Me Time

For more and more vacationers, wellness is the issue.

By Lavinia Lee Mears

You’re going where? To do what? It was November of 2000. I had just told my (then) better half that I was departing the next day for Costa Rica to meditate on a mountaintop for a week. His reaction was, well, let’s just say he wasn’t thrilled at my spontaneous decision.

I was tired. Extremely tired. I had just come off a year of back-to-back trials as a new assistant prosecutor. Taking a few days off to rest at home had not worked for this work-a-holic who couldn’t resist picking up her phone or checking her emails. It was too early in my legal career to be a burned-out lawyer; I needed to be in a place where there were no distractions from my sole focus: rest. And so off I went to a yoga and meditation retreat, not quite knowing what to expect.

I arrived in Costa Rica and spent the next week with strangers. I meditated and practiced yoga every day. Despite being a meat-and-mashed potatoes girl, I found myself enjoying the healthy vegetarian meals. I slept like a normal human being and devoted one entire day to silence. Ten days later I returned, rested and relaxed, and had even shed those stubborn five pounds I had been trying to lose for years. I didn’t have that “need a vacation from my vacation” feeling. I looked good and I felt good. I was hooked.

That is how my love affair with the wellness vacation (aka well-cation) was born. In the ensuing decade-and-a-half, my precious time off has been devoted to vacations that nurture my mind and body. I’ve said good-bye to the gluttonous, all-inclusive resort and hello to the all-you-can eat vegetarian meal plan.

The biggest benefit of a well-cation is the jump-start it offers toward reaching your wellness goal. Staying on-program is much easier when the stresses of everyday life are removed and only healthy activities and meals are offered. And since guests share the same outlook, they support one another to stay committed toward reaching their wellness goals. The investment in a wellness vacation continues to pay off when new habits take hold after the vacation has ended. This may explain why the number of people who are investing their time and money in wellness-related travel has been on the rise. The worldwide wellness tourism market—estimated by some at over $400 billion—has been growing steadily since 2007, increasing nearly 13 percent last year.

Choosing the right well-cation, whether here in the U.S. or abroad, depends upon your personal wellness goals and budget. The process begins with an understanding of the different options out there…

Destination Spas

If rest and relaxation is your goal, destination spas offer guests the ultimate pampering experience, usually in a resort-like setting. Overnight accommodations, meals and access to the resort’s facilities are included in the fee. Guests are offered specific spa services geared toward rest and relaxation at an additional cost. Facials, massages, manicure/pedicure treatments and body wraps are offered in a tranquil environment. Prices range from $300 to more than a $1,000 per night.

The world-renowned Canyon Ranch in Arizona offers its 3-night “Spa Sampler” package at a cost of $3,840 per person. Guests can allocate $145 of that amount toward spa services. A less expensive local option is Deerfield Resort and Spa. Located in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Deerfield is less than a two-hour drive from most parts of New Jersey. A three-night stay costs under$900. Accommodations, meals and a 50-minute Swedish massage are included in that rate. Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County and the Ocean Place Resort and Spa in Monmouth County, are hotels that have full-service day spas available to resort guests and day visitors. Crystal Springs offers guests 2 spas, 6 golf courses, 12 dining options, a water park and a ski resort. Neither Ocean Place nor Crystal Springs offers an all-inclusive option; rates depend on the level of accommodations chosen, as well as the time of year.

Weight Loss

If your goal in 2015 is to lose 5 to 20 pounds (or more), a weight loss retreat can jump-start you toward that goal. Guests adhere to a strict menu, which is rich in vegetables and vegetable juices. Exercise programs are geared to accommodate various fitness levels. Stays range from three days to three weeks and weight loss varies from a pound a week to a pound a day. Since food that isn’t part of the program is outlawed at the retreat as “contraband,” the temptation to cheat is removed. A weight loss retreat is a bullet-proof way to ensure immediate results. Most programs incorporate cooking, exercise and health education classes to teach guests how to stay on-program when they return home.

There are a number of weight loss retreats in the region, including the Copperhood Retreat & Spa in the Catskills. It has been touted as one of the best in the world. The three-night detox plan costs about $1,500, while the 21-day “Break Your Bad Habits” plan rate is about $8,000, depending on what level of accommodations is chosen.

Detoxification

“Detox” vacations aim to rid the body and mind of toxins and tensions. While programs vary in cost and available services, you can expect most detox programs to include:

  • All-you-can-eat raw, organic vegetables and juices
  • Steam rooms, hot tubs and dry sauna therapy
  • At least one day devoted to a water or juice fast
  • Spa services such as colon hydrotherapy, lymphatic drainage massage and detoxifying body-wraps
  • Exercise and meditation classes

The Hippocrates Health Institute’s 21-day “Life Transformation Program” teaches guests how to detoxify their bodies and enlightens them to the benefits of a raw, “live-food“ vegan diet. Located in West Palm Beach, Florida, tuition for the program ranges from $7,000 to $30,000 depending on the accommodations and services provided.

