Travel blog written by an average traveler that focuses on "real" experiences. Not quite budget, not quite luxury. Real.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Falling in love with Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Part Two).

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: Next Time With Kids In Tow

My second visit to Old San Juan was for yet another cruise. Are you starting to notice a trend here? I must admit, I was anxious to return because I had fallen in love on my first visit and I was curious to see if I would have the same reaction on subsequent visits. This time we were smart and allowed for a day both before AND after our cruise to explore. We also decided to extend our exploration out a bit to include the Condado area of San Juan rather than just Old San Juan.

We arrived at the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino ($20 cab ride from airport) at 3:15 am due to a delay in Dallas (surprise, surprise). Fortunately, during our delay I had called the hotel directly to let them know about our late arrival so we didn't have any problems when we checked in (apparently in Puerto Rico they clear all of their reservations at midnight. They also give the  best rooms on a first come first serve basis). It was obvious this maneuver had paid off the moment we saw our high-floor ocean-view room.  It was a pleasant surprise because I had booked via Priceline and was only expecting a basic room.
Even though it was the wee hours of the morning at this point, we were both giddy with excitement so we decided to take a quick walk around the block in order to quell our energy enough to sleep. The first thing that immediately struck me was how hot and humid it was at 3:30 am.  I remembered that it had been humid on our last visit, but to be sweating at this hour of the morning was crazy! The second thing that made an impression on me during our middle of the night stroll was the sheer amount of activity at that hour. It was absolutely incredible how many people were out and about with no sign of wrapping things up for the night. Puerto Rico really does have a thriving nightlife! Another notable observation about Puerto Rico is the fact that everyone dresses up when they go out. If you are a t-shirt and jeans kind of person you will definately look out of place if you head out for a drink after dark. The women, in particular, are gorgeous and the fact that they are all wearing nice dresses and sexy high heels makes them even more stunning. Which leads me to another observation, the women of Puerto Rico LOVE their high heels. I am not sure where they are buying all of their amazing heels from (because I didn't see a single shoe store on either visit) but every woman in Puerto Rico wears sexy and unique heels wherever they go (whether it be a family stroll to the park, going to work or maneuvering the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on a night out). I've never seen anything like it. Young or old, beautiful or plain Jane, dressed up or dressed down, you'd better believe that woman will be wearing some incredible heels!

We managed to get a few hours of sleep that night but our excitement wouldn't let us sleep in too much. By 10:00 am we were laying by the pool and working on our tans. It was unbearable to lay there in the sun because of the intense heat and humidity so we packed things up and headed to the beach for a swim in the ocean! An example of the humidity can be observed in the above picture. It took quite a while for my camera to finally aclimate to the humidity so our first pictures had a haze to them. Behind us you can see the beach where we swam (behind the Marriott). Swimming was incredible! The waves were perfect (big enough to "ride in" to the shore but not big enough to be scary), the water was the perfect temperature and the sand was awesome (no rocks or shells to cut your feet on). If I would have known that it would be our best swimming of the trip I would have swam much longer because I thoroughly enjoy swimming in the ocean when the conditions are this perfect. A walk further down the beach resulted in an area that wasn't as great for swimming (due to the large rocks) but perfect for pictures (below). So beautiful!

As for the Marriott San Juan Resort & Stellaris Casino: Overall I was very pleased with our hotel and I would definately stay on another occasion. The check-in and check-out process was seamless, our room was impeccable with a comfortable bed and great view, the pool area was wonderful with several beautiful pools, ample lounge chairs and sufficient towels, and of course the beach was absolutely perfect. In addition the common areas were quite nice with comfortable seating and available shopping vendors. The numerous games and activities down by the pool would be perfect for accompanying children.

For lunch we followed a tip I had learned on $40 A Day With Rachel Ray which was to ask for food recommendations from people whose job starts with a "b". From her experience bartenders, bellhops, baristas, etc.... are exceptionally savvy regarding the wonderful local hotspots that offer great food at affordable prices. So far this advice has panned out nicely. We were referred to Cafe de Angels (above right) by our bellhop which was only a few blocks up Ashford Ave from the Marriott. We were instructed to try the mofungo which is one of the local specialties. We knew nothing about mofongu other than it was some sort of mashed plantains, but decided to give it a try. It was amazing! I must admit that when it arrived  we were almost too scared to try it  because of how it looked (bottom right). If you can get past the initial sight of it and can bring yourself to actually place your fork inside your mouth, you definately won't regret it. We ordered ours with skirt steak but the grouper comes highly recommended so we will be sure to try that next time. And trust me, there WILL be a next time.

After lunch we walked up an down Ashford Ave in an attempt to walk off some of the food we had just devoured. The area was so much different than I expected. Ashford Ave (above) is one of the major streets of Condado yet it was so peaceful. The minimal traffic, friendly people and beautiful scenery made it a very enjoyable walk. I was even able to do some shopping as there were various merchants scattered throughout the area. What more can a girl want?

After a wonderful morning in Condado we headed to the pier to begin our embarkation process. Once the logistics were taken care of we immediately set off to explore Old San Juan once again. The verdict? Still in love..... Everything was just as I remembered it, the same charm, the same beauty, the same hidden gems, the same friendly people, the same wonderful food..... The only thing that seemed different from our last experience was the horrendous traffic. FYI, don't ever drive in Old San Juan. You will literally spend all of your time sitting in traffic or trying to find a parking spot. It was Sunday (just as it was on our prior visit) but for some reason it was much busier. Perhaps everyone else is falling in love with Old San Juan as well!

We spent the afternoon weaving up and down all of the streets, getting lost in the magic of Old San Juan. Once again we found the craft fair on calle Paseo de la Princessa but I was somewhat disappointed in the inventory compared to our last visit. Of course I still managed to find a few things to purchase. Wink, wink.  Instead of turning around and walking back the way we came (like on our last visit), we decided to keep walking towards the beautiful fountain at the end of the street. At this point we discovered a wonderful pathway (above and right) which eventually led us to the San Juan Gate and back into the heart of old San Juan. It was a lovely walk along the waterfront for just the two of us to enjoy. That's yet another treasure of this city, no matter how many people are around you can always find a special little place to sneak away for either solitude or to enjoy another's company.

The beautifully colored buildings and petal strewn cobblestone streets were the perfect subjects for my camera lens as we wandered around (below). Once we were back amongst the stores and restaurants we began our search for a careta (mask) to add to my collection. Of course we found everything BUT a careta. In particular, I found some beautiful paintings that I decided to come back for on our return trip (once I knew how much space I would have in my suitcase). Our final stop before heading back to our ship was at Barrachina (on calle Fortaleza) for one of their famous pina coladas (they were invented here). I am definately a pina colada person. My husband? Not so much. Suffice to say they were amazing and we both thoroughly enjoyed our drinks. They were pretty stiff though so watch out! I highly recommend stopping in here for at least a drink, there's a beautiful courtyard with seating on one side and an inside restaurant with a long bar on the other. If you go in-between meal times you will be able to enjoy the nice ambiance all to yourself like we did while sitting at the bar. Supposedly they will even store your luggage here if that's something you are needing. This is a free service but I'm sure they are expecting you to purchase something in return.

Our visit after our cruise began with us taking a cab ride ($15) to the northern edge of Old San Juan so that we could check in to our "hotel". I must warn you that if you take a cab from the pier to anywhere in Old San Juan your driver may be a little perturbed because it will not only be a smaller fare (versus going to the airport) but it will also result in him having to go to the back of the long line of cabs at the cruise ship dock. I felt bad but at the same time there was no way I was lugging all of our bags a mile uphill.

