Venice

April 9, 2007

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I know that Paris touts its reputation as the “city for lovers”, but for my money, there is no more romantic city in the world than Venice.  When I first came here, I was about twelve, and I must confess that all I really remember from that trip is being stuck on a tour with a guide who lectured us for what seemed like hours on the historical importance of the “Bridge of Sighs“.  (This tour guide so overshadowed my memory of that first visit that I wrote a one-act comedic play about the tour in high school.)

But, even then, I could see that this was a breathtakingly romantic city.  Earlier on, my mother had seen fit to make me watch David Lean’s Summertime.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.  It’s the story of a middle-aged school teacher from the Midwest (Katherine Hepburn) who travels abroad for the first time to Venice.  At first she feels awkward and alone, but then discovers the beauty of the city and rediscovers her own beauty through an affair with a local antiques dealer (Rossano Brazzi).  It’s still one of my favorites, and it will make you want to book your tickets to Venice tomorrow.

The real-life Venice is one of the few great cities in the world that lives up to and exceeds everything you read about in the guide books and see in the postcards.  Words really can’t describe your first sight of all those gondolas and vaparettos cutting across the water, and the sound of their wake slapping against the buildings.  There are “touristy sights”, for sure.  There’s the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Square, the Guggenheim Collection and, yes, the aforementioned Bridge of Sighs.  But, all of these are mere diversions.  This is a city for romantic evening strolls along the water, and daytime urban exploring through a literal maze of twisting, turning little streets without a car in sight.

Derek and I lucked out tremendously on our room.  I had booked online at the Hotel Monaco’s website, and upon arrival we were lead out of the hotel, down a narrow street and to an unmarked door.  The bellman unlocked it and led us upstairs to what turned out to be a suite of rooms directly adjacent to St. Marks square.  Even better, the price included breakfast, and when we went down to the lobby to inquire where it was being served, we were led out to an amazing terrace overlooking the Grand Canal.  Normally, I’m not a “breakfast person”, but we ate breakfast every day we were there, soaking in that gorgeous view, being waited on hand and foot, and generally feeling like royalty.

For dinner, I splashed out and booked a table at Harry’s Bar.  This is yet another restaurant made famous by the patronage of Ernest Hemingway, and sustained by a steady flow of celebrities and crowned heads ever since.  The room itself is small and totally nondescript: straw-colored walls and a couple of brass sconces.  But, from the moment your seated, the white-jacketed wait staff swirl around your table like a ballet troupe, constantly switching out your silverware, glasses, plates, and linens in a manner that is both fawning and completely unobtrusive.  How they manage this in such a cramped space boggles the mind.  If you so much as look like your about to ask for something, they’ll already be bringing it to you before you even get a word out.

I knew I wanted to eat here for the experience and didn’t even see the menu before we sat down.  The food choices all sounded excellent, but shock of seeing the prices had me loosening my tie a little.  This was the sort of place where the soup is $40.   Harry’s Bar looks pretty innocuous from the outside, and since it’s located right next to one of the main water-bus stops, it gets a lot of foot traffic shuffling past its frosted-glass door.  Every so often, we’d see college-aged Americans in t-shirts and shorts come through the door.  The maitre’d didn’t have to shoo them away; he’d just smile and hand them the menu… at which point all the color drained from their faces and they couldn’t leave fast enough.

Our meal was incredible, from the ice-cold Martini served in a mini-highball glass to the beef carpaccio which literally melted in your mouth, and the Bellini (invented here), to the flaming dessert.  I couldn’t have asked for more.  As we were eating, a stream of diners and bar patrons stopped by the table next to ours and chatted with an elderly gentleman seated there.  After we got our jackets from the cloakroom, the old man came over and shook our hands.  Only later did I realize it was multi-millionaire owner Arrigo Cipriani.  I think I said “Thanks.”

We stumbled back to the room considerably poorer, but also happy, fully sated and sleepy, collapsing into bed and listening to the sound of tourists shuffling through the streets below us, music wafting from the orchestras in the square, and the calls of the gondoliers echoing in the distance.  It truly doesn’t get any better.

More info: Venice


Milan

April 7, 2007

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I don’t have much to say about Milan, as Derek and I were on there for a day.  I can tell you that on the whole it was not as “glamorous” as I was expecting.  And, if there’s one “must see” for Milan it is without a doubt the view from the top of the cathedral. 

