Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Spring Break in NYC

For this year’s Spring Break, we were excited to take our kids to New York. We arrived at JFK on Wednesday, March 28th at 3:00 pm after a direct flight from SFO. This was Diego and Sophia’s first trip to the Big Apple and we were greeted by an unseasonably warm spring day. Perhaps we should have packed some shorts.

The cab dropped us off on the corner of Elizabeth and Broome on the outer edge of Chinatown a little after 4:00. My cousin Stephen showed up just a minute later and he let us into the apartment. Just a month earlier, Stephen suggested we stay at his mother’s empty furnished apartment, which had just been recently renovated. We’re so glad we took him up on the offer because the one-bedroom unit was perfect for the four of us.

We settled in, said goodbye to Stephen, and then walked a few blocks south to Cha Chan Tang, a classic Hong Kong style restaurant where we grabbed a quick bite. After the early supper, we walked north on Mott St. and came across a simple Chinatown barber shop. I needed a haircut and the $20 special seemed too tempting to pass. Little did I realize that the haircut included a 10 minute scalp massage which was simply exquisite. I almost fell asleep.

We then proceeded to walk the neighborhood (Elizabeth, Spring, Prince, and Mulberry Streets) and came across boutique/bohemian retail shops specializing in everything from shaving equipment to exotic fragrances. We treated ourselves to some gelato before checking out old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the local church. Believe it or not, we were still a bit hungry so we decided to try a slice of New York pizza at Prince St. Pizzeria. Heavenly. We had to have the pizza before we ate cupcakes at The Little Cupcake Bakeshop, which was just around the corner. The banana pudding was tasty but not quite as good as Magnolia’s. We also stopped by Rice to Riches, a hip place with interesting wall placards, where we sampled some of their rice pudding flavors. We passed up some other highly recommended restaurants – Havana, La Esquina, and Tacombi. These would have to wait for another day. With our stomachs more than full, we walked the few short blocks back to our apartment.

Thursday proved to be much cooler and we did not dress appropriately. We found that out while we were walking to the subway station. Our first stop was at Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street in downtown. We had 11:30 am tickets to the 9/11 Memorial but the guards didn’t seem to care that we were a half hour early. We were shuttled in through the cordoned lines and made our way to the check in room where we went through airport –type security. We went back outside, walked next to all the construction going on and ended up in a large open plaza. Here we saw a large square fountain which was placed exactly where the south tower once stood. The water would cascade from the edge of the fountain and fall into another smaller square opening in the center. It struck me as rather ominous-looking—as if the water poured some kind of bottomless pit.

Fountain marking the original South Tower.

The 9/11 museum was still under construction but they did have a gift shop that was tastefully done and informative. This store was very crowded so we got out and walked south on West Avenue until we reached Battery Park, the southern-most tip of Manhattan. We had already purchased tickets for the 1:00 pm ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but since it was barely noon, we were too early. We decided to have lunch at Chipotle and got back into line at 12:30. It was a good thing we had pre-purchased ferry tickets because the line for everyone else was about ten times longer. Ha-ha! Again, we went through security before walking onto the three-level ferry. Marcella stayed inside the ferry to stay warm but the kids followed me to the top deck where we had great views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

The boat ride only took fifteen minutes before we got off onto the Island. We walked around Lady Liberty and took our obligatory photos from her feet. The inside and base of the statue was still under construction so it was still closed to visitors. After circling the island, we got back in line to take the next ferry to Ellis Island.

Where millions of immigrants once passed.

Ellis Island is larger and more formal than I expected. It is mostly made up of a large central building with many wings. We purchased the audio tour which guided us through this building while transporting us back to the early 20th century. Millions of immigrants (3rd class and steerage) would first set foot in America through Ellis Island. Authorities would check your identity, your health, your intelligence, and whether you had enough money to get to where you were going next. The artifacts, displays, and audio tour at Ellis Island gave a great sense of what it was like to emigrate to America a hundred years ago.

We took the ferry back to Manhattan and did a quick stop at the Smithsonian Museum for American Indians (free admission!). I’m guessing that most New Yorkers don’t even know about this museum but it’s housed in a beautiful building. In one of the airy atriums, we were treated to an ad-hoc local choir whose heavenly voices transported us to somewhere sublime. Upon leaving this museum, we came across the large brass bull that marked the epicenter of the financial district. We turned right and walked down Wall Street but were surprised that there were no Occupy Wall St. protestors or anyone like that anywhere. After this quick stop, we ran back to catch the 6 train uptown because we were late for our next stop.

Feeling bullish.

