Wednesday, May 4, 2011

China Itinerary

Travel dates: Last two weeks of September

Here is our itinerary for our travel in China:

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Beijing from San Francisco. Flew to Guilin.
  • Hired a taxi and a guide for the rest of the day
  • Checked out Reed Flute caves and Elephant Trunk Hill while cruising down the Li River
  • Saw the brightly lit Sun and Moon Pagodas

Day 2:
  • Visited the Solitary Peak Park. You can get a nice view of Guilin once you climb the never-ending stairs to the top of the peak.
  • The Li River Cruise tour we had booked picked us up from our hotel along with stopping at other hotels for pick ups.
  • Glided down river Li on a bamboo raft, watching the huge limestone karsts slip by
  • Flew from Guilin to Xi'an

Day 3:
  • Took a taxi to the Terracotta Warriors. Surprisingly I wasn't that impressed by this terracotta army that was buried to protect the Qing emperor in his after life.
  • We were supposed to take the train to Longmen Caves. However it was the Mid Autumn (Moon) Festival that day and there were throngs of people lined up, trying to make their way home to their families. We soon scrapped the idea of taking the train and instead walked around Xi'an.
  • Checked out the Drum and Bell Towers as well as the Great Mosque of Xi'an within the Muslim Quarters
  • Wanted to check out the wall around the city of Xi'an and even ride a bike over it, but access to the wall was closed due to Moon Festival celebrations

Day 4:
  • Visited the Big Goose Pagoda
  • Took the 16-hour overnight train from Xi'an to Datong

Day 5:
  • Arrived in Datong at 5am. Waited for the CITS office to open at 7am and set out on our private taxi tour to the Hanging Monastery and Yungang Grottoes.
  • Had an amazing hot pot lunch at Yungang Grottoes before climbing on a bus to Beijing

Day 6:
  • Group tour to Ming Tombs and Mutiyanyu section of the Great Wall of China (the Badaling section is closest to Beijing, but is also equally touristy. I would have ideally liked to have gone to the Simatai section, which is not as restored as Mutiyanyu or Badaling, but it's more remote and takes a long time to get there)

Day 7:
  • Took the subway to the Summer Palace
  • Visited the Temple of Heaven
  • Checked out Tiananmen Square and took the subway to the Olympics Park to see the Bird's Nest and Cube

Day 8:
  • Did a walking tour of hutongs of old Beijing
  • Had a good time bargaining at the Silk Market
  • My dinner was at the amazing Pure Lotus - a completely vegetarian restaurant with an amazing ambience! While my husband had the traditional peking duck dinner with some of his friends and seemed to enjoy that as well.

Day 9:
  • Toured the vast expanses of Forbidden City
  • Visited Jingshan Park across from the Forbidden City
  • Saw the Lama Temple
  • Did some more shopping at the Silk Street market
  • Flew to Shanghai

A few other places in Beijing that we didn't get to see but wanted to:
  • Wangfujing Dajie - premier shopping street that comes alive after dark, as well as the night market with all sorts of critters you can eat (closes at 9pm)
  • Lao She Teahouse - West of the palatial KFC on Qianmen Xidajie; Nightly (7:30m) variety show of Chinese performance arts
  • Qianhai waterfront - Nice area to dine outside
  • Beihai Park - First set up by Mongols
  • Cow Street Mosque - 18 Niu Jie, Xuanwu. Metro Stop: Xuanwu Men, then take taxi. Avoid on Fridays

Day 10:
  • Visited the Jade Buddha temple
  • Made our way to Shanghai's Old Town to see the neatly manicured Yunyang Gardens and the Zig Zag bridge leading up to the Huxingting Teahouse
  • Had lunch at the Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant
  • Checked out parts of the World Expo 2010 at night since we needed to stand in line at 9am to get tickets to enter some of the more popular countries' pavilions like China, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Day 11:
  • Did a walking tour of Shanghai's French Concession, People's Square and other tourist spots as suggested by National Geographic Traveler book

Day 12:
  • Day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Suzhou where we say the old pagoda at Tiger Hill, Master-of-Nets Garden and the many canals of the city
  • Back in Shanghai, walked along The Bund and did some shopping
In Shanghai, we weren't able to cross the river to get onto the other side of The Bund to visit all the sky scrapers, including the Oriental Pearl Tower. Perhaps next time!

Day 13:
  • Took the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train to the airport to fly back to San Francisco from Shanghai


Travel Dates: Last two weeks of September

China is a land of great contrasts. Known for its manufacturing and population prowess, it is a country that has dominated Asia for centuries in many aspects. We got a chance to catch a glimpse of these aspects in our 2-week journey through only a small portion of the most populous nation in the world: Guilin, Xi'an, Datong, Beijing and Shanghai!

Highlights: Limestone cliffs of Guilin, Great Wall of China, Yungang Grottoes, Datong Hanging Monastery, spicy Sichuan cuisine, World Expo 2010 (in Shanghai)

What would we do differently: We would avoid overlapping our travel with the Chinese National Day (October 1st). That day marks the beginning of the 10-day vacation everyone gets in China, so all the locals tend to flock to the tourist destinations as well. The result: huuuuuge lines at the train station, sold out train tickets, barricaded areas, restricted entrances and very limited help from the ubiquitous Chinese policemen. I would also book transportation in advance to a couple of adjacent towns I wanted to go on side trips to (like Longmen Caves). There are many popular and trustworthy English speaking tour operators I found on Trip Advisor who were helpful in providing suggestions for transportation. In hindsight, I should have just booked them to take us on a private tour, for we didn't get to see Longmen Caves because of the ridiculously long lines at the train station and our lack of knowledge in Mandarin!

If we had more time: I would have loved to have visited Longmen Caves and the Leshan Giant Buddha. The Mongolian border and specifically Mogao Caves along the Silk Route are also on my list to visit the next time I'm in this country. Same goes for the famous rice terraced hills of Longji and the tourist and bike friendly town of Yangshuo, both near Guilin. We were supposed to go to Yangshuo from Guilin per the trip we had purchased, however the organizers spent so long picking up people from different hotels that it was already time for us to get back to the airport by the time we were done with the Li River Cruise (that takes you down through the limestone cliffs on a bamboo raft). That was only supposed to be in the first half of the day!

Other places in China that are on my list to be visited whenever we go back again are:
  • Chengdu and Lijiang to experience the spicy Sichuan food and the lovable pandas
  • The water towns (also called the Venice of the East) of Jiangnan, Hangzhou, Zhujiajiao and Zhouzhuang near Shanghai
  • The gorgeous Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve and the nearby Huanglong National Park
  • Dazu and Baodingshan Caves, which are similar to Longmen, Yungang and Mogao Grottoes
  • Lhasa and the Tibetan plateau
Prices: We found that the most inexpensive part of the trip was the food. It was awesome to eat good food for much cheaper than what we're used to! The most expensive parts of the trip were the flight and train tickets. The currency is RMB.

Massages: Foot massages were everywhere, and we heard that there is a school in Beijing that offers great massages where the masseuses are all completely blind. We didn't get to go there. If you go to the hole-in-the-wall places, it might be cheaper but go at your own risk. Many times the hotels you're staying at will have such massage services at a discount for hotel customers. Foot massages with free fruit juices were the best way to end many of our days that we spent walking all over the tourist spots!

Also, brace yourself for some major smog and pollution in the major cities (especially Beijing), and a ton of second-hand smoke, as every man in China seems to smoke!

Transportation: All the major cities are connected through flights, and I was told that you can even book flights a day or two in advance and get cheap prices (I didn't find this to be true during the peak tourist season we went in). The websites I used (and even purchased from, before we left for China) were Ctrip and eLong.

You can also travel between cities and towns via trains. There are four classes of tickets: hard seater (sitting only; seat has no cushion), hard sleeper (horizontal sleeper class, no cushion), soft seater (with cushion) and soft sleeper (sleeper class with cushion). Of course the Soft Sleeper is the most expensive, but sufficiently comfortable class. During our 16-hour overnight train ride from Xi'an to Datong, we got the soft sleeper, which had blankets and pillows as well. There were four "beds" in a bunk bed fashion per compartment, and we had air conditioning, which meant you couldn't open the windows. That was not cool especially when our two compartment-mates started smoking in the walkway outside our compartment :(

The trick to buying train tickets is they can be purchased 5-10 days in advance of your trip, from the departing station ONLY. This can put a damper in your logistics if you need to leave from a place within 5 days of arriving there. Train tickets tend to sell out if you're going in peak travel season or during the Chinese national holidays. I used a travel agent (Travel China Guide) to get around this issue when I booked my tickets from Xi'an to Datong. They do take a cut, so be prepared to shell out a little more than what you would need to if you purchase them yourself at the station. We didn't want to risk not getting the tickets, and also didn't want to deal with the language barrier. Our train tickets were promptly delivered to our hotel concierge who we collected them from upon our arrival in Xi'an.

You can also travel via bus between towns, which is what we did to get to Beijing from Datong. We purchased the bus ticket from the local China International Travel Service (CITS) representative in Datong. He spoke English, which was great, but I do feel like we paid a lot more than we should have. Oh well!

Within major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, you can always take the subway, or the ever present taxi as well. What proved invaluable to me was anticipating all the navigation related questions I would encounter in the day and having the hotel concierge writing those questions down for me in Mandarin, so that all I needed to do was point to the question and I'd get my direction from the locals. Also a very essential piece of paper is the address of your hotel where you're staying written down in Mandarin (or use their Chinese business card if available). It's very convenient to show your taxi driver this card/address so they can easily take you there without any hassle.

On Oct 1st, the Chinese National Day, there were no train tickets available for the times we wanted to leave to Suzhou from Shanghai, an hour long ride. Hence we hired a taxi to take us there by the meter (175 RMB). What we didn't realize is that our taxi being a Shanghai taxi, dropped us off at the highway stop and asked us to take a local Suzhou taxi to take us into town. Except it took us over two hours to figure out which direction the town was in and how to exactly get there (since nobody could speak English and they couldn't even tell us where we were on our map. Even the police wouldn't help us). We just started walking in one direction and finally got to an intersection we could recognize on our map. So the first thing we did when we got into town was hire a taxi to take us back to Shanghai after taking us to a couple of tourist spots within Suzhou (210 RMB)!

