Fab Day Trip from Shanghai: Zhujiajiao, China’s Venice

April 7, 2010 at 8:39 am | Posted in Asia, China | Leave a comment
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by Indra Chopra

Heading to Expo 2010 in Shanghai this summer or fall? Let me tell you about a great day trip. We didn’t intend to visit the “water town” of Zhujiajiao when in the area in this past summer; instead, we’d planned on a side trip to Suzhou, famous for its silk and embroidery. But that would have meant cutting short our visits to other attractions, so we boarded tourist bus no. 4 at Shanghai Stadium for the one-hour ride to a 1,700-year old Chinese mini-Venice, a magnificent maze of canals and historic buildings.

The drive through rice paddies, waterways and canals to Lake Daishon is a balm to sore eyes blanched by the hustle-bustle of Beijing and Shanghai. The bus dropped us at Zhujiajiao’s new bus station just north of the historic district, with five hours to explore the town before the heading back. Map in hand, we followed our instincts, crossing bridges to what appeared to be a city under construction. This was the new section of Zhujiajiao, which has been developed in the old style in time for the World Expo, which runs May 1 through October.

The fact that Zhujiajiao grew up beside several converging rivers helped it become a hub of rice and textile traders. The merchants then extended the rivers to their warehouses, which is why the city is criss-crossed by canals. Of course, there are also streets and alleys, most of which are lined with whitewashed, tile-roofed two-story buildings, some dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). But one building north of the old town center towers above all the others: the five-story edifice topped by a pavilion in Ke Zhi Yuan garden on Xijie Street; designed in 1912 with both European and Chinese influences, this garden is a national landmark.

Bridges, Ancient Bridges

Crossing a few bridges, we finally entered the old town. Zhujiajiao has 36 of these ancient stone bridges, some with marble or wood elements. All 36 are still in use, but the most famous is the Fangsheng over the Cao Gang River, at the northeast edge of town. Erected in 1571, it stretches 230 feet (70 meters) and, unlike any other bridge in the Shanghai area, rests on five arches. Its Dragon Gate Stone depicts eight dragons encircling a shining pearl, a reminder — as if you needed one — that you’re not exactly in Venice.

Our tour bus ticket served as an entrance ticket, so we walked into the maze of stone paths, bridges, wooden boats tied to the shores, and fishing poles hanging from drooping arms, with children and pets playing in dirt and the occasional cyclist trying to weave through narrow passageways Gondolier on canal in Zhujiajiao Chinaand children and pets. This was the Zhujiajiao we were looking for, the traditional town of the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 A.D.). The ups and downs of dynastic rule had long turned this town into a backwater; only in 2000 did Zhujiajiao start inching its way into the tourist map and into Shanghai’s “One City Nine Towns” promotional campaign.

Since Zhujiajiao has more canals than roads, boats are a major means of transport. We took a tourist boat ride, and our “gondolier,” a cheery, middle-aged woman, skillfully glided us through waterways and under bridges through the old and new sections. We didn’t find the empty courtyards of the new section of town particularly fetching or interesting, so we asked her to return to the ancient core. At one point, seeing our bored looks, the gondolier broke into a song. Must be part of the package, we figured, as her lilting melody intermingled with the willows and the deserted canals.

A boy was fishing below one of the bridges, and seeing us approach, made a great show of catching a fish. Wonder if he really did. At another point we saw a man contemplatively washing turtles. Pets or dinner?

Chinese Postcards and Punk Rock

Back on land after our 80-minute ride, we walked along National Street and its arterial stone slab alleys with tea shops, eateries, and curio shops selling handicrafts, embroideries, calligraphy, and other items. A shoemaker almost turned violent when he caught us trying to photograph him, but otherwise, we were swept up in a Shopping street in Zhujiajiao, near Shanghai, Chinacornucopia of art and antiques. At one point we followed a tour group into a nobleman’s house, a maze of courtyards and rooms with wooden furniture and artifacts.

Other attractions include the Memorial Hall of Wang Chang, one of the Seven Scholars of the Qing Dynasty, the No. 1 Tea House, and the Qing Dynasty post office, which displays evocative old postcards. There are also places where ancient culture intermingles with modernity. For example, the Books Tearoom, at 35 Caohe Street, offers traditional teas, 21st-century organic dishes, and thousands of books and DVDs. Zher, at 118 Xijing Street, may be a Chinese beer parlor, but it’s run by a punk rocker, and that’s reflected in the décor and the sound system. FYI, Zher’s owner is not the only bohemian type to have settled hereabouts; quite a few refugees from Shanghai’s rat race have moved here, creating an appealing mix of old-fashioned and avant garde residents.

