Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Oahu, Hawaii

We visited Oahu during the second half of our Hawaiian vacation (Maui was our first stop). Comparing the two, I'd describe Oahu as the Disney World version of Hawaii. If you've never been to the state before and you're choosing between the islands, Oahu is the perfect place to start because it offers a taste of everything in a commercial and easily accessible way. And when you're traveling with kids, sometimes that's exactly what you want.

Where to Stay

We stayed in two different parts of Oahu, starting at the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort in bustling Waikiki. The hotel is excellent  well priced yet posh, and within walking distance of great food. We loved the free activities that Outrigger offered, like the lei-making class. As a bonus, there's a great view of the Hilton Hawaiian Village's fireworks every Friday night from Outrigger's beach.

After a couple of days in Waikiki, we drove up to the North Coast of Oahu, which is decidedly more tranquil and tropical. We stayed at the vast Turtle Bay Resort, which offers everything from horseback riding to biking to snorkeling on the grounds. Turtle Bay is where movies and shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are filmed when producers are looking for an iconic Hawaiian setting. Not to date myself, but the episode of Full House where the Tanner family goes to Hawaii was also filmed at Turtle Bay!

Where to Eat

We had so much good food in Waikiki. Our first meal was at Marukame Udon, an excellent Japanese restaurant with delicious udon options, a tempura self-serve bar, plus extras like spam musubi and rice balls. Get there before 5:30 for dinner, or be prepared to wait on a line that snakes down the street. Another great Asian option is Poke Bar, with its fresh, quality fish and myriad of optional toppings. My bowl was so good, I ended up coming back for a second meal the next day.

My husband and kids don't enjoy (or even tolerate) raw fish, so they got delicious-looking takeout spaghetti and pizza from Arancino, one block over, instead.

We ate lunch one day at a food truck court near our hotel called Pua Hana Market Waikiki. My husband picked up this adorable barbecue chicken bowl, while I had some excellent lemon butter shrimp and the kids ate ramen. Everyone was happy.

On the North Coast, we dined at more food trucks, since they're well known for their freshly caught shrimp up there. I waited on a massive line to try the shrimp at Giovanni's, while my husband got some brisket over rice at HI-BBQ. Everything was absolutely worth the wait. For another meal, we stopped at Ted's Bakery to try the Hawaiian dish loco moco, which is basically a hamburger and fried egg over rice, smothered in a thick brown gravy. If that's not heavy enough for you, the dish comes with a requisite side of macaroni salad.

What to Do: Waikiki

After experiencing the laid-back wonders of Maui along the Road to Hana and up to Haleakala, I was expecting the attractions in Waikiki to be similarly relaxing. Wrong! Here, you need to get everywhere super early, or be prepared to fight the crowds. Our first inkling of this was at Diamond Head State Monument, where we hiked up the side of the famous crater, single file, along with hundreds of other tourists.

The hike was much tougher than I anticipated, as you're basically switchbacking upwards for half the trip, but we did manage to get up and down with the kids in about an hour and a half. Another reason to go early is to avoid the afternoon sun, as at some points during the hike there's no shade at all. The views from the top, however, are stunning.

We learned our lesson and got to Hanauma Bay much earlier the next day. The bay is famous for its rich snorkeling, but if you don't arrive by 7:30am, there may be no parking spots left. We bought all our snorkeling gear at an ABC convenience store near our hotel, which was cheaper than renting at the bay.

What we didn't do, but should've, was bring all of our beach gear, since the bay is basically a beautiful sandy beach with the added bonus of tons of colorful fish and coral in the water. The kids and I were satisfied to wade out a few feet and spot the stray fish here and there, but my husband swam out and said he saw literally hundreds of beautiful fish swimming right under him.

The kids were really interested in riding in a submarine, so I booked an excursion with Atlantis Adventures, which operates on both Oahu and Maui. The activity has its pros and cons. Pros: The crew is highly trained and very entertaining. The kids were given booklets that explained the science of submarines and diving, and it included a checklist that depicted all the sea creatures they might spot. You also have to take a boat out to the dive location, so the excursion includes a relaxing 10-minute boat ride. Cons: It is a very expensive activity (although I'm sure operating a submarine costs a lot). We saw plenty of fish and even a couple of turtles, but the water is murky and color is mostly lost at that depth, so it was kind of like viewing the ocean through a blue-and-white screen.

