North America


Hawaii

Photo Sep 18, 4 50 23 PM

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)

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

snow caves at Lake Erie

ice caves at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada

I’ve traveled enough to Canada over the last few decades that I’ve seen various parts of it — mainly, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia — in different seasons, mostly in summer and spring. This year in February, I finally experienced Canada during its historically coldest month — with my husband and our relatives. I had sworn I’d do it only once and was dreading the frigid temperatures before I even departed my much warmer hometown of Houston. (Highs were in the teens, and lows were just as far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.) But because we were so very prepared with several layers of clothing from head to toe, plus hand warmers placed in strategic locations in our clothes, we fared much better than we had expected and are looking forward to more winter travel around the world to take advantage of the recreational activities and scenery only this season can offer.

Recreate our experience for an active, yet relaxing trip. (For a true vacation, don’t bring your work with you like I did.)

Ottawa

On our first full day in Canada’s capital, we watched some local figure skating champions skate on the Rink of Dreams in front of City Hall, then laced up our own ice skates on the crowded Rideau Canal Skateway in the middle of downtown. Ice skating was free, as it has been everywhere we’ve gone. Where they get you is the skate rental: $17 at Rideau Canal. Fortunately, I have my own skates; unfortunately, my husband doesn’t.

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

I skated back and forth on the canal, all the way to the dead end near downtown, while waiting for my husband to rent his skates. His two cousins were also with us. Then the four of us took off down the frozen canal — the world’s largest ice rink — heading toward the other end. A short distance later, the other three decided I should go on ahead because they were too slow. So I did. Skating the iced-over canal was the main reason I wanted to visit Ottawa in February. But I hadn’t planned to skate the entire canal, much less round trip! Before I knew it, I was so far along, I decided to tackle the 7.8-km route. Along the way, I saw kids being pulled on sleds, some people walking in regular shoes, and most people skating with proficiency. The route took me all the way around Dows Lake, then to the dead end at Carleton University, and back to the other end, for a 15.6-km round trip. Add to that the lengths I had skated at the beginning, and I skated a total of more than 18 km, or 12 miles in one afternoon. Long before the end, I was very hungry and without a dime to buy a snack at any of the booths along the way because I had left all my money with my husband. Breakfast was several hours earlier. By the end of my skate, I was exhausted and recharged with maple candy dipped in snow, then some poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

We capped off the evening by viewing elaborate, award-winning ice sculptures after dark at Winterlude. Sitting around an outdoor fire pit, we had a dessert called beavertails — shaped like their namesake but made with flour and sprinkled with cinnamon. Several people brought their dogs out with them — the canines were cutely covered in their own winter jackets and boots.

We spent the next afternoon recovering in Monopolatte, a cafe in Chinatown that offers unlimited board game play all day long until an hour past midnight for a $5 cover charge. Food and drinks are sold separately.

We also bought a new pair of hockey skates for my husband at Canadian Tire — his first pair of ice skates and very affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Quebec City funicular

Quebec City funicular & shops

Monday morning, while adults were at work and kids were in school, my husband and I had two outdoor, natural ice rinks at Whalen Park all to ourselves. The previous night’s snowfall had left a layer of powder on the ice’s surface, making it rough. And trudging through slippery ice and snow surrounding the rinks was challenging. But skating in private was liberating and allowed me to try moves I had been hesitant to in public.

We ended the evening with sleigh rides (three of us taking turns pushing the others) between Dows Lake and Bronson on Rideau Canal. The heated chalet gave us a much-needed warm break with hot chocolate and another beavertail, this time covered with a chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Quebec City

We took the train VIA Rail Canada through Montreal to Quebec City. We had a room booked at the Hilton Quebec on the hill across from Parliament. Priceline.com gave us the ultra-cheap rate of $88/night — almost half price. For a Hilton! A beautiful, full-fledged, convention hotel. The third floor had an outdoor, heated pool, which was connected to the indoors, so people could swim in without getting out of the pool in the cold.

We headed out on foot to an arctic blast of air, as the temperature fell rapidly below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. There are only a few gates through which one can pass between the old city and new city, and we walked through one of them. Dinner was exquisite at Le Grand Cafe on Grande Alleé Est, where we had French onion soup, salmon tartar, and French-inspired entrees like roasted duck penne pasta. The street was decked out in Christmas lights and outdoor bars made of ice. We ended the night exploring the underground tunnels that led to other buildings around our hotel.

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

We spent the first half of the next day exploring the old town, stopping to gaze at the statue of the city’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. We had brunch at Cafe Buade, Quebec City’s oldest restaurant, then shopped the boutiques along that street, rue De Buade. We admired the elegant architecture of the buildings and the charming planters hanging from window sills that were covered in snow. We found ourselves on rue Sainte-Anne, a picturesque, cobblestone street with colorful bistros and shops. Every turn led us to another gorgeous view of the city. One of the more spectacular scenes was ice floating down the partially frozen St. Lawrence River. We skipped the funicular and instead took the Breakneck Staircase from the Chateau Frontenac to rue de Petit-Champlain, the oldest merchant street in North America. The cutest shops sold handcrafted wares, big-name bath & body brands like Cucina, and souvenirs with a heavy emphasis on all things Bonhomme, the clown-like snowman mascot of Carnaval Quebec. We stopped for afternoon dessert, tea, and coffee at La Maison Smith Boutique Gourmande in quartier Petit-Champlain.

We spent the late afternoon and evening at Carnaval Quebec, the annual winter carnival on the Plains of Abraham, across from our hotel. For $15/adult, you get admission to the carnival as many times as you want throughout the season — pretty good deal. Most of the rides and attractions are included: snow tubing, ice slide, tour of the ice palace, snow sculpture show, and beanbag toss game were all activities we participated in. We watched part of a youth ice hockey game and also took advantage of the refreshments tent and free chicken soup inside “Space D,” sponsored by the bank Desjardins to warm up. We had to pay an extra $10 for my husband to drive a dog sled of huskies once around the track, which took less than a couple of minutes.

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

We needed to defrost after about eight hours in the arctic air, so we opted for dinner at the hotel at Allegro, which served some local cuisine. We ordered two thin-crust pizzas: one with rose`e sauce, smoked salmon from Fumoir Grizzly in Saint-Augustin-De-Desmaures, and cream cheese; the other with creamy Paillot de che`vre goat cheese, prosciutto, rosemary, maple syrup, and pear.

Our final morning in Quebec City, we took a tour of Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) — a small hotel made entirely (literally, entirely) of ice and snow, newly constructed every year for the 3-month winter season, then torn down. Intricate sculptures and furniture made of ice can be found throughout the hotel, from the chandelier in the lobby to the telephone at the front desk. Each of the few dozen rooms has its own unique ice and snow art on the walls, carved into the ice furniture, and freestanding. An ice bar serves drinks in ice glasses. We slid down the 2-story ice slide. Guests staying overnight are encouraged to dance at the discotheque and take a hot bath in the outdoor spa before wrapping themselves in the cocoon-like bedding to sleep in their frozen rooms on a bed of ice. The only comfort is a mattress and pillows not made of ice. But night stands and sofas are solid ice. About 25 weddings are held each year in the ice chapel, with only a thin blanket laid across each ice pew. About 100,000 people, like us, pay to tour the facilities each season; a few thousand of them are brave enough to stay the night, which requires a safety briefing and training session.

Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

We’ve been to Toronto many times. This time we again focused on spending time with family, dining at the numerous restaurants offering a diverse mix of global cuisines, and seeing some of the attractions we hadn’t before, specifically the winter ones. We helped my niece pick out her first pair of ice skates and broke them in that evening at the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall. Another afternoon was spent ice skating outdoors at Natrel Rink at Harbourfront Centre, near CN Tower.

Niagara Falls

We’ve seen Niagara Falls many times too, but never in the dead of winter. It was a spectacular sight to see the falls frozen over in large, cascading sheets of ice. We took the Behind the Falls tour, which offered views from behind the falls — some completely iced over, some boasting large icicles. A stroll along the rim of the falls gave us frozen hair, frozen clothing, and frozen handbags, as the mist from the falls formed ice droplets all over us. We revisited The Keg Steakhouse + Bar for dinner overlooking Niagara Falls.

Ridgeway

Our final day in Canada was spent trying out my uncle’s snow blower to plow through the excessive amounts of snow in front of his house on expansive acreage. And for a finale of a Canadian adventure, my uncle sent us into a mini blizzard of blowing snow at the ice caves along Lake Erie!

A fun, memorable vacation that whetted our appetite for Antarctica…

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

 

beachfront wedding

beachfront wedding

If you have barely four days and a wedding to attend, you can’t do everything Puerto Rico has to offer, but you can get a taste of the tropical island that attracts so many tourists year round. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, travelers from the U.S. don’t need a passport. But before checking in for your return flight to the mainland, you have to run your bags through the USDA agricultural inspection — no native Puerto Rican fruits allowed back in the U.S. I spent a lot of time exploring the island with other wedding guests, as we all had the same flight itinerary and stayed at the same hotel.

The Beach

The obvious draw of Puerto Rico is its beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. I spent a weekend and two weekdays in San Juan this month, attending the destination wedding of a childhood friend. The host hotel was beachfront: La Concha, a Renaissance Resort whose name in Spanish means “shell” and which has a uniquely designed building shaped like a shell (sea shell, oyster shell, clam shell). The wedding reception was in this building, which houses the Perla restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow guests to look out of the shell and take in the beautiful view of the ocean and blue sky. The ceremony was on an outdoor platform overlooking the water.

The afternoon before the wedding, I spent an hour lying on a lounge chair overlooking an infinity pool, which overlooked the sand and ocean. The view was so serene that it put me to sleep. The constant sound of waves hitting the shore was wonderful.

A number of piña coladas and mojitos accompanied our visit — we sipped them poolside, beach side, and in the smoke-free casino, where I watched other wedding guests gamble and didn’t waste a penny. We also enjoyed Mahi Mahi bites and Latin sliders with Puerto Rican hot sauce at the hotel’s pool-side restaurant Solera. Tamarind was abundant at Voga’s breakfast buffet, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the fruit.

Our hotel room had an incredible ocean view, where daily we saw surfers and swimmers enjoying the waves and sand until a short rain shower interrupted them for just several minutes. We had the same experience on two days — one was cloudier and calmer, the other was sunnier and marked by a higher tide (providing for quite a thrill, as waves crashed farther up the shore than usual). I enjoyed letting the waves crash into me, tossing me around in the water. I ended our last visit to the beach with coconut ice cream from a cart.

me enjoying the Atlantic

me enjoying the Atlantic

Beach-front Tourist Area

We spent an afternoon walking along the street where our hotel was located, Ave Dr. Ashford. The stroll took us to lovely lookout points with pretty palm trees and sculptures, souvenir and beach shops like Piña Colada Club, high-end stores like Salvatore Feragamo and Gucci, and YogurtFit, where we stopped for Naranji, Coco, and other frozen yogurt flavors. A great dining spot we found was Waikiki Caribbean Food & Oyster Bar. I recommend the Empanadillas de Cachín (filled with fish and a tasty sauce), whole red snapper, red beans and rice, and fried Yucca balls.

Old (Viejo) San Juan

Our welcome dinner put on by the bride and groom was at Patio del Nispero in the boutique Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, about 10 minutes from our hotel. The quaint ambience is what you’d imagine for the older part of an island city. The meal was delectable, complete with plantain soup, Tres Leches, and other zesty Puerto Rican dishes. All the shops we passed were closed by the time dinner was over, but the lights strung from buildings on one side of the street to the other were still on and provided us a charming atmosphere for a nighttime walk. The buildings are old, some dilapidated, but with beautifully intricate Spanish colonial architecture.

We came full circle on our final night, dining in Old San Juan at El Siglo XX — part deli, part restaurant. Lamb chops, chicken asapao (Puerto Rican-style gumbo), and cod with creole sauce were our menu choices. At 7pm, most retailers and other businesses were closed, which surprised and disappointed me for a tourist destination. But then again, it’s Puerto Rico, not Hong Kong (a city of high-speed commerce, much of which stays up all night).

I was also surprised to find the $2 daily maid tip and one-time $4 bell tip were already included on my final hotel bill — a bit deceptive, especially when you’ve already tipped for those services. As extensively as I’ve traveled throughout the world, staying at hotels at various price points over my lifetime, I’ve never seen those gratuities line-itemed on my bill.

People and things move slowly in Puerto Rico. They’re on island time — relaxed, unhurried, and friendly. You can get around fine speaking English, but my Spanish helped often when English wasn’t a strong language for the local I was speaking to.

Guava paste, Yaucono ground coffee, and breezy dresses were among the purchases our group brought back home. Had we stayed longer in Puerto Rico, I would have liked to explore its rain forests, caves, and water adventures. Maybe next time…

Until I write again, safe travels!

Old San Juan at night

Old San Juan at night

Tyler, Texas

KLTV-TV ABC 7 (where I was a news reporter & community affairs show anchor/producer)

KLTV-TV ABC 7 (where I was a news reporter & community affairs show anchor/producer)

I spent two years (2003-05) living in Tyler, Rose Capital of the world in the heart of East Texas. I was a reporter and community affairs show anchor/producer for KLTV-TV ABC 7. My managers, co-workers, and other long-time residents say I was the first Asian-American on-air news personality in East Texas. Given the small Asian population, it’s an honor I don’t take lightly. Tyler is a place where people standing in their yard wave at you as you drive by, and the “good old boy” system is alive and well. The city of about 100,000 people has just about every major retail and restaurant chain there is, plus a number of charming local businesses. Having moved there from the big metropolis of Houston, I experienced culture shock but gradually fell in love with small-town living. Returning for a visit yesterday for the first time in seven years was very nostalgic for me. I felt like I was going home.

Tyler Rose Museum & Garden

Tyler Rose Museum & Garden

As my husband and I drove through the city where he used to visit me as my boyfriend, I remembered all the significant news-related landmarks: the state trooper who called me whenever he made a big drug bust on Interstate 20, the Wal-Mart where a store clerk was kidnapped which thrust me onto national TV news for the first time, the Smith County Courthouse where I was caught in the middle of a deadly shooting and made my debut on CNN. I also remember the personal places: the Brookshire’s store on Broadway where I shopped for groceries, my former apartment in the nicest gated complex in desirable South Tyler, my former friendly church, and my favorite spots and attractions.

Downtown Square: antique shop, restaurants, coffee shop
Tyler Rose Museum & Garden: rose queen, parade
Villa Montez: Latin Kitchen

Villa Montez: Latin Kitchen

Villa Montez, formerly Mansion on the Hill: beautiful restaurant that fits the descriptive name and very affordable (2 entrees + soup = $33, incl. tax)

Ranch at 7 Mile Hill: former Le Potager restaurant that’s now for events only, plus spa
The Potpourri House: cozy, friendly restaurant with shop catered to Junior League-type women that’s quintessentially Tyler
Fresh by Brookshire’s: like Whole Foods, it has organic and locally grown foods
Kiepersol Estates: wonderful winery, restaurant, and bed and breakfast
Oak Hills master-planned community: gorgeously designed new homes near established Holly Hill golf community
Oak Hills

Oak Hills

Lake Tyler and Lake Palestine: great for jet skiing and scenery

I haven’t been yet, but these very cool, family-friendly places are on my list to visit next time I’m in town: Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge and Cherokee Trace Drive-Thru Safari. Sadly, The Forum antique shop & restaurant downtown has since shut down. And so has the Landmark Inn restaurant in a former post office in Jacksonville, a city just south of Tyler. But many new businesses, some with urban design concepts, have opened in this growing city. I’m excited to return in the future to see its continuing transformation.

Las Vegas

Vegas Strip

Vegas Strip

I’m no gambler but I’ve been to Sin City at least five times (I’ve lost count) since I was a child. I go for the food, shopping, shows, and pretty hotels. I’ve taken a helicopter ride over The Strip, which took us all the way into the Grand Canyon — simply breathtaking. I’ve toured nearby Hoover Dam, which borders Nevada and Arizona. I’ve attended two concerts by Chinese superstars — singers Andy Lau, of Hong Kong (at MGM Grand), and A-Mei, of Taiwan, (at Paris Las Vegas), and several other shows, including O, Cavalia (equestrian/acrobatic spectacle under the Big Top), and others. I’ve visited every hotel and many restaurants on The Strip and a few off strip. Most recently, I was in Vegas just this month, receiving a Member of the Year award from the Asian American Journalists Association at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Speaking of Asians, there are so many of them who visit Vegas, practically every hotel has a Chinese and/or Japanese restaurant and caters to East Asian clientele. I’ll review some of the Chinese restaurants here, plus share the other highlights…

Bellagio

Fountains of Bellagio

Fountains of Bellagio

Fountains of Bellagio ~ An entertaining showcase of impressive, high-shooting fountains set to different music in every show. This isn’t just any ordinary fountain show. These fountains span nearly the width of the pond in front of this classy, enchanting hotel and shoot into the air seemingly as high as the building itself.
O
~ by Cirque du Soleil. Hands down the best live show I’ve ever seen. We got 2nd-row seats — expensive but well worth it. Tears filled my eyes as I watched graceful, gravity-defying acrobats move seamlessly through air, land, and water. The hauntingly inspirational music grabs at your heart and imagination.
Jean Philippe Patisserie ~ Like a fantasy, this chocolate shop and bakery delights with to-die-for crepes, gelato, pastries, cute confections, and the world’s largest chocolate fountain, which draws many tourists who crowd around to snap photos.
Noodles ~ Walls lined with decorative dried noodles of all types stir the appetites of eager customers willing to wait in a long line, even for a late-night meal. This Chinese restaurant that specializes in its namesake reminds me of trendy cafes in Hong Kong.

Carnevale at The Venetian and Palazzo

Carnevale at The Venetian and Palazzo

Luxor

When this novel hotel first opened, it was one of my favorites. I enjoyed staying in a room in the pyramid because of the unique slanted views from the interior balcony. I also loved the Sphinx and the Nile River Tour, a “river” ride that took us through the hotel on a tour of Egyptian art and sculptures. Sadly, renovations have removed many of these Egyptian-themed elements.

MGM Grand

This hotel is just that… grand. Enormous in size, it’s a giant block of green. As in the case of Luxor (and sadly, too), MGM Grand has wiped away almost all traces of its original Wizard of Oz theme that made it so fun. What could be better for children and adults than walking through Emerald City and living out a childhood movie fantasy? I’m glad I went to all these hotels when they first opened, before executives concocted plans to transform them into more mature places.

Excalibur

Fun Dungeon ~ While the adults may enjoy the casino, children and those who are children at heart (including me) love the arcade, complete with traditional carnival games, inside this medieval-style hotel that looks like a fairytale castle.

gondolas outside The Venetian

gondolas outside The Venetian

Circus Circus

Another hotel that lets you unleash your inner child, Circus Circus is, well, a circus. It has a performing circus, a midway with carnival games, and an indoor theme park with amusement rides.

Caesars Palace

The hotel harkens back to ancient Roman times in its art and architecture, from the Appian Way and The Forum Shops to the replica of Michelangelo’s David statue.

Planet Hollywood

The former Aladdin and its Desert Passage shops have been renamed Planet Hollywood and Miracle Mile Shops, respectively. It’s another example of a Vegas hotel transforming its atmosphere — this time from something vaguely out of Arabia to something more in line with Hollywood glamor. One thing’s for sure: It’s still a shopping destination.

The Mirage

Famous for its white tigers and tropical rainforest ambiance, The Mirage has extended its habitat to include dolphins, white lions, panthers, and leopards in Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Outside, a Volcano heats up the night as it erupts in spectacular fashion. This hotel really transports you to paradise, and I’ve stayed there before.

The Mirage

The Mirage

Wynn

The Wynn has an Alice-in-Wonderland-like, whimsical feel. The Buffet has 16 stations with foods from different cultures. The food is good but not superb. The dessert bar is delectable, with a wide array of cakes and gelato. Wynn’s grounds provide beautiful surroundings for its upscale restaurants, including Michelin-award-winning Wing Lei and the very red Japanese restaurant set in lush garden settings, Mizumi. The impressive car showroom features Ferraris and Maseratis, but it’s not free to look, unless you’re an owner or soon-to-be-owner of the luxury brands. Encore is Wynn’s twin hotel.

Paris Las Vegas

Famous for its hot air balloon fixture and Eiffel Tower replica, this hotel allows visitors to ride up to the observation deck for a incredible view of The Strip (though it’s not as good as the real thing in Paris, France, which I visited in 1999). Get in line for crepes served through an indoor window. Browse the lovely shops and decor, though my favorite store is no longer there. Still, the hotel boasts one of the most gorgeous lobbies in all of Vegas, with its sparkling, oversized chandeliers and French decor.

Bellagio's fountains with Paris Las Vegas in background

Bellagio’s fountains with Paris Las Vegas in background

New York, New York

This replica of the city after which it’s named, including skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, also features an outdoor roller coaster that’s prominently displayed against its “skyline.”

Treasure Island

The pirate show outside this hotel used to be the main attraction because of the stunts, pyrotechnics, and excitement. Now, as with most other attractions in Vegas, the show has morphed into a more adult-oriented, less-family-friendly Sirens of TI show (similar in style but with scantily-clad females).

Vdara

This relatively new (built in 2009) non-smoking, eco-friendly, non-casino, all-suite hotel & spa is part of a trio of hotels in CityCenter. Our stay there was peaceful and chic. The room was posh. The only drawback is the lack of a restaurant. There’s a bar and a market/cafe.

our Vdara hotel suite bathroom

our Vdara hotel suite bathroom

Aria

A sister hotel to Vdara, Aria is similar in swankiness, but unlike its sister, has several restaurants and shops, including tapas standout Julian Serrano and excellent Asian restaurant Lemongrass (everything from dim sum on carts to Thai curry). Aria also has its own Jean Philippe Patisserie.

Cosmopolitan

This is the perfect hotel for young people wanting to party and be seen — not the classiest but definitely flashy. It’s full of sparkle and plush decor. And it’s in the center of CityCenter.

Crystals

This high-end shopping mall at CityCenter has Gucci, Fendi, and just about any other luxury brand you can think of.

The Venetian

The hotel with Italian flair has gondola rides like in Venice (again, the real thing is so much better, as I experienced firsthand in 1999), and shopping in the Grand Canal Shoppes.  The captivatingly strange Blue Man Group performs in the theater.

Crystals at CityCenter

Crystals at CityCenter

Palazzo

Adjacent to The Venetian, this hotel is similar in style with a beautiful facade and its own Shoppes at the Palazzo.

Mandalay Bay

Mandalay Bay has an incredible, beach-like pool and shark reef. The hotel evokes a resort-like, relaxing feel that puts you at ease. The Noodle Shop was one of my favorites, but those of us with discerning tastes for Chinese food can tell the cuisine is slightly less than perfect but still enjoyable.

Trump International

Very “Trump” in every way, this towering, gold-colored hotel doesn’t have a casino but does have a gift shop full of Donald and Ivanka Trump merchandise.

me having dinner at Top of the World, Stratosphere

me having dinner at Top of the World, Stratosphere

Stratosphere

You can bungee-jump off the side of this very tall hotel, take a thrill ride dangling from the tower, take in The Strip from atop the high-up observation deck, or enjoy fine dining and just about the same view at Top of the World. We opted for all of the above, except the scary stuff (bungee-jumping and thrill ride). The shops sell affordable goods and target the less affluent or more frugal (I bought two beautiful scarves for $10 each).

Monte Carlo

Elegant hotel with the usual things you’d expect from a Las Vegas hotel — not as memorable as some of the others.

Canada

I just returned from a 2-week trip to visit relatives in different parts of Ontario, Canada and to take a side trip into the province of Quebec. My husband and I got to experience Canada’s Independence Day on July 1, before returning to the U.S. on July 4 to celebrate our Independence Day. I’ve been to Canada several times over the years, mainly to visit relatives and sightsee. Below are my suggestions for where to go and what to see in the cities I’ve visited, based on my experiences. And in the spirit of writing about Canada, I’ll even touch on Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, where I’ve traveled in the past.

Ontario

view of Niagara Falls from Maid of the Mist boat

view of Niagara Falls from Maid of the Mist boat

Ridgeway – Fort Erie – Niagara Falls
Flying into Buffalo, NY, renting a car, and driving across the border turned out to be the most cost-effective way for us to enter Canada. Sometimes the line can be long at the border checkpoint, but we lucked out and got behind only a few cars on the way to Canada and on the way back. We spent the first night with my uncle at his self-built country house in Ridgeway and did a driving tour of Fort Erie.

Dinner was at The Keg, a steakhouse overlooking Niagara Falls. The view of Horseshoe Falls (the larger falls on the Canada side) was incredible and surreal. A closer view is a must from the railing on the ground overlooking Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls. For an even closer encounter, take a cruise on the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right up to all three falls, where passengers on the deck get soaked by the mighty mist of the roaring water falls. The souvenir poncho provided by the boat company doesn’t cover every inch of your body, leaving your face and lower legs and feet exposed. Gift shops, an ice cream shop, and Table Rock House also kept us entertained on shore.

Hamilton

view of Hamilton and Lake Ontario from Sam Lawrence Park

view of Hamilton and Lake Ontario from Sam Lawrence Park

Visiting the former house of my late maternal grandmother, the home of one of my aunts, and my late uncle’s alma mater McMaster University were part of our itinerary in Hamilton, a small city of industry and beautiful views. For scenic nature excursions, visit the escarpment at Sam Lawrence Park, which overlooks Lake Ontario and the city of Burlington across the water. Also take a stroll through King’s Forest to see Albion Falls. Lunch at Williams Fresh Cafe comes with outdoor seating overlooking the lake and marina.

Toronto
One of my cousins and his adorable daughter played host to us in Canada’s most populous city. Toronto boasts a seemingly endless array of restaurants, shops, and other businesses on almost every downtown street. From Little Italy to Chinatowns (yes, plural) to Koreatown to Little Tibet to Greektown, you can travel the culinary world and pick up accessories, clothing, and home decor along the way. Enjoy dim sum at Casa Imperial, a Chinese restaurant in a Victorian-style mansion, where the waitresses dress in French maid outfits. For a view from above, dine at CN Tower‘s revolving restaurant.

Eaton Centre, a downtown mall now famous for a recent deadly shooting, is also known for its global-cuisine food court in the basement of the multi-level shoppers’ paradise. For a multi-cultural culinary tour, try Moroccan stew with tofu and black & brown rice, Thai green curry beef, and a Mediterranean salad plate. Head upstairs for an Orange Julius or bubble tea drink.

From Eaton Centre, you can head into The Path, an underground world of tunnels connecting more restaurants, shops, and businesses like hotels and office buildings throughout a large area of downtown. We also took the subway and walked for hours around the city, seeing diverse neighborhoods, from Queen West to Queen West West West, up and down Bloor Street, through the colorful “Gay Ghetto,” and many kilometers in between. Conveniently located bike rentals peppered throughout downtown are an affordable alternative mode of transportation.

For a break from the hustle and bustle, step into the serene greenhouse of Allan Conservatory, admire the grand and varied architecture on the campus of University of Toronto, or learn some new things inside the Ontario Science Centre.

Mississauga – Scarborough – Markham

Moira River, Belleville

Moira River, Belleville

Some of the best Chinese food can be found in these cities surrounding Toronto. Tasty Cantonese fare abound in Mississauga and Scarborough. Feast on dumplings and xiao long bao at the famous Ding Tai Fung in Markham. Get lost in Pacific Mall, also in Markham, where you can find an extensive food court and shops selling everything from music and qi pao to toys and teas. It’s where I found (and bargained) my Chinese-style gown for my wedding reception several years ago. Our visit coincided with the weekend-long Taste of Asia food, vendor, and performing arts festival. Stinky tofu, lamb skewers, and spicy, cold noodles were some of my favorites.

Belleville
Another of my cousins and cousin-in-law live in the charming city of Belleville, which is on the way from Toronto to Kingston. The Moira River runs through quiet neighborhoods and downtown. We enjoyed dinner at a Thai restaurant and an evening stroll by old houses with unique architecture.

near Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

near Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario

Kingston

A picturesque college town on Lake Ontario, Kingston is home to Queen’s University, where one of my husband’s cousins works and attends graduate school. The Princess Street area is a shopper and diner’s heaven, with gourmet pizzas of unique flavors at Woodenheads and homemade chocolate maple ice cream. Step back in time at Fort Henry, a commanding limestone fortification used after the War of 1812 by the British to protect Canada against an American invasion. Now it’s a tourist attraction with a 10,000-sq. ft., interactive Discovery Centre and a sunset closing ceremony complete with a canon firing, lowering of the flag, and soldiers’ marching in formation. You can walk through the rooms of the 2-level fort to see where the soldiers slept, ate, and trained. Items from that era, including weapons and uniforms, are on display.

Ottawa
Canada’s capital city has both modern structures and old buildings that tell the story of the country’s history. The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are open for tours, but inside tours are hard to come by, especially during peak holiday weekends, when tours are quickly booked by groups. Still, you can see Parliament Hill from just about every angle — by walking its grounds or cruising the adjacent Ottawa River on Paul’s Boat Lines. Choose the departure from Hull Dock at Jacques Cartier Park to get a longer cruise for the same price. The narrated boat tour also takes you by the statue of explorer Samuel de Champlain holding an astrolabe upside down (the artist’s mistake), Museum of Civilization (where you can spend hours viewing all the different sections which could each stand alone as a single museum – art, religion, children, postal, famous Canadians, settlers), Justice and Confederation Buildings, National Gallery of Canada, Supreme Court of Canada, Royal Canadian Mint, Residence of the Prime Minister, Rideau Falls, Rockcliffe Park, several embassies (including American, Japanese), and the famous Chateau Laurier hotel (a popular wedding venue because of its ornate design).

water display on Canada Day at Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario

water display on Canada Day at Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario

The Alexandria Bridge takes vehicles and pedestrians between Ottawa and the Quebec province. It’s an easy route to take to experience Canada Day (July 1) from both sides. Food and souvenir vendors, face painters, street artists, and buskers performing different acts and stunts line the streets and lawns. Parliament turns into a backdrop for a concert stage by day and fireworks show by night. This year a powerful marketing campaign debuted on bodies of water in several Canadian cities, Ottawa included. An image of the Canadian flag shone almost eerily above the Ottawa River on a fountain spraying up from the water in a 3D/holographic show. The effect was like a spotlight projecting the image onto rapidly moving water (as pictured). After the 10 p.m. fireworks show with no music, the crowd sitting on the hill outside the Museum of Civilization suddenly heard intense music and the rumbling of a car zooming around a lighthouse projected onto the same water fountain that previously showed the Canadian flag. The car appeared to be driving on water and plunging freely into and out of the water. The captivating motion picture ended with a reveal that it was the 2013 Nissan Altima. I don’t think any of us spectators will ever forget that commercial.

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ontario

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ontario

Walk through downtown Ottawa, bike along scenic Rideau Canal, and rent a canoe, paddleboat, or kayak at Gatineau Park. Find locally grown produce, buy an Obama cookie (made famous when the U.S. President bought one at the bakery Le Moulin de Provence), and have a meal indoors or out, all in the busy Byward Market. Explore the East End, one of North America’s biggest Ikea stores in the Kanata area, and Chinatown and Little Italy. Come back in the winter to skate an iced-over Rideau Canal and try the Nordik Spa (which will relax and freeze you all in the same day).

Don’t leave Canada without trying the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s or poutine (french fries with gravy).

Quebec

Montreal

architecture in Montreal

architecture in Montreal

You’ll feel like you’ve entered another country when you arrive in Montreal, a few hours’ drive from Ottawa and where French is the dominant written and spoken language. It’s good I’m multilingual, can figure out new languages quickly, sang French operas, and danced ballet (all steps are spoken in French). The subway can get you around the city, but it’s old and slightly trashed. The streets are a bit tattered and dirty, making this one of our least favorite cities. But we enjoyed crepes and shopping the French boutiques along St. Denis, St. Laurent, St. Catherine streets near the center of town. Chinatown — with wide streets for pedestrians only and inviting bakeries, cafes, and retail stores — is definitely worth a visit. There were as many non-Asians as there were Asians wandering through its blocks.

British Columbia

Vancouver – Victoria
Some people say Vancouver has the best Chinese (specifically, Cantonese) food in the world, even surpassing Hong Kong. I’m sure some folks in my parents’ Eastern homeland would argue with that, but either way, you can bank on satisfying your taste buds on this side of the world. I have an aunt and more cousins in this Western Canadian city.

I went to British Columbia in 2000, sailing to Victoria Island, seeing The Empress Hotel, Queen Victoria statue, and Royal British Columbia Museum. The most beautiful part of the trip was spending time in Butchart Gardens, with colorful flowers of every kind. Afternoon tea made the day even more delectable.

The Spirit of Vancouver Island took us by water to Vancouver, where we rode a gondola up the mountain at Whistler/Blackcomb Resort and watched skiers go by.

Whistler Blackcomb, Vancouver, B.C.

Whistler Blackcomb, Vancouver, B.C.

Overall, Canada is a laid-back country, where people are friendly and take it easy. I was very pleasantly surprised that on Canada Day, despite the crowds, no one was pushing, shoving, or jockeying for a good position to view the festivities. In certain other countries I’ve been, people rush to try to get ahead or even cut in line. For a relaxing, low-key vacation, Canada is a good destination.

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