Imagine a Coney Island feel at dusk with Olympic divers arcing through the sky to surreal music. How about a carousel ride next a seafood shack and Johnny Rockets flanking it? Welcome to the Boardwalk neighborhood of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas!
One of seven onboard neighborhoods, this spot also features a candy store, cocktail area, donut shop and specialty photo store. The atmosphere truly Coney Island and once you’re ready to switch it up and relax, head out to a lush garden environment where relaxing music and sounds of nature take you to a different level of consciousness.
Set in between ‘high rise’ balcony rooms is Central Park. The winding paths take you through lush foliage and the world’s only ‘green walls’ at sea. Grab a cup of coffee and a legendary roast beef sandwich at the Park Café and then ponder which of the park’s specialty dining you want to enjoy for dinner. This is the spot for a romantic stroll, fine wine and classical guitar music by dim lights in the evening. Ambience is all no matter what time of day and as many
people that are drawn to this area, it never seems full. Secluded enclaves with benches abound as does the New York style fine dining choices- Chops, Giovanni’s, Vintages and 150 Central Park all offer incredible culinary choices from steaks to small plate tapas. I had the best garlic scallops there ever. To shake off the lull, head to The Promenade for some entertainment Dreamworks style!
The sounds of a crowd being worked into a froth hit you when you enter The Promenade. Kung Fu Panda, Shrek, Fiona, and Alex from Madagascar and other Dreamworks characters parade past you to a throbbing beat. Grab a seat by Starbucks and get your camera ready as the parade moves past you. Sit in awe of the dazzle and the beat but mostly at how engaged the appreciative crowd is! The authentic
costuming is fabulous and logic may make you wonder where they keep all of this stuff. The cruise director is a master at grabbing, massaging and then spinning the crowd into layers of joy. The only bad thing about this neighborhood parade is that it ends. However, on your way to the next shiny thing, notice the cupcake store, pizza place, a sports bar and on and on. After all of this excitement, why not a massage?
Entering the Vitality Spa transports one to a Zen-like atmosphere of calm renewal. The amenities and services are of a quality that satisfies even the most high end clientele. Interestingly, the gym wraps around the spa area and the machines are wrapped in floor to ceiling windows that induce a hypnotic effect while working out. After the work-out, you can head on to the spa for a massage and a
wrap for some pure bliss. To replenish the electrolytes and sooth the system, a healthy snack and juice bar is positioned at the entrance. Walk down a set of stairs and you’re on the enclosed running and walking track. Finally rejuvenated, you want more calm with a great view grab the elevator to the top. It’s cocktail time!
The Solarium Lounge overlooking to forward deck, out onto the beautiful ocean, is a perfect place to have cocktails at sunset. The fading sunlight is offset by smooth jazz and mood lighting which hugs the deck. It’s interestingly quiet now, with many people preparing for dinner and only a handful not even knowing what they’re missing! Grab your cocktail and wander the deck. Even
though the sun goes down, the other end of the ship is alive with activity! People are playing basketball, kids are getting private lessons in the surf rider and the mini-golf course is packed. And there goes someone on the zip-line! Peek into the windows of the teens only area to find them in a world of their own and grateful for it! This is the Sports & Pool Deck neighborhood perched high on the other aft of the ship, under the steam stack.
Dinner at the three story Opus Dining Room time settles you and transports you. A multi-million dollar investment in culinary choices is evident when your waiter hands you the menu. Chilled banana rum soup, Maryland blue crab ravioli, mango raspberry pudding, steak, salmon, cheesecake, oh my! This is also where you can get character dining for breakfast with Shrek, Fiona and others! The choices are varied and gratifying and upon leaving, heading to bed is
not an option when the entertainment neighborhood beckons outside the door. What will it be? A comedy club, ice show, smooth jazz, disco, or maybe a Broadway show (now featuring CATS!)? All of these choices are open to you. Live through it, soak in everything for the day will come to an end soon. Tomorrow you’ll be docking at a tropical island that has its own neighborhoods to beckon you. Honestly, if you thought the Oasis would be limiting or impede your choices, you were wrong. If you’re bored on this ship whether you hit the ports or not, you sadly may just be a boring person.
I had few preconceived notions about Panama before I ended up taking a last-minute trip in November. There was no time to research or formulate a strategy of discovery for my trip. I was for a change, flying by the seat of my pants, courtesy of Copa Airlines! I had read one historical fiction book on Panama years back and took away from it a malaria riddled view of hopelessness against great adversity. Viva to the never-ending revival that this country continues to embrace!
First things first though- Copa Airlines and it’s amazing Sales Executive, Julieta! Be on your toes for a whirlwind tour if she is your host. This woman makes moves by Shakira look geriatric. Born in Columbia, the human dynamo greets us at the airport and whoosh, we are off. The motley agent crew consists of ten female Midwesterners, two from exotic Nebraska and one very brave twenty something guy from Chicago. The flight out is fairly empty so we get window seats and a huge surprise service with a smile, free adult beverages and dinner. Not just any dinner though; This dinner is served hot with REAL SILVERWARE by, gulp, pleasant and sincere flight attendants. It is one wow after the other, including the blanket and pillow in coach. Viva la Copa!
