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Best Travel Moments of 2012

2012 challenged me. This year, I ‘let go’.

I left my old job of almost ten years and got a new and exciting placement three months later. Meanwhile, our 15-year-old cat passed away. Thing is: we ‘rented’ a cat shortly thereafter, which turned into a full-on adoption – that is, she adopted us.

And of course, we traveled. It was a bit different this year: we traded our usual summertime island jaunts for a longer stay in Asia, and I also traveled for work, which I hadn’t done for ages. Nonetheless, it was still varied, fun, crazy and challenging. But mostly fun. Of course, when it comes to the way we travel, I would expect nothing less. So here it is: my favourite travel moments from 2012.

February – Celebrating my birthday in Sayulita, Mexico.
Nothing beats the February blues and turning another year older than soaking up the sun on a beach – any beach, really. As long as it’s warm. Here I am sipping a ‘coco loco’ in Sayulita. Moments later, the Candyman appeared with his huge wheelbarrow stacked to the gills with – you guessed it – candy. I even got my very own spectacular sunset. It really was the perfect day.

shar and bday drink

April – San Jose to see Coldplay – twice!
We went to see one of our fave bands twice in one of our favourite places – California. Although it was my first time in San Jose, I was pleasantly surprised by all the city had to offer – namely pretty, tree-lined streets, the ridiculously expensive Santana Row, incredible food, and any kind of tequila you can possibly imagine. Oh, and Coldplay was pretty damn awesome, too. First night was up in the stands, but close to the stage; the second night was even closer – four rows out on the floor.

First Night: Chris Martin up-close with bassist Guy Berryman.

coldplay1

Second night view from fourth row floor. See if you can spot Chris Martin in all that confetti!

coldplay2

September – Maple Ridge.
I know I said in a previous post that I didn’t consider heading to the mainland Vancouver – namely Maple Ridge – as really traveling. What the hell was I thinking? This is as much as traveling as it gets – a 40-minute drive to the ferry, a 1.5 hour ferry ride, followed by a 1.5 hour drive to MR – and this isn’t counting side-trips to Starbucks (one must fuel up for such a journey), or my sis Karen’s fave clothing store Sweet Orange. However arduous the journey, trips to MR always include fun and relaxation in the form of martinis, junk food, wine, hanging with the kids, playing with their cat, watching cheesy movies, and of course more wine. This trip in particular was to celebrate my bro-in-law’s birthday, complete with a cocktail party and some of their best – and wackiest – friends. Simply put, I absolutely loved it – almost as much as I love them.

Me, sister Karen, and her daughter Emma (the awesome Emu).

shar kar em

October – Las Vegas.
Although Metric at the House of Blues was amazing, probably the biggest highlight of this trip was our hotel room. For more pics and a detailed description, check out my first post on this epic trip. The room was beyond luxurious; by far the best upgrade I’ve ever received. For the first time in our traveling lives, we actually clocked some quality time in the hotel room. Who could blame us?

A shot from our conference room (seriously) looking out to the full-on living room suite. 

vegas suite1

October – NYC.
Less than a week before Hurricane Sandy, I went to NYC on business for a social media conference. Little did I know the place would be almost torn to shreds in a matter of days. Happily oblivious to that fact, I wandered the (very) crowded streets of Manhattan, taking in every smell, sound and funny catcall (at one point I was mistaken for Jennifer Aniston – to my delight the guy yelled it to the passing crowd). Additional favourite moments were spotting Snopp Dogg (twice), hugging Cookie Monster in Times Square, wandering beautiful Bryant Park and swilling double martinis in Hell’s Kitchen. (For the record, the Empire State Building is an absolute rip-off – v. expensive for a so-so experience. I’ve heard a night visit is far better.)

Fall on the streets of New York City.

new york fall

Downtown view from Empire State Building.

new york from empire

November – Bali.
Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to traveling first class. Especially when going halfway around the world, as we do to Bali. Then there was Ubud, a town up in Bali’s rice fields. This picture was taken at by far my favourite moment – the rain pouring down and me sheltered on the deck with everything I needed: a beer, a good book, and something amazing to gaze out on.

shar chillin

I couldn’t get enough of Bali’s bright, fragrant flowers and intricate woodwork. Also, I really loved the fact that I never once had to turn the hot water on for an entire three weeks.

