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July 15, 2012

POTD: Prague Main Railway Station

If I had to name one thing that I missed the most about Europe, it would have to be the rail network. Yes, we have passenger rail service in the United States, but Amtrak can’t even compare to Germany’s Deutsche Bahn or the United Kingdom’s National Rail. For instance, the top speed on Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela train on the Washington, DC to New York City route is 135mph, compared to the Eurostar which races along at 186mph.

The Eurostar was my preferred method of travel when visiting Paris or Brussels due to the speed (less than two hours to either city), location (no schlepping out to the airport) and price (£59 roundtrip). Within the UK, I’ve used National Rail to visit cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester, both quick, comfortable journeys. (For those who are looking for a more relaxing, scenic journey, steam rail tours are available in northern England, Wales, Scotland, and northern Germany).

The above photo is of Praha hlavní nádraží (Prague main railway station). As part of our December 2009 Central Europe trip we took the train from Berlin to Prague (and after spending a few days there attempting to find the best Czech beer, onward to Vienna). Although the Art Nouveau inspired exterior and interior of the train station could use a bit of renovation, I loved the traditional steel and glass canopy that stretched over the tracks.

An interesting aside – from 1918 – 1938 and 1945 – 1953, the station was named after US President Woodrow Wilson (Wilsonovo nádraží) in honor of his contribution to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War I.

June 21, 2012

POTD: Snowshoeing Mount Rainier

While the rest of the United States is suffering from a heatwave, the Pacific Northwest seems to be permanently stuck in winter. Sure, we’ve had a few nice days where the sun has actually made an appearance, but otherwise we’ve endured rain and temperatures in the low 50s for the past few months. Apparently spring does not exist in this part of the world. Of course, no matter what time of year it is, it is always winter at the higher elevations of Mount Rainier. Although the above photo was taken in February, not much has changed since then. Most of the Cascade Range is still covered in snow as well, although the ski resorts have closed down for the season. If you are already looking to plan your winter activities for 2013, click here to visit Snowtrex.co.uk.

At a height of 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the tallest mountain in Washington state and is the most heavily glaciated peak south of Alaska. This isn’t your typical mountain, however. Mount Rainier is actually a stratovolcano and is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its location near the most populated area in the Pacific Northwest. Despite this danger, Seattleites are appreciative of Mount Rainier, affectionately calling it “The Mountain”. On a clear day, Rainier provides a beautiful backdrop to the Seattle skyline and Elliott Bay. The recreational opportunities that Rainier presents are also unparalleled. Whether you enjoy hiking, camping, snowshoeing, skiing, or climbing, there is something for everyone. If you are visiting Seattle, it is a “must see” – just be sure to dress warmly, even if it is August.

June 10, 2012

POTD: Central Park in New York City

The above photo was taken in August 2008, when I met up with my dad and brother in New York City so that we could see a Yankee game before they tore down the old Yankee Stadium. (At the time, direct flights to New York from Los Angeles were quite a deal; I, of course, took the bus up from Washington, DC).

Located in the United States’ most densely populated city, Central Park is an oasis of greenery that offers a place for New Yorkers to relax and play on a warm summer’s weekend. Opened in 1857, the park has since served as a model for other North American cities to emulate, such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Vancouver’s Stanley Park. The park receives approximately 37.5 millions visitors per year, making it the most visited urban park in the United States. Although the park isn’t the largest in the United States (a mere 843 acres compared to the 24,247 acres Franklin Mountains State Park located in El Paso, Texas), it is definitely the most beloved and famous of any American city park. Valued at $528,783,552,000, it is likely the most valuable park, real-estate wise, as well.

The park itself contains several artificial lakes and ponds, ice-skating rinks, a forest, running track, garden, playgrounds, playing fields for various sports. and the famous Central Park Zoo. An outdoor amphitheater is home to the popular “Shakespeare in the Park” summer festivals. Central Park is definitely a “must-visit” attraction while you’re visiting New York City, whether you are just strolling through the park, lounging on the grassy meadows, or joining the hordes of joggers for some exercise.

June 7, 2012

POTD: Dubrovnik

If I had to pick one place in Europe to retire to, it would be Dubrovnik. It is just an incredible city with a great mix of history, architecture and natural beauty. My first visit to Dubrovnik was in April 2005, when some friends and I decided to go there on a whim. We had originally planned to visit Malta, but the posters at the student travel agency and low price convinced us to book a trip to Croatia instead. We didn’t know anything about the country, aside from war-torn images we had seen on the evening news in the early 1990s. When we landed at the airport, the first question from our cab driver was if we were here to buy real estate. Apparently there was a real estate boom underway when we arrived, and he spent most of his time ferrying Western Europeans, along with their real estate agent and credit expert, from property to property. Since the three of us were just graduate students, we weren’t quite in the market for any seaside real estate and would have to be content with our small budget hotel room.

Thankfully, visiting Dubrovnik wasn’t that expensive (remember that this was over seven years ago, however, before it once again became a playground for the rich and famous). The restaurants we visited in the Old Town served cheap and delicious pizzas, seafood, and liters of Karlovačka beer. The locals were friendly and engaging, asking us where we were from, and when learning that we hailed from California, telling us about their relatives who had fled to the Los Angeles area during the war.

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to go back. And if I win the lottery, I’m definitely buying a flat in the heart of the city.

