Budget Hong Kong: Coward’s Route To Victoria Peak

The tram to the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The elevators to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The Santorini cable car. Any ski lift, anywhere.

They’re memorable travel experiences, sure. But they’re also experiences that strike anxiety into the hearts of heights-fearing travelers, like myself.

So when faced with the prospect of a thrill-inducing funicular railway ride to the top of Hong Kong’s famous Victoria Peak, I decided to take a pass. Though the Hong Kong Peak Tram hasn’t suffered any fatal accidents in its 124 years of operation, I wasn’t ready to take any chances if I didn’t have to. Plus, the bus was cheaper.The Hong Kong Peak Tram connects the city center with the famous Victoria Peak overlook, which offers stunning views of Victoria Harbour, Central, Lamma Island and the surrounding islands, as well as an over-commercialized shopping and dining complex. The historic railway has been in operation since 1888, making it one of the oldest of its kind. The original tram was made from varnished timber and operated by coal-fired steam boilers, but in the 1920s, the boilers were replaced with an electrically powered system. The current microprocessor-controlled electric drive system was installed in 1989.

While the Peak Tram’s history is impressive indeed, it couldn’t make up for the thought of riding up a mountain in a rickety old cable car. Instead, I opted for the slightly more boring but much cheaper bus.

The double-decker CityBus 15 departs every 15 minutes from Exchange Square in Hong Kong’s Central District, right by the Central Ferry Piers. The fare is HK$9.80 (US$1.25) each way – about a third the price of the HK$28 one-way tram ticket – and the ride takes about a hour, depending on traffic. It also offers a unique look at residential life on the Peak, which is home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

After a winding ride up the mountain, I was deposited at the Victoria Peak complex and met with a thick bed of fog that blanketed the entire city in white. Turns out, there was no need to be so afraid of heights.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

Photo of the Day – Lisbon at dusk

The city of Lisbon is dominated by its hills. It can make getting around this Portuguese capital an interesting experience (tip: make sure to try out one of the city’s elevators). But rest assured, once you make it to the top, you’ll be treated to some of Europe’s most amazing views. Today’s photo, by Flickr user t3mujin, offers a typical example, taken at dusk. I love the warm glow of the city’s street lights, coming to life as the day slowly fades to dusk, Lisbon’s picturesque harbor visible off in the distance.

Taken any great photos during your recent travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Istanbul transit fares increased

Travelers visiting Istanbul this winter will pay extra to get around on public transportation. The transit authority has just put a fare hike in effect on the trams, metro, bus, and ferry lines, the first in a year and a half.

A single-leg token (jeton) will now cost 1.75 TL (about ($1.25), up from 1.50, but Akbil (smart ticket) carriers will pay 1.65 TL and .85 TL for transfers. Ferries between the Asian and European sides or along the Golden Horn will cost 1.75 TL, using a token or Akbil.

Read on for more info on the Akbil and how to use mass transit to get to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.An Akbil (smart ticket) is a small electronic button-like device that can be loaded with money at any major transit station or tram stop, and provides discounted transfers within an hour and a half of your first ride. The Akbil can be shared amongst multiple people, though only the discount will only apply to one passenger.Travelers can purchase a new Akbil with a 6 TL refundable deposit at major transit centers, though Taksim Square is the most reliable place to purchase one. Look for the booth that says “Akbil Satış Noktası” (Akbil sales point) rather than newsstands which may only allow recharges). There’s been talk of phasing out the Akbil in favor of the new RFID Istanbulkart but instituting the card into the system has caused delays and the card can’t currently be purchased.

While Istanbul’s transit system is not nearly as extensive or convenient as any many other European cities, most tourists will at least use the handy tram line during their travels, which connects many popular areas from Taksim Square (via an additional transfer from Kabatas on the funicular train) to the Old City sights including the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar. It is also possible to take public transit to the Ataturk airport if you have time to spare: a tram ride to the end of the line at Zeytinburnu connects with a metro line to the airport and takes a little over an hour (note: you can also transfer at Aksaray but it involves walking a few blocks, difficult with luggage).

A few additional kurus (cents) for a ride may not mean a lot to travelers, but with the dollar down 11 percent in the last 5 months, you’ll want to save your lira where you can.

Flying above Madrid in a cable car

Madrid’s museums and bars are a great place to spend a trip, but if you need a quick vacation from your vacation, check out the cable cars between two of Madrid’s best parks. Known as the Teleférico, they go from Parque del Oeste to Casa De Campo, Madrid’s largest park.

Built by a Swiss company and inaugerated in 1969, the system has two sets of cables, one set for going up and the other for going down. Eighty cabins hold five people each and the route goes for 2.5 km (1.6 miles) and gets up to 40 meters (131 feet) up in the air.

I rode this for the first time yesterday with my four year-old son and needless to say he loved it. We were attending a communal birthday party for a few of his friends so the little squeaky voices kept me from having a serene ride over the treetops, but I did get splendid views of the park, the river, the Royal Palace, and the cathedral.

On the Casa del Campo side is a kids’ indoor playground, a mediocre but not too overpriced restaurant, and an outside terrace for the adults to drink a beer and look out over the trees and skyline. So if you’re looking for a fun thing to do with your kids when you’re in Madrid, give the Teleférico a try. It makes for a good getaway from the big city. If you want something more substantial, try hiking in the community of Madrid.


Photo courtesy J.L. de Diego.