20
Mar
17

U.S.: St. John, Virgin Islands


In celebrating the 100th year of U.S. National Parks, we decided to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands composed of the three stunning islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. St. John’s awe-inspiring Trunk Bay was the main reason why we decided to base ourselves in St. John away from the maddening cruise ship crowd of St. Thomas.  Two-thirds of the island of St. John is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

We flew from New York’s JFK airport into St. Thomas which is the primary gateway to both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. We were whisked off from the airport by a private shuttle bus provided by the Westin St. John to the dock where we took the private ferry direct from  St. Thomas to the Westin dock in St. John.  We chose this route as we had our four-month old baby girl in tow.  An alternative and cheaper but more inconvenient route would be to take a 30-min. taxi from the airport to Red Hook in St. Thomas and take the ferry from there to Cruz Bay in St. John and then take a short taxi ride to the hotel.  All transportation information to St. John can be found at this link.

THE WESTIN ST. JOHN

We earned enough Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points for the year to spend a few nights at any Westin property so selecting our hotel in St. John was a no-brainer.  Otherwise, it would have been a toss-up between Westin St. John & Caneel Bay Resort if I wanted closer to Cruz Bay area.

image2Taking the hotel private ferry gives passengers a spectacular approach to the Westin dock as the ferry  makes its way to the docking area……..

image1…..and as the amazing strip of the private white sand beach comes into view in a stunningly clear and sunny weather like what we experienced.

IMG_5018Here is how the resort would look like from above.  I flew my drone much higher to get this shot. Just kidding.  Photo credit goes to the resort website.

USVI8As we arrived at the resort, we were immediately served the great tasting island signature rum punch as the welcome drink at the check-in area.  We brought our refillable drinks with us as we were transported by a hotel cart to our room.  Our luggage was delivered later. We were given a room facing the pool (shown above) that made it possible for me and my wife to dip in the pool later while our little angel slept. We brought with us our video monitor that worked via the hotel’s complimentary and reliable  Wi-Fi.

USVI3Shown here is part of the massive hotel pool during the day.

FullSizeRender_3Early one beautiful morning we had a photo shoot at the resort’s pool side when almost everyone was still asleep or was busy having breakfast.

image23Our lovely, little angel, shown here with my voluptuous wife, was very cooperative.

image25She even posed for some unforgettable shot.

image13At the other end of the resort near the breakfast area are the colorful canoes and speedboat docked at the resort’s private beach available for guests.

image27Whether it is late afternoon….

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image5..or early morning, the resort’s private beach is a great place to relax.

TRUNK BAY

DSC_0065This beautiful piece of paradise is a part of the Virgin Islands National Park and it is the main reason of our visit to USVI.  This photo was taken from the final vantage point as we began to descend to the entrance of the magnificent beach.  If you are driving your own rented car you can just stop by the lookout area. Taxis would usually make stops too that is why I was able to take this shot.

USVI6I have previously read that even if there is an entrance fee to the national park, if you arrive before it opens at 7:30 a.m. you won’t be paying anything.  We arrived there around 8:00 a.m. and the ticket counter was still closed so we did not pay anything!  We just paid for the chairs and umbrellas later rented at the single store operating there.

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What a great treat to have the entire beach to ourselves! I was actually hoping that day that the massive cruise ship crowd won’t be filling this beautiful beach and certainly they did not for the entire time that we were there!  There is actually a cruise ship schedule to make one aware when the crowd would be arriving at St. Thomas and be flooding Trunk Bay.

USVI5An hour after we arrived, there were still less than ten people on the beach.

DSC_0001This not-so-young lady kept walking from one end of the beach to the other for many times since we arrived.  Like us, she could not get enough of the stunning scenery!

CSC_0021Now as more people rushed into the beach I set up my camera on a tree and we had our family portrait.

CSC_0010As our little angel took a nap under the shade on her mother’s arms…..

CSC_0051……I explored the other end of the beach!

DSC_0049There were boulders that were less distinctive than the ones in Virgin Gorda, BVI.

DSC_0040Yet from that point, the view of Trunk Bay was truly breathtaking.

