Thimblerig’s Travels • Yangshuo, China

My family made an end-of-the-school-year weekend trip from Shenzhen to Yangshuo, and it was a blast. The high-speed “bullet” train, which topped off at 300 KPH (187 MPH), made the 600 KM (375 M) trip to Guillin in just over three hours. Then, an hour-long taxi ride took us into the mystical terrain of Yangshuo. We enjoyed our stay at the Outside Inn, and highly recommend the inn if you’re making the trip and looking for comfortable and friendly lodging outside of Yangshuo proper.

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The Prehistoric Kingdom of the Appalachians

If you’re travelling through the southwest Virginia, and you’re getting close to Lexington, then there is a detour you must plan to make. Especially if you have kids who love dinosaurs.

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Opened this year, the Dinosaur Kingdom II is the theme park sequel to The Dinosaur Kingdom, both of which are/were brainchildren of Lexington’s own Mark Cline, who also created the infamous Foamhenge, a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of styrofoam. And as the brochure says, this is not your father’s dinosaur park.

In my three year old son’s case, this is certainly true. When I was about five years old, my family stopped at a dinosaur park on one of our summer vacations, and it was – as I remember it – simply large fiberglass dinosaurs standing around looking dinosaury. The Dinosaur Kingdom II is far, far from being so pedestrian. In fact, it’s like nothing you will have seen before.

This is a dinosaur park with a story, and it is a story that is so freaking creative and hilarious, that you can’t help but love what Cline has built in the woods close to Natural Bridge.

Just to give you a taste, here is what the brochure says:

It’s 1864. Them wacky Yankees is at it again! Tryin’ to use living dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South. But ole’ Dixie has more than a few tricks still left up her sleeve.

Experience a wooded, walking adventure of the wildest, weirdest, craziest dinosaur park the Washington Post has called Amazing! Brilliant! Hilarious! This is definitely not your father’s dinosaur park!

Our visit to the Dinosaur Kingdom II was even more interesting considering that just a week before, my family had been in Williamstown, Kentucky, attending the opening of the new Ark Encounter park (a lifesize replica of Noah’s Ark constructed by Answers in Genesis, a young earth Creationist ministry – read my review here).

Like the Dinosaur Kingdom II, The Ark Encounter also imagines that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, with dinosaurs as passengers on Noah’s Ark. But a big difference is that as far as I can tell, Mark Cline doesn’t actually believe that Yankee soldiers woke up dinosaurs during the Civil War and used them against the Confederacy.

And interestingly, even thought the Ark Encounter had a budget over $100 million dollars, it was nowhere near as entertaining as Mark Cline’s little dinosaur park in the woods of Virginia.

But pictures speak louder than words, so enjoy my virtual tour of Mark Cline’s Dinosaur Kingdom II, and then plan to go see it for yourself.

 

McDonald’s Next • Hong Kong

mcdWant to know what McDonald’s of the future might look like? You just have to go no further than Hong Kong’s Admiralty Center and the McDonald’s Next Concept Restaurant. This is a one-in-the-world McD’s dining experience, and has both the traditional menu as well as healthier options that you build for yourself.

The fancy new McDonald’s was a hit for my kids. While my daughter went the traditional double cheeseburger route, my son ordered a hamburger that you built to order, and he said it tasted better than a typical McDonald’s burger. I had the build your own salad with grilled chicken and asparagus (!), and it was quite tasty, and I didn’t leave McDonald’s feeling like I needed to take a few Lipitor for my trouble.

The food was brought to our table by nice McDonald’s employees, and was pretty quick in arriving. And while you can tell that it was a crowded place, we very quickly found seats, and they even had cell phone chargers on every table – which in Hong Kong is a pretty big deal.

I didn’t try the McCafe options, but the baked goods and coffee looked like an upgrade from the typical McCafes that you find in McDonald’s all over China.

It was a pretty cool experience, eating in this McDonald’s from the future. If you’re in Hong Kong, give it a try!

Thoughts on a Visit to Biltmore

My wife and I enjoyed our first visit to Biltmore Estate today, but as I was driving away, I was struck by two things.

House2First, it occurred to me that George Vanderbilt, the millionaire heir celebrated over and over in the Biltmore tours for building Biltmore, really didn’t do very much, except build Biltmore.

That may seem like a lot, but when you compare him to his grandfather, the shipping and railroad tycoon who built the Vanderbilt empire from nothing, and his delightfully mutton-chopped father, who after inheriting the empire, doubled it in just eight years, George was not a success.

George Vanderbilt – who reportedly had no interest in the family’s business empire, simply inherited a fortune, and then spent years sinking it all into building the largest home in the United States.

Given, that home is obviously spectacular, and Vanderbilt’s collections of cultural, artistic, and historical artifacts which fill the place are second-to-none. But the fact that we know about anything at all about Biltmore today says more about the tenacity, efforts, and business acumen of his descendants than it says about those of Vanderbilt himself.

