Saturday, 17 December 2016

4 Reasons To Visit Shanghai Disney Resort Now

Disney's newest resort opened to much ceremony in June this year. Having visited every other Disney resort around the globe, this was my sixth and final one (for now at least). Here's why I think this is the best Disney resort in the world to visit right now:

1. It's brand new.

The paint is still drying, everything is new, shiny and lovely. Sure, this can also mean some teething problems, but as this is the sixth park Disney has built, everything has been planned and fine tuned to perfection to create the ultimate Disney experience. This is a hybrid of what is good and works well in every other Magic Kingdom style park around the world, and it shows.

The technology used on the rides is the very latest, and attractions such at Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure are (quite literally) jaw dropping and incredibly immersive. The $5.5 billion price tag of the resort shows.

2. There is more than just Shanghai Disneyland park.

The Shanghai Disney Resort is huge. In the middle is a vast lake called Wishing Star Lake, surrounded by walkways winding through beautiful tranquil gardens, glass bottomed bridges, and outstanding landscaped beauty.

Opposite the park is the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, designed in a stunning Art Nouveau style. Inside are a selection of fine restaurants and bars, including Aurora, overlooking the lake and the huge castle. Add to this the huge Disneytown area, with shops and restaurants aplenty, the Toy Story Hotel the Ecological Green Park where one can go cycling or even canoeing, the Herb Gardens, and the nearby Shanghai Village shopping centre, there is more than just a day-trip's worth of things to do, not even including the park.

3. It's comparatively cheap.

Despite there being negative media attention of the prices at Shanghai Disney Resort, it's still a lot cheaper than any other Disney resort in the world, in my experience. An inexpensive meal including a drink and dessert can be purchased for around 60 yuan, or roughly £7. Not bad for Disney prices. Cost of entry tickets and hotels are also considerably lower than most Disney parks around the world.

4. Chinese people are brilliant.

If there's anything I learned on my visit, it's that Chinese people have a great sense of humour and passion that translates well for a Disney resort. The cast members all looked genuinely happy and proud to be there, and this really makes a difference when comparing to say Disneyland Paris, where the magic isn't quite up to the same level. 

Whether this is opening year enthusiasm remains to be seen, but right now this creates one of the most magical and genuine Disney experiences of any resort.

5 Crazy Things About Copenhagen

Copenhagen had been on my list for a while. Besides discovering how little the Little Mermaid statue really is on my visit, here are 5 things about Copenhagen you may like to know...

1. There are bikes. Lots of them.

It isn't car traffic you need to look out for in Copenhagen. About a third of all citizens in Copenhagen commute to work, school or University. In fact it is said that more people commute by bike in Copenhagen than in the entire USA. It certainly is one of the most cyclist friendly cities; although because of this perhaps the same can't be said for pedestrians. There are dedicated bike lanes, however I nearly got wiped out by cyclists on several occasions, as they appear to come from nowhere at times. Be warned...

2. The metro trains drive themselves.

In Britain this would cause strikes. In Denmark they just use logic. The trains are completely automated, stopping at each station just like any other metro system. No need to have a human doing it. I hopped on at the airport and arrived at the city centre in minutes.There are even large windows at the front and back, allowing action-movie-esque views as the train speeds through the tunnels. Cool.

3. It's expensive.

But not if you are organised. If you do some research there are plenty of places to eat that are less expensive, particularly to the West of the city. Also there are many places you can enjoy for free, such as Kastellet, a fantastic fortress with a beautiful windmill, and of course the statue of The Little Mermaid.

4. It's small.

Which is great, because if you are only planning on visiting the centre, you can pack a lot in to just one day. Most of the main attractions are within walking distance of each other. Despite the aforementioned bikes of doom, it is practical and quick to walk around and soak up the sites.

5. It's super connected.

If you wanted to explore further into Europe, Copenhagen is a good starting point. The Oresund bridge links Copenhagen directly to Malmo in Sweden, which could easily be done in a day. The superb rail links also make Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and just about anywhere in Europe within easy reach. Of course the rail links within Denmark itself are also superb, with modern, frequent trains, putting the rail network in Britain to shame.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Shanghai: The Ancient, the Old and the Ultra-Modern

China, though historically rich, might conjure up an impression of a diluted history. Much of its historical sites have been restored (sometimes perhaps unsympathetically), and commercially plundered - and some even lost forever. What does its most modern city, Shanghai, speak of the China of yesterday, and the China of today?

