California

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to California throughout my life. With relatives and friends who live across the state, there’s always a reason to visit. As much as the golden state is portrayed in movies and entertainment shows, everyone knows it’s a naturally beautiful place with sun, surf, and sand and palm-tree-lined boulevards with majestic mountains in the distance. They also know it’s too expensive for most people to live comfortably, not to mention the risk of wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Even Californians themselves sit on two opposite extremes: While there are admirable ones who are environmentally considerate, there are also unnecessarily narcissistic people who flaunt their beach bodies and fake tans.

SoCal

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood Walk of Fame: Michael Jackson's star

There are so many sizable cities in Southern California that you can drive from one to the next without having to pass through a lot of countryside. Los Angeles is a sprawling city, laid out kind of like Houston — far and wide — but with even worse traffic gridlock. The cultural diversity makes the greater L.A. area colorful and welcoming to all sorts of people. There’s a “town” for most major ethnicities, where you can get their food, groceries, clothing, and decorations. You can spend a fun evening in Anaheim‘s Downtown Disney — restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues all lit up and live performers in the outdoor courtyards. Endless beaches line the Pacific coast, so you can relax in San Diego or Huntington Beach or any other coastal city. The Santa Monica Pier offers amusements in the form of rides, restaurants, and retail. Enjoy the charming town square in Orange, where I visited my husband (then-boyfriend/fiancé) who was attending graduate school at Chapman University there and living in Garden Grove, home to Crystal Cathedral. Plenty of family fun can be had at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Home to the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the sign in Hollywood Hills, Hollywood is just as you’d imagine it. In nearby Beverly Hills, you can take driving tours to see the stars’ mansions. Irvine is a safe, pretty community, which makes its property values sky high too. On one of my more recent trips to California, we got to sit in the audience during the taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at NBC‘s Burbank studios.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

Central Coast
Hearst Castle in San Simeon is definitely worth a tour. The beautiful Greek design is showcased from the indoor pools to the artistic sculptures.

Northern California
To me, SoCal is less serious and more about fun, but Northern California is more intellectual — home to Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. San Francisco has the richness and unique characteristics of an older city, from streetcars to the world’s crookedest street, Lombard Street. The Golden Gate Bridge and classy art museums add to its dreamy quality. The vast Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but you can find all sorts of land forms in the wilderness.

Arizona

My husband and I just returned from a December trip to Arizona that put us in touch with nature’s most magnificent landforms and simplest enjoyments.

SEDONA

Sedona, AZ

Sedona, AZ

The red and white colors of Red Rock Country’s breathtaking mesas, buttes, and mountains surrounded us everywhere, especially at our hotel. We stayed at L’Auberge de Sedona, a luxury resort where we had our own private, creekside cottage along Oak Creek that included a deck, wood-burning fireplace, and enclosed outdoor shower. We could hear the plump, beautiful ducks quacking nearby and got to watch their feeding in the morning. The outdoor Sunday buffet brunch along the creek was exquisitely peaceful, and my spa treatment was blissful. It was one of the nicest hotel experiences I’ve had, even when compared to slightly fancier ones where I’ve stayed, because we were so blended with nature, but not in an overly rustic, outdoorsy kind of way (we’re too prissy for that). Might I also add that we were able to pay the AAA rate for a room two notches below our cottage, meaning we got our cottage a couple hundred dollars cheaper than what it normally goes for! That’s thanks to some good bargaining skills and a nice free upgrade from the hotel, whose name means “inn” in French.

We enjoyed the slow pace of dining and shopping at Tlaquepaque (which resembles a Guadalajara square) and Sedona Center in Uptown. It was a nice escape from big-city life and travels, which we’re all too used to. I also got to enjoy my favorite dessert – homemade ice cream. We went off the beaten path on a Pink Jeep Tour, which I highly recommend for seeing parts of Sedona you would have a hard time reaching on your own, unless you’re a serious hiker or biker, or really know how to maximize a Jeep’s capabilities (but you’d still be restricted from certain areas Pink Jeep Tours are allowed and your Jeep might not be souped up enough to handle the treacherous landscape). Our guide took us on the Broken Arrow Tour – a roller coaster ride through forest and over steep, rocky terrain I didn’t know could be driven over! I was sore from it the rest of the day, but the adventure was worth it. We were able to take in stunning views and capture some amazing photos of them.

view from our L'Auberge de Sedona cottage

view from our L'Auberge de Sedona cottage

We headed north out of town along State Route 89A, a scenic route that was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen. And as the sun set, the sky became pitch black and revealed thousands of stars – a sight you miss when living in the city because of all the smog and light pollution.

