Flying high above Grand Canyon

The rotor blades’ whirring noise was surprisingly muffled inside the Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopter. Without so much as a bump, we quickly found ourselves suspended a few meters above the ground. Swaying gently from side to side we waited until an arriving helicopter landed safely. “Are you okay?” I asked the Polish lady sitting next to me. Before boarding I found out it was also her first time to ride a chopper. Her brow furrowed in concentration, she  nodded at me. She was clutching the edge of her seat tightly, fear written all over her round face. I couldn’t help smiling, admiring her feigned confidence. Before I knew it, we were already up in the air quickly leaving behind Boulder City and the sprawling Nevada desert. Wow, that was smooth. Much smoother compared to many airplane liftoffs I’ve experienced. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 5 star helicopter tour of Grand Canyon,” our pilot beamed, interrupting my thoughts.

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Lake Mead

The helicopter dipped for a second and then soared. Only a few minutes after departure, as we raised our eyes the most spectacular view greeted us – the arid, rose-red crags of the Grand Canyon West Rim. Located in Arizona, USA the Grand Canyon sprawls across 1,217,403 acres and is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Believed to have been carved by the Colorado River over the past five million years, it is home to some of the world’s oldest exposed rocks, almost 1.8 billion years old. The Colorado plateau was once a sea bed but as the land rose, the sea receded leaving fossilized sea corals, shells, etc., at the rim.  Although Grand Canyon is not the only canyon in the world and not the deepest either, its dramatic landscape is unmatched anywhere relished by at least  5 million goggling visitors every year.

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Hoover Dam and the Bypass Bridge

As we flew below the rim, the turquoise waters of Lake Mead gleamed in the the sun’s piercing glow. America’s largest reservoir and the world’s 16th largest man-made lake, it zigzagged through the western canyons and valleys, glistening amid the gray-brown landscape. Where the lake flowed placidly was once occupied by a bustling pioneer settlement in the 1860s named St Thomas. The town was once thriving with farms, homes and stores. But as the Colorado River’s water continued to rise filling St Thomas, the residents were left with no other choice but to evacuate. Mother Nature once again claimed what once was hers. “On your right is the Hoover Dam,” our pilot’s barely audible voice cracked on my earphone. Also known as Boulder Dam, the arch-gravity engineering marvel stands at 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long and was once one of the largest man-made infrastructures in the world. It was built in the 1930s to prevent flooding and provide irrigation and hydroelectric power to the hardscrabble region. Today it remains a magnificent sight to behold albeit incongruous in juxtaposition to the gaping gorges. 

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West Rim Guano Point

Seemingly competing for attention was the black-topped Fortification Hill, an extinct volcano at Lake Mead. As we flew through and up the canyons, we saw more flying buttresses, soaring pillars, spire-like rock formations, steep slopes that I would otherwise have missed completely had I taken a bus tour. If there is one place in America that will surely take one’s breath away, this is it. But nothing beats catching a glimpse of the serpentine Colorado River snaking through the canyons on the return flight as pièce de résistance. 

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A bird’s eye view of the Grand Canyon

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Enjoying the sweeping view of Grand Canyon

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The reliable Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopter

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The Colorado River

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Our deft pilot who seamlessly navigated the chopper through the crags

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Welcome sign to the Hualapai Reservation

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Gift shop at the reservation

Helicopter tours

5 star helicopter tours, www.5starhelicoptertours.com, price starts at USD 399.

Papillon, www.papillon.com, the website says price starts at USD 229 but it’s never available. Worth a try though, you might just get it.

Maverick, www.maverickhelicopter.com, price starts at USD 409

Sundance, www.sundancehelicopters.com, price starts at USD 410

Remember, haggling is the name of the game. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a better deal.

Bus tour

For those who have enough time, you can take a bus tour with any of the companies mentioned above. The trip takes at least 9 hours but does give you more time to enjoy the sweeping vistas and is much more affordable. Greyhound buses also ply the Las Vegas – Flagstaff route. Rate starts at USD 27 depending on the time of booking. The sooner you book the cheaper the rate. From Flagstaff you can catch the free shuttle to and from Grand Canyon National Park. For more transportation options please check here.

Camping

Camping in Grand Canyon and watching the sunrise (or sunset) is by far the best option. There are campgrounds within the Park but booking must be made in advance. Please check here for details. There are plenty of things to do and guided tours are available, check here for details.

Accommodation

For accommodation choices within the park, visit here. Do note that rooms get booked way in advance, sometimes 6-12 months in advance so timing is key. Price starts at USD 80++.

Good to know: The Grand Canyon West Rim Helicopter Air Tour offered by 5 star does not give you time to go to the rim. It does land at the Hualapai Indian Reservation but the 30-minute pit stop is not enough to get you to the rim for a photo op. Make sure to ask for a tour that takes you to the Guano Point and come back with a panoramic photo that will make your friends’ jaws drop. Just kidding but it would really make a fantastic keepsake.