Best Time to Visit/Weather: September and October, except for the 10 days starting from the Chinese National Day (Oct 1) when all of China will be on vacation and will add to the peak tourist season. October is supposed to be the prettiest to visit Jiuzhaigou National Reserve to experience the explosion of colors from autumn leaves to the crystal clear emerald colored lakes of the valley. The weather in September is quite comfortable in Beijing and Shanghai. However it was quite hot and humid in Guilin, which would be the case anyway as it's closer to the equator.

Stay: The hostel network is supposedly very trustworthy and clean throughout the major cities in China. Some of my friends have stayed in hostels close to train stations that they strongly recommend. There are many chain hotels all over China along with smaller bed & breakfast style accommodations too. If you're visiting Beijing, be sure to book a stay in one of the many hutongs within the city. Hutongs narrow alleys with houses with traditional courtyards - how old Beijing used to look like before industrialization.

Cuisine: Different parts of China have varying cuisines. Sichuan cuisine is my favorite, for it's spicy as well as flavorful. Cantonese cuisine does not have much spice to it while the widely available varieties in dim sum/dumplings makes up for the lack of flavor. The best dumplings we had was at Luyang Huntundian (address: 88 Bifeng Fang) in Suzhou, a town near Shanghai that is famous for its water canals. We also had dumplings at the famous Nan Xiang Steamed Bun restaurant in Shanghai's Old Town. They had four levels of varying degrees of service, from lining up along the street to purchase from a set menu at the window (cheapest) all the way to seated service on the fourth floor. The menu on the fourth floor had the most vegetarian options so we had to go there! I also didn't find many desserts in China, but did find lots of tropical fruits that I enjoyed eating for the first time, like the Dragon Fruit!

Finding vegetarian food was easier in China than in Japan. Perhaps what made it easier was my handy little piece of paper on which I had my Chinese colleague write in Mandarin:
I am vegetarian. No meat, chicken or fish. No meat or fish sauce. No meat or chicken broth. Make it spicy.
That worked like a charm was great!

Where vegetarians may want to bring their own food is on train journeys. I had brought a couple of MTR brand ready-to-eat curries (Rajma and Dal) with me from the US. All I needed to do was heat the contents of the pouch either in hot water or microwave. There are taps that dispense piping hot water in every compartment because packaged noodle bowls are very popular meals on trains. I just immersed my pouches in that hot water, bought a tray of food with rice and few other items in it, used just the rice with my curries and I was set!

Visa: You will most likely need to apply for a visa to visit China. It cost US citizens $140 and Indian citizens $30 to obtain a Chinese visa in 2010. The process was relatively simple: Apply for the visa at the San Francisco embassy where you can leave your passport with them, and pick it up about a week later.

Friday, April 22, 2011

London Itinerary

When we were in London, we usually started the day pretty late, which is unusual for us. If you're early risers and don't have to battle jet lag, you could perhaps pack more sights into the day within Central London. Here's how we spent our week in London:

Day 1:
  • Arrived in the afternoon.
  • Took the Picadilly Underground line into town
Day 2:
  • Watched India win the Cricket World Cup 2011 against Sri Lanka, live and in HD!
  • Dinner at Maroush 1 in Central London
Day 3:
  • Day Trip to Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge. I would not recommend going with Evan Evans Tour as the trip felt very rushed, which I guess tends to be the case if you go with package tours. We wanted to spend more time in Bath.
  • Dinner at Veeraswamy in Central London
Day 4:
Day 5:
  • Visited St. Paul's Cathedral
  • Saw the ceremonial Crown Jewels at the Tower of London
  • Rode the London Eye
Day 6:
  • Checked out the Prime Meridian at the Greenwich Observatory
  • Walked along the Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace and Green Park.
  • Visited the British Museum where the Rosetta Stone is on display
Day 7:
  • Visited the Borough Market and Covent Garden markets.
  • Strolled along the South Bank Walk passing Shakespeare's Globe Theater, Tate Modern (Museum of Modern Art) and crossed the Thames over the Millennium pedestrian bridge
  • Checked out the beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum where the South Asian section has the original wooden robotic tiger from Tipu Sultan that still works today! When the handle is cranked, the tiger roars and digs into the neck of a British soldier! This was one of many relics the British took with them when they captured Srirangapattana after Tipu Sultan's fall.
Here are a couple of walking tours suggested by some of the forums. Also be sure to download some of the free audio walking tours before leaving for London so you can enjoy the history and references to the many buildings along your walks!
Take a walk along the South Bank of the River Thames from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge. The walk is less than 2 miles and is entirely pedestrianised. You will begin with the Houses of Parliament opposite you, and following the river, you will view or walk past a number of impressive structures including County Hall, The London Eye, St Pauls Cathedral, The Tate Modern, The Globe Theatre, Southwark Cathedral, London Bridge ,and the Cruiser HMS Belfast. You end up at Tower Bridge by the new City Hall, and opposite the Tower of London.
Begin at Marble Arch Tube station..walk down Oxford Street past Selfridges until you get to Oxford Circus and make a right down Regent Street until you get to Piccadilly Circus. Once there cross over until you see signs for Trocadero and keep walking straight. You will now pass through Leicester Square and if you make a direct cut through it (either through the small sitting areas or around them) you will get to the edge of the square. Make a right and you are in Trafalgar Square. If you head straight down out of the square you will get to the Thames and face to face with the Eye and Big Ben. If you choose to make a slight right through the arches you will reach Buckingham Palace. Follow those directions exactly and you will see touristy London w/out the need for a guide or tour bus!
I personally didn't feel the need to take the hop-on hop-off bus tour at all. A map, the Underground and above-ground double decker buses did it all for us!