The climb up to the roof snakes out and around the hundreds of flying buttresses, columns, statues, gargoyles, and every other type of gothic architectural decoration known to man.  Never have I seen so much intricate marble-work on a church at such an amazingly close distance.  You can literally reach out and touch it all.  And, your reward upon reaching the summit is not just the spectacular view of the city, but the uneasy yet awe-inspiring feeling of standing on the actual slanted marble roof of the nave, which vibrates below your feet with from bellow of the grand pipe organ inside the cathedral.  True, there are plenty of churches that let you climb up their bell towers or domes, but Milan’s is the only one I’ve ever been to that lets you run around the entire roof.  It’s a tremendous experience.

More info: Milan Cathedral


Prague

April 5, 2007

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My first impression of Prague was an overwhelming sense of deja vu.  Not because I’ve seen Prague in the background of a thousand movies, standing in for every european city from Vienna to Paris.  But, because I’ve already been to Budapest, which I’ve come to realize is sort of “Prague Lite”.  Both cities are built across two sides of a river; both have an “old town” mountainous side topped with a castle.  Both also have a flatter, more cosmopolitan side with tree-lined shopping boulevards.  Both have a signature bridge across the river; both have a grand fin de siecle train station.  Both have a metro system with three lines that meet in the center of town.

Prague is bigger, grander than Budapest.  But, it also feels a little more impersonal as a result.  Budapest has a mix of stunning Art Nouveau and post-modern architecture, palatial thermal baths, and amazing Hungarian cuisine, all packed into a fairly walkable area.  By contrast, Prague felt a little lacking on all counts.  Make no mistake, it’s still a beautiful city, but for me it occupied an awkward middle-ground, too large to be intimate, not large enough to be grand.  Prague also has a bit of an edge to it, a little grimy, a little dark (Dare I mention Kafka here?), and way too touristy.

More info: Prague


Mall of America

December 10, 2006

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I often joke to people that when I visit a new city for the first time, be it Milan or Hong Kong, London or Lompoc, I immediately head for the mall.  This isn’t really true, but I have to confess I’ve been to malls in Paris, Budapest and Helsinki: places where malls aren’t really the main attraction.  When Derek and I moved from London to Reading, my first comment about the new town was: “At least they have a good mall.”

I guess my mall-ophile nature stems from my southern-California upbringing.  Just as in the movie Mallrats, hanging out at the mall was about the only exciting thing to do in some of the towns I grew up in.  When I was a little kid, we lived for a year in Littleton, Colorado.  There was a mall there I’ll never forget: the Cinderella Mall, which despite it’s cheery name was actually a pretty creepy place.  It had a basement level of mostly closed shops, which someone had the brilliant idea of retheming as “ye olde Englishe streete” complete with cobblestone floors and gas lamps.  But, being in the dark basement, the effect was less Charles Dickens and more Jack the Ripper.

My favorite mall of all time is still the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.  For quite a while, it held the title of largest mall in the world.  In addition to the carousel and requisite fountains, they had a restaurant (sadly, no longer there) called 20th Century Limited, which (as the name suggests) was themed like a train station.  You walked down brick platforms strewn with prop luggage, past giant black engines spewing steam, and dined aboard gently rocking train cars with rear-projected scenery outside the window and the click-clack sound effects of the train tracks.  I loved it!

It should come as no surprise then that when I needed a relatively short trip to reach the magical number of airline miles required to keep my Silver Elite frequent-flier status, I chose Minneapolis and the Mall of America as my destination.  Seriously though, for the number of miles I needed (and wanting to travel non-stop), the choice was between Minneapolis and Detroit, and who in their right mind would choose Detroit?

So, yes, I traveled from London to Minneapolis, got off the plane, checked into my hotel, spent the entire day at the Mall of America, went back to my hotel, slept, and got back on a plane for London the next day.  Crazy perhaps?  Maybe, but I got my frequent flier points, and now I don’t have to stand in any lines at the airport, so ha!

How was the Mall of America?  Not bad, but also not as exciting as I hoped.  For one thing, it felt smaller that I expected.  I’m not sure why.  It is huge.  Maybe it’s because so much of the space is taken up by the amusement park (see photo above) in the center.  Either way though, it was a beautiful mall, and it was fun to be back (even if only for a day) in the land of American excess.

I say “excess” because I think the most fundamental difference between Britain and the US is the idea of, “how much is enough?”  Eat at any restaurant in America, and you’ll always get more than you can eat.  There are even whole chains, like Claim Jumper, that base their reputation on this philosophy.  In the US, quantity trumps quality almost every time.  The food and drink seem to flow from some unstoppable spigot somewhere in the kitchen.  Try taking a sip of water without someone immediately refilling your glass.  Try eating all your steak fries without someone asking, “Would you like some more fries?”  And, there’s always that awkward situation where you pay the bill, gulp down the last of your Coke, gather your stuff to leave, and suddenly, before you can say “no thanks”, there’s a whole new glass of Coke on the table.

