Feb 20, 2017

Things to do in PhuQuoc

It is very easy to get into a rut even on vacations: walk the beach, have breakfast, swim and lounge on the beach, walk the beach again, get ready to watch sunset with an adult libation, have dinner and go to bed.  We had checked on some other hotels just to see what some of the options were but had not toured the Phu Quoc. 

The scheduled tours were all-day group tours and included things we were not interested in doing, so we decided to hire a car and driver for four hours.  That’s long enough for us. I was glad when a nice young lady, Quyen, came along as a guide. First we went to the Pearl Farm, well not really a farm.  There were fishing boats out on the water but basically it was a store with high priced pearls.  The only saving grace was they had a short
demonstration on how the pearls were harvested. We made a quick stop at the market in town – Doung Dong.  We have been to many night/street markets and we don’t really shop so that was a short visit.  There is a nice museum however that covered the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present plus displays on sea creatures, traditional medicine, and spices.   

Next stop was a Pepper Farm.  The pepper plants were interesting. They look like tall slender trees. The island may be noted for pearls but pepper has been one of their biggest crops. In fact Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper; however, some are now switching to grapes hoping to get a niche in the wine industry, which is more profitable. Today spices are relatively inexpensive but at one time they were a luxury item for Europeans because the most desired spices such as pepper, ginger, vanilla, and cinnamon could not be grown in Europe. At that time sugar was considered a spice. To “spice” up their foods Europeans used herbs. Wars were fought over control of the spice trade routes. The search for a faster, safer and less expensive way to get the spices led to the Age of Exploration. 

The last stop on the trip was to the Phu Quoc Prison.  Many people know about the “Hanoi Hilton” prison where Sen. John McCain and others were held during the Vietnam War (the American War to the Vietnamese) but little is said about similar camps in South Vietnam.  The prison was built by the French colonialists and called the Coconut Tree Prison but was later used as a Prisoner of War camp to incarcerate those who fought on the side of North Vietnam.  The displays using life-like
mannequins were upsetting as many show horrific tortures such as incarceration in a “Tiger Cage” and severe beatings were common. I realize that the tortures were not any different that what the North Vietnamese did to the Americans POWs. Most of the
mannequins had Asian features but no one could tell me what the initials QOC on the guards helmets stood for but since the signs referred to the prison as being used by the “American Puppet Government” I assume most of the guards were South Vietnamese who sided with the Americans. No matter how one looks at it war is not pretty and the only ones who seem to benefit are those who manufacture war materials and equipment.

Feb 14, 2017

Visiting Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Phu Quoc is a Vietnamese island that is off the coast of Cambodia.  I wonder if it will someday be contentious. It is the largest island in Vietnam and on the fast track for tourism development.  In fact, they would like it to, one day, rival Thailand’s Phuket Island as an island getaway.  I have known
about it for several years and finally decided to visit this year.  We flew into Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) and stayed at one of our favorite hotels – the ParkRoyal.  The prices are reasonable – even for Orchid Club Level which includes complimentary airport transportation, breakfast, cocktail hour; and, amazingly, four pieces of laundry per person per day. Along with that they have a wonderful pool and spa plus the staff is excellent.  It is an excellent base for visiting the area.

The Vietnam Airline flight from Saigon to Phu Quoc was less than
an hour. They have a new airport which is still in the expansion state in anticipation of the travel boom they are hoping for.  I find it hard to pick a hotel and have been very lucky so far.  We decided to stay at the Paris Hotel (not a name that seemed appropriate but the owners are French).

 The price was reasonable enough so we could book the best room which we were hoping had a balcony where we could enjoy adult refreshments and watch the sun set.  As it turned out there was no balcony but the room was large with a sitting area and wonderful views of the Gulf of Thailand.  One evening we watched a glorious sunset and then early in the morning the setting of the full moon. Part of the restaurant has a long narrow stretch above the beach that serves as an alfresco restaurant which was a great place to watch the sunset. The hotel had other pluses: a lovely pool, a great complimentary breakfast and the beach was perfect for walking.  

The hotel is reached by a bumpy dirt road but the grounds are well
landscaped.  Behind and to the side of the hotel two other hotels are being built.  It was actually interesting watching the workers. They used very little mechanization so there was a minimum of noise – just the tap-tap of a single hammer which made it sound like the “Little Old Shoemaker” - even so we could see the progress daily. There were no beeping trucks or other noisy equipment.

John celebrated his birthday while we were there.  We try not to let the hotels know when we have a birthday because they go overboard. While we were on the island we checked out some other hotels and loved the La Veranda McGallery Hotel.  It was out of our price range but perfect for a birthday. The grounds were amazing and so lush that each building was
surrounded by foliage accessed via a brick walkway with eachbuilding in a “secret garden.” We sat on the wide veranda of the main building which was designed to look like a colonial mansion typical of the time when Vietnam was French Indochina.  They had a live trio of Filipino singers who sang all the American favorites from our era.  The sublime ambiance was interrupted for a short time by an impressive tropical thunder and lightning storm. When it was over the moon came out and the air was cool and fresh. A great evening.

