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Aloha and Mahalo to our 50th State – Hawaii

IMG_8468We had an amazing opportunity to travel southwest to our 50th State and visit paradise – Hawai’i.  The Hawaiian Islands are beautiful, tropical, and just a quick trip away from Denver.  The beauty is beyond anything I have experienced anywhere on the mainland – even California, with all its beauty, mountains and ocean, doesn’t compare.

Diamondhead
Diamondhead – at Waikiki

The clear blue waters and sky of Hawaii have a beauty unlike any other State in the union.  Here, I share some tips, some places to stay near, and what to do but keep in mind in our 5 days, and 5 nights there, we only stayed on the island of Oahu.

Flying in and out of Honolulu (HNL) was just fine – it is cheaper than flying elsewhere, and renting a car at HNL is cheaper because of the competition.  I still think CostcoTravel has the cheapest rental cars if you are an executive member.  The only non-stop flights from Denver are with United Airlines direct into HNL.  All other airlines connect but if you don’t mind the extra travel time, you can get airline rates as cheap as $549-ish on US IMG_8485Airways or United connecting in Phoenix, SFO, LAX, or other such places.  You can book Hawaiian Airlines out of Seattle or LAX as low as $450 but will have to get there from Denver.  The direct, non-stop flights run from $680 to $750 depends on when you buy and when you go.   The return flights are tougher because you either have to depart first thing in the morning out of HNL or take the red-eye back to Denver.  Red-eye flights look great on paper, but in reality, are horrible.  Kids do sleep but they kick you, each other, and generally, it is uncomfortable for you, not the kiddos.

Sunset at Waikiki
Sunset at Waikiki

On Oahu, these are the must see/do things:  Waikiki Beach- First, you simply must hang out on Waikiki Beach.  It is a commercial, tourist trap with expensive shops and the look and feel of Newport Beach but it is not.  The waters are so clear you can snorkel right near the shore and still see fish!  It is clear blue water, perfect sand, and you can grab a bite to eat for a reasonable fare along the coast.  We stayed at the Hale Koa Hotel but only eligible military may stay here.  The Hilton Hawaiian Village right next door on the beach to the Hale Koa is a

Picture of Waikiki from atop Diamond Head crater
Picture of Waikiki from atop Diamond Head crater

perfect alternative- check prices and using points or miles here will be a high rate.  Hilton Waikiki is right up the road too!  Check hotel prices, but staying close to the beach is so worth it!  KOA services on the beach is great for renting umbrellas, paddleboards, snorkel gear, and fun boats.  Military get half price on almost all of these rentals.  It is a great deal so bring your ID card.  At Waikiki, you can get great pics of Diamond Head, and the sunset.  Waikiki Beach is on the South Shore and the sunsets over the Pacific here.  We had an oceanfront view at the Hale Koa, and were able to get some great pictures of the sunset.

IMG_8564Diamond Head State Park-   You simply must hike up the Diamond Head.  You can see the views of the entire island from here.  Diamond Head is a crater, and when you get to the top you can see the crater, and the shores of the east coast, and all of Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbor.  It is simply the most breath-taking view you can imagine!  The hike up is treacherous, but get a trail map because a year ago, they opened a ramp so you can avoid the 99 steps and only have to climb about 10 of them.  Know where to detour for this, so you can avoid the insane steps.

Sunrise over Pacific from Diamond Head
Sunrise over Pacific from Diamond Head

It’s an alternate route up but the entire hike is about 1.2 miles up, and takes 30 minutes to the top, and one hour round-trip.  The sun rising over the Pacific is a sight to see because you can never see that from the mainland.  My husband ran from Diamond Head (the base) to the hotel in Waikiki and it is about 5.5 miles so be aware of that, but a beautiful, scenic run along the beach and shore.  Parking is $5.00 at the beginning of the trail head and worth it.  There is no other entry fee.  For food, and drink, a food truck is parked at the base, and they sell yummy fresh pineapple, water, and snow cones and it is good stuff!  You will need it after the long round-trip, or on the way up.  Also, restrooms are at the base, but nothing at the top or along the way.

