Three Perfect Days: Seoul
hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Seoul

By The Hub team , November 08, 2016

Story by: Leslie Patrick Moore | Photography by: Marco Argüello | Hemispheres November 2016

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea has undertaken an unrelenting drive toward modernization, nowhere more so than in its capital. The fifth-largest metropolitan area on Earth, Seoul is buzzing with energy and ambition, epitomized as much by the near-universal wireless access as by the brand-new Lotte World Tower, the planet's fifth-tallest building. And yet, despite the frenetic pace of change, the city has not lost its sense of history, thanks to its many ancient temples, traditional houses, and tranquil palace gardens. Indeed, it's the ever-shifting swirl of the old and the new that makes Seoul such an intriguing, enchanting place to be.

Day 1 Graphic

In which Leslie fails chopsticks 101, joins the k-beauty craze, and loses a Korean drinking game

A cough jolts me awake. “Who's in my room?" I think. Then, “Why am I on the floor?" It takes a moment to remember I'm staying at Secret Retreats Rak Ko Jae, a boutique hotel set in a 130-year-old hanok, a traditional type of wooden house that's still common throughout Seoul. I shift on my floor mat, lifting my head from the seed-filled headrest I gamely chose over a fluffy pillow, and look out through the papery window shade. Outside, I see wooden decks, a tranquil courtyard dotted with pine trees and huge brown kimchi pots, and the source of the cough, a smiling woman who shuffles in with my breakfast of eggs and bacon.

After my meal, I take the short stroll to nearby Gyeongbokgung, the largest of Seoul's five palaces, arriving just in time to watch the changing of the royal guard. Brandishing pikes and colorful shields, the bearded guards march past the imposing stone gate, Bugaksan Mountain rising darkly in the distance. After the ceremony, I meet Young Sun Nam, a guide with the Korea Tourism Organization. Young Sun tells me that the palace was built in 1395 during the Joseon Dynasty but has since been destroyed several times by aggressors (more than once by the Japanese, who ended Korea's imperial period when they annexed the country in 1910). We walk through the outer courtyards and into the palace complex through a series of diminishing gates, each topped with a curving dancheong roof, elaborately painted in burnt reds and pale greens. At one gate, a weathered ticket collector mumbles something, then bursts out laughing. “He said we're looking really hot," Young Sun tells me afterward, “and this is only the second gate."

Royal guard at Gyeongbokgung PalaceThe royal guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace; opening spread: women in hanbok dresses at the palace

Indeed, it is uncommonly hot today, and I wonder why so many women are wearing hanboks, high-waisted, floor-dusting dresses that date back to the 14th century. But for the sneakers visible beneath the colorful skirts, I could have stepped back in time. A teenage girl tells me she's renting hers by the hour. “You must try," she says, perspiration sparkling on her forehead. “It's actually very comfortable in the hot weather." I smile and shake my head, fanning my face with the palace visitor's brochure.

Young Sun and I continue on, wandering through clusters of buildings bristling with dragons, pigs, and monkeys, supposedly Buddhist messengers sent to protect the royal family. Queen Inhyeon's quarters are tucked away in the back, the elegant painted doors of the inner chamber opening onto a tiered garden. “This is the crying garden," Young Sun says. “The queen cried because she wasn't allowed to be jealous, even though she had to raise the children of the concubines." I may cry too if I don't find an air conditioner soon.

After a quick spin through the National Folk Museum of Korea—a pagoda-topped structure on the palace grounds that houses thousands of cultural artifacts, ranging from shards of ancient pottery to photographs from the Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century—we catch a cab to Myeong-dong, Seoul's buzziest shopping district, for a more modern cultural experience. The shoppers here are packed in shoulder to shoulder, buying everything from foot-tall ice cream cones to Obama-themed socks, and it takes 15 minutes of squeezing and sliding to reach Myeong-dong Kyoja, a no-frills eatery known for its bibimkuksu, a traditional dish of noodles with sesame oil and spicy pepper paste. Sitting at a stark wooden table, I watch as diners move flailing noodles from bowl to lip with silvery flashes of chopsticks. My sticks are slippery with steam and oil, and when it becomes apparent I might starve, Young Sun conjures up a fork.

Daniel Gray, President, Delectable TravelsDaniel Gray, President, Delectable Travels

My next cross-cultural challenge is to decide which of Myeong-dong's many K-Beauty stores I'll be entrusting my skin to. I settle on Olive Young—the Sephora of South Korea, according to Young Sun—where a saleswoman inspects my face with an expression of pity. “N.M.F. Aquaring Ampoule Mask Rex," she says, bowing as she hands me a sheet mask. I have no idea what that means, but I pay up and slip the mask into my purse, hoping I'll remember to put it on before bed.

At nearby Anguk subway station, I meet Korean-American Daniel Gray, owner of food tour outfit Delectable Travels. We grab iced coffees at one of Seoul's omnipresent cafés, and Daniel provides a primer on the history of Korean cuisine. “Traditionally, average Koreans didn't eat a big variety of food because the best was reserved for the royal court," he says. “For a long time, there was a big barrier because the taste [of high cuisine] was so strong, but now it's the fighting between all the different flavors that Koreans really love."

A couple of trains later we arrive in Hapjeong-dong, a formerly rundown riverside neighborhood in western Seoul that now buzzes with bars and restaurants. We meet up with a few more tour-takers, then head for the famed Korean barbecue joint Seo-Seo Galbi, where the staff greets us with a synchronized bow before offering chilled emerald bottles of the country's favorite liquor, soju. “Gun-bae," Daniel says, Korean for “cheers," then downs his shot.

“Meat was a luxury in Korea 20 or 30 years ago. People would dress in their Sunday best and drive out to the countryside to eat at restaurants called gardens, then sit around with a toothpick in their mouth to show off. Eating beef was such a special thing, but now it's become mainstream." —Daniel Gray

After that first clink, things happen fast. Galbi, beef on-the-bone, sizzles on a central grill as the table heaves beneath an ever-increasing selection of sides—kimchi, pickled radishes, bean paste—delivered by ostentatiously polite waiters. Daniel uses giant scissors to cut the meat into bite-size bits, while I clumsily fumble garlic toward the grill with my chopsticks. “This garlic has a bite," Daniel warns. “Vampires don't do well in Korea." He's right, and I regret popping the entire clove into my mouth at once. Luckily, soju is the perfect salve.

