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As the setting for a major urban area goes, you would be hard pressed to find one more beautiful than the San Francisco Bay Area. SF proper's mix of rugged hills, parks, skyscrapers and bridges, surrounded by the gorgeous sweep of the bay and the Pacific Ocean sparkling to the west makes it one of the world's most stunning cities, but natural beauty (with even more just across the Golden Gate in Marin county!) is only one of the many lures the area holds. Amazing food of every conceivable variety, neighborhoods running the gamut from tony to funky, and a bunch of fabulous museums make the greater SF-Oakland-San Jose conurbation my favorite place in America. Some like NY and some pledge their devotion to Chicago, but for myself, my heart will always belong to the Bay.
The richest and most powerful nation on Earth, and its third largest in both size and population, the United States is, simply put, massive. With a geographic diversity that rivals any on the globe, it's got something for everyone. You want mountains? Beaches? Desert? Deciduous and coniferous forests? Skiing? Hiking? Bayou or rural or major cosmopolitan city? It's all here. With a culture that, whatever its flaws (our perverse, ignorant, aggressive, and money-driven form of politics being chief among them), evinces wonderful qualities of openness, optimism, and genuine good-will, the people of the USA are, on a whole, some of the nicest on the planet, and quick to offer hospitality, even if that hospitality may consist in part of gigantic helpings of fried food. You can go for the cities and the food, or go for the experience of a wild natural beauty as incredible and varied as anywhere on earth, but do yourself a favor and GO. America is much, much more than idiot politicians and the soundbites they represent us as.
SF's premiere Asian art museum, and one of the top Asian art museums in the world, it's easily reached from the UN/Civic Center BART stop. Their South- and South-East Asian sculpture collection is fantastic, as is their Himalayan art collection. The surrounding Tenderloin neighborhood can be a bit dodgy, so if you're squeamish, consider BARTing it rather than walking up Market Street.
With some 35 million people (not a typo!), the massive urban agglomeration of Tokyo is the world's single largest city. Hypermodern, sleek, sophisticated, and polished, it's the pre-eminent symbol of modern Japan, but the beauty of the city lies in its ability to blend the ultra-new and the traditional, with gorgeous wooden temples and shrines mixed right into the urban sprawl. It's also one of the very best places in the world to eat: amazing sashimi and juicy yakitori skewers with salarymen swilling Asahi draft. It's also a giant vacuum, capable of sucking money from your pockets with startling speed: be advised.
One of the most refined cultures on Earth, Japan is an easy place to like -- clean, polite, beautiful and crime-free, with excellent transportation, food, and sightseeing. Still Japan is expensive, and careful planning will save the traveler a great deal. Centuries-old temples and hot spring villages exist alongside shinkansen bullet trains and acres of glittering neon, a melding of the traditional and the hyper-modern unlike anywhere else on earth. The biggest surprise though? Stunning natural beauty, whether gnarly hikes in the Northern Alps or skiing deep powder far above the lavender fields of Hokkaido.
The alley lining the elevated tracks near Yurakucho Station in central Tokyo is famous for yakitori (grilled chicken skewers). Having a few skewers and an Asashi with salarymen fresh out of their offices in the financial district is an awesome experience, and quintessentially Tokyo.
The upscale heart of Manila, this is where the beautiful people go to see and be seen and (even more importantly) to shop. With seriously upscale malls and a cosmopolitan vibe, this is the place to go for luxury brands or for a glam night out.
A fine budget option in central Manila's upscale Makati neighborhood, the guesthouse has both dorms and private rooms starting from $18 / $24 USD. It's located in a private apartment building and has a doorman for security, as well as a pool.
Cabilao is a small island off the northwestern coast of Bohol in the Visayas of the central Philippines, and a prime spot for SCUBA diving and snorkeling. Unlike the highly-developed area of Panglao off Bohol's southwestern coast, which teems with resorts and traffic and noise, this tiny island has only 4 small dive operators, and accommodation in a handful of beachside cottages. It's what a prime dive spot looks like before it gets 'discovered' -- undeveloped and serene. Access is via a short outrigger boatride across the channel, and on the boat out after a few days of diving and relaxation, you'll find yourself hoping they never build a bridge.
The rice terraces of Banaue were constructed by hand beginning around 2000 years ago, and farmed continually since then. If you've never seen proper high-altitude step-terrace farming (or even if you have), the scene at Banaue resembles a garden of the gods, with steep mountainsides carved and sculpted into smooth curves on an enormous scale. Banaue is also the jumping-off point for some lovely treks in the surrounding Cordilleras mountains.
Manila is a polarizing city -- a sprawling and undoubtedly polluted Asian capital reaching a critical point of congestion, overpopulation, and crime. Still, it has the winning Filipino heart to it, a sense of friendliness and welcome amidst the clamor, and spots like Intramuros and the Baywalk at sunset will make you happy you came. Even the seedy aspect of the city is fascinating: see how many grandfatherly white men you can spot on the arm of a petite young Filipina woman in a twelve-hour period.