Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Exploring (page 1 of 3)

Hong Kong with Kids Day 2: Lamma Island Adventure

Making plans based on an air quality forecast was a first for me. Living where we do, I take clean air for granted. But you really need to pay attention here in Hong Kong. I figured since we’d be walking quite a bit, heading out early before the worst of the air arrived in the afternoon was probably prudent. This meant I roused two grumpy kids at 6:00. Their unhappiness was gone by the time we headed to breakfast, and we were headed for the ferry terminal before 7:30.

Along the way we passed by a building undergoing renovation. Or something. I wouldn’t have really noticed, except that the scaffolding along the exterior was built entirely of bamboo. Now, I know the stuff is tough. But I’m not sure I’d be willing to climb out onto it ten stories above the ground. The whole structure is insane.

I was still in shock as we headed to the Star Ferry terminal again to cross over to Central. If you remember from our first day’s adventures (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak), this crossing costs like 80 cents for myself and two kids. It’s pretty much the best deal for entertainment in all of Hong Kong.

A window seat view is a must. The kids ran to the front of the ferry every time and each claimed a window to enjoy the view of the city.

Ferry to Lamma Island

The ferry between Kowloon and Central requires you to buy a token. I figured it would be the same system for the ferry to Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. Nope. The turnstile here requires exact fare for passengers to be deposited directly into it. I had a bunch of coins, but even all added together, it wasn’t enough for the three of us. I’d have to find some way to exchange it. 

A kind lady directed me to a ticket window where we exchanged $50 HKD for change to put into the machine. She then placed the fare in herself. Helping helpless tourists is probably a routine part of her job description for Star Ferry employees. I was super grateful. We were maybe 10 minutes from ferry departure, and I had gotten anxious when I realized we wouldn’t just breeze through.

The ferry to Yung Shue Wan arrived at the pier about 8 minutes later, and we were soon on board. The kids wanted to stand outside, which was entirely fine by me. It was a beautiful day. 

The ferry ride was lovely. Even with the fairly polluted morning air, the breeze was worth it. We passed along Hong Kong island, circling around until we were eventually headed south toward Lamma Island. Along the way we passed a giant cargo ship. 

The ride lasted maybe half an hour. We disembarked at the Yung Shue Wan terminal and walked into the small town by the same name.

While Lamma Island is still part of Hong Kong, it is an entirely different world than the bustling city we’d just left behind. I’m sure some of those in this quiet community commute to Hong Kong each day for work, yet have the good fortune to come home to this sanctuary every day. Lamma Island is a haven of artists and hippies, those looking to trade the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for a more laid back pace of life. It was quite interesting to spy cafes touting raw, vegan, and organic foods along the narrow streets. The kids loved the tanks of live seafood at a couple vendors.

Yung Shue Wan is the largest town on the entire island, and ferry service is very regular. Even if you don’t want trek across the entire island like we did, hopping on the ferry from Central to Yung Shue Wan is easy and convenient, and there is enough to do on the northwestern end of the island to keep you occupied for at least half a day.

The kids wanted to play on the beach, but I told them we’d come across some nicer ones along our walk. I figured that the one near the end, Lo So Shing, was going to be the real winner of the bunch. 

The cove itself at Yung Shue Wan is picturesque. The one unfortunate blot on Lamma Island is the fact that it contains a power plant, the stacks of which are visible over the hill to the left. I guess Hong Kong needed to place it somewhere, and the outlying islands makes sense, at least from the perspective of the millions of people in the city who don’t want to see it. It is a real bummer to see it on an otherwise gorgeous island.

First stop, Hung Shing Ye

Leaving the main villages near the cove, we started on the trail toward Sok Kwu Wan. I’ll venture to say that the kids were oddly more interested in the small villages on Lamma Island as we meandered through them than they were of the skyscraper-lined streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong. We didn’t reach this awesome sign until the middle of the hike, but this will give you an idea of the walk we did. The ferry we arrived on dropped us at the northwestern end, and we proceeded to follow the brown line to the other ferry terminal near the middle of the island, with one detour.

After just a few hundred yards we started to leave the apartment buildings behind, now walking through the forest, interspersed by poorer, more ramshackle dwellings here and there. Definitely a different world than the gleaming skyscrapers a short ferry ride away. 

It didn’t take long for us to come upon the first beach at Hung Shing Ye. Not only was it kept up much more nicely than I anticipated, it was wonderfully quiet on this sunny weekday morning. I let the kids play for most of an hour. I hadn’t planned on necessarily stopping at this beach for this length of time, given the proximity to the Lamma Island Power Station. But they were loving it. 

The problem with kids is that they don’t want to move on when they start really enjoying something. Both of them were happily building a sand fort to guard against the gentle surf and didn’t want to abandon their project. I eventually had to coax them away with promises of a second beach we could enjoy even longer. 

Middle of Lamma Island

The next part of the hike has very little cover or shade. By this time is was approaching 80 degrees and also humid, not the most comfortable for hiking. The complaints started in earnest along this section, as the path began to meander up and down. Every once in a while we’d find a patch of trees and take a break. 

lamma island trail

The next stop for us was a rain shelter about a third of the way to the next beach. There is also a lookout pavilion, but it is 150 meters off the trail. Eventually we broke out to the other side of the island with a view of Sok Kwu Wan and a departing ferry below. Hong Kong island was barely visible through the haze in the distance. 

The path forks at Lo So Shing Village, where you can choose to either head to the Sok Kwu Wan and the fish farming villages, or to Lo So Shing beach like we did. The beach isn’t far down a narrow path through the forest. 