May 30, 2012

POTD: Wangfujing

This is a random shot I took while exploring the Wangfujing area in Beijing. Wangfujing is one of Beijing’s most famous shopping streets, and an interesting mix of both the old and new China, where you will see vendors selling heaping bowls of noodles on one block, and cheerful young employees flipping burgers at the gleaming McDonald’s on the next block. Or, at one market you’ll find everything from herbal remedies to traditional Chinese dress, and at the nearby shopping mall, Prada bags and the latest iPhone 4S deals.

Located in downtown Beijing, Wangfujing has served as an area of commerce since the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Today, the area is home to nearly 300 famous Chinese brands and is a very popular place for both tourists and locals alike. One of the biggest draws is the Wangfujing Snack Street, located in traditional hutongs that are densely packed with restaurants and food stalls that line the streets. The restaurants and food stalls serve some very common dishes, but some offerings seem downright bizarre to a Western tourist; I passed by several stalls offering starfish and scorpions on a stick. While I am open to trying just about everything, I couldn’t imagine gnawing on a scorpion, so opted for a snack of noodles and veggies wrapped in a moo shoo pancake (like a Chinese burrito). I’m pretty sure it tasted a million times better than a scorpion on a stick! If you are ever in Beijing, definitely stop by Wangfujing, especially to visit the Snack Street. Whether or not to actually partake in the “snacks” is entirely your decision, however.

May 9, 2012

POTD: Giant elk at Yellowstone

When we relocated from Washington DC to Seattle, we made a two day stop in Yellowstone National Park. I’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone, and the 3,000 mile cross-country road trip presented the perfect opportunity to do so. We camped near Lake Yellowstone, and spent most of our time driving all around the park, stopping at the usual sights (Old Faithful, etc) and taking the occasional hike.

The giant elk in the above photo was always hanging around the entrance to our campground, usually foraging by the side of the road while dozens of cars slowed down or stopped to take photos (ok, myself included). One evening, as we drove back to our campground, with no illumination except for our headlights and the moonlight, we nearly hit this giant elk as he crossed the street in absolute darkness. Thankfully, we hit the brakes just in time. (I wonder how often insurance carriers like Geico and www.carinsurance.org.uk receive claims for damage done by ridiculously large animals).

I would love to visit Yellowstone again, although next time I would probably go during the winter, when you are less likely to be stuck in a traffic jam. I hear the snowshoeing is pretty amazing as well.

May 6, 2012

POTD: Big Sur

One of my favorite places in the United States; I’d live here if I could. That would likely require a few million dollars, though, so I might have to be content with moving to one of the larger California coastal cities and taking the occasional weekend trip to Big Sur.

The last time I made the drive up the coast was in January 2010. There wasn’t much traffic then, but in the summer it can be pretty crowded with droves of tourists in rental cars and motorcyclists outfitted in gear from surdyke packing the two lane highway, gaping at the amazing views and pulling over to take the occasional photo. On a pleasant weekday in the winter, though, it can be miles before you pass another car. The weather is still relatively warm during the winter (compared to much of the U.S., anyways) so it is a perfect time to visit. Pack a picnic lunch, fill up the gas tank, and bring your sunglasses – you won’t regret this roadtrip.

May 5, 2012

POTD: Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park

speakers corner hyde park

When I lived in London and my friends from the US would visit, I would always take them to Hyde Park. The park itself is lovely, especially on a warm summer’s day when you can enjoy a Pimm’s Cup at one of the hotels near Hyde Park, but the main attraction is really the Speakers’ Corner. Located in the northeast corner of the park, Speakers’ Corner is an area where you will find a number of people standing on stools, yelling about whatever subject they are most passionate about. Since most of the subjects tend to be controversial (politics, religion, etc) you’ll often find audience members arguing with and heckling the speakers standing before them. Robert’s Rules or Order definitely don’t apply here.

Londoners have been debating and heckling each other at Speakers’ Corner since the late 1800s. Some of the most well-known people to drag their soapboxes to Speakers’ Corner have been Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell. These days, you’ll often find, within mere feet of each other, a Christian preacher and Muslim imam arguing over religion, a socialist railing against the European Union, and a dejected football fan complaining about his team’s latest loss. Some speakers will have large crowds gathered around them, while others will find themselves ignored entirely. It’s an interesting, and always entertaining, showcase of London’s diversity, so if you find yourself in London on a pleasant Sunday morning, I’d recommend a visit to Speakers’ Corner. The closest London Underground station is Marble Arch on the Central Line.

May 2, 2012

POTD: False Klamath Cove

Taken during a morning drive through the Redwood Empire located on the foggy Northern California Coast.

December 22, 2011

POTD: Venice Grand Canal

Yes, Venice again. I know it’s quite possibly one of the biggest travel cliches out there, but I adored this city. We spent a few days here during our holidays in Italy, after visiting Rome. This is the Grand Canal, the major water-traffic corridor in the city. You can take either the water buses (vaporetti) or gondolas. Since the gondolas were way out of our price range, we stuck to the public transportation. The canal is is 3,800 m long, 30–90 m wide, with an average depth of five meters (16.5 ft). The buildings that line the banks of the Grand Canal date from the 13th to the 18th century. We had an excellent lunch at a nice little cafe along the canal and loved watching the boats go by as we chowed down on pizza. Since boats are the main form of transportation in Venice, there are ambulance speedboats, police speedboats, mail boats, and even UPS boats so the locals can receive their packages.