Archive | January, 2013

72 Hours In Cairo

21 Jan

WP_002573It’s a nation in the grips of one of the most trying times in its recent history. It toppled a dictatorship in what the world came to know as one of the major events of the Arab Spring and still, a couple years or so years on, the struggle continues.

This is Egypt. Lands that birthed ancient civilizations millennia past where dynasties ruled and truly awesome architectural marvels still stand today. It is a shame then, that a place with such a glorious past, should be going through such trying times at the present.

Still, its splendor remains a wonderment today. It’s been a place of immense curiosity for me – ever since I can remember, the pyramids have been in my dreams. Recently, the opportunity presented itself to me, to visit and I felt compelled to seize it. Sure, news headlines of clashes in Tahrir Sq. are enough to dissuade even the most fearless of travelers  (and I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself to be a part of that distinguished category of brave souls) but it was a calling I yearned to heed. And thus, a couple months ago, I beheld the pyramids at Giza for the very first time. It was an immense experience.

WP_002609From the US, Egypt Air flies directly to Cairo from John F. Kenney Airport. Connections are also available via major European gateways, London Heathrow, Paris – Charles Du Gaulle and Milan – Malpensa, to list a few.  You do need a visa to enter the country but this can easily be obtained upon arrival in Cairo. Go straight to the kiosk adjacent immigration to make the purchase before proceeding to Passport Control. Depending on traffic, your journey into town should run roughly around 45 mins. or so. Hail one of the white taxis outside arrivals and make sure its metered or settle on a price before getting in. Conservatively estimated, it should run roughly around 80 Egyptian Pounds.

My choice for accommodation in Cairo was the Kempinski Nile Hotel in the Garden City area of town. It straddles the Nile (as most other hotels in the area do) and you have a choice while making a reservation to book a room facing the

Nile – I recommend it. The Kempinski is truly a treat; an excellent hotel right in the heart of town. You can see my review here. Some other recognizable choices you may elect to consider are the Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah (right across the Nile in Zamalek), Hilton, InterContinental or Four Seasons.WP_002514

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot do and see in Cairo and its environs. I highly recommend arranging tours ahead of time or at the very least consult your hotel concierge for their suggestions. This is not a place to ‘wing it’ as it may prove particularly trying to navigate. Beware of unscrupulous readymade tour guides willing to take you to see the pyramids, etc, for a ‘small fee’. I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler but even I found myself in quite impressive situations where I was expertly out-haggled.

WP_002617Right in town, be sure to check out the magnificent Egyptian Museum housing a spectacular collection of antiquities. Do not miss the special exhibit featuring relics retrieved from boy-king, King Tot’s tomb. His personal items on display are in astonishingly immaculate condition, given their age.

After the Egyptian Museum, head out to Old Cairo and check out centuries old religious sites in the Coptic community. Do not miss the Hanging Church and impressive Coptic Museum. After your visit, you may proceed to the Islamic district where you can visit ancient mosques and then cap off your outing at Cairo’s grand Souk, Khan El Khalili.

The world famous pyramids and Great Sphinx at Giza are indeed are a splendor to behold. No doubt, the major attraction in the area. It’s roughly

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 45 mins outside Cairo. If time permits descend down to the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu and witness a space where a mighty king once laid millennia ago. I understand the light show at night (you can perhaps arrange as part of your tour) is very entertaining as well. I unfortunately didn’t get to see it.

Seamless excursions to majestic sites just outside Cairo, along the Nile, are possible as well. Check out the Saqqara, the WP_002684necropolis at Memphis and the ancient city itself. At Saqqara you can see the world famed Step Pyramid and at Memphis, the image of Ramses II comes to life in the ancient city. You can see various statues of the great Pharaoh spread across the area and the alabaster sphinx found outside the temple. Don’t miss the colossus inside the museum.

Further afield is the royal necropolis of Dahshur. This can also be easily added to your excursion. There you can see the Red and Bent Pyramids, both predating the pyramids at Giza. It is possible to visit the tomb inside the Red Pyramid at no extra charge. The charming city by the Mediterranean, Alexandria, can also be easily paired with a visit to Cairo.

WP_002622You’ll eat very well in Cairo. Choices are plentiful and run the gamut from casual to luxury dining. In the Garden City area, check out Osmanly restaurant at the Kempinski Hotel. Osmanly serves delicious Turkish fare and features and array of Egyptian wines to go along with your meal. El Kebabgy at the Sofitel Hotel is a fantastic choice for Egyptian grilled specialties. The food is scrumptious and the ambiance warm and inviting. Select a table on the outdoor deck for soothing views of the Nile and enjoy traditional Arabic tunes from the live band as they serenade diners. Another good choice in the Garden City area is Taboula serving up tasty Lebanese cuisine at extremely reasonable prices.

Egypt is an endlessly fascinating place. And at the heart of it, the thumping city of Cairo. To be sure, it’s not exactly for WP_002688the faint of heart. It can be chaotic and the frenzy runs at a feverish pitch at times–such as now. Amidst all this, however, is a city with charm and a lot of personality to spare. Visit. You may just be enchanted.

Tip: for US citizens venturing out to places that may be volatile or questionable, register with the US government through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at step.state.gov. It’s a pretty handy service that gives registrants up-to-date alerts on the latest goings on, so that one can plan accordingly in case of emergencies.

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In The Land of the Rising Sun: 72 Hours in Tokyo

19 Jan

Japan Nov 2010 014It’s probably fairly safe to say that whatever you’ve heard said about Japan–if you’ve never experienced it for yourself–is true. At least I found it to be so on my recent trip to Tokyo and some of its environs like Kamakura, for instance, which is absolutely a Japan Nov 2010 024must see.

Japan had (and still does) remain an endlessly fascinating place to me–its people, culture, way of life; I find it all very intriguing. And, so do most people I’ve conversed with on the subject. Thus, it’s no reason that it’s been on my travel shortlist for some time. Fortunately for me, in November of last year, I got the chance to make the jaunt.

Getting to Japan is fairly easy and straightforward from most major North American cities. As a hotbed of world commerce, the demand for business travel is fairly high and thus plentiful are the options, in terms of airline carriers, to whisk you off on your journey. At last count, there were 5 carriers in the NYC area alone offering nonstop service to Tokyo-Narita (NRT), namely, American, ANA (All Nippon Airways), United, Delta and JAL (Japan Airlines), so you have at least one choice for whatever airline alliance you may be a member of. Seamless connections are also possible via west coast cities like LA, San Francisco, or Europe if the 14 hr non-stop flight seems too daunting. Arrival in Tokyo is at Narita airport which is roughly 40 miles outside the city and could take anywhere from approx. 1 to 2hrs–depending on traffic–to Japan Nov 2010 001get into town. There’s a second airport serving the Tokyo areas that’s much closer, Haneda, but it’s mostly (or at least historically) served by domestic/regional flights. Lately some international service has begun from this airport with US carriers like American (to JFK), Delta to (to LA, Detroit), and JAL (to San Francisco), establishing new routes.

After clearing Customs and Immigration, proceed to the main arrivals hall where you’ll have Japan Nov 2010 055multiple options to choose from, in terms of transportation into town. Airport Limousine bus service is a decent and popular choice for making the trip into Tokyo. Most often, you can get dropped off right at your hotel if it’s one of the major ones in town. Ask the very friendly attendants at the reservations counter and they’ll be all too happy to assist.

As with any major metropolis, lodging options run the gamut, so finding suitable accommodation shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Where the challenge may lie (as Japan–and particularly Tokyo–isn’t terribly inexpensive), is finding a place that fits the budget in the neighborhood of choice, especially in high season. You may do well to consult travel aggregators like Hotels.com or Orbitz who often offer desirable packages (air+hotel) at discounts, obviously when booked together. If you happen to need to book separately, I find that Hotels.com tends to have the most competitive rates and once you sign up for their rewards club, you’re off on your way to earning free nights after every 9 booked and consumed stays.Japan Nov 2010 023

My choice for accommodation was Park Hotel Tokyo, which is in the Shiodome business district, though a super short walk from Ginza and a world of shopping within easy reach. It’s a good choice – see my review here. Amongst the plethora of designer shops in the area (Gucci, Louis and Bvlgary are household names here), do not miss world famed and historic Mitsukoshi department store right at the intersection of the Ginza metro stop. Just make sure the wallet’s fully loaded with Yen and/or you’ve got the American Express on standby; you’re going to need it. While at Mitsukoshi, do not miss the food hall downstairs. The options are pretty varied with Asian and European selections; a great place to grab a quick bite–perhaps some lunch or a snack and beverage–or purchase souvenirs or gifts for loved ones back home.

There’s lots to see and do in this very lively city that I would highly suggest Japan Nov 2010 065mapping out a comprehensive itinerary prior to plunging into the experience of it all, so as to ensure you get a good sense of it all, especially if you’ve got limited time. I typically recommend taking tours should you not have the can-do adventurous spirit to attempt the explorations all on your own or have a local at your disposal to traverse the area with you. Personally, I enjoy being whisked about in those comfy coach buses while the Guides takes you through the historically significance of this relic, Emperor, Samurai, etc, or other. Of course there are several operators to choose from like Gray Line, grayline.com, and Sunrise Tours, each offer comprehensive Full (including lunch) and half day tours and relatively run about the same cost. I recommend the Full Day as you obviously get to see and do more. Some notable points of interest not to be missed are: Imperial Palace, Meiji Shinto Shrine, Tokyo Tower, Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa Shrine, the neighborhoods of Harajuku, Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku and Shibuya (Tokyo’s Times Square equivalent) amongst others.

If time permits, I’d also encourage you to take advantage of some of the historic towns outside Tokyo like Kamakura; it’s quite aJapan Nov 2010 052 treat. While there, make sure you see the 13th century Great Buddha, Hase-Dera Temple with its beautiful gardens and view of the nearby beach and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Another point of interest may be Mount Fuji which isn’t terribly far outside Tokyo and the aforementioned tour operators have scheduled expeditions to this popular landmark as well.

There’s something on the menu for just about everyone here, even for the pickiest of eaters. Of course recognizable (to Westeners) Japanese fare, like sushi, sashimi and kobe run the gamut and quite tasty but there are other Japanese delicacies that the more adventurous may enjoy as well. If you can’t quite place your order in Japanese and English isn’t an option either, in some cases you can always point to a showcased model and make your selection that way. Gonpachi on the 14th Fl of one of the buildings in Shibuya (additional locales in Fukuoka and Beverly Hills) is a pretty decent choice for a scrumptious meal before a night out. The restaurant also features a sushi bar which tends to be more sedate than the adjoining main restaurant hall which can get a little loud especially during peak dinner hours, so you at least have a choice of either depending on what you’re in the mood for. As an added treat you also get nice views of Shibuya below.

Japan Nov 2010 069If you’re in the mood to splurge a little, head off to the Conrad Tokyo—in Shiodome–close to Park Hotel mentioned earlier in this write-up. Chef turned celebrity Gordon Ramsay’s taken up residence there – with a couple restaurants, Gordon Ramsay at Conrad Tokyo and Cerise by Gordon Ramsay. The former’s open for dinner while the latter for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if dinner plans take you elsewhere, I would encourage you to check out the hotel and adjoining lounge – the views are stunning and digs pretty smart. And, perhaps, at least, grab some breakfast or refreshments while you’re at it.

Indeed Tokyo’s nightlife simmers and partygoers and night owls alike are in for a treat. Whether you’re belting out your favorite tunes in the plethora of Karaoke booths in Roppongi (trust, you haven’t experienced anything quite like it), gyrating your hips to the latest pop tunes at the bar/clubs in Shinjuku, or having a late dinner and cocktails in Shibuya, Tokyo serves it up for just about everyone.

One thing’s for sure on holiday here—you’re bound to be drawn in. Before you know it you’ll be planning you next trip back. I know I can’t wait to make a return journey.

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