Three Perfect Days: Singapore
Story by Nicholas DeRenzo | Photography by Lauryn Ishak | Hemispheres, April 2017
As countries go, Singapore is still in its infancy. Unceremoniously expelled from Malaysia in 1965 and forced to fend for itself as a new sovereign nation, the island city-state has worked its way up to being a global powerhouse in just five short decades—which is even more remarkable given its size: 277.6 square miles, about the area of Lexington, Kentucky. Having previously been ruled by both the British and the Japanese, the Lion City spent its early years under the paternalistic gaze of its popular founding father, Lee Kuan Yew (tough on crime, tougher on chewing gum). Now, after a period of literal nation-building—land reclamation has increased the country's footprint by 22 percent—Singaporeans seem to be taking a collective deep breath. There has been a renewed interest in history and folk culture among the people here, even as a hypermodern, multicultural metropolis rises around them. The next 50 years should be interesting.
In which Nicholas pays his respects to a celebrity tooth, witnesses the architectural potential of soy sauce bottles, and sniffs out a great cocktail bar
With a diverse populace (and four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil), Singapore stands as Asia's melting pot. I'll be spending the morning exploring the city's ethnic enclaves with guide Anita Sharma. We meet in bustling Chinatown, which, like all of these historic districts, is dominated by rows of shophouses, a Southeast Asian vernacular marked by a five-foot-wide covered walkway (mandated by Governor General Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles' Town Plan of 1822) and a narrow, deep footprint. From those basic building blocks, the variations are endless: ornamental tiled facades, decorative columns, colorful shutters, even Art Deco motifs.
The area used to be known for its opium dens and secret societies. More recently, a Times Square–style cleanup has rendered it tourist-friendly. “Some people say they've cleaned it up too much," says Sharma. In the distance, a group of older Chinese men and women seem to be doing tai chi on fast-forward. A closer inspection reveals they're actually line dancing to Brooks & Dunn's “Only in America." Maybe she's right.
The Supertree Grove and OCBC Skyway at Gardens by the Bay
Singapore's food scene revolves around its no-frills hawker centers, with some stands even earning a star in last summer's inaugural Singapore Michelin guide. Sharma takes me for breakfast at Chinatown Food Street, where we skip Chinese in favor of roti prata flatbread with fiery chicken curry and peanut-topped rojak, a fruit, vegetable, and fried tofu salad with shrimp paste dressing.
“Welcome to durian land!" says Sharma, pointing to the spiked fruits that are so notoriously smelly they're banned from some hotel lobbies and public transit. “Some have described it as eating custard in the toilet, though I don't know how anyone would know how that tastes."
We walk a block to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, an imposing red-and-gold structure that opened in 2007 and is said to contain the Buddha's left canine. Down the street, we remove our shoes under the Sri Mariamman Temple's tiered gopuram tower and step inside Singapore's oldest Hindu temple, founded in 1827 and decorated with a deliriously Technicolor pantheon of stone deities. With its clouds of incense smoke and the pulsating rhythm of the thavil drums and oboe-like nadaswaram, it's easy to fall under the temple's spell. “Women have to cover up," says Sharma with a laugh. “Of course, the priests are seminaked."
We head across town via the outlandishly clean MRT (Mass Rapid Transit)—Sharma points out “no durians" signs—to Little India, a thrumming district of curry houses, henna painters, and stalls selling coconuts, jasmine, and grass to be offered up at Hindu temples (elephant-headed Ganesha gets the grass).
“People think it's too crowded here, but I like that it's disorganized," Sharma says. “Little India is as real as it gets; it's for all five senses." Let's start with taste. We stop at Komala Vilas, which opened in 1947, for pillowy idly rice cakes, which we dip into coconut chutney and tangy sambar lentil stew. Down the street at Azmi, we order chapati flatbread with minced mutton keema. The digs are bare-bones; the flavors are revelatory.
We pick up squares of carrot burfi (sweet milk fudge) at Moghul Sweet Shop and stroll past stalls selling Bollywood DVDs, Sri Lankan elephant dung stationery, and lots of gold. “Chinese, Indians, and Malays love gold," says Sharma. “It's the one thing we all have in common." We stop in front of Sajeev Digital Studio, where the owner takes portraits of locals and sends them back to India or Sri Lanka for arranged marriages. “I should have come to him years ago," Sharma deadpans.
Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
From here, we hop into a taxi, and Sharma teaches me to address elders (like our driver) as “uncle" or “aunty," and then we're off to Kampong Glam, the historically Muslim Malay district, which is dominated by the gold onion dome of the Sultan Mosque. Sharma points up at a thin black strip under the dome that is made from the glass bottoms of bottles—an oddly scrappy addition to an ornate temple. “The poor donated bottles of soya sauce," my guide says, “so that it didn't look like it was only built by and for the rich."
Palm-lined Arab Street and the surrounding alleyways offer a delightful blend of the traditional (textile merchants, boutiques where you can design your own alcohol-free perfume) and the eccentrically trendy (halal Swedish cafés, coffee shops that print your selfie onto latte foam).
I say goodbye to Sharma and pop into the nearby design shop Supermama, which sells a dizzying array of souvenirs and household items, each with a story to tell about local culture, including miniature versions of the ubiquitous red chairs you'll find at hawker stands, doorstops modeled after rainbow-hued kueh lapis rice cakes, and stuffed cartoon curry puff keychains. There's also a Lucasfilm-approved series of Star Wars plates, each bearing a hidden Singaporean folk motif.
“When friends came from overseas, they'd either buy food or merlion keychains," says owner Edwin Low, referring to the mythical half-lion, half-fish national symbol, which has been honored with a 28-foot, water-spewing bayfront statue. (“To merlion," by the way, is now Singlish for being violently ill.) “But are we more than the merlion? This is a city of borrowed cultures. Because of this shared history, shouldn't there be a new archetype, a new language of products?"
One of the shophouses of Singapore
In this spirit, another series of plates in Low's shop is decorated with images of HDB (Housing & Development Board) public housing apartments, the high-rise blocks that house more than 80 percent of Singaporeans. “One of the best comments I've ever heard," he says, “was from a man who told me, 'For the first time, I feel proud to live in an HDB.'"
We get to talking about the role of design in a country with a reputation for strictness (see: the country's famous ban on chewing gum). “There's actually a lot of freedom of expression," says Low. “When we started, we were a nanny state. We didn't have a choice—it was for survival. Sometimes I wonder if we've grown too fast, if we robbed our country of its childhood." Judging by this shop, at least, Singapore doesn't seem to be lacking for childlike whimsy.
With my sackful of souvenirs, I head back to Chinatown for dinner at British chef Ryan Clift's ultra-progressive and comfortably chic Tippling Club. “Ten years ago, Singapore had a very different market," says Clift, who made a name for himself in Melbourne's fine-dining world. “It was either high-end or hawker. We were the first to introduce modern gastronomy and quote-unquote mixology, but people here are very quick to accept something new—that's the beauty of Singapore."
Clift doesn't like the word “molecular," but whatever you call it, his tasting menu is a lot of fun—with flavor and technique to back it up. For every perfectly saltwater-poached piece of lamb, there's strawberry cheesecake in the form of a pill. For every expertly seared diver scallop with purple Brittany garlic soup, there's a passion fruit–flavored smiley-face tab to dissolve on your tongue like … well, you know.
After dinner, I head for the attached bar, where the young Mancunian bartender Joe Schofield has devised the wickedly clever Sensorium menu. I'm presented with 12 blotter strips, each spritzed with a custom-made fragrance (Forest, Earl Grey, Leather). The idea: Allow the nostalgic power of scent to guide your order. I'm drawn to the vodka-and-citrus Rain, served with an edible cloud made from dehydrated yogurt sponge and charcoal powder. And then to the dill-and-anise Grass. And then to the marshmallow-topped Campfire…
Before memory-triggering cocktails turn to memory-erasing ones, I retreat a few blocks to my hotel, The Club, a 20-room boutique property occupying a row of early 20th-century Chinatown shophouses. The spacious interior is decorated with midcentury-inflected furnishings and whimsical touches like oversize bird portraits. In my room there's a nightstand reading stack that ranges from Gustave Flaubert to Danielle Steel. But at this hour, after a day of cloying humidity, the only amenity I'm interested in is the air conditioner.
In which Nicholas meets the toast of the town, learns singlish, and gets in the “sling" of things
This morning, I'm set to meet a friend of a friend, Amy Long, who lived in New York, Seoul, and Hong Kong before returning to her native Singapore, where she now works in the oil industry. She's going to show me around the districts of Katong and Joo Chiat. This residential area, east of downtown, is the epicenter of a regional subculture known as Peranakan. The name, which comes from the Malay for “local born," is used for the descendants of local Malay women and Chinese (or other foreign) traders along the Strait of Malacca. Today, the area is known for madly colorful folk costumes and architecture.
We meet at Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, an unfussy kopitiam (a ubiquitous Singaporean take on the coffee shop), and order the country's most famous morning meal: soft-boiled eggs with kaya jam toast (here it's a bun instead of the standard sliced bread) topped with butter and a bright green curd made from coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan leaves. The stuff is so addictive I end up bringing home five jars.
“There are different schools of thought about how you eat this," says Long, cracking the eggs into individual bowls and dressing them with soy sauce and white pepper. “You either eat it with a spoon or pick it up and slurp it, which is the old grandpa way." We go with the spoons.
Amy Long, businesswoman
Long is impeccably stylish. (Her converted shophouse even appeared in the New York Times real estate section.) I, on the other hand, am a puddle of sweat, a victim of the oppressive humidity, a condition exacerbated by the dearth of napkins at kopitiams.
“Lee Kuan Yew was asked what the greatest invention of the 20th century was," she says of the first prime minister, as we duck into a convenience store, just as the locals do, to buy packs of tissues and cooling scented alcohol wipes, “and he said the air conditioner. We call ourselves 'the air-conditioned nation.' It's a metaphor. We created this environment; we're in this bubble."
To aid in the cooling off, we stop into Island Creamery, which makes locally inspired ice creams and sorbets with flavors such as Tiger beer and pulut hitam (black sticky rice with coconut milk). I order a scoop of chendol—based on a regional dessert made with shaved ice, coconut milk, pandan-leaf jellies, and gula melaka palm sugar caramel—and we continue our walk, past bike repair shops and a Malay wedding procession.
As we stroll, we chat about Singlish, the name for the local patois. “It's a hodgepodge—nominally English with Chinese grammatical structure and Malay words," says Long. “Ten or 15 years ago, people were ashamed of Singlish. It's a very low language, but I love it. It's like a secret code you're tapping into. Everyone has this dual, triple identity, and you slip into and out of it all day." She might use it to order at a hawker stand. In the boardroom? Probably not.
“When I came back to Singapore, it felt like a totally new city. The pace of things has really started to pick up. There's a lot more recognition that we have to loosen the strings so people want to live here." —Amy Long
We say our goodbyes, and I finish up in the neighborhood by walking down Koon Seng Road, which has a lovely row of sherbet-tinted yellow and pink and green and blue Peranakan shophouses that call to mind San Francisco's Painted Ladies.
I head back downtown, where I check into Raffles Hotel, a crisp-white ode to British colonialism that is celebrating its 130th birthday this year with a top-to-bottom renovation. I walk past the famed Sikh doormen—white-turbaned, military-garbed—and into a lobby straight out of Rudyard Kipling (who stayed here), though it's another former guest, Joseph Conrad, who's the namesake of my grand suite for the night.
Before I venture back out to explore, I pay my respects to the hotel's—if not the country's—greatest contribution to global culture: the Singapore Sling. Bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the dangerously drinkable concoction—gin, cherry brandy, Dom Bénédictine, Cointreau, pineapple juice, lime juice, grenadine, Angostura bitters—in 1915 to look like fruit punch, allowing British women to tipple without attracting disapproving attention. It's unclear, though, how they disguised the fact that this potent drink made them quite merry quite quickly.
For lunch, I'm having a Peranakan high tea at the National Kitchen by Violet Oon, an elegant dining room helmed by “the Julia Child of Singapore" and tucked away on the second floor of the new National Gallery of Singapore. Opened in 2015, the museum occupies two former hubs of British rule, the domed Supreme Court and the colonnaded City Hall, which sit on the sprawling Padang Cricket Ground. After polishing off a three-tiered tray of delicacies—including a beef sambal pao steamed bun, a hae bee hiam spicy dried shrimp floss finger sandwich, and doilylike roti jala pancakes—I head into the galleries. Many of the halls contain nods to colonialist mythmaking, such as an 1860s woodcut of an incident (probably apocryphal) in which road surveyors were attacked by a tiger.
The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay
One of my favorite pieces is Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong's playful yet searing 2002 installation Re: Looking, which reimagines history through a specific lens: What would have happened if Malaysia had colonized Austria? Guests step inside mock judge's quarters, built from architectural elements salvaged from the original court, where they can examine maps of the fictional Malaysian Empire or watch an imagined documentary on disenfranchised Austrian migrant workers forced to take manual labor jobs in Malaysian cities. It's a head trip.
“Singlish is like a secret code you're tapping into."
Next, I walk 10 minutes to the bite-size Peranakan Museum, which occupies a former primary school in the shadow of hilltop Fort Canning Park. The building brims with colorful artifacts: carved household altars, floral porcelain dinnerware, kingfisher-feather wedding headdresses, and a tablecloth made with one million tiny glass beads.
Dinner tonight is at the world's first Michelin-starred Peranakan restaurant, Candlenut, up on Dempsey Hill near the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I sample homey plates like wing bean and prawn salad; braised Duroc pork cheek pongteh stew with preserved soy bean gravy; and buah keluak chicken, cooked with tarry Indonesian black nuts (which contain cyanide if not prepared correctly). For dessert, I opt for that much-maligned fruit, the durian, which appears here as a soup, an ice cream, and a puree. The flavor is sweet, funky, a little oniony—but it's hardly as offensive as I've been led to believe.
