Big City Tales

Double the Fun in Minnesota’s Twin Cities

April 25, 2018
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No matter the time of year and no matter how long the stay, visitors to Minneapolis and St. Paul are guaranteed to have double the fun in Minnesota’s twin cities. The cosmopolitan heart of the state serves up the glitz and glamour of urban living all within a gorgeous natural landscape surrounded by parks, rivers and lakes. Yes, city meets country in Minneapolis-St.Paul and the twin cities offer the best of both worlds with copious amounts of things to see and do.

Minneapolis

Situated on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota and is home to many Fortune 500 companies, including Target, U.S. Bancorp and Xcel Energy. The downtown skyline features skyscrapers, high-rise buildings, museums, and sports stadiums that delight by day and dazzle by night.

The IDS Center and Capella Tower are the tallest buildings in Minnesota and are part of the Minneapolis Skyway System. The Skyway is the world’s longest continuous system of enclosed footbridges that connects buildings in an area encompassing 80 blocks and offers pedestrians a year-round climate-controlled environment.

Museums are plentiful in Minneapolis and art patrons can take in classical and contemporary offerings. The Weisman Art Center, designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, showcases early 20th century American art, as well as ceramics and contemporary art. The Minneapolis Sculpture Garden contains 40 installations, most notably the Spoonbridge and Cherry fountain.

Minneapolis is a haven of professional sports teams and there are three major stadiums in the downtown core: U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings; Target Center, home to the Minnesota Timberwolves & Minnesota Lynx; and Target Field, home to the Minnesota Twins. Go Teams!

While technically located in the suburb of Bloomington, the Mall of America is only a 15 minute drive from downtown Minneapolis and minutes away from the international airport. With 520 stores and 60 restaurants, an amusement park and aquarium, and a mini-golf course, Mall of America is the largest shopping and entertainment complex in the United States and is visited every year by millions of people.

St. Paul

St. Paul is the capital of Minnesota and the State Capitol Building was modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy, and also inspired by the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Atop the south entrance sits a magnificent gilded sculpture called The Progress of the State that features a quadriga, an ancient chariot drawn by four horses abreast. The horses represent earth, wind, fire and water. The women leading the horses symbolize civilization, and the man driving the chariot represents prosperity.

Similar to its twin city located across the Mississippi River, St. Paul offers plenty of arts, entertainment and sporting options. The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts offers theater and opera productions; while some of the most-frequented museums include the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Minnesota Children’s Museum. The Xcel Energy Center is home to the Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League, and the city will soon be cheering on the Minnesota United FC when the new soccer pitch is finished.

Other city attractions include the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory that is open year-round, and James. J. Hill House, a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1891.

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Belles of the Southern City Ball

April 24, 2018
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When it comes to the culture and history of the Deep South in the United States, I “ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie” when I say that some of the finest belles of the southern city ball are found in the Carolinas and Georgia.

Granted, these states and their municipalities are regrettably also synonymous with the dark side of Dixieland, but a past tainted with slavery, segregation and racial tension has made way for a present and future based on freedom, integration, equal representation, and harmony.

Ethnic diversity is a definite hallmark of these regions that is reflected in opulent and grandiose architecture, quaint public squares and gardens, and succulent and delectable lip-smacking cuisines drawing upon European, Native American and African influences.

Visually stunning seaside and mountain locations and picturesque back road country trails also add to the southern charm.

Here’s a look at three of my favorite spots in the American South: Asheville, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia.

Asheville, North Carolina

With the Blue Ridge Mountains providing a majestic visual backdrop and serving up a pleasant climate, the city of Asheville, North Carolina has long had a magnetic effect on its visitors. It certainly captured the imagination of businessman and philanthropist, George Vanderbilt II, who basically fell in love with the place at first sight and subsequently set about to acquire a significant chunk of land to build a one-of-a-kind country home.

Vanderbilt envisioned a chateau-style French Renaissance estate complete with 250 rooms, formal gardens, water features, and a working village to support the day-to-day operation of the home and contribute to funding the family’s philanthropic efforts. He came up with the name Biltmore, which is derived of “Bildt,” the Vanderbilt’s place of origin in Holland, and “More”, Anglo-Saxon for open, rolling land.