bali flowers and pool

December – back to Maple Ridge.
With yet another few weeks off of work for the holidays (yes, it’s true – please don’t cry), I took the opportunity to spend some quality time at my sis’ again in MR for a few days before the Christmas craziness. It was nothing short of awesome. We did a lot of the aforementioned, with the addition of watching classic Christmas movies, admiring of tree ornaments, and actual buying at Sweet Orange (I acquired a little Xmas present to me – ok, I may have a slight addiction to clothes), plus a few socials, including a “Death Party”. This took place, fittingly, on December 21, which you’ll recall was to be our last day on Earth. It was actually a friend’s birthday, with the added cool twist of a death theme. Dress code was anything black (she wore her wedding dress spray-painted black). Along with a few questionable and amusing characters, there was a humongous tray of THE most amazing mac and cheese, a coffin filled with beer, rented slushy machines – one filled with bellini mix, the other lime and vodka – and a tarot card reader. A party the next day boasted 40 adults and 40 kids, a zillion appys, an open bar and even an official wine tasting. I was in heaven.

Me, my niece Alex, and their cat Tuna. Note the horrified expression on the poor kitty’s face.

me aly tuna

I’m sure 2013’s jaunts around the globe will be nothing short of memorable. Autumn in Italy, anyone?

– S

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Categories: Bali, Beach, British Columbia, California, Glamorous, Mexico, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sanur: Home and Away

Well, it’s been a while now since we returned from our favourite place in the world (that would be Bali, for those of you not paying attention) – and let’s just say it’s a bit of an adjustment. But I don’t want to waste your precious reading time lamenting about being back in chilly Canada. This is a postcard about our home-away-from-home: sleepy Sanur.

After dusty, scorching Seminyak and the serene lushness of Ubud, we departed for the golden sands of the southeast coast. Sanur is where we first experienced the magic of Bali, where we discovered a peaceful bungalow-style hotel on the beach, where we made lifelong friends and are always treated like family. With fond memories in tow, we were anxious to get there and start creating new ones.

Once we turned off the main street (Danau Tramblingan) and into the Tandjung Sari driveway, I exhaled deeply. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I enter these grounds. It’s like I’ve closed the door on an all-too-busy, crazy, rushed world, retreating into a hidden paradise. The long, narrow, two-laned driveway is lined with palms in the middle and high hedges on either side, only hinting at the bungalows behind it. It’s as if I’ve entered a home in a village, going back into another quiet, simpler time. It’s a feeling of arriving at a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before; someplace safe, warm and welcoming.

As usual, we were greeted warmly by the staff in the receiving area: a huge, open-air pavilion that was once part of a Balinese royal house. Three ceremonial beats on a large gong announced our arrival, and we were given cold towels by a fresh-faced Balinese woman. Happily signing in, we started what was to be a two-week-long reunion with all our old friends and the Tandjung Sari family. Indeed, several times a day we were welcomed with a chorus of exclamations, handshaking, kissing on each cheek (often three times), and lots of Apa kabar (what’s the news?). To which we’d reply: baik, baik (very good – especially since we were there).

The Tandjung Sari beachfront at twilight.

bali hotel twilight

We had booked one of the new garden bungalows (they hadn’t built new ones since the ’90s, so this was pretty special). Bright and spacious, the bungalow boasted beautifully blue tiled floors depicting Balinese themes of animals and birds; industrial-strength air conditioning; a welcome bowl of island fruit adorned with frangipani; a separate room with wash area complete with skylights; and yes… the classic outdoor shower. This time we even got an outdoor bathtub – an essential tool for the cooling-down process, especially after scorching beach days, and yes, our dreaded morning runs along the boardwalk. (This we endeavoured – and succeeded – to do every morning, despite any late activities the night before. It was really the only sane time to do it – that is, if you didn’t want to faint of heat stroke while dodging bikes, scooters, sketchy gangs and, God forbid, the razor-sharp women hawkers who hang around outside the Circle K, just waiting for the next victim to drag down a crowded and confusing alley of shops.)

Outdoor bathtub – Cam’s favourite place to cool off while reading the latest Jack Reacher and sipping a cold Bir Bintang.

bali tub

Shortly after our arrival, I really began to relax. Translation: lots of spa treatments. Fresh fruit peel facial and rose petal face masks, a dual manicure and pedicure (to the tune of $15 Cdn – absurdly cheap compared to the $70 – before tax and tip – jobby I had at home).

And then there was the massage. Not just an ordinary one – it was a Javanese massage. Picture a 4-foot-ish Javanese ibu knocking on your bungalow door with just a sarong and some oil. You dress down to your skivvies, lie on your bed and proceed to get worked over by her magic fingers both back and front. Modesty goes out the window as she transforms your entire body into a lump of jelly and goodness. Her touch is utterly perfect: not too gentle that you can’t feel anything, but not too strong that it starts to get stressful. Perfect for us picky North Americans. Again, absurdly cheap: $20. For an hour and a half. ‘Nuff said.

