Monday, October 5, 2009

Hawaii - Kauai, Oahu and Maui

Plenty of people have gone to the Hawaiian islands and much has been written. That said, I'll still give a synopsis of our trip which turned out to be much better than we expected.

1. Kauai
This is the island known for it's natural beauty and remoteness. Yes, the center does get the most rainfall of any location on earth, but it makes for a lush, beautiful scene with waterfalls, rainbows, rivers and of course pristine beaches and reefs. We stayed on the rainier side of the island, in the North, at a BnB called Hale Ho'o Maha. It was fantastic and all that a BnB should be. Clean, well appointed rooms, terrific breakfasts and interesting hosts made for a very nice stay. It was a bit rainy, but we were able to enjoy the beaches, kayak on a river and hike to a waterfall and just explore the island. One of our favorite little towns was Hanalei (where Puff the Magic Dragon was from...yeah, him). The town had a great vibe, a few good places to eat and drink, and it wasn't overrun with tourists. No high rise hotels or resorts in the North, just the South side where we didn't spend any time. A few notables: Bar-A-Cuda had awesome tapas and Red Hot Mamas had fantastic burritos/tacos (if you catch it when it's open). On the way up from the airport, we stopped in Kapaa for a perfect meal of ahi rolls and similar treats, at Mermaids. We also visited Queen's Bath, which is only accessible (and visible) during the summer when the surf is calm. It was quite a cool experience, swimming and floating in a natural tide pool while waves crash over the rocks in front of you...very cool.

2. Oahu
Honolulu is a small, easily managed city and the only one in all of the islands. Waikiki was way too crowded and over developed. Although, our hotel there was very nicely appointed. it was the Outrigger Reef. Fortunately, a friend who lives there took us to a local beach at Ala Moana Park, and it was much quieter with space to spread out. The water could not have been more warm and inviting. A visit to Pearl Harbor was quite moving and I would highly suggest a trip there for anyone on Oahu (arrive early to avoid long waits). Our favorite part, however, was a trip to the North shore. We stopped for lunch in the sweet little town of Haleiwa, at the lunch trucks. Then, on to the famous beaches which we absolutely loved. Waimea Bay was gorgeous, and we settled for the day on Sunset Beach. Simply put, amazing. Soft, powdery sand with a gentle ocean (August) and no crowds. If you go to Oahu, spend some time on the North Shore, where the "real Hawaii" is more easily attained. There are plenty of roadside spots to eat and snack, and more high end restaurants in Honolulu. This was a surprisingly interesting island that we very much enjoyed.

3. Maui
Maui, the name alone elicits visions of tropical paradise scenes with palm trees, pastel sunsets and slow swimming turtles off shore. It was all this and then some. We drove the road to Hana and fortunately for us, we spent 2 nights in Hana. Hana is true Hawaii and one of the most naturally beautiful places we've ever been too. The hotel, The Hotel Hana Maui, was exquisite and fit seamlessly into the environment. The pool and jacuzzi, set on a bluff overlooking the wild Pacific, was a postcard. As for the food, don't ask. We ate some of the most well prepared meals, in one of the most scenic rooms, ever. It wasn't cheap, but if you can swing it, stay here (frankly, we barely swung it). It was worth every penny. In addition to the famous drive along the Hana Highway, we drove further to do some hiking at Oheo Gulch, where the 7 Sacred Pools are located. In short, it was a great hike to a 400 foot waterfall and partly through a bamboo forest. Swimming in the pools was an experience as well. It was worth driving an extra 30 minutes, and then hanging out on Hamoa Beach...beautiful. Worth noting, I had the best smoothie of my life at a little food store in the town of Paia, at the beginning of the Hana Highway. And, the Paia Fish Market has amazing lunches/dinners. Oh, and...Mama's Fish House was as good as every says it is.