IMG_8554Hanauma Bay Snorkeling- You simply must head to Hanauma Bay and see the beautiful coral reef, the beautiful clear blue waters, and snorkel (you can even snorkel near the shore) and see the fish, turtles, and other wild life.   The coral is beautiful to see too.  The water is clear (not foggy at all).  In fact, my kids who were with us saw fish without snorkeling gear.  You do not need it at all.  Walk slowly, and keep still and you can see your own feet and all the sea creatures you wish for.  Hanauma Bay is very kid-friendly, and the water is calm and clear.  It is hot and sunny here so do get a shaded spot if you can, or bring an umbrella.  IMG_8543Don’t forget sunblock and a hat.  Also, military get in free with their active I.D. but all dependents need their IDs as well so remember that.  They are not kind to military dependents who forgot their ID, even if the active member vouches for their spouses.  The parking is $1.00 and the entry fee is $7.50 and kids under 10 are free.  You have to watch a video to enter, and sign your name on the list so you can return without watching it again.

IMG_8679Polynesian Cultural Center- I thought we’d get a Lei off the plane but they don’t do that anymore, and the Leis will cost you now.  So, if you want to see some Hawaiian or Polynesian Culture, head northeast to the Polynesian Cultural Center, to see some dancing, ukulele playing, and you can take lessons too!  There are workshops and shows to attend, and kids activities.  You can spend at least 3-4 hours here if not more.  The tickets are cheapest if you get them from ITT/MWR (for military- available at all the local bases), or try to find a deal on-line if you are not military.  Regular admission tickets are $39.00 and that does not include the shows or the luau at night.  That generally will run you $94 per person for the entire package deal. The canoe parade with all the festive colors, dancing, and cultural explanations are beyond

Canoe Parade
Canoe Parade

ITT or MWR on bases sell the Polynesian Cultural Center tickets for $15 per person (over age 5- kids under 6 are free).  This is a screaming deal!  Honestly, if you want to do a Luau, try the one at the Hale Koa on Waikiki- I have heard great things.  Kids under 12 are free, and adults are $49.50 all inclusive.  We did not do a luau because I do not eat meat or fish, and luaus are set menus.  But I hear the experience is worth it.  Honestly, after visiting the Polynesian Cultural Center, I feel I received a lot of culture and experienced it all in one place.  IMG_8670All in all, I didn’t feel I was experiencing any island culture until we hit the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Dole plantation & North Shore Beaches– Dole plantation is a tourist trap, overpriced, and ridiculous but you still have to go there and do it but just be aware of what NOT to do whilst there.  So, there is a corn maze, a train ride, and a plantation tour that you have to pay for.  I recommend picking one.  It is expensive even with the military discount.  The train ride is bogus- we did it for the kids and wish we could get that hour of our lives back.  Sadly, we cannot. IMG_8591 I recommend heading there, eating the dole whip (not the one with topping) and the corn (outside the visitor’s center) which is the yummiest thing ever, watching the pineapple cutting demonstration, walking the grounds, and then heading out to the north shore for food and beach fun.  The corn maze, I hear, is fun for kids, but again, I recommend only doing one paid activity.  The kids really enjoyed the dole whip as did we.  IMG_8582Sometimes they run specials on the souvenir cup with dole whip so I recommend doing that buy one, get one half off deal to get a cheap souvenir.  Enjoy walking the grounds and seeing the pineapple demonstrations (get to try some free pineapple too), and then head off north 10 mins to the north shore.  We stopped at Waimea Beach on the north shore but you can go further east on the north shore to see surfers at Turtle Bay and Sunset Beach- GORGEOUS!

