Category, Landscapes & Seascapes: Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, BC, Canada
Little did I know that I would be thrown into a never-ending honeymoon when I married Bill in 2008. I even published a book about our RVing fulltime across North America (Carolina: Cruising to an American Dream). He had the foresight of buying not just a GPS but also a Nikon DSLR.as necessary tools. I surely became a wife, on this my third try and my passion for telling stories through photography grew as strong as blogging. As someone said: "Once you learn to care, you can record images in your mind and film. There is no difference."
Category, Birds, Bees, and Butterflies: Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne, Australia
But in 2013, our bodies told us to find more convenient ways of traveling. Age was catching up with us. After completing forty-nine continental US states, nine Canadian provinces, and six Mexican states, we opted to be snowbirds in Phoenix, Arizona during winter. And the rest of the year, faraway lands beckoned. In the last four years, I blogged about the 30 countries (and 12 US states, 3 Canadian provinces, and 2 Mexican states) our itchy feet reached. And the honeymoon continued.
Category, Architecture: Kansas Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri
When we were not on the road, resort living became our lifestyle. Four pools, 6 hot tubs, a sauna, 10 tennis and 4 pickleball courts, 2 golf courses, a billiards hall, many hobby and crafts rooms, a dance studio, many meeting rooms, 3 clubhouses, 3 ballrooms, a Pub & Grill. etc. made sure of that! So the inevitable happened. We sold our RV and bought a home at Viewpoint. Part of the draw was some 50 clubs. One of them, the Viewpoint Photography Club, became a favorite.
Category, Red: Guthrie Castle, Angus, Scotland
On my first year of joining the annual Viewpoint Photo Show, I won Best of Show, People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice in the Bronze Division with my photo of Tunisian Blue Doors. I was immediately bumped into the Silver Division and competition became stiffer. Still, in the following year, I won first place in two categories, Black & White (The Salisbury Cathedral Close) and Street Photography (The Brighton UK Wheel). Seeing that my passion had grown, on my last birthday in November, Bill gifted me with a Sony mirrorless digital camera to replace the bulky Nikon DSLR of 8 years.
Category, lack & White: Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne, Australia
This year, I had a quite a heyday. There were so many photos to choose from the thousands I took on those trips we made in the last four years. The process of selecting what to enter was tricky and hard. Bill and three professional photographers helped me sift the best of the best. In this post are the ten photos I finally submitted. By the time you are reading this, official judging would have been completed but we will not know the results until the March 8 Banquet Night. The Photo Show itself will be on Feb. 25 at the Grand Ballroom. There my past three winners will be on sale and all entries will be on display for the public to judge. Each one tells stories better than words can ever weave.
Category, Flowers: Sonya's Garden, Tagaytay City, Philippines
But it is sad that I will not be able to do it again next year and all the years that follow. Beginning 2019, we will make Mexico our second home through our El Cid Vacations Club timeshare. Every January to March, when it becomes a little "cold" in Phoenix. Arizona, we will stay at one of their resorts in Mazatlan or Cancun. We will still use our Arizona base eight months in a year. During the hottest weeks of summer, we will travel to colder places in Europe, South America, or Africa. Or visit our children in Calgary, Melbourne, San Francisco, Anchorage, Boise, and Denver.
Category, Street Photography: Buckingham Palace, London UK
Yes, we are making this second shift, just like we did our first from RVing to snowbirding. This puts us into the third phase of our cruising lifestyle. It will be slow, immersive travel between our two homes. Galloping around the world will be cut down to a month. Visiting our children will take another month unless they visit us more. And we will no longer string those trips together like we used to. We will just hop on a plane or a car and be wherever we want to be in a jiffy.
Category, Wild Animals: Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne, Australia
This cruising lifestyle will be so relaxed that I will probably have the time to learn more about photography. As I polish my writing into travel essays, I hope my photos will tell deeper stories, too. To prepare for my seventieth birthday in November, I have rebranded my blog Carolina: Cruising Past 70.”And, in the steady march of time, I will stay true to what Ansell Adams said: "When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence." Because most probably, on our fourth phase, I will still be traveling from an armchair.
Category, Food & Drink: Bonifacio Global City, Philippines
Imagine a time when many cracks of Mother Earth spewed hot molten lava on the land of tribes of terrified native peoples. Those volcanoes were not only feared; they were revered. Now imagine modern cities having sprouted around their craters. Such is New Zealand's capital, Auckland, a city dotted with many dormant volcanic cones that have turned green. Some are marked with monuments; some built upon with magnificent edifices. Vehicles are already prohibited from driving up Mt. Eden, Auckland’s highest cone called Te Ipu Kai, the Food Bowl. But One Tree Hill, the second highest, is still drivable up to the top. But walking on the craters is a strict no-no. They are tapu, sacred grounds.
One Tree Hill
It was in this wondrous city that I came face-to-face with crippling fear. I was happily snapping away photos of street art and curious buildings in downtown Auckland. We had just left St. Patrick’s Cathedral when Bill suddenly crumbled to the ground.
Until that moment, I thought the day was going fine. After Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill, we went to Harbor Bridge. The “coathanger,” as it is fondly called, has become an embarrassment as a poor copy of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, I was told. I don’t know why really. It has its own charm. Walking many many steps to get the best shots, I did not know that Bill's fatigue was starting to set in.
Because it is just a short ride from the bridge, I convinced Bill to squeeze in a visit to MJ. Savage Memorial Park. Overlooking the great twin harbors of Waitemata and Manukau, you can see the islands of iconic Rangitoto and tropical Waiheke from the Park which was built in honor of the beloved Labor Prime Minister who founded New Zealand’s welfare state. He is beloved, having paved the way for the country to be the #10 most livable in the world.