I call it the Costco mentality: if one of something is good, then 1,000 of something must be fabulous. I recall a New Yorker-ish cartoon of a man and his wife shopping at Costco.  He’s carrying a gigantic box, and the caption reads, “But honey, if we get this now, we’ll never need to buy straws again!” And indeed, it’s hard not to walk out of Costco without a supposedly lifetime-supply of something.  The really insidious thing is that now that you have so much of whatever it is you’ve bought, you use it like it’s water, and your “lifetime” supply runs dry in a few weeks.

Anyway, back to the Mall of America.  For my EDE (“excessive dining experience”), I chose the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which I was delighted to finally eat at after having passed it over in Hong Kong.  I wasn’t disappointed, either in terms of the food, the excess, or the theming (which of course, all had to do with the movie Forrest Gump) .  As I sat down, the waitress brought me the drinks menu… on a ping-pong paddle.  Then, I was quizzed on Forrest Gump movie trivia.  It felt a bit like a pop-quiz in high school, but I managed to get about half of them right.  Maybe you get a free dessert if you answer everything correctly?  On the table were two metal Alabama license plates (one said “Run, Forrest, Run”, the other “Stop, Forrest, Stop”) used to signal the wait staff in case you need something.  It was excessive and goofy, and excactly the type of thing you’d never get in a million years in Britain.  I have to admit, I loved it.  (Oh yes, and the shrimp was delicious.)

Exploring the rest of the mall, it was nice to see all the Christmas decorations.  In one rotunda, a temporary stage was set up, and live entertainment, from a high school drill team to a local chamber orchestra, performed.  Further along sat a life-sized replica of the train engine from the animated film The Polar Express, steam issuing from its smokestack.  And, last but not least, the “world’s largest gingerbread house”  which stood about 60 feet tall and had several rooms you could tour though, complete with audio-animatronic elves and gumdrop “stained glass” windows.

Overall, it was a fun trip, worth a day’s visit, but it will be a while before I’m back.  Excess in small doses is fine, but excess to excess… well, that’s just excessive.

More info: Mall of America


Hong Kong: Day 6 – Ngong Ping

November 16, 2006

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Here it is: my last day in Hong Kong.  After indulging in the lavish breakfast buffet at my hotel (everything from waffles to eggrolls),  I left Disney property and rode the metro out to the end of the line at Tung Chung.  From there, it’s a short walk to the terminal for the Ngong Ping 360 skyway.

The skyway is brand new, only about 5 months old and a real marvel of engineering.  Where the Ocean Park skyway was a rickety, rusting open-air nightmare, the NP360 is about as sleek and modern (not to mention enclosed and air-conditioned) as you can get.  I shared a compartment with four women, some local, some visiting friends.  Rising dramatically from the station, we pass by Hong Kong International Airport, then over a huge bay toward the mountains of Lantau Island

The amazing thing about this part of the journey is that there are no support structures anywhere over the water.  It feels a bit like a magic trick, like your levitating, floating along a cable that appears to be held up by nothing.  It’s also a bit disconcerting.  You count 10, 12, 14 cabins on the wire, and wonder just how many cabins can this stretch of cable hold before it snaps and sends us all plummeting into the water below?

Pretty soon, the cables begin climbing up the side of the mountian, and before you have a chance to think about it, your cabin is plunged into a dense white fog.  It’s a weird feeling.  There’s no motor noise and nothing to see except blank whiteness all around you.  It’s impossible to tell how high you are or if you’re even still moving.

About this time, my cabin-mates strike up a conversation.  “Pretty amazing, huh?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “Of course, you must ride these all the time where you’re from.”  Huh?  This seemed to make no sense.  “You mean in America?” I ask.  “Oh, you’re American?  We thought you were from Europe.”  Upon learning I was American, they launched into a spiel about how most folks hate George W. Bush, but they love him because his foreign trade policies have been so good for China.  I confessed that I didn’t know much about international economics, but that Dubya wasn’t one of my favorite presidents.  They seemed surprised and a little embarrased, having assumed that I as an American would naturally be a big Bush-backer.  They also asked me if I’d had any trouble with the language barrier.  “Everyone speaks English,” I said.  One of the other women spoke up, “Yes.  My husband made me learn Cantonese, and since we moved here, I haven’t used it once!”  For what it’s worth, I tried to learn a few phrases but gave up after discovering that I had no ear for tones.

In an instant, we emerged from the clouds on the other side of the mountain, and in the distance, perched on a hilltop, sat the famous Big Buddha of Lantau Island.  “Isn’t he beautiful?” one of the ladies asked rhetorically.  “He’s so peaceful.”  I looked at the statue and realized she was right.  And, suddenly I gained a new appreciation for religious iconography.

