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Ho Chi Minh City (December 2007)
We arrived at Ho Chi Minh City a few days prior to the start of Mekong Delta cruise (which ended with tour of the Angkor Temples). While waiting we got acquainted with a few of the local attractions, mostly in in the heart of the city, Quan (district 1), and adjacent Quan 3.
Motor biking. This is the main mode of transport for the locals and a fund way to tour the city. We rented a motorbike from Ms. Mai, [***,$] 217 Pham Ngu Lao Street, just around the corner from our Quan 1 hotel. There are dozens of motorbike-for-rent outlets on this and nearby streets. Ms. Mai was recommended in an expart journal. Her operation is one of the less formal. There is no storefront. She sets up her inventory of bikes on a sidewalk. A pushcart and seat make up her "office." The rental process involves meeting Mai at the sidewalk location, choosing a machine (form a dozen or so), signing a simple form, and leaving a passport as collateral. On the first day we took a decent motorbike for $5 and toured around the city. The next day we upgraded to a nicer Honda Dream model, $10 with helmets, for an excursion into the countryside.... ending up in semi-rural Quan 12 (District 12) and Quan Thu Duc. We read that you could bargain a lower price... but really at this price why bother. Also, for not much more we could rent a taxi and driver for a day... so why rent a motorcycle? For the experience of city driving, the rush hour commute, engaging traffic circles, and cutting traffic as natives do. It's an experience.
We also took lots of taxis, especially for our evening excursions to restaurants and night clubs. A typical cross town fare is $2-3.
Cooking school. We spent one pleasant afternoon learning how to make spring rolls and other Vietnamese food at Vietnam Cooking School [$$,**]. They offer morning and afternoon classes, and also full day and more extensive programs available. At the end of class you sit down to a substantial meal (of what you cooked). The class is expertly conducted. Our only complaint was that the program did not include shopping for the food .... which was mentioned in the advertisement and would have been a fun and educational experience.
Night clubbing. Both exparts and local talent perform in the many "Western style" night clubs. We started one evening with a short visit to the Saigon Saigon bar, worthwhile for the view from balcony seating. (Balcony seating is a must.) A few blocks away is Sax 'n' Art [$$,***] where the music starts about 9 PM.
Spas. Of the many spas all over town we chose La Maison de L'Apothiquaire, which is one of the more luxurious. Located down a tree lined alley, as far away from the hustle and bustle of city life as you can hope for. We had a couple of back to back massages lasted at total of 3 hours. The staff is very professional. Cost was $50/person. We rate this [$$$,***], $$$ because L'Apothiquaire is "expensive" relative to other spas in HCMC, but the price is a bargain compared to home (USA).
2007 Angkor Temples, Cambodia
Before we got to Siem Reap we found a hotel on the Internet at a great location and at a great price (and it turned out even better than advertised).
On arrival we hail a Tuk Tuk. The first that comes by asks $5. We are not suckers for that, so we hail another. The second is not only much more reasonablebut turns out to be a very personalbe, English speaking driver, Mr. Eang Bunleuy. When he drops us off at our hotel a few minutes later we ask him to return the following day at 10 AM to be our day driver for the Temple tours. We agree on $8 for the whole day. As it turns out we engaged him for three consecutive days, morning to sunset, and each day we increase the "pay" a bit and buy him lunch too.
A personal tuk-tuk driver is the ideal way to visit Angkor Temples. We are picked up each morning in Siem Reap and Tuk-Tuked to our first temples destination for the day. Eang waits until we are ready to move on and explore more. A typical day is three or four stops.
Halstatt, Austria (June 2008)
We hung out in Halstatt for five days in-between a performance of La Traviata in Zurich and a Don Carlo in Vienna (with American baritone Thompson Hampson in both productions). Our neighbors recommedned this quaint village-town on a pretty Austrian lake and research indicating great lakes-alpine hiking in the area. We arrived just as six front weather systems were crossing Europe. There was rain every day and our ambitious hiking plans were curtailed. But Halstatt turned out to be a nice place even with rain.
