The Astounding Beauty of Fiji- Tavenui Island

Tavenui Island-20Last year as I was getting ready to move from Korea, I knew I had to take one final vacation somewhere in Asia. My first choice was originally Thailand, because it has been on my list for years. However, just as I was getting ready to make some travel arrangements, the military coup happened, and travel was restricted. So I quickly cast around for a “consolation prize” (if you will, but not really) and latched onto Fiji. I knew I wanted to visit the South Pacific at some point, and in fact had looked into going to Fiji one New Years weekend, just for the pleasure of being one of the first to experience the new year. That didn’t happen, but I relooked into going there. What cemented it for me was the travel time. I had envisioned something like 24 hours worth of travel with at least one stop. But much to my delight, I learned that Korean Air flies directly to Fiji from Seoul, and it was only a 10 hour flight (less time than it took me to get to New Zealand).


So I started researching in earnest. and decided to book everything through my favorite Asian travel agency, Asia Transpacific Journeys. I had great success with them several years ago when they put together my vacation for Vietnam and Cambodia, and figured it would be good to use them again. This time, I decided to go a bit more high end. Usually I stay in hostels or budget hotels, because I travel alone and just need a place to stay, but nothing fancy. But I figured that if I was going to fly to Fiji, I wanted to do it up special. So that opened up a world of possibilities to me that would have not been AS COMFORTABLE with a budget trip.

Tavenui Island-15

Tavenui Island-14

After careful research, I decided to confine my trip to three places: Tavenui Island, Nacula Island and Viti Levu. I figured this would give me a good cross section on what Fiji has to offer. I decided to start my trip with Tavenui Island since it was a bit more out of the way, and is really only easily accessible from the “mainland” (i.e. the island of Viti Levu) by plane. Tavenui reminded me like a less developed Kauai Island in Hawaii. It is very green and lush, and not heavily populated. As a result, only part of the main road is actually paved. From the airport to past the main town is paved, and it is paved around the housing complex that houses foreign visitors (of course), but the rest of the road is dirt. So, distances that don’t seem so great on paper actually can lead to fairly long journeys.

Tavenui Island-18

My travel agency booked me at Paradise Tavenui, which was mentioned in my travel book, but didn’t go into great detail. This resort is on the southwestern side of Tavenui, not that far from the town of Vula. I have to say, staying at this place was LUX. It pretty much had everything I want in a high end tropical resort. I had my own bure (or thatched cabin) with a very comfortable bed and nightly turn down service, and a nice bathroom, including my favorite tropical “indulgence”, an outdoor shower. I love showering outside at night in the warm air with the tropical breezes blowing by. This resort also has its own spa section, and there are few things more deliciously decadent than getting a massage right by the ocean.

Tavenui Island-16

This resort is sort of all inclusive, or can easily be. My package gave me so many meals, and all the soft drinks I could consume (booze was extra, and who doesn’t want to enjoy a tropical paradise with tropical liquor?) Every meal was outside, and the dinners in particular were very nice. One of the nights I was there we had a traditional Fijian lovo, sort of like a Fijian barbecue or luau, where all the meat was wrapped in local banana leaves and cooked over an open fire. It was interesting to see them prepare the meat and starches and then get to indulge in it afterward.

Tavenui Island-4

Tavenui Island-5

Tavenui Island-7

Tavenui Island-8

Tavenui Island-9

Tavenui Island-13

I went on a couple of excursions from the resort. One of them was an all day trip to do the Lavena Coastal Walk (subject of the next blog post) and some snorkeling. Fiji is considered one of the top dive sites in the world, with Tavenui hosting some of the best Fijian diving. I didn’t have my diving certification at the time, so I was just going to do some snorkeling. Most dive trips will take snorkelers, so it was pretty easy, and this excursion was done directly through the resort’s dive shop and not another tour company. The particular trip I did was out to the Great White Wall, which is really  more of interest to divers, though there was plenty to see for snorkelers as well. I saw a wide variety of colorful fish, including some turtles, and beautiful coral and underwater plants. It was a really great trip, with a couple different snorkel (and dive) sites, and a stop for lunch on a nearby beach. The interesting thing is that because I went in September, it was the tail end of winter, soon to be spring. So it was a bit cooler than it can get, and that included the water. I personally didn’t need a wetsuit just for snorkeling, but I did need snorkel fins (I avoid wearing them, unless the ocean currents pretty much mandate them).

Tavenui Island-19

Tavenui Island-17

While I was there, I decided to take advantage of the Discover Scuba program, just because I always wanted to see what SCUBA diving was like. So for an afternoon, I got lessons on the proper way to SCUBA and use the equipment. The lesson was capped off with a beginning dive just off the pier by the resort. My dive instructor Mark was very professional and taught me a lot. In fact, I left Fiji resolved to get my dive certification (I haven’t yet, but I still want to), because when I go back to Fiji (and I know I will go back, unless I die an untimely death), I want to be able to experience the majesty that is diving in Fiji.

Tavenui Island-11

Tavenui Island-12

About half the time I was on Tavenui, it was sunny and beautiful, and half the time it was cloudy. On the days it was sunny, the sunsets were absolutely gorgeous. The resort faced west, so we got full view of sunsets. It was a wonderful and relaxing to end the day by the seaside pool with a drink in hand, taking in all the beautiful colors of the sunset. What was amazing is how the sunset colors differed by day. Some days the sky exploded into a sea of bright pink and orange, and other days, it was more orange and blue (at least the water), and others gave off a more of a silver and blue cast.

Tavenui Island-6

Tavenui Island-10

Normally I am go, go, go on my vacations, but I made a conscious effort to just relax more on Fiji. It helped that I didn’t have a car in Tavenui, and the resort is not really within easy walking distance of anything. So it forced me just to slow down, do an excursion per day, nap in the afternoon, and just take in the beautiful scenery. All told, I was on Tavenui for almost a week, and it was a wonderful start to a delightful Fijian vacation.

Tavenui Island-21


New York Hudson Valley Autumn and Halloween Activities

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-8

The entire reason I went to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York in October was specifically for the plethora of beautiful autumn foliage and the sheer amount of fun autumn and Halloween activities available. I was only in the Hudson Valley for four days, so there was simply no way I could do everything I wanted, and I had to make some hard choices. I ended up choosing stuff that was within reasonable driving distance of Poughkeepsie (where I was staying), so I didn’t see much in the northern Hudson Valley.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-3

I knew I wanted to visit at least one farm, some wineries, and some haunted houses, so I ended up researching a lot of what the Hudson Valley had to offer online. I balanced quality bang for my buck with reasonable driving time, since I wanted to fit in as many activities as possible, and long driving distances limited the number of activities I could do. When I am in a place for a limited time with many, many things I want to do, I sort of end up going into combat travel mode, where I am scripting out my itineraries nearly to the hour to fit it all in in a short amount of time.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-2

After careful consideration, I decided my big fall farm visit would be to Barton Orchards. They seemed to be a very large farm, with a wide variety of my favorite activities, like apple picking, pumpkin picking, a large corn maze, a small onsite haunted house, and a plethora of tasty fall treats like apple cider, pumpkin doughnuts and the like. Since I wanted to maximize my entire day, I arrived at Barton Orchards within 20 minutes after it opened in the morning. As it was, there were still plenty of people already there. Luckily, Barton Orchards is very big so it didn’t feel exceptionally crowded.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-9

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-6

Since I don’t live in New York, I didn’t load up on all the farm offerings to take with me, like pumpkins. And since I was traveling alone, I didn’t do much apple picking, since I wouldn’t be able to eat all the apples before I left the state. But this was the first time I wandered in an apple orchard in a long time, and it was this weekend that really opened me up to all the different types of apples out there. I knew there were a wide variety of apples out there, but I never gave it much thought. I knew of Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples (neither of which I really like) and Granny Smith apples (which I do). But this weekend I really came to appreciate all the different types of red apples, their different tastes, and their different uses (e.g. snacking vs. baking). I personally fell in love with Gala apples in particular and now seek them out in the grocery store whenever I buy them.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-1

The Barton Orchards corn maze was also huge, and since it was fairly early in the morning, it wasn’t crowded. I personally love mazes of all kinds, but outside of corn mazes in the fall, they aren’t that easy to find. So I enjoy them as much as possible when I do get to play in them. But one of the things that can cut into my enjoyment of corn mazes are when they are overrun with screaming children, or people who clue me in where I need to go. I like to go into my own headspace when I am wandering in a maze and just enjoy the experience of trying to find my way out, maybe even pretend I am in a horror movie being stalked by a psycho killer (this particular visualization is easier at night).

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-11

After the corn maze, I visited the haunted house. It was small and geared more toward children (who are definitely easy to scare), but it was free and I figured why not. I was done with Barton Orchards around lunch and headed out. It was then I became very grateful that I went early. The Barton Orchards parking lot is huge as it is, but it was completely full when I was leaving. And not only that, there were a line of cars that went at least a couple miles down the road waiting patiently for a parking space to open up. If you like autumn farm activities, I HIGHLY recommend Barton Orchards, but definitely go early. Go soon after it opens, or you might find you wasting the day away in the car waiting for an available parking space.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-10

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-12

Since I started the morning off with farm fun, I wanted to visit some wineries for some adult fun for the afternoon. This one was a hard choice, because there are SO MANY wineries in the Hudson Valley that I just didn’t have time for more than a couple visits. I had to really decide which wineries were convenient to my itineraries and which wineries made the wine I like. I am not a fan of really dry white or red wines. I prefer semi-dry to sweet, so I chose a couple wineries that looked like they had the variety of selections I was looking for.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-7

I chose to visit Baldwin Vineyards and White Cliff Vineyards. I went to Baldwin first and I was there shortly after it opened to beat the crowds (which was pretty much my theme for this weekend). They were having a chocolate and wine festival that day (which is why I picked that day to go). They have a really great tasting program where you can sample around six wines of different dryness/sweetness. I am not a wine connoisseur, but I know what I like, and Baldwin Vineyards had a lot of wine I liked. I agonized over which bottles to buy, but in the end, I ended up buying six bottles and having them shipped home, so I didn’t have to wrangle them into my checked luggage home. I LOVED their Embers wine , which is a semi sweet red wine. I also bought some very tasty dessert wines in different fruit flavors. I would have stayed longer, but I wanted to fit in at least one other vineyard, so I went to White Cliff vineyards, which was also convenient to my day’s itinerary.   White Cliff was pretty good and I bought a couple bottles there to take home with me. While the wine is good, it didn’t have AS many varieties of wines that I liked, plus I was there mid day, so it was rather crowded to get a tasting.

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-5

So I had plenty of daytime autumn activities, but no trip to the Hudson Valley during October is complete without partaking in some nighttime Halloween activities. One of them was a no brainer: Headless Horseman. Hell, it was that haunted house that first sparked my interest in going to the Hudson Valley in the first place, so that was an absolute must do. After much researching, hemming and hawing, I decided my other haunted house would be Pure Terror Scream Park.


I went to Pure Terror Scream Park in Monroe, NY on a Saturday night, and I got there shortly after it opened to beat the crowds. Usually when there are less crowds around, it is easier to go through the haunted houses alone. I always go to Halloween activities alone (it may  not be my first choice to go alone, but since I don’t really have any companions, I choose to enjoy everything I like in solitude), and I HATE having to go through with a group of strangers, because almost invariably, my experience will be lessened. I like to get into the spirit of things and allow myself to be scared, but I find that many other groups are composed of teenagers who want to laugh at the stuff or at least talk way too freaking much and ruin my mood. So I will do almost anything to avoid the crowds, and going early is a great way to do that. I also purchased on of the VIP passes that allow you to skip the lines, which moved me along quicker. Since it was early, there weren’t THAT many people, so I was able to navigate the houses alone. Pure Terror Scream park certainly lived up to its name for me, and I definitely got my screaming bang for my buck. It wasn’t just one haunted house, but a collection of five different ones with five different themes.


