May 21, 2019

Day Trip to Culebra


Playa Flamenco in the island of Culebra is consistently rated as one of the top beaches in the world. So of course I had to make a special day trip there from San Juan during my recent Puerto Rican vacation.  This post details my flight to and from Culebra, practical tips once you get there, and what it’s like.  

There are two ways to get to the island of Culebra from San Juan: by boat and by air.  

If by boat, you can: 
·     Rent a private boat, which is lots of $$$
·     Join a group tour, which runs from $75-$100 and will include about an hour at Playa Flamenco
·     Take the ferry from Ceiba or Fajardo for $4.

At first glance, taking the ferry seems like a no-brainer. But after having read the difficulties of trying to actually catch the passenger ferry itself, which includes at least an hour of standing in line just to purchase a ticket (each way) and not being guaranteed passage because there might not be room, I decided to explore other options. Note that there is currently no system in place to buy tickets online.  If you do a search, what comes up are third party vendors who purchase a ticket for you for a markup, but having a ticket does not guarantee you passage.  

If by air, there are several airlines that fly out to Culebra from San Juan and they all run around a $100 each way, for a total of $200 round trip.  When I added the cost of renting a car to drive to Ceiba (where the ferry terminal is) or taking an Uber both ways, including the ferry tickets, the round trip airplane fare doesn’t seem prohibitive, especially since it guarantees peace of mind.  One option to consider is taking the ferry one way and a plane flight the other way to cut costs. 

My flight through Cape Air departed at 6:30 a.m. and lasted approximately 25 minutes.  Even though it is a very short domestic flight, you still have to be through security at least 45 minutes before your flight. I got to the San Juan airport too late and had to sprint through the airport to get to my gate, which felt like a mile from security.  Please note that you have to check in in person. Personnel weigh all your bags, even if they’re carry-on only and ask you how much you weigh – all because it is a very small plane that you will be flying.  Every pound counts.  

I was escorted onto the tarmac by an air traffic controller and all my bags were stowed away in the back, where they were inaccessible.  I was lucky enough to be the only passenger during my flight to Culebra so I felt like a VIP. The plane itself was a BN-2B Islander and had 8 seats, plus two for the pilot and co-pilot.  Like larger airplanes, there was an in-flight magazine, safety card and a vomit bag.  Since I had never flown in such a small plane before, I was very concerned about the flight itself.  I had no need to worry. The skies were clear and the ride was very smooth. It was so thrilling to be high up among the clouds with unparalleled views of the wide blue sea.  

One thing to note is that it is very noisy inside the cabin so bring earplugs for a more enjoyable trip.

When it comes time to land, you will hear the engine quiet down and then the pilot will turn towards the space between two mountain peaks then make a left turn where all of a sudden a runway appears, like a miracle.

The Culebra airport is very small; it doesn’t even have a security checkpoint. There is a café inside and restrooms.

By the door is a list of publicos or taxis to call if you want a ride to the beach. This part was the only frustrating thing of my day trip. I called most of the numbers on that list and most people didn’t answer, one person flat out said no, and another said he was out of town.  If you find yourself in the same predicament, note that you can walk from the airport to Playa Flamenco – it will take about 20 minutes.  As you’re exiting the airport, turn right and go down that main road, which ends at the beach.

But the morning I was there, I didn’t know that. You can rent Jeeps or golf carts across from the airport.  A golf cart costs $58 for the day, a Jeep $54.  

But I ended up not having to walk or rent a vehicle because a kind couple took pity on me upon hearing my troubles and let me ride with them on their rented golf cart, which took about 5 minutes.  

Once you get to the beach, it costs $6 to park your vehicle and $2 per person.

There are restrooms, changing stalls, and outdoor showers.

There are also food and drink kiosks but I would recommend that you bring your own food.  The food from the kiosks are merely okay and rather expensive. If buying food to bring to the beach, there is a cluster of eateries and a small general store near the airport.  As you exit the airport, turn right, then turn right again at the main intersection.  

Playa Flamenco is spectacular.  White sands, clear turquoise waters, coconut trees swaying gently in the breeze – it’s all out of a postcard.  


And then there’s the famous World War II tank beached on the western end, left there by the U.S. Navy and now painted like an urban work of art incongruously sunning itself on a Puerto Rican beach.  There’s actually another tank closer to the main entryway which has also been decorated and left on top of a little hill more inland.

Another thing to note is that there is a warning at the airport to be on the lookout for leftover munitions at the beach and in the water. So beware.

The flight back to San Juan was as smooth as the morning flight.  It was well worth the money spent to fly to Culebra.  I only wish I had more time there to explore other beaches on the island.

May 14, 2019

My Walking Tour of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico


I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, a charming city full of vibrant colors and flavors. This video is just a little taste of my wonderful stay, including a walking tour that will lead you to some of my favorite spots.  

You will probably fly into Luis Munoz Airport and from there take a taxi to your hotel.  Uber, the only ridesharing option in San Juan, is not allowed to pick up from the airport so a taxi or a rental are your top choices. There are flat rates posted on the wall so there are no surprises. The 10-12 minute ride to Old San Juan costs $24, plus a dollar for every piece of luggage and a dollar for every extra person. The Uber ride to the airport from Old San Juan costs about $10.  

I decided to stay in Old San Juan for a few nights then transfer to a hotel in the Isla Verde neighborhood for a different experience.  Old San Juan is a quaint neighborhood with cobblestoned streets and colonial era buildings painted in rainbow sherbet colors.  Staying here is a must.  And since it is a compact area, everything is within walking distance. You don’t need a car at all.  Uber or a taxi is sufficient for going to and from the airport or to and from other neighborhoods such as Isla Verde, Santurce or Condado.

To start my walking tour, make your way to Plaza Darsenas, which is near the piers where cruise ships dock.  This is a lively area in the weekends with food trucks, live music, and vendors selling souvenirs.  There’s also a social-media ready photo spot, hashtag Puerto Rico.  


To the right is the Paseo de La Princesa – a tree-shaded promenade by the sea, made for slow strolls.  Lots of trees and benches for resting.

The Paseo runs into the beautiful La Princesa Fountain.  

Past the fountain, follow the promenade, which leads you to Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate. For centuries, San Juan gate was the formal entrance to San Juan.  Nowadays, street musicians usually perform within its passageway.  There is a large shady tree nearby where you can sit underneath and enjoy the music.  

If you go through the gate and up the stairs to your left, you will be rewarded by this view of the sea and the promenade below.


From the gate, turn right and keep going until you hit Calle de San Francisco.  Go up a block then turn right and walk to Fortelaza Street, where you will find one of San Juan’s newest attractions – Paseo de Las Sombrillas.

From Fortelaza Street turn left on Calle del Cristo and walk up.  At the corner of Calle del Cristo and Caleta de las Monjas is a little shady square where you can rest and gaze at the beautiful Hotel El Convento, which used to be a convent turned into a hotel.  

Continuing your walk up Calle del Cristo, continue a few more minutes then turn right at Calle San Sebastian, which dead-ends to my favorite place for cool, quiet solitude, Museo de Casa Blanca, the former home of Ponce de Leon, turned museum.  The museum itself is not the draw for me but its beautiful garden, which seems to be free. Both times I went there, I wandered the grounds to my heart’s content without paying an entrance fee.  


The courtyard’s shady trees, water fountains and benches beckon as if to say, stay awhile, rest your feet, traveler, refresh your spirits.  

On the other side of the museum are more grounds for wandering, with views of the sea beyond.

At this point, you could choose not go inside the museum, but if you didn’t, then you would miss a spectacular view from the second floor, well worth the $3-to-$5 entrance fee.

Once you’ve had your fill of Casa Blanca’s rejuvenating gardens, exit the gate and turn left, which will take you through Plaza de Benficencia and past the plaza towards the expansive lawn fronting El Morro, one of San Juan’s two forts.  Both times I visited here, it was pretty windy, refreshingly so during a hot day.  In the weekends, you can find picnics and people flying their kites here.  

