Monday, March 30, 2009

Guam - Where America's Day Begins

The Hyatt where we crashed for five days
Enjoyed the awesome pool
Happy Hour and sunset - great combination

Tour with Cindy Hanson - Fort
Riding the caraboa at historical village
weaving at historical village

Annie and Blue visit Ezekial's school
Attended an assembly on local wildlife
The Ko'Ko' Bird

Using our free frequent flyer ticket John and I spent five idyllic days at the Hyatt Regency in Guam. Our flight left Palau at 2:35 AM! Who schedules these flights? We arrived at 5:30 AM, and after a short nap, we met Cindy Hanson who works for the tourist board and volunteered to take us on a morning tour of the island. It was her day off. How nice is that! Along with her son, Ezequiel, and Cindy’s friend, Jackie, we set out to explore the island.

Our first stop was Gef Pago Chamorro Cultural Village, a living museum of thatched huts featuring activities associated with the daily lives of the Chamorro, the native people of the Mariana archipelago. There were demonstrations on cooking, rope making, and basket weaving. Tony, the guide, explained that the coconut tree is the "tree of life" and showed us how easy it is to open a coconut. Various parts of the coconut palm were used for clothing, food, shelter, beauty aids, and as fuel. He went on to explain, "Coconut milk is so pure that it was used to sterilize surgical instruments during WW II." We even got to ride a carabao, the native water buffalo.

Plaza de Espana and Fort Nuestra senora de la Soledad, with a panoramic view, are remnants of the Spanish era. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a WW II site where there is statue of several men from Guam who performed heroic acts during WW II. One of the men preserved in bronze is Jackie’s father, Francisco Jesus Cruz, who after killing an enemy soldier and donning his uniform, was able to gain entry to the enemy camp and blow it up.

There is plenty to do in Guam but we felt drawn to the Hyatt’s three free-form lagoon pools. We had been traveling for three months and needed some R&R. We found a spot at the edge of a pool near one of the waterfalls where there were only two secluded lounge chairs and staked our claim. We read, dozed, went swimming, and were amazed at how fast the days passed. The Hyatt has a great beach where we could walk out for a long way while catching sight of colorful tropical fish as they went swimming by. In the evening we went to the club lounge and sat on the balcony watching the sun set. The hotel has everything including six restaurants, nightly shows, children’s camp and a shopping mall. There was no reason to leave – and we didn’t, except for one morning when we visited Ezequiel’s school, Tamuning Elementary School, to do a program on schools around the world. It was multi-cultural week at his school. After our presentations we were invited to the auditorium to see a nature presentation by Miss Cheryl from the Guam Department of Agriculture. The high point was seeing the flightless and endangered Ko’ Ko’ bird. There are only about 100 in captivity. The introduction of the brown tree snake to the island after WWII has decimated the native bird population.

There are many things on Guam we didn’t see and do. We felt a little guilty about spending most of our time enjoying the Hyatt but vowed to return to Guam, the place where American greets the day.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wow! It's Palau

Pictures do not do it justice... it is beautiful

View from our room at Palau Royal Resort
View from a restaurant
The capitol... look familar?

Looking at the jellyfish
Fruit bat
Blue starfish

Relaxing on Carp Island
Free mud treament on a snorkeling trip
Kayaking in the mangrove... awesome!
Folkloric show at Palau Pacific Hotel
Happy Birthday on Carp Island

My husband, John, and I have been to many eco-tourist destinations but no place that surpasses Palau. Fortunately we were able to use our frequent flyer miles to fly round trip from Manila to Palau and it included a stop in Guam.

The tree-covered Palauan islands are in a sea of turquoise and blue filled with brilliant tropical fish. There are only 20,000 people in the Republic of Palau so most of the islands are uninhabited. Palau is a diver’s paradise. While snorkeling I saw things I had never seen before including giant clams – over three feet wide – brilliant blue starfish, and black tipped reef sharks. The all-day trips included lunch on a sandy beach of a deserted island. One day after lunch I saw snorkelers in the shallow water obviously viewing something interesting. So I joined them and snorkeled with 18 black-tipped reef sharks. Another day we stopped at a place where the white muddy sand is so fine that people use it as a curative mud bath. The most amazing day included climbing up then down a rocky trail to a Jellyfish Lake, a secluded saltwater lake. The lake became landlocked over 7,000 years ago trapping jellyfish that had no natural enemies so they lost most of their tentacles making them virtually stingless. Snorkeling with the thousands of jellyfish was like being part of a beautiful underwater ballet. It was surreal.

One of the newest eco tours is Ann Singeo’s "Sense of Wonder." We started with some traditional native tea, which she explained would "…prevent heat stroke and loss of energy from the heat." When a coconut falls on the ground and begins to sprout the white meat inside becomes soft. Spis, one of the guides, split a sprouted coconut and we rubbed the soft coconut meat on our exposed areas to prevent sunburn and keep the mosquitoes away. Then we set out in kayaks to explore the mangroves, which serve as a nursery for sea life. We made one stop and walked a short distance into a "sacred" place where Ann pointed to large upright stones in a dry creek bed and explained the story of the Taro Goddess. It seems the goddess created taro patches on all the islands and brought back one plant from each island, planted them, and they are now the stones. The tour included lunch, which was an amazingly wonderful array of seafood and taro-based recipes.

