While in Lebanon, world travelers should be sure to visit Jeita. These are considered the world’s most beautiful caverns, and being located just 20 km north of Beirut, they are within an easy day’s excursion.
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The caverns, whose haunting stalagmites and stalactites seem to project an air of supernatural mystery about them, are made up of both higher and lower galleries.

Our normally chatty group fell silent as we gaped in awe at the beauty of the natural creations before us. Each of use could see shapes and characters in the various formations that surrounded us in the Jeita Grotto http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeita_Grotto
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In order to reach the lower caverns you have to travel by boat over a subterranean lake. The temperature of the water here is a cool (literally) 14 degrees centigrade. If you travel there in the winter, don’t be surprised to find the lower galleries closed.

The upper gallery is somewhat warmer at 18 degrees and you can visit the pillars and formations all year long. You will need to reach them by aerial tramway however, from the entrance area. The ride itself just adds to the fun!
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The Jeita grotto was discovered in 1836 but between 1874 and 1940 expeditions by English, American and French explorers dug deeper into the grotto to finally penetrate to as depth of 1750 meter. These days, the grotto is known to be at least 9 km in length.

Digging into the caves wasn’t an easy task and it took several years. Nowadays, 6,200 meter has been penetrated, ending in an underground river. The Dog River (Har el Kalb) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahr_al-Kalb rises in this cavern.

When you see the beauty of the caverns here at Jeita grotto, it’s not surprising to learn that they have been nominated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New7Wonders_of_the_World

San Francisco world travelers can leave from SFO and fly to Istanbul, where they will change plane for the two hour flight to Beirut, Istanbul. Deals can be found online at www.kayak.com
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I find that breakfast, for an American who has been travelling throughout Asia for decades, is the most difficult local meal to adapt to. Lunches and dinners characterized by intense new flavors and peppering heat, bring a welcome and novel exoticism. However, these same flavors, so welcome in the afternoon and evening, can seem abruptly discomfiting when consumed soon after waking. The eating habits of many seasoned travelers abroad tend towards comforting and bland continental or American style breakfast foods in the morning and culinary adventures postponed to later in the day. So, it was with some trepidation, then, that while on a recent trip to Hyderabad, India, ‘The City of Pearls,’ I set out to experience a range of traditional Indian breakfast foods.

I initiated myself into Indian breakfast food with a dish of tapioca balls known as khichdi. Accustomed to eating tapioca balls in that sweet desert beverage, bubble tea, I find their toothsome texture, first firm, then yielding and chewy within, and quite enjoyable. The tapioca balls in khichdi are quite small, not much larger than a pearl. Their mild yellow translucent appearance though hid a surprising amount of hot curry flavor. The mouth feel of the small chewy orbs, interspersed with a few peas and chopped nuts, I found to be so delightful that the first small serving I took from the serving dish was soon followed by two more helpings.

Several forkfulls into my third serving I began to experience a rapidly building feeling of heat on my tongue and reached for my coffee cup to quench the flames. A dining tip likely unnecessary to those more accustomed than I am to eating spicy food for breakfast; hot coffee doesn’t help the situation! I turned instead to the cold citrus beverage locally known as sweet lime juice and got the welcome solace. A word about coffee as long as we are on the subject; I found that the drink was as popular, if not more so, than tea. I was surprised, as this area is surrounded by large and well-know tea plantations and produces and consumes more of it than any nation except China, including such notable teas as Ceylon and Darjeeling.
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Legend has it that the coffee bean made its way to India in the 16th century. Baba Budan, a Muslim from India, was making a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was there when he happened to sample the delicious and bracing beverage, and was so taken with it, that he smuggled a handful of green coffee beans back to back to his home wrapped in his sash promptly and took up cultivation.

Over time it came to be consumed in a form now often known as South Indian coffee, which is a mixture of chicory and coffee that is strongly brewed and filtered in a pair of distinctive metal cups, one having a pierced bottom. This coffee is often mixed with hot milk, then aerated, cooled, and frothed by pouring it back and forth rapidly between the two cups in dramatic fashion, with the top cup often held several feet above the bottom. If you are an aficionado of coffee, the Hyderabad version is delicious, and its preparation can be an entertaining spectacle to see as is the city itself. Hyderabad lies at the crossroads of north and south India and has played a central role in the history of the area as a center of military might, commerce, and culture in both ancient and contemporary times.
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Hyderabad is home to Fort Golkonda, the site of notable battles and gem mines that produced the Hope Diamond and other legendary gemstones. In modern times the city has emerged as a major center for the Information Technology industry. Being located astride major trade and transit routes, it’s no surprise then, that the Hyderbadi food demonstrates a distinctive blend of the languages, customs, and flavors found elsewhere in this vast, diverse, and ancient land. The cuisine is renowned throughout India, and several popular and even famous local dishes, such as biryani and hylim have spread throughout the country.
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Encouraged by my successful initial culinary foray, I went back for a second round on day two and expanded my selection of foods to add idli, daliya upma, and medu vada. Idli are a fluffy steamed white cake made from a flour of ground rice and white lentils. As with many South Indian types of bread, the grains are fermented prior to being ground into a paste and the fermentation process gives a delicious tang to the cakes that, to my American palate, was reminiscent of sourdough pancakes.
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These cakes are usually accompanied by chutney or some kind of gravy, and while I enjoyed the idli eaten plain, the ginger chutney I selected to flavor them with had such an intense flavor I had difficulty finishing it. Daliya upma is a thick savory porridge made from cracked wheat, peas and onions and flavored with herbs such as curry leaf, mustard, cumin and coriander. It was hearty, satisfying, comfort food and I surprised at how much I enjoyed the strong flavors.
Finishing off my food survey was a pleasing but bland (especially following that ginger chutney!) donut shaped lentil dumpling, medu vada. The dumpling was comprised of whole lentils and lentil flour and deep fried so perfectly that the oil it had been fried in was practically undetectable. The brown crust had a texture similar to cornmeal and offered a hint of resistance prior to yielding up the soft, warm dough beneath it. It calmed the intense flavors that had preceded it, and to my still developing appetite for strong, intensely flavored Indian breakfast foods, was the perfect ending to an enjoyable and educational meal.

