Cambodia & Vietnam via a Mekong river cruise

Walking down the steps of the airplane in Siem Reap, we immediately felt the rest of the world melt away. The airport itself invoked the feeling of a Polynesian get-away with its sweeping high-pitched roofs and tropical foliage.  We had not scheduled a transfer from the airport to our hotel, so after clearing customs, we headed to the taxi station where we paid an attendant the fee he quoted and then were introduced to our officially-licensed taxi driver.  He spoke English well and told us stories about his life in Cambodia and the current governmental situation as we navigated the chaotic street traffic to our hotel. Upon arrival, we were greeted by hotel staff at our taxi, our luggage was whisked away and we were checked in by an attendant while we sat on a lounge couch with cold towels, a welcome drink and a snack. Everyone was smiling, helpful and beyond kind. What a welcome to Cambodia!

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Siem Reap Airport in Cambodia

Hannah and I were not able to join the land add-on of our river cruise, which meant we were going to miss seeing the greatest sight in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. When our taxi driver heard this, he immediately chastised us.  We couldn’t come to Siem Reap and stay 5 miles from Angkor Wat without seeing it. I explained our time limitations and he suggested we go for the sunrise visit, so we could at least visit for a few hours.  We agreed on a price and he assured us he’d be at our hotel at 5 am so we could purchase a ticket and visit the temple at sunrise.

Sure enough, at 5 am the next morning, our driver drove up and escorted us to the ticket office and then to Angkor Wat itself, giving us all kinds of advice along the way.  He waited for us, keeping our luggage safe, while we toured this UNESCO World Heritage site- one of those “must see” destinations on most of our lists. The overall beauty of the design and what is left of the intricate carvings and statues give you a good idea of how breathtaking Angkor Wat must have been between the 12thand 14thcenturies. It was also a good reminder of the rise and fall of kingdoms, as Angkor Wat had been a thriving and wealthy city before deforestation, over-use of the crop land and attacks from the Thais caused many of the Khmer people to abandon the city, leaving it to the ravages of nature until archaeologists began clearing it in the late 19thcentury.

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Angkor Wat at sunrise

By 7:45 am, we were at our hotel meeting point, ready for our 5-hour guided motorcoach ride to the Tonle Sap tributary, where we’d embark on our luxurious ship. Along the way, our guide taught us about the houses (all on high stilts since this is a country of major flooding every year), the family life, the schooling and the sanitation of the Cambodian people today.  He also told us about his personal experiences during the Cambodian Holocaust and how it affected him and his family. Each of our guides on the ship has a unique, sad, and fascinating story to tell about the 1970’s, when Cambodia suffered from both the Vietnam War and then the Pol Pot regime of the Khmer Rouge.  At each rest stop, we were able to see some of the specialty foods of the towns through which we were passing, such as crocodile or buffalo jerky and roasted crickets, cockroaches, worms, ants and beetles.

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Roasted bugs available for purchase along the side of the road
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Here I am at the nicest rest stop I’ve ever seen!

By the time we embarked on our river cruise ship, we had time for a quick, late lunch, followed by a walking tour of the tiny village where our ship was moored, called Koh Chen. This town is known for its silver and copper products.  Almost the entire village is engaged in producing engraved pots, jewelry and ceremonial fruits used in traditional weddings.  The housing and lifestyle are typical of a rural village in Cambodia.

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Village of Koh Chen

Cambodia, known to the Khmer people themselves as Kampuchea, is a country of water, as much as of land. The Tonle Sap river and Mekong river both swell during the rainy season to the point where much of the land is underwater.  This is great because it replenishes the land for rice production. However, it also means that for much of the population, living on the land means simultaneously living on the water for part of the year. There are even complete communities that live exclusively on the river, creating floating villages made up of house boats tethered together in rows, such as this one called Kampong Chhnang, which we toured by local boats.

Floating Village

One difficulty with this type of life is that sanitation is a real challenge. Between the poverty resulting from the Vietnam War and the terrifying period of rule by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), many people spent decades just trying to survive. Education was a luxury. The result for many Khmer people is a lifestyle that is not able to, or sometimes does not know how to, properly dispose of waste or keep food and water safe for consumption.

An agricultural tradition still in use today is to use oxen with carts to plow fields, carry hay and transport both animals and family members (or tourists, when the opportunity arises!).

H&N Oxcart ride

Everywhere one goes in Cambodia, there are Buddhist temples. From the tiny villages to the large settlements and cities, gold-colored Buddhist temples dot the landscape. The largest is in Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia from 1618-1865. Oudong once boasted huge temples, palaces and other large buildings, but most were destroyed in the early 1970’s, when President Lon Nol ordered air strikes to fight the Khmer Rouge soldiers living there. A few monasteries survived, but the largest Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, called Vipassana Dhura, is brand new. The monastery is not only a place of worship, but also of study and refuge for homeless, widows, orphans and others in need.

 

Vipassana Dhura

Vipassana Dhura gardens
Vipassana Dhura golden temple and gardens

One of the great advantages for tourists visiting Cambodia is that many of their traditional trades have remained intact. We benefitted from visiting Koh Chen earlier, which gave us a sampling of copper and silver craftsmanship.  Today we were able to visit beautiful Oknhately Village on Koh Dach (or “silk island”).  We boarded Tuk Tuks for a pleasant ride through rural countryside filled with emerald green rice paddies, fruit orchards, and vegetable farms until we reached the thriving Oknha Tey Village.  Here the local artisans begin with raising the silk worms, move on through the entire process of spinning silk and coloring it, to the final step of weaving it into fine silk material for scarves, ties, clothing and household items like table cloths.  After observing the entire process, we had a true appreciation for the loving care, skill and hard work that goes into each item.

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Silk weaving by hand
Silk thread spinning
Silk thread spinning
Silk worm breeding
Growing silk worms

From there, we were privileged to visit a local elementary school.  Its cement walls with no air conditioning reminded me of my elementary school on Guam. But the lack of resources for learning was a major difference. We were divided up into small groups and each group was invited into a classroom.  We sat down with the students on their benches and used very basic English to ask them about themselves. They were so welcoming and pleasant.  I sat with a little 11-year old girl and boy.  They shared their names and took out their worn-out readers to read a little to me from their Sanskrit language.  The little girls took out her slate and searched for a while until she located a tiny stub of chalk, which we used to write out our names (mine in English and hers in Sanskrit) for each other.  Then we drew pictures and laughed as we used English words to try to guess what the other was drawing. Finally, our guide asked them what careers they dreamed of having and they sang “If you’re happy and you know it…” to us in English as we joined in with singing and clapping, stomping, quacking or shouting “HOO-RAY!” The school is funded by international donations. I keep thinking about how long it took for the little girl I met to hunt down a tiny bit of chalk for her chalkboard so we could write our names for each other.

Names on chalk boardCambodian studentSchool classroom

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In the evening, our encounter with children continued, as we were treated to a sampling of traditional and more recent cultural dances by several dance and music students from Phnom Penh.

Coconut dance demonstration
Coconut dance
Traditional royal dance
Traditional Royal dance

Today was a somber one. While the poverty may be sad, there’s a sense of hope for the future along with the beauty of the country, the richness of fish and rice production as well as artisanal products, and a renewed emphasis on education.  But this was a day for remembering what brought the Khmer people to this devastating condition after centuries of flourishing. We headed solemnly to the Killing Fields and S21 detention and interrogation center.  We quietly walked along the fields, listening to the stories of how and why people were summarily executed.  Music was broadcast on loud speakers so the neighboring village couldn’t hear the screams or moans.  Our guides throughout the time we were on the river cruise in Cambodia each have a personal story to tell.  They all lived through this Holocaust period.  Most were young children who lost many family members.  One was taken from his family, conscripted into the Khmer Rouge and continues to battle nightmares to this day. Each story is uniquely sad and terrifying. Touring the killing fields and seeing thousands upon thousands of skulls and bones, knowing each one had a story to tell, just as our guides did, was heart-rending.

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One of the mass grave areas
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Four-sided cabinet with skulls and bones dug up in just some of the fields

Following the visit to the fields, we toured S21 (Security Prison 21), where we walked through the interrogation cells (converted out of a former school) and learned about the methods of torture used to force confessions that were often false, just because the prisoners had to say something.  Many named every family member and friend they could name through the intense periods of torture. Even while not being tortured, these prisoners were suffering from starvation, lice, ringworm, rashes and many other ailments. We traversed the rooms filled with photographs of every man, woman and child brought into the center.  None escaped. Only 7 men and 5 children survived. The 7 men survived because they had useful skills which were needed in the center.  The children were not yet killed when the center was liberated.

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S21: Former school turned into a torture and interrogation center
S21 survivors
The few surviving children

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Two of the adult survivors return daily to S21 to tell their stories and sign books for visitors. Similar to visiting concentration camps from WWII, it’s depressing and emotionally draining to tour these sites.  But it’s an important part of the Cambodian story and a piece of history from which we all can learn.  It’ll influence the way I hear and interpret news from this part of the world from here on out.

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One of the survivors who returns each day to tell his story

In the afternoon, we changed gears to look at the present and future of the country.  We toured the Royal Palace, built in 1866, by the great-grandfather of the current king, and residence of the king once again.  Cambodia has an interesting mix of royalty as a figure-head combined with a prime minister with true ruling power, akin to the British system. Elections for the next prime minister are scheduled for this summer.  However, the party in power is making moves to eliminate its opposition party. This should be an election to watch.

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Royal Stupa- a memorial to royal family members

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Many of us on our river cruise noted that there aren’t a lot of museums, palaces and amazing structures to tour in Cambodia (with a few notable exceptions such as Angkor Wat). But touring the villages, meeting our guides and the villagers, learning about the local culture and customs, and eating the best famous local cuisine has made this an incredibly rich and satisfying tour thus far.

 

Entering southern Vietnam along the Mekong

Finally- a day to rest a bit! Visiting Cambodia and Vietnam by river cruise provides the chance to learn while cruising from one town to the next, with lots of stops and visits.  Today we’re onboard all day, but it’s far from boring.  Aside from the chance to sleep in a little and spend some time reading or chatting on the sun deck, we’ve been treated to a fascinating history and culture lesson, with personal stories interspersed, by our Vietnamese tour director. Later, we attended a cooking lesson where we received recipes and learned how to make two well-known Vietnamese dishes.

 

 

 

Crossing the border into Vietnam doesn’t bring many changes in landscape, but there are a few notable differences in the housing and boats. Many of the houses along the river are still elevated on stilts, but the materials tend to be cement or aluminum sheeting, rather than wood. Even the house boats floating on the water tend more toward aluminum siding, except for some beautiful large wooden boats.

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Today is the second day of the New Year celebration, so many families are all gathered together with all generations at the family house. Everyone is in a festive mood and celebrating. We took rickshaw rides through the town, creating a parade of sorts, and dodging all the families (often 2 adults and 2 small children per vehicle) riding their motorbikes.

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Rickshaw ride through Tan Chau

A few people are working for several hours because of us tourists visiting their town of Tan Chau. We had a demonstration of the automated silk looms, which work off pattern cards, but still need to be tended. Their production is about 4 times that of the hand-and-foot operated looms on Silk Island in Cambodia. Apparently very few families are continuing in the silk and mat weaving business in Vietnam. Perhaps it will help those who have remained in the industry to increase profits for the hard work and tedious work.

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Silk and Straw weaving looms

On our final full day on the cruise, we have had the opportunity to drive through a Vietnamese version of the floating markets that we already saw in Cambodia.  However, since it’s still the New Year celebration, almost everyone has gone to their ancestral home to be with all the generations of family to celebrate.  There were some families out of the river splashing and playing in the water off their porches. Since there generally isn’t air-conditioning, the covered outdoor spaces are a main feature of the houses and we saw hammocks being used pretty often, especially by the older generation.

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Typical courtyard with lots of outdoor shady areas and hammocks

We toured another fresh food market in Sa Dec.  The produce and fresh meat looked like really high quality, especially compared to some of the other meat markets we saw. We were squeamish watching a lady skin frogs alive.  They were trying to hop out of the basket AFTER being skinned. I guess every culture has its own idea of freshness and convenience.

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Typical outdoor market stands

Sa Dec is also where Marguerite Duras lived and the basis of her French novel, The Lover. We visited her house, but skipped the opportunity to watch the movie.  Our guide tactfully said that if we watched it, we should watch with one eye opened and one eye closed. Another cruise passenger who watched it bluntly called it soft porn.  Regardless, it was a taste of how the French lived in Vietnam while the country was under their control and the mixture of French and Vietnamese architecture that resulted from their influence is very pretty.  The French are also responsible for the current Vietnamese alphabet replacing the Chinese characters and for the tempting baguettes and pastries found in the markets.

From Sa Dec, we drove out to Xeo Quyt for a walking tour of the former Viet Cong Army Base that was basically in swamp land. The underground bunkers were constructed little by little using thick walls and non-porous wood during low tides and then were submerged under water during high tides.  They were a tight and dark, but very effective, hiding place. In fact, this base was located only 1.8 miles from an American military base, but was never found. I could hardly imagine foreign soldiers (our American military) trying to survive in such tangled, swampy, mosquito-ridden forests. It was a strange feeling touring it as a war site because it’s become a park with entertainment, boat rides through the canals and pavilions for large family picnics and celebrations.

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Tourists on a boat tour- we were sweltering in the humid, 90+ degree temps, and couldn’t figure out how they were in dark, long-sleeved sweatshirts!
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One of the mostly underground water-tight dugouts.
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Committee guest house from 1974-1975
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Well-hidden hiding spot

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Later in the day, we visited Cai Be, the Kiet historical house, and actually met the owner.  Built over 150 years ago, this elaborately decorated house demonstrates the traditional architecture with intricate wall carvings, wooden pillars, ceilings, doors and gates and ceramic products. The focal point of the house is the front, which has many tables for entertaining family and guests, with some convertible to beds for sleeping.

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Kiet Historical House

For our final tour, we visited a family confectionary of sorts.  They demonstrated making rice paper for eating, rice candy and sticky coconut milk candy.  I had no idea rice could be popped like popcorn, but mixed with black sand in a wok over high heat, rather than in oil.

That evening in our lounge, we were treated to local musicians and story-teller actors. Though the wistful tones of the traditional music aren’t to my taste, I appreciated the experience and their talent.

On our final morning after breakfast and good-byes, we headed to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh city. It’s sprawling and modernizing quickly. Our guide explained that the houses on stilts along the rivers have been torn down in most areas, with the rest slated to be torn down, in order to create clean walkways and prettier views.  The people who lived there have been moved to apartment buildings.  Those who made their living selling products or services could no longer sell from their homes, unless they were the lucky few located on the ground floor.  The others on higher floors had to find new ways to earn a living.  He also explained that having 2 children is considered perfect for Vietnamese families who don’t live on farms.  Those on farms are allowed to have more children.  It’s even a law that 2 adults and 2 children 13 and under are allowed to ride one motor bike.  Three adults on one motor bike is illegal.  So it’s not uncommon to see entire families with young children all riding along the streets strapped in one way or another to the motor bikes everywhere we go!

Ho Chi Minh City
Modern Ho Chi Minh City
Transportation in Ho Chi Minh City
Family of four on a motorbike

Both the Vietnamese and Cambodian people have lived through some terrible destruction, governmental control and terrors in the recent past, which has certainly set their countries back in development and education.  But it’s heartening to see that the people are industrious, hopeful and working toward a better future.  I’m glad I got to see these countries at this point in history.  As wealth arrives, I wonder what cultural customs will disappear to make room for modernization?

 

 

 

 

Traveling to China Without a Tour

First, let me be very clear that I love tours.  They can take all the work out of travel and allow you to see, learn and experience things you’d otherwise miss when doing it on your own.  However, sometimes a tour doesn’t fit your needs, time frame or mood for a particular trip.  So here’s a blog about my “DIY” experience in China while visiting my daughter, who is living and working in Chengdu.

 

Chengdu

Arriving at the airport and getting through security in Chengdu was quick and easy. I had a non-stop 15-hour flight from JFK to Chengdu on Hainan Airlines, which just recently expanded to offering international flights to/from the U.S. and mainland China. The passengers were almost exclusively Chinese.  However, the flight attendants spoke English and everything was presented in English as well as Chinese.  The flight was smooth and pleasant, the seats were comfortable, the food was tasty and the service was very good.  It was interesting to be served hot water, rather than cold, to stay hydrated throughout the flight, but that was a fun beginning to the cultural differences between our two countries and I found the hot water soothing during an overnight flight.

 

The metro and train both go right to the airport, so the adventurous and those comfortable with metro systems, can go right into the station, purchase a ticket and use public transportation for approximately $1.  My daughter met me at the metro station, so I didn’t have to be too adventurous, which was nice since I was exhausted and ready to just be led. DIY TIP: If you’re headed to any of China’s main cities and want to use the public transportation, download a metro map app in advance (such as “Chengdu Metro Map”) and know ahead of time which stop you’ll need for your hotel.  Also be sure to have Chinese Yuan on hand in small denominations.  You will not be able to use credit cards or USD.  There are automatic machines as well as a ticket window for purchasing tickets and the metro itself is smooth, clean and efficient.

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Hannah meeting me at the metro in the Chengdu Airport

Chengdu is a sprawling city that unfortunately suffers from incredible pollution. The inland location and being surrounded by mountains causes the pollution to be trapped. Gray skies are normal and air quality is not good.  However, the city has its charms.  The food is both excellent and inexpensive.  It’s famous throughout China for its Szechuan cuisine, which is spicy and delicious.  Hot pot restaurants are also popular and fun.

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Famous Chinese Hot Pot in a spicy broth or plain

We visited the monastery in Taikoo Li, which had beautiful artwork and offered some interesting glimpses into the Buddhist religion.  I found it intriguing that there were a series of temples, each portraying Buddha in very different forms, some of which were almost cartoonish in character. Yet it was a place of meditation for the believing Buddhists, not just a place to be admired for its artwork and creativity.  Buddhism in Vietnam, Cambodia and China is unique to each country and region, and very syncretistic.

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Outdoor displays around the temple area – this one for Chinese New Year

Shopping is definitely a main pastime in China. The malls are plentiful and massive. They are also very modern and beautiful. The New Century Global Center is jaw-dropping.  It’s hard to describe how vastly huge the place is when you walk up to it.  Inside, the soaring marble atrium, and vast amenities are impressive.  There’s an IMAX, a full waterpark, an ice-skating rink, an Intercontinental hotel, and a myriad of shops, cafés and restaurants.  But malls are massive and everywhere.  Here’s one that gives a nod to the animal that put Chengdu on the global map: the panda.

 

Naturally, we had to take a morning to visit the famous Panda sanctuary.  This place isn’t just great for pandas, it’s great for humans.  The vast, green park is an oasis on the edge of the city. The park is really well done and we loved the gardens, the pandas (especially the babies!) and the discovery center with information about the history of protecting pandas and breeding them in Chengdu.

BEIJING

We left Chengdu for an 8-night stay in Cambodia and Vietnam (see my separate blog for those countries).  When we returned to China at the end of that trip, we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Beijing. We were supposed to arrive in Bejing just after midnight, but the plane had a defective front tire.  It was maddening to watch from the terminal as 5 people stood around and talked while 1 or 2 intermittently did the work to change the tire. Even after it was changed (which took an hour of waiting and conversing with 10 minutes of work), something was still not right and another 45 minutes elapsed before the correct person could arrive to do whatever needed to be done.

By that point, there was no way we were going to make our connection in Guangzhou. I was preparing in my mind, thinking about where we should go at the airport to be re-scheduled and then where I would get internet to try to book a hotel. However, none of that was necessary. China Southern was very impressive. We arrived in Guangzhou and there was a team of China Southern employees flagging us down as we exited the plane. They put red stickers on us, directed us where to go for customs and immigration and then met us on the other side of that line. We were accompanied to another area, where we were given our new tickets for an early morning flight and maps that explained where we should go in the airport to be assigned a hotel. Everything was done in English for us and they even explained that our luggage would be handled by them, so we didn’t need to do anything with it.

At the hotel desk, we were given a choice of hotels, vouchers to hand to the hotel, and then were transported free of charge to and from the hotel.  It was very impressive! The hotel left a lot to be desired (no way were we showering there and the carpet was so filthy we wouldn’t dare take off our shoes except in bed).  The bed was also standard Chinese, which means it was literally a board. However, they had tooth brushes and robes and the sheets were clean.  We were so thankful to have all that fuss navigated for us!  Another big shout-out to the Chinese airlines (both China Southern and Hainan Airlines, which I flew on for a combined 7 flights during this trip) is that even for the shorter domestic flights just under 2 hours long, a hot meal and drinks were always served free of charge.  Luggage was also free. After getting bare bones service from American airline companies for so many years, it felt like a real treat.

Entering Beijing, my first impression was how sprawling the city is. There is also such a mixture of old and ultra-modern.  While the metro in Chengdu has everything in dual languages, including the choice for English at the self-service ticket kiosks, Beijing sometimes has translations and sometimes not.  Hannah had downloaded metro maps for each city we were in, which helped, but it’s not always obvious which metro stop you need for various tourist sites.  For example, we headed straight to our hotel by taxi (DIY Tip: only use the metered taxis at the official taxi stands where there are attendants!).  I have to admit we stayed in American chain hotels and were very grateful for the cleanliness and amenities. Our beds were heavenly and the staff was able to accommodate us in English.  I don’t like to be an arrogant American, but the fact is, you just can’t learn all you need to know in a language just to visit a foreign country once or twice. So picking hotels where English was spoken well was critical. Our mistake was that we forgot to explain to the concierge that we wanted to go to the Summer Palace, and off we headed to the nearest metro.  When we got there, there was no English translation at the ticket machines and we couldn’t figure out which stop we needed.  Thankfully, a helpful lady at the information desk in the metro was able to help us.  We learned to use lots of pantomime and Google translate!

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Even after we got off the metro, it wasn’t immediately obvious which way to head for the Summer Palace.  There was an exit sign with the name in English, but upon exiting, no further directions.  We walked around for a bit until we found the entrance.  From there everything became obvious because we just followed the massive crowds.  Unprepared for a decision of “through” tickets vs. “entry” tickets, we went with the less expensive option. We assumed as we walked along that the “entry” tickets allowed you into the few places that had indoor exhibits.  We didn’t see many.  In fact, we were surprised by how much of the park was exactly that, a beautiful park with decorative pavilions, some temples, lots of walking paths and as always, lots of shopping stands. We walked around and enjoyed the beautiful views. Having rented an audio guide inside the gate, we thought we’d get a bit of history.  But it only worked for us in a few areas, so we got very little from it. DIY Tip: Don’t count on an audio guide since quality is questionable. We made the entire circuit, though the lake area was closed because it was frozen. Fatigued from fighting hordes of people, we returned to our hotel, which was like an oasis of peace and comfort after navigating busy streets, crowds of people and packed metros.

Our next morning in Beijing, we had pre-scheduled a tour of the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall. Our pick-up time of 6:20 am was confirmed by the tour operator the night before.  I chose section because it’s much less crowded than the Badaling or Mutianyu sections.  However, the pick-up was bizarre. We were picked up in a large van, then transferred to a motor-coach with other people, then transferred to yet another motor-coach. By the time we were on our way to the Great Wall, about 1 ½ hours had been wasted transferring from bus to bus. When we got to the Great Wall, our small group of mixed Chinese and English-speakers were given a very brief overview, then some instructions, and then set free to walk the wall and return to our meeting point on our own.  It was nice to be able to go at our own pace, but we were given very little information. DIY Tip: If going again, I think I’d opt for a private tour where I could save several hours in transportation and be able to ask some questions. However, it was nice to just explore.  At the end, we were all taken to a little restaurant, set at tables of 8-12, and fed a really nice home-style Chinese meal with many choices on a huge lazy-Susan in the middle. We had fun meeting our co-travelers. At our table, we had 2 other Americans, 2 Australians who are touring the world for a year, 3 Italians and 2 Chinese. Then we had the several-hour drive back to Beijing in traffic.

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Xi’an

No rest the next morning as we had to leave for the airport by 4:30 am.  I was starting to wonder what my travel agent was thinking with this schedule! 🙂  Thankfully, there’s little traffic at that hour, we cleared security quickly and our flight was on time. So things went smoothly.  We took another official airport taxi to our hotel in the Xi’an city center, which was about a 45-minute drive. Our hotel kindly let us check in early, so we dropped off our luggage, washed up quickly, and headed out walking about a mile to the central train station. That’s where we could catch bus 306 to the Terra-Cotta warriors.  We found the bus line easily, but had to endure constant loud yelling by official-looking people trying to get you to leave the public bus line to go to their private bus line. DIY Tip: The public bus, which takes about an hour, costs only 7 RMB ($1) per person.  I’m not sure how much more the non-stop private buses were charging, but we were so put off by the obnoxious screaming and pushing tactics that we wouldn’t have gone on those for any price. We got on the bus, paid the attendant after departing, and arrived at the Terra-Cotta Warriors at about noon. I was worried about buying tickets because I had read that they stop selling them when the site gets too crowded.  However, that didn’t seem to be the case.  Perhaps being Chinese New Year made a difference?  Regardless, we had to laugh at the ticketing lines.  It wasn’t the first time we found that some lines were super short while others were really long and everyone queued up in the long lines. The explanation for ticket purchases at the ticket windows was only in Chinese, so we couldn’t read them and thought it must be that the shorter lines were for some priority ticket.  However, a nice Chinese guy went in the line, came out with his tickets and stopped by us and said in English, “Go get in that line! Tickets the same!  Line very short!”  I asked, “Are they special tickets?”  He said, “No, no, just normal.  Go!”  So Hannah went and I stayed in the other line and sure enough, it was a normal ticket line. Lots of people followed behind her when she moved over.  DIY Tip: People just seem to be so accustomed to waiting in long lines that they assume if most people are in one line, it’s the right line. We were thankful for that nice guy and his advice since we couldn’t read a thing!

That’s one thing that kept surprising us in Beijing and Xi’an.  Chengdu has so much in both English and Chinese that Hannah has become accustomed to that and thought it was the norm.  But there were a lot of times that even the major tourist spots had almost no English, or any other language, for that matter. It seems most foreigners travel with group trips, so the other languages at the major tourist sites must not be a priority. It caught us off-guard, but we found ways to figure things out. It helped a lot that Hannah can say a few key things in Chinese, has a Chinese phone with a translator and data, and the ability to pay using the Chinese payment system.  DIY Tip: Credit cards are useless except at major hotel chains, and we even ran into one case at the Xi’an North train station metro stop where we couldn’t pay with cash in RMB. We had to use her WeChat payment scan code.

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Example of lines going into the Terra Cotta Warriors as we head out

Once we made our way into the Terra-Cotta Warriors, we had to brace ourselves once again for absolute congestion.  Here there were many signs in both Chinese and English explaining what we were seeing, relating some history, and describing the archaeological digging process. We were pleasantly surprised and grateful at this point!  Sadly, the crowds were so thick that we were moving in waves of bodies, just trying to stay in one spot long enough to actually see the objects and read. Though we had many nice encounters one-on-one with kind people, in crowds, mass mentality takes over.  At one point, I was shoved so hard in the back, I turned around to glare (usually we just accepted that we would be pushed and shoved).  It was a tiny old lady studiously ignoring eye contact, but shoving her way through the masses. Shocking, but it seems it’s just survival when there are so many people.

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After making our way through the three halls, we stopped for lunch and took time to de-compress.  It was fascinating, but wow, what chaos! I imagine it’s a bit better if going outside the several weeks around Chinese New Year!  Also, if it fits in your schedule, it’s definitely best to get there right when it opens. Although I’d been trying lots of local foods and some drinks (like hot sesame seed water served with our meal), on the way out of the Terra-Cotta Warriors complex, there was a massive shopping area that included a Starbucks. It was a magnet.  I ordered a soy milk mocha and Hannah had her Green tea latte and we were fully restored to a good mood.  Sometimes you just need a little of the comfort of home!

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Sometimes, even in China, we just need a Starbucks break.  Hannah and I loved this girl’s style!

We queued up for the public bus again, returned to the train station, and walked the mile back to our hotel in the dark.  Thankfully, cities in China are pretty safe if you pay attention and stay in main areas. We are limited to menus that show pictures of what you’re ordering, so we shopped around a bit on our way back for the right kind of restaurant and found one only a few doors down from our hotel. There were a few mistakes with the order, even with us pointing at pictures (some had options involved), but we were happy with what we got and just considered it another adventure.

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First Class Compartment on the bullet train to Huashan

So tired, we fell into bed, but had yet another early morning.  I had pre-purchased bullet train tickets for one of the earliest trains available to Huashan, which are the mountains outside Xi’an, known as the mountains that inspired the Avatar movie scenery.  I could have hired a private transfer, but it was very pricey and I thought the bullet train would be a quicker option.  While the bullet train was fun to ride, smooth and super-fast (305 km/hour), by the time we had walked to the metro stop, took 2 metro trains to the train station, took the bullet train to Huashan station, and took the free No. 1 bus from the train station to the ticket center, it didn’t save us any time.  We then had to purchase park entrance tickets and a shuttle bus ticket into the park.

At that point, we had to make the decision of going on the North Cable car or the West Cable car. The majority of people take either roundtrip West Cable cars or go up the West and come down the North.  This is because the West Cable car arrives at a much higher peak, so you can opt to just visit the 2 most dramatic peaks without as much stair-climbing, or you can make the whole circuit of all the peaks and finish at the lower one, avoiding much of the climbing. There’s also the option to hike (a cement path and stairs) all the way up as well.  This path was mostly covered in snow when we were there at the end of February, so that really wasn’t an option for us.  We decided to take the North Cable car to get in a bit of exercise and also save some money (roundtrip on the West Cable car costs 3x more).

As we learned, we would never have made it hiking up plus doing all the peaks in one day and we certainly didn’t have to worry about exercise!  We arrived around 9 am, when it opened, and weren’t on the cable car to return down until after 4:00 pm, about an hour before closing.  We had arrived at the cable car station by 3:30, but the line took a solid half-hour. In addition to the time issue, our legs were exhausted. By the end of the day, Hannah’s phone app said we climbed 245 stories with only 9 miles. It was almost exclusively on stairs. Even if not completely accurate, we climbed a LOT of stairs.

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Stunning cable car views to North station with snow-covered steps below

Huashan is stunning. I’m really glad we went.  We were so lucky that the day warmed up to the point where we were stripping down to one layer (we were prepared for below 30 temps) and the sky was clear blue.  Much of the snow from the previous months was melting, though some of the steps were still pretty treacherous.  We also got there at the very end of the low season pricing. High season is very expensive when adding up the transportation to and from the park, the park entrance fee, the shuttle buses within the park, and the cable cars.

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Notice the line-up of people on the stairs?

As with everything we encountered, we had numerous times when we were in lines of people, walking the paths and up and down the stairs.  For this reason, we especially enjoyed the East and South peaks.  They are not visited by everyone, so the crowds are much thinner and the views are still dramatic. There were, once again, many stands and cafes selling food and trinkets all along the paths. Our favorite trinkets were the medals (which we assumed said something like, “I climbed Mt. Huashan.”). We were very impressed by some of the young children (and older people as well!) who were diligently making their way up stairway after stairway. We decided most of those kids deserved a medal, even if they only made it to a couple of the peaks!  In many areas, there are locks with red ribbons clasped to the chains that line the paths, which are supposed to ensure everlasting love for couples who leave them behind.

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Our return train was at 6:00 pm and I thought I had allotted plenty of time.  As it was, we got turned around and didn’t see the return free bus stand and started worrying about making it to the train station in time to make our train.  Thankfully, Hannah has a Didi app.  This is the Chinese version of Uber. It’s hooked up to her Chinese payment system, so she could order us a Didi car and just like Uber, we could track it as it arrived.  She paid with the app when ordering the car, so we just hopped in and paid only 10 RMB ($1.45) for the two of us to be quickly and comfortably brought back to the train station.  We should have been using that more often!  There were taxis lined up and one tried to get us ride for 110 RMB. Taxis are not supposed to advertise a price.  All pricing should be set by the meter.  So aside from getting a taxi at the airport or one ordered by our hotel, we refused to use them.

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Taxis lined up to the right.  The bus was around the circle on a different street.  Didi came straight to where we were standing!

Finally, the day we were leaving Xi’an and taking the brand new bullet train line to Chengdu, we got to sleep in.  What a needed break!  We relaxed in the hotel until noon, then made our trek by walking to the metro and taking 2 metro lines to the train station.  It was noon on Saturday at the end of Chinese New Year.  We weren’t thinking.  While we were squashed into the metro with our luggage and backpacks, I asked Hannah why we didn’t hire a Didi.  She just shrugged.  We were both so programmed to take the metro that it was just what we did.  We won’t make that mistake again.

Traveling on your own in China is NOT easy. Without Hannah’s knowledge of how things work, all her phone apps for metro maps, google translate, Didi and WeChat Pay, it would have been a real challenge to get around.  We had a great time and saw most everything on my “must-do” list for China. But it was definitely exhausting and took an enormous amount of planning.  Here’s a list of some hints for traveling to this vast and interesting country:

  1. Bring plenty of Chinese Juan (RMB) in all denominations. You will almost never be able to use your credit or debit card.
  2. Download metro maps for any of the cities you’ll be visiting before you leave.
  3. Download Google Translate.
  4. Get the names and addresses of your hotels in Chinese so you can show them to taxi drivers or people helping you find your way.
  5. Watch out for people in uniforms yelling at you to get in other bus lanes if waiting for local busses to popular attractions.  There are often private companies running busses along the same routes at higher costs.
  6. Be ready to go through security checks at every metro and train station.  Be ready to quickly put all items on the scan belt and walk through the detectors.
  7. Many bathrooms have in-the-floor toilets as well as a few western-style toilets.  If you don’t want to use the floor toilets, check all the stalls to see if there are western toilets available.
  8. Bring tissues with you.  Sometimes there’s toilet paper, but not always.
  9. If you are sensitive to air quality, bring or purchase a mask.
  10. Google is not available in China, but Bing is.

If you’re interested in a trip to China, whether by tour (recommended unless you’re visiting someone there!) or on your own, I’d love to help you plan your vacation!

Yadkin Valley Escape

Sometimes you just can’t take time for a real get-away, but even sneaking away for 12-24 hours nearby can be a refreshing treat!

Ever had trouble getting away?  Lately life has come at my family hard and fast.  The main thing consuming our time, energy and finances has been the wedding of our youngest daughter, Adrianna.  That created a travel hiatus for me for 6 months, which has felt like an eternity!

While dreaming about our 30-year anniversary 10 years ago, my husband, some good friends and I decided we’d go to Australia to hike and visit the wineries.  Sometimes plans 10 years down the line don’t work out!  Our 30-year anniversary approached and we couldn’t figure out how to get away together for a weekend, much less a trip to Australia.

As our anniversary date approached, I found myself getting depressed that it was going to pass by without any kind of celebration.  Admittedly, I’m also hard to please.  Going out to dinner at a nice restaurant in town was not going to suffice.  I felt like we needed a little more of a get-away than that.  So we talked again about what we both love to do, which is hiking and wine tasting and really good food.  The more we thought about it, we realized we had all of that within 1.5 hours of our house, so why not take advantage of it?

Since we only had part of one afternoon into the next morning, we couldn’t do much touring around. We decided to hike up Pilot Mountain just north of Winston-Salem, then head to the Hampton Inn & Suites in Dobson, NC, and have dinner at the Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards.  Although there are numerous notable and up-and-coming wineries in the Yadkin Valley, we had heard great things about the Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards and wanted to experience a dinner there with our hotel only a few miles down the road.

Hiking up Pilot Mountain on a sunny day is stunning.  It’s a 6-mile roundtrip, which makes it convenient for an afternoon hike with rewarding views.  There are other great options in the area, like Hanging Rock State Park, which we hope to explore more in future outings.

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Dining at Harvest Grill was just what we hoped it would be.  Rather than a flight or pairing, we decided to just have a bottle of the Reserve Claret with our meal.  My meal of roasted lamb and grilled asparagus was fabulous. And they were very accommodating with my annoying Gluten- and Dairy-free needs.  David had the grilled salmon special in a jalapeño butter sauce, which he deemed very good, but not quite great.  We both loved the enclosed patio room overlooking part of the vineyards and the herb/vegetable garden.  The service, food, ambience and wine combined for an excellent experience.

Trip Advisor photo of Harvest Grill

The Hampton Inn is actually owned by Shelton Vineyards and is very nicely appointed.  It’s a little nicer than most stock Hampton Inns and includes an appealing lobby, a welcoming wine tasting room (Shelton wines only!) as well as a patio to sit and enjoy a glass of wine, some conversation or just a good book!  Our room was spotless, spacious and very comfortable.  We had originally planned to stay in one of the enticing B&B’s in the area, but this was a very pleasant alternative in order to stay near the restaurant and to get back on the road toward home quickly.

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Although Hampton Inns provide complimentary breakfast, we wanted omelettes and atmosphere.  So we took a chance and pulled off exit 82 at Elkin, NC, to see what we could find. We were immediately drawn to the old-fashioned-looking Breakfast Time restaurant.  It was just what we wanted with an extensive breakfast menu, healthy options and that quaint retro look. The service was friendly and prompt and it is clearly popular with the locals. Breakfast Time is actually a new restaurant that began in Winston-Salem in 2009 and has expanded to a few towns.  The one in Elkin just opened in 2016 and is a worthy stopping point for breakfast-all-day along the I-77 corridor.

We’re looking forward to exploring our region on quick little get-aways more often!  Never underestimate the value of 24-hour or less explorations.  Western North Carolina is not only a great place to live, but a great place to vacation as well!

Disney World at Christmas? Are you crazy?

If you just have to travel over the holidays, how do you make it palatable and even enjoyable?

Maybe!  We are the types who avoid crowds and travel as often as possible during the shoulder seasons, when prices are better and crowds are lower.  My golden rule is to avoid traveling during school breaks and holidays.  So why would we go to Disney World at Christmas?  Because, as most of you have likely experienced at some point, sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.  In our case, it wasn’t because of school schedules or athletic commitments.  It was because our daughter, Hannah, has been working at WDW and wouldn’t be home for Christmas.  Since she’ll also be away next year, we decided we needed to do whatever it took to get the family together this year.  Many of you know how hard that is as children become adults!

There ARE advantages to traveling to WDW at Christmas, even with the crowds.  First, the parks are beautifully decorated.  I took advantage of this by not lugging out all the decorations at home this year.  Second, NO COOKING!  That’s a big one for me since we have many traditions built around Christmas food. I love the traditions, but wow, what a nice break for a change.  It was the most stress-free Christmas I’ve had in a long time.  Third, family is spending concentrated time together.  Since you’re away from all the distractions of home, it’s nice to really dedicate some time to being a family again.  Fourth, I didn’t experience the post-Christmas blues I sometimes feel.  Since we were there for several days after Christmas, there was time to ease back into post-holiday life.

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Magic Kingdom lit up for Christmas in the evening

However, some days the parks really were packed full of people.  This is when it’s advantageous to pre-plan and have a strategy.  Here are some tips that I’ve learned after at least 14 trips to Disney parks that can help make busy days more enjoyable.

  • Stay on Disney property if you have multi-generations traveling together.  This gives everyone so much freedom to come and go between the parks and your resort with no worries.
  • If possible, choose a resort that has alternative transportation to the parks you love best.  The traffic can get crazy, so even taking resort busses can be a hassle on really busy days.  Using boat or monorail transportation comes in really handy on these days.
  • Get to the parks EARLY.  We found that using the extra magic hours (if you stay at Disney resorts) and getting to the park just before opening really made a difference.  Staying late at night wasn’t nearly as much of an advantage.  Lots more people stay up late than get there early.
  • Check out the crowd calendar before going and plan your fast passes well ahead of time.  Choose the park that has the lowest expected attendance for each given day of travel and make your fast pass reservations for the morning.
  • Make your restaurant reservations as far in advance as possible!  Six months is ideal.
  • Don’t try to do it all.  Or if you do want to do it all, give yourself at least 7 days in the parks.  The cost of admission is incrementally much smaller as you add on days, so it makes a lot of sense to get passes for a solid week (or more!).  Park hopper passes allow you to take advantage of whichever parks have lower wait times at any time of day.  We often switch parks mid-day depending on wait times and our moods.
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Epcot lit up in the evening
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Relaxing afternoons on our balcony
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Worshipping at Christmas time with Gospel choir “Joyful Noise”
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Three goofs playing in Animal Kingdom
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View from the hot air balloon at Disney Springs

 

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Epcot lit up in the evening
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Worshipping with “Joyful Noise” Gospel choir at Christmas time
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“The girls” – three generations enjoying Christmas eve dinner at Brown Derby

Our family, as many others I know, has perfected the art of which fast passes to make and which ones to avoid.  We also enjoy trying out many of the different resorts and restaurants.  If I can help you to plan your next trip, please let me know!  I’d love to share the experience I’ve gleaned with you.

Wishing all of you peace and love throughout 2017!

Noelle

“Running-Away” to Boston

Days 2 & 3

Don’t you love it when the hotel lobby coffee is actually good?  We grabbed a cup and headed out for our hotel shuttle to the subway.

Although we had reservations for the whale watch cruise, it was a good thing we arrived early.  If you want a seat (and you probably do because it’s a long, cold ride!), get there at least half an hour ahead of departure.  No one can guarantee whale sightings, but the Boston companies work together to track and spot the whales, so you’re pretty likely to see some.  We lucked out since the Humpback whales seemed to be in the mood to put on a show!  We laughed at some pectoral and tail slapping, ooohed and aaahed when they breached and learned patience after a fluke-up dive, which meant they were going to spend some time (usually only 8-10 minutes) underwater.

Back on land, we headed south along the waterfront to the Boston Tea Party ships and museum.  Although we didn’t tour the museum, it’s intriguing to see the ships, which are near-perfect replicas.  From there, we walked past the popular Boston Children’s museum to Flour, a very tasty artisanal bakery and cafe offering many healthy and allergy-free options at decent prices. It’s worth finding your way there!

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Next we hopped on the hop-on, hop-off CityView Trolley that was included in our Go Boston Card.  We had an informative and fun guide, so we stayed onboard for the entire circuit to hear all his commentary.  We had hoped to make it to the U.S.S. Constitution this afternoon, but were too late.  Instead, we meandered through the streets and shops in the main tourist district while enjoying the live entertainment.

Ready for dinner, we dined outdoors at Anthem.  While the atmosphere was great, our food was only average.

Sunday arrived with rain and wind.  We had scheduled our indoor activities for Sunday because of this.  Adrianna cannot visit a city without seeing the zoo or aquarium, so we spent several hours in the New England Aquarium.  It ranked high in our opinion with some good educational “shows.”  After a quick take-away lunch in the Quincy Market, we boarded the CityView Trolley again as transportation to the U.S.S. Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides.”  While it’s in dry-dock, we have the opportunity to see the entire hull.  U.S. Navy crew members tell the story of the launch and explain various features, though only 2 decks were open for visitation.  The U.S.S. Constitution was commissioned in 1798, earned its nickname “Old Ironsides” during the War of 1812 and has never yet lost a battle. The gift shop at the museum (separately run and funded by contributions) had some unique souvenirs.

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Braving the rain and wind, we headed back to the trolley.  It’s intriguing to hear the different driver guides elaborate with their own take on the core history and stories.  Some are definitely better than others, but each perspective adds its own flavor to the ride.  Time constraints caused us to scrap our plans for the Museum of Fine Arts.  Instead, we walked from the Boston Public Garden, along Boyleston Street to  Copley Place for some indoor shopping.

With a 6:00 am flight on our minds, we chose to dine at the hotel again while enjoying our last evening of views of Boston across the harbor.  Looking back over our 3-day visit, we agreed that Boston ranks high for variation of activities, ease of getting around and beauty.  Any future visits would definitely include the Museum of Fine Arts, visits to the islands and biking or walking more of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.  But for this little get-away, we are returning home content and ready to jump into real life again (maybe…).

 

“Running away” to Boston

Long weekend in Boston

I’ve been booking a lot of Boston trips lately.  So when my youngest daughter, Adri, and I decided to run away somewhere during her fall break, Boston was top-of-mind.

Since we could only run away for a long weekend (3 nights) and had to find decently priced last-minute flights (that was hard!), we departed Greensboro, NC, at 5:50 am.  That meant leaving our Greensboro Airport hotel at 4:00 am.

But arriving before noon has its benefits!  I decided to stay near the airport since we have to fly again on Monday at 6:00 am.  I chose to splurge and stay in a room overlooking the harbor and the city.  We almost didn’t leave our room after an early check-in.  The views are just so mesmerizing (and we were operating on very little sleep!).

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Although Hurricane Matthew was causing havoc along the southeastern coast, up north was sunny and gorgeous.  Adri and I attained our Charlie cards, loaded them with some money and headed out on the Blue Line subway.  We got off after only 2 stops and started the Freedom Trail walk.  Even though we could have done the guided trip for free with our Go Boston cards (and I normally prefer to hear the stories and information great guides provide), we were in the mood to meander on our own.  The trail is easy and fun to follow with its brick lines and we had to keep stopping just to admire the great architecture, much less read the historical markers.

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Open-air windows in restaurants, pubs and cafes, flowers in window boxes, a brilliant mix of historical and modern architectural beauty and the harbor make Boston such a great place to just “be.”

After walking the trail at our own pace, we stopped for a coffee on the waterfront.  Sitting on a park bench, admiring the harbor views in the sunshine with a saxophone melody in the background, we settled into admiring the scene while we people- (and dog-) watched.

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Lack of sleep was catching up, so we headed back to the hotel to freshen up and enjoy dinner overlooking the bay and the city as the sun set in the background.  Here I sit now with our curtains open wide so we can fall asleep with the water shimmering in the cast-off light of the city behind it.  Tomorrow… whale watching and…?

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