There are two great museums on the island that detail the island’s history and its connection to the other islands of the Pacific. We have been to Easter Island, home of the giant stone statues, and were impressed with the large stone artifacts we saw in Palau including monoliths, the "taro garden," and a five-foot long stone purse of a goddess. We wondered if there was a connection with Easter Island and other huge stone carvings we had seen elsewhere.

We visited the Capitol which looks a lot like the U.S. Capitol and no wonder. After WW II and until 1994, Palau was an United Nations trusteeship administered by the U.S. From WW II, there are downed Japanese and American planes, mainly in the sea, including one called "George Bush Wreck." In fact, one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific was fought on the Palauan island of Peleliu. Today the Palau is the most beautiful and peaceful place imaginable.

Manila - Rest Stop

Sofitel Manila
View of Makati from the balcony of Executive Lounge
Awesome pool

Making and eating halo halo
Folkloric entertainment
La Vida Imelda walking tour with Carlos Celdran

My husband, John, and I travel for extended periods so we plan rest days. It is a time to pay our bills, catch up on e-mails, laundry, and writings. One of our rest stops on our recent Asian trip was in Manila. In 2008 we spent five weeks in the Philippines so this time we only scheduled four days in Manila before catching a flight to Palau. We checked into the Sofitel Hotel, which is a unique city hotel because of its prime location on the water creating a resort location at the edge of the city. Each day started with breakfast at the Spiral Restaurant, home to one of the world’s most extensive buffets with multi-cuisine open cooking stations. In fact, so vast was the buffet that there were stations we didn’t even notice until our third day. There was something to suit all nationalities.

We spent three days enjoying the large lagoon swimming pool. In the evening the hotel has a poolside barbecue of fresh seafood and marinated meats plus a colorful cultural song and dance show. It was the perfect place to recharge our batteries.

Our only touristic activity was taking a walking tour with Carlos Celdran. Celdran’s "Walk this Way" tours are as much street theater as they are informative. In 2008 we took his walking tour of the Intramuros, which was so enjoyable and entertaining that we considered taking it a second time so we could glean – and remember – some of the told and untold stories of the historic center of the city. However, we could not resist his "Living La Vida Imelda!" tour. Lucky for us the tour started a short walk from the Sofitel Hotel at the Cultural Center. All of Celdran’s tours start with the singing the Philippine national anthem.

There is more to Imelda Marcos other than being the "Lady of Sole," as in the soles of her shoe collection, one of which was a pair of plastic disco sandals with three inch high flashing battery operated heels. She is quoted as saying, "I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty." The shoes became a symbol of her excesses, which might be explained by her provincial upbringing. In 1952 she was first runner up for Miss Manila but by contesting the decision she became Miss Manila and continued on the road to fame and fortune. We came to understand Imelda Marcos and what she did for the Philippines. She not only wanted the best for herself but she wanted the best for the Philippines. Along with her husband, she wanted the Philippines to be seen as a world player in economics and culture. To that end she had the Cultural Center of the Philippines built to promote and preserve Filipino arts and culture. Manila hosted the Miss Universe contest which was held in the Folks Art Theater that was completed in a record 77 days. Just days before the pageant, a cyclone threatened to cancel the event, Mrs. Marcos deployed the Philippine air force to seed the clouds and diffuse the tropical storm. Her efforts succeeded and the pageant was held under clear blue skies. Nothing was beyond her control. Celdran’s tour gives insight into the Philippines of the 1970’s and changed the way we look at Imelda Marcos – and the Philippines.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vietnam: HCMC, Dalat & Nha Trang

Chef John at Vietnamese Cookery School
You have to eat what you make
Graduation time

Ho Chi Minh City - City Hall
War Rememberance Museum
Rooftop Bar at Rex Hotel
Welcome basket in our room at Sofitel Palace Dalat
The classic Citroen at Sofitel for special requests
The cable car across the countryside to the hilltop temple

Thrilling coaster car to waterfalls
Dalantla Waterfalls
Crazy House

Beach at Nha Trang from our balcony at Novotel
The pool at our private villa for the day - Six Senses Hidaway
The alfresco bathroom in our private villa for the day - Six Senses Hidaway

Sofitel in Dalat, Vietnam is magnifique! When my husband, John, and I stepped off the airplane at the Dalat airport we took a deep breath of the cool fresh air. It was a wonderful relief from the heat and humidity of Ho Chi Minh City. On the 30-minute up hill drive to Dalat we passed green fields and evergreen forests before arriving at the magnifique Sofitel Palace Hotel with a view of Lake Xuan Huong. The line "We’ll all come out to meet her when she comes" from the children’s song "She’ll be coming Around the Mountain" popped into my head. Waiting on the steps of the porte-cochere was a lady in a pristine white ao dai, the elegant traditional Vietnamese dress, along with several other staff members ready to take care of our luggage and facilitate check-in. One young lady carried a long tray with a steaming selection of local artichoke, green, lotus, jasmine, and oolong teas and asked us to select a welcome drink.

