Beijing, China

BIG IN BEIJING Explore China’s colossal capital of culture + cool

Skewered fried scorpion on Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing’s Dongcheng district. Photo by Janet Gyenes

There’s a touch of sweetness to the fried scorpion I’m crunching on while strolling Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing’s Dongcheng district.

It’s one of the delicacies hawked in this ravenous megalopolis of 21.5 million that’s brimming with thousands more when I visit during Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival. But crowds converge here year round, many of them domestic tourists. I find fewer people and less-daunting items like tanghulu, sweet-tart candied hawthorns threaded on bamboo skewers in the lacework of lively hutongs like Dazhalan Xijie near Tian’anmen Square. Heady aromas emanate from these traditional alleyways that are steadily disappearing as this behemoth capital trains its focus on the future. Case in point: the new Beijing Daxing International Airport (designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and ADP Ingénierie) will become the world’s largest when it opens in September. Dubbed the “starfish” by Chinese media for its sci-fi shape, it will welcome 72 million people annually, well in advance of Beijing hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Earlier this year, China’s expanded 144-hour visa-free transit policy came into effect, making it even easier for international travellers to explore this cultural nexus that’s home to seven of the country’s 53 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Tian’anmen Gate, formerly the front gate of the Forbidden City; Flowers in Tian’anmen Square commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Photos by Janet Gyenes

Local life, however, still plays out among the centuries-old cypresses and lush gardens surrounding the ancient architecture at the Temple of Heaven, or Tian Tan, first constructed in 1420. I wander by seniors bent over decks of cards and dominos and stop to watch a group of men play a spirited ring-tossing game before visiting the 273-hectare complex’s temples and sacrificial altars where emperors prayed for rain and a good harvest during the Ming and Qing dynasties. There’s a regal vibe to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, an ornate three-tiered circular structure ringed by an Echo Wall. Its hermetically sealed bricks send the sound of even a whisper to the other end of the round structure. A different kind of grandeur greets me a day later when I disembark the train at Bādálǐng for my first foray on the Great Wall.

Ornate detail from the roof of the Temple of Heaven; The Temple of Heaven looms high. Photos by Janet Gyenes

Holiday crowds on the Great Wall at Bādálǐng. Photo by Janet Gyenes

Located just 70 km north of the city core, in 1957 this section of the Wall was the first opened to tourists and it remains the busiest and best preserved. I spend hours in awe walking this vast stone snake coiling across the scrubby winter landscape. Although it’s slow-going being wedged shoulder to shoulder with thousands who have also made the trek to explore the Ming dynasty-era towers and crenellated battlements there’s something about being in the crush that feels comforting and quintessentially Beijing. — Janet Gyenes

[GO] More info: travelchina.gov.cn/en

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Dublin, Ireland

From books and art to beer and revelry: DUBLIN

Doorman and William Scott painting at Merrion Hotel; Exhibit at The Little Museum of Dublin. Photos by Barb Sligl

Dublin’s streets seem to echo the words of poets, playwrights, novelists…James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett. Their statues also seem to greet you everywhere, from a louche-looking Wilde lounging upon a rock in Merrion Square (in a natty pink-and-green smoking jacket) to a bespectacled Joyce musing in the courtyard of the Merrion Hotel.

The conversations continue with these colourful figures of literature in the Dublin Writers Museum (writersmuseum.com), where their verse and letters are showcased within an original 18th-century house. On the other side of the Liffey River, across the slender arch and ironwork of the pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge (named so because that’s what it used to cost to cross it when it opened in 1816), and in another graceful Georgian building, is the whimsical Little Museum of Dublin(littlemuseum.ie). The lively guided tour is a celebration of the city’s charming, somewhat ribald character and history, from its official founding in 988 AD to the days of U2 (with a pack of U2 condoms on exhibit) and the first woman elected as President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who famously said: “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system.”

Stepping into one of Dublin’s most infamous bars; Street scene, Temple Bar neighbourhood. Photos by Barb Sligl

More of Dublin’s bewitching personality is on display in the Temple Bar neighbourhood (a reference to the old word for a raised sandbank, “barr,” as well as the man who settled here in 1599, Sir William Temple). Today, the network of cobblestone streets and lanes is full of pubs, including the eponymous Temple Bar (site of Sir Temple’s home; thetemplebarpub.com), where ordering a pint will, of course, get you the local standby of Guinness.

Back across the Liffey, the Guinness Storehouse (guinness-storehouse.com), part of the active St. James’s Gate brewery that’s been churning out the dark, delicious brew since 1759, is a destination itself—part history museum, part beer wonderland and even part school where you learn that optimal flavour, aroma and colour is achieved at 232°C (“roasted to a black state of perfection,” as the guide says), or, more importantly, how to pull a perfect pint (“the Guinness surge”). And, yes, “Guinness is good for you,” as the renowned slogan goes.

A Guinness, of course. Trinity College’s Old Library. Photo by Barb Sligl.

Beer, bars, bards. And books. At Trinity College (tcd.ie/visitors/book-of-kells), see the legendary Book  of Kells (the oldest book in the world, it was scribed in 800 AD and has existed longer than Dublin) and then visit the early-18th-century Long Room in the Old Library, a glorious, two-storey, wall-to-wall display of some 200,000 tomes. Find a spot amidst the constant crowds to be still and behold the collection. Afterwards, explore more back-in-time beauty: St. Patrick’s Cathedral (where Swift is buried) and the National Gallery of Ireland (where you can see canvases by Yeats, an accomplished painter as well as poet).

Doorway to choir school at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; School girls in the National Gallery of Ireland. Photo by Barb Sligl.

After gazing at a still life of Scottish-Irish painter William Scott in the National Gallery (nationalgallery. ie), cross the street to find another one in the lobby of the Merrion Hotel (merrionhotel.com). With a private collection of 19th- and 20th-century art that’s set amidst the grand interiors of a restored Georgian building (with that Joyce statue in the courtyard), it’s as if you’re ensconced in Dublin’s artistic heart. — Barb Sligl

[GO] For more on Dublin: visitdublin.com.

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LOS CABOS

There’s plenty to love on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, in LOS CABOS

“Niño de mis ojos.” It’s what Frida Kahlo called Diego Rivera: “boy of my eyes.” I learn the phrase at a restaurant that’s named for and inspired by the colourful and iconoclastic Mexican artist. The backdrop is similarly wild, beautiful and full of ardour. Waves crash. The sun blazes. Palm fronds sway. Ah, Baja.

Frida is just one of seven evocative restaurants at the all-inclusive Grand Velas Los Cabos, which sits in the middle of the corridor between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, the two towns of Los Cabos—or “the capes”—at the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula.

Go west, some 20 km, and Cabo San Lucas offers bars and revelry (hello, Cabo Wabo, rocker Sammy Hagar’s legendary joint) as well as the iconic El Arco (“the arch”) and aptly named stony appendage of Land’s End. A panga or water taxi will drop you off at Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach). But beyond this, past the serrated rocks and barking sea lions, it’s just thousands of kilometres of Pacific Ocean. Or, 15 km on the other side of the resort, are the colonial buildings and historic missionary church of San José del Cabo.

But at the Grand Velas Los Cabos, between the two, is a bit of a hideaway on a swathe of wild beach (no swimming here; stick to the three tiers of infinity pools or go to nearby Chileno Beach). I spend an afternoon settled on a day bed in the sand, set amidst craggy rocks that look like they could have crumbled from El Arco itself, and just listen. It almost feels as if I’m lounging at Land’s End. Except that I have a mezcalita in my hand (that’s a margarita made with mezcal, also known as a mezcalgarita and on-trend).

Other Mexican concoctions I sample: chelada (cerveza with lime juice), michelada (add Worcestershire or Maggi plus chili spice) and ojo rojo (add tomato or clamato for the “red eye,” which also happens to be a hangover cure). I could sip and sit on the sand, by the pool or in it all day, but there’s much more to do here: a spa with a workshop (make your own mask with natural ingredients) and guided tequila and mezcal tastings, from joven to anejo. Yes, back to the sipping. I discern notes of citrus, spice, grass…and learn another Mexican saying. “First one without water, second one with water, third one like water.” Indeed.

Next stop: the spa, where there’s a hydrotherapy ritual (and a thermal lounge chair with my name on it) and treatments with blue agave. After which the feast begins anew. After Frida, it’s hard to choose. I’d be happily sated eating bowl after bowl of ceviche poolside at Cabrillo, but just steps away, at Cocina de Autor, there’s a multi-course menu by two-star Michelin chef Sidney Schutte. Buen provecho.  — Barb Sligl

[STAY] Grand Velas Los Cabos  loscabos.grandvelas.com

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