Thursday, 25 July 2019

Best Asian Mountain Experience

All over the world, mountains invoke awe and admiration, attracting visitors from far and wide. Across Asia, some mountain destinations have become global tourism icons, from the giddy heights of Nepal’s Mount Everest to the lovely snow-capped symmetry of Fuji-San in Japan.

Like both these famous peaks, several places across Asia have become popular tourism magnets. The iconic status of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu attracts thousands of ecotourists, hikers, climbers, birdwatchers and plain day-trippers to the Kinabalu National Park each year. Those who wish to climb the mountain itself are advised to make reservations at least six months in advance as only 135 climbers are permitted each day.
The stunning volcanic crater and spectacular sunrises at Mount Bromo in Indonesia lure a daily stream of visitors who ascend its slopes on foot, by jeep or on the hardy and lovable local ponies. India’s Doddabetta Peak is close to the beautiful montane resort of Ooty in Tamil Nadu, and has scenic views of Bandipur National Park. South Korea attracts tourists to its popular ski resorts, with our particular favourite peak being Balwangsan Mountain in Yeongpyong.
Some peaks are only accessible to the intrepid adventure-tourists and determined climbers. Mongolia’s Mount Khuiten is located in what is considered to be one of the most remote and untouched regions in the world. Visitors have to take a couple of flights, endure a rugged 400km drive, and then undertake a 17km trek just to reach the base camp of this pristine peak.
Our choice for Best Asian Mountain Experience, however, is the legendary Huangshan in China’s Anhui Province. Since ancient times, poets, painters and pundits of prose have tried to capture the dramatic magnificence of the amazing and surreal-seeming landscape. A visit to the actual place, however, shows that reality is every much as breathtakingly beautiful today as was displayed in ancient art.
Sheer rock-faces tower up to dizzying heights, actually piercing the clouds to create a visual fantasy for the stunned traveller. Solitary pine trees calmly grow out of tiny side-fissures at terrifying heights, lending a serene tone to the dramatic landscapes.  What makes Huangshan a truly memorable experience is that the most heart-stopping spots are accessible to visitors, complete with all modern facilities that an international traveller would expect!

Over time, several routes with over 60,000 steps have been hewn on the sheer granite faces of Huangshan. Climbers take between 3 to 7 hours but porters laden with huge loads of things like furniture, refrigerators, building material and other heavy items can take a back-breaking 12 hours. For savvy and well-heeled tourists, however, there are three spectacular cable-car routes, each taking between 10 to 12 minutes.
At the foot of Huangshan and along the access highways there are numerous accommodation-options ranging from luxury hotels to spartan backpacker hostels. For us, however, the most memorable part of our Huangshan experience was staying at the small but well-appointed hotels built decades ago on the giddy heights of the legendary peak. Nestling in nooks and crannies of the magnificent mountain, they provide quintessential Chinese hospitality with surprisingly excellent service.
Stunning scenery, spectacular sunsets, dramatic landscapes and unexpected levels of hospitality are just some of the elements that make China’s Huangshan our choice for Best Asian Mountain Experience!

Photographs © Phosamos, Patricia Malina, Jade Screen Hotel

Friday, 24 May 2019

Best American Airport Hotel

Airport Hotels differ from other types of hotels in several ways.  For example, most hotels have a fixed check-out time and a set schedule for housekeeping no matter if they are budget inns, luxury establishments, business hotels, vacation resorts, hunting lodges or any kind of pay-to-stay place at all. At airport hotels, however, check-out proceeds around the clock, as does housekeeping and room-service. Most other hotels rent out their rooms by the day, whereas Airport Hotels make their rooms available in a variety of time-slots, including ½ day and hourly.
In some ways, an Airport Hotel operates as a combination of hotel, hospital and 24-hr mall all rolled into one. In cases of unexpected security or AOG (aircraft on ground) situations, an Airport Hotel is transformed into an Emergency Accommodation Facility. At other times, an Airport Hotel may double-up as an in-house Convention Centre for busy corporate air-travellers meeting in a convenient location. For these and various other reasons, we tend to rate airport hotels in a category of their own.
In North America, one Airport Hotel stands out for imagination, innovation, style and sheer iconic status. Located beside New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 5, the retro-chic TWA Hotel opened in May 2019 in what was once the historic TWA Flight Center that operated from 1962 to 2001.
The original TWA building was designed by world-renown architect Eero Saarinen for Trans World Airlines, an airline long-controlled by the legendary Howard Hughes. Conversion work began in 2016, and today there is a 512-room hotel complete with retro-themed restaurants and bars, infinity pool, ballroom, library-cum-bookshop, an enormous fitness-centre, meeting rooms and what is reputed to be the world’s largest hotel lobby at 200,000 square feet. 
In keeping with the nostalgia theme, the bedrooms are equipped with Saarinen-designed chairs, a 60’s style martini bar, and even a working rotary-dial phone. Museum exhibitions of Aviation History run around the year, and parked at the back is a 1958 Lockheed Constellation aeroplane converted into a unique restaurant. Regardless of its retro appeal and attention to historical detail, this is fundamentally a functioning commercial enterprise, and given its convenient location and commitment to service, we have no hesitation in naming the TWA Hotel as the Best American Airport Hotel by far!

Pix by TWA Hotel, Michelle Young 

Monday, 29 April 2019

Best Hidden Arabian Destination


Speak of an Arabian destination, and places like Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi immediately come to mind. This is largely due to the influential international airlines these countries own, which carry passengers from all corners of the globe to their strategic air-hubs. Other destinations like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria are known largely for their prominent positions on the global political landscape, while places like Kuwait and Iraq command international awareness for their rich petroleum resources. 

Tourists do flock to the picturesque attractions of Morocco and Jordan, but to us there is a hidden tourism treasure tucked away at the north-east of the United Arab Emirates that is largely unknown and unappreciated.  This is the little kingdom of Fujairah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE.
Relatively secluded from the world since ancient times, this delightful diminutive emirate is still relatively isolated, relying mainly on air-links from Abu Dhabi and a highway to Dubai for tourism; despite its having an excellent deep-water port at Fujairah city.
The drive along the ultra-modern Sheikh Khalifa Highway from Dubai is a pretty fascinating experience, passing through vast desert landscape as it connects Dubai with photogenic places in Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah. Officially inaugurated in December 2011 to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the UAE, the 45-kilometre (28 mile) highway takes just 30 minutes to cover non-stop. For our visit to Fujairah in 2012, we flew from Abu Dhabi. This gave us an equally fascinating bird’s eye view of the dramatic coastline of pristine beaches and dramatic rocky cliffs that form Fujairah’s entire eastern border.

Some of the memorable sightseeing spots in this idyllic Arabian hideaway include the imposing Hajar Mountains, the sheer cliffs of Dibba, the quaint village of Masafi with its traditional Friday market, the Ain al-Madhab Hot Springs, the Wadi al-Wurayah oasis with its spectacular waterfall and the ancient mud-brick Al-Bidayah Mosque,the oldest in the entire UAE. Gorgeous beaches line this destination, with pretty impressive dive-sites out in the crystal-clear waters of the Gulf of Oman.
Around Fujairah city itself, you can visit the 17th century Fujairah Fort, the massive Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the fascinating Fujairah Museum,
the giant golden tea-set and stylised giant eagle statues, and various historic sites. Accommodation ranges from affordable city hotels to spectacular seaside luxury resorts. 
From an Aqua Bounce Funpark and parasailing to shopping at air-conditioned malls and traditional souks, from heart-pounding 4WD wadi-bashing to serene wellness spas, there is something for everyone in Fujairah, our Best Hidden Arabian Destination!



Pix © Odyfolio. Andrew Ponnampalam

Saturday, 9 March 2019

The Biggest Waterfalls In The World

Waterfalls always make for spectacular tourist-attractions, exciting the senses with a combination of breathtaking sight, overpowering sound, exhilarating spray, impressive vibration, and often a unique potpourri of scents.

From the towering Angel Falls in Venezuela with an uninterrupted height of 979 metres (3,212 ft) to the broad 10783-metre (35,376 ft) span of the Khone Falls on the border between Laos and Cambodia, waterfalls have always amazed mankind since the dawn of time.
Whether you are at remote cataracts like Dyanjandi in Iceland or at crowded sightseeing favourites like the Niagara Falls on the USA/Canada border, you will be spellbound by the majesty and power of natural cascades. From the shocking deep-red Blood Falls in Antarctica to the brilliant multi-coloured hues of Colombia’s CaƱo Cristales Rapids and the eye-catching rainbows dancing about a myriad other waterfalls around the world, colours are part of the attraction when water tumbles from one level to another.

Our choice of the best waterfalls in the world are also the largest. The Victoria Falls that straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia are the biggest singular waterfall in the world, with a width of 1.7 kilometres, a height of 108 metres, and an average flow of a massive 1 million litres of water per second!
On our visit to Zimbabwe, we learnt that these impressive waterfalls are most commonly known as “mosi-oa-tunya” or “the smoke that thunders”. Since ancient times, this tremendous natural phenomenon has been identified from miles away by the perpetual cloud of spray and the deep rumble of its cascading torrent. Considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, two-thirds of Victoria Falls lie within Zimbabwe, which also has the most vantage points.
For a variety of reasons, much of the Victoria Falls National Park has been left in its natural state, apart from broad cemented paths and a large Interpretive Centre at the entrance.  While families with small children need to be aware of the ‘wilderness environment’ awaiting them, we find that the lush natural habitat adds to the allure and adventure of the experience at Victoria Falls, the Largest Waterfalls In The World!

(Photographs by Andrew Ponnampalam)

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

The Oldest Airline In The World

It was established in 1919, a full century ago – and is still operating under its original name! Set up at a time when horse carriages were the most common mode of transport in Europe and ox-carts reigned supreme in Asia, Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij is the oldest airline in the world.

KLM, as it usually known, literally means Royal Aviation Company in Dutch, with its ‘Royal’ designation granted that year by Queen Wilhelmina. The usual English translation is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.  As the national airline of The Netherlands, KLM pioneered several milestones in the early days of aviation.


From the very start, Asia was in its sights. In 1924, the first KLM plane departed for Batavia, the capital city of what was then the Dutch colony of Indonesia.  The journey to the metropolis now called Jakarta took weeks to complete. This route became part of KLM's regular scheduled service in 1929; and for more than a decade it remained the longest scheduled air-route in the world.

Along its way on that pioneering flight, the national flag-carrier of the Netherlands stopped in what was then known as Malaya; probably shocking the locals who could not imagine a machine flying in from the sky! KLM became one of the first airlines to have scheduled commercial flights into the country, and continues till this day to operate daily flights into Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of modern Malaysia.

In 1934, KLM reached the Americas for the first time, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Curacao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean region off the coast of Venezuela. In 1946, KLM became the first European airline to start scheduled trans-Atlantic flights to New York. Today, the airline has direct flights from Schiphol to over 30 destinations across the Americas.    
As a modern and efficient airline of the 21st Century, KLM operates more than 168 planes to 165 destinations, including about 50 aircraft used for its Cityhopper regional operations. Its hub is at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Apart from Cityhopper, KLM has interests in several other airlines, including Kenya Airways, Martinair and Transavia. It employs about 31,000 people in the Netherlands, and nearly 4000 more in about 500 locations around the globe - the human dynamics of KLM - The Oldest Airline in The World!

                                                                                                      (Pix copyright unknown/KLM.)

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Best Hotel Buffet

What we regard as the best hotel buffet in the world has also been described as the longest, though there are now several other claimants to the record in length. All we know is that it takes 10 to 15 minutes just to walk from beginning to end of the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, USA.
Having personally sampled the buffet at over a thousand hotels around the world, we believe the Bacchanal Buffet is deliciously distinctive both in quantity and quality.
In terms of quantity, there are literally hundreds of daily offerings spread out over 25,000 square feet, with something for everyone, including the most enthusiastic eat-all-you-can aficionado. The variety ranges from strictly healthy items like the Acai Breakfast Bowl, fibre-rich salads, gluten-free options and freshly-squeezed juices to decadent diet-destroying delights at the centre-island dessert bar – and seemingly everything in-between!
Apart from classic American fare, there are also offerings from the eight other ‘show kitchens’ namely Mexican, Italian, Seafood, Pizza, Deli, Desserts, Japanese and Chinese. Guests from South and South-East Asia will be delighted to discover the sumptuous seafood laksa and curry dishes evocative of the mouth-watering traditions of India, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Our personal favourites must be the outstanding Cantonese selections of dim sum, noodles and stir-fry dishes – probably the best we have tasted anywhere in the entire USA, if not in Europe as well. Tucked away at the very end of the buffet-table, they awaited us every morning with authentic Cantonese-style serveware, including bowls, chopsticks and even toothpicks! Cantonese-speaking guests from Southern Chinese provinces like Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and Guangxi, as well as the global Nanyang diaspora will feel very much at home with this section of the buffet. Interestingly , Japanese guests were also enthusiastic in their affirmation that the food in the Japanese station was authentic and decidedly “oishi”!
Overall, the quality of the Bacchanal Buffet would satisfy the most demanding gourmand.  Ranked “Number One Buffet in the country” by the New York Post, it has also won accolades from publications as diverse as USA Today, Thrillist, Food Beast and Travel+Leisure. From the much-lauded crab-legs and delectable oysters to the luxurious Wagyu beef and dry-rubbed smoked spare-ribs, to the garden-fresh vegetables and the impressive choices in sauces, we found an attention to detail and a passion for perfection that belies its gargantuan size.
It is these finer qualities that led us to dub the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace as the Best Hotel Buffet in the world!

(Photographs Copyright of Trip Advisor)