Three Perfect Days: Xi’an
Story by Benjamin Carlson | Photography by Jasper James | Hemispheres, March 2016
Even in a country as steeped in history as China, Xi'an is mindbendingly old. National capital for 13 dynasties, city of eight names, anchor of the Silk Road, an ancient metropolis one and a half times the size of Rome, Xi'an has more than 3,000 years under its belt. In the 13th century, one visitor wrote of the city's “noble, rich, and powerful" past—and Marco Polo wasn't easily impressed. Xi'an is a city both blessed and burdened by memories of greatness. Residents still speak of the Tang dynasty as if it ended yesterday (as opposed to AD 907). Every dingy noodle shop boasts of recipes dating back a century or more. Subway construction has hit repeated delays as diggers encounter crypts and other relics beneath the streets. But Xi'an isn't just for history buffs. It's also a loud, teeming city that captures all the glories and growing pains of contemporary China. The contradictions between an illustrious past and the sometimes awkward ambitions of the present are readily apparent: Cranes and concrete towers clutter the skyline beyond the ancient city walls; peasant folkways wend alongside roaring highways. But it's this—the clash of ageless tranquillity and breathless dynamism—that makes Xi'an such a fascinating, exciting place.
In which Ben tries (and fails) to decipher calligraphy, climbs the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, and grapples with one of the “Eight Strangenesses of Shaanxi": chili
In China, power radiates from the center. So, like other Chinese capitals, Xi'an was built outward in rings. Even as it has grown into a city of 8 million, the heart of Xi'an beats inside the huge city walls that enclose an area of about 14 square miles, and the Sofitel Legend People's Grand Hotel sits at the heart of the heart of it. The building, a 1950s Sino-Russian edifice, has two stately wings extending from a cylindrical tower. It was the first grand hotel in modern China, and it remains an anchor of the downtown, with a theater, museum, and serene garden.
I awake in a sumptuous suite and head to breakfast. My butler, a cheerful young woman named Lizzy, who is dressed in a little black tux with swinging coattails, offers me newspapers in French and English. As I tuck into shaved salami on toast and a red currant Danish, caterers hang garlands of green in the gardens outside in preparation for a wedding party.
But I'm not here to luxuriate. I'm here to plumb the depths of Chinese civilization, starting at the Tangbo Art Museum. My cab driver—husky-voiced, chain-smoking—drops me off in the southeast of the city, outside the walls. On the way there, we pass spectral blocks of unfinished apartments, peddlers hawking cabbages, and a dozen aunties waving their hands over their heads as if they were at a luau.
I'm met at the museum by Lei Ling, a graceful curator in a maroon wool coat. The small museum specializes in folk crafts and traditional arts, much of it from the Shaanxi province around Xi'an. Lei, a native of the city, shows me shadow puppets made of donkey skin and posters bearing Cultural Revolutionary slogans (“Smash 1,000 years of chains!"). I ask her about a set of clay statues depicting a family eating and arguing. Lei explains that they relate to the “Eight Strangenesses of Shaanxi," which include squatting while eating, marrying locally, shouting opera, and consuming heroic quantities of chili.
She seats me at a long wooden table, picks up a calligraphy brush, and asks me to guess the meaning of an ancient character she draws. Dragon? “No, that's a woman." She draws another: a 57-stroke character that takes up a whole sheet, made of elements that mean knife, moon, cart, word, distance, and heart. “You cannot find this in the dictionary," she says. “This is the most complicated character in Chinese."
“What does it mean?"
“It's biang biang, a sort of noodle."
Lesson over, Lei takes me to meet the owner of the museum: Ren Jie, a 50-something man in a puffy jacket. He welcomes me into his small, smoky office behind the galleries. Cheerful, with a gravelly laugh, he pours pu-erh tea into small ceramic cups. He founded the museum 15 years ago, he says, because of his passion for the traditional arts of Shaanxi province.
The 13-story Little Wild Goose Pagoda
“You've got to practice the art yourself to understand," he says. “In the West, people get tattoos using Chinese characters, but they make no sense. Those people have no idea what they mean." He is also eager to share his advice on food, urging me to load up on lamb soup with hand-torn bread. “Why do we break the bread ourselves? Because that way we have to sit with our friends a long time. You break bread, you talk. Every day it's like that. That's the Xi'an lifestyle."
As I prepare to leave, I ask Ren what else sets Xi'an apart. “Shanghai is a young city compared to us—Beijing too," he says. “Xi'an, we were the New York of the ancient world. Over a million population in the 8th century."
Despite my increasingly urgent craving for noodles, I decide on a pre-lunch trip to the Xi'an Museum, located on the grounds of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, just south of the city walls. I start on the lower level, which displays a huge scale model of 8th century Xi'an (then known as Chang'an), when it was the greatest city in the world. Nearby, next to a display case containing the figures of 12 plump Tang dynasty ladies, a little girl in pink silk robes theatrically recites historical details.
“In the Tang dynasty we were the most advanced and populous country in the world," the girl says with the poise of a beauty pageant host. “Many foreigners came to trade and learn from us." She is wearing a sash that says, “Little Explainer."
From here, I pass through a small park to the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, a 13-story tower of tawny brick with a viewing station at the top. Up here, the contrasts of Xi'an are on vivid display: the candy-cane smokestack, the huge 14th-century Drum and Bell towers in the distance. Below, a vendor sells red slips of paper for visitors to write their wishes on. Hundreds hang from a branch. Mine says: biang biang.
My wish is fulfilled just inside the city walls, near the South Gate, down a winding street of bars. I step into a clean, bustling shop called Lao Wan, or Old Bowl, and tuck into a huge portion of noodles the width of a belt, garnished with green onion, white garlic, bok choy, and ample quantities of that most challenging of the Eight Strangenesses: chili.
To work off a few noodles, I ascend the wall near South Gate. Visitors can rent bikes to wheel around the top of the 14th-century structure; one of the largest and most complete city walls left in China, it runs for eight miles, stands almost 40 feet high, and is wide enough for two trucks to drive side by side. A few minutes in, I stop to watch a group of young men wearing flat caps and girls in denim overalls, all standing completely still. A moment later, in silence, the group breaks into a hip-hop dance routine. As a cameraman walks around filming them, a female bystander remarks to no one in particular, “It's weird without the music."
I make my way back to the Sofitel and, after a large Scotch at the lobby bar, head for dinner at the hotel's Dolce Vita Italian restaurant. I opt for the sea-themed menu: a whirlwind of pan-seared octopus over fluffy potatoes and lasagnette ai frutti di mare, followed by a tiny jar of exquisite tiramisu. Up in my room, I gaze at the bamboo-and-ox-hair brushes hanging over the desk, trying to picture the 57 strokes of biang biang. I don't get beyond the knife and the moon before I am asleep.
"Shanghai is a young city compared to us—Beijing too. Xi'an was the New York of the ancient world. Over a million population in the 8th century."
In which Ben tries (and fails) to decipher the species of a peddler's statuette, navigates the Muslim Quarter, and attends an arm-wrestling contest
No matter where you are, there are few better ways to start the day than immersed in a deep tub pungent with Hermès bath salts. I follow my dip with an equally restorative order of dragon fruit with toast in the hotel café, fortifying myself for a shopping spree at the antique market of the Temple of the Eight Immortals, the biggest Taoist temple in Xi'an, located east of the city walls.
Outside the temple, peddlers display an array of baseball caps, incense burners, screwdrivers, and sweet potatoes. I inspect a decorative clay object and am practically charged by a wrinkled old man, who claims it is from the Yuan dynasty of AD 1271. I nod and move on. I ask another vendor the price of two iron tiger statuettes, and she corrects me: “They're unicorns." Nearby, a young woman is involved in a heated conversation with a pipe-smoking man in a military coat.
“Are these yours?" she asks, holding up several “Certificates of Merit" given to comrades for good work.
“How can you sell them?"
“They're no use to me. He's not around anymore."
“You shouldn't sell them."
“Eh, all right."
Inside the Eight Immortals, where Empress Cixi fled in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, worshipers put bundles of incense into iron urns and bow three times. I follow them into a hall where a Taoist priest with a mustache and a black hat listens to a loud audiobook while visitors kneel upon pillows. Nobody else seems bothered, and I wonder if this isn't some kind of test. Isn't Taoism all about accepting contradictions? I leave the temple, passing a food cart selling five spice dog meat. A few feet away, a Chihuahua in a pink vest snoozes on a blanket.
“That's Haohao," his owner says.
I bend to greet Haohao and he bares his teeth, growling until I back away from the pile of onions he seems to believe belong to him.
My next stop is in the South Gate area, at the Forest of Steles, a repository of stone tablets founded in 1087. Housed in the city's Confucian Temple, it contains 3,000 steles that are considered masterpieces of the calligrapher's art—the characters delicately chiseled into the stone—including several complete books written by emperors. By the entrance, four elderly masters demonstrate calligraphy for small crowds of mostly older men. One man yanks a small boy away after he repeatedly bumps a master's elbow with a toy truck. “I'm helping!" the boy cries.“Foreign goods and ideas traveled along the Silk Road, bringing fruitful infusions of the outside world."
You don't have to know the language to appreciate the wildly diverse styles on show at the museum: some swooping, others dashing, or, in the case of one master called Crazy Zhang, erupting in wild, drunken arcs. In one gallery, I find the Nestorian tablet of 781, a record of Christian pilgrims' first encounters with China. It's a testimony to Xi'an's cosmopolitan past, when foreign goods and ideas traveled along the Silk Road, bringing fruitful infusions of the outside world into Chinese culture and cuisine.
Appropriately, I'm about to visit a real hotbed of cultural fusion: the Muslim Quarter, a sprawling area within the city walls. I've arranged to meet two longtime expat residents: Matt Allen, a San Franciscan entrepreneur married to a local woman, and his friend Marcello, an Italian-Venezuelan guitarist. Matt gives me a bro-bump, then plunges into the crowd.
“Something that doesn't get nearly enough attention is how long Muslims have been a part of Chinese culture," says Matt. “This is a scene that's been humming along 24 hours a day for centuries, and it's gorgeous and humming all day long."
I struggle to keep up as Matt and Marcello dodge vendors selling peanut brittle, walnuts, dates, and deep-fried persimmon cakes. Plumes of smoke swirl around hickory lamb skewers. Matt appears from the crowd to hand me a cup of pomegranate juice. They're in season, so the price is good. “My Muslim friends, they all know the price of, like, six commodities at once," he says over his shoulder. “It's all still Silk Road trader stuff."
Stone tablets at the Forest of Steles.
It's a dizzying scene. Bikes honk. People shout. The three of us surface at a popular shop called Old Sun's Family Beef Lamb Porridge, which serves a dish known as yang rou pao mo. We sit and tear discs of soft, dense bread into tiny pieces to fill a bowl, which will then be ladled with hot, savory lamb or beef stew. Matt points at my crudely torn bits and turns to Marcello. “Man, he is going to have some terrible soup."
Finally, I get it right. The cook, wearing a square white hat, swirls steaming broth into my bowl, adding bok choy and chilies as he goes. As we eat, I ask Matt what makes Xi'an so special. “I love how smart everyone is here without any education," he responds. “All the men can fix everything, and the women can all make 100 soups. The whole country is jerry-rigged, and I feel like this is where that started."
We end the afternoon jostling along alleyways toward the Great Mosque, one of the largest and oldest in China. While the buildings have the graceful eaves of Chinese temples, the vertical inscriptions along the doorframes are written in Arabic script. As we stroll through the mosque gardens, my companions talk hip-hop. A few years earlier, Matt tells me, he and a friend achieved some notoriety with a video of them rapping, in Chinese and English, a piece titled “We Livin' in Xi'an."
After a spritz and snooze at the hotel, I head for the contemporary Spanish eatery DUO, opposite Nanhu Lake. While I chow down on suckling pig croquettes, Galician octopus, and vacuum-cooked codfish, the city's only flamenco band—composed of two locals and a Scotsman—accompany a stomping Chinese woman in a red dress.
