Tag Archives: travel tips

The way to see the Vatican Museums through Bangladesh

St.Peter's Square, Rome, Vatican

Michelangelo could hardly expect that people from all over the world would be ready to queue for hours to see his Sistine Chapel.

True, it’s not easy to get into the Vatican Museums, especially on the last Sunday of each month when the entrance is free. But among the tourist crowds you can always spot young dark-skinned guys holding posters that say “Skip the queue”.

I was curious to see how it works, let alone get to see the Sistine Chapel without having to queue for hours. So I came up to one of these folks and started a conversation. The guy turned out to be Bangladeshi and he said he and his friends had been in the “tourist business” for more than five years. The essence of the business is not complicated. For 15 euro per person they take you to the beginning of the line and bravely squeeze you in from the side pretending you are all members of a tour group who have bought the tickets in advance. However, the whole trick can be halted for a while if the police suddenly appear near the queue.

Well, of course the shady deal is not very fair towards all those law-abiding people who wait in line to get into the Vatican Museums. But it can sure save you 2 to 4 hours of precious time. Moreover, it can save you 15 euro charged by the Bangladeshi guys because you can do it yourself absolutely free of charge. Simply go to the beginning of the line and bravely squeeze in from the side pretending you’re all members of a tour group who have bought the tickets in advance. Michelangelo would not approve though.

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Gloria Golf Resort, Turkey, Belek: a hotel that leaves you with a deeper tan, a fatter stomach and a much thinner wallet.

Hotel staff collecting used towels.

“What would you like to drink, sir?” – a courteous Turkish waiter jumped up to my husband as soon as the latter entered the cafeteria. Funny, but no matter how long I sat at the table with my 4-year-old son, nobody asked us what we would like to drink. Call it a coincidence, but during our whole stay I couldn’t help noticing that the hotel staff was reluctant to do anything requested by a woman.

Another example was with the room change. The first room that we got was far from being flawless. A friend of mine (who was this hotel’s returning guest) told me that there were much better rooms of the same type. When I called the reception they agreed to show me one. Upon my arrival the receptionist asked me to wait in the lobby for 5 minutes. 5 minutes grew into half an hour after which I still had to remind the guy of myself twice. Experienced travelers later explained it to me that things like that often happen at Turkish hotels: “If you’re not yelling or stamping your feet, they think that your problem will eventually take care of itself. So, remember that crying helps.” I will definitely remember this advice if I ever come back to Turkey.

To end my list of flaws for this hotel I must say that the place is indecently expensive. The mere accomodation cost us over $ 6000 (14 nights, 2 adults + 1 child). It would have been even more without a 15% discount that they applied to us as to returning guests’ friends. And surprisingly enough, though our board type was called “all inclusive”, some things happened to be less “all inclusive” than others. For instance, you will be asked to pay extra for playing bowling, cue sports and many other things. The hotel’s spa center offers very few free services: you can only use the indoor swimming pool and a few types of saunas for free. And the prices for eveything else are far beyond reasonable. A “relaxing massage” costs 90 euro (about $ 125). Doesn’t sound too relaxing, does it? Overall, there was a strong feeling that Turkish hotels decided to get the most from Egyptian and Tunisian turmoils.

Getting to the sunny side of life, I must admit that the hotel is perfect for a “cabbage-like” vacation. A beautiful green territory, an impeccable sandy beach, luring outdoor pools and water parks leave you with no choice but to enjoy yourself. The beach deserves separate compliments. It’s huge, comfortable, with hundreds of sun loungers under wide beach umbrellas, therefore it’s almost never crowded. At least you can always find a secluded spot. At either snack bar on the beach you can get strawberries and watermelon, not to mention a pina colada which is of course a symbol of a dream holiday.

Kids can have fun at the Gogi Kids Club where there are always special events for children and the “mini-disco” every evening.  The hotel even has a small zoo where kids enjoy feeding rabbits and birds of all types.

Needless to say that Gloria Golf attracts golfers from all over the globe and ranks among the top 5 golf resorts of the world. But if you feel like playing golf for fun or taking a lesson, plan more extra spendings.

