Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Buddy-ing up with the Big Buddha

I admit that I had avoided a trip to The Big Buddha for as long as I could. But when my parents came to town, I decided to give the Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride up to the resting place of the Big Buddha a try.

Why did I wait so long? The cable car ride itself is far less than I would have expected for such a touristy place ($93 RT), and the view was well worth the value. Even though it was a cloudy day, we still enjoyed watching the clouds blow over the Lantau hillsides. As we came closer to Ngong Ping village, we saw the Buddha loom on the hilltop. I don't mean to sound cheesy, but it was a serene sight.

The Ngong Ping village is a bit of a tourist trap, but prices again aren't as inflated as one would imagine. We grabbed lunch at Zen Taiwanese Bistro and then made our way over to The Buddha. After climbing the steps, you can then wander around the Po Lin Monastery, a working Buddhist monastery where you can watch the monks pray or make some offerings yourself.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All Ways to The Peak

The Peak is another one of those must-see stops on a tourist's list. It's one of the most exclusive areas of HK because of the fabulous views it affords from its vantage point. From the lookout, you can peer down at the skyscrapers and harbor below.

There are a number of ways to get to The Peak. It all depends on how much time and energy you are willing to spend to get there.

Most tourists visit The Peak by way of The Peak Tram. You can add on The Peak Lookout to the price of the ticket, but IMO, it's not the best vantage point and you're better off going for the plain ol' ticket ($22 one way/$33 RT).

The lines for the tram can be killer, but once on board, the motorized cable car does an almost vertical climb uphill. It has great views of the skyscrapers and the tropical foliage along the way. At the top, riders are dumped into a mall where they can shop for trinkets. Head outdoors, though for the view.

For a roller-coaster like adventure, score yourself a front seat on the top deck of the bus that heads up from Central. Take in the awesome views as you zip along the windy roads leading back to the city. Better yet, take the bus down. It's more thrilling coming down.

There are several ways that you can hike to The Peak, as well. From Central, hike up Old Peak Road and you'll find the trail from there. While the trek isn't for the meek, beginners and more advanced hikers can hack the trail just fine. At the top, reward yourself with the view-- and a beverage stop.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Israel: A Homecoming

When our plane touched down, we were beat. We felt dirty and weary from the 15-hour journey we had endured. But when we met the next morning for breakfast with a seaside view of the Kinneret, we were rejuvenated with optimism and excitement. We were in Israel!

Some of us had been here before, others had never stepped foot in the country. Yet, throughout the week, the guides and the people we met made it feel like a homecoming for all of us.

It’s hard not to feel some attachment to Israel. It’s here where three religions of the world intersect, which makes Israel one of the most revered and fractured places in the world. Yet, whatever your political or religious leaning, it’s easy to fall in love with this land.

In the north, mountains rise up majestically, the highest of which are capped in snow. Centrally, there’s the Mediterranean Sea and the urban playground of Tel Aviv. Further south, you can find solitude in the Negev desert. All this is within reach by car – or bus, as it was.

During our twelve day stay, we sampled a bit from every region. We hiked Israel’s hillsides, rappelled its stony crags and swam in its seas. But it wasn’t just nature that spoke to us, it was also the history of Israel.

At every turn another story whispered to us. On the stairs in the City of David, we remembered the Jews who hid underneath, but were ultimately discovered by the Romans. Overlooking Tel Azeka, we remembered David’s courage as we re-enacted his infamous fight against Goliath. On the high steppe of Masada, we debated among ourselves the choice the Zealots faced – death or slavery.

While it’s the ancient stories that are well told, we also walked in the shadows of modern men who helped build today’s Israel with their determination, hard-work, and for some, sacrifice. We visited the home of Ben Gurion, the man who ushered in the State of Israel, but chose to live his twilight years modestly on a kibbutz. We lit candles at the graves of soldiers, men and women who gave their lives to defend Israel. And we visited the grave of Theodore Herltz who rests in Israel because he lived in restless pursuit of a nation for the Jews.

Together, we did more than we ever thought possible. We met strangers who are now friends. We worked the land, harvesting vegetables and planting trees. We left friendships, memories and physical evidence that we were there behind, ensuring that when we return to Israel, we will feel welcomed, at home.