I’m a tulip lover, a cheese lover, an architecture lover, a history lover, a windmill lover, a total history geek. I love not only the slender beauty of a tulip, but also how they contributed to the emerging market economy that shaped the face of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. A Tulip Time Cruise on Avalon River Cruises was right up my alley, so I went.
Because I also love art, flying in three days early to experience the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, visit the Ann Frank House site, plus the Dam and the Royal Palace was a must! Experiencing the Westerkerk where Rembrandt and his son, Titus, are buried was highlighted by a student playing the magnificent, centuries old organ. Beauty resounded through walls that held a history deep and meaningful.
I learned so much- how the early ship trading relationship with the Congo is still vital to the Belgian chocolate industry; how the construction of the canal houses was marked by portico emblems that showed your trade; how the paper made that the US Constitution is printed on was made by paper created by a wind powered windmill; how tulips created the first ‘stock bubble’ and were stolen, traded and coveted like gold; how fighting the flooding of the delta areas was as critical as fighting the Vikings, then the Spanish, and finally Napoleon.
So many things informed my experience as I moved through a culture where history is in fully present in tangible ways. I am grateful to have experienced what I did, but I am hungry to go back for more. As a history geek, Amsterdam has the largest concentration per capita of museums anywhere in the world. I’m hungry for more of their Dutch Pannekoekens, too.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the tall, lean people who move with ease through crowded urban streets on bicycles, pedaling away while sporting excellent leather footwear and understated, elegant clothing… An affluent, educated, quite polite, and civil society impressed me to the core. I long to go back, and I will… I have so many reasons to return and if you haven’t been, you can only understand by experiencing it yourself. I didn’t even mention the cheese or Keukenhof Gardens. It’s all so much to take in, a wonderland… cheese, chocolate, pancakes, museums, and fields of tulips. What could be better? More time there.
HAPPY THANKSGIVING!I’m so thankful for you, my loyal clients!
I’m also so thankful for travel! Sit back with a cup of tea, beer, or wine and enjoy as you travel with me to strange and beautiful lands…
Take a little photo journey with me as I reflect on the places I’m grateful to have experienced this year. Click on the hyperlinks in the captions to get more information about why I chose the pictures and places I did. Nothing is random here, all have a back story and I have many more if you’re interested!
I’ve had some amazing experiences and I am THANKFUL!
Costa Rica, two weeks in Hawaii and two weeks in Alaska…
Next year, Ireland and then a river cruise through Europe.
All of these places will make you happy, trust me. How can I help?
Please let me know!
Me at the Royal LahainaMyths of Maui Luau! The food and entertainment were wonderful! This is my home away from home. Get an ocean front room there during whale watching season and bring your binoculars. You’ll see many whales because they winter in the channel off the islands there.
That was one big polar bear! Outside of Anchorage, the Chena Indian Village had walking paths, living history cabins, reindeer, sled dogs, and presentations. The guides working with the Riverboat Discovery told a good story, but it was very much a tourist destination.
Skookum Jim’s cabin in Carcross, Yukon Territory. I would love to return! Skookum Jim and three others originally discovered gold on Bonanza Creek, thus creating the Gold Rush. The back story is very interesting!
Fancy desserts in at Cafe Y Macadamia, Costa Rica. No, I didn’t eat either one of those, but I did buy some bee pollen there. To get from the Arenal area to Gunacaste, it is an hours long bus ride over roads not quite ready for prime time. Main roads are good, mountain roads not so much.
The psychedelic trees along the Road to Hana, more commonly known as Rainbow Eucalyptus.My headband matches. I bought it for the hike through the Bamboo Forest on the Pipiwa Trail. Have you been? This is in a different part of Haleakala National Park than people normally visit. If hiking is your thing, there is nowhere in the world like this Bamboo Forest.
Dining at The Plantation House which overlooks the award winning Kapalua Golf Course. The food was incredible and so was the view. I also liked the Golf Shop and was disappointed it was closing as we arrived. Jordan Speith hangs out here. I’m impressed because he is awesome! If you like to golf and want the best Maui offers, let me send you here!
A dusty street scene in Dawson, which is an incubator of history, talent, miners, and bawdy entertainment! Where else can you do a toe shot? No, didn’t do that either. Nope. I did find Dawson City to be one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. Everyone is a character. I won’t tell you what that means. You have to let me send you and find out for yourself.
This is where the guys put the pig in traditional Imu at the Old Lahaina Luau. This is the most authentic luau on the island of Maui and also the hardest to get into. Make your reservations early! This is not just a luau, it is an award winning event and worth making the time for.
The ladies at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s are saucy and known to drag husbands up on the stage and make them cross dress. Once you’ve lost your dignity, head over to the nearest table and lose your poke. Miners still pay their tab with gold dust here.
If you stay at the Tabacon, you get to enter paradise, also known as the Shangri-La Gardens, this area is exclusive to resort guests. You will bask in the thermal pools, gazing up at Arenal. This place is a paradise that defies description. You need to go and I need to go back.
This view is overlooking Kalaupapa, the site of Father Damien’s colony that helped those ostracized by Hanson’s Disease (leprosy). To get there, it’s a mule ride down a steep hill. No, I didn’t do that either. I’m not fond of mule rides.But the view was incredible!
Here I had a tour with Jacamar Naturalist Tours at the Hanging Bridges area near Arenal,Costa Rica, I got in trouble for not wearing closed toe shoes that were specified in our travel documents. We saw two poisonous snakes, a poisonous frog, and Howler Monkeys trying to kidnap a baby Spider Monkey. This place was literally a jungle.
This plane ride offered the opportunity to have your weight yelled out by the pilot that was flying the plane as you were waiting to board. Some chunky people got their own seat to balance the weight on the plane. Oh joy. On the upside, the flights between Molokai and Maui typically run at about $60 per person, one way and run twice a day.
The Farmer’s Market in Molokai is a very interesting place! It’s obvious you are not a local because everyone knows everyone. They are happy to have customers, with only 7,345 residents. I love that little island of heaven. I’d like to send you there, too!
Here I am trying to get some fame to rub off on me by hugging famous chef, Mark Ellman. I can’t even think about his crab sandwich right now because my mouth waters and I get a little mad that Honu is so far away. If you are ever on Maui and you don’t make it to one of his restaurants, you should probably have just stayed home. He runs the restaurants with the help of his wife and daughters- they are very busy and the food is very, very good. Mala Ocean Tavern, Frida’s Mexican Beach House. Honu Seafood and Pizza. All of these places deserve your attention and money. This guy is a phenomena for a reason.
Tribal dancers share their deep heritage at the Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center. I visited as an excursion from a Holland America Cruise when overnighting in the port of Skagway. This was an experience full of cultural treasures and guided by a native Alaskan that had some good bear stories.
Tucked into the hillside in Dawson City is what is fondly referred to as Author’s Row. It consists of Robert Service Carrier’s Cabin and a little jaunt away, Jack London’s Cabin. These literary giants had tales to tell and stories told about them. I highly recommend reading some of their works before making the trip here.
There’s nothing like snorkeling off an unspoiled beach off Lanai and then having a tour by local Aunties to show you all about the tiny island of Lanai. I long to return here. A special end to our excursion by Sail Trilogy Tours was locating a large passel of spinner dolphins that led us back to the harbor in Lahaina. I’ll never forget that day! Another special moment was when they unfurled the sails and cut the engines and we were sailing, take me away….
To really understand the Gold Rush, take a tour of Gold Dredge Number Four. Our driver knew the old and new history of the mining operations that are still evident in the Dawson City area. We were taken right down to the bend in Bonanza Creek where the Gold Rush started. I was impressed, but then my grandpa’s brother was part of this Gold Rush, so I enjoyed imagining him with his stake, heading into the area and well, he actually struck it rich and went to Pomona, CA and bought land right downtown. That carried him the rest of his life.
Approaching Juneau, we were met with the eeriest of weather. Smoke trails enhanced the unusual atmosphere and it felt like we were entering a strange new land. Alaskans are not kidding when they refer to anyone from the lower 48 as outsiders. This is a different world, one I am grateful to have seen, and one I long to return to.
Banyon Tree Court Park in Lahaina on Maui is a favorite. I am a dendrophile (tree lover), so this is a spot that draws me. Local musicians and artists ply there trade here, tourists wander and wonder.. and the tree reigns. If you’ve never experienced a tree that can cover most of a city block, I can get you there. You’ll never forget it.
