Tuesday, July 8, 2014
It was both a privilege and challenge to stay overnight at a Buddhist temple last year in South Korea. Offered in several Asian countries, these accommodations are recommended for travelers desiring a cultural experience and not for those used to modern lodging with the expected amenities.
"Templestays", as they're called, provide basic sleeping areas and impose strict rules (curfews, set meal times, etc.) that could prove difficult for some. But for those willing to be taken out of their comfort zone, the experience is rewarding.
I stayed at Woljeongsa Temple, nestled within the lush forest of Odaesan Mountain about an hour from Pyeongchang. My travel companions and I made the 2.5 hour journey from Seoul, stopping twice - to grab a roadside lunch and also to buy wash towels, which are not provided by the temple (tip: grab a towel from your hotel, if you can remember).
Here's how the experience unfolded, once we arrived at Woljeongsa Temple.
CHECK-IN / ROOMS
The young woman who assisted us at the reception office was friendly and spoke reasonably good English. After assigning us rooms and giving us printed itineraries, we had about an hour to change into temple clothes (mandatory) and settle in before orientation.
Our group - three of us total - was assigned individual rooms, right next to each other, in a detached co-ed section of the temple that held about 10 rooms total. We were booked for the "Relaxation-Based" experience, suitable for overnight guests and those wanting more free time vs. obligatory temple activities.
Shoes were not allowed inside the sleeping area, so we left them by the main sliding door. Each room was divided by a second set of sliding doors, and inside was a thin mattress, cover and pillow stacked neatly on the slippery wooden floor. Our temple attire, pants and robes, were hanging on a coat rack. Although I'm not opposed to sharing a lavatory, I was grateful for a private restroom that was stocked with bath tissue, bar soap and toothpaste.
There was a closet to put our belongings, as well as power outlets to charge our electronics and self-adjustable heating systems. I can't say that I slept comfortably, however, my cubicle-sized room was really warm at night and it was extremely peaceful.
ORIENTATION / MAKING PRAYER BEADS
Guests were required to attend a 10-minute "Learning Temple Etiquette" session, where we watched an animated video outlining the dos and don'ts of our stay, plus learning how to properly bow to fellow templestay guests and grounds staff. Then, the same young woman who received us at the office during the check-in process helped us make prayer beads that were ours to take home.
Evening and morning meals were included with our stay and were served promptly in a lower level cafeteria-style facility. We were guided into the dining area in single file and allowed to have our shoes on. Guests and staff members ate their meals at the same time, so we were able to meet fellow templestay guests, although they were all Asian tourists who spoke little English.
These meals were strictly vegetarian and mostly at room temperature, though a few dishes were warm. Rice, steamed vegetables, cooked potatoes, tofu and a broth-like soup were some of the items available for dinner, while leftovers from the night before, porridge, sliced bananas and a new assortment of vegetables were prepared for breakfast. Fortunately, a nearby bakery donated a boxful of wrapped danishes in the morning that I made a beeline for.
Meals are self-serve and laid out on a counter in bowls, rice cookers, baskets, or big plates. You're asked only to take what you think you can eat because the temple wants nothing being thrown away. Much of the food was unseasoned (garlic is a no-no), so it wasn't very enjoyable to me, but in respecting the diet and discipline that the Buddhist community lives by I consumed what I could. Outside food isn't permitted.
Plates and metal chopsticks were provided, but Western utensils (forks, knives, spoons) were nowhere to be found. Guests are asked to wash their own dishes following each meal service and to place them back near the counter. Also, there is no coffee, which proved more difficult for me than I'd initially thought. Our stay actually included a third meal, lunch, but we had to depart early the next day because we had flights to catch in Seoul.
SOUNDING OF THE DHARMA INSTRUMENTS
Templestay guests are privileged to watch and participate in the "Sounding of the Dharma Instruments", a ritual consisting of striking a giant ancient bell. First, you watch it being done and then you're invited to go up into a small tower and strike it yourself with assistance from one of the monks. I'm not sure about the history or symbolism behind this ritual, but I really loved hearing this huge bell being struck in the middle of a forest in pure darkness. The Sounding of the Dharma Instruments takes place around the time the temple closes to the public, so only those staying the night can witness this event.