My phone buzzes. It's Matt, telling me there's an arm-wrestling competition taking place in a pirate-themed barbecue restaurant across town. I leap into a cab and head over. A smoky room of long tables is filled with beer steins, burly men in Speedos, and girls in red bunny outfits. How they kept the Strangenesses here down to eight, I'll never know.
In which Ben tries a “Chinese hamburger," marvels at the magnificent Terracotta Warriors, and samples a local take on “American" craft beer
I awake in a sleek crimson room at the Gran Melia, a chic Sino-Iberian hotel in Qu Jiang New District, a booming zone of parks and malls. I sit at a booth at the hotel's Red Level lounge, nibbling on a savory rou jia mo, a local pork sandwich sometimes called a “Chinese hamburger." In the perfumed lobby, a concierge calls me a car. Minutes later, a red-gloved attendant opens the door, and we are off to Xi'an's premier attraction: the Terracotta Army, located 45 minutes east of the city.
After living several years in China, I have learned to be wary of certain “marquee" tourist sites. Sure enough, the park that surrounds the warriors is jammed with souvenir stalls and selfie sticks. But then, as I step into the hangar-size hall where thousands of terracotta warriors stand uncovered or lie buried in soil, I am overcome.
Dating back to the third century BC, the site consists of three pits containing as many as 8,000 clay soldiers, along with hundreds of statues of horses, scholars, and officials. These are the guardians of the tomb built by (and for) Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler to unify what we now recognize as China, in 221 BC. He created the title of emperor, built the first Great Wall, created national roads, and ordered the construction of a vast city of the dead.
Each warrior has slightly different eyebrows, cheekbones, and proportions. It wasn't until 1974, when farmers went to dig a well on this land, that anyone even knew these marvels were here. Six thousand soldiers still lie buried. What else lies beneath the surface of this city?
Leaving the pits, I pass a girl with dyed red hair pretending to play mandolin as friends take her picture. A stylish woman pauses to spit in a trash can. I am firmly back in the present.
Xi'an's premier attraction, the Terracotta Army
The lunch options are iffy among the trinket stalls surrounding the site, so I opt for a noodle stand in the lot where cabbies wait for their fares. A man under a sign that says “Farm Family Little Eats" pulls bands of dough into thin noodles. He smiles when I pull up a stool and order a bowl. It's savory, fortifying, and cheap.
A cab takes me down the road to Emperor Qin Shi Huang's tomb, which looks like a large, pleasant park, because Chinese archaeologists have been waiting for technology to develop that will allow access to the tomb without damaging its contents. According to legend, the emperor rests amid rivers of mercury. (Probes have confirmed that mercury levels are 100 times the norm.) Above ground, people do normal park things: stroll, snooze, eat. It's a strange place.
For dinner, I am meeting a guide from Lost Plate, which organizes food tours to tiny shops around the city. The founder, Ruixi Hu, is a transplant from western China. “There are so many travelers in Xi'an who come, and all they do is see the warriors and go back to their hotel," she says. “They don't get to experience all the awesome food, which is the best part of the city. So we take people off the beaten path, where locals eat."“I have learned to be wary of 'marquee' tourist sites. But as I step into the hangar-size hall where thousands of terracotta warriors stand or lie buried in soil, I am overcome."
Upon her arrival in Xi'an a little over a year ago, Ruixi bought a map and began exploring, scoring every restaurant she visited on a 10-point scale, compiling a list of ultra-local restaurants worth visiting. “I think I ate at least 50 types of noodle in Xi'an," she says. “I gained 10 pounds, for sure."
She sets me up on a tour with one of her guides, a young university student named Lu, who immediately asks if I want a beer from the cooler. I like this guy already. As we putter off to our first stop in a tuk-tuk, I tell him about my visit to the tombs. “The first time I stood in front of the warriors I, like, felt something," he says. Lu's English is excellent, and conspicuously Americanized. “Oh, I watch a lot of American shows," he explains.
The tuk-tuk winds through the alleyways on the fringes of the Muslim Quarter. Our first stop is a shop where gruff, stocky brothers roll out disks of dough and fling them on top of a tall stove. These honey-coated loaves are then stuffed with radish, carrot, egg, cabbage, pickles, and something called “tofu flower," which is fished from a dark red broth that Lu tells me is “28 years old."
“The fire has been going for 28 years. They never let it go out."
He shrugs. “They say the flavor is better."
A band plays at the "American-style" Xi'an Brewery.
The rest of the evening is a blur of tuk-tuk rides, on-the-go beers, and delicacies from unassuming shops: lamb skewers garnished in cumin and chili; soup dumplings and sweet “eight treasure" porridge with osmanthus, hawthorn, jujube, and lotus seeds; and a finale of spinach noodles served with Ice Peak orange soda (“the Xi'an Fanta," Lu says).
Our last stop is Xi'an Brewery, a brewpub by the South Gate of the city. The place is supposed to be American-style, but the customers are mostly local, the decor is Shaanxi-themed (masks and redheaded cranes), and games of dice are going at every table. A Chinese house band plays pop standards.
A kid at the bar has, for some reason, dyed his hair gray. Owner and brewer Jon Therrian, who hails from Ohio, takes me upstairs to a karaoke room where people are playing cards. I shake the hand of his co-owner, a Xi'an native named Lei.
“My parents' generation all drank baijiu,"
Lei says, referring to a hard grain liquor that's popular in northern China. “But our generation, we all are ready for something new."
They serve up a sampling of their wheat beer, seasoned with coriander and orange peel, along with milk stouts and Kölsch, all unpasteurized and unfiltered. “We try to make it in style, but we also try to make it suit local tastes," Therrian says of his beer, which balances the stronger flavors of foreign beer and the Chinese preference for lower alcohol content. I meet the editor of the monthly English magazine of Xi'an and, suffused with beery warmth, ask him what brought him to the city.
“People say, 'I came for the culture,' or 'I heard the food was amazing'," he says. “I even had a guy who said, 'I want to live in a city that starts with X.' But I had no good reason for coming, and it ended up being a good decision. It sounds lame, but Xi'an has a sense of realness—real China—that people always talk about. It's charming and in your face. We're a lot more down and dirty, and that's cool."
Cheers to that, I say, taking another swallow of stout tailored to suit the traditional tastes of the local population, which seems a fitting way to end the day.
Beijing-based writer Ben Carlson has devised a 78-stroke character to describe the feeling of having a piece of biang biang stuck in one's tooth.
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Best aviation-inspired museums to visit
With National Aviation Day right around the corner (August 19), a great way to celebrate is by visiting an aviation-themed museum. Many of the museums have hands-on, interactive exhibits —and some even have retired airplanes you can visit. Below are seven museums to visit this Aviation Day and beyond.
The Museum of Flight in Seattle bills itself as the largest independent, nonprofit air and space museum in the world. The museum's 20 acres is home to more than 160 significant aircraft and spacecraft, including the world's first fighter plane, the first jet Air Force One and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It's also one of a handful of museums in the world that has a Concorde supersonic jet on display —located in its British Airways livery. The campus also includes the original Boeing factory, the NASA Space Shuttle Trainer and the only exhibit to house the original rocket engines used to launch Apollo astronauts to the moon. Additional activities include flight simulators that make you feel as if you're flying an airplane, a 3D movie theater and an aircraft exhibit that includes the world's only presentation of the first Boeing 727, 737 and 747 jets.
The Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson boasts 2,600 acres and is one of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world. It features more than 350 historical aircraft, from a Wright Flyer to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Visitors can take an hour-long tram tour narrated by experienced docents who share stories about the planes' significance and personal stories of service. There are bus tours of its aircraft boneyard, home to more than 4,000 military and federal government aircraft. If decide you want to participate in the tour while visiting the museum, it's recommended that you make a reservation 10 business days ahead of time.
Each year, Oshkosh attracts nearly 500,000 spectators to what is considered the largest airshow in the world — EAA AirVenture. But if you can't make this annual event in July, you can still visit the EAA AirVenture Museum year-round. While there, check out the museum's display of more than 200 historic aircraft — aircraft like the 1918 Curtiss JN-4D 'Jenny', a 1945 Chance-Vought F4U-4 Corsair and a 1930 Cessna CG-2 Glider. For attractions, visit the Eagle Hangar, a tribute to World War II aviation. And lastly, make sure to take a ride in a vintage 1929 Travel Air E-4000 open-cockpit biplane located at Pioneer Airport.
Palm Springs, California
Named by CNN as one of the best aviation museums, the Palm Springs Air Museum is one of the few that actually allow visitors to go inside aircraft to explore the exhibits. It features 59 aircraft from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Aircraft include a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, an F-14A Tomcat and even a Russian MiG-21+. Take a ride in aircraft like the P-51 Mustang, the iconic plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II. The museum is also home to permanent and temporary exhibits, artifacts, artwork and a library.
The National Smithsonian Air & Space Museum has two outposts — the original building in downtown D.C. and the more than 100-acre Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center facility near Washington Dulles International Airport. The downtown location has aircraft like the Bell X-1 flown by Chuck Yeager when he first broke the sound barrier, an Airbus A320 flight deck simulator and the forward fuselage of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, along with the popular “How Things Fly" exhibit.
The Udvar-Hazy center has thousands of aviation and space artifacts on display, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, an Air France Concorde, the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Boeing 367-80 — the prototype for the Boeing 707 and America's first commercial jet airliner. There's also the Airbus IMAX® Theater and the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, which gives you a 360-degree bird's-eye view of Washington Dulles International Airport and the surrounding area.
The Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum is located on a portion of land that used to be Lowry Air Force Base, a technical training center until it closed in 1994. The museum is home to aircraft including a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a Cessna O-2 Skymaster and even a Star Wars X-Wing Starfighter. The brand-new Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery at Centennial Airport is phase one of the museum's second location that will focus on the present and future of aerospace. It offers interactive exhibits, the latest in general aviation technology and the chance to fly realistic Red Bird simulators as well as tours of the airfield.
New York, New York
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum complex in New York is located on a World War II aircraft carrier. Among its many exhibits are Enterprise, the prototype of NASA's Space Shuttle and a Harrier fighter jet. It also includes the British Airways Concorde that made the world's speed record for passenger airliners in 1996 when it flew from New York to London in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. Before leaving, make sure to check out the 4D aircraft simulator, something you won't want to miss.
United flies to most of the destinations above, including Denver, New York, Palm Springs, Seattle, Tucson and Washington, D.C. You can fly into neighboring Appleton, Wisconsin, to visit Oshkosh. Visit united.com or use the United app to plan your aviation-themed museum trip.
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Our shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world — and no organization better embodies that principle than Special Olympics.Learn more
Weekend inspiration: Savannah
The key to visiting Savannah in the summer? Planning outdoor and indoor activities, so you can enjoy all of the treasures this charming Southern city has to offer. If you only have a few days to spend here, it is even more important to plan your time and itinerary carefully. Luckily, we've gathered the best of the best to visit in historic Savannah with carefully planned air-conditioned stops along the way. Put on your walking shoes, grab some sunscreen and get ready to explore.
Before your trip, make sure to make reservations for dinner at The Olde Pink House restaurant in advance. Adjacent to the Planters Inn, this popular spot has been serving Southern food at it's finest at one of Savannah's oldest mansions. While there, make sure you order the fried chicken — voted one of the best in Savannah and it does not disappoint. The braised pork shank is also a must-try. From there walk over to Leopold's Ice Cream. Choose a fancy pre-made ice cream or create your own treat. A Savannah tradition, this shop has been serving the best ice cream in Savannah since 1919.
Abe's on Lincoln | Photo credit: Kelsey + Courtney Montague
If you're looking for a dive bar instead of ice cream, drop in to Abe's on Lincoln. Create your own artistic rendition of Abraham Lincoln on your napkin, and your creation might end up on the ceiling where other patrons' artwork is displayed.
The next morning get started before the crowds and visit the Waving Girl Statue. This statue commemorates Florence Martus who (from 1887-1931) became the unofficial 'greeter' of Savannah and waved at every ship that came into port. From there head down River Street to Huey's on the river for beignets and their potato casserole. Don't worry about the calories, you will walk them off.