Built in the late 1800s, Biltmore Estate remains the largest privately-owned home in the United States and features four acres of living space with 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces, along with an indoor heated swimming pool, bowling alley and a gymnasium. The lushly furnished and elaborately decorated interior was matched by the expansive grounds that originally encompassed 125,000 acres and included a large terrace to house the Vanderbilt statue collection, an Italian-themed formal garden, a bowling green, a conservatory for orchids and palm trees, and an outdoor tea room.

Following Vanderbilt’s death in 1914, his widow found it difficult to manage the estate on her own and her daughter and son-in-law stepped in to assist. At this time, a section of the grounds was sold to the government and turned into an undisturbed national forest. Later on during the Great Depression, the family was persuaded to open the estate to the public to help further defray operational costs and encourage tourism to the area. The idea worked and today Biltmore Estate is a cherished national historic landmark, and is one of Asheville’s most popular attractions.

Charleston, South Carolina

Founded in 1670, Charleston is the oldest city in South Carolina and is known for its rich history and unique culture and cuisine that draws upon English, French, West African, and regional southern influences. The city is home to America’s first landscaped gardens, first museum, first theater and first municipal college. Charleston is also where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

Historical landmarks include the United States Custom House, the Market Hall and Sheds, the Exchange and Provost, the Dock Street Theatre, the Calhoun Mansion, and Rainbow Row.  More recent city attractions include Waterfront Park and the Pineapple Fountain, and the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge, which is the longest single cable-stayed bridge in North America.

Arts and architecture feature prominently in the city and Charleston prides itself that its skyline is laden with steeples vs. skyscrapers, earning it the nickname of ‘Holy City’. Some of the most well-known churches include the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the French Protestant Huguenot Church.

Charleston hosts many annual festivals, the most famous being the Spoleto Festival USA that is held in late spring and is internationally recognized as the best performing arts event in America.  The festival provides a venue for established and emerging artists to showcase their talents in the realms of opera, dance, theater, classical music, and jazz.

Southern comfort food is served up morning, noon and night in scrumptious dishes such as shrimp and grits, buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, and She Crab Soup all washed down with a glass of sweet tea. Some brunch establishments also provide live Gospel music to entertain diners and allow time for proper digestion before indulging in the next southern treat.

Savannah, Georgia

Fans of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will undoubtedly be familiar with some of Savannah’s hot spots and quirky characteristics. It’s a city where cemeteries, voodoo priestesses and ghost stories come to life within the confines of America’s first planned city, and one of its most beautiful.

Part of what makes Savannah a ‘pretty city’ are the 22 squares that are located in the historic district. These mini-parks each have a distinct look and vary in size and purpose with some being playgrounds and others being home to monuments or fountains. Larger parks also add to the city’s green appeal. Forsyth Park consists of 30 acres and contains a Confederate Memorial statue, and a large French-inspired fountain. There are also plenty of walking paths, sports facilities and playing fields.

Other European influences found around the city include Bonaventure Cemetery, the Telfair Museum and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the latter of which is dubbed the ‘Sistine of the South’ and is lauded for its French Gothic architecture, massive murals and eye-catching stained glass windows.

Situated on the Savannah River, the city’s waterfront area brims with restaurants, shops and offers opportunities for a stroll along the cobblestone on River Street or a riverboat cruise aboard the grand old Georgia Queen. One of Savannah’s most famous statues, Florence Martus (or the ‘Waving Girl’) is located in Morrell Park along the waterfront. During her lifetime, Martus was known as the unofficial greeter of all ships coming into and leaving the Port of Savannah, and apparently did not miss a single vessel in 44 years of service.

Paula Deen is another of Savannah’s formidable females who made her mark in the culinary field, first as a lunch delivery and catering service provider and later as a restaurant owner. Lady & Sons on West Congress Street offers a daily Southern Buffet complete with fried okra, fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, shrimp and grits, crab cakes, soft-shell crab gumbo, among other mouth-watering fixin’s.


