Planning my wedding and honeymoon definitely took a lot of my focus but it was all worth it. The ceremony was at Mount Saint Mary's (my wife's alma mater) in Maryland and reception was at Liberty Mountain ski resort in Pennsylvania. It was a really beautiful day with friends and family. We left for the Exhumas, Bahamas, two days after our wedding and had a relaxing seven day stay at Sandals. I have never been to an all-inclusive resort but I thoroughly enjoyed sitting by the pool and beach after an intense 8 months of wedding planning. The crystal clear water in this part of the Bahamas is just as beautiful in person as it is in photos. Although we stayed on the resort most of the time, we did get out on a boat one day for a tour and especially to see the swimming pigs!
My fiancee and I headed towards the warmth after Thanksgiving. It was hard to beat the $180 nonstop flight on American Airlines from Baltimore to Miami. What we later learned is that the flights may be cheap but South Beach is $$$. If we were to do it again we wouldn't go to as many of the touristy hotspots like eating on Ocean Drive but, come on, you have to do that the first time you are in South Beach. It's what it's known for with the art deco buildings, beautiful people and luxury cars. Spanish is almost the native language in Miami but I was surprised to hear many people speaking Italian, French, and Russian. Miami is still a strong draw for people coming to the US and remains to be a melting pot of cultures. Lincoln Road is an area that I'd recommend if you still want that outdoor shopping and dining experience for less money because you'll be avoiding the beach surcharges that you'll find on Ocean Drive.
Our hotel, Villa Italia hotel, was a boutique 12 room hotel that was two blocks from the ocean and 4 blocks from the southern most point of Miami Beach. There is no need to rent a car because there are more restaurants, galleries, and stores than you could ever visit on a short trip. Also parking and traffic will cost you. Our hotel had great customer service, big rooms, free breakfast as well as free towels, umbrellas, and chairs for the beach. Although it was in the high 70s, the wind was gusty our whole trip so we didn't last long on the beach aside from going for walks. Not that I'm complaining because it was still beautiful and the beaches were not very crowded. Since we weren't going to get as much beach time as we originally planned we decided to go on some side trips to the Everglades and to downtown Miami. I'm really glad we saw more than just South Beach because it's really a great area of Florida.
The Everglades is a must. We didn't want to rent a car for just one day so we decided to book a 4 hour tour with Half Price Tours. This is the company that our hotel recommended because they picked us up right at the hotel but honestly any company is fine because they all go to the same areas. We took a 45 minute bus ride from South Beach to the Everglades State Park. The park spans 1.5 million acres and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and certainly the most in the United States. You can feel the presence of the Miccosukee Indians with their casino (on the edge of the park) and police cars. Once in the park we went on a riverboat ride (the best part of the tour) and saw some wildlife (i.e. gators, birds, and turtles). We also held Larry the baby alligator for a photo.
Downtown Miami is coming into its own. You could feel that it will be a very cool city in 5 years but at the moment everything is under construction. We took the 103c bus for $2.25 if you are wondering. That dropped us off at Biscayne Park which has outdoor shopping right on the water. From there we walked to the Metromover which is really cool. It's a FREE metro car system that goes in 3 loops around downtown. You'll get the best views this way and you can hop on and off as much as you like.
All in all we had a great time. We ate well..went out for a night on the town and had a fun night at Mango's Tropical Cafe watching the scantily clothed dancers (as well as doing some salsa dancing ourselves)...saw some gators...hit up the beach and did some shopping. Not bad at all...
Spent the weekend in Western Maryland at Deep Creek Lake. The reds and yellows were peaking in the trees yet the temperature was still very comfortable and even warm enough for some to swim in the lake. There is no off season at Deep Creek because Wisp Ski Resort is right next door however there was a calmness on the water as most of the families had left for the summer and we almost had it to ourselves. I'll definitely be coming back again this time next year or maybe as soon as this winter to try Wisp.
Georgetown has plenty of restaurants, shops, and history to keep you busy for a day. It may not have its own Metro stop - although it is a relatively short walk from Rosslyn - but it's definitely worth visiting. It has a very European flare with the charming streets amongst stores and brick row houses that date back to the 1700s. You can walk for hours along the streets or relax at a restaurant on the Potomac River and watch the boats go by. If you are feeling bold, you can even rent a kayak or paddle board. Here are a few cityscapes along the streets and water. Some mannequins in the shop windows made for some perfectly lit models! I've also included a photo taken from Roosevelt Island looking back at Georgetown from across the Potomac. Another photo is of Rosslyn taken from Georgetown.
I returned from a short jaunt to Los Angeles where I had a mix of nature and "Hollywood". I find myself in LA a couple times a year but rarely get much time to look around. Sometimes the traffic feels like it is draining your soul but the city really has a lot to offer. I always feel re-connected to the entertainment industry after a dose of LA and the creativity that you can feel in the air. Especially going to the Sony lot where I was able to peek around some of the sound stages and visited the sets of a few shows. I often forget that once you start driving into the canyons that the landscapes get much more rugged and there are some good spots to hike and get away from the hustle and bustle. I packed a lot in to the five days I was there including a drive up to the Hollywood sign (would have hiked up if I had more time!), the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica for shopping and to watch interesting street performers, Redondo Beach, Venice Beach, and Culver City for the Sony lot where many films have been produced including the "Wizard of Oz".
Most people head right to the Tidal Basin to see the breathtaking cherry blossoms. And I did the exact same thing!! However, I got there a few days too early and they weren't in bloom yet! NOOOOOOO. With the cherry blossoms you have a window of a few days when their small buds open up and they reach their peak. Depending on how windy it is, that window can be even shorter before they are all blown off. Luckily as I started to walk around the area I saw the equally as beautiful magnolia trees at the Smithsonian Castle. So if you ever come to DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival - and there aren't any cherry blossoms to see - head over to the Castle just a 1/2 mile away.
Why did I wait so long to come to Mardi Gras?! The parades, costumes, music, food, and beads!!!! Before you judge, I learned that no flashing of any body parts is required to go home with 30 pounds of beads (but given the amounts of kids around us I think we chose more family friendly parades). If I hadn't gone with more experienced Mardi Gras participants I wouldn't have known to focus on the specialty beaded necklaces that are unusual in some way with added emblems, tokens, etc. because at a certain point you get too many plain strands. The most elusive being the glass beads because those are hand-strung. I ended my 10 hours of parades with only one strand of those and most of the time people don't get any so I lucked out.
It was nice to start my trip in Baton Rouge as a warm up for the madness of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. It's a really nice college town draped in Spanish moss - about 1.5 hours away from New Orleans - with Louisiana State University, and their tour-de-force Tigers sports program, playing a big part in the energy of the city. You can even visit Mike the Tiger on campus in his new enclosure (http://www.mikethetiger.com/index.php). As I walked along the the Mississippi River levee, it was impossible not to think about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on New Orleans. When the levees in New Orleans broke, many residents came to Baton Rouge for refuge. Baton Rouge was also hit hard by Hurricane Gustav back in 2008 with flood waters going over the levee. The town showed no effects of the storm as far as I could tell on my short visit.
My first parade of the trip was in Baton Rouge in Spanish Town. Pink flamingos and costumes were everywhere you looked. I felt silly at first having to wear a bright pink shirt but after getting there I realized that the people too self-conscious to wear pink actually stood out much more. I was lucky to have been invited to somebody's house on the parade route so I was catching beads from a raised porch and could easily see the dozens of floats that drove by. Aside from the obligatory pink, it seemed that Duck Dynasty was a major theme as I noticed fake beards being worn by people on many of the floats. I had never spent 3 hours watching a parade before so I couldn't imagine Mardi Gras in New Orleans being any bigger than this one but I was wrong.
We drove the 1.5 hours to New Orleans early in the morning to avoid traffic and so that we could drop our bags at our hotel. Already at 9 in the morning people had Hurricanes or Hand Grenades (two popular Mardi Gras drinks) out in the open as drinking on the streets is legal in Louisiana. By 10 am we had secured our spot on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street and even then we were in the 2nd row of people behind the barrier. I learned that placement is critical in the amount of beads that you can secure. By being just one row back you have to stand behind people with their arms high in the air trying to catch beads before you can. We ended up staying in that exact spot for the 4 parades of the day including Thoth, Mid City, and Bacchus. It's as much about watching spectators in their purple, green, and gold (the colors of the New Orleans Mardi Gras) as it is about the parades. It's hard not to be impressed with the spectacle of music, marching bands, decorated floats with sometimes dozens of float riders throwing beads all at one time, dancers, and general organized chaos. It's incredible to see an entire city get behind one event; and to imagine that it happens every year is incredible. After we finished watching the parades around midnight we saw bulldozers picking up the incredible amounts of trash and leftover beads. By the time we finished a 30 minute meal at Arby's, Canal Street was spotless and had been scrubbed with soap. All to get ready for the next day's parades and for the process to start all over again. We made a short trek along Bourbon Street but the incredibly drunk crowds were just too much to deal with after such a long day standing. For a mile or so, people stood shoulder to shoulder trying to make it to various bars, restaurants, and other nightlife spots. During a normal weekend, Bourbon Street would probably be a lot of fun.
I would love to visit New Orleans on a non-Mardi Gras week to take in some jazz music and the other local culture but overall I was really happy with my first experience in Louisiana. The Southern charm of the city and residents is reason enough for another visit.
From the crawfish, to beignets to King Cake (I found the baby in my piece as you can see in the photo) I probably gained 5 pounds but it was all worth it. And a quick video of actor Hugh Laurie, the 2014 King of the Bacchus parade.
I just returned from a whirlwind trip to the other side of the world. I spent time in Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Thailand and in order to do that much in 18 days I had to keep the sightseeing focused and spend a lot of time in the air. My flights were US (Dulles/Washington DC)-->Dubai-->Sri Lanka (never got to leave the airport here unfortunately but I have hopes of returning)-->Singapore-->Kuching (Malaysia on the island of Borneo)-->Siem Reap (Cambodia)-->Phuket (Thailand)-->Singapore-->Dubai-->Washington DC. Nine flights in all. I may have been a bit crazy to pack this much in but sometimes you just have to go for it!
What started this whole crazy trip was that my uncle, a resident of Singapore, asked if I wanted to take a motorcycle trip from Thailand to Cambodia. Those plans fell through but it got my interest peaked to really explore this part of Asia. And by flying Emirates Air, I was able to work in a 24 hour layover in Dubai to bookmark both ends of my trip. How did I decide on each country? Well, I wanted a balanced mix of city life and nature.
Singapore and Dubai fulfilled my desires to see cities on the cutting edge. The entire country of Singapore is only 14 miles by 26 miles. The British influence is still felt in its schooling, the subtle British accent that accompanies Singaporean English, and driving on the left side of the road. However, there is also a heavy Chinese and Malay influence as well given that Malaysia is a short jaunt by car from Singapore across a bridge. It is becoming a hub for Western businesses in the Asian market and in many ways is almost a utopia given the low levels of violent crime and drugs and high standard of living (albeit expensive). I guess it helps to curb bad behavior when violent crimes and drug trafficking are followed by swift punishments and often times with mandatory death sentences. I haven't posted any shots of Singapore because it is the least interesting visually - which is not to discount the city at all because it has much to offer - and many of the photos I took were family shots.
Dubai on the other hand felt like a city under construction and feels a bit like Las Vegas with a Muslim influence. It will undoubtedly continue to rise in power as money seems to be pouring in for more and more state of the art buildings which include the world's tallest, Burj Khalifa, an indoor ski resort, and an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree with houses and a beach resort at the top of the "palm". I noticed that Arabs seemed to be the minority when walking around. When I took rides on their efficient and spotless Metro system I was often surrounded by Indians and Filipinos. I suspect because they are the ones brought in to do all of construction and lower level jobs. I didn't have enough time to leave the downtown area but I would imagine that the shangri la feeling of this area drops off when you get into the real desert and into the poorer areas where the workers live. I have to admit that I was drawn to Dubai to see Media City (approx 2 million sq feet of entertainment and media companies) because the lure of being able to work in television (my profession) and not have to pay taxes in Dubai is very tempting. Dubai is definitely a paradise for shoppers from the world's largest Dubai Mall to the gold and spice souks.
Kuching (Borneo, Malaysia) exceeded my expectations of seeing unusual wildlife and vistas. From the orangutan sanctuaries to hiking in Bako National Park (which required an hour bus ride, a 30 minute speedboat trip in the South China Sea, and wading to the shore before even getting to the visitor center!) it was all breathtaking. The town of Kuching - which means "city of cats" and there were many statues of cats throughout the city - is a small town built along the Sarawak River. The historic longhouses are becoming a thing of the past but it was interesting to see some examples which still had human skulls - enemies killed by warriors - bundled together and hanging from the rafters. For good luck or to scare off intruders or bad spirits? I'm not exactly sure but it is certainly ominous looking. It was monsoon season so I did get caught in some nasty downpours but it was all part of the experience. After walking through the outdoor markets I would either eat something like mee mamak (Malay noodles), chicken rice, or some laksa (a spicy, noodle soup dish). I could very easily eat rice or noodle dishes the rest of my life and be completely content. And it was all incredibly inexpensive. Usually about $2 or so for a sizeable helping and maybe $0.75 for a delicious smoothie using fresh coconuts, papaya, or mango. All followed by a relaxing riverboat ride at the end of the day while hearing the evening prayers of the local Muslims over speakers echoing from both sides of the river. I didn't buy much at the markets but I did walk away with some peppercorn to bring home since that is grown locally.
Siem Reap (Cambodia) was chosen primarily for the Angkor Wat temple. I didn't realize until I was in Cambodia that there were actually dozens of temples. Angkor Wat tends to be the one that is referenced the most because it is the most beautiful and the carvings are the most ornate or at least time has been kinder to it. Some of the temples go back to 800AD, and since that time the Vietnamese, French, Hindus, and others have all managed to desecrate the Buddhist temples in one way or another during takeovers. And even within Cambodia, their civil war can still be felt in the many bullet holes that pepper the temples. Thankfully many countries are now seeing the benefit to preserving the structures and are spending time to clean and restore the temples. One Japanese company has spent 10 years on a single corner so it is not an easy task given their fragility. I was told that after you see a few of the temples they will all start to look the same. While I can agree that after 10 hours of hiking up and down temple stairs it can become a little overwhelming in the hot sun, I wouldn't say they all felt the same. You have to use your imagination a little to try to visualize how they used to be. Rooms painted in gold leafing and lined with jewels and beautiful etchings - that had to be done without mistakes because the sandstone blocks were laid in place before any etchings could commence - telling the stories of fables and the country's history and battles. It took thousands of elephants and slaves pulling the stones from quarries to build these temples. They are on par with the Egyptian pyramids in terms of their historic significance and scale.
Aside from the temples, I was touched by the kind nature of the Cambodian people. From our tuk tuk driver to the workers in our humble bed and breakfast. And I would also have to say that they have an innate bravery given their history and also the fact that an entire family (mother, father, 2 kids, and a grandmother) can all balance on a motorcycle! I have to mention that I ate my first fried cricket but I was not brave enough for snake or tarantula. I'm not sure I'll ever be ready to try those. Siem Reap has a fun downtown area with bars and restaurants and a night market where you can negotiate cheap textiles and other gifts.
Siem Reap photos/video:
By the time I got to Phuket (Indonesia) I think I was ready for a bit of a resort which is what I got (and I don't have many photos to show for it!). I just wanted to sit by a pool and the beach and take in everything that I had seen. Phuket has become famous for being one of the areas that was hit hardest in the 2005 tsunami. I have seen footage of it on Youtube at some resorts just like the one I stayed but it is too much to even imagine. Thankfully, at least at Surin Beach where I was staying, it shows no trace of the tsunami. Phuket, and particularly the Patong Beach area, tend to be known for its natural beauty but also a bit of a debaucherous nightlife scene where most of the tourists party. I considered venturing over to Patong on my last night to check it out but the decision was made for me when it started to storm on my last night in Phuket. I'm not sure I could have mustered the energy for an all night dance party anyways by the end of my trip!
I'll end the post with some footage of one of the largest male orangutans in Semenggoh Wildlife Center/Orang Preserve in Borneo. Sorry for getting my finger in the shot! This time of year the orangs may not come to the twice daily feedings because they are able to get their own fruit off of the trees within the forest but I lucked out and saw three males. The orangs are extremely endangered so please consider donating a small amount to Orangutan Foundation International. You are never quite the same after you see them in person.
A few months back I joined a buddy and his wife in Moab, Utah for my first ATV experience. The backdrop of the red rocks felt like we were on Mars which made for an exhilarating experience. It's a landscape that hasn't changed for billions of years (because the dramatic arches and peaks were formed under what used to be ocean) and it is a dream destination for bikers, hikers, and other adventure sports.
One of the coolest things in Moab is the cryptobiotic soil. Soil isn't something that I normally get excited about but what looks like arid, sandy, soil to the naked eye is actually alive. If you pour water on it, it changes color and comes to life. This is a big reason why it is important to stick to the designated trails so that you aren't disturbing the natural habitat.
If you want a more detailed explanation of the soil you can read about it here.
And Moab isn't complete without a hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Enjoy some of the photos from my trip!