Sunday, October 25, 2015

Girls Getaway - Napa

The Beautiful Napa Valley!
For the past few years, a small group of my girlfriends have all gotten together for a weekend trip somewhere.  Because of weddings, showers, etc it has typically been somewhere one of us actually lives.  This year, we decided to all fly out to San Francisco and stay in Napa!  Being the party planner that I am, I put together a 4 day, 4 night schedule of fun and feasting for our long awaited trip.

Thurs Night - Friday

The first night we all flew in to SFO on different flights from around the US.  My flight got in first so I picked up the rental car and checked us in at the Hojo Express near the airport for easy access back and forth as everyone else flew in.

Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point
The hotel was fine for a night and considering we were up and at 'em pretty early the next morning (west coast time change was to our advantage!), I'm glad we saved our more luxe accommodations for the remainder of the trip.  After checking out of the hotel, we sat in commuter traffic before eventually making our way over the Golden Gate Bridge.  Two of my friends on this trip have never been to the Bay area before.  Fortunately, they were welcomed with clear skies and a fog-free view of the bridge from the several vista points we stopped at along the way.  It was a beautiful sight, though after seeing the movie San Andreas, I kept picturing a different scene in front of me. (Ahh!!)

After an hour or so of photographs, we made our way to Sausalito.  It was easy to find parking at 10 AM in a lot along Bridgeway and the town was very quiet.  Most of the shops weren't open, so we walked along a trail near the water for an hour or so until people starting to arrive on the ferry and the stores opened up.  I hadn't been here before and expected a more lively vibe.  I was feeling a bit down until we made our way back to The Barrel House for lunch and drinks on the back deck.  A bloody mary turned my frown upside down.  From there we drove out to Muir Woods for a self-guided walk through the park.  The windy roads up the mountains made for an interesting adventure... I definitely wouldn't want to go up there after dark!  I went to Muir woods on my last trip and really enjoyed it, so I was happy to be back with my friends.

Muir Woods
The last stop on our itinerary before getting to our hotel in Napa was the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.  The traffic out there was horrendous.  As the minutes ticked by, we were closer and closer to missing the last tour of the factory at 4pm.  Fortunately, luck was on our side and we squealed into the parking lot at 3:58, just in time to hear how Ronald Reagan's favorite candy is made.  I expected to learn more about the specific ingredients that go into jelly beans, but perhaps if I knew, I wouldn't eat them anymore?  In the end, we only had a handful of samples along the way as well as a small bag to take home and eat.  I would have preferred to pay $10 for the tour and eat unlimited jelly beans! Yumm...  I should mention that they have a chocolate & wine pairing room on site.  If we would have arrived earlier, I definitely would have stopped in there.

We finally made it to the Napa River Inn in the early evening.  We were greeted upon arrival with a wine tasting in the lobby and our tasting cards that were included in the package.  The staff was very friendly and we were able to park in the lot right outside the hotel. After freshening up at the hotel, we spent our first evening on the town at Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin' BBQ.  I didn't make reservations in advance, but we were eventually seated after having a drink at the bar. The benefit of sitting at the bar before ordering dinner is that we could watch every plate of food come out and decide what we wanted in advance.  The four of us shared the meat platter as well as several side dishes.  The food was good and the wine flights complimented our meal.


Filling the balloons
The next morning, half of our party went on a hot air balloon tour while the other staff explored downtown and Oxbow market. Napa Valley Balloons, Inc. had arranged for a van to come pick us up at the hotel at 6:15am.  They were right on time and after a short ride, we were checking in at Domaine Chandon.  Coffee and pastries were provided while they gave us a brief overview for the day.  Because of the fog in the valley, we went to an alternate launch site in Winters and flew over different sorts of farms and vineyards.  The entire experience was incredible.

Climbing into the 20 person basket was entertaining and once we were floating in the air, everything was quiet and peaceful.  I didn't feel one sway in the wind.  When it was time to land, the ground crew drove ahead to find a farmer who would let us land on their property.  I learned that because you can't really steer a hot air balloon, you never really know where you'll end up.  The pilot finds a good spot and hopes the farmer will say yes, you may land on my property.  If they say no, they keep floating along for a better spot. We landed with a light touch and two small bounces before crawling back out of the basket and heading back to Domaine Chandon for our gourmet brunch and endless mimosas (I think we had at least 6 a piece).   The entire experience was so much fun and one of the highlights of my trip!

A View from Above
We met up with our friends at Domaine Chandon and tried some of the other sparkling wines available there with a 2-1 tasting from Yelp.  The Yelp deal must be a pretty good one and relatively unused since the woman at the tasting bar didn't seem to want to give it to me initially until she read it through a few times.  Our next stop was Bouchon, a french bakery nearby.  There was a bit of a line
when we arrived, but waiting there was easy compared to the difficulty in making a decision on what to order once we got up to the counter!  My two friends who didn't eat brunch ordered salads and dessert while I opted instead just to split 4 different macaroons the size of my hand in half.  They were so good and while I enjoyed the Pistachio flavor, I was pleasantly surprised by the PB&J as well.

We had a 2:30 tour reservation at Hess Collection, so we did not linger long over the food. One of the things I liked most about driving around the Napa/Sonoma areas is that everything was pretty easy to find.  We got to Hess a few minutes early and walked around the inside lobby while the other people who would be touring with us showed up.  Our tour guide, Sam, met us in the lobby and took us out to the vineyard to see some of the vines.   We were able to eat a few grapes right off the plants that hadn't been harvested yet.  From there we went inside to see where they hold some of the barrels and learn about their property and different wines.
Champagne Brunch
We were escorted out to a little garden area to do a tasting.  After we finished our tour, some of the girls explored the art museum portion of the building (I opted out since I don't like modern art).  After Hess, we went back to our hotel to freshen up and decide on dinner.  My wine class instructor from back home suggested we try Morimoto.  We were able to get seated right away on their back patio and placed our orders.   Sadly, everything was just OK.  We all ordered different things (sushi, dumplings, soup, etc) and nothing really stood out.


Domaine Carneros
Our last full day in Napa started with a fabulous breakfast in bed. One of the things I didn't mention before is that the Napa River Inn also provides breakfast each morning from the restaurant downstairs as part of their package.  I don't know if I liked the breakfast sandwich or fruit & yogurt parfait better. Either way, everything was so good and it saved us from trying to find somewhere to eat each morning when everything outside was closed!  I did manage to take a little stroll to the Napa General Store that morning and pickup a few souvenirs.  If you are a wine lover, definitely make a point to stop in that store.

We arrived at Domaine Carneros at 11:00 AM for our tour/tasting.  I hadn't been to this vineyard before and it was incredibly beautiful and scenic.  The main building was an old mansion sitting up on a hill.  There were already a lot of people tasting on the veranda with beautiful cheese platters.  Our tour guide this time was a little bit bigger than the last one (maybe 10-12 people?), but still manageable.  We started the tour tasting some of their sparkling wines.  Our guide, Al, was very enthusiastic and walked us through the property stopping to let us taste more wine along the way.  At the end we tried a few more bottles with a cheese pairing and I purchased a bottle of their Pinot Noir to bring home.  It was a great tour and a good way to start the day.

Castello Di Amorosa
We lingered a little longer than I had planned for so we had to cut out a few stops at this point to make sure we had plenty of time at the next vineyard before our spa appointments that night.  We went straight to the Castello di Amorosa for our next tasting.  I had heard wonderful things from people back home and on site about this vineyard, so I was very excited to visit.  The beautiful castle replica was built from a lot of material imported from Europe and took many years to build.  There are barnyard animals, a moat, and a drawbridge.  I knew in advance that I wanted to do their reserve tasting, but my only complaint is that the tasting room is kind of far from everything else so you don't get to soak in the atmosphere.  We didn't really get a chance to walk around and see the property very well.  The tasting was wonderful and the cheese and charcuterie pairings were perfect.  I am enjoying a bottle of their Sangiovese as I write this post... yum!

Our last scheduled stop for the day was to the Indian Springs Spa in Callistoga for a mud bath and massage.  Before our appointment times, we went to check out the mineral pool.  The water seemed nice, but the pool was pretty crowded.  I only stayed up there for 15 minutes or so until I had to head back for my mud bath.  The entire mud bath experience was very cool and relaxing.  I would like to sleep in a mud bath every night if I could.  The mud molded to your body and made it seem like a very dirty tempurpedic mattress.  After 12 minutes in the bath, I rinsed off in the shower and went in the steam room to unclog my pores.  After that was finished, I was escorted to the massage room for 60 minutes of bliss.  I'm surprised I didn't fall asleep at the bar when we stopped for dinner at Rutherford Grille.  The Spa was a great way to end our stay in Napa.


We left for San Fran early Monday morning.  The plan was to sit in traffic and drop off 2 of my friends before spending the day in the city.  Fortunately we made good timing and we able to see some sights together (full house landmarks, lombard street, etc) before they had to leave. After dropping them off, I parked near Ghiradelli square and enjoyed some Irish Coffees at Buena Vista Cafe.  While walking toward Pier 39, we came across a sign for GoCars.  These little yellow go carts drive on the street and have a navigation/recorded tour guide that takes you through the city.  There was a 2.5 hour loop that went to a lot of places  I hadn't seen before, so the two of us strapped on our helmets and jumped in!  This was one of the other highlights of my trip as we drove through many beautiful scenic points and the Presidio.  The Cliff side neighborhoods were breathtaking... and while my hands were not happy about the handbrakes as I drove down Lombard Street in my GoCar, it was such a fun experience.

Napa River Inn Hotel
After we turned our GoCar back in, we met up with another friend for a drink before heading back home to Boston. All in all, it was a great trip! 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Living off the Land - North Fork of Long Island

Wine tasting at Sparkling Pointe
I began taking wine studies classes a few years ago to become more educated in vino.  As I shared this new proclamation with my friends, one told me about the rich soil and seemingly endless number of vineyards in the North Fork of Long Island.  Unlike the Hamptons and upscale party atmosphere on the South Fork, the North Fork region is primarily dedicated to agriculture.  After a few years, more classes, and  my repeated and not-so-subtle suggestions for an invitation to her boyfriend’s family farm, she finally caved and had a group of people down for Labor Day weekend this year. (Thanks, Katie!)

I drove from Boston down to New London, CT early Saturday morning to catch the Cross Sound Ferry to Orient Point, NY. Fortunately, we didn’t hit much traffic and made it to the dock just under 2 hours.  Because tickets are available online in advance, I was able to drive my car right onto the boat and spend the next 1.5 hours enjoying a mimosa and BLT on the main deck.  For a ferry, the prices really weren’t that bad and the quality of food was shockingly good!   After we disembarked, we headed right to Sep’s Farm Stand in East Marion to meet up with our friends.  Their location is conveniently located right on Main Rd. and there is a nice big sign out front and plenty of parking.  The fresh veggies all looked so good I had to stop myself from picking up tomatoes and eating them right there!  Once the group all got together, we went over to the Huron Suites at the POE (Port of Egypt) to check into our rooms.  The hotel is small and independently owned, not a big chain.  The location is right on the water with tables/chairs setup overlooking the boats docked at the marina.  I spent a few hours sitting in those chairs drinking wine and eating cheese without a care in the world.  I stayed in one of the admiral suites and could not be happier.  Everything was spotless and we had a small kitchenette and spacious combined living/sleeping area. 

Beautiful view outside our hotel
With all the semantics settled, we started off on day 1 of wine tasting!  One of the things I noticed right away at most of the vineyards in the area were the signs deterring away buses, limos, and other large crowds.  Some places wouldn’t even let you walk in if your party was larger than 8 people. I’m not sure what the exact reasoning is for this policy, but I imagine it must have been a problem in the past with people sitting and not paying for a tasting and/or bottle.  This wasn't a problem for our group, but it is good to know in case you are trying to go with a larger group for a special occasion or guided tour.  Our itinerary consisted of: Sparkling Pointe, Borghese, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, and Duck Walk.  All were enjoyable and I picked up a bottle at Sparkling Pointe; however my least favorite location was Duck Walk.  I wasn’t very impressed with their port wines, which is what they are known for.  The location was absolutely beautiful and they had a very big tasting room.  One of the things that surprised me the most was like a lot of the vineyards did not offer food pairings or a cheese plate.  It seems like that would be a very easy way to upsell your customers when they want a snack.  Borghese had this idea executed pretty well though since they had fresh local oysters for sell by the plate.  We got 2 dozen to share and they were delicious!

After picking up some snacks at the local IGA and going back to the hotel to freshen up, we headed to downtown Greenport for some pre-dinner drinks at Brix and Rye followed by a meal at The Blue Canoe.  Greenport is setup for easy walking from one place to the next.  I really enjoyed how many people were out and about at night.  The Northside Collins drink at Brix and Rye was so good; light and summery and perfect for a night on the town.  The Blue Canoe had great atmosphere with outdoor fire pits and a nice view, but I wasn’t blown away by my spicy tuna roll.  Fortunately, when you are with a  good group of friends, your time together is always great!
Dinner and Drinks in Greenport
The next morning we met back up at the farm and as everyone was getting ready, I took a minor detour to see the lavender farm across the street.  There is a cute little gift shop in the front, but they did charge (I think $8/person) to just walk around the fields, even though only one little patch of lavender was still in bloom.  I was so shocked by this considering how cool my last lavender farm experience was in Maui.  I later found out the charges and bus signs at this particular location was to control the groups of Asian tourists who come to see where a popular Asian romance movie which was filmed nearby. With so many small businesses, I was beginning to see how it might be difficult to manage large crowds and provide them with good service.  Nevertheless, I was not planning to pay to walk through the fields… until I found out a few friends actually made some purchases and received a complimentary entrance for me as well. It was as underwhelming as I expected given the time of year.

After a delicious Green lunch at the Hellenic, we started out on day 2 of our wine tasting extravaganza: Mattabella, Croteaux, and Jason’s Vineyard.  Mattabella had an interesting tasting setup where they would pour two of their wines side-by-side and had you compare which you liked best.  It was interesting to see how climate changes affected the taste each year.  My favorite there was the 2009 Chardonnay and I brought a bottle home to enjoy later.  Croteaux was my favorite stop of the trip by far.  Their focus is on Rose's.  I did the sparkling wine tasting and ending up buying two bottles to bring home.  The tasting area was very small and intimate, but beautifully done.

We split up from the group for a bit to take a side journey to a nearby Olive Oil store before our last stop at Jason's Vineyard.  I really liked the decor there with the ship theme, but the wine did not blow me away.   My friends hosted us for dinner that evening at their family’s house where we feasted on seafood and continued to drink more wine, of course.

Our last morning on Long Island started back at the farm where we loaded ourselves up with fresh veggies and walked back to a private beach overlooking the Sound.  Since we were on our own for the rest of the day, we went back to Greenport to peruse the local shops and eat lunch at Bruce’s cheese emporium!  I rate that place with 5 stars for making me wait, and then making me happy I waited for an insanely delicious cheddar, tomato, and maple bacon panini-style sandwich.  My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it…. Mmm, bacon.  Our last hoorah before boarding the ferry was a stop at Kontakosta winery.  A modern barn with beautiful wood and metal designs sat pristinely overlooking a plot of land and beautiful bluffs.  We did a tasting in the barn, then headed out to the bluffs to order a glass of our favorite wine and take in the scenary.  As our vacation came to an end, I decided this would not be my last trip to the North Fork.  This gem is like Napa, only much closer to me!

Note:  All photos in this post are courtesy of my friend Melissa.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

New England Highlights - The White Mountains

Beautiful Omni Mt Washington
 Several years back, I saw a billboard advertising “The Cog” as I was driving around the outskirts of Boston.  Since I did not grow up in this area, I had to look up what it was. Within a few minutes, I became intrigued by the idea of riding an old steam train to the top of Mount Washington, a part of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.  During my online search, I also learned about the beautiful and expensive Omni resort nestled in the White Mountains only minutes away from The Cog’s basecamp.  Unfortunately, not many of my friends were as enthused as I was, especially with the hefty price tag that comes with staying at that resort.  It took a couple of years and a good Groupon deal for me to find a willing companion to come along for a long weekend trip.  Originally, we were booked for a snowy weekend in early Spring, but due to the massive amount of snow in New England this year, we had to postpone to a later day in May.  Both Groupon and the Omni were really great with allowing the change in reservation, so I need to give kudos to their customer service departments.  In the end, I think the change actually worked out better since we were able to walk around outside more and enjoy our time on top of Mt. Washington, which proudly advertises the worst weather in America.

One of the trains
We drove up from Boston late in the morning on Saturday and arrived at the resort just as our room was finishing up.  The hotel is a beautiful, and kind of creepy, old mansion with ornate molding and very large and lavish furniture that promoted socializing in the common areas over the individual rooms.  There were people relaxing in the lobby during our entire stay playing chess or enjoying a drink.   Deciding to have a drink and snack on site, we walked over to the Rosebrook bar and sat next to a large picture window overlooking the stream and golf course.   Two glasses of wine and the antipasti cheese plate perfectly complimented the relaxed yet refined atmosphere.  After our snacks, we went to the concierge to plan the rest of our evening and make reservations for dinner.  Unfortunately, the main dining room was completely booked and the only available for the other dining options were either really early or really late.

Half-way point on Mt. Washington
We decided try our luck at Stickneys later that night without a reservation, but first we had to also book our carriage ride.  One of the prime reasons for my trip to the Omni resort was to partake in a romantic carriage ride around the property (in the winter they do sleigh rides!).  Because our 5 o’clock reservation slot was only an hour away and no one else booked during that time, we opted to do a “semi-private” carriage with hopes that no one would have a last minute booking.  It saved us $50 and actually worked out since we were on our own for a beautiful ride through the property.  After changing for dinner, we spent some time exploring the property before heading to Stickneys for dinner.  Due to the long wait, we decided to eat at the bar.  The drinks and food were all very good and the atmosphere was dark wood/English pub style.    We ended the night drinking martinis and playing chess in the lobby.

Sunday morning, we got up early to take a walk through the trails and get some breakfast in the main dining room.  After we checked out of the room, we were off on our last adventure.  The Cog basecamp was only about 10 minutes away from the resort and very easy to find.  Fortunately, the weather was beautiful and the clouds had all cleared up so we had a perfect view both riding up and back down Mt. Washington.  The entire trip lasted 3 hours, including an hour stop at the stop of the mountain.  The hour was just long enough to take some pictures, mail ourselves a postcard, and grab a quick snack.

Me at the Summit!
All in all, it was a quick and fun May weekend in New England.

Friday, July 24, 2015

NASCAR and Chocolate Port in Indy

Sheik and Zelda
Earlier this year, my brother told me that he and his family would be moving from Indianapolis to Canada at the end of summer.  Since my first, and only, experience of Indianapolis was in the dead of winter (insert hyperlink), I thought it would be nice to go back in the summer before they left.  Since I had planned an extended weekend away from work, I had even more time to enjoy the city and my fam.  I ended up flying into the airport on Friday afternoon.  I remembered how good the popcorn was the last time I was there, so I was sure to pick up two bags (buffalo ranch and smores, yum yum!) before meeting my sister-in-law at passenger pickup.  We drove to their home in Carmel to relax for a bit and play with their dogs before dinner.   That evening, she took me to Drakes, a local restaurant that served both pub food and sushi.  This concept confused me and for a few seconds I considered ordering both fried pickles and sashimi, but ended up sticking to the Japanese portion of the menu with some edamame, fried dumplings, and a crag Rangoon roll.  The dumplings were delicious, but everything else was just ok.  I guess it goes without saying that you shouldn’t order sushi when you aren’t near the sea…  at least all my fish was cooked.

My brother got in from his business trip that evening and the next day was dedicated to exploring the Indy Wine Trail!  For my birthday this year, I was gifted a couple bottles of wine from their local wineries.  I really enjoyed them and was looking forward to spending the sunny day outside.  From my research, I learned that there were 7 wineries on this path not far from Indianapolis.  Our goal for the day was to explore 3 of them:  Cedar Creek Winery, Mallow Run Winery, and Chateau Thomas Winery.  We got to Cedar Creek in the early afternoon when it wasn’t very busy yet.  Other than a bachelorette party (or maybe birthday party?), we had the tasting room to ourselves.  It was a very cute setup with a decent size tasting room and lots of little trinkets to peruse.  I have an interest in wine and was prepared to ask lots of questions around where they get their grapes and what types of wine they make, but was quickly shot down because the woman who was helping us said she was new and had no idea how to answer my first few questions.  I spent an hour or so tasting a few of their wines, but ended up only buying two bottles of the same chocolate raspberry port I had on my birthday.
All suited up
Our next stop was Mallow Run Winery.  The tasting room there appeared to be the same size, but it was a lot busier.  We ended up sharing a bottle of the Picnic White with a small cheese platter on the deck until the crowd cleared enough that we could get a spot at the tasting counter.  This definitely seemed like a more popular spot and I believe they have concerts and other events there as well.  Aside from the one white wine, I was not impressed with their selection either.  I think it’s important to note that neither of the two wineries at this point charged for their tastings.  It was only the last spot, Chateau Thomas Winery that charged a $5 tasting fee; however the employees working the tasting counter there seemed much more knowledgeable and engaging.  Their shop was also the nicest and had the largest selection of wine trinkets to look explore.  In appearance, they were less vineyard-y and more warehouse, but still a nice stop along the way.  After a full day of tasting, we got dinner that evening at Boombozz Pizza and Taphouse. They had a fun ambiance and pizza hit the spot after drinking all that wine.  The only thing that made the day better (or worse depending on your opinion) was going to see Magic Mike XXL that night with my sister-in-law and her friend.

Sunday was the highlight of my trip.  I came across an internet coupon deal for a NASCAR style racing experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  I purchased three coupons for all of us and we arrived around 11:30 am to check in.  The check-in line was about 6 people deep and the two girls processing the paperwork were moving very slowly.  About 20 minutes later, we were ready to go.  Because of the rain the night before, we could not use the tunnel under the track.  This meant they had to wait for all the cars to finish their racing experience from the time slot before opening the gates and letting us all across.  Fortunately, we only had to wait about 5 minutes.  As part of the ride-along experience (I was not going to drive!), I had to suit up in a fireproof jumpsuit and put on a helmet.  They had freshly-washed little cloth beanies to wear under our helmets to prevent lice/other germs.  Once we were all suited up, we took turns in the 2 ride-along cars going around the track.  One of the best parts was trying to jump into the car through the window with my short legs.  I got in eventually and a guy game by to buckle me up before my 5 laps around the track began.  It was so exhilarating!  We passed by several of the other drivers and by the end of lap 2, my head felt like it was going to vibrate off my neck, haha.  I felt completely safe and really enjoyed the whole  experience, as did my family.  Later that day, my brother picked up their dogs and we all went to the river walk area downtown to walk along the canal before going to dinner.  It was a very nice set-up; I’m only surprised there weren’t more bars and restaurants similar to San Antonio. 
Getting in the car
My flight left in the early afternoon on Monday, so I only had time to get brunch and pack.  After sitting on the outdoor deck at Bub’s Café for approximately 15 minutes, I had 4-5 mosquito bites and I  really bad drink (who puts beer in a bloody mary?).  We moved inside for the rest of the meal and I thoroughly enjoyed my Elk Sausage and Biscuits as my last meal in Indy.  I’m very glad I had a chance to experience the area in the summer, it was way better than freezing in the winter. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

China in the Spring

Beat that StairMaster!
Back in October, I begun looking for good deals on a trip to Asia.  I ended up booking a tour of Thailand with Affordable Asia (see my old post here), but also came across many good deals going to China.  Only a few short months later, I found myself heading to China after all with family on another good deal offered by The 8 day package could not be passed over, and this time around we decided to book the flights on our own.  It looks like the tour we were on has been slightly modified from its original itinerary, so if you look at the options now they are different from what I experienced.  I found out the hard way last time that the flights that Affordable Asia booked for us were not eligible for frequent flyer miles, and sadly, I ended up missing the number of miles I needed to secure status for this year.  After doing a comparison on purchasing the flights on our own, we found there was a negligible difference in price and made sure our miles counted this time around.  The only down side to this method was that we had a bit of a mix up at the airport when we arrived and had to get to the hotel on our own.  All of our domestic flights were still booked through the tour company between Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai.

Day 1 – Arrival in Beijing

Live snacks
After 17+ hours of traveling including a quick layover in Chicago, we touched down into Beijing around 7 pm on day 1 of our tour.   There were no issues with our flight or customs and immigration and we got our luggage in a fair amount of time.  Before leaving, our tour rep, Fiona, had communicated to us over email that there would still be someone to pick us up from the airport when we arrived even though we purchased our own flights. We expected to see someone waiting with a China Tours sign at the terminal as we walked out, but sadly, no one was there.  After making a few calls and waiting some more, we decided to just jump in a taxi ourselves and head to the airport.  Fortunately, we didn't experience any problems with the cab and got to  Hotel Jen soon thereafter.

The hotel was very nice, but far from the downtown area.  I have found this arrangement to be pretty typical with tour companies since they have to park their big buses and shuttle you around most of the time anyways.  Usually it isn’t an issue, but it can make for expensive cab rides.  We were able to speak with our local guide, Lilly, after checking into the hotel and she apologized for the mix up and gave us the meeting time for the next morning in the lobby.  We waited for about an hour assuming they may have been running late.

Day 2 – Beijing

One of the best things about this tour was knowing that a huge hotel breakfast buffet was included each day.  All of the buffets were a good mix and Chinese food and an American breakfast.  My typical breakfast consisted of coffee, pineapple juice, a croissant with Nutella, fried rice, and some veg/meat stir-fry… a breakfast of champions, for sure!

Traditional Peking Duck
After eating a large meal, we met up with the larger group in the lobby.  It was a mix of ages, but most appeared to be in their 30s and 40s.  I think on average, this group was a little older than the group that went to Thailand, and much older than the groups I’ve traveled with in the past using On the Go and Tucan Tours.  It could be because of the location, or because of that particular tour company… I’m not entirely sure which is the reason.  The group was friendly and ready to head out to our first sight!  Because of some logistical changes, we had to switch the itinerary for day 1 and day 2 meaning that we would start our trip with going to see The Great Wall of China.  I was very happy with this change because it was supposed to rain almost every other day on our trip and I was glad to be able to spend the nice sunny day outside on the wall.

Just like with Thailand, most of our travel time was due to the fact that we were always sitting in traffic.  Since the wall is so great indeed, there are multiple places that tourists tend to visit.  We went to Juyongguan Pass. Our bus was supposed to drop us off at a higher point in the mountain side, but the road was closed so we stayed in a less steep area.  What I didn't realize about the Great Wall beforehand was that it has a lot of steps!  It's not just a flat wall, it is like the great steps of China.  I would have loved to see Rocky filmed here because he would have never made it to the top.  After about 30 minutes or slow, my movements slowed down pretty drastically.  After the next 15 I sat on the stairs and started to second guess my decision of walking that far.  All I thought about was how in shape those warriors must have been.  Because the wall goes for such a far distance, it is hard to really take it all in from one spot.  I found myself not as impressed as I have been at some other historical sights, only because I couldn't really appreciate it all.  If I could do this again, I would definitely look into some kind of helicopter ride or something over the wall so I can really get a sense for it.

After our walk along the wall, we headed over the a jade “museum” for lunch and a brief instruction on how jade is excavated and polished.  I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food here.  Who would have thought a shop would offer such a good meal too.  The museum itself was more of a shop with a short discussion and demonstration, but that is what I expected when I arrived.  Fortunately, I actually wanted to get a small pendant and found one that didn't cost too much.  I wouldn't have thought you could haggle in shops like that, but negotiating happens everywhere!  I wouldn't be surprised if you went into a shop like H&M and starting bargaining, ha!  Heading into traffic yet again, we made our way to an area downtown with more shopping and an exotic food market.

Beautiful architecture in the Summer Palace
Before cutting us loose to walk through the food market on our own, we were escorted into a nearby building for a traditional medicine seminar and consultation with a local medicine person who specializing in herbal treatment.  We were led in a short 15 minute discussion around ancient Chinese medicine and how western medicine and eastern medicine complement each other.   It was actually very interesting to hear about how they are coming together in comprehensive treatment plans all over the world.  We were also offered an opportunity for a free consultation with a professor for a quick check up.  I went first in my small group and the professor checked four different pulse points on my arm, asked me to stick out my tongue, and then continued to ask me a few basic questions.  After giving me my diagnosis, he discussed what the herbal treatment options were and asked me if I wanted to buy any.  I politely declined and he moved along.  After our consultation, I was offered a 10 minute chair massage for a few yuan.  It felt great after walking all morning.

After leaving the building, we continued down the street to Wangfujing Street to peruse the high-end shopping and more importantly, the food market.  Now I am not naive enough to think that local people eat scorpions on a stick everyday, but to see even a few people snacking on them was pretty shocking.  In addition to scorpions, there were also kebabs full of starfish, snakes, tarantulas, grubs, and seahorses... something for everyone!  For the less adventurous folks, there were steamed buns, stir-fry, and other sweets.  I am not one to eat street food anywhere (even in Boston), so I passed.  I was tempted to buy some tea and other souvenirs though.  I ended up with a silk embroidered piece of artwork that was haggled down to 50 yuan from a 600 yuan starting price, yikes!

Rickshaw ride through a Hutong
Instead of meeting back up with the group to head to the hotel, we stayed behind in search of one the best local restaurants for Peking Duck (according to the internet, of course).  After a short walk around the block, we found a tasteful restaurant with a big crowd waiting outside salivating over the small of roast deck wafting through the air.  Everyone was given a number and asked to wait outside.  The only problem was that they called the numbers out in Mandarin and none of us spoke Mandarin.  What ended up happening was that we watched the woman call out number after number and then someone would approach her from our party and she would just shake her head.  After 30 minutes of head shaking, it was finally our turn to order!  We got a roast duck to share with the traditional accompaniments and pancakes.  The condiments included a sweet sauce, some sugar, green onions, pickled diakons, horseradish, and some other things that either I don't remember or could not identify. When our duck was ready to eat, they brought it out and carved it table side.  I later found out there is an art to how many cuts they make so that it is in line with some ancient superstitions around bringing good luck and prosperity.  At the time, I only thought about how good it was and how the meat melted in my mouth.  It was a great way to end the day.

Day 3 – Beijing

The Forbidden City
The rain started as predicted on the next day and we had a cloudy morning while walking around the Summer Palace.  The grounds were huge and our guide informed us that this park contained the longest covered corridor in the world, which is a random but cool fact to know.  As a summer home to the Qianlong Emperor's mother, there is a beautiful lake and many pagodas to visit.  One of the coolest things to see was the marble ship sitting in the middle of the lake, which was built so that the emperor's mother could still be on the water without the fear of sinking.  The only thing I was a bit put off by was that you had to pay to go and visit this beautiful park.  It seems to me that it should be open to the public to enjoy!

After our morning stroll and a quick stop into a pearl "factory", we drove to a different part of the city for a rickshaw ride in the rain.  In addition, lunch that day was provided by a local family living in a hutong within the city. My guide book makes hutongs look very pretty and spacious, but in reality, so many additional structures popped up within the hutong that was explored that I couldn't tell where the outer wall even was.  It seemed run down and dirty, and while I try not to complain, I think this might have been a scam.  The food was fine and the host was very welcoming, but it just didn't add up.  There was so much pressure for us to eat at this home that the people who opted out of this optional expense were pretty alienated. The bathroom situation at the hutong was, by far, the worse I came across.  Allegedly none of the homes have their own bathrooms (which makes you wonder where they shower since I saw they definitely had indoor plumbing in the kitchen), so we all had to use the communal toilets in the alley.  The squatty potties were taken to the next level because not only were they holes in the ground, but none of the “stalls” had any doors, just very small dividers.  Needless to say, I became much closer to a few of the women on that trip in that bathroom.

After that situation was taken care of, we piled back into the bus to head over to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, we could not actually walk on the square due to a visiting foreign dignitary, but we did walk around it and take a quick picture before continuing on to the Forbidden City.  This spot was drastically different from the Summer Palace.  Unlike the beautiful trees and landscaping I saw earlier in the day, the Forbidden City was completely concrete and bare.  Our guide told us this was because the buildings were made of wood and they didn't want anything inside the fortress that could catch on fire and bring everything down with it.  Additionally, there was large tubs all around the outer wall to hold rain water to douse any fires that may have started during an attack.  We were also supposed to visit the water nest and Beijing Olympic park that day, but due to all the traffic, we never made it there.

That evening, dinner was included with the tour group for a traditional Peking duck meal.  In comparison to the previous night, we only had about a quarter of a duck to share among the large table.  Fortunately, we had many other dishes as well including some delicious veggie and other duck meat stir-fries.  The stir-fry dishes were fabulous, but I think the duck was better the night before. It had a better presentation and was more moist.  After dinner we headed back to the hotel to pack back up for another flight the next day.

Day 4 – Fly to Xi’an

Our group was chauffeured to the airport the next morning and split up onto two different flights landing within an hour of each other.  I do not know why we were booked on separate flights, but since we arrived second and didn’t have to wait around for anyone, it didn't seem like a big deal at the time.  When we met up with the group, we found out that we were being consolidated into an even bigger group while touring in Xi’an.  The other group was also in Beijing for a few days, but stayed at a different hotel and were escorted around by a different guide.  It still wasn't completely unmanageable with the larger group, but it did make coordinating times at the sights much more difficult than before.  I actually felt bad for our guide, Aaron.  He did a great job though!

Local artist creating a mini warrior
Because the flights did not arrive until mid-afternoon, most of the time planned to visit the Small Wild Goose Pagoda had passed and the venue was no longer open.  Instead we did a quick city tour in the bus driving around the Bell Tower and Drum Tower squares.

The optional tour for that night was the Tang Dynasty show and dumpling dinner.  I did some research in advance on the show and decided it wouldn’t be a good use of our time.  Instead, some of the group headed out to a local restaurant with great reviews for a dumpling feast of our own.  I don’t eat much seafood, so I chose the meat and veggie dumpling dinner while everyone else had the seafood as well.  The dumplings were very good and I definitely enjoyed some more than others, but it seemed like a somewhat authentic experience and no one went home hungry!  Fun Fact:  Some restaurants will charge you for napkins.

Day 5 – Xi’an

View of Pit 1
Because of the travel chaos from the day before, we had to squeeze in a trip to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda before continuing with our plans for the current day.  The group arrived just as the doors were opening and we walked right in without a wait.  The beautiful open park hosted multiple open areas for gathering with friends and family or even exercising.  One of the common things for retired women to do is to join a group in the nearby park for traditional dancing.  We saw several groups of dancers near the pagoda working on their rhythm.  We split up for about 20 minutes or so to explore on our own before getting back on the bus for the drive out to the complex housing the Terra-cotta warriors. Fun

The ~40 minute drive was not too bad considering we had been sitting in heavy traffic during most of our travels within China.  Just outside of the venue, we made a pit stop at another local “museum” to understand how the clay warriors were made and view some local furniture and art.  This was the only place I found during the entire trip that sold Christmas ornaments, so even though I know I didn’t get the best price, I bought one anyways.  I like to collect ornaments and now I will have a little koi fish dangling from my tree next year.   After 45 minutes or so of this museum/shopping experience, we were all sent upstairs to eat lunch at the buffet.  I don’t know of many shops that offer lunch as well, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  We didn’t even have this experience in Thailand, so it is pretty unique.  The food at the Jade museum was awesome, so I was hoping for something delicious.  Sadly, I was letdown; I didn’t really enjoy any of it.  Good thing I had my snacks ready for that long afternoon.

YuYuan Gardens and Huxting Tea House
After lunch, we hit one of the highlights of the trip, the Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses!  We started out as a group in Pit 1 and then had free time to roam the other pits and take photos. Everything I read said to save pit 1 for last, so I was a little confused by why we started there.  I guess if you are going to have a guide, you can cover the most detail in the first pit since it is the largest, but that meant the other pits were underwhelming.  The most interesting thing I noticed was that they have been digging for 40+ years and still haven’t dug everything up.  They have, however, built a beautiful building surrounding each of the pits and plenty of souvenir shopping.  Had this been found in the US, I’d like to believe they would have uncovered most of the artifacts before putting them all on display.  I do understand having to cover the clay warriors so they can remain preserved, but the shopping too?  Is that necessary?  It was very cool to see everything that has been dug up so far.  The excavation site is much larger than I could have imagined by reading the guide books and the carvings are very ornate.

The last sight for the day was at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda square.  I actually wish we were able to spend more time here because it was a fun open area with lots of shops, restaurants, and people walking around.  The pagoda itself was closed by the time we arrived, so we could not go in, but walking around outside was delightful.  In addition, I was able to pick up a green tea and red bean cheesecake and green tea latte from Starbucks for a taste test comparison to what I get back home.  I concluded that the green tea latte I had there was more powdery and rich flavor than what I get back in Boston.  I like them both though, just for different reasons.  I also liked the flavor of the cheesecake, but the red beans made it very crumbly instead of creamy.  One of the optional tours for that night was to take a bike ride along the ancient city wall.  I am glad I did not book that in advance, because the rain would have made it a miserable and potentially dangerous experience.  A small number of people did pre-pay for the tour and they did not end up going.  I would have liked to take a walk along the wall, but that didn’t happen either.

Inside the YuYuan Garden
Once we got back to hotel and changed, we ventured out to find dinner and drinks somewhere nearby.  Our guide gave us directions to a local restaurant just a few blocks away, but we ended up sitting at a table for over 10 minutes before even seeing a menu.  After we got our menu (one to share amongst our large group), we decided it wasn’t a good place to try and went back to the hotel for drinks and snacks in the hotel bar.  That night we packed back up and got ready for another early morning and day of traveling.

Day 6 – Fly to Shanghai

Domestic traveling is definitely one of the weaknesses of China Tours.   I really hope they are working on this with the revised itineraries since it was dreadfully unorganized.  This time around, the people in our tour group were split between three different flights.  While they were all planned to landed within 2 hours of each other, some of the people on our tour were told that their seats were not confirmed and others were later told that their flight was cancelled all together. My group ended up being the first to land, so we had 1.5 hours to kill at the airport before collecting the next group.  The third group was actually split onto multiple other flights and one never made it to Shanghai until 11pm.  They had to spend the entire day at the airport in Xi’an!  Since we only had the next day to walk around the city, this unfortunately arrangement really cut into the time we could see the city.

Tea tasting experience
Once we met up with the second group, we threw our jumped into a smaller bus and headed to the  Shanghai Jiangnan Silk Museum.  Again, I can barely use the word “museum” here since it was more of a shop with a little demo area out front of how silk is made.  These types of tours really are notorious for shopping stops, but fortunately we only spent approximately 30 minutes here watching the presentation and browsing before going over the Bund: a boardwalk area that skirts along the river.  From one side you can see the old Shanghai buildings with strong European influence, and from the other the massive sky scrapers that make up the booming financial district.  It a beautiful and somewhat confusing sight to see!  By the time we got to the hotel late that afternoon, I was exhausted.  Some of the group headed out to Xintiandi for dinner and drinks, but I grabbed two glasses of wine from the bar (2 for 1 happy hour) and took advantage of the impressive room service menu at the hotel by ordering sweet and sour pork with a side of steamed BBQ pork buns. It was delicious!

Day 7 – Shanghai

The only day we had completely away from the group was in Shanghai.  I actually found it a little odd they didn’t have anything planned in such a big city.  There were some optional tours to take a train out to Hangzhou, but I doubted anyone wanted to do even more traveling.  The good news is that I had purchased a travel book a few weeks before that had two 90 minute walks laid out through the Old City and French concession.  That morning we took a cab to the Chenghuang Miao bazaars and Yuyuan Garden where I played tour guide for the day.  When I would imagine China in my head, the first thing that I envisioned was a beautiful garden with koi ponds and stone paths.  7 days into my trip and I finally found what I was looking for… Yuyuan Garden was a beautiful sanctuary located within a walled border in the middle of the city.  We got there early before it was too crowded and spent a few hours walking around and soaking it all in.  We stopped in the Huxting tea house for a tea tasting with traditional snacks.  I ordered a jasmine flowering tea and cautiously picked at the snacks laid out in front of me: some mini eggs, what may or may not have been tofu, a salted prune (I think) and something else that tasted both like jelly and sardines at the same time.  The good news was that the tea was delicious and the rest was a learning experience.

Green tea latte and cheesecake
After our tea, we spent another two hours walking through the old city and checking out the architecture.  Our morning walk ended near the French Concession in a new part of the city called Xintiandi.  Some of the people in our group went to this neighborhood the night before since there are a lot of restaurants, bars, and nightlife.  The guide book suggested a dim sum restaurant in the mall for lunch called the Crystal Jade.  Happily, this was a good suggestion!  Our food was delicious and I got to try the famous soup dumplings.  Unlike regular dumplings, these actually have broth within the doughy purse with a small hole on top to let out steam.  After some cooling time, you dig right in.  I was warned in advance that the only way to eat these dumplings is to put the whole thing in your mouth.  If not, you risk the broth exploding all over the front of your shirt.  They were fabulous and quite possibly one of my new favorite Asian foods, next to BBQ pork buns.  The second 90 minute walking tour picked up not too far away from our lunch destination.  We walked for another hour or two before deciding we were tired and jumping on the subway to get back to the Bund for an evening river cruise.    

A similar excursion was offered through China Tours for an added fee (inflated for profit of course) for the night before, but everyone was exhausted from traveling all day and I don’t believe anyone went.   We walked down East Nanjing road and along the waterfront before reaching the ticket office.  Within a few minutes, we had our tickets for the 5:30 river cruise.  When we arrived, I noticed the open top of the boat was packed, but no one was sitting on the second deck where all the tables and chairs were located.  After walking up to the deck, I learned this was a VIP section that was available for only 50 Yuan extra (~$8 USD).  After walking all day, this was an easy decision.  I handed over my money for a complimentary orange juice and a seat out on the deck for the next hour.  The cruise was short but provided an excellent view of the skyline at night.  I highly recommend doing that on your own just to get out on the water for a bit and see the city from a different angle.  After we docked, we made our way back to Xintiandi for dinner.  That day was one of the days I really wish China Tours would have booked us into a hotel closer to city center.  It would have been a lot of effort to get back to the hotel to change before coming back in town for dinner.  After perusing the menus outside each restaurant, we decided to try out the pizza.  Because of my bad experience flying back from Thailand, I didn’t want to take on anything too adventurous before the flight home the next day.

Day 8 – Fly Home

One last perk of booking our own flights was that we didn’t have to get up to meet everyone in the lobby at 4:00 am to meet their flights.  Our flight out of Shanghai left at 4pm, so we had a leisurely breakfast and made one last attempt to get some treats to bring back home.  The concierge at the hotel directed us to a nearby shopping “mall” where we killed a few hours before checking out.  China Tours redeemed themselves for the mistake when we arrived in Beijing and arranged for a private car to the Shanghai Pudong airport. The trip to the airport was easy since it was Tomb Sweeping Day and everyone was headed in the opposite direction to pay their respects to their deceased ancestors.  The long flight back home was a little bit better because we were able to use our frequent flyer miles to upgrade to business class!  I think I know how I will be using my miles accrued miles going forward… now I just have to plan my next trip!

Shanghai Skyline from the River Cruise

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 In Summary

The last couple of years, I've always finished with a post that summarized all the fun travels I was able to have in the last 12 months.  This recap not only helps jog my memory, it also reminds me how blessed I am to have the means and desire to visit such wonderful places.  Each time I go somewhere new, I realize just how big the world is and how different cultures are unique yet mesh so well in the big picture.

Starting back from last January when I went to Indianapolis, I already knew 2014 was going to be a cold-weather destination year.  The wind was blowing and most of that trip was spent indoors at the Museum of Art and different restaurants and bars.

As March rolled around and the temperatures just started to stay above freezing, the ski season started to wind down in Colorado.  As a beginner skier, this was an ideal time for me to visit Beaver Creek and give cross-country skiing a shot.  The mountain scenery was beautiful and I had a great time riding snow mobiles through the summer hiking paths. 

The third cold weather destination of the year took me to Alaska in May on a Norwegian cruise.  Leaving from Seattle, we enjoyed the free-style atmosphere and docked in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and Victoria, BC.  Some of the highlights of that trip were seeing the wildlife (a bear!) and eating freshly caught crab legs. 

Summer in Boston is beautiful, so I didn't take another trip until August to experience the new Harry Potter amusement park in Orlando.  A long weekend of butterbeer, sunshine, and rollercoasters was a great way to welcome in the Autumn season.

November was my last big trip of the year.  Thanksgiving is a great time to travel internationally and I found a really good deal with Affordable Asia in Thailand.  9 days split between Bangkok and Phuket introduced me to the Asian culture for the very first time!  I will never forget riding an elephant through the forest or getting to play with the tiger cubs.

As usual, December is a month dedicated to family.  I always head back to the town I grew up in and spend time with the people I don't get to see nearly enough.  

We are now into the second week of January and 2015 is already looking to be action packed! I've got tentative plans for trips all over the world (check out my calendar page for details). I can't wait!

Happy New Year everyone and Happy Travels!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thanksgiving in Thailand

One of the beautiful temples in Bangkok
Last October, an alert came through my phone for a Groupon deal with Affordable Asia to China.  I’ve been looking to go to China for a while and the prices listed were very inexpensive.  I followed the company’s site and  ended up finding a 9 night 7 day trip to Thailand that peaked my interest even more for the week of Thanksgiving.  The price was outstanding and transportation, hotels, and a lot of activities were included – which meant I could sit back and enjoy the ride.  I’ve been on tours in the past to Egypt, Peru, and Iceland, and have always found them stress-free and flexible.  Since I don’t know Thai and wanted to see as much as possible of the country in a short week, a tour seemed like the best way to go.

 I remember sitting in my seat on the Amtrak train from Boston to NYC at the start of my long journey reading my itinerary for the next 9 days split between 4 days in Bangkok and 3 days in Phuket.  While all the activities looked incredibly exciting, the one thing that stood out most on the page was the 16 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong.  I really hoped that flight was going to be worth it.  Even now that I reflect back on it, I’m not so sure. Luckily, 2 Benadryl and a glass of wine turned that long flight into a blissful slumber land leaving me forgetting about jet lag and arriving on Thai time (more or less).

Day 2 - Arrival in Bangkok
I want this little guy!

My flight arrived in Bangkok at 7pm on day 2 and I was met outside baggage claim by the tour guide.  All the guides had signs and flags and we were able to find our tour easily.  We sat in traffic for a while (this was a common theme in ALL of Thailand at any time of day or night) before arriving at our hotel, the Centara Grand at Central Plaza Ladprao . The hotel was tastefully decorated and the room was very comfortable and on par with a typical Marriot/Westin style hotel.  In addition, it was actually attached to a shopping mall through the parking lot, so we made a quick trip that night to pick up a case of water and some snacks before crashing for the night.  I always recommend getting a case of water at the beginning of a trip where it is not safe to drink water from the tap.  You never know if buying it on the street (even from a bottle) is safe. The one quirk of this hotel as well as our hotel in Phuket is that the bathroom was separated from the bedroom area by a glass wall looking into the shower.  While this does open up the room quite a bit, you can bet I was quickly looking for a button to lower the curtain and close off the view.  Weirdly, the button to close off the view was located outside of the bathroom area, meaning the person in control is the viewer not the person in the shower... hmm.

Day 3 - Temples and Shopping

Breakfast at the hotel was included each day.  The buffet spread was actually very nice and had a mix of American and Thai breakfast options.  Most days, I had some fried rice, a croissant, and some bacon to start my day.  That definitely beats my toast and coffee routine back home.  A couple mornings I felt more adventurous and included some stir fried beef and bok choy or a dumpling or two - truly a breakfast of champions!  At 9 AM that morning,  the group met our guide, Nop, in the lobby and piled into the big bus for a full day of sight-seeing. Nop's English was a little difficult to understand, but he did manage to get us everywhere on time and handled a couple of disgruntled tour members well enough throughout the trip.

The itinerary for the day began with a bus ride out to the Temple of the Golden Buddha.  As a first stop, this was a fun way to view a piece of Thai history and take lots of pictures.  It's not very big in comparison to the other temple we visited that day, but it was still beautiful and made of solid gold!  Our guide told us they know this because when they moved the statue a while back, it actually cracked in half… awesome. The next stop was supposed to be a stroll through the Flower Market at Paklong Talat, but really we only quickly walked down a street past some stalls to get to the next destination.  I'm not sure that this could be considered an attraction in our itinerary and should have been taken off.  The next real stop was at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  It was awesome!  There were actually multiple buildings and lots of different buddhas to see, but the Reclining Buddha was HUGE!  I'm very glad this was included in our tour as I have never see anything like it before.  It was bigger than the height of a house and impossible to get in a single picture, haha!

Lunch was included in the tour that day at a nearby hotel.  We ate at hotels and buffets a lot.  I’m guessing this is because they are generally safe and offer a variety with little prep time. There were a lot of options to choose from, but I quickly found that 90% of everything in the traditional Thai spread was insanely spicy!  Not just like wow, this is hot... no, it was like coughing and crying spicy.  I believe I ate a large portion of plain white rice and about 9 mini cakes for dessert.  The last stop of the day tour was at a "Gem factory".  I put that in quotes because this was the first of several stops where we were clearly there to shop and spend money so that our tour guide could get a kick back.  We arrived at the "factory" and were ushered into a room to watch a 1970's movie with horrible acting and music explaining the process of finding gems in Thailand.  10 minutes later, we walked out and were immediately paired up with our very own sales consultant and escorted onto the sales floor.  I had no interest in buying any of the gaudy pieces of jewelry on display, so I spent the next 40 minutes sitting in the shop staring at all the suckers being talked into a sale.
Classical Thai dancers

Eventually we got back to the hotel with barely enough time for a quick shower before getting back in a van with a smaller group.  That evening, we booked the optional Classical Thai dance shower and dinner.  This was the second time I was disappointed on the tour - not a good track record so far for Affordable Asia.  We arrived at the Riverfront shopping/entertainment area called Asiatique and were corralled into a restaurant/theater named Calypso Cabaret.  The advertisements for this particular establishment promoted a slightly different type of show than what I was expecting.  I will not go into detail here, but if you click on the link and look around, you'll get the idea.  We all sat at long cafeteria style tables pretty far back from the stage and were served our pre-fixe meals.  The food and service were bad, but the show was even worse.  It was all very amateur, and while I enjoyed the costumes, this was not at all what I was expecting for the price I paid for the optional tour.  I don't think they even advertise the classic Thai dance show on their website.   On the upside, Asiatique was a lot of fun.  The open air market seemed endless and there was a really good variety of shopping available.  I picked up some good trinkets here; I really should have bought more since I found the best deals (after haggling of course) in this location.

Day 4 - Relax and Restore

Floating market
I have a friend living in Bangkok, so I wanted to make sure to have a free day to meet up with her and relax a bit in between tour days.  While the optional day tour was tempting, I later found out from fellow tourists who went that the only thing worth seeing that day was the Grand Palace.  I probably should have made some alternative plans to see that on my own.  Instead, I did some research on the hotel in advance and saw  a special offer for a 3 hour spa package for what was the equivalent of $75 USD.  Since you can't get a deal like that in the US, I booked it.  That morning, I received a phone call in the room to confirm my appointment and headed down to the spa about 20 minutes early.  I was quickly greeted and asked to fill out an information form.   When that was done, I was escorted to the room.  The spa area in general was pretty small, but I did like that there were individual shower/changing areas attached to each massage room.  The masseuse turned on the steam function in the shower and I relaxed in there for 15 minutes before coming out and enjoying treatment #1 - a full body scrub.  The scrub smelled so much like a sugar cookie, I was very tempted to eat in when she got closer to my face.  Once that was all washed off, I had a relaxing body massage, followed by a facial massage and Indian head massage.  3 hours later, I was pleasantly relaxed and smelling of food.  A few of my fellow tourists shared their "Thai massage" stories from other massage parlors and they all left beaten up and in pain.  I guess I did not get the traditional Thai massage at the hotel, but I don't think I missed out on anything there.

Piling on the bamboo rafts
 That night, I took the public transportation system (subway and sky train) down to the large shopping complex, CentralWorld, for shopping and dinner with my friend. We walked around the mall to look at the shops as well as the stalls/stores in MBK nearby.  MBK was a waste of time since everything was very crowded and looked to be of a poor quality.  I don’t have a lot of patience for shopping in places like that.  We ate dinner in the mall and while the food was very good, the company was even better!  I hadn't seen my friend in several years, so that night was all about catching up!  Before heading home, we all jumped in a tuk tuk to the nearest subway station so that I could ride back to the hotel without making any transfers on my own.  The tuk tuk ride was a lot of fun and I'm glad I went with a local so she knew we were headed to the right destination, because I was totally lost!

Day 5 - Elephant Camp and Bamboo Rafts

Elephant ride through the river
The next day we chose to go on the optional tour with almost everyone else!  It was a packed bus and a long day of traveling.  I really wish tour groups would indicate travel time on their itineraries.  While I would not have changed my decision to go on this day tour, I would have liked to know the return trip back to the hotel was going to take 3 hours beforehand so I could pack additional snacks.
 We left after an early breakfast for the Damnern Saduak Floating Market.  Almost 2 hours of bus riding later, our group split up into smaller groups and jumped in some boats.  There were some boats guided by a man rowing, but ours had a small motor.  We floated through various canals and stands setup  on the edge of the water with souvenirs and trinkets.  The only problem was that if you pointed at anything or showed interest for more than 3 seconds, the shop owner would reach out with a long hook and pull your boat next to their stall.   You would then be subjected immediately to a high pressure sale.  We quickly learned not to make eye contact unless you were ready to buy.  The fruit sales were all down smaller canals that our boat could not fit into, so I think we missed out on some of the sights.  I wouldn't have purchased any fruit there anyways, so I wasn’t too disappointed.
 The next stop was yet another buffet lunch in Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai.  I ate my fill of white rice (no mini cakes this time) and some mildly spicy drunken noodles before browsing yet another souvenir market.  Another 45 minute drive took us to the highlights of the day, and possibly the entire tour - the elephant camp and bamboo rafting tour! There were a lot of people at the elephant camp when we arrived, so our guide decided we would do the rafting tour first.  ¾ of the group heard him say this and ran to change into their swimsuits.  The other ¼ was out of luck because by the time we were in tow to the rafting launch point, their suits were back on the main bus about a mile away.  We all put on our life jackets and walked out onto the bamboo rafts.  The river was quiet and perfectly serene… Some local guides steered us around small rapids and gave the signal for people to jump in.  I do not like swimming in water than I cannot see through, so I opted out from that part of the activity.

Me and a "baby" elephant
When we rode back to the Elephant Camp, there was no time to change back into normal clothes (sorry, swimmers!).  We all lined up to climb up the small platform and sit in a mini bench strapped to the back of an elephant.  I managed to purchase a small bag of bananas as elephants treats before I got on.  The first thing I realized about elephants from sitting on its back is that they have hair on their head.  I think they have it elsewhere too, but that made me laugh.  The second thing I noticed is that they sweat just like we do – and boy was it hot out!  The ride lasted about 30 minutes or so and was the perfect amount of time.  We waded through some water and through the woods.  At one point, my guide jumped off to go chew on some tobacco he got from a random woman (neighbor?  Wife?).  The elephant continued to walk on his own for a solid 5 minutes while he watched from the ground.  When he was done, he told me to slide down from the bench and ride the elephant from its shoulders!  What a fabulous idea!!   I immediately went right to the same spot he was sitting in and started to feed my elephant bananas until the guide yelled at me because the elephant stopped moving and just kept eating.   After the ride, the baby elephants put on a little 5 minute show for us really showing how intelligent they can be… they got to eat the rest of my bananas!  We got back to the city pretty late that evening and packed up our bags since we had to fly to Phuket the next day.

Day 6 - Phuket

Another beautiful temple in Phuket
The morning flight to Phuket was very well organized.  Our guide took us through the group check-in area and we had enough time to wander around for a few minutes before boarding the plane.  Upon arriving in Phuket, we were met with some unpleasant news.  Instead of going to the hotel to drop everything off and find some lunch, we were going to stop at a rest stop / grocery store to get something quickly to eat and spend the rest of the day on the bus “touring” around Phuket.  The tour piece included more driving (aka “City Tour”) and a forced shopping stop at a cashew “factory”. We did stop at a park with a lovely viewpoint of the Andaman Sea for photos as well as a beautiful monestary. 
Before checking into the hotel, our guide told us the optional evening activity would have to be pushed to the last night so that we could squeeze in all of our stops that day.  The hotel was beautiful!  The rooms were nicely decorated, there was an infinity pool overlooking the private beach, and we were back in time for happy hour at the pool bar.  We ended up eating that evening at the hotel restaurant before going to bed. 

Day 7 - Baby Tigers and the Beach

Traditional Thai fishing boat
The next day was a free day from the tour since I didn’t choose to go  on the optional day tour to James Bond island.  The people I spoke with who did go seemed to have a great time, but I didn't need two full days on boats back to back in the sun.  It ended up working out very well, because I got to do 2 very exciting things instead: Patong Beach and Tiger Kingdom!  The only downside to the hotel we stayed at was the proximity to the popular areas of Phuket, so we kind of got the raw end of the deal with cab fares.  In addition, a lot of cab drivers didn’t even want to drive all the way out to our hotel from the main attractions.  We managed to organize a driver through the hotel concierge to take us to Tiger Kingdom, wait, and then drive us from Tiger Kingdom to Patong beach. 

Tiger Kingdom was a small zoo-like area with Tigers of all ages.  There were multiple packages to choose from depending on what size tiger you wanted to interact with.  My companion had no desire to play with any tigers larger than a standard dog, so our package was limited to the smallest tigers only, haha.  You only have about 10 minutes to interact with each tiger, so I guess there is not a lot of value for the investment (I think translated to about $90/person with photo CD), but I would have happily paid twice the cost for my experience.  After washing my hands and changing into some slippers, I walked into a cage that held two 1.5 month old tiger cubs.  Initially they seemed sleepy, but after a minute or so, they started to play with each other and chase the toys in the cage.  The photographer was great and took a lot of pictures.   I also got to play with a much sleepier 2.5 month old cub, who was the size of a medium sized dog, except with much larger paws.  The photo CD was ready about 10 minutes after our time was up and there were computers where you can view your images and make sure everything works accordingly.  I really liked the way this small business was run –very efficient, yet enjoyable.

Swimming stop on our boat tour to Phi Phi Island
We found our driver waiting in the rest area and he took us to the next stop, Patong Beach.  Patong is the main beach attraction on Phuket.  There are a lot of nearby hotels, restaurants, and shops right on the main drag.  We walked through a small market where I picked up a beach mat and sat down on the beach to soak in the sun.  The water was like a warm bath.  The swimming paired with a few coconut drinks made for an awesome way to enjoy my free day.  Later in the afternoon it started to rain.  A lot of people were trying to catch cabs back to their hotels, but we decided to get some food and wait it out.  Rule #1 of eating in a foreign country is to go somewhere where there is a crowd of people already eating.  I enjoyed some incredible fried rice served up in a fresh pineapple and a cold Singha beer.   We eventually got a cab back to hotel and spent the evening in the pool drinking mai tai’s.

Day 8 - Snorkeling

Me and a tiger cub!
After such an exciting prior day, I was looking forward to a day on a boat.  The group was bused to the marina for a brief orientation.  We were all on the same boat with a small Russian group.  Unfortunately, the Russian guide was much louder and more vocal than our guide, who didn’t say anything the entire time.  I do think my experience could have been better with a guide that spoke more often and more clearly.

We stopped several times during the day for snorkeling and/or swimming.  Some stops were better than others, but I did like how there was a nice supply of water and fruit drinks for us to consumer on the boat to prevent dehydration.  One of the swimming stops was in a cove with a rock wall that some people were climbing and jumping off of into the ocean.  It was one of the more beautiful locations from the entire trip.  Even though there were 10+ boats in the cove, it was still incredible.   Some of the less exciting stops were a drive by of monkey island, and khai island.  We were supposed to have time to relax at the last stop, but it was the smallest of all the islands and there was no shade anywhere andif you wanted to rent a chair/umbrella, you had to pay even more and tip of course.  I don’t like when day tours are not all inclusive because then you had to worry about keeping cash on you, or on your towel, while you swim in the ocean.  I didn’t even get in the water on the last stop.  This ended up being a good decision since there was an influx in sea lice and almost everyone who went in got bit!  In retrospect, I don’t think I would book that excursion again.  I would much rather have booked a boat ride independently on one of the traditional Thai fishing boats.

Random souvenir from Fantasea...
Later that afternoon, we went back to the hotel to shower and change before going to Fantasea.  The website describes this place as a Disney style amusement park with so much fun for all ages!  In actuality, it was an interesting blend of amusement park, creepy carnival, and rave.  There were amusement park games, lots of shops, and a chance to ride an elephant.  There were also lots of food and treat stands and flashing neon lights everywhere, but the evening centered around 1) buffet dinner and 2) show.  The food was very mediocre, but the show was awesome.  Not quite cirque du soleil, not quite a musical, not quite a variety show… I’d say it was a mix of almost anything you can think of in about 60 minutes.  I only wish we had better seats, since I hate sitting in the nosebleeds for anything!   We had about 20 minutes or so after the show to collect our belongings and head back to the bus to the hotel.

Day 9 - Departure

The last morning was supposed to be dedicated to a leisurely breakfast and packing before going back to the airport for the long trip back home.  Unfortunately, I must have eaten something bad the night before at the buffet because I spent most of the morning in the bathroom.  I will spare the details on this post, but that trip home seemed 10 times longer than when I arrived.  When we finally landed back in New York my first thought was joy that if I had to go to the hospital, I'd be back in the US.  Fortunately, that wasn't necessary, but I was very glad to be home.