Travel Notes

Tulum, Mar 2011

Syria, Nov 2010

We went up to the hill north of Damascus for a panoramic view on the first day.  Then we went by the National Museum and the souks, ending at the and peaceful and stunning Ummayyad Mosque around sunset.  Dinner at Naranj on the terrace upstairs, with great wine from Jordan.  At Al Pasha hotel off of Straight St. in the Old City the rooms were stunning - with an appealing blend of tradition and modernity. The courtyards, each with a fountain, were lovely, stylish, and calming. 

Palmyra, the Roman ruins in the desert, was amazing.  All the sites outside Damascus & Aleppo were practically empty.  So we felt as though we had them to ourselves.  We liked the vertical tombs inside (especially the fresco ceiling) and the haunting view of the Valley of the Tombs from the citadel at sunset.  The Tadamora hotel in Palmyra had a lovely spa (Six Senses brand, as in Asia).

Qasr al Heir, the early Islamic hunting lodge, and Resafe, Byzantine ruins, were highlights of the whole visit.  The sense of potential discovery was so palpable as both desert sites had much to still be excavated.  These two places were both very special indeed.  The view over Lake Al-Assad was impressive and I'm glad we saw this part of the country and the Russian-made lakeside town.

Arriving to Aleppo at dusk was a bit overwhelming with the pollution and traffic in the new city.  But the walk through the old gate and into the courtyard of the hotel was magical and soothing.  We were completely enchanted by Mansouriya Palace and really enjoyed the Iznik Suite and private hamman experience. Drifting back from the souks at dusk amid the arresting sights and smells it was sublime to emerge in the courtyard with the candles lit and such a heady atmosphere in all the common areas.

The next day we drove to San Simeon in the morning and then spent the afternoon on foot in Aleppo.  The landscape around San Simeon (and also the Dead Cities the next day) was really unique.  The greenery and olive trees were such a contrast with the desert of the days before.  And I'm so glad we experienced this range of geography, and the beauty of the hills.  In Aleppo, we loved exploring the soap factory and old mental asylum down the street from our hotel, and wandering through the citadel.  We are not big shoppers but I found the souks in Aleppo really transfixing.  I think that is one of the most exotic experiences I have ever had.  

Surprising things to me included the water crisis in Syria and how it affects their daily life.  The preoccupation with water on a daily basis rivals the situation in India.  Also driving by tent cities of "water refugees" from the northeast was an arresting sight. This whole region is a harbinger of a changed planet.

Books I read that I found illuminating: 

Special thanks to Hugh Fraser of Corinthian Travel for arranging our trip.

Costa Rica, Apr 2010

Guatemala & Honduras, Oct 2009

Philippines, Feb 2008

Japan, Jul 2007

We flew to Osaka and went straight to Kyoto - a truly magical city.  We had a chance encounter with a geisha in the Gion district and toured temples and shrines.  The most compelling site happened to be adjacent to our hotel (the new Hyatt Kyoto) and was an ancient long wood temple brimming with identical bronze sculptures.  Sanjusangendo Hall was really a spectacular, unexpected sight with a vista of a thousand figures lined up 8 rows deep as far as the eye could see.

We spent several nights at a hot springs spa (the serene and placid onsen Gora Kadan) and availed ourselves of the amazing food and enormous soaking tub in our room overlooking the mountains.

In Tokyo, highlights were the views from our hotel room that perpetually delighted Adam day and night, and the fish market!

Julie gave a science seminar at the Earth Simulator Center in Yokohama, and Dan was in Tokyo for the Linux Foundation Japan Symposium.

Places to stay: Hyatt KyotoGora KadanPark Hyatt Tokyo, and Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.
Special thanks to Miwako Fujimoto, owner of Gora Kadan, for her warmth and hospitality.

Egypt & Jordan, Dec 2006

We started out in Jordan and were immediately diverted to the Dead Sea because the road to Petra was closed due to a freak blizzard!  The sensation of floating in the Dead Sea is really incredible because the saltiness renders you extremely buoyant.  The landscape along the Dead Sea is barren and there are only a few resorts clustered together and built like fortresses - with security to match.  At Petra we availed ourselves of every beast of burden: horse cart, donkey and camel to see the far-flung site.  Driving back to Amman on the King's Highway we stopped at the Crusader fortress Kerak where the movie Kingdom of Heaven was set.