What we thought would be a bit of rest turned out to be more walking up and around Auckland Domain, the city’s oldest and largest park. There the Auckland Museum is built upon the crater of another extinct volcano! To get a good photo of the beautiful building, we had to go up and around. Feeling a bit tired, we proceeded down the hill where the Winter Garden, an oasis in the drab of winter, had two barrel-vaulted glasshouses of tropical and temperate plants. After an hour of photography, the aroma of freshly baked goods led us to the Cafe where scones with jellied fruits and clotted cream became our mid-day snack. The divine flavors of England we had sorely missed once again delighted us. But it was rest which we needed more.
We were in Auckland for just two days, to get an extension of my Australian tourist visa because only 90 days are given per entry. The next day was already committed to touring Waiheke Island with a friend. Trying to get the most out of our only day in the city, we took the bus to the central business district and alighted at the Aotea Square, the large, paved public area for Auckland events of up to 20,000 people. An expressionist style traditional Maori archway at the Queen Street entrance gives the Square a sacred feel. From there we walked past the tallest structure of the city, not having the time or energy to explore the Sky Tower on the way to St. Patrick's Cathedral.
It was just a few blocks but the roads had a gradual but steady incline.At the top of the hill, we came upon a neighborhood project, Griffiths Garden. I love it when city folks do this. No wonder Auckland is ranked #7 among the most livable cities in the world. I got so engrossed capturing the many images my eyes were feasting on, collecting candidates for the next Photo Show of the Viewpoint Golf Resort in Arizona where we live. I didn’t notice that Bill had to find a bench to sit on. When we got to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he still walked the halls to admire its high ceiling, the wide nave, and large stained glass windows. We also learned the church had gone from wood to stone to brick.
But, as soon as we left St. Patrick's, Bill suddenly crumbled to the ground. As the other passers-by rushed to help us, I cried profusely and unashamedly for what seemed like an eternity. It was just a few seconds but I literally froze. I couldn't help but blame myself for squeezing nine landmarks in a day. Such pace of travel should only be for the young, especially after our a red-eye flight from Melbourne the night before. When Bill came to, he did not think of himself, as usual. Hewas so sorry to have caused me such a scare. He promised to take better care of his body.After all, it is a sacred temple that should be preserved and celebrated like Auckland's sacred landmarks. But it is I who has to listen to this wake-up call. The way I like to travel will have to change.
The time has come to shift gears. I have just completed writing about my travels in 2017 and 2018 is all about slowing down. I hinted about this in my end-of-year piece that reflected on the year that was. With this, my Post #382, I shift to writing more of travel essays, not travel diaries (records of what I did in a place or trip) or travel guides (information one must know about them). Instead, I begin to write about why they moved me. I will share the inner journey, the one that is not obvious, the one that may elevate life to a higher level.
Actually, in the last 13 months, I have noticed this shift. I wrote four such pieces out of twenty-six:
There must be something about turning 70 that heightens introspection. Maybe the brain and body can handle only so much and we begin to encounter pauses that come with increasing frequency. There’s also something about a 10th wedding anniversary that says, “You’ve made it!” You see, I have never been married that long. It seems that I have definitely become a wife, caring about another person sometimes even more than myself. And there’s something about not being always on the go. One gets more time and space to think and feel.
crippling fear in Tampa, Florida
It begins with the traveler’s realization that there is something regarding the place or journey truly worth writing and sharing about. A travel essay is not simply about a destination or a trip. It’s about what the writer may discover about life, and herself. It does not always have to be a big AHA moment but it is an awakening nevertheless, however small. It is a reminder that life, as it ticks on, truly enraptures. And it requires that the writer be brave enough to reveal more, to be vulnerable.
extreme wonder in Anchorage, Alaska
It’s like the utmost peace I felt when Bill and I reached the Arctic Circle north of Dawson on the Yukon in our first RV, a 24-foot Class C I fondly called Star. Or the crippling fear I felt Christmas of 2010 in the beautiful beaches of Tampa, Florida when my one and a half-year-old groom suffered a heart attack. Or when I froze in the cold to watch the extreme wonder of the Northern Lights that danced on a hill in Anchorage, Alaska. Or when we oozed with great gratitude as we got lost in Mexico and were rescued by a duo of kindhearted men. Or when my loyalty to my native land, the Philippines, wavered as I felt increasingly drawn to America’s greatness in Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a series of revelations about who I truly am.
great gratitude in Mexico
I will also write about the lessons we have learned as we shifted from RV cruising to a more settled lifestyle and still travel. It will include pieces on how exciting it is to be on the go when you are young(er) and how to find ways to relax and be secure while traveling as you pile on the years and encounter more health issues. It will include discussions on the pace, the mode, and the style of travel but also on how to stretch the dollars so you don't have to concern yourself with chasing them. It will include ideas on how to have fun without having to be in a new place all the time.
wavering loyalty in Concord, Massachusetts
"Carolina: Cruising to an American Dream" was my first attempt at writing a book. But back in 2013-15 when I was writing it, I could not yet put a firm grip on what makes good writing. I zeroed in on the places and road trips of our 5-year fulltime RVing across North America. I eventually shared a few of my innermost thoughts and feelings. But I thought I had to describe in detail every step we took, every move we made. So the book had some interesting pages and some boring ones.
My next project, Carolina: Cruising Past 70, will be a compilation of travel essays. It will include the ones that will resonate most with you, my online audience. Today, I also rebrand this blog and rename it Carolina: Cruising Past 70. I hope you come along with me on this last ride. Maybe I can make a difference in the lives of those of you who discovered travel late in life and want to extend it until your last breath. Perhaps it will also inspire those of you who discovered it earlier because you see that it can continue past 70.
