Hong Kong in a Day (and a bit!)

IMG_7312Who said it couldn’t be done? Well, we did it – with the help of a Tours-by-Locals guide named Jacky – “A Local’s Tour of Hong Kong” is how he billed it – and he delivered.

We arrive right on time at 1:35 pm at Hong Kong International Airport after a pleasant 15 hours traversing the North Pole on Air Canada. It was too soon for jet lag to set in. Thankfully!

Just as planned, we are met at the arrivals area by a driver sent by Jacky who we’d meet up with at our hotel at 9 am the next morning to “do Hong Kong.” Despite the lengthy flight and the 12-hour time change, we can’t just settle in to the beautiful Harbourview Renaissance Hotel on Hong Kong Island without spending an hour or two exploring the area around our hotel. So, we take a 25-minute walk to IFC (International Finance Centre) to see Lane Crawford – Asia’s premiere high-end department store whose former boss was nabbed by Hudson’s Bay in Canada to reinvigorate our department store scene a few years ago. What we find so startling about this mall on the other side of the globe is how much it resembles high-end malls at home. If we just squint, we could think we were back in Toronto. As daylight begins to wane, the lights in Hong Kong begin to come on and we make our way back to the hotel for a bite to eat and a good sleep. We will need it.

Jacky meets us in the lobby of the Renaissance the next morning and we jump into a cab to get quickly up to the top of Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island before any other tourists make their way up. Peruse any tourist brochure on Hong Kong and Victoria Peak will probably be the number one place to see. The reason is the views. It’s a great place to begin because as you take in the breathtaking view itself, you begin to get your bearings: you’re on Hong Kong Island and as you stare toward the harbour, you see Kowloon (the mainland, older part of Hong Kong) spreading out in front of you toward the hills that lead onward to the border with The People’s Republic of China. Then you’re aware that behind you is the side of Hong Kong Island that borders the East China Sea – although you can’t see it.

The requisite photos well in hand, it’s time to make our way down to carry on with our jam-packed day. Jacky leads us to the Peak Tram. A funicular railway, this iconic Hong Kong landmark is the traditional way to get up to the top of the Peak and has a long and fascinating history. And it’s not just for tourists. Residents who live at various levels of the Peak make their way to work and play using this tram that travels at sometimes impossible angles. The trip takes about 5 minutes.

peak tram
Inside the Peak Tram

Jacky leads us through the streets among the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island’s financial core stopping to consider the history of the area and stop for a coffee. These days the island itself has a population of about 1.3 million people – the entire Hong Kong area is 7.35 million and seemed every one of them was being disgorged from bus after bus and making their way into massive buildings that swallowed them up, wave after wave.

We hop aboard a city bus just as the skies open and are transported through a tunnel under Victoria Harbour to Kowloon where we find Sham Shui Po, a market area famous for its stall after stall packed with fabrics (among other things) – Patty is a bit of a fashion designer and couture sewer and wants to take a look. Jacky tells us he wants us to experience the markets like a local. The rain keeps us from spending too much time or money as we meander through the vegetable and dried fish markets as well as the fascinating street of fish – pet fish. Thousands for fish of every imaginable type in myriad aquariums as well as individual fish floating in plastic bags hanging on every stall. And hardly a tourist in site – the local experience, indeed.

After the markets, it’s time for lunch and Jacky thinks we need to discover the real home of dim sum. It’s hard to believe that neither of us has ever eaten dim sum before, but what better place to be introduced than to experience it in the place where it was first introduced to cuisine? Jacky selects a spot and we go inside what seems to be an office building then take the elevator up several floors. When we emerge, we are in an enormous room which looks exactly like a banquet room – because that’s what it is. It seems that these banquet facilities open at lunch time to serve dim sum to the locals. We are truly the only non-Hong Kong people in the place. But no one seems to mind.

IMG_1536
One other advantage of a personal, private guide is that he will usually take photos of us together – even when we don’t know he’s about to do it! Eating dim sum.