In Cairo we saw the pyramids, Memphis, Saqqara, and the Egyptian museum before flying to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt.  This was the most impressive of the monuments - really monolithic - built by Ramses II.  From there we drove in a caravan through the desert to Aswan, staying in the Old Cataract hotel overlooking the Nile - made famous by Agatha Christie.  The next day we sailed in a felucca on the Nile and then boarded the Oberoi Philae for a 4 night river cruise up the Nile to Luxor (itinerary).  In Luxor at the Valley of the Kings we bought extra entrance tickets (thanks for the advice, Jim!) and managed to see 7 tombs (including King Tut's - photo above) in a whirlwind dash.  The colors in the tombs are so vibrant despite being thousands of years old.  This was a truly spectacular experience.

We next went to Sharm El Sheikh to dive in the Red Sea.  The variety of shapes and colors of the soft coral (and fish) was remarkable.  Especially beautiful were the enormous fan coral we saw in Ras Mohamed park and in shore dives.

We ended our trip in Alexandria - a busy Mediterranean city with many Roman sites.

Places to stay: Moevenpick Resort & Spa Dead SeaMoevenpick Resort PetraFour Seasons CairoOld Cataract hotel AswanRitz-Carlton Sharm El SheikhSalamlek Palace Hotel in Alexandria.

Iceland, Jul 2006

We spent a few days on the Reykjanes and Snaefellsnes peninsulas on the west coast and then a few days in Reykjavik (map of Iceland).

We immediately encountered steaming lava fields, steep ocean cliffs teeming with birds, and the bridge across the American and European plates after we landed at Keflavik.  Best was the geothermal hot springs of the Blue Lagoon where we had massages while floating in the mineral-laden waters.

At Hotel Budir, we hiked on the beach and on lava fields, frolicked with Icelandic ponies, and enjoyed the local thermal baths.  Seeing Geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall rounded out our excursions to the interior of the island.  Best was a helicopter flight over glaciers, the midAtlantic ridge, and Glymur waterfall.  In Reykjavik we took in the sites and architecture while enjoying the food and surroundings at 101 Hotel.

Hawaii, Feb 2006

We spent a few days each on Oahu, Maui, Molokai and Kauai.

We had a dolphin experience at the Kahala Mandarin on Oahu where we spent half an hour kayaking and swimming with dolphins in the bay.

On Maui we stayed in Kihei (south side) and went snorkeling at an offshore crater and did a waterfall hike near Hana on the east side.

In Molokai we stayed in a beach tent and at the lodge (Molokai Ranch).  Molokai is a very remote island with few residents.  It is the site of a leper colony, reached by a mule path down a steep sea cliff.  We got to lead the mule train up and down the cliff!  The history and isolation of the site is overwhelming - and patients still inhabit the town. (novel about the leper colony)

On Kauai we had the pleasure of staying at Bruna and Carter's lovely hideaway on a hill overlooking the ocean (O Luina).

India, Oct 2005

(map) We explored Rajasthan, Agra, and the foothills of the Himalayas.

We began in the vicinity of Udaipur (Rajasthan) visiting small villages and temples and exploring the palaces around Lake Pichola.  Monsoon rains were phenomenal this year, and the Rajasthan watering holes were full - a welcome contrast to the dry, rugged, cactus-dotted Aravalli hills.  We stayed in a hill fort palace in the village of Delwara that was built in the 1760's and recently renovated into a small hotel calledDevi Garh.

In the Himalayas we did some hiking and rafting on the Ganges (class 2 & 3).  We were high in the foothills above Rishikesh staying for several days at Ananda, a modern spa.  Our yoga teacher from California was leading a retreat at the Parmarth Niketan ashram at the same time, so we participated in events there, including the aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges.  Dan installed wireless at the ashram and helped them on other computer and communications support.

From there, we went to Agra and saw the Red Fort and Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, a spectacular Moghul fort complex.  Outside Alwar, we stayed adjacent to rural villages and explored Ajabgarh fort ruins and Bhangarh (an abandoned city built in 1631 that is currently being excavated) and did yoga on temple ruins.  We also had a lovely early evening on the ruins of a palace overlooking the local lake which had been lit up by a profusion of candles at the site and on the surrounding hill-top fortress ruins.  We had delicious Indian appetizers prepared right on the terrace for us.

We ended our trip in the Ranthambhore tiger park where we stayed in bush tents.  A highlight was a camel safari through the countryside with the two of us at the reins of our camels.  We were able to bend the camels to our will and experienced the fully range of camel paces as we covered dusty ground swftly.