Exiting the Spring St. station, we started running east down Delancy St. so that we could make our 4:30 tour at the Tenement Museum. Huffing and puffing, we sat at the last row while our tour guide was giving some basic background on tenement living. This museum is essentially a time capsule, showing how real people lived in New York during two eras. The first era described the life and family of Nathalie, a German immigrant with four children who lived in one of the apartments in 1874. It’s easy to forget how primitive the living conditions were. There was no running water, electricity, or even gas lamps. Filthy outhouses in the back were shared by all the families.

The adjacent apartment told the story of Josephine, an Italian immigrant who lived as a little girl in the unit with her family until 1935. For her, they had electricity and gas and containers for FDR’s government cheese. The living conditions, however, would still be considered very austere by today’s standards, even for poor immigrants.

So after a long day in lower Manhattan, we walked back to our apartment to rest our weary feet. Before long, however, we got going because we had Broadway tickets for the 8:00 pm showing of Rock of Ages. We got on the subway and once we walked out of the Times Square station, our senses were filled with flashing lights and screens from this iconic location. We walked north, absorbing the sights and sounds. Since we hadn’t eaten dinner, we jammed our way into a deli just a few doors down from the theater. The food was OK but the experience gave us a true sense of the hustle and bustle of the city.

Finally made it to Broadway!

Rock of Ages was an entertaining and hilarious show but probably not age appropriate for Sophia. It was a boy-meets-girl story set in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. Lots of 80’s hair band music got the crowd singing and chanting along. After the show, we took a few more pictures in Times Square before heading back. Near our apartment, we had frozen yogurts at the local Pink Berry establishment. I think that was enough for our first full day in New York.

With one of the stars of Rock of Ages

Friday was similarly cool but we were more appropriately dressed this day. We surprised the kids with our first stop—an NBC Studio tour. Diego was thrilled to see the 30 Rockefeller building and all the historical television moments displayed on the walls. Two NBC pages guided us through the studios where we saw the sound stages for Dr. Oz, the Jimmy Fallon show, and Saturday Night Live.

After the tour, we had lunch at a great soup and salad eatery (Hale & Hearty Soups) in the base of Rockefeller Center and then walked a block to tour St. Patricks Cathedral on 5th Avenue. This building was the largest cathedral the kids have ever seen. We grabbed a cab and made our way north to the Metropolitan Museum. The Met is a huge museum housed on two levels. The exhibit halls seemed to go on forever. A highlight was the Arms and Armory display where we saw King Henry VIII’s body armor. We also saw paintings from Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso, as well as classic American portraits from the 18th century.

Armory at the Met

Crossing the Delaware

We could have easily spent a full day at the Met but we wanted to leave some time for a stroll in Central Park. The park looked nice in this clear, sunny day.

Central Park

After a very long walk, we found the subway line downtown and ended up in our apartment for a short, ten-minute break. My cousin Stephen, his wife Irene and their two boys were waiting for us at Freeman’s, a rustic American restaurant that was only a five minute walk away. The food was fantastic and by the time we left, the restaurant was packed. We then walked east on Delancy, passing the famous Katz Deli, and stopped by the Il Laboratorio di Gelato—a large gelato production facility that also served some delicious gelato. We continued walking through this neighborhood and even stopped to buy some lottery tickets since the Mega Millions were now over $500 million. We said our goodbyes to the Chans and settled back into our apartment. Marcella and I, however, decided to get a 30-minute foot massage at the reflexology establishment across the street. Ah, just what the doctor ordered.

For Saturday, our friends Sandra and Amar, had agreed to serve as tour guides. I first met up with Amar at Legends, a sports bar across the street from the Empire State Building on 33rd. Chelsea, his soccer team, was playing and he wanted to see it live with his fellow fans. It was also a good opportunity for me to learn about and experience this sport a bit more. Chelsea won 4-2 and after the match, Amar and I went back to his place so that he could change his shoes (it was drizzly and a bit wet) before we walked back to our apartment where we met up with the whole gang.

Our first stop was lunch at Henan Flavor, in the hole-in-the-wall Henan restaurant on the eastern edge of Chinatown (The First HeNan Restaurant in East America 63 B. Forsyth St). The food there was absolutely divine and we stuffed ourselves until we couldn’t eat another bite. One of our favorite dishes was the $2 Pancake with Pork (#13).

That's He-nan, not Hu-nan.

Our first stop after lunch was the Essex Street Market, a large building housing local merchants and eateries. Sandra told us that the chef at one of the delis inside Essex Market is known for being notoriously rude to customers. Around the corner from the Market, we stopped by Economy Candies, which has an amazing collection of candy brands we enjoyed when we were kids. I purchased some 1989 packs of baseball cards and we found a Founding Fathers Pez collection set for Diego. Candy boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling in this only-in-New York establishment.

