Portland Japanese Garden 

When visiting the Pacific Northwest, you probably wouldn’t think to look East for inspiration. But did you know that Portland, Oregon is home to two exquisite gardens with Eastern influences: the Portland Japanese Garden and the Lan Su Chinese Garden?

Having called Japan home for many years, I sometimes find myself comparing Japanese inspired things, food, etc. to ‘the real deal’.  I’m not a Japan snob, but I often find a lot of ‘ethnically inspired’ things to be tacky and not very nice. That said, the Portland Japanese Garden exceeded our expectations and I’d even say that it is arguably the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan.

The garden’s five areas include a flat garden, strolling pond garden, a tea garden, natural garden, and a sand and stone garden. Everything is really well thought out and there were moments when I felt I had been transported back to some of my favourite garden spots in Kyoto or Tokyo.

There is a small entrance fee to the garden, which is located directly above the Rose Garden in Washington Park. As the trek up the hill to the Japanese Garden can be quite strenuous for some, I recommend taking the free shuttle bus from the parking lot to the Admission Gate. Spring and autumn are probably my favourite times to view Japanese gardens, but each season has its own unique beauty.

Have you visited a Japanese garden outside of Japan that you think is noteworthy? If so, please share with us in the comments!

Helsinki in Pictures

Helsinki is a beautiful city and easy to explore, especially in summer when the days are long and every day is a good day for a picnic. There are so many things I loved about the city and Finland in general.

It’s easy to get around Helsinki without a car. The transport network of buses and trams is excellent, making it delightfully easy to navigate. We also loved how easy it was to travel by boat, whether to Helsinki Zoo on Korkeasaari, Suomenlinna, or Harakka (Magpie) island for a spot of bird watching. We were able to truly appreciate the ‘land of a thousand lakes’ thanks to the ace water transport system.

One evening we got caught in a downpour and instead of being stuck indoors, we decided to take advantage of the white night and explore Helsinki by bicycle (compliments of Scandic Paasi). It was magical. With few people or cars on the road, we felt like we had the entire city to ourselves.

I’ll always associate Finland with Moomin, Arabia, Marimekko, and Aarikka. But I am happy that I can now add some of our favourite Helsinki spots to the mix — Café Ursula, Kamppi Chapel, Hakaniemi Market and Café Regatta, to name a few. Oh and of course, we mustn’t forget the Finns. We’re so grateful to the many friendly people who helped make our Finland adventure special. Kiitos!

 

Monkey Does Old Town

Here are some snaps of Monkey around Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia. The steep cobbled streets were not fun to navigate with tired chipolatas. Trying to dodge large swarms of tourists added to the misery at the time. The photos bring back much fonder memories of the day in Tallinn, but in hindsight we should have rested a bit more before making the journey across the Baltic.

Viva Las Vegas!

There are basically two types of people that go to Vegas. There are those that want to gamble and experience what it feels like to be a ‘high roller’, hitting up the clubs, partying until dawn and waking up in the evening with a hangover to do it all over again. Then there are those who go to enjoy the shows, feast on the bright lights and decadent food, and soak in the ‘atmosphere’ of Vegas. We would fall into the latter category.

An evening walk along The Strip.

The Strip

You won’t meet many locals in Vegas (which in most people’s minds is technically just ‘the Strip’. You have to leave Las Vegas Boulevard to really get a full perspective of the city, where traffic is minimal, streets are wide and houses surrounded by mountains and dessert. But on the Strip, it’s like a grown-up version of Disneyland but weirder and possibly on drugs.

Inside The Bellagio, Las Vegas

Inside The Bellagio, Las Vegas

Forget driving–you move an inch per minute. Although walking can be faster at times, it takes ages to get anywhere on foot because the carpark is a mile from the actual hotel lobby and you are forced to navigate hotel casino after hotel casino to get to your destination. That said, you do get your exercise in and it helps keep off the rich food you’ll no doubt have stuffed yourself with.

Paris Hotel,  Las Vegas

Paris Hotel, Las Vegas

We thought we were going to be lucky and avoid the crowds at Christmas but even though we got a massive deal on the hotel, we were surprised to see 1/3 of China everywhere we went, making the queues for everything impossible. I have nothing against tour groups being herded around on massive tour buses with guides waving bright coloured flags, but they do make it a 4.5 hour wait for Christmas buffet brunch at any of the top hotels (we know this because we actually toured the top 5 hotels to see if we could get lucky–that’s dedication).

The Bellagio, Las Vegas

The Bellagio, Las Vegas

Apparently, you can pay a little extra for the VIP munching club but even then you have to queue another hour before you can be seated, and then you still have to work your away through the swarm of diners to get to the bloody food.  But even the pretty (or gaudy, depending on your tastes) decor couldn’t make up for the long wait.

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Fresh flower bouquets — so pretty!

Don’t worry, we didn’t queue for hours. The moment we found out that arriving at 15:00 for dinner meant we wouldn’t eat until closer to 21:00, we said sod it and went to Wolfgang Puck’s Pizzeria & Cucina for lunch and Michael Mina’s Nobhill Tavern instead for Christmas dinner (both of which I highly recommended–basically any place with their name on it is going to be delish). I’m generally wary of ‘celebrity chef’ restaurants as they are often overpriced, stuffy and not that impressive but I have been to several establishments owned by them and they are worth the extra expense.

Christmas tree made of real fruit!

Why the obsession with Vegas buffets? Because you can’t find such a huge concentration of anything on such a grand scale anywhere else in the world–and buffets seem to be very American, so when in Rome… We also didn’t really have much else to do until seeing KA on Christmas. We gave up on the top 5 on Christmas Eve and ended up at Rio’s Seafood Buffet, which was about a 1.5 hour wait. If you love seafood, don’t go there. It’s a huge disappointment and I still can’t undertand how it could be ranked no.8. We did finally manage to  experience the extravagance of Wynn’s buffet breakfast on Boxing Day by getting up insanely early to be the first in the queue for breakfast. And only a 45 minute wait!

Inside The Buffet, Wynn Hotel

Inside The Buffet, Wynn Hotel

The food was nicely laid out and the buffet of food was about a mile long with enough to feed all of Britain for breakfast. Even if you’re not a big eater, it’s actually quite fun to be surrounded by such pretty and decadent food and gawk at all the fatties with slabs of prime rib and mounds of bacon on their plates, while we enjoyed our own breakfast of champions (pictured below).

Cute little verrines for breakfast!

Cute little verrines for breakfast!

To be fair, we skipped all the usual starchy American breakfast foods and stuck to the special Christmassy savoury verrines and roasted vegetables and bites of seafood. The dessert verrines are tiny–about three bites-full.

Christmas trees outside The Buffet, Wynn Hotel

Christmas trees outside The Buffet, Wynn Hotel

If you think about it, the entire Strip is designed to get people to stop and gamble in as many casinos as possible and spend money they haven’t got. Evil, really. But I can see how people could easily get sucked in. Vegas screams decadence, which is often gaudy and over the top, but somehow it’s also kind of fun. We could only handle so much of this over-sized adult playground and quickly longed for the quiet comforts of home after only three nights there.

San Francisco In Pictures

It’s funny I often visit San Francisco but never seem to get around to writing about it. So here I am finally sharing a few snaps of my favourite spots around the city, as seen through the lens of an iPhone 5.

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Like London’s Tower Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge never ceases to take my breath away. It’s beautiful in the fog but I love it best on a clear sunny day.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

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Golden Gate Bridge Panorama

Golden Gate Bridge Panorama

I was so tempted to get these San Francisco-themed Converse trainers I found on Haight Street. Shame I’m too old for stuff like this. Haha. But I think they’d make a lovely gift — a lot more special than your usual S.F. tourist tat. While we’re on the subject of tat, I do recommend having a look around the the newly built Golden Gate Bridge information centre, which carries some top end tourist tat (which G will be the lucky recipient of — sorry, no photos as don’t want to spoil the surprise for him).

SF themed Converse

SF themed Converse sneaks found on Haight Street

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Amoeba Music

Amoeba Music — so happy to see that they’re still around!

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Four Barrel Coffee, The Mission

Four Barrel Coffee, The Mission

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for it’s beautiful scenery and amazing food. A lot of people (namely tourists) flock to Fisherman’s Wharf (Pier 39, to be precise) for the iconic New England clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and Dungeness crabs.

Sam's Chowder House

Sam’s Chowder House

But if you want the best to be had in the Bay, I’ll let you in on a wee little secret. Ditch the wretched smelly tourist trap and head to Half Moon Bay, a beautiful seaside hamlet just south of San Francisco. There you’ll find Sam’s Chowder House, who serve the best clam chowder, fresh crabs and the tastiest lobster rolls to be had in the Bay Area and quite possibly, the world!

Sam's Chowder House Lobster Roll

Sam’s Chowder House lobster roll — absolute best in the world!

Half Moon Bay is also home to the Maverick’s, California’s claim to fame for big wave surfing. In winter, it is not uncommon for Maverick’s to produce waves of about 25 feet (7-8 metres), and they can often reach a height of over 50 feet (15 metres).

Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, CA

Maverick’s, Half Moon Bay, CA

If you’re looking to book a holiday to San Francisco and want some ‘local’ tips on where to eat and what to see, I’d be happy to share more of my favourites with you!

America’s Little Denmark: Solvang, California

What’s that? A little slice of Scandinavia in California? At first I was rather dubious, but Solvang is apparently well known amongst Californians and I guess it would be. Unlike all the Little Italy’s, Chinatowns and other ethnic communities that thrive in California, it’s not every day you come across a Little Denmark or any hint of Scandinavian culture on the West Coast of the United States.

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I wanted to stop in Solvang partly to see if it lived up to the hype and also to see if I might find any Moomins (yes, I know, it’s not Little Finland but one is always on the lookout for Moomins). I imagined we would spend at least an entire day exploring what many have described to be a charming escape but sadly, it turned out to be a bit of a tourist trap. We were bored after two hours and left rather disappointed.

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Although Solvang could be quite the gem of a town to some, it really wasn’t for us and there were of course no Moomins to be found! There was plenty of ‘Danish’ tat — some imported from all over Scandinavia and the rest from local crafts makers and wineries. There were also some lovely Danish bakeries and chocolatiers but for the most part the shops were simply depressing and had an old musty smell to them.

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I do hope my review of the town doesn’t put anyone off having a butcher’s for themselves. We were blessed with amazing weather and the surrounding scenery is truly beautiful — stunning really. I should also add that it’s wonderful that the local people here have found a way to preserve their cultural heritage by keeping Solvang alive.

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As some of you may know, I’m all for tourist tat, sometimes the tattier the better but in the end all we came away with was a box of handmade chocolate turtles from Ingeborg’s, which were actually quite nice (and massive), but obviously not traditionally Danish. I saved them for home and as you can see, Snorkmaiden is nearly engulfed in these American-sized chocolates!

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I’ll leave you with a random thought for the day: I’ve been wondering if only local shops call themselves ‘world famous’ as I have never heard of Ingeborg’s until our stop in Solvang. I don’t believe Neuhaus, Godiva, Lindt, or even Cadbury bother to slap the phrase on their packaging as they truly are internationally known. What do you think?

Glimpse Of Blackpool

Blackpool is often rated as Britian’s No. 1 holiday destination so it seems fitting that some friends would plan a nice weekend getaway there to experience the sights and sounds of the quaint seaside town (although I must admit, Blackpool doesn’t really compare to Brighton, which I much prefer). I suppose you could say it’s the closest thing the UK has to Disneyland. Here are some of the snaps they sent me!

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You can’t go to Blackpool without visiting Blackpool Tower.

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Sadly, there were no Moomins to be seen in Blackpool, but apparently there are tons of golleys to be won as prizes at Blackpool Pleasure Beach (where Valhalla was the ride of choice) and in shops.
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And plenty of other interesting sightings, like the troll-like figures outside Donna’s Dream House.
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From the look of things, Blackpool seems to embrace the concept of ‘American’ portions with their massive chocolate eclairs and generous cake sizes!

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I love the economically friendly food prices.

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Finally, you can’t leave Blackpool without checking out the the magical Blackpool Tower Ballroom, which I must admit if I were to visit Blackpool it would mainly be to give ballroom dancing a go and witness the grand entrance of the flashy organ.
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Have you ever been to Blackpool? What’s your favourite spot in town? I’ve got mixed reviews of the place and unfortunately, according to recent holiday reports, it was neither quaint nor nice — in fact it was dark and nasty with lots of drunken fights. There also seems to be a rehousing project under way for paedophiles but not sure that should stop anyone from having a good time! Does that sound odd? I’m trying to be fair here and my friends did seem to enjoy themselves!