Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Camping on the Silver Strand State Beach

Silver Strand State Beach is a narrow strip of land connecting Coronado Island to Imperial Beach in the San Diego area.  On the west side is the Pacific Ocean.  On the east side, San Diego Bay.  It's a popular beach for the locals, though not as popular as Pacific or Mission Beaches.  Since I heard of this campsite I've always wanted to camp here with a recreational vehicle (RV).  How beautiful can it be?  Less than 50 meters from the beach.  Hearing the waves at night.  Ocean breeze.

This campsite is so popular that it is fully booked in the summer.  Reservations can be made 6 months in advance but you have to book it as soon as the dates are opened.  I was lucky to reserve a site for four days after Labor Day.  It costs about $45 a day to camp there, with electricity and water hook-up.  A central dump is available for $10 each time but there was also a private service that comes by every morning to pump out your black and grey waters for $20 each time.  Below are pictures of our time at Silver Strand.

Doris dipping into the waters of the Pacific Ocean

Ready for the beautiful outdoors

Meals outside is just wonderful

Sewage pumping service

Company that provides the sewage service

Coronado Bridge

Ferry Landing at Coronado Island

View of downtown San Diego from the ferry

A tall sailing ship in San Diego Harbor

An empty beach all to ourselves

Shells collected on the beach

A meal outside with wine is just heavenly

Biking from Silver Strand to Coronado Island Ferry then to downtown San Diego

You can take your bike on the ferry
While Phoenix continued to having 100+ degree weather, it was a cool 70+ degree weather everyday. We biked, ran, walk along the beach, drive to town for dinner, etc.  One downside of camping here is they lock the gates early - 9pm in the summer, 8pm in the fall and 7pm in winter.  You have to plan ahead if you plan to use your vehicle in the evening.  Nevertheless, this is the ultimate camping trip.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A New Lifestyle with the Casita Travel Trailer

I've been planning on this for a long time - how to get out of Phoenix during the hot summer months. Of course, you can buy a house or apartment somewhere cooler like in San Diego.  But that would mean you are stuck at one place all the time.  My solution a few years ago, was a recreational vehicle or motor-home.  That way I can travel from one location to another and see the country as well.  I was bent on getting a Class B Motorhome, usually a converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van that is equipped with all the niceties of a motor-home like bed, dinette, kitchen, refrigerator, bathroom, toilet, air-conditioning, etc.  Some of the manufacturers are Sportsmobile, Airstream, Roadtrek, Coachmen, Winnebago, Pleasure Way, etc.  They range in price from $100,000 to $150,000.  It was a lot of money to put into something that I may use for only a few weeks out of a year.  Besides, I may have to pull a smaller vehicle so that it is easy for me to get around a town or city.

Coachmen Galleria with Mercedes Benz Sprinter chassis

In a casual conversation with my neighbor, he mentioned that it'd be easier for me to get around in a Casita Travel Trailer.  He told me that it is small and it'd be easy for me to get around.  I went to the  Casita Website and read all the details and layouts of their trailers.  Then I went on the internet to read more about it.  I was very impressed, especially with the price and the popularity.  I found very few in the used market and the ones available sell near the price of new trailers.  I called their phone number and spoke to a sales person by the name of Jonathan.  He told me that the model that fits me best is the 17 feet Spirit Deluxe.  I looked at the floor plan and the options.  Including all the options, I was still below $22,000.  This compared to similar vehicles from other companies that cost twice as much. The wait time is about 4 months, which is okay with me because I would be traveling the next few months anyway.

The trailer finally was delivered on June 13, 2018 on a hot summer morning.

Casita 17' Spirit Deluxe in my backyard
Here is look at the inside of the trailer.

The rear dinette that collapses into a full-size bed.  TV/DVD Player hanging in the rear

Side dinette that folds into a twin bed

Ceiling fan and A/C

2-stove gas burner, sink and 4.1 cu ft refrigerator. Microwave above fridge.

Toilet and Shower

Full-size bed after putting away the dinette
This is not a big or fancy trailer by any means.  But it has all the amenities that you'd need in a trailer.  It fits me perfectly for someone owning a trailer or recreational vehicle for the first time.  It gives me the opportunity to learn this new lifestyle and get adjusted to traveling and sleeping in one.  We need to learn how to shower in a small shower, cook in a small kitchenette, drain black and gray water, hitching and unhitching the trailer, etc.

As of August 2018, we've camped at the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and Payson.  The experience was wonderful, getting away from the heat and going hiking and biking in these smaller towns in northern Arizona.  During Labor Day week, we'll be camping on the beach in San Diego.   We have plans to take it on a longer trip up the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and maybe all the way to Alaska.  It's going to be a fun and tough life but somebody has to do it.  Happy Camping!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Taste of Hong Kong

Hong Kong (HK) is a city that needs no introduction.  It reminds everyone of a vibrant island city with bustling traffic and people.  When you see pictures of HK you see businesses with their neon lights protruding into the middle of the street.  You sense excitement and anticipation when you land at the airport.  Its economy is a model of what a laissez-faire system should be.