Travel Dates: First week of April

London, the city that defines all cities. A true melting pot. We had a lot of expectations for this city - the history, the architecture, the grandeur and of course, the ethnic food scene! We got a chance to taste a little bit of everything during our week long trip. Here are highlights, followed by some tips and suggestions.

Highlights: Grandeur of the architecture, history of conquests, ethnic food scene, convenient public transportation

What we would do differently: We would definitely pack appropriate clothing for the ever-changing weather - layers, with gloves, scarf and a beanie/ear muffs, and a wind-resistant umbrella! We would also have liked to spend a day (and perhaps even a night) in Bath instead of just 2 hours that we did as part of the Evan Evans package tour to Windsor Castle, Bath & Stonehenge. We would also visit more of the gastro pubs to try the free-house (not affiliated with any brewery) beers and gourmet food.

If we had more time: We would try to do a day trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to check out a play put on by the Royal Shakespearean Company. We would also spend a little more time in the British Museum and check out the National Gallery and the Kensington Palace. The Orangery at Kensington Palace is known for its afternoon tea! We would also like to check out the Natural History Museum and the British Library which houses Shakespeare's original folio, the Magna Carta, Jane Austen's writing desk, original music manuscripts from artists like Mozart, Ravel and the Beatles, and original writings from authors Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Bronte and Sylvia Plath among much more.

Prices: London can be "economical" If you're:
  • Checking out the open air markets (Borough/Camden/Portabollo Road Market)
  • Eating at hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries
  • Going on self-guided walking tours with free downloadable audio guides
  • Checking out the myriad free museums
  • Purchasing entrance tickets to some attractions with many 2-for-1 admissions available when you show a valid National Rail pass (any one time rail ticket or travelcard issued by the National Rail Services, *NOT* issued by the London Underground - the ticket dispensing machines you see at every Underground station)
  • A student and show your ID (but don't expect a huge discount here)
You can find Lonely Planet's list of top 20 things to do in London for free here. Everything else is expensive. Even the airfare to get there. Just swallow it with a big gulp and move on.

Transportation: London is served by five airports, the most popular and well connected of which is Heathrow (LHR). From Heathrow to Central London is either 15 mins, 30 mins or 60-90mins depending on how much you want to pay. Heathrow Express is the fastest non-stop train to Central London, costing 16.50GBP one-way if pre-purchased online (18 from the ticket machine at the airport and 23 onboard). Heathrow Connect costs 8.50GBP and takes about 25-30 mins with a few stops in the suburbs before getting to Central London (we took this train on our way back. Beware that these trains do get delayed and many times cancelled. Fortunately the service was every 30 mins!). The third option is to take the Tube, aka the London Underground, serviced by the Picadilly line. If traveling by this train (which is pretty slow and prone to delays, especially on weekends), it costs 5 GBP to go from Zone 6 where Heathrow is, to Zones 1-2 (Central London). We took this when we arrived. Beware though that many of the Underground stations are not handicap friendly, so you'll have to haul your luggage up and down many stairs!

If you want to make day trips outside of London, the National Rail Services has numerous lines connecting many frequently visited cities. Within London, one of the many ubiquitous and hallmark red double-decker buses above ground, or the Tube underground serve pretty much the entire Central London area (Zones 1 and 2) where almost all the tourist attractions are. To use these modes of transportation, you have the following ticketing options:
  • Buy a ticket each time you ride
  • Buy a day pass (Travelcard) with unlimited usage on all transportation (different prices depending on which zones they cover)
  • Buy a seven-day pass (Travelcard) with unlimited usage on all transportation for seven consecutive days (different prices depending on which zones they cover)
  • Buy an Oyster Card. You have to pay a 5 GBP refundable deposit when you purchase this card. It's a pay-as-you-go card loaded with as much credit you want on it when you first purchase it. It then deducts a discounted amount each time you take a ride, capping out at the price of a day pass. Advantage of using this card is that even when you have money left over on the card, you can use it the next day. If you only use it twice in a day, you can have the satisfaction of having paid a discounted price for each of those rides. This card works on almost all forms of public transportation, including many of the National Rail service lines.

As mentioned before, the Oyster Card or even the Travelcards purchased from the London Underground stations will not be eligible for the 2-for-1 discounts at some of the attractions. You will need Travelcards purchased from the National Rail service counters at stations like Paddington, Victoria, King's Cross, etc.

To find information on how to get to Central London from the other airports, check out this website.