  
Continuing on your walk, stay on the boulevard that runs parallel with the old fort walls, Norzagaray Street.  Turn right at Calle Imperial, which dead ends to this giant, painted Puerto Rican flag

Turn right again for an entrance to the courtyard of the Museum of Art and History.  On Saturdays, from 8-1 pm, there are artisans selling crafts, food stands and live music.  This is also a perfect place to sit on a shaded bench and rest.

At this point, you can end the walk or explore San Juan’s colorful streets without any particular destination in mind.  

If you have some time in the morning free, perhaps after a hearty breakfast, I suggest taking another walk.  This one starts at San Juan Gate and ends in El Morro.  It is less than a mile and because most of it is exposed to the west, better experienced in the cooler morning hours.  Not many tourists here, but lots of lovely views of the sea.


If you were wondering whether San Juan has fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, I can only say that everything seemed to be in normal working order from my perspective. As a tourist, I had only a most pleasant experience.  

May 13, 2019

Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 
Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

I picked up One Day in December during the last moments of my tropical vacation. Not because I didn’t have anything to read but because I couldn’t resist spending my last Thai bhat on a book. I read it on the long plane ride home; it didn’t last the whole way, but it was a diverting few hours nevertheless.  There’s something about vacation books – every time I look at it or see its cover somewhere, fond, warm feelings bubble up as I am temporarily transported to a wonderful memory.

Although its significant moments take place in snowy winter, One Day in December is a summer beach book through and through. It’s the kind of book I can easily see as a winning rom-com. Is there such a thing as love at first sight? This novel nudges the reader in that direction, certainly. But it still makes Sarah and Jack earn each other’s love – through years of getting to know each other, setbacks and obstacles to that ultimate Love Actually rising crescendo of a happily every after.  When they finally do get together, it doesn’t feel rushed or out of nowhere, it feels like we’ve known these characters and seen their tribulations so of course we want them to be happy and end up together.

What was a pleasant surprise for me was how much I loved Sarah and Laurie’s close friendship. No one is the enemy here. I loved how the author depicted their strong bond and enjoyed their funny moments together.

May 6, 2019

Book Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty


Source: Vine

Publication Date: July 9, 2019
  
YOUR PHONE RINGS.

A STRANGER HAS KIDNAPPED YOUR CHILD.

TO FREE THEM YOU MUST ABDUCT SOMEONE ELSE'S CHILD.

YOUR CHILD WILL BE RELEASED WHEN YOUR VICTIM'S PARENTS KIDNAP ANOTHER CHILD.

IF ANY OF THESE THINGS DON'T HAPPEN:
YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED.

YOU ARE NOW PART OF THE CHAIN.

Before I get into my review, I want to state up front a tip for parents: Buy shoes with GPS trackers for your kids or buy trackers you can put in shoes.  I didn't know these existed but The Chain mentions these and I think they are an excellent idea.

Another tip for parents, and perhaps this is even more important: Dial down your social media sharing.  Checking into places, having your location tags on while posting, sharing your weekly or daily routine and having public profiles - this leaves you and your children vulnerable to those who want to use this information to do you or your kids some harm.

Now- onto my review.  As you can tell from the foregoing, this book kinda scared me.  While some of its elements are on the fantastic side,  they are still on this side of possible.  The Chain (while perversely invoking the Fleetwood Mac song) immediately hooked me from the first page and did not let up. It's a roller coaster of a book that begins with a kidnapping and ends with ... I won't tell you, only to say that you will have to take deep breaths while reading. It does not let up.  

The best kinds of books for me are ones in which I slide myself into the main character and start thinking - how would I react? How would I solve this problem?  Sliding into Rachel's mindset was effortless.  Driven by the ferocious need to get her daughter back, she does everything I would or any mother would.  The Chain is an inescapable noose tightening around her neck. Will she and her daughter be able to survive it, let alone rid themselves of it? 