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A bend in the road to Grand Canyon

Rrrrriiinngg. Rrrriiinngg. Rrrriiinngg. At first I thought I was dreaming. I looked around the room with my eyes half opened,“Where am I?” I thought. The cotton thread bed linen wrapped around my body and the soft king-sized bed I was lying on reminded me where I was, the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. Yawning, I reached for the blaring phone wondering who on earth was calling me at such an ungodly hour. It was 4am.

“Hello, Maricel.” “Hi, who’s this?” I asked groggily. “This is… from Canyon Tours.” The lady on the other end seemed to be holding the phone too close to her mouth. I could hardly understand what she was saying. I remembered the name, it was the company I contacted about the Grand Canyon bus tour hours earlier. I did tell them to contact me anytime as I knew my booking was quite last minute. I just didn’t expect them to comply. Realizing that the tour was scheduled at 6am that day, I quickly forgave her and thought there must be a good reason for the call.

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The view from my room on the 18th Floor of Stratosphere Hotel

“We tried your card but it was declined,” the lady on the other end informed me a little tersely. “Oh, sorry about that.” I seem to be having problems with my debit card since I landed in Las Vegas. “Can I pay cash instead?” “Yes, you may but we still need your account details.” “Do you have another credit card?” “No, I don’t have a credit card,” I replied. “If you want I can come now and pay in cash.” “No, we still need a credit card.” Sensing how unbending she was I just said, “Well, then. I’m afraid I won’t be able to join your bus tour.” “Okay,” the lady said. With that she quickly hang up as if she couldn’t wait to get rid of me. Maybe she thought I was broke, I chuckled to myself.

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“Ah, Las Vegas customer service,” I thought. But since  I arrived the day before, my experience in Vegas has only been fascinating if not shocking in some ways thanks to the (almost) naked ladies dotting the Strip. So maybe she was an exception, I convinced myself. But now, what do I do? I pondered over my options as I snuggled back in bed. That was the only day I had left for the bus tour which takes at least 9 hours. I may have been able to go the following day but my flight was in the evening. I didn’t want to take chances. It seemed my only other option was to take a helicopter ride. But my research the night before left me shuddering at the thought of paying for such an expensive ride. And then there was the problem with my card.

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The famed fountain show at the Bellagio

Although my friend who was traveling with me in the USA had similar problems with her card, I never had any. Until I reached Las Vegas. Both our banks were based in Dubai. We didn’t know whether that was the cause but we knew it shouldn’t. We’ve both traveled everywhere with our cards and never had any issues before. Since arriving in Las Vegas access to my card has been erratic. When I booked my hotel with my card it worked. But upon check-in, when the receptionist tried to charge me for the resort fee, it wouldn’t work. So I paid in cash instead. When I stepped out of the hotel to pay for the bus ticket, it worked. All I could do was pray that the Lord will make a way for me to see Grand Canyon. With that thought I went back to sleep.

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The waterway at The Venetian

I checked out of Stratosphere Hotel at 11am later that morning and spent almost three hours looking for a new hotel. I did book a cheap hotel but decided it was unsafe so I decided to go back to the Strip. So much for trying to save money. Thankfully I managed to find a good one that didn’t cost a lot. Once settled in my new hotel – California Hotel & Casino, I went back to the Strip for another round of sightseeing while hoping to come across a tour company. I walked from one hotel to another – Bellagio, Caesars Palace Hotel & Casino, The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, etc. Even as I marveled at the eclectic buildings, my mind was filled with thoughts of Grand Canyon. I kept praying and asking God. But as night settled in I was ready to give up. I placated myself that I could always come back, that there must be a purpose. I knew God knew the only reason I was in Vegas was because of Grand Canyon. But as I walked down the Vegas Strip to catch the Deuce double decker bus back to my hotel, I saw a building with a rock facade next to M&M’s World. The huge sign said, “Grand Canyon Experience”. “This is it,” I thought.

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The unobtrusive California Hotel & Casino, its rooms are really cozy.

I entered and realized it was a souvenir shop. Undeterred I asked the cashier who pointed me to another direction inside the shop. To my chagrin, the company only organized helicopter tours. Before checking out of Stratosphere Hotel earlier I checked my budget and was surprised that I actually had more than enough cash for a helicopter ride. But I still wanted something cheaper and doubted I would find any. Acting blasé, I asked the salesman how much it would cost. Unlike the standoffish lady from the bus tour company, this guy was very accommodating. He quickly explained the options and quoted me a price from 5 star helicopter tours. It was below my budget and much less than the competitors’ rates. I was shocked. I almost jumped with joy. I knew right then I was going on a helicopter ride which will be my very first. Not just an ordinary helicopter ride but a tour through and above the jaw-dropping Grand Canyon, my once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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5 star’s Eurocopter AS350B2 helicopter

I gladly paid in cash and left the shop smiling from ear to ear. I looked up and mouthed, “Thank you” to the God I may not see but I know was there in heaven, looking down at me with a friendly lopsided grin. I knew he knew how much I wanted to see Grand Canyon yet I was willing to acquiesce to his will.  I was willing to let it pass yet he gave it anyway. There I stood, amidst Las Vegas’s blazing lights, only a few hours from realizing one of my grandest dreams. My trip to America has since taught me to never put God in a box. To only ask not question whenever there’s a bend in the road, there’s a detour I need to take or when my plans come to a grinding halt. Who knows maybe another big surprise awaits me.

