Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.

We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.

Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.

The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.

We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.

culturetravel
  2016-08-10 23:04 Z

Just got back from vacation in Hawaiʻi. Last time was the Big Island, this time was Maui and Oʻahu. Here’s some photos and tweets.

Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.

Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.

We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.

culturetravel
  2016-03-07 22:19 Z

The Louvre is one of the world’s great museums. It is enormous and full of riches and totally worth several repeated visits. I particularly like the sculpture, but I discover something new every time. The Louvre is also a poorly designed tourist experience. Some notes below on making it better.

My discovery this last visit was the Marie de Medici cycle. Phenomenal series of 24 enormous Rubens paintings of the life of Marie de Medici, commissioned by Marie herself in 1622 for the Palais du Luxembourg. It’s painting on a scale that can only exist in a place like the Louvre. The story they tell is fascinating, you could spend a whole day looking at these paintings with Wikipedia’s competent explanation. Long story short she married the King of France and took over as regent when he died. When her son wrested power from her she was exiled. Part of her securing her legacy was having Rubens make these elegiac paintings telling her side of the story. They’re particularly unusual in that it’s a woman being lionized. They are fascinating. And being Rubens, they are amazingly well executed.

My other discovery at the Louvre was how difficult it is to get inside the door because of the security theater. This article describes your options. The tacky Carousel de Louvre mall seems best. While it only has a single security line, it has fewer visitors. The fancy main entrance is an hour+ disaster, the Porte des Lions is often unstaffed, and the Rue Richelieu entrance requires a hard-to-buy advance ticket. Past security, the fastest way to get a ticket is from an automated machine. Don’t follow the sheep; look for the machines without a line.

Once inside the Louvre not everything is available; rooms are regularly closed. Why? Hard to say, but much of it appears to be staffing. Also be sure to check the Louvre is open at all; sometimes some part of the staff goes on strike and the whole museum is closed.

One should approach the Louvre with a plan but I never manage. “Avoid the crowds” is a good heuristic; the Mona Lisa is lovely but the experience of shoving in to see it is not. This time I amused myself taking bad snapshots of painting details: one and two. Next time I should finally get to their ancient Egypt collection.

One last thing: a plan for lunch. You need a break. Unfortunately there is no longer a good proper restaurant in the museum, just some mediocre cafeteria options. We did well heading outside to the Brasserie du Louvre, surprisingly well really. Best salade niçoise I've had in awhile.

culturetravel
  2015-10-11 18:48 Z

Ken and I went to India in February, a three week wealthy tourist’s trip. Absolutely loved it, would like to go back, enthusiastically recommended it. I documented most of the trip on Twitter as I went. I collected all the tweets in a Storify page; quite readable with lots of photos.

Our trip started in Delhi. From there we took a luxury tourist train through Rajastan for seven days to Mumbai. Then flew to Kolkata, then to Varanasi, then back through Delhi to home. So many amazing experiences. Some tourist sites that stuck with me most are the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, the Marble Palace in Kolkata, and offerings to Shiva in Varanasi.

But what really struck with me is newfound respect for the sophistication of India. I had no idea what to expect. India is an enormous place. With a very rich and complex cultural history and a colonial period that was not entirely rapacious. Modern India is a dynamic, exciting, upwardly mobile place. With nearly 1.3 billion people. We all know China is the up-and-coming economic story but India is close behind it. I met a lot of Indians with pride, pride in their cultural history, in their intellectual history, in their new prime minister.

On a more mundane level I also came away with excitement for the diversity of Indian cuisine. The Indian food we get in the US is one specific type of cuisine: Mughlai, butter and cream and earthy rich flavors. But there’s a huge variety of other foods. Coconut milk in South Indian cuisine, sour fruits and shellfish in Kerala cuisine, strong mustard sauces in Bengali food. A particularly great day was cooking lessons in Delhi with the author of a Chettinad cookbook. There’s a lifetime of technique to learn just in the art of tadka, the way spices are precisely roasted or fried at various moments in preparation.

culturetravel
  2015-07-04 15:49 Z

Ken and I went back to Paris for the first time in a few years, visited a bunch of old favorite spots. Some sadly in decline (Le Caveau du Palais), some still good. And a couple of new experiences.

Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes
Rustic, hearty restaurant. Specializes in cassoulet presented with pride in giant copper vats. It was a delicious cassoulet and definitely satisfied our hunger for same but I have some reservations. Cassoulet is never a light dish, but the quarter inch of grease floating on top of my bowl was a bit troubling. OTOH the goose leg confit was just amazing. Comfortable room, nice people, I will gladly go back.
Au Bourguignon du Marais
One of our old favorite restaurants, still delicious food. It’s a bit more interesting than the usual bistro menu, well prepared and with good wines. We went on a Saturday night and it was intensely crowded and about 80% tourists, which put us off a bit, next time I’ll go at a quieter time.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Another old favorite, the basic steak frites experience. Perfect lunch for a day of wandering around Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Ma Bourgogne
A fine bistro under the arcades of the Places des Vosges, this has been one of Ken’s favorites for years. Personally I thought it was good but nothing particularly distinguishes the food. Reliable and pleasant though, and you can’t beat the location.
Taillevent
One of Paris’ famous temples of food, two or three Michelin stars for years and years. I go back and forth on how I feel about this place. It’s a bit too traditional, uninspired in the kitchen. There’s no complex molecular gastronomy and radical flavor combinations you’d expect from high end chefs. On the other hand every single experience I or my friends have had there has been excellent, something I can’t say for some of the other super fancy restaurants in Paris. So I enthusiastically recommend it if you want to experience the very pinnacle of a French dining experience, albeit without being on the forefront of gastronomic exploration.
Hotel de Vendôme
Good luxury boutique hotel with an excellent central location, friendly staff, and very comfortable rooms. Also terribly expensive, although for this class of hotel it’s better value than you get from the competition. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a pretty good rate (€350 / night), particularly mid-week. The furnishings are starting to feel a bit worn and the Internet didn’t work as well as it should, so not perfect.
Musée Carnavalet
The Paris city museum, the quirkiness of random stuff the city has collected makes it one of my favorites. It’s not well organized, the quality varies highly, parts of the museum are closed at random intervals because someone went to lunch. But there’s a feel of discovery in the museum, finding an unexpected 1871 painting from the Commune or a beautiful wooden cradle in the shape of a boat or a collection of 25 little busts of Spinoza. It helps that it’s free and situated in the Marais where you’re probably wandering around anyway. You can just pop in for 30 minutes and see a couple of rooms, then leave without feeling like you had to see everything.
culturetravel
  2014-10-16 14:39 Z

I’ve loved the street art in Paris. So many fun discoveries, random art in unexpected public places, some beautiful works by Mesnager, L'Atlas, C214, Space Invader, Miss Tic, and so many more. Sadly, my visit to Paris in 2014 was a bit more discouraging.

The bits I’ve found in the posh parts of town, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 6th have been interesting. But a lot of work I remember is gone. Many suspiciously blank spots where there used to be invaders, or interesting affiches, or other things. It feels like someone went and cleaned many of the streets.

Also a very discouraging walk through Bellveille; see my Flickr photos. It’s always been a grimy neighborhood, it’s part of the charm, but the street art there has taken a turn for shitty tags over clever site pieces. And the amazing old gallery at La Forge / La Kommune is completely gone, the artist squat space has been replaced by an ugly modern building. An inevitable development, but a disappointing conclusion for a street art walk. Some of that energy has moved down to Rue Dénoyez but it’s mostly tags, not interest art. Also apparently that space is threatened.

Sorry to be a bummer, maybe it’s just me. Particularly sad to have found almost nothing new and exciting.

culturetravel
  2014-10-13 15:50 Z

Greetings from Thailand! Just on the way home. I have to be honest and say we didn’t love this part of our trip as much. Maybe we went to the wrong places?

Bangkok is an amazing modern city, with all the excitement and hassle that entails. It’s also crowded and dirty and at least for us, not so much fun as a tourist. The highlight was seeing the amazing temple Wat Pho, totally worth a visit. But famous entertainment areas like Patpong were lost on us; too crowded and sleazy. I’m sure folks have more fun in Bangkok than we did, but for us a couple of days was enough. As for dining, it got better once we got out of hotels. Queen of Curries was quite good: divey place by American standards, but friendly staff and delicious food. The Local was more interesting, strong fresh flavors and significantly more variety than we see in the US. I particularly liked the lemongrass salad with little dried shrimps and fried tiny fish, wrapped in betel leaf.

We had more fun in Chiang Mai, the medium sized city in the north. The Dhara Dhevi hotel was phenomenal: incredible hotel architecture, great food, terrific service. Our favorite experience was the hotel’s cooking class with market tour. Our temple tour was also interesting was thanks to a good guide. Riding elephants was not for me: certainly interesting and different but I’m not much for large animals.

So now we head home from a long successful trip to Bali, Singapore, and Thailand that my sweetie Ken arranged for us with help from our travel agent. Turns out to not be so hard to visit this part of the world, at least if you’re a little patient and don’t mind paying for high end service. Bali was definitely my favorite place of the three, I’m sure I’ll be back.

culturetravel
  2014-01-07 01:16 Z

Hello from Singapore! It’s exactly like everyone said, a modern and somewhat synthetic city that’s Western in its administration and Eastern in its culture. I like it, but it’s odd being in a new city (1819) without a long history. Then again the syncretic culture that’s here now is neat, the mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, British, all fused into something uniquely Singapore. And so commercially ambitious.

Every Singapore person I asked for tourist advice said “go eat”, particularly at the famous hawker centers. They’re like food carts but with guaranteed hygiene and centralized convenience. There’s three we found nearby: Maxwell Center near Chinatown, Tekka Centre in Little India, and Lau Pa Sat in the center. I definitely enjoyed them but it’s a pretty grimy and simple experience, like going to your favorite taqueria in San Francisco. Buy a beer from one stall, some dumplings from another, maybe a paratha or some spicy noodles from others. Bring your own napkins.

