Taipei, Taiwan: bubble tea, panda bears and gondolas

The Maokong Gondola

My favorite day in Taipei was our third day. I just love a good zoo. Having grown up in Fort Worth, TX, we spent many spring and fall days at the zoo (not many summer days though…boy does it get hot in the summer time in Texas!). We have traveled around quite a bit now, and I always enjoy being able to see the diversity of animals at zoos around the world. We’ve seen zoos in the Amazon of Peru, Nicaragua, Panama, and now Taipei!

After a quick breakfast at a little cafe, we walked over to the metro station and got comfortable on the subway for the 40 minute ride out to the zoo. We decided to do the gondola ride before the zoo, so that we could enjoy it in the cool part of the day.

The Maokong Gondola and the Taipei Zoo are in the same area, so it worked out well to ride the gondola up the mountain and then get off on the way back down and walk the zoo from the back to the front.

I don’t know what I quite expected from the gondola ride, but it was so much more amazing than I anticipated!

The views were breathtaking. We could even see Taipei 101 far off in the distance! The kids loved it.

 

I thought Olivia would be scared, but she handled it well, and Cliff was so amped up about flying through the sky. He’s a little daredevil!

We bypassed the stops along the way and took it all the way up to the top for our first stop. By this time it was about lunch time (though it’s always lunch time with our kids…), so we decided to walk around and find some food. There were winding roads lined with food stands and souvenir shops and it was a perfectly cool day for walking.

We decided to eat in a large covered area of food stands.

For lunch we ate some flavorful noodles and sausage-on-a-stick, and of course some dumplings, but the favorite part of the meal was the bubble milk tea.

Violet commandeered the cup pretty quickly when she discovered how delicious it was. 

After lunch we walked around the streets a bit more. We also made a very necessary stop for some matcha green tea ice cream at a cute little tea shop. I loved the brightly-colored tins of tea!

There were also these interesting “tea roast eggs” though we were all so full none of us tried them.

I didn’t see them the rest of our trip, but next time we’re in Taiwan I will make sure to taste one! The ice cream was delicious. Of course.

The views from the top of the mountain were really amazing, and the air felt cool and clean.

We had a nice walk around the little town, saw some locals having a road rage episode in the narrow mountain streets, and then headed back to the Maokong Station. We stopped at the next stop down the mountain, Zhinan Temple.

Zhinan Temple

There was a beautifully ornate pavilion and water fountain at the Zhinan Temple stop!

It was starting to get hot by this time, and we were glad we’d done the gondola in the first hours of our day. It took us a while to figure out which way to Zhinan Temple (since we don’t read Mandarin!) but soon we were on our way again. The walk down there was pretty and winding, with flowers lining the path, and gold tasseled tags hanging from trees (I assume these were prayers or offerings).

The temple was unfortunately well under construction, but the views were still amazing.

Again, we were able to spot Taipei 101 from up here. The structures were beautiful, and I wish the temple hadn’t been covered in scaffolding!

 

After this it was time to head back to the station and take our last gondola ride down to the South Zoo Station.

The Taipei Zoo

We made it to the zoo by 2:00pm or so, and the kids were starting to feel pretty tired. There was a fun little train that picked us up at the South entrance, and that really made Cliff’s day. Trains are just about his favorite thing. We were able to see the reptile house (they had requested to see snakes), and the bird aviary. Flamingoes are one of Olivia’s favorite zoo animals. Possibly because they are the only naturally-occurring pink animal that she knows of…

The aviary was actually really cool! I was amazed by the variety of birds! They were all so colorful. I wish I’d been able to read the signs!

At this point both Cliff and Violet passed out cold, which I honestly felt really bad about! We’d been talking about seeing panda bears all week, but Olivia was the only one awake for them! Such is life, I suppose. The panda was adorable. They had just tied up his bamboo and other treats around the cage when we arrived, but he was quick to locate them!

From what I gathered from the signs, he had been born and raised in the Taipei Zoo. It was really fun to see the panda. Such an amazing animal! Olivia got to get close up and personal with the statue 😉

We got a glimpse of the koala bears, though they were pretty sleepy. I was surprised to learn that koala bears sleep 18-22 hours a day!

Near the front of the zoo there was an area that was dedicated to animals that are local to Taiwan. The Formosan Clouded Leopard made quite a show when we stopped by. He came out of hiding and made a lot of noise!

We also saw Taiwanese deer.

The Formosan Black Bear was so funny looking. He looked like a big Chow dog!

Formosan Rock Monkeys were the last animals we saw. (These we would also see in the Taroko Gorge National Park later in the week!)

It had been such a fun day. All the walking had left us pretty exhausted, but it had been good.

We took the metro back to Taipei City and had some delicious curry and naan at the number one restaurant in Taipei, Mayur Indian Kitchen. Then we headed back to our AirBnB for some much-needed rest. The next day we would be exploring the local markets and the Bopiliao Historic District!

Okinawa: Children’s Day

Children’s Day was highly anticipated in our home this year. It’s a Japanese holiday that is celebrated on May 5th. Originally it was boy’s day, since girls have their own holiday (Hinamatsuri) on March 3rd. Traditionally, for Children’s Day families with boys fly large carp streamers outside their homes.

Legend says that the carp swims upstream to become a dragon, so they symbolize strength and success for Japanese boys. Since it is our second year in Okinawa, the kids knew to be looking forward to it and have been making Children’s Day crafts at school for a while now.

I noticed the carp streamers above the river near our house for a couple weeks, but when I ran by the river late last week there were more than I’d ever seen before! It was a fantastic display.

We decided we should do everything the children like on Children’s Day. So we started the day off with pancakes for breakfast, topped with sliced strawberries and homemade syrup (strawberries are a delicacy for us living in Okinawa, since they can be very expensive!).

We went on a scooter ride/walk after breakfast and walked to the river to see the carp streamers. We’d heard there would be a festival going on and were happy to find some tents set up with food vendors and activities for the kids.

They had been forecasting storms for days now, but it turned out to be another beautiful (though pretty hot!) day!

There was a stage set up with performers dancing, singing, acting and drumming.

We also saw a tent renting fishing poles, and quite a few people were fishing for carp, perch and turtles in the river.

Along the river we saw some beautiful butterflies. This one had “eyes” on it’s wings!

My kids were stoked when they saw among the food being sold was corn on the cob. I don’t know why they love it so much – they’re so funny! The lunch was delicious –  squid balls for me, yakitori and fried cheese for the kids, and of corn on the cob.

After lunch the kids discovered a butterfly tent. It was full of enormous white and black striped butterflies that fluttered around listlessly.

Many of them landed on us, and we enjoyed watching their tiny proboscis unfurl and sip up the sweet nectar.

There was also a tent with goldfish fishing and for 50 Yen (about 50 cents) you could try to catch one with a net. The little nets they gave us to use were made of paper. I think it was a game, that you were supposed to catch it really fast – but obviously that wasn’t going to happen! Finally, the ladies running the booth caught a fish with a real net. We are now proud owners of two goldfish. The first pets for our nomadic children.

By this time Violet’s little cheeks were flushed red and we were all feeling the heat. We ordered a red bean shaved ice as a treat to cool us all off before walking home.

After some rest at home we ended our day with pizza and a movie – the first time we’ve ever done that, believe it or not! The kids were so happy to have a day that celebrates them. It may not have been traditional, but we sure enjoyed our version of Children’s Day!

Okinawa: Kin Okawa Springs Park

We really got on a roll seeing all that our small island has to offer this week. I was half tempted to stay inside and away from the crowds and traffic during Golden Week. Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m not a big crowd person, and being around a lot of people really drains me. But I’m so glad we took the opportunity to check out the hot springs on Thursday!

It is located in Kin, which is just about 30 minutes north of us, near Camp Hansen. It was pretty crowded, but the kids still had a great time.

The hot springs are diverted into a play area with fountains for children to enjoy. There’s also a large waterfall wall and “river” that was perfect for short chubby legs to wade around.

At the end of the park the springs flow into a pond area where water lilies were in full bloom.

Olivia and Cliff had fun trying to catch minnows in their bug catchers that we picked up at the Daiso (100 Yen Store) on the way there. We took bento boxes and had a picnic lunch in the shade and they had fun shooting each other with water guns (also Daiso finds). If you’re a local to Okinawa and want to plan your own trip up here you can find out all the details and directions here. We sure enjoyed our time at this park!

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Okinawa: impromptu beach day 

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I’m terrible at doing things spur of the moment, or going somewhere unprepared. Maybe terrible isn’t the right word, since I’ve been married to a spur-of-the-moment-guy for eight years now…I have gotten better. But it’s still difficult for me to commit to something that isn’t planned. Wednesday the kids had off school for Golden Week so we met some friends at a dog cafe (yes, that’s a thing! It was so cute!) for coffee and brunch.