USVI4At last one of the beaches I was dying to check off my list was finally conquered in an early morning solitude and in a stunningly sunny weather. I would love to be back. This beach immediately made my list of the top 10 best beaches that I have been to.

CINNAMON BAY

DSC_0103 Longer but less impressive than Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay is worth a visit too.

DSC_0082The sand here was white too but not as fine as the one in Trunk Bay and the water was invitingly clear.

DSC_0092This is where our daughter had her first saltwater dip.

DSC_0067We left before sunset as we were told that it would be hard to get taxis after 6 p.m. We surely missed the highly-acclaimed Maho Bay Beach just a few miles from Cinnamon Bay but we promised to be back to visit it.

FOOD

DSC_0116During our stay at St. John, we only had one dining experience outside the Westin St. John and it was at the highly recommended Morgan’s Mango. The famous place is a neo-Caribbean restaurant with West Indian and Latin twist.

DSC_0121We ordered the celebrated grilled Caribbean lobster served with sweet plantains, black beans and seasoned rice with the usual butter-lemon sauce. Honestly, Maine lobster is still juicier (and probably the best) but this one is good enough!

DSC_0115This seafood soup made my day. It’s made of shrimps, mussels and squid with quinoa in seafood broth. Excellent!

seafood paellaThe seafood paella also captivated our taste buds! The Latin kick created that different twist!

GETTING AROUND ST. JOHN

DSC_1079There are only two main options how to get around St. John.  One is to rent one of those reliable Jeeps. Please take note that you would drive at the other side of the road opposite of the U.S. experience.

DSC_0056The other option would be the island taxis that abound everywhere.  These are non-aircon cars that can take up to 20 passengers.

DSC_0113Shown here is my wife and our daughter as we were about to leave Cinnamon Bay using an island taxi.

IMG_5242One of the most breathtaking views that you can have as you travel around St. John is Cruz Bay.  We saw many tourists pending time just looking at the beautiful scenery.

image8Truly, this has been one of my family’s most memorable Caribbean experiences.  Swaying palm trees, gorgeous beaches, sumptuous food, friendly people and laid back atmosphere. Ah, paradise!  Virgin Islands, we will keep on coming back!

17
Mar
17

Morocco: The Ruins of Volubilis


After spending days in the World Heritage Site of the greatly preserved medieval city of Fez and touring the blue city of Chefchaouen for a day, we were on our way to exciting Marrakesh with a stop in Casablanca. Volubilis and Meknes can both be visited along the way from Fez to Casablanca so we suddenly decided to spend an entire day in these two magnificent places. We rented a car and hired a driver during our entire stay in Morocco so even last minute decisions like this could be easily accommodated.

VOLUBILIS

DSC_0270About one and half hour drive from Fez is the spectacular, partly excavated Berber and Roman city of Volubilis. The archaeological site overlooks a rolling fertile plain and the surrounding verdant greens can make one say he is in Italy instead of Morocco.

DSC_0348There is a ticket booth at the entrance and upon entering the sprawling 42-hectare complex there is a newly constructed structure that houses the restrooms and some prototypes of architectural columns during different eras. One should make sure to use the restrooms first and bring plenty of water or any liquid as it will be a long and arduous walk especially during noontime under the searing heat of the Moroccan sun.

DSC_0352As we walked up the hilly path into the main site, we initially caught a glimpse of some of the ruins.

 

 

DSC_0347The two public buildings readily visible at the center of the city are what remains of the basilica and the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

DSC_0345Now with only one side largely intact this is considered one of the finest basilicas in Africa.

 

 

DSC_0278The basilica was used for the administration of justice and the governance of the city.

 

 

DSC_0335The outer wall of the basilica, which is faced with columns, overlooks the forum where markets were held.

 

 

DSC_0336The forum fronting the basilica used to have statues of emperors and local dignitaries but now all that remains is the pedestal.

 

 

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DSC_0338Exterior of the basilica.

 

 

CSC_0297Interior of the basilica at Volubilis.

 

 

DSC_0337Just behind the basilica is the Capitoline Temple.

