Toronto Star travel folks in Hong Kong and checking the slopes in Europe
Being in transit and all, it's nice to let some of my travelling colleagues in on the action. So, here are a copule of postings from two terrific Star reporter/editors - Richard Ouzounian in Hong Kong and Neil McKay in France. First up, but only because he's in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year, is Richard.
HONG KONG - No question about it: the best way to see Hong Kong is during Chinese New Year's. The whole city is in party mode, but in the nicest possible way. Coming from a culture where New Year's means resolutions made, hangovers acquired and auld lang syne that's forgotten ASAP, it's refreshing to find a people who are devoted to it as a celebration of family and tradition.
Don't get me wrong, the city swings, but you don't have to run around fearing that someone is about to anoint your Adidas with that 32 oz Mojito they just chugged in 90 seconds flat!
My wife and I started the day quietly, taking advantage of the facilities at The Mira Hotel, where simply having a room gets you full access to their "infinity Pool" and the Changing Rooms, which come equipped with steam rooms, saunas, giant jacuzzis, "tropical" showers with 32 water jets (!) and a room with water-beds for you to meditate on.
We also took advantage of walking down by the Harbourfront to their "Avenue of the Stars" which is their answer to our "Walk of Fame". The big attractions are, as you might guess, JAckie Chan's handprints and a striking sculpture of Bruce Lee.
Most of the restaurants weren't open by late morning, so I hang my head in shame to tell you that we sought out a Starbuck's! But much to our surprise and delight, the food choices here are far more varied and superior than what we get in North America. Can you picture asking your local barrista to accompany your grande latte with a Crayfish and Asparagus Quiche or a Smoked Chicken and Egg White sandwich served on a Cardamon Ciabatta? And the food was good, too. The price was also right, averaging $7 Canadian each for a breakfast coffee and a yummy sandwich.
Good thing we saved so much money on food, because the next stop was Canton Road, where it looks like all the major designer names in the world have set up their largest flagship stores. They've got a Prada the size of the average Bay and you practically need a map to get around the Louis Vuitton. To be honest, I didn't see a lot of buying taking place, but the well-dressed families out for a holiday outing had a wonderful time checking out the upscale goodies. There are new luxury "malls" being set up in the annex to the famed Peninsula Hotel as well as underneath the city's newest "W" Hotel, so shopping won't ever be an issue here.
Nor will dining. On the advice of a friend, we joined up with some German journalists here for a visit and enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the Peking Garden. Like many great dining spots in the city, it's hidden inside another structure and you have to know where to look. This is on the third floor of the Star House, right across from the Star Ferry and it's possible to get a table with a greta harbour view, but you'll be paying more attention to the food. Best. Peking. Duck. Ever. Superbly lacquered skin, juicy meat and very generous portions. It costs about $45 Canadian, but it will serve six more than generously and superbly. You'll want to try their Spicy Tofu, Beggar's Chicken and Garlic Greens, which wins the medal hands down for the Vampire Preventative of 2011.
Afterwards, thanks to the kind offices of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, we wound up with VIP seating for the annual Chinese' New Year's Parade. This is a spectacular event which sends 35 floats (each accompanied by a dancing chorus of 50-100!) from a central point by the harbour, weaving through the streets of the city. People begin lining up hours in advance and having seen the show, I don't blame them!
How do you describe it? Well, imagine watching the Rose Bowl Parade after ingesting some magic mushrooms, or try to picture the cast of Glee on steroids suddenly appearing in an Asian version of the Caribana parade. The picture of one float I'm including can only give you a slight idea. Oh yes, we all also wore rabbit ears in honour of The Year of the Rabbit. Somehow you don't seem so foolish when thousands of other people are doing it!
The bottom line? Hong Kong is always a fascinating place to visit, but during Chinese New Year's, it's a knockout!
From Asia to Europe, we go to Neil McKay, who's on sabbatical from the sports desk and spending the winter in the French Alps with his family. His daughters are working hard at the local public school in Samoens, his wife is working hard on her French. McKay? He’s skiing every day and eating a lot of cheese. Here’s his latest Postcard from the Alps.
CHAMONIX, FRANCE—The world’s best skiers were here last weekend competing in the world’s oldest downhill race, the Kandahar. The famous race has been held in various resorts since 1911 and this year Chamonix hosted the World Cup event featuring a downhill on Saturday and a super combined (downhill and slalom) on Sunday.
Among the crowds lining the legendary Verte des Houches course on Sunday were young racers from ski clubs throughout Haute Savoie. Our daughters’ club in Samoens sent two mini-buses to the event, coaches and young athletes hiking up the mountain to “the break” part of the course where racers sail 60 metres off one of the jumps. “Formidable,” was the general consensus of the kids.
The crowds arrive early and set up camp in the woods lining the course, fashioning seats from logs and broken trees branches. The Swiss, some in traditional alpine garb, are out in force, armed with gigantic cowbells, signs and flags. The French prefer to carry bags of food up the hill and some of the spreads look to be of Michelin quality. We’re making do with Nutella sandwiches and flasks of hot chocolate.
Down in the finish area, the non-stop banter from the announcer, as well as the vin chaud, is keeping the large crowd in a festive mood as the clock counts down to 11 a.m. and the start of the race. From this vantage point, spectators watch the action on a giant screen until the racers come into view for the final stretch to the finish line.
The Verte course setting is spectacular, the start hut offering superb views of the Chamonix Valley and Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak (4,810m). Not that the athletes have much time for sight-seeing. The icy 3.34-kilometre course runs a hefty two minutes for most racers, a couple of seconds less for 36-year-old Swiss star Didier Cuche who took top spot on the podium Saturday.
Canadian skiers have had some success at Chamonix over the years, Crazy Canucks Ken Read and Dave Murray finishing 1-2 in a World Cup downhill in 1978 and Nancy Greene pulling off a downhill/slalom/combined hat trick in 1968. On Saturday, Canada’s Manny Osborne-Paradis wasn’t quite so lucky, blowing out a knee and having to be airlifted off the course, his season finished.
Charming little Annecy, an hour away, is one of the three cities still standing in the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Should Annecy get the nod over Munich and Pyeongchang, South Korea, when the IOC makes its decision on July 6, the alpine events will be held here in Chamonix, birthplace of the Winter Games in 1924.
A victory in Chamonix looks good on anyone’s resume, and on Sunday Ivica Kostelic of Croatia roars back in the slalom to take first place, padding his already formidable lead in the overall World Cup standings. Fellow Croat and best pal Natko Zrncic-Dim finishes second, and the two of them belt out the Croatian anthem from atop the podium.
After the awards ceremonies, the skiers make their way through the crowd and back into the village of Les Houches. The procession is a slow one as a sea of kids in ski club jackets swarm the World Cup stars for autographs. Surprisingly, many of the racers are still in their ski boots and carrying their own skis as they clomp into little hotels and team vehicles on the main street like average joes on a ski holiday.
Kostelic is the last to leave the finish area, lugging his heavy trophy up into town where a band is performing outside one of the pubs. In Les Houches, the party is just getting started.
For the World Cup skiers it’s on to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, for the world championships. And for the young racers on hand this day, it’s back to their clubs and training. Hopefully, the kids at the Ski Club de Samoens don’t get any ideas about that 60-metre jump they saw on Sunday – the girls at least.
*For more information on Chamonix and skiing in France, go to: