Friday, April 10, 2015

Romance in Paris..

      I always wished to visit Paris and finally it did come true. Arrived in Paris on Friday the 13th, its a lucky day for Parisians. I have been disappointed to see such a beautiful city of Paris is not that well maintained as you can find dog poop, trash and primarily cigarette stubs on the streets. Parisians smoke heavily in public places, restaurants and even while talking which I found quite bothersome. Wait, if you can set aside these, there is more to Paris.

      Unlike New York, San Francisco where you see the modern tall buildings, Paris extravagance is due to the signature buildings at each intersection of grand boulevards, gothic style churches, royal palaces, fountains, gardens, bridges connecting the Seine river. There is so much history in Paris and is very rich in architecture. You can't help but fall in love with this beauty. By the end of the trip, I sure did learn about French revolution and Baron Haussmann, the visionary behind the reconstruction of Paris.

Fountain of Notre Dame intersection
          Paris is very well connected with metro/TVG/buses. If you are flying in to the international airport CDG, follow the directions to go to metro. It will not be a pleasant experience to take the RER/metro all the way to Eiffel tower with many luggage.  The metro stations usually have stairs and you will have to hand carry all the luggage. Also remember to use the same ticket at the entry and the exit stations. I would recommend taking taxi or if you have phone access try uberpool which turned out to be a very economical option. It is daunting at first but you will get a hang of it. You need to make sure you take the train that is going in the correct direction i.e. usually check the final destination. For example from CDG to eiffel tower, you need to take  RER B until St Michel Notre Dame and from there take the RER C yellow line towards Versailles.
http://parisbytrain.com/paris-metro-maps/Downloadable pdf -
http://parisbytrain.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/paris-metro-map-2014.pdf

      Journey in the metro is enjoyable, you will forget all the travel hustle bustle in metro with the accordion music playing in the background, guys singing peppy tunes. It is quite common to find musicians entertaining in busy streets and intersections for tips.  Parisians dress in style, they are a bit reserved.  But once you engage in a conversation with them, they can be very friendly, helpful and welcoming. Simple french phrases can help you long ways - "Bon jour", "Se il vous plait".  Service at the restaurants is not that friendly and made me very uncomfortable. On the other hand, I got very friendly service and recommendations when visiting the bakeries, sandwich places, cafes. Paris city is visited by many tourists and can't stress enough "beware of the pick pocketers". Always keep an eye out/hand on your belongings.

     Best way to explore Paris is by walking. Wear comfortable shoes and get ready to explore. I would highly recommend the free walking tours offered by Sandeman's new paris tours/Discovery tours if possible.  Free walking tours are a great way to get introduced to the city and get some insights by the experienced local guides (tip based on your satisfaction).  Contrary to the popular belief, best view of Paris is (not from Eiffel tower but) from Montparnasse tower with the Paris city set as a back drop with Eiffel tower in it. :)  You will love the sight of Eiffel tower once it is lit up in the evening and do not miss to watch the light show at the top of every hour. When Hitler visited Paris during his reign, he marvelled at the engineering of Eiffel tower.  He so much wanted to take the lift to the top of the tower but he couldn't as it was not working that day. (Rumour is that Parisians made sure that the lift doesn't work). However, Hitler went to the best spot to get the best view of Eiffel tower in Paris i.e. Trocadero. Eiffel tower can be best viewed from Trocadero.

Obelisk at La Concorde
        Walking in the Paris along the Seine River, overlooking the boats, beautiful bridges connecting the left and right banks, each one of these bridges  with each one has its own character, taking a stroll in Champ de Elysses, enjoying the roasted chestnuts and watching sunset next to the Eiffel tower from the historic La Concorde intersection, its just a great feeling. Pay a visit to Louvre, it has literally tons of exhibits and you can not see all of them but do not miss to the most important ones. Pay a little extra to get an audio guide, it will be money well spent to guide you to the ones you want to see else you will get lost in the Louvre. Louvre is originally the palace where the French kings resided before Louis XIV moved to Versailles. 20km away from Paris, a trip to Versailles is  a must do to visit the royal Palace and to experience its extravagance.  Tuileries are located right next to the Louvre to relax in the gardens and from there you can walk down to Concorde intersection which is a significant place in French Revolution. This is where Louis XVI was executed during the revoultion. This is a very large public square and the tour de France ends here. My other recommendations to visit are Notre Dame Cathedral (Hunchback of Notre Dame fame), boat tour on Seine river, a trip to top of Eiffel tower.
Apollo de Gallery at Lourve

