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Urban Adventure

Great activities in cities around the world.

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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Friday, November 16, 2018

Learn Italian in Italy with Italianme

Guest Post and Photo by Dana Volman

Have you ever wanted to study abroad in college and never had the chance?  Or maybe you had this opportunity of a lifetime and you want to do it again? Well it's never too late and you don't have to be a junior in college to do so. I had the good fortune to enroll in an adult immersion program in Florence, Italy this Fall. I have been studying Italian at a slow pace, first at a Continuing Ed class that met weekly and eventually graduated to hiring a private teacher with 4 of my classmates that continued to meet on a weekly basis. We were ready for the next step to help accelerate our mastery of Italian - enroll in a language school in the heart of Florence geared for adults. This gem of a school is called Italianme. Their name stems from their belief in fostering a new you, a different you, an Italian you. Italianme is located in Via Tornabuoni, the high-end shopping district of Florence. The school is literally across the street from Ferragamo and only yards from the Gucci and Prada flagship stores.
 
The facility and staff at Italianme are some of the most dedicated teachers I have ever met.  My teacher was Francesca, one of the founders. Learning from her was so enjoyable, she is a true professional and passionate about her work. These same attributes can be used to describe the other teachers at the school. My friends were in Eduardo and Marina's classes. In fact, one of my friends was a returning student to Eduardo's class (she specifically requested him again, and boy has her proficiency in Italian improved).  Then there is Karina, the office manager. She was warm and friendly and extremely helpful when it came to restaurant recommendations. At Italianme there are quite a few classes offered based on your level and availability. Whether you enroll in an immersion class that is half day (9:30 am-1:00 pm) or full day or evening, there are plenty of options. In fact, I was fortunate enough to have a semi private class for the week since there was only 1 other student enrolled at my level. It had been many years since I've sat in a classroom for such a long period of time and not once did I look at my watch. The time flew.
 
In addition to a superb education, the school also runs some afternoon and evening activities. Whether it's a tour of Florence or a private cooking class, the staff is always at your disposal to give you the ultimate "local" experience. I know I will return to Italianme. It's just a matter of time before I book my next trip.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 11/16/18 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, October 29, 2018

Context Rome Tours Provide a Wealth of Knowledge

We took two tours with Context in Rome and both of our guides were not only exceptionally knowledgeable, they have been doing this exact tour for over 20 years. On a bright and early Saturday morning, we braved the crowds at the Vatican and met our docent, Cecilia, an art historian and a native Roman with a Master's degree in Medieval and Renaissance Art from the Sapienza University of Rome. Some 30,000 to 35,000 people visit the Vatican every day and today was no different. Cecilia was a marvel to watch as she weaved in an out of the people to wax lyrically on the long map hall, maps of Italy created in the 1500s, only open to the public in the 1700s. Outside, overlooking St. Peter's Basilica, she sat us down and went over all the panels we were going to see in the Sistine Chapel, a place where no one can talk. But first we would visit the dreamy Raphael rooms, most striking the first room depicting his portrayal of philosophy, religion, justice, and truth. Look closely and you can see both Raphael and Michelangelo, a great inspiration to Raphael, when remarkably they both were working at the Vatican at the same time, 1508. It's hard not to be blown away by Michelangelo's brilliance when peering up in the Sistine Chapel, only to end at Bernini's masterpiece, the largest church in the world, St. Peter's Basilica. Wowza. No wonder Cecilia's been doing this exact tour for over 2 decades. Everything else pales in comparison. 

Our docent for the tour titled Caravaggio's Mean Streets, Sara, was just as brilliant. Having earned her PhD in archaeology, she recently published a book about Caravaggio's paintings in the Contarelli Chapel, helping to add insight to the late 16th century, early 17th century painter that many consider one of the greatest of all time. Unlike the crowds we faced at the Vatican, there were relatively few people peering at Caravaggio's passionate works on St. Paul and St. Peter found on the side walls inside a chapel at the 15th century church, Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, best seen by the illuminated figure of St. Paul on the ground. Sara didn't delve into the juicy tidbits of Caravaggio's life, like the murder he committed resulting in his expulsion from Rome, focusing primarily on his art. We spent a good amount of time at her favorite topic, the Contarelli Chapel, located at the church of the French congregation in Rome, San Luigi dei Francesi. It's here that you insert your 2 Euro coin to lighten up another one of his masterpieces, The Calling of Saint Matthew, depicting the moment at which Jesus Christ inspires Matthew to follow him. The painting was so magnificent that we asked if it was recently refurbished. "No, not in decades," said Sara. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/29/18 at 06:00 AM
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Friday, October 26, 2018

Wish We Had More Time in Lecce

Of all the stops on our 18-day visit to Italy, Lecce was the most surprising. I really didn't have any expectations beyond Lecce being the starting point of our 6-day bike ride through Puglia with DuVine Cycling. We arrived around 6 pm and walked from the train station to our hotel for the night, the wonderful Patria Palace. The 20-minute stroll was an eye-opening experience as we passed exquisite baroque churches, plaza after large plaza, and Roman and Ottoman Empire ruins, like an old amphitheater down a side street. It only got better on this Saturday night as thousands of locals swarmed the streets and walked arm and arm to dine and drink at the outdoor tables. Wow, was this place alive, and the people were a striking mix of Persian, North African, and Italian blood. There were also very few tourists. We went to a recommended seafood restaurant, Pescheria, where you see the fresh fish on ice and pick what looks enticing. We went with grilled dorado, mussels, prawns, and a heavenly pasta dish with hazelnuts, topped off with a lemon tiramisu. Fantastic! Then we strolled through the large plazas and cobblestone streets looking around every bend at the next architectural wonder. I'd happily return to Lecce to spend at least 3 more nights here. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/26/18 at 05:59 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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