I’m going on hiatus and not writing any more Travel blog posts, indefinitely.

With increasing work, volunteer, and personal responsibilities, it’s too hard to find the time to keep it updated the way I’d like to, sadly. I had started writing a post about our most recent trips (8 countries in Europe’s Balkan Peninsula and then a 5-state trek through the Northeast U.S., including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and New York). And I had even gone back to a trip from a number of years ago that I took before starting this blog and began writing a post about it: South Korea. So who knows… maybe one day I’ll come back to these and post additional ones. But for now, I’m just going to continue enjoying my travels with my husband and sometimes other family and friends. I’ve now visited 33 countries on 4 continents around the world and have many more on my list to come!

Thank you to my loyal readers over the many years! I was writing for you. My Facebook friends can continue to follow my travels as I post to Facebook.

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Hawaii

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It’s not surprising that so many people choose to honeymoon or have a destination wedding in Hawaii — a state of extremes: beautiful beaches and dangerous volcanos. The latter is why my husband and I made the trip in September — both of us were in the wedding party of a couple of friends of ours getting married at the luxurious Kahala Resort in Honolulu. For both of us, this was our second trip to Hawaii.

My first was with my mom and childhood nanny during winter break, sophomore year of college. While temperatures back home in Houston were cold, we enjoyed 70s Fahrenheit pretty much all day and night in Hawaii in January 2001 — perfect weather for getting an even tan on Waikiki Beach.

This time, the weather was a bit warmer — enough to break a sweat.

East Oahu lookout point

East Oahu lookout point

Oahu

Honolulu

view of Pacific Ocean at sunrise from our Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort room

view of Pacific Ocean at sunrise from our Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort room

During my visit 17 years ago, we stayed at the Waikiki Sand Villa on the Ala Wai Canal, which is a great place to walk around for exercise and the perfect combination of city and water views. This time we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in an oceanfront, high-floor room with balcony for a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and white-sand Waikiki Beach.

You’ll want to visit the historically significant Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial, walk around the shopping & tourist areas of Waikiki, hike Diamond Head, and check out all the Asian dining options, as there is a large Asian population on the island, particularly native Hawaiians, Polynesians, Japanese, and Chinese. Poke (essentially, deconstructed sushi in a bowl) is a natural choice, but believe it or not, they’re not all good. Marukame Udon is a popular restaurant — the line was out the door, down the sidewalk, and to the end of the block — with a cafeteria-style setup where you can watch employees behind the counter cook your bowl of udon in soup (my favorite is beef, or niku) and pick up a variety of Japanese musubi. Some family of mine who live in Honolulu took us to the refined 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar with a New American and Pacific Rim buffet at Hawaii Prince Waikiki Hotel — the sunset view at dinner was beautiful with an endless array of sailboats lining the Ala Wai Harbor.

East Oahu lookout point

East Oahu lookout point

Venture out of Honolulu on the island of Oahu to the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail with a number of scenic lookout points to see cliffs, more secluded beaches, and ocean. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is a popular spot for snorkeling and close encounters with marine life, but we ran out of time to go. Another bummer: we had signed up for a seaplane tour of Hawaii, but unfortunately, the company running it had to cancel our trip due to unforeseen circumstances on their end.

Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center at Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus — we took a boat ride to tour the center in the mountains and saw The Hawaii Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A hilarious comedian/stuntman and coconut tree climber were part of a Polynesian performance in their tribal habitat.

Chief’s Luau was my second luau experience, complete with a buffet dinner feast, coconut leaf crafts, and performances with island music, dancing, and fire.

 

Molokai

like your own private beach, Molokai

like your own private beach, Molokai

If you really want to get away to some true peace and quiet, with hardly anyone around, this is it! Beaches, hiking trails, and parks… all to yourself. Molokai is called the friendly island of Hawaii, and it’s true. With a population of just over 7,000, it’s intimate enough that people would start conversations with us in public places, from restaurants to our hotel, Hotel Molokai in Kaunakakai. The hotel was a charming caricature in itself — crowing roosters, hens, and baby chicks roamed the property. Rooms didn’t have air conditioning, only a basic fan and air vents we could open in the door and windows. Thousands of crabs or more ran along the brown sandy beach, and as I would try to approach, each would vanish into the sand below and leave only a hole in the sand. The soil on this island is a brownish/orangish clay color.

view of Oahu from the air, flight to Molokai

view of Oahu from the air, flight to Molokai

We enjoyed visiting Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove, taking a step back in time at Molokai Pizza Cafe, and stopping at official and unofficial lookout points in Kamalo, Mapulehu, Pukoo and Halawa Valley, Cape Halawa. We drove from one end of the island to the other to see Papohaku Beach at sunset, which also offered treacherous waters and high surf. What Molokai is most well known for is its past history as a leper colony. From the Kalaupapa Trail & Lookout, you can see the isolated peninsula where several people with leprosy still voluntarily live.

The only part I didn’t like entirely was the short, roundtrip ride on a small Mokulele Airlines 9-seater plane from Honolulu to Molokai. The views of the islands from the low-flying plane were breathtaking, but the turbulence was enough to pull my heart into my stomach and hang on for dear life for several minutes after takeoff and before landing. I don’t like roller coasters with drops, or turbulence.

Maui

Maui (age 19, Jan. 2001)

Maui (age 19, Jan. 2001)

I visited Maui on my first trip to Hawaii. Beautiful white sand beaches make this island a favorite for tourists. Go see palm trees and mountainside views at Kuka Emoki and the idyllic Whaler’s Wharf (with whaling ships). We also saw a tiny island known as the “turtle” and the Guiness Book of World Records’ largest Hawaiian shirt inside the Hilo Hattie Island Store of Hawaii. We took a mini cruise off the island and enjoyed (as we did on the other islands on both trips) juicy Hawaiian pineapple and the best piña colada, while hula dancers and musicians entertained us. There’s a lot of audience participation involved in these shows, and I did plenty of dancing too.

Hawaiians seem to be obsessed with genital symbols, both phallic and vaginal, in the form of rocks and other natural formations on multiple islands, including Maui and Molokai.

Hawaii “Big Island”

 

Hawaii (referring here to the island so named, not the state as a whole), also known as the “Big Island,” was another I visited only on my first trip to Hawaii. We stayed at Hilo Resort in the town of Hilo, where we had an ocean in our backyard and played in the black sand. It is interesting to experience all the different types of sand on the various islands. Follow our lead and visit Rainbow Falls at Wailuku River, Kilauea Caldera Volcano, Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, Mauna Loa Macadamias factory and warehouse, and the Farmers Market in Hilo.

black sand beach, "The Big Island" (age 19, Jan. 2001)

black sand beach, “The Big Island” (age 19, Jan. 2001)

(with minimal contribution from Saqib Siddik, who was asleep on the plane ride home while I was writing most of this blog post 🙂 )

my husband, Saqib, on ice

my husband, Saqib, on ice

Iceland. Land of Fire and Ice. Nature in the colors black and white: black sand, soil, and dried lava; white snow-capped mountains. A place of stunning contrasts. This trip was something we have thought about doing for years, and our schedules finally lined up for us to make the journey. We knew from our research that Iceland has epic, otherworldly landscapes. And seeing the majestic mountains, ominous glaciers, steamy sulphur springs and geysers, bubbling mud pits, lava flows, volcanic ash, and dangerously beautiful terrain in person was breathtaking. We lost count of the number of times we would crest a hill and be blown away by the scene in front of us. Iceland is an island of extremes, few trees, shortage of farmable land, and wildlife specially equipped to handle the harsh cold — an isolated island where locals and tourists alike must be resourceful, if we are to travel around the entire country. We did. And we would change hotels and cities and log several hours on the road every day for an entire week on our own Viking saga.

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Day 1

  • Reykjavík: We began our journey in Iceland’s capital in the southwestern part of the island country. We flew in via Icelandair, which teased us with “Northern Lights” along the tops of the overhead compartments. The weather was still cold in late March — near-freezing temperatures but with very gusty winds that made it feel much colder. We shopped and dined on Laugavegur Street in the afternoon, after checking in at Fosshotel Reykjavík, the hotel chain’s flagship location. The hotels chosen for this trip all turned out to be quite nice and cozy.

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

    Saqib & me in The Blue Lagoon

  • The Blue Lagoon: We enjoyed a couple of hours relaxing, swimming, and applying a silica mask to our faces in this mineral-rich, geothermal pool in the middle of a lava field, where it was freezing above water but toasty and comfortable below. Locker rooms include showers and other bathroom facilities. Dinner was at LAVA Restaurant, with rock formations right outside the windows providing a natural setting. The Torched Arctic Char starter with fennel, pearl onion, cucumber, toasted bread, and aioli was exquisite. We ate much more fresh fish (every day) in every city we dined in, including salmon, tuna, haddock, cod, and more. Saqib also had lobster and shrimp. Lamb is also an Icelandic specialty, so we had that too.

Day 2

  • snorkeling in Silfra

    snorkeling in Silfra

    Silfra: After departing Reykjavík to head southeast, we spent the afternoon in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, where we suited up in a warm suit and dry suit with thermals underneath to go snorkeling in the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water was crystal clear, giving us a pristine view of the underwater moss and rocks. Shallower parts required us to meander through without hitting the rocks, or else we risked putting little tears in our dry suit, which would get us completely soaked. Porous gloves on our hands let water in but warmed the water as it passed through. The mask left our lower cheeks and lips exposed, so at the end of the roughly 45-minute swim from one end to the other, our lips were so swollen, we looked like we had gotten lip injections.

  • Geysir Hot Springs: active geysers shooting into the air.

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    steam from underground

  • Gullfoss: Stunning waterfalls plunged into the deep canyon of the Hvita River.
  • Icelandic horses: We saw many (super cute) Icelandic horses standing out in fields along our route throughout the entire country. Icelandic horses are an extra-furry, small breed the size of a pony. We approached a group of them. They were very friendly, letting us pet them. We interacted with a few more groups of horses in later days in other parts of the country.
  • Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant: We had a delicious dinner at a very well-rated, rare find in Iceland. Service was slow, but the ambience was cozy and warm. An unexpected charm in the middle of Iceland.

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    Icelandic horses

  • Northern Lights – 1st encounter: After nightfall, on our way to our next city, Vík, we kept an eye out for the #1 item on our bucket list: the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). We were traveling on Ring Road, which goes around the country, more or less along the coast. The stars were out on this clear night, and I (Julie) was checking the Northern Lights forecast. All of a sudden, Saqib (who was driving) spotted a white streak across the sky to his left and alerted me to it. We didn’t know if it was a cloud or what we hoped it was. We then spotted a couple of cars ahead that had pulled over to the side of the dark road, so we optimistically followed suit. I quickly grabbed Saqib’s camera from the back seat, and in the next several minutes, he captured our first sighting of the magnificent Northern Lights — faint but clearly green and dancing gently in the night sky. We were giddy but still hoped to see better aurora in the days to come. We also saw the Seljalandsfoss waterfall lit up at night, which was powerfully eery.
  • Icelandair Hotel: This was the first of two Icelandair Hotels we stayed in, and both had humorous no-smoking notices in the rooms, complete with ridiculous folktales.
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Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Day 3

  • Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach: We started the morning on one of my favorite excursions of the trip: running around on exotic black sand as roaring waves crashed onto the beach in Southeast Iceland. Impressive rock formations jutted out of the Atlantic Ocean and towered over us on land. One inspired the architectural design of a church in Reykjavík which we would visit on our last day. Black sand and soil can be seen over much of Iceland.

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    Skaftafell National Park: Vatnajökull glacier

  • Skaftafell National Park: We strapped crampons over our winter boots (spikes to walk on ice) and hiked up onto the Vatnajökull National Park glacier. I thought we were going on an easy stroll on flat ice, but it turned out to be a somewhat strenuous 2-hour trek across very uneven, unstable ice and densely compacted snow with large cracks and steep drop-offs to avoid. But the scenery was awe inspiring and in fact, the filming location for the movie Interstellar’s ice planet scene.
  • Hotel Skaftafell: Not the most luxurious of accommodations but more than decent and a welcome respite from the active afternoon we had just had, this hotel was set against beautiful, snow-capped mountains.
Glacier Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon

Day 4

  • Glacier Lagoon & Ice Cave Tour: We saw a seal swimming in the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, surrounded by large pieces of glaciers that had broken off from the much larger sheets lodged between mountains. Another round of strapping on crampons. On this morning the bottom of Saqib’s shoe had fallen off, so the staff at the glacier park taped it together with electrical tape until we were able to buy him a new pair later that day. An off-roading vehicle took us on a very bumpy roller coaster ride with small drops and steep inclines to get to another glacier and an ice cave. We walked onto the glacier and explored the ice cave.

    Saqib in an ice cave

    Saqib in an ice cave

  • Höfn: We had lunch at Restaurant Z Bistro in a city called Höfn in South Iceland, where we experienced small-town charm at its finest. We asked our server where we could find new winter hiking boots for Saqib, and she directed us to a camping operation with a store, Pjónustumidstöd SKG, run by a relative. They weren’t open for business at that time, but our lady server called her relative, who met us there right away. No luck in finding the right shoes in the right size, though they had a nice selection. Still, the owner was most helpful and circled on a map a few other stores we should check out. A convenience store and a hardware store both sold shoes! But we ended up buying from the apparel store she told us about.
  • Herad: We took a most scenic drive to our next city of Herad, with looming mountains on one side and steep cliffs into the ocean on the other, going through long mountain tunnels, and watching the sun set against a haunting, deep blue sky. We stayed at another Icelandair Hotel that night.
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coastal drive to Herad

Day 5

  • Café Nielsen: a restaurant in an old house with a small lunch buffet and shop.

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    Dettifoss

  • Dettifoss: Getting to this misty waterfall required a good, long hike across icy, hilly terrain.
  • Lake Mývatn: Boiling mud pits, twisted lava formations, extinct cinder cones cover the area surrounding this lake and serve as a reminder of the active volcanoes dotting the nation that can erupt at any time.
  • Húsavík: This northern Iceland town is known as the whale capital because of its frequent whale sightings and associated tours. The nice lady at the front desk of Fosshotel Húsavík informed us that the Northern Lights were active and that we could observe them from a dark lookout at the top of a hill, just a few minutes north of town. We spent an hour and a half up there in the car, but no luck seeing any aurora. Still, it was part of the experience of seeking the aurora, and we were glad to have done it.

Day 6

  • Akureyri: This is the second largest city in Iceland, also dubbed the capital of the
    Rub 23, Akureyri

    Rub 23, Akureyri

    North. We had sushi at the well-reviewed Rub 23 restaurant (it was good but not sublime), then spent some time photographing Akureyri Church, which sits on a hill overlooking the seaside city and its sloped streets.

  • Húsafell & Northern Lights – 2nd encounter: A long, scenic drive brought us to Hotel Húsafell, a picturesque destination two hours north of Reykjavík. The helpful staff added our names to the Northern Lights wakeup call list, and we headed to an elegant dinner at the hotel restaurant. As it turned out, we didn’t need the wakeup call because as we finished dinner, we were told that the Northern Lights were already out. We and the other dinner guests headed out to the center courtyard, where staff had already turned off the building lights to help us better see the elusive Northern Lights. There we were dazzled by a light show of green, purple, and white that felt unreal, something that seemed too spectacular to exist in nature. Atmospheric conditions were perfect, and we also managed to see several satellites orbiting overhead against a backdrop of millions of shimmering stars. Later that night we continued gazing out our hotel room window, which had the perfect view of the aurora.
Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Northern Lights above Husafell: against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains surrounding our hotel

Day 7

  • Lava Cave: Our final excursion was a trip to The Cave (Víðgelmir), which is a lava tube 30 minutes north of Husafell. We donned helmets and headlamps and descended deep into the earth to observe the remains of lava flow from a thousand years ago.

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    icy stalagmites inside a lava cave

  • We concluded our road trip with a final scenic drive back to Reykjavík. Rather than pay a toll to go through a long tunnel, we took the long way around and were treated to some wonderful curving roads nestled between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The Westfjords were spectacular. After checking in at Fosshotel Baron, where we had a harbor-view room, we walked a few minutes to revisit Laugavegur Street, had dinner at Nepalese Kitchen Restaurant, and enjoyed ice cream at Eldur and Is — both food establishments have earned top nods in online reviews.

Day 8

  • We took one last stroll along the harbor in Reykjavík and a drive by the Hallgrímskirkja Church inspired by the large rock formation at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. Then we headed back to Keflavík International Airport to fly WOW Air back to the U.S.

    Hallgrímskirkja

    Hallgrímskirkja

Soundtrack

(music we played on our road trip around Iceland)
  • Enya: various albums
  • Sarah Brightman’s Dreamchaser
  • The Lord of the Rings: soundtracks of all 3 films
  • Paul Schwartz’s Aria 3: Metamorphosis

Extra Tidbits

  • Many hotel bathrooms have warm floor tiles, which is good in the cold weather.

    Photo Mar 27, 4 30 12 PM

    in an icy crevice off of a glacier

  • Roundabouts, one-lane bridges, and random sections of gravel are common on streets and highways.
  • The Icelandic language uses a lot of really long words that sometimes incorporate all vowels and seemingly as many consonants as possible.
  • Some street signs bear the last name of the owner of the home they point to.
  • Appelsín is an Icelandic soda favorite — it tastes like the typical orange soda and is refreshing after a salty meal.
  • Icelandic food is similar to American/New American — not spicy or particularly flavorful.
  • Tipping isn’t commonplace at restaurants.

    climbing ice along a glacier

    climbing ice along a glacier

  • Some gas stations have attendants who pump your gas at no additional charge.
  • Everything else is expensive, from food to clothing to souvenirs — at a casual restaurant, we paid $60 for the two of us for lunch. Dinner at a nicer restaurant easily can cost you $150 for just 2 entrees and an appetizer (no drinks).
  • Discover card is accepted almost everywhere, which is great for earning rewards while you spend a fortune.
  • Stores close earlier than in the U.S., with some grocery stores closing as early as 7pm and restaurants halting lunch service at 1:30pm. There are few gas stations and bathroom facilities along long stretches of road, so prepare accordingly. Snacks are a good idea.
  • We ran into Chinese tourists from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong at every stop. There were a good number of American and European tourists too. Not so much from other places. (I’m Chinese-American.) There are few people on the roads, so we ran into the same people at various attractions, lookout points, and random stops — funny and nice to see familiar faces at the same time.
  • We also saw several sheep and a couple of elusive reindeer.
me on a glacier above an ice cave

me on a glacier above an ice cave

Iceland is a peaceful, low-crime nation, where most of the population lives in one city, its capital. Every direction you look, there is a view that evokes a childlike wonder and amazement. Around every corner is an adventure. It’s definitely a place we want to return to, and next time, we will find time for a ride on horseback and in a helicopter.

We spent a couple of weeks up north with several of our family members and friends in late September/early October last year. We stayed a couple of days in Boston visiting friends before embarking on a week-long Holland America cruise along the Canadian coast with chilly fall weather. After disembarking, we spent a few days in Montreal before flying back home. [Type “Montreal,” “Quebec,” and “Boston” in the search field of this blog to read more about these cities I visited in the past that we revisited on this trip.]

Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor

Here are some attractions from our trip worth seeing:

Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor, ME

Bar Harbor, ME

Our first port of call: Just as one would imagine a New England coastal town to be, Bar Harbor had charming seaside shops and restaurants lining the sloped roads of this artists’ enclave that was once an exclusive summer getaway for America’s wealthy. We browsed for a few hours and enjoyed homemade ice cream in the blustery cold weather – couldn’t resist. I picked up one of my now-favorite additions to tea: small-batch organic lavender sugar from Lily Belle Farm.  For those who like lobster – I don’t – lobster boat tours and bakes are popular. We didn’t have time to visit the famed Acadia National Park but walked along the beautiful coastline before taking a tender (boat) back to our cruise ship.

Halifax, Mahone Bay, and Historical Lunenburg – A Unesco World Heritage Site, Nova Scotia

Mahone Bay

Mahone Bay

This was the first of three Holland America excursions we took. As its brochure describes, “The craggy shores of the Lighthouse Route are dotted with picture perfect seaside villages, old captains’ mansions and working waterfronts.” A bus took us on a scenic drive through Nova Scotia from Halifax to Mahone Bay, flanked by waterfront churches and full of coastal charm like a postcard. It so happened that we were there during the Mahone Bay Scarecrow Festival, so residents and business owners had put up numerous scarecrows up and down the streets, representing various themes from the British royal family to more common people. From there, we continued on to Lunenburg, a town with a bustling fishing industry and known historically for its shipbuilding.  Our tour guide was the most eloquent and engaging we’ve ever had, and we’ve been on many tours around the world. Other sites worth visiting include Peggy’s Cove, Citadel Hill National Historic Site, and Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (where you can discover Halifax’s connection to the ill-fated voyage of Titanic).

Sydney, Nova Scotia: Baddeck

Baddeck

Baddeck

At the next port in Sydney, we took a panoramic drive through the historic North End. We enjoyed views of Boulanderie Island, Seal Island Bridge, Bras d’Or Channel, Kelly’s Mountain, and St. Ann’s Bay. The Trans-Canada Highway took us to the picturesque resort village of Baddeck on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes in the heart of Cape Breton Island, where puffins greeted us. Other attractions worthy of a visit in this Gaelic area famous for its fiddlers include Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site & Museum, Wentworth Park, Whitney Pier Museum, and Fortress of Louisbourg.

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables

Green Gables

Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island is the perfect setting for an island drive or horse-drawn trolley ride to see its red earth, white-sand beaches, PEI National Park, and lighthouses. We took a tour of Green Gables, the farmstead with wooded trails like Lovers Lane and scenery as idyllic as described in the classic books of Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Some of the colors and landscape were so pristine, they looked artificial in a beautiful way. Nearby waves were crashing onto Cavendish Beach.

Quebec: Quebec City on Foot

Quebec City

Quebec City

My husband and I had visited Quebec City in the frigid winter, so it was nice to see it with fall colors. A French-inspired coastal city with both historic charm and modern elements, you’ll find cobblestone streets, a funicular taking you up and down the steep terrain lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, shops, churches (including the breathtakingly gorgeous Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame), and more. We spent the day with my cousin’s family in this city along the St. Lawrence River.

Exploring Montreal

My husband and I had spent a day in Montreal a few years ago – enough time to browse shops, dine at a cafe, and get a feel for this French-style city. This time, we had a few more days to immerse ourselves, dine at restaurants like the classy and highly-rated Suite 701 in Old Montreal, and see more areas, including:

  • Biodome: Transformed from the former Olympic Park, where my parents attended the 1976 Olympics, this is now a huge complex of exhibits related to nature and science. We explored an indoor facility full of animals and plants divided into their own ecosystems, from tropical forest to polar climate.
  • Mount Royal Park: Overlooking the city, we walked several miles along the trails of Mt. Royal.
  • Voiles en Voiles: At the Old Port of Montreal, my little niece frolicked in a giant pirate ship obstacle course while we watched in amazement at how elaborate the theme park setup was.
view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

view of Montreal from Mt. Royal

Sorry for being MIA for so long! I’ve been slacking on updating this travel blog. For a few months, we didn’t leave town, as I was recovering from hip surgery from ballet injuries. Since then, I’ve been traveling but too busy to sit down and write. And some were repeat destinations, albeit visiting different attractions and restaurants — but I didn’t think there was enough new material worth blogging about. I’m back into it now.

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Truckee River, downtown Reno

Last July, my husband and I lucked out and got to be plus-ones on two different people’s tickets to the much-buzzed-about Tesla Gigafactory grand opening & tour in the Reno, NV area: headlined by CEO Elon Musk at a private party for Tesla owners, board members, and big wigs from around the world. I own and drive the all-electric Tesla Model X with 2nd-row falcon-wing doors, the biggest touch-screen in a vehicle, a front & back trunk, zero emissions — the world’s most futuristic, fastest, safest, and coolest (only this one of the four superlatives is subjective but almost fact) SUV.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk & CTO JB Straubel speaking at Gigafactory grand opening party

Tesla CEO Elon Musk & CTO JB Straubel speaking at Gigafactory grand opening party

We were disappointed that this once-in-a-lifetime trip would cost us more than $600/person in roundtrip airfares (seriously, to Reno?) — much pricier than tickets to relatively nearby Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Bay Area. Nevertheless, we booked the most last-minute plane trip we’ve ever taken. Plus side: free upgrade to first class on the way from Houston to Reno. We arrived in the middle of the night and checked into the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino and caught just a few hours of sleep before an early morning start.

Day 1

We spent the day attending the Tesla Motors Club (TMC) Connect annual conference for the first time. It was an incredibly enlightening day of workshops about electric vehicles, autonomous driving, and Tesla’s groundbreaking marketing strategies — led by visionary speakers and attended by fellow EV (mostly Tesla) owners. We listened to and met some of the most innovative thinkers of our time who have made the “impossible” possible, including Sirius satellite radio creator/United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt (formerly Martin before her transgender transformation), who owned 7 Teslas at the time and has been developing a battery-powered helicopter, and George Blankenship, who was the architect of Apple’s brand-building retail method and as former VP, made Tesla the Apple of car companies.

Tesla Gigafactory

Tesla Gigafactory

In the early evening, we carpooled with a fellow Tesla owner to Sparks, NV to attend the Tesla Gigafactory unveiling by CEO Elon Musk and meet other owners. We witnessed a dust storm on the backdrop of the Nevada hills and mountains, while other attendees were test-riding Teslas. My husband and I scored a front-row spot by the stage to witness history! VIP treatment, a hip party with unlimited drinks. Only the food was a little lacking — good but not quite enough substance for such a long event. We toured the enormous, very high-tech Gigafactory, which will produce all the lithium ion batteries for Tesla cars and chargers — more than the entire world’s current production. Talking and fast-moving robots were at work alongside people. Buses took us up the hill to see a Tesla sign like the “Hollywood” letters in the Hollywood Hills. We also saw up close Tesla’s new small sedan Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market vehicle which will be priced reasonably at about $35,000 vs. the current models priced from about the $70,000s-150,000s. The party was an unforgettable experience that lasted late into the night.

Day 2

National Automobile Museum

National Automobile Museum

After a full day of back-to-back, high-energy events, it was time for sightseeing and relaxing at a slower pace. We visited one of North America’s top-5 auto museums, National Automobile Museum. Organized by decade, it took us on a journey through the history and evolution of automobiles. It was a step back in time from the futuristic EVs we had spent the past day getting to know intimately.

We walked through downtown Reno and enjoyed watching people swimming and tubing in Truckee Riverwalk, something you don’t see in most cities. We also explored the Midtown district and saw the famed “Reno: The Biggest Little City in the World” sign.

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my husband and me, Lake Tahoe

We spent the late afternoon taking a scenic drive up to Lake Tahoe. We climbed around on the cliffs and rocks, and walked trails overlooking the beautiful, popular lake.

In the evening, we finally had time back at our hotel to start browsing the shops, try the restaurants, and check out the numerous amenities. This is definitely a resort for everyone — billiards room and golf for the guys (and gals), arcade for teens, play areas for kids, spa for ladies (and men), beach volleyball, bowling alley, movie theater, pool, and more.

Day 3

panoramic view from Animal Ark

panoramic view from Animal Ark

Before departing Reno, we took a drive out to the country to visit Animal Ark, a scenic wildlife sanctuary in the mountains for injured or otherwise endangered animals. It was so quiet outside, you could hear what someone else was saying in a normal voice hundreds of feet away. We saw a variety of animals, including a bobcat, jaguar, lynx, badger, bears, wolves, predatory and non-predatory birds, and more. What a unique, peaceful setting to appreciate majestic animals. We weren’t there on the right day to witness the cheetah run, but that sounds like an amazing experience that we’d want to see in the future — cheetahs running full speed right in front of you!

As we left this city that is known for its casinos, we remembered the area for its natural beauty — lakes, mountains, and crisp air.

jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

jellyfish, beach outside our hotel, Atlantic Ocean

My husband and I were looking for a quick, (more or less) mindless beach vacation. We had barely three full days to get away, so we needed a place where there weren’t too many famous, must-see attractions, as we didn’t want to “pack it in.” Hilton Head Island, South Carolina seemed like just the destination — famous for its top golf courses. Unfortunately, it was too cool to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, but the weather was the right temperature for a nice walk on the beach and splashing among the waves outside our hotel.

Where to Stay
Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa – For about $360/night (taxes & fees included), we relaxed in a well-appointed, oceanfront room on the top floor — the best view in the beachfront hotel. We saw a large amount of jellyfish washed up onto the shore and more floating in shallow waters. We enjoyed meals at all the restaurants: Oceans (indoor, oceanfront dining), View 32 (outdoor, poolside dining with fire pits and views of the ocean), The Carolina Room (indoor, fine dining with a lowcountry twist), and Ingredients (the indoor, fast cafe). And we finished our stay with a Couples Massage at Heavenly Spa.

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

view from our hotel: 1 of 10 oceanfront rooms on top floor

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

alligator & turtles, Sea Pines

What to See & Do
Sea Pines – idyllic, master-planned resort community that balances lush greenery with peaceful lakes. $6 gate fee. Coastal-style houses line golf courses, and we even saw an alligator lying on the banks of a lagoon next to a couple of small turtles. We drove through most of the streets to admire the scenery, dined at the harborfront Quarterdeck, strolled through The Shops at Sea Pines Center, and savored a double-scoop at Salty Dog Ice Cream at South Beach. We spent two hours walking through the 605-acre Sea Pines Forest Preserve, mostly via unpaved areas covered with leaves, mud from the rain, and thick brush. It’s home to Lakes Mary, Thomas, and Joe, as well as marshes, bridges, Wildflower Field, Fish Island, and the legendary Indian Shell Ring dating back some 3,800 years. Lawton Stables (home to beautiful horses) and Harbour Town Lighthouse are worth a visit. For $4/person, we took the stairs through a museum inside the lighthouse to the observation deck at the top. The most memorable highlight was our 90-minute, sunset Vagabond Cruise from the Harbour Town Yacht Basin through Calibogue Sound, where we saw graceful bottlenose dolphins jumping into the air and diving back into the water, and glanced across to the secluded Daufuskie Island (which has no bridge for access).

Coligny Plaza – more than 60 shops and restaurants, including Frozen Moo (ice cream shop) and Coligny Theatre.

Walking trails along Hwy 278 – winding paths and bridges along this main highway through the island.

Hilton Head was definitely developed strategically and done well. A classy, clean-cut town with barely any trash on the beach, it’s a place that’s absolutely earned a soft spot in our hearts.

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

Vagabond Cruise, Calibogue Sound: many dolphin sightings

Times Square, New York, NY

Times Square, New York, NY

Life has gotten even busier for me these days, with my hands in all sorts of work and personal projects, but I still make time to travel. However, I have less time and energy to write this travel blog. Thus, here’s a quick rundown of my recent trip to New England: one week mainly in New York City (with stays in New Jersey and brief stops in Connecticut) with my husband, plus a few days in Rhode Island with two girl friends from college. You can follow this itinerary to maximize your time sightseeing and to spend enough time relaxing.

Newark, NJ Riverwalk outside our hotel

Newark, NJ Riverwalk outside our hotel

A few words about the different places: Newark, NJ is rough at night, as we were told by the hotel front desk. New York City is one of the dirtiest, roughest big cities I’ve visited — anticlimactic, if you’ve been to some of the cleanest big cities in the world, like Hong Kong (equally crowded), Tokyo, Seoul, and Taipei. Those East Asian cities are very modern too. Connecticut is beautiful, and we’d like to spend more time there in the future. Rhode Island is such a small state, you can get through much of the highlights in a few days, as we did, and you even drive through Massachusetts while going from Providence to Newport on the route we took to avoid tolls. We ran out of time for Rough Point, Bowen’s Wharf, Rose Island Lighthouse, Castle Hill Lighthouse, Gooseberry Beach and Ocean Drive, and plan to visit those on a future trip. Because of our limited time and itinerary, we weren’t always able to dine at the best restaurants but had to opt for the best among the most convenient location-wise. We did a lot of walking, which helped to burn the calories we consumed. We went in late-August/early-September, during the hottest days of the year, and those old Northeast cities don’t run their A/C as cool as we do in Texas!

Empire State Building from Top of the Rockefeller Center, Manhattan

Empire State Building from Top of the Rockefeller Center, Manhattan

Day 1

  • Friend’s wedding in Livingston, NJ (our original purpose for the trip)
  • Check into hotel on Newark, NJ Riverwalk and stroll along river
  • Walk to dinner at Chinatown (closest decent restaurant but not entirely authentic)
Day 2
  • Ride NJ Transit train to New York Penn Station (at 34th street)
  • Walk north on 7th Avenue, seeing Empire State Building, Good Morning America (ABC) studios, and other landmarks
  • See Times Square by day
  • Lunch at Nippori across from Gershwin Theatre (another Japanese restaurant Ippudo down the street had an hour-plus wait, which we didn’t have time for)
  • Watch Wicked on Broadway at Gershwin Theatre
  • Chelsea Market (basil honey ice cream at Ronnybrook Farm Dairy was divine; so many other quaint shops and cafes with interesting finds, like an all-Italian grocery store)
  • Dinner: homemade pasta at Giovanni Rana Pastifico & Cucina in Chelsea Market
  • See Late Show with David Letterman studios, among other attractions
  • Walk south on 7th avenue to see Times Square at night and stop into random stores
new World Trade Center tower, Lower Manhattan

new World Trade Center tower, Lower Manhattan

Day 3

  • Ride PATH train to World Trade Center complex including new tower, 9/11 Memorial
  • Walk along Wall Street (stopped into Tiffany & Co. store)
  • Lunch at Fresh Salt on Fulton Street at South Street Seaport
  • Ride Staten Island Ferry (free) to see Statue of Liberty; return trip from Staten Island terminal
  • SOHO shopping and afternoon coffee/tea
  • Little Italy
  • Chinatown: dinner at Great NY Noodletown (crowded, typical Hong Kong casual style)
Day 4
  • Carnegie Hall
  • Plaza Hotel (heavenly food court on bottom level, with classy food and drink establishments and beautiful bakeries)
  • Central Park pedicab tour (I bargained the driver and hawker down from $75 to $50/ride)
  • Tiffany & Co. flagship store on 5th Ave., Apple store, huge FAO Schwarz flagship store
  • Walk Upper East Side, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue
  • Dinner at Wu Liang Ye (very expensive Chinese restaurant but convenient to where we needed to go)
  • Watch live show of America’s Got Talent at Radio City Music Hall (super-exciting because we’ve been following this show this season) with Nick Cannon, Howard Stern, Howie Mandel, Mel B, and Heidi Klum
Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island

Day 5

  • Top of the Rock (spectacular views of New York skyline, including the iconic Empire State), Rockefeller Plaza
  • Lunch at famed The Halal Guys food truck
  • Shops at Rockefeller Center
  • Watch The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NBC) monologue rehearsal (He’s very funny and spontaneous in his impromptu moments. This was a nice, intimate treat with an approximately 50-member audience — smaller than the 250-member audience at his full show taping.)
  • Dinner at Pearl & Ash (top-10 New York City restaurant, as rated by a New York Times article)
  • Walk to West Village
  • Gelato at Grom (insanely expensive gelato but good)
  • Watch our friend Miguel Ali’s (we’ve always known him as Muhammad Ali Hasan) movie Confessions of a Womanizer at Courthouse Theater at Anthology Film Archives
  • Late-night snack at a diner with Ali and a friend of his

“America’s Got Talent” at Radio City Music Hall

Day 6

  • Check out of hotel
  • Drive by United Nations Building (braved crazy Manhattan vehicle and pedestrian traffic)
  • Drive through Brooklyn, NY
  • Coney Island Boardwalk (and ice cream, of course)
  • Drive through Queens, NY
  • Dinner at The Restaurant at Rowayton Seafood in Rowayton, CT (dreamy coastal, waterfront restaurant in one of America’s 10 happiest coastal towns, as rated by Coastal Living magazine — I made it a point to visit the upper-crust town when I read the article)
  • Drive through New Haven, CT and see Yale University
  • Spend the night in Providence, RI
marina in Rowayton, CT

marina in Rowayton, CT

Day 7

  • See my husband off at airport, meet up with my two long-time girl friends in Providence
  • Lunch at Sandwich Junction
  • Explore downtown and surrounding areas, including Capitol building and complex, Westminster Street (eclectic shopping), Prospect Terrace Park including statue of Providence founder Roger Williams
  • Walk through Federal Hill and dinner at historic Angelo’s, dessert from Scialo Bros. Bakery

Day 8

  • Waterplace Park (where Waterfire happens) and Riverwalk
  • College Hill including Thayer Street (funky vintage shops and cafes), Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design
  • Lunch at Kabob and Curry (not spicy at all, so not truly authentic)
  • Benefit Street
  • Independence Trail, including First Baptist Church (literally, the first Baptist church in America)
  • Fox Point, India Point Park
Prospect Terrace Park in Providence, RI

Prospect Terrace Park in Providence, RI

Day 9

  • Drive to Newport, RI
  • Breathtakingly scenic Cliff Walk, with views of ocean and sprawling mansions including The Breakers (Vanderbilt mansion), Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, and more
  • Lunch at Easton’s on the beach (we got covered in red algae from the severe blooms in the water and on the beach)
  • Bellevue Avenue (shops, mansions)
  • Historic waterfront Thames Street (shops, restaurants) in downtown Newport
  • Dinner at Broadway Bistro back in Providence

Day 10

  • Shop at Providence Place Mall
  • Fly back home
Cliff Walk, Newport, RI

Cliff Walk, Newport, RI