In addition to old-new hybrids like the Books Tearoom, Zhujiajiao has plenty of traditional eateries where you can enjoy rose-flavored fermented bean curd, dark-rice zongzi dumpling, or roasted soybeans. There are several guesthouses in town, too, such as 1, 2, 3 (yes, that’s its name) and Cao Tang, but we didn’t have time to overnight on this trip. Next time, for sure — but for now, our five hours were up, so we boarded bus No. 4 and headed back to Shanghai.

Photos: Indra Chopra

We Don’t Need Another Hero — Unless of Course It’s From Japan’s Funky Monkey Babys

March 12, 2010 at 9:20 am | Posted in Asia, Japan, music | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

Adopted as the theme song for the Japanese TV show Zoom In! since its late 2009 release, “Hero” (ヒーロー in Japanese, pronounced “hiiroo”) is the latest single from a trio from a Tokyo suburb called Hachioji, formed as a duo in 2004. Also known to their fans as “Fanmon,” and headed by 31-year-old lead singer Katou Shunsuke (stage name “Funky Katō” ), they’re an undeniably high-energy bunch of dudes who’ve been all over Japan’s media and have managed to corral other celebs into appearing on their albums and videos. “Hero” is an actually rather sweet parable set in the high-octane world of TV news, with an anchorman who learns to make time for wifey and their adoring but neglected-feeling young son. Perhaps the most bemusing thing about Funky Monkey Babys is that they’re considered a “hip-hop” act. By Japanese standards maybe, but these guys come across about as gangsta as Hannah Montana — in our book, file this tune, at least, under “sugar-pop.”

Udaipur, Still To Die For

March 3, 2010 at 9:33 am | Posted in Asia, history, India, lodging | Leave a comment
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by Ed Wetschler

Udaipur, Rajasthan, IndiaEveryone who’s ever visited India’s Rajasthan — or even just seen photos of the magnificent palace complexes in Udaipur — may have one primary question these days: After last summer’s drought, just how low is Lake Pichola, from whose shores and whose waters the palaces rise? Last summer, people could drive and play cricket on the lake bed.

A second question, inevitably, is about affordable lodgings in Udaipur. Unfortunately, the historic Taj Lake Palace, which costs a minimum of 33,000 rupees* a night, isn’t exactly within everyone’s budget.

The first of Udaipur’s palaces was built by Maharana Udai Singh in 1559 when he founded the city, and his successors built more on the west shore. This went on for scores of generations, so you might expect the 11-palace complex on Pichola Lake to be an architectural mess, what with stylistic elements from Rajasthan, the Mughal Empire, China, and Europe — and from different centuries, no less.

Yet it works, and that’s putting it mildly. Elements like silver, marble, paintings, inlay surfaces, and the very intricacy of the wall and pillar carvings somehow pull it all together. Visitors gain entry through heroic gates, towers rise 100 feet (30 meters) over the 800-foot-long (244-meter) complex, and balconies evoke images of Mewar Dynasty rulers looking out over Pichola Lake — their lake. Just listening to the names of some of these palaces, which are linked, tells you what you’re in for: Krishna Vilas, Palace of Glass, Palace of Pearls.

The Mewar family still controls all this, in part through a number of trusts. It has also encouraged the establishment of craft shops and a must-see museum within the complex, not to mention a bank and even a post office. Obviously, much of this is open to the public.

But the question remains: How romantic can the Udaipur palace complex be right now if views of it from the lake — or views of the lake from the palaces — show mud flats?

Right now Pichola Lake is, at best, half full. Yet this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker; the buildings themselves are unaffected by the drought, and when you visit, you spend a lot of time admiring the walls and artwork, not just the setting. Moreover, winter is the dry season, so there was never much chance that the lake would refill in early 2010. Most probably, this spring will bring some much-needed rain to Udaipur.

