Archive for the Travel Tips Category

Hawaiian Paradise Series: Maui

Posted in Children in the Mix, Foodie or Wine Experience, Travel Tips, Traveling the Seven Seas with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2012 by Stephanie

Maui… Just the mention of it sends my mind adrift with images of palm trees and soft breezes, relaxed and engulfed in the scent of coconut oil.  It’s not your typical go-go-go destination.  On the contrary, it’s all about relaxing down to your core, warming slowly in the sun and reconnecting with oneself.  Maui is perhaps my favorite destination on this planet where I like to close my eyes and just “be”.  I’m sure if I lived on the East Coast, some little Caribbean island would occupy my daydreams.  Or if I lived in Europe, maybe one of the Greek isles would beckon my soul.  Surely, there are many beautiful, relaxing, tropical locales to be found on this spinning globe.  But since I live in Seattle, and Hawaii is a quick hop, skip and jump from my home, Maui has become my tropical destination of choice.

My first visit to this beautiful island was fifteen years ago and I was in my mid-twenties.  Even then, I was more drawn to the quiet, relaxed enjoyment of a destination, rather than the party scene.  Good food and warm sunshine filled my dance card, and every night I preferred to be fast asleep in a heavenly bed by the stroke of midnight.

With the gentle breezes, beautiful scenery and warm sun on my skin, Maui is simply a tropical paradise.  This probably explains why I have been back to visit five times over the past 10 years.  I am by no means an expert of this island, but I know what I like and have learned some tricks thru the years.

Towns and Attractions on Maui

Welcome to Maui!

Though Maui has evolved and, some say, “over-expanded”, the general areas of Maui and their respective draws have pretty much remained consistent.  The island generally caters more towards visitors and tourists on the West side, while the locals tend to populate the East.  Starting from the top of the island, the key tourist and resort areas down the west coast are Kapalua, Kaanapali, Lahaina, Kihei and Wailea.  You can find any type of lodging here from 5-star resorts to simple condo rentals to yurts!  But for me, I’m a resort kind-of-a-gal.

In general terms, Lahaina is the “downtown” area and it’s roughly in the middle of the island on the west coast.  It’s an old whaling town that offers some great restaurants (Lahaina Grill {formerly David Paul’s}, I’O, Longi’s, Gerard’s), some so-so chain restaurants (Hard Rock, Bubba Gumps), dance clubs, and tourist shops.   And sprinkled throughout all of these are the proverbial time share kiosks offering free local excursions in exchange for attending a presentation.  Oh yes, I’ve attended more than one time share presentation.

To the north, you’ll find Kapalua, a sleepy little golfing area with rocky beaches and home to The Plantation Course, the Ritz Carlton, and Merriman’s Restaurant.  You’ll also find Kaanapali, a conglomerate of resorts (Westin, Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton) and restaurants, all connected by a long, paved walking trail that follows the beach and leads to Whaler’s Village.

Whaler’s Village is a moderately priced shopping area with typical island finds: sno-cones and local candy, Crazy Shirts and Tommy Bahamas, beach decor shops, sundries and other touristy items.  There is also a Pearl Factory kiosk, which can be found all over Hawaii, selling raw oysters that will be opened before your eyes, hopefully revealing a fresh water pearl inside.  My kids spend all their money here.  My son even paid for multiple oysters, just trying to see if he could get two that matched, in hopes of turning them in to earrings for a little girl he liked in 3rd grade.  We still have them some where.

Moving on… south of Lahaina, you’ll find Kihei and Wailea.  Kihei is a fairly busy area.  It’s more of a moderately priced area of the island and features public beaches that are fairly crowded. Wailea, in contrast, is very fancy, home to several great golf courses, high-end shops, upscale lodging and dining.  I would even say that Wailea caters to a somewhat older, more affluent, demographic, but that is likely because Wailea has traded in night clubs for golf clubs.  It’s quiet, relaxed and pretty.