To read about my helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon and learn how to get there, what the transportation and accommodation options are, please look out for my next post.

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A Ride to Remember in Central Park

From above, Central Park looks like a rectangular wooded forest planted with such impressive precision in the middle of sprouting skyscrapers. Spanning across 750 acres at the heart of Manhattan Island, it was America’s very first sizable landscaped public park. It is home to 21,500 trees and a wide variety of flowers planted in the Park’s sprawling gardens. Established in 1850, it was created as an elixir for the increasing socio-economic problems of America during the time, mainly due to the unprecedented influx of immigrants to the country. Since then the Park had seen decades of decay and degradation up until the 1970s.

With the appointment of Elizabeth “Betsy” Barlow (now Rogers) as Central Park Administrator in 1979 and the consequent establishment of the Central Park Conservancy’s Board of Guardians, the Park has gone through much-needed restorations throughout. Decrepit structures were salvaged and new programs to protect and preserve the Park were introduced. Today it has never been more luxuriant in its 156-year history attracting at least 40 million guests annually. Scenes from hit movies like The Avenger, Home Alone 2, Ransom, You’ve Got Mail, Arthur and so many others also contribute to the Park’s popularity. Concerts, live orchestras and other forms of entertainment are also regularly held at the Park drawing thousands.

There are many ways to explore the park. Take a leisurely walk through the dense forest, rent a bike which starts at $15 per hour or ride a horse-drawn carriage which starts at $175. These beloved carriages, which are almost synonymous with Central Park, could soon be banned though as plans are under way to replace them with electric cars. Another great alternative is to ride a bicycle rickshaw which starts at $120. The good news is this rate is negotiable. Rickshaws are scattered around the Park so choices are aplenty.

We were approached by a congenial Ethiopian rickshaw driver and showed us the stops we could possibly make in one hour. It sounded more like a movie tour i.e., a tour of the exact locations where Hollywood movies were filmed throughout the park. Although he initially quoted us $120 for one hour, we managed to agree on $60 without much haggling. He just kept lowering the price, eager to have us on board. So waiting for the right driver is really key. Since we did only have one hour to spare we took his offer and so glad we did.

We were initially disappointed by the smell of horse dung and litter that greeted us as we entered through Wien Walk at Fifth Avenue and 60th Street. But once inside, the Park was a welcome breather especially after touring the topsy turvy city of New York. The rickshaw tour also turned out to be educational in a way. We learned of new movies that we have never even heard before. It provided a glimpse of the park without exhausting one’s self and short enough to be over in one hour. But to see the Park’s major attractions will take at least a half day for it truly is worth exploring.

Entrance Fee: Entrance to the park is free but admission charge for attractions inside the park vary

Operating hours: Open to visitors all year round, from 6:00 am until 1:00 am

How to get there: On the East Side, by subway on the number 4, 5, 6 trains and the 1, 2, 3, buses on 5th Ave. On the West Side,  A, B, C, and D trains and the M10 bus.

Not to be missed: The Conservatory Garden and the Reservoir  on the North End; Alice in Wonderland,  Great Lawn, Strawberry Fields, Belvedere Castle, and the Bethesda Fountain all found in the middle of the park. Don’t forget to check out The Lake and The Pond as well as the Central Park Zoo especially those with kids, all located at the South End.

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The Ramble and Lake

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The San Remo luxury apartment building

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Walking/Jogging/Biking Trail

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Bethesda Fountain

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View from the Bethesda Terrace

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Lush trees

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A classy horse-drawn carriage

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Adopt-A-Bench program is a great way to honor someone, proceeds go to the upkeep of the Park

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Bow Bridge

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Balto

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Our rickshaw bicycle; a ride worth taking

“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” Isaiah 55:12

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My Wildest Affair

There I was frozen, glued to where I was standing. My heart skipping a beat. A few steps in front of me was the most fetching face I had ever seen. Seeing him sent shivers down my spine. I wanted to cup his bonny round face in my hands and put it next to mine. He turned and saw me. Our eyes locked. His intense stare bored right through me. I dared not breathe. I could almost see those piercing golden-green eyes. How I wished I could get closer and gaze at them. In a flash, everything else around us dissipated. There was only him and me in the vast African savanna.

I scanned his body from head to foot. His coat was golden brown with black spots that seemed darker in the daylight. He was compact and muscular. I wanted to run to him, hug him tight. I wanted to stay by his side. Surprised by my own thoughts, I wondered why on earth I wanted to do that. It was the very first time I saw him. There was no reason to be impetuous. Yet I could not deny it, my heart longed to.

As if hearing my silent cry, he moved from behind a tuft of tall brown grass and walked stealthily toward me. Then like the breaking of the dawn, someone screamed, breaking the silence, “Oh no, it’s coming!” Shaken from my deep revery, I was brought back to reality. I was back in the safari van in Maasai Mara National Reserve, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves. Tucked away in a corner of the reserve was a row of safari vans in front of a wooded forest. In between the vans and the wooded forest stood the most beautiful leopard that has captivated me.