After a swift breath test, I catch a cab back to Chinatown for a nightcap at Crackerjack, a new bar by San Francisco transplant Joe Alessandroni, whose nearby speakeasy, 28 Hongkong Street, ranked 14th on last year's World's 50 Best Bars list. “The ethos of craft cocktails is to pay attention to local flavors," says Alessandroni, handing me a highball of pineapple, rum, lime, and Angostura bitters. While the menu offers a slew of tropical flavors—tamarind, coconut—I find myself drawn to the Ballgame, made with Johnny Drum bourbon, caramel corn syrup, and bitters, with a “baby beer" chaser. This “multicultural crossroads," as Alessandroni calls Singapore, really does have a way of making you feel at home.
In which Nicholas falls in love with an onion, goes garden-hopping, and marvels at a merlion
In need of a caffeine boost after last night's activities, I've planned to explore the city's newest obsession: single-origin, third-wave coffee shops, like the ones you find in Brooklyn or Portland. I'm set to meet Bernice Lee, a member of the contemporary Javanese-inspired company Maya Dance Theatre. We meet at Chye Seng Huat Hardware, a coffee roastery in the new hipster enclave of Jalan Besar, just north of downtown.
Over velvety nitro cold brew coffee and green pandan pancakes—served with kaya jam, vanilla ice cream, and gula melaka palm sugar syrup—we discuss the country's multiculturalism. “Our identity has always come first from our national point of view," says Lee, noting that while someone in the U.S. might call herself, say, Italian-American, here the Singaporean part always comes first. The government, meanwhile, is so committed to the melting-pot model that HDB housing is designed specifically to mix different ethnicities and prevent groups from sticking to their own kind. “We're all tribal in some ways," Lee says, “so it makes sense to acknowledge that and work against it."
But, as I saw yesterday with the revival of Peranakan folk culture or with Edwin Low's reverence for folk motifs, there is also an increasing emphasis on tradition—“an effort to reclaim our narratives," as Lee puts it—especially among the youth. A whimsical expression of this impulse sits just across the street, at the Thekchen Choling Tibetan-style Buddhist temple, which contains a beatific cardboard cutout of the Dalai Lama standing behind a spangly Buddha-ful altar (I count dozens).
Jason Tan, chef, Corner House
My next stop involves a tradition that never went away. In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew publicly planted a tree to initiate a plan to make Singapore a “Garden City," but the local love of plants is much older. A case in point is the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a 10-minute drive from downtown, which was named the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Founded in 1859, the gardens are spread over 183 wooded acres. Hidden among them is the National Orchid Garden, and within this is the VIP Orchid Garden, a collection of hybrid flowers named for dignitaries: the white Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, the stylishly speckled Papilionanda Vanda William Catherine (named for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), and the Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher, which has petals shaped (appropriately?) like screws.
It's a quick uphill ramble to lunch at the Corner House, which occupies a black-and-white 1910 bungalow tucked among the lush vegetation. I grab a seat on the veranda and dig into chef Jason Tan's French-inspired tasting menu, which earned him a Michelin star last year. While the succession of dishes is filled with luxe ingredients—Japanese A4 Toriyama beef, foie gras, Kristal de Chine caviar—it's the humblest of ingredients that get starring roles. A salad of more than 40 herbs, vines, flowers, roots, and tubers is served on a pea-green leaf-shaped plate, while Tan's signature dish is a celebration of the unappreciated onion.
“When I first started, there weren't enough great restaurants. We all have to improve together to keep up. For me, the Michelin guide doesn't change anything." —Jason Tan
A former veg-o-phobe, Tan tried the super-sweet Cévennes onion, from the hills of Southern France, and liked it so much he changed his entire approach to cooking. Four and a half pounds of the onions are required per diner for his signature four-part “The Onion Revealed": a whole baked onion filled with onion puree and confit, a sous-vide egg, sea salt, chives, and black truffles; a tart; a dehydrated chip; and an Earl Grey–infused onion tea. The dish is such a knockout that I look out the window and make can-you-believe-this eye contact with a bright green pigeon plucking berries off a tree.
“Every cuisine uses onions," Tan says, “but they're always just a garnish, a condiment, or in a stock—never a true hero. Singaporeans still look at menus and want luxury premium ingredients, so a lot of people were like, 'Are you sure? Onions?' But if you do it right, anything can shine." He claims to have converted all but one onion-hater (who found the dish too sweet). His next project? Carrots.
I'm off now to Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic representation of the Garden City idea that opened in 2012 on 250 acres of reclaimed land. I wander through two undulating glass conservatories, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which encompasses a 115-foot artificial mountain swathed in orchids and bromeliads (as well as the world's tallest indoor waterfall). James Cameron would love it here.
The skyline-dominating Marina Bay Sands resort and casino
I challenge my fear of heights by climbing the 72-foot-high, see-through OCBC Skyway, which weaves through some of the gardens' showstopping Supertree Grove. These 18 vertical gardens look like alien steel baobabs, standing up to 164 feet tall and covered in 162,900 plants, such as ferns and flowering climbers. Aside from being an Instagrammer's dream, these structures serve many other purposes: They collect rainwater to irrigate the park, harvest sunlight to convert into solar energy, and regulate heat in the domes. They look a bit sci-fi, but that's the point. The future, after all, is green.
As I stroll out of the gardens and along the sidewalk that skirts Marina Bay, I have a front-row view of the city's changing face: the 541-foot Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel, which opened in 2008; the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, which followed in 2011; and the skyline-dominating Marina Bay Sands resort and casino. When it opened in 2010, the 656-foot behemoth was the most expensive resort ever built, at $5.7 billion. It looks like an immense surfboard balanced atop three towers, or an alien rendition of Stonehenge.
To continue the forward-thinking theme, I take a cab to Wild Rocket, chef Willin Low's “Mod Sin" spot, which ranked No. 38 on this year's S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List. The vibe here is pure Japanese—the space is modeled after a traditional chashitsu teahouse—but the flavors are all Singaporean.
Onion four ways at the Corner House
I sit at the counter for an omakase tasting menu with sake pairing, and each dish is a playful deconstruction of a local staple. Low's bak chor mee (minced meat noodles) trades out pork for lightly torched chopped tuna belly atop glass noodles cooked in pork fat. A pomelo and prawn salad is dressed with a scoop of savory ice cream made with coconut milk, fish sauce, and chilies. Black truffles liven up a posh take on the hawker classic, Hainanese chicken rice.
“While chef was studying in the U.K., he would see 'Singapore fried noodles' on Chinese takeaway menus," says my server, Yane Goh, as she sets down a plate. “But there's no such thing in Singapore! So he took ownership of the name." His version is a spin on Hokkien mee noodles cooked with ebi miso (made with fat from prawn heads), sea kelp kombu, lobster oil, and prawn stock, and topped with a massive king prawn and a tiny calamansi lime. Throughout the meal, chatty servers keep bringing over a laptop to show me images of the original dishes, so I'll fully understand the scope of Low's inventiveness. A pre-dessert snack tops pineapple sorbet with mint sugar, chili flakes, and soy sauce salt, the crystals that form along the edge of the vat when soy sauce is brewed the traditional way.
As I begin to notice the first signs of a food (or, more accurately, sake) coma, I head toward my bed for the night at the grand Fullerton Hotel, a fortresslike former post office building that was erected in 1928 near the spot where city founder Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on land. Before turning in, I take the hotel's underground walkway out toward the bayside Merlion Park, which is centered on that famous water-spouting statue.
Inspired by the city's fishing-village past and the tale of a mythical Malay prince who encountered a lion, the Merlion statue serves the same role in Singaporean culture as Copenhagen's Little Mermaid—part point of pride, part tourist trap. With the glitzy bayfront skyline before me and the hulking remnants of British colonialism behind, I can't help but feel this hybrid creature is a perfectly apt metaphor for the country itself: an invention, sprung fully formed from the heads of 20th-century nation-builders, cobbled together from diverse parts, powerful, and utterly fantastical.
Hemispheres executive editor Nicholas DeRenzo is seeking seed money for his new artisanal kaya jam company, The Toast with the Most.
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How traveling changed the course of our future
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…Mark Twain knew this, and anyone who travels and gets out of their comfort zone understands this same concept.
This is one of the reasons we love to travel — our perceptions and stereotypes are constantly being challenged. This is also probably why we've built a business that requires us to travel regularly — we create street art pieces in cities around the world.
But we weren't always like this. Our love of travel first began when our Mom took us backpacking through Europe for a month. At the time, we were both young teenagers who had never been out of the country. We carefully planned our outfits and fit them into one backpack each. Mom carried our Rick Steve's travel guide and off we went. We stayed in shabby hotels across the United Kingdom, France and Spain, visiting every museum we could find, eating every baguette, croissant and paella dish we could get our hands on, and loving every second of it.
We've been addicted to travel ever since.
Kelsey sketches at a street cafe in Paris
I (Kelsey) fell so in love with London on that trip that I grew determined to study there. Fast forward to years later when I graduated from Richmond University in London. That trip changed the course of my life because I learned about and experienced street art during my studies in London. Courtney fell so in love with Paris that she learned French and graduated with a degree in comparative literature from the American University of Paris. That first trip changed the course of our lives forever and opened our eyes to how massive the world was. I don't think our Mom could have given us a better gift than that first trip abroad.
As adults who travel constantly we feel like a MileagePlus® membership is another important piece of the equation and something we've benefitted from tremendously over the years. The various United Club℠ locations are little refuges we escape to in busy and overwhelming airports. Being able to board early, getting upgraded and having nice flight attendants on long haul flights really can mean the difference between arriving well rested and having a good trip, or arriving tired and having a rough trip.
At the end of the day a company is all about the people in it and the kindness we have experienced on United flights has been wonderful. I remember once on a flight, one of our captains wrote a personal note thanking each passenger flying in United First® class for traveling on United. On another, a flight the attendant saw I was not feeling well and hunted down an Airborne (vitamin pack) for me. Still another flight attendant asked about my art (I was sketching on the plane) and when I explained what I do they committed to buying my coloring book. It's these connections that really make flying United so memorable for myself and my sister.
So if you're looking to give your child a gift, take them traveling. And if you're looking for a present for yourself, sign up to enjoy the benefits of a MileagePlus Membership. You won't regret either.
United and Special Olympics
Taking inclusion to new heights
Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.Learn more
Welcome day brings employees and Special Olympics athletes together
As part of the weekend's festivities, our CEO, Oscar Munoz, joined a group of employees and retirees in greeting nearly 700 arriving athletes, coaches and volunteers at Seattle's Sea-Tac International Airport (SEA), as well as hundreds more at local light rail stations, all of which were decorated with our Special Olympics superhero campaign banners.
Oscar also had the honor of giving Special Olympics athlete Nikki Jones her first in person look at her superhero alter ego Lane Lightning, a moment that was captured on the video below.
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Introducing a more personalized experience on united.com
Our united.com homepage is getting some big enhancements. Yesterday, we announced the launch of the new site, which will offer a more modern, user-friendly design, allowing users a more personalized digital experience.
Each one of our customers is unique and has different needs for his or her travel, and personalizing our digital offerings is just another step toward giving our customers the experience and the products that they ask for, said Digital Products and Analytics VP Praveen Sharma. "Our goal with this new homepage is to provide customers with a more seamless experience."
The new website will provide personalized content based on a customer's MileagePlus® status as well as upcoming, current or prior trips. It will also include a new display that will be fully responsive for optimal viewing on desktop and mobile devices. Later this year, the site will include a travel section that will provide customers with curated content from destinations United serves.
We began rolling out the new homepage in April and continued expanding it to more users while we added more functionality throughout the phased rollout. The site will be live to all customers in early August.
These efforts are part of our commitment to improve our customers' travel experience through every step of their journey. Earlier this year, we updated our mobile website, adding a more optimized display, additional flexibility to adjust flights throughout the site, Japanese language translations and more.
Our new homepage will also appear on our mobile website, creating a more seamless experience when customers are managing travel and bookings across multiple devices.
Transcending borders and languages in Tanzania
Story and photos by Davis Paul
I have been very fortunate to travel the world telling stories with a camera for the last decade. Being a United MileagePlus® member for many of those years has absolutely opened the world and eased my ability to get around. And, it enabled me to authentically document the way in which different people and cultures do life, which has now become an obsession. How can you make someone feel what you witnessed despite not being there?
The world is full of amazing stories and incredible lessons that can transcend borders and languages. I believe every location is uniquely beautiful on it's own, we just need to see it for what it is and not in comparison to others. Bangladesh can be just as beautiful as Tahiti if we remove expectation and appreciate the uniqueness each location has to offer.
However, of all the trips I have ever taken, out of every project I have embarked on, from X Games to Real Madrid, there is one that hit me in a very different way. That was my trip to Tanzania to work on the border of Burundi out of two Refugee Camps. I was contracted to help train and build soccer programs within the camp as well as create content that would provide impactful insight into the circumstances taking place throughout the region as well as to connect the outside world with these amazing people fighting for their lives. I had zero preparation for the trip, having only booked my flight a week in advance. I had never traveled to Africa, let alone a refugee camp that couldn't be more difficult to get to. In fact, it was roughly 38 hours of travel by myself including having an 8 hour drive on something that barely resembled a road. Because it was so last minute, I actually wasn't able to secure a driver to take me to the town of Kibondo which meant once I landed, I had to find any local with a car who would be willing to take me the distance. Luckily, I found a man named Frankie who had a Toyota Corolla which consequently broke down within the first hour of our journey.