If you are looking for an interesting, pleasant and affordable place to stay in Old San Juan,  The Gallery Inn is the place (below). It's about as far away from the cruise ship dock in Old San Juan as you can get, in fact the wall for the infamous La Perla district (above) is on the other side of the street (which I find interesting in itself). The Gallery is definately the most unique place I have ever stayed with it's extremely eclectic decor. The various parrots perched throughout the property help to complete the look. Not only is it interesting, but it's also very inviting. The owners make you feel right at "home" and even though I am not very artsy or musical I enjoyed the place very much. The music room and art classes would definately appeal to those who are. The wine deck on top of the property offers some of the best views in Old San Juan. And yes, I did feel safe even with the dangerous ghetto only steps away. When you are inside the property you are transported into a beautiful tranquil world of relaxation and when you are outside the property and walking across the street there's a slight mixture of fear and mystery which I found strangely exciting. With that said, I never felt overly uneasy as the two worlds pretty much keep to themselves. Unfortunately I can't give a review of the breakfast because we had an early flight. I'm sure it's wonderfully delicious!

After exploring the northern part of Old San Juan we finally settled on El Jibori for lunch. It's a "locals" restaurant with delicious Puerto Rican food. The only drawback was the lack of air conditioning, but you actually start to get used to the constant sweating after a while. The food was great but it did not rival Cafe de Angels in Condado, particularly when referring to the mofungo. While our food started to settle, we walked over to El Morro to watch hundreds of Puerto Rican children fly their kites in the huge fields that make up the foreground of the fortress. Many other children enjoyed spashing around in the fountain across the street. I couldn't help but imagine the fun that my own children would have in Old San Juan.

After relaxing at our B&B, and re-visiting Barrachina for a delicious grouper accompanied by another pair of pina coladas,  I had one final agenda. Remember those paintings that I didn't get because I was going to wait until our return trip? Big mistake! After repeatedly dragging my husband up and down the streets I finally had to throw in the towel and admit that I had no idea where that particular store was. I was so disappointed! I had already picked out where on my walls I wanted those pictures to hang. Moral of the story: If you see something you like in Old San Juan, GET IT because you may never find that store again. Lackadasical strolls without agendas don't meld well with mazes of streets and dizzying heat. Eventually things start to look the same if you're not paying close attention. There are worse things I suppose. To me it just means that I have to make yet another return trip. Perhaps the next time I will have the kiddos in tow and we'll extend our exploration zone out even further. Yeah, I'm liking this idea!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Falling in love with Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (Part One).

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: As Often As I Can!

Meandering through the cobblestone streets in Old San Juan is truly a gift. Brightly painted buildings line the streets and various plants adorn nearly every balcony. There are so many gems to find in this compact little area that it's almost certain you'll find a new favorite with each new venture. The excitement of these potential discoveries and the warmth of the wonderful people are what made me fall in love with Old San Juan.

Visiting Old San Juan for the first time was a truly memorable experience. The cab ride to our hotel proved to be our first adventure as we sped through the narrow, flooded streets (the remnants of a passing tropical storm). Because we had arrived in the evening, the cover of darkness added additonal mystery to the unknown locale and I breathed an audible sigh of relief when we finally arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Old San Juan Resort & Casino. Our primary reason for selecting this hotel was its close proximity to the cruise ship dock. We were set to depart on a 7-day southern Caribbean cruise the following afternoon and we wanted things to be as convenient as possible. I found this hotel to be somewhat of a disappointment considering our final bill approached $200 for one night (the hotel taxes here are quite tremendous). I can't put my finger on anything in particular to complain about, I guess I was just expecting something fancier for the price (and the fact that it was a Sheraton). The location, however, was ideal for us and there was a nice rooftop pool that offered great views of Old San Juan.  I would recommend this hotel to first time cruisers because of it's close location to the pier, but once you are familiar with the area it's much more attractive to stay in the heart of Old San Juan rather than tourist central (aka the Sheraton).

We quickly deposited our things and eagerly set off to find a place for dinner. After zigzaging through the streets we finally stumbled across Sultra 61 Cafe and Bar. It was a nice little "hole in the wall" cafe with a very relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. For being a "hole in the wall" it sure wasn't cheap. It seemed that prices in general were a little high for dinner throughout the area. The highlight of the meal for me was the salad which included some fantastic grated cheese (goat?) and some seriously amazing salsa dressing. Oh what I wouldn't do for that recipe..... Now, I must clarify that I am NOT a salad person; at least not in the States I'm not. However, the two most amazing salads that I have ever eaten have been in the Caribbean (the other was in St. Lucia) so when I am in this part of the world I no longer skip salads like I usually do. After dinner we called it a night and got some much needed rest.

Because we had to begin our boarding process in the early afternoon, we got up bright and early to spend the morning exploring Old San Juan. Map in hand, we set out to find La Bombonera for breakfast (259 calle San Francisco). I had read about it being a popular spot for the locals so I knew I wanted to check it out. At first glance it didn't appear to be much different than back home (except for the fact that half the menu was in Spanish), but once we got our scrambled eggs, toast and milkshakes we noticed that it was definately not what we were used to. The bread was completely different (albeit exceptional), and so was the milkshake. It was a nice, simple breakfast without a lot of fuss. La Bombonera is mostly famous for their fresh pastries but after already indulging in a milkshake we decided to pass on them for the moment. On my next visit I plan on combining a hearty breakfast with dessert by ordering a mallorca (eggs, bacon, and cheese sandwiched between two pastries and covered with powdered sugar) but my stomach wasn't up for it on this particular morning.

After a satisfying breakfast we continued west on calle San Francisco and eventually north up calle Del Cristo to get to El Morro, San Felipe Castle (above). We spent at least an hour just wandering around and admiring the grounds. This is a MUST DO attraction! Not only is it strikingly beautiful against the gorgeous blue sky and equally blue ocean, but it's also fascinating to learn about its history. One piece of advice though: GO IN THE MORNING! It was only 9 am (in mid September) by this point and the the sun was already incredibly intense and was accompanied by the most insane humidity I have ever experienced. I could not imagine doing this attraction later in the day as there is an extreme amount of walking with minimal shade.  And ladies, don't even bother putting makeup on because you will sweat it off in literally 10 minutes. Just put on some cute shades and lip gloss and off you go.

After exploring El Morro we headed back to the center of town, seeking refuge in shade under various balconies and awnings when available. It was a Sunday morning and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The few people we did pass were friendly locals who welcomed us with warm smiles and gentle greetings. Some asked us if we needed directions, while others warned us not to go near La Perla (which is a dangerous drug infested neighborhood just on the other side of the wall near El Morro). My favorite local, however, was an older gentleman who interrupted his glorious Spanish singing only long enough to give us a toothy smile before continuing on his way. No hurry. No worries. Not a care in the world. At that moment I felt the very same way. The soothing sound of church music from the nearby cathedral served as our soundtrack as we wandered around Old San Juan with no real agenda. In this case it was the journey rather than the destination that was incredible and we were content enjoying whatever we happened to stumble across. Some of those things included a peek inside the beautiful cathedral itself, as well as enjoying a local park known as Parque De Las Palomas, (above right) where thousands of pigeons made their homes in the cement walls and trees. The local children would squeal with delight as they chased the pigeons around the park. My only worry at that point was getting pooped on, which was a legitimate concern considering the sheer number of pigeons. The park was located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean so we were blessed with a stunning view in addition to the lively entertainment.  As we continued back down the hill towards the pier we found calle Paseo de la Princesa (on the other side of the wall from the park) which led us to an outdoor marketplace (entrance shown below). It was a really fun and festive atmosphere with music, dancing and lots of  talented artisans selling their crafts. I was able to pick up some amazing handcrafted souvineers at incredible prices! There were plenty of street vendors selling popcorn, piraguas (shaved ice) and various other food items to quell any hunger pains, however we were too hot to even think about eating.

After briefly watching the locals happily dance in the street, and buying as many souvineers as we could carry, we walked back to our hotel to grab our things and continued across the street to the pier to begin our embarkation process. I couldn't believe that I was actually feeling sad to leave, especially since I had only spent a portion of the day in Old San Juan. But this is a special, special place, I didn't need a lot of time to know that. I had fallen in love with Old San Juan. And my only consolation for leaving was knowing that I would definately be back.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rock City: Hide & Seek Mecca

Travelers/Trip Type: Family Trip (Husband & 2 Young kiddos)
Method of Travel: Car
Would I Return: Definately

Hide-and-seek is a game that children of all ages seem to enjoy and my kids are no exception. In fact it seems that everywhere we go my 3-year old and 5-year old beg me to play. Most of the time there aren't many hiding places so it's more of a nuisance than anything. That is definately not the case at my next special location. You could literally play for hours and not run out of hiding spots. So where is this hide-and-seek mecca you ask? Well it's practically in my backyard. It's known as Rock City and it's located near Minneapolis, Kansas.

We didn't set out to Rock City looking to play hide and seek. Instead we were already in the area and were looking for a quick little side trip. I was intrigued by the prospect that there could be something referred to as  "Rock City" in the middle of the plains. I mean it's completely flat here, where would they come from? I learned that Rock City is comprised of  huge sandstone concretions created by Dakota sandstone that was deposited when Kansas was covered by an inland sea. Apparently there is no other place in the world where there are so many concretions of such a giant size. Cool. Even cooler? Real dinosaur bones were found in a nearby field and are on display at the Ottawa County Museum in Minneapolis. When we arrived, however,  all historical facts went out the window as the four of us enjoyed the simple pleasure of running around and exploring. There are over 200 giant rocks and they are spread out in an area the size of two football fields. What began as trying to find "Giant's Chair", "Turtle", "Donut Hole", "Kissing Lips", "Coffin" and many more cleverly named rocks (there's a map with a list of all the names) eventually evolved into one incredible game of hide and seek. I can honestly say I've never had more fun playing with my kids. In fact I kind of felt like a kid myself for a moment which was completely exhilirating!

We visited Rock City in January so the gift shop was closed (it's only open May-Sept from 9-5 pm). To pay our admission we simply deposited our money ($3 for adults, $0.50 for kids) into a little box outside the gift shop. Sure, we could have left without paying (there wasn't anyone there) but I felt like our experience was definately worth $7. I've been to MUCH more expensive attractions and not left feeling as satisfied as I did leaving here. It was simple, good quality family time at it's very best! To get here from the south take the K-18 exit from I-70 or continue going straight from I-135. Drive 10 miles north and then head west on K-18 for 4 miles. Head north on K-106 until you see the turn for Rock City. There will be tiny signs along the way but I wouldn't rely on them as they are incredibly small and easy to miss. From the north just head south on K-81, then south on K-106 (through Minneapolis) until you see the turn. I sincerely hope that you have as much fun as we did!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Vintage charm for old friends in Palm Springs!

Travelers/Trip Type: Girls' Trip!
Method Of Travel: Air, Car
Would I Return: Probably, If I Had A Good Reason.....

Anytime that I can sneak away for a few days on a girls' trip I definately jump on the opportunity. Now that I am (for the most part) a stay-at-home mom these trips are especially valuable in maintaining my identity outside of being a mommy. My most recent trip was to Palm Springs where I met up with a few friends, some of whom I have not seen for over fifteen years. Wow, I feel old now! Due to the company I was with, we probably would have had an amazing time just about anywhere but I did find Palm Springs to be quite charming.

I flew in to San Diego so that I could drive over to Palm Springs with a close friend. We chose an indirect route so that we could pay a visit to the stinky Salton Sea (above top). I had read that in it's heyday people flocked to it's shores to vacation in expensive summer homes along the beach. That time has since passed. I suppose once dead fish started littering the shores and the stench started to resemble that of a sewer it lost it's appeal (above bottom). Strangely enough it appealed enough to us to warrant an hour detour on our way to Palm Springs to see it. We pulled in to the town of Desert Shores at the first available street and drove all the way to the end of the road so that we could get to the "sea". Desert Shores has a strange feel to it, deserted yet not abandoned. It wasn't like what I had read about on the other side of the "sea"  (Bombay Beach) where everything was completely abandoned, but other than one car passing through we didn't see a soul the entire time we were there. We saw evidence of people but no people (right). It was weird.

Once in Palm Springs the two of us met up with another friend and indulged ourselves at the Desert Hot Springs Spa Hotel with massages/facials and a soak in their hot mineral pools. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this place in particular as it was just average but I would recommend pampering yourself somewhere in Desert Hot Springs while on your trip.  The treatments weren't bad they just weren't top notch. I'm used to getting massages in a dark room with soothing music playing softly in the background whereas this massage room was drenched in sunlight and had static music coming out of the broken speakers. The massage itself was pretty amazing though so it almost negated the annoying setting.  The common areas and pool area of this hotel had a nice retro ambiance to it which we enjoyed.  In fact, we noticed these vintage touches throughout Palm Springs. Nothing screamed retro but rather the perfect amount of  "old school" charm without it being cheesy.

In order to shave off some expenses we shared a room at the Vagabond Inn located at the very south end of S. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are looking for a quality budget hotel. It's definately not fancy but it's clean, has a friendly staff and offers a wonderful array of amenities such as a nice complimentary breakfast, an inviting pool area, a free wi-fi connection and a fridge and microwave in each room. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the beds are comfortable, however, I didn't wake up with a sore back which is more than I can say for many other places I've stayed. It's a bit far to walk downtown but if you have a car it's actually in the perfect location. Because it's located off the main street it has less traffic and is therefore quieter and more relaxing, but yet it has easy access to anywhere you want to go. I especially love the scenery! There are lots of palm trees surrounding the hotel (above) and it's perched right at the base of a mountain (also above). The ONLY reason why I would not stay here again is if I didn't have a car and wanted to be located right downtown (in this case I would look at the Hyatt or the Spa Resort Casino) but I would have to be willing to spend much more money.

Our main activity during our trip was exploring Joshua Tree National Park with two additional friends who met us there. Fortunately for us one of our friends was an experienced climber so we got the inside scoop on all of the interesting spots to hike and climb. I was able to climb up the face of a rock (with ropes) for the first time because of his expertise and equipment (above left). I think this particular rock was called Cyclops because it had a big "eye" in the top that we were able to look out of (after a ridiculously scary climb up the back side with NO ROPES). My favorite spot, however, was called the Hall of Horrors (above right). It's a narrow pathway through the rocks which involves scrambling up and down and squeezing in some pretty tight places to get through. It was made even more difficult due to the melting snow puddles which made some places inpassible and resulted in us having to find alterior routes. That being said, it was still a treat to witness the desert foliage in stark contrast to the bright white snow (below).

Not only were we blessed with an experienced tour guide but our other friend (his wife) prepared an amazing picnic lunch for us. We had several different cheeses and crackers, a wonderful curry chicken salad with endive leaves and the most amazing pound cake ever with wine marinated apricots to accompany it. Simply divine. When I heard that she was bringing lunch I knew we were in for a treat because I had read many of her posts at Let's just say that I was not disappointed! If you want to create an elevated dining experience with a touch of down home comfort all wrapped up with simple elegance you should check out some of her posts.

Another activity worth mentioning (which can be enjoyed by persons of any age) is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. It's kind of spendy at $23.25 (for adults) but it's worth doing at least once because it offers some incredible views (right). FYI, it's damn cold up there so please dress appropriately. It was downright frigid in February and I would imagine it would be pretty cold year round because of the high elevation. We knew we were in trouble when we witnessed groups headed up wearing all of their winter gear and carrying sleds. Let's just say that we were not donning our winter attire! Yikes!

What I love about Palm Springs is that it feels like a big city and a small town all at the same time. The downtown area is inviting and offers a number of different shops and restaurants to choose from. We ate three very different cuisines during our stay and all three were fantastic. Las Casuelas was a wonderful Mexican restaurant which had the most incredible salsa ever. I seriously ate two bowls of chips and salsa before I even got my entree and I usually don't even touch that stuff. The portions were gigantic and the prices were quite reasonable. The toasty heaters made our wonderful outdoor table absolutely perfect! Excellente! Kalura Trattoria was a delicious Italian restaurant that offered such an extensive list of choices that it was hard to choose. Everyone ended up happy with their selections and we all had a wonderful time. The prices were average and the atmosphere was exceptional (we sat inside). Our final restaurant was called Pepper's Thai Cuisine. It was my first time trying Thai food so I was a little leery but up for the adventure. Wow, where have I been?!?!?! The lunch special did not disappoint with a soup and wonderful mixed plate but it was the dessert that was something special. Ohhhh. I WANT IT NOW! I ordered the fried bananas drizzled with chocolate accompanied by a scoop each of coconut and green tea icecream. I die. The green tea icecream was the best icecream I have ever eaten! Seriously, it sounds horrible but it was amazing! I must stop thinking about it or I will go into a deep depression because I am nowhere near a restaurant offering it..... The prices were super affordable and if I ever go back to Palm Springs I will no doubt be going back here. One more thing, make sure you have to go to the bathroom. They are the most gorgeous bathrooms I have ever seen. Who knew?

So let me reiterate the things I loved about Palm Springs. I loved the fact that it felt like a small town but yet had all the offerings of a big city. I loved the copious amounts of palm trees and the mountains in the distance. I loved the farmer's market up by Joshua Tree National Park where we got delicious blood oranges and Japanese apple pears. I loved the Art Fair downtown where I picked up a unique vase. I loved all of the funky shops and amazing restaurants that lined Palm Canyon Drive. And finally, although you may find this strange, I loved all of the wind turbines surrounding the city (especially at sunset). For some reason I find them to be quite striking. So yes, I loved all of these things and would enjoy them again if I returned, but there are so many other cool places to explore that I would be okay if I never came back.  But if I did, I would tear up some green tea icecream!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Good vibes in the beautiful St. Lucia!

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method Of Travel: Air, Cruise Ship
Would I Return: In A Hearbeat!

Whenever I travel to a new place I almost immediately pick up a vibe from the location, sometimes it puts me on edge (for no particular reason) and sometimes I am instantly put at ease. The latter was the case when I visited St. Lucia for the first time. It is for this reason, along with the fact that it's incredibly lush, the beaches are amazing, and the people are fantastic that I have classified St. Lucia as my favorite (overall) Caribbean island.

Many of the islands that dot the Caribbean are very poor and host a rougher crowd (away from the towering resorts and exquisite hotels) and it is in these particular areas that I tend to feel uneasy and sometimes downright scared. For example, when I visited the island of Dominica we were specifically told not to go into town (Roseau) and not to accept rides from any taxis without the appropriate sticker or we were at risk for kidnapping and/or robbery. Okay, this is not the type of place that makes me want to relax and enjoy my vacation. In Mexico, there are  guards with machine guns. Again, not very comforting. Additionally, even though I have never been to Jamaica, I have heard too many stories from friends and family about how unsafe they felt when they ventured away from the security of the resorts. I don't know about you but I don't want to be confined to a resort the entire trip,  regardless of how beautiful it is. I want the opportunity to integrate myself into the local scene so that I can absorb as much as possible about the true essence of the place that I am visiting (without fearing for my life). In St. Lucia, even though there were many areas of extreme poverty, I never once felt uncomfortable.

I have been to St. Lucia twice but unfortunately only for one day (on each trip) as our stops were part of a southern Caribbean cruise. On our first trip we wanted to get an overview of the island so we did a land and sea combo trip (booked through the cruise) to cover as much ground as possible in a short amount of time. We started off by snaking through the capital city of Castries, then we headed up the mountain and into the jungle, stopping at many scenic overlooks and towns such as Anse La Reye, Canary and then finally Soufriere. If curvy roads bother you then you definately do not want to make this drive!  It was crazy because we would be in the middle of nowhere and then someone would suddenly appear with goods to sell. My favorites were the man with the giant python around his neck (allowing you to take pictures with the snake for a small fee) and the local craftswomen who sold their hand sewn dolls through the windows of the bus (right). It's wierd because in other parts of the Caribbean you feel hassled by vendors coming up to you with their wares, but in St. Lucia you almost feel blessed that they gave you the opportunity to buy their stuff. They weren't pushy at all so maybe that's the difference.

As we approached Soufriere, we were blessed with a magnificant view of the pitons. Wow! We had to put our piton viewing on hold for a minute though as our next stop was Sulfer Springs. Supposedly it's the only active volcano that you can drive into. It was neat to see all of the bubbling water (above top)  but the stinkometer was on extreme high so if you are sensitive to smell you may want to avoid this attraction. Our final stop before driving into Soufriere was the Botanical Gardens where we were able to view all of the beautiful plants and trees of St. Lucia (above bottom). If you go, make sure you walk to the end of the trail to view the waterfall. Finally, we headed to Soufriere where we boarded our catamaran and indulged in a wonderful creole lunch with the glorious pitons as our backdrop. The highlight of the meal for me (along with the view) was the breadfruit cake salad. It was amazing! As we "cruised" the coast we were able to see all of the towns that we had previously driven through. It was neat to see them from a  different vantage point. We stopped at Anse Cochon (black sand beach) for a swim before continuing on to the beautiful Marigot Bay and then back to our ship.

On our second trip to St. Lucia we were celebrating our 10 year anniversary so we definately wanted to get away from the masses for a more intimate look at St. Lucia. We accomplished this by booking a tour through Serenity Tours called the "Day of Serenity Tour" which gave us a wonderful day at the Ti Kaye Village  Resort and Spa in the middle of the jungle. Our drive was 30-40 minutes through dense jungle, which included numerous switchback roads. I recalled this one town in particular called Anse La Raye (above and right top & bottom) from our former visit and knew I wanted to stop there along the way for some souvineer shopping (and our tour guide happily obliged). It's this quant little fishing village with a small row of local vendors selling their goods for really cheap prices. It's definately the best place to shop in St. Lucia if you are looking for something handcrafted to bring home. I have read that on friday nights they have a big fish fry there which I definately want to attend at some point in the future. Anse La Raye has the local flair that I love to experience and I was almost frustrated that we couldn't spend more time there.