Then Sunday night, I visited the Queen of Upstate New York Haunted Houses: Headless Horseman Hayrides and Haunted Houses in Ulster Park. I had been imagining this place for four years. I had first read about this place in 2010, but I was not able to visit it, because I was living out of the country, until fall 2014. There was no way I was going to pass up this opportunity. To guarantee your space and avoid waiting in line, it is best to purchase your ticket online in advance. To avoid the crowds (as best as I could since this is very popular), I went on the first hayride on a Sunday night. As it was, there were still hundreds of people. I doubt there is any possible time to visit Headless Horseman without crowds, but avoid Saturdays if possible, because they are supposed to be even crazier.

The first thing you do at Headless Horseman is go on a haunted hayride. Your ticket has a hayride time, with new times every 15 minutes. The hayrides are in the dark and are fairly long, with a new theme each year. Last year the theme was witches and the storyline, and each stop, built upon that theme. There are definitely plenty of scares to be had on the hayride, though there seemed to more scares on the left side of hayride. After the hayride is when you go through all the different haunted houses. This is the one time when you are simply not going to be able to go through by yourself. There are just too many people to get through in a night to allow it, so I found myself going through with a large group. Aside from the talking and mood breaking, another downside to going in a group-particularly a large group- is that is way too easy to miss some of the scares. If you are at the front or rear of a large group, most of the scares will happen out of your immediate periphery. Sure you will hear the screams of people ahead of or behind you, but you don’t get the scares as much or see what is happening. But that one downside aside, Headless Horseman is an extremely well done haunted house. You absolutely get the most bang for your buck, and the production values are impeccable. After you finish the haunted houses, you can hang out in the haunted village, watch some shows, do some shopping, eat some Halloween treats. It is absolutely worth your time, and if you like haunted houses, you simply can’t come to the Hudson Valley in October and NOT go.

I fell in love with Hudson Valley over this short weekend. Even though there are so many other places in the states that have beautiful autumn, I am strongly tempted to go back to upstate New York for 2015. It’s that beautiful, and even though I saw and did a lot, I didn’t see everything. This is a great place to see a ton of beautiful nature and do so many fun Halloween activities in a short period of time. Don’t miss it!

Hudson Valley hiking Halloween and Autumn-5

Jiuzhaigou National Park Overview

Jiuzhaigou Overview-2

Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I am always on the lookout for new and different places to visit, and I come upon different ideas for travel destinations in many different ways. Some destinations are well known throughout the world. Some are recommended to me by fellow travelers.  Some I discover through reading, TV or the Internet. Sometimes I am particularly attracted to something unique and beautiful in general, and sometimes I want to visit some place to experience something very specific.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-1

Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

In the case of Jiuzhaigou National Park in China, I had never heard of this place until about a year and a half ago. Then I stumbled upon this website that showed off some of the most surreal places on this Earth, both natural and man made. I was instantly intrigued by the pictures I saw. They were unlike anything I’ve seen before and I  very much wanted to visit the place. I mean, this looked like a magical fairy land  filled with lakes the colors of jewel tones, strange and beautiful waterfalls, and reflections on the water like mirrors. Lucky for me that I currently live in Korea, so it’s not THAT difficult to travel to Jiuzhaigou National Park (though it still takes more work to get to than some place like Beijing or Shanghai). After some basic research in my guide book and on the national park website, I started planning on when I could make my visit.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-3

Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

My first desire was to visit in the fall. Autumn is supposed to be the most beautiful time of the year to visit Jiuzhaigou, and I’ve seen the pictures to prove it. However, the park’s gorgeousness is not exactly a secret, so it’s also the most crowded time of the year. There are no direct flights from Seoul to Jiuzhaigou, so at best you have to take a hop through Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu. I started looking for flights about 60 days out, and much to my amazement, all the direct flights from Beijing and Shanghai were booked, so it would have taken me around 24 hours, and at least two stops, to get to Jiuzhaigou. I decided to put my travel desires on hold, but when I had the opportunity to go on vacation in early July, I figured this was my last, best chance to see Jiuzhaigou before I leave Korea was then. I started planning this trip nearly 90 days out, and luckily for me, there were flights available, and all I had to worry about was one layover on Beijing on the way there, and a stop in Chengdu on the return.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-4

Long Lake, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou Valley National Park

I planned for four full days in Jiuzhaigou to give me maximum time to visit the park. Most things I read suggested a minimum two days to see all three valleys. The nearby Huanglong Scenic Area was also high on the list of must do sightseeing areas, and upon further research, I decided a day trip to the Fairy Pond Scenic Area would also be worthwhile. This itinerary allowed me to see everything I wanted to see without rushing, and allowed me to the time to really savor the gorgeous beauty.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-5

Ze Cha Wa Valley mountains, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I knew before I went that July is not the best time to visit Jiuzhaigou. Sure, it is the greenest time of the year, but that is because it is also the rainiest. I knew this going in, and I hoped for good weather. For the most part, the weather actually held out. Sure, there was some cloudiness at times, but for the most part, I couldn’t ask for better weather. This park is pretty regardless of the weather, but it is exceptionally gorgeous and surreal when it is sunny out.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-6

Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The Jiuzhaigou National Park and surroundings are well established for tourist visits, though in some respects, things are easier if you are fluent or at least familiar with Mandarin. However, if you are like me, and completely clueless when it comes to the local language, you can still prevail and enjoy yourself.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-7

Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Considering that Jiuzhaigou is a small area and is in a very isolated part of China, the modernness of the airport and many of the villages is a tad surprising (though probably not when considering this area is very much about attracting tourists). There are a couple dozen flights a day to and from Jiuzhaigou from around China. The airport is about a 90-120 minute ride from Jiuzhaigou village. If you travel to the area independently, your two choices to get to Jiuzhaigou are bus or taxi. A bus trip is only about 45 yuan, but the schedule is erratic, isn’t posted, and doesn’t seem to run in the evening. Since I arrived around 1900, that left the only option as taxi, of which there are numerous ones. Now granted, none of the taxi drivers speak English from what I saw (or very minimal English), so you have to use gestures and broken phrases to negotiate. The flat fee per taxi is about 300 yuan. That is the same fee if you are by yourself or if you were with other people. Luckily for me, I arrived with two Europeans who also needed to get to Jiuzhaigou and we agreed to split the cab, so I ended up only spending 100 yuan.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-8

Five Colored Pond, Ze Cha Wa Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

There are a wide variety of accommodations in Jiuzhaigou, from really low budget hotels, to the five star Sheraton resort. However, most of the accommodations available for online booking tend to fall at the higher end of the spectrum. I was tempted to stay at the Sheraton resort, because it looked really nice, but the cost was around twice as high as the next most expensive hotel.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-9

Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

I elected to stay at the Qian He International Hotel, which is located very near the Sheraton, and approximately 1500 meters from the entrance of Jiuzhaigou National Park. Overall, the hotel received good reviews, though I was a bit leery of the fact that nobody on the staff was supposed to speak English, and the hotel only accepted cash, and not credit cards. However, I was very pleasantly surprised when I showed up that the hotel now does take credit cards, which is much better than carrying hundreds of US dollars in local currency around. And yeah, nobody really spoke fluent English on staff, but the staff was very helpful, and the assistant manager in particular went out of her way to assist me using translation software.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-10

Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

The hotel itself is very nice and upscale, and I really loved the bathrooms in particular. Breakfast buffet is included in the room price. I wasn’t surprised since many of the reviews talked about how the buffet is geared to Chinese tastes. But there is plenty of options, and it’s all you can eat, and you can never go wrong there.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-11

Shu Zheng Valley, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Another interesting thing is how much of an early riser the hotel (and presumably all of the hotels) is. Breakfast opened at 0630, and at most hotels, I would have been completely alone when I was up. Here though, there was a line that formed outside of the breakfast room and the room was swarmed as soon as the door opened. In fact, everywhere I went (outside of my hotel room), I encountered swarms of people. China itself is heavily populated, and Jiuzhaigou is a very popular area, so there were crowds of people everywhere. I am not exactly a people person, and crowds of people make me even more antsy, but it’s just one of those things you have to accept when visiting the area.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-13

Shu Zheng Lake, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Jiuzhaigou is a tourist area, and most of the places to eat are either hotels or one of the many restaurants that line the river. Qian He International Hotel is located only 1500 meters away from the park entrance, and the walk to and from the hotel was very pleasant and cool along the river. There are so many small restaurants that all you have to do is pick one that interests you and enjoy.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-16

My two basic criteria for restaurant selection was an English menu and tasty looking food. I may be a somewhat adventurous local eater at times, but I do draw the line at picking something at random, without even so much as a picture.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-14

But the restaurants I chose had rather tasty dishes. The first night I had shredded pork with green peppers, fried rice, and spiced yak meat. Yes, yak meat. I have to say that was the first time for that, but it was rather tasty. I guess sort of like beef, or maybe closer to deer. The second night, my choice wasn’t quite so well received. I ordered spicy chicken, forgetting for a moment that in China, anything spicy tends to come covered in red chili peppers. And in this case, the chicken was certainly what I am used to in Chinese restaurants at home. It was more chicken parts with bone, and even claws still in the dinner (needless to say, I didn’t eat the claws).

Chinese dinner

Jiuzhaigou Overview-15

I’ll cover more specifics about visiting the park and the surrounding areas in coming blog posts. This post was more designed as an overview to visiting the area. I will say that if you love beautiful nature, and want to see unique places in this world, Jiuzhaigou National Park should definitely be on your “to do” list.

Jiuzhaigou Overview-12

Shu Zheng Valley trail, Jiuzhaigou National Park

Xi’An Muslim Quarter and Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi)

Xian Muslim Quarter-8

The third item on my Xi’an must do list was visiting the Muslim Quarter. Muslims have a very long history in Xi’an, over 1,200 years, and the Great Mosque (Da Qingzhensi) was founded in Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty in C.E. 742. The mosque is tucked away deep inside the Muslim Quarter, at the confluence of narrow and busy shopping streets. To get to the mosque involves a walk through one of the busiest, most colorful and vibrant parts of Xi’an.

Xian Muslim Quarter-1

Xian Muslim Quarter-2

The Muslim Quarter is the best place for souvenir shopping in my opinion. There are a wide variety of shops around the city, but most of the stores are either geared specifically toward to the local buying market or more Western stores. But the Muslim Quarter is packed with stores selling local crafts, trinkets, art, jewelry, knockoff clothing, and pretty much anything you could want to buy as a tourist.

Xian Muslim Quarter-13

There are a couple ways to arrive at the Great Mosque. The main entrance to the Muslim Quarter is directly behind Drum Tower. One way is to travel down the narrow covered alleyway filled with vendors on the first left. Another possibility is to travel straight down the main street of the quarter for a few hundred meters, and take a left and then another left down the other end of the covered alleyway (follow the signs). Eventually you will find yourself at the mosque.

Xian Muslim Quarter-12

Xian Muslim Quarter-11

Da Qingzhensi is a peaceful complex in the densely populated neighborhood. The mosque complex is filled with buildings built in an aesthetically pleasing blend of Arabic and Chinese architectural styles.

Xian Muslim Quarter-4

Xian Muslim Quarter-5

The prayer hall is towards the back of the complex, and it has a blue tiled roof.