In all of my travels, the feeling I carry most is fresh of breath air gratitude to be able to experience the newness of a place I’ve never been, or dive deeper into everything a place I am returning to has to offer. I am thankful. I am grateful. I am hopeful that as 2018 approaches, you and I will be busy crafting new adventures that reinforce a deeper appreciation of all the world has to offer.
I am thankful for you because as we work together, you widen my world as we mark the path. I hope the memories made are ones you carry with you!
Some places are alive. Every sound, footstep, breeze or scent has a rhythm that pulls like an ocean current. I wasn’t expecting the lyrical rhythm of St. Croix to mimic every breath I took, to increase or decrease with thought and movement, but there it was. Magic. I’d waited years to feel this pulse and can only surmise it comes from the heartbeat of every captured heart, captured like mine: Every footstep that wove hard worn trails
into the landscape, from plantation owners whose rule was suspect and tenuous at best, the merchant ship crews, the Catholics and the Protestants, the rum runners and privateers, the enslaved, the politically hopeful, the absconders, all captured by this island’s unique rhythm. Current beat? Pivotal chefs, cocktail crafters and cutting edge hipsters cater to aging boomers, curious young families, and enchanted honeymooners. This captured rhythm pulses from island shore to ocean current; mesmerizing, captivating. It’s hard to separate the two, and why would you?
Hearts captured here are truly bound. Historically speaking, some captured heartbeats thrummed with fear as slavery brought them to an unfamiliar land, ripped away from family and homeland. Some captured heartbeats were forged by austere Nordic culture, arriving to grapple with harsh island living. Establishing ‘civility’ wove the fabric of life
into a glorious, brutal blend of adaptation that subjugated many and enriched the few. So many versions of culture permeated this land, it should really be called St. Flexible, St. Adaptable, St. Gymnast. Being the purveyor of a cruel labor model and also outnumbered by said labor force will shade your history and cost lives. The history of this island is a trail of trials that are hard to wrap a modern mind around. But this is all part of the mesmerizing thrum and the reason many who come never want to leave. Seven flags have flown over this tiny island – Spanish, the Dutch and English together ruled, Denmark, the French and then the Knights of Malta. Finally in 1917, the US bought the island for $25 million dollars.
The topography of the island stuns as we make our way to pink buildings of bliss. Rolling hills slope into rock covered shores met by wide stretches of white sand. The water is the aqua you see in pictures but cannot believe is real. Roadways are surprisingly free of litter, things appear simple and clean. As the destination approaches, I’m charmed. The Buccanneer. The pink and white Great House is the main building, perched high on a hill to remain vigilant against roving foes since the 1600s. Buildings with three foot walls hold centuries of history, the remnants of sugar cooking ovens nearby. The open air dining room and bar area are just off the main reception. Moving outward, take in the lovely
rooms, the spa, a little boutique, ridge rooms, ocean front rooms, family rooms, and tennis villas. There are also Dubloon buildings which are basically oceanfront villas; views and furnishings that make me swoon for the love of an ocean view. It’s all here. Every type of accommodation needed is here because this is a family resort. People return here again and again, forging relationships sustained by the rhythm of this place with history deeper than that of the US. The current owners are fourth generation and their 12 year old daughter is catching on quickly.
I graciously land in an oceanfront suite on Grotto Beach. Luxurious and clean, the stone terrace overlooks the ocean. The Grotto Pool and Restaurant are steps away, the fitness center and a complimentary laundry center directly behind. A short walk away is Mermaid Beach with a restaurant, dock and the kid’s club. A third beach is over the hill on the far
side of the golf course, Whistle Beach. So three beaches, three pools. Basically no need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. With 340 acres to wander and wonder over, no need at all. And with a coffee maker in the room and the beach steps away, lounging on that oceanfront terrace seems like a solid way to island time it. Oh, and there is the world class golf course. Lovely rolling hills offer vantage points that change color with the time of day, the thrum of natural progressions that urge me to stay, linger, look.The walking path lures me at dawn and if there’s something better than a sunrise over Whistle Beach, I have yet to see it.
Taking a good look around, it’s hard to miss the massive stone sugar mill. It looks familiar? If you watch The Bachelor then , yes, Sean Lowe took his final six here in 2013 and they had a blast. A romantic dinner in the sugar mill was a highlight of their stay. A
weekly Moko Jumby celebration is hosted by Manager Elizabeth Armstrong every Tuesday night, so while it’s not a Bachelor episode, it’s a rub up against something spectacular watched by so many on TV. It is a THING, The Buccanneer. Considering the ethical commitment of the Armstrong family to this property, this story could be going on in another 500 years. It’s fun to be captured by that rhythm!
Moving away from pop culture allure, this property is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and its existence has spanned the length of European occupancy of the island. A Knight of Malta names Charles Martel built the first building in 1653. After the Danes bought the island, it was home to Governor von Prock who turned it into a sugar factory. Later, cotton and cattle were raised on the rolling hills, with the Armstrong family purchasing it in 1922. So deep the history goes, so solid is the rhythm of this one piece of
Buccaneer Resort St. Croix US Virgin Islands
land, it is fascinating to match the island’s history to what happened right there in this one place where you can now stay. For nine generations, the Armstrong family was instrumental in all things St. Croix, building Christiansted, preserving historical buildings on the island and providing mainstays that were stabilizing forces on the island such as banks, insurances companies. They continue to bring the rhythm that has captured the hearts of guests here at the Buccaneer. Sixty percent of guests are repeat guests, that in itself is a strong indicator of the magic this place holds. People return to the Buccaneer. Captured by the unique rhythm? Yes. Come see, and prepare to be captured!
Heartfelt thanks to Sharon Rosario from the St. Croix office and Andrew Wartenburg from the Chicago office of the USVI Tourism Board and The Buccaneer for their gracious hospitality!
Trying to understand Panama is an exercise in mental dexterity. It’s the most fascinating place I’ve ever been. Amidst the sweltering muddle of skyscrapers and indigenous villages with thatched huts, there is even more. The Canal. The five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And of course, the Golden Alter. But Hitler’s crane? Did you know about that?
Join me on this magical visit to a country where the sights and sounds are mesmerizing. All of this is thanks to Apple Vacations and their fabulous Business Development Manager (BDM), Sarah Rau.
First up, Copa Airlines– can’t forget them. This is an airline where you’re greeted with a sincere welcome, free cocktails, warm food with real silverware, plus a pillow and blanket if you need one. Free inflight entertainment too, with limited but free selections! Upon landing, the airport underwhelms with a bathroom stall that is held together in a fashion with duct tape. There is a NEW terminal you can see being built but as our handsome Gamboa Tours guide, Octovio, explains it is being held up while the former president and his rascal buddies are rounded up for trial for taking all the money. Hmm, what money? No clear answer but the rumor is, he is hiding in Miami.
We weave through town, skimming fishing village slums perched over low tide shallows and skyscraper condo complexes along rocky shores. The heat undulates as my traveling companions ooh and aah all through town, then emerge to head across the Bridge of Americas. Here you can first grasp the magnitude of what the canal is. Huge tankers,
freighters and cruise ships line up waiting their turn to sail through (it can take two days waiting your turn!). I excitedly message my friend who loves these big ships and he tells me about the website where you can see what ship is lined up, what they’re carrying and where they’re heading. I know. Nerd stuff but it is really cool! A prominent feature is the drought which has colored what I knew as a very lush country, a crispy brown with green tips. More on that when I get to the canal section.
Swaying into the Playa Bonita area, we approach the Secrets. Noticeable en route is garbage on the side of the road. Pick up your garbage, Panama! But then there is the resort; gated, luxurious and waiting for me! This property had been the Intercontinental and sits
just thirty minutes outside of town. I’m are greeted with a cool cloth (needed that, thank you!) and a spritzer drinks to refresh. Ushered into the Preferred Club (aaaahhh), I sit, waiting patiently for a room key because I had slept very little in the hours before my plane left. Finally released and headed to the room, it’s way down the hall at the very end of the building. I arrive to my room and the maids are still in there. A supervisor is lolling in a chair as a couple of uniformed maids move about putting finishing touches on. They are very sweet as I shove them out the door so I can strip my sweat soaked clothes off. No air conditioned hallways here.
This place is luxurious, the view over the canal is amazing and the room is just perfect. Everything I could want and more because yes, there is a robe and slippers. I always
feel like I’m being punished if I check into a resort and I don’t have a robe and slippers. I know, delusions of grandeur, but please just let me have my moment. It is only three days. The evening tour showcases a beautiful spa, amazing gym overlooking the Canal and lovely grounds. Dinner at Oceana offers scallops and shrimp on a skewer, and crab cakes. Our group continues to order crab cakes until they simply stop bringing them. A dessert sampler follows so I’m done. Sated, sweating, and staggering up the little hill to home base, I’m in love.
