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San Francisco – Chinatown

Posted in United States, Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on November 17th, 2008

There are over six million people in the San Francisco area, with 750,000 in the Bay Area itself. Nestled within that vast sea of individuals is a conclave known around the world as Chinatown. Most large U.S. cities (and many outside) have a ‘Chinatown’. But, including even New York, the most authentic is unquestionably that of San Francisco.

In an area near North Beach, bound roughly by Grant Avenue and Bush Street, Broadway and Larkin Street, lies a population of the ancestors of 19th century immigrants from China. They arrived literally by the boatload, seeking freedom and fortune during the post-1849 Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroads.

Home to the largest Asian population outside China, the exact number is virtually impossible to state. As a consequence of legislation to limit Chinese immigration via the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other social factors, the residents often avoid census taking. Passed in 1882, and extended and revised several times, the Act wasn’t completely voided until 1965.

Today the area still holds many people, shops, temples and housing that would not look odd to a visitor from those bygone days. Even so, virtually everything was rebuilt from scratch after the great earthquake of 1906.

Along Grant Street there are souvenir shops and restaurants with English translations on the menu. Those not fully prepared for complete immersion may be more comfortable here. One block west on Stockton the visitor can find the Chinatown’s Chinatown – crowded, noisy and bursting at the seams with genuine Chinese food and wares. It’s delightful.

Among the many restaurants in the area there are those that serve primarily tourists, and others where completely authentic Chinese food can be had. New Asia may be one of the few that has managed to do both.

Here,too, is located the heavily visited Mee Mee Bakery (at 1328 Stockton between Broadway and Vallejo). Mee Mee’s is reputed to be the originator of the fortune cookie. Looking around, one can easily believe it. The wonderful smells and sights make it a front runner for that honor.

But Chinatown has much more than food and colorful trinkets. These dozen square blocks house a busy hospital, highly rated Chinese and American schools, newspaper publishers and even tennis courts.

On Waverly Street visitors can find a ‘joss’ (good luck) paper store or see authentic Chinese architectural designs. The street still bears signs of its former existence as home to opium dens and brothels, but only architecturally. Many were housed under pagoda style roofs of intricate design.

Socially, the residents mingle and trade stories about when you could get a haircut for 15 cents. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the outpourings of one of the neighborhood music clubs.

Be sure to visit the Buddha’s Universal Church. One of the younger structures (it was dedicated in 1962), the concrete and steel, marble and wood exterior holds many unusual sights.

The gold leaf and mosaic tiles on the interior lend a cool contrast to the teak paneled walls. Finally, the rooftop garden makes for a stellar completion to a visit to San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Bring your walking shoes and be prepared to take back lots of gifts and a full stomach. Chinatown is the real deal.

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Hong Kong – Overview

Posted in Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on November 12th, 2008

Home and work for over 15 million and one of the three most active business centers on the planet, Hong Kong also offers dozens of things to see and do for tourists. In fact, there’s no good place to start or end because there is so much more than could ever be experienced within a few days.

Visitors could start by getting a good workout followed by a spectacular sight. No, walking up Victoria Peak isn’t a good idea. But climbing the 431 steps to reach the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas is. It actually delivers more than it offers – a Hong Kong habit – by containing 12,800 statues of the Buddha. And don’t miss the holy man mummy covered with gold leaf.

If 431 is overdoing it, try the 268 steps to reach the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. After seeing the world’s largest seated Buddha, completed in 1993, you can relax and have a great lunch at the Polin Monastery. Then take your time walking down the 33m (110 foot) height.

On the Kowloon Peninsula, just across from Hong Kong Island there are dozens of sights, including some spectacular museums.

You can wander the neighborhood and see the Hong Kong area pretty much the way it has been for 200 years. The stalls may offer the latest cell phones, but the ambiance is definitely old-world.

After soaking up some of the local culture, take a stroll over to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. This excellent facility gives visitors a great overview of Chinese art in all its forms from comic strips to opera to painting and sculpture.

Take in the Lei Cheng Uk Branch Museum and see a Han Dynasty tomb from China’s ‘recent’ history, only 2,000 years old. It may be the oldest historical monument in Hong Kong, but that’s still young compared to some of the 4,000 year old civilizations elsewhere in China.

Then zoom into the modern world and check out the Hong Kong Science Museum. The hands-on exhibits will delight while they entertain. The same could be said for the Space Museum, which houses the local planetarium.

Take then the most famous 10-minute boat ride in Asia, the Star Ferry, over to Hong Kong Island and take in some more ancient Chinese art at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Located in the Hong Kong Cultural Center, it holds over 2,000 Chinese antiques.

Finally take a breather from all the metropolitan hustle and bustle and stroll through the Hong Kong Park in the Central district. Sit by the pond and watch the birds or wander through the stellar aviary to see even more variety. Have a meal at the open-air restaurant and rest your feet.

If you’re not quite fully refreshed, take a leisurely walk to a site about 10 minutes away and visit the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

Then catch a taxi to the tram that leads up to the top of Victoria Peak. This funicular railway (a cab suspended by cables) leads up the steep mountain to the area of $10 million homes owned by the richest of Hong Kong’s rich. Enjoy the sight they see from their balconies and look out over Hong Kong and the harbor.

Whether seen by day or night the lush, ancient hills and the harbor contrast beautifully with the ultra-modern skyscrapers for a view duplicated nowhere else.

As you stand there dreaming of a glorious future – another Hong Kong habit – you can soak up some memories of one of the world’s great cities.

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Sydney – Sydney Opera House

Posted in Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on November 6th, 2008

Like many large public projects, the building of the Sydney Opera House was bathed in controversy. But the final result is nonetheless breathtaking. While the interior has many flaws, such as the stage being blocked from portions of the seating area, inside and out it’s an architectural marvel.

The exterior is now known the world over, owing to the distinctive series of overlapping ‘sails’ that form the basic shape. The architect says they were inspired by palm fronds, but they’re technically sections of a sphere. The design is so different and astounding that the buildings have become a symbol of Australia to the whole world.

Erected onto a series of ribbed arches, the white granite surface is covered by over a million tiles, which are ‘self-cleaning’. A relatively recent innovation, they’re made of a stone that tends to extrude dirt which then blows off, though they still require some maintenance.

The roofs underneath are formed from over 2,000 pre-cast concrete sections. Each roof section weighs up to 15 tons and the different sections are held together by a series of tensioned steel cables, over 350km (210mi) in total length.

There are several such shells, one housing the Opera venue, another for the Concert Hall, another smaller one for theatre and others for several restaurants. The Concert Hall, seating nearly 2,700 and the Opera Theatre with over 1,500 are housed in the two largest shells. The Drama House contains 544 seats. The Playhouse, added in 1999, holds almost 400 and the Studio Theatre 364.

Sited on Bennelong Point, jutting into the harbor, the view from the steps is as spectacular as the building itself. Looking out over Sydney Harbor (technically, Port Jackson) one can readily see the equally distinctive and iconic bridge, along with the lush green hills.

The interior is also quite impressive. Though, to its detriment, the architect’s original plans were scrapped mid-way through, much that was left is awe-inspiring. Begun in 1963, it encompasses five theaters, five rehearsal studios, the two main halls, four restaurants along with shops and other rooms.

Completed in 1973, over 10 years after construction began and almost seven after the original architect, Jorn Utzon resigned over numerous disputes, its final cost was more than $100M Australian. The original estimate was $7M, just one of the many sources of acrimony during the project.

But the controversy, after 30 years, is now finally winding down, with the architect invited back to supervise renovations a few years ago. Some of the interior has been re-worked to his original plans.

Today, the facility conducts tours for over 200,000 people each year through much of the facility, including a walk over the stage. Performances in the complex are attended by two million annually.

Have lunch in the Green Room then take a stroll around the steps outside. Marvel at the wonderful way in which the very high-tech looking buildings complement the natural scenery in perfect harmony.

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San Francisco – The Golden Gate Bridge

Posted in United States, Worldwide Travel Destinations  by admin on November 3rd, 2008

In 1937, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House. That simple action officially announced an event much of the world was already anticipating: the opening of The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. After four years of construction and a cost of millions of dollars and many lives, one of the world’s greatest bridges had been born.

With a span of 4,200 feet (1280m), a record that stood for 27 years, and two 746 ft (227m) towers the six lane bridge crosses the Golden Gate strait in San Francisco Bay. The span record lasted until the completion of the Verrazano Narrows bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island in 1964 and is still disputed owing to differences in the way measurements are made.

Stretching across some of the most treacherous waters in the world, it connects the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County near Sausalito. The Art Deco-themed suspension bridge masterfully conquers that challenge with aesthetic grace and brilliant engineering.

The brainchild of Joseph Strauss, he outlived his creation by only a year. But before he died the genius overcame obstacles nearly everyone had declared insurmountable.

At the time of its construction it was the largest suspension bridge in the world erected over a body of cold, swift-current water 400 ft (122m) deep. The bridge towers remained the world’s tallest until recently.

Strauss spent over 10 years attempting to get approval for the project. The financing alone took three years to arrange and wasn’t entirely paid off until 34 years later. The $35 million bonds paid their holders $39 million additional in interest over the period entirely covered by bridge tolls.

But money was the least of Strauss’ problems in erecting the structure. Always concerned with safety, Strauss reduced the death toll on construction by stringing a large net under the entire span. Though 11 men were killed during construction, 19 were saved by its use. 10 of the deaths occurred as a result of net failure after a scaffolding fell.

Painted in a brilliant orange, the roadway was so popular that even prior to the official opening hundreds of thousands of visitors crowded the span for a look. It remains so today. Millions of vehicles have crossed since 1937.

The only road exiting north of San Francisco, traffic on the bridge is constant day and night. Its walkways are still often traversed by pedestrians and bicyclists.

Built to withstand some of the strongest winds buffeting any bridge in the world, the span survives the challenge by aid of its enormous cables and massive anchorages. The cables are 36.5 inches (92.7cm) thick, the anchors sunk in solid rock filled with 30,000 cubic yards of concrete to hold the towers.

Strauss’ confidence in his design was vindicated long after his passing. In 1951 the bridge had to be closed to traffic due to gale force winds of seventy miles per hour. Though the deck swayed twenty-four feet (7.3m) from side-to-side and five feet (1.5m) up and down, it survived with only minor damage.

The Golden Gate Bridge forms part of U.S. Highway 101, California Highway 1, but can be reached via Route 30 from Fisherman’s Wharf to Route 28.

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