Lo So Shing, the second beach

We made it to Lo So Shing beach around 11:30, giving the kids at least an hour to play in the sand and surf. We still had another quick stop ahead, as well as lunch, but we were keeping to the schedule I’d penciled out for a departure on the 2:35 p.m. ferry. 

Lo So Shing Beach was small, but nice, and just as quiet as Hung Shing Ye Beach. I’m sure it’s a far more popular place in the summer. There is a nice shaded area with benches, letting me watch the kids while still relaxing after our hike. There are both bathroom facilities and a refreshment kiosk available (apparently closed in winter), if needed. 

The kids enjoyed building castles and playing in the water, which was surprisingly clear. I guess I figured that murky air would translate to murky ocean water, but that certainly wasn’t the case, at least not at this location. If we all had our bathing suits, it would have been perfectly suitable to swim, although there were signs posted saying not to swim, due to lack of a lifeguard. Lifeguards are present during the summer months. 

Two sad faces stared at me when it was finally time to move on. But we had a schedule to keep. I didn’t want to miss the ferry and have to wait another 90 minutes for the next one. 

Final stretch to Sok Kwu Wan. And Lunch.

Our next stop was the Kamikaze Caves. This might sound a bit intimidating, but they are literally just holes carved in the rock face where Japanese soldiers were to conceal speedboats loaded with explosives for use against Allied shipping late in World War II. The caves were never used for their intended purpose. 

From there we wound around to Sok Kwu Wan, where lunch awaited us at a small seafood restaurant along the cove. We stopped at the first place we found, Rainbow Seafood Restaurant, which was probably a mistake. I knew we’d be paying a bit more for lunch, but I didn’t expect it to set us back $50 USD for three dishes, two of which weren’t even seafood. The lemon chicken was excellent, though. We certainly could have eaten well for less than half of that cost back in Hong Kong itself. But when you’re on an island with a handful of restaurant options catering to tourists, there isn’t much else you can do. 

We finished up with just a few minutes to spare before we had to catch our ferry. It was arriving as we walked up the the queue at the dock. Turns out the 2:30 departure is quite popular, which makes sense, given it gets you back to Hong Kong with enough time to still enjoy part of the afternoon. 

This unfortunately meant we didn’t score al fresco window seats on the ferry back from Sok Kwu Wan like we had on our first ferry ride. After departure, I finally had the gumption to jump in the one unoccupied seat near the window between two other people for a few minutes to snap some photos. It totally makes sense that these seats are the best in the house. The view of the high-rises heading back into Central is spectacular. The Hong Kong skyline might be the finest I’ve ever seen. 

Wrapping up our day

We disembarked at Pier 6 and made our way over to the ferry back to Kowloon. One more ride across the water and two stops on the metro and we’d be back at the hotel for the evening. But first we had to stop and try the purple potato soft serve I’d been eyeing since our first ferry ride. 

It…tasted like sweet potato. The kids weren’t so keen on trying it, but it was a two for one special and they ended up liking it. So guess who gave up his ice cream.

Back at our hotel for the evening, the kids got in an hour of schoolwork. Trying to keep up while traveling is a bit tough, but we were managing. We’d also have additional time at the airport the next evening. 

Dinner was KFC and McDonalds eaten in-room. I’d obviously prefer something authentic, but if pressed for time with two rather unadventurous kids (when it comes to food), we had to stay close to our American roots. But foreign fast food comes with its own opportunity to stray from the mundane. McDonalds Hong Kong was offering a “bolognese and fried egg angus burger”, which sounded so utterly disgusting, I just had to try it. The concoction wasn’t quite as terrible as I expected. 

The evening was a bit special for me, however. I left the kids snoozing in the hotel room and headed downstairs to meet Jason Francisco, a fellow contributor to Points with a Crew, and another dad who has his own travel blog (SEE: Daddy Travels Now).

We chatted it up for a couple hours, some things related to life and kids but most of all travel. It was awesome to have someone else with whom to discuss both the love of travel and the usefulness of miles and points to make so much happen. When 10:00 p.m. rolled around, I had to call it a night, our last official night in Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak

After our long travel day and later evening than normal, I let the kids sleep in. It was nearly 8:00 when I finally roused them, which meant we didn’t wrap up breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn until 9:30. But they needed the rest. 

Our Hong Kong adventures began with a subway ride from Mongkok to Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s only a couple stops, but it is better than hoofing it the whole way to the water. There is still a good amount of walking involved to and from the subway stations. Well…a good amount in the kids opinion. I told them this was hardly anything. 

Mongkok is a fascinating neighborhood. The sounds, smells and bustle make it one of my favorite places. It is a dense residential neighborhood, with a strip of brand-name retail and restaurant along Nathan Road, flanked by shops and stalls selling anything and everything imaginable along the side streets. I was unsure of staying here, but now I would actually recommend it.

Signal hill and tower

Before heading across the bay to Hong Kong itself, I wanted to make a brief stop at a small park in Kowloon. I figured it’d give us a good view of the city across the water. It didn’t have *quite* the view I hoped for, but we did get our first glimpse of Hong Kong Island from here. Visibility wasn’t great, but it honestly wasn’t bad given China’s notoriously bad air quality.

Signal Hill Park is barely a block from the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui, which would have been in the running for our hotel stay has I had enough Hyatt points at the time. You can see it towering in the background, the taller of the two buildings. I love tall hotels, and China is full of them. In the foreground you can see the Signal Hill Tower.