Once I arrived, I had never witnessed life in this manner. Hundreds of thousands of refugees all piled together within 2 square miles. Mud huts, tarps, tents, anything and everything to sustain life was being used. Almost everyone in this camp had lost a loved one to violence yet I had never seen so much hope and joy. It completely changed my perspective on life to live amongst these people for 3 weeks. I ate with them everyday in the camp, eating the local food with my hands. To hear their stories, to see how they live and to dream with them on the brighter future they all hope exists was truly humbling. I'll never forget the lessons I learned within this camp and from these people — their love and optimism despite having experienced unimaginable tragedy was uplifting. When I asked if there was one message I could bring back to the United States, they simply would say, "we just want people to know we exist". I hope that my time and efforts there at least provided that. Although I tried to make the biggest impact I could while there, it is safe to say I was the one impacted the most and I will be forever grateful for that. I just hope I can help in half of the way they helped me.
I'm never sure where the next story will exist, but I can guarantee you'll find me on the ground, always laughing with a camera in hand. Traveling is a gift that allows us insight into both our differences and similarities, and the more you travel, the more you realize we all share in the same struggles, same hopes and same dreams. I believe that despite bad things happening, the world is full of good — we just need to seek it in every situation.
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How to experience the best of Prague in 3 days
Every bit as historic, as beautiful and as culturally enriching as the European heavyweights of Paris, London or Rome, Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic has emerged over recent decades to be a jewel in the continent's crown.
The city escaped significant bomb damage during World War II and its historic center remains magnificently intact, with a maze of cobbled lanes, quiet courtyards, chic cafés and ancient chapels just waiting to be discovered. To see enough of the city, we suggest visiting for at least three days.
Getting into the city
Upon arrival, regular and reliable buses and trains will get you into the center of the city within 20 minutes. Unless you're heading outside of Prague, you shouldn't need to rent a car. The center of Prague is compact and easily to explore on foot, with excellent and cheap trams, buses and the subway if you don't want to walk.
Where to stay
Central Prague is broken down into 10 districts, with most visitors staying in Prague 1, the heart of the city. Here you have two good options: The Old Town or the Lesser Town – linked by Prague's most celebrated landmark, the Charles Bridge. The Old Town is at the heart of everything, full of historical sites, bars and restaurants but can be overpriced and often considered 'touristy' as a result. The Lesser Town is still close to the heart of everything but with a more tranquil atmosphere that's particularly good for families.
What to see
There's too much to see in a single visit, however, one of the absolute essentials has to be Prague Castle, which is literally unmissable. The largest castle complex in the world, it dates back to the 9th century and is also home to the presidential palace, the vast St. Vitus Cathedral and Golden Lane — an original 16th-century street of tiny cottages that was home to Franz Kafka. The lookout tower of St. Vitus Cathedral gives you a bird's eye view of the city, as does Petrin Lookout Tower at the top of Petrin Hill, which climbs 206 feet to look down on the city.
From there head to the Old Town Square, which is the medieval center of Prague, surrounded by cobbled streets awash with cafes and restaurants. It's home to the Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock, the Rococo Kinsky Palace and the stunning Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn. If you visit in December, it also hosts the city's largest Christmas market.
Also close by, Klementinum is a series of historic buildings worth visiting just to see what is arguably the most beautiful library in the world. If you're looking for a world-class collection of historical artifacts, minerals and zoological specimens, the National Museum ticks all of the boxes. It's located at the top of Wenceslas Square, which is not actually a square but a boulevard – and one of Prague's most popular shopping streets.
Kampa Island is a great alternative to the National Museum. Literally an island located beneath Charles Bridge, you'll find the museum of modern art, The John Lennon Wall and giant, slightly unnerving sculptures of crawling babies. Speaking of Charles Bridge, it is one of Prague's most popular and photographed sites for good reason. You'll no doubt use it to cross the Vltava River, but for the best photographs, visit at dawn, before the crowds arrive.
And if all this walking gets to be too much, see the city from a different perspective, floating gently down the Vltava on a river cruise.
Where to eat
Restaurants to suit every taste and budget dot the center of Prague. Great breakfast options include Coffee Room, Mezi Srnky and the always-popular Café Savoy, which is also great for lunch or dinner.
In a city full of carnivores, the Real Meat Society's porchetta sandwich is a lunchtime highlight, Dish is a stylish little burger joint full of fashionable people, while Lokál Dlouhááá offers a beer hall feel and Czech classics of pork, sauerkraut and dumplings washed down with beer.
The city's only two Michelin-starred restaurants are Field and La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, the latter creating modern takes on old Czech recipes using the highest quality local produce. Both restaurants require a reservation. Highly recommended 'Bib Gourmand' restaurants within easy reach of Charles Bridge include Sansho, Divinis and Maso A Kobliha, where the salty caramel pie may elicit happy tears.
Where to drink
In the number one beer-drinking nation on the planet, the locals refer to it as 'Liquid bread.' Prague is home to many of the nation's finest bars and ale houses, many of which brew their own beers. Two of the most historic are U Zlateho Tygra, which President Clinton visited in 1994, and U Cerneho Vola, which stands in the shadow of the castle. Letná Beer Garden offers an outdoor setting where you can enjoy a beer and views of the Old Town below.
And keep an eye out for 'tankovna' – tank pubs – where the beer is not pasteurized, as most beers have to be to be transported around the globe. In tank pubs such as U Pinkasu, the beer is probably the freshest you'll ever taste. But if pilsner is not your preference, head to Hemingway Bar, one of the world's finest cocktail bars. You may have to wait in line as it is a popular with both locals and tourists alike, but it's well worth the wait.
When to go
Prague is the warmest and busiest during the summer months, from April until October and peak season starts in July through August. The longer nights of spring and summer will give you more time to explore, while the celebrated Beer Festival fills the city's Letná Park in May. Spring and autumn are generally quieter and can be less costly than the summer months. If you can cope with the colder temperatures and darker days, winter is a magical time to be in the city.
United, together with many of its Star Alliance partner airlines, offers service from multiple cities in the U.S. to Prague. To explore all that Prague has to offer and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app.
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The 10 best beach vacation destinations in Europe
These spots offer the perfect beach day with a side of art, history and nightlife.
Europe is home to some of the world's most-celebrated seas — the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Aegean — and its cultural mosaic makes it a top choice for beach lovers looking to mix sun, fun, art, history and nightlife. Windsurf in the morning, visit ancient ruins in the afternoon, shop for the season's hottest beachwear before enjoying sunset cocktails and then partying until dawn. Sound good? Read on to discover the 10 best beach vacation destinations in Europe.
Few places do charm and decadence better than Mykonos. This sunny Greek island's calling cards are almost-anything-goes beaches (expect plenty of skin), Instagram-worthy Cycladic architecture (whitewashed buildings with brightly hued shutters and cascading flower boxes), 16th-century windmills (a must-see at sunset) and legendary discos and dance clubs in Mykonos Town. As for the beaches, check out Ornos Bay for pretty views and excellent windsurfing, chic Psarou for celebrity spotting and Paradise and Super Paradise for hedonistic sun-worshipping and dancing until sunrise.
Mallorca, Spain | Shutterstock
This beautiful Mediterranean oasis, the largest of the Balearic Islands located off the east coast of Spain, is a hot spot for northern Europeans, who flock here in summer to enjoy long days of sunshine and fresh air. Once you get beyond the urban sprawl of the capital, Palma, mountainous, bay-fringed Mallorca delivers some of the region's most amazing azure water and soft-sand beaches — there are more than 250, from popular 3½-mile Playa de Muro to secluded Cala Mesquida. The view from the water is pretty incredible, too: centuries-old hilltop villages constructed of golden stone backed by peaceful olive groves and vineyards.
Hvar, Croatia | Shutterstock
In between swimming, sunning and windsurfing, visitors to this summer-resort island, located in the Adriatic off of Croatia's coast near Split, can tour a 13th-century fortress and cathedral, go wine tasting (if you haven't tried Croatian wine, you should) and in June and July, inhale the heavenly aroma of lavender, which grows in abundance here. Hvar's beaches are known for their intense scenic beauty — many are set in serene bays surrounded by cliffs and pine forests — and tempting options include Dubovica, Zavala and Ivan Dolac.
Saint-Malo, France | Shutterstock
If it's seaside drama you seek, consider Saint-Malo, a walled city in France's Brittany region where the cobblestone medieval streets of Old Town are surrounded by a series of sandy beaches, some of which are only walkable at low tide and offer access to rocky islands (timetables tell you when to visit). When the tide's high, tour the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent (constructed between the 12th and 17th centuries) and the city's landmark fortress with its four round towers. Or you can always kick back and relax on Plage du Sillon, a vast beach that stretches for almost 2 miles along the English Channel.
Ibiza, Spain | Shutterstock
It helps to be young to enjoy the 24/7 frenzy that is Ibiza — the wildest isle in the Med thanks to its world-famous clubs blasting dance music. Should you be awake when the sun's shining, top activities on Ibiza, which is also one of Spain's Balearic Islands, include music festivals, beach-going (Cala D'Hort has a view of the distinctive Es Vedra rock formation or hop over to neighboring island Formentera, known for its white sand) and scuba diving, since visibility here is superb.
Sicily, Italy | Shutterstock
If you're a fan of old-school destinations — scenic, slow-paced and filled with tradition — you can't go wrong with Sicily. This Italian island, the largest in the Mediterranean, is home to stunning beaches, yummy treats such as ricotta-filled cannoli and meat-filled rice balls called arancini (both invented here) and ancient Greek and Roman ruins dating back several millennia. It also boasts Europe's most active volcano: Mt Etna. Book a beach resort for maximum access to sun and sand, or stay in charming hilltop Taormina and day trip to beaches such as Isola Bella or Giardini Naxos.
The Algarve, Portugal
The Algarve, Portugal | Shutterstock
The hot Iberian sun shines along the southern coast of Portugal 300 days a year — and in summer, the region receives very little rain — so it's no surprise that the Algarve ranks among the top beach destinations in Europe. It's also incredibly pretty and quite affordable, with a variety of hotels, rental apartments and homes located in cities and villages stretching from Sagres in the east to Villa Real in the west. In between are more than 150 beaches, with Praia da Falésia near Albufeira, Praia da Camilo near Lagos and Praia da Marinha near Lagoa featuring photogenic limestone cliffs.
Crete, Greece | Shutterstock
As Greek Isles beaches go, Crete has some of the best. But Greece's largest island is also its most geologically diverse — so beaches here range from sweeping and tranquil to compact and crowded. For the former, head to Balos Lagoon near Kissamos on the west coast or Elafonisi Beach, also in western Crete, with its pink sand. For the latter, there's Vai Beach near Sitia in the northeast, which is backed by Europe's largest natural palm grove, and Matala Beach on the south coast, where you can follow your swim with a seafood lunch at a local taverna.
Cornwall, England | Shutterstock
There are hundreds of beaches along this rugged peninsula on the Atlantic in southwest England, some ideal for surfing, others for beachcombing and others for seaside shopping and dining. It's all incredibly wild and moody, the kind of setting that's equally inspiring to artists and adventure-lovers. For pure visual delight, it's hard to beat the beaches around St. Ives, especially Porthmeor, while Kynance Cove seduces at first sight with its unblemished natural beauty. Add in fishing villages such as Mevagissey and Polperro and you'll discover how Cornwall charms visitors with a raw authenticity that's ever harder to find these days.
Sardinia, Italy | Shutterstock
On this vast Italian island, the second largest in the Mediterranean, it's possible to be a jetsetter or a backpacker, to step back in time while strolling tiny villages or channel the 21st-century while sunning on a modern mega-yacht, to visit ancient temples or enjoy the latest youth-enhancing spa treatment. Long celebrated for its talcum-soft beaches and clear aquamarine water, Sardinia's alluring Costa Smeralda has been a summer hot spot since the mid-1960s. Yet the island also has a harsh interior landscape that has shaped the local mindset and cuisine (fava beans, sheep's milk cheese and lamb with artichokes compete with seafood and pasta on many menus). But it's Sardinia's coastal beauty that has made it envied the world over.
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Rising tide of Special Olympics lifts employee's daughter
A dark green wave rises and crests, spilling over into a froth of white foam as it picks up steam and propels Alissa DiDomenico toward the shores of Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, Florida. With her arms outstretched, Alissa kneels on her surfboard, eyes focused in concentration, and shifts her weight with the momentum, settling in for the ride as the water flattens over the hot sand.
Alissa's father, United's Jacksonville International Airport General Manager Paul DiDomenico, watches from nearby as she comes to a stop. Hopping to her feet, Alissa flashes a wide grin at her dad then turns, her board under one arm, and paddles back out to do it again.
It's late June, and Alissa, 18, is in the thick of competition season as she seeks to represent Nassau County at the Special Olympics Florida State Surfing Championship in Cocoa Beach this September. If she's successful, it will be her fourth consecutive state finals appearance, where she was a gold medalist in 2016 (the contest was cancelled in 2017 because of Hurricane Irma). Paul, a native Midwesterner more comfortable in the snow than in the sand, is nevertheless a fixture at all of Alissa's events and weekend practices, joined by his wife, Marta, in the cheering section.
The water is Alissa's sanctuary, the place where she feels most at home, like "a little mermaid," Paul says. Pool therapy helped her build her strength when she was young, and by the time she began riding waves in 2014 she was already an accomplished swimmer. When Nassau County Special Olympics introduced surfing, Paul encouraged her to give it a try and Alissa was immediately hooked, drawn to the speed and grace inherent to the sport.
Apart from bringing her enjoyment, swimming and surfing have also had a transformative effect on Alissa as a person, helping to draw her out of her shell. She's on the autism spectrum and has difficulties speaking, but the look on her face when she's in the water says more than words ever could. Without Special Olympics, Alissa – and countless other children – wouldn't have these kinds of experiences, which is why Paul is so glad to see United expand its partnership with the organization, which includes flying nearly 700 athletes to the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle and sponsoring the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary Celebration in Chicago.
I see it as an opportunity for her to step out and do something that's out of the ordinary, but also ordinary at the same time, because every kid plays sports, says Paul. "This is her opportunity to play and socialize."
As the morning session draws to an end, Alissa bobs in the water on her surfboard. A line of waves swell as they near the shoreline and she readies herself in a crouch. Before she can find her balance, though, her feet are swept out from under her, sending Alissa splashing into the Atlantic.
In an instant she's back on her board, waiting for the next set of waves to roll in, and with them, her next chance. Before long, she's gliding toward the beach once more, exhausted but happy, in a way that looks effortless. Competitions and medals are the farthest thing from Alissa's mind as Paul meets her with open arms, her smile matched only by his. In that moment, she's already won all there is to win.
Brazil’s big three: Rio, São Paulo & Salvador
Brazil is nearly as large, populous and diverse as the United States. So where does a tourist begin? In the U.S., the answer might be to visit New York City, Chicago and L.A., each with its own personality. In Brazil, the best answer is Rio de Janeiro for its festive vitality, São Paulo for its cosmopolitan culture and Salvador for its history and beaches.
Rio de Janeiro
The world came to Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and left with a big grin. The energy of the city, the splendor of the beaches and the spirit of the people — including a passion for sports — made the games the global success story of the year.
From the Lapa district's samba clubs to the beaches, Rio de Janeiro is a colorful city where the party never ends. Copacabana Beach's two miles of sand are routinely packed with tourists and locals alike while adjacent Ipanema Beach is more sedate, located alongside the Ipanema and Leblon neighborhoods' upscale shopping streets and restaurants. Two steep, iconic mountains tower over the city, letting you see it all from high above. Take a gondola ride to climb to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, or a cog train to ascend up to Corcovado Mountain's 130-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue.
With 12 million people, São Paulo is the Western Hemisphere's most populous city, boasting more residents than New York City and even Mexico City. But that's not the only reason to visit. It's a must-see global city because of what the diverse, relatively affluent population has built — many of South America's finest museums, architecture, culture and more.
Several museums are found in the old city center. Walking distance apart are a neoclassical Brazilian art museum (The Pina), a neo-Byzantine cathedral and a Belle-Epoque covered marketplace. Elsewhere in the city are the São Paulo Museum of Art, boasting the largest collection of Western art in the Southern Hemisphere, and Museu Paulista, a colossal history museum surrounded by Versailles-inspired gardens at the University of Sao Paulo. Every Saturday, live samba music is played in many of the city's bars, but the place to experience this is at Bar Samba in Vila Madalena. And when you're hungry, it's good to know the restaurants are the best in Brazil, especially in the Jardins district. Among them are countless sushi spots and pizzerias, thanks to a vast population of Japanese and Italian immigrants and descendants.
Among the major cities on Brazil's northern coast, none offer as much to visitors as Salvador, the original capital city of Brazil. This city of three million has stunning beaches, superb restaurants and bars, plus an historic city center (Pelourinho — a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site) that dates to the 16th-century dawn of the city.
Similar to Rio, almost everything worth experiencing in Salvador is on the water or close by, starting with beaches on the Bay of All Saints and Atlantic Ocean — ideal for swimming, surfing and sunbathing. Also found near the shore is the Elevador Lacerda (the world's first elevator—now a tourist attraction) and many museums devoted to South American, modern and decorative art. Also found in the Old City nearby are more museums, six cobblestone squares and a 17th-century cathedral. Many of Salvador's restaurants serve Afro-Brazilian food, a relic of the city's past.
All three of these Brazilian cities are closer to the equator than Miami, so expect balmy year-round temperatures that almost always hover in the seventies and eighties. The only months to avoid are the rainy season: December to February in Rio and Sao Paulo; April to June in Salvador. Transportation in all three cities is easy via Uber, buses and subways. Don't bother with pricey taxis or rental cars. And while in Brazil, be sure to try the national beverages — Brazilian coffee by day, caipirinhas by night.
If you go
United Airlines offers flights to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo from numerous U.S. cities, including nonstop flights from Houston Intercontinental to Rio de Janeiro and nonstop flights from Chicago O'Hare, Houston Intercontinental, New York/Newark and Washington Dulles to São Paulo. Salvador is served by Star Alliance partner Avianca Brasil, with frequent flights from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. You can also get to any of these three cities via one of our partner airlines, Azul Brazilian Airlines. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your hotel room. In addition, before you go make sure to submit the proper documentation to receive a tourist visa. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your Brazilian adventure.
The comparisons between New Zealand and California are inescapable. Both are long and narrow with Pacific coastlines that seamlessly combine cliffs and beaches. Both boast some of the world's most spectacular national parks in the mountains and some of the most prized wine regions in the hills and valleys.
Some similarities are flip-flopped, because NZ straddles the 38th parallel south of the equator while California is on the 38th parallel north. That's why New Zealand's North Island shares Southern California's warm, dry climate and the South Island shares Northern California's cooler, wetter climate. That may also be why New Zealand's two largest cities (Auckland and Wellington) are in the sunny north, while California's (L.A. and San Diego) are in the south.
There are differences, too, and they favor New Zealand. Although it's about two-thirds the size of California, NZ is only about one-tenth as crowded (4.5 million compared to 40 million people). And NZ is surrounded on all four sides, not just one, by the Pacific.
But don't take our word for it — visit New Zealand to make your own comparisons and with new nonstop service between Auckland and Chicago, New Zealand is even easier to get to. Starting November 30, Air New Zealand will operate nonstop service between Auckland and Chicago, and vice versa three times weekly on the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft. And beginning in April 2019, we will extend our service between San Francisco and Auckland to year-round with service three times weekly on the Boeing 777-300ER aircraft between November and March, and on the Boeing 777-200ER aircraft between April and October. Now that you have your travel plans set, read on for what to do while you're there.
From the 1,076-foot-high Sky Tower that dominates the Auckland skyline, you'll behold a city bordered by bays and peppered with parks. Locals take full advantage by sailing in the city's two harbors (Auckland is the “City of Sails") and participating in almost every other type of water and land sport — especially rugby, cricket, golf and tennis, all imports from the British who founded New Zealand.
Auckland's literal high points besides the Sky Tower include Mount Eden, Mount Victoria and One Tree Hill, three of the dozens of small dormant volcanoes with 360-degree views that punctuate the city. Another is Auckland Harbour Bridge across Waitemata Harbour, where you can climb the span or bungee off. Additional Auckland attractions include the Auckland Museum and Auckland Art Gallery; the family-friendly New Zealand Maritime Museum and Sea Life Aquarium; and sprawling Cornwall Park, where cricket enthusiasts share the grass with sheep.
Wellington and Christchurch
These two coastal cities south of Auckland are each about a quarter of the population of Auckland, making them favorites of visitors who prefer compact cities. In the capital city of Wellington, most attractions are along the waterfront promenade, always teeming with walkers and runners, while others are in the steep hills. Be sure to visit the Museum of New Zealand and ride the Wellington Cable Car. Christchurch is still recovering from the big 2011 earthquake, but the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park are still lush and lovely, and Quake City at the Canterbury Museum is both educational and moving as it chronicles the devastation of the quake and the rebuilding efforts.
South Island Mountains
New Zealand may be best known for its mountain hiking, known to the locals as tramping. The highest peaks are in the Southern Alps, topped by 12,218 foot Mount Cook, but surely the most famous hike is the Milford Track — so popular that reservations are required to tackle the 33 mile hut-to-hut walk through glacially carved mountain passes, fjords, majestic waterfalls and rainforests in Fiordland National Park. But you needn't hike at all to appreciate the beauty of New Zealand's mountains. Driving past them or through them, such as the drive to Milford Sound where the Track begins, or to Mount Cook Village, does the trick.
Beaches and volcanoes
Stellar surfing and sunbathing beaches are found throughout the country, even in Auckland, although keep in mind that “beach weather" is more likely on North Island. NZ's Volcanic Zone, however, is concentrated in one North Island region, not far from Auckland. It's there, especially in Tongariro National Park, that you'll discover recently erupted volcanoes, lava flows, steaming geysers and hissing ponds — plus thermal pools, springs and baths in the towns of Rotorua and Taupo. You may recognize some of this region's mountains, where the hiking is nearly as splendid as on the South Island, from scenes in “The Lord of the Rings" movies.
Towns, villages… and sheep
Sheep are everywhere in New Zealand, even in the cities. You can even observe them being herded and sheared at SheepWorld near Auckland, but mostly you'll see them in the countryside while driving between cities and national parks, such as on one of NZ's 10 themed highways. You'll also go past farms, vineyards, mountains, coastline and dense wilderness. But don't drive straight through. Your fondest NZ memories after the trip may be of conversations with locals at a village café over coffee or a country pub over a Double Brown beer.
New Zealand's 14 wine regions blanket the east coast of both islands, but the Marlborough region near Blenheim at the top of South Island has the most wineries, including dozens that offer tastings. This region's Sauvignon Blancs are internationally acclaimed. While you're in the area, you should also stop by the charming town of Nelson and visit Abel Tasman National Park, a marvelous mix of rainforest paths and beaches.
Sauvignon Blanc pairs nicely with fish — and that's a good thing, because New Zealand fishermen operate in the sixth-largest fishing zone in the world, making seafood a NZ specialty. While myriad fish choices fill menus in coastal restaurants, expect a wide variety of cuisines (often broadly called “Pacific Rim cuisine") in the cities. That's especially true in Auckland, where nearly half of residents are non-natives from China, India, Fiji, Samoa and elsewhere. Wherever you dine, the food was probably grown or raised locally because importing ingredients is expensive — the nearest continent, Australia, is 1,300 miles away.
Besides New Zealand's two main islands, smaller islands off their shores are a treat to visit. The largest (about the size of Maui) is Rakiura/Stewart Island, a one-hour ferry ride from the southern tip of South Island, where a national park occupies 80 percent of the land. NZ's most populous small island (pop. 9,000) is Waiheke, a 45-minute ferry ride from Auckland, which features forest trails, beaches, restaurants and wineries.
Don't forget that the seasons are reversed in New Zealand, so their “summer" starts in December. Plan a trip between November and April to enjoy mild temperatures and to avoid too many rainy days. When you arrive, driving a rental car is the best way to see the country. (You'll soon get used to driving on the left side.) And driving won't be tortuous within the country because there are no “boring" stretches of road — and a scenic, 3 1/2-hour Interislander or Bluebridge car ferry connects Wellington and Picton, letting you travel freely between North and South Islands.
If you go
Service between San Francisco and Auckland operates three times weekly with year-round nonstop service launching in April of 2019. Starting November 30 of this year, Air New Zealand will operate service between Auckland and Chicago, and vice versa three times weekly. Air New Zealand code share service will be offered on around 100 flights across the U.S. for convenient connections to Auckland via Chicago. Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your trip.
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On March 8, 2018, we announced a new global relationship with Special Olympics, an organization we've partnered with for many years focusing on supporting the spirit of inclusion with our employees through local communities and through our Charity Miles Program. United's increased sponsorship includes support for major Special Olympics events, including the Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago, site of the very first International Special Olympics Summer Games in 1968, and the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
In addition, United will engage with local Programs in our key markets around the world. Special Olympics embodies our shared purpose to connect people and unite the world. With more than 5 million athletes and 1 million coaches and volunteers in 172 countries, our employees and customers will join forces with Special Olympics to achieve our shared vision of inclusion. Together, we hope to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities.
Our relationship with Special Olympics represents a continued effort to break down barriers and further build on the organization's remarkable legacy by engaging our customers and employees around the world. Working together, we created new training that specifically reflects insights from Special Olympics, including training scenarios with real-life situations that individuals with intellectual disabilities face when traveling. By the end of 2018, more than 60,000 United frontline employees will have participated in the new training modules that reflect Special Olympics insights as United takes steps to deliver a world full of inclusion.
Check back this summer for coverage from Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in Chicago and 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
If a United beverage cart could talk, it would tell you how we select the brands we serve in the sky. But since they can't talk, host Phil Torres will have to spill the proverbial beans. Join him as he visits an illy Caffè and the family behind Colby Red wine.
"Many years ago at an air show, I saw a T-shirt that said 'Chicks fly,'" said Orlando-based Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor and Chix Fix team coach Laura Spolar. "And I told my husband, 'Chicks can fly, but chicks can also fix!' A lot of people don't know that women are aircraft mechanics."
Laura didn't know it at the time, but that conversation would serve as the inspiration for the team name of our history-making, all-female team of technicians that competed in the
2018 Aerospace Maintenance Competition (AMC). Of 69 teams at this year's AMC, only three were made up entirely of women, and Chix Fix was the only one representing a commercial airline.
"It's so important for us to show young girls and women that this is a career option for them," said Airframe Overhaul and Repair Managing Director Bonnie Turner, the Chix Fix team captain.
Chix Fix is made up of technicians from five stations. As a group, they only practiced together three times before the competition, but they bonded instantly.
"I feel like I've known these women my whole career," said Denver-based Line Technician Janelle Bendt. "It's been a lot of fun getting to know them and learning from them."
"As a team we just communicate really well; we all respect each other," said San Francisco-based Base Technician Katrina Oyer. "The biggest thing I've taken away from this experience is confidence. Working with these ladies is an eye opener. We really can do anything."
Watch the video above to learn more about Chix Fix and their journey to the AMC.