This is default featured slide 1 title
This is default featured slide 2 title
This is default featured slide 3 title
This is default featured slide 4 title
This is default featured slide 5 title
 

Monthly Archives: December 2016

7 Free Things to do in Shanghai

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.

M50 Contemporary Art Space

You can wander for free around expanding M50, a contemporary art hub that showcases both upcoming and established Chinese artists. Influential Chinese galleries ShanghART and Eastlink are two of the numerous galleries exhibiting ceramics, modern art and sculpture. Give yourself a few hours to appreciate the fusion of talent on display and stop to chat to the gallery owners – most speak English and are happy to answer questions about the works.

Why Kiribati is a Nature Lover’s Paradise

First come for the fishing

One prime reason travellers head to Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Republic of Kiribati is for the fishing – marlin, sailfish, wahoo, barracuda and huge schools of tuna are found here. But the real gem: miles of pristine saltwater flats perfect for wading and fly-fishing for bonefish, milkfish, triggerfish and a number of trevally including the elusive giant trevally. GT, as they are affectionately known, are on the bucket list of most dedicated fly-fishermen. This exotic species hunts on the flats for prey and is known for its speed, weight (upwards of 40kgs) and ferocity.

Giant trevally are difficult to hook and even more difficult to land. They frequently snap both lines and rods. Fishing for one is a truly awe inspiring experience that will give you a heightened respect for this bully of the saltwater flats (catching a 20kg baby, in relative terms, GT was one of this fisherman’s proudest moments).

Fishing tours are run from a number of self-contained lodges that provide board, boats and guides. These local guides are proud of their island’s rich and diverse marine life and conservation is as important as the catch. Tuna caught off the island invariably end up as a feast of fresh sushi that same night in the lodge, all fish within the reef are returned to swim another day.

You can’t help but become a bird watcher

As you might expect for a nation of islands in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean, Kiribati is home to a thriving bird population. Here you can spot seabirds, obviously, with frigatebirds, boobies, shearwaters, petrels and gulls – they’re hard to miss. But bird lovers may be surprised by the land-based birds found in Kiribati. The islands have around 15 percent regenerated forest cover today which is home to the Kuhl’s lorikeet, Pacific long-tailed cuckoo, and the endemic Christmas Island warbler.  For those not inclined to twitching, the many species of birdsong is probably best enjoyed in a hammock with a cold drink.

Then there’s the diving

Scuba is a relatively new addition to Kiribati – but growing in popularity as the islands realise the potential – but divers can see over 200 species of coral that host a diverse range of marine animals here including colourful reef fish, sharks, manta rays, spinner dolphins and turtles. The main dive shops and tours operate from Christmas Island and much of it is done from shore or outrigger canoes. Further afield Tarawa atoll offers WWII-wreck diving with its reminders of the American and Japanese battle for the Pacific.

Most dive operations are run from the fishing lodges – Villages, Captain Cook and Ikari House fishing lodges all offer dive trips with guides, well-equipped boats and gear hire for experienced and novice divers.

Plus surfing and kite-surfing

You won’t find big concentrations of surfers competing for waves in Kiribati. Like with all the other activities on the island you are going to be among a hardy few. The wave calendar is similar to Hawaii – peak times are October to April. The prime surfing location is from the Kiritimati (Christmas Island) capital London to the town of the abandoned village of Paris (yes, you read that right). There are 24 surfable waves along this five kilometre stretch. The logistics of getting equipment to the islands – and remoteness of the locations once there – means you’re best advised to book surfing through an operator like Christmas Island Surf (christmasislandsurf.com) with plenty of local knowledge.

Outside the surf season, kite-surfing runs all year round. These islands are famed for their consistent, although slightly wearing, off-shore winds.

Did someone say beaches?

With an average height above sea level of just 2 metres, Kiribati has plenty of beaches. Add in the very basic infrastructure – many of the outlying islands have no plumbing, electricity or toilets – visitors are blessed with vast stretches of truly un-busy coastline.

In fact on our recent visit we saw no one else for a whole day on a trip to the eastern coastline of Christmas Island. The population here is so sparse we passed only one other car on a one-hour drive from London. In an increasingly crowded world, where constant communication has become the norm, it’s refreshing to find a destination where you actually can really escape.

Getting there

The largest individual atoll in this island group, Kiritimati (Christmas Island), is a mere 5000 kilometres from any other country! The largest coral atoll in the world, it is the centre of much of Kiribati’s tourism. It’s is accessible by weekly flights from Nadi in Fiji and Honolulu in Hawaii.

