Archive | May, 2014

Journeying Through Jordan

22 May

Treasury at Petra

Treasury at Petra


It’s likely an area, instinctively, one may shy away from due to the unrest in neighboring countries. Syria after all is a bordering nation to the north and Egypt flanks it to the southwest. This is certainly understandable but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that with the proper amount of research and preparedness, squashing such a concern is possible.
Having said that, of course, as with any place, and as common sense would dictate, one need exercise the right amount of caution. As a side note, I highly recommend US nationals traveling to regions with a history of problems take the time to register with the US Dept. of State Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Smart Traveler Enrolment Program or STEP as an additional safety precaution measure. Armed with all your research and precautions in tact, it’s time to embark on your journey.

Steeped in history that dates back centuries, Jordan is a place that’s endlessly fascinating. It’s home to one of the New 7 World Wonders, Petra, Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon), the capital and bustling city of Amman, and just miles to the north of Amman, the mightily impressive ancient Roman city of Jerash, a must see; plus, the magnificent Dead Sea.

Amman is the main gateway to Jordan. From North America, One World Carrier, Royal Air Jordanian flies directly to Amman, Queen Alia International Airport, from NY-JFK. Connections are also possible via European hubs like London Heathrow. Entry visas for visitors can be obtained upon arrival in Amman. The journey into town is fairly straightforward via taxi right outside the main terminal or as I understand it via Airport Express Bus which takes you to the 7th Circle.
Though several decent choices exist for your hotel stay, I highly recommend the Four Seasons Hotel in the 5th Circle. The nightly rate for a hotel its caliber is attractive and the staff and experience are well worth it.

Tea Service - Four Seasons

Tea Service – Four Seasons

While in Amman, do not miss the impressive Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a in Arabic) and the city market for some good retail therapy. When you’re through sightseeing, head to Cantaloupe Gastro Pub in the 1st Circle off Rainbow St. for pre-dinner cocktails. The picturesque views from the terrace alone is well worth it. Plus the staff are super friendly and accommodating.
Remain at Cantaloupe for dinner or better yet, for some scrumptious traditional Jordanian fare, head to nearby Sufra Restaurant. To be forewarned, do note that Sufra does not serve alcoholic beverages (apparently due to its proximity to a nearby mosque). Some hits on the menu for me: Mufarakeh (braised diced potatoes with eggs and onions) and Jaj (clay pot slowly baked seasoned chicken and w/ coriander, pine nuts, and vegetables). Another that was highly recommended though I didn’t get to try due to dietary restrictions, Mansaf (rice based served w/ Jameed sauce, lamb chunks almonds and pine seeds). After dinner, head to Books@Cafe to cap off the evening. It has a fun ambiance and the scene’s quite vibrant.

Just a little over 30 miles (approx. 50 minutes to an hr. drive) from Amman is that must-see ancient Roman city of Jerash. It’s a well preserved ruin dating back centuries and rivaling anything that can be found in Rome or Pompeii (it is sometimes referred to as the Pompeii of the east) without the crowds. Take your time and explore the grounds–it’s quite an impressive sight to see. There are Guides (if you’re so inclined) at the entrance that can lead you through, for a fee, but that’s just an option. After you’re through and have worked up an appetite, Green Valley Restuarant is a decent choice for a lunch spot on your way back into town.

Ancient City of Jerash

Ancient City of Jerash


Further afield, the destinations of Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, the Dead Sea, etc., await. These can be done in parts as you progress on your journey but if time’s limited, I would suggest making sure Petra and possibly the Dead Sea are items you check off your list before leaving Jordan. It is conceivable to make day journeys from Amman to these places. The Dead Sea is relatively easy; it’s just about 52 miles southwest of Amman and should take approximately 1.5 hrs. by car. Petra is much further south and I would say give yourself 3.5 to 4 hrs. to make the journey. You’ll need time (and comfortable shoes) to explore Petra. It is a must-see. The Treasury is a marvel to behold but also make sure you continue all the way to the summit. You’ll realize why this massive complex is on the list of World Wonders.
Jordan is a sensational place steeped in history and culture. I was perfectly charmed by it and can’t wait to return.
Petra

Petra

Authors Note: If your itinerary takes you to destinations in neighboring countries, check out my entries on Israel and Egypt

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Pimp My Flight

19 May

It’s been interesting to read about, and experience some of the transformations going on in the world of commercial aviation lately. It’s really exciting times because it means a better overall flying experience for the consumer–especially those of us stateside who’ve gritted our teeth through subpar service for so long. I’ve had some truly cringe-worthy experiences flying cattle, I mean, coach class; those truly unfortunate times coveted seats upfront was just not an option. And, it’s been sometimes embarrassing when a gentleman or lady, seated next to me, clearly a foreigner not used to how we here have gotten used to roughing it, request an alcoholic beverage when those proverbial carts come rolling down the isle, only to find themselves in a complete state of bewilderment moments later when the Flight Attendant declares: That will be $7, please.

Times appear to be changing though. It seems the folks over at our familiar carriers, those we’ve taken to affectionately (or not) referring to as ‘legacy’ carriers’ are trying to spruce things up–a certain bounce seems to be pep in their steps. American’s going through a systemic fleet renewal (a long overdue overhaul) with the introduction of the stretched 777-300ER, including luxuries like power ports (at every seat) International Wi-Fi, walk-up bar for premium customers, and one of the better In-flight Entertainment systems out there. Delta’s sprucing up its planes and has announced orders for the latest version 737-900 and Airbus variants to be delivered in the next couple years. And, United is going through it’s own retrofitting process as well and is the only US carrier to have the 787 Dreamliner airborne.

Premium cabins are also seeing a transformation, too; not that these customers have had much to gripe about, to be fair. The meals have remained and the open bar, never threatened. However, more perks are being rolled out. 180 degree lie-flats have become commonplace, even domestically on coast to coast NY to LA/SF flights, with even the likes of jetBlue jumping in the game. I suppose defeats the whole notion of being a discount operator. Still, it’s a high revenue generating route so one cannot be overtly critical of their desire to want a piece of the pie. American offers the only 3-class service on these routes (the first class cabin is a replica more or less of what you’ll find in International Business in their new cabins). United’s PS service is an all new retrofitted two-class configuration.

Though by some accounts we’re still lagging behind some international carriers, we seem to be making some great progress. We’ll be watching and sharing our thoughts as these developments continue to unfold. Have some thoughts? Do share–would be great to hear about other experiences.

Mega Metropolises of the World: Spotlight on Sao Paulo

6 May

Sao Paulo SkylineBrazil’s perhaps among one of the most alluring places I’ve visited. It’s certainly a very fascinating nation; one of the most populous in the Americas and, no doubt, a formidable force to be reckoned with on a global scale as an emerging economy.

It was just about a couple years ago I first set foot on Brazilian soil and I’ve been enamored since. Admittedly, being a fairly massive country (the largest and most populated in South America) I’ve only really had the chance to merely scratch its surface, visiting the commercial hub, Sao Paolo and, perhaps the most popular of its cities, Rio de Janeiro. And with the World Cup set to kickoff in just over a month and Summer Olympics in another couple years, the nation’s star’s never shone brighter. It’s an electrifying place.

But this entry is solely about Sao Paulo. I wanted to purposely focus on this megalopolis as I feel it doesn’t get the sort of credit it deserves. Most vacationers to Brazil typically skip Sao Paolo or, at best, use it as a connecting hub to coastal draws. And while sometimes notorious for its traffic congestions and ubiquitous helipads, another more fascinating side filled with character and charm exist. I highly recommend it if you’re into sampling some of the best cuisine in the country and if you want to get a decent dose of Brazilian culture.
Sao Paulo Theater

Arrival in Sao Paolo is at Guarulhos International Airport (GRU). No metro service connects to the city center, so be prepared to hire a taxi. The journey into town is roughly around 45 mins w/ light to moderate traffic. English isn’t widely spoken, so it may be a good idea to learn some Portuguese common phrases prior to your journey to ensure your movements are just a tad more fluid.

Check into your hotel at uber-hip Hotel Unique which features rooftop Skye Bar & restaurant and, spectacular near panoramic views of the city. It’s truly breathtaking. Even if you don’t happen to be lodging at the hotel, I highly suggest making a night of dinner and drinks there (as my companion and I did), or try afternoon cocktails just before sunset so that you can fully take in the experience.
If you’d rather experience Sao Paolo like a local, like my companion and I did, I would suggest renting an apartment. In a world where apartment rentals via AirBnB has become extremely popular, it should be a fairly straightforward task to accomplish. Vila Madalena is a very charming neighborhood to the west of the city center and should make a good choice for a place to roost. You can make seamless connections to it via Metro (Vila Madalena terminus on Line #2/Yellow Line). Tons of restaurants abound; most of them quite superb.

Sao Paulo Metro

Sao Paulo Metro


Sao Paolo’s metro system is very easy to navigate and one of the better ones I’ve experienced. It runs efficiently and frequently (impressively so; more than can be said of several others in a metropolis of its size). It’s also very clean and safe. Of course with anything and wherever you happen to be, common sense safety measures supersede and thus ought to be exercised.

There is so much to do and see in Sao Paolo. First off, kill two birds with a stone by immersing in culture and getting physical. Head to Parque do Ibirapuera where you have a good selection of museums in the park to visit. Make a note not to miss the exceptional Museo do Afro Brasil. It features an impressive collection of works by Afro Brazilians, their history, culture and plight. When you’re done soaking up some culture, enjoy the sprawling park on rented wheels (bike rentals available for a nominal fee) or on foot. Or, you may simply choose to find a comfortable spot on one of the pristine lawns and enjoy a picnic.

After you’re through at the park and you still have the energy, hop on the metro and head to Sao Paolo’s commercial center on Avenida Paulista. There you can do a bit of shopping and perhaps grab a bite to eat. While on Paulista, pop by popular bookshop, Livraria Cultura and just further down the road on Avenida Paulista, check out Museu De Arte De Sao Paulo, MASP.

Ibirapuera Park

Ibirapuera Park


One of my favorite spots in town besides a few others mentioned earlier is Liberdade (Metro Stop: Liberdade, Line #1), home to one of the largest Japanese communities outside of Japan. A decent amount of other Asian populations also live here. It’s an experience on to its own and you can easily spend an entire afternoon there. Make sure you come with your appetite, lots tasty delights await.

From there, carry on to Centro, Sao Paolo’s downtown and take in the sites there. Don’t miss
Catedral da Sé de São Paulo, (Sao Paulo Cathedral) and nearby Sao Bento monastery. Cap off the afternoon at Sao Paulo’s massive downtown market, Mercado Municipal de Sao Paulo. A must.

On the surface, a city like this can be intimidating. With the right approach and attitude, however, you might just find that there’s a gentler, more endearing side to it beyond the overwhelming façade.

Boa Viagem!

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72 Hours In Siem Reap

3 May

Angkor Wat - sunrise with temple reflection

Angkor Wat – sunrise with temple reflection

If you’re someone who appreciates history like I do, you’ll fall in love with Siem Reap. To be sure, however, this isn’t a place merely for history buffs. If that’s not your thing, I have no doubt you can still enjoy this endlessly fascinating city immensely.

Long known to be synonymous with World Wonder, Angkor Wat (English translation: Temple City), an impressive religious complex constructed in the early 12th Century, the city has been welcoming visitors and enthusiasts for years ever since the temple complex’s declared status.
No doubt some may recall that Cambodia’s had a not too distant tortured past mired in tragedy and loss but If there’s one thing that’s evident today is that its citizens have shown incredible resilience through it all and a new generation’s at the helm with lofty ambitions, steering the nation to new frontiers.

Siem Reap is easily accessible by most modes of transport. If you’re arriving by air, you’ll be touching down at Siam Reap airport, REP, which is just on the outskirts of town and a short drive in. And as is common with most popular tourist draws, lots of choices abound when it comes to accommodation. The Privilege Floor right on National Road, one of the main thoroughfares in town, is an outstanding property which I would highly recommend. You can see my full review here. A second choice that’s quite nice, in the budget range, is the Men’s Resort and Spa mere blks away.

Once you’re checked in and settled, inquire of your hotel concierge if it’ll be possible to hire a Guide for the days ahead. I do recommend it as if you’ve come to explore what this city is famous for, its temples, there are so many and it just makes your exploration a tad more interesting and perhaps manageable if you have someone on hand who can walk you through the history and all the nuance. The Privilege Fl. was able to arrange this and a driver for us, for the duration of our stay which was excellent.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Next, head out to Angkor Archaeological Park ticketing booth to purchase your passes for entry to the temples. The fee depends on the number of days you’d like the pass for. The 3-Day pass (40 USD as of this writing) I think is an excellent value. Do note that it is advisable to have cash at the ready here. Credit Cards are accepted at some establishments but we found that those were few and far between. Luckily, USD is the main tender, so you might even withdraw a sufficient amount before you head out on your journey. Otherwise ATMs in town dispense dollars.
Now that you have entrance sorted, you may choose to relax and take things easy the remainder of the afternoon (perhaps wise to prep for the days ahead). And if you happen to be staying at The Privilege Floor all the better. Head back to Damnak Lounge as you’re likely just in time for Happy Hour. Even if you’re not a guest there, you can also enjoy the Happy Hour for a mere 9 USD (all inclusive). It comes with an assortment of appetizers, in addition, and you can enjoy your drinks out on the terrace with a nice sunset view.

Day 1: Arise early, well before dawn, and head out to Angkor Wat to capture the immaculate sunrise over the temple. To be forewarned, you’ll have plenty of company at the viewing. It’s an event that tends to draw loads of crowds. Still, it’s a brilliant sight and one worth getting up early for.
After you’re through, you may elect to go back to your hotel, rest up and have breakfast before carrying on. Or, keep it moving by grabbing something locally within the area and carry on with your tour of Angkor Wat. To avoid the hordes, the East entrance, the back of the complex, is likely a better place to commence your exploration though your Guide may have a better idea. It’s a fairly massive area, so the duration of your tour is really up to you. I would say plan on a few hours as a general guide.

After Angkor Wat you may want to break for lunch after which you can carry on to Angkor Thom nearby to see Bayon Temple. It’s more of a ruin than Angkor Wat and has some interesting, distinctive architectural characteristics (note the mood of the Buddha faces). If temple fatigue hasn’t set in for the day yet then you may proceed to Ta Prohm which you’ll immediately notice is one of the most photographed and catalogued of the temples due to its appearance in the movie, Tomb Raider, and it’s overgrown vegetation–trees merging into the structures with mightily impressive roots.

At this point, no doubt you’re ready to call it a day. Head back to your hotel for some R&R and the later head out to Khmer Kitchen for some delicious grub (advance reservations recommended). Cap off the evening there or if you’re looking for something more stimulating to keep the night going, head out to Pub Street where a plethora of nightly delights await.

Out for the catch - at Kampong Klum

Out for the catch – at Kampong Klum

Day 2: Grab your Guide and head out to the floating village at Kampong Klum. This is a very fascinating village almost entirely on stilts following the river as it empties out to the Tonle Sap. Make an afternoon of it and stop for lunch at one of the floating restaurants on the water then tour the village afterward. When you’re through and you’re still up to it, you may choose to tack on a couple additional temples in the area: Preah Ko (temple of the sacred bull) and nearby Bakong. After a day of exploration, dinner at Viroth’s should be a fine way to end the evening.

Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap


Day 3: it’s a good time to tackle some of the further afield temples, Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre. These two are roughly 45 mins outside town but offer a unique perspective in terms of their architectural style, especially Banteay Srey which was constructed in the 10th century (well before Angkor Wat). In addition, its Hindu origins have been mostly kept in tact – another interesting detail to note.
Temple fatigue’s likely set in at this point, so perhaps it’s a good idea to head back to town and check out the Angkor National Museum and other sights of interest as you round out your trip.

What and enchanting place! I fell in love with its people and culture and simply can’t wait to return. I highly recommend it.

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