When walking along the golf course I saw a luxurious house called President’s Villa. That left me with a feeling that what is good for a president might not be suitable for ordinary people. 🙂 

 

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Yahoo! I’ve seen Oahu!

And here’s me again after quite a long break. First off, Happy New Year you guys and gals! Hope 2010 will be happy, fruitful and eventful.

As for myself, 2009 was a lot of fun. Both in terms of traveling and “normal” life as well.

The highlight of 2009 was definitely my trip to Hawaii (the island of Oahu).  The Russian mentality has always pictured Hawaii as something extremely exotic, with tropical plants, waterfalls and palm trees. There’s even a Russian song called “Oh, Hawaii!” that has a line that goes: “Coconuts grow there”. Well, they don’t and now I know it (at least I failed to find any on Oahu). 🙂 Pineapples do though. 🙂

Pineapples at the world famous Dole Plantation.

A quick couple of Hawaiian facts. Of course “Oahu” says nothing to most people, so here’s a list of all 8 Hawaiian islands and the number of reasons why I picked the one that rhymes with “Shmoahu”. 🙂

  • Kauai
  • Niihau
  • Oahu
  • Molokai
  • Maui
  • Lanai
  • Kahoolawe
  • Hawaii (a.k.a. the Big Island)

The capital of Hawaii is Honolulu and it is located on Oahu. So, basically all major U.S. cities have direct flights there. And I didn’t feel like making any more connections after flying from Moscow to New York and then to Minneapolis. 🙂 Second, Oahu has many other attractions apart from beaches, such as: Pearl Harbor, Polynesian Cultural Center, Waikiki downtown area that includes International Marketplace, bars and restaurants, shopping plazas filled with local stuff and world known brands, etc. But perhaps the key reason why I picked Oahu was the fact that the topline TV show “LOST” is being filmed there. 🙂

Right after I found out that Oahu is cooler than Hollywood, I started searching  for ways to get to see all “Lost” film locations. It turned out that the best way to see them is through the “Hummer guys” (as they were called by Jorge Garcia starring as Hugo “Hurley” Reyes in “Lost”). Here’s their website and a free whole-hearted promotion for the Hummer guys 🙂 http://www.hummertourshawaii.com It was a real blast riding in the jungle and seeing all the movie locations in the middle of a beautiful privately owned Kualoa Ranch. Apart from “Lost” spots, you get to see places where many other movies were filmed, such as “Jurassic Park”, “Mighty Joe Young”, “Pearl Harbor”, “50 First Dates”, “You, Me and Dupree”, “Godzilla”, etc. Well, enough of that, here’s a couple of pics that say more. 🙂

The guide shows the place where one of "Lost" episodes was filmed.

Godzilla was here. 🙂

"Jurassic Park" movie location.

Time for a couple of complaints about my trip. 🙂 As I said before, most Russians (including myself) portray Hawaii as an exotic place with white-sand secluded beaches and tropics. Well, I admit that I have fallen a victim of this stereotype but I found very few places like that there. First, Oahu is the most populated Hawaiian island, so don’t expect to find a quiet cozy spot – there are crowds everywhere. Second, Honolulu is the capital, which means a severe urban touch on the whole island. Moreover, it is the 2nd most expensive city in U.S., next to Anchorage, Alaska. The most famous district on Oahu, Waikiki, is often called “the tourists’ trap” for its numerous expensive stores and restaurants. But you can still catch a cool sunset there though. 🙂 Well, I guess these are about all my “complaints and grievances”. 🙂

What I liked most about Oahu is the fact that you can find all types of entertainment there. It’s not just a boring resort where you get sick of swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing 3 days after you get there. You can amuse yourself with tons of attractions, from “swim-with-sharks adventure” to exploring history at Pearl Harbor. Oh, and don’t forget that Hawaii is the surfer’s paradise, so, if you’re not a surfer already, make sure you take at least one surfing lesson. They are offered in abundance on Waikiki beach and elsewhere. 

