Five quick trip splurges to take with the Amazing Race’s million dollar win

Now that Victor and Tammy have discovered that they get along with each other quite nicely, AND they’ve won the million dollar prize on Amazing Race 14, they could pool their resources for some dandy vacations and have plenty of money left over for two houses and the stock market. This is the time to buy. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

Let’s say that Victor and Tammy only have a few days to squeeze in between their Amazing Race trip wins– considering that they came in first place five times and won trips for most of their Pit Stop triumphs. Just in case they are stumped about where else to go, I’ve thought of five places I’d head to in the U.S. if I were them. It doesn’t hurt to dream a little. Stay tuned for where I’d go in the world.

  • New York, New York: Spend three nights at the Plaza Hotel overlooking Fifth Avenue in New York City. For the summer, if you book two nights, the third is free. To add to the luxury, stay in the 2 Bedroom Suite with 5th Ave view Dining, 2 baths, butler service and a pantry. For the two nights that’ll be $7,000, not including tax and gratuity. Still that leaves a lot of moola for New York City fun.
  • Yountville, California: Dine at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California. Ever since I read about Scott Haas’s experience dining here in his book Are We There Yet?, I’ve been salivating. Each day there are two new nine-course tasting menus. Haas spent more than $400.00 for his family of four. The tasting menu is $240 a person. Here’s today’s. Yum! Where to stay suggestion: Yountville Inn. There’s a Superior Room with two queen-size beds with breakfast included and complimentary wine tasting. Napa Valley would be a wonderful place for some R&R to celebrate a race.
  • Ogunquit, Maine: One of the first places I went on a solo adventure was Ogunquit. I didn’t stay, but visited a friend who was working there at a resort hotel. It was gorgeous. The Juniper Hill Inn is a beach front property within walking distance to the historic downtown and the Marginal Way, the path that leads to Perkins Cove. With a two-night stay you can get the Theater Package that includes two tickets to John Lane’s Ogunquit Playhouse, a summer theater outing. The most expensive rooms are less than $250 so there’s plenty of chump change for lobster and steamed clams to dip in butter. For the best of the best, MC Perkins Cove has a menu that’s sublime.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana: Whatever else Tammy & Victor decide to do in New Orleans, they need to eat breakfast at Brennan’s. I did that once, and it’s an experience not to forget. There are also many options for Creole style fine-dining, and a city that has a personality like no others. For slumber, my dreams point to a deluxe King room at The Avenue Garden Hotel in the Garden District. For $124 a night for a King bed Deluxe room, Tammy and Victor can certainly afford a room each.
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico: Friends of mine once said that said Santa Fe is the only place they’ve been that makes them feel like shopping. Seriously, this is probably the most aesthetically pleasing city in the U.S. My hands down favorite thing to do there besides linger at the Museum of International Folk Art is spend a couple hours at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese style spa and retreat center. La Fonda Hotel on the Plaza has a gorgeous restaurant, La Plazuela with superb eats. For luxury, the hotel has La Terreza rooms and suites on the top floor that includes a roof top patio. A suite is $595.

Amazing Race 14, Recap finale: Maui, Hawaii where pigs are heavy

After after a quick video clip refresher course of the various legs of Amazing Race 14, the three remaining teams bid adieu to Bejing and headed to Maui, Hawaii on the same Air China flight. Admittedly, several times during this episode, I felt the end of the trip feel–a bit of a sigh that the bulk of the excitment and surprise is over and home is near.

I felt sad to say goodbye to China since the last three weeks were spent there, but Maui offered gorgeous scenery and decent finale with some laughs and stiff competition.

First stop in Maui was Beach Access 118. As the teams headed off in taxis from the Maui airport, it was time to don bathing suits while still in the taxi for beach fun, although there wasn’t much fun involved.

In India, one team member had to schlep buckets of water and grain. In Hawaii, both team members had to schlep a pig. Poor pigs. What undignified ends to what may have been happy lives. After dressing the dead, skinned pigs in oil and traditional spices and herbs, and sliding a stick through the space caused by their pairs of tied together legs, the teams had to carry the 145 pound pigs along 200 yards of the beach to a traditional luau.