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Scanning the horizon

Looking more like frozen statues than game enthusiasts, we were all standing inside our open-topped vehicles, unused cameras in hand. Mouths agape and hearts pounding, we watched the leopard come close. Each step seemed calculated. He raised his head and sniffed the air. As he came closer his black rosette spots looked clearer. His neck was white with black markings underneath.

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Looking more regal than the lion

Disturbed by the cacophony of our screams, the leopard paused on its tracks. As he stood there, surveying us, I whispered to my friend Cherryl who was standing next to me, “He’s so beautiful.” “Yes, he is,” she replied with a small hint of coquettishness in her voice. Our friend Carolyn, who was standing next to Cherryl also joined in. “Isn’t this so exciting?” I turned to her and saw that she was almost teary-eyed. We were all smitten.

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Look at those rosettes! Notice the tail too!

Scientifically named Panthera pardus, the leopard belongs to the Felidae or Cat family. An average male leopard can grow up to 60 to 70 cm in height while a female can grow up to 65 cm. Often mistaken as a jaguar, the leopard shares the same black rosette markings found in both animals. However a jaguar’s rosette has a black spot in the middle whereas a leopard’s is tawny in the center, its coat’s natural color. Its underparts are paler and also covered with dark spots. Its thick, long tail is swathed in black spots while underneath it is white.

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Look at my tail

It was our second day in the vast Maasai Mara spanning across 1,510 sq km (580 sq miles). Located in southwest Kenya it is world renowned for its open grasslands and exhilarating game drives. We were already on Day 2 hunting for the Big 5 – lion, rhino, cape buffalo, elephant and leopard, so named for the difficulty in catching them. We’ve already seen all four except the leopard which proved elusive until this fateful day.

How can you not love that round fetching face?

As if stalking his prey, the leopard continued to walk slowly, softly toward us. Then he stopped, raised his huge head and surveyed us. Crouching, he looked as if ready to pounce and climb up our van. Panicking, we started shrieking faintly, “Oh no!” “Oh no!” Distracted, the leopard paused. He inspected us, as if determining if we were a kill or not.

As if deciding that we weren’t, one of God’s most captivating creations, the leopard turned around and in the blink of an eye,  leaped and vanished into the wooded area. Then it was all over; my adrenaline-charged, heart-pounding, wildest affair with the once near-extinct, black-spotted African feline.

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Leaving without saying goodbye

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” Isaiah 11:6

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Stonehenge Revealed

After gaping at Windsor Castle‘s high ceilings and highly detailed fresco paintings, wandering in the castle’s lavishly decorated halls and rooms and marveling at the exquisite trimmings, I rejoined my group on the double-decker bus waiting outside that will take us to the charming ‘spa city’ of Bath. I was on a package tour that included stops at Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge. We have just finished the first leg of our tour and were looking forward to exploring Bath which was a couple of hours away.

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One of the Trilithon Horseshoe sets

Located in Somerset, South West of England, the city of Bath is known for its eponymous Roman baths and well-preserved Georgian architecture dating back to the 18th century. Its cobblestone pathways, neoclassical Palladian buildings, semicircular rows of terraced houses have gained the hearts of many and earned it a spot in the UNESCO  World Heritage Site since 1987. But right after leaving Windsor Castle on the way to Bath, a powerful hailstorm hit us. Deafening thunder and flashes of lightning tearing up the sky ensued. “There goes my chance at enjoying Stonehenge later,” I thought as my hopes were dashed. I was wrong.

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Entrance from The Avenue

Even after seeing the inclement weather, I still prayed that the sun would miraculously come out when we reach Stonehenge. After almost getting intoxicated by the steam rising from the hot springs in the Roman baths in Bath, as we left the city’s old world charm behind and approached Salisbury later that day the rain has completely stopped. The sky was dotted with pockets of white clouds, as if a divine hand has gently moved the dark clouds away.  I knew my prayer was answered. The sun was beaming down on the colossal Stonehenge, revealing the monument in its glory. I was so touched by this, what seemed like divine providence. Having waited since college days to see Stonehenge and having flown all the way from Manila, I wanted the moment to be perfect. And it turned out to be.

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The trolley that takes visitors to Stonehenge

Located in Wiltshire, England, about 3 kilometers west of Amesbury, Stonehenge looked like gray-colored cardboards stacked on top of each other, imposing over the stark green Salisbury plain. Believed to be at least three thousand years old, Stonehenge is probably the most popular megalithic monument in the world today. Shrouded in mystery it has garnered several speculations on why and how it was built, baffling historians and archaeologists alike.

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Heel Stone

Built in three stages over at least 500 years, the first construction in Stonehenge is believed to have started with a circular earthen enclosure in 2900 BC. Lining the circular ditch were 56 pits known as Aubrey poles. Five-ton stones called Bluestones, believed to have come from the Prescelli Mountains in South Wales, were then erected inside the ditch. These will be later dug up and repositioned 100 years later. Each standing at least 10 feet tall and weighing over 27 tons, 30 Sarsen stones were then erected concentrically inside the ditch. Then, atop the sarsens were placed 30 arc-shaped lintels, truly an engineering feat reflecting the Neolithic people’s ingenuity. Five sets of Trilithon Horseshoe were then built, each Trilithon consisting of two erected stones topped with a lintel.

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The ditch is visible behind me

On the northeast section of the monolith stood the Slaughter Stone believed to be the entrance of Stonehenge. From where the Slaughter Stone stood, parallel ditches called the Avenue were then built outside the circle. The Avenue, which leads from Stonehenge to the River Avon about .8 miles away, was believed to have been erected on the axis of midsummer sunrise suggesting Stonehenge was constructed for sun worship. This remains a bone of contention among many though.

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A dream come true, seeing Stonehenge at last

But as everything on earth is ephemeral so is Stonehenge. What was once a majestic monument, only a handful of the sarsens and bluestones remains today. Weathering and pillaging have left Stonehenge in ruins proving once again that nothing here is set in stone. Assiduous restoration efforts are underway though and access to the inner circle is now restricted but to a few. Still, what remains of the monument proves to be enigmatic drawing almost one million visitors each year. Whether it was built for cultic purposes, pagan worship or simply a burial ground, it remains a sight to behold and is worth a peek if only for curiosity’s sake.

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Bidding the Stonehenge adieu

As I was leaving the site, I noticed the clouds have gathered again threatening to rain. True enough, as I was about to board the bus, another hail storm hit. But instead of boarding I turned around and tried to gather hail, excited by the prospect of playing with the tiny ‘white stones’ for the first time. The driver, seeing my excitement, tried to join in and helped me catch hail. It proved to be a futile attempt of course but loads of fun nonetheless. On the way back, as we turned around a corner, we saw Stonehenge again, looking prodigious as always. It stood almost defiant against the pouring rain as dark clouds hovered, seemingly about to engulf Stonehenge and leave it shrouded in mystery once more. I muttered silently, “Let it be so.”

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The Visitor Centre, be sure to buy your Stonehenge fridge magnet here you won’t find any in London

Admission fee – Adult £13.90, Child (5-15) £8.30 for timed tickets and must be booked in advance to guarantee entry. Click here for more details.

How to get there

By bus – Take the bus from either Heathrow Airport or from Victoria Coach Station in London City centre going to Salisbury. The trip takes about two hours, get off at Amesbury. You can then walk for around two miles or take a cab.

You will need to get to Heathrow Airport first if you’re coming from Gatwick Airport.

By train – Take the train going to Salisbury from Waterloo Station, trains depart every hour but timings may change. The trip takes about an hour and a half. From Salisbury you can take a local bus or cab to Stonehenge.

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Four things a man must do in his lifetime

This list used to be only three but when I did the fourth it just had to be added to the list so here goes. I arranged this according to how difficult it would have been for me to achieve each but then again our judgments may vary.

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(2005) Dubai at night, at Grand Hyatt’s Al Dawaar revolving restaurant

1) Dine at a revolving restaurant – You can choose any restaurant anywhere in the world as long as it’s a revolving one. You know, the one that rotates 360 degrees as you dine without noticing or feeling it. As the view around you changes it leaves you wondering and mesmerized, truly a must try. I had mine at Hyatt Regency’s Al Dawaar in Dubai. Some recommendations are Cape Town’s Top of the Ritz, Perlan in Reykjavik, Iceland, Stratosphere Hotel’s Top of the World restaurant in Las Vegas, Summit Restaurant in Sydney and Drehrestaurant Allalin in Saas-Fee, Switzerland. All offering spectacular views as they take you to new culinary heights.

 

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Sail-shaped “Burj Al Arab” which means Tower of the Arabs

2) Stay at the world’s most luxurious hotel – Dubbed by the media as the world’s only 7-star hotel although the label remains unofficial, Burj Al Arab in Dubai is consistently voted the world’s most luxurious hotel. An all-suite hotel (no rooms), the opulent duplex suites’ size start from 170 square meters and are all spread in two floors, each featuring its own jacuzzi and personal butler, allowing you to live like a king or queen even for just one day. Check-in is done in the privacy of your suite so there’s no queuing at the reception desk. And there’s no telling who’s the prince or the pauper, because like in Las Vegas, they don’t treat you differently from any millionaire, you can expect service par excellence. Be sure to check the Assawan Spa on the 19th Floor offering a bird’s eye view of the city and some ultimate pampering. By the way, I was so blessed to have stayed here for free but that’s another story.

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(2010) Suite 1302, enjoying my office for the day

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Grand staircase

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Suite View

 

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(2005) Stolen shot (ssshhhh, I just couldn’t help it) at the Western/Wailing Wall

3) Go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – If you’re a Christian and you’ve traveled around the world but have never been to Jerusalem then you haven’t really seen the world yet. Nah, that’s just me saying. But really, you have to make it a priority to go. Contrary to what the media portrays and/or any other anti-Semitic propaganda you’ve probably read, Jerusalem, to me, is the safest place on earth. Just like in any other city, you still have to remain vigilant and look out for any signs of danger of course. But anywhere you go you’ll see young IDF soldiers making you feel safe.

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(2005) Atop Mount of Olives

Ever heard of an entire city that goes silent for the whole day except for the barking of the dogs? During Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance or Day of Judgment when Jews dig deep and search their souls, the streets are deserted, no music can be heard. The city is so quiet that you can almost hear a pin drop. Really. I was so amazed by such discipline, people observed the silence automatically, Jews and non-Jews alike. So awed by the city, as tears streamed down my face as I stood on a hill overlooking Jerusalem during Yom Kippur in 2005, I begged God to let me stay there for good. He didn’t but that moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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The Golden Gate through which Jesus is believed to re-enter

Although they’re not that friendly the Jews are not rude either. You would notice that some of them are reserved and understandably so considering the anti-semitism that has permeated the world since time immemorial and still prevalent up until today. You’d also see poverty pervading the city and a handful of people begging. Even so you can’t help but see Jerusalem as the Holy Land with your spiritual eyes. Just imagine walking where Jesus and His disciples might have walked, sit where He might have sat, stand where He might have stood, it’s just incomparable. I had never felt so ‘holy’ (or made aware of my sinfulness that I felt so scared of committing any sin, not even a hint) until the day I went to Jerusalem. His presence was so pervasive it felt like He was tangible I could almost touch him.

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Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, one cannot be considered a true pilgrim without visiting Yad Vashem

Walking through the Via Dolorosa is a walk every professing Christian must aim to take. It will leave you crying for more of Him and help you to almost grasp the true meaning of “In Christ”, i.e., being one with Him in His suffering and the triumph He achieved thereafter. And don’t forget to check out the Wailing or Western Wall, the sight of it will leave you breathless.

 

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(2013) Attention-grabbing cheetahs

4) Go on a game drive or African safari in Maasai Mara (alternatively Serengeti in Tanzania) – No, not like the one in the Middle East where you go dune bashing. I’m talking about the real desert safari – open-top vehicles, rifles, wild animals and all. Close your eyes and imagine lions, zebras, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, warthogs (considered the world’s ugliest animals), antelopes and so many other wild animals that you’ve probably never seen before roaming free, as in literally; rolling brown hills as far as your eyes can see; flat-topped trees dotting the landscape – that’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. You can’t help being reminded of what life was like in the garden of Eden. Here you’ll witness the fascinating circle of life taking its course daily.

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(2013) Saying good morning to the bathing hippos

Watch a cheetah go for a kill, go on a wild goose chase hunting for the Big 5 – lion, rhino, cape buffalo, elephant and the elusive leopard, enjoy heart-stopping lightnings that are so close you think it can strike you anytime, watch jaw-dropping sunsets as the animals relax in the foreground or wake up to an enthralling sunrise as the African savanna turns gold while the sun slowly rises.

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(2013) The breathtaking African savanna

You might be surprised to find out it doesn’t cost that much except maybe for your airfare. Well, depending on where you’re coming from. We took advantage of a package from Sharaf Travel, a travel agency based in Dubai, and we were completely satisfied with their service. We stayed at the relaxing Flamingo Hill Camp inside Lake Nakuru National Park on our first day and Mara Leisure Camp right outside Maasai Mara on the second day. Both offered excellent service and facilities. If you would like to stay up close and personal with the animals, stay at Governors Camp which is inside the reserve. It’s a bit pricey though but I was told it’s really worth it. They do offer promos so check their website often. We were quite blessed with a very accommodating tour guide with whom we have kept in touch until now.

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The elusive leopard, after waiting for almost an hour it finally came out but oh boy it was well worth the wait

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Graceful giraffes oblivious to their gaping admirers – us

 

As with the list of countries one must visit, I always encourage friends to come up with their own and not rely on others’ opinion. This is my ‘must do’ list and should serve only as a guide and inspiration. You only need to do one of these, all four or nothing at all as you come up with your own list based on your preference. Some have ‘bungee jumping’ or ‘skydiving’ on their list. It can be as simple as ‘being in two places at the same time’ popularized by the movie “A Walk to Remember”. I came up with my list as I went along, as I continued traveling around the world and experienced each.

Whatever you decide I hope you’d follow your dreams as I followed mine. Some people will stop you, some will laugh at you, some will mock you but don’t let anyone stop you. Dreams do come true. I come from humble beginnings and I never imagined that I would be able to do any of these let alone travel across five continents in 30+ countries in numerous cities but I did. I never thought I’d be able to tick off all items on my bucket list long before my retirement age but I have. So in the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”…”So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

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A Bite of the Big Apple

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The popular Manhattan skyline

Dark alleyways, bridges and overpasses darkened by accumulated dust, potholed roads, rustic and eclectic buildings, streets reeking with burning rubber (or is it wet asphalt?) and crawling with vendors selling all sorts of merchandise — from screenplay copies, imitation designer handbags, CDs and DVDs to hot dogs and other street foods, litter everywhere, all these against a cacophony of car horns. That’s New York City, not what you imagined for sure.

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That said New York is a vibrant city no doubt. Just look up and you’ll see the soaring skyscrapers crammed together begging for an extra bit of sky. Giant screens flashing the latest movies and products almost covering the skyline of Times Square. Walk down Broadway Street and you’ll find massive billboards shouting out award-winning shows. You’ll be surprised to see how all time favorites like Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera are very much alive today as they were in the earlier days. One peek at the Imperial Theatre and we found it packed, with the Les Miserables cast giving an all-out performance, bringing the house down as they always have.

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You have to look up to appreciate the Big Apple

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A plethora of award-winning shows to choose from

First called the “Big Apple” in the 1920s by New York Morning Telegraph columnist John J. Fitz Gerald, it wasn’t until 1971 before New York officially adopted the name the “Big Apple”. It was part of a tourism campaign featuring red apples to attract tourists to the city. Apples were used to portray New York as bright and cheery as opposed to dark and dangerous as the city was known then. Fitz Gerald is believed to have gotten the name from stable hands in New Orleans who dreamt of racing on New York tracks. “Apple” was the term used for races and prizes, and New York’s was considered the big track and hence the biggest prize or the Big Apple.

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Just like any metropolis, New York is truly a melting pot of cultures. From white to black to brown to red, you’d see almost any nationality any time of the day and which makes the city even more interesting. A vast array of restaurants line the streets, from Chinese to Italian to French cuisine, it can be pretty confusing. But dining in or out of style is a no-brainer.

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When it comes to transport, contrary to what people say, yellow cabs are convenient and affordable, depending on the distance of course and provided you don’t get caught in traffic. Otherwise the subway is a much better option. Just like the other parts of the city, navigating through the subway can also get pretty confusing. The route map plastered on the wall at the station (no free maps on display unlike in London but I could also be wrong, double check) is not as user-friendly as the ones in Europe so be warned.

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There are also plenty of things to see and do. A New York City Pass (starts at USD 80) covers major attractions like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, 9/11 Memorial Museum, American Museum of Natural History, just to name a few. Boats to and from the Liberty Island are available from both the Battery Park and Liberty State Park. See here for schedule. What makes New York quite interesting compared to other cities is finding an 843-acre park right in the midst of it — the Central Park of course.

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The Statue of Liberty remains a beacon of hope and peace

It may not be as bright and cheery as it was portrayed before but taking a bite of the Big Apple may still be worth it just to satisfy your curiosity. Come with an open mind and for sure you’ll be fine. Bon voyage!

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Ground Zero, 9/11 Memorial Museum

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Kennedy Space Center – Out of this World

The orange external tank of the space shuttle jutting out of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) dominates the Cape Canaveral skyline. Billowing into the air, the shuttle and solid rocket boosters seemingly warn those arriving that they are entering a whole new world.

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Me wearing a Janice Warner summer dress in front of the distinctive NASA logo at the KSC entrance

Almost an hour’s drive from downtown Orlando, KSC is located in the East Central Florida, a short drive from Daytona Beach and Miami. A bar coded ticket (USD 50 for adult and USD 40 for child) which can be purchased online or on site is the key to enter KSC. If you love astronomy and/or are fascinated by the outer space then KSC is the place for you.

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The Rocket Garden

As you enter, a hull-shaped waterfall complementing the massive and distinctive NASA logo will welcome you. On the left, six gigantic rocket models seemingly stand guard at the Rocket Garden. If not for the plethora of KSC signs, you would think you have entered a sci-fi Hollywood movie set. The staff are friendly and very helpful.

We proceeded immediately to the IMAX theatre hoping to watch some interesting shows but was told that we just missed the previous show. The next one was not up until the next 45 minutes. Not wanting to miss anything we decided to join the bus tour instead.

We drove by the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and the launching pad used for the Apollo 8 shuttle, the first manned mission to the moon and back. We were also shown the operations center, the astronauts’ accommodation, the massive crawler that was used to carry Apollo 8 as well as the helipad. But the whole experience was just the icing on the cake. To top it all off, we were asked to disembark at the Apollo/Saturn V Center where our real journey into space began.

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We were told to walk through a massive (by this time I was already thinking everything here is massive) door and found ourselves staring at an interactive ceiling depicting the historic launch of Apollo 8. The walls in front of us parted and we found ourselves in the actual Firing Room used to launch the shuttle. We walked through another door and then voila, above our heads, hanging in the air was the 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket, the largest rocket ever made. It was so big I almost strained my neck looking up. It was the same lunar rocket that took 27 courageous American astronauts to the moon and back. The rocket may no longer be functional but the sheer size of it was jaw-dropping. To think that it was something historic made it even more remarkable. Yet again, this was just the beginning of the beginning of our journey out of this world, into space.

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The Mighty Saturn V rocket engines

After gaping at the impressive and monolithic displays, we decided to visit Atlantis, the massive shuttle that we saw dominating the Cape Canaveral skyline earlier. The Atlantis’s full scale replica outside the building, like Saturn V, was also humongous. Leaning against its base reminded me of how small I was and how big our great God is, the Creator of the universe which dwarfs any rocket flung into its vast and infinite recesses.