Here’s a cool website that helped me pick most attractions beforehand: http://www.hawaiiactive.com You don’t have to book them from home and don’t buy the usual “Hurry! Limited offer!!!” crap either. 🙂 Most Oahu hotels have a desk with loads of information and a tour guide who can help you book your adventure as late as 1 day prior to the tour. But it’s still better if you at least make a draft of your program in advance. Here’s another source of info for ya. 🙂 http://www.gohawaii.com

And I’d like to wind up with a short Hawaiian video of mine. It shows just a few things that I did on Oahu but I’m sure you can do much better and much more than that! 🙂 Happy traveling and ALOHA! 

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Turkey: the dead will lead you to the beach.

Just a small piece of advice: never ever feed Gizmo after midnight. 🙂 And never ever book a 3-star hotel in Turkey, let alone in Egypt. I made a huge mistake thinking that a 3*** hotel is good enough for Europe and it should be good enough for any other country. A broken air conditioner in the room and a leaking toilet in the bathroom were not that bad, but the road to the beach that lay through a cemetery was not exactly my idea of a health resort. So if you ever go to Turkey (or Egypt), please book a 5 star hotel or at least 4+. Though it’s still not a guarantee that your vacation will be fabulous, at least you will avoid running into a sunbathing zombie. 🙂

The sign on the cemetery fence says "Golden Sun Beach". :)

The sign on the cemetery fence says "Golden Sun Beach". 🙂

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Home Swede home. The sea, the music and more.

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Take a closer look at the building. Anything familiar? No, not Dubai. Believe it or not, it’s Malmo, Sweden. I deliberately didn’t put “just Malmo” or “only Malmo” since it’s actually the 3rd largest city in Sweden. And though the building does seem to be inspired by Burj Al Arab hotel n Dubai, it was fulfilled with Scandinavian moderation, simplicity and taste. The “simple” and tasteful 623-foot twisted skyscraper, called Turning Torso, consists of nine cubes stacked vertically, with each rotating from the one below. It’s definitely a sight to see.

However, the major Malmo attraction is by all means the Baltic Sea. It’s not very often that you get the beach weather there but the presence of the Sea gives the city a certain charm and exquisiteness. But once the heat is on, everybody is headed to the Western Harbor, perhaps the most popular beach zone in Malmo. “The beach” itself is made out of wood. Sweden is all about wood, stones and other natural stuff (IKEA fans will definitely agree). Sometimes you can get lucky and see beautiful swans hanging out on the water at a respectful distance from the swimmers. 

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Swans

Swans

After an invigorating swim in the far from relaxing water you can truly loosen up in the sauna at the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus. “For more than a century, locals have been visiting the Ribersborgs Kallbadhus for a steam in the sauna followed by a dip in the Baltic. The swimming baths are open year-round. If you want to blend in with the locals, brave the elements and hit the baths in the winter for an icy plunge. A better time to visit for the less adventurous is in the summer, when the baths are open for sunbathing.”   (Source:  http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/01/07/malmo.tips/index.html )

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The 4 Ribersborgs Kallbadhus photos: http://www.ribban.com

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Hunger satisfaction is possible in any of the cozy restaurants on the wharf or downtown. If you’re eating outside on a chilly evening the waiter will turn on one of their “lamp-post-like” heaters or offer you a blanket. For all-you-can-eat-buffet fans the best spot would definitely be Sankt Markus Wine Cellar. Styled as a medieval castle, the restaurant will offer you the best wines and the best food, including  Swedish traditional stuff, such as elk or deer. Eat until you explode. 🙂 Seafood lovers, don’t miss “Johan P. Saluhallen located on a small street off Lilla Torg. Fish and shellfish caught fresh from the waters of the Baltic and North Atlantic are served up daily at this fine restaurant, which also has an impressive wine list.” (  http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/01/07/malmo.eat/index.html ) On the same street in the downtown area there is a nice place for pizza/pasta freaks, called Restaurante bar & grappa. Despite a rather slow service, the food (Italian and other) is good. And don’t forget to order cider, the glamorous outstanding cider that can give you a tiny buzz just like the beer but which is by far more delicious. Pear cider is the most popular cider type in Sweden but it comes in all possible flavors, including strawberry. 