Places to stay: Parmarth Niketan (ashram) in Rishikesh, Amarvillas (next to the Taj Mahal) in Agra, The Manor in Delhi, Amanbagh (fantastic pool pavilions), Aman-i-Khas in Ranthambhore.  (Special thanks to Sally & Phillip at Amanbagh for a truly peaceful and memorable stay.)

Sri Lanka, Oct 2005

(map) We stayed on the coast in an old fort town and at a beach-front retreat.

In Singapore we stayed over at The Scarlet, a new small hotel in Chinatown.  After sightseeing, we met lj's parents and friend for dinner (delicious pepper crabs!) 

Then we went to Amangalla in Sri Lanka, located in the former New Oriental Hotel in the 17th cent. Dutch fort town of Galle on the southern coast.  We saw some old temples and went out looking for water monitors on a catamaran in a lake.  We also saw a cinnamon harvest and went to Uda Walawe in the interior of the island to see game animals.  All along we encountered tsunami damage and victims and lots of survival stories.   In Galle, water overran much of the city, but the fort walls of the old city protected much of that space from extensive flooding.  Nonetheless, 500 fort residents sought shelter at the hotel Amangalla because it occupied the highest ground of the fort.  For three days the hotel, which had been open for only 2 weeks, provided food and shelter for the villagers. 

On the ground, there were huge differences in destruction depending on the beach elevation and the depth offshore.  Villages a kilometre apart often appeared to have been affected in very divergent ways.  InPeraliya, the damage included a derailed train where thousands of people lost their lives that was left on the old tracks next to the newly build railway.  But other nearby villages suffered much less damage. Perhaps this is why so much of the infrastructure has been rebuilt so quickly.  What remains are many temporary houses as the government sorts out regulations on the setback of new houses from the beach. 

We finished our trip on the beach at Amanwella near Tangalle where we snorkelled on the reef and swam in the surf.

Indochina, Dec 2004

We traveled around Indochina seeing temples and taking adventure excursions.

In Laos we stayed at the Villa Santi resort just outside of Luang Prabang.  It was a very peaceful colonial-style compound surrounded by natural rice paddies, fountains and ponds.  We did day excursions on the Mekong River into the Buddha caves, and also visited temples, waterfalls and local villages.  The people in Laos are very poor, but warm and welcoming.  The jungle countryside is depleted of all wildlife because the people consume it all.  (It is eerie to hear no birds.)

In Hanoi we saw the major military sites, including the Hanoi "Hilton" downtown, which was originally a French prison and was where McCain was imprisoned for 6 years.  There was a very misleading poster in the sector where Americans were kept extolling the gracious manner in which the prisoners were treated.  We were impressed with the small old feel of the city, and surprised by the organization that arose from the chaos generated by a lack of street lights!  Motorbikes definitely monopolize the roads.  Vietnam (north and south) is very youthful and vibrant.  (70 million of the 85 million people in Vietnam were born after the end of the "American War".)  We stayed in the old wing of the Metropole hotel, celebrated New Year's in Hanoi, and saw the water puppets.  We took a lovely private excursion on Halong Bay.  The Bay has enormous volcanic stones covered with lush vegetation.  There is a floating village amongst the rocks, and very complex ocean currents!  The region was used as backdrop in the French movie "Indochine."

We then visited Hoi An, a pretty coastal village near Danang.  The Cham people dominated the region in the 4th-15th centuries and there are temple ruins in the area.  But our attention was transfixed by the elephant in residence at our hotel, the Victoria Hoi An.  We had a beautiful villa on the water and Darling would transit the beach regularly grooming the sand and transporting passengers.  Julie also availed herself of the local tailors, for which the city is known.  We spent a day in Saigon before leaving the country.

In Bangkok, we most enjoyed the small boat ride through the canals which definitely reinforced the image of the "Venice of the East," and the royal barge museum.  We opted to stay at the Sukhothai and were thrilled with the comforts of the terrace suite and spa there. 

In Chiang Mai, we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, which had just opened.  It was designed as a 13th century Burmese temple town, with Thai accents.  The rustic aspects of the property included very picturesque rice and lotus paddies with running water trickling through, and water buffalo and pony carts.  Our teak Thai-style villa had many modern amenities (e.g., indoor & outdoor spa tubs).  The antiques throughout the compound were really spectacular, though the overall effect was perhaps a little over done.  We loved the adventure activities in the area, mountain biking up a decent size hill, and then rafting down.

