Category Archives: Cruising

Have You Ever Eaten Cactus?

Prickly Pear Cactus.

Prickly Pear Cactus.

Well, prepared by the ladies at Antojitos Doña Pili in Cozumel, Mexico, it’s delicious.

Authentic quesadillas are a pretty basic affair in Mexico, a small tortilla (usually corn), a small amount of the main ingredient, and maybe a little bit of Oaxaca cheese.  Add salsa if you dare.

Nopales, from prickly pear cactus was our favorite of the local homemade quesadillas prepared for us at the first of our six stops during our amazing Mexican food tour.  We also tried tasty poblano pepper as well as huitlacoche, which is a mushroom-type fungus that grows on corn and was bland without the sauce.

Our group of six has a bunch of dietary restrictions and our enthusiastic local foodie-guide Geraldo (Jerry for the Anglos), very professionally and seamlessly, managed necessary substitutions. This food tour is designed to get visitors around to off-the-beaten-path local eateries. We booked it independently, while in town on a cruise ship stop. It was a great choice.

Conchinita pibil.

Conchinita pibil.

We enjoyed conchinita pibil tacos, which are cooked with sour orange juice in banana leaves, a favorite in the Yucatán peninsula.  Like the quesadillas, tacos are not the Tex-Mex orgies we get in the States; they are simple, just the chopped pork and some onion held together by a corn taco. The next stop was for a large bowl of Sopa de Lima, a soup full of shredded white meat chicken and a broth with a hint of lime.

Delicious ceviche.

Delicious ceviche.

Voted winner of the day: Pescadoria San Carlos, where we feasted on incredible grouper ceviche and whole fried freshly caught grouper.   Those of us from Florida who are used to fresh (even whole fried) fish thought it was wonderful and our other friends pronounced it the best fish they had ever had.  It was really good.

The gregarious owner of this colorful restaurant sang for the group and apparently, is also a popular local comedian.

Along the way we had all sorts of great drinks to try including local Montejo beer, Hibiscus water (Agua de Jamaica), Pepino (cucumber & lime), Horchata, a milky sweet drink, and Chia Fresca complete with floating chia seeds.  We stopped at a local market to get a first-hand view of the various ingredients we were eating and we ended the 3-hour tour at a bakery, but were too full to sample more than a bite of the large local pastries.

¡Salud!

If you want to go: contact emily@cozumelchef.com  They book through Viator, Inc and we booked through Cruise Planners/ShoreTrips.

So many kinds of peppers. The adventurous among tried different types of salsa, made with different peppers, at every stop.

So many kinds of peppers. The adventurous among tried different types of salsa, made with different peppers, at every stop.  

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All gone.

All gone.

Thai Massage Anyone? Ko Samui

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We make a short call at the beach town of Na Thon on the resort island of Ko Samui. Not being beach people, it was a perfect opportunity to get an authentic, famous Thai massage. img_0047And so we did. It was rigorous, but we were able to walk out without assistance. It was so inexpensive – about $10 each and that was with a generous tip.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney @AzamaraVoyages

The Kingdom of Siam: A Visit to Old Bangkok

In the Grand Palace complex.

In the Grand Palace complex.

We did not have a lot of time in Bangkok, since we chose to zip over to Cambodia while here, so we needed to make the most of the time we had.  With the help of our wonderful A&K guide Annie, off we went.

No trip here would be complete without seeing the famous Buddhas.  The guidebooks say if you see one thing here, it has to be the Grand Palace.  We did see the Palace and the Emerald Buddha (actually jade), but my favorite site was not the Grand Palace, but Wat Po, the temple complex that houses the Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Grand Palace complex is huge, beautiful and has many buildings and even commercial shops.  King Rama IX died in November, and the country has recently completed 100 days of mourning. The Palace complex is very crowded with locals since the King’s body is lying in state and traffic is closed on the immediately surrounding streets. Security was tight, everyone passes through metal detectors and a photo ID, in our case a passport copy, must be shown. Ankles and shoulders must be covered (and not with a shawl). I saw people turned away. Many locals are still wearing black to honor their beloved King.