The potato salad at Hueys on the river
Photo credit: Kelsey + Courtney Montague
The Georgia Queen on River Street
Photo credit: Kelsey + Courtney Montague
After Huey's, stop by the Savannah Bee Company and sign up for a mead tasting. For just a few dollars you will get to taste all sorts of variations and flavors from all over the country. Interestingly mead, created from fermenting honey, is one of the oldest alcohols in human history. Evidence of mead in clay pots dates back to 7000 BC. After you've had a few sips of mead and tasted the honeycomb, head out for a bit of shopping. We recommend Broughton Street, especially 24e and the Paris Market.
The Artillery restaurant | Photo credit: Kelsey + Courtney Montague
Stop by Juliet Gordon Lowe's birthplace (Girl Scout's founder) to see when the next tour is and make a reservation. Go to Husk for lunch while you wait. Husk, founded by James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock, uses local ingredients in his ever-changing, scrumptious menu. After your tour of Ms. Lowe's home, put on your finest and head over to Artillery for a fancy cocktail and then on to The Collins Quarter Restaurant.
Collins Quarter restaurant | Photo credit: Kelsey + Courtney Montague
The Collins Quarter restaurant is an Australian take on Southern food and is exquisite. Get the hot chicken — it's delicious. Wander over to Chippewa Square after dinner where the movie Forrest Gump was filmed. The exact bench he sat on for the movie is no longer there, but everything else in the park is the same. Nearby on Bull street is another boutique, Red Clover, you should stop at if you're in the market for a gorgeous new frock. End the evening with dessert at Chocolate by Adam Turoni. Adam's shop feels like you stepped into wonderland, complete with a grass floor and bookshelves full of delicious treats.
All that's left is to head home full of southern food and southern hospitality.
P.S. If you have a few extra hours rent a car and go see the Wormsloe Plantation. The entrance will take your breath away. Also check out the Bonaventure Cemetery where poets, revolutionaries and the founders of Savannah have ornate gravestones in a picturesque, photo-worthy setting.
How to prepare for your child's first flight
Traveling can be stressful at times, even when you're flying solo. But imagine what a child must feel, especially as they prepare to take their first flight. The key to any successful first flight is to take a cue from the Girl Scouts motto: be prepared. I'm a mother who started traveling the world with her child since she was 10 days old. So if you're planning your child's first flight soon, read on for my helpful tips to make your child's first flight a success.
Before the flight
Make sure to choose your seats as soon as you book your flight. Since restrooms are usually located at the back of the plane — and also near the front of the cabin, depending on the aircraft — you may want to choose seats near those areas so you won't have to go far if you and your child need the restroom or you need to change your baby's diaper. Additionally, children oftentimes enjoy looking out the window during a flight, so you may want to opt for a window seat so they can see other planes, a busy tarmac or clouds once you're up in the air.
Most airlines, including United, allow a child under the age of two to sit on a parent's lap. But if it fits within your budget, you could consider buying them their own seat and, depending on the child's age, bringing a government-approved child seat for them to use in the purchased seat. This allows you and your child to travel more safely and comfortably, and can help create a better sense of security for your child if they're used to the child seat you bring along.
Make sure to prepare your kids prior to the flight. Although airplanes can be exciting, they can also be scary for kids at first. Take time to explain what to expect during your journey, from the time they arrive at the airport until the plane lands at your destination. You can tell them about the kinds of people they will meet, such as gate agents, flight attendants and pilots, and the different events that occur, like boarding, the flight attendants' safety message and the sound of the aircraft engine during takeoff. This way they can enjoy identifying the people and events that make up their first flight.
At the airport
To avoid any unnecessary stress, print your boarding passes or download them to your mobile device before arriving at the airport. Also plan to check your baggage as soon as you get to the airport so you don't have to worry about carrying along extra gear.
You can check with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) if you're unsure about what's allowed past security checkpoints, but baby formula, breast milk, food and medications aren't subject to the 3.4 ounce liquid restriction, so you're able to bring larger amounts of those items with you. Just make sure to let TSA officers know right away that you're carrying those items so you're not slowed down during the screening process.
After you've made it through security and are waiting at the gate, make sure your children have entertainment to keep them occupied while you wait. While most flights offer entertainment, there may be times when the inflight entertainment is not available, so bring toys, games, a tablet, coloring books or whatever it takes to keep them occupied and happy during a flight. If you're traveling with babies or toddlers, be sure to double check your diaper bag and make sure it has clothing, baby wipes, lotion, toys and extra bottles. Also, pack a favorite blanket and pillow for inflight naps.
You'll also want to carry various snacks, such as sandwiches, fruit, nuts, crackers or popcorn, and account for possible delays because food options may be limited. It's also a good idea to pack empty sippy cups or water bottles to fill up with inflight beverages.
On board the flight
When it's time to board your flight, you can take advantage of United's policy that allows families with children two and younger to pre-board. This will give you that much-needed time to stow your items and get you and your children in your seats so you're comfortable and ready for your flight.
By request, strollers can be checked at the gate at no additional cost. Before boarding starts, simply ask the gate agent to put a baggage tag on the stroller and you can leave it at the bottom of the jet bridge as you board the plane. When you get to your destination, your stroller will be waiting for you on the jet bridge after you exit the plane.
Once you're on board and settled, it helps to have a bottle on hand during takeoff and landing because it can help alleviate ear pressure for babies and toddlers. For older children, tell them what's about to happen and encourage them to look out the window to see what's going on before take-off. While in the air, create easy access to all the things you need to keep your children entertained and happy, and before you know it, you'll be on the ground again in no time. With just a little preparation, flying for the first time can be an exciting experience for both you and your child.
United heroes: Saving the life of a newborn
Pediatrician Elizabeth Triche was so touched by how our employees went above and beyond to transport her critical ill newborn patient from Saipan to Guam then Honolulu to San Francisco and from there to their final destination of San Diego, that on July 27, she wrote the heartfelt note below to CEO Oscar Munoz and President Scott Kirby.
