Ski Yongpyong! (스크 용평!)

The Two Crabs have two shared passions in life: traveling and skiing.  So when we landed our Korea assignment, we were psyched because Korea has 1) snow and 2) ski resorts!  South Korea has a young but growing ski industry, no surprise in a country that is about 70% mountainous.  In 2018, South Korea's Pyeongchang County will host the 2018 Winter Olympics

649px-Pyeongchang_location_in_Korea Last Monday, to avoid the weekend crowds, the Two Crabs took a day off work to hit the slopes. So we waxed up the skis, packed the Jeep Wrangler and hit the road to Yongpyong, by far the largest and most built-up ski resort in Korea and the main venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics.  

Location & Directions: Like most of Korea's ski resorts, Yongpyong is located in Gangwon Province. Yongpyong Resort is located about 127 miles east of Seoul.  Leaving Seoul at 7:30am on Monday morning, it took us about 2 hours, 15 minutes to drive there with zero traffic (on a Saturday afternoon, the same trip can easily take 4-5 hours due to Korea's infamous weekend traffic). The best route from Seoul is Route 1 to Route 50 toll road (W9,000). 

Basic info & Price: Yongpyong has 31 runs and 15 lifts including one main gondola. IMG_5766Foreign visitors will be pleased to know that most of the ticket agents speak basic English, and all the piste maps, the resort website, and most of the signs are in Korean and English. Lift passes at Yongpyong come in a variety of prices and packages, based on the times you are skiing. We paid 66,000 won (about $62 USD) each for the 10am-4:30pm lift pass. Ski and board rentals are also available; we noticed that the basic ski rentals are sub-standard compared to U.S. or European ski resorts; if you're a good skier, shell out the extra bucks for premium equipment rentals.

Weather & Snow Conditions: On our ski day, the weather in Yongpyong was about 28F / -2C, or about 10F colder than it was in Seoul.  The snow conditions at Yongpyong was a mix of natural and man-made snow. I would characterize the snow conditions as dry and frozen granular. If you've ever skiied in the Mid-Atlantic / East Coast, the snow at Yongpyong was similar to a good cold day at a Pennsylvania ski resort.

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 Terrain: Let me preface this by saying that the Two Crabs are advanced intermediate skiers; we've skiied everywhere from West Virginia & Pennsylvania to Austria, France and Italy.  If you're used to skiing in the Rockies or the Alps, you may be disappointed. The terrain at Yongpyong (and most of Korea) is similar to those found at southern Pennsylvania resorts. Yongpyong runs are mainly beginner (green) and lower intermediate (blue).

IMG_5749The so-called "black" runs on the left side of the mountain would be an intermediate on the East Coast -- or a difficult beginner run in Austria!  We didn't have a chance to ski the "double black diamonds" on the far right side of the mountain because they were closed for most of the day, but I imagine they would be similar to an East Coast black / Austrian intermediate.  Our favorite run at Yongpyong was actually the "Rainbow Paradise" - a long, lazy blue run that's more than 5km long!  If you want to stay away from the crowds, keep to the intermediate and advanced run areas.

One very annoying issue at Yongpyong: the ski runs are named for colors, and the colors don't match the run rating -- the "red" run is actually a blue rating; the "new red" and "blue" runs are actually blacks, etc!  So if you're a beginner, make sure you examine your piste map closely before attemtping any runs that might be beyond your skill level. 

Lodging: We were only at Yongpyong for a day trip. But lodging at Yongpyong, and at most Korean ski resorts, is very expensive. According to their website, average rooms cost $250-$500 per night! The higher end rooms can accomodate up to 6 people so it's best to go with a group and split the costs. There is also a youth hostel at the resort.  The hotel rooms come in both Western-style rooms with real beds, and Korean "ondol" rooms where guests sleep on mats on heated floor.  

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Dining: There is no shortage of dining options at Yongpyong. The main ski lodge has a food court with many options from Korean to fast food. The mountaintop gondola station has a Western and Korean restaurant plus street food vendors selling everything from pretzels to churros.  We had lunch at the "Green Snack" restaurant. The portions are huge and cheap. For less than $6, the Two Crabs shared a pork cutlet, which was similar to weinerschnitzel covered in a tangy sauce and several sides and a yummy soup. Tip: You mut order and pay at a separate desk and pick up a food ticket, then get in the food lines and hand your ticket to the cook. Nearly every restaurant had an indoor and outdoor seating area, but we were usually the only skiers sitting outside. The indoor seating areas at Yongpyong restaurants and shops are UNCOMFORTABLY hot, with the heat cranked up to sauna-like temperatures!

Apres Ski: From our first impression, Koreans have yet to discover apres ski. Although beer is sold at all the restaurants, we didn't see anybody else partaking. At lunch, the Two Crabs were the only skiers drinking beer. Later at the Gold Snack shack, we got some strange looks when, again, we were the only people drinking beer when everyone else was nursing their hot chocolate and tea. 


Facilities: The main lodge and base gondola station (above), houses a lift pass ticket booth, ski and snowboard rentals, locker rooms, lockers, several snow sports shops and a ski/snowboard repair shop. Dining options include a main cafeteria with fireplace and several restaurants including a burger joint and Chinese restaurant. The Twosome Place coffee shop has indoor and outdoor seating.  Lessons are also offered, including English lessons taught by native speaking instructors. The resort village also includes several other lift pass stations, an outdoor stage, children's play area and snow tubing area. 

Bottom line: It's not Austria, but Yongpyong is a pretty good time. The Two Crabs will be back! A few more scenes from Yongpyong...

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IMG_5663 Pyeongchang-2018-logo

Christmas in Korea!


Merry Christmas from Korea!  Actually, since about mid September, it's already started to look a lot like Christmas.  For better or worse, Koreans have embraced every aspect of the holiday season, from over-the-top consumerism to holiday decorations, music, gift-giving and other traditions. Religiously, South Korea is about 33% Christian, 25% Buddhist and the rest are secular or no religious affiliation. But nearly all Koreans - Christian or not - have embraced some aspect of Christmas. Downtown Seoul is decorated in lights and tinsel. The grounds of Seoul City Hall have been transformed into Korea's version of the Rockefeller Center -- a Winter Wonderland with a giant Christmas tree and ice skating rink!  A few scenes from around Seoul:

IMG_1269Shinsegae - Korea's most high-end department store, decorated a la Macy's or Harrod's.


Giant Christmas tree in front of Seoul City Hall.

IMG_5649Mr. & Mrs. Korean Frosty, at Incheon International Airport.

IMG_5611Scenes around Itaewon, Seoul.

1497590_10153553975645109_999724852_nA snowy day last week outside of Gyeongbokgung - Seoul's main palace.

And a few scenes from the Two Crabs' Christmas tree and our collection of ornaments from around the world. And in case you're wondering, the U.S. Passport ornament came from Pottery Barn's travel ornament collection. The Union Jack on the Maryland Blue Crab shell was handmade by my awesome brother-in-law.  