April 29, 2019

Book Review: The Favorite Daughter by Kaira Rouda


Source: Vine

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect lie.

Jane Harris lives in a sparkling home in an oceanfront gated community in Orange County. It’s a place that seems too beautiful to be touched by sadness. But exactly one year ago, Jane’s oldest daughter, Mary, died in a tragic accident and Jane has been grief-stricken ever since. Lost in a haze of anti-depressants, she’s barely even left the house. Now that’s all about to change.

It’s time for Jane to reclaim her life and her family. Jane’s husband, David, has planned a memorial service for Mary and three days later, their youngest daughter, Betsy, graduates high school. Yet as Jane reemerges into the world, it’s clear her family has changed without her. Her husband has been working long days—and nights—at the office. Her daughter seems distant, even secretive. And her beloved Mary was always such a good girl—dutiful and loving. But does someone know more about Mary, and about her last day, than they’ve revealed?

The bonds between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives should never be broken. But you never know how far someone will go to keep a family together…

Not everything is at seems in The Favorite Daughter.  In fact soon after starting, I quickly realized that very little of what the narrator, Jane Harris, perceives or declares can be taken as accurate. Unreliable narrator?  Oh, heck yes.  At first you might feel some sort of pity for her, perhaps excusing her strange behavior because of her daughter’s death, but it is very clear that something is very, very wrong with her entire life and that she herself is just unlikeable.  

You might feel, as I did, a thorough distaste for being in Jane’s head.  She is a narcissist through and through.  Everything revolves around her.  Every man is in love with her.  She is the most attractive woman wherever she goes.  And she is the smartest person in the room - always.  This is literally what goes through her head.  Are you nuts? I would ask in my own head as I read along.  

As much as I disliked Jane, I still felt compelled to continue reading.  Partly because I know people like her, as I suspect most do.  Although Jane is a rather extreme narcissist, I regularly work with someone who has a lot of her traits and it always boggles me how this person can act the way they do.  How do they think???  Well, if you’re curious to see what goes through a narcissist’s head, this is your chance.

Another reason why I kept reading was, as the full extent of Jane’s deviant personality becomes revealed, I just simply wanted to know – is she going to get away with it?  

April 22, 2019

Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell


 Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

From the pre-prologue diary entry, the scene is set. You’re absolutely sure you know what is going to happen and what happened in the past. You’re pretty sure you know what the dark secret of one of the characters is.  What you won’t know is who is the victim and who the murderer. Chapters are divided from different points of view, so well into the novel, you will have several different theories as to who, what, and why. Is the handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam really as perfect as he seems?  What is he hiding?  Is Jenna’s mom going crazy or does she know something about what happened years ago? By novel’s end, the whole tragic story emerges.  There are some hints as the novel develops but I won’t lie – I was shocked and saddened by the denouement. 

April 16, 2019

Koh Phi Phi Day Trip


When I was planning my trip to Thailand, I didn’t want to stay at Ko Phi Phi because I wanted to seek out lesser known and quieter spots.  But once I saw this breathtaking, panoramic view, I kept open the possibility of a short visit to this infamous party island.  


I took a speedboat from Koh Lanta, booked the day before with Satun Pakbara.  It took about an hour and docked at busy Tonsai Bay.  As you exit the pier, you will enter Tonsai Village – full of shops, eateries, and hotels.  Go to your right and keep going until you see a sign for the viewpoint. Keep following the signs, which will twist and turn throughout the village and eventually take you to a flight of stairs.  

The climb up to the viewpoint will take about 15-20 minutes.  It can be exerting, even if you’re moderately fit.  The heat will make it even more challenging.  But believe me when I say that the view is completely worth it.  

At some point, you will have to pay a fee to keep going.  The viewpoint, it turns out, is on private land.  However, it is a small fee, about the equivalent of a little over one U.S. dollar.  The pay point is also where you can buy drinks and go to the restroom, for about 10 baht.  


Immediately after paying is where Viewpoint #1 is located.  Although it is quite a lovely overlook, do not stop here, keep going!  

After a more leisurely climb to the top, you will reach Viewpoint #3.  Do not ask me where Viewpoint #2 is because I don’t remember passing it.  

Viewpoint #3 is photo-ready, with a wooden platform and several large, flat rocks where you can pose and take pictures to your heart’s content.  

There is also a café, should you want to linger and do more than catch your breath before heading back down.  

I suggest coming to the viewpoint as early as you can or as soon as you dock – The earlier in the day, the cooler and the less crowded.  Also, make sure to bring some water – you’re going to need it during and after that hot climb.  I saw some people bringing bags of food as well for a picturesque picnic at the top. 


After the viewpoint, I decided to find a nice beach and do nothing for the rest of my time at Ko Phi Phi. If you walk straight from Tonsai Bay to the other end of the island, you will come upon Loh Dalum Beach, which is much quieter and less crowded.  There are some longtail boats docked on either side but a huge swathe of the waters by the beach are cordoned off for swimmers.  I spent a happy couple of hours here just lying under the sun, swimming, and generally relaxing.

To go back to Koh Lanta, I pre-booked a ferry from Tigerline.  I went back to the pier at Tonsai Bay and checked in with personnel by a table near the boats and ferries.  I was given a sticker and then shown which boat to board.  A word about ferries – they usually leave later than the stated time. I ended up waiting almost an hour before it left.  I guess I was on “Thai time.”  

Although, I knew Koh Phi Phi had more beautiful spots to offer, but I loved spending the day here as a quick little getaway within a getaway.

April 15, 2019

Book Review: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

One is playing a long game. But which one?

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

Sunburn is a scorcher of a mystery with a very intriguing protagonist at its core.  

I’ll tell you this – you’re going to think you know what Polly is all about and what she wants. First you will think she’s a cold-hearted femme fatale who’s done the unthinkable.  But with every chapter, every revelation, Polly becomes someone else – a victim, a weakling, a terrible mother, a ruthless criminal, even a murderer? One thing is for sure – she has an end-game in mind and the reader is never completely sure what her driving force is until almost to the end.  

Sunburn is my first Laura Lippman novel and I am officially a fan.  Lippman is masterful at hooking the reader and keeping you invested and guessing.  But what she’s best at is describing characters and their inner lives to such eerie specificity - she truly knows the human psyche. 

April 9, 2019

Koh Lipe


As much fun as I was having exploring Bangkok, after a few days, I was longing to go south and see Thailand’s famous islands.  My first island stop was Koh Lipe and I immediately fell in love.  It was and still remains vividly as the quintessential island of my Thailand fantasies – white sandy beaches, clear blue waters, and a slow, unhurried, and uncrowded vibe.  


I started my adventure by flying from Bangkok to Hat Yai airport on Thai Smile.  The flight cost the equivalent of $47 US dollars and took a little over an hour. Flying is the only way you can reach Koh Lipe in the same day.  But even with a plane flight, my whole journey took the better part of the day. If flying, it is advised that your flight lands by 10 a.m.  You still need to drive to the Pakbara Pier, which is about 2 hours from the airport.  

From Pakbara, you need to take either a speedboat or ferry to Koh Lipe, which takes at least 1 ½ hours.  I had arranged in advance with Satun Pakbara for the ride to the pier, as well as the speedboat to Koh Lipe.  After using other companies for other trips, I found Satun Pakbara to be the most organized and so I highly recommend them. 

If you didn’t make advance arrangements, you can buy a ride plus boat trip combo ticket at the airport.  There are kiosks by the airport exit.  Or you can get a taxi and then take your chances once you get to the pier. I strongly urge you to make advance arrangements.  There are only so many ferry crossings per day.  My speedboat to Koh Lipe was full.  Also Satun Pakbara will arrange your transportation from the Koh Lipe dock to your hotel.  They made the entire journey super easy.  