The tower in Signal Hill Park is pretty cool. It has a very narrow spiral staircase that takes you up two more levels.

The view really isn’t any better since you’re not right on the edge of the hill, but we enjoyed exploring.

Harbour view of Hong Kong 

From Signal Hill we made our way down to the water. We walked along the edge of the bay, enjoying the view of the skyscrapers along the shore of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak towering over them. I was struck by the sheer uniqueness of the city. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like Hong Kong. The mix of east and west, new and old, greenery and concrete is fascinating.

The weather was fantastic. Unlike Beijing, which was in the 40-50s most of the days we were there, Hong Kong was an utterly perfect 70-75 degrees for most of our visit. The kids enjoyed finally being able to wander around in shorts.

Taking the classic ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Central is a must, and it was next on the itinerary. It is also very affordable at $5.90 HKD (~80 U.S. cents) for all of us.

The view of Hong Kong is arguably the best from the water. You can definitely argue that it is fantastic from Victoria Peak as well, but that gives you more of an overview. From the channel, you get a view of both Kowloon and Hong Kong up close and personal.

Heading up the hill

From the central ferry terminal we slowly meandered in the direction of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. These were our first minutes in Hong Kong proper. Hong Kong is now more than just Hong Kong Island, which is differentiated from Kowloon, the mainland peninsula where we were staying. The city is like the Asian version of New York, at least on the surface.

I made sure our trek included ascending the longest outdoor escalator that takes you from Central to the Mid-Levels. It was an enjoyable ride as we slowly climbed to the towering residential skyscrapers of the mid-levels. Hong Kong Island rises sharply from its shore, leaving only a relatively narrow flat strip down by the water. The “mid-levels” are the next neighborhood uphill of “downtown” Hong Kong, known as Central. 

We rounded a corner after getting off the escalator, and suddenly found ourselves in an enclosed courtyard. It turns out the area used to be the location of the central magistrate, and possibly the jail as well. Now one of the buildings is an arts and heritage center. As we made our way through, we came across a simple amphitheater. A band was playing live music, so we stopped and watched for a bit.

Continuing up the hill, there was no shortage of tall apartment buildings. Hong Kong holds the record for the most skyscrapers over 150 meters, with a whopping 80 more than New York City, which is in second place.

We eventually arrived at the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The gardens are free and a perfect spot to burn an hour with kids. They have quite a few monkey exhibits, as well as some lemurs, tortoises, and a few other species.

We were getting hungry by this point, and exiting the gardens to the uphill side left us without dining options. We made our way along through a web of roads, eventually back down to one of the tram stations for Victoria Peak. Along the way we were treated to more great views of the city around us. 

Still without a cafe to stop at, and the time marching ever onward, I found that the only way lunch was going to happen quickly was by heading down the hill. We entered an office building that promised a food court. It didn’t disappoint. Lunch may have been over twice what we would have spent in Beijing, but the food was honestly delicious at a small place called Simplylife. I’d been hoping for something more authentic, but we were behind schedule and I took the closest thing we could find. 

Our stomachs satiated, we made our way to the Victoria Peak tram.

The best view in Hong Kong

The line was bad. I hate lines, so a wait of 20+ minutes wasn’t welcomed. But I’m sure it gets way worse at other times. We slowly shuffled through the queue until it was our turn to board the tram up the mountain. 

The Victoria Peak tram is an excellent way to get to the top. We bought combo tickets for the tram round-trip plus access to the viewing deck, which set us back nearly $30 USD. But I wanted the full experience. 

The tram was a bit reminiscent of the incline railway at the Blue Mountains in Australia, but with a little more sightseeing and less excitement. 

The viewing deck at the top was awesome. You have to scale multiple levels of escalators to the top and dodge a plethora of overpriced retail shops, but once you do, you’re in for a treat. The view is excellent. 

With the mediocre air quality and general haze over Hong Kong, it obviously isn’t the best you can get the day we were there. But we still had a very nice view of the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and all the skyscrapers lining both.

We decided to take a short walk along the old road around the top of the Peak. If you have the time, you could do the whole circuit. It’d be exquisite on a clear day. You can look back and see the whole structure of the viewing deck, including the numerous escalators inside. Further along, there are points from which you can get a great view of the Hong Kong side.

Wrapping up our first day

I decided we better turn back around 4:30. We had to make our way to the tram station, take it to the bottom, walk to the metro station, take the metro, and grab dinner on the walk back to our hotel. The kids had also skipped showers the night before, so I had to factor that in as well. I’d be lucky to get them to bed by 8:00. 

On our way to the Admiralty metro station we wandered through Hong Kong Park. With fish ponds, a waterfall, and fun fountains, it is a great little green space within the city.

Half an hour later we finally popped up in Kowloon once again, headed for McDonalds. I figured we’d better play it safe, given we were pressed for time. Not to mention it is always interesting to see what is offered at McDonalds in a foreign country. I think the bolognese burger with an egg wins “most odd menu item”. 

The kids still managed to hit the hay at 8:00. Not sure how we accomplished that. It was a full and fun first day in Hong Kong.

5 Days in Beijing: Day 5 – Beihai Park and Almost Losing a Child

Morning came early as usual during this trip. Maybe we’ll be adjusted to China time just when it’s time to head back to California. I was a bit less tired when 8:00 p.m. rolled around the evening before, so maybe we’re almost there. The kids did sleep solidly until 7:00 a.m.