Even so, where to stay without spending money like a rajah? Udai Kothi occupies a white, multi-story, confection in a quiet spot just a few minutes outside the Old City. The amenities are modern (swimming pool, health club, spa, etc), but the décor conveys the romance of history. Rooms here start at just 5,000 rupees.

Meanwhile, Jigat Niwas, dating back to the early 1600s, is right in the palace complex, yet you can book a lovely room here for just 1,550 rupees. That said, I’d recommend upgrading if you can to a 2,550-rupee “Heritage Room,” with views of Pichola Lake — especially once that water level starts to come up again.

*at press time, about US$722 / £478 / €528 / CA$743 / AU$797 / NZ$1,043 / R5,418

A One-of-a-Kind Holiday in One-of-a-Kind Brunei

February 15, 2010 at 10:19 am | Posted in Asia, Brunei | Leave a comment
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by J. Thalia Cunningham

Brunei mosqueOn my last trip, going from Singapore’s mall-mania for the tranquility of Brunei was akin to jiggling out of a tight pair of jeans  in sweltering weather: welcome respite indeed.

Brunei Darussalam (literally “Abode of Peace”) is a small, luxuriant beauty dot adorning the upper lip of Borneo, an island shared by chunks of Indonesia and Malaysia. And tiny though it be — 2,228 square miles (5,770 sq. km) — it packs an impressively diverse wallop of travel options (more on that later).

Besides Oman, Brunei is the world’s sole remaining sultanate, and as with Britain, fascination with all things blue-blooded buffs its mystique.  Unlike Britain, Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah (currently the world’s second-richest monarch) and the rest of the royal family do occasionally emerge from their palace to mingle with the hoi polloi;  most locals with whom I spoke had met at least one of the royals.

Islamic Brunei isn’t about bars, nightclubs, and the like; alcohol isn’t generally for sale (one headline during my visit: “Loitering Youths Caught With Beer”  — it was 18 youths and 22 cans of beer) and caning is on the penal menu. On the other hand, this is Islam-lite, filtered through Malaysian culture; females aren’t required to cover their heads, and travelers can bring in their own tipples, declaring at customs. Nothing like sipping a smooth chard on a private balcony, listening to the muezzin’s chants and watching the sun’s gold dome mirroring that of the nearby mosque as it sinks into the sea.

Virtually crime-free, the sultanate is 80-percent blanketed by rainforest, and ecotourism is right on your doorstep, even via day trips. This is eco-luxe, mind you — no slogging with backpacks, wishing you’d brought more  insect repellant and hoping your toilet paper lasts. Instead, a speedboat (dubbed “flying coffins” for their shape rather than their safety records), whisked me from the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, to the mangrove forest in what seemed like the blink of an eye. As our boat sloshed against the shore, the guide pointed out egrets, eagles, king cobras coiled in trees. A large monitor lizard skulked by, thankfully bored by the gaggle of humans, and  I spotted more crocodiles than I’d seen in my many combined trips to Africa and Asia. Meanwhile in the trees, proboscis monkeys (unique to Brunei) chattered and played, performing astounding gymnastic feats. Our guide warned us, though, to avoid getting their urine on our heads, which beyond the obvious yuck factor can both render one bald and attract crocodiles.

Kampong Ayer, BruneiAlso a quick boatride away, Kampong Ayer, a grouping of villages on stilts over the water, is a window into the country’s traditional lifestyle (although despite dating back to the 16th century, its current houses are just 40-60 years old), complete with schools, clinics, and police station. It was fascinating to navigate the wooden walkways and watch people go about their daily lives.  You can venture even farther into the jungle and back in time with an excursion to visit the Iban (covered in this blog this past September). Since migrating from next-door Malaysia in the 1930’s, many still live in traditional wooden longhouses two hours west of Bandar. Though once warlike headhunters, today these folks drive Mitsubishis and Corollas to government jobs, along with rice farming, soldiering, and blue-collar work. All the children go to school, doing homework on the longhouse computer while adults watch television.

Back in the capital I discovered fascinating sites to explore, too. The Brunei Museum traces Brunei’s history with prehistoric earthenware, ancient artifacts, traditional costumes, games, and weaponry. The Jame’ Asr Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, built by the previous sultan in 1988, sports 14 tons’ worth of gold and crystal chandeliers and is capped by 29 solid 22-carat-gold domes (he was the 29th sultan, you see).