For tourists, I think that the Philippines is an often overlooked destination. This is probably because of the long flight (14 hours from the West Coast). The journey there is worth it, though. There is much to do and see, with low prices a big attraction. Foremost, always, Filipinos are warm and welcoming. We have been to this country three times and enjoyed such varied activities as exploring historic Manila, swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, hiking in the lake country of Negros Oriental and diving in the marine wonderland of Dumaguete. Most of all, though, we loved our time in the tropical paradise of the outlying Palawan Islands, specifically at El Nido Resorts. This March, during a two-week trip, we spent three days in Manila. Our base was the excellent Mandarin Oriental hotel, located among tall skyscrapers in the Makati financial district. While there we chose to go to famous Taal Volcano. It was good decision – an exhilarating adventure awaited us.

 

 

A Taal Story

It was raining when we reached Taal, one of the world’s special areas. Its uniqueness is hard to describe, but picture a Russian doll set with dolls inside dolls. Taal Volcano, likewise, makes up the largest Island within a lake which has a smaller lake within it with a tiny island. A question from an online site asks this: “Where in the world can you find an island on a lake on an island on a lake, on an island on an ocean?” In order to get there we traveled to Tagaytay city, where we took a boat across the first lake to the crater island. There was a light rain and rough waters, and our plastic ponchos were little help in keeping us dry. The weather was warm, so the half-hour sail wasn’t too bad, just a little choppy.
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Once there we were met by local guides with small Filipino horses. On tours, guests are given the option of taking an hour’s hike on the rugged lava trail or riding up to the rim. Our tour included the ride. It was led by a guide with rope in hand, and our little horse was sure-footed on the slippery terrain. The primitive saddles, however, added to the adventure as we rocked back and forth, striving to stay on.
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Taal’s History and Significance

Located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines about 44 miles south of Manila, the volcano has been relatively quiet since 1977. In 1991, however, it started showing signs of unrest, with strong seismic activity and ground-fracturing events. Because of its proximity to populated areas and its eruptive history, the volcano was designated a Decade Volcano, worthy of close study to prevent future natural disasters. Along the way, we saw first-hand evidence of sublimated fury – hot bubbling mud pots and spouting mud geysers.

Once at the top, we dismounted for the short walk to the spectacular view point from the ridge. Before us, we saw the crater, lake and small isle. This awe-inspiring sight has become a trademark view used for Philippine promotion. The area has also been declared a National Geological Monument and proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List. We saw hikers below on the lake shore. There were no swimmers that day but many venture into the warm water. They are advised not to stay in too long because it contains sulfuric acid and other chemicals.

Both coming and going from Manila, the drive is beautiful. On the way there, we stopped off at the Tagaytay market. A busy central area of the town featured two large markets – one with a huge array of locally grown produce and the other filled with meats and fish. Along the way, we passed several stands selling varieties of rice in different sizes and colors. As well, there were those selling local “fast food.” A young girl, for example, was skewering marinated intestines for barbecue.
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Just downstairs from the produce market was the terminal for the local transportation – motorcycle-like tricycles which carry two or three and the large Jeepneys, which are larger than a jeep and smaller than a bus and can carry a dozen or so comfortably.
Returning on another route, we saw pleasant countryside with rice paddies which soon yielded to suburban housing where commuter families live.

 

 

El Nido, Philippine Tropical Paradise

El Nido, the secluded island resorts in the Philippines, has always been the perfect tropical paradise. Now with its upcoming expansion, it will get even better for its guests. Located in the country’s Palawan Islands, El Nido added a new location in 2010 and is set to open another, Pangalusian, this October. Minoloc (1981) and Lagen (1998) were the first two, then came Apulit in 2010. The most luxurious so far will be upcoming Pangalusian. All are located an approximate 75-minute flight on a small prop plane from Manila, followed by a short boat ride.

The Palawans, as a whole, consist of some 1,780 islands and islets, most with rocky coves and pristine white sandy beaches. When the flight descends, guests see a breathtaking panorama of scattered green dots of land in a turquoise and blue sea.
Accommodations rank with the world’s most highly rated resort hotels – an international menu features delicious selections; activities offered satisfy the most adventurous; and those seeking relaxation and pampering are catered to. Prices are less than would be expected in international destinations of this caliber. All have 50 air-conditioned rooms.
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Built right off the beach, Miniloc is shaded by palm trees and framed by a backdrop of sheer limestone cliffs. In front, the warm, crystal clear waters teem with tropical fish. Off the dock, guests can snorkel alongside four-foot jacks and hundreds of multi-colored tropical fish.
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On Lagen rooms are either over water or set in a lush forest, several yards from the beach and pier. The sprawling grounds cover more than 400,000 square feet and contain a diverse variety of birds and mammals. Amenities in Lagen include a swimming pool and spa suite.

A great place for birders and hikers, a trail in Lagen leads through the forest and down a hill to a private cove. Along the way on our hike, a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys greeted us from up in the trees. They seemed to taunt us, vigorously shaking leaves from limbs onto the path. At trail’s end, we saw that our snorkel equipment had been delivered by boat. After resting, we set out for the spectacular snorkel around a steep drop off back to the resort.

Apulit is built in Philippine traditional architecture mixed with contemporary design. All units are over water, making it easy for guests to watch the harmless black-tip sharks circling below. This site caters to a diverse market with over 20 large deluxe sea-view rooms for families. The new Pangulasian fronts a pristine 820-yard stretch of white sand beach with a marine sanctuary right at its doorstep, along with diverse array of animals and plant life thriving in its forest. Visitors can see both sunrises and sunsets here.

At all locations, during dinner, an activity coordinator visits guests to schedule activities for the next day. Among options are diving and snorkeling, sea kayaking, rock climbing, hiking and fishing. Lots to choose, but some may want to just relax on their patio or on the beach under an umbrella lounge. It’s a great place for kids, by the way. Families on kayaking expeditions are a common sight.

We are avid snorkelers, and most evenings selected which of many prime locations we would visit the next day. We were usually provided with our own snorkeling guide who stayed with us most of the time at each of the three resorts we recently stayed.

 

 

Snorkeling at El Nido

Usually we were taken on two snorkels in the morning at different locations. Afterwards, we went back to the resort for lunch or went to small islands with a barbecue station where we were served fresh-caught fish, as well as chicken or pork. Following the ample meal, we needed a nap before the usual afternoon snorkel. Ah, the island life!