"Don't compare this with Japan", I remind myself after arrival at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Signs of an architectural haste, and a cultural contrast with nearby Japan are almost immediately apparent. 

Posters for the soon to open Shanghai Disneyland line the arrivals corridor, a sign of Western absorption and rapid development, and taxi touts aggressively stalk me as I step out of the air conditioned Maglev train (one of the fastest trains in the world) at Longyang road. The journey only takes 7 minutes - a modern technological marvel. In contrast with this, the unpleasant smell of a makeshift rubbish dump adjacent to the taxi rank, in a seemingly unfinished building speaks further of this architectural haste. 

I do my best to communicate to the taxi driver in Mandarin, but resort to the tried and tested tourist method of a printed Google map, and an English raised voice. I am staying at the Renaissance Yu Garden, in the older Yuyuan area. 

It's actually a short walk from the hotel to the Yu Garden itself. I am by no means knowledgeable on Chinese history, but the gardens were first created in 1559, during the Ming Dynasty. As with many Chinese historical sites, most of the original structures were completely destroyed, particularly though the Taiping Rebellion. Most of the site therefore consists of recreations built in the 50s and 60s. 

The knowledge of the recreated buildings, coupled with the overwhelming commercial presence I am met with only detracts slightly, and a sense of cultural immersion remains. Navigating through the heart of the complex is a job given the small streets, peppered with arm grabbing street sellers and large crowds. 

The City God Temple is the first paid admission area (10 Yuan if I recall). Pleasant incense smells waft throughout a large courtyard, each side of which conceals worshipped figures, representing the overseeing Gods of Shanghai - three of them in fact. 

The second paid admission area is the garden itself. I walk in totally the wrong direction and end up at the garden exit - the garden can only be accessed one way. I cross a zig-zig bridge which presents stunning views of the traditional architecture around me. After finding my way in to the garden, I begin to commend this place as a genuine oasis from the crowds outside. 

It's surprisingly easy to get lost inside. For those seeking to gratify their inner 'travel brochure' impressions of ancient China, inside a modern metropolis, Yu Garden achieves this. The Pavilion of Listening to Billows beckons with it's wonky bridge walkway, and goldfish filled pond. 

The rockeries, and in particular the jade stone, are reminiscent of another planet, with their strange hole-punctured appearance.

The experience of Yuyuan is a gratifying, packaged, stamped and approved one. With the exception of Yu Garden, every square inch as been monopolised by mostly irrelevant shops, but it represents and satisfies what one would expect.

Another essential part of ancient Chinese life was the waterways,and the nearest place to Shanghai exemplifying this is Zhujiajiao Ancient Water Town. About an hour away from the centre of Shanghai, the affordability of taxis here means this is the best way to access the town. The metro lines don't stretch this far, and the buses can be a difficult to depend on. 

The taxi drops off in a nearby car park, and I have two hours to explore.Again the proliferation of tourist commercialisation is apparent, but the first impressions are quite charming. 

A series of ancient stone bridges link the narrow paved streets, with lantern adorned gondolas slowly taking tourists up and down the rivers. Some might say that this is the Venice of China. Perhaps in terms of tourist numbers, they have a point.

Luckily this early in the morning, the streets aren't too busy, and I make my way to the largest and probably most famous of the bridges, Fangsheng Bridge, built in 1571. I'm offered live fish in a bag as I lean in for a photo. Crossing the bridge, I notice the lion figures along the sides, and the very shallow steps, perhaps designed for carts to traverse. 

I stumble upon the Great Qing Post Office as I leave, apparently the only historical post office in east China, built in 1903. Outside a very old post box looks genuine and proud, hopefully immune to the threats of impending commercialisation. 

The 1900s seems to be the best, most preserved and authentically standing historical period in Shanghai. I catch the super efficient metro to Nanjing Road East station, and make my way along the road towards the historical side of Bund. 

