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Singapore Quickie

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IF you ever get a long layover in Singapore, look it as a blessing and not as something drastic you have to endure. Changi International Airport is a dream. One of the world’s most modern airports that you would appreciate being stranded in for even a whole day and there is so much to do it’s like having a free vacation in a luxurious resort.

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You can hop from terminal to terminal which features different attractions to occupy your time. Changi Airport showcase a wide selection of shopping, theater, gardens, dining, relaxation and entertainment options—name it and the airport have it. There is just so much to do and see. WiFi is fast and free and terminal seats have chargers installed, including outlets for USB.

Set an alarm because you might lost track of time and miss your connecting flight.

If you only have at least six hours stopover, grab the chance for a quickie tour of the flower city for free. At the Changi Airport Terminal 2, look for the booth that advertises free tours and join the line. The only requirement is you have to have a passport, a forwarding ticket to your destination and visa, if necessary.

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You can go on the Heritage Tours or the City Sight Tours at night, but you can’t have both. I opted for the heritage tour and went through immigration check out along with 18 other travelers from different countries. We boarded a bus printed with lovely flowers all around it advertising Free Singapore Tours and off we went. Our tour-guide gave us explanations of where we were but no one was really paying attention. Everyone was busy taking pictures through the huge glass windows. The Heritage Tour brings visitors through the Singapore’s past and present architectural showcases with a 20-minute stopover at the city’s famous landmark—the Merlion Park where you squeeze your way around with a thousand other visitors for quick photos. Too ‘touristry’ for a photographer but a visit to Singapore won’t be complete without posing for a photo at the Merlion Park, by this mythical creature that symbolizes the city’s beginnings.

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We wheezed by Singapore’s cultural districts – Chinatown and Little India but the second stopover in Kampong Glam was what I liked the most. This is one of Singapore’s most colorful districts with rows of Malay and Arab restaurants and roadside boutiques selling souvenirs from fans to keyholders to bright colorful shawls and everything else, massage parlors, art galleries, coffee shops, craft stores, and more. You can’t miss the Masjid Sultan or Sultan Mosque at this stopover—the venue for the fasting month of Ramadan.

The two-hour and a half tour is indeed a quickie. If you’re hoping for a leisurely stroll where you can take photos for as long as you like, then these free tours are not for you. Check out the City Sightseeing open-top bus tours and other options of going out on your own. Oh, I’m coming back for the city lights tour. Soon I hope.

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Kuala Lumpur quickie tour

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The Hop-on Hop-Off city tour is your best bet to explore this city with is skyscrapers, mix of towering  buildings and colonial architecture, mosques and temples on your own.

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IF it’s your first time to visit the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, the best way to get the most of it is to buy a ticket for the hop on, hop off bus and explore the city at your own leisurely pace.

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After failing to find a tour agency at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 a couple of weeks ago, I boarded the Express Train to the KL Sentral about 30 minutes away to try my luck. I had one day to spend and I was not going to sit it out at the airport, no matter how world class it is. I was really planning to visit Malacca but the tour agencies I found only do hotel pickups.

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The Hop-on Hop-Off city tour was my best bet. I bought a ticket for 45 Ringgits which was good for 24 hours—one ticket to see it all and explore this city with is skyscrapers, mix of towering  buildings and colonial architecture, mosques and temples on your own.

I waited at the spot where P1340479 - Copythe bus was supposed to stop and hopped on along with a handful of other tourists.

The Hop-on Hop Off tour will bring you to sites that will cost you more and more sites than you can cover in a day if you go out on your own. A voice over narrates a brief history of your current as you drive around.

The city tour will bring you close to over 70 attractions including the Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur Tower, National Museum, Bird Garden, Little India, China Town, Putra World Trade Center, Parliament House, museums and more.  The route will also stop by the rows of hotels, night clubs, restaurants big shopping malls are as well as bargain shopping centers and coffee shops. You can hop off at one street, shop till you drop and hop on the next bus to get to your next destination.

This is your ultimate city tour where you’ll never have to spend much for taxis or tour guides and you can snap thousands of photos along the way.

As long as you know how to read, you will never get lost.  English is a widely spoken language in Kuala Lumpur so communication is not a problem.

The buses go around in 20 or 30 minute intervals so you can take as much time as you want in a certain attraction or hurry up to the next.P1350106

I decided to do it lazy and stayed onboard for the whole route, and did yet another round. The fun of shooting photos minus the hindrance of a bus roof and windows is a big bonus.

Travel tips: Instead of hopping during the busy afternoon hours and spend time in the traffic, you can do your sightseeing in the different attractions. And oh, prepare for a stiff neck. Kuala Lumpur City is all about tall buildings.