Once at Pakbara Pier, you might have to wait until your speedboat is ready.  There are plenty of places to grab lunch outside of the waiting area.  Within the waiting area, there is a snack shop, plenty of seats and restrooms as well.

Once your speedboat is ready for boarding, the boat personnel will first load the front with your luggage.  After all the luggage, then passengers can start boarding.  There are readily accessible lifejackets over the seats. 

The ride itself was very smooth but my favorite part was a surprise stopover at Koh Kai for 15 minutes.  Koh Kai is a very small, but charming island that I wish I could have spent more time exploring.  As it was, I got a quick, delightful taste of what was to come.  

Koh Lipe does not have a dock, per say.  One of two things will happen upon arriving or departing the island. The way I arrived was to transfer from the speedboat to a longtail boat for a 5-minute ride to the beach.  The luggage arrives soon after from another longtail boat.  Passengers were able to disembark from longtail boat onto a blue pier boardwalk. However, upon departing Koh Lipe, with a different company, passengers had to board the longtail boats from the beach, carrying their luggage and getting into the water.  It was a more physically exerting and wet experience.  

Koh Lipe is extremely walkable.  You can walk from end to end in 15 minutes.  The only times I used tuktuks were with my luggage.  

There are three beaches in Koh Lipe.  Pattaya Beach, where you arrive and depart, is very busy and noisy, with boats.  Sunrise Beach, as the name implies, is the best place to catch the sun rise, and in my opinion, is the best beach of the three.  Sunset Beach is, of course, where to watch the sunset.  

One night, I decided to check out Sunset Beach, which is a 15-minute walk from Sunrise Beach.  I found the experience to be … just okay.  The beach was littered with trash, unfortunately, and I just didn’t get the same magical experience as with Sunrise Beach.  


Actually, sunrises and sunsets are pretty spectacular from Sunrise Beach.  Let you in on a little secret – you can get the beach almost to yourself during sunrise because although everyone can catch the sun set, not everyone wants to get up before dawn.  

But if you decide to catch the sun set at Sunset Beach, there are restaurants lining the road leading up to the beach if you want to stay for dinner.

Every island has a street called walking street and is typically where you will find the highest concentration of stores, restaurants and bars. This is where you go to eat, drink, shop and … to walk, especially at nighttime.  

One thing I noticed was that everything was more expensive at Koh Lipe than Bangkok or neighboring islands.  Hotel rooms, food, drinks, everything just simply cost more. That doesn’t mean however, that there aren’t bargains to be had.  You can still eat and drink within your budget.  Just make sure to shop around before buying or consuming anything.

As I stated earlier, leaving Koh Lipe was a different process and experience than when I arrived.  I think it had to do with the fact that I used a different company.  This time, I used Tigerline, which apparently doesn’t have use of the blue boardwalks onto the beach.  Passengers had to drag or carry their luggage on the beach, then carry onto the waiting longtail boats.  If anything can convince you to pack light, this will.  

One tip I almost forgot is to be at the beach 30 minutes before departure and check in.  The staff will confirm where you are going and your hotel at your destination.  This is for arrangements once you arrive.  My next destination was Koh Lanta and upon arrival there, I had someone waiting to take me to my hotel.  This is included in your ticket.  

Once you board the longtail boat with your luggage, it will take you to a giant floating platform where you will disembark with your luggage. And then board again the speedboat or ferry to your next destination.  

April 8, 2019

Book Review: The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond


Newlyweds Alice and Jake are a picture-perfect couple. Alice, once a singer in a well-known rock band, is now a successful lawyer. Jake is a partner in an up-and-coming psychology practice. Their life together holds endless possibilities. After receiving an enticing wedding gift from one of Alice’s prominent clients, they decide to join an exclusive and mysterious group known only as The Pact.

The goal of The Pact seems simple: to keep marriages happy and intact. And most of its rules make sense. Always answer the phone when your spouse calls. Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly. Plan a trip together once per quarter. . . . 

Never mention The Pact to anyone.