And then the airport; to me all airports are a necessary nuisance, inconvenience, annoyance filled with great people watching. No one pretends in the airport, they are who they are and I find it easy to gauge the pulse of a culture by assessing the environment/structure of the facility and watching people. For some reason, we are in a huge rush to get to the customs line. We pass amazing stores with brands that reflect a pervasive level of disposable income and elegance; Dolce and Gabbana purses, miniature LaCoste tennis shoes I covet and promise to buy on the return, tech stores, perfume stores, on and on. Then crunch, we were at customs and so is everyone else.
The line has great people watching; Suave men with curly black hair, expensive watches and crisp button down shirts smell of sandalwood and bay rum. European ladies complain as the line snaked along and one vivacious Panamanian gal complains to us non-stop in Spanish. Hahaha, as if we know what she is saying; her annoyance at being held up is radiating from every pore. When I grow tired of people watching, I turn my focus back to the group. Not that they aren’t interesting but I will be with them for days on end, so there is no rush to engage. I settle back and let the order of the day prevail employing my strategy of staying quiet, to see what I can see and hear.
This is going to be fun. Liking people isn’t hard when you know you’re heading straight for four days of being shown the best sites, fed the best food and informed by the best tour guide. Yes, meet Violeta! Violeta greets us after our anguished hour and a half delay at customs. She has a tour bus waiting and is excited to get the group going and we’re off!
The first thing Violeta points out are all of the flags flying everywhere. November is the month when independence from Columbia, then France, then the US all took place, at different times of course. She explains that Panamanians like to celebrate everything and as often as possible. So far, so good! The bus ride is typical of any Latin America country and my gaze is riveted to the horizon, ears attuned to what she was telling us. It is rush hour and a gray sky plus heavy humid air lulls me into a ‘just off the plane, trying to grasp my surroundings’ zone. Everything is coming at me so fast with her story of the buccaneer Henry Morgan and gold and sacking the city and moving the city and priests and two high tides a day and all of this set against the back drop of some of the tallest buildings I’ve ever seen.
Approaching Panama City the traffic is horrendous, like any city at rush hour. I was told this city is very American because the Americans had been here for so long. It doesn’t look or feel anything like America to me. It is Panama through and through, a very astounding cosmopolitan city with modern construction stacked solidly against impoverished fishing villages that still cling to the bay. Not for long, says Violeta. They are being paid to relocate because they will be torn down for more skyscrapers.
Okay, suspicious by nature of government and rampant growth, I ask pointed questions about the main economic engines. What are they? Banking and tourism, I am told, service industries. No manufacturing? None beyond a couple of large cement plants. Banking and tourism, hmmm. A couple of American drug companies also. Careening off the main street, we squeak into a tiny street with high rises on all sides. This is our spot for two days as we tour Panama City, loving every second of it. How could I not when walking into a brand new Waldorf Astoria in the center of a thriving metropolis? Oh, and did I mention that sushi extraordinaire from Ginger, the on site sushi restaurant is scheduled for dinner after a grand tour of this brand new hotel.
Check in is smooth but I barely notice because my senses are captured by elegant and textured surroundings. Whoever designed and decorated this place has a brilliant eye, knew intimately how to seduce with sumptuous luxury and bespoke design. Our host is a man more handsome than Richard Gere- Victor. Victor, Victor, Victor. I would have followed Victor anywhere and I did, to the rich smelling spa, to the lounge that had a ship’s prow above, to the infinity pool that had a peek a boo zone to the ocean, and to Peacock Alley of course! Peacock Alley is a flagship icon in every Waldorf Astoria. It was christened that because at the original Waldorf in NY, the ‘peacocks’ would be out every night in their finery. I notice businessmen, women who could be models and of course, the Europeans who have a nose for locating the latest jet setter spots. I am there following Victor until back in the lobby, we are told to retreat, refresh and reconvene for dinner. Sushi virgins squirmed while I tried to figure out the button system in the elevator. Found my floor, found paradise.
Take me back, please take me back; the gold carpet, the white leather furniture, the view across a city twinkling with lights, the marble shower and of course the Waldorf Astoria robe. Did I mention the bed? I never sleep the night before a trip so the bed is screaming my name, but not as loud as my stomach is screaming “Ginger”. I jump into the shower, get myself ready and find the table segregated by sushi enthusiasts and sushi virgins. I straddled the group but am definitely of the sushi enthusiast bent.
Victor is there at the head of the table, elegant, gorgeous and informative of everything Panama. He has attended college in the US but is a bona fide Panamanian with a lot of knowledge, wine and sushi to share. As the wine flows, he relays the seriousness of the robust development Panama is experiencing. Everyone wants to be in Panama, part of the action and reaping the rewards of doing business there.
The hotel we are in is new build, nine months old. The movie “Steel Fist” is being filmed in Panama and yes, Usher is staying here tonight, Robert DeNiro arriving for the weekend. Nicholas Cage is a common sight on the streets and well, why would you want to be anywhere else?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, the sushi virgins have withered at the sight of a beautiful sushi tray set before them. Being good sports, they all decide that it is now or never and before it’s all over, that end of the table has out consumed us, the ladies brimming with compliments and surprise at how good it all is! Success! Travel does change people, even sushi virgins. The group sated, the wine glasses empty, the stories told, it is time to head into our suites to experience the magic of sleeping in the same building as Usher. Fond thanks expressed to Victor, I once again find the elevator to try to figure out the button system. Not bad this time because all I have to really know is floor twelve. Tomorrow we were going to a part of the city that is hundreds of years old to see the Golden Altar. I am nothing if not a history buff, so this excites me beyond words. Give me cobblestone streets, crumbling buildings, tales of piracy and tragedy and I am mesmerized.