His current majesty’s palace, the world’s largest, is closed to the public, but you can catch a glimpse from the riverside park Jalan Tutong. A quarter-mile long, also with 22-carat domes,  the palace boasts 1,788 rooms,  a banquet hall for 4,000, a sports complex, health clinic, cinema, helipad, and more.  He and the queen meet and greet their subjects here — including a banquet and a gift for everybody — during the Muslim holiday Eid in August or September.

Otherwise, those hankering for a taste of the royal lifestyle have to settle for the Royal Regalia Museum, which houses the sultan’s throne, crown, ceremonial sword, chariot, military and coronation costumes, and wedding and coronation gifts from assorted monarchs and world leaders. After being dazzled by all that gold,  when I came upon MacDonald’s golden arches later day, it was like spotting a over-the-hill hooker at a debutante ball.

Actually, I got an even closer-up taste of royalty by staying at one of Asia’s most singular resorts. A destination in itself, the Empire Hotel & Country Club sprawls across 45 beachside acres (180 hectares) —  the size of Vatican City — and was originally built as a palace for but never occupied by the sultan’s black-sheep brother.  A tiered wedding cake of gleaming white marble frosted with 21 carat gold, it’s got a half-dozen restaurants, several swimming pools, both a stage and movie theater, conference center, shopping arcade, and watersports center with scuba, waterskiing, Jetskiing, parasailing, and boating. The attached country club adds a gym, Jack Nicklaus-designed 18-hole golf course, and full-service spa.  Just entering the towering lobby is a jawdropping experience — shared by the likes of Bill Clinton, Princes Charles, China’s president Hu Jintao, and an A-list roster of celebrities. Yet nightly rates start at just B$250.*

An interesting aside: hotel staff wore  labels reading “Fever Free”; when I asked what was up, I was told that all employees enter through a special thermal-sensitive entrance that checks their temperatures; anyone with a fever is sent home or for physician evaluation.  Now that’s service.

Well, that’s Brunei.

*at press time, approximately US$177; £113; €130; AU$199; NZ$253; R1,368.

Pop Goes the Traditional Filipino Nipa Hut

February 5, 2010 at 11:26 am | Posted in music, Philippines | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

This time we’re off to the Pearl of the Orient, the Philippines, where a late-2009 hit from the popular band Hale celebrates nostalgia for this sprawling archipelago’s countryside whence most Filipinos come, at least within a generation or two. Bahay Kubo is the sweet, laid-back lead single from this four-year-old band’s latest and fourth album, Kundiman. It’s a bit of a departure for this foursome — their first entirely in Tagalog and focusing on purely Pinoy themes. With a simple story line starring lead linger Champ Lui-Pio and actress Heart Evangelista, the song takes its name from a popular old children’s folk song about a little thatched country house with its little garden (lots of description of produce). The imagery in this song and video is also bucolic, if a bit slicker (but hey, what’s up with that chick wandering around the wilderness in an evening gown?), and its theme involves searching for the one you love and finding shelter in a bahay kubo (played here by a thatch hammock rather than an actual hut).

Covering All the Bases in Taiwan

January 11, 2010 at 9:43 am | Posted in Asia, Taiwan | 3 Comments
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by Victor Block

It’s true that not long after arriving in Taipei I found myself stewing in traffic jams as maddening as any back home in the United States. And yes, locals lined up at the same fast-food restaurants and wore pretty much the same clothes. At times I felt I could’ve been in a Chinatown in any western city.

And yet…both here in Taiwan’s go-go capital and countryside I also discovered an abundance of sites reflecting a rich history and culture stretching back five millennia. Not just a wealth of ancient artifacts and artworks, but hundreds of active traditional temples where even in the 21st century, worshippers still pray, burn incense, and perform ancient rituals, such as burning fake paper money for deceased loved ones to spend in the realm beyond.

Nor are traditional ways of life totally a thing of the past. On the southern tip of Taiwan, I spotted laborers bent in the hot sun, planting tender rice shoots much like their ancestors thousands of years ago. Many of the aboriginal people still cling to their old way of life (the first Han Chinese didn’t reach Taiwan until the 17th century, driving its Polynesian/Malay inhabitants into the high mountains in the interior; the influx from the mainland continued for two centuries).