After a lifetime spent looking at the crucuifed Jesus, painfully dying for my sins, the idea of looking at a religious icon and sensing nothing but peace and relaxation was kind of novel.  And, it struck me that this kind of “calm down, everything’s going to be okay” feeling was exactly what you should be getting from your religion.  Even as we crossed the last giant chasm, looking at the Big Buddha, I lost all apprehension about the cable snapping and plumetting to my death.

The skyway lets you off in the “village” of Ngong Ping.  I put that word in quotes because what lay between the station and the statue was a completely artificial, rather Disney-esque, fake “village” composed of trinket shops and (yes, indeed) a Starbucks, and a little further along, the 700th 7-Eleven store in Hong Kong.

Also in Ngong Ping are two attractions that were included in the price of my tram ticket. (I sprung for the package.)  These too are straight out of the Disney design guide.  The first was the Monkey’s Tale Theatre, which was an animated film shown in a theatre made up to resemble a jungle ruin.  The film (without any dialogue) tells the story of three wacky cartoon monkeys, one of whom tries to be greedy and take the fruit left on a Bhudda-as-monkey statue as an offering.  He keeps getting zapped with lightning as he tries ever more complex ways (think Wile E. Coyote) of getting the “forbidden” fruit.  Only when he agrees to stop being greedy and share the fruit with his friends is he allowed to eat it, and all the monkeys are rewarded with more fruit for having learned the lesson.

The second attraction, “Walking With Buddha” was more elaborate.  You get headphones so each person can hear the narration in his/her own language; mine had a British accent.  First stop was a lanai that looked suspiciously like the one at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, complete with artificial mist and an audio-animatronic tree-spirit.  Next was another animated movie that told the Cliff’s Notes version of the life of Siddhartha.  Then, there was a walk through an indoor forest which reminded me of the queue area for the old E.T. ride at Universal Studios.  Finally, there was another short film about how the lessons Siddhartha learned can be used in everyday life today.  After the film, you were lead into a long temple-like chamber with a giant “crystal” (probably clear plastic though) Buddha statue at the end.  Along the walls of the chamber were wooden bowls filled with “leaves” made from paper, printed with great Buddha quotes.  We were encouraged to take a leaf at random and insert it into an ATM-like slot at the base of the statue.  My leaf said something like, “The richest man is he who has nothing.”  I insterted into the slot, and watched in amusement as a light-projection image of my leaf swirled around the inside of the “crystal” statue before shooting heavenward in a beam of white light.

Visually impressive, yes, but ultimately leaving you with the same feeling you get by tossing a penny over your shoulder into a wishing well.  Amusingly, after being treated to two films, a mechanical tree and a video-projected leaf telling you that greed is bad and helping the needy is good, the tour lets out into… a tacky giftshop, where you can buy all manner of crass commercial knicknacks at vastly inflated tourist prices.  So much for lessons learned.

Leaving the “village”, it’s a short walk up the road to the Big Buddha itself.  There’s a small suggested donation to see it up close, but your ticket also entitles you to a free lunch at the nearby Po Lin Monastery.  Trudging up the stairs (I lost count of how many there were.) starts easily enough, but ends up knocking the wind out of you.  All along the ascent, I passed elderly tourists ready to give up on the challenge.  I persevered though, and I have to say that the view from the top is worth it.  Not only is there a magnificent view of the monastery and the village below, but seeing the statue close up (and even going inside, where there’s a sort of crypt) was breathtaking.  The bronze statue (supposedly the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world) is surprisingly modern, dating from only 1993.  It looks like it’s been there forever.

Working my way back down to earth, I headed over to the monastery for lunch.  The setting wasn’t as exotic as you might think; it pretty much felt like your typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.  Lunch was a vegetarian set-menu, and I appeared to be the only white person eating there.  First up was a bowl of mushroom soup that was clear and disturbingly gelatinous.  It dripped from my spoon like thick, lumpy corn syrup.  Next, was some mushroom tempura.  Then, a mushroom-and-veggie stir-fry.  About this time, I was really, really getting sick of mushrooms.  The next course was sort of meaty, probably a giant slice of Portobello mushroom, but I couldn’t tell for sure.  All I remember was that my initial response to learning the meal was vegetarian was, “that’s too bad, I was hoping for something meaty”, and now it was, “thank God, at least I know that whatever this is I’m about to eat never had legs.”  Eventually, after five courses of Jello-y, rubbery, mushroomy mystery “meat”, I must confess I skipped out.  Hey, it was free anyway.  And, at least I can say I had lunch at a Buddhist monastery.

