Oahu Hawaii with Carri Kersten

19 years. That’s how long my husband and I talked about a trip to Hawaii before we finally were able to make it a reality. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the islands several times, but this would be his first visit. In all of the excitement of planning, we soon had a couple of friends that wanted to join us.  Since Hawaii would be a new destination for the three of them, and Pearl Harbor was on everyone’s “must do” list, we decided to focus the full week on Oahu. I planned a busy week for us.Oahu

May 23

We flew nonstop on United from Chicago O’Hare to Honolulu. By booking early, I was able to secure our seats in the two seat section of economy class, which made the 8 hour and 45 minute flight much more bearable. Meals, snacks, and alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. Wi-fi was not available on our outbound aircraft, but was available and complimentary on our return aircraft. The United app must be downloaded on your device prior to boarding in order to take advantage of their wi-fi.

Our first three nights were spent at the Waikiki Parc which is located off the beach, right across the street from the Halekulani hotel. A sidewalk near the front entrance takes you directly to Waikiki Beach, so it is very convenient and an affordable option for someone who wants close proximity to the water.

We confirmed an Ocean View room category and were given a room on the 18th floor.  This gave us a great view!  Our friends were also confirmed in an Ocean View room category, but were assigned the 8th floor which limited their view but gave them a very large balcony.  A nice pool and a small fitness center are also located on the 8th floor of this property. Wi-Fi, beach mats and towels were all complimentary.

For cocktails and dinner this evening we opted for Duke’s Waikiki, a hallmark of Waikiki Beach. The place was packed with diners at 10pm, but service was excellent, and the food was phenomenal.  They feature four “fresh catch” recipes every day, but I opted for the Pulehu Style Filet of Beef Tenderloin. It was grilled with Hawaiian sea salt, brown sugar, cracked pepper, ginger and garlic, and topped with roasted garlic butter. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the best steak I have ever eaten! For dessert they brought us their Hula Pie, macadamia nut ice cream piled high on a chocolate cookie crust and topped with chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and more macadamia nuts. Is your mouth watering yet?

May 24th was a planned Waikiki Beach day. If you haven’t been there yet, this is the best place to spend an afternoon watching the surfers, enjoying the warm tradewinds, and playing in the waves.  Dinner tonight was spent at Nobu Waikiki, an Asian Fusion restaurant. Our waiter was excellent at making recommendations, and  thanks to him we shared eight courses of Japanese cuisine intertwined with Peruvian influence.

May 25th – Memorial Day

Oahu Memorial DayAs a military family, we were very excited at the idea of spending Memorial Day at the Arizona Memorial.  I took it one step further by planning a full day WWII Battlefield Tour for us with Home of the Brave Tours.

We were picked up at our hotel at 5:40am in order to avoid the long lines and also to be able to be at the Arizona Memorial at approximately the same time it was attacked on December 7, 1941. Our historian / tour guide was fantastic. He shared historical facts and stories about the events leading up to, during, and after the war. On this tour we also visited Fort Shafter, Schofield Army Barracks, Wheeler Army Airfield, and Punchbowl National Memorial where every gravestone was decorated with hand sewn leis by the Boy Scouts of America and American flags in honor of Memorial Day. It was a breathtaking sight. We boarded the Arizona Memorial, and saw Battleship Row and Ford Island. The highlight of the day for me was meeting and visiting with two Pearl Harbor survivors, it was something that I will never forget. The tour wrapped up with a stop at the Home of the Brave Brewseum, which is like taking a step back in time to the 1940’s. This building houses an enormous collection of WWII memorabilia donated by our Veterans and their families, and they have replicated a 1940’s era bar and lounge where you can enjoy craft beers or $1 glass bottles of coke. It was an amazing day and I would highly recommend this tour to anyone interested in the military or history.

That evening we walked to Ala Moana Beach to watch the Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony whichOahu Lanterns is held annually on Memorial Day. Thousands of people gather on the beach to remember their loved one by floating a paper lantern inscribed with messages.  There is music, prayer, and reflection, followed by the release of the lanterns. This year over 42,000 people were in attendance and 6,000 lanterns floated in the water. It was a beautiful evening and a great way to finish our day.

May 26th

Halekulani Hotel OahuThis is one of the most prestigious resorts on Oahu, and is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World.  The name Halekulani means “House Befitting Heaven” and this is a true description of this property.  It is located directly on the beach, and has one of the most beautiful pools in Hawaii. The service was outstanding, and our Ocean View room on the 14th floor gave us a gorgeous view of Diamond Head.

The Halekulani and the Waikiki Parc are sister hotels, so Parc guests are invited to attend the nightly complimentary hula show at Halekulani’s House without a key outdoor staged area.  This show is a big draw, and guests start arriving by 5pm to get a seat, grab a drink, and order a piece of their famous coconut cake.

This evening we took a sunset catamaran cruise with Hawaii Nautical.  They picked us up at our Catamaran Cruise Oahuhotel, and we sailed for two hours sipping cocktails, munching on appetizers, and watching the sun sink behind the mountains.  One of the crew members even mixed me his original cocktail The Catatonic. Yum!  The crew was fantastic, and I’d highly recommend this company for scuba or snorkeling trips, dolphin and whale watching excursions, and dinner cruises.  They even offer a catamaran cruise strictly for guests of Disney’s Aulani.

May 27th

Today we rented a convertible from Hertz at the Hyatt Regency and headed out for a day exploring Oahu.  It’s important for people to realize that Oahu is much more than Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor.  We decided to skip the hike to Diamond Head and opted instead to hike the lesser known Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail on the eastern tip of the island.  It’s a moderate 40 minute hike up, but well worth it as the views are fantastic.  We even spotted two dolphins playing alongside a whale.

MakapuFrom here we ventured north to Kualoa Ranch.  Kualoa Ranch is a 4000 acre ranch where you can experience horseback riding, ATV riding, zip lining, and much more.  Many movies were filmed at this location and there is a one hour movie site tour offered for those interested in seeing the locations firsthand. We decided on the Secret Island experience.  We packed a cooler and were taken by ferry to their private island for an afternoon at leisure.  Snorkel equipment, kayaks, and stand up paddleboards were available for our use, as well as beach volleyball.  The beach was beautiful, and the scenery was stunning.  I have always wanted to try stand up paddle boarding, and this was the perfect scenario for me to learn the sport.  The water was calm, life jackets were provided, and we had plenty of time to play around and figure it out.  I absolutely loved it!

After leaving Kualoa Ranch and all of that activity we were famished.  Next up on my “must do” list was a stop at one of the many famous shrimp trucks on the North Shore.  After speaking with some locals, the advice was to stop at the Shrimp Shack.  The owner, Irene, and her big yellow truck have been featured on the Food Network and the Travel Channel.

Next up was a stop at Turtle Bay Resort to watch the real surfers take on the giant waves, browse the pro shop at the golf course, and walk around this spectacular resort.  Before heading back to Waikiki we had one last stop to make for me.  A visit to Matsumoto’s Shave Ice in Haleiwa was the last thing to check off on my list for the day.  Their shave ice is served in many different ways – with your choice of homemade syrups, azuki beans, ice cream and some even order it with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk across the top.  If time allows, it would be great to spend an afternoon browsing the shops and galleries in Haleiwa.

May 28th

As I’m a beach fanatic, we decided to spend our last day in paradise on Waikiki Beach.  I booked the Paradise Cove Luau for that evening, as I think every newbie to Hawaii should experience at least one luau in their lifetime.  On a recommendation from a friend (thanks Debbi Haney!) I booked the VIP experience for us.  We were seated up front for the show, dinner was served to us instead of having to stand in a buffet line, and cocktails and a souvenir photo were included in our package.  If you are planning an evening at Paradise Cove, prepare for a long night.  We were picked up at our hotel in Waikiki by 3:30pm and didn’t return until 10:30pm that evening.

May 29th

Our vacation came to a close with a return transfer from Roberts of Hawaii and a nonstop flight back to Chicago.  I’m still trying to recover from the time change.  We haven’t eaten dinner before 9pm any night this week, I want to stay up late each night, and sleep in late each morning.  In the end, it’s a small price to pay for visiting this beautiful island!Oahu 2

Contact one of our Hawaii specialists today to book your once in a lifetime adventure!

Where To Stay & What To Do in Hawaii with Susan Lautenschlager

Kailua-Kona Town:

This area is home to Moku’aikaua Church, the first Catholic Church in Hawaii, built in 1837. Right across the street is Hulihe’e Palace. Once a palace but now a museum, it holds a collection of artifacts but was not open in the early evening on a Sunday. There are lots of shops, restaurants and bars in this area as well.

Royal Kona Resort

This property is a block or 2 from Kailua-Kona Town and small beaches. It has a small private asdfswimming lagoon on the south end of the property where you can see many sea creatures and take a nice saltwater dip! Just above this lagoon is a gazebo where an intimate wedding could take place. We had a nice 10 inch handmade pizza at Don’s Mai Tai Bar as well as tried out their signature drink. It was also a fabulous place to watch the dolphins spin and play in the water!

Ueshima Coffee Company

Roastmaster Tour HawaiiWe got a great explanation of all stages of coffee from “John”, our coffee master of the day. For $35 per person you can participate in the Roastmaster Tour. On the tour you roast your own coffee with the help of John’s well trained eyes. I was excited to bring back MY coffee for the girls in the office. It was a fabulous experience and for those customers that are coffee connoisseurs, they would totally love roasting their own coffee and taking the spoils home. Ka’u is another up and coming coffee region just south of Kona and has won numerous awards already. I predict it will be the next “GOTTA TRY” coffee.

Sheraton Keahou Kona Beach Hotel

Located on the southern Shore of the Keauhou Bay, 20 minutes from the airport, this propertySheraton Keahou Kona Beach Hotel provides culture and history! It was renovated in 2012 using Sig Zane’s theme of Hawaiian flowers and plant life. It has a touchscreen activities center in the lobby (for you techies) and also offers cultural tours and activities. It is a large property with 509 rooms with 70% of them being ocean view. They are family friendly with a huge water slide and LOTS of places for kids to swim in a pool. There really wasn’t much of a beach. There were a couple small sandy areas but the property was really more geared to the pool area. It did offer night time manta ray watching (after the boats providing that excursion are out of the water).

Sam Choy’s Keauhou Lunch

We had lunch at this world famous Chef’s restaurant. I wasn’t thinking about pictures too much at this point, but the food was GREAT!

Manta Night Snorkel

I can say this was hands down the most incredible experience I have had in a very long time! We Stingray Snorkeldeparted from the marina that was right next to the Sheraton Keauhou. I was the first one in the water and super stoked! One of the mantas brushed against my leg as I made my way out and I got nervous because they stressed how important it was not to touch them. They have a protective coating and touching them with human skin removes that protective coating, causing them to possibly get a sore or an infection. After some goggle issues I finally settled into “their world” and was comfortable watching from the surface of the water. If you enjoy the water, this would be an activity to cross off the bucket list!

Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel

Ahu’ena Heiau, the one-time home of King Kamehameha I, sits on a small peninsula in front of theCourtyard by Marriott King Kamehameah's Kona Beach Hotel Courtyard by Marriott. King Kamehameha I restored this heiau in 1812. There is a ton of history with this property and our guide through the property had personal ties with the ancestors! A very cool perspective to experience – an amazing cultural experience for your customers too! A luau is offered on the premises with the sacred heiau in the back ground. This property is on the other end of Kailua-Kona Town and offers easy walking to shopping and restaurants… with a bar sporting a Green Bay Packers flag across the street!

Punalu’u Bakery Lunch

It was here that I discovered my LOVE of Kona Coffee Ice Cream!!! From this point forward, I was pretty much known as the ice cream girl! J We had ordered lunch here and took it to the Black Sand Beach for a picnic. The food was good, but the ice cream was better! We didn’t really have a chance to explore the grounds but it appeared you could find many quiet spots outside to eat.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park

This Black Sand Beach is part of a habitat for honu (turtles), who we found basking on the sand in Punalu'u Black Sand Beach Park2the sun. I was also able to get my fill of the sound of waves crashing on the rocks and “exploring” the lava tidal pools to see what I could find

Akatsuka Orchid Gardens Tour

The flowers were so beautiful and our guide, Takeski, took great pride in explaining the orchid growing process and how their business has continued to evolve. They were gracious enough to allow us how to plant our own orchid and take it home, along with growing instructions that most of us needed! Since orchids can take up to 5 years to mature (some as little as 3 years) they have had to introduce other items into their business to help make money during the “growing seasons”. Currently, they are growing some poki(?) fruit and will soon have enough to start supplying customers locally.

Kiluea Iki Overlook/Thurston Lava Tube, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kiluea Iki Overlook, Hawaii Volcanoes National ParkThis park has more than 333,000 acres and is still growing! It has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is the longest continuously erupting volcano in the world. The first crater overlook, Kiluea Iki, took everyone off guard. It was massive. It was hard for me to get it into perspective until I saw hikers in the crater. I thought they were possibly bugs… until I realized they were teeny tiny humans! The lava tube was also impressive! I didn’t know what to expect, but it was like a very large tunnel. To think that it was formed by a large mass of lava, finding the path of least resistance, whose outside shell froze (lava “freezes” at 790 degrees!), allowing the hot lava (up to 2400 degrees) to ebb and flow inside, until eventually the pressure eased enough for the hot lava to flow out and leave a “tube” of frozen lava rock behind. We also learned that the islands are crisscrossed with these lava tubes and many times they are found when properties are being built. kerplunk!

Volcano House Dinner/Jaggar Museum and Crater Overlook

Dinner at the Volcano House was amazing. This was the most mouthwatering plate of Ono fish I hadVolcano House Dinner to date! The Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream was pretty awesome as well! There is also a small hotel on the premises and is often sold out well in advance. Next year is the Hawaiian National Park big anniversary and many properties are already sold out for the festivities. While we were eating and the sun was going down, the active crater began to take on a life of its own. At our 1 – 2 mile vantage point at the Volcano House, the “show” started with a very dim glow and with what appeared to be smoke. At one point a very bright orange glow appeared. I later surmised that bright glow must have been a gurgle or bubble of lava that was thrown up. From The Volcano House we moved closer to the crater to the Jaggar Museum and the Crater Overlook. From this point we were only about 1/2 mile away from the crater. This was breathtaking. I know many people could only watch a glowing hole for so long, but the anticipation of catching something on camera after all the recent activity was very exciting. In fact, when I got home and went through all the videos I took at the crater, I had actually captured a small lava gurgle on camera! I had to call the whole family in to show them!

OH! I almost forgot to mention that people take lava off the island (which is “habu”, taboo) and causes very bad luck… below is a pile of the rocks that have been anonymously returned, asking for these items to be put back where they belong!

Tsunami Museum/Hilo Farmer’s Market

The museum was a very sad reminder of how devastating tsunamis can be! It is also a reminder that our world is more connected then we would think. The 2 major tsunami’s featured in Hilo’s history are from 1946, originating from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and the tsunami of 1960, originating from an earthquake in Chile! From this point forward, the Pacific Tsunami Warning System was formed. Hilo’s Farmer’s Market is open year round daily from 6AM – 4PM, but the major days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. We were there on a Wednesday… and all I can say is that 1 hour was NOT enough time to check out all the local wares – from art, jewelry, foods, crafts, clothing… you name it, they had it!

Big Island Candies

This was a GREAT stop for any person with a sweet tooth! They make the famous Macadamia Nut Shortbread Cookies (milk chocolate dipped, dark chocolate dipped, caramel dipped, caramel and chocolate dipped… well, you get it!). They also had lots of other candy/cookies items to choose from – chocolate covered coffee beans, macadamia nuts and best of all, they had a small ice cream freezer and sold KONA COFFEE ICE CREAM! Of course I got a bowl!

Hawaiian Style Café Lunch

Hawaiian Style Cafe LunchA MUST STOP if you are going to Hilo. It is across the street and all the way to the end of the parking lot from the Big Island Candies store. Be sure to note that INDEED you will not be able to eat all your pancakes STILL ORDER THE PANCAKES! They were AMAZING!

Hamakua Coast Drive/Tex Drive Inn

This drive was one of my favorites. I LOVED seeing all the waterfalls that had been created over time but enhanced with the rainfall from the night before. Also, the small lush valleys it created and the beauty of the river beds made one just want to pull over and stay a while! Talk about emerald green grass and sapphire blue water… wow… just wow… Tex ‘s Drive In boasts the world’s best Malasadas. What, you might ask, is that?!? We were told it was a Portuguese doughnut… well… let me tell you… it is the very best doughnut you will ever have, AND it was made fresh! YUM! Maybe I should mention that it seemed we were constantly eating. We were always so full yet most of us could not stop trying EVERYTHING!

Kahua Ranch/Waimea

Waimea is “paniolo” country (Hawaiian Cowboy). Many ranches offer the opportunity to ride the Kahua Ranchrange with spectacular views of the pastures, coastlines and peaks. We went to Kahua Ranch, which you can see had amazing vistas and the clearest sky you could imagine. They had us partake in their all you can eat and drink ranch style buffet, gave lessons on ropin’, helped us brand their “K” on a board as a souvenir for anyone that wanted one and gave you time to sit by the camp fire, sing campfire songs and make s’mores. They had a fiddle player after dinner and brought out their BIG telescope so you could see Jupiter and its 3 moons! How is THAT for clear?!? This is a weekly event held on Wednesdays so be sure to sign up in advance to participate in this event!

Mauna Kea Beach Hotel

Mauna Kea Beach HotelSerenity and luxury are 2 words I would use for this property. The “back” of the property has mountain views, golf course views AND partial ocean views – sometimes all from the same room! There are a total of 250+ rooms. They do not accommodate large groups that are not wedding groups. They take pride in this being a quiet property. They definitely do a lot of weddings and wedding groups, but larger groups (like media groups) are not the kind of business they are looking for. There are 1600 pieces of art throughout the property which makes every turn an adventure here.

Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel

We stayed at this property for 2 nights and I wish we had been able to enjoy the grounds more. This Hapuna Beach Prince Hotelproperty has an Arnold Palmer designed golf course. It also shares amenities with the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. It boasts ALL ocean view rooms. The beach here was amazing. I watched what I think was a vow renewal at 7AM our first morning here. I would have loved a chance to explore/snorkel at this property because one end of the beach was more lava rock.

Pu’ukohola National Park

Pu'ukohola National ParkSometime around 1790 this place of worship was built by King Kamehameha I as an offering to the gods to ask for success in his campaign to conquer the Hawaiian Islands. It is one of the larger Heiaus (temples) in Hawaii.  It offers a QR code that you can take a picture of with your smart phone and it will guide you through a walking tour of the park. This would be a GREAT place go if you appreciate the tremendous history of the land. This park definitely had a more reverent feel to it, enhanced by our tour guide, for sure!

Hamakua Macadamia Nut Factory

This place was so much fun. When we arrived they had 3 tables of samples of flavored mac nuts for us to try. The most “unusual” was the spam flavored mac nut. Spam is used in many of the dishes offered in restaurants here. It was kind of funny since many mainlanders seem to have an aversion to spam! It was very interesting watching the workers spread out the macnut brittle. In this back area of the “nut factory”, we tried our hand at the individual nut cracker. I knew from previous experience how hard the shells are to break… and some of those shells just went FLYING! We discovered a photo booth and just had to try it out. We had a blast – as the photo below shows!

Hawi/Kapau-King Kamehameha Statue and Pololu Valley

In northern Hawaii Island, there are wide open ranch lands, thriving art galleries, top notch resorts,Hawi--Kapau-King Kamehameha Statue and Polu Valley 2 world-class golf courses, white sand beaches and sacred temples that are a part of the island’s heritage. If I were going to retire in Hawaii, this MIGHT be the place I would chose. There are so many lush green valleys, lots of waterfalls, small homes tucked away in unseen places and history around every corner.

I LOVED when we got to Pololu Valley a small sign read, “The End of the Road”. There was a VERYHawi--Kapau-King Kamehameha Statue and Polu Valley 3 small turn around area (our small bus couldn’t even venture down because he wouldn’t be able to get turned around)… then a cliff! It was obvious that your vehicle was not going past this point unless it was through the air! Venturing past this point was by foot only. I wanted to explore the area below because it seemed so untouched, but we didn’t have time. This is the area of the island that offers the “Zip and Fly” adventure. You fly by helicopter into a deep valley then you zip line out of it. Sounded like a BLAST to me…. but that adventure will have to wait until next time.

The Fairmont Orchid Hotel/Dinner at Brown’s Restaurant

The Fairmont Orchid Hotel 4On Pauoa Bay about 45 minutes from the airport this property was the setting of my most memorable dinner. This would be what I would consider the quintessential example of what Hawaii has to offer. They provided a table almost right on the beach for us to eat unbelievable food (Ono once again and a fabulous dessert), amazing grounds (sea turtles, beaches and a park like feel) and unparalleled hospitality (our guests were so warm and our chefs came out to meet us!)… all mixed with the warm easy sounds of our guitarist easing us into the evening’s breathtaking blend of colors. By the way, this property had beautiful rooms too!

Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows

When you enter this property the lobby area has cascading waterfalls on either side of the stairs. It Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalowshas a very open, spacious center court area with a zen feel to it. On the lower level this property provides cultural events and activities that the guests can participate in every day – from learning to play the ukulele to making lei’s.

Inside and throughout the property there is a saltwater river. It is a temporary home to very young sea turtles, a manta ray, small reef sharks and other tropical fish. This property hosts a major turtle release each year over the 4th of July. Some of the turtles on the property are the ones that will be released that year. The turtle release is a major event for this property and this time frame fills up quickly. Besides the well-appointed rooms, it has 3 beautiful, secluded bungalows that have been specially designed for privacy and often hosts famous people that ware looking for privacy.

Hali’I Kai in Waikoloa

This property has a gated entrance. Most of these units were rentable condos – 2B/2B, 3B/2B and 3B/3B units. If you are looking for a beautiful place to stay with a home feel to it, this would be a great place! The starting prices are very reasonable – especially the units set farther away from the ocean front (which is complete black lava!). They had a beautiful area set up just for preferred customers and the view from the open air work out room… well… you COULD say that it would almost make someone WANT to exercise… not me, but someone!

Hilton Waikoloa Village

Hilton Waikoloa Village 2Last and LARGEST! This property sits on 62 acres and you can feel it! I see why they call it Wiakoloa VILLAGE… it feels like you are in a mini town! The buildings are laid out in a typical u-shape with both a train and a boat path that can get you from end to the other or to any point in between. The walking area to get from one end to the other is actually called “The Museum Walk” because artifacts line the walls and halls. The previous Asian owner took great pride in bringing in his own art collection and displaying it for all to enjoy. There is lots of shopping (some shopping areas are for preferred customers) and many services offered. This property has a dolphin experience (not to be confused with a “swim with the dolphin” experience) and a separate enclosed area that housed sharks. They Hilton Waikoloa Villagehad within the property an enclosed beach area for families (which is good because the beach was all hard coral). The grounds really seemed like a park and on the last day when we had time before we all left, this is where we found everyone – on the grass near the sandy enclosed beach!

Costa Rica with Tammy Uecker & Natasha Persha

To begin our adventure we had booked our flight with Apple Vacations’ on their Frontier Airlines charter.   We had booked a 4 night stay here using Riu Points.  When we arrived into Liberia Costa Rica Airport, we had set up one way transfers with Central America Tours, which is only a 35 -40 minute drive from the airport to the resort.

Check in went quickly and smoothly.  We had a junior suite room with a balcony facing the mountainsRiu Palace Costa Rica Beach and overlooking the back part of the resort, where the hotel’s shops were located. The room was very nice and clean, and had a contemporary style look to it – identical to the updated Palaces in Mexico and Punta Cana. I really like the new look that the Rius are converting to! They do have free Wi-Fi throughout the resort but due to the exotic location it’s very difficult to stay connected, which can be frustrating at times.

The Riu Palace Costa Rica has 4 specialty restaurants in which we ate at two- the “L’Antora” Italian Restaurant and the “Tokio” Japanese Restaurant.  Surprisingly, the Italian Restaurant was our favorite, plus no dinning reservations were required to eat here.  Overall, the food and service were excellent with several good choices on their menu.

The Riu Palace Costa Rica is set back from the beach area, so it takes a little walking to get to. WeRiu Palace Coasta Rica Beach 2 took a stroll and decided to walk down to the Monkey Bar, which is about 15 minutes up the beach from the property. Here, you could see bunch of different kinds of monkeys in the trees, such as Howlers and Capuchins. It was a very neat experience, but also nerve racking at the same time because they were all wild, and we could hear them howling and see them swinging in the trees.  The best time to see all the active monkeys is early morning OR 4 to 6 in the evenings.  At dusk, you will see amazing sunsets at the resort and on the beach- just gorgeous views.

The Riu Palace has a little shopping area that you have to walk outside and down a hill to get to.  There were several shops where you could buy some souvenirs or any extra amenities that you may need.   Across from the shopping area is where the disco, spa and the casino were located. We were very surprised by how large the casino was.  Although it was not huge, it was still much bigger and nicer than the ones in Punta Cana.

During our stay we booked an excursion through TAM (Delta Vacations).  We booked with their rep, Melvin, who was so helpful in trying to find the right excursion for us. We ended up choosing the Blue River Experience and hiking through the Rincón de La Vieja National Park. During our tour we got to Rincon de la Vieja National Parksee and experience so many things! We did about a 30 minute easy hike through rainforest area and saw a few waterfalls. We stopped for 20 minutes so we could take a refreshing dip in one of the main waterfalls of the area. On our way back we had stopped at the Blue River Resort and Hot Springs.  We had about 1 hour to explore on our own, so we chose to take a look at the Botanical Garden. The garden had over 800 different plant varieties, orchid garden, humming-bird center, frog, fish and turtle ponds. There we also visited the butterfly garden with 15 different species of exotic local butterflies, including the Blue Morphis, Costa Rica’s famous butterfly. We also enjoyed the volcanic springs- which included four natural mineral green hot springs pools, and one large fresh water pool with a Bullet Water Slide. (The slide was fast and lots of fun!) For this excursion, you did Rincon de la Vieja National Park 2have the option to zip line instead of hike. I would definitely recommend this excursion to others.

We booked our transfer from the Riu to the Dreams with Central American Tours. CAT gave us an excellent rate. The ride between the two properties was just over 2 hours, 30-40 minutes of which was on a dirt road leading up to the Dreams – not the best situation for someone with motion sickness. We were told by our driver that there are plans to pave this within the next year. The transfer was private, and our driver was so friendly! We were very impressed with their services.

As we approached the Dreams, I knew this would be what I had hoped for in an all-inclusive, Costa Dreams Resort Costa Rica balconyRican retreat on the beach – completely different than the loud hot pinks and purples of the Riu. The resort is nestled in the hills, sprawling to the beach cove. It is contemporary yet traditional in style.   The luxurious, authentic design was accentuated with dark tiki wood accents and an aesthetically appealing fusion of earthy tones.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a refreshing passion fruit cocktail and a cool, pleasantly scented Dreams Resort Costa Ricatowelette. Check in was a breeze and very personalized. It was not in a huge, oversized lobby, but a quaint, tastefully decorated, windowed room with two small check-in desks with comfy chairs. It almost seemed like what you would expect for preferred check in – but it wasn’t, this was for all guests.

We booked an ocean view, and it was on the top floor, so the vista was pretty spectacular, even though we were set back. Staying in the resort required a lot of walking, and it’s not flat because it’s built into the knolls. While our building was far from the beach, it was very close to the main buffet, most a la carte dining, lounges, the Coco Café and shops.

The property has a total of 447 guest suites, which each include a private balcony or terrace with either Jacuzzi or swim out access – (swim out rooms cost more, of course). The rooms definitely live up to the “Dreams” standard- spacious, beautifully decorated, clean, and comfortable.  There is complimentary internet access and phone calls to the US and Canada!Dreams Resort Costa Rica hotel

Everything I ate was delicious and fresh!  Buffets and menus offered a lot of variety – I really felt that even picky eaters could find something they liked. The property had 24 hour room service which we made use of a couple of times – once early morning before our Nicaragua tour, and once late at night after our tour.  Guests can also choose from 5 specialty a la carte restaurants, the main buffet, a snack bar and grill, and a café – all of which are typical of the AM resorts brand.  No reservations are required, except if you want the hibachi show experience at Himitsu. Now onto the AMAZING bars: Top shelf spirits and refreshments are offered at their five bars/lounges.  Pool and beach wait service were also available (AND FREQUENT!  They work so hard, especially considering the heat! TIP THEM, PEOPLE!!!).

As with most Dreams, this property offered a wide variety of beach, land and water activities such as:  Ping pong, board games, pool/beach Olympics, yoga, volleyball, non-motorized watersports, fun ‘classes’, live music and shows, movies on the beach, themed nights/parties, etc. They advertise ‘two’ swimming pools, but really there are multiple. There are several smaller infinity pools that are ‘connected’ with a waterfall wall.This property even had a waterslide!  I was told it’s for kids, but I saw ‘grown ups’ enjoying it one day. Speaking of kids, the Children’s Club (ages 3-12) and Teen’s Club (ages 13-17) offered plenty of options to keep the youngsters busy throughout the day.   The Kids’s Club is supervised by CPR certified staff members.  Activities there include: hiking; children’s playground and pool; building sandcastles on the beach; arts and crafts; science, nature, and exploration; toys, games, and videogames; weekly camping; etc. The Teen’s Club offered:  Euro-Bungee; table games, video games, and pool games; weekly bonfires; and a late night [non-alcoholic] Disco mixer. For the adults looking for rejuvenation and pampering, the Dreams Spa by Pevonia boasts a complete spa menu of body treatments, a full service beauty salon, indoor and outdoor therapy cabins, a hydrotherapy circuit, and a relaxation area.

I have no complaints about the service at the Dreams.   I felt it was excellent and that the staff members went above and beyond to make our experience great!  I would highly recommend this property as I feel it is the best all inclusive option in Costa Rica right now.   It’s a resort that will appeal to the multigenerational masses.    More often than not, this option will appropriately accommodate families, couples, and friends alike.

On one of our final days we booked a Nicaragua Treasures Tour. We booked this tour in advance because it was something we both knew we really wanted to do. The Dreams property is only 40 minutes south of the Nicaraguan border. The Morning of our tour we were picked up at the property at 7am and didn’t return until 9pm – so it was a long, exhausting day.  I would not recommend this tour to families with small children- not only because it’s long, but also because I don’t think they would fully appreciate the experience. You have to go through customs and immigration at the border twice, there and back- and it’s not the easiest process. We also did a good amount of shopping in the local markets of Catarina, Masaya, and Granada. We each bought a cute pair of sandals for cheap!   The highlights of the tour though were driving up hardened lava fields to the crater of the active, steaming volcano, Masaya, AND a boat tour around the islets of Lake Nicaragua, which is the largest lake in all of Central America and also home to an abundance of bull sharks. The experience was well worth what we paid for- and it’s another country I can now check off my bucket list!  We were just paranoid the whole time we were going to lose our passports the day before we were set to depart for home! One last note- Nicaragua requires your passport to have a 6 month remaining validity, as does Costa Rica.

Contact a Travel Consultant today to book your own Costa Rican adventure!

Nicaragua Treasures Tour 2Nicaragua Treasures Tour

 

The Ultimate Austrailia Bucket List

great-barrier-reef

1. Diving and Snorkeling Ningaloo Reef.

2. Cruising through the Kimberleys.

3. Wildlife, Indigenous Culture, and rock art in the Northern Territory.

4. Dine under the stars.

5. Spectacular views and uncaged wildlife in South Australia.melbourne-australia

6. A walking tour of Melbourne.

7. MONA & Henry Jones Art Hotel in Hobart.

8. Hiking in Tasmania.

9. Snorkeling and sailing in the Whitsunday Islands.

10. NYE fireworks display in Sydney.

10 Reasons to Stay at the Bristol Panama:

1. The most unique and exclusive culinary experience thanks to the creativity of the Chef Cuquita Salsipuedes RestaurantArias and her contemporary Panamanian cuisine.

2. One of the “2012 Top 5 Hotels in Central America” by Conde Nast Traveler.

3. One of very few Virtuoso and Signature hotels in Panama.

4. Recently-built new tower by world renown Zurcher Arquitects and Watermark Design Studio.

5. Conveniently-located in the heart of the Financial District.

6. The only member in Panama of The Leading Hotels of the World.

7. Luxurious and stunning guest rooms.

8. A spectacular full-service Spa located on the 25th floor with panoramic views of the city.The Spa front desk

9. 24-hour butler service.

10. Internationally-acclaimed Molton Brown bathroom amenities.

Contact a travel consultant today to book your stay at The Bristol Panama!

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) Guide to Gratuity Rates

The American Hotel & Lodging Association is the sole U.S. association representing all segments of the lodging industry has released a guide covering gratuity rates. Released just in time for the busy holiday travel season, the guide helps guests determine voluntary monetary ranges for services rendered by hotel staff throughout a guest’s stay.

Hotel Courtesy Shuttle Driver: Tip $1-2 per person of $4-5 per party.

Valet/Parking Attendant: Tip $1-5 when your car is delivered. Tipping when your car is parked is optional.

Bellstaff/Porters: Tip $1-5 per bag when you are escorted to your room (especially when your luggage is heavy or they prepare your room or show you around). Tip the same if you request bell staff service checking out.

Doorstaff: Tip $1-2 for getting a taxi. If they unload your luggage, tip in proportion to the amount and weight.

Concierge: Tip $1-5 per night. The tip should be left daily (preferable in an envelope or with a note so that it’s clear it’s for housekeeping).

Delivery of Special Items: For special requests (like an extra blanket), tip $2 for one item, $1 for one more. Tipping is not required for someone fixing something broken or brining something missing.

Room Service: A gratuity of 15-20% should be added if the hotel did not already include a room service charge on the bill.

Bartender: Tip 15-20% of the total beverage tab.

Waiter/Waitress: Tip 15% of the total bill, up to 20% for excellent service.

India with Colleen Alsberg Part II

India

India 7Colleen Alsberg, of Fox World Travel, recently went on a trip to India. It was filled with so much adventure, she had to break it into two parts!

It was a long day’s drive, so when I was shown to my room by a gracious young man, I was again, overwhelmed!  I actually had a 5 room suite with 4 balconies overlooking the tremendous gardens and pool with the entire city of Jodhpur as my backdrop.  To the left I could see the Mehrangarh Fort, hidden ever so slightly in a light haze.  Below were the colorful houses that give Jodhpur its “blue city” status. To the right the city sprawled out, dotted with the domes of temples.  It was so quiet on our hill overlooking the city, it’s quite evident why this location was chosen for such a grand palace.

In the late afternoon, Vivek took us down the hill to Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts.  After walking through a dusty “junk” shop, we continued to an even dustier basement laden with fabric.  Until now, I thought I’d only get the hard sell from the street people!  This Mushek Jain puts on quite the show.   One after another, large scarves, duvets and fabrics were tossed in the air, only to land gently (and I’m sure specifically orchestrated) at our feet. Made for the finest houses in the world (Hermès and the like), sold to us at rock bottom and set prices.

The Taj hosted our dinner that evening and it again was one of my favorites.  We dined al fresco on the back patio, the Pillars Restaurant, while the lights of Jodhpur sparkled in the distance.  It was a beautiful, candle lit night, warm breezes, delicious food (non-Indian for a change) and good company.

My Most Favorite Day: With a wonderful breakfast to start my day, I should have known that it was destined to be my favorite day of the trip.  I dined al fresco at the Pillars again, this time with lovely flute music playing, a handsome dining companion (my new friend Tom from Houston), a handsome waiter in colorful dress and yummy blueberry pancakes!  Every attention to detail was noted, right down to the young man walking back and forth on the steps with a really long flagpole, keeping away the pigeons.  I imagine those birds could ruin a lovely breakfast!

This morning I put on my adventure shoes as we headed out on a countryside safari.  Before we departed, Vivek gathered 500 rupees (or whatever we wanted to donate) from each of us.  Our kitty was earmarked for bake goods, cookies and fruit to hand out to the nomads along our route.  It’s India 9amazing how much you can buy with only 500 rupees (about $8 USD).  After picking up our items at a shop and a street vendor, we continued out of town, looking for children and mothers in need.  It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.  The first children to come along were a little shy and didn’t know what to think of our offerings, but eventually accepted with huge smiles.  Some were afraid and ran away, most swarmed our bus, grabbing and gathering as fast as we could hand them out the door.  The tattered clothes, gaunt faces and poverty is very real, it does exist.  But those smiles, now that’s something that will stick with me forever!

On we rode (and rode and rode) to our first stop, a local potter.India 8  He was a brilliant artist, crafting pots for us on a stone wheel, balanced on a pyramid-shaped rock, spun not by electricity, but manually.  How perfectly balanced that huge potter’s rock had to be to continue to spin long enough for him to craft one item after another.  He did it effortlessly and his wares were beautiful.  His grandchildren came out to greet us too, looking for gum, but gleefully accepting a box of cookies instead!  They were so happily playing that you just wanted to join in all the fun!  It’s amazing how much joy young kiddos get out of a paper tube!  They escorted us back to our bus, smiling and waving, etching a special memory in my heart.

Now the fun begins!  Our next stop was a local farm for a very special opium ceremony!  For the sake of research, I had to partake in this traditional tea.  It was quite the contraption that our host used to brew the tea, pouring from one side to the other, until the final product was complete.  If I remember correctly (bear with me, I was partaking), he said a few chants and then came to each of us individually.  We held out our cupped hands as he poured the tea 3 times, and then instructed us to elegantly slurp it out each time!  Boom! I’ve had opium!

I don’t recall if it had any unusual effects on any of us, but we were pretty happy the rest of the day! Our host’s little charcoal-eyed grandson came out to hang with us. Man, I just wanted to steal that little cutie away in my carry-on (maybe it was the opium?). Our host was quite the character, showing us how to wrap an incredibly long, colorful turban and wrapping a few of us ladies in a beautiful scarf. There was talk of some new wives, so I skedaddled out of there as soon as the bus turned the corner!

Our final safari stop was to a local rug maker.  What a colorful character he was! In near perfect English (which he was very proud of) he showed us his method of weaving beautifully designed rugs.  This skill was passed down from many generations and you could see that the method was not all that different from years past.  Mostly silk and cotton, they were quite extraordinary.  Our host was quite philanthropic as well, giving a portion of his proceeds to the people of his community.  He was also very proud to announce that he had a “western” toilet!  Now we’re talking…..no more holes in the floor!  It was also home to the largest gecko I’ve ever seen!  It was the surprise factor that made me scream…..not that I’m afraid of geckos or anything!?!

A late, quick lunch was hosted by Hotel Vivanta by Taj – Hari Mahal.  I’m a Pan-Asian food lover so this was a happy break from the Indian food.  After a delicious meal, we sped back to the palace for a glorious few hours of down-time.  My new friend Gail from the Boston area, and I explored the grounds to take pictures, then we had a quick, private tour of the museum, located the indoor pool (rather subterranean!) and spa, walked through the gardens and followed the pergola to the beautiful pool.  The pool boy had to bring us a refreshing drink because it was such a hot day.  I don’t remember what it was, but it WAS refreshing and it’s lovely to be doted on!

For dinner, we all gathered in the gorgeous Risala dining room at the palace for another delicious Indian inspired meal.  A good night sleep was ahead after a lot of activity, travel and fresh air!

India 5To See the Sea: Oh what a lovely morning it was; a bit of a sleep-in and then another beautiful day to have breakfast outside.  There were a lot of miles to cover today, but fortunately we were scheduled to fly most of them.

Before departing Jodhpur, we spent the morning visiting another grand structure, the Mehrangarh Fort.  Construction of the fort began in the 15th century, mainly as defensive stronghold, and progressed over a period of 500 years.  It sits on a rock, 400 feet above the city of Jodhpur.  One of the best preserved forts in India, it is known as the “Citadel of the Sun.”  Inside the fort you will find temples, shrines and palaces, changed many times during the eras of different tribes and maharajas. It is amazingly ornate and is now a museum, housing many priceless relics and keeping their treasured history alive.  To me it was a photographers dream. Around every corner was a new colorful or architectural experience. When reading about the fort, they described it with this sentence and that’s exactly how I found it!  “The abrupt transition from one era to another, as you progress through the buildings, is one feature that makes a visit so remarkable.”  Perfection!  I could have spent many more hours exploring this extraordinary place!

A very important bit of information I learned at the fort, key to my trip; it is not an elephant saddle, it is a howdah! The howdahs featured in the gallery looked much more comfortable than the flat-mattressed twin bed strapped to my elephant’s back in Jaipur!  But you can’t change an elephant’s stride, so really, how comfortable can any howdah be?  That’s a fine howdah do!  Sorry, you knew I had to go there!!

After some spice purchases and people watching outside the fort, we made our way to the Jodhpur Airport for our flight to Mumbai, via India’s Jet Airways.  There’s not much to the airport, departures on one side, arrivals on the other and in the middle, the guy that takes his sweet time bilking money from us for our overweight bags!  With only 33 pounds allowed on Jet Airways flight, I was already overweight before I left Wisconsin (34 pounds).  I did pretty well with only 4 kilo overweight at 500 Rupee per 2 kilo, so basically 20 dollars to not have to carry on all my extra Indian goodies!  I had flown Air India many years ago and didn’t have the best experience, so was a little concerned about another India-based airline.  Once onboard this B-737, I found the seats to be comfortable (economy), the service was excellent and they even fed us on our one-hour flight.  Those Indian folks, always feeding us!  It was quick, smooth and an on-time arrival in Mumbai.

We arrived in the domestic airport in Mumbai and were met by another A&K rep that had porters ready to collect our bags.  Before we knew it, we were making our way through another big, crazy city, this one located on the gorgeous Arabian Sea!  It was refreshing to see so much water.  The weather was spectacular, sunny and the views with all the boats were as colorful as the people.

We were delivered promptly to another amazing hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace. Since it was a long day already, Vivek had our bus driver take us to Fab India and a mall for some shopping. We then had dinner at the hotel in their excellent Indian restaurant, Masala Kraft.

I’m sure you are bored with me telling you how beautiful my rooms were, so I’ll be brief.  Yes, another gorgeous 5 room suite! This time, in my living room, I had bowls with as many cashews as I could eat, but that wasn’t even the best part!  At about 10:00 pm, I get a knock on the door from a young man with my footbath!  To be honest, it freaked my out a bit because I wasn’t expecting it.  He asked what temp I wanted the water, then drew the water in a beautiful copper bowl, poured in the jasmine salts, gave me a loofah and a magazine and left.  What? No leg massage?!?  After that, I plopped into my cloud of a bed and slept like a princess…..

Bombay….aka Mumbai: Mumbai has over twenty million people inhabitants and isn’t even the mostIndia 4 populated city in the world. Twenty million people in one city is very hard to fathom….until you go on a city tour! After meeting our local guide, a lovely spirited lady, we dove deep into the traffic and made our way through this very animated city.  Mumbai has a very “confusing” history.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to have changed hands quite often and until 1996 was known as Bombay.  Let’s just say it started as a fishing village and has long been a major coastal trading port.  With that come a variety of unique architecture throughout; traditional Indian, Gothic, Victorian, Greek, Venetian and more.  I found the Islamic structures the most fascinating and ornate. The city really grew during the Art-Deco years, so you can see that style in many of the buildings as well.

One of the stops we made was at the Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai’s laundry slum. Much of the city’s laundry is hand washed here, beat against large concrete vats and then hung to dry in the hot sun.  Families and businesses have used this service for hundreds of years.  This is also a spot where the locals know tourists will be stopping, so they are ready for you with their “made in India” wares. And they were ready for us nutty impulse buying tourists! I have the blue bedazzled elephant tablecloth/wall hanging to prove it!

Mumbai, even though big and crazy, seemed much cleaner to me than other parts of India.  From theIndia 3 slums to the very rich areas, we saw much of the city before ending our tour at the former residence of Mahatma Gandhi. Now a museum, this very unassuming bungalow on a side street, was not what I expected.  I’m not sure I ever thought about where he lived, but this place was very residential, almost Wauwatosa-like!  Safe to say though, I did not get any vibes of Gandhi grilling out in the backyard, cracking a Kingfisher with the neighbors.  Inside was a library where I found the letters he wrote to Roosevelt and Hitler the most interesting.  On the other floors were his living quarters, very simplistic and quite uncomfortable-looking, lots of memorabilia, and several rooms full of dioramas depicting his entire life.

Maybe it was just me, but when we got off the bus and walked to the house, it seemed like all chaos subsided. There was no noise, no cars, just a peaceful little street.  Peaceful, like the man and the India he hoped for.

We ended our tour learning a little more about our guide’s personal life.  She told us that arranged marriages are still prevalent in India, but hers was not.  SHE got to choose! Smart lady!

Back at the hotel, we had a little time to relax before our final dinner together; Indian food of course.  It was a nice night to have a last chat together as a group.

And then all of a sudden it was over.  The final morning was an early rising and quick breakfast at the hotel.  After our sad good-byes to Vivek at the Mumbai Domestic Airport, we continued to the new Mumbai International Airport.  Staff from A & K took care of us through check-in and then we were on our own to get to the Business Class Lounge and do our final India gift buying.  Off we go….bound for a quick layover in Dubai and back to the continent in New York City.

In Conclusion: When you’ve been in the travel industry a long time, I think you tend to get a little India 2jaded with some of the trips you take.  The excitement is not like it used to be.  But then there are those places that renew that energy and give you back your faith in adventure.  Isn’t it wonderful to be excited, nervous, have a sense of the unknown and mostly, get the “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here!” feeling that new destinations give you!

 

Interested in planning your own trip to India? Contact an expert today!