Breakfast was the usual affair in the club lounge on the 17th floor of the Renaissance (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). The spread and service have been excellent every day. This is shaping up to be one of the best hotel stays to date, mainly because of the perks we’ve enjoyed due to earning Marriott Platinum Premier status earlier this year (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

After breakfast we video chatted with mom and our youngest who have been enjoying themselves back at home.

Wangfujing snack street

Even though we’d been staying in a central Beijing hotel, we hadn’t really wandered the surrounding streets. One of the places I’d been pointed toward is the Wangfujing pedestrian street, about a third of a mile south of our hotel. This was our first stop for the day.

Wangfujing is a very walkable area, although very little in Beijing is a quick stroll away. The city is vast and sprawling. Even just walking from the south end of Tiananmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City takes longer than you’d expect.

We passed many of the typical high-end retail stores you can find in the central district of good number of cities. But that was not why we were here. If I wanted a BVLGARI purse, I would have bought it in Milan a couple years ago.

About halfway to the snack street we passed by an old church, which was extremely unexpected. The current structure is the third (I think) iteration of the Catholic church that has stood on this spot since 1655. Catholic mass happens daily, with additional services on Sunday. Given the current climate of Christian persecution in China, it surprises me that the church is even operating. I highly doubt that it is true to the gospel.

We took a peek inside and then continued on our way to the snack street. It did not disappoint. The kids couldn’t decide if the wriggling scorpions on a stick were utterly cool or totally gross. We decided to pass up the opportunity to ingest any of this “delicacy”.

Wandering into some souvenir shops, we perused the cheap knockoff goods. Some items had a trademark or copyright logo clearly displayed, should you question its authenticity. I somehow don’t think Disney would license these cheap plastic figures to be sold in Beijing for $2 apiece.

Curiosity satisfied after browsing the shops for half an hour, we headed back to Wangfujing Street and our next destination.

Beihai Park

This 1,000-year-old Imperial park was next on the list for our final day in Beijing. We took the bus, the first time we’ve braved one in the Chinese capital. Thank goodness for Google maps and bus signs that have Arabic numerals on them. I’d plotted the bus route in Google Maps to Beihai Park before we left the hotel and took some screenshots. Our 15-minute ride went without a hitch.

The bus made the most sense in this case as it was much faster. The fastest subway route would have been a mere four stops *but* required two transfers. The Beijing subway system is efficient for many routes, especially if you are going a longer distance, but it is often extremely inefficient for short distance travel. Constructed in a loop and grid fashion, it makes great sense for a city as large as Beijing. But it means that almost every trip you take will require 1-2 transfers, which are never quick.

We arrived in Beihai Park around 10:30, a bit later than I’d anticipated. We got “through tickets” for just 30 yuan (~$4.40) for all three of us.

Beihai Park is quite lovely, even during the fall when many of the trees have already lost their leaves. The willows lining the lake were quite beautiful. I’ve been impressed with Beijing’s parks in general. All have been very nice green spaces. It would be nice to visit again in late spring and see them in the height of their greenery. There were some flower displays to make up for the lack of color in the rest of the park.

I was a bit bummed that the Circular City was closed. I’d hoped to see this section of the park near where we entered. We instead began the climb up the hill to the white Dagoba (Tibetan Buddhist stupa) at the top of Qionghua islet.

I would be lying if reading “Dagoba” didn’t immediately make me think of Star Wars and Dagobah, the swamp planet Luke crash lands on when he is searching for Yoda. I know that George Lucas drew on eastern religions for his movies. I just didn’t know it was this blatant. The top of the hill provided us with a nice view of the rest of the lake.

The kids asked if we could rent a boat like we had at Chaoyang Park a few days prior (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital), seeing so many out on the lake. I thought it was a fine idea. We made our way down and over the bridge out to the boat rental.

An hour on the water in a pedal boat only costs 60 yuan (~$8.75). I’ve been thrilled overall with how inexpensive China is. I’ll remind myself of that when planning other international vacations. When we visited Paris and Luxembourg in the spring, I had to be careful not to break the bank on just food each day.

The kids and I had fun powering ourselves around the lake. Pedal-power was an entirely different experience than our excursion on a boat with a small motor a few days before. Remind me to start biking. It is exhausting. But it was still fun. We spent most of an hour enjoying the lake.

By the time we were done, it was time for lunch. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place back toward Shichahai, where we’d had lunch during our day wandering the hutongs (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). At $18 for the three of us, it was by far our most expensive lunch.

The kids tried duck for the fist time. They weren’t fans. My daughter, who primarily wanted to try it, was grossed out. the duck was served head and all, cut in half and sliced on a platter. I’m going to pack on the pounds eating all the food they don’t finish.

Nanluoguxiang a second time

Since we were once again near this foremost of the Beijing hutongs, a second walk through Nanluoguxiang was a must. The kids had enjoyed it immensely the first time. We picked up some more cheese bread (honestly not sure what it is, but it tastes amazing) at the same shop and sat on some steps to people watch.

Or be watched as the case may be. Apparently while I was taking the photo above, a Chinese lady stepped behind me and snapped a photo of my kids. They told me after what had happened. I’m left wondering if they were the novelty, or whether it was the fact we were sitting on some stone steps when literally everyone else was standing (maybe install some benches?).

The kids remarked a number of times that the Chinese gave them funny looks. We are definitely not the only tourists in Beijing, but it may be the combination of a white guy with two darker kids that makes us stand out a bit. Or maybe it is just the fact that they are foreign kids. I’ve seen very few others.

The kids have been a bit sensitive to this issue, my daughter especially. She must have a keen eye for it since I only noticed people staring at us a couple times.

Our delicious snack finished, we wandered back south through the Nanluoguxiang hutong until we arrived back at the metro station. Tip: visit on a weekday in the late morning like we did originally. The Saturday throng was a whole lot less pleasant.

Our scary moment: almost losing a child

We headed down to the metro at Nanluoguxiang, something that was routine for us in Beijing. We’d ridden it nearly every day in Beijing, and the kids knew the  drill. We bought tickets, headed through security, and then trotted down the steps to the platform.

The train we needed was waiting on the platform, and the bell hadn’t sounded yet for the doors to close. My son asked if this was our train, and I told him yes. Just as he ran into the car ahead of me, the bell sounded and the doors started to close. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, especially with my daughter a couple feet behind me. The doors slid shut. My son’s face was complete panic. Mine must have looked the same to him.

Now if I had more than a few fractions of a second to think, I would have realized that leaving a child alone on the subway platform would be preferable to leaving a child alone on the subway train. Diving through the rapidly closing doors would have been the best choice. As long as my daughter knew to stay put, we would come back to fetch her as fast ass we could.

A child alone on the subway is a more difficult problem. And I knew in that moment that we should have discussed a contingency plan for this situation. I tried to yell through the double doors for him to get off at the next stop. We would be on the train behind him and would meet him there. I couldn’t tell if he understood, but the subway would be underway momentarily. He had to understand.

To my surprise, the doors suddenly opened again. We quickly entered the car and were all reunited! I was so incredibly thankful that someone must have been watching the whole situation and realized we’d been split up.

I previously remember seeing an attendant at some Beijing subway stations standing on a small, raised platform. It seemed odd to me that this was a job (I’d heard of subway pushers for when crowds are thick), but a platform observer seemed strange to me. Now I am extremely thankful someone was there to watch passengers entering and exiting the subway.

The kids and I had an immediate talk of what to do in the situation we just experienced, had my son actually been whisked away. The plan consists of two simple rules: if you end up on the subway without dad, get off at the next stop and wait for me to find you. If you end up loeft on the platform while dad leaves on the train, simply wait there for me to find you. This will go into the safety discussion I have with the kids each time we travel.

Crisis averted, we stepped off the metro just a few stops down the line.

Lama Temple and a Cat Cafe

I’d identified the Wudaoying hutong as an interesting place for another stroll. The hutong offers an eclectic mix of shops and cafés, including a cat cafe. If you’re wondering what a cat café, don’t worry. They don’t cook and serve cats. Cat cafés are typically a coffee or tea shop where patrons share the space with cats who are free to roam and interact with guests. I thought the kids would love it.

But we ran into an issue in Wudaoying: I couldn’t identify the cat café. I’d failed to get an exact name or address, thinking that it would be easy enough to identify along the alley as we walked. After poking our faces into the windows of a few promising shops, I started to wonder if our search might be in vain. We eventually exited the hutong after a quarter mile, thwarted in our search for a cup of coffee with cats. The kids will have to wait for that experience.

However, we were now just a couple hundred meters from the Lama Temple, which was our final destination for the day.

The Lama Temple, or, more properly, the Yonghe Temple, is a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally constructed around 1700 as an imperial residence, the Lama Temple was converted into a monastery about 40 years later. It is unique in that it is not only a functioning monastery, but also open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Although visiting Beijing in the fall has had its downsides, an upside was certainly walking the tree-lined path from the temple entrance to the first gate. The trees were a beautiful gold color, and unlike other places in Beijing that are efficiently cleaned, a layer of fallen foliage was left to line the path. It is beautiful!

The temple itself is impressive, although possibly less so to us than it could have been, given that we’d visited the Forbidden City the previous day (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City). Many visitors were burning incense in the first courtyard. The kids asked some questions about what people were doing and I tried my best to field answers. I’m quite unfamiliar with Buddhism. Our discussion mainly centered around respecting their culture and religion and how ours differ from theirs.

We visited a few couple other sections of the temple, but didn’t stay especially long. Since it is an active Buddhist monastery, I felt like we were intruding more than anything. Our visit lasted maybe a half hour before we hopped back on the subway toward our hotel.

Ending the day with school

On previous days I would not have attempted school with the kids in the evening, given everyone’s exhaustion level. But the night before was the first one during which they were at least a bit more perky. They still went to bed at 7:45 p.m. without a fuss, but it wasn’t the voluntary crawl under the covers like the other nights.

School away from home has been working well enough. Luckily, the internet speed at the Renaissance is good and we are able to stream my daughter’s lessons. This probably would not have been possible at the Hilton, our first hotel (SEE: Hilton Beijing Review). Dinner in the lounge followed by an hour of lessons it was.

This brought our Beijing sightseeing to a close. It’d been a fun several days, and a great introduction to China. But Hong Kong awaits!

Our Whirlwind 44 Hours in Luxembourg

After three days in the City of Lights (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3), we hopped on a train across the French hills to the tiny country of Luxembourg. I’d wanted to add a second destination to our trip, and it made sense, given that Paris is just a few hours away. Alternatively, we could have done another location in France, or possibly Belgium. But given the brevity of the trip, Luxembourg made the most sense.