We leave it to Jacky to select the lunch menu and are only too happy to try out everything on offer. We find some of the textures unlike anything we have ever experienced in Canada and decide we probably should try North Americanized dim sum when we get home. After lunch it’s time to head to Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon’s busy shopping, restaurant and nightlife area. We opt to get there via the small public bus system which is fascinating and worth finding if you’re there – but we don’t think we could have found the stops without the help of our guide!

After the subway to a Buddhist temple garden (a fairly new addition to the Hong Kong experience we’re told), and a visit to a Daoist temple, we eventually make our way to the harbour front on the Kowloon side which provides a wonderful vantage point from where to see the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. A hop on the Star Ferry – not to be missed during a Hong Kong experience – and we’re back almost where we started, but we’re not finished our day yet.

Back on Hong Kong Island, Jacky takes us to Aberdeen on South Horizons Island, a fishing village area on the south side of the peak where we ride a small, local boat back to the main island. We hop on another city bus and we’re shortly back at the Renaissance.

hong kong island map

Although we say good-bye to our guide, we have at least a half a day ahead of us to tour a bit more on our own before we have to board the Silver Shadow, the small, luxury cruise ship that will be our transportation for the next couple of weeks. But before we leave Hong Kong, the magic of its night lights…

IMG_7466

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IFC: http://ifc.com.hk/en/mall/

Advertisements

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.

marriott lima
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.

Malta: An island steeped in history

malta - fishing villagePeople who live on Canada’s Atlantic coast have seen the name many times – Valletta. That name is emblazoned on ship after ship that enters the container terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We have often wondered if most of the people who see this on a daily basis have any idea where Valletta is. As travelers interested in the wider world, we knew that it was in Malta, but Malta was a mystery to us – until recently. [The reason the ships bear this moniker is that ship registration is a major industry there.] 

As we often say, there is no better way to be introduced to new places that you might other wise never visit than on a well-selected cruise chosen with itinerary at the top of the priority list. That is how we found ourselves on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.

Picture a tiny island (really an archipelago) located just 80 kilometres south of Italy and 284 kilometres east of Tunisia in Northern Africa directly in that passage between the Atlantic end of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Because of this strategic position, Malta has a rich history of a succession of ruling countries: the Romans, the Moors, the Sicilians, the Normans, the Spaniards, the British to name a some of them. It is this very richness that imbues the tiny island with its appeal for travelers who are interested in both natural beauty and the influences of historical evolution on a place and a people. We are those travelers.

 

malta - map

Hiring the services of a private driver and a guide as we like to do, we were able to make the most of our short visit. We began with a walking tour of Valletta, a world heritage site. It’s a bit like walking through an open-air museum with historical artifacts that tell of the city’s storied past at every turn. The most historic buildings date from the sixteenth century and at every turn there is a story to be told.

 

We then drove out of the city into the beautiful countryside to the fortified city of Mdina (not a misspelling), inland slightly southwest of Valletta. Founded in 700 BC, Mdina was the capital of Malta until the 16th century. A walking tour of this historical masterpiece is a must-do when visiting Malta.

A visit to Malta wouldn’t be complete, though, without visiting a fishing village or two. The colourful boats, markets and buildings combine to provide you with a bit of a snapshot of modern life in the Maltese countryside.

malta - color

Malta is a tiny spot in the world that should be on your bucket list, if it isn’t already there. If you get the chance to visit, even if just for a day, jump on that chance.

It’s really difficult to tell the story of a visit to Malta without numerous pictures, so we’ve put together a brief video of the sights we’d like to share with you.

 

Rome: A City for (Walking) Lovers

Rome - Borghese gardens
Take a beautiful, relaxing walk through the Borghese Gardens.

Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.

 

We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.

Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]

We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.

Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.

We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.

Rome - ancient rome
It was a fantastic day to walk the hills of Ancient Rome and feel the ghosts of the past.

Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.

 

Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.

Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover

If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…