If you’re really wanting to go for the adventure of a lifetime it’s a seven- to eight-day boat trip, again from Honolulu, with Sailing Vessel Kwai (svkwai.com). Kiribati offers a variety of hotels and resorts, mainly on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), but don’t expect five-star digs and pina coladas waitered to your sun-lounge – accommodation here can only be described as rustic.

Where We Can Taste the Okinawan rainbow

Tex-Mex meets white rice

Taco rice, for the uninitiated, is a plate of Japanese white rice topped with seasoned ground beef, grated cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and usually a dollop of salsa out of a jar. It’s essentially a ’70s-style Tex-Mex taco nestled on a bed of rice instead of in a crunchy tortilla shell. Taco rice appears on menus throughout the islands and is a must-try local dish that represents the beautiful, oddball harmony of Mexican-American and Japanese culinary cross-pollination.

Ryūkyūan fusion

More recently, Okinawa’s contemporary culinary trends are going the way of many other regional styles, by leaning international. While the islands aren’t necessarily a hotbed for innovation, there are a few standouts worth checking out.

In Naha, break away from the noisy, garish souvenir shops of the main drag and wander the curving alley leading to Ukishima Garden (ukishima-garden.com). This little oasis of calmness and clean eating offers a seasonally changing, all-vegetarian, macrobiotic menu consisting mostly of vegan Okinawan goodness. Using organic produce, the chefs create lovely, fresh fusion pastas, vegan ‘hamburger steak’ and taco rice with locally gathered and grown mozuku (local seaweed), millet, gōyā (bitter melon, an Okinawan staple) and a rainbow of creatively presented veggies. Pair your meal with a cold Orion, the local lager, or a glass of imported wine and relax on the greenery-laced patio for a refreshing twist on local fusion.

For a taste of the traditional (served in contemporary style), head to the Tsuboya pottery district of Naha where Nuchigafu serves up spectacular multi-course Okinawan feasts on gorgeously glazed ceramic ware (the likes of which you can shop for in the neighbourhood). Housed in a historic building on a hill, the interior is beautifully preserved and modern in its minimalism. Dishes here are portioned at a size that allows sampling of an array of dishes – from tempura gōyā to falling-apart tender, sweetly-simmered pork belly to jiimami tofu (peanut-based tofu), all served by a kimono-clad waitress. In a full circle kind of way, Nuchigafu is one of a handful of sister restaurants founded in Osaka, and now showcasing Okinawan regional cuisine in its place of origin.

Meanwhile, on the island of Miyako-jima, the local izakaya (pub-eateries) happen to be concentrated in the island’s central town of Hirara. The downtown restaurant district has loads of excellent spots to try, whether you like raucous, live, traditional music as part of the experience or a cosy one-on-one exchange with the chef at the bar of a sought-after husband-and-wife institution. One such izakaya, run by ebullient local boy Takashi Nanraku, is Nanraku. This colourful, informal and welcoming place is the perfect example of island-idiosyncratic cuisine enhanced by foreign elements. One house specialty is the donburi (rice bowl) topped with sashimi, mayo, dried bonito flakes and locally cultivated seaweed called umibudo (sea grapes). Also known as ‘green caviar,’ umibudo is one of those hyper-local delicacies best sampled where it’s grown, as it’s too delicate to travel very far (unlike you, hardy gourmand!). The artistically-minded chef can cater to your budget whilst still throwing down beautifully plated course after course of octopus and green papaya drizzled in olive oil, seawater-cured island tofu garnished with cherry tomatoes and tempura mozuku – all sourced locally.

And while we’re on Miyako-jima, let’s talk about that one guy who mindfully bakes bread in batches throughout the morning, so as to ensure that all his customers receive hot, freshly baked buns (and coffee) out of his little window on the street. Who does that? Tomohiro Murokami does, that’s who. Mojapan is just one member of Okinawa’s young, conscious foodie generation that puts quality, thoughtfulness and super-toothsome eats into the community.

Modern food hall

In the spirit of hole-in-the-wall bakeries, repurposed Airstream food trucks and old-fashioned yatai (food stalls) that you’ll stumble upon all across the island chain, there’s one last spot worth a mention. OnIshigaki-jima, just a couple of blocks from the ferry terminal in Ishigaki City, there’s a tiered white building with three storeys of culinary adventures inside. Though Ishigaki City is full to bursting with wonderful izakaya, if you travel for any amount of time in Okinawa, your appetite may weary of the endless gōyā champuru (stir-fry of bitter melon, island tofu, scrambled egg and Spam) or soki soba (thick wheat noodles and Okinawan spare rib in pork broth) – delicious as they are.

What You Need to Know US-Cuba

Can American travel freely to Cuba yet?