I also have a fascination with tiny countries. When my wife and I toured southern France, Italy and Ireland in 2016, we also spent a couple nights in the tiny country of San Marino. Landlocked within Italy, it is a city-state with a fascinating history (SEE: 5 Reasons to Visit San Marino). We also visited Monaco on that trip, another tiny country (SEE: Hiking Monaco to La Turbie). Luxembourg was a good fit, and totally doable in a day and a half.

Hotel on a hill

We arrived in The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (as it is officially known) in the late afternoon at the main train station. I’d asked the hotel if they have a shuttle that would be able to pick us up. Unfortunately, they don’t , but the staff member who responded to me gave me instructions on how to get there by bus. Turned out to be super easy. We had to make one transfer at the Badanstalt stop.

We were staying at the DoubleTree, which is located outside the central part of town (SEE: DoubleTree Luxembourg Review). The bus didn’t run all the way to the hotel, so we did have to walk a few hundred yards up the hill.

The kids were fairly tired by this point in the trip. We’d spent three days seeing Paris, plus another couple hours in Luxembourg Gardens that morning before heading off to the train station. Our evening would best be spent in the pool, which was fine by them. We also made a couple calls back home, one to mom and their brother, and one to my daughter’s friend.

The one downside of not venturing out was that we had to eat in the hotel, which ended up being stupidly expensive. Not to mention the food was sub-par. But everything got better from there.

An enchanting morning

I’d told the kids the night before that I’d probably be up early to take a walk. They both said they wanted to go, but I knew that 6:00 a.m. was going to come too soon for them. Plus, I did want them to sleep in a bit and get a good night’s rest. I’m sure I could slip out and in before they even woke up.

The next morning was lovely. I left the kids sleeping peacefully in the hotel room and started down the hill. I traced the route the bus had taken from the City center, only departing once I got down near the creek in the bottom of the valley.

There was a light fog over the landscape. This, plus the utter quiet, made it a perfect morning indeed.

I wound my way through the trees along a creek that I could hear but really couldn’t see until I passed through the old city wall and came to some homes along the canal in the valley.

I also passed under the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, also simply called the “red bridge”. It was far above, barely visible through the fog. The bridge connects the old upper part of the city with the new section, called Kirchberg. This section of the city is notable for containing multiple European Union institutions.

Further along, I came across an elevator that takes you from the bottom of the valley up to the old city. The topography of Luxembourg makes for some wonderful views, but it can make foot travel a bit challenging in places.

I’d not known there was an elevator at this point, but it was more than welcome. I’d been expecting to have to slowly wind my way out of the valley and up to the old city once I discovered a route. This made things far, far easier. It was just a couple more minutes before I strolled past the Badanstalt bus stop where we’d transferred the day before and made my way into the old city.

The old city wasn’t awake yet when I arrived. I spent some time wandering the streets, enjoying the shops beginning to open at the Places d’Armes and the view across the steep valley to the south.

There is a sign on the cultural center (formerly a palace and government building) that commemorates when Allied troops liberated Luxembourg during the Second World War.

Walking back past the cathedral. I grabbed a coffee at one of the only open cafés. It surprised me that the city was so sleepy, but I guess it was a weekend.

I knew it’d be a hike to get to the old city,  but I’d made good time. But taking the bus back made a whole lot more sense than walking. Luckily, the system is super easy to navigate. I ended up jumping on the first bus that would get me close, rather than waiting another 20 minutes for the one that could take me to Rue Jean Engling near the hotel.

I arrived a little over an hour after I’d left. The kids were right where I’d left them, snoozing peacefully. I’d given them clear instructions the night before on what to do if they woke up to me gone (get dressed for the day, don’t answer the door). Turns out those weren’t even needed. So much for getting up early with dad to take a walk! We’d do enough walking that day, so it was definitely better that they’d not been up and out at dawn.  😉

Old Luxembourg

After a nice (and free) breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to enjoy our one full day in Luxembourg. The Old City is the main area of interest, and that is the first place we headed. It was now mid-morning, and the town was a whole lot more alive than when I’d been there earlier. The kids were feeling alive, too, and wanted to play at the…uh…playground. I actually wouldn’t call it that, but other kids were climbing the poles, and, hey, they wanted to join in.

We wandered the streets for a little bit, visiting the Place d’Armes and cathedral first. Luxembourg Cathedral isn’t quite as impressive as others in Europe that I’ve seen, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

The town was waking up a bit more now. People were enjoying breakfast at many of the cafés. It was a very lovely morning. We wandered to the south edge of the town with a view of the Pont Adolphe, eventually making our way to the Luxembourg City Museum, the first real stop on our itinerary that day.

Luxembourg City Museum

I highly recommend the Luxembourg City Museum. The museum costs only €5 and is free for kids. The city-state has a fascinating history, and the museum will give you  great taste of it. The exhibits take you from the founding of the city on its rocky outcropping through to its place in modern Europe.

My daughter happened to meet a young lady busily spinning wool on a spinning wheel in one corner of the museum. They struck up a conversation while my son and I wandered the two rooms nearby. She then protested when we were going to move on. Long story short, I let her hang out with her newfound friend, and she chatted her ear off the entire time. The lady was a Luxembourger-American who had decided to relocate back to the land of her father after growing up in Seattle.

My son and I enjoyed the rest of the museum, moving slowly through the exhibits from floor to floor. The early section has some cool models showing the expansion of the city through the years.

The massive elevator that takes you between floors was a highlight as well. I’ve never seen one so large. They obviously custom-designed it to fill the space.

Near the end, there was a modern model of Luxembourg City. It was very neat to see where we’d already been. I pointed out a few places we’d be headed the during the rest of our visit.

