Friday, November 14, 2014

CHINA 2014: Imperial Tours Shanghai & Hong Kong w/ Macau

CHINA 2014
IMPERIAL TOURS SHANGHAI 
&
HONG KONG WITH MACAU
Shanghai
Group Picture in Shanghai
We drove 3 hours from Hangzhou to Shanghai.  Wow!  Shanghai has changed and is ever changing since our last visit 9 years ago.  The Pudong area is built up.  Sadly, the old neighborhoods are being torn down to build huge malls and apartment complexes.  There are 28 Million people in Shanghai.  The feel of the city is that it is exploding.  More apartments, restaurants and malls with Rodeo Drive type of stores.  The “bargains” that I found 9 years ago are gone and shopping is at market value.  If it is luxury shopping, the price includes a 48% luxury tax.  This is NOT the place to get your next Gucci purse.

French Concession
Our tours included visits to the French Concession with it's beautiful tree lined streets, a colonial architecture tour with an expert from Texas, a visit to the Yu Garden (too crowded and you can skip this tourist trap) and the Shanghai Museum.  I liked this museum because it showed the history of Shanghai as well as the current model of today's Shanghai and the vision of it's future.
We stayed at the Peninsula Shanghai on the Bund.  Our room was large and beautifully appointed.  It is located on West side of the city.  The service was excellent and the food quality was quite good except for our final dinner there.  I enjoyed staying on the Bund because of it's location.

Four Seasons Pudong
I was totally surprised with the Four Seasons Pudong.  What a beautiful hotel on the business side of Shanghai.  Beautiful rooms and excellent cuisine.  It's definitely an option for people traveling to Shanghai.  Unfortunately, the other Four Seasons on the West side of Shanghai has a mall that is being built next door so until the construction is finished, if you love your Four Seasons Hotels, the Four Seasons Pudong will be your best option.


Hong Kong
Our group trip ended in Shanghai.  My husband and I flew 2 hours to Hong Kong to continue our China exploration.  We had visited Hong Kong 9 years ago and loved the shopping.  Well ... you can skip the shopping if you are only looking at saving money.  The prices are expensive ... no deals here and the quality is not good.  Many places advertise silk and cashmere but they are actually polyester and cashmere/wool blends.

If you haven't visited Hong Kong, the places that you will tour include Victoria Peak, the Tin Hau and Man Mo Temples and Aberdeen Harbour.  There is a Disneyland for your family to visit as well.
We enjoyed a GREAT dinner at Isola on Hong Kong Island.  Half the fun was figuring out the Star Ferry to get to the other side of Hong Kong – easy.  We enjoyed thin crusted pizza, a seafood pasta dish and an excellent U.S. Steak.  Dessert was an apple turnover with vanilla ice cream.  It was a great break from the Chinese cuisine that we have had during our time in China.
Jeff and I in Macau

Our final day in China was spent in Macau.  Macau, as my friend Melissa, from Travel with Melissa described it as "Las Vegas on steroids".  Macau is a 1 hour ferry ride from Hong Kong.  Helpful hint: spend a little more and purchase "superclass" ferry tickets and get the seats on the upper floor.  Macau is a blend of Portugese and Chinese
Turbojet to Macau

There are brand new casino hotels with huge mall complexes next to decaying apartment complexes.  Like Mainland China, these apartments will probably be torn down to make more room for more expensive office buildings, malls and luxury housing in the next few years.  Macau is worth visiting if you love to gamble BUT beware ... the table stakes begin at approximately $60-$80 per hand depending on where you gamble.  The casinos offer more tables than machines and I did not see roulette or craps tables.  Happy I went ... never need to go back.

My new BFF, Melissa Norton McKinley
My Concluding Thoughts on my China Adventure!!
So, this ends my China Adventure.  What did I learn?  For first time visitors, China is an exciting vision.  You experience and see things that you have only seen in picture books or movies.  It is a must see on your travel wish list.  China is not the same China as my last visit 9 years ago.  It is more crowded, more polluted and has traffic that makes Los Angeles's traffic seem minimal in comparison.  You visit the same sites as 9 years ago but now, it's more crowded.  I feel that returning to China was an important thing for me to do as it helped clarify China in general with it's diversely different itineraries that I can offer you.  I can't wait to share more of my insights with you when you are ready.

One of my favorite parts of my China Adventure ...
Beijing Summer Palace
The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Thursday, November 13, 2014

CHINA 2014: X'ian & Hangzhou

CHINA Fall 2014
X'IAN AND HANGZHOU
Terracotta Warriors
From the outside, you wonder why am I vising X'ian.  You think ... is there anything to see other than those Terracotta Warriors?  The city looks like a scaled down Beijing as in 25 million people to “just” 8 million people.  Too much traffic, too much urban crazy.  Well, the
Terracotta Warriors
answer is yes ... BUT you must choose your hotel carefully.  We stayed at the
Shangli La Hotel outside of the city and there was nothing to see except traffic and high rises. The “good stuff” is in the center city.  China has done an excellent job of highlighting and explaining the Terracotta Warriors and it's a must see in a China itinerary but I recommend staying one more night to get a feel of the city.

The Sofitel Legend
Getting to X'ian from Beijing will take you at least 6 hours via highways and an airline flight.  A simple 3 mile drive can take 45 minutes to 1 hour.  The Sofitel Legend is exactly where you want to be in X'ian.  The rooms are lovely and the cuisine from their Italian chef is fantastic!  We visited the Muslim Quarter and saw the Chinese mosque.  This part of town is so interesting because the people look Chinese but they are practicing Muslims.  X'ian was the beginning of the Silk Road and many Chinese converted or married a practicing Muslim.

The following day, we headed for the airport again for a 1 hour 45 minute flight to Hangzhou.  EVERY itinerary NEEDS to include Hangzhou which is the home to West Lake in their itinerary.  It is the most beautiful part of China.
West Lake
 I totally loved it and found this to be the highlight of my trip so far.  West Lake is peaceful and relaxing.  Each little nook has something beautiful to look at.  You know those pictures of China with the weeping willow trees, flowers and overlooking a beautiful lake?  Well, that's West Lake and Hangzhou.  We visited a Chinese pharmacy and learned about Chinese medicine and how people are diagnosed. Fascinating ...
West Lake

West Lake
We stayed at the Amanfayun Hotel.  As much as I love Aman Hotels, I hesitate to broadly recommend the Amanfayan.  This hotel is in a tea plantation village.  There are guests and locals walking through the village which is an issue.  Also, an issue are the uneven stone walkways.  The rooms are incredible in an Aman way.  The food is delicious and authentic.  The best part is that it is close to West Lake.
Four Seasons Hangzhou

Today, we left and visited a tea plantation and the Four Seasons Hangzhou.  The Four Seasons Hangzhou is my preferred hotel for Hangzhou.  It is has a dock on West Lake and is the most perfect hotel for the city.  The rooms are lovely, service is perfect as is the cuisine.  The spa is incredible.  They have a fitness center and a huge indoor pool.
Four Seasons Hangzhou

I'm writing this from a bus from Hangzhou to Shanghai.  Normally, this is a 1 hour drive but with today's China, this will take 3 hours.  We are staying at the Peninsula Shanghai so I'll write more about the hotel tomorrow.



The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

CHINA Oct 30 - Nov 13: Part III - More of Beijing Sightseeing & Hotel Visits

CHINA Fall 2014
BEIJING PART III
Our picture from the Great Wall Fall 2014

Panjiayuan Market
We had a full day today in Beijing.  We went to the Panjiayuan Market which is the Dirt Market.  This is the market if you want to buy non antique antiques.  It is illegal to sell true antiques so what you see are used items.  The market predominantly sells beaded and “jade” jewelry.  I found it to be a total waste of time ... so it will not be in your itinerary unless you crave a flea market!

At the Great Wall of China!
After visiting the Dirt Market, we drove 2 ½ hours to Ming section of the Great Wall.  This part of the Great Wall is known for it's views and because it is further from Beijing, there are definitely less people.  We climbed over 600 uneven stairs (warning if you have any mobility issues) but the view was worth it.  Imperial Tours offers “Imperial Moments” and our moment was a lunch atop the Great Wall.  This is a must!

Dinner was a return to the Duck Restaurant 2 nights ago ... funny, right?
my favorite place in Beijing
The Temple of Heaven

We woke up and went to my favorite place in BeijingThe Temple of Heaven. Here is why ...
In China, generally, women retire at 50 and men retire at 62 years old.  So, what to do during the day after they have taken their grandchildren to school?  The seniors go to the parks surrounding the Temple of Heaven.  This is a peaceful large expanse of green.  When we first arrived, we saw people dancing ... yes, dancing and we joined in!  EVEYRONE was doing their exercises.  There were park like “machines” and people exercising in their own personal space.  From there as we walked through the park, people were smiling and inviting
Jeff dancing with one of our friends on the trip!
China Fall 2014
us to join them.  One very friendly senior offered a home made pancake for me to try and share with our group.  We did and it was quite good.  This is the park that people give their birds “fresh air” as they take their birds in their bird cages to the park.  And then, there was the actual Temple of Heaven which is a must see.  It is China's largest temple and altar complex where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshiped heaven and prayed for good harvests.  I can't recommend the Temple of Heaven enough?

Aman Hotel at the Summer Palace Aerial View
Aman Hotel at the Summer Palace Lobby
After visiting the Temple of Heaven, we went to the Aman Hotel at the Summer Palace. As an Aman junkie, this is a must as well.  What a serene place 45 minutes outside the center business district of Beijing on the 4th ring road ... a perfect way to deal with jet-lag and relax as you begin visiting China.  The Summer Palace is beautiful and if you stay at the Aman, you can access the Summer Palace through their secret door rather than deal with the masses visiting the Summer Palace.  The Imperial gardens here and the lake are worth the visit.

 The Summer Palace
China World Summit Hotel
a Shangri La Hotel
Dinner was at the China World Summit Hotel – a Shangri La Hotel.  It boasts the highest hotel rooms in Beijing.  We started our site visit at the top of the hotel – on the 80th floor.  I didn't like this hotel.  The rooms were odd to me.  The paintings behind the beds were fake and the bathrooms small.  It's fine for a business traveler but as a 5 star luxury hotel, there are better options in Beijing.

As for dinner, well it was another Chinese meal at their signature steak house. The food was good but it just felt wrong.

Tomorrow, we are off to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City then off to X'ian.

A little windy pic at the Great Wall!
The World is Our Playground!


Mari

Monday, November 10, 2014

CHINA Oct 30-Nov 13: Part II - Our Time with Angela & her family

CHINA Fall 2014
Our Time with Angela & her family
798 Art Zone

We had the best most authentic day yesterday!  We met up with our friends, Angela & Evan Zhou and their 4 month old baby girl, Dong Dong.
Lama Temple
After a lot of hugging and apologizing for the horrible smog, we began our journey to Lama Temple.  Lame Temple is very interesting as it honors the Tibetan People and the Dali Lama.  There are 6 different temples within the complex and part of the praying includes incense.  The final temple has a huge white sandlewood tree from Nepal shaped into a 26 meter golden leaf Buddha.

After visiting Lama Temple, we drove to 798 Art Zone.  This was a huge abandoned factory that manufactured anything from munitions to crystals.  The buildings fell apart into disrepair and artists begin moving in.  Fast forward, this is a thriving area full of galleries and restaurants.  The artists have had to move away because the rent has become too high.  There are exhibitions to experience, art to buy as well as Chinese designed jewelry and clothing.
Grace Hotel Beijing
Speaking of Design ... we had lunch at the Design Hotels Grace Hotel Beijing.  Lunch was delicious and the setting was edgy.  When we were leaving, we met Aria, the Sales Manager of the Grace Hotel Beijing.  Grace Hotels are found in a few places around the world such as Santorini and Mykonos Greece.  
Deluxe Room at the Grace Hotel Beijing

There are 35 rooms and suites at the Grace Hotel Beijing.  I was impressed with this 4 star boutique hotel.  Each room was carefully decorated.  The beds looked inviting and the bathrooms had dual sinks.  Aria explained that the staff knew everyone by name and what their interests were.  This is a casual hotel.  The location is not central however the hotel offers complementary transfers into the CBD or Central Business District of Beijing twice daily.  Make sure to ask for a room overlooking the garden.

After lunch, Angela and Evan treated us to a 90 minute foot massage at a 60 room spa.  This was hilarious!  No one spoke English.  We were asking to put on what looked like pajamas then sit on comfortable, huge chairs and place our feet in a barrel of steaming hotel water.  Afterward, we were treated to Beijing's version of a foot massage for 60 minutes then a body massage over our clothing for 30 more minutes.  This was quite the experience and I would strongly recommend it.  
Peking Duck
NOTE:  The massages usually involve strong pressure and pounding.  Make sure to explain and show with your hands that pounding is a no no no if you prefer.
Four Seasons Beijing
Angela picked us up and we met Dong Dong in the car.  We went to Restaurant Nineteen Forty Nine the Hidden City.  What a treat!  Angela and Evan brought a bottle of Chinese red wine which was surprisingly good.  We enjoyed the lovely wine with a perfectly balanced meal with great friends.  Of course we had Peking Duck now called Beijing Roasted Duck but my favorite was the Almond Chicken.

After this full day and dealing with jet lag, we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet the following morning at 10:00am at the Four Seasons Beijing.
Four Seasons Beijing Bedroom

We arrived to a warm Four Seasons welcome after a 20 minute taxi ride from the Waldorf Astoria.  Lucky us, our room was ready and we found ourselves in a standard room on the 21st Floor.  The room is cozy with a comfortable king bed.  The bathroom only has one sink but otherwise is lovely.

We met with Angela and her family and journeyed over to one of Beijing's many Hutongs.  Angela arranged for a pedicab ride through the Hutong and midway, we stopped to visit with a family living in the Hutong.  
Hutongs
We sipped Jasmine tea and learned about life in the Hutong.  Did you know that most of the homes have a bedroom and even a kitchen?  What they don't have is a bathroom or shower.  People share a communal bathroom and showers are taken in bathhouses.  The family created art in small glass bottles previously known as snuff bottles.  I saw the owner's niece paint inside the tiny bottle and when I chose one as a souvenir for my granddaughter, she painted Maddy in Chinese inside the bottle - VERY cool!


After the Hutong, we went to lunch at a typical Beijing "hotpot" restaurant.  What is a hotpot restaurant?  Well you are given plates and plates of food and you dip it fondue style into a pot of boiling water.  We enjoyed lamb, beef, crabs, shrimp and veggies such as spinach, mushrooms and sweet potatoes.  After cooking the food in the hotpot, we dipped it in a secret peanut based sauce.  What a fun experience!
Beijing "hotpot" restaurant
We ended our day with hugs and promises to meet in Los Angeles.  Angela, Evan and little Dong Dong were perfect hosts during our time together.  We became closer as we found that we shared many of the same values and experiences and now consider them to be part of our extended family and can't wait to see them again.

Tonight, we are meeting with our group and begin our educational tour of China with Imperial Tours.

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

CHINA Oct 30-Nov 13: Part I

CHINA OCTOBER 30 - NOVEMBER 13, 2014
PART I
Beijing Skyline
We flew First Class from LAX to Hong Kong (layover) and then on to Beijing.  First Class service is exceptional.  There were only 3 people out of 9 available seats with 3 stewards.  VERY comfortable seats with a flat larger sleeper.  There was a comfortable duvet and pillow to ease you into sleep.
Cathay Pacific First Class

The food was a B+ and served in courses.
My only criticism was the choice of movies.  There were enough options but not to my liking.

We are in China as part of a sponsored tour from Imperial Tours.  Imperial Tours is a Virtuoso tour company exclusively in China and Hong Kong.  They are the top tour operators which pride themselves in employing their guides.  They have unique itineraries with special surprises along the way.  I am excited to experience what these surprises are.
Beijing

Cathay Pacific First Class
When we were flying into Beijing Airport, the sky looked dark and hazy.  Pollution here is much worse than our last visit 9 years ago.  The haze was dark and orange in color.  Beijing appears to be in perpetual gloom.  You can almost taste the air.  I mention pollution because it is a reality 24/7 here in Beijing.  Please notify your doctor if you are considering a visit to adjust any medications you might be on.

We were greeted at the arrival gate by an airport representative who escorted us through Customs and baggage claim.  After customs, you get into a train for a 5 minute ride to another terminal where you collect your luggage.  At this point, the representative passes us onto our Imperial Tours guide.  We were quickly taken to the car and away we went on our 45 minute transfer to Beijing.
Waldorf Astrotia, Beijing Bedroom
We were dropped off at our first hotel, the Waldorf Astrotia, Beijing.  We were going to stay at the Peninsula, Beijing but a colleague notified me that they were about to begin an extensive refurbishment and things were not fresh.  The Waldorf Astroia is lovely with comfortable beds and baths with dual sinks.  The service that the staff provides and their English  is a step down from The Peninsula but the staff seem eager to please.

We had lunch at their Brasserie which is also the location for breakfast.  The food was quite tasty and plentiful.

After a quick nap, we decided to talk a walk over to the pedestrian area 1 block away.  The city has changed quite a bit.  9 years ago, there were street vendors and now there are mega malls complete with the same stores you see in the U.S.  I think they moved the street vendors to a small area 5 minutes walk from our hotel.  If you are in the mood, this is where you can taste fried insects!
A "Mega" Mall in Beijing
Today, we are visiting friends that we met 9 years ago.  Angela used to work for Abercrombie and Kent as one of their premier tour guides.  We've stayed in touch over the years.  Can't wait to tell you all about tomorrow!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

FRENCH POLYNESIA SEPT 2014: The Brando

THE BRANDO


September, 2014
The Brando Lagoon
The Brando began as a dream from actor, Marlon Brando.  He cherished his special place in the world, the atoll of Tetiaroa and hoped to share his vision with others about the interdependence between nature and mankind.  
Tetiaroa Atoll is a quick 20 minute flight on a 8 seat airplane from Tahiti.

Tetiaroa Atoll is a quick 20 minute flight on a 8 seat airplane from Tahiti.  There is a charge for this flight and arrangements must be made in advance.  The view as you approach this piece of heaven is incredible.  From the distance, the atoll looks like a strip of blue as as you get closer and closer, the blue turns into many shades of magic.


Atoll of Tetiaroa
The Tetiaroa Society which is a non profit evolved from Brando's dream with the wish to inspire sustainability.  It sponsors an Ecostation that allows scientists to work in a living case study to then bring their results to other situations around the world. The Ecostation is designed to LEED Platinum standards.  Some of their projects include Lagoon Fish and Crustacean Replenishment, Mosquito Population Control and a Bird and Green Turtle Sanctuary.  Part of their mission statement includes “Tetiaroa is a place of rare biodiversity and a natural sanctuary for birds and marine life. Preserving and protecting this rare habitat and its plant and animal life is critical to us.”


The Brando Resort offers 35 one, two and three bedroom villas along their vast beachfront.  Each villa is private and positioned along the beach with views and privacy in mind.  I am sitting in villa 210 which is a sunset villa.  It is an easy 3 minute walk from the central hub of the resort. The view of the reef is stunning.  Because The Brando is an atoll, I can see both the space within the atoll which is a lagoon and then the crashing waves along the reef separating the lagoon from the sea.


View from our living room
The outside area of each villa includes a beautiful thatched covered sitting area called a Fare Pote to enjoy a drink, breakfast, lunch and/or dinner.  Treat yourself to breakfast in your villa.  It is amazing!  Your breakfast is delivered to the Fare Pote, set up and then you are called on the phone to let you know that it has been delivered.  The respect for privacy to evident and it really is a romantic thing to do!


There is a wonderful plunge pool, lounge chairs and your own beach area outside the villa.  There is a zen feeling here.  While I was in the water snorkeling, I noticed that it was just my husband, myself and the lagoon fish in the stunning warm water of our lagoon.
1 Bedroom villa - Bedroom


The villas are huge!  The one bedroom villa that I'm in is over 1,000 square feet.  There is a media room with a large TV and a comfortable sitting area.  The bed is so comfortable and faces the water.  There is a separate dressing area that you walk through to access the bathroom. The bathroom has dual sinks and a large shower. Just off the bathroom is an outdoor private bathtub.  The bathroom amenities are just wonderful and totally organic.  The towels, bathrobes and sheets are Frette.


The two and three bedroom villas offer a large dining room table and cooking facilities cleverly hidden from view.  The two bedroom villa's bedrooms are on two different levels and the three bedroom villas offer a bedroom en suite completely separate from the adjacent two bed room villa.  The beachfront on both is quite vast.
Outside the 1 Bedroom Villa
Each villa has new bicycles to ride during the duration of your stay.  After 44 years of not riding a bicyle, I made it onto my bicycle and really enjoyed biking around the resort's beautiful, lush property.
Outside a 2 Bedroom Villa


As part of your “package” (really dislike this term), you have one massage per room per day from a list of four options.  The spa is subcontracted out by Varua Polynesian Spa.  My husband enjoyed the Taurumi Massage and I had the Head to Toe Scrub combined with the Taurumi Massage.  It was a lovely experience.  The spa complex offers a Hamman, plunge pool and tea area to relax in before and after your treatment.
Bathroom


The Brando has two restaurants The Beachcomber Cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and the gourmet restaurant, Les Mutines.  Les Mutine's cuisine is inspired by the French Chef Guy Martin, a 2 star Michelin chef from Paris.  There are two bars as well.  Bob's Bar is a casual bar located on the beach and Te Manu Bar is a tree level bar with six small private terraces overlooking the beach.  This is the place to be at sunset!  The Brando also offers 24 hour room service.  The food is excellent.  Antoine Gonzalez is the Chef on property.  The french pastries and breads are so fresh.  He also uses top ingredients in all of his cuisine.  A great example are the mushrooms in his omelets.  He doesn't use the button mushrooms as most restaurants do.  Instead, Chef Antoine uses morels and it makes a difference!
The View of the Lagoon from our 1 Bedroom Villa


Lunches and dinners at The Brando are also special.  Try the chef's special and you won't go wrong.  I loved the Poisson Cru and also the Sauteed Shrimp and Chicken with Curry.  Boy, does Chef Antoine understand how to prepare the local fish!  I especially loved his preparation of the local lagoon fish, Parrot Fish.  All the food at each venue was perfect and I can't wait for you to try it yourself!


There are many things to do here.  The Brando has a billiard table, ping pong table, all sorts of outdoor sporting such as paddle boards, outrigger canoes and kayaks.  There is a Top Dive shop so diving and snorkeling are always available.  The is a large comfortable pool and a well equipped fitness center.  Babysitters are also available.
1 Bedroom Villa Dressing Room


In addition to the many independent things to do, The Brando offers activities and classes such as experiencing the reef, learning about the local culture, birds and green turtle conservation.  You can also learn how to carve coconuts or tie a pareo.  My husband enjoyed a couple of ukelele classes.


The Ultimate Four Hour Island Tour lead by Tihoni is a must do. Tihoni was a wonderful, knowledgeable guide that showed his “office” which is a string of 12 motus in the Tetiaroa atoll.  We learned about the local birds, visited a hidden lagoon, watched as sharks circled near us, and were told about the green turtles originating from Fiji that the scientists are studying.  This tour was the real deal.  It was paced well with snorkeling thrown in and The Brando's boat was luxurious and covered to protect from the sun.


Transitions to the resort once you arrive into Papeete and from the resort back to Papeete are the resort's only weakness.  Once on property, things move seamlessly.


A few other things to mention:
Wifi is included in the rate and is very strong.
There is a gift shop boutique and Pearl Shop, The Himerava close to the Concierge Desk and another boutique in the Spa.


1 Bedroom Villa
To close, The Brando is an amazing all inclusive resort to escape to.  It is not a social kind of resort as most people seemed to want to keep to themselves.  The staff respects this and is totally professional.  The resort is a “more for more” resort with a respect for privacy in your large and comfortable villa.  I hope that you can find your way to this very special place in the world.


The World is Our Playground!

Mari