NOTE: They're making lots of changes to the Underground and public transportation systems to support the Olympics in 2012, so a lot of this information might expire soon!

Best Time to Visit/Weather: May for "good" weather and spring blossoms, or September for similar "good" weather and fall colors. Be sure to dress in layers and carry a thick jacket and an umbrella just in case! We had bad weather (hail, cold, wind) for 3 days and gorgeous sunny skies with 75 degrees the rest of the time. Too bad we couldn't enjoy the rest of the time as we got sick from the first 3 days there!

Stay: We always like to be in the middle of all action especially in a bustling city like London. Hence we liked staying in Central London. Here are some suggestions for finding affordable accommodation in London. Central London is very well connected with public transportation and has all the local tourist attractions within this range.

Cuisine: We've long heard that British food is not that great, but what makes food in London great is its upcoming gourmet gastro pubs and ethnic restaurants. Here is a list provided by our friends currently live and used to live in London:

  • Mooli's (We tried it and thought it was pretty good for fast, "cheap" food!)
  • Wahaca*
  • Hare and Tortoise* - fusion asian food
  • Ping Pong* - momos/dim sum
  • Wagamama* - chain noodle place, but it's pretty good (We tried it and liked it!)
  • Busaba Eathai* - Thai
  • Thai Metro - on Charlotte Street
  • Lantana Cafe - on Charlotte Place, good for brunch and coffee
  • Monmouth Coffee - hands down the best coffee in London (We tried it and liked it quite a bit!)
  • Sacred - coffee is comparable to Monmouth
  • Strada - great pizza
  • Balfour - Italian
  • Salam Namaste - Indian (We didn't think it was all that. It was also more Bangladeshi than Indian)
  • Punjab - Indian, near Covent Garden
  • Veeraswamy - Indian (We thought it was good but too expensive)
  • Nandos* - Portuguese, famous for their spicy sauces (We tried it and thought it was good!)
  • Marks & Spencer - Sandwiches on the go
  • Eat - Food on the go (We tried it and it was alright)
  • SAF - Vegan (Tried it and thought it was pretty good)
  • Pret A Manger - you'll see these everywhere - good sandwiches
  • Kai - Chinese
  • Nobu - Japanese
  • Mint Leaf - Indian
  • Hakkasan – Chinese
  • Maroush 1 - Lebanese (Their falafels were amazing!)
  • Norfolk Arms
  • Marquis Cornwallis (We tried wasn't that impressive except for their cheesecake)
  • Fitzroy Tavern
  • The Bree Louise
  • Jewel* - Picadilly Circus, more of a drink place, not a pub
  • Ye Old Chesire - first pub in London
  • Sherlock Holmes* - on baker street
*Recommended by more than one of our friends

Afternoon Tea:
Rick Steves mentioned in his book that it is perfectly ok to share one afternoon tea between two people, so that's what we did and the portions were just right (after the sharing)! We were at the Georgian Restaurant within Harrod's, where their menu said the Afternoon Tea was 26GBP. However they charged an extra 4GBP for "Tea". No clue what that was. They charge for everything in London, so when in doubt, just ask! Here were other suggestions:
  • The Orangery at Kensington Gardens
  • The Georgian Restaurant at Harrod's (We tried this and it was pretty good)
  • The Pump Room Restaurant near the Roman Baths in Bath (outside London)
  • The Ritz
  • The National Dining Rooms within the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square
  • Fortnum & Mason's St. James's Restaurant
  • Chelsea Physic Garden

Visa: Citizens of Australia, New Zealand, and United States don't need a visa to visit UK. You can find more information here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Travel Dates: First weekend of February

Blue waters that give the liquer its famed trade winds that soothe people's worries away. Curaçao, a former Dutch colony, the laid back caribbean island is best known as a port of call for many of the cruises that pass the route. However this island and the neighboring Bonaire are world class diving destinations in their own accord!

If you are not a beach person and/or diving is not your thing, Curaçao might be perfect for a day pitstop in your cruise itinerary. However if you do like to dive, Curaçao and Bonaire provide some of the best dive sites to watch marine life. The only part you need to be aware of is that you need to wait 18-24 hours after diving before you board a plane, or you risk serious illnesses. Our 4 night 5 day vacation was the perfect time to enjoy two dives and checking out the myriad beach locales before we flew back.

Highlights: Diving and beaches

What would we do differently: If we had one more day, we would definitely have taken the PADI Open Water diving certification course so we could venture out into the ocean to explore deeper waters and reefs. Upon obtaining the certification, we would have liked to have done a night dive as well to see the sea creatures of the dark! We would also have liked to have tried some Indonesian cuisine, since Indonesia was a Dutch colony as well (the restaurante we wanted to go to was closed).

Diving/Snorkeling: Make sure you book your dives in advance (at least 1-2 days in advance). The two companies we went with were Ocean Encounters at Playa Kalki and Discover Diving at Playa Lagun. I chose these companies based on reviews as well as location. Playa Kalki and Playa Lagun were reviewed as having some of the best reefs for shore diving, which is what non-certified beginner divers would do. Easy Divers at the Habitat Resort offer night dives if you're interested. You can buy hotel packages that offer diving at several resorts too, which could be a great bargain. However you need to be certified for most of them.

Playa Knip, Playa Cas Abao, Blaubaai Bay by St. Michael and the National Underwater Marine Park towards Spanish Waters supposedly are the more popular snorkeling sites. Curaçao's main website has a lot of information that I used in my research before narrowing down on diving companies as well as locations.

Prices: Curaçao is not really cheap, especially if you eat at sit-down restaurants with cloth napkins :) And you may not find many hole-in-the-wall places that serve good food to be open all the time either. Willemstad is largely run on the cruise tourist economy. Days when there are no cruise ships, the town is dead, and all the hole-in-the-wall places are closed too. They accept the US dollar everywhere, so it's sometimes convenient. We got a great package deal - $620 for 4 night/5 day hotel+air package (for 2 people, not each!) and thus decided to visit this UNESCO World Heritage city! The beginner's diving is anywhere from $50-$120 per person, and the 3 day certification course can run you anywhere from $350+.

Transportation: If you're spending more than a day on the island and you didn't arrive on a cruise ship, you should rent a car. Driving around the island is a breeze as there are very few highways. You can traverse one side of the island in about half a day and come back on the other side the second half. This is what we did on our way to Playa Kalki and back! People are very friendly and most speak English, so getting directions isn't a problem either.

Best time to visit/weather: They say since the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) are the southernmost of the Caribbean islands, they're beyond the reach of hurricanes and thus enjoy tourists throughout the year. It maybe so, but still use your caution while planning a trip during the hurricane season. The weater is tropical, so it's warm and expect showers any time. It wasn't humid when we went, but it did rain once, and there were cool trade winds blowing the entire time which ensured it didn't get too hot.

Carnival is one of the funnest times for locals on the island. The island is supposedly at its most vibrant during this time. If you want to participate in this, you better time your visit accordingly. Our visit coincided with the Tumba Music Festival finale where multiple bands compete to be chosen to play during the Carnival parade. It's a 5 day festival and tickets are sold for all 5 days (can't purchase them individually). It was a different experience with Caribbean and Samba music all night long!

There are also lots of beach parties that happen Thursdays through Sundays, and you can find out which events are happening when and where in the "K-Pasa" events newspaper that you can get from the concierge of any hotel. For example, Thursdays are at Wet n Wild, Fridays at Hook's Hut and Sundays are Salsa time at Mambo Beach.

Cuisine: You can find a lot of international cuisine on this island, but try the Indonesian food since Indonesia was once a Dutch colony. Also try the Indian Surinamese food - the South American variation on Indian food is quite familiar yet distinct in its own way! There was no problem finding vegetarian food anywhere, so fellow veggies fear not!

Stay: You can either stay at one of the many resorts dotting the southern coast of the island, or at one of the many Landhuis' (plantation houses) that rent out their rooms to guests too. If you're not staying in Willemstad, your hotel should typically have free shuttles to get you to Willemstad and back. Check if you get pickups from the airport too (if you don't have a rental car that is).

Visa: Neither US nor Indian citizens need a visa to enter this island. Here is more information on those who may require visas.

Our itinerary was something like this:

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Curaçao, took a taxi to Willemstad (A) and walked around the resort
  • Dinner at Bistro Le Clochard (great location, pricey)
Day 2:
  • Visited the Curaçao Liquer Brewery at Landhuis Chobolobo (B; closed on the weekends)
  • Afternoon diving through Ocean Encounters at Playa Kalki (C)
  • Dinner at Landhuis Daniel (D)
  • Attended the Tumba Music Festival Finale (E)
Day 3:
  • Walked around the city of Willemstad
  • Afternoon diving through Discover Diving at Playa Lagun (F)
  • Un-winded at the beautiful Playa Cas Abao (G)
  • Checked out flamingoes at the Flamingo Bay (H)
  • Dinner at Jaipur, located within the Kura Hulanda Village
Day 4:
  • Checked out Willemstad some more; relaxed
  • Visited Caracas Bay (I) and Jan Thiel Beach (J)
  • Dinner at Zanzibar on Jan Thiel Beach

Riviera Maya/Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Travel Dates: Second week of March

For Americans, Cancun is to Spring Break as apple pie is to 4th of July. It's almost patriotic. If you haven't experienced this hedonistic time in your college life, don't's not going anywhere. Good news is that the surrounding regions of Quintana Roo (popularly known as the Riviera Maya or Mexican Riviera) and Yucatan Peninsula have come up very nicely in the past years as well, diverting a large portion of the Cancun tourists their way. Hotels and resorts in these areas are known to be the most ecologically friendly, with many promoting healthy, natural getaways with yoga and spa services at your fingertips. We completely skipped Cancun except for flying in and out of there.

Highlights: Mayan Ruins, Cenotes, Snorkeling, Diving, Massages & Relaxation

What we would do differently: We got a package tour to Chichen Itza one day, which we wouldn't have. We probably would have rented a car and driven to Chichen Itza ourselves, thus giving us more time there as well as possibly making it to the even grander ruins at Uxmal (so we've heard) in one day. A lot of time was spent in picking up other tourists from various parts of the was 1pm before we even made it to Chichen Itza!

