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Apathy In Udaipur

Hitting the Wall After Two Weeks

sunny 82 °F

India has beaten us down. Maybe it is the heat. Maybe it is the incessant peddlers who don't understand the word "no." Or maybe it is the two straight weeks of stomach cramps from too much ghee. I don't know what it is, but ennui has set in. We have travelled half-way around the world, and all that we want to do now is absolutely nothing. People warned us, but I never believed it would happen. We are all fort-ed out.

Do you want to see another fortress? Eh. Do you want to visit another palace? Whatever. Do you want to check out another temple? Does it have a swimming pool?

Today, our driver was taking us from Jodhpur to Udaipur, with a side trip to a small town called Ranakpur. We would then see yet another temple carved out of white marble. We were tempted to request that he drive us straight through to Udaipur so that we would not have to spend an hour in the heat staring at another repetitive site. Instead we politely held our tongue. Later we were glad that we did.

This was our last drive through the Rajasthani countryside.

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Pack of camels

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The driver of the second car is flatulent.

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Half-way there.

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(Left) In the countryside, many women still practice purdah--concealing their face from men. (Middle) Turbans and mustaches are two distinctive features of Rajput men. (Right) Rajasthani women are often adorned with large bangles, earrings, anklets, and nose rings.

After the 2-3 hour car ride from Jodhpur, we arrived at the main Jain temple called the Chaumukha Mandir (Four-Faced Temple). It was built in the 15th century and is dedicated to Adinath, the first of 24 enlightened beings in the Jain religion.

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(Above and below) The temples at Ranakpur are one of the five holiest sites for Jain pilgrims.

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Some Jain devotee's take extreme precautions to protect living organisms. The mask prevents the swallowing of flying insects. The broom is used to sweep the ground in front so that bugs are not accidentally stepped on.

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After more than three decades without a menstrual cycle, I was relieved that today was not the time to start.

There were plenty of tourists in shorts and sleeveless shirts who did not realize that visitors are required to be fully covered. They had to rent leggings or shawls to get inside. There is no entry for the temple, but 50 Rs are needed for the camera. Inside, you definitely want to take pictures.

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Guardians protect the entryway to the temple.

There are over 1400 unique pillars with some of the most skillful carvings we have seen.

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Several domed ceilings are ornately decorated with the same craftsmanship.

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Beautiful statues and detailed carvings can be found in every wing inside the the temple.

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The head priest worked the room, offering blessings to the tourists. Afterwards, he asked for a small donation (ten rupees). Overall, the Chaumukha Mandir is one of the most beautiful religious sites we have seen in India, with only the temple at Khajuraho rivaling it in intricacy. Seeing this work of religious art reinvigorated us for more sightseeing.

The journey from Ranakpur to Udaipur started off treacherously. The one lane road winds around steep hills. You never know what is coming around that corner, be it car, truck, or monkey.

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Our driver was smart enough to take the route slowly and safely.

Eventually, the terrain transformed into flat and green farmlands. Although, Rajasthan is one of the wealtheir areas of India, the countryside was still dotted with animal-driven water wheels in lieu of electricity.

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These water wheels demonstrate the extent that India still needs to go to modernize.

Once we arrived in Udaipur, we checked into the Jagat Niwas Hotel on the banks of Lake Pichola. Although the building was constructed in the 17th century, it is a fully modern facility with a great location.

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Views around the courtyard of the Jagat Niwas Hotel.

We stayed in room 101, a suite that overlooks the lake.

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(Left) Enormous window seat with a great view of the lake. (Right) Bedroom.

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(Left) Bathroom. (Right) Small room off of the bedroom with a desk and armoire.

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View of Lake Pichola and the city from our window.

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Not the cleanest water to bathe in.

Since there are many shops right outside the hotel, we went to see what deals were to be had.

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I'm pretty sure I would have looked hot in this number, but they did not have my size.

Unlike some of the smaller, more rural towns in Rajasthan, Udaipur is a very popular destination for tourists. Known as the Venice of the East, the city has picturesque lakes surrounded by idyllic, lush hills. Most people love this area of Rajasthan. Therefore, shopkeepers don't have to try as hard. In the other cities, salesmen would not hesitate to turn over every item in the store and unfurl every shawl, quilt, or rug just to sell one item. In Udaipur, we just felt that several shop owners were even annoyed that we were looking to buy something. It was laughable to see some of the prices marked up 2-3 times more than in smaller towns like Jaisalmer. Needless to say, we did not shop for long.

Instead we just went up to the covered balcony at the Jagat Niwas, relaxed, read, and drank up their stock of Limca sodas.

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(Left) These lime sodas are more tangy and less sweet than U.S. equivalents. (Middle) View of the Lake Palace from the balcony of the Jagat Niswas. (Right) Parrot atop of a domed roof.

There are many cruises on Lake Pichola that will cost ~250-400 Rs/person. We had a perfect view of the sunset from our hotel for free.

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Sun setting over the nearby Lake Palace.

For dinner, we climbed up to the roof to further enjoy the view of the illuminated Lake Palace. We didn't realize the portions are larger here than in Jaisalmer, so we over ordered. The food was good, but that has been the story for most of our meals.

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(Left) Mutton stewed in "white" gravy. (Right) Fish tikka achari - tandoori fish.

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(Left) Alu angare - tandoori potatoes stuffed with cheese and fruits. (Right) Vegetable biryani.

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(Left) Cheese naan. (Right) Citrus mocktail.

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Lights illuminate the Lake Palace at night.

The next morning, we visited the nearby City Palace. We chose the audio tours over the less expensive Indian guides. Personally I enjoy going at my own slower pace and have a difficult time understanding some of the guides' accents. The palace is well decorated with many informative displays regarding the history of the Mewar Kingdom. They have beautiful art pieces including five vibrantly colored peacock statues. The take home point we got from the tour is that the s**t from Udaipur's royal family does not stink as badly as that of other rajput royalty. They proudly flaunt their history of resisting rather than cooperating with the Mughals and then the Maratha Confederacy. In 1911, then Maharana Fateh Singh also refused to attend the Delhi Darbur of King George V in 1911 because Mewar was not given the most esteemed position above all the other Indian kingdoms under British rule.

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Cannons guard the gates to the City Palace complex.

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(Left) Balconies protrude from the facade of the palace walls. (Middle) Paintings decorate the entrance to the complex. (Right) The Ganesh Deorhi Gate is the entrance to the museum.

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Decorative archway.

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(Left) Painted ceiling inside the decorative archway. (Right) This angel seems out of place in a palace with Hindu and Islamic architecture.

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A marble fountain and pigeon cages decorate the Bari Mahal which also contains a relaxing courtyard with palm trees.

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Various screens and windows found inside the City Palace.

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Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace) is adorned with mirrors.

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The ceiling and walls of the Krishnas Vilas are decorated with miniature paintings. This room is a shrine to a 16 year-old Mewar princess who died in 1807. She was inadvertantly betrothed to two different Rajput rulers. Instead of choosing one kingdom and thus angering the other, she elected for suicide. It took 2-3 rounds of poison before she finally died.

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Colorfully-painted walls can be found throughout the palace.

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Ornate wall panel

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(Left) The Kanch Burj is lined with red and silver glass. (Middle) Room containing a swing suspended from the ceiling. (Right) An ivory door remains preserved behind glass.

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The royal "throne" for one of the rulers who had been stricken with polio is on display. Notice that there is no place for toilet paper.

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The Maharana's of Udaipur are followers of Surya Dev (Sun God).

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(Above and below) The 17th century Mor Chowk (Peacock courtyard) contains colorful mosiacs of peacocks.

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The outdoor courtyard of the Zeenana Mahal can be rented out for weddings and parties.

After the City Palace, our driver took us to the Saheliyon-Ki-Bari (Garden of the Maids of Honor). A sign outside proclaimed it as being the "most beautiful garden in India." If this were true, then this place would reflect poorly on all the other gardens in the country. I can imagine this site once being gorgeous. There are multiple fountains surrounded by lily ponds and elephant statues spewing water and a central courtyard with a large picturesque fountain. Unfortunately, the place needs a serious scrubbing down. There is mold and algae discoloring the tiles and pools.

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They really need to increase the pitiful 5 Rs/person entrance fee to pay for better maintenance. The money would also help with the water bill as the entry waterspout remains turned off. They are only activated by a man whose sole job is to wait around until a guest walks by. Then he just turns the crank to let the water flowing.

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Man waiting to activate the fountains. Possibly one of the lamest jobs around.

Even worse is the "science museum." It is a room filled with dusty, poorly informative displays with random themes. There are a couple of jars with preserved animals in formaldehyde. There are also a couple of posters sparsely detailing the exciting topic of fossil fuels. And they even have those mirrors that distort your reflection, likely obtained from some defunct amusement park. The only saving grace is that the place is free. How they pay for the two guys "working" there, I do not know.

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The museum resembles an elementary school science fair with no winning exhibits.

After we finished up with these gardens, that ennui had returned. Now, where can we find a swimming pool?

Posted by evilnoah 05:16 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan ranakpur Comments (0)

Stranded On An Island In the Middle of A City

Our stay at the Udaipur Lake Palace

sunny 82 °F

Okay so we weren't really stranded. There are boats constantly shuttling people back and forth to the city. And it's not truly an island. It's a palace built in the middle of a man-made lake. One thing is for sure, if somebody wanted to 'rescue' me from this place, they will have to drag me kicking and screaming.

The first thing to realize about the Taj Lake Palace Hotel is that it is not a steal. If the early seasons of the show Survivor had been filmed on this island, the castaways would have brought their credit card as their luxury item. You will have to pay a lot for a room and even more on top of that to appreciate its amenities. It is a place to go to splurge. We decided to stay at the Lake Palace Hotel as a nice ending to our two week trip.

Currently, the palace is accessible only by boat. But before getting there, security has their turn. Passports are checked, metal detectors are used, and all the bags go through the X-ray machine.

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The private dock where water taxi's bring visitors to the hotel.

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Views of the Lake Palace Hotel from the boat.

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Visitors are greeted at the dock by the hotel staff.

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(Left and Middle) Visitors are showered with rose petals at the entrance of the hotel. (Right) A mango beverage is served during the check-in process.

We were shown to room 109 which has a nice view of the City Palace. The room is as expected--elegant and roomy with all of the modern accoutrements of a five-star hotel.

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(Left) Opening the window is prohibited as it may let large yellow hornets inside. One got into our room anyway. To our alarm, they were going to spray down the room, but one staffer found the intruder and took care of it. (Right) The bed was comfortable with soft sheets. Nice thread count.

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The television had an annoying habit of turning to the Taj channel (infommercial about their other hotel properties) whenever we turned it on.

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Bathroom with vibrant blue tiles. They serviced the room and changed the towels and toiletries twice a day.

The service is impeccable. There seems to be ten staff members for every guest. The workers will greet guests with a little namaste whenever they walk by them. The staff go out of their way to make sure everyone is satisfied. They are omnipresent but, at the same time, invisible. They are there for your beck and call. It is as if the Raj never ended.

The hotel staff gives a tour every evening showing the palace's history. The centerpiece is the lily pond which was prominently shown in the movie Octopussy.

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(Above and below) The lily pond still looks like it did in the James Bond flick, except without all the hussies.

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Unfortunately, many of the rooms were being renovated, and the Maharana's original chambers were off limits. Unlike many of the palaces-turned-museums, the Lake Palace actually is small with monotonous hallways. What decor they do have is usually ornate but subdued.

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(Left) Decorative candleholder. (Middle) Picture with inlaid stones. (Right) Creepy life-sized statues.

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(Left) Decorative weapons and shield. (Right) Marble elephant.

Even with the lack of garish opulence, the staff does take care of the small details to make the hotel a five-star experience.

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(Left) A flutist's music echoed throughout the corridors of the palace. (Middle) Ornate chair swing. (Right) A small shrine sits just off of the Lily Pond.

There is a very comfortable bar (no, we did not order whatever Bourdain drank) in an area that was initially used to greet royal guests. Aside from the guest rooms, there is a nice spa, overpriced shops, a small "gym" that nobody used, three restaurants, and...that's about it.

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(Left) Lobby. The door leads to the ridiculously overpriced stores. (Right) Recreational room with backgammon and chess (checkers if you're from the sticks) boards.

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(Left) Lounging area. (Right) Central courtyard where performances are held.

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(Left) Room off the bar where the Maharana used to greet any visiting dignitaries. (Right) Hallway with elephant statue.

Oh, there is also a swimming pool with lounge chairs. This one pales in comparison to that of the Amarvilas. It is not heated; it has no underwater seating areas; and there is a giant tree that looms over it. Nets cover the tree to prevent the leaves from getting into the pool. I asked why they just didn't cut it down. Apparently, the tree is over 270 years-old having been planted personally by Maharana Jagath Singh II who built the palace.

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The centuries-old tree shades the hotel's swimming pool. Most of the lounge chairs face away from the pool, providing a nice view of Lake Pichola.

The tree epitomizes the design of the hotel. Functionality and comfort are constrained by the need to preserve history. While some renovations and additions have been made, most of the palace remains pristine. Despite these limitations, the hotel was reportedly near capacity. Another guest who had visited the nearby Oberoi Udaisvilas said it was empty despite it being rated higher in the travel magazines. The lure of staying here is the beauty, the service, and most of all the history. It was originally constructed in the mid 1700's as a summer palace. Only in the last 40 years has it been a hotel. The Lake Palace has served as an asylum for future Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (some say he got the inspiration for the Taj Mahal from nearby architecture). English refugees were hidden here by the Majarana here during the Sepoy Mutiny. Furthermore, it has been a popular vacation spot for multiple foreign dignitaries, celebrities, wealthy business men, and now Tennessee trash like me.

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(Top and Bottom) Views of the hotel as night fell.

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We ended up having four meals there. Breakfast is mostly Western style with traditional fare such as Eggs Benedict, Belgium waffles, etc. in addition to their buffet of pastries, fruits, and cereals.

Lunch can be had poolside or in the informal dining room. The service and prices are not informal. On the first day, we started with their version of a chaat. I had the rack of lamb which was a whopping 1700 rupees (~$37). The taste was good, but cooked a little longer than the medium I asked for. Sherri had the excellent butter-poached prawns for 1600 Rs. For dessert we had the blueberry gelato and the saffron galub jamin.

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(Left) Toasted Indian-style multi-grain bread served with a kidney beans puree and an apple chutney. (Right) Amuse-bouche containing zucchini, squash, red pepper, and balsamic vinager.

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(Left) Papada chaat - pastry with tamarind chutney and mint. (Right) The kitchen accidentally brought out a beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Although it looked really good, I sent it back. I thought it would be disrespectful to eat beef in a country where it is taboo.

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(Left) Rack of lamb. (Right) Butter-poached prawns.

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(Left) Pista galub jamun. (Right) Blueberry Gelato.

On the second day, Sherri insisted on Indian food since we had only tried the Hotel's continental fare. The food was well prepared, but frankly all of the Indian dishes started to become interchangeable to me.

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Papadum and chutneys are given as appetizers.

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(Left) An watermelon and paneer amuse-bouche. (Right) Laal maas - Rajasthani spicy lamb curry.

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(Left) Masledar tawa pomfret - fish with red chilli paste, ginger, and other spices. (Right) Yellow dal served with the fish.

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We had a delicate rais malai for dessert.

Dinner on the top of the of the Lake Palace Hotel is considered the most picturesque and romantic spot in town. It starts out in the courtyard outside the bar, musicians play traditional songs while a Rajasthani dancer performs just a few feet away from the crowd. I honestly can't say that I enjoy traditional song and dance, but it is part of the culture that brings people halfway around the world to see. I don't know why I videotaped the performance because I had a hard enough time watching it live. I'm a total philistine.

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(Left) Musicians playing in the courtyard. (Right) While we watched the performance, we dined on complimentary snacks of nuts, crudites, and bite-sized sandwiches.

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(Left) The dancer did have one interesting move where she contorted herself backwards and picked up two rings off the ground with her eyelids. (Right) I ordered a vetiver iced tea, not knowing what it is. Only later did I learn that vetiver is essentially grass. It did have a good, mild taste.

We later walked to the top of the hotel where we dined alfresco (continental fare only) with the romantic view of the lake and city. It was nice to see the opposing view of Lake Pichola as compared to our dinner the night before at the Jagat Niswas. Many of the lake-front buildings are lit-up. Otherwise from that, the whole dining experience was very dark.

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The City Palace is illuminated during the early evening. Most of the lights are shut off around midnight.

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The menu can only be read with the aid of clip-on lights.

I ordered the foies gras two ways followed by a seafood soup. The torchon was silky smooth and delicious. The flavor for the seared foies gras was really good, but it was a little too cooked for my taste. It didn't quite melt in my mouth, the way I like it. The wife had a beet and goat cheese salad (good but uninspiring) followed by a pea soup with prawns. We both agreed that her pea soup was better than my seafood soup. We both had the signature entree, the sea bass with a Kalamata olive tapenade served with potatoes. The fish was very well cooked and tasty. However, flavor-wise, it was a little ordinary. I think we prefer a sauce for sea bass rather than the olive tapenade. We passed on the unexciting dessert options.

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(Left) Assortmnet of breads. (Right) Amuse-bouche.

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(Left) The duo of foies gras - a pear panna cotta is nestled between the torchon on the left and the pan-seared liver on the right. At the far right is a Bailey's Irish creme and carrot-tomato compote (What an odd combination!). (Right) Slow-roasted beet and goat cheese salad with a honey-pommery dressing. (yawn.)

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(Left) English pea soup with mint and poached prawns. (Right) Essence of seafood soup infused with saffron, shaved fennel, and sevruga caviar.

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(Left) Sorbet as a palate cleanser. (Right) Chilean sea bass on a potato confit, asparagus and olive tampenade with a saffron and marscapone sauce.

The most impressive thing about dining on the roof is that the chefs do all the cooking outside instead of in the main indoor kitchen. As any Top Chef contestant can attest to, cooking under the elements is much more difficult even with the most modern ranges and equipment.

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Kitchen setup on the roof.

The next morning, we utilized their spa before we checked out. Although the prices were very high for India, they were still better than in the U.S. The wife had a 90 minute facial and a 75 minute pedicure. They did a good job on both, comparable to what you get at a quality place back home.

Despite not being a spa type of person, I went ahead and booked the 90 minute "warrior" massage. The only other massage I ever had was a 15 minute foot massage in the mountains of Yunnan, China. A tribal lady gave my dirty feet a rub down with her even filthier hands. The best $1.50 I had ever spent. Therefore, I was kind of nervous about the whole formal spa thing. They asked if I wanted a male or female masseuse. In my line of work, I have to examine men in their more private areas. As expected they can get pretty embarrassed and uncomfortable. I have to reassure many of them that it is no big deal. Well, I am a big hypocrite. I don't want any dude touching me, so I went with the female masseuse.

The massage started out with a sauna. Two minutes in there and I was done. I would have never been a contestant for the World Sauna Championships (now defunct because somebody died last year). Then the masseuse had me change into some disposable underwear that resembled a string bikini. I had to ask the lady "Are you sure there isn't a men's version?" If this is what the Rajput warriors used to wear, I am surprised their kingdom lasted so long. The masseuse was very professional and respectful. It was a very relaxing 90 minutes. No painful contorting of the limbs in unnatural directions. And no happy ending (This ain't Bangkok!).

After checking out, we lounged at the pool for the next four hours until we had to catch an evening flight back to Delhi.

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The rose ice tea and the cardamom and saffron frou-frou drink will lower your testosterone level. Even more if they had little umbrellas.

It turned out that most of the other people using the pool that afternoon were also on that flight. We checked back into the Hotel Palace Heights which seemed much noisier than before. It's hard to come back to civilization after being stranded in paradise.

Posted by evilnoah 15:49 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan Comments (0)

Hiding From Holi

Our last day in India

semi-overcast 80 °F

Before coming to India, my wife was most worried about our final day coinciding with Holi, the festival of colors. During this holiday, locals celebrate by dousing each other with colored water or powder. We had been told that the colors can be tough to wash out and can linger for days. I really wanted to see some of the Holi celebrations, from afar of course. But she dreaded the possibility of getting colored and spending the flight home looking like a smurf. Worse is having to show up back to work with discolored hair or face. That wouldn't inspire much confidence in our patients right before going under for surgery. She wanted to avoid Holi altogether. I reassured her that the festival wouldn't be much of an issue as long as we stayed in the more commercial areas of town.

After breakfast, we met up with our guide for a morning visit to some last tourist attractions in Delhi. Our first stop was the Qutb Complex in the southern part of the city. The centerpiece of this area is the Qtub Minar, India's highest tower at 238 feet.

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When the Afghani slave-general Qutbuddin Aibak conquered the region from the Chauhan kings in 1193, he began construction of this "Victory Tower." He was later to establish the Mamluk Dynasty, the first of the Delhi Sultanates, in 1206 and die in a polo accident (a not uncommon way for Indian rulers to meet their demise) four years later.

