Tuesday, June 26, 2012

North Korea Stirs Curiosity, Draws More Tourists

Of all the places in the world to go, one of the last places I would ever consider is North Korea. Mostly because I associate it with dictatorship, repression, nuclear war, poverty...not exactly selling points in the tourism industry. And yet, a number of Westerners are taking trips to the country, due in large part to curiosity about what its actually like.

In 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens traveling to the country. They are now able to visit anytime of the year, but they cannot travel by train and are not allowed to participate in homestay programs. Tourists do not have the same freedom as in other destinations, and they must be part of a tour and have a Korean escort. All visitors need a visa, which will be issued once a tour is booked, approved by authorities and paid for. It sounds a bit daunting, and travel is certainly limited, but that doesn't appear to be detering guests.

According to Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, about 3,500 Western and 40,000 Chinese tourists went to North Korea in 2011. And the number is expected to grow this year, especially as the image of the country continues to change under the rule of Kim Jong-un, who took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong II.

Tour companies, like Koryo, said there are many misconceptions about North Korea and its people, but the country offers a variety of great experiences just like any place else...tourists just need to give it a chance. Another common belief is that all tourists must have the same fixed itinerary that the government dictates, but there are a variety of tour packages available. Koryo, for instance, offers itineraries that include museums, parks, monuments and other areas around the capital Pyongyang; the demilitirized zone on the North Korean side of the border of South Korea; and Hamhung, an industrial city that was opened to tourists in 2010.

There are plenty of other tour groups that offer itineraries to North Korea, and the price of the vacation will vary depending on group size, trip length and sightseeing options.

Even though the country has opened its doors a crack to tourists, indicating that it is becoming a little less rigid on government control, there are still plenty of restrictions placed on guests. Visitors cannot use cellphones, send email, walk down the street without an escort, talk to strangers or take pictures of people or places that are not approved by the escort. (For an interesting account from a reporter, check out this article from the Washington Post.)

Juche Tower
I realize that some of this might be putting a few of you off the idea of visiting North Korea, but if you're still with me, here are a few places that are highly recommended to see once you are in the country--and hopefully the tour you booked takes you to these places:
  • Kim II Sung Stadium
  • Kim II Sung Square
  • Tower of the Juche Idea
  • Daedong River
  • Koguryo Tombs
  • Arch of Reunification
  • Geumsusan Memorial Palace
Mass Games
One of the best attractions in North Korea is the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, popular festivals held at the Kim II Sung Stadium. The events run for two months and held annually on Kim's birthday. The whole thing is kicked off by over 30,000 school children holding colored cards that create a massive mosaic. Guests can witness complex and highly choreographed group routines by dancers and gymnasts.

On the border between North Korea and China is Heaven Lake, located within a caldera on top of the volcanic Baekdu Mountain. This is one of the most popular sites to see in the country as it offers breathtaking views of the water and the surrounding mountains. 
There is a lot of great information on more attractions in the country at the official Korean Tourism website, which mostly features travel in South Korea. Still, there is a section dedicated to the spectacular sites of North Korea.
Despite the wonderful sites of the country, and the changes that are being made within its government, I am not completely sold on taking a trip there. I am all about spontaneity when I travel, being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and the restrictions set by North Korea definitely hinder my ability to explore freely. Given that fact, I'd say I'll hold off on traveling to North Korea until it gets a little more lacks with tourists--though that's not likely to happen very soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Would You Call Your City Romantic?

Of all the major U.S. cities, Chicago does not rank very high on the romance scale, at least in my opinion. Of course, I'm coming from the vantage point of a single woman, so my view is a little biased. (Though many friends, both single and attached, agree with my sentiments, but we won't get into that.) Despite my opinion, Chicago was actually named one of the top five most romantic cities in the country by MissTravel.com.

Sidenote: MissTravel is a dating website just launched in April, pairing wealthy men looking for traveling companions with women who are financially unable to go on vacations alone. I'm not gung-ho about the idea for obvious reasons, but apparently its somewhat of a lucrative market.

Based on the 20,000 trips that have been coordinated by the website, it has compiled a list of the 20 most romantic destinations in the U.S.

And they are as follows:

1. Las Vegas
2. New York City
3. Miami
4. San Francisco
5. Chicago
6. Honolulu
7. Los Angeles
8. Orlando
9. Santa Barbara
10. Washington, D.C.
11. Napa Valley
12. Dallas
13. San Diego
14. Boston
15. New Orleans
16. Philadelphia
17. Houston
18. Tampa
19. Sedona, AZ
20. Cleveland

Now, some of these I can totally see, while others (cough, Cleveland) make no sense at all. And how did Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington, D.C. beat out Napa Valley. In my opinion, that should have definitely made the top five. What is more romantic than spending a weekend on a vineyard enjoying different wines and cheeses? And how did some other great romantic cities not make the list? What about my home town of Denver, with its proximity to the mountains providing ample opportunities to rent out a log cabin for an evening where you can cuddle with your sweetie next to a fire sipping hot cocoa. Or how about Baltimore, Atlanta, Seattle or Santa Fe? I find those to be more romantic than some of the other choices.

luxury ski retreats (http://www.luxuryskiretreats.com/index.aspx)
Well, maybe I just need to take a few romantic trips and create my own top 20 list. I'll add that to my array of travel tasks and report back when I finish.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Rules of Hitting the Vegas Strip

We are all familiar with the saying, "What Happens in Vegas..."

As an avid believer in the rules of Las Vegas, I cannot, in good conscience, reveal all the details of my Memorial Day weekend spent in Sin City. However, what kind of travel blogger would I be if I didn't talk at least a little bit about my trip?

Having last visited America's playground when I was a tween traveling with my family, the city was completely unfamiliar, with the exception of what I had seen or heard on television, or from friends who had gone there. I expected large crowds, bright lights, a whirlwind of activity, nonstop gambling and partying, and drinks galore. And that's exactly what I got.

Our group of 14 girls (that's what you call a great bachelorette party) got a two-bedroom suite at Planet Hollywood. (We actually stayed in the condo portion of the hotel, called Elara, which is run by Hilton.) The room included a living space, complete with a wrap-around leather couch, a furnished kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows with curtains that could be lowered to instantly turn it into a personal theater. There was a master bedroom with a jacuzzi tub, seperate shower, washer/dryer and an LCD TV. The other room was a bit smaller, but still had a nice bathroom, kitchenette and an extra couch. Plenty of room for everyone to have some form of a bed--though somehow my friend and I landed on the floor the first night. It was definitely convenient to have a fridge, helped cut down on food and drink expenses at bars. If you are planning to have a bachelorette party in Vegas, I would highly recommend snagging a room with a kitchen, probably the best idea ever!

Attached to our hotel was the Miracle Mile, filled with 170+ apparel stores, eateries and souvenir shops--heaven for women of any age. Our agenda did not include much shopping, but there were certainly a lot of options had we wanted to take some time for retail therapy. Our time was mostly relegated to the pool, an outdoor tropical oasis surrounded by palm trees and private cabanas. It was a more laid back, relaxing environment in the early morning hours--before the late-night partyers awoke and ventured to the pool to nurse their hangovers by the refreshing water. The afternoon is a nonstop festival of music, drinking, dancing and sunbathing, with a select few actually swimming. (Probably not the smartest thing to do while intoxicated.)

One of my favorite things while I was there was just walking down the strip and through the different casinos, checking out the different gaming areas, all the various decorations and themes of each hotel, and staring at all the characters hanging out on the streets or sitting at the slot machines. Prime people watching. It's also one of the best ways to meet people. We ran into a couple the first night while walking through the Planet Hollywood casino, and they were able to get us into The Bank at the Bellagio--no wait, no cover. The next day, we met some really nice guys while playing roulette at Hard Rock Cafe. I love meeting new people, and Vegas is an awesome place to do that.

I would have liked to partake in some of the other attractions, like the roller coaster at New York New York or some of the Stratosphere rides. If I ever go back, I definitely want to try the Sky Jump, a 108-story "skydive" down the side of the Stratosphere, cruising along a zip line without a parachute.

Seeing a show would also have been nice, but again, not really on the agenda for us bachelorettes. Although, a good one for a group of girls would have been Thunder from Down Under. (I would not have been opposed to seeing that.) I recall when I first visited Vegas, my family got to see a Cirque de Soleil show, probably one of the very first ones to come out at the time. Now, there are so many all over the country, you can pretty much see one whenever and wherever you want. Still, the Vegas performance was one of the most amazing I have ever seen, so that's certainly a possibility for next time.

I realize that a post about Las Vegas should have more juicy, tantalizing stories, but isn't it my moral obligation as a bachelorette to keep my mouth firmly sealed about the happenings that took place with our group? I think so. But here's a little teaser...stretch SUV limo, 23 bachelors, bottle service at a prime dance club...let your imagination wander.