The English Countryside in Autumn

29 01 2009

As fans of English literature and culture, my travel companion D (my mother in law) and I felt that a trip to England would not be complete without a tour of the countryside. We wanted to see the fields of sheep, quaint cottages, parish churches, manor houses, and places of learning that featured so prominently in all the novels we’ve read and shows we’ve seen. That is, we wanted to see more of England’s pleasant pastures and mountains green and less of its Satanic mills.


A charming view of a Cotswold farm with fields of sheep in the background.

As non-drivers who didn’t have a lot of time, the surprising choice for us was the bus tour. We originally wanted to do a tour that provided a tour guide, used trains, and took us to fewer sights (so we can spend more time at them) but the tour operators were not running that tour when we were there in November.


Seeing Oxford, the oldest English speaking university in the world, was a must for us!


Magnificent Gothic architecture at Oxford.


Old buildings blend with those that are not so old at Oxford.

Although I am usually not a big proponent of bus tours, sometimes it is the only viable option. I try to avoid bus tours in general because they are usually expensive, crowded, and on a set schedule. I never feel like I have enough time to see what I want to see. In addition, being part of a mob and/or only seeing something through a window isolates you from the places you visit. You only see what the tour company wants you to see, and that may or may not be true to the place.


We were only able to take a quick peek at the town of Oxford.

However, if you are short on time, cannot drive, and absolutely want to see something, even if it’s just a glimpse, sometimes it is your best (and only) option. Bus tours do have some positives; they usually provide tour guides, they are great for inexperienced solo travelers, and you will not get lost. In addition, some tour companies really put in the time and effort to make a well rounded experience, such as themed tours. If you are picky about what type of tour you choose, you can minimize the bad parts and make the best of your trip.


Radcliffe Camera, the most photographed library on campus.

A guide will explain why there are 38 different colleges at Oxford and how they are organized. They will tell you where famous movies were filmed. They will attempt to explain architectural details.  They will make cheesy jokes.

 


According to our guide, this was Tolkien’s Room at Exeter College.


One of the many libraries at Oxford. They filmed scenes from the Harry Potter movies here.

We ended up choosing a mini-bus tour (maximum 12 persons) of Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. I actually didn’t want to go to Stratford-upon-Avon since I had already seen it and thought it was overrated. Also a third location meant less time at the other two. However, there was not an option that excluded it. We chose the mini-bus over the huge tour bus primarily because it could navigate the tiny lanes in the Cotswold towns but also because it avoided the huge crowds/mob feeling.


A gorgeous home in Stow-on-the-Wold.


We stopped by a gourmet market in Stow-on-the-Wold. Too bad we only had 10 minutes.

Another positive of small groups was that the tour guide could make small adjustments to his or her commentary and itinerary to suit our interests. For instance, when our guide heard that my travel companion was interested in historic churches, we decided to explore the parish church in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.


An atmospheric church in Stow-on-the Wold.


The fascinating graveyard of the parish church in Stow-on-the-Wold.


Another view of the graveyard.

After seeing Oxford and exploring Stow-in-the-Wold, we had lunch in the town center.


View from the town center of Stow-on-the-Wold.


Another view of Stow-on-the-Wold.


This fish pie was as delicious as it looks!


I wish we could have stayed at a B&B like this in the Cotwolds.

After lunch, we drove around the Cotswolds some more. We stopped at Lower Slaughter and walked up to Upper Slaughter. These village names sound much more bloody then they are. Slaughter actually derives from “slough” meaning wet land.


Homes along a stone wall in Lower Slaughter.


Peeking into a quaint house in Lower Slaughter.


Autumn Leaves in Lower Slaughter.


I love the sheep on the hill.


View of Upper Slaughter from Lower Slaughter.


Church in Upper Slaughter.


Driving out of Upper Slaughter.

After a scenic drive around the Cotswolds, we then proceeded onto the final part of the journey. We were actually running late, but still managed to be the last group into Shakespeare’s birthplace. This worked out quite well since we ended up having a private tour given by a Scottish Laird!


Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.


Harry Pottermania can be seen all over England.

Although travel doesn’t always go as planned, compromises are not so bad if you do your research.  In this case, a mini-bus tour served our needs quite wonderfully despite our reservations about bus travel.  We were able to see the Cotswolds and didn’t have to worry about transportation.  Now whenever I read British novels that feature pastures, villages,  and universities, I don’t have to imagine.  I can just remember.