This fact really surprised me.

7265774_114447356931Secondly, I was struck that I – as an average American – live a life that a turn-of-the-century person like Vanderbilt couldn’t have dreamt or imagined, even with his millions, his family name, and his impressive European chateau in North Carolina.

For example, I travel the globe cheaply and comfortably in a day, while a similar voyage would have been much more arduous for Vanderbilt, and would have taken him a much longer time by land and by sea. Vanderbilt may have had an impressive library, but I have every published book in the world at my disposal with the click of a button. I can communicate with anyone in the world in an instant, while it would have taken Vanderbilt days or weeks by post or perhaps by telephone to a few people. I drive my own horseless carriage at high rates of speed while enjoying the wonders of air conditioning and listening to any music I wish. I’ve seen pictures and video of men on the moon, of spacecraft reaching every planet in our solar system, and high resolution images of galaxies light years away. 

To bring it back to Earth, in 1914, George Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of his generation with immediate access to the best medicine of his time, died in New York due to complications from appendi-freakin-citis. And right now, somewhere in a small hospital in middle America, an E.R. surgeon is performing an emergency appendectomy on a person with no money, and that person will likely walk away from the surgery.  

We have vaccines for polio, measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever, rubella, hepatitis, and influenza – all diseases for which Vanderbilt’s money could not buy a cure.

Which makes me ask the question: what will things be like in another hundred years? Here’s hoping for more amazing breakthroughs, technological advances, and another hundred years of us not eradicating ourselves as a species.

All that being said, we enjoyed our visit to Biltmore, and I’ve come up with ten tips for visiting the place.

Thimblerig’s Ten Tips for Visiting Biltmore

1) Biltmore is crazy popular in Asheville in the summer, so visit on a weekday if you are able. But the place is very well organized, so even though we arrived at 11:00, we didn’t have too many lines.

2) Why would anyone bother with valet parking? To feel like a Vanderbilt? Folks, the shuttle service is free and easy, and if you’re really feeling healthy, the walk from the parking lot to the house is less than 10 minutes.

3) Bring a picnic lunch. We had a nice simple lunch we brought with us on a bench during our walk to the lake.  It was fun, and it saved us money compared to the pricey Biltmore eateries (think airport prices on the property).

4) While Biltmore is literally crawling with extremely well-informed guides, the general ticket doesn’t get you any sort of guided tour. Rather, you can pay $10 for a little cell-phone-like audio tour. I would highly recommend this, but would suggest you bring your own earbuds, as the headphones are curiously rationed, and normal earbuds will fit. Trust me – you don’t want to walk around the whole mansion holding the cell phone thing up to your ear. But do the audio tour. It’s worth the $10.

5) Travelling with a child? Leave the big stroller at home and bring the umbrella stroller and a backpack. Lots and lots of stairs everywhere at Biltmore – in the house and in the gardens – and you’ll end up carrying the stroller up lots of those stairs. Much of Biltmore is not wheel-friendly (keep this in mind for wheelchairs, too).

6) If you are travelling with a small child, do the gardens first so that they get plenty tired out.  Our two year old blessedly slept nearly the entire time we were touring the house because we wore him out first in the gardens.

7) Bring a few bottles of water with you. I didn’t see many water fountains, and we got pretty thirsty.

8) Buy your tickets a week ahead from the website, and save $10 a ticket. And if you go this summer, kids under 16 are free. Many B&Bs and hotels have special deals as well, so check with your accommodations before buying from the website.

Wine-tasting9) Stop off at the winery on your way out, as a few sample glasses of wine are a spectacular way to end a long day of seeing how the better half lived compared to your grandparents. It’s also fun to watch people sampling wine, as some of them look like they may have attended wine school in France, and beside them is the guy just gulping down free wine.

10) And if you are travelling with small children, and you spent all day dragging them through several floors of a turn-of-the-century mansion, you owe them at least a half hour at the little petting farm at Antler Hill. The kids can pet chickens and feed goats, which our two year old loved better than Disney. You must stop there.

All in all, a trip to Biltmore is something you should do if you have any interest in American history, and especially if you curious about the way a very small segment of the population lived at the turn of the century. It’s a bit pricey to enter, but it’s money well-spent.

Tomb Sweeping Day on Mt. Qingcheng

Nothing says Tomb Sweeping Day like climbing a mountain.  And it makes it better that this was the mountain that inspired the makers of Kung Fu Panda 2!

Thimblerig's Ark Cover ArtMeanwhile, if you are looking for a good middle grade fantasy novel, try my new novel, Thimblerig’s Ark.  You know about Noah, but wait until you read the animal’s story!  The novel was inspired by C.S. Lewis, the book of Genesis, and an Irish pub song that tells why the unicorns didn’t make it on Noah’s Ark.