Live! From Beijing

It seems to us that if everyone in the world just had the chance to visit one another’s countries, we would all understand one simple fact: we are all more alike than we are different. That has certainly been the case in China ( and in the past in Turkey, Chile etc.)

The more we see in this astonishing country, the more we wish our respective leaders could look into the eyes of the children and others on the streets and see the smiles…and smile back. We’ve been here in China through a long weekend where folks from the countryside flock to the cities to see their own tourist attractions, and these are people who have seen few Westerners. We have provided endless amusement, and have been asked on numerous occasions to pose with the kids and the older family members for selfies! We always agree to their delight.

In the past few days we’ve strolled Tiannamen Square, explored The Forbidden City, and climbed the Great Wall which was made even more outstanding as a result of our Silversea overland experience. We had the good fortune to have a tour guide who took us to the northern entrance to the Great Wall area and we climbed the wall in almost utter seclusion, far from the crowds we could see in the distance. Oh, and overnight in Beijing? The Four Seasons was beyond divine.

We are now on our way to Japan but will forever be grateful we visited surprising China.

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A Chilean wine-tasting adventure

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A small part of the vineyards at Casas del Bosque

There is nothing more satisfying than sitting at home on a cold Saturday evening with a glass of lovely wine. It’s even more satisfying if that wine was one that you first tasted in the vineyard where it was produced. A glass of Chilean sauvignon blanc from Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley provides us with just that feeling – and the memory of touring the vineyards and lunching at their charming restaurant. We’re just lucky that their wine is carried at our favourite wine purveyor in downtown Toronto! But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We had no idea it would be so cold in Chile when we were there recently. As much as the greenery said summer, the weather said early spring. But we were ready and waiting for Leo, our guide, the morning he picked us up from our Santiago hotel so we could spend the day touring some of his favourite wineries.

We started at Casas del Bosque where we had actually eaten lunch a few days earlier on our way from Valparaiso to Santiago. Today, Leo had arranged for us to tour the vineyard, see the wine processing and then partake in their wine tasting experience.

We’ve done wine-tastings in many places from luxury cruise ships to the Veuve Clicquot caves in Champagne, France to the Sonoma Valley in California among others. This was one of the best planned and organized ones we had experienced (notwithstanding the fact that the very well-appointed tasting room was so cold!).

The sommelier was knowledgeable, spoke perfect English and was so very personable. There was no pressure whatsoever to purchase at the wine boutique following the tasting, but how could we not? The selections were so surprisingly appealing that we did have to bring a bottle home – in our wine bottle armor that we always take with us! (…and highly recommend…)

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Our Magellan’s bottle armor. We never travel without it!

Leo asked us if we liked sparkling wine and we couldn’t say no, so he took us along to Vina Mar to taste some bubbles, visit the vineyard and have lunch. The tasting wasn’t’ as in-depth or as well-organized as the one as Casas del Bosque, but the lunch was in a very atmospheric dining room overlooking the vast vineyards, so there was definitely something to be said for it!

Our last destination was a winery that is very well-known to Canadians (and Americans we’ll wager). It is the behemoth organization that produces wines under so many brand names – the largest exporter of wine in Chile – namely Concha y Toro. They have vineyards all over Chile. Each of the valleys in the country specializes in a different type of grapes, so a winery that produces a number of different varietals is going to have to source from a number of geographic areas where the growing conditions are conducive to that specific type of grape.

The Casablanca Valley where we toured that day for example, has the perfect growing conditions for the sauvignon blanc grape. While at Concha y Toro we didn’t take part in an organized tasting; we did it ourselves and recommend this for anyone tired of doing the group thing. We ordered their most expensive wine flight and a charcuterie and cheese board and went at it. The sommelier who served us was impressed by our selection.

Needless to say, by the end of the day we felt we knew so much more about Chilean wine. That didn’t stop us from having another glass with dinner though (oh, and a Pisco sour before!).

If you have four minutes to run through the Casablanca Valley with us…

 

 

Santiago, Chile: A city to live in

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The ever-present Andes mountains looking down over Santiago in the central valley of Chile

Have you ever visited a city in a foreign country and said to yourself, “I could live here”? We’ve had this feeling only a couple of times in our lives. The most notable time was when we visited Sydney, Australia a couple of years ago. When we returned home, we said this to our son: “If we had visited Sydney 30 years earlier, you would be Australian instead of Canadian!” More recently, we had a similar experience: perhaps not quite as passionate, but close. We thought the same thing when we visited Santiago, the capital of Chile: We could live there. And we don’t even speak Spanish. But back to the beginning of our Santiago story.

