Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: International Travel (page 1 of 9)

Four Day Blast to Taipei and Back

It’s been like ten days since I published a post, which is like two months in blog time. I just can’t keep up. The demands of family, work, and other, more lucrative side work (as this blog directly makes me $0) have resulted in me neglecting posting. But I *do* have some exciting news on one front that I will announce in due time.

In the middle of these hectic weeks was a trip that was planned months ago. I’d caught an amazing fare sale on trans-Pacific one-way tickets and combined it with award flights for the outbound to give my son and I three days in Taipei, Taiwan and then one day on a stopover in Xiamen, China.

You may be thinking that sounds insane. It kinda was. But it was also super cool to blast to Asia and back for an effective time of only four days.

Taipei – A city for foodies

I’ve conversed with a few different folks and read up on how great Taiwan is for travelers who love to eat. Jason, a former contributor at Points with a Crew, turned me on to a few places in the city that we enjoyed. I also picked another suggestion featured by Lonely Planet, and we explored some of the night markets, enjoying the eclectic sights, smells and flavors.

We spent a total of two nights and three full days, seeing everything from Taipei 101, to Dihua Street, to Yangmingshan National Park, to the history in Tamsui. It was a fast-paced and fun three days.

Xiamen – A rising Chinese gem

Our return itinerary included a full day in the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen. I could have planned things in such a way that we would have had a shorter layover and could have just hung out at the airport for several hours, but a late flight the night before and a hotel night would give us most of a day to explore this city. Xiamen was featured by Conde Nast Traveler as an up and coming destination.

Or so I thought. My son ended up feeling sick in the morning and then our afternoon didn’t go at all how I expected. But we did get to see an interesting part of the city before we had to head to the airport and board our flight back to California.

More to come on the trip. I have a number of other posts from previous trips that I still want to finish first, however.

Would I do it again?

In  a heartbeat. I went solo to Australia in early 2017, which was my first condensed trip abroad. But this was the first time I pulled off something this short with one or more kids. Our trip to France last year sorta qualifies, but that one was seven full days and eight nights, which is fairly normal for some people’s European adventures.

Four days and three nights in Asia? That’s a bit more crazy.

TBT: The Time I Got My Wife and I Lost in Rome

As my first “Throwback Thursday”, I figured I’d recount how I got my wife and myself lost in Rome during our European adventure in 2016 (SEE: Thirty Days in Europe). Getting lost is not a normal occurrence for me, which made it that much more interesting a situation.

We’d spent the day in Tivoli, in the gardens of the Villa d’Este. It was a lovely experience, and one of my wife’s favorite parts of our trip to Italy. I highly recommend taking a day trip there from Rome.

We headed back to Rome the exact way we’d come, by train, arriving into the Roma Tiburtina station where we’d transfer to the light rail / metro back to our hotel south of the city center.

It was at this point we ran into a hiccup: I didn’t have any more cash to buy metro tickets. I also wanted to avoid drawing out any more before we left Italy. Plus, we were already in the train station with no ATM in sight, and getting back to the hotel was all we wanted to do. We’d deal with getting more cash after we moved on to Ireland (strange logic, in the moment, as the currency is the same).

Finding a train kiosk, I realized that these took credit card. Pulling up the list of stations, I found Magliana. Our hotel was near the EUR Magliana station which is where we’d begun basically every day.

So I bought tickets and we hopped on the next train. Easy peasy.

EUR Magliana is not the same as Magliana

I mean, the thought crossed my mind that these are not the same station. There was a second set of tracks parallel to the rail at EUR Magliana, which made me suspect the two could possibly be co-located. At least they should be pretty close, right?

Wrong.

We were getting close to our station when I realized that something was amiss. There was a hill to our right, and as far as I’d noticed, there were any real hills near our hotel. We were headed west or southwest, as we were supposed to be, but things just didn’t look right. Sure enough, we got to the Magliana stop, and it was not the one I expected.

Stepping off the train, we looked around. There were two buildings I recognized in the distance, but they looked different. My wife started to get a bit worried. I’d brought us to the wrong spot and had no idea how to get back to the hotel. Without cell service, without WiFi, and without a paper map, I had no way of pinpointing where we were.