And, there you have it: my trip to Hong Kong.  After the monastery, I checked out of my Disney hotel and caught the plane home.  The only other weird thing that happened was that I was accosted by two seperate survey people in the airport while I was waiting for my flight.  The first asked me about the “dining service” in the airport, which, since my “dining” experience consisted entirely of a single cup of Starbucks coffee, wasn’t much of a survey.  “So, did the chef do a good job in preparing your [coffee]?”  “Was the presentation of your [coffee] too elaborate, not elaborate enough, or just right?”  Hey, it’s just a cup of coffee!  The second survey was for the Hong Kong tourist board, and checking off the list of all the things I’d seen and done on this trip made me realize for the first time how much I managed to pack into a week.  Seeing all the other un-checked boxes made me realize how much more there was to see, and how much I wanted to come back, before I’d even left.


Hong Kong: Day 5 – Disneyland

November 15, 2006

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With giddy anticipation, I lept out of bed and packed up my suitcase, ready to leave Kowloon behind and head over to the newly-opened Hong Kong Disneyland.  Despite all my experiences thus far (temples, casinos, hotels, spas, aquariums), none of these captured my interest more than the idea of seeing a brand-new Disneyland.

I’m not sure why I have this Disney obsession.  Back when I lived in California, my family used to go to the original Disneyland once or twice a year.  When I was in high school, I visited Dave Smith at the Walt Disney Archives.  I’ve read all the books on the subject of Disney theme parks, ranging from paperback tourist guides and glossy coffee-table books to trashy tell-alls and hefty academic tomes.  I’d say my interest is academic.  I don’t collect animation cels or figurines; I don’t own a mountain of Disney t-shirts, and I absolutely won’t ever get involved in “pin trading“.  But, I do have reprints of original attraction blueprints.  I do read all the “insider” websites and listen to the podcasts.  I don’t care so much about Mickey and Donald and Goofy, but I can tell you all about Paul Pressler and Tony Baxter and Matt Ouimet.

It may seem paradoxical, given that Disney is typically all about “fantasy”, but I’m fascinated by the “practical” side of the parks: the logistics, the engineering, the design.  When I read John Hench’s book, for example, I found an entire chapter devoted to the logic behind the color choices for everything from the hotels to the cruise ships, and I was in heaven.

I’m lucky to have lived in a time when Disney parks (under the early direction of Michael Eisner) underwent a dramatic expansion.  In Florida, EPCOT Center was followed by Disney-MGM Studios, Pleasure Island, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and a series of breathtakingly themed resorts with more hotel rooms than all of New York City.  In Anaheim, Disneyland’s massive parking lot was replaced by Disney’s California Adventure and the Grand Californian Hotel.  Abroad, Disney opened four more theme parks near Tokyo and Paris, together with their own themed shopping/entertainment/hotel districts.  And, all of this within a 20 year timespan; impressive by any measure.

To get to Hong Hong Disneyland, you have to take the metro to Sunny Bay (about half-way between Downtown Hong Kong and the airport), and change to special trains that take you directly to the park.  The Disneyland trains are unmistakable, with large Mickey Mouse shaped windows and golden Disney character statues in glass cases inside.  The journey only takes a few minutes and lets you off at a dedicated station a few hundred yards from the front gates.

For anyone who’s ever visited the original Disneyland in California, a visit to the Hong Kong version is intensely surreal.  Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland each feature their own unique central castle, Main Street area and train station.  But, Hong Kong Disneyland’s castle, Main Street and train station are all exact duplicates of the original California versions.  Meaning that a walk down Main Street in Hong Kong looks and feels identical to the same experience in California… except for all the Chinese people milling around.  I joked to a friend that you could be walking down the California Main Street, hit with a tranquilizer dart, shipped to Hong Kong, wake up and never realize you were on another continent.

At least, not until you noticed the mountain behind the castle.  In the original Disneyland, there’s a 100-foot tall, 1/100 scale cement and steel replica of the Matterhorn to the right of the castle.  But in Hong Kong there’s a real multi-hundred-foot tall actual mountain right behind the castle.  In fact, a whole range of mountains borders the western perimiter of the park, looming over everything within.  You look toward the castle and think, “Hey!  Who stuck this mountain range here?”, forgetting for a moment that it was here long before Disney came calling.  It is a weird sensation though.  And worse, the mountains throw off the scale of buildings in the park, making the already-small Disneyland castle look positively tiny.