The hotel has everything an agent from the Midwest could want- great views, plush furnishings, marble floors in the bathroom and a one demi tasse coffee maker hidden discreetly in the cabinet. Okay, I confess, I never figure out how to use it. I am technologically challenged, but this is the first time a fancy European coffee maker got the best of me. I didn’t want to admit that. Being coffeeless as I prepare for the day just makes me want to get going sooner. The fantastic buffet downstairs is a welcome sight, but not as welcome as the stiff brew of Panamanian coffee. Oh yum, it is good. I always enjoy the little interesting foods of other cultures and the buffet includes tiny glass ‘cocktails’ of fruit that unrecognizable but so tasty. And plantains of course, for every meal.
Then into the heat and onto the bus with Violeta who was takes us into Casco Viejo or old town. This is where the fervent Panamanians moved the city after the pirate, oh excuse me I meant buccaneer, Henry Morgan sacked the city in the 1600s. This was a protected peninsula and so the city moved here.
But back to Casco Viejo. Oh the beauty, the architecture, the history, the people on the streets. Of course, a visit to the very important Cathedral Plaza is one of the stops. It was here that the canal offices were located, that the successes of the French were celebrated and then their failures were felt. It was here that the news arrived on a regular basis of the deaths from yellow fever and malaria.
And it was here where the two most important institutions held sway, the church and the government. I can’t describe the beauty of the two spires that had inlaid abalone shells; the sharp dichotomy of the tree growing out of the gutter and the obvious remnants of squatters. Old town is experiencing a revival and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but 15 years ago, it was a decaying remnant filled with the underbelly of a society that chose the far off peninsula because it was quite clearly off the radar. Crime and despair ruled until once again, Panamanian pride swelled and purposeful reclamation of this gem began. Our stop there ends with the plaza where busts of de Lessups and other notables in the French debacle period stand guard over the old dungeons. The initial French canal company had high hopes and threw money, men and equipment at a project they had no realistic grasp on.
The outcome was many lives, fortunes and reputations lost. In fact, the French government truly toppled a midst the canal’s failure and then what happened? Of course, the Americans stepped in. But that is a story for a different day or paragraph.
The striking thing about this area is that it is so popular! Groups of school children in uniforms are touring on the same day we are. Their obvious interest is explained by Violeta as partly due to the their eagerness for learning but also because it is November, the month of liberation from serial foreign rule. Their voices ring clear and the usual mischief is afoot until they line up to enter a building. Then it is all business and these little Panamanians are heading into their future with a great curiosity about their past.
A stroll through the historic streets, we locate our coach and off we go, though I feel a wrenching away of something near and dear to my heart- deep history, incredible vistas and a revival that bows to a sweeping past as it shapes the future. I have never seen a more diverse culture, history or economy up close and personal.
Soon on to the next great thing, we head across the Amador Causeway, a narrow land mass to the marina area where snazzy little tourist shops overlook a marina with sleek yachts. Across the bay, high-rises loom. This stop has the one thing I will take home as a personal treasure, the book about the building of the Panama Canal by David McCullough. Having read some at home now, it is a long and droning on book, not because it is a boring story, but because so very much happened and it took so very long for it to happen and still isn’t finished.
The Panama Canal – legendary failure, incomprehensible opportunity; indeed, the little canal that could and does. The neighborhood approaching is once again, steeped in history. A winding road twists up the drive delivering us to a world-class visitor center at the Milaflores Locks. Museum, theater, opportunity to be a virtual canal captain, but most incredibly- the viewing decks overlooking the canal. We step inside to see the exhibit that shows the mechanics of it, but looking down on the canal, its countenance defies its relevance. It looks tiny, humble, insignificant. If a person were to stumble across it, it would hardly evoke mention. But with the knowledge of its progenitor and its importance to the world, the deep welling of its importance cannot be expressed. Here worlds collide.
A Mercedes Benz freighter is slipping away when we hit the deck. Here is the narrow, the locks that lift the vast ships up to the next level. Some pay a small fortune, like the Princess cruise ship “Pearl”- $468,000 to pass through. The wonder of it all as history, economics, politics, all converge in the narrow channel. I can barely stand to leave, but we must head then to the ocean! We steer toward an area called Buenaventura.
We travel across the Bridge of the Americas, covering the entrance to the canal. The road we take is a modern highway through hills and it is raining. The tropical jungle outside the bus window has rivulets of mud water rushing to lower levels and leaves that shake ferociously as the rain splats on their broad leaves. We go up and down and all around on this road until suddenly, we exit the mountain pass and we can see for miles. Emerald green peaks with nothing on them, just rising up to meet the hazy sky. As the road curves down we see fields with cows, small settlements and fabulously decorated graveyards. People walk along the road, even though it is a four lane highway.
