Monthly Archives: April 2014

Our Asian Adventure Aboard the Crystal Symphony Continues…

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Guest blogger Robyn Bushong sets sail for Xiaman.

Today is Palm Sunday, April 13th. Hard to believe Cynthia, my travel buddy, and I have been “home” on the Crystal Symphony now for three days.

We sailed from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor late Thursday, evening, April 10th and had a welcome sea day on the 11th, followed by a whirlwind visit to Xiamen yesterday. When we first boarded—after our 3+ days of travel and non-stop marathon sightseeing tour of Hong Kong—we were welcomed like family and that’s exactly how we felt. Our embarkation was efficient, taking all of five minutes. In our beautiful stateroom on the Penthouse Deck (Deck 10), we unpacked, met our Austrian butler, Rainer, and our cabin stewardess Monika. After a quick tour of the ship, we enjoyed a very light dinner and were early to bed.

(Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Our home away from home. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The first day of boarding, I couldn’t wait to get up to the Lido Café and sit in my favorite “spot,” a window table for two, where my dear friend Dorothy and I had sat for breakfast every day on our 13-day Trans Pacific cruise in December 2012. How nice that three of the dining room staff remembered us! Keeping with the routine from previous cruise, it was up to the gym and a good work out. What a nice surprise that Brian, the fitness director and spin instructor, remembered me, too. Friday was a sea day and everyone seemed glad to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and just relax. And what a superb place to relax—every amenity is at your fingertips. The service is superb but unobtrusive. The staff prides themselves on making you feel as if you are the ONLY guest onboard. It’s hard to describe: atmosphere is casual but classy. The food, in all venues, is exceptionally good with great variety and selections. Housekeeping-– some of the very best you could ever expect to find anywhere.

I think one of the best ways to describe the relaxed ambience on this gorgeous sunny, breezy day was to watch the guests stretched out on lounge chairs, their favorite beverage at their side, book in their hand and they’re half asleep and half reading. All the while listening to a great sextet at the pool playing Santana-style music.

Saturday we docked in Xiamen. Also known as the “Pearl on the Sea”, Xiamen is a gorgeous tropical seaport that is also the second largest city in China with a population of 3 ½ million. Other than Victoria, BC, I don’t recall EVER seeing so many tree-lined esplanades, a kaleidoscope of color at every corner and a park every 500 meters. Unbelievably beautiful! My observation of sanity with traffic and pedestrians in Hong Kong was just the opposite here. The traffic on this Saturday morning was beyond indescribable. No sooner had we boarded our motor coach for a 4-hour tour, and we knew we were in for a wild ride. Our driver was fearless. Everyone jaywalked; pedestrians competed with giant buses for the right of way and bedlam ensued.

A delightful young lady, a graduate of Xiamen University, conducted our tour. We’d read in our daily bulletin that our guides would be university students with limited English. This young lady, whose English name was “Theona,” gave 110% to making our tour interesting. The problem was that with thousands and thousands and THOUSANDS of visitors at our first stop—The South Putuo Temple—that we just had to observe, as it was impossible to hear. I don’t ever remember there being so many people in one place as at this temple. (It’s interesting to note that South Putuo, or Nanputuo, is a very famous Buddhist temple founded in the Tang Dynasty (618-907.) Of the many beautiful temples in Xiamen, this is by far the most famous. It is so named because it is south of the Buddhist holy site Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province.

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(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Afterward, we visited the Overseas Chinese Museum. This 3-level museum, filled with over 15,000 artifacts, highlights the history and happenings of Chinese who went abroad to work and live. One of the most interesting accounts is of those Chinese immigrants who made a major contribution to the US’s Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800s. (These immigrants worked long hours in severe conditions for minimal pay to help build the tracks across 1,800 miles of arid plains and deserts and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.) Only suggestion: it would have been so helpful to English-speaking visitors to have had access to a brochure in English, since several of the major exhibits related to these immigrants’ lives in both the USA and Canada. Our tour concluded with a tea-tasting ceremony of five different varieties for our group of 34 at a government-run teahouse. Once back on board, our busy day in Xiamen concluded with a concert in the Galaxy Lounge by internationally acclaimed pianist, Tian Jiang. Outstanding.