Morning’s ride features a sloth and vistas where the landscape has changed dramatically in the four years since I have been here. Mega shopping complexes, an incredible amount of development, both residential and business. The drivers are a tad crazy but you rarely see accidents. That is one of the things I truly wonder about when traveling to the countries with crazy drivers and traffic. I never see accidents. Playa Blanca is one of the beachy areas of Panama, a full two hours away from Panama City. The area is mostly rural and there is a regional airport RIGHT THERE but no US carriers have a contract yet, only Canada. It would be so convenient to be able to fly right into that area and then take a day to visit the city and the rain forest! The draw here is the beaches. The beaches here are white (with grey underneath), but lovely and very swimmable.
Let’s visit some hotels!
The Riu Playa Blanca is a nice family resort with a small water park for the kids. Families are having a blast and on the other side, the swim up bar is full. The rooms are decent and the views are lovely. This is for your middle budget traveler who wants convenience and comfort. Their buffets are always good!
Next up is the Sheraton Bijao and this is of course, a little more fancy but with fewer restaurants. It also has a lovely golf course which is actually green and the rooms are very
nice! This is a large resort with timeshares attached and many happy people strolling about. Lunch here at the buffet is dizzying with all the choices and my plate is full when I finally sit.
The sitting never lasts so it’s on to the Royal Decameron. This is by far the largest resort in Playa Blanca and it definitely has the most steps. There are many pools, many
restaurants and two large water slides. Families are loving it and the sun is HOT. The salesperson proudly points out the beach here has the whitest sand in the area! Strolling through the lush, extensive grounds, I gaze longingly at the adult pool perched high up the stairs, overlooking a quiet area of the resort. This place has everything.
Another long ride brings me to the Playa Bonita area again and I’m dropped at the Westin. This is a large resort, splendid Westin luxury and I’m offered Gelato from their shop and it lingers on my mind, so smooth and creamy and delicious. The rooms are simple but offer
deep elegance. The view from the Penthouse is the best so far (Joe Biden liked it). There are plenty of pools, restaurants, a lovely spa plus on water’s edge, a round glassed in room where they’re preparing for a wedding reception. Just lovely! This place would be perfect for groups because there is plenty of space for everyone with 611 rooms total.
Adventure calls on day two -a trip to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort and a sail on the Chagres River! Winding through the Soberania National Forest, the sites of the Canal keep me spellbound. That serenity is disturbed as we cross the “Oh My God” bridge, built in 1903 for the railroad, it made Canal construction possible. Wooden beams, a century old steel structure, it is a shaky crossing. A little scary, but past that soon enough, the bus heads up a verdant, lush slope. Perched on the hillside, this open air resort focuses on the natural wildlife and beauty of the rain forest. Many eco activities are available, including a two hour tram ride through the rain forest, an onsite butterfly house and orchid nursery, tours to the indigenous Embera village, plus opportunities to fish and hike. Overlooking the river, the view stretches far and the landscape is alive in the sun. Built specifically to bring people closer to nature,this resort has achieved that. The hammock on the balcony calls my name as I see the dark clouds gathering in the distance. What a great place to lay and read a book mere feet from the deluge.
Off to the boat dock and smashed into a big orange life vest, I can’t help but think about the pictures of the alligators I’ve seen that they have taken out of the Panama Canal. This is where they come to grow big and dominate the water. And I’m in a skiff with a bunch of excited people that may capsize us if they see a cute monkey. Moving through the area, the boat stops and our guide and driver start making really weird noises- to call the monkeys. We sit and wait. Another boat pulls up and some of them step out of the boat. I want to scream “Stop! Alligators!!” They seem oblivious to where they are. No one else is walking along that river bank. Get back in your boat! No monkeys appear so we sidle over to the other bank in this cove and there they are – a herd of alligators about twelve inched long scurrying all over the place. “Momma is underneath the water or these guys wouldn’t be here,” says the guide. “Most of them will not make it because of the predators, maybe one or two in forty.” I spot a turkey vulture sitting not far off. These are babies! Mom is watching you, you crazy bird. A scoop with a fishing net grabs one and it’s passed around and people are loving it.I touch it but I’m not the one who cracks his mouth open to see the teeth. No, thank you, no.
At the mouth of the Chagres, the tall orange crane on the bank is explained as Hitler’s crane, the Titan. Wait, what? Hitler? Panama? So yes, this is the crane he was using to build submarines. I tell a trucking pal of mine who is a history buff and he explains he used to see it in Long Beach, CA.
Hmm, how did it end up here? I investigate. It is a floating crane, one of the largest in the world and the US seized it as war booty after WWII. In 1996, Panama bought it and it’s still in use because it floats and is helping with repairs and construction when needed. What you won’t see or learn in Panama. Amazing.
A little farther on, we spot black lumps in the tree and they’re Howler monkeys. A little farther, Capuchin monkeys and they are friendly and hungry. I wonder how they survive on this island, this tiny island. So many natural predators here and they’re the size of a kitten if you don’t count their tail. I imagine nightfall when, while the big ships still ply the waters, the scary predators come out.
Another drastic contrast in the land called Panama. First world goods (think Mercedes freighter) moving through the canal while on the banks, it’s surely close to a brutal and feral existence. It’s hard to reconcile how the two worlds coexist, intersecting but not interfacing, and mostly unaware of each other.
Back on land and not a minute too soon. The sky’s answer to the drought that has gripped the land is black clouds that unleash a torrent. It’s almost a violent rain and everyone is very happy it has arrived. “You brought the rain!”, our hostess exclaims. During lunch at Los Lagartos, she explains she is very representative of Panama’s history. Her ancestry includes Spanish, French, Asian, Indigenous Wounaan, English, and American. The perfect Panamanian.The torrential view and sounds are a fabulous accompaniment to a fabulous lunch buffet. To cap it off, I buy a boar’s tusk necklace. There. I embraced some wildlife.
Back over the Oh My God bridge and onto the Milaflores Locks. The museum here has bugs that could give me nightmares. The history of the almost insurmountable building of the Canal is aptly displayed and because it is a holiday, the place is packed. People have sat in stadium chairs for two hours to wait for a ship to enter the locks, be lowered, and then do it again in the next set of locks, then finally pass through. Spectators jockey for position in the sports arena atmosphere. This is an event and the latecomers are jeered for blocking the views of those who have sat and waited for two hours! Many ships pass through here night and
day, but this one is being heralded like a champion race horse. It is very fun to be part of the excitement! Tolls are high for ships passing through. The record toll paid was by the Norwegian Pearl in 2010 (more than $450,000). Now, with the opening of the new channel on June 26, bigger ships will pass through so bigger tolls will be collected! This nation truly moves the Western World. It transports 70% of goods the US produces and that figure will rise when the new channel opens. There’s only one problem- the drought. Yes, Panama’s drought has lowered the water level and if it doesn’t start raining, ships will have to lighten their loads, thus lost revenue for the ships and the canal. Hurry rain! When running at peak performance, the Canal creates a revenue stream that has created opportunity for 130 global banks in Panama City. Global banks. It’s hard to wrap my brain around.
Moving back into the city, weagain careen past areas where luxury high rises are being built and roar past slums. The Mercedes SUVs stand out next to the Red Devils or Diablo Rojos (individually owned buses that are totally pimped out to look a bit frightening). Arriving at Casco Viejo, there is supposed to be a moratorium on motor vehicle traffic on Sundays (it is Sunday). I’m left off at Plaza Francia, the area where the
French are edified for their valiant (but doomed) efforts at building the Canal. Also remembered here are the 22,000 lives lost (mostly from malaria and yellow fever) during the building of the Canal. Here also are the dungeons used by the Spaniards and Columbians, sometimes under water at high tide so the prisoners simply had to wait until the tides went out again to become dry. Well, this is the tale I was told, and in Panama, anything is possible?
like flags. Heading back into the cobblestone streets, the buildings again represent the great divide – sleek stucco facades with flower filled balconies abut abandoned shells with feral cats and creepy graffiti. Looming over the Plaza Catedral is the Catedral Metropolitana, built in 1796, with the two side spires covered in mother of Pearl from the Pearl Islands. The Canal Museum is here, so MUCH history is here and an interesting tidbit just steps away, the Iglesia San Jose. Here is the Golden Altar. The legend is it was hid under a layer of black paint by a devoted priest when pirates were actively sacking the area for gold in the 1700 and 1800s. It is immense and lustrous, a sacred and active church, candles flickering, prayers being murmured. A moving space I don’t really want to leave… Raveling back through the narrow, cobbled streets, the cars that aren’t supposed to be there Sundays honk at us as we squeeze through traffic.