Google Translate – It’s Magic!

7 05 2008

I was looking at my blog stats the other day when I noticed something very strange. One of my referrers was a Chinese translation of my blog! Apparently, one of my readers had found my page through Google Taiwan and then used the Google Translate function to transform the entire website automatically into Traditional Chinese. You can read more about the background in this Wikipedia entry on Google Translate.

To see my blog in Traditional Chinese, type in “Travels with Sandy” at www.google.com.tw and when the first hit comes up, press the linke titled [翻譯此頁] next to it. You can view any page in Simplified Chinese by going to www.google.com.cn and doing the same thing.

The Chinese to English translation is still in the BETA stage, but seems to have promise. My skills at reading Chinese are not very good so I am not a very good judge, but from what I can read, the translator actually reverses word order when appropriate and translates simple sentences fairly well. However, like any automatic translator, more complex sentences and words with more than one meaning are easily garbled.





What’s your travel personality?

27 04 2008

While perusing the Washington Post travel blog, I came upon a post about finding your travel personality for the purpose of finding travel destinations that you would most likely find appealing.  The website in discussion, called Best Trip Choices (BTC), determines your travel personality through a short questionnaire and then provides recommendations for travel based on your personality.  The quiz was developed by Dr. Stanley C Plog, a Harvard trained researcher, based on 30 years of research and has been reviewed in professional journals and textbooks.  The BTC website is founded by Dr. Plog and Bahir Browsh, a lifelong travel industry professional and expert in the field.

You can take the quiz here.  Click on the middle button under the yellow banner near the top.

The range of travel personality types goes from the extreme adventure traveler to the traveler who prefers predictability and stability.  I took the quiz and according to its results, I am a Mid-Venturer! This puts my travel personality second only to the Venturer, the most extreme travel personality type.  Fortunately, my husband’s travel personality type is also that of a Mid-Venturer.  No wonder we travel so well together!

Here is the definition of a Mid-Venturer from the BTC website:

As a mid-venturer, your personality fits between venturers and those more in the center of the personality spectrum (“centrics”). You share a number of characteristics in common with pure venturers. You like to travel, especially to foreign destinations and you seek new experiences and new destinations for almost all trips you take. You are also physically active at home and on trips. But, unlike your pure venturer friends, you don’t want to take such extreme vacations and are more likely to plan your trips-set an itinerary of places you want to visit and schedules when you will be there. You also have more company. About 17% of the population has a personality that matches yours, vs. only 4% for pure venturers.

Your venturesome spirit leads you to seek out unique and interesting places to visit and especially to make each leisure trip different from others that you have taken. You may want to return to a place that seemed interesting but you didn’t have time to explore on an earlier visit, but usually you simply want to try something new. However, there’s a big difference between you and your true venturer friends: you like a comfortable bed at night (no sleeping under the stars), a warm shower, and meals that you can trust rather than taking a chance on native foods.

The description for my travel personality type continues for many more paragraphs and pretty much hits the bulls eye on my travel style.   I love exploring new places, I like to plan everything so that I don’t miss anything, but I also like to sleep in a nice place at night.

The website then goes a step further and recommends travel destinations that might interest me and ranks them from Platinum to Bronze.  The Platinum destinations score highly for almost any travel personality type and includes destinations like Hawaii, England, Australia, New Zealand, and several other popular tourist destinations.  On the other hand, the Gold destinations score highly for my travel personality type and not necessarily others, and include France, Germany, Japan, Chicago, Hong Kong, and so on and so forth.

While I agree with many of these recommendations, it is obviously not the end all be all of travel recommendations.  In fact, I feel that many types would like my Gold recommendations and the website omits many places that I have loved.  Having said that, all in all I think this is an interesting personality quiz to take that might just entice you to consider destinations you might not otherwise look up.

What’s your personality type?  Is it accurate for your travel style?





My TripAdvisor Map

2 02 2008

Ever since I found TripAdvisor.com a few short years ago, I have been enamored with this website. While at first the site was difficult for me to navigate, once I got the hang of the different resources available (and learned to ignore the many ads) I was able to delve into a plethora of useful information on seemingly every destination worldwide. TripAdvisor allows me to research vacations, scope out things to do while on business trips, and most importantly, tag along with other people’s experiences and live vicariously through their travel.