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It was pouring rain so our plans to let the kids and dogs play in the dog park next door were not going to happen. As the rain started clearing up we decided to drive down to the Seawall and walk around. We’d brought rain jackets and I had a change of clothes for all the kids in a bag in the car. I try not to go anywhere without that bag! It was barely sprinkling when we arrived at the beach and so we all piled out and our group leisurely made our way to the beach. Olivia and Cliff had a great time walking the dogs.

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We settled on some steps in the sand and the babies started venturing out of their carriers and strollers.

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Violet is always hesitant to play in the sand. She doesn’t quite like the feel of it (she may get that from her mom…)! After looking for coral pieces and shells and finding a few hermit crabs, the tide started going out quickly. Within an hour or so it had receded so far that it exposed numerous small “islands” of rock and coral covered in a beautiful carpet of bright green seaweed. The clouds also started clearing and it turned into a perfect afternoon!

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We had such fun exploring the little tide pools. There were sea anemones tucked in every little nook and cranny. Tiny fish darted back and forth around the rocks. Hermit crabs and snails occupied countless beautiful smooth shells. Olivia and Cliff were having a wonderful time perusing the area.

Violet was very resistant to go into the water until we tried the tide pools.

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“Are you crazy? I’m not going in there!”

I think she liked it better because the water was warmer in the shallow pools. There were some perfect little baby-bath-sized tide pools!

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Eventually all three of the little babies had made their way to the same pool and sat together for a while. They were so cute to watch!

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I managed to get a picture of all three of my crazy littles together (a rare thing for sure). Now to just get them to take pictures without peace signs! That’ll be the day!

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I was reminded of how important it is to have an open mind and be willing to seek out adventure with our children. It definitely filled their souls to be in nature and to be explorers for an afternoon!

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Okinawa: Lily Festival

“Have you ever been to a flower festival?” a friend asked me. I was sort of surprised when I realized I hadn’t. There are so many great festivals like the Lily Festival here in Okinawa. I had heard about this one on IE Island recently (it runs from April 22-May 7 this year), but had forgotten to put it on our bucket list. Thankfully we have great friends who invited us along on the short trek off island. They have three littles also, so we were a nice big group!

We left from Motobu Port in Nago, which is just about an hour north of us in Okinawa. The ferry leaves port every hour on the hour during Golden Week. Golden Week is a special week in Japan chock full of holidays. It starts on April 29th with Showa Day, which was originally the Emperor of Japan’s birthday. Then May 3rd is Constitution Memorial Day and May 5th is the widely celebrated Children’s Day. Many businesses also close on May 1st for May day, and also May 4th, so you end up with about a week of festivities. Schools close down and families celebrate by visiting some of the fun sights around island.

It also means crazy traffic, so we were lucky to miss a lot of that by getting out early on Sunday morning, the 29th. We had prepared ourselves for a very busy festival, but were pleasantly surprised when that wasn’t the case. The day was perfect – sunny and calm, and the ocean was so still it looked like glass. Thankfully, the sauna-room-heat of island summer has not quite made it here yet. 

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The IE Island Ferry

The ferry was really fun. Cliff had been talking about going on the “Fairy Boat” all week, and was pretty pumped. We did have to explain to him that it had nothing to do with the Tooth Fairy (who has been making regular rounds to our home lately).

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Looking for flying fish!

The ferry trip took about half an hour and before we knew it we were walking onto IE island, making our way to the buses, which would take us to the festival grounds.

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The port of IE Island

It was just a few dollars per adult for the bus ride, and 15 minutes later we were there.

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The fields of lilies were enchanting. Everywhere you looked there were different sizes and colors of lilies, and the fields seemed to go on forever.

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The kids chased butterflies and Olivia found some bugs to play with.

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Some of the kids went on a short horse ride. There were several different food vendors at the festival, with many choices, from chicken nuggets to noodle dishes and ice cream. The water was expensive, so next time we’ll pack in more. We ate at the covered picnic tables and listened to the twanging music at the tent next door, as Japanese women dressed in kimonos and danced with lilies in hand.

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Our kids were a bit grumpy that day – they had been up late the night before, which isn’t something we allow often. And we were reminded why! But it was still a fun time.

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After lunch we walked farther along the path and saw the fields of colored lilies.

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The sea salt air smelled fresh and made me stop and take it all in a little more.

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It was a perfect peaceful island, and we were thankful to be able to explore it. I think it’s a place we’ll come back to – maybe for some beach camping. It was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday!

