Hendson Quan

7 POSTS

0 1979

“We had sixteen hits yesterday,” Kiel said to our group of six, with such a big smile on his face I could tell a sense of proudness and accomplishment in it.

I knew he wasn’t talking about baseball. Kiel was to be our rafting guide and leader on the Arkansas River out of Canon City, Colorado. Those ’16 hits’ must have been something to do with this activity but, being the only first-timer in the group, I was too shy to raise my hand and ask, hoping that over the next two hours I could rely on my observation and listening skills to find out.

Kiel then asked each of us where from, occupation, whitewater rafting experience, adding a bit of small talk on each answer he got in an effort to get the group members to learn something about each other and also to loosen up for the upcoming adventure. Once finished, he placed Rob, from Atlanta, who had the most – 15 years – experience, at the front to ride shotgun. Next row, it was Matt on the right by himself. Then, Judy on the left and Patrick to the right of her. Next, Brandon, an architect from California, got to sit alone, on the left side, behind Judy. And then it was me on the next row on the right side, in front of Kiel in the back who whispered quietly to me to relax, that he was going to keep an eye on me for being the “new kid on the block.” During the course of the trip, I found out that Matt, Judy and Patrick were health service co-workers from Indianapolis and Rob was a financial advisor.

Before all this, I along with some 45 rafting enthusiasts had gathered at the headquarters of Raft Masters, a whitewater rafting outfit with a fine reputation for safety and service that has been in operation for over twenty-five years. There, we were issued wetsuits, splash jackets, river boots and given a ten-minute safety talk. The talk included paddling techniques, position to take when hitting rapids, what to do if the raft capsizes and how to get back in, and what to do if one falls overboard.

As our raft started out on the river, I was reminded of the George Clooney movie “The Perfect Storm” in which he and his crew set sail on the Andrea Gail. Cool and calm waters, beautiful blue skies, great anticipations of what was to come. For about the first twenty minutes, we enjoyed the tranquility of the waters and the surrounding scenery. Kiel clued us in on the history of whitewater rafting in the area and engaged in friendly chit chats with us, along with describing by name and degree of severity, or ‘class or level,’ of some of the rapids the group was likely to come upon. He also called out paddling commands to us as the raft made its way through the running waters, to avoid rocks or going too near the riverbanks. I carefully listened for and followed Kiel’s paddling instructions. It was fun – I felt like a kid in a bumper car for the first time with his dad at his side giving him driving tips.

Kiel alerted us of the first of many rapids to hit us, a little one to literally get our feet wet. We braced for it, but the water still hit our faces. “That was a pretty good hit,” Kiel said. It felt good. From that point on, we were to encounter some 13 more, some in fairly quick succession, but who counts when you are having such fun. After a couple of “hits,” I became brave, telling myself, “Keep ’em coming, bring it on.”

About an hour into our trip, we got into an area of particular calm with the river waters virtually not moving. Kiel signaled us to stop paddling and look up. We were right under the magnificence of the Royal Gorge Bridge, its deck at some 955 feet (291.1 m) above, and billed as the world’s highest suspension bridge. What a sight to behold – for a moment everyone was just silently in awe, then each gave exclamations of wonder and amazement. Needless to say, our cameras got quite busy.

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River or rapid difficulty is rated using a class system, I to V, with the lower being appropriate for a beginner and V suitable for an expert raftsman. For the Royal Gorge region of the Arkansas River, all rapids have classifications of III or higher. Some of the class IV-V rapids on our route that Kiel mentioned have names of Boat Eater, Sledgehammer and Sunshine Falls. Class III rapid names include Lion’s Head, The Pipeline and El Primero. The availability of names certainly adds a personal touch to any recount of a rafting adventure trip.

In fact, it was at Sledgehammer that I literally got slammed and fell overboard into the water. Even with a warning from Kiel to the team, I failed to physically counter enough the massive wave that hit our raft on its left side and practically lifted it up some 45 degrees. Being on the right side, and unable to withstand the powerful wave, I instantly flipped into the water. Remembering the safety talk and using my quick reaction before the raging water could carry me away from the raft, I managed to keep my head above water and with my right hand instinctively grabbed the rope tied around the raft. Within a split second, Kiel with one hand grabbed me by my life jacket and in a continuous motion pulled me up and out of the water back onto the raft. He asked, nonchalantly, “Are you alright?” I was all wet, but just fine.

