Your Help Needed!

There’s an app for that!

Right now, I’m interested in hearing from you about any packing list applications you may use to assist you in your travels. However, I’m interested in hearing about any travel application that you may use!

My favorite travel app by far is TripIt.com. I’ll be reviewing it in connection with my next two vacations in the coming weeks.

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St. Lucia from $89 per night?

Thus far, my favorite Caribbean island is St. Lucia.  It’s hyper-exotic, down-to-earth, and amazingly beautiful.  The food is a Caribbean infused creole.  The island is a mixture of rain forest, volcano and beach.  It’s lusher than Hawaii, and less touristy than Barbados.

It’s usually a fairly expensive destination.  Contributing to the cost of travel are the fact that many of the resorts that advertise in the United States fall into the luxury category.  An additional factor is that airfare has not been cheap.

This week’s deal is a moderate all-inclusive resort called Smuggler’s Cove. It’s in Cap Estate, which is on the extreme northern edge of the island.  You will have a scary ride to get there, since last year’s hurricane damaged many of the roads.   Trip Advisor reviews are all over the place for this resort.   Common themes are ants in the room and front desk service problems.   For $89 a night, I think I can handle that.  One person blamed their children’s colds on the pool.   Another seemed to expect five star service for $89 a night.

I keep referring to the fact that this deal is $89 a night, because that includes food, beverage, lodging, alcohol and entertainment.   That’s a lot of value.

You can find the deal on TravelZoo, which will direct you to Cheap Caribbean, where you can also find relatively good deals with airfare.  Book by November 11th, and a three night stay is required.

 

Walt Disney World

So, one of my bucket list dreams is going to come true.  I’m going to get to watch Tom battle his bff Mark (do men have bff’s?) at Buzz Lightyear in the Magic Kingdom.

There are two types of vacations that are difficult for me to plan:  (1) International trips with multiple stops; and (2) Disney World vacations. You wouldn’t think Disney would be so difficult, but consider the following:

1)  Are you going to drive or fly?

We’re flying, so all the airfare shopping stuff applies.  Should you travel on Tuesday or Saturday?  Should you book on Tuesday or Wednesday?  Complicated matters further was that we’re using frequent flier miles and companion certificates to lower our airfare costs (which, btw, cannot be used together).   Of course, this limits us to one airline… and so we have to decide whether we absolutely MUST have non-stop or whether we can handle a connection.  Oh… and we’re traveling in December, so because we’re in Minnesota, it’s vital to schedule an early morning flight out of Minneapolis and an extra day for our return.

2)  Are you going to stay on-resort or off-resort?

We’re staying in a Disney Resort.  Generally speaking, you can get much better deals off-property (a few years ago, we rented a two bedroom condo for $79 a night).  However, there are definitely advantages to staying in Disney Resort, including immersion into the Disney experience, guaranteed quality, free parking, and extra Magic-hours at the theme parks.   Convenience is questionable.  When we stayed off site, there was a shuttle to the parks that seemed to get us to and from our condo in about the same amount of time that guide books report.  I’ll let you know how our on-property stay is after the fact.

3)  Are you going to stay at a value, moderate, or deluxe resort, or are you going to rent Disney Vacation Club points?

We’re staying at the Port Orleans–Riverside resort.  A value resort runs about $75-99 a night, while a moderate resort costs about $140-160 a night.  The deluxe resorts were prohibitively expensive for yours truly (I never pay more than $3,000 for a vacation), at $300-500 a night.   For our purposes, a value resort would have been okay.  However, the pictures of the Pop-Century Resort, a value resort, brought to mind memories of spending afternoons at the community pool, shopping mall theaters, and MacDonald’s playrooms.   I’m not sure my 45-year old nerves could take it.  (The other value resorts have similar aesthetics).

According to the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2012, some of the value resorts offer location advantages over their more expensive brother and sister resorts.  For example, Pop Century is close to Epcot, and has its own buses to the theme park (an important consideration). The All-Star Sports Resort is near Animal Kingdom, and is first on the bus route.  Also, the Unofficial Guide suggests that because the value resort rooms have exterior doors, they tend to be quieter than almost any other Disney Resorts.  Of course, the Unofficial Guide also suggests that the lighting in the value resorts is extremely substandard.  Value resorts do not have table-service restaurants, but the food courts are fine for most purposes.