The minaret was not built all at once. 160 years and several Delhi Sultanates later, the fifth and last story was completed. The outer surface is covered with Islamic carvings and Arabic writing. Our guide told us that the inside of the minaret contains Hindu carvings. She said that some of the stones used to build the structure came from demolished Hindu temples. Unfortunately, we couldn't see them as this area has been closed to the public for over a decade.

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Depictions of animals or people are not allowed in conservative Islamic decor. Hence, most Islamic architecture in India is devoid of aniconism.

The remaining areas consisted of ruins from tombs and former buildings of worship. They were not as interesting or intricate as the buildings we had seen over the past two weeks.

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(Above and Below) The Alai Darwaza is the main southern gate to the Qutb complex. It was built in 1311 by Alauddin Khilji, a ruler of the second Delhi Sultanate Dynasty. It is the first building in India to employ true Islamic architecture (true arches and domes).

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Tomb of Imam Zamin, a Turkestan saint who migrated to India and died in 1539.

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The Quwwat-ul-Islam (Might of Islam) Mosque ironically contains several Hindu motifs in the decorative carvings of the columns.

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The 22 foot-high Iron Pillar of Delhi dates to the 4th century when it was housed in a Jain temple. It is 98% iron and has resisted corrosion for over 1600 years. It is about as exciting as the largest ball of twine.

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The tomb of Iltutmish, son of Aibek and second of the Delhi Sultanates.

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The Alai Minar was going to be a tower twice the height of the Qutb Minar. The first story was completed by Alauddin Khilji, but the project was abandoned soon after his death.

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(Above and Below) Foreign tourists are not the only visitors to the Qutb Complex. Many parrots and locals visit this clean, well kept area of Delhi.

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The next place we visited was the Tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor. He had actually lost his kingdom to the last Delhi Sultanate and lived as a refuge in Persia for 15 years before retaking Delhi in 1555. Sadly, he died only a year later when he fell down the stairs of his library carrying a load of books. Knowledge can be dangerous.

Humayun's Tomb was commissioned by his wife, Hamina Banu Begum, seven years after his death and is said to have served as the blueprint for the Taj Mahal, a century later. The resemblance to the Taj Mahal is striking in form, but different in most other details. It is much smaller in scale. It is constructed of red sandstone, not white marble. And there are no exquisite details and inlaid gemstones in the walls. What is left is a nice UNESCO site, but a very underwhelming monument compared to the Taj Mahal. I think we would have appreciated this place if we had seen it first.

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Gateway to Humayun's Tomb.

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This tomb is a smaller, simpler, and red version of the Taj Mahal.

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(Left and Middle) The surrounding buildings and gardens are nowhere as nice as that of the Taj. (Right) Decorative jialis (screens), a common characteristic in Mughal architecture.

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Unlike the Taj Mahal, photography is prohibited inside Humayan's tomb.

Our guide suggested that we visit the National Museum since I am interested in learning about pre-Mughal history. We also had an hour or two to kill, and it is an air-conditioned facility. Plus there would be a zero percent chance of being doused by an urchin with dyed water. Their collection is pretty large consisting of small pottery fragments and tools from the B.C. era. The artifacts from the first millennium are mainly elaborate sculptures and base reliefs (many taken from ruined temples) of gods and goddesses. Unfortunately, the descriptions of the pieces are very brief and really do not help convey the history or culture of these ancient civilizations. There is an audio tour that can be rented, but it only covers select highlighted displays.

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Some of the centuries-old reliefs and statues found in the National Museum.

There are also small exhibits such as the maritime history of India. Sadly, India has always been a pretty insignificant Naval power, so there isn't much there. As an American, it was interesting to learn that the first British naval vessel ever commisioned in India was the HMS Minden, on its decks from which Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner.

They also had several galleries on coins from the various dynasties of India. When I was in college, I took a course on Roman history as revealed by their coinage (pretty nerdy). It was actually surprising to see what can be learned from the portraits, images, and slogans minted on the coins. Unfortunately, much of the Indian money seemed more simplistic with only Sanskrit writing as their only details. Although the museum's coin collection is vast, to me, it just wasn't that interesting.

In contrast, there was a large exhibit on the different varieties of miniature paintings throughout the last 500-600 years. During our time in Rajasthan, we rued the fact that we didn't understand the different schools of painting. The museum does a good job of describing the characteristics of each style while showing many examples of each. I only wish I had more time to go over that area more thoroughly.

The National Museum also has a special exhibit on the treasures of China. I think they had some good displays there, but we didn't linger very long as we had seen similar pieces on our previous journeys to that country. Altogether, I thought the museum is pretty good, not great. Sherri hated it, but I think a lot had to do with their really weak gift shop.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Khan Market, an upscale shopping center that caters to more Western tastes. The streets outside are lined with Benzes, Bimmers, and other expensive cars. You better believe nobody was going to play Holi around those pricy machines. Still, it was hard not to notice that the country was celebrating a holiday.

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Even with the rifle, it's hard to be intimidated by this Khan Market security guard.

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A woman prepares a bonfire for Holi in the Khan Market parking lot. No lighter fluid is necessary when you have cow patties for fuel.

