Category: Destination/Hotel Reviews

Impressions from Washington DC visit


I visited New York and Washington DC (four days each) recently.

I am yet to meet a person who does not like New York, and I am no exception. I loved the buzz of the city, its vigour and life. Life in New York moves on its subway and on Time Square, it appeared to me. I saw several places in New York and will write about it sometime soon.

Washington DC appeared to me as a more relaxed place – may be that was because I was seeing mostly tourists everywhere. The metro subway network had newer trains and was not crowded even at the busiest stations. Traffic was there but not as heavy as it was in New York. I saw a lot more casual bistros in Washington, and the speed of life seemed to be at a slower pace.

However, the places of tourist attractions were overcrowded. For instance, I was at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument yesterday, and there were probably a thousand people crowding around these historic places. It was sometimes difficult to get a photo shoot. One thing for sure, Washington DC has some of the best buildings with architecture that could compete with any old European city, with a modern orientation that blends beautifully with old world charm. The huge buildings and the vast spaces between them characterize a global capital city, and its centre of power. The U.S. is indeed the world’s undisputed super power, and Washington is its capital city. It was easy to be over-awed by its enormity.

The other aspect which impressed me thoroughly was the free access to some of the best museums in the world. I had time only for two of them – the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Both offer fantastic experiences, and I relished every moment of my visit to these world-class museums. There are plenty of other museums to visit, may be for another time!

The White House view did not impress me that much but the U.S. Capitol was fabulous. I took a free tour of the same, and also attended live sessions of the House and the Senate. It was democracy in action at the heart of the U.S. politics and government. This is the place where U.S. laws are enacted and the country makes decisions which could impact the entire world such as going to war.

Though I did not have time, I took a ride to see George Town, and it was fascinating to see the beautiful townhouses and the riverfront. In my opinion, the whole city appeared to be beautifully designed and constructed with utmost care and attention to detail. Architecture has played a big role in determining the beauty of Washington DC and I would surely rate it as one of the best cities in the world, notwithstanding some unseemly comments that one could chance upon on things like crime rates, etc., It is indeed an impressive city with some of the best architecture one can see around in the world. Apart from the same, the enormity of the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House descends on you like it would never happen anywhere else in the world – these are the places in which decisions with global import are made regularly.

While there were lots of foreigner tourists visiting these attractions, I estimated that 6 out of 10 folks in any queue are Americans who are exploring their own capital city and the unique things it has to offer. Not surprising given the fact that the U.S. is a huge country and many people normally would not leave their city or state and even travel to the neighbouring state. But then Washington DC has a special attraction for even those kind of folks. Everyone wants to see Washington DC and New York at least once if not more.

Overall, an excellent visit, and I would love to visit again!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th June 2017

 

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Dallas Food


On the first day of our visit to Dallas, we wanted to try out Indian food (this is the default choice when there is a group of Indians trying to explore the local culinary scene, I am sure you can believe this!). We asked the concierge at our hotel, and he said that there is only one in the downtown area within walking distance and so we set out to discover how Indian food is faring in the heart of downtown Dallas.

We went to “Spice in The City Dallas” on Commerce Street. The restaurant looked stylish and different from the regular run-of-the-mill Indian restaurants. It looked like a fine dining restaurant from the outside surrounded by office blocks.

We were hungry and did not waste time exploring the whole menu. We ordered Papad Basket, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Korma, Yellow Lentil Dhal, and Garlic Naans. We were surprised and disappointed when the dishes arrived at our table.

The Papads were extremely oily (dripping with old oil). None of the dishes were tasty and each one of them lacked even little amount of salt or spice or chilli. The dhal was a huge disappointment with the lentils individually sticking out of the bowl with no creamy hold on the dhal surface providing an even taste. The korma was messy. The naans were actually thick flatbreads. Overall, it was a bad lunch. I don’t understand how Trip Advisor and Yelp could have given such positive ratings. We later told our colleagues to give this restaurant a miss.