So, how does the newest Disneyland compare with the others?  It’s hard to tell… yet.  The reason is that there’s not very much there at the moment.  There’s no It’s a Small World, no Haunted Mansion, no Pirates of the Caribbean, no Mr. Toads’s Wild Ride, no Peter Pan, no Snow White, no Pinocchio, no Frontierland, no New Orleans Square, no Critter Country, no Liberty Square, no Big Thunder Mountain, no Splash Mountain, no Indiana Jones, no Star Tours, no Peoplemover… the list goes on.  Right now, there are only about two attractions in each of the three lands.  So desperate are they to increse the “ride count”, that Tarzan’s Treehouse and the Rafts to Tarzan’s Treehouse are treated in the guidebook as two seperate attractions even though it’s impossible to do one without the other.  And, notice it’s Tarzan’s Treehouse, not Tarzan’s Island Featuring a Treehouse.  In the American parks, the same island area features miles of dirt paths, forts and caves to explore.  Here, it’s the treehouse, and you’re done. 

This is not to say that Hong Kong Disneyland is a “bad” park.  Quite the opposite.  I loved it!  But, it’s an infant park with a lot of room to grow.  One thing it has a lot of (too many of) are restaurants.  When you enter Tomorrowland, for example, the building on your right (where Star Tours is in Disneyland) houses a large fast-food place.  And on the left (where Buzz Lightyear is in Disneyland), there’s another huge fast-food place.  Space Mountain and Autopia seem almost like afterthoughts, crammed into the back.  And, if the Tomorrowland situation isn’t mall-y enough for you, there’s an honest-to-God food-court in Fantasyland (They claim it’s the largest restaurant in any Disney theme park.), with four “stations” for Chinese dim sum, Japanese sushi, Korean barbecue and various soups (oddly labled as “Kettle”).  By the way, if you’re a hapless American, there’s spaghetti on the kids’ menu.

My guess is that a lot of these eateries are merely placeholders for future rides.  Rather than open up lands with big empty buildings in them, they went ahead with food as a temporary space-filler.  Even during my visit though, there were some restaurants in Adventureland that were never open, including (ironically) the Tahitian Terrace, a restaurant that was permanently closed at the original Disneyland as well.  Outdoor carts offer up the usual popcorn and hot-dogs.  Unlike Japan, where the popcorn flavors run from cola to banana, all I could find at Hong Kong Disneyland was caramel.  There were a few local additions to the eat-and-run menus though, like chicken satay and cuttlefish balls on a stick.  I opted for a sit-down lunch of wonton soup and beef-with-broccoli.  It was about what you’d expect at Disney, which is to say on par with your standard mall food-court chinese food (at subsantially higher prices).

After spending the morning at the park, I went back and checked into my hotel.  There are two hotels on property, both owned and operated by Disney.  The first, more expensive on is the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel, which is a scaled-down version of the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World (which is itself a copy of the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego).  The second, more moderate hotel is the Hollywood Hotel, which is basically a copy of the art-deco Ambassador Hotel at Tokyo Disneyland.  I stayed at the Hollywood Hotel, and let me tell you, in Florida it would be considered “deluxe”.  For less than the price of my room in Kowloon, I got a top-floor double-king (the room was huge!) with a sweeping view of the park.

After unpacking, I wen’t back to Hong Kong Disneyland and re-rode all the rides.  It was mid-week, and the park was pretty empty.  Of all the attractions, I think my favorite was the Jungle River Cruise.  It’s basically the same as the Jungle Cruise in Califiornia’s Disneyland, but with a few added surprises.  Frankly, I was surprised to see the ride here because it requires joke-filled narration by a live tour guide, and in an international city like Hong Kong (not to mention a country with hundreds of regional dialects), what language do you use?  The French faced this problem in Disneyland Paris (aka: EuroDisney).  Do we have it in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch?  Their solution?  No Jungle Cruise at all.  For the Hong Kong version, they settled on three: English, Cantonese and Mandarin (each with it’s own line).  Just for fun, I tried all three, and there wasn’t a lot of difference.  I rode the English version first, and the guide told the canned jokes in a broken English-is-not-my-first-language rhythm that quite effectively removed all the humor.  “Ah, you see man at bottom of pole with rhino underneath himself? Oh yes, he will get point at end, yes he will.”  In comedy, timing is everything.

But, apparently it’s not the only thing.  Thinking maybe the jokes were just getting lost in translation, I rode the Chinese versions too.  Nope.  Even in their native language, the boatfulls of passengers sat there stone-faced.  Even the snapping mechanical aligators, charging hippos and squirting elephants barely got a reaction.  The Chinese, I’ve found, are a tough room.  The only thing they really love is taking picures, especially if the one with the camera is about 25 and he’s there with his girlfriend.  Every five feet there’s some guy asking his girlfriend to pose in front of the castle, in front of the boat, the tree, the nearest garbage can, anything really.  And, the girls all smile a fairly plastic smile and make the same little two-handed peace-sign gesture with their fingers, which when I look at it, I can’t help but think of Richard Nixon on his last day, getting on that helicopter.