Sacre De Coire
Paris is filled with artists who aspire to find their niche and become famous. A trip to Montmarte is a must to experience the tales of the world famous artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet who lived and worked in the studios. Montmarte has its own character and the streets speak to it. Our journey started from Moulin Rouge, going up hill exploring Picasso's workshop, a stop at cafe where the movie Amelie was shot, taking the steps to the narrow streets of Place de Abessess, to the statue of Montmarte, the lucky statue of Dalida leading up to the top of hill and ended at the Basilica of Sacre de Coire. The view from their is amazing and just enjoyed watching the guy doing incredible feats with the ball entertaining the visitors. The Basilica is just beautiful and had a splendid time there.

Yumm...the chocolates!!
            Now comes the food part, I just love love, loved Paris for that. You can get a baguette sandwich as an inexpensive yet delicious meal, the best crepes on the go. Who knows the best falafel place in the world is in Paris, definitely a trip to La's Du Falafel is worth it.  Near Notre Dame there are tons of places with several choices of food to eat, if you try French style fondue, Mediterranean food, Indian, Chinese, Italian you name it... When in Paris how can you not taste the best Baguette, check out the Grand Prix de la Baguette winner, it is usually etched on the glass in front of the store. The macaroons, chocolates, croissants, ahh I started drooling already.

           That is PARIS, who can not fell in love with this beautiful city!!

Happy Travels!!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Puertorro.....Tips to visit Puerto Rico

Note: This is compilation of information from a friend of mine. I will write about the memorable experience of mine visiting this gorgeous island in 2009 very soon.

Car Rental
Feel free to rent a car and drive in Puerto Rico, but make sure you get the insurance...peace of mind since there are lots of holes in the road and all the cars have dings....Driving in Puerto Rico is a "little" different than in the U.S.
  • If there is free transportation from the airport to the hotel ("La Concha"), then it is best to rent the car at next to the hotel as it is ~20% cheaper and you do not have to deal with returning it at the airport. There are several diff car rental places next to the hotel.
  • Roads are marked and maps are pretty accurate (not as much as in the US, but you can get around easy)
  • People honk their horns all the time (different!)....just to say "hey! I'm going your way", so do not get upset if you hear people honking at you all the time. Honk back as needed!
  • After 12:00PM, you do not have to wait for a green light. Red lights are just stop signs (Stop, look around and proceed). Please note that since this is Puerto Rico, people will start doing this stop and go after 10:00PM. If you get stopped because of this, let the police officer know that you were told that you can run these lights after 10:00PM (worked for me last time they stopped me...well...either that or they did not know what to do w an US driver's license).
  • Parking spots are very tight in San Juan (small and not too many of them)! If you're going to "La Placita" there is a public underground parking right next to it. If you're going to the ports or lower part of San Juan, there is a public parking next to the left of "Fortaleza" street.


