Alien creatures? Or Seoul fish market?

Last month when I was in Seoul, I made sure to visit the city’s Noryangjin Fish Market. I wasn’t quite sure where it was when I exited the Noryangjin subway station, but a quick sniff of the air told me exactly the direction I should go.

This massive warehouse is a completely surreal experience. Hundreds of water-filled bins contain some of the most bizarre aquatic creatures I’ve ever seen. And every single one is there to be eaten.

I spent more than an hour watching the fish mongers hawking their trade, slicing up their catch, and even wrestling with octopi. I never quite got used to the smell and, in fact, it lingered in my nasal passages for pretty much the rest of the day, long enough to completely eliminate the possibility of eating fish for dinner.

Nonetheless, the fish market remained one of my personal favorite highlights in Seoul. Sure, there are plenty of cultural sights and fascinating museums throughout the South Korean capital, but nothing, in my opinion, was quite as mesmerizing as an afternoon spent with the oddball denizens of the deep.

The Pearl of Moorea Part 3: Food & Fun

For whatever reason, doing absolutely nothing on the other side of the word is always more enjoyable than doing absolutely nothing at home.

But of course, I exaggerate when I say that my girlfriend and I did absolutely nothing on the French Polynesian island of Moorea during our recent vacation. It was actually quite the opposite. We kept our days very busy eating, sleeping, and swimming. There was hardly any time to do anything else.

Dining in Moorea
Food in the South Pacific always seems to be a challenge–as we first discovered in the Cook Islands two years ago. The biggest complaint is that everything is always so horrifically expensive. We spent $100 for pizza and beer one afternoon, which was pretty much the average for every meal we ate on Moorea. Ouch!

What’s wonderful about the restaurant scene on Moorea, however, is that most restaurants will pick guests up from their resort for free–a very welcome surprise that helped to keep the already expensive cost of meals slightly lower by not having to pay for a taxi.

Ironically, our favorite restaurant that we frequented the most often was also the closest. Le Sud was just a five-minute walk from our resort. This quaint little eatery wraps around the outside porch of a small house where geckos scampered about on the walls in search of insects while we dined.

Le Sud serves tasty thin crust pizzas, a smattering of fish and meat dishes, and has a great wait staff that is serious about pairing the right wine with your food. My girlfriend usually ordered the pizzas while I opted for the tasty Mahi Mahi breaded in coconut shavings. We both finished off our meals with some outstanding home-made strawberry ice cream.

The food at the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa, on the other hand, was strictly average. I blew through their lunch menu of club sandwiches, hamburgers, and panini, and was not too impressed. Dinner was slightly better with some decent chicken curry, cheese plates, and a surprising dish that turned out to be my favorite on the island: poisson cru. The kitchen prepared this Moorean raw fish specialty in three distinct styles served at the same time. It’s basically sushi salad with a medley of flavors and man, was it good!

The resort also served up some chocolate mousse that was very tasty–depending upon the day I ordered it. My first serving was delicious, served in a crisp cookie shell. The second time, however, the shell was mushy as though it had sat in the fridge for too long. The third and final time, there was no shell at all and the taste of the mousse seemed a little off.

Leisure Time
When we weren’t eating, sleeping, or reading, my girlfriend and I split off and did the things we each do best when vacationing: shop and snorkel.

The resort’s over-water bungalows sit on the edge of a nice little reef where I spent much of my time snorkeling with fish and coral and otherwise enjoying the perfect temperature of the water. The reef wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, and the cloudy skies diminished the bright colors, but it was still very cool and entertaining. And, of course, it was conveniently located just off our balcony.

As for shopping, my girlfriend was determined to buy our resort’s namesake: a black pearl. I’ve never been a big fan of pearls, but black pearls, I learned, are beautifully mesmerizing. I discovered this at Eva Perles, a jewelry shop just down the street from the resort. It’s owned by a very nice French woman named Eva (naturally), who spent quite a bit of time showing my girlfriend a variety of pearl rings, necklaces, and earrings while I buried my nose in a fascinating book that described how black pearls are harvested in the South Pacific. I didn’t end up buying the book, but my girlfriend walked out with a pearl ring, necklace, and pair of earrings.

A Happy Ending
So, that’s about it. We shopped, snorkeled, ate, slept and read for seven days. Frankly, I’d love to tell you more about the island of Moorea but I haven’t anything else to report since the goal of this vacation was to do nothing at all. And, we did this quite well.

Yesterday: The Resort

Where on Earth, Week 41: Frank Zappa Monument, Vilnius, Lithuania

Congratulations to Nuva and Oddsocks for correctly identifying this week’s Where on Earth.

It took a bit of wandering myself before I was able to find the monument featured in the above photograph, for the simple reason that government officials in post-communist Vilnius, Lithuania were hesitant to erect a bust of Frank Zappa in the center of town.

In fact, one must certainly wonder how a monument to singer Frank Zappa ever ended up in a city with which he had no connection and never even visited.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to share some beers with one of the students responsible for this very odd monument. He explained to me in a dark Vilnius pub how he and his friends, caught up in the early 1990s euphoria of post-communist freedom, decided to honor one of their favorite American singers whom they clandestinely listened to during communism because authorities banned his decadent western music.
Amazingly, during a crazy time when all things seemed possible, the students were able to convince the city government of their worthy Zappa cause. Even more remarkable, was that the students commissioned local sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas to create the bust. Prior to this commission, Bogdanas sculpted only what the state told him to sculpt, which was mostly Lenin statues and other heroes of the socialist revolution.

So, if you happen to be in Vilnius, seek out this ironic monument and spend a moment with the underground hero of an entirely different revolution, one which communist authorities often tried to prevent by threatening to “beat the Zappa” out of unruly dissidents.

Photo of the Day (1/17/08)

Appropriately titled “Smiley,” this wonderful shot by Fiznatty perfectly captures that spontaneous grin that occasionally greets travelers in remote lands where simply catching sight of a foreigner is enough to trigger a child’s irrepressible smile.

What makes this shot even more amazing is that it was taken in northern Rwanda–a place more commonly associated with horror than with our smiley friend above. It’s certainly a testament that no matter how bad a place might be, a child’s resiliency will always shine through.

The Pearl of Moorea Part 2: The Resort

The intent of my recent vacation to Moorea was to do absolutely nothing. And, I lived up to these lofty goals admirably.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Christmas holidays are my time to relax and catch up on life. The first time I tried doing this a number of years ago I somehow ended up at a Club Med. I thought it would be the perfect escape, but instead there was non-stop pressure to drink, party, dance, play volleyball, shoot hoops, water ski, jet ski, kayak, dive, and participate in countless other activities. One couldn’t even relax at poolside with out some sun-damaged Bozo coaxing everyone up on their feet to sing some cultish song about the sun.

Sure, there is a time and place for Club Med, but not for me and my winter vacation.

And so, my girlfriend and I opted for a far mellower option and headed to the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa in French Polynesia where my only obligation was to indulge in the total lack of any obligation whatsoever. I could do absolutely nothing, and not feel guilty about it at all.The resort certainly provided a slew of activities, but they weren’t shoved down our throats. A concierge in the lobby was there to arrange jeep treks, dives, and dolphin swims and a pool boy stood by to hand out snorkel gear and kayak paddles. But that was it. There were no bullhorns announcing aerobics classes or floatie races in the pool. There was just a pleasantly, slow-paced, do-as-you-please ambience. And I loved it.

The resort itself is gently nestled amongst coconut trees and grassy knolls, spilling ever so gracefully into the crystal clear waters of the South Pacific. Yes, that means that the Pearl Resort has over-water bungalows–every couple’s dream accommodation.

Unfortunately, we did not book any nights in the over-water bungalows because, like most dreams, they were prohibitively expensive. We did ask about them when we checked in, however, and a few days later received a surprise call from the front desk telling us that they had upgraded us for free. Our last three nights would be spent in the over-water bungalows. Sweet!

The bungalows were everything one might imagine from such a place: a thatched roof, dark wood interior, king-sized bed, our own private ladder directly into the water, great bath products, air conditioning, private deck, and my favorite, a glassed-off section of the floor which revealed the lagoon below. It was absolutely fantastic and something I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever experience in my lifetime.

Before moving into the over-water bungalows, we stayed the first few nights in a garden bungalow. I was a little concerned about this when we booked it, but the interior proved to be just as amazing as the over-water bungalow. We didn’t have an ocean view, but we did enjoy our own private little pool which was a great way to wake up in the morning and to cool off later when the weather heated up.

Oh, yes, the weather… This was one of the only disappointments of the trip. We had arrived during the rainy season and Moorea lived up to it. The sky was usually full of clouds and it rained every day in short, powerful bursts. Of course, it was a warm, tropical rain which did not prevent us from swimming and walking around, but it did prevent any possibility of returning home with a tan. I’m not complaining, however. The weather was very pleasant for relaxing on a beach chair and pulling out a book. Or, as we quickly learned, enjoying the pleasures of the spa.

Sun or rain, the Pearl Resort proved to be the perfect antidote for the big city woes which ailed us. It was beautiful, the staff was very friendly, the rooms were cleaned regularly, the grounds were immaculate, and the ambience heavenly. I wanted to get away from it all, and the Pearl Resort helped me do just that.

Yesterday: Getting There
Tomorrow: Food and Fun