Han immigration was given a huge boost in 1949 when Chiang Kai-shek and some two million followers fled here as mainland China fell under communist rule. In the process of definitively turning the island into a Han country, they also endowed it with many priceless treasures from Peking’s Forbidden City. Today, those gorgeous antiques are on display at Taipei’s National Palace Museum, Taiwan’s single most important tourist attraction and one that by itself practically justifies a visit to the island; ranked with the world’s A-list museums, it houses the largest collection of Chinese artifacts anywhere. Strolling through room after room, I was awestruck by displays teeming with treasures including precious jade, bronze and porcelain artifacts; rich tapestries and embroidery; and books and scrolls filled with mesmerizing ancient calligraphy.

There’s plenty else just in Taipei to fill several busy days, too. Exhibit A: an imposing monument to Chiang Kai-Shek which includes a vast memorial hall, and the palatial National Theater and National Concert Hall. Both share a 62-acre (25-hectare) city-center compound where I spotted a number of couples, drawn by the picturesque and tranquil setting, posing for wedding photos.

Not surprisingly, traditional gardens abound. The most outstanding for me was the Lin Penyuan family garden, employing classic Confucian principles to embody a harmony of man and nature;  I found it a masterpiece of serenity, reminiscent of a serene village from a bygone era.

Far less tranquil is the hustle-bustle on Hwa Hsi Street, better known as Snake Alley. Here I found myself introduced to a very different and colorful aspect of local life. Tiny, crowded sidewalk restaurants and busy shops proffer live fish and crabs, shark fins, and countless unidentifiable animal parts. The hottest action takes place at stalls crammed with cages that give the place its nickname, a-swarm with writhing serpents, and passersby are subjected to a loud and constant singsong by the vendors. The oddest thing I found was one hawking the fresh-drawn blood of snakes, touted as greatly beneficial to both libido and general health. I passed.

Beyond Taipei, I greatly recommend Tainan, the island’s oldest city and its first capital (1663-1885). One key feature here: more than 300 intensely atmospheric temples enshrining a variety of gods — Buddhist, Taoist, folk, and animist. These range from huge imposing structures striding broad boulevards to tiny neighborhood shrines tucked away on side streets and alleyways. The Confucius Temple, built in 1665, is the oldest in Taiwan to honor the renowned philosopher. For me, even more moving was Wufei Miao (Temple of the Five Concubines), erected in the 17th century beside the tombs of a prince’s mistresses, who committed suicide when he fell in battle.

When it comes to nature, also Taiwan shines. It’s dominated by the towering mountains that bisect the island, and the rest consists of terraced flatlands, bamboo forests and coastal plains rimmed by magnificent beaches (Fulong Beach on the northwest coast is a local favorite). You’ll find most of the most impressive settings in parks like Yangmingshan National Park near Taipei, where volcanic craters, bubbling hot springs and breathtaking mountain scenery are the top draws. At the nearby Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, I was fascinated by the restored ancient walking trail and fanciful rock formations.

There’s a reason 16th-century Portuguese explorers named this island Formosa (“beautiful”). Touristically as well as politically, it may sometimes seem overshadowed by its enormous neighbor across the strait — but I’m here to assure you that Taiwan is a classic case of “good things come in small packages.”

More information: Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Tripatini Surveys Hot Destinations for 2010

December 28, 2009 at 11:03 am | Posted in Africa, Asia, Barbados, British Columbia, Canada, Caribbean/Bahamas/Bermuda, Central America, Colombia, Croatia, cruising, Cuba, Estonia, Europe, Florida, Honduras, Iceland, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Macau, Mexico, Middle East, Montenegro, New Mexico, Panama, Rwanda, Slovenia, South Africa, South America, Sri Lanka, St. Lucia, Suriname, Turkey, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates, Zimbabwe | 2 Comments
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by David Paul Appell

It’s that time when the travel-hungry are scouring the media for word of the coming year’s “it” spots. We can play that game too, so, besides popular perennials, here are 29 we see looming larger on twenty-ten’s worldwide vaycaydar:

For Americans at least, tight times mean Florida will tempt folks sticking closer to home; better deals down south include  Fort Lauderdale and up north the Panhandle. The latter’s now marketed as the “Emerald Coast,” trying to softpedal the “Redneck Riviera” image; comparisons to Sardinia’s glam Costa Smeralda are laughable, but there are some fetching towns, inns, and some interesting attractions — but above all sugary beaches along a stretch including  Destin, Fort Walton, Apalachicola, St. Joe Beach, and Pensacola. Another hotspot due for a boost this year is Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is popping the corks for its 400th anniversary (and while you’re out here, add a couple of days to explore some cool nearby towns like Acoma Pueblo and Gallup.

