Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Travel: Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives (Day 5)

Our flight home was scheduled for midnight out of Male, so I didn't know how they would accommodate our late check-out. We were told that they would put us down for late check-out, but would not be able to confirm until closer to the date of our departure. They scheduled our speedboat transfer back to the hotel for 8:30pm.

At dinner on our last night, we were informed that the guests staying in our suite after us had requested early check-in, so we would not be able to stay in our room for late check-out. They said, we could either choose to stay in our room until normal check out (12pm) and make use of the day lounge for the rest of the day, or move out of our room early morning of our last day and use another suite until 8pm. We decided on the latter, and were moved to a One Bedroom Villa.

Here are pictures of the larger One Bedroom Villa which we used from 7am until 8pm. To be perfectly honest, we both preferred our original room because it felt cozier, and was already plenty spacious for the two of us! But I'm sure if we stayed in this suite from the start, it would have felt better than the Dhoni Suite ;)

Our temporary day use suite - One Bedroom Villa

Monday, November 24, 2014

Travel: Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives (Day 4)

I finally remembered to check out the sunrise on Day 4 of our stay. Cory decided to sleep in, so I went off on my own towards the sandbar area to get a better view.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Travel: Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives (Day 3)

Cocoa Island Dive Shop Review

In preparation for our trip to the Maldives, we began our PADI Open Water Diver certification at home in NJ. We did our theory online, and our closed water (pool) sessions at the Hoboken Dive Shop. We planned to do 4 open water dives on our trip to complete our certification.

At the Dive Shop, we signed up for 4 dives over the next two days with Michy. We were so thrilled with having her as our instructor - she was incredible. Patient, understanding, extremely knowledgeable, calming, funny, laid-back -- just amazing!!! She was extremely thorough in our pre-dive briefings, answering all the questions we had. She made sure to check what we knew and remembered from our closed water dives, and helped us get comfortable with all the safety checks and precautions needed to go diving. Absolutely an A+ instructor!

On our first full day of our stay, we did a dive in the morning and then again in the afternoon. The morning dive was at the Cocoa House Reef. You enter from the shore, and swim along a little channel to a clearing in the reef. Our first dive was to get used to the equipment again, so we didn't have to deal with any skills (yay). Our second dive was at Cocoa Giri, a very short boat ride away. We did some skills here (regulator recovery, half mask and full mask clear, and alternate air exercise).

On our second full day, we decided to do our dives back-to-back, because on our first day we felt really sleepy after having lunch between the dives. We did our third dive at the Cocoa House Reef again, and did a TON of skills. It was skill after skill after skill because of how we decided to re-arrange our dives. Our last dive was at Woggiri, a little farther away by boat than Cocoa Giri. Our last dive had fewer skills, and after we finished, we spent quite a while longer looking at things.

It was such an incredible experience. I really want to go diving again! Everyone at the dive shop said we'd be spoiled for life now, having gone diving in the Maldives as our first open water experience. I think they may be right -- guess that means we just have to go back, right?

The cost of completing our open water certification here was very similar to what it would have cost us in NJ. There's no special training dive spots at Cocoa Island, so I think this was a really great value. Plus, we got the super knowledgeable Michy as our guide! :)

The dive sites

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Restaurant Review: Ufaa at Cocoa Island, Maldives

As promised, here is a separate post dedicated to the only restaurant on Cocoa Island by COMO: Ufaa. I was extremely impressed with the food at this restaurant. Nearly everything we tried was well-executed, interesting, and tasty. A little on the expensive side, but portions were quite large. Cory and I ended up sharing 1 appetizer, 1 entree, and 1 dessert and always felt really full afterwards. Lunch usually ran us about $90 after tip, and dinner $110 after tip (sometimes with 1-2 beers, but no wine).

Ufaa Restaurant

Here is the blurb directly from the official website:
Unique among restaurants in the Maldives, our talented, New Zealand-born Executive Chef Shane Avant draws inspiration from the Malabar Coast’s rich gourmet heritage and local seafood. He also creates modern interpretations of Southeast Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. The kitchen’s tandoor oven allows for fat-free, flavour-rich grilling of meats, vegetables and fish.

Outside the restaurant, next to the infinity pool

Friday, November 21, 2014

Travel: Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives (Day 2)


The one downside of visiting the Maldives during low season is the chance of rain. The weather forecast in the weeks and days leading to our trip showed rain every single day, with 70-80% chance of precipitation. It was very depressing. But! The worst we got was rain overnight on our first night and a very light sprinkling of rain before breakfast in the morning. It was sunny with a few clouds the rest of the time with some overnight light rain (judging only from our wet deck furniture). Otherwise, the weather was fantastic. About 30-32 degrees Celcius, low humidity, and a beautiful ocean breeze. So, don't fret when looking at the weather forecast!

Such awful, cloudy weather. /sarcasm

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Travel: Cocoa Island by COMO, Maldives (Day 1)

For the last leg of our honeymoon, we booked 4 nights at Cocoa Island by COMO in the Maldives. May through October is actually the low season in the Maldives, so we were able to book our stay with the following promotion: Pay for 3 nights, and get the 4th free, plus $150 USD resort credit for each of the three paid days (can be used on food, drink, and spa -- not that we ever use the spa facilities when we vacation). Even with this promotion, it was still a very expensive stay; I don't know when we'll be able to justify another trip back!

There are a lot of gorgeous looking accommodations in the Maldives. We chose Cocoa Island because of how small it is (only 33 suites), how luxurious the rooms looked, and the wonderful TripAdvisor reviews. The 4-for-3 nights promotion sealed the deal!

At the time of our booking, we also saw that their sister property, Maalifushi by COMO, had just had their soft opening. With a similar promotion, we almost decided to book it instead of Cocoa Island. However, we decided against it because it seemed like a larger resort that was more geared towards families with children. in addition to this, it would have cost more than Cocoa Island, because the seaplane transfer from Male international airport is much more expensive.

We landed around noon (local time) from Singapore after an easy 4 hour flight. After exiting customs, we were greeted by a representative holding a Cocoa Island sign, and he whisked us to our speedboat.

Aside from about 4 employees and the driver, we had the boat to ourselves (I'm guessing not many people staying at Cocoa Island fly in via the super cheap Tiger Air!), and after a short, but inaudible safety demonstration, we were off! It was a bit cloudy that day, but it still felt totally surreal to be in the Maldives. The speedboat ride took about 40 minutes, and we passed by many beautiful looking island resorts.

HELLO MALDIVES! Leaving the airport! A bit cloudy upon arrival.

Travel: Tiger Air Review (SIN to MLE)

This is a boring entry. Sorry. I wanted to document my thoughts on our budget-airline flight from Singapore to the Maldives.

Tiger Air Review

We booked fairly inexpensive flights from Singapore to Male on Tiger Air (about $190 USD each, one way). This is apparently a pretty recent addition to their routes.

Overall, the experience was good, but I was seriously annoyed that they even charged for water, especially considering:
(a) there was nowhere to buy any bottled beverages at our gate (the security was at our gate, so I couldn't bring any drinks in even if I had left the area to buy one), and

(b) they have the audacity to tell you NOT to bring your own food or drink onto the flight on their menu (!!!)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Travel: Miscellaneous Bits and Bobs in Singapore and Changi Airport

Kind of a mish mash post on Singapore for you:


Would you believe me if I said I had never had fresh durian before this trip? I've had it in dessert form and candy form, but never fresh. We saw packages of it for sale at the supermarket near Mellben Seafood, and afterwards came by to pick up a package for $5 SGD. The man selling packaging it responded, "It's worth trying" when I said I'd never had it before (RINGING ENDORSEMENT!) and I bought a middle SKU (they were priced by ripeness/softness).


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Restaurant Review: The Curry Culture (Singapore)

For our second dinner in Singapore, we had a strong hankering for Indian. About 1 hour of googling later (I told you, it takes me a long time to choose these things), we settled on The Curry Culture at Cuppage Terrace (*stifled giggle*). Reviews at Tripadvisor and GoHungryWhere.

It was about a 30 minute walk from our hotel, and we only got slightly lost down a random alleyway. We ended up cutting through the back entrance of a restaurant, and walked straight out the front door (a bit awkward).

The Curry Culture

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Restaurant Review: Alexandra Village Hawker Centre (Singapore)

After our Jurong Bird Park adventure, we cabbed to Alexandra Village Hawker Centre. There was some confusion with the cabbie about the location, but we found it without too much trouble. We actually got off about a 5 minutes walk away from the address, as the traffic was backed up and the driver said it can be gridlock inside.

120 Bukit Merah Lane, 150120, Singapore

What brought us to this particular hawker centre, as opposed to one of the more famous ones?

LAKSA. Depot Road Claypot Laksa, in particular. Apparently this stall is closed on Mondays! Stall number is 01-75. I had quite a few Laksa places on my short list (including the uber famous 328 Katong Laksa), but this was sort of on the way back from Jurong Bird Park, and everyone loves clay-potted food, right?

Anyway, while we were there, we tried a few other things from the other stalls. There are two long strips of stalls with a walkway halfway down (so 4 sections of stalls). We first searched for the laksa (whose sign no longer says "Depot Road", but it was the right stall number and the only one saying "claypot laksa" on it). Afterwards, we made note of the more popular stalls and tried our luck! It appeared that we were the only tourists there (hurray!)

Alexandra Village Hawker Center

Monday, November 10, 2014

Travel: Jurong Bird Park (Singapore)

I love going to zoos and aquariums, so I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to go to the Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, the Night Safari, or the River Safari.

I've been to San Diego's Zoo twice now, and from the Singapore Zoo TripAdvisor reviews, it sounded like it was of similar caliber and extra crowded. (I also didn't pack any zoom lenses for my camera!) I decided to save this for a future trip to Singapore.

I was intrigued by the Night Safari concept, but the TripAdvisor reviews seemed to indicate that it was extremely crowded and not much different than a regular zoo (but open at night time). I figured I wouldn't get many worthwhile photos at night, either!

Finally, the TripAdvisor reviews for the River Safari were not as favourable as the Night Safari, so it was a pass for me as well.

That left Jurong Bird Park, which has excellent TripAdvisor reviews. I've never been to a bird-dedicated park, so I was really excited to go!

Tickets and Travel

Ticket Price: $25 SGD per adult (they have a discount if you purchase online ahead of time, but for non-Singaporeans, it's only a 5% discount, so not really worth the trouble, IMO)

You can get to Jurong Bird Park via public transportation (MRT and bus), but takes about 90 minutes! Taxi, on the other hand, only takes about 20 minutes but costs more. We went for the taxi option since we were having a late start that morning. It cost us about $25-30 SGD (can't remember exactly), and there's a surcharge if you go during peak hours. There are also (not free) shuttle buses from various hotels (information here) that take up to 1 hour, but have a limited schedule.

We arrived about an hour after opening on a weekday and it was not that crowded at all. Although there were quite a lot of cute little school children on field trips.

We left via taxi as well. There's a taxi stand outside the park, and there was one there when we decided to leave (around 1PM, when it started getting a bit too hot and humid).


We started at Penguin Coast:

Indoor penguin exhibit. Many school children came up on our heels shortly after this picture was taken.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Restaurant Review: Kaya Toast at 67 Killiney Kopitiam (Singapore)

I knew that I wanted to have a traditional Singaporean breakfast - which meant kaya toast and soft boiled eggs! From my research, there seemed to be two popular chains: Ya Kun Kaya Toast and Killiney Kopitiam. Based on the recommendation of an online friend (thanks, Boffan!), we decided to go to the original location of Killiney Kopitiam at 67 Killiney Rd (near Somerset MRT station). We just walked from our hotel, which took about 20 minutes.

Lots of locals hanging out, getting their breakfast on. Actually, it was pretty late already (9am) and some people were digging into some more substantial dishes.

67 Killiney Kopitiam

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Accommodation Review: Grand Hyatt Singapore

We used reward points to book our two night stay at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore. Here's a quick review and pictures of our room.

  • Swanky hotel
  • Large room size (we had the basic room)
  • Every taxi driver knows where it is!
  • Free welcome chocolate chip cookies, fruit, and bottled water
  • Free wifi
  • Great water pressure
  • Comfortable bed and pillows

  • Slight funky smell from the bathroom
  • Very confusing how to get here via the underground passages from the Orchard MRT station

Location Comments

The Grand Hyatt is fairly close to the Orchard MRT station, but you cannot just go up to the street level and walk there because there are no cross walks at the main intersection. You must go underground at some point, and it is confusing as hell! We probably spent 20 minutes getting from Ion Orchard shopping mall MRT exit to the right exit that would let us walk the rest of the way to the hotel. This is a huge pain with luggage, as some exits do not have escalators or elevators.

Taxi Comments

It seems like Singapore has different base and meter rates for different taxis. We found that the taxis pulling up to our hotel were more expensive (both base and meter) than ones we hailed from the street nearby, but they were also nicer (leather seats, air con already on, etc). Just a word of warning!

Grand Hyatt Singapore - entrance

Friday, November 7, 2014

Restaurant Review: Mellben Seafood (Singapore)

The next dish on my "to eat" list, was chilli crab! Again, there are a lot of well known establishments to have crab in Singapore. I decided on Mellben Seafood because it seemed less like a tourist destination than the others, and the claypot crab (which they are well known for) sounded super delicious.

Links: Hungrygowhere, Yelp, TripAdvisor

Mellben Seafood

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Restaurant Review: Yeo Keng Nam Chicken Rice (Singapore)

We had 36 hours in Singapore, and squeezing as many meals as possible into those hours was the main goal.

I very strongly wanted to avoid Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice because of the hype, lines, too predictable, etc.

Googling for the "best" Chicken Rice joints in Singapore is like getting sucked into a black hole. Actually, scratch that. Googling for any of the "best" local dishes is like getting sucked into a black hole. For my personality type (needing to read EVERY review ever written on every place), this meant I spent way too much time researching what to eat. It seems like Singaporeans are very opinionated when it comes to determining the "best" of what to eat. That's ok with me!

I eventually shortlisted the following three Chicken Rice joints (for various reasons, I'm sure, but I can no longer recall them):

Thien Kee Steamboat Restaurant (Golden Mile Tower #B1-20)
6001 Beach Rd, Singapore 199589

Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice (Golden Mile Food Centre #B1-35)
505 Beach Rd, Singapore 199583

Yeo Keng Nam Chicken Rice
8 Braddell Rd, Singapore 359898

I decided to try the last place: Yeo Keng Nam Chicken Rice.

We hopped in a cab in front of our hotel, and gave the address to the cabbie. About 10 minutes in, he said "Is this a chicken rice place?" Cory and I looked at each other, and I said "Yes" to the cabbie. Another 10 minutes went by, and we basically pulled into a strip mall on the side of a very busy road.


This has got to be authentic, right?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Travel: Eva Air 'The Infinity' Lounge (Taoyuan Intl Airport / TPE)

Our flight to Singapore was fairly early (7am I think), so I was definitely interested in seeing what was for breakfast in the Eva Air lounge at Taoyuan Airport. We used miles to book business class flights, so we had access to the "Infinity" lounge.

The spread of breakfast was pretty incredible! Cory doesn't really eat breakfast, so it was down to me to eat as much as possible.

This is what I thought was an appropriate breakfast, faced with the options.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Travel: Eslite, Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Dept Store, Ice Monster (Taipei, Taiwan)

Here's a bit of a random post from our last day wandering around Taipei.

My Tiny Taiwan Haul

A couple haul pictures -- I was surprised at my restraint! I just bought a few face masks and staples. The THREE Blush in 019 Love Kick was a small splurge (I did have a lovely shopping experience at the THREE counter at the SOGO Pacific department store, though!)

Some face masks from Taipei

Monday, November 3, 2014

Restaurant Review: Pin Chuan Lan 品川蘭 (Taipei, Taiwan)

Since we were in Taiwan, I knew we'd have to eat beef noodle soup somewhere. But I wasn't really interested in going to those super famous street stalls and struggling with ordering. I decided to take it easy when I saw Hungry Girl in Taipei's review of Pin Chuan Lan, since it looked like a very modern and trendy restaurant (with English menu, yeyyy).

We were originally going to have lunch here, but we ended up here for an early dinner instead. We arrived around 5pm, and we were the only ones there. By the time we left an hour or so later, it started to fill up a bit.

Pin Chuan Lan - large table near the front of the store

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Restaurant Review: Anhe 65 (Taipei, Taiwan)

We had some time to kill one afternoon, and decided to check out this cat café I had read about: Little Aesthete, Herb and Lace, Taipei Cat Cafes. What I liked about these reviews, is that it genuinely looked like a cool space to hang out, rather than a cat brothel (per my experience in Tokyo... which I wouldn't take back, but it did make me feel unusual to pay $12USD to be ignored by a lot of cats at the same time).

Anhe 65 is a super relaxed basement gallery space with some food and drinks. We ordered a couple beverages (since we were in between meals). I had a fruit tea (which was huge! and yummy) and Cory ordered a Neko Beer (which turned out to be the best beer he'd had in Taiwan, and was from a local microbrewery). There are allegedly 2 or 3 cats that live here, but when we sat down, they were nowhere to be found D:

Anhe65 Cafe - Main facade - go down the staircase on the right!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Restaurant Review: Kao Chi 高記 (Taipei, Taiwan)

I originally wanted to go to Kao Chi near Yong Kang St for XLB instead of Din Tai Fung based on the reviews I had read (Hungry Girl in Taipei, Noobcook.com, Fat SG Boy) which seemed to suggest this is one of Taipei's best-kept-secrets and is overshadowed by DTF. Since I gravitate towards under-the-radar type establishments, I was really disappointed that the location at Yong Kang St was closed when we had gone (later found out they just opened an hour later than DTF!).

Luckily, there are a few other locations in Taipei (we spotted one from the subway train we took), and one's tummy always makes room for more XLB. We decided to hit up a Kao Chi the next morning and decide for ourselves who has the better XLB.

Kao Chi - Fuxing Branch

Friday, October 31, 2014

Restaurant Review: Shin Yeh 欣葉 (Taipei, Taiwan)

Shin Yeh is one of the top restaurant recommendations you'll get when you research traditional Taiwanese cuisine. We had our hotel concierge book us a reservation at their original branch location.

We were seated in their basement level, which had fairly tightly packed tables. I would have preferred to sit somewhere with windows, but I don't know if that is an option.

I'll say up-front, that Chinese food like this is not ideal for parties of 2. You can really only order 2-3 dishes per person. We ordered 3 and didn't finish everything. We ordered a fried oyster and basil dish, a single large spring roll, a chicken stir fry dish, and steamed fish.

There were significant language barriers when it came to ordering the fish for some reason. Not that I expect every server in Taiwan to be fluent in English, but we appreciated that at every other store and restaurant we went to, once I had explained my Chinese was not great, they would send us their server most fluent in English to try and facilitate communication. Not at Shin Yeh, though. We had an older auntie waitress, and she became easily exasperated when I didn't understand what she was trying to communicate to us about the steamed fish. I think it had something to do with the size of the fish. I said simply that we wanted a smaller fish, since it was just the two of us, and she kept trying to get me to OK some unit of measurement I didn't understand. You'll see at the end of this post our receipt. We received 15 mystery units of the fish, and it cost about $60 USD (!!! if you know what the mystery units are, please please enlighten me!). She also sent us the "large" size of the chicken dish, despite my ordering "small". And we were charged for tea (not much money, but still, wtf?).

At a nearby table of businessmen, one obviously got something lodged in his throat, and we spent the rest of our dinner listening to him alternatingly talking as if nothing was wrong, and hacking away extremely loudly. I seriously thought he was choking and might drop dead. I was surprised that he didn't (a) excuse himself to go to the bathroom, and (b) no employees went over to ask if he was OK. Strange, right??

Nice teapot warmer!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Travel: Yongkang St, Smoothie House, Ximending District (Taipei, Taiwan)

After our breakfast/brunch at Din Tai Fung, we decided to walk around Yong Kang St a bit. Most places were still closed around 11am on a Monday, but it was still cool to walk around.

YongKang St area

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Restaurant Review: Din Tai Fung 鼎泰豐 (Taipei, Taiwan)

I originally wanted to go to Kao Chi on Yong Kang St instead of the insanely popular tourist attraction that is the original branch of Din Tai Fung (Official Site, Tripadvisor), but Kao Chi was under construction and appeared to be closed when we arrived shortly after 10am (it turns out that they did open, but not until 11am on that day). Somewhat reluctantly, we moseyed back over to Din Tai Fung and I got a number. I was rather disappointed that I failed to avoid this mega-hotspot, but in the end, I am glad we came here after all.