Waimea Bay & Beach NORTH SHORE
Waimea Bay & Beach NORTH SHORE

The waves are higher on the north shore in the winter so it is not safe for kids, but it is fun to jump and hop over waves.  There are some great restaurants along the north shore as well – near Sunset Beach, but we had to head back towards Waikiki to meet friends for dinner.  It is about a one-hour drive south back to the Waikiki/HNL area, and with traffic it can turn into 1 hour 15 mins.  Keep in mind that traffic INTO Waikiki and Honolulu (the city) on

Sunset at the North Shore
Sunset at the North Shore

the H1 is bad, and leaving the city in the evenings, so when you make your plans, try to go against traffic.  We got lucky each time, going in the opposite direction of the traffic.

We stayed at a military installation towards the end of our journey and it had its own private beach and unique features too which really made our enjoy pleasant and enjoyable.  The Navy Exchange which is off-post near Pearl Harbor is amazing and huge, and open to all for the food court.  I recommend eating here, and if you are eligible, you can shop at the commissary and on-site Exchange.  The chocolates, dresses, shirts, and souvenirs are very cheap and great quality here.

IMG_8640Pearl Harbor, USS Arizona and War In the Pacific MemorialsFinally, on Oahu, you simply must visit at least one or all the Pacific Memorials for World War II.  It is not to be missed.  We visited the USS Arizona, and saw the film before hand.  If the film does not get you, walking into this memorial, and knowing what rests below will bring tears to your eyes, and the history is just all around you.  You can see all the sites, and visit the submarine, and take a boat to Ford Island to see the remaining ships and memorials.  I highly recommend going early (before 0930) and it will take you at least one hour per memorial.  IMG_8645There is also enough to do around here – walking around, reading all the placards, and seeing all the exhibits for free.  It will take at least 2-3 hours from start to finish so plan accordingly, and remember to show your respect. The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor was the costliest for the U.S. Navy and our military – EVER!  I had no idea over 2,100 sailors, soldiers and airmen lost their lives.  I thought the number was in the hundreds.  It is quite eye-opening.  Keep in mind that you will explain the film to young kids – there is a lot talk of death, war, and casualties, and young kids do not understand this quite yet. IMG_8649 Tickets to USS Arizona are free – it is a National Park Service and federally appropriated monument.  All others cost some concession fee and military in uniform are free to all exhibits.  Food on site is snacking only, and expensive, so drive a mile down the road to the Navy Exchange for an awesome food court open to all the public.

We also drove to the East shore, and it is beautiful.  If you can go to Kailua do so, but it was a small detour out of our way to and from the Polynesian Cultural Center.  You simply must take the LikeLike Highway from Waikiki area towards Kailua, and the Cultural Center.  This is a gorgeous drive through the mountains towards the east shore and just gorgeous!  IMG_8704The shore drive NORTH up the eastern shore towards Brigham Young Hawaii Campus and the Polynesian Cultural Center is narrow, winding, and only two-lane, but is gorgeous! You can stop on any of these clear, blue beaches and can’t go wrong.  The waves are a bit higher here, wateIMG_8487r saltier, and sand washes onto you along with the water, but hey, it’s beach!  Hawaii, our 50th State, a beautiful paradise, and an amazing destination to visit if you can.  You will not regret it.  We only visited Oahu, but hope to return soon to visit the other islands. Mahalo, Hawaii, and all its residents, til we meet again.

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New York, New York!

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

No, I am not talking about the casino and hotel in Vegas. I am talking the real deal- NEW YORK CITY- the big apple, shining bright lights in Times Square, Broadway, pizza, pretzels, and the whole shebang. We got to visit New York City for Thanksgiving week this year and 1/2 block from our hotel, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade passed us by.

My husband’s cousin was getting married so we had an excuse to enjoy the city a bit, and spend Turkey day with both sides of both of our families- how extremely unique and cool! If 2012 was about anything, it was family and politics but not mixed up together. Ha! We had a really fun time.

We flew in and out of LaGuardia Airport. I have to say, the airport is perfectly sized and what airport don’t I love that has a Dunkin Donuts inside. I mean come on! We did not do the hop on and hop off. Even though the weather was perfect, with the girls, busing around New York was not our idea of fun. Instead, we walked – and we walked… and we walked. Alot! We took strollers for the girls because hubby and I can walk, and walk, and walk but they can’t walk that much.

