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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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. 

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…