When I got my number, we were given a pink order sheet. Knowing my limitations, I asked if they had an English menu, and was provided with a glossy, easy to read and fully illustrated menu! Woohoo! How easy was that? #inagarten

鼎泰豐 order sheet

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Restaurant Review: Tresors de la Mer 上引水產 at AADC (Taipei, Taiwan)

Part and parcel with all the blog posts I had read when researching Addiction Aquatic Development Center, I had read about their sit-down restaurant Tresors de la Mer 上引水產 (Official Site). From what I understand, this is mainly a hotpot restaurant, but they also have a very popular and relatively affordable) raw seafood platter... and also sushi... and also cooked seafood!

Tresors de la Mer restaurant at AADC. Look at those uniforms! Second-hand embarrassment.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Travel: Addiction Aquatic Development Center (Taipei, Taiwan)

I had read about Addiction Aquatic Development Center online while trip planning multiple places online (Official website, Trip Advisor, Hungry Girl in Taipei, Nomss.com) and was excited to check it out.

It reminded me a lot of Eataly in NYC. There is a supermarket section with tons of seafood, fruits and veg, packaged ingredients, prepared foods, prepared sushi, etc. There are also various places to eat, such as a popular standing sushi bar (you have to get a number), a raw bar, some cooked food, etc. There's an outdoor patio for the grilled BBQ as well, and a sit down restaurant with upstairs seating called Tresors de la Mer. There's also a wine bar and a home goods section.

Since we expected the main area to be quite crowded (and it was), so we had our hotel concierge make us a dinner reservation at Tresors de la Mer (separate post coming!). We arrived a bit early so we could check out the supermarket though! If I lived in Taipei, I'd definitely want to check out all the food you can get here on the main floor :)

(Sidebar: We seemed to have crappy luck with taxi drivers in Taiwan not knowing the address we wanted to go to. For some reason, ours could not locate this place and basically dropped us off about 5 minutes away when we decided we were tired of going around in circles and making U-turns. Then we got to the front entrance and saw there's a huge line of taxis dropping people off and taking people home. What the heck, how did we get stuck with a taxi driver that did not know about this place?!?!)

Addiction Aquatic Development Center

Monday, October 20, 2014

Travel: Taipei Fine Arts Museum (Taipei, Taiwan)

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum was within spitting distance of Maji Maji Square, so we wandered over there to kill some time. It actually ended up being a very enjoyable few hours! I don't think we went in the main entrance, as we passed through some kind of Taiwanese technology/product section and then bought tickets from a manned machine. The entrance fee was only 30 NT per person (About $1 USD!) and the air con was great! Nice deal! They were actually having a Biennial exhibit called The Great Acceleration, which we later saw advertised around the city.

If you are in the area and have some time to kill, I would definitely recommend dropping in to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and seeing what they have on display. It's a relaxing way to spend a few hours, and not too crowded at all (the best part!).

Here are a few snap shots from a few of the exhibits:

OPAVIVARÁ!, Formosa Decelerator, 2014

Hammocks and free tea, in the main lobby area of the museum. More information here.

Photo taken from the top floor

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Travel: Tokyo Crazy Kawaii Taipei at Taipei Expo Park (Taipei, Taiwan)

While we were hanging out at Maji Maji Square at the Taipei Expo Park, we noticed there was also a pretty big event going on called "Tokyo Crazy Kawaii Taipei". We were dying for some A/C at the time, so we bought tickets (about $10 USD each) and headed in!

Flashy entrance outside the Expo Park

Monday, October 13, 2014

Travel: Maji Maji Square at Taipei Expo Park (Taipei, Taiwan)

Maji Maji Square

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Restaurant Review: Sasa Sushi 笹鮨 (Taipei, Taiwan)

In researching where to eat in Taipei (I'll admit this was basically the ONLY research I did for Taipei!), I stumbled across quite a few mentions of Sasa Sushi for omakase (TripAdvisor, Victoria's Food Secrets).

Experience: Dining in Taiwan in general is super different from the US, but our omakase experience was such a huge contrast to our experiences in NYC omakase restaurants. It was really fun and relaxed in Sasa Sushi - one family at the bar brought their BABY. Everyone was taking pictures of their food (all ages), pouring sake for the sushi chef (though we noticed he only took a sip of each cup LOL), and laughing and enjoying themselves. There was also only 1 sitting. Maybe we never stay late enough in NYC, but the atmosphere always seems to be quite serious and quiet!

Language Barrier: It's worth mentioning my language barrier issues. My Chinese/Mandarin is generally good enough to get around and communicate with taxi drivers, shopkeepers, etc., but when it comes to understanding what kind of fish I'm eating in an omakase, I come up a bit short. Our waitress tentatively asked me if I spoke any Mandarin, and she was visibly relieved when I said I could speak a little (so my guess is that if you only spoke English here, it might be a bit challenging).

We were able to ask our chef(s) for the Japanese names of things, so hopefully I've gotten them lined up with the right pictures here. For other items, one of the employees was so generous with his time and grabbed a reference book for us to show us what we had eaten.

