars and restaurants but a slightly older and more mellow crowd.  I enjoyed the Rattle Inn on my last visit.

4th Street: also calmer than dirty 6th, on my last visit I liked dinner at Peché and drinks at Hangar Lounge.

November 3-5, 2013 (Sunday-Tuesday)

Kochi

Kochi (or Cochin) is a coastal city in the state of Kerala and a popular destination for tourists.  We spent three nights and two full days here and found it to be a nice mix between city and village feel and a great place for easing into India.

Kathakali show

Kathakali show

It did not take long to get our first taste of the brutal Indian traffic when our modern airport public bus took more than two hours to reach Fort Cochin.  Spacious and calm enough to start, the bus quickly became very crowded.  Though nothing like the older, regular public buses.  On the way we passed countless Bollywood billboards and crossed Ernakulam, which is the more modern and big city part of Kochi.  Most visitors stay in Fort Cochin which occupies the western peninsula along with Mattancherry, and I recommend you do the same.  Unless perhaps you stay at the Taj on Willingdon Island.

Rough Guide sums up the peninsula’s appeal nicely: “Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and 17th century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk.”

Chinese fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

After checking into our spacious room at Chiramel Residency, we had dinner at Dal Roti, a very popular and cheap restaurant that happened to be next door.  The butter chicken was tasty and we had our first of many parathas, the doughy delicacy we fell in love with on our honeymoon.  Albeit the versions we’ve had in southern India have been a little larger and more fried.

Eager to explore a little, we walked over to a bar and met a few locals and their adorable puppy named Blacky.

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Whenever we tell people we are from America, one of the first things they say is “oh, winter, it’s really cold, yes?”  Then we get to chuckle and say “not in Cali.”  And Obama may not be that popular in the US, but he is here.

Tuesday was mainly a work day, planning out some more of our time in India, getting my SIM-switched iPhone to function, etc.  It is shocking how inexpensive medicine is here vs. in the US.  Jenni has had sinus problems for a while so we bought a 3-pack of Zithromax for…$1.  In the early evening we walked over to see the Chinese fishing nets and the area was crowded with locals and tourists.  We split Malabar prawn curry and a great mango lassi for dinner at the Old Courtyard.

Wednesday we planned to walk all day but had barely escaped our hotel when an enterprising tuk-tuk driver scooped us up with promises of a good tour for Rs 60/hour.  Our first stop was Saint Francis Church, the first built by Europeans in India.  It is historically interesting and Vasco da Gama was buried here before his body was later removed to Portugal, but the structure itself is nothing special.

The Santa Cruz Basilica is a far grander church.  Next we saw the pretty Dutch Cemetery before continuing to the dhobi khana where laundry is hand-washed by members of a low caste.

Dutch cemetery

Dutch cemetery

This was a fascinating stop for a glimpse into a long-standing practice that is probably going the way of the dodo in the coming years/decades.  Women and lungi-clad men scrub garments and linens before whipping them onto rock surfaces, the precursor to our spin cycle.  The cloth is then air dried by hanging between rope braids and finally it is ironed, folded and sorted.  While we saw a few jury-rigged electrical irons, many are heated by burning coconut husk.  This method requires more skill to maintain the proper temperature.  Either type weighs about 20 pounds.

From here we crossed to Mattancherry and saw the old Jewish synagogue which was impressive.  It is small but ornately decorated with hand-painted blue and white tiles, colorful lamps and a red and gold Torah ark.  At one time there was a substantial Jewish population here but most emigrated to Israel in the 1940s, when they left behind furniture and other large possessions that ended up in antique shops in the area.

Our guide definitely added value by taking us to the Jain Temple for the 12:15 pm pigeon feeding display.  A guy claps his hands and the pigeons circle and then descend to eat seeds he scatters.  They believe it is good luck for a pigeon to eat from your hand.  Jenni did that while I got crapped on, so we covered our cultural bases.  Also, a woman inside the complex gave us a quick tour where we understood maybe 5% of her words, most of which came at the end when she held out her hand and said clearly “OK tour is done, you tip now.”

For lunch we considered Kayee’s and its Rs 100 chicken biryani but the atmosphere was lacking so we opted for a water-side meal at Seagull.  The chicken biryani there was quite tasty.

After lunch we visited a spice warehouse with turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise, and then we saw a ginger seller.  This was neat as our guide pointed out where they dry the ginger a bit before soaking it with chalk and lime (the fruit) then drying it a lot, after which it lasts 7-8 months.  The contrast of the monochromatic ginger pile and art-covered courtyard walls made for a nice scene.

Our last stop on the tour (aside from buying some wine, for our backwater trip, through the bars at a government shop) was the Dutch Palace, which was actually built by the Portuguese though the Dutch augmented it.  It is bland from the outside, but holds some impressive mural paintings along with a smattering of palanquins and old weapons.

Kerala is known for its kathakali theater performances.  We caught a 5 pm show at the Kerala Kathakali Centre.  Though a tad slow at times, overall it was superb and a highlight of our stay.  The main show began at 6 pm, but attendees can arrive at 5 pm to watch the elaborate make-up process.  These gents paint their faces using all natural ingredients, generally different stones grated with coconut oil.  And the emcee was masterful hand-sprinkling sand into geometric shapes on the floor right by our seats.

In Kathakali there are no words, rather elaborate eye and facial expressions along with hand movements are used to communicate.  The pre-show included a demonstration of techniques and live percussion accompanied the show.  Traditional performance in villages can last an entire night, I think we saw the equivalent of one act in a play.  The Kerala Kathakali Centre offers a host of other programs, too, such as yoga, music, martial arts and more.

After the show we ate at Malabar House, an upscale boutique hotel with a courtyard restaurant.  I enjoyed the Lamb Kerala we split.  It is not the best value, but when you can have live music in an appealing setting and pay $11 for a lamb dish it’s hard to get too upset.

Practical Info

The exchange rate was about 62 Indian Rupees per 1 US Dollar.

US citizens require a visa prior to arrival.  It is a fairly cumbersome and expensive process.  We worked with Travisa and paid up for 10-year multiple entry visas so we can come and go as we please.

ATMs are widely available.

Often “hotel” really means a restaurant, not lodging.

Most accommodations double as a travel agent of sorts and can at least arrange local tours and transport if not more.

Communication: India has become much stricter since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks so purchasing a SIM card required a copy of our passports and visas, submission of passport photos and a little waiting.  We had to fill out a lengthy form and provide a local address.  Then we had to dial a number and verify our name, father’s or husband’s name and local address.

We purchased Airtel SIM cards at Shop n Save on Princess Street in Fort Cochin.  They were helpful and made the photocopies for us.  We paid Rs 399 which covered the connection fee plus value on the card, and it was easy to refill the cards there and should be elsewhere, too.

WiFi is widely available though connections have been slow.

Transport: After hearing a pre-paid taxi would cost Rs 990, we took one of the nice, orange AC buses from the airport for Rs 76 each to Fort Cochin.  Once there, we walked or used tuk-tuks which are everywhere in India.  Private cars can usually be arranged with ease and of course are much less expensive than in the US.  For example, getting from the backwaters to our hotel past Munnar we paid Rs 10/km (though at least on this route we had to double the count, i.e. for the driver’s return), which equated to Rs 3,400 for a 5+ hour trip.

There are lots of buses and trains, and conventional wisdom is that the train is a much more pleasant experience.  We also have multiple internal flights planned.  In addition to all the usual sites like Kayak, www.makemytrip.com may be a good resource.

Accommodation: We stayed at Chiramel Residency, an old heritage home stay near the Parade Grounds.  Our room cost Rs 3,000/night and was very large with high ceilings, beautiful hardwood floors and good AC.  A basic American breakfast was included.  The living room was beautiful and the staff friendly and helpful.  I liked the location a lot.  www.chiramelhomestay.com , 1/296 Lilly Street, Fort Cochin

We also considered Delight, Walton’s and Bernard Bungalow.  Around the corner from Chiramel is the Malabar House where we dined one night.  This Relais & Chateaux boutique hotel seemed lovely.  Brunton Boatyard is another more high end option.

Attractions: Check opening times because, e.g., the synagogue is closed daily from 12-3 pm.  Entrance fees were negligible, usually Rs 5-10.  Photos are not allowed inside the synagogue, the indoor parts of the Jain Temple or the Dutch Palace.

Our hotel booked the kathakali show for us and secured seats 7-8 in the front row.  This meant a little neck-craning but was the best vantage point for make-up and the sand painting.  Tickets were Rs 300 each.  There are a few other places in town that also have performances.

Sri Lanka: From Meh to Yeah

Yapahuwa sunset

Yapahuwa sunset

Our time in Sri Lanka got off to a rough start but improved dramatically.  We landed late at night on Sunday December 8.  If you forgot to pack a refrigerator or other large appliance, don’t worry you can buy it at the airport.  Our itinerary was: Negombo – Pinnawala – Yapahuwa – Anuradhapura – Sigiriya – Kandy – Adam’s Peak – Mirissa then departing for Kochi, India on Monday December 16.  With a long wish list of places to visit on this Asia leg, we decided to keep our time here to 7.5 days and that made it challenging to sort the right itinerary.  There are so many places we left out, like much of the hill country and tea plantations, national parks, some ancient sites, lots of beach areas, etc.  In general, I think the west and south of the country (where we were) are more oft-visited and the north probably has a very non-touristy vibe while the east probably has some lovely, isolated beaches.  Perhaps another time…

Anuradhapura

Anuradhapura

In my quest to strike a nice balance between being informative but not reading too much like a guidebook (which are not THAT fun to read unless you’re a real travel geek), I am going to try using a “Practical Info” section at the bottom to cover some nuts and bolts and more details on accommodations etc.

Highlights of the trip were Adam’s Peak, Mirissa and Yapahuwa.  Lowlights were Pinnawala, Anuradhapura and our first driver.

Sri Lanka’s long civil war ended (controversially, as you may have heard in the news as recently as the Commonwealth Summit last month) in 2009, and its tourist star is on the rise.  This is a fantastically colorful island with a rich Buddhist heritage, historical sites, spice and tea plantations, beautiful hill country, wildlife parks, nice tropical beaches and smiling locals.  I remember nothing from my 1981 visit and was excited to return at long last.

Tea plantations

Tea plantations

My eyes were opened to Sri Lanka’s peculiarities and at the same time I was reminded of many characteristics shared by developing nations.  The way so many more interactions and services take place in plain sight.  You might see a guy repairing his engine on the side of the road instead of enclosed in some workshop set back from the street.  And there is just so much more activity on the road with tuk-tuks, mopeds, bikes, buses, cars, dogs and pedestrians.  The way five minutes often means 30 and there is time aplenty for sitting and chatting, but on the road a wasted second is worse than a sharp stick in the eye.  Yet at the same time I never saw even a hint of road rage.  You over-extended yourself on a pass and will crash horribly if I don’t let you back in to the lane?  No problem, I will come to a virtual stop and not even honk.  On a related note, as we were leaving Kandy a moped rammed into and dented a van and the reaction of the owner and everyone around was so calm.  It was heart-warming to see such poise and respect.  Nobody seemed perturbed in the slightest when we took pictures of them.

I was reminded how the manual transmission redline is treated as 3k RPM and not 6k, with upshifts often taking place below 2k RPM so someone is driving less than 10 miles per hour in third gear.

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And I thought a lot about how often we equate GDP with comfort and happiness.  Sri Lanka has GDP per capita of less than $3k vs. the US at about $50k.  But we saw so little evident poverty or discontent.  If you live in a village with tropical fruit, fresh fish, a cohesive family and lack of conflict, is GDP that big a determinant of your well-being?

One of my favorite peculiarities (though in India they do this, too, so maybe it is more common) is how a question is often answered in the affirmative by the responder shaking his head “no” in a figure eight motion.  You need to get used to this, because you will think you have been denied when it fact the response approximates “no problem, that’s fine.”

Mirissa

Mirissa

We were told that neither drinking nor smoking is permitted in public, and I was pleased at how few cigarettes we observed.  The consistent response to our question of a local’s favorite place in Sri Lanka was “the hill country, where there is less heat.”

Did I mention how colorful Sri Lanka is?  That was probably what struck me most about this island.  It is green everywhere and we saw countless rice fields, palm trees and tea plantations.  Between the tuk-tuks, saris, buses, boats, signs, doors, shacks and fruits the colors were just so tremendously vibrant.  About the only white we saw was the clothing worn by Buddhist worshippers and white sheets hanging across the road to signify a funeral.

Negombo

The first night we stayed at Amaya Chalet which is about 20 minutes from the airport and not near much.  Note that the airport is a good bit outside Colombo, so depending on what direction you are headed, you would be well-advised to do some research on your hotel’s location…lest you find out you booked an hour each way in the wrong direction.

On Monday we did a quick little tour of Negombo before heading inland.  The Negombo Lagoon area had a lot of colorful small fishing boats.  We briefly perused the fish market which had some large specimens like mahi and what appeared to be a baby hammerhead shark.   On the sand were guys drying out fish on mats.  The Dutch built a lot of canals in and around Negombo, and there are many Christians in the area.  While on that topic, Sri Lanka is mainly Buddhist but Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are significant.  There seems to be general religious harmony here.

Pinnawala

From Negombo we drove a long way on bumpy back roads to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, stopping nearby for some roadside juice and flesh of the ubiquitous, orange king coconut.

King coconut

King coconut

I had read mixed reviews of the orphanage but we thought it was on the way (not so much given the roads) and seeing lots of elephants seemed like a good idea.

Pinnawala

Pinnawala

Unless this is your only chance to see elephants or perhaps you have small children, I would skip it.  They charge Rs 2500 (nearly US$20) for admission, which seemed steep for this part of the world, and then aggressively try to up-sell you on everything inside.  Want to feed an elephant?  Extra Rs 200, please.

What is worse, though, is that it was impossible to tell who worked there and was offering a legitimate extra and who was just trying to scam you.  And the workers were generally not warm.  Most of the elephants are in chains, and who knows but one looked sort of drugged to us.  The vibe was angry and depressing, just the opposite of what I wanted.  It was exciting to feed an elephant, though.  You just put fruit in its mouth, like a banana with its peel or pineapple with its skin, and when it breathed on me it felt like walking past one of those industrial vents on a New York sidewalk.

Lunch at Hotel Elephant Park was quite good and we had a front-row table to view the 2 pm bathing of the elephants in the wide, mild rapid river below.  This was our first proper meal and it is quite a spread.  Sri Lanka is famous for rice and curry, so I ordered fish and Jenni prawn.  They brought a huge plate of rice and we each got a small bowl of our respective protein curry, but they also brought several more bowls with things like dhal, mango chutney, wonton shaped crisps and roasted pumpkin.

At dinner that night Jenni made an astute observation.  If you order one meal to split, you get almost the same meal as if you order two…just without one curry bowl and for half the price.  In general I thought the food in Sri Lanka was quite good, and I was shocked at how mild it was.  There was spice, but nowhere near the level I expected.  Our waiter misunderstood and thought  we said the food was too spicy instead of not enough.  I think they assume white foreigners have no tolerance for spice.  Perhaps Americans in general like spice more because we normally eat ethnic food like Mexican or Indian, whereas say if you are Russian or French then you do not normally eat spicy food?

After lunch by the elephants we had our first of two little spice garden tours.  Sri Lanka is rich in fruits and spices and we saw clove, vanilla, citronella, a peculiar pineapple variety, ginger, turmeric and more.

Yapahuwa

We continued north to Yapahuwa, which was awesome.  It was briefly the capital several hundred years ago and at one time home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.  At 5 pm we were the only ones there aside from a worker or two and a couple monks.  The stone steps ascending the face were steep and narrow, followed by a trail going up and to the side and then rocky ground towards the top.

There were many toque macaques (reddish-brown monkeys with hilarious hairdos that Jenni dubbed the bad toupee monkeys) and splendid views over the plains below with rice fields, palm trees, smoke stacks and mountainous outcrops.  It was near sunset when we descended and got a five-minute private tour of the cave temple with some paintings and a bronze buddha from several hundred years ago.

Oh, and by smoke stacks I mean not the hideous industrial type but the little plumes of smoke rising from the waste fires that are so common in the tropics.  It cost Rs 1000 and came with a bottle of water.

Anuradhapura

Monday night we stayed at Milano Tourist Rest in Anuradhapura.  Dinner was fine but not as good as Lonely Planet hyped it, and thankfully we did not get hit by any of the mangos falling from trees in the charming front courtyard.  By the way, Lonely Planet was surprisingly wrong on several matters which partly caused us to miss seeing a dance in Kandy.  To punish them we went with the Rough Guide for India.

Tuesday we got more cheap breakfast pastries at Family Baker, and I am definitely digging the $1 for two person tasty breakfasts.

My seeni sambol had a nice little kick to it.  These bakery shops are very popular with locals.  And next door at Family Grocer, a 5L jug of water was only Rs 150!  I love my water and at times whispered sweet nothings to this new stout comrade.

We were somewhat severely underwhelmed by the ancient Anuradhapura sites.  Perhaps our expectations were off, or we are spoiled from Angkor Wat and lots of other magnificent sites.  There is much historical significance to the area which was the first capital and birthplace of Buddhism in this country, but we did not find it all that beautiful or interesting.

It cost Rs 3250 to enter and with that you do not get any sort of map or explanation how to tackle the spread out ruins, museums and dagobas.  There were monkeys, though, and monkeys make everything better.  If you are really into Buddhism and/or history then you might find this a worthwhile visit, but we would skip it.

It was funny, though, to see Jenni in her pink neon shirt while most of the visitors wore all white, and the first place we stopped was the famous Sri Maha Bodhi but due to our sub-optimal driver/guide we did not know this until we had left.  The Sri Maha Bodhi is considered the oldest historically documented tree in the world.

Due to our disappointment with Anuradhapura and desire to reduce drive time and enjoy our splurge at Hotel Sigiriya, we bagged Polonnaruwa.  This is considered one of the top Cultural Triangle attractions and perhaps we would have enjoyed it more.  Alternatively we could have tried a jungle safari at Kaudulla or Minneriya National Parks, but we needed a little rest.

The woman running the roadside stand where we got mangoes was cute.  She was excited to have her picture taken with us and then wanted to see it, so she grabbed the camera by the lens to admire it.

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Needing a bit more sustenance and seeking an authentic and spicy lunch, we dined at a roadside spot where there was a little buffet.  Jenni was the only female and I ate with my hands, like the locals do.  Not so easy to eat rice soaked in dhal with no utensils.  One of the dishes was spicy but only because there were lots of chopped green peppers in there.  To me it doesn’t really count if I can pick out the spice.  I could serve a magret de canard avec beaucoup de chili peppers on the plate but that doesn’t make it spicy food.

Sigiriya

Arriving at Hotel Sigiriya we were greeted with cold towels and fresh wood apple juice.  The lobby offers wonderful views over the nice pool to the rock of Sigiriya, considered the premier site of the Cultural Triangle.

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Hotel Sigiriya

It was pretty hot and humid everywhere but Adam’s Peak so a dip in the pool was mighty refreshing.  And this huge lizard walking by the rooms looked like a baby Komodo dragon.