Given the orientation of the buildings, and the placement of the hill, I finally concluded that we must be across the Tiber river from the EUR Magliana station, maybe a full kilometer from the hotel, which should be somewhere sorta near one of the tall(ish) buildings. Now how do we get over to where we need to be?

No data. No Italian. No worries?

We set off on foot in the general direction of (where I thought was) the hotel. Soon we found a bus stop, but I did not recognize either of the numbers. We’d only taken the bus once, preferring to take the metro into the city each day.

I did my best to follow the bus route, making a right when we came to a T-intersection, and then hanging a left when I saw another stop that direction. We then crossed over a highway. We were getting closer to the buildings, but all I could see was riparian vegetation on one side, where I assumed the river must be, and now a highway on the other.

We came to a bus stop that appeared to be the last one before the road merged with the highway. Walking along a Italian highway with tons of traffic and no shoulder was something I wanted to avoid.

There was another couple at the station, and I did my best to ask them if the bus was running. It was Sunday, and I didn’t know if this affected the schedule. I pointed over to where we were trying to go. To say I know some minimal Italian is a major overstatement. I can read it well enough to get the gist of the meaning, but beyond that I am nearly useless.

Hysterically, Italian was also not this couple’s first language, as best I could tell. Here we were, in Rome, trying to communicate in a language none of us really knew. Eventually, I gathered that the next bus would take us to where we wanted to go. I’m not sure how the guy managed to help us, but he did. They hopped on the first bus, and he told us to keep waiting.

Sure enough, another bus came along shortly, and we hopped on without tickets. I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but we were without other reasonable options. in short order, we were on the highway, and then crossing the overpass over the river. Soon I saw that we were headed right into the neighborhood of our hotel!

The bus ended up letting us off right in front of our hotel. It was line 771, the same that we’d seen make that stop multiple times. It couldn’t have been a happier ending to our misadventure!

The rundown Sheraton Roma was a welcome sight.

Conclusion

This is one of only a few times I’ve actually felt lost on a trip. It guess not truly lost, as I had a fairly good idea of where we were and where we needed to go. I just didn’t know how to get us back. And I was completely unprepared.

All ended well, though, as we were able to make it back safely and soundly. But next time I will absolutely opt for sticking with what we know, even if it means extra time, and an extra ATM fee.

Hong Kong with Kids Day 3: Ding-Dings and Dim Sum

Our last day in Hong Kong started a bit slow. The past two had been busy, and I had gotten the kids up quite early the day before so we’d have plenty of time to enjoy Lamma Island, and also to beat the forecasted poor air quality (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 2: Lamma Island Adventure). We would also be up late that night since our flight home wasn’t scheduled to take off until 12:55 a.m. It was going to be a long day, so some extra sleep was warranted.

We made it down to breakfast about 8:45. Jason and Nancy Francisco met us there. At the time Jason was also a contributor at Points with a Crew, and is a father of four (although it was just him and his wife on this adventure). I wanted them to meet the kids, even if our visit was short. It would also likely be goodbye. We’d both been winging it day-to-day with plans, and we didn’t know if our paths would cross again. Jason and I had talked for a while the previous evening. They’d spent a few days in Taiwan and then a few more in Hong Kong, eating their way around those cities. They are definitely foodies. Jason’s personal travel blog is great, if you want to give it a read.

Parting ways, they headed to the Tian Tam Buddha while we had a date with yet another ferry ride between Kowloon and Hong Kong. But this time we headed to Wan Chai instead of Central. Our walk through Mongkok was as eclectic as ever. You can find anything here.

Parks and ding dings

After a metro ride to the Tsim Sha Tsui station, we walked to the Star Ferry dock yet again. The ferry to Wan Chai runs slightly less frequently than the one to Central, but it is still very regular. These Hong Kong ferries are never-ending fun. With skyline views on both sides, I could ride it for half the day and be content. And it wouldn’t even break the bank. At $5.90 HKD (~$0.75 USD) for all three of us, there is no way this activity will dent your wallet!

It turned out Wan Chai isn’t as great a place to land. Unless you like construction. I thought we could walk along the edge of the water toward Victoria Park, but we had to make our way over a highway and into the crowds at Causeway Bay.

We meandered through the concrete jungle and shopping district of Causeway Bay for a bit. I’ve been to a number of cities, but I will admit that there isn’t any city quite like Hong Kong.

Finally, we arrived at Victoria Park. The kids enjoyed a break on the playground. It was a bit farther of a walk than I’d estimated, and the kids were happy to rest and play for a bit.

I try to work park visits into daily activities whenever we are visiting a city. The kids usually need a rest, and I find that I also enjoy these green oases amid the hustle and bustle. Hong Kong Park, which we visited on our first day in the city, is probably still my favorite (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak).

Now it was finally time to ride one of the historic trolleys, affectionately known as “ding dings”,  through Hong Kong. These historic double-decker trolleys were first put in service back in 1904, and they are still running. The nickname “ding-ding” comes from the bell they use in lieu of a horn.

We all loved the ding-dings. Sitting up on the upper deck, feeling the breeze, and watching the bustle is a great way to experience Hong Kong. You really get a feel for the energy of the city.

If we didn’t have to step off when we did, I figure the kids would have been content to ride it to the end of the line.

Our ride lasted all the way from Victoria Park to a little past Central from where we walked to our lunch spot: Kau Kee. This Chinese noodle restaurant is one of the top spots in the city. Jason gave me the short list of spots to try, and this was one of two we would hit during our last day.

My plan was derailed when we rounded the corner and encountered a ridiculously long line for the Hong Kong hotspot. I abhor lines. We’d obviously hit them during the lunch rush.

I waffled over whether to stay and wait it out or to move on. Even though the restaurant has a fast turnover, I figure we’d be there upwards of an hour. Not exactly ideal. It’ll have to wait for next time we are in Hong Kong.

Luckily, we were fairly close to a metro station, so we jumped on that, headed for Kowloon. Next stop was the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. But not before browsing the flowers along Prince Edward Street.

Misadventures and poor planning

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden was about as I expected it. Disorganized, messy and often noisy. The kids were grossed out by the containers of worms and crickets kept as food for the chirping and squawking. It was a fun little street, worth a few minutes if you are in the general area already.

Then the difficulties of family travel struck. My kids have this awesome ability to go from 0% need for a bathroom to 100%. All of a sudden my son had to go now. It took several minutes to find some facilities. I banked on the mall nearby to have some bathrooms, and we were not disappointed. Unfortunately, we burnt extra time, and I also bought the kids a snack, as we were by this time way overdue for lunch. But lunch was still next on the agenda.

I opted for a taxi to Tim Ho Wan, being pressed for time and hungry still. We arrived maybe 12 minutes later, taking longer than expected due to the Hong Kong traffic flow.

It was then I realized my dire miscalculation. Typically, I have always kept a reasonable enough cash reserve, but as this was our last day, spending most of the rest on a taxi wasn’t a huge deal. We’d have just enough for a bus or metro back to Kowloon station.

But there was one thing I missed: Tim Ho Wan does not accept credit cards. After all that, I had to run and find an ATM or exchange kiosk. This endeavor took another 20 minutes.

Michelin-starred dim sum

At least it was all worth it. We walked into the dim sum restaurant at 4:10, still beating the dinner rush. There was a nice lull in the restaurant and we were seated immediately. I placed an order for some steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings and another type of dumpling.

The pork buns are just as amazing as I’d heard they are. The shrimp dumplings are also excellent. It’s no surprise this place has one Michelin star!

The other thing about dim sum is that it just comes out when it’s ready. Actually, this is pretty much typical for Chinese restaurants in general. Don’t expect your order to be timed to come out together. The server just brought the plates out, piping hot, one by one as items were ready. The first round wasn’t enough, so I ordered more of most of the items.

The damage for our Michelin-starred dining? A mere $166 HKD, about $21.50 USD. For three. Now that’s awesome.

Goodbye, Hong Kong!

Our final stop was the ferry terminal for one last blast across the channel and back, this time as the sun was setting so we could catch the lights. We hadn’t stayed out late any other night, but since we had to be up in order to catch our flight, it was the perfect way to say goodbye to the city.

As we headed back, I couldn’t help but think about how quickly the time had passed by during our trip through both Beijing and Hong Kong. Five days in Beijing isn’t enough, and three days in Hong Kong barely scratches the surface. We’d definitely seen a lot, but there is still so much to explore in both locations.

