Category Archives: Luxury Travel

Surfing Goats, An Enameled Box Lunch, Heaven in Kihei and That Damn Shiny Ring

 

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

Ken and Wendy Kimi create masterpieces at Island Art Party, Kihei!
Ken and Wendy Kimi create masterpieces at Island Art Party, Kihei!

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

These are my little fish. I am not an artist.
These are my little fish. I am not an artist.

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

Mana Kai Maui from the beach is just as special as from the lanai.
Mana Kai Maui from the beach is just as special as from the lanai.

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.

Yes, that is my view from my lanai at the Mana Kai Maui, otherwise known to me as heaven.
Yes, that is my view from my lanai at the Mana Kai Maui, otherwise known to me as heaven. Yes, you can see turtles in the water and sleep with the doors open. No, I did not want to leave.

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

Tiger Prawns and Scallops, couldn't eat it all so had the remainder for lunch the following day. Excellent cuisine!
Tiger Prawns and Scallops, couldn’t eat it all so had the remainder for lunch the following day. Excellent cuisine!
Everyone is enjoying ocean front dining at the splendid Five Palms in Kihei.
Everyone is enjoying ocean front dining at the splendid Five Palms in Kihei.

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

This shows one of the production areas at Ocean Vodka. Everyone is on their feet!
This shows one of the production areas at Ocean Vodka. Everyone is on their feet!

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

Travel Agents Mikki Fillhour, Steven and Louisa Wong do some early morning tippling at Ocean Vodka!
Travel Agents Mikki Fillhour, Steven and Louisa Wong do some early morning tippling at Ocean Vodka!

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

Susie Adair captured this great shot of surfing goats while visiting the dairy!
Susie Adair captured this great shot of surfing goats while visiting the dairy!

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

Instructions on how to eat goat cheese on crackers came in handy for the taste testing!
Instructions on how to eat goat cheese on crackers came in handy for the taste testing!

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

Our group assembles on the palatious lawn of Lona Ridge. Another Maui heaven spot, the view takes in two Maui coasts.
Our group assembles on the vast lawn of Lona Ridge. Another Maui heaven spot, the view takes in two Maui coasts. Picture courtesy of Ken Kimi.

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

The lanai was the perfect spot for Leona Rocha Wilson to share stories about her life and the ongoing projects at Lona Ridge.
The lanai was the perfect spot for Leona Rocha Wilson to share stories about her life and the ongoing projects at Lona Ridge.

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

Honey sampling is the best! Photo courtesy of Susie Adair.
Honey sampling is the best! Photo courtesy of Susie Adair.

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

Portabella and fresh mozzerella cheese on a ciabatti roll, purple yam chips with hummus, grilled veggies and delectable couscous were topped off with tea made from Lona Ridge fruit trees. This food tasted better than it looks if that is even possible!
Portabella and fresh mozzarella cheese on a ciabatta roll, purple yam chips with hummus, grilled veggies and delectable couscous were topped off with tea made from Lona Ridge fruit trees. This food tasted better than it looks if that is even possible!

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

The steep ride back down gave everyone the chance to just settle in and enjoy the view. It wouldn't have been good if we would have had to move at all. Too full!
The steep ride back down gave everyone the chance to just settle in and enjoy the view. It wouldn’t have been good if we would have had to move at all. Too full!

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

Pledging unending aloha overlooking the ocean at Mana Kai Maui. Oh my, warms the heart Hawaiian style!
Pledging unending aloha overlooking the ocean at Mana Kai Maui. Oh my, warms the heart Hawaiian style!

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

Mile high oh my chocolate pie! And with swimsuit day the next day, oh boy.
Mile high oh my chocolate pie! And with swimsuit day the next day, oh boy.

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

Monica Ambriz and Susie Adair discuss best practices for feeding Hawaiian goats.
Monica Ambriz and Susie Adair discuss best practices for feeding Hawaiian goats.

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

This is your view at breakfast if you're lucky enough or smart enough to book a room at the Mana Kai Maui.
This is your view at breakfast if you’re lucky enough or smart enough to book a room at the Mana Kai Maui.

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!

Advertisements

Authentic Maui Continues to Wow, Lana’i and Molokai Refresh

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

Shelia Sweet and Nicole Dalasta dine at Pacific'O, one of the original farm to table venues. Twenty years strong, it is flavorful with a view of surfers!
Shelia Sweet and Nicole Dalasta dine at Pacific’O, one of the original farm to table venues. Twenty years strong, it is flavorful with a view of surfers!

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

Woodfire pizza from Pi Artisan in Lahaina. They stuffed us with amazing salad, pizza and dessert. What a good deal!
Woodfire pizza from Pi Artisan in Lahaina. They stuffed us with amazing salad, pizza and dessert. What a good deal!

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

Yes, it is chilly at the ferry at 6 am. Yes, I will sit up top of the ferry until I realize the spray is a constant. The quiet of  Lahaina Harbor at dawn is pretty nice!
Yes, it is chilly at the ferry at 6 am. Yes, I will sit up top of the ferry until I realize the spray is a constant. The quiet of Lahaina Harbor at dawn is pretty nice!
Leaving Maui for Lanai
Mikki Fillhouer, Chris Kaiaokamalie, Nicole Dalasta and Julie Bicoy brave the top of the ferry from Maui to Lanai.

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. Towering [pines lana'iCook 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.

Oh take me back here, please! Quaint and charming, I long to return.
Oh take me back here, please! Quaint and charming, I long to return.

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

Eager to please, we were served huge plates of fruit and delectable brunch fare.
Eager to please, we were served huge plates of fruit and delectable brunch fare.

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.

Honu at Shipwreck Beach. I believe Julie Madrid or Susie Adair took this picture. Ladies? Anyone? I do want to credit you!
Honu at Shipwreck Beach. I believe Julie Madrid or Susie Adair took this picture. Ladies? Anyone? I do want to credit you!

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

Julie Bicoy (facing away), Amy Chauncey, Mikki Fillhouer and Wendy Kimi peer at the petroglyphs in the brush above the Shipwreck Beach area.
Julie Bicoy (facing away), Steven Wong, Amy Chauncey, Mikki Fillhouer and Wendy Kimi peer at the petroglyphs in the brush above the Shipwreck Beach area.

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

State of the art theater represents the ongoing contribution of Larry Ellison on the island of Lanai. This place is plush!
State of the art theater represents the ongoing contribution of Larry Ellison on the island of Lanai. This place is plush!

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,

Engaging keiki in traditional arts is encouraged through a cultural ambassador pack for young guests at the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel.
Engaging keiki in traditional arts is encouraged through a cultural ambassador pack for young guests at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel.

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.

Yup, two pictures of savory dishes from the Tiki Terrace. Sure wish I had some of that now!
Yup, two pictures of savory dishes from the Tiki Terrace. Sure wish I had some of that now!

 

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 are my favorite and this dish at the Tiki Terrace, Ka'anapali Hotel was truly special!
Scallops are my favorite and this dish at the Tiki Terrace, Ka’anapali Hotel was truly special!

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

Kyrian Van Vliet hails from Holland, has devoted her life to Hawaiian culture, along with following the treachings of her husband, Kuma Pa'a Lawrence Kalainia Kamani Aki. This was taken during his Talk Story at Kalianaole Hall on Molokai.
Kyrian Van Vliet hails from Holland, has devoted her life to Hawaiian culture, along with following the treachings of her husband, Kuma Pa’a Lawrence Kalainia Kamani Aki. This was taken during his Talk Story at Kalianaole Hall on Molokai.

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

Fertility rock sacred to the Hawaiian community, it protrudes nicely in a pine forested glen.
Fertility rock sacred to the Hawaiian community, it protrudes nicely in a pine forested glen.

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

Tiny bosom mushrooms grew near the phallic rock. I found that interesting!
Tiny bosom mushrooms grew near the phallic rock. I found that interesting!

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

Best beach ever. Unbelievable expanse of deserted and undeveloped sand. Incredible! Papohaku Beach.
Best beach ever. Unbelievable expanse of deserted and undeveloped sand. Incredible! Papohaku Beach.

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

Magical mystery ride inside this place- total throwback to the 70s and everyone just loved it!
Magical mystery ride inside this place- total throwback to the 70s and everyone just loved it!

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

Rustic and earthy with a patio door that doesn't really lock, I never felt unsafe and am ready to return.
Rustic and earthy with a patio door that doesn’t really lock, I never felt unsafe and am ready to return.

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

Island bungalows capture days gone by and rustic luxury at Hotel Molokai.
Island bungalows capture days gone by and rustic luxury at Hotel Molokai.

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

Prop over Molokai taken by Ken Kimi. I love a little prop plane. 'Ohana Airlines gave us a short and sweet ride.
Prop over Molokai taken by Ken Kimi. I love a little prop plane. ‘Ohana Airlines gave us a short and sweet ride.

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…

Like a Moth to a Maui Flame…. Come Part 1

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.

Welcoming rainbow at breakfast my first day. This was taken sitting at my table.
Welcoming rainbow at breakfast my first day. This was taken sitting at my table.

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-

Everyone enjoying Aloha life on the beach!
Everyone enjoying aloha life on the beach!

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

Golden sand and waves whisper. Ka'anapali Beach is incredible.
Golden sand and waves whisper. Ka’anapali Beach is incredible.

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,

Planted in 1873, this tree wraps a city block in aloha.
Planted in 1873, this tree wraps a city block in aloha.

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.

Museum
The struggle with leviathans was real during the early history of Lahaina Town.

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

View over the harbor from the second story lanai of the old courthouse in Lahaina .
View over the harbor from the second story lanai of the old courthouse in Lahaina .

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.

Old Prison anchor
Huge anchor attached to an equally large rusting chain at the entrance to the Hale Pa’ahao, the old prison.

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.

Kinoole Memorial
Kinoole Memorial.

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

Last King of Kauai and his wife- Ali'i burial site.
Last King of Kauai and his wife- Ali’i burial site.

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

Many places to explore right on Front Street in Lahaina Town!
Many places to explore right on Front Street in Lahaina Town!

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,

Our host at the Royal Lahaina, Jennifer Carvalho. She welcomed us like we were Ali'i!
Our host at the Royal Lahaina, Jennifer Carvalho. She welcomed us like we were Ali’i! Jennifer is center, Steven and Louisa Wong on the left of her, Shelia Sweet and Nicole Dalasta to her right.

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

Happy FAMers at the Myths of Maui Luau. Left to right: Donna Evans, Renee Drummond, Ed Davis, Lesley Trudelle and Chris Kai'aokamalie enjoying the feast before the show!
Happy FAMers at the Myths of Maui Luau. Left to right: Ken Kimi/NACTA Hawaii Chapter Director, Donna Evans, Renee Drummond, Ed Davis, Lesley Trudelle and Chris Kai’aokamalie/MVCB Director of Leisure Sales, all enjoying the feast before the show!

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

History and caffeine collide at the Maui Grown Coffee Company.
History and caffeine collide at the Maui Coffee Company.

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

Maui Ne Expeditions guide Kalapana Kollars begins our tour at the Mukele site and then leads us into town.
Maui Ne Native Expeditions guide Kalapana Kollars begins our tour at the Moku’ula site and then leads us into town.

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!

Captivating Panama

 

 

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!

Taken from the private club deck atop the Hard Rock in Panama City. The glass swirl building is a replica of one in Dubai.
Taken from the private club deck atop the Hard Rock in Panama City. The glass swirl building is a replica of one in Dubai.

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!

1
A nice shot of me with our tour leader and Copa Rep, Julieta. This was the night a number of sushi virgins left Ginger ruined for cooked fish.

 

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.

Cosmoplitan and brand spanking new, the Waldorf Astoria Panama City is a stunner!
Cosmopolitan and brand spanking new, the Waldorf Astoria Panama City is a stunner!

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.

Ocean view suite at the Waldorf Astoria Panama City.
Ocean view suite at the Waldorf Astoria Panama City.

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.

A renewal of beauty is underway on the Casco Viejo.
A renewal of beauty is underway on the Casco Viejo.

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.

For this, the pirate Henry Morgan sacked another part of the city. Iglesia San Jose and the GOLDEN ALTAR!
For this, the pirate Henry Morgan sacked another part of the city. Iglesias San Jose and the GOLDEN ALTAR!

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.

Plaza Independencia, where the lilt of Panmanian history whispers true tales in your hear, just listen. Or you can listen to Violeta, the fabulous tour guide!
Plaza Independencia, where the lilt of Panamanian history whispers true tales in your hear, just listen. Or you can listen to Violeta, the fabulous tour guide!

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.

 

amador causway
The Amador Causeway was originally four smallish islands, but having been edified using rocks excavated from Culebra Cut and Gaillard Cut during the excavation of the Panama Canal, it is now a posh shopping area where sleek yachts moor. This picture was taken looking back toward the city.

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.

The thin swath of muddy water that moves the economies of the word. The Panama Canal!
The thin swath of muddy water that moves the economies of the world – the Panama Canal!

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.

Yes I eat ceviche, squid and all. Try it! So fresh and healthy!
Yes I eat ceviche, squid and all. Try it! So fresh and healthy!

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.

Immense Coturu tree in the courtyard area of the JW Marriott, Buenaventura. Their elegant spa is named after this tree and its healing properties.
Immense Coturu tree in the courtyard area of the JW Marriott, Buenaventura. Their elegant spa is named after this tree and its healing properties.

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.

Super plush accomodations at the JW Marriott and by then, I was exhausted and grateful for the comfort!
Super plush accommodations at the JW Marriott and by then, I was exhausted and grateful for the comfort!

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.

The view from my balcony in the thin, dense morning Panama sunrise.
The view from my balcony in the thin, dense morning Panama sunrise.

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.

Moliere and Rossini grace the facade of the National Opera House in Casco Viejo. This area has experienced an incredible revival after being designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Moliere and Rossini grace the facade of the National Opera House in Casco Viejo. This area has experienced an incredible revival after being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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.

 

How Kauai Changed Me – 40 Years a Vegetarian, It Started With A Pork Roll

How Kauai Changed Me

I had a huge letdown in 2012 when I broke my foot and had to cancel two, yes TWO trips to Hawaii, even after they had been paid for. So when a Kauai FAM came my way last summer, I was aloha hungry and ready to go.

Because the air was built-in by Blue Sky Tours, they didn’t really care if I went in a couple of days early so I did. I used the points I earned selling Aston properties to book two free nights at the Aston Islander on the Beach. I also scoped out a bike rental, Hele on Kauai that offered me a comp bike rental. I waited in mute expectation, afraid to say the words, “I am going to Hawaii”, lest like last year, something would happen. I literally held my breath until the day of departure.

Kauai sunrise to meet me...
Kauai sunrise to meet me…

Ok, not literally, but I was really, really afraid of something happening to keep me from going this year. Yet on the day, I parked in our spot behind the Fairfield Inn, got on the bus and rode off, still feeling like I was not out of the woods.

At the airport, I used the United Club pass I had been given by our rep to see how the high mileage folks lived. Wow was that nice. Nice comfy chairs, snacks, drinks and muted flat screen TVs. Clean, empty bathrooms and a lot of folks acting like they were at the library, really courteous of and grateful for the shared hiding place- away from the raucous terminal and mumbled announcements. It was wonderful, but I doubt if I would pay $50 for it. Have you noticed I have not paid for anything yet except the bus ride in and I will be reimbursed for that?

On the plane- well, I barely remember anything about the flight except that I had carefully packed a good lunch (to keep from spending money on bad food) and had two free drink tickets in my pocket plus a tiny bottle of rum in my purse. The next thing I knew- the Honolulu Airport. I used to love this place for a couple of reasons but this time, I saw it for what it was- dingy and tired, in great need of an aloha refresh. Come on Honolulu, we send you hordes of thirsty for aloha people and this is what greets them? How about you do better?  I found my way to the bus for the inter island terminal and found a place to plug my phone in after a $10 upgrade to a window seat on my Kauai flight (I know- I finally spent some money!).

In my attempts to locate a wall plug for my phone, I find a little spot next to a departure hall where a young mom and her son are hanging out. We speak and she is incredibly sweet- heading home after two weeks with her autistic son in the Honolulu Hospital because the Big Island just doesn’t have the level of health care his issues need. Now I have been a vegetarian since I was fifteen so let me tell you what happened that day, on that floor in the dirty Honolulu airport. Shayla and I were talking and got on the subject of how her having to stay in a hotel while her son was in the hospital was a real strain. She shared with me some of her strategies to keep costs down and one was to buy these pork rolls from the Royal Kitchen in Chinatown. She started digging while talking excitedly about how good they were and then produced yup, a fresh-baked pork roll- monopua- for me to try.

Kindness matters. She was being kind. I was polite in returnand ate pork. Ugh.
Kindness matters. She was being kind. I was polite in return and ate pork. Ugh.

Do you believe I was polite enough to try it? Do you believe I so did not want to crush her enthusiasm in sharing something that had helped her survive that I ate pork after forty plus years of no meat? I did. That is what happened. Hawaii changes people. I can’t say I liked it because I did not. But I couldn’t look in her eyes and tell her no, how you survived is not something I will share with you. She finally flew home, to a life of struggles with her family, her son’s health and feeling like she had helped me experience something valuable. That was worth every choking bite. I hate pork.

Flights in Hawaii are like jewels. This pretty little Hawaiian Airlines plane is just gussied up and ready to be my carpet ride to adventure. Waiting with me is a family of real Hawaiians wearing pretty traditional clothing and leis and hair and everything. The matriarch doesn’t really speak English very well so after I mistakenly sit in one of their seats, no one says anything to me. I wasn’t even aware I had made the mistake until a resort rep gets on the plane, sits next to me and has a little conversation with them. THEN I look down at my ticket and see I am in the wrong window seat. They are so stinking nice none of them says anything, they just went with it. Can you imagine that happening in Chicago? I think everyone local on that plane knows each other. I hear stories about the Kauai Visitors and Conventions Bureau staff that I have not met yet.

Veronica Pablo and Miele Brown from the Kauai Convention and Visitor Bureau represent their island in true ALOHA style.
Veronica Pablo and Miele Brown from the Kauai Convention and Visitor Bureau represent their island in true ALOHA style.

It is obvious who the tourists are and who uses the half hour plane ride to catch up on the goings on about the island- like a nice flying living room where languages flipped between English to Japanese to Hawaiian with everyone keeping up. Six PM was approaching and I have been up for many hours so after the pleasant conversation ends, we shuffled out the door. At baggage claim, I catch a few ‘best beaches’  tips from a retired hippie art teacher who came in the 70s and never left, then the Roberts of Hawaii van whisks me off to my hotel.

Eyes as big as saucers. I watch everything because I am new to the territory and want to get my bearings. The ride is good, the air is fresh, the biggest town is pretty tiny and it becomes more and more obvious that this is a place of home, a safe place. I am a guest in the home of Kauai. I feel safe, something I rarely feel where I live.

It is so hard to adjust my frame of reference when I get to a place like this. Scenery that includes tiny unspoiled beaches and high, high mountains, one they call King Kong, is something it takes a while to get used to. My hotel is nice, but nothing too fancy. The desk clerk is very welcoming and the security guard rips himself away from chatting up a second desk clerk to drag my bag upstairs.

Aston Islander on the Beach
Aston Islander on the Beach

No elevators here which is fine with me. I am in the main building on the top floor above the reception area. I am greeted with a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates and Kauai coffee, plus a little note of welcome from the management. The one bedroom suite overlooks the tiki hut, pool and just a bit further on, the ocean. I can hear it roaring and of course head that way just to look. The stretch of beach I can see holds a few tourists straggling along and some local fisherman. I also see and am enchanted by my favorite, a honu. There are chairs stuck in the sand so I sit and listen to the chatter of visitors. It is pleasant to have arrived and again, it feels like a warm and safe home.

Moving back toward the main building, the tiki bar is filling its chairs and the smallish pool has swimmers swimming. The three-story buildings blend nicely with the palm trees and the landscaping is beautiful. I have mapped the place and so strike out just for the sake of walking and to find a bite to eat.

View from lanai
View from lanai

As I walk along a back street, I feel tension fade and while the heat is makes me damp, I am happy and glad to be walking past the field where there is a family camping on the ocean and fishing. I am grateful to be blessed enough to be moving through moist tropical air as the fullish moon peaks over the horizon. I am also glad to see a place where I can have a redirecting meal of beans and tofu so I can wash the pork memory away forever. I take it back to my two room long lanai perched over the resort and watch the moon rise and the hotel guests move about below me. A shower and then bed. I have been awake too many hours.

Good morning! Yes, I am time challenged because of the five-hour time difference and I am up before the sun! I want to see the sunrise and go for a long bike ride.

Sunrise on my first day. Everything is pinky and gorgeous.
Sunrise on my first day. Everything is pinky and gorgeous.

I need to find that grocery store and get a couple of yogurts to add to my little fridge. The suite is fabulous, full patio windows in both rooms facing the ocean. The bed is a haven after the long travel day and everything is clean. The coffee pot works well so lanai time after a beach walk for the sunrise is in order. I have a date with a bike later and want to be ready. I have researched the four mile bike path along the Coconut Coast and am excited to see what it’s like.

What is it like? It is like Kauai. The comped bike from Hele on Kauai is courtesy of Franny Johnson who runs a consignment shop and bike rental store all in one. If anyone knows me, this is a dream come true. However, I did not come to shop and I’m so eager to get on that bike, I don’t feel I thanked Franny enough for her generosity.

Breakfast along the bike path after a stop to get the bike at Hele on Kauai
Breakfast along the bike path after a stop to get the bike at Hele on Kauai

A few scooches around the block and aha, there is the path. It is Sunday morning and the path is my church. Hello there, and aloha you and look at that cool bridge and did you see that bum back there? Why are there people sleeping in their cars next to the road? Better keep moving.

Moving is a pleasure on the bike and I am eager to get up the path, past the town which yes, seems congested. I am shaking my head right now at how ridiculous that is. This town is a swath about four blocks wide with one main thoroughfare where the traffic is really not great but congested? Maybe in rural Hawaiian terms. So I keep pedaling past the vacation homes on the left and the ocean on the right. The land inclines slightly and the homes fall away.

Discovered on my bike ride. All kinds of little spots to hang out by the water.
Discovered on my bike ride. All kinds of little spots to hang out by the water.

Beach after beach present themselves to me and I am caught in wonder at how would it be to have this view every day? How is it people come and then leave without leaving a big chunk of their wistful hearts? How is it those rocks and that tree will be here without me to gaze upon their movement day after day after day? A passionate rapture grabs me and moves me further where more beaches capture my imagination and there is a guy meditating on the rocks. On the rocks? Yikes. Lava rocks. But back to the mesmerizing love flooding my whole being and I can only apologize for not finding words succinct and clear enough to convey what I was feeling. Then I hit a beach.

There are so many cool beaches on Kauai that only a few actually have lifeguards. This one does and it also has people with surfboards, families with picnics and sun tents and loud music. This is a fun hangout and until I get past it, my rapturous mood calms. I can’t pretend I would rather be flocked on the beach with a bunch of revelers. I can’t say it enough, am so rapt in this island’s beauty I really want to be still inside to adequately take in every slight nuance of a wave, a bird, a tree.  As you can see from how I am rambling on here and haven’t gotten much past the first day, this is a big deal, this aloha Kauai thing. Looking back, I had no idea how this would go for me, how it would change me. The pork thing should have been my first clue.

Stopped on the bike path for a selfie. I am not very good at selfies. I make myself nervous.
Stopped on the bike path for a selfie. I am not very good at selfies. I make myself nervous.

But I digress. I ride all the way to the end of the path and it ends abruptly, jutting into a trail I know I should not follow on a bike. I turn around and take in the view from the reverse vantage point, running across many others who have rented a bike to take in the coast. It is splendid. There’s a weird little spot jutting out over the ocean so I check it out and learn it is an old pineapple dump spot, a railroad spur where the refuse from canning pineapples would be dropped into the sea. The pineapple industry is gone. I can’t say it enough- the frisky white surf, the contrast of sea green with the lava rock, the white sand- it is heaven on earth.

I longingly visit in my mind the place where I have shucked off my former life and moved here. Then reality hits. I am spatially challenged and this island is 25 by 30 miles in size. Madison is farther away than spots end to end on this island. Would I be claustrophobic? Would all the islanders and haoles have their nose in my business every day? Would I adapt to muumuus and smoke pakalolo all day every day while working at the local video rental store? Or would I have that bike ride every day, the morning coffee in the café and some great job harvesting organic papyrus on a local farm that paid even less than the video store? Dreaming of an alternative life is a serious hobby of mine. In my mind, I am an avid risk taker. I do it in real life at times, but a switch to an island you can only get off of by boat or airplane? As beautiful as it is, the 30 mile land tract is a constraint on my wandering comfort zone. Can a comfort zone be a wandering one? I keep riding and when I get back to town, I stop at a food truck for a fresh coconut smoothie and watch the local scene. It is chill except for the busy two lane road, haha. Oh the congestion.

I’m an avid taphophile so my next stop is the town cemetery and on the bike, ruminating between the gravestones is easy and interesting.

Cemetery in Ka'apa town
Cemetery in Ka’apa town

The ground is lumpy, like the buried are not quite at rest, keep turning in their graves. But I am drawn anyway.

I continue on my bike ride, kind of skirting the edge of town where real life lives. I peer into driveways and smell food cooking, skirt the driveways where the guys are wrenching on broken down trucks. Dogs see me but don’t chase, just aloha acknowledge me. The drone of regular life for real residents is here and I wonder how they see us, the tourists. I’ve lived in tourist areas and had my back up because of the awkward interface. Do they like us? We’re obviously giddy in love with something they no doubt treasure. Are they jealous yet willing to share?

On the day I have to ‘work’, Franny’s son collects my buddy bike. I take a surreal taxi ride to our first hotel. The driver has lived on Kauai her whole life, has only been to the beach 10 times and would rather live in San Francisco because she likes the opera and culture. I am relieved when she drops me off at the Kauai Beach Resort, probably the only negative person on the whole island. This place is resorty, beautiful lobby, bar, nice little grotto waterfall area in the pool, etc. I unpack and wait to meet my roommate. She is lovely Diane from Wisconsin and I like her immediately!

The next few days we are kept so busy being shown hotels and attractions on the island, I am exhausted every night. The highlights are the people on this trip with us, the bus driver and tour narrator, Juan and of course, Maile and Veronica, reps from the Kauai Convention and Visitors Bureau; Giggly beautiful ladies who exude aloha with class and grit, if that even makes sense. They are intent on imparting every bit of knowledge about Kauai that they can. Hardworking and stunning, I am their faithful adherent to all things Kauai.

I’m not going to talk about the food much because again, no words. Just get out there and find a place to eat and experience any level of nirvana. Hawaiians do not mess around when it comes to food. Their purple potato salad is a staple. I am an adventurous eater and I was hesitant to try it. Now I just wish I had a bowl of it. I would pick it over ice cream. So just try everything and know that the chance of having a bad meal on Kauai is pretty slim. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh and yummy. Yes you will see McDonald’s, but who is looking? I don’t know. Maybe they have some special Hawaiian McDonald’s food. I never bothered to find out on my rides around town.

I do need to mention the coffee. One of our stops was the Kauai Coffee Company. Rows of trees and a nice little shop with coffee in cups and coffee in bags and coffee everything. In one of our stops, someone made the foolish mistake of asking if they serve Kona Coffee. Um no, big rivalry. Kona Coffee is a bit of a dirty word and the person who mentioned was a little embarrassed. No big deal, just have another cup of Kauai coffee and we move on.

Quick run-down of the activities we did and sites we saw.

The Dragon’s Breath Blowhole is spooky and fun, with a compelling legend of love and loss.

Blowing it's top, a centuries old love grudge fuels this growling blow hole.
Blowing it’s top, a centuries old love grudge fuels this growling blow hole.

The waterfalls we visited were equally stunning, spots to linger and adore.

Waimea Canyon is spectacular with its Grand Canyonesque vistas! I love the orangey soil against the green and am awestuck with wonder. How was it formed?

The Shops at Kukui’ula near Poipu were fantastic and if they wouldn’t have stuffed us every two hours, I might have had the chance to have some great Hawaiian ice cream. Sad story, right?  Really pretty perfect for an afternoon or morning repast before you hit the beach.

Yummy organic broccoli!
Yummy organic broccoli!

This is an intimate shopping, dining and art venue, where organic broccoli is $5.99 a pound.

Kayaking on Hanalea Bay with Kauai Kayak Company.- Was amazing. We saw sea turtles and had to kind of struggle against converging currents and then were able to snorkel and frolic in the surf.  It was a blast. I think Puff the Magic Dragon was somewhere about. Or at least I sure felt that kind of wondrous magic while floating in the river and then fiercely paddling into the ocean to get past the breakers. The afternoon sun glinting against an incoming cloud bank. Wondrous.

Lumahuli Gardens– Just wow. A relative of the Lydate family gave us a private walking tour and we walked up and overlooked the north coast. This spot of land has some serious sacredness going on. It felt holy. I loved it and return here in my mind often, drawn like a magnet to what, I am not sure. This garden is one of six National Tropical Gardens in the United States. It was interesting to hear the myths of the rock formations and learn that many of the plants covering the surrounding cliffs were invasive species they were trying to eradicate. All of that lush beauty we see as tourists? The plant people see it differently and apparently some of it is not so great.

Steelgrass Chocolate Farm– Oh boy! Up and down hills with a chocolate taste testing at the end. Yippee! The chocolate was really good and I truly enjoyed seeing the organic production. But what I really loved? What really enchanted me? The papyrus forest near the stream. That was really wow. I love that plant! It’s like Dr. Suess meets Avatar. Another fun part was taking the back route because our tour bus, short as it was, wouldn’t fit in their main entrance. We drove on lumpy back roads that were barely more than rutted paths, past what could have easily been hippie squatters living in all manner of ‘homes’. Very interesting!

Have you ever been bewitched by music and movement? I didn’t really think that was possible until the traditional hula group  performed traditional for us. I was in love.

Hula magic drew me in, captivated me in a way I felt was other worldly.
Hula magic drew me in, captivated me in a way I felt was other worldly.

Mesmerized, drawn into a spell of aloha enchantment. I realize this sounds ridiculous. I like to scoff at such nonsense. This was as evocative as it was real. Again, no reason trying to explain an experience like that. I can’t begin to describe it.

But the hands down best? Best ever and ever yet? The hula show made me tear up, but the helicopter ride with Sunshine Helicopters?

Indescribable. What can beat riding in a little helicopter taking in some of the best scenery in the world? Well, edging up over a ridge and being surprised by a beautiful rainbow when there’s no rain in sight.

Approaching Waimea Canyon
Approaching Waimea Canyon
Napali Coast. Nowhere like it in the world!
Napali Coast. Nowhere like it in the world!

Again, it was magical, enchanting and it made me cry. We hovered over the cliffs of the Napali coast. We swooped into the womb of a fertile sacred Hawaiian site and rotated in a circle.  A little nerve wracking but so worth it. It was the ride of a lifetime and I had to wonder if the driver ever got bored, doing this a few times a day, five days a week or was he living his dream? He performed with a nice old hippie Zen quality. It was the most enduring memory.

I also want to mention the roosters. They are the Kauai mascot and if you’ve been here you know you will see and hear them often. There’s a story about how they became so populous but I think it’s because there are no natural predators for them. They’re pretty and they don’t bother anyone unless you are not an early riser. You might not appreciate them then. They are fine.

Quick run-down of the hotels we visited-

Aqua Kauai Beach Resort– spacious and nice but a little dated. This resort would be excellent for corporate or affinity groups. A lot of rooms and ample meeting space. The staff was very welcoming and the food and drinks at their reception for us set the bar high when it came to moving on to other resorts. I would stay there again.

Aston Aloha Beach Hotel– Set by the Lydgate Park and its excellent beach, it was on the verge of a major renovation. It has very good bones to work with and I look forward to returning to see the results. I would stay there.

Sheraton Kauai– This resort is split in two with some of the rooms on one side of a road and some on the other. The beach area is very resorty with Bali beds you can rent and a protected cove area with vigorous surf to play in.

Bali beds ocean side, complete with wait service and wait service. Party like a rock star!
Bali beds ocean side, complete with wait service and wait service. Party like a rock star!

There is a beautiful area for an oceanfront wedding and a nice selection of oceanfront rooms, on the ocean side of the street that is. I would stay there.

Kauai Marriott Beach Resort– beautiful grounds with a lovely, very large pool.

View from the Ocean Front Master Suite at the Kauai Marriott Beach Resort.
View from the Ocean Front Master Suite at the Kauai Marriott Beach Resort.

The one bedroom master suite probably had the best view from the suites in the resorts we visited. It was large and lovely and I would stay there.

Kauai Grand Hyatt– paradise on earth. Glowing heavenly paradise to the nth degree. The grand lobby is stunning, which is the hallmark of any Grand Hyatt. The pools are is multilevel and just incredible.

Entrance to the Kauai Grand Hyatt.
Entrance to the Kauai Grand Hyatt.
Club at the Kauai Grand Hyatt. Snacks, beverages, TV, games, etc. all day. A woman was there getting glue for her high heel, so also a shoe repair site! Concierge service at its best. The lap of luxury.
Club at the Kauai Grand Hyatt. Snacks, beverages, TV, games, etc. all day. A woman was there getting glue for her high heel, so also a shoe repair site! Concierge service at its best. The lap of luxury.

Their club for the Club Level rooms is something I want a membership to. There is also a hospitality area for you with locker rooms if your flight leaves late and you need one more hour on the beach. But the spa. I have been to many spas now. This one is over the top. The gym is for serious gym people but the spa, it is for serious spa people. It has a waterfall, little palapa style huts for treatments. I honestly can’t describe it beyond it beyond saying that thinking about it makes me feel sorry for myself for not being there. Sigh.

Treatment hut at the Kauai Grand Hyatt. Please take me there!
Treatment hut at the Kauai Grand Hyatt. Please take me there!

Overall, the grounds are of the resort are large and there are plenty of elegantly Hawaiian themed rooms, so this resort would accommodate large groups or be the perfect honeymoon hideaway. Another feature of their rooms is how large the lanai are. I want to stay there please. Pretty please.

The Westin Princeville– gorgeous resort with very nice pools and upscale accommodations overlooking the ocean. No beach at this resort, but nice ones close by. Condo accommodations in a variety of bedding options to allow for larger families.

Nice pool for kids at the Princeville Westin.
Nice pool for kids at the Princeville Westin.

This is a Westin that is more than typically fabulous because of the views. There is a lawn large enough for a big wedding or smallish convention. I would stay there.

The Cliffs of Princeville – This is a very nice family oriented resort where everyone brings their lawn chairs to watch the daily sunset. Music is often being played and if you look down to the sea, you can see turtles in the surf. The one thing that surprised me was that there was no air conditioning. While there, Kauai was experiencing a heat wave that wasn’t normal. These units have two stories with slatted vents and fans for cooling. The heat we experienced while there was not normal so I’m sure it is not normally a problem. Stunning views from the back of the property and a great value for families because they have two and three bedroom options also. I would stay there again. Great jump off point for all things North Shore.

We had our wrap up at the perfect Courtyard by Marriott Coconut Beach. Everything was fabulous, including all the gifts they gave us- delicate leis, books, lotion, etc., until the very end when we were all saying a little something and a lot of us blubbered like babies. When it was all said and done, I walked out one final time to say good bye to the dear ocean. A rogue wave came up and soaked me to above my knees. A message for me? Don’t go? You’re all wet? Anyway, I had to change because our transfer was coming to take us to the airport. It was so HARD to say good-bye to the group, the Aloha and the island.

A happy group that was sad to leave Kauai. Mahalo Juan, Meile and Veronica!
A happy group that was sad to leave Kauai. Mahalo Juan, Miele and Veronica!

As a seasoned traveler, I am not that easy to impress. Please don’t think I am being arrogant because I also like to tent camp and enjoy visiting Detroit. But as an agent, many of our FAMS offer us the best of the best in the hopes that we take that experience back to our clients and generate revenue for the people who host us so graciously. Being alone on Kauai for a couple of days and then in a group experiencing everything I did, I can only relay what a wonderful experience it was, how truly grateful I am for all of it. I am an observer and an absorber, willing to mix it up with an experience to get a deep experience. I got that on Kauai. I told you how I ate pork to be kind. You might be able to tell I am thrifty to a fault at times, and you can probably tell I love to ride bike. But who knew how deeply Kauai would change me with the hula and the rainbow and the Aloha of it all? I didn’t.  I had no idea this would be MY experience, jaded traveler that I can be, used to be? Mahalo Nui, Kauai. I am a true convert and have drunk your rainbow kool aid.