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  • Christmas in Vietnam and Cambodia

    Vietnam

    My boys and I arrived in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi after a long flight from JFK. After a restful night, we awoke early and walked to the Hoan Kiem Lake, which was but a stone’s throw away from our hotel. At the lake, morning music blared while both the young and the old practiced Tai Chi. We watched the graceful art at first before attempting it with mixed results for ourselves.

    Colorful Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Colorful Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The tranquil morning spent at the lake stood in stark contrast to the day spent in the Old Quarter in Hanoi. The Old Quarter has the charm and energy of a vibrant young city despite its vast number of traditional shop houses. It is also home to the Temple of Confucious — additionally known as the Temple of Literature — which was founded in the 11th century as the site of Vietnam’s first university. Next, we visited Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where we saw the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. We then explored the Old Quarter by foot, discovering narrow alleys, with a stop at Street Food cafe and the famous Vietnamese coffee.

    Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hanoi | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hanoi to Hoi An

    From Hanoi to Danang, we flew Vietnam Air before transferring to Hoi An. Our hotel was located close to the Hoi An Ancient town and Hoi An market — a charming area with night markets, lanterns and great cafes. The next day, we took a Vietnamese cooking class which provided us with one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. During the class, we rode our bicycles to the market to pick up all the ingredients and then we visited the vegetable fields where we soaked in the flavor of the local farm life before cooking a delicious meal. We spent the next few days exploring Hoi An, gorging on local food and taking in the striking views that looked out over the sea.

    Hoi An Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Lanterns | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Hoi An Lanterns | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Ho Chi Minh City

    We flew from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City — still known as Saigon to many. Upon arrival, we were struck by the energy of the city. Our guide told us that there are more than eight million motorcycles in the city of twelve million people! The constant buzz of the engines seemed to be an appropriate soundtrack for a city as fast-paced and dynamic as Ho Chi Minh City.

    Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The next day, we drove to the outskirts of the city to Ben Tre. We rode bikes on small roads, immersing fully in the local culture of the Mekong Delta and the rustic countryside. We passed secluded areas of lush orchards, green rice paddy fields and coconut trees. Lunch was delightful at a traditional Mekong restaurant, and afterward we stopped for “Keo dua” (coconut candy).

    Cambodia

    Siem Reap — the cultural capital of Cambodia — was the last stop on our trip. Our hotel was centrally located, allowing us an easy walk to the market, cafes and souvenir shops. We participated in a quad bike excursion that took us through the countryside backroads of Siem Reap, weaving along rice paddy fields and beautiful scenery.

    Siem Reap Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Siem Reap Biking | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Bela & her sons | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Bela & her sons | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The next day, we rose early to see the magnificent Angkor Wat at sunrise. It took almost 37 years to build this Hindu temple which later became the center of worship for Buddhism. It was stunning at sunrise to see the play of light on the stones.

    Angkor Wat | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Angkor Wat | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    We capped our trip by walking through Siem Reap’s local market and enjoying the local food and culture. It was a perfect trip for my boys and I for Christmas.

    March 20, 2019 • Asia, Bela Banker, Travels • Views: 36

  • InterContinental Circuit: Bora Bora

    Bora Bora Le Moana

    Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    The only way to reach the InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana from the small airport is via sea boat. This only added to the mystique of the hotel. The moment I arrived on the dock there was a palpable electricity in the air. Surrounded by crystal clear water, eager guests and more friendly faces, the Maruuru phrase rang clear throughout and my arrival felt like an event unto itself. They provided us with cold towels as a respite from the heat coupled with an indigenous mocktail. A friendly staff member gave a thorough walk through of my room and explained the resort’s layout and facilities.

    Le Moana Bungalow | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Le Moana Bungalow | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    The next morning, I ordered breakfast and a staff member rowed it out to my private patio in a canoe. I ate breakfast in my bathrobe while watching stingrays swim in clear waters and considered the rest of my day. Snorkeling or canoeing? A dinner set to live music while the sun set in the background? That was what every day was like here.

    Bora Bora Thalasso

    Bora Bora Thalasso | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Bora Bora Thalasso | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    A 20-minute boat ride is all that separates Le Moana from InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso. It is definitely worth the trip. Set in the shape of a horseshoe, the over-water bungalows at Thalasso are different shapes and sizes. The layout allowed me ample privacy, quiet and never-ending views of open water. Certainly, views like these are why this island means “The Pearl of the Pacific.”