Disembarking in Kowloon, we opted for the bus back to the Hilton Garden Inn Hong Kong Mongkok to fetch our bags. The front desk kindly directed us to a much easier bus for getting ourselves to Kowloon station to catch the Airport Express. I wish I would have known about this on our way in. Actually, I don’t. We would not have had any Hong Kong cash yet.

We made it to Kowloon Station a little after 7:00, still hours before our flight would take off. No matter. That is what airport lounges are for. And we were flying business, which meant lounge access naturally came as part of the deal. A late dinner, some school, a sleep, arrival into SFO, another sleep, and a drive later we were home!

Looking Forward to a South American Adventure with my Daughter

It’s like America. But south. 

Except it is actually pretty different than (the United States of) America, the quote from one of my favorite Pixar movies notwithstanding.

South America has always had a certain allure for me, and there are a number of places I am highly interested in visiting, including Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, and even all the way down at Tierra del Fuego. Manaus and its place as the gateway to the Amazon is even of interest.

But on our first trip to South America we will hit none of those. Several months ago I started planning a trip to Buenos Aires and Montevideo, locking in award flights for my daughter and myself when the pickings were good. American Airlines availability has fluctuated a bit, but you can generally find some decent options to southern South America. I burnt 115,000 American AAdvantage miles for two business class tickets from San Francisco to Buenos Aires via Dallas.

Our trip will begin in Buenos Aires, where we will spend five nights, followed by two in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which isn’t all that far away by ferry. We’ll have one final night in Miami before returning to California.

Things to do in Buenos Aires

Hopefully we’ll not be too jet-lagged flying into Argentina’s capital, as the 10-hour flight through the night will let us have time to catch some sleep. But I know we’ll still be tired.

My plan for our first day is to just settle in at the hotel and get a general feel for the city. We’ll head to a few of the neighborhoods to explore, likely San Telmo and Puerto Madero, where our hotel is located.

I’m still batting around the idea of booking a half day tour of Buenos Aires to get ourselves oriented. I have yet to do one with any of the kids. We enjoyed a tour of the Great Wall back in November, which is pretty much the only one I’ve done with them. Even then, we got to mostly explore on our own. However, I really enjoyed a walking tour of Charleston, and I can really see the value of one.

We’ll hit the historic highlights, such as the La Casa Rosada, the National Historic Museum, and Caminito in the La Boca Neighborhood. I’m also batting around adding in the Botanical Gardens. Heading out to a ranch for a day is probably out, mainly due to the cost, although these tours sound like an amazing experience.

On Sunday it would be cool to catch an open-air market or two. The Feria San Telmo is what I currently have penciled in. Heading to Tigre, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, sounds like a good fit for that day as well. We’ll also work in some down time as well, and my daughter will be keeping up with critical school subjects each day as well.

Argentina is also known for their steak, and I’m already looking at some great places that are also affordable. I’m sure we’ll also have time to sample the empanadas and café con leche.

Uruguay – an underrated gem

Everything I read about Uruguay makes me wonder why I haven’t heard more about this relatively unknown South American country. My main resource for what to do during our couple days in Montevideo comes from Guru’Guay.

I hope to spend most of a day in the Ciudad Vieja, the old colonial section of the Uruguayan capital. I’m also considering a bike tour, as this seems like a great way to see a lot of the city. We’ll be staying at the Hyatt Centric for free using points, which has dropped to a mere Category 2 property after the recent changes!

Finishing off the time in Miami

The overnight in Miami is pretty much only because of how I booked the award flights. I booked us between Montevideo and Miami as a nonstop American Airlines award using Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, as it fell into a sweet spot with a flown distance under 5,000 miles. We return to SFO from Fort Lauderdale the next day on JetBlue. This’ll be my first JetBlue flight, and although it isn’t their Mint product, I’m very much looking forward to the experience.

We have The Confidante in Miami Beach booked using a Hyatt Category 1-4 free night certificate, which will give us basically a day and a half to enjoy the sun and sand in Florida before heading home.

We’re just a week away from this trip now. Things are coming up fast!

Puerto Madero image courtesy of Deesnel via Wikimedia Commons under CC 2.0 license. Montevideo image courtesy of Fedaro viw Wikimedia Commons under CC 4.0 license

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.

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