Fitness

If you already are in great shape and want to bring your fitness to a higher level, fitness vacations (aka Boot Camps) may be the answer.  As the name implies, these places are not for the faint of heart. Keeping up with the rigorous program requires stamina and excellent physical health. Your doctor’s approval is recommended, and in some cases, required. Guests commit to a demanding fitness regimen with activities and/or classes offered from dawn to dusk. Mountain climbing, hiking and surfing are among the leisure activities offered, depending on the climate and geography. Classes on nutrition and healthy eating are included in the fee, as are meals. Accommodations vary from luxurious to rustic.

One of the best known Weekend Warrior boot camps is Utah’s all-inclusive Red Mountain Resort, with rates starting at $295 a night. The resort’s “Adventure Concierge” assists guests with planning activities such as hikes to explore the red rock canyons and cliffs, scenic mountain biking and outdoor excursions such as horseback riding, kayaking and wild-mustang tours.

Yoga

Yoga ashrams offer a quiet respite from the crush of professional life, focusing on stretching, breathing and meditation. Rates can be as low as $50 a night and accommodations are often dormitory-like settings, with shared restrooms and showers. Meals are basic vegetarian and guests are required to follow the daily schedule of yoga and meditation classes, which likely start at dawn.  You may also be expected to help with up-keep of the facility by gardening, cooking and assisting with cleaning up after meals—a practice called “karma yoga.” You may also have the option of learning the art of “mindfulness” by devoting one or more days to complete silence.

Needless to say, there are many resorts and holistic centers that offer the amenities and luxuries of a destination spa along with their yoga classes and meditation instruction. For instance, the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, California has a six-day “Perfect Health” retreat beginning at $2,875, not including accommodations. Closer to home, the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts offers retreat weekends with various self-improvement courses throughout the year starting at $375.

There are countless wellness vacations options in the United States and throughout the world. The best one will be customized to help you meet your personal wellness goals. If you know what you want and what to look for, you can also do it yourself. For help planning a wellness vacation, contact a certified wellness travel agent or an agent experienced in planning wellness vacations.

Editor’s Note: Lavinia Lee Mears is a Westifeld attorney with a passion for writing and a love of wellness vacations. A mother of two school-age boys, she has lived in Union County most of her life. In addition to her legal work, Lavinia is an advocate for gifted children with learning differences.

Ooh La La

You don’t need a Swiss bank account to afford a week on the French Riviera.

By Sarah Rossbach

The last time you walked the red carpet was at a wholesale flooring outlet. The closest you’ve gotten to royalty is eating chicken a la king. Okay, I get it. The jet set is not for you. The good news is that you can still vacation on the Cote d’Azur and live like a prince (or princess) on a pauper’s budget.

Yes, that Cote d’Azur: glamorous Eden, inspiration for impressionist painters and Jazz Age ex-pats, playground of European aristocrats and Hollywood celebrities, location of the Cannes Film Festival and Monaco Formula One Grand Prix race, harbors full of yachts, grand hotels and casinos—a dreamy Neverland of privilege, beauty and opulence. The fact is, you too can enjoy the good life…without laying out$750 per night for a room or $40 for breakfast. Indeed, for years I’ve been visiting this exclusive resort area on less than the cost of a Disney vacation (airfare not included).

My secret? For three decades, I—and now my family of four—have been enjoying a two-bedroom efficiency villa at the family-run Domaine de la Source, just 10 minutes north of the Menton beaches and a half-hour from Monaco for around $1,000 for a week in high season. Once an olive grove, Domaine de la Source offers twelve rental apartments and two pools. It’s hardly the region’s only bargain-priced accommodation, just the one we swear by. We make our own breakfast in the closet-sized but clean kitchen and venture out each day to explore this remarkable part of the Mediterranean coast.

On our most recent visit, we piled into our economy rental car and headed for Monaco, the small but densely populated city-state that for nearly a millennium has been ruled—on and off—by the Grimaldi family. The present ruler is Prince Albert II, son of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III. He runs the principality as a shrewd businessman, with shares in many local moneymaking concerns. At the Royal Palace, for about $12 you can saunter through ornate staterooms and galleries. Built in the 12th century as a Genoese fortress, at a strategic point high above the sea, the palace has been restored and added to over the centuries. In the square outside the structure, it’s fun to view the hourly changing of the guards, and within the palace courtyard, periodic summer concerts are held. I attended one a few years ago and Prince Albert II was seated just two rows in front of me. From there, we walked through the old town to the cathedral where Princess Grace was married and then visited the Oceanographic Museum and the botanical gardens, planted with over 1,000 species of succulent plants. At sea level, the marinas are filled with enormous yachts manned by uniformed deck hands. Up the hill are the casinos, five-star hotels and high-end shops.

Just west of Monaco, the gardens and museum at Villa Ephrussi Rothschild in Cap Ferrat are like a journey back to the Belle Epoque era. The villa was built in 1905 by the eccentric Mme. Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild of the famed banking family, who divorced M. Ephrussi—scion of Russian wheat merchants of The Hare with the Amber Eyes—before his gambling debts and ill-advised speculations could ruin her. The villa showcases her eclectic tastes, ranging from Meissen china and Aubusson carpets to genre art of Boucher and Fragonard to a collection of embroidered silk shoes for Chinese bound feet. Though childless, she treated her dogs, monkeys and mongoose as family, once throwing a lavish mock wedding for Diane and Major, her two poodles. The event featured printed invitations and hundreds of human and canine guests (all in formal attire), including a bulldog sporting a top hat. During the ceremony, the “bride” had a gold ring set in diamonds slipped onto her paw. Mme. Ephrussi de Rothschild was just as passionate about gardening. The grounds offer nine different restored gardens that overlook the Mediterranean and choreographed fountain displays. An audio guide is well worth the $20 fee.

There are a number of less quirky, smaller museums in the area that are both impressive and affordable: Musée Picasso ($10) is housed in an ancient chateau overlooking the sea in Antibes; Musee Bonnard ($8) in Le Cannet (a suburb of Cannes); Matisse Chapel ($8) in Vence; Fondation Maeght ($22) in St. Paul de Vence; and Musée Jean Cocteau ($9) in Menton. The Musée Matisse is situated in the hills above Nice, next to a Roman aqueduct, and just down the road is a peaceful cloister garden overlooking the port—all of which you can visit for free.

We especially enjoy touring the medieval hill towns, sited centuries ago high above the sea to protect the populace from pillaging Saracens. Eze, built above Cap Ferrat, is the most heavily trafficked by tourists. Its narrow lanes, which lead to a chateau, evoke life in the Middle Ages and the town has a stunning panoramic view of the Cote d’Azur. There is a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Chevre d’Or, which is well worth the splurge for a meal (or maybe just a kir royale) near the top of Eze. The less-touristy hill towns of Roquebrune and Gorbio require stellar driving skills and steel nerves to negotiate the narrow roads and hairpin turns. The charming hill towns of Italy, near the French frontier, are also lovely and relatively tourist-free.

With its pleasant climate, the Cote d’Azur is a gardener’s Eden. You could spend days just visiting the renovated botanical gardens planted with exotic flowers, trees, shrubs and succulents. Gardens are in the height of full bloom in June. My favorite is Val Rahmeh ($10) in Menont (below). Lord Percy Radcliffe, a former Governor of Malta, created the terraced Botanical Gardens of the Val Rahmeh in 1905. In 1957, Miss May Sherwood Campbell acquired the property and merged it with a bridge to a second garden. The most striking element is a pond she installed with water hyacinths, water lilies, and papyrus. On the road from Menton to Gorbio and Domaine de la Source, Serre de la Madone ($12) is interesting and being refurbished. It’s a small garden designed by Lawrence Johnstone, an American who designed Hidcote Manor’s gardens in England.

Across the border from Menton, in Italy, is Hanbury Gardens (left), near Ventimiglia. Built in the 19th century by Lord Hanbury, a British diplomat—who like many travelers of that age gathered exotic flora from far flung lands of the former British Empire—created a landscape with Moorish and Oriental follies. The garden is quite vertical and dramatic, stretching down to the Mediterranean.

The food in the port towns along the Cote d’Azur does not require a second mortgage. There are any number of small restaurants offering thin-crust pizza, fresh salads, mussels, and pain bagnat (a Niçoise version of a tuna sandwich) for a reasonable price. Menton (right) is a lovely old port town with affordable shops and pizzerias and a large Beaux Art farmers’ market selling artisanal baguettes, cured meats and cheeses that are perfect for a beach picnic.

With the Euros we save on pauper-priced lodging, attractions and meals, we like to treat ourselves to at least one gourmet French meal fit for a prince or princess. There is a Michelin two-star restaurant right on the water and right on the Italy/France border called Mirazur. It’s worth every penny of the $100 per person (not including wine) price tag, and you will definitely need reservations. And of course, there are the grand hotel restaurants of Monaco—many on rooftops overlooking the water—which prepare true gastronomic adventures. They are delicious…mais tres cher!

An Ocean Away

Happy holidays in Japan & Taiwan

By Sarah Rossbach

Wherever I travel, I cherish that feeling of being transported in time and place to experience a historic site as the ancients did. When in Versailles, I imagine Marie Antoinette is frolicking as a milkmaid in her hameau.  In London, I picture Sir John Soanes at his desk gazing at a roman plinth as he designs the Bank of England. In Kyoto garden, I envision the fictional Prince Genji courting Lady Murasaki with a clever cherry-blossom-inspired haiku. Which is why I am so utterly irritated by the busloads of selfie-stick-toting tourists who interrupt my carefully curated daydreams. My solution? Travel during Christmas

And not to Aspen, Park City, Gstaad, St. Moritz, Hawaii, the Caribbean or other traditional winter holiday destinations. This past December, we took our family vacation in Japan and Taiwan, two fascinating countries that can be completely booked-up during the height of their tourist seasons. Japan, for example, is impossible during its more temperate fall—with the brilliant colors for autumn leaf-watchers—and in spring, too, when it’s overrun with tourists elbowing their way between the plum and cherry tree blossoms. At many of the popular historic sites in Taiwan, visitors find themselves unable to secure tour reservations during the high seasons. These situations are unlikely to change. Right now, the US dollar enjoys a favorable exchange rate with both the Japanese yen and the new Taiwan dollar; taxis and mass transit are 50% less expensive than in the West, making both countries vastly more affordable than, say, England or France

Eschewing the yearly wrestling match with the Christmas tree, the added pounds from holiday parties and the challenge to find that perfect present for each and every member of the family, my husband and I boarded a flight with our son to Tokyo a week before Christmas. The planning for this trip began when our daughter, who is teaching English in Taiwan for a year, announced that she would not have the opportunity to return to New Jersey for the holidays

Flying halfway around the world isn’t an easy endeavor. Having done so on a number of occasions, there are some rules I try to follow. If you can save up your airline points, try to upgrade to an economy-plus or, even better, a business class seat. Also, try to arrive in the late afternoon so you can go to bed early and get on a local sleep schedule. Pre-purchase a Japan Rail Pass in the US so that, when you arrive at Narita Airport, you only have to pick up your tickets to the hour-long direct train ride to Tokyo. Before any train trip, we pre-booked our assigned seats at Tokyo Station.

All photos by Sarah Rossbach

TOKYO IN 36 HOURS

Our stay in Japan’s largest city was meant to be short, less than two days. We chose the Palace Hotel, located in the middle of the city (a convenient 10-minute walk from Tokyo Train Station) and overlooking the Emperor’s 1.3 square mile park-like estate. This neighborhood, known as Marunouchi, is Tokyo’s financial district, so it’s quieter and less busy during the weekend and in the evenings. As a result, it was easy to book a table for dinner near our hotel. In much of modern Tokyo, restaurants are not at street level; thanks to the guidance of our hotel’s concierge, we enjoyed amazing sushi on the 35th floor, steaming ramen on the 6th floor and $10 soba on the 7th floor of various local office/vertical shopping mall buildings. Of course, western restaurants exist. Yet the food loses something in translation. Case in point was brunch the next day at my favorite French bakery chain, Maison Kaiser. There were only three weird choices: beef mushroom soup, sliced beef or beef in a chef’s salad

Our time being short, we hired a guide for the afternoon to take us on a Tokyo version of speed-dating. Our guide, Mariko Okunishi, directed us through the city’s excellent (and clean!) subway system to the Meiji Shrine, Neju Museum and Garden, Harajuku Street—a young people’s area where women dressed like little western girls (which I really didn’t need to see)—Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crossroad in the world, and the Ginza aka Tokyo’s Fifth Avenue. The constraints of time and jet-lag prevented us from visiting the 7th century Asakusa Buddhist Temple and various museums devoted to bonsai, Japanese woodcuts and our son’s passion, Anime

The 95-year-old Meiji Shrine is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and Empress and embodies the traditional Shinto worship of nature.  It is a living monument, as locals celebrate weddings and children’s “coming of age” celebrations at 30 days, three, five and seven years. At the entrance to the park are troughs of water and ladles to clean and purify yourself (i.e. wash your hands). The shrine and its 170-acre park was the highlight of our day.

AH, KYOTO

Kyoto is a two-and-a-half-hour ride on a super-clean bullet train from Tokyo. We were smart and arrived early at the station to get the lay of the land; we had to query a handful of uniformed workers before locating our platform. We knew to request a seat on the right side of the train in order to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji. While Tokyo has been Japan’s capital since 1868, Kyoto was the seat of power in Japan for over 1,000 years and, as such, offers a stunning breadth and depth of historical and cultural sites. Whenever Kyoto is mentioned, the Japanese sigh and say, “Ah Kyoto”—no doubt invoked by romantic images of parasol-toting Geishas strolling by cherry blossoms in spring and vibrant red Japanese maple leaves in autumn

That being said, as we stepped off the train, I was struck by how much Kyoto, like Tokyo and New York, is a modern city. Japanese sensibility still can be found at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, as well as gardens, preserved palaces and museums. Kyoto boasts over 2,000 temples and shrines, ranging from ones designated as World Heritage Sites to mini sidewalk altars. To immerse ourselves further in Kyoto’s culture, we splurged a bit and stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where guests sleep on futons in tatami rooms and dine on nine-course kaiseki meals for dinner and breakfast, presented by uber-polite kimono-clad servers. While the quality of these inns can vary, our stay at the Yoshikawa Inn was very comfortable, warm and dry on a cold and rainy day. It was a highlight of our five days in Japan. 

Though lighter in December, tourism at Kyoto’s top attractions is a year-round business. To beat the Chinese tourist buses, we rose early and visited the Kinkaku-ji Golden Temple (page 13), a very gold Buddhist temple. In concept, it dates back to 1398. But in fact it is a 1950s replica of the original, which was burned by a deranged monk. Another wonderful site is the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (left), founded in 778 and built in the 17th century with joinery (no nails) on a hillside overlooking Kyoto. While it is a Buddhist temple, Shinto shrines dot the grounds to “protect” the wooden temple from fire. Visitors often seek blessings and good fortune; they can drink from a spring-fed waterfall that is said to have wish-granting powers, leave petitions to the gods, or purchase good luck talismans. A former practice (fueled by the belief that anyone who survived a 13-foot jump from the temple veranda would have wishes fulfilled) wisely is prohibited now.