Our next stop is Mangwon Market, where we try pan-fried jeon pancakes and sticky rice doughnuts called chapssal. Mangwon isn't Seoul's glitziest shopping destination, but it's where locals go to buy things like kitchen sponges and ingredients for the night's dinner. The din is deafening, and every square inch is taken up with vendors hawking miniature crabs, dried turnips, sesame leaves, and just about anything else you can imagine. I'm particularly intrigued by a stall that sells rice cakes shot from a machine at warp speed, like clay pigeons. We finish the tour at one of Korea's 36,000-plus fried chicken joints—a figure that's about the same as the number of McDonald's restaurants globally. While waiting, Daniel leads our little group in lively Korean drinking games that involve a lot of clapping and counting. My mind's addled by the heat and soju, so I lose repeatedly, which means I drink repeatedly. It's a vicious cycle.

The Zaha Hadid–designed Dongdaemun Design PlazaThe Zaha Hadid–designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza

Somewhat woozily, I check into the glossy, hyper-modern Conrad Seoul, in the city's main financial district, Yeoeuido, which takes up a large island in the Han River, Seoul's version of the Seine. Before bed I head up to the 37 Grill & Bar, where I sip a Tanqueray and tonic nightcap and watch the blinking lights atop the rocketlike N Seoul Tower. Back in my room, there's a jar of tiny candy letters that I munch on while applying the facial mask I bought earlier. The mask is cold to the touch and a bit slimy, and it takes a few moments to properly align the eye, nose, and mouth holes. When I spot my reflection in the mirror, I instantly think of Halloween. This is the last thing I remember.

Day 2 graphic

In which Leslie snaps selfies with an actress, dons a batting helmet, and loses her voice at a karaoke bar

Overly moisturized and sticky-mouthed, I decide to start the day with a dip in the Conrad's 8th-floor indoor pool, only to find a cluster of women bopping along to K-Pop in a water aerobics class. So I skip the healthful bopping in favor of a quiet bath in my room. Breakfast is back up on the 37th floor, where I consume ample quantities of pan-fried mandu, beef dumplings that come with spicy soy sauce, while watching water-skiers create sparkling silver stripes on the river far below.

I'm spending the rest of the morning at Siloam Fire Pot Sauna, a traditional jjimjilbang bathhouse back across the river in Jung-gu. Immediately, I am faced with a dilemma: Do I start in the ice room? The jade room? The salt room? I decide to stew in one of the hot pools. I feel a bit out of place as the lone oversize foreigner amid the little old local women wearing towels on their heads, but I close my eyes and focus on the healing qualities of the natural germanium water lapping at my chin.

Byeokje Galbi's marbled hanwoo beefByeokje Galbi's marbled hanwoo beef

I end my treatment with a remarkably vigorous body scrub, then zip off to check into the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, an unremittingly luxurious property that opened late last year in the Central Business District. The cavernous lobby leaves me momentarily dumbstruck, but I snap out of it when I remember I have an appointment across the city, in the south-eastern residential district of Songpa-gu.

From the window of my cab, I spy what looks like an alien spacecraft that has landed in the middle of the city, but it turns out to be the Zaha Hadid–designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza, an innovative venue housing galleries and concert halls. While I'm pondering the consequences of an extraterrestrial invasion, my cabbie announces that we've arrived at Byeokje Galbi, a wood-and-glass-paneled restaurant known for its highly marbled hanwoo beef.

Waiting for me is Seoul native Hyun Ah Han, a poised starlet with coiffed brown hair and a wide smile. As I scan the menu, the actress launches into a soliloquy about Korean beauty—of which she is a particularly fine example. “Korean women are known for having nice skin," she says. “We have high quality beauty products in Korea, but we also eat a lot of green food, and we have good weather."

Hyun Ah Han, actressHyun Ah Han, actress

I've had the rejuvenating face mask, but based on “beefmaster" chef Won Suk Yoon's rundown of the menu, my lunch isn't going to be very green. I order a dish with a name that translates to “char-grilled chef's special assorted Korean prime beef steaks with sea salt," which comes with sides of thick bokki noodles, pungent kimchi, and yellow root vegetables (good for digestion, the beefmaster tells me).

After lunch, Hyun Ah takes me to Garosugil, the most popular shopping spot in Gangnam, the district immortalized by the K-Popster Psy. The name Gangnam means “south of the river," but many Seoulites refer to it as “Beverly Hills," due to its profusion of high-end retailers and pocketbook-size dogs. On tree-lined streets, fashionable young women totter about on vertiginous heels, flitting in and out of shops with names like Skin Food. We stop at chic café C27 Cheesecake and Coffee, where a sign reads: “A-musement park for women." I probe Hyun Ah about it. “It's because the light is good and the cake is good. It's perfect for taking selfies, which is what Korean girls do these days."

“One of my favorite things to do is to see the night view of Seoul from the mountains or from the top of N Seoul Tower. I suggest it to everyone because it's such a unique perspective of the city." —Hyun Ah Han

As we nibble photogenic slices of green-tea cheesecake, Hyun Ah outlines the historical roots of local fashion tastes. “We are a Confucian society, so we have always followed our elders, which in the past used to be royalty," she says. “Now, celebrities are like the new royalty, and Koreans will buy a shade of red lipstick or an off-the-shoulder top if their favorite celebrity is wearing it." She confesses she would like to become an “it" actress responsible for starting such trends, which doesn't seem like a stretch to me.

I say good-bye to Hyun Ah and make a dash to nearby Jamsil Baseball Stadium, arriving well into the first inning of a game between the LG Twins and KT Wiz, rival members of the 10-team KBO, the country's highest league. At the ticket booth, a woman produces a rapid burst of Korean accompanied by hand motions that resemble a flapping bird. I shrug, and the bird sighs, then calls over a baby-faced guard to help her handle the American woman. “You must wear helmet," he says in adorably broken English. “Follow me."