Feb 6, 2017

Learning how to make Ozoni

We found that taking the train to New York and then a cab to the
JFK airport is a way to save on airfare.  Our round trip ticket to SE Asia was $586. The same trip departing from Syracuse costs between $1000 and $1500 per person. The train and cab for the two of us costs about $350.  Besides the impressive savings we flew ANA (All Nippon Airways) which has more amenities than United – new planes with all the bells and whistles and great service.  

We spent the night at the Crowne Plaza Narita Airport in Japan.  It was New Year’s Eve and I noticed on the flyer in our room that the hotel was offering several New Year’s events, one of which was an “osechi” breakfast.

According to Japanese tradition

nothing should be cooked on New Year’s Day. Osechi is a variety of colorful dishes in a special bento-like box called “jubako” that is part of a traditional New Year’s morning meal along with ozoni.  The jubako (a box with single serving compartments) includes a variety of artistically prepared pieces of fish and vegetables. Ozoni is a soup containing rice cake and vegetables – a traditional New Year’s dish that is said to
provide strength and prosperity in the coming year. All cultures have various symbols and activities that are to bring good luck. In Japan, on the first day of the New Year a dream that includes Mt Fuji, a hawk, an eggplant, or all three means that one will have a prosperous and happy New Year. 

On New Year’s Eve morning, the Japanese Chef Shimada Ikuhou said he would be making ozoni and invited us to watch him make it.  He said that in order to make ozoni it was necessary to first make dashi, a Japanese soup stock used in many recipes.


Dashi: Japanese soup stock
5 ½ quarts water
1 piece Konbu (dried seasoned kelp)
2 oz dried bonito shavings

1 pp prawn or large shrimp
1 tbs soy sauce (or to taste)
1 tbs Mirin (or to taste – mirin is a sweet rice wine used in Japanese cooking) 
½ oz pp chicken
2 pp snow peas (cooked)
1 pp Kamaboko (pink and white) slice in 1/8 in strip of each color and tie in a knot 
1 pp (per person) Mochi (rice cake) baked
1 pp carrot (rosette cut)
2 thin slices yuzu (citrus rind)

To make Dashi, place water in a stock pot, add konbu, bring to a boil, boil for five minutes. Remove konbu and discard. Add bonito bring it to boil. Boil for five minutes. Drain, return to pot and allow to simmer. It is dashi. Put prawns in dashi broth cook three to five minutes until pink. Remove. In a new pot add one cup of dashi for each serving. Add soy sauce and simmer for five minutes (season to taste). Add mirin, bring to boil. Add chicken, snow peas, kamaboko, and carrots cook over medium heat until chicken is cooked and vegetables are tender. 

To prepare mochi: Preheat oven. Bake at minutes at 345 degrees for five minutes. Put mochi under the broiler for 30 seconds. Mochi should be soft with light brown top. 

Presentation: Put one mochi in each serving bowl, arrange prawn, carrot, snow peas, chicken, and kamaboko artfully around mochi. Cover with Dashi. Garnish with citrus.

Jan 29, 2017

Too much snow, too much cold, too much ice?  Have you had enough of winter?  And there is more to come?  There are places where it is easy to forget about the winter.  Plan a pool party – great for kids and adults alike.  The newly opened Holiday Inn Express in Oswego has a pool party package. They have a heated indoor pool and whirlpool. The four-hour pool package includes use of the Banquet Room (bring your own food or order delivery). Towels are provided. 

Alone or with friends, a day or two at a spa will revive you. For the ultimate in relaxation, stay at the luxurious Mirbeau Inn & Spa in Skaneateles.  With gardens inspired by Monet, Mirbeau guests can enjoy soothing massages, yoga, and swim in their indoor/outdoor pool. While it may be snowing, guests won’t mind as they snuggle by the outdoor pool’s fireplace with their favorite libation. They offer a variety of value-laden packages that include yoga, cooking classes, and fine dining.

Turning Stone is more than gambling and shows. Fine tune your
golfing skills at Turning Stone’s indoor practice area with 40 hitting stations, a practice green, and play world-famous golf courses on their golf simulators. There are also indoor courts, one for tennis and another for racquetball. 
Get warm and comfy at the historic River Edge Mansion in Pennellville where some weekend packages include learning how to make quick breads, scones, muffins, cinnamon rolls, plus bread and pizza dough. Other options include pairing wine with foods, cooking with herbs, gingerbread house making, and learning to make Asian fare.  A perfect family or girl’s getaway.