No – at least not for standard beach holidays. The de facto travel ban, in place since President Kennedy invoked the Trading with the Enemy Act in 1963, still holds – for the time-being. Congressional approval is required to change this.

The ban was originally enacted as a retaliatory measure after the Cuban Missile Crisis; the small-print of the act makes it illegal for Americans to make transactions in Cuba. To circumnavigate this, US citizens interested in visiting Cuba can apply for a general license. General licenses allow for various forms of cultural, educational or humanitarian travel and no longer require a complicated application process.

What has changed since Obama’s historic 2014 announcement?

Quite a bit. By loosening restrictions on ‘general licenses’, it is now easier for US citizens to travel to Cuba if they fall into one of 12 different categories. These range from the specific (public performances or athletic competitions) to the vague (‘support for the Cuban people’).

Booking accommodation also got a lot easier in April 2015, when Airbnb began listing thousands of traditional Cuban homestays on its website. Qualifying US travelers can now book homestays all across Cuba in advance with a credit card. Furthermore, the reinstatement of commercial flights and cruise traffic in 2016 has made it easier for Americans to enter Cuba by both air and sea.

Before leaving office in early 2017, Obama lifted limits on the value of remittances Americans can send to individuals in Cuba and abolished the ceiling on the quantity of Cuban goods US travelers can bring home. Cuban rum and cigars are no longer exotic treats available only in Canadian border towns.

The re-opening of the US Embassy in Havana in 2015 after 54 years of dormancy means US citizens once again have proper representation in Cuba and a point of reference should they get into any difficulties.

What is a general license?

The US government issues two sorts of licenses for travel to Cuba: ‘specific’ and ‘general’. General licenses are self-qualifying: it is up to the individual to evaluate if they satisfy the license requirements and collate the necessary documentation to back it up (itineraries, receipts, etc.). Although no specific application forms are required for a general license, airlines, cruise companies and authorized travel service providers usually require US travelers to sign a ‘travel affidavit’ (a sworn statement) stipulating their license category when they book. While the nature of your travel activity in Cuba may never be questioned or monitored, it is wise to keep track of all your paperwork just in case.

Can anyone get a general license?

No. You have to fit into one of the twelve categories listed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). These general license categories are summarized in a US Department of the Treasury fact sheet (treasury.gov).

Do you need a visa?

All foreign visitors need a ‘tourist card’ to enter Cuba, usually available from the airline or cruise ship you book with. Costs vary depending on the company but average around US$85. When booking your flight, be sure to ask the airline about their tourist card policies. Sometimes cards can be purchased at the departure airport, or they might need to be mailed to you. If you fly from Canada, tourist cards are generally given out on the airplane.

Do US credit and debit cards work in Cuba?

Despite optimistic announcements in 2014, barely any US or US-linked credit cards and debit cards work in Cuba. If you’re American, expect to be heavily reliant on cash. Cuban currency, known as convertibles (CUC$), is pegged to the US dollar, but you’ll pay a 13% tariff when changing money.

How do you organize flights/trips to Cuba from the US?

Scheduled commercial flights between the US and Cuba were reinstated in September 2016 when JetBlue flight A320 from Fort Lauderdale landed in Santa Clara. As of 2017, there are over 100 commercial flights a week operating between the US and Cuba. Many leading airlines have joined the deluge, including United, Delta, American, Southwest and Alaska, giving American travelers more variety (airlines serve 10 different Cuban airports), more flexibility and cheaper prices. Flights can be booked online.

It is still possible to fly to Cuba on charters organized through an authorized travel service provider. Top companies include Cuba Travel Services (cubatravelservices.com), ABC Charters (abc-charters.com) and Marazul (marazul.com).

A third option to visit Cuba is through a ‘people-to-people’ trip. These are full-blown cultural holiday packages that include flights, accommodation and guides. Authorized agents handle the license paperwork, leaving participants with fewer legal worries and more downtime to enjoy themselves. Insight Cuba (insightcuba.com) is a well-established, registered people-to-people operator.

What about cruises?

Cruise ships operating from US ports re-established connections with Cuba in May 2016 when the ship MV Adonia docked in Havana. There are now more than half a dozen US cruise lines that include Cuba in their itineraries. Norwegian Cruise Line (ncl.com) offers a four-day Miami-Cuba-Bahamas cruise with an overnight in Havana. Pearl Seas (pearlseascruises.com) has a more comprehensive 10-day circumnavigation of Cuba calling at three ports – Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba – with day-trips to the Unesco-listed town of Trinidad, and El Cobre, home to the shrine of Cuba’s patron saint.