Of all the choices on Maui, I highly recommend you concentrate your vacation in either Kaanapali or Wailea.  Here’s why:


Life in a Cabana on Kaanapali

Kaanapali has a lot to offer both families and couples who want a quieter experience, but one still packed with conveniences, great beaches, snorkeling and people watching.  The beaches at the resorts along Kaanapali are well kept, offer good snorkeling up by Black Rock (Sheraton), are stocked with comfy cabanas you can rent out by the sea, and cater to you and your kids with food and drink options offered by friendly waitstaff.  The sound of children playing, a far off drum band and lapping waves will lull you to sleep in the sun.  It’s the perfect balance of relaxed, but not too remote — a little something for everyone.

My favorite places to stay in Kaanapali are the Westin and the Kaanapali Ali’i.  They are neighboring properties, so they have essentially the same beach experience.  The Westin is your typical 5-star property with a fun water slide and pools for the kiddos, outdoor dining, live music, a sno-cone bar and pretty koi ponds.  This is not to be confused with the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas, which is further north and is a timeshare property.  The rooms are nice enough at the Villas, but the distance from the lodging to the actual beach is a major trek.  The Kaanapali Ali’i is a different experience entirely, as it is not a hotel, but a condo building.  This is only recommended if you are traveling with young children, as everyone staying at the Ali’i has kids in tow.

Pool at Kaanapali Ali'i

At the Ali’i, we rent a fully furnished unit that has 3 bedrooms, an updated kitchen with all the amenities, and a lanai that looks out to the pool and the ocean.  From our couch we can watch whales jumping in the sea!  It’s perfect because the pool is very nice with multiple areas of play and is bordered by a covered lounge area, several flat screen TVs, and about a dozen large stainless steel grills.  For busy parents who have a hard time rounding up kids and going to a sit down restaurant every night, this offers you the ability to BBQ your meals down by the beach while the kids continue to swim.  Everyone sits down in dripping swimsuits and enjoys dinner, throws away the paper plates and plastic utensils, and continues enjoying the day.

Perhaps the thing I like most about these two properties is that the pool is just off of the beach — separated only by a low hedge.  So you can keep a close eye on your kids, whether they are boogie boarding in the ocean or playing Marco Polo in the pool.  Most other properties we’ve stayed in on the island do not offer this experience, as building codes and requirements have changed thru the years, prohibiting such proximity to the beach (i.e., Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas).  Therefore, you usually have to choose one experience or the other, instead of both at once — a major drawback!

The other major advantage to these properties is that you can walk five minutes up the paved and well-lit path along the beach to Whaler’s Village, where you can find restaurants, sandy barefoot bars with live music, cute shops and services, frozen yogurt and more.  As a parent, it’s ideal to walk five minutes up the path for these conveniences than to pile the family into the car to go find them each day.  In fact, we barely use the car during our vacation, except to explore.


Wailea is located in a beautiful part of Maui, down on the southwestern tip.  It is a much more residential area, but has a few of the best hotels, great golf courses, a tennis club and high end fashion at The Shops at Wailea.  I have heard for years that the absolute best place to stay when in Maui is at Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort.  But every time I try to book a stay, they are always sold out well in advance.  Furthermore, rooms start at $700, and up, per night, during busy seasons, and when you need two of them, like our family does, it packs a punch.  It is certainly a beautiful property and has perhaps the best spa on Maui (which I have personally enjoyed several times), so if you like to be pampered and are lucky enough to find a room, this is the place!

The Family at Nick's Fishmarket 2010

Another great hotel in Wailea is the Kea Lani, a Fairmont property.  I have stayed in this 5-star, all-white-building property (think Mykonos, Greece) and just loved it.  The white sand beach is very tiny, however, and it is slightly more windy down here than up north in Kaanapali.  But the food is always excellent at Nick’s Fishmarket and the property itself is very grand and massively laid out.  Every room is a suite and the huge, marble bathrooms are quite luxurious.  If you want a nice resort experience down in Wailea, and are traveling without children, this is the one for you.