EVENING AND MORNING BUDDHIST SERVICES
The highlight of this entire experience is attending actual services with real Buddhist monks; the Evening Service begins at 6:30pm and the Morning Service at 4:20am. For each service, we were led into the temple and asked to quietly situate ourselves on mats neatly sprawled out inside the Buddhist Hall; the monks were already there and silently kneeling on mats of their own. Guests are not permitted to photograph or videotape any portion of the service, lasting roughly a half hour. There is a lot of standing, kneeling and standing again - seriously, it was a workout - and there's a lot of chanting, which is mindblowing to hear inside this immaculate hall. We were supplied with English-translated programs, so that we could chant alongside the monks - male and female, young and old - although, I mostly closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of everyone else chanting. When the service was over, the monks left the temple silently and quickly, and then templestay guests were allowed to leave and return to their rooms.
CURFEW / WAKE-UP TIME
Guests are required to be in bed at 9pm with lights out. There was no WiFi and limited roaming access, and we were also asked to limit our visitation with fellow guests, so there wasn't much else to do except sleep. We were also required to be awake at 4am to wash up for Morning Service, which made for an extremely long day because I caught my return flight to Seattle from Seoul later that afternoon (tip: you may want to spend one night back in Seoul before your return flight home).
FIR FOREST WALK / TIDY UP ROOM / WRITE REVIEWS
Part of the experience of visiting the temple was to absorb its immediate scenery - fir trees, creeks, hiking trails - and I chose to do this with one of my travel companions, which was great because otherwise I'd had gotten lost. These leisurely strolls are also meant to free the mind and provide a daily (minimal, but regular) exercise routine.
Each guest must tidy up his/her room before departing - folding your mattress, hanging your robes and pants, cleaning the restroom - and after doing this, the only thing left is to check out and write a review of your experience. We each received a small gift, a pair of handmade wooden chopsticks and spoon, as we bid farewell to our host and thanked her for a magnificent stay.
CONTACT INFORMATION / PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION / TIPS
For general information on templestays in Korea, go to http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/AC/AC_EN_4_4.jsp
For information specific to Woljeongsa Temple, including address and phone number, go to http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=1721686
You can visit Woljeongsa Temple from Seoul without renting a car. Take an intercity bus (Line 2) from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Jinbu Intercity Bus Terminal, then transfer to the Woljeongsa local bus line. You'll have to inquire about bus fare and schedule once you're in Seoul.
If traveling by car, please note that once you leave Seoul there are limited places to refuel and eat. Look for the rest areas, which are actually mini shopping malls with food courts, retail stores, souvenir stalls and public restrooms. We encountered traffic congestion in Seoul that delayed us an hour, so give yourself extra time to get to Pyeongchang County and arrive promptly at the temple (if you arrive late, they may not receive you).
Saturday, June 28, 2014
Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez
In some places, you’re lucky to find a bank on a public street, let alone an ATM machine. But in Las Vegas, where sky is the limit, you can purchase a popular snack item at the press of a button, literally.
Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles Cupcakes recently opened a shop in the newly developed dining/entertainment center on the Las Vegas Strip called "The Linq", nestled between The Quad and Flamingo hotels. If you spot the "High Roller", a 550-foot observation wheel that's also brand new to the city's main tourist district, it's just footsteps away.
Around the corner from Sprinkles' front entrance is where you'll find the "Cupcake ATM" window, which dispenses the decorated frosted desserts like cash. You make your selection, based on the available varieties that day - Red Velvet is always offered (so long as it's not currently sold out) - and then you confirm your selection and pay by credit/debit card (only); these are cashless machines.
Through modern technology and the window screen, you're able to see the process of a robotic arm grabbing your boxed treat and sliding it into the rotating door, where you retrieve your sugary selection.
Sprinkles Cupcakes are made fresh daily and hand-frosted, and when in Vegas (and, a few other locations I presume), you now have the convenience of buying them with your finger.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Vinyl albums, tee-shirts, mugs, posters, books, trucker caps, flasks, shot glasses, neck pillows and even a special blend of roasted coffee are among the items for sale at the store, scheduled to be open 365 days a year from 6am to 10pm. Prices are very reasonable, for example $15 for tote bags, $10 for coffee mugs and $3 for stick pins, making Sub Pop merchandise an affordable, local souvenir that can be conveniently packed into your carry-on bags.
As a Seattle native, I love that my hometown airport has hometown flavor. Not only are there familiar eateries to choose from - Ivar's, Anthony's, Diva Espresso, Dilettante Chocolate, Starbucks (well, it is headquartered here) - but now we have retail stores that really highlight the Emerald City, instead of your run-of-the-mill overpriced, generic gift shops.