There are many nice boutique stores that occupied our time for several hours. We purchased more knick knacks from Anokhi (again for the 3rd time in India), Good Earth, FabIndia, etc.. No haggling was necessary. We did have to stop off at the McDonald's and see their menu. They wouldn't allow me to take pictures inside (stupid corporate rules). Since beef and pork are taboo for Hindu's and Muslims respectively, the only protein is chicken (what, no lamb?). Instead of the Big Mac, they have the Chicken Majarajah Burger. Instead of the regular hamburger, they have a McAloo Tikki burger made up of a potato and pea patty. For the equivalent of about 50 cents, it was actually pretty good.

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This McDonald's is marked by the devil.

We headed to a restaurant near Old Delhi called Chor Bizarre, that has received some nice reviews. Unfortunately, it was closed, likely for the holiday. We needed to find some place fast so I remembered reading a good review about a place called The Great Kebab Factory at the Radisson Hotel near the airport. We took a gamble and it paid off.

First, we had to get our car through security. The guards checked the back looking for any firearms or bombs. Once inside, we headed to the restaurant. The concept was different than anything else we had experienced in India. First we had to select from either a vegetarian or carnivore menu. We wanted to do one of each, but since logistically it would be problematic, they decided to just bring meats mixed with the occasional vegetables.

At that point they started bringing out their different kebabs. Unfortunately, my hurried pictures do not do the food justice. Their specialty is a minced lamb kebab that we were told is best eaten wrapped in roti. It resembled one of those diarrhea-inducing Taco Bell burritos. Just as good, too. They followed with tandoori shrimp and paneer, roasted chicken and lamb, black pepper chicken, tandoori potato, and finally lamb chop. These were also served up with various breads that were good but filled me up too quickly. At this point, we were asked to pick which ones we could have again. We went for our favorites--the minced lamb, shrimp, paneer, and lamb chop. They will continuously bring kebab after kebab until you have had enough. It's like an Indian churrascaria. You definitely need to bring your A game to this restaurant. Unfortunately, we brought our fourth string backups and were quickly stuffed. But that was just the introduction. The "main course" was brought in. It is two forms of dal and ultra-smooth creamed spinach served with a lamb biryani. At this point, I had to take an intermission and clear up more space. For dessert, they brought their version of several Indian sweets--a pistachio kulfi on a stick, jaleebis, galub jamun, kheer, halwa, and paan. With their attentive service, we were able to polish off all these courses in little over an hour. Although pricy by Indian standards, the food was worth it. Sherri thought it was the best meal she had for the whole trip. My only complaint is that they didn't have a written menu giving us the Indian name to the kebabs that we were eating. We tried asking some of the waiters, but we had a hard time understanding their Indian accents.

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(Left) Condiments include onions and four dipping sauces. (Right) First course was a fruit and vegetable salad with a strawberry vinagrette.

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(Left) Their signature minced lamb kebab may look like a steaming pile of poop, but it still tastes great. (Right) Roasted chicken kebab.

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(Left) Spicy lamb kebab. (Right) Tandoori potato.

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(Left) Cashew and fennel bread. (Right) The saffron bread was awesome.

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(Left) Black pepper chicken kebab. (Right) The "main course" includes a biryani and two types of dals.

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(Left) Kulfi on a stick. (Right) Galub Jamun.

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(Left) Kheer. (Right) Halwa.

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(Left) Jalebis. (Right) Paan.

We rushed to the airport and checked in. Our bags were over the limit, so we had to do some last minute rearranging with our carry-ons. The airline representative was nice enough not to charge us for being a few kg's over. In our haste we forgot to exchange our rupees back to dollars before entering the secure area. There is one money-exchange place inside but it is reserved for only local Indians (WTF, why does it matter?). So, we were stuck with $70 of worthless Indian rupees that are technically illegal to bring out of the country. (We did put them to good use, donating them to UNICEF on the flight home).

We didn't look forward to spending the next 15 hours covered in sweat and dirt, so we went to one of the lounges to use their showers. We are not members, but for 500 rupees/person, they offer that option. We waited our turn. And waited. And waited. Then we saw that our flight was starting the boarding process, 1.5 hours before departure. So we started freaking out. The friendly attendant was nice enough to knock on the stalls and get some of the folks moving. What they were doing in there that took so long, I don't know and probably don't want to know. Their turnover was very quick, and the private bathrooms with toilet and showers were nice and clean. Towels, shampoo, and conditioner were provided. I was in such a hurry, I didn't even stop to figure out how to get hot water. Five minutes later, I was ready to roll. And then I had to wait another fifteen minutes for the wife to be done.

In order to actually board the plane, we had to go through the security process once again. I don't want to hear anybody bitch about the TSA in U.S. airports. The multiple checkpoints in India are much more of a hassle, I can only imagine what it is like in Israel. As much of a pain as it was, I did feel good about the added security.

Two flights, one long layover in Chicago, and two tasty breakfast items from Tortas Frontera later, we were finally home, happy we made the journey to North India.

Posted by evilnoah 15:39 Archived in India Tagged india delhi qutb Comments (0)

Sailing Ships and "Safari's"

Family Vacation in the San Diego Area

sunny 72 °F

Now that our kids and most of their cousins have ditched their poopy diapers, my brother, sister, and I decided that we should take an extended family vacation. We decided that we should visit Legoland in San Diego before the kids outgrow it. It had been a few years since we took the kids on a long flight. We didn’t narc them this time. In retrospect, maybe that would have been better. Instead, I installed Plants vs. Zombies on the iPad for them to play. While this kept them quiet on the plane, it was annoying listening to the kids singing “There’s a zombie on your lawn…” for the remainder of the week.