Home on the Range in Oklahoma

April 20, 2018
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Back in the late 1800s, the south-central region of the United States was largely unpopulated, but that would quickly change thanks to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. This government-sponsored initiative resulted in a mass influx of 50,000 settlers, many anxious to lay claim to coveted plots of land and build a comfortable home on the range in Oklahoma. Some settlers were so intent on grabbing the best homesteads that they snuck into the territory in advance of the official land release date, which resulted in them being called ‘Sooners’, a term that eventually lost its negative connotation and evolved into Oklahoma’s beloved ‘Sooner State’ nickname.

While the majority of Oklahoma’s early settlers farmed the open land, many congregated in newly created towns such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa seeking to cash in on the lucrative livestock trade and eventual discovery of vast oil and gas deposits in these regions.

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Oklahoma City

When the dust from the 1889 land rush had settled, some 10,000 homesteaders had parked their wagons in Oklahoma City and by the turn of the new century the population had doubled. The rapid growth trend continued and the city was soon the center of commerce leading legislators to eventually declare Oklahoma City as the state capital a few years after Oklahoma became part of the United States in 1907.

Thanks to the discovery of oil within the city limits in 1928, Oklahoma City fared better than other municipalities during the Great Depression years and the city became a major production hub. A unique aspect of the city’s new oil business was that one of the fields was located under the State Capitol building so rigs needed to be constructed to extract the oil. To this day, the Oklahoma State Capitol Complex is the only of its kind in the United States with active oil rigs on its grounds, which makes for interesting pictures of them dotting the landscape amidst the white limestone of the Capitol building and Governor’s Mansion. Other points of interest within the complex include State Capitol Park, the Oklahoma History Center, and the Oklahoma Judicial Center.

Another notable city landmark is the Myriad Botanical Gardens that is located downtown and features lush botanics surrounding a sunken lake, as well as interactive displays to educate the public about rain forests and gardening techniques. The main attraction is the Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory where palm trees, tropical plants and flowers, waterfalls, and exotic animals convene together in a mammoth living museum. The surrounding grounds contain many sculptures, including a 14-foot tall abstract sculpture called ‘Gateway’ that sits on a raised berm.

For a city that has recently become known as ‘The Big Friendly’ there was unfortunately a period of extreme sadness following a domestic terror attack in 1995. A bomb set-off in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building resulted in 168 deaths, many young children that attended a day care center located in the facility. Notwithstanding the terrible devastation, Oklahomans rallied together and built a beautiful tribute to pay homage to the tragedy. The Oklahoma City National Memorial was constructed on the site of the demolished federal building and honors the victims, survivors, rescuers and others affected by the bombing. The Memorial features 168 empty chairs designed from glass, stone and bronze representing the innocent lives lost; there is also a reflecting pool, twin bronze gates, and a survivors’ wall that is made of granite panels salvaged from the Murrah Building.

Tulsa

Like Oklahoma City, the oil industry is one of the main economic drivers in Tulsa that contributed to its early development. Thanks to oil revenues, the city was awash in cash at the turn of the 20th century that was reflected in the creation of upscale residential neighborhoods and lush arts and cultural centres. For a significant time, the city held the distinction of being the ‘Oil Capital of the World’ until the drastic fall of oil prices in the early 1990s forced the city to diversify in the interest of long-term stability.

One of the early benefactors of the oil boom in Tulsa was businessman Cyrus Avery who was also an advocate of developing a highway system that would run through Tulsa and connect Chicago to Los Angeles. Avery became known as the ‘Father of Route 66’ and his efforts would literally put Tulsa on the map as a popular rest stop along this well-traveled road.

Tulsa is considered to be the arts and culture hub of Oklahoma and it boasts world-class museums, symphony, opera and ballet companies. The Philbrook Museum of Art ranks as one of the Top 50 fine arts museums in the United States and is unique for its combination of offering visitors a look at an historic home, formal gardens, and a private art collection. The Gilcrease Museum contains the world’s most-renowned collection of art and artifacts of the American West; and the Woody Guthrie Center features thousands of the folk artist’s items, including personal effects, sheet music, manuscripts, books, photos, periodicals, etc.

Public art is prevalent throughout the city, especially along the Arkansas River trail system where one new sculpture is installed every year.  The Golden Driller is a famous statue that stands at the entrance into the Tulsa County Fairgrounds as a tribute to the city’s roots in the petroleum industry. The Tower of Reconciliation and Hope Plaza located in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park tell the story of African-American involvement in building Oklahoma, and memorialize the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

Tulsa is also known for its large number of Art Deco buildings and structures such as the Southwestern Bell Main Dial building, the Mid-Continental Tower, Will Rogers High School, and the Boston Avenue Methodist Church.


The Ooh-La-La Factor in the French Riviera

April 19, 2018
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Known for its vivid blue waters and extensive shoreline, the Cote d’Azur region (a.k.a the French Riviera) in the southeast corner of France is one of the world’s first modern resort areas. Originally a winter spa getaway destination for British royals and members of the upper class in the late 1800s, the area eventually started attracting other European aristocrats, as well as literary and artistic types who were drawn to its warm climate and beautiful surroundings. To this day, the ooh-la-la factor in the French Riviera is undeniable and seaside spots such as Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez and Toulon serve up an array of amazing scenes and experiences that are also, thankfully, able to now be enjoyed by one and all.

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Beach Scene

From the Promenade des Anglais public boardwalk in Nice to the private topless beaches in Saint-Tropez, the French Riviera coastline stretches for 115 kilometres and the mild, Mediterranean climate serves up over 300 days of sunshine. Be sure to pack some Bain de Soleil sunscreen to obtain the perfect golden glow, and seek refuge under an umbrella or in a tent when the temperatures soar in the summer months.

Of course, being a beach bum is perfectly acceptable in this part of the world, and there are plenty of beaches to choose from. Monte Carlo Beach was originally built from imported sand and Princess Grace was known to spend time at it. Plage de Tahiti (Tahiti Beach) in Saint-Tropez was made famous by actress Brigitte Bardot in the 1950s/60s and is known for its afore-mentioned topless/nude sunbathers.

Food Scene

Whether it’s a picnic on the beach or a snack at the market, the food offerings in the French Riviera are guaranteed to be served up fresh and fragrant. Grab a baguette from the local patisserie, pair it with some wine, cheese, salami and grapes and, voila, lunch is ready (don’t forget some macarons for dessert!). Seafood options are also plenty and the region is noted for its jumbo-sized oysters and scrumptious Bouillabaisse soup made straight from the catch of the day. Ratatouille is another popular dish that can be eaten on its own or as a side-dish for fish and meat. Salade nicoise is a specialty of Nice along with socca (chickpea pancakes) and pissaladiere (onion, olive and anchovy tart).

Hotel Scene

Be it a hillside villa, beachfront resort, or inner city hostel, there is an accommodation option catering to all budgets and tastes. The French Riviera is busy year-round and there are many two-star, three-star and luxury hotels operating at peak capacity, especially during the summer months. The area’s major seaside resorts include Menton,  Villefranche sur Mer and Monte Carlo in the east; Nice, Cannes and Antibes in the central region; and Saint-Tropez and Sainte Maxime in the west.

Shopping Scene

When the afternoon sun becomes too hot to bear, head inland to the luxury shops in Monte Carlo, or the famous Flower Market and large malls in Nice. Like the hotel options, there is an affordable price-point for everyone and certainly a wide variety of local and imported designer goods to choose from.

Water Scene

While many tourists descend on the French Riviera solely to hit the beach and soak up the sun, the Mediterranean coastline is full of other fun water-related activities. Saint-Tropez holds an annual regatta every September that attracts the super-yacht jet-set crowd; Cannes offers sailboat rentals in its port and beachfront hotels; and Monaco is home to the Museum of Oceanology that features many fish, crab and eel species in its aquarium, and contains marine artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages.

Picture-Perfect Paradise

With its temperate year-round climate and vivid colours saturated by the sun, little wonder that the French Riviera has attracted some of the world’s best painters over the centuries. From the Impressionists to the Expressionists to the Surrealists, the pretty seascape was irresistible and produced numerous prints of the region from the likes of Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Renoir.

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Monaco is Mini But Oh So Mighty

April 17, 2018
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Covering an area of just two square kilometres in the French Riviera, the Principality of Monaco is the world’s second smallest country but, as the saying goes, size isn’t everything. Yes, Monaco is mini but this unique city-state is oh so mighty in many other ways.

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House of Grimaldi

Ruled by the Grimaldi family dating back to the 12th century, Monaco’s current royal leader is Prince Albert II, who is the son of famed American actress, Grace Kelly, and Prince Rainier III.

When Kelly married her prince in 1955, the nuptials caused quite a stir around the globe. The “Wedding of the Century” was broadcast live and watched by 30 million viewers. Princess Grace and Prince Rainier started a family within a couple of years and were happily married until her untimely death due to a stroke in 1982.

Prince Albert II came into power after his father’s death in 2005. He is considered to be one of the world’s richest royals due to revenue earned from shares held in the Societe des Bains de Mers that operates Monaco’s lucrative casinos and entertainment properties. The prince and his family reside in the Palace of Monaco, which offers a daily viewing of the changing of the guard ceremony and a tour of the state apartments.

Millionaire Mecca

If ever there was a place that embodied Robin Leach’s “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” catch phrase, Monaco is it. Indeed, with 30 per cent of its population classified as being millionaires, Monaco is often referred to as a playground for the rich and famous. And, there are plenty of places to play at from the beach resorts to the yacht clubs to the high-rolling casinos, most notably the Casino de Monte Carlo.

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Monte Carlo High-Rollers

Gambling has been a major part of Monaco’s culture for over 150 years.  Princess Caroline, wife of Prince Florestan I, first conceived the idea to create a casino business in the mid-1800s as a means to keep the royal family afloat.

The task of carrying out the business plan fell to Prince Charles III who brought in experts from France to conceive an opulent architectural design and help garner sufficient investment funds to sustain the enterprise over the long term.

While the casino idea was not immediately successful, the royals continually tweaked their vision and upgraded the facilities in order to attract high-roller players and provide high brow entertainment. A concert hall/opera house, known as the Salle Garnier, was built in the 1870s and its illustrious design was based on the Palais Garnier in Paris.

Today, the gold and marble fixtures of the Casino de Monte Carlo complex continue to dazzle the jet-set crowd, and the casino has also become synonymous with the fictional character, James Bond.

Formula One Grand Prix

The Monaco Grand Prix is one of Formula One’s original races and one of its most prestigious and difficult. The annual race is run on the Circuit de Monaco, which is noteworthy for its narrow passing lanes, tight curves, and elevation changes, along with a tunnel section.

Given the Grand Prix’s location in Monaco, the race’s circuit is heralded for its glamour and is known for its wealthy fans who gather in the harbour areas to watch the race from aboard their boats and yachts.

The Look of Luxury

With high-end boutiques, sports cars and yachts everywhere the eye can see, Monaco exudes luxury and glamour. It’s a prosperous and peaceful domain that may not be affordable to all to live in, but is certainly worth a gander to take in its grandeur.


Tripping the Lights Fantastic in Taipei

April 13, 2018
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There are some cities that ‘come alive at night’ and Taipei, Taiwan is one of them. Fittingly, the city is famous for its night markets where street vendors vigorously hawk their wares and serve up delectable xiaochi snacks and drinks amidst a steady din of noisy crowds, blaring music and flashing neon signs. Along with the electric atmosphere of local markets, tripping the lights fantastic in Taipei extends to other city attractions.

Taipei 101

Once the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 stands 508 metres in height and is noted for its unique bamboo-like appearance. Thanks to a high-speed elevator, it takes mere seconds to reach the indoor and outdoor observation decks that provide an incredible 360-degree view of the city, especially after the sun sets and the streetlights come on. Not surprisingly, Taipei 101 is used for New Year’s Eve fireworks that are launched from multiple levels starting roughly half-way up the tower and proceeding in sequence to the top making for quite a show.

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Liberty Square

Featuring a massive multi-arched main gate, Liberty Square is the primary public gathering place in Taipei and its name is symbolic of Taiwan’s struggle to achieve democratic rule. The square covers over 200,000 square metres and contains three major landmarks that are surrounded by ponds and parks offering well-maintained lawns, trees, and pathways.

Along with twin performing arts buildings (National Theater and National Concert Hall), the other important landmark in Liberty Square is the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Chiang Kai-shek was a military and political leader who ruled from 1928 to 1975. He was an opponent of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Communist movement that arose from the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s and resulted in the establishment of the Republic of China (governed by Chiang from Taipei) and the People’s Republic of China (governed by Mao from Beijing). Although Chiang’s rule was considered to be authoritarian in nature, he was admired for his staunch adherence to conservative Chinese values and traditions, and is also credited for assisting with the Allied defeat of Imperial Japan during World War II.

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Ximending / Xinyi

As two of the primary shopping and night life destinations in Taipei, Ximending and Xinyi are popular with tourists and locals.

Ximending was the first designated pedestrian zone in Taipei and has recently gained notoriety as the place for lovers of all things Japanese to congregate at and experience a good taste of the country’s goods and its culture. The area is thus often referred to as the ‘Harajuku of Taipei’ and it attracts many devoted Harizu. Ximending also boasts 20 theaters and is a frequent venue for concerts, album launches and street performances.

Xinyi is where Taipei 101 is located and the area also offers numerous shopping and entertainment options, including lounge bars and nightclubs. The major malls are the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi complex, Breeze Center and Eslite Bookstore and Boutiques.

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Light Up the Night

When in Taipei, be sure to stay out late and light up the night!


Hanging On and Holding Tight in Hanoi

April 12, 2018
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For anyone who has navigated the crowded streets of Hanoi, the sights and sounds of scooters and horns is likely seared in your memory. Gaining the right of way is the object of the traffic game in this bustling city, which often means a lot of darting, weaving and surging to get where you need to be. Yes, hanging on and holding tight go hand-in-hand in Hanoi…good thing that there is much to safely explore on foot!

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Located in historic Ba Dinh Square, where the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence was first read in 1945, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum contains the embalmed body of the country’s beloved ‘Uncle Ho’ and is one of the city’s busiest attractions. The building is constructed of granite, which is considered to be a highly durable material and signifies to Uncle Ho’s devoted followers (many of whom have made a pilgrimage to the site) that he will remain forever with the people.

Not far from the mausoleum are other important political buildings, including the President’s Palace and the National Assembly.

Lakes and Pagodas

Hanoi is sometimes referred to as the ‘City of Lakes’ because of its many scenic lakes that attract both locals and tourists.

Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned or Restored Sword) is one of the most popular destinations due to its historical significance and central location. Legend has it that while Emperor Le Loi was sailing on the lake, a Golden Turtle God surfaced and asked him to relinquish possession of a magical sword.  The sword, named Heaven’s Will, had previously been given to him by the Dragon King, the turtle’s master, and was intended to help Le Loi in his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Le Loi initially refused to part with the sword as he was still at war with the Chinese but eventually did return it once his foe was vanquished. Turtle Tower was constructed on a small island in the middle of the lake to mark the importance of this legend.

Another interesting landmark on Hoan Kiem Lake is the Huc Bridge that links the lake to Jade Island where a temple honouring a 13th century military leader stands. The Huc Bridge is constructed of wood and its name means Morning Sunlight Bridge; although it also looks pretty good all lit up at night.

Along with lakes, traditional pagodas can be found around Hanoi. Tran Quoc Pagoda is one of the oldest and best maintained with its bright orange bricks that pop against the lush tropical plants situated at its base. Other pagodas of note are Tay Ho Pagoda located on West Lake and One Pillar Pagoda that sits on a single stone pillar and has the appearance of a lotus blossom.

Mobile Markets

Famous for its street markets that offer a plethora of knock-off designer goods, Hanoi also has its fair share of mobile merchants that serve up luscious tropical fruits and other fresh goodies from bicycle baskets and boat decks. Yum yum for the tum tum!

Arts and Crafts

Many Hanoians are gifted artisans and take great pride in producing traditional arts and crafts such as hand-painted pots and figurines depicted in national dress.

Other specialties include silk items and silver goods. Hang Gai Street, also known as Silk Street, is the place to head for quality scarves, dresses and home furnishings; while Hang Bac Street (Silver Street) is where to go for inexpensive silver jewellery. Shoe lovers will want to check out Hang Dau Street where it’s nothing but shoe shops as far as the eye can see.

Hang On and Hold Tight

Getting around Hanoi may strike some as a harrowing experience, but if you hang on and hold tight the city promises to reward you with an amazing display of history, nature, shopping and art.

