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So, what about a driving trip in France?

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

France is famous for biking (Tour de France), and high speed bullet train. How about driving in France? Here are some information I found very helpful:

France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the freeway (autoroute) links are toll roads. Some have toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations. Don’t lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards, or you can use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a chip.

Roads range from the narrow single-lane roads in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centres tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.

So, as French movies suggest, it might alsways a better choice to ride a bike when you are in country side, but take trains when you want to travel from Paris to Marseilles. But if you want to travel from Toulouse to Bordeaux, driving could be a not bad choice if you’ve already rent a car, as the 250 km road is all autoroute which means they are FREE according to the review here.

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Self-drive: a new lifestyle in China

Monday, May 5th, 2008

“self-drive tour” (自驾游) is a new type of travel mode that is getting very popular in China in the last decade. If you are from a country that takes owning a car for granted, then it will be a bit difficult for you to understand it.

According to statistics from Austria Auto Club (VCÖ) in mid 2007, there are around 9,000 million private owned sedans in the world. This number was 5,000 million in 1995. The distribution is very un-even. There are 2,310 million in EU, 2, 280 million in US, but there are only 29 million in China – a country of 1.3 billion population. Avery 1,000 people own 24 vehicles in China, but 775 vehicles in US.

So, owning a car, driving it out in weekends or holidays for a leisure trip with families and friends is a new lifstyle that doesn’t exit 10 years’ ago. I grow up with the concept that a driver is the master of a car, he/she decides where we go. We should never interrupt when he/she is driving. Today, everyone (not really) wants to master his/her own car – the spirit of “self-drive”. But when you read an advertising selling a “self-drive tour”, a travel agent is actually selling you a “hotel booking service” for maybe one major reason: online booking is still in its infancy stage in China. In a “self-drive“ trip, you are supposed to enjoy the freedom of driving, which I have to say it is not that enjoyable at present because the roads in remote area is much less developed than the fancy-looking sedans sold in big cities.

To enjoy the freedom of driving, Germany (Berlin Hotels) is a good destination for a road trip.

High-speed vehicular traffic has a long tradition in Germany given that the first motorway (Autobahn) in the world, the AVUS, and the world’s first automobile were developed and built in Germany. Germany possesses one of the most dense road systems of the world. German motorways have no blanket speed limit. However, posted limits are in place on many dangerous or congested stretches as well as where traffic noise or pollution poses a problem.

My husband took a business trip to Hildesheim – a small city about 330 km away from Frankfurt early this year. His impressions on the “freedom of driving” are : 1. he was constantly afraid of not driving far enough as he was driving a super small/eco car – SMart (a product of Swatch and Mecede-Benz), 2. the print on the road sign is too small to read and it is very easy to miss an intersaction. I guess that if you rent a good car and have good eyesight, you will have greater chance to enjoy the self-drive trip. How about a road trip from Munich to Köln?

My Last Minute Trip Plan to Suzhou, China

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

May 1st is a public holiday in China, as it is International Labor’s Day which is originated from a labor dispute in the United States (although it is not a public holiday in the States today). lol. We had a rough plan to visit a nearby city in the three-day long weekend. However, when we were on elong and ctrip (the two major travel booking sites in China), almost all the hotels under 400 RMB in the downtown area were fully booked, even through May 8. Obviously, there are quite some tourists around the country taking vacations during this long weekend.

The weather in May is so beautiful – warm enough to walk outside without wearing layers of clothes, but not to hot to get sweaty easily. So, it is a good time to visit East China cities: Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, Yangzhou, and other tourism destinations such as Thousand Islands Lake(qiandao hu, 千岛湖), Putuo Mountain (putuo shan, 普陀山). This beautiful weather will continue until the last week of June – a tip to plan your trip to East China.

So, I want to get out, but don’t want to over-spend for our outing. My last minute holiday trip plan starts from cutting the trip length. Suzhou is only 50 miles away from Shanghai and it takes 37 minutes by train. So we cut the 3-day trip to 1 day long hour trip. The last train from Suzhou to Shanghai is 10pm. We can be home before midnight.

My plan is to visit a 2000+ year old historical site called Huqiu (虎丘, means Tiger Hill) + Suzhou Museum which has a new wing designed by Chinese American architect, Pritzker Architecture Prize winner,  Ieoh Ming Pei (贝聿铭), + one of the gardens. The other important “mission” is to try the local Su style food. The restaurants can be old style, the service can be bad, but as long as the food are good, we won’t complaint!

It will be a cheap holiday trip. My secret of a bargain holiday is to think about what are the most desired things to do in your vacation. Then plan around the objective/goal, the earlier the better, the more flexible, the cheaper.  I will share my photo trip when we are back.

Shanghai Majestic Theater – get some night entertainments

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Majestic Theater (美琪大戏院)is one of the oldes theaters in Shanghai. It offers a diverse range of regular performances such as opera, ballet, concerts, local/regional dance performances and gala. Sit in downtown Jing An district, a block away from Plaza 66 and Citic Plaza, it is on a very good location where you don’t need to worry about transportation after a performance ends late at night. Why does it matter? A friend told me that she hasn’t been to a concert for a long time because it is too hard to get a taxi after the show. The closest metro station for Majestic Theater is West Nanjing Rd. Station of Line 2 (Nanjing Xi Rd. 南京西路).

I went to see a Chinese opera “Madame Bovary, IS ME” directed by Edward Lam (Hong Kong) and performed by students from Taipei National University of Art (台北国立艺术大学) last week.

Here is my photo tour:

Shanghai Metro Line 2

I live around Jiangsu Rd. (江苏路) Station, Nanjing Xi Rd (南京西路) station is 2 stops towards west direction. Once you are off the metro, take Exit 1 and walk towards east on Nanjing Xi Rd. and then turn north on Jiangning Rd. (江宁路).

Shanghai Majestic Theater

When you see this sign, you know you will be there. (max. 10 minutes walk from the Metro station.)

Shanghai Majestic Theater

If you pass this sign, you are walking too far away. Turn back to the corner where the entrance is.


We headed to the theater directly from work and this was my dinner. It is called Guilin Rice Noodle Soup with Soured Cowpea (酸豆角桂林米粉). Not bad for 7RMB.

in the hall

Very nice!

from 2nd floor

The theater is well kept: clean and spacy. There are around 700 seats on ground and 300+ on the second floor.

Meeting the director and the performers!

Ok. here are some detailed information about how to get there:

  • Address: Jiangning Rd. 66, Shanghai (上海江宁路66号)
  • Phone: 021/6217-4409 (call before you go)
  • Online schedule: check the schedule here
  • Ticket:Buy in advanced, or just show up the theather before the show, “dealers” will gather around you. 30% off is a possible deal.

upcoming: The Best ABBA Show by Waterloo May 20, 2008

The Land of “The Lord of the Rings” – New Zealand

Monday, April 28th, 2008

My knowledge about New Zealand was very limited:dairy products and kiwi. But after I watched the movie “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, it became one of my most desired travel spost of the planet: who won’t want to see the mountain, the snow, the water and the land of hobbit, wizard and King? Even though I know quite large percetage of the specular scenery in the move is created by special effect experts.

In New Zealand offical tourism website about the “Home of Middle Earth“, you can see the the journey start from Waikato to Wellington (Wellington accomodations), Queenstown, Nelson, Canterbury Plains to Mt Ruapehu. However, this is not practical and detailed enough for a foreign traveler like me. The travel guidebook <Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook> by Ian Brodie is said to be the “Lonely Planet” of New Zealand. According to the book review on Amazon, you will need a GPS to leverage the guide on this book, and keep in mind “If you’re going to this fantastic country simply to see LOTR filming locations, I promise that you are missing out on what could be one of the greatest experiences of your life. Yes, go to see ‘Middle-Earth’ but do not forget the rest of New Zealand!” (by A. R. Snyder “Pluperfect”)

Planning your trip as I am?

1. Flights: there are 3 international airports in this island country: Auckland and Wellington in North Island, and Christchurch in South Island; you can land on other 4 cities if you depart from Australia. (see map for details)

2. Hotels: I found this website has very competitive and comprehensive New Zealand accommodation choices. For example, I am very happy to find that I can book a hostel for backpackers for NZD $ 25/night in Auckland downtown. Other good option for me is the four-star service apartment started at $85/night in Christchurch.

3. Tours: Since most of the LOTR locations are in South Island, it is said that the concentration of professional Lord of the Rings film tour operators is in Queenstown. Most tour you can find on Google is a 4WD tour, the other option is helicopter/airplane which is pricer but provides unrivalled scenery.

Check out photos of New Zealand here.

Hangzhou Off Beaten Vacation

Monday, April 7th, 2008

As my Hangzhou vacation plan, we spent three days in this beautiful city. We didn’t go through a typical tour-guided trip in which you will be shown around many attractions, of course including many factories visits, within one or two days, but randomly walked around and saw things as we planned.

Day 1: Longjing Tea Leaf Shopping

We had a pleasant train riding experience from Shanghai to Hangzhou. Check  Shanghai South Railway Station: the start of a most environmental friendly travel option   for tips on how to take trains from Shanghai to Hangzhou.


The weather wasn’t perfect, so we went to Long Jin Village to shop LongJin green tea leaf.  Spring tea season usually lasts for 5 to 6 weeks: 3 weeks before Qing Ming (April. 5) and 3 weeks after Qing Ming. Qing Ming is a traditional holiday for Chinese to “sweep” the tombs of their ancestors to show the respect ion and worship of the passed family members. Because of the snow storm disaster happened early this year in South China, the season started about 2 weeks later than usual and we were very lucky to buy the 3-day old fresh tea leafs from the farmers at very good price – more than 50 % less than the prices  in the tea stores in the cities. 

Longjing Tea and Tea trees

Day 2: West Lake (Xihu, 西湖)

Hangzhou is famous for its West Lake, and West Lake is famous for a lot of Chinese historical events and people, of course also its scenery. I was surprised at myself that I don’t know how the West Lake came from even though I know its big name when I was little. In this trip, I found some description on the attractions implying that West Lake is a volcanic lake, but when i researched on line later resources  say that there are two explanations on the cause of West Lake: 1. volcano eruption, 2. it was a bayHangzhou Xihu  West Lake connecting with Qiantang River and East Sea in about 12,000 years’ ago and was blocked and separated by sediment later and became a lake.  I don’t know  which to trust.

Anyway, because West Lake is a “money making” lake, the government of Hangzhou City obviously invests a lot in maintaining its surrounding environments  so that it is very beautiful around the lake — a lot of greens and flowers. The roads are clean and the air condition is much better than that in Shanghai.

But if you are not familiar with / interested in the Chinese classical literature and histories, you probably don’t want to spend more than half day around the lake, and I also won’t recommend you to take any paid tour around the lake.

Day 3: Silk Museum

There are two kinds of gifts you want to buy when you visit Hangzhou: 1. green tea leaf, 2. silk.  I didn’t buy any silk as I am not confident enough that I can tell the high quality silk products from the bad. Instead, we decided to visit the silk museum to get some education. The museum is free and I didn’t see more than 10 people during our visits. It is very nice and quiet. But if you go with your family, your kids and/or husband might find it a little boring. But I enjoyed a lot especially watching skilled workers to make the complicated patterned silk fabric from the threads.

China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou Zhejiang province

China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou Zhejiang province




Spring Break Trip Plan : Hangzhou

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

(I am going to Hangzhou this weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Here is what I have done in planning our trip:

1. Where to go: Nanjing and Hangzhou were our two preferred options: a nearby city with enough attractions for a 3-day vacation. Both of us haven’t been to Nanjing, and I have been to Hangzhou once 8 years’ ago (I’ve been to Hangzhou in 2006 for Chinese Blogger Conference but I didn’t go anywhere, so it didn’t count.). I know Hangzhou will be extremely beautiful with plum and peach blossom in early April, but I don’ t know about Nanjing. So we decided to take a less risky option to avoid ruining our vacation. Later, I found out there is also cheer blossom and an exhibition of tulip in a park called “Prince Bay Park” (太子湾公园).

2. Where to Stay: I spent a weekend night reading hotel reviews on two major hotel booking sites in China: elong and ctrip. Ctrip has much more user reviews and even has a page of the ranking. For one moment, I was every exciting that I found a great hotel in Ctrip with a very high user rating. But then I cross-checked it on elong and there were only less than 10 (maybe 3) reviews on this hotel. What’s worst: they are all very negative. I was then very frustrated in whether or not to trust the reviews. It is easy to trust when all you hear are good news, but things become complicated even when you read one line of negative words. At the end, I picked a hotel under “holiday inn” brand rather than a highly recommended “best western” one. In my knowledge of hotel, “holiday inn” is a better brand than “best western”. This experience really made me wonder “how hotel reviews will be useful to users” ? I wish I can ask an emotional search engine to filter the reviews for me!

3. What to Do: “West Lake” (xihu, 西湖) is the natural landmark of Hangzhou, capital city of Zhejiang Province. So this is a must-go spot. And I am highly interested in Chinese green tea, and Hangzhou is the home to the best green tea – longjin tea (龙井茶) in China. I want to hike into the village to buy some fresh green tea of 2008, and watch people “stir fry” the tea leaf. And also check out a few museums.

4. How to organize the trip: We love map! so we start looking at the maps to plan our itinerary. The most interesting map I found is a 3D virtual map (see below screen). It is specially helpful to optimize the route by grouping the attactions by area with map like this.

(click to see  larger image)

Hangzhou visual map now becomes

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008, a travel search and discovery service announced a name change to on Mar. 26, 2008.