After landing at the airport, renting a car, and dropping the wife off at The Fancy Mall to shop, I decided to take the kids over to the Maritime Museum. To my surprise, the metered parking spots are not free despite it being the weekend. Nevertheless, the harbor is a pretty cool place. Besides the multitude of tourists like me, there were artists selling their trinkets, bikers and skateboarders practicing their stunts, and peddle-cab operators blasting music from their boom-boxes (didn’t know they still made these!) The Maritime Museum is composed of a collection of several older ships. The “star” of the fleet is the Star of India, the oldest active sailing vessel in the world (built by the Brits in 1863). The kids had fun playing with the rigging on the deck. To them it was just a jumble of string. Below deck are museum quality displays describing anything from the different classifications of sailing vessels to a collection of whale photographs. The living quarters were pretty cramped, showing how difficult a sailor’s life used to be. I think I’d last only two or three days before I’d mutiny.

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(Left) The Star of India. (Right) WIIILSOOON!

Docked next to the Star is the smaller vessel HMS Surprise, a replica of a British frigate. It was used to film the movie Master and Commander. Despite the large Captain’s wheel above deck, the ship has an identical control exactly one deck below that was used to steer the ship. I always imagined that the warships during the Age of Sail would be large, intimidating vessels. However, this boat seemed fairly ordinary.

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(Left) The HMS Surprise. (Right) Trim the Sails.

One of the coolest ships there is actually a submarine. It’s an old 70’s era diesel sub called the B-39. The Red October it is not. It’s pretty small and cramped in there. While the air outside in the harbor was cool and breezy, the submarine was hot and muggy. I realized I am not very flexible when we had to climb through three circular hatches to traverse the submarine. My girl wiped out climbing down a set of three steep stairs. You could hear the clang as her skull hit the metal steps. Luckily, she bounced right up without crying. I was just yelling out to my boy “Watch out for the—” when I heard him crashing down as well. Sigh.

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(Left) The B-39 submarine. (Right) Old Ruskie torpedo.

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(Left) The periscope is aimed at an aircraft carrier across the harbor. (Middle) If the toilet gets clogged...(Right) You can always take a dump in the torpedo tube.

There were a couple of other ships in the fleet—a steam yacht, an American submarine, and a large steam ferry that hosted larger exhibits and a gift shop. They also have a collection of some of Paul Gauguin’s works. However, I passed because I didn’t think the kids would be too interested in paintings of naked Tahitian women.

We checked into our hotel for the night, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront Hotel located next to Petco Park. Unfortunately, the Padres were on the road because the weather was perfect for a ballgame. The hotel is family friendly with the kids getting a little bag of toys on check-in. That night they had a cupcake decorating activity for the kids, while there was a wine tasting for the adults. This basically devolved into a bunch of parents downing a lot of free alcohol while gorging on their kid’s cupcakes. What pairs better with a chocolate cupcake with blue frosting, a red or a white wine?

For dinner, we headed out to a highly-rated Ethiopian restaurant called the Muzita Abyssinian Bistro. Finding a parking spot in this area on a Saturday night was close to impossible. We tried the kitfo (beef tartare) appetizer and the ono tsebhi (spicy grilled fish) and dorho kilwa (grilled chicken) entrees. Maybe we were being too ambitious trying to get the kids to eat foods more exotic than macaroni and cheese. In retrospect, it was probably a bad sign that they were the only children in the restaurant. Unfortunately, the medium spiciness that we ordered was actually much hotter than we expected. Luckily, the kids liked the bland injera (spongy, unleavened pancake bread) and the stewed vegetables which we all thought were the best parts of the meal. After a long day and lots of jet lag, we had to carry two sleeping children out of the restaurant.

The highlight of next morning’s breakfast buffet was definitely their bacon. The Hilton didn’t go cheap with thin, greasy pork bellies. Their bacon had bite. They are going to need to slaughter a couple more pigs to replace all the pork that I ate. In contrast, their biscuits and gravy looked ghastly, definitely not something you would find in the South.

We picked up my mom at the airport and proceeded north up to Carlsbad. After spending much of the day at the Carlsbad Premium Outlets buying stuff that we didn’t need, we checked into the West Inn and Suites. Their staff is so friendly and helpful that I swear that they must be Mormons. We ate at their West Bistro next door for dinner because we were too lazy to drive anywhere. The food was solid but not outstanding. We were pretty full, but still had plenty of room to enjoy the milk and cookies that are provided complimentary every night at the hotel.

The wife and I awoke the next morning for an early run. The hotel was only a block or two from the beach, so we were able to watch all the surfers wipe out as we jogged. Later, we drove 45 minutes east to Escondido and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. My family had gone there about 25 years ago. My mom didn’t remember it being this nice back then—nor as expensive. They have several “extra” packages that can pile on the costs. We stuck with the basic tram experience which still costs ~ $200 for the five of us.

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(Left) Entrance to the safari park. (Right) Goat petting area.

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(Left) Kids get to decorate their own plastic pith helmet. Parents get to carry it for the next 4 hours. (Right) That cat has some serious hops.

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(Left) The Segway tour is an extra $80 a person. (Right) The caravan tour will set you back an additional $90 a person.

I get that the point of the zoo is to have animals in a much more free and natural environment. However, there was just so much walking just to see the next animal area. Whereas Carlsbad was a nice 70 degrees, Escondido was almost 10 degrees higher. The sun bore down on us incessantly. It was like the Bataan March of zoos. Surprisingly, our Rugrats were troopers and made the complete trek with only a little whining. Next time, I think we’ll stick with the “cruel”, traditional zoos…or Animal Planet.