Xian Muslim Quarter-6

The mosque has its version of minaret which is closer to a Chinese temple pagoda.

Xian Muslim Quarter-9

Xian Muslim Quarter-10

After visiting the mosque, it is very easy to just wander around the rest of the streets of the quarter.

Xian Muslim Quarter-14

The Muslim Quarter is brightly lit with neon lights at all hours, but it particularly comes alive at night. It is also one of the best places in Xi’an to indulge in a wide variety of street food. You could literally eat your entire day away in the quarter. There are so many different meats and seafood on a stick to choose from.

Xian Muslim Quarter-16

There are sweets and beverages of all kind. I even planned on eating at a restaurant, one that came highly recommended for excellent Muslim food, Jiasan Guantang Baozi. Likely the food is excellent, however, it certainly was not what I was expecting. I was expecting Middle Eastern Muslim food, which I love very much. Chinese Muslim food is radically different, offering up all sorts of dishes from all sorts of meat parts I don’t typically see on restaurant menus. While the food is probably delicious, since it certainly wasn’t what I wanted, this restaurant was one of the few restaurants I actually walked out of without ordering.


Instead of strange meat dishes, I indulged in a very tasty local specialty. It’s called rou jia mo, and it is finely chopped pork pressed between two halves of a solid steamed bun. I capped that off with some local delicacy. I don’t know what the name for it is, but it is some very sweet, dense cake dipped in honey. I had never seen anything like that before, and assumed it was pineapple until closer inspection.

Xian Muslim Quarter-15

As I mentioned before, definitely don’t miss the Muslim Quarter. It is very much worth your time.

Queen Charlotte Track Day 2- Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove Resort

Queen Charlotte Day Two-4

The second day of the Queen Charlotte Track was an easy day of walking, and I originally intended for it to be a relaxing day outside by the shores of the sound, maybe even do some kayaking. But a little thing called Mother Nature had different plans. The morning was gray and cloudy with a chance of rain.

Queen Charlotte Day Two-3

I set out early, wanting to arrive at my next destination, Punga Cove Resort by lunchtime. I also hoped it would stay dry for the entirety of the walk, but it was not to be.

There were intermittent sprinkles to mild showers for my entire walk. But amazingly enough, it wasn’t actually cold. It actually felt cooler the day prior with the wind and bright sunshine.

Queen Charlotte Day Two-1

The trail was actually very easy. Most of it was flat and near the shore, and the ascents and descents were very gentle. The trail was mainly coastal forests, but there were many glimpses and views of Endeavor Inlet. However, the colors of the foliage and of the water weren’t nearly as bright today, thanks to the gray pallor and clouds that hung over the Sound.

Queen Charlotte Day Two-2

This day’s hike was 12 kilometers and took me three and a half hours. The weather didn’t really unleash until I arrived at the Punga Cove Resort, thankfully. The rest of the afternoon consisted of increasing rain and harsh gusts of wind. I safely and dryly enjoyed the gorgeous view from my room balcony. Instead of partaking in outdoor activities, I curled up with a good book.

Queen Charlotte Day Two-5

the view from my hotel room at Punga Cove Resort

I capped off the day with a melt-in-your-mouth dinner of venison in blackberry sauce and some more local wine (I adore New Zealand wine). It was certainly a sedate Christmas Eve, unlike my typical ones where I booze up alone and watch Bad(der) Santa on DVD.

Punga Cove venison dinner

Wine Tour by Bike- An Independent, Customized Wine Tour in Marlborough

Wine Bike Trip-4

Since I was spending some days in the Marlborough region (even if most of them were on the Queen Charlotte walk), I wanted to do a winery tour. I love wine in general, New Zealand wine in particular, and the Marlborough region was one of the premier wine-producing areas in New Zealand. The question was what sort of winery tour to do, since there were many possibilities to choose from.

Wine Bike Trip-7

The tour that appealed to me the most was Wine Tours by Bike. To me, it was the best of both worlds. I could see as many wineries as I could fit into a five hour block of time, and it was a self-guided tour by bike. I chose the wineries, and I chose how long I stayed at each winery, and where I stopped for lunch.

The tour guide picked me up from the Renwick bus station and got me set up. I set off with a bike, a winery map, and a plan. Two wineries were really close to the tour site, Forrest and Farmingham. Both of them had ample amounts of tasty wines to sample.

Wine Bike Trip-1

At Forrest Winery, I bought a sample of six wines of my choosing for NZ $7. I loved the Guwurtztraminer (a German-type wine I’ve found relatively common in New Zealand), and the dessert Riesling. Mindful of the fact that I didn’t want to carry bottles of wine throughout New Zealand, I bought a bottle of the smaller dessert Riesling, and I figured I would drink it before I left (I didn’t, and took it home with me to be savored later).

Wine Bike Trip-2

After that, I headed to the next winery. It was kind of peaceful biking through the flat country roads surrounded by vineyards. The only thing I had to worry about was biking into the wind, since drivers seemed to be very mindful of bikers. My next winery was Framingham, where I found just as many tasty selections of wine. I was HIGHLY tempted to buy a bottle of the Select Riesling, but again, I went with the smaller dessert wine bottle to save space (I wish wineries would make smaller bottles of wine).

Wine Bike Trip-3

Just up the road were two wineries across the street from each other, Nautilus and Wairau, and Wairau was where I chose to have lunch. But before lunch, I had a tasting at Nautilus. It had the most extensive tasting for free. I loved the Opawa Sauvignon  Blanc and the Pinot Gris, but I couldn’t fit more wine bottles in my backpack. But I did make a note of which US stores sell Nautilus wines for future reference.

Lunch was at the Wairau River Winery across the street. I selected an absolutely scrumptious meal of a mussel chowder starter, followed by hot smoke salmon, potato gratin and tomato and olive salad, accompanied by a glass of Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. It was completely divine.

Wairau River Winery mussel chowder

Wairau River Winery hot smoked salmon

After lunch, I got on my bike and pedaled down the road to No. 1 Family Estate, who specialize in sparkling wine. I tasted three flavors- the No.1, the No.1 Rose, and the No. 8. All were tasty, but I elected not to buy.

Wine Bike Trip-6I headed to my final winery stop at Herzog Winery. It is a high-end, boutique winery specializing in expensive, organic wines. I was able to taste five wines, but not my beloved Guwurtztraminer, since they were out of it. I particularly enjoyed the Riesling, the Vigonier, and the Arneis. 

Wine Bike Trip-5My absolute last stop was at Wine Village to purchase some gourmet, local olive oils for me and a gift. All in all, it was a very pleasant day. If you like wines, and like, or at least can tolerate, easy bike riding on flat roads, I HIGHLY recommend this tour. It is probably the best value for your money when it comes to wine tours. You set the pace. You set the itinerary (within established time limits), and you can try all the wine you want, and enjoy a gourmet meal at a local winery if you desire (for additional cost of course, but definitely recommended). The tour operators are very lovely and helpful people. They made some recommendations on how to have the best tour possible, and they even assisted me with my lunch reservation. They really do what they can to ensure you have a wonderful day.

Kyoto Food- A Tasty Sampling of Assorted Dishes

Kyoto food Isobe restaurant Maruyama with tempuraI am by no means an expert on Japanese food. I like a wide variety of Japanese food, but I don’t know THAT much about some of the dishes less well known to foreigners. In the states, I enjoy Japanese steakhouses, sushi rolls, tempura, teriyaki dishes and the like. Since I started traveling to Japan, I have been exposed to different dishes that I had never heard of before. Food like kushiage (breaded and deep fried foods on skewers), shabu-shabu and sukiyaki (similar dishes- a sort of meat fondue. The only differences seem to be the medium you cook the meat, and you dip your sukiyaki meat in raw egg before eating it), and I liked everything I’ve tried so far. So I haven’t eaten anything crazy before, and I didn’t this trip during Kyoto. But I ate well, and that is always a good thing.

Food is one of the things I look forward to the most when traveling to a new location. There is such a wide variety of cuisine out there, and for the most part (with a few exceptions here and there), I tend to like most local foods I’ve tried. The first night on this trip to Kyoto, I had dinner at a restaurant called Isobe. It is conveniently located, situated in the heart of Maruyama Park. The restaurant sign is only in Japanese, but a red umbrella is depicted on the sign to help you out. For dinner I had a Maruyama with tempura meal (pictured above). The meal consisted of a pot of boiled vegetables and seafood, rice, miso soup, fish soup, and boiled tofu (a local specialty). It also included an assortment of small side dishes, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what any of them were, but I ate them anyway. The food was good, though the seating arrangement was a bit odd. I was situated in a small room right across from the entrance along with another foreign couple. There is a main dining hall, but it looked like it was reserved for a group. The cost of the meal was 3,990 yen (roughly $40 USD).

Kyoto food Ichiba Coji chicken naniban lunchThe next day for lunch, I had to sort of scramble around to find a place to eat. It’s not that there wasn’t any restaurants available. It’s just that it can sometimes be difficult picking a restaurant. Since I don’t speak or read Japanese, that can limit what restaurants I choose to eat. However, a nice quirk of many Japanese restaurants is the display cases outside. Most restaurants have very realistic looking plastic displays of some of the main dishes they offer, which helps you choose. So even if you don’t speak Japanese, it is always possible to order just by pointing at one of the plastic dishes that look good to you.

Since I was running low on time, I elected to eat lunch at Ichiba Coji, which has a couple restaurants throughout town. The one I elected to eat was in central Kyoto in the basement of the WithYou Building, near the Teramachi covered shopping arcade. I selected the chicken naniban, which is a deep fried chicken obento lunch. Ichiba Coji’s lunch service is a well oiled machine. The obento lunch boxes are pretty standard with rice (a very tasty purple rice), miso soup, boiled tofu and a small assortment of side dishes. All you have to do is pick out the main dish and it will be served within a few minutes. It was definitely tasty, and the lunch was filling without making you feel over stuffed (it’s actually rather hard to feel stuffed at most Japanese restaurants, just because most of the food is pretty healthy and the portion sizes are very reasonable).

Kyoto food Ganko Sushi sushi mixed with tempura lunchThe next day’s lunch was at Ganko Sushi. There are a couple branches of the restaurant in town. There is one located in central Kyoto, on Sanjo Dori, just west of the Kamo River. The restaurant sign is in Japanese, but the sign also has a logo of a face with glasses and a bandanna to help you out). I had dinner at that branch during my first trip to Kyoto, but this time around, I had lunch at the branch in the Kyoto Train Station.

Now is probably a good time to mention just what a food marvel Kyoto Station is. Now make no mistake, the entire city of Kyoto is filled with all sorts of restaurants. You will never go hungry in that city unless you want to, but Kyoto Station has probably the most concentrated bang for your buck eating opportunities in one location. There are around 70 restaurants in the Kyoto Station area, either in the underground arcades, near major exits, near the Hotel Granvia, or on various floors of the Isetan Department Store, which is conveniently directly connected to Kyoto Station. There are helpful maps around the station showing the location of all these restaurants. There is ample choice, though keep in mind that again many of these restaurants are only in Japanese (but they do have those helpful plastic displays out front to tempt you).

My lunch was a very tasty sushi and tempura box lunch. It was nothing crazy or out of this world. It was just tasty and filling and affordable. The lunch cost me 1490 yen, which is roughly $15 USD. It is interesting to compare the different costs of meals in Japan. On my last trip, I paid $110 USD for a 8 oz Kobe beef steak meal at a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant (detailed in a past blog post), but I can get sushi for cheaper than what I pay in the states. When I arrived at the Kyoto Airport, I had about an hour’s wait for the train ride into town and I was hungry. Thankfully the airport had one of those fast food sushi places where all the different sushi dishes are served on a conveyor belt, and you simply eat as much as you want. I was able to get eight sushi dishes for less than $10 USD, which is not something I easily find in the states (and frankly am suspicious of any sushi restaurant that is that cheap).

Now would also be a good time to let loose a little mini rant about some Asian restaurants and the napkin situation. I’m a rather messy eater (not deliberately, but often my table setting looks like a chipmunk ate there at the conclusion of the meal. And if I’m really on a roll, I will have spilled at least once on my clothes), and I appreciate good, thick napkins. Most restaurants in America offer either thick napkins, or at least an abundance of napkins. It is a bit hit or miss in restaurants in Asia. Korean restaurants do provide napkins, but they tend to be very tiny and flimsy. The nice is thing is that there tends to be a pile of napkins. So many restaurants in Hong Kong and Japan don’t even offer napkins. I guess Asians must be dainty eaters and don’t make a mess, but that doesn’t help me out very much. Often I end up using the towel provided to wash your hands at the beginning of the meal. One of the few places I did find thick napkins was where I had dinner that night- an Italian restaurant called Ante Caffe, and is located on the 11th floor of the Isetan Department Store (the restaurant floor).

Kyoto food Kobe Gravly burger lunchMy final meal in Kyoto ended up being lunch. Yes that IS a burger you see, but I couldn’t resist. The burger is a Kobe beef blend. I had to try it. I knew it wasn’t pure Kobe beef (after all the burger lunch only cost me around $15 USD), but any burger place called Kobe Gravly had to be tried. Like the others I ate at, this restaurant is located on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store. Thankfully there is an English menu, though you could still have ordered from the pictures alone. I chose the cheddar cheese burger meal with sweet potato fries. It was GOOOOOOD. And messy. Thankfully this restaurant also provided an abundance of napkins, otherwise the situation would have been dire for my hands.

There are many other Japanese foods I want to eat when I go back to Japan next year. Some of them I’ve tried before (like sukiyaki), some of them I want to try (like kaiseke). But one of the pleasures of a trip to Japan is eating your way through the entire journey. You’ll never go hungry and the wide assortment of foods is a major pleasure for your taste buds.

Hong Kong Lantau Island day trip

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha statue

My day trip for my Hong Kong trip was a visit to Lantau Island. That island is the biggest in the Hong Kong archipelago, though it is sparsely populated. It is home to the international airport and Disneyland Hong Kong (subject of another post). But the rest of the island is filled with thick forests, small mountains and fishing villages. For the first half of my day trip, I decided to visit the Lantau Big Buddha (or its proper name, the Tian Tan Buddha) and the Po Lin Monastery. It is rather easy to visit both, since they are co-located in the same place. I had intended to ride the Ngong Ping Cable Car to get there. It starts right next to the Tung Chung MTR stop (the last stop on the orange Tung Chung Line. It takes about 45 minutes to reach from Hong Kong Station) and the 25 minute trip will take you straight to Ngong Ping village and provides unparalleled views of Lantau Island (I assume). However, the day I got there, I saw the sign that stated that the annual three weeks of maintenance on the cable car started that day. I was bummed, but there is always a bus (#23) that travels from the MTR stop to Ngong Ping village. It leaves approximately every 30 minutes, though in reality it will leave early if the bus is already filled to capacity with passengers. So while I didn’t get the aerial view of Lantau Island, I got a mini bus tour as the circuitous route wended its way through some fishing village before making the steep ascent to Ngong Ping village. The Big Buddha has only been there since 1993, and until 2007, it was the tallest outdoor seated bronze statue of Buddha. The Buddha is over 100 feet tall, and in fact can be easily viewed from below on the bus ride as you make your approach.

The Buddha itself is right next to the Po Lin Monastery.

Hong Kong Lantau Po Lin Monastery entrance gate

Hong Kong Lantau Po Lin Monastery plaza

As you are in the square, you can easily see the Big Buddha towering over the square.

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha wide view

Then you get to the bottom of the stairs. It is 268 steps to the top and the view from the bottom looking up at the Big Buddha is beckoning you, or taunting you, depending on your views of things.

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha stairs

When I saw the stairs, I was reminded of the old Nike commercial from 1993 where a couple rapidly runs up the stairs of the Jaguar Temple in the Mayan ruins of Tikal. While I wish I can say I sprinted to the top, I did fairly well for the first 75% of the stairs before I started to feel the stairs, and more importantly, that wicked subtropical sun. This morning was the best weather of my trip, and the sun was high, bright and hot as it was pounding down on my head. And I stupidly forgot to bring my hat with me that day (at least I remembered the sunscreen and sunglasses).

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha tree frame

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha selfie

Once you are at the top, you can walk around the Buddha. There are numerous smaller statues surrounding the Big Buddha, and there are some very nice views of Lantau Island. Some of those views reminded me of forest views of Kauai with the hills and thick greenery.

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha statue view

Hong Kong Lantau island view

Hong Kong Lantau Big Buddha side view

The descent is not as strenuous as the ascent. I was hoping to see more of Po Lin Monastery, but the vast majority of it was under renovation. You can still walk through the gate and the open square, but the monastery itself was until piles of scaffolding.

While there wasn’t currently much to see at Po Lin Monastery, and there was no sign saying when the renovation would be complete, make sure you stop in the dining hall for lunch. Between 1130 and 1630 every day, you can purchase a vegetarian lunch on the premises. Tickets are available either right next to the dining hall, or at the bottom of the stairs to the Big Buddha. HK $80 will get you a standard lunch outside, but for a mere HK $118 (less than $15 USD) gets you the deluxe meal. That meal is inside in the dining room and you are given a fabulous, delicious vegetarian spread. When I was there, I had this thick, tasty mushroom soup, vegetarian spring rolls, sauteed greens and mushrooms, stir fried vegetables and rice. If you choose to bring your own lunch, you can sit outside and enjoy it, though heed the signs that say that no meat or alcohol is allowed on the premises (Buddhists are vegetarians).

Hong Kong Lantau Island Po Lin Monastery lunch

There are other things to see and do up there. There are some other Buddhist hermitages you can walk to. If you wanted, you could climb up to the top of Lantau Peak, a walk that supposedly takes around three hours round trip. You can explore the Ngong Ping village. But for the most part, you can see the main sights in half a day. I would have taken more time there, but I had other plans for my Lantau Island day trip (covered in the next couple of posts).

Japanese Teppanyaki

Japanese Teppanyaki dinner

Like most Americans, I’ve been to more than one Japanese steakhouse in my time. You know the ones- with the chef/entertainer grilling up a storm in front of a crowd of hungry diners surrounding the grill. For my final night in Kyoto, I decided to splurge on dinner at a real Japanese steakhouse for teppanyaki. And “splurge” is an accurate description in this case, since dinner cost me about $118 USD. I knew this in advance, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the experience to indulge. I went to a restaurant called Mikaku, which is located in eastern Kyoto. The restaurant is pretty easy to find since it is a five minute walk from the Shiijo train  stop on the Keihan Main Line. Take exit to Shijo Dori and take a left on Nawate Dori. Take the first left and the restaurant is located on the second floor.

The setup is the same as Japanese steakhouses in America. There is a long countertop in the room with three grills for customers to view their dinner made in front of them. While there are other options for dinner, the main reason to come here is for the teppanyaki. The smallest cut of meat is 100g (3.5oz) and the price goes up from there.

Kobe beef Japanese Teppanyaki

The full meal will get you your choice of size and cut of Kobe beef grilled to your specifications. You are given a bib like you find at lobster restaurants. You start the meal with a soup, which for my meal was Vichyssoise. You get an assortment of grilled vegetables, along with your meat. Japanese Teppanyaki chefs don’t have the same sort of entertainment stage presence like the ones you see in America, but they are no less skilled and professional in grilling your meal to perfection.

Japanese Teppanyaki chef

This was the first time I ever eaten Kobe beef, and it was delicious. The meat was super tender and practically melted in my mouth. My teppanyaki steak cooked to medium.

Kobe beef Teppanyaki 100g

After the meat course, you finish off the main meal with a super tasty garlic fried rice.

Teppanyaki fried rice

Teppanyaki fried garlic rice

This meal was a really memorable way to end my trip to Kyoto. This is absolutely not a restaurant you go expecting a discount. Go there knowing you will be spending over $100 USD PER PERSON. But if you can swing it, know it is worth it.

McDonalds of the World

Shanghai McDonalds traditional looking

I have a “guilty pleasure” while traveling. I say guilty pleasure facetiously, because in reality I don’t feel guilty at all, because it’s just my thing when I travel. Though I have run into fellow travelers who try to make me feel guilty for this particular thing, like I am some sort of ugly American. Ironically enough, one of those same travelers chastising me for this in Egypt was the same one who couldn’t stop moaning for a Starbucks. She completely failed to see the irony in her stance on that one.  That guilty pleasure happens to be eating at a McDonald’s in every country I can. I make it a point to eat at a McDonald’s once during every vacation, even if the only one I can find is at the airport. That means everything from long weekends all the way up to month-long vacations. That adds up to be dozens of McDonald’s in dozens of countries. I certainly haven’t eaten in one for EVERY country I have visited. In those cases,  the countries typically didn’t have a McDonald’s. It may be one of the biggest global brands, but it still hasn’t made inroads into every country as of yet. The biggest global brand I have ever seen is Coca Cola products. I have NEVER been to one country that doesn’t have a plethora of Coca Cola products, but that is probably the penchant for the country to establish local bottling plants to spread the beverages as far as possible. There is only one country that has McDonald’s that I haven’t been able to visit, and that was Iceland. It certainly wasn’t for lack of desire, but this was the one developed country that didn’t have a McDonald’s that was centrally located downtown near the tourist areas. I kept seeing one on the outskirts of Reykjavik  when I was on bus tours [right next to a Taco Bell- which is extremely rare to find outside of the United States], but was never able to find it in my rental car.

Bergen McDonalds


What I have found in all these McDonald’s is that there are some interesting similarities and interesting differences. Many of the restaurants were located in actually beautiful and historic places. One in Bergen, Norway was in this beautiful , 19th century clapboard building (see above). I’ve eaten at a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps in Rome (though it wasn’t there anymore my last visit), and I’ve eaten in one right across from the Pantheon in Rome. You could eat your American fast food burger and fries outside al fresco and take in the view of the piazza and the ancient building. Talk about a clash of cultures.

Shanghai McDonalds


 In all these multitude of McDonald’s the only things standard to all of them are the fries, Big Macs, and some sort of McChicken sandwich. EVERY SINGLE McDONALD’S in every single country has their value meal number one as the Big Mac value meal, just like the United States. After that, it’s all up to regional tastes. I have seen things at McDonald’s you would never find in the States. Stuff like bulgogi burgers in Korea, calamari wraps in Germany (among a multitude of other regional items), and other things. Names might be different for even the same item. For those who have watched the movie “Pulp Fiction” , you are undoubtedly familiar with Quarter Pounders renamed Royales. In most McDonald’s in Europe you can get mayo instead of ketchup, which is a taste I acquired and continue to this day. U.S McDonald’s deliberately fill the cups with ice so you get less soda and they pocket more profit, but you are pretty lucky to find many ice cubes in McDonald’s in other countries (or in other restaurants for that matter, but that’s a post for another time).

My American traveling friends and I sometimes joke that McDonald’s is the “American embassy” just because it is so prevalent in many countries. I can’t really say I eat there because of any great need to maintain some sort of American touchstone. I guess I do it, just to compare the different experiences around the world.