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

(Photo credit: R. Bushong)

The next day was foggy and extremely windy. In fact, the promenade deck doors were blocked for exiting outside because of the wind.  A plethora of cultural enrichment opportunities, ranging from a hands-on cooking demonstration by a guest chef in the Starlite lounge, to a fitness Boot Camp, to “Movie Editing Made Easy” where you can learn “iMovie Basics Part 1” on your iPad, highlighted the ship’s activities options. Today’s lecture by World Affairs Lecturer, Sir James Hodge discussing “China Today; the Giant Awakens” was mesmerizing.” Highlights of his talk: “China can now produce more in two weeks than it used to produce in a year.” Currently 18 million Chinese belong to the Communist Party, with 20 million wanting to join each year. Pork is the preferred meat. There are over 600,000 different villages in the country, 55 recognized ethnic minorities within 110 million inhabitants and 300 local dialects!” And that’s just the beginning of what I learned in an hour.

Guest chef demonstration.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Guest chef demonstration. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Tonight, we look forward to dinner at Prego (the popular Italian specialty dining venue) with our new friends we met yesterday from Dallas. Tomorrow, we dock in Shanghai, to enjoy three days/two nights of sightseeing and culture.  Our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Symphony continues…

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HONG KONG… Our Asian Adventure Began Here!

Guest—and first time—blogger Robyn Bushong travels to Hong Kong, and Ports Are Calling is happy to feature her posts as she sets sail.

We arrived in Hong Kong as first-time visitors only to be greeted with torrential rains and dense fog. Welcome to Hong Kong! But the pouring rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the adventure that lay ahead. My dear friend Cynthia and I had just completed 21+ hours of travel from Galveston, Texas to begin our Asian adventure aboard Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony “Pearls of China, itinerary that was to begin in Hong Kong, April 9th, with calls in Xiamen, Shanghai (two overnights), Dalian and then concluding with a three-day land package in Beijing on April 21st.

We were met by our private guide (who we had arranged through the Hong Kong Tourism Board) and taken to our hotel –The InterContinental. Highly recommended as the property is located directly on Victoria Harbor and the unobstructed view from our room: Simply Spectacular! First order of business upon arrival at the hotel was lunch and to review our priorities for sightseeing in this intriguing and enticing city. Since the hotel’s specialty restaurant, Yan Toh Heen, featured dim sum, we eagerly chose this venue and learned it was a recipient of a “1-Michelin Star.” Our guide ordered for us and the quality and presentation was outstanding. As we concluded our fine lunch, we told our guide we wanted to walk since the rain was subsiding, as we were ready to see, do and experience everything possible in the time we had to enjoy this exciting, world-class city.

The InterContinental's night view.

The InterContinental’s night view.

We headed to the Star Ferry for the 10-minute ride between Kowloon (where our hotel was) and Hong Kong. A friend who handles tours in Hong Kong had set our priorities for sights: First and foremost, take the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Next, see the Financial District, Hollywood Road, Man Mo Temple and browse the fine shopping district; enjoy dim sum (check!) and experience the Stanley Street Market.

With all the trees, dramatic and colorful flowers, and gorgeous landscaping, Hong Kong’s “green space” was amazing. What was also amazing were the hundreds and hundreds of tourists out and about on this rainy Tuesday afternoon. What we learned was that the previous Saturday (April 5th) was a national holiday: Tomb Sweeping Day. In Chinese it’s Ching Ming – which literally means “Clear and Bright” and is a tradition where families travel to their family tomb to sweep, clean and place flowers or other memorials on the gravesite. Because the national holiday fell on a Saturday, the banks/financial institutions were closed on Monday and apparently many people added an extra day to their holiday weekend.