Evening holds another splendid dinner at the Secrets. Tranquil surrounding, attentive waiters, and some of the best Caprese salad I’ve ever tasted. So fresh! A lot of stairs were climbed today, a lot of vistas viewed, all of them interesting. I’ve tethered my heart to this dream of Panama, and see why many people from all over the world choose to live here. The little isthmus of Casco Viejo holds enough history and magic that I could spend a month exploring and never grow tired. The view from my balcony after dinner is this, the darkness frames the lights of ocean liners waiting to cross the Canal. The night sounds from the adjacent dark treed hill are interesting, but makes me aware once again, being in Panama means walking the line between modernity and the primal. It’s a compelling vantage point that really calls to me.
Morning comes and so does room service. The woman who delivers it is very sweet. Coffee, croissants, fruit and juices, I’m in heaven. Packing, packing, I forget my favorite
tan pants, hung by the curtains because they were damp and blended in with the curtains. Ugh. This day takes me into the heart of the city with the Riu Plaza our first stop! This place is fabulous. The buffet is really good and the rooms are exquisite. The Penthouse once hosted J Lo and Marc Antony. It is top notch.
Next stop is the Marriott Panama and forgive me if I gush about our host, Juan. He is a former Venezuelan lawyer and current body builder who loves being in charge of sales at the Panama Marriott. This is a fabulous location with the largest rattan light fixture in the
bar area, possibly the largest on earth. The rooms are very nice and there is plenty of space for meetings, weddings, etc. There is also a casino on site plus a fabulous gym and pool area. And then there is Juan.Many reasons to return here!
Wrapping this up, I’m ushered into pure luxury at the Bristol Panama. The premise of this building was to bring the historical elegance of the Casco Viejo area into downtown. They have met and surpassed that target; muted colors with elegant details, fine furnishings, and a great lounge/dining area. The spa is immaculate and the lounge overlooking the
downtown compelling. Everything you need is here, sequestered in thick walls that move your mind out of the city and into relaxation. This is the premium property for staying in the business district. This property sits on a street with a wealth of construction/renovation and the ubiquitous telephone and power lines. It’s odd to see that when you’re not used to it anymore and in the business district, there are a lot of them!
Final stop – the F&F Tower for a final photo op. This building is 52 floors of twisting glass and steel, all offices. It embodies the spirit of Panama as it reflects upward movement,
emerging opportunity, unlimited vision and clarity that mirrors every facet of this incredible country. Many reasons to return here, and I am excited about them all. I long to linger but just like Panama, very little is static and the airport calls.
Traffic in Vegas is insane, even at 11 PM at night. My shuttle seat mate was ‘working’ in Vegas for a month and knew exactly how to get the driver to drop him off first- a tip. Money still talks here, rather loudly most of the time. Careening through the byways meant for shuttle buses, we snake our way to the Orleans. The Allegiant flight had been great but I am a weird mix of excitement and fatigue. I get dropped off, check in and head to my suite with a king bed. This place is really nice!!
Morning is the meet and greet for our travel agent group and I know a whirlwind awaits. A group of Canadians, folks from Indiana and Texas, Minnesota, etc. We load onto the bus and my head spins as I try to take in the lay of the land. Arriving in the 110 degree heat, we step into the Westgate Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, legendary home of the King – Elvis Presley! He lived there for years performing sold
out show after sold out show and now, I get to see the Elvis: The Exhibition. I love Elvis, always have. I loved him as a little second grader making my way to the theater in my little hometown and I loved him when I found out he was dead, sitting on the steps of my house in Madison, then a total hippie, but still in love with Elvis.
After a wonderful brunch, I head into the exhibit. Walls of video tell his story, pictures of every stage of his life and his jewelry are showcased. His vehicles, his studded capes and flashy boots all reside here, along with letters from his pa when he was in prison for forging a check over a hog purchase. This is poignant revelation for an American icon and it is emotional for many of us because of his early and seemingly unnecessary death. Exiting the exhibit is a store full of weird geegaws that to me, is irreverent and unnecessary but I lag behind, looking at everything anyway. Ugh.
so I just snap a pic and head for the world’s largest Benihana and take my picture under a long red dragon. I am a hooorible selfie taker, as you can probably tell from the pictures. I usually look mad by the time I get one so this one was nice! The Westgate has a star struck history and the notoriety of Elvis’s home in the 30th floor penthouse. Oh baby, if walls could talk…
Next jaunt, I’m shuffling through the heat to catch the Las Vegas Monorail. It is slick and new and a three day pass is only $25.00. I
end up at the Monkey Bar of the lovely SLS resort. This place is fabulous! The rooms are amazing, the pool is stunning and the Sayers Club really catches my eye. This venue offers headline entertainment in an intimate setting. This is also where I would book the wedding reception or family reunion of the year. Yes, I will help you party like a rock star because I’ve seen the cherry spots in Vegas. But it’s lunch. What’s for lunch?
We get to see Bazaar Meats by Jose’ Andres but we aren’t eating there. We head to Unami Burger and well, take a look at what they bring me. I don’t really want to get in a fork fight over the tempura
onion rings, but we’re sharing here and things could go south in a hurry. I order the black bean burger and keep my eyes on the rings. We share, grudgingly share. Everything is fabulous but everyone wants the rings!!!
Back on the monorail, I see the benefit of staying off the strip and zooming into town. Arriving at The LINQ, this place is crazy packed-
in the hallways, on the casino floor, at the adult pool, it’s nonstop people. The highlight of this place is the suite that’s off the adult’s only pool. Open the door and I’m part of the party. Slide the patio door shut, I can’t hear a thing. Great engineering for the ambivalent introvert like me. Oh, let’s join the party…. Okay, ten minutes of that was enough. Retreat! Oooo, let’s go back in the pool! Okay, retreat! For people like me, this is a great option!
Moving into a short downtime, I anticipate tonight because it’s Treasure Island and Gilley’s for line dancing, yee haw! The buffet at Treasure Island has enough choices for a picky eater like me. It has
the casino and the rooms are nice but the pool stands out to me. When we meet back at Gilley’s for line dancing lessons, I feel brave so I try. One step, good. Two steps, good. Three steps and a circle and kick, um I am out of here. I tried. Not that coordinated, certainly can’t remember more than three steps and besides, I suspect these people come here every night the way they are bucking and jiving. This is a music flavored group sport that is really fun to watch. Imagine, Pit Bull and Kesha singing Timber as an 80 year old woman slides through the rhythm. Vegas is cool like that!
Our bar maid looks exactly like Sissy from the Urban Cowboy movie and she has this kid in a white cowboy hat trying not to be obvious as
he follows her every move. Then the bull riding begins and it is comical to see how the person running it gears it toward the rider. Embarrassing the rider is the main attraction as the controller forces riders to mimic motions saved mostly for the boudoir. Only in Vegas, haha! Everyone is a good sport but if you’re a young, obnoxious frat boy, you’ll be schooled and on the mat in 5 seconds flat, red faced and humbled. I saw it.
It’s late but is the night ending? No, this is Vegas. My next stop is the High Roller. I have been waiting for this, a spin across the lit up
Vegas skyline. I am enchanted and so grateful for the opportunity to experience this view. It’s labeled an observation deck, I call it pure magic. It doesn’t stop as you get on, so step lightly and keep it moving. You will not be sorry at all.
I hadn’t been to Vegas in 11 years because I didn’t exactly like it the last time. It was fun and interesting, but I’m not a big gambler and it seemed a little off to me, not a quality place to spend my money and time, but rather gritty and desperate. But, I was willing to have my mind changed so glad to be here! Day one revealed a side of elegant rooms, fabulous party spots, gourmet dining and thanks to Kelly Messina from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Christine Carlson from Allegiant Airlines, this party is just getting started!
Contact me for help in making your Vegas dreams come true!