Prices: Slightly cheaper than the US, but not by much. Each of our snorkeling trips was $25 per person including gear, guide and transportation. Food at "local" places was less expensive and flavorful rather than at the touristy 5th Ave in Playa Del Carmen. Alcoholic drinks were priced the same as in US.

Transportation: We landed in Cancun at night, so we couldn't take the convenient Aeropuerto bus (110 pesos, or approximately $10) to our hotel in Playa Del Carmen (an hour south). We chose to go with a private driver that the hotel booked for us, costing $75 (we were three of us, so $25 each). A taxi would have cost us $80. A Collectivo (shared taxi) would have been $25 per person as well. One day we rented a taxi for the whole day to take us to Akumal, Tulum, Coba, Gran Cenote and back to Playa Del Carmen. It cost $200.

The roads are very well laid out with lots of signs, so I suppose it wouldn't be too bad renting a car here and driving either.

Stay: There is no shortage of five star resorts in Riviera Maya. If you can afford them, you should definitely stay at one! Our hotel, Hotel Luna Sol, was about $135 per night. It was perfectly located a couple of blocks from the bustling 5th Ave, close to the Collectivo stops and a short few blocks away from the beach. It was cute...the staff attentive...and safe for four girls to stay there for four nights!

Best Time to Visit/Weather: Winter and Spring are the most popular times to visit this place. Watch out for hurricane season during late Fall though. Even though we went during the heart of Spring Break season, we somehow managed to avoid most of the spring breaking crowd by heading out of Cancun (except for a brief encounter in Cenote Ik Kil). When we went, it was nice and warm in the daytime but got quite windy and even a bit chilly at night by the beach. We were glad we had our thinner jackets with us.

Cuisine: We were expecting to be blown away by some amazing, authentic Mexican food, but unfortunately we were satisfied only once during the trip. I'm also very surprised that it was impossible to find Tres Leches cake anywhere in Riviera Maya! Our guide said that other typical Yucatan desserts are Arroz con Leche (literally translated, Rice with Milk), and Dulce de Papaya (Papaya with some sweet caramel sauce). He said the best place to find this was at Mega Commercial. Here I went expecting this Mega Commercial to be an awesome sprawling local market with lots of goodies, but I was sadly disappointed as it revealed itself to be Mexico's answer to Walmart. They didn't have any of the desserts I was looking for, although I did find some good Flan there!

Attractions in the area:
  • Cancun - Partying at the rows and rows of resorts
  • Isla Mujeres - an island north of Cancun that is good for a day trip for just walking around town and relaxing
  • Chich'en Itzá - an hour from Cancun, the most famous of all Mayan Ruins
  • Playa Del Carmen - an hour south of Cancun, a very nice and lively tourist town by the beach
  • Cobá - 20 minutes from Tulum, the ruins here are located within a forest. Here is where you can climb to the top of the pyramid (you can no longer do that in Chichen Itza). You can explore this place in 1-1.5 hours on a bicycle/bicycle taxi. Be sure to douse yourself in bug spray as this forest is full of mosquitoes!
  • Cozumel - a short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen and Cancun, is home to amazing reefs and known for diving resorts and awesome beaches for snorkeling/diving.
  • Playa Akumal - half way between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, is a great beach for just relaxing and/or snorkeling. We spotted a lot of marine life including turtles who come here to feed on the sea grass!
  • Tulum - two hours south of Cancun (an hour from Playa Del Carmen); home to more ruins by the sea; also home to an amazing array of eco-resorts!
  • Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - further south of Tulum and recommended by several guides in Playa del Carmen, is supposed to be an amazing nature reserve to spot stingrays and lots of fish
  • Cenotes - these are sinkholes, or caves with subterranean rivers flowing through. Snorkeling here can be great, but diving here can be amazing! Gran Cenote, though expensive (100 pesos), is very nice. It's very close to Tulum. Cenote Ik Kil on the way to Chich'en Itzá is quite nice as well...and huge! You can rent a life jacket and snorkel gear at these cenotes if you aren't a strong swimmer and/or don't have your own. It's pretty cool to see the cave formations underwater!
  • Uxmal - Almost 3 hours west of Chich'en Itzá lie the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, supposedly much grander than Chich'en Itzá

Suggestions for activities:
  • XPLOR - very close to Playa del Carmen, seemed like a really cool place with lots of zip lining and adrenaline filled adventures; probably an all-day activity
  • Xel-Ha - an all-day activity filled place that advertises as being fun for the whole family
  • Xcaret - another all-day activity filled place that advertises as being fun for the whole family
  • Cenote Xperience - from all the reviews on Trip Advisor, this company seemed to be one of the most recommended when it comes to cenote diving. Do note that you need to have your diving certification before diving in almost all cenotes.
  • Mayas Aventuras - seemed like another company that offered a variety of all-day activity packages to suit your interests. Would have loved to have checked it out if we had another day
  • Get a typical Mayan massage (called a Temazcal, which is a ceremonial steam bath) at one of many spas available everywhere in the Riviera Maya.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Zealand Itinerary

Here's a map that shows all the places we visited on our trip.