Once at the "resort" we were able to relax the entire day. I say "resort" because it did not have the feel of a resort at all, in fact it felt very private, like our own private residence along the beach in the middle of the jungle (above). We were able to kayak to an even more private beach, followed by some amazing snorkeling and then sun tanning on comfortable chairs. The snorkeling was the best that I've ever seen, not so much because of the fish but because the coral was incredible looking with all different colors and shapes. I've never seen anything like it! It put Hanauma Bay (in Hawaii) to shame! It was a wonderful day to relax and enjoy each other's company in paradise.

After relaxing we were able to enjoy a lunch up in their restaurant on the top of the cliff looking down at the beach. It was super chic with white curtains blowing in the wind and we had the entire place to ourselves (above top). The food was outstanding! In particular, I remember the most amazing salad I've ever eaten and a wonderfully delicous banana split composed of various icecream flavors, including banana and pistaccio. Finally, we indulged ourselves with a couples massage in a private room overlooking the ocean (above bottom). We were able to pick our oils and then enjoy a delicious cold tea while they washed our feet and prepared us for our massage. It was the best spa experience I have ever had! They even had mirrors on the floor so that you could still see the ocean while you were laying down for your massage! The entire day was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend this place to anyone. Couples, families, friends, you name it.... I will definately be returning, probably with my teenage daughters in tow (okay so it's gonna be a few years but they gotta be able to swim well enough to partake in all of the water activities). However, the next time that I return I will be staying for at least a week so that I can do it justice. The locals are amazingly friendly and there's so much more that I want to explore. These two short trips have only wet my appetite for discovering the wonderful St. Lucia!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Waikiki Beach (Oahu, HI): Hidden Gems

Travelers/Trip Type: My Husband And I
Method of Travel: Air
Would I Return: Plan On Being A Snowbird Here!

I must forewarn you, this first post is going to be exceptionally long due to my personal connection with this location (much, much, MUCH longer than my upcoming posts).  Here goes....It seems only fitting that I begin this blog with my absolute favorite place on earth: Waikiki Beach. Now hold on, I know what you must be thinking. You're about to click out of my blog because you are assuming that since I am the only person in the entire world who would rate Waikiki Beach as their favorite place that I have no taste and that my opinions shouldn't be taken seriously. Please give me a chance, I think I have a few valid points if you just hear me out. I am not saying that Waikiki Beach is the most beautiful beach in the world, there are clearly more beautiful beaches (I will name many in this blog alone). Nor is it the most relaxing beach seeing that it's a mere 100 feet from the hustle and bustle of the city and it certainly isn't the most user friendly beach having to literally fight for every square inch of sand to rest your towel on. With that said,  there's just something about this place that makes Waikiki Beach not only my favorite overall beach but my favorite overall place to be. Period.

Initially I thought that my loyalty to Waikiki was due to nostalgia. After all I spent four years of college at Chaminade University treking nearly a mile to the beach every weekend to swim, tan and people watch. It was also somewhere on this beach that my husband asked me for my hand in marriage. What can be more special than that? But after further contemplation I realized that my love affair with Waikiki began many years before. I first visited Waikiki my seventh grade year on a family trip and I will never forget seeing it for the first time. It's an image that is permanently etched in my mind. The connection between extreme natural beauty juxtaposed with the energy of a bustling city mesmerized me. Magical is the only way I can describe it. I vowed to myself that I would return one day and make it my home. My second visit was my sophomore year of high school when I convinced my mother to let me accompany a friend and her family on their vacation (I was invited). Even though we were staying at her grandma's house in Hawaii Kai we rode The Bus an hour each way to Waikiki Beach every single day of our vacation. Although much of that trip was a blur due to our overindulgence of various devices, it reconfirmed my love for Waikiki and I made a commitment to myself that I would attend college there in a few short years.

During those four years of college, every single time that I walked to the beach my heart literally skipped a beat the moment that I caught a glimpse of that sparkling blue water. The water twinkled, like it was greeting me with a pleasant "hello".  I never once took for granted living in absolute paradise. I stayed in the Pohaku dorm for two years and from my lanai I was able to view Diamond Head to my left, Waikiki Beach straight ahead and the Honolulu skyline to my right. You can't get a much better view than that at a college dorm! Now that I am no longer a resident, each subsequent visit results in the same thing: sheer anticipation to once again arrive in Waikiki. Every time I drive east towards Diamond Head on Kalakaua Ave and the hotels finally give way for my first view of Waikiki Beach I nearly swoon (below). It never disappoints!

So what is it about Waikiki that makes it so special? In my opinion it's because there's a certain energy there that can't be defined, it's like no other that I've ever experienced. I recently visited South Beach in Miami expecting it to be somewhat comparable to Waikiki because everyone I'd ever talked to said it was so vibrant and had a great energy. Ummm, no. No comparison at all. It was a complete and utter disappointment. Not saying it's not a cool place, but it does not compare favorably to Waikiki at all in that respect. Of course there are also physical factors that add to it's appeal (that other beaches lack). First of all I find it amazing that the beach is literally steps away from the city. Look at this picture: street, sidewalk, sand and then ocean. How cool is that? I find it amazing to swim out and then look back to see not only the Waikiki skyline but also a majestic "mountain" to the right (Diamond Head). It makes for a beautiful sight, especially since the beach is lined with beautiful palm trees and other foliage. It's also nice to be able to sunbathe without being bothered by beach vendors harrassing you. Nearly every other beach that I have been to (in the Caribbean) I've had to practically beat them off me with sticks. The beach (and Waikiki in general) is also an excellent spot for people watching. I can't tell you how many hours I spent in Waikiki just hanging out and watching all of the interesting people go about their day (or night). Compound all of these factors with the great nearby shopping venues, delicious food and drink options and the fact that it's easy to navigate and you've got the perfect scenario.  In addition, the beach is equally as attractive at night. The crowds pretty much disperse so it's a nice romantic spot to enjoy a sunset. Finally, you can round out your night by enjoying all of the free nightly entertainment along Kalakaua Ave. I still can't decide if I like Waikiki Beach better during the day or at night and I've spent a considerable amount of time there.

So what about the actual water? I find Waikiki to be one of my favorite places to swim. In the summer the waves are great in Waikiki (in the winter it's flat because the waves are all up at the North Shore)! The waves are big enough to have fun with and to play in but it's not too dangerous. I 've gotten "worked over" and nearly drown at several beaches on Oahu (Makapu'u and Sandy Beach) but I have always felt safe in Waikiki. The shorebreak isn't bad and the undertow is minor unlike the previously mentioned beaches. There are also numerous lifeguards mere feet away in case something does go awry (they also keep an eye out for sharks and jellyfish) and there are enough places with a sandy bottom (rather than coral) that you don't cut your feet up when you are "riding" the waves. And finally, there's something nice about the fact that this beautiful paradise is in our very own country. Other countries are fun to explore and I love learning all of the unique and varying cultures that accompany them but I am also fond of supporting our own economy and I do have to admit there's just something comforting about being on American soil (or sand in this case).

So now that I have possibly convinced you to abandon your immediate hop over to another island and to give Waikiki (and Oahu in general) a chance what should you do?  I've got a whole list. Ready? First things first, where should you stay? I have stayed at a variety of hotels throughout the years but have come to love one in particular.  My decision is based on several things but the most important factor is the location. I prefer to be right in the middle of Waikiki because it's nearest to what I want to do the most (my favorite swimming spot, shops and restaurants). If you stay down at the east end (closest to Diamond Head) then you are further away from the decent shops and restaurants. If you stay on the far west end (furthest from Diamond Head) then you are right in the heart of the restaurant scene but you have to walk a bit for shopping and the best swimming spot. I also try to balance the price with the amenities and I have found the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani (above - behind brown building) to be my favorite when taking all things into consideration. Starting with the perfect location your choices are the Sheraton Moana Surfrider, the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and the Hyatt. Obviously they are all fantastic! The Sheraton Moana Surfrider is right on the beach but you have to fork over some serious dough to have a room with an ocean view. With that being said you still have to walk all through the hotel and down through the pool area to get to the beach so what's a few more steps crossing the street? But if I was willing to tack on an extra $1000 to my stay for an ocean view I would stay here. Unfortunately I'm not. The Hyatt is a beautiful hotel with an amazing pool area that overlooks Waikiki Beach. It's gorgeous but again you would have to pay a lot more to have a high floor ocean view. I love Hyatts in general because they always have the best locations and beautiful common areas, but they seem to lack in offering good amenities in their basic rooms (which most of the time is all that I can afford). They also aren't very kid friendly (which they have recently been taking great strides to change). With the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani you can get a high floor and an ocean view room for what you would pay for a low floor city view room at the other two. The rooms were comfortable (although not extravagant) with a fridge and a lanai (no microwave though). The lobby area is inviting and offers free nightly entertainment. Oh, and the ahi poke at the bar is FANTASTIC! The pool area is very relaxing, you don't even feel like you are only a few steps away from the heart of Waikiki. The noise level was surprisingly low for the pool being at ground level (unlike the majority of hotels that have their pools on their roof) and the drinks are super tasty! Also, the free pineapple in the lobby (during their pineapple cutting demos in the afternoon) is definately refreshing after spending all day in the hot sun. Finally, they make great efforts to share the Hawaiian culture with their guests which I find invigorating.

My favorite part of this hotel is that it's right across the street from where I cut through to get to my favorite swimming spot. There's a row of surfboards next to the Police Station and if you cut through them you will end up at the best spot on the beach to swim (in front of the Sheraton Moana Surfrider). The waves are great there and it seems to be the sandiest spot (I hate stepping on coral). There's also a lifeguard tower right there so I feel safe knowing there aren't any jellyfish or sharks nearby. The hotel is also located right next to the International Market Place which is fun to wander through. I don't recommend shopping there unless you can't make it to the Aloha Stadium for the flea market but if you weave through all of the booths you will eventualy find the food court which offers excellent international cuisine.

Across the street from the International Market Place is the Outrigger Waikiki where Duke's is located. If you eat nowhere else in Waikiki you must eat here. The fish tacos are amazing and the local fave (ahi poke) is awesome as well. If you don't want to hang around to eat (there's usually a wait because it's so popluar) then at least order a lava flow at the bar! It will truly be worth the ridiculous price tag. My other favorite place in Waikiki to eat is a breakfast joint called Eggs & Things at the corner of Saratoga and Kalakaua. It is amazing! I get the macadamia nut pancakes with guava and/or coconut syrup and it is to die for! My husband usually gets eggs and sausage b/c the Portuguese sausage you find in Hawaii is outstanding. On our last trip we arrived there at 6 am (because the time change was throwing us off so we were up at the crack of dawn) and there was already a crowd. They actually handed us a pager for our wait. I have to say it was the first time I've ever had to use a pager for breakfast! It wasn't a long wait but even if it had been it would have been worth it! It's a popular local spot so if you wait until the work crowd is gone you may fare better. Our personal favorite restaurant was Tony Roma's (for sentimental reasons) but it's not exclusive to Hawaii. However, if you've never eaten there get the original baby back ribs. They are better than any rib joint I've ever tried and I live in Kansas so I've tried my fair share of Kansas and Texas BBQ. The final spot in Waikiki that isn't to be missed is the Top of Waikiki restaurant. It's a revolving restaurant located in the heart of Waikiki. I usually find these types of places to be gimicky and overrated with horrible food but this one is actually worth going to. Make a reservation for around 6:30 and you will have a wonderful sunset dinner. The food is amazing and the view is spectacular. If you're willing to venture out from Waikiki head to either Sunset Grill at Restaurant Row or Big Island Steakhouse at Aloha Tower. There are so many other great restaurants located downtown and in other sections of town I just can't remember them off the top of my head. Sorry, at some point you will have to find your own hidden gems!

On Friday nights, head down towards the Hilton Hawaiian Village (or at least on the west end of Waikiki beach) to witness the aloha friday fireworks display. It is quite a showing considering they do it every friday night, and best of all it's free! The nightlife in Waikiki is also free and the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani is right in the heart of the action. If you walk either right or left from the hotel down Kalakaua Ave you will get to enjoy all of the various street performers. There are a few that have been there for more than a decade (like the blind man with the brief case and the painted guy) but they do change nightly so you never know who you are going to see. My favorites are the guy who is completely covered in newspaper and becomes a statue on his newspaper-covered-bench and the guy with the bulldog who has his very own pet mouse perched on his head (the dog's head). It's craziness! You may also get to witness some of Waikiki's "ladies of the night" which is quite interesting in itself to watch them out in full force mingling among the tourists.  I have not seen this in any other city. Usually they are in a completely different part of the city away from the tourists, or at least they aren't as obvious and easy to spot. All this said, you still feel safe walking around, mostly because everyone minds their own business and  no one haggles you or begs for money. The performers have tip jars (which you should use if you want to take pictures) but noone hassles you. There's a fair number of homeless people in Waikiki but they tend to stay down on the east end of the strip (by the zoo) and I have never had a problem with them bothering me, asking for money, or making me feel unsafe (and I walked around alone at night quite a bit during my college years).

Outside of Waikiki there are a number of fun things to do. The first thing you should do is CLIMB DIAMOND HEAD. You cannot go to Oahu and not climb Diamond Head, that would be preposterous! The hike may be a bit exhausting for some as there are over 100 steps in one spot but the reward is so worth the hike (see above)! And duh, it only costs $5 per car or $1 for each pedestrian to experience this amazing view. From Kalakaua head E toward the zoo. Once you reach the zoo most lanes turn left onto Kapahulu but you want to stay going straight. The road will split but you can go either direction because it loops around in a big circle and meets back up together, the prettiest route would be to keep right and eventually end up on Diamond Head Road. Once you get up the giant hill you will end up turning left to stay on Diamond Head Road and then will take another left to drive up into Diamond Head Crater. You may want to stop at the top of the hill to view all of the kite surfers and just the overall view. Caution, if you climb down there a portion of the beach is a nude beach. In addition if  you park on the pull-off before going through the tunnel into the crater you will have a nice view of Hawaii Kai (upscale neighborhood) and Koko Head in the distance  (former volcano like Diamond Head).


Another amazing hike that cannot be missed during your trip to Waikiki brings you to a completely different world, a lush Eden of sorts within arm's reach of the city. Drive west down Kalakaua (away from Diamond Head) until you reach Kapiolani Blvd. (Hard Rock is on the corner). Turn right and head E until you reach University Ave and then turn left. Head N on University, you will pass UH Manoa and it eventually turns into Oahu Ave. At a 4 way stop go straight and you will get to a crazy intersection that goes 5 different directions with a fork ahead of you. You want to go straight and to the right fork onto Manoa road. You will follow this to the end and will reach Manoa Falls (above). Pay the $5 to park in the secure parking lot rather than at the trail head because there are a lot of thefts in this area. You will be rewarded with a gentle but gorgeous hike through a tropical forest (including a bamboo forest) on the way to Manoa Falls. They don't allow you to swim there anymore because of falling rocks but it's still neat to see (especially considering the heart of Waikiki is literally only 10 minutes away)! I would also refrain from drinking the stream water as it may be contaminated.

