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

 

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

 

Final Days and Final Thoughts in Alaska- Girdwood

After spending the bulk of our vacation in Alaska in Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Seward, we decided to spend two days hiking around Girdwood, which is just under an hour from Anchorage. 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. My husband took advantage of the fitness center and sauna and said the fitness center was the nicest one he’d ever been to at a hotel.

I’ll be honest, though. As nice as the hotel is (and it’s very nice), a big reason we stayed here was for the tram, although you certainly don’t have to stay here to take the tram. After taking the tram up to the top, we hiked Mighty Mite and Mountain Top Trail. A pdf of the hiking and biking trails from the Alyeska Resort can be found here. You can also hike up the top without taking the tram but we thought the tram would be a fun experience and since the tickets were included in our hotel stay, it would have been silly to have not used them. From the top, we saw seven glaciers, high-alpine tundra, the Chugach Mountains, and Turnagain Arm. There is a lookout area, gift shop, Bore Tide Deli and Bar, and the fancy Seven Glaciers restaurant.

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Hotel Alyeska and a tram

After hiking and admiring the gorgeous views from the top, we checked out some of the shops in town. Girdwood is tiny and there aren’t a ton of shops or restaurants but you can find a handful. 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. There’s also a couple of small art galleries, Girdwood Center for Visual Arts and Slack Tide Gallery.

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View from the top above Hotel Alyeska

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.

Since we were pressed for time and had to fly out of Anchorage that evening, we only had time to turn around after taking the hand tram across the gorge (so we went across the gorge then immediately got in line to go back across the gorge in the tram). From the hotel to the hand tram and back is a 2 to 2.5 hour round-trip adventure. If you have time and energy to continue hiking, it’s one mile to Crow Creek Road. Crow Creek Mine is a few hundred miles up the road from there. If you want a quicker route, you can start at the Winner Creek Gorge Trailhead at Milepoint 2.9 of Crow Creek Road, hike for one mile to the hand tram, another 0.2 mile to the Gorge, then hike back to your car.

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The hand tram over Winner Creek Gorge

You can also extend your hike by turning right at the gorge and taking Upper Winner Creek Trail. There are multiple water crossings and the trail gets more primitive the further up you go. If you want you can continue over the pass down to the Twentymile River on the other side and packraft out to the Seward Highway. From the Hotel Alyeska to Twentymile River to the Seward Highway is a full day excursion and only recommended for experienced hikers in the Alaska backcountry.

Of course you can always just make a day-trip from Anchorage to Girdwood. Since I ran a half marathon in Anchorage, Skinny Raven Half Marathon, and we were going to drive straight after the race to Denali National Park, which is north of Anchorage, I didn’t want to hike that much before the race to save my legs. Our big loop of Anchorage to Denali to Seward to Girdwood before flying out of Anchorage seemed like the perfect way to do it and I’m glad we planned it that way.

Now I’m already planning another trip to Alaska. We’re thinking it would be cool to go a bit further north, say Fairbanks to see the northern lights during the winter. That won’t be for a few more years probably, but I have a feeling we will definitely be returning there.

Have any of you been to Alaska? What was your favorite part? If you haven’t been, what would you most like to see or do? My favorite part was going to Denali National Park but I loved so many other things as well. The boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park was incredible and just being able to hike as much as we did and get to see as many amazing views as we did of glaciers and mountains was awesome. Do any of you plan your next vacation to a place before you even leave?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

Denali National Park in Alaska

Although it would mean riding in a car for around 4 1/2 hours right after running a half marathon in Anchorage (Skinny Raven Half Marathon), I knew I couldn’t go to Alaska and not go to Denali National Park. Sure, I could have added another day to Anchorage and left the day after the race, but we only had so much time to spend in Alaska and I preferred to spend that time in Denali instead since we had already spent three nights in Anchorage.

Denali National Park is a whopping 6 million acres, most of it natural and untouched by humans. Don’t expect to see even a quarter of the park when you go. There is one road that goes through the park and you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15 (the park entrance is the beginning of the mile markers, so Mile Post 15 or MP15 is as far as you can drive yourself into the park).

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Grizzly bears (a.k.a. brown bears) in Denali!

When you go to Denali National Park, you have some options as to how to spend your time in the park. You can camp in either a tent or RV, and there are six campgrounds, from mile 0.25 (Riley Campground, the only campground open year-round) to mile 85. If you stay at a campground beyond mile 14, you will need to take a camper bus to get there, with the exception of Teklanika River Campground at mile 29, which allows RV’s as well as tents. You can find information on camping at Denali here.

Since you can only take a private vehicle as far as mile 15, if you want to do some hiking beyond that in the park, you have to take a transit bus. Transit buses run from the Wilderness Access Center with the first stop at mile 53, Toklat River, which takes about 3 hours, 15 minutes each way or you can go as far as mile 92 to Kantishna (it will take 6 hours in and 6 hours out from here). We decided to go a bit more in the middle to mile 66 to Eielson Visitor Center, which takes 4 hours in and 4 hours out. More information on transit buses can be found here. In short, transit buses give you the flexibility to get on and off pretty much anywhere you want. There are bathroom breaks and our transit bus driver gave us some great narrative along the way and stopped for animal sightings any time someone from the bus saw something. Don’t believe what the website says about transit buses not being narrated, because ours were (both in and out, although the first driver was much more talkative than the second) and we were told most transit drivers do narrate along the way.

Although we wanted to do some hiking in the backcountry, we knew with such a long bus ride back (4 hours) we should keep it fairly short. At Eielson Visitor Center, there are two options for hiking, the Alpine Trail and the Tundra Loop Trail. Our transit bus driver told us we should only go on the Alpine Trail if we had bear spray but we should be fine without bear spray on the Tundra Loop Trail (but to still be aware of bears since they’re always a possibility in the park), so guess which trail we chose- yes, the Tundra Loop it was! The Tundra Loop Trail is around a third of a mile through alpine country. A spur trail adds an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop. After hiking that, we waited at the visitor center for another bus and made our way back to the park entrance.

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View from the Tundra Loop Trail

Your third option for spending time in the park if you want to go beyond mile 15 is to take a bus tour where you stay on the bus the entire time other than to take bathroom breaks and short stops. There are three bus tours, the Denali Natural History Tour (4.5 to 5 hours round-trip), the Tundra Wilderness Tour (7-8 hours round-trip), and the Kantishna Experience (11-12 hours round-trip). Some walking is involved on bus tours, but you don’t have the option to hike on your own.

The final option for spending time in Denali National Park is to explore the first 15 miles of the park on your own. There aren’t many trails in the park considering how large it is, but many of the trails are near the front part of the park, rather than the backcountry part, which is left natural. On our second day at Denali, we hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail, Taiga Trail, Spruce Forest Trail, Morino Trail, and Rock Creek Trail. Information about all of these trails and more can be found here. We found a perfect balance to all of this hiking by sandwiching our hiking with a stop at the sled dog kennel and watching a demonstration after doing a few trails, then doing a few more trails after going to the sled dog kennels.

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Views from the Tundra Loop Trail

A note about the sled dog kennels. Denali National Park is the only national park in the US that has sled dogs. The sled dogs originally patrolled the park for poachers but continued the tradition once the rangers found the sled dogs were more reliable than snowmobiles. The kennels are open to visitors year-round. After a brief talk about the dogs and the history of the sled dogs by a ranger, we got to see the dogs in action as they pulled the ranger around on the cart used during the summer, then we took our own self-guided tour around the facilities. It’s obvious these dogs are true working dogs and they love what they do; they got so excited when they knew they were going to get to run. We were there for about an hour to hour and a half total.

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Denali sled dogs in action!

We spent three nights in Denali, with 2 full days at the park, and found that to be a perfect amount for us. The transit bus turned out to be my favorite part of our entire time in Alaska. We got to see many brown bears, caribou, eagles and other birds, dall sheep, and marmots in the park. The bear sightings were all from the safety of the bus, so my fears of coming upon a bear while hiking were unfounded.

Have any of you been to Denali National Park? What did you do there? Would you like to go if you haven’t been?

Happy travels!

Donna