The week is winding down as I continue touring the best of Maui with the ASTA and NACTA group. Little did I know the wow would never stop. My interest in the Maui Ocean Center is bittersweet because this is the spot I know my little grandson would love and he’s not here. This place is beyond amazing and the staff is so eco-
ocean aware I can tell the aloha here is strong. I spend a lot of time facetiming a cute kid in California because I so very much want him to BE HERE with me. The site has sea turtle feedings, stingray shows and the coolest thing? This 750,000 open ocean aquarium with 20 sharks, huge rays and reef fish. I walk through this tube and they swim over me, lapping the current peacefully. I know I was annoying people talking in an excited voice while moving my camera slowly so Cash could see. I’m sorry. I really couldn’t help myself. This is the lesson I learned- take the kids. It is great to see, but they will probably wee a little with excitement. Take extra clothes. It is that exciting.
My next stop scares me. It’s the Island Art Party where everyone gets a smock and a paintbrush and then you paint. I am not talented. I can’t draw my way out of a wet paper bag with a sharp pencil. I am terrified. Everyone is super excited and giggling and anticipating so
much fun and I am filled with dread but trying to play along and not be ‘that girl’ who can’t just buck up and go with the flow. So I do. The place is fabulous, the hosts and hostesses are charming and so encouraging, I drink the kool aid and grab a smock. The picture chosen is an underwater scene with two angel fish. “Big loping strokes with the flat paintbrush, first blue,” our hostess cries out. I begin and it’s kind of working. I slope and bend and switch brushes and then get bored and paint ahead of everyone and of course, it is a disaster. But not even half as bad as I expected and everyone else’s looks really good. I’m
not exactly proud of the painting, but impressed by my ability to try to go along with it. Plus they served us an amazing lunch while dancing the hula for us. This is the perfect diversion on Maui; a wedding or affinity group event- a great option! And if you see that girl who is not terribly excited, please be kind. She is doing her level best to fit in with people who have an artistic bone in their body.
Then I am delivered to HEAVEN ON EARTH. Mana Kai Maui, please let me live in your walls. I check into my room and hit the sliding doors of the lanai, I gulp. I’m overlooking a beach so clear, so close, I can see a sea turtle swimming in the wake. I take in the long stretch
of beautiful beach and the pounding surf is on reverb in the room. The aloha chant of the ocean captures me, rivets me to the floor as the palm trees sway. I have never been in such a fervent state because of a room category, even in a two bedroom penthouse condo with its own plunge pool overlooking the
Bay of Banderas. I thought I was jaded. I was wrong and I am instead sated, deliciously satisfied not only as I look out, but as I look in.
The condo has a king bed, granite countertops in a full kitchen (hooray for Hawaiian morning coffee on the lanai!) and a nice sized bathroom. But the view, no words. Dinner approaches, it’s here on site and with this view as the entrée, I’m eager to see how the dining is. I know I have found heaven up here, but what’s in that kitchen?
Winston Chinn! Premier host for our dinner at the spectacular Five Palms, Winston is an icon himself, full of aloha and jokes and
obviously on top of things when I see what I’m served. First course, a great romaine’s heart salad. Second course, amazing tiger prawns and scallops over pasta. Third course? Their signature Pineapple Creme Brulee, smoking hot custard blazing on a pineapple slice. Yippeee! Heaven continues! Honestly, nowhere, no way has the Maui dream leaned closer to reality for me. This is it and I’m perfectly content to stay here from now on. Why leave? Mana Kai Maui, I love you so much it is a little pathetic. I can’t help it though, I just can’t. I fall asleep, lanai doors wide open, a murmur of aloha waves washing me into slumber. Heaven.
Morning brings a drinking, dairy, honey day. I grab a spot in the van and off we go high into the hills to an organic vodka operation- Ocean Vodka. Unique because it is made with deep ocean mineral
water sourced from 3000 feet below the Big Island and it is all organic. We tour the fields- no pesticides, we tour the production area (no one is intoxicated!) and head for the tasting tiki hut. Early for vodka so I choose rum, they also do rum. It is smooth and goes down easy like a
Friday morning. It is a real treat to see a smallish family run operation that is so successful. How successful? So successful that wherever we go afterward, my friend Mikki tries to order it or buy it and it is ‘out’. Huge demand for this uniquely Maui product and there’s also an open field area for concerts, wedding receptions, etc. It overlooks a valley with views to the ocean. Add a small store and you have the perfect business model.
Next stop, goats that surf? An enterprising German couple call Surfing Goat Dairy home. This is an organic dairy operation. When
they started, they ran into a guy at the dump getting rid of his boards. In a light bulb moment, they offered to repurpose them and now, the goats play yards are full of them. Surf board fences line the visitors area, very unique! I sample a variety of goat cheese and they’re all so good! My favorite is the Garden Fantasia, peppered with savory bits of organic veggies. Yum.
Upcountry Maui is full of gourmet operations that keep the island’s economy ticking
while offering the unique and tasty. Farm to table starts at these elevations. While on Maui, get off the beach for a day and head up to the cool country where a lot is happening, most of it sustainable and organic!
Next we go down, down, down into the valley and then up, up, up! Where we land is unlike anywhere else I’ve been on all three islands. Lona Ridge. The home is an architectural masterpiece, patterned
after early Maui architect, C.W. Dickey’s work. Head out back if you want to be wowed. The view encompasses both shores of Maui and a view of the Big Island. The grounds contain rare trees and plants and up the steep slope behind, an organic honey operation. Owner Leona Rocha Wilson was Maui raised in very humble circumstances- a sugar plantation camp. Her
mother knew she couldn’t pay for college, so encouraged Leona to enlist in the military which she did. Setting her sights high, she used the GI Bill to launch a career in the fashion industry. Today, she opens her home by appointment only (or the customary Monday farm lunch- see linked article for details), preferably to local school children. She has a keen desire to inspire the keiki to reach for their dreams. It is a true ‘island girl made good’ story and after she shares it, I sample honey.
The honey is organic, produced in collaboration with Lona Ridge by a young woman Leona met on the school board. The Lona Ridge Honey component is also all organic and it is interesting to sample
the flavors of the honey from differing locations. My favorite was macadamia nut! After sampling her delicious fare I’m treated to the most amazing box lunch ever. Leona loves education and all the possibilities involved so another collaboration is with the Maui University Culinary Arts Academy. Yes, I am pleased to have enameled box lunches to choose from, each looking like a jewel and all having flavorful delights inside. Mango and other flavored teas from the property
wet my thirst while I ravish the box lunch. Farm to table is the theme but this is stuff straight out of a Five Star restaurant. I want to keep the box but alas, must return it. The steep, steep ride back down is accompanied by groans and sighs as everyone riding along knows it will be
a long time before they experience something that special again. What a treat.
My afternoon at leisure consists of throwing a load of laundry in. After all, I have been here eight fabulous days and who wants to pack that many outfits? Not me. I sit on the lanai in between, then check out the sundries store where Ramen Noodles are $1.98 a pack and then peek into the pool area. Not many pool takers because the ocean is right there, yards away, the ocean! The Kihei location of the Maui Mana Kai is very nestled right up on the beach, built before a
lot of restrictions about that were in place. The setting is perfect for an ocean front wedding and this evening, the staff is preparing for one with delight. I see leis and a ukulele and neat rows of chairs. The sunset will frame the vows with the promise of enduring aloha.
Our group’s time is coming to a close. We still have a snorkel tour in the morning but our graduation dinner is at Merriman’s Monkeypods tonight and even though I’m still quite full, I actually put on a dress for the occasion. The drive is short and the location is
an upscale strip mall in Wailea. The place is jam-packed crowded and when our appetizers come out, I can see why. Seared poke’ tacos and garlic oil fries. Everyone had a choice for dinner and I chose the Kale and Wild Mushroom Gnocchi. But the dessert, the Chocolate Cream Pie? It is a mile high! Piled high with delicious cream! I keep thinking as I attempt to polish it off, swimsuit tomorrow, with everyone. Oh boy. I’m not a quitter. I manage to eat almost all of it.
Morning comes early, lulled into consciousness by the waves so
close you can hear their crashing, time to rise for the last activity – snorkeling at Molokini Crater. Another short van ride gets us to the pick up point for Kai Kanani Charters. The waves are rough in the early morning hours and as the boat runs up on the sand, I look around and gulp. The catamaran lets down the stairs and the boat
keeps rocking. The crew gives the ‘wait, wait, wait’ sign so we do. The waves surge in groups and when a calmer stream starts we all scramble on, still getting soaked and a little jostled. We’re given great instructions by the experienced crew, warned about things that matter and told what to look for. Why am I excited? Because they have masks that have prescriptions in them and I will actually be able to see something. That has never happened before. We are a
motley crew, my fellow travel agents and the general public. Guys are speaking softly to calm their wives, others are trying hard not to stare at the hard bodies of the Hawaii styled bikini body guides and some of the kids can’t resist putting their flippers on to walk like ducks. We arrive. There is abundant sea life in this extinct volcanic crater. “Don’t get too close in to the crater walls because that pretty coral is sharp and dangerous” we’re warned. I wait my turn and take the plunge. Snorkeling has never been fun for me, a glasses wearer. The prescription lenses change everything. I can see the pretty fish and the beautiful coral! I am so mesmerized, floating and staring down in awe that one of the guides swims to me to ask me if I’m alright. Well yes, you see, I am staring at the bottom of the ocean, the beauty of it. Duh. Everyone else is flipping and flopping but I am happy to turtle around slowly, just taking it all in and remembering to breathe through my mouth, not my nose. It works. I am happy and at peace staring at the ocean floor, the coral and the fish. I am one of the last few on the boat because next, turtle town! On the way? Rum punch and sandwiches. Yea!
I have had a long love affair with all things honu. My first encounter was on the Kona coast of the Big Island, in a park. I was walking along looking at the ocean and boom, a turtle is peeking at me with its big, cute eye. I was so excited to see it and really felt like it was happy to see me because it kept peeking at me. Today, we’re going to a spot called turtle town so I am super excited! I’ve had many other turtle encounters since and they all seem magical. We get near and are told to swim closer to the shore. It doesn’t look far so I do. I see one turtle and then realize I am getting tired so decide to swim back. Half way back, and we’re talking the length of two football fields or more, the Jaws music starts playing in my head. I’m kind of far away from everyone, wearing a very bling ring and I’ve been told that attracts sharks. A woman near my age has been recently killed snorkeling not far from shore and it weighs on my mind. I am in their
territory, alone, with that damn shiny ring I forgot to take off, just asking to get bit or worse. Before I was all “I love honu’ and now I’m all “I am shark bait!” so honestly, I start to panic a little. I soon realize that swimming faster will not make the shark any slower and will wear me out. I calm myself, swim purposefully and wish I knew a song about honu to replace the Jaws theme. Hasn’t Jack Johnson written a honu song? Ugh. I pass a guy who is consoling his wife as they schlep through the waves. I don’t think anyone thought it would be such a far swim and expecting this, the staff is throwing out ropes to pull people in? Why not just move a tad closer? Anyway, I’m glad to be back on board after surviving the Jaws encounter in my head. I look resentfully at my sparkly ring as we head back to shore.
This is it. The end of the road for our group. We all hail from far and away and our time learning about Maui Nui is over. I am sad. Glad
for the friends I’ve made, the connections that will be touchpoints held together by tender aloha memories. I have one more night and day in the HEAVEN condo, so I am not leaving yet, but as a group we are done. It was fun, sometimes hilarious. It was yummy, sometimes over fullish. It was educational, with interesting learning that fed my heart and my soul. It was so much more than a beach trip. Friends reading this, visit Maui. Go farther
and discover the secrets of Molokai and Lanai. But on any of these islands? Don’t limit yourself to the beach. I know, I know, all I’ve been showing are videos of the beach. This last one is on Molokai, three miles of pristine beauty, deserted. Papohaku Beach. Worth thr trip, but again, off the beaten path. So many activities and interesting things to discover await you. Venture off the beaten path for that unique experience. You’ll be glad you did and the people you meet? They’ll also be happy you branched out to find the gems of aloha, scattered about just waiting to be enjoyed. Mahalo Maui Nui.
Many thanks to the organizers of this trip, ASTA, NACTA, and the Maui Nui Visitor and Conventions Bureaus. Very well done and executed. Mahalo!
Travel agents can be a jaded bunch. We really do get the plum assignments, like this trip to Maui sponsored by NACTA and ASTA. It’s hard to be humble when the hosts at each location treat you like you’re the best thing ever. Even the notion that the above names groups support us agents so completely, it is heartening! Rough job to have these VIP’d and sponsored trips, but someone has to do it, so we eagerly sign up and pack.
Our next stop is a farm to table experience overlooking the ocean. Nothing mundane about this place, Oh my Pacific’O. You know the new movement where everything is organic, grown locally and then
delivered to a restaurant with a discerning chef who insists on only the finest ingredients? This place is your benchmark. Pacific’O was created in tandem with O’o Farm with the intention of having control over produce quality. They’ve been doing it for twenty years people, not the new kids on the block, the pioneers. They even grow their own coffee and my favorite- edible flowers. If you are what you eat, I want to eat flowers. As a small child, my parents made the mistake of letting me hold the pretty red geranium plant in the backseat, heading to grandma’s on Mother’s Day. Have you ever tasted one? By the time we arrived, no flowers; Gulp. So if you haven’t tried edible flowers and they’re not a gift for someone, chow down. So good! But I digress…. I have the Fish n Chips and homemade ice cream- all fabulous, with surfers in the background.
Our next stop is the state of the art Maui Theatre for the production of ‘Ulalena. Interpretive dance and fusion music meet Hawaiian history. The theater itself is a great venue, but the live music, vocals and Cirque style dance weave a spell of enchantment that holds me entranced through the changes Maui has experienced. I am not a musical lover. I don’t want this to end. I want to linger longer in the dark as the mood envelopes me in its magic. A side note: Kalapani Kollars, our tour guide from the Maui Nei Native Expeditions is one of the music makers for this long standing production. This man lives and breathes the true essence of Maui, devotes all of his energy to embracing and dispersing it to interested parties. You will miss something significant if you don’t request him as a guide and then experience his performance in ‘Ulalena.
I have an appetite now and glad to be walking though the high end shopping outlet with a wood fire pizza joint- Pi Artisan Pizzeria. The
sun lowers itself onto the waves as they bring out platters of antipasto, bowls of Caesar salad and then of course the pizzas. All locally sourced with another fabulous view, pizza done right Maui style satisfies everyone, topped off with more platter of dessert. The cheesecake gets me. I don’t need this but I want, I want and I grab a spoon. We later waddle to the vans together.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to wait for a six am ferry. They
give me coffee, a ferry ticket and I roam around with my box breakfast, watching grizzled construction workers congregate with their gear. This ferry is full because crews are heading over to do a refurbish on one of two Four Seasons resorts on Lanai. Oracle founder Larry Ellison purchased the majority stake of the island and is building into the economic and cultural infrastructure of this tiny island. After repeatedly asking many of the residents and reps there, they say the jury is still out on Ellison. It is still too soon to assess if this benevolence is genuine and unequivocally a place where the local’s hearts and his meet. “So far, so good,” they say. “We’ll see,” they say.
The Expeditions Ferry takes about an hour and we approach the Manele Small Boat Harbor before eight. The harbor is new and nice and our coach takes us up, up, up a winding road that offers sweeping vistas over the fringes of scraggly shrubs. Mountain goats live here on these slopes, but I don’t see any. What I do see when we reach the top is a really nice broad top of an island that is green with cooler temps. Cook and Norfolk pines shoot emerald spikes into that landscape and rim areas of the road in a reminder of genius rain capturing magic. These pines suck the moisture out of the sea breeze and create a micro climate of rain which is desperately needed on Lana’i. And the beauty it has created; I love trees and the town square is Dole Park, named so because the whole island was once a pineapple plantation. These are huge! The tiny Dole Park town square has its own forest. I love this spot! It is cool and refreshing and feels so intentionally lovely. Little art and boutique shops dot the perimeter of the park along with the Hotel Lana’i, our first stop.
Groan, sigh. This place is exquisite in its throw back charm, lovely native art and furnishings, plus its delectable cuisine. This is not the Ritz but an old school inn with a handful of rooms and gathering areas in the center. It is lovely. Ellison has hired top notch staff, many locally sourced and built into their skills to offer a world class experience, tiny island style. This gem offers
relaxation of the finest kind. I swoon and swoon again as we are greeted by the manager and fed a gourmet brunch. Touring the rooms yields rustic island furnishings with my Hawaiian quilts in my favorite colors. I am charmed, and as I stated before, as a kind of jaded travel agent, this is a refreshing feeling of delight.
We stop briefly in the tiny Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center. The building is multi purpose, holds other offices but the artifact collection it holds is really impressive. It was formerly the Dole Plantation Administration Building turned cultural center/museum when development began on the island. Another spot where I wish I could linger.
Load into the vans courtesy of Rabaca’s Limousine Service, I’m going off-roading to Shipwreck Beach. We drive and bump and sway over the mostly sand roads.
Everyone once in a while there is a clearing of tiny buildings knocked into the scrub where people were living off the grid before it was trendy. There are turtles lolling in the surf when I arrive, fishermen fishing for their real lunch, not as a sport. The ship that was wrecked offshore looms in the distance and there is nothing around here, nothing. Oh wait, that’s not what one of our drivers says. Let’s head into the scrub and check out the
petroglyphs. This place is the real deal, native etchings that are symbols of importance to Hawaiian history. There are ceremonial stone cairns in the scrub also. This is the Hawaii many miss, the outback Hawaii on a remote island with a steady population of about 3200 people total. This is your ultimate getaway if dodging the crowd is your thing. It is certainly mine at times.
We head back and have time to check out the new Lana’i Theater with it’s leather reclining seats and fancy bathrooms! I browse
the tiny shops and grab a lunch from Pele’s Other Garden and head to forest bathe under the giant pines. Young kids play in the park while their hipster moms do yoga on the grass. The call to board the bus and leave comes and I am just the last one on the bus. I want to stay. Charity Texiera from the Lanai Visitor’s Bureau has made the brief stay pleasant, and a little bit of a teaser for more to come. I want to stay to see what the light is like through the pines in the evening; what the air smells like as I bicycle through the early morning hours. What the locals say when the haole woman just doesn’t get on the ferry and go. I just want to immerse myself and stay.
Off we go and the ferry ride back brings me to the vans and then I’m checking in to the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. This is in the hotel zone on Kaanapali Beach, a moderately priced property with sprawling grounds and is considered the most Hawaiian of the hotels in this area. There are native arts and crafts, music and we are greeted with traditional song and then when we congregate later,
are feted with more by lovely women who explain their kukui beads to us. Guests and staff alike receive a bead lei and for staff, every year service garners a different colored bead. For returning guests, it is the same because many, many customers return. Why? Because of the location, cultural offerings and excellent beach. During our room tour, we were shown the kit kids receive when checking in. It is totally cute and it is plain that keiki are given honored status here.
Our hostess at dinner outdoes herself as we are seated on the Tiki Terrace for food and music. The food is out of this world. I have the
scallops and Ed next to me has the skewered shrimp. It is a feast from the ocean. My friend Mikki has the tuna rare and she goes on and on about how it is perfectly done. Just heaven. But it is bedtime for us and we have another early dock departure, this time to Molokai for a one night stay.
The Molokai Princess Ferry is coming so again I wander while eating and watching the workers get ready to head over for work. I’m told sitting atop is not a great idea because of the rough seas. It is uncharacteristically windy so we hunker inside and take the ride to Kaunakakai Harbor which is an almost two hour ride this time. I doze.
Arrival has us checking out the golden beach littered with tiny transluscent jelly fish. Not your swimming pals, they are often around you before you know it and the stings can be painful. We gather under a tree and are told we will next be meeting a Hawaiian
holy man. Kalanianaole Hall is straight Hawaiian plantation style, charming in its simplicity. I remove my shoes and am greeted by breathing the breath of a towering giant, his wife Kyrian Van Vliet and a follower. Kumu Pa’a Lawrence Kalaina Kamani Aki is a 50th generation traditional Hawaiian teacher. Blood lines are very important in Hawaiian society because remember, this is a monarchy and that follows the blood line.
Aki narrates to a power point, explains Molokai culture, how his teaching business is world wide (his wife is a blue eyed Dutch girl) and the movement to reinvigorate the many facets of Hawaiian culture. You can tell this is huge on the islands, the undercurrent of plenty pono (righteousness in Hawaiian) permeates all things Hawaiian. Like many traditional societies, rules are strict. It is fascinating to hear of Molokai’s deep heritage and how many people are building into sustaining it. This is a tiny island also with a population of less than 10,000. Because it has resisted development, it is ranked very high on the worldwide unspoiled island scale.
Next I head up to the rigid Nanahoa in Pala’au State Park with the group. This is the fertility stone and it takes a little hike to get there. I snap a pic and send it to my son, father of four, and tell him to never touch this. It is beautiful and I love the
high forest. I almost step on two little mushrooms that look like bosoms. So here is the rock and here are the perfect, tiny bosoms. Interesting. I hike back to the Kalaupapa Lookout, gaze down upon the Kalaupapa Settlement where the leper colony stood and Father Damien took purposeful strides in creating a decent world for people cast off by society before succumbing to the disease himself. Mule rides down into the historic
development are very popular and from what I hear, exciting. Visit the page at Kalaupapa Mule Tour for more information. I didn’t do this, but would have loved the opportunity!
Hard to believe it’s only lunch time but it is. The sandwich buffet is scrumptious at the Coffees Of Hawaii. Julie Bicoy has called ahead and we’re greeted with an amazing frozen coffee drink, perfect refresher after the higher altitude walking we just did. This plantation style building is large enough to house a coffee shop, gift store and boasts a spacious lanai for hosting hula shows and music. Small but charming, this place hits the spot. They roast a wide variety of coffee and their hospitality is fantastic. I don’t want to leave.
We land on a swath of beach three miles long and 100 miles wide. Papohaku Beach. I have never seen such an incredible beach. There
is no one here with us (okay, a young tattooed couple almost hiding in the rocks). You cannot see a house or anything. It is just sand and surf and the wind. Swimming is not advised. The seashells are abundant so there I go scouting for tiny treasures. I love when I get them back home and there is sand clinging to the little fissures and openings. The sea coming home with me is nice.
Next stop is a resort where you can rent condos, the Kalua Koi Beach. It seems deserted. We meet a couple from the Midwest who after vacationing here for decades, have just retired and moved here. They say everything has stayed the same. Nothing changes. There is a slow pace they enjoy. I’m not sure about you, but I think this would be paradise, a great place to retire.
Our next ride drops us at Maunaloa Town where the Big Wind Kite Factory is located. It is the store and it is the factory. Back beyond the book section, tables are strewn with kite making materials under big
windows. The same owners have had it for decades and the vibe is that of a 70s head shop. Jewelry and t-shirts and used books and wind chimes and kites. This is definitely the spot for unique shopping on Molokai. I buy a book about ghosts and climb aboard the van. It is so obvious that unseen forces blend with the seen world here. I don’t really believe in things like that, but from the stories I’ve been hearing, you don’t need to believe in the Hawaiian spirits for them to be real. Your beliefs are not important, haha.
Hotel Molokai awaits. It is a cluster of low slung buildings on the water, under refurbishment and that means the kitchen, too. Our
desk clerk is from Peoria, about 100 miles from where I live. The open air concept is charming but this is a rustic hotel; fan only, no A/C. To get to where dinner is being served, I walk through the construction area in the bar. The pool is tiny but lovely and a group of hipsters are there partying it up. The food is great, especially for a
first meal after a renovation. This little engine is trying very hard and doing a fantastic job of reinventing itself for visitors. I really like the laid back vibe of this place. The back of my room is all screen door and there is no lock, just a chain. I sleep peacefully with the screen open. There is very little crime because where would one go after committing a crime? The island is ten by twenty eight miles. Sure you can run, but you really can’t hide.
I am late to the lobby so miss the trip to the Kanemitsu Bakery. I am crushed but wait patiently in the lobby, hoping someone will share this legendary bread and they do. This bakery is open all night because people visiting off island carry it as a gift to ohana and friends. There is no website but there is a great story by wakeandwonder on the jaunted blog website. Most planes leave before 7 am so getting the bread the night before is the way to go! The bread is a warm lump of surprise with cinnamon or fruit filling and is so tasty. I’m not really embarrassed to be tearing handfuls off of someone else’s loaf (thanks Ken and Wendy Kimi), but I should be. What I shouldn’t be is hungry after my recent dinner. Instead, I’m just a tad jealous of everyone clutching their brown bags of steaming bread. Ugh.
The next morning I’m so excited to see the Molokai Airport. Our
flight leaves at 7 am and this airport is cute and little. Travelers look the same as others the world over; cranky to be there so early, grappling with small children and confused looking elderly. But this place is pretty calm. It’s apparent we’re outsiders. Molokai get about 1000 visitors a day which is a substantial number considering their focus has not been tourism. The ongoing dilemma here is to attain the sweet spot balance between of delicious Molokai culture and inviting and accepting the world flavor. It is problematic but Molokai Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Julie Bicoy presses on, knowing that the right strategy will keep the chill while warming the island for curious world travelers. Molokai is lovely.
Stay tuned for more of your armchair travels. Don’t you want to go? Words and pictures don’t really suffice. Breathing the air, meeting the big Hawaiian teachers and hiking to Phallic Rock? Has to be done. Come…
It’s been a month since I left for a nine day trip to Maui Nei. I had never been to Maui, all islands but. I was excited because I knew there was on old whaling town and how I love history. Little did I know the depth of that history or how it would draw me, like a moth to a Maui flame. Better yet, this trip was sponsored by the National Association of Career Travel Agents (NACTA) and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)– two groups that support agents and promote travel in ways that deepen cultural understanding and depth of destination. It is the perfect first trip to Maui and I leave with more friends and bigger Hawaiian dreams.
Arriving – Well the rainbows are personal with me. I love Hawaii and I am not ashamed to say that I think Hawaii loves me. I stop counting at nine rainbows during my ride to the resort.
The skies scream a welcome I could hear, even above the grumbling of the Russian driver. Russian? Yep. Hails from New Jersey, visited five years ago and never went back. Something tells me he doesn’t love his job but that his off hours on Maui make the grind worth it. He grumbles off after our arrival at the Royal Lahaina and I check in, Aloha style. Kindness flows at the front desk and at the end of the open air lobby, I spy the ocean. I rumble my suitcase upstairs and throw open the lanai doors. Ocean view, check. Ocean wave sounds, check. Coffee maker and Hawaiian coffee, check check! Time for dinner.
The sun sinks while the ocean groans and shimmers. It hugs the golden sand like a longing lover, crashing again and again in its passion. I see this from where I’m eating dinner. Tiki lights are lit, Hawaiian music plays and the tinkle of ice from drinkers at the bar supply a background melody. I’m exhausted. I never sleep the night before a trip and I’ve been up almost 16 hours, most of them spent in an airport or airplane. A full stomach has me moving into the corridor and doing the Mai Tai stumble to the elevator. It is time.
When my consciousness meets daylight, I have this great realization that I’m in Maui. Yippeee! Two whole days to explore before my business trip starts so first things first-
walking shoes and sunglasses, I hit the beach. What a beautiful beach- Ka’anapali. Long golden stretch with the Black Rock sticking out. I meet many other early wanderers and then cruise up to the walking path that separates the Ka’anapali Golf Courses from the ocean. It wanders in front of the resorts in this area so a good long stretch awaits. Everyone is up! People are surfing! The different resorts I stroll through are each unique but I really like the pools at the Westin.
I find a spot to sit and just watch everyone; the workers at the surf shack trying to kill the night’s after effects with coffee, retired
ramblers with their fanny packs huffing into their finest stride, families lugging everything needed to host a day at the beach with toddlers- all in a subdued morning mode. No rush, island style, happy and bright with the anticipation of a day in paradise. I find the Whaler’s Village and note there is everything from Kate Spade to Maui Jim’s for shopping, quite a few dining places also. But the town is waiting for me. I have a couple specific goals today and one includes the town square in Lahaina.
Banyan Tree, how did you grow so big? Art show, aren’t you glad to be nestled in its shade? Homeless people sleeping on the bench,
does this tree protect you? It’s natural magnificence is equal to the historical significance of the Old Lahaina Courthouse. I feel like I have struck gold. As a travel agent, I’m pleased. As a history nut, I’m thrilled. As a genealogist, I know there is royalty buried close and an old prison of dubious nature nearby. Pay dirt! No one besides a triple threat nerd like me could ever understand the thrill running in my veins as a stroll this area.
The courthouse is a gem tenderly housing artifacts both native and haole. The banyan tree planted in 1873 has spread it’s branches and roots over the town square. The history is compelling- raucous sailors and warring Hawaiians collide with missionaries and a fledgling government, all with differing agendas. You have to know how juicy that story is but explore for yourself when you come. Spend a couple days wandering the museum now housed in
the courthouse. Stand on the second story lanai and look out at the harbor where the whalers would drop anchor. Wander through the Pioneer Inn next door and have some lunch while you watch Maui culture collide with tourists from a cruise ship. “Real surfers!” I hear one say. “Did you see her suit?” says another. “It’s up her butt crack. That can’t be right.” Don’t spit your drink trying to snuffle a choked laugh. Wipe yourself off and head to the cemetery.
Now I don’t know how I was led to cemetery number one except that my mental map and where my feet trod landed me in a spot I hadn’t intended. It was the grounds of the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church but it wasn’t my final stop, I had somehow wandered here in search of a different cemetery. Coincidence? Probably not. If I don’t find them, they lead me to them. The lovely part? After I left the cemetery, there was that old prison I mentioned- Hale Pa’ahao. What a place this was- talk about some history!
Moving on on the bright heat of mid-afternoon Maui, I am finally at my destination- the Waiola Church where Waine’e Cemetery was founded in 1823. Buried here is the last King of Kauai, Kaumualii. He benevolently made an agreement with King Kameahea in order to prevent bloodshed for his subjects. Marriage to Kaahumanu who had royal Maui lineage sealed the alliance. This sacred ground is adjacent to Moku’ula, the ancestral grounds of the Maui royalty. It is being reclaimed with the intention of restoring it from a baseball diamond and parking lot to its original condition. We toured this area as part of our cultural familiarization trip for NACTA/ASTA, but I get ahead of myself. I’m also afraid I will lose you in the name trail. Anything too unfamiliar (i.e. Dick or Jane, Tiffany or Brett) and people’s eyes start glazing over.
But this was it, what I had traipsed around in the hot son for, the sacred burial ground of Ali’i. I sat on the lava rock wall and watched. Birds visited, people came and brought flowers and then a guy showed up with water for the flowers that were in the graves of Kaumualii and Kaahumanu. He didn’t linger, he was purposeful, but his dedication was sincere. I wanted to know his
story but oh, there he goes in his pick-up. I look over the abandoned baseball field and parking lot (not yet knowing it was the ancestral home of royalty waiting to be reclaimed)- consider cutting through this field but feel an inexplicable caution so take a longer, scorching way the couple of blocks into town. I later find out it is a historical and sacred site you have to call to the guardian spirits to be invited into and get goose bumps, but am grateful for the sentient whisper that keeps me from overstepping my bounds.
Lahaina Town again and back to the shuttle stop. Great service there from Ka’anapali; two dollars will get you all the way into or out
of town. I am beat and ready for a swim in the breaking waves on the beach. The Royal Lahaina sure delivers for stunning views from my oceanfront room and after a dip, I sit on my balcony and relax. Coconut Shrimp from nearby CJs Deli is washed down with onion rings dipped in banana ketchup. Yes, it is good! Tomorrow starts my familiarization trip and from what I have already experienced on my own, I can’t wait to learn more!
Later our group congregates in the lobby and we are a far flung group! Florida, Texas, Vancouver BC, California, Denver, Iowa, Nevada,
New Jersey, Honolulu and more are represented. The Maui and Molokai Convention and Visitor’s Bureaus are represented by people we lean on and embrace for their insider knowledge – Chris Kai’aokamalie and Julie Bicoy. Representing NACTA is Ken Kimi and his lovely wife Wendy. We gather to meet and greet then head over the
Myths of Maui Luau on the grounds of the Royal Lahaina. The food and drinks are amazing, the entertainment a wow, especially the cameos set against the setting sun. As great as it has been, the time change hits me and bed awaits, another Mai Tai shuffle to the room.
Bright and early we meet Jennifer Carvalho who shows us fantastic oceanfront rooms at the Royal Lahaina, rooms in the high rise towers and recently redone cottages big enough for a family. Nice and sumptuous, with a heavy
dose of island decorating, perfect for honeymooners, families or any kind of getaway. Next stop, the MauiGrown Coffee next to the old Pioneer Mill site. Old railroad engines that carried the sugar cane to the mill line the parking area, as well as the smoke stack. The operation is tiny but mighty and the brews are sublime, set in the little historical storefront used to be the company office.
We next stop in the parking lot next to a thrift store. A loud backhoe pummels the blacktop while two explorer types crouch in a little hole slightly filled with water, absorbed in the hole with serious
looks. As we wait for Kalapana Kollars from the Maui Nei Native Expeditions to being our tour, we wander to a large placard that explains the meaning of this Moku’ula site and the plans for its restoration. The field we seek to enter requires chanting in between two of our guides. We stand silent as they voice the greeting and its answer. Then we move forward. This tour and the company that created it is at the root of a cultural resurgence that unveils sites, legends and the native way of life. Hawaii has beautiful beaches, but it is so much more if you open your mind and heart to the true essence of Aloha! …. Stay tuned for more!
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.