During the trip, we experienced gradual drops ranging 10 – 30 feet that varied between 10 – 25 degree angles. However, near the end of our trip, there was a steep drop of practically 90 degree angle, but for just 5 feet. Luckily Kiel had alerted us about it coming. Indiscernible feeling – akin to a ride on a water slide at an amusement park but this was straight down!

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The Arkansas River enjoys tremendous popularity as it is the most rafted river in the world. At certain spots it narrows to just 25 feet (17.6 m) and cliffs can be as steep as 1,100 feet (335.3 m). During late May through June, the water levels are at their highest, attracting the more experienced whitewater rafter or serious adventure seeker. For the less experienced or family groups, July through August are the best times to go. Whitewater rafting combines both anticipation and sensation, not to mention paddling skills, to give a memorable experience.

Each year in late June, the Royal Gorge Whitewater Festival attracts tens of thousands of enthusiasts. For two days, it offers “Boats, Bands, Beer” and plenty of food. With more than 20 different activities, attendees of all ages may choose to enjoy by being participants and/or spectators.

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Also Do: A jeep tour offers insight into the area’s history and geography, as well as its geological formations. Will Colon, an affable down-to-earth fellow and owner and operator of Colorado Jeep Tours, is the man to see. On selected scheduled jeep tours, one of the highlights is the chance to ride atop the deck of the Royal Gorge Bridge and be able to look below at the river and around for the gorgeous view of the whole region.

Pic 5 Colorado's Best - The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey

Also Visit: Wine connoisseurs would not want to pass up a chance to visit The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey in Canon City, just 12 miles (22.2 km) east of the Royal Gorge Bridge. Its signature wine is “The Revelation,” a meritage blend of equal amounts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. The Winery’s popular favorite among locals and non-locals alike is “Apple Blossom,” a very sweet fruity fermentation of Colorado apples.

Pic 6 AAA Diamond Aware B&B

Stay At: In Colorado Springs, the Old Town Guesthouse, an AAA Diamond Award winner, features fireplaces, hot tubs on private porches and steam showers. A unique attraction and amenity is its state-of-the-art waveless waterbeds in every room, for sleeping pleasure and therapeutic benefits. Another unique attraction, and more of an amenity, is its indoor elevator. Although this bed and breakfast inn of brick construction has only three stories, its elevator does add convenience and comfort to guests.

If you go:

http://www.raftmasters.com/

http://coloradojeeptours.com/

http://abbeywinery.com/

http://www.oldtown-guesthouse.com/

www.colorado.com.

 

Otherwise officially known as the Nai Lert Park Bangkok International Flower Show, is held annually at the five-star Swissotel Hotel. In its 28th year in 2014, its proceeds go to charitable educational, mental illness cure and children development causes, with recent years’ funds approaching THB 5.0 million ($ 155,000 USD) for the 4-day event.

“Enormous” is not used here to describe the number of floral items as it is used to literally say each floral display or arrangement is simply humongous and impressive.

At the show, take time and concentration to admire each piece. See how meticulously and painstakingly the flower designers and arrangers have created and put together their work. Like putting yourself in a giant garden, full of colorful flowers in various shapes and forms, you get the feeling of being in another world, one filled with fragrance, beauty and grand design.
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Driving on Wireless Road in Bangkok, one can’t miss the hug sign announcing the event. At the turnoff to the hotel, a guard stationed at the security post stops visitors, vehicles and pedestrians alike, for a quick visual check and maybe a few questions. Then it’s about a quarter mile (400 meters) drive from which one gets the sense of entering a garden resort. Trees and flowers line the road, and statutes along the way beckon a welcome feeling. One can hear, but not see, soft waterfall sounds coming from some distant spot.
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The lobby is expansive. Head to the right of it for check in. Head to the left for the flower show. Or before all that, just take your time and enjoy a couple of tropical cocktails at the bar straight ahead while listening to the two performers, accompanied by a pianist, singing past and present favorites.

At the entrance of the flower show, giant floral birds, bees, rabbits greet visitors. They even have a big pot (of Thai tea?) waiting for guests as well. And the eggs seem to have been freshly laid.
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Inside the show, among many others, are five goldfish that most homes would not be big enough to keep, a big red high heel shoe filled with flowers that any girl would envy to own, a reclining mermaid that many a young man would dream about meeting, and a tall flower vase that if filled would break most men’s bank account. An extremely wonderful show, not even counting the events that are part of it: auction of fine paintings, a dining experience given by a world-class chef, and afternoon tea. Rounding it out, to statisfy your gastronomical appetite after fulfilling aesthetic tastes from the show, do the lunch buffet at Swissotel’s ISO Restaurant, whose tall-ceilinged dining room with huge windows overlooking a lush garden area extend and add to the idyllic feeling from the show experience.
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For more information: http://www.tourismthailand.org/See-and-Do/Events-and-Festivals/Nai-Lert-Park-Bangkok-International-Flower-Show–5712, http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/bangkok-nai-lert-park

After the full day’s eyeful feast of Gaudi’s works, I was ready for a feast of another kind. For that, I followed the recommendation of a colleague and dined at Los Caracoles Restaurant, conveniently located off the city’s famed La Rambla, just a two minute walk from Reial Plaza.
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I found this restaurant to be a combination of old world charm and very fine food. Started in 1835 by the Bofarull family as Casa Bofarull, it is run by its fifth generation under the more fitful name of Los Caracoles to reflect a signature dish of snails. As I stepped inside, I could see the long exquisite bar on the left and the big stove in the open cooking area on the right. I later found out that the coal-burning stove is over one hundred years old.
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I made my way straight through about 15 meters (50 feet), slowly and at times even stopping, turning my head left and right, to admire the beautiful bar and the impressive cooking facility. At its end, I was greeted by a gracious woman who introduced herself as Aurora.
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She led me through several floors of dining areas, some with private dining rooms of various sizes whose walls were hung with framed pictures of Spanish and international celebrities who have dined at Los Caracoles over the years. On one of the pictures, I recognized the famous Italian opera singer Luciano Pavorotti. After an appetizer plate consisting of garlic shrimp, bread with tomato, jamon (Iberian ham) and snail bread, I ordered the caracoles (snails) without hesitation.
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When they came, I could smell the sauce, and went right to work on them with both hands. I was sure the sauce mix was proprietary but could taste that it included fresh garlic, a bit of salt and black pepper, olive oil and mint springs.
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Next came the entrée, salmon “house style,” and what a dish. Just mouth watering and freshness of taste. I especially liked its accompaniments – lightly fried potatoes, green onion stalks, and tomato. While the restaurant has an extensive wines list, I opted for a pitcher of sangria and it served me well throughout the course as I enjoyed the delicious meal. For dessert, it was Catalan cream, similar to crème brulee. I had of course tasted flan, custard, or crème brulee, but this one was unusually rich and savory. All in all, a very fine dining experience for elegance and flavor.

The Barcelona Airport information agent answered my question without hesitation, “See as many pieces of Gaudi’s works as possible.” Not the food, not the shopping, not even the famed Las Ramblas. I had done my homework, reading up for my trip. Architect and designer Antoni Gaudi, who lived 1852 – 1926, is the most internationally prestigious figure in Spanish architecture. He is also one of the most revered personalities in Spain, particularly in Barcelona where his work is concentrated.
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain in the north-east portion of the Iberian Peninsula, with the official status of a “nationality.” Its capital city is Barcelona, the center of “Modernisme,” the term depicting a cultural movement by the people of Catalonia for national identity. And Gaudi is generally considered the grand master of Catalan Modernism in its heyday. World architectural experts have hailed his work, while adhering to Modernisme, to even go beyond that, being characterized by the predominance of the curve over the straight line, the expression of asymmetry, and the integration with various crafts such as stained glass, wrought iron forging and carpentry.
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Well, one would be hard-pressed not to see it as he approaches it. And I was no exception. Casa Batllo’s front façade sure looked like a bunch of bone features to me, a layman when it comes to architecture. In fact, I later found out that the locals call it “Casa dels ossos” or the House of Bones. Built in 1877, it was restored and partially remodeled by Gaudi during 1904 – 1906. He focused on the facade, the main floor, the patio and the roof, and built a fifth floor for the staff. The facade is of Montjuic sandstone cut to create warped ruled surfaces, the columns are bone-shaped with vegetable decoration. Gaudi kept the original rectangular shape of the building’s balconies – with iron railings in the shape of masks – giving the rest of the facade an ascending undulating form. He also faced the facade with ceramic fragments of various colors (“trencadis”), which Gaudi obtained from the waste material of the Pelegri glass works. The interior courtyard is roofed by a skylight supported by an iron structure in the shape of a double T, which rests on a series of caternary aches. The helicoidal chimneys are a notable feature of the roof, topped with conical caps, covered in clear glass in the center and ceramics at the top, and surmounted by clear glass balls filled with sand of different colors. Much of the facade is decorated with a mosaic made of broken ceramic tiles (“trencadis”) that starts in shades of golden orange moving into greenish blues. The roof is arched and likened to the back of a dragon. At the first floor level of the undulating facade is a striking stone structure in the form of loggia supported by columns with frame fine windows decorated with stained glass. The ceramics and multi-colored glass mosaics of the upper part are interrupted by iron balconies in the form of venetian masks. Crowning the whole is a suggestive tile roof over double garrets, which evokes the back of a dragon. Casa Batllo gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
Casa Mila, better known as La Pedrera, was designed by Gaudi and built during 1905 – 1910. What a humongous building, I thought to myself, as I first saw it standing at the corner located at 92 Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona’s Example district.
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The brochures available at its gift store combined with my walk-through helped me to really appreciate what a fine and unique piece of architecture La Pedrea is. Gaudi designed the house around two large, curved courtyards, with a structure of stone, brick and cast-iron columns and steel beams. The façade is built of limestone from Vilafranca del Penedes, apart from the upper level, which is covered in white tiles, evoking a snowy mountain. It has a total of five floors, plus a loft made entirely of caternary arches, as well as two large interior courtyards, one circular and one oval. I particularly noticed the roof, topped with the four-armed cross, and the chimneys, covered in ceramics and with shapes that suggest mediaeval helmets. It was a controversial design at the time for its bold forms of the undulating stone façade and wrought iron decoration of the balconies and windows. In 1984, Casa Mila was declared World Heritage by UNESCO. Another interesting fact is that Gaudi wanted its occupants to know each other so he designed lifts on every other floor only so people had more interaction and thus had to communicate with one another from different floors.
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Perhaps his most famous work, during the last years of his career, Gaudi devoted almost exclusively to Sagrada Familia, a monumental church to say the least, whose formal name, in English, is Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. I arrived at a morning hour that I thought was early, but the line of waiting visitors had already stretched from the front around to the left side of the cathedral, with more visitors to follow as the minutes ticked. Across from it, on limited open space ingenuous merchants had set up shop, selling a wide variety of souvenir items and snacks. In fact, on the sidewalk slightly from the curb, merchants had placed at various spots small tables and chairs for those who just wanted to sit, have a soda, relax and take in the majestic view of Sagrada Familia. I overheard from a passing tour guide that the wait to get inside the cathedral was going to be almost two hours. Taking a cue from other visitors, I bought a cold soda and some snacks and quickly grabbed an empty chair and claimed the table nearest to it. This was going to be my base for taking in the grandeur of the Sagrada Familia.
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Among the many expert comments I read, Sagrada Familia can be summed up as Gaudi’s achievement of perfect harmony between structural and ornamental elements, between plastic and aesthetic, between function and form, between container and content, achieving the integration of all arts in one structured, logical work. It is probably the most remarkable cathedral in Europe, and it’s not even finished yet! It was in an unfinished state at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, the work stopped in 1936 and resumed sixteen years later in 1952. Projected completion is in 2026, the centennial of Gaudi’s death. At completion, there would be extraordinary facades representing the birth, death and resurrection of Christ with eighteen towers or spires symbolizing the twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and the Christ. UNESCO bestowed 2 titles of World Heritage status – one for the Nativity façade and the other for the crucifixion façade. I could see that visitors may be confused into thinking that these facades represent the front and the back of the cathedral, when in fact they are actually the sides.
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Locals I encountered invariably mentioned Parc Guell, a municipal garden on the hill of El Carmel in Barcelona’s Gracia district. On a pleasant Spring morning, I started off from Placa de Catalunya, the huge square just minutes by foot from my hotel, by taking the #24 bus. I had deliberately planned this particularly long ride, with the idea of leisurely seeing the various Barcelona’s neighborhoods from one end of the city to another. Parc Guell was originally part of a commercially unsuccessful housing site; of sixty lots, only two houses were built, and Gaudi occupied one of them from 1906 to his death in 1926. Among the many examples of Gaudi’s designing genius evident here is the huge plaza, surrounding by a long winding bench in the form of a sea serpent. The bench has small semi-enclosed areas where the facing of a brightly colored ceramics creates a spectacular collage.Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, at its highest point Parc Guell offers a panoramic view of the city and the bay, including the Familia.