Everything oozed elegance. Built in 1922 in France Colonial style there are crystal chandeliers, gold and red velvet furniture, an inlayed marble floor in the vestibule, dark highly polished wood, and paintings everywhere.

Room 205, our home for three days, was elegant with a small foyer, 12-foot ceilings, gleaming wood floors, and a crown valance above the bed. When the staff threw open the French windows the view to the lake was magnifique. Red is the color of happiness in Asia and everything on the welcome tray was red from the champagne to the cookies to the mousse. It made us very happy.
John and I love afternoon tea so we headed to Le Rabelais Restaurant stopping along the way to view the many paintings done by Vietnamese in the style of the French masters. The restaurant has a view of the expansive tree-studded lawn sloping to the water. We tried to recall where else we had enjoyed such a pleasant scene. Was it in France, or maybe Switzerland, or maybe in the Finger Lake region of New York? Possibly it was in a painting because I could envision ladies in long diaphanous white dresses playing croquette or just relaxing in one of the lawn lounge chairs.
We opted for High Tea ($15) with cucumber, egg, and smoked salmon tea sandwiches, plus waffles, pancakes, muffins, and scones with jams made from locally grown fruits along with a wide choice of teas including Dalat specialty teas. While we were relaxing I read the history of tea on the back of the menu and was surprised to find that tea was introduced into France prior to its arrival in Britain. Do the British know that? It seems that afternoon tea, called Tea Muse, appeared in the gossipy writings of Madame de Sieving in the mid-1600s prior to the arrival of tea in London with Catherine of Braganza in 1662.

There was a lot to learn about the Sofitel Dalat. It seem the Dr. Alexander Yersin, a protégé of Dr. Louis Pasteur, visited Dalat in 1893 and found the place perfect for improving ones health. A sanitarium was built which led to the growth of Dalat. In 1922 the Langbian Palace Hotel opened and much later became the Sofitel. The hotel was host to many important people and events. A gentleman’s agreement left Dalat untouched during the many wars that have occurred in Vietnam in the 20th century.

Afternoon tea left us quite sated so we decided to dine lightly at Larry’s Bar. With an outside entrance, Larry’s Bar is a wonderfully cozy hideaway with several small rooms, a low beamed ceiling, and comfy couches and chairs. While sipping our Happy Hour cocktails I was once again drawn to the story on the menu. The bar is named after Larry Hillblom, the American lawyer who co-founded DHL delivery services. In 1990, Hillblom visited Dalat, which had long been the favorite honeymoon destination for Vietnamese. He saw the tourist potential and through a joint-venture partnership spent $40 million restoring the original Langbian Palace Hotel as well as the Dalat Palace Golf Course. Other investments included the Novotel Dalat and 16 colonial villas. The hotel opened under the management of Accor in May 1995. Several days later Hillblom was killed in a private airplane crash. Hence, the name Larry’s Bar.

The last day we arranged for a city tour with the hotel car which turned out to be one wonderful adventure after another. The Dalat Cable Car gave us a panoramic view of the fields, heavily forested hillside, and a beautiful turquoise lake. At the ride’s end it was a short walk to Truc Lam Monastery. Down the hill toward Dalat we stopped at Datanla Waterfalls. And what a fun stop it was! On my personal coaster I went from one exciting curve to another until I reached the bottom of the steep hill and the beautiful Datanla Waterfalls. According to local legend it is where the fairies from heaven came to bath. Going back up on the coaster wasn’t as exciting but it was sure better than the 15-minute climb up the steps. I asked the driver to stop by The Crazy House so I could just take a couple of pictures. However, I was drawn in by its uniqueness. In a city where the French Colonial architecture has been preserved and restored Crazy House defies description. A truly phantasmagoric vision. It seems incongruous to find it in Vietnam where out-of-the-box activities are not encouraged but it becomes more understandable when one realizes that the architect’s father was the president of Vietnam in the 1980s. Our next stop was Bao Dai Palace, the summer getaway of the last emperor of Vietnam. I had expected to see a lavishly decorated house but the residence is one of simplicity and comfort. Our last request was for a drive around the lake. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. People were peddling their swan boats, the Dalat Palace Golf Course, one of the finest in Asia, was busy with people knocking around a little white ball, families were strolling along the walkway, and fishermen were trying their luck.

We had saved our coupon for a complimentary Sparkling Rose Wine Cocktail for the last night. In the coziness of the L’Atelier Du Vin Room we sipped our wine wishing we never had to leave and vowed to return someday to do all the things we did not have time to do. Hotel Sofitel Palace and Dalat are truly magnifique!

For more information check and Price range: $185 (USD) for a luxury double to $400 for a suite.