Guide to Charleston, South Carolina

This post is dedicated to Jonathan Libutti. He fueled my interest to visit this city and I am forever grateful for the recommendations he gave me.

The food has a distinct flavor, the weather is warm, and the people are charming. Charleston has been voted best city in the U.S. numerous times in numerous publications and secured #1 in the world in Travel and Leisure. So what is it about this city that beats New York, Paris, Hong Kong and the other behemoths?

1) The Lowcountry Cuisine: Charleston’s restaurant scene is gaining national attention for its distinctly southern flavors, uniquely modern restaurants, and talented newcomer chefs. Local ingredients have always been a point of pride for area restaurants, and in recent years Charleston’s finest have rallied behind a standard of using only fresh, locally sourced foods. Charleston is known for comfort foods with a Gullah influence, and famous for such dishes as Shrimp and Grits and She-crab soup.

2)  nizoral cream price in pakistan Historic Homes: Early in Charleston’s history, the city collected property tax on the street width of the house, rather than the length, creating a preference for the long, narrow houses that are signature Charleston style homes today.  Almost every home on Charleston’s peninsula is historic. Beautifully colored antebellum mansion homes can be found on East Bay on Rainbow Row, and at the Battery on Murray and South Battery streets. Most of these picturesque dwellings also contain shady secret courtyards and black ironwork gates.

3) Southern Hospitality: A town raised with “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am,” Charleston demonstrates its southern hospitality in every aspect of life.  Hotels in Charleston go above and beyond the usual amenities you’d expect, with many offering complimentary wine and cheese receptions in the afternoons, and cookies and milk in the evenings.

4) Beaches: While Charleston’s downtown itself is a harbor town, three beaches are located just a short drive off the peninsula. Isle of Palms, the furthest beach from downtown, is full of upscale beach condos and remains relatively uncrowded most of the year. Sullivan’s Island, only about 15 – 20 minutes away by car, is a flat sand beach with beautiful homes and rentals, unique bars and restaurants, and is the home of Fort Moultrie, a defensive fort used in both Revolutionary and Civil wars. Folly Beach, a 20-minute’s ride away on James Island, is most popular with college students and Charleston vacationers.

5) American History: Called the Holy City for its many church steeples and historically early religious tolerance, Charleston’s great tale begins when King Charles the second of England chartered Carolina to his 8 Lords Proprietors. Established in 1670, Charleston fell victim to attack in the centuries to come by Native Americans, Pirates like the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet, and throughout the War of 1812, and American Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Visit historical sites like Ft. Sumter in the Charleston harbor, to stand where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Hotel:

  • Planters Inn: Elegant, with a southern style and amazing amenities. Located in the Historic District, it’s in the middle of everything (read: you can walk everywhere)

Dining – Respect the Food:

  • Hank & Hyman Seafood: The She-crab soup is a must. It’s Charleston’s signature dish made from the sweet meat from the female crab. The Carolina Delight takes grits to a new level – fried, cheese, more cheese. And the build your own platters are magnificent.

  • Jestines: Old southern cooking. Always a line. Classic soul food: fried everything, cornbread, and the blue collar special (peanut butter and banana sandwich with potato chips)

  • Anson: The crab and brie fondue, fried green tomatoes, catfish and chicken under the brick are delicious!
  • Husk: The bar serves Pappy! The focus is ingredient-driven cuisine and was 2011’s Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit Magazine. The menu changes but get the corn bread. The Carolina Heritage Pork is very flavorful and the Short Rib is succulent.

  • Hank’s Seafood (next to Planter’s Inn): Located in a turn of the century warehouse, the ingredients are as fresh as they come and the seafood is divine.
  • Peninsula Grill @ Planter’s Inn: Totally romantic with flickering lanterns and a historic brick alleyway. To start, you cannot go wrong with the lobster 3 way (ravioli, tempura, and sautéed) and the she-crab soup. Their steaks are outstanding with an assortment of beautiful sauces of all flavors to accompany the decadent meat. (Ginger-Lime Beurre Blanc?) And where else could you get a wreckfish? Although I’m not a dessert person, their Ultimate Coconut Cake is off the hook.

  • FIG: Local, fresh eatery that services a Provencal fish stew and a roasted tilefish! The rabbit pie is also a distinct dish.
  • McCrady’s Tavern (George Washington Spot): This was Keith’s favorite. A favorite of notable Charlestonians before/during/after the American Revolution, this establishment hosted a grand 30-course dinner for President George Washington in 1791. The calf’s head soup is one to try.

  • Hominy Grill: With a James Beard award winning chef, the entire appetizer menu is worthy – jalapeno hushpuppies, fried chicken basket, fried green tomatoes, okra & shrimp beignets… where do you stop?

 Drinking:

  • YoBo: “Healthy Mexican” with the legendary Mason Jar Margarita: double shot of gold tequila and margarita mix.
  • Charleston Harbor Resort’s: Blended mudslide cocktail
  • Mercantile & Mash: All about American spirits. 120 whiskeys, including limited releases and single-barrel and cask-strength offerings.

 

Must See / Excursions:

  • King St – For all your shopping needs

  • Rainbow Row: Window shop for mansions

  • Museum of Charleston

  • Meeting sweetgrass basket weavers at the Charleston City Market – yes we bought one and I store my chargers in it

  • Horse and Buggy Tour: Historic District, Ft. Sumner/Park
  • Boone Hall

  • Candle Store across street from Planters Inn Hotel (can’t remember the name!) – the most amazing scents.
  • The Holy City Salt Scrub @ Hyman Seafood – best salt scrub ever!

  • Hug a really big tree!

#stayinspired

First Aid Travel

After all my travel experiences, I have learned bringing a first aid/prevention kit is imperative for any length trip. I’m known to carry my little ‘pharmacy’ pouch in my purse on a daily basis. There is no way I’m going away without the proper precautions when traveling domestic or abroad.

firstaid

Essentials:

  1. A list of your prescriptions (in case you lose them). If you are traveling abroad, translate them in advance to the language.
  2. Pain and fever reducers (Advil, Tylenol)
  3. Hydrocortisone cream for bug bites / rashes
  4. Bandages
  5. IF you have heart problems, a copy of your most recent EKG – yeah, I bring mine
  6. Antihistamines for allergies
  7. Tweezers, small scissors, adhesive tape, alcohol wipes
  8. Rehydration powder (I like packets of Adventure Medical Kits’ oral rehydration salts)
  9. PH Drops
  10. Back up power battery which can juice up your phone or camera battery on the go
  11. Sunscreen
  12. Imodium in case you have a run-in with the porcelain god

Depending on where you travel, you should consider the following:

  1. Travel Insurance
  2. Antibiotics
  3. Wet wipes and toilet paper
  4. Emergency contraception
  5. Iodine tablets in case you have to purify water in an emergency
  6. Dramamine for when you get queasy on those bumpy roads or rough water

Enjoy your travel adventures and #stayinspired

Guide to Savannah, Georgia

This post is dedicated to Forrest Gump (His famous bench is in Chippewa Square).

Yes, I know he’s a fictional character but he’s been a beloved character to millions of people. What I love about him is that he attains all of his successes through his innocence and his imperviousness to contamination by the business of living. He never negotiates his spirit regardless of his fears or insecurities. He remains authentic through and through and that is beautiful. His goal isn’t to live happily ever after, it isn’t to finish the plot, resolve the conflict and roll through the credits. He realizes there’s more to life – life is a process that we will always work on.

Savannah is an enchanting southern escape. Defining it is difficult because it has the classic southern charm with a quirkiness mixed with grace and hospitality. There is also a romance to this city that cannot be explained until you walk (this is a perfect walk anywhere city) through the beautiful squares.

*This is Keith’s favorite US city. He equates it to a classic Hollywood starlet.

1) Historic Squares: Savannah has 22 breathtaking squares with grand live oak trees and ample green space. All of the squares are located within walking distance of one another, so seeing them all in one day is doable. If you’re pressed for time, limit your journey to the picturesque squares along Bull Street.

  1. Live Oak Trees: I’m not a nature person, but these trees are massive, magnificent and hauntingly beautiful.

  1. Cemeteries: There’s no better place to learn about Savannah’s history than in her cemeteries. Colonial Park Cemetery, located in the center of the Historic District, features gravesites that date back to the mid-18th century. Laurel Grove Cemetery, on the city’s west side, is a haunting reminder of Savannah’s segregated past, with separate sections for whites and blacks, along with a Civil War burial ground for Confederate soldiers. Bonaventure Cemetery, on the city’s east side, boasts breathtaking views of the Wilmington River.

  1. St. Patrick’s Day parade: The parade, the second largest in the nation, is held every year on March 17 (except when the holiday falls on a Sunday), but expect the party to get underway a few days prior and continue until the last pint of Guinness is chugged.

Hotel:

  • Kehoe House – Exquisitely restored 1892 Renaissance Revival mansion in the historic district, this luxury bed and breakfast is quaint and beautiful. We spent our anniversary weekend here. It’s in walking distance to everything.

 

Respect the Food:

  • Huey’s: Cajun-creole cuisine that is SO good. I was obsessed with the gumbo and the crawfish etoufee.

  • Wilkes Dining Room (closed on weekends + month of Jan / cash only / no reservations): There is always a line but it’s DELICIOUS Southern home cooking. Family-owned since 1943, the lunch crowd finds seats at one of the large tables-for-ten shared by strangers. By the time the meal is over, you are no longer a stranger. Located in the same building as the original Wilkes House, the Wilkes Pied-A-Terra property is a perfect place to stay during your visit to Savannah.