The Peace Hotel, now a Fairmont hotel, got its name in 1956, but the building itself was built in 1929. It boasts a stunning art deco interior, with fabulous lighting and decor in the lobby, elaborate 3D murals and an exquisite floral display in the centre. 

This architecture ensues along the front of the Bund, with buildings like the HSBC Bank, Customs House and the Bank of China all dating from the late 1800s to early 1900s. They are stunning and unquestionably authentic.

An evening boat cruise on the Huangpu river is the perfect visual transition between old Shanghai and the ultra modern - with the classic art deco buildings on one side, and the aggressively competing skyscrapers of the financial district on the other.

Another hot but clearer day presents an opportunity to get into the beating heart of modern Shanghai, and get to the top of the World Financial Centre, for some vertigo inducing views.

The Sightseeing Tunnel, is perhaps the most bizarre way of getting there. Essentially a ride underneath the river, a symphony of lights, strange sounds and dazzling patterns cocoons the travel pod as it slowly makes its way through.

Emerging by the base of the Oriental Pearl tower, elevated pedestrian walkways encircle well maintained highways below, with glimpses of skyscrapers as far back as can be seen. 

Giant video screens sell the latest Western, as well as Eastern products, and a glass domed chic looking Apple store is nestled below. This is truly the modern Shanghai that the rest of China hastily aspires to be.

Navigating a series of escalators and walkways, passing luxury shops, I enter the futuristic lobby of the World Financial Centre. My ticket will take me to the very top of the 'bottle opener', so named because of its tool-like shape.

Firstly a high speed elevator dramatically ascends to the 97th floor. This is the bottom of the 'hollow' area at the top of the building, and one can look up at the underneath of the upper part - a surreal experience. 

Here an escalator takes me up to the 100th floor - the 'Sky Walk' - which scarily has glass floors through the middle and sides. Being at the top of the hollow area, I look down to see the 97th floor I was just on, and distant streets below.

To the sides, spectacular views are afforded of the bund, and neighbouring skyscrapers.I can't help but feel a little nauseous as my mind jumps to impossible scenarios of falling from such a great height. This isn't made easier by the sight of window cleaners, casually hoisted up, 100 floors in the sky in a glorified bucket, smiling and without a care in the world...

Ultimately the ultra-modern area of Shanghai, despite perhaps being disconnected in some ways, feels more authentic than the recreated ancient China I have seen. It's not trying to be something it's not, just representing the forefront of development, business and venture. Not preserving, but reaching. Rapidly developing at such a pace, it has me wondering if the explosion of growth is sustainable. 

On the other side of the river, the classic architecture of the Bund also demonstrates a genuine integrity and authenticity. Although there are remnants and echoes of a time long passed, this is the real Shanghai. With preservation often comes the unfortunate side-effect of extreme commercialisation, repeated again and again throughout the world. For a taster though, I'm willing to put up with it for a snippet of a history, which otherwise would be be forgotten to the glorious hyper-speed aspirations of modern Chinese culture.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

'Where you to?': Not Abroad, but in Cornwall

The UK may often be snubbed by many, particularly those of us who live here, as a potential 'holiday at home' haven. However, as I discover in West Cornwall, there are parts of it that truly transport us away from the normal drab tourist traps.

'Dreckly', 'Where you to?' and 'Emmet'; some of the Cornish slang that truly confirms its cultural niche , the latter of which I am about to become. 'Emmet' refers to those folk who are not local, who flock to Cornwall in the summer months, and quickly disappear in the winter, rather like ants. My very quick trip will be a snapshot of the very best that West Cornwall has to offer in terms of spectacular beaches and harbours.

Penzance is the 'hub' of this part of Cornwall, with the main train-line terminating here. It really does feel like this is where the rest of the UK gets pushed aside. Penzance has suffered a decline in its fishing industry, but an increase in tourism and retail. Property prices have soared here over the last decade and in the surrounding areas. The sea glistens in the background as hordes of tourists arrive at the station by the harbour.

Mousehole, or actually as with many Cornish words pronounced differently to how it appears - more like 'Mouzul' - is a small fishing village nearby. Perhaps most known for its Christmas illuminations around the harbour, and the associated book, 'The Mousehole Cat'.