 

 

CSC_0283The layout of the temple seems unusual and it has been said that it was built on top of an existing shrine.  Nobody and nothing could confirm that.

 

 

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DSC_0343The temple was dedicated o the trinity of Roman gods: Juno, Jupiter and Minerva.

 

 

ARCHOnward, we found the Arch of Caracalla, one of Volubilis’ most distinctive landmarks.

 

 

CSC_0295It was built in 217 A.D. by the town council in honour of Emperor Carcalla (an African) and his mother Julia Domna as a way of thanking them for bestowing upon citizens of Roman provinces the Roman citizenship and eventually tax exemption. Sadly, by the time the arch was finished, Caracalla and Julia had been murdered.

CSC_0328 The triumphal arch marks the end of the city’s main street on one side and beyond that leads to fertile rolling green plains.

 

 

DSC_0293Next along, the House of Columns is so named because of the columns arranged in a circle around the interior court – note their differing styles, which include spirals.

 

 

DSC_0303More columns. We were actually a bit exhausted at this point and we stopped every now and then where there was some sort of a shade from the fierce sun and sipped the refreshing water and sugar-laden coke (blame my wife!) that we brought with us.

DSC_0305Next are the fine town houses with impressive mosaic floors that were built during the first and second century AD as the city grew and prospered.  The city’s wealth was derived mainly from olive growing business that until now is widespread in most parts of Morocco.

DSC_0306Although much of the city’s structures were destroyed by previous earthquakes, especially the one in the 18th century and then looted by Moroccan rulers seeking for stones to be used in building nearby Meknes, the mosaics remained intact.

 

 

CSC_0311From the Arch of Caracalla, the city’s main street, Decumanus Maximus, stretches up the slope to the northeast.

 

 

DSC_0307Going to the other end of the city’s main street  would lead to the small Tingis gate at the far end of the decumanus.

 

 

DSC_0323Pillars lining up one side of the city’s main street lead to small Tingis gate.

 

 

DSC_0315This part of the city was the last part of the ruins of Volubilis that we checked.

DSC_0320In 1997, the Archaeological Site of Volubilis was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value as a property of the humankind. It is indeed Morocco’s best-preserved archaeological site!

14
Mar
17

Morocco: The Blue City of Chaouen


Chefchaouen or simply Chaouen is Morocco’s stunning ‘Blue City’. Tucked away in Africa’s northernmost mountain range, the Rif Mountains, the otherworldly escape has the striking powder-blue buildings that mirror the usually cloudless Moroccan sky. The color choice was influenced by religious rather than artistic reasons. The Jews believed that by dyeing thread with an ancient natural blue dye and weaving it into prayer shawls, they would be reminded of God’s power. This tradition lives on in the regularly repainted blue buildings. Chaouen is currently a rich cultural combination of Berber tribes people, Jews and Muslims, together with descendants of the Moorish exiles from Spain who have lived there since the 1400s.

DSC_0089Chaouen is about three hours drive from Fez where we were based. We decided to spend a day tour in the “blue city” with a rented car and a hired driver based in Fez.

DSC_0091The three-hour journey took us back to the scenery of the medieval ages when camels were used as the main mode of transportation. A lone standing blue door along the main highway signaled us that we have finally entered the blue city.

DSC_0102A breathtaking view of the blue city suddenly emerged as we started to descend to the city center.

CHA2Oh yeah we definitely had to stop for that classic Chaouen shot!

CHA1Our driver was busy parking our car quite far from the lookout point as the parking rules were very strict so my wife and I took turns to have each of our photos taken.

CHA3Bienvenue a Bleuville!

DSC_0230Blue-colored cars, blue-painted buildings everywhere!

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DSC_0233Almost all buildings were painted with a palette of blue.

DSC_0120Any striking color would come alive amidst the blue and white combination of the surroundings.

DSC_0218Our tour started from Chaouen’s main square.

DSC_0155We started traversing Chaouen’s maze-like, winding alleys.

DSC_0162Every corner at every turn enticed me to click my camera.

DSC_0198I could not stop taking photos of those blue doors and windows.

DSC_0196The hues of blue still followed us, naturally.