San Juan Area

  • Fort - San Felipe del Morro ("El Morro")
  • "Parque de las Palomas"
  • "La Catedral" de San Juan
  • Bacardi Rum Distillery - Is the largest in the world, 15-minute drive from San Juan. Note: If you want to visit this one, take your time....no good if you're tired...
  • Deep Sea Fishing - Check with the hotel or call the different nautical clubs to rent a boat
  • Scuba Diving - Check with the hotel (good Scuba rental place next to Caribe Hilton "El Escambron")
  • Golfing
  • "Dorado Beach" ("Chi-Chi's place) - next to "Embassy Suites" in Dorado (30 min from San Juan)
  • "El Conquistador" - Hotel in Fajardo (outside city) - Tried this one last time I went to Puerto Rico. Great!!
  • "El Morro" - There is an underground public parking structure in front of the fort's grassy area
  • Touring "El Morro" interesting in terms of its history (pirate attacks , its defenses, etc.)...check out video inside the fort.
  • Windy! We had a lot of fun last time we went there with a group of friends just flying kites in the afternoon.... You can buy them for $2 on a stall right as you enter the grassy area next to the Plaza.
  • If it is hot by "El Morro" and you want to quench your thirst, try the "Piraguas" (shaved ice) or the "Helado de Coco" (coconut ice cream), there are carts all over Old San Juan which sell them.
  • Once you finish with "El Morro" you can walk up to "La Placita" and go down "La Fortaleza" street...there are all sorts of small souvenir and outlet shops (Note: Prices are not the best, so be careful....you can always negotiate)
    If you want something to eat in San Juan during the day, "Melao" ("In" place right now in San Juan for lunch) which is at the end of the strip where the cruise ships dock in San Juan. We also went to "El Patio de Sam" in "La Placita" and had a snack last year. You can probably order "tostones" (fried green plantains) and "sorullitos de maiz" (corn fritters) with "mojo de ajo" (garlic sauce) if you want to taste something typical.
  • There is also "La Bombonera" which is a cafeteria which has been open for ~70+ years in lower San Juan. If you go there, make sure you try a "Mallorca" (sweet bread with white powdery sugar on top). If I remember correctly, they also served a good "Caldo Gallego" (soup) and "Arroz con habichuelas y bistec encebollado" (rice and beans with flat iron steak and onions)
  • If you want to go out to eat at night,I recommend the "Budda Thai"...it is a "Tapas" style place with a mix of Puerto Rican and Asian cuisine. You'll need reservations. Another place which is very similar to this one is the "Dragon Fly" in San Juan.
  • If you like "Ceviche" (I could take it or leave it), a new one we just tried this year was the "PeruRican" in #2 street just outside San Juan. I really liked this little restaurant! The "Ceviche" was excellent! If you go, make sure you get the "Ceviche" with "tostones de yuca or platano" and an "Suspiro" for dessert.
  • If you like "food stalls", my brother tells me there is a nice restaurant in "Pinones"

Nighttime

"El Caribe Hilton" hotel - drinks at the bar, take a walk to the pier by the beach to see the sharks, hang out a while at the beach hammocks, dance some salsa on Saturday!
"El San Juan" Hotel - "Party" hotel -> Catamaran, Parasailing, Jet Ski, Salsa, electric slide, night club, beach bar
Nice places to go have a drink at night or while you're at the beach. The "Caribe Hilton" is famous for their "Mojitos" and "Pina Coladas". We also tried the "Cranberry with Don Q Limon" and it was very refreshing. I do not think they are that different from anywhere else, but it is a nice place to have a drink and take a safe walk in the back of the hotel (private beach, hammocks and small pier overlooking the ocean). The "El San Juan" is like any other beach hotel during the day. Fun place, especially by the ocean bar!. It has a casino and a couple of night clubs if you're looking for nighttime entertainment/dancing....

Note: Do not go for a beach walk at night in front of the "Isla Verde" hotels ("El San Juan", etc.)....beach is not safe at night!

Shopping:
  • "Plaza Las Americas" - Mall ~15 minutes from "Isla Verde" where everyone goes to shop and eat on the 3rd floor...
  • All sorts of stores in "Old San Juan"....it is nice to take a walk

Outside City

El Yunque

The Caribbean National Forest, often called "El Yunque", has the highest visitation of any natural site in Puerto Rico. The "El Portal Rain Forest Center" has some interesting exhibits in English and Spanish if you're interested in learning more about the rain forest (did not do much for me) . There is also a small observation fort on the left as you go up the road which has a great view once you climb thru all those steps! Make sure you continue up the road towards a place called "Coca Falls". You'll see the sign on your left right next to the parking area. Park the car and walk into the rain forest ~1/2 mile....at the end you'll find a waterfall where you can go refresh, swim, etc. It is cold!

Mosquitoes: Make sure you take some "Deet" mosquito repellent with you when you go to the rain forest! Also, if you're allergic to mosquito bites, make sure you apply it at night.

Luquillo Beach

If you continue down the main highway instead of turning right to go to "El Yunque" you'll find "Luquillo Beach". Just before "Luquillo Beach" are the food stalls. They've great food, but make sure you get a clean one! Try some of the typical food like the "Bacalaitos" (Codfish fitters) and something to drink like "Agua de Coco" (Coconnut water). The beach is open to the public and is very pretty.
Note: You can probably do both "El Yunque" and "Luquillo" on the same day...



BioBays - "Bahia Fosforecente" - 3 different places to go at night...

  • Las Croabas
  • La Parguera
  • Vieques Mosquito Bioluminescent
There are several you can go to at night. Best time to go is when there is no moon..last time we went on an "adventure Kayak" run for $35 in "Las Croabas" in Fajardo. We like this place best so far, but keep in mind you'll be kayaking thru mangroves at night, so it will be an "adventure" (smelly, wet, safe...lots of fun!).
Info: "The Kayak Rental"
Eco Tour / Cycling - Expeditions

www.thekayakrental.com

http://travelandsports.com/ca6.htm


The bay in "La Parguera" has boats that take you there, but it is a big boat and not as much fun. It is far enough away that you would want to stay in a "Parador" (small Motel) in Lajas (just next to where you would take the boat) . I've heard good things about the bay in Vieques, but have never been there....would need to check the ferry times to make sure it works for you....

Joyuda

This area is known as the Milla de Oro del Buen Comer (The Gourmet Golden Mile) because of the strip of seafood restaurants along the waterfront road.


Vieques or Culebra

Small islands off the coast of Puerto Rico. You can take a govt ferry for a very small fee and spend the day in their beaches. Fun!

Arecibo Radio Telescope & Observatory

The Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory is open Wednesday to Friday from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM and Saturday, Sunday and most holidays from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. I've not seen it, but am told that is quite impressive to see such a big radar taking basically the entire mountain.

Gilligan’s Island - Gu├ínica 

This is a pretty beach off the coast of Puerto Rico. There is a boat you can take for ~$7 which takes you there and back every hour on the hour. If you want to go, make sure you call the day before to make sure the boat is operating that day.
There is also the "Parque de Bombas" and museum in Ponce and the "Cuevas de Camuy", but these are more sightseeing tours.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jamaica....Yeah Man!!

It is one of those spontaneous trips...booked a flight in the morning to travel in the evening. There is a huge sense of adventure filled in our stomachs as this is a total random selection and didn't research anything about this place. There is a bit of nervousness until we landed in Jamaica. There are two reasons to pick this place, it is one of the English speaking Caribbean islands and the tourist visa is not required for most of the nationalities. (be sure to check yours!!)  I put together all this information from my experiences so you can be prepared if you want to visit this paradise.


When can I go there? 

Jamaica is a beautiful island, the birth place of Reggae,  filled with turquoise green clear water white sand beaches, lush green mountains, gorgeous waterfalls, year round weather averaging in 80s with cool breezes in night, yummy food, rich tasting blue mountain coffee, world famous Appleton Rum and it has so much more to offer. It is one of those few destinations where you do not look for the best times to travel. Although, the busiest season to travel is in August as Jamaicans celebrate their Independence day, December is busy month due to holiday season, spring break season in
Beach along hip strip
March-April the beaches tend to get overcrowded with partying students. June to November is hurricane season and look out for any warnings if you plan to travel during this time. It can rain during any time of the day due to tropical climate for short periods of time, it may be wise to carry an umbrella along with you. 




Who live there?

Jamaica is mostly dominated by African descendants, but you do find people of color due to mix of settlers overtime from India, China, Germany and Syria/Lebanon.  Jamaicans are very friendly and very eager to help. You find them using the phrase "Yeah Man!!" while conversing with Jamaicans. 
Jamaican having beach fun near Dunn's River Falls
Do not hesitate to "BARGAIN" on anything or everything. :) In the tourist areas, some of them go above and beyond to help you or perform in front of you for a good tip. Keep in mind that Jamaicans openly oppose LGBT community.  Jamaicans are party lovers, you can hear loud boom boxes playing Reggae, pop music in a park or a street, people gather with kids and celebrations go on, vendors trying to sell beer, juices, sugarcane, fruits, roasted yam, Jamaican jerk chicken/pork pits roasted in a  cylindrical drum,... Jamaicans love "Ganja" (weed) but possession of weed is not legal in the island. 


What about currency?

US dollar is widely accepted as currency in Jamaica. Some merchants accept credit cards but most of them do not accept Amex. It is recommended to use cash instead of credit cards except at the trustworthy places. You get good exchange rate for currency conversion in Scotiabank ATM, or at the cambios sprinkled throughout in tourist areas but the FX at the airport does not give you a good rate.  Inform your credit card companies about your travel times, else the cards can get blocked due to suspicious activity. Check if your bank has an alliance with ScotiaBank, for example Bank of America does and hence you can avoid ATM fees but can withdraw money from any ScotiaBank ATMs spread through out with a 3% foreign transaction fee. This way you avoid carrying too much cash with you.  Jamaica is an expensive place to live. All the tourist attractions charge a hefty entrance fee for the tourists.

Safety and commute 

Montego Bay (Mobay as locals call it) and all the tourist areas nearby on the northern side of island is considered to be safer areas. Jamaica has unsafe areas close to Kingston and known for its crime rate. 119 is the number to call police in case of emergencies. You can get a prepaid calling card to have the flexibility to call. Area code for Jamaica starts with +1 876 followed by the seven digit number. 

There is no public transportation in Jamaica. You do not see trains as well. Once you land in the airport, to get to another city you can use Knutsford expresss, a safer affordable luxurious bus to travel. You can reserve the bus in advance for a discount. Once you arrive in your city, you have to rely on taxis to take you to your hotel/destination. Taxis have red color license plate. The ones labeled with JUTA (Jamaican Union of Travellers Association) tours are considered safer but they are a bit expensive too. Route taxis have red color license plate and can take you to your destination for half the price.  Locals commute using mini bus for economical travel and they can be found in a "Bus park".  The probability of minibus/vans stopping on the road is less as they start from bus park once it is filled up completely. I found the minibus a better way to travel as it gave me opportunity to chat with locals, safer as I am not travelling alone, inexpensive compared to other means of travel, but there will be no AC and you will be sitting shoulder to shoulder without any space. If you take a tour with any of the JUTA drivers, they will take you to the attraction and bring back but it is usually expensive unless you are a big group and can split the expenses.

Driving in Jamaica is tricky if you are used to driving on the right side and used to following the rules. Renting a car is a good option if you plan to travel far and to explore the countryside. I recommend renting a 4x4 as the roads are not that great inland.  Check the deductible on your insurance while renting. Driver seat is on the right side and people drive on the left side of the road. Usually, you can find rash drivers,stay on the main highway A1/A3 along the beach but if you want to explore inland, take necessary precautions. 



Love the Food 

Famous Jamaican Jerk Chicken
The national fruit of Jamaica is Ackee and you can found these trees anywhere you go. Salted fish with Ackee is the staple food of Jamaicans but the Jamaican jerk chicken is famous among the tourists. Scotchies is one of the best places to try Jerk chicken, heard from a local that Jerky's at fairview center in Montego Bay is the best but didn't get a chance to go there. Jamaican food is spicy and flavorful and served with rice and peas(beans), festival, bammy, roasted yam, coleslaw, Food is also inspired by Indians as you can find curried chicken/goat, served with roti and mango chutney. The dhabha like places you found along the highway can surprise you with amazing food with affordable prices. MVP smokehouse on the way to Reading on A1 highway offers yummy tasty food.  Due to Rastafarian movement, you can find Rasta restaurants serving strictly vegetarian food.  


Fruit stand on the street
Its a heaven for fruit lovers. Due to tropical climates, you can get fresh tasty fruits throughout the island. My personal favorite the the fresh sugarcane peeled out and sold, I just can't stop eating them. You can find delicious bananas, several varieties of custard apple, mangoes, jackfruit, juicy and sweet papayas, oh...the green round shiny coconuts, pineapples and much more....




What to do 

You can just lay down along the clear white sand beaches all day long reading a book, taking a swim and just sink in the sunshine watching the beautiful sunset. There is so much more to do if you want to get up and go. 


Trampolines at Margaritaville
If you stay in Montego Bay, "Hip Strip" is a touristy spot filled with shops trying to sell you Jamaican souvenirs, Black women inviting you give them a chance to braid your hair, parks and beaches, expensive Americanized restaurants,.. Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on the hip street is a fun place to go, with lively music, during the day the admission is free, you can take the water slide, jump on the huge water  trampolines under the watch of a lifeguard or just enjoy the panoramic view from the top deck of the restaurant. Doctors cave beach and Cornwall beach are well maintained and have all the amenities like umbrella, chair, snorkeling gear, drinks with a paid admission. Rockland's bird sanctuary where you can hand feed the humming birds, Great house at Rose Hall, Croyden plandation at the bottom of Catadupa mountains for the coffee and pineapple plantation are the other nearby attractions in Montego Bay.


Falmouth is 30mins away from Mobay and is the home of the glistening waters on the Bay. While at Falmouth, during the day you can visit the bamboo rafting tour on the Martha Brae River as a family event or a romantic trip. At night, visit the glistening waters restaurant to go for a boat tour on the magical tour to witness the natural bio-luminescent phenomenon in the water. The micro-organisms in the mangrove bay emit light when you touch them and everything glows in the night, you can see the water surrounding your body light up when you swim in the beach, your hand lights up when you touch, fish lit up when they swim in water. Be sure to visit there during the new moon time when there is not much light in the sky to see this spectacle. The effect will be better when it gets darker without any natural/external lights. This is one of the four places in the entire world exhibiting this phenomenon. Falmouth, Jamaica is the biggest and brightest of all. Peurto Rico, Indonesia and Bahamas are among the other places. I have the best egg sandwich at the restaurant.


Ocho Rios is about 1hr 30mins towards east of Montego Bay and there are many things to do in Ochi.
Blue hole - Secret Falls
Dunn's River Falls is a popular attraction and is in the list of every traveller. Its so much fun hiking up the water falls and reach the top. Green Grotto caves are near by Dunns Falls and it is interesting to get a tour of these naturally formed limestone caves. Dolphin cove and mystic mountain is nearby. You get to swim, get a peck, dance with the dolphins at the dolphin cove. It is a life time opportunity to interact with these cute little bottle nosed dolphins from Cuba. At Mystic mountain, several tours are offered including bob sledding and canopy/zip lining. My favorite experience in Ocho Rios is the secret falls or Blue Hole. This place is not commercialized and hard to get to. You have to seek the help of locals for directions for every step of the way to make sure you are on the right path. Take the right on Exchange road and head down until you are past Irie river and then ask for directions at the junction, proceed left and then take right at JPS (Jamaican Public Service)...There is no admission fee as such but for a tour of this magical place, you need to pay a $10 fee for your guide.


Gorgeous sunset at Westside
Miles of white sand beaches can be found in Negril which is about an hour and 30 min towards west of Montego Bay. You can get the best view of sunset at the westside in Negril. Rick's cafe is the popular tourist spot to watch the sunset and see the acrobatics of the Jamaicans diving from the tree top on the cliff. My personal favorite spot to witness the sunset is the top of the light house, you may get lucky if the light house guide can let you watch from there. 


Negril Light house
Whether it is visiting Bob Marley museum for Reggae lovers, rum factory tour in Appleton estate, visiting the YS waterfalls, exquisite experience of visiting James bond beach where many of the James Bond novels are written by British author Ian Fleming,  bar in the middle of the ocean at Floyd's pelican bar, caves, castles, mineral springs, snorkeling, ATV tours, horseback riding in the ocean, plantation tours,,...there is so much to do, see and have fun for everyone. 

Stay warm, be safe and have fun!! Peace!!


Sunday, July 6, 2014

2014: Road trip from Bay area to Big Sur

Big Sur!! Sure...heard so much about the scenic drive along the coast highway..so excited to try this on one of the holidays of memorial day weekend.

It is supposed to be a sunny day around 80's but along the coast the weather patterns are unpredictable. It was cloudy, windy, cold and experienced small droplets along the drive on the way to Big Sur even up until the noon time. So, be prepared for the weather.


Drive was fantastic , vast expanse of ocean views on one side while the narrow road spiraling down the mountain giving us a thrill ride, going through tunnels and up hill on the mountains with lush green mountains on other side......it indeed is a fantastic ride and felt like driving in the clouds.

Julia Pfeiffer redwood national park -
Park your car across the street and take the short hike to the waterfalls merging to the ocean.


The reward is at  the end of this short hike is a gorgeous ocean view. Be sure to take a moment to sink in this view in your memory books.