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Urban Adventure

Great activities in cities around the world.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Fiesta Time in San Antonio

In 1891, the city of San Antonio held a single parade to honor Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and the other heroes of the Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto. Fiesta has since grown into a 10-day event starting today that features live music, art fairs, and a slew of parades including The Texas Cavaliers River Parade. I had the good fortune of going to Fiesta in 2012. As soon as my flight landed, I took a taxi to Market Square, the largest mercado north of Mexico to take in the festivities with the crowds. There were bands playing, churros cooking, and a frenzied crowd dancing and drinking margaritas under the hot sun. I made my way to Mi Tierra, a beloved Mexican restaurant on the square since 1941, found a seat next to the mariachi band and ordered enchiladas with a sweet and spicy mole sauce. One bite and I was happy to be back in town. Stay in my favorite neighborhood in the city, The Pearl. Home to the San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America, James Beard award-winning restaurants, and a chic boutique hotel built from the remnants of the Pearl Brewery called Hotel Emma. The hotel is featuring a Viva Fiesta package that includes a half bottle of Moët & Chandon, smoked salmon toast with avocado and caviar, and two Hotel Emma Fiesta medals upon arrival. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/18/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, March 11, 2019

Ecuador, So Much More Than The Galapagos! First Stop, Quito

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches

Last month, I left Toronto bound for Quito, Ecuador, to visit my daughter Sophie who is there for a university semester abroad. She is living with an Ecuadorian family, taking intensive Spanish classes (as well as classes on Ecuadorian culture and in creative writing), doing community service, and working on an independent study about Ecuadorian gender roles and early childhood education. I had a terrific week in Quito and the surrounding area. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, with a population nearing three million, and it sits at an elevation of 9,350 feet. Founded by the Spanish in 1534, on the ruins of an Inca city, the historic center (or "Colonial Quito") is one of the largest, best-preserved in the Americas, the reason why it's now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. Spread along the slopes of the Pichincha volcano and bordered by the hills of Panecillo and Itchimbia, the vistas on a clear day are impressive! 
 
There is no shortage of interesting things to see and do in this large city. Some highlights:
  • Colonial Quito: Here, you shouldn't miss touring churches, plazas, and small winding streets. I enjoyed the Basilica del Voto Nacional, where we climbed the bell tower; the Plaza Grande (Plaza de la Independencia); and strolling on Calle La Ronda, where shops and cafes line the cobblestones.
  • Lunch at the Mercado Central: Definitely go here if you like to try authentic local food. My "hornado, tortillas y mote" with a whole avocado on the side was $3.25 deliciously spent.
  • The Mariscal neighborhood includes Plaza Foch, the party place in Quito: The surrounding blocks have many, many restaurants, cafes, bars, and clubs. Also here is the fascinating Mindalae Museum, an ethno-historical craft museum that explores the arts and practices of Ecuador's indigenous people. 
  • Parks: There are several oases of green in the city. The one I spent time walking through was Parque Carolina. It has a running track, a skate park, soccer fields, and a botanical garden, reminiscent of NYC's Central Park.
  • The enormous Virgen del Panecillo: This Winged Virgin Mary is 135 feet high, the tallest statue in Ecuador and one of the highest in South America, surpassing even the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Built in the 1970s, you can climb quite far up for wonderful views.  
I would heartily recommend adding 3 to 4 days in Quito to any Galapagos itinerary to experience the highlands region of Ecuador. A special thanks to my Quito guide Daniel Muscarel from MuFi Tours. Tomorrow, great activities within an hour of Quito!
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 03/11/19 at 05:59 AM
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

An Exciting Visit to the Train and Floating Markets Outside Bangkok

On our second day in Bangkok, we met our great guide, Amy, from Trails of Indochina, at 7 am outside our hotel, Anantara Siam, and drove nearly 90 minutes southwest of the city to see the Train Market. Every day in the morning, a train runs on tracks between a bustling outdoor market. We walked along the tracks and viewed the bins overflowing with fish, squid, meat, pork, chicken, fruit, clothing, you name it. Then a horn blows and the shop owners quickly move their bins away from the tracks as visitors scramble behind a red line with very little space to spare so they don't get hit by the moving train. It's a frenetic yet exhilarating display of humanity in action, yet even more insane when you realize the train is only carrying tourists looking down at you with their cameras. I'm sure at one time, the market supplied genuine passengers on long train rides with produce for their ride. Anyway, we tried an assortment of tasty fruit, like rambutans and longans (similar to lychee fruit), sweet finger bananas, juicy mangosteens, and a wonderful mango smoothie.

Then we drove another 15 minutes to take a longboat on murky canal waters past houses on stilts to the Floating Market. In one of those rare Anthony Bourdain-like moments, there was a woman cooking pad thai in a large wok over a propane tank in her longboat in the mass of boat traffic, diesel fuel spewing everywhere. So we had to sample and it was probably the tastiest pad thai I've ever tried. The noodles were so fresh they practically melted in your mouth. Every bite I'm thinking "this is so yummy, am I going to get sick? I'll have one more bite." Then we walked over to a market selling souvenirs and more food stalls selling coconut pancakes, barbecued pork kebabs, and sticky rice, squeezed out from a small plastic bag. All delicious and, for the record, my stomach was fine the entire trip to Hong Kong and Bangkok. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/20/19 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, February 15, 2019

Hong Kong Week-Climbing Dragon’s Tail and Other Highlights

On our last day in Hong Kong, we went on a group hike on the Dragon's Back Trail with expats from Switzerland, France, and London now living in Hong Kong. It's a glorious trail atop a mountainous ridge with vistas of the ocean, beaches, and seaside villages below. We went with a French guide from Wild Hong Kong, who has lived all over the world, but now resides with his wife in Hong Kong. He told us that on our next visit we have to bike in the New Territories, where the landscape is stunning, traffic is less, and the biking wonderful. 
 
Other highlights of our trip:
Art Gallery Hopping-All of the major art galleries in New York like Pace and Gagosian have offshoots in Hong Kong. Most of the galleries are located in two buildings, H Queen's and the Pedder Building. Simply hop on the elevator and jump off at every floor. We saw shows on photographer Irving Penn, abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, and exciting contemporary Chinese artists. 
 
PMQ-A collection of Hong Kong's finest clothing, home goods, and craft designers are located just off Hollywood Avenue in the PMQ building. We purchased an exquisitely painted miniature glass jar from an artist in Xi'an.
 
Man Mo Temple-The first temple we visited was one of the most historic, the Man Mo Temple, built in 1847. Venture inside the smoky interior, smell the incense, and you immediately feel transported to another time and place. 
 
One of the main reasons we chose to go to Hong Kong was the dining and it did not disappoint. I'll be back on Monday with our favorite restaurant finds of the week. Have a great weekend and keep active! 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/15/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Hong Kong Week-Seeing Big Buddha and Tai O

It's hard to grasp the immensity of Big Buddha until you're high in the sky on a cable car looking down at this massive sculpture perched atop the hillside on Lantau Island. The sitting Buddha is one of the largest in the world at 112-feet high. It's definitely worth checking out, not only to walk up the many steps that lead to the Buddha and see the neighboring Po Lin Monastery, but to take the wonderful cable car ride to the site. Once again, our concierge at the W steered us in the right direction by getting tickets to the cable car in advance and going for the standard car, not the deluxe one with a glass bottom. The line for the standard cable car was much shorter and frankly the vistas from the windows are magical enough. Take the subway to the Tung Chung station and you'll see signs to walk over to the Npong Ping Cable Car. Wait in line with your timed ticket (try to arrive at least 20 minutes prior to your time) and then get ready for a 25-minute ride past the international airport to the mountainous silhouette that houses Big Buddha. Once you disembark, walk past the shops and climb the 268 steps to go face-to-face with the statue, which made its debut in 1993. Then wander over to the large monastery, where people were lighting incense and saying prayers for good fortune at the start of the Chinese New Year. 

 
From Big Buddha, you can take a 15-minute bus ride to the historic seaside village of Tai O and then take a short boat ride to supposedly see pink dolphins and the many historic houses built on stilts on the riverside. We didn't see any pink dolphins on our boat ride, but I did like being on the boat looking at the landscape. Afterwards, we strolled the narrow streets and tried the homemade fish shu mai. Tasty. Realize that from Tai O, it's a good hour-long bus ride back to Tung Chung station. So if you're in a rush, you might want to skip Tai O and take the round-trip cable car back. 
  

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/14/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Hong Kong Week-A Must-Stop at Nan Lian Garden and Wong Tai Sin Temple

Our concierge at the W was also exceptional, booking tickets for the cable car to Big Buddha well in advance (I'll discuss tomorrow) and introducing us to the wonderful classical Chinese garden called Nan Lian. We headed down from the W into the mall, where we caught the subway to the Diamond Hill stop. The subway in Hong Kong is so easy to use and so well run. Simply purchase an Octopus Card for HKD$150 and then use your entire trip, adding money when needed. When you leave, bring the card back to the subway for a HKD$50 reimbursement. 
 
Once in Diamond Hill, it was a 5-minute stroll to Nan Lian, a serene oasis in the city, where small pathways led past bonsai trees rocks, koi ponds, bridges, pagodas, and waterfalls, finally entering a large Buddhist temple. There were many international school groups there the sunny day we visited, including children speaking French and English. It's a very relaxing walk through nature when you've had too much of the city center. One subway stop away from Nan Lian is the most popular Buddhist temple in all of Hong Kong, Wong Tai Sin. As soon as we left the subway station, we saw the large crowd gathered at the temple to light incense and say prayers for good wishes for the year prior to the Chinese New Year. We ended with a taxi ride to the original Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon, known as one of the best places in Hong Kong for dim sum. We were the only tourists inside and we watched as people washed their plates with hot tea before being served. The barbecue pork buns were the best I've ever had, crispy yet spicy pork in a fluffy light bun. I also liked the bill, about $15 USD for 3 people. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/13/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, February 11, 2019

Hong Kong Week—Checking out the Prince Edward Neighborhood of Kowloon

We arrived into Hong Kong at sunrise Sunday morning after a 15½-hour direct flight from Boston on Cathay Pacific (great airline which I'll delve into further on a later blog). We dropped our bags off at the Intercontinental (soon to be the Regent again) and then took a taxi over the Prince Edward neighborhood. There was already a line at One Dim Sum by the time we arrived. They gave us a menu with checklist to fill out and soon we were dining on the first of many delicious har gow on our trip. Afterwards, we walked over to the nearby Flower Market to see row after row of fresh orchids, exotic fare like proteas, and numerous mandarin orange trees that people purchase to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We bought a cute stuffed animal, a pig to celebrate the Year of the Pig, and then wandered over to the Bird Market, where hundreds of parrots, parakeets, finches, and love birds are for sale. The birds were adorable. The food they ate-buckets of crickets, worms, and other assorted bugs, not so adorable. 

 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/11/19 at 06:00 AM
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Thursday, February 07, 2019

My Visit to Luang Prabang

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches 

My first trip to Southeast Asia was winding down, one more stop to go: Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for "its remarkably well-preserved townscape reflecting the alliance of two distinct cultural traditions" (French and Lao). Laos has 160-plus ethnic groups, speaking a total of 82 distinct languages. The two guides I met, ST and Nick, were both Khmu, from villages near Luang Prabang (the Khmu were the indigenous inhabitants of northern Laos). A stop I really enjoyed was The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, housed in the former residence of a French colonial judge. Founded to preserve the diverse ethnic cultures and peoples of Laos, it serves a crucial function for visitors too. 
 
As with many towns we visited over the entire trip, there were night and mornings markets to visit (although Laos has been Communist since 1975, there is commercial activity everywhere!), morning alms to be given to the novice monks, and temples to be respected. Nick also pointed out to me that Lao Buddhist temples have different architecture from Thai ones: Wat Xieng Thong, built here in 1560, was shorter, made more of wood, with more drawing / painting and fewer stones, than its Thai counterparts. Nick himself had been a monk for 7 years, starting at age 13, and, while we climbed Mt. Phousi, he told me that 70% of Lao boys become novices because it is, like in Thailand, the way to an education and out of the village. One can stop being a monk at any time. Nick left to attend university, obtain a business and tourism degree, get married, and have a child. A few generations back, his family were opium farmers, he said. 
 
A real highlight for me was a visit to the Laos Buffalo Dairy, and this wasn't just because of the delicious cheeses, ice creams, and cheesecakes we all ate. The story behind this place is very unusual -- people in Laos did not milk their water buffalo as was done in other places. So Susie (an Australian corporate executive who moved here from Hong Kong), and her team, showed local people how, and are now helping the area. "We cooperate with people from villages in and around Luang Prabang by renting their buffalo, which provides the families with a regular income stream from an underutilized resource, namely female buffalo; male buffalo being sold for meat. We built a facility for milking their buffalo and keeping them well fed, healthy and safe." I wanted to stay longer, eat more cheese, feed more buffalo, and learn more about this cool sustainable agriculture and community development project. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/07/19 at 06:00 AM
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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Highlights of Chiang Mai

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches

Midway into our journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai (a 4-5 hour drive), we stopped for a breather at the humorously named Cabbages and Condoms, which is, unbeknownst to me, a thriving chain of inns and restaurants in Thailand and the UK  -- where all profits support the The Population & Community Development Association (PDA) and its programs in primary health, education, HIV/AIDS, family planning, rural development, and the environment. The restaurant started as a small vegetable stand on PDA office premises where the vegetables, along with condoms and oral contraceptives, were sold to the local residents. Of course, I bought a T shirt. It's a good cause, and good for a chuckle back home. 
 
Other highlights of my trip to Chiang Mai:
 
I love learning new things, and "Monk Chat" at Wat Suandok was right up my alley, arranged by my guide Oy. I spoke directly to Phra KK, a monk for the past 18 years (since he was 13). Rather than being hokey or awkward, it was genuine and open. Phra KK explained that Monk Chat is a way for monks to give correct information on Thai Buddhism, which was much appreciated. He explained that Buddhism is not a religion per se, but a way of living and of understanding life; there are 227 precepts by which to do so. It is not a centralized belief system based on a god or set of gods. I asked, so, you could be another religion and also a Buddhist? And he said, "Like a Jew Bu? Sure!" He also explained when it is acceptable to break one of the precepts, and what followed was a great digression into when monks take "Western" antibiotics. Ask me sometime.  
 
Again, with Oy at my side, I set out for an Anthony Bourdain-styled breakfast at the Chiang Mai Gate Market early one morning. Over the course of 2 hours, I ate and ate and ate! Bamboo stuffed with coconut and peanut sticky rice. Sticky rice with tea leaf. Rice noodles, broth, pork, and tomatoes.  Water buffalo rind. BBQ pork stick. Banana leaf with coconut cream sticky rice and banana. Sticky rice with catfish. Sticky rice with fried garlic, sugar, and dried fish. Sticky rice with sesame and salt. And, at the end, Thai coffee (made with condensed milk). I didn't eat the ant egg delicacies (too expensive!), or the grilled frog, but my taste buds and appetite for exploring and eating were sated. 
 
Also great in Chiang Mai:  
  • Really inexpensive foot massage at Anusarn Night Market. 
  • Fun hike among huge Ficus Altissma trees in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
  • Blessing by a monk at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. 
  • Shopping for packaged food -- including fried worm snacks, with Oy to help me shift through options, at Warorot Market, and tasting Lao Khao (moonshine rice whisky). 
  • Giving food to the novice monks near Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.
  • The Jewish neighborhood, inhabited by around 400-500 ex-pats (mostly from the US, Canada, and Israel). A restaurant gathering spot is Sababa
  • Cooking dinner with the Raunkaew-Yanon family, who has lived in their spot for approx. 150 years; they now have 36000 sq meters (almost 9 acres), scattered with homes and gardens. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/06/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, February 04, 2019

First Stop on My Trip to Southeast Asia: Bangkok

Guest Post and Photo by Amy Perry Basseches  
 
"Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, it was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be."
Anthony Bourdain
 
With this quote in mind, and Bourdain's 2001 "A Cook's Tour" in my backpack for inspiration, I set off on my first foray to Southeast Asia. Would I too feel my travel fantasies fulfilled? My son Jake had spent 3 weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos during the summer of 2016; I was eager to follow in his footsteps. 
 
Bangkok is a bustling city, full of travelers from all over the world. I stayed in a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya river, and savored my activities while moving in step with millions of others. With my guide Kim, early on Sunday morning, I set off for Wat Pho and Wat Arun, two of the famous temples in Bangkok. Wat Pho is home to the 46 meters-long "Reclining Buddha," and it is one of Thailand's oldest temples (built in the 16th century). While there, I saw a classical Thai dance lesson being taught. On Sunday mornings, Kim said, classes are offered free to local schoolchildren. We then crossed the river to Wat Arun, considered by many as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand. Climbing up high, and looking back toward the river, was a highlight for me. 
 
The next day, our entire group visited the Grand Palace, an over 50-acre complex of buildings, the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782. Signs are everywhere, stating: "Buddha is not for decoration. Respect is common sense." This is especially noticeable outside the famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha, where people throng, a few of them tattooed with, you guessed it, images of Buddha. Sigh. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 02/04/19 at 06:00 AM
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Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk.

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