Two good restaurants are on the main square, next to the church. Our hotel, Seehotel Grüner Baum [$$, *] has one of the better restaurants. The very best, however, is the other hotel based restaurant, Gsthof Zauner [$$,**], which we learned about from a chance conversation at the bar (while watching the Poland vs Austria Euro2008 soccer match) with Bob & Jackie, tourists from Mauritius. Gsthof Zauner specializes in fish from the lakes and other Austrian specialties. Another restaurant offers the best lakeside view and outdoor seating. There is a "waiters crsossing" sign on the road where the waiters cross from kitchen to lakeside tables (see slideshow)
Jogging/walking/biking. A marvelous trail hugging the west shore of Lake Halstatt. It is scenic, quite, flat, with up to 16 km one way. One can return to the starting point by train which runs hourly or so and can be boarded at four location along the 16 km stretch. Our hike/run which we highly recommend started at the trail head in Obertraun near the train station, passed Hst. Hallstatt (2st train stop along the way), stopped for beer and at scenic pub/restaurant near Hst Obersee (next train stop), stopped for bakery goodies at St Agatha, and ended at the Bad Goisern train station where we boarded train returning to the Osertraun.
Jog. A wide and well maintained jogging track adjacent to the main road from Hallstatt to Obertraun offers a scenic and decent 10K, round trip, with modest elevation.
Zurich, Switzerland (June, 2008)
Jog, walk, bike. We explored two possibilities, both worthy of mention but neither (surprisingly) exceptional. First, the promenade and paths along the lake, on both sides from the city center. Some (maybe 1 km) stretch in park like setting is very nice with gorgeous city views. The rest is of the way is chopped up with detours to street, around houses, public facilities, and even industry. Zurich does not realize the full potential of its waterfront. In any case, runs on these paths do offer one way return from any one of many stops of a boat ferry and trains. The second run was along the main river. There are fair to good paths on both sides. One can easily do 10K of river bank, doing one side on the outbound, crossing over on one of many bridges for return on the other side. Again, the unfortunate truth is that the quality of the paths and scenery diminish past the town center.
Vienna, Austria (June, 2008)
Arrive here for a two day stay to catch the baritone Thomas Hampson in a production of Don Carlo at the Staats-Oper (state opera house). During the day (waiting for the evening performance) we re-discover the pleasure of jog & walk on the paths along the Donaukanal [walk, jog, bike, **]. Paths run on both sides, mostly well below street level. Obviously all flat. Scenery is fair to good. Total length if one makes a round trip on both sides is probably 10K+ and city trams offer many ways to end the run and continue exploring the city on public transport.
Tram No. 1 runs a a ring path and is worth taking just to get a quick introduction to the whole city center.
For pubs and restaurants that appear to have a local flavor (not touristy) start at Hotel Kaiserine Elizabeth, Weihburgg 3, going E and NE on smaller streets in the neighborhood. (Hotel K Elizabeth may have been the wonderful hotel we stayed in for a one night layover in June 2002, but not sure.)
Israel (July, 2008)
We are finally in Israel without a big agenda except for a wedding which is still a few days away so there is time to kill. We spend most of the time in and around the Tel Aviv beach. The water is warm. Cafes and bars provide the beach seating and umbrellas without cover charge (you of course order something from the bar). The paved promenade along the beach is 2-3 km long from N to S ends of Tel Aviv and a wonderful stretch for walking/jogging. In fact the promenade is being extended well into Jafa and beyond. July is hot: it is 32-33C each day. But the ocean breeze makes Tel Aviv very tolerable. It is somewhat cooler in the evenings as we explore Tel Aviv's sidewalk restaurants. The best was Barbunia Fish Restaurant [$-$$,**] on the fashionable end Ben Yehuda St. (No. 163 to be precise), found on recommendation of local friends. Phone 03-527696. For the full Barbunia experience settle for nothing less than a sidewalk table.
New York City (April, 2008)
City tour on a bike [$,***]. Out last bike ride in NYC was on a sunday in 2002, the hottest day on record. It was so hot that even the mayor was on the radio warning people to stay inside. But we braved it.... and it turned out OK. The street where fairly void of traffic (because it was Sunday and the heat warning). And the city's skyscrapers 'canyons' crated a pleasant cooling wind. Now back to the present (2008): this time we wanted to do as much of a waterfront loop around Manhattan as possible. (The entire loop is 32 miles.) First we needed to rent bikes. After many many phone calls to rental shops all over Manhattan we found a promising one: the Pedal Pusher Bike Shop [$,***] on 1306 2nd Avenue (cross 69th Street), phone 212-288-5592. It turned out as good as it sounded over the phone. The owner is competent, pleasant, stocks bikes in very good working condition, and is price competitive. From the shop we headed to the nearest entry onto the East River bike path, followed the path around the Battery and continued up the West side to Central Park. At this point we had done about 1/2 of the total Manhattan loop. We dediced than to complete the ride with two loops around Central Park (traffic free in middle of the weekday). Total travel time was about 5 hours, including stops at several pizzerias along the way to fill up on body fuel. (It took extra time to go around blockades for the Pope's visit. On any other day we would probably have done the ride in 4 hours.) Biking, river views, pizzas, and Central Park made this a perfect day experience.
This was our first visit to NYC armed with the relatively new Michelin guide to NYC restaurants. So we tried a few. Michelin was right every time: all turned out to be superb. We happily pass on recommendations for these establishments. Note: all are popular with the locals and busy busy.
Never leave home for New York without the Michelin's red book.
The Saone River, June 2009
We repeat the French river cruise experience. The previous was on the Canal du Nivernais, starting and ending in Auxerre. This time it is the Saone River starting at a very cute village Saint jean de Losne [*], ending at upstream at Fontenoy. The boat is rented from Le Boat... actually the same company as before after some acquistions and morphings. Aberge de la Marine [**,$], just across the bridge from village center, with a gorgeous view of the village, is a delighful hotel for a night stay and dinner in Saint jean de Lone.
The river is wide. There are many fewer locks to engage in the first 100 km upriver. But later the river narrows and turns more into a traditional canal with lots of locks, each one requiring a lot of work (See Marlene handling a squence of locks.) The best ports/stops on the Saone River..... To come.
Mount Etna, Sicily, Italy, June 2010. We visited the area to hike on the most active volcano in the world. Our "base camp" was Palmento La Rosa B&B [$$$, **] (slide show). Etna's crater: You can climb up to the main crater without any guide and many people do, but a guide is highly recommended, both for your safety (there is real resik and danger with trecking up on the top), and for maximizing the learning and physical experience. Our B&B hosts put us in touch with Guida Vulcanologica Andrea Ercolani [$$, ***]. He leads groups in 6-7 hour physically challenging but exhalerating treks to the main crater and down. First is the climb up to and walk around the crater rim. But this is only half the fun. Much more fun in the second half on the way down (slide show). This was our only trip to the top and so we obviously know no other Etna tour guide but can't imagine anyone as good as Andrea. We joined a group of about a dozen Germans-Austrian tourists. Andrea is multi-linqgual and made sure to repeat everything in English for us two lone Americans. We were also exceptionally lucky with good weather. The day we picked for the climb it was warm enough so we didn't need to use wind breakers, which we were told is unusual. Hiking: The Etna mountain is a huge national park with many other hiking trails at lower elevations provides magnificnt an secluded walks through a variety of geological zones and views of the mountain top. We did No. 12 taking us to a remote lookout over one of the recent lava flows, No. 5 doing a loop around one of Mount Etn's many bambino cones, and a nameless trail to the 2002 lava flow field (slide show). One piece of advise about hiking on your own: trails are poorly marked so carry a GPS, and don't let the battery run out. Wine: Our B&B hosts arranged an evening visit to the Biondi vineyards [***]. The owner/wine maker gave us a personal tour of the vineyards, wine presses, and production facility, peppered with good conversation and an introduction to the history and the Etna doc appelllation, which is distinctly different from other Sicilian wines.
Pisa, Italy, June 2010. We stayed at the charming Relais Sassetti B&B smack in the heart of old Pisa, on Visa San Francisco. Three or four blocks away is a local favorite pizzeria (most tourists will not find it): Il Montino [$,**], at Vicolo del Monte 1, an alley just off the pedestrian shopping street. Besides pizza they make "somethingy" that seems to be the local favorite: Schiacciatina Cecina (it's fried & tasty but we have no idea what it is made of). We tried the pizza with anchovies and capers, the closest thing to the mystical "Greek Pizza" we have been searching the world over for 40 years. The best (and practically only) jogging trail in Pisa is 2 km (each way) tree lined stretch along the Fiume Arno River. Start near Ponte della Vittoria, head E. The run can be extended to a 10 K by adding a loop city streets on both sides of the river, between Ponte della Citadella and Ponte della Vittoria. Another interesting "10K-er" is circumventing the old city meandering more or less parallel with the city wall. A further extension is a run along the Roman aquaduct, heading NE from the city wall from the vicinity of Via San Francisco. The aquaduct jogging path gradually improves as you go further out from the city center.