Posted in Travel

Honolulu, Hawaii – 5 things to do

In September last year, Mum and I visited Oahu, Hawaii. I was at work for the first couple of days, but afterwards we took a few days to explore the island. Here are five things to do in Honolulu in three days.

Waikiki Beach

We were staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort which is in prime position, right on the beach. On Friday evening we caught the Hilton’s regular start-the-weekend fireworks display.

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Hilton Hawaiian Village

The Beach

This is the main point of Waikiki. During the week we spent plenty of time walking along the beach. We also swam and snorkeled a bit but didn’t see very much.

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Waikiki beach, right outside the Hilton
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Waikiki Beach, early morning
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Waikiki, looking towards Diamond Head

Food

Another important thing to do in Waikiki is get food from a food truck. Gilligan’s Beach Shack food truck was near to the hotel and we partook of lunch and dinner there on different days. I can report that the coconut shrimp, and fish and chips, were excellent.

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Coconut Shrimp from Gilligan’s Beach Shack
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Red-crested cardinal

Sunset

Sunset viewing is a must in Waikiki. With the sun setting over the water, there’s a good chance you will see a green flash – as we did one night.

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Sunset over the Hilton’s lagoon
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Near the Hilton

Drink

Another activity for sunset is a cocktail at the Royal Hawaiian’s Mai Tai Bar. This is a grand old hotel, open and breezy in the way tropical hotels usually are. There is a patio overlooking the beach where we enjoyed Mai Tais (of course). They were very strong!

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Mai Tai heaven
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Royal Hawaiian

Hula dancers

There are a lot of random places in Waikiki where Hula dancers perform – outside shops, at the airport, and at hotels. You won’t have to go far for a free display.

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Hula dancers in Waikiki

Diamond Head

Diamond Head is one of the key landmarks of Honolulu. After I finished work on Saturday afternoon, Mum and I made an attempt to hike the summit. For some reason the traffic in Honolulu that evening was appalling. Leaving the hotel at about 4pm, it took us over an hour for a journey that should’ve taken 25 minutes. When we finally arrived at the Diamond Head entrance there was a big sign saying “Do not start walking after 4:30pm” and of course we were too late. Not willing to risk it, we decided to come back the next day.

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Since it had taken such an effort to get there, we walked around to the Diamond Head lookout. The walk was very nice and the views were spectacular, but it was a slight ordeal getting home (lack of cell reception/irregular buses/getting dark).

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Walking round to Diamond Head lookout
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Diamond Head Lookout

The next day, Sunday, we decided to tackle Diamond Head again – we were on the 8am bus for a very quick ride and a smooth walk to the base. It wasn’t too hot though it was already quite busy. The hike was challenging but not impossible, although the “99 steps” gave us a run for our money. The views at the top was breathtaking and well worth it.

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View of Honolulu from Diamond Head summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic Downtown Honolulu

After our successful Diamond Head re-do, that afternoon we caught another bus into Historic downtown Honolulu. We followed the “The Capitol District” tour in the app GPS My City. Because it was Sunday, it was very quiet, but it gave us a chance to look at different landmarks in relative peace.

We started at the Iolani Palace, and on our tour we saw the Aliiolani Hale and the King Kamehameha statue, and the Hawaii State Capitol building among other places. The guide was quite informative – for example, we learned that the State Capitol was designed to “evoke Hawaii and its natural features” including representations of the ocean, volcanoes, coconut trees, the primary islands, the sun and the moon. The building lacks the usual central dome/rotunda of other state capitol buildings: instead this area is left open to the sky.

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King Kamehameha statue
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Iolani Palace

Island Tour

A popular activity on Oahu is an Island Tour. We chose Hawaii Turtle Tours because of their options to go snorkeling and see turtles.

We met out guide, Brock, at 7:30am. We picked up a few other people until there were about 20 of us on the bus. The day was pretty much non-stop:

  1. Diamond Head Lookout (been there!)
  2. Halona Blowhole – we waited patiently for the right wave to see the awesome blowhole (see video below)
  3. Makapuu Lookout
  4. Tropical Farm – a macadamia nut farm where there was free coffee.
  5. The windward coastline to Kualoa Beach Park and Chinaman’s Hat.
  6. Sunset Beach. The surf wasn’t that impressive that day, but we did get rained on.
  7. Tsue Farm for a delicious lunch.
  8. A nearby beach for swimming with turtles. We started by walking on the beach and soon came across a turtle just hanging out on the sand. Our guide told us to not get within 5ft of it but lots of people from other buses were taking selfies right next to it. I did get in the water for a while but it was too rough and cloudy to see anything. From the shore I did see a turtle in the water, and others swam out with it.
  9. The Dole Plantation, a must-see for all tour buses on the island. We got a Pineapple Whip and a Pineapple smoothie and had a look around the pineapple-themed gift shop.
  10. We arrived back in Waikiki by about 4pm.