Then there was the fresh fruit every morning at breakfast: pineapple, papaya, watermelon, even passionfruit or banana juice if you so desired. Not to mention perfectly-baked buttermilk biscuits and Tandjung Sari’s famous croissants: fresh from the oven, with a rewarding puff of steam when you break one open. Everyone swears they are better than what you find in Paris, and we can’t disagree.

Shar on bike along Sanur’s beach boardwalk.

bali shar bike

Our resident family of ginger kucings.

bali kitties

Our third and last week in Bali – what we referred to as our “bonus week” – was spent pretty much planted on the beach, where our biggest decision of the day (aside from what to have for lunch or dinner), was if we should go for a swim in the pool or float on our backs in the 27 degree Indian Ocean.

However, we did manage a day trip to east Bali – to a series of pretty, small fishing villages lining the coast and stemming south from the town of Amed – satisfied our snorkelling urge. The quality was outstanding, with the best part not having to rent a boat to get to the reef. All we did was park on the road, cut through the grounds of an obscure homestay on the beach, step out onto the black sand and put our flippers in the water. A push off the rock and we were transported to a world of angel and Nemo fish, bright blue coral, sea turtles and eels. We let the current take us deeper into the relatively garbage-free water (a treat compared to, say, what we experienced in Nusa Dua) – swimming through warm, cool, and then almost too hot patches – down to a sunken Japanese shipwreck (there are doubts about its provenance, but it was cool nonetheless). We emerged two hours later, and with salt water crust in our hair and cracked lips, rinsed off underneath a rustic communal shower before wolfing down our picnic lunch. Hours later I felt the ill-effects of the classic too-long-in-the-water-without-protection nasty burn, but it was sooooo worth it.

A young woman dances the traditional Balinese legong

bali legong

After the ‘cool’ mountain air of Ubud (28 degrees as opposed to 32 – it makes a difference, believe me) we were once again cozily-wrapped in the hot and humid, even with the ocean breeze. But the warmth of the island doesn’t just come from the elements. It’s in the people, too: their gentle and welcoming nature, their stunning smiles, their genuine interest. During our time in Sanur, a series of invites ensued: drink gatherings, birthday outings (including Cam’s), legong dance performances, art exhibitions, dinners at our friend’s house… so much that we barely had a night to ourselves during our whole two-week stay.

But that’s what I love so much about the Balinese: they are eager to include you and have you take part in their customs (and to practice their English while they’re at it). Just take the wedding we went to in Ubud. It’s just what they do, who they are. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

The full moon and me.

bali shar moon

– S

Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Postcard from Seminyak

Sooooo… it’s been more than a week since we first arrived on the sweet, sweet island of Bali, in the Hindu heart of the Indonesian archipelago. As incredibly long as the flights were (about 21 hours of total travel), we ‘toughed’ it out as best we could in our first-class pods. Rather than reiterating the fabulousness of traveling first class on Cathay Pacific, I’ll direct you to my 2010 Bali trip post.

We arrived in the crowded, hot and vaguely smelly Denpasar airport unperturbed, because after several trips to Bali, we know the drill. We arranged for immigration Fast Track service, and sure enough our paid ‘facilitator’ was waiting for us with a sign as we got off the escalator.

As our new friend disappeared with our passports, we eyed up the long and winding customs queue from the other side and couldn’t help but sigh with some relief that we had skipped over all of that. Of course, it’s always a little scary handing your passport over to a relative stranger, but this service is definitely worth it. Six mysterious minutes later our man emerged with our stamped passports and tourist cards for the return trip all tucked inside. Sweet developing world goodness.

Newsflash: it’s bloody hot when you’re in close proximity to the equator. Here, it’s 32 celsius with 100% humidity pretty much every day at this time of year. Constant sweating and at least two showers a day is the norm. This goes on well into the evening – it’s basically shorts and tanks ’round the clock. After a couple of days, we seriously can’t even remember what it’s like to be cold. Mind you, according to the weather reports from home, it’s the usual 24/7 November rain and wind festival, so I’m definitely not complaining – we’ll be re-joining the rest of our grumbling paisanos soon enough.

Our Seminyak villa: where all that is good and warm can be found. (And also many, many mosquitos.)

Our previous visits to Seminyak were done by day trip from sleepy Sanur (AKA Snore) on the east side of the island, our usual home base. This time, however, we rented a villa off Jalan Laksmana, the main road, sometimes called “Eat Street”. The idea was to hit some of our favourite haunts and actually log some beach time.