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Full scale model of the space shuttle Atlantis

 

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Just to demonstrate its size

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Gigantic interactive screens

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State-of-the-art presentation projected on the ceiling and the walls

Once again we walked into a room the walls and ceiling of which turned into an interactive display narrating NASA’s 30-year Space Shuttle Program. And then the wall in front of us opened, with only a screen left seemingly projecting a massive rocket. But then the screen vanished and there before us, dangling at 43.21 degrees, with the payload doors open, was the historic Atlantis Space Shuttle itself.

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As the walls of the interactive room opened, Atlantis greeted us

We couldn’t believe our eyes. We couldn’t believe we were seeing Atlantis itself and at an angle that only astronauts up in the air would have seen. We were filled with awe. It was a real treat. At least 60 interactive displays were showcased, reflecting the grandeur and scale of America’s manned space flight programs in the past 30 years.

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Atlantis wows the crowd

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A sneak peek into Atlantis’s interior

And what’s a better way of concluding our trip than trying the space shuttle launch simulator? Yup, we did it. For at least five minutes, we could almost feel what it was like to be up there, out of this world we know and actually stare back at the majestic planet Earth, a privilege that only astronauts usually enjoy. The simulator experience is considered the most realistic in the world and is definitely a must-try. To learn more about this out of this world experience, please visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com. No visit to Florida is deemed complete without a sneak peek into the center.

For sure other NASA offices are as impressive as the one in Cape Canaveral. But what makes this Florida facility even more remarkable is how technology managed to blend with nature. Unbeknownst to many, KSC is also a National Wildlife Refuge. Cognizant of their responsibility to the environment, KSC takes every effort to preserve and protect the wildlife around Merritt Island with which KSC shares borders. Alligators, sharks, manatees, sea turtles, eagles and other wildlife thrive in this eco-friendly yet high technology environment. A true example of sustainability at work. Another reason to support and visit this amazing facility.

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In the footsteps of a giant

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Come as early as you can to avoid the crowd

Located in the North coast of Northern Ireland in County Antrim, about two miles north of Bushmills and 13 miles from Balllycastle, is the Giant’s Causeway, a striking landscape of basalt columns, whose origin is steeped in myth and legend.

Walkway to the Causeway

Before turning towards this magnificent landscape, a sign says ‘an area of natural outstanding beauty’. True enough, as you walk down the path, the glimmering azure waters of the Irish sea on the left and the verdant mountains on the right cannot fail to take your breath away. As such it is the only World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. Although I would say the rest of Northern Ireland is worthy of being included on the list.

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Soooo greeeeeennnn

The Giant’s Causeway was first discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692 although it was Sir Richard Bulkeley who reported to the Royal Society about the natural occurrence on Antrim’s northern coast. The Giant’s Causeway was then documented the following year. Soon after debates on its origin arose – whether it was a natural formation, formed by men or shaped by Finn McCool, a giant well known in Irish and Manx folklore.

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The Camel

Perpetuated mostly by tour guides, legend has it that it was carved out by the mighty giant Finn McCool. But one popular version says that as Finn was preparing a pathway in the sea towards Scotland to avoid getting his feet wet, he was told that the giant Cuhullin (another Irish hero) was on his way to fight him. Realising that he cannot beat Cuhullin, Finn connived with his wife Oona who dressed Finn as a baby and put him in a cradle. When Cuhullin arrived Oona tricked him into eating a griddle-cake with iron in it which chipped Cuhullin’s teeth. But when Oona showed Cuhullin that her baby (Finn in disguise) ate the griddle-cake without any problem, Cuhullin tried to feel Finn’s teeth to see how sharp they were. Finn then bit off Cuhullin’s little finger, which was the source of Cuhullin’s power. Cuhullin then shrank to the size of an ordinary human and scampered in shame.

Another story goes that the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged Finn to a fight. When Benandonner came and saw the baby (Finn in disguise) in the cradle, he feared the baby’s father must be gigantic so he fled back to Scotland while pulling down the causeway behind him so Finn could not follow. Similar basalt columns can be found on the pyramid-shaped rock islet called ‘The Herdsman’ just off the Isle of Staffa in Scotland.

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Basalt columns

Traditionally though it is believed that the Giant’s Causeway was caused by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. The formation of the polygonal columns of layered basalt was due to intense volcanic activity that lasted for at least three periods resulting to the Lower, Middle and Upper Basalts.

Today the area is maintained by the National Trust. A state-of-the-art Visitor Centre reflecting the Giant’s Causeway has been established offering keepsakes and insights into the history of the area. Whether guests believe the Giant’s Causeway was formed by men, by nature, by giants or by God is entirely up to them. But personally, as breathtaking as it is, spanning 71 acres of outstanding natural beauty, the Giant’s Causeway is undoubtedly a reflection of God’s glory and is definitely worth a visit if not a thousand visits. To learn more please visit here.

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The Giant’s Causeway spans at least 71 acres

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Massive basalt columns

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Hexagonal basalt rock formations

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Truly an eye-candy, better seen with your bare eyes

The Visitor Centre reflecting the basalt columns

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Close-up of the basalt columns

 

 

 

 

 

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