On the other hand, our experience at Cafe Herrera and Meso Maya, both serving Mexican food in downtown Dallas, was very good – the food was excellent, the service was great, and the menus were comprehensive. Mexican food is a good alternative to folks seeking spicy food, and we were not disappointed. The only challenge is that the wrong choice of sauces could send you scattering looking for an exit, so be very careful when you insist on spicy sauce for the Mexican main course. It could simply stun you out of your senses. There is nothing like that in Indian or Chinese food.

We thought the hotel food (at the hotel where we were staying in downtown) may not be great, but we were surprised to see a fantastic breakfast spread for USD 15 (cold) and USD 22 (hot). There were some unhealthy offerings at the breakfast, but then most of the choices were good – like the amazing variety of expensive fruits for example, hot potatoes with red skin, hot medley of vegetables with lots of onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, scrambled eggs, omelettes made to order, a variety of breads, nuts, yoghurt, etc.,

Dallas is a great place for Mexican food – of course, I have not tried much of the other foods that Dallas offers, but my guess is that Dallas specializes in Mexican.

One of our colleagues had brought MTR fast food from Singapore, and so we tried that food in our hotel room late into night along with some drinks, and that was an outstanding experience as well.

It was good to be back in Dallas after a gap of two years.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th May 2017

Amazing Formula Rossa Thrill Ride of a Lifetime


This time I was really scared.

My son persuaded me to at least take a look at the ride video on YouTube. Take a look for yourself:

Ferrari’s Alonso and Massa ride world’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World

Formula Rossa POV – World’s Fastest Roller Coaster Ferrari World Abu Dhabi UAE Onride

Scary, right?

Well, my son and I went to the Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi last week, and I can tell you that the real experience of riding on the Formula Rossa was not any less scarier than the videos that you just saw. The website of Ferrari World is at Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

Formula Rossa is currently rated as the fastest roller coaster in the world with a top speed of 239 KMPH which is achieved in less than 5 seconds of extremely fast acceleration using a technique used on aircraft carriers to launch jet planes on a very short runway. For the initial run, I chose to sit on the very back row of the Formula Rossa – though my son objected. I told him that I need to get a “hang” of it! Even while sitting on the back row, the ride was instantly terrifying with a speed which I have never experienced in my life. My heart beat increased and my heart was pounding when we finished the ride. The air pressure on the face and body was immense. The cork screw turn from the very top was scary to say the least. But the best part was the initial acceleration and the steep climb up.

For the second time experience, my son insisted on sitting in the very first row (like sitting on the very edge of the nose of a fast speeding bullet). I asked for time to think and so went around on other rides and eventually came back to Formula Rossa ride. I agreed to sit with my son on the first row of the ride. And, it was the most terrifying ride I have ever undertaken in a theme park ride. I could not even move my hand, the air pressure was too much not allowing any movement (I wanted to hold the plastic spectacle wrapper which was holding my spectacle glasses). While I managed to keep my eyes open for the initial 4 to 5 seconds, I could not do so once the roller coaster climbed up on to its steep ascent of over 50 metres and then accelerated with heavy momentum on the cork screw. I tried to open for a sneak view but decided to keep it shut as the tracks were speeding towards us at enormous speed (!!!). I only opened my eyes towards the last 5 or 6 seconds of the ride, but came out smiling as the thrill gene in my body seems to have grabbed its rightful sync with the Formula Rossa!

This is a fantastic ride, and I would strongly encourage you to take the first row, if not in the first attempt. It is a great feeling to almost feel what a Formula 1 race driver would experience on the race track (and more). It is overall a fabulous experience and very much worth the visit to Ferrari World (which is located at Abu Dhabi, some 75 minutes car ride from Dubai).

Hold tight and enjoy the speed, acceleration and momentum of the Formula Rossa – the world’s fastest roller coaster as on date.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd December 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Dispatch from Dubai


I wanted to send this one out before I returned from Dubai, however here it is – a dispatch on the cost dynamics of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

There is no income or sales tax in Dubai – there is just no taxation of any kind. So that would be a big incentive for most people as a draw to go and work in Dubai. Sure, it is a nice, and I would say a great feeling when you pay no taxes at all to the government. There are very few places in the world which provide such a strong incentive.

However, the picture is not so simple. Almost all items that one needs to consume are expensive, and even more expensive when compared to Singapore. I think this is true even when a comparison is made with Hong Kong prices of consumption items. May be only Tokyo is more expensive than Dubai.