The Emerald Buddha is small and positioned quite high, and was dressed for winter (one of its three outfits), covering all the jade except his face.  Visitors maybe not photograph inside the Wat Phra Keo (temple) that houses this Buddha, and from outside the temple, only a camera much better than mine would have a lens good enough to get a decent photo.

Area of Wat Po.

Area around Wat Po.

Conversely, the buildings at Wat Po were closer together and look like something in a fairy tale.  As with other ceremonial locations, tiny tiles of stained glass, ceramics and richly painted murals cover every surface inch of space.  The effect is magical, sparkling in the sunlight, vibrant color everywhere. Again, I find my camera lens insufficient to capture what I am seeing.  The 160-foot-long reclining Buddha is far larger than it looks in photos – breathtaking.

I was blessed by a monk here – being “tapped” (it was pretty hard) on the head and shoulder with a short straw broom and basically doused with a substantial amount of cold water. It was so hot, it did feel good. We also visited the massive Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

Solid gold and weighing in at 5 tons, but skipped a visit to Wat Aron, and settled for seeing it from the river since the entire temple is scaffolded for renovation.  Clearly, these temples are meticulously maintained; they are all so elaborate and seem in perfect condition.

The temples we visited are in Old Bangkok, but the rest of this sprawling, modern city was not unlike our home city of Miami. Skyscrapers, modern elevated expressways, tropical vegetation and sunshine.  Our focus was to see as much of the ancient and traditional features of Bangkok as possible, so we embarked on a private long-tail boat trip through the canals (khlongs) of Thonburi.

A canal vendor.

A canal vendor.

Traveling through locks (they say “water gates”) on the way in and out of this charming area, we enjoyed seeing the wooden shacks, beautiful new homes, Temples, waterside markets and even restaurants with cooks preparing food from small boats in the canal. I’ve read these waterways make Bangkok the Venice of the East, but they reminded me far more of the Florida Keys.

Thanks to the efficiency of our intrepid, always smiling guide Annie, we even managed to get in a ride on a tuk-tuk, one of the motorized three-wheeled carts so prevalent in this city.  Thankfully our smaller ship, Azamara Journey, docked in town on the Chao Phraya River (larger ships dock two hours from town), and we were able to productively use every minute of our time here.

I now understand “The King & I” is more fairy-tale than truth (it’s banned here), but do plan to re-watch.

Side bar: Originally, I had wanted to visit the MaeKlong Railway Market, a market that covers rail tracks, and is quickly picked up just prior to the train entering the station. But it’s about 90 minutes out of town and this time of year, the train only comes through twice a day, 8:30 AM and 3:30PM. Apparently, many of the local vendors have quit going to the market, because the growing number of tourists is having a negative impact of their ability to sell their fruits, vegetables, etc.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

 

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney, @AzamaraVoyages

Indiana Jones Territory – but with a lot of “extras.”

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The Angkor Temple complex is huge – with boundaries well beyond the more famous Angkor Wat. Its Hindu origins were easily adapted for Buddhism by the Khmer dynasties.  Temples were being built as early as 790.  Smithsonian Magazine (April 2016) published a fascinating article about a “lost city” likely dating earlier than Angkor Wat, and possibly even a template for the newer site.  Using state-of-the-art Lidar (laser) technology, archaeologists are able to visualize and map structures that are hidden beneath the surface.

The appearance of the Angkor Wat temple site was not surprising, but the massiveness of the entire complex was not expected. Nor were the thousands of Chinese and Korean tourists that flooded the area, in part due to the Chinese New Year holiday, but also because it was a good, dry time of year to visit. I predict UNESCO will have to step in and put in place more restrictions.  They are doubling the entrance fee next week, but I think they will need to limit daily visitors and ban selfie sticks!