FLAGSTAFF
On our way through northern Arizona, we drove through the college town of Flagstaff. We stopped only for dinner in downtown at Mountain Oasis, which served pretty tasty food from various parts of the world, including Middle Eastern, Asian, and European. The cozy ambience and international music playing over the speakers were a perfect combination for a cold winter night.

WILLIAMS/GRAND CANYON
Both times I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, I’ve arrived in a different way. The first time was by helicopter. I departed from Las Vegas. We flew into the canyon and hovered down inside it. I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the canyon wall, we were so close to it. The aerial view was just like what you see in those nature videos or shows on TV.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

This time, we stayed overnight in Williams and took the train – first class on the Grand Canyon Railway. It was a great, old-timey way to travel the winding path to the Grand Canyon – complete with a Wild West show at the train depot, a café car on the train with an old-fashioned diner atmosphere, and a fake railroad robbery while we were on board. The cowboys rode their horses alongside our train at one point and hopped on to “rob” us passengers. People throughout history have traveled to the Grand Canyon using the same railroad, which still has telegraph poles along it. We looked over the Grand Canyon from a few different points. I don’t need to say much about it because just about everyone knows how vast and visually stunning the natural wonder is. What’s particularly mind boggling about its size is when you’re standing along the rim and you look out into the canyon, the opposite wall can be miles away but appear so much closer.

The sun set on our return trip, so we could see the Christmas lights and decorations along the tracks and back at the depot — decked out for The Polar Express, a special train ride that reenacts the storybook and movie.

PHOENIX

US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix

US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix

We stayed in Arizona’s largest city, Phoenix, on the first and last night of our trip. The first night, we were hungry and tired after landing at the airport, but fortunately, we stayed at a hotel near the airport, which was near the COFCO Chinese Cultural Center (a mini Chinatown)! Usually, I don’t like having Chinese food in cities that don’t have a lot of Chinese people and thus don’t have very good Chinese restaurants. But we checked it out anyway. The food wasn’t the best but wasn’t bad.

The last night, we stayed at a chic, modern downtown hotel, where, for the third time on this trip, we managed to convince the reservation/check-in desk to give us a free upgrade! All you have to do is smile and ask nicely, and most of the time, hotels will oblige.

All in all, we found Arizona to be a naturally beautiful state full of friendly, laid-back people.

putting on makeup in WDRB-TV FOX 41 studio

putting on makeup in WDRB-TV FOX 41 studio

Most of my travels involve a stay of several days or a few weeks. But one stop I made was nearly five years long. The Louisville, KY metro area and southern Indiana was the region where I covered news for WDRB-TV FOX 41 from 2005-10. And I lived in Louisville, pronounced LOO’-uh-vuhl, for all you other non-natives. My experiences in Kentuckiana were rich and memorable: I made some great, lifelong friends; I got engaged; and my husband moved to Louisville after we got married.  So as an ode to a charming city and beautiful region, I’ll write about some of my favorite places. (These aren’t paid endorsements and don’t reflect my news coverage — just my personal opinions about my former home.)

Louisville, Kentucky

snow outside our home

snow in the backyard of our Louisville home

A city of more than three-quarters of a million people, Louisville is a place where you can enjoy all four seasons to their fullest extent. The downtown skyline overlooks the Ohio River, where boats and barges go by several majestic bridges. The city is quirky, has a campaign to “Keep Louisville Weird,” and is big on bluegrass and horse racing. April and May are the best times to visit to experience Louisville’s energy and local flavor, beginning with the Thunder Over Louisville air and fireworks show (which kicks off the Kentucky Derby Festival) and culminating with the Kentucky Derby itself on the first Saturday in May. The things I love most about the city are the fact that it’s convenient, easy-to-get-around, and quite peaceful.