Snorkeling is a much more thrilling fish-watching experience. Still, the kids said they had fun and wished the excursion was longer, so I guess some of us had a better time than others.

What to Do: North Coast

My favorite activity in Oahu was the Polynesian Cultural Center, located in the North Coast (about 50 minutes from Honolulu). It's basically a theme park based on the history and culture of the Pacific Islands. The park is divided into six areas (Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti and Aotearoa), each featuring its own show and hands-on activities. We were at the park from opening to close, and in that time learned how to play the ukulele, throw a spear, dance the hula, fish with a bamboo pole, and start a fire in under a minute (really!).

Other activities that we fit in included a breathtaking 4D movie about Hawaii, a traditional Hawaiian luau, and an almost two-hour Broadway-quality production called Ha: Breath of Life that included singing, dancing and an amazing fire show. All in all, the trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center made for a long, fun day, and we learned a lot about Pacific Island life to boot.

At Turtle Bay, we booked a trail ride with the on-site stable, which is open to the public. It was lovely to ride our horses along the beach and through the grounds, even in the rain. My kids' horses were gentle and well-trained, and the 45 minutes went by too quickly. I also liked that the horses seemed healthy and well cared for. Several of them have even appeared in the movies and TV shows that get filmed here; we were told that my husband's horse, Tom, had a big role in the movie Open Range!

On our last day in the North Coast, we decided to do the smoothie tour at nearby Kahuku Farms. The tour is a half-hour, tractor-pulled wagon ride through a working farm, and you get smoothies made from the fruits grown on premises afterwards. It's informative and interesting (I'll never take bananas for granted again), and our tour guide couldn't be more amiable, but the activity is mainly geared toward adults, as there are no hands-on activities like fruit-picking or animal-petting involved. But the kids did enjoy turning cartwheels on the wide open field by the cafe area, where we ate the most delicious vegetable panini I've ever come across.

One place I had on our itinerary but we didn't get to visit on account of the rain is the Dole Plantation, located about halfway between Honolulu and the North Coast. Here you can take a pineapple train and plantation tour, wander through a pineapple garden maze, and taste the famous Dole whip that everyone's so obsessed with. Next time!

What's Nearby

We started off our Hawaii vacation in Maui, and it is truly beautiful there  probably what you're imagining when you think of Hawaii. The attractions are more natural and not so much built for the sake of luring tourists (although plenty of tourists visit them). We did a lot of driving, from the Road to Hana to the top of Haleakala, and it was all totally doable with kids. Here is my itinerary for that leg of the trip.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Maui, Hawaii

We waited until the kids were a bit older to visit Hawaii because we didn't want it to be just another beach vacation. We wanted them to be able to participate in the hiking and snorkeling, and learn about the culture. There is just so much hiking and snorkeling and culture! We chose Maui and Oahu as the two islands for our inaugural visit, and started off in Maui, an island that offers a diverse array of authentic experiences, even with all the tourists around.

Where to Stay

Unless your M.O. is to hang out at the beach your whole vacation (which, frankly, is something you could do at a much less expensive location), it's tough to choose a home base in Maui because the island is so vast and it can take hours to get to all the various attractions. I almost picked a resort in Lehaina on the west coast because that's where the most beautiful and family-friendly beaches are ... but after mapping out the drive to other destinations such as Haleakala, the Iao Valley, and the Road to Hana, I finally went with the more centrally located Maui Coast Hotel in Kihei. Kihei is low key and filled with casual eats and cute beaches, but best of all, it's within an hour and a half of everything (as opposed to three hours from Lehaina or Wailea).

The Maui Coast Hotel is fantastic, with beautiful premises, excellent service and comfortable rooms. It's technically a three-star hotel, but it really felt like a four-star. Kamaole Beach is located directly across the street, and it's where we spent an afternoon chasing the gentle waves and catching our first Hawaiian sunset.

The Maui Coast Hotel is also located within two blocks of an ABC convenience store, food trucks, and other awesome places to eat.