  • The Olde Pink House: We had our anniversary dinner here. Savannah’s only 18th Century Mansion, the Olde Pink House was named for the beautiful shade of “pink” stucco, which covers its old brick. Food standouts? Reynolds square platter, mac and cheese poppers, pulled pork, blackened oysters and crispy fried lobster tails. Wow!

  • River Street Inn: Gorgeous for a cocktail at sunset. Was an old converted cotton house.

  • Clary’s Café: Wonderful breakfast – The Elvis! The Victorian! Country fried steak! Also, a great post-drinking morning meal.
  • Back in the Day Bakery: Fresh-baked bread, cupcakes and fork-ready pies – hearty portions at this vintage bakery & espresso bar.

Drinking:

  • Just do a bar crawl on the waterfront

Must See / Excursions:

  • Hit the cemeteries – Its strangely beautiful and peaceful
  • Forrest Gump’s bench (Chippewa Square)

  • Horse and buggy ride tour to see the city – so romantic!
  • Pop into any antique store.
  • Take one of the bus tours (if you don’t do horse and buggy) because you get to see all parts of the city and can journey back to your favorite spots. Remember it’s a walking city.

  • SCAD Museum of Art is part of the Savannah College of Art and Design, and housed in an 1853 train depot.
  • Just walk around and see what you run into!

#stayinspired

La Dolce Vita! An Italian Adventure.

La Dolce Vita! An Italian Adventure in Venice, Verona, Padua, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast, Palermo (Sicily)

This post is dedicated to my father and mother’s family: The Caruso and the Rossi Clan – I am blessed to be an “honorary” Italian.

Italy is remarkable. It’s a kaleidoscope of regions and experiences with an incomparable artistic and cultural heritage that coincide with natural wonders fueled with a feisty passion for living. Throughout Italy, the local character and color is astonishing mainly due to the survival of regionalism, old traditions, customs and lifestyles coupled with a healthy interest in food, perseverance of history/events and elaborate commemorations of everything imaginable. In summary: everything is a celebration. I could get used to living like this…

Chapter 1:  Venice

Posted on 3QT separately: http://threequartersthere.com/2016/12/venice/

Chapter 2: The Veneto Region (Verona and Padua)

Verona is a vibrant trading center and the second largest city in the Veneto region after                             Venice. It also boasts many Roman ruins, second only to those of Rome itself!

Must See / Excursions:

  • Romeo and Juliet: We are all familiar with this tragic story. At the Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house) No 27 Via Cappello, Romeo is said to have climbed the balcony. In reality, this is actually a restored 13th century inn, but people still line up to see (myself included). The Casa di Romeo is a few streets away and the Tomba di Giulietta is displayed in a crypt below the cloister of San Francesco al Corso on Via del Pontiere.

  • Piazza Erbe: Colorful market built on the site of the ancient Roman forum and considered the center of Verona.

  • San Zeno Maggiore Church: Unusual medieval bronze door panels with extraordinary carved scenes honoring Verona’s patron saint.
  • The town of Padua is not far from Verona and is an old university town with an illustrious academic history. It houses a major museum complex which occupies a group of 14th century monastic buildings attached to the church of the Eremitani. A must visit spot is the Cappella degli Scrovegni dating back to 1303. The frescos of Christ are stunning and reveal what a powerful influence this art was on the development of European art.

 

Chapter 3: The Tuscany Region (Florence and Pisa)

The cradle of the Renaissance, but also a vibrant witness to new forms of creativity in wine, food, fashion and artisanship, Florence is magnificent. As a writer, I was tickled pink to know that writers such as Dante, Machiavelli, and Petrarch contributed to the city’s literary heritage, though it was the paintings and sculptures of artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Botticelli that turned the city into an artistic capital. I was only here for a day, but it’s a compact city and a majority of the sites can be seen on foot. (Brian and Liz Shick – thank you for the tour)

Must See / Excursions:

  • Explore San Marco area: These buildings once stood on the fringe of the city serving as stables and barracks (lions, elephants and giraffes were held there). It’s fun to see the hustle and bustle of the young Florentines.

  • Explore the Duomo area: Dante was born here! It retains its medieval feel and is home to the Baptistery, one of the city’s oldest buildings. The richly decorated Duomo – Santa Maria del Fiore has become Florence’s most famous symbol.

  • Santa Croce: This gothic church is home to the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. The setting is a masterpiece but realizing the company you are keeping is incredibly humbling.

  • Uffizi: Offers a chance to see the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings – there is nothing left to say. A must see.
  • Piazza della Signoria: The great bell used to summon citizens to public meetings and it’s a popular promenade for visitors. The piazza’s statues commemorate the city’s major historical events.
  • Cappella Brancacci: The church of Santa Maria del Carmine is famous for the Brancacci Chapel, which contains frescoes on The Life of St. Peter.
  • Shopping in Florence: There is a kind of magic when shopping on these medieval streets. From family-run businesses, artisan workshops, high end designers, local goods, antiques, fine arts and FOOD, there are few cities comparable in size that can boast such a profusion of high quality shops.

  • Near to Florence is Pisa, known for its Duomo, Baptistery, and Campanile (Leaning Tower) which are all testaments to the city’s scientific and cultural revolution.
    • Duomo and Baptistery: Pisa’s famous Leaning Towner is now the best known building on the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles), but it was intended as a campanile to complement the Duomo which is one of the finest Pisan-Romanesque buildings in Tuscay. The Baptistery houses a marble pulpit carved with reliefs of the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement.
    • The Leaning Tower of Pisa: Begun on 1173, the Leaning tower started to tilt on the sandy silt subsoil in 1274 before the 3rd story was complete – and there are 8 total. It has been defeating the laws of gravity since.

Chapter 4: Rome

(This paragraph was taken from Wikipedia – it summarizes the history better than I could have)

Rome’s history spans more than two and a half thousand years. While Roman mythology dates the founding of Rome at only around 753 BC, the site has been inhabited for much longer, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Europe. The city’s early population originated from a mix of Latins, Etruscans and Sabines. Eventually, the city successively became the capital of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and is regarded as one of the birthplaces of Western civilisation and by some as the first ever metropolis. It was first called urbs aeterna (The Eternal City) by the Roman poet Tibullus in the 1st century BCE, and the expression was also taken up by Ovid, Virgil, and Livy. Rome is also called the “Caput Mundi” (Capital of the World).

I will return to Rome. There was not enough time to see everything and the city is truly glorious. Italy’s capital is a sprawling, cosmopolitan center with nearly 3,000 years of globally influential art, architecture and culture on display. It’s a global playground twirling with passion and energy. Rome has a bounty of things to see and the mix of its architecture is a testament to its past: ruins, baroque squares and Renaissance gardens combine to give the city its enticing edge.

Respect the Food:

  • The Flavors of Rome: Roman cooking is slow and inventive. Pasta is the vital ingredient and the best dishes are simply prepared with the freshest ingredients. I can still taste fresh vegetables (artichokes), the fruit (lemons are the size of softballs), the bucatini all’amatriciana with spicy tomato and bacon sauce. Try everything.

  • Camp De’Fiori: It use to be the place of public executions, but is now a picturesque market by day. At night, it turns into a hub for nightlifers with restaurants and bars open for business
  • Piazza Della Rotonda: City square on the south side near the Pantheon. In the center of the piazza is a fountain, the Fontana del Pantheon, surmounted by an Egyptian obelisk. La Campana is nearby – Rome’s oldest trattoria (1518).

  • Piazza Navona: The Stadium of Domitian built in the 1st century AD is here. It was an open space stadium where the ancient Romans went to watch games. It was called the Circus Agonalis (competition arena). Check out Il Cantuccio – dazzling celeb place – for a delectable Roman meal.

Must See / Excursions:

  • *The Colosseum: It’s an ancient amphitheater and Rome’s most legendary landmark. This Roman icon, where gladiator battles once entertained more than 50,000 spectators has a maze of subterranean chambers which caged the fierce animals used in the battles – over 9,000 wild animals were killed.

  • The Roman Forum: It was originally a chaotic area with food stalls, brothels, temples and the Senate House but soon became the ceremonial center of the city under the Empire. Think House of the Vestal Virgins, Temple of Castor and Pollux, The Temple of Romulus, Basilica of Constantine and Maxentius.

  • Palatine Hill: Located in the same archaeological area as The Roman Forum, this is the spot on which the first settlers built their huts, under the direction of Romulus. It is one of the seven Hills of Rome and is located in one of the most ancient parts of the city.
  • The Pantheon: This was the temple to ‘all gods’. The maze of streets around it is a mix of lively restaurants and cafes.

  • *Vatican City: The world capital of Catholicism is the world’s smallest state.

  • Tens of thousands of people visit the Vatican to see St. Peter’s Basilica, masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael, and the Sistine Chapel. It is a UNESCO-listed complex with a collection of galleries filled with classical and Renaissance masterpieces, including the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Stroll through rooms like the Gallery of Maps, with its golden, vaulted ceiling; the Raphael Rooms, painted by Renaissance artist Raphael; and the stunning Sistine Chapel, considered to be the Pope’s home chapel, with Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement. Finish with a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church ever built and one of the holiest and most important sites in Christendom. The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s earlier sculptures that depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion, is breathtaking. St. Peter was martyred and buried here, and became the residence of the popes who succeeded him. This was one of the most overwhelming experiences of the trip. Everything is grand and almost larger than life. You are completely humbled regardless of religious affiliation by this experience.

  • Fontana Di Trevi: Rome’s largest and most famous fountain features figures of Neptune flanked by two Tritons, one trying to master an unruly seahorse, the other leading a quieter beast, symbolizing the two contrasting gods of the sea.

  • Arch of Constantine: The triumphal arch is one of Imperial Rome’s last monuments built in AD 315 a few years before he moved the capital of the Empire to Byzantine.

  • Piazza Di Spagna and the Spanish Steps: The network of narrow streets around this Piazza forms one of the most exclusive areas of Rome – Via Condotti. This is the most famous square in Rome.

Chapter 5: Naples & Campania Region (Pompeii)

The UNESCO-listed site of Pompeii is worth the trip. After the volcano’s infamous AD 79 eruption, lava and volcanic ash destroyed the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Evidence of those ancient streams of lava is still evident in the area. Once a thriving Roman city, Pompeii is best known for its archaeological digs, which are home to a wealth of relics.

There were preserved fossils and other ruins, plus plaster imprints of the town’s victims who were buried for years (there was a dog on a chain frozen in time!).

The ability to wander the streets and see how locals lived before the ashes took over is amazing. You’ll see where ancient shops, cafes and even brothels existed.

Chapter 6: Amalfi Coast

Discover one of Italy’s most beautiful stretches of coastline: The Amalfi Coast (aka: Brielle’s retirement). The picturesque towns combine stunning Italian scenery, archaeology and history.

 

The town of Amalfi was a former naval power now famous for its cliffside perch on the coast of the Tyrrenhian Sea. The views/cliffs are scary and breathtaking. Relax over a coffee or limoncello at a café.

Oh, and there is a Hotel Caruso… I think I need to stay here next time…

Chapter 7: Sicily (Palermo)

Active volcanoes, Greek ruins, remarkable landscapes? Palermo is an eclectic crossroads of Mediterranean and northern European civilization I also have a soft spot because my father’s family is from here – The mighty Caruso Clan!

*Keith and I were here in August. It’s hotter than hell. The only other place on earth we experienced such heat was XI’AN China (check out that post). We rationed water and dripped sweat but continued to explore this amazing town. The softball size rice balls and pizza fueled us…powered by pizza had a whole new meaning.

Respect the Food:

Make sure you eat!!!!! Sicilian food bears the mark of medieval influences. The Arabs introduced sugar cane, rice and certain citrus fruits, and the strong flavors of caponata (aubergine and caper salad), arancine (filled rice balls), cassata and cannoli (both filled with a sweet ricotta cream) are tasty testaments to the kind of culinary culture which evolves only over the course of centuries. Artichokes, harvested in winter and spring, are thought to be native to Sicily, while lamb and swordfish are so popular that they might almost be considered “national” dishes. Everything dish is perfection.

Must See / Excursions:

  • The Mafia (means hostility to the law) is an international organization founded in Sicily. It developed against a background of a cruel state, exploitative nobility and severe poverty. By the late 19th century it had become a criminal organization thriving on property speculation and drug trafficking.

  • Vucciria Market: Dating back 700 years, this spirited open air market is filled with more fresh food than you can imagine, Chinese imports, toys/junk, and hidden gems that are squeezed into the maze-like streets. The market has lost its tenuous links with its mafia past.

  • The Crypts

  • Teatro Massimo: Beautiful opera house located in the Piazza Verdi
  • The Casa Professa: Stunning baroque church
  • Quattro Canti Quarter (Baroque Square)

Chapter 8: Where I Still Need to Go

Milan, Naples, Sardinia, Capri – I’m coming for you!!!! #stayinspired

Ciao for now!

Venice

This post is dedicated to the Shick Family. They gave me the opportunity to visit this amazing city – a thank you is truly not enough. I also dedicate this to Adam Ponsi and Linda Gomes – their honeymoon in 2017 will take them to this magical city. #stayinspired

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Venice: The medieval city is postcard-perfect. It flourishes with Gothic, Byzantine, Rococo and Neo-Classical architecture. Its intricate network of canals winding through ancient cobbled alleys and under bridges is sublime. Venice is a window into the Italy of the 5th century. Nestled in a crook in northern Italy on the edge of the Adriatic Sea, it is laced with 170-odd waterways, which are spanned by 400-odd bridges. You can see the gondolas which replace workaday motorboats on the canals – you will not see a single car or even a bike.

Venice is built on top of an unstable lagoon. Read: its sinking, and worsening. Recurring floods have only sped up the structural damage inflicted on Venice’s low-lying brick buildings and the priceless St. Mark’s Basilica. A mere 3.3-foot rise in sea levels would put the city underwater—a reality that focuses not on “if” but “when.”

What does this mean -> Go see it now!

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General Info:

  • Currency: Euro
  • Tipping: Most restaurants include a service charge, but 10-15% is appreciated

Hotels:

  • Hotel Villa Braida: Super cozy hotel outside of the actual city (25 min drive and arrangements can be made with hotel staff)
  • Aman Canal Grande: Set beside the Grand Canal – magnificent.
  • Metropole Hotel: A walk from St. Mark’s Basilica. It’s also home to the Michelin starred Met Restaurant (pan-friend scallops coated with black bread crumbs!)

Dining:

A Venetian meal has many courses, and it can take a few hours to work your way through them all—from an antipasto seafood platter (or the classic sarde in saor, Venetian sweet-and-sour sardines) through spaghetti alle vongole (with clams) or risi e bisi (rice and peas) and grilled catch of the day to a cheese platter or tiramisú for dessert. Side note: I loved them ALL!

There are several great places to eat between Piazza San Marco and Ca’ d’Oro. I recommend either the simple yet hearty and authentic fare at Austria La Campana hidden in plain sight on the main drag (or, a bit out of the way, Trattoria Cea), or splashing out on lunch at the excellent Bistrot de Venise, many of its recipes from Renaissance-era Italian and French cookbooks.

If you prefer quick, cheap bites, there are two excellent tavola calda joints selling hot, prepared foods near the Rialto Bridge.

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More places to Eat:

  • Caffe del Doge: Coffee snobs paradise near the Rialto Bridge.
  • Rialto Fish Market: Medieval market is open-sided and offers everything from crabs, octopus, squid, monkfish and more. There is also a horse butcher next door….

rialto-fish

  • All’Arco: A neighborhood osteria (casual tavern) that serves wine and cicchetti finger food. Armed with ingredients from the nearby Rialto market, this family run tavern is a must stop!
  • Osteria di Santa Marina: Local eatery with delicious tuna tartare with shaved truffle and tagliatelle with cuttlefish and pistachio pesto….oh and plenty of wine.
  • Antiche Carampane: No fuss, seafood focused trattoria. Sign on the door” No pizza, no lasagna, no menu turistico” Get the soft shell crabs that are deep fried and the tagliolini with baby octopus.
  • Quadri: One of the city’s most highly regarded restaurants. 7 courses…. and so utterly romantic.

Drinking:

  • 1930’s era Harry’s Bar – 1948 Giuseppe Cipriani christened his signature peach bellini cocktail – must have if visiting Venice.

915ad9c91babfd675a131e8ee682e552harrys-bar-menu

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  • Hotel Danieli’s Bar Dandolo: Sean Connery drank here during the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You can’t help but feel like James Bond here 🙂

Must See / Excursions:

  • Ponte dell’Accademia (at sunrise)
  • The Grand Canal

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  • Piazza San Marco: The famous square is flanked by grand municipal buildings with a triumvirate of tower, church and palace at the end. This was where Venice announced itself to the world. One of the shops bears a statue of St. Theordore, the city’s dragon-slaying patron before St. Mark, and the other a winged lion, the symbol of the city and it’s 1000 year rebuttal of autocratic rule. Prisoners were executed between the columns – yikes!

st-marks

  • Santa Maria della Salute: Built in the 1600’s to celebrate the end of the city’s last great plague.
  • Saint Mark’s Basilica: Kill two birds with one stone by being at the Basilica di San Marco before it opens at 9:45am; that way you (a) get to see its treasures and the thousands of square feet of glittering mosaics, and (b) won’t have to wait in a long line, which can stretch the wait to as long as an hour or more later in the day. It consists of onion domes and Gothic spires, statues and gold mosaics. This was an expression of power vs. faith.
  • Pala d’Oro: Do pay the small, separate admission fees to see the Pala d’Oro altarpiece and to visit the Marciana Museum upstairs (great close-up view of the mosaics from the balcony level).
  • Libreria Acqua Alta: “The most beautiful bookstore in the world”. It’s not, but it’s an experience in itself.
  • Doge’s Palace: Be there before 11:35am to take your (pre-booked) “Secret Itineraries” tour, which in 90 minutes gives you an amazing insider’s glimpse into the hidden offices, courtrooms, archives, and prisons from which the true Venetian Republic ruled for 900 years.

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  • San Marco Campanile: The bell tower which actually opens before the basilica itself. Hit this one first for city panoramas from the top.
  • Ca’d’Oro: Venice’s Ca’ d’Oro (Golden House) is a gorgeous 15th century palatial home housing the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti museum. Ca’ d’Oro is one of the best preserved and most impressive of the hundreds of patrician palazzi lining the Grand Canal.
  • Rialto Bridge: Cross over the Grand Canal to the bridge. It’s a Renaissance stone span lined by shops…and food! Take a few minutes to wander the stalls of the Rialto Bridge on the far (S. Polo) side, then thread your way south through the S. Polo district to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

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  • A Cicchetti Crawl: Cicchetti (proucounced “chee-KET-tee”) are Venice’s verison of tapas. These are finger foods from bars called bacari traditionally washed down with an ombra (shadow), a small glass of wine. Cichetti run the gamut of, well, pretty much anything you can stick on a toothpick: calamari (in rings, or just tiny whole octopi), fried olives, cheese, sarde in soar (sweet-and-sour sardines), potato croquettes, polpette (meatballs—of beef or tuna), grilled polenta squares, salami…the list goes on. On the calories I accumulated.

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  • Casino di Venezia: Since the 1600’s people have been invited to throw their money around in elegant surroundings. With the slot machines juxtaposed with Renaiissance art, it’s quite a decandent experience. Caution, you will most likely walk in with more money than you walk out.
  • Take a Gondola Ride
  • Other Trips from Venice:
    • Murano Glass: There was a time when the trade of glassblowing was an elite pursuit dominated by craftsmen in the Venetian Republic, most notably on the island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon. It’s a must see. The products are breathtaking and $$$. I totally bought gold glasses. It’s the Italian in me.

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  • Giudecca: Run down area home to prisoners and exiles (Michaelangelo spent a few years here in the 1520’s) but it feels like Brooklyn.
  • Shoreditch: artists and musicials – Elton John has a place here.

There is so much here that seems on the brink of falling apart or melting away. While many buildings have been restored, many are still crumbling. This is part of Venice’s appeal. The city dates back to the 5th Century, and emerged as a major world power in the 10th century. It looks it’s age…and that’s what makes it fabulous.

San Francisco & Napa Valley/Yountville – 2016

Built on 43 hills, covering 49 square miles and surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco packs an incredible number of sights into a small and compact area. The ‘City by the Bay’ is a vibrant place to see. I have visited a few times for work and pleasure, but this last trip was with my best friend, Linda Gomes, and it was truly memorable. A tremendous thank you to Michael Stedman, Trish Mannion, Kathy Mannion, Yao-Hsuan Huang and Barclay Webster for helping cultivate this list over the past few years. 

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General Info:

  • Currency: US dollar
  • Tipping: 15-20% appreciated

Hotel:

  • Parc 55 Wyndham (Union Square Area): Cost effective and great location.
  • Hyatt @ Fisherman’s Wharf: A 5-minute walk from the shops and restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf, this upscale hotel is 3 blocks from Ghirardelli Square, and 4.3 miles from the east end of Golden Gate Park.
  • Sir Francis Drake (Union Square Area): A historic 1920s building just off Union Square. Part of Kimpton Hotels, the amenities are fantastic – the hotel hosts a free afternoon wine hour and has a glamorous top-floor lounge, The Starlight Lounge. The views are beautiful, the Yoshi’s Fix cocktail is delicious and although I haven’t made it yet, I heard the Sunday Drag Queen brunch is terribly entertaining. It’s also pet friendly. 
  • Westin St. Francis: This upscale hotel dating to 1904 was once visited by Queen Elizabeth II, and is 1.8 miles from downtown San Francisco. Can we say Starwood points?!

San Francisco Dining:

  • Yank Sing : My personal favorite dim sum. Keith and I rang up a $200 tab – yes, we are fat. Linda and I came in second place at $115.

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  • Michael Mina: Expert waitstaff and world class sommeliers. Classic California cuisine!
  • Original Joes: Old school Italian. They also have a great hamburger.

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  • Sons and Daughters: Contemporay American influenced by the seasons. A 28 table restaurant with a beautiful open kitchen.
  • Foreign Cinema for brunch: Truly a magical destination with an outdoor space screening films. Amazing brunch focusing on Californian-Mediterranean fare.
  • Brenda’s French Soul Food: NOLA take on fresh gumbo, crawfish, beignets, po’ boys & other Big Easy bites. The watermelon ice tea is glorious. No reservations so get there early!

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  • Wayfare Tavern: Feels like a British Pub. It’s known for it’s fried chicken. It’s good, but Willie Mae’s in NOLA will always be my #1. There was just a little more soul in the batter. What stood out during this meal was the mac and cheese and the burrata whipped potatoes.

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  • Locanda: Every pasta was outstanding, and we tried them all. Amen!

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  • Tony’s Pizza: Coal fired to Roman style – ’nuff said.
  • Liholiho Yacht Club: Hawaiian, Indian & Chinese dishes in a brick-walled space with booths. I am on a mission to eat everything with poke. The tuna poke, sesame oil, radish, nori cracker was ridiculously delicious. The other stand outs were manila clams, coconut curry, fresh turmeric, naan & grilled shortrib, escargot, bone marrow, mushrooms, fresh horseradish.

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Napa Dining:

  • Bouchon: Thomas Keller’s French bistro serving traditional fare in the Yountville area. The french onion soup is outstanding and you cannot go wrong with the steak frites.

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  • Auberge du soleil: The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil is one of the most romantic experiences I’ve ever had. It has one of the best vantage points in the valley. With 10 consecutive Michelin Stars, the exquisite Mediterranean-inspired cuisine reflects the natural diversity and rich seasonal produce available in the Napa Valley. Keith and I were lucky enough to have a wedding anniversary dinner here…and we sat next to some of the NY Giants!

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  • Rutherford Grill: Lively restaurant focusing on American comfort food – the skillet corn bread was life changing.

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  • Thomas Keller’s French Laundry: The Ultimate. I’m still working on getting reservations one day…

I love wine. It’s no secret. It’s my kryptonite and I fully disclose that. It’s been the source of my greatest and worst moments and I cannot quit it… although my cardiologist has other views. Wine has an amazing way of pleasing all your senses. It breaks the ice between people, it makes the nerves and muscles relax, your eyes brighten and see things in a new light, tongues loosen, friendships are made/deepened and the whole world is so damn happy.

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Visiting wine county is such a pleasure. Here’s a cheat sheet map from the Legendary Napa Valley Site: Napa Valley Winery Map

As for my personal favorites, here goes:

  • Chandon: All the etoile brands are magnificent specifically the brut. It’s made in Dom Perignon style and a fraction of the price. The 2006 tete de cuvee with is nutmeg flavor translates to a winter champagne on the palette.

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  • Robert Mondavi: The grounds are so magnificent and while I’m not a fan of super sweet wine, the Moscato is brilliant.

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  • Darioush: So exotic and sexy. Darius II is stunning.
  • Inglenook: In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historic Inglenook property, intent on restoring the estate’s legacy of creating world-class wines equal to those that founder Gustave Niebaum and his grandnephew John Daniel Jr. made for decades. I love the classic Rubicon.

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  • Clos du Val: Clos Du Val Winery is a winery in the Stags Leap District. The Cabernet Sauvignons are beautifully done.
  • Cakebread: The Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are outstanding.

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  • Far Niente: Beautiful grounds/estate and the Chardonnay is delicious.

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  • Chimney Rock (need advance reservations): Saving the best for last. If I won lottery I would try and buy this winery. By far, my favorite wines on earth. I have been known to enjoy a bottle myself. (I don’t know if I should be proud of that, but the wine is like drinking silk). The Elevage is my true love, but I adore the Cabernet Sauvignon. I also appreciate the Elevage Blanc which I consider the white wine for red drinkers.

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Must See / Excursions:

  • Fisherman’s Wharf
    • Jefferson St. Promenade: San Fran’s fishing fleet; Fish Alley (Jefferson btw Hyde and Jones) to view the fisherman at work.
    • The San Franscico Dungeon.
    • Red & white Fleet Bay Cruise: 1 hour and takes you under the Golden Gate and by Alcatraz.
    • Ghirardelli Square: Once the home of the world famous chocolate factory.
    • Thai Massage at Royal Thai Spa (5 minute walk from Pier 39).
    • San Francisco Maritime National Park.
    • Hyde Street Pier: The only floating National Park.
    • Pier 39: Renovated cargo pier with specialty shopts and dining.
    • Gotta love the street performers.
    • Sea Lions!

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  • Vendors along Jefferson Street sell Dungeness crab from steaming cauldrons and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.

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  • Cable Cars: Introduced to San Francsico on August 2, 1873, the wire-cable manufacturer Andrew Hallidie conceved the idea after witnessing an accident in which a horse drawn carriage fell, rolled backwards and dragged the horses and carriage downhill. The cable car created a vital link in the public transportation system. These beloved cars are the only vehicles left of their kind still in operation and are designated national landmarks.
  • Alcatraz: One of the cities top attractions, Alcatraz served as a harbor fortification, military detention facility and maximum-security federal penitentiary. Many mafia criminals and high-risk convicts spent their time here. Fun fact: the prison was the only one in the federal system that touted hot showers – a luxury designed to keep prisoners from acclimating to cold water. The island is only 1.25 miles from shore and there is no evidence of any successful escapes across the icy Bay. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, it is accessible only by Alcatraz Cruise boats which depart daily from Pier 33 near Fisherman’s Wharf on the Embarcadero. Purchse the tickets in advance.

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  • The world’s crookedest street – Lombard Street: Located in the Russian Hill district, it’s 8 sharp turns on a 40 degree slope making it the world’s croodedest street. Note, speed limit is 5mph.

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  • Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Golden Gate Park: Among the world’s greatest urban parks, approximately 3 miles long and a half mile wide, this treasure is covered with grassy meadows, bike trails, secluded lakes and gardens. Includes the Conservatory of Flowers, de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, The Japanese Tea Garden and Stow Lake.
  • Chinatown – Dragon’s Gate at Bush and Grant: Your senses are immedietly tempted by the aroma of the ethnic cuisine. The heart of Chinatown is Portsmouth Square where San Fran’s first Chinese immigrants settled in the 1850’s. Old St. Mary’s Church is the first Roman Catholic cathedral built on the West Coast. Stockton Street is the place to find traditional herbs, pharmacies, temples, produce, seafood and restaurants.

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  • The Embarcadero: This is the waterfront boulevard lined with palm trees, historic pier structures and delicious eateries. The Ferry Buidling serves as the market from which the piers are numbered, odd numbers are located to the north and even numbers to the south.
  • Union Square Area for shopping.
  • Presidio: This area served as a military station for more than 200 years. Union regiments trained here during the Civil War.
  • Mission District: Mission Street is where you can immerse yourself in Latin American and Mexican rich cultural traditions. Valencia Street has become the epicenter of the gentrified Mission District. The eateries are on the ‘must-try’ list.

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  • Japantown: Ramen noodles!
  • Day Trip to Napa – we used Ambassador Airport Service. They were terrific.
  • Trips to Sonoma and Healdsburg (small town in Sonoma): Home to many award winning boutique wineries.

#stayinspired

2016 Asia: Hong Kong – Post 4/4

Hong Kong…Manhattan on Crack

Hong Kong is a hedonistic engine room of cultural fusion: East meets West in high style with a unique identity due to its British and Portuguese influence. We were fortunate to have our friend, Harry Pang, show us around both nights we were in town.

General Info:

  • Currency: Hong Kong Dollar
  • Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% appreciated
  • Respect the Food:
    • Dim Sum: Felicia and Shendi Lu, thanks for the prep!
    • Cha Siu: HK National dish – pork, honey, spices
    • Moon cake: Revolutionaries in imperial China used to smuggle messages to each other hidden in a moon cake’s dense filling (I wish my mail was wrapped in food!)
    • Eggettes: Egg waffles are a HK classic…it’s an iconic twist on waffles

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  • Misc: HK is grouped into islands, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island being the two main ones. Main tourist sights and eats are divided up between the two. They are just a 10 min cab/5 min subway ride away. Star Ferry travels between them and takes around 10 minutes (costs around $1 US).
  • Transport Recos:
    • MTR: Best way around is Metro – quick, cost effective and efficient
    • Aiport Express Link: 24 minutes from airport to Kowloon / Hong Kong. Charging stations and TVs, comfortable seats, air conditioning…what more could you ask for? They will also check in your luggage on the return trip and send it to airline. Easy, breezy service.
    • Taxis: Cabbies are as psychotic as any big city cabbie. Hold on for dear life!

Hotel:

  • W Hotel (Bruce Starr, thanks for reco)
  • Site: http://www.w-hongkong.com
  • The hotel is in West Kowloon. Fly into Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) and travel to the hotel by Airport Express, the most direct and quickest route. It takes 24 minutes, has charging outlets and is the most efficient way to get to the W, which is a 5 minute walk from the station, and it’s through a lovely indoor mall.
  • The concierge, Billie, was the most enthusiastic person I met on this trip. His energy and knowledge of where to go / how to get there was fantastic. Jasper, the bellboy, that greeted us upon arrival was incredibly helpful and just genuiniely kind. It was a nice way to start our experience in Hong Kong.

 Dining:

  • Tung Kee Seafood: Point at what you want and eat it.
  • Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine: Super cute eatery featuring the world’s most celebrated cartoon in the form of dim sum, rice and motif teapots. Yes, we had to go…

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  • The Kitchen (W Hotel): This is fat Brielle speaking. This was a buffet like no other (Mel Mao – you know what I’m talking about!). All types of cuisine. I literally sampled everything from the lobster, to meats, to soups, to donuts, to pasta… nothing went to waste and it was a glorious morning breakfast to fuel up for the day’s activity.

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  • Mad for Garlic: An Italian restaurant that originated in Korea. Garlic is in every dish. You will smell awesome after this…
  • J&G Fried Chicken: Taiwanese-style chicken bites are peppery and sizzing hot on the outside and moist on the inside. Different spice levels available! (After Thailand, I couldn’t stop eating spicy food!)
  • Yung Kee in Central: Our last night and some traditional Chinese. They also had Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc for $30USD. What a deal! Harry ordered and we went to town…but I distinctly remember the lemon chicken…

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  • Din Tai Fung: Dim Sum and Chinese Buns and then some…

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  • Mammy Pancake: Michelin Star rated streetfood. Advice from Harry: Get the chocolate chip pancake and follow it with the Everything Waffle – this was dessert heaven.

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  • Sohofama: Slow cooked 48 hour natural short rib pancake sliders and crab with sticky rice

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 Drinking:

  • Ozone @ The Ritz Carlton: This takes the honors as the highest bar in the world. 118th Floor with outdoor seating and exquisite views. Sadly, there was a rain storm when we went so we were limited to the inside space. The cocktails were brilliant – check out this Ritz Carlton Signature. Now if only they would use Caliche Rum!

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  • Dada Bar & Lounge: Think Alice in Wonderland
  • J Boroski: Named after owner, Joseph Boroski, this hidden spot in central is a bespoke creative cocktail space. There is no menu so everything is customized. The bartenders are not only true creatives, but they exhibit such a passion for their craft. Watching them make the cocktails was mesmerizing. I have been lucky enough to have drank at amazing bars but the food-cocktail blew my mind. I LOVE soup, and that was the base. It’s a food – drink blend. I was blown away. After Harry, Keith and I enjoyed 3 cocktails a piece, the rhinoceros beetles that adorn the curved ceiling started to look more appealing. If you are in HK, request an invitation (call 2603 6020).

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  • Quinary: Craft cocktails (Earl Grey tea foam!) that are a true sensory experience

  • Lily & Bloom: An immaculate yet industrial bar. Expect vintage spirits and well-executed textbook cocktails.
  • Lan Kwai Fong (party zone): Bars all over – tons of ex-pats.

Must See/Excursions:

  • The Peak: Spectacular views, wooded walks and exclusive properties (it houses the world’s most expensive street, Pollock’s Path). Take the Metro to the Peak Tram and in under 10 minutes you will arrive to Victoria Gap. *If it’s misty / cloudy, do not go. You won’t be able to see much.
  • The Star Ferry / Harbour City: One of HK’s most beloved institutions, the Star Ferries have plied between Kowloon and HK Island since 1888. If you take the evening voyage, you will witness the harbour’s neon spectacle, The Symphony of Lights – 45 harbour buildings put on a light and sound show.
  • Temple Street Night Market: Fortune tellers, opera street performers, clothes, knick knacks, food! What more could you want? Accessible by Metro, the overwhelming array of cheap goods and unbeatable lively atmosphere is a must see.
  • Tsim Sha Tsui area: great dim sum spots, musesums, ritzy arcades – fun destaination to walk around in.
  • Heritage Plaza and Avenue of the Stars
  • Ladies Market: Flea market like Temple but not at night, lots of cheap goods.
  • Elements: more than 1 million square feet of pure shopping bliss themed after the five Chinse elements.
  • Pet Street: Here’s one for our 4-legged furry friends. Mong Kok’s Tung Choi Street is disarmingly charming. Full of pups, kittens, rabbits, goldfish, turtles and frogs, it’s difficult not to say ‘awww’ in adoration of these cute little creatures.
  • Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery: Take the metro, and get there by 10am so it’s not too hot. Once a humble house built by 3 monks, Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island is an important temple and the giant Buddha facing the monastery is an object of veneration for devotees and tourists alike. 260 steps lead you to the base, and you can go inside (the museum) and see Buddha’s tooth (no pictures allowed). For me, this was a very spiritual spot. I not only left Rambo’s hair, but one of the crosses I had blessed in Jerusalem at the base. Buddha and Jesus – that’s a righteous combo.

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Well…our 2016 travel adventure is complete, and it was everything I hoped for. Seeing the world, meeting new people, and educating myself on other cultures/way of living is a passion of mine & Keith’s. I hope these recaps/guides are not only entertaining, but informative should you travel to any of these amazing cities.

So Hong Kong in summary? It transcends cultural and culinary borders in an accessible way so that nothing feels truly foreign and nothing doesn’t belong, yet it’s wrapped in a mist of exoticism and opulence.

Oh! When we got home, the first thing we did was order pizza. Nothing says home like good old Italian food, haha! Now, where should we go next year??? Cheers to the new adventures.

#stayinspired we are always #3QT

Love,

Brielle

 

 

2016 Asia: Bangkok – Post 3/4

5 Days in Bangkok…Chow’s Retirement Party

Bangkok – you are beguiling, bewildering, subtle, brash, sensual, and spiritual. You gave me a run for my money and are an intriguing city. Your glittering temples, saffron-robed monks, gourmet food, food stalls, crazy cabbies, ‘bargaining’, hustle and vibrancy made you one of my favorite cities ever.

Side note: My best friend, Linda Gomes, has always been the Alan to my Chow (read: Hangover characters). We are lovable misfits that just do crazy things together (give me some sugar!). On this adventure to Bangkok (remember Chow’s appearance in Hangover 2?), I was determined to retire this alter-ego in true fashion – I had 5 days. This leg of the trip was gonna be my wheelhouse!

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General Info:

  • Currency: Baht
  • Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% appreciated.
  • Respect the Food:
    • Must have: Phat Thai (Thai Fry), Sticky Rice, Tom Yam Kung (Signature dish – hot & spicy soup with chili, lemongrass and galangal served with prawns/seafood), Drunken Noodles, Tom Kha Gai (my favorite coconut soup with chicken).
  • Enjoy the spices in every meal – the flavors are bold and explosive.

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  • Misc: Never insult the royal family, appropriate attire (covered shoulders, remove shoes) in temples, Lady Boys are real, Thai massages are heavenly.
  • Basic Language:
    • Hello: sa wut dee
    • Good Bye: lah gorn na
    • Thank You: korp-kOOn
    • Yes/No: chai / mai chai
    • I don’t speak Thai: poot pah sah tai mai bpen
  • Temple Attire Rules
    • No short skirts and shorts or even shortened trousers (you should always wear full length). Skirts that fall below the knee are permitted.
    • No tight fitting trousers such as leggings.
    • No clothing that has holes in, such as ripped jeans.
    • No vests or any top without sleeves, you can wear t-shirts.
    • No tops with sleeves rolled up, even if it’s warm keep your sleeves down.
    • No sportswear of any type
    • No sweat shirts or sweat pants.
    • Perhaps unexpectedly you can wear sandals and flip-flops (in a suitable design) but it’s best to wear full shoes for comfort when you’re walking around.
  • Transport:
    • Bangkok earned the biggest traffic jam award recently – there was never a day/time without traffic. LA you’ve got nothing on this city.
    • Taxis: Their hustle and rudeness was legendary. Make sure they use the meter.
    • Tuk Tuks: An experience in itself, and one you must try. Negotiate the price before the journey begins. There are no seat belts so hold on for dear life.
    • Boat: There are water taxis and many of the hotels located on the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) provide free boat service. This was a godsend for us while staying at The Peninsula.

  • BTS Sky Train (above ground subway): Efficient, safe and convenient mode of transport.

Scams:

We learned very quickly that Bangkok lives up to its reputation. It’s cultural, sexy, hard, manipulative, and it tested every sense Keith and I had. It was one of the most memorable cities I’ve visited for good and bad. Be wary of the scams though – here’s a list to prepare if you go.

21 Most Common Scams in Thailand

Classic Brielle Moment: Totally got bamboozined – #6 Scam got me good. I heard of the Somboon Seafood Chain and wanted to try. Well, trusting our cab driver and not remembering the exact spelling, we wound up at Somboondee Seafood Market. Upon leaving, we took a taxi back to our hotel in the pouring rain. As if we needed more drama that day, we both looked at the medallion (picture of a man) and it was a woman driving. After about an hour drive with the meter running, we made it home safely and agreed we would better map our destinations moving forward because our trust level was going down.

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Hotel:

  • The Peninsula Hotel: One of the greatest hotel experiences ever. It was a spiritual, physical and mental oasis for us every day. The amenities were fantastic, the service went above and beyond…
  • http://bangkok.peninsula.com/en/default
  • Anusan at the Concierge was a life-savor.

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Dining:

  • Thiptara Thai Restaurant (at Peninsula Hotel): Try everything on the menu. The flavors were explosions in your mouth – truly unforgettable.

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  • Sala Rim Naam (at Mandarin Oriental Hotel): Think dinner theater. Take in a cultural show accompanied by a gourmet dinner.
  • Terrace Rim Naam (at Mandarin Oriental Hotel): Lon Poo Talay was outstanding.

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  • Saffron (52nd Floor at Banyan Tree Hotel): Exquisite Thai dishes. There is also a dazzling cityscape from the 61st floor at the Moon Bar.
  • Hard Rock Café: Had to go and get my Hard Rock Bangkok shirt in honor of Chow.

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  • Smoking Pug BBQ (http://www.smokinpugbbq.com): Danny and Dana are a husband and wife team  that opened this slow-cooked Texas-style BBQ restaurant. This was a godsend for Keith and I when we were itching for familiar American food. We stumbled upon it while in starvation mode and knew it was meant to be when we saw the name – the featured black pug made us think and miss Rambo. The BBQ and fried chicken were delicious.

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  • Sirocco: Situated halfway to heaven, this is a pretty amazing place for a meal (Italian) at the State Tower. The views are exquisite.
  • Blue Elephant: Royal Thai cuisine

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  • Next2 Cafe (at the Shangri-La Hotel): Bangkok’s famous buffet (yeah, we found it) in a prime riverside setting. Market-style spread of various regional, along with Continental and Asian à la carte menus. It received the Editor’s Choice Award for “Bangkok’s Best Restaurant – Buffet Category” by Bangkok Best Dining & Entertainment Magazine for four consecutive years. Amazing ribs and the coconut soup was so rich and flavorful.

Drinking:

  • The Bar (in Peninsula): Chay the bartender was terrific. Remembered our cocktail orders and was so friendly. Can we say delicious bar snacks!
  • Sky Bar: The scene of Chow / Hangover, and a spectacular panoramic view from the 64th floor of the State Tower. They even have a Hangover-tini.

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  • Silom Area: Patpong Road – it is everything they say…and more. Those are ‘off-line’ stories.
    • Soi’s = Sub Streets
  • Sukhumvit: Soi Cowboy (street where Hangover was filmed)
  • Tapas: Bangkok’s beautiful people with good food and drink

Must See/Excursions:

  • Chinatown
    • E book walking tour link: Bangkok Walking Tour
    • Chinatown is home to many examples of the architecture of Bangkok’s early years. About 14% of the buildings in the district have been designated as historical landmarks. Most of them are off on side streets. One of the most well-known is the is the Tang To Gung gold shop on Sampaeng Lane around Mangkon Road.
    • Sampaeng Lane: Chinatown’s original main street is a small narrow alley which runs from the Phahurat Market all the way down to Songsawat Road. The lane is too small for cars, and is now a crowded market selling mostly inexpensive household items. Near the Tang To Gung gold shop is a very old Chinese pharmacy that is definitely worth a look.
    • Thieves Market: I think this is self-explanatory…only in this city.
  • Phahurat Market: The market is home to a huge number of stalls.

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  • Day Trip to Ayutthaya: The Peninsula Concierge set up our private tour. From the 14th century onwards, Ayutthaya was the capital of an independent kingdom until the city was sacked by the Burmese. It is now UNESCO World Heritage site. This ancient city transports you back to the splendor of the former capital.

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  • Aside from Keith and I living out Kickboxer and Mortal Combat moments, we were captivated by the architecture, history and artifacts. The Buddha’s head encased in a Banyan Tree was surreal.

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  • Wat Arun: Under construction. Named for Aruna, the Indian God of Dawn, it translates into Temple of the Dawn. It has 5 distinctive prang (towers) made of colorful broken porcelain, which are used as a logo of the city.

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  • Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo: Give yourself 2 hours to walk around. Make sure to follow the attire recommendations. This is a dazzling complex of Thai religious art and architecture featuring over 100 temples. Rama I established this as Bangkok capital in 1782. It houses the country’s most precious Buddha image.

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  • Wat Phra Kaew – Home of the Emerald Buddha: The Emerald Buddha is made of jadeite rather than emerald. It is the most sacred image in the kingdom, and is only 26 inches tall. The Buddha is adorned in seasonal attire. For our visit it was summer. Classic Keith Moment: We went into the temple (remove shoes, can’t take pics – although I snapped one from outside and added a google image shot so you could see what the little guy looks like). Keith goes through all the motions: kneels, bows, prays. We leave and I’m feeling blessed. At dinner later that evening, I go “Wasn’t the Emerald Buddha amazing?” His response? “We saw him? When?” To which I replied, “When we went in the temple, you removed your shoes, kneeled and prayed?! How did you not see him?” I laughed so hard. I guess because he’s so small Keith was overwhelmed by all the other decor…OR, he simply was not paying attention.

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  • Wat Pho: Bangkok’s oldest and biggest temple with the Reclining Buddha (symbolizes his arrival at Nirvana) and the Thai massage school – WATPO

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  • Thai Massages: In my life, I have never had a massage like this. The stretching & precision… it was the most intentional massage I’ve ever had: 2 hours = $15USD. How can you beat that? I had one everyday.
    • Where I went: Serene Spa and WATPO Thai Massage School: Not easy to locate. It’s behind the Wat Pho temple  (Reclining Buddha).

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  • Heard these were also great:
    • Ruen nuad massage studio
    • Change Foot Massage and Spa
    • Health Land: the Walmart of massages
    • *Perception Blind Massage: Launched in December 2014, it offers Thai massage while providing employment for blind or visually impaired therapists. Perception let’s the therapists demonstrate their unique talent for massage therapy showcasing their sense of touch in a way others cannot. http://www.perceptionblindmassage.com/aboutus
  • Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium: In Thai, it’s translated to Sanam Muay Rajadamnern, an indoor sporting arena. Along with Lumpinee Stadium, the Rajadamnern is one of the two main stadiums for modern Muay Thai. If you want an evening of exotic, violent, raw, oriental entertainment, sit ring side for a boxing match. This national sport with the punching, kicking and Thai spectators is a spectacle. There are traditional dances performed by the boxers accompanied by wailing instruments before each match. Watching this made me want to go back to karate again.

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  • Chatuchak Weekend Market: The mother of all markets – Bangkok’s biggest market held every Saturday and Sunday – you can find anything here. With over 15,000 stalls and products grouped into easy to navigate sections, it’s a shopaholic’s paradise. Had so much fun haggling and buying everything from the most fragrant soaps, to spices, to shorts!

  • Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, also known as the Summer Palace, is a palace complex formerly used by the Thai kings. It lies beside the Chao Phraya River in the Bag Pa-In district, Ayutthaya Province. It pays homage to King Rama 5’s love for international influence. (He was the son of the King Rama 4 – the King and I!)

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  • Asiatique: It’s a 29 acre extravaganza – formerly the trading port and warehouse site of the East Asiatic Company. It’s a remarkable riverside destination of boutiques, cheerful restaurants and entertainment outlets. We had dinner at Why97 Pub and Restaurant. Gim, our server, was a clever, smart-ass, entertaining person.

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  • Baiyoke Tower: Bangkok’s hightest bar, The Rooftop Bar, is in its tallest building.
  • To Buy: Jim Thompson Thai Silk anything!
  • Enjoy a cruise up the Chao Phraya River or a boat ride up one of the canals – the 3rd pic is of their convenient store(!)

  • Amulet Market: Pick up a talisman.
  • Snake Farm: Watch snake venom being extracted.
  • Silom – Thailand’s ‘Wall Street’ is by day a place of financial institutions, law firms and multinational corporations. By night however, Silom slips out of its suit, transforming into a bustling shopping street and frenetically paced hedonist’s playground. Alongside a cramped but creatively stocked night market (think bootleg DVDs, tourist trinkets, T-shirts, fake watches), sit some of the city’s most renowned and raucous streets, namely red-light district Patpong, Soi 2 and Soi 4.

  • Soi 2 and 4 present Bangkok’s most noticeable gay scene with the former being home to the huge DJ Station club and the latter presenting around a dozen fun, laidback and undeniably camp bars. Walk three minutes to Patpong or Soi 6 and it’s a completely different story; most of the bars here are all about the go-go dancers, with things becoming more X-rated if you head upstairs. For cleaner fun, try Soi 4, head up to the stunning Cloud 47 rooftop bar on the main Silom strip, or venture further west towards the river to find an all-time favourite Bangkok bar, the inimitable Maggie Choos.
  • Fish Spa: While not legal in the U.S. whenever Keith and I go overseas we get this done. Fish spa treatment basically involves customers placing their feet into a water tank filled with toothless garra rufa fish – also known as “doctor fish”. Within seconds, an army of fish will gather at the customer’s feet and nibble the dead skin tissue away.

Bangkok in summary? How I loved it. It’s so teeming with everything that should be forbidden: the Muay Thai fighting, it’s so provocative, the environmental management arrangements, the continual attention of con-artists and snatch-theives, quaint local customs, a glittering and tortuous history, bewildering architecture and flavors that will spike all you senses.

As the ‘One Night in Bangkok’ song goes:

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…And we had 4 nights…

 

2016 Asia: Hanoi & Halong Bay – Post 2/4

Hanoi (the City within the River’s Bend) and Halong Bay, Vietnam

Lush mountains, ancient pagodas, polluted streets, mopeds, fascinating culture, incredible street food, hospitable, always-smiling people – I went in with no expectations and left feeling so fulfilled.

General Info:

  • Currency: Dong
  • Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% is appreciated
  • Respect the Food:
    • Must haves: Pho, Spring Roles, Banh Mi Sandwiches, Pork everything, Vietnamese Coffee and Teas (Au Lac Café) – the coffee has an amazing flavor, and it’s rocket fuel.

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  • Coffee Varieties:
    • Arabica: Most expensive and richest flavor
    • Robusta: Cheaper than Arabica – rich flavor
    • Weasel: Expensive and is made from coffee cherries eaten and defecated by chon Vietnamese weasels
    • Tea: Mainly green tea varietal scented with lotus flower

  • Cuisine: Lighter than Thai food, Vietnamese cuisine uses raw vegetables, soft seasoning, herbs and unique flavor combinations. Often described as textural, with fresh and sharp flavors, tropical in its core, it is seen as more colorful and fragrant than its neighbor China. The cuisine of Vietnam possesses a rich variety and is divided into three categories:
    • Bac (north) Northern Vietnam has long been influenced by its proximity to China and it’s the only region of Vietnam that experiences all four weather seasons, inspiring seasonal dishes. The food tends to be lighter and milder than other regions.
    • Trung (central) The dishes from the center are the most culturally authentic and representative of Vietnamese cuisine, influenced by the imperial cuisine of Hue city. The food is spicy and heavily seasoned.
    • Nam (south) Southern cuisine in Vietnam is the most plentiful of the three, rich in vegetables, rice and seafood. It has enveloped French, Cambodian and Thai flavors to develop a distinctive taste. Food in the south is more tropical and at times sweet.
  • Misc: People smile a lot & are very affectionate. Their communication system is interesting…and everyone is on a moped.

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  • Quick Visual Guide to Vietnam

  • Ride on a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) but negotiate the price beforehand – it’s quite the adventure

  • Basic Language:
    • Hello: xin chao!
    • Good Bye: tam biet
    • Thank You: cam on
    • Yes/No: vang/khong
    • I don’t speak Vietnamese: toi khong biet tieng Viet

Hotel:

Dining:

  • Chez Manon in Hilton Hanoi Opera – the spring rolls were delicous.

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  • HOM Restaurant –  in the Old Quarter.

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  • **Hoa Sua Training Restaurant (No2, Hang Chuoi street: Tel: +84 4 3942 4448). This was the one restaurant I wanted to visit during our stay in Hanoi. It’s tucked into a tiny street in the Truc Bach neighborhood. Created in 1994, Hoa Sua is a vocational training school for disadvantaged youths —war orphans, street children, hearing impaired and physically disabled—giving them professional training in European and Asian cooking, catering and hotel services, sewing, embroidery, baking and languages. When it started, the school was graduating around 20 students a year. Today around 700 students graduate yearly and to date more than 6,000 graduates have found work in the tourism and hospitality sector. It was such an honor to support these students and have a delicious meal cooked with incredible ingredients and love.

  • Club Opera – the service was outstanding, the wine selection delicious and all the food on the menu was well-presented and authentic.

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  • Pho 24 – as you can see, I could not get enough Pho. No frills and scrumptious. Throw in beer and fresh coconut water.

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  • Banh Mi: I couldn’t stop eating the chicken version. Keith opted for the beef. Check out those Vietnamese pants!

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  • Stall Breakfast down the street from the hotel… more Pho and coffee.

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  • Quan Com Sai Gon: Beef Dish with french fries!

  • Tons of restaurants in Old Quarter – Banh Mi Sandwiches = heaven. I ate it so fast I forgot to take a picture. The coconut water and wine were fantastic.

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Must See / Excursions:

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Ba Dinh Square) + Pillar Pagoda (symbol of Hanoi) + Presidential Palace
    • We love learning the history of other cultures. Understanding their point of view on the Vietnam War and their interactions with the French before the US arrived was very interesting. Classic Brielle moment: I wore a dress with a wrap that wasn’t acceptable in the mausoleum. I had to buy pants (the vendor knew exactly what I walked in her store for and had pants that were in my size ready!) and a larger shawl. The queue was long but very efficient and to our surprise, we saw Ho Chi Minh’s actual embalmed body. It felt like we were going to a viewing. You are not allowed to speak – learned that rule quickly. Definitely worth seeing.

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  • Vietnam Military History Museum
    • Established in 1956, it houses the most famous ancient architectural relic, the Flag Tower. The museum features exhibits and relics from the two resistance wars agains the French colonialist and the Americans.

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  • Hoa Lo Prison Museum – a very humbling experience
    • Built by French administration in 1896, this prison held political prisoners, and during the Vietnam War, it achieved notoriety as a place of incarceration for downed US pilots who named it Hanoi Hilton. Named Maison Centrale during the French rule, most of the complex was demolished in 1997.

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  • Majority of the exhibits include a horrifying array of shackes, whips and forms of torture, along with solitary confinement cells, sewage system (escape route) and a guillotine.

  • An area is devoted to the American period, cotriving to show how well US prisoners, including US senator John McCain, supposedly fared in contrast to the brutality shown by the Vietnamese by the French.

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  • Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword): Similar to King Arthur and Excalibur, our hero, Le Loi, was said to have a sword of great power. The legend says that the blade of the sword, inscribed with the words ‘The Will of Heaven’ (Thuan Thien), came from the Dragon King in his underwater palace. A fisherman, who later joined Le Loi’s army, caught the blade of the sword in his net. The hilt was found by Le Loi himself in a banyan tree. The stories claim Le Loi grew very tall when he used the sword and that it gave him the strength of many men. The story relates how one day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam as an independent country, Le Loi was out boating on the Green Water Lake (Luc Thuy). Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Le Loi’s belt, and dived back into the depths, carrying the glowing sword in his mouth. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle but without success. Le Loi then acknowledged that the sword had gone back to the Dragon King with the Golden Turtle (Kim Quy), and he renamed the lake ‘The Lake of the Returned Sword’ (Hoan Kiem Lake).

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  • Old Quarter (36 Streets) + Bach Ma Temple (Oldest and called White Horse Temple): Fun spot to walk around. Trinkets and treasures everywhere.
  • Dong Xuan Market: Oldest and largest market in the city
  • Opera House: Modeled after the Paris Opera designed by Charles Garnier. Before World War II it was the epicenter of the city’s cultural life.

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  • Halong Bay Overnight Cruise by way of Halong Phoenix Tours / Halong Scorpian Cruise. Main guide was Dan who was knowledgable, incredibly accommodating and very friendly. The car trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay was approx. 3 hours – it’s a long journey that’s why we did the overnight. (Thanks Lauren DiPrima and Linda Gomes for this gift):

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  • Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, all you can do is marvel at the other-wordly landscapes created by limestone outcrops.

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  • Kayaking in the rain – this was a lot of fun, but we realized how polluted the water was. So sad given how beautiful the scenery was. Tours and local folks pick garbage from the water to help remedy the situation. IF you go in the water – in whatever capacity – throw out your clothes or get them laundered quickly. I hand washed our bathing suits because they stunk to high heaven after. We then laundered them at the hotel.

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  • Met a fantastic Australian couple, Rosina and Mark. Enjoyed stories, copious amounts of wine/beer, and delicious Vietnamese food during the excursion.