Overall the tour was a great experience – our guide was very good and we felt like we saw all the highlights of the island.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Harbor Memorial

On our last day in Honolulu we went to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, aka the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

My knowledge of this event that brought the U.S. into the Second World War was minimal prior to our visit. The museum took us through what the island was like before the event, how the war shaped it, the actual day, and what happened after. It was extremely well done, and very easy to engage with at a simple or detailed level, depending on what you were interested in.

The final part of the experience is a boat ride to the memorial which sits over the USS Arizona. To go on this, you have to reserve a timed ticket but unfortunately on our visit this part of the memorial was closed due to repairs. We still went on a boat which circled nearby and we listened to an explanation from the boat’s captain.

I highly recommend this museum to visit, even if you’re not into war history.

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USS Arizona Memorial

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It’s hard to leave such a beautiful place!

 

Posted in Travel

Cook Islands Essentials

We had a great Christmas week in the Cook Islands – and hopefully one day you will too! This post is a collection of some of the things to know before you go there: from the car hire experience to the food to the local flora and fauna. (You can read more about our holiday in my first post, second post and third post.)

Eating out in Raratonga

While we were planning this holiday, we weren’t sure what the food situation was going to be over Christmas so we booked the various lunches and dinners in advance. We had Christmas Eve dinner at Crown’s (see post) and Christmas Day lunch at Nautilus (see post). We had booked Boxing Day brunch back at Crown’s Ocean’s Restaurant and it turned out to be basically just the hotel breakfast, with eggs and bacon, cereal, cake, tea and coffee. It hit the spot however, and we also scored a couple of individual packets of Vegemite for later use!

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Because we were staying self-catering with a kitchen, we only ended up having two other dinners out. We chose a couple of restaurants that had free transfers from our accommodation. For dinner on the day of our epic cross island hike, we decided to go to Vaima Polynesian Bar and Restaurant. We started with cocktails and a local fish starter called Ika Mata (per the menu: A traditional Island delicacy… a delicious tropical combination of Fresh Tuna Fish marinated in reme (lemon) & creamy akari (coconut) served with tomatoes, red onions, cucumber, shallots and coriander) then fish and chips for me and fish curry (house special) for Jonathon. The food was excellent and even though we were completely full, we had key lime pie and pavlova for dessert. Our table was under palm trees in the sand with the waterline a stone’s throw away: very convenient for photographing the sunset.

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Ika Mata
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Fish Curry
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Fish ‘n’ Chips
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Pavlova
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Sunset from Vaima restaurant (300mm lens)

On our second last evening we went to dinner at “On the Beach” which was a restaurant not quite, but nearly, on the beach, part of the Manuia Beach Resort. I started with grilled and chilled ratatouille, which was possibly a mistake because it came in aspic and was just ok. Jonathon started with scallop and leek tart (spelled “leak” on the menu). For the main course we both had ocean fish: swordfish and somewhat rare yellowfin tuna. It was delicious. From our table we saw a beautiful sunset, which included another green flash.

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Sunset from On The Beach

Birds and animals in the Cook Islands

Stray dogs are a big feature of the island although it’s possible some of these dogs aren’t stray, just roaming free. During lunch on the deck one day, two local dogs came racing along the beach and threw themselves in the water, doing their best impression of gazelles. They appeared to be hunting the small fish that go around in schools in the shallows, and while they didn’t seem to catch any, they seemed to be having a good time. We saw the same thing – different dogs – on another day.

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This fella was waiting for me as I was walking on the beach then followed me most of the way home

There are also quite a few hens, chicks and roosters around. In fact, if you are unlucky you will be woken up by rooster. It was fun to see chicks following their mother hen around, and the roosters were quite pretty.

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Chicks!
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Rooster: half way up the hill on the cross island hike

Drive around the island of Raratonga

One thing to know about Raratonga is that it’s small. While it has an international airport it has just one road circling the island (and an inland road which is not continuous) which is 32 km (20 miles) long. One afternoon we decided to take an hour and drive the whole way around. The speed limit is 50 km/h (30 mph) and the road, while sealed, is pretty appalling most of the way. It probably took us 30 minutes to get up to the main town, Avarua, where we stopped at the (only?) post office to get stamps, and the handy shop next door for postcards. We found that the rest of the island was just as beautiful as the area we were staying: more of the same coconut palms, scattered houses, dogs, occasional food places, and glimpses of the magnificent lagoon.

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A sign greets you at each of the quadrants of the island
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Typical house and yard
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Bananas!
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Looking towards the center of the island
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Frangipani

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Car hire in the Cook Islands

While we are talking about driving, as mentioned in my first post, our experience of car hire was less than brilliant. We made allowances because we were picking up our car on Christmas Eve but we got the last car on the island and its warrant of fitness was going to expire during our rental.

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So, on Boxing Day, after breakfast we decided to solve this problem. We had spotted that the Island Car and Bike Hire branch near to Crown was open, so we parked up, and went inside. We explained that we’d been rented a car with a warrant that was expiring and could they sort it out please, and within 10 minutes we were driving away in a different car. It was the same model and color as the first, and had twice as many scrapes and dents, and what looked like at least one bald tire, but otherwise seemed in better working order.

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A fine model – Toyata Vitz

We used Island Car and Bike because they have a relationship with Sea Change Villas but I’m not sure we’d go with them again!

Supermarkets on Raratonga

As I mentioned in my first post, on Christmas Eve Wigmore’s supermarket was packed with people and there wasn’t much on the shelves to choose from. On Boxing Day, however, it was a different story: it a lot less busy with a lot more fresh items available.

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Inside Wigmore’s
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Inside Wigmore’s
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‘ei katu (head garland) for sale at Wigmore’s

On our around-the-island drive we also stopped at the main “big” supermarket – CITC supermarket – in Avarua. This had a lot more on offer than Wigmore’s, but the prices were the same (i.e. expensive). We stocked up on essentials like coke and chocolate and somehow our total was ~$40 NZD.

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Inside CITC supermarket

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Raratonga Lagoon activities

The lagoon is the main feature of the island of Raratonga. We were fortunate enough to be able to get into the water straight from our deck and Sea Change Villas had reef shoes, snorkels and masks, canoes and SUPs for use by the guests. The lagoon is not very deep and I was nearly always able to put my feet down. We spent a glorious amount of time in the water and got to recognize the different kinds of fish: the biggest one we saw was the size of a watermelon and there also were also a scattering of big blue starfish, and “giant” clams with blue mouths.

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The lagoon – the surf line indicates the reef barrier

A couple of times we went quite far out towards the reef barrier where there was much more coral – once in a canoe and once swimming. We had seen people go right up to the breaking waves in canoes, but we weren’t that brave/stupid.

We waited until the high tide each time we went out so we had some clearance.  We borrowed canoes and paddled quite far out but noticed we really couldn’t see fish from that vantage point high above the water. The coral was still worth it, as was just being out on the water.

The time we swam out as far as we could I found it quite hard work – perhaps we were going against the current or the tide. When we finally got to the dense coral we found it was all reef and no sandy spots to stop and rest! Still, we saw a lot of different fish as well as a more of the giant blue starfish and clams.

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Our look, multiple times a day

Our last day

Our flight back to LA left at nearly midnight and we were given use of the villa until our departure. The (mostly outdoor) airport was pretty chaotic but because everyone had been relaxing all week, so no-one was stressed out about anything.

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Last sunset of the holiday

Summary

The Cook Islands is truly a spectacular holiday destination. Everyone was extremely friendly in that antipodean, “she’ll be right”, “island time” kind of way. It seems like an ultra-laid-back version of New Zealand, if such a thing were possible.

Our accommodation at Sea Change Villas was all around excellent, having great lagoon access, high quality furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and lots of peace and quiet. The car rental situation was fairly dodgy but also fairly cheap, much safer than riding a bicycle or a scooter, and more convenient than trying to catch the bus. Food was expensive, but when one remembers that in restaurants you don’t have to tip, it’s actually not bad – the restaurants we went to had NZD $30-$35 mains.

There are plenty of outdoor activities, and equally all the time in the world to just sit and look at the view. I realize we got lucky with the weather – normally at this time of year it rains more. Being pretty well cut off from mobile and internet access was a real plus.

I would highly recommend the Cook Islands as a place to visit, but at the same time, I don’t want any more tourists to come and spoil it!

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Sea Change Villas from the lagoon

Things to know about the Cook Islands

  1. The time zone in Cook Islands at Christmas is just -2hrs from LA (12pm LA time = 10am Cook Islands time)
  2. The power and sockets are Australia/NZ.
  3. The currency is the NZ dollar, although you can pick up some Cook Islands coins.
  4. Cook Islanders drive on the left and the max speed is 50 km/h (30 mph)
  5. On AT&T it costs $3/min to call and 50c per text. There is no cellular data. Google Fi has no reception.
  6. The water is apparently safe to drink, though we only drank to bottled water.
  7. Christmas time is the rainy season.
  8. When arriving at Raratonga from LAX, sit on the left side of the plane to catch the sunrise, or on the right side of the plane for a view of the island on landing. On departure to LAX, it’s night time so you can’t see anything from either side!

Check out my previous posts:

Cook Islands – first impressions

Cook Islands – Christmas Day

Jungle and Lagoon: Raratonga, Cook Islands

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Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Travel

Zermatt, Switzerland

In the tradition of this blog, I’m going to write about a trip that is completely out of season to the time of year this is posted: our Christmas holiday! This is one of several posts I’m planning to write about our trip to Switzerland and the UK this past December.

As usual, our adventures start with an idea by Mum. Zermatt, Switzerland, a picture postcard perfect village in the Alps, is where we were going, and we were going to see snowy mountains.

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Zermatt, Switzerland

Coming from Los Angeles, we packed all the warm gear we had (and bought more) – down jackets, snow boots, long johns, gloves, hats, scarves – and flew via Bournemouth, UK, where we collected Mum and my brother, to Geneva, Switzerland. It was then a two hour drive in the dark to Täsch, followed by a 20 minute train to Zermatt. Because Zermatt is small and car-free, we walked from the train station to the Hotel Butterfly.

Mum had been checking the webcam in Zermatt for about two months, hoping there was going to be snow in the village, but when we arrived there wasn’t even a snowflake.  This turned out to be a Good Thing, because it was already plenty cold enough.

The next morning we decided to go straight up in the cable car and see the Matterhorn. We walked through the village in -6C temperatures and before we’d gone more than ¼ mile the Matterhorn was right there!  While there were machines creating artificial snow on the lower slopes, we could see higher up there was plenty of real snow.

At the cable car terminus we each bought a return ticket for $100 USD (ouch!) to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – the next mountain across from the Matterhorn – and got in line with approximately one million skiers to board a cable car. Luckily, the cars were only small, so we got one to ourselves, and soon we were climbing high into the mountains.

At the first station, the doors opened but we didn’t get out because we had a really good view of the Matterhorn from where we were sitting.  At the second (or was it the third?) station we had to change cable cars. This final cable car was absolutely packed with skiers. Then finally at 12,739 feet (8,338 meters) we were at the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. We peeled away from the mass of skiers and went up to the viewing platform where it was frigid, but the views were spectacular.

It was crystal clear and the visibility must have been 50 miles. We could see the distant mountains, including Mt Blanc, clearly.

After admiring the view for a while we realized we were turning into icicles so we headed down along the long tunnel to the café. We warmed up in a patch of sun and had hot chocolates and coffee.

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Start of the ski run at Glacier Paradise

Since our extremely expensive cable car pass also gave us access to the “Glacier Palace”, we decided to check it out. The entrance was along a long tunnel that winded downhill straight into the glacier. The walls of the tunnel were made of hard ice. When we got to the bottom there were a wide range of ice sculptures on display and, strangely, an ice slide. It turned out the slide was not all that slippery unless you took a flying run at it… which of course, we did.

After satisfying ourselves we’d got our money’s worth, we went back in the cable car (empty this time!) to the mid-station. We had lunch and watched the skiers, then headed back down to Zermatt, running into a wedding on the way back to the hotel.

That evening we went for a walk around the village, comparing the price of glühwein at pretty much every bar in town (answer: they were all 6-10 Euros/glass). We eventually settled on a tiny bar that seated about 10 people, parked ourselves at the counter, and defrosted with 7 Euro glühwein. Then, thanks to my brother remembering to make a reservation, we had dinner at the Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named after the man who was the first to climb the Matterhorn.  This restaurant brings in the entire sitting at once, several times a night. Inside it was so hot that we had to strip down to our t-shirts. Dinner was excellent.

The next morning we left Zermatt (still no snow) then took a quick drive up to Verbier for lunch before Mum and my brother dropped us at the town of Montreux. Read more about that in my next post (coming soon!).