We stop at a roadside market to use the restroom because some of the ladies on the bus are certain a day of touring without adult beverages just wouldn’t be right. The market has an odd mix of American colas and a lot of deep-fried foods- cheese and chicken and other things that don’t tempt me at all. What does catch my eye is a little stand-off the main building with seashells and carvings and hammocks. The lady inside never greets me or meets my eye as her husband watches me suspiciously. I feel guilty for being there and wonder why.
After a trip to the surprisingly modern bano, I head back to the bus and we go on. Another stop in San Carlos gives us the chance to visit a local grocery store- one of my favorite things to do anywhere I travel. It is interesting, many of the same products we use but in different trappings. I see nothing really unusual here which surprises me. We load back on the bus and grind through the sunshine and oppressive humidity and end up in an area that is remote, elegant and obviously very posh. I am told Shakira has a home here and that celebrities really do hide here in plain site.
The open air lobby of the JW Marriot is set in a building of impressive colonial architecture. Outside, a chapel and the largest Coturu tree I’ve ever seen (okay, the only one I knowingly have ever seen) stands overlooking a fabulous plaza area and the spa.
A host as handsome as Victor greets us after we are given wet towels and a cooling beverage. Everything about this place screams understated elegance. It is incredible and after making my way to my room, I am again overwhelmed by the opulence and attention to detail. I believe that the Waldorf and now this property are two of the finest resorts I’ve ever stayed in.
The room is furnished in colonial decor and the balcony overlooks the lagoon and pool. The lagoon has vacation homes, rentals and owned units but everything is so calm. It is a world away from the hustle of Panama City. It is the break one rushes to and then folds willingly into- the embrace of solitude, peace and relaxation. But wait, we have a site inspection to do.
Suite after suite of refined luxury; all amenities are of the highest quality. The dining venues, the golf course and steak house overlooking the greens, the spa, the chapel and yes, the quiet. Even when a wedding takes place the following morning, it is all very subdued and elegant.
Dinner that night is in a private over the water palapa. Choices are again excellent with a focus on local seafood and vegetables. Could it be any more perfect? Yes, if paired with exquisite wine! However, with a full day of resort touring the following morning, off to bed it is. The bed is heavenly, especially after a great Jacuzzi bath in the oversized tub. With some famous pillows wrapped around my sleepy little head, I slip into restful slumber.
The morning sun is bright, languid and after a stolen cup of coffee on the balcony at dawn, I make my way down to the sumptuous buffet breakfast.
Honestly, it is nice to see how healthy the food choices have been all along. This is no different and if there’s something better than fresh squeezed orange juice and yogurt on a sun drenched patio with a weird hidden bird squawking in the palm tree, I don’t know what it would be. Back on the bus, we visit a couple of Wyndham resorts- Tryp Playa Coronado and Wyndham Playa Blanca Grand and I get the feel of what the all inclusives have to offer in the region. They are very nice, with gracious English-speaking staff and managers that want to engage you in their product. The variety of resorts is interesting, from the small high-rise perched over a postage size stamp beach to the sprawling mega resort with a thrumming night life. That evening we visit the sprawling Royal Decameron, a place where everyone can find a perfect spot, a favorite meal, a special meal or activity. A large resort on a great beach filled with people from all over the world. This is a very good way to end a day of discovering what the beach life in Panama can be like for clients.
I return to write this weeks later, realize it has been two months to the day since I returned from Panama. I have endured bone chilling, soul stealing ice storms, too many weeks of holiday music and the depressing look of my home after lights have been packed away. Yet I am burning with a fever for one thing still- Panama. I am obsessed. I read their online newspapers. I Facebook chat with Violeta. I try to steer every one of my clients there and have one ready to book her flights now.
I watch You Tube videos and revisit scenes in my mind: passing an indigenous couple who are walking on a street, their colorful clothes and especially the beads adorning her calves- her face obscured by her scarf, agonize over the missed opportunity to buy a painted feather on the terrace overlooking the mud flats at low tide, the ragged laundry hanging on the pied a terre next to the refurbished opera house and of course, the overwhelming feeling in the National Plaza as I was being rushed back onto the bus- that I was being torn away from something important, missing something I wouldn’t be able to capture again.
Other images capture my memory and linger- the drive past the fishing village on the mud flats and the inner city slums where we are told the residents are being bought out to move on to a better life. High rise hotels will be built after their homes are demolished and transplanted into the suburbs. The crazy guy in the parking lot at the local market we stop at. He wavers between being a parking lot attendant and wants to sell something to someone, but no one is there. Panama’s version of the burbs, tract housing with large plastic tanks on rooftops to capture rainfall. The menacing presence of police after we have sat in backed up traffic. When the bottle neck breaks free, we are told a shooting had taken place and innocent people related to someone high in the government were killed, young women with bright futures.
One overriding element is the languid, tropical air, breathing into your lungs and pulsing with a life that seems just under the surface. The people of this country are so passionate that the running joke is that the only thing they take seriously is celebrating. Their holiday celebrations and their independence anniversaries and their religious holidays, all of them are woven tightly into how everything else works. They are not peripheral and as on Sundays, everything shuts down on holidays and people celebrate and eat and dance and oh how they love a parade!