Economy Candy, NYC.

Exiting the candy store, we walked towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Since it was wet and windy, we decided to walk to only to the first pier of the bridge and head back to Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge

At the base of the bridge, we took the subway north towards Central Park. Our first stop landed us at Dylan’s Candy Bar (1011 Third Avenue), another famous, more upscale candy store—this one established by Dylan Lauren. The store was absolutely packed with customers but did offer an incredible variety of candies in its two levels.

At Dylan's Candy Bar.

After Dylan’s, we made a quick stop at Serendipity but couldn’t get seating there for a meal (2 to 3 hour wait!!). Instead, we walked towards the south east corner of Central Park and detoured into the Plaza Hotel, an old New York establishment. We then walked across the street to take in FAO Schwartz, the iconic toy store of Manhattan. This store too was packed with people so it was a relief when we decided to move on.

FAO Schwartz

We walked south on 5th Avenue, window shopping at all the expensive clothiers and jewelry stores. At 42nd Street, we turned to stop by Grand Central Station. Diego did a nice imitation of the AT&T dance while there and I had a chance to stop by the new Apple store.

Grand Central

From Grand Central, we took the subway to Chelsea. Here, we explored Chelsea Market which was formerly the home of the Nabisco manufacturing plant. Similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the Chelsea Market houses a large array of fancy eateries and specialty retailers, almost all related to food. We stopped by Jacques Torres Chocolate Store, an establishment famous for its hot chocolate and awesome chocolate chip cookies. The hot chocolate was so rich that our kids had a difficult time finishing it.

Chelsea Market

Just outside of the Chelsea Market, we tried to take a stroll on the Highline, a refurbished deck that once supported the trains that traveled between Nabisco and Penn Station. Unfortunately, they had already closed so we proceeded to walk to the Flatiron District where we eventually had dinner at Grimaldi’s, a famous Brooklyn pizzeria. To enter the restaurant, we had to go through a church that had been converted to a retail store. Again, only in New York. We proceeded to stuff ourselves with two large pies. Awesome.

A couple NY pies.

After dinner, we walked a few more blocks to Eataly, Mario Battali’s Italian eatery concept. Taking almost the entire first floor of the building, Eataly contained four restaurants, several delis, a book store, and various food vendors in an open space environment. The place was packed and we meandered our way through the area, soaking in the fresh prosciutto, cheeses, and wines. We ended up—where else—but at another gelatoria. I shared the pistachio with Sophia while Diego and Marcella enjoyed the salted caramel.

Final gelato at Eataly.

We said our goodbyes to Sandra and Amar before catching the subway back down to our neighborhood. We passed the pizza and cupcake stores for one last time.

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Jerusalem & Bethlehem

I just got back from a day-long trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. My company was gracious enough to give me a day to visit Jerusalem and they arranged an excellent tour package for me. A van picked me up from my hotel lobby at 7:00 in the morning and whisked me away to a bus depot in Tel Aviv where I transferred to a larger tour van. There I met my tour group and the dozen of us fit comfortably in the bus/van.

We left Tel Aviv at the heart of rush hour around 8:15 and headed east towards Jerusalem. Since we were traveling against traffic, it didn’t take too long before we started climbing from sea level to the 300 meter elevations of Jerusalem. In little over an hour, the bus made its first official stop at a sight-seeing point that gave us all the first look of the Dome of the Rock and the ancient walls of Solomon’s temple. We all took our obligatory shots.

View of the Dome of the Rock

View of the Dome of the Rock

As we drove along modern Jerusalem, I was struck by the dry, mountainous terrain of the city and the many limestone buildings dotting the terraced hillsides. It had a much older feel than Tel Aviv even though many of the buildings looked like they were built within the last 50 years.

Our next stop was the Old City of Jerusalem. Until 1967, the Old City was under the control of Jordan. Before that, its ancient walls were built and destroyed many times over the centuries. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Armenian quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian quarter, and Muslim quarter. We entered the Armenian quarter through the Zion gate and quickly made our way down into the Jewish quarter.

The Old City is relatively small and getting around the different areas took only a few minutes. What surprised me, however, was how recently-built many of the main structures appeared. I was expecting a truly old city similar to sights we saw in Rome. But because the city had gone through so much destruction, much of its latest incarnation is relatively new.

Shot of Old City alley

Shot of Old City alley

Our guide pointed out that we picked a great day to tour the sites. The weather was cool but clear and the crowds were minimal. He said this day next week will be a madhouse with all the Christmas revelers traveling to the holy land.