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On Wednesday morning it took half an hour for us to walk from our hotel and grab tickets (Rs 3900, cash only as with most places) to Sigiriya.  There are dogs everywhere in Sri Lanka.  They hang out all along the streets and even lie down in the road.  It is remarkable how rarely they seem to get hit by cars because they do not even move quickly to get out of the way.  On this walk Jenni held the first puppy of what I am sure will be many.

At Sigiriya the activity is a climb to the top on narrow stairways, with a brief diversion on the way to see ancient cave paintings.  It was neat and we enjoyed the views from the top.  Plus we saw a couple snakes, some weird squirrel looking creature, a dog with a litter of puppies and tons of monkeys.

Our whole time here we did not encounter any aggressive or scary monkeys, which was refreshing.  Unlike, say, Cambodia or Bali where a monkey might jump on you or try to steal your bag.

It took less than two hours to ascend and return with plenty of time to enjoy the views.  While Sigiriya was very nice, I was generally disappointed with the prices charged to visit the cultural sites and the value received.  I felt as though the government is looking to take advantage of tourists rather than build a lasting relationship.  With the cost of living what it is, paying US$60 for two to enter Sigiriya and getting no information or maps is somewhat offensive.  I am not saying this is apples to apples, but I am writing from India and in Kochi it cost the two of us about 16 cents to enter some sites.

After Sigiriya we drove to Kandy and stopped on the way at the wholesale fruit market which was very cool to see, and then snapped a few shots of the huge (modern) Buddha at Dambulla.  We also visited the Ranweli Spice Garden in Matale for a tour with pressure to buy product.  The prices were absurd but the tour was neat.  They are very into Ayurvedic medicine in Sri Lanka, and I imagine there are some great benefits.

Kandy

We arrived in Kandy at 4:45 and soon reached the nadir of our relationship with our driver.  I won’t bore you with all the details because I know that nobody wants to listen to someone traveling the world whine, but basically we really wanted to see the famous nightly Kandyan dance performance and missed it because of our driver.  So instead we drove around a little and did see some nice nighttime views of the lake and city from the hills above it.

Thursday morning I decided to pull the trigger and cancel our driver mid-trip.  He and his boss reacted admirably well and we struck a fair deal.  While I was nervous this could cause a confrontation, it was absolutely the right move and our trip got so much better with the albatross released.  I am reading The 4-Hour Workweek and Tim has a theory that success can be measured in the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.  I hope he is right.

The fish and meat market in Kandy merits 5-10 minutes, and when we stopped into the Queen’s Hotel to inquire about a new driver we were fortunate to witness a Sri Lankan wedding and at least got to see a brief display of some Kandyan dancing and music.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Kandy.  While you don’t actually get to see the tooth, there are some lovely buildings and museums and I found it far more interesting than the historic sites because of the glimpse it offers into present day life.  There were hundreds of Sri Lankans and everyone is herded like cattle up some stairs for a 10-15 second glimpse through an opening into a room where allegedly the Buddha’s tooth is hiding behind protection.

At many places long shorts seemed fine, but here pants are required.  And security is pretty tight after an attack several years ago.

We enjoyed our lunch at Devon Cafe which had an extensive menu and really cheap prices.  Jenni’s vegetable curry with rice cost $1.  The attached bakery was packed.

We did not have much time in Kandy but other activities nearby include the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy Garrison Cemetery, trekking in the Knuckles Range and Udawattakelle Sanctuary.

Adam’s Peak

Traffic getting out of Kandy was brutal but we made it to Adam’s Peak in about three hours, not so bad.  The last 37 km are on narrow, bumpy mountain roads with two-way traffic.  It is quite impressive that public buses pass each other on these roads.  We saw a few monkeys on the drive but no more during our brief stay in hill country.  As we neared our hotel we could see Adam’s Peak and its steep, triangular top is quite imposing.

After seeing how beautiful the hill country is with its tea plantations, red soil, rivers and waterfalls, I wished we had spent a little more time here.  The weather was cool, there were pine forests and eucalyptus groves, green trees bursting with red flowers, and women carrying baskets full of tea leaves with straps on their heads.  I did not research accommodation beyond where we stayed, but when driving away I noticed Bogawantalawa was a lovely area.

Hiking Adam’s Peak was perhaps my favorite activity in Sri Lanka.  Pretty much everyone wakes up in the middle of night to summit for sunrise.  I believe the “season” runs from December full moon until May full moon, so we just missed it by a few days.  In-season there are lots of religious pilgrims, all the tea houses lining the path to the top are open and I think the whole path is lit.

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We spent Thursday night at the Slightly Chilled Guest House which is a 10-minute walk from the trailhead.  I liked this place a lot.  After many dubious time estimates over the preceding several days, we decided to wake at 1:40 am and leave the hotel with our guide at 2 am.  Since it is pitch black there is not much reason to stop along the way except for exhaustion.

The trail ascends gradually for a while with and without steps, passing a few open tea houses where one could buy water and snacks.  Then the steep stairs begin, and end only at the top.  I had a hard time finding accurate stats, but I think the trail is a little more than 3 miles and ascends more than 3k vertical feet.  It is fairly grueling but we were mentally prepared for worse.

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We summited at 4:30 am and hung out with lots of other foreigners shivering in the cold wind until sunrise around 5:45 am!  The dogs helped entertain us and for the last 15-20 minutes we waited inside a shelter around the corner.  A couple nights later I commented that we had not seen so many Americans on the trip, and Jenni said “yeah, except those three at the top of Adam’s Peak who talked about farting for 15 minutes.”

The sunrise views were wonderful with other mountains in the distance, a lake below and a cliffside waterfall.  The Buddhist temple at the top opened around 6 am (I think you only get to see Buddha’s footprint in-season).

We paid Rs 2000 for the guide.  You do not need a guide, and I think in-season this is especially so given the lights and traffic.  But we felt it was money well spent since it removed any additional stress beyond hearing our alarm at 1:35 am, and he led us to an uncrowded and better vantage point for sunrise.  (From the top, descend the Hatton trail perhaps 10-20 steps and then climb up on the ledge on the left hand side.)  If you do this hike, bring a headlamp and layers for the top, and some salty food or electrolyte tablets because you will sweat a lot.

The way down was faster but with quivering quads and quaking calves (it took us 2 hours 15 minutes to ascend and 1 hour 35 minutes to descend the trail).  I really liked how we got to experience the trail in the dark as well as the light.  And while we may have missed out in some ways by doing this hike off-season, the upside is that it was not crowded at all.  Near the end Jenni made friends with Vindu, we met a nice Aussie couple at breakfast back at the hotel and then we were on our way to the beach!

Mirissa

There are lots of beach towns in Sri Lanka, and after a little research we chose Mirissa.  It is maybe 45-60 minutes from Galle Fort, a top attraction that we missed.  It is also near Unawatuna, a more popular beach town that we read had become just a bit too developed.  Approaching from the road, glimpses of the ocean are rare and the area is uninspiring.  But after passing through the gate of Palm Villa, our worries disappeared and stresses melted away.  Ah, our first of many tropical beaches to visit on this voyage.

We loved this place.  The first evening near sunset there were a bunch of Sri Lankan boys playing cricket on the beach.  For about US$60 we had an oceanfront room.  Our hotel was small and charming with a welcoming owner.  It is perched a handful of feet above the sand and its location means that very few non-guests cross in front, thus giving the feel of a private beach with larger bays on either side.  The water was warm yet still refreshing.

Mirissa is a popular whale watching spot, but after moving around so much and hiking Adam’s Peak we did little but relax.  There were quite a few surfers, and the bay immediately west had several beachfront restaurants and bars, usually playing reggae.  We had lunch one day at a place that seemed to be called Surf Bar, near the western end of this bay.

This guy didn't care much about my allergy

This guy didn’t care much about my allergy

Some of the places have parties on specific nights, but we be acting all old on this trip for the most part.  Active where possible, but minimal drinking and partying.  I know my mom will be elated to read this.

We ate most of our meals at the hotel and the food was solid.  Life is good when your diet is rich in tropical fruit and fresh fish.  Breakfast each day was enormous, with a plate of papaya, mango, pineapple and banana followed by eggs and about six pieces of toast.  Jenni got the traditional breakfast of string hoppers with multiple curries and coconut sambal one morning and it easily could have fed three.  Banana juice or banana lassi was perhaps our most difficult decision here.

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Overall we had some really enjoyable experiences in Sri Lanka though I cannot say I loved it.  It reminded me that it can be difficult to distinguish a destination from one’s experience there.  Sometimes a trip just clicks and you get all the good bounces.  Other times this is not the case.  I think it is helpful to take guidebook recommendations or personal advice with a grain of salt because it is exceedingly challenging, at times nigh impossible, to evaluate something independent of the specific experience you had there.  The kind smile or cold response from a stranger on the street can transform one’s enjoyment.

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Sri Lanka has a lot going for it and my guess is that it will continue to gain in popularity as it recovers from years of war.

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Practical Info

The exchange rate was about 130 Sri Lankan Rupees per 1 US Dollar.

We got visas on arrival for $35 each and it was quick and painless.  It is probably better to use the online system as I think it costs less and the line was growing by the time we finished…and this was 1:30 am so I can imagine it might be bad at busier times.

There are ATMs at the airport and in larger towns and cities.

Communication: At the airport we bought a Rs 1300 SIM card from Dialog.  It did not work on my iPhone 4S but that must be a Verizon/Alan issue because it works fine on Jenni’s AT&T iPhone 4S.  Calls to the US are crystal clear.  That got us Rs 850 of credit and it costs Rs 6/minute to call the US, plus we get 1.5GB of data.  It is amazing how inexpensive mobile usage has become.  Oh, and a good tip: bring something like an SD card case to store your other SIM.  WiFi was widely available.

Transport: We hired a driver, and this seemed like just about the only option given how much we tried to cram into several days.  I suppose we could have taken some public transportation mixed with taxis and local tuk-tuks.  There are loads of buses but they looked real crowded and we have little rolling duffels that would have been tough.  Some trains exist and I think the Colombo/Kandy route is particularly well established.  The roads move quite slowly so it takes longer to get anywhere than you would guess by looking at a map.  Though there is a new highway so getting from Mirissa to the airport took only 2.5 hours (it was a holiday which may have helped).

Sri Lanka has plans to improve its infrastructure and add more fast roads, and the second international airport (Mattala Rajapaska) opened recently on the southeast part of the island.

To find a driver, I requested several quotes from tour agencies or hotels we had booked.  These were typically in the range of $550-600 total for our trip.  We chose Menaka Arangala, who I found on Lonely Planet’s thorntree forum.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend you do the same.  While his price was noticeably lower than others ($420), he assigned one of his associates and after telling us we would be in a Prius gave us a slow, diesel mini-van.  Mr. Siril turned out to be a real downer.  He was that lovely mix of incompetent and dishonest lacking a side of humility.  If you do hire a driver and you are cost conscious, consider asking if hotels you book offer free driver accommodation because if not you will have to pay your driver more.

We ended up paying our initial driver $200 to take us from the airport through Kandy, and after switching to separate legs we paid Rs 6,500 from Kandy to Adam’s Peak, Rs 14,000 from Adam’s Peak to Mirissa and Rs 10,000 from Mirissa to the airport.  Wasantha Sendanayake from Rainbow Tours drove us to Adam’s Peak and he was very speedy and spoke good English…0094 715 265 238 and the company is info@rainbowtourssrilanka.com

Accommodation: Some brief thoughts and info on the places we stayed, note that for some we may have chosen not to get AC to save money but it might be available at the property…

Negombo – Amaya Chalet, $25; no AC, it was plain but clean and fine to rest after arrival, you could probably find places closer to the beach etc. in Negombo

Anuradhapura – Milano Rest, $27; AC, nice enough, WiFi in room was slow, restaurant setting was nice and food fairly good, a little removed from the main commercial area

Sigiriya – Hotel Sigiriya, $95; AC, great pool and view of Sigiriya from the lobby, room was fine but nothing special, dinner buffet was great as was included breakfast…they offer massages and can arrange safaris and bird watching tours

Kandy – Charlton Kandy, $34.50; no AC, very simple room, kind of loud, the owner was nice (charltonkandyrest@gmail.com and ask for Saman) and location is quite central and courtyard restaurant was pretty good…your most important decision in Kandy re accommodation seems to be whether to stay in the hills or down in town, obviously in the hills you get better views and perhaps peace and quiet while in town you can walk to bars and restaurants and the Temple…the lobby at Queen’s Hotel was nice and this location is great, along with Olde Empire Hotel; Hotel Suisse looked impressive from the outside

Adam’s Peak – Slightly Chilled Guest House, $50; no AC, up in hills don’t need AC, liked this place a lot, our room #10 was spacious w/ a balcony w/ great views of Adam’s Peak, it included solid breakfast and dinner, they arranged a guide for us…there are other guesthouses nearby that I saw, including Siusi Rest, Adam’s Peak Inn, White House and Achinika Holiday Inn

Mirissa – Palm Villa, $61; no AC, ocean view basically on the beach, loved this place, the room was fine but owner is nice and it was lovely and cozy with a good restaurant and I thought overall good value

December 8-16, 2013 (Sunday-Monday)

Louisiana: New Orleans and Swamp Tour

October 30 – November 3, 2013 (Wednesday-Sunday)

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French Quarter

Because I am trying to get fully caught up and there is just so much to say about New Orleans, I’m going to do another bullet-point short-form post.  Hopefully Sam and Kaitlyn, our extraordinarily generous hosts for four nights, will take no offense.  If I did a full write-up here, it would be so long as to bore my dear readers.  Even more.

But first, let me remind you that Louisiana is my home state.  I really wanted to see if I could gain access to Barksdale Air Force base and see my Shreveport birth place, but it was far out of the way and time did not permit.

  • Crossing Lake Pontchartrain and seeing the city appear is cool; it is also interesting to watch the hood end and the uber-wealthy Garden District begin so abruptly after crossing St. Charles
  • Parasol’s on Constance was perhaps our favorite meal in a city known for its food; this po’boy place is Sam’s joint. I covered the pulled pork briefly in my BBQ post I think, the gumbo was delicious and the firecracker shrimp was outstanding.  It’s a fun place with a bar on one side and food ordering on the other, lots of beer options.  Oh, of course there is no open container prohibition here (and that is truly a game changer), but I had not considered that you can still smoke cigarettes in bars.  Wow.
  • New Orleans is kind of an “anything goes” town.  It just seems so different from the rest of the country.  So much flavor.  So much good food and music and vivacity.  So many cats and flags and wrought iron and shotgun style homes.  There are not many places you will see a multi-million dollar mansion with a Go [Saints] flag hanging off a balcony.  In the first hour here we saw two cars driving the wrong way down one-way streets.
  • Magazine Street is awesome.  Sam and Kaitlyn live just off this in the Irish Channel and it is a really fun area.  Magazine here has tons of shops, bars, restaurants and cafes.  Sucre has gelato and pastries.  The Bulldog bar was packed.  As were Salu and Rum House.  Magazine also looked nice further uptown, where we got food at Boulangerie to go
  • The homes in the Garden District are stunning.  I think Sandra Bullock and John Goodman have pads here, and probably many other famous peeps.
  • Bourbon Street is a must-see.  During the night it can be fun and in the day too, but it is best for when you are wasted.  For when you are sober during the day, the smell of piss and vomit can be overwhelming.  But the live music compensates a lot.
  • Lunch at Cochon Butcher was great.  The line appeared really long but moved pretty quickly and was well worth the wait.  I got a pork belly on white with cucumbers, mint and chili aïoli. Jenni got a pizzetta with mortadella, mustard greens and Parmesan.  Both were excellent.  The mac and cheese looked gut-busting.  That day we took the trolley home on St. Charles
  • Halloween on Frenchman Street was a highlight of the trip.  What a party.  I grabbed some sort of repairmen costume at the store.  Jenni could not decide so she bought a Justin Bieber wig.  This somehow turned into her being Tami-Lynn, one of the real housewives of Boston.  She got into character and stayed there the rest of the night.  It was epic.  And Frenchman was just silly.  The streets were not closed de jure, but they were de facto.  Dudes would just roll out like six foot long bars and start making cocktails in the middle of the street.
  • On Friday we did a swamp tour with Cajun Encounters in Slidell.  We were so hurt from Halloween that we could not even call and instead just skipped our 12 pm reservation.  Then we felt a touch better and they let us switch to the 2:45 pm with no questions asked.  Captain Bishop was an able guide.  We were disappointed we did not get to hold a baby alligator as we had heard happens.  Captain said a bunch of stuff, again no fact checking…he said alligators hibernate 4-6 months, I had no idea this happened; they can go two years without eating; bananas on a boat are bad luck; the number of inches from a gator’s eyes to nose roughly equals its length in feet; wild rice grows in the swamp, and it is not technically rice but it grows freely and that is why it’s so popular in Cajun food; we saw wild boars with a raccoon right next to them and saw lots of turtles and some blue herons.  Unless you want a lot of sun, consider requesting a covered coat.  Check out the “Cajun Hottub”, and someone had a sign advising that trespassers will be violated
  • On the drive there we saw next door signs, one said “Hit and Run Liquor” and the other “Chicken and Watermelon”…straight up
  • We hit a newish spot called District twice…once for a Vietnamese coffee donut with tapioca balls and then for dinner where we had great sliders…fried chicken, pork belly, etc.  And I got a croquenut, which was a croque monsieur with donuts as the bread, except they were not sweet so the concept was better than the execution, but it was still just a delicious croque monsieur.  And we got waffle fries with cheese and jalapenos, and a great brown butter and pistachio donut
  • I liked the Saint Arnold Elissa IPA, and that the store where I bought it (after Sam intro’d) is called Breaux Mart
  • Sam told us about bounce music and Big Freedia, and also that Treme is a pretty hot area now, a lot of black activists and artists etc.
  • Saturday was an epic day…
  1. we had brunch at Atchafalaya around the corner from home, with a killer Bloody Mary bar (I vaguely recall there was a green tomatillo juice option and I think Jenni said they should call that the Gangrene Mary) and live music…the bloody bar had a few juice options and I went with the house blend plus a touch of tomatillo juice plus pepper, horse radish, Louisiana hot sauce, mustard, pickled celery and olives and cauliflower and brussels sprouts, and a bunch of bacon bits…boudin cakes are a New Orleans staple and the cream cheese grits were terrific
  2. then walked the loop at Audubon Park where we tossed the disc, saw another public piano and visited the waterfront area (which does not feature as prominently in the public space as it should, and I think they may be trying to change this)…the piano man told us it is being used to help treat PTSD, and the piano had been submerged in Katrina but was restored and painted by YAYA (Young Aspirations / Young Artists)…there are some nice homes right on the park, like directly on it without any separation which I thought uncommon
  3. then to Luke for the first of our John Besch happy hours with oysters and cocktails
  4. then walked through the French Quarter (better than our unguided attempt a couple days earlier where we seemed only to hit the dirty and hoody parts and Louis Armstrong park, though Crazy Corner’s funk/zydeco was nice) where we saw Tanya and Dorise on Royal Street.  They are a pretty famous street-performing duo playing violin and guitar.  They played Out Walking After Midnight, For Once in My Life and You’ve Got a Friend.  Some guy standing next to me was priceless, telling me about how this singer comes by sometimes and sings with the ladies and they tell her to take money from the bucket but she takes just a few bucks for cold beverage (which means soda). And he said the ladies are so good even the bums give em money
  5. then to Domenica for yummy pizzas and wine inside the Roosevelt Hotel which has an opulent art deco lobby
  6. then into Saint hotel which is like Miami meets red
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  7. then to Tonique for fancy cocktails and hipsters.  I asked the bartender for some recs on our trip as I guessed correctly she was from Sri Lanka.  She went nuts that I knew this, gave me a free shot and then never any recs.
  8. then to the Byway area for Bachanal with even more hipsters and wine/food…really cool spot, too bad no jazz when we were there but…hosts ran into lots of people they knew…it is a wine shop where you can buy a bottle and drink out back and there is a window where can order food like chicken liver pate and bacon-wrapped dates.  I would be really stoked if Los Angeles had a spot like this.  Maybe I should open one.
  9. then to Frenchman where we entered Cafe Negril for good music…some places have instituted covers and we were being cheap so passed on Spotted Cat even though that music sounded fantastic…oh, at most bars they pass a tip bucket around for the musicians…before leaving we went into Vaso for a proper big brass band, that music style is so fun

    Little market on Frenchman

    Little market on Frenchman

  10. then to Bourbon Street and Pat O’Briens on the piano bar side…the guy sucked but the woman was great and such a fun atmosphere…range from Sweet Caroline to Blurred Lines
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  11. then on the way to Cafe du Monde we passed Camelia Grill so popped in for bacon cheeseburgers and they also gave us free fries…I thought the burger was really solid, it had medium girth with great bacon and abundant butter flavor

    Contemplating something at 2 am

    Contemplating something at 2 am

  12. then to Cafe du Monde where sit outside for beignets dipped in decaf cafe au lait…I thought these were more like donuts but they are more like mini fried dough…Kaitlyn was such a trooper and drove the whole night
Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde

  • On the 10 West heading out of New Orleans you drive through some swamp and it is pretty cool
  • One night as I tried to fall asleep I heard someone playing the saxophone outside, and this felt like the perfect New Orleans moment.

Florida, Alabama and Mississippi

October 29-30, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

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Sunset from Grand Hotel

Florida and Miss were mainly drive-throughs, but Alabama was an eye-opener.

Leaving Georgia we saw lots of snowbirds with New York and New England plates taking I-95 to Florida.  Then we hit the 10 West, and my appreciation for the interstate highway system grew markedly.  I had never taken serious road trips before, and I was mesmerized by the fact that I was now on the same road that is part of daily life in Los Angeles.

Jenni got excited when we crossed the Suwannee River and put that song on.  I still stayed awake and guided us safely to lunch in Tallahassee at Kool Beanz Cafe on the main drag Monroe.  Breeze and a covered patio felt nice in the 80 and sunny weather.

The Florida State campus looks pretty nice.  It is not as charming as many I have seen, but there are plenty of live oaks with Spanish moss.

We crossed into Alabama and it felt more like Alabama with lots of Baptist churches, pickup trucks, signs for cheap tobacco, cotton fields and a Crimson Tide helmet mailbox.  I think we fit right in blasting Sweet Home Alabama with Sven’s top down.

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Figuring we will likely settle back in California and it will be harder to visit this part of the country, we had decided to spend a night by Mobile Bay on the way to New Orleans.  Some towns were mentioned in our 1,000 Places to See book, and I asked Leura for some recs.  She was super helpful and we ended up staying in her hometown.  And this day/night was probably the biggest surprise of the whole road trip.  In a good way.

One of the charming towns is Magnolia Springs, though our first experience here was probably the scariest moment of the trip.  We pulled into Jesse’s Restaurant parking lot and it is hard to explain what happened.  Basically we were parked in a gravel lot next to the street and next to an opening leading to more parking lot.  A car sped in, turned and skidded, then backed up kicking up gravel.  We saw another guy sort of chasing it, and then the driver floored it and started skidding on the gravel towards us.  I sensed the driver was terrified or enraged, or perhaps a combo, and figured it was mainly down to luck whether he hit us or not.  I was not so scared of injury as getting stuck in a repair shop for a few days in Alabama for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was a most narrow escape.

We drove down to the both brackish and spring-fed river and talked to this guy fishing who had a heavy Southern accent.  He was entertaining, talking about fighting a red fish that was 3.5 feet long.  But better tasting are trout or the smaller red fish, about 18-23 inches in length.

Earlier today I teased Jenni for playing Mozart in the Redneck Riviera, then ate my words when we saw a Values.com billboard promoting him.  We took Scenic 98 to Point Clear and the bay-side homes were gorgeous with deep properties and big oaks.  The Grand Hotel (a Marriott) is gated but I asked if we could take a look and they were most welcoming.  Not that this was special treatment at all, but I think in the South if you are white and appear to have some money then you can probably do anything you want.  The property was impressive and we caught a phenomenal sunset over the bay.  This place has swinging wooden chairs, hammocks, a nice little beach area, a golf course, etc.  It would make a fine vacation destination.

Lots of people were out walking or jogging and we made a quick stop at the Fairhope pier before parking in town for dinner.  I was rendered speechless by the contrast between my pre-judgments and reality.  I expected Alabama to feel impoverished and unsophisticated, and perhaps a lot of it is.  But you could drop Fairhope in the Hamptons and it would not seem out of place.  There were Range Rovers and Beemers all over the place, and high end shops and nice restaurants.  Camellia Cafe could have been in Carmel.  We had sushi (yup, sushi in Alabama) at Master Joe’s which was great, and we were the worst-dressed patrons.  One of the rolls we got was baked with cheddar.  Cringe ye purists, rejoice ye lovers of isht that tastes good.  I heard this area is increasingly popular with snowbirds.

During breakfast at our hotel.  Pause.  If you are thinking of a proper dining room with an omelet station and ample bacon, think again.  I mean the kind where the check-in area is about 150 square feet and has a few tables, some crappy coffee and a little cereal.  Play.  There was an older couple wearing t-shirts from Newport, Rhode Island and Whitefish, Montana, so it was fun to say we had visited both those spots already on this drive.

Mobile

Mobile

We passed through downtown Mobile on the way to the Bragg-Mitchell Mansion.  There were no other patrons so $7.50 (each with AAA) bought us a private tour.  This woman was hilarious.  There might have been 40 seconds during the 40 minutes when she was not talking.  I am not fact-checking any of this so I apologize for errors, but here are some things she said that I found interesting: the pineapple is a sign of hospitality and when soldiers came home from war they would put it out front stuck on a post, so it is a symbol of welcoming guests; there are curved walls near doors so ladies could pass with big dresses; something about newel post at the staircase base where they would put wedding rings and a penny on top because they spent their last cent on the house (??); the columns out front are 26’ high and made of Cypress; this was Judge Bragg’s home just for the social season, which of course is Thanksgiving through Mardi Gras; and Mardi Gras really began in Mobile and not New Orleans; there are beds with posts that rise up from the frame for draping mosquito nets; many weddings are held at the mansion; most houses back in the day did not have closets because these counted as rooms for taxes; Mobile is the city of six flags, starting with the French in 1702.  We did see a police car displaying these, and it was a trip to see a black officer driving a cop car with a confederate flag on it.

After the mansion we went to the Brick Pit, which I covered in my BBQ post.  A couple other things we considered doing in the area were the Oakleigh house, the USS Alabama and Bellingrath Gardens.  We also skipped the multiple bars with signs out front advertising cold beer and free advice, though I confess that is a strong offering.

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In Mississippi we made a brief detour to see the alleged world’s largest rocking chair.  Jenni loves this stuff and her fear of heights was drowned by excitement.

Asia Begins!

December 5-8, 2013 (Thursday-Sunday)

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View from Victoria Peak

Before I get to Hong Kong, have you seen the new Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX?  It is so nice, we considered just staying there the next six months.  But we stuck with the plan, boarded our 14+ hour Cathay Pacific (really good airline) flight and landed in Hong Kong at 5:15 am on Thursday December 5.

Hong Kong has been high on my list for years.  It is a fascinating blend of East and West, old and new.  Perhaps the expectations were a sliver too high.  I was not as blown away as I expected, though in fairness I was sick the whole time and we mainly abstained from nightlife that I imagine enhances the experience.  It is a great city, just not quite at the “best in world” level I had built up.  The verticality is awe-inspiring, though.  On my roof deck on New York’s upper east side years ago I liked to count how many 20+ story buildings I could see.  I think I got into the 70s.  I reckon this could be beaten handily in Hong Kong.

Technological advancement was on display before even passing customs, as passengers must remove headwear so that an infrared thermometer can scan you for fever as you walk by without breaking stride.  The airport express train was spotless and smooth and efficiently whisked us to Hong Kong Station in 24 minutes.  Note that an individual one-way ticket costs HK$100 (US$1 = HK$7.75) but a pair costs HK$160.  When we tried to use the machine at Hong Kong Station to buy our return tickets to the airport, we learned this deal is only available at the customer service counter.  And that we could check our luggage there instead of at the airport, which is pretty amazing.

There is a free shuttle bus from Hong Kong Station to various hotels, including our Holiday Inn Express Soho.  There is also free WiFi in MTR (Mass Transit Railway) stations and many other locations throughout the city.  Public transportation here is superb.  In addition to the MTR, there is the legendary Star Ferry that crosses Victoria Harbour from Central to Kowloon for about HK$2, lots of bus lines, the old-school double decker trams and 16-person mini-buses.  I am probably missing some, but anyway it is cheap, reliable and tourist friendly to get around.  We never once took a taxi.

After dropping our bags at the hotel, we started wandering the early morning quiet streets.  This megalopolis sits just south of the Tropic of Cancer, so there is a somewhat tropical/jungle feel to go with the 7+ million residents.  We saw butterflies on the sidewalk and banyan trees crawling down concrete.

Dipping into Gilman’s Bazaar, we had perhaps our most enjoyable bites in the form of a HK$6 fresh-baked pastry that had some sort of delicious buttery sweet filling.

Me attempting to transact

Me attempting to transact

We continued to the Victoria Peak Tram for some fabulous views and orientation.  The Sky Terrace 428 (as in meters above sea) did not open until 10 am, so we did not have to decide between buying the ticket including entrance thereto for HK$75 return vs. the regular HK$40 return.  It is cash only, unless you have an Octopus Card…which is worth looking into if you plan to use public transportation a lot.

The tram ascends very steeply.  There are several shops and restaurants at the top, along with a walking path.  The air quality was pretty bad our whole time here, so if the photos look clear that is owing to Jenni’s editing work.

After descending we walked back through Lan Kwai Fong.  It is underwhelming to say the least during the day, but I am told it is a rollicking good time at night.  I was pretty bummed to spend three nights and never partake.  Next time…

Bank of China tower

Bank of China tower

Ready for our first dim sum, we waited outside a spot we thought was Dim Sum Square (recommended by our hotel) til it opened, only to realize we were a few doors off.  The real spot was pretty solid, especially the crispy BBQ pork buns.

On the island, white folks are abundant.  It is much easier to get by with only English than I recall in Tokyo, though plenty of locals speak only Cantonese and e.g. ordering food in a non-touristy restaurant may not be straightforward, nor explaining your destination to a taxi driver.  Which is why the one time we did attempt to take a taxi, we aborted the mission.  It would be savvy to take a picture of your hotel’s address written in Chinese.

Central and I think much of the island is very vertical, with major streets running east/west (at the same elevation), some north/south and lots of alleys and stairways going north/south.  Man Mo Temple is around the corner from our hotel on Hollywood Road so we checked it out.  It is neat to see this building from 1847 amidst modern skyscrapers, and really that is a big part of why Hong Kong is special.

Man Mo and huge buildings

Man Mo and huge buildings

You will constantly find in the same line of sight impressive, gleaming skyscrapers, crowded markets in alleyways and old Soviet-looking concrete buildings with so much grime that no power washer could conquer it.  Hong Kong has a 118-story building and plenty of construction sites with bamboo scaffolding.

The temple was not so exciting, but the copious incense coils and sticks create a thick, exotic air.

Nearby are antique shops and some trendy looking restaurants.  We entered Liquor Land on Staunton Street and the sales guy was hilarious.  He greeted us with tastes of a California zinfandel, and we were happy to see they had bottles of Castoro zin, the same wine Jenni and I had at Treebones in Big Sur on our first trip together.  So here we are, same same but different.

Dinner at Mak’s Noodle on Wellington (one of my favorite streets with lots of action and markets/alleys to the side) was fine but nothing special.  Earlier we sought Butao Ramen but could not find it, til wistfully we passed it a few doors down.

Mak's Noodle

Mak’s Noodle

At meals here you typically get hot tea right away and they bring you the bill just after you order (at least at casual places).  Quite a contrast from Chile where you might wait many minutes after requesting the bill.  And here is another theme for Hong Kong: efficiency.  Nobody has time to waste.  People run on and off buses.  The escalators in the MTR stations move faster than the rest of the world.  A guy seeming to work for Hong Kong’s government or tourist bureau interviewed us after we passed security for our departing flight, and I have never in my life seen someone get through 15 questions faster.  Not sure I want to live this way, but I respect people being on their game.  I also generally found people polite, if at times brusque.  When someone knocks into you, they tend to apologize.  I expect nothing of the sort in mainland China.

Though we never stayed out late, it was apparent at once that the city comes alive at night.  We were surprised how calm it felt our first morning, but that was before anyone went to work.  Throughout the day and evening it became progressively busier.  All those movie scenes where it is nighttime and there is some alleyway with neon showing through the steam of cooking noodles…well, Hong Kong to me felt like that.  And I loved the rhythmic ringing of the walk / don’t walk signals.

On Friday we took the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon.  There are fewer whiteys here and far more attempts to hawk tailoring services and authentic fake watches.  Or is that just because my jeans are kind of long and I wear a Casio?

We walked up Nathan Road and into Chungking Mansions.  If you are ignorant as I, you might think these are really expensive houses.  But they are large buildings with Indian/Pakistani/Turkish etc. food stalls, electronics stores, apartments or hostels on upper floors etc.  Apparently back in the day these were dens of iniquity.  In modern times, it is where I got my first haircut of the trip (HK$50) from a Pakistani gentlemen who was the first to put the straight razor to my neck in many years.

After passing through a little clothes market (I think on Bowring) we continued up Shanghai to a pleasant jade market.  Long-term travel makes it easy to avoid buying things we do not need.

We tried to get lunch at Full Cup Cafe but it was closed until 3 pm.  It is on floors 4-6 of a nondescript building that you enter off an alley in the Mong Kok area.  This reminded me of Kyoto and I would imagine this and other spots like it are quite enjoyable when open.  Actual lunch was at Ajisen Ramen, and I am embarrassed to say we did not realize it is a Japanese chain.  We just saw it was very crowded and ramen sounded good.  Then sitting there it occurred to me a McDonald’s might be very crowded, yet this does not mean I should eat there (except at breakfast).  Counterpoint: In-N-Out is a chain, and I should eat there.  It was not half bad, though the extra spicy denomination for my bowl could give a false sense of confidence for Sri Lanka, which I am told has some of the spiciest food in the world.

Ladies Market is loaded with iPhone cases and handbags and could easily be skipped, but the Fa Yuen Street Market had an impressive collection of seafood in a small space, including bags full of live frogs which I have not often seen.  The Goldfish market (also selling lots of turtles) was less inspiring, though there are regular pet stores so we scoped some cute puppies, including a baby samoyed to remind me of my long-lost loves.

Thanks, dad, for the great suggestion to check out Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery.  This is an oasis of calm, with bougainvillea, neat lumber miniatures, Dahua colored scholars rock (aka jaspilite), etc.

Across the street is the Plaza Hollywood mall.  Even with just a few days we managed to hit a Starbucks.  More important, what is a monk?  Seriously, I do not know.  Because I always thought monks were silent or at the least swore off material possessions.  But now I see monks wearing fancy watches, playing with their iPads and drinking Starbucks.  Is a monk just someone who does not work??  So if I start wearing a saffron robe all the time, would I now be a monk?  Please enlighten me.

Monks?!

Monks?!

More on the MTR…the stations are so nice.  The trains seem a little wider than e.g. New York, and me likes smaller people with wider trains.  You need to insert your ticket on entering and to exit, i.e. the fare is determined by the distance of your trip.  The lady’s voice on the speakers advises you to keep your hand on the rail and do not keep your eyes only on your mobile phone.

That evening we had drinks with Jody and his wife at La Piola, a bar/restaurant in Central very popular with expats.  There are two levels and the bar is open to the sidewalk, creating a fun apres-finance atmosphere.  La Cabane wine bistro on Hollywood was crowded, and we passed a pop up store.  There is a vibrant and sophisticated air to this part of town.

Guru

Guru

On Saturday we left the crowded city environs a while and took a minibus to Stanley on the southeast side of the island.  The ride itself was worth the trip as we got to see so much more of the island, and the scenery was fairly impressive.  We went through the tunnel and then drove some windy, hilly roads with views of a futuristic-looking aerial tram over an amusement park built on the mountainside, huge luxury apartment buildings, Repulse Bay, etc.  The Ferrari dealership suggested there is money in this area.

Stanley Market is pretty small and there is a waterfront walk with restaurants connecting this side of the bay to Murray House (with pricey restaurants) and Stanley Plaza.  The whole area is quite touristy.  Lunch at Momentito was forgettable.  We had also considered Shek O beach nearby or Lamma Island, which I hear is quite nice.  If we had more time or just were not sick, we might have visited Lamma island for some hiking and seafood.  Sally said the Lamma Hilton (no relation) is a good spot for lunch.  We also wanted to visit the Lei Yu Mun seafood bazaar on Kowloon but did not get around to it.  Nor the Sham Shui Po neighborhood in Kowloon or Macau, just a ferry ride away.

Confused by the bus options home, we took a big double decker back to Central and grabbed a more proper lunch at Luk Yu Tea House on Stanley Street.  This is a well-known place.  The service is rumored to be gruff as part of the package, and certainly it was.  We were not amazed but enjoyed the meal.  Jenni ordered a black sesame roll expecting a pastry, and instead got something that looked like a cross between an eel and a fruit rollup.

Luk Yu

Luk Yu

From here we passed through the Graham Street Market selling mainly fruits and veggies and then walked Gage Street with seafood and meat, including tongue and assorted organs.

That evening we connected with Sally, our friend we met in the Galapagos islands in 2010 who has been living here a few years.  Sally traveled by herself about 2.5 years straight through South and Central America, plus tons more at intervals.  I do not cede the bigger balls title cavalierly, but Sally has earned it.

We covered the Temple Street night market in a handful of minutes then dined at Temple Spice Crabs.  I planned to gorge on these spice crabs til the waitress said it cost HK$500.  So instead we ordered what turned out to be pretty much a whole fried duck plus sweet and sour prawns and some large brewskis.

We made it to Tsim Sha Tsui just in time for the nightly 8 pm laser show.  It was packed, and apparently is every night.  Seeing the skyline at night is a must, since it is so colorful and the smog is less offensive.