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  • Cooking a Vietnamese Meal – Mark, Rosina, Keith and my spring rolls. Yes, they were scrumptious.

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  • Ti Top Island: The island was named after Russian cosmonaut Gherman Stepanovich Titov, a hero of the former Soviet Union, to mark the historic visit of President Ho Chi Minh and G. Titov on November 22nd 1962.

  • Illuminated Caves in Halong Bay

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  • How many drinks on the Witek Room? We were at the top of the list with consumption (typical). Rosina and I closed it down lasting till 1am respectively and waking up our crew for ‘one more glass of wine’.

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Vietnam in summary: Bruce Starr – everything you said was true. There was a rare sense of gracious charm and timelessness that blended cultural heritage in perfect harmony with growing modernization. Vietnam left its mark on me.

2016 Asia: Beijing & Xi’an, China – Post 1/4

Our Adventure for 2016 was Asia Part 2: Mainland China (Beijing & Xi’an), Vietnam (Hanoi & Halong Bay), Thailand (Bangkok) and Hong Kong. Friends and family members have asked how it was and I thought it would be easiest to write a recap/guide on #3QT in 4 digestible pieces. Here’s Post #1 – Enjoy and #stayinspired

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Travel Essentials

  • Passports
    • US (or your country passport)
    • Chinese Visa: Go to your nearest Chinese Consulate and apply. http://www.china-embassy.org/eng/visas/hrsq/
    • Vietnam Visa: Work with this company govietnamvisa.com– it’s super easy and you get it on arrival. Pay for the VIP service. It takes 10 minutes in airport. They can also arrange transport to your hotel, which I highly recommend. (Shout out to Trish Mannion for this reco.)
  • Electrical Adaptors: Although most hotels provide and have multiple sockets in room, bring your own just in case.
  • Country Currency: Know the conversions and exchange in airport or hotel http://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/

Beijing, China

China’s capital is home to many fascinating sites. For me, it remains largely mysterious and dizzying. It’s a spellbound labyrinth with a mix of modern, medieval and magic.

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General Info:

  • Currency: Yuan
  • Tipping: Not necessary, but 10% appreciated
  • Respect the Food:
    • Must have: Peking Duck, Dumplings, Hot Pots, Maotai Beverage (aka: Chinese Fire Water – shout out to Terry Chang for introducing us to this herbaceous beverage at the Golden Cicada)

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  • Manners: Slurp your soup (Mel Mao, you weren’t joking about this!)

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  • Always bring bottled water for hydration.
  • Toilets: Most places have squat toilets – be prepared and bring wet wipes (I was not a fan of this).

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  • Basic Language:
    • Hello: Ni hao
    • Good Bye: Zàijiàn
    • Please / Thank You: Qing / Xièxiè
    • Yes/No: Shi / Méiyǒu
    • I don’t speak Chinese: Wǒ bù huì shuō zhōngguó huà
    • Where is the bathroom: Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎlǐ
    • Please take me here: Qǐng dài wǒ zài zhèlǐ
  • Internet:
    • Certain sites are blocked and wi/fi can be fuzzy.

Hotel:

  • Grand Hyatt Beijing at Oriental Plaza: https://beijing.grand.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html
  • The hotel is situated near main attractions (read: you can walk) and is located in the prime business and shopping district, at the crossroads of Chang An Avenue and Wangfujing. The gym is beautiful and the resort style indoor pool feels a bit like Vegas. The concierge team was incredibly helpful and knowledgable.

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Dining:

  • Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu: Cheap Delicious Dumplings

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  • Da Zhai Men: Imperial Court & Show
  • Made in China (in Grand Hyatt): The Peking Duck, Beggar’s Chicken and Beef & Chive pancakes were outstanding. Specializes in Northern Chinese dishes.

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  • Noble Court (in Grand Hyatt): Traditional Cantonese Cuisine. They have donkey meat! We enjoyed the honey-roasted barbecue pork and gong bao chicken – a spicy staple with peanuts, ginger, garlic and chiles.
  • Wangfujing Street: Every food imaginable from live scorpions to meat to fruit.

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Drinking:

  • RedMoon (in Grand Hyatt): The staff – Jackie, Vivian, Cindy and Vincent – are brilliant. Thoughtful, on point and knowledgeable in wine and spirits, this is a great spot for sushi bites and to end an evening. We ordered a few glasses of champagne 🙂

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  • Too Boom Bar: There are mainly restaurants where you order your beverages, so when we stumbled upon Too Boom Bar, we decided to give it a try. Jerry, our bartender, was fantastic. We got such a kick out of the menu, Mexico Corn Flakes = Chips and Salsa. The bar also carried a beer, Royal Dutch, that was 16% proof and had quite the effect on Keith.

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Must See / Excursions:

  • Great Wall (Mutianyu section): The Grand Hyatt concierge made private tour arrangements for us using Gray Line Tours (http://www.grayline.com). Jessica was our guide / Mr. Lee was our driver. Both were truly outstanding, friendly and knowledgeable in every way.

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  • The Great Wall snakes through the countryside over deserts, hills, plains and goes on for thousands of miles. It was mesmerizing and one of the most magnificent man-made structures I’ve ever seen. Built as a defensive fortification, it could not prevent the ‘barbarians’ from entering China. The wall was multi-functional and enabled speedy communications via smoke, flares, drums, bells as well as allowing for the transport of troops across the country. It goes on forever and no words or pictures could ever do it justice.

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  • Tea (Mel and Swan, I went tea CRAZY): We enjoyed a lovely tea ceremony. I couldn’t get enough and fell in love with Pu’er Tea. It is made from the leaves and stems of the Camellia sinensis plant. Pu’er tea is post-fermented, which means it includes both fermentation and then prolonged aging under high humidity. It is used as medicine supposedly improving mental alertness, sharp thinking and reducing high cholesterol. I’ll take any help I can get!

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  • Tian’an Men Square (Square of the Gate of Heavenly Peace)

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  • Mao’s Mausoleum: Flanked by revolutionary statues, the building contains the embalmed body of Mao.

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  • Xi’an (the Ancient Capital): We were a bit aggressive and planned a one-day trip with Beijing Variarts Tours (http://www.variarts.com).I must call out Michael, our transport guide. He had so much knowledge of the country/history and was such a pleasure to spend time with. We flew from Beijing to Xi’an at 5:30am and returned at 11pm same day. It was the longest and hottest day of our life. (99 degrees with 90% humidity) Oh, and you could imagine how those squat toilets smelled. I almost died. It was a low moment.

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This was our Xi’an Experience…

  • We saw our future child in the airport – recognize some of those facial expressions? Obviously he likes to eat.

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  • Xi’an City Wall

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  • Great Goose Pagoda: Originally built to house Buddhist scriptures and included the novel, Journey to the West.

 

  • Ate Dumplings – Xi’an lived up to its rep for this!

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  • Muslim Quarters

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  • Terracotta Warriors: Hundreds of life size figures still standing more than two millennia after their burial in the tomb of China’s first emperor. There are 3 Pits that have been uncovered. It was hotter in the pit than it was outside. Holy Hell. As Keith exclaimed, ‘The emperor built the warriors on the surface of the sun!’ It was worth it though. They are absolutely magnificent to see. I must call out Mr. Li, our guide. He warned us of the heat and pulled out his umbrella at the beginning of the day. We learned very quickly how bloody hot China could be. Mr. Li was a trooper taking us all over for an entire day and not complaining once – unlike me.

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  • Forbidden City
    • This is China’s most magnificent architectural complex. It housed 24 emperors over 500 years. The palace was the exclusive domain of the imperial court and dignitaries until the abdication in 1912.
    • You need a passport to go inside and it goes on forever. (Mark Izatt, you weren’t kidding when you informed us of that!) You could spend a day here and still not see everything. We learned that every detail has an intention and if you look at dragon statues, one usually holds a ball (the world = male) and one holds a baby (offspring/life = female). The colors in the Forbidden City are Blue (Emperor), Green (Prince) and Red (wealth, honor, happiness).  And the dragon and phoenix stand for the emperor and queen respectively.

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  • Temple of Heaven
    • UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was here the emperor (son of heaven) would make sacrifices and pray to heaven for his ancestors at the winter solstice.

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  • We bring Rambo’s hair on all our trips and drop it off at all the memorable places. He made it to the temple!

  • There is a Heavenly Center Stone – it symbolizes the 9 heavens. You are supposed to stand in the center, raise your voice and hope that it’s heard by the folk’s upstairs. I belt it out! Keith yelled ‘Go Knights’.

  • Wangfujing Street
    • Hosts fabric and shoe shops, major department stores, teahouses and a VERY energetic food scene.
  • Bar Street: All types of bars from dives, to hookah, to dancing-gogo / live music. Watch out for the admission fees at the live music / dancing spots.

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  • For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of this awesome store. They had the quirkiest stuff and a gin bar that featured incredible cocktails with gin brands from all over the world. Love the upside-down McDonald’s M…I mean W for Witek…haha!

  • Jade: We learned that the Beijing olympic medals included jade in the design and that the rock comes in various colors – not the typical green we often see. True to form, I bought a jade bracelet (lavender and will get more transparent with time), a dragon and the family ball /generation ball. The latter consists of 3 to 13 layers – one layer = one generation. Just like an extended family, it can bless people with happiness and reunion. There are 12 holes on each layer, symbolizing 12 months. The ball blesses a family with happiness, harmony and good luck in a year.

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So that is the summary of our time in China – It was confusing, contradictory and left us at a loss for words. The country is obscured in mists of time and legend, and for that, we will never be the same.