The Bayon Temple with its massive stone faces was surreal.  The number of faces seems to be in dispute, but it’s safe to say there are more than 150 and maybe as many as 200. Photos cannot accurately convey the size and perspective found here.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a massive moat, and the causeways are lined with the body of a large stone snake, Naga, culminating in multi-headed fanfare at each entrance.

Seeing Angkor Wat was incredible, but I actually loved the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm the best.  Even with the hordes of visitors, it wasn’t hard to block them out and imagine what it must’ve been like to discover these incredible structures deep in the jungle. This location was the site of filming for the Angelina Jolie movie Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. The complex was constructed by Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university.

That info immediately brings to mind the great Mayan learning center of Palenque – so let’s put this into perspective. Deep in the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque dates from 200, with its major period being from 600-900.  So these great civilizations and centers of learning were contemporary for a few hundred years.  Of note, Palenque features architectural elements unusual for the area, including the use of the lotus flower, so key in Asian sites. In case you were wondering, the Inca’s Machu Picchu is much more recent – built in 1450.

I will now read more about these amazing structures and watch for news of what the new excavations will reveal.

10 Million People & 6.5 Million Motor-scooters

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The image of locals bicycling around Vietnam is a thing of the past – now they are on motor-scooters. Sometimes as many as 6 people, an entire family, are on one; mothers are bottle-feeding children, workers are making deliveries; lots of riders are hauling large plants for the New Year.  Well-behaved children smile and wave, geese try to escape, riders don’t seem to worry about their often-precarious loads. Some look like students, many like average workers, and others are quite dressed-up, women even wearing high heels; almost everyone wears a mask against the dust and pollution, and helmets are now required, but not one had any sort of otherwise protective clothing.

As we journeyed out of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to and from the Mekong Delta, it became an obsession with us, and everyone in our group, to marvel at the massive tide of motor-scooter riders leaving the city for the holiday. They were in every direction, sometimes even in our lane of traffic, coming straight at us.

dsc_0096-copyWe loved getting out of the industrial city of Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city.  The rural countryside was green, the sky blue and air fresh.  From the Mekong River village of My Tho, we boarded a boat to visit a few local island family businesses and sample the locally produced honey, bee pollen, coconut candy and fruit.  We also rode in a four-passenger sampan through a crowed canal back to the larger river.  It was very entertaining and interesting. The young teen and older man who paddled our sampan worked hard.

The river is crowded with colorful fishing boats and all sorts of lively boat traffic.  After leaving the river, we stopped for a traditional Vietnamese lunch that included “Elephant Ear” fish from the river and fish soup. Unlike some in our group, my husband and I were undaunted by having a whole quick-fried fish placed in front of us, and enjoyed the delicious rolls made with rice paper, the firm fish, noodles and very thin slices of mango (I think it was mango); we did ask our server to leave out the lettuce.

img_9759-copyThen back to putting our lives in the hands of our bus driver for the mad-cap ride back to the port. Getting drenched running through a pop-up rainstorm to get on our ship, we barely made it back for the ship to depart on time and make it under the bridge before high tide.  And then, as fast as it came, the rain was gone and we were enjoying the view, as the Azamara Journey sailed south on the Saigon River.

#LoveTravel, @Azamara Voyages, @AzamaraJourney

The Consequences of History: Central Vietnam

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Today was a confluence of sights, sounds and impressions.

The highlight of the day was a bicycle ride through a rural area in the settlement of Cam Thanh. It was a lovely, lush area and actually seemed pretty affluent. Preparations for the New Year were evident as we saw people cleaning their property, special signs and traditional chrysanthemum and kumquat plants everywhere.

Some of the paths were paved, some were dirt and many were quite bumpy, but the only part that was a bit scary was the constant appearance of fast-moving motor-scooters.  When they had large, overlapping loads, or were leading something like a water buffalo, it was intimidating. I just wish I could’ve taken my hands off the handlebars with more confidence to take some photos. The scenery was just as I imagined – rice paddies, water buffalo, and small fishing boats along the river. img_9338-copy

At one juncture along our path, there was commentary being loudly broadcast over a loudspeaker followed by music.  When asked later, our guide explained this is how the government still communicates in many rural communities.  For us, it was an eerily, MASH-like moment. On a less bizarre note, we stopped along our ride to visit a beautiful Buddhist Temple, complete with chanting monks.

All-in-all, the bike ride was a very memorable experience.

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Incense coils in the Chinese Temple, Hoi An.

img_9531-copyWe also did a walking tour of historic Hoi An, another UNESCO site. Untouched during the war, Hoi An is 45 minutes from Da Nang, where the US had a large military presence during the war (we saw the air base).  A trading crossroads for centuries, this mostly pedestrian-only zone has wonderful surviving elements of Chinese and Japanese cultures.  I say mostly, because around 11AM, they let motor-scooters back in. Today, Hoi An continues its role as a trading crossroads – but basically to “trade” with tourists; taking both credit cards and US $.   The city has been preserved well, with dozens of inviting restaurants and attractive shops featuring local artisans and handmade items. I loved all the colorful lanterns strung across the narrow streets.

The area is also known for silk, and is a huge center for custom-tailored goods.  Because of the New Year, we saw the occasional shop-owner burning symbolic money for good luck.  And OMG, the cooking smells emanating from the restaurants were incredibly good. We eventually did enjoy a wonderful Vietnamese lunch.

From the road, we could see the Marble Mountains in the distance, each named for the five elements-water, metal, wood, fire and earth, and we had a photo-op at the 20-mile Non Nuoc Beach, famous in the US as China Beach (where US servicemen went for R&R). Locals don’t like to call it China Beach, and although they say it’s because they don’t want to credit China, you have to wonder about the US/war affiliation.

Overall, I have to comment this part of Vietnam is being rapidly developed and construction is hi-end with obvious foreign investment.  Four Seasons, Raffles, and Hyatt are there and several major resorts are currently under construction.  It appears the entire beach-front has been optioned. There is even a casino for the Chinese visitors (locals are not allowed to gamble).

Someone needs to tell the Vietnamese guides they do not need to talk 100% of the time . . . .

Remembering Sacrifices of the War

This beach area in Vietnam (Nom O Beach) is where 3,500 US Marines landed on March 8, 1965, becoming the first American ground troops in Vietnam. And the rest is history.  It was also in this area that the Tet Offensive in 1968 was launched by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, essentially marking the beginning of the end of US involvement in the war.  It was called “Tet” because it was planned for the Lunar New Year celebration (which is this very week in Asia). The North Vietnamese correctly guessed the opposition soldiers would think the initial assault was just firecrackers from the celebration and be caught off-guard.  My husband was luckier than others and did not have to serve here; but he has nevertheless been soberly reflective during this visit.img_9371-copy

For my trivia buddies, one fact I never knew til preparing for this trip: It’s bad form to stick chop sticks into a rice bowl vertically – it’s the Buddhist sign of death.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraVoyages

Birth by Dragon: Halong Bay

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A picture is worth a thousand words – this is Halong Bay.

Halong translates to “Descending Dragon” and you can see how this UNESCO site got that name. Many of the limestone formations have also been given names, such as “Heavenly Gate” pictured here.  The Bay is located in the Gulf of Tonkin within the South China Sea. Fog and haze surrounded our morning trip on a re-imagined “junk,” as we journeyed around a few of the areas’ thousands of Karst islets.dsc_0994-smcopy

Our visit to the Thien Cung “Heavenly Palace” Cave on Dau Go Island was magical and far exceeded my expectations; even a claustrophobic would not feel oppressed here.  It was so amazing, I didn’t even think about the hundred steps up to enter or the few hundred more once inside.  Locals have added some colored lights and while not at all necessary, it was a very pretty effect that photos don’t do justice.  Nor do photos capture the enormity and grander of this unique underground system.

