Soaking up Culture and Sunsets in Zadar, Croatia

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I find it difficult to put in words my feelings for Zadar, Croatia. The coastal city was a last minute addition to my Croatia road trip and ended up one of my favorite stops! I felt at instantly ease, as if I could move there tomorrow and be welcomed into the fold. The city had a comfortable, lived-in feel, much like a favorite pair of jeans. (This is partly due to the fact that locals outnumbered tourists two to one.) But it was so much more than that. Imagine mornings spent sipping coffee in a quiet square surrounded by ancient Roman ruins, afternoons filled with art and history, and sunsets so colorful they take your breath away. This is Zadar, Croatia.

Zadar Croatia

Romans established an outpost in northern Dalmatia in the first century BC and, amazingly, ruins from that time still stand. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region ping-ponged between competing rulers, most notably the Byzantines, Venetians, and Austrians. The Turks tried and failed to conquer the well-fortified city. Bombs devastated Zadar during World War II, destroying the Roman Forum and a large percentage of the city’s buildings. Zadar experienced a rebirth after WWII as part of the newly-formed Yugoslavia. The old town sustained even more damage when Croatia fought for its independence, ending in victory for the new nation in 1995. Walking around Zadar today, it’s incredible to think that shells rained down as little as two decades ago.

Zadar Land Gate

Zadar city walls

Every morning, I walked from my rental apartment to the old town, entering through the impressive Land Gate. This lion-embellished Venetian archway dates to 1573 and celebrates victory over the Turks. Once beyond the walls, I made a beeline for one of the city’s many cafes to sip coffee and watch the locals go about their day. I traced their footsteps through the marble alleys and public squares, admiring centuries-old churches and architecture reflecting the various empires that left their mark on the city. My one regret is not ascending the bell tower for an overview of the terracotta rooftops and medieval street layout.

Ancient bell tower in Zadar, Croatia

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Five Wells Square, a Venetian contribution to the city.

A medieval church in Zadar, Croatia

St Donatus Church dates to the early 9th century.

St Simeon's Church Zadar

Zadar’s bounty of attractions kept me busy during the day. The Archaeology Museum provides a visual summary of the region’s many cultural influences, including a wealth of Roman artifacts and sculptures. I was particularly impressed by the Museum of Ancient Glass, which boasts one of the best collections of Roman glass outside of Italy. I marveled at the cases pretty blue vials and jars, delicate pieces that miraculously survived multiple wars and centuries of civil change.

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Zadar’s Museum of Ancient Glass is housed in the lovely Cosmacendi Palace.

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Evenings were spent enjoying some of the finest food in Croatia, featuring freshly-caught seafood and produce from the local farmers’ market. My after-dinner walks along the city walls culminated at two unique modern art installations that are open to the Zadar public. Every evening at the Greeting to the Sun monument, lights dance under a large circle of blue glass, glowing brighter as darkness ascended on the peninsula. Nearby, waves resound through the so-called Sea Organ. Concealed beneath a stretch of stone stairs, a series of pipes plays an other-worldly tune as the rushing water pushes air through. This is an ideal spot to rest weary feet and appreciate the coast’s spectacular beauty.

Zadar farmers market

Zadar’s famous Sea Organ makes music of the waves.

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Greeting to the Sun monument in Zadar, Croatia.

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I spent four nights in Zadar and two days exploring the city. On the remaining two days I visited some of the region’s best attractions: Krka National Park and Sibenik (article coming soon). Definitely stay longer if you can!

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Top Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Summer

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Latvia may not be as popular a summer destination as, say, Spain or Italy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great place to visit. The season here is short and oh so sweet – especially if you know how to take full advantage of all that Riga has to offer. So don your sunglasses and SPF and get ready to enjoy a pretty European capital away from the tourist crowds with some of my favorite ways to make the most of the region’s fleeting summer sunshine!

Relax at a Beer Garden

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The Latvian Blues Band performs at Egle in Old Riga.

Enjoying summer in Riga, Latvia with pear cider and fried garlic bread

German cities aren’t the only ones in Europe with beer gardens! During the summer months, the squares in Old Riga are converted into vast open-air cafes/beer halls and are the perfect spot to chill out with a quality Latvian brew. Many, like Egle, feature live music every night of the week. Stellar groups include the Latvian Blues Band, Flame & the Rolltones, and Normunds Kietis.

Attend a Festival

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Latvian girls prepare for the Youth Song and Dance Festival.

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Scenes from last August’s Riga City Festival.

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Latvians perform folk songs at Baltica Festival 2015.

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Riga knows how to throw a party! The season kicks off in June with Ligo, the Summer Solstice celebration, and fades into fall with the Mikelis Day Fair marking the Autumn Equinox in September. In between, there is the Latvian Youth Song and Dance Festival, Baltica Folklore Festival, International Dance Festival, and many more. The highlight is the Riga City Festival, a multi-day event commemorating the city’s birthday. Find out what’s happening around town via Live Riga.

Enjoy a Free Concert

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Listening to live jazz outside the Small Guild.

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The organ inside St. John’s Church in Old Riga.

Many Riga venues offer free music concerts between May and September. Beautiful organ music can be enjoyed at St. John’s Church (6pm Saturdays), St. Savior’s Church (1pm Wednesdays), and Old St. Gertrude’s Church (dates and times vary). Jazz concerts take place on the grounds of the Small Guild every Thursday at 5pm. Also on Thursdays (7pm) you can rock out at Kalnciema Kvartals, a district of restored wooden Art Nouveau buildings. The Spikeri Creative Quarter, the rehabbed former warehouse district and Jewish Ghetto, hosts eclectic musical acts ranging from funk to blues to jazz. So get your groove on!

Hit the Beach

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The spiffy Baltic Sea resort, Jurmala, may be just 26 kilometers from the city center, but why haul all your gear on the train when there’s a perfectly good stretch of sand right in the heart of Riga? The place is replete with volleyball courts, a children’s playground, a bar, and public toilets. To get there, walk across Vansu bridge or take any bus that stops at Kipsala, the island in the Daugava River where the beach is located.

Visit Mentzendorff’s House

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This interesting Old Town museum is located in the restored 17th century home of a master glass maker and provides a glimpse of how Riga’s upper crust used to live. Visitors can stroll through the entire house from basement to attic and see period furnishings, restored wall paintings, and special exhibits showcasing local artisans. The museum is named after the home’s final owner, August Mentzendorff, and is only open during the summer months.

Get a Birds-Eye View

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A birds-eye view of lovely Riga, Latvia

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For sweeping views of the city, skip the crowds and tight spaces at St. Peter’s Church and head to the wide open observation deck atop the Latvian Academy of Sciences building. Knicknamed “Stalin’s birthday cake,” the Soviet-era building was the first skyscraper in Latvia.

Buy Berries and Chanterelles

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Berries and mushrooms are ripe for the picking – literally! – in Latvia’s fertile forests. Take the train out of the city and you will see locals filling their baskets to the brim. Enjoy the fruits of their labors at markets and sidewalk stands all over Riga.

Tour the National Library

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The Latvian National Library is also known as “Gaismas Pils,” or “Castle of Light.” The unique design was inspired by a Latvian folktale about a crystal mountain and by the country’s experience overcoming the darkness of war and occupation. The building has recently reopened to the public after serving as the headquarters for the Latvian EU Presidency. Tours with an English-speaking guide are a steal at just €2 and the only way to visit the glass observation deck at the top. The library also boasts a rare treat – air-conditioning!

Delve into Riga’s Difficult Past

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Looking out a former interrogation room at the Latvian flag hanging in the courtyard.

The most chilling spot in town might be the KGB Building, the former headquarters of the Soviet secret police. For decades, many locals were subjected to torturous interrogations, imprisonment, deportations, and executions if deemed an “enemy of the state.” Located on what is now called “Freedom Street,” the building today has been turned into a museum in conjunction with the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Guided tours lead visitors through the building, from prison cells to the exercise yard.  Last year it closed for the winter, so see it now.

Browse a Saturday Craft Market

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Farmer’s market at Kalnciema Kvartals.

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Treasure hunting at the Spikeri flea market.

With the Kalnciema craft and farmer’s market, the Spikeri flea market, and the Berga Bazars market, Rigans are spoiled for choice come Saturday. Join them on the search for something special, whether it’s vintage clothing and tableware or farm-fresh seasonal produce and locally-made wine.

Stop and Smell the Roses

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The Riga Botanical Garden offers up new delights every season. In summer, the roses and dahlias are in bloom. The varied colors and fragrances are intoxicating!

Take to the Water

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Riga’s waterways are the ultimate summer playground. Whether you splurge on a dinner cruise down the Daugava or pedal your way along the City Canal, you’re sure to have a good time. Feeling adventurous? You can even try kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding!

Eat an Ice Cream Cone

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There is nothing more refreshing on a warm summer day than ice cream. You’ll find plenty of options around Riga, but look out for the pale yellow carts dishing out Ekselence brand ice cream. It’s top notch and made right here in Latvia!

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How would YOU enjoy a Riga summer?

Swooning Over Spring in Riga

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Just like autumn before her, spring arrived in Riga seemingly overnight. The grass grew a vivid shade of green and flower beds erupted in colorful blooms – the speed of this change was almost dizzying! All it took was a few sunny days and a good soaking rain to wash away the last vestiges of winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, tulips, lilacs, violets, and even cherry blossoms brightened the city’s parks one by one, a new dazzling display tempting me out each week with my camera in tow. As if Riga weren’t pretty enough already, spring comes along and gilds the lily!

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What better place to revel in spring’s bounty than the Riga Botanical Garden! Operated in conjunction with the University of Latvia, the 15 hectare park boasts over 6,000 plants, flowers and trees. A large greenhouse contains a rain forest habitat along with an impressive array of orchids and cacti. During the spring and summer months, the butterfly house is a fun diversion – though be warned there is a separate entrance fee (worth it) and the temperature inside exceeds 30C! In a bit of canny entrepreneurship, bottled water is for sale at the ticket booth.

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Not to be outshined by Mother Nature, Riga’s chefs got in on the action during Restaurant Week, serving up spring on a plate. Seasonal produce including artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, and sea buckthorn livened up meats like duck and rabbit, while rye bread crumbs and fresh dairy added Latvian flair to the desserts. I partook of the specially-priced set menus at a few restaurants, with my favorites being Locale and Tinto.

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Artichoke risotto, roast duck, and vanilla semifreddo at Locale.

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Asparagus soup, fish salad, and chocolate cake at Tinto.

Always a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I jumped at the chance to enjoy views of Riga from 50 meters up with Dinner in the Sky. I went with the “Champagne in the Sky” option, which included a drink, light snack, and 20 minutes of air time. After being strapped securely to our chairs – which swiveled! – the large platform was hoisted by crane into the stratosphere and gently turned so that we could appreciate the city from a variety of angles. The fearless staff handed each guest a flute of G.H. MUMM champagne and a beautiful appetizer plate, though most of us were so busy gaping at the view and taking photos that we didn’t consume either until the way down. I’ll be eagerly awaiting this spectacle’s return to Riga next year!

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Latvians seem determined to enjoy every last second of the fleeting sunshine, and nowhere was this more apparent than gada tirgus, or the annual market. Each June, virtually every handicraft maker in the country converges on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, and eager shoppers turn out in droves. Pottery, rugs, iron works, wooden furniture, beeswax candles, sausages and cured meats, wicker baskets, mittens, fresh cheese, wool sweaters, children’s toys…the list goes on and on. If I hadn’t been worried about getting my purchases home on the bus, I would have been tempted to buy one of everything!

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The weekend before gada tirgus, Riga hosted the 5th annual Latvian Beer Fest in the centrally located Vermanes Park. With over two dozen breweries represented, it’s the largest festival of its kind in the Baltics.

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Please pardon the low resolution, these were taken with my phone. And the cup on the left is pear cider. Yum!

The unofficial start of the spring season coincided with the celebration of Latvia’s Restoration of Independence. On May 4, 1990, Latvia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union and reestablished itself as a free democratic republic. Because 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of this momentous occasion, Riga threw one heck of a party! Marching bands from cities around Latvia performed in front of the Freedom Monument before a formal ceremony featuring a steady stream of Latvian political leaders, members of the military, foreign dignitaries, and distinguished guests. Everyone laid flowers at the monument’s base and filled in a “flower map” of Latvia.

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Bottom left: Former President Andris Berzins; Bottom right: Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.

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How have you enjoyed spring in your part of the world?

A Dog Sledding Adventure in Latvia

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Keen to try out regional winter activities, I found a company, Discover Latvia, that organizes dog sledding tours, and gave them a ring after a particularly snowy week in January. What better place than northern Europe to give this sport a try? And I was in luck – they had a group going out! I eagerly waited for the day to arrive and, despite some warmer temps and rain in Riga, was assured that there would be plenty of snow where we were going.

A friendly tour operator by the name of Rihards picked us up at a nearby hotel along with two Irish girls vacationing in Riga. During the hour and a half drive, Rihards regaled us with funny stories and fascinating facts about Latvia, keeping us thoroughly entertained. We drove deep into the countryside, passing frozen rivers on which men were ice fishing and villages so small they don’t show up on most maps. When we eventually pulled up to the camp, the daylight was already starting to fade.

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Rihards explained what would happen on the ride, demonstrating how to drive the sled and keep command of the dogs. I opted to sit in the sled, as “baggage,” with the hopes of taking photos and video along the way. I would soon realize how misguided this idea was. The young dogs, which appeared to be Husky mixes, were VERY excited, barking fervently and jumping straight up into the air. They wanted to RUN!

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Once I was situated in the sled, I realized that it was about a foot too long for my legs, leaving me with nothing to brace my feet against. But before I had a chance to ask someone at the camp about it, our dogs were released and we hurtled down the icy path at break-neck speed! I hooked my heels on the rim of the sled and held on for dear life.

The first part of the course snaked through the woods and included a few nail-biting 45-degree turns which our dogs handled with aplomb. We also deftly crossed a steep and rocky creek bed before coming to a wide open field. We left the camp in second place, but soon overtook another team which had veered off course and were being helped by the staff. Amazingly, we managed to stay upright for the entire five kilometers!

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Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate as well as the dogs, sleeting for the duration of the ride. By the time we crossed the finish line, I was absolutely soaked and had make-up running down my face. Fortunately it was almost dark by that point so no one could see. After waiting for the other teams to return, we warmed up by the campfire and drank cups of hot wine. Rihards also brought along three varieties of tasty pirags: cabbage, mushroom and black currant. Then it was time for a quiet ride back to Riga.

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To give you a little taste of what the experience was like, here’s a video from Discover Latvia. The dogs really do get that excited!

We departed Riga at 2:30 pm and returned around 7 pm. Rihards was very quick to answer all of my emails, and sent photos and video of my ride a few days later. Discover Latvia charges between 60-90 euros per person for the dog-sledding tour depending on the number of participants. The price is a bit steep, but it’s definitely a unique experience!

 Have you been dog sledding? If not, is it something you’d like to try?

36 Hours in Tokyo

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I’ve been to Tokyo three times and still feel like I’ve barely plumbed its cultural depths. My first visit was nearly nine years ago, and while I checked off a lot of tourist attractions, I was an inexperienced traveler and didn’t have the same appreciation for the region I do now. My second visit was two years ago, in the dead of winter. We were there mainly to see friends and spent the majority of our time sitting on the heated floor of our rental apartment playing board games and eating Japanese junk food.

We made our most recent foray this past summer, though were limited to just 36 hours. I was determined to squeeze as much into that short time as possible! My first order of business was, of course, to eat. A lot. My love of ramen is well-documented and our friends had the perfect little spot lined up: Koumen, a local chain. This inexpensive but satisfying eatery was just the place to fuel up for our adventures.

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After stuffing ourselves full of porky noodle-and-dumpling goodness, we set off to explore the city. First up was the restaurant supply market, a delightful street lined with stores selling everything from rice bowls and sushi knives to steamer baskets and sake cups. My favorite items, however, were the fake food. Restaurants all over Japan use these plastic sushi pieces and bowls of noodles to advertise dishes on their menu, often in a glass case near the entrance. I’m not sure how this practice started, but it’s highly useful for foreign diners who might not be able to decipher a Japanese menu. I wanted to buy a few pieces as a souvenir but they were surprisingly pricey.

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These fake cans of beer cost US$24. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to use real ones?

I had enjoyed the temple district of Asakusa on my first visit to Tokyo and was keen to see it again. We were joined by thousands of tourists and Buddhist faithful who come to pray to the Goddess of Mercy at Sensō-ji, the colorful temple erected in her honor. Though all the original buildings were destroyed during World War II, the district remains one of the oldest in the city. A bustling shopping street leads away from the temple’s main gate, which is hung with immense red paper lanterns.

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On a clear day, the views from the top of the Tokyo Skytree can’t be beat! The Skytree is the tallest building in Japan as well as the tallest free-standing broadcasting tower in the world. It was built in 2011 to replace Tokyo Tower, a smaller, red Eiffel-Tower knockoff which was no longer tall enough to broadcast signals over the surrounding skyscrapers. After taking a numbered card and waiting around an hour inside the tower’s quirky shopping mall, we reached the 35th-floor observation deck at dusk, just in time to watch the lights turn on all across the city. (Tickets cost about US$20.)

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We ate dinner at an izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub with the welcome addition of barbecue. Seated on cushions on the floor around a low table, we drank frosty mugs of Asahi beer and enjoyed skewers of freshly grilled foods. Sundry parts of a chicken were consumed, from the thighs to the cartilage, along with the kidneys and tongue of a cow. Vegetables, like asparagus and cherry tomatoes, came wrapped in juicy pieces of bacon. This meal was a carnivore’s delight!

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After putting on a few unhealthy pounds, the only thing left to do was to sing it off! Karaoke is incredibly popular in Japan, as in much of Asia, though quite different from the West where the experience tends toward public spectacle. We rented a private room which came stocked with a decent selection of English songs and tambourines for the backup singers. Liquid encouragement was ordered by phone and delivered by a discreet and efficient staff who have probably seen and heard it all. We called it a night after belting out our fill of the greatest hits of the 80s and 90s.

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The next day we were in need of a long walk and some sushi, to counteract the excesses of the night before. After stashing our bags in a locker at Tokyo Station, we made our way to Sushi Zanmai, a famous chain whose main branch resides at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tuna, salmon and amberjack are my fish of choice, and I may have ordered second helpings of each. Thankfully this didn’t count against my baggage limit at the airport!

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Have you been to Tokyo?

How would you spend 36 hours in the city?

 

Shanghai Aquarium: An Underwater Adventure

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium and, after visiting a few underwhelming zoos in Asia, had some trepidation about the conditions I’d find. For all of Shanghai’s glitz and glamour, China is still a developing nation and animal conservation doesn’t always seem to be a high priority (Giant Pandas excepted).

For the most part, I was impressed with Shanghai’s aquarium. I went on a weekday afternoon and was able to enjoy the exhibits (with only minor pushing and shoving to get a clear view). Weekends and school holidays might best be avoided.

The large building huddles in the shadow of Oriental Pearl TV Tower in the Luijaizui section of Pudong. There are many sights in the vicinity and combination tickets can save quite a bit of money. At US$27, the aquarium is a little expensive for a stand-alone visit.

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The aquarium is ostensibly divided into regional “zones,” though limited signage made the designations unclear. One of the best (and unsurprisingly most popular) exhibits was that of the jellyfish. The gelatinous creatures glowed brightly as they propelled themselves through inky blue water. Their movements were so graceful they almost appeared to be dancing! Swarms of translucent moon jellies were illuminated in a changing rainbow of colors, creating the sensation that visitors are walking through a living, slow-motion kaleidoscope.

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I believe these are Pacific Sea nettles.

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Moon jellies are easily recognized by their distinctive shamrock-shaped design.

Another wildly popular creature was the sawfish, a critically-endangered species also known as the carpenter shark. This fellow features a long flat snout with sharp tooth-like protrusions, much like that of a chainsaw, hence the name. Unlucky prey gets impaled on the teeth, making the sawfish a fearsome predator despite its comedic appearance.

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Not sure why this guy was digging through the sand with a bottle, but the sawfish was not amused. I guess that’s why a chainmail tunic was necessary!

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The aquarium’s showpiece is a series of tunnels which allow visitors to walk under the sea. Arched glass ceilings provide unobstructed views of a wide array of ocean dwellers swimming above, while coral formations and cleverly placed skylights create a realistic environment for the animals. A slow-moving electronic walkway inches along one side, though there is plenty of room to step off for a closer inspection of the sharks’ frightful teeth.

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Hello Mr. Shark. What big teeth you have!

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Some of the fish looked downright prehistoric!

Other interesting displays included a trio of playful spotted seals, an ensemble of waddling penguins and fish of every size, shape and color. A section of the aquarium is dedicated to the fauna of the Amazon, such as snakes, lizards and brightly colored little frogs.

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Where I thought the aquarium fell short was educating the public about the importance of conservation. Shark fin soup is a Ming Dynasty-era delicacy that is increasingly popular due to rising income levels in mainland China. As a result, shark populations are in decline due to over-fishing. I did find a small display on the importance of protecting sharks, but it lacked information about the soup and how the fins are actually harvested. Hopefully Chinese society will come to embrace animal conservancy issues as it continues to develop.

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Shanghai Ocean Aquarium
Address: 1388 Lujiazui Ring Rd, Pudong, Shanghai, China
Entrance Fee: 160 RMB (27 USD); combination tickets with other area attractions are available

Horseback Riding in the Mountains of Yunnan

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I love horses for their grace and strength and their gentle, calming presence. When we arrived in Yunnan and saw horses everywhere, I longed to ride one. While I’ve only ridden a handful of times, at that moment I fantasized about galloping through open fields, the wind in my hair, breathing deeply of that fresh mountain air.

Horseback riding in Yunnan seems tailored to the Chinese tour groups so our experience was nothing like that, but was still fun in its own way. As soon as we floated the idea past the manager of our guesthouse, she set something up for us the next day. Our two-hour ride through Lijiang’s mountains pleasantly surprised us in that we were alone with our horses and a guide. The hubs got to control his own horse, but our guide must have thought me too delicate as she kept a firm hold on my lead, walking ahead and whispering soothingly to the animals in Mandarin. (My horse was named Little Flower, hubs had Little Kid.) About halfway through the ride, we stopped for a rest and were immediately besieged by ladies selling bags of horse treats. Suckers that we are, we paid about three dollars for two bags of beans the ladies called “chocolate for horses,” only to return from a short stroll and find every horse in the lot happily munching on the treats. We realized they get fed whether the tourist buys the snack or not.

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Notice the girl in green texting while riding.

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The path through the mountains led us past ponds and waterfalls – many of them man-made.  We sauntered through ancient villages where ladies in ethnic minority garb could be seen at work and yaks grazed contentedly. It was quiet, with only a few other tourists with us on the trail. We crested a hill, giving us sweeping view of the countryside and Lashi Lake in the valley.

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Our outing culminated with a scenic cruise along Lashi Lake. Supposedly an important habitat for migratory birds, we saw nary a one, but it was peaceful on the water and I would have been happy to float along for hours.

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The total cost of our two hour horseback ride and cruise was 380 RMB per person (about 62 USD). Someone working at our hotel drove us to the village from which the tour started, and provided us with cowboy hats and gloves. I would also recommend wearing sunscreen as the sun is more intense at that elevation.

Why Going to the Movies in Bangkok is Awesome

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We haven’t been to a movie theater since arriving in Shanghai last year. China only releases a limited number of foreign films and those that make the cut are often censored. Not wanting to pay an arm and a leg to see an incomplete movie, we haven’t bothered going. We’d talked about trying to catch a movie when visiting other countries but had usually been too tired from sightseeing. In Thailand, we made it a priority, hearing that the Bangkok movie experience was not to be missed.

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We purchased tickets for a showing of Skyfall, the latest James Bond flick, in an Enigma theater at Paragon mall. At nearly 28 USD a piece, they certainly weren’t cheap, but this wound up being a movie-going experience that we would seek out regularly if we could. The Bangkok Airways-sponsored theater had its own entrance within the larger cinema area of the mall. Inside we found a private lounge with dreamy blue lighting and a nightclub ambiance. The drinks and food menu was presented on a tablet and we could place orders for delivery inside the theater. I of course ordered a dry martini – shaken, not stirred.

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The theater itself was small, with only about 30 seats. We chose our seats when we bought the tickets and ended up with two leather recliners in the back row. Other rows featured two-seater leather sofas equipped with foot rests. All had separate blankets and pillows. Before the movie started, a film dedicated to the king was played as everyone stood respectfully. There was some applause and even a bow or two from the audience, and then it was showtime. A waiter brought our drinks during the previews as we settled comfortably in our recliners. It felt like we were at home in our living room, with the added bonus of personal staff. Now this is how to watch a movie!

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I’d like another martini please.

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There was also a spa conveniently located nearby should you need a pre- or post-movie massage.

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If you don’t want to splurge on Enigma, IMAX or one of the other special theaters, the regular multi-seaters still offer a posh experience. In addition to a comfortable public lounge, Paragon boasts a popcorn bar, gourmet concession stands and even a bowling alley. When it comes to movie-watching in Bangkok, it’s easy to see what all the fuss is about!

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 What’s the nicest movie theater you’ve ever been to?

 

Alligator Adventures in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

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After driving by the park for years, my Dad and I finally stopped in to see if the Alligator Adventure park in North Myrtle Beach is worth the price of admission. Upon entering, we were immediately greeted by dozens of young American alligators in a large pond. They way they were lined up caused my dad to ask if I wanted to try running across them à la James Bond in Live and Let Die. He’s a funny guy! I preferred to heed the posted signage warning visitors to keep their hands and feet outside the enclosures at all times.

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Those smallish alligators looked like toys compared to Utan, a behemoth Siamese crocodile said to be the biggest on display in the U.S. I believe it. He was HUGE! Utan is kept in a separate enclosure, presumably so he won’t eat the other alligators. The collection of albino alligators are also kept away from the rest of the reptile population. Their cages are inside a special room where they can be protected from the damaging rays of the sun.

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The highlight of any visit to Alligator Adventure is attending one of the live shows where you can watch as skilled handlers feed the massive adult gators pieces of raw chicken. (This is only available April-October as alligators don’t eat during the colder months.) As soon as the dinner bell rang, the well-trained reptiles swam up to the feeding platform and patiently waited for their meal. Not all the animals answered the call as they were already full from an earlier meal and were in a semi-comatose that digestion induces. Watching the hungry ones jump out of the water to catch the fresh meat was unreal. The strength and agility of these creatures explains why they are basically unchanged from the days of the dinosaurs.

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But there is more on display here than crocs and gators. Every scary breed of snake, from pythons and boa constrictors to spitting cobras and black mambas, is represented, as are an interesting assortment of turtles, frogs and lizards. The beautiful variety of birds found around the park had me enchanted, until a cheeky parrot tried to bite my camera lens. The park’s collection tigers, bobcats and lemurs were sleeping during our visit so we didn’t see much of them – we’ll just have to go back!

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Alligator Adventure
Address: 4604 Highway 17, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USA
Entrance Fee: 17 USD (advance purchase online)

 

Feats of Flexibility: Shanghai Acrobats

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Chinese acrobats are known the world over for their strength and agility and Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe has a reputation for being among the best in the city. The performance, held at the Shanghai Center Theater, included nine awe-inspiring acts broken up by a few comedic routines. It was amazing to see the level of control these powerful athletes have over their bodies. My back ached just watching them contort themselves into impossible positions.

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There were also a few impressive acts that used props, such as hoops, chairs and a tightrope. Each performance was more dazzling than the last, many eliciting gasps from the crowd as new acts of daring were successfully attempted.

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One high-flying act featured a couple swinging through the air while dangling precariously from scarves. Their graceful movements made it seem effortless, though I can only imagine the years of training that the acrobats have undertaken. In the most mind-boggling act of the night, a lady slowly climbed  up a wobbly ladder while balancing multiple trays of wine on her nose. As if that weren’t impressive enough, she simultaneously played the clarinet while never spilling a drop. My jaw was on the floor!

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Shanghai Centre Theatre
Address: 1376 Nanjing Xi Lu, Jing’an, Shanghai, China
Tickets: 100-280 RMB