Closing Out the Books On January

Four no-spend days on the train helped our bottom line, but sadly not enough.

January should have been a very low-cost month for us, but it didn’t turn out that way. We had more no-spend days than any previous month, and yet our costs outside of those days turned out to be quite high, and as a result we ended the month over our daily spend limit by nearly $5.50/day, or a total of $170.50 for the month. That’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was still troubling for us.

Our short stay in Hong Kong is where we really got into trouble, spending-wise, because any way we sliced it, Hong Kong was an expensive city. We saved in some areas, but other things caught us way off guard, like the huge (and surprising) cost to get our laundry done at the hotel, for example. Our casual lunch out at Stanley (a sandwich, some fish & chips, and two iced teas) was nearly $60US. It cost us twice as much to eat at Hong Kong Disneyland than our admission, and so on. A few taxi rides didn’t help the bottom line either. We made up for some of that overage once we got to Australia, which we have found to be very affordable in comparison, and hoped we’d be able to come in just slightly above our goal of $50/day by the end of the month. Our purchase of two $50AU Opal cards and a few groceries yesterday dashed those hopes.

However, with our Opal cards and groceries now in hand we are off to a good start in February, and hopefully we can keep things under control for the rest of our time in Australia, and then in New Zealand and Japan, although we will be having to buy (expensive) gasoline for the car in New Zealand, and two spendy tickets to get into Tokyo from the airport. But otherwise we should be OK, and are keeping our fingers crossed.

I also discovered that along with tracking our daily spending averages, Brett has also been tracking our daily steps and miles walked. Yesterday, for example, we walked 5.3 miles, and Brett took 14,333 steps (around 16,000 for me). The amount surprised me, considering how hot it was. Good thing I got most of those steps in before I fell and broke my toe!

It’s time for a pedicure again too!

Late yesterday afternoon the front edge of my flip-flop caught on the edge of a step as we were entering the David Jones department store in downtown Sydney (looking for a moisturizer/sunscreen replacement), and down I went. I was otherwise OK, but knew fairly soon that I had broken something in my foot because the pain in my toes was at a whole different level. However, I could still walk and we made it back home and out to dinner last night. I decided not to go to the ER because I knew all that would happen was there would be an X-ray confirming the break, my toes would be taped together, I would be told to elevate and ice my foot, and we would get a bill (I have broken a toe before). Instead, we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some tape, I taped the toe myself, and am keeping my foot elevated and iced as much as possible, and it’s all feeling better today. Brett is out with my brother this morning touring a couple of museums while I rest my foot, but I will be ready to do some limited walking later today and we plan to go tour the opera house tomorrow morning before my brother has to head back up to his home in Queensland (where there has been heavy flooding).

We have four more full days in Sydney though before leaving for New Zealand, so we should have enough time to do and see everything we’d like before we go. I’m having a very nice reunion with my brother as well!

From Perth to Sydney on the Indian-Pacific

I got to go to India, and Brett got to ride across Australia on the Indian-Pacific. After I took this picture (in Cook) this rail fan headed down to check out the engines.

We’ve made it to Sydney! And, we had a fabulous time getting here, on the train ride of a lifetime.

Car C, Cabin 4 – we faced forward for two days (to Adelaide), but then backwards for the day and a half into Sydney. After the first two days though I found sitting backwards didn’t bother me as much as I feared.. The bottom sofa folded into a bed, and there was a second bed that dropped down from the upper cabinet.

The East Perth train station was just a 10-minute walk from our Airbnb condo, and as we headed for the station with all our luggage at around 8:00 a.m. last Sunday morning the walk was thankfully nice and cool. Great Southern Rail’s legendary service and hospitality began the minute we arrived at the station – our big suitcases were collected and we were given our cabin assignment: Car C, near the front of the train, Cabin 4. I asked if it was a forward or rear facing cabin, but no one seemed to know so we continued to keep our fingers crossed until we could board and find out.

Coming out of Perth we rolled through lush farmland for most of the day.
Our second day started out in the famous Australian outback. We saw LOTS of kangaroos, and also emus, camels and the BIGGEST hawks I have ever seen, larger than an American bald eagle.
And then we reached the Nullabor – empty as all get out, and not a tree or animal in sight for over 24 hours.

We boarded the train about a half-hour before its scheduled departure time of 10:00 a.m., settled in to our front-facing cabin (yeah!) and before we knew it the train was rolling out of the station. We had been given an itinerary for the trip at check-in, but shortly after we departed we were visited by our car manager in order to choose our off-train outings, and a short while later by the restaurant manager in order to receive our restaurant schedule. Car C was just two cars away from the lounge car, and three away from the restaurant.

Cappucchinos were one of our favorite beverages to enjoy in the lounge car.

Our time onboard the train was very relaxed. We spent most of our time in our cabin, looking out the window at the scenery or napping, but we sometimes headed down to the lounge car to meet other passengers, to enjoy a drink and/or a tasty snack, or have a cocktail before dinner. All meals and drinks on our trip were included in the price of the ticket – all we had to do was order and enjoy.

We turned out to be the only Americans onboard! Most of the passengers were from Great Britain (several of whom were continuing on with a two week cruise around New Zealand), but there were some Australians, and we also met a couple from Ireland, a very nice man from Japan, and a there were few passengers from India and South Africa. My favorite experience of the trip happened the first evening as we were getting back on the bus to go back to the train after a late-night off-train outing. We were looking for our seats on the bus, and a woman from Britain piped up, “Oh, you’re behind us. I recognize your accents.” What!?!?!?!? We don’t have accents!” was my first thought. It took me a second to realize that this time around we were the odd ones out, and the ones with an accent to everyone else.

Although we usually always sat with another couple for lunch or dinner, for breakfast Brett and I were given this cozy table to ourselves a couple of times.

One other thing about the passengers (us included) is that I don’t think there were more than 10 people on that train less than 60 years old! Even though we’re both in the second half of that decade, Brett and I still felt like spring chickens compared to many of the other passengers – most, we guessed, were in their 70s – but everyone was friendly and we had a good time with everyone we interacted with. The dining room did a good job of seating us with different people and we enjoyed chatting with and hearing about others’ lives and experiences, where they were from, and so forth.

Our beds were always made up while we were at dinner, and put away during breakfast the next morning. Brett slept in the upper bunk, but both of us rock and rolled all night with the train as we slept, especially the second and third nights – they were pretty wild! Probably the best thing was that we had a private bathroom with a shower. It was so nice not having to walk down the passageway to get to the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night. The only negative we experienced during the entire journey was that a jar of (expensive) moisturizer, a Christmas gift from Brett, went missing the last night – we don’t know if someone from the cabin crew took it when they came in to prepare the cabin for nighttime, or it fell and broke and they threw it away. Whatever, it was missing this morning and nowhere to be found, and will have to be replaced while we’re here in Sydney (if I can).

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The meals we were served were nothing short of extraordinary. The menu was different every day and showcased local Australian food products. We were afraid we were going to see kangaroo appear on menu, but thankfully it never did – Brett said he would have tried it (camel masala was one of the lunch choices one day, but we chose something else).

Every day there was at least one, if not two, off train excursions. We chose the ones below:

– Day 1: The Kalgoorlie gold mine tour. We got into Kalgoorlie after 8:00 p.m. so this tour took place at night and it was difficult to take pictures. We visited the Super Pit, where miners dig around the clock. This place was massive and DEEP, and from there we went to a visitors center where we watched a cute skit about how gold was discovered in Australia. The Super Pit was expected to close back in the 1980s, but they are still finding fresh veins of gold, and now they expect it to stay open another 30 years! I did not think I would enjoy this tour very much, but I learned a lot and in the end was glad I went. For example, I learned that only 7% of the gold mined in the world goes to make jewelry. That figure surprised me, but most gold mined these days goes into phones, computers and other tech devices – they wouldn’t operate without gold.

It was too dark at night to get pictures when we visited the mines, but we did get to see a couple of monster hauling trucks up close. The trucks cost over 4 million US$ each, and have to be replaced every seven years because they wear out! The tires are as big as a swimming pool.

– Day 2: We skipped the morning stop at a sheep ranch and slept in, but in the afternoon got off to stretch our legs at Cook, a ghost town out in the middle of the Nullabor Desert, located on the longest straight stretch of railway track in the world. Cook was founded in 1917 as a primary place of support for the railroad in the Nullabor, and over 400 people used to live there – it had its own school and hospital, and the town got all its water from an underground Artesian aquifer. In 1997 the railroad was privatized and said it no longer needed full-time support from Cook, and the town dried up literally overnight. Today only four people live there to help refuel the Indian-Pacific when it comes through twice a week.

Deserted housing in Cook. I cannot begin to describe how hot it was here – people in Arizona in the middle of the summer might have an idea, except there are no monsoon rains here.
The former hospital in Cook. Everything was left behind when people left.

– Day 3: We arrived in the South Australian city of Adelaide early in the morning, and had a choice of four different outings. Brett and I took walking tour around the center of Adelaide, where the city was founded. It was a short but interesting tour and we had a charming guide. Following all the tours train passengers were served breakfast in a downtown convention center while the train was repositioned and new staff came on board for the trip to Sydney. In the early evening, the train stopped in Broken Hill for refueling and to drop off mail. Broken Hill is an old mining town and was the setting for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a comedy drama about two drag queens who travel around Australia in a bus called Priscilla. Along with most of the passengers, we chose to see the “Main Drag” and had a fun time along with everyone else. Our evening included complementary wine and spring rolls, but finished early because one of the performers was not there that evening. The extra time allowed us to take a leisurely stroll through town on our way back to the train.

Sunrise as we arrived in Adelaide.
Eucalyptus trees tower into the bluest skies I have ever seen! There are over 700 varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.
The South Australia parliament in Adelaide took 65 years to complete! There are supposed to be additional towers on the ends and in the middle, but they gave up and no one is interested in adding them now.
The drag show in Broken Hill took place in the historic Palace Hotel. The walls of the hotel are covered in hand-painted murals with scenes of Australia.
This guy was fantastic and funny. He was spangly from head to toe, performed in 5-inch heels, and even his beard was glittered.

– Day 4: The last day on the train and it stopped in the gorgeous Blue Mountains National Park. We signed up for a 1-hour hike with guides who took us to some out-of-the-way spots along with the more famous sites like the Three Sisters and the Orphan Rock. The “blue” in the name comes from the haze caused by eucalyptus trees, similar to the haze in the Great Smoky Mountains. The temperature up in the mountains was lovely and cool, and after two days of desert we were happy to see all the green trees and water.

After two days of rolling through the desert, we woke up to this beautiful scene of rolling farmland on our last morning on board the Indian-Pacific.

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We (and apparently everyone else) were glad to get off the train when we arrived in Sydney – four days and three nights were enough. But, it was the journey of a lifetime for us, especially for Brett, and I am so happy that we were able to include it in our itinerary. Great Southern Rail offers three different trips through Australia, all with comparable service to the Indian-Pacific, and both Brett and I said if we ever make it back to Australia we’d love to ride the others, especially the Ghan, which runs from Adelaide to Darwin in the north.

All Aboard!

In about another hour, Brett and I will haul our bags over to the East Perth train station, about a 10-minute walk away from our condo, and we’ll check in for our train journey across Australia on the Indian-Pacific train, one of Australia’s great rail journeys. Our bags are packed, we’ve eaten up all the food we bought in Perth, the apartment is clean, and we are ready to go!

We won’t know our cabin assignment until we check in, and the Indian-Pacific is a l-o-n-g train, usually 30 cars long, with two dining cars. The big unknown for us right now is whether we will be assigned a forward- or back-facing cabin. I do not do well riding backwards at all, but all cabins on the train are sold out and there will be no switching. You get what you get (and we had no idea whether we could have requested a forward-facing cabin or not). If we do get a back-facing cabin I will probably be spending lots of time in the club car. Anyway, for now fingers are crossed for a forward-facing cabin – it’s all we can do at this point.

We will most likely be offline for the next few days. Supposedly there is WiFi available onboard but I imagine it will be spotty at best if we do get it. We also haven’t heard from our host in Sydney, but hopefully there will be a message waiting from her when we arrive with instructions for getting into our apartment there. It’s always an adventure!

We’ve had a good rest and a great time in Perth, but it’s time to move on. See you on the other side . . . !

Taking It Easy in Perth

We’re wishing now we had more time here, and had been less exhausted when we arrived – Perth is a wonderful city!

We did not hit the ground running when we arrived in Perth. We did almost nothing for our first two days here, and not a whole lot on our third day either. Frankly, we were just worn out after our time in India and Hong Kong, and decided it was more important to rest and catch up on all the sleep we’d missed rather than get out every day. I slept over 11 hours the first two nights we were here – I was that tired. We were right to give ourselves six days here to pull ourselves back together.

Our Airbnb neighborhood
Even the neighborhood dry cleaners sports some fun art
A nearby florist had native Australia blooms for sale. These are banksia baxteri, or ‘birds’ nest baxteri,’ and are native to Western Australia.

Outings the past three days have been kept to a minimum – a short walk through our somewhat posh neighborhood (according to Brett’s friend Dave) to a nearby grocery for supplies the first (hot) day; a short walk for Brett over to the train station the next day to see where we need to go on Sunday morning; and a long visit with Brett’s friend from navy days yesterday. Dave married a local girl after a tour here in Australia, and has lived here for 28 years (and yes, he now has a heavy Australian accent). He and Brett had fun catching up and sharing memories. In between all this excitement we’ve been slowly getting our stuff moved around between suitcases so that we’re ready to check in for our train journey early Sunday morning.

Dave worked for Brett back in the late 80s when they were both stationed in Key West, Florida. Dave now works for the post office in Perth. They had a lot of fun catching up!

Today we finally got out to visit some of the city, taking the OH HEY WA walking tour. We usually prefer to do free walking tours, but this tour got such fabulous reviews that we decided to splurge a little bit and give it a try since we we’re not doing much else here or eating out.

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The tour was flat-out FABULOUS, and the best walking tour I’ve ever done. The tour ran the gamut from historical to modern, included more beautiful and thought-provoking street art than we ever imagined, and we also learned lots about Perth’s dining and bar scene. One bar intrigued us so much that Brett and I went back after the tour was over: The Flour Factory, an actual former flour factory (!) that has been converted into a gin bar. Since we both love gin and tonics we decided to spin the bar’s “gin wheel,” and each of us had a speciality drink made with a different gin, sourced from different places around the world. It was very refreshing and a great way to end the day.

The “gin wheel” at The Flour Factory.

Tomorrow is Australia Day, the official national holiday, so everywhere is going to be crowded, especially in the afternoon. We’re going to head into town in the morning to Elizabeth Quay, and from there take the bus down to see the famous Blue Boat House (officially the Crawley Edge Boatshed), and also check out the Eliza statue before heading back to Elizabeth Quay to take a leisurely gondola ride at noon out on the Swan River, another low-cost outing that gets rave reviews. It will give us chance to see some more of the city from the water. According to Brett’s friend Dave, if we go before noon we should miss most of the crowds, but the temperatures are expected to start climbing again tomorrow too. Eliza, by the way, is the statue of a swimmer that sits out in the water, who is always dressed in clothes appropriate to the season and goings on in Perth. No one knows exactly who dresses Eliza, or how.

The Blue Boathouse is the most Instagrammed spot in Perth, and is often used for wedding and advertising shoots. Even in the morning we’ll most likely have to stand in line to get a photo. (Photo credit: Destination>Differentville)
Here Eliza is dressed for a warm summer’s day in a tube top and mini-skirt. She wears a Santa suit at Christmas (Photo credit: Destination>Differentville)
We’re taking a half-hour gondola ride on the Swan River, perfect for enjoying a hot summer’s day (and it will be HOT tomorrow, with temperatures nearing 90 degrees). Perth is the sunniest city in the world.

We’re enjoying our Airbnb here except for the mattress. It’s the least comfortable of all the places we’ve stayed, and I wake up almost every morning with a backache. But otherwise the place is very comfortable and well-equipped, and the neighborhood very nice. We’re also getting the best of Perth summer weather: skies are clear blue, and temperatures have been around 80° with lovely breezes. Apparently the weekend before we arrived temperatures soared to over 100° and everyone was pretty much miserable, and it’s supposed to start going up again tomorrow and be miserable again on Sunday, right as we leave. We actually wish though that we could stay in Perth a bit longer, but our train journey across Australia awaits!

Our India Tour: A Review

The Taj Mahal – Easy Tours got us right up on the top platform so we could see the detail up close.

India was the first destination on the itinerary when we put together our Big Adventure. A trip to India had been at the top of my bucket list for as long as I could remember, and Brett wanted to go as well, but we both knew it was not a place we were equipped to visit on our own, especially not for a first visit. We knew, unlike other destinations, that we needed some sort of organized tour.

So, I dug in and began researching tour companies . . . and there are a lot of them! However, one name kept coming up again and again, always with five-star reviews: Easy Tours – Luxury Travel Made Easy. The luxury part wasn’t what got my attention though; instead, it was the variety of tours that were offered and especially the small tour group sizes. Brett and I are not “tour people,” but Easy Tour’s groups were limited to no more than 12 people, and we later learned they often cap a group’s size at eight persons. Another aspect that appealed to us was the company’s focus on culturally immersive touring versus just getting us from place to place. Finally, Easy Tours is based in the U.S. (in Dallas, TX), one other reason we felt comfortable booking with them.

Our wonderful guide, Luke, explained everything we were seeing, and made history and culture come alive.
Raj drove us everywhere, through the craziest traffic, without incident. Our group had our own minivan throughout the tour.

From making sure we had all of our paperwork in order before we traveled (visas are required to enter India), and meeting us at the airport upon arrival and getting us to our hotel to seeing us off at our departure, the attention we received from Easy Tours was personal and always available to make sure everything happened easily and effortlessly. We received exceptional service throughout the tour – our wonderful guide, Luke (Lokendra) was at the hotel every morning to greet us and let us know what was up for the day, and Raj, our driver, expertly got us from place to place without incident. Both spoke fluent English, and Luke’s knowledge of the places we visited was amazing. He was able to explain to us both cultural and historical aspects of things we were seeing, from ancient to modern, things that made the travel experience deeper. He kept us informed about life in India, its customs, etc. as well. We were able to see and sometimes experience aspects of Indian life that we might otherwise have missed, from rural life to glittering palaces, from religious traditions to India’s crowds and crazy traffic.

All hotels we stayed in were five-star, with every amenity and superb service provided.
Tandoori chicken with mint chutney on the side – so good! All our meals were varied and delicious, with both Indian and Western food available. Hot, fresh naan bread was always at the table!

We took the 7-day Golden Triangle Tour; our tour partners were on the 11-day North India Highlight Tour, and continued on to Udaipur and Mumbai with Luke after we departed India for Hong Kong. Easy Tours offers two levels of service, Premium and Luxury, but we are hard-pressed to think of anything the Luxury level could offer that we didn’t receive at the Premium Level. Each hotel we stayed in was 5-star, the hotel and tour service superb and personalized, and the meals were amazing, whether at the hotel or when we were out and about (breakfast and lunch were covered in the tour price, and provided enough food that Brett and I never needed to eat dinner). Admission fees were always covered, with the highest level admission provided. Our day usually began around 9:30 a.m., and we were back at our hotel every afternoon by 4:00 p.m. in order to relax and enjoy the hotel’s amenities. There were no hidden costs along the way, and we felt we more than got every penny’s worth of what we spent for the tour. (Tipping for guides and drivers is culturally expected although not required, and Easy Tours provided us guidelines ahead of arrival so there were no surprises and we could budget accordingly.)

Every part of India was fascinating – we hope to return some day.

Both Brett and I hope to return to India someday – it was truly among the most memorable travel we have ever experienced. There is so much more of India that we want to see, and we would not hesitate to use Easy Tours again. We also would not hesitate to use them for travel in other parts of Southeast Asia.

(I am not receiving any compensation for this review; in fact, Easy Tours has no idea I even wrote this!)

Exhausted!

The washing machine is doing its thing, and we’re spread out all over the downstairs living room as we segue from winter to summer.

We arrived in Perth, Australia, late last night after a long, but easy flight from Hong Kong. Even in economy class Cathay Pacific Airlines goes the extra bit, and we received great service, had an amazing choice of great movies, were served some good food and snacks, and had decent leg room. Thankfully getting out of Hong Kong was a snap as was entering Australia. We missed getting our passports stamped in both places – immigration is done electronically and everything is merely scanned coming and going. We took a taxi from the airport to our Airbnb (actually a two-story condo), figured out how to let ourselves in, and eventually got to bed. The condo is clean and comfortable, and we have room to spread out, which it looks like we’re going to need.

We woke up this morning feeling flat-out exhausted. The past two weeks have been nothing but go, go, go for us, compounded by long and sometimes difficult travel days and the need to overcome some deep jet lag. Although we don’t really feel like doing much of anything today, we do have to get ourselves to a grocery store – we currently have nothing with us to eat but the dry muesli we bought in Hong Kong. Thankfully, Brett was still able to make coffee as we always carry along the little pour-through filter we bought over 25 years ago in Japan and a bag off coffee. After two weeks of delicious but fattening restaurant food we’re looking forward to fixing our own meals once again.

The apartment has a washer AND a dryer, so doing laundry is also part of our plan for today. It’s quite warm here in Perth – it’s supposed to get up to 80°F today – and not only are we swapping out our cold-weather clothes for the summer things that we’ll need for the next 25 days, but we also have to empty out the new rolling carry-on (and find places for all that stuff) because that’s where the clothes for our train journey have to go – the big suitcases will go into a separate luggage car. I have a feeling this re-pack is going to take a few days.

For now though we’re planning to take a couple of days to rest up and then will get out and explore a bit of Perth. Brett has an old navy buddy that lives here and he and his wife have offered to show us around, but we also need to figure out how to get out on our own in this fairly spread-out city. I chose this Airbnb for its amenities but also because it’s just a 20 minute walk to the train station where we’ll board the Indian-Pacific next Sunday for our ride across Australia. Otherwise it appears we’re not close to much but we’ll get it figured out – we always do!

Hong Kong Days: Mickey, Tea, and the Stanley Market

Hong Kong Disneyland cleverly is celebrating the upcoming Year of the Pig by incorporating the Three Little Pigs into their New Years decoration.

When Brett and I learned several months ago that the price of admission to Hong Kong Disneyland for over 65 seniors was just $13US, we knew we had to go check it out. Opened in 2005, Hong Kong Disneyland is located out on Lantau Island and is the largest amusement park in Hong Kong. To avoid cultural issues, the park was designed using Chinese customs and traditions, including feng shui.

We wondered if the Chinese translates to the “Happiest Place On Earth.”

We were a bit surprised how much smaller the park was than the Disney parks in the U.S. It took Brett and I only three and half hours to visit the whole place, including a lunch break and time for five rides. However, we picked a wonderful day to go – the MTR wasn’t crowded nor was the park, and lines for the rides moved quite quickly. The weather was delightfully cool as well. On the surface everything looked very similar to the Disney parks in the U.S. – you enter through Mainstreet, USA, for example – but there were also subtle and not-so-subtle differences everywhere. For example, Chinese traditional music was playing as we entered the park and walked down Mainstreet; ride instructions were given in both English and Chinese; and the food offerings throughout the park were mainly Asian other than snacks. However, in signature Disney fashion, the entire park was themed beautifully, was spotlessly clean and the park employees were friendly and polite. Stores and kiosks selling Disney merchandise were everywhere.

The Mystic Manor ride focused on magic, not ghosts
Honky tonk music on Mainstreet USA at the same time traditional Chinese music played in the background was the perfect example of HK Disneyland’s mash-up of Chinese and American cultures.
We bought Mickey and Minnie Mouse doughnuts for our breakfast the next day.

As for the rides, we found the two roller coasters we rode much faster and more thrilling than in the U.S. The Runaway Mining Cars turned out to be a combination of Big Thunder Mountain, Rock’n Roller Coaster and the Expedition Everest Ride, and was very surprising and fun. Space Mountain was a whole heck of a lot faster and crazier than it is in the U.S. and we noticed several children left the ride sobbing (we screamed the whole way and loved every second of it). The ride that was the most different though was Mystic Manor, the Chinese version of the Haunted Mansion. In Chinese culture, ghosts are not culturally appropriate as a ride theme, so Mystic Mansion focused on magic instead. The ride was well done though and the special effects were top notch. Overall we had a wonderful time at the park and were glad we made the trip, although after all of the walking we had done the day before we came back to the hotel feeling quite exhausted.

The lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, a landmark in Hong Kong since 1928.

Yesterday was a 180° change from the trip to Disneyland – we went to afternoon tea in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, an experience long on my bucket list. We had been absolutely thrilled to find out when we were in Portland in December that our friend Sylvia (who was born and raised in Hong Kong) would be here at the same time as us, so she messaged us day before yesterday and we decided to get together for the tea.

Afternoon tea for three is delivered! We also each had a personal silver teapot filled with Darjeeling tea (several other varieties were also available).
Fresh warm raisin scones with clotted cream and jam along with smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches.
The dessert selection – every bite was delicious!

The tea and service were everything I had dreamed of and more. The elegant setting was just the start, but a string group provided live music while we dined and the food and presentation were exquisite. Our tea for three included fresh-baked raisin scones served with clotted cream and jam, assorted tea sandwiches, a selection of dainty desserts, and Darjeeling tea served in individual silver teapots. It was divine, the memory of a lifetime, and I got to experience it with Brett and one of my best friends.

We enjoyed tea with Sylvia, a long-time friend from Portland. She’s in Hong Kong to celebrate the New Year with her family.
One of the many elaborate New Year’s decorations up in Tsim Sha Tsui.

After tea, Sylvia invited us to walk for a bit around Tsim Sha Tsui. We were on the hunt for a new carry-on bag as we need one for our train journey in Australia and she helped us find a shop with high-quality bags at a good price. We then stopped at Marks & Spencer, one of favorite shopping spots in the past, and picked up some cookies and a box of my favorite muesli to carry along to Australia. We checked out Chinese New Year decorations in the area and a New Year’s shop that had us walking around with our mouths hanging open – the selection was incredible! I had mentioned that I was sort of looking for some wool shawls, and Sylvia found a shop where I bought two (cashmere!) for just $20US. She said this was a good time to buy them because stores are clearing out winter items for the New Year and offering great prices. At the end of the afternoon we stopped in an upstairs Chinese cafe on bustling Nathan Road for some refreshments and to watch the crowds below before saying our good-byes for the day. We were back in our hotel room in time to watch the beautiful Saturday night light show across the harbor!

The Hong Kong Clock Tower, built in 1915. It is the only remaining part of the old railway station that connected Kowloon with Canton (Guangzhou).
Looking out at Hong Kong Island from the upper deck of the Star Ferry. As seniors we rode the ferry for free.

Earlier today we went Stanley Market, located on the far side of Hong Kong Island, and our favorite shopping location back in the day. Its narrow lanes were always filled with amazing bargains and we used to depart carrying several bags filled with treasures purchased at a fraction of the cost at home.

Heading into the lanes at Stanley Market. There weren’t as many shops as before, and most prices were very high.
Our favorite Stanley restaurant was still operating, although the building was now bright yellow instead of turquoise. The menu had also changed, but . . .
. . . the food was good and the views still lovely.

We debated riding the bus over from Central, but it was warm and humid this morning and in the end we decided we’d rather sit in the back of an air-conditioned taxi. The ride over was lovely, with beautiful views of Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay as we passed through on the way to Stanley. There were many, many more high-rise and luxury apartment than in the past though. We went with no plans to actually buy anything in the market, but the prices there now would have made it unlikely anyway. We saw a few things that we liked but that these days could be purchased for far less back in the U.S.! After wandering around for a while we felt a bit sad over the changes, but then happily discovered that our favorite Stanley restaurant, now called The Boathouse, was still operating. We enjoyed a nice lunch there along with lovely views of Stanley Harbor then walked back up the hill to the taxi stand and caught a ride home. Back in Tsim Sha Tsui we turned in our Octopus cards. Our refund covered over half of the cost of our taxi rides.

Colorful flowers and tangerine trees ready for the New Year outside of the Stanley Fisherman’s Recreation Association building.

Back when we were making up our itinerary for the Big Adventure, we were unsure about whether to visit Bangkok, a new location for us, or come back to Hong Kong once again. Both Brett and I are very happy now that we chose Hong Kong – we’ve had a wonderful time, and the visit has allowed us to enjoy old memories and make new ones.

Tonight we’re meeting Sylvia for a New Year’s dinner celebration (there will be roast duck!). Afterwards we’ll finish packing our suitcases, and tomorrow afternoon we’ll depart Hong Kong for down under in Perth, Australia! Zai jian, Hong Kong – its been fun!

P.S. These are the two shawls I purchased

Hong Kong Nostalgia Day

Looking down on Hong Kong and across the harbor to Kowloon from the top of Victoria Peak

This trip marks our ninth visit to Hong Kong. Shopping was the name of the game back in the day, but our visit this time is all about seeing what’s new and what’s stayed the same. After a day of rest yesterday, today we headed out to see some of the places we loved to visit in the past, and also eat at some of our favorite Hong Kong restaurants.

Our first stop though was the customer service booth at the Tsim Sha Tsui subway station, just a short walk from our hotel, to purchase the convenient, multi-use Octopus cards which are good for the subway, buses, trams, ferries and other forms of transportation around Hong Kong. Seniors over 65 receive a 50% discount on the Octopus Card, a big savings for us. We paid a $50HK deposit for each card that will be returned when we turn back in the cards at the end of our stay. Every time we use the card it not only shows the cost, but how much we have remaining (we bought $20HK worth of fares), and cards can be reloaded as necessary at machines in all subway stations.

Man Mo Temple sits in front of a typical Hong Kong background: high-rise apartments

From Tsim Sha Tsui we rode over to Central and walked to Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. The temple was built in 1847, and is dedicated to the worship of several Chinese gods. There were many people worshiping at different altars in the temple when we visited, lighting incense, praying, and leaving gifts of tangerines at the altars. Candles were also burning throughout the temple and visitors are warned to be careful around the open flames. One of thing we have always enjoyed experiencing at the temple are the huge coils of slow-burning incense that hang from the ceiling. Although we understood little of what was happening in the temple, it was still a place of great beauty and reverence and we stayed a while to take it all in.

One of several altars inside the temple.
Rows of lanterns filled one section of the temple.

Leaving Man Mo Temple we wove our way down through Central’s narrow streets and lanes to our next stop: Tai Cheong Bakery, where we purchased a few of what are considered the best egg custard tarts on the island. Delicious is not an adequate enough word when it comes to describing these tarts – they are luscious.

Tai Cheong Bakery’s custard egg tarts are simply luscious. They’ve been a favorite in Hong Kong since 1954.
At Yat Lok restaurant there’s always a line outside.

Then it was on to lunch at Yat Lok restaurant. This little whole-in-the-wall restaurant serves one thing only: roast goose. But not just any roast goose – their preparation has earned them a Michelin star several years in a row. As expected, there was a line outside the restaurant when we arrived, but there was immediately a call for two people and since Brett and I were somewhat unexpectedly the only couple we were taken right in! We each enjoyed a bowl of noodles in tasty broth topped with goose along with a BIG glass of lemon iced tea. The cost for this absolutely delicious, Michelin-rated lunch? Just $10US each.

Noodles with roast goose – simple and beyond delicious.
Yat Lok’s 2019 Michelin star – they’ve earned a star for the past four years.

With our bellies full and happy, we next walked over to the Peak Tram for a ride up to the top of Victoria Peak, not only to take in the view and but also to have dessert at the historic Peak Lookout Cafe (formerly the Peak Cafe), one of our favorite places to dine. The line to board the tram was long, but it moved fairly quickly and before we knew it we were heading up the through the high-rise apartments that cover the side of the Peak. The Peak, as always, was very crowded at the top, but we found the Lookout restaurant and were seated outside where we enjoyed a delightful cool breeze and a view of Repulse Bay and Stanley. After our dessert we walked over to take in the view of the harbor and Kowloon before getting in line to head back down to Central.

The Peak Tram climbs through rows of high-rise apartments that cover the side of Victoria Peak.
The view from the tram near the end of the line.
The historic Peak Lookout Cafe was originally a temporary resting place for sedan chair carriers and then later transformed into a permanent shelter. It began catering meals in 1947 and was known as the Peak Cafe for many years, one of our favorite places to dine.
The tram to take us back down arrives at the end of the line. When we got to the bottom, the line of people waiting to go up was almost twice as long as it was when we went up.

After returning to Central we caught a bus to the Star Ferry terminal to get back to Tsim Sha Tsui. After our arrival on the Kowloon side, we headed to Watson’s Drugstore to pick up a bottle of water and a small bottle of White Flower Embrocation, a Chinese medicinal ointment that can be used for many ailments. We then headed into the massive Ocean Terminal mall to have an early dinner at one of our favorite Hong Kong restaurants, Paul Ryan’s Chicago Grill. Ryan’s serves All-American food (burgers, steaks, etc.) and Brett and I ate at least one meal there on every trip to Hong Kong. This time he and I shared a big Reuben sandwich, which after everything else we’d eaten earlier in the day was more than enough. We were thrilled to be given Ryan’s keychains once again as we left the restaurant, a favorite tradition from our past visits (and we actually still have some of those keychains from 30+ years ago!).

A visit to Hong Kong is not complete without a ride on the Star Ferry, in operation since 1888.
Dan Ryan’s Chicago Grill makes a very delicious Reuben sandwich!
Dan Ryan’s keychains and White Flower Embrocation – the perfect Hong Kong souvenirs for us!

We walked over five miles today (nearly 15,000 steps for me – yikes!), but we had a wonderful, nostalgic time and ate some amazing food. Tomorrow though will be all about something new – we’re going out to Hong Kong Disneyland for the day!

Out of India, On to Hong Kong

These workers were making and hanging garlands of marigolds around the hotel for the wedding.

There was lots of activity going on at our hotel yesterday as we prepared to check out – a BIG wedding ceremony would be taking place in the evening, and workers were all over the hotel and grounds getting decorations and all in place. Also, peacocks could be seen roaming the grounds. It was apparent the wedding was going to be quite a lavish affair.

We were treated like royalty during our entire stay at the Jai Mahal hotel.
Heading out for our last day in India with our travel partners Amy and Phil, and our wonderful guide, Luke (real name Lokendra).

We learned yesterday morning too that the hotel, the Taj Jai Mahal, was at one time an actual palace owned by the local ruling family! In fact, the royal family still owns the property and the Taj hotel group leases it (and renovated it) to use as a hotel.

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Our first stop of the morning was the Jaipur City Palace, owned and currently lived in by members of the local royal family (the same family that owns the Jai Mahal property). A few of the buildings in the palace have been opened to the public, and a few operated as museums. The palace was yet another hidden gem – the outside wall gave no indication of the eye-popping splendor inside.

The largest sundial in the world inside the Jantar Mantar. The observation tower at the top was used by astronomers only once or twice a year.

The second stop of the day, Jantar Mantar, the Jaipur observatory, was another surprise, and one of the most fascinating places we visited on our tour of India. Completed in 1734, the observatory was built by the Rajput king Sawal Jai Singh II, who had deep interests in astronomy, mathematics and astrology. The observatory houses the largest sundial in the world, still accurate to two seconds, and the entire observatory is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beyond the sundial the observatory also houses several other astronomical and astrological structures, including twelve individual astrological instruments that were used to calculate individual horoscopes. Horoscopes remain important in Hindu culture – for example, according to Luke, each person has 36 astrological attributes based on the date, time and place of birth, and for a good Hindu marriage match a couple should share at least 18 of the attributes. Our little group hired a local astronomer to walk us through the observatory and explain it all. I found it fascinating, particularly the continuing accuracy of all the instruments considering they were built from stone and marble and without the help of technology nearly 300 years ago.

The a.m. side of the sundial.
Walking through some of the twelve astrological instruments.

Our next stop of the day was lunch at a nearby hotel, where our group enjoyed butter chicken and lots of naan bread for our last meal together. After lunch we had planned to go visit the monkey temple complex, but Jaipur traffic got the better of us and we instead ended up going to the airport to check in for our flights. Phil and Amy were continuing on with Luke to visit Udiapur and Mumbai, while Brett and I were flying back to Delhi where we’d catch our late-night flight to Hong Kong.

Checking our bags at the Delhi airport. Travel days are never fun, and this one was another that tried our patience.

Getting out of India turned out to be a lot more difficult and unpleasant than it had been getting in to the country. We had to pay overweight fees equaling $95 in Jaipur even though Luke tried to get them waived, but the airline would not budge. Also, our flight from Jaipur ended up departing nearly an hour late, and we learned on arrival in Delhi that although Indians are great about politely forming and standing in a queue before departure, it was no holds barred when it was time to get off the plane! We eventually were able to get off the plane, collect our suitcases and head up to check in for our flight to Hong Kong.

I don’t think we’ve ever been so glad that we had a long layover like the one we had in Delhi because airport security put us (and many others) through the wringer and with less time we would have missed our flight. I’ve never experienced anything like what we went through there and never hope to again. We followed the usual rules for taking out our laptops and tablets, etc. – there were no signs to tell us exactly what to do but we watched what others were doing and followed their example. After sending my backpack and other items through the x-ray, I walked through the scanner and was pulled aside for an additional check. I showed the female security guard my neck wallet that I use for my passport and credit cards and she took EVERYTHING out and went through each one of my credit cards and pieces of ID before returning them to me – crazy! Then I went to get my backpack and other things but for some reason security thought I had a knife in my purse (!) so I first had to empty that completely, and the “knife” turned out to be my keychain, made from the handle of an antique silver spoon. Then the security guys didn’t like what they saw in my backpack (I have no idea what they thought they saw), and they scanned it three times, ending up with taking everything out of my backpack and going through it all – jewelry, toiletries, medications, etc. Everything was left in a jumble in one of the plastic security bins for me to sort out. The guards were quite surly too, but eventually I got all my stuff together although it took a while to repack everything so that it all fit again into my backpack and purse. Needless to say, Brett got the same treatment. We left security feeling frazzled and beaten down only to discover we had a near 15-minute walk to our gate. We learned today via Luke that not only was yesterday a holiday in Delhi, but the city had received a threat from Al Qaeda right around the time we were going through security, so no one was taking any chances. Still, it was a miserable experience.

Our flight finally took off around midnight, an hour late, but we had a comfortable flight (although little sleep) and still managed to arrive on time in Hong Kong at 6:30 this morning. We collected our bags, got through immigration and then searched for an ATM to get some HK$ before heading to our hotel. Brett was completely exhausted and drained at that point, and not only did he miscalculate and withdraw way too much money, he also left (and lost) his debit card in the machine! So, the first thing he had to take care of after our hotel check-in was to contact our bank and freeze his card (he won’t be able to get a new one either until when we’re in Japan). Thank goodness I still have my card or we’d be in serious trouble right now.

For what we paid to have our laundry done in our hotel, it deserved being delivered in more than a wicker basket!

Once we got that issue taken care of, our next step was to get our clothes sorted and sent to the laundry. There had been no time to get laundry done the last few days in India, and both Brett and I were running out of clean clothes. We were shocked though by the laundry bill that came back for five days worth of clothing for two people: $230 dollars (US, not Hong Kong)! That definitely was an unexpected expense, but we were in a tight spot as far as needing clean clothes. Lesson learned though – Hong Kong these days is EXPENSIVE.

A view from our room of the Hong Kong harbor and skyline.

Our hotel room is lovely and comfortable though, and we have a drop-dead view of the harbor and the Hong Kong skyline which is what we wanted here. We slept for around five hours today our of pure exhaustion, and had dinner this evening at the hotel coffee shop. Afterwards we went out and walked around for a bit to try to get ourselves oriented. Everything had looked very, very different and unrecognizable this morning coming in to town, but once we started walking around we recognized many familiar streets and shops and now know right where we are and how to get around. The city is gearing up for the biggest holiday of the year, the Lunar New Year (February 5) and fabulous decorations are already everywhere.

We only have four full days in Hong Kong and want to make the most of them. Tomorrow’s plan is to head over to the Hong Kong side of the harbor and ride the tram up to the Peak, and then hopefully eat roast goose for lunch as well as pick up some tasty egg custard tarts before riding the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. After that, who knows? It’s good to be back though.

In and Around Jaipur: Day 2

Off we go!

I can now cross riding an elephant off of my bucket list. Not that it was ever on my bucket list, but it’s been accomplished.

A row of elephants heads up to the Amer Fort at the top of the hill.

Elephants are one of two ways to get up the front of the hill to the Amer Fort outside of Jaipur – the other is walking, and it’s a very l-o-n-g walk (cars can go around the back, but it’s a traffic nightmare there). However, the elephants are only available in the morning, and under the law they are only allowed to make four round trips up and back. The ride up takes about 15-20 minutes, and rather than feeling bumpy it was more of a rolling ride, from side to side, or in our case because we were sitting to the side, front to back. Our elephant was a rescue, and was 32 years old – if you said “good morning” she would call back! A few times thought it felt as if I was going to be tossed right off over the wall and down the cliff, very scary if you’re afraid of heights like I am. But in the end I survived, had a good ride, and have another story to tell my grandchildren.

The Amer Fort

The Amer fort was another site where the outside walls gave no indication of the splendors inside. Built in 1592 the fort contains the Amber Palace, which is divided into three parts, and filled with beautiful carvings and paintings. The palace itself is divided into three sections: one for the maharaja, one for his primary wife, and one for the maharaja’s concubines and dancing women.

The changing room for the Turkish bath in the palace, made from marble. This was one area shared by men and women (although not at the same time).
An example of the decoration in the Glass Palace, created from marble and mirrored glass.
Small, full mirrors were set where the walls met allowing you to see the splendor of entire room (or get a picture of yourself).
Paintings in the concubine and dancing women’s section of the palace were not as opulent, but still vibrant and beautiful.

Our elephants arrived in the huge grand courtyard outside the maharaja’s and men’s section of the fort. From there we entered an ornately painted gateway into the primary wife’s palace, which was made from white marble and opulently decorated. One section of her palace was known as the “Glass Palace” because all the walls and ceilings are decorated with mirrored glass, either as full mirrors or small bits of mosaic tile. The rooms were exquisitely beautiful, and it was easy to imagine how they must have sparkled from the lights at night. The third section of the palace, although not as opulent as the primary wife’s quarters, still contained beautiful paintings, and the women who lived in this section apparently each had their own room.

There were vendors and hawkers everywhere around the palace. This man was selling curried lentils and rice which he prepared with fresh tomatoes, onions and lime juice.

We left the palace and fort and walked about halfway down the hill where a jeep picked us up to take us the rest of the way down to our van. We then set off on a long drive through the countryside to our lunch destination: Samode palace, former home of members of the local royal family. The area seemed mostly dry and dusty (the hills reminded me of the ones in eastern San Diego county), but as we got nearer to the palace more and more green fields appeared, filled with rice, wheat or leafy green vegetables. We learned the royal family still owns a great deal of farm land in the area.

Women in colorful saris gather to gossip in the old village outside of the royal palace.

The palace was like a little hidden gem in the countryside, accessed through an old village. A few members of the royal family still live in the palace, but these days it operates as a boutique hotel and a popular wedding site. It is also sometimes used as a setting in Bollywood films. The palace’s restaurant is renowned and we enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch in a dining room dripping with giant chandeliers and decorated in gold. Afterwards we toured the palace grounds and were able to watch a bit as they were transformed for a wedding taking place that evening.

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The palace was a long drive outside of Jaipur, but we made good time on our way back and headed for our last stop of the day: A Rajasthani textile center. We were again met with cool drinks, and shown a variety of beautiful rugs, much more varied than the ones we had seen the other day. The prices were also better as well. Amy and Phil bought another small rug, but I was more interested in seeing the textiles upstairs.

My beautiful Rajasthani wool jacket!

I had seen a lovely reversible cotton quilted jacket in Delhi and was told it was from Rajasthan, so that’s what I hoped to find and purchase. The center did have the jackets, in a wonderful variety of colors, but when I tried them on I was less than impressed – they turned out to be one of those things that looked good on others but not on me. None of the scarves I looked at interested me either. And then one of the workers walked out with a beautiful black and cream long wool jacket and said, “try this one.” It went on easily and fit well, and I actually gasped when I saw myself – it “sparked joy.” Brett, Amy, Phil, and Luke all gasped as well when I walked out, and I knew then the jacket was The One. Amy liked it so much that she bought another one for herself in a beautiful red wool design. After we had purchased our jackets we learned that the wool fabric for each one is one-of-a kind so each jacket is an “original.”

The back of the jacket

And then it was back to our hotel to relax and get ready for our last day in India. After checking out from our wonderful hotel this morning we will be visiting a monument and the “monkey temple” complex, a Hindu pilgrimage site, followed by lunch. Afterwards we will all head over to the Jaipur airport for our return to Delhi (Amy and Phil will be flying with Luke to Mumbai) where we’ll catch our late-night flight to Hong Kong.

I almost cannot believe our wonderful tour will be ending today – it’s been the experience of a lifetime!