TA Logo

I mainly use this website to look at hotel reviews and read the forums. From my experience using TripAdvisor as a resource for my trips to Hawaii, Aruba, and Taiwan, the advice on the forums and hotel reviews have been spot-on. You do have to take all the reviews, discussions, and advice with a grain of salt, of course, but after spending some time on the website, it becomes pretty easy to tell who is really helpful and who has an agenda.

Below is my TripAdvisor travel map, which shows all the places I’ve visited around the world. I was going to just put this as a permanent widget in my sidebar but I don’t know how, so if you do know how please tell me. 🙂

I’ve often remarked to my husband that many people probably think I am a travel agent because I do so much research on travel. My real job is actually very different from the travel industry, as I work in Finance. But my secret weapon for travel research is actually TripAdvisor!





How to Check if a Visa or Passport is Needed for Travel

31 01 2008

As a non-U.S. citizen, I always have to take the extra step in researching travel locations to find out if I need a visa to visit certain destinations.  Although a simple web search or a visit to a tourism website will yield this information for citizens of developed Western countries and Japan, oftentimes for smaller countries there is simply not a lot of useful information online.  This is especially true for countries like Taiwan, which is not officially recognized by many countries and international organizations as a sovereign nation.  Usually I end up looking at embassy websites or making a phone call to the consulate to ask.  Even this step can be difficult, however, as some embassies actually charge you to ask them visa questions (*cough* U.K. *cough*).

Anyway, I am writing this post today to alert you of a wonderful search engine I discovered while trying to look up, once again, if I needed a travel visa.  The Visa, Passport, and Health Information webpage from SkyTeam, the international airline partnership, is an efficient search engine that allows you to input your nationality, residency, and destination (including transit points) and find out if you need a passport or visa.  You can also find out if there are required health requirements, such as vaccinations, for the country you are visiting. 

SkyTeam

The feature that sets this search engine apart from other resources is that you can input your residency.  This is important because for some countries in the Caribbean, you don’t need a Visa if you are a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder).  In addition, the website is searchable for all countries so you don’t have to waste time trudging through all these websites that are may or may not be in English.  A funny note is that Taiwan if known as Chinese Taipei on this website, just like in the Olympics.

Hopefully this will save you time next time you need to search whether or not you need a visa to go on your next adventure!

Here is the website written out:

http://skyteam.com/EN/travelPlanner/timatic/index.jsp





Journey to Central Taiwan

8 10 2007

After spending some time in Kaohsiung, we headed up to my grandparents’ house near Yuanlin, just outside of Changhua.

But first we had a nice breakfast at my aunt’s.  We had some pastries we bought at Isetan and some fresh papaya milk.  The fruit is definitely sweeter in Taiwan.  It’s all about the food in Taiwan.

Breakfast

Taiwan is one of those Asian countries where there will be something cute on everything, including cake.

Cake

We then proceeded to the Kaoshiung train station, and took the fast train (T.C.) to Yuanlin.  The journey took about 2 hours.

Train Details: Bathrooms on trains were spartan but clean.  Luggage went on racks above the seats.  Only people with tickets are allowed on the platform.  However, you may buy a platform pass (very inexpensive) to accompany someone to the platform.  At smaller stations, this is free.  The station will give you a temporary pass in exchange for an official ID.  Keep your tickets because you may need to show them to a conductor.  In addition, you need to give the tickets back to the train people when you leave the station at your destination.

On the platform

Platform

The blue trains are the slower commuter trains.

Train station

Our fast and orange train approaches the stop.

Our Train

Orange Train

The train journey was very smooth and comfortable.  We were content to snack and watch the Taiwanese countryside as we sped by.  There were lots of rice fields, fish farms, and other unidentified plant growth.  It’s hard to tell with these pictures, but Taiwan is very very green. 

Rice Fields

Fields

We also passed by suburbs, towns, and cities.

Small Town

Small Towns

As we got closer to Central Taiwan, we saw more and more mountains and hills.

