The wonders of Alta

One of my favorite stops during my trip through Norway with Insight Vacations® was at the town of Alta.  Known for their slate industry, slabs of this compound element line the Alta Fjord:

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There is even a statue to commemorate slate workers in the center of town:

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We had a chance to visit one of these slate quarries one morning:

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And saw the experts execute their craft:

image  We even got to cut up a coaster ourselves as a souvenir!

These tiles get shipped out to line rooftops and walkways all over the world:

image  Pretty amazing.

Later that day, we headed over to the Alta Museum, also known as the World Heritage Rock Art Center.  Here there are numerous paintings found on rocks dating back before the ice age:

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To see these rocks, you walk along a scenic path by the fjord:

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Where you can learn about the ancient rock art with audio guides:

image  (http://www.alta.museum.no/sider/artikler.asp?hovedmeny=hovedmeny-engelsk&meny=forside-engelsk&forside=true&mal=forside)

Downtown Alta is also the starting point for the great husky race, Finnmarketslopet:

image  A race where sleds are pulled by teams of husky dogs and lead by an experienced musher, it is similar to the Iditarod race in Alaska.

We were lucky enough to visit a husky farm for dinner in a traditional Norwegian home:

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And see a demonstration of the sled by one of Norway’s great racing champions:

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We even got some quality time with the dogs at home!

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At the center of town is also the Northern Lights Cathedral:

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We didn’t get to see the northern lights but I can imagine how beautiful this must be with the greens and yellows swirling in the background.

Tripadvisor® highly recommended a meal at Du Verden.  Located in downtown Alta and a short walk from my hotel, I thought, why not?

image  I dined with a glass of house white wine in a space decorated with paintings of ballerinas, reindeer pelt, and Thai religious sculptures.  The waitstaff was super friendly and though I walked in about 15 minutes before closing, they stayed open for me to finish my meal.

The decor pretty much reflected the menu – random and noncohesive.  I started with smoked whale meat with clowberryroot syrup, sour cream, crisp bread, onions, and parsley:

image  Whale meat was a little gummy and the sour cream did not help.  Overall, the dish was not that great and made me a little nauseous.

Next, salmon with dill, apple, avocado and bearnaise sauce:

image  This was described as an appetizer but the portion was enormous.  The salmon was served cold and the apples raw but the bearnaise sauce was super thick, warm, and rich.  Needless to say, from the picture and the description, this was gross.

My main course was grilled stockfish with mustard sauce, bacon and veggies.  There were fish flakes on top, which were very random.  The stockfish was tough and the sauce was weird.  Portion ratio of potato to bacon fish was way off and the dish was just a mess.

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I was here in early May, so it was too warm to visit or stay at the igloo hotel (another must see in Alta).  Must do that next time!

Heading out from Alta, we saw the remnants of an old bomb crater:

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As we headed back into the fjords.

image  Can’t wait to come again!

Terracotta Warriors of China

The main attraction to visit while in the city of Xi’an, China, is the grave of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his famed terracotta warriors.  It is now a Unesco® heritage site spanning over several buildings to house these statues and all the archaeologic efforts to preserve them:

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The soldiers were built to protect Emperor Huang in his afterlife and the shear number of them in this grave is incredible:

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No matter which way you look, the rows of soldiers seem to go on forever:

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The divisions between the row of solders are not intentional but a result of the burial. It has been a slow process to carefully separate each soldier:

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Check out the detail of these guys:

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With still so much to go:

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And that is just building one!  There is even less excavated in the next building:

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Sometimes, the soldiers are taken out first to reconstruct before being put back in their original spot:

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That is because the soldiers are often found in pieces:

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But it is cool to see that the detail in the armor:

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is what was actually used during that time:

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Most informative is their museum with examples and descriptions of what has been recovered and reconstructed:

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The Emperor even had carriages in the tomb!