We saw many vanities of colorful wrasse, several pennant fish, many garishly decorated trigger clowns, as well as varied species of butterfly fish. We were amazed by varied colors of “clown” anemone fish which had adapted to the shade of the anemone they lived in. There were a variety of colorful nudebranch to be seen. At some spots, beautiful corals and sea plants were the feature. At the end of the day, we were worn out and slept well.
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As well, at all locations, we enjoyed going in the water just off the beach. At Lagen, beneath some plate coral, we found a family of oriental sweet lips, which included the bizarrely decorated juvenile. At Apulit it was fun to swim under the water bungalows seeking out the friendly sharks.

One of the most interesting things at El Nido is to talk to fellow travelers from around the world. At sunset, at the bar with a group of Australians, we discussed the best parts of the South Pacific for diving. At dinner one night, we were invited to take part in a birthday party with a group of Koreans. There was a large contingent of Japanese staying. (From Asian cities, it is only a few hours flight.) There were also a significant number of European guests. Of the few American guests were two film technicians who had just wrapped shooting the new “Bourne” movie in Manila
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They were having a great time and ready to spread the word that Americans should take a new look at the Philippines with El Nido in mind. Like us, they declared that there is no better tropical vacation spot – and at a great price. Rates in Miniloc and Apulit include meals and activities. They start at about $220 per person, per night (double occupancy). In Lagen, rates start at $235, with an option to include meals and activities. Prices include the round trip flight from Manila.

I went out to get a cup of java in Java and ended up on an infernal coffee odyssey through the Indonesian archipelago.
Stretching out like a Komodo Dragon some 6,400 kilometers across the Ring of Fire, from the coffee plantations and wild orangutans of Sumatra to the primary rainforests and decorative penis gourds of Irian Jaya, Indonesia is the ideal launching pad to crash land into some of the most dramatic sights in Southeast Asia. They include the ancient ruins of Buddhist Borobudur and Hindu Prambanan in Islamic Java, the multicolored volcanic lakes of Keli Mutu in Christian Flores, and the famed three-meter-long monitor lizards of Komodo that swallow entire goats whole: the prototypes, perhaps, of the Chinese dragons of legend.
Indonesia encompasses over 13,000 islands with 336 ethnic groups and a borderless rainbow babel of different languages, cultures, and traditions. In addition to coffee-colored Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists, this most densely populated café on earth (180 million) holds more Muslims than all the Middle East. Linking the islands is the lingua franca of Bahasa and an underlying songline of history: ancient animist religions are uniting threads that cross oceans, adding new meaning to the word “multicultural.” Here some Muslims drink beer and arak in addition to java; some worship Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, and Jesus in addition to Allah; while others leave offerings to good and evil pagan spirits (tourists included). In fact, clutched in the talons of the mythical Garuda, the national airline and state crest, is the motto “Unity in Diversity.”

I departed from the Calcutta-like chaos of the capital Jakarta, a fascinating hellhole of over 9 million people, to explore the potent brews and heady smokes of Java, the volcano capital of the world. In the old Dutch section of Batavia (Kota), amidst modern skyscrapers stuck like clean syringes into a diseased dreamscape of old colonial monuments and nightmarish overcrowded kampungs, I entered the 19th-century Café Batavia on Fatahillah Square, the most atmospheric coffeehouse in Java, to keep from going troppo in the equatorial heat.

Unlike Amsterdam’s coffeehouses, which hardly ever sell coffee, the recently renovated Café Batavia offers no exotic hashish menus, nor even spicy Indonesian food, though it features colonial elegance and raffish 1930s atmosphere. Here you can quaff down the three main varieties of Indonesian coffee, in order of strength: Sumatra coffee, Bali coffee, and Java coffee—an indication of island style not bean origin. Indo coffee, like Turkish coffee, is mixed straight into the water. All wait for the psychic sludge to settle to avoid sporting roguish pencil-thin Errol Flynn mustaches of coffee grinds.
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How “java” became synonymous with coffee is frothed with mystery, though not a difficult one to filter out. During almost 350 years of Dutch rule, Indonesia was the world’s largest coffee producer and the proverbial bottomless cup for the Dutch East Indies Company. Without Indonesia, the Netherlands would have gone Dutch and remained a small European country below sea level, noted only for its tulips. The term “java” was probably a slang corruption brought back by English pirates, like that of brandy for brandewijn (burnt wine).