UpTake’ refers to a quick understanding of key facts. We believe the new name, UpTake, describes our core offering — the aggregation and analysis of collective wisdom such as reviews, blogs and articles from across the Web to help consumers plan their trips,” said Yen Lee, UpTake president and founder.

Elliott Ng wrote on Kango blog saying: “We want our new brand UpTake to convey our ability to gather, organize and deliver the web’s collective travel wisdom to help you make trip planning faster.” He aslo mentioned that Uptake will launch it public beta later this spring.

“Uptake” means “quick understanding and comprehension” in English language.

Family friendly hotels: 4 hotel reviews

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Patricia Jenkins from Kango blog wrote an interesting post about “how to define a family friendly hotel“. Her list of “benchmarks” includes: free breakfast, swimming pool , two rooms, clean, central to many activities, babysitting services, television with kids’ movies on demand, room services and good value.

I don’t have a kid yet and I haven’t paid attention to most of the above criteria, except of “free breakfast, good value and clean” before. In my recent trip from Shanghai to Palo Alto California, I have a chance to stayed in 4 different hotel/lodge/inn/motel (in each kind of accommodations, REALLY!) and even at friend’s house. Here is the full list of them:

  • Extended StayAmerica Hotel in Santa Clara CA: great location to access hwy 237 and less than 5 miles away from the best Chinese food of SF Bay Area in Milpitas; and less than 8 miles away from the a shopping outlet Great Mall which will please moms. This is a studio hotel and mostly for long term stays. So no pools or kids’ movie on demand, but big room with kitchen with high speed internet at $4.99 per stay. Remember to ask to stay at double digit number rooms which are away from the rails and trains. So I am not surprised that I don’t find it in the list of San Jose family hotels.
  • Pacific Inn in Mountain View CA: Free breakfast everyday and light dinner on Monday-Friday. Located on El Camino Real and easy to get around MV downtown. The room is a bit old but clean. On demand movies are available, again, no pools. I will rate it as a “very good value budget family hotel”.
  • Monterey Bay Lodge in Monterey CA : I knew this is a kid friendly hotel even before I checked in as I saw kids were playing in the outdoor pools so happily when the temperature was only about 15 degree celcus. The single room I stayed was very tidy and neat but small, especially the restroom. I think they have rooms for families (read more details about the amenities and reviews here) Its location is a highlight, 3 minutes walk to a beach, 10 mins to Monterey Marina and probably less than 20 minutes to Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best ten in the country. As I expected, this lodge is on the list of Monterey family hotels.
  • Oak Motel in Palo Alto CA: This is an old motel. Everything looks fine, but I felt like I was in 1990s. I only stayed for one night and nothing bothered me. I won’t suggest you eat the free breakfast if you are not in rush. Kids would love a tall Oak tree that goes through the 2-floor building.

It is a very different aspect to look at a hotel from “family” stand point. I never know that “two rooms” is so important for a family, especially when the kids are under a certain ages that parents wants to check out how they are doing from time to time. And a good family hotel is very important for a family vacation!

What’s your tips in finding the family friendly hotels?


Kids are swimming in Montery Bay Lodge. (Mar. 2008)

Discovered (?) a Black Sand Beach in Monterey

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

I went to Point Lobos State Park in Monterey in California two weeks’ ago in a sunny morning. The stunning blue color of Pacific Ocean is as beautiful as last time I visited Big Sur. We entered the reserve from the main entrance from hyw 1 and hiked from Granite Point Trail and then Moss Cove Trail to see the MOSS COVE (click the trail map for detials). One interesting finding is that I noticed a beach around Moss Cove is BLACK. (see image below.)

black sand beach in Point Lobos State Reserve

From my previous Hawaii Dream Vacation visual tours, I know that Punaluʻu Beach is one of the most famous black sand beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. And the black sand on the beach is created by lava flowing into the ocean which explodes as it reaches the ocean and cools. But there is no volcano activities around Monterey area on Pacific coast and we even suspected that the “black” color is a simbol of “dirty”. but when i took a close look on the surrounding area, I can see this is not DIRTY.

black sand beach in Point Lobos State Reserve, California

You see, did I discover a black sand beach? Even though I don’t think black sand beach is more attractive than white sand beach. I’ve also been to the black sand beach in Macao in Asia a few years’ ago. It was not a nice looking one, but different. Isn’t it an exciting moment to find/see some thing different and special? If I am going to take a Hawaii dream vacation, I will visit Maui, because “Maui no ka oi” which means “Maui is best”. We will rent an ocean front Maui vacation rental and to check out Red Sand Beach for sure. And take some random “wondering” steps to try new things. I also want to take a boat tour near Kauai to the ocean to see sea turtle swimming freely without notice human being’s existance.

black sand beach in Point Lobos State Reserve