Surrounded by two moats, the Nijo Castle, the former Shogun’s home, is definitely worth a visit. The castle floors were built to squeak on purpose—as an early form of burglar alarm called “nightingales”—alerting the Shogun of assassins. The 400-year-old Nishiki market is also a fun typical Japanese destination. Its neat, colorful stalls selling everything from matcha to mocha (tea to rice cakes), sushi to sake, and pickles to dried fish. If you enjoy gardens, take a trolley to the Arashiyama area to visit Tenryu-ji, a Zen Temple with a tunnel-like bamboo grove leading to Okochi Villa, a beautiful garden designed by film star Denjiro Okochi. Across the river is a park full of wild but people-friendly monkeys.

Unfortunately, we did not make it to Nara, the capital city of the neighboring prefecture to Kyoto. It boasts some of the best examples of Tang Dynasty Chinese (yes, Chinese!) temple architecture. However, our next stop, Taiwan—a four-hour plane ride from Tokyo—would offer many outstanding examples of Chinese dynastic art and architecture.

ON TO TAIWAN

The island nation of Taiwan, home to 23 million people, was known for centuries to the west as Formosa, or beautiful island in Portuguese, a name bestowed upon it by 16th century sailors. In the ensuing years, Taiwan’s indigenous people were pushed to the margins by Han Chinese, who now make up more than 95 percent of the population. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war on mainland China to Mao’s Communist forces. The island has been known officially as the Republic of China ever since. While increasingly proud of its native Taiwanese culture, Taiwan offers fantastic Chinese food, temples and works of art—some would say the best in the world. Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, has emerged as one of the most vibrant cities in Asia.  It is clean, relatively safe, has reliable and inexpensive transportation, great food and a vibrant nightlife. The Taiwanese demeanor strikes me as a pleasant, modern mixture of traditional Chinese and Japanese politeness. And because Taiwan is still perceived by much of the world as an electronics producing nation, it refreshingly isn’t on everyone’s tourist destination list. Yet

We arrived in Taipei on Christmas and, happy to forego our traditional heavy Christmas dinner, we dined at James Kitchen, an informal and quirky Taiwanese restaurant a local friend had recommended.  Our taxi dropped us off on winding Yongkang Street, which is lined with hip shops and restaurants, and we entered a narrow building cramped with diners. The owner led us past the kitchen, up rickety steps to a tatami room, with customers’ drawings covering every inch of the walls and ceilings so low I couldn’t stand up. Seated on cushions at our low table, we enjoyed mushroom dumplings, pork lard rice, sautéed vegetables and the fish that James Kitchen is known for. Our check was about $15 per person

Much of Taipei is very modern but, as we had in Japan, we sought out the traditional and cultural. One of our first stops was the Lungshan Temple (above). Originally built in 1738, the temple still serves as a local Buddhist center where people come to pray. Along the alley leading to the temple, we entered a simple vegetarian noodle stall, favored by monks, to enjoy soup noodles and dumplings for about $3 per person

If you are adventurous and don’t mind street food and street ambiance, you can get delicious, healthy food fast and cheap. For instance, at a stall near a university, bowls of perfectly prepared cold sesame noodles topped with shredded cucumber came to $1 per person. Even at the wonderful and popular Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung, the check for beer and more than enough steamed soup buns and dumplings to fill five adults totaled $60. The bill for a yummy hotpot dinner of fresh vegetables and sliced beef was about $15 a head. Taiwan also has expensive and upscale restaurants. Some can be found in department stores and hotels, including our hotel, Le Meridian. So after enjoying wonderful inexpensive meals, I treated our family to Cantonese food at My Humble House. Its name is something of a deception, as nothing at the restaurant—from the food to the décor—is humble. Delicious, yes. Humble, no. The service was swift and professional and I am still dreaming of the shrimp dim sum and the barbecued pork, buttery moist pork with a crispy skin—sort of a yin-yang of textures. While you can splurge on expensive eight-course meals, our bill for an a la carte dinner at this top restaurant came to a reasonable $135 for four people.

To get a sense of Taiwanese culture, a friend who lives locally took us to Di Hua Street, the oldest street in Taipei, to view shops selling tea, ceramics, fabric and Chinese medicine. With a few structures dating back to the era of Dutch rule in the mid-1600s, much of the historic architecture has been restored without displacing local businesses.  We spent the afternoon wandering through a traditional Taiwanese district with narrow streets, local shoppers and 19th century buildings still in the hands of the original families

If Taipei is your only stop in Taiwan, you still can enjoy scenery and hiking, be it in the city’s vast botanical garden, a steep climb up Elephant Mountain, or a trek up the more challenging Yang Ming Mountain. A bit further away (daytrip distance) is Taroko Gorge, with its hiking trails and rope bridges, Yilan’s hot springs, and beautiful Sun Moon Lake

