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

 

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Amsterdam

Amsterdam

In June, my husband and I took another epic world trip with my mom and a long-time lady friend whose younger son I grew up with. Different combinations of the four of us have traveled all over the globe together. We love to see, hear, eat, shop, experience, and learn in places far away. This time we decided to do it in The Netherlands, formerly known as Holland, then take a Holland America cruise up the coast of Norway on a “Viking saga.” Both countries, with chilly weather even in summer, proved to be beautiful and friendly, leaving us with fond memories of the kind people and the spectacular sights.

The Netherlands

found at the Flower Market

found at the Flower Market

We spent a few days in The Netherlands, both before and after our Norwegian cruise. We stayed in Amsterdam in a cute hotel along one of the many canals that define the city’s spider-web-like map. When you say you’re going to “Amsterdam,” you’re bound to hear a joke about smoking pot. But as I read before my trip and soon discovered for myself, there’s much more to Amsterdam than marijuana, though the drug and other controlled substances are quite prevalent wherever you go — you can buy hemp brownies, hashish, energy drinks, magic mushrooms, and all sorts of associated accessories and trinkets in shops on just about every street and open to anyone. We saw people smoking marijuana in a “coffee shop” but didn’t spot anyone out in public who was obviously stoned. Even the beautiful row of outdoor, covered flower stands set up like a farmers market but called Flower Market sold cannabis seeds for your home-growing pleasure!

leaning buildings along canal

leaning buildings along canal

But as I said, I fondly remember Amsterdam for being fun, alive, and so full of variety. Historic buildings hundreds of years old — some of them leaning because of the shifting marsh underneath — sit along lovely canals that are popular for short cruises and ducks. Sadly, some of the canals are littered with trash, including a number of plastic water bottles. But flowers (as Holland is famous for tulips) line those same canals. We saw the oldest house in Amsterdam and countless other unique buildings, every one with a different, interesting front door and intricate architectural details. There’s no shortage of cute cafes, enticing bakeries with an abundance of attractively displayed chocolate broodjes and Poffertjes (mini pancakes), and coffee shops with hot, fresh-mint tea. Dam Straat (“Dam Street”) is lined with several Argentinian steakhouses that are so similar, we had to peruse the menus on display in the windows before figuring out which one to dine at — Mas Y Mas Cocina Argentina.

Amsterdam Flower Market

Amsterdam Flower Market

For what we were told by our hotel front desk was authentic Dutch food, we went to Pantry Restaurant; order the Bitterballen and Boerenkoolstamppot. And for Indonesian cuisine, which Amsterdam is also famous for, Sama Sebo is a good choice, serving more than a dozen small dishes so we could sample a bit of everything in one meal. Oriental City Restaurant is great (and very busy) for dim sum or other Cantonese food, which we enjoyed on a Saturday for lunch. While most things are quite expensive in Amsterdam, thanks in part to the weaker U.S. dollar as compared to the Euro, we found some incredible deals and sales in department stores and other retailers.

PUT THESE ON YOUR ITINERARY

nightlife in Amsterdam

nightlife in Amsterdam

1. National Monument — In the middle of Dam Square, this structure is a hodgepodge of art that locals have found humorous and disappointing.

2. Dutch East Indies — The origin of the multinational corporation and the board of directors structure. You read about this trading company in history books in school, so to see where it all began is quite something.

3. Red Light District — Prostitution is legal but regulated. No photos allowed, but we saw pretty ladies standing in windows and doorways trying to entice customers, even early in the morning when we took a walking tour. We also saw a retirement-aged man get rejected by a prostitute. The prostitutes are choosy.

4. Anne Frank Huis (House) & Museum — An eery walk through the building and secret annex hidden behind a bookcase, where the Jewish family hid from Nazis during World War II and where a teenage girl wrote her later-famous diary which her father helped get published, The Diary of Anne Frank. The line to get in consistently wraps around the building and past the next street corner, so buy your tickets in advance online to reserve an entrance time, like we did, and you can walk straight in without waiting.

outside Van Gogh Museum

outside Van Gogh Museum

5. Van Gogh Museum & Rijks Museum — We made it to the joint gift shop and the “i amsterdam” sign outside, not the museums themselves. I can only take so many museums in one vacation, but plenty of other people enjoyed these famed attractions.

6. Vondelpark — The largest and most popular park in The Netherlands. It’s conveniently located in a busy part of town on the way from our hotel to many attractions.

7. History Museum — Among the interesting displays is a David and Goliath former (and rather ancient) amusement park attraction, in which a child could stand inside the Goliath statue and use puppet strings to make it move like a human and which is now operated by a remote control by the security guard.

8. Churches Old and New — Creatively (sarcasm), people gave these churches the names of Old Church, New Church, North Church, South Church, East Church, and West Church. The design and architecture of the historic churches are to be admired, even if you’re not religious.

9. Magna Plaza — Location of a former post office, now a shopping mall. Another building with gorgeously ornate architecture. As in most other public places (other than restaurants), prepare to pay (sometimes as much as the equivalent of $1.50) to use the restroom.

Rotterdam Centraal

Rotterdam Centraal

Amsterdam is, in at least the following ways, like the Hong Kong of Europe: It doesn’t sleep, is very crowded, and is easy to get around on various modes of transportation — by bus, bike, tram, train, car, or on foot. Many restaurants and bakeries stay open until 3 a.m. It’s not so strange when we could dine outdoors and enjoy the setting sun at 10 p.m. Coming from the U.S., it’s easy to navigate because English is widely spoken and people drive on the same side of the road as in the U.S. A couple of things that are not easy are trying to scale the steep, narrow indoor and outdoor staircases, and to cross the street. It can be very confusing because there are lanes shared by cars and trams, and separate bicycle lanes. But for a newcomer, it can be very confusing and dangerous because some bicycle lanes are in the street and others are on the sidewalk. So we noticed tourists (included those in our group) almost getting hit by fast-approaching bicyclists, some of whom don’t stop, even when pedestrians have the “walk” signal from the digital sign. Since we walked a lot — for hours on end — we had to look both ways with every step we took to cross a street or even a sidewalk. Also, cars could drive right onto sidewalks at intersections to continue down a nearby street — very deceiving if you think you’re safe on a sidewalk and something I haven’t seen in any other place which I’ve been. Bicycles are an extremely popular mode of transportation. In fact, the car traffic isn’t bad in a city so populous.

The Dutch people, for the most part, are very kind and helpful. When you start discussing with your family which train stop is the right one, they jump in to inform you when they notice you’re about to get off at the wrong one. And when you finally get off the train at the correct stop, they jump in to grab your luggage for you when they see you struggle to carry it onto the platform. Great ambassadors for their hometown.

We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal (central station) to Rotterdam Centraal — a scenic ride through the suburbs and smaller cities in between. We didn’t get to spend much time in the city of Rotterdam, except just a drive through the city. It’s where we boarded the ms Rotterdam with more than 1,000 other people ready for a Nordic adventure.

boulder field, Stavanger

boulder field, Stavanger, Norway

Norway

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam?

Like my fashion statement found at Saga Souvenirs in Flam… and my Holland America tour sticker?

From childhood books to film portrayals, Norway has always seemed to me like a magical place with treacherous seas and extremely large (Vikings) and small (trolls) creatures. There are definitely elements of all of those, but the country turns out to be more peaceful and pretty these days. Just about everything is very expensive. A $30 (about 150 Krone) individual bowl of soup at a casual cafe is commonplace. A double shot glass souvenir you’d find for $4-6 in other countries costs $9-15 in Norway.

Having cruised with Holland America before, I sort of knew what to expect. Of course, 11 years later, the ships are more updated. The things that remain the same, which are why I’m loyal to this cruise line: The passengers tend to be older (retirees), tamer, and classier. The activities are fun, the food fine and elegant, the entertainment tasteful, and the accommodations clean and comfortable. We’re not into the party ships. On this particular summer cruise, because we were so far north, we found ourselves playing tennis on deck while the sun was still out at almost midnight and enjoying the sun rise just a few hours later from our deck-side stateroom with a sliding glass door and an incredible view of the changing landscape as we cruised along over seven days.

Lysefjord, Norway

Lysefjord, Norway

We stopped at four ports of call as we sailed along the coast of Norway through the often choppy and cold waters of the North Sea, accompanied by the excitement of howling winds that threatened to pull you overboard. The shore excursions we selected took us to six distinct cities and through beautiful fjords such as Sognefjord (the world’s 2nd longest fjord), Aurlandsfjord (a 17-km arm of Sognefjord), and Lysefjord (with steep, rocky walls more than 3,000 feet high).

Oslo

scenic Oslo

scenic Oslo

A charming blend of old and new, the capital of Norway boasts an ultra-modern Opera House built in 2008 to resemble a glacier on the fjord, Barcode buildings named because the series of adjacent buildings have windows in patterns similar to barcodes. We passed by the building where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are selected, the hotel where the winners stay, and where the award is presented. Cafe Skansen in Oslo serves excellent Norwegian salmon and dill potatoes. For a look at hundreds of thought-provoking sculptures, mostly of parents with children and different representations of life’s struggles, stroll through the 80-acre Vigeland Sculpture Park, named after Norway’s famous sculptor who had a strained relationship with his children. Unlike parks I’m used to, Vigeland surprised me with no insects of the crawling or flying variety. I should have expected it, as Norway is so cold. Be sure to see the Viking Ships Museum, Kon-Tiki Museum, and the Open-Air (Folk) Museum.

Drobak

charming Drobak

charming Drobak

A quaint, lush town on a harbor, Drobak is home to the “Christmas House” — a 2-story store full of (expensive) Christmas ornaments and other secular Yuletide decorations themed around the Norwegian Santa Claus “Nisse” and other characters. You can get mail stamped with the official Christmas stamp.

Kristiansand
We took an almost 2-hour boat ride on M/S Maarten among the surrounding skerries and islets to see lighthouses as well as hills and valleys dotted with traditional, small Norwegian homes, including the summer residence of the prince. This port city also has a relatively new performing arts center on the edge of the water, juxtaposed with an older cathedral and other buildings in the city center. We passed by Fiskebrygga, a quaint fresh seafood market with restaurants along the wharf, and Kristiansand Cathedral, the third largest in Norway.

Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

shops in Lillesand

This idyllic vacation spot is known as the “jewel of Sorlandet” and the most beautiful town in Norway. Seagulls fly over the boat dock, as people visit the eateries, shops, and outdoor food stands in Lillesand. The shore is lined with 18th- and 19th-century white, timber houses.

Stavanger
Talk about scenery with a wow factor. We took a drive to Dirdal Valley. Boulders, some as big as houses, cover much of the landscape, and streams run along the valleys of steep embankments. We visited the largest field of boulders, Gloppendalsuren. We had pancakes with sour cream and jam in a mountain tunnel/cave Gloppehallen and saw Byrkjedalstunet, a historical building that was a cheese factory in the 1920s and is now a candle maker’s shop and restaurant. And we ended the afternoon with a stroll through Old Stavanger, passing rows and rows of charming white houses.

Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

waterfall singer, Flam

Flam is marked by extremes — lush mountains with melting snowcaps and bubbling brooks over rocks. We took a lifeboat (tender) from our cruise ship to shore because of the narrow fjord, then boarded Flamsbana, or the Flam Railway. Looking out the window, every moment was picture perfect, as we winded through the mountains and gazed at the many waterfalls. A surreal sight — a woman dressed as a Norse goddess sang from atop the rocky slopes next to the biggest waterfall of them all — Kjosfossen. We stopped for hot tea and waffles with sour cream and jam (sense a theme here?) at the Vatnahalsen Hotel, which offered more picturesque views.

We’ve already put down our deposit for a future Holland America cruise. Stay tuned to see where we go next…

NOTE ABOUT AIRLINES: Three of us flew United Airlines round-trip and direct, this trip. As I experienced several years ago when flying United Airlines overseas, the service is sorely lacking and flat-out rude from some flight attendants. The airfares were cheaper, which is the main reason (and only good reason) we flew a U.S.-based airline. United could really learn a thing or two from its foreign competitors, especially the Asian airlines which consistently win service awards for flight attendants who are so friendly, polite, and respectful to all passengers. It’s a totally different experience. It’s no wonder that many U.S.-based flight attendants are often described by the public as grouchy and a few other adjectives which I’ll reserve here. I will say, however, that one very nice United flight attendant tried to smooth things over after her colleague repeatedly displayed utter unprofessionalism and rudeness. She deserves praise or a raise, and I’ve written the airline.

riding the Flam Railway

riding the Flam Railway

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.

Czech Republic

Trdelni'k, Prague, Czech Republic

Trdelni'k, Prague, Czech Republic

Julie Tam in Prague, Czech Republic

Julie Tam in Prague, Czech Republic

From Vienna, Austria, we took our tour bus to the final country on our 6-country tour of Europe — Czech Republic.

Prague
Tourism is the number-one industry in Czech Republic, according to our local tour guide. Office buildings and banking also are a big part of the economy. As one of those tourists contributing to the nation’s economy, we started our day at Prague Castle, the largest castle in Europe and Czech Republic’s most iconic landmark. Standing just inside the wall around the hill, we found an artist named Michael creating oil paintings for sale. We bought one to take to a friend back home — showing Prague Castle and the nearby Charles Bridge over the Vltava River. From that vantage point, we could see an Eiffel Tower look-a-like on a nearby hill. In the same area was St. Vitus Cathedral — a grand structure with dramatic, pointed spires — and the Astronomical Clock. Skyscrapers aren’t allowed in the Old Town, so most of what you see is historic buildings unscathed by war — unlike the other countries on our trip (Germany, Croatia, etc.). We walked toward Charles Bridge via Golden Lane, a romantic, winding, sloped walkway with shops and artisan museum displays in small spaces along the way. A unique and charming experience!

Michael the oil painter, Prague, Czech Republic

Michael the oil painter, Prague, Czech Republic

We walked across Charles Bridge, which was crowded with vendors selling everything from art to jewelry to food, perused mostly by tourists. We took a lunch cruise on the Vltava River, from which we saw the beautiful sights along the river — architecturally stunning buildings, people enjoying strolls along the banks. We spent the afternoon in the center of town, where we saw more tourists than in any other country on our tour so far. Continuing our European tradition, we enjoyed pastries and drinks at an outdoor table at Cafe Au Gormand. From there, we could people-watch and snap a photo of the prevalent graffiti on the facades of such historic buildings. In the squares around us, we found sausage stands, one of which sold us the best sausage I’ve ever had — juicy, tender, spicy, and full of flavor from the wiener to the sauce. Across the way, we saw a vendor making large treats that looked and, as we soon experienced, tasted a little like cinnamon rolls but with a cylindrical shape and hollow in the middle — called Trdelni’k! We wrapped up the afternoon shopping the stores down each street around us, being amused by the 7-person bicycles taking people around on the brick roads, and passing through the Jewish Quarter.

We had eaten too much all day long to finish our whole dinner in the 13th-century wine cellar of U Cisaru Restaurant.

spring water, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

spring water, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Karlovy Vary

Saqib at end of Golden Lane, Prague, Czech Republic

Saqib at end of Golden Lane, Prague, Czech Republic

The next morning began with a drive to Karlovy Vary, which literally means “Charles Spring” because the city was discovered by King Charles IV. The mineral spring water there was found to have healing and age-preserving properties, and has drawn millions of tourists, including Beethoven and Mozart, each year to this spa resort town. We got to sample the water for free. An indoor fountain was the location of a geyser shooting high up into the air. Nearby were several indoor and outdoor water stations with salty spring water at different temperatures from warm to hot.

Shops sold porcelain mugs with a spout for drinking the water, plenty of artwork depicting scenes of Czech Republic, bells, and teapots. Before departing for Germany, we had lunch and an afternoon snack of warm Oblaten — thin, wafer-like, and in chocolate and cinnamon — from Teplé Oplatky, a stand in a busy part of the center of the city.

Our tour bus took us back to Frankfurt for our final night in Europe before departing for the United States. Our tour group had a great time singing after dinner and expressing our appreciation for the tour leader, bus driver, and fellow group members, who had helped make this tour the most pleasant I’ve ever taken.

graffiti, Prague, Czech Republic

graffiti, Prague, Czech Republic