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Road trip through the US ‘marshlands’

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Prepare to enjoy a very ‘marshland-ey, allegator-ey but breathtakingly scenic road trip from New Orleans, Mississippi (yey I spelled it right without Googling!), Alabama and Orlando, Florida.

?I always love road trips especially when all I have to do is ride buses and enjoy the views from my window and get short town to town stopovers along the way, but driving for over 10 hours in the interstate in a compact car is a totally different experience.

You can be in Orlando from New Orleans in an hour or so by plane but my travel buddy and I decided drive the 639-mile trip which he described as a “marshland-ey alligator-ey adventure” with lakes and rivers and marshlands all along the way from New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama and finally Florida.

?We drove around the French Quarter a couple of times before finally heading out of New Orleans in a rented 2015 Volkswagen Beetle. I was having doubts how the little thing could take us all the way to Orlando and little did I know my doubts were not unfounded.

We were just crossing the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain when one of the lights in the dashboard began flashing. I fished out the manual from the compartment to check what it means and learned it was the water level and we were supposed to stop right away.

Not on the bridge and not just anywhere in the interstate though, unless we want to be towed. I’m an idiot when it comes to cars but women and their intuition is at most times reliable.P1330241

I suddenly missed driving in a small island like Saipan. We called the rental company and was instructed to drive on to their next outlet. It was scary driving on low water, knowing we could overheat anytime. We drove into Slidell and found the nearest Avis office and spent about an hour to change cars, this time a Kia Optima. It was far from clean as it was just returned but we didn’t have options.

We took to the road and five hours later were in Pensacola where we left the interstate and took the diversion toward Gulf Breeze coastal roads. We were expecting scenic views of the ocean for the next four hours but surprise! We found ourselves crawling along with the regular traffic as schools let out and we only saw glimpses of the blue sea from time to time.P1330018

After over two hours battling with the agonizingly slow traffic, we took the next exit out and went back to the interstate. We had to be in Orlando by 11 p.m. or else we will be charged for another day’s rental in our car and we were going to lose a paid night at the hotel we booked.

The sun set just as we entered Suwannee County and it was growing darker. When we reached the Florida panhandle, the weather changed. A thunderstorm was in progress and we were lucky it was not headed toward our direction. Soon rain started to pour in torrents and I couldn’t take anymore photos from the car window. Driving in the dark wet roads next to huge rigs and trailers is a bit challenging. My buddy had to drive all the way as my license already expired but I helped him by not going to sleep and supplying him with an endless stream of stories to keep him awake. We made it to Orlando Airport just after 11 p.m.P1330151

Road Tips: If you take this route, take the coastal road in Pensacola if you have the luxury of time. The long drive is worth the fun, and you get chances to shoot thousands of photos. Don’t sleep on the way and miss the tunnel to Mobile, Alabama. Just past the tunnel is the USS Alabama Battleship Park.

There are rest stops along the way where you can park and join the trailers and watch out for the road signs for the next exits, food stops, gasoline stations, hotels and yes, coffee stops.

Oh, don’t forget to have dollar bills and lots of quarters in hand. You will need them when you get to Orlando. The toll gates are just within shouting distance from each other. And no, we didn’t meet any alligators on the road although we were hoping for one just for photo and video ops. You might be luckier!

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Paris experience in Vegas

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I SAW it the moment the taxi drove through the famous Las Vegas Strip from the McCarran International Airport that early morning—the towering 541-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. It was not actually in my list as the Stratosphere topped everything but after seeing it, I knew I was not going to leave Las Vegas without going up to the Eiffel Tower.

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At 6 a.m., the whole Las Vegas seemed to be asleep except for a few cars and people on the road.

Fast forward, my chance to experience Paris came on my third day in Vegas.

The entrance to the tower was a wonder in itself, with gambling machines everywhere, shops and replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Louvre almost made us forget why we were there.

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Luckily, the line at the ticket counter was very short and soon my travel buddy and I were heading up the stairs toward the glass elevator that gave us an exhilarating ride 46 stories up to the top. The sun was still up at 7:30 p.m. but we wanted to be there when it sets for the night.

The elevator doors opened and we stepped out into the observation deck. My jaw just dropped in awe. The deck which was enclosed by bars and screen for safety presented us a breath-stopping 360 degree view of the whole Las Vegas Strip below and the whole city.

P1310277An icon of the city skyline, the Eiffel Tower is a half scale replica of the world-famous Paris, France landmark. I learned that the original plan of the designers was to make it exactly the same but with the airport so close by, they had to scale it down to half.

I almost forgot I P1310284was up there to take photos and videos and not just gape in wonder. There are small square openings in the deck enclosure that you can insert your lens to take photos and for the next half hour, I didn’t see my buddy as he was also busy shooting photos.