The big story this year is inevitably the province of British Columbia, with cool cities Vancouver and Victoria, stunning coastal and mountain scenery, eco/adventure tourism, and swell snow sports. The reason is, of course, is the attention focused on Vancouver and ski resort Whistler Blackcomb, hosting this February’s Winter Olympics.

The so-called Maya Riviera, on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Caribbean coast stretching southward from Cancun, continues evolving whether big luxury resorts, mass-market all-inclusives, exquisite small inns, or budget digs. Some also see a bump for Mexico City, whose pollution and security issues can be finessed with some common sense and which offers one of the world’s great urban experiences — and what other burg has not just a stunning Aztec pyramid complex (Teotihuacan) on its outskirts but several right in town — one smack in the middle of downtown?

This winter/spring, more ships come online and cruising is likely to stay strong, thanks to heavy discounting. Beyond the usual suspects, keep your eye on buttoned-down Barbados,  where some resorts and dining spots have been updating of late, and scenic St. Lucia, with luxury properties coming online fairly recently (Jade Mountain, The Landings) or refurbing (Cap Maison); there’s also a movement toward sustainable — and less pricey — town and country tourism. Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos also keeps adding fab resorts without sacrificing its limin’ vibe. Finally, could this be the year for Cuba, when the self-defeating, un-American, yet stubborn travel ban is dropped or relaxed for all U.S. citizens? Hold not thy breath, but anything’s possible, and if it happens, go — unsavory regime notwithstanding, it’s one of the world’s great travel and cultural experiences.

Eastern Europe has been on a major upswing ever since the Berlin Wall fell. But even 20 year later, some destinations are still growing or even just emerging. Examples of the former include Croatia and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And lately we’re hearing more about Croatia’s neighbors, Slovenia and Montenegro. Both serve up stunning mountains with eco/adventure, historic cities and towns, and Adriatic seacoast with fine beach resorts. And this year, Montenegro welcomes AmanResorts’ fancy-schmancy Sveti Stefan, on an island of medieval architecture. On the western side of things, Icelands a nice land, with its superb eco/adventure, cool capital Reykjavik, short flight time from Europe and New York City, and some of the most affordable prices in years, thanks to the recent economic meltdown.

In Central America, everybody’s jockeying to be “the next Costa Rica” — even El Salvador (who knew?). But watch Honduras; ’09 tourism plummeted due to its political crisis but should be back on track — and hungry — once the new elected government debuts in January. Highlights: Maya ruins, colonial towns, exceptional eco/adventure, world-class diving.  Panama, too, with great rainforest, beaches, one of the hemisphere’s loveliest colonial quarters (Panama City’s Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and barefoot Caribbean isles like Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, home to the autonomous Kuna Indians. In South America, Colombia‘s overall continuing security and economic progress will feed that diverse country’s tourism, especially to another colonial stunner, Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, and happening capital Bogotá (whose colonial quarter’s also nothing to estornudar at). Rising on the radar is the continent’s smallest and only Dutch-speaking country, Suriname, a multi-culti charmer with a cute, sleepy little capital and some of the hemisphere’s most unspoiled eco offerings.

With the steam let out of Dubai, look to UAE capital Abu Dhabi, also developing a-plenty yet without sacrificing traditional culture and flavor. On the Mediterranean, with political crisis at bay for now, Lebanon is still rockin’ the casbah — well, at least Beirut is, while the beach resorts, Roman ruins, and even wine country outside the capital provide a lower-key counterpoint. Up on Turkey‘s “Turquise Coast,” meanwhile, a resort town and region called Dalaman is currently hot, for example outstripping Spain’s Majorca as among the Brits; allures include beaches, soft adventure, nightlife, and historic/archaeological sites.