A Cafe Latte in Starbucks costs 19 AED (Dirhams, the U.A.E. currency), which translates to SGD 7.5 (as against SGD 5.5 in Starbucks Singapore). A decent lunch at a foodcourt in one of the fancy malls of Dubai costs the equivalent of SGD 20 to 25 as against a typical comparable lunch at SGD 11 to 15 in a Singapore mall. All tourist attractions are heavily expensive when it comes to the entrance fees. A typical entrance fee to a theme park or water park costs around AED 270 or SGD 106 – whereas a good price that can be obtained in Singapore for a similar attraction ranges from SGD 40 to 60. Taxi prices are more or less comparable, though the base fare from the Dubai International Airport is AED 25 (or SGD 10) as compared to SGD 6.20 (SGD 3 surcharge from Changi and base fare of SGD 3.20) as base fare from Singapore Changi Airport. There is no apparent reason for such a high base fare.

So, apparently, what the government does not collect is being collected by product and service providers in Dubai via increased prices. The argument that they have to operate with imported labour (mostly Filipinos in service industries) does not fly as the situation is not very different in Singapore for lower-end jobs. The real estate prices are comparable, so that argument also does not work. So, it has to be only the motive of higher profit from the flow of tourists and resident foreigners that is driving higher prices in Dubai.

I have not had the time to do a detailed research on retail prices at Dubai malls (though I bought a couple of items), but had the opportunity to kill some good time at the fabulous shopping areas of Dubai International Airport before departing to Singapore. The liquor prices at the Duty Free Shops were lower than in DFS Changi Shops, and the chocolate prices were marginally lower though the variety of chocolates available was vastly superior in Dubai. I ended up buying good amount of chocolates which are not available in Singapore. The electronic product prices were more or less similar – again, the variety of offerings in Dubai was superior. For example, I saw six different brands of drones in a single shop with almost all accessories as compared to just two brands in a typical Singapore electronics shop. Drones are hot selling items and I am developing an interest as my son is keen to try out the same, and will eventually buy one raptor kind of drone with electronic eyes quite soon.

Overall, living in Dubai is an expensive proposition but then residents save on income and other taxes though paying higher prices for consumer items. Interesting, isn’t it? More news on Dubai soon, it is a place worth visiting for all. Abu Dhabi should not be forgotten either, it seems to be more organized and apparently has more wealth than Dubai itself.

Welcome to more expenses as you travel the world!!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd December 2016

Dubai Impressions After 11 years


I landed in Dubai early morning of Friday, past midnight of Thursday. Apparently, it is the busiest time of the airport with a number of flights landing around that time. I was puzzled why Emirates Airlines landing terminal did not have immigration facility – we had to take a lift (elevator) down several levels and then queue up for a train to take us to the main terminal. The crowd was quite heavy, but we somehow cleared the immigration rather quickly and were on our way to the hotel in less than 45 minutes from the time we got out of the aircraft. The A380 flight was very nice with excellent on-board service and very quality of entertainment and food. My guess is that Emirates is overtaking Singapore Airlines firmly as the leading long-haul international airline.

I am visiting Dubai after a long time of 11 years. While the Sheikh Zayed main road was more or less the same, I noticed that they have added another, may be 3 lanes, making it one of the widest highway with 7 lanes in several places. Radar guns and cameras were located frequently, and I heard that the traffic penalties were quite severe. Nevertheless, car drivers were driving well in excess of the permitted speeds, the excellent quality of the roads giving them the motivation to press the accelerator!

Dubai has undergone a massive renovation after the 2009 economic downturn, and appears to be throbbing with life, activities, tourists, and shoppers, everywhere. We are staying at the Dubai Marina, which is a fabulous place to stay, with a great view of the marina and a walkway which is 7 KMs long (ideal for my early morning walks!). The weather is cool, with temperature dropping to 20 deg C and I am enjoying the same coming from hot Singapore where the needle rarely drops below 29 deg C during the day. I saw huge numbers of Western expats everywhere, and a lot of Chinese tourists (probably from Mainland China or Taiwan). Large sized cars are to be found everywhere as car prices are really cheap – for example, I found out that BMW 740iL costs around USD 100K in Dubai as against USD 450K (SGD 590K) in Singapore. Not surprisingly, there are many Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising the expressways.