A statue of King Sejong at Gwanghwamun PlazaA statue of King Sejong at Gwanghwamun Plaza, outside the main gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace

At a nearby counter, I'm instructed to hand over my driver's license as collateral for the battered black batting helmet they insist I wear because I'm sitting in the “exciting" section. I put it on and find my exciting seat, where I notice that the only other helmeted fan is a 5-year-old boy. I grab a beer and watch the game, trying not to think about the countless sweaty heads that have donned this piece of plastic. Fans around me cheer demurely as the hometown Twins hit two home runs in a row, then they continue munching on dried squid—the Korean version of ballgame popcorn. At the end of a 10-4 Twins victory, I return my helmet and head to the Sports Complex subway stop.

I exit the subway back across the river at City Hall, a grand municipal building dating from 1926 that's now dwarfed by the Space-Age glass extension hovering behind it. I walk past a jazz band that's singing in Spanish, then pop into the popular chain restaurant Bonjuk for a late dinner. Juk is a rice porridge traditionally served to the elderly, the infirm, and babies. I order a version with mixed vegetables, served with a side of kimchi, naturally.

I finish the night by meeting one of the couples from last night's food tour (he is from Slovakia, she from New York City) at Luxury Su Noraebang, a karaoke bar in the clubby Hongdae neighborhood. We immediately set about mangling the most popular karaoke song in Seoul, “Let It Go" from Frozen. “I won't have a voice tomorrow," my Slovak friend croaks. Later, I ask him what his favorite thing about Seoul has been so far. “It's either this or eating kimchi," he replies. I can't argue.

Day 3 graphic

In which Leslie eats silkworm larvae, listens to a gargling artist, and takes a cocktail cruise with her former student

The windows in my plush purple-and-gray room at the Four Seasons overlook Gyeongbokgung Palace, allowing me an encore viewing of the changing of the guard. Beyond the compound, I spot the sloping roof of the Blue House, home to President Geun Hye Park. It's pretty far off, but I offer a small bow, just in case, before I head to breakfast at Boccalino, a bright, Milan-inspired restaurant that overlooks commuters hustling to work below. There's a Western-style buffet, but the Korean menu of ginseng salad, grilled mackerel, and baechu kimchi is too good to resist.

Walking down the broad and busy avenue Sejong-daero, I spot a large bronze statue of Sejong the Great, the 15th-century monarch who created Korea's modern alphabet. Not far from here is Cheonggyecheon, a man-made stream that flows for seven miles through the gleaming office blocks of central Seoul. Lost in appreciation of a waterfall, I almost step on a white miniature poodle in a bumblebee outfit, then notice another pup high-stepping down the sidewalk in shiny pink shoes. Apparently humans aren't the only stylish residents in South Korea's capital.

Shoppers at Olive YoungShoppers at Olive Young, "the Sephora of South Korea"

After soaking my tired feet in the stream, I continue on to Insa-dong, a traditional neighborhood in Jongno characterized by small alleys, tea rooms, and impossibly quaint hanok houses. The main drag, Insadong-gil, is chock-a-block with antique shops and chichi boutiques, but the real attraction is its street food, which includes swirling cauldrons of beondegi (boiled silkworm pupae). The plump, wormy niblets aren't my idea of a hearty snack, but I decide to try one. The vendor, a short woman in a very large hat, laughs uproariously as I steel myself for a bite. The earthy taste isn't exactly unpleasant, but the texture (let's call it “bursting") is. “Ha ha!" the vendor says. “Ho ho!"

Now that I've begun to expand my gastronomic horizons, I'm ready to meet Derek Iwanuk, a Canadian expat and travel blogger who wrote the guidebook Itaewon Eats: Where the World Meets to Eat in Seoul. Derek reckons that the local food scene is on the up, and that Itaewon-dong, the city's most international neighborhood and the subject of his book, is the center of it all. “Seven years ago, you were lucky to find a half-decent burger," he says. “Over the years, there's been a food revolution, and now there are little pockets of world cuisine."

Yoon Kyung Kim, artistYoon Kyung Kim, artist

One of those pockets is Coreanos Kitchen, a hip Korean-Mexican restaurant opened in 2013 by two Korean-Americans who badly missed tacos. We order fries topped with galbi, hot sauce, and cilantro, plus a couple of burritos loaded with kimchi and braised pork belly. For Derek, a meal like this speaks to Seoul's ongoing emergence as a global destination. It is, he says, a city that is vying desperately for attention.

I thank Derek for the burritos, then run through the rain to hail a cab. The car whisks me back past Gyeongbokgung and up to Samcheong-dong, a hip, gallery-rich neighborhood that's home to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Waiting for me inside is Yoon Kyung Kim, a petite installation artist whose nose crinkles when she laughs. We browse for a while, contemplating avant-garde paintings and multimedia works, ending up at an interactive exhibit by acclaimed Korean artist Soo Ja Kim. In a vast black room, we're invited to sit around a circular table and given pieces of clay to mold into balls. I frown at an unsettling noise. “It's a recording of the artist gargling," the curator explains. “It's the artist's intention while you make the ball that the shape of your mind is visualized." I'm not sure what shape my mind is exactly, but I hope it's not the lumpy brown blob I've created. Yoon, meanwhile, has formed two balls, one grapefruit sized and the other just a grape. “This is my brain," she says, pointing to the small one.

“Koreans are becoming more open-minded to art, especially in Seoul. They're starting to see the importance of balancing life with art and to realize the reason you go to art museums and galleries is to free yourself." —Yoon Kyung Kim

Creating brains is thirsty work, so we head to the Kraze Burgers down the block to discuss art over beers. “Korean parents are usually very focused on math and English," Yoon says as we sip from frosty glasses. “They need to realize that, even if their children don't become artists, if they're exposed to art they'll become better at other subjects."

I pop back to the Four Seasons for a massage at the spa, then hit happy hour at the 28th-floor Executive Club Lounge, whose defining feature is its wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows. I sip a sauvignon blanc and watch the setting sun light up the surrounding skyscrapers—one of which is home to my dinner destination.

In the rotating n.Grill, at the top of the 775-foot N Seoul Tower, I'm led to a secluded booth with a sweeping view of the city backed by craggy hills stretching toward the North Korean border, 30-odd miles away. As a well-groomed waiter pours me a glass of pink sparkling wine, I'm greeted by Michelin-starred English chef Duncan Robertson, who moved to Seoul after meeting his Korean wife in France. I sip my bubbly and ask Duncan for his take on the food scene here.

Man-made Cheonggyecheon streams Man-made Cheonggyecheon streams through downtown Seoul

“Seoul's becoming more and more open," he says. “When I first came six years ago and baked baguette-style bread with a crusty exterior, everyone was complaining and trying to eat it with a fork and knife. Now, artisanal bakeries here are a niche market, and people are becoming very open-minded about food."

My meal begins with a parade of appetizers, including a savory parmesan soup and poached salmon topped with potato cream, basil sauce, and salmon roe. Next come three different cuts of beef, topped with grilled green chilies and buttery roasted garlic. I top it off with a passion-fruit tart and a dollop of gingery chocolate cream, then sit back with Ol' Blue Eyes crooning in the background and look out at the glinting gold facade of the 63 Building.

To end the evening, I board an E-land Cruise boat, where I meet Myo Jung Kim, an all-grown-up former middle-school student of mine from when I taught ESL here. As we head for the top-deck bar, past bubblegum-pink blossoms of faux cherry trees, I tell Myo Jung that it feels odd to be drinking with her—like I'm being a bad influence. “Don't worry, teacher," she says, ordering us a pair of fruity cocktails. “Times change."

Mexico-based writer Leslie Patrick Moore lived in South Korea for three years, during which time she spent far too much energy and money shopping for beauty products.


The day off: Washington D.C.

By The Hub team

Story by Ellen Carpenter | Hemispheres, December 2018

Politics, finance, tech, no matter: Deals happen in D.C. at every hour. But if you find yourself on a business trip with a rare free day, consider yourself lucky: The city has never been cooler.

9 a.m.

Wake up in your spacious room at the InterContinental Washington D.C. – The Wharf, with floor-to-ceiling views of sailboats gliding down the Washington Channel, and forget for a moment that the craziness of Capitol Hill is just five miles away. Snap a photo of the waterfall chandelier in the lobby before popping next door for a delicious egg and bacon biscuit sandwich at Dolcezza, the first outpost of the D.C. mini-chain to offer a full breakfast menu.

Photo by Mark DeLong

10 a.m.

Hop a cab to the National Portrait Gallery, where you can take a selfie with Barack Obama (well, Kehinde Wiley's depiction of the 44th president) before viewing an entire exhibit on the art of the selfie, Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today, which features works by James Amos Porter, Elaine de Kooning, and more. Afterward, muse on the concept of identity under the undulating glass ceiling in the gallery's stunning Kogod Courtyard.

Photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/gift of Dorothy Porter Wesley

1 p.m.

Take the Metro's Green Line up to U Street for a taste of Little Havana at Colada Shop. The small counter spot dispenses flaky empanadas, decadent Cubanos, and the café's namesake—four shots of espresso commingling with sweet Cuban crema. You know you want one.

3 p.m.

Time to hit the National Mall and work off that caffeine injection. Every winter, the fountain at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden becomes an ice rink, where you can take in Alexander Calder's Cheval Rouge and Louise Bourgeois's Spider while practicing your triple lutz.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

5 p.m.

Cab over to the Kennedy Center for the free 6 p.m. show at Millennium Stage, offered every single night as part of the cultural hub's Performing Arts for Everyone initiative. Whether it's modern dance, West African blues, or experimental theater, it'll broaden your horizons.

Photo by Teresa Wood

7:30 p.m.

Give in to your carb cravings at the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat, a relaxed yet polished restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Toss back the complimentary shrub (tart!) and then dive into the red fife brioche (topped with chicken liver mousse, blueberry marmalade, and wood sorrel) and goat lasagna with tomato, anchovy, and salsa verde.

9:30 p.m.

Catch a ride to Blagden Alley—a historic area that used to house the stables and workshops behind stately row houses—for a cocktail at Columbia Room, a lounge that has topped every best-of list imaginable. Score a seat in the leather- and mahogany-lined Spirits Library and order a Maryland, made with rye, applejack, and chartreuse. Then get another.

Photo by Karlin Villondo Photography

3 under the radar places to visit in December

By Betsy Mikel

With the end of the year approaching, it's time to utilize those unused vacation days. If you're not traveling for the holidays, take an excursion to one of these under-the-radar destinations. Treat your family to fun in the sun in Florida, kick back on an island in Mexico that takes relaxation seriously, or take advantage of the slow season at a popular Arizona national park.

Isla Holbox, Mexico

For a leisurely vacation to relax on uncrowded beaches

Seeking a destination where you can unplug and sink your toes into the sand while surrounded by natural beauty? Isla Holbox is the spot. This laid-back island sits on the northwest tip of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. It boasts spectacular beaches with endless turquoise ocean views.

What to do

Pack your flip-flops and beach reads for a seriously laid-back trip to Isla Holbox. Come here to sit on the beach (or in a hammock) while you kick back and relax as you've never relaxed before. Enjoy spectacular beaches without crowds.

Isla Holbox is small — just 26 miles long and one mile wide, with only 2,000 full-time residents. Bright colors and painted murals throughout the area evoke a bohemian vibe. Instead of cars, most people get around by golf cart or bike. (In fact, its taxi cabs are actually golf carts.) Isla Holbox won't give you the lively nightlife of popular tourist destinations like nearby Cancun, but there are plenty of beachside bars serving cocktails, food vendors and restaurants serving fresh Mexican fare.

Go on a wildlife excursion to spot whale sharks, crocodiles or flamingos. Head to the Yum-Balam Nature Reserve to see other exotic animals.

Getting there

The closest airport is Cancun (CUN). From Cancun, head to Chiquila, where you can take the ferry to Isla Holbox.