Tsim Sha Tsui laser show

Tsim Sha Tsui laser show

Imagine New York’s skyline, only with the whole thing like Times Square and backed by mountains.  I also saw squash being shown on a huge screen and then realized they were playing a tournament in a glass bubble right there.  Ashley Road seemed lively and we had a nightcap at Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, where a jazzy band came on just before 10 pm.  We took the Star Ferry back and then walked home.

I like defining milestones, so Sunday’s was the first malaria pill of what will likely reach triple digits on this leg alone.  Then we took our first tram ride to Wan Chai which is a lively part of town to the east of Central, passing on the way workers who on their Sunday off lay out cardboard for picnic and conversation.  I liked the energy in Wan Chai and we ate at a locals spot (I think called Sun Hungyuen) in a market alley.

Wan Chai lunch

Wan Chai lunch

Seating was communal, the chili oil was fiery and my noodles with fried fish balls (like lightly fried sticks) were priced right at HK$24.  The markets have knick-knacks plus lots of meats, sausages, veggies, dried fruit, nuts, mushrooms, etc.  I wish I knew what 1/5 of it actually is.

When planning the trip I asked friends where to stay and the resounding response was “Central.”  I agree with that.  Clearly Kowloon is a reasonable option.  After all, the new Ritz is there as is the Peninsula, perhaps Hong Kong’s most famous luxury hotel.  But Central felt most like the unique, special Hong Kong I imagined.  I might analogize it to New York.  Sure Brooklyn may be cool and some would argue it has more flavor, but if you were visiting the city the first time for a few days and could afford it, I think it would be obvious you want to stay in Manhattan.

Chile: Patagonia

November 25-30, 2013 (Monday-Saturday)

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We spent five nights in the Torres del Paine area of Chilean Patagonia.  The scenery is jaw-dropping and our activities consisted of two full-day hikes, a scenic tour of the whole park, some lighter walks and an afternoon horseback riding.  Since we booked Chile when we planned to maintain gainful employment and take no other major trips for the year, our accommodation at Tierra Patagonia was a massive splurge.

Our early morning flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas afforded superb views of the Andes mountains at sunrise.  I could not get a good look out the other side, but I think it is preferable to request seats on the left side of the plane when facing the front.

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Punta Arenas airport is small with one terminal, and we were met promptly by a representative from Tierra Patagonia.  Over the next four hours we became acquainted with the 12-person Ford vans that would be a constant presence during our time in Patagonia.  We also met our new friends Kenneth and Dawn from North Carolina and Karl and Amanda from Chicago.

Kenneth and Dawn provided the two best lines I heard down there.  First, they dubbed the delicious cereal bars that Tierra Patagonia makes “Guanaco logs.”  Second, Dawn said that Kenneth refuses to call it the NASDAQ and instead refers to it only as the NADSAQ.  It goes up or down, and you cannot control it.  Brilliant.

Light lunches were provided and we stopped halfway at a roadside restaurant for coffee and baños.  If you are going to nap, it would be preferable early in the trip as the views become progressively better.  It is nearly always windy, and the landscape is rugged with sparse tree cover.  Parts of the drive are near the ocean (on either side) and we made a quick tour of Puerto Natales, a neat town of about 20k with several outdoor outfitters and accommodation options.  It is the last substantial outpost before Torres del Paine, and one could probably organize tours and treks from here.  The Singular hotel is nearby and while I am not sure the desirability of this location given its distance from the park, I heard great things and especially regarding the cuisine.  When hiking the Base del Torres, we saw a couple from there so day trips are doable and it may be convenient to certain other attractions.

Closer to Tierra Patagonia is the tiny outpost of Cerro Castillo, at the border with Argentina and where the road splits off to El Calafate where I am told the Moreno Glacier is wonderful.  A bit beyond here the road turns to dirt, and we would not touch pavement again until our return trip to the airport.  The entrance to the hotel property is unassuming, in keeping with the structure’s design to blend into the landscape.  A few minutes driving on a rougher dirt road passing many sheep and lambs and the occasional rhea or rabbit and we arrived at the hotel, set back a distance from Lago Sarmiento.

Note that Tierra Patagonia is actually outside the national park and driving times to certain excursions are longer, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage.  See my comparison vs. Explora below for more on this.

This place is truly spectacular.  And it will be difficult for me to limit my use of that word when describing the next few days.  The hotel is a modern, undulating wood building with incredible views from the public areas and all guest rooms of the Paine Massif across the lake.  Styling reminds me of Scandinavian with light woods and clean lines.  Our spacious room (#32) was on the second (top) floor.  I believe all the rooms have amazing views, and I think the main decision is whether you want to be closer to the entrance, lounging and dining area or closer to the hot tub, pool and spa.  WiFi is available but only in the common area.  Tierra Patagonia is all-inclusive, except for a few excursions and of course spa treatments.

Food

Breakfast is a nice spread of fruits, meats, cheeses, toast and jams and scrambled eggs and cooked ham.  It is more than adequate though not over the top, i.e. there is no omelet station nor raw bar etc.  Lunch at the hotel is a proper three-course meal, though if you do a full-day excursion your lunch will be packed and ample to satiate any appetite but less luxurious.  Dinner is also a proper three-course meal with three options each for appetizer and entree and two options for dessert.  The appetizer options always include one soup, one salad and something else, perhaps a tartare or carpaccio.  The entree options were typically some combo of pasta, fish or meat, plus always a vegetarian option.  Dessert is either fruit salad or some tart or dairy based item.  Overall, I would say the food was very good and at times great but not consistently great.  I am being rather picky given the extreme pricing, but this is not the place to come for the best food of your life.

All alcohol is included except for certain premium brands, which we never even considered.  The house pinot noir was excellent and the carmenere was very good.  I enjoyed the Austral Calafate Ale which has a slight blueberry flavor, like the calafate bush.  There was a specialty cocktail each day, usually pretty tasty.

Excursions and General

There are morning and afternoon half-day excursions, as well as full-day excursions.  As one might expect, weather is a big factor down here.  Clouds and wind can have a major impact.  Some visit for days and never see the iconic Torres (for which the park is named) fully exposed.  Calm air seems an even greater rarity.  We were lucky and enjoyed clear views to start and a couple other days.  Lakes and rivers feature prominently, some more green/grey and milky from the glacial silt and others turqoise blue like tropical seas.  Clouds often appear like UFOs with oblong shapes and flat, darker bottoms.

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I was surprised to learn that neither the elevations nor latitude are what I had imagined.  The park sits around 51 degrees south, the equivalent of parts of Europe.  It is nowhere near the Antarctic Circle.  It is also pretty much at sea level.  Thus, the mountains are spectacular and some rise 10k feet, but that means the highest peak is only about 10k feet.  The tops of the Torres are no higher than Guadalupe Mountain in Texas.

Laguna Azul

Our first afternoon we chose the Laguna Azul excursion.  On the drive we saw countless guanacos and stopped at the Laguna Amarga, a salty lake tossing about in strong winds.

The Salto (waterfall) Paine backed by the Torres was magnificent.  At Laguna Azul we walked around a bit, saw some interesting birds and learned of the calafate bush which serves as an amazing shelter from the wind.  Inside a hut was coffee, tea, hot cocao and pisco sours, with a tip requested in return.  On the ride back to the hotel we saw a rhea (aka ñandu) running with an adorable baby about the size of a chicken.  We also saw several flamingoes down here, which was quite surprising as I had associated them with warmer environs.

Base del Torres

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Tuesday was a glorious day so we wisely decided to get straight to the most famous hike in the region.  Look at the amazing reflection in the Laguna Amarga and the contrast between yesterday (windy) and today (calm).

Laguna Amarga calm day

Laguna Amarga calm day

After a 45 minute drive we arrived at the Hotel Las Torres (more in the accommodation section below).  Here and stretching well past the Campamento Chileno is the only private property inside the park, and what an astounding piece of real estate it is!  Fortunately the owners do not exact a toll on those passing through.

The trail crosses a river on a suspension bridge with a max capacity of two before ascending to the top of a hill and then descending to the Campamento Chileno.  On the river just past here we saw a lovely male Torrent duck, so named because it apparently can swim up waterfalls.

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We then hiked through forest before coming to the most challening part where the path becomes exposed and rocky.  At the top is a small lake and stunning, head-on views of the Torres.  We ate lunch here and fortunately the setting was so majestic that the brutal winds did little to dampen our enjoyment.

On our descent the trail was even more crowded.  I cannot fault others for doing the same thing, but this is not where you come for solitude.  It is difficult to recall a more crowded trail I have seen.  Of course in this area layers are key, because a lightweight shirt may be appropriate for the ascent while a jacket, hat and gloves are desired at the top.  I think the stats are 11.3 miles roundtrip and 3k vertical feet.  Some difficult footing and strong winds make this a harder hike than the numbers suggest.  We began at 9:45 am, summited at 1:30 pm, descended just before 2:30 pm and returned to the van at 5:10 pm.

Estancia Las Chinas

Wednesday got off to a rocky start as most excursions were canceled due to the wind and there was a bit of miscommunication between ourselves and the hotel.  We ended up on a half-day excursion in a van with just ourselves and Jocelyn (Josy) and saw more of the area east of the park.  Big, unpopulated valleys with nobody else other than a couple gauchos.  We passed a herd of cattle being moved from Hotel Las Torres to their summer pastures and then met Jose, who invited us to spend more time since he is always alone out here.

Though we never did the hotel’s exclusive excursion to a ridge where condors are often seen up close, today we saw about 10 flying nearby.  The younger lads have less white on their wings, and Josy said these giant birds can live 50+ years and may commit suicide when old and weak by plunging head first.  We ended our drive at Estancia Las Chinas and crossed a wooden bridge over the milky Baguales River lined with wind-gnarled trees.  We walked up the hillside in heavy winds and saw guanacos, a horse carcass, massive views and zero humans.  This felt very “Patagonia” to me.