During our stay at El Cid’s La Ceiba Resort Cozumel, we upgraded our timeshare ownership to all-inclusive stays at all resorts. This will make Mexico our second home during winter when it gets a bit cold in Phoenix, for about three months, inclusive of food and drinks. We have the choice of western Mexico in Mazatlan where the Vacation Club has three resorts (La Marina, El Morro, and La Granada) or in the east on the Yucatan Peninsula along the Riviera Maya, Mexico’s Carribean coastline, where the Club has two (La Marina and Ventus), near Cancun, aside from Cozumel.
We were gifted with the chance to sample the lifestyle we had just bought into through a complimentary short stay at Ventus which opened just a month ago. We left La Ceiba and boarded the Ultramar ferry at the terminal across the main Plaza in downtown San Miguel. The ferry is in our favorite colors blue and yellow. We were surprised that the ferry’s interior is so modern. The trip took thirty-five minutes but we lingered a while in Playa del Carmen, where the ferry terminal is located on the peninsula. It is a town of 150,000 just an hour from Cancun and the airport.
Just like all the beaches of the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen’s are also all white and palm-tree lined. Right on the plaza beside the terminal stands Portal Maya, the city’s iconic archway. It depicts a man and a woman joining hands at the top having been pushed up by wind and waves. The main columns include elements from Mexico's Mayan past and today's culture intermingling. Over 50 feet high and 50 feet wide, Portal Maya is made of bronze. Just after this plaza is a chapel and shopping strip of great American brands, Tommy Hilfiger, Old Navy, etc. But, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t explore the town because we were lugging around two suitcases and a fully loaded backpack.
at the downtown plaza, Puerto Morelos
Quickly, we negotiated for a taxi to take us to Ventus for $30, down from $60. Actually, La Marina and Ventus sit side by side in the little town of Puerto Morelos, population 10,000, just twenty minutes from Cancun and the airport, on the Riviera Maya. From the main highway, the taxi took a right to the town and then, before reaching downtown, took another right to a winding road to the grand entrance of Ventus. It was a sight to behold. We were checked in via the Platinum Lounge, complete with a bar, a counter full of goodies, and a movie on the screen. Marcial, our personal butler, led us to our room.
It may be just a studio but it is double the size of a standard hotel room, with a grand Jacuzzi in the middle, a full bath suite before it and a King-size bed after it. Beyond the bed is the living area where a Murphy bed can host another couple. Outside is a balcony that looks out to the network of pools and activity area that is at the center of all the white buildings designed so that each room has a view of the Caribbean Sea. After this area is the adults-only section with outdoor massage beds, an infinity pool, two giant hot tubs, and the exclusive beach with huts, gazebos, boats, and lookout points.
the cold plunge at the spa in La Marina
This design is repeated at La Marina, older but with beautiful gardens all around, where we also spent many hours, especially since the Tennis Court was there on the top floor of the main building. But it is the Spa/Fitness Complex that enthralled us. Anyone would not mind spending hours at the gym which faced the beautiful ocean. It was just disappointing that there are separate sections for men and women in the Spa. Bill and I could not enjoy the indoor Jacuzzi, the cold plunge, the red-hot sauna, the steam room, and the massage chairs together. Yet, it really did feel so good to be so pampered in style.
The coup de gras is the food and drinks. This is what makes the all-inclusive lifestyle a hit among
many people and one we dreamed of having. There are six fine dining restaurants (La Marina Seafood Restaurant, L’ils de France, Trattoria de Gulio, Hacienda Accefiera, the Gourmet Alcatraz, and the Alhambra Main Restaurant where one had to make reservations and men have to wear long pants. More casual dining can be had at a multi-cuisine buffet food court called the Mercado de Dolores. There are many bars all around two of which featured bands at night. But the really expensive drinks are served at the Platinum Lounge.
at the Trattoria de Gulio
Yes, we dreamed of this lifestyle and now we have it in our second home for three months a year. Our first home is at Viewpoint which is resort living in itself with all the amenities. But I still have to cook and Bill has to serve drinks to himself. And we have to launder our clothes, clean the house, and tend to the garden. With the new lifestyle, we step it up a notch. We can have breakfast served in bed, any meal actually, even bottles of wine. In fact, a part of the Riviera Maya is reserved exclusively for Platinum Club members. Our dream is now a reality for Bill,73, and me, 69.
We were looking forward to celebrating Christmas in our brand new Arizona home. Having spent lots of time in Australasia this year, however, it is no wonder that El Cid, where we own a timeshare, called to tell us that we would lose 4 weeks’ worth of points if we didn’t use them by yearend. Bill couldn’t be happier. He loves Mexico and would have retired there; Arizona was a compromise.
So, we flew to Cozumel, Mexico for our Christmas Holiday 2017-2018. Just a 35-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, Cozumel is a much-sought-after stop on a western Caribbean cruise. It is entirely flat, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, and is Mexico's largest Caribbean and largest permanently inhabited island. Its population of 80,000 is concentrated in San Miguel de Cozumel in the middle of its western shore.
Downtown San Miguel
downtown's Main Plaza in San Miguel, Cozumel on the western shore
archway near the ferry terminal
What a town, especially with the cruise ships and ferry boats lined up along the shore at any given time. To protect the environment, public transportation is nonexistent. The only means of getting around are walking, taking taxis or renting cars, scooters, and bikes. We would take a cab to run errands but frequently, Bill would walk the 2+ miles! San Miguel is an excellent place to shop, dine, visit the Main Plaza, hear Mass, walk along the Malecon, and imbibe Mexican culture.
International Cruise Terminal
seven ships in a row right outside our resort
La Ceiba Resort sits right beside the island's International Cruise Terminal. On any given day 2 to 6 huge cruise ships dock there seemingly right at our doorsteps. I was impressed by the many shapes and sizes of these luxury vessels. During our stay, the world's first, second, and third largest vessels docked in front of us! It was exciting to mingle with cruisers as they swarmed the shopping villages around the terminal. But it was finding YES, a Filipino restaurant catering to the thousands of Filipinos who expertly man the cruise crews from around the world, that got me!
Punta Sur Eco Beach Park
One day, we drove our rented car south on Avenida Melgar, the only road that circled the island. There were many inviting beaches but we chose to go to the 247-acre ecological park that covers the reefs, beaches, lagoons, and low forest of the southernmost part of Cozumel, part of the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. They make Cozumel a highly sought-after world-renowned diving destination. Included in the $14 entrance fee is a host of features that small vehicles can access via a dirt road that cuts through the low mangrove forest.
Right after entering the Park, a wooden Observation Tower lords over bird watching and crocodile sighting. Just southeast of the Tower is the Caracol (Tumba del Caracol), a Mayan building erected during the post-classic period. Legend has it that it acted as a weather alarm to warn about a hurricane’s arrival. At the southern promontory sits the Celarain Lighthouse and Nautical Museum. And just a few minutes more of driving will get you to the two Beach Clubs and the Laguna Colombia, where four hundred crocodiles live.
The Papito's Beach Club Restaurant/Bar and the Punta Sur Beach Club were great places for chillaxing, especially on the colorful hammocks. But what I treasured most was the deep fried grouper, reminiscent of a favorite Filipino staple, deep-fried Lapu-Lapu, that I have sorely missed. After lunch, we made it to the last guided boat tour at the Laguna and spotted six crocodiles and the ubiquitous swallows, the origin of the name Cozumel.
We turned north after Punta Sur and turned left when we got to the Carretera Transversal that crosses the island’s center. We were going to spend some time at a bar we were eyeing downtown but a bright yellow fence with the sign “Tequila Tour” caught my eye. You know how I am with the color yellow! Bill gladly stopped, wanting to add tequila tasting to wine and beer tasting as a favorite thing to do. The tour is free but, since tequila thrives in higher elevations like in Jalisco, Cozumel doesn't have production facilities. It was all just show and tell. But there were rows of blue agave, replicas of the 10-year old huge agave fruit that produces the drink when cooked, the equipment used in the process, and many samples of different grades of tequila: blanco, oro, reposado, anejo, and extra anejo.
Chankanaab saltwater pond and Dolphinarium
the sea lion and me
The other famous Park in Cozumel is Chankanaab ("little sea"), just 2 miles south of La Ceiba Resort. It lies within the National Marine Park of Cozumel, ideal for snorkeling and diving. And there I found the Sea Trek Adventure and SNUBA diving. Both will offer any participant not only the gorgeous underwater flora and fauna but also the submerged sculptures, including one of Jesus Christ! Bill, a certified scuba diver egged me no end to try one. As usual, I, not knowing how to swim despite my island upbringing, chickened out. It would have been my first underwater experience. Crocodiles, manatees, and dolphins to swim with took my mind off the missed opportunity but my greatest thrill was to be kissed by a sea lion at the Sea Lions Show!
El Cid's La Ceiba Resort
morning scene right outside our door
every morning, a new towel/flower creation
But what makes a holiday extra special is getting a home away from home. La Ceiba Resort is an 85-room boutique hotel that is part of the El Cid Vacations Club. Every morning upon waking up, we stepped outside to a bright new scene with new cruise ships lined up along the pier. Every evening I delighted at the unique sunsets carved behind these ships that also lit the dark waters with multi-colored reflections. During days when we didn't go on a tour, we had plenty of ways to spend the day: the salt water pond, a regular pool, a large hot tub with a swim-up bar, two restaurants (Mexican and Italian), a small beachhead, a volleyball beach area, a diving, snorkeling, and small docking area, a tennis court and table, and a giant chess set. For the easily bored, there were Spanish, cooking, and handicraft classes. The evenings were either movie, barbecue, or Mexican Show night.
evening scene without the cruise ships
rocking the night away
Extremely friendly and helpful staff made La Ceiba our home away from home. The Christmas Party on the waterfront was a blast. Even the New Year's Eve Party at Hard Rock Cafe Cozumel truly rocked. Facebook and smartphones helped us connect with our loved ones but the island and the resort offered us many ways to forget the absence of familiar souls. But if ever we go back to any of the El Cid resorts during this time of the year, we should bring family and friends with us to complete the scene!
Some things happened in 2017 that will lead to a different year for us in 2018. Am I excited? Of course! Every change is exciting! Change always brings about new things to think about and do. 2018 will be a stellar year. For one thing, Bill and I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of our wedding. Becoming a wife is not a small accomplishment given Carol. For another, I will turn 70 and maybe I will attain the wisdom and mellowness that people wish for me. But it is the change in lifestyle that impacts our travels and my writing which should be most interesting to watch.
Golfing in Catalina Island, photo by Carnival Cruise Lines
Actually, the drift started as far back as four years ago. From 2009-2013, we crisscrossed North America in an RV. In fact, my book, Carolina: Cruising to an American Dream, came out of that adventure. At the end of that period, we began snowbirding at Viewpoint in Arizona during winter and traveled to other countries and visited the homes of our children the rest of the year. In 2016, we were away for all of 8 months. That proved to be very tiring. So In December of that year, we bought a 3br unit at Viewpoint.
What Happened in 2017
We moved to that home in March of 2017 after selling our RV. But I was committed to taking care of my youngest Apo (grandchild) in Melbourne, Australia for 3 months and did that from May to July and also managed to visit Auckland, New Zealand. Then I proceeded to Manila to sell my last condo. While there I took a trip to KL, Vientiane, Bangkok, and Brunei with friends. On the way back to the US, I passed through China. By September, I was home. So in 2017, I was away for only 5 months!
Rocks in Ensenada, Mexico, courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines
Bill was only away for 2 really. He followed me to Melbourne and went with me to Auckland. Unfortunately, he developed some health issues and had to go back to the US. When I got back to the US after a month and a half, we went on a road trip. That was when we found out he still had the same health issues. You may read about the details here.
What Will Happen Beginning 2018
I cried in Auckland and was scared in Pittsburg. This has forced us to make the change to a more settled life at once and not just slide into it. Beginning in 2018, we will be based in Arizona as full-time residents. Starting in 2019, our year will consist of 7 months in Arizona in Viewpoint Golf Resort. We will also be spending 3 months in Mexico either in Mazatlan, Cancun or Cozumel in an El Cid Resort. Yes, we consolidated all our timeshares into this one, all-inclusive treat. The remaining 2 months will be spent in taking short trips to bucket list destinations or to our children's homes. But we hope our children will visit us instead! Then it will be the real cruising lifestyle!
Sunset in El Cid El Morro in Mazatlan
2018 will be a transition year. We are currently in Cozumel where we spent Christmas. We will greet the New Year in Cancun! In January we will be in Las Vegas celebrating my 2 daughters' birthdays. In March we return to the city for my 50th High School reunion. Then it will be beach hopping, on Carnival Cruise Lines, to the Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico in August for our 10th anniversary with a bonus visit to my first grandchild in Santa Monica, California. Finally, in December, we will have a much-awaited family reunion in Hawaii. Between these trips, there may be visits to Bill's children in Denver and Boise. Total travel time in 2018 will be about 8 weeks!
Royal Sea Cliff Resort by Outrigger in Kona, Hawaii, courtesy of Wyndham
Thus, my blog will also change and may feature more Arizona landmarks and points of interest, Hopefully, I can help excite you to come and see why we chose to settle in Arizona. And, since I will be on the road less, I will have more time for Wonderings of our Wanderings (WOW) and write more travel essays. Maybe then I can finish the sequel, Carolina: Cruising to a Global Mindset, a compilation of 20-25 essays on universal values.
My three months in Melbourne have been covered in about ten posts, my few days in New Zealand in two, and my five-day tour of KL, Vientiane, Bangkok, and Brunei in another two. In this article, let me take you on a sweep of six cities that I visited over the seven weeks between leaving Melbourne and Auckland and finally being home in Phoenix, USA. Manila, Philippines
The thing that drew me to Manila, other than to visit my BFF Jingjing, was to sell my Makati condo. My daughter April had migrated to Australia so I no longer have a daughter who can take care of my properties there. I accomplished that mission the day I left for Guangzhou. Before I left, I still got to enjoy the condo’s “comforts”, especially since my BFF Ann brought me pillows, linens, and towels for me to use. It is sad that I didn't get to visit many places.
Sonya's Garden in Tagaytay, Philippines
Except for these four. Ayala Triangle. I had looked for rainbow trees all over the world after I saw a picture in a glossy mag and I was pleasantly surprised to find them right at the heart of Makati, the financial district where I used to work! Sonya's Garden in cool Tagaytay, the city on the ridge of a volcano crater in the middle of whose lake sits the world's smallest.volcano. It was just under an hour from Metro Manila. Enderun Colleges, the upscale culinary and hotel management school in the newest urban center, Bonifacio Global City where Lydia, another BFF, is Chairman of its Technology Management Department. International School Manila where I was given a tour before I gave an informal talk to the current Filipino scholars there (I was part of the very first batch, 50 years ago.
Enderun Colleges in Metro Manila, Philippines
Which brings me to the real reason “it’s more fun in the Philippines!” Metro Manila is the world’s most densely populated city with about 12 M people. If we include surrounding towns, the number swells to 21 M. I had a total of 35 meet-ups while I was there, an average of one a day! You see the Filipino, like his half ancestor Spaniard, is a warm, clannish, and social animal. People just think of all reasons to meet, have coffee, discover a new restaurant, check out a new shop, watch the latest movie, or go out of town. I miss all the people and all the fun!!
International School of Manila in the Philippines
The cheapest flight I found for the Phoenix-Melbourne-Manila-Phoenix trip featured long layovers, including in Guangzhou, population 15 M, a Chinese city I had not seen. The layover on the way home was long, made longer by the fact that there is no Facebook in China! I had already booked the flight when I found out that the city proper is two hours from the airport. I dropped the idea of touring the city and suffered silently on the way to Melbourne.
But, on the way back, when I was going through the transit officer, she asked if I wanted to see Guangzhou. Of course, I said, in utmost joy! She said if I can find the specific immigration section, I will be able to get a free 23-hour visa. Of course, I did! There they directed me to another place, where, if I could find it, I could get free transportation and free lodging. Of course, I found both and off I went to the Oubon International Hotel on a free shuttle van ride!
It was a frustrating side trip. Nobody spoke English, except for the Hotel Manager who finally had to be called. As a result, I frittered my hours away. Afraid I would only get lost and not make my flight, I gave up the notion of going to the heart of Guangzhou. I settled on just walking around the stores of the small mall around the hotel and inspecting the hotel’s unusual amenities like the Mahjong room. Then it was time for the free authentic Chinese dinner. It was good and it was free!