CHA5Here I am just so glad to be in the blue city.

CSC_0186Here are more photos of me and my wife showcasing the inner part of the blue city.

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DSC_0133Those maze-like alleys were a challenge to our memories.

DSC_0163Next is the colorful scenery of Chaouen’s incredible street shops!

DSC_0219DSC_0220Leather and weaving workshops line Chaouen’s steep cobbled lanes.

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DSC_0205DSC_0197DSC_0200DSC_0202DSC_0190DSC_0191Dyes anyone?

DSC_0192Metal crafts!

DSC_0164It was a different experience roaming around the street shops.

DSC_0178We finally stopped to have our late lunch at one of the street side restaurants near the square with a colorful background and cozy ambiance.

DSC_0180DSC_0181Dining in Chaouen is incredibly inexpensive and a sure treat to the taste buds.

CHEFThe incredible main dish of fried fresh fish, probably from the coastal cities of east Morocco, satisfied our hungry stomachs.  I am a certified fish lover so I have stamped this fishy experience as one of my best.

DSC_0207DSC_0215As we prepared to leave Chaouen, my wife and I both had our parting shots in the blue city.

DSC_0124Oh wait, there is a bit of red in the blue city.  In the shady main square of Uta el Hammam is the red-walled casbah, a 15th-century fortress and dungeon with ethnographic and art exhibits. Be sure to explore it.

If you have been to Morocco’s blue city, what are your fondest memories there?  If you have not been there, what makes you want to go there?

08
Mar
17

Morocco: The Red City of Marrakesh


North central Morocco was where we have been based for the last few days touring the medieval city of Fez and nearby Chefchaouen, Meknes and Volubilis and we were mesmerized by each city’s unique character. To cap our Moroccan holiday, our last destination and our point of exit would be Marrakesh. We hired the same travel guide that took us around north central Morocco for our road trip to Marrakesh stopping for a night in steamy Casablanca. If Chefchaouen evokes the shade of blue, if Fez sparkles gold and if Casablanca emits its polluted gray, Marrakesh surely explodes brightly in red.

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We entered Marrakesh on a stunningly sunny day and we immediately understood why it is called the “Red City”. Almost every building we saw were built using the signature red bricks.

 

 

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Be it government or private buildings………

 

 

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…..the red bricks were a construction staple.

 

 

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It was red all over.

 

 

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Okay, I am exaggerating.  Probably except for the Royal Theater pictured here and a few other buildings, everything we saw were made of red bricks.

 

 

THE MOGADOR PALACE AGDAL

With so many excellent choices of hotels and riads in Marrakesh, from the ultra opulent to the less swanky, the Mogador Palace Agdal was our choice as base.  It is a very affordable yet a seemingly palatial choice.  This hotel is located in the center of the new tourist zone, and faces the Atlas Mountains, the ancient wall of the Royal Palace and Marrakesh’s Gardens of Agdal.

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One of the reasons we booked this hotel was its elaborately-decorated and exquisite lobby where we were welcomed with Moroccan tea and sweets. [photo of the lobby courtesy of hotel]

 

 

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Considering the vast layout of the hotel comprising of 750 rooms spread out in a sprawling complex,  we found it quite a long but interesting walk from the lobby to our room passing through intricately-designed hallways.

 

 

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Another reason we chose this hotel was its stunning pool views. We liked best the hotel room balcony overlooking  the pool.

 

 

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Yes, we had this amazing view from our room!

 

 

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We spent some time in and around the pool.

 

 

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My wife and I were actually 32 weeks pregnant so in a way our activities in Morocco were quite limited. In Marrakesh, our last leg of the tour, we were already content taking our selfie in this magnificent hotel by wrapping my DSRL’s strap around a palm tree and voila, we had our first wedding anniversary memoir. I stopped carrying my heavy professional camera stand a few years back.

 

 

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Here are more photos at the pool side.

 

 

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Myself at the amazing poolside.

 

 

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Another shot of myself at the amazing poolside.

 

 

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Relaxing at the hotel pool side feasting on some local food is one of the more relaxing activities we had in the red city.

 

 

JEMAA EL FNAA, THE MAIN SQUARE

One of the best things to do in Marrakesh is to experience the frenzy at its main square, Jemaa El Fnaa, from sunset to late.  You can still visit it during the day and there would be restaurants and other establishments that would be open but the square would be mostly empty.

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We arrived at the square less than an hour before sunset and the crowd was starting to fill in the huge square.

 

 

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We thought this would be an experience like we never had before.

 

 

 

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The Marrakesh International Film Festival was also ongoing and some activities in the square were related to the festival.

 

 

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We took selfies at the square while we waited for the sunset.

 

 

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As we watched one of the shows pictured, there would be someone who would go around with the tip box who would easily spot visitors and acknowledge their presence and then nicely but persistently ask for tips in return.

 

 

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Games abound and so do musical performances and acrobatics!

 

 

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As the sun had set for the day, the fruit stands and food kiosks started to entice both locals and visitors.

 

 

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Food anyone?

 

 

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When we left the square, it was really filled with a crazy combination of locals and tourists.  Many are saying that Jemaa El Fnaa is the happiest place in Morocco!

 

OTHER THINGS TO DO

 

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Other activities that are interesting to do in Marrakesh are camel trekking at the city’s palm grove or…….

 

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….visiting the newest mall in the area, Menara Mall, to rub shoulders with mostly locals which we did on our last day in Marrakesh or…….

 

 

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…..checking out if you know someone who is visiting the city too!  Through Facebook we learned that a friend from Portugal whom I previously met in the Philippines as we traveled to Palawan was staying just next to our hotel and we visited her and her boyfriend from Ireland. The world is indeed small.

 

 

 

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Surely, our stay in Marrakesh was limited and we would have loved to venture further to Essaouira too or come back again when the Atlas Mountains would be capped by snow.  As our Norwegian flight took off to bring us back to Oslo, we looked down and saw the red city (yes, fiery red) for one last time. We promised we would be back in a different time and in a different season.

 

 

06
Jul
16

Morocco: Medieval Fez


IMG_2038Arriving into Fez, Morocco from Barcelona, Spain was exhilarating with stunning top views of the Rif Mountains and its surrounding lakes.

 

 

IMG_2046The shadow of the Ryanair plane as we were about to land in Fez airport was so haunting against the nicely lined up olive trees.

 

WHERE WE STAYED

IMG_2054We were met at the airport by Mr. Abdel, whom we booked to be our guide and driver during our entire stay in Morocco (except until after he had sent us off to Marrakesh).  He brought us to the riad we booked called, Riad Rcif.

 

 

DSC_0964DSC_0967We were welcomed by the owner himself Mr. Hasish (not pictured) with complimentary Moroccan tea and sweets made by his mother.

 

 

IMG_2068This was the view of the receiving area/restaurant from the third floor of the riad.

 

 

IMG_2079Welcome to Morocco!

 

 

IMG_2074After a quick rest, we decided to have our lunch in the riad before we ventured into a city tour.

 

 

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We did the right thing! The food was sumptuous!

 

 

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This is Moroccan food at its best.  This truly stamped Riad Rcif as one of the best, if not the best restaurant in Fez. In my entire stay in Morocco the food here was the best I have tasted.

 

 

DSC_0027And on to our room.  My wife was 35 weeks pregnant and I failed to verify that the riad did not have an elevator so we had to walk 3 stories up to our room. We just considered it as an exercise and we found it worthwhile as it is the only room with stained glass windows and views of the city.

 

DSC_0036Could have I asked for a nicer bed?

 

DSC_0977There was a tiny nook with a small table and a couple of chairs.

 

DSC_0030 DSC_0029The bathroom gave us the experience of  medieval times.

 

 

image3Finally, up at the penthouse of Riad Rcif one can have the view of a part of the old walled city.

 

THE WORLD-RENOWNED POTTERY OF FEZ

DSC_1035As one of the city tour stops, our guide brought us to the famous pottery in Fez which is the biggest in Morocco.

 

 

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We were oriented on the entire process of ancient pottery.

 

 

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We were also briefed on how the intricate designs are prepared and meticulously carved out and put together.

 

 

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These are some of the outputs from the same pottery factory that are exported to all parts of the world.

 

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We also toured the area of those painting the designs on the ceramics.

 

 

Here are some of the the colorful finished products being sold inside the factory.

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We were so enticed we bought some to be brought back to the U.S.

 

 

MORE OF FEZ’S AMAZING CRAFTS

DSC_1056We were whisked off to a metal crafts store that’s selling magnificent metal lamps…..

 

 

DSC_1053….gleaming copper plates……

 

 

DSC_1052….with demonstrations of how intricate designs are etched on the plates….

 

 

DSC_1064…Berber jewelry…

 

DSC_1062….even ultra expensive dining set made of camel bones.

 

 

 

MORE BEAUTIFUL SITES AROUND FEZ

image2This is the area where we would be dropped off by our driver and picked up by the hotel staff to traverse the winding alleys of the old walled city as it is only accessible by foot and donkey. Somewhere up there is Riad Rcif, our base in Fez.

 

 

image1Yes, donkeys abound, nicely blending with modern cars and they are real mode of transportation mostly in the northern and eastern part of Morocco.

 

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Another beautiful place we visited was the Army Palace overlooking Fez.

 

 

DSC_1014At the mountain summit is a small palatial compound composed of just one squarish structure guarded by armed men.

 

 

DSC_1009 DSC_1010The sweeping views of Fez before sunset were overwhelming.  Yes a  walled city lies below with its ancient culture well preserved.

 

 

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We were not accompanied by our tour guide as we roamed around the palace and stopped at the lookout so we had to take a selfie instead as we were the only ones at the top as it was late afternoon already.

 

 

12314005_10208193219496769_8379035391630529412_nNext, the king’s palace was a sight to behold even from outside!

 

 

 

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DSC_1016More of the gates of Fez.

 

 

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DSC_1015And its walls.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0008As the sun went down the golden effect it had was captured on the city wall.

 

 

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We then visited a night market that was starting to come alive at twilight.

 

 

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DSC_1070The dramatic and imposing Blue Gate was one of the highlights of our tour of Fez.

 

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Our tour guide and driver, Abdel, also brought us to Fez’s version of the Champs Elysees.

 

 

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Here are some shots of the narrow, ascending and descending maze of alleys inside the  old walled city only accessible on foot and donkeys.

 

 

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Surely, Fez gave me and my beautiful wife a unique experience.

 

 

 

25
Apr
15

U.S./Florida: Dry Tortugas Nat’l Park


As we were planning our Key West itinerary, we came across a stunning photo of a beach located at the Garden Key. We never knew that almost a hundred miles west of Key West there’s a place that is out of this world! Our minds were already framed on what to expect from the beaches on the Florida Keys that are located in the world’s third largest coral reef that makes the area excellent for diving and snorkeling. Key Largo, one of the keys, has even earned the title of the Diving Capital of the World. However, this means that because of the coral reefs filtering the waves before they reach the shores on the islands, there would be less pulverization of the sand so there are less fine, white sand beaches around the islands. That captivating scenery of the Dry Tortugas National Park’s South Swim Beach convinced us to make the place one of the major destinations that we will be visiting during our first trip to the Florida Keys.

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Situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, the remotely located Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles west of Key West, Florida which is the southernmost city in the continental United States. It is composed of six pristine islands of which the Garden Key is the centerpiece island.  It is also where Fort Jefferson is located.  It is America’s third largest and most spectacular coastal fort.

 

reaching dry tortugas

Access to the Dry Tortugas National Park is only possible from Key West. You can fly to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale and take a scenic four-hour drive to Key West. You can also fly direct to Key West but I would not suggest this option because you will be missing the breathtaking views of the ending stretch of U.S. Route 1 that terminates at Key West. From Key West you can either take the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park which is exclusively offered by Yankee Freedom III  (US$190 per adult person for a return trip including breakfast and lunch) or you can take a sea plane which can be chartered at this link (US$299 for a half day tour or US$525 for a full day tour per adult person).

 

things to do at dry tortugas

We just opted for a full day tour so what I will be presenting here will just be activities for those who are on day tour, except for the camping tips.

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We took the ferry that left Key West at 8 a.m. and reached Dry Tortugas National Park at around 10:30 a.m. For the day tour you have exactly four and half hours to spend on the island. Upon arrival you can either join a free one-hour tour of Fort Jefferson or you can just do your own thing. We did the latter and we immediately went to South Swim Beach.

1. relaxing at South Swim Beach

South Swim Beach was my favorite place on the island. From the docking area, you can proceed to the left side and walk past the entrance to the massive fort for about 2 minutes and it will bring you  to what I consider the most picturesque area in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

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You move further south and walk past the amazing white sand beach.

 

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You will end up at this stone structure that also houses the helipad.

 

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From the stone structure, one can have this stunning scenery.  This area is also one of the designated snorkeling places.

 

 

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Visitors would spend most of their time just lazing on this white sand beach and swimming in the turquoise waters.

 

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From this beach, one can also chance upon sea planes passing by.

 

2. going around the fort via the moat wall

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From South Swim Beach you can start walking along the south moat wall and start going around the entire structure from outside.

 

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Then you will come across your first turn to the west moat wall.

 

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We took some photos on the west moat wall.

 

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And then on the east side as well.  It took us around 12 minutes to go around the fort via the moat wall.

 

3.  spending time at North Swim Beach

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Either by going the entire walkway along the moat wall outside the fort from South Swim Beach (described in the preceding section) or taking right from the docking area to the pathway (shown above), you will be led to the less crowded North Swim Beach.

 

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This beach is shorter, less crowded and less charming than South Swim Beach. Nevertheless, this beach also has crystal clear blue waters.

 

4. snorkeling & fishing

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As I have stated earlier the Florida Keys sits on the world’s third largest coral reef and it should just be fitting to do some snorkeling around designated areas in the island.  The protected waters are home to an array of extraordinary sea life. Snorkeling gears are provided free by the boat, Yankee Freedom III.

Fishing on Garden Key is also allowed at five designated areas. Fishing license is required unless you are under the age of 16 or a Florida senior resident over the age of 65.

 

5.  camping

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There is an option to camp on the island up to three nights and that’s what we wanted to do but we did not get camping slots anymore as they only limit the number of campers per day to around sixty-six campers at the eleven camp sites in the island.  So be sure to book in advance if you want to camp.

 

6. touring the inner side of the fort

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Welcome to Fort Jefferson.  This fort was 30 years in the making but was never finished.

 

DSC_5843This is harbor light as seen from the ground level.

 

DSC_5835This is the ground level of the fort from inside.

 

DSC_5832The ground level of the fort has walkways that lead to the entrance to the second level of the fort.

 

DSC_5844 DSC_5845Also on display at the ground level are the boats used by sailors.

 

DSC_5858This is a part of the second level.  Imagine, you are inside one of the largest brick structures in the western hemisphere. There are 15 million bricks that make up this enormous fort.

 

DSC_5857From the second level, the view of the inner part of the fort is just haunting.

 

DSC_5852 DSC_5856Glancing outside from the second level, the view of the blue-green sea is just calming to the eye.  If you have time, you can stay put at any of the windows overlooking the waters and read a book.

 

7. enjoying the view from the boat

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From the boat you can enjoy the view going to the adjacent Bush Key while having lunch.

 

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You can also enjoy views of the harbor light and part of the eastern part of the fort from the boat.

 

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The four and a half hours was really short and I wished we could have camped there for a day or two as I also wanted to experience sunsets and sunrises on the island. We left the Garden Key at exactly 3:00 p.m. and reached Key West after two and a half hours.

 

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This has been my best island experience so far in the U.S.A.!  The scenery was something I have never seen before.

 

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Above all, the beach was incredibly beautiful!

08
Mar
15

Peru: The Wonders of Machu Picchu


Machu Picchu is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization and it is one of Peru’s greatest man-made treasures having been preserved and untouched by the Spaniards when they came rumbling through South America. The ancient site has been voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

the trip to machu picchu

You can save a lot of time in visiting Machu Picchu if you fly direct to Cusco from some Central and South American cities thereby missing Lima which is actually too good to pass.  Otherwise, if you are coming in from the U.S. mainland, you need to fly to Lima first and then fly to Cusco like we did. (You can click here for my blog on colorful and bustling Lima.) You can either base yourself in Aguas Calientes area at the base of Machu Picchu or Cusco or the Sacred Valley which is two hours away from Machu Picchu. We stayed in a hotel in Cusco for a few days and we just allotted a whole day tour of Machu Picchu.

We left our hotel in Cusco very early in the morning for our 8 a.m. train ride to Aguas Calientes originating from Poroy train station, 30 minutes taxi ride away from the city central. We have arranged with our driver the day earlier at the Cusco airport for the taxi ride to Poroy.  The hotel staff in Cusco can also help you pre-book a taxi or get one on the spot.

DSC_0394Our train was on time for its departure.  For the train, you can choose between the cheaper Vistadome and the more expensive and luxurious Expedetion.  You can book train tickets directly at PeruRail website.

 

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Breakfast of pancakes and fruits with coffee or tea was served during the 112-km, 3-hour trip from Cusco to Aguas Calientes.  [As of this writing the 112-km trip has been divided into a combination of train and bus bimodal service from January 2015 to April 2015 only.]

 

DSC_0402 DSC_0411Through the train’s huge large and transparent windows and ceiling, we enjoyed the view on our way to Aguas Calientes.

 

 

arrival at aguas calientes

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Finally, we arrived at the Puente Ruinas train station at the end of the laid back town of Aguas Calientes.  You can opt to base yourself here for a few days if you want to explore more of the neighboring attractions like the Sunday Market.

We were greeted by the travel agency representative from whom we had bought bus tickets in advance.  We were led to the bus queue going up Machu Picchu. The bus is just one of the options for you to reach Machu Picchu from the train station. Another option would be to hike around 3km for around 45 mins up to Machu Picchu. Since we did not have much time, we  decided to take the one day tour and go up via the bus ride. The bus would leave every 10 minutes. The more adventurous travelers can join the 1-day or 3-day hike via the famous Inca Trail.

 

 

the ascent to machu picchu

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The view going up 7,970 feet above sea level was absolutely breathtaking and at the same time spine-chilling.  The winding roads do not have side protection and you could see the sceneries below directly from your bus seat.

 

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We arrived at the entrance of Machu Picchu after 20 minutes. We waited for our tour guide to call our names at the time we were scheduled to enter. When purchasing the entrance ticket, you would need to select the time of your entry to the site. Do not risk of getting no entrance tickets to Machu Picchu especially if you are only one a one-day tour so book in advance.  Take note that the number of visitors are limited per day at certain time allocations. You can book at this website.

 

 

the machu picchu ruins

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Our tour by the English-speaking guide started at the side of the ancient site overlooking a spectacular mountain range.

 

DSC_0454There were around 20 tourists with us. It was actually raining when we started the tour but as the tour guide told us, rain in Machu Picchu is just always passing and do not be disappointed as the skies will clear in a few minutes after a sudden rainfall. I suggest that you bring a disposable raincoat with you. There are also umbrellas being sold at the site entrance that you can use to protect yourself from both the sun and the rain.

 

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Machu Picchu was built in classic Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls.

 

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We then started to descend for a lower view of the ruins. I was actually starting to get bored halfway through the tour as I wanted to go up immediately to the highest point where the classic view of the site of the ruins could be taken.

 

 

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In a few minutes we started to go up.

 

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I was really awestruck at the ruins and the layout.

 

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Finally, the classic Machu Picchu shot!

 

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Machu Picchu ruins and myself.

 

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We were truly thankful for the excellent weather and safe travels.

 

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Alpacas abound in the area and they have been giving nature accent to the surroundings.

 

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And it was time to go and catch our train ride back to Cusco.

It was truly a dream come true for me to visit Machu Picchu.  The entire trip was challenging from planning to booking especially the connections from Lima to Cusco to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu but everything was indeed worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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