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Urban Adventure

Great activities in cities around the world.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, Hanging with the Monks and Buffalo in Luang Prabang, Laos

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches 

I started this Dream Day in January giving early morning alms to the novice monks, then I headed to the Traditional Ethnology and Arts Centre in Luang Prabang, a local enterprise founded in 2006 to promote the appreciation and transmission of Laos’ ethnic cultural heritage and livelihoods. It was fascinating to grow in my understanding of crafts from over 20 different Lao ethnic groups! 
 
A picnic at the famous Kuang Si Falls followed, getting damp from the mist. Finally, I was off to Laos Buffalo Dairy: a socially responsible sustainable farm and business whose aim is to improve rural prosperity and the health of the local population. 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 from Hong Kong) showed local people how, and is now helping the region. “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. We built a facility for milking their buffalo and keeping them well fed, healthy and safe.”  Oh my: the delicious cheeses, ice creams, and cheesecakes!  
 
Both of my guides in Luang Prabang were former monks. Nick had been a monk for 7 years, starting at age 13, and, while we climbed Mt. Phousi after the Laos Buffalo Dairy, he told me that 70% of Lao boys become novices because it is the way to an education. 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. I loved hearing his personal story and talking to him. 
 
At the end of my Dream Travel Day, I ended up back at the lovely Sofitel. The hotel was originally built as the French Governor's residence in the 1900s, on the outskirts of town. I had an enormous outdoor tub in my patio area which was definitely enjoyed. Contact ActiveTravels if you too would like a Dream Travel Day in Laos. 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/21/20 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, January 20, 2020

Top Travel Days of 2019, Visiting Otavalo, Ecuador

Guest Post and Photos by Amy Perry Basseches 
In mid-February, I had a terrific week in Ecuador with my daughter, Sophie. On my Dream Day, I headed approximately two hours north of Quito to Otavalo, world-famous for its indigenous population, and for the Mercado Artesanal, where locals sell their handicrafts. This is South America’s largest outdoor market: you will find a wide range of weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood and stone carvings, paintings, and more. Although Saturday is the main market day, and the whole town is filled with stalls, there is plenty open at Plaza de Ponchos any day. Also, the grilled plantains from a street vendor were delicious.
 
After visiting the market, I had lunch at Hacienda Pinsaqui, built in 1790. Lunch is the major meal of the day in Ecuador -- usually soup, a full main plate (meat, vegetables, bread, rice), and dessert. At Pinsaqui, we enjoyed a lovely meal in an historic setting. The Hacienda contains more than three centuries of history. At one point, it was the largest in the area, essentially enslaving 1000 indigenous workers who created products for export to the US. Another time, it sheltered Simón Bolívar who prepared here for the Battle of Ibarra (1823) against the Spanish. 
 
We also visited the traditional weaving studio of Miguel Andrago. If you are looking for handmade, traditional weaving, go directly to this home and workshop just 10 minutes outside of Otavalo. The Andrago family (four generations working together) is preserving backstrap weaving without the use of electricity or chemicals (all natural dyes), trying to save “this vanishing art.” They do not sell their beautiful items at the Otavalo market, only at their studio.
 
Please contact ActiveTravels if you want to explore mainland Ecuador on your way to or from the Galapagos, or as a stand-alone trip. Finally, when in Quito, don’t forget to take the Teleferico gondola. The view, from lookout point Cruz Loma, reveals a unique landscape of the city and surrounding area. Options abound: hiking to the summit of the volcano Pichincha, camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, rock climbing, and even paragliding. Of course, you could just sit with a picnic and take in the vista, including the world’s highest Catholic Church. I loved swinging on the giant swing.
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/20/20 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, January 13, 2020

Top Dream Days of 2019, Seeing Big Buddha in Hong Kong

I loved our entire week in Hong Kong last January, including two great hikes climbing up Victoria Peal and atop the Dragon’s Tail, but our day with Big Buddha is perhaps the most memorable. 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. We jumped on the excellent subway system to the Tung Chung station and then walked over to the Npong Ping Cable Car. We waited in line with our timed ticket and soon we were on a 25-minute cable car ride past the international airport to the mountainous silhouette that houses Big Buddha. Once the ride ended, we walked past the shops and climbed the 268 steps to go face-to-face with the statue, which made its debut in 1993. Amazing! Then we strolled over to the large Po Lin Monastery, where people were lighting incense and saying prayers for good fortune at the start of the Chinese New Year. 
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 01/13/20 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, December 02, 2019

My Story on Cartagena in Global Traveler Magazine

Travel to Colombia has surged since the historic Peace Agreement was signed in November 2016, ending a half-century long conflict. 2018 saw a record 4.4 million visitors to the country, up a staggering 300 percent from a decade earlier, when reaching 1 million travelers was a lofty goal. This surge in demand has led to better international flight options, which should only continue to increase visitor numbers from abroad as long as the country remains stable. While Bogota remains the business and financial core of Colombia, it’s hard to resist the allure of Cartagena, a Spanish Colonial city that seems to be built with the traveler in mind. Behind the fortress walls are narrow streets, large plazas, 17th-century churches, and row after row of charming restaurants, boutique shops, and salsa dance clubs. Walking the pedestrian-only streets of the Old Walled City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is comparable to strolling the French Quarter of New Orleans. Bougainvillea flows from the terraces of the colorful homes, and under a historic clock tower, local merchants sell candy produced from tropical fruits such as guava, mango, papaya, and coconut. 

 
To read more of my story on Cartagena, please see the latest issue of Global Traveler
 

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 12/02/19 at 06:00 AM
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Monday, April 29, 2019

The Only Way to See a Red Sox Game

Located in the heart of Kenmore Square, within easy walking distance of Fenway Park, it’s no surprise that Hotel Commonwealth is the official hotel of the Boston Red Sox. This summer, the property is celebrating last year’s World Series win with a celebratory Championship Package. Starting at $599 a night, you’ll receive an overnight stay in the Fenway Park Suite overlooking the iconic ballpark, two grandstand tickets to see the Red Sox at Fenway Park, a personalized scoreboard message shown on the Fenway Park scoreboard, $50 Red Sox team store gift card for official gear, replica 2018 World Series ring, Duck Boat ride for 2 people, customized Boston Red Sox ski goggles by Optic Nerve, a bottle of champagne, and cupcakes. Please contact ActiveTravels to check availability. 

 


Posted by Steve Jermanok on 04/29/19 at 06:00 AM
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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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photo of Steve Jermanok
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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