Pricing: at a minimum, 3000 TWD for omakase. Ours actually ended up being 6000 TWD per person (this is included the 10% service charge and a carafe of sake). They also have set menus at various price points, but this is definitely an expensive restaurant by Taipei standards.

Anyways, let's get on with the food porn.

Sasa Sushi - Exterior

Friday, October 10, 2014

Travel: Machikaka, 24 Hour Laundry, Zhongshan District (Taipei, Taiwan)

Machikaka near Nanjing East Road MRT Station

We needed a quick afternoon snack after arriving in Taipei from Wulai, and I found an attractive looking café called Machikaka online. When we got there, though, they asked if we wanted to sit at the front area where it was quieter, or at the back. The front area was just a narrow bar with two stools, and you couldn't see any of the décor, so I asked to sit in the back... and then the worker actually said we needed a reservation or to come back in 1.5 HOURS. What??? A reservation in the afternoon for a coffee shop?? So strange.

(I guess I'm a little annoyed he didn't tell me up front that we needed a reservation, and instead tried to make it sound like the front bar area was better...!) We decided to take the bar seats and we ordered a coffee and ice cream parfait. I asked if they had an English menu, and they said they did not... which is also strange, since I saw an English menu on this blog review (since we had free wifi from our hotel, I used this blog post as a cross reference).

The coffee came quickly (and Cory enjoyed it thoroughly), but the ice cream parfait took them about 30 minutes to make! What the heck... As tasty as it was, I don't think I could recommend this place when it's busy!

Machikaka store front

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Accommodations Review: Les Suites Ching Cheng (Taipei, Taiwan)

We booked 4 nights in the Junior Suite at Les Suites Ching Cheng (TripAdvisor ReviewsOfficial Website) in Taipei. Note that contrary to a review on TripAdvisor, this does NOT have a soak-in onsen style bathtub (much to my disappointment!). The room with the onsen tub is the Corner Suite.

  • Nice, spacious suite
  • Complimentary fresh fruit changed daily (and no ants!)
  • Comfortable bed and pillows
  • Free smartphone with free international calls to certain countries that can also be used as the room key, a metro card, and has free Wifi hotspot (by far the best perk of our stay)
  • Just a few steps away from Nanjing East Road MRT Station
  • Nespresso machine in room
  • Close to a McDonalds, Family Mart, small shopping mall
  • Pretty good English service at the front desk
  • Complimentary breakfast (though we did not have it)

  • Extremely expensive laundry, even for a business hotel
  • In-room wifi signal not that reliable
  • Towels a little thin (not luxe at all)
  • The nearest metro station (Nanjing East Road MRT) is not that central, so you will definitely have to transfer.

This hotel is somehow classified as a boutique hotel on TripAdvisor, but make no mistake, this is a straight up business hotel. However, what makes it worthwhile for a tourist is that they offer the free use of a smart phone (I think it was a Sony Xperia Z2) that has free Wifi hotspot, international calls to some cities, can be used as the room key and also as an MRT card (we had already purchased our Easy Cards, so we didn't use this last feature).

We booked the Junior Suite room based on a review on TripAdvisor suggesting that this room would have an onsen soaking tub. This review was in fact mistaken, as only the Corner Suites have the onsen tubs (they must have been upgraded to a Corner Suite). This meant some serious disappointment upon arrival. We asked about availability to upgrade, but were told the cost would be an additional 2000 NT + 15% tax per day (about $75 USD per day for 4 days, which was more than we wanted to spend just for a tub). In the end, the disappointment waned and I did enjoy our room very much.

I thought this hotel might have coin laundry facilities, but was disappointed to find they only have your standard hotel laundry service which is charged per item. It is extremely expensive (it was more expensive than the laundry prices at our 5* resort in the Maldives!!), but we managed to find a 24 hour laundromat about 10 minutes away (walking). I have an exciting separate post for that!

The location is both convenient and inconvenient: it is only steps away from an MRT station, but the station is not that conveniently located. Luckily, taxis are incredibly cheap in Taipei!

Junior Suite - bed

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Accommodations Review: Volando Urai 馥蘭朵烏來渡假酒店 (Wulai, Taiwan)

We spent two nights at Volando Urai 馥蘭朵烏來渡假酒店 (Fù lán duǒ wū lái dù jiǎ jiǔdiàn) in Wulai.

Official Website, Agoda reviews, TripAdvisor reviews

Volando Urai

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Travel: Wulai 烏來 (Taiwan)

Wulai 烏來 is a short distance from Taipei and easily accessible via public transportation (subway green line south to the terminal station, Xindian MRT Station then bus #849 for 40NT or cab for 600NT flatrate). It's a hotspring weekend getaway for the Taipei-folks.

Speaking of the cab driver (who looked like he was 70+), he pointed out the flat rate fare on a laminated table he had, and then pointed at a street sign showing the same rates (as if to confirm that he was not swindling us, LOL). Then he proceeded to take us on a harrowing 20 minute drive to our hotel. I felt like I was in a scene from the Fast and Furious: Taiwanese Taxi Drivers.

The river is a beautiful colour (but looks brown if it has rained recently!).


Wulai 烏來

Monday, October 6, 2014

Restaurant Review: QSquare B3 Food Court (Taipei, Taiwan)

We planned to have lunch at QSquare based on Hungry Girl in Taipei's review. It is a seriously impressive food court!!! So many choices and lots of seating.