If you ever have to carry a pig hanging from a stick any distance, use Margie & Luke’s method. They rested the stick on their shoulders. The other method, carrying the stick at waist and chest level, doesn’t work, not unless you think dropping a pig several times might be a good way to tenderize the meat. Tammy & Victor’s and Jaime and Cara’s pigs showed up at the luau covered in salt water and sand, even though Victor told Tammy to not doubt her pig carrying abilities and Jaime wondered what was wrong with Cara for being so weak. Certainly Cara could take Tammy down if need be was the gist of Jaime’s yammering.

Once at the site where people were gathered for a luau, playing instruments in a fashion that seemed a bit lackluster if you ask me–not nearly as buoyant as those Romanian gypsies or Siberians in earlier episodes, the teams had to prepare a cooking fire-pit in the traditional luau way. Luke & Margie nailed it, and the other teams had to do theirs again.

When the teams left the musicians still playing, and the pigs buried in sand with barely a laugh or a quick goodbye, I wondered what the next step would be for the pigs? Would they ever be eaten or cleaned up to be ground into sausage or what?

For the three teams, no time to wonder about such trifles. Off they went to McGregor Point to hop on a two-person water craft to buzz out to 100 buoys to search for the next clue. That looked fun. Not as environmentally friendly as a luau, but fun. The teams had a blast. Margie & Luke kept their lead, passing Victor & Tammy and Cara & Jaime as they headed back to shore. There was laughing and smiling here with friendly waves.

Next stop was the surfboard fence along Hana Highway. Naturally, Jaime and Cara’s taxi got lost and they ended up at the wrong line of surfboards, something they knew right away, but this time Jaime had the eventual presence of mind to apologize to the driver for her attitude.

Just like with the entire season, this episode was anyone’s game. As Luke initially blazed through the task of building a surfboard fence by finding symbols painted on surfboards that matched each leg of the race, he became stumped by the last two. The more he was stumped, the more frustrated, which meant the more he couldn’t think clearly. Eventually, surfboards were scattered every which way while he kept messing up the last two to complete his fence.

Luke’s frustration was enough to give Victor and Jaime who were also playing this clever match game to catch up. As Victor found the last surfboard, Luke was in despair. Margie and Cara beseeched Jaime and Luke to work together, so they could get out of surfboard hell, I imagine.

While Tammy and Victor knew they were on their way to a million dollars, Luke and Jaime berated themselves in their own taxis for having faulty memories. Jaime couldn’t remember St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, and used as the symbol for the Church of San Antonio where they stopped during the first leg. Ironic, isn’t it?

Luckily for them, they each have people who love them dearly. Instead of shouting, “You stupid, stupid fools,” at them, Margie and Cara said the exact words needed to help them swallow the loss of the million.

As these last two teams made it to the finish line at King Kamehameha Golf Club, they realized that they were able to do what most teams don’t, actually finish the Amazing Race. The cheering, clapping and hugs from the teams who had been eliminated earlier helped add positive energy to the finale. Plus, there was enough time for Margie & Luke to talk about what it really means for a deaf person to finish the race. A heck of a lot. In probably one of the most emotional moments, Luke talked about how few parents with deaf children ever learn to sign and what it means to him that his mother does.

Then there was Victor, eloquent to the end, who summed up what makes traveling so darned special if you do it right. “You can have a lot of fun doing the crazy and unconventional. It makes life a whole lot more interesting,” he declared.

So, all you travelers out there, find something unconventional to do this week and have a smashing good time. Just remember everyone finished the Amazing Race alive, so keep it safe– unconventional and crazy is fine, but don’t be foolish.

Amazing Race 14, recap 11: Beijing, China’s food is awesome— and awful

After last week’s cliffhanger of Amazing Race 14 when Jaime and Cara arrived first at the Pit Stop to only find Phil pulling another yellow envelope behind his back, I thought that Jaime might throw a hissy fit, but no, she handled Phil’s news like a trouper. Instead of winning a nifty trip to some exotic location, off this former cheerleader duo went in the dark of Beijing to Bai Hai Dong Men and the next clue. That doesn’t mean they were in a cheering mood for more fun and frolic with Chinese people, but they didn’t whine.

No one else did either. Perhaps they were too pooped after their swim to get mad about being duped. No rest for the weary. Instead of getting shut eye, there the four remaining teams were darting in and out of shops at Bai Hai street looking for a Travelocity gnome. This task gave glimpses into the mish mash of offerings in various shops. This one clothes. That one dried beans and peanuts. Another one, glassware. You get the picture. Shopping in Beijing is not the version where you load up a cart with everything from a vacuum cleaner to bananas to a lawn chair by the time you hit the checkout counter at a mega store.

Once teams found the Travelocity gnome, off they went with their red-hatted lawn ornament via taxi to find Gu Gong Xi Bei Jiao where they hopped on electric bicycles to glide along the streets of Beijing past Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.

With the early morning sunrise glinting off the buildings and the gnomes sitting in their bicycle basket perches, could the lighting have been more perfect? I think not. Even the teams, who had to have been tootling along only thanks to an adrenaline rush, were able to enjoy the architecture, the soldiers marching during the morning flag raising in the square, and the historic significance of their location. It couldn’t have been a better piece of TV work if it had been orchestrated. What timing.

At their next clue stop, the Dongdan subway station, there was a choice to head to an opera house to dress like an opera singing couple, complete with make-up they put on each other, or head to a restaurant to take food orders of a group of people sitting at a table, repeating the order to the cook, and then delivering the food to the dinners. The trick was using Mandarin, a snap, more or less, for Victor & Tammy. They did make one mistake and had to try again. The food: vegetarian noodles, fried chicken, new taste beef, golden pork spare ribs and good luck fish, reminded me of all the fantastic meals I’ve ever had in Asia. Hint: If you can’t read a menu, look at what other people in the restaurant are eating. Find what looks good and point. This method works like a charm.

Luke & Margie and Jen & Kisha showed up at the Hu Guang Hui Guan Opera House to put on the Chinese princess and gentleman attire. By this time, Margie & Luke had begun to vex each other, but Jen & Kisha were doing well, although Jen couldn’t quite believe they were still in China after their swimming terror.

Just like in the past episodes, during this episode Jaime and Cara were never able to get a break when it comes to cab drivers. Patience, dear Jaime is a virtue. Still, you have to hand it to these two. They keep soldiering on and giving lovely smiles to folks who help them when they feel understood. Jaime and Cara’s moods are like watching a see saw.

Once Jaime and Cara finally found the correct opera house, long after Victor and Tammy had served food at Hu Guang Hui Guan restaurant, and Luke & Margie quit bickering, the make-up task was a snap for these women and off they ran only to get lost and confused again for three more hours.

In the meantime, Kisha & Jen, who I like, were U-Turned by Victor and Tammy at Hu Guang Hui Guan. Instead of getting mad, there they were in their opera attire trying their darnedest to say the names of Mandarin dishes correctly. If there was any lesson to learn from watching them, it’s to write things down as they sound, and listen carefully. Also, if you can’t understand what one person is saying in a language you don’t know well, ask someone else. All native speakers don’t sound the same. Some people are just easier to understand.

After serving food or dressing up in Chinese opera regalia, it was off to a Dong Hua Men Yi Shi Street Market stall that sold snack food that would be great fare at a Halloween party. It is possible to eat deep-fried starfish, grasshoppers, larvae, and scorpions served on a stick. Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods would have gotten a kick out of this part. The best thing to do in such situations is to eat fast. Jen ate little bites followed by a lot of water which led to another issue, a costly one. Victor, Cara and Margie, on the other hand, went to town scarfing the oddities down, as if they couldn’t eat enough of the crunchy critters.

It wasn’t much of a surprise to see Tammy & Victor dash to the Pit Stop at Niao Chao, the Bird’s Nest stadium of the Olympics. The tasks weren’t particularly difficult for them during this episode and they could clearly say the names of places. These two have grown on me and it’s fun to see them having a good time. They’re the type that traveling brings out the best in.