Camping & Hiking Seoraksan National Park

A few weeks ago, the Two Crabs took our second camping trip in South Korea. This time, we went to Seoraksan National Park to take in the autumn colors. Having learned our lesson the hard way, this time we left Seoul on Sunday morning, camped overnight, and returned to Seoul on Monday afternoon, which happened to be an American holiday. What a difference a day makes. There was ZERO traffic...Seoul to Seoraksan was barely 2 hours, 15 minutes drive...our last coast-to-coast trip on a Sunday afternoon took 6 hours!  

We arrived at Seoraksan campground about 10am. Everyone was packing up and leaving for the weekend, so we had our pick of campsites. Most of the folks who remained Sunday night were other Americans enjoying the U.S. holiday. (You can always spot the Americans; they are the ones with REI tents!)  The campground here was much nicer than the place we stayed in Odaesan NP. The sites were larger, many with shade and grassy spots, and plenty of restrooms and camp kitchens. The campsite was about 3x larger than Odaesan so no shortage of space for tent campers.  

Directly across the street from the campground entrance is a bus stop. Hop on any bus for the 3 mile journey to the park entrance. The bus stops at a Minbak village that is lined with restaurants, hotels, and shops selling very basic camping gear. Good thing too, because Mr. Crab FORGET HIS HIKING SHOES!  All I had were flip-flops! So I had to shell out $30 to buy a cheap pair of hikers.

With our kit ready, we headed into the park. Our goal was to hike 800+ meters straight up to Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), one of Korea's most famous mountain peaks. This hike is not for the faint of heart, especially if you have any fear of heights. You'll see why in a minute.

The first half of the hike is relatively tame, passing by a giant Buddha statue, some temples, and a few mom & pop restaurants serving snacks and cold beer.


When you reach the steps, get ready. Here comes the hard part! Nearly 1km straight up, and the last .4km is a real killer.

IMG_5179The path is a feat of marvel engineering, with staircases built straight into the rock face. Hard to imagine somebody had to haul all this equipment up here!


The reward: Ulan Bawi (Ulan Rock), with its 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. Face east, and you can see straight out to the coastline and the Sea of Japan.


It was about a 2 hour hike to the top.  After only a brief stop to enjoy the views, it was time to head back to make sure we got to the bottom before dark. It was quite dusk by the time we got to the bottom, then caught the bus back to our campsite for a nice campfire and dinner on the grill. 

Incidentally, there are two things you should know about camping in Korea: there are NO HOT SHOWERS. Only ice-cold, military barrack-style communal shower rooms. So unless it's the middle of summer or you truly enjoy taking ice baths with 20 other strangers, you might want to think twice. The other complaint about camping is the sites never have picnic tables. We ended up placing our camp stove on the ground. Cooking on your knees is not easy, so we may have to invest in a little REI folding table. 

WARNING: Rated PG-13 photo below. 

Although we enjoy taking the train, sometimes driving is just easier. By driving, you get exposed (pun intended) to some very interesting Korean roadside attractions. Case in point: Penis Park Rest Stop. Yes, you read that correctly. Actually, it's called Chungjung Sculpture Park. It's located on the road to Seoraksan, about two miles east of where Expressway 60 becomes Route 44. It's part sculpture garden, part highway rest stop. Along with the usual rest stop trinkets, you can also buy green ceramic celedon sculptures, coffee mugs, desk ornaments, and much more!

Ok, here's the rated PG-13 photos. You've been warned!





국녕사: The Golden Buddha of Bukhansan


Yesterday, the Two Crabs and friends took a hiking trip to experience one of the most amazing sights in Seoul - the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan. Located in Bukhansan National Park just north of downtown Seoul, the Golden Buddha of Bukhansan is the largest sitting Buddha statue in East Asia. 

We have been looking forward to experiencing this attraction since reading about it several expat blogs like this post.  Dubbed the Golden Buddha by foreigners, the Korean name of the statue is 국녕대불 - The Grand Buddha of Guknyeong, named so because it is part of the larger 국녕사 (Guk-nyeong-Sa), or Guknyeong Temple. 

Curiously, the Guknyeong Buddha is not mentioned in any of the usual English travel guides. We found the exact location only after scouring through detailed images of Bukhansan National Park on Google Earth.

The Guknyeong Buddha is located on the west side of the park, at 37°38'47.96" N, 126°57'46.80" E.

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To get to the trailhead by public transportation, take Seoul metro Line 3 to Gupabal station, exit 1.  Then look for the bus stop just outside the station.  Take either the #34, #704 or #8772 northbound bus for about 10 minutes and disembark at "Bukhansanseong Information Center", one of the main entrances to Bukhansan National Park.  The announcements on the bus are usually Korean-only, so if you're not sure, just follow all the other hikers when they get off! 

We had the day off for the Hangul Day holiday. The weather could not have been more perfect for hiking, 72 degrees and sunny.  Unfortunately, half of Seoul had the same idea, so we could not even get on a bus!  So we ended up walking about 45 minutes from Gupabal station to the park entrance.

Here's some Bing maps of the route we took. The green line was our "uphill" route; the red route was the return downhill trip. In the first photo, the blue circle in the lower left is Gupabal metro station; the blue circle on the upper right Guknyeong Temple. If you take the bus, it would drop you off just past where the red and green lines meet. The trail head is approximately where the red and green lines diverge. Click on the images for the full-sized photo.

Bingmaps2 - bukhansan_edited-1

Here's a more detailed map of the actual hike. The blue circle is the temple & Buddha: 


By foot from Gupabal station, we walked along the main road for a while until we saw English & Korean signs for the Bukhansanseong Information Center, one of the park's main ranger stations. That road led us down a residential road past some small shops and convenience stores, then onto the trail that parallels the main road. Follow the signs for Bukhansanseong Information Center.


After a short while, we arrived at the ranger station. The area was buzzing with activity. There is a large pay parking lot here too (I drove once here and vowed I would never do it again due to nightmare traffic). The neighborhood around the ranger station is a hiker's paradise, lined with outdoor supply stores (including The North Face), restaurants and cafes. At the ranger station, you can pick up a not-very-good map of the park (much better maps are available at Kyobo book store chains). Some of the rangers spoke English and were assisting the way-gooks (foreigners).


About 200 meters past the ranger station, you'll get to a fork in the road. Go right (the trails actually reconnect, but the right is easier and paved). The first mile or so of the trail is a steep but paved road, which is wheelchair and stroller accessible...sort of.  You'll eventually reach Daeseomun, the Great West Gate of the old fortress that was located within the park. 


After the gate, you'll pass a small temple on the right, then see a public restroom and a parking lot. 


From here, the trail will fork. Take the RIGHT trail, marked by an English sign pointing towards "Daenammun (Castle Gate)" and "Bukhansan Shelter." A silver sign on the right of the intersection shows "국녕사", your destination.


Once you see the statue above, the pavement ends and the trail starts becoming quite steep! After about 20 minutes, you'll reach an intersection next to what looks like some old guy's shanty house. It's actually a small monastery/temple. The main trail and most hikers will continue straight. Don't follow them. Instead, turn right into the "shanty house" courtyard!