Where to Eat

In Kihei, we got almost all of our meals from the Dolphin Plaza, a strip mall located two blocks from our hotel. "Strip mall" doesn't conjure up the most picturesque dining experience  and it's not. But what you can do is take your food directly across the street and eat it at the picnic tables at Kamaole Beach, preferably at sunset. Maui Fish'n Chips (pictured below), Maui Bread Co. and Koiso Sushi Bar are just three of the eateries there with Yelp ratings through the roof (the latter we didn't get to try because it requires reservations a week in advance).

Maui Gelato (also in the Dolphin Plaza) is where we got our first taste of shave ice. By the end of the trip, we'd eaten about half a dozen versions, but this first one was the kids' favorite. Their preferred flavors are Hawaii blue, cotton candy and grape — in other words, the more artificial the better. I liked the mango mochi ice cream at this fun little shop.

In Paia, we loved having breakfast at Paia Bay Coffee & Bar before starting out on the Road to Hana. The adorable cafe is situated in a lush square filled with palm trees, succulents and hipster types. The food is fresh, organic and delicious, and it's where we tried our first acai bowl.

When we returned to Paia after a long day of driving, we grabbed some pizza at The Flatbread Company and wolfed it down.

What to Do: Road to Hana

We almost decided not to do the famed Road to Hana because so many online reports claim that the drive is too long and winding for kids to handle. This may be true, especially if you have smaller children, but ours are now 6 and 8, and they handled the drive just fine. I'd brought a barf bag and chewing gum, just in case, but we didn't need either. I think the key is to make frequent stops along the way, so it doesn't actually feel like a long drive. It also helped that we'd rented a convertible and did most of the trip with the top down, a novelty that was delightful for all of us!

After much research, these were the stops I decided to make, spaced out so that we were never driving for more than 45 minutes at a time. Heading toward Hana: Paia Bay Coffee & Bar, Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls, Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread, Hana Lava Tube and Ka’eleku Cave, Braddah Hutts BBQ. Heading back from Hana: Wai'anapanapa State Park, Halfway to Hana, The Flatbread Company. With all these stops, the round trip took 12 hours (including all meals); we started out from our hotel at 6:30am and returned at 6:30pm.

Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls (mile marker 6.7)

After fueling up on breakfast at Paia Bay Coffee & Bar and fueling up the car at the gas station across the street, our first stop on the Road to Hana was Na'ili'ili-Haele Falls. It turned out to be my kids' favorite stop because the hike to the first waterfall is just pure adventure. First, we parked at the side of the road and pushed our way through some nondescript foliage. There are no signs; just a bunch of hikers popping in and out of the leaves on the side of the road.

The sometimes slippery hike (pro-tip: wear grippy, close-toed trek shoes like Keens) took us through a bamboo forest, an elevated creek that required crossing a short wooden plank, and a river that we had to forge by hopping across boulders.

The first payoff is a spectacular waterfall. There's more to the hike, but we turned around at this point because the trail got considerably rockier from there. The in and out took us about an hour altogether, and the exact path to take can be found here. It's not a hike for beginners, but it wasn't too difficult for an experienced 6-year-old hiker to handle either.

Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread (off mile marker 16)

Next, we grabbed some piping hot banana bread, juicy pineapple slices, and sweet Maui onion flavored potato chips at Aunt Sandy's Banana Bread. We would've gotten shave ice, too, but they'd run out of it. There are picnic tables in the lot for a quick break and leg stretch (but no bathrooms).

Hana Lava Tube (off mile marker 31.1)

Our next stop was the Hana Lava Tube, also known as Ka’eleku Cave. This is a paid attraction, but one that's definitely worth the money, in my opinion. We were handed flashlights (smaller ones for the kids) and pointed toward the entrance of a lava tube carved out millions of years ago. The tour is self-guided, with signs along the way.

At first, the lava tube didn't appear all that different from some of the caves we've visited in the past, but then we came across a hole in the ceiling that looked out to the sky above. After reading the sign, we realized we were looking at the hole at the top of a volcano, but from the inside. That's when it dawned on the kids that we were standing in a volcano. The tube we were walking in was created by flowing lava. It doesn't get any cooler than that!

The price of admission here also includes a chance to conquer the red ti maze outside (ti is a plant native to Hawaii). The kids were given wooden swords to bat away the many spiderwebs that block the paths, which they found super cool. We were halfway through the maze when it started to sprinkle, so we cheated by pushing between some ti plants and hightailing it back to the car.

Braddah Hutts BBQ (in Hana)

The next stop was in the town of Hana itself  we'd made it!  and it was a food truck on the side of the road. Braddah Hutts BBQ doesn't look like much, but man is the food tasty. There are picnic tables set up for patrons. We tried the barbecue chicken plate, the kalua pork plate, and the chicken tacos, and couldn't decide which one we loved more. The flavors were all so amazing. My mouth is watering just writing about it!

Wai'anapanapa State Park (mile marker 32)

After lunch, it was time to back track. We turned around to drive to Wai'anapanapa State Park for the black sand beach. This was the stop I thought we'd enjoy the most, but it started raining soon after we got there, so that put a damper on things. Still, we spent some time walking on the black sand, running from the waves (the ocean here is too rough for swimming), and checking out the cave to the right of the beach that led to an opening right by the water.

Also at Wai'anapanapa is a blowhole that spews water and mist when the ocean crashes against the rocks at just the right angle. We saw some weak spurts, but nothing spectacular. By then the rain was really starting to come down, so we didn't wait around for a more impressive showing.

Halfway to Hana (mile marker 17)

Halfway to Hana is another roadside stand for banana bread, shave ice and other snacks, but by the time we made it there, it was after 4pm and they'd unfortunately closed for the day. So we kept driving on to Paia for dinner at The Flatbread Company.

What to Do: Haleakala National Park

When I first started researching Haleakala National Park, it seemed like the must-do experience was to visit the crater during sunrise. Then I found out that that required leaving the hotel at 3am to make a 1.5-hour drive up a winding road in the dark, where we'd be greeted by freezing temperatures and windy conditions as we waited for the sun to rise. I could hear the whining already  no, thanks!

Then a friend recommended that we simply visit at sunset or during the middle of the day, which is what she did with her family. They'd had an excellent time and still found the views incredibly amazing. I decided that was the way for us to go.

Much of the drive to Haleakala is up a curvy, narrow roadway that seemingly leads straight into the heavens. You are literally driving into the clouds, which is both unnerving and awesome. Sometimes we would see a cloud brushing against the road as we drove through it. The temperature dropped more than 15 degrees as we made our way up to the summit. We had brought three layers of clothing, but even that wasn't really enough when we got to the top.

At the summit, we parked and walked around a bit on the rocky red terrain. It looked the way I imagine Mars to look. I'd planned two short hikes at the summit, the Pa Ka'oao Trail and the Keonhe'ehe'e Trail, but we ended up not spending much time at the top because it was so windy and we were too cold.

Instead, we drove down just a couple of minutes to stop at the Kalahaku Overlook, where a one-minute climb led to unbelievable views. Best of all, it wasn't as windy here, so it was less cold.

Driving down another 10 minutes led to the Leleiwi Overlook, where a quarter-mile trail over rocky terrain gives you an up-close view of the native silversword plants and leads to yet another awesome view. This area brings you to the inside of the crater, where you can literally touch the clouds that get trapped in the slope.

What to Do: Iao Valley State Monument

Compared with the Road to Hana and Haleakala, the Iao Valley is a cinch to access and experience. Driving in, we were all awed by the sight of the lush mountains rising around us. The hike to view the 1,200-foot Iao Needle is only half a mile up a paved trail and stairs.

At the bottom, there's also a loop where you can see many of the plants that grow in Hawaii. If you're feeling adventurous, you can sneak a closer peek at the beautiful stream that runs through the valley by pushing through an unmarked opening along the botanical loop.

What to Do: Snorkeling at Molokini Crater

On our first morning in Maui, we went on a snorkeling cruise with the Pacific Whale Foundation. The cruise lasted from 7am to noon and included a continental breakfast and barbecue lunch, as well as two stops for snorkeling  at the famed Molokini Crater and an area that the locals call Turtle Town.

I wish I could say that we all had a fabulous time during the kids' first snorkeling experience, but it turned out that only my husband had a fabulous time. The kids were too daunted by the choppy waves and snorkel equipment to enjoy themselves, and I ended up sitting with them on the boat most of the trip. My husband, on the other hand, got to see everything from colorful fish to giant eels to dancing sea turtles (that's how he actually described them  dancing in the water).

My advice, if your kids have never snorkeled before, is to start off at a beach location, where they can wade out on their own and the surf is mild. This way, they can get used to using the equipment without also dealing with being dropped into the middle of the cold ocean.

Even though the snorkeling wasn't a hit, the experience provided by the Pacific Whale Foundation was excellent. The captain of our boat stopped several times to point out whales and even stuck an underwater microphone into the ocean at one point so that we could listen to them "singing." It was like we got a bonus whale watching tour.

What's Nearby

The next and final stop on our Hawaiian adventure was Oahu. My husband and I loved the laid-back rusticity of Maui, but I think the kids actually preferred the commercial glitziness of Oahu  I'd describe it as a Disney World version of Hawaii. The island is definitely geared toward tourists, particularly Waikiki, where we spent two days and loaded up on some excellent food. We also drove a little more than an hour to stay at a resort in the more peaceful North Coast for our final two days in paradise. Here is my itinerary for that portion of the trip.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Seattle, Washington

We've been to Seattle a few times, mostly as a jumping off point to other destinations (Vancouver, Alaska). At this point I'm able to piece together a pretty good itinerary for families based on the time we've spent  one day here, two days there. Here are the places we liked visiting each time we found ourselves in the Emerald City.

What to Do

Pike Place Market is always our No. 1 stop in Seattle. My kids love getting iced teas at our local Starbucks, so it was fun for them to see the very first location here. The Fish Market, where the fishmongers famously toss their daily catch around for fun, is always worth a stop. And it's mesmerizing to watch cheese being made in a huge vat at Beecher's, then taste a sample afterwards.

On our recent visit, we also checked out the gum wall, an alleyway below the market that's completely covered with chewed gum. I thought my kids would get a kick out of it and want to add their own gum to the collection, but they were actually completely repulsed by the concept. I could barely get them to take a picture there!

Seattle is, of course, well known for its Space Needle, but of the few times we've visited the city, we've never made it to the top. We've just never felt like paying the steep price, although if you do want to go all the way up, there's an early bird special  just get there before 9:30. For us, it's been fun to catch glimpses of the needle peeking out over buildings while we traveled around town.

For a much more off-the-beaten-path place to visit, check out the Living Computer Museum, a 10-minutes cab ride from the tourist center. We planned to spend just an hour there, but there was so much for the kids to do and see that we ended up staying longer. Friendly docents showed my kids how to build working robots out of cubes and pilot a rolling robot with their faces on the screens. They took several test drives in the self-driving car simulator. My favorite part was getting to test out a virtual reality game (the exhibit is limited to those 13 and older).

The upper levels feature video game sections that range from a retro space blaster game to Minecraft (you can touch and play with everything). Want to feel old? Show your kids the "latest technology" of years past, including two of my favorites, the electric typewriter and the rotary phone  both were complete novelties to my kids.

Where to Eat

A few doors down from the first Starbucks at Pike Place Market is Le Panier, a pastry shop that sells literally the best puff pastries I've ever had in my life (Paris included). Sweet or savory, you just can't go wrong with this place.

For donuts, pop into Daily Dozen. Here's a photo of my daughter from eight years ago, enjoying the first donut of her life. She's been a donut fiend ever since.

And just for fun, we tried the world's largest bowl of pho at Dong Thap Noodles in Chinatown. The "Super Bowl" size contained enough pho for four adults and four kids, and we managed to devour the whole thing. The noodles are handmade and a thicker consistency than most pho noodles, but tasty nonetheless.

We also enjoyed the pizza with blistered crusts and artisan cheeses at Serious Pie; here's another flashback photo.

Where to Stay

On our most recent visit we chose The Maxwell Hotel for its proximity to Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, and also for its free shuttle to those attractions, but it ended up being a super-cute place to stay as well. The theme is pineapple!, and it's found everywhere from the elevator walls to the pillows in the room. Free bikes are available to guests (but alas, no child-size ones). Service was great, and I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.

What's Nearby

The one thing I always feel I need to do more of in Seattle is go hiking  but we never seem to have the time for it. The one hike we did do eight years ago was at Snoqualmie Falls, about half an hour outside of Seattle. Getting to the waterfall viewpoint wasn't difficult at all, even with a baby, and there are longer paths in the area if you're looking for more of a challenge with older kids.

After a long afternoon of hiking, head up to the Salish Lodge restaurant called The Attic for a cozy dining experience with an awesome view of the falls.