We walked through the Financial District and the IFC (International Financial Center), and passed such fine stores as Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Piaget, Rolex, etc. As we headed towards the Peak tram station, we passed St Andrew’s, an elegant Anglican Church (Episcopalian) and the historic St. John’s Cathedral completed in 1849. Then we boarded the tram for the ride to the top of the Peak. The trams, which have been operating for over 125 years, hold 120 people each and run about every 8 minutes. Following the brief—albeit very steep—ride to the top, we arrived at an incredible sight. Our friend was right: Standing on the top of Victoria Peak and looking down over the entire city…WOW! While we were walking around, a volunteer greeted us with a complimentary headset device that provides a detailed overview of the area. We had wanted to do the 90-minute walk around the perimeter of the peak, but it started raining again so we departed.

A rainy view from top of Victoria Peak.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

A rainy view from the top of Victoria Peak. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

After we took the tram back down, the rain had stopped again and we walked to Man Mo Temple. Built in 1847, the temple is one of the oldest traditional-styled temples in Hong Kong and is dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). From there, we stayed on Hollywood Road to view some of the city’s most beautiful antique shops and fine jewelry stores. To ensure we got a bit more immersed in the local culture, our guide suggested we take the subway to the Temple Street Market area. Living in Texas we’d never experienced anything like this before. Crowds on the New York City subways couldn’t hold a candle to the throngs and throngs and throngs of people traveling in all different directions in Hong Kong’s subways. Everyone had an electronic device in their hands. And how these commuters could maneuver from one escalator and subway car to another—while seemingly never taking their eyes off their cell phone—was simply incredible. From there, we worked our way along the busy streets of food vendors, pastry and coffee shops, neighborhood grocery stores, drug stores, camera shops, and other small, neighborhood businesses. Food vendors sold fresh crabs, fish, lobster, and “internal organs” of other creatures cooked to order, and served on a skewer with hot and spicy sauces. As we observed the frenzied pace at which everyone was moving, our guide told us that since most locals work from 9am till about 7pm, we were right in the middle of the prime rush hour pedestrian traffic.

Downtown Hong Kong bustles.  (Photo credit:  R. Bushong)

Downtown Hong Kong bustles. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

We kept moving along the bustling streets, heading towards Temple Street Market. Once there, we were amazed at the stalls—everything from cheap watches, imitation leather goods, jewelry, silk scarves, t-shirts, shoes, camera and electronic equipment, toys and souvenirs. Our guide told us that the market is only open nights from about 6pm-midnight. Each of these hundreds of vendors packs up their wares at night, only to set-up again the next evening. What a hard way to earn a living. We didn’t buy anything, but were glad we saw the market. From there, we took a taxi back to the hotel, bid our guide farewell, and at 8pm on our first night in Hong Kong… we were DONE!

The next morning we awoke early to gorgeous sunshine and an indescribably beautiful skyline. As we ate breakfast, we watched the buildings come to life as neon signs lit the skyline starting around 7am. We were to board Crystal Symphony early that afternoon, so we had time to do a little shopping and sightseeing on our own. We set off on a leisurely walk through the streets near our hotel to shop and later enjoyed lunch at the world-renowned hotel, The Peninsula. We didn’t realize at first just how close we were to the Ocean Cruise Terminal as it was only a short walk from our hotel. We also learned that Hong Kong had recently completed a new terminal, but that it was miles from the city centre. Ocean Terminal, where Crystal Symphony was docked, showcased multi levels of retail shops offering everything from Gucci to Nike and all literally just footsteps from where we were to board our ship. What a great way to start a cruise.

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony.  (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

Awesome view from our balcony on the Crystal Symphony. (Photo credit: R. Bushong)

I also just learned that Crystal Symphony will return to Hong Kong during the holidays for a 15-day “China Sea Holiday Spectacular” (December 21- January 5, 2015), and will be docked at Ocean Terminal during the New Year’s Eve celebration. Can you imagine what an experience that would be to see one of the world’s most spectacular fireworks displays light the skies over Victoria Harbor—and all to be enjoyed from the prime vantage point of a balcony or deck aboard the ship!

Well, we’ll be boarding soon and our Asian adventure aboard the Crystal Symphony…it’s just about to begin!

Golf, Getting Into the Swing of Things.

Augusta.

Augusta.

This weekend starts the first of the four major championships that revolve around a little dimpled white ball. Cherry blossoms may herald spring but so does The Masters Tournament, held annually at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. It’s the only major tournament held at the same course each year. Why? I have no idea…you’ll just have to ask a golfer. Mark Twain once said that golf is a good walk spoiled and while I tend to agree with him, there are plenty of folks who’d gladly argue that point over 18 holes.

Listening to the Masters on TV, broadcasters speak in hushed tones and a whispered reverence normally reserved for church as they profile everything from a golfer’s background to the state’s iconic magnolia blossoms. From a live perspective, I don’t really see how spectators can glimpse that little ball as it flies through the air but I guess that’s what passion’s all about. And I suppose that after watching the pros go at it for four days, the desire to hit the links and pull out your Big Bertha is just too overwhelming. So if you’re itching to get out there—and get away—here are a few budget friendly destinations to put you in the swing of things:

Mirimichi
Memphis, TN
This southern city may be renowned for its blues and barbecue but the addition of Mirimichi golf course in 2009 provided another reason to visit the land of Elvis. Native son Justin Timberlake did the right thing when he invested $16 million on revamping an existing golf course in his own backyard, turning it into a state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly property. He also kept prices low, making this public course user-friendly for locals while encouraging tourism at the same time. Mirimichi was ranked the #1 golf course in the U.S. in 2013 by Golfweek magazine and is also the first golf course in the U.S. to receive official Audubon Classic Sanctuary certification by Audubon International, a non-profit environmental education organization.

Another good reason to go to Memphis.

Another good reason to go to Memphis.

Torrey Pines Golf Course
San Diego, CA
As the song says, it never rains in California and with pretty much perfect weather all year round, San Diego is a traveler’s dream. Its spectacular scenery, nightlife, and dining options make it a hole-in-one destination for most travelers but it’s the municipal greens in La Jolla at Torrey Pines that make this destination a paradise for golfers. Yeah you might blow a bit more cash on this trip but it’ll be worth it for the five diamond experience and panoramic views you’ll get at the Lodge at Torrey Pines when you book a Signature Package that includes two nights and a chance to play on the course that hosted the 2008 US Open and which has been chosen to host it again in 2021.

A captivating course at Torrey Pines.

A captivating course at Torrey Pines.

Salish Cliffs
Shelton, WA
My British friends who live in the US have no problem going to play golf when there’s a chance of rain; they know they’ll have the course all to themselves. If you’re of the same spirit then you may want to consider a flight to Seattle. Most people may not think of The Evergreen State as a golf destination but Salish Cliffs is changing all that. Part of Little Creek Casino Resort, this property offers inviting stay and play package discounts where you’ll golf in a pristine wilderness area of the Pacific Northwest. The hotel’s amenities include Seven Inlets Spa, which has a robust menu of treatments and entertainment at the Skookum Creek Event Center that often includes headline acts. After a few days of golfing, head into the Emerald City and explore all its unique offerings.

The 17th hole at Salish.

The 17th hole at Salish.

Tobacco Road
Sanford, NC
Golfers are spoiled for choice in North Carolina, as anyone who’s ever spent time swinging balls down there knows. Tobacco Road has earned its place as one of the top 100 public golf courses in the U.S. by Golf Digest and Golf Magazine and it also ranked as one of the top 50 in the world by Golf Course Architecture Magazine. With its gorgeous greens, friendly rates, proximity to 30+ other courses, and southern hospitality, what more could you want from a golfing weekend. Check out Tobacco Road Golf & Travel to see all the options within this destination.

The view above the Road.

The view above the Road.

The Algarve
Portugal
The International Association of Golf Tour Operators voted this southern region of Portugal, Europe’s Best Golf Destination for 2014. The Algarve beat out such heavy hitters as the Scottish Highlands, the French Riviera, and Central Ireland. Portugal is one of the few affordable European countries where you can stretch a dollar, offering yet another reason to consider putting this trip at the top of any vacation plans you may be working on. If golf’s your game then you don’t need me telling you where to go in the Algarve…you’ll figure it out but click here for some sweet recommendations.

Vale do Lobo,

Vale do Lobo, just one of the many courses in the Algarve.

Any good courses in your neck of the woods? Share the wealth and drive some travel there!

For D.H.P

Cherry Blossoms, It’s Poppin’ Time.

US-FEATURE-CHERRY BLOSSOMSIt’s April and that means it must be cherry blossom season. Nothing says spring like these glorious trees and even though there’s still a chill in the air, I’m going to trust Mother Nature to make one of her finest appearances when she’s ready. After the drudgery and darkness of what seemed like the longest winter in ages, when these buds burst in shades from the softest white to the deepest pink and reach full blossom, the world just looks a whole lot brighter. Few things are more delightful than lying under a cherry blossom tree, its pinky petals swirling a magical snowstorm around you.

I’m crazy for cherry blossoms and crazier for them because of the travel they inspire. If you’re looking for a good reason to get away, I’m giving you one. Washington, D.C. may showcase the grand dame of cherry blossom, or sakura, festivals in the U.S., and a trip to the nation’s capital never disappoints, but there are plenty of other places around the country to be in their good company. So if you’re looking for a day trip, weekend getaway, or something a bit longer, figure one of these destinations into your plans and don’t forget the camera.

Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival
Branch Brook Park, NJ

April 5-13, 2014
Cherry blossoms are the crowning glory of this town and Essex County takes great pride in these trees.  Locals and visitors pack this park to take part in a 10K run through the cherry tree groves, bike race in the Cherry Blossom Challenge, or enjoy a number of other events. Vaux and Olmsted, who designed NYC’s Central Park, conceived the design for this park so visitors are in for a treat.

Essex County Branch Brook Park, NJ April 5-13, 2014

The pride and joy of New Jersey’s Essex County.

Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival
Vancouver, British  Columbia
April 3-28, 2014

Vancouver came late to the cherry blossom garden party but after their first festival in 2006, the city’s been attracting visitors to this extravaganza ever since. The festival’s organizers believe so strongly in the power of the beauty of these blossoms to unite people, that their purpose behind this annual event is simple—to embrace citizens of all ages.  Yet another great reason to visit Canada.

Vancouver's very cherry trees.  (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

Vancouver’s very cherry trees. (Photo credit: Richard Greenwald)

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, GA
March-April

Cherry blossom season peaks early in Georgia, with these natural debutantes making their entrance in March. No worries, festivities run through April and because this town is the cherry blossom capital of the world, visitors can reap the benefits long after the crowds have gone.

Southern bells.

Southern bells.

Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival
April 2-13, 2014

Philadelphia, PA
The City of Brotherly Love, karaoke, and cherry blossoms—it doesn’t get much better than that!  A project of the Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia, the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival is an engaging cultural celebration with events like Dine Out Japan, musical and dance performances, sushi making classes, martial arts and loads more.

Philly's festivities await you.

Philly’s festivities await you.

Sakura Matsuri,Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
April 26-28, 2014

Brooklyn, NY
Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s CherryWatch Blossom Status Map predicts the first tree to bloom next week and Brooklynites can’t wait.  Held the last weekend of April, the Sakura Matsuri is an entertaining celebration of Japanese culture, including a traditional kimono fashion show.  The garden will be buzzing that weekend, so if you’d like to avoid the crowds and have the view all to yourself, plan an off visit during the week.  No matter when you go, make a day of it by visiting the Brooklyn Museum, located next door.

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

Blossoms and more are in the house in Brooklyn. (Photo credit: Wesley Rosenblum)

You don’t need to visit a festival to enjoy these blossoming beauties.  They’re easily found along esplanades, in most parks, and sprinkled throughout neighborhoods that have cherry blossom friendly climates.  All that’s required on your part is to gaze up and enjoy their pink but fleeting loveliness.