Estancia Lazo Horseback

Jenni was sick a bit of our time here and not that interested in horseback riding, so she rested up while I went on an afternoon excursion to Estancia Lazo.  I am not much of a rider but decided to brave the cold, windy weather for this unique experience.  On the hour-long drive there I saw Lago Sarmiento from a different side.

The horseback tour was by Laguna Verde, and we ascended to a lookout though it was fairly socked in so mostly the scenery was forest.  After two hours, I was thrilled to see an owl up close and get off that horse and into a heated van.

Paine Massif

To give Jenni an additional recovery day, we postponed the French Valley trek and instead did the full day tour of the park.  I am happy we did so because it was a perfect day and the scenery was spectacular, enhanced by some snow at elevation last night.

Plus, I had indulged heartily the night before with Kenneth, Dawn, Karl and Amanda.  We stopped at some viewpoints and then walked a short way to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall in an incredible setting backed by the Paine Grande and Cuernos.  Paine Grande has four separate peaks, including the highest point in the park, and it is partially covered by hanging glaciers.

This is where the Mirador Cuernos hike starts and is just past the boat (that we would take tomorrow) to Refugio Paine Grande, the starting point for the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks.  From here we continued around Lago Pehoe to a classic lookout above Hostaria Pehoe, next crossing the Weber bridge and lunching inside by Rio Serrano, the most developed area of the park.

I believe one may kayak around here or take a zodiac to Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest in Chile.  Lunch was a great spread of meats, cheeses, soup, lox, quail eggs, etc.  And some glasses of carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon.  One of the delights of a day mostly driving is that wine is anything but verboten.

After lunch we drove to Guarderia Lago Grey where we walked across another wooden suspension bridge on the Rio Pingo to a short path leading to a huge gravel beach we crossed to arrive at a path cut into the rocky hillside ascending to the Grey Glacier lookout.  Quite the spot, with a massive glacier across the lake, icebergs floating nearby and in-your-face views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos.  Josy treated us to some calafate sours, a maroon take on the pisco sour.  Legend has it that he who drinks the calafate sour will return to this land.

There is a boat ride offered here that takes you up close to the glacier but I think it costs $110/person.  Word is that especially if you have seen the Moreno glacier in Argentina then this is not worthwhile.  On the drive back to the hotel I asked to stop at Explora to check out Salto Chico and get a better sense of the property.

More on that below.  I strongly recommend the full day tour to anyone with enough time, as we saw so much of the park and it was beautiful.

If I could not spend Thanksgiving eating turkey, watching football and drinking scotch with my family, then this is how I would want to spend it.  A little FaceTime with Mom’s side at Leslie’s house was nice, as was the Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks to make me feel at home.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

French Valley

For our last full day we did the French Valley trek, another classic.  Josy again led us, and we were joined by Iana and Rich.  In another small world occurrence, they are both New York based restructuring professionals and we have some mutual friends.

Boat to French Valley

Boat to French Valley

On the drive to the boat Jenni, from the left side of the van, had a legendary spotting of some baby grey foxes on the right side of the road.  The driver backed up and we enjoyed just about the cutest creatures I can imagine!

We took the 9:30 am boat across Lake Pehoe and hiked a trail past wildflowers with views of the Cuernos, the French Glacier and turquoise blue Lago Pehoe.  The hike ascends modestly until the Campamento Italiano where it steepens heading up the valley towards the Campamento Britanico.

We enjoyed a nice lunch spread (hot soup, veggie skewers, hard boiled eggs plus individual sandwiches and snacks) on a boulder overlooking the glacier and valley.  After this we continued a bit but did not reach the top as we conservatively turned back at 2:30 pm to ensure we did not miss the 6:30 pm boat back across the lake, after which you are stuck until the morning.

Josy had brought a cooler to wait for us at Refugio Paine Grande, and cold Austral cervezas went great with conversation about skiing in different geographies.

Accommodation in the Area

There are a host of options, including the basic decision whether you want to trek from one refugio (or campsite) to another or sleep in the same bed each night with daily excursions.  For more avid trekkers, the classic route is the “W”, which I believe goes in whichever order from Refugio Grey to Paine Grande to the French Valley to Base of the Towers and ending at Hotel Las Torres.  There is no single way to do this and various hike and accommodation combinations are possible.  You could arrange this on your own or go with any of several operators offering assisted treks, ranging from help booking lodging and meals to fully guided treks.  Really serious trekkers can opt for the full Paine Circuit, a 7-11 day adventure where I would assume solitude is on offer for the non-W portions.

If you prefer to stick with one base, there are several different areas to stay.  I cover Explora and Tierra Patagonia below.  It seemed like Rio Serrano is the most developed area, but that is a very low bar.  Names of properties I recall include Tyndall, Rio Serrano, Paine Cabins and Lago Toro, and I think a new lodge is being built by the river.  There is more grass here and lovely views of the Paine Massif.  Hotel Lago Grey is on the lake but you’d need binoculars to see the glacier well.  Hostaria Pehoe is an older place but the location looks spectacular, jutting into the lake in between Explora and the mountains.  Camping Pehoe is nearby.  My friend Leila stayed at Hotel Las Torres and liked it a lot, and this would be the ideal location for maximizing your chance of catching the Torres on a nice day.  You walk out the hotel and onto the Base del Torres trail.

Anyway, the thing to remember is that trails are somewhat spread out and roads go around lakes and mountains rather than through them, and some accommodation is accessible from the road while other requires a boat ride and/or hike.

Tierra Patagonia vs. Explora

As best I can tell, if you seek the all-inclusive luxury experience then you are deciding between Explora and Tierra Patagonia.  We strongly considered the former, but Explora is much less flexible in that it requires either a four or eight night stay and only beginning and ending on specific dates.  I did not see the inside of Explora so cannot offer a completely informed analysis, but my understanding is that Tierra Patagonia is nicer.  The main advantage of Explora is its location inside the park, perched above Lago Pehoe with extraordinary views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos.  These mountains are so much closer here, and it is a more awe-inspiring view.  When on Explora’s property you really feel that you are set amidst the grandeur of it all, whereas at Tierra Patagonia you visit for the day and then enjoy expansive views from a safe and luxurious distance.

Explora also has its own boat leaving right from the property, which means access to the trailhead for both the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks is delightfully convenient and entirely independent of the operating schedule adopted by the boat concessionnaire to which all others are subject.  I believe the “public” boat runs only twice a day.  Given that these are two of the three most prominent portions of the W-trek, this is nice.  That said, on the day we trekked the French Valley, I found the experience of waiting around and taking the public boat among such an international crowd to be very enjoyable.  It is also worth noting that the trailhead for Base del Torres may be equidistant from Explora and Tierra Patagonia (check this).

The hot tubs and pool at Explora require quite an outdoor walk in what is generally cool and windy weather.  Far worse, they are down the hill and facing the wrong direction.  I must have seen some annex or there must be some other regulatory or safety justification for not locating these features to enjoy one of the best views anywhere in the world.  Otherwise, I hereby demand the immediate drawing and quartering of the designer.  Truly baffling.

Interior design, comfort and food aside (I know that is a big aside, but I simply cannot compare those aspects), the glaring advantage of Tierra Patagonia is that its location allows for more off-the-beaten-path excursions and means the visitor simply sees more of the area.  I found the vast expanses of earthen toned land and hills with virtually no signs of civilization other than the occasional estancia or gaucho to be a substantial part of the appeal.  Some excursions are exclusive to Tierra Patagonia, owing to the vastness of its property and arrangements it has made with other owners.  Around Explora we saw zero wildlife, whereas around Tierra Patagonia we saw hundreds of guanacos, tons of sheep and lambs, rhea, lots of birds, an armadillo, etc.  And had we been staying at Explora, we never would have seen those baby foxes on the way to the French Valley.  Shame on you if you can put a price on seeing baby foxes.

In general, wildlife seemed much more abundant outside than within the park.  The silhouette of a guanaco standing atop a hill searching for pumas does not get old.  Sadly we did not see a puma, though there was a group staying at Tierra Patagonia solely to photograph pumas and I heard they saw many on their independent, early morning excursions.  The lambs are adorable, and it is endearing to hear the local guides refer to sheep as “cheaps.”

Guests and staff were supremely friendly.  We made many new friends and it was touching how many people inquired whether Jenni felt better after knowing she had been sick.  Ditto the staff who brought her a three-course meal in bed on the worst night, after which just about every one we came across asked how she was.  The crowd is predominantly American, moreso than I expected.  Most are interesting and well-traveled, just as I expected.  Many guides are from Punta Arenas, though Spain, Australia and Turkey (as Jenni would say, woot woot!) were also represented.

On Saturday we left the hotel at 10 am which meant a good few hours in the airport before our 5:45 pm flight to Santiago (and 30+ hours of travel time back to Los Angeles).  We spent no time in Punta Arenas, though I would imagine this small city of 120k has some interesting aspects.  One of our guides said that Sotito’s is the place for king crab.  Penguin trips are available to Otway Sound onshore or Isla Magdalena offshore, and perhaps others.

Additional Thoughts

The owners of Tierra Patagonia also own Tierra Atacama and the Portillo ski resort.  I think they may offer some packages when combining more than one location.  Tierra Atacama is in a little town in the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth.  Some others had stayed there and loved it, even suggesting the excursions might be better.  I think it is at substantial elevation and one excursion is being taken by car up to about 17k feet and then hiking to the top of a volcano.  One guest said the geyser excursion is a must.

Torres del Paine is quite a haul but the reward is worth the effort!