Aesthetics and price were co-equal consideration in my resort choice.

We considered renting Disney Vacation Club points.  Disney operates a time-share (like) club.  People purchase vacation points which they can use for lodging at Disney Resort condo units.  If they can’t use their points for a year, they can rent them.  In our case, vacation points would have been a viable option.  The big advantage would have been that the condo units come with a kitchen which can help with the cost of food while on vacation.  For reasons stated below, it turned out that there was better value in going with a moderate resort.

4)  Which moderate resort are you going to stay at?

Disney has five moderate resorts:  The Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort; Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort; Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort; Disney’s Port Orleans Resort — French Quarter; and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort — Riverside.

The Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort was a little more expensive than the other resorts.  Additionally, the bus service is somewhat more complicated.  Therefore, although I have always wanted to stay there, it wasn’t a good choice for this trip.

Any of the other four resorts would have worked.  Ultimately, I just chose the one I liked best.  It might have been the hardest choice of my vacation planning.

5)  What kind of park tickets do you want?

If you are going to Disney World, you have to buy tickets to the park. There are a lot of other things going on in the Orlando area (Universal Studios, Sea World,  Wet ‘n Wild, Gatorland, Legoland, and Kennedy Space Center), and it’s about 90 minutes to the Atlantic and gulf coasts. Given unlimited resources, you could probably spend a month or two in the area and not get bored.

But you have seven days.  What are you going to do?  In our case, we’ve decided to focus on Disney, so we purchased seven day tickets.

But that’s just the beginning of the query.  Disney offers numerous options for its tickets:  (1) park-hopper; (2) water park; (3) no-expiration.   Park-hopper is the most purchased option, letting you visit more than one park in a day.  The water park option allows you to visit Disney’s water parks.  The no-expiration option allows you to use the unused portion of your tickets after you leave.

We’re traveling in December, so water parks are not going to be on our agenda (it’s usually warm enough in Orlando to swim, at least for Minnesotans, but… geez…).   You can purchase the no-expiration option at the park if you have unused days, so there is no reason to choose this option before you visit.  The park-hopper option is the most popular option, and it’s a good idea for shorter visits.

For us, none of the options made a lot of sense.  So, we just purchased the seven-day base tickets.

6)  Are you going to rent a car?

We still haven’t decided this one.  Disney offers complimentary transportation to and from the airport via the Magical Express.  There is also a fairly comprehensive internal transportation system using buses, boats and monorails.   But, the system is not perfect, and my sources tell me that driving can be more convenient, especially if you want to travel between resorts.  I’m intending on taking my camera to at least some of the other resorts, and I want to eat in at least one restaurant in another resort.   Additionally, if we decide to spend some time off resort, a car rental will be necessary.  Orlando is fairly spread out making taxi service expensive, and public transportation is minimal.  A car will cost about $150 a week.

I’ll keep you updated.

7)  Do you want to buy a Disney Dining Plan?

There are four Disney Dining Plans.  For our purposes, we considered purchasing a Quick Service Plan and the standard Dining Plan.  The Quick Service Plan gives you two counter service meals and one snack per day.  The regular Dining Plan gives you one table service meal, one counter service meal, and one snack per day.

Normally, neither plan makes financial sense, unless you are committed to eating at a table service restaurant every day, and you don’t mind eating dessert at lunch.   It is convenient.  And it’s nice that you can order any entree off the menu, regardless of cost.  That’s nice.

In our case, Disney is offering a deal:  With a moderate resort reservation, you get a free dining plan (book before October 29, 2011). I priced the vacation with this promotion and without, and it actually does result in a free dining plan!  Yippeeeee!

8)  Where do you want to eat?

Disney World has 139 restaurants, with 74 available for advance reservations.  About half of those require advance reservations far in advance (at least for dinner).  Whether or not you buy Park-Hopper tickets, the logistics of travel within Disney World require advance planning.

9)  What evening activities do you want to attend?

Magic Kingdom’s Wishes fireworks show is not offered nightly.  Epcot’s Illuminations and Disney Studio’s Fantasmic! is offered nightly.   You could spring for tickets to Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba (tickets begin at $73 each).