Alice and Jake are initially seduced by the glamorous parties, the sense of community, their widening social circle of like-minded couples. And then one of them breaks the rules.
The young lovers are about to discover that for adherents to The Pact, membership, like marriage, is for life. And The Pact will go to any lengths to enforce that rule. For Jake and Alice, the marriage of their dreams is about to become their worst nightmare.

My main delight regarding The Marriage Pact has nothing to do with the writing or the plot – but simply with the setting of the San Francisco Bay Area. I could tell Michelle Richmond actually knew what she was talking because she wove local, nontouristy details that were like little Easter eggs – oh, I know that! I would exclaim as I came upon them. It’s heartwarming to see a place you know well and love represented authentically in fiction.  

But aside from the setting, what about the writing and the plot, you ask?  In one word, superb.  At first I was skeptical – how intelligent could Alice and Jake be if they allowed themselves to be sucked into this Pact and couldn’t they just drop out anytime they wanted? But the seduction of the couple is very convincing. Everything seems reasonable and common sensical – at first, and then things start getting intense, too intense.  It doesn’t take long before the demands of the Pact become overbearing, then downright scary.  

Plots like these work only when the protagonists act like you would act.  If they do everything you can think of the escape their predicament but are thwarted at every turn by seemingly omnipotent and omniscient forces.  I felt dread turning into panic for Alice and Jake as things go from worse to I think they're trapped for good.  Could their marriage, or they themselves, possibly survive The Pact?  


April 2, 2019

Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Train Station


Chances are, if you are taking a day trip from Bangkok by train, such as to Ayutthaya, you will be using the Hua Lamphong Train Station.  

First, take the MRT to the Hua Lamphong stop.  Here is a quick explanation of the Bangkok metro system. The Hua Lamphong MRT station exits onto the train station of the same name. 

Only a few steps from the MRT and you can be in line to purchase a train ticket.  Don’t fear – the signs are in English, as well as Thai, and the staff at the window speak enough English for you to conduct a transaction.  


A quick word about the trains – only first class has air conditioning. Second and Third Class have fans only. Third Class seats, although extremely cheap, do not have reserve seats so you might have to stand for your journey if the train is full.  

3rd class only trains also don’t have dining cars, but they do have vendors that periodically stroll the aisles selling cold drinks, fruit, and even meals – typical street food fare.  

There are also restrooms at the end of each car.  

The Hua Lamphong train station is equipped with restrooms, even showers, luggage storage, a book store and other souvenir shops.  

After my return trip to Ayutthaya, I decided to explore the train station a little bit more and found a group of eateries next to the waiting area. You first buy a coupon at the front area and then pick your food cafeteria style.  This was a quick, inexpensive and delicious meal before heading back to my hotel.  


Bangkok's Chatuchak Market


My impressions of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market? Depending on your personality – you’re going to either feel like you’re entering shopping nirvana or your worst nightmare.  Be prepared for aisles and aisles of sheer STUFF. I think I read somewhere that if you can’t find it here – then it doesn’t exist.  I like to shop myself and I went to Chatuchak with some souvenir items in mind, but I have to admit that the volume and sameness of the merchandise overwhelmed me. I left as soon as I found what I wanted. 

But practicalities first. Either take the MRT to the Chatachuk Station or the BTS Skytrain to  Mo Chit.  As you exit the Skytrain station, you will be by a park next to the market. Cross the street and enter.  


My tips are as follows:

Figure out what you want to buy first before going in.  Items are roughly grouped together.  Clothes are in some sections, furniture in another, and plants in yet another. There are signs to tell you which section you are in.  Scout out the general marked prices for what you want before bargaining.  

If you’re with a group, a good place to meet up is the clock tower in the middle of the market.  


There are some places to eat inside the market but the majority of food stalls are concentrated on the perimeter, close to Skytrain exit.  Be aware that on Mondays, there are far fewer stalls due to street cleaning.

If you get sick of the press of crowds at Chatuchak, there is a lovely green park next to it, perfect for picknicking or relaxing.

If you’re looking for souvenirs – you will be spoiled for choice in Chatuchak.  However, I cannot classify it as a must-see while in Bangkok. 

April 1, 2019

Book Review: Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith


Source: Vine

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Princess Aurelia is a prisoner to her crown and the heir that nobody wants. Surrounded by spirits and banned from using her blood-magic, Aurelia flees her country after a devastating assassination attempt. To escape her fate, Aurelia disguises herself as a commoner in a new land and discovers a happiness her crown has never allowed. As she forges new bonds and perfects her magic, she begins to fall for a man who is forbidden to rule beside her. But the ghosts that haunt Aurelia refuse to abandon her, and she finds herself succumbing to their call as they expose a nefarious plot that only she can defeat. Will she be forced to choose between the weight of the crown and the freedom of her new life?

It didn’t take long after starting Bloodleaf before it became a bona fide leave-me-alone, I-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-work pageturner for me.  Crystal Smith has created a fully-formed world swirling with the mythology of rich, dark magic.  Blood magic, to be precise.  And blood is spilled – there are deaths within the first few pages, more deaths as Aurelia journeys from innocent princess to a strong, powerful young woman. 

Bloodleaf’s strength lies in its protagonist. Although she does some rash things, Aurelia’s heart and bravery make for a heroine worth rooting for.  I am also taken with Smith’s choice of “love interest” for Aurelia and how their relationship develops.  

I can’t claim to understand every twist and turn the plot makes, but Bloodleaf is a thrilling ride of the imagination. One big twist I did see coming but there are so many other surprises that it didn’t take away from my enjoyment.  Although Bloodleaf is touted as part of a trilogy, it ends very decisively.  No cliffhangers at all, just a sense of wanting for Aurelia’s adventures to continue.  

Most in our land knew of bloodleaf-the vile poison that only grows on old battlefields or other soil upon which blood has been spilt-but no one ever spoke of the bloom… A magical flower.  A miracle cure.  Said to be able to heal nearly any wound, stave off any fever-but bloodleaf only bloomed when blood was shed a second time and spread across those thirsty, loathsome leaves. Which meant that for every one life saved by bloodleaf flower, two have already been lost. 

March 25, 2019

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton


Source: Vine

Publication Date: March 26, 2019

HER LOVE IS A DEADLY OBSESSION

Juliette loves Nate.
She will follow him anywhere. She's even become a flight
attendant for his airline, so she can keep a closer eye on him.
They are meant to be.
The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing.
Because Juliette has a plan to win him back.
She is the perfect girlfriend.
And she'll make sure no one stops her from
getting exactly what she wants.
True love hurts, but Juliette knows it's worth all the pain...

The Perfect Girlfriend intrigued me in ways that I did not see coming. First and foremost, I thought I knew what Juliette/Lily was all about. Obviously she’s obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Nate. But as the details of her extreme stalking unfold, the reader slowly pieces together the roots of her psycho behavior, until the full, sad picture emerges.  Somehow, despite the scary lengths she goes through, I still felt sympathy for Juliette. The twisty truth complicates how the reader perceives Juliette, even as she does the unbelievable.   I condemned her but still couldn’t stop reading, wanting to see how it all plays out and at the same time wanting her to get away with it on a sick level.  

“Ribbons of anxiety knotted together, kneading my insides and evoking the familiar feeling of injustice.  It wasn’t fair, I’d been the perfect girlfriend.  He couldn’t do this to me. My dreams were slipping out of reach and I wanted to claw them back.  However, in the midst of all this was a moment of stark clarity. If this did have something to do with another woman, if Nate was lying, then she’d better be afraid, very afraid.

“Because I knew that if I found out someone else was the cause of my broken dreams, I’d have no qualms about breaking theirs.”

Reading The Perfect Girlfriend reminded me of You by Carolyn Kepnes.  Like You, with The Perfect Girlfriend, I was at once aghast by, and in a way rooting for the anti-heroine.  

“If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours.  If they don’t, make them.”