Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Completing the circle in London

Closing the circle with our final destination, London, required our longest flight of the trip. Flying from San Francisco to London took about 9½ hours with a good tail wind. Question: Why does United/Continental charge for drinks on international flights when every other airline offers them for free?

One of the best reasons to visit London

Oh well, we would have plenty of opportunity for drinks in London, since one of the nicest parts about visiting that city is access to the wonderful English pubs and their tasty cask ales, which we’ve both developed a fondness for. Lucky us—we found a really good Indian restaurant and a particularly nice Fuller’s pub just a couple blocks from our hotel (the Royal Park Hotel on the edge of Hyde Park). The Victoria is delightful, especially in winter: warm fires burning in the fireplaces, beautiful wood panels lined with pictures of Queen Victoria, a mixed local clientele both young and old, delicious pub food, and a full range of excellent beers (ESB, London Pride, seasonal bitter). We popped into a few other pubs during our 2½ days in the city (the Swan, Monkey Pod, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese), but the Victoria was definitely the best.

Our time in the city was made special by the presence of good friends Alan and Cherry, who had allowed us to spend the month in their villa in Kas, Turkey, back in October (same trip, but seems so long ago!). They came up to London by train from their home in East Sussex and spent a couple of nights with us. For culture we took in the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, which we had also visited on past trips. We rode the buses (bought an oyster card for the first time) and took a bracing walk across the Millennium Bridge over the Thames to get to the Tate Modern. One night we bought discount day-of-the-show tickets (39 pounds each) for a performance of the Queen musical, We Will Rock You. That turned out to be surprisingly fun, especially for a Queen fan. The story was simple and a bit silly, but it effectively wove the Queen songbook into the show.

St Paul's, the Millennium Bridge, and a watercolor sky

Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern
The London weather was actually surprisingly nice (high in the 40s, with some weak sunshine), so we lucked out on that front. But it was quite shocking after months in the 80s! And of course we weren’t really properly dressed since we didn’t want to drag heavy winter clothes around with us for 134 days just so we could have them for 3 days at the end of the trip. So we shivered a bit, especially when the sun went down at 4 in the afternoon as we strolled through Hyde Park. Good excuse to head to the pub for another pint. Which we did.

So long, London
So our trip around the world is now complete—32,000 miles, 137 days, 29 flights, 8 countries, countless wonderful adventures.  We flew back from London to New York, rented a car, and drove home to Pennington, New Jersey. Hard to come home in the middle of winter! My allergies to New Jersey immediately set in. Darn! But it was great to catch up with Owen and Roque and the grand-dogs again—it’s been too long since we saw them!

And what were my favorite places? One of the nicest features of the trip was that every place we visited was different and had something special to offer. We never got bored, which is pretty amazing. Four and a half months was not too long—we could have kept going, for sure (though I did miss our family and friends). And despite flying around the world, the only time we got jet lag was during our three days in London—I guess flying 9 hours through several time zones was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (Or maybe all the hours we spent in the pub had something to do with it?)

I'll end with a little list of just some of the highlights:

Favorite places—Panarea, Salina, Cappadoccia, Kas, Hanoi, Siem Reap, Kampot, Palau

Favorite accommodations—Casa di 100 Scaleri (Panarea), Casa Babilonia (Salina), Villa Maisie (Kas), Esbelli Evi (Urgup, Cappadoccia), stilt house (Mai Chau, Vietnam), Golden Temple Hotel (Siem Reap), La Java Bleue (Kampot, Cambodia), Dolphin Bay Resort (Peleliu, Palau), The Village (Pohnpei)

Favorite activities—boat trips/swimming in the Aeolian Islands; kayaking/swimming in Kekova, Turkey; ballooning in Cappadoccia; seeing the rice culture in Vietnam; visiting the temples by tuk-tuk in Siem Reap, Cambodia; kayaking and snorkeling in Palau with Planet Blue/Sam’s Tours

Best shopping—Turkey (pashminas, rugs), Cambodia (silk scarves)

Best food—Cambodia and Vietnam

Next up: ???? 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Painting the town Scarlett

Our route from Honolulu to San Francisco was via Phoenix on U.S. Airways--certainly not the most direct route, and definitely the worst airline we have flown on this trip. Nonetheless, the overnight flight was uneventful except for the Very Large Person who sat next to me and dominated the small amount of available space. We were glad when we finally reached San Francisco!

As always, the city looked beautiful in the crisp sunshine as we landed. We rode on BART from the airport to the Mission district, where, lucky us, we got to spend 5 days with tiny Scarlett Sophia O'Brien and her parents, Tyler and Kelly. What a treat!

A bench we encountered in Hyde Park, London

Next: London, our final stop

Friday, January 6, 2012

Hawaii used to seem so exotic

The trouble with world travel is that you keep getting introduced to new and amazing places, so the places you've frequented in the past start looking a little staid. We've been to Hawaii half a dozen times, so we weren't expecting the same magical reaction we had the first time or two, and sure enough there were no real surprises once we got there, especially given that we decided to save some money and stay put on the most touristed island, Oahu. Yet for all the crowds in Honolulu--we were, after all, there at the busiest time of the year, during the Christmas holidays--the island is still stunningly beautiful and a pleasure to visit.

Leaving Pohnpei we almost took along some stow-aways. At the security check at Pohnpei airport John was asked to open his carry-on bag, a small backpack, and out walked 2 inch-long tropical cockroaches (they grow them extra big in the tropics). On further inspection, 6 or 8 more crawled out and scattered this way and that as we crushed them with our shoes. We did NOT want to take those guys with us! They may have been inside my spare pair of shoes, which had been sitting on the floor in the room of our bungalow for a couple of days. John had kindly offered to carry in his backpack. Never again, I'm sure.

Continental Airlines flies from Pohnpei to Hawaii, but the flight isn't direct: it stops at Kwajalein (base for a US military installation) and then at Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, before getting to Honolulu. Lots of local families were flying to visit relatives for the holidays, so many people on the plane knew each other, making the ride quite festive. The flights are quick but the stops take some time---it was 3:30 a.m. when we finally landed in Hawaii.

That's when I realized that I'd forgotten to factor in our crossing of the international dateline, so our hotel reservation didn't actually start until later that afternoon. Darn! We had planned to check in to our hotel in the early morning and sleep for a while, but of course it was way too early since we hadn't reserved a room for the night/morning we arrived, so instead we ended up in the hotel's "hospitality room"--a row of computers, some massage chairs, and a couple of rattan couches--and tried to nap before heading out for breakfast. Really uncomfortable, but at least we weren't sleeping on a park bench. When the sun came up we walked a few blocks to Waikiki beach (pretty much empty at that hour) and laid down in the sand near the water. We must have slept for a couple of hours, because when I next opened my eyes the sun was blazing and we were surrounded by a crowd of bodies in bikinis!  

Waikiki Beach

Eventually we did get to check in to our hotel (Waikiki Sand Villa, a serviceable hotel a few blocks from the beach, along the Ala Wai Canal), where we had a nice corner room with views of the mountains on one side and the beach high-rises on the other, and a sliver of an ocean view. A small sliver.

We spent the next 6 nights in Honolulu, hanging around the beach, walking a lot, doing a little shopping, and taking a couple of day trips to other parts of the island. We rented a car one day and drove around most of the island. Did a good walk to Makapuu Lighthouse on the windward shore--beautiful coastal and mountain views--where I tried to spot a whale but had no success (no surprise, even though this is the time of year that whales can supposedly be spotted along the shore). Looking for whales in an ocean can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. We stopped at an orchid farm farther along the coast toward the north shore, where I decided that maybe I'd give orchids a try. Am I patient enough? We picked out a few beautiful plants that will be shipped to us in February, weather permitting.

We stopped for a late lunch at the Crouching Dragon restaurant on the north shore--not bad, nothing special--and regretted it when we saw, a few miles later, the famous fresh shrimp trucks that populate that part of Oahu. We were too full for shrimp, but I had one of the other island specialties, barbecued corn on the cob, drizzled with lime juice, garlic butter, and black pepper. Delicious! The waves on the north shore were pretty big, so we spent some time on Sunset Beach watching the surfers crash and burn before we headed back to the city. If we had it to do over again, I think we would try to find a vacation rental of some kind on the funky north shore instead of basing in Honolulu.

Red flags on the north shore mean swimming is dangerous

Another day we hooked up with a Kailua (windward shore) kayaking company that picked us up in Honolulu and brought us to their shop near Kailua beach where we picked up a couple of kayaks and trundled them down to the water for some ocean kayaking. The water was fairly choppy so it took a lot of work to get out to the nearby coral island, but it was a good workout. We used to kayak only on quiet lakes and rivers, but we're so much more comfortable in the sea now that we've had a few of those experiences under our belts. While we were in Kailua we stopped by Island Snow, the shave ice shop favored by the Obama family, who were also vacationing in Kailua while we were there. About 30 flavors to choose from--a really refreshing cross between a slush and a snow cone.

Shave ice flavors at Island Snow

Food-wise, Hawaii has some fun home-grown delicacies: poke (marinated raw tuna cubes), loco moco (ground beef and rice, topped with an egg), pupus (appetizers), and malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) among them. We love the Asian influences on the cuisine, and we ended up eating a lot of Japanese food. Our favorite restaurant was tiny Matsugen on Beach Walk, which serves the best soba noodles we've had outside of Japan. Next door to it is another really good restaurant, Arancin, where we had excellent Italian dishes. Both these little places are very popular with visiting Japanese. Another night we ate at Uncle Bo's Pupu Bar and Grill, a short walk from Ala Wai Canal, a little off the beaten track. Really good and not so packed with tourists. For lunch on a couple of days we headed to the Japanese food court at Shirokiya Department Store in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, which is modeled on the food courts in Tokyo department stores. Loved perusing all the possibilities and choosing our favorites to bring to the tables where we ate among the throngs of Asian diners doing the same.

Selecting from the Japanese food court at Shirokiya

Bottom line: Hawaii is gorgeous and easy to love. It's a good entry point back into the United States after a long trip in more exotic places--easy to put everything on autopilot and enjoy the scenery, the amazing weather, the surfers, and the island lifestyle. It's crowded with tourists during the holidays, especially near the beach at Waikiki, but I'm glad to see the Hawaiian economy doing so well after taking a hit during the recession. We were ready to move on when our six days were up, especially since our next stop was San Francisco and a chance to meet our new granddaughter.