If you want to see Illuminations at Epcot, you may want reservations for dinner at a restaurant on the World Showcase Lagoon around the time Illuminations begins.  If you want to see Fantasmic!, you may want to get a Fantasmic! Dining Package for preferred seating.  Last time we went to Disney, we skipped this, and we did wait almost 90 minutes for showtime.  It was by far, the longest wait we experienced, and Space Mountain broke down while we were in line.

10)  What rides do you want to go on?

Disney is a nightmare for OCD travel enthusiasts.  There is so much to see, so many opportunities to be stuck in lines, and so many distractions that it lends itself to over-planning.  There are touring plans, mobile phone apps (ride times, park hours, restaurant reservations), and computer programs that will help you design the most efficient Disney experience.

The touring plans tend to go something like this:

“Take bus from resort A to Animal Kingdom at 7:30 a.m. to arrive 45 minutes before park opening.  When park opens, rush to Expedition Everest.  Grab a FASTpass.  Ride Kali River Rapids.  Go back to Expedition Everest and ride.  Grab a second Fast Pass if you like…”

You get the drift.

I have no doubt that these plans are necessary during the busiest times of the year.  We used a touring plan in March 2006, and discovered that we had a LOT of time to just hang out, even though we were only in the parks for three days.

Still, I’ll probably take a couple touring plans with us, and I’ll probably download a few apps.  It never hurts to be prepared.  However, I’m not traveling with friends who will tolerate over planning.  So, it’s likely that I’ll offer my resources and just go with the flow.

That’s right, your travel proceduralist is going to just go with the flow.

In the end, I hired a travel agent (Small World Vacations) to double check my work and book the vacation.  Now, I can focus on where we’re eating, and what we’re going to do while there.

Now, on to dining reservations…

Hawaii, Day 5: Botanical Paradise

We woke from our Hawaiian dreams with a divided agenda.  I checked my work email, and discovered that an emergency had arisen that required me to do a bit of work.   Before I go on vacation, I do my best to wrap up work projects, but because I own my own business, something always pops up.  For that reason, I always travel with a laptop, and I make sure that we have some kind of internet connection and access to a printer.

I drafted a quick email, and Tom and I discussed what we were going to do that day.  Tom wanted to visit the Lyman Museum in Hilo, and I wanted to visit the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden.  To get across the island, Tom and I decided to brave the Saddle Road.

The Saddle Road is a famously bad road that sits between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.  As you enter it from the western side of the island, it is extremely narrow and winding.  In years past, the road was so bad that rental car companies prohibited renters from driving on it.  A check of our rental contract indicated that we were okay to take this road, but I was still a little hesitant.

You see, my husband Tom does most of the driving in our relationship. He is a famously erratic driver.  He does not speed, but he also does not always stay on the road (much less his lane), and while he’s driving, our cars seem to develop a stopping problem that can be quite terrifying.    Although I am a better driver, I am also a better navigator than he is.  I see signs and I can read maps more quickly.   Also, this trip, Tom and I were using GPS for the first time, and I was the one who knew how to operate the GPS programs.

Tom likes a challenge.  He also likes to go to the “end of the road”.  As soon as I showed him the map of Hawaii with the one cross-island road that was marked dangerous, he wanted to go on it.  So…

As we first turned onto the road, I noticed how narrow the lanes were, and how the side of the road led to deep ditches.   I don’t know whether I noticed the truck coming our way, the car veering into the ditch, or the cute little chicken on the side of the road first, but I know I stopped breathing and almost screamed….

Fortunately, about 10 miles east, the road improved, becoming wider.  I can’t say it was a particularly scenic road.  There was so much lava… and so little of anything else.   As we neared the high point of the road, I could feel the air getting thinner.  It was at least 20 degrees cooler than it had been in Kailua Kona.   We could see the road going up to the astronomical observatory on Mauna Kea, and within a mile or two, it felt like we were driving on top of the world.  It was really barren… and yet… compelling.

It started to rain on the way down.  The road on the Hilo side was much wider, but I didn’t relish the thought of crashing.  About halfway down the hill, we were in a lush, tropical forest.  And then… we found ourselves in Hilo.  We had a map to the Lyman from a tourist magazine, but the map did not show the turn in the road at the base of the Saddle Road.  I fired up my GPS, and we quickly righted our wrong turn, and we found ourselves in front of the museum.

The Lyman Museum is a museum devoted to Hawaiian history, both natural and geological.  Next door is the Mission House, a home owed by David and Sarah Lyman, some of the first missionaries to come to Hawaii.   The museum offered to give us a special tour of the Mission house, since we had just missed the morning tour.  While we waited, we looked at the museum’s exhibits which focused on the island’s geological and botanical development, cultural history, and immigration.  There was a special exhibit about canoes, which play an important role in the island’s habitation.  (Although, when the south pacific islanders landed in their canoes, there were already people living on the island).

Soon enough, it was time for our tour.  Our tour guide explained that the Mission House was originally built by the Congregational Church to house the Lyman’s efforts to bring Christianity to the islands.  I found it interesting that the Congregational missionaries focused on educating Hawaiians in their own language, rather than in English.  Moreover, the church was not interested in a long-term missionary occupation of Hawaii, but rather wanted to create a self-sustaining Christian culture.  In the early 19th century, the Congregationalists stopped all missionary work, having achieved its goals of a self-sustaining local church, and gave the Lymans the choice to return to their home in New England or remain in Hawaii.  The Lymans decided to stay in Hawaii, and they were given the Mission House.   They never returned to the mainland.

The house was built of Hawaiian Koa (a very hard wood), and is furnished with items that might have actually been used by the Lymans.  Sarah Lyman and her daughter managed a furniture mill that produced some of the furniture in the home.

After our tour, Tom and I were famished and hot.  The Mission House was not air conditioned, and the rain from earlier in the day had stopped, leaving a steamy oppression that battled against the brilliant sun.  Life in the tropics?

We drove north out of Hilo towards the Botanical Garden, enjoying the car’s air conditioner.  The Hilo coast is lush and wild, much more like the Hawaii of my imagination than the Kona coast.   To get to the Botanical Garden, you drive into a rain forest on the coast.   We stopped at the entrance to buy our tickets, some water, mosquito repellent, and a snack.  We sat in the car for a few minutes, to harness our energies.

And then we walked into the garden… (I’m not even going to attempt to describe it…. just take a look at the pictures….)

Bad Reasons To Choose a Cruise

I love a cruise vacation.  I find the ocean extremely calming, and there is something about being in the middle of international waters that makes you feel like work isn’t going to find you.  The pace of the vacation lends itself for sleeping in and long afternoon reading books, and it is really nice to be able to eat restaurant quality food without having to shop for it, cook it, or get into your car.  Then there are the ports!  It’s fun to go out and explore a city that you never thought you’d visit.

But… there are bad reasons to choose a cruise vacation.  Here are five:

1)  You want to see a particular port.  Cruise itineraries are subject to change due to weather or port conditions.  Right now, it’s hurricane season, and ships are cancelling port calls on a regular basis.  Last summer, European cruises were scrambling to find alternate ports due to general strikes in Europe.   If the only reason you are going on a cruise is to see Grand Cayman, you will be very disappointed if the port is closed because of a hurricane.

2)  You want to visit friends in a region.   On a cruise, you usually only get one day in port, and sailing time could very well be 5:00 p.m.  If you have friends near Cabo, you might get to see your friends for lunch, but you are not going to have a lot of time with them.   So, it’s fine if you are going on a cruise, and you want to see some friends in the area, but don’t go on a cruise to visit your friends.

3)  You want to sample regional cuisine.  Honestly?  Cruise food isn’t that bad.  You won’t starve, and you may even really enjoy your meal. After my second cruise, I developed a desperate love of Carnival’s warm chocolate melting cake.  And on our last cruise, I had a really nice short rib.  Most ships have specialty dining, and some of those specialty dining venues are really good.  But, just because you are going on a cruise to the Caribbean doesn’t mean that you’re going to get Caribbean food on your cruise.  And when you are in port, you may not have time to find that great restaurant that is recommended by Zagat’s.  And if you do have an opportunity to go to one of those great restaurants, you’ll probably be eating lunch, because most cruise ships leave port before dinner.