Hawkers are great for tasty food for cheap. Singapore also has an amazing deep restaurant culture reflecting its international position. Various kinds of Chinese and Malay are the main foods you see here, but there’s also lots of Indian and of course Singapore specialities like chili crab. And then a vast international mix, like the warren of French wine bistros on Ann Siang Hill.

The other remarkable thing I’ve seen in Singapore is the Singapore City Gallery near Maxwell Food Center, part of the urban planning department. The permanent display of a scale model of the city is interesting (and free, and air conditioned). But even better was the temporary display of the Draft Master Plan 2013, Singapore’s ambitious plan to develop their island more, building new communities and spaces. Singapore is in a unique position as a wealth city-state and they’re taking their development planning seriously. Interesting to see.

culturetravel
  2013-12-28 03:19 Z

Hello from Bali! Ken and I have been here most of a week and are having a marvelous time. The combination of tropical beauty, friendly people, and deep culture makes Bali amazing. We’ve been staying in lovely resort hotels which is great but I regret not getting more into the villages and towns and experiencing more regular life. It’s very hot and difficult to get around, so far we’ve been taking private cars from the hotel.

Our first few nights were in Jimbaran Bay, down south near the airport. Beautiful bay, clear and gentle and great sunsets. The Bali Intercontinental was great, particularly the extra amenities with Club access. I’d characterize it as the beach + resort part of Bali, lots of emphasis on swimming and massages and relaxing. We did get out a little, particularly to enjoy the Kecak Dance in Uluwatu and to go down the road for a nearby resort’s excellent Indonesian restaurant.

Now we’re in Ubud, the arts & crafts center. Balinese culture has such depth in music, dance, decorative arts, fine painting, there’s just a huge amount to explore and happily it’s all vibrant and available. Our first day here was spent being taken from shop to shop, large warehouse-style galleries of stone carving, paintings, jewelry, etc. It’s definitely touristy, tourist money helps sustain the economy. But it’s also deep and rich and with an authenticity of hundreds of years that some vulgar visitors can’t disrupt.

Yesterday was more of a high arts experience. Through an American friend we met Dewa Alit, a gamelan composer from a family of musicians. We visited him for a lesson in the very basics of gamelan with me clumsily trying to learn to play a few patterns. He’s an internationally known musician so I feel a bit guilty spending his time on something so rudimentary, but he was generous and patient and I got a huge amount out of it. Alit doesn’t do this kind of thing regularly; some enterprising Balinese could make a fine business teaching gamelan workshops for tourists. We also visited the Agung Rai museum of Balinese painting, with collections mostly from the 1940s to contemporary art. Fantastic stuff and I know nothing at all about this genre and would love to know more.

So much more to see, we didn’t even get into the religious culture and temple festivals. Missed the cockfighting, too. I’m hoping to get out into Ubud today and just walk around the shops at my own pace. but then it’s pouring rain and will be 95° and the Four Seasons Sayan is awfully comfortable. There’s so much to learn about Bali, I could easily spend a month here.

Update: last day was a drive to an art gallery, a horrible traffic jam drive through the forgettable tourist dross on Monkey Forest road in Ubud, and then an amazing visit to the home of artist Ketut Soki. We'd seen his work in shops but it seemed awfully expensive without knowing more; he's a master artist and the quality is visibly better than the cheap souvenir stuff. Our awesome driver Korta offered to take us to the artist's home to buy a painting direct from the artist without the 100% gallery markup. Really great experience and I can't wait to get this beautiful painting on my wall.

culturetravel
  2013-12-25 03:27 Z

Ken and I just took a nice trip to Germany, focussed mostly on the northeastern corner on the Baltic Sea. Lovely trip, very mellow, here’s a bunch of photos.

The biggest revelation for us was the Baltic sea resorts, 19th century spas and hotels. We started our trip on Rügen, a relaxing quiet island. The town of Binz has a terrific collection of nice hotels and restaurants. Also nearby is Nationalpark Jasmund with its famous chalk cliffs, the bizarre Prora (a facist beach resort built in the 30s), and the Rasender Roland beach steam train.

But the best Baltic sea experience was a last minute decision to go to the Grand Hotel Heiligendamm and its amazing gourmet restaurant Friedrich Franz. Really lovely overnight, fantastic cooking. Heiligendamm is interesting for being one of the first ever beach resorts, founded in 1793 and popular with various royalty. Up to and including the G8 summit in 2007. Also another steam train, the Molli Bahn. Just a terrific place all around, worth planning a stay if you’re in the area.

Beyond the resorts we visited various Hanseatic towns: Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Lübeck. And a trip down to the lake region to Schwerin. Lots of beautiful brick buildings dating from a wealthy past in the 15th-17th centuries. Of the places I liked Lübeck and Schwerin the best, combining charming town centers with some lively modern life.

The trip was bookended by visits to Berlin and Hamburg. Berlin is amazing, particularly right now since its relatively low cost of living has attracted a vital core of artists and entrepreneurs. I think we may try to go back to spend a month living there next year. Hamburg is also quite pleasant for a visit, I think it’s a city that would reward settling in and exploring a bit.

culturetravel
  2013-10-23 21:38 Z