There are also restaurants at the top level of QSquare, but the food court looked much more interesting!

About a tenth of your options

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Travel: Hualien to Taipei to Wulai, and QSquare (Taiwan)

The next morning, we started our journey to the next destination by heading to Hualien's train station. We took the train back to Taipei, and then had lunch in Taipei before continuing on to Wulai.

It's a small station, so there's no chance of getting lost here!

Hualien Train Station

Hualien Train Station

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Restaurant Review: Cherry Field Restaurant 櫻田野餐廳 (Hualien, Taiwan)

Again, I'm not too sure how I stumbled upon this restaurant, but our B&B hosts said they've been to the restaurant before and were surprised when I asked them to make a reservation for me (i.e., "How did they find out about this restaurant?"). I'm guessing I found it through this Taipei Times review, somehow. (I wish there was a way to look at all their restaurant reviews; I wasn't able to figure out how to do that!)

Actually, our taxi driver had no idea where this restaurant was. He had to call in to his central dispatch to ask for directions O_o

Cherry Field Restaurant

Friday, October 3, 2014

Travel: Taroko National Park - Zhuilu Old Trail (Hualien, Taiwan)

For our second day in Taroko National Park, Cory wanted to do the Zhuilu Old Trail. You can find more information on this trail on roundTAIWANround. You need special permits to go on this trail, so we enlisted a local guide (who also provided transportation and lunch on the trail). Two polytechnic girls from Singapore also went with us.

I won't lie: I found this hike to be unbearable in the >40'C weather (after accounting for humidity). My fitness level is also not great, given my day-job. Our guide wanted to get ahead of an old-Chinese-people tour group and speedily went up the stairs at the start of the trail (which is basically a nonstop stairs up the mountain). About 30 minutes in (I think - I'm not too sure of the timing), I had to stop and vomit a bit. I don't know how long I sat there for. I didn't feel like I could finish (my vision was all blurry and bright), but also didn't want to let down my husband by quitting after he had looked forward so much to the hike. After some time, I asked the guide to go ahead and I would try to continue at my own pace and see if I'd make it. I unloaded my day pack onto my husband (who did not complain... at least not for another hour), and we carried on climbing (at this point, far far far behind the Chinese tour group). The heat and extra weight definitely bothered my husband after an hour, and he started getting snippy at me, but I couldn't blame him... I pretty much ruined the day :( Anyway, I guess 90 minutes later our guide met up with us about 20 minutes from the top and let us know he had set up lunch so it would be ready for us when we got there. We had a nice lunch with lots of delicious fresh fruit, and then headed back down the way we came (apparently, the rest of the trail is quite boring compared to this section with the sheer cliff).

Zhuilu Old Trail entrance sign. An attendant has to unlock the door for you, once you show your permits.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Restaurant Review: Moon House 月盧 (Hualien, Taiwan)

I don't quite remember how I stumbled upon this restaurant when researching places to eat in Hualien, but it is actually a pretty well-known restaurant among the locals (and apparently local tourists). That said, I would not classify it as a tourist trap at all!

I found English reviews on Taipei Times, Trip Advisor, and this blogpost. You can also check out this post in Chinese with Google Translate.

The location is about an hour’s drive away from Hualien, so it’s best to arrange a flat-rate taxi ride and have the driver wait for you. You drive through a pretty dodgy looking area before heading out into the mountains, and it seems very surreal as you drive up the winding path towards the restaurant. There are signs along the street as you get closer, which is helpful (if you are paranoid like me, and worry your driver is taking you to the wrong place).

Moon House entrance

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Travel: Taroko National Park (Hualien, Taiwan)

On our first full day in Hualien, we toured the beautiful Taroko National Park with a private, English-speaking taxi driver. There are a lot of sights to see in the park, so I prioritized the following I wanted to see:
  • Baiyang Trail 白楊步道 (Báiyáng bùdào)
  • Swallow Grotto 燕子口 (Yàn zǐ kou)
  • Eternal Spring Shrine 長春祠 (Chǎngchūn cí)
  • Cimu Bridge 慈母橋 (Címǔ qiáo)
  • Qingshui Cliff 清水斷崖 (Qīngshuǐ duàn yá)

I found this site to be very helpful when researching the attractions.

Before you head out, check the road conditions and trail conditions. We learned that there is often road construction going on in the park, especially during and after typhoon season.

Ok, prepare for neverending picspam.

Review: Private Taxi Driver

Our minsu hosts arranged am English-speaking private driver/guide for our first day into Taroko Gorge. CJ picked us up bright and early from our minsu at 8:00am and took us into Taroko National Park. He helped arrange our day’s itinerary based on my list above, and provided commentary in Chinese and English. He was extremely friendly, but not overly chatty, and made us feel very comfortable. He was also extremely knowledgeable about the various sights and knew exactly what was closed, what was opened, where we should enter and exit, etc. He also provided flash lights and ponchos for our excursion on the Baiyang Trail to see the waterfall and Water Curtain.

His taxi is in great condition: comfortable seats and AWESOME air conditioning. Also, his decals “Relax I Drive” on the vehicle made it easy to identify which taxi was ours amongst all the others at the various tourist attractions.

He was a good driver, especially by Western standards (defensive driving), which really put us at ease. He did not smoke or chew anything gross!

He gave us three options for lunch, all within the Gorge. However, I would strongly recommend picking up some food at a 7/11 or Family Mart instead, as the food within the Gorge is truly disgusting. I wanted to buy a packed lunch from Wu-tao lunchbox (which I read about on another blog), but couldn’t find their posted hours (I expect they open closer to 10am than 8 am).

The cost of his service was 3500NT for 8 hours as of Fall 2014 (though we only used 6 hours as we got tired of the heat). As tourism continues to develop in the region, I expect the cost of private day tours to increase.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended guide, but BYO lunch to Taroko Gorge.

Our taxi guide's business card; his website has more information here: http://www.hualien-taxi.tw/

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Accommodations Review: Star and Mist B&B (Hualien, Taiwan)

We booked a 3 night stay at Star and Mist B&B: TripAdvisor reviews, Official website (in Chinese).

It was a lovely and relaxing stay! The hosts do not seem to live on the property (which is a plus, in my opinion, because you don't feel like you're intruding in someone's home!), but always seem to be available when needed! Pictures first, then pros and cons.

Star and Mist B&B - Exterior

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Travel: Zhiqiang Night Market (Hualien, Taiwan)

After a "short" nap in the afternoon (through quite a rainstorm, apparently!), we felt refreshed enough to head out to the local night market to get some eats. It was Mid-Autumn Festival our first day in Taiwan, so we weren't sure if the night market would be busy or empty.

Turns out, it was more on the empty side! About 30-40% of the stalls were closed, but there was still enough to see and eat.

I referenced the following three blog posts when planning what stalls I wanted to try: TtimeTreats.com, Foodiebaker.com, AlwaysTravelicious.com. These should be more helpful than my post, if you're more interested in the local snacks.

Here's the shortlist I went in with based on those blogposts:
  • Chiang's Family Coffin Boards (蔣記花蓮式棺材板) 
  • Bei Gang Spring Roll (北港春捲)
  • "Too Wonderful for Words" Fruit Juice Shop ("妙不可言"果汁店) 
  • Exploding Chicken Roll (爆浆鸡肉卷)
  • Taro balls 芋蝦

This night market is actually pretty small, but has a nice vibe. I'd say there's 2.5 aisles with stalls on either side, but you can walk, look at everything, and take pictures in about 15 minutes. 

There was a pretty big line-up at the Coffin Boards toast stall, but we decided against it. The fillings looked too "saucy", and it looked messy as hell to eat! 
Tried to convince myself I wanted to try it each time we passed by the stall; failed every time.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Restaurant Review: Taipei Main Station 2F (Breeze Taipei Station)

The 2nd floor of Taipei Main Station has an amazing selection of foods, though they don't open until 10am :( Take note if you are going to be passing through early morning! Otherwise you will be chowing down on strange boiled skewers from the 7/11s or having an Egg McMuffin or Mos Burger.

I couldn't find too much information about this online, so here's a picture next to the escalators up to the 2nd floor. They also have a couple more fast-foody type food courts as well as sit-down restaurants.
Also note the mini MUJI and Tokyo Hands (localized) stores up there!

Friday, September 26, 2014

Travel: Taipei Main Station, Getting TWD, MTA EasyCard, Train to Hualien

I'm back from my 2.5 week honeymoon to Taiwan, Singapore, and the Maldives! I decided to blog about the trip, so hopefully this is somewhat interesting to read! I think I'll post day by day overviews, with more thorough posts on restaurants, attractions, etc.

Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) to Taipei Main Station

I was surprised to learn that there was no subway connection between the Taoyuan Airport and Taipei Main Station. Instead, they have various bus companies that go to different destinations. We took Kuokuang Line 1819 to Taipei Main Station, and it cost approximately 125 NT per pax (my new favourite word from this trip!) and took around 45 minutes. They accept credit card at the bus ticket counter in the airport.
The little TV on this bus was the only TV we watched on the entire trip! TBH, the Taiwanese dramas did not look that great. LOL.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

In My Kitchen: Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

Recipe: Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

Yield: Approx 24oz


1/2 c whole milk
3 egg yolks
200 g dulce de leche (made from pressure cooking sweetened condensed milk in a canning jar for 40 minutes)
big pinch of sea salt
1 c heavy cream
splash of vanilla

Restaurant Review: Cagen Japan Restaurant, NYC (Japanese)

Cory and I went to Cagen (YelpWebsite), and enjoyed the $120 "Cagen" Omakase which is a kappo-style omakase (meaning cooked food in addition to sushi). Chef Toshio Tomita previously worked at Nobu, so the food here does carry a bit of fushion flare, IMO.

We ate at the counter (when you call to make your reservation, you need to request this, and apparently it is only for those ordering the Cagen Omakase).

Every course was delicious and memorable. Service was attentive, but not suffocating, and the chef and servers explained each course in detail (both in terms of ingredients and cooking method), which I like very much (especially at omakase).

Most memorable dishes for me: the sashimi and nigiri (along with the chimichurri sauce), and the soft shell crab dish (I love soft shell crab!)

Bottom Line: 5*, I will definitely be back (hopefully sooner rather than later)!