My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

Many months ago when my husband and I were discussing where we wanted to go during our daughter’s school break the end of February/first part of March, Hawaii came up. As much as I’m dying to go to Portugal, I want to wait until the weather is more ideal than it would be the end of February. Hawaii, on the other hand, has perfect weather year-round. The last time we were in Hawaii, which was the second time for each of us, we went to Kauai and the big island and these had become our collective favorite islands. I think it was assumed we would return to the big island and Kauai this time as well.

At the time of our trip planning, the big island was having its most recent massive volcanic eruption. Sections of the island were closed and the air quality was poor. I knew of course things wouldn’t always be like that but I had no idea how long the lingering effects would go on. For example, would Volcanoes National Park or parts of it be closed when we wanted to go there? How long would the poor air quality linger? Not really wanting to take a chance and perhaps being overly-cautious, I suggested maybe we should skip the big island but go to another island instead, along with Kauai. Perhaps we should go to Oahu; after all, Oahu is the most-visited of the Hawaiian islands.

Although he didn’t say as much, I could tell my husband was highly doubtful of my suggestion to go to Oahu. He had been to Oahu many years ago with his mother and sister and had been less than impressed. He tells stories of having to step over body after body on Waikiki Beach and only having barely enough room to put his towel down. Pretty much all he remembers doing on that vacation is going to Waikiki Beach multiple days, driving to the North Shore for the day, and taking a day trip to the big island.

Nonetheless, I began researching Oahu and talking to some co-workers who I knew had been to Oahu several times. I decided we would go to Kauai for a week and Oahu for four days. However, I was adamant that we wouldn’t stay in the Waikiki or Honolulu areas. When I found this gem of a place on Airbnb, I was sold. Since it’s actually part of Paradise Bay Resort, you get resort amenities (more on that later) and free breakfast through Airbnb. We would be staying on the east side of Oahu in a bay, close enough to drive to plenty of good places to hike and pretty much anywhere else on the island we wanted but far enough from the massive crowds to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Flying into Oahu, I immediately noticed the colors of the water seemed somehow prettier than the other islands. The turquoise was more vivid and there was more variation in colors. Then I saw the sprawl of Honolulu and all of the buildings, homes, and hotels crammed together and I was glad I had found the resort in Kaneohe Bay. After we landed and collected our rental car, we drove to the Crazy Shirts outlet and got some lunch nearby. Then we went up to the top of the Diamond Head State Monument and the fun really started.

Diamond Head State Monument is undoubtedly one of the most crowded places I’ve ever been to but absolutely worth it for the views. From the trailhead to the summit of Diamond Head Crater is 0.8 miles one way with 560 feet increase in elevation from the crater floor. There are hundreds of stairs and you go through a couple of tunnels. If you don’t like crowds or small spaces, I wouldn’t advise going here. However, if you don’t mind pushing your way through hordes of people (sometimes you literally have to do this), you’ll be rewarded with amazing views like this:

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View from top of Diamond Head State Monument
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Another view from Diamond Head showing the masses of people around but amazing views

For the rest of our time in Oahu, we mostly spent our time hiking but we also went to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC). One thing we discovered about the PCC is that you don’t in fact have to buy a ticket to walk around the grounds if you get there after 6 pm. General admission ticket prices (which are the cheapest offered) are $64.95 for adults and this includes a visitor’s center tour, self-guided tour through six different themed areas (like New Zealand), hands-on activities, a canoe ride, a brief movie, and a canoe show. However, if you’re content to walk through the themed areas on your own for a couple of hours in the evening, you can do so for free. There are also options that you can add on things like a luau, reserved seating, an evening show, and on and on with the most-inclusive package priced at $242.95.

Another non-hiking activity we did in Oahu was visit the Byodo-In Temple in Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. The Byodo-In Temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple often used for weddings, funerals, and cremation services. I found the temple and grounds to be beautiful and peaceful. There is also a small gift shop on-site.