Obviously, Sub Pop gear and goodies appeal more to music fans - especially those who understand its connection to Seattle - but the store is definitely worth checking out, located North of the central terminal's food court, across from Anthony's Restaurant.
In recent years, the Port of Seattle has worked in alliance with the Office of Film + Music, Seattle Music Commission and PlayNetwork to create the "Experience the City of Music Program", offering live entertainment to passengers on select days, as well as a hand-picked selection of tunes played on its speaker system throughout the airport. Also, several Emerald City musicians voluntarily recorded announcements that occasionally play overhead, including Macklemore, Quincy Jones, Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie), Brandi Carlile, Ann Wilson (of Heart) and Jerry Cantrell (of Alice in Chains).
Monday, March 31, 2014
Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez
Hotel spotlight: Timberline Lodge (http://www.timberlinelodge.com/)
Well, if you didn't know by now, the Oregon ski resort was used for exterior shots in the Stanley Kubrick classic. But not much else. There was never any filming done on the premises of Timberline Lodge, and neither did it inspire the setting of the movie; author Stephen King was inspired to write the story after his stay at The Stanley Hotel in Colorado.
The 70-room Timberline Lodge rests beautifuly at 6,000 feet above sea level and is positioned at the perfect spot for guests to inhale views of Mt. Hood and foothills below. A domed walkway allows visitors to enter the lodge's lower level, where they're immediately greeted by a cozy fireplace, which stretches 98 feet tall, and an intimate area to sit by a toasty fire. US Forest rangers are often around to give guided tours of the property, but in the event they aren't present the hotel has a chronilogical timeline with photos to puruse, aside from a model unit featuring an armchair made for FDR when he dedicated the lodge on September 28, 1937. You'll also find the reception desk on this floor and the first batch of guest rooms, including affordable bunk bed-style "chalets" - great for families or groups - with access to shared restrooms.
Visitors can purchase ski passes and chair lift tickets from a day lodge steps away from the hotel, in addition
The highlight of Timberline Lodge is its main lobby, up a floor from the lower level. The hexagonal-shaped space is like a big, warm living room with sofas, armchairs and antique bookcases all surrounding the fireplace and chimney in the center. Off to one side is the Cascade Dining Room, known for its lunchtime buffet with a terrific spread that includes house-made pastas, salads and soups, roasted meats, fresh fruit, make-your-own-waffles and an assortment of yummy desserts. And just above the main lobby, on the top floor, is the Ram's Head Bar with tables and chairs spread around that provide the most impeccable views of Mt. Hood.
Outdoors, guests can absorb the sites in a beautiful heated pool with a 10-foot deep end. Back inside, near the pool, is a small workout facility. But the real amenity, of course, is where you happen to be, right smack in the middle of nature - trees, mountains, sky, birds, peace and quiet.
And although Jack Nicholson never stayed here, over the years celebrities from Olivia Newton-John to Avril Lavigne to Reese Witherspoon have all enjoyed the comforts of Timberline Lodge. Witherspoon was the most recent A-lister seen here, filming the adventure movie Wild on location a few months ago.
Monday, February 24, 2014
The Sky View Observatory (www.skyviewobservatory.com) opened almost a year ago inside Columbia Tower, the tallest building in Seattle at 932 feet, which also makes it the second tallest structure on the entire West Coast. While the views from the 73rd floor observatory aren't exactly panoramic, like the Space Needle, it does provide better close-ups of Mt. Rainier, CenturyLink and Safeco fields, Lake Washington, ferry terminal, local neighborhoods and nearby suburbs.
Here's more information about this new Seattle attraction.
LOCATION / HOURS
The Columbia Tower is located at 701 5th Avenue and takes up a whole block, allowing its tenants - the majority of them law firms - to enter the building at 5th and 4th avenues. If entering on 5th, the main elevators are directly ahead of you, but if entering on 4th, you'll need to ascend three escalators to the 5th avenue level (the elevators are to the right of the information desk). Two separate elevators are required to reach the 73rd floor - take the first elevator to the 40th, where there's a Starbucks (of course!) and the second elevator (just behind the first one) gets you to the 73rd floor. The Columbia Tower actually extends to 76 floors high, with an exclusive restaurant and bar at the top, but the general public only has access up to the 73rd. The Sky View Observatory is open daily from 10am to 8pm.
Adult tickets are $12.50, while seniors, kids 6 through 12, students and military (with valid ID) pay just $9.00. Children 5 and younger are admitted free of charge. Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.skyviewobservatory.com, or at the front desk, where you can purchase binoculars, souvenirs and a few other items. Visit the website for group ticket information and further details.
The Sky View Observatory wraps almost completely around the 73rd floor in a fully enclosed space. Windows on the South side face out to Mt. Rainier, CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks and FC Sounders), Safeco Field (home of the Mariners), Smith Tower, West Seattle Bridge and the redeveloped industrial SoDo District. The East-end viewing area provides lookouts to Lake Washington, I-90 Bridge, Harborview Medical Center, Interstate-5 and Beacon Hill, Leschi, Madrona and Seward Park districts, along with the Eastside suburbs of Bellevue, Mercer Island and Medina, where Bill Gates resides. There's lots of window space looking out to the West with stunning glimpses of downtown office towers, Elliott Bay, waterfront with the Seattle Great Wheel, Bainbridge Island and ferries departing or arriving at Pier 52. Finally, to the North you'll see more downtown buildings and hotels, Space Needle and Seattle Center, Lake Union, University of Washington, Gas Works Park, 520 Floating Bridge and Capitol Hill, First Hill, Queen Anne, Eastlake and Westlake neighborhoods.
SEATING / COFFEE & SNACKS
Guests are welcome to stay as long as they'd like, during normal business hours. There's plenty of room to take photos, even to set up tripods, and if you'd prefer to relax your legs or not stand so close to the windows, the observatory does have seats and benches to sit down and rest, write, update your social media status, or enjoy a refreshment. Coffee, juices and a small assortment of snacks are available for purchase at a counter on the observatory's North side.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez
Flight service review: Korean Air (KE 018) - Los Angeles to Seoul
Talk about a dream ride, Korean Air's transpacific service from Los Angeles to Seoul on its double-deck A380 plane is about as dreamy as it gets. Even sweeter is experiencing the journey aboard the Asian carrier's Prestige Class (business) with the proper pampering and in-flight indulgence one would expect for the price, or redeemed miles..
Although Korean Air flies non-stop between Seattle and Seoul, its lone West Coast gateway currently utilizing the A380 aircraft is Los Angeles. Here's where my adventure begins. After a short connecting flight into LAX, I'm now walking from Terminal 6 (Alaska Airlines) to Tom Bradley International Terminal.
After checking in and going through security, Prestige Class and First Class passengers can proceed to the second level of the terminal for lounge entry. The placard on the wall next to the elevator says "Sky Team Lounge", though it's actually operated by Korean Air. There are separate lounges for Prestige and First Class passengers - the former is larger, the latter is exclusive, but they offer the same food (noodles, finger sandwiches, fresh fruit, cheese, cookies, Korean beer, bottled water, juice, soft drinks).
It was time for boarding and I was skeptical that Korean Air would be able to board an entire A380 in 30 minutes (seeing that Air France needed a whole hour to load the same aircraft when I flew to Paris last summer), however, to my surprise everyone boarded quickly and we were set for an on-time departure.
Now boarded, it was time to settle in for a long flight. The customary daily newspapers, amenity kits, menus and champagne were distributed throughout Prestige Class. In-flight slippers were already placed in our seat pockets, plastic-wrapped blankets and pillows with slipcovers neatly folded on top of our seats, and flight attendants happily took our coats to be hung.
The upper deck of Korean Air's A380 is entirely Prestige Class, divided into three sections, plus the cocktail lounge at the rear. The lower deck includes 12 First Class compartments at the front, about 30 rows of Economy Class seating, and a Duty Free kiosk at the back. The Duty Free shop is open during the flight, shortly after takeoff until initial descent into Seoul. Because of strict rules the flight crew isn't allowed to display any merchandise until the aircraft is in flight, and they must have everything put away just before landing. And, how does the airline make sure precious bottles of perfume don't fall and spill on the floor? All items are held down by magnets to withstand any turbulence. Passengers can sample select merchandise (lotions, cosmetics, etc.), buy any of the items in stock and pay for their purchases all during the flight. Now, that's convenient. The Duty Free kiosk is available to all passengers, regardless of cabin class.
I must point out that upstairs in business class, the lavatory at the front-left side of the plane is enormous. It's the largest airplane restroom I've ever been in. I didn't have to actually use it, so I just meditated for about five minutes (yes, seriously) and splashed water on my face to pass the time in there.
In Prestige Class, the first thing you'll notice is the wide 21.6 inch seat that extends 180-degrees into a comfortable, lie-flat position. Your seat can be adjusted at the press of a button, whether to lean back and watch a movie, or to sit upright and eat a meal, or to stretch out completely to get some rest. Cocoa-colored Davi amenity kits contain everything you need for an overnight long-haul flight, including a full-size toothbrush with Colgate toothpaste, folding comb, eye mask, shoehorn, eye gel, lip balm and face cream (packed inside the cutest, teeniest square box). Gray slippers are tucked inside the seat pocket, along with a copy of Beyond, Korean Air's in-flight
magazine. A 15.4 inch individual screen and AVOD entertainment system, packed with films, TV shows, lifestyle programs, music library, video games and flight maps, helps the time fly by on the half-day trip. There are multiple compartments, at your seat and below the entertainment screen, to stow everything from your smartphones to shoes to books, plus a large overhead bin for your carry-ons. A reading lamp, noise canceling headphones, pull-out tray, shellback seat exterior for added privacy, direct aisle access and spacious leg room are other in-flight amenities to note.
MEAL AND BEVERAGE SERVICE
Dinner, served about 2 hours before landing, was just three-courses long and began with a Salad and Bread Selection - focaccia, soft roll, ciabatta roll. The Main Course was a choice of braised chicken thigh, or seafood and linguini pasta, or pork and shrimp wonton soup. I went with the chicken with "Bulgogi' sauce (a national dish often made with beef), which was hearty and flavorful - kind of like a stew with chunks of zucchini, carrots and potatoes. Seasonal Fresh Fruit closed out our pre-arrival Dinner. Coffee/tea/green tea is offered at the very end of each meal. I wasn't particularly fond of the red wines served in Prestige Class, a 2011 Bordeaux from France's Aquitane region and 2008 Merlot from California's Sonoma County, but others seemed to like it. Overall, however, all of my meals (even on the return flight to Seattle) were elegant and filling.
THE CELESTIAL BAR
Also, there's a self-serve second bar at the opposite end of the upper deck. It's really a nook, not a lounge, but it became my haven for the last 2 hours of the flight - intimate, quiet and mostly unoccupied.
There are a few things to point out about Korean Air's in-flight service vs. other airlines I've flown. The first is how sanitary the lavatories were, thanks to one flight attendant assigned specifically to wash up after every guest had used it - yes, I said that right, after EVERY guest used it. I observed this while drinking at The Celestial Bar - as each passenger exited one of two lavatories, a flight attendant would rush in and clean up. I was really impressed by this. Second, upon request, flight attendants in Prestige Class will gift you a travel size can of "Mineral Water Spray" - it's a facial mist that refreshes your skin during the long-haul flight, made with Jeju pure water. Third, the "Ramen with Side Dishes", available in-between meals in Prestige Class, is absolutely heavenly. It's not to be confused with "bibimbap" (regularly offered as a lunch or dinner entree) - these are just instant noodles, but they're served steaming hot with a garnish (I asked for mine without) and accompaniments. Even if you're full after the first meal, go for the ramen!
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Text and photo by: Albert Rodriguez
One of the more unique amenities I've come across in my recent travels is "Raid the Pantry" at the Woodmark Hotel, Yacht Club & Spa. The lakeside retreat is located in Kirkland, an Eastside suburb of Seattle and former headquarters of Costco (now based in nearby Issaquah).
Every night between 10:30pm and 1am the hotel invites guests down to the lobby to load up on complimentary snacks, available in a pantry room next to the concierge desk. On the nights I stayed at the Woodmark, the assortment of goodies included Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Tim's Cascade Style Potato Chips, Coke products, bottled water and juice, house-made cookies and pastries, hot soup, Kettle chips, granola/cereal bars, Tootsie Rolls, cold milk, half sandwiches, and several other types of chips, candy and essential junk food.
Trays are provided for guests to take snacks back to their rooms, where they can eat and work, watch TV or unwind in their own privacy.
What I also liked at The Woodmark was their complimentary bike rentals, allowing me to absorb the stunning scenery while getting exercise to downtown Kirkland (7 minutes by bike, 2 to 3 minutes by car). During the summer months, June through September, the hotel rents out watersports equipment (Waverunners, kayaks, paddleboards, etc.) for guests to experience on Lake Washington, as they take in views of the Seattle skyline, Husky Stadium and lakeside communities.
For more information on the Woodmark Hotel, Yacht Club & Spa, go to www.thewoodmark.com