Why traveling with kids is worth the work

Have you ever wondered if traveling with kids would be worth the hassle? I have. Every time we’ve packed our crew and left for a trip besides the grocery store, I have had that question in my mind – is this going to be worth all the WORK? But the answer is almost always a resounding YES. Why is that you ask? What can make all the meltdowns and crying and extra work worth it? The memories. They are priceless moments that are captured in a shared moment, perhaps overlooking the winding terraces of Colca Canyon Peru, with alpaca gracefully dotting the surrounding hills.

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Colca Canyon, Peru

Perhaps it’s a moment captured by camera, you and your child, smiling at each other because you’ve pushed yourself outside of your comfort zone – you’ve gone somewhere amazing together – and you’ll always remember it.

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First scooter ride in Taiwan

Let’s face it, even going to Target can be challenging when you have babies and/or toddlers. When we lived in the states I loved going to Target (it’s one of the things I miss most about living in the U.S.!), but every time I started unloading my then two young toddlers I wondered if it was going to be worth it! Traveling is no different. Whether you’re taking a short road trip that will bring you back home to your own warm snug bed at night, or going on an International flight that will find you in some exotic location, the struggle is the same. The battle of the wills, the exhaustion, the HANGRY episodes!

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Meltdown central

We’ve had our share of those, that’s for sure! But the good always outweighs the bad. And that’s why we continue to pack our bags and go on an adventure.

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Crossing a bridge in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

Someday, we hope our children will have learned a few things from all of our travel. We hope they’ll have a better understanding of our world and its needs, we hope they’ll have more compassion for each person they meet, and we hope they’ll have many priceless memories. 

Taipei, Taiwan: skyscrapers, dumplings and memorials

If you haven’t read about the start of our adventure in Taiwan, you can do that here.

Our first full day we took the metro from our apartment in the Wanhua District to check out Taipei 101 – the fourth tallest building in the world.

We got to experience taking the world’s fastest elevator. On the way up our ears were all popping and I got some pretty intense pressure in my head! It was fast!

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When we got to the top our children became the center of attention with all the dear sweet Asian women who were touring the city. At first it was cute, but as person after person asked for a picture with each of the kids John and I started feeling like security guards holding off the paparazzi.

It was pretty funny. We finally managed to escape the hoards of people trying to snap photos with our kids, and got to take in the views. And boy were the views incredible.

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We were so blessed to have a perfect day with clear skies and great visibility.

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After we were done taking in the 360 degrees of views, we took another elevator up to the very top platform that was open-air. We attempted a family selfie with my big camera – this has gotten harder as our family has grown! (And this is why we love traveling with our Joby! I can catch full photos like the one above instead of half-face photos like the one below!)

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Another big item on our list for Taipei was eating at the famous Din Tai Fung, which conveniently was located at the bottom of Taipei 101. The Xiaolongbao was so delicious.

We sampled a large portion of the menu, and still only spent about $30 USD for our whole family. It was our most expensive dinner (by far) out the whole 10 day trip. The food was so inexpensive in Taiwan! We could see the chefs making the dumplings while we ate. Cliff was really intrigued. He loves food and loves making food!

After we were done checking out Taipei 101 we hopped back on the metro and headed towards Daan Park. The kids had a blast getting out all their energy on the huge playgrounds.

There was a little coffee cart nearby that was selling iced coffee, so while the kids played John hooked us up with a cup. It was well into the afternoon by then, and some of our littles were really feeling the exhaustion of a full day of fun.

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We weren’t done yet though – next it was on to the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial. We were so thankful we decided to take our umbrella stroller to Taiwan, in addition to the Ergo (which is a true life-saver when traveling with babies and/or toddlers). Olivia and Cliff took turns riding in the stroller and helped us get the most out of our days.

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Cliff & Violet taking a turn pushing

The memorial was breathtaking.

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The grounds were huge and on each side were two stately buildings, one the national concert hall and one the national theater.

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Family picture – thanks to our Joby

At the far end of the grounds was the actual memorial, which reminded us a bit of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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Violet’s paci (aka Bogo) – we never leave without it!

When we realized they were going to have to climb all those steps to see the memorial (we’d already had a FULL day), John used his fast-thinking skills (critical skills to have as a dad) and offered a piece of gum to the first one to the top. The race was on before he’d finished announcing it, and Olivia and Cliff moved faster than I’d seen them move all day!

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Superheros! Fast as lightning.

They are so funny. We should bribe them with gum more often…there would be so much less whining (keepin’ it real, here!).

It had been a beautiful warm, sunny day and we finished it off with some bubble milk tea to cool off. Then it was back to the apartment for some rest and relaxation (and a little foot massage at a nearby massage parlor). Taipei was proving to be a fun city. The next day we’d be visiting the Taipei Zoo!

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