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The detail in what was found here is truly remarkable but it is also makesme sick to realize how much slave labor there must have been to accomplish this.  I hope that when people come to visit this site, they are impressed not by the concept of a crazy Emperor and his need to hold on to all these material goods in the afterlife, but the artistry of all the slaves who had dedicated their lives to this.

walk along the coast in Miraflores

In the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru, there is a beautiful walk along cliffs over the Pacific Ocean called the Circuito de Playas.  It was overcast during my visit, but I could still appreciate the beauty of the views:

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There are well marked paths along the cliffs, making it safe and easy to for a stroll or a jog:

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With gorgeous flowers:

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And various pieces of arts and parks that line the way:

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Most famous of which is their Parque del Amor:

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This was my favorite, with all their beautiful mosaics:

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There is even a lighthouse to mark one end of the road:

peru2014-1 120 where locals often do Tai Chi.

On the other end, you have more modern structures with an infinity fountain:

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And, of course, a mall:

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complete with restaurants, modern shops, and a viewing platform!

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It’s a very modern part of town and many young folks were out jogging and and just enjoying the beauty of Miraflores!  I mean, after going there, who wouldn’t???

 

 

 

hanging out north of san pedro town

Southwest flies to Belize now!

img_8271  And for less than $500 round trip to Belize City.

From there, it’s a easy hop over to San Pedro Island via these small jets with Tropic Air:

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Where you are nice and cozy with the pilots!

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Soaring over Caye Caulker:

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And into town:

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we were met by the festive sounds of local song and dance

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We stayed at the Grand Caribe Hotel and Resort:

img_9091  which is about 30 minutes north of San Pedro Town.  http://www.grandcaribebelize.com/

In addition to three pools and 2 jacuzzies, there is a cabana for excursions and activities:

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And their own dock for you to be picked up for day trips and for the water taxi shuttle to pick up and drop you off:

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There is a strip of sand to lounge on:

img_8661  And interestingly, it is man-made.  The waters around San Pedro island are quite shallow, and it is natural for one to go in and out of the water through the sea grass.  But to accommodate tourists, many resorts like the Grand Caribe have a man made beach to create the beach getaway ambiance that people come for.  Afterall, fish tacos for lunch are so much cooler on the beach:

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We had a beachside room with a balcony:

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The hotel is made up of various 1-2 bedroom apartments, where the rooms are colorful and beautifully decorated:

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And gorgeous bedrooms, each with their own bath:

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On site, there is a rooftop bar and restaurant called Rain and it is delicious!  Cocktails like these:

img_8314  are so refreshing.  Mine was the one in the back – the coco loco or a coconut cream mojito!

With so much to choose from, we got apps for dinner:

img_8319  From back to front:  coconut shrimp with a pineapple ginger sauce, fried conch with a delicious tartar sauce, and a ceviche of shrimp, conch, olives, onion and pepper.

One evening, we caught the sunset on a walk behind the resort:

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And ended up at the Akbol Yoga Retreat and Eco Resort next door (http://akbol.com/).  We grabbed dinner at their “soul kitchen” starting with a papaya milkshake:

img_8376  Check out that gorgeous sky in the background!

Then a lobster ceviche

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Pupusa with corn masa tortilla, pico de gallo, and shrimp:

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Salbutes (corn fried masa tortilla with cabbage, cilantro, tomato, and shrimp) and Panades (empanada with cabbage, cilantro, lime, and shrimp):

img_8379  So yummy.

And we ended dinner with their version of coconut pie to go:

img_8672  Full of cinnamon and spices, this is like a dense nut cake and not the coconut cream pie that I love so much.

In the other direction from Grand Caribe, we had dinner another night at Aji, a “tapas” restaurant:

img_9083  I got things started with a strawberry madness cocktail with strawberry juice, bailey’s, vodka, and coconut cream.

You can’t have tapas without gambas al ajillo:

img_9085  shrimp with garlic, chili, and olive oil, this was actually not half bad.

But I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity for Caribbean cuisine while in Belize, so I got their grilled fish in black spices with a side of veggies:

img_9086  This was terrible.

Did I mention you can get Fanta® Ginger Ale for less than a dollar in Belize????

img_9125  Other more popular brands from the US (schweppes and canada dry) were $3-4 per CAN!  This was my favorite drink by far!

About a 10 minute walk away from the Grand Caribe is the Truck Stop – with food trucks full of great food:

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I ate at Arepas, which is also the word for Columbian corn cakes.  They served up arepas as sandwiches!  With parilla steak:

img_9127  served up with grilled onions and chimichurri sauce.

Their mole duck:

img_9128  shredded duck in mole sauce with pickled carrots and creama sauce.

And the El diablo:

img_9126  shrimp with lime, a Columbian creole tomato salad, pickled cabbage, creama, and guacasa.

All three were SOOOO good an perfect with a side of yuka fries:

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For dessert, guanabana ice cream and coconut mango sorbet the the truck across the way:

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Behind the Truck Stop, there is a place to lounge and roast a pig if you are so inclined:

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Just beware of the crocodiles…

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Before we knew it, it was time to go home.

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See you later, paradise!

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Check out my other posts on my travels through Belize by entering “belize” into the search function on the homepage of the blog.

Hilton Waikoloa

I can’t believe that it has been almost a year since my short get-a-way to the Big Island of Hawaii (see previous posts by searching for “big island” on my homepage).  I had written about some of the great restaurants we had dined at and our excursions to local beaches, waterfalls, and volcanoes…but what about the relaxation part?  Good question.  While there is a lot of beauty to be seen around the islands of Hawaii, nothing beats having a beautiful place to lounge around and do NOTHING. 🙂

Per recommendation of my cousin, who is well traveled around these parts, we had stayed at the Hilton Waikoloa Village (http://www.hiltonwaikoloavillage.com/).  Off Waikoloa beach, it is a village – complete with hotel rooms, time shares, and opportunities for people to just come lounge for the day.  There are restaurants and shops on site, so you really don’t have to leave at all!  There is even a Na Hoku shop (see previous post, “Na Hoku”) on site!

The decor was an Asian theme with paintings, mosaics, and sculptures displayed throughout:

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Check out this Koi Pond:

IMG_9227  It is actually located in a Japanese themed area with traditional Japanese home type structures for you to have meetings or weddings in.

I liked these ocean theme sculptures along the resort:

IMG_8676  Kinda generates an exotic feel to the place.

 

Their pools are awesome with waterfalls and waterslides:

 

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And even a sand based wading pool for those fearful of actually going in to the ocean:

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Walkways line the ocean front for gorgeous strolls:

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And cabanas to lounge around in:

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Nice view!

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The waters were quite rough but that didn’t stop the local fishermen going out with nets!

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My favorite part of the resort was their private lagoon!  You could lounge by it, go boating, kayaking, or paddle boating:

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And snorkeling!  The water was quite shallow and very clear.

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Yup, there is a TURTLE in that last picture!!  Seeing it from above, made it easier to follow as we got into the water:

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My friend is a terrible swimmer and this lagoon was a perfect fit for her.  It was shallow enough to stand in but a conduit to the ocean provided an abundance of sea life to see:

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check out the fish and corals:

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That’s an EEL!!

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The lagoon is fed by these ocean waters:

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I swam out here for a bit but not too long because the waves were pretty rough.

The biggest attraction of the village, however, is their Dophin Quest!  An interactive opportunity for you to get up close and personal to dolphins!

IMG_8722IMG_8723  A great place to swim with dolphins!

With so much to do and see, there is a monorail shuttle to take you all around if you don’t want to walk:

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To eat, there are some nice restaurants and casual ones.  Since we ate out most nights, we hung around the resort for our daytime meals.  They had a breakfast buffet complete with an Asian porridge bar and made to order omelet station:

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There was a pizza joint with Hawaiian theme flavors on thick chewy crusts.  You could also choose your own topics for the same price.  This really hit the spot after a long day of swimming and snorkeling!

 

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A poolside deli had huge sandwiches and make your own nacho bar:

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with local beer in a can!

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And don’t forget the snacks!  Like these yummies at the gift shop:

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At the tip of the peninsula of the village is Buddha Point:

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It is the best place to catch the sunset:

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Gorgeous.

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Hope to see you again soon, Waikoloa!

stops within finland

When on a recent tour through Scandinavia with Insight Vacations last spring, I was wary of the long drive through Finland on the way to the top of Europe (https://justcallmequeen.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/norkapp-top-of-the-europe/).  But, I was pleasantly surprised with the regular stops we had through the day at very scenic and interesting parts of the country.  Coming out of Helsinki on the way to Kuopio, our first stop was at a ski jump training site:

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Olympians train here and being up close to one gave me a new appreciation to how high that jump is!

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Then, a stop at Mikkeli, where Mannheim had his headquarters during the 30 day winter war between Finland and Russia over the border.  A statue of Mannheim graces the main square:

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Behind the train station:

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is the old train that Mannheim and his men used

image  kept as a memorial.  There is also a museum detailing the history of this small town:

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Up on a hill above the city center is St. Michael’s church:

image  So pretty.

Our destination that day was to Kuopio (https://justcallmequeen.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/fog-runs-through-kuopio/).  Not bad for our first day.

Our first pit stop the next day coming out of Kuopio was at Oulu.  A lakeside town, where the snow had not completely melted by early spring and the kayakers were already out!

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There were many walking and biking paths around, as locals zipped in and out from their lakeside homes:

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There were some modern art pieces around town

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Juxtaposed to more baroque style buildings.

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Along the riverfront, these old tar topped fishing houses are now trendy boutiques and eatery:

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Behind these houses is Market Square, which was hopping on this Saturday afternoon with stalls of vendors selling clothes, knick knacks, and food:

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Like this Finnish pancake (which is like a crepe) filled with your choice of sweet or savory filling:

image  I got mine with tuna.  Interesting vehicle to serve proteins, but I liked it a lot.

Most popular was the stand that sold these goodies:

image  Fried smelt and salmon served with a tomato sauce and garlic sauce for dipping.  I didn’t catch the name of this stand but you can’t miss it – it is in the center of of the square and a constant long line of people waiting to get their eats.

For dessert, how about some traditional Finnish donuts and wine cooler:

image  That really hit the spot.

More to eat could be found inside their gorgeous market hall:

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guarded by this guy:

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and surrounded by bikes as patrons gather to eat.

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Public restrooms are sparse but available at the public library on the other side of the square (wink wink)

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Our stop that night was at Rovanemi (https://justcallmequeen.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/rovanemi-capital…-and-santas-home/), where we had a great couple of days!

Heading out from Rovanemi a few days later, we made a stop at this 400 year old wooden church:

image  It is amazing me how well this has held up in all this snow and cold weather!

Heading up to colder lands,

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We arrive at the old god panning town of Tankavara!

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Crazy – who would have thunk to find gold panning in Finland!?!?  This was my favorite part of town – signs to other towns in the world to pan for gold:

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Then up to above the tree line:

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Apparently, trees can’s grow once the altitude gets too high:

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There is a platform to get a better view of the line:

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The platform was complete with plaques to orient you in to which direction you are looking towards.  Here is the plaque pointing you to Russia!

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Then, to our destination for the night – Italo!  Check out this midnight sun set:

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Which rivaled this gorgeous sunrise!

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Our last stop before crossing the border into Norway, we paid a visit to the Sami museum at their headquarters in the Lapland:

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It is a tasteful museum, detailing their homes (both inside and out)imageimage

As well as their rituals, beliefs, and sacred items:

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What a beautiful country and so glad for this opportunity to drive through Finland!

white rabbit

On a recent trip to Moscow, Russia, I made sure to get reservations to dine at the White Rabbit.  Alternating in rank between 18 and 23 in the world, this restaurant with views overlooking the city has been drawing a lot of attention.