For the active traveler, great golfing, tennis and dining can be found at the Wailea Golf Club.  I played 18 holes here back in 1996 and the views were breathtaking from almost every one!  There were many encounters with the nene, Hawaii’s state bird (a goose), as well as other native wild life sightings, and they offer a slightly discounted rate if you start your play after noon.  Joe’s, which sits just above the 11-court tennis complex, offers panoramic views of the ocean and delectable gourmet food by Chef Bev Gannon, a 2004 James Beard award winner.

Regardless of where you call home during your stay on Maui, here are a few experiences you MUST commit to…

Mama’s Fish House

Lunch at Mama's

Oh my, this is the BEST food on the island, and perhaps anywhere in Hawaii.  Mama’s, located on Maui’s North Shore, features fresh fish dishes daily, such as Mahimahi, Opah, Ahi, Lehi, Opakapaka and Ono, all prepared and gently sauced to perfection.  The freshly squeezed juices make their cocktails utterly divine!  And, as if the 5-star foodie experience wasn’t enough, the view, beach and wild crashing ocean out front will make you stop and stare with your mouth agape for longer than it takes to read this post.  Trust me — do NOT miss this and get reservations as soon as you know you’ll be in Maui.  I’m told this was a favorite for the cast of “Lost”, who dined at Mama’s almost nightly!

Hali’imaile General Store

Perched in a pineapple field, a bit off the beaten track (mid-way down Haleakala Hwy), the “General Store” is actually a wonderful little restaurant featuring fine American food with an Asian twist.  Fresh, local and tasty dishes excite your eyes and nose, entering your soul, the second you walk thru the door.  The next thing you’ll notice is how busy they are and wonder where all these people came from??  After all, you probably had to pull over and consult your map a few times before finding this place, confident you must be lost or that the island had been deserted.  Suddenly you’re fighting for the last 4-top and wondering why your husband didn’t make reservations?!  Forty-five minutes later, all is right with the world as you enjoy the most delectable pulled pork sandwich and glass of Oregon Pinot, vowing to remember next time… make a reservation!  Don’t miss this one.

Road to Hana

I wish I could say I had an amazing experience with this, but it was a major bust.  I’m adding it to the “must see” list because everyone claims it’s a spectacular experience, and I can see how it really could be, at least when the island isn’t having a dry spell.  We had to learn the hard way that the long and windy “Road to Hana”, normally alive with roadside waterfalls and beautiful vistas, can be quite unspectacular when everything is dried up.

We set out on the drive, with four kids in tow, our handy CD guide in the player, and eyes wide with excitement.  After the first two stops where the CD boasts of beautiful pools of water and gushing falls, we knew we were in trouble.  Sure, everything was green, but there was no water.  We continued on the entire drive like that, finally ignoring the mile marker signs and the guide altogether, with just one quest, making it to Hana.  Arriving there after dark, there was but one restaurant open for dining.  Four starving kids burst thru the doors, fought for the bathrooms, and then gratefully inhaled the most disgusting deep fried burritos and jo-jos I have ever seen.  Piling back in the car for the three hour drive back to our hotel, we knew it would be years later before trying this again.  Bust!  But I’m sure you’ll have a much better experience after reading this post…

Trilogy Snorkel Trip 2007

Snorkeling with Trilogy

A great way to spend a day in Maui is out on a catamaran, cruising over for a snorkel trip at Molokini.  Molokini is a small volcanic crater just off the southern tip of Maui, easily visible from the beaches of Wailea.  It is home to over 200 species of fish, as well as barracudas, turtles, and other sea life.

Thru the years, we have tried most of the snorkel companies, and have never had a bad experience.  But our favorite, by far, is Trilogy.  Trilogy just has newer, cleaner, pretty catamarans, they serve delicious cinnamon rolls and Kona coffee, and the crew is professional and has an outstanding attitude.  But take note: they do not serve any alcohol.  This is not a “booze cruise” as some of the other companies are known as.  Trilogy is also priced slightly higher than the competition, which is why we shopped around thru the years, but with Trilogy, you absolutely will not be disappointed.