So we turned around a corner in the Jewish corner and then we saw the Western Wall. Built to support the western side of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall is the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. We had to pass through extra security to get down to the plaza where all the people were praying and wailing towards this wall. To approach the wall, men and women were separated and every man–including me–had to adorn a yarmulka. Reusable paper ones were conveniently available. I walked up to the wall, touched it, and took some pictures.

Not being particularly religious did not serve me well. I could not grasp the magnitude of the moment or the significance of where I stood. My ignorant disposition felt rather anti-climactic compared to the many orthodox jews who were passionately praying and wailing away.

Joe at the Western Wall

Joe at the Western Wall

I sneaked into the side cave area of the wall which appeared to be a synogogue or library. I believe I was the only gentile in this very serious space but my camera clicking did not appear to bother the many inside in serious prayer.

From the Western Wall, we regrouped and headed off to the Via Dolorosa. For those who took Sunday school, you’ll recall that the Via Dolorosa is also known as the “Way of Sorrow” or the “Way of the Cross.” It marked the path that Jesus took as he bore the cross on his way to his crucifixion. Through this via, each of his 14 stations are marked and adjoined by a small chapel. I did not go to Sunday school so I did not realize that the stations of the cross–those things I see in every church–happened right where I was now walking. It was pretty cool to realize that I was walking down the same path that Jesus took some 2000 years ago.

Following the path along, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguably the most holy church in all of Christiandom. This church was built in 325 AD by Emporor Constantine, who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This church houses the last five of the 14 stations. There was station 11 where He was nailed to the cross and station 12, the actual spot where his cross was placed. In fact, I knelt down and felt the hole in which his cross was allegedly inserted.

Station 11

Station 11

We took the stairwell down a level and turned the corner to view the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed. This tomb had two chambers: the first housed a framed relic of the actual stone door that Jesus moved upon his resurrection and the second was the room where his body laid. Both of these rooms were very small and would not suit anyone with even a hint of clostrophobia. But hey, this little room is Christiandom’s holiest place so it was definitely worth a look.

After leaving this church, we went out to buy some souvenirs and have lunch at a nearby plaza. The schwarma I had was OK and a bit overpriced. We now reversed course and walked back to our bus to leave the Old City. Our next stop was Bethlehem.

Getting into Bethlehem was a little tricky. The city sits in the West Bank and as such, our Israeli tour guide could not enter. He dropped us off at a “checkpoint Charlie” type gate where we were greeted by tall barbed-wire walls and tough looking guys with large machine guns. Passport in hand, we went through their security and appeared on the other side. We were now in the West Bank.

Inside the West Bank

Inside the West Bank

Although technically not another country or state, the West Bank might as well be one. Its poverty and general state of deterioration was immediately clear. Our friendly guide greeted us as planned and we settled into two cars and headed to Bethlehem, which was only a mile or so away. As I looked out the car window, I could see Arabic on all the signage and storefronts and stern-looking men staring into our vehicle. I could not help but be reminded of the opening scene of the movie Babel.

We arrived at the Church of Nativity which Constantine also built some 1,700 years ago. Entering this church, I could tell it felt more “ancient” than others. Sure enough, this was one of the few churches that were spared destruction by the invading Turks, Persians, and Arabs over the centuries. So many of the frescoes and structure remain as original.

Our guide asked us to quickly follow him down some stairs. Before I realized where we were going, there I was, standing at the birthplace of Christ. The spot of his birth is marked with a silver 14-pointed star, which I touched and photographed.

The birthplace of Jesus

The birthplace of Jesus

A few feet away was a small room that was the location of his manger. Again, we were fortunate that the crowds were very light because this area is normally packed with visitors.

Back up in the church, I walked over to the Roman Catholic cathedral which in just 10 days will be telecast to the world as it’s been done every Christmas. We left the church, stopped by a Christian souvenir store, and then cabbed back to Jerusalem. The border check was a bit precarious as the Israeli guard inspected my passport for an unusually long time. Nevertheless, we successfully made it back into the bus which then took us back to Tel Aviv.

In summary, I have to say it was pretty cool to see the actual locations of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. I think I have enough “holy points” to cover me for several church sessions. 🙂

Click here to view a full gallery of my pictures of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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First Visit to Israel

I landed last night in Tel Aviv in my first trip to Israel. Except for the use of Hebrew everywhere, the city pretty much resembled many other urban European towns I’ve visited. There weren’t as many people walking about as I would have expected for a Saturday night.

We went to a very nice restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. My seafood casserole was delicious and the local Sauvignon Blanc was quite good. The weather here is very mild–about 70 degrees with little humidity and a slight breeze.

Tomorrow, I head out to for a visit of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which I think will be neat considering the time of year. I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures and post them here.


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