Our favorite place to stay this trip was Amansara in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The 12-suite property was the former guesthouse of King Sihanouk, and has a very modern design feel.  Amansara sponsored a shadow puppet show that travels to local villages and we had the pleasure of watching a performance.  Against a screen lit behind by an intense bonfire, dancers acted out a myth with elaborate large cut-out figures.  The local children were delighted.  Much of the cultural heritage was destroyed in the 1970's by the civil war, including the murder of 75% of all artists.  So this was a grassroots effort by the management of the hotel to keep alive an aspect of the Khmer arts.

All the temples in the Angkor complexes are unique marvels, but it was particularly fascinating to see the different representations of Hindu myths and actual Cham/Khmer war campaigns in the friezes and sculptures.  The relative state of decay and looting varied a great deal between the sites.  Bayon and Angkor Wat are among the more mysterious and haunting temples we saw.  Our most exciting outing of the trip was to Phnom Kulen, the holy mountain outside of Siem Reap.  With our guide, we jumped on the back of motorbikes steered by three locals and explored the jungle.  As the trails narrowed and occasionally disappeared, we saw some very remote temple ruins, stone carvings, and sculptures.  Some of the stone carvings were coated in moss that the drivers rubbed away as we watched.  These remains were older than those in the more well-known temple complexes closer to town.  As the mountain was a rebel strong-hold, the drivers were former Khmer Rouge members.  They took us to a bat cave that used to be a weapons cache (although we only found this out after the fact.)  They also pointed out unexploded weapons that they had recently reported to the mine removal program.

On our layover in Seoul we visited the DMZ and went within 170 meters of the border in a 2 meter high tunnel dug surreptitiously under the DMZ by the north.

We had the pleasure of the company of some great guides throughout our travels.  Thanks to Na in Laos, Tuong in Hanoi, and Pheng in Cambodia for fun and rewarding companionship.  Absolute Asiaarranged our itinerary.

Bora Bora, Aug 2004

(Map of region) After a brief stay on Rarotonga (Cook Islands) where we did a sport-fishing excursion, we spent a week on Bora Bora scuba diving every day and horseback riding.  We then flew by helicopter to a motu of an adjacent island (Taha'a).  There we spent a week reading and doing the odd activity like a vigorous hike through the tropical jungle (and rope climb) up to see a magnificent waterfall on Raiatea. 

(Map of Tahiti)  On Bora Bora we stayed in a deep overwater bungalow at Hotel Bora Bora.  The location was lovely, and the OWB afforded spectacular snorkeling right at the base of the bungalow, as it was situated on the coral reef.  Beautiful bright reef fish and sea turtles were right off the stairs of the bungalow.  The scuba diving was exciting -- with shark feeding (lemon sharks and black-tipped sharks) at the bottom of the ocean.  We also did a dive outside the lagoon where we saw barracuda and jack fish in a 100 ft high column lined up vertically, and more sharks.  On a manta ray dive we saw about five of them 2-3 m long -- otherworldly creatures looming out of the depths.

We then transferred by helicopter to the nearby motu containing Le Taha'a Resort.  Our OWB faced Bora Bora and was a really magnificent shelter.  The lagoon there is quite shallow and a stunning color, but had far fewer reef fish. 

We found the service to be more even and polished at Le Taha'a, and the facilities more comprehensive (an infinity pool and fantastic spa where we had several massages).  However, the classic HBB feels more intimate and private, and has an unparalleled setting as it was the first resort on Bora Bora.

New Zealand, Aug 2004

(Map) We spent a day in Auckland (North Island) and went out in the harbor on an America's Cup yacht.  We spent a week in Queenstown (South Island) availing ourselves of the abundant adventure sports: snowboarding, bungy jumping, heliboarding, horseback riding, and jetboating up a river.  From Christchurch (South Island) we visited the French harbor town of Akaroa.  We ended the trip in Sydney where we did the Bridge Climb over the Sydney harbor bridge.

In Queenstown we stayed at Matakauri Lodge overlooking the lovely Lake Wakatipu, rimmed by mountains.  It was an idyllic location and a superb lodge.  Dinners were made by a private gourmet chef, and we were lucky to be alone at the lodge much of the time.  Queenstown was our most favorite city on this trip.  The adrenaline-inducing activities and serene, placid setting of the lodge made this a really unforgettable stay.  Highlights were bungy-jumping at Kawarau bridge, and Dan's heliboarding in the mountains in sometimes inclement conditions.  We also enjoyed snowboarding in late August!