If catamarans out to sea are not your kind of thing, consider renting some snorkel gear or a boogie board in town — we like Snorkel Bob’s — for a fraction of what you’ll pay at the resorts.  Rent it for the week and try out multiple beaches around the island (Snorkel Bob’s will give you a handy map).  Another great resource is Maui Dive Shop!

Best Month for Travel

Lastly, the best time to travel to Maui, in my opinion, is in the month of February.  The annual whale migration occurs every year from mid- to late-September and lasts thru early May.  So you are guaranteed a plethora of whale sightings during one of the best months for travel here.  It is obscene how many whales you will see here!  I am not lying when I say it is difficult to take a picture of the water without seeing some part of a whale in the background.  Take these for instance:

Huge Humpback in February


Whale Tail

Two Humpbacks

Every year, over two million people visit Maui.  If you’re lucky, maybe someday soon, one of those people will be you!

Happy Dance Time!

Maui 2007

Maui 2010

Hawaiian Paradise Series: The Big Island

Posted in Children in the Mix, Travel Tips, Traveling the Seven Seas with tags , , on September 21, 2011 by Stephanie

The most spectaular scenery I’ve ever witnessed in Hawaii was on “The Big Island”. It was there, on a trip in 2003, that I first saw an active volcano. Black lava slowly creeping forward, bits of red molten lava here and there, plenty of steam underfoot and very, very hot… it was fantastic! I couldn’t believe we were allowed to get so close. My 6-year old son’s tennis shoes literally started to melt, yet visitors and children were roaming around and exploring the crater, going much closer than we dared. We stood next to some street signs that had been buried a few years earlier from a lava flow and the tops of the signs barely reached our waists! It was crazy to imagine a street, much less street signs, in such a location, particularly when all we could see was black, lumpy, asphalt-like earth.

The Big Island of Hawaii is actually growing larger each year. Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, located inside Volcanoes National Park, has been almost constantly erupting since 1983.  The lava flows out to the sea, where it drops down, cools and resolidifies back into land. It is estimated that a whopping 491 acres of new land have been created since 1994.  This is not usually a fiery explosion of lava, just a mellow flow that oozes out, causing gradual destruction along it’s path, and then creation once it reaches the Pacific Ocean. The red glow can usually only be seen at night, but depending on the path and amount of lava, it may be viewed during the day from inside the park.

Another amazing fact about The Big Island is that it is one of the few places in the world featuring black sandy beaches.  This is the result of centuries of erosion of the hardened black lava, and is mainly found on the south end of the island. The black sand is absolutely gorgeous, striking, fine on the feet, and further, home to a large sea turtle population!  My son was completely enchanted.  He thought the sand had been colored black as a type of prank or island gimmick to attract visitors.  And to be so close to gigantic sea turtles with their gnarly shells and ancient, wrinkly skin, was like being an observer to the days of the dinosaurs.  He loved it!  Just make sure not to touch the turtles, they are protected and this is their turf.

Lodging options on The Big Island abound.  But if you’re traveling with children, I suggest the Hilton Waikoloa.  It is a beautiful resort with dolphins, a salt water lagoon, wooden boats that shuttle you around the property, fresh water pools, waterfalls and water slides, a private sandy beach, golf, tennis, spa, and several great restaurants.  There’s no reason to ever leave, except, of course, you’re in Hawaii!  The children’s programs are the best I’ve seen, giving the kids a chance to enjoy Hawaii on their terms.  They can kayak or snorkel in the safety of the on-site saltwater lagoon, play on the beach, and even make pretty Hawaiian necklaces.  All while mommy enjoys a cocktail by the pool and hopefully drifts off to sleep!  At the end of the day, the kids are exhausted and you are refreshed.  Thanks Hilton!