"Mr. Munoz and Mr. Kirby,
I am writing to give you my greatest gratitude for running a company that just did everything possible, every step of the way, to allow us to get our critically ill newborn with a fatal heart defect to life-saving emergency specialty care in San Diego.
Geoff Larson [Customer Service De-escalation Senior Manager] had given me his cellphone number one month ago and said to call if we ever needed any help getting patients to critical care. When I did call 3 days ago, he burst into action. We exchanged at least 10 emails and phone calls over the next 36 hours as he opened seats on fully booked flights, got us cleared to use oxygen (a process that usually delays our exit by 48-72 hours), and called on colleagues to make sure that all of our "special handling needs" in the airports were met. He emailed me as our first (of 4) flights arrived, letting me know that he was available to help with any glitches.
In Honolulu they held everyone on the plane so that we could get TSA and customs clearance first, gate side, avoiding our having to carry a sick baby in a car seat through an entire airport to customs. Helpers met us at each destination as gate agents from our departing cities warned the gate agents at our next arrival destination that we would need a wheelchair and help with bags.
Finally, as we were 30 minutes from our final destination, the pilot of United Flight 284 on 7/26/2018 from SFO to SAN called me up to the front of the plane to chat, as [there was] fog in San Diego. He wanted to know if the baby would be adversely affected if he [diverted] the flight to LA to refuel. We truly appreciated his taking our patient into account.
Ultimately, we arrived in San Diego without any major mishaps, and our newborn is currently undergoing definitive treatment for his condition.
Mr. Larson and his colleagues at United helped to save a life yesterday, as this baby may not have survived to make the flights had we had to wait for an open seat. Now that he has gotten to care, he will likely have a great chance at a normal life.
I just wanted everyone know that there are truly compassionate, dedicated people working for your organization."
We fly Australian firefighters to wildfires
As parts of Oregon and California continue to battle blazing wildfires that have already consumed thousands of acres of land, we stepped up to help and flew a group of Australian firefighters to Boise, Idaho, over the weekend.
We created an extra section to fly a group of firefighters from all over Australia to Los Angeles International Airport, where they departed on a flight to Boise, Idaho on August 4.
Australia/New Zealand Contingent Field Liaison Officer Barry James explained that firefighters were selected to come help based on their qualifications, and they're all proud to support their fellow firefighters in the United States.
"We're flying to Boise for a couple of days of training and then we'll be splitting up. Some of us are going to Northern California and the rest are going to Oregon for a six-week deployment," explained Officer James, who flew United for the first time, but said it won't be his last. "It was an awesome, awesome experience; it was really hospitable," he added.
Our Los Angeles based employees and crews made sure the firefighters felt their appreciation by giving them a special welcoming message in the gate area, where they thanked them for their hard work.
"It was such an incredible honor for us at LAX to meet and fly these men and women, who are sacrificing their time and putting their lives on the line to help us battle the wildfire devastation in this part of the country," said LAX Station Operations Control Manager Maggie Ronan. "The crew in general was just outstanding. They were all so honored to fly this group and felt it was amazing that United built the extra section for their journey. There was a very special energy felt on the flight as we closed up to send them off to BOI."
We're teaming up with leading disaster relief organizations to provide aid to those impacted by the California wildfires. We will match up to $50,000 in total donations made to our charitable partners, Airlink, American Red Cross, Americares, North Coast Opportunities and Shasta Regional Community Foundation. For more information and to make a donation California Wildfire relief efforts, visit our CrowdRise fundraising campaign.
Lots of sweat, lots of on-time departures: Summer on the ramp
It's 10:30 in the morning and the temperature gauge already reads 89 degrees. The Texan summer sun beams down from above. Heat waves emanate from the ground. Sweat glistens atop Ron Davis's shiny, bald head.
This isn't bad at all, Davis says. "I played high school football. Two-a-day practices? Those were hot. Some of the really hot days out here? Those feel more like three-a-day practices. We got it easy today."
A few gates down, employees revel in the "relief" that this weather feels like compared to the prior week.
"This is nothing," quips Tom Saavedra.
"A few clouds up there and a bit of a breeze – it's our lucky day," Leroy Taylor chimes in, a wide smile on his face.
Air temperature nearing 90 degrees. Tarmac temperature eclipsing 100 degrees most everywhere you step. 10:30 in the morning. And this is "easy". Welcome to life as a United ramp service employee at Houston's George Bush International Airport (IAH) in the summer.
United isoperating more than 500 flights out of Houston each day this summer, and thanks in part to the hard work of our ramp service employees, more flights have left Houston on time this summer than any prior summer.
How? Hydration and nutrition have played huge roles.
Posters with hydration reminders adorn the walls of ramp break rooms and hallways. It's the first topic of every meeting. Regular reminders are sent out over the group's radio system.
Employees have a flight schedule to keep, but as leaders, we have to provide them with the tools to do their job, says Gary Snead, a United supervisor based at IAH. "That includes keeping them fit to work in the summer heat."
And provide they do. Here are the resources deployed in an average summer month on the ramp in Houston:
- Over 10,000 bags of ice, totaling more than 100,000 pounds of ice.
- 313, 5-gallon water coolers refilled at least four times per day.
- An athletic trainer on site.
- One day a month, the IAH ramp holds a fruit & hydration day, where supervisors distribute over 1,000 pieces of fruit to our sun-soaked employees.
- 1,000+ cooling towels distributed.
- 10 misting tents
The increased focus on hydration has helped increase productivity, and it's also resulted in a record-low number of heat-related illnesses among employees.
You take care of the employees, Snead says, "and the employees will take care of your operation."
That's proved true around the world, as we have flown more customers this summer than ever before, all while topping our competition in on-time departures in recent months. Our 13,000+ ramp service employees have played a huge role in that.
Summer heat? It's been beat.
Top 7 things to experience when visiting Las Vegas
When picturing Las Vegas, you probably see shimmering lights, felt-covered poker tables and the ecstatic sound of slot machines. But the truth is that the city offers visitors far more to experience than just gambling and excess. Located on the edge of the vast Mojave Desert, this uniquely American destination is constantly reinventing itself with every passing day, which makes it an ideal vacation spot for virtually every type of traveler. To help you get the most from your next trip to Vegas, here are seven attractions in and around the city that you won't want to miss.