Spend the day at Syracuse’s Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology. It is a learning place for people of all ages and they stay open late one night a week.  Learn from their many hands-on science displays and demonstrations. Planetarium presentations are available on specific days. End the day with an IMAX movie. A wonderful family day.

Thumb your nose at winter by attending this unique winter-time
activity. The Harbor Hotels in Clayton and Watkins Glen feature Fire & Ice packages in February with a riverfront ice bar extravaganza. Guests can stay toasty warm while enjoying their favorite libation from a bar made completely of ice and marvel at 20,000 pounds of ice sculptures. Guests will be dazzled by the fireworks and enjoy wine tasting and hors d’oeuvers in the ballroom before taking a dip in their heated indoor pool.

Tailwater Lodge in Altmar offers a variety of classes from cooking classes to Beer Tasting 101 to Wine Tasting 101 to Fly Fishing 101. Make it a learning getaway by staying the night. 

In March “Wicked” will be playing at the beautiful Landmark Theater in Syracuse.  Buy tickets and then book a room in Syracuse – the Genesee Grande will provide free transport and they have a great restaurant. Or, stay at the newly renovated Hotel Syracuse. 

Want to stay snuggled up in your cozy home? Make something. While I was in Mui Ne, Vietnam Anna, a Russian gal who was in charge of the kite boarding gave me a cute bunny she crocheted. I thought what a great thing to make for kids, or to sell at a craft fare, or to donate for needy children at Christmastime.  She said she found the directions on the internet and has plans to make a horse. 

Jan 26, 2017

Queluz Palace and Pousada Queluz Dona Maria

John and I often spend the last couple days of a trip treating ourselves by staying at someplace special.  We decided to stay at a pousada. The pousadas of Portugal are a group of unique places to stay. On our last trip we stayed at several and I will never forget looking out the window of my room in Pouasda of Palmela, a medieval castle. I know how Repunzel must have felt.  Our room was in the old, high, sheer walls of the castle with a panoramic view of the countryside.  

This time we chose to stay at Pousada of Queluz Dona Maria located on the main square opposite the Queluz Palace.  The building formerly housed the Royal Guards. It is on the edge of Lisbon and about the same distance from the airport from the city center. The hotel was wonderful with white tablecloth dining for breakfast.  When we booked a tour outside of Lisbon we chose the half day tour that did not include Queluz Palace because we knew the palace would be just steps away from the last place we planned to stay.

John and I walked across the street to visit the palace and gardens. Queluz Palace was the official residence of the Portuguese Royal Family from 1794 until it became the property of the state in 1908. It has been beautifully renovated maintaining much of the building’s 18th century elegance. I recalled the palace and the pousada as being mauve-colored.  The pousada still is but the palace is being repainted with touches of yellow, blue, and green on the gray stone. It seems research shows that it was the color originally.  The Queluz Palace is one of great European Rococo buildings.

One of the benefits of touring the palace on our own is that we can take our time and ask questions – and learn the stories. Needless to say the rooms were elegant with Murano chandeliers, Portuguese Azulejos tiles, paintings, gold-leaf trim, and other features.  The royals had their own private enclosed area in the chapel. There were music rooms, an Ambassador room, dressing rooms, and more. Life of the royals was not always wonderful as one might think. Maria I was considered a good ruler until her mental state deteriorated and after the death of her husband and then her eldest son, the heir-apparent at 27 from small pox, followed by the death of her confessor she was declared insane. 

It all seemed so wonderful and peaceful, especially the gardens. There were fountains, statues, private areas, a variety of gardens but the pièce de résistance was the canal lined with blue Azulejos tiles. There was a place for the court musicians to play while the royals spent leisure time on water.

I should have planned better because I wanted to attend a concert in
the palace ballroom but it was sold out.  And, we wanted to see a presentation by the famed Portuguese School of Equestrian Art which was at one time on the palace grounds but now has moved to another location.

The kitchen of Queluz Palace is now the Cosinha Velha a fine-dining restaurant. John and I enjoyed our delectable meals there.  On display there are some of the original utensils and the fireplace big enough to roast an entire animal. The massive 17-ton stone prep table  is now the dessert table laden with an array of delectable yummies.

Jan 18, 2017

Magical Sintra

While we were in Lisbon John and I decided to take a half-day trip out of the city. We had visited Sintra years ago but I was so impressed with Pena Castle that we decided to take the Sintra daytrip instead of the trips that went to the beach and/or Fatima. They were too long.

Sintra is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered the most romantic town in Portugal. The guide provided an interesting documentary on the way as we passed various sites including the impressive 11-mile Livres Aqueduct that was built in the 1700s to transport water by gravity from the mountains to Lisbon. 

Sintra is a resort town surrounded by forest and where the royalty would escapee the heat of Lisbon. There is a thousand-year old palace in the center of town.  We chose not to tour it and instead enjoyed the view and walked around the town. There were shops that sold Portuguese tiles and yummy Pasteis de Nata, a small pastry shell filled with thick cream – a Portuguese favorite.

There is nothing quite like Pena Palace. It is high on a hill accessed by a heart-stopping narrow, twisty road. Bus drives need to take special training before they are allowed to drive a bus up the hill.  I’m impressed that John drove the rental car up the hill on our last trip. The views are impressive. Legend has it that King Manuel I was hunting on the mountain top and saw Vasco da Gama’s fleet entering the Tagus River on their return from India. 

Pena Palace is like something out of a fairy tale. Created at the
direction of King Ferdinand II it is yellow, white, and rose-colored in Manueline and Moorish architectural styles. There are turrets, gargoyles, arches, colorful tiles, towers all ornately embellished. That is on the outside. It is surrounded by a park of forests and gardens. The palace is constructed so that that it is visible from everywhere in the park. The guided tour
meanders through many of the palace’s rooms – all elegant with very ornate furniture. King Ferdinand II left the governing of the country to others so he could devote his time to the arts; he is dubbed the “Artist King.” There was an astrolabe on display. The astrolabe is one of the inventions that made it possible for the “Age of Discovery” to take place as it was a more accurate way to determine distance and location.  It was exploration that made Portugal one of the riches countries in Europe in the 15th century. Pena Palace is one of my favorite buildings. 

On the way back to Lisbon the bus stopped for a hazy look at Cabo
de Roca, the western most point of Portugal and mainland Europe.  We made another stop to see the sunset. Our last stop was at Boco do Inferno (Hell’s Mouth).  It is best seen in the winter or during a storm when the tide is high when the ocean
waters are funneled through a narrow opening into a collapsed cave making a “devil” of a sound. The “devil” was sleeping when we stopped – the tide was out and the ocean was calm. Cabo do Roco and Boco del Inferno are near the seaside city of Cascais which is where we stayed 20 years ago. I was impressed with the changes. Now there is a paved walkway from the city along the ocean to the sites. 

Jan 9, 2017

Visiting Lisbon

John and I were in Portugal in 1997 but we didn’t visit Lisbon. At that time we rented a car and drove up the coast to Fatima and didn’t want the hassle of driving in the city.  This time we stayed in Lisbon for a week – no rental car.  We used our frequent flyer miles for our air tickets and our IHG points to stay at the Holiday Inn Lisbon Continental.  It was centrally located across from the large Parque Eduardo VII. The breakfast was extensive and well worth it. 

The must-do first stop is “Lisboa Story Centre,” a wonderful interactive presentation detailing the history of the city.  It is a self-guided tour through the various periods in the city’s history.  The climax is the film that brings reality to the catastrophic 1755 earthquake. Next we took the city tour and got off in Belem. I love the Tower of Belem with its wedding cake look. It is where Vasco da Gama set sail on his historic voyage to
India.  The iconic white, heavily ornamented Tower of Belem is a prime example of Maueline Architecture. Nearby are the historic Jeronimos Monastery, one of the most ornate churches in Portugal; the National Coach Museum with fairytale royal coaches; and the Monument to Discoveries celebrating Portugal’s leadership during the European Age of Discovery.  

Of special interest was the airplane statue near the Tower of Belem. The statue commemorates the first transatlantic flight by Sacadura Cabral from Portugal to Brazil – 5,209 miles - which inspired Charles Lindbergh five years later. Lindburgh’s 3,500-mile flight was non-stop from NY to Paris Near the marina there was an unimposing kiosk where we
booked a one-hour sail on the Tagus River in a traditionally made wooden sailboat for $10 pp. There was one other couple and John got to sail. We spent so much time in the Belem area that we missed the last tour bus ride to the center of town so took a taxi. There are several museums in the area including a Museum of Electricity and the Coach Museum with fairytale-like carriages.

To get a feel for the “old’ Lisbon we went to the Alfama and toured the Lisbon Castle. The castle/fort dates from the 11th century at the time Christianity was brought to Portugal. Before 1147 Lisbon was an important Moorish trading post with stronger ties to Africa then
Europe.  I was glad we took a cab because otherwise it would have been a long walk up the hill to the castle. The views of the city were great. Portugal is justly proud of its wine and there are wine-vending carts at the major tourist sites.  There were seats in the embattlements so we could enjoy the view with a glass of wine.  How civilized. 

First-time visitors should to go a Fado Restaurant. Fado is uniquely Portuguese. Typically it is a sad song with accompaniment and a dance that is performed at restaurants that serve Portuguese food. The food is wonderful and it seems Olive Oil is on everything . It is even on the breakfast table.  They use it like butter and I have to admit it was very tasty.

For those who want to travel to Europe and are hesitant because they fear terrorism Portugal is a good option as it has escaped terroristic attacks. The country was neutral in WW II so it was not bombed. Neutrality can be a good thing.