Getting from the urban epicenter to the outer limits by public transport, be it by overcrowded bus, bemo, or becak, is not so much a magical mystery tour as a year of living dangerously. But at least there is one place left in the world where you can light up, anywhere! Eventually I got to Banjar, said goodbye to the family that had been assigned seats on my lap, downed a cuppa at the station, and discovered that maybe eight hours later there just might be an onward connection. Stuck in a remote backwater like this, a Western orang bulan (moon person) always excites a crowd of staring locals. Where once upon a time children would have fled from a bearded Belanda (Hollander), screaming “Papa Beard!”—a mythical bogey man with five o’clock shadow that Indonesian parents use to frighten their kids—now they are more likely to shout out, “Hello Mister! Hello Mister!” regardless of one’s gender.
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In Pangandaran, a sleepy south Javanese coastal fishing village, the entrance is guarded not by Cerberus but by a becak mafia charging a whopping wad of rupiahs to pedal you down the asphalt Lethe leading to the peninsular Pangandaran Nature Reserve. Here the Lonely Planet Café has a superb beachfront location, where friendly Muslim fishermen and their families pull in their nets, while in the distance the Call to Prayer wafts from yellow-domed mosques that shine like fried eggs in the sun. At dusk you can see the moon rising and the sun setting at the same time through a smoky cloud of fruit bats. The Lonely Planet serves standard java and Indo grub like nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noddles), ayam sate (chicken sate), and gado gado (salad with peanut sauce). Locals come here, though, to down fresh seafood. It’s also a good place to practice your Bahasa (originally a Malay trading language), one of the easiest tongues in the world to tame—no past or future tenses, only the laid-back present. The plural is expressed by repetition, i.e., “kopi kopi” equals two or more cups. Saya mau satu kopi? (I me one coffee?)
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Pangandaran is also just far enough away from Indonesia’s most notorious offshore volcano to almost feel safe. The last time Krakatau blew its top was in 1883, with the force of several hydrogen bombs, stirring up tidal waves that killed more than 35,000, and hurling debris into the sky which caused vivid sunsets seen around the world.
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In Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java, I brought my addiction past the Sultan’s kraton, the colorful bird market, and the manic Malioboro street vendors hawking batik shirts and sarongs, wooden and leather Wayang Kulik puppets, and demonic-looking White Monkey masks, until I finally unearthed the Café Sosro. Pulling back a curtain of Gudang Garam clove cigarette smoke, I looked around at the eclectic assortment of heavy wooden tables and chairs and the hip East-West clientele daytripping to the haunting, hypnotic strains of gamelon music. That’s good java. I even had a second cup, and looking up I noticed I was late.
Yogya (pronounced “jogja”) is close to one of the largest concentrations of Hindu/Buddhist monuments in the world, including the ancient ruins of Dieng Plateau, Prambanan, and Borobudur, which rank up there with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Burma’s Pagan. On full-moon nights at Prambanan’s open-air theater, you can see the Ramayana Ballet. In the amphitheater under the stars with the floodlit Shiva temple as backdrop, the moonlit stage is filled with over 200 hundred elaborately masked and costumed dancers acting out Hindu legends. They create a spectacle of clashing monkey armies, stilted giants, crouching midgets, and lithe acrobats sinuously swaying like snakes, defying geometry by contorting their limbs and bending back their fingers in impossible angles—all to the rhythm of the royal Javanese-style gamelon orchestra of gong players, drum thwackers, and whining nasal divas. This could be the highlight of any trip to Indonesia. Saya jalan jalan ku bulan (I walk walk to the moon).
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On the way to Bali I made one last Java stop at Gunung Bromo, Indonesia’s most spectacular active volcano, within hopping distance of the Java Sea. Intrepid travelers, their heads humming with caffeine, trek three kilometers across the moonlit moonscape, following a firefly trail of flashlights to the volcano. At the summit the crowd witnesses the spectacle of the fat yellow sun peeking over the rim of an alien planet, before its puckered crater lips take a prurient sip of Bromo-seltzer brew. Mountain Bromo High.
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Goodbye Java. Bali Hai. Many Indonesians take their vacations in Bali just to ogle all the sun-worshipping tourists. Still Bali doesn’t evoke the Isle of the Gods so much as the Isle of of Australian Surfies at Kuta Beach, the Mad Max Spring Break City from Hell. Get your T-shirts here at Kuta’s Hard Rock Café! Leaving this Ozzie Outback of hawkers and tourists, hookers and addicts, all partying at the all-night discos, pick-up joints, and thunder domes, I finally ventured into the lush interior of paradise lost with its terraced rice paddies, palm trees, and smoking volcanoes. Like the Balinese, I wanted to look towards the mountains and away from the sea, which is believed, for obvious reasons, to be the source of evil spirits—most of them on package tours. At first, though, it was quite unnerving to be traveling towards these magic mountains on a luxury bus crammed with German-speaking tourists, passing temples and walls emblazoned with swastikas, until I remembered that these ancient mystic Hindu symbols were stolen by the Nazis, perverted for their own deadly uses.

Arriving in low-key Lovina, famous for its two-dollar full-body massages on black sand beaches, I settled down at the Café Malibu for espressos and brownies and waited to see if there would be any odd effects while listening to a homegrown band blasting Nirvana covers. The days of magic mushroom omelettes and psychedelic sunsets are over in Bali, now that it’s Indonesia’s number-one tourist attraction. The brownie was just a brownie. I decided to instead follow the Lombok Lizard Man—a grinning two-headed totem pole that bears an uncanny resemblance to a schizo Bart Simpson doll.
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On the slowboat to Lombok, leaving from the idyllic white sand harbor of Padangbai, Bali, I met a victim of the government’s enforced transmigrasi program, wherein overcrowded Java is relieved by pressuring citizens to flee to farflung outer islands. This unwilling expatriate of the world’s largest mass migration wanted to practice his English: “I Muslim,” he said, pointing to his fez-like black felt kopieh, “but Lombok has many Hindu, Catholic, too, and also Wektu Telu.” What what? I thought.
“Wektu Telu. They say they Muslim, but they infidel. Dangerous you go their villages with no guide. I make good guide, very cheaps. They eat all that comes from Allah. They eat porks. They eat EVERYTHING.”

This made me reluctant to drop in on a remote village tea party as an uninvited dinner guest. Instead I shipwrecked myself on Lombok’s Gilli Islands with an arak hangover and the sky displayed like a kaleidoscope of cheap batik sarongs for sale on the beach. The three coral-fringed paradises of Gilli Air, Gilli Meno, and Gilli Trawangan offered Lord Jim wannabees much more than great snorkeling, white sandy beaches, and picturesque rides in horse-drawn dokars. A long-time budget backpackers hangout, this was supposedly the place to do shrooms. Without any hallucinogenic prompts, though, anybody can see, like, these strange blue lights (phosphorescent plankton) that mimic overhead stars washing ashore under moonshadow anyway. Nothing to do here but sing along with local long-haired guitar-strumming Gilligans gazing into the eyes of solo women travelers, singing old Cat Stevens songs. Occasionally the rumble of Lombok’s lava-spewing Gunung Rinjani breaks the silence like an overboiling pot in an Olympian diner.

The closest thing to a good cup of gilli is to be had at the isolated Good Heart Café (Gilli Meno), ideal for watching bleeding ulcerated sunsets and slipping into a dream—until friendly insect-eating geckos sound the alarm in the rafters. All water is pumped in by boat, so every cup of joe tastes vaguely of Drano; caffeine buzzers will quickly crash here. Better to cruise back south to Lombok proper with the retro migration of unladen European swallows and smiley-faced flower punks to a place called Kuta (nothing like Kuta, Bali), which features Indonesia’s most incredible beach (Tanjung Aan) and an attractive-looking café called The Cockatoo. Here I traded in my mild Gilli Belly for the much more severe Lombok Landslide. After that it was high time to get my insides straightened out and hop back like a hot-footed fakir to Bali for that much needed coffee break.

