Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fiji March 2015: Tokoriki Island Restort

TOKORIKI ISLAND RESORT, FIJI
Tokoriki Island Resort (TIR)
In Fijian, Tokoriki means “stay here” and you might be tempted to do just that.  Tokoriki Island Resort (TIR) is located in the Mamanuca Islands 35 km from Nadi.  To get to TIR, we took a high speed catamaran for 1 hour and were met in the water by a TIR boat.  We were assisted to the boat by friendly staff and away we went for a quick 5 minute ride to land in the water in front of TIR.  Again, we were assisted by the staff to walk 10 steps to land.  Funny arrival, right?  Our departure will be via seaplane accessing it in the water so I'll have a story for that tomorrow.  For those who do not want to land or depart from the water, you can helicopter over and land next to TIR.  


Jeff and I at TIR!
TIR is remote.  There are 34 bures (what they call their rooms) detached from each other.  Each one has water views.  TIR is a solid 4 star property with a lot of heart.  The people are genuine and call you by your first name.  Upon arrival, we were given a general overview of how things worked here, enjoyed a welcome cocktail and were shown to our bure.   The bures at TIR do not have TV's or WIFI in them which was really, really hard for me.  There is one small TV in the reception area and WIFI can be found around the common areas near the reception, restaurant and the pool.  As I'm writing this, I'm sitting on a lounge overlooking the water.  There are gentle breezes and I can hear the surf.

Once I accepted that I had to escape technology, I started to relax and enjoy where I was.  TIR offers PADI diving, snorkeling trips, a visit to the local village of Yanuya, tennis and a lovely spa. (All except the snorkeling trips are for a nominal fee.)  TIR offers complimentary daily activities such as a volleyball tournament, cocktail lessons, torch lighting ceremony and each guest receives a complementary 15 minute foot massage.  There are private beaches to have a romantic dinner and even a visit to Monuriki Island which was the location of Tom Hank's move, “Castaway”.
Sitting on a lounge overlooking the water (writing this)!
TIR is not all inclusive.  The food is quite tasty and a diverse mix of typical resort fare with a touch of local Fijian and Indian ingredients. TIR has two restaurants for dinner.  HINT:  The Teppanyaki style, Japanese restaurant, Oishii is a must and only seats 8 people so make your appointment as soon as you arrive.


So, here are the pro/cons:
I love the warmth of the people at TIR.  My dear friend, Marisa from Tahiti Legends said that I would and she was right.
(TIR)
I love the resort itself as it is so low key and beautiful. Walking around the resort makes me happy and peaceful.
You get a true sense of place here.  The pace is slower and the people are so friendly


My reservations about TIR are not a big deal.  If you decide to be adventuresome and to some, being off the grid IS adventuresome, you have to accept their no TV, no WIFI in the room policy.  If you can, you will love Tokoriki Island Resort like I did.

Stay tuned!



The World is Our Playground!


Mari

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fiji March 2015: The Land of Bula!

WELCOME TO FIJI, THE LAND OF BULA!
Intercontinental Fiji
I am so happy to share my travel to Fiji with you.  Visiting Fiji has been on my bucket list since I met the wonderful people at Tahiti Legends.  Tahiti Legends assists with travel beyond Tahiti such as Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.  I had heard how friendly and kind the people of Fiji were and am eager to see if this is true.  I also wanted to understand the traveling challenges while in Fiji getting from one island to the other as there are over 300 islands that comprise Fiji.
Fiji Air


Flying to Fiji is VERY easy!  Fiji Air is Fiji's national airline.  The flight leaves late at night from Los Angeles and takes roughly 10.5 hours.  You cross the date line meaning that we left at 11:30 pm on Wednesday and arrived at 5:30 am on Friday.  Not to worry ... we will “catch up” on the return.  Our Business Class seats were comfortable.  They did not recline totally flat but I was so tired, that it really didn't matter.  The food was a 4 out 5.  The staff were friendly and helpful.  My friend mentioned that the economy seats are a bit small and tight so maybe bring something for your neck to help you sleep.
Intercontinental Fiji


Fiji's Airport was small and easy to get through.  They are VERY strict about not bringing food products into Fiji so if you bring a piece of  fruit thinking you might want to have it for a snack, leave it on the plane.  Clearing customs was fast and easy.  Even their customs agents were NICE!


After customs, we were met by Najeer, our driver from Rosie Holidays.  What a friendly guy.  He was so proud explaining the history of Fiji.  Did you know that before Fiji was “civilized” it had cannibals?  Fiji has it's own sovereign government and the people are a mix of Fijians, Muslims and Indians.


The drive to the Intercontinental Fiji took 45 minutes.  Fiji is quite rural with farms that grow sugarcane and tropical fruits.  
Great breakfast & notice the Fiji water
The entrance to the Intercontinental Fiji is very pretty.  You can see the ocean through the entry.  We arrived at 7:00 am and we were told that our room was almost ready.  We decided to have breakfast at Navo, the adult restaurant on property.  After breakfast, we found that we had been upgraded to an Ocean Front King room. (YAY!!)  The view is perfect overlooking the lovely beach and ocean.  Our room has a tub on the veranda and comfortable lounge chairs to enjoy sunset.


Intercontinental Fiji
After a 30 minute power nap, we decided to walk around the resort.  The resort overlooks one of the prettiest beaches on the island of Viti Levu at Natadola Bay.  There are over 200 rooms at the resort with different views ranging from garden views to water views.  There are 3 restaurants and 2 bars.  There is a family pool and an adult infinity pool.  I was impressed with the spa.  Spa Intercontinental has 9 treatment rooms and is located in quiet area of the resort.  There is a small fitness center as well. I saw 4 women at the Children's Club taking care of 7 children.  The children looked to be between 3-8 years old and they were happily making kid size woven baskets from the palm fronds.
View from Breakfast!


The following morning, we had breakfast then rented a car to try to discover a bit of Viti Levu Island.  We visited the closest city to the Intercontinental, Sigatoka – (definitely pass on this) then went through the major city of Nadi (another pass) to Denarau Marina which boasts great views and shopping.  This was a dud too.  We ended up at the Sofitel for lunch at their beach front restaurant, Salt.  It was quite good.  The Sofitel is another large resort with little boutiques and even a Parisian style cafe.  The beach was not as nice as the Intercontinental though.  


We returned back to our room for another power nap.  Dinner was very good at Navo Restaurant.  Our table overlooked the beach at sunset.  The food was delicious with fresh fish options.  I tried their local snapper and Jeff had grilled lamp.  Best of all, they served their bread with coconut oil.  Have you ever tried it?  It is really good.  The service was dicey as the staff seemed understaffed.
South Sea Cruises
Bottom line: I feel that it was important to discover why renting a car is not important on Viti Levu.  I'm recommending staying on Viti Levu only as a way through to visit the outer islands.  Tomorrow, we are of to Tokoriki Resort via South Sea Cruises.  It should take 1 hour to get there.

Stay tuned!


The World is Our Playground!

Mari

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