To my mind, the most compelling reason to visit Taipei is to view the world’s finest collection of Chinese art at the National Palace Museum just north of the city. How did these treasures land in Taiwan? When Chiang Kai-shek made his speedy exit from China, he and his KMT (Kuomingtang) troops had time to cart away crates of nearly 700,000 exceptional works of art formerly owned by millennia of emperors. Here the peerless imperial treasures—jades, Neolithic bronzes, porcelains, painting and calligraphy scrolls, jeweled mystery boxes—are exhibited with clear explanations in Chinese, Japanese and English. With exhibits rotating several times in a year, it would take over 30 years to display the entire collection. On our visit, we saw rare jade carvings, fine Song Dynasty celadon porcelains and stunning bird, animal and flower paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione—an 18th century Jesuit priest who began his stay in China as an Italian missionary. Castiglione became a trusted Imperial court painter who also created portraits of the Empress and Emperor during the height of the Qing Dynasty

As a student studying Chinese in Taiwan, the National Palace Museum was my favorite destination and it was as quiet as a library. Today, busloads of Chinese and Korean visitors crowd exhibits. The locals typically wait until Friday and Saturday evenings, when the crowds disappear and they can visit the museum free

The ancient Chinese have a proverb: “Walking 10,000 miles is better than reading 10,000 books.”  When visiting any foreign country, we learn a great deal experiencing firsthand its scenery, sites, food and people. During our five-day stay in Taiwan, I noticed something that I had been blind to when I lived there as a student many decades ago. I was struck by how polite, kind and helpful local strangers were to us and to each other. Whether at Christmas or anytime of the year (except hot, humid typhoon months of July and August) visiting Taiwan is a lovely experience

GEISHAS, GEISHAS  EVERYWHERE 

Alas, few of them are real…or even speak Japanese. Kyoto’s Geisha costume stores and rental shops do brisk business by the busload with young Chinese women, who mince along the winding temple paths or through the narrow streets of the historic Geisha districts. After weaving through scores of ersatz Geisha girls, we finally bumped into the “real deal,” along with her retinue, in the Gion district, best known as a filming location in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha.

¡Game On!

Cuba has been called a living time capsule… of old ways and new, of opulence and simplicity, of stunning cultural and natural diversity. Open again after more than a half-century  to U.S. travelers, the country is undergoing  an altogether new revolution. It may not be long before the scenery changes forever.

Photography by Avery Brighton

Twice in a Lifetime

An American Returns to Vietnam

By Rick Geffken

I think it happened when Ken Burns and I spoke during the promotional tour for his 18-hour documentary film series, The Vietnam War. The conversation was part of a confluence of happenstances that seemed to be pulling me back to a place whose mere mention still conjures agony, anger, and guilt in those of us who lived through that disastrous period of American history. It felt like the final sign, or permission perhaps, to return to the country where I’d spent the 16 most hazardous months of my life.

And to search for the beautiful South Vietnamese woman who had once been my fiancée.

That was then. In December 2017, walking among Hanoi’s street vendors and busking musicians, I was just a tourist, not a whole lot different from the ubiquitous backpackers drawn to the capital city by its cheap lodgings and myriad diversions. I indulged in street foods, seated at the tiny plastic tables the proprietors set up beside their charcoal grills. The barbequed chicken or pork called bun cha, and ban me, the baguette sandwiches slathered with margarine and paté. Both are served with tangy nuoc mam, the fish sauce I could never get enough of. The shops are everywhere, especially the local Highlands Coffee chain. I developed a nightly addiction for the espresso-like Vietnamese coffee flavored with a thick condensed milk. Each cup comes with a small metal drip filter, not designed for the impatient.

Making my way from a coffee shop to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is as jarring as it gets for an American war veteran. Not too far away is a monument to John McCain’s seizure at Truch Bac Lake (left), commemorating where he parachuted after being shot down in 1967. Equally disconcerting was passing through the doors of Hoa Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton), where captured soldiers and airmen were subjected to deprivation and torture. American POWs had more prescient gallows humor than they knew. The twenty-five-story Hanoi Towers overshadows the infamous prison these days. The day I visited Hanoi’s university, the Temple of Literature, built in 1076, I watched proud parents taking pictures of recent grads with their diplomas. They were happy to pose with me, too.

Hanoi was only one stop on my three-week odyssey. In South Vietnam, my friends and I idled a few days in the seaside resort of Vung Tau, called Cap Saint-Jacques by the French. Gorgeous mountain lookouts and theme parks feature huge statues: the Buddha atop one and Jesus another. Our B&B was opposite a wonderful seafood restaurant, where we dined among what looked like members of Vietnamese high society celebrating Christmas. In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Christmas carols blasted day and night from commercial malls and government offices everywhere in the Communist metropolis. Gift-wrapped packages were stacked in store windows, hotel clerks wore red Santa Claus hats, and Christmas trees were decorated with bright lights and outsized ornaments. The incongruity of it all suggested we may have lost the military conflict, but we won the cultural war. The Vietnamese may have to decide one day if that’s a good thing

Regardless of where I traveled, it was difficult to find evidence of our war anymore. The Citadel in Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, and the scene of ferocious fighting during Tet in 1968, has been restored. The small civilian homes once sheltered by its thick walls and moats were not rebuilt. The Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City were—and they once again honor the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last. I purchased delicate painted paper lanterns at the gift shop near where so many men from both sides fought and died. On the wide boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City, I saw little of the old  French colonial Saigon, with its distinctive Parisian feeling, that I remembered. Millions of motorbikes now zoom past modern electronic chain stores, western-style gyms and yoga studios, and tall office buildings. Luxury high-rise condominiums line the Saigon River in the incongruously named “Diamond City.” Classic old buildings are being taken down and replaced with shiny new skyscrapers, as the city rushes toward world-class city status.

Two reminders of the American War, as the Vietnamese rightly call it, do exist.

The Presidential Palace, where a succession of South Vietnamese dictators lived, is now the Reunification Palace. The War Remnants Museum (above) won’t let visitors forget atrocities like Agent Orange and napalm. It’s filled with captured American weapons, tanks, planes, and unforgettable images of victims of brutality, both civilian and military.

In 1969, as a young Army lieutenant, I flew along the Cambodian border in a Birddog observation plane, spending my days looking for North Vietnamese troops. The bomb-cratered landscape I surveilled resembled the moon Neil Armstrong stepped onto that same year. Occasionally, what sounded like the intermittent buzzing of mosquitos around our plane drew my attention to muzzle flashes from shooters a thousand feet below. As quickly as they appeared, they skedaddled into their hidey-holes on the side of the border we weren’t supposed to cross. Being a target of small arms fire will instantly snap you out of revaries contemplating the natural scenic beauty of Vietnam. And out of the remorse for what a large country can do to destroy a small one.

I came face-to-face with beauty when I met Le Thi Nga, one of the interpreters at the 25th Infantry Division’s Military Intelligence Detachment in Cu Chi. As did most young Vietnamese women, she wore the traditional ao dai (pronounced “ow-zai”), the flowing and tight-fitting colorful silk tunic worn over long black trousers. We spent hours together almost every day. Eventually, we began exchanging dreams for a shared future as we tried to bridge the cultural gaps between us. When I discovered that she, like me, was Catholic, I was convinced we were fated to fall in love.

Her parents weren’t so sure, despite my efforts to impress them by attending Sunday Mass at their small church in Bac Ha village. Not only was I the sole uniformed American in the congregation, the M-16 rifle propped on my kneeler could not have helped them envision a traditional marriage for their daughter. By the time my tour was over, Nga and I decided it was best for us to lead separate lives in very different societies.

Fast-forward nearly five decades. I hired a driver to take me from what I still thought of as “Saigon” to Bac Ha. It had been 20 years since I last heard from Nga in a letter describing an abusive marriage and divorce from a former South Vietnamese soldier. The only clue I had to her whereabouts was an old return address. I had no idea if she was still alive. My driver’s English was passable enough to understand where I wanted to begin my search. We left the puttering motor scooters of Saigon’s chaotic traffic for the journey northwest. The old dirt road I traveled many times once bordered rice paddies with working water buffalos and a few mud huts with thatch roofs. These days, it’s a bustling major highway lined with shops, small restaurants, and not a few large factory buildings.

My first stop was the small village church, my best guess being that the local priest might assist me in locating Nga. The rudimentary house of worship was now a larger, more modern church, apparently serving a prosperous community of believers. Unfortunately, I arrived on a day when no worshipers were around. Near the door of the locked church, the name “Le Thi Nga” appeared on a list of contributors. If this was indeed my Nga, it meant she was still living close by.

A cleaning woman seemed to recognize Nga’s name on my old letter but motioned that she had moved away to Cu Chi town some time ago. This was not good news. It meant my search would be more complicated because I’d have no starting point in a city far different, unrecognizable really, from the little town I’d frequented for drinks, food, and other wartime comforts. Next, we stopped an old man on a motorbike. He recognized Nga’s name. His translated response was “Is she a lady around 60 years old?” Yes, I said, and he agreed to show us to her home. Were we talking about the same woman?

Our guide led us back to the main road, a divided highway with modern buildings on both sides. It had been dirty and dusty all those years ago, crowded with small restaurants, make-shift laundries, the poor hovels of the men and women who supported our base, and houses of ill repute. The workers were herded through our base security gates each morning to our hootches, where they washed and ironed our fatigues, and cleaned our latrines, burning the half-cut 55-gallon drums of GI excrement with the unforgettable smell of burning diesel fuel. This is as familiar a flashback to veterans as the whoosh-whoosh of Huey chopper blades. Our scooter man pointed for us to park on a side street while he rode off down the sidewalk. Returning within minutes, he motioned for me to hop on the back of his scooter, and off we went, past astonished pedestrians. Near a yogurt and juice store, he gestured toward a side door where he had just told the owner that someone was looking for her.

Tentatively, I made my way down a dimly lit corridor.

“Nga?” I called out. “It’s Rick.”

I heard footsteps approaching and recognized her immediately despite her look of astonishment. Tears began pouring down her cheeks. We embraced, speechless.

“How did you find me? What are you doing here? Why didn’t you write ahead?” she finally stammered in little-used English.

“I wanted to surprise you,” I responded, though in truth I had no idea I’d actually locate her.