Attractions

Louisville skyline and Ohio River, from Southern Indiana

Louisville skyline and Ohio River, from Southern Indiana

Louisville is probably most famous for Churchill Downs (and the Kentucky Derby Museum under the Twin Spires) and Slugger Museum & Factory (which makes the official Major League Baseball bat). Those two popular attractions are worth seeing, but so are the relatively new Muhammad Ali Center (interactive, multimedia museum honoring the famous boxer and humanitarian) and Louisville Mega Cavern (underground space that’s part storage facility, part bomb shelter, and now a tourist destination — it’s lined with Christmas lights during the holidays and creates a magical experience). Slow down and take a cruise along the Ohio River for lunch or dinner (watch the sunset) on the steamboat Belle of Louisville or smaller Spirit of Jefferson. Stop by Waterfront Park along the river to enjoy the scenery, abundant green space, and playground and spray ground for children.

Hotel
Named by Conde Nast Traveler as the nation’s #1 best hotel, 21C Museum Hotel is a must-see, even if you’re not staying overnight. The mirror in the women’s restroom (I don’t know about the men’s) has little built-in video monitors showing moving eyeballs of blind people. I’m told the men’s urinals are installed along a wall adjacent to a well-trafficked hallway, and men using the facilities face a one-way mirror through which they can see people in the hall walking by, but those people can’t see the men. The lobby and basement serve as an eclectic art museum with plenty of shockers. If you do stay the night, you’ll find a different piece of art adorning each room, plus an iPod with your personally selected list of songs.

Restaurants

fall colors on the golf course behind our home

fall colors on the golf course behind our Louisville home

The restaurant we frequented most often was Tea Station Chinese Bistro in Norton Commons, a classy mixed-use neighborhood with homes, businesses, a school, a fire station, seasonal farmers market, and more. The menu written in Chinese has the authentic dishes we liked, but it was the friendly owners who kept us returning. Another Asian restaurant I loved was Dragon King’s Daughter on Bardstown Road. I usually frown on fusion food because I like purity and authenticity in cuisines — one culture or another, not mixed. (Marriage is a different matter, since mine is interracial!) But I welcomed Dragon King’s Daughter’s fusion Japanese tacos, pizzas, and totally unauthentic sushi. The flavors were so exciting. For fine dining and luxurious experiences, you can’t beat The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel at Fourth Street Live! (downtown entertainment district). For a one-of-a-kind, extremely pricey, Continental dinner, dine in the cold wine cellar on a meal with more than 16 courses plus a few surprise additions, prepared by a chef dedicated to your table. You’ll be freezing your buns off for a few hours or more, depending on how fast you eat, but the tastes and experience are unforgettable, as is the bill!

Ice Cream
Delicious ice cream and the quirky-comfy atmosphere make The Comfy Cow the place for handmade desserts and a cozy, good time. It’s located in Westport Village and serves up some scrumptious, original flavors.

Shopping
That leads me to shopping destinations. Westport Village is a somewhat newly renovated shopping center in East Louisville with restaurants, clothing boutiques, home decor stores, and specialty shops. The Summit is another shopping center in the northeast part of town with more national chain stores. A hidden gem of a store is in Butchertown: Work the Metal sells home decor items and condiments from Bourbon Barrel Foods (which produces soy sauce in the warehouse behind the store).

Salon & Spa
I got my hair cut at Joseph’s Salon & Spa, which offers impeccable service. For spa treatments, like facials, massages, and body scrubs, I preferred the more luxurious Z Salon & Spa. Both are Aveda salons rooted in natural products and techniques.

West Baden Springs, Indiana

domed atrium inside West Baden Springs Hotel

domed atrium inside West Baden Springs Hotel

North of the Ohio River lies Indiana, so you can jump back and forth between the two states in just a couple of minutes. Clarksville, New Albany, and Jeffersonville are the three cities that sit along the river. But farther north (less than 2 hours from downtown Louisville) is an amazing hidden treasure called West Baden Springs — a small town with a hotel by the same name. When you come upon it, you’ll wonder how this magnificent hotel landed so off the beaten path in the middle of Indiana. Some call it the 8th wonder of the world, and it’s no wonder. The atrium used to have the world’s largest dome, until the Houston Astrodome was built. Standing in the atrium and looking skyward is breathtaking. A stroll through the lovely shops or just relaxing on one of the lounge chairs is a great way to spend an afternoon. It is worth seeing. And if you like casino-hotels, French Lick Resort is just a mile away.

A strange title for this blog post, but an appropriate one. I took an overseas trip with several family members in January 2010. We spent several days in Hong Kong (my 9th trip to my favorite place in the world) and then flew to Thailand (my first trip there).

