May 18, 2015

When in Vegas visit Red Rock Canyon

Las Vegas has changed dramatically over the years. Before the glitzy gambling areas of Las Vegas, the area was a stopover on the way west.  While much has changed since John C. Fremont traversed the valley in 1844.  At that time it was still part of Mexico.  The one thing that hasn’t changed much is the stunning scenery just outside the city.  There are tours of Red Rock Canyon but the best way to experience the area is in a private car. The 13-mile scenic driving loop has several places to pull over, park, and get out and explore. Bring a lunch and enjoy it in one of the scenic picnicking areas.

Red Rock Canyon, located 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip on Charleston Boulevard/State Route 159, was designated as Nevada's first National Conservation Area.  The area is 195,819 acres and is visited by more than one million people each year and besides the scenic drive there are more than 30 miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, horseback riding, mountain biking, road biking, picnic areas, nature observing and visitor center with exhibit rooms and a book store.

There is a daily entrance fee of $7 but access is free to those who have the America the Beautiful
Annual Pass or their Senior Pass, Access Pass, or Military Annual Pass. There is also a Red Rock Annual Pass. The first stop should be at the Visitor Center. While there are some exhibits inside the Visitor Center which has a great view of the Calico Hills most of the interpretive exhibits are outside. The exhibits are organized by earth, air, fire and water.

For the youngsters there is a “Junior ExplorerDiscovery Book.” Actually the book is informative for all ages. It’s filled with fascinating bits of information.  Learn how the Mojave Yucca survives in the desert by not shedding its dead leaves.  Instead the dead leaves droop done to shade the trunk. Animals have also adapted. The scaled skin of the Gila monster is
resistant to drying and the big ears of the Jackrabbit catch the cool breeze and it has reflective body hair.  There is information on how to be a friend of nature by leaving no trace and other fun facts.  The interactive displays explain the importance and impact of earth, air, fire and water on the unique environment of Red Rock Canyon. Bird watchers may be surprised to learn that there are nearly 200 different species in the canyon that range from a tiny hummingbird to a mighty eagle.

We have been to Red Rock several times over the years.  At one time it was easy to spot the wild burros and horses but now that there are more than a million visitors each year the wild animals have found quieter places so while they are still there it is not as easy to spot any.It is a hiker’s paradise with  a variety of trails that range from the easy to moderate to Lost Creek – Children’s Discovery Trail where there is a waterfalls at various times throughout the year along with petroglyphs and an agave roasting pit. The trail is a little less than a mile and takes about an hour.There are other things to do after visiting Red Rock – if there is time.  Bonnie Springs/Old Nevada and Spring Mountain Ranch are nearby and both are great places to visit.

May 11, 2015

Visiting Albany, NY is a capital idea

If you haven’t been to Albany recently put it on your travel calendar. The city hosts many festivals, concerts, and special events throughout the year but the most popular is the Tulip Festival held each year in May, but anytime is a good time to visit. 

Albany’s history spans four centuries. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company in 1609 to report on the new world, Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon to the upper reaches of the Hudson River. He told of the magnificent river and the bountiful area. In 1621 the Dutch set up trading posts. In 1664 the English sent warships and took over control renaming Fort Orange in honor of the Duke of Albany. Dutch merchants retained control over Albany's lucrative fur trade and continued to farm the fertile land along the Hudson. The people of Albany became a valuable source of contact between the British, the French, and the Iroquois. The area prospered and more immigrants attracted to the rich farmland arrived from Europe. Albany’s strategic location made it a critical player during the colonial wars and, with the completion of the Erie Canal, a hub for Westward Movement. 

All visits to Albany should begin at the Albany Heritage Area
Visitors Center in historic Quackenbush Square. See exhibits detailing Albany's rich history and be transported back through time by watching the center's orientation show “Albany: A Cultural Crossroads.” There are plenty of brochures and information about the region along with a knowledgeable staff ready to help plan a visit. Plan to visit the Quackenbush House located directly next to the Visitors Center. Built in 1736, it is the oldest remaining Dutch building in the city and today serves as a restaurant. 

The Visitors Center is where tours start. Guided tours by trolley, on foot, and even by horse drawn-carriages take visitors through Albany's neighborhoods and historic sites or see the city from the water on the Aqua Duck. Pick up the free “Capital City! A Walking Tour.”  