Unfortunately, Jen had to go to the bathroom before they made it to the Pit Stop so Cara and Jaime beat them. Too bad, too bad, too bad. With those flowing gowns, why not just pee and keep running? Gross, but hey, it’s a million dollars. People were running in their underwear in Siberia. Surely peeing in an opera gown isn’t the worst thing that could happen. On the otherhand, what a great way to illustrate that Beijing does have swank public toilets. Keep that in mind if you have to pee there. Head to the Bird’s Nest for some bladder relief.

So, who do I hope will win? I’m not that partial to anyone. As much as Jaime’s attitude gets on my nerves, I’m impressed Cara’s and her tenacity. They just keep on going like that battery run bunny from the commercial. If they win, I won’t be that upset. Although, they really ought to apologize to Mark & Mike for making fun of short people.

If Luke and Margie win what a great boost for women over forty and people who are deaf. They can kick butt.

Amazing Race 14, recap 10: Swimming like Michael Phelps isn’t easy

If there was one episode of Amazing Race14 that could get your sympathy genes going, this was it. Certain parts were downright pitiful. “You poor, poor thing,” I kept saying to Jen. I could have cried myself. I was even rooting for Jaime in this episode, even though she has not been my fave from the beginning. And Victor and Tammy, well, they are just stellar people.

Kisha & Jen did have me turning a little against them at the beginning of the airport episode by the way they were acting towards the ticket folks at the Guilin airport and how they talked about people in China as having dumb looks.

After last week’s episode, I didn’t feel that harshly towards them after their run in with Luke and Margie, but their attitude had me changing my mind a little.

But, the truth is, I’ve felt that way about people when I’ve tried to get help and I have been unable to easily–particularly when I’ve been road hashed. I think that the teams have probably used up a lot of their good humor and have arrived at the place where patience is wearing thin. Plus, they can taste that million dollars. At the beginning of the race when people were still yukking it up, a win was possibly a pipe dream.

The episode started out with all four of the remaining teams heading out on the same flight to Beijing from Guilin, and dashing off in taxis lickety split to find the Liangzi Jian Guo Men Dian foot massage spa, the worst foot massage in the planet. If they knew the pain that was to come, perhaps they wouldn’t have been in such a hurry.

Tammy and Victor, of course, were feeling downright pleased that they’d be able to speak Chinese all the live long day which they felt would give them an edge. Plus, they’ve been to Beijing. They know Beijing. They’re comfortable in Beijing. Keep that in mind, because Chinese is not the skill you need most in the Amazing Race–at least not in Beijing. Plus, not all places in Beijing are comfortable.

Jaime and Cara arrived first at the torture chamber, also known as a foot massage parlor. I’ve had a Thai foot massage and it’s heavenly. The Chinese version, like Victor said, won’t “kill you,” but it can make you cry in pain and bite your lips so you don’t scream. The faces on the Chinese women who dug their fingers into the bottoms of the feet of the team members who agreed to the procedure looked almost maniacal. If I were to end up at this foot massage parlor, I wouldn’t be fooled by the soft lighting and I’d be mighty careful what type of massage I ordered up. There’s definitely a difference between the Chinese to the bone foot massage and the Thai version that makes a person feel like purring.

During this part, I felt very warm towards Tammy who held Luke’s hand while he was writhing. You have to like a person who can feel empathetic and reach out to a rival.

After the foot massage, the teams were off to the Guangcai Natatorium for what turned out to be a true test of mettle for two of the teams. Margie & Luke and Cara & Jaime were not daunted by the task of jumping in an Olympic size pool to swim freestyle, or whatever way they could in a relay race. In the swimming task, team members were to take turns swimming 200 meters (up and back the length of the pool) in a medley until each swam two times for a total of 400 meters, one right after the other. The idea of the race was to match Michael Phelps’s individual medley–kind of- when he tore through the water to add to his neck bling.

Although swimming wasn’t a problem for those two teams, no one was thrilled to swim in the Speedo laser suit that was the kind Phelps wore.

