Category: Trip Reports

2017: 台湾春假游

2017: 台湾春假游

不是因为里程票,春假一个星期游台湾恐怕想也不要想。乘最优惠的经济舱,一路颠簸加转机,抵达目的地一身倦惫,恐怕已无心恋战。何况还要压缩行程,为回程留下一天, 以便第二天带着时差上班上学。即便你是钢筋铁骨也难免不为了休假后调整再休息两天。

里程票就焕然不同啦。首先,可以选择直飞。长荣航空去年十一月开通了台北飞往芝加哥的航线,免去转机损失的时间及有可能的延误。而且时间最佳。周五半夜离开芝加哥,周日晚上回来,把五天春假及两个周末用个淋漓尽致。其次,在里程票的世界里,直飞与转机同一价格,不必在省钱与省时之间煎熬, 特别迎合我买便宜货又不愿吃亏的心理。第三,也是成行的最后要素,因为是新开航线,里程票刚刚发放,空位比比皆是,包括春假期间的商务舱!又能休息好,时间又吻合,兜兜里哩程就愈发烧得慌。 激动之下以每人十六万美联航里程加43美元税费拿下了三张长荣的商务舱。值得一提的是,十六万英里亚洲往返性价并非优化。同样哩程去非洲往返商务舱也够了,而且星空联盟成员的土耳其航空公司有票。如果不受假期限制有两星期时间我肯定会重新考虑。这就叫能办什么事说什么话。人家不说在美国从孩子出生到18岁送出家门要花费二十万美元么。对我们家来说恐怕还要再搭上百万哩程。

毕竟一年乘不了几次飞机,何况是排名前十名公司的商务舱,三月二十四日出发那天还是有些兴奋。周五晚上,芝加哥OHare第五行空楼没有熙熙攘攘的人群。办理完手续后我们直奔指定休息室-法航贵宾休息室。起初还有些纳闷,长荣与法航都不是一个联盟的,怎么客串它家呢。等走过漫长的通道才发现大部分贵宾休息室已经关门或即将打烊。只有少数几家当晚有夜班的英航,SAS,法航等在营业。长荣初来咋到,一天就飞一趟,越盟合作一番也不足为奇。

留着肚子,只喝点咖啡

终于登机了。

提前预订的用餐, 晚饭烤羊排,早饭小菜伴粥。

实际对照

正好还没看过奥斯卡红片La La Land。边吃边看两不误。

吃饱喝足后还能做什么呢?

一觉醒来已在日本领空,开始供应早饭。

虽然不饿,粽子总得尝尝。伴着咖啡,土洋结合吧。

其实此行是全家团聚。已经在凤凰城附近工作的大公子独自从亚利桑那出发,在台北与我们会和。这是计划。但经常出门的知道,现实不总是按计划展开,只不过有时误差小些不误大局,有时后果严重,甚至整个计划落汤。发生在他身上的变故已远远不是前者。还没等飞往凤凰城的飞机起飞,西南航空通知从凤凰城飞往旧金山的航班延误。因为他买的不是联票(精确地说是买不到周五当晚不需在机场过夜的联票),而且转机时间紧凑,一旦中途出差错,耽误了国际航班自己负责。大家都说西南航空公司航班准点率最高,如此承前启后的重要衔接航班非它莫属。我知道航班一旦晚点,雪球效应的几率大增。一共就三个小时在旧金山转机时间绝对经不起折腾。我开始查询备用方案。

这时老大已在飞往凤凰城的飞机上了。虽然焦虑但心理有数老爸会想办法救急,反倒坦然了。我这边开始紧张搜寻航班时刻及价钱。明明是几个月前已就绪,到头来沦为最后一刻购票,做航空公司的肥羊。看着300-500刀的票价,颇不甘心。毕竟从旧金山到台北也不到500刀!(插曲一下,其实是旧金山至台北直飞票要US$700。我给他买了长荣航空旧金山经台北去澳门的机票。作为“转机”,与其它转机航空公司竞争,价钱就降下来了。 当然他最后没赶上台北至澳门的航班,“遗憾”)。 他若不能按计划到达将影响我们当天的活动安排:下飞机就要赶高铁,然后加入已预付的旅游团,一环扣一环。有时候一扇门堵住,另一扇门打开。美国航空公司恰好有一班凤凰城飞往旧金山的飞机与西南的航班几乎同时起飞,当天柜台价365刀。幸运的是,通常AA很少发放哩程票,即使国内短程航线。但这个航班竟有四个位置。下一步是决定怎么买。兑现AA哩程要12500哩,另加75刀起飞21天内”追近起飞费”。如果你只有AA哩程则别无选择,已经比买票上算了。幸好我还有通过Chase英航信用卡积累的十万Avios。英航兑现按飞行距离计算。这两城市短途飞行只要7500 Avios,另加$5.60 911反恐费。就这样,在老大还在飞往凤凰城飞机上的时候,他的下一程飞机已廉价出票了。而且这架来自费城的飞机已在凤凰城降落,离预计出发只剩一个多小时,十拿九稳会准时起飞。后来确认这架美国航空飞机起飞后,我致电把他西南航空里程票取消(西南航空是美国仅有的公司允许最迟起飞10分钟以前取消),5000西南的RapidRewards点照数退回。前前后后忙碌两小时,除了自己心跳呼吸加快,5000西南RR点转嫁成7500英航Avios,几乎没有经济损失。这时我们也如释重负,出发去OHare机场了。后来得知,那班西南航班晚点三小时抵达旧金山。心中窃喜决策果断。

这一切波折及焦虑都在台北桃园机场母子相见的一刻化解。

兵分两路,从相距千里各自启程、经历三个不同航空公司,到克服变故、前后只相差一个多小时到达地球的另一面顺利汇合。笔者作为旅行策划者牛刀小试。

对了,游客到台湾不要忘了在机场买手机卡,离开机场就没有为海外游客特设的价位了。500台币,10天内无限4G上网,还包含100台币通话费。当地旅游业普遍有微信,靠流量通话很方便。我们凌晨五点抵达桃园机场,很多服务店面还没有开始营业,通过网上预购,5:30就可以在柜台取卡。

奋起湖-阿里山-日月潭-清境草原三日游

偏巧三月下旬是阿里山樱花季节。安排行程时很庆幸我们运气不错,在没有任何活动余地的假期内还能锦上添花。等到了之后才发现人算不如天算。到那天正逢下雨。一场大雨过后树上的樱花所剩无几。唯有满载游人的大巴塞满了从奋起湖至阿里山的盘山路。早知如此,不凑那份热闹也罢。

奋起湖老街大排档及茶室。忍不住带了几包高山茶回来。

阿里山的观景小火车

凋零的樱花

即便第二天雨过天晴,见到了阿里山真貌也很难为之而动。浓厚的更是商业气息。我还天真地问导游为什么阿里山名声那么大,从小就学会民谣”阿里山的姑娘美如水,阿里山的少年壮如牛”。 他回答的很简单,“姑娘都老了”。

所谓阿里山看日出更不敢恭维。人群簇拥下瞟一眼已然白炽的太阳从山脊中升起。此景此情与想象中的浪漫格格不入。

名声在外的日月潭也多少有负众望。湖边比比皆是商业区。倒是在水果摊上认识了许多没见过的台湾特产。

回过头看,当初真要是误了转机,不得不砍掉第一天阿里山的项目在景致上的损失将微不足道。难以迁就的唯有欲尝未得的遗憾。其实,人生中有多少遗憾真的值得挂念呢?么不如只争朝夕,走好在眼前的路。

相比之下,攻略时只因顺路而安排的清境草原倒是焕然一新。这个远离景区,座落在群山中的农场恬静又充满生机,深沉而婀娜多姿。真想在这里多呆几天,细细感受田园风光。

 

中横公路

台湾中部山脉起伏。去我们下一站花莲只有中横公路最佳。一路基本上是盘山路,有些弯处近在咫尺方见对面来车。司机必须精力高度集中。

途径台湾最高峰,武嶺。远处云海尽收眼底。

一共四小时车程,中间被公路维修打断两次。一次约半小时。坐在车里不知觉,公路两侧常常有裸石陡壁,险象环生。即便频繁维修,中横公路也是台湾高危路段。

傍晚平安抵达花莲,入住位于太魯阁立雾溪出海口的立霧左邨景觀民宿。游客口碑极佳,我们也有所领略。当初还没有入住致电询问太鲁阁旅游介绍,女主人不厌其烦给我们一一讲解,回答所有问题,并回复电子邮件。见面后更对这对勤劳的六哥六嫂夫妇(赖先生家里排行老六,故名)油生敬意。私家小楼依山伴水,房间整洁、庭院宽阔,夫妻待人热心周到,宾至如归。赖先生给我们送到火车站去花莲逛夜市,供应早饭时女主人特地叮嘱一位带婴儿的房客他们的饮用水里有蜂蜜,以防婴儿过敏。这一夜小住让我对台湾民宿留下了非常正面的印象。

花莲

提起花莲,首屈一指的景点非太鲁阁国家公园莫属。中横公路抵达东岸之前横穿太鲁阁,它的险我们一路过来已有体会。但只有放慢脚步,才能体会太鲁阁的美。

燕子口:急湍,吊桥及帖服在陡壁上的公路

太鲁阁峡

从中横公路出发,沿白杨步道步行不到2公里来到白杨瀑布。

在台湾旅游包车很方便,价钱也公平。为了充分利用在花莲的时间,我们一家四人包了一天出租车,八小时三千台币,约一百美元。除了游玩太鲁阁,司机还领我们去了清水断崖和七星潭。

清水断崖在(宜兰)苏(澳镇)花(莲)公路起始处。苏花公路沿途地震频繁,坡石松动,遇到下雨天极易落石。至今是台湾全境乃至世界上危险公路,虽然有些半山腰开凿出的路段已被水泥封固的隧道取代。但险恶的地势掩盖不住的是峻山丽水。

七星潭则以鹅卵石著名。由于游客随手拾捡,七星潭的鹅卵石曾经流失很快。后来台湾通过保护法予以禁止。导游司机反复叮咛,这里的石头不可以带走,海关会没收。我们就把照片作为最美好的回忆,让后人和我们一样能够欣赏这里的石滩。

我们刚从(位于西岸)嘉义下高铁,加入阿里山三日游的时候,导游就跟我们提起花莲的公正包子很有名。现在到了东岸的花莲,公正包子一定不能错过。5个台币一只包子,二十年没涨价,你不得不扪心自问,肚子里能撑下几美元?

此行台湾,夜市小吃是重头项目。经过行程紧凑的三日游之后,花莲作为自由活动的第一站,早已按捺不住逛夜市的向往。抵达花莲的当晚就搭车走访了花莲东大门夜市,在排队最长的北港春卷柜台前开张了。小小的店面,弯弯的客流,只有一位中年妇女和和一位十几岁学生模样的少年维持供应,顺便还要照顾一个在地上玩耍的娃娃。

第四天晚上,乘坐普悠瑪号快车,花莲至台北。

台北

作为近代国民党统治的见证,孙中山和蒋介石的纪念场所都集中在台北。在国父纪念馆和中正纪念堂均有士兵站岗。每小时的换岗仪式吸引了很多游客。

与中正纪念堂毗邻的自由广场

在众多纪念馆中我最喜欢蒋介石宋美龄的故居-士林官邸。不仅因为其簇拥花园、环境优美,故居里面(颇为简谱)的摆设及音响录音更将蒋氏执政期间的历史事件栩栩如生地复原。

也许因为在士林官邸,没有人质疑小卖部出售的中正包和美玲包侵权嫌疑。比起大陆的什么包,气氛更见随和诙谐。

民主社会的象征之一是政府向大众开放。参观总统府只需出示护照,十分钟后通过安检就进门了,比进白宫和中南海都方便。总统府建筑结构基本是方阵型三层楼,中间围出一个庭院,内部装潢也以实用为本,不见奢侈豪华。

在总统府与蔡总统合影

说到政治,能够举办国际体育大赛无疑有助于提高台湾的国际形象。但后来大运会出现的闹剧恐怕是举办者始料不及。比起2008北京奥运会,谁能否认大型体育比赛与政治的藕断丝连?

与世界其他都市相比台北占地面积不大。但以捷运(地铁)为骨干的公交网络四通八达。尤其是从位于东西蓝线和南北红线相交的火车站出发,市内诸多旅游点一部车直达。所以我们通过AirBnB预订了台北火车站旁边的高楼民宿(condo),双房一厅,加浴室厨房,四天500美元,比酒店更宽敞实惠,何况很多酒店的双人床对我们两个一米八有余小伙子来说多多少少有些捉襟见肘。

地点在方便不过了,小区环境也很整洁。你注意到愚人节那天谷歌地图上特有的Pac-Man没有?

如果不迷路,从住处几分钟可以室内穿堂至火车站站台。台北火车站集台湾铁路(沿东线去花莲、垦丁)、西线高铁(台中、高雄)、桃园捷运(桃园机场)、台北市内捷运和长途汽车站于一体,地下有三层站台,十几个地面出口,尤如3D迷宫。再加上沿途美食店比比皆是、处处散发佳肴的诱惑,在繁多路标和簇簇人头中保证全家不走丢不走散谈何容易!

到陌生地方难免问路。好在身在台湾没有语言障碍。我们在士林捷运站下车后拿不准去士林官邸怎么走。一位路人很耐心地给我们指路。不料我们离开后两三分钟他又追过来,对他讲解的路线再做微微更正。小事一桩,听得我心肠暖暖。用照片记录下这段淳朴的回忆。

在台北四天全是自由活动,自己安排三餐的结果是早餐转找受当地人推崇的便当,晚餐则追寻著名的夜市。

早餐粘饭团

连7-11里的便餐也爱不释手

在著名的士林夜市品尝香脆的炸鸡排

在国立师范学院旁的师园夜市

老王記桃源街牛肉麵,大块牛肉是他们的特长

淡水老街的豆沙蛋烙,豆馅塞得不能再塞了

新建成餅店带回来的鸭黄芝麻饼,甜咸交融,后悔没多买几盒。不过想起来有些后怕,这东东在芝加哥机场要被没收罚款的呀!

连Costco里的小吃也中化了

美国店为什么没有虾仁比萨呢??

游台北,少不了去第一高楼台北101。这个标志性的建筑在室内随处可见。

游客最高可低91楼。

乘坐高速电梯不到一分钟就到了89楼观景台。

大楼中间重达728吨的平衡球极大程度上减少了楼体晃动

在台北的最后一天包了一天出租车(4500新台币),计划游览郊外的阳明山、筠园(邓丽君纪念园)、九分、十分老街。偏巧那天赶上清明节周末,山上一路塞车,从阳明山下山后已经中午了。为了不影响晚上赶飞机,临时改道只去九分、十分老街。司机见我们有些失望,建议去九分路上顺路游览野柳地质公园。没想到这个后加的景点喧宾夺主,成为当日行程的高潮。

野柳疏松的石灰岩地质经风吹雨淋和海水腐蚀行成绚丽多姿的形状,为宝岛增添一道独特风景。

等到我们流连忘返离开野柳时,司机给我们带来了更为沮丧的消息。返台北的公路严重堵车,九分、十分也要二者选一。早知道周末这个路况,我们真应该选个工作日出城。

最终我们决定去十分。因为心里总惦记着晚上的飞机,走起来有些心神不宁,时不时低头看谷歌地图交通状况。加上游人熙熙攘攘,在十分瀑布占一席之地摄影都很难,此时此地早已是人在曹营心在汉了。

热闹的十分老街,很多人点燃天灯,把吉祥和祝福拜托给苍天。

就座落在老街上的国小

桃园机场

同样乘坐长荣航空,我们三人从芝加哥往返都是商务舱,可以使用长荣的贵宾室。老大后兑现经洛杉矶转机的哩程票,只剩经济舱。幸好我们都有大通银行发行的Sapphire Reserve信用卡,持卡人可不限人数带领随行人享用Priority Pass系统里的机场贵宾室。在台北机场这样的贵宾室有五个。我们就把老大就近安置在Plaza Premium Lounge,与我们后来去的长荣花园贵宾室遥遥相望。

至少在这里饿不着:炒面、素菜、沙拉、饼干,足以应付他起飞前的填填肚子了。

进入花园才深深体会到同是一个机场的贵宾室、其内涵可以有天壤之别。长荣作为全球名列前茅的航空公司,它的旗舰贵宾室焕然一新,不论在设施规模和食物安排方面都可与其它享有盛名的日航成天和国泰香港贵宾室媲美。

首先迎接来客的机器人

标志性的变色灯柱

贵宾室里旅客比较多,不变随便拍照。只好对着餐桌咔嚓咔嚓。

如果是中餐爱好者,有各色屉笼伺候。

是就着粥喝呢还是来碗菌汤?

当然少不了各式炒菜

西餐选择相对简单

各式冷热饮

贵宾室还有另一侧没来得及采访,已到登记时间了。

回程

飞往台北的路上,空姐一句“先生,怎么称呼您?”把我们中文水平三斧子半的老二问得不知所措。经我们调教后,临阵磨枪果然排上了用处。一上飞机空姐再次问怎么称呼,他很有信心地回答“我姓周!”。“是周还是邹?”。哎,又懵了。

好在点菜轻车熟路,一道道有条不紊地消灭。

十三个小时很快在吃睡交替中过去了。这么说吧,假如飞机慢点飞多耗上几个小时我不会有意见的。当飞机盘旋在夜幕笼罩下的芝加哥低空时,没有丝毫的疲倦,唯见淡淡的眷恋。

第二天就要上学上班了,但这些一点也唤不起我的激情。因为我的脑海里正在憧憬,下一个十六万哩要去哪?

2015: Flying long haul premium cabin for the first time

2015: Flying long haul premium cabin for the first time

Unless you are a “Tuhao”, – an increasingly acceptable English word describing China’s rich, or bestowed a covetous job title that entitles you to either shareholders’ or taxpayers’ money, squandering thousands of dollars on a transoceanic business flight is probably not on top of your agenda. To this date, I have never had the privilege to sit in front of an airplane despite numerous international flights and can’t help looking at those who do with irresistible jealousy.

It looks like the award game I play is just about to bring an end to the drought. In splurging the hard-earned American Airlines currency, 55000 miles to be exact, plus a $60.50 cash outlay, on a one-way business ticket to Shanghai in the summer, I purposely avoided non-stop Chicago to Shanghai AA flight but opted instead for Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong. CX805 departs Chicago shortly after midnight and arrives at Hong Kong in the early morning, with connecting flight for Shanghai in the evening on Cathay’s partner DragonAir. This arrangement was attractive to me as it combined a chance to experience not only business class, but one from the top airline in the world and to see Hong Kong for a day as a bonus. The whole family has been brimmed with expectation and excitement since the booking last summer.

That jubilant mood was briefly altered in February when American Airlines notified us that Cathay Pacific had canceled our CX805 flight. What would happen to our precious business tickets? I had to wonder in a great deal of anxiety. It would be too late to book any award tickets for summer travel to China, let alone four seats on a flight! Luckily all was not lost, Cathay Pacific put us on CX807, also in business, with a departure from Chicago in the afternoon, arriving Hong Kong in the evening.

As we learned from past travel experience, with connecting flights, one problem often leads to another, and another, before the whole itinerary collapses. Cathay’s change looked minor. After all, we would arrive at HKG the night before, with 25 hours connection time to Shanghai. Unfortunately, we would now have to go through the hassle of checking out baggage, checking in a hotel, and reboarding, all for the same benefit of a day trip we would have with the original booking, except now with added cost and inconvenience. If we were to move up our flight to Shanghai by one day, the latest flight for Shanghai would only allow one hour’s connecting time at HKG. There would be a distinct possibility that we scramble for a last minute hotel stay at Hong Kong should CX807 be delayed by as little as a few minutes. Extending the Hong Kong stay would not work either. AA’s award policy limits international transfers to 24 hours or less.

Anyone working overseas with fixed vacation days understands how precious each day is on a trip to China. Uncertainty in travel arrangement, even for a day, could mean lost time that should be avoided the best we can. My task was to work out the most efficient plan within the framework set forth by CX807.

One nice thing about AA’s award ticketing policy is, unlike that of United’s, passengers are allowed to change date and itinerary free of charge, provided there is no change in origin and destination. Award tickets, as a result, can be more flexible and valuable than revenue tickets, particularly when partner airlines’ routes are included. One World Alliance, which AA is part of, has two partners in Asia besides Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines and Japan Airlines. I would like to be open minded when it comes down to choice of airlines. But given the recent mishaps with Malaysia Airlines and its shaky financial situation, I could not convince myself even to look up its flight schedule out of Hong Kong. Japan Airlines’ hub Tokyo Narita airport became the only alternative.

The last flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo departs HKG shortly after midnight, giving us ample connecting time. From there, Japan Airlines operates connection to Shanghai. Both flights happened to have just enough business class seats for all of us. I called AA immediately after the search, not knowingly at the worst possible time as a rare snow storm was engulfing the South where AA call center was located and commute and business were severely interrupted. I wasn’t able to reach a live representative before an hour and 40 minutes on hold, the longest ever in my contact with any airline. And by that time, I knew I had to lock it in and luckily I did.

Despite that the new itinerary offered certainty in connection and saved the trouble of getting in and out at Hong Kong for limited gain, I was concerned that forfeiting a day trip at Hong Kong and taking on a zig-zag route via Tokyo may disappoint my fellow travelers. But their reaction to the revised plan was beyond my belief. Not only did it win unanimous approval from the family of travel nerds, they cheered the fact that we can sit on lie-flat seats for longer without spending more miles, and that we get to sample another top airline, Japan Airlines, and that we would have a chance to fully take advantage of business class benefits and explore airport lounges at HKG and NRT. “The Wing” and “The Cabin”, two of the five Cathay lounges at HKG, receive high remarks from travelers for their modern decor and extensive food selection. We could expect to get a good taste of Hong Kong, literally, without leaving HKG. In comparison, complimentary massage at Sakura Lounge at NRT, as good as it may be, faded into a little more than an after-thought. Rebooking had been an intense moment. With positive “customer” feedback, I exhaled with a sense of relief in the end.

Though without much drama in reservation so far, the return trip promises no less exciting. According to AA’s award chart, the difference between business and first class on a one-way ticket is very modestly 12500 miles, despite thousands of dollars in their ticket price. Knowing I will probably never pay for a first class ticket in my life time, even after winning million dollar lottery, I found it easy, both mentally and wallet-wise, to indulge in this once-in-a-life-time treatment. For $34.50 and 67500 miles, a Shanghai to Chicago flight in First Class is about to take my travel experience to the next level.

(Almost) free travel, I am loving it!

ORD, lounge, British Airways, Cathay Pacific
Pre-flight use of British Airways lounge at ORD Terminal 5
British Airways, Cathay Pacific, ORD, Lounge
British Airways Lounge
Cathay Pacific, business class,
Cathay Pacific 777-300ER business class lie-flat seat
Cathay Pacific food, business class
Appetizer on Cathay Pacific: tuna takaki
Cathay Pacific, Business class, food
Main entree on Cathay Pacific: Grilled Chilean sea bass
Cathay Pacific, Business class, food
Stir-fried cod with jasmine rice served before arrival
HKG, Hong Kong, Welcome
Welcome to Hong Kong
HKG, The Wing, Hong Kong
Checking in at Cathay Pacific’s The Wing lounge at Hong Kong airport
The Wing, food, Cathay Pacific, Loung
The kind of food served at The Wing that pleases my stomach after long flight
Cathay Pacific, The Wing, HKG, shower
Shower facility at The Wing
JAL, Japan Airlines, Narita, Sakura Lounge, NRT
Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita Airport
JAL, Japan Airlines, Narita, Sakura Lounge, NRT
Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita Airport
JAL, Japan Airlines, Narita, Sakura Lounge, NRT
Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita Airport
JAL, Japan Airlines, Narita, Sakura Lounge, NRT
Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita Airport
JAL, Japan Airlines, Narita, Sakura Lounge, NRT
Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge at Tokyo Narita Airport
2014: 加拿大洛基山脉国家公园七日游

2014: 加拿大洛基山脉国家公园七日游

七月底游览加西洛基山脉(Canadian Rocky Mountains)的第一站-班福(Banff)。这个四面环山、长住人口不足一万人的小镇,在七八月份旅游旺季熙熙攘攘,唯一的交通要道Banff Ave经常堵车。

Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park
班芙镇街面
Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park
班芙镇街面
Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park
班芙缆车山顶遥望
Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park
班芙缆车山顶一览众山小
Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park, Bow River, HyWay 1A
火车蛇行于1A号高速和弓河(Bow River)之间
Banff, Rocky Mountain National Park, Bow River, HyWay 1A
划破寂静,不甘让溪流独领风骚

常言道,有水山则灵。在Rocky Mountains,举目可见的冰川给毗邻的Banff,Jasper,及Yoho国家公园带来了无限生机。著名的风景区Lake Louise,Moraine Lake,Bow Lake,Maligne Lake,等等,无不依托于雪山脚下。即便在盛夏,赤脚下水也难抵刺骨的寒凉。

Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park
弓湖,只需无言观赏
Bow Lake, Banff National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park
弓湖旁的雪山
Lake Louise, Rocky Mountain National Park
路易斯湖,落基山公园耀眼的明珠
Lake Louise, Rocky Mountain National Park, Fairmont Chateau
依山傍水-路易斯湖费尔蒙特酒店
Lake Louise, Rocky Mountain National Park, Fairmont Chateau
有机会去费尔蒙特酒店,千万别忘了在临湖餐厅小驻
Lake Louise, Rocky Mountain National Park, Fairmont Chateau
品尝一下海鲜塔
Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
大石湖(Moraine Lake),任何人工的痕迹都显多余
Moraine Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
比如说这只船
Takakaw Falls, Yoho National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park
大咖国瀑布(Takakaw Falls)

冰川融水借山势直泻千里,所向披靡。即便在相对平缓的河流中划艇,也无时不为脚下的激流和暗石所震憾。领划的导游已事先吩咐好,一旦被抛入水中,一定要面朝上,脚向前漂流,希望遇到障碍物或冲上岸边停下。因为游泳已无济于事。

Rafting, Yoho National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park
即便在盛夏,冰川融水刺骨寒凉
Rafting, Yoho National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park
勇敢一回

位于Jasper国家公园内的Columbia Icefield是除了阿拉斯加首府Juneau之外我们经历过的第二个提供登冰川服务的旅游点。这种能直接爬上冰川的车都是特制的,据说一个轮胎的造价达五千美元。脚踩在厚达几百米的冰川上,心里在默念以每一百米高的积雪积成一米厚冰的进度计算足下冰川需倒流多载,一共就十五分钟的自由活动转眼就过去了。
更令我惊奇的是Columbia Icefield作为高原水源决定了它所在的Snow Dome成为三维分水岭(Triple Continental Divide):这里的水向西流入太平洋,向东注入大西洋,北行则通向北冰洋。想象本是携手同行的冰水,在这里一不留念各奔东西,今生今世恐无再聚。对它们来讲,Columbia Icefield是否充满了悲壮?

Image courtesy Pfly – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

行程过半,正当我们为没见到一个大型哺乳动物而感到遗憾时,在二十四小时内陆续遇见双角羚羊(bighorn sheep)、驯鹿(caribou)、棕熊(grizzly bear)和黑熊(black bear)。那只羚羊仿佛跟我们有缘似的,在我们的前轮左蹭右蹭。

caribou, Rocky Mountain National Park
驯鹿
bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park
双角羚羊
bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park
风景区里的双角羚羊
bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain National Park
蹭吧,反正是租来的车
grizzly bear, Rocky Mountain National Park
棕熊

公园的游客来自世界各地,讲五花八门的语言。我们走到哪儿都有乡音撩耳。一天在中餐馆与三个华人旅游车团遭遇,店面不大的餐馆根本无暇我们散客,害得我们饥肠辘辘,眼看着比我们后来的游客不停地上菜。

Chinese Tourists, dining, Yoho National Park
整个国家公园行程处处跟华人旅游团打照面

据介绍,当冰的厚度超过三四十米的时候,冰里的空气被挤压出去,冰就慢慢变成了冰川。因为折光率变化,冰川有别于冰,看起来泛绿。冰川一旦形成,以每年四十米左右的速度下滑。尽管肉眼无法识别它的运动,但其蕴藏的巨大能量足以推开任何路障,包括山壁和巨石。有些冰川已所剩无几,只有它冲留的痕迹仍历历在目。
由于地球变暖,这些冰川世纪遗留的天工以每年净十几米的高度流失。偶尔,本来是缓慢的运动会在局部突裂。这不,就在我们攀登Edith Covell山峰之时遇见了冰崩。一阵雷鸣般巨响之后,冰川由上至下冰雪飞扬,持续了足足有一分钟。下山后,本来平静的湖面里漂浮着新落的冰块。

按现在的流失速度计算,再过几十年,洛基山脉的很多冰川将永久消失。我们这一代很可能是这一自然景观的最后目击者。每想到这,我不知是该沉迷于大饱眼福后的庆幸,还是感叹人生蹉跎比起漫长的自然长河莫过沧海一粟。

2014: 南非行

2014: 南非行

五月底南非之旅出师不利。因芝加哥至纽约的航班取消,原本一早纽约转机、次日抵达开普敦的行程变成滞留芝加哥机场一天、连飞两班红眼夜机。不仅几小时在伦敦机场无所事事,而且丢失了在开普敦宝贵的一天自由活动。待第三天筋疲力尽到达南非时,又发现两包托运行李周转中延误,次日才能到达。加上面临三天并做两天的压缩行程,我自己都奇怪第一晚居然睡得那么踏实。

British Airways, LHR, London
没有任何思想准备就来了伦敦。十几个小时转机时间无所事事,显得那么漫长。

开普敦

开普敦依山伴水,整个城市环绕平顶山( Table Mountain)、濒临大西洋。徐徐海风吹来,丝毫不觉冬寒。

Victoria and Alfred, Captown
开普敦游人聚集的维多利亚及阿尔弗莱德区域
The Commodore Hotel, Victoria and Alfred, Cape Town
我们下榻的旅馆也位于维多利亚及阿尔弗莱德区。准备早餐的厨师很细心,第二天早饭我们一入座就把我们喜欢的煮鸡蛋和煎鸡蛋送上。
Table Mountain Cable, Cape Town
乘缆车上平顶山
Table Mountain, Cape Town
在平顶山头眺望开普敦
Table Mountain, Cape Town
平顶山上天气变异多端
Table Mountain, Cape Town
城市的缩影随镜头的角度而异

从开普敦驱车南行,非洲大陆越走越窄。半小时前还在大西洋侧的Hout Bay,转眼间来到了濒临印度洋的Boulders Beach企鹅生态园。好幸福的非洲企鹅,在碧海仙境享受万灵之主的善待。

Hout Bay, Cape Town, South Africa
位于开普敦和好望角之间的呼特湾
Boulders Beach Penguin Colony, Cape Town, South Africa
大石滩企鹅生态保护区

开普敦离非洲大陆最南端只有一个多小时车程。还没到好望角,逅遇猴子和鸵鸟,旁若无人地在路边游弋。还好我们到的晚,避开了客流高峰。不然为了一张好望角的纪念照排队可达一小时。 颠簸了一天,赶在夕阳西下前返程。结果还是在夜幕中迷失了路。这是后话,暂且不提。

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa
非洲大陆西南之端-好望角
Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, monkeys, ostrich
好望角风光

Kirstenbosch国家植物园坐落在平顶山脚下。很多南半球特有的草木在这里栖息。我们赶时间,来的很早。漫步于人烟稀少、云雾缭绕下植物园,颇有享受私家花园的情调。待中午离开时,门口停车场已罗列了好多旅游大巴。

Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden, Cape Town, South Africa
国家植物园

植物园之后,我们慕名来到南非排名前茅、位于富饶的Constantia酒窖区的Greenhouse饭店。一进Hohenort酒窖庄园,望着车场里停满的奔驰、宝马、Land Rover,Lexus以及一幢幢典雅宽敞的别墅,我们开始怀疑这顿饭要犯经济错误。直到检验完菜单价钱后才昂首挺胸入座。在这等声誉、环境中的饭店,正餐一般在一二百Rand之间,真有些出乎意料。但里面就餐的没有一个黑人。

Hohenort Winery, Constantia, Cellar, Cape Town, South Africa
小有名声的霍亨诺特酒窖饭店,物美价廉
Hohenort Winery, Constantia, Cellar, Cape Town, South Africa
饭店价位包括这样的景观

南非虽称自黑人人权运动后已经实现种族平等,但现实情况是占人口30%的白人控制着几乎100%的企业。虽然全国失业率约30%,白人中失业率却低于10%。在我们接触的服务行业,旅店前台、餐馆领队及管理人员白人居多,服务员、旅游司机几乎全是黑人。景区附近白人多,到了游客稀少的市中心白人就不知不觉地消失了。

Cape Town downtown
开普敦市中心
Cape Town downtown, South Africa
市中心纪念曼德拉的活动

据旅游司机介绍,南非80%的服务人员月收入低于R5000,很多只挣R3000。难怪我们把租车停在位于闹市区的酒店地下停车场时,诺大的车场只有两三辆车。过夜停车费要R75,已超出大部分工薪阶层消费能力。
尽管离高消费旅游区几公里外就能见到简易房,–那些用铁板围起来、上面搭个盖子、很难挡风避雨的住宅,贫富混杂并未冲击游人眼中的和谐。每过马路时机动车都主动让路,甚至不惜自己来个急刹车,比在美国有过之而无不及。这种对人的谦让与尊敬有非常强撼的感染力。轮到我执方向盘时,也不知不觉地入乡随俗,尽管左行右驾之际有些手忙脚乱。 回到旅馆已是黄昏,正值旅游区工作人员下班潮。我相信这些巴士乘客不能称作上层社会,但他们候车时井然有序,活生生地展现出公民素质不是贵族的特有。

Cape Town, Bus Station, South Africa
下班族井然有序侯公车

约翰内斯堡

Pilanesberg国家公园离约翰内斯堡三小时车程。我们在南非的最后三天下榻于毗邻公园的Ivory Tree Game Lodge。 这三天生活很有规律:早晨六点半起床,用过咖啡及甜点后跟早班越野车出发,十点回来后吃早饭。白天在旅馆里自由活动。两点半午餐后简单用些午茶,然后上晚班越野。直到晚上八点返回后进晚餐。日复一日,吃住行像流水线一般,不同的是每天看见的野生动物。因为野生动物早、晚活跃,我们主要观赏时间自然集中在日出和日落前后。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming
野生动物园内的大本营
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming
除了早晚寻找野生动物,还可以在简陋的打靶场消磨时光
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming
每家独门独户

五月底南非已入初冬。但白天太阳高照时温度可达二十三度,很多游客穿上了短裤。那些没有换上长裤就登上越野车的游人很快就意识到了自己的错误。几乎是在太阳落山的瞬间,空气由暖风拂面变成寒风凛冽。待天边最后一抹残红消失之时,即使披上提供的斑马服,很多人已是车速不胜寒了。第二天都乖乖地把一路上最厚实的御寒装备套上。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming
皮蓝博格国家公园

看见那些平时只能在动物园里观赏的动物的自然状态已然赏心悦目,但夜深人静时翘望天上银河、静听自然声息同样回味无穷。真不记得天上的星曾有这么多、这么清晰。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming” class=
跟踪野生动物行踪也很幸苦。每早星星满天就出门,日出打道回府时已昏昏欲睡了。
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming” class=
傍晚换上戎装再接再励

说起来很惭愧,做为生物专业毕业生,对哺乳类分类的分辨率十分粗糙。明明见到不同的鹿,除了喊”deer”楞是想不到其它名词。经过导游Rebecca的耐心解说,终于记住了几个常见鹿种。Pilanesberg里最多的鹿是wilderbeast,impala,及南非国家动物springbok。Impala和springbok体型及色泽很接近,都善于奔跑,但后者腹部褐白交界处有一条深色绒毛。巧了,快门抓住springbok行方便一刻。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming” class=
有犯隐私了

回到美国后注意到雪佛来一个车型就叫impala,路上见到此车就不禁联想到Pilanesberg。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, springbok” class=
更多Springbok(跳羚),南非国家动物

还有大家伙的鹿。一次一只长颈鹿紧贴着我们的越野车走过。身上的皱纹清晰可见。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, giraffe” class=
天天和长颈鹿打照面

象、狮子、豹、水牛及犀牛在非洲野生动物园里通称“Big Five”,–不是形容其体积,而是指它们作为游人追寻的目标。在Pilanesberg,我们有幸多次目击象、狮、及犀牛。豹离我们擦肩而过,连相机还没准备好就消失在草丛中。水牛也未打到照面,只是见到其足迹。我们对这样的结果已经很满意了。很多人连狮子都没亲睹,更别提豹了。豹生性多疑、警觉,稍有风吹草动就隐藏起来,不象狮子那么大方、酷。导游之间用对讲机联系,一旦看到猎奇,往往几分钟后就有多辆越野车聚集。

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, elephant” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, lion” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,lion” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, zebra” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, zebra” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,Rhinoceros” class=

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,wildebeest
角马
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,hippopotamus
河马
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,Jackal
觅食中的豺狗
Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,warthogs
非洲野猪

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,monkey

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming,monkey

当然野生动物园里远不止Big Five,那些叫不出名字的小鸟、猎食中的豺狗、猴子、斑马、野猪,等等,构建了丰富的生态群。南非当地出产的Amarula饮料,喝起来象vanilla,就是从长得有些象香蕉的树上提取的。Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, birds

Ivory Tree Game Lodge, Pilanesberg National Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, Wild Life gaming, Amarula tree
Amarula tree

离开Pilanesberg,一路顺利返回。尽管去程多有波折,烟消云散后驻留的是对南非温馨的回忆。

JNB, South Africa, Johannesburg
约翰内斯堡机场,非洲最发达的空港之一
United Club, IAD, Washington D.C.
途径华盛顿杜勒斯机场,把美联航的贵宾室日票排上用处
2013: My first trip around the world

2013: My first trip around the world

Still excited from the just completed, 17-day trip around the world that saw us set foot on two continents and seven countries, I have developed a strong urge to attempt something that I have never done before and, in all likelihood, am pretty cumbersome at, that I should capture the highlights in a trip report.

My predominant interest in food and travel hardware dictates that the report will center on those aspects more than the learning experience, a predisposition that I find unforgiving if I ever dream of becoming a world-renowned travel blogger. On the other hand, it’s not my intention to discourage myself even before I start. Perfect is the enemy of good, I assure myself.
The trip began with a three day stay at Rome before boarding a seven day Eastern Mediterranean cruise with ports of call in Sicily, Greece, and Turkey. After disembarkation, we set off for Singapore, where we met my parents. The expanded family spent four days together in the Lion City, followed by two days at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The trip was concluded with an 18 hours flight from Singapore to Chicago, with a stopover at Tokyo. Our kids went to Shanghai with their grandparents and came home one week later.

Lufthansa, Singapore, ANA
Flight itinerary
Royal Caribbean, Navigator of the Seas, Easter Mediterranean, Rome
7-Day Cruise on Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas

All flights were booked by redeeming United Airlines frequent flier miles that I worked diligently to collect over the years and more aggressively in the past few months. Having flown United several times to China, I specifically chose variant airlines within the Star Alliance network to broaden our flight experience with different carriers. Altogether, we flew three Star Alliances airlines of Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and All Nippon Airways (ANA), and one Kuala Lumpur-based, low-cost airline Air Asia. As exotic as “around the world” may sound like, only nominal fees were charged in booking the tickets. Even the miles needed for a trip like this can be obtained rather rapidly with minimum cost, if you are credit worthy, determined to earn free flights, and somewhat dedicated to the mileage accrue and redemption strategies. Since nearly exhausting our United MileagePlus accounts with 260,000 miles spent on this trip in December, we have already replenished more than half of the miles needed to replicate the same deal.

To Rome

During the trip, all long-haul flights took off in the evening. Such arrangement turned out to be convenient and practical. I was able to log a full day’s work on the day of departure, saving one precious vacation day.

Our first flight was with Lufthansa, a German airline with hubs in Frankfurt, Munich, and Dusseldorf. After the Boeing 747-400 took off shortly after 10 PM, dinner was served around midnight. The chicken meal I ordered, with cooked vegetable on the side, was like other western food served in the sky, that you had to eat it to keep from being hungry, yet the lingering taste accompanied by the jet leg quickly reminded you travel was not supposed to be pleasant to your stomach. The only bright spot was that wine and beer were still complimentary in trans-Atlantic economy class so you would not mistake the flight with a domestic one. However, the seating was uncomfortable. The pitch was noticeably short and seats in the 3-4-3, twin-isle configuration were narrow. They were no doubt designed with European travelers in mind instead of Americans, where over one-third of the adults are either overweight or obese.
With personal entertainment system handy, the overnight redeye flight was not particularly exhausting. I managed to watch a movie and sleep a couple of hours despite uncomfortable seats. Breakfast was served before landing at Frankfurt. Typical of airline food and not much different from United’s trans-Pacific offerings, the breakfast appeared uninspiring but tasted OK.

Lufthansa, food
Food and IFE on Lufthansa

I didn’t expect an immigration stamp on my passport at Frankfurt airport but not at Rome. Apparently European Union is unified at this front such that only the point of entry to EU is recorded, not the particular country to visit. There was no customs form to fill prior to entering either Germany or Italy. Talking about (lack of) border control!

Frankfurt, FRA, McDonald's
Welcome to Frankfurt where food is more expensive in dollar terms

Rome

Before the trip, we were fully aware that pickpocket is rampant in Rome. No sooner than at the very start of our tour of the city we fell victim to the act. Within steps off our first bus exit next to the Capital Museum, a young female panhandler nearly half his size approached our elder son and grabbed his arm for money. Although he successfully got rid of her after some skillful persuasion, in both English and Spanish, we soon realized that his wallet in his zipped pocket was stolen. Luckily, we were less than 100 feet away from the scene. Upon our swift return, the lady promptly handed over the wallet, claiming she found it on the ground. We could have spent the next hour or so contacting US credit card issuers!
After the rude awakening, we became extra careful in guarding our belongings. In a country where unemployment rate among the youth stood as high as 40%, everyone, tourists or locals alike, is wise to be prudent.

Coliseum, Rome
Inside and outside of Coliseum

Rome is a city full of architectural and historical gems. We could hardly cover the “top tier” in two full days. We visited the Coliseum first. The largest amphitheater in the world, the Coliseum was built at the beginning of the Roman Empire in year 70 A.D. This was the place where gladiators, often death roll prisoners, were left to fight for their own survival, against animals or other gladiators. As testimony of its marvelous architect and engineer work, as many as 50000 spectators can enter or exit the complex in as little as 15 minutes.

Rome, architectural ruins
architectural ruins are everywhere at Rome

Visiting Rome was in a way like going back to China. There were tourists all over the place. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to snap a picture without a stranger in the background or even foreground. The huge inflow of tourists was presumably desperately needed in the country battling fiercely against austerity. In contrast to that expectation, I did not particularly feel tourists were welcome in Rome. Part of that might be due to language barrier. We purchased Rome Pass which gave us unlimited ride on city transportation. However, we had a great deal of difficulty getting directions from bus drivers, local passengers, or even security guards, who appeared either impatient or indifferent. Although signs of past greatness were clearly visible as we strolled on omnipresent cobble stone alleys sparkled by grand structures easily centuries old, I could never let escape the thought of a lost civilization.

bus stop sign, Rome
bus stop sign – good luck if you have any questions about it
National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, Rome
National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy
Trevi Fountain, Rome
Trevi Fountain
Pantheon, Rome
Pantheon
Capitoline Hill, Rome
Capitoline Hill
Spanish Steps, Rome
Spanish Steps

Rome is known for authentic Italian food. As expected, street side bites lived up to their names and were in general satisfying. Compared to their American counterpart, Italian pizza or calzone were richer in vegetable toppings and tastier. Food establishments were abundant among tourist sites and my tired legs were grateful that I did not have to walk far to find one. On the other hand, locating a great dinner restaurant proved to be hit or miss. I made a mistake of relying too much on TripAdvisor.com ratings. In one such highly rated restaurant in Camp de Flori neighborhood, for example, the waiter greeted us with “drink, eat, or both?” As it turned out, the restaurant was better known for its extensive wine selections. Our food orders did not arrive until 50 minutes later even though we appeared to be the only table waiting. Even then, one of our four orders was never taken! Instead of making it up there, we quickly headed to a restaurant across the street for the second round dinner. This time we let smell and crowd lead the way and were not disappointed at all. Dinner menu in Rome usually listed both primo and secondary entries, with the primo, or first, entry relatively light, usually featuring pastas, and second entry heavy and meaty, usually coming with fish or beef. On that night, we just mixed primo and secondary in two different restaurants.

Italian dishes, Rome
Italian dishes we tried

Vatican

A tour to Rome is incomplete without visiting Vatican City, the smallest country in the world yet yields significant influence over one billion-strong Roman Catholics around the world.
Weeks before leaving for Rome, I had booked an early morning guided tour of the Vatican Museums. With reservation in hand and taking comfort with the fact that we stayed within steps of Vatican wall, I made a mistake of being assumptive and allowing insufficient time to get to the museum. We were 10 minutes late for the tour and had to be rescheduled to noon. We spent 40 minutes of the three hours of unplanned time walking back to our bed and breakfast in a different direction than we came in from. Without us being aware at the time, we had circled an entire country by foot.
Erected in the 16th century, the Vatican Museums assembled huge collection of fine arts from the catholic world. I found myself quickly turning into a robotic photographer, as that was all left to be done by a person with little knowledge in Christianity. The mosaic floor, the painted hallway, and the famous Last Judgment ceiling painting at the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, were simply stunning, to name a few. I am sure our elder son took home more messages than I did. The School of Athens by Italian painter Raphael, for example, was featured in his high school AP Art History course.

School of Athens, Raphael, Vatican, Sistine Chapel
School of Athens painting by Raphael at Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum, Rome
clockwise from top left: pinecone statue at Vatican Museum courtyard, lookout from Sistine Chapel, mosaic tile and carved ceiling at Sistine Chapel,
St. Peter's Square, Vatican
St. Peter’s Square at Vatican

St. Peter's Square, Vatican, Rome

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas

With a tonnage of 138,000 and capacity of 3114 passengers, Navigator of the Seas is currently the 12th largest cruise ship in the world and the largest cruise ship we have ever been on.

Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Food decoration and presentation
Sunset, Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Sunset on the sea

Messina, Sicily Island

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The city of Messina, capital of Messina Province, sits on the northeast corner of the island that is a couple of miles away from Italian mainland across the Strait of Messina.

Messina, Sicily
Clock Tower at Messina
Palazzo della Provincia, Messina
Old province building
Messina
Messina streets
Messina
Messina port

Athens, Greece

With only a few hours to spend, most of the first-time cruise tourists chose to head to Athens city center where the ancient ruins of Acropolis were located. The archaeological site sat on top of a sharp hill about 70 meter above the surrounding streets, unmistakably matched by the description of an acropolis, which in Greek means “city built on the edge”.
The cruise port, Piraeus, is about 8 kilometers from Acropolis. As soon as we got off the cruise ship, taxi drivers already knew what we were up to and yelled their offer to take all four of us to Acropolis for 20 euro. It’s probably not a bad deal, but we already had plans. I had learned from homework that taking a metro train to Acropolis is just as fast and unlikely to be interrupted by traffic. So we set off walking towards the train station. Some of the taxi drivers would not give up, following us hundreds of meters to the cruise gate. We must have sounded either too stubborn or too cheap to them.

Pireas, Athens, Greece
Pireas, main sea port to Athens

Athens public transportation systems charged flat rate, 1.40 euro per adult, children half price, regardless of distance of travel within 90 minutes time limit. After we bought the tickets and sat in the train waiting for its departure, the wording on the ticket caught my attention: “Validate on your first trip. Penalty for non-validation is 60 times the ticket price”. Still under the shadow from my Rome experience, I started to nervously ask fellow passengers how to tell a ticket had been validated. To my relief, they understood English well and had no difficulty explaining that all tickets had to be stamped, or validated, prior to boarding. My puzzled face must have looked more serious than at Rome as it convinced one of the local passengers to actually walk out of the train and lead us all the way to a row of yellow boxes at the end of the platform. He nearly missed the train as we fumbled the tickets into the yellow box for validation. I would have felt sorry if he did.

Athens metro
Public transportation in Athens

I have to give credits to my younger son who helped ended my otherwise total oblivion in Greek mythology by quizzing me each god’s responsibilities and relationships between them non-stop throughout the trip till this date, armed by his recently acquired knowledge on this topic through reading series of books by Rick Riodan. The trip became more revealing and entertaining as we traced the roots of the aforementioned stories. The mere naming rights of Athens involved no less than a heated contest between Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, the God of the Seas. Athena won the battle as her gift to the city, an olive tree symbolizing peace and prosperity, was favored over the nearly useless salt water spring presented by Poseidon. The legend also had it that Athena was born out of her father, Zeus’s head in unbearable pain. Zeus, The King of Gods, who had overthrown his own child-eating father, Cronus, before becoming the leader, swallowed Athena’s mother for fear of threat against his realm. Stories like these were featured on countless limestone sculptures situated on various archeological remains at Acropolis, the most famous of which include Parthenon, Erechtheum, statue of Athena Promachos, and many more. These structures, believed started to be built in as early as 600 BC, witnessed the rise and fall of Greek civilization as well as the footprint of foreign occupancy. Even the mighty Greek gods could do nothing to stop the viscous cycle of building, destruction, repair, looting, and eventual burning-down of the citadel in their honor. Disappeared among the ruins lied the blurry of history and legends.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon and nearby stadium at Acropolis

Much of what I learned about Acropolis was from the nearby Acropolis Museum. Some of the more complete columns and sculptures of archeological significance were preserved there. A short movie on Acropolis history was very informing, too. The admission fees to the museum were very reasonable at five euro for adults and three for children and students with International Student IDs. Since our elder son did not possess an International Student ID, we were expecting to pay full price. The admission agent honored student rate anyway after verbal verification. It could be no more than a random act of kindness. Personally I would rather choose to believe it’s the tip of the iceberg of a society of trust. I wish Athens well.

Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
Acropolis Museum
The Parliament House, changing guards, Athens
Changing guards at the Parliament House

Kusadasi, Turkey

In Turkish, kus means bird, ada, island. Together, it refers to an island of birds. Despite of the name, the highlights of the port of the call were another series of archeological wonders and historical sanctuaries in the nearby city of Ephesus about 20 kilometers away, not the least of which laid claim to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Port of Kusadasi, Ephesus
Port of Kusadasi

The ancient city of Ephesus was once populated by more than 250,000 in the first century BC, making it one of the largest cities in Mediterranean World, only behind such metropolitans as Rome and Alexandria. In contrast to Rome where modern world has also thrived, Ephesus gradually lost its important role as the trading center on Aegean Sea with salt water backflow along the Cayster River. We can only gain glimpse of the past from what remained through centuries of human neglect and destruction on top of acts by nature including earthquakes.

The 1.5 km winding path through the city was packed with ruins of civilization. The Celcus Library, three stories tall, was one of the largest libraries in the world at the time of its build in year 120 by Roman Senator Celsus. Besides its size, the Roman influenced building was also unusual in that the sponsor Celsus himself was buried underneath the entrance as a monument to him. At Roman Baths, or public bathrooms as known today, the toilet structures not much different from what I saw in use during my childhood showcased civil engineering two thousand years in advance, although I might take exception to the usage of marble as the building material, particularly during the winter. Mediterranean winter could be hash. That had prompted the early dwellers to construct hollow ducts made of clay and embed them in the walls, in much the same way we build central air today. Considering that heating is still deemed a luxury in many parts of the world, the architect and engineering designs discovered in the ancient city were truly remarkable. A large city needed a huge gathering place, hence the great amphitheater with seating capacity of 25,000, not a trivial matter even measured in modern standard. Best of all, the theater is still intact and operable centuries later. In February 2009, Elton John performed in front of a large crowd right here. Imagine popular songs like Circle of Life and Someone Saved My Life played in modern acoustics mixing with rocks and limestone laid down by folks thousands years ago!

Ephesus
public bathroom of old Ephesus
facade, library
facade of old library
stadium, column, Ephesus
stadium and columns

As if the ancient Ephesus was not impressive enough in its archeological offerings, the city drew huge following from another group of faithful visitors, the Christians. Pilgrims followed the footsteps of St. John, who helped Mary, the mother of Jesus, avoid the prosecution of Christians in Jerusalem and took her to Ephesus. Mary ended up spending her final years here and died in year 54. After fulfilling his duty of caring for Mary, John eventually died in Ephesus in year 100. His burial site later on became the location of Basilica of St. John. Both the basilica
and the House of the Virgin Mary were featured in numerous tours available to visitors both local and around the world. The House of the Virgin Mary was no more than 10 x10 square meters in size. No photographs were allowed inside the house. We took our pace once inside after about 20 minutes of wait, trying to get as much from this holy place as we can. Behind the house, a wall of three water sprouts became a busy place for pilgrims. It was believed that the spring water under the house possesses healing power. Many visitors were apparently prepared, with small empty bottles in hand.

House of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus
visitors lining up to enter Virgin Mary’s house
Prayer Wall, Virgin Mary's House
Prayer Wall at Virgin Mary’s House
spring water, Virgin Mary's house, Ephesus
holy spring water at Virgin Mary’s house

Unlike the list of Seven Wonders of the World, which has been the subject of debate and interpretation by different organizations whose own proposals do not necessarily overlap, Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is clearly defined and accepted. The clarity may be due to the relative narrow definition of “Ancient World” in both geographical and chronological terms. Only architectural and artistic achievements widely viewed by Hellenistic tourists, who largely covered today’s Middle East and Mediterranean regions, and from years 200 to 100 BC were taken into account. Because the list was established more than 2000 years ago, with the exception of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which remains relatively intact, the other wonders have been reduced to ruins. Only one column of no more than 20 meters high and some pieces of foundation were clearly visible at  although a couple of vendors were eager to sell archeology-subjected books with diagrams of what the temple used to look like.

Temple of Artemis, Ancient Seven Wonders of the World
remains of The Temple of Artemis, one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World

I found it regretful that Chinese history, let alone world history, was never given its rightful place during my secondary education. If it were, I surely would have been in a better position to connect the dots and appreciate the great civilizations embedded in the ruins in front of me more profoundly. The cruise ship had been casting a line of itinerary hundreds of miles away from Rome, dotted at Sicily, Athens, and now in Ephesus. Yet the distance paled against Roman’s realm. From the basilicas in Messina, to the endowments in Athens and Ephesus, nearly all the architectural heavyweights were imprinted with Roman influence, whether it’s in the form of design, construction, sponsorship, or dismantle. I also became equally impressed by Greek’s superlative past, under whose control, Ephesus flourished. Temple of Artemis was a testament of Greek gods being celebrated and worshipped outside modern national boarders long before they were drawn. Roman knew better – Greek language and philosophy had been well sought after among Roman elites. Considering most of the stories I learned took place from an era up to hundreds of years before Qin Shi Huang united China, my preoccupied thought of enlightenment could not be overstated.

carpet demo, Ephesus
how carpet is made at carpet exhibition center

Chania, Greece

Chania, located at the northwest corner of the Crete Island, was the last stop of the cruise before heading back to Rome.
Situated in East Mediterranean and within close reach to Europe, Asia, and Africa, Crete Island was better known as a trading hub as well as safety heaven for pirates. Although the island had a rich history predating ancient Greece by thousands of years, we took an easy approach at this stop, opting to visit the commercially developed area instead of explore history. I really liked what I saw in Chania, a city of charm and tranquility.

Chania, Greece
Chania harbor area
Chania fortress, Greece
fortress with harbor view
Mosque of Kioutsouk Hassan-Giali Tzamisi, Chania, Greece
Mosque of Kioutsouk Hassan-Giali Tzamisi at the harbor square

We first stopped by a municipal market patronized mostly by locals. Starved for internet access after days on board, I asked for the wi-fi code available to customers at a bakery store even though we did not make any purchase. The lady at the store gave us the code with a friendly smile and let us use one of their tables, reminding me we were back to the friendly country of Greece. Overall, I found the produce prices comparable to those at the US, if not slightly more expensive.

Chania, Greece
local market

Most of the tourists gathered at the harbor. Over there, boat captains and restaurant greeters alike eagerly waved at the tourists. Despite the foot traffic, the water at the harbor was very clean and fish could be seen swimming freely. If it had not been for the unscrupulous eating on the cruise, we could have pulled a table by the seaside and enjoyed a dish or two.

To Singapore

After disembarkation, we arrived at Rome Fiumicino Airport three hours before scheduled departure time, only to find out our flight to Frankfurt was delayed. Central Europe was having one of the worst flooding in its history. Air traffic was disrupted as a result. We were lucky that our flight was delayed only by two hours.
At Fiumicino, we met two separate Chinese tour groups, each with about 20 people. We ended up boarding the same flight. Signaling a large Chinese presence was not particularly unusual, the gate agents greeted them in Chinese “Xie Xie” and the safety instructions were played in German, English, and Chinese. The Chinese tourists overwhelmed the 200-passenger A321 plane during the boarding process as they changed seats all over the place, some from all the way back to the front row of the Economy, carrying luggage with them along the way. At Frankfurt airport, our plane took a long taxi of at least 15 minutes before stopping at the terminal. That was apparently too long for many of the Chinese tourists who started to reach for their luggage. Flight attendants, still restrained by seat belts themselves, tried in vain to stop the unsafe maneuver. The frantic tourist guides had to stand up and yell at the fellow passengers in Chinese. They managed to sit everyone. But damage was already done. Several overhead bins were left open with the doors bouncing up and down as the plane approached the gate while pieces of carry-on luggage were left in the middle of the isle. Embracing wealthy Chinese tourists had its price, but travel safety should not be among them.
As a self-proclaimed travel aficionado, I can’t help but noticing all the praises about Singapore Airlines and have long considered it the jewel of the Star Alliance. I was very excited at the time of the booking that award seats on Singapore Airlines (aka SIA) were still available. Redeeming United’s miles on a top notch carrier? I would be happy to do that many times over! Not surprisingly, SIA’s service was more attentive compared to US airlines, even on their international routes. As soon as cruising altitude was attained, flight attendants started to run around to provide headset, convenience pouch containing a pair a socks and tooth brush kit, hot towel, and menu, before rolling out dinner. The three dinner choices, chicken piccata, fish fillet with Asian egg noodle, and roasted pork with steamed rice, all sounded very pleasing to my taste. I ordered fish, which was tender and juicy, definitely among the best airline food I ever had. Topping off the dinner with a Magnum ice cream bar, I was ready for the overnight flight. Lunch was served before arrival. Again, the chicken egg noodle I had did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind having this kind of food every day on land.

Singapore Airlines, food
fish, chicken, port meals served on Singapore Airlines

Out of curiosity, I checked recent rankings of world airlines. SkyTrx’s top 10 airlines in 2013 were as follows:

  1. Emirates
  2. Qatar Airways
  3. Singapore Airlines
  4. ANA All Nippon Airways
  5. Asiana Airlines
  6. Cathay Pacific Airways
  7. Etihad Airways
  8. Garuda Indonesia
  9. Turkish Airlines
  10. Qantas Airways

Interestingly, based on this survey of passenger satisfaction, none of the US airlines made to the top 40. I miss SIA already.

Singapore

Singapore is known for its lofty real estate price. Nonetheless I was shocked by ads on Straight Times that found many 1000 sq ft two bedroom condominium asked for more than one S$ million. Hotels were expensive, too. We stayed four nights at Conrad Centennial hotel, one of the higher rated in Singapore located at Marina Bay. The standard rate was S$380, about US$300, per room per day. Being a frugal traveler, I liked the hotel, but not the price. That’s when the hotel points came into play. Similar to United’s MileagePlus, Hilton’s loyalty program Hilton HHonors allowed four nights’ stay at the hotel in exchange for 132,000 HH points. With some careful strategizing and planning, that goal was met after a few points setback in credit scores and less than $200 in two credit card annual fees. On top of that, I strived to qualify HH gold status before the trip, which came with free breakfast at Hilton hotels, a savings of S$59 per person per day at Conrad. The vast variety of breakfast items, from Chinese style porridge, dim sum, to Western pound cakes, omelette, and fresh juices, made the free breakfast deal even sweeter.

Conrad Centennial, Singapore
room view at Conrad Centennial
Conrad Centennial, Singapore
High redemption values for Hilton HHonors points at Conrad Centennial, US$300/night for 33000 Hilton HHonors points

This little economic wonder of the 70s and 80s, combining the best of what the East and West could offer, was so inviting to me that I developed the sense of belonging after four days of stay, even though I had no business saying that as a tourist. Removal of language barrier certainly helped. Mandarin Chinese was as prevalent as English, the official language of the city state. Not only most ethnic Chinese that accounted for three forth of the population spoke Chinese, some of the Malays could communicate in that language as well, as I learned firsthand from talking to one of the hotel concierges, a Malay. From asking directions, to chatting with taxi drivers and ordering food, Chinese made my life easy as a visitor. I also felt a strong connection to the US in that, likewise, it’s a country well administered with law and order. At Changi Airport, Ground Transportation desk radioed in a large taxi van for the six of us in a matter of minutes who accepted posted fare for that type of car (I could not take that for granted as I learned from my experience at Kuala Lumpur later). Pedestrians, bikers, and motor vehicles alike strictly obeyed traffic signals. Streets were clean and I did not notice the presence of police or graffiti in public places, usually a telling sign of potential troubles. Metro stations were roomy and airy with station locations and route maps color-coded and alpha-numerically represented and easy to understand. eCommerce delivered as promised with my pre-ordered coach tickets to Kuala Lumpur honored at the station. Things ran smoothly as they were supposed to be.

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Marina Bay Sands, image of Singapore
The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
The Fullerton Hotel at Marina
Singapore Marina
highrise at marina
shopping, Singapore
no lack of high end shopping
Singapore Chinatown
Chinatown

And then there was food. Singapore is foodie’s heaven. There were non-stop supplies of restaurants everywhere we went: along the Singapore River, underneath or on top of shopping complex, and of course, at Chinatown. They drew strong analogy to my favorite memories in this category both in terms of style and variety: alley food in Shanghai, family-owned restaurants in Hong Kong, and giant food court in Vancouver. For less than S$10, one can sample dim sum, Hainan Chicken rice, Thai flavored fish, or beef noodle made from your choice of fresh knife-carved or hand-pulled from the dough. Casual dining was at its climax at Makansutra Gluttons Bay, a row of restaurant featuring seafood on the northern bank of Singapore River. As darkness fell, tourists gathered around open table with famous local dishes such as chilly crab, grilled squid, or fried stingray, all emitting irresistible smell and temptation, whether coupled with cold beer, freshly squeezed lemon juice, or simply a coconut fruit. If the timing was right, the twice nightly Light and Laser Show on the bay would add another dimension to one’s sense of pleasure. We also visited Hai Di Lao, a hot pot style restaurant recently featured on Wall Street Journal, since none of the franchise in the US was close to Chicago. We were supposed to be entertained by a variety of board games and electronic games or even free manicure at the waiting area provided by Hai Di Lao. We did not have a chance to experience those offerings when we arrived at 4:30 PM for dinner. True to the WSJ description, ordering was conducted on an iPad and noodles were hand-pulled in front of us by a dancing worker till they were about two meters long.

Makansutra Gluttons Bay, Singapore
night market at Makansutra Gluttons Bay
Hidilao Hot Pot, Singapore
visiting Hidilao Hot Pot for the first time, before its first US store was opened

At less than two degrees north, Singapore was as close to the equator as I ever got to. Because the Sun was directly overhead above the northern Tropic of Cancer during the month of June, the sunlight came down to Singapore from the north. That’s why I lost my sense of direction at Botanic Gardens as I looked for the exit on the map. I was blaming an inaccurate map!

Kuala Lumpur

With two days to spare, I decided to visit Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia about 350 km to the north, by land on the way there and by air back. Funny as it might sound, part of the reason for including KL in the trip was my fond memory of the city after watching a movie in which Kuala Lumpur appeared neat and filled with sunshine, vibe and skyscrapers. I couldn’t recall the name of the movie, but one can never underestimate the power of persuasion by Hollywood.
The relative short distance between Singapore and KL could be misleading for travel planning, for reasons unrelated to highway congestion, although we got caught by traffic as we entered KL. We spent half an hour on the bus waiting to move up to Singapore Immigration, which took about 15 minutes itself. Once we were done, Malaysia was a short hop away across the bridge. There, we were asked to take our luggage to Malaysia Immigration and Customs. By the time the busload passengers completed the paperwork and all the baggage loaded on the bus again, we already ran two and half hours on the clock and Singapore was still in sight. On the plus side, the coach bus from Aeroline, whose double-decker was spacious and comfortable, provided a relaxing ride with lunch and entertainment.

Aeroline bus, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur
Aeroline bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, all-leather seats, food included, for under US$40

I had to admit coming to KL based on my movie fantasy was a mistake. The Iconic Petronas Twin Towers, among the tallest in the world, was about the only scene reminiscent of what’s in the movie. Streets, though relatively wide for the most part, struggled to handle the huge volume of vehicles. The blue sky gave away to smog not all accounted for by the omnipresent gas waste. I later learned the situation became worse since we left such that the air quality was rated “dangerous” at one point. If anything, the street vibe was still brimming, except it took courage to navigate through the crowds under the scorching sunshine in order to truly experience it. Adding irritation to the visit, we had hard time locating a taxi driver willing to run the meter, despite posted sign saying it’s unlawful to refuse meter usage. We had to negotiate fare before boarding, often paying a rate several times over the official one in our short hops in the city. Interestingly, when we found a dispatcher service at Pavilion KL, an upscale shopping plaza, who promised meter fare, we had to pay a fee for their service. Law abiding was apparently extra in KL.

Twin Tower, Kuala Lumpur
Twin Tower
Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Chinatown
Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur, day and night

Where KL fell below expectations, it was made up for elsewhere. The hotel stay was a pleasant surprise. Double Tree Hotel Kuala Lumpur was downgraded in March from a Category 3 to a lowly Category 2 in Hilton system, below most of run-of-the-mill Hampton Inns, let alone Hiltons or Hilton Garden Inns, in the US. The low tier level meant each room cost only 10000 HH points per day, a screaming bargain considering the hotel’s prime location at the city
center and favorite review by travelers at TripAdvisor.com. In addition, we received free wi-fi, executive lounge access on the top 34th floor, and complementary breakfast at Makan Kitchen on the 11th floor, thanks to HH Gold status. The huge selection of food at Makan Kitchen was jaw-dropping. The kitchen was so big that it had to be compartmentalized into separate food stations: Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, western, et al, each offering at least a dozen different dishes. Simple noodle soap could be mixed using choice of thick, thin, or egg noodle with chicken, beef, or herb soap, along with side items of vegetables, mushrooms, and seafood meat for personalization. I did not have a chance to sample all the food I liked to in two days. If Makan Kitchen stood out in variety, executive lounge enticed us with seclusion and service. Even though only snacks were available in the evening, they compared favorably in quality and taste with appetizers found at some of the more selective restaurants. We found our usual spot around a large table in a semi-enclosed meeting room, all to our family, since there were few other guests at the lounge. Similar to private party at a restaurant, wine and drinks were served as we enjoyed the food, the conversation, and the expansive valley view overlooking the city, at a cool temperature setting somewhat twenty degrees Fahrenheit lower than the outside. Moment like this possessed healing power: any displeasure with the poor trip planning would be easily dispelled and my memory of KL would be permanently updated with the warmth of family time no longer depending on movie recalls.

Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
Double Tree hotel, room view and lobby
Double Tree Kuala Lumpur, Executive Lounge
10,000 Hilton HHonor points per night with upgraded room and lounge privilege, including unlimited drink, making Double Tree KL my BEST HH redemption experience
Makan Kitchen, Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
Makan Kitchen on 11th floor, dozens of breakfast choices served, complimentary of Hilton HHonor Gold status
Makan Kitchen, Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
noodle station and omelet center

I found KL to be the least expensive among places I visited during the trip, at least in terms of food. Some of more elaborate Chinese restaurant dishes at the same plaza where Double Tree hotel was located cost about ten to fifteen Malaysian Ringgits (MYR), or three to five US dollars. Many food court items were under ten MYR. We visited Din Tai Fung at Pavilion KL whose locally renowned Xiao Long Bao cost less than 15 MYR per 12 pieces. The quality and authenticity was beyond the likes at Chicago Chinatown, but I would not mistake it for the namesake material found at either Yu Yuan in Shanghai or Nan Xiang Xiao Long in Jia Ding.

Din Tai Fung, Kuala Lumpur
Visiting renowned Din Tai Fung restaurant for the first time

Two thirds of the Malaysian population were Malays, followed by Chinese, about one-forth, and Indian, about 1/13. Islam was by far the dominant religion, with a 61% “market share”. On KL streets, there were many women in veil. Driven by the religious diversity not normally exposed to, we visited Sri Mahamariamman, a Hindu temple next to Chinatown, and Islamic Art Museum. The Hindu temple was basically a small courtyard with some statues honoring Hindu gods. It was not patronized by many worshippers, but one had to remove shoes before entrance. Islamic Art Museum, on the other hand, was very impressive, with well conveyed educational displays featuring Islamic architect, history, and Qur’an. I tried to take advantage of the visit and look for answers to the ever-deepening conflict and mistrust between Muslims and Christians that rooted many of the world tragic events today. Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge on this topic conveniently rendered this idea a futile effort. Beyond my rudimentary findings that Islam believed in Allah and his messenger Muhammad, as opposed to Jesus, my two hour political investigation was best described unproductive and inconclusive. However I did appreciate Qur’an dogmatism that embraces acceptance and tolerance. There is hope for world peace after all. The extremely clean, bright, and spacious three-story building reminded me of the popularity of Islam in this country, as well as the fact that we were neighboring Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. We had undoubtedly left Christian-dominated Rome and Vatican and entered Muslim territory!

Islamic Art Museum, Kuala Lumpur
Islamic Art Museum
Sri Mahamariamman, Kuala Lumpur
culture diversity – Sri Mahamariamman, the Hindu temple next to Chinatown, in this Islamic dominant city

Back home

We flew back to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia. This was the first time we used the discount airline and found it pretty attractive. Based in KL, Air Asia had a wide reach in Asia including Japan, Australia, India, and China. Their main attraction was low fares, as low as ten US dollars between KL and Singapore, for example. Since we flew on a Sunday, as did many Malaysia-based Singapore workers, the price was little higher, particularly towards late afternoon and evening. Still, at $30 per person, about the same as coach bus serving the same route, the price was very reasonable. While Air Asia offered low flight fare, they made up the profit from amenities like meal and baggage service. We prepaid three checked-in baggage for $70, which could be easily doubled if we were to check in at the time of flight. My take with Air Asia was that if you planned ahead, you probably would come ahead.

AirAsia
flew AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur, the airline’s hub, to Singapore

All Nippon Airways (ANA) was the last airline we flew in the trip. From Singapore to Chicago, we had the option of flying trans-Atlantic via European hubs like London or Frankfurt, or trans-Pacific via Seoul, Korea. Taking Trans-Pacific routes saved a couple of hours.
We had a late start with ANA at Singapore. The Boeing 767-300 aircraft arrived late, squeezing our already tight connection time at Tokyo by one hour. An additional twenty minutes was spent on security checkpoint at Narita Airport, which was odd for a same-terminal connection. In the end, we literally had only five minutes of wait time before boarding the Chicago bound Boeing 777-300ER. I felt relieved we made the last connection, keeping the entire trip by and large trouble free and on schedule.

ANA
ANA

According to SkyTrx ranking, ANA was neck and neck with SIA, an assessment I could not agree more. SIA’s service was slightly more attentive and personal in my view whereas ANA’s food was just as tasty but a little easier to digest. I would love to include either one in the next trip.
Speaking of next trip, I felt emboldened by the initial success in booking sophisticated award travel using miles and points. I look forward to applying lessons learned during this trip and constructing more rewarding and satisfying itineraries next time with greater poise and confidence.