St. Petersburg, Florida

A family-friendly beach destination for fun in the sun

With award-winning beaches offering 35 miles of sand along Tampa Bay, calm waters and plenty of sun, St. Petersburg is quickly gaining momentum as a warm-weather destination for families. Downtown is home to many shops, restaurants, bars and unique attractions, such as an impressive Salvador Dali museum.

What to do

St. Pete beaches are known for their calm, warm and shallow waters. Add 360 days of sunshine per year and an average temperature of 73 degrees, and it's surprising that this sunny beach city still flies under the radar. Keep it laid back by relaxing on the shore, or bump up the action by parasailing, windsurfing or kiteboarding.

After a day of R&R, head downtown to enjoy the lively St. Petersburg culture and nightlife. There are 35 local craft breweries to choose from and many seafood restaurants ranging from casual fare to upscale. The most extensive collection of Salvador Dali's artwork outside of Europe resides in The Dalí Museum. You can even meet a local celebrity at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium — Winter the dolphin starred in the Dolphin Tale movies and is famous for her prosthetic tail.

Getting there

United offers direct service to Tampa / St. Petersburg (TPA) from many U.S. cities.

Grand Canyon, Arizona

To have one of the most magnificent national parks (almost) to yourself

Though the weather is crisp and the temperature a few degrees chillier, the sun shines all month long at Grand Canyon National Park. Traveling here during the low season means fewer visitors will crowd your panoramic views of one of the world's largest canyons and most magnificent natural wonders.

What to do

From scenic drives to backcountry hiking, visiting in the winter makes for a more tranquil and peaceful adventure. The South Rim remains open all year round. The national park offers many trails to view the Colorado River snaking through snow-dusted temples and buttes. Try to catch at least one sunset or sunrise, and be sure to arrive with enough time to stake out a good vantage point. The visitors center and park website have recommendations for the best spots.

Ride the Grand Canyon Railway and travel back in time. A 64-mile stretch of railroad has been transporting passengers from the South Rim to the small town of Williams, Arizona, since 1901. The historic train has an observation dome car to catch the spectacular scenery and even has Wild West-themed entertainment aboard. Every evening in December, the Grand Canyon Railway transforms into the Polar Express and makes a stop at the North Pole where Santa boards the train to greet everyone.

Getting there

Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport is the closest major international airport to the South Rim. United offers service to Phoenix (PHX) from multiple U.S. cities.

For details and to book your trip, visit united.com or use the United app. Don't forget to share your story on social media with the #MyUnitedJourney hashtag once you arrive.

Evolving our brand design

By The Hub team , December 05, 2018

The United brand is heading in a new direction as we evolve the colors and patterns we use. Where did these new colors come from, exactly? Check out the video below to learn about the research, logic and thoughtfulness that went into this evolution as we took inspiration from the spaces around us, the environments we work in, our heritage, the United globe and much more.

Hemispheres

Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya

By The Hub team

Story by Jordan Heller | Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock | Hemispheres, December 2018

There is some dispute as to how Playa del Carmen, the metropolitan heart of the Riviera Maya just 40 miles south of Cancún, got its name. Some say it's after Our Lady of Carmel, the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites. But the more compelling story is the one told by locals.

Search flights

As legend has it, in the 1970s and '80s, when the area first became a destination, tourists traveling by boat from neighboring Cozumel would disembark in Playa—then known as Xaman-Ha—on their way to the ruins of Tulum. A local Maya woman named Carmen would happily invite these travelers into her modest home for a traditional meal of fresh-caught seafood. She may not have had any experience with immaculate conception, but when it comes to Playa, this Carmen is definitely a matron saint. Today, her spirit can be felt throughout the Riviera Maya, which also includes the village of Tulum, the ruins of Cobá, and a number of small Maya communities on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula where, if you're lucky, a woman not unlike Carmen will happily invite you into her home for a meal.

Day 1

Exploring a Maya temple, befriending a butler and feasting on cochinita pibil

I eat grasshoppers for breakfast. No, this is not my way of saying I know how to handle a subordinate. I'm literally eating toasted grasshoppers sprinkled onto a dish of huevos rancheros with green tomatillo salsa, hoja santa, and goat cheese. I've just woken up at Playa del Carmen's Rosewood Mayakoba, which is perhaps the most luxurious resort I've ever stayed in (and I'm a travel writer). There's a private heated plunge pool outside my back door looking over a secluded lagoon, a spa Forbes rated one of the best in the world, and Tavo, my personal butler, who is at my beck and call through a Rosewood messaging app.

The sikil-p'aak tomato salad at La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen

A bottle of tequila and some toothpaste?

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Despite all this luxury, I'm eating bugs—albeit with a Bloody Mary at a beachside restaurant overlooking the Caribbean. The toasted grasshoppers are crunchy (like perfectly burnt popcorn), incredibly delicious, and an appropriately indigenous start to a morning in which I'll be exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization.

After traveling inland to the village of Cobá, I trade my rental car for a “Maya taxi." It's the Yucatán version of a rickshaw—a padded bench fashioned atop the front wheel of a bicycle with a beach umbrella protecting me from the rain. My driver, Gustino, is transporting me through a mile of jungle and more than a millennium back in time, to the Late Classic (AD 550–830) Maya ruin of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The dirt path bustles with all manner of tourists riding Maya taxis, pedaling rented beach cruisers, or walking, excitedly talking about the sites of this ancient city in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and who knows what else.

As Gustino struggles to pedal through a particularly rough patch of mud, I ask him what nationality of tourist is the hardest to transport.

The Ixmoja pyramid at Cobá

“The Germans," he says. “It's not that they're overweight. They're just a very sturdy people. Americans are preferred: very easygoing and friendly people. Everybody wants an American fare."

When we arrive at Nohoch Mul, the panoply of tourists is suddenly speaking the same language: speechless. At 138 feet tall, the sheer scale of this temple is rivaled only by the gleaming hotels going up on the coast. But out here in the Cobá jungle, after I break the canopy and reach Nohoch Mul's summit, it's nothing but green as far as the eye can see, under which is apparently some 30 square miles of ancient city, most of it still obscured by the jungle. I'm told that just 5 percent of Cobá has been excavated since the project started in the 1970s.