I booked my reservation online.  Just an FYI, a reservation could not be secured until 2 weeks prior to the date you want to dine and for an extra 20,000 rubles (approx $300 USD), you could secure a specific table (i.e. table by the window with a view).  I should have known with that attempt to extort an amount of money that was likely more than the cost of a meal, it was not your average restaurant or city.

I was seated in the interior of the restaurant (I chose to use my $300 for something else) as the sun started to set after a flash thunderstorm:

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and got things started with a glass of riesling:

image  You can order a la carte or a set course menu.  I got the set menu for the night!

A snack of a gelee made from apples, honey and radish was served in a scarlet flower came out first:

image  sweet and refreshing.

Next came 2 bites of oatmeal loaf crust with a cheese mouse and dried salmon, followed by a carrot, raspberry, and vodka chaser.

image  I was not a fan of these bites but loved the chaser.  The mousse completely over powered these bites and was not seasoned well.

A swan liver ryazhenka (cheese milk) topped with an apple marshmallow was fired up table side:

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That was to followed by a spoonful of birch tree sap jelly chaser:

image  I think the dish would have been more successful with the jelly laced into the cheese.

True to most set course menus, the bread came out after the appetizers – image  Here is a birch bread with Russian butter and a hearing rabbit compound butter.  The herring rabbit compound butter was much better than I expected, which was a gamey mess.  It was however, a smooth and salty yummy spread.

This colorful creation started off the protein courses – king crab, pike caviar, and a cured egg yolk:

image  The cured yolk was a little weird but the crab and caviar were yummy.

I am not a fan of lamb but after a successful experience with lamb at Frantzen in Stockholm (see previous post), I was hopeful for this next dish of lamb meat with cucumber, sour shchi (russian cabbage soup) with a bit of smoked hearing on a cracker:

image  Not bad.  The lamb was not gamey and I really enjoyed the shchi.  The herring on the crackers was yummy but seemed like an afterthought to this dish.

Kundyums (russian dumplings) with bird cherry flour, roasted elk tongues, and eels were next:

  This was just ok.  I didn’t feel that this dish was special or cohesive.

A duo of turnip and parsnip soup with root parsley and jerk duck was the next dish:

image  Flavors were good, but could have been more focused.

Sterlet (fish) with sour grain and potato mash with fried crucian sauce was first of the main proteins served:

image  The potatoes were airy and the sour grains were yummy.

A palate cleanser of fresh pear dipped in honey with red caviar was served between proteins:

image  Hate to say it but this was my favorite part of the meal and the only one I highlighted on Instagram®!

The second protein was a slow cooked short ribs with mushroom and potatoes, covered in kvass sauce:

image  Kvass is a rye beer that is often homemade around the Moscow area.  This was pretty good.

Then, dessert!  Parsley cake and sorbet with candied parsley came out first and it was weird:

image  The texture of the sorbet was off but the candied parsley was interesting.  I couldn’t taste the parsley at all in the cake.

Black bread crisp with cheese ice cream and cottage cheese mouse was the finale:

image  For someone who hates cheese, this was actually not that bad.

Candied sugar with nuts were my parting sweets:

image  I was hoping to be able to take this sweet box home but this was not the parting gift.  Instead,  but I was given PERFUME!  The chef had worked with a perfumeria and created scents based on foods.  You could choose what you wanted and I liked “for shrimps” the best.  It was sweet and fresh, and made from shrimps!!!

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A solid meal – not the best but not half bad.  Not as good as my meal at Frantzen but since it’s rank is higher, maybe I caught them on a bad day.

http://whiterabbitmoscow.ru/ru/

A day at Sun Moon Lake

While visiting Taipei, Taiwan a few years ago, we took a day trip via bullet train to Sun Moon Lake.  Tourism is quite popular here, as evident by their efficient tourism office selling packs of tickets at the train station for 1) bus ride to the lake, 2) boat ride along the lake, 3) bus ride back to the train station.

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After about a 45-60 minute ride out to the lake, we arrived at the main boating dock:

koreataiwan2012-3 592koreataiwan2012-3 591  Here, they have a big visitor center, markets to buy snacks, and an endless amount of souvenir shops.

We headed right to our boat, wanting to make the most of our day:

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The waters were beautiful on this sunny day!

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At the other side of the main boat dock was our destination, the main village of the lake:

 

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Getting off the boat, the lake was even more beautiful looking back!

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The region is known for their honey (and the bees that make it):

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their passionfruit:

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And all sorts of other local snacks:

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Best was this shop at the junction of the two main drags across the village:

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They sell steamed buns with pork filling!

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Want to go low carb?  They have tofu buns too!

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And since tofu buns are better for you that white bread buns, why not get a tofu bun with pork belly too!?!?!

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After eating all that, it was a good time for a short hike/walk.  There were some trails heading through the forrest and the mountains to explore the area:

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Walking through, you can get a glimpse at how locals fish:

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and life around the lake:

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The main attraction here is this funicular:

 

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which takes you high above the lake and through the forest

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check out that canopy:

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Breathtaking!

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At the end of the funicular is a theme park about the indigenous people of the area:

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After some learning, you can get souvenirs of the natives and their clothing:

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Heading back, the view was amazing:

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What a day!  We were docked right before the sun set:

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We made back to Taipei before 9 pm, just in time for more adventures!

For more on my travels through Taiwan, check out my previous posts “Floating Lanterns” and “Bullet train down to Kaoshiung”

rovanemi – capital of the lapland and santa’s home

Driving up through Finland, we headed into the Laplands:

image  The northernest part of Finland, it was still covered in snow during early spring.

We spent two days in Rovanemi, the capital of the Lapland.  A small town by the river, it is simple with it’s own pedestrian only street:

image and “Angry Birds” park for kids!

One of the main industries here is lumber:

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and there is even a monument at the center of town to honor the workers:

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We visited one of their local churches:

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with this beautiful fresco depicting deliverers and sinners:

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And a monument to those who lost their lives in the Fino-Russo war:

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We got there late afternoon, just in time to walk along the river before the sun set:

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The water was so clear and the air cool as ice still floated along:

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This is my favorite photo of the whole trip – the water was so clear, it reflected the clouds:

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There were lots of places to picnic and sit around the enjoy the scenery:

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Along the way, there was also art to enjoy through tunnels you can walk and bike through:

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You guessed it, reindeer are rampant here!  We had dinner that night at a reindeer farm:

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It was so cool to see them up close and personal.  We were also treated to ritual of  chanting and ashing by a shaman in a traditional native home:

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And a dinner of reindeer meat and potatoes:

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To learn more about the indigenous people in the area, also known as the Sami people, we spent the next morning at the Artikum:

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which is a museum dedicated to Sami history.  I loved seeing their traditional clothes:

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their art:

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And exhibits on how they lived:

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and fished:

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There was also a cool section about the climate and topography of the region:

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with an ice room to talk about how cold it gets:

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and a show about the northern lights:

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My favorite, though, were these enormous photographs showing the land in the different seasons (i.e. different stages of sunlight):

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Later on, we visited one of the old farms of the region to see how life was back in the early days:

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There were old sleds:

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kitchenware:

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And weavers:

image on display.

Not to miss is the Ranua Wildlife Park where local animals are out to play:

imageimageimageimage  Beats waiting around in the wilderness for them to come out!

But the highlight was a visit to Santa’s Village:

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Where you could visit Santa himself for 40 euros:image  Too steep for my blood and you have to pay more for the photo!

Right across the village, runs the Arctic Circle:

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Not to miss, though, was a chance to send postcards from the Arctic Circle and have a letter sent from Santa to loved ones back home:

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To make sure Santa doesn’t get lost, they’ve got these great direction signs:

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What a great stop!  Culture, animals, sights, and Santa!