Above: The "shanty town". Go through the red arch! Do NOT follow the other hikers. (IMPORTANT UPDATE: An alert reader has informed me that as of May 2017, the red arch in this photo is GONE.  Keep an eye out for this intersection and the house #266 blue sign, seen above on the stone wall). 


Follow the sidewalk through and around the shanty house and you'll emerge onto the trail and Korean signs to Guknyeong temple (국녕사). 

Just past the shanty house is this small temple:

The entire trail from the shanty house to the temple is very well marked -- in Korean. As long as you keep following signs for 국녕사, you'll end up at the Golden Buddha.


IMG_4889The trail is very narrow and steep in some parts, but not super difficult. After hiking for about 40 minutes from the shanty house, you'll suddenly emerge from the woods right into the face of Buddha!


IMG_4925According to the signage, the temple dates back 1,000 years. The modern temple was built in 1711. It's unclear when the 24-meter tall (79 feet) Grand Buddha itself was built, but the signs note that the entire complex was renovated in 2004. The Grand Buddha is surrounded by glass trophy cases containing 10,000 (!!) smaller Buddha statues, ranging in size from just two inches to two feet tall.


In addition to the Buddha, you can spend some time exploring the Guknyeong Temple complex, which includs a restaurant where you can grab a spot of lunch. A set of stone stairs leads up to two smaller temples and the bell tower.  

IMG_4963After some spiritual enlightenment and a quick lunch of packed sandwiches and fruit, we began the trek back to town. The return trailhead begins just to the right of the Grand Buddha.  It's a short but steep climb to the mountain peak, providing a good opportunity to look back for a birds-eye view of the Buddha and temple complex.



After a short but VERY steep climb, we reached the peak, where you'll come across the old fortress wall and some fantastic views of Seoul below.

IMG_5046The hike back down was quite challenging, because he terrain is covered in roots and boulders. This requires a lot of dexterity and close attention to where you're stepping. Eventually the trail levels off across some flat rocky and exposed terrain.


We eventually made it back to our original starting point, which is the Dulegil trailhead. Glad we didn't go counter-clockwise to the temple!

The roundrip hike from Bukhansanseong Information Center (ranger station) to the Guknyeong temple and back only takes 2-3 hours, depending how much time you spend admiring the temple. 


Back on the main road, we were finally able to board a Bus 704 back to Gupabal metro station. Bus 704 actually goes all the way to Seoul Station, but expect to spend an hour on the ride.

One last tip: If you go to the Grand Buddha, time your visit so you arrive before midday or after 2pm. We arrived about noon and the sun was directly behind and above the Buddha's head, so it made photography difficult. 

Road Trip - Korea Style!

Last weekend, the Two Crabs went on our first road trip outside of Seoul to Gangwon province on the East Coast of Korea.  Our goal: to camp overnight at Odaesan National Park.  Odaesan is not the most famous or popular park in Korea. But that's a good thing because it wasn't too crowded. So on Saturday morning, we threw the tent and camping gear in the Jeep and left Seoul at 8am. 

Driving in Korea is relatively easy. The highways are up to American specs, well-marked with English and Korean signs. There are huge rest areas every 25 kilometers or so featuring restaurants, shops, and even live music and batting cages. The highways are toll-based; driving from one end of the country to the other costs about $9.50. We decided NOT to drop $350 to buy a Korean GPS. Instead, we navigated the old-fashioned way by paying less than $10 for a road map, purchased from the huge Kyobo Book Centre near the US Embassy. 

Unfortunately, we failed to take into account Korea's infamous traffic congestion. It should have been a 2.5 hour drive. Instead it took almost 4 hours, with bumper-to-bumper traffic from Seoul to Wonju. Once we got past there, it was smooth sailing. 

We arrived at Odaesan Sogeumgang Campground about lunch time, and thankfully there were still about a dozen campsites available. The camping spots are all laid out in small squares marked by ground ropes. Compared to American or European campgrounds, the camp sites are much smaller and closer together. But we managed to find a little privacy, wedged against some huge boulders and set up camp under a huge Persimmon tree. The camp site costs just W16,000 per night, or less than $15 USD. 

Odaesan's campground has about 100 tent sites, and a handful of RV sites. Camping is a relatively new but growing pastime in Korea.  Recreational vehicles (campers) are not common. Most Koreans are tent campers. But "tent camping" is a relative term.  Our REI-stocked kit consisted of our awesome REI Quarter Dome T3 Plus tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, and a cooler full of food and beer.  Meanwhile, our Korean neighbors were sporting tents larger than some Korean apartments, with full-sized kitchens and more!


After a quick lunch, we took a short 2-hour hike to a nearby Buddhist temple.



After our hike, we strolled through the Minbak village located directly across the campground. The village was about a half-mile long road of Korean restaurants, convenience stores, bars, hiking & camping supply shops and minbaks (guest houses).  It's also where most tour buses and day-trippers begin and end their visit to Odaesan National Park.


On Sunday morning, the sun gave way to clouds and drizzle. So we packed up camp and continued east to the end of the road, Gyeongpo Beach, and dipped our toes in the Sea of Japan -- or the East Sea as Koreans call this body of water separating Korea & Japan. IMG_4737

After the brief beach visit, we began our drive east. But first, we decided to make a pilgrimage to the ski resorts of PyeongChang, future site of the 2018 Winter Olympics! Our first stop was YongPyong, the largest ski resort in Korea!



This is a large (by Korean standards) resort featuring 31 slopes, a gondola and several hotels, restaurants, bars, and more. Next door to YongPyong is Alpensia, where the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies will be held. About 30 minutes west of Alpensia & Yongpyong, we reached Phoenix Park, the venue where the snowboarding competitions will take place. When we arrived, workers were busy building an Olympic flame featuring an embedded digital display.



We are definately looking forward to hitting the slopes around Korea this winter!  After a quick lunch, we hit the road back to Seoul. FAIL. What should have been a 2-hour drive turned into a 5 hour ordeal, as every Korean and their uncle was attempting to return to Seoul at the same time. 

Lesson learned: When taking a weekend road trip out of Seoul, leave at 6am on Saturday, and don't start driving back until about 8pm!

Day trip to Seoul Namsan Tower

IMG_0353 Today is the first day of Chuseok, or Korean Thanksgiving.  For foreigners, this means a 5-day weekend.  For Koreans, it's the busiest travel day of the year. According to Arrirang News, 400,000 cars departed Seoul today. Highways are parking lots, and every train and plane ticket is sold out. Bad news for travelers, but great news for those of us opting for a stay-cation in Seoul. This city of 10.5 million is practically a ghost town now! 

Today, the Two Crabs took a day trip to N Tower, better known as Seoul Tower, the most prominent landmark in South Korea's capital city, located atop Namsan mountain. The tower is some 777 feet tall and features several restaurants and bars at the top and base, and even a teddy bear museum (??).

We decided to take the Gondola up and hike down. We took the metro to Myeong-dong station. Riding a practically empty metro car to our destination. 

Leave the station at Exit 3, and turn left down the road with the CU convenience store. You'll see Pacific Hotel. Go up the steep road to the right of Pacific Hotel for about 15 minutes until you reach the Gondola station. A one-way ride is 6,000W, and roundtrip ride is 8,000W.