The tourism offerings in staid ol’ Singapore are getting something of a 2010 shot in the arm, with the elaborate, Vegas-style casino-resort Marina Bay Sands; the also elaborate Fullerton Heritage Complex crammed with shopping, dining, and lodging; and Sentosa Island’s Resorts World, with a Hard Rock Hotel and a Universal Studios theme park. Another “city-state” (now a semi-autonomous part of China) seeing some new action is Macau, where, again, it’s Vegas-style casinos that’ve been complementing the Portuguese colonial architecture and fueling a local boom. On a less glitzy, more laid-back note, since Sri Lanka ended its civil war last May, more travelers will be returning to its historic towns, Buddhist temples, and breathtaking beaches.

From Kruger Park to Cape Town to the winelands, South Africa is on the upswing again, thanks to interest generated by Hollywood hits like Invictus and District 9, and especially June’s soccer World Cup. Lower on the radar, the story of the year may well be the rebirth of safari tourism in Rwanda, 17 years after its genocide, and, believe it or not, Zimbabwe, despite still being a political and economic basket case.

Cavort Like A Sultan at Brunei’s Empire Hotel and Country Club

December 16, 2009 at 10:15 am | Posted in Brunei, resorts | 1 Comment
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by David Paul Appell

It’s just nine years old, but as you’d expect, this resort on the South China Sea beachfront in the small Malay sultanate ruled by one of the world’s richest men — originally built as a royal palace by the sultan’s kid brother to the tune of more than US$1 billion — has been in the front ranks of Asia’s top hostelries ever since. With 420 rooms, suites, and villas on a lushly landscaped 45-acre (180-hectare) spread, the palatial joint is awash in soaring columns and all manner of sumptuous finishes — marble, teak, silk, gold, you name it.

Plus, everything here is big — from the atrium lobby to the guest rooms (we’ve been in some Manhattan studios smaller than these bathrooms), and the amenities just go on and on: not just a lagoon beachfront, five restaurants, five pools, tennis courts, gym, and 18-hole Jack Nicklaus links, but even a movie theater, live stage theater, and bowling alley (one big drawback for the non-abstemious: no booze, according to Islamic practice). The Empire makes a great base for exploring the mosques and water villages of the sultanate, along with ecotourism in the Borneo rainforests that begin right outside the gates. Rates are more reasonable than you’d imagine, starting at B$250 (US$180/£108) per night, with special promotions sometimes even less. More info: www.TheEmpireHotel.com.

Kylie Minogue Goes “Chiggy Wiggy” in India

November 6, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Posted in India, music | Leave a comment
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by Tripatini staff

Most pop songs in India come out of its movie industry — the famous “Bollywood” based in Mumbai aka Bombay — and this tune is from the just-released Blue. It’s a big-budget action flick shot in the Bahamas — something about an underwater treasure guarded by sharks — but being Bollywood, you also need your big musical numbers, of course. Composed by A.R. Rahman, who did the music for Slumdog Millionaire, for this one they snagged Aussie dance diva Kylie Minogue to duet with leading Indian singer Sonu Nigam (the song goes into full Bolly-mode after Kylie’s part — she sings in English, he in Hindi). Those two dudes you see wriggling around Kylie in the clip, though? They’re the movie’s co-lead Akshay Kumar and supporting actor Zayed Khan (Sonu Nigam doesn’t actually appear in the video, but is lip-synched). And as you can no doubt guess, “Chiggy Wiggy”  don’t mean a darn thing.

What Recession, Comrade? Shanghai Flies High

November 2, 2009 at 9:17 am | Posted in Asia, China | 1 Comment
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by Eric Hiss

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

Recently back from China’s largest metropolis, my head’s still spinning — while many world cities are still in a slump, Shanghai buzzes 24/7. Orbs, obelisks, rectangles and other geometries take form hundreds of feet above ground while billboards proclaim in Chinglish: “Shanghai: With Luck and Brilliancy.” After sundown, things turn even more electric, as tour boats plying the Huangpu River and shimmering towers create a neon nightscape as brash as any Vegas strip.

Gearing up for next May’s World Expo, it seems all 22 million denizens are seeing this not only as a coming-out party for Shanghai, but a point of national pride — like the Olympics, a defining moment for China’s arrival as a superpower (another billboard: “Greeting the Expo with Civilization!”). Certainly the raw materials are present: superb cuisine and hotels, cool nightlife, and seemingly unlimited shopping. A shortlist to help you dive in:

A dramatic 950-room pair of towers, the Pudong Shangri-La (from 1550 RMB/$227 double):  delivers five-star service and amenities like an award-winning spa. One tower features chandeliers, original Chinese oils, and Queen Anne-style furnishings, the other sleek, contemporary, high-gloss rosewood, leather, and silk. Floor-to-ceiling windows over the river afford among the best views in town.