    Over Water Bungalow | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Over Water Bungalow | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    The bungalow itself was spacious and modern. I removed the glass top of my dining room table to get a better look at the fish swimming beneath the bungalow. For years a family of sting rays has made the journey to the shore of the property every afternoon at 2:00pm. As a result, guests always gathered to watch the creatures. Then, I joined an expert stingray master who taught guests about the feeding process. Moments like that made it easy to get lost in the beauty, colors and spirit of the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso.

    Thalasso| Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Thalasso| Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    January 24, 2019 • Jacqui McDonald, Property Highlights, South Pacific Islands, Travels • Views: 914

  • InterContinental Circuit – Tahiti & Moorea

    Tahiti

    I stepped out of the plane to the sound of live music and an unmistakable feeling of warmth. The Tahitians greeted me with “Maruuru,” a phrase that means hello, thank you and welcome to Tahiti. I accepted a flowered lei as a gift and then rode to the InterContinental Tahiti. Once there, the heartfelt welcome continued in an open-air lobby. The breathtaking views of the neighboring islands and the hospitable staff led me to believe that the property was special. I was not wrong.

    Aerial View of Tahiti | Photo Credit: Tourism Tahiti

    Aerial View of Tahiti | Photo Credit: Tourism Tahiti

    The InterContinental stretched out over the edge of the island. Spanning the property was a main hotel corridor, a private section for over-water bungalows and multiple swimming pools. They also had water sport cabins and a snorkeling pond. As versatile as it is beautiful, the resort can accommodate all travelers. Trips to the neighboring town are an event. Its streets serve as an open-air market featuring vendors with local food, handmade clothing, and jewelry. But perhaps most memorable about my visit to Tahiti were the sunsets. Every night pastel colors of orange, yellow and red shot through clouds and glazed across the tops of mountains on the islands. Everyone gathered together to watch the sun set into the water and soak in the beauty of the moment.

    Island of Tahiti | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Island of Tahiti | Photo Credit: Jacqui McDonald

    Moorea

    A 25-minute flight and 45-minute car ride brought me from Tahiti to the island of Moorea. The drive itself was special. The one lane highway tracked along the coast of the island with the South Pacific Ocean ever-present. Upon arrival at the InterContinental Moorea, I noted the layout of the hotel. The property was spacious and spread out, placing the guest’s privacy at a premium.

    Over Water Bungalow | Photo Credit: Intercontinental Moorea

    Over Water Bungalow | Photo Credit: InterContinental Moorea

    Dinners serve as a communal event at the resort. Every night I watched a team of fire dancers put on a show as I dined on fresh, local seafood. The unquestioned highlight of the InterContinental Moorea, though, is the rehabilitation center for dolphins and sea turtles located at the edge of the resort. The resort invited me to swim with dolphins that they cared for and also allowed me the opportunity to learn more about the rehabilitation process.

    Turtle Clinic | Photo Credit: Intercontinental Moorea

    Turtle Clinic | Photo Credit: InterContinental Moorea

    Dolphin Center | Photo Credit: Intercontinental Moorea

    Dolphin Center | Photo Credit: InterContinental Moorea

    Also offered is a variety of land activities. Guided ATV tours teach riders about the history of the island. Visits to pineapple plantations are also popular. This, coupled with Moorea’s land activities, ensure that memorable experiences came in bunches on the island.

    January 17, 2019 • Jacqui McDonald, South Pacific Islands, Travels • Views: 799

  • Adventure and Indulgence in Otago

    Wild Wire Wanaka

    Twin Falls | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Twin Falls | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    I found that even novice climbers could scale the rock face at Twin Falls in New Zealand. After a brief safety lesson with Wild Wire Wanaka, I climbed hundreds of feet to the top of the waterfall. On the way up, I admired the gorgeous views of lush rolling hills and towering snow-capped mountains. Although it was as easy as climbing a ladder, the sense of exhilaration it provided was unmatched.

    Wild Wire Wanaka | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Wild Wire Wanaka | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Cloudy Bay Shed

    Otago from Cloudy Bay Shed | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Otago from Cloudy Bay Shed | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    After traveling past acres of vineyards, I arrived at the perfect place to sample locally-grown wine – the Cloudy Bay Shed. Luxurious decor highlighted the beauty of the region by featuring natural wood and stone, creating a cozy yet upscale ambiance. Then, I sat down at the table for lunch and wine pairing, where personalized touches made me feel like a VIP. The stunning Otago countryside unfurled out in front of me. I took in the view as I enjoyed some of Cloudy Bay’s most popular wines along with a five-course farm-to-table meal.