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Byodo-In Temple

Some of our favorite hiking spots were Waimea Valley and Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park. Waimea Valley also has a botanical garden with thousands of different types of plants from around the world and a waterfall that you can swim in. This valley has historically been home to kings, chiefs, and high priests. You can see many archaeological sites throughout the valley. Admission for visiting adults is $16.95 and you can arrange for complimentary tours and activities depending on the day and time (check the website).

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A Looking Glass Tree at Waimea Valley (as Alice in Wonderland fans, my daughter and I loved seeing this)
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Waterfall at Waimea Valley

Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park was established to nurture and foster native Hawaiian cultural traditions and the cultural landscape of rural windward Oʻahu. Established as a “living park”, there are thirty-one families living in the ahupuaʻa of Kahana. These families assist with interpretive programs that share the Hawaiian values and lifestyle. There are two hiking trails available to the public, Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail is a one mile long loop trail that begins at the Orientation Center and takes about one hour. The trail passes two cultural sites and offers stunning views of Kahana Bay. Nakoa Trail is named for the koa trees found along this 2.5 mile loop trail through a tropical rain forest. The loop hike takes about 2 hours. The total length of the hike is 5 miles from the Orientation Center.

My family and I are all about trails with views, so we chose the Kapa’ele’ele Ko’a and Keaniani Lookout Trail. As per our former experience with hiking trails in Hawaii, this one was extremely muddy and slippery in parts. The trail wasn’t too difficult other than navigating through the mud until we reached one of the viewpoints of the bay. At this point, the trail became what I would call pretty dangerous, with sharp drop-offs on both sides of a thin walkway. My husband went up that section to take some photos but I chose to stay behind until he came back and we went back the way we came. Also, if you go on this trail, wear bug-spray because we didn’t and got eaten alive by mosquitoes.

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View from Ahupuaʻa ʻO Kahana State Park

The final thing we did in Oahu that was a ton of fun was to go standup paddleboarding for the first time. Remember that awesome Airbnb we stayed at- well, Paradise Bay Resort offers free standup paddleboarding and kayaking lessons once a day on certain days. After a quick lesson of what to do (it’s pretty simple, honestly) we began paddleboarding around the small body of water (I guess you’d call it an inlet) directly behind the resort. Once I felt confident on my knees, I stood and pretty quickly felt like I had the hang of it. However, the winds were really strong that day and every time I tried to go out into the bay, the wind would push me backwards. Finally, I decided to just stay in the inlet. There were mangroves and I could still see into the bay so it was still scenic.

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Standup paddleboarding!

On our final day in Oahu, we tried to go to the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout but unfortunately the Pali Highway was closed when we were there. All was not lost, though. We made our way to Leonard’s Bakery to try some famous malasadas, which are Portuguese donuts without the hole. For the three of us, we ordered two each with Li Hing, cinnamon sugar, and original coating but when I opened the box in the car, I discovered they had given us several extras. We also got some of the custard-filled ones and extra ones of the others as well- bonus!

We decided to walk along the harbor area of Honolulu before heading to the airport and it was a nice way to end our time in Oahu. I know I for one was very glad I decided to take a chance and come to Oahu and I feel pretty sure my family would agree! Since we’re not really ones to go where the crowds are (with some exceptions like Diamond Head in this case) but we prefer to go a bit off the beaten path, the windward side was perfect for us.

Have you been to Oahu? Did you stay in popular Waikiki or somewhere else? Tell me about your experience in Hawaii.

Happy travels!

Donna

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Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

I’ve been to the Hawaiian island of Kauai twice; the first time my daughter was almost 2 years old and more recently with my teenage daughter. I feel like the island remained pretty much unchanged in those eleven years with the exception of more traffic and people on the island. However, my experiences both times were vastly different.

The first time I went to Kauai I went with my husband and his parents (and as I mentioned our daughter) and I felt like I was just kind of along for the ride. My mother-in-law had been to Kauai before and pretty much set our itinerary for Kauai and also our time on the big island, which we combined for our 12-day vacation. At the time, I had no problems letting someone else plan what I did on vacation and I don’t remember really even looking up things to do.