As China’s first carbon-neutral property, the 26-room Urbn Hotel Shanghai (from 1,300 RMB/$190),  right next to the French Concession (see below), offers luxury with a conscience, plus minimalist-mod sunken lounges, slate-lined bathrooms, raised platform beds, and rooftop garden.

Finally, for affordability and historic appeal, 12-room Old House (from 720 RMB/US$103) is an excellent, central choice in the charming French Concession neighborhood.

Foodwise, FU 1039, in a grand former residence off shopping thoroughfare Yuyuan Lu, is the real Shanghainese deal: oily, sweet and savory dishes like chilled jellyfish with spring onion oil, sweet lotus root, and slow-cooked sweet river eel in soy sauce. It’s tricky to find (down a long, unmarked lane), the antique furnishings are a tad musty, and few staffers speak English. But it’ll be one of your visit’s most memorable meals.

M On The Bund is a Deco-era gem on the historic riverside Bund promenade where you can tap into the romanticized Shanghai of the 1920’s over excellent European and North African specialties. Fantastic views across the Huangpu River and of neighboring buildings with swirling Deco adornments.

Haute Japanese is on the menu at the Shanghai outpost of Tokyo’s famed Nadaman. A striking minimalist decor of granite, natural woods and modernist lanterns set the backdrop for impeccable fare served by kimono-clad staff. The traditional kaiseki meals are especially memorable.

After dinner, hit Bar Rouge, another Bund spot that evokes retro Shanghai — albeit with decidedly modern twists: recessed red lights, sleek surfaces and a party-ready crowd of expats and locals. The scene’s pretty high-octane, but for a true Shanghai experience, head out to the expansive open-air patio and take in the glittering lights of the city and river below.

While Bar Rouge is predominately peopled by expats, the two-story JZ Club is where a bohemian, mostly local bunch sips moderately-priced cocktails and takes in live jazz. A neighborhood vibe predominates, fusing boho-chic with neighborhood-bar ambiance. Weekends are popular; go early to get a good seat (especially the cozy tables upstairs).

Now for shopping. Though America created consumerism, China plays the game as well or better — and always more cheaply. To not shop here would be like missing Paris’ Louvre or a Hawaii sunset. While the quality (and prices) of housewares, silk-lined jackets, leather furnishings and other merch at sleek boutique Shanghai Tang of match New York’s or London’s, at the “South Bund Soft Spinning Fabric Market” south of Old Shanghai, they’re as wide as the China/U.S. trade deficit. For the savvy, it’s a shopping nirvana where you can score $100 custom-made wool suits and $70 tailored silk cheongsams. With hundreds of stalls, the four-floor complex can be daunting, so stick to the first two, which have the best outlets. (Tip: local hotels like the Pudong Shangri-La can arrange for a tailor to escort you, negotiate the best deal, then tailor your design. In my case, I spotted a mandarin-style leather jacket in Shanghai Tang for US$1,000. I later described it to a shop owner and tailor in the Fabric Market who had it ready for me the next day, perfectly executed, for all of 1,000 RMB — about US$130).

In contrast to the concrete, steel and glass of most of the city, the historic French Concession, the 19th-century French merchant quarter, is an inviting respite. Among tree-lined streets and Continental-style brick-and-stone manses, shops both quirky and trendy purvey everything from hip fashion to vintage Mao-mentos. Fashionistas should check out eno on Changle Lu with its designs by young locals, while Madame Mao’s Dowry is filled with wry riffs on Mao gear and propaganda. (Note: while bartering is expected at the Fabric Market, most of these shops are no-haggle zones.)

Final note: love ‘em or hate ‘em, counterfeit goods are a reality; you can’t avoid ’em. More than a few expats and visitors were spotted recently at the A.P Shopping Center (aka the “Fake Market”) near the Shanghai Science Museum, where copies of name-brand bags, watches and luggage are on display, and Da Gu Lu (aka “DVD Street”), where knockoffs of every category are sold at dirt-cheap prices.

More info: Meet-in-Shanghai.net.

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