A Balinese cremation ceremony on Seminyak beach – note the duck trying to escape.

It’s become a bit of a tradition for us to hit Ku De Ta at least once a trip for sunset drinks and epic people-watching, and this trip was no different. It was a beautiful night, definitely sunset-worthy, and after scoring a sweet spot overlooking the beach, we settled in for lychee martinis, mojitos and lobster dumplings.

It was all moonbeams and kitten bums until I was returning from the washroom in high heels, misplaced a step, and did a spectacular face plant right in front of picture-snapping dinner patrons (I distinctly remember a flash or two as this was happening). The frustrating thing was I hadn’t even had that much to drink!

I returned to my seat with a wobbly chin and tears in my eyes, smarting from a temporary nose-dive (literally) to the ol’ self-confidence. Cam brought me around by pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation and soon had me laughing again. Everyone’s been there, in one form or another. Mine just happened to be on camera where every poseur in Bali happens to show up.

Hawkers on Seminyak beach.

On another night on the town, at another putatively super-cool Bali hangout (that shall go unnamed here), we happened to spot a big, furry rodent friend while sipping martinis and – unfortunately – waiting for our appetizer. I heard some scuffling, but Cam saw the whole thing, complete with rat jumping from the top of the bar (yes!) to the ground before zipping away. Our appetizer arrived shortly after that, and we promptly crossed the place off our list. Forever.

On the flip side, if you’re in Seminyak, go to Chandi. Just. Go. Are you there yet?

Let’s bottom-line this: for some, Seminyak is a must-see, renowned for its brown/black sand beach stretching from Kuta to the south, great (but expensive) shopping, and incredible restaurants. I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that sounds just horrible! However, compared to much of Bali, Seminyak is dirty, dusty, crowded, noisy, and just generally waaay too busy for us. It’s kind of like a been there, done that sort of place. Once is enough, say us.

But if you’re looking for a more ‘real’ laid-back Bali experience, try a villa tucked into the rice fields in Ubud, or head for the quiet sands of Sanur. That thought leads to my next post: walking through rice fields, getting caught in torrential rains, being practically deafened by gecko calls, and attending a Balinese wedding. This is all from our private haven tucked up in the cool, serene Bali highlands.

Sun setting over Seminyak beach.

– S

Categories: Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Streets of San Francisco

Hands-down, one of my favourite American cities is San Francisco. Although the whole state of California is pretty freakin’ rad, SFO really does stand out. It’s not a beach city, but what it offers in cuisine, attractions, shopping (!), general friendliness and yes, lots of weirdness, more than makes up for boring old sunny shores and sparkling sand.

I’ve been there twice, with both trips revolving around seeing a concert. The first time I went we saw The Tragically Hip, a classic Canuck band, at the Fillmore. Yup, the very same Fillmore where Jimi Hendrix and his entire generation of rock stars played back in the day. Second time was to see City and Colour, also at the Fillmore. Although they were two very different shows, both were amazing and intimate; I even got a few splashes of Hip singer Gordon Downey’s sweat on me. Let’s just say it was a very different experience from seeing them in a hockey arena.

Anyway, the point of writing this post was to reveal some awesome highlights (and funny little snippets) of our time there. It’s not until you experience SFO first-hand that you really understand why there’s a hundred songs and movies made about this great city.

1. Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory
Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But, when in Rome… well, you should just do it, the first time, anyway. And once is enough. Have clam chowder in a bread bowl. Go to Ghirardelli Square and indulge in heavenly chocolate of all kinds: nuts, fruit, dark, white, milk, candied, sea salt, caramel, whatever. Visit the barking seals at Pier 39; go for a spin in the Rocket Boat around the harbour and the Bay Bridge. Have lunch at a sidewalk restaurant and delight in quirky street attractions… speaking of which…

2. Random Naked Cyclists
Ok, the whole “demonstration” is probably not random, and I know they do this in other places, too (including Victoria), but this just seemed – well – utterly San Fran. You’re having a bite to eat patio-side when suddenly a rush of nudies on bikes fly by. One thing you must remember when in SFO: always have your camera at the ready because you never know what’s going to happen. (Nice ciggy between the red nails in this pic, BTW. Ewwww.)

3. Alcatraz Island
This place is definitely worth a closer look than just a snapshot from the other side. Since I’m a big history nut and I gravitate toward the freaky and weird, it’s right up my alley. Join a walking tour on the grounds and then head inside the cell block, strap on some headsets and prepare for an audio experience that will really creep you out. You even get to see remnants of the famous escape depicted in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz. If  you truly want to get the bejesus scared out of you, sign up for the night tour.