4)  You want to meet people.  Oh, you have the opportunity to meet thousands of people on a cruise, and you may have a fabulous time with your dinner companions (if you choose to eat with others), but most likely, you won’t continue your connection with the people you meet.   And it is certainly possible that the only thing you’ll have in common is that you have booked a cruise.

5)  You want to win big in the casino.  Your odds are better in Vegas. The odds are probably better at your local Indian casino.

This week’s featured travel deal is a 15-night Hawaii Cruise on Celebrity for $1,099, plus $200 in cruise credit.  This deal is good for departures on April 5, 2012, and April 20, 2012.   Book before November 1, 2011.

This is a sea-day intensive trip, since it leaves from San Diego.  There are seven and eight day Hawaii cruises that leave from Honolulu, that are port-intensive.   The $1,099 rate is for an inside stateroom.   Plan extra costs for airfare to San Diego, gratuities, taxes and fees, port transfers, airport parking, alcoholic beverages, soda, spa services, and port excursions.

Hawaii Day 4: It’s Tuesday, So it Must be Volcanoes!

It’s September 20th, my birthday, a day I typically spend somewhere other than Minnesota.   Today, Tom and I have decided to go to Volcanoes National Park to see Kilauea.  I’m told the very best way to see Kilauea is by an evening helicopter tour, since even during inactive periods, you can see the lake of lava in the crater.  ve checked the National Park Service to see if there is any lava to be seen, and I discover that it’s a period of somewhat limited activity.

That’s upsetting to some tourists, because they think that the Pele is somehow insulting them by not spewing hot lava in a place they can conveniently see by road.  A few months ago, I read there was a nice lava flow that terminated into the sea.  The best way to see this lava flow was by boat, but a review of recent boat tours suggested that the ride was overpriced without active lava.

To get from Kailua-Kona to Kilauea, you drive south along the hills of the Kona region.  A drive away from the seashore, it’s mainly coffee plantations.  The region is poor, and there is precious little commerce besides the coffee plantation tasting rooms.  Once we were deep into the region, I opened the car window, and it really did smell like coffee.   I’m not a big coffee drinker, but even I like Kona coffee.  It’s rich and, when roasted properly, is more nutty than earthy, without even a hint of bitterness.  It’s really amazing stuff.  Too bad it retails for about $30 a pound.

We got to the park about 10:30.  Tom forgot his senior pass, so we paid another $10 for a National Park senior pass.  Given that we go to about two or three national parks a year, it’s an amazing deal.  We hit up the Visitor Center after we gassed up in Volcano Village (where Tom got this prepackaged bread pudding that he is still raving about).  Then, we headed to the crater.

On the way, we stopped on a very windy ridge to see some steam vents.   One steam vent was located in the parking area, and the Japanese tourists took advantage of the proximity of the steam for photo opportunities.

That’s okay.  One of my favorite categories of tourism photography is taking pictures of people getting their picture taken.  Besides, I like the guide’s hat and shirt.

A short walk away, there was an entire hillside of steam.  It was really windy, and the steam was traveling away from the hill as if it were smoke.  From here, you could see the surprisingly desolate area that makes the crater.  It looks like a moonscape, with steam coming from the ground.  It’s not particularly dramatic. Somehow, I’d imagined that you could see lava spitting out of the crater.  Although I’m told this does happen at night, during the day, the crater’s output looks more like the output from my clothes dryer.  See what I mean?  From here, we went to see a museum, where I learned the difference between a’a and pahoehoe lava.  A’a is a smooth; pahoehoe is rough.  Of course, I got it wrong, despite the fact that the museum’s displays were very clear.

After, we drove towards the Thurston Lava Tube, which I am told is an amazing site.  Unfortunately, it was cruise ship Tuesday, and there was no parking within a reasonable walk from the Tube.  Instead, we drove along the Chain of Craters Road, and were awed by the view of a 1,000 years of lava flows.  The hardscape is resistant to life, so much so that you see only the smallest amount of green in the landscape.  The ground is so hard that trail markers are made from piles of rocks.

Despite the lack of vegetation, the terrain is quite difficult to walk across.  It is hilly and rough, and even though I wore shoes designed for a tropical hike, I found myself somewhat uncertain.  There were also warnings for CO2, which can be quite hazardous to breathe.

For miles, we drove downhill, stopping at dormant craters and fields of lava.  Suddenly, the vista emptied into the sea.  The clouds marking the lava beach, just as if it were freshly minted lava.  From the top of the hill to the sea shore, it must have been a good four miles, down a winding road.  I’m told that the road originally led to a town called Kalapana, which was mostly destroyed by a lava flow in 1990.

When we got to the end of the road, I noticed a small trail leading to the edge of a cliff.  I cautiously took the trail and came upon a lava arch, which had been formed by the violent surf that forms Hilo-side of the island.

I wondered about the people who live in the volcano’s path.   What kind of house do you build if you know it could be destroyed by lava?  Do you think about it?  One of the residents of Kalapana told a reporter that “it’s very easy to outrun lava.”  But, it can’t be that easy to watch your house be consumed by it.

Maybe that’s why so much of the architecture on the Big Island seems so transient.  Here, in Minnesota, we build big houses out of brick and stone (okay, so most of our modern architecture is stick-built, but it’s meant to last, right?).   We protect ourselves from the elements, from the harshness of winter and the very real threats of tornado and lightning.   In hurricane regions, houses are built on stilts.  In Hawaii, it’s almost as if they know that no building code will protect against a volcano.  The houses are low to the ground, and they are almost featureless.  I even noticed that Big Island houses didn’t even seem to feature lanais, although it is certainly true that when you travel someplace for the first time, you tend not to see the residential neighborhoods.

That evening, Tom and I went to the Island Breeze Luau.  The Luau is a right of passage for every tourist.  I’m told there are much bigger luaus on Oahu, but I’m not sure that would translate to a better experience.  Let’s face it, the Luau is an opportunity to show tourists something about Hawaiian culture.  It’s an opportunity to see hula dancing, eat poi and drink Mai Tais (which were really tasty).  I skipped the poi, because the MC of the luau wouldn’t endorse it, but I did have some really good imu pork (a pig roasted in an earth oven), and some amazing salmon poke (raw marinated salmon).  Before the entertainment began, it began to rain, so the entire evening’s activities were accelerated.  It was hard to concentrate on the show, which seemed to be an all-Polynesian dance review that would have been equally at home on a cruise ship or a Reno casino.   We learned a few Hawaiian words, and I enjoyed listening to the newlyweds next to us tell us about their wedding.   By the end of the show, we were drenched.  But it was kind of a nice, Hawaiian drenched.  Warm.  And there was a rainbow. 

Computer Problems

My home PC decided to become just as ill as I have been in recent weeks. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been looking for great deals for my loyal readership. This week, CruCon Cruise Outlet (www.crucon.com) is having its’ world’s largest cruise sale. Deals include a 13-night Transatlantic voyage on Norwegian Cruise Line from $499, 7-night Caribbean voyages on Princess from $514, and lots of freebies including shipboard credit, prepaid gratuities, free shore excursions, and even jewelry. I like getting shipboard credit, because it gives me permission to have the rare umbrella drink or buy a souvenir in the gift shop.

Hawaii, Day 3

It was Monday.  But what does that mean when you are on vacation?  I had no work to go to, and I was well rested from our travels.   The previous day, we’d explored the village of Kailua-Kona.  We’d met the locals and found a c-store.

Today, it was time to go further afield.  When I was planning our vacation, I read reviews of various big island tours on Trip Adviser, and discovered that people thought highly of Waipio Valley Wagon Tours.

A note about the geography of the Big Island:  It’s roundish.  It has mountains in the center (tallest mountains on earth, remember?).   The coasts are mostly lava fields.  This is not a terrain that calls for easy road building.  Also, remember that Hawaii is much less touristy than Oahu or Maui.  So, the roads follow the coast and the mountains.  The speed limit is low, because the roads are narrow and curvy.  A trip that would take an hour in Minnesota will take two hours or more on the Big Island.

Waipio Valley is on the north end of the island.  Kailua-Kona is on the west-central side.  So, a trip up to the Waipio Valley will take a couple hours.

Thus, when it was closer to 9 than 8 when we discovered the desire to hitch our wagon up to the mills on the north side of the island, we had already missed the ability to sign up for the 10:30 a.m. tour.  However, when we called, there were still spots available for 12:30 p.m.  Normally, I prefer to take tours in the morning or late afternoon, but somehow my natural inclination always gets me to my destination mid-day.

Go figure.

Having sown our plans for the day, we went out into the village for food.  Nothing looked appetizing close by, so we wandered a little further afield, and asked for advice at a coffee shop for a nice, local breakfast spot.

Warning:  Do not take the advice of coffee shop owners on the tourist strip for breakfast food.  (I knew it was a bad idea, but Tom has this thing where he diverts to seek local knowledge before he asks me my opinion.)

We were directed back to Tante’s, where we had eaten the day before.  I got the feeling that the owner of the coffee shop knew everyone, and had a deal for everyone.

Now, here’s the deal with Tante’s.  It’s in prime retail strip.  The prices aren’t bad.  They had entertainment, and service wasn’t bad.  But, they have a barker on the sidewalk, and it has always been my experience that good restaurants don’t need barkers.

The night before, the food had been okay.  This morning, Tom’s corn-beef hash had no corn-beef in it.  The menu had no Polynesian items.  Breakfast was a half-hearted affair.

Still, it was a beautiful setting.  And I really kind of enjoyed the corny Hawaiian songs performed by a singer accompanied by a ukulele and a steel guitar.  And it was a Monday morning without the Monday.

By 10, we were on the road to the Valley.  It was a scenic drive through lava fields and ranches.  I saw quail!  And horses and cows.  It was 11:30 when we got to the Waipio Valley outlook.   

Waipio Valley is also known as the Valley of Kings.  Two hundred years ago, Hawaiian royalty lived in the valley, among taro farms and royal fisheries.  Until the mid-twentieth century, the valley was densely populated, with native Hawaiians and Chinese immigrants.  However, in 1946, a devastating tsunami destroyed much of the valley.  Today, only about 50 people live in the valley, and there is only one steep road into and out of the valley.  Only 4-wheel drive vehicles can manage the road.  The valley is totally off the grid, and people who live there tend to live off the land.  Given the transportation difficulties, it’s easy to see why.

The valley abuts the ocean, and there is a beautiful black sand beach there.  Tour companies don’t go there, but if you don’t mind a difficult hike, you can walk there.  Better yet, you can get down the hill in a 4 wheel drive vehicle, although the drive down the hill is only marginally better than the walk up the hill.

Our wagon tour was advertised as a good way to see the valley, because of the lack of roads and the fact that much of the valley is owned privately.  We began up the hill, in a van, and drove down the 25% grade with a guide explaining that cars going uphill have the right of way on the one way road, and that the road has been improved since the last bus plunge.  Seriously.  This was a scary ride.

At the bottom of the hill, we found ourselves in a mule drawn wagon, which forded across a couple of streams, while the guide explained the valley’s history and stopped to show us the plants that grew there.   We saw wild horses.  We also saw some amazing views.  It was dry season in a dry year, but we could just barely see waterfalls in the distance.  Our guide told  us that in wet season, the waterfalls are amazing.  During our trip, it was drizzling in the valley.  I realized that even in a drought… even in dry season… this valley is a haven for its inhabitants, who clearly live the balance between isolation and sustainability.

I wondered what it would take for me to live in this valley as the wagon forded our last river. Could I live off the grid?  Could I live where I would have to drive up a road with a 25% incline in order to pick up my packages from Amazon?  I saw Tom check his cell phone, and I think he might have been just a little worried when he saw there was no service.  After all, it was possible, I suppose that we could end up stranded, like the wagon that had been abandoned only the prior year….

But then, there was this:  That night, we returned to our hotel, and we didn’t care where we ate.  We had just seen the most beautiful place on earth.

 

Getting Sick on Vacation

In 1985, my folks took me to Jamaica.  It was a wonderful trip, but I picked up some kind of horrible bug, and spent the last half of the vacation in the bathroom of the hotel, praying for relief.  I didn’t get better for almost a month after we returned home.

Last fall, Tom and I went to Sanibel Island, and I had a nasty systemic reaction to jellyfish larvae.  I had a rash on my legs that lasted weeks, and was worse than any other itchy crisis I’ve ever experienced.

Just this month, I caught a cold in Hawaii, and ended up sicker than a junkyard dog.  It turns out that this nasty cold has been going around all over the country, and lots of people are complaining about it.

None of these stories even begins to compete with the time I returned from vacation only to pick up chicken pox, influenza and pneumonia, all within a six week period back in the 90’s.

There’s something about travel that really throws your immune system for a loop.  I’ve been reading up on the internet to see if there’s anything that can be done about it.  Clearly, washing hands is a must, especially after handling money.  Getting proper sleep is important.  So is right (something I probably do better with on vacation than at home).   Keep hydrated on long walks, and use sunscreen.  After my bout with pneumonia, a doctor asked me if I had been “hanging laundry outside, ” something I laughed off.  However, I’m sure that hypothermia, dehydration, and sunstroke will not help your immune system handle stray viruses.

My Jamaican experience was probably some kind of parasitic infection from a local water fall.   I’ve been told that the best way to avoid this is avoid ingesting water from natural sources.  Let it go through at least the local water treatment plant.

Our Sanibel trip taught me that it’s really important to rinse sea water off as soon as you come in from ocean swimming.   Jelly fish larvae is not always visible to the eyes, and there were absolutely no warnings about it.   There is a product that you can use to protect your skin from the little buggers, but most commentators say that the creams do not provide a sufficient barrier to the stings.

I can’t imagine any way worse to spend a vacation than to be drugged up or in bed sick, but it might be even worse to come home with an orthopedic injury.  Back in high school, my french class went on a trip to Paris.  As soon as I got on the plane, a very large man sat in front of me, and reclined his seat.  It was agony to walk on that knee for the next two weeks.

Keep your eyes open, and watch out for buses in the road, wash your hands, take regular warm showers, and wash your bathing suit after using it, keep hydrated and rested, and don’t drink water from streams.  Travel advice from someone who has gotten sick on vacations a lot.

Today’s Deal: Paris

Paris  $799.  Six nights at a moderate hotel, and tickets to a cabaret.  Air included (with a surcharge of varying amounts if you travel from anywhere but New York City).  Breakfast and local taxes included.  Airport charges and transfers extra.  I priced it for two people from Minneapolis in late November, and the cost worked out to be about $2,400.

People say there is nothing like Paris in the springtime, but I really prefer it in the Winter.  It can be a little chilly (think Washington DC) and wet, but it can also have amazing sunny and warm days.  When Tom and I were there in January 2006, there were days you didn’t have to wear a jacket.

However, I’m not sure I love this package.  The price isn’t bad, but the hotel is not in one of my favorite Paris neighborhoods.  I prefer staying in the 3rd Arrondissement, because it is somewhat residential with good amenities, close to historic sites and art museums, and has some really good values for Paris lodging.   If I can’t stay in the 3rd, I might go for the Latin Quarter, although it is a little too touristy.  I prefer staying in an apartment in Paris, because a big part of the Paris experience is buying pastries and bread and cheese and fruit for breakfast and supper, and an apartment lets you shop at the grocery.  I’ve used Rent Paris successfully, although there are several apartment rental services on the internet.   Six nights in a studio apartment in the 3rd costs $608 for six nights.  Right now, airfare from Minneapolis to Paris is running over $900 a person in late November (the period of my search), but honestly?  I think you might get a better deal if you are a little flexible in your travel dates.

Paris is a vacation that makes sense to do research before you book.  Packages seem like great values, until you look at the location and amenities of the hotels. The dirty little secret of Paris is that many hotels aren’t up to our standards.  And location matters. A. Lot.

This week’s deal is tempting.  But I’m passing on it, because I can build a vacation that I will enjoy more by booking my hotel and airfare separately, and skipping the package extras.

Finally, be careful when  you book your airfare.  Many flights from  Minneapolis to Europe are red-eyes, and you’ll be getting there the next day.

Next:  A continuation of my Hawaii trip reports (unless some really breaking travel news comes up), and why you get sick when you travel, what to do when you get sick, and best, how to avoid getting sick.