Nga motioned for me to sit. She kept leaving the small kitchen area to compose herself and catch her breath. She said something about me being like a detective to find her, still in shock until she finally settled beside me. I’d brought along some old pictures. Our great friend Hung, her best friend Lan (above left), and my fellow lieutenants: Fly, Sam, and Jim. We lingered over the images of parties at her house. Ba Muoi Ba beer bottles littered tables filled with spring rolls, pho, and other delicacies—my first introductions to what is now world-famous cuisine. What news of Lan? I was distressed to learn she was “sick now,” living with her family just a few houses down the street. Of course, I wanted to visit her.

As we entered the open-front fabric and ribbon store, I knew the young proprietress was Lan’s daughter even before we were introduced. Uyen had the same fine features as her mother. She and Nga retreated to a back room, asking me to join them a few moments later. I removed my shoes before entering the living room. And there, lying on a bed in a semi-comatose state was our beautiful Lan, very thin and reduced now to breathing through an oxygen tube. Her gray hair was shaved close, no longer the flowing black mane that once framed that exquisite face. Did I hide my shock well enough? I was embarrassed to be in this intimate family place, a virtual hospital room for a gravely ill woman. No explanation of her illness was offered.

Lan could no longer communicate, but Nga and Uyen spoke to her anyway.

“Rick has returned to see you.”

I bent down to kiss an inert Lan, whispering I loved her and how I appreciated her kindnesses when we first knew each other. This strong, intelligent woman who once wrote me letters of friendship, to help me understand the language, was dying. Lan’s husband emerged from the back of his home. Shirtless in the Vietnamese climate, Nguyen Hoa greeted me with affectionate gestures as Nga explained who this stranger was in his home. I gave him some pictures of a young Lan and a copy of a New Year’s greeting she wrote to me before they were married. He reciprocated by showing me his picture as a proud uniformed man, and those of his ancestors enshrined on an altar-like bureau in the living room.

Uyen’s brother, Khoi, clearly his mother’s son, entered and offered a shy hello. We stepped outside the family home to take pictures. Uyen said, “My family and I would like to thank you for your visiting. My mother must be very happy. We wish you healthy and happiness.”

The American War is little more than faded history for the newest generation.

The Vietnamese are a most gracious people, unfailingly polite, kind and self-effacing. In as much of that spirit as I could muster, I took Nga to lunch. At the large outdoor restaurant she ordered egg rolls, deep-fried eel and herb salad makings. Fifty years vanished as she carefully assembled spring rolls on thin rice paper and reminded me to dip them into nuoc mam, peanut sauce, or soy. She laughed as she let me kiss her for the photo in the empty restaurant. “I am single, I don’t care!”

Returning to her home, we exchanged small talk in the car’s back seat, my hand resting gently on her knee, a gesture more of friendship than intimacy. “I am very happy today,” she repeated a number of times. We walked down the narrow village streets toward her old house, where she once invited our friends for fun and diversion. She insisted I wear a nón lá, the Vietnamese conical hat, to protect me from the midday sun. Her humor was still intact as I took our selfie: We looked like “two VC’s,” she said, referring to the Viet Cong guerillas thereabouts the last time we were together. This very odd couple strolling side-by-side drew bemused glances from the windows of the modern homes that replaced the old thatch-roofed huts. Following the death of her parents in the early 1980’s, Nga sold the house. It was torn down, two new homes on its site. “I loved my old house here,” she said. I did, too. Two old friends spoke of the past and the reasons they didn’t marry. Nga’s her mother “cried and cried” at the prospect of her only daughter’s leaving. My intuition was that my America might be an overwhelming place for a country girl. I sensed no current disappointment in those decisions, just a reluctant realization of hurdles too high to jump.

After 1975 and the fall of the South Vietnamese government, Nga and others who had worked for the Americans had their ID papers specially marked. She was sent to the fallen Saigon for a two-week re-education class—a far milder punishment than other South Vietnamese “collaborators” experienced. Still, she recalled, “it was very hard.” Later, Nga was assigned to work in a tourism office in Vung Tau for five years. She was married and divorced with no children, and has been single for decades. Nga reported that there are no government soldiers around now. Just “too many police…but they leave me alone.”

Nga and I held time at bay for several hours, though not quite turning back the clock. Familiarity returned; romance less so. I realize now that a lonely soldier confused warm companionship and a dollop of guilt with true love. I won’t diminish what Nga and I had during the war. Had I brought her home to America, there’s an even chance we might have grown to love each other enough for a marriage to prosper and thrive. And just as likely she might have become homesick and discontented with a fast-paced and rapidly changing society so different from her traditional life in Vietnam. The exigencies of fate won’t allow a resolve to these hypotheticals.

Everyone in town seemed to know and respect Nga. She still walks briskly with the same dignity I recalled, head held high. She’s slim-figured with less gray hair than me. All in all, she’s made it through the years nicely.

Old friends walked back to my car on a bright and hot afternoon, having said all we could. On a busy Bac Ha street, I asked if I could kiss her good-bye, intuitively knowing her demurral wouldn’t be a rejection. No, it would simply not be proper for a single Vietnamese woman to display public affection. Even to an aging foreign man returning to her a lifetime later.