Surrounded by elaborately decorated Christmas trees, jolly holiday music, leisurely strolls by horse and carriage, and holiday markets stuffed with artisan goods, you may have a feeling that you might be in the North Pole, but there’s just as good a chance that you’re in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley area, which becomes a Christmas epicenter during December.
“Whether visitors are experiencing the holiday spirit in Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton or the dozens of picturesque boroughs that make up the Lehigh Valley, the holidays are special thanks to the small-town charm and age-old traditions that truly exemplify the region,” said Alicia Quinn, strategic brand manager for Discover Lehigh Valley.
During my high school days, my cross-country team and I would hop on a train each year and head out to watch the New York City Marathon.
Every time, I would feel star-struck by the runners that ran by me on the streets that are normally stuffed full of cars. To me, to be able to run 26.2 miles was absolutely otherworldly, something that could never be in my grasp.
However, on Nov. 5, crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon became my memory rather than a dream — but it didn’t come without physical therapists, podiatrists, injuries, tears, weekends spent in, hours spent running and hundreds of dollars spent.
Those not from the Garden State may think that our nickname couldn’t be further from the truth, but New Jersey residents are well aware — our state is full of rolling hills, picturesque landscapes and beautiful greenery.
New Jersey has also quickly become known among locals for its popular wineries situated on this scenery, with wineries spanning from Sussex to Cape May counties. This is especially true for Central Jersey, where the backdrops of our counties make for a Napa-esque locale for wineries.
To find out what wineries you can head this weekend for a local wine with a stunning view, read on.
Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes is nestled in the rolling hills of southwestern Hunterdon County. (Photo: ~File)
If you see photos of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple that is adorned with intricate Italian Carrara marble hand-carvings and images sacred to the Hindu faithful, you may think that you’re looking at the image of a structure thousands of miles away.
But this otherworldly temple is right around the corner in Robbinsville, Mercer County, and has been attracting those of the Hindu faith as well as those interested in its architecture and significance since it was built in 2014.
“For the Hindus, this is a place to see God, purify themselves and increase their faith in God,” said Lenin Joshi, a mandir volunteer who lives in Lawrenceville and visits the mandir about twice a week. “For those who are not Hindu, they feel that coming here calms their minds and they experience peace. They learn the messages of tolerance, nonviolence and coexistence, and many also find the strength to give up addictions when they come.”
Out of all of the busy Main Streets throughout the Garden State, Gannett New Jersey voted Westfield — an upscale Union County town that offers Old World-charm as well as modern sophistication — as the best destination for shopping.
“Westfield is beautiful, with its old buildings, great restaurants and fantastic stores” said Ed Menapace, owner of the Farmhouse Store, which sells furniture, home décor and gifts. “There are only a handful of thriving downtowns like Westfield in New Jersey.”
One benefit of shopping in Westfield versus other downtowns is that the town offers a combination of national and independent stores, such as Lord & Taylor, Ann Taylor and Urban Outfitters alongside Adlers Jewelers, Bittersweet Designs and Castle Bootery.
East Broad and Elm Streets in Westfield are popular shopping destinations. (Photo: ~Courtesy of David Williams)
The next morning, we get to wake up late since the bus doesn’t depart from Pattaya until 10 a.m., but after a long week of early mornings, there is no amount of enough sleep and even waking up at 9 a.m. feels too early. After a big breakfast, we board the bus and head back to Bangkok, where everyone is excited for a big night out on Khao San Road again before our free and final day in the city.
After we arrive in Bangkok that afternoon, our group of eight gets together and we split up in cabs and head to Khao San Road. Since it’s early when we get there, only around 8 p.m. or so, the bars aren’t in full swing yet so we spend our time cruising the food stands, buying cheap tourist souvenirs, eating bugs of every variety as well as scorpion on a stick.
Our tour group friends. (Courtesy of Natalie Hecker)
The next day, we wake up bright and early to load onto a rickety speed boat from our hotel, Long Beach Garden Hotel and Spa, to Coral Island, a small island that takes about 20 minutes to get to by boat. Mike and I sit on the ledge on the back on the boat to catch some wind and we get drenched by the waves long before we ever hit Coral Island.
Ken, our other tour guide, tells us in his broken English and an elephant camp t-shirt that the island gets very busy with tourists around 10 or 11 a.m., which was why we he had us wake up early to get on the boat by 7:30 a.m. After a few hours sitting on the seemingly abandoned, quiet beach, we see that he is right – more and more boats are being docked nearby and the once-silent beach is filling up. Still, we’re glad we got the morning alone before lunchtime, when Ken calls all of us over for a meal of whole fish, prawns, mussels and fried shellfish.
Mike and I on Coral Island. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Hecker)
Finally, we are almost in Pattaya, the beach destination of the trip. Everyone is exhausted and sick of temples and ready to sit on a beach and explore the city, which is known for its debauchery, drinking and commercial sex trade that overtakes the entire place.
Before we check into the hotel, though, we stop at Gems Gallery Pattaya, the world’s biggest jewelry store, which everyone is not only disinterested in but wholly against visiting. After lunch, where we chug some Changs, this riot only grows with many of the guys planning on taking a cab to the nearby hotel as soon as we get to the gem factory.
Somehow though, this plan disintegrates and everyone is convinced to at least walk into the gem factory once we find out we only have to stay for 45 minutes. Once inside, we relish in the air conditioning and our lunchtime buzzes and we walk through to see Thai people in booths creating jewelry, which is pretty cool, and very quickly make our way to the buying section. We don’t stay in there too long once we see the prices – most pieces are well over $500 and even we are not drunk enough to casually buy a piece of jewelry for he nothing. After drinking another Chang, we get back on the bus well before the 45-minute mark and wait for everyone else to hop on.
Natalie and G.R. got engaged when we got to Pattaya. (Photo Courtesy of Natalie Hecker)
Although our very jungle-esque hotel Felix River Kwai Resort is beautiful on the outside, I’m happy to leave the next morning and escape from the ants and mosquitoes that fill the room after a long sleep following our day on the backs of elephants and bamboo rafts. Centara Grand, our five-star resort that we stayed at in Bangkok equipped with beautiful meals, a poll and waterfall shower, seems very far away.
The grounds at Bang Pa In Palace. (Photo by Jenna Intersimone)
After embarking for Ayutthaya the next day after waking up at 5 a.m., we head to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, a colorful market of produce, small meals, tourist junk and more sold by vendors on small boats docked alongside canals.
After we wander alongside the docks, taking pictures with cobras and slow-moving lorises and picking up some Thai tourist garb and seasonings, we pick up some things to eat, including noodles recommended by Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods himself.
A noodle dish from the floating market. This costs less than $1. (Photo by Jenna Intersimone)