I scan today’s news and see where Spain is rough housing about the canal expansion, workers are threatening to stage a slow down and I am happy. The vibrant tumultuous rhythm of life is tumbling along in a country where the world is constantly recreating itself. The modern world and the ancient world exist side by side. Mega ocean liners sail past regions that can only be reached by boat and indigenous people protect their lands without breach. The Trump Tower casts a shadow on fishing boats that return to the slums in the mud flights at high tide. And visitors to this place leave never to be the same again. Captive to Panama, I can make it through one more ice storm because in my future, there is Panama.
I truly did not want to return home. I knew what was waiting for me- winter, work and whining. I arrived back after midnight and was so tired driving home I was relieved to make it. It isn’t hard for me to move on after traveling, to leave a place when I’m not captured by it. By Panama, I am captivated. Captivated captive longing to return; painted feather, marble statue, city skyline, poky over ripe mountains, noisy hidden bird, canal. Captive.
I had a huge letdown in 2012 when I broke my foot and had to cancel two, yes TWO trips to Hawaii, even after they had been paid for. So when a Kauai FAM came my way last summer, I was aloha hungry and ready to go.
Because the air was built-in by Blue Sky Tours, they didn’t really care if I went in a couple of days early so I did. I used the points I earned selling Aston properties to book two free nights at the Aston Islander on the Beach. I also scoped out a bike rental, Hele on Kauai that offered me a comp bike rental. I waited in mute expectation, afraid to say the words, “I am going to Hawaii”, lest like last year, something would happen. I literally held my breath until the day of departure.
Ok, not literally, but I was really, really afraid of something happening to keep me from going this year. Yet on the day, I parked in our spot behind the Fairfield Inn, got on the bus and rode off, still feeling like I was not out of the woods.
At the airport, I used the United Club pass I had been given by our rep to see how the high mileage folks lived. Wow was that nice. Nice comfy chairs, snacks, drinks and muted flat screen TVs. Clean, empty bathrooms and a lot of folks acting like they were at the library, really courteous of and grateful for the shared hiding place- away from the raucous terminal and mumbled announcements. It was wonderful, but I doubt if I would pay $50 for it. Have you noticed I have not paid for anything yet except the bus ride in and I will be reimbursed for that?
On the plane- well, I barely remember anything about the flight except that I had carefully packed a good lunch (to keep from spending money on bad food) and had two free drink tickets in my pocket plus a tiny bottle of rum in my purse. The next thing I knew- the Honolulu Airport. I used to love this place for a couple of reasons but this time, I saw it for what it was- dingy and tired, in great need of an aloha refresh. Come on Honolulu, we send you hordes of thirsty for aloha people and this is what greets them? How about you do better? I found my way to the bus for the inter island terminal and found a place to plug my phone in after a $10 upgrade to a window seat on my Kauai flight (I know- I finally spent some money!).
In my attempts to locate a wall plug for my phone, I find a little spot next to a departure hall where a young mom and her son are hanging out. We speak and she is incredibly sweet- heading home after two weeks with her autistic son in the Honolulu Hospital because the Big Island just doesn’t have the level of health care his issues need. Now I have been a vegetarian since I was fifteen so let me tell you what happened that day, on that floor in the dirty Honolulu airport. Shayla and I were talking and got on the subject of how her having to stay in a hotel while her son was in the hospital was a real strain. She shared with me some of her strategies to keep costs down and one was to buy these pork rolls from the Royal Kitchen in Chinatown. She started digging while talking excitedly about how good they were and then produced yup, a fresh-baked pork roll- monopua- for me to try.
Do you believe I was polite enough to try it? Do you believe I so did not want to crush her enthusiasm in sharing something that had helped her survive that I ate pork after forty plus years of no meat? I did. That is what happened. Hawaii changes people. I can’t say I liked it because I did not. But I couldn’t look in her eyes and tell her no, how you survived is not something I will share with you. She finally flew home, to a life of struggles with her family, her son’s health and feeling like she had helped me experience something valuable. That was worth every choking bite. I hate pork.
Flights in Hawaii are like jewels. This pretty little Hawaiian Airlines plane is just gussied up and ready to be my carpet ride to adventure. Waiting with me is a family of real Hawaiians wearing pretty traditional clothing and leis and hair and everything. The matriarch doesn’t really speak English very well so after I mistakenly sit in one of their seats, no one says anything to me. I wasn’t even aware I had made the mistake until a resort rep gets on the plane, sits next to me and has a little conversation with them. THEN I look down at my ticket and see I am in the wrong window seat. They are so stinking nice none of them says anything, they just went with it. Can you imagine that happening in Chicago? I think everyone local on that plane knows each other. I hear stories about the Kauai Visitors and Conventions Bureau staff that I have not met yet.
It is obvious who the tourists are and who uses the half hour plane ride to catch up on the goings on about the island- like a nice flying living room where languages flipped between English to Japanese to Hawaiian with everyone keeping up. Six PM was approaching and I have been up for many hours so after the pleasant conversation ends, we shuffled out the door. At baggage claim, I catch a few ‘best beaches’ tips from a retired hippie art teacher who came in the 70s and never left, then the Roberts of Hawaii van whisks me off to my hotel.
Eyes as big as saucers. I watch everything because I am new to the territory and want to get my bearings. The ride is good, the air is fresh, the biggest town is pretty tiny and it becomes more and more obvious that this is a place of home, a safe place. I am a guest in the home of Kauai. I feel safe, something I rarely feel where I live.
It is so hard to adjust my frame of reference when I get to a place like this. Scenery that includes tiny unspoiled beaches and high, high mountains, one they call King Kong, is something it takes a while to get used to. My hotel is nice, but nothing too fancy. The desk clerk is very welcoming and the security guard rips himself away from chatting up a second desk clerk to drag my bag upstairs.
No elevators here which is fine with me. I am in the main building on the top floor above the reception area. I am greeted with a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates and Kauai coffee, plus a little note of welcome from the management. The one bedroom suite overlooks the tiki hut, pool and just a bit further on, the ocean. I can hear it roaring and of course head that way just to look. The stretch of beach I can see holds a few tourists straggling along and some local fisherman. I also see and am enchanted by my favorite, a honu. There are chairs stuck in the sand so I sit and listen to the chatter of visitors. It is pleasant to have arrived and again, it feels like a warm and safe home.
Moving back toward the main building, the tiki bar is filling its chairs and the smallish pool has swimmers swimming. The three-story buildings blend nicely with the palm trees and the landscaping is beautiful. I have mapped the place and so strike out just for the sake of walking and to find a bite to eat.
As I walk along a back street, I feel tension fade and while the heat is makes me damp, I am happy and glad to be walking past the field where there is a family camping on the ocean and fishing. I am grateful to be blessed enough to be moving through moist tropical air as the fullish moon peaks over the horizon. I am also glad to see a place where I can have a redirecting meal of beans and tofu so I can wash the pork memory away forever. I take it back to my two room long lanai perched over the resort and watch the moon rise and the hotel guests move about below me. A shower and then bed. I have been awake too many hours.
Good morning! Yes, I am time challenged because of the five-hour time difference and I am up before the sun! I want to see the sunrise and go for a long bike ride.
I need to find that grocery store and get a couple of yogurts to add to my little fridge. The suite is fabulous, full patio windows in both rooms facing the ocean. The bed is a haven after the long travel day and everything is clean. The coffee pot works well so lanai time after a beach walk for the sunrise is in order. I have a date with a bike later and want to be ready. I have researched the four mile bike path along the Coconut Coast and am excited to see what it’s like.
What is it like? It is like Kauai. The comped bike from Hele on Kauai is courtesy of Franny Johnson who runs a consignment shop and bike rental store all in one. If anyone knows me, this is a dream come true. However, I did not come to shop and I’m so eager to get on that bike, I don’t feel I thanked Franny enough for her generosity.
A few scooches around the block and aha, there is the path. It is Sunday morning and the path is my church. Hello there, and aloha you and look at that cool bridge and did you see that bum back there? Why are there people sleeping in their cars next to the road? Better keep moving.
Moving is a pleasure on the bike and I am eager to get up the path, past the town which yes, seems congested. I am shaking my head right now at how ridiculous that is. This town is a swath about four blocks wide with one main thoroughfare where the traffic is really not great but congested? Maybe in rural Hawaiian terms. So I keep pedaling past the vacation homes on the left and the ocean on the right. The land inclines slightly and the homes fall away.
Beach after beach present themselves to me and I am caught in wonder at how would it be to have this view every day? How is it people come and then leave without leaving a big chunk of their wistful hearts? How is it those rocks and that tree will be here without me to gaze upon their movement day after day after day? A passionate rapture grabs me and moves me further where more beaches capture my imagination and there is a guy meditating on the rocks. On the rocks? Yikes. Lava rocks. But back to the mesmerizing love flooding my whole being and I can only apologize for not finding words succinct and clear enough to convey what I was feeling. Then I hit a beach.
There are so many cool beaches on Kauai that only a few actually have lifeguards. This one does and it also has people with surfboards, families with picnics and sun tents and loud music. This is a fun hangout and until I get past it, my rapturous mood calms. I can’t pretend I would rather be flocked on the beach with a bunch of revelers. I can’t say it enough, am so rapt in this island’s beauty I really want to be still inside to adequately take in every slight nuance of a wave, a bird, a tree. As you can see from how I am rambling on here and haven’t gotten much past the first day, this is a big deal, this aloha Kauai thing. Looking back, I had no idea how this would go for me, how it would change me. The pork thing should have been my first clue.
But I digress. I ride all the way to the end of the path and it ends abruptly, jutting into a trail I know I should not follow on a bike. I turn around and take in the view from the reverse vantage point, running across many others who have rented a bike to take in the coast. It is splendid. There’s a weird little spot jutting out over the ocean so I check it out and learn it is an old pineapple dump spot, a railroad spur where the refuse from canning pineapples would be dropped into the sea. The pineapple industry is gone. I can’t say it enough- the frisky white surf, the contrast of sea green with the lava rock, the white sand- it is heaven on earth.
I longingly visit in my mind the place where I have shucked off my former life and moved here. Then reality hits. I am spatially challenged and this island is 25 by 30 miles in size. Madison is farther away than spots end to end on this island. Would I be claustrophobic? Would all the islanders and haoles have their nose in my business every day? Would I adapt to muumuus and smoke pakalolo all day every day while working at the local video rental store? Or would I have that bike ride every day, the morning coffee in the café and some great job harvesting organic papyrus on a local farm that paid even less than the video store? Dreaming of an alternative life is a serious hobby of mine. In my mind, I am an avid risk taker. I do it in real life at times, but a switch to an island you can only get off of by boat or airplane? As beautiful as it is, the 30 mile land tract is a constraint on my wandering comfort zone. Can a comfort zone be a wandering one? I keep riding and when I get back to town, I stop at a food truck for a fresh coconut smoothie and watch the local scene. It is chill except for the busy two lane road, haha. Oh the congestion.
I’m an avid taphophile so my next stop is the town cemetery and on the bike, ruminating between the gravestones is easy and interesting.
The ground is lumpy, like the buried are not quite at rest, keep turning in their graves. But I am drawn anyway.
I continue on my bike ride, kind of skirting the edge of town where real life lives. I peer into driveways and smell food cooking, skirt the driveways where the guys are wrenching on broken down trucks. Dogs see me but don’t chase, just aloha acknowledge me. The drone of regular life for real residents is here and I wonder how they see us, the tourists. I’ve lived in tourist areas and had my back up because of the awkward interface. Do they like us? We’re obviously giddy in love with something they no doubt treasure. Are they jealous yet willing to share?
On the day I have to ‘work’, Franny’s son collects my buddy bike. I take a surreal taxi ride to our first hotel. The driver has lived on Kauai her whole life, has only been to the beach 10 times and would rather live in San Francisco because she likes the opera and culture. I am relieved when she drops me off at the Kauai Beach Resort, probably the only negative person on the whole island. This place is resorty, beautiful lobby, bar, nice little grotto waterfall area in the pool, etc. I unpack and wait to meet my roommate. She is lovely Diane from Wisconsin and I like her immediately!
The next few days we are kept so busy being shown hotels and attractions on the island, I am exhausted every night. The highlights are the people on this trip with us, the bus driver and tour narrator, Juan and of course, Maile and Veronica, reps from the Kauai Convention and Visitors Bureau; Giggly beautiful ladies who exude aloha with class and grit, if that even makes sense. They are intent on imparting every bit of knowledge about Kauai that they can. Hardworking and stunning, I am their faithful adherent to all things Kauai.
I’m not going to talk about the food much because again, no words. Just get out there and find a place to eat and experience any level of nirvana. Hawaiians do not mess around when it comes to food. Their purple potato salad is a staple. I am an adventurous eater and I was hesitant to try it. Now I just wish I had a bowl of it. I would pick it over ice cream. So just try everything and know that the chance of having a bad meal on Kauai is pretty slim. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh and yummy. Yes you will see McDonald’s, but who is looking? I don’t know. Maybe they have some special Hawaiian McDonald’s food. I never bothered to find out on my rides around town.
I do need to mention the coffee. One of our stops was the Kauai Coffee Company. Rows of trees and a nice little shop with coffee in cups and coffee in bags and coffee everything. In one of our stops, someone made the foolish mistake of asking if they serve Kona Coffee. Um no, big rivalry. Kona Coffee is a bit of a dirty word and the person who mentioned was a little embarrassed. No big deal, just have another cup of Kauai coffee and we move on.
Quick run-down of the activities we did and sites we saw.
The Dragon’s Breath Blowhole is spooky and fun, with a compelling legend of love and loss.
The waterfalls we visited were equally stunning, spots to linger and adore.
Waimea Canyon is spectacular with its Grand Canyonesque vistas! I love the orangey soil against the green and am awestuck with wonder. How was it formed?
The Shops at Kukui’ula near Poipu were fantastic and if they wouldn’t have stuffed us every two hours, I might have had the chance to have some great Hawaiian ice cream. Sad story, right? Really pretty perfect for an afternoon or morning repast before you hit the beach.
This is an intimate shopping, dining and art venue, where organic broccoli is $5.99 a pound.
Kayaking on Hanalea Bay with Kauai Kayak Company.- Was amazing. We saw sea turtles and had to kind of struggle against converging currents and then were able to snorkel and frolic in the surf. It was a blast. I think Puff the Magic Dragon was somewhere about. Or at least I sure felt that kind of wondrous magic while floating in the river and then fiercely paddling into the ocean to get past the breakers. The afternoon sun glinting against an incoming cloud bank. Wondrous.
Lumahuli Gardens– Just wow. A relative of the Lydate family gave us a private walking tour and we walked up and overlooked the north coast. This spot of land has some serious sacredness going on. It felt holy. I loved it and return here in my mind often, drawn like a magnet to what, I am not sure. This garden is one of six National Tropical Gardens in the United States. It was interesting to hear the myths of the rock formations and learn that many of the plants covering the surrounding cliffs were invasive species they were trying to eradicate. All of that lush beauty we see as tourists? The plant people see it differently and apparently some of it is not so great.
Steelgrass Chocolate Farm– Oh boy! Up and down hills with a chocolate taste testing at the end. Yippee! The chocolate was really good and I truly enjoyed seeing the organic production. But what I really loved? What really enchanted me? The papyrus forest near the stream. That was really wow. I love that plant! It’s like Dr. Suess meets Avatar. Another fun part was taking the back route because our tour bus, short as it was, wouldn’t fit in their main entrance. We drove on lumpy back roads that were barely more than rutted paths, past what could have easily been hippie squatters living in all manner of ‘homes’. Very interesting!
Have you ever been bewitched by music and movement? I didn’t really think that was possible until the traditional hula group performed traditional for us. I was in love.
Mesmerized, drawn into a spell of aloha enchantment. I realize this sounds ridiculous. I like to scoff at such nonsense. This was as evocative as it was real. Again, no reason trying to explain an experience like that. I can’t begin to describe it.
But the hands down best? Best ever and ever yet? The hula show made me tear up, but the helicopter ride with Sunshine Helicopters?
Indescribable. What can beat riding in a little helicopter taking in some of the best scenery in the world? Well, edging up over a ridge and being surprised by a beautiful rainbow when there’s no rain in sight.
Again, it was magical, enchanting and it made me cry. We hovered over the cliffs of the Napali coast. We swooped into the womb of a fertile sacred Hawaiian site and rotated in a circle. A little nerve wracking but so worth it. It was the ride of a lifetime and I had to wonder if the driver ever got bored, doing this a few times a day, five days a week or was he living his dream? He performed with a nice old hippie Zen quality. It was the most enduring memory.
I also want to mention the roosters. They are the Kauai mascot and if you’ve been here you know you will see and hear them often. There’s a story about how they became so populous but I think it’s because there are no natural predators for them. They’re pretty and they don’t bother anyone unless you are not an early riser. You might not appreciate them then. They are fine.
Quick run-down of the hotels we visited-
Aqua Kauai Beach Resort– spacious and nice but a little dated. This resort would be excellent for corporate or affinity groups. A lot of rooms and ample meeting space. The staff was very welcoming and the food and drinks at their reception for us set the bar high when it came to moving on to other resorts. I would stay there again.
Aston Aloha Beach Hotel– Set by the Lydgate Park and its excellent beach, it was on the verge of a major renovation. It has very good bones to work with and I look forward to returning to see the results. I would stay there.
Sheraton Kauai– This resort is split in two with some of the rooms on one side of a road and some on the other. The beach area is very resorty with Bali beds you can rent and a protected cove area with vigorous surf to play in.
There is a beautiful area for an oceanfront wedding and a nice selection of oceanfront rooms, on the ocean side of the street that is. I would stay there.
The one bedroom master suite probably had the best view from the suites in the resorts we visited. It was large and lovely and I would stay there.
Kauai Grand Hyatt– paradise on earth. Glowing heavenly paradise to the nth degree. The grand lobby is stunning, which is the hallmark of any Grand Hyatt. The pools are is multilevel and just incredible.
Their club for the Club Level rooms is something I want a membership to. There is also a hospitality area for you with locker rooms if your flight leaves late and you need one more hour on the beach. But the spa. I have been to many spas now. This one is over the top. The gym is for serious gym people but the spa, it is for serious spa people. It has a waterfall, little palapa style huts for treatments. I honestly can’t describe it beyond it beyond saying that thinking about it makes me feel sorry for myself for not being there. Sigh.
Overall, the grounds are of the resort are large and there are plenty of elegantly Hawaiian themed rooms, so this resort would accommodate large groups or be the perfect honeymoon hideaway. Another feature of their rooms is how large the lanai are. I want to stay there please. Pretty please.
The Westin Princeville– gorgeous resort with very nice pools and upscale accommodations overlooking the ocean. No beach at this resort, but nice ones close by. Condo accommodations in a variety of bedding options to allow for larger families.
This is a Westin that is more than typically fabulous because of the views. There is a lawn large enough for a big wedding or smallish convention. I would stay there.
The Cliffs of Princeville – This is a very nice family oriented resort where everyone brings their lawn chairs to watch the daily sunset. Music is often being played and if you look down to the sea, you can see turtles in the surf. The one thing that surprised me was that there was no air conditioning. While there, Kauai was experiencing a heat wave that wasn’t normal. These units have two stories with slatted vents and fans for cooling. The heat we experienced while there was not normal so I’m sure it is not normally a problem. Stunning views from the back of the property and a great value for families because they have two and three bedroom options also. I would stay there again. Great jump off point for all things North Shore.
We had our wrap up at the perfect Courtyard by Marriott Coconut Beach. Everything was fabulous, including all the gifts they gave us- delicate leis, books, lotion, etc., until the very end when we were all saying a little something and a lot of us blubbered like babies. When it was all said and done, I walked out one final time to say good bye to the dear ocean. A rogue wave came up and soaked me to above my knees. A message for me? Don’t go? You’re all wet? Anyway, I had to change because our transfer was coming to take us to the airport. It was so HARD to say good-bye to the group, the Aloha and the island.
As a seasoned traveler, I am not that easy to impress. Please don’t think I am being arrogant because I also like to tent camp and enjoy visiting Detroit. But as an agent, many of our FAMS offer us the best of the best in the hopes that we take that experience back to our clients and generate revenue for the people who host us so graciously. Being alone on Kauai for a couple of days and then in a group experiencing everything I did, I can only relay what a wonderful experience it was, how truly grateful I am for all of it. I am an observer and an absorber, willing to mix it up with an experience to get a deep experience. I got that on Kauai. I told you how I ate pork to be kind. You might be able to tell I am thrifty to a fault at times, and you can probably tell I love to ride bike. But who knew how deeply Kauai would change me with the hula and the rainbow and the Aloha of it all? I didn’t. I had no idea this would be MY experience, jaded traveler that I can be, used to be? Mahalo Nui, Kauai. I am a true convert and have drunk your rainbow kool aid.