Then the sucky part: apparently every Seoulite and tourist decided to visit Seoul Tower today.

We managed to get there at a decent time that we only had to wait about 20 minutes for the gondola. But soon after we arrived, the line grew until it stretched twice as long as when we started. The ride itself was only about 3 minutes long. 

When you come out of the gondola, you have two options: turn left to go up to Seoul tower, or turn right to head to a library and Namdaemun (more on that later). Turn left and walk up the stairs to the base station, featuring a gazebo, kitschy souvenir shops, kids games, and a few snack shops and a few bars.


By far the most popular attraction at the base station are padlocks. Yes, padlocks. It is a tradition for lovers to place padlocks on the fence around Seoul Tower, as a symbol of enduring love for each other. There are so many locks that some have been removed and used to create sculptures.

For us, the main reason to visit Seoul Tower are the amazing views of the city below:



To actually go up to the top of Seoul Tower, you'll need to shell out 9,000W per person. Or 20,000W for packages that include admission to the Teddy Bear Museum (why??).  We opted not to go up this time, because the thought of waiting in another long line was not our idea of a good time. But we did make an obligatory stop at the base station bar for a tasty beverage!

Afterward, we walked back toward the gondola station and followed the stairs down, following the signs for "library."  The trail down this path is shady, and we noticed there are lights along the trail so presumably you can hike up & down even at night. There were only a handful of people on the trail, as most visitors opted to ride the gondola up & down. The trail runs alongside the old city walls, part of which have been reconstructed since the were originally built in the 14th century. 


TIP: When you get to the Y intersection, go LEFT toward "library" to reach Hoehyeon metro station / Namdaemun market.  The right trail returns to the parking lot. 

At the bottom of the left library trail, you'll emerge at a little park and main road. Turn RIGHT, you'll pass said library, and walk about 200 yards until you get to a road tunel. Don't go through the tunel. Instead, cross the street at the crosswalk to reach another park, where you'll find a large section of the old city wall.


We continued down the stairs until we reached the Hilton Hotel, turned right and continued walking until we reached Namdaemun, one of the largest traditional markets in Seoul. By the time we got there, it was after 7pm so most of the market stalls and shops were closed, but the food stalls were just getting started. This was the reason we came to Namdaemun: Street Food!

The Crabs have always been huge fans of street food, and Asia has some of the best in the world. We dined on bbq chicken, steak, and stir-fried octopus with glass noodles, washed down with way too many bottles of cheap Cass beer. Our total bill for food & booze was about $30 USD.

For desert, don't miss eating a "hoteok" (호떡), a Korean doughy pancake filled with honey & peanuts and covered in cinnamon. A perfect ending to the night!

In praise of ... biking in Seoul

Mr. & Mrs. Crab share an common love for biking. When we lived in London, Mrs. Crab commutted to work daily by bike along Regent's Canal. And back in Arlington, Mr. Crab commutted daily to FSI (Foreign Service Institute), uphill both ways. So we were thrilled to learn that Seoul is a very cycle-friendly city. So we sent our bikes in UAB. 

One of the great pastimes and pleasures of living in Seoul is biking. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails in South Korea. You can even bike from Seoul to Busan on the southern tip of Korea in about 4 days, most of it along off-road, paved bike trails.

In Seoul, a 25-mile long bike trail runs along the north and south banks of the Han River. Compared to DC, the bike trails in Seoul have wide "Kramer Lanes!" Even better, there is a separate trail for joggers, walkers and mums with dogs & prams, so no worries about cyclists dodging pedestrians. The trial is lined with extra-curricular activities like outdoor gyms, picnic areas, restrooms, and buskers (street musicians) performing at the many outdoor amphitheaters along the trail. Parts of the north bank is covered by a freeway, shading riders from the blazing Seoul summer sun.

 The best bit about biking in Korea? Seven-11!  Along the north banks of the Han River, you'll see a handful of Seven-11 convenience stores. Unlike in America, Seven-11s in Asia are more like neighborhood bars & cafes. Many have outdoor table areas where you can enjoy cheap beer, coffee, ice cream, ramen noodles and other snacks.

First-time bikers will not feel out-of-place. Bikers in Korea come in all ages, shapes & sizes. You'll see everyone from cyclists in full professional kit, families in shorts & t-shirts and even folks carrying dogs in their baskets! Also, crime in Korea is extremely low, so no need to worry if your bike will still be there when you return.

We have one major pet peeve about biking in Korea: Korean bikers do not follow standard biking etiquette such as giving audible warnings when passing. In DC or London, you'll get an earful if you fail to ring your bell or yell "on your left" when passing. In Seoul, Lance Armstrong-wannabes have no qualms about flying past you within inches and cutting you off. But then there are other bikers who you can hear coming from afar because they are blaring music via speakers attached to their handlebars! 

A few more scenes of biking in Seoul:


Have Cat, Will Travel: The good, bad & ugly of traveling abroad with pets


(VERY long post. Skip if you don't have pets!)

Habibi the world travelin' kitty has arrived safely in Seoul, and adjusting to his new home quite nicely!  However, his journey from Washington to South Korea was not the most pleasant experience, for kitty and owners alike. 

A bit of background: we adopted Habibi during our first tour in Bahrain. When we returned to DC for training, Mrs. Crab and Habibi traveled from Bahrain to DC via Amsterdam on KLM - by far the best pet shipping experience to date. Kitty was even fed, watered and walked at the Pet Hotel in Amsterdam. The total cost was about 400 Euros. 

Flash forward to 2013. We began making preparations to export kitty several months in advance. This required a rabies titer test and a complete physical about 6 months before we departed. The most difficult task was finding an airline that would agree to ship Kitty in July; most airlines have very strict pet embargoes during summer months. Some airlines like Delta won't ship pets if the temperature is over 85F degrees at departure or arrival city. Other airlines won't ship pets at all between May and August. The only American carrier that would agree to fly Kitty was United Airlines, via their new PetSafe program. The itinerary was further complicated by the fact that we had to stop in San Francisco for some meetings en route to Seoul. 

United introduced PetSafe about a year ago, and since then, it's been rife with problems. Our relationship PetSafe began about four months before departure. Mrs. Crab booked a reservation for Habibi. However, depending on what day you called and who you spoke to, the total cost quote varied from $559 to $997. PetSafe reps were very confused over their own PetSafe company policy. The few reps who had even heard of the Foreign Service did not understand that State Department employees on government travel orders receive the same benefits as active duty military. On several calls, they attempted to charge us twice for each leg of our itinerary (WRONG: USG employees on orders pay a flat rate, IF the stopover is listed on travel orders). PetSafe reps also had little knowledge of operating procedure at airports. Some reps said we had to drop off or pick up Kitty at airport cargo warehouse (WRONG: State employees can drop off at the terminal check-in desk).  

Flash forward to July 2013. Ten days before traveling, Habibi had to get one final physical to confirm he was healthy enough to travel. The vet's documents had to be validated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pet office in Richmond, Virginia, which required us to take a day trip down to the capital because Richmond is the only office that handles pet export documents for DelMarVa, DC & WVa.  

On the morning of July 19, we arrived three hours early at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) for our flight to San Francisco. The United staff were friendly and sympathetic but completely unaware of the PetSafe policy or rates. The United staff called PetSafe's headquarters helpline and spent an hour on the phone, most of that time on hold, to clarify the rates and our elegibility for military benefits. We were finally allowed to pay the flat original rate of $559. However, nobody ever mentioned that we also had to pay $113 in taxes and handling fees, for a total cost of $702!  

After finally sorting everything out, we were instructed to take the cat & carrier to the TSA bag drop area. This place was a madhouse. The TSA officer told us we would have to take the cat out of the carrier so they could Xray the carrier. Habibi was cared shitless, as passengers around us ran by, dumping suitcases, golf clubs and boxes right next to us without any consideration. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. A female TSA officer asked to touch the cat. We're thinking she just wants to pet him. Nope. She proceeded to feel up Habibi from head to tail, including his private kitty bits. Habibi looked horrified and shaking. To add insult to injury, we were instructed to put the shaking cat back in the carrier and never touch him or the carrier again. As we tried to calm the cat, the TSA lady barked at us, "STOP, DON'T TOUCH HIM. BACK AWAY FROM THE CARRIER." That was the last we saw of Habibi at Dulles airport.

On board the plane, Mrs. Crab refused to leave until we received confirmation that kitty was on board. The United flight attendants were very kind and understanding. About 5 minutes before we pushed out, a kind gentleman confirmed Habibi was on board and ready to fly.

About five hours later, we arrived at SFO (San Francisco). No one seemed to know where we could pick up Habibi. The United lost luggage staff had never even heard of PetSafe!  We walked around aimlessly trying to find out where to find our pet. Finally, a very nice gentleman from the SFO's odd sized baggage office took it upon himself to track down Habibi. He finally reached PetSafe's cargo office and arranged for them to deliver Habibi directly to us at the terminal. 

Cat in hand, we took a taxi to Embassy Suites Airport hotel. Only to be told upon arrival that they no longer accept cats, and demanded that we find a new hotel! Never mind that we reconfirmed our cat stay with their front desk several weeks before our arrival. Mrs. Crab demanded they either let us stay or find us a new hotel, at per diem rates, on a busy weekend at the height of SanFran tourist season. By the time we reached our room, they called back and informed us they would make a special exception and would allow us to stay with kitty. Do NOT stay at Embassy Suites Airport if you have a pet.

In preparation, Mrs. Crab called PetSafe to reconfirm that everything was sorted.  On the morning of July 24, we returned to SFO to catch our flight to Seoul. The experience at SFO compared to IAD was night and day. The United staff at SFO International Terminal were completely aware and knowledgeable about how to deal with pet shipping and PetSafe. The United staff escorted to us to a more private, less congested TSA screening area of the airport. There, the kind and considerate TSA agent asked us to take the cat out while he inspected the carrier. He never touched the cat, were allowed to place him back in the carrier and say our goodbyes. Once we were on board, the flight attend even handed us a little card, confirming that Habibi was on board! 

Twelve hours later, we arrived in Seoul. Our sponsor walked us over to baggage claim, where we were presented with a DOG!  After some confusion, they brought out Habibi, who appeared a bit confused but no worse for the wear. We then walked over to the pet inspection station, where the attendant looked over his records and verified his microchip. We were in & out of the airport within 30 minutes. 

All in all, Habibi is fine. He's adjusting quite nicely to our new home in Seoul.

Every employee we dealt with at United and PetSafe were actually very kind folks and were clearly pet lovers. So it's not the staff thats the issue. All the problems at United & PetSafe seems to boil down to a lack of training and lack of dissemination of information. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. We appreciate that UA is now extending military benefits to Foreign Service employees. But UA & PetSafe would do great by better informing and training its staff, especially with regards to company policies.

If you're flying abroad with a pet, do not wait until the last minute. Start planning several months in advance. Keep calling and confirming everything. Take note of the times, dates and name of person you speak with each time. At the airport, bring copies of all your orders, and details of your conversations with PetSafe & United. And of course, make sure your pup or kitty is prepared, especially if they are nervous travelers. It's not easy or cheap to move abroad with a pet. But at the end of the day, our pets are part of our household.  



Moving-day Today is Pack-Out Day!  Although Seoul will only be my second tour in the Foreign Service, this will be our FIFTH pack-out since joining DOS: London to DC; DC to Bahrain; Bahrain to Bahrain (we were moved to a safer neighborhood due to deteriorating security situation); Bahrain to DC; and now DC to Seoul.  

After 5 moves, we almost have it down to a science. The most important challenge is figuring out what will go to Post and what will stay. And of the stuff going abroad, you need to decide what will go in UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage; arrives at Post within 2-3 weeks); HHE (Household Effects; usually goes by ship and can take 6-12 weeks); Washington storage; check-in luggage and carry-on bags. 

Our #1 moving tip: SEPARATE YOUR STUFF!  On our last tour we ended up shipping crap that should have stayed in storage, and stored stuff we could have used at Post. So now we separate everything (HHE/UAB/Storage/Plane) into different rooms. It's very time-consuming but so worth it.  

Full report to come!

CONGEN UPDATE: Mission Accomplished! I graduated ConGen yesterday with flying colors.  And I was named "Mr. ConGen-iality!" I'm not sure what job requirements or benefits come with this title, but I swear (or affirm) that I will serve with distinction. So help me, 214-B.


The Best of Bahrain


Above: The Tree of Life

Presenting the first (and last) The Two Crabs Best of Bahrain Awards! Mr. Crab is departing Bahrain in a few days. So before I bid "masalama", I leave you with my institutional knowledge gained from our two years in Bahrain. 


DSCN1005 Best Friday Brunch: The Movenpick. Friday Brunch is a beloved tradition in Bahrain. And Movenpick is by far the best of the many all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink brunches across the island. Movenpick has a great grill station, sushi, wine & cheese room, pasta, breads, salads, fun live band, and a mojito and Jameson station. What more do you need? 15% discount for NSA badge holders (including Embassy).  Honorable Mention: Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa. Bahrain's newest hotel offers the closest thing to a Dubai style Mega Brunch, featuring three interconnected restaurants and good champagne. 


Above: Sofitel Hotel, Zallaq Beach, Bahrain

 Best beach: The Sofitel Hotel. Sadly, Bahrain is an island with almost no beaches. The only good ones are either private property, or located at hotels. The best accessible beach is located at the Sofitel (I'm convinced they imported the perfect white sand from the Maldives).  But to enjoy said beach, you'll either need to stay overnight, or shell out $3,000 to join the Sofitel beach club. The Ritz-Carlton also has a nice beach, but it costs $4,500 membership fee and $4,500 per year. Honorable mention: Al Dar Island. A 15 minute, 5BD boat ride gets you to this tiny island off the east coast of Bahrain, where you can lounge on the tiny beach, enjoy cocktails and kebabs. There is also a small beach next door to Bahrain Fort.


Above: Bahrain Fort

Best tourist attraction: Bahrain Fort (Qalat al Bahrain). World class museum is the highlight of this old Portuguese-built fort located in Seef. Honorable mention: Honorable mention: Bahrain National Museum. Great exhibits on the Dilmun period of Bahrain's history, and rotating contemporary exhibits by Bahraini artists. Honorable mention 2: The hidden alleys, antique houses and coffee shops of Old Muharraq.


Above: Bahrain National Museum

Most under-rated tourist attraction: The National Oil Museum. Located in the desert near the Tree of Life, this little museum is home of Oil Well #1, the first place in the Middle East where oil was discovered. The small museum has an interesting exhibit about the history of oil in Bahrain and the Gulf, and cool old photos of Bahrain. Only open Friday and Saturday.

Above: Oil Well #1, Bahrain

Most overrated tourist attraction: The Tree of Life. Go see it once for your obligatory photo. Sadly, the tree is not maintained or secured, so you will often see litter, rude tourists sitting on the branches or carving their names into the 400-year-old tree trunk. 

Best Water Park: Lost Paradise of Dilmun. Go on movie nights, where you can watch flicks while wading in the wave pool. It's located in the center of the island and is one of three water parks in Bahrain. 

Best Amusement Park: Adhari Park. But only in the winter. Sadly I never went here but many of my colleagues with families have been and rave about it. The go-karts and bumper cars are some highlights.  That said, if you visit one theme park in the Gulf, go to Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. 


Best overall restaurant: Block 338.
Our favorite restaurant takes its name from the block number that houses Bahrain's top restaurant/nightlife district, better known as Adliya.  Of the many great restaurants located in Adliya, Block 338 by far remains the Two Crabs favorite restaurant!  For alfresco dining, Block 338 has the largest outdoor area we've seen, with tables scattered around the grassy front yard and chillax music playing throughout (sometimes live).  338 serves an international mix of delights; our favorites are the lollipop lamb chops, and the brined Hammour fish dish (which sadly seems to have vanished from the menu lately). Inside, 338 looks like a contemporary villa, with a lovely little bar on the ground floor. Friendly staff, though service can be slow. Discounts for NSA Bahrain badge holders.  


Above: Block 338

Honorable mention: Trader Vic's, located at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Seef.  Yes it's a chain restaurant. Yes it's got a cheezy Polynesian theme. But the Trader Vic's here has a great asian-inspired menu, and fun features like the outdoor island bar, the back deck patio, the indoor bar with great Puerto Rican band, and the friendly waitresses with their ubiquitois thigh-high slit skirts. Not to mention strong drinks. Don't miss our favorite, the "Suffering Bastard."

Best Chinese restaurant: Beijing in Adliya. Great, inexpensive meals makes this a great place for big parties. There's also karaoke rooms available. Honerable mentions: Tie between China Garden at the Gulf Hotel and Foli in Umm Al Hassan. 

Above: Honey Thai

Best Thai restaurant: HONEY THAI 

At first glance, this hole-in-the-wall located in the Souq looks like, well, a strip club. The windows are covered by newspapers taped to the glass. A tiny sign on the door reveals the generous hours: 10am - 5am (YES, it's open 19/7!) No alcohol. You'll find it across from Gold City Souq on the side road that ends at the Ministry of Municipalities building. It's one of several great little dive cheap and tasty restaurants located in the Souq.  Honorable mention: Lana Thai on Budaiya Highway, another hole-in-the-wall (alcohol served) with table seating and traditional floor seats. It's located halfway between Jannussen and Alosra roundabouts. 

Best Mexican: Casa Mexicana in Adliya. Let me preface by saying that no Mexican food can ever compare to my mom's cooking, or any restaurant in the Southwest. That said, of the handful of "Mexican" restaurants in Bahrain, I still prefer Casa Mexicana. Their tortilla soup and traditional "mole" (pronounced "maw-leh") dishes are the highlights.  Honorable mention:  Margarita Mexicana at the Gulf Hotel, where a chef will prepare guacamole tableside. As the name suggests, it also has the best margaritas in town. The rest: Senor Pacos is a great place for a birthday party or other group fun event, but don't expect much from the food, or the music. Ric's Kountry Kitchen has surprisingly good fajitas, taquitos and huevos rancheros. And when you're just feeling homesick, there's always Taco Bell at the Navy base (membership has its privileges). 

Best European/International: Upstairs/Downstairs in Adliya. Nightly live jazz musicians are a popular draw. Honorable Mention: Camelot, located across the street from Upstairs/Downstairs, this castle-shaped building is hard to miss. Come for wine tasting night every Tuesday. 

Best Middle Eastern/Persian: Tahkt Jamsheed at the Gulf Hotel. The Two Crabs are personally bigger fans of Persian cuisine than Lebanese/Middle Eastern food. If you've never had it, this is the beginning and end of your search. The food, particularly meat and fish dishes, are wonderfully spiced (not hot spicy) and flavorful. Honorable Mention: Parsian, a great neighborhood restaurant hidden in a quiet section of Adliya near Casa Mexicana. 

Best Indian: The Copper Chimney in Um Al Hassam. You may have second thoughts when you drive into this old neighborhood, but inside Copper is bright and tasty!  Great Indian, and best of all, alcohol is served. Runner up: The Clay Oven in Adliya (located near Casa Mexicana & Parsian). 

(Note: Casa Mexicana, Clay Oven and Parsian are all listed as being in Adliya, but they are actually on the outskirts. To find it from the Grand Mosque, take the road past Gulf Hotel, go through Shwarma Alley, continue straight to Carpet Alley. When you see KFC on the right, make an immediate left. The restaurants are all down on the right side streets). 

Best Sushi: Maki at Moda Mall (World Trade Center, the iconic building with the windmills). It is SUPER expensive. Expect to pay about $200+ for two people with one drink each. If you're a real sushi connoisseur, and you're celebrating a special occasion, Maki is the place to go!  Runner-up: Sato at the Gulf Hotel. Worth a mention: Bushido also has good sushi, but the portions are so tiny you need forceps and a magnifying glass. Bushido's best for tepanyaki style dishes. 

Best burger: Elevation Burger in Seef Mall. Runner-up: the Hard Rock Cafe on Exhibition Avenue. Yes, both are American brands. We know our burgers.

Best Pizza: Le Chocolat in Seef. Don't let the name deceive you. The front part of the building is indeed a pastry shop, but the back is a full-service restaurant with a real wood-fired oven. The pizza is out of this world and authentically Italian. 

Above: Temporary winter park/cafe in Adliya.

 Best Cafe: Cafe Lilou in Adliya. The outdoor cafe is often packed when the weather is cooperating. Fantastic sandwiches. This is a great place for a spot of lunch (no alcohol served). Honorable mention: Coco's, located in an unmarked building next door to Cafe Lilou with a beautiful outdoor patio seating area and great pasta. 

Best takeaway: Iskenderun Grills in Hoora (1-7293334). Good selection of kebabs, Turkish pizzas and grills. Honorable mention: NuAsia Cafe. Incidentally, you can get anything and everything delivered in Bahrain, including McDonalds and TCBY. 