In Christchurch we stayed at The George, a serene small hotel near the center of town.  In Sydney, we stayed at The Establishment (great cool rooms) and had fun on the Bridge Climb.

** South Island Guides arranged many of our activities in Queenstown.  Thanks to Jeremaia and John for their advice and fun companionship.

Botswana, Mar 2004

We stayed at permanent tented camps throughout Botswana, which we reached by small plane or helicopter.  These camps are very isolated, small (8-10 tents), and quite luxurious.  Each of the camps has its own distinctive style that meshes with the local landscape.  The camps were not fully occupied and we usually had our own guide and vehicle.

In the Kalahari desert we stayed at Jack's camp (which maintains the ambience of a classic 1940's-style safari), where we saw thousands of migrating zebras and hundreds of wildebeest.  The landscape consists of shallow salt "pans" that fill with water in the wet season.  We arrived following a day of torrential rain in the region, and the pans water were attracting wildlife.  We also mingled amongst meerkats and brown hyena.  We were fortunate to have a rare encounter with an aardvark very early in the morning.  We took a walk with Kalahari bushmen who told us about their hunting methods and lifestyle, and taught us some words in their language.  Stone Age humans had occupied the area for many years.  Wading in the salt pans we found numerous human-crafted tools from 30,000-1000,000 years ago - which we left there for future archaeologists to discover. 

At Macatoo camp in the Okavango Delta we rode horses (instead of vehicles).  The flood waters had just descended from Angola and so we did a lot of galloping in and fording through the flooded areas between islands.  We rode with giraffe, and saw many exquisite birds enjoying the freshly-arrived water.  Unfortunately, the activity was so vigorous that our digital camera managed to escape from the saddlebag.  The camera was lost, unless of course it surfaces during the dry season and the hyenas haven't eaten it!  (We managed to subsist on disposable cameras after that.)  We were delighted to learn that baboons dwelled in the trees above our tent.  We were less delighted when they threw things down at our tent and communicated noisily in the middle of the night! 

Mombo camp in the Okavango Delta has an exquisite menagerie of animals in the vicinity.  We encountered all the big five in pretty rapid succession, plus rare odd finds like bat-eared foxes.  Julie developed a personal fondness for warthogs.  We were charmed by a baby leopard who pounced from a tree and strode alongside our vehicle.  Buffalo kept vigil under our tent every night.

At King's Pool camp on the Linyanti River, the tents were the largest and most luxurious and we watched hippos (both in the river and in our camp).  We also had a nighttime viewing of bushbabies (the smallest primates).

The River Club on the Zambian side of the Zambezi was beautiful - with colonial architecture infused with quirky elements.  Rides on the owner's boat are an enjoyable way to watch the African sunset.  Massages, swimming, and croquet are other fun activities there.  We took microlight flights over Victoria Falls, and the adjacent game park!  It was a very intense experience.

In Cape Town we stayed at Kensington Place (in a room with its' own fish pond) and explored Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope.  We also visited adjacent Robben Island where former political prisoners lead the tours of the maximum security prison.  (Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there.) 

**Special thanks to Pete and Francis (our guides at Jack's and Mombo, respectively), and Sarah-Jane and Peter (owners of Macatoo and River Club, respectively) for so graciously sharing their worlds with us.

Marrakech, Feb 2004

Special thanks to Nicole Grandsire LeVillair, proprietor of Ksar Char-Bagh & Olivier Freguin, photographer.

Antarctica, Dec 2003

We flew to Ushuaia (Patagonia), following several days in Buenos Aires.  We sailed to Antarctica aboard the R/V Akademik Ioffe or "Peregrine Mariner" (with ~ 90 passengers, 30 crew) and explored the Antarctic Peninsula (map) by zodiac, by foot and by ice camping.

Amazon, Aug 2003

We stayed at Sacha Lodge, exploring the jungle on foot and by dug-out canoe.  We fished for piranhas in a large deep black natural lake at the lodge.  Frighteningly enough, we were also swimming there at the same time!  (Horseback riding was in the Andes, on the way to the Amazon.)

Galapagos, Aug 2003

After some time in Quito, we explored the Islands from the yacht Parranda (16 passengers, 8 crew, which has since sunk!!!) and had numerous kayaking and snorkeling forays.

Croatia, Apr 2003