"Today, if you come early in the morning, you find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“And what did they do with this little platform?" I ask Diego Viadero, my knowledgeable Tours by Locals guide, who's been schooling me on all manner of Maya history.

“Ah, yes," he says. “That's where the rulers would offer sacrifices to the gods, in hopes that they could avoid a collapse of the city."

“You mean like in the movie Apocalypto, where they chopped off the heads?" I ask.

“Just like in Apocalypto," says Viadero, doing his best to hold back an eye-roll. “Today, if you come early in the morning, you'll find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods."

“Do you think it's enough?" I ask, making the comparison to the more (ahem) substantial offerings of yore. Let the eye-rolling commence.

The Rosewood Mayakoba's Sense Spa

Next, Viadero takes me to Nojoch Keej, which is Mayan for El Venado Grande, which is Spanish for “The Big Deer." It's a sanctuary for endangered animals run by a Maya man named Manuel Poot Dzib out of his back yard in the village of Nuevo Durango. Poot Dzib started the sanctuary in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the habitats of many local animals. He now looks after bees (which produce honey that's said to have healing qualities), white-tail deer, paca, curassow, and ocellated turkeys, which he aims to repopulate in areas that are protected from hunters. From the looks of these turkeys, I think ocellated must be Mayan for peacock. They're vibrant, multicolored, and beautiful to look at.

"Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my cocktail to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon."

Poot Dzib asks us to stay for lunch, which is great, because I'm starving. “We're having cochinita pibiles muy delicioso," he adds, giving off some of that Carmen spirit.

I breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that cochinita pibil is not Spanish for ocellated turkey. It's achiote-marinated pork that's been cooking with banana leaf in a hole in the ground in Poot Dzib's front yard since 8 this morning.

“They normally only do this for the Day of the Dead or other special occasions," Viadero says as we watch Poot Dzib remove the dirt and corrugated metal covering his subterranean oven.

A home-cooked meal, Maya-style

“We used to cover it with banana leaf instead of metal, but that's a much harder and longer process," says Poot Dzib. “This is more modern."

Modern? I'm not so sure, but I grant Poot Dzib that it's certainly an update. In any event, when put on a handmade tortilla with pickled onions and habanero, this cochinita pibil is definitely mouthwatering.

I say “Taakulak k'iin" (“See ya later" in Mayan) to Poot Dzib and his ocellated turkeys and head back to the Rosewood, where Tavo the butler awaits with that bottle of tequila, plus some fresh lime juice and agave nectar for mixers.

Gracias, Tavo!

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my drink to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon. Just one cocktail, however, as I'm hopping onto my complimentary beach cruiser (every guest gets one) to take a spin around the property, where geckos, iguanas, and even a tarantula skitter into the mangroves as I come rolling down the jungle path.

Appetite sufficiently worked up, I'm off to the Rosewood's La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, where executive chef Juan Pablo Loza serves a communal dinner of Maya-inspired dishes with a contemporary touch. Seated at a long wooden table with 17 other guests, I ask the chef what he's learned from the local Maya villages, which he visits often to pick up cooking techniques.

“My top lesson from the Maya is less about food than it is about perspective," he says, before recounting a delicious meal he had with one family. “The woman who cooked for me had referred to her neighbor as poor. I found it an odd comment, because the assumption in a Maya village is that nobody is exactly rich. 'Why do you say your neighbor is poor?' I asked. She said because she has no family and no garden. If you don't have a garden, you can't get food from it, and if you don't have a family you have nobody to share it with. For them, having a family and a connection to nature is what it means to be rich."

“And now you have this beautiful garden," I say, pointing to his planters of lemongrass.

“And a family, too," he replies. “Including a daughter named Maya."

And then we feast. There's grilled octopus with black recado and burnt lime vinaigrette, zarandeado-style lobster, roasted plantains, and a k'úum salad of squash, arugula, orange, oregano, and ocosingo cheese, finished off with fresh fruits in guava honey and lemongrass.

Tavo, I'm stuffed! Turn out the light and have a pot of coffee waiting for me in the morning, please.

Certainly, Mr. Heller.

Day 2

Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic

Gran Cenote

In the small village square outside Tulum National Park, the Voladores de Papantla are performing their ancient fertility ritual, or rain ceremony—named an “intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO. Five men in traditional bright red pants and flowing white blouses with multicolored adornments sit atop a 90-foot pole. The man in the center taps an adagio beat on a simple drum and blows a gentle bird-like tune on a wooden flute while the other four men tie ropes around their waists. When the musician ups the tempo to allegretto, the other two men fall backward, like scuba divers dropping into water, and slowly descend upside down in a merry-go-round fashion, the spinning top ceding rope like a reel feeding line to a fish. It's absolutely beautiful.

On a path cutting through the mangroves and almond trees on the way to the park entrance, a guide shares a mnemonic device that will be helpful should I run into any venomous coral snakes: “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack." I assume I'm a Jack.

"The water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly out of the cave floor."

Thankfully, there are no snakes to be seen in the ancient Maya city of Tulum, an open patch of manicured lawns and stone ruins protected by walls to the north, west, and south, and an ocean reef to the east. Or so it was protected until around 1500, when the Spanish came ashore. This beachside community, established circa 1200, was populated by a few hundred of Tulum's elite (and the sea turtles that still come ashore to lay their eggs), with thousands of people living outside the walls. It wasn't until the 20th century, when archaeologists began studying the region's various Maya sites, that we began to understand how advanced their civilization was—especially in the area of astronomy. As I walk the city's white gravel paths, I can imagine a well-heeled society covered in jade and obsidian jewelry enjoying the same ocean breeze and studying the same night sky. One glance at the view, and it's clear the Maya knew something about real estate. This plot right here, with a lighthouse perched on the cliff, would go for a boatload of jade and obsidian.