Over the past couple of days, I have visited the newly opened IMG Worlds of Adventure, which is slated to be the world’s largest indoor theme park with many scary adventure rides. I also visited the very massive Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, which is an engineering feat. When I went to the 124th Floor, I did not feel over-awed: the views were fantastic but I did not feel scared for a moment. However, when I came down and stood under the Burj Khalifa tower near the Dubai Fountain, the enormous height and beauty of the Burj Khalifa overwhelmed me. There is no other structure in the world that high at 828 Metres. Just the spire atop the tower is some 200 Metres long!

There are several other places to be seen before I leave from this short holiday of just 5 days, such as the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the Atlantis Palm Water Park, the Evening Desert Safari, etc., and more about these places in a later post. I just wanted to share some early impressions of the ever-changing Dubai which is the most dynamic city in all of Middle East.

Great place to visit, but with an appreciating USD (the UAE Dirham is pegged to the USD), it is also an expensive place to visit. A Cafe Latte costs SGD 7 at a coffee shop located in a food court of Dubai Mall – it is more expensive in the individually located coffee shops. Taxis are reasonably priced but given the distances between places, you can easily run up a bill of SGD 100 per day, and if you are going to Abu Dhabi and back it could cost SGD 300 for the day easily. Food is also expensive, but good quality food anywhere in a global city is going to be expensive. Not much point in shopping, as I think Singapore is slightly cheaper for the same items, but then the shops in Dubai are massive and it was a pleasure just walking around the mall.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

27th November 2016

The Kolkata Experience


I was in Kolkata last week just for 2.5 days.

A city of some 18M (some folks say that the population of Kolkata is over 20M, putting it just next to Mexico City) people, Kolkata had been in the forefront of British India for a long time. It has what I call “cultured” people, who are still steeped in a colonial mindset. The funny thing though is that Kolkata has been a Communist bastion for over 4 decades, till Mamata Banerjee (the current Chief Minister of the West Bengal State, of which Kolkata is the State Capital) came along and usurped the Communist Party from their long-held power and sway over the Bengalis (as the people of West Bengal are called).

So, here you have a gargantuan city of enormous proportions (it is actually a twin city, with the Howrah Bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah, its twin city), which has the distinction of hosting Mother Theresa till she died. It has many accolades from the past, not the least being the Capital of British India which was later taken over by Delhi.

The Bengalis are a passionate people with rather strong opinions on everything which matters. They are what I call as “the intelligentsia” of modern India. They are also the source of some of the most talented actors and actresses of Bollywood. And, who can forget Shri Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Nobel Laureate of India, and who hails from West Bengal ? And so on and so forth………

Surprisingly, the part of Kolkata that I visited (Southern Avenue adjoining the lake), Tollygunge Road, and areas around these locations were not crowded. The traffic was light for the size of Kolkata and when I checked with one of my hosts, he happened to remark that there are no big crowds due to lack of industrial activity. Which may be true, given that the Communists were always against the industrialization of the State, and drove away Capitalists who wanted to invest in the State, leveraging the strong intellectual capital of the Bengalis. But that was not to be, and today West Bengal is one of the least industrialized states of India. This led to Bengalis migrating en masse to other progressive states of India and overseas, and you see them almost everywhere you go.

Still, Kolkata has its charm, and I loved the New Alipore area which I visited to meet up with some old relatives. A rather charming area, with neat roads and large apartments which was strange amidst the chaos in the rest of the city. I also bought some sweets in a famous old sweet shop in that area – Bengalis are very famous for their sweet tooth. Fantastic sweets which you cannot get elsewhere in India are available from the 100 year old Kolkata brands of sweet shops – I bought from one such brand – Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick. Excellent choice, but there are several other brands equally famous.