In any event, I headed back to the hotel for dinner, hoping for something a little better than the theme park food.  I stopped at the posh-er Disneyland Hotel first.  It was nice in a fake Victorian way.  The art-deco chrome and glass of my hotel gave way here to velvet and chintz.  By contrast, the hotel restaurant (which I wish I’d eaten at) looked extremely sleek and modern.  The front was a wall of deep-red glass, punctured by hundreds of large sparkling Swarovski crystal lotus blossoms.  Behind that was a clear-glass wine vault, stocked with some choice vinatages I’m sure.  To enter the restaurant, you crossed a “stream” of running water with koi fish swimming though it, except the whole thing was done through video projection.  And, what’s more, the computer-generated fish actually reacted and moved according to where you stepped.  The kids loved it, but the adults barely seemed to notice.

Back at my hotel, there was nothing so elaborate.  Basically just a standard family-style restaurant with a menu that seemed designed to please the Chinese and Westerners alike.  Like an Asian version of Denny’s.  Or, come to think of it, exactly the East-meets-West menu you’ll find these days at any 24-hour casino restaurant in Las Vegas.  I think I had a chicken-breast sandwich, and then went up to the room and fell asleep.  Sadly, tomorrow would be my last day.

(Continued in Day 6.)


Hong Kong: Day 4.5 – Night of Luxury

November 14, 2006

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All the guide books will tell you that there are two transportation must-do’s in Hong Kong. First is the Peak Tram, and second is the Star Ferry. There’s nothing remarkable about the Star Ferry; if you’ve been on one passenger ferry, you’ve been on them all. But, it is from the deck of the ferry that you get the most spectacular, uninterrupted views of the city. You might even get a shot of that dragon-red Chinese junk you see on the cover of every tourist brochure. I say “that” Chinese junk, because there really is only one of them, and I’m pretty sure it only exists to add some old-world color to an otherwise hypermodern steel and glass city.

The ferry lets you off a few yards from The Peninsula, Kowloon (and Hong Kong’s) oldest and grandest hotel. Presidents, kings, emperors and probably even Brad Pitt have called it home for a few nights. It’s notably the only hotel in Hong Kong that passes both the CIA and MI5 security standards (which are secret in themselves, but probably mean that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, the Baccarat crystal decanters won’t fall off the shelves of the living room wet bar).

I wasn’t staying here overnight, but I was spending a few hours in the spa. I have to pause here and say that I love spas. I really love them. There is nothing more relaxing than a full body treatment that involves being exfoliated with salts from the Dead Sea, wrapped in seaweed from the Sargasso Sea, painted with mud from a Hawaiian Volcano, slathered with Shea Butter from Burkina Faso, and massaged by a tiny Asian woman with deceptively strong hands who can find and eliminate every kink in every muscle you’ve ever has since birth. That said, there’s a lot of goofiness that goes along with the spa experience as well. For some reason, they always feel compelled to dress things up with a lot of new-age mumbo-jumbo like healing crystals and aligned chakras and centering your chi. And, or course, there’s that annoying school-of-Enya, Peruvian flute-and-rainstick music that’s impossible to escape. But, I don’t care. It’s just such a blissful, calming experience that I’m more than happy to nod and smile through the explanation of whatever it is that’s going to expel all my “toxins”. Just as long as it leaves my skin feeling smoother than silk and my mind stress-free.

The Peninsula Spa was predictably beautiful. In the center, there was a sitting area surrounded not by walls, but by translucent curtains, that upon closer examination are actually composed of sheets of water cascading down illuminated floor-to-ceiling glass rods. The treatment rooms themselves feature floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the harbor with a view that easily rivals that of the Star Ferries. It’s too bad that half the time you’re laying face down, inhaling the sinus-clearing vapors from the warm bowl of eucalyptus-infused water beneath you. Then again, that’s not so bad either.

After a three hour experience called (seriously) the “Oriental Life Dance”, which featured a body scrub, massage, facial and a foot massage in water imbued with the petals from a half-dozen long-stemmed roses that I got to select… after all of that, I was ready to fall asleep in the cascading-water-curtain room and not wake up for about three days.

But, I had a dinner reservation to keep. And, where better to eat than in the Peninsula Hotel itself. There are about four restaurants in the hotel, but there are two that everybody talks about. The first is Gaddi’s, a palatial French restaurant that practically drips with silver, gold, crystal and apricot silk, with supposedly better French food than you’ll find in France, and a prix-fixe, 14-course, four-hour-long, (need I add?) jacket-required, chef’s tasting menu with prices longer than the names of some of the dishes. If you’re younger and hipper and merely a CEO rather than a Chairman of the Board, there’s Felix on the top floor.

Felix (where I ate) is an ultra-modern restaurant designed by Philippe Starck. Everything, from the surrealist furniture (the backs of all the chairs were silk-screened with life-sized mug-shots of, among others, Starck himself) to the minimalist silverware was specially designed for this restaurant. Perched atop the 28th floor of the tower that was added to the hotel in 1994, the restaurant is essentially one giant room, occupying the entire floor of the hotel. Again, dedicated express elevators rush you to the top (complete with a dramatic in-elevator lighting and music change to denote your arrival). At the far end of the room, there’s the show kitchen, which looks like something from the set of Iron Chef. Flanking either side of the restaurant’s entrance are two giant inverted-cone-shaped metallic walls with wrap-around stairs leading up to two seperate bars.

I’m shown to a table in the center of the room, and I feel a little conspicuous as I notice I’m the only person dining here alone. (I brought a book.) To my right, the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass (and the ceiling is easily 30 feet high) frames all of Kowloon’s twinkling lights stretching off for miles into the night. Looking over to my left, through the matching wall of glass on the other side of the room, I can see the shimering reflections of the Hong Kong’s illuminated skyscrapers in the inky blackness of the harbor. Again, the view takes my breath away. As I said before, Hong Kong is the kind of town where the “most magnificent view” is a relative term. Although, this one (both of them really) tops my list.

The food was fantastic, though certainly not as unique as the restaurant itself. Tuna sashimi to start, poached pear salad, and roasted duck breast. I can’t remember the desert, but I’m pretty sure it involved berries and chocolate. Every bite of every course melted in my mouth. The wavy designer knife went unused, as everything from the pear to the duck was perfectly tender without falling apart.

Before I left, I knew I had to use the restroom. Not because I had to use the restroom, but because I’d read that the men’s restroom was, well, not to be missed. The frosted-glass doors leading to the men’s and women’s restrooms are divided only by a sheet of frosted glass, but the “frostedness” of the glass fades away to clear glass about three feet from the floor. So, when you’re standing in the men’s room, you can see all the legs and feet of the women in the women’s room next-door (and vice versa). But, what makes the men’s room really special are the urinals, which are essentially tall carved-jade vases sitting on the floor… right in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of clear glass. So, it’s pretty much impossible to pee without flashing your privates to the entire city of Kowloon. I don’t know if they can see in or not, but the idea of all these folks, the elite of the elite, the movers and shakers, the most powerful of the powerful exposing themselves to the whole city… well, as the Mastercard ads say: priceless.

After you’re done being an exhibitionist and feeling like you’ve just peed all over the city, you need to wash your hands. In the center of the room, there’s an enormous table-sized oval block of granite. The are no sinks, no bowls, no drains and no taps. There are instead four or five Philippe Starck wavy silver goose-neck-looking sculptures. Upon approaching the granite block, the attentive attendant presses an unseen button, and water pours out of the silver sculptures, splashing across the stone surface and spilling over the sides into a narrow slit near the floor. The attendant offers you squirts of liquid soap and then a stiff white towel when you’ve finished. Tipping is appreciated.

Another dramatically-lit elevator ride later and you’re back down at ground level. A few steps away from the hotel, and you’re back at the waterfront promenade, the very same waterfront promenade from the tourist video with the idiot-American businessman. And, as in the tourist video, it’s time for the light show. It’s called “A Symphony of Lights“, and it’s apparently in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show”. I’m sure the competition for that title must be fierce.

The lights everywhere around the harbor dim and what transpires is something akin to the original “Illuminations” show at Epcot. Music ranging from Chinese opera to pop-infused fanfare emanates from somewhat tinny speakers built into the lampposts along the waterfront. The narrator (who could be speaking Mandarin, Cantonese or English, depending on what night you go) explains that the show is a celebration of Hong Kong culture and history from past to present. Across the harbor, the soaring skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong illuminate with millions of light-bulbs embedded in their facades. From the tops of the tallest buildings, lasers and searchlights shoot out in all directions. The lights and lasers are all computer-controlled to sync up with the music, and have the effect of turning the entire city into a giant programmable light board, with shimmering rainbows of color moving across the face of one building and then the next and so on. On certain nights, the whole thing culminates in a giant fireworks display set off from the tops of all the buildings (but sadly not on the night I was there). The Disney geek in me couldn’t help but wonder where Mickey Mouse and the giant fire-breathing dragon were.

A fitting final thought perhaps, as my day of luxury concluded, and I returned to my hotel room, packed my suit away, and spent my last night in Kowloon. Tomorrow morning, I’d be transfering to a new hotel… at Hong Kong Disneyland.

(Continued in Day 5.)