The Neon Museum
Since 1996, this magical outdoor art gallery has collected hundreds of old and discarded neon signs from the Las Vegas strip and displayed them for visitors on a 2-acre plot of land. With so much colorful history available to see, it's no wonder that the Neon Museum is one of the city's top Instagram spots. Though new signs are constantly being acquired and refurbished, many date back to the glory days of the 1950s, when Vegas icons like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. were the entertainment headlines at the casinos.
Red Rock Canyon
This stunning nature preserve is just a 15-mile drive west of Las Vegas, and is the perfect place to experience all the scenic beauty that Nevada has to offer. Red Rock Canyon features 26 clearly marked hiking trails, indoor and outdoor conservation exhibits and a plethora of majestic wildlife and desert flora to view. There's even a picturesque waterfall, so bring your camera along with your sunscreen and bottled water. A variety of educational programs are held each month, including a popular “Bats in Our Belfry" presentation in which rangers take visitors on a bat sightseeing tour of the canyon.
The Mob Museum
Because the birth of Las Vegas is intricately connected with organized crime, this fascinating museum is a must-visit for anyone who wants to understand how a dry Nevada desert became a worldwide symbol of glitz and glamour. Filled with amazing artifacts, vintage photos and life-size recreations of some of the city's most infamous residents, the Mob Museum focuses on both the gangsters who built Las Vegas and the law enforcement heroes who pursued them. A rotating collection of exhibits brings the town's colorful history to life in a way that no movie or book could ever hope to duplicate.
The Hoover Dam
A monument to man's industrial spirit and a marvel of American engineering, the spectacular Hoover Dam is located less than an hour's drive from Las Vegas — and it's truly an unforgettable sight to behold. Tours of the 726-foot-tall dam are highly encouraged and will fascinate young and old alike. While you're in the area, why not spend some time cruising the beautiful waters of nearby Lake Mead, which was created by the dam itself. Boat tours are available all week long from several locations around the lake, so advanced reservations are not needed.
Dig This Last Vegas
Are you visiting Las Vegas with children? If so, then this one-of-a-kind experience should definitely be on your travel itinerary. Dig This Last Vegas lets you and your kids drive and safely operate heavy duty construction equipment like bulldozers and excavators on a massive outdoor playground in the heart of the city. Anyone who grew up with toy tractors and plastic earth-moving machines can now climb behind the wheel and try them for real. With the help of trained instructors, kids as young as 8 years old can make their dreams of operating a genuine Caterpillar D5 bulldozer come true at this hands-on attraction site.
Spring Mountain Ranch
This Nevada state park is a relatively short drive from downtown Las Vegas and will instantly transport you back to the region's historic past. The perfectly preserved old west-style ranch is an excellent place for an afternoon picnic when you need a break from the hustle and bustle of the casinos. Thanks to the lush green surroundings and man-made lake, the temperature at Spring Mountain is noticeably cooler than you might expect of the hot Nevada climate. Explore further as gentle hiking trails allow you to stretch your legs in comfort while you navigate some of the loveliest scenery in the entire state.
Lotus of Siam
Widely considered to be one of the best Thai restaurants in the United States, Lotus of Siam earned its prestigious James Beard Award the hard way; by serving incredibly delicious Northern Thai dishes every day for the past 19 years. Owner and head chef Saipin Chutima recently opened a second location in Las Vegas, which means you'll have no trouble making reservations while you're in town. Considering that top foodie magazines like Gourmet, Saveur and Bon Appétit have praised this restaurant's incredible dishes for almost two decades, you'd be wise to book a table in advance. Try their crispy rice salad with house-made pork sausage for a flavor that will make your taste buds sing.
When you're ready to experience the fun and excitement of Las Vegas, book your flight at united.com or by using the convenient United app, and share your story on social media with the #UnitedJourney hashtag.
The 8 most underrated American road trips
You've gotten your kicks on Route 66. You've wound through Highway 1. So how do you take another quintessential American summer vacation without repeating yourself? Good thing this country is not lacking in incredible vistas and varied landscapes—trust us: there is so much more than purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain (although, those aren't so bad themselves). From badlands to waterfalls, here are eight American road trips to consider.
Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway, Colorado
This western road trip through and around the Rocky Mountains has three separate routes that converge in Leadville, Colorado (the highest incorporated town in the country at 10,152 feet above sea level). There's no rule against traversing all three, especially since each is pretty short (82 miles total). First, take in the five enormous mountains surrounding Leadville, two of which are the tallest in the state. Head up through Tennessee Pass and cross the Continental Divide to reach the majestic town of Minturn for incredible fields of wildflowers. The route through Independence Pass toward Aspen has unbelievable views of the Rockies and Twin Lakes. Driving along the Arkansas River through Fremont Pass to Copper Mountain is ideal for spotting ranches, old mines and—fingers crossed—some Colorado wildlife.
Overseas Highway, Florida
You do not need a boat to enjoy the Florida Keys, and we can prove it. The Overseas Highway is one of the most unique roads in the country, as it basically island hops along Florida's hottest vacay spots like Islamorada (home of the Florida Brewing Company) and Marathon (home of Long Key State Park). The Seven-Mile Bridge is a highlight nestled into the 113-mile trip, so make sure to cross during the day for sprawling views of turquoise water and boaters galore. Other fun pit stops: Swim with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, snorkel with sea critters at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and pose for a selfie at Southernmost Point Buoy, the farthest south you can get on the continental U.S.
Jason W Lacey/Getty Images
Columbia River Highway, Oregon
This stretch of highway was the first of its kind to be officially declared a National Historic Landmark, and it's easy to see why. Set out from Troutdale, Oregon, and immediately you'll see the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge. Get ready for a roller-coaster decent as you roll into Crown Point—the 600-foot drop toward the Columbia River is designed specifically for road trippers as it curves and winds through lush green forests. There are at least six notable waterfalls you'll pass along the way; step out at Multnomah Falls for a pic of its stunning bridge. Once you hit the town of Mosier, consider trekking through a tunnel of lava rock on the Mark O. Hatfield Trailhead. The road officially ends after roughly 70 miles at The Dalles, conveniently close to the Sunshine Mill Winery. Treat yourself to a glass of the wildly popular Nirvana, a white blend with touches of honey and melon.
Bobbushphoto /Getty Images
Hana Coast Highway, Hawaii
While Hawaii's island of Maui is a hot destination for tropical romance, the Hana Coast Highway is not for the faint of heart. The road is affectionately called the “Divorce Highway" in honor of its precarious turns and proximity to the edges of tall cliffs. That said, the frequent waterfalls, black sand beaches and eucalyptus trees along the country's lengthiest rainforest highway make the trip totally worth the adrenaline rush. Though it's only 52 miles, the 25-miles-per-hour speed limit (with blind spots and one-lane bridges galore; this is a very good thing) makes it a two- to three-hour trip. But we have a feeling you'll happily take your time—the views from Kahului to Hana are beyond breathtaking.
Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, New Mexico
If you're in the mood for dry heat and history up close, the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway is calling. West of Albuquerque is Chaco Canyon, an important ceremonial site for the Pueblo peoples between 850 and 1250 A.D. After taking in the incredible expanse of the canyon, drive south through the towns of Crownpoint and Grants toward the El Morro National Monument. Ogle the 2,000 or so signatures weary travelers have carved into the sandstone over centuries. Continue east through the Zuni Reservation to Zuni Pueblo, an arts community still practicing ancestral traditions and ways of life. Cap off this winding 360-mile desert tour in Farmington, where you can see Aztec Ruins National Monument and Salmon Ruins, both of which date back to the 1050s.
The Black Hills and Badlands, South Dakota
Together, the Black Hills and Badlands National Park in South Dakota offer 5 million acres of grassland, forest and rock formations. Might we recommend not hitting it all in one day? Instead, start out on the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway near the town of Interior. Check out the millions-year-old (literally) jagged geographic deposits before heading north to Spearfish Canyon, home of sky-high pink limestone and gorgeous waterfalls. Meander down through Black Hills National Forest to check out Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and (drumroll, please) Mount Rushmore. Set aside a few days for the entire 232-mile journey because you'll probably find yourself either driving slowly to take it all in or stopping the car every few miles to hike or swim.
North Shore Scenic Drive, Minnesota
For a truly otherworldly experience, drive along the coast of the biggest freshwater lake in the world: Lake Superior. The northern Minnesota gem means ample opportunity to really get away from civilization. (Heading off the beaten path into the Boundary Waters just north of the coastline leaves you with no cell service, almost complete solitude and a chance to catch the northern lights!) Start your drive in Duluth and head north, scoping out the many lighthouses dotting the rocky coastline on your right and the distant Sawtooth Mountains on your left. Everywhere else is covered in pine and birch trees—and crawling with wildlife. Beaches pop up along the 142-mile ride, although Lake Superior is notoriously chilly, reaching 65 degrees Fahrenheit max during the hottest months of the year. But, in the height of summer, this might be exactly the cool-down you need.
Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway, Maine
For the ultimate, rugged New England road trip, you must drive the Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway. On the western side of the state, near New Hampshire, the lake is flanked by Rangeley Lake State Park and rolling hills of trees, flowers and wildlife. Start at Smalls Falls, and let the Appalachian Mountain ridgeline be your guide on this 36-mile tour. The route is straightforward but provides sights of everything from lakes and rivers to valleys and farmland. Swift River and Mooselookmeguntic Lake (who named this lake?) are outstanding photo ops. Summer is always a good time to visit when it comes to temps, but come autumn, the bright colors pop along this route, and might just be worth a second trip.
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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Five magnificent stops between Honolulu and Guam filled with spectacular scenery along the way, and then back again. Join Big Metal Bird host, Phil Torres, as he explores our unique Island Hopper route, and discovers what the route means to the people of Micronesia.
It was an unusual sight: a flame on a plane -- but that's exactly what passengers on a flight from Boston to Chicago witnessed as we transported the very special cargo on July 18. The flame was enclosed in a secure lantern and accompanied by a Special Olympic athlete and two Guardians of the Flame – members of a group of more than 100,000 law enforcement officers whose role is to protect and ensure the delivery of the Special Olympics Flame wherever it travels.
This wasn't just any flame, however; it was the Special Olympics' Flame of Hope, the flame which lit the Eternal Flame of Hope to kick off Special Olympics' 50th anniversary celebration Friday morning.
CEO Oscar Munoz, General Counsel and EVP Brett Hart; and Community Affairs VP Sharon Grant, along with many employees and customers, greeted the Flame upon arrival to O'Hare International Airport, where it was presented to local Guardians of the Flame.
We didn't just transport the Flame of Hope on board one of our flights, said Oscar. "That flight symbolized how we are taking the values of inclusion and respect, which that Flame represents, fully on board as a company."
From O'Hare, the Flame traveled to Soldier Field, the site of the very first International Special Olympics Summer Games 50 years ago, and where the Law Enforcement Torch Run® took place the morning of Friday, July 20. More than 100 employees participated in the event, a four-mile course along the lakefront in downtown Chicago, along with hundreds of law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes from throughout Illinois and the world.
I saw people from all over the world come together for a great cause, said Global Catering Operations Projects and Performance Manager Yana Strutz, who participated in the Torch Run, "It is wonderful to see my colleagues take time out of their busy schedules to ensure that Special Olympics athletes get the time and attention they deserve."
The run concluded with the lighting of the Eternal Flame of Hope monument, a flame that symbolizes the eternal hope that Special Olympics provides to athletes and their families. The flame will stay forever ignited inside the permanent, 30-foot monument outside of Soldier Field.
United will go beyond just flying the Flame of Hope on one flight, we will 'carry the torch' everywhere we fly and spread the light of this inclusion revolution. We intend to be ambassadors for this movement everywhere we operate, said Oscar.
Our partnership with Special Olympics represents our continuing effort to break down barriers and further build on Special Olympics' remarkable legacy of inclusion by engaging our employees around the world.
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.