We went to the pool at the resort, went to some beaches, a luau, my husband and I hiked in Waimea Canyon while my in-laws watched our daughter, and one day we drove up the coast to see Princeville and the surrounding area. Honestly, I don’t remember much from that vacation other than what I just typed here. Don’t get me wrong. I had a fantastic time but looking back I feel like it was all kind of a blur of beaches and swimming pools with the luau and Waimea Canyon mixed in.

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My family’s first time in Kauai

Flash-forward to my more recent vacation to Kauai and there are quite a few differences. This time the three of us hiked in Waimea Canyon State Park, hiked part of Sleeping Giant Trail, and Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail with a sweet dog we took on a field trip from the Kauai Humane Society. We snorkeled on our own and swam through schools of fish, saw a spiny lobster, crab, and colorful fish of all shapes and sizes. We crawled through a small opening to get to Makauwahi Cave. We went ziplining and even flew through the air superman style on some of the lines (some of us went upside-down on some of the lines). My daughter and I also ran together several days and were rewarded with ocean views, volcanic rock formations, and sandy beaches along the way. Oh, and we also went to a luau complete with delicious local foods, musicians, several different Polynesian dances, and a fire show.

We’re an active family when we’re at home so it’s not surprising that our vacations are also active. That’s a good thing too, with all of the shave ice we ate! This was the first time I had ever tried Hawaiian shave ice. I always just thought it was like a snow cone. Oh how wrong I was! There is a difference in the quality of shave ice, as I found out. The best kinds are hand-formed with macadamia nut ice cream or vanilla ice cream on the bottom, with two or three flavors that evenly saturate the shave ice from top to bottom and sweet cream poured on top. The ice cream on bottom and cream on top sometimes cost extra (depends on the place) but they’re absolutely worth it.

Here are some of my favorite things in Kauai:

Koloa Zipline Tours– 8 lines, some of which you can go head-first superman style, tandem, upside down, or traditional. Tour lasts about 3.5 hours and you get a snack and water on the tour. Our guides were laid-back but safety-conscious so I felt like everything was completely safe and secure. The last line is the longest, at about 0.5 mile, with views of the reservoir, farmland with cattle, and of course trees below.

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We were actually much higher up than it looks like here!

Makauwahi Cave Reserve– free guided tours or go on your own. Although you do have to enter through a small opening, there are carpets on the ground and it’s very short, so you’re through it before you know it. You can view the caves from above, but can’t really get good views inside the cave from that vantage. If you get lost trying to find the entrance, just walk down to where a river meets the ocean and you should find it shortly after that.

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Makauwahi Cave Reserve

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail– close to the Makauwahi Cave, this trail runs along the southern part of the island with views of limestone formations, cliffs, and ocean. The area has sharp, jagged rocks everywhere so it’s not a trail where you want to be wearing flip-flops. Bring sunscreen and water as there’s no shade and the sun is relentless. When we were there, signs were posted that the water at Maha’ulepu Beach was contaminated with bacteria and therefore unsafe to enter. All that being said, this place is truly beautiful and worth seeing.

Kauai Humane Society– field trips for well-behaved dogs can be arranged simply by showing up at the shelter, choosing a dog, doing a brief meet-and-greet with the dog, paying the $25 suggested donation (or more if you’re inclined), filling out a form, and taking the dog out along with some supplies in a backpack. Our dog, Priscilla, was truly one of the best-behaved dogs I’ve ever been around. She wasn’t afraid of anything and happily walked along the Maha’ulepu Trail and Beach with us. I hope sweet little Priscilla has found a home by now because she deserves it. One note if you do this, get there promptly at 11 am. The first day we went, we got there around 12:30 and there were no dogs left, so we went back the following day at 11 am and  had no problems getting a dog. I was told they usually have around 8 or 10 dogs per day that can go on field trips so often all of the dogs go out and are taken well before 1 pm.