Best Shisha (hookah) cafe: Al Bandaira Cafe in Gudabiya, directly across from J.J.s Like in many parts of the Middle East, business and conversation often takes place in a shisha cafe, where folks (usually men) smoke fruit-flavored tobacco out of a traditional water pipe. Al Bandaira is one of the few places where women can feel comfortable also smoking. Modeled after a traditional Bahraini home, this cafe has a family room on the second floor but women are welcomed anywhere. This place also serves great Middle Eastern dishes and fantastic hummus. 


Best Korean: Arrirang Do in Hoora. Located across the street from the Baisan Hotel/Warbler, Arrirang Do has bulgogi and beer! It's one of only two Korean restaurants in Bahrain.

Best schwarma stand: Airport Schwarma. Schwarma is Middle East fast food, it's basically a rolled pita filled with chicken or lamb meat and veg. It's only sold at night. You will find many schwarms stands on "Schwarma Alley" in Adliya behind the Gulf Hotel. Airport Schwarma is hard to find; it's located in Muharraq on the road to the airport, down the side street by Yum Yum Tree food court, but the sign is only in Arabic. 

Best Filipino: Bahay Kubo (1723-1996). A bit tricky to find, this lovely family restaurant is located on Road 723 in Gudabiya, behind the Middle East Hotel and across from the Indian Club (this neighborhood is home to many local, inexpensive restaurants). The house speciality here is Lechon Kawali (crispy pork belly). The seafood soup is creamy and delicious, full of crab and prawn bits, and Filipino standards like pancit and adobo rice are worth the hunt! There's a detailed map on the website, but free delivery is also an option.  



Best nightclub: Bushido in Seef. From the same people who brought you Buddha Bar. Bushido hosts regular Fashion TV events. By day, Bushido is a great Japanese/sushi restaurant.

Best bar: The Warbler. British-style pub with London Pride on tap! Honorable mention: The Bull's Head at the Dilmun Club.

Best bar with a view: The Meat Company rooftop bar in Adliya. Great people-watching spot and chillout music.  Expensive drinks. And a meal downstairs will easily set you back $100 USD for a steak and two drinks. 

Best hotel lounge: Downtown at the Interncontinental Regency Hotel, located in the parking lot for the Souq (big silver building with blue neon). Dress the part: No shorts or open-toed shoes for men (I found that out the hard way). 

Best Expat hang-out: Ric's Kountry Kitchen in Juffair. Typical expat bar with Western menu (blueberry pancakes, huevos rancheros, BBQ ribs, etc), currency on the ceiling and customer-scrawled graffitti on the walls. Good live music too. Honorable mention: JJ's in Gudabiya, especially on Monday karaoke nights. 

Best Irish bar: Fiddler's Green at the Diplomat Hotel. This place was a watering hole for war correspondents in 2001. Today it's a popular bar featuring a live Canadian band. Bahrain has no less than 10 Irish pubs now, including the little-known Irish Lounge located in Bahrain International Airport by Gate 12! 

Best bar for live music: Tie for Latin Quarter at Pars Interntional Hotel and JJ's in Gudabiya. Honorable mention: the bar at Trader Vic's currently featuring a Puerto Rican band.

Best private club: The Dilmun Club. One of 7 or 8 "country clubs" in Bahrain, the Dilmun features horseback riding lessons, tennis courts, a temperature-controlled swimming pool, and about five restaurants and bars. The biweekly pub quiz is very popular. Membership required, but free admission for NSA Bahrain badge holders. The Dilmun features an international, predominently British, clientele. 

A word on entertainment listings: The monthly Time Out Bahrain is a good place to start. But for more timely event listings, see the Daily Tribune on Wednesdays, or the Gulf Daily News on Thursdays. 


Best mall: Bahrain City Centre. Bahrain's largest shopping mall, featuring many popular American and British brands. When you're tired of shopping, stop for a drink at the attached Kempinski Hotel, which has several bars including the hidden cigar lounge, Boudoir. For the kids, the mall has the rooftop Wahoo water park and Magic Planet amusement park. Honorable mention: Seef Mall. once Bahrian's largest mall, it has been abandoned by weekend tourists, but it's a nice quiet place with a huge selection of American brand stores and restaurants including Elevation Burger, Gap, Victoria Secret (no underwear, just beauty products), Toys R Us, etc.

Best shopping: Manama Souq.  (Open 0900-1300 and 1600-2100 Sat-Thu, and 1600-2100 Fri). Located behind Bab Al Bahrain (Bahrain Gate) in downtown Manama, Bahrain's most traditional souq (market) is where locals shop. If you can't find it here, you can't find it at all. Most visitors only explore the first two or three blocks of the souq, where all the souvenirs and touristy items are sold -- overpriced -- especially at the "new" modern souq building. But if you venture further, you will discover some great hidden gems like little tea shops frequented by old Bahraini guys in their traditional thobe dress, antique stores, spice markets (above), housewares, kitcheware and much more. A few blocks east of the main souq is Gold City, a huge mall full of nothing but jewelry shops where you can watch artisans at work. But probably the main reason most expats come to the souq is to buy a custom-made suit or dress. Which leads us to the next item.

Best Tailor:  There is nothing like the feeling of a custom-made business suit. Manama Souq is home to probably 100 tailors. Most of them specialize in men's suits, but a few of the Indian sari shops can also make or replicate women's business attire. Everyone has their favorites. The Two Crabs favorite new tailor is Sharafali Fabrics (17 253 945); this place has an unbelievable selection of fabrics including linen. You can buy the fabric alone or get a custom-made suit here too. Expect to pay about $250 USD for a suit and one shirt. Right across the alley from Sarafali is another good shop, Kumar, which makes fantastic custom-fitted dress shirts for $20-$40 apiece. To find them, enter the Souq through the main Bab Al Bahrain Gate, walk about three blocks, and when you see Western Union on your left, turn left. You'll see Sharafali on the right and Kumar on the left. IMG_1019 Lots of folks also swear by Marhaba, where you can get a custom-made suit or tuxedo for only $100, and dress shirts for $20. That said, you get what you pay for. The pricier shops tend to have much higher quality fabrics and better tailoring. To reach Marhaba, enter the souq through the alley east (right) of Bahrain Gate and walk about 2.5 blocks; it will be on your left. 

Best grocery store: Geant at Bahrain Mall. Honorable mention: Tie between Alosra and Jawads, both located on Budaiya Highway near Barbar. (Note: This fall, Jawads is being rebranded as Waitrose, the upscale British chain). And if you're lucky enough to have Navy base priveleges, the NEX Commissary can't be beat for American goods. Note, produce and stables like meat, milk and butter are cheaper on the local economy, but American brand products are cheaper at the NEX.  

Best butcher: Sage & Sirloin in Hamala, near the Saudi Causeway. Not cheap - when you simpy must have the best cuts of meat or special BBQ! Runner-up: the Geant butcher counter. 