To the regret of bigtime party animals, Malmo cannot brag a worthy nightlife. A few night clubs downtown can’t be enough, so many folks choose to take a train to Copenhagen which is only 15 minutes away. But there is one event that brings people together from all over Scandinavia and the rest of the world. It’s Malmo Music Festival that is held annually in August. “The city  pulsates with life during this eight-day outdoor culture extravaganza that’s been going strong for nearly a quarter of a century. Music is the big draw, attracting some 1.5 million to Malmo every August. Hundreds of live acts fill the city with sounds of classical music, heavy metal and everything in between. If you aren’t busy dancing the night away, you’ll want to take in the film screenings, comedy shows and theater performances staged during the festival. The best part about the festival? It’s absolutely free. The revelry kicks off with a massive crayfish party in the city’s main square. Bring your own crayfish and a mood to party.” ( http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/01/07/malmo.seasonal/index.html )

There are many things in Malmo that will pleasantly surprise you. Like, for instance, I was amazed to find out that the pure drinking water there is available right from the faucet. I asked the girl at the hotel reception: “Is it true that you can drink water right out of the faucet?” “Yes you can”, she answered proudly. “You’re in Sweden now”.

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The devil wears Prada made in China.

Aaahh, the mysterious East, the homeland of Confucius, Shaolin monastery and Beijing 2008 Olympics. 🙂 Yep, the guys have a lot of stuff to be proud of. Including myself, who was born in Beijing. 🙂 But perhaps the most popular thing about that country is the gazillions of Chinese merchandise that can be found in any corner of the world. Even if the label says “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” it is not a guarantee that it’s not actually made in China. 🙂

The world is packed with fake Chinese Guccis, Calvin Kleins, Chanels and Rolexes. But once you visit any Beijing market you will see that fake brands usually fall into 2 categroies: actually “fake” and the so called “imitations”. For instance, a fake Prada bag will probably be made of some cheap leather-like material, have a bad zipper, stuck up threads and will smell like hell. Whereas an “imitation” Prada may look 100% real and it will take a super duper expert to “expose the deception”. An honest Chinese merchant (if there are any) will even admit that he’s selling “imitations” and might pull out a “real” fake thing for you to compare.

Imitations can be quite expensive and don’t be surprised if the salesman won’t agree to sell a “Gucci” bag for less than $ 100. But here’s a couple of bargain tips:

  1. Whatever the price is (talking about markets here, there’s no bargaining at department stores), always cut it by at least 3 times. The merchant will often start laughing which means you should go up a bit. If it’s still a “no” and especially if you’re not crazy about the thing, simply turn around and walk away. In 90% of all cases you will be stopped by his plaintive “Hallo?” and “OK, OK!”
  2. If your friends asked you to bring back 10 imitated Rolexes, don’t buy them all at once. The main reason is that a “wholesale package” will give the guy (ot the girl) more chances to cheat you and convince you that $ 1000 is more than a reasonable price for 10 almost real Rolexes.
  3. If you are looking for something in particular, it’s good to have a picture of what you are looking for. Rumour has it that in China they can produce an exact copy of anything you show them in less than 24 hours.

And finally, here’s a virtual tour to the “shrine” of Chinese manufacturing. I was asked to bring back a Louis Vuitton bag from Beijing and had its picture with me. The sales girl didn’t have the right bag on the spot, so she invited me to follow her to the “warehouse”. When I saw a huge dirty barn in the heart of a Beijing “ghetto” filled with world famous brands I lost all faith in glamour, luxury and the rest of the “Sex and the city” system of values. 🙂 No regrets at all.

Following the Chinese sales girl to the "branded bags" warehouse.
A tailor's workshop. Care to sew a Chanel?
Milan, Rome and Paris? Yeah right, see where real fashion is born. :)
"Imitations" of Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags. Genuine leather (2 in the front), great quality.

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