We arrived in Chile not at an airport after a tiring 10-hour flight (that would come later – on our way home), rather via cruise ship – cool, collected, rested and met at the terminal by our wonderful “Tours-by-Locals” guide, Leo. We had arranged a four-day Santiago-area sojourn that we hoped would give us the flavour of the city and beyond –wine and mountains were calling to us.

The wonderfully personable Leo also turned out to be a passionate and exceptionally knowledgeable Chilean who generously shared the secrets of his country. We were in for a real treat. That treat began with our tour of the port city of Valparaiso before the inland trip to Santiago and the Andes.

The most striking thing about Valparaiso was the street art. Much more than what we have come to know as graffiti, this street art provides the true essence of this port city that is past its heyday. The opening of the Panama Canal (which we had recently transited) made sure of that. Before ships could make their way from Europe and the east coast of North America via that shortcut, they had no choice but to round the southern tip of South America and make their way north along the coast. Valparaiso was a major stop on that route. But no longer.

After getting a sense of Valparaiso, Leo took us up the coast to Vina del Mar, a seaside bedroom and vacation community before heading inland via the very well-maintained, four-lane divided highway.

As we entered Santiago proper, the first thing we were struck by is the ever-present Andes. Every time you look up you could swear that you weren’t in a big city because all you can see in the distance is mountains. The city lies in the country’s central valley about 1700 feet above sea level. A city of some 6 million people, Santiago is also one of the oldest of the major metropolises in the Americas. It was founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. What makes this city especially interesting is the juxtaposition of the old – represented by the centre of the grid-like old city and the exquisite examples of modern architecture. Like our home town of Toronto, it is also a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own character.

The old city square is not a place you want to meander through without ensuring the safety of your wallet. Gazing around at the old and the new, you might forget that you are also surrounded by throngs of unemployed immigrants hanging around either doing very little or waiting for jobs as Leo explained.

We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel which is located in a leafy, upscale residential area known as Viticura. As Leo explained, each of these districts within the city has its own mayor and municipal building. The one in Viticura is an extraordinary modern structure on street bordering the most exquisite city park.

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The “town hall” in Vitacura, Santiago, Chile

Everywhere you look there were places for people to picnic, play and just enjoy being outdoors. The ponds were full of swans and flamingos. And where else in the world might you see a Nespresso bar at a Sunday street market? In Vitacura, for sure.

We spent a couple of our days in the Santiago area in the city proper, another in Chilean wine country, and another up in the Andes in places that no other tourists seem to have found – thanks to Leo. But those are stories for another day!

…and if you have a few minutes and want to see a bit more…

 

Visiting Lima, Peru: A private guided tour

We live in Toronto, the fourth-largest city in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA. But our population is just shy of 3 million (LA is just shy of 4 million). When Canadians think about Toronto, they have a perception that it is large…enormous…populous…crowded…massive. Well, that’s because they’ve never visited so many of the cities on other continents. Take Lima, Peru. Who knew that the population of Lima is in the vicinity of 10 million with a population density of over 3000 inhabitants per square kilometre! Until we visited the city a few weeks ago, we certainly didn’t.

Lima locator map

We arrived at the port city of Callao, 14 kilometres west of Lima. Since the city of Lima is largely built on oceanside cliffs overlooking a long stretch of beach, no cruise ships – or ships of any type for that matter – dock in the city itself. So, we boarded the cruise line shuttle, a modern, air-conditioned bus, that transported us from the pier to a part of Lima called Miraflores. Although we didn’t know it at the time, there is a very good reason for taking this shuttle and not meeting a tour guide at the entrance to the port, but we need to back-track for a moment.

We really are not fans of shore excursions organized by cruise lines. The reasons for this are many and we’ll spend a bit more time on those reasons in a future post. For now, let’s just say that we like to be in control. However, that doesn’t always mean that we want to be completely self-guided; we just want to be able to go at our own pace and see the things that interest us. Enter the world of the private guide.

When we planned the recent cruise to South America, we perused the cruise-line’s offerings for shore excursions then surfed on over to Tours-by-Locals, a Vancouver-based, internationally-focused tour company that offers private, licensed, vetted guides in some 158 countries. We had the pleasure of discovering them a couple of years ago when we were searching for a guide in Ephesus and Istanbul. [See our post here.] After that wonderful experience, it only made sense to see what they had to offer in a few of our port stops. In Lima we discovered a tour-guide whose offerings looked like just what we wanted.

We contacted Aaron through the Tours-by-Locals site, and conducted all our preparations directly through him, using the site as a way to document and pay for the experience. It was during these preparations that Aaron mentioned that he would meet us in the “safe” spot that the cruise shuttle would drop us. We wondered about the 45-minute drive into Lima (only 14 km. but lots of traffic!) to meet him, but as soon as the shuttle bus pulled outside the port gate, it was clear to us why he had wanted us to meet him in Lima.

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The J.W. Marriott Hotel in Lima where the Silversea shuttle dropped off passengers

The port shuttle took passengers from the pier only to drop them in a seedy spot just outside the gate populated by unlicensed taxis, questionable characters, and lots of grime. We considered how we might have felt waiting for our guide at that spot, or later on waiting for the shuttle to be dropped off. All in all, it was much preferable to be dropped in front of the uber-modern J.W. Marriott Hotel in Miraflores, one of the chicest neighbourhoods in the city of Lima. Yes, it was a good call on Aaron’s part. We called him as we left the port on the bus and as promised, he was waiting for us on the sidewalk when we arrived in Lima.

Aaron had arranged for his brother to be our driver. We knew from previous experience touring other cities (Rome & Istanbul come immediately to mind) that having a driver in addition to a guide makes city touring even more enjoyable. That obviates the necessity for a guide doubling as a driver who is forced to spend time searching for parking spots. It also means that we can be dropped off at any corner, in any amount of traffic with plans to meet the driver at some other point. The we can walk which is, of course, the best way to see a city.

DSC00775Aaron started our tour in the historic area of Barranco. Considered to be the city’s most romantic and bohemian districts, Barranco was at one time a summer beach resort. Aaron took us to a lovely, small café for coffee before we carried on to Lima’s downtown financial district then on to The Larco Museum, which must hold the largest collection of pre-Columbian art in the world! It consists of over 50,000 pieces of ceramic art including a large selection of pre-Columbian erotica. It is not to be missed.

Of course, no visit to a Spanish colonial city is complete without spending some time in its Plaza des Armas, a central fixture of every city with Spanish roots. The plaza was originally building the sixteenth century and of course has as one of its most important features, the Cathedral of Lima. Completed in the seventeenth century, 1622 to be precise, it still stands in the square today.

 

A lively square populated with all manner of tourists, the square gives the that sense of history that holds the key to the city’s past. But after that visit, it was off to lunch. At Aaron’s apartment.

We arrived at Aaron’s apartment where his mother was already hard at work preparing for us a typical Peruvian lunch whose centrepiece was her ceviche which she taught us how to make.

But it was Aaron’s Pisco sour lesson that, for us, was  the highlight. We didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of our remaining two weeks in Peru and Chile, we would have one every chance we had.

A brandy-type of liquor, Pisco is distilled from grapes and is a staple of bars in both Peru and Chile, although the actual process for making the liquor is slightly different in each country. It can be used as the basis for a number of cocktails, or taken over ice, but Pisco is best know for it use in the ubiquitous Pisco sour. The drink’s ingredients are Pisco, fresh lime juice (which Aaron squeezed from tiny Peruvian key limes), and egg white in a blender with ice. Then he topped it with a drop of orange bitters – Aaron’s own recipe. We swooned.

Soon, however, lunch was over and Aaron deposited us back in Miraflores where, true to his promise, he led us to a shop where Patty began her search for an alpaca sweater. It wasn’t successful that day, but we still had a week in Peru! She’d find one.

Bottom line: our top pointers for visiting Lima via a cruise ship:

  1. Meet your tour guide in Lima rather than in the port of Callao. You will be happier and safer. Take the cruise line’s shuttle, sit back and enjoy the mostly beach-side drive.
  2. Book a private guide on Tours-by-Locals. We have found them to be a terrific value and have given us experiences you just cannot get with a group.