We spent about 1.5 hours at the museum, although you could probably spend more. It’s not all that large, but there is still a good amount to see and read. Our visit concluded, my son and I returned to the first floor to fetch my daughter, who was still happily chatting with her yarn-spinning friend.

The Grund

Exiting the museum, we slowly made our way down to the Grund, the lower section of Luxembourg City along the river. This involved walking a lovely narrow street down toward the casemates. Along the way are some of the best views of the entire city. You can see part of the upper city in the left background, the Grund in the middle foreground down below, and the modern tall buildings in the distance located in Kirchberg.

We arrived at the casemates, a complex of tunnels used a bomb shelters during World War II. You can tour them for a fee, but I decided to pass up this attraction. My son found a piano and decided to give Silent Night (the one song he knows) a go. I did not expect this, given the public setting!

Continuing downward toward the river, we eventually found ourselves winding back to the middle of the Grund, which was directly below us when we started. Even though we could see exactly where we were headed, we probably walked at least three times the distance to get there. I should have paid more attention to the bus schedule, especially considering how reliable the service is and that the kids are free! At least taking the path meant the kids got to stop for a bit and play in the creek.

There was a small open air event going on at the bridge. We bought crepes for lunch from one of the stalls and hung out by the river for a bit. I thought the kids would enjoy a Nutella crepe, but it turns out that combination wasn’t received well. We hung out for a while with the people and vendors, eventually meandering to the other side of the river and waiting at a bus stop to head back to the middle of Luxembourg City. We took a brief joyride on one of the buses to see a bit more of the city before returning to the hotel for the evening.

But wait, there’s day two!

Our full day exploring Luxembourg City may have been over, but we still had a bit of adventure left before we needed to head back to the airport. Day two began with a lazy morning, as we’d done so much walking the day before. After another great (free) breakfast at the hotel restaurant we moseyed on down to the bus stop, just in time to catch the bus to the city center again. But today we caught a different line at Badanstalt this time, however, one that headed out to the edge of town. The point of interest? The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial.

There are a number of U.S. cemeteries scattered across Europe in which soldiers from both world wars are buried. I figured we should visit the one in Luxembourg, given that we were so close. The cemetery is a 15 minute walk from the last bus stop, down a quiet road. It is in the flight path of the Luxembourg airport, so we got to do some plane spotting on our way there and then on the way back again.

Because our kids are from Costa Rica, they are almost completely unfamiliar with American history, especially history as it relates to the world wars of the twentieth century. I relayed what I could regarding World War II to both of them as we made our way to the front gate of the cemetery.

Overcome by reverence

I knew the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial would command a great respect, but I was not anticipating the level of emotion that I experienced when we walked through the gate.

The cemetery is perfectly maintained. There is a memorial chapel in the middle of the stone terrace. Flanking it on either side are two displays of the names of soldiers who were missing in action during the Second World War along with engravings of military operations.

Many of the soldiers buried at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial were killed in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, late in the war. It occurred very close to Luxembourg. Down the hillside are row upon row of wooden crosses and Jewish stars for each solider.

At the very top of the hill, closest to the terrace and separate from the other graves is the grave of General George Patton who tragically died just months after the conclusion of the war.

I would highly recommend a visit to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial if you are an American visiting this tiny country.

Off to CDG!

The hours passed by so quickly. I felt like we’d barely arrived in Luxembourg, even though we’d spend a solid day and a half exploring. We made a final stop at the Palace of the Grand Duke. They have a guard outside who parades back and forth and switches off with the one in the booth.

We also had a photo op with Grand Duchess Charlotte. She was the monarch of Luxembourg during the Second World War, but abdicated in 1965 and was succeeded by her son. The “red bridge” mentioned earlier is named in honor of her.

All too soon we had to head back to the hotel, fetch our bags, and return to the train station. The rest of the day was spent making our way back to Charles de Gaulle airport for our flight back to the U.S. the following morning (SEE: Air France A380 economy review: Paris to San Francisco).

I’d say things went smoothly, but I’d be lying. We had a little incident where I got lost in Metz in our rental car. But that is a story for a different day. Our final night was at the Holiday Inn Express Charles de Gaulle (SEE: Paris Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport Review), which ended up being a great airport hotel pick.

3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City

After dragging ourselves through the exhaustion of our first day in the City of Light (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag), followed by a very full day of seeing the main sights (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 2 – Hitting the Highlights), some extra sleep was called for to start off our third day.

Once the kids were up and ready, we had breakfast at Aux Péchés Normands for the third time. It was already becoming tradition. The little bakery is a two minute walk from our hotel and offers great pastries, plus fresh coffee and juice. Fueled for the morning, we headed back toward where we’d began our adventures two days ago.

Notre Dame de nouveau

Notre Dame cathedral was both the first and last stop on our first day in the city. We’d enjoyed the view of the famous church from the square in front, returning later to enjoy the view from the towers.

But we’d missed one important piece: seeing the inside of the cathedral. This was what we intended to rectify today.

We arrived at Place Jean-Paul II to what seemed like an enormous line in front of Notre Dame. It extended the length of the square, and then wrapped around back towards the front of the Gothic cathedral. There really wasn’t any alternative to get inside, so we just joined the lengthy queue.

The line moved surprisingly quickly, and we were actually inside in under 10 minutes. The inside of Our Lady of Paris is just as lovely as her exterior. I love wandering around old cathedrals. When my wife and I visited Europe in 2016, we went to cathedrals in Milan, Florence and Dublin.

We didn’t stay especially long, just enough to take in the stained glass and immense feel of the cathedral. From Notre Dame we moved on to the other sights located on the Île de la Cité.

Conciergerie and Saint-Chappelle

A short walk later and we were standing at the entrance to Saint-Chappelle, a beautiful chapel with some of the most impressive stained glass I have ever seen. The chapel isn’t very large, but the ceilings are high and the color is mesmerizing.

Sainte-Chappelle is part of the Palais de la Cité, the residence of the kings of France for centuries. In many ways it is equally as impressive as Notre Dame.

The kids and I enjoyed the stained glass and wandering both the upper and lower levels of Sainte-Chappelle before moving on to the Conciergerie, located just another short walk away.

The Conciergerie is another part of the royal palace on the island in the middle of the Seine, albeit an infamous part of it. It served a number of functions after the French kings moved to the palace across the river, before becoming an infamous part of the French Revolution. Many prisoners were held here before being executed by guillotine, including Marie Antoinette.

I was surprised by how bare the interior is kept. There were a few areas where you could read about the history of the building, but other than that, you just got to wander the bare stone rooms. Bare, that is, except for a flume that is oddly constructed through the space and results in the waterfall you see outside between the towers.

I did my best to relay my limited knowledge of the French Revolution to the kids. They were fascinated by the story of Marie Antoinette, asking again and again why she was killed. The fact that the revolutionaries killed her unjustly, hating her for her wealth and power as one of the French royals, was hard for them to get their minds around.

Even as we left the Conciergerie, the kids continued to ask about Marie Antoinette and what happened during the revolution. I was glad for the moment I could teach them a small nugget of history, right in the place where it happened.

Lazily cruising the Seine

From the Conciergerie we continued our stroll along the Île de la Cité, heading to the dock where one of the river cruise companies operates. Given how much we’d all been on our feet the previous day, I wanted to make sure we broke up our day a bit more with active versus passive activities. I made sure to plan a time where we could just sit and talk and take in Paris. A cruise on the Seine fit the bill perfectly.

The tour company we used was fine, but there is serious room for improvement. Given the price of Paris in general, I was going for cheap. I’m sure there are better companies out there. The main drawback was that the tour guide did little more than point out 8-10 places in very thickly accented English. I caught most of what she said, but the kids hardly understood anything.

But it was still enjoyable to watch the city drift by from the water. The cruise took us from the Île de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and back again.

We also headed upriver briefly and passed by Notre Dame, which was a highlight from the water.

We also saw (purportedly) the smallest house in Paris.

It was a great way to kill and hour and still enjoy the city. I’d highly recommended adding a Seine cruise as part of your Paris itinerary.

A much needed rest

Even after sitting for an hour, the kids were still tired. Three days of walking and sightseeing was a lot for both of them. It was mid-afternoon, and I still wanted to take them to Champ de Mars that evening to see the Eiffel Tower again and basically saw our goodbyes to Paris.

The best course of action was to regroup at the hotel for a while. The kids spent some time watching cartoons while I closed my eyes and tried not to drift off to sleep. Which was hard. I don’t like taking down time and would rather stay out until I’m completely done for the day. But with the kids, I needed to break it up.

But we had to get moving soon before I just decided to stay put. Dinner. We needed dinner.

Au revoir, Tour Eiffel

We headed out after maybe an hour at the Crowne Plaza Paris Republique, and grabbed some more bread, cheese and lunchmeat at a local store. Dinner was on the cheap yet again. However, we splurged afterwards, buying eclairs at one of the top-rated bakeries in the city. It was the most utterly delectable cream-filled pastry I’d eaten in my entire life.

On our way to the Champ de Mars, I became concerned that we might get rained out. The weather didn’t look promising. Sure enough, as we exited the train station, a light rain was falling. Plenty of other people had umbrellas. We weren’t so prepared. Even living in Humboldt, I cannot remember the last time I used an umbrella out and about.

We decided to just make a go of it. Looking at the clouds, I didn’t expect the rain to get worse, and it certainly wasn’t cold. We would be fine. This turned out to be the right call, as the rain let up within 15 minutes.

We walked along the Champ de Mars, bidding the icon of Paris adieu. Just had to get the perfect photo of these two in front of it. We strolled along slowly, me taking it all in. The kids brought up the fact that I’d made them walk up hundreds of stairs to the top. I have no regrets of my decision.

On the other side of the tower we encountered “the bubble man”. He was in the business of providing enjoyment to at least a dozen kids at a time for a small sum from their parents’ pocket (voluntary, of course). The kids enjoyed jumping and chasing the bubbles immensely. The Eiffel Tower made for the perfect backdrop.

A carousel ride, the perfect Parisian ending

After that we crossed the Seine toward Trocadero once more. This time we weren’t in a hurry, having already accomplished the mission of the evening. The kids asked to ride the carousel, and I figured this was the last chance we’d have. Of course this one picked a plane instead of a horse.

From there we wandered over to a small park maybe 100 yards from the Trocadero fountains. To my surprise, there were a couple families with kids. Young kids. I’m always taken aback by how late Europeans are out each evening. It was definitely late for us. The kids should have already been in bed. But here we were, enjoying the park, as the hour hand crept past 9 o’clock.

We finally got back to the hotel around 10:00, and quickly to bed. We said goodbye to Paris the following day, which was bittersweet. A final visit to Luxembourg Gardens was all we were able to fit in. We’d had a ton of fun. But the adventure would continue in Luxembourg!

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