The last time I was in HK was in May 2014:  Hong Kong - a local neighborhood

I was on my way to an exciting trip in China that included a cruise on the Yangtze River, holding a panda in Chengdu, riding a camel on the Silk Road, seeing the Terra Cotta soldiers in Xian and cruising the Li river and seeing karst formations in Guilin.  You can see these postings in the May and June 2014 section of this blog.

But this trip is different.  A couple of high-school friends and I decided to come to HK just to enjoy the local delicacies.  Among Chinese cuisine, probably the most creative are those from the Pearl River delta in southern China.  In HK the predominant Chinese cuisine is Cantonese.  Americans may be familiar with Cantonese-style restaurants that were started by early Chinese immigrants.  These were popular until the 90s' when more immigrants came from other parts of China and opened Sichuan, Mongolian, and other northern Chinese-type restaurants.

Jimmy and Eric flew in from Singapore and I flew in from Taiwan.  We met at the new Hong Kong International Airport on Chek Lap Kok Island.  This new airport replaced the old terrifying Kai Tak Airport in 1998, a year after the British returned HK to Communist China.  We took a taxi to the Stanford Hillview Hotel in Kowloon.  It costs about HK$300 or about US$38.  It's easy to get from the airport to either HK Island or Kowloon.  You can take a taxi or an Airport Express train to key stops, then take buses or taxies to the hotels.  It's wise to buy an Octopus card, which is used mainly for taking public transportation, but can be used at restaurants and other establishments as well.

Our taxi-driver was generous in sharing information about HK, especially where to shop and eat.  Since all three of us are conversant in Cantonese, it was an easy conversation.  Our hotel is in the Tsim Sha Tsui area in Kowloon.  This is a very popular area, especially the very touristy Nathan Road.  Fortunately, we are a couple of blocks away from Nathan Road, in a relatively quiet hillside neighborhood.

Based on tips from the taxi-driver our first stop was at a local market to buy Chinese sausage and salted fish.  You may wonder, what's the big deal with these two food items?  For those unfamiliar, Chinese have been preserving food for generations when there was no refrigeration.  One of the ways to preserve food is to salt and then dry them.  To some the flavor is heavenly when you cook them.  To others it stinks like rotten food.

Stall selling dry preserved food

Among the preserved food is scallops (in the middle) and sausage on the top-right
Our first tourist stop was Victoria Peak, the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island.  From here you can see HK Central (downtown), Victoria Harbor and Lamma Island.  It has the most expensive real estate in all of HK and sometimes the world as well.  Tourists flock to the Peak because of its views.  The most popular way to get to the top is taking the funicular.  However, the line is often very long, with the wait sometimes over 2 hours.  To get around that, we booked a "tour" through a company called Klook (klook.com), which gave us fast access to the tram.  It is worth a small service charge so that we don't have to wait in line for too long.

View of Central HK and Kowloon from Victoria Peak at dusk
Then it was a late night supper at a restaurant in Kowloon that specializes in clay pot rice.  Cooking rice and other ingredients in a clay pot is a specialty in Chinese cooking.  The pot retains the flavor of the rice and the ingredients, typically some kind of meat or sausage or salted fish.  The food is not meant for those who are not used to the pungent flavor of some of these ingredients.

Menu for Clay Pot Rice restaurant

Clay Pot Rice with Chinese sausage
A restaurant selling dessert made solely from soy beans
Our intended destination the second morning was Lantau Island.  Unfortunately, the cable car to the island was not working.  We switched plans and went to Cheung Chau Island, where the main occupation is fishing.  We took an hour ferry from the ferry terminal in Central Hong Kong.  It was a nice pleasant ride through Hong Kong's busy waterways.

Ferry Terminal in Central HK

Idle fishing boats

Then it's back to the central district, commonly called just Central.  It's the central business district with all the office skyscrapers on the northern shore of the island.  You can see the buildings in the picture above taken from Victoria Peak.  Behind all these skyscrapers are old businesses that have been around since the beginning of HK.  You find narrow streets and alleys, some needing escalators to get up from point A to B.  In the area called Sheung Wan are old shops that have been around for as long as a hundred years.  In this bustling area you also find young professionals from all corners of the world working in this exciting city.

One of the narrow streets

A food stall in the Central district

Our dinner plan that night is a popular upscale restaurant known for its roast goose.

Roast goose on display
Dim Sum is arguably the most popular Cantonese comfort food.  The bite-size food come in small plates, served by waiters and waitresses pushing carts around the restaurant.  If you see a dish that you like, you stop the cart and pick whatever you want.  The waiter/waitress will mark down on an order sheet the size of the dish that you took.  Each size corresponds to a certain price.  The food is mostly steamed but some dishes are fried or stir-fried.  Dim sum follows the tradition of "yum-cha," which literally means drink tea but is an occasion for friends or family to have tea together.  It is a wonderful way to socialize with everyone at the table (usually round) and enjoying some delicious food at the same time.  We went to Lin Heung Tea House on Wellington Street.  It was started in 1889 in Guangzhou, China and opened its HK branches in the 1920s'.  As expected it was very popular and crowded.  We arrived there around 9 am and most of the popular dishes were already sold out.

Dim sum dishes, including steam buns, stick rice, sponge cake, etc

Customers fighting over the food

A couple of waitresses pushing their carts

Li Heung Tea House on Wellington Street
That afternoon we went to a restaurant in the Wan Chai area that specializes in snake soup.

Snake soup

In the evening it was a feast of a different kind:  chili crab in the touristy Temple Street.  This is an area where a lot of of tourists come to for the night market.  Besides selling souvenirs and knick-knacks in an open-air market there are many well-known restaurants in the area.  This chili crab restaurant is so popular that it has 3 separate dining rooms across the street from each other.  However, our unbiased opinion is that the Singapore chili crab is even better.

On the morning of our departure (4th day) we made a last run for a traditional Cantonese breakfast dish:  congee.  It comes with choices of many ingredients:  pork, preserved eggs, fish, etc.  It also has other side dishes like fried noodles, taro cake, soft rice cakes, fried crullers, etc.

Congee and other side dishes

Congee choices
Fried crullers or Yau Char Kwai (in Cantonese)
Needless to say we were stuffed when we left HK.  But we were joyous to have tried all these popular HK dishes.  Thanks to our friend Eric who spent 6 months planning this gourmet itinerary.  I am still trying to lose the 4 to 5 pounds that I gained on this trip to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hualien and Taroko Gorge

I booked this Taiwan trip without much planning.  I was torn between doing a comprehensive round-the-island tour or just visit a few places.  I had different feedbacks from different people.  I finally decided that I will allocate 8 days then figure out where I was going to go.  The major places to visit in Taiwan are Taipei, Kaohsiung, Tainan and Hualien.  While in Taipei I found out that I have enough places to visit to keep me busy for at least 7 days.  Finally, I decided that I was going to use 2 days to visit Hualien and save Kaohsiung and Tainan for a later visit.

The High-Speed Railroad (HSR) in Taiwan runs north-south from Taipei to Kaohsiung.  It does not run east along the coast to Hualien.  The journey from Taipei to Hualien takes about 2 hours and a ticket costs 440 New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) or about US$14.50.  It was a very nice pleasant ride through the countryside.  The trains were clean and the passengers were all well-behaved.

Why Hualien?  The main attraction here is the Taroko Gorge.  I booked a 1-night stay at an apartment about 15 minutes away from the train station.  When I arrived at the Hualien train station I found out that there was a shuttle bus leaving in about 30 minutes on a route through the area.  This Hualien Shuttle Route takes you to the outskirts of Hualien, through farms, recreation areas, old sugar factory, etc.  My plan was to take a similar shuttle route through the Taroko Gorge the next day but I want to see what's around Hualien.

Taipei Train Station

Danongdafu Forest Park

This is where the bus turns around on the shuttle
It took me some time to find my AirBnB apartment.  A young couple runs the apartment remotely.  You have to call them ahead of time and they meet you at the apartment.  Early the next morning i walked 15 minutes to the train station.  Next to it is the shuttle bus that takes you through the Taroko Gorge.  It is a hop-on hop-off bus, costing 240 TWD or about US$8.  There are about 10 stops.  You stop wherever you want and you wait for the next bus that comes along.  I stopped at 3 or 4 stops because the bus runs about every hour and if you miss one, you have to wait for almost another hour. Everything was going smooth until about half-way through the gorge, there was construction and traffic was backed up.  That threw the bus schedule out of whack and at the last stop, I had to wait for almost 2 hours before getting back to the train station.

Crossing the bridge to the temple

A nun asking for donations

Shuttle bus

Shakadang Trail

Temple on top of the hill

Pagoda at Tianxiang

A different perspective of the pagoda

View from the top of the temple

Eternal Spring Shrine
I finally arrived back in Hualien at about 6:30pm.  I quickly walked to the train station and buy a ticket for the next train to Taipei.  Later that evening I took a train to the Taipei airport, went to the Plaza Premium Lounge to take a shower, rested and took an early morning flight to Hong Kong, where I will meet my friends Jimmy and Eric.