The best place to learn about the history of both Albany and New
York is at the New York State Museum. Artifacts related to the early Dutch settlement, a colonial rum distillery, the expansion of the city, and the daily life of past residents. Name your interest and you will find it at the museum from a 30-foot skeleton of an Atlantic Right Whale to the
Adirondack Wilderness Area to the birds of New York.  The Fourth Floor is home to a restored 1914 Carousel, which entertains visitors of all ages. There are several historic homes offering tours including the Schuyler Mansion, home of Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler and his family and Cherry Hill, the 1787 home the Van Rensselaers. Tours are available of the USS Slater, a World War II Destroyer Escort. Today, only one of these ships remains afloat in the United States, the USS Slater. 

Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller wanted to create "the most electrifying capital in the world" with the centerpiece the Empire State Plaza, a complex of 10 buildings that has become a cultural center.  Take a tour of the Capitol building. Begun in 1867, construction continued until 1897 when Governor Frank S. Black declared the building finished, ending one of the longest running public works projects in the state's history. Of special interest is the Million Dollar Staircase with more than 70 faces carved into the pillars. 

May 4, 2015

Making Vietnamese pancakes - Yummy

Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? Ho Chi Minh City has been the official name since the fall of Saigon in 1975 but both are in use. We stayed at the InterContinental Asiana Residence Saigon where we used our once-a-year free night that came as a perk for using the IGH credit card. We had lunch at their Market 39 Restaurant where they had a Vietnamese pancake station. We asked Chef Josh, the executive chef, if he would share the recipe and explain how they were made. He was happy to do so. 

Saigon is a bustling city. We visited the War Remnants Museum which can be distressing for Americans but we remember a remark from when John and I visited the Chu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon several years ago.  Our guide, who was born in the tunnels, when asked about the “American” War (as it is called in Vietnam) and his perception of Americans, he replied, “That was then, this is now, let’s go forward.” More than half of the population was born after the war and the American War was preceded by 100 years of French colonialism and before the French 1000 years of Chinese domination. Now they govern themselves. 

Vietnamese Pancake with Prawns and Pork (Banh Xeo)

½ (one-half) cup rice flour pancake mix
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 eggs
½ (one-half) tsp salt
2 ¼ cups water
1 cup coconut milk
3 stalks spring onion, diced
2 prawns, cooked and peeled (or 4 large shrimp)
2 oz cooked pork, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper as desired for prawns and pork
2 tsp oil per pancake
1 oz bean sprouts
3 leaves of lettuce
2 oz of Vietnamese fresh herb leaves (can be spring onions, basil, cilantro, mint, and/or lemon grass
3 stalks spring onion, diced
½ (one-half) tsp salt

Pickled carrots
¼ (one-fourth) lb of carrots and white radishes (daikon), julienned
¼ (one-fourth) cup white vinegar
¼ (one-fourth) cup water
1/8 (one-eight) cup sugar
Salt to taste 

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the rice flour, turmeric powder, eggs, and salt in water. Add coconut milk and chopped spring onion. Stir well and let the batter rest for 30 minutes.
Season the cooked prawns and pork with salt and pepper. Set aside. 

Add vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet on medium high heat. Add 2 prawns and a few pork slices and fry until the prawns and pork change color. Ladle some of the batter (about 1/3 cup) and tilt the pan in a circular motion to spread the batter evenly. Turn heat down to low, cover and fry for 1 minute or until edges are firm. Uncover and add some beansprouts, then cover again and fry until the edge is crispy. Fold the crepe in half so that the 2 prawns stay on opposite quarters. Fry for another minute and transfer to a plate. Repeat until the batter is finished. (Tip: For the first fry make just the crepes and stack them on each other until the batter is finished then fry the crepes again and add bean sprouts.)

To make Pickled Carrots put carrots, radishes, vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a bowl. It can be refrigerated and saved. 
To serve pancakes use scissors to cut the crepe in half. On a large piece of lettuce place some herbs and half a crepe. Roll it up, dip in pickled carrot mix. Enjoy. 

Apr 27, 2015

Visiting Old Neveda

John and I often visit family in Las Vegas and, even though in the beginning we were drawn to the gaming part of Vegas, now we seldom even see a slot machine or other gambling devices. Many people do not realize that the major gambling area is located in two distinct areas: The Strip and the Downtown/Freemont Street area. We seldom stay in either area.  The casinos offer great deals for accommodations because they make it up with gambling and diners.  Many of the casino hotels add charge a resort fee which does not make it such a great deal.  

We usually rent a car at the airport. Remember it pays to be a member of the car company’s customer loyalty price.  We are Fast Break with Budget so we get a good deal plus do not have to stand in line to pick up the car.  Most of the car rentals are located in one off-site location with a shuttle bus connection.  It is about a 20-minute drive which is important to remember when returning the car to catch a flight.  However, there is a new section of the airport which has eased some of the congestion and walking distances.   

I have always wanted to visit Old Nevada, a replica of an 1880’s mining town. The property was the homeland of the Paiute Indians and in 1843 became a stopover for wagon trains traveling the Spanish Trail. It is about a 30-minute drive from the city. It seems they are closed when we are free to go.  True to form the website said they were closed on Monday, the day we were free to go but we headed out anyways because I wanted to have lunch at Bonnie Springs which has great food and reminds me of the Old West.
When we arrived there was a tour bus in front of Old Nevada so it was open but not all the activities were available.  Even so, it was great.  The walk through what an old town in the West must have been like was fun.  There was a quaint church.  Someone had put a dollar in an animatronic cowboy who was singing “Don’t Fence Me In” giving ambiance to my walkabout.  I noticed a crowd at the top of the street near the Opera House and made my way in time to see a trial and hanging.
 Members of the audience became the judges and witnesses.  Needless, to say the verdict was guilty and the poor soul was hanged.  It was done with a lot of humor.  The sheriff was wearing long red underwear and was not the brightest of souls.  There is a Bonnie Springs Ranch Petting Zoo that is now accessed from the Old Nevada site which I understand is open every day and is a non-profit venture.  When everything is operational there is a small railroad, a shoot-out on Main Street, and a variety of shops and other activities. There is also a motel and horse riding available.  Good family fun. Tours are available from Las Vegas.

We headed to the restaurant and decided to get something light before the drive back.  They advertise the “best burgers, chicken, and ribs in the West” along with an “authentic bison burger.” Thinking that the burgers would be too much we decided on the on-site baked Bread Pudding.  Oh, my, it was huge and the best we have ever had.  

Apr 20, 2015

Plantation Bay Resort in Cebu

Several years ago John and I visited Cebu and loved the mangos which were sweet and had the consistency of cling peaches.  When we were there we stayed one night at Plantation Bay Resort and never forgot the massive pools so we decided to return this year to see if it was as wonderful as we remembered.  It was.

Once again we used our United frequent flyer miles so the flight cost $43 for the two of us from Bangkok to Manila.  We then booked Air Asia round trip to Cebu.  Plantation Bay picked us up which was included in the price which we appreciated.  The Resort was even more wonderful than we remembered.  Their three saltwater pools total an amazing 5.6 acres and there are four freshwater pools, plus a small beach. The first time we stayed
we were only their one night so I didn’t know about all the activities that were available many of which are free.  Our room was on one of the freshwater pools that was like a quiet oasis.  Most of the rooms are on or near the water with some it is possible to step off the porch into the water.

Plantation Bay is huge and set up like a village with free shuttle service around the clock and most days there is also free horse and carriages rides.  We spent most of the day enjoying the pools but one day we went snorkeling right in front of the resort.  It is best when the tide is high.  I saw a bright blue
starfish.  Another day John went to the shooting range and fired an M16 with amazing accuracy considering it had been many decades since he had fired anything. He followed that up with rock climbing.  I am more interested in the sublime things of life so I went
to the spa. I even convinced John to join me. The spa is large with a Zen ambiance – they even have spa accommodations. The spa has four Jacuzzi-type pools: hot and cold, salt and freshwater; and that doesn’t include the small pool with a waterfall.

Breakfast was included in our rate.  It was typical of Asian
breakfast: massive and provided something for every palate. Each morning the breakfast buffet featured a different ethnic group: American, Italian, Filipino, Asian, French, and Mexican. Americans never have a problem dining in Asia; oddly, the Asians have trouble dining in America because they love rice at all meals and rice is seldom on American menus unless it is an Asian restaurant.

One day my objective was to swim in all the fresh water pools. On the way to discovering the fourth pool I saw a pig being barbecued. Called lechon, it is served at all important celebrations, festivals, and holidays in the Philippines. It was being prepared for their Filipino Themed Dinner. Most evenings there was a themed buffet dinner.  We made reservations for dinner and got their early so we could watch the chef carve the
pig and, most importantly, to get a good seat for the show. A soloist started out the evening and then we were invited to visit the buffet after which there was a great show displaying Filipino culture. People were encouraged to come up on stage and learn the coconut dance and bamboo stick dance called tinikling. They say “It is more fun in the Philippines."

Long-staying a Regent Beach Resort in Cha'am

The much-loved Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, has reigned since 1946 making him the longest serving current head of state and the longest-reigning Thai monarch. When the king and the royal family want to enjoy a beach getaway they head three hours south of Bangkok to the Cha’am/Hua Hin area. International tourists, especially North Americans, usually head south,
too; but to Phuket, Phi Phi Island, Ko Samui, and other places that are reached by plane.  The current royal family has a large property on the beach near Hua Hin which cannot be visited by the public but the beach retreat of Rama VI is now a walk-through museum. The grandfather of Rama VI was immortalized in “The King and I.” The Thai/Victorian-style summer seaside palace was built in the 1920s with lots of verandas, lattice work, and high ceilings to keep it cool during the hot summer. It is beautiful.  

John and I have been to this area several times usually staying atwhat is now the Regent Cha’am Beach Resort (it was once a Holiday Inn Resort). The hotels in the Hua Hin/Cha’am area are generally less expensive than those favored by North Americans in the other beach areas of Thailand and hiring a car to drive us from the Bangkok airport to the hotel is cheaper than airfare to Phuket and other places.  (We prearrange transportation
with Sawadee Travel Company and pay on line.) We seldom run into North Americans at the Regent Hotel. The grounds are massive with impressive landscaping. There are full-size elephant topiaries at the entrance.  Someone told us it was once part of the royal gardens. The hotel offers long-stay rates so there are many European guests who stay for several
months in the winter.  The hotel usually has a special cocktail party for long-staying and VIP guests. It is a great option to renting or buying a condo.  We enjoyed the two swimming pools and extensive breakfast plus there are a variety of free activities each day from kick boxing to a cooking class to creative napkin folding.  The Regent recently opened a hospitality school to train people for professions in the hotel business. 

There are many things to do in the area.  John continued his kite surfing lessons.  The area is perfect for kite surfing as the waters of the Gulf of Thailand are not as choppy as the South China Sea and the beach is much better – wider with a gentle slope. I, personally, enjoyed reading around the pool
and taking a dip to cool off.  There are a variety of choices when it comes to dinner. The Regent has a new minimarket where we could buy cup of soup and make it in our room as almost all hotels in
Asia come with an electric hot water pot instead of a coffee maker. Sometimes we would eat at the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant.  The veggie pizza is great and we usually had enough left over for lunch the next day. The other option was to walk into “town” which is actually a collection of shops and restaurants that serve the nearby hotels and condos. The food is great and the prices very reasonable.  It is possible to have a tasty dinner for under $5 per person. 

Apr 9, 2015

Ngapali Beach is Amazing

To my way of thinking the best beach in the world is in front of Amazing Ngapali Resort.  When people ask us what our favorite place is we usually reply, “
"Where we are now.”  However, there is only one place we have
returned to eight years in a row even though it is a half a world away.  For every five nights we stay we get extra benefits that include a free massage and a dinner; but, it is more than that.  The staff is outstanding; the beach is wide and long with soft sand; the water is calm and warm, and it is very safe.  

 Things are changing fast in Myanmar including Ngapali Beach.  Amazing Ngapali Resort was the only hotel on the beach but recently a Hilton Hotel opened along with two other hotels and a Novotel will open soon. Even so, Amazing has the best beach location.  

We consider our stay at Amazing our real vacation.  It is the place we think of when we are home and want to get away.  Our days are lazy: morning walks on the beach to the rock with a temple on it, reading on the beach, swimming (they provide inner tubes which are fun), evening walks to the mermaid on the rock, then watching the sun set and the lights of the fishing boats strung out on the horizon like a string of diamonds.  There are, of course, spa visits, too.  

Over the years we have made friends with some of the other long-stay guests so we enjoy having dinner with them.  There is a Buddhist monastery across the road that we have visited.  Popular daytrips are to the nearby town and to a small fishing village. 

Each year we do something different.  This year we visited Mama
Sue’s School. (“Mama” and “Papa” are familiar ways the Myanmar people great older people).  To get around there are taxis and tuk-tuks.  Tuk-tuks are cheaper and more fun, especially since the main road has been repaved.  Mama Sue is known by all the local people
for her good work and helping ways.  Her school is called the Vera Thomson English School in honor of her mother who was a kind and giving person.  Mama Sue’s (Susan Ozturk) is originally from
England. The school is 12 years old and has several hundred students who come after their government school day is over.  We had a power point program we presented to the older students all of whom have an excellent command of English.  There were many Acer Netbooks and a projector but they didn’t all work. The humidity during the rainy season along with intermittent electricity is hard on computers.  However, Ngapali  Beach should soon be getting electricity 24-hours a day,
something that Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, only received a couple years ago.  Hotels and restaurants have generators. The school has several buildings and play area.  In one classroom the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.  When the teacher posed a question their hands shot up in the air eager to answer.  When called upon the student stood to answer.  When we asked the students what they wanted to be most said, “A tour guide.” Tourism is growing exponentially and English is the language of tourism.