After Hana, we spent the last few days on the other side of Maui, on the beach at Kaanapali, at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. This place was by no means fancy and the rooms were a little dated. But, it had a terrific beach front location and a friendly staff. We walked to Whaler's Village for more restaurant options, and the beach was wide and not crowded at all. It is right next to Black Rock, a large, volcanic outcrop that lots of people climb up and jump off. Yes, we both jumped off although I was more hesitant than I care to admit. We also snorkeled right there and were lucky to spend lots of time with 5 huge green sea turtles. That was quite amazing. On this side of the island, the sunsets are super so we saw our share, and it never got old. Whether from the beach or from the cute little town of Lahaina, where there are lots of places to eat and shop, the sky turned color after color, until the only color left was the night sky.

If you get the chance, go to Hawaii.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Costa Rica

In March, 2008 we toured around Costa Rica. In short, everyone should visit Costa Rica. It is a beautiful country with jungles and beaches, delicious food, fun and peaceful people, and it's not expensive. We used a tour company (I usually plan everything, but this was a very involved trip) that worked out very well. They were/are A driver in a private van took us from place to place, making for a much less stressful trip.

We started in the Arenal Volcano area, staying at The Lost Iguana. The location was very cool, overlooking the active volcano. There were large, comfortable rooms with patios and a nice pool area. You are essentially in the jungle, so the sights and sounds were great. The food was just average, and stopping at local spots during the trip was the way to go. It is a good place to go on all types of excursions, all of which will pick you up at the hotel so you don't need a car. We hiked to the Volcano, visited Hot Springs (Tabacon, but it was very crowded and too touristy. Try another hot spring if you go) and walked the hanging bridges tour, which was surprisingly cool. We also went on a canyoning and rappeling trip, along with some white water rafting. All of this was real fun, with attentive professionals keeping us safe the whole time.

Then, we were driven on an 8+ hour drive to the Pacific Coast. The hotel was one of our favorites and it is called the Arenas Del Mar. Beatiful rooms coupled with views, beaches and again, nice people, made for a very enjoyable stay. The only issue, and this is important, is that during our stay in March, there is an annual migration of crabs. The place was over-run, literally. They were all over the rooms, the walkways, the outside restaurant. I had to take my wife to dinner on my back, seriously, because she was very freaked out (as was I). But, it got less and less as our stay progressed and now it makes for a good story. But, if you go in March, this could happen to you so be prepared. We did a canopy tour from the hotel, as well as a hike through Manuel Antonio National Park...monkeys, iguanas, sloths, etc. And, the beach is wide and powdery, with a warm, inviting ocean.

Lastly, we stayed at a place not too far from San Jose (the capital, where the airport is) called the Peace Lodge. While it was fun and the room very unique (waterfall showers, jacuzzi on the patio), it was a bit touristy and would have been OK as a day trip. But, we hiked the waterfall trail and that was very cool.

Costa Rica is a trip for anyone, whether a couple or a family. Plenty to do and all types of settings to enjoy.

Africa (with a brief stay in Paris)

In July of 2008, we went on our first African Safari and it was the most incredible journey, thus far, of our lives. We landed in Johannesburg, South Africa and had a relaxing (one night) stay at the Intercontinental Hotel across from the airport. Great rooms, service and food. A friend picked us up and showed us all around the city, which was lucky for us b/c it's not the safest of cities, unfortunately. Driving over the Mandela Bridge was moving, literally and figuratively.

We then flew to Botswana for a 7 day safari. The safari operator we used was Andbeyond (, formerly CC Africa) and we could not have been more pleased with their service on every level. We flew in a little prop plane, after landing on a jet, to the Okavango Delta. Amazing! The animals we saw, the conversations we had, just fantastic. Our 3 night stay at the Sandibe Lodge blew our minds. Again, the friendly and professional people coupled with the safari drives to see the wildlife, and the meals, all made for an incredible stay. Then, we flew north for 3 more nights in Chobe National Park. This place has the highest concentration of elephants on earth, along with all the other expected animals and a crocodile and hippo filled river cutting through it all. Our accommodations were in Chobe Under Canvas, which were all high end tents (complete with beds and toilets) and we were very well taken care of by the staff.

After this, we were driven to the border crossing to leave Botswana and head to Zambia. The crossing was done at a spot called Kazangula (sp?), and it was a bit overwhelming. We did have a guide with us, who put us in a small skiff to speed across the Zambezi river (about 3 minutes) to the Zambia side. Once there, it was a huge gathering of people and goods, waiting to cross one way or the other. It was like a small city, with very unsafe looking ferries slowly moving back and forth across the river. After shooting a few pix and paying a visa fee, our driver took us to the Zambezi Sun Hotel. It was a beautiful space with direct access to Victoria Falls, which are mind blowing! We also walked on the bridge crossing to Zimbabwe, and while the views were fantastic, the other things we saw were not. The poor Zimbabweans are forced to come over to Zambia for the essentials, crossing back carrying what they can on their heads and backs. Add to this a troop of babboons who learned to steal food right out of people's hands, and it makes for an other worldly sight. On a happier note, the hotel staff, all locals of course, were friendly and fun. They actually have a person in charge of keeping the monkeys away from guests, using a sling shot...high tech! And, the sunset views from the sister property, the Royal Livingstone, are not to be missed.

On the way home, we stopped in Paris to visit friends. We stayed at a sweet little hotel called Hotel Abbatial, on St. Germain. It was not too touristy, but well located (close to Notre Dame) in a cool area. Again, clean (albeit small, typical European) rooms in a safe place. We would definitely stay here again.

This trip, all in all, was unreal. Next time, Kenya and Tanzania!

San Fran and Napa

A Thanksgiving trip (for my wife's birthday) was taken to Northern California. San Francisco is a fun, unique city and next to NYC, one of my favorite US cities. We stayed at the (too posh) Mark Hopkins hotel. The location was great, with fantastic views and a well known roof top bar called The Top of the Mark. While the hotel was certainly beautiful with a helpful staff, it was a bit stuffy for our tastes. The city offers great things for visitors, too many to mention. A quick trip to Muir Woods, to walk amongst the Redwood forest was a lot of fun and made for some cool pictures. In addition, the restaurant scene in San Fran is incredible, so indulge to your heart's delight.

Then, we spent a couple of days in Napa at a sweet BnB called The Churchill Manor. This was ideal in every way. Comfortable rooms (with fireplace and clawfoot tubs), cheese/wine/crackers every afternoon and a hearty breakfast every morning. Add to this some of the best food we've had and some vineyard visits, and it all makes for a nice trip. We really enjoyed the tasting and tour at Cakebread, and a quick walk around the town of St. Helena.

It was a great way to spend the Thanksgiving week and holiday. Leaving on Monday and returning on Friday also made for easy travel with no crowds.


We traveled to the beautiful country of Spain in March, 2009. In Madrid, an underrated city in my opinion, the Hotel Moderno was perfect for a visit. It is in a great location, at the Puerta del Sol and it is affordable, clean and safe. You can walk almost any where and if you feel tired, the metro stop is about 100 feet away. In addition to great people and parks, the museums (Reina Sofia and Prado) are world reknowned and well worth a visit. Retiro Park, also a great spot to visit. And, a day trip to Toledo was easy and just plain wonderful. This city is ancient and you can walk the tiny street and just get lost in the history.

Then, on to Seville where I had studied abroad in '94. This is by far one of my favorite cities on the planet. Seville makes you slow down and you'll be grateful for it. The city is very walkable, and our hotel was in an ideal location for exploring, and there was a pool on the roof. It was the Hotel Becquer. A stroll into the city center and the Barrio de Santa Cruz can be done almost daily, and a visit across the river to Triana makes for a nice day out as well. I can not more highly recommend a city to visit. And, of course, the people are fantastic. For a great meal, in Triana and on the River, La Cucana was a treat. A day trip from here was taken to Cordoba, once a seat of both Jewish and Muslim faiths and still a gorgeous, ancient setting. Like Toledo from Madrid, this is an easy day trip and worth it.

On both day trips, it was easy to take the train and then hop a local bus from the stations to the city centers. Cheap and easy.