Tammy, not the best swimmer, turned out to not be the best high diving board jumper either. She & Victor opted to try the second option which was to do a synchronized jump off two high diving boards. To get a score of 5 which would allow them to move on to the Pit Stop, they had to enter the water at exactly the same time. They almost got it once, but couldn’t manage to come close the rest of their attempts. I’m not sure why they didn’t yell “one, two, three JUMP” and figure out their strategy beforehand. Instead, they jumped willy nilly until they were wiped out and decided to do the Michael Phelp’s swim which turned out to not be all that bad after all.

Then there was poor Jennifer who doesn’t know how to swim at all. First, she decided to try jumping, but found out that she couldn’t make herself jump. Then it was a try at swimming. After she watched Kisha struggle to swim down the lane and back, she decided this was a no go too. So it was back to the diving board. The two sisters did jump in a couple of times which traumatized Jen so much she was in the hall sitting on her haunches crying and saying she wanted to go home. Sister, I’ve had that feeling and it stinks big time.

Finally, in a huge fit of resolve and due to Kisha’s stellar behavior as the best sister in the whole-wide-world EVER, Jen pulled on that skin tight laser suit, slipped on the orange life jacket and headed off into the pool matching Michael Phelp’s style. Let’s say matching Michael Phelp’s style when he as a toddler, perhaps. Still, go Jen go was my reaction. It was almost as good as watching Susan Boyle sing “I Had a Dream.” Imagine if that song would have been playing when Jen swam. I would have been bawling for sure.

In the meantime, while Victor & Tammy and Jen & Kisha were struggling to find the right combination for what would get them out of the water, Jaime and Cara and Luke & Margie were heading for the gorgeous Drum Tower, the site of the Pit Stop. The Drum Tower, built in the 12th century is one more indication of emperor glory days in China. Every hour, on the hour, 24 drums were beat to announce the time of day during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Luke needs to heed the adage, “Pride cometh before a fall,” because he is way too involved in the idea of Kisha and Jen’s life being a living hell. I’m hoping that his heart would have melted a bit if he saw Jen crying, paralyzed in fear and Kisha telling her, “Let’s finish this strong.” Seriously, how can someone not feel moved by that?

The taxi rides across Beijing took awhile which did give the impression that Beijing has a massive sprawl. It is huge and it does sprawl. Other than that, there were shots of the Bird’s Nest, the main stadium of the Olympics and neon. What I noticed missing were the throngs of people on bicycles that I saw in the 1990s. Perhaps this was because most of this episode happened at night.

As for the end of the episode, Jaime and Cara were so wanting to come in first that I wanted them to come in first for a change myself. Jaime didn’t act mean, Cara put up with that foot massage, and the two of them swam their hearts out. But, there was Phil all by his lonesome at the Pit Stop mat. There weren’t any cute older Chinese people eating noodles this time. There wasn’t a congratulations and you’ve won a trip for two to the vacation of your dreams message.

Nope, there was none of that. Instead, there was Phil with a serious face holding out a yellow envelope saying, “Here’s your next clue.”

That was cold. Very cold. And the episode, as it turns out, is “To be continued.” Let’s see next week if Jaime and Cara will ever get a break and if Luke has to eat some humble pie.

As Victor has learned already, the Amazing Race does humble a person.

Amazing Race 14 recap 9: Guilin, China is a splendid place

Watching the teams navigate Guilin, China was a splendid episode of reality TV. Whoever set up the tasks for Amazing Race, episode 9 nailed the best of what China offers in a series of aesthetic pleasures. It wasn’t the choreographed, technological feats of the Beijing, Olympics, but the classic architecture, early morning ballroom dancing in a city park, bamboo rafts, and art, all with craggy hills as a backdrop.

Unfortunately, a bit of drama fueled by tension got in the way of two of the teams’ enjoyment of their surroundings and the warmth of the people that they encountered. While Luke and Jen were involved in shoving matches, I soaked in what I remembered about those details I loved about living in Taiwan.

First there were the neon signs that took up every available space when Jen and Kisha dashed out of the airport in Guilen ‘s streets and into a taxi when it was still dark. By the time they arrived at the the first clue box outside a hair dresser’s shop, the morning’s buzz had begun.

Since Luke and Margie arrived at the clue box at Qing Xiu Lu at the same time as Jen and Kisha, there was the first shove as Jen tried to reach around Luke to grab a clue first. In the heat of the moment, each thought the other was at fault, and Jen called Luke a “bitch” since it was a “bitch move.” After the first shove, steamed up, off they went to #24 Bridge on the banks of the Li River where Tammy & Victor and Cara & Jaime had already arrived because of better luck with directions.

Victor & Tammy were happy as can be to be speaking Chinese and didn’t seem too bothered that the other teams globbed onto them whenever they could to take advantage of their language know-how. Listening to these siblings speak Chinese was a bonus of the episode since it offered a more personal perspective on a place. Plus, their relationship is a far cry from when Victor was almost weeping after getting them lost on a Romanian mountainside near the beginning of the race. Now, they are getting along well and seem to be having a blast.

At the Li River, after the team members were poled out into the river in one boat, one member from each team had to sit on a narrow bamboo raft to train a cormorant bird to catch fish. This was a task reminiscent of a show at Sea World. After a team member tossed a fish into the river, the bird was to fetch it to bring the fish back in its mouth. This was repeated until the team member had 10 fish in the basket. If you are near a cormorant bird, don’t get it riled. They have a nasty bite that draws blood as Luke found out. Once the fish were in the basket, it was a matter of getting poled back to shore with the basket along for the ride.

Then it was off to the Ancient South Gate for their next clue and task. The gate, built 1,000 years ago, is a feature common to many Chinese cities. Hsinchu, the town where I lived in Taiwan, had the East gate left of the four that once were important features of the city. The gate was a gorgeous structure that was my favorite spot to hang out.

At the gate’s clue box–which meant another shoving match for Luke and Jen, the teams had to choose between how to do calligraphy or how to ballroom dance. The calligraphy, actually, was the easiest, although there were many steps as teams went from calligraphy person to calligraphy person copying characters until they got to the artist who gave them the painting of the real life scene–the Sun and Moon Pagodas at Banyan Lake that they were to look for which would lead them to the Pit Stop.

Early morning ballroom dance classes or Tai chi are common features of parks in Taiwan as well. Other typical park features are the circular shaped doorways to other park sections and the curved bridges the teams crossed. Central Island was no different.

While Margie & Luke, Jen & Kisha and Victor & Tammy did the calligraphy task, virtually at the same time, and Cara & Jaime were learning the dance routine which gave them a bit of trouble. Mark & Michael were having a blast washing two women’s hair at their Speed Bump. They followed that good time with a great time with the fishing task and ball room dancing. They weren’t quick enough to make up for their 4 hour time delay and Speed Bump penalty from last week’s episode, however, and were eliminated. Too bad. These two are really fun.

Jen & Kisha were the first to dash to the Pit Stop across from the Sun and Moon Pagodas at Banyan Lake with Victor & Tammy and Luke & Margie a close second & third. This was the first time the sister duo won first place. For their better showing than last week, they won a trip to Barbados which includes swimming with sea turtles.

After the win news, Phil tried to smooth over relationships between Luke & Margie and Jen & Kisha, but to no avail. Here’s my take. For Luke and Margie, the race has added stress because he can’t hear. There’s also the issue of him growing up feeling like he is often on the outside, and Margie needing to intercede more frequently than other parents. I have deaf relatives and have seen misunderstandings arise that usually take more work to smooth over than when all parties can hear. Hopefully, after the cameras stopped rolling, there was more conversation to clear up the misunderstanding once emotions calmed down. Tammy & Victor seemed to be allies of both of these teams and felt bad. Hopefully, their lawyer skills came in handy.

As for Mark & Micheal, there were some terrific shots of their race that summed up what a wonderful time these two had. They epitomize the best of cross-cultural travel. Every time they interacted with the people they came in contact with, they smiled, took time to soak in their experiences, and exuded warmth. They might be smaller than the average man, but what great, big hearts. As Michael said, “This world is a wonderful place.”

Oh, one more thing–I loved the sweet couple eating at the Pit Stop. They were such a pleasure to watch and so Chinese. They reminded me of so many people I came across in my own travels–very unpretentious and kind.