The Idyllic Cuban Countryside

While we were in Cuba we took a day trip to Matanzas to visit Dolce, an 87-year old retired missionary.  Matanzas was about 60 miles south of Havana, the bus ride was beautiful. Our eyes had a feast on the idyllic countryside of Cuba, so lay-back yet poetic.  Almost as pretty as my old Kentucky home.

City of Matanzas is referred to as the “Venice of Cuba”, there are 17 bridges crossing the rivers in the city, as Matanzas is also called the “City of Bridges”.  We didn’t visit bridges though, instead we spent most of our time in the city shopping for Dolcie. The team only saw her once a year, this was our only chance to stock up food and grocery items for her.

We took Dolce out to lunch at Rancho Gaviota. Rancho Gaviota located a couple of miles outside of city with beautiful surrounding. It was a popular tourist place for lunch as it was included as part of Jeep Safari tour.

After saying goodbye to Dolce, we took a detour to beach before heading back to Havana. Although this beach was not as well-known and spacious as the beaches in the resort town Varadero, we had fun getting wet and kicking the water. kbic4957

However briefly, I felt overwhelmingly satisfied dipping my toes in this side of water! Same Atlantic ocean, with almost the same temperature as that in Key West, only 90 miles away!   Can you understand my psychic? 🙂



Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), the Antique Cars and Beyond

I just came back from a week-long missionary trip in Havana, Cuba. I have fell in love with the people there, our hostess, interpreter, cooks, drivers, many young people and adorable children. Havana is much more than just antique cars.

Although the antique cars in Havana were truly amazing! On our last day, we rode a 1950 Chevrolet Convertible.  Her owner was an Italian, he boasted that every part of the car was original.  And the ride was absolutely smooth!  I couldn’t believe the car was 67 years old! If you want to ride an antique car, it is easy to pick up one in Old Havana, near the Capitolio, or around the Revolution Square (Plaza de la Revolucion).

However if you want to experience like a local, simply walk a few blocks outside of the tourist areas, away from the route of HabanaBusTour, you would discover the real Havana.

Old Havana is UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is definitely a giant mix of old and new, rich and poor. Strolling along the streets of Havana, you would find the city blended with two extremes and many gray areas in between. On one side, we saw the majestic Capitolio, the Grand Theater, many beautiful hotels and fancy antique cars cruising along El Malecon and 23rd Street (Calle 23).

On the other side of the inner city, we saw many rundowns.  I could imagine what these streets used to look like in their prime time, a glimpse of her glorious past. This faded part reminded me of the New Orleans after Katrina and gave me the grieve.

Perhaps the best part of Havana was her people. Friendly and outgoing, I found that people in Havana were trustworthy and easily to trust others. We saw many hitch hikers on the street, many times cars were waved down and passengers were picked up from the street. If there was an extra seat in the car, the driver would offer the ride to the person in need.

In the West, our children are taught to not accept things from a stranger, nor get into a stranger’s car because it is not safe, even dangerous. In Cuba children and adult alike openly accepted our gifts with smiles and “Gracias”. They are the most cheerful gift receivers.

I made friends with two adorable little boys in Baptist Church (Iglesia Bautista). They showed me how to climb up to the roof top, so I could take sunset pictures. Their little hearts were made of gold. They showed me life’s simple pleasure, in a small toy and a piece of candy, still exist in this uncontaminated island. I found myself drawn to them and loving them with all my heart.


The Quest for the Exotic Stirfry

Whenever traveling to the Far East, I am always on the lookout for new vegetables to stir fry. Stir frying is my weekday go-to cooking since it is fast and healthy. If you can grow it, I can stir fry it. I recently added four more new vegetables on my list, hooray!

  1. Shansu 山蘇 (Hualien, Taiwan)
  2. Red Phoenix 红鳯菜 (New Taipei, Taiwan)
  3. Dragon Bean 龙豆 (Shanghai, China)
  4. Water Celery 水芹 (Suzhou, China)

Shansu (Asplenium) belongs to the fern families, one of oldest plants on earth. I first encountered shansu’s tender shoots when strolling along the night market of Hualien. I remembered thinking it would make a delicious stirfry!  The next day on the return route of hiking Shakadang Trail in Taroko Gorge, I spotted a field full of wild shansu, completely covered the hill on my left. This time I wondered about which condiments to pair with shansu, maybe roasted peanut? The following stir-fried dish showed the plate from a small restaurant in Tianxiang, there shansu was stir fried with a handful of tiny dried anchovies. Totally unexpected, but surprisingly delicious!

红鳯菜 literally means Red Phoenix (Gynura). I was attracted by the deep purple color in a three-table family-owned restaurant.  I asked the mom what the fresh vegetable looked like.  She run back to the kitchen, a few minutes later emerged with the colander filled with purple leaves. How sweet the people!

My cousins in Shanghai know about my quest.  Each time we go to visit her, they bring something new to the table to satisfy my curiosity. This time was no exception, I love them so much!


Here Dragon Beans were sliced and stir fried with lily bulbs (the white pieces). An unusual combination.  We had this dish in 全聚德, which was famous for its trademark Roasted Peking Duck.

This Water Celery was stir fried with garlic.  Garlic was the most common condiment for stirfry, the unexpected was Water Celery didn’t taste like celery at all!

The Natural Beauty of Taroko Gorge, Hualien, Taiwan

My First impression of Taiwan was her stunning beauty.  Although an island just about 14 thousand square miles, Taiwan has nine National Parks!

I visited Taroko National Park (太鲁阁国家公园) last November, it was a perfect time to avoid the island’s hot and humid summer. Taroko, a word for the Truku aboriginal tribe, Gorge is the main attraction of the national park, however there are other attractions in the park and surrounding Hualien City. So plan for at least two days, and be prepared to be blown away for there is nothing like it!

The park is free.  Most of the hiking trails are flat and paved, suitable to all physical conditions. Here is a short list of my must-sees and tips.

I recommend making Qingshui Cliff your first stop.  The morning is usually less crowded, and the lighting before 10 am is at its best.

Shakadang Trail has the most amazing blue stream running alongside the trail, with marbles, big and small, popping and scattered in the creek.  The best view is at the end of the trail.

The next one is Swallow Grotto Trail. It is mandatory to wear a helmet to walk the trail because there is an issue of landslide and falling rocks. Haha, I had the same thought–a plastic helmet vs falling boulders?! But a rule is a rule.

Lushui Trail is a bit more strenuous than the previous two. There is some climbing, here and there, and part of the trail is dirt road.  The words ‘Lushui’ mean ‘green water’. When we were on the trail, a gloomy cloud covered the sky, started drizzle.  As you could see from the photo, the water was not green at all.

The most iconic view in the Taroko Gorge is probably the Eternal Spring Shrine.  It was built to commemorate the lives lost during the construction of road through the Gorge. No one is allowed to enter the Shrine any more.

Looking for a quick stop for lunch inside the park? Look no farther than Tianxiang, a cute and colorful town inside the park. There are a couple of restaurants there with a reasonable price tag.  Since Hualien area is famous for rice, so I ordered purple rice steamed in a bamboo tube. To keep the bamboo theme going, I also had a broth made from the tender part of bamboo shoots.

Temples, marble gazebos, bridges and suspension bridges, the park has all, and many more.

A few words of cautions: we took Taiwan Railroad from Taipei to Hualien City.  The speed train tickets are usually hard to get for the individual travelers since travel agents often stock most tickets.  So remember to buy tickets ahead of time; an alternative route is to take the bus which takes 4-5 hours, double the time of the train. If you fancy Taiwan’s local food like me, make sure to have dinner at Hualien’s night market, 自强夜市. There are variety of local food, fruits and vegetables to choose from, I had the grilled squid (it was delicious!) and oyster as the island was famous for fresh seafood.

Also I highly recommend to hire a taxi for the day.  For $100 (New Taiwan $3,000) or less, you can hire a private driver for 8 hours.  Don’t pick up any from the train station, wait until you check in your hotel, the hotel staff can arrange one for you.  We were very satisfied with the service of our driver. He was not only our driver, but also our tour guide plus photographer, and he went the extra mile to please us. Simply decent down-to-earth people.

So with the spectacular natural beauty, stunning gorges, hiking trails, shrine, temples, waterfalls and bridges,  Taroko is not to be missed if you are in the area!



Stay at On-Site Hotels to Get the Most out of Universal Orlando

The Wizard World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) is one of the main reasons we visit Universal Orlando.  Just come back from our third trip to the theme parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (the third park Volcano Bay will be open to public the summer of 2017), I like to share a few tips to maximize your experiences there.

Before the time of WWoHP we did both parks in one day with park-to-park admission plus express pass. It was a FULL day adventure, totally doable then. But today, you need at least two days to adequately enjoy the parks.


You have two options for two-day ticket: the park-to-park or single park admission. In order to board the Hogwarts Express, you need the park-to-park ticket since the train connects the two theme parks, from the Diagon Alley in Universal Studios to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure.

Hogwarts Express

I strongly recommend staying in one of the five on-site hotels.  All on-site hotels, categories of value, preferred and premier, offer early admission to the parks–you get in the park one hour before the general admission.  However, if you are not a Harry Potter fan, it is not necessary to take advantage of early admission since the only rides open in the early hour are the WWoHP attractions.

In my experience, staying in one of the on-site hotels that offer complimentary unlimited express pass, which allows you to bypass lines in many attractions, gives you the best value! These on-site hotels are Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. This is especially true if you come to the theme park during high seasons. But one thing to remember–many WWoHP rides do not honor Express Pass!

Loews Royal

One more money-saving plus of staying in the on-site hotels: the unlimited express pass is effective for BOTH the check-in and check-out days. In another word, one night stay in the on-site hotel can give you two days of express pass!

For families, especially those with young children, an additional advantage of staying on-site is that you may go back to the hotel to swim or rest when the parks get over-crowded and too hot in the summer months, usually from late morning to afternoon, then back again in the later hours when the parks are thinner and the day is cooler.


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