Friday 1 November 2019

First Stop: Shanghai Disneyland

It's always hard to review Disney. Each park is different and unique in their own way. I've never been disappointed by any of the Disney parks we've visited. I wasn't wowed by Shanghai Disneyland, but it is a fairly young park so I know there is a lot of potential.

One thing to note is, even though this is a Disney park, it is very much Chinese. A lot of North Americans experience culture shock when visiting China, and Disney is no exception. I am not going to sugarcoat it. There is a lot of line-cutting, pushing, and yelling. Generally, the locals will back off if you stand your ground. My husband and I were both born and raised in a multicultural city, where a lot of Chinese people live. We experience a lot of line-cutting, pushing, and yelling at home in general, so we weren't surprised by the culture and social norms in China.

Shanghai Disneyland is pretty massive. It's quite a walk around the park as the distance between lands are pretty far apart - plenty of room for expansion in the future. We spent two days in Shanghai Disneyland. It was more than enough time to ride every ride and try all the food. For guests who stay on Disney property, there is a separate entrance which is opened earlier. We didn't go early, but we did get in the park a lot faster due to shorter lines at this special entrance.

Shanghai Disneyland was nearing the end of their Spring-Easter Celebration, so a lot of decorations were still on display.

We got a lot done on Day 1 and it was a good thing we did. Our first ride was easy and calm. We rode Pirates, and we loved it. It's a very different ride and much more exciting than the snoozers in Disneyland and Magic Kingdom. We walked through the Garden of the Twelve Friends, a rest area where the Chinese zodiac are depicted by Disney characters, and watch the lively stage show ("Golden Fairytale Fanfare") in front of the castle. We walked through the Alice in Wonderland Maze and did a little window shopping. We lined up for Rex's Racer for a little over an hour, which was the longest line we experienced at the park. It was a short, but exhilarating ride! We enjoyed it. Next, we were on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which we had a FastPass for. We grabbed lunch afterwards. It was sunny and a lot warmer by this point, so we headed back to the castle for some pictures.

As we finished up our pictures, a parade - "Disney Color-Fest, A Street Party! - started. Perfect timing! Super catchy tunes too.

Tron was next, followed by more exploring and snacking, before we ended up at the "Once Upon a Time" Adventure in the castle. We had a quick dinner afterwards. After dinner, we rode Tron one more time, and Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue. We ended our night with the "Ignite the Dream" fireworks celebration.

We slowed down on Day 2 because the weather was a lot more extreme. It was over 30 degrees by noon, and it was hot. Shanghai Disneyland has very little shade. We saw two shows back to back just to seek out shade. All the shows and rides were in Mandarin. I had pretty much no idea what they were saying, but the Pirate of Caribbean show was pretty amazing. It's action-packed with great effects!

The Tarzan show was even better! I could not rave enough about this stage show. The acrobatic performers were amazing. It was like a mini Cirque du Soleil show!

We rode a lot of the same rides, with the exception of Peter Pan's Flight and Roaring Rapids. After lunch, we had to go back to hotel to cool off. We ended up eating in Disneytown for lunch and dinner. We weren't very interested in the food, but the park has a lot of interesting and delicious snacks. The pork fluff corn dog was really good, as was the tea drink in the Minnie Mouse souvenir cup. Unfortunately, the Mike Wazowski bun was pretty to look at, but it was super dry and hard.

Overall, we had a wonderful time in Shanghai Disneyland, and we would love to go back. They are already currently expanding with the first ever Zootopia-land. The park is young, so we're excited to see what they have planned!

Sunday 27 October 2019

Oh Hai, Shanghai

Hello! We're back from our trip to Japan, and I'm extremely behind in blogging. I'm skipping 2018 altogether, and I'm fast forwarding to our first trip this year to keep up with the momentum, and also my memory.

We went to Shanghai in May, and we had an amazing time! Despite the travel advisory, which had come out after we booked our trip, we felt very safe in the city and we had no problems during our time there. The Chinese were generally very welcoming. The food was delicious and the Metro system was extremely easy to use. We were able to get a lot of things done this trip, including Shanghai Disneyland and a cruise.

Our trip to Shanghai was completely spontaneous. This trip basically served as our honeymoon. We were looking for an overseas destination, and Shanghai came up on our radar with extremely low flight fares. We booked on a whim before doing any research. Getting a China visa was not an easy task. As we previously did not apply for our Vietnam visa on our own, we didn't quite know where and how to start. I don't recall the small details of our application for our Chinese Visa as it was done ten months ago, but I'll review it briefly below.

Getting Our Chinese Visas

There are quite a few steps to take to complete your application: a ten page application form, visa photo, supporting accommodation documents, etc... But after you've submitted your paperwork, it is a short wait (less than five business days) to receive your actual visa. The visa is label that is placed into your passport, so yes, you do have to submit your passport to the service centre. If you've done everything correctly, you will have no delays. It is important to note that you can only apply for your visa three months before your departure date, so be sure to submit all the correct information. You can make an appointment to visit the China Visa Application Service Centre, but expect waits of up to three hours. As previously mentioned, you need to ensure you have all the supporting documents (listed on the website) with you, or you will be asked to return on another day. The most commonly missed item is a photocopy of your passport. A lot of people didn't have this. They do have a photocopier at the service centre, but you have to pay, it jams often and there is a long line for it (probably contributing to the overall long waits). Aside from the long wait, we had a positive experience at the Vancouver branch. We opted for the ten-year visa as the cost was the same (~$150 Canadian), but it is only valid up to the year your passport expires, so my visa expires in eight years.

One of our main reasons we decided to go to Shanghai was, of course, to visit Disneyland Shanghai. The park is relatively new, as it was just built in 2016. We decided to start our trip in Disneyland. So without further ado, let me jump right in!

Shanghai Disneyland Park

We arrived on a rather cold and foggy day. The haze in the sky was thick as the sun was barely visible. We stayed in the Disneyland hotel for easy access to the park. The Shanghai Disneyland Hotel is by far the most affordable Disney hotel anywhere in the world. The details in the decor were ~magical, and the rooms were spacious and elegant.

We were extremely jet lagged, but we needed dinner. So after settling into our hotel room, we immediately took the ferry over to Disneytown. The ferry stop on the hotel side is just through the Wishing Star Park, we could see the Enchanted Storybook Castle on the other side (below right) as we waited.

The stop on the other side of the lake is just steps away from the entrance to Disneyland. Disneytown was a good size. It is not a big shopping area like the two in the US, but it had enough shops and restaurants to keep you busy for half a day. There were the usual shops like Nike, Sephora, Pandora, LEGO and World of Disney; and some Asian based stores like BAPE, Superdry and innisfree. 

We walked around for a little while to check out the stores and eventually, we had to pick a spot for dinner. All the restaurants either had a huge lineup or no lineup. We decided on a cantonese restaurant with a moderate line, and an English menu. The food was okay, nothing special, but it was cheap and it filled our tummies. After dinner, we lined up for bubble tea before heading back to the hotel on the ferry. Coming up next: Disneyland!

Thursday 12 September 2019

A la Prochaine, Paris

The next day, we visited the Louvre. The Louvre Museum is considered the world's greatest art museum, and one of the most iconic monuments in Paris. You probably need more than a day to explore the museum, and we only had three hours. We went mid-morning and were met with an average queue through security. We did not purchase tickets in advance, but found that the queue for tickets was much less daunting than others had warned us about. There were about 5-7 people in the line with us, and it moved quickly. The Louvre was intense. We didn't know where to start, and wandered in an area.

We made it though all of the Main floor, through the Roman, Italic and Etruscan, and Greek Antiquities. We also walked through the rooms with paintings from Great Britain, USA, Spain, Italy, France and Decorative Arts of Europe. 

We eventually made it to the Mona Lisa, the main attraction of the museum, in between the paintings of France and decorative arts of Europe. It was not easy to find. By that time, our three hours were up and we were tired. The air flow and circulation was difficult to withstand inside the museum. I fully understand the climate had to be regulated to conserve and house the artwork. However, but with the crowds, it was very uncomfortable for us in the museum. It was hot, dry and stuffy so it was time to leave.

We had a few more "must-see" places on our list, so we jumped back on the HOHO bus to Sacré-Coeur Basilica. On the way, we passed by the Moulin Rouge, a cabaret. The bus stop (or even subway stop) is nowhere near the basilica. Sacré-Coeur is located at the summit of Montmartre, which is the highest point in Paris. It was a 15 minute uphill walk to the foot of the basilica, and another 10 minutes to the entrance. Quite the workout!

We ran into the annual Grape Harvest Festival in Montmartre taking place just outside of Sacré-Coeur during our visit. Northern Paris is the only place in the city where vineyards are still grown. It was very lively, and locals were enjoying the food and drink. However, the crowds made it difficult to move around, so after trying a couple of local foods, we made our way back down to the bus.

Our bus ride was short as we headed back to our neighbourhood, the Marais, to shop for a little while before dinner. It was our last night in Paris and we had our eye on a restaurant we wanted to try. We had lost track of the dates, but it just so happened to be our dating anniversary.

We ended our last night in Paris on the perfect note, with memories of the best French food and a delicious scoop of gelato. We had lost track of the dates at that time, but it just so happened to be our anniversary date.

We had a magical time in Paris, and three days was not enough! We hope to visit again in the future, there are still so many places we didn't get to visit: Mont-St-Michel, Normandy, and Disneyland Paris. Here's to hoping it won't take me another twenty-seven years to go back... Until next time, Paris!

Thursday 25 July 2019

Notre Dame: Heart of Paris

This blog entry is dedicated to the Notre Dame. This is a special entry for me. I grew up with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmeralda's independence and Quasimodo's heroism inspired me. In high school, I attended Notre Dame Secondary for a year. It was always a part of me, and on my mental bucket list, I said to myself that one day, I will visit the cathedral and climb its tower. While we were in Paris in October 2017, we had the opportunity to visit the Notre Dame de Paris. We were very fortunate to climb the towers as well. Sadly, earlier this year, on April 15, a structural fire broke out in Notre Dame. My heart was breaking as I helplessly watched the fire online. The fire destroyed the roof and the building spire, but luckily the towers were safe. It will undoubtedly take time, but I have faith that the Notre Dame will be restored to its best form one day.

The entrance to the Notre Dame is free, and can be accessed at the front of the cathedral. The cathedral is known for its magnificent facade, the beautiful stained glass windows inside, and the unique, lifelike gargoyles atop the tower. The queue to enter the Notre Dame is intimidating, it snakes around the front, and the massive crowds outside of the cathedral make it hard to find the end of the line. Don't let the queue scare you off! It does move fast. We were prepared to line up for at least an hour, but we spent less than twenty minutes in line.

Sadly, the lighting wasn't quite right for photographing the stained glass windows, and we don't have very many pictures of the windows.

We made a spontaneous decision to climb the bell towers that day. Notre Dame has a confusing booking system. It's not possible to buy tickets in advance for the Tower of Notre Dame, nor are they sold online. The best way to get tickets to the Notre Dame is to download an app to book a reservation time to purchase your ticket. You can only do so on the day of, and you must be within a certain distance to the cathedral. There are also limited spots available as they only allow a certain number of people go up the tower every hour or so. We had pocket wifi, so we were able to reserve a time while many tourists around us struggled to find wifi. I remember there is wifi available, but the password is hard to obtain, especially with the language barrier. However, even with the reservation, we still had to queue up outside of the cathedral (the side facing away from the Seine) to get inside the ticket booth. We were lucky. Thanks to our pocket wifi, we ended up grabbing the last two tickets of the day.

The towers of Notre Dame are just under 70 m high. The climb is 387 steps up a narrow spiral staircase. We climbed about a third of the way to the gift shop to buy our tickets, then we continued to climb to the belfry. The belfry houses the biggest bell of Notre Dame, which weighs 13 tonnes.

We visited the bell before going onto the terrance for a panoramic view of Paris. From that level, there is another leg to the top of the tower, where you finally come face-to-face with the gargoyles.

There is fencing all around the balconette (as you can see in some of my photos), so tourists won't fall over or try to touch the gargoyles. It's not pretty for photographs, but it's a necessary safety measure. As history has it, the stone carved creatures were considered spiritual protectors of the church. Pictured below on the right was the beautiful spire that fell in the fire this past April.

The panoramic view was amazing. Honestly, it was a dream. I wish I could stay up there for a longer period time, but alas, our time was up, and we had to descend the tower. Going down is always easier than going up, but the tower stairs are slippery, so descend with caution!

By the time we exited, the sun was setting. The cathedral was closed, but the crowds still hadn't dispersed. It really goes to show how iconic Notre Dame is. It is not just a Catholic church, but a beloved symbol of European culture. Our visit at the Notre Dame was a memorable experience. I am so glad we decided to climb the towers, and we were so lucky to have been able to.