Best veterinarian: Dr. Nonie Coutts on Budaiya Highway (in the little strip mall just east of Alosra). This is actually their satellite office. The main clinic and hospital is in downtown Manama, hidden in a villa near the Japanese Embassy. The downtown location is also a "cattery" (that's British slang for a kennel for cats). If you have access, the Army vet at the Navy base is also good but it can be more expensive than Nonie Coutts.

Best Pet Supplies: Pet Arabia:  In a pinch, this place has pretty much anything you could need, but be warned that it is RIDICULOUSLY expensive. You will pay 2-3x what you would pay at PetSmart or Petco in the States.  If you have access to FPO address, you're better off ordering online. Geant and Carrefour also have a decent supply of (mainly French) pet products. 

Best hardware store: Manazal. Located in Salmabad about halfway between the Saudi Causeway and the American embassy, the three-story Manazal is Bahrain's Home Depot. You can find anything and everything here including grills, outdoor furniture, home repair parts, paint, etc. However, you'll pay way more than you would at Home Depot.  Sign up for the Bonus Card, which gets you a 10BD voucher for every 100BD you spend. Well worth it if you will be in Bahrain for a few years. Honorable mention: HomeZone in Seef Mall parking lot. 

Best place for Christmas decorations: Again, Manazal. It has by far the largest selection of Christmas trees, tree ornaments, lawn ornaments, wrapping and other decorations.  Runner-up: Carrefour at City Centre Mall, which even sells Santa suits.  

Best nursery: Al-Khair Agricultural Center Center on Budaiya Highway, halfway between Janussen and Alosra roundabouts. This place has a huge selection of live indoor & outdoor plants, trees, mulch, gardening tools and supplies. In the months before Christmas, they stock a good selection of poinsettas. Honorable mention: Jassim Trading & Agriculture, located just east of AL-Khair (next to Hardees & old Krispy Kreme shop). 

Best "Dinar" Store: Ramez. This is the equivelent of an American Dollar Store or British Pound Shop. There are several locations around Bahrain; the largest is near Tubli Bay, across the highway from Adahri Park amusement park. They also sell the same Middle Eastern souvenir items you will find at the Souq, at the same price you would pay AFTER bartering.  So if you're not a good at bartering, skip the Souq and get your souvenirs here. 


Best Road trip: Ikea in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Cheap flat-pack furniture and Swedish meatballs!  Ladies should wear the black abaya but don't need to cover their hair. And of course, you'll need a male driver, and a Saudi visa. It's available from the Saudi embassy in Manama and takes about 5 business days to receive. 


Best regional getaway (less than 90 minutes flight): Oman. Sometimes, it's just nice to see trees and mountains. The Omanis are friendly, hospitable people. Rent a car and get out to explore the canyons and wadis. This is the best place for families. For lodging options, we highly recommend the Shangri-La and the Chedi. The Shangri-La is a colassal resort with three separate hotels, including one specifically catering to kids; two of the hotels are connected by a lazy river! This place has the biggest beach in Muscat.  For couples and singles looking for pure luxury and hip venue, the Chedi is bar none, a minimalist contemporary style hotel with two infinity pools and a narrow beach.  For everyone, take a day trip to the Oman Dive Center, which offers swimming, diving, snorkeling and hiking options and has the best beach in Muscat. You can also stay overnight in little air-conditioned huts on the beach!

Best regional getaway (less than 3 hours): Cyprus. Only 2.5 hours flight, Cyprus is the closest European destination to Bahrain. For when you just really need to get away from the Middle East. Cyprus uses the Euro, but be aware they drive on the left just like Brits and Aussies. Honorable mention: Jordan. If you haven't been to Petra or the Dead Sea, you have not been to the Middle East! 

Best dream vacation: The Maldives. Only 5 hours from Bahrain via Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi. If you've ever wanted to get away from it all, sleep in a over-water bungalow and snorkel in a live aquarium, the Maldives is a trip of a lifetime. The diving and snorkeling are among among the best in the world. Everywhere you look, the scene looks like a screensaver!  One of the most romantic places on Earth. Leave the kids at home. 

Best getaways for art lovers: Doha and Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi will soon be home to satellites of New York City's Guggenheim Museum and Paris' Louvre Museum  Doha has the Museum of Islamic Arts, designed by I.M. Pei. 

Best regional airline: Etihad. Especially business class!

Best long-haul flight: United Airlines direct flight to Washington Dulles (with brief stop in Kuwait). 

Insider tips:

  • Best local deal: The Prestigue Club at the Gulf Hotel. Membership gets you 50% off all meals and 20% drinks when two people are dining at one of the Gulf's 10 bars and restaurants! The annual fee is 70BD but it more than pays for itself after 3 or 4 dinners out.
  • The Kempinski Hotel is the only place to get a drink at City Centre Mall. The hotel has a mezzaine level bar with seating "pods", and hidden in a corner behind an ornate set of doors you will find the Boudoir cigar bar. 
  • The Royal Golf Club is a great day trip, even if you're not a golfer or member. The RGC has four restaurants, three of which are open to the public incuding a lovely Italian spot, Prego. The lunch sandwiches are quite tasty. The RGC also has an award-winning brunch that is our #3 favorite brunch in Bahrain. For golfers, the RGC has special deals for military and diplomats. There's a very extensive pro shop too. 
  • At Bahrain International Airport, there is an often-overlooked Irish bar ABOVE Gate 12. The stairs are next to the smoking lounge. Alternatively, you can also access the Dilmun Lounge at the other end of the airport; admission is free if you are flying business, have an American Express card, or pay 10BD per person.
  • Bahrain has a chain of liquor stores called BMMI, open to non-Muslims only. The stores are unmarked and a bit hard to find. The most accessible one is located in the back parking lot of the Gulf Hotel. However, BMMI also offers home delivery! A good option if you do not have access to the NEX. However, it's overpriced compared to NEX or Bahrain Airport Duty Free shops. 
  • If you are flying away on a weekend trip and want to buy something for yourself at Bahrain Airport Duty Free, you can buy it before you take-off, and pick it up when you return to Bahrain  Simply make your purchase and then take it to the Customer Service desk, fill out the form with your travel data, and it will be ready for pick up at the little shop just past the customs & immigration desk. 
  • During winter months (November-February), many Bahraini families "camp" in the desert near the Tree of Life. Take the opportunity to drive down and stop at some of the makeshift coffee shops that spring up along the road. Tell the guy at "Star Coffee" we said hello.
  • The Grand Mosque in Juffair offers free tours for non-Muslims, everyday except Friday. No appointment needed, just show up and you will be assigned an English-speaking tour guide. 
  • Looking for a bit of culture? Check out Al Riwaq Art Space in the pedestrian zone of Adliya, across from the Meat Co. Al Riwaq hosts exhibits by visiting international artists. 
  • During the Christmas season, go to the Souq and stock up on paper mache tree ornaments. In the "new souq" building, you will find a kiosk that sells hand-painted ornaments; the artist will inscribe your family's names on the ball in Arabic. 
  • For culture vultures, Bahrain is sadly lacking in performing arts options. However, Bahrain is now building its first National Theatre and is scheduled to open in November 2012. The theatre is located behind the National Museum. 

Yet another Adliya photo: