Travel Planning: Asia in our sights

It’s mid-April and here in the northern hemisphere the calendar says it’s spring. One look out our windows here in Toronto, however, tells a whole different story. We’ve been in the grips of a late-season ice storm for the past few days and it could not look more like winter out there. What better time to be thinking of Hong Kong and its current 25° C temperatures!

We’ve been actively planning this Asia trip for some time. It all began some time last year when, despite Asia having been on our travel bucket list for some time, we mused that perhaps we didn’t really need that 15-hour flight. When our son got wind of our thoughts on the subject he implored us not to give up the idea. In his view we HAD to visit Hong Kong and Tokyo at least. He had performed in both cities on various tours with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo a few years ago and told us that we’d love both experiences. So, we decided to take his advice and plan a trip that would include both.

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It was just the two of us and Kevin, our guide, in his Mercedes when we toured Ireland a few years ago. Here is our transportation parked out front of Ashford Castle. 

We looked at land-tour options and those included a number of regional flights in China. We wondered if we really wanted to spend that much time in airports where we didn’t speak the language, and worse, couldn’t even read the language characters. That seemed like a bit of a drag to us, although we considered a Kensington private, guided tour, since we had used them before in Ireland and were more than satisfied. But there were other options. We could consider transportation between cities by ship.

As long-time readers know about us, cruise ships are really just comfortable methods of transportation for us usually. Okay, we sometimes do like an island hop in the Caribbean on a six-star ship, but in recent years, our “cruises” have been selected based on their itineraries. So, we decided to check out our favourite cruise lines to see what they offered in Asia.

We explored Oceania, Regent and Cunard. We even considered Holland America, although we haven’t travelled on them in years. It turns out that the vast majority of the itineraries on offer include one but not both of the must-see cities on our list – Hong Kong and Tokyo – and truth be told, most cruise lines don’t actually seem to go to Tokyo at all. Then we hit on Silversea. (You might remember that we sailed on Silversea’s new ship the Silver Muse in the fall down the western coast of South America – in actual fact, we had booked this Asia cruise even before we left for that one!)

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We’ll be sailing aboard the 382-guest luxury cruise ship the Silver Shadow. [Photo credit: https://www.silversea.com/ships/silver-shadow.html]
Silversea was the only one we found that began in Hong Kong and ended in Tokyo. That was perfect: we could spend a few days in Hong Kong before sailing, then end with four or five days in Tokyo. So, we booked. One of the nice features of this itinerary was also that the ship spends two days in each of the important ports of call: Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka. It also offers a couple of mid-cruise land tours where you leave the ship for an overnight on shore so that you can explore places you couldn’t do in a single day. Next on the agenda – right after touching base with our long-time travel agent Angela (Maritime Travel) who booked our non-stop flights to and from our destination – was to plan how we would see the sights.

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First, we looked at the cruise line’s own offerings. We decided to book their overland trip in Beijing. When the ship docks in Tianjin (the port for Beijing) we’ll be on the fast train into the city for touring. Then we stay overnight at the Four Season’s Hotel in Beijing. The next day we head to The Great Wall then back to meet the ship. Unlike the shore excursions which, on Silversea, you book in advance but pay for when you disembark the ship, this overland trip had to be paid for in advance. Done.

As we looked at the other offerings, it occurred to us that there were choices among them that would permit us to see as much of the stops as possible. So, we booked a number of excursions. Silversea’s shore excursions, in our experience, appear expensive to the untrained eye, but they do have fewer people on buses and are generally good value for the money. That took care of planning for Shanghai, Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto. That left us with our book-ends: Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Naturally we looked to Tours-by-Locals, our go-to company for private touring around the world.

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Our private guide in Hong Kong has now arranged our transportation from the airport to our hotel on Hong Kong island, will provide us with a private tour of the city and arrange for our transportation to the pier. Our Tokyo guide has arranged three days of city touring and a day of touring outside the city – then will drop us at the airport after four days there. And all of this was arranged through Tours-by-Locals’ web site where we were able to arrange all the details which are personalized for us. Our Tokyo guide has even provided us with materials to help us acclimatize to Japanese culture as well as an extensive list of recommended reading. Well, we opted to prepare for this trip not through too much reading, but via two video-based courses.

We bought two courses from The Great Courses, a site that we’ve gone to throughout the years for a wide variety of educational programming: Foundations of Eastern Civilization (Craig G. Benjamin PhD), which was 48 half-hour lectures and Understanding Japan: A Cultural History (Mark J. Ravina PhD), 24 half-hour lectures. And yes, we watched every one of them.

Both professors are experts in their fields, but more important perhaps even than that is that their passion for their respective specialties is palpable in their terrific delivery. We didn’t take notes, but we feel that having done this in advance, we can more fully experience the history and culture of our Asian destinations. We’re looking forward to seeing in real life many of the places and experiences both shared with us.

Now that we’ve booked and finalized everything, and prepared our brains for new adventures, we’re just about ready to board that plane. We leave in five days. Hope you’ll come along with us!

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Getting ready…trusty Briggs & Riley carry-ons. 
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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…

 

A Singular Travel Experience: Transiting the Panama Canal

DSC00394Listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in the book of the same name, the Panama Canal also stands as one of the seven wonders of the modern world” – man-made engineering feats that are testimony to the ingenuity and capabilities of modern men and women (among the others are the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France, the Golden Gate Bridge and Toronto’s own CN Tower to name a couple). All of that aside, transiting the Panama Canal has been on our personal “bucket list” for a very long time. We finally did it and it was impressive.

So, why is sitting aboard a ship as it makes its way from the Caribbean Ocean through a series of locks, one large and one small artificially-created lake, a canal and another set of locks such a memorable experience? We’re not really sure it’s a logical thing, but the experience of the transit was just as good as thinking about it for years in advance. And initially, it’s really all about the planning.

With the idea of transiting the canal in our minds, we embarked on a search to find the best route to get there. It would have to be on a cruise ship, we knew for sure. First there are those cruises that don’t actually transit the canal all the way from the Caribbean to the Pacific. They usually enter the Canal from the Caribbean side, make their way into Gatun Lake, the largest of the two man-made lakes, cruise the lake for a few hours and then go back through the Caribbean side locks to carry on a Caribbean cruise – a “partial Transit” as it is known. We wanted to go all the way through.

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The map our on-board lecturer provided – we think it came from Wikipedia

There are lost of cruises that begin in Florida – Fort Lauderdale or Miami – visit an island or two, transit the canal, visit a port or two in Mexico and then end in Los Angeles or even San Diego. We aren’t that stuck on Mexican ports, and had been to LA last winter. This approach would not have permitted us a real travel experience to see new places. So, it would have to be a canal transit that then turned southward upon exit. Enter the Silversea Silver Muse’s inaugural season, picking up passengers in Florida as it continued its way south and around the far southern tip of South America. That’s where we jumped on. So, you see, selecting a cruise for us is not focused on the cruise line or the ship per se. It’s not the cruise that’s the draw: it’s the itinerary.

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Attending Corey’s lecture

When we boarded the ship (more about the ship itself in due course), we found we had lucked into a wonderful on-board lecturer experience. Silversea, to their credit, does offer an on-board enrichment program that provides in-depth information about the ports visited. For us, this was a very important feature on this itinerary since we were completely in the dark about places like Manta, Ecuador and Pisco, Peru (among others) before we embarked on this journey. Former journalist and on-board lecturer Corey Sandler made the entire cruise so much more consequential, and never more so than on the day we transited the canal. One interesting piece of trivia we learned from him is the price ships pay to transit the canal. Our online research suggested that many commercial ships pay around $30,000 (USD) for a transit. Corey told us that Silversea was paying over $150,000 for this one trip! That will add to the price of a cruise!

About two days before, we attended his lecture that provided us with the history and geography that made the transit so much more meaningful. The complete transit is 77 kms (48 miles) from one ocean to another and took over 75,000 workers more than 10 years to complete – finally reaching its completion in 1914. In simple terms, it elevates ships from the Caribbean part of the Atlantic Ocean (in the direction we were traveling) to a series of lakes and canals and across the continental divide in the middle of the isthmus, then down through another series of locks into the Pacific Ocean. It took us a full day.

We entered the first lock at 8 am just behind our sister ship the Silver Expedition that was on its way to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. We spent three hours on the very top deck where no one ever goes (except for the crowd on the day we transited the canal) in the blazing sun of Panama watching as we entered the first lock. Then the water from above poured in to raise the ship one level; we watched the gates ahead open, then close behind us to elevate us another level, then a third until we emerged in Gatun Lake.

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We approach the first lock. We’ll follow the Silver Expedition into the lock on the right. You can see a large container ship heading our way on the left.

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In Gatun Lake, dotted with islands which are really the tops of mountains rising above the level of where the area was flooded and surrounded by Panamanian jungle, we anchored for a few hours. We had to wait our turn to proceed through the canal into another small lake then eventually to the Pacific side locks where the procedure would be reversed.

During the transit through the locks, and every once in a while, throughout the day when something interesting was going on, Corey, our on-board lecturer who spent the day on the bridge with the ship’s captain, narrated the passage. Without that narration the experience would have been so much less.

After the first few hours we left the upper deck, we had lunch then ensconced ourselves on the stern deck of the Panorama Lounge with a Sea Breeze (or three) in hand to enjoy the afternoon in the lake. As we began our passage into the canal the sky, which had been threatening for several hours, finally exploded into a thunder storm, the rain pelting the deck as we watched from under the awning. We did some lightning-spotting and felt truly in a jungle as we watched the steam rising from the dense greenery on all sides. It was magical.

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We were so much smaller than most of the ships we saw that day!

As we entered the final three locks, we watched from the stern for a bit then it was time to get ready for dinner. We finally removed ourselves from the Panorama deck and made our way to our suite where we turned the television on to the bridge webcam channel so that we could see ahead as we made our way out of the final lock, passing by Panama City, now glittering in the evening darkness.

Yes, it took from 8 am until after dark for the passage and we had a wonderful day knowing that we were benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of thousands o workers who put their lives on the line – they dealt with accidents, jungle weather for which they were not prepared and most of all, malaria and other contagious diseases. The opening of the Panama Canal changed forever the destinies of a number of formerly major ports on the west coast of South America, a situation that would become even more obvious to us as we began our passage south to visit them.

If you have some time, and would like to see the transit as we experienced it, here’s our video…