Author Archives: Lisa
Author Archives: Lisa
The Museum of Modern Art houses a collection of 150,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other works, displayed in crisp contemporary galleries on West 53rd Street. MoMA is not as daring a design statement as such other showcases of modern art as the Tate Modern, the Pompidou Centre, or the Guggenheim Bilbao. Even so, as the vanguard of commerce and corporate might, Midtown provides an appropriate backdrop for the art movements that have broken new ground. Stepping off the busy Midtown avenues to stand in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy is one of the city’s most transporting experiences.
While MoMA celebrates the modern, the Morgan Library and Museum preserves some of the earliest examples of the written word. J. Pierpont Morgan, the great financier and banker, was a connoisseur of fine art and an avid collector of illuminated manuscripts, rare books, prints, and drawings. He left his entire collection to the city of New York. Galleries show off drawings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Gutenberg bibles, sheet music by Beethoven, and scraps of paper on which Bob Dylan jotted down lyrics for Blowin’ in the Wind.
In grade school I was always the kid who eagerly awaited the newest issue of National Geographic magazine. I remember devouring each story, especially when it involved one of my favorite destinations — Greece. Reading about the Greek islands was thrilling. For a while, I had a bookmark with a photograph of the Parthenon in Athens.
Such treasures seemed so far away to a young Midwestern girl, but recently I visited those dreamed-about destinations in the best way possible—aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/I Athena.
Titled “Hidden Gems of the Dalmatian Coast & Greece,” the two-week itinerary included a night before the cruise at an Athens hotel and three nights afterwards in Zagreb, Croatia. Places we visited on the 10-day cruise: Delphi and Corfu in Greece, Butrint in Albania, Kotor in Montenegro, and Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Split in Croatia.
My cruise had 32 passengers. Grand Circle welcomes solo travelers, and there were four on my cruise, plus me. Founded in 1958, Grand Circle specializes in offering travel to Americans over age 50. Alan and island of Korcula, a port visited by Grand Circle’s Athena. The town claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Ivo Blocinaf Croatian National Tourist Board Harriet Lewis acquired the company in 1985, and it now has a dedicated fan base. On our cruise, only two of us had never traveled with Grand Circle before. Two couples in the group were taking their 13th trips with Grand Circle, the ultimate compliment.
A highlight of my first day in Athens was visiting the Acropolis and the $175-million Acropolis Museum, opened in June 2009. A strikingly modem building with glass galore, the museum sits on an archaeological site about a quarter-mile from the Acropolis. Glass floors in the entryway and elsewhere let you see excavations that may contain treasures yet undiscovered.
Next stop was the guard-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens. The two Greek soldiers known as evzones are self-disciplined almost beyond belief. Every 15 minutes, the guards change positions in an impressive slow march with highly stylized movements.
Stepping onto our tour bus, we left Athens to head to the ship. Resembling a luxurious yacht, the 50-passenger Athena is big enough to be comfortable but small enough to dock easily at islands that big ships seldom get to visit. My cabin was an outside stateroom (all Athena staterooms are outside) with a balcony, flat-screen TV, refrigerator, plenty of storage space and large walk-in shower.
The next day I was ready for our visit to ancient Delphi, a 40-minute drive from Itea, a town on the Corinth Canal, the east-west passageway that connects Athens to the Ionian Sea. On each shore excursion, passengers were divided into two groups with different program directors and local guides. Our tour itineraries varied slightly so that all 32 of us were not converging on the same place at the same time. Both groups saw the same things, just in a different order.
While some of the city’s famous old-time hideaways in the sky have gone the way of the subway token – the Rainbow Room is locked up tight and Top of the Sixes is a private cigar club for big shots – you can linger over a drink with city lights twinkling at your toes in plenty of other aeries.
Four Midtown hotel rooftops are especially appealing retreats from the city streets below, and all afford views that are as intoxicating as the cocktails. Top marks for sophistication go to Salon de Ning atop the Peninsula Hotel (700 Fifth Ave at 55th St, tel: 212-956-2888). The Asian-infused decor evoking the feel of 1930s Shanghai is glamorous, and the light show of the surrounding Midtown towers even more so. It’s all about luxe livin’ and high-end cocktails when you’re lounging at The Roof (Viceroy Hotel, 120 W 57th St, tel: 212-830-8000) that you’ll be inspired to engage in some wittily urbane Noel Coward-style banter, and the 360-degree views take in the Midtown skyline, the East River, and a large swath of Queens that, all aglow once the sun sets, looks much more wondrous than it really is. Greenery and sophistication are profuse at the Top of the Strand (Strand Hotel, 33 W. 37th St, tel: 212-448-1024), and the Empire State Building is so close you’ll be tempted to reach out and touch it. Rare, on the 16th floor of the Shelburne Murray Hill (303 Lexington Ave at 37th St, tel: 212-481-8439) is also dramatically over-shadowed by the Empire State Building, while the Chrysler Building spire appears as a shiny beacon just to the north.
The quokkas are everywhere on Rottnest Island, and so is their pellet-sized poop. Crushed and smooshed by the various vehicles and footfall, some have even flattened under the weight of tourists laid out, sun-tanning on the green. The poop, that is, not the adorable creatures.
A few months before this trip, two men were charged with abusing a quokka that they’d caught. On camera, one of them was seen kicking and flinging the terrified animal about. But it’s not a recent thing. The ’70s and the ’80s were filled with stories of “quokka soccer”, according to the guide on the bus tour. During the years when Rottnest was used as a prison for Aboriginal men under the racist colonial administration, qnokkas were game meat for consumption. Our ride around the island, relatively shielded from the blazing sun outside, revealed several quokkas hiding under the shade of low shrubbery And the tourists hunting them for an Instagram picture.
Beautiful as the island is, all sparkling azure seas and stark landscape of brushes across the land, it all gets pretty depressing after a bit of history and seeing the thin, patchy fur of the quokkas caused by tourists feeding them junk for a selfie. On the ferry ride to Fremantle, I chat with an older lady who regales me with stories of her travels, changing my earlier impression of the island. She’s been visiting Rottnest since 1965 and has choice words for the quokka abusers: “Ten minutes in a pen with dingoes as sentence. Good luck!”
The island is best experienced over a couple of days, according to her, and as far away from the day-trippers as possible. Perhaps another time.
Perth is the place you go to retire. Or so the Singaporean cliche goes. We landed in the capital of Western Australia at the tail-end of the Easter holidays, with shops shuttered and streets empty. Three days later, in Fremantle, it is no different. A quiet city greets us on our ferry from Rottnest, a ghost town of shops already closing up for the day and people going home. It is the third biggest port after Melbourne and Sydney, but doesn’t quite feel like it. We’re a long way from Singapore, five days by boat, to be specific.
The capital has its charms, of course. Perth city with its beautiful, colourful graffiti that lifts up the drab, squat buildings. Peeling posters advertising delights, which you could never publicly advertise in Singapore, are plastered on buildings sandwiched by Asian restaurants of different cultures.
The crisp, fresh air of King’s Park and the moderate bustle of Elizabeth Quay reveal more of the city’s inhabitants of the Swan Valley, including a lavish encampment for the rich by the river aptly dubbed Tuscany on the Swan. Settled in 1829, Fremantle is touted as the “best preserved 19th-century port streetscape in the world” by the tourism board of Western Australia.
Historic buildings housing trendy gigantic H&M in an old post office in Perth City, are practically de rigueur in Perth.
And Fremantle, in particular, has that aplenty. We have a hearty breakfast, the start of many more of this Australian institution, at Moore & Moore cafe, which operates out of the 177-year-old Moore building. A promenade through the streets to meet our ride reveals many more of the quirky bookstores and the cool eateries that populate the city, with plaques proudly carried on the building’s facade explaining its history.
We finally meet Gloria Mischewski of Perth Luxury Tours, our driver for the rest of the trip. Jovial and utterly hilarious, this Kiwi grandmother has many years of expert driving all over Western Australia. It’s a long drive, about three hours, to our stay for the next two nights in Margaret River. Western Australia is massive, and the best way to really experience it is to be on the road with several pit-stops along the way.
Our first outside Perth is the Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre. A purely non-profit, it’s been devoted to dolphin research and conservation since 1994. It is in the process of refurbishment, to better serve the needs of the community with a larger venue and more space for visitor education about the pods of over 200 wild bottlenose dolphins living in and around Koombana Bay. Set to be completed by 2018, the centre, nonetheless, continues to operate as usual with the high-light of its activities being a cruise.
Barely a moment out at sea, and we spot a mother and her calf swimming away from us. The day is bright, sunny and beautiful, and soon enough, we spot more dolphins frolicking in the sea. A group of (human) father and sons stands on a rock wall fishing for salmon, attracting much attention from the seagulls, the dolphins and the humans aboard the viewing vessel. A little while later, we sight the spectacle that we’ve all been unknowingly looking for: dolphins surfing. Not on boards, of course; they ride the waves, leaping out and into the surf as the surge propels them forward. They’re hamming it up for the spectators in rapt attention with our cameras out. There’s a small boat with tourists having a little swim out at sea, and one dolphin appears fixated on a man who’d earlier jumped off the boat to greet the dolphins. Man and cetacean curiously inspect each other at a respectful, safe distance.
Many miles later, we are back on the road again to Busselton. Its historic jetty is the main attraction here. Built in 1853, it is the longest wooden pier in the world, stretching almost 2KM out into the waters of Geographe Bay.
We have a quick lunch and I taste kangaroo for the first time at The Goose. I’m not sure I like its gamey nature, but after crocodile in Zimbabwe, it’s certainly not the worst meat that I’ve ever tasted, and at least, it’s definitely the healthiest, according to a range of experts.
A train ride takes you to the Underwater Observatory, with sights of the endless blues of the seas and charming seagull resting points along the length of the jetty. It is Australia’s greatest artificial reef with a diversity of more than 300 species of marine life that you can observe from the Observatory. Lucky ones spot a sea lion amongst the colourful corals curiously peeking into a window at the human gawkers. A pod of dolphins bids us farewell with a couple of leaps as we ride the train back to firm ground.
The sun is setting as we make our way to Margaret River town. A blaze of oranges, reds and purples peeks out through gaps in the dense forest as dusk starts to take over. The beauty of the scene prompts our guide in Margaret River, Brianna Delaporte of Australia’s South West tourism, to do a detour just to catch the sunset.
We make it just in time to Grace- town’s North Point where we watch the skies in silence. “Look! There are so many dolphins surfing!” An enthusiastic member of the team gesticulates excitedly at the sea where a group of surfers is riding the last waves of the day. Perhaps it is the magnificence of the scene—or the long day that we’ve had—for in a fit of beauty-drunk exhilaration one could possibly mistake humans riding boards as dolphins. If you squint enough, anyway.
The Wardandi people consider this area a sacred site, where the gifts of their creator god Ward an in the form of whales would come to shore during the right season. It’s not difficult to imagine why; the breath-taking environment inspires respect.
Koh Kut, or Koh Kood is considered to have some of the best beaches in Thailand. Its beautiful white sands and crystal-clear waters are worth the long, journey by air, road and boat it takes to get here from Bangkok —because the reward is the island’s seclusion. Depending on what you’re looking for, the lack of public transport and zero nightlife are a big plus, or a reason to go elsewhere.
Accommodation on the island isn’t as cheap as elsewhere in Thailand, but it’s generally good value for your money. Cheaper accommodation is available in the tourist centre of Khlong Chao, and the far southern beaches are more popular with Russian tourists.
Avoid coming here during the rainy season from May to October (fly into Trat Airport, and drive 50km to Laem Sok to take a boat to Koh Kut). If you really want to push the envelope on the idea of a romantic holiday (and it would be best if you check with your partner before you get here), think of Loei, Isan’s westernmost province.
This mountainous region is home to hill tribes and stunning national parks. This town, bordering Laos, often changed hands between the Thai and the Lao, creating a unique people and culture. Come here mid-year when the Phi Ta Khon Festival, aka the Ghost Festival, takes place, and you’ll know what we mean.
Loei is a place of contrasts: it is also home to one of Thailand’s few wineries, Chateau de Loei, and its serene, rice-paddied landscapes are abruptly broken into by jutting karst boulders. While Loei may not be the romanctic destination for the faint-hearted, if you do find a partner who can appreciate Loei in all its wonderful weirdness, you’ve probably got a keeper.
If you’ve got romance on your mind, Thailand offers wonderful options for private moments on beaches and in coves or for exploring new experiences together, Koh Tao is considered one of the best places in the world to learn scuba diving. Although diving is possible almost all year round, the waters are clearest from July to September.
The reefs are calm and shallow, perfect for novice divers, and this is one of the few places where you can spot a whale shark as well as tropical fish, reef sharks and barracudas. You could stay in accommodation offered by your scuba-diving school or in a bungalow or in one of the growing number of upscale resorts that line the shores of this turtle-shaped island.
With hotels suffering limited communication networks and electricity cuts, Koh Tao still has the feel of being off the tourist trail, and, if off beat adventure is what you want, this is probably the perfect place (fly into Koh Samui Airport, and take a high-speed ferry to Koh Tao).
A few days in Vietnam, and you’ll be chewing your friends’ ears out about the food there for months to come. Travellers to the country and professional chefs agree that Vietnamese food has favours that are fresh and clean and that startle and soothe all at once. It’s difficult to say enough about this food because the Vietnamese put so much of their heart and soul into the food. It is said that nearly half the population of the country is involved in growing, producing and cooking food.
You’ll probably want to start off sampling pho bo, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. This is arguably best enjoyed in Hanoi, given the number of establishments that peddle it, and because of the misty weather that makes the hot broth so particularly welcome. As in any self-respecting foodie country, there are vast variations in the food from region to region, so, while in the South, fresh herbs and bean sprouts are the usual garnish, Northerners seem to prefer milder pho, flavoured with coriander and scallions.
Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate pho is by ordering dry pho, or pho kho gia lai, in which all the ingredients are served separately and you can add the slow brewed beef broth just before taking your first bite so the onions are their crunchiest and the herbs taste as fresh as possible.
Banh mi, at first glance, may not seem very Vietnamese, since it’s a baguette sandwich typically filled with pate and mayonnaise, but peep inside at the fresh shavings of pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber and chillies, and you’ll find yourself appreciating the delicious influence of the French occupation of Vietnam. If you’re headed to Hoi An, do try a banh mi there- it’s considered a local specialty.
Anthony Bourdain is said to have eaten at Banh Mi Phuong, where the banii mi also has hand-ground chilli sauce, tomatoes, a fried egg, and possibly anything else you could ever imagine, If you make it there in the early morning or early afternoon, you may be lucky enough to get a baguette that’s still warm from the oven.
But it is really Ho Chi Minh City that is considered the food capital of Vietnam in terms of taste and variety because you can find dishes from all over Vietnam served off street stalls. Try some banh xeot a savoury rice pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, mushrooms, etc, or the Vietnamese spring roll, locally known as goi cuon. Track down the legendary Lunch Lady whose customers have been lining up to eat whatever she may choose to serve up for more than a decade.
But, if you’d like a sit-down dinner for once to slowly savour everything you’re eating, head to the Cue Gach Quan , a romantic French Colonial mansion that has been carefully restored and now serves up the kind of food that makes the Vietnamese remember their grandmothers. The restaurant prides itself on serving everyday Vietnamese food elevated to gourmet levels, paired with French wines.
It’s a wonder that the sheer biodiversity and variety of landscapes that abound in Malaysia don’t have other countries crying foul. And, while you may have stuck more pins into your map of Malaysia marking what you’d like to explore than into a pincushion, it’s best to stagger your wish list over a few trips.
Taman Negara, Peninsula Malaysia: We have three words for you: “oldest primary rainforest.” If, after reading that, you aren’t already halfway to the airport to flag down the first plane headed east, maybe this will do the trick: the towering deciduous forests of Taman Negara National Park protect a mind-boggling array of wildlife like sun bears, tapirs, tigers, flying squirrels, hornbills… the list goes on. But, while a trek into this prehistoric world will be like nothing you’ve done before, you’re unfortunately not likely to see any of the larger animals.
The forest that is home to these animals is so untouched that it keeps its secrets. If you do some overnight trekking, you might have the opportunity to see some tapirs, small deer, monkeys, lizards and, most certainly leeches, though, and maybe even have the chance to sleep in a cave (four hours by road from Kuala Lumpur; Department of Wildlife and National Parks: 00-603-9075-2872; trips depart from Kuala Tehan; from ¥ 4,000for a two-day, one-night trek).
You can also do a canopy walk (about 45 minutes from the visitor centre; 10am- 3pm Sat-Thur, till 4pm Fri; park entry: ¥ 20, canopy walkway: ¥ 80).
Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo: Not only is this park home to the largest cave chamber in the world, it is also home to one of the largest cave networks in the world, meaning you can wade through underground rivers, squeeze yourself through crevices, swim in rock pools and make yourself claustrophobic
to your heart’s content. A near-magical combination of sandstone, limestone and water has created the dramatic razor-like spikes that explode out of the earth and into the ghostly subterranean caves, creating a landscape and biodiversity so unique that it has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kinabatangan River, Sandakan, Sabah: Slipping through the murky brown waters of the Klias Kinabatangan River in Borneo, with thick forest on either side and the eyes of unseen animals watching your every move, may seem like a scene out of Heart of Darkness. Luckily, though, the hidden creatures here are much less frightening than Colonel Kurtz, and, sadly, more in danger from us than the other way around. Here live the strange proboscis monkey with its bulbous nose, long-tailed macaques, all eight species of hornbill, and orangutans. Need we say more?
If you ‘ve looked up flight costs to Bali in the past, you’re probably wondering just how we’re nominating this Indonesian destination as our choice for an affordable break in Southeast Asia.
But stay with us a minute: once you’re there, you’ll be able to step off the plane and into a chauffeur-driven car at just about ¥ 4,000 a day. Or you could swing an even cheaper deal by choosing to navigate the sweet, single-laned streets of Bali yourself with a self-drive car. While Thailand portrays itself as the best place for a cheap and cheerful holiday, you’ll find Bali’s got great bang for your buck too. Sure. Thai street eats are great, but you might find you spend less in sit-down restaurants in Bali than similar ones in Thailand. You can easily eat a casual yet gourmet meal in Bali featuring highlights like a prawn, mango and chilli salad for around ¥ 400.
And the roadside satay chicken and rice shops are also great for a lighter (on the pocket) bite. Bali also has a host of comfortable midrange hotels available for as little as ¥ 2,500 a night. You can find these more easily by opting for less touristy towns: choose Munduk’s big skies and forested hills over the more popular artistic hill town of Ubud, skip the expensive resorts of Nusa Dua and head to the quiet fishing village of Amed instead.
What we do recommend you spend your cash on, though, are the experiences: Taman Nasional Bali Barat features vast acres of protected forest, coastal mangroves and a spectacular 70sqkm of coral reefs.
Modern Manhattan becomes magnificently medieval at the Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art tucked away in the Fort Tryon Park at the far northern tip of the island. Five cloisters from southern France have been reassembled on a bluff high above the Hudson River, and they are surrounded by atmospheric galleries filled with 5,000 pieces of European art and architecture from the Middle Ages. Each vaulted room and stone-walled corridor reveals another treasure: as you meander you’ll come upon seven wall hangings of the Unicorn Tapestry, a 12th-century monastery chapter house, a Romanesque chapel, the sumptuously illustrated book of hours of the Duc de Berry, ivory crosses, carved portals, and a deck of 15th-century playing cards.
The greatest pleasure is seeking out a corner of one of the cloisters and quietly contemplating the surroundings. An especially peaceful spot is the 13th-century Bonnefont Cloister, from a Cistercian abbey and surrounded by simple columns that were left undecorated in case they should distract the monks from prayer. Beds are shaded by quince trees and planted with more than 400 herbs that surround a beautiful marble well, and the surroundings are not only serene but aromatic.
When industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller donated the Cloisters to the city in the 1930s, he threw hundreds of parkland acres across the Hudson River in the New Jersey Palisades into the deal. You will appreciate his foresight when you step out onto the West Terrace and take in the generous sweep of river and greenery, so unspoiled that the medieval surroundings seem remarkably in place.
The Cloisters is nestled within densely wooded Fort Tryon Park, on high ground that once harbored Weckquaesgeek Indians, Dutch colonialists, and the Continental Army, who established a series of outposts on bluffs they collectively called Fort Washington. More than 8 miles of paths traverse the woods and come to terraces overlooking the Hudson River. As you explore this beautiful and uncrowded park, stop in at the New Leaf Restaurant and Bar (L and D Tue–Sun, tel: 212-568-5323) in a stone building at the park entrance, with a lovely patio.