The sun started to disa ppear, leaving streaks and splashes of fiery reds, golds and vermillion magic in the skies. I saw planes landing and taking off from the airport a short distance away.

P1310273 Hundreds of feet below, colorful lights began to flicker and the spectacular panorama of the city, the Nevada valley and the distant mountains once again set me in a trance.

Majority of the visitors stayed at the left side of the tower and I learned why. The fountain show at the Bellagio below is designed to romance your senses—a mesmerizing show of water, music and light beautifully choreographed to all-time classical and Broadway favorites.

From my perch at the most romantic spot in Las Vegas, it was all too magical and unmatched.

If you don’t have a camera, which I can consider a serious crime, stop by their photo shop for a souvenir pose because you just can’t go home without a memento of your Paris Las Vegas experience. Remember to bring lots of memory cards and extra fully charged batteries.

IMG_1544We were told that during the holidays, you can see Las Vegas in a new perspective from the Eiffel Tower’s observation deck, and it’s the best spot to watch New Year’s Eve fireworks for instance. Okay, added to my bucket list. For tickets and more details visit their website here . (First published at the Guam Post October 4. 2015 issue. See page 15 here)

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9 Things to do on Rota

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Latte stones of Rota

   (This article was first published at the Marianas Variety Guam  weekend edition page 6 for April 12, 2015)

IF you ever get the chance to visit Rota, dubbed as the untouched gem of the Pacific located at the southernmost part of the Northern Mariana Islands, prepare to be surprised. The island has much to offer especially to first-time visitors, and here are nine things you must not miss:

1. Go fishing. Swim, dive or snorkel. Rota boasts of pristine blue waters and spectacular dive spots that have kept visitors coming back for more for years. Find long stretches of white, sandy beaches that you can have all to yourself, and breathtaking fishing cliffs like As Matmos and Poña Point where annual fishing derby tournaments are hosted.

2. Play golf

Rota Resort & Country Club boasts of world-class golf courses that is one of the main attractions of tourists in the island.

3. Bird watching

A few minutes from the Rota International Airport is the I Chenchon Bird Sanctuary, one of the most popular sites on island that continues to draw thousands of visitors each year. Perched on top of a cliff with a spectacular panoramic view of the ocean,   I’Chenchon Park Bird Sanctuary is one of the designated wild life conservation on island that gives visitors the chance to watch hundreds of thousands of birds in their nesting places.DSC_4343

Get your camera or videocam ready and prepare for a showoff from any of the birds anytime, and bring home wonderful photos of Rota’s feathered species.

4. Back road driving

Once of the must-not-miss adventures on Rota include driving through the back roads and see the other side of the island. Rent a car and drive your way around. Follow the roads to wherever it leads and carry on from there. Start from the airport and drive on to Sinapalo and all the way to SongSong Village. Don’t stop and get ready for thrilling adventures as you drive through the jungles and emerge back to Sinapalo to where you began.DSC_4270

5. Visit historical, cultural sites 

Rota carries its own share of historical and cultural wealth. Driving around the island will lead you to some very interesting historical sites starting off with the Cave Museum along the way to Songsong, the Tonga Cave which Japanese soldiers used as shelter during the World War 11, the Japanese canon right on the road just a few miles from Songsong village proper, the remains of a Japanese sugar mill which existed back in the 1930s. You will also get to see lots of cultural sites like the Latte Stone site, and more.DSC_4333

6. Climb the Cake Mountain

Rota’s popular Cake Mountain draws hundreds of mountain climbers each year. Named because of its unique shape that resembles a wedding cake, the mountain rises 470 feet above sea level and is Rota’s most popular landmark.

7. Ruins and abandoned buildings

There is a mystic beauty in ruins, and the island just has plenty of these abandoned structures. Explore, close your eyes and try to visualize what life was when those structures were still teeming with life and activities.

8. Bike around the island

Rota presents its own share of challenges for bikers from paved roads to deep jungle roads, rocky paths and almost non-existing trails with spectacular views along the way.

9. Try a deer dish.

Rota is popular for its deer meat, and you must not leave the island without trying one of the locally prepared dishes. Check any of the restaurants in Sinapalo or Songsong and ask for deer meat dishes.

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Hotel lobby talk

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Photo by Raquel C Bagnol

SAIPAN—Hotel lobbies speak a lot about hotels. They present the ambiance that makes a guest want to stay for a while or go, feel relaxed or stressed out. If only the walls and furniture could talk, they’ve got volumes of stores to tell! Hotel lobbies are mute witnesses to transactions, arguments, sweet nothings and exchanges between business partners, close friends, family members and lovers. Let’s take a quick look at the hotel lobbies on Saipan and Tinian, and add more material as we continue to explore more hotel lobbies everywhere.IF

Aqua Resort Club

Located in San Roque, this is my most favorite hotel lobby on island, but its distance is why I don’t spend much time there as much as I want to. The dimly-lit lobby offers a comfortable ambiance that instantly makes you feel relaxed and want to sleep in one of those plush sofa sets. Loungers facing green plants and flowers are also available if feels like you are in a spa.

The Aqua Resort lobby does not scream commercialism but it spells comfort, bliss and relaxation. It makes you want to turn off your cellphone and put away your gadgets and just enjoy and let time pass by blissfully. Let your feet sink into the deep soft carpet and sit in any of the comfortable sets with throw pillows and have coffee with friends or alone. Views of blue sky, swimming pool and the ocean add to the X-factor of this hotel lobby.

Marianas Resort & Spa

The Marianas Resort Spa

This hotel’s lobby makes you instantly feel at home. It is more of the sporty kind of lobby adorned with stylish wooden benches, a place where guests can be totally at ease to flop down on the chairs straight from the pool so if you don’t want to get wet, check before you sit anywhere. The Marianas Resort & Spa lobby’s greatest feature is the killer view of a quaint chapel in the distance, clear blue swimming pools, restaurant and bars all within your view. The front part of the lobby offers views of the golf course and Saipan’s thick jungles.

Hyatt Regency Saipan Hyatt Regency Saipan

Hyatt’s lobby has a sofa set facing the reception area beside lush greenery under a solar roof. It is just one place where you sit for a few minutes waiting for your car or for somebody, not really your choice if you want to relax of just while the time away. The Lobby Lounge is one choice to have coffee but if you are a non-smoker, better look for someplace else to go to.

The Hyatt Regency lobby may not be topnotch among the other hotels, but its plus points lay in the breathtaking scenery outside—lush green gardens with its streams and ponds teeming with fish, birds and butterflies that are visitor-friendly, wooden bridges, a gazebo and a waterfalls, a prime destinations for wedding photo sessions.

Fiesta Resort & Spa

Fiesta Resort & Spa

The Fiesta lobby depicts an island welcome with its huge murals and decorations showing the best of Palau, Yap and other islands in the region. Superb views of the swimming pool and the beach add to the relaxing ambiance. The sofa sets are comfortable enough but it’s not one place you would want to stay for the whole day. It is just too commercialized, and you can’t have a quiet moment any time of the day.

Hafadai Beach Hotel

Hafadai Beach Hotel

This is the lobby to go to if you want to get a whiff of the natural fresh, relaxing breeze. I just love sitting in one of the wooden seats and enjoying the feel of my hair being blown away by the breeze but if you want total relaxation, this lobby is not it. Guests just talk so loud like they are at home.

Saipan World Resort

Saipan World Resort

This lobby is one, if not the busiest, hotel lobby on island. It’s where people sit and watch TV from the huge screens and come and go pulling luggage behind them, checking in or checking out. Entering the massive door of the hotel is like going into an enchanted kingdom. It is one lobby where you feel you can mix business with pleasure.

Kanoa Resort

Kanoa Resort

This hotel has a lobby with an impersonal touch. The lobby seats, which are located in the middle of commercial stalls, are comfortable and ideal to meet friends. It’s one place where you can be on your own or get lost in a crowd.

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Pacific Islands Club

The PIC lobby is another busy place where people come, sit and go. The warm, snug sofa seats with matching throw pillows, open windows and high vaulted ceilings give an air of spaciousness and make you want to stay around longer. There are no stores and stalls or coffee shops to give it a commercial feel, but it does not make you too comfortable to want to stay longer too.

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Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino

Compared to all the other hotels in the CNMI, the Tinian Dynasty lobby is the most unique. A circular lobby with a giant chandelier that sheds golden reflections on the well polished floors, one feels a certain enchantment and awe. It is one place which makes you feel like it’s going to swallow you whole, and your voice echoes so you will automatically talk in whispers. The lobby still provides some sort of privacy to guests.

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Wet Palmera Bar

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SAIPAN–The Wet Palmera Bar at the Aqua Resort Club Saipan poolside is a paradise in a tropical paradise and is currently, the only wet bar existing on island for the moment.  The Palmera Bar is your ideal place to sit on bar stools with your feet in the water while having your favorite beer, wine, tropical cocktail or other beverages. It gives you  access to the four-feet deep pool, or to the 16-foot deep dive pool at the other side.

In broad daylight,the clear blue pools capture the reflections of the blue skies. At night, the Wet Bar Palmera is one spectacular place with the magically illuminated poolsides, a favorite especially among photographers.

Palmera Bar opens from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

 

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