Dodging Americans wielding large cameras, wandering around the harbour feels like a movie set. Plant pots left trustingly outside, visitors stepping over a sleeping cat in the ice-cream parlour doorway, and bright green seaweed strewn contrasting the light Cornish sand on the small beach, lined with coloured surfboards.

The only thing lacking seems to be the presence of locals. Besides the many American and Asian tourists, sadly while walking past the quaint 'local' cottages, I hear unmistakeable London accents, chattering as they go in and out of their homes. The reality is that many of these homes are simply now unaffordable for locals and are predominantly owned by wealthy out-of-towners, buying into the dream. The locals have been squeezed out, to be replaced with 'emmets' seeking permanent residence. The realness seems jaded. A real-life movie set, perhaps, but still beautiful none-the-less even on an overcast day.

Porthcurno beach is widely regarded as one of the best in the UK. This narrow beach is accessible via a small path and set of steps down the hillside. Historically the area is known for its connection, quite literally, to the cable industry, exemplified by the presence of the Telegraph Museum. International underwater cabling used to connect to the building now exhibiting Porthcurno's old industry.

Stepping on to the beach at the bottom, the sand gently slopes down into very clear looking waters. Not many people chance swimming, due to the presence of strong rip tides. The dramatic cliffs either side make for a protected beach and micro-climate for sun lovers.

Further along is Sennen, a much longer beach stretching along the coast. This allows for the increased presence of bars and restaurants, being much more accessible, but less secluded that Porthcurno.

The water seems to have a special quality only found in this part of the UK, with saturated blue hues lapping against the light sand. I prefer it here to Porthcurno, mainly owing to the accessibility, despite how heaving it is.

Somewhere more tranquil is Cape Cornwall, the UKs only cape. Following the trend of encroaching outside purchasers, unfortunately only part of the cape is accessible now that land has been bought surrounding it, however its beauty can still be appreciated.

Topped with a mining chimney dating back to 1864, the rugged cliffs and pounding waves make for a refreshing experience.

Some international tourist destinations have a magical quality that cannot be bought, and St Michaels Mount in Marazion is one of them. What makes it so special is the man made causeway that mysteriously appears for a few hours when the tide is low, allowing the many tourists to traverse out to the imposing castle on an island.

There are in fact quite a few tidal islands in the UK alone, but this one allures with charm and intrigue. Once on the island, one can explore the harbour, occupied only by those that work in the castle, or pay an entrance fee to go inside, or another fee to explore the gardens... I do think it's a shame that charging is necessary, although National Trust annual membership can be bought, which could prove to be worth it for UK residents at least.

St Ives is the final beach on my list. The train journey in itself is an attraction. St Erth Station Buffet is a throwback to the classical days of British rail travel, with old posters adoring the walls advertising glamorous destinations, and tea served in floral cups. The train will be here 'dreckly' - meaning shortly, as far as I understand...

The train journey offers stunning coastal views on the right, and to the left golf courses and countryside. The posters in the cafe don't seem to lie, as it feels as though the journey to St Ives truly takes me further than the short stretch of rail track. Looking out at the vivid turquoise and clear waters, I feel as though I've gone abroad.

Leaving the station with hundreds of tourists, there is a large pristine beach directly opposite to head for. Although completely packed, I find it hard not to appreciate how far removed this is from what we expect a UK holiday to look like. Heat seems to radiate in a micro-climate, and coupled with the wonderfully bright colours I feel I could easily be in the Pacific somewhere.

Carbis Bay, the train stop before, looks to offer a similar experience, yet perhaps a little less packed.

St Ives is known for its local artists, drawn here because of the unusual quality of the light. The colours bounce off the jewel-esque sea, creating a unique and ethereal atmosphere. A further walk down reveals a harbour lined with shops and restaurants, again framed by the luminescent waters. This feels more Caribbean than Cornish!

The UK's coasts, especially Cornwall's, still sizzle as a hot tourist destination - how long this can be preserved for though is uncertain, as 'emmets' monopolise the beauty and traditional culture of Cornwall. However, evolving into a primarily tourist driven industry isn't necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps motivates locals to preserve its wonderful scenery. The second home purchasers and landowners have an obligation to fully integrate into the Cornish way of life, share it with others, and actively maintain it - one can't remain an emmet forever, after all.