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Generally, visitors here also see floating camps of fisherman, but with the pending New Year celebrations, they headed inland for vacation.

Our ship was anchored in the Bay and by the sail-away later in the day, the haze lifted and it proved to be a fabulous photo-op. I didn’t want it to end.

#LoveTravel @AzamaraVoyages @Azamara Journey

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The Long Trek to Hanoi

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This morning we arrived in Halong Bay – long on my travel bucket list. For years I wondered where this beautiful landscape existed . . . . a favorite with movie directors (think James Bond).  Eventually, I figured out it was Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.  But, more on that with my next post.

Today, we decided to make the long three plus hour trek into the interior lowland city of Hanoi.  I mean, we are in Vietnam, we have to make the effort.  So we boarded a cramped bus (Americans are much bigger than the locals, who I’m sure are very comfortable), that sped along passing every vehicle in sight, honking each and every time.  It’s apparently the law here – with all the motorcycles, etc., drivers honk to let others know they are being passed.

It’s quite chilly and breezy here. A gloomy looking sky, but thankfully only a 5% chance of rain. Everything seems to be covered with dust and although the landscape is lush, it’s broken up by red soil, brown mud near the many rice paddies and a good amount of trash. Homes are very skinny, many the width of a garage, and built two-three stories high extending lengthwise on their tiny lots.  The fronts of most homes are colorful and very ornate with balustrades and trim detail, but the special effects end there with the sides being left unfinished concrete. Plots of banana trees dot the landscape, tall palms tower over homes and fuchsia-colored Bougainvillea vines cover doorways. The overall effect is that of a photograph with a screen masking the shot, an overall muting of color and texture.

The entire ride traversed well-populated towns and villages. Street vendors piled wares along the side of the road, surprisingly selling potatoes today; and motor scooters, some with 3-4 riders and piled high with goods and/or livestock crowded the roads.  Our guide was very hard to understand, but I did get it when he told us was not safe to get out of our bus along the road, due to “gangsters” in the area.

dsc_0791-copyOnce in Hanoi we headed for the Old Town and immediately transferred to small electric cars for a mad-cap, 10 minute fun drive through the 36 crowded streets of the district. The streets are organized by category, for things like candy, shoes, and coffee, to name a few.  The electrical wiring was something to behold – the biggest mess of tangled wires you’ve ever seen; we wondered how many US building codes were being violated.  I’ve seen far more electric bikes and motor scooters than traditional bicycles.

Red and Gold decorations and kumquat trees are everywhere, and crowds are pouring into the city for the New Year (of the Rooster) that begins later this week.  Lots of locals have the entire week off work and the street vendors are out in full force with baked treats, hats, paper cutouts, balloons and more.  We walked over to the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, one of many lakes in this scenic city.  An important center for more than 1,000 years, Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty of French Indochina from 1887-1954 and until 1976, of North Vietnam.

After a great lunch at a top Western hotel, we toured the sobering jail dubbed by Vietnam war-era American fighter pilots (Senator John McCain) as the “Hanoi Hilton,” and known here as the Hoa Lo Museum.  Built by the French in 1896, exhibits focus on the inhumanity of Vietnamese imprisoned by the French and of American bombing raids; our 120 American prisoners of war were portrayed as being in summer-camp. Disturbing on many levels.

We saw the lovely French Quarter and concluded our visit at Ba Dinh Square, also called Red Square, to see the massive granite tomb of the much-revered Ho Chi Minh, the simple teak cottage he lived in, the French Governor’s opulent residence and “One Pillar Pagoda.” It’s a beautiful, peaceful area with perfectly trimmed grounds, carp-filled ponds and sounds of birds chirping.

Then it was back on the bus for the journey “home.”  Fourteen hours after we started, I felt like we must resemble a zombie apocalypse as we emerged . . .

Street Scenes from HK

One segment of the escalator.  Sloped portions without steps are called Travelators.

One segment of the escalator. Sloped portions without steps are called Travelators.

Hong Kong. It’s bustling and surprisingly clean for a city this size. Well-dressed business people walk rapidly along the elevated sidewalks through the transit stations and ride the Central Pedestrian Escalator – right along with nannies pushing red-haired babies, students and tourists of all ages.

It’s about 7 minutes (and $2.50 HKD) to take the Star Ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

The ferry docks at Hong Kong Island.

The ferry docks at Hong Kong Island.

In the past, we’d seen the iconic sites of Hong Kong, so today we ventured across the Harbour and spent the morning and early afternoon just walking around. Our one agenda item was to take the escalator – at 800 meters, one of the longest people movers in the world; and there’s no charge.  In the morning, the corridor runs down and then, from 10-midnight, reverses to uphill for the 85,000 daily users.  We went up a good portion of the 21 sections, until construction at the Mosque Street entrance blocked us from going farther. On the way back down, we were under our own steam, and this humid day was getting warmer by the minute.  We took a circuitous route, but managed to go through the trendy SOHO district featuring restaurants sure to please any palate in the world. Gastropubs share narrow streets jammed with mid-eastern, Italian, Argentinian, American-style Burgers and Asian offerings (to name just a few) for every taste and pocket-book. The chains were there as well; you never went far without seeing a Burger King, Micky Ds, Pizza Hut or 7-11.

Walking along the famous Hollywood Road, we window-shop along some of the few remaining antique shops tucked in among the galleries and boutiques.  After seriously considering some antique (?) hair pins I decided I am way too uneducated a consumer to spend that kind of money. So we moved on down the road to the Man Mo Temple, built in 1847, with a history that includes time as a courthouse and community center.  Heading back to the ferry docks, we passed street markets, blocks shaded with tall green trees, and construction everywhere, always with traditional bamboo scaffolding.

Looking back across the harbour to Kowloon.

Looking back across the harbour towards Kowloon.

Hot, tired, and getting hungry, we eventually made our way back to the hotel, which had given us a generous late check-out time. After changing and trying to cool off, we headed to the nearby Ocean Terminal and boarded the Azamara Journey for new adventures in the Far East.

First Step. . . Arrival in Hong Kong

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We have very quickly abandoned our plans for going to Macau tonight and have decided, instead, to relax and enjoy the beautiful Peninsula Hotel. The need for rest is paramount, particularly for the one who never sleeps on the plane (and that would not be me, who can, unfortunately, sleep in any moving vehicle).

It was a smart move to have the hotel pick us up. I knew that would mean a quiet, calm ride in one of their fleet of 14 Rolls Royce Phantoms, I hoped for speedy progress upon arrival and boy, did that pay off. We were literally met as we walked off the 777, driven to immigration (no line), and escorted to baggage, which appeared within about 60 seconds of our arrival.  Once loaded in the car and driven through fairly light rush hour traffic, we were taken immediately to our room and checked in right on the spot.  Every hotel should be this efficient. img_9048Door to door, about an hour after landing, we were in our 21st floor room taking in the beautiful skyline of Hong Kong Island.  Welcome news after waking up 24 hours earlier and completing the 17-hour flight from Dallas (yawn).

Known as the “Grande Dame of the Far East,” The Peninsula opened in 1928 and has been meticulously updated. From three iPads, we can control pretty much everything.  This room is even equipped with a nail dryer, not to mention more places to charge electronics than I have ever experienced. Nice.

The Lobby.

The Lobby.

We stayed in on this first night of our trip, watched the 8 PM laser light show on Victoria Harbour, followed by an enjoyable light dinner and some good jazz in the Lobby restaurant.

Just up after a good nights sleep and ready to get going!

 

 

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