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Walking the Maha’ulepu Trail with Priscilla from the Kauai Humane Society

Waimea Canyon State Park and Area– called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” this park is enormous and is adjacent to Koke’e State Park, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, and a few Reserve Areas. What all that means is there are plenty of trails in this area. This time the 22 mile Kalalau Trail (my husband and I hiked part of it the previous time we were there) was closed so our daughter chose our trail to hike, the Awa’awapuhi Trail, which is in Koke’e State Park. The Awa’awapuhi Trail is a downhill hike 3.25 miles each way. When we were there it was extremely slick and muddy and we were glad to be wearing our Merrell hiking shoes. If we were really smart, we would have brought a change of shoes for when we got to our car. The trail isn’t terribly scenic until you reach the end but the ultimately the views are great and worth the hike.

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Waimea Canyon

Beaches for snorkeling- Lawa’i Beach and Poipu Beach Park. Conditions for snorkeling change throughout the year so check with locals to see what their recommendations are for snorkeling. Also, we found the best beaches for snorkeling are not good for swimming and vice versa. The coral shelf often extends close to the water’s edge so you need to watch your footing carefully. We went in with bare feet and got some cuts and scrapes on our feet and legs but nothing major. Water shoes would have been a better idea. We also didn’t have fins but just the mask and snorkel and that was fine for us because we’re strong swimmers but we saw plenty of other people with fins.

JoJo’s Shave Ice- I especially liked the Colada Special and Locals South Shore. My daughter said the Rainbow was one of her favorites. The 28-oz serving is huge and can easily be shared (or you can keep it all for yourself!). We also liked Uncle’s Shave Ice but theirs wasn’t hand-shaven and I read some spotty reviews. No matter where you get your shave ice, just be sure you get the sweet cream “over” and ice cream “under.” It really makes a big difference.

Have you been to Kauai before? What are some of your favorite things in Kauai? Have you revisited a place many years later and had vastly different experiences?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Exploring Grand Cayman Island on Foot-Crystal Caves, Botanical Gardens, Hiking a Trail, a Historical Site, and Hell

Previously, I wrote about the beaches and water-related parts of Grand Cayman Island, (Grand Cayman Island- Beautiful Beaches, Bioluminescent Water, Stingrays, and More) but the beaches and water aren’t the only beautiful and fun places to spend your time. If you enjoy exploring caves, you’ll love Cayman Crystal Caves. This 1.5 hour group tour through Cayman’s oldest landmark is one of the island’s newest natural tourist attractions. There are three caves, the roots cave, the lake cave, and the open-ceiling cave.

My favorite cave is the lake cave, which as you may guess from the name has a small lake in it. The color of the water is such a pretty shade of blue, and it is so peaceful in the cave. I can see why people used to come here on their own before the tour company took over and restricted entry. However, the stalactite and stalagmite crystal structures are extremely fragile, and without supervision, many formations were being broken.

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The Lake Cave

A cool bonus was we saw fruit bats in some portions of the caves. They were tiny little bats just hanging out (literally) in clusters, and one bat would occasionally fly from one side of the cave to another. We also saw tiny litte green tree frogs that the guide pointed out on the leaves of a couple of trees.

Tours are offered seven days a week at every hour starting at 9 am until 4 pm, except Good Friday and Christmas. Tickets are $40 for adults and $30 for children 12 and under. Be sure you wear appropriate footwear (i.e. not flip-flops).

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Bats at Cayman Caves!

We always love going to botanical gardens when we’re traveling and were happy to discover there is one in Grand Cayman Island. Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is on the east side of the island, not far from the Crystal Caves. There are three garden areas, each very different from one another. The Heritage Garden has a restored Caymanian House showing how life was like in the Cayman Islands at the turn of the century. The Xerophytic Garden has plants like cacti and succulents that require minimal water to grow. My favorite is the Floral Colour Garden, with a series of gardens arranged by color and a gazebo and seating area overlooking a lily pond and waterfall.

There is also the Lake and Wetland area on the edge of a Buttonwood Swamp. We saw some birds in the water here and I was very excited to look over at a nearby tree and see several Green Cayman Parrots. As excited as I was to see the parrots, the blue iguanas were the real reason I wanted to come to the gardens.

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Blue iguana on our tour guide’s head at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Gardens

Blue Cayman Iguanas are highly endangered animals and you can see them on the Blue Iguana Safari, which is a behind the scenes tour of the breeding and recovery program. Our guide, Alberto, was entertaining and enthusiastic about the blue iguanas. He fed some of the iguanas from a plant growing throughout the gardens and held a couple of the more tame ones, although he did show us quite a few of his scars from bites and scratches. We saw a couple of blue iguanas in the park on our own but it wasn’t nearly the experience as from the tour so I’m glad we took the tour.

Very close to the Botanic Park is the Mastic Trail, a two mile trail (although really 4 miles since it’s out and back) that you can arrange a guided tour through for $24 or just do on your own for free (we hiked it on our own). The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. There are some areas where the footing is a bit tricky, but being in Grand Cayman Island where everything is pancake flat, Mastic Trail is the highest point of the island at 60 feet. It’s an easy out and back hike and the only trail on the island as far as I can tell. The trail is well-shaded and quiet. We didn’t see many birds but it was the afternoon; I expect you would see more birds in the morning when they’re usually more active.

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Mastic Trail

I have to briefly mention a unique little part of Grand Cayman Island, known quite simply as Hell. Hell is an area in West Bay the size of half a football field made up of limestone formations. Stories abound about how the area got its name but some think “A ministration exclaimed, ‘This is what Hell must look like.'” Sure, it’s touristy but it’s still fun to go and get your photo taken in Hell.

There are actually two stops here, side-by-side, one that looks like it has a post office and the other has a small tourist shop in the front. I noticed tour buses stopping at the place that looks like a post office in the front and people in rental cars stopping at the other place beside it. We chose the one where tour buses were not visiting and were greeted by an older man who cheerfully brought us out some props for photos and led us inside where his wife or companion gave us a tour of the place and took some photos of us. The woman told us about the limestone formations and pointed out some birds and other things while she gave us a commentary and history about the area. Afterwards, I looked it up and found there are a few other places called Hell, namely one in California, Michigan, and Norway, in addition to Grand Cayman Island. Still, it’s not every day when you can say you went to Hell.

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None other than Hell

Finally, we visited Pedro St. James National Historic Site, a three-story house built by William Eden, an Englishman, in 1780. This was a mansion in comparison to the other houses on the island at the time, which was just a tiny fishing village. Perhaps best known as the “Birthplace of Democracy in the Cayman Islands”, Pedro St. James was the venue for a meeting on December 5, 1831 where the decision was made to form the first elected parliament.

You can tour the house and grounds on your own for C.I. $10 (Cayman Island dollars) and there is a 20 minute movie inside Pedro Theater to give you some information about the house. Outside, there is a gazebo and gardens and a building with some historical photos and information and other items like historical stamps. When we were there, they were setting up for an event at the gazebo. No doubt there are many special events like weddings held here because of the beautiful setting, with the ocean as the backdrop. It was a nice way to end out time in Grand Cayman Island and we made our way to the airport to go back home after our tour of Pedro St. James.

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Having fun at Pedro St. James and wishing I didn’t have to leave Cayman!

Cayman Crystal Caves

Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Pedro St. James National Historic Site

Have you been to Grand Cayman Island and if so what did you think of it? Want to go now if you’ve never been? Have you been to Hell?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens
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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Planning a Trip to Machu Picchu in Peru

I’m planning a vacation for myself and my family to go to Machu Picchu next year. If you’ve never been, I can tell you it’s almost overwhelming (well, it really is overwhelming, not almost) how many choices and options there are. I’ve planned vacations for the last couple of decades and haven’t been phased at all by places like Chile (even the middle of nowhere Chile), New Zealand with all of its options, or Malta (a place most Americans have never even heard of). Peru, however, is proving to be a bit more difficult, shall we say, simply because of all of the options.

Just about the only place I know for sure we will be going to is Machu Picchu. From there, the choices are who to go with for our group tour, and from there, how do we want to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu. There are options to camp in tents for anywhere from a few nights to 10 days, hiking along the way. There are options to just take the train in and take a guided tour for a few hours. Then there are options for which trek to do, if you want to camp and hike with a guided tour. I can see why many people just take the train in and do the guided tour of Machu Picchu for the day; that would be the easiest way.

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Beautiful Machu Picchu in Peru

However, if you know me at all, you know I don’t take the easiest way, nor do I take the route most traveled (most of the time, although I have been to more popular places as well). I often go to places where people will ask me beforehand, “Why are you going there?” or “Where is that?” Although I’ve been to popular places like Rome and Miami (and of course no one ever asked why I was going there), I like to venture off the beaten path a bit. Hence, I’ve chosen to take the Lares Route instead of the most popular classic Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. As far as I can tell, the three most popular choices if you want to do some hiking are the Lares Route, the classic Inca Trail, and Salcantay Route. There is also a one-day Inca Trail, the strenuous Vilcabamba Traverse Route, the Lodge Trek, and the Chaski (or Cachicata) Trail.

What I like about the Lares Route is it’s not quite as crowded as the classic Inca Trail and the trek passes through small villages so you get to see some of the artisans and farmers in person. There are also hot springs (what’s not to like about that after a long day of hiking). There are a couple of options for the Lares route: 2 nights of camping in tents and two nights in hotels along the way to Machu Picchu or 2 nights in tents and 1 night in a hotel before reaching Machu Picchu. I didn’t want to get to Machu Picchu, only to be so tired from not sleeping well in a tent for the past 6 nights and not be able to fully enjoy the star of the show!

So now the major remaining question is what do we do with the rest of our time in Peru? We have a couple of weeks, plus or minus a few days to spend in Peru. I know we’ll fly into Lima and probably just spend a night there before flying to Cusco. I also know we should acclimatize to the elevation in Cusco for a few (I’m thinking three) days before beginning the Lares Route to Machu Picchu. Then what to do after that? Rainbow Mountain, or Vinicunca, looks pretty awesome, and by then we should be used to the elevation. That would add one day. I thought about going to Huacachina from Lima and spending a night there, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. We’ve been to the amazing sand dunes in the Canary Islands, so it’s not like we’ve never seen a place like this before.

I’ve heard of other people tacking on the Galapagos Islands to Machu Picchu because of the somewhat near proximity (all things relative), but that’s not something I want to do. I’d rather focus on Peru on this trip and go to the Galapagos Islands at another time. My family and I love hiking, beaches, mountains, and historical sites. If you have any ideas for some things to do around Lima or Cusco, I’d love to hear them! Also, two of the three of us suffer from pretty bad motion sickness so while airplanes are usually fine (with medicine), boats aren’t a great idea for us.

Have you been to Machu Picchu? What was your experience like? Have you been to Peru but not Machu Picchu? Where did you go and what did you see? Please help me plan my vacation to Peru! All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Happy travels!

Donna

 

5 of my Favorite National Parks in the United States

Of the current 60 national parks in the United States, I’ve been to 20 of them over the years. In 2017, there were a record 84 million visitors to national parks, with the majority of visitors going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. 28 states plus the United States Virgin Islands and the American Samoa Territory have national parks, and California has the most, with 9 parks, just edging out Alaska’s 8 national parks.

Honestly, one of my favorite national parks isn’t the most-visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s my opinion that this park is the most visited simply because of its geography, which isn’t to say it’s not a nice park. The fact is it’s fairly easy for many people on the east coast and parts of the midwest to get to this park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So what are some of my favorite national parks in the United States? I’ll limit it to my top five here in no certain order and explain why I love them so much, along with some descriptions of each park. The website for all of the US national parks is here.

  1.  Yosemite National Park is in the central Sierra Nevada of California. Some of the most famous features include granite formations like El Capitan and Half Dome, waterfalls such as Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall, and giant sequoia trees.There are a ton of options for things to do in the park including bike rentals, mule and horseback riding, photography and art classes, stargazing programs, tours, rafting, and rock climbing classes. There are over 800 miles of trails so you can take short walks as well as longer hikes to waterfalls in Yosemite Valley, or walks among giant sequoias in the Mariposa, Tuolumne, or Merced Groves. There is a free shuttle bus system but if you prefer to drive, most locations with Yosemite Valley are easily accessible by car. Just know that during the busy summer months, the park gets extremely crowded and finding parking can be difficult. Another option is to take a tour bus to Glacier Point in the summer and fall to see views of Yosemite Valley and the high country. I personally love Yosemite National Park most because of the giant sequoias but I also love the waterfalls and the rock formations.
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One of many waterfalls at Yosemite National Park
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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

2. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii and is one of the more unique national parks. Where else can you walk through an enormous lava tube? There are several day hikes, backcountry hikes, and ranger-led hikes as well as scenic drives. If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is Volcano House, which also operates Nāmakanipaio Campground, or there are several vacation rentals and bed and breakfasts in Volcano Village just outside the park. This park was recently closed from May 11, 2018 to September 22, 2018 due to volcanic activity that damaged roads, trails, waterlines, and buildings in the park. Some places are still partially opened, so if you’re going there in the near future, check the website first for closings.

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Deep inside a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
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The flora and fauna at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park are so beautiful

3.  Bryce Canyon National Park is in southwestern Utah and its claim to fame is it has the largest collection of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) anywhere on Earth. There are a range of easy, moderate, and strenuous trails to hike with many of the shorter trails connected making it easy to combine trails. Ranger programs include geology talks, astronomy programs, full moon hikes and other hikes, and kids programs. During the summer horseback rides are available. You can camp in Bryce Canyon National Park, stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge or find lodging at one of the nearby cities. We visited this park during the winter and the only way to describe that experience is “magical.” It may sound cheesy but this isn’t a term I use often to describe places I visit. The sky was overcast when we got there and it snowed lightly off and on the entire day, blanketing the hoodoos in snow. There weren’t many other visitors there so it was quiet and so utterly peaceful. Normally I can’t stand cold weather and snow but hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with the snow falling is one of my favorite memories of all time. You can find my post on Bryce Canyon National Park here.

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Snow blanketing Bryce Canyon National Park
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Some of the many hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park

4.  Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona has to be one of the best-known national parks. Even if people haven’t been here, many people have at least heard of it and know that it’s famous for its namesake canyon. The canyon running through Grand Canyon National Park is 277 river miles (446km) long, up to 18 miles (29km) wide, and a mile (1.6km) deep. Grand Canyon has two basic sections, the North Rim and South Rim. The South Rim is the most commonly visited of the two, and is open year-round. The North Rim closes for the winter months. Not surprisingly, the South Rim gets extremely crowded, even in the cooler months, and you need to make reservations for lodging in the park several months in advance. There are several lodges in the South Rim but only one lodge in the North Rim. You can also stay at the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch, but reservations must be made via an online lottery 15 months in advance. There are trails, scenic drives, ranger programs as usual, but you can also take a mule trip or a river trip for something different. You can find my post on Grand Canyon National Park here.

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Wildlife in Grand Canyon National Park
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Grand Canyon National Park

5. Denali National Park in Alaska is special to me because of the wildlife and how the park manages to keep large parts of the park wild, meaning there are no trails in these areas and cars can’t drive on the road past a certain point. We took a transit bus that took us four hours into the park, then we hiked a couple of trails and took a return transit bus another four hours back out of the park, but there are options for shorter or longer bus rides or options if you don’t want to hike at all. The bus driver gave a great deal of history and information about the park and pulled over when anyone spotted animals so we could quietly observe them. Along the way, we saw grizzly bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots. There is camping available in the park but we chose to stay just outside the park entrance. Another unique feature of this park is the employment of sled dogs. Denali National Park is the only national park in the United States that has working sled dogs. You can watch them happily pulling a cart during the warmer months during a Ranger demonstration. During the winter, the dogs patrol the park with Rangers on sleds. You can find my post on Denali National Park here.

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One of the views from a hike in Denali National Park
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A brown bear (grizzly) and one of her cubs at Denali National Park

I realize I may have left off some of what may be other people’s favorite national parks, but as I said, I haven’t been to all of them, just about a third, although my plan is to visit more over the next several years. Which national park(s) is/are some of your favorites and what makes them special? Which national park that you haven’t been to yet are you dying to go to?

Happy travels!

Donna