Maya ruins at Tulum

After fortifying my stomach with a few al pastor tacos (don't forget the guacamole) at Tropi Tacos in Tulum Pueblo, I meet back up with Diego Viadero for a drive out to Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System), one of the world's largest underground cave systems, a 164-mile maze of freshwater flowing through subterranean limestone. This afternoon, we're exploring just one mile of the system. The rain-conjuring Voladores de Papantla must be in top form lately; the water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly (less than 10 centimeters every 1,000 years) out of the cave floor and reaching up toward stalactites hanging like icicles from the cave ceiling. It's like the setting of a science fiction movie, so otherworldly I try to prolong my stay by floating as slowly as the calcium deposits are forming in front of me.

“Be careful," says Viadero, as I get a little too close to a stalagmite that's been a million years in the making. “You wouldn't want to break it."

IK Lab

“I certainly wouldn't want that on my conscience," I agree.

After emerging from a cenote (a natural sinkhole where groundwater is exposed to the sky), I offer an adiós to Viadero and make my way to Tulum's Route 15—the narrow street that cuts through the jungle, parallel to the shore, and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and “eco-chic" (their word, not mine) hotels. Twenty years ago, this strip wasn't much, but now there's not a speck of beachfront that isn't occupied by an Instagram-ready boutique property. (The number of rope swings is astounding.) In recent years, Route 15 has played host to Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Gina Rodriguez, Reese Witherspoon, and, after today, me. I'm staying at Sanará, a stylish wellness hotel that attracts young and hip sunworshippers from around the world who like partying and yoga in equal measure.

A shop on Tulum's Route 15

I check into my beachside room (furnished with my very own yoga mat and dream catcher), flop down on the bed, and open up the “Wellness Menu." On offer are a Pudzyah Mayan Healing that “transforms pain to love at the cellular level … It harmonizes your DNA by applying fractal geometry energy"; a Multivibrational Massage and Chakra Balancing; and a Solar Plexus Healer. I opt for the complimentary “Sound Bath" of light yoga and didgeridoo before balancing out my chakras with a burger, a beer, and some fresh ceviche at Clan Destino.

This laid-back spot is all about the ambience: a wooden deck with chandeliers hanging from the jungle canopy and a cenote smack dab in the middle of the club, should you need refreshing after one too many cervezas. The bar offers a free shot of mezcal for those who take a turn on the karaoke mic (“Suspicious Minds" for me, thank you very much); after accepting my applause and draining my shot, I turn the glass over on the bar and take the plunge.

Day 3

Floating down a canal, swimming in the Caribbean, and eating gelato on the beach

A cabana at Mía

At The Real Coconut, Sanará's beachside restaurant, I dig into a light breakfast of coffee and avocado toast (piled high like Nohoch Mul with a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes). It's a deliciously healthy start to a morning that's going to include traipsing through the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve and swimming in Laguna Chunyaxché.

At Sian Ka'an—a protected area of tropical forest, marshes, and lagoons about a 40-minute drive from my hotel—I follow my guide, Joaquin Balam of Community Tours, down the narrow boardwalk of Sendero Muyil, which cuts through a forest of zapote and ficus trees. I'm told there are jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys about, as well as some 330 species of birds.

“Are those the howler monkeys?" I ask of a muted rumbling in the distance.

"We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling."

“Oh no," says Balam. “When you hear them, you'll know it."

The closest we get to this array of wildlife, however, is some jaguar claw marks on a ficus tree. By the looks of the marks, I'm happy that we're strolling alone.

Baby back ribs at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club

At the end of the path, we reach the sandy shoreline of Laguna Chunyaxché, a bright body of water that reflects both the green wetlands and the blue sky above. We cross the lagoon by boat, to a shoreline of mangroves and seagrass, and step onto a dock at the entrance to a canal.

“Take your life vest off and wear it like this," Balam says, putting his legs through the arm holes of the vest, as if it were a diaper.

“If you say so."

Balam jumps into the canal and I follow, and I immediately understand the Baby Huey getup. We're floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling as our seemingly weightless bodies travel down the canal. Cue the opening horns of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back on Route 15, I stop in at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club for baby back ribs rubbed with chili and tamarind, washed down with a glass of Château Gloria St Julien Bordeaux from the restaurant's wine cave—the biggest collection of fine wines in Tulum. It's as decadent as the beachgoers lazing in the sun not far from my table.

Head still swimming in that lovely Château Gloria, I decide to take the rest of my body for a little dip. The Caribbean is bathwater warm and crystal clear—in other words, perfect. I walk out for what seems like half a mile, and the water still only comes up to my waist.

Gelato at Origami

Refreshed and sun-dried, I'm ready to trade in the historical and ecological sights of the last few days for the fashion runway of Route 15. The women wear bikinis and sarongs, the men wear linen shorts and loafers, and everybody wears designer shades, brimmed hats made of straw, and suntans of golden bronze. Origami, a beautifully designed gelato shop, is the perfect place to have a seat and watch the catwalk. I have a Ferrero Rocher and crunch on the hazelnuts drenched in icy chocolate and cream while the fashion models play street chicken with Vespas and the delivery trucks distributing tanks of fresh water to the five-star eateries

If Route 15 is for the well-heeled, then Calle Centauro Sur is for the flip-flop set. It's a strip in the center of town, about two miles inland from the beach, where the more casual tourists and locals congregate. Call it the Brooklyn to Route 15's Manhattan. At Batey—a hip, open-air bar and music venue decorated with paintings of Miles Davis and the Beatles—I take a sidewalk seat and listen to a Mexican Elvis impersonator singing Simple Minds' “Don't You (Forget About Me)." As I sip on a Don Julio Reposado, a patchouli-scented parade of 5 o'clock shadows and hot pink hair dye ambles by.

“Are you going dancing tonight?" a young man in a tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and tattered Chuck Taylors asks a friend sitting at the table next to me.

The bar at Mur Mur, in Tulum

“Are you?"

“I'm dressed and ready to go."

Back on Route 15, the revelers are stepping out as if their outfits are going to be scrutinized by bouncers holding clipboards and manning red velvet ropes. Thankfully, no such velvet ropes exist as I enter Rosa Negra for an indulgent meal of burrata, besugo sashimi with black salt and citrus, soft-shell crab tacos, and Pescadores—a fine craft beer made right here in Riviera Maya.