Day 1:
  • Arrived in Auckland (A) from SFO. Flew immediately to Wellington (B).
  • Checked out the Cuba St., the wharf area, the Historic Cable Car, Mt. Victoria
  • Stayed at Travelodge, booked through
Day 2:
  • Went wine tasting in the Martinborough district (C), an hour's drive from Wellington
  • Took the 3 hour ferry (Interislander) ride to South Island (Port Picton)
  • Drove 2.5 hours from Picton to Kaiteriteri (D)
  • Stayed at the beautiful Kimi Ora Resort
Day 3:
  • Our Split Apple Rock (pictured on the right) kayaking trip was cancelled due to bad weather. So we hiked in Abel Tasman National Park instead.
  • We also went to Te Waikoropupu Springs, the world's clearest fresh water spring (E), which was a 2 hour drive away in Golden Bay
  • Drove 3.5 hours to Punakaiki (F). Reached there too late due to road closures (because of the bad weather), so couldn't check out the pancake rocks during sunset, which happens around 9pm during late December
  • Stayed at the clean and neat Punakaiki Beach Hostel
Day 4:
  • Checked out Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes (pictured on the left)
  • Drove 3 hours to Franz Josef Glacier (G). Had we one more day to spare, I would have liked to fit in a guided glacier walk on Franz Josef Glacier and walked around Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier, enjoying views of Mt. Cook. You can take helicopter tours of the entire glacier valley too. Contact me for a list of various options/operators we were looking at. We had just enough time to sneak in a self-guided walk to the terminal face of Franz Josef Glacier, which was pretty cool.
  • Drove 5 hours to Queenstown (H) and stayed at the Gold Ridge Resort, booked through
Day 5:
  • Hang gliding (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Wine tasting in Otago valley, specifically Gibbonston Valley, Amsfield, and Aurum Wineries (I, J) - an hour's drive away
  • Canyon Swinging (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Jet Boating in Shotover Canyon (booked through Queenstown's i-SITE center)
  • Drove 2.5 hours to Te Anau (K) after dinner in Queenstown
  • Stayed at the very friendly and clean Bob & Maxine's Backpacker Hostel. Highly recommend this place!
Day 6:
  • Drove to Milford Sound (drive is 2 hours each way)
  • Took the Milford Sound cruise for 2 hours
  • Drove 2.5 hours back to Queenstown (H)
  • Went up the Skyline Gondola and rode the Luge track
  • New Year's Eve at Queenstown (pictured on the right)
  • Stayed at Coronet Peak Hotel, via This was the only place that had any rooms on New Year's Eve. I would suggest not staying here as everything looked and operated like it was from 1950s!
Day 7:
  • Drove 3 hours from Queenstown to Manapouri (L) for the Doubtful Sound cruise through Real Journeys, including a tour of the Manapouri Power Plant (the entire Doubtful Sound trip was 8 hours long)
  • Stayed at Bob & Maxine's again, in Te Anau (K)
Day 8:
  • Drove 8 hours through the Southern Scenic Route (one of the vistas pictured on the left) from Te Anau to Dunedin (M), via Invercargill and Catlins National Forest, stopping at Nugget Point
  • Wanted to check out The Penguin Place and Moeraki Boulder Beach (both 1 hour away from Dunedin), but couldn't due to schedule constraints
  • Flew to Auckland (A) and stayed at the fully serviced apartment building Bianco Off Queen, with minimalistic and contemporary decor.

Day 9:
  • Drove 3 hours from Auckland up to Paihia, Bay of Islands (N; pictured on the right)
  • Took a 4 hour cruise to Cape Brett at the Bay of Islands, booked via the i-SITE center in Paihia
  • Drove back to Auckland (A), stopping at Whangarei Falls (O) along the way (which you can easily skip if you don't have time)
  • Stayed at Bianco Off Queen again
Day 10:
  • Drove 2 hours from Auckland to Matamata (P) to check out the movie set of The Hobbit (the set is called Hobbiton) - allow 2.5 hours for the tour. Tours are only conducted till February 2011, which is when filming is supposed to commence on the sets. However, nobody knows if the sets will allowed to be preserved after filming. Send happy thoughts to Peter Jackson so he'll allow the Alexander family (who's farm the set is on) to keep the Hobbiton set even after filming!
  • Continued driving for an hour from Matamata to Rotorua (Q). Had an awesome time Zorbing!
  • Went white water rafting on Kaituna River
  • Stayed at Cactus Jack Backpackers in Rotorua. I would recommend finding some other lodging. This place was very small, and the bathrooms were not that clean. We were spoilt by Bob & Maxine's and the Punakaiki Beach Hostel!
Day 11:
  • Did the amazing 4 hour Lost World tour with Waitomo Adventures, which included rappelling/abseiling, caving, ladder climbing and glowworm spotting in Waitomo (R; pictured on the right) - 2 hour drive from Rotorua to Waitomo
  • Drove 2 hours back to Auckland (A) and flew back to SFO!

I have a lot more details on various choices for activities as well as hotels/hostels. Leave a comment and we'll get back to you! Join our Facebook group, also called The Roving Mind, to peruse through other destinations and add tips and suggestions from your travels too!