If you enjoy animals there are several ways to integrate them into your trip (beyond the birds flocking your hotel lanai, your new pet gecko in your room and the late night/early morning cockroaches that you may or may not see). The Honolulu Zoo is at the far east end of Kalakaua Ave (continue straight right after it forks into Kapahulu and veer to your left). The Waikiki Aquarium is a little further down the road (need to veer right for this after it forks into Kapahulu). Both of these are half off with your local zoo membership card which is nice (if you have one). There is also Sea Life Park across from Makapu'u Beach (windward side of island). Or, if you are interested in seeing a couple dolphins and a big sea turtle for "free" just cruise over to the Kahala Mandarin Oriental (above). Drive like you're going to Diamond Head but instead of turning left at the top of the hill just continue going straight (Kahala Ave). This exclusive hotel is at the very end of the road (it's where many celebrities and The President stay when they are in town). I would suggest getting a drink at the Seaside Grill or eating dinner at Hoku's (make reservations) to complete your experience (you do have to tip the valet parking attendants but it doesn't require validations).
My absolute favorite thing to do in the Waikiki/Kaimuki/Kahala area is to travel local style, with a moped! I highly recommend renting one for at least a day (especially if you are travelling as a couple without kids). They are so much more fun than you would expect, trust me on this one! Mopeds really allow you to fully explore the area and to really feel like you are a part of it. The best place that I've found to rent from is Hawaiian Style Moped Rentals (2556 Lemon Road). You can even reserve one online for a reduced rate. I rent mine on a Saturday so that I can cruise up to Kapiolani Community College (right across from the entrance to Diamond Head) for the local farmers market (7:30 - 11am). They have so many yummy local foods and delicious fruits like apple bananas which you absolutely MUST try. I am particularly fond of the homemade popsicles in various tropical flavors (see right)! It makes for a perfect breakfast! Another neat drive is to check out all of the amazingly ridiculous homes in the Kahala area (on the way to the Kahala Mandarin Oriental). If you are ready for lunch you can also eat like a local by stopping at a few of the local drive-ins for some mixed plates. The Rainbow Drive-In on Kapahulu is popular, as is the St. Louis Drive-In on Waialae Ave. Our personal favorite lunch spot was L & L Drive on Waialae Ave (right across from Chaminade University). My husband's fave was orange chicken all fry and mine was chicken katsu two scoop rice. Order it just like that and you'll feel like a local. Continue up the road (E on Waialae) to Boston's Pizza if you want to eat the largest piece of pizza ever, it's another popular local spot (especially for college kids because it's so affordable). For dessert head back towards Waikiki on Kapahulu to Leonard's for the best damn "donuts" you've ever had in your life. They are actually called Malasadas, get a bunch of them or you will be making a trip back for more!

Another local style of transportation is The Bus. It's affordable, usually punctual and goes all over the island. There are quite a few buses that run in Waikiki extensively. The Ala Moana Shopping Center (which should be explored as well if you're a shopper because it's the world's largest outdoor mall) serves as the main hub for The Bus and it is here that you would normally make any bus transfers. Keep in mind that there are bus stops on the north and south side of the mall so you may have to walk through the mall depending on where you want to go. It seems like generally speaking if you were headed west then you would stop (or get on) on the south side and if you were heading east you would stop (or get on) on the north side of the mall. If you are interested in getting a REAL feel for the city and want to see how the locals reside then take the bus from Waikiki to the airport or vice versa. It meanders through downtown Honolulu and Chinatown (which can be pretty sketchy at times) so you get a good glimpse at real life but you are in the safety of the bus.

Another day trip would be to take advantage of the Aloha Stadium flea market and to explore  Pearl Harbor. I like to maximize my time and gas money so it makes sense to do these on the same day since they are right next to each other. The flea market is only open on Wed and Sat, 8 am to 3 pm and Sun 6:30 am to 3 pm. Take Ala Moana/Nimitz Highway or H1 West and  look for the USS Arizona/Stadium exit # 15A, then take the stadium exit. You have to pay to park (not sure how much) but in those books along the strip in Waikiki there are coupons for free parking, $1 admittance. There is much more variety at the flea market (versus the International Market Place) and you can barter more so it's a great place to do your shopping. I would recommend going early because it gets quite hot walking around the seemingly endless stadium. Fortunately there are vendors selling fresh fruit (the best damn pineapple you'll ever eat) and shave ice to cool you off. When you're done shopping head over to Pearl Harbor (which is the same exit from H1 but a different direction, just follow signs or ask when you leave the stadium). The visitor's center is open 7:30 am to 5:30 pm, with boat trips to the USS Arizona begining at 8 am and ending at 3 pm. There are no purses, backpacks, camera bags or anything else allowed in the visitor center. There is free admittance on the boat tour and the outdoor exhibits but the USS Missouri Battleship tour is $16 each. I have never done the Battleship tour but have heard it was pretty neat. The memorial itself is pretty eerie, it's obviously a powerful place to visit.

My final day trip would bring you around the entire island, or the "circle island tour" as I refer to it. Definately take your own car rather than booking a tour so that you can stop where you want to. I would begin my day (and I would make this an early day because there is A LOT to get done) by driving to Hanauma Bay for some early morning snorkeling. It's open 6 am to 6 pm, closed on Tuesdays ($1 to per car to park, $7.50 each to get in).You can either rent snorkel gear down at the beach or you can bring your own. Hanauma Bay is just off Kalanianaole Hwy (Route 72). To get to Kalanianaole Hwy head east on Kalakaua (towards Diamond Head). Instead of going straight, turn left onto Kapahulu Ave and follow it to the end. You will reach Waialae Ave and here you will turn right. Stay on Waialae the entire way as it turns into Kalanianaole Hwy. The first neighborhood you will go through is Kaimuki which hosts Chaminade University and is a pretty average (middle class) neighborhood for Honolulu (although one of these “average” homes here would cost over half a million dollars to purchase). Then you will go through Kahala and finally into Hawaii Kai. After some time you will go up a very large hill and the road will turn slightly to the left. Your turn (right) will be at the top of the hill into Haunama Bay National Park. If you want to see TONS of all different colored fish that come up right next to your hands then this is by far the best place to go on Oahu. You will definitely want an underwater camera! Even if you can’t swim well it’s easy to snorkel here because it is so shallow and the waves are broken by the reef. A helpful hint would be to remove your shiny jewelry though as the eels are attracted to shiny things. The last time we went they didn’t bother us but we have had problems in the past with them going after my ring…. I have included this in my circle island tour because it is already on that side of the island but you could easily make a day of it at Hanauma Bay alone or combine it with Sea Life Park which isn't too much farthur up the road. I guess it just depends on how much time you have and how much you want to relax.

If you continue on Kalanianaole Hwy your landscape will change considerably with really rocky shores and you will shortly come across a pull-off for the blowhole. The water spouts through the rocks and sprays up. It's a neat sight. If you look over the edges of the cliffs you will see some sandy beaches below, you may even get to see a sea turtle swimming nearby. We used to party a lot down on those beaches during college (particularly Cockroach Cove) and would see them all the time. Continuing on you will reach Sandy Beach (above top). The name speaks for itself as it is a beautiful beach. The waves are beautiful to watch but as I mentioned before this beach is very dangerous because of the shore break and strong undercurrents. You should not swim here if you aren't a strong swimmer, and even then please use caution. It is a popular spot for body boarding but many people are injured and even killed here (I'm pretty sure an ambulance is on standby here because everytime we are there we see one just sitting there). Continuing on you will come to another pull-off on the right side which gives you a good view of Makapu’u Beach and Rabbit Island (above bottom)  just off the beach. Then you will descend down a huge hill and will pass by Sea Life Park (I’m sure it’s great we just never wanted to spend the money on it while we were poor college students).

At this point you will head into some really “local” parts of Hawaii, like Waimanalo. The two beaches that I think are the most beautiful on Oahu are Waimanalo Beach (above) and Lani Kai (which is more off the beaten track near Kailua). On your left you will start to see some gorgeous mountains and the terrain will be quite different from where you started off (it is much more lush). Finally you will reach the end of this highway and you must make a decision as to which way you want to go. If you are tired and are wanting to head back then turn left and stay on highway 61 to go on the Pali Highway where you can take an exit for the Pali Lookout to get a great view of the valley. It is simply gorgeous and you should do this at some point during your trip anyways (as well as seeing the gorgeous H3). Be careful when leaving here and make sure you take the exit heading to Honolulu and not Kailua or you will be going the wrong way and won’t be able to correct yourself for quite a while. From the Pali Highway you will get onto H1 East and then take the Wailae exit and go back the way you originally came (if you get off before this exit by following the signs to Waikiki you will deal with more traffic, especially if it is rush hour). If you aren't ready to head back yet then turn left for just a bit (at the same spot) and turn right onto highway 83 ( Kamehameha Highway). You will follow this around a lot of the island and will see some gorgeous scenery.

At one point you will see a tiny triangular island off to your right, this is China Man’s Hat (above). On the other side of the road is a lush valley and is one of the spots where Jurassic Park was filmed (among many other movies). I think Lost was filmed up around here as well. If you are interested in the Polynesian Culture Center it's on this route also. It's a bit expensive but if you want to learn about the culture of all of the Polynesian Islands then it's great! It's definately an all day event though so you would want to make sure to plan accordingly. If shrimp is your thing then make sure you have room in your tummy to stop at the Kahuku shrimp truck just past Kahuku (you will pass Giovanni's and Romy's shrimp trucks first). The garlic scampi is the local fave but I prefer the coconut shrimp. It is to die for!
Continuing on you will eventually make it to the famous North Shore with Sunset Beach and Waimea Beach. Right before you get to Waimea Beach is Pupukea Beach Park which is filled with tidepools, it's strikingly beautiful and worth checking out. It is past Waimea beach where the famous Pipeline” is located but it's not advertised so you won’t know exactly where it is. If you see big waves and lots of cars then you are there. At sunset beach you can usually buy fruit out of a guy’s pickup and he will cut open a coconut for you and give you a straw to drink the milk. It's simply marvelous! Once you get to Haleiwa (which is a really neat little surf town) you will turn onto highway 99 to head back to Honolulu but I highly recommend checking out this fun little town first. There are two places in particular that you should visit (hopefully you've spent enough time at the beach that you're hungry again). The first is Kua' Aina Burger (corner of Auahi and Kamake'e streets)  which serves up some famously delicious burgers and some equally addicting french fries. It is THE spot on the island to eat burgers (there's also one at Ward Center in Honolulu). The second is this charming little artsy fartsy cafe that I accidentally discovered on my last visit. It's called Paradise Cafe and it's located in the rear of the Celestial Natural Foods Store near the end of the "main drag" in Haleiwa. Pick up a smoothie for your drive back and you won't be disappointed as it's made with fresh yummy ingredients. Now you're finally ready to head back.... The drive back is not as pretty but you will get to drive through pineapple fields and can even visit the Dole Plantation along the way. They have a pineapple maze that you can go through and have great things to eat. Keep going on 99 and then eventually onto H1 to take your Waialae exit back to Kapahulu and then Kuhio for your hotel. Again, if you follow the signs from H1 to get to Waikiki you will have much more traffic because those exits take you right downtown before funneling you into Waikiki. Taking the Waialae exit will get you back quicker, particularly during rush hour. One final driving tip: avoid the downtown area (and even H-1 for that matter) from 12-6 pm on Fridays as it's pretty much considered a holiday (Aloha Friday).

As I finally bring this ridiculously long blog to a close I will conclude with telling you about three popular spots among the locals to "get their crazy on". I am referring to cliff jumping but in my opinion you gotta be crazy to do it. My husband has jumped at all three spots but I would not jump at either of them unless my life literally depended on it. Even then I would probably pee my swimsuit. The first popular spot is the "Jump Rock" at Waimea Bay Beach up on the north shore. Apparently this jump is relatively safe with a nice sandy bottom, but I would still ask someone who has jumped before for tips. It's a popular spot so there will most likely be someone else up there jumping when you do. But beware of this beach in the winter as the shorebreak and currents are tremendous! The other two are located in Hawaii Kai (on the way to Haunama Bay). One is called China Walls and the other is called Spitting Cave (above). Of the two, China Walls would be the "most mild" because it isn't as high and you don't run the risk of getting sucked into an underwater sea cave if you don't time your jump just right. With that being said it can still be extremely dangerous and many have lost their lives here. The current is extremely strong and even if you choose not to jump you can still be killed if you aren't paying attention and and are swept away by a large wave at high tide. I would recommend just packing a lunch and having a picnic on the rocks (sunset is nice) and watching the experienced locals jump rather than risking your own life. I can't remember exactly how to get here but it's in the wealthy neighborhood of Portlock and the entrance is known as Koko Kai Mini Beach Park.  Make sure you park on Hanapepe Loop not Hanapepe Place as that cul de sac is a tow away zone. Nearby Spitting Cave is no joke, even the hike down can be dangerous. It's definately not for the faint of heart because it is so high up. It's a bit eerie because so many people have died there, in fact there's even a marker up there in rememberence of those who have perished. I remember reading an article in the local newspaper one time while I was living there about how they wanted to somehow close this public place because the locals were sick and tired of hearing the screams when someone didn't jump correctly and died. As you can expect, it's horrifying for the nearby residents. These three jumps are for strong swimmers and extreme adrenaline junkies only. I do not recommend any of these jumps, however it's neat to go and watch the experienced locals do their thing.

In closing, I think it's safe to say at this point that Oahu offers a lot, it's my favorite island for this very reason. You can find extreme adventures, wonderful hikes, stunning/relaxing beaches, a unique high energy all-in-one beach (Waikiki), great shopping, a thrilling nightlife and so much more! You can do pretty much anything you want somewhere on this island. Of course all of the Hawaiian islands are incredibly beautiful and offer many fun activities as well, but they are not as all-encompassing as Oahu is. Obviously this info doesn't sum up the whole of Oahu, but at some point I've got to bring this to a close. I'm sure there are many cool things that I've forgotten to mention and many more that I have yet to discover. If you have a question, please feel free to ask. If you have something to add, please feel free to comment (I will make many more trips to Oahu so any info is great). If you love to travel, then please join my blog so that we can begin this travel journey together! Aloha and mahalo for reading my da kine ramblings. I promise I am finally all pau. Lol. Please forgive my haole attempt at pidgen.