In Ubud, the cultural center and food capital of Bali, I went to see a cremation. Following the colorful and noisy procession down the street, the corpse held up in an elaborate wooden bier, we soon arrived at the ceremonial site. A crush of rubbernecking tourists strutted around like fighting cocks with autofocus eyes. Balinese mourners laughed and joked and cheered, and posed for videocams. As with any other spectator sport, enterprising locals sold peanuts and cold drinks as the stiff was laid out on the funeral pyre and torched up, bursting into flames. The Balinese believe the deceased move on to a new and improved reincarnated future, depending on their behavior in this life. In Hindu Bali, death is a party.
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I desperately needed a coffee to drive away the bitter after taste of ghosts, and at the Café Lotus near the Monkey Forest Sanctuary (chock full o’ monkeys), I finally achieved coffee nirvana: the ultimate cup of java. Inside I heard more American accents than were to be found perhaps in all Indonesia. It was almost like a Manhattan coffeehouse, but with a view of an idyllic lotus pond and a Balinese temple. I ordered a cappuccino, and my stomach—not used to such potent brew—threatened to erupt like Ugung Batung, the holiest active volcano in Bali (fittingly dubbed the Navel of the World). I’d achieved the ultimate high in the former coffee capital of the universe. In what Indonesians sometimes call the Land Under the Rainbow, I shot up like a rocket through the caffeine roof of the world, my tongue frothing with exploding stars, and I tried to set the night on fire.

Descending the steep, narrow plank, inch by inch, hand over hand along the long pole, I thought: “This better be one hell of a cave!” Exploring the other-worldly interior of Hang Trong Cave was to be one of many surreal experiences I was to have traveling along Ha Long Bay in northeast Vietnam. In the 1992 movie Indochine, credited with putting Ha Long Bay on the map, Catherine Deneuve describes it as “the most remote outpost of Indochina.” Today, the bay still retains that end-of-the-Earth, Lord-of-the-Rings-on-water quality.

The very few guesthouses at that time have now flourished into almost 300 accommodations of every comfort level and the few Chinese junks plying their trade have metamorphosized into more than 400 tourist boats. I visited as part of a Myths and Mountains Tour, which also included several days in Hanoi and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, an area home to several minority villages. But more on that later. The almost 600 square miles comprised of thousands of karst (limestone) islands, caves and inlets create a solitary natural environment that belies description and inspires awe. I kept thinking how many times can I use the word surreal in one travel article?
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The basic boat we called home, replicating an old Chinese Junk, was…well basic but we dined well and huddled about the crew as they studied tidal charts to determine our daily itinerary. Inflatable canoes, powered by guides, were our vehicle of choice for purposes of exploration. Cave opening too small to navigate? No problem — just let some air out of the canoe. Very versatile.
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Some caves were so dark we donned headlamps to maneuver through. Others so small, the entire trip was negotiated on our backs. But those that enthralled the most were comprised of tortured, grotesque shapes hanging from the ceiling and reflected in the water below. I felt stuck in a huge open mouth badly in need of dental work; I was Jonah inside the whale, the cave itself its gaping jaw, and the jagged stalactites above and below giant misshapen teeth. Some days we paddled into the caves. Others we trekked through them. One-hundred-forty steps up a sheer cliff brought us to Hang Sung Sot — the over-100-foot-high, multi-chambered Surprises Cave — which indeed it was full of.
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Some chambers were back lit by sun-filled gaps in the limestone, others artificially lit for dramatic effect. I was told the name referred to the enormity of the cave — a mile and a half walk from end to end; for me it was the huge highlighted outcropping protruding at a suggestive 45-degree angle as you rounded one of the bends, clearly a pornographic symbol that elicits giggles — if not outright guffaws – from all who come across it.

I could envision a small civilization existing here in a former lifetime, and was not surprised to hear that many Vietnamese hid in the caves during the bombings of Hanoi during the Vietnam War — or, as they see it, the American War. What did surprise me was some historic insight we received from our Myths and Mountains guide, arguably the best in Vietnam, Le Van Cuong. When I asked why the people of Vietnam were so welcoming to Americans after we destroyed so much of their country, he patiently explained that on their historic timeline, the Americans were just a blip: “The main reason is that historically my country has been invaded by so many countries over centuries that the Americans were responsible for just a small part of their suffering. And it is just the very nature of Vietnamese people to forgive and forget.”

Very candid about the good and bad in his country and the pros and cons of the government, his perspective on the current political climate in Vietnam was also interesting. Although the government is Communist — what Cuong describes as “flexible communism” — the burgeoning economy reflects capitalism. “Perhaps you can smell democracy in the air but it’s going to be a while before it settles to the ground,” he observed.

But back to paddling through Ha Long Bay. Exiting the caves often brings you into a still lagoon, mirroring the multiple majesty of the soaring peaks. Jagged and ragged, alternately solid and porous, the gauzy spires seem lost in the horizon while alternately sinking below the surface of the water. Being of a certain age — and eyesight — I thought perhaps the surroundings appeared that way because of my cataracts — all filmy and out-of-focus. But it is more valid vista than vision — and therein lay their beauty.

Defying convention, one delighted paddler exclaimed as his canoe re-entered the world: “Oh my God, it’s Shangra-La.” Expanding on his initial reaction, Charles Guinn from Kansas City, Missouri, continued: “This is the most unique place I’ve ever seen in all my travels. I suspect there’s no other place like it in the world.”
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Back aboard our floating home, we traveled past a complement of water-borne vehicles that challenged the imagination: multi-colored fishing boats sporting multi-faceted protrusions; floating houses on wooden platforms with shrimp, crab and fish farms caged underneath; bamboo basket boats, and rowboats and kayaks manned by kids playing hide-and-seek behind the small islands in the Bay. A young woman in a basket boat pulled up alongside ours selling chocolate, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine and cigarettes. Somehow all that junk food seemed appropriate considering the nature of our boat (Need I remind you we were on a Chinese Junk…?).
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Relaxing on deck, we play the ancient game of what do you see in the strange formations in our midst. Or, more appropriately on Ha Long Bay …mist. “Hey, that looks like George Washington,” “Nah, a fisherman,” “No, I think it’s a goat’s head” until the boat moves on to the next imaginary challenge. Ruth Lerner of Venice, California, reflected on the surroundings: “Such quiet, endless beauty, so breath-taking with no two formations alike.” Her favorite part? “Floating in the kayak through pitch dark, absolutely quiet caves and emerging into lagoons as still as glass.”

Such are the wonders of Ha Long Bay, which were only a part of the memorable Myths and Mountains itinerary (or Mist and Mountains, as one of my companions deadpanned…) which also included Hanoi’s vibrant, colorful Old Quarter where streets are still named for the products they sell to the city’s modern sections on the verge of globalization to the mountains of Sapa where several minorities, practicing their own language, customs and clothing, still live in primitive villages as they have for centuries.
Vietnam — a country torn between then and now, what was juxtaposed with what will be, poised in economic boom and political transition. Go now before luxury high-rise hotels flood the landscape and Westernization erodes the culture. For more information, contact Myths and Mountains at 800/670-6984

Photography by Yuri Krasov

For a spoiled Californian, softened by the temperate climate of San Francisco, Hong Kong can be too hot and humid, but it’s also cool, just like the City by the Bay. Behold a slow yellow boat cruising Victoria Harbour between Wan Chai and Kowloon, as bright as a flower against a hazy backdrop of Hong Kong hills and man-made structures.
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The mirror-walled skyscrapers and high-rises create the most gorgeous cement jungle in the world, interspersed with public parks, ancient temples, and urban playgrounds. In the city of banks, international brands, and grand hotels, the governing system is conducive to economic prosperity, market competition, and bustling trade.
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“I am cool,” states a subway ad for bottled water, and you can’t help but feel how cool the most visited city of Asia is, with its enormous crowds, mighty traffic, and busy streets. Rules of the road are reinforced in the form of gentle reminders, also in English, written right under your foot ready to step into the traffic: Look Left or Look Right, so you won’t get killed by a speeding bicyclist or a double-decker bus.
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Tourists are encouraged to follow the rules everywhere. A wall of Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road bears several well-executed signs in red and gold, prohibiting smoking and photography, and warning about slippery floors, steps, and naked flame. One of the oldest historic buildings in Hong Kong is the Old Wan Chai Post Office on Queen’s Road. Opened in 1915, it stayed in operation until 1992 and currently serves as a resource center for the Environmental Protection Department.
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This small white building, modestly decorated with architectural detailing, wraps around the street corner, and climbs up along the steep street, losing its first floor on the incline. On the back of the L-shaped structure, there is a staircase, a serene garden with a bench, and more architectural details. As a declared monument, the building is supplemented with a graphic sign, featuring an unshaven mug behind bars and bold and underlined words, “No pissing, no spitting is allowed.” The coolest and the longest in the world at 2624 feet and 8 inches, the Midlevel Escalator runs through the city like through a giant shopping mall in the north-south direction, passing a cool hangout district of SoHo with European restaurants, bars, and art galleries.
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Across Victoria Harbour, in Kowloon, one of the coolest places is the Walled City Park, with trees and ponds, fountains and pagodas, a sculpture garden, an aviary, and a banyan grove. Big hotels, overlooking the water, are always welcoming for a short stop at one or another bar or lounge for a needed cool down and refreshment. An elegant tea service is appreciated by the tourists and locals alike.
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After a day of exploring, a not-to-be-missed adventure is taking a vertically moving tram to the Peak Tower Sky Terrace. It offers the most amazing views of Victoria Harbour just in time for the nightly Symphony of Lights, the world’s largest permanent light and music show that plays out on the walls of more than 40 tallest buildings on both sides of the harbor. From the sea level, the show is best observed from Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade in Kowloon, on the southernmost tip of the peninsula.
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While leaving Hong Kong, expect some more surprises at the Chek Lap Kok international airport built in 1998 on Lantau Island. This cool metallic sculpture looking like a giant drop of mercury is found in the departure area.
Plan your visit to Hong Kong at: www.discoverhongkong.com.

For hotel managers, the days are busy and generally fly by with nary a nod. Yet occasionally the regular routine may give way to the extraordinary! During my time as general manager of the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, I was fortunate enough through the years to experience the extraordinary when welcoming several dignitaries and high-level diplomats to the hotel.While the prime minister of Israel, the president of Israel, members of the Knesset and numerous celebrities and public figures were almost daily visitors, none of the visits stand out in my memory more than those of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on multiple occasions, and the State visit by President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
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When contemplating the arrival of Secretary Rice, I was determined to make her stay memorable in a way that she would remember the David Citadel as ‘different’ from all the other hotels she was accustomed to staying at in the Middle East. I remembered that she was quoted as having said that if she had not been appointed Secretary of State, she would like to have been the AFL commissioner!
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As it happened, the Super Bowl took place while she was at the hotel, but due to the time difference it was broadcast in the middle of the night. I arranged to have it recorded, and as she was departing the hotel, I presented it to her as ‘the in-flight sports entertainment’ for her trip back to Washington. I remember that the Patriots were playing and won, and I seem to recall she is a Patriot fan. She wrote me a letter on February 16, 2005, thanking me for taping the Super Bowl and for making her stay enjoyable. You can imagine my panic when she next visited my hotel. The NFL season was over and I had no idea how I would make this visit stand out — until I had a great idea. The Secretary may be a fan of the AFL, but I am a diehard fan of Liverpool Football (soccer to you North Americans!) Club. I still have friends living in the Liverpool area from my school days in England.

My team had just won the Champions league against Milan in Turkey on a penalty shootout, after trailing by three goals. It was a superbly entertaining match, full of action. I had a recording of the game and decided it was time to convert the Secretary to a Liverpool supporter. Again, as she took her leave of the hotel, I presented her the ‘footy’ tape for her in-flight sport entertainment with the wish that she would be a convert to the fair game of soccer. Needless to say, that July I received another wonderful letter from Ms. Rice, thanking me again for the soccer tape and also for the comfortable stay at my hotel.
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On her final visit to the David Citadel during my tenure as general manager, I again waited to say goodbye in the indoor parking lot. As I shook her hand, I asked if she was now a Liverpool fan. She did a small dance and stated, “Liverpool fan! Why not, yes. Liverpool, the Beatles and all that!” Then she got into her Suburban and was whisked off to Ben
Gurion airport. I am sure that those tapes made the difference in her memory of which hotel stood out in her world travels.

I also had the honor to welcome President Putin and shake his hand, but his visit stands out in my mind more for the story of his bulletproof Mercedes limousine.

It was flown in from Russia especially for the visit and guarded night and day in the hotel underground parking lot. I took aside one of the English-speaking Russians in his mission and requested that he show me the limo. It was a great experience! The windows were made of two-inch thick
glass, the tires were of solid rubber to prevent blowouts and the body was bulletproof. I was also amazed at how much communication equipment was in that limo — like a travelling Kremlin!

In any case, I said to the English-speaking Russian about the driver, a rather gruff-looking fellow, “Tell him that I know that these Mercedes cars are very unreliable vehicles, prone to breaking down and, that should he need it, my Peugeot 407 would be at the service of the President!” The driver took a long look at me, then at his fellow Russian, and thinking that I was serious, answered in Russian, “Tell this man that one of the tires on my Mercedes is worth more than his whole car.” I burst out laughing.

Another day in the life of a hotel manager!
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As soon as my friend and I hopped off the little boat and onto Malaysia’s Tioman Island we jumped into the ocean and swam until sunset. The island is full of life so it wasn’t long before I spotted huge monitor lizards scurrying beneath beach huts and monkeys fighting by the lake.
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It was on my first evening that I learned about the infamous Monkey Beach with its clear water and beauty. Not realizing what hardship it would take to reach, my friend and I clambered up the rocks that promised to lead us there. Not only were the jungle paths twisted and rocky, but also the trees towered above us, impressing upon us how vulnerable and insignificant we were. In
parts we scrambled over large rocks or used ropes attached to rocks to haul ourselves over the all too frequent steep slopes. Due to the constant scuttling, rustling, croaking and shrieking that was never far away, we were very aware that we were not alone on this jungle walk.

We were proud of our progress and very much looking forward to arriving at our desired destination, but about half way through the trek, our pathway was blocked. The offender happened to be the biggest monitor lizard that either of us had seen and certainly the most menacing. Despite the fact that monitor lizards look like alligators, you can never get too close because they are so frightened of humans that they instantly flee. This monitor lizard, however, was quite different from others that we had dealt
with. He would not move because as far as he was concerned, it was his path, and we would not cross.

We considered our options to be either climbing over him or walking around him. To the left of the lizard-blocked path was a rock far too large to climb over and to the right was a precipitous slope covered by dense trees and thick undergrowth. On agreeing that we wouldn’t turn back and that we couldn’t wait around forever we proceeded with option one. With each step
I took, the lizard stamped and smacked his tail against the rock. Not too far from him I froze, scared that he would lunge at me, and then I retreated.
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As the lizard persisted to swish his tail, hiss his forked tongue and stamp, we decided to leave the path in order to get around him. I didn’t stray far from the path before I heard rustling and my friend informed me that the lizard had turned to face the direction in which I had walked. Terrified he would follow me, I returned. At this point, I thought we would be stuck forever, but eventually after we pretended to leave, he moved. We crept past because we could hear that he was still close by in the bushes. As we passed he hissed loudly , so we ran with pounding hearts the rest of the way to Monkey Beach.
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It was certainly a much more intense trek than originally intended, but once arriving at that deserted beach with white sand and turquoise water we felt this all made our previous distress melt away. Besides, diving into the cool water was more satisfying than ever.

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From Mumbai, India, to South Africa – this sounded like a terrific itinerary. My wife and I loved India, and South Africa was one the places topping our “to do” list. We decided to book this trip on Crystal Cruise line, one of the best, in our opinion. The 19-day voyage was part of an around-the-world cruise, with many people on for the full 120 days; others getting on for smaller segments, such as we were.

We arrived in Mumbai in March, the beginning of the hot season. As was expected, it was warm and muggy. This is a teeming town, chaotic with snarled traffic. During our three days, we had a knowledgeable tour guide and driver, however, who were able to circumvent the worst of it. With 12.5 million, it is one of the most populous cities in the world. Located on the west coast, the city has a deep natural harbor. Formerly called Bombay, the name was changed in 1995 to Mumbai after Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the local fishermen.
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We got up early the first morning and took a city tour. Driving along, we could see the differing levels of lifestyles from block to block. We passed by slums, then through a section of garage-like store fronts with doors that slide up and down. Merchants sold everything from toilets to hardware to tires. Most proprietors live in apartments above. According to the guide, the average person purchases needs from these small convenience stores rather than going to super markets. In an adjacent block, where people of above average means live, most have domestic help. For Instance, our guide is able to hire a housekeeper and cook because labor is cheap. Her family is Hindu, consequently she is vegetarian as is much of the city’s population.
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Another block had luxury hotels. For example, there was the plush Taj Palace Hotel, where the 2008 terrorist attack took place. It was completely repaired. But now, barriers have been erected around the property, and crowds gathered to look at the site. Ironically, just a short distance away, we saw people sleeping on the streets – that’s the way India is. On our city tour some of the interesting sites were the colorful Jain Temple, with flowers strewn about among statues of gods and personifications of the planets painted on the ceiling. We then went on to the Gandhi Museum with photos and rare artifacts which gave much insight into the life of this spiritual leader. Also we passed by Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry with its colorful rainbow array of washing hanging to dry. Clothes are washed by hundreds of laundry workers as has been the case for generations.

People we had met at our hotel had gone on the Slum Dog tour. We didn’t take it but were told about how groups are led through the Dharavi slum area where scenes from the Academy Award-winning “Slum Dog Millionaire” were filmed. Although the area is squalid, it is now also home to around 15,000 small businesses (ranging from recycling, pottery, and embroidery to bakeries, soap factories, and leather tanning). These enterprises generate some $700-million annually. It is crowded and chaotic, but its inhabitants are certainly industrious.

We stayed at the 5-star Taj Lands End Hotel, located on the sea, in an upscale area where many Bollywood film people have homes. The hotel is truly at land’s end – facing the large bay and modern bridge that now connects the main city and the “outskirts.” This Taj was built in 1999 and boasts 493 rooms and several outstanding restaurants.
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The last day in Mumbai we took a boat out to Elephanta Island, a small island an hour’s boat ride from the city center. One of the world’s most striking collections of caves and rock carvings exists here, dating from the 6th to 8th Century A.D. From the arrival dock, a narrow-gauge rail is available to take visitors to the base of the steps. (It was hot that day so we paid the small charge to ride.) From here, an uphill path leads to the site. Of course, there were stalls with trinkets all the way up. Also, monkeys were perched here and there along the sides which entertained us as we “huffed and puffed” to the top.

Although the government does little in restoration here, the art is in decent shape because of being sculpted in caves, largely protected from the elements. Once there, however, we were hardly prepared for the beauty and immensity of the sculptures of Indian deities. A critic has said that here is one of its most perfect expressions of Hindu art, particularly in the huge high reliefs in the main cave. These world famous images from mythology have been reproduced in many books.
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That afternoon, we boarded the Crystal Serenity and began to relax after our hectic stay in Mumbai. The Serenity is luxurious and spacious – 85 percent of the staterooms feature private verandahs. Delicious international food can be found in six restaurants throughout the ship. With a capacity of 1,080, the ship was about seventy percent full.

After a day of cruising, our first stop was in India’s state of Goa. At the port near the capital city, Panaji, we hired a cab for touring the area. Our driver was enthusiastic about giving us history and background.

This area was settled by the Portuguese who remained until 1961.We stopped at one of the city’s main attractions, the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Founded in 1605, it is considered one of India’s best examples of baroque architecture. Besides the vividly decorated interior, it is famed for containing the remains of St Francis Xavier, who died in 1552 in China and was eventually interred. One can see portions of his bones in a silver casket. The day we visited a lineup of pilgrims waited to pass by the coffin.

Another highlight was seeing the Mahlxmi Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess of wealth. Inside is an impressive statue in black stone, replete with her four hands.

That night the ship was off, sailing southwest, further into the Indian Ocean. On the way to South Africa, we would stop off at the islands of Maldives, Mauritius and Reunion – all famous for water sports and scenic beauty.

Maldives is the world’s most endangered country, threatened by global warming. The rising ocean is steadily cutting away the shoreline, naturally of great concern for its citizens. To emphasize this fact, in 2009, the government held a cabinet meeting underwater. From the ship’s deck, we could, indeed, see that buildings in the capital city Male already seemed almost part of the sea.
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The diving and snorkeling here is among the world’s best, and we signed up for a delightful trip to a small islet off the coast. A shallow reef provided great fish viewing. In a “Kodak moment,” we saw a harmless black tip reef shark glide by amidst swarms of colorful fish. After this stop, we had four sea days before reaching Mauritius. This gave us plenty of time to catch up on our reading while relaxing and enjoying the ship’s amenities. During our daily laps around the deck, we always said hello to security guards on “pirate watch.” This part of the Indian Ocean is a vulnerable area.

If we wanted mental stimulation, there was a host of speakers giving talks mornings and afternoons. Among them were a couple of ex-ambassadors, a CIA member and two former FBI agents. Events in the Middle East were in the news and were a big topic, as was South Africa since apartheid. We particularly enjoyed hearing a Canadian book reviewer who vividly discussed several current best sellers.

At cocktail time and before retiring, we stopped by the Crystal Cove lounge where we heard John Mentis on piano. Mentis has been playing on ships for decades and has performed with musicians such as George Shearing. He seemingly knew every song from the past, both popular and jazz.
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The food was very good, particularly the Dover sole which we had a few times while dining in the main restaurant. In addition, we dined several times in both the Prego, the Italian restaurant, and Silk Road, featuring Asian fare. Prego’s beef carpaccio was the best; in silk Road, we were like kids in a candy store, savoring the fresh sushi and lobster dishes. There are shows nightly in the theater featuring staff productions, as well as performers brought onboard. We especially enjoyed a classical guitar player and comedian/ventriloquist.

It was soon back to port days. Mauritius and Reunion, although near each other, could not be more different. Both are part of the Mascarene Islands, formed during volcanic eruptions. Both are lush, containing mountainous peaks and waterfalls. Both have mixed race populations. However, Mauritius is a democracy, with over 50 percent of people from India. Reunion is part of France, with a large European population, afforded the benefits of a district in France.

We toured both islands by taxi and bus, always on the lookout for good snorkeling beaches. In Maruitius, it was low tide and the best spots were largely inaccessible. In Reunion, though, we ended up at St. Gilles, a wonderful beach. A reef with lots of marine life was only a short swim from the sand.
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After another day at sea, we were in Durban, South Africa. This is Zulu country, and so we signed up for a tour out to a nature park to see Zulus performing ceremonial dances. Along the way, the countryside was lovely. It was named The Thousand Hills. There were green growth and flowering trees everywhere. This city and surroundings are known for a semi-tropical climate and good beaches. Many guests took coastal excursions.
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Two days later we reached Port Elizabeth. The city is one of the major seaports in South Africa, often referred to as Africa’s Water Sport Capital. Some passengers went on trips to game parks – several for the day, others for three-days after which they would see us again in Cape Town. We had lined up a tent safari in Botswana after disembarking ship, so we opted for a local tour. Instead of going to a beach here, we signed up for the Township Experience tour. We were taken through the historically “coloured” areas, a shameful legacy of Apartheid years.

During Apartheid in the sixties, the government moved blacks from cities out to townships, which were squalid villages, the most notorious being Soweto. Since Nelson Mandela became president in the nineties, one of his missions was to move blacks to better government housing. We visited some of these areas – from the poorest to the new middle-class section.
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Taking excursions such as this can be very enlightening. It was particularly interesting talking to the township people met on foot. One stop was at a school for children 6 to 16. All were in uniforms, neat and clean. Especially gratifying was to talk to teachers working with youngsters from impoverished areas. While there, it was lunch time for the youngest. We were told that this is often the only hot meal children get during the day. Before we left, a glee club of high school students gave us a concert.

Next day, late afternoon, we arrived outside Cape Town, but 60-plus mph winds kept our ship cruising offshore for 18 hours. From the ship, the city virtually sparkled in the sun. With its hills and landmark Table Mountain in the background, it reminded us of San Francisco.
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Mid-morning next day we were able to get off. With our time in Cape Town cut back, we decided to take an open-bus tour. We saw the city sites with our climactic stop being Table Mountain. It was still too windy for us to go to the top in a cable car.

Along the coast, we passed by picture-postcard beaches and picturesque beach communities. At the end of the day, we vowed to return to Cape Town some day and have enough time travel to places outside the city, including the lovely wine country. It was near time, though, to disembark next morning and fly out to Botswana and our safari.