4. The Ferry Building on the Embarcadero
This old ferry terminal is now home to a myriad of shops, trendy restaurants, open-air markets, and cool little cafes. While you’re shopping for your wine and cheese, you might – just might – run into someone famous. Like the time we spotted Martha Stewart and her entourage at the Ciao Bella ice cream shop. Ol’ Martha was looking pretty good with her perfectly-coiffed hair, black leather pants and high boots. Naturally, people were practically falling over themselves to give her stuff, as you can see in this pic I semi-clandestinely snapped.

5. The Food!
I seriously have never been to a place this side of the country that’s got so many awesome options for foodies. You could probably eat out every day for years here and never hit all the great restaurants and street carts. From a funky little breakfast establishment in Nob Hill to a chic and classy reso on Fillmore, I could go on and on, but here are some worth mentioning:

  • First Crush Restaurant – friendly, late-night service with a cool bar, fab wine list and homestyle treats such as fried macaroni.
  • Bourbon Steak Restaurant in the Westin St. Francis Hotel. We happened to have reservations here when owner/celebrity chef Michael Mina was whipping the kitchen staff into a frenzy. The place was hopping and the service impeccable – we even had our wine glasses refilled by his business partner, also on duty that night. Now that’s personalized service.
  • Redwood Room in the Clift Hotel – this hidden gem is popular with the professional work crowd, yet still evokes a casual feel. It is the West Coast, after all. We hopped right up to the classy bar and watched the place fill in a matter of minutes. I was instantly dazzled when offered a free glass of champagne (mistakenly poured for someone else). The moving pictures on the wall added a touch of eeriness that was undoubtedly cool – thank you, Philippe Starck.

6. Street Entertainment in the North Park
SFO has mastered street entertainment – with the North Park especially keen to show off. One lazy afternoon, as we were partaking in a lunch of pepperoni calzones at a sidewalk restaurant, this huge black guy dressed in white coattails and top hat approached and amicably offered to sing for money. After we opted out, he moved on to the next couple, who also declined. I think at this point he was getting tired of rejection; either that or he was just having a really bad day. And so we watched, amazed, as he literally shifted from nice to nasty in a matter of seconds, shouting and berating the couple for not helping him out. And then there was the larger-than-life Tinsel Man at the street market. In short, the people-watching is pretty spectacular. Oh, and the murals aren’t bad, either.

7. Golden Gate Bridge (obviously)
No question, one of the must-dos. The key is getting hooked up with a tour (complete with a little history thrown in) aboard one of those old-fashioned trolley buses which take you through the park and over the bridge. The weather was beautiful that day; not an ounce of fog in sight. I was almost disappointed. Can you see me in the mirror? (Hint: I’m the one with the big sunglasses.)

8. Shopping in Union Square
We stayed in the Square the second time around – right up the street from H&M, Neiman Marcus, DSW Shoe Warehouse, the works. I thought I died and went to heaven when we stepped into Bloomingdale’s – just the array of sunglasses alone on display was dizzying. I eventually settled on a gorgeous leather jacket, which I had to carry with me while we wandered around and eventually got lost trying to get back to our hotel. This was especially fun through some less-desirable neighbourhoods. Thank God for Cam, who gave anyone who dared look our way (or my jacket’s general direction) the Jack Reacher stare.

9. Baseball Game in AT&T Park
It was the Giants against the Oakland A’s – their cross-town rivals. Picture a warm night, the overpowering smell of dirt, grass and beer. People shouting and cheering. Chowing down on hot dogs and popcorn. The sun setting behind a humongous glove. Oh, and the Giants won – Tim Lincecum was awesome, a wild example of mullet over matter.

10. Lots and Lots of Live Music
Coming from a smaller city where economic realities can limit access to outstanding live entertainment, I really appreciate its abundance in SFO: tons of great venues, varied styles, and real talent where you least expect it. Take, for instance, the time we stumbled into a dark, grotty bar on lower Mason Street (perhaps a slightly dodgy part of town at night) and were blown away by a show featuring a blues dude going by The Harrison B. One six-string, one snare and cymbal, and these guys rocked the place.

– S

PS. We’re making our way down there again in a few days. (Well, technically, we’ll be making a side-trip there via CalTrain from San Jose.) Once again, we’ll be basking in San Francisco’s glorious weirdness. And loving it.

Categories: California, Dining, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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