For the first part of our trip, we stayed smack dab in the middle of Times Square area, at the Sheraton New York Hotel- really a gem of a hotel. I have to say, and I have written reviews at TripAdvisor and Yelp about the customer service, it was an amazing stay! We were treated like royalty and we had no complaints. I had plenty of other complaints like how rude the Budget Rental Car people were – the one in midtown, 49th Street- DO NOT RENT FROM THEM, but other than that and being taken for some money by a luggage porter, all in all, New York was not so bad. And, despite being denied giant soft drinks by the mayor, the people were not irritable or rude. Oh wait… back to the hotel. If you are starwood preferred, see about getting the suites especially if you are a family traveling together, and club level. Can I just say, wow! Their club level food and drink was amazing, and it is open 24 hours for guests and Club-level members. Breakfast was included at the club level, and appetizers for happy hour. The Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers was a great deal for us and I would highly recommend it to you.

Another great thing about this hotel was that we walked 1/2 block to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. We got a good breakfast at the hotel, and then caught an hour of the parade and with kids, if they need to go potty, staying right near by was awesome. It was great and the people all around us at the parade were very nice and let the kids move up towards the barricades to see it. It’s no Mardi Gras but wow! What an experience.

We really enjoyed sightseeing and had great weather for a few days while we were walking around so that helped. We saw the Statue of Liberty and we did (since the monuments and a lot of subway stops were closed down near the water) the Staten Island Ferry which the girls enjoyed and it’s free. You get a great view of lady Liberty. The Ellis and Liberty Island boats have limited hours until they can do some repairs in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It may all be open again though. Oh, and the 9/11 Memorial had limited hours and closed exhibits too so check before you venture there. Although, now it may all be operating just fine. We got a good deal from a street vendor near the Empire State Building and avoided all the long lines to go up. What a neat view from atop and with the weather being so perfect, it was actually hot. If you can take the stairs to the final levels instead of the elevator. The elevator lines are always so busy because able-bodied people do not want to take stairs, something I never understand. Obviously, with strollers, it was not possible. We hit FAO Schwarz but after our experience there (kids going nuts), we avoided the giant Toys R Us on Times Square. We would have done this store on the way out (Thanksgiving day) but it was a zoo trying to leave the city after the Macy’s parade. There are M&M and Hershey stores in Times Square too!

Times Square is insane- it reminds me of the Las Vegas strip on steroids. It is very intense and the people are multiplied by 10. Watch where you go and don’t get run over and you know it’s bad traffic, when you can get out of the car, go buy a hot dog and pretzel and return to the car and it’s only moved a few inches. Love it or hate it… New York is not a place to have a car. So, let’s talk about renting a car if you are going to drive into New Jersey, Philadelphia, etc. The best way, of course, is the train. Even the trains were malfunctioning, etc. for Thanksgiving but if you can’t train it to other places, rent a car but my recommendation: Rent it from LGA (La Guardia airport) and not in the city. It is a nightmare to get out of the city and the people are rude especially the Budget Rent-a-Car experience I had, so if you can go to the airport. The thing is, the Midtown locations of all rental car companies get their cars from LGA so avoid the middle man or in my case, two angry women – one Hispanic, one Black made to work on Thanksgiving day. They were rather angry and power-wielding, making people wait, and negotiating prices for higher range vehicles. It was like a bad Seinfeld episode. “They know how to take the reservation, they just don’t know how to hold it.” It’s actually price gauging and quite illegal. I have reported them to the BBB but Budget Corporate actually refunded me the price difference I had to “negotiate” for a larger vehicle just so I could get the heck out of there when they did not have my mid-size car. Let this be a warning to you to try to rent out of the city because the worst part was the traffic to get out – took us 30 minutes to drive 2 miles.

We traveled to New Jersey, Philadelphia to see family and the wedding was in New Rochelle. What a cute town! We really enjoyed New Rochelle but were shocked to see people staying at our hotel who were still, three weeks later, not able to return home due to damage from the Hurricane. Wow! There are two hotels in New Rochelle: Marriott Residence Inn and the Radisson. The Radisson is rated higher but we had a swell time staying at the Marriott and there is free hot breakfast included. The beds could be more comfortable but it was fine overall. New Rochelle is a very cute, quaint town and walking around is fun. We had amazing pizza in New York, just about every night (HA), and in New Rochelle, the pizza was more authentic NY than we had had anywhere else. Great places to eat in this little town. And the Fountainhead, where the wedding was held- Wow! I can honestly the venue, the wedding itself, and all the pre-wedding activities – simply awesome!

All in all, great trip and the kiddos had a blast but they were exhausted and so were we. New York was wonderful and best of all, we saw both sides of our families whilst there, and really had a great experience in the city as well.

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Our “School-Moon” Trip: Get Clued In heads West to California

Monterey Beach

Very last minute, we decided to make a family trip, albeit a short trip to the west coast… California!  I love Cali no matter what part we go to.  For our baby moon (before our first kid was born) we went to LA, and the southern area including San Diego and I really wanted to do a trip before my oldest daughter started Kindergarten.  We could not decide where to go – Virginia Beach or California?  Well, the opportunity presented itself so off we went to Northern Cali- San Jose, Monterey, Carmel, and San Francisco – all in 4 days!

Alcatraz from Pier 39

But it was fun and the highlight for my kiddos was hanging out with their cousins in San Jose!  They loved all the different toys, and meeting new kids they could play with.  For us, of course, the highlight was getting out and about.  I actually loved Monterey and only wished the fog had cleared in San Francisco.  My husband never got to see the Golden Gate Bridge so there is one here I posted from when I went another time in March of 2010. You can see our foggy shots, and our pictures of Alcatraz.  We loved San Francisco, and walking around it, but the highlight for my hubby had to be swimming in the

Aquatic Bay Park near Ghiradelli where daddy swam in the Bay and the girls enjoyed the cold windy beach

Bay at Aquatic Bay Park – a little piece of heaven right in the middle of San Francisco.  Ghirardelli was a huge hit for the kids and I only wished I could have made it to the Stinkin’ Rose, a Garlic Restaurant.  It was only a mile from our hotel but I could not make it this time.  The kiddos passed out early from exhaustion so dinner was a nice quiet dinner in our hotel room from Boudin’s – soup in a bread bowl – wonderful on a cold, San Francisco evening.

We stayed at the Marriott Fishermans’ Wharf (not the courtyard) and it was a great hotel, but be prepared to pay for parking in San Francisco no matter where you go or stay.  It sucks but it is the price of admission.  Pier 39 was a lot of fun and kinda like a carnival. We bought a lot of stuff, some of which we did not need but alas, all in all, great time to go, and to see the seals laying out in the sun.  Eating from the food stands is cheap and maybe the best way to go or getting pizza on the strip for lunch.

carousel at Pier 39

If we had more time in San Francisco, we would have spent it all doing the great things in Golden Gate Park because there is a lot to do and see there.  I think for San Francisco and with kids, you need at least 3 full days and then, you can probably say you did most of the city although I doubt it.  The city is very impressive and if you want to do a trip to Alcatraz, be prepared for a 4-5 hour block of time there as well.  There are plenty of tours of the Bay where you get closer but don’t go into Alcatraz as well.

boo hoo we can’t see the bridge behind us

My tips for San Francisco and the Bay Area- no matter when you go:  Pack a jacket, pack some warm clothes even in the summer; socks, good walking shoes, and sunblock.  And don’t forget your camera.  There is so much to do, so much to see, and so many amazing moments.  Oh, and bring plenty of money because you can’t do any part of California on a dime.  You can order cheap food from vendors/stands near Pier 41 and from food trucks but California is not cheap over all.  BTW, the people in California’s area we visited – some of the nicest people anywhere and why wouldn’t they be- there is nothing to be cranky about in California and we hope to return to see you again soon!

This is a view of the bridge from March 2010

The best view we got of the bridge the entire time
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