Monday, June 14, 2010

The Hawai'i Vacation Post

Well, we're back from Hawai'i (henceforth spelled Hawaii), and as promised, here is the blog. I realize it's a bit ironic posting about a not-exactly-cheap vacation to Hawaii on a blog entitled Doug's Recession Blog, but in the end, this blog is already established, so convenience won out. I'll talk about the flights and week-long stuff first, and then go through our day-to-day activities, to the best of my recollection. I also will include lots of pictures to help you visualize.

The Flights

So, the flights...10 hours of sitting in an airplane doesn't exactly go by in the bat of an eye. But it's not forever, either. I was a bit surprised that it wasn't the boredom that got to me, but the discomfort. There was enough to do between reading and watching movies on the way in and sleeping on the way back home that I really didn't get THAT bored. However, about halfway in each way, my back and butt started hurting. By the time the plane landed, I was pretty uncomfortable and very much ready to spend the next couple of hours standing up whenever possible. Oh, and Jenny and I both found that it's pretty easy to sleep on a red-eye flight if you're tired enough. I wouldn't call it a good night's sleep (especially with 2 connections to make), but it sufficed.

I did manage to take a couple of pictures when we flew over the Rocky Mountains.

And I also took the opportunity to take some aerials of beautiful Hawaii.

The Hotel

OK, on to the week-long stuff- namely, the hotel room and the car.

We stayed at the Aqua Palms and Spa. No, our room didn't look like the one on the front page of their website- we got the Expedia Special. The only holdovers are the very nice 42" LCD TV that we didn't exactly spend much time watching and the very comfortable bed with- Jenny wanted me to be sure and mention this- 5 different pillows, with varying degrees of size and firmness.

We both found pillows that were quite comfortable for us. The room was perfectly fine, if a bit small, and missing a lanai (small patio). It did feature free wired internet access (a rarity these days, as well as a decent size fridge and decent size microwave, the combination of which saved us the cost of two or three meals. The room was on the 9th story, so we got a pretty commanding view of downtown Waikiki.

Service at the hotel was impressive, in my opinion. Staff were all very friendly, and I could tell within the first day of staying there that all employees of the hotel are coached to say "Good morning" (good afternoon, aloha, etc.) any time they see a guest. The front desk staff accommodated us by offering us free secure storage for our luggage between check-out time and our flight time (about 7 hours total), as well as a key with access to the parking garage and pool for the day as well. I was also surprised by the refreshing honesty of the staff person I asked if we could get a late checkout. He said that they do offer late checkouts, but unfortunately, they couldn't that day because there were only 2 rooms available in the hotel. Most hotels a) don't offer late checkout, and b) are quick to simply say 'sorry, we're completely booked", so I appreciated the employee's candor. We also received maps and directions to recommended restaurants as well.

All in all, the Aqua Palms and Spa is certainly not the massive, ritzy Hilton Hawaiian Village, but it is across the street from the Hilton, which means that we were able to make use of the Hilton's beach, restaurants and shops any time we wanted. We also spent about $120 PER NIGHT less at the Aqua Palms than we would have at the Hilton.

The Car

OK, moving on to the car. We rented a 2010 Mustang Convertible with 5000 miles on the odometer. I'm sorry to say that when I started driving my Maxima after we got home, I was sorely disappointed. It's not that my car is a poor performer, but that Mustang was very responsive, and had an overall much tighter feeling than my worn-out (9 years old) Maxima. Needless to say, the Mustang was a joy to drive, and we spent a lot of time cruising with the top down. I'm very happy that we got the Mustang convertible.

There were a few problems, however; although none the fault of the car. The hotel's parking garage is terrible. Every space is extremely tight and even the ramps are so tight that you can see a rainbow of paint along the edges of the wall. Yeah, it's that bad. So that was a bit nerve-racking. Fortunately, we managed not to damage the car with a lot of Jenny yelling "clear, still clear, wait, back up, clear, clear!"

Traffic was absolutely awful. And when I say awful, I mean worse than any traffic I have ever seen in St. Louis. Imagine rush hour on I270. Now throw in a couple thousand tourists who have no idea where they're going. That's a good day for traffic in and around Waikiki and Honolulu. Traffic was a major stressor for both of us, unfortunately. The one ray of shining light in the huge mess of traffic can be summed up in one word- courtesy. You need to get over two lanes when you're moving at 5mph on the highway? No problem, the guy beside you will let you in, and the guy beside him will also let you in. Someone needs to get in your lane? No problem, they turn on their turn signal and wait patiently to be let in. I heard very few honks and the only hand signal I saw in traffic was the shaka. The day I got back to St. Louis, I immediately got irritated with the discourteous drivers that we have.

Saturday- Day 1

OK, about 10 paragraphs in, we're up to...our first day in Hawaii!

We got off the flight, jumped in the rental car, and headed to the hotel. Once we got unpacked, we had dinner at Round Table Pizza (at the Hilton), and then conked out at about 8pm Hawaiian time (that's 1am Central Time). This was the extent of our Saturday.

Sunday- Diamond Head and Driving Tour

Sunday morning we woke up bright and early, Hawaiian time. So early in fact that the only place we could find that served breakfast before 6am nearby was McDonald's. Of course this was McDonald's in Hawaii, so it was....exactly the same as any mainland McDonald's. After that, we hiked up Diamond Head, which is a pretty big crater. The climb wasn't too harrowing, and the views from the top were spectacular.

After Diamond Head, we went on a driving tour of the island (by the way, now is probably a good time to mention that we stayed on the island of Oahu for the duration of our trip). We took our new best friend along with us, Nuvi the Navigator. She earned her $70 purchase price in reduced frustration just between the airport and the hotel. Every other day after that was just bonus. Yeah, she's that good.

We started off by heading to Kailua, where we had lunch at Pinky's Pupu Bar and Grill (Nuvi: Points of Interest -> type in "Pinky's", hit "GO". Pretty good overall. Also, a Lost filming location. We then headed...back to Waikiki because we forgot something (oops). From there, we decided to head in the opposite direction for a straighter path to the North Shore, where we had a few stops we wanted to make. Our first stop was Papaiola Beach (Nuvi: Points of Interest -> Type Papailoa Beach Park, hit "GO"). Yes, there is a reason why the link I included leads to a website called Lost Locations :). Jenny and I are both big fans of the show, and since it was filmed almost entirely on Oahu, we figured we'd check out a few locations, with Papaiola Beach being the first. Not much of a swimming beach due to the rocky bottom instead of sand, but we took some snapshots and moved on.

Our next stop, about a mile up the road, is nicknamed Turtle Beach. It's a pretty good nickname, since very large turtles like to sun on this beach.

The most surprising part for us was that we actually had to look for the turtles- they look just like the large rocks littering the beach.

From there, we headed to Sunset Beach, which is considered an excellent beach,i for sunning and swimming. We spent a bit of time there doing both, before moving on to our next stop.

Our final stop on the North Shore was Aoki's Shave Ice. The Shave Ice available here is famous, and we now know why. I wouldn't call it to-die-for, but it is extremely good, and the additions of ice cream and Azuki beans adds to the delicious flavors.

By this point, it was starting to get late, so we headed back to Waikiki, where we had dinner, again, at the Hilton. This time, we ate at Tropics, an outdoor restaurant with a really cool atmosphere. You're right next to the beach, and there are tiki torches and firepits lit all around.

Monday- Hanauma Bay, Ala Moana Beach, Benihana's, and Sunset Walk

Monday was another early morning, as our bodies continued to adjust to Hawaiian time. We took advantage of this by heading over to Hanauma Bay for some snorkeling after breakfast at the IHOP adjoining our hotel. Hanauma Bay's parking lot fills up early, and it can get crowded, so an early excursion was perfect. I think that the snorkeling was probably my favorite part of the trip. We swam with the fish, which allowed us to come right up and get within inches of them. There was a wide variety of fish of all shapes, colors, and sizes, some fish as long as my arm, some fish literally all of the colors of the rainbow. It was a really amazing experience for me. I have been snorkeling before, but not in such clear water with so many fish. Unfortunately, we completely forgot to bring our camera with us, so you'll have to make do with a stock photo in the blog. Sorry!

Lunch was nothing special- we had leftovers from our dinner the night before to save some money, knowing that we'd be spending quite a bit for dinner. After lunch, we headed out to Ala Moana Beach Park. This is the closest beach to the Waikiki area, but since it's not in an area with tons of hotels, most of the beachgoers are locals rather than tourists. We spent some time relaxing there, in and out of the water.

Dinner was at Benihana's, conveniently located at the Hilton. I dimly recall one meal in my life where the chef cooked the food on your table for you in an entertaining manner, and Jenny had never had the experience, so this was something special for us. We picked that night to go because it was our 7th wedding anniversary (awww). Benihana's was a really fun experience, something that I recommend if you ever get the chance. They sat us at a table with a family of four (the "kids" were twins in their 20's), and we had some great conversations with them. The highlight of the meal though was watching the chef do his work. Onions and mushrooms were flying everywhere, including into his hat and pockets, he flambeed some of the ingredients too and made a lot of surprisingly funny jokes as he cooked. He was a great performer and a great cook, and between the performance and our new friends, it was a great dinner. Oh, and the food was good, too!

After dinner, we decided to take a romantic sunset walk on the beach...along with about 100 other couples just in our general vicinity. The crowds of people weren't terribly distracting though, and it was a nice time to relax and connect with each other, in between photo opportunities.

Tuesday- Kayaking, Paradise Cove Luau

So by Tuesday, we're getting accustomed to Hawaiian time, so we didn't wake up quite as early. We had breakfast at the Wailana Coffee House right next to our hotel. It's considered a local favorite, and we were amazed at their cheap prices and very fast service. The food was fine, nothing special, but well worth the prices. They have an unlimited pancake breakfast that includes bacon and eggs, and it will fill you up fast!

After breakfast, we headed over to Go Bananas! to pick up a 2-person kayak. It was carefully tied to our car with the top down, and we were off. We kayaked in Kane'ohe Bay.

The waters are supposed to be very calm here, but unfortunately we picked a windy day, and it was rather choppy. We paddled out for awhile, learning very quickly to stay in the lighter colored waters, as the darker colors were indicative of the bottom dropping off and the waves getting choppier. Coming back in was pretty

easy- we just picked up the paddles and let the wind and waves wash us back to shore. Lunch was leftovers again.

For dinner and the evening's entertainment, we headed out to Paradise Cove Luau. Jenny got an orchid for her hair and I got a drawn-on tribal tattoo, and soon it was time for the start of the main event. The crowd gathered around and watched a couple of guys lift the kalua pig out of the ground, and then we headed over to the buffet tables. Aside from the kalua pig, we tried poi (I liked it, Jenny didn't), and I even tried poke- yeah, that's right, I ate raw fish. It was good! After a filling dinner, we watched their evening show, with music and dancers, and the best part- fire dancers. After the luau, it was off to the hotel, and then bed.

Wednesday- Pearl Harbor, Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, Makani Catamaran

Wednesday morning, we headed to Duke's Restaurant & Barefoot Bar for a nice open-air breakfast buffet (with omelet station- woohoo!) on the beach. After Duke's we headed to Pearl Harbor. Our tickets to the Arizona were set for 1pm, despite the fact that we got to Pearl Harbor at about 9am, so we started off with the USS Missouri Battleship. We were really impressed by this battleship. It's breath-taking just how huge it is- it feels like a village. Each of the 9 guns weighs an astonishing 100 tons. This battleship also has the distinction of being the ship where the Japanese signed the papers surrenduring to the Allies during World War II.

After the USS Missouri, we headed to the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet for some shopping. This is the place where you can get all kinds of Hawaiian merchandise for well under sticker price. We came out of there $35 poorer, having purchased two Hawaiian dresses, some Hawaiian swimming trunks, and a shell necklace. Not bad...

Next up was lunch at Pearl Harbor; nothing special there, just hot dogs and chips. After lunch, we headed for the queue for the USS Arizona Memorial, only to find out that they cancelled the tour due to there being too much wind (kind of a trend this week, evidently). This bummed us out, but not much we could do. Instead, we took a tour of the USS Bowfin submarine. Quick description- very tight spaces, and I would imagine living in one of these things, even for only a month or two, would be not at all fun. Cool torpedos, though!

After Pearl Harbor, we spent a little bit of time on Waikiki Beach, relaxing. Then, we headed over to the Hilton to get picked up for our sunset cruise on the Makani Catamaran. Dinner was a nice, no-frills affair, the cruise included free, very good drinks, and the views were spectacular. We spent some time with the motor running, and really hit some of the waves hard. I spent some time in the front of the boat on the net, where you really feel each wave. We also spent some time sailing, relaxing and enjoying the beautiful sunset. We really enjoyed ourselves.

Thursday- Waimea Valley Falls, Polynesian Cultural Center

Thursday morning, we started walking randomly from our hotel, Nuvi in tow, checking to see what nearby restaurant might provide a good option for breakfast. Less than a block from our hotel, a local walks up and asks us what we're looking for. "Breakfast". Soon after, we're following him to the nearby Harbor Pub, which serves a good breakfast on the cheap.

After breakfast, we head toward the North Shore, where Waimea Valley Falls and the Polynesian Cultural Center are located. Remember earlier when I mentioned that we checked out some Lost filming locations while on Oahu? Well, Waimea Valley Falls was the third such location, as it was featured in a couple of Lost episodes. This location was at one time an Adventure Park, but when that closed up, they left the trails open, kept some people on staff, and continued charging a reasonable fee for use of the trails and falls. It was a fairly short hike through some very lush foliage, and before we knew it, we were staring at a beautiful waterfall.

We both jumped in and swam up the falls for a refreshing shower. Our timing was great, because by the time we were getting ready to leave, a whole bunch of people showed up, and we ran into additional tour groups on our way out.

After hiking back to the car, we set our course for the Polynesian Cultural Center. There was exactly one restaurant directly on the path between the two according to Nuvi, so we took our chances at Ted's Bakery. We had no way of knowing at the time, but Ted's is a local favorite, serving great lunches at reasonable prices. Just as an aside, if you check out the Directions from Honolulu on their home page, you'll get an idea of just how convoluted the road system is on Oahu. 16 steps for about 30 miles...that's a merge or turn every 2 miles!

After lunch, we arrived at the Polynesian Cultural Center. We started off with a canoe ride to the other side of the park to help avoid the crowds, and then slowly made our way back to the entrance. Along the way, learned about various Polynesian cultures, saw the tribal dances at the Rainbows of Paradise Canoe Pageant, and caught a couple of shows. Our favorite show featured drummers and some audience participation. One of the tourist volunteers (who understood very few words of English) had us and the rest of the audience laughing so hard that we were in tears.

Yeah, that guy.

After the shows, we headed to the Ali'i Luau. Yes, two Luaus in one vacation- that's what happens when you find $45 off discount coupons in the Hawaii Entertainment book. This luau was similar to the Paradise Cove Luau, but with a lot more people there, no activities beforehand, and the evening show was a separate event. I had some more Poke, too.

The evening show is called Ha! Breath of Life, and it was really good. It's feature-length (about 1.5 hours), and the last 15 minutes is incredible. You've got a whole group of fire dancers twirling, juggling, throwing, and balancing fire sticks.

After the show, we drove back to Waikiki as part of of a very long caravan. The vast majority of hotels are in Waikiki, so the line was so long we couldn't see the beginning or end. At least we were going close to the speed limit.

Friday- Waikiki Beach, Check-Out :(, H3 and Byodi-In Temple, the Airport

Friday was somewhat of a mixed bag for us, because we were still in Hawaii, but we knew we would be leaving that day. We started out with breakfast at the Wailana Coffee House again, then headed across the street to Waikiki Beach to get some much-needed relaxing beach time in after our busy week. We then headed back to the hotel to shower and check-out, requesting secure bag storage and a card key with access to the garage and pool area. Fortunately, the front desk staff were happy to oblige on all counts.

Lunch was at the Oceanarium, where we dined with, and on, the fishes. The restaurant features an enormous tank filled with a variety of large fish and stingrays. The tank is so big that they send SCUBA divers in to feed them a few times per day. I had some more Poke, and Jenny and I both tried cucumber sushi. I really liked it, but Jenny didn't care for it. She kept asking me what the wrap was made of, but I didn't tell here the answer- seaweed- until after she had tried it.

After lunch, we went for a scenic drive on Interstate H-3, which goes through the mountains. We came out at Byodo-In Temple...our fourth and final Lost site. This beautiful replica of an ancient Japanese temple is situated in the Valley of the Temples, which is also a cemetary.

Back from the Temple, we spent some time reading by the hotel pool, then headed out to dinner at Lulu's the Charthouse, a recommendation from the hotel front desk staff. Why is Lulu's crossed out? That's where we were GOING to go for dinner, but several main streets in Waikiki were closed off entirely in preparation for a holiday parade. We spent 20 minutes in traffic, and we could still see our hotel, so we decided walking to a closer restaurant was a better option for us. Dinner at the Charthouse was good, if a tad expensive (it's considered fine dining). It was an open-air restaurant with a nice atmosphere, friendly service, and fish purchased daily from the local fish auction. Now that's fresh fish!

After dinner, we grabbed our bags and headed out to the open-air Honolulu airport for check-in, first stopping off to return our rental car. I was surprised that the car inspection lasted all of 5 seconds, but hey, that's a good thing!

We boarded the plane, kicked back the seats, and fell asleep. We landed in LAX with a 30 minute layover, so we sleep-walked to the next plane, which was 20 minutes late taking off due to the LAX baggage handlers taking an extra 20 minutes to load bags. That made our next connection window in Salt Lake City only 10 minutes. We made it fortunately, but our bags didn't. Once we hit the relatively empty Lambert St. Louis Airport and realized our bags were nowhere to be found, I headed over to the Delta agent to file for lost luggage. She checked, let me know that our bags were not "lost", but merely redirected onto a different flight due to the insufficient 10 minute connection window in Salt Lake City. About 5 hours after we got home, our bags showed up on our front porch. I'd say Delta handled the luggage situation pretty well.

Oh, and after a week in Hawaii, it is REALLY HOT AND HUMID in St. Louis!

I hope you enjoyed my Hawaii Vacation novel blog. I look forward to hearing your comments.