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

You can read more about HK in a previous blog entry. This time, we added a few more highlights to our memories of my parents’ homeland: Lan Kwai Fong (a dining/entertainment district near Hong Kong Island’s busy Central business district), Gwennie Tam Fine Jewellery (my cousin’s store in Central with high-tech, futuristic display cases and beautiful jewelry for men and women), afternoon tea at Intercontinental Hotel on Kowloon Peninsula (a breathtaking panoramic view of the HK skyline across Victoria Harbour), and exploring new shopping malls on HK Island and Kowloon Peninsula. We also attended another cousin’s wedding.

Thailand

Thailand is a colorful place, literally and figuratively.

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

PATTAYA
Our first night in Thailand was a jaw-dropping one.

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

We dined alfresco by a body of water (no one could tell me the English name) and watched local Thai soccer fans cheer for their team on the big-screen TV projection screen — and I’m talking about a huge screen, the kind that you’d find at an outdoor amphitheater. Nothing strange yet. After checking into our hotel (with a Pattaya Beach view, no less), we headed out for a walk to a nearby mall and outdoor fruit market. And that’s where we started seeing patterns. Men were picking up female prostitutes from sidewalks left and right. Most of the men were white; I couldn’t tell if they were tourists or lived in Thailand. There were also groups of a few men with one prostitute to share among them. I also saw couples — one after another — that were made up of an elderly white man (around retirement age or beyond) and a young Thai woman (in her 20s). It’s not so strange if you see just one such couple, but one after another by the same description tells you something about relationships in at least that part of Thailand. I had known Thailand to have a “vibrant” sex industry, replete with gay tourists hiring personal escorts in the form of underage teenage boys, but I was seeing the industry with my own eyes. It got even more interesting. A nightclub/bar with no doors or exterior facades (as in, open to the outside for onlookers to watch) had a stage showcasing beautiful women dancing. It took us a while to figure out they weren’t always women. That was our introduction to Thailand’s transsexual industry. In the U.S., you can usually figure out a transsexual really fast, but in Thailand, they’re much more difficult to pick out. The surgeries and other transformation procedures are much more well done.

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

We got tickets to Tiffany’s Show, the world’s premier transsexual stage show. It was a clean show — no nudity, just elaborate sets and costumes and beautiful music and dances, Vegas style. I was very impressed. If you looked closely at facial features, you could tell some of the women were once men, but with a few of the performers, you just couldn’t tell. They looked like Barbie dolls from head and toe — tall, thin, model bodies and near-perfect faces. They even danced like women, moving their hips fluidly and striking graceful positions.

Thai massage and foot reflexology services were advertised everywhere. Our tour package included an hour-long Thai massage, but we paid for a second hour to get the full-body treatment. It’s painful knowing how inexpensive massages are in Thailand, compared to what I pay in the U.S. An hour of massage in Thailand runs you less than $10, including tip! In the U.S., the nicer, cleaner spas charge upward of $60-70/hour. Thai massage was a new and laugh-inducing experience for me and some of my family. The masseuse stretches you in awkward positions and hits your bones in between staccato squeezes of your flesh.

Water sports made a morning at the beach in Pattaya City a fun one! We watched my brother parasail, but the rest of us dared not try. He and I went on an underwater Sea Voyage, wearing swimsuits, water shoes and helmets, and staying vertical so the water wouldn’t come into our helmets. After pinching my nose and “blowing” to prevent painful ear pressure, I was giddy to reach the bottom of the sea floor — about 20 feet deep where we were — where we saw coral, fed and touched fish, and touched other ocean creatures. My husband and I jet skied, while the rest of the family shopped the seemingly endless line of shops along the beach. We all took a few boat rides to and from an island and the mainland. The clear, green water was beautiful.

BANGKOK
In Thailand’s capital and largest city, you’ll find very developed commercial areas next to very run-down residential areas, where metal roofs of homes overlap each other and people live in more primitive ways.

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

We saw a panoramic view of the city from atop the city’s tallest tower, Baiyoke Sky Hotel, on a 360-degree rotating outdoor platform. There we also dined on a sprawling buffet of all types of Asian foods; the food was as heavenly as the height of the restaurant near the top of the hotel tower. Our hotel, Luxor: The Egyptian Design Hotel, was just as it sounds and truly one of a kind. Our rooms were two stories, with the bathroom, living room, closet, and desk downstairs and bedroom upstairs.

We visited Southeast Asia’s largest aquarium, Siam Ocean World, filled with very interesting, exotic sea creatures. On the outskirts of Bangkok, we visited Buddhist temples of traditional Thai architectural design, took a wooden-boat dinner cruise at sunset down the Mekong River, and toured the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. We also saw the faithful arrive in droves to buy incense and flowers to worship the 4-faced Buddha and release birds from cages to bring favor upon themselves from the gods. The open-air shrine was located right next to a Burberry store and other buildings and elevated highways — an interesting juxtaposition, considering how the area was far less developed more than two decades ago, when my father visited the same spot. In the nearby Samut Prakan province, we saw an imposing 3-headed, giant elephant at the Erawan Museum. It’s a symbol of the Hindu influences in Thailand. We rode a real elephant through a park and swamp, sat on an elephant’s tusks which the animal brought together to form a “chair,” and pet a baby elephant as it performed tricks.

elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

Julie on an elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

Nashville

"vine lady": performs throughout Gaylord Opryland Resort

"vine lady": performs throughout Gaylord Opryland Resort

We went to Nashville, Tennessee — known as the “country music capital” — two years in a row around Christmastime: in 2007 and 2008. We hadn’t planned on the second trip, but the first one sold us. It was a 3-hour drive from Louisville, Kentucky — our home at the time and currently.

MUST-SEE

1. Gaylord Opryland Resort. This grand, fantasy-like hotel is an experience in itself. Sections of it are filled with luscious greenery like a giant greenhouse, and others boast colorful flowers. Yet another shows off magnificent fountains that even perform shows with music and light. Restaurants and shops can provide hours of fun. Take an indoor tour by riding a boat down the man-made river that winds through the resort. Take a dip in the indoor pool. Or, just get an atrium-facing room, sit on your balcony, and gaze out at the one-of-a-kind Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling. There’s visual and aural stimulation in every inch of the hotel, from floor to ceiling. Free shuttle bus rides take guests to nearby attractions and shows, including ICE! The theme of the multi-room spectacular ice sculpture display the years we went was How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Just prepare to freeze, even with the thick coats you’re given at the entrance.
2. Country Music Hall of Fame. The multi-story museum has so much related to country music, it’s almost overwhelming. You’ll learn names you never knew were part of the genre!

Ryman Auditorium

Ryman Auditorium

3. Parthenon. Named after the famed Greek structure it was modeled after, the Parthenon in Nashville is also an architectural marvel to behold. The one in Nashville sits in peaceful Centennial Park and serves as an art museum, filled with impressive sculptures, paintings, and more.
4. Grand Ole Opry. The famous stage where stars are made (or where stars perform). Unfortunately, both times we went, the main part was closed, so all we got to see was the gift shop. So, go when the place is open.
5. Ryman Auditorium. The smaller performance hall that also has been home to country music superstars, the Ryman Auditorium is usually open when the Grand Ole Opry isn’t.
6. Belle Meade Plantation. We went on a tour of this peaceful, historical home. Living in Louisville, it was especially interesting to learn about all the Kentucky Derby horses that came from or can be traced back through the generations to Belle Meade Plantation.

Other points of interest include downtown Nashville, prestigious Vanderbilt University, and beautiful Belmont University. Also, stroll through, eat, and shop in the neighborhoods of upscale Green Hills and quaint HillsboroVillage.

"ICE! How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" ice sculptures

"ICE! How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" ice sculptures

Japan

I found the cleanest place in the world I have ever seen, in July 2002… Japan. I toured the southern part and went back six years later, in 2008, to see the northern island of Hokkaido.

Asakusa
After landing at the Tokyo Narita International Airport, we started our tour in Asakusa, seeing a temple. It’s almost like, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nevertheless, Japanese temples are tranquil places, where beautiful cherry blossom trees flourish and the sound of flowing water is usually never far.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Tokyo
The capital of Japan is what you would imagine but so much better. It’s a high-tech mecca full of business people rushing around, but it’s not like New York City (no offense) — Tokyo is clean, and the people are ultra polite. The Ginza Tower, well, towers over one part of the city. And from our hotel room, we could see Mt. Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain and what I think is the world’s most beautiful mountain.

Yokohama
This pretty oasis of serenity is also Japan’s second largest city, where modern buildings line the skyline and young men (they could have been teenagers) await customers wanting a ride on a rickshaw.

vending machine in Toyohashi

vending machines in Toyohashi

Toyohashi
We took a bullet train from the Hamamachi train station to Toyohashi. Bullet trains are among the fastest in the world, screaming toward you like a white ghost while you wait on the loading platform. You shouldn’t stand too close to the track because the wind produced by the high-speed train is so strong, you might get blown over. The ride, though, was amazingly smooth. Everywhere we went, including in this city, I bought green tea ice cream: from vending machines, from ice cream stands, from cafes. I took full advantage of its widespread availability. We also visited the beautiful Kinkakuji Temple’s Golden Pavilion.

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kyoto
Models put on a fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center, where we saw seamstresses make kimonos, yukatas, and other Japanese clothing.

Osaka
Perhaps my favorite city in Japan, it’s home to the majestic Osaka Castle and Shinsaibashi Suji (a mile-long, outdoor shopping arcade), where I had my first Starbucks green tea frappuccino. I prayed that Starbucks would start selling it in the U.S., but I had to wait a couple of years before this delightful drink made its way to my home country. With several blocks of stores, I indulged in more than just green tea frappuccino; I had green tea, green tea ice cream, green tea frozen yogurt, and green tea slushie. I also fell in love with the Sony store — designed so much more high-tech and modern than computer/technology stores in the United States. Pachinko (a cross between pinball and slot machines) parlors were abundant in this shopping arcade, and there was no shortage of people playing the game. Funny enough, I felt like I stuck out in Japan, especially in Shinsaibashi Suji, because I have naturally black hair, whereas most Japanese young people dye their hair brown or even blond.

Shinsaibashi Suji

Shinsaibashi Suji

Nara
In Nara Deer Park, we got up close with graceful deer. And of course, we visited Nara Temple and Todaiji Temple.

Kobe
Kobe Tower at Kobe Port is an impressive red structure that’s a landmark among other uniquely designed buildings.

Read about my second trip to Japan, during which I traveled throughout Hokkaido, in an earlier blog entry.

Vevay, Indiana

No wonder it was voted Budget Travel magazine’s #4 coolest small town in America!

Ohio River view from our hotel

Ohio River view from our hotel

me, before the Media Celebrity Grape Stomp

me, before the Media Celebrity Grape Stomp

My first trip to Vevay (pronounced Vee-vee) was on August 29, 2009. I — along with a stuffed animal version of FOX 41 mascot Snow Fox– represented our Louisville TV station in the Swiss Wine Festival parade and competed in the Media Celebrity Grape Stomp for Charity. Unfortunately, weighing the least and having the smallest feet, I came in dead last among nearly 20 stompers from the Louisville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis media markets, producing only three cups of grape juice in two minutes! That’s the first time I’ve ever claimed last place in any competition. But it was a really fun and relaxing day, full of good food and nice people.

Best Western Ogle Haus Inn lobby

Best Western Ogle Haus Inn lobby

I didn’t have time that day to explore the rest of the town because I had to go straight to work after I finished my part in the festival. So my husband and I went back just over a month later, on October 12. We stayed for just 24 hours, but it felt like the most luxuriously long vacation we’ve had in a while. Things are slower paced in small towns like Vevay, so we had enough time to see almost everything and take it all in. We stayed in a huge, very nice suite with his-and-her vanities and an elevated whirlpool-jet hot tub with steps outside the tub at Best Western Ogle Haus Inn. I know, you’re thinking, Best Western… nice? It was unexpectedly charming, set on the Ohio River (which divides Indiana and Kentucky). The hotel used to be owned by Paul Ogle, but now it’s run by Best Western, which renovated it in 2006. Vevay also has several lovely bed & breakfasts in historic mansions.

Danner's Hardware in downtown Vevay

Danner's Hardware in downtown Vevay

Vevay, IN is the birthplace of American commercial winemaking, so you’ll find wine tasting opportunities, like at Ridge Winery Tasting Room. You’ll also -find shopping and dining on a small scale in downtown. We spent a morning and afternoon taking an easy stroll down just a few short blocks, stopping into such quaint shops as Edelweiss Floral & GiftsSignatures, The Mercantile, and other stores that sell antiques and Amish goods. Danner’s Hardware is Indiana’s oldest business still in its original location. Julia Knox House is a historic mansion converted into a gift, furniture, and accessories shop. Be sure to pay a visit to the Switzerland County Historical Museum and “Life on the Ohio” River History Museum and ask for the guided tour; you’ll take a very interesting step back in time, back to when the Swiss settled the area.

As for food, I highly recommend the steak tacos I had for lunch at Los Bandidos, a new Mexican restaurant with staff just as friendly as the other shopkeepers we encountered in this tranquil town.

Plus, Belterra Casino Resort & Spa is just seven miles from Vevay, in nearby Florence, IN. There you can find such gems as Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and upscale boutiques. And take a ride on a zipline at Dagaz Acres in Rising Sun.

Alaska

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

me aboard a Holland America cruise ship

My mom and I took a Holland America cruise in August 2001 along Alaska’s southeastern coast. It was the most pleasant time of year to visit America’s coldest state. The views were breathtaking in the daytime. One night, we ventured out onto the dock… big mistake. It was freezing cold, terrifyingly windy (howling), and as dark as dark could be out in the middle of the pitch-black waters. We scurried back inside immediately.

 

 

 

MUST-SEE

view of Juneau from helicopter

view of Juneau from helicopter

1. Ketchikan. The salmon hatchery at Deer Mountain offers a good learning experience, since Alaska is famous for its salmon industry. The best fried fish I’ve ever had was at Halibut Hole along the dock. It was heavenly — smooth, fresh, white fish from cold waters.

 

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

dog sledding with a lady from our cruise

2. Juneau. Go on a salmon bake, if you want to watch a cook make your Alaskan meal in the wilderness and eat it in the same rustic surroundings. Take a helicopter ride over the beautiful, snow-capped mountains, land on a glacier, and go mushing (dog sledding) — we got to experience the speed of retired Iditarod dogs, an exhilarating ride. Seeing Alaska from the air, barely above the mountain peaks, is like watching one of those nature videos that shows sweeping shots from an aircraft, but you’re actually doing it and seeing it firsthand. Breathtaking.

Sitka Pier

Sitka Pier

3. Sitka. Kayak in Wilderness Sea — what a peaceful adventure in crisp, refreshing air. The Sitka pier is picturesque, like a postcard. From there, cruise on through Disenchantment Bay, Glacier Bay, and see Hubbard Glacier. Our ship was so close to the glaciers, I had a Titanic moment; I felt like we could almost touch the glaciers.
4. Valdez. Famous for the big Exxon oil spill but also a nice place for whitewater rafting. The waters are frigid and choppy, which made for a bad combination for me, when the water splashed into my whitewater rafting “warm” suit and ran down my back. Brrr…

Disenchantment Bay

Disenchantment Bay

5. Anchorage. Visit the Alaska Zoo, where you can see animals that roam the Alaskan wilderness, like bears. Of course, you can pay a lot more money for shore excursions that take you on bear-watching expeditions but don’t guarantee you’ll see any bears. From our cruise ship, we did see whales in the waters around us.

China

Dongguan

Dongguan, China

Dongguan, China

In July 2002, I boarded a Turbojet ferry from Hong Kong with my mom and a long-time friend, bound for mainland China across the South China Sea. It was my first time to visit the mainland, after having been to Hong Kong (a British territory that was handed back to China in 1997) and Taiwan (Republic of China) several times. We arrived in Dongguan, a city in the Canton province. It’s almost like a gateway between mainland China and HK because there’s a lot of travel between the two places, and people speak Cantonese in both (though the accent is a little different). I don’t have any recommendations on specific places to see in Dongguan because I spent only half a day there, but I can tell you about my experience.

jewelry gold-plating factory

jewelry gold-plating factory

My mom’s friend owns a jewelry gold-plating factory in this city of close to 8 million people. As with any other factory, young people, predominantly women in this one, were hard at work churning out rings dipped in 24k gold. A lot of other industrial plants line the area, where life is slower than in the bigger cities of China. Funny, this city of 8 million isn’t considered that big in the world’s most populous nation! Most people ride bicycles and motorcycles (we rode one), buzzing through the otherwise quiet streets. People take afternoon naps at their fruit stands in the open-air market, as customers browse. Speaking of food, red-bean-and-milk slushie drinks are refreshing on a hot, summer day. I had one at a cafe. And Chinese food is cheap.

In the not-too-distant future, I plan to spend a few weeks traveling across the vast, diverse land of China, where you can find extremes in weather, food, sizes of people, urban-rural life, buildings, and everything else. It’s an amazing country, as demonstrated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, especially in the Opening Ceremony. It’s full of history, some of it personal. My mother was born in mainland China before fleeing with her family to Hong Kong when she was a baby because the Communists took over and my grandpa (my mom’s dad) was an adviser to the Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai Shek. My father’s parents had moved from the mainland to HK earlier, so my dad was born in HK.

Boston

Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor

Boston

Boston

Boston was the site of the 2009 Asian American Journalists Association Convention, so I was there in August with my husband and mom in tow for some sightseeing as well. We stayed at the waterfront Seaport Hotel at the World Trade Center, where the convention was held.

History all around you
The neat thing that sets Boston apart from most other American cities is the sheer amount of history you can see and touch all around you. So many significant events happened there that shaped this country. So that’s the positive side of an old city. The negative side is that many building facades are worn and ugly, and the subways are creepy and depressing. But overall, the greater Boston area was quite charming and scenic.

Boston Harbor near downtown

Boston Harbor near downtown

Seafood
I was unimpressed by the seafood I ate, even though it was at popular joints recommended by locals. It’s no better than fresh seafood I’ve had elsewhere, including my hometown of Houston, which sits near the Gulf Coast. Alaska’s fish is still the best I’ve ever had.

Chinatown
Boston’s Chinatown is similar to Chicago’s in that it’s old and it’s a walking Chinatown. Several blocks shoot off the main street, and you can walk the sidewalks to get to restaurants, bakeries, and other stores. Residential units sit above the ground-floor storefronts. It’s unlike Houston’s or Los Angeles’ more modern, sprawling Chinatowns that are best traveled by car to each shopping center. Like other Chinatowns, Boston’s boasts good food at dirt-cheap prices. An 80-cent slice of cake, anyone? You’ll find it at Great Taste Bakery & Restaurant. We also ate at Gourmet Dumpling House — a popular, crowded eatery open late at night.

Boston Common

Boston Common

MUST-SEES

Freedom Trail

Freedom Trail

1. Freedom Trail. The Freedom Trail encompasses most of Boston’s famous historic sites. Boston Common is believed to be America’s first public park, and it’s a scenic one. From there, you can cross the street to see the Massachusetts State House with a gold dome (made of real gold). Then you pass historic churches and meeting houses along the trail, which is delineated by a continuous thin strip of red brick on the ground. It’s especially chilling to go past the site of the Boston Massacre. On a more positive note, Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a fun shopping and dining complex, which includes Quincy Market. But again, like almost everything else in Boston, it’s got that old-world charm. Freedom Trail wraps up with the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), Charlestown Navy Yard, and Bunker Hill Monument.
2. Harvard University & Harvard Square in Cambridge. People definitely look intelligent on the campus of America’s top-ranked Ivy League school, Harvard. The campus itself looks as old as it is. Minus the passed-out drunks on outdoor benches, Harvard Square is a delightful nearby shopping district of cafes and boutiques. I had the best salmon sandwich at Crema Cafe.

Harvard Square

Harvard Square

3. MIT. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It looked like one: very institutional and geeky. (I can say that because I went to a brainy university myself, but Rice has beautiful Mediterranean architecture. MIT looks like the rest of Boston: old and a little depressing. Sorry, I like contemporary style!)
4. Boston Harbor. Waterfront dining and shopping opportunities are abundant, as well as just places to sit and enjoy the view of sailboats on the famed Boston Harbor.
5. Beacon Hill. A charming, wealthy neighborhood where gaslights line the street and stay lit all day and night, Beacon Hill has been home to famous figures both historical and current. Even the 7-Eleven is classy.
6. Newbury Street, Back Bay, Copley Place, The Shops at Prudential Center. All are a shopper’s heaven. Newbury Street is like the Rodeo Drive of Boston. Filene’s Basement, which is famous for its annual Running of the Brides, during which brides-to-be rush into the store to grab deeply discounted bridal gowns, is a bargain-hunter’s paradise for everyday items you’d find in a department store. Back Bay and Copley Place are also nice shopping destinations not far from Newbury Street. And Prudential Center is an office building with a floor of department stores, restaurants, shops, and a food court — just like a mall.

Boston Harbor

Boston Harbor

We took the Boston Duck Tours to see most of the main attractions. The tour guide took us around the Boston area in a World War II amphibious landing vehicle that starts on land, then drives into the Charles River and functions much like a boat for us to see the city from the water.

Boston Duck Tour in Charles River

Boston Duck Tour in Charles River