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Light Up the Night in Yellowknife

April 11, 2018
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The Canadian North is blessed with an abundance of sunshine in the summer and natural light shows in the winter. The latter, known as Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is a spectacular natural phenomenon that is best viewed from January to March,  and one of the prime locations to witness the ‘light up the night’ effect is in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

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Yellowknife actually has the distinction of being the ‘Aurora Capital’ of North America and there are plenty of places to soak up the grandeur of the night skies that include  luxury lodges, traditional teepees and cozy cabins.

While even a mere peek out of a downtown hotel room window will provide a decent show, going outside and getting away from civilization really is a far better option to properly commune with Mother Nature and truly appreciate her gift.

For those wanting to take things up a notch and experience another unique aspect of life in the far north, local dog-sledding companies offer moonlit mushing excursions. Just imagine being briskly pulled across the vast frozen tundra by a team of huskies while the night lights dazzle and delight high in the sky above — excitement and entertainment will surely abound.

Before bidding farewell to fair Yellowknife, take the time to explore the terrain during daylight hours and admire what else this northern capital city has to offer.

  • The Old Town district is where miners and prospectors first set up shop in the 1930s eager to stake a claim to lucrative gold deposits. These early pioneers gathered at the Wildcat Cafe, a rustic log cabin structure that still stands and now serves up gourmet grub.
  • The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre features permanent displays and temporary exhibits about the culture and history of the Northwest Territories, including European exploration, Northern aviation, diamond mining, and history of the Dene and Inuit Indigenous Peoples.
  • The Yellowknife Cultural Crossroads is an ever-evolving monumental piece of public art created by a group of Métis, Dene, Inuvialuit, French-Canadian and English-Canadian artists. The main aspects of the exhibit are a bronze sculpture, a steel teepee and a mural painted and carved on exposed rock that consists of 1,500 signs and symbols representing northern life.

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The Pretty Colors of Panama City

April 10, 2018
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While I have always been intrigued by the idea of taking a cruise through the Panama Canal, I have to admit that visiting port cities was secondary to navigating the lock system waterway connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, after a chance viewing of the movie Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg in which part of the plot unfolds on Panamanian soil, seeing the coastal skyline and pretty colors of Panama City became a primary objective.

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Notwithstanding Wahlberg’s criminal movie exploits and the recent ‘Panama Papers’ exposure of rogue offshore financial dealings, the city’s tourism appeal remains strong. World Heritage Sites include Panama Viejo (Old Town) and Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) that showcase the historical aspects of the city dating back to its founding in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors. Architecturally, all that remains in Panama Viejo are the stone ruins of the original city settlement but Spanish colonial buildings such as Plaza de la Independencia and the Church of San Francisco feature prominently in Casco Viejo in addition to other significant monuments.

Along with its historical districts, Panama City boasts modern neighborhoods with many high-rise towers making for a dense skyline, particularly along the waterfront.

Avenida Central is the main pedestrian walkway in the inner city area that offers bakeries, fruit stands and shoe stores among other shopping options.

Along the waterfront, the Causeway is a man-made boardwalk that stretches for two kilometres and provides an area for both exercising and eating in equal measure, as well as an ideal place to view the city skyline and ships awaiting entry into the canal.

Once the sun sets, the Calle Uruquay club district comes to life and is a prime location to dance the night away and feel the groove of local rhythms.

Demographically, Panama City is quite diverse with a mix of cultures hailing from around the world that is reflected in multiple languages being spoken and an array of arts and crafts being sold. Traditional items on display range from elaborate handmade patterned textiles to simple straw hats.

A Colorful Cityscape

Be it white sand beaches, turquoise blue ocean waters, green and yellow bananas, or multi-colored bins, buses, boats and buildings, Panama City is alive with pretty colors that beckon to be seen and admired.


Experience the World in Fabulous Las Vegas

April 10, 2018
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If you have been longing to travel the globe but the prospect of ever having enough time or money to do so seems like a pipe dream, not to worry. Even if you only have two days to spare and you’re on a tight budget, you can truly experience the world in fabulous Las Vegas!

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The World Awaits on the Vegas Strip

Technically located in the the towns of Paradise and Winchester, Nevada, the Vegas Strip sits just south of the Las Vegas city limits and is a little over four miles long.  Flanked by the Stratosphere Tower to the north and Mandala Bay to the south, the strip is home to some of the world’s largest resorts and casinos.

City-themed properties are popular along the Vegas Strip and no expense has been spared to recreate iconic landmarks such as New York’s Statue of Liberty, Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Rome’s Forum, Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, and Luxor’s King Tut’s Tomb.

Yes, within just a short distance, you can travel from the heart of the Nevada desert to the bright lights of the United States’ East Coast, then hop the Atlantic Ocean to exciting and exotic points afar in Europe and North Africa. Bonus: No fear of jet lag and, unless you’re gambling up a storm and not winning, no fear of breaking the bank.

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New York

Evoking the familiar sights of the Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island and other well-known aspects of New York City boroughs, the New York-New York Hotel & Casino is a bite-sized replica of the ‘Big Apple’ that also features a roller coaster ride. The cars of the roller coaster look like traditional New York City yellow cabs, and the ride includes loops and drops guaranteed to please thrill-seekers. Unlike New York City, it’s not hard to hail a cab during rush hour and you’re assured of getting to your destination in no time at all.  Inside the hotel, rooms and eating areas are named after well-known New York City tourist attractions such as Times Square and Greenwich Village; the casino’s playing cards also feature apples instead of hearts.

Paris

With its miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, and an entrance that looks like the Paris Opera House and Louvre Museum, the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino is oh so chic and stylish. If, however, glitz and glamour is not your style, the resort also offers a quaint, low-key interior boulevard of French shops and patisseries. Try on a beret and snack on a croissant as you soak up the Parisian ambiance. C’est magnifique!

Rome

As one of the first mega-hotels on the Vegas Strip, Caesars Palace is famous for its monumental tributes to the glory days of the Roman empire. From fresco-painted ceilings to marble columns and cascading fountains, the entire complex oozes in opulence and grandeur. The Forum Shops feature high-end boutiques and is the highest grossing shopping mall in the United States. Since it opened in 1966, Caesars Palace has hosted numerous sporting events such as championship boxing matches, and numerous A-list entertainers have performed concerts including Frank Sinatra, Liberace, B.B.King, Diana Ross, Celine Dion and Shania Twain. The luxury hotel also offers the best buffet and weekend brunch at the newly reinvented Bacchanal Buffet. As the saying goes, ‘When in Rome, do like the Romans do’ and be sure to hit the buffet table!

Venice

Formerly the Sands Hotel, the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino takes its inspiration from the canals, plazas and sights of Venice, Italy. Guests can walk across a replica of the famed Rialto Bridge, take a relaxing gondola ride complete with a singing gondolier decked out in a straw hat and striped shirt, or flock with the pigeons in a scaled-down St. Mark’s Square. Along with the adjacent Sands Expo Convention Center and Palazzo Hotel Casino and Resort, the Venetian is the world’s second largest hotel complex. Similar to the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian offer an upscale shopping atmosphere with incredible art and architecture, especially the painted ceiling of the main entrance hall. The hotel’s gondola canals also flow from outside right into the mall offering shoppers a unique way to get from shop to shop.

Luxor

Named after the city of Luxor in Egypt, the Luxor Las Vegas features a pyramid-shaped hotel, twin ziggurat towers, an obelisk, a replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza, and a sky beam. The Luxor Sky Beam projects at night and is operated from a lamp room situated 50 feet from the top of the pyramid. The Sky Beam is the world’s strongest beam of light and when the skies are clear it can be seen hundreds of miles away by aircraft cruising at altitude. The Luxor is connected to the Excalibur and Mandalay Bay resorts via a two-track tram service that is free of charge for guests and the general public.

Big, Bright and Bold

Today’s Vegas Strip is bigger, brighter and bolder than ever. Perhaps the best way to describe what a visit to ‘The Entertainment Capital of the World’ feels like is to quote the movie character Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery who channeled his inner Elvis Presley and gleefully shouted, “Viva Las Vegas, baby, yeah!” when he arrived in the city. Yeah, baby, indeed…Las Vegas puts on quite a show 24/7/365 and delivers the world on a sparkling 24-carat gold platter.

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