Thursday, September 27, 2012

Club Med Kani, Maldives - Arrival

We arrived at 9:45 p.m. local which was 12:45 a.m. Malaysian time. After a 4 hours flight, we were tired. Maldives international airport looks pretty much like the one we have at Pulau Langkawi. Small and rather unorganized. After clearing customs, we walked out of the arrival hall expecting greeting cards from Club Med with our name but there were none. Lost and unhappy, we asked around and were directed to a small Club Med counter. We were tagged with a green wrist band (something which  will bring us much more attention and privileges as we found out later) and  were asked to wait. And we waited and waited. We ended sitting by the roadside because we were supposed to wait for another flight from Singapore and since both flights are arriving apparently 5 minutes apart in the middle of the night, the management thinks that it is good logistic to group guests from this two flights together.

We waited for a good half an hour before the group checked out and walked out from the arrival hall, by which time, we were already extremely agitated, frustrated, not to mention to dead tire. After all, our body clock was telling us that it was time to hit the sack as it was already well past 2 a.m.

But whatever frustration we have quickly gave way to the  exhilarating experience of riding in a 16 people capacity speedboat powered by a twin Yamaha 200 engine, speeding and bouncing on the waves in total darkness of the night into nowhere. The darkness of night with the skies littered with stars, something that we do not get to see back home. There was a deep sense of excitement akin a small kid taking his first ride, and at the same time, fear, though i was trying very hard not to show. 

The cold sea breeze and the excitement certainly woke us up, and if our eyes were ever tempted to momentarily closed, they were quickly woken either by a rough bounce as the boat hit a wave or the captain of the boat taking a sharp turn, tossing us from one side to another, probably to keep us awake.

After 30 minutes of riding in almost complete darkness into more darkness, we were finally greeted with some faint lights from a far off jetty. As we disembarked, several GOs were there to greet us and led us to the village grounds. 

The walk from the jetty that stretched a good 100 meters from the shore in almost total darkness, only lighted up by small faint lights along the jetty 2 or 3 meters apart, gave me the opportunity to admire the countless twinkling stars hanging above in the vast darkness.

Since we were the only pair who would prefer to have our briefing in English, Angeline, the Lagoon Suites Manager took over and led us to Manta Lounge, dedicated for Lagoon Suite's guests. 

Club Med Lagoon suites are designed pretty much like the one we experienced at Sepang Gold Coast Palm Resort with water chalets and villas built like palm branches stretching into the ocean. I must said that the villas in Sepang Gold Coast are definitely much newer and nicer in my opinion but nothing could beat the clarity of the water on which the suites were built on. 

After a short briefing, we were shown to our suite. They are definitely built for honeymooners and couples who would want to spent some quiet and quality time together. Everything was designed with romance in mind, from the large wooden king size bed with overhanging, nicely draped lacy mosquito netting to the bath tub thoughtfully positioned with a good view of the ocean from almost every side, where one can spent hours with your lover, frolicking and relaxing with a cold glass of complimentary champagne in hand.

We were tired but then the night was still young as far as Club Med in concern. It was only slightly past midnight. Dumping our bags, we took a slow walk under the stars to Iru Bar where the music was beckoning. As with the "All Inclusive" package that Club Med offers, one do not have to worry of not getting enough alcohol, as beer and wine and in the case of being guests at the Lagoon Suites, champagne is aplenty.

With a beer in hand and my better half in my arms, we walked back to our suite ready to retire for the night and getting ourselves all ready for our escapade on this romantic paradise for the next five days.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

US San Francisco : Pier 39 & Fisherman Wharf (Do I and Don't I?)

"Make sure you get all the itineraries sorted out and all the places we want to go planned ya ..." my wife reminded me again and again like a spoilt CD repeating itself. Well, her concern is well justified as I am one who would like pro-castinate and pushes things till the very last minute before I actually act on them.

Forcing myself, I googled for the top places and must do activities for our up and coming visit to San Francisco and checked through the various reviews from the different sites. One such apparently `must do' place is Pier 39 and Fisherman Wharf of course. However, checking on the numerous reviews written on this site left me rather uncertain as to whether I really should waste time getting there. To be honest, while it does get some rather good reviews from visitors, there were also almost an equal amount of bad ones, ranging from over crowded, too commercialized, bad food and some puts it as outright `rip-off'. It seemed that the only repeating consolation to warrant a visit is to see the sea lions who have made Pier 39 their home. It seems that this place is a darling to visitors of San Francisco but locals seemed to avoid it like a plague.
So, do I or do I not include this as a place to visit, but, hey, I am a visitor and I am a tourist and visiting San Francisco for the very first time. Why not? What could possibly be more wrong then not seeing this much hyped about place with my very own eyes. Moreover, I am a photographer. How can I visit San Francisco and not come back with at least a picture of her in my travelling album. With that, I went ahead googling for restaurants found at the Pier and hotels that I could stay within our budget and not too far from her.

Pier 39 was the first `tourist' site I went the moment I touched down in San Francisco. We found out that we could actually take a 20 to 30 minutes walk from our hotel and we did just that. Despite being summer, the breeze from the Bay can still be rather chilling. Despite all the negativity, I had one of my best shots of Pier 39 in the evening sun ...
Yes...the place is definitely crowded, mostly with tourists from all over the world. At every turn, you will bump into people taking pictures (like yours truly), looking or waiting to be seated for a meal, hunting for souvenirs or simply just being there because she is Pier 39.
But then, what would expect from her, after all, she is rated as the third most visited site in all of United States. This place is like a huge fun fair at night with all the neon lights and bright colourful carousel. I especially like the scene of the many yachts moored at the pier which made a nice composition for a picture.
 The best part of the pier of course to me, was the end of the pier where I could catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge from afar (if there is no fog) and a good view of Alcatraz, the notorious ex maximum security prison. It is true that most things here are expensive but then again, which top tourist attraction is not, but some of the best things to do here or to enjoy here is absolutely free ........which is simply to sit back, relax and enjoy the many sights and sounds that place offers ......
To avoid the crowd and savor the moment of peace and tranquility that Pier 39 still offers, I would strongly suggest getting there early in the morning before 9am. Unlike the busier times of the day and evening where almost every inch is crawling with people, you can take an unhurried walk down the pier, listening to the callings of the gliding seagulls, breathe in the chilling air of San Francisco Bay, feast your eyes on Alcatraz, uninterrupted by the constant clicking of cameras or jostling tourists posing for their travelling photo album, repeating the process again and again....and of course, take some time to watch the funny antics of the ever famous ambassadors of Pier 39, the sea lions .....
No one knows exactly why the sea lions choose K dock at Pier 39 as one of the homes but apparently, it got started with the appearance of one single sea lion after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. None were reported prior to 1989 but the number grew quickly after the arrival of that single stray sea lion which grew to a total of over 500 in a span of only 5 weeks. The numbers of sea lions at Pier 39 vary greatly from a few to thousands depending on the season. I managed to catch a glimpse of a dozen or so when I was there in July.

Be the first customer to buy some absolutely delicious cherries or strawberries dipped in chocolate....
There are plenty of cafes and restaurants here at Pier 39 and most have been reported to be expensive and where better food for better value could be found elsewhere. I would have to agree with that statement but after all, as I have stressed earlier, Pier 39 is one of the world's famous tourist attraction and I seriously don't think that the food here is ever going to be any cheaper, considering the high rental the retail shops would have to fork out annually just to be there.

I would not rate the food as bad. In fact, we love the food and the moments we have when we had our breakfast, sitting outside Eagle Cafe, with a hot cup of coffee in the cold San Francisco's morning with an occasional interruption of a stray uninvited, sometimes irritating gawking seagull and the view of Alcatraz from afar....
During our 6 days stay over at San Francisco and several visits to Pier 39, we have tried Fog Harbor Fish House and Pier Market Seafood Restaurant (both managed by the family of the late Warren Simmons who build Pier 39 in 1978), Eagle Cafe and Crab House.

Pier 39 is a result of a vision from one single man, the late Warren Simmons, a former pilot with Pan Am airlines. A visionary, risk taker and savvy businessman, he saw what Pier 39 could be from a run down unattractive site. Undeterred from various objectives and obstacles, he finally realized his dream after five long years of multiple presentations to neighborhood groups and city permit officials.

Pier 39 is located in the Fisherman Wharf district, who got her name during the Gold Rush era, when fisherman came and settled to fish for the Dungeness crab. Till today, this place still remains as the home base of San Francisco fishing fleet.
This place is famous for this guys and you must at least try once when you are here. I personally like them so much that I ordered three times, twice at Fog Harbor Fish House and once at the Crab House at Pier 39.
So, did I make the right choice to make this one of my `Must see, must visit' when I visited San Francisco? I am sure I did, despite some of the negative reviews that I have seen on her. Maybe it is because I was more than just a single visit at different times of the day, and hence I was able to see her bright and early before the tranquility that she offered a long time ago was broken by tourist crowd and her beauty as she basked in the golden sunlight as the sun sets over the San Francisco Bay as she comes alive with her neon lights and bustling restaurants....

Monday, September 10, 2012

US San Francisco: China Town (Testament of Blood and Sweat)

Chinese people has been known around the world as a very resilient and adaptive breed of people, hardworking, long suffering and business savvy. They are everywhere today and in many countries,  have assimilated into the culture and history of their country of residence.  China Town throughout the world has always remained an intriguing site for visitors and as always, come with a colorful and many at times, tough history.

The China Town in San Francisco is the oldest China Town in Northern America and reputed to be the largest community outside Asia. 
The mention of Chinese immigrants in America conjures images of pony tailed bare chested Chinese males boarding ships from ancient China, to some, a mean of escape from a poverty stricken country and to others, a hope for a better future and wealth. After all, America was called "Gold Mountain" (金山), and the actual destination of this "Gold Mountain" is San Francisco.

In the early 1850's during the California Gold Rush era, many were brought into America to work at the mines, many with a dream of striking it rich and going back to their homeland basked in glory. However, the working condition of the mines were far from what they have imagined or told and the treatment they received from the mines operators were far from friendly.

When the plan to build the Central Pacific Railroad was put in place forming part of the transcontinental railroad across North America, immigrant Chinese workers were recruited in thousands, either from the existing gold mines or imported directly from China. Initially thought to be too weak or fragile for the task, the Chinese proofed of their resilience only after being put on the job for a few days. They were so impressive that 90% of the entire work force for this massive project were Chinese, numbering well over 12,000 people.

When the project was over, a large number of these immigrants remained in America, mostly settled near the San Francisco Bay, where the current China Town is located.

Today, China Town in San Francisco covers an area of over 24 square blocks, within a area of approximately 1 mile long and 1.34 miles wide, covering some prime estate land with some of the best view in San Francisco.
But how could a group of immigrants and workers occupy such a piece of prime real estate? 

The reason is because this piece of prime real estate was once considered too hilly that is of no worth or use to the locals. History has it that when the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 wiped off the entire colony, the government then, had conspired to move the immigrants to another part of town and take the entire piece of land back for their own use. Undeterred, the local Chinese community with American commercial interest and with the backing of the Chinese government protested and reclaimed the right to stay.
Many of the immigrants who finally made it to America underwent a treacherous journey from China by boat, often in deplorable condition, spent months being kept on Angel Island of San Francisco while being processed to enter, suffered unimaginable tough living and working condition and treatments before settling down here.

As with all immigrant communities, crime and turf wars were inevitable especially in the early days of smuggling, vice, gambling and opium dens. Although the great earthquake, which leveled the entire site in 1906 brought an end to much of this, triads and underworld in constant struggle for more control still prevails today. The Golden Dragon massacre in 1977 between two triad groups at the Golden Dragon Restaurant resulting in 5 dead and 11 wounded (most of which were innocent by standers) were a testament of this.

Taking a walk through the vibrant streets of China Town is an exciting experience, especially if it is done with a tour guide with interesting revelation and stories of this tourist attraction rich in history and culture.

Purchasing the 48 hours ticket of the city's Hop On and Off buses, comes with two free walking tours, one of which is through China Town. The tour starts off from Union Square and takes you through China Town, visiting places such as the St Mary's square and the back lanes of China Town, ending just outside Little Italy.
It is also here at the St Mary's Square that you would find the old Saint Mary Cathedral, reported to be the first building to be erected as a cathedral in California. She was established by Father Henry Ignatius Stark as a mission with the purpose of introducing the Catholic faith to the Chinese. The bricks for the construction were brought from Cape Horn while the granite were cut and shipped in directly from China.
The back alleys of China Town, something that I would not have done on my own but a sight that offers a glimpse of the daily lives of those who have make this place their home. Do you know that the first immigrant according to the China Town website from China to San Francisco were 2 man and one woman who arrived in 1848 on board the American ship called the Eagle.
We will walk past this section of China Town every morning from our hotel in Union Square to Pier 39 and we were fortunate to have experienced the vibrant Sunday morning market as scores of local Chinese came out to do their Sunday shopping and marketing with shop keepers busy plying their trade and shoppers bargaining and choosing anything from vegetables and fruits to imported Chinese products like dried food stuff and herbs.
This is definitely a must visit attraction when you are in San Francisco and as a Chinese myself, a descendant of immigrant who have emigrated to Malaysia decades ago, to understand and appreciate what our fore fathers have gone through to establish what we are now enjoying and probably would have taken for granted....China Town is truly a testament that was built with blood and sweat.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

US San Francisco : Lombard Street (As crooked as it gets)

"You know, you have to visit this very crooked street in San Francisco. When we were there the last time, we drove down the street and believe me, it is so windy." my wife said.

I did some research before I depart  for San Francisco, and discovered that driving down or visiting the Lombard Street, a stretch of very crooked street in San Francisco is listed as another one of the top ten things to do or places to visit. So, how crooked is it and what exactly is the big thing about it? 
Taking the Hop On and Off, dropping off at Little Italy allowed us to walk to Lombard Street. The walk up from Little Italy is not your typical stroll in the park. It is steep ...real steep. It is a good thing that the cool San Francisco's weather made the walking much more pleasant. I can not imagine ourselves huffing and puffing this steep stretch up to the Lombard Street in our Malaysian's hot and humid afternoon.
Lombard Street runs from east to west but the section that is what she is famous for is a stretch of about one block with EIGHT hairpin turns, running down a slope.

This one block section is located at Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth Street. The eight sharp hairpin turns or switchbacks have earned this street the title of the `crookedest street' in the world although the title has often been contested. Crookedest or not, this street sure is crooked and driving down that steep sloop while negotiating all the eight hairpin turns can be challenging if one is careless. In fact, we actually saw a car scratching the side at one of the turn. However, I truly think that he deserved it, because he was both driving with one hand while the other was holding on to his camera recording the process. What an idiot!

Apparently, the hairpin turns were suggested and adopted way back in 1922 as a way to reduce the danger of negotiating down this slope. This crooked section which is about a quarter mile long (400m) is reserved for one way traffic travelling down the slope and the official speed limit is 5mph.

Summer is a good time to visit as the gardens along this section are in full bloom and the bright green colors of the leaves and the red, pink, yellow and amber colors of the flowers in full bloom makes this stretch even more scenic.
The street itself is closed to pedestrian but there are steps on both side that you can take to either walk up or down the slope. Reaching the top, and looking down this crooked and steep street, my eyes are pleasantly greeted with the sight of the bay and the city of San Francisco from afar. The sight is simply awesome!

On the day we visited Lombard Street, some company was doing a promotional recording of some racing bikes and the street was closed temporarily to allow this macho rider in his full racing gear and this super mean machine charging down the street, negotiating all the eight hairpin turns in such apparent reckless break neck speed and with such ease. Children, please do not attempt this at home or any time you get the chance to drive down Lombard Street!
To me, Lombard Street is a "one off" attraction sight of San Francisco. I would categorized it as "Been there, done that" location which definitely warrants a visit when one visit San Francisco but not a site that one would remember fondly for anything specific nor would dream of going back for a subsequent visit, unlike the likes of the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39 or the romantic sunset cruise we took on board the Adventure Cat.

Friday, September 7, 2012

US San Francisco: Sunset Cruise (View from a Different perspective)

Almost everyone whom I know who have visited San Francisco have taken a cruise out on the San Francisco Bay, cruising pass Alcatraz, once the notorious maximum security prison, making your way under the Golden Gate Bridge.

It is also one of the top ten `must do' activities listed on most travelling portals when one do visit San Francisco. Googling for options, I was presented with several but one particular option leaped out figuratively from the screen as if she was screaming ..."TAKE ME ! TAKE ME!"

A romantic sunset cruise on board the Adventure Cat.
Adventure Cat unlike others is a catamaran, catering for only a maximum of between 15 to 20 people, unlike the ferries which would cater for anything between 100 to 350 people! Inevitably, the price of the ticket is a little more expensive. While a normal adult fare for the ferries is about USD23 per person, a sunset cruise on board the Adventure Cat is USD50 (which incidentally comes with one free drink including either a beer or wine from their bar and light hors d'oeuvres)

I am a sucker for anything remotely romantic and since I have not had a chance riding in a catamaran coupled with the fact that I absolutely detest having to literally `fight' for a decent space to take a good picture, besides the deep inner desire of wanting to sail akin the rich and famous, I gladly signed and paid in a jiffy.

Taking a sunset cruise in San Francisco with the hope of catching a good sunset and clear view of the city's skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Alcatraz is likened to tossing a coin with a 50 percent chance that you would come back totally disappointed, with pictures of mostly the infamous San Franc's thick fog. This uncertainty however, heightens the anticipation and excitement. It's like your first date with the most beautiful girl in college and you, expecting for the best turnout yet fearful that it could turned out totally disastrous.

Arriving early at jetty J of Pier 39, we excitedly waited for the actual boarding. The other advantage of being in a small crowd is that we got acquainted with the other passengers real fast and that, made the excursion even more pleasant and memorable...
As the catamaran leaves Pier 39, we were presented with a different perspective of Pier 39. Sailing off at 6:30pm, with the sun setting and shining directly at her, Pier 39 was basked in a set of magnificent golden hue against a backdrop of a clear blue sky ...
As we got further out, the panoramic view of San Francisco's skyline became more apparent. I was glad that I took my Sigma 10-20mm F2.8 wide angle lens with me for this one ....
For the past few days while I was walking at Pier 39, I have been using my Nikkor 18-105mm kit lens , trying to capture some closer pictures of Alcatraz. We originally wanted to tour Alcatraz, but by the time we confirmed our trip, all the tickets have been sold and none was available for another 2 weeks. Well, that would give me another good excuse to come back to San Francisco. 

As we sailed past Alcatraz, I anchored myself at a good spot on the catamaran with my d90 armed and ready. As we approached, the site of this ghostly site in the twilight, besides being awesome and magnificent, also sent a chill up my spine.
The Alcatraz Island, also known as THE ROCK, is located 1.5 miles (2.4km) offshore from San Francisco. The island was turned in a federal prison between 1933 to 1963 and was used to keep notorious hardcore prisoners, likened to a `Who's who? list, such as Al Capone, a famous American gangster from Brooklyn, New York, Robert Franklin Stroud aka the Birdman of Alcatraz, an extremely intelligent but violent man who wrote his own autobiography and the book "Diseases of Canaries", something of which he has became an authority of sorts due to his exposure in raring these birds in his confinement, George `Machine Gun' Kelly, an American gangster whose favorite weapon was his Thompson submachine gun and Alvin 'Creepy' Karpis, who spent a total of 26 years here, making him the longest serving inmate of the ROCK, whose life was as colorful and eventful and yet tragic as a summer blockbuster.

Going up close and personal especially with the sunlight fading, the stillness of the place looks gloomier than ever. Some how, there is an eerie aura all around her. No wonder the Native Americans kept themselves away from this island in the early days, because they believed it to be cursed.

From here, our captain steered the catamaran west towards the Golden Gate bridge. Actually, I was a little disheartened because although there were no thick fog to totally obscure the bridge, it was  not exactly, the kind of sunset I was hoping for.
Just like a teenager on his first date, my heart sank, expecting to walk away from this probably once in a lifetime experience with just some `so so' pictures. I was expecting more, much more. I was expecting a spectacular golden sunset with different hues of amber, yellow and blue accompanied with some interesting clouds formation, similar to the shots I have taken back home.

Yet, I was hopeful and keeping myself anchored at the helm of catamaran, camera in hand, I waited as we sailed nearer to the bridge. The waters of San Francisco, living to her reputation was rather rough at times, bouncing our catamaran like a little toy boat. Coupled with shark infested and cold icy water,  this bay has helped Alcatraz to become known as the inescapable prison. In the 29 years of her existence as a maximum security prison, there were only 36 prisoners with 14 escape attempts made. Of the 36 prisoners, 23 were caught, 6 shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 listed as 'missing and presumed drown'.

As we approached the bridge, the thick clouds relented and the golden sun rays finally forced through, casting an amber hue on the scattered clouds formation against the blue sky. There was hope yet ....
No words can really described the exhilaration bursting from within as we sailed quietly beneath her. Looking up at her, she looks absolutely stunning with her dressed in her renowned International Orange, made even more spectacular in the evening sun .....
My finger was so busy clicking away at every angle possible, my eyes only occasionally lifted up from my camera's view finder to savor the moment, before they were back behind the view finder, hopefully to capture yet another memorable shot.
Satisfied that I have taken the shots that I need to take, as we leave the Golden Gate Bridge behind, heading back to Pier 39, I sat back, finally relieved somewhat that I have experienced what I was expecting, if not more. With a complimentary cold Budweiser in hand, I leaned back and breathe in the chilling San Francisco Bay air. There was no disgusting engine sound, In her place was the sweet sound of the flaps of the sail beating in the wind. No hundreds of tourist jostling around, talking and shouting at the top of lungs. Everyone on board, just like me, I guessed, were quietly soaking in the atmosphere.

As we approached the pier, I looked back at her, bidding her a reluctant farewell, just like a love struck teenager unwilling to part with his new found love. I took one last picture to remember her by ...a true American icon to the world, as the sun sets behind her.......
Would I do it all over again, if I am ever in San Francisco again? Yes! Definitely and I am hoping that it will soon .....