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History has it that 500 young men from China ‘s Fujian Province accompanied princess Hang Li Po in the late 1400’s to what is now Malacca on her journey to wed Sultan Mansur Shah. A popular folk lore in Singapore gives legend that these young men became the forebears of the Peranakan Cina. Peranakan refers to the descendents of the early Chinese who settled in the Malay Archipelago and integrated with the Malays. In Singapore, these descendents are known interchangeably as Peranakan Cina, Baba Chinese, Straits Chinese and Baba Nonya.
Through the past five centuries or so, the Peranakan culture has developed into a mix of Chinese and Maly cultures, with some influence from other cultures such as Dutch, Portguese and Thai, resulting in a rich and distinctive mix.

Most Peranakans are of Hokkien ancestry, whose dialect is one of the eight major dialets in the Chinese language and whose people inhabited the Fujian Province from where the legendary group of 500 young men originated. Present day Peranakans observe traditional Chinese celebrations and traditions, such as New Year and August Moon. At the same time, their food, language and fashion have a strong Malay influence. The Nyonyas, a mix of women from the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, Burma and Thailand who married Chinese traders in the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore from the sixteenth century, were true multi-culturists. Their knack for combining the best of cultural influences from Chinese, Malay and European contributed to a rich Peranakan heritage well known for its distinctive cuisine, architecture, furniture, porcelain, costumes, embroidery, beadwork, silverware and jewelry.

 

On a warm and hazy day, with temperatures in the mid-80’s, my informal tour guide Karen, met through a mutual friend, took me to Singapore’s East Coast Road, in the heart of the Katong District. There, for about two city blocks, lined shops and restaurants where I could get a feel of the Peranakan experience. We entered Rumah Bebe, a shop decorated in traditional Peranakan style to showcase its culture and heritage. The sales clerk, a middle-aged lady named Doris who spoke perfect English, showed me keybayas, various exquisite items of beadwork, batik, jewelry, porcelain and even furniture.
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The kebaya is a long sleeved blouse with lace appliqued around the edges and generally worn with a sarong. It is the traditional costume of Straits Chinese ladies and other Peranakan women from Indonesia and Thailand . A sarong is a large sheet of fabric, often brightly colored, and is wrapped around the waist and worn as a skirt by men and women in southeast Asia and Pacific islands. Doris showed me a selection of sarongs with intricate patterns, images of animals and plants. If a sarong does not have ties, a pin may be used, or the fabric may be tightly tucked under itself in layers to hold it in place. For the feet, beaded slippers called “kasut manek” are a must. For adaptation to contemporary times, the kebaya can be worn with pants and over a tank top as a jacket.

 

At Kim Choo’s Kitchen, next to Rumah Bebe, Karen suggested trying out spicy fish otah, soon kueh, and chendol. Otah is a spicy fish cake, comes wrapped in coconut leaves and blended in coconut milk and spices. Contrary to my preconception, the otah I had was quite gentle in taste and smell. I quickly finished it and called the waitress for another order. Kueh is a little dessert prepared using tapioca, rice flour, sugar and coconut cream, grated fresh coconut, pandan leaves, palm sugar and mung beans. The word “kueh” (or kuay) describes the assortment of colorful savories and desserts that are a favorite among Malaysians and Singaporeans. Rice flour and tapioca form the main body of these sweets. They come in different colors, shapes and textures with fillings ranging from candied coconut to palm sugar and coconut custard or kaya.

 

Chendol is a dessert like drink that usually consists of white coconut milk, thin worm-like, pandan-flavoured, green-colored pea flour noodles and palm sugar (gula melaka). Karen had ordered my chendol to come with add-ons of red beans, grass jelly and shaved ice. This is what a meal drink should be, as I thought about all the sodas, milk shakes and teas I had downed over the years. There is just no comparison.
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In a short questions and answers session later on, Shirley Tay, resident Nyonya chef at the Furama City Centre Hotel in Singapore , told me that Peranakan cusine uses alot of fruits, such as banana hearts to make salads, and sour rambutan (the yellow ones) to make a delicious assam dish with fish or crab. Two popular favorites are babi pongteh and buah keluak. Babi pongteh is port trotters stewed in a thick brown sauce. And buah keluak is a fruit from a nut tree found in Indonesia . It has a nutty and slightly bitter taste but is fragrant when eaten with freshly-cooked rice and gravy. It has an acquired taste and is cooked with meats such as pork ribs or chicken.

 

Karen told me that it was unfortunate that we could not visit and see the Tan Chong Lock Baba House, which she had heard and read about so much. The Tan Chong Lock Baba House under restoration and scheduled to open September 2007. It is located at 157 Neil Road and is one of Singapore’s last remaining and intact Peranakan terraced houses. The house is named after Tan Chong Lock, who was born in 1883 in Malacca. He was the founder and first president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA – 1949) and a prominent business leader in Malaya (as Malaysia was known then) and Singapore . Mr. Tan was instrumental in negotiating Singapore ‘s independence from the British in 1947. The structure will incorporate features from southern Chinese and Malay cultures, as well as colonial Dutch and British architecture. A large part of the house will act as a museum, showcasing the rich legacy of Peranakan history, culture, lifestyle, food, and social customs. A must-see attraction of this house will be the bridal chamber revealing the important traditional customs, preparations and rites of a Peranakan wedding.

 

 

Getting There: At last count, some forty airlines have routes to and from Singapore . The major carriers include Air France, All Nippon Airways, Cathy Pacific Airways, China Airlines, EVA Airways, Lufthansa, United Airlines and of course Singapore Airlines.

 

Where To Stay: Accommodations choices abound, from 5-star hotels to hostels located throughout the city. At last check, for just $180SGD ($113USD), you can get a deluxe king/twin room at the Pan Pacific Singapore located on Raffles Boulevard in Marina Square . The Pan Pacific Singapore has been consistently voted among the “Top 50 Hotels in Asia ” by CondeNast Traveler readers. The Atrium, its lobby lounge, is something to behold.High ceilings, 21 feet (6.5 meters) tall teak louvres, a variable lighting system to reflect day or evening mood, circular posh sofas, and evening entertainment all contribute to making the guest feel he is really away from home. Another excellent choice is the Furama Riverfront Singapore in downtown on Havelock Road , within walking distance to shopping and dining spots in Clarke Quay and Chinatown . This four-star hotel boasts 515 rooms and suites. A deluxe room goes for a very reasonable $140SGD ($88USD) per night.
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Where To Eat:
Just in case you get enough of hawker center foods and the Peranakan taste, try the following eateries for a unique dining experience: Coriander Leaf (65-6732-3354 ). Calling it “The New Asian Food Hub,” proprietor Samia Ahad has painstakely built the Coriander Leaf into a center not only as a showcase for South Asian, Middle Eastern and East Asian cuisine, but also into a cooking school and a source for hard-to-get kitchen and condiment products.

 

Keyaki (65-6336-8111 ). You can get Japanese almost anywhere in the world, but there aren’t many finer dining experiences than the one at Keyaki, located at the Pan Pacific Singapore. The setting is a Japanese-style garden, and upon removing your shoes at the entrance you walk by a cascading waterfall, sculptured fauna and a koi pond before getting to the dining area. Try executive chef Hiroshi Ishii’s sigature dishes of kani koua age (baked crabmeat and mushrooms in a crabshell) and tappanyahki jyu jyu steak (sliced steak and vegetables on a hot stone plate).
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Kitamani (65-6739-6463 ). Named after Bali ‘s famed mountain district, Kitamani serves delectable Indonesian cusine in traditonal Balinese setting with soothing gamelan music in the background. Signature dishes rendang daging sapi (tender beef simmered in spicy coconut milk gravy) and sup buntut (oxtail soup) are something to die for.

 

What To Do: Wild Rice Theatre Productions…A common activity for visitors to New York and London is to take in a theater performance. Singapore hold its own in this area. Executive director Ivan Heng in 2000 founded Wild Rice Theatre Productions to showcase local theatrical talent to provide an insight into the multicultural societies that make up Singapore and modern Asia in performances that inspire, challenge and entertain.

 

Night Safari The world’s first wildlife park built for visits at night offers guests the unique experience of exploring wildlife in a tropical jungle at night. Through the use of subtle lighting technique, guests are able to view over 1,000 noctural animals in vast naturalistic habitats. Quite an experience if you haven’t been to the zoo at night. Its Creatures of the Night’ show entralls the whole family.

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I turned my head to face the window and immediately sensed something overhead. My eyes instinctively glanced out and slightly upward. There it was, the Big Buddha towering over me as the #2 bus I was riding in swirled around the narrow and winding road on its way to Po Lin Monastery on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. The guidebook was right, telling me to be sure to get a window seat on the right side of the bus. For that, I was rewarded for the last ten minutes of the ride with a sight of “Tian Tan,” as the Big Buddha is called, from underneath looking up, enabling me to appreciate all of its splendor from bottom to top, front to back.

It’s Friday morning and I start out at Pier 6 in Hong Kong’s Central District, paying $21HK for the ferry boat ride to Lantau. Just before boarding, I buy some snacks and drinks from the pier vendors. The boat is less than one-half full, and most of the riders appear to be locals. I munch on the snacks, quite delicious by the way, during the fifty-minute boat ride. I follow the crowd after alighting the boat at Mui Wo Pier (Silvermine Bay). A walk of about 100 yards to the bus stop where I get into a line of waiting passengers. No more than five minutes later, the bus comes, the #2 Po Lin Monastery. The group of four ahead of me quickly learns from the bus driver that they need to have the exact fare, and since they don’t have that they are denied entry onto the bus. Luckily, I have an Octopus card, good for bus, subway and ferry transportation in Hong Kong, Kowloon, and surrounding areas. The fare? $16HK today but is $25HK on Sundays and Holidays.

Soon the bus slowly climbs a small hill, and within minutes it goes downhill, and around, and then up another hill, and still another, repeating the process not unlike that of a merry-go-around ride. Although the speed is not fast by any means, only about 20 miles per hour, the narrow two-way lane makes me imagine the ride Cary Grant and Grace Kelly took in the south of France in the movie It Takes A Thief. Actually, there are stops along the way as the road gets so narrow that either the bus I am riding in or the one coming in the opposite way has to pull over the side to allow the other to pass. Surely the next guidebook to be published on Hong Kong should include this bus ride, lasting forty minutes of fun and anticipation, as one not to be missed.

They say most urban Hongkongers have never visited Lantau. And I can see why.On the ride I pass little villages and hamlets that seem never to have come of age since the 1950’s. Very tiny and short buildings, some used both residentially and commercially, date back some fifty years, when Hong Kong and Kowloon had just begun to be the primary destination for Chinese mainlanders wishing to leave the regime that had come to power. Little has changed, except the young have gone to the city for schooling and jobs. One can find this island a peaceful retreat, to read, to write, to reflect, to simply let time and the rest of the world pass.
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At the ticket purchase office for Buddha, I opt for the admission fee with meal, $23HK and am given two tickets, one for admission and one for the meal. Ah, Big Buddha! Never mind the exact measurements of its height or weight. It is huge, billed as “the biggest outdoor and seated Buddha in the world.” A sight to behold. There are about 300 steps to walk up to get nearer to Buddha but don’t bother to count. Just make the trip up at your own pace, stop when you feel a need to catch your breath, and turn around to take in the panoramic view of the surrounding forested areas interpersed with the monastery and other structures, and then continue up. Young kids and elderly folks alike make the trip up. Some of the elderly even have to use walking canes. Nothing, not even 300 uphill steps, is going to stop them from getting closer to Big Buddha. Babies, some seated comfortably in strollers, are carried by their parents.

Standing next to Buddha, I get a very solemn feeling. I reflect on what I know about Buddhism. Even if you are not a Buddhist, as long as you have respect for religion and traditional philosophy, you will get that same feeling. Others near me marvel at the structure, it with its right hand raised up from the elbow, palm fanning outward and its left hand with its opened palm facing up. Its facial gesture seems to convey the message to all who will pay heed, “Do not worry. Everything will be alright.”
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The walk down is much easier and quicker. Po Lin Monastery (“Precious Lotus”) is directly opposite a group of gold, green and red structures. I go into the courtyard and give the meal ticket to one of the many women servers behind the counter. She quickly fills a plate with generous portions of a variety of vegetarian food (“jai”) and cakes. My plate contains both bland and sweet varieties and there is more than enough to eat that I can forgo dinner tonight.
On the return trip, I take the #23 bus (fare $16HK) to the Tung Chung MTR Station, from which subway connections can be made to points in Hong Kong or Kowloon.

After a refreshing shower in my room at the Royal Pacific Hotel and Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, I make my way downstairs to the Safari Lounge to enjoy happy hour where, with the exception of a few premium brands and drinks, it’s all you can drink at just $88HK and snacks are free. They even throw in a fantastic view of the harbor and Hong Kong skyline through the window at no extra charge.

 
If You Go …..
The consensus on the best time to visit Hong Kong seems to be late September through the end of December, with the exception of certain dates in February, when you can partake in very traditional and elaborate Chinese New Year celebrations throughout the city and surrounding areas that run for a full ten days. If you go at any other times, expect to be ready for rainy and very discomforting hot and humid weather that inevitably occurs the rest of the year.

 

 

Getting There …..
There are so many ways. The first time traveler to Hong Kong might consider buying a tour package, inclusive of airfare, hotel room, some meals with a couple of popular local tours thrown in.

 

 

Where To Stay …..
The range of available accomodations is endless. You will expect to pay the most if you stay in “Central” on the Kong Kong side or “Tsim Sha Tsui” on the Kowloon side, but both locations are ideal as a base to do your shopping, sightseeing and dining. As for the Royal Pacific Hotel and Towers in Tsim Sha Tsui mentioned earlier, I would certainly stay there again.

 

 

What To Do ……..
Guidebooks and the local tourism office will give you more things to do and places to go than you will have time for. However, if you happen to be in Hong Kong in February during the time of the annual Hong Kong Salsa Festival, try to make at least one or two events. This is an extravaganza not to be missed, even for the non-dance enthusiast. The promoters put on a 6-day and night affair that is replete with over thirty teams of international performers in salsa and other Latin dances, high level competitions among the best dancers in the world. Guests are treated to the exotic and rhythmic sounds of the Latin beat put out by disc jockeys and bands who are famous in Asia, Europe, and North America. For the tourist, the festival’s Duk Ling Ride on a junk gives a panoramic view of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong’s skyline.

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“A BK Big Fish,” I said to the cashier at Burger King. I was back in Seattle now, amidst tall buildings, cars, lots of people and fast food places of every imaginable kind, not to mention specialty coffee. Just the day before, I had been in Southeast Alaska, a land made distant not so much by being thousands of miles away, but by its natural environment and way of life. There, I watched how wild bears get their fish.

It is 8:30 in the morning. I am at the tour office of Alaska Waters in the City of Wrangell. There are six others waiting with me. We look at each other, giving instant recognition and forming a silent bond, as if knowing that just moments away, we would soon be on an adventure together. We introduce ourselves. Ruth is a retired nurse from New York. Chris and his wife are from Reno. Carol is a school teacher from Illinois. Just then Wilma Leslie approaches our group and announces, “We’ve got sightings. Let’s go down to the pier.” A five-minute walk takes us to Mark, who is standing next to the jet boat that will be our mode of transport from Wrangell (pronounced ‘rangull’), 35 miles south through the Eastern Passage, to the Anan Bear Observatory in the Tongass National Forest.

Mark, wearing sunglasses the entire time, is a dead ringer for the actor, Sam Elliott. Check out his height, build, hair color, and more noticeably, the voice and manner of his speech. It turns out that he has been in Alaska for over 30 years, having come from the ‘lower 48.’ The hour-long ride gives you unbelievably fresh air, snow capped mountains, virgin forests, big blue skies, and water and greenery for as far as the eye can see. Most of all, it offers you space – a sense that you are there alone with nature.
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On arrival at Anan, we disembark and place all of our food and drink, with the exception of water, into a metal locker. We then follow Mark on foot for about a half mile through the rainforest to the observatory. The two levels of the observatory offer views from various angles of the creek below. I opt for the lower level first. We can see countless pink salmon swimming in the water. A group of black and brown bears appear with two cubs. They are no more than 30 feet from me. They put fishermen to shame as they easily catch their prey, one at a time. Right then and there, they eat their catch, fresh and tasty. No adding batter, no deep frying, no tarter sauce. The bears seem to know something that we humans do not, when it comes to food and nutrition.
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After about two hours of watching the bears playing in their natural habitat and feasting on fresh seafood, we begin our trek on the same trail back to the jet boat. There, we pick up the food and drinks left behind in the metal locker, and have a feast of sorts ourselves. One fellow traveler even has a canned tuna sandwich.

This tour to the Anan Bear Observatory is not to be missed. Peak of the season is July 5th through August 25th, where entrance is by permit only and is limited to 64 per day by the US Forest Service. Both the public and tour companies may apply for the permits equally. After August 25th, viewing is available through the first week of September.