The food is as comely as the patrons, who are bopping their well-coiffed heads to a drum-and-bass DJ. But before I have a chance to pass judgment on an ambience that may appear a touch too buttoned-up, a live conga player steps in front of the DJ.

A rat-a-tat tat, bop ba-da ba-bop, dup du-duh dup du-dup!

The congas add a touch of that Carmen spirit—their organic vibrations reminding me that despite all the Manolo Blahniks and slinky black dresses, my T-shirt and flip-flops are welcome at the party. I shimmy my shoulders, take a swig of my Pescadores, and nod to the beat as I dig into my tacos.

A rat-a-tat tat, ba dop ba-da ba-dop, dup du-buh dup bu-dup!

Search flights

For Oscar, United's turnaround is a journey

By The Hub team , November 30, 2018

Our CEO, Oscar Munoz, sat down with Texas Inc. to discuss our turnaround strategy, stating it's a journey. Read the full interview here featured on the Houston Chronicle.

Ankit Gupta honored with Crain's 40 under 40 recognition

By Matt Adams , November 29, 2018

Network Planning and Scheduling VP Ankit Gupta can talk airline business for hours without losing steam. Just don't ask him to talk about himself; that's when he clams up. You'd think after being named to this year's prestigious Crain's Chicago Business "40 Under 40" list he'd be a little more inclined to wax poetic about his life and career, but no such luck.

Read more about why editors selected Ankit by visiting the Crain's website here. The full list of this year's honorees can be found here. The 40 Under 40 issue hits newsstands on December 3.

Security and technology in the air

By United Airlines

Podcast produced in partnership with CSIS

This week on the Smart Women, Smart Power Podcast, Beverly Kirk is joined by Linda Jojo, Executive Vice President for Technology and Chief Digital Officer at United Airlines for a conversation on the transformation of technology in the airline industry and more on security in the digital age.

The best National Parks to visit all year round

By Bob Cooper

National parks can be a refuge from the noise and hectic pace of everyday urban and suburban life — America's special places in nature. But during the summer peak season, they can be as busy as cities. Smart travelers visit between November and March when most parks are less crowded and accommodation choices are discounted. These national parks are especially worthwhile to visit and they're all close enough to major airports to make a three-day weekend getaway possible.

Yosemite, California

Fall and winter visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to autumn leaves in the fall, snow-capped granite landmarks in the winter and replenished waterfalls in the spring. Tent camping can be cold, but hotel rooms in and around Yosemite Valley are widely available and Yosemite's historic lodge, The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee), hosts two big events in November and December: the Grand Grape Celebration and the Bracebridge Dinner (a recreation of Christmas in Olde England). Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Everglades, Florida

Many summer vacationers are among the one million annual visitors to Everglades National Park, but the best time to come is in late-autumn or winter. Southern Florida's temperatures are milder, it's far less humid, hurricane season is over and summer flooding of the prairies has receded — letting you see more fish and reptiles. You can also see more birds in the winter via airboat tours through the Everglades, America's largest tropical wilderness. Not to mention this “river of grass" is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve and a wetland of International Importance. Airport: Miami International Airport.

Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Another world lives beneath Kentucky in the world's largest network of caves known as Mammoth Cave National Park. You will walk beneath massive crystallized formations inside the caverns and may spot one of the eight species of bats that thrive in this environment. The caves are about 54 degrees inside year-round, as if regulated by a thermostat, so they are protected from the hot humid summers and freezing winter nights above them, making them a perfect place to visit any time of the year. Visitors to this southern Kentucky park will also benefit from this climatic predictability while taking any of eight cave tours. While cave tours should be at the top of your list of things to do here, this park also offers hiking, camping, horseback riding, kayaking and more. Airport: Louisville International Airport.

Haleakala, Hawaii

Your visit to Haleakala National Park may include a number of experiences, but witnessing the sunrise or sunsets are a must. Many visitors wake up early to drive to the Summit Visitor Center to view one of the best sunrises. But make sure to plan accordingly because the National Park Service now requires a reservation for vehicles to view the sunrise from the Summit District. Other activities on the 10,023-foot mountain include hiking one of the nine trails, guided horseback rides and bike rentals post-hike to coast most of the way down. An added bonus: Humpback whale watching season stretches from December to March in Maui. Airport: Kahului Airport.

Saguaro, Arizona

Saguaro, a type of giant cacti, serve many functions for desert wildlife — but they don't cast much shade. That's why winter is the best time to hike among them where they populate hillsides by the thousands in Saguaro National Park. The park is split in two, straddling the western and eastern boundaries of Tucson, with 165 miles of hiking trails. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a museum, zoo and botanical garden, is a must-see attraction on the edge of Saguaro NP West. Airport: Tucson International Airport.

Joshua Tree, California

The namesake of Joshua Tree National Park is an odd-looking tree that fits in well with the weirdly wonderful rock formations adored by photographers in this high desert park. Located between Palm Springs and the L.A. area, the park encompasses two major deserts and a mountain range, offering a profoundly contrasting appearance due to the two varying ecosystems. This park can be explored by car or by foot on one of the 27 hiking trails. A bonus to visiting in the winter is the desert wildflower blooms between February and April. Airport: Palm Springs International Airport.

Biscayne, Florida

Famous lighthouse at Key Biscayne, Miami

Most of Biscayne National Park is on water, not land, so the best way to see its coral reefs (among the world's largest) and the abundance of marine life (highlighted by manatees and sea turtles) is by renting a boat or taking a boat tour. Several marinas are found at the park's edges where you can do just that, as well as rent snorkeling or diving equipment for a closer look underwater, where you'll discover diverse and colorful aquatic life and multiple shipwrecks. Kayaking and fishing in Miami-Dade County are also popular. Airport: Miami International Airport.

If you go

United Airlines flies to airports within a two-hour drive of all of these national parks. MileagePlus® Rewards can help pay for your accommodations. Go to united.com or use the United app to plan your national park getaway.

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