View from Train

When we arrived, we headed over to my grandparents’ house.  My grandparents live among fruit trees and rice fields in the Taiwanese countryside.  There is so much moisture everywhere, plants just explode in abundance.

Gate

There are papaya trees, pear trees, bonzai, and many other plants, as evidenced in the photo below.

Lush Countryside

We had a very nice visit with my grandparents.  I haven’t seen them in years, so it was a happy reunion.  They were really glad to finally meet Charles.  Everyone drank lots of Apple Sidra (my favorite Taiwanese soda).

Next: A visit to the family compound





Some Travel Tips for Flying

10 09 2007

While flying gets us to our destinations faster than any other way, most people don’t relish being squeezed into narrow seats next to inconsiderate fellow passengers breathing canned air.  However, as many travelers know, a little planning goes a long way toward a smoother trip.  Below I have compiled some basic tips to maximize your peace and comfort and make the best of air travel.  Some of these are obvious, but for the sake of completeness I have included them.  Long haul flights, like the 21 hour flight we are doing soon (14 hour flight, then 2.5 hour layover, then 4 hour flight), deserve special consideration and preparation!

Pick the best seat available on your flight.  Look up your reservation on your airline’s website.  Airlines usually provide the type of aircraft and what kind of food service to expect.  Armed with this information, you can then go to www.seatguru.com and look up your seat.  This great website displays the location of your seat, tells you where the bathrooms are, and includes comments about legroom, computer power ports, and other important information.  If you are seated in a poor seat, request a seat change.  Nowadays you can usually just change your seating assignment online, or if that doesn’t work, ask when you check into your flight.

If possible, don’t check your bags and pack light.  This is, of course, not possible for some trips and is difficult for people with lots of liquid/gels/lotions.  However, with lines everywhere and the security situation these days, not having to wait in line to check your bag or pick it up is a serious time saver.  For people like myself that have lots of toiletries, you can get little plastic jars from Art stores (used for paint pigments) that are spill-proof and stick them into your plastic zip top bag.  For business trips, this is a must.

Get comfortable.  With more travelers than ever these days, there are a TON of travel products out there that are designed to make travel a little less miserable.  The number 1 item for those that want to sleep on their flights is to get the ubiquitous neck pillow.  They are several kinds out there, from the type that inflate to ones with beads to super fancy tempurpedic pillows that also double as back support.  Also, bringing your own is more sanitary because at least you know where your pillow has been.

Bring entertainment and snacks.  This is obvious but worth mentioning.  For the long hauls, there are lots of travel size games out there that minimize space and maximize fun.  Travel Scrabble, chinese checkers, playing cards are just a few examples.  Books obviously.  An ipod or equivalent can do double duty playing music and discouraging chatty neighbors.

Maximize your laptop usage.  Look up wireless access availability at the airports beforehand.  This is pretty straight forward – just google your airport’s website.  For in seat laptop usage, you can buy a power adapter for airplanes.  Don’t forget to make sure that your assigned seat has a power port.  With a laptop, you do not have to be a slave to the airline’s entertainment choices.  Instead, you can watch the DVDs that you bring, play games, or catch up on your work.  Several airlines are looking into adding internet on flights, but none have yet.  This is definitely something to look forward to!

Check out your airline meal in advance.  Then you can decide if you should bring your own food or not.  Again, first check your reservation online to determine if a meal will be served or not, and whether you have to pay for it.  Then go to www.airlinemeals.net.  This fun website features pictures taken by passengers of their airline food.  You can look the meals up by airline.

Got a layover?  Explore the airport and surroundings.  This will take a little extra research, but if your layover is over 3 hours it is probably worth it.  Google your airport’s name with the word “layover” and see what pops up.  A great example is this definitive website on layovers at Narita:  http://www.mgnewman.com/narita/index.html.  Actually the mall in Narita is pretty good for an airport mall.  If you are thinking of leaving the airport, however, make sure you know the exit and entry requirements.

Get an upgrade!  Just kidding.  Well sort of.  If you can afford it, many say this is worth the price for long-haul flights.  Having never sat in anything other than economy (or First Class on Southwest Airlines), I can’t tell if it’s worth it or not.  But I would love to one day sit in this part of the airplane. 

And the last tip is… please have your ID and boarding pass ready at the security gate and don’t clog up the lines at the security checkpoints!!! 








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