Seoul, South Korea

“We have a couple of extra days in our Hong Kong itinerary.  Why don’t we do a 2-day side trip to Seoul?  It’s only a 3 ½ flight from Hong Kong and we’ve never been there”

Geoffrey was keen but was weary of the heat in August.  Neither of us can take the hot temperatures that well so good planning is important.  Ie. Visit the main attractions as soon as they open and take plenty of cool drinks and so forth.  The other important thing was food.  We both love most Asian cuisine but Geoffrey doesn’t do spicy at all well (even more so in the hot temperatures).

Over the 2 days we visited Ghangdeokgung Palace , Bukchon Hanok Village, Gwangjang Markets, N Seoul Tower and the Myeong-dong Shopping District.

Ghangdeokgung Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth a visit.  Unfortunately it was a blistering day, the Palace grounds are huge and Geoffrey and I found ourselves chasing shadows most of the time.   We liked the nearby Bukchon Hanok Village much better.  Lots of narrow alleys with interesting shops and small restaurants.  Gwangjang Markets were a good place to grab some souvenirs and try out a variety of traditional Korean cuisine.  Seoul Tower is for those who like, well, Towers.  It’s a bit out of the way but you will be rewarded with great views of the city if you make the effort.  Myeong-dong is a good place to check out at night.  Busy and full of colour (and of course cooler!)

We’ll definitely return for a fuller visit … but perhaps when the weather is a bit kinder.

View from N Seoul Tower

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Brooklyn, New York

This was our 5th visit to the Big Apple.  We have good friends there and like to catch up with them at every opportunity or excuse.  And who wouldn’t!  New York is so enthralling – you will never ever run out of new places to see, places to eat, things to do, shows to see etc.   I’ve never even been to the big museums there because you need to spend at least a full day at each one to give them minimal justice.  Also, it’s a great excuse to go back to NY again…

“But why do we always stay in Manhatten?” asked Geoffrey.  “and always Midtown around Times Square?”  Geoffrey was disappointed when he first saw Times Square on the first visit.  This iconic landmark was smaller than expected, congested with traffic, tourists and peddlers.  A classic case of a big let-down from built-up expectations. [Hint: For your first visit to New York, see Times Square at night]

Brooklyn was its own independent city until 1898 and until relatively recently has been transformed from a poor, crime-ridden area to now being desirable, with increasingly expensive housing and very cool and hip.

We finally decided to stay Downtown Brooklyn as a base to savour the local attractions.  First impressions – it is so different from Midtown Manhattan.  Far, far less touristy and congested with far less chance of buying a horrible coffee.

Dumbo is a neighbourhood along the shoreline between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridge.  It’s trendy, with a well-manicured park and a great view of the Manhattan skyline.  The old warehouse buildings have been converted to independent boutiques, high-end restaurants and trendy cafes.  You can also get a great more elevated view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights and the Brooklyn Promenade.  Our NY friends said that the houses behind the prominade are not openly marketed as they are so sought after and rarely come up for sale.

We also did a Williamsburg Street Art Tour.  This was a free walking tour where you pay a gratuity at the end depending on the value you personally received.  Geoffrey and I know nothing about Street Art culture and this was an education for both of us.  The guide was a street artist with an obvious passion for the whole street art scene.  It just gives you an additional tiny insight into this vast, fascinating and diverse city.

These Free Tours by Foot are excellent value.  We did another one in Harlem a couple of days later.  You are likely to have a guide who is informal, interesting and passionate.  You are more likely to actually listen and learn something new compared to putting on a head-set.

Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit Prospect Park.  Prospect Park was designed by the same guy that designed Central Park.  Supposedly therefore he corrected all the mistakes he made in the design of Central Park.  Our friends said you will notice obvious similarities in the features of both parks.

We will save this for our next visit…

Brooklyn Street Art

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40th Chicago Marathon

This blog is penned by Geoffrey.  It’s for the runners who will understand it.  We love Chicago – this was our 3rd visit in 4 years.  Of course if you are interested in visiting Al Capone city, the end of Route 66, Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), cruise Lake Michigan, shop and eat the Magnificent Mile, visit the wonderful Art Institute or crazy enough to run the marathon than contact me and I’ll be happy to assist.

Over to Geoffrey …

Running marathons overseas has become fashionable in recent years.  Chicago is one of the 6 World Marathon Majors – the others being Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin and New York

They are glamourous and BIG,  the 40th Chicago event was 43,000 BIG.   However many runners will attest to the additional challenges of running far-away marathons.  Time-zone changes, jetlag, picking up bugs on the long-haul flight, an unfamiliar hotel bed, noisy and/or faulty air-conditioning, unfamiliar food, different climate etc. can all conspire against you on race day.   You are at risk of standing at the start line a mentally and physically tired, sniffing and coughing wreck. Once the adrenalin wears off at the half-way point things can go downhill very quickly.   Good planning is the key to reduce these risks.  I managed to get good quality sleeps in the nights before departure;  take ‘Blis Travel Guard’  (probiotic lozenges) to reduce the risk of catching something in-flight; stay at accommodation close to the start line and with a kitchen where I can prepare my own meals.  The night before, I mix a few drops of elemental magnesium with water (which helps muscle relaxation) and take 2 ‘Estrella PM’ sleep tablets (supports staying sleep). 

The ‘Estralla PM’ tablets were actually samples in the Expo participant bag (but I had used them before and knew that they worked for me).  Like the rest of the event the Expo is well organised – easy to get to by free shuttle buses (departing from various points from the city) and well setup with short queues for pack and T-shirt collection.     It is dominated by Nike gear however (being a major sponsor).  

Despite the tragic events in Las Vegas the previous week there was no noticeable additional security from the previous year.  There were reports however that there were an extra 1,000 undercover police alone for this year’s event.  The general organisation of the event is excellent.  Access to the start line is efficient and exiting after you finish is very good as well. 

Race-day was unseasonably warm and we started off at around 14 degrees C.  4 hours later the temperature was 24 degrees.  The aid stations are fantastic.  There are 20 in total  (so on average every 2kms); on both sides of the road, and they each stretch 2 city blocks in length.  That’s 6,000 volunteers handing out cups of Gatorade for the most part with water at the end.  I was easily able to take and consume 3 cups (2 Gatorade and 1 water) without stopping at each station. That’s 60 cups in total (although on average the cup was only half full).  I was disciplined with this as I knew it was going to get warmer as the race progressed and because I perspire a lot anyway.  The later aid stations have gels, chews and bite-sized banana segments.  I felt my first leg cramps at around 32kms and I really do think this additional sustenance help managed the cramping

You can also take advantage of the shade cast by the city high risers on long stretches of the route early on and the smart runners did this.  However the close proximity of the high rise buildings and a number of underpasses created an issue with my Garmin FR235.  Data accuracy fell off at certain parts of the course which rendered some of the data unreliable so I also used the Garmin’s heart rate function some of the time to monitor pace.  I used a chest strap as I find this is more accurate than the wrist monitor in the watch (especially during running). 

The crowd support in Chicago is incredible – an estimated 1.7m people around the course.  Can’t really describe this – you really need to be there to experience this yourself.  It’s also a very flat course (only a 39m elevation gain) and a good one to go for a fast time. 

Highly recommended.

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Philadelphia, USA

“Have you ever been to Philadelphia?”, our New York friend asked.  “I have some business there to attend to tomorrow and I could drop you off at the Historical Area and you can look around for the day.  I can then pick you up at around 5.”

We’ve been to the Big Apple many times, but rather surprisingly, never really thought about visiting the birthplace of America.  It’s an easy 2 hour drive and a logical day tour from New York to visit the very walkable historic area of the city.  If you are short on time you can easily join a walking tour where the guide will provide a very educational and fun experience.  The tours are only a few hours and will cover the National Constitution Centre, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center, Betsy Ross House and Declaration House.  Geoffrey has always had a personal interest in the life of Benjamin Franklin so was able to visit the nearby Benjamin Franklin Museum and cemetery.

A couple of blocks away is the famous historic Reading Terminal Food Market – an amazing array of fantastic food offerings that you could possibly imagine.  A perfect place to look around and to have lunch.

If you visit America often, Philadelphia really is a must-see place to visit to fully appreciate the origins of this huge and diverse nation.

Independence Hall

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Cuba

The Directors travelled to Cuba in June 2017 on a 7-day private tour.  Absolutely one of the coolest destinations you can visit at the moment.

The great thing about private tours is that you have flexibility with places you want to see and with any special activities you may particularly want to do.   Private tours, in the main are totally customizable and you can afford to be that little more adventurous in your planning.  The tour guide will then do their best to work around you to suit budget and interests and of course at the same time offering you their personal expertise.

The tour company we used was a small company who specialise only with Cuban Tours of small groups.  They operate both group tours and private independent tours.  They operate both with western and Cuban staff living full time in the country.  We were impressed with their extensive experience and knowledge of Cuba and we can honestly say that there wasn’t a single question that they were unable to answer about this fascinating destination.

It’s hard to describe what Cuba is like until you go there yourself.  It is many things – but if you have any sort of interest in Cuba then it’s absolutely a ‘must-see soon’ destination.

With extremely limited access to email and the internet it’s amazing to see how every day technology (which we all now take for granted) has quickly widened further the gap between Cuba and the rest of the modern world.

Our private tour group itinerary included Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara Vanales and of course Havana.  Some of us have in-depth interests in the Revolution and missile crisis and the on-going effect (to this day) on the day to day lives of the people – the old and young, the rich and poor, the urban and rural.  But of course there is just so much more than Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Bay of Pigs.  Think of Ernest Hemingway, cigars and mojitos,   classic American cars, Spanish colonisation and Wars of Independence,  American influence and the Mafia, sugar and slavery, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.  Cuba is just pure fascination…

Definitely one of the coolest trips we’ve experienced – and that’s in 30 degrees plus heat!!

Salvador Gonzalez Escalona

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Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Japan

“No – we can’t fit in Mt Fuji into this trip.  But have you heard about the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route?”, I replied to Geoffrey.  Geoffrey enjoys outdoor activities, especially cycling, running and hiking.  There was no way I would even think about climbing Mt Fuji although I know this is on his bucket list.

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is an easily assessable 37km horizontal route / 2,000 m vertical height over the scenic Mt. Tateyama mountain range in the Northern Japan Alps.  It is easily assessable from the major cities of Toyama and Nagano prefectures at either end.  Renowned features of the route are the many unique forms of transportation – funicular (cable railway); bus; trollybus; aerial tramway and walking.

Geoffrey continually marveled at the engineering of the route (especially the tunnels)  which had been constructed with maintaining the natural scenery in mind.  One of the main attractions along the route is the snow corridor – a 20 meter high snow wall on either side of the road.  Another spectacular attraction is the 186 meter  Kurobe Dam – Japan’s tallest Dam.  Kurobe lake dam behind the dam was frozen over when we were there but we understand that it’s incredible sight in the summer when the spillways are opened.

There were a lot of people on the route but it never seemed over-crowded especially when you were out of the tunnel and on the mountain.  That’s just Japanese efficiency at play – like many things that the Japanese do so well.

It has been stated that the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is the world’s leading mountain sightseeing route.  It was a trip that easily exceeded our expectations.  You could easily take your parents and fit grand-parents through this route – it is that assessable.

Snow Corridor

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Siena, Tuscany, Italy

One of my favourite James Bond opening sequences is the chase scene in Quantum Of Solace in the town of Siena.   Fans of the movie will especially remember the horse race taking place around the Piazza del Campo

Siena is an easy day trip from Florence which can also include visits to the area’s wine-growing regions and other historic towns like San Gimignano.  Siena though will be the obvious highlight of the trip being declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site.   It is one of the Italy’s most visited tourist attractions.   If you are visiting Florence, Siena is a must see.  If this around July / August you could try and coincide the visit with the Palio di Siena – the traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo (although it will be insanely crowded).   However we were there on a relatively quiet, beautiful sunny day in December.  You can’t beat a beautiful day in autumn.

The other major attraction is the Gothic Siena Cathedral completed in 1380.  Geoffrey and I are the first to admit that we have little appreciation of the countless European Cathedrals we have obligatory entered.  However in the relatively small town of Siena, this Cathedral is an obvious standout and we actually spent some time inside – especially admiring the marble mosaic floors.

For the most part though we just enjoyed the sunny day and getting lost wandering the narrow streets and alley ways.   It’s a great way to relax – just exploring on your own, being your own guide getting a basic feel of the town in the short time you have available.  You turn a corner and come across all sorts of surprises.

Simply delightful …

Siena Cathedral

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“New Year’s Eve on Copacabana  beach” I exclaimed.  “With 2 million others…”  Geoffrey  ruefully replied.  But the fireworks display were something to be behold and easily surpassed anything we’d ever seen previously.  We’d walked from our hotel on a balmy still night with our bottle of champagne and savoured the festival atmosphere to find our spot on the beach.   Just about anywhere on the beach is fine.  The fireworks are launched from boats so everybody gets a perfect view.  There seemed to be dozens of cruise ships also anchored out to sea so the many thousands aboard were also getting perfect views.   The night probably could have done with a slight sea breeze as the fireworks went on for so long, the resulting smoke ended up obstructing some of the display.  But of course it’s also all about the atmosphere before and after midnight – sharing in the New Year with so many others in a celebration on a massive scale.

Geoffrey’s a keen runner and rose early the next morning to jog the 20kms along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and back to the hotel again.  I was a little worried as the mercury starts to soar after 10am.  However he had lots of drink stops along the way topping up with the very refreshing Guarana Antarctica local soft drink which we had both taken a liking to.

Rio is not one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere for a reason.  It has something for everyone.  Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World; and Sugarloaf Mountain with its cable car; the Sambódromo are obvious must sees.   A tip …  if you have limited time, book tours to the major attractions to avoid the huge crowds (or go early).

We especially enjoyed the Dona Maria Favela tour made famous by Michael Jackson’s famous song “They Don’t Care About Us” and other walking tours away from the main attractions.

If the heat finally gets to you, there always the sanctuary of the beach or cocktails by the pool or the fabulous air-conditioned shopping malls!

The Carnival  before Easter is possibly the largest in the world …  now that’s got to be high on the bucket list!

Dona Maria favala

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Sambódromo

Prague, Czech Republic

“Prague or Budapest?   We can’t fit in both.”  I asked Geoffrey as I was thinking about the itinerary for our 2016 end of year trip to Europe.  Life can be so hard.   In the end it was Prague – and it was a good choice – a really fascinating interesting city to spend a few days.  To be fair, Budapest is possibly / will probably be just as interesting but we’ll save it for another time.

End of year trips to Europe has its definite pluses.  Generally it’s the best time of year for me to get away work-wise.  Secondly, the cities and countryside can be stunningly beautiful – especially with the absence of huge crowds that frequent the most popular areas in the summer.   You can normally get a lot more done as the queues are so much shorter.  We also love this time of year in Europe where the renowned Christmas markets are everywhere and which add so much life and colour to the city.

The downside, of course is that the days are shorter and it can at times get quite cold.  Our apartment was central and well heated (and this is important in winter this time of year!)  We had cooking facilities and a couple of supermarkets across the road so this was perfect.   All the Old Town attractions were in walking distance and we also used the public bus service which was easy to use and a chance for us to get up close to the locals!

Lots and lots to see in this historic city – you could easily spend a lot of time in Prague.  Geoffrey especially wanted to see the famous Astronomical Clock and I wanted to walk the Charles Bridge.  We generally don’t visit the Galleries and Museums as the popular ones are typically busy, enormous and it’s impossible to do them justice with the time available.

Pork knuckles are a popular dish in Prague – and in winter you can understand why.  Absolutely delicious and absolutely enormous!  Can easily share one between 4 people.  I ended up taking it away and managed a further 3 meals with it back at the apartment!

We also did a day tour to the town of Český Krumlov which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  We had a stunning perfect winter’s day.  Well worth visiting if you have an extra full day in Prague.

Charles Bridge

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Iguazu Falls

In December 2013 we visited Iguazu Falls as part of a South American private itinerary. I’ve picked out our visit to the Falls because this was one of the highlights from this amazing trip.

Geoffrey and I have seen a few of the world’s major falls but Iguazu would have to be our top choice to date. The great thing is that Iguazu can be seen from so many different perspectives and we took advantage of most of them! By morning, day and night; by land, river and air; by country (Iguazu spans the border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay). The park has been developed to allow easy and close access without having impacted the natural surroundings.

It’s difficult to describe (without the usual superlative clichés) without going there and experiencing them yourself. Quite often you hear so much about a place but the reality lets you down. This is in part due to the internet where we are able to research anything and everything in depth, but which the downside is that the element of surprise is diminished when you get there. Not so with Iguazu – despite all the hype we were still blown away.

We spent 2 full days there and we could easily have spent another if the itinerary had allowed.

A must see and a high point for your Bucket List

A section of Iguazu

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