The strangest part of Kolkata was the Airport. It is a gleaming new international airport. But, there was not much activity in the international side on a late evening/ night time, unlike Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi wherein there are always thousands of passengers and a long list of flights right through the night. When I arrived at 9 PM at the Kolkata International Airport, I could count only 5 or 6 flights, and there were few passengers at the airport. In fact, everything was a breeze – check-in at the Silk Air counter, immigration clearance, security check-up, etc., were surprisingly fast. Of course, this shows the influence of the Communist ideology on the residents of West Bengal and also the lack of tourists.

I took a drive along Howrah Bridge during a rainy day, and it was fabulous. The Victoria Memorial visit was great, with its beautifully maintained gardens and statues, but also reminding one of the British dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries over India. I have always detested their acquisition of India and their politicking with the Kings and Princes of India on a divide-and-rule philosophy. They did leave some good things behind in India when they left in 1947, but overall I think that India would have been better off in a faster manner had it not been for the Briitsh rule. That topic is for another blog post, I guess.

In any case, there are a number of places to be seen in Kolkata (ensure you have a good English-speaking driver), and do not miss these places. And, the traffic is not worse than other metro (large) cities of India.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th July 2016

The Las Vegas Experience


I recently made a trip to Las Vegas, the most famous sin city in the world.

My defining experience of Las Vegas was not the gambling in the casinos. Rather it was the various shows which seem to be going on for ever in the city.

I saw three shows when I stayed for just over 4 days. The first one was David Copperfield at the MGM Grand. Amazing magician – while I have heard about him, this was the first time I saw him in close action. In one act, he disappeared from the stage, and appeared almost next to me in the middle of the audience. How the hell did he do that ? And, at the end of the show, he vowed the audience by inserting a life-like dinosaur skeleton inside an empty cage on the stage, which made noises and opened its mouth repeatedly !

The David Copperfield show was simply the most amazing magician show that I have seen.

The second one was the Jeff Dunham show. It was equally good. Jeff is a ventriloquist and a stand-up comedian with his set of famous characters which all appeared to be alive and kicking. These are the famous Walter, Peanut, Bubba J, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Melvin the Superhero Guy, etc., His show is really entertaining, provided one can follow the accents of the various characters closely. I had a bit of struggle with that, but eventually managed to understand what was causing an uproar in the audience. Again, Jeff Dunham show was fantastic, creative, original, and designed to cause unhindered laughter.

The last show that I saw was the Cirque du Soleil. I had big expectations of this circus and entertainment show. Unfortunately, the Ka Show that I saw in Treasure Island casino fell far short of my expectations. It looked highly rehearsed and artificial, and did not have much of an audience connect or impact. My feeling was shared by couple of other folks around me. May be it was the wrong first show of circus for me from Cirque du Soleil, however I expected nothing but the most outstanding quality in any such global show provider.

In any case, the shows were great, and I only regretted that I could not see many other world-famous shows in Las Vegas ! There are a number of shows to be seen, and one tip I can give is that “do not buy the tickets online in advance”. You will be paying full price, the only advantage being you can select the seating. However, if you care to take a walk along the “Strip”, you will find the same tickets for the same shows at 45% discount ! Next time around I am not going to order tickets online.

The other defining experience of Las Vegas was the 4 mile walk up and down the “Strip” – you get to atleast see the exterior of all the major casinos and the shopping malls. And, it is a good walk – on the day I took that walk, I clocked nearly 15 KMs since I walked in and out of most buildings. It is not that hot during April, though a bit warm. You will get to see the “action” on the “Strip” all along, including some excellent food places.

I took the helicopter ride by Maverick to see the Hoover dam. Again, my expectations were high, but the experience was not that great. First, the helicopters have a constant shake going on. Second, the Hoover Dam does not appear that great from the helicopter – it would have been very good if the helicopter goes around the dam a couple of times allowing a better view and photography. But that was not to be. In a nutshell, it was not worth it, and I did not have the time for a Grand Canyon helicopter ride.

Well, all said, Las Vegas is surely worth a trip. You don’t have to be a gambler, though it feels probably good losing money at the black jack for most people around the casinos. I must have walked many KMs up and down the Wynn and Encore casinos and couple of other ones such as MGM Grand. It is all the same. At the end of the day, 99% of the people are losing money and some their shirts even for sure.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th May 2015