Wednesday, November 02, 2011
Before we start on our mini-guide for London (incidentally, my favorite part of the trip), i've noticed that most tourists tend to use the terms Great Britain, England and United Kingdom interchangeably. Whilst no harm is normally done, it is technically incorrect.
So, let us attempt to set the matter straight:
"United Kingdom" refers to the union of four separate countries, namely: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (the other parts of Ireland are independent).
"Great Britain" refers to only England, Wales and Scotland. (Thus, the full official name of the UK is "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland")
"England" is the largest country in the United Kingdom, and its capital is London. So, beware! England may be part of the United Kingdom, but not everyone in Great Britain or the United Kingdom is English!
Anyway, onwards to the must-sees and must-dos in London!
1. Do enter the historic buildings.
By all means, take one of those half-day or full-day city bus sightseeing tours that promise to bring you to the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey (where Will married Kate), St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London (where the Crown Jewels are kept), Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Royal Albert Hall, etc. all in one go.
But do come back and go inside the places that actually interested or intrigued you, rather than just being content with photos of yourself with these historic buildings in the background.
2. Take a walk with London Walks.
A guided walking tour is the perfect way to get more in-depth commentary (and gossip) about your specific interests, and meeting fellow tourists.
London Walks operates tours on every day of the year (including Christmas); typically costs less than ten British pounds per person; and best of all, there's no need to reserve ahead of time. You just show up!
Their walks run the whole gamut, from movies (Harry Potter location spots) to music (Beatles Magical Mystery) to history to crime (Jack the Ripper) to haunted and hidden places in London, etc. So, if none of their walks interest you. . .well, you're probably not interesting.
3. Take a cab, just for the heck of it.
In my humble opinion, the London Underground / Metro / Tube is one of the most extensive and convenient in the world; and the bus system is pretty good, too.
So, why take a cab? Well, these black taxis really look cool in a retro sort of way. And the cab drivers have to pass a special test, called "The Knowledge" (sounds quite grand and impressive, doesn't it? :D), before they are allowed to get behind the wheel. Generally, it takes two to four years of study before one can take and pass the exam!
4. Notting Hill isn't for everyone.
If you love antiques, go ahead and visit Notting Hill on a weekday.
If you love markets and bargaining for antiques and other stuff, go on a Saturday morning and you'll enjoy the Portobello Road market.
But if you're a casual movie fan who was charmed by the movie "Notting Hill", starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, be prepared to be disappointed. VERY disappointed.
Why? Well, the travel bookshop owned by Hugh Grant has been sold, and is now closed. And the house with the blue door, where he lived? It's just a door, not a real house; and the door ain't blue anymore (it has been painted black).
In short, don't bother.
5. Brush up on your English.
But the English speak English, you might protest. True, but there are differences in word usage. It's a "bin", not a trash can; a "lift", not an elevator; a "loo", not a toilet or (God forbid) CR; a "flat", instead of apartment; "fags" (!!!) instead of cigarettes, and so on.
And don't ever ever ever refer to "football" as soccer.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Before anything else, did you know that "Holland" and "The Netherlands" are not one and the same? Surprising, huh? According to Archimon.nl (where i also got the map below), "Holland" is the former name for part of what is now known as "The Netherlands". The black part of this map is the current Holland, the rest of the map is not. Holland these days constitutes two out of a total of twelve provinces that make up The Netherlands.
Check out World Atlas for a more detailed explanation.
Of course, for tourists, it really doesn't matter so much; and we'll leave the technicalities to the locals and go our merry way.
1. Everyone speaks anglais.
You will be relieved to know that unlike the dear French, the locals in Amsterdam are all capable (and willing) of speaking English. In fact, they take pride in their ability to do so.
Knowing basic greetings in Dutch (especially if you are staying or going out with Dutch friends) is welcome, but not really essential.
2. Canal cruise is a crushing bore. Walk instead.
Most of the tourist attractions in Central Amsterdam are walking distance of each other, albeit a long walk at times.
A typical canal cruise lasts for an hour, with recorded commentary on board ("To your left is. . . .") which can be boring after the first ten minutes or so.
Whilst the house architecture is indeed lovely, it is a better use of time to walk and explore around on foot.
3. Visit the Anne Frank House. Visit the Anne Frank House. Visit the Anne Frank House.
For me, this is the one absolute must. Why? Simply because the evil that prematurely cut short the lives of Anne Frank and other Jews is still present in our world, and we must remember and never let it happen again.
4. There's a reason why it's called RED Light District.
Go ahead, and gawk, ogle, stare and salivate all you want over the girls at Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District. For the uninitiated, the girls rent these windows or glass doors per day, and attract customers by standing in various states of déshabillément.
The RLD is a safe place, even at night, mainly due to the sheer number of people curiously milling around and taking in the sights. Japanese tour groups (with the leader waving a small flag), present!
Should you desire to sample the goods, as it were, do steer clear of windows lit with blue lights. Why? Errr. . .i will quote from Amsterdam Advisor: "To indicate they [girls] aren't technically women, or born as such. They are transgenders, travestites. . ."
Caveat emptor, indeed!! :D
5. A coffee shop is not a coffee house, nor a cafe.
"Coffee shops" are places where anyone over the age of 18 can buy weed/hash/cannabis/marijuana, and smoke it right on the premises.
If you're not into smoking, there are "space cakes" (food products, such as muffins, brownies, etc., that have cannabis as an ingredient) available. Be aware, though, that these are 3-5X more potent that smoking marijuana, so you might get 'high' and hallucinate.
When in doubt, don't.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
[I'm doing a mini-series-within-a-series, named the GUS Guides. These are by-no-means-complete travel tips for readers who will be visiting for the first time the European cities i recently went to.]
PARIS. . .City of Blinding Lights, indeed. Not only is Paris billed as the (arguably) "most romantic city in the world", there is a vast array of choices with regards to what to do, see, eat and buy.
Here's some pointers to help you maximize your stay in Paris:
1. Do not just show up at Eiffel Tower.
(Taken from the official website - M. Chazeau)
Not unless you want to get into the horrendous, outdoor queue (estimated waiting time is generally more than one hour).
The best course of action is to plan what day and time you wish to visit the Eiffel Tower, and reserve your ticket online at their official website. When you arrive, you go directly to the line specifically for prepaid/pre-booked ticket holders (whilst directing a smug glance at the poor souls who just showed up, and have been suffering in the queue).
Oh, another thing. Do try to go up from ground level to the 2nd floor (or vice versa) using the stairs (total of 704 steps!), rather than taking the lift. It will make you realize the enormity of this structure.
2. The 'Mona Lisa' is NOT a must-see.
(Photo credit: Travelandtourismtoday.blogspot.com)
If you love architecture, go to the Louvre and debate whether I.M. Pei's glass pyramid (which was built in 1989, and serves as the central entrance to the museum) is a fantastic addition, or a colossal eyesore.
If you love art, go ahead and check out the 35,000 or so works on display. But if you are just going to the Louvre to see Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting 'Mona Lisa', forget it.
It is barely bigger than a postage stamp (yes, i exaggerate, but not by much); and quite frankly, she looks a bit dumpy and creepy.
3. The French are actually very nice people.
Yes, they do pretend not to understand nor speak English. The trick here is for you, dear tourist, to make an effort to learn some basic French words and phrases before your trip.
Not only will it help in asking for directions, reading signs, etc., it disarms the locals when they see a tourist speaking in mangled French, and they will be generally more helpful and pleasant to you.
4. Buy good chocolate.
Paris has a lot of local artisanal chocolate and pastry shops, quite ideal for gift-giving. To put it bluntly, your loved ones will appreciate these goodies much more than the usual mass-market brands like Hershey, Nestle, Lindt, etc.!
La Maison du Chocolat is a good old standby. Check out Choco Paris site for more listings of shops you can visit, mainly in the St. Germain-des-Pres area.
5. Do join a walking tour.
Part of the fun of being in Paris is exploring the different neighborhoods, and you will be spoilt for choice: Latin Quarter, La Marais ("The Marsh"), Montmartre, St. Germain-des-Pres, etc. Joining a walking tour group not only provides you a guide who dishes out historical tidbits and insider gossip, it is a good way to meet fellow tourists as well.
If you are not historically-minded, there is the "Da Vinci Code" walk offered by some tour operators (yes, that novel).
Even more fun would be to just keep on walking around the area(s) of your interest after the tour, savor the scenery, and explore as you go along. So what if you get lost? Ah, that's where those basic French lessons come in.
Ayez beaucoup d'amusement!!
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
(This is the start [and possibly the end] of a series of posts regarding my recent trip to Amsterdam-Paris-London. Yes, dear reader, i have been slacking off big time)
Rushing to catch a connecting flight in the gigantic Schipol airport, with barely enough time to wolf down a cold sandwich and soda lunch before boarding, does not do much to put one in a good mood.
But while making a quick stop a the toilet before my flight, look at what i saw:
See it? No? Here's a close-up look below:
Yup, i could hardly believe my eyes either. The Dutch (the very same people who buy and smoke marijuana legally in 'coffeeshops', and make the Red Light District in Amsterdam a tourist spot for tour groups and families) have engraved a "fly" right on the porcelain bowl.
Apparently, there are scientific studies that show that: a) Men like to imagine themselves hitting on flies whilst they pee; and b) Putting a fly as a fixed target improves aim, and reduces the amount of pee that lands on everywhere else except into the bowl.
Simple, cheap and elegant solution, eh? Environment-friendly, to boot. Not to mention fun. :D Pretty fantastic, i'd say.
Whoever thought this one up, there must be something good in the pot they're smoking.
(Photos above are from www.urinal.net)
Saturday, May 28, 2011
Flashback: I recall visiting Tirta Spa four summers ago, with my friends R.T. and S., when it was barely a month old and just in its soft opening stage. Not even a website yet at that time! I somehow stumbled on their telephone number (courtesy of Google results), and decided to call this spa that i've never heard of and that not a single travel/tourist website had written about yet.
Now: How times have changed indeed! The spa is going strong, thanks to the hands-on approach of its owner, Ms. En Calvert. In fact, Tirta Spa won "Best Day Spa of the Year" at the AsiaSpa 2010 awards held in Hong Kong.
Thus, a return trip to the island proved to be a good excuse to revisit Tirta Spa, and catch up with Ms. En, who was svelte and impossibly well-tanned and gracious as ever.
One major change was their newly-launched sub-brand, “Prashant” , which takes its name from the Sanskrit word, “Shant,” meaning “Great Peace or Extreme Calm”.
Prashant Spa is located within the Tirta Spa estate, and has its own spa menu distinct from Tirta Spa. Ms. En explained that Prashant was geared for bigger groups of friends/family who come to the spa and want to have their massages and/or treatments together.
Thus, they put up a separate villa (see above picture) for Prashant, with separate Mens' and Womens' massage (around 5 - 6 beds each) and shower areas. By contrast, the existing Tirta villas are meant for couples.
I was quite taken with the wooden door serving as entrance to the Prashant villa. Ms. En shared that it came all the way from India, where she had taken some courses in Ayurvedic medicine.
(Yup, those white slippers were waiting for me! :D)
Likewise, the treatments and services offered by Prashant are more or less the same as those of Tirta, with minor modifications.
Since i was here early in the morning, i was the only guest present, and could have hopscotched around naked if i wanted to. (Kidding! :D)
Interestingly, Ms. En shared that 90% of their guests are foreigners, which she conceded was partly due to the premium prices they charged. I totally agreed with her assessment that what Tirta / Prashant was offering were not merely spa treatments, but the feeling of being pampered and being relaxed in a quiet place away from the frantic frenzy of the beachfront.
Anyways, being not quite foreign and being definitely a cheapo, i availed of the Neroli Facial Package (consisting of Prashant Signature Massage and Neroli Facial Scrub), which was being offered at a 30% "opening discount". YESSS!!!
My therapist expertly alternated light, fluttery strokes, with stronger, firmer ones with just the right amount of pressure; and in no time at all, i was in that zone wherein one is in a dream-like state, yet still subconsciously aware of one's surroundings, before finally surrendering to relaxed sleep.
As for the Neroli facial, all i could remember was the pleasant scents of the stuff being gently rubbed and massaged on my face. Whatever they were, they worked on my tough hide (haha), as my facial skin felt real soft and smooth when i woke up.
So, i guess you could say i got "shanted" during this visit! In an extremely good way! :D
A return trip to the island (and the spa) is definitely in the cards! Hopefully, it won't take another 4 years, though. :D
(Tirta Spa / Prashant Spa is open from 9:00AM to 9:00PM daily, and is located quite near the Boracay cockpit. Travel time via tricycle from the White Beach front would be around 15 minutes. I'd recommend coming in early for your appointment, just to meander around and take in the lovely views of the estate.
Check out their website here)
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Ahh, Boracay. . . .fine powdery white sand that's cool to the feet, clear blue skies, wild parties at night, one of the Top Ten beaches in the world, etc. Yeah, you know all the cliches.
I'm temporarily turning over the blog to my cousin, Grumpy Urban Beach Bum (GUBB), who was on the island recently and has a mouthful to share for those visiting Boracay soon. Especially for those who eschew active pursuits, and just like to bum around at the beach.
Stuff to like on the island (in no particular order):
1. Jonah's fruit shakes. An institution for a good reason. Still the best in terms of flavor, variety of choices and consistency.
2. Real Coffee & Tea Cafe's calamansi muffin. Moist and tangy and doesn't scrimp on the filling, it lives up to the hype. Best eaten when warm.
Here it is:
And here it is again, after 3 seconds: (Yummy!)
3. White Beach (Station 1), specifically the section encompassing Fridays, Discovery Shores, Two Seasons, White House, Pearl of the Pacific, Seawind, and Estacia Uno (formerly Waling-Waling).
Forget the sweaty masses and nauseous bedlam at Station 2, and the . . . well, just plain jolog-ity of Station 3; and hang around at this part of Station 1.
The sand is at its finest, the beach frontage at its widest (even during high tide), the water at its crystal-clearest, and the lovely bikini babes parading around in their 2-piece suits at their hottest! [wiping drool from corner of mouth]
4. Noli Aurillo, the country's premier progressive acoustic guitarist, wields the magic of his instrument M-W-F this summer at Kasbah Moroccan resto. Catch his Michael Jackson tribute medley here.
5. Tirta Spa, voted as "Best Day Spa of the Year 2010" by AsiaSpa, and with good reason. Experience relaxation at its finest [separate blog post to follow].
Warning, though: Not for the light of wallet. Nevertheless, for the avid and discriminating spa enthusiasts, well worth trying out!
6. Henna tattoos. An effective way to draw attention away from one's protuding beer belly and towards one's (hopefully) bulging. . .umm, bicep. Yeah, i have it on good authority that those hot bikini babes fall for the "ethnic-tattoo-former-Bilibid-gang-member" look. :D
7. Piped-in beach music at Two Seasons Boracay resort. All-day long! Eclectic mix of chill-out music and remix versions of more mainstream artists like Katy Perry, Regina Spektor, Snow Patrol, Moby, etc.
Perfect for easy listening, while lounging on the deck chairs while working on one's tan while reading a book and sipping a margarita or an ice-cold beer and feasting on chips, while girl-watching (don't tell me you already forgot about the bikini babes, tsk tsk), all at the same time!
Not all's bed and roses though. Here's why:
Starbucks. Yellow Cab Pizza. Shakey's Pizza. All right on the beachfront.
Shouldn't there be some sort of ordinance against these monstrosities?
Saturday, January 01, 2011
G.U.S. NITPICKS!! (v. 21)
ISABELO GARDEN RESTO
Actually, i had sworn off writing restaurant reviews, since so many other bloggers are able to do this much better than i can; and i just reserve my efforts for the out-of-town, so-called "destination" restaurants (think Antonio's Tagaytay).
But then Isabelo's was located in the shoe city of Marikina, which, for me, might as well be at the ends of the earth, since it seems so remote and far, far away like a distant galaxy.
Add to this the fact that my wine-swilling friends, D. and Jbs., waxed rhapsodic about the food and ambiance of the place, so it was a go.
Before we get on the car and drive off, here's a few things one should know about Isabelo Garden resto:
1. They are open for DINNER only (6 PM onwards).
2. One has to make advance reservations. No reservations, no food for you!
3. One also has to order from the menu in advance.
4. The owner-chef, Portia, generally does the cooking of the food herself.
5. They will give you the exact address and location map, only AFTER you make a confirmed reservation. Ergo, curious sightseers aren't exactly welcome! :D
So, off the three of us went for our foodie excursion. Unfortunately, the girls neglected to print out the map, relying instead on their memories of the directions from their previous visit.
This resulted in us getting lost in a major major way, and we tried asking policemen, a hospital doorman, tricycle drivers, etc. for directions, to no avail. D. called the resto, but their landline was not working.
"The food had better be worth all this trouble," i muttered grumpily, whilst entertaining thoughts of ejecting Jbs. from the car.
Finally, we turned into the small, extremely narrow Isabelo St. and honked at the slightly rusty, totally non-descript, grey-colored and unmarked gate of Isabelo Garden resto.
First, a brief word or two about the place. Isabelo aims to project a rustic, "feels-like-home" garden setting, and i'd say it overwhelmingly succeeds in this aspect. With the ancestral trees and assorted plants and cool breeze, one could very well forget that just outside the gates is a booming, industrial city with concrete roads and new commercial complexes.
There are various seating options, depending on the size of the group. One can dine on the garden, alfresco-style, or inside the equally-charming wooden house, which
doubles as an art studio/gallery.
Now, on to the FOOOOOOODDD! :D We had pre-ordered the following:
Creamy Italian Paella (PHP550.00)
This paella was a bit moist and soupy, i had thought it was almost like risotto. Creamy risotto at that, with sausage, chicken, and more than a hint of cheese.
Ultimately, it didn't matter what shape or form it was; this paella was simply packed with flavour, rich and delicious, albeit a bit heavy on the stomach.
Orange Herb Chicken (PHP660.00 for small size)
This is Isabelo's signature dish - one whole chicken, stuffed inside with orange peels and roasted for 4 hours. It comes served with squash, potatoes and carrots.
Moist, tender and juicy! I could have inhaled the entire chicken all by myself, come to think of it :D
Pizza Rustica (PHP430.00) - thin crust, with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese, and roasted veggies (zucchini, mushrooms, etc.) on top.
I was initially leery of this dish, being a major carnivore; but after two bites of the crunchy pizza, i was sold! Great way to eat veggies.
Mango Float (PHP110) - Isabelo's ice cream cake. This was good, but maybe because i had already eaten too much of the other dishes, it wasn't anything fantastic. Passable.
So, obviously we have a happy, positive verdict: The food at Isabelo's not only lives up to the hype; coupled with the nice, relaxing ambiance, it is worth all the trouble getting lost in the (dare i say it) boondocks of Marikina!
I'll leave you all with this nice table accent. It's small, deft touches like this that make all the difference, no?
A return trip is in the cards, indeed-y.
Photo credits to MBismonte.
(For more details regarding menu and reservations, please check out Isabelo Garden's website. I will not publish the exact location, but here's a hint: It is very near the Marikina Shoe Museum)