    Cloudy Bay Degustation | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Cloudy Bay Degustation | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Nevis Catapult

    Nevis Catapult | Photo Credit: AJ Hackett

    Nevis Catapult | Photo Credit: AJ Hackett

    Walking across the bridge that spanned the Nevis Canyon, I began to understand why Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world. When I reached the catapult, my adrenaline spiked. After being thoroughly strapped in, I was lifted over the vast canyon. I felt that mix of elation and fear that only comes when you are at the edge of a roller coaster drop. Finally, my fear dissolved into delight as I flew into the canyon. I stayed suspended there, enjoying the extraordinary vantage point.

    Nevis Catapult | Photo Credit: AJ Hackett

    Nevis Catapult | Photo Credit: AJ Hackett

    Skyline Gondola Queenstown

    From the heart of downtown Queenstown, I jumped into the cabin of the gondola that steadily made its way up the mountainside to the Skyline complex. Drifting past thickets of brush, steep rockfalls and towering trees, the aerial view of the city started to appear. At the top, Skyline has a restaurant, cafe, gift shop, luge and also bungee and paragliding facilities. Enjoying a flat white, looking out over Lake Wakatipu was the perfect way to end my stay in Otago.

    Skyline Gondola Queenstown View | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    Skyline Gondola Queenstown View | Photo Credit: Simona DeDominicis

    January 10, 2019 • New Zealand, Simona DeDominicis, Travels • Views: 1896

  • Kyoto Basics

    Throughout our trip to Japan, which included visits to Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, we found ourselves saying “if only we had another day here” as we left each city. This was most true of Kyoto; home to many famous historic landmarks in the country, it is a must-see destination when traveling to Japan.

    The Machiya

    We decided to forego staying in a hotel while in Kyoto and elected to stay at a machiya – a traditional Kyoto townhouse. We wanted to make sure we spent time in a traditional Japanese home. When entering the house, there is a small room where you remove your shoes before entering the main house. Once your shoes are off, you slide open the wooden door to reveal a simple, warm space. The walls are plain yet detailed, the floors are covered with tatami mats and the furniture is all designed for use while kneeling or sitting on the ground.

    Michiya Table | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    Michiya Table | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    The space was so inviting that we felt as if we had just walked into our home. While there were two normal beds in one room, the second bedroom was much more traditional with two futons available to complete the machiya experience. The bathroom had a regular shower only with a wooden soaking tub that allowed you to relax and look out into the small garden at the back of the property. Staying in the machiya felt as if it was integral to our experience in Kyoto. We quite enjoyed our time relaxing and taking in the experience of simply being in the house.

    Authentic Ramen

    We knew we wanted ramen for dinner the first night in Kyoto. One restaurant that offers a unique take on the dish is Menbakaichidai Ramen. Here, traditional Japanese ramen is served with one big twist: fire! Commonly referred to as “Fire Ramen,” this small restaurant serves up ramen that is literally set on fire right in front of you. The fire ignites when the chef pours a small amount of hot oil onto a healthy amount of green onion that is piled on top of the bowl. This ignites a flame that reaches several feet in the air and lasts for about a second.

    Fire Ramen | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    Fire Ramen | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    The process releases a unique flavor into the dish unlike any ramen you have ever had. Depending on which set you order, you can add sides of fried rice, gyoza and karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) to your meal. A spectacle that is every bit as entertaining as it is delicious, combined with extremely friendly staff, makes this a definite stop for any ramen fan.

    The Highlights of Kyoto

    At the recommendation of the staff at Fire Ramen, we made our way over to the nearby Nijo Castle. While this site is generally closed in the evening, in the fall season it is sometimes open to the public after dark. We not only got to explore the grounds but also took a walk through the palace which was beautifully lit.

    Nijo Castle | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    Nijo Castle | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    The next morning was Fushimi Inari-taisha, one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines, and rightfully so. The shrine is located at the base of Inari Mountain. Two and a half miles of trails take you up and down the mountain. The most unique aspect of Fushimi Inari is the seemingly endless number of torii gates that line the trails. Walking the trail and passing under these beautiful gates is an extremely relaxing experience. This journey can take anywhere from two to three hours to complete. Those who take the time to explore the trails will be rewarded with breathtaking views of Kyoto. Be sure to get there early in the morning to avoid large crowds!

    Fushimi Inari Tori Gates | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    Fushimi Inari Tori Gates | Photo Credit: Richard Siegel

    We then made our way to Kiyomizu-dera, another beautiful Kyoto landmark. This Buddhist temple is located on a hillside near the edge of the city. Venture here for stunning traditional architecture, spectacular views of the surrounding areas and a rich historical experience.

    Arashiyama District

    Finally, we decided to make a trip to the Arashiyama District. Arashiyama offers visitors a great variety of historic temples and shrines, a plentiful amount of small shops and restaurants and of course, the famous Bamboo Grove. Much quieter than central Kyoto, this area feels like a small getaway within the city.

    Bamboo Grove | Photo Credit: Japan Tourism

    Bamboo Grove | Photo Credit: Japan Tourism

    Kyoto is an amazing city with a rich history that keeps anyone who visits captivated. While we did see quite a bit of Kyoto, we only scratched the surface of what the city has to offer. This, of course, just makes the build-up to the next trip to Japan that much more enticing.

    December 28, 2018 • Asia, Richard Siegel, Travels • Views: 1892

  • Gentle Giants of the Bushveld

    Africa is a place of enchantment. The power and pure energy of this ancient land and its inhabitants is palpable. As I cruise along an unpaved road, I scan the horizon for civilization and instead spot countless impalas, warthogs and giraffes. A refreshing breeze whips through my hair as the late afternoon sun warms me.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    A Meeting with the Elephants

    With an abrupt stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, my field guide, Jason, instructs me to hop out of the vehicle. Camp Jabulani‘s Elephant manager, Tigere, greets me with a genuine smile. He asks if I am nervous about meeting the world’s largest land animal. I respond quickly, “of course not”; there’s no possible way for me to be anxious due to Tigere’s calm demeanor. With ten years of experience under his belt, I trust that he will keep me safe in this unfamiliar environment.

    We wait patiently in the middle of the open savannah near a fallen Acacia tree. Four tons of sheer mass silently approaches us. His name is Jabulani. I gently walk towards this humongous creature and place my hand on his trunk. Coarse bristles and hardened mud cover his wrinkly skin. He has scraggly eyelashes and human-like eyes. There’s an instant sense of mutual appreciation and respect.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    I dump pellets of grain into Jabulani’s trunk and his hot breath fogs my sunglasses. His trunk twists and turns in every direction. The elephant’s strength, compassion and intelligence intrigues me. I am in awe of every moment. After Jabulani finishes two canvas sacks of food, his caretaker escorts him back into the bushveld. My soul is bursting with gratitude for this deeply personal interaction.

    “Where would we be without this herd of elephants? Two days will stand out in my mind as long as I live. The day that Jabulani arrived as a tiny baby – terrified and on the brink of death. And the day that the rest of the herd arrived and welcomed Jabulani as one of their own.” – Founder of the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), Lente Roode.

    The Roode family, owners of HECS and Camp Jabulani, adopted these helpless elephants and now offer them a sustainable home. The love for these elephants is at the core of HECS and Camp Jabulani and is the purpose for their existence.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Life at the Camp

    Camp Jabulani’s work with these orphaned animals is intertwined in the design of the camp. Elephant emblems adorn the pillows, coasters and walls. Seven villas overlook the dry riverbed. Each villa is fitted with canopy beds, mahogany furniture, cozy fireplaces and exquisite craft pieces such as colorfully beaded African dolls. These accents are handcrafted by local artisans and mixed with heirloom pieces. It immediately makes you feel at home.

    Due to the intimate size of the camp, you get to know staff members and fellow travelers right away. Oil lanterns and a bonfire provide for a traditional South Africa braai (barbecue). Locals pop by to sing soulful songs and dance under the starry sky.

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    As intrepid travelers, the Roode family offers the unique adventures that we crave. The passion of those who work in this special part of the world is profound and inspires all who have had the privilege to experience it. Guests of Camp Jabulani are actively contributing to the well-being of these magnificent animals. This creates personal fulfillment and enriches memories to last a lifetime.

    December 11, 2018 • Africa, Destinations, Kathryn Fischer, Property Highlights, Travels • Views: 1134