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The Safari Park's African plains.

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(Left) Rhinoceros. (Right) African antelope.

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(Left) The zebras have to be kept apart from the other herd animals because they are A-holes. (Right) WTF is up with that neck. Apparently this is normal in young giraffes.

After my sister and her family joined us later in the afternoon, we headed to dinner at Norte’s (recommended by the hotel staff). They are a busy mid-priced Mexican restaurant in “downtown” Carlsbad. We all thought the food was really good for the price. I had the crab burrito and the wife had nopales (cactus paddles) with beef. We were really floored by how good the nopales were. I have seen them in the ethnic “for anybody but Whitey” grocery stores back home, but never had the balls to try and make them. It looks like they will be worth the challenge.

Posted by evilnoah 19:11 Archived in USA Tagged park zoo museum san safari diego maritime carlsbad Comments (0)

Leggo My Legos...On Second Thought, Just Keep 'Em

Two Days in Legoland

sunny 72 °F

Theme parks tend to bring out the best in kids. Nowhere was this more evident than in Legoland. Leading up to this trip, we had no problems getting the children to behave. A mere “I guess you won’t be going to Legoland” was enough to get them to fall in line. It was great to see them so excited once we got there. They got a real kick out of the plethora of well-made, life-sized sculptures

of people...
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animals...
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and movie characters.
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Like a bunch of big dorks, the moms in our group had to get pictures besides all of the Harry Potter characters. The kids preferred to pose with popular cartoon characters--live or sculptured.

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There were fun areas where the children could design their own minifigures or play the Lego Universe computer game.
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They also had an "adventure" area where kids could journey to distant tombs, jungles, and polar reaches in search of missing treasure. Yeah, it was pretty cheesy, but the sculptures were well made.

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The older kids also enjoyed their large waterpark. Even though they hardly know each other, it was great to see my son and his cousins splashing so well together like they were old friends.

But the best part of the park was really the miniature replicas of American cities. They modeled the unique buildings and landmarks of major cities down to the smallest humorous details.

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(above and below) Washington D.C.
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(above and below) Las Vegas
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(Above and below) New York City
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(above and below) New Orleans
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(above and below) Other well-known landmarks around the world.
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They also made dioramas of each Star Wars movie as well. Both kids and parents were mesmerized by these small replicas.

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(Above) Episodes 1-5. I refuse to photograph ewoks.

Unfortunately, theme parks also bring out the worse in adults. Legoland didn’t make this problem any better. The Lego store was packed with all the merchandise that can be found on their website. However, there are really no unique items or things on sale. The eyes of our kids lit up like they were in a candy store—a very expensive candy store. As any parent can attest to, it is hard to say no to your children when they are that excited. We ended up spending way too much on items we regretted later. Afterwards, we hit the rides. Wow, they were disappointing. I expected them to be cheesy and kid-friendly, which was fine. I didn’t expect to have to wait 45 minutes for my children to get on a lame two minute ride. Unlike Disney which has a really convenient Fastpass system which allows you to reserve your time on a ride while you do something else, you have to wait in line at Legoland. Alternatively, you could spring for their unadvertised VIP pass. But at $150/person, it’s utterly ridiculous for a family of four. Little kids generally don’t do well with half-an-hour waits. Their impatience often led to parental anger. There was no shortage of testy moms and dads yelling at their kids for the smallest transgression. I saw some parents scolding other people’s children because they were “hogging” some of the activities. We were no exception. At the “Skipper School” ride, the wife snapped at some annoying kids who kept bumping her boat too hard and turning it so that it was going in the wrong direction. Little things like that normally wouldn’t get her riled up. However, the frustration at dealing with the huge crowds and long lines eventually got to her. I can’t believe that I would actually look forward to bringing the kids back to Disney World in the future.

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(left) My son drove pretty well in the "Driving School" ride. (right) Conversely, my daughter propagated the stereotype of female Asian drivers.

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(left) This ride was fun and wet for all of the three minutes it lasted. (right) With no motor on the boat, "Skipper School" was more like drift school.

We ended up going for two consecutive days, my brother and his family joining us on the second. We visited the Sea Life Aquarium which was included in our passes. It was no Baltimore or New Orleans aquarium, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as much of the online reviews rated it as. The life-sized Lego scuba divers inside the tanks were a nice touch. They also had some nice petting tanks that were a new experience for the children.

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(left) I had to take a picture with the Scuba diver since I am working on my open water certificate. (right) Lego man sleeps with the fishes.

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(left) There were starfish and sea urchins available to pet. (right) Sometimes the ocean just isn't big enough.

Although our passes were good for another day at Legoland, we had more than our fill and drove back to San Diego. We stayed at the Homewood Suites near the airport for the next three days. While the hotel isn’t bad, it definitely made us miss the West Inn and Suites in Carlsbad. The rooms are big but just not as comfortable. The morning breakfast was a madhouse as there were not enough tables to fit all of the guests. Although they offered complimentary dinners on weekdays, we decided to eat at the nearby restaurants in the adjoining strip mall. After Legoland, we were just tired of fighting the crowds.

Posted by evilnoah 19:18 Archived in USA Tagged san diego legoland carlsbad Comments (0)

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