If your lodging options take you outside of a hotel or resort, my only advice is to make sure you have air conditioning!!  It gets quite warm and muggy here, even in the evening, and a girl needs to be able to cool off and get ready for her day or evening out in comfort.  Have you ever tried blow drying your hair in a hot, muggy room?  Putting on makeup only to have it run off your face??  Trust me… air conditioning is a must!

100% Kona Coffee-PDPAnd finally, if you find yourself in Kona, or really on any of the Hawaiian islands, you must enjoy the local coffee.  Kona coffee is killer!  Strong, rich, flavorful… even sold throughout Hawaii by Starbucks, but at a major premium.  I start every day in Hawaii with a cup of amazing Kona coffee!  And I always bring as much home as I can, with noble intentions of sharing with my friends and family, but usually just stock piling it for a few more months of delicious morning joe.  You must buy some on your next visit to Hawaii and make sure it’s 100% Kona, NOT a blend.  However, if you’re not flying to Hawaii anytime soon, you might just be lucky enough to purchase a small quantity of Starbucks Reserve 100% Kona coffee online and have it sent directly to your doorstep.  It’s only available sporadically, so keep checking the website.  Fortunately for me, my husband does a lot of work with Starbucks and recently brought home three (yes, THREE!!) half pound bags!  I’m saving these for the holidays!  After that, I’m heading back to beautiful Hawaii.


Memories in a Bottle

Posted in Children in the Mix, Foodie or Wine Experience, Travel Tips, Traveling the Seven Seas with tags , , , , , on April 13, 2011 by Stephanie

The last time I checked, my wine cellar was up to about 400 bottles.  This may sound like a nice little inventory, even bordering on obscene to some people, but I actually begin to break into a panic when I think about how little wine that is.  Most of it is under our house (yes, under) in our crawl space, accessible only by an opening in the pantry floor.  Hey, it’s dark, dry, and stays a pretty constant 55 degrees, year round.  It’s just that it’s a tad inconvenient to say, “Hey honey, can you crawl under the house and bring me up a nice Rosso di Montalcino?”

Gorgeous Aging Bottles in France

Fortunately, our builder saw fit to put a little wine fridge in our actual kitchen.  It holds about 4 cases and those 48 bottles are constantly in play.  I guess you could say my husband and I have adopted the LIFO method of drinking wine: Last In, First Out.   And we like to drink wine.  Regularly.  So when we buy wine, or when we receive one of several wine club shipments, those bottles typically don’t even make it down under the house.  No, they are needed to replenish the wine fridge in the kitchen.  So if a bottle or a case actually gets catalogued and sent under the house, it’s going to stay there awhile.

The trick is to buy enough of something, or make it special enough, to warrant stashing some away underground.  This is never going to happen with the odd wine purchase at a the supermarket, or a case from a local vintner.  No, the bottles that actually make it under the house are going to have to be something that we traveled for, something that we just can’t feel good about opening on a Tuesday night, or something that we purchased A LOT of because it was that good…

This requires some pretty amazing trips.  Lots of them.  Napa, Sonoma, Italy, France, Oregon…even some in our own backyard of Washington state.  We never get tired of visiting wine regions.  In fact, it has become our defacto trip of choice, trying to work in interesting sights and experiences for the kids around our guilty pleasure.  Even just a few days in Napa will restore your soul.

Currently sitting under me as I type are a few bottles of 2005 Cliff Lede Poetry.  Talk about a wine you can’t feel good about drinking on a Tuesday night… This wine literally makes me happy.  Like, if there were a fire in the house, I’d save the kids, then tell my husband not to even THINK about leaving unless he has the Poetry.  (I mean photo albums.)  But knowing I only have 4 bottles left sends me into full blown panic mode.  Maybe we should have bought more on that Napa trip?  Maybe next time we should buy more wine altogether?  Maybe I should check out some AA meetings.

Enoteca la Fortezza di Montalcino

Or how about the amazing Brunello wines we picked up in Montalcino on our honeymoon?  The drive up the hill to Montalcino was breathtaking and truly other-worldly, with winding, narrow, cobblestone roads and fairly deserted, