One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

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The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

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Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

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We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

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Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

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One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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Visiting Hiroshima: A sobering day for travelers

mapWhen we first booked our recent cruise through Asia, we were looking forward to visiting Jeju Island, a short stop between leaving China and arriving in Japan. We were unfamiliar with it, but a bit of research uncovered the fact that it is something of a resort island – and a part of Korea. Well, we booked that cruise a year in advance because it was the perfect itinerary, and like world events are bound to do, Korea was much in the news. Never mind that the focus was North Korea and Jeju Island is part of South Korea, but one thing led to another and the cruise line altered the itinerary. We really don’t know why. We would now bypass the island and head instead to Hiroshima, which had not been on the original itinerary. We weren’t disappointed.

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The Hiroshima cruise terminal

We arrived in this, our first Japanese port, under grey skies. It seemed fitting somehow. As usual, there was a bus ride from the port into the city and when we disembarked the bus, we were in the middle of what is a somewhat unprepossessing town: a lot of drab, post WW II buildings. Naturally.

It seemed a bit ironic to us that the nuclear threat from North Korea may have played a part in the rerouting of our ship only to find ourselves in the middle of the city that was devastated on August 6, 1945 by the world’s first atomic bomb ever deployed – dropped from an American B-29 bomber killing some 80,000 people. A sobering thought indeed.

In the midst of all this post-war drabness sits a magnificent park with a river flowing through the middle of it. It then becomes clear to you that on the edge of that river, surrounded by gardens, walkways, a reflecting pond and a museum is what we now refer to as the “atomic dome.” It is what is left of the only structure left standing near the epicentre that fateful day when the bomb exploded above the city raining down destruction everywhere. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Standing there beside the dome, which is really the remnants of a government building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall to be precise, we felt the poignancy of it. We cannot in any authentic way know what it was really like. But inside the museum, they have tried to make you feel it.

The museum includes a display that begins with the city as it was the day before the attack. The bomb then drops and the recreation demonstrates how the radiation spread out, destroying everything in its path. Frightening.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum which is text-heavy (and yes, it is in English as well as Japanese); rather we left the group we were with (as usual) and walked around the park. The skies opened and the rain began.

When we boarded the bus, we headed to Miyajima Island and its famed Shinto Shrine.

That, however, would have been so much better if it hadn’t been for the torrential rain. And the tour guide who insisted on standing in the torrential rain blathering about this and that while everyone got soaked. We left that tour, too. Good thing we had a private guide waiting for us in Tokyo!

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Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall (Part 2)

Snaking across a vast length of China, protecting an ancient border from marauding hordes from the north, The Great Wall of China, a UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the few man-made structures that, at least according to space mythology, is visible from the space station. Although it may be a cliché bucket list item, it’s one that truly ought to be on a traveler’s radar. We finally visited it this spring.

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It was such a beautiful day, we could see for miles. 

We left the marvelous Four Seasons Beijing on sunny morning heading for Badaling Great Wall Funicular, one of the points at which gaining access to the wall relies not on a half-day climb, but a shiny new funicular on the north side of the wall.

 

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The Badaling section, less than a two-hour drive from downtown Beijing, is one of the best-preserved parts of the wall and somewhat more accessible because it is not as steep as some sections.

 

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The entrance to the Badaling Funicular

After exiting the funicular, we left our tour group to walk the wall on our own. What a beautiful day it was standing there imagining what it must have been like back in the day when the wall actually served a purpose for protection and not tourist amusement. It’s hard to fathom something so ancient that construction on parts of it began some 2700 years ago, although as you probably know, not all of the wall is that old. In fact, much of the oldest part is now in ruins. What we visit is much younger, perhaps only 600 years.

And speaking of tourists, most of the other tourists we encountered were not from foreign countries; rather they were Chinese nationals who were visiting the wall for the first time themselves. And the young ones could not get enough of taking selfies with us Westerners in them!

So why did our tour guide take us to the north side you may reasonably ask? After all, this funicular is more expensive than other options, Well, just take a look at a photo of the south side access…

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Now see where we were…

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When you visit – because visit you must – take it slowly, and wear good walking shoes. As you look at the tower ahead of you and up at what looks like a mild incline, don’t be fooled. It’s much steeper than it looks. And hope for sunshine!

 

Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…

Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.

We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.

 

Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.

 

We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.

The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.

 

We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.

The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.

 

We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.