Santa Monica, California
LA/Santa Monica, California
I used the long layover in Los Angeles, a large spread-out city of about 19 million, to visit my First Apo (first grandkid), Krishna. She had just transferred to a new flat in Santa Monica, just 20minutes from the airport. It was in a neat 1920s landmark building just two blocks from the Bombshell Salon where she works as a hairstylist. The next day, walking to her Salon, I got fascinated with the trees that lined Main Street. Krishna treated me to a haircut so I treated her to Jinya Ramen across the street. Then I took an Uber to the airport.
Albuquerque, New Mexico and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Two days after I landed in Phoenix but it didn't feel like going home. Bill and I put our brand new Hyundai Elantra to good use. We embarked on a road trip to go to his 55th HS Reunion in Pittsburg, Kansas. On the way there and back, our two stops were Albuquerque, New Mexico and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. While Phoenix has a population of 6 M, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City are both just over 600,000. It was quite a shift from the three chaotic megacities I had just been through.
Musical Road, Sky City, and Enchanted Mesa, Albuquerque, New Mexico
We stayed longer in Albuquerque to do a bit of sightseeing. On the way to Kansas, we visited the Sky City in Acoma, standing atop a 350-foot-high sandstone mesa which had been inhabited since AD 1150. The views out across the plains are unforgettable, especially toward Enchanted Mesa which is just under half the size of Uluru in Australia's Outback. On the way back, we drove on the Musical Road, on Old Historic Route 66. One of five musical roads in the world. This one plays America the Beautiful if you drive at 45mph! Two years ago, we had visited the one in Lancaster, California which plays the William Tell Overture.
the Will Rogers statue that is inside the travel center built over the Will Rogers Turnpike
We didn't have much time in Oklahoma City. From Phoenix, we were hurrying to get to Pittsburg. On the way back to Phoenix, we even took the Oklahoma turnpike which reduces the time by an hour. This brought us back to the travel mega plaza built over and across the Will Rogers Turnpike which we visited six years ago. A statue of Will Rogers, the famous Oklahoma son who was a stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, American cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator.
From megacities of 21, 15, and 19 M to those that don’t even reach 1 M, we finally found ourselves in Pittsburg, Kansas whose population is just over 20,000. This is the town where Bill was born and grew up. You can visit the whole town in a day and you will surely bump into someone you know while going around. And we felt right at home at his sister Rosemary and brother-in-law Jack’s home.
Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg, Kansas
Sadly, Bill was not able to attend most of his Reunion. The day after the Welcome Dinner at Jim’s Steak House for early arrivals, Bill played golf with some of the men. That was when his Phoenix cardiologist called me and said: “Check him into a hospital right away!” The online heart monitor he had to wear after he reported passing out in Auckland, had been recording stoppages and irregularities in his heartbeat. At first, Bill was hesitant to have this procedure done in such a small town. But he had no choice. As it turned out, Pittsburg’s Via Christi Hospital did the job well.
These five cities in a span of 7 weeks were very disparate destinations, not just in terms of population, layout, and facilities. If I had stayed in each of them as much as I stayed in Manila, I would have also found the disparity in culture and the way people lived. Undoubtedly, I would also have discovered the unique beauty of each one. But now we need some rest from traveling!.
From Vientiane, we flew into Don Muang International Airport, the older of two international airports serving Greater Bangkok. Since the opening of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport, Don Muang has become a regional commuter flight hub. It is Asia’s oldest and the world's largest low-cost carrier airport. We arrived at about 3 pm and we readied ourselves for our overnight layover.
Wat Don Muang,
We stayed at the International Amari Airport Hotel, connected to the airport by an air-conditioned walkway. After checking into our low-cost off-season accommodations, we visited Wat Don Muang, the cluster of temples beside the airport. We were thus encouraged to take a Bangkok night tour: dinner at the Kuang Seafood Center, shopping at the Chatuchak Night Market and some night scenes.
When we got to Brunei, I must say I was first underwhelmed. Brunei is a sovereign state located on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, surrounded by the South China Sea and the Malaysian state of Sarawak. She gained her independence from the UK in 1984. Extensive petroleum and natural gas fields have enabled her to attain the second-highest human development index among SE Asian nations (after Singapore), and 5th in GDP per capita and 5th richest nation out of 182.
Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque
On the way to our hotel from the airport, a glistening mosque was impossible to miss. Of course, we stopped for pictures. Built in 1992 to celebrate the 25th year of the reign of Sultan Bolkiah, the current sultan, it is Brunei's largest mosque with its four terrazzo-tiled minarets dominating the landscape. The Sultan is the dynasty's 29th ruler so the impressive building is adorned with 29 golden domes. Too bad we did not see it at night when they say the mosque lights up like a gold flame.
Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
As soon as we checked into our conveniently located hotel, we walked to the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, named after the 28th Sultan of Brunei (the late father of the Sultan Bolkiah). It is surrounded by an artificial lagoon that serves as a reflecting pool. A 3.5 million-piece glass mosaic overlaying real gold leaf covers the main dome and a minaret of over 172 feet makes it the tallest building in Brunei. Exceeding this height is prohibited. The ceremonial stone boat sitting in the lagoon, a replica of a 16th-century mahligai where Quran-reading competitions were once held, adds more majesty.
Past the Mosque, away from our hotel is the Shopping Center. We were surprised that, though it was after office hours, there were practically no shoppers. Right after our dinner of char kway teow, a popular Singaporean dish, a heavy downpour prevented us from going back to the hotel. Hanna, a Filipina saleslady came to our rescue and called her relative. Michael arrived minutes later. We contracted him to drive us to more landmarks the next day before we flew back to Manila.
After our hearty complimentary breakfast at the hotel, Michael picked us up and drove us straight to Kampong Ayer, 42 contiguous stilt villages built along the banks of the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River) housing about 30,000 people. To get across the river, there are water taxis that can be flagged for just $1. Founded about a thousand years ago, the village is the largest stilt settlement in the world and is dubbed 'Venice of the East.' The wooden houses on stilts are painted in all colors. Kampong Ayer is home to a large number of many of Brunei’s underclass, especially undocumented immigrants.
Royal Regalia Museum
Royal Regalia Museum
When you have to give a gift to one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world, you may ask, “What do you give a man who has everything?” Michael next drove us to the Royal Regalia Museum that houses the answers to this question. Family photos and explanatory texts offer a good overview of the life of Sultan Bolkiah, including a hologram of the famous man. Also on display are the chariot used during his 1992 silver jubilee procession and a second chariot used for his 1968 coronation.
Ash Shaliheen Mosque
We had some trouble looking for this mosque. Michael told us it was not one of the more popular ones, As it turned out, it is located beside the Prime Minister's Office Complex. Completed in 2012, it really looks quite different from the two mosques we had visited. Built in the simpler Moroccan style, it sports a modern glass retractable roof for the convenience of the faithful.
p Istana Nurul Iman
Prime Minister's Office Building
Istana Nurul Iman
Istana Nurul Iman
This is the official residence of the Sultan, one of the largest residences in the world. It is more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles and has the grandeur of a 200,000 square meter airport terminal. The palace is open to the public only during the three-day festivities at the end of Ramadan. I am proud to say that it was designed by the renowned Filipino architect Leandro Locsin. Before going to the Istana, we drove by the modest home of the Sultan’s late father.
Empire Hotel and Country Club
Empire Hotel and Country Club
For our last stop, we went farther out to the Empire Hotel and Country Club by the sea. Jingjing’s daughter who once worked in Brunei as a geologic engineering consultant told us not to miss a visit to this 6-star complex. From conception to completion, constructing the complex was an ambitious project over 6 years. Since 2000 when it opened, it has become synonymous with Brunei’s majestic cultural heritage. We indulged in a late lunch at the fine dining restaurant in the main country club. Of course, much of our time was spent taking our photos in the lavish surroundings.
After this final display of wealth, Michael took us to the airport and we headed back to the Philippines, to our modest homes and ordinary lives. At first I was underwhelmed because of the lavish displays of wealth in Dubai and Doha. They say I would have been overwhelmed had I taken the time to examine the interiors of the mosques. But my reaction is good. Brunei's wealth isn't ostentatious; it's elegant!
My trip to the Philippines from Australia before going back to the US was dedicated to my friend Jingjing who was recovering from breast cancer. Her goal was to complete 65 countries when she turns 65 in January 2018. In 2015, we traveled together to 8 European countries in 14 days. This time, we scheduled 4 in 5 days in Asia! Two of them were layovers, the first one, overnight at the KL International Airport, Malaysia's main international airport, the world's 24th-busiest by total passenger traffic.
Two other friends, Ann and Tess, joined us. We booked at the Sama-Sama Express Hotel at the airport’s modern Transit Center. Each room was big enough for two, so conveniently located among the gates! The Center had all the shopping and food we wanted…durian products, other Malaysian goodies, and a branch of Chicken Rice, the chain of the Hainanese chicken rice fame, one of my and Jingjing’s favorite dishes. Who needs to go out into the city when you can get it right there at the Food Court?
The next day we were in Vientiane, the capital and largest city of Laos. Actually, Jingjing wanted to go to Luang Prabang, the Laotian cultural capital. But I chose Vientiane because the name sounded classier! The capital since 1563, the city was the administrative center when the French ruled the country and is now Laos’ economic core with an estimated population of 760,000. Still spared from tourist industry commercialization, it lies between mountains and the low lands of Mekong River and is refreshing to visit with touches of both European and Asian cultures. We contracted a taxi driver to drive all four of us for a day.
First stop was the Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) with more than 200 religious statues including a huge over 131-feet high reclining Buddha, about 30 minutes from the city center. The best spot for photography was on top of the giant pumpkin, standing about three stories high, whose entrance is a demon’s mouth that leads to an internal stone ladder to the top with a bird's eye view of the Park.
In 1958, it was built by a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism, the park has Buddha images, Hindu gods, and demons and animals from both beliefs. The most outstanding ones include Indra, the king of Hindu gods, riding a three-headed elephant, a four-armed deity sitting on a horse, and an artistic god with 12 faces and many hands. They are all impressive because of their size and interesting details. It was a great first stop.
Pha That Luang
also found on the grounds of Pha That Luang
But it was the next stop that left us deeply amazed. Pha That Luang is beautiful to behold. A historic gold stupa, it is over 144 feet high with multiple levels, a walled enclosure, and a green grassy courtyard. This Great Stupa is the most sacred monument in the country. Every November, the Boun That Luang Festival, the most important Buddhist celebration, is held there with thousands of Laotians congregating there from all over the country.
Looking more like a fortress surrounded by high walls from the outside, Built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer ruin, it was greatly damaged during the Burmese, Chinese and Thai invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries but was restored by the French in 1900 and 1930. It features two temples with the main stupa’s top covered with gold leaf. The architecture is Lao in style, finely-gilded with red-lacquer doors, pointed lesser stupas, many Buddha, flower and animal images.
Our taxi driver brought us next to the Patuxai Victory Monument that is the centerpiece of Patuxai Park at the end of the capital’s grand avenue. The Park is a popular place to stroll around in the afternoons with the palm trees, lotus ponds, a musical fountain donated by China, and the peace gong given by Indonesia when Laos was named the world’s most peaceful country.
Wat Si Saket
Dedicated to the Laotians killed in the fight to gain independence from France, as well as from its earlier occupiers, Thailand and Japan, Patuxai is the best example of European influence, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But its exterior embellishments and interior decorations are of Laotian style. At the top, you will enjoy a panoramic view of Vientiane. Built between 1957 and 1968 using funds from the U.S. government, it features 4 arches, facing North, South, East, and West. The 5 towers symbolize the Buddhist principles of amiability, flexibility, honesty, honor, and prosperity.
Wat Si Saket
Near our hotel, we spent a lot of time at Wat Si Saket, famous for a cloister wall housing more than 6,800 tiny Buddha images and seated Buddhas that date from the 16th and 19th centuries. They come in all sizes and are made of wood, stone, and bronze. In beautiful Lao architecture, it is the country’s oldest Buddhist monastery, right across the Presidential Palace, with vast grounds filled with structures.
Wat Ho Phra Keo
Across the street and beside the Presidential Palace is Wat Ho Phra Keo, originally constructed in 1565 as the royal family’s personal chapel. It was the home of the Emerald Buddha after it was snatched from northern Thailand (reclaimed by the Thai in 1778 and now in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok). The temple is now a museum, richly adorned with a 16th century lacquered door with Hindu carvings.
Wat Ho Phra Keo
The Presidential Palace was started in 1973 on the former royal grounds. Because of the takeover by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975, the building was not completed until it finally opened its doors in 1986 for government functions and ceremonies (the President resides elsewhere). Closed to the public, the beau arts-style architecture features tall colonnades and shaded balconies. Well-manicured lawns and gardens surround the palace, fenced off by tall walls and a wrought iron gate.
This is the 65th country Jingjing visited. To celebrate, we all heard mass at the Catholic place of worship in this Buddhist and Hindu nation. We also feasted at a 5-star hotel a few blocks from our cute Ibis Hotel. A Laotian dish, meat with lots of vegetables and fragrant herbs, caught our fancy because, just like Vietnamese cuisine, we relished its French influence. We were absolutely charmed by old-fashioned Euro-Asian Vientiane. But we still have to visit Luang Prabang!
Waiheke Island is the second-largest and most populated island off Auckland, New Zealand. With nearly 8,730 permanent residents, another estimated 3,400 wealthy Aucklanders own holiday homes. In 2015, the Island was ranked the fifth best destination in the world by Lonely Planet. More recently, in 2016, Waiheke was voted the fourth best in Condé Nast’s Best Islands in the World List.
It was easy to see why Waiheke Island is the jewel of Hauraki Gulf. With regular ferry sailings, Waiheke is the perfect place to escape to for the day. Here’s how our day with Winnie, a long-missed college friend, went. First, we met at the downtown ferry terminal in Auckland. We arrived in Matiatia Bay on the Island, 13.4 miles away, after 35 minutes. There were a lot of photo-ops on the ferry and in the lovely wharf, especially when we got back after the island tour, right before sunset.
Winnie immediately went to the car rental place and took out a little red car for us to use that day. She drove us to the southern part of the island and asked if we wanted to venture to the southernmost part in Orapiu Bay. Of course, we did! There we found one man fishing from the old wooden jetty. It was totally serene but also pretty exciting at the same time.
Man O’War Bay
Then we went up north, through rough coastal roads, unfarmed empty fields, and homes few and far between until we reached the easternmost part of the island on Man O' War Bay. There we found the only waterfront vineyard and winery on the island. And we lingered at its beachfront tasting room to sample its best sellers and have our photos taken around the garden.
Going further north and then westward, we reached the beachfront residences of many islanders around Onetangi Bay. At the quiet beach, we saw a single man gamely playing with his dog on the beach with its rhythmic waves crashing on its waiting shoreline. How hard it was to capture the essence of the captivating scene through my inexperienced lens!
Ocean View Road
As we went further east through Ocean View Road, we found the many holiday homes of wealthy Aucklanders. We looked for a special one, the one owned by my friend Zenie and her husband Parkin Low, with whom we were staying in Auckland. It was one of the more modest bachs but it had a spectacular view of the Bay. How great it would have been had we stayed there for the night, too!
Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard
At about 2 pm, we had made the complete circle and reached the western part of the island where most of the art galleries, the shops, the restaurants, and other tourist destinations were located. Winnie selected Mudbrick for lunch. An excellent selection, the winery has a large restaurant with floor to ceiling windows, a second-floor deck for more viewing pleasures, and an extended balcony with dining tables for even better views of Auckland and Rangitoni Island. Each dish we ordered was explained to us by the chef’s assistant. The gardens and the gift shop completed the enchanting scene.
Cable Bay Winery
As if that was not enough, Winnie then brought us to another winery nearby, Cable Bay, with even more spectacular scenery. Ostensibly, it was only for dessert and coffee. But beyond the dining area, again through floor to ceiling windows, stands a wide expanse of greenery rolling down to the waters below. And it was overlooking another view of Auckland at a distance, and small islands between.
We felt like we were a world away, as we soaked in stunning sea views, tasted world -class wines, and lfearted on delectable cuisine. We found it hard to leave, after walking around some stunning coastal headlands, touring three spectacular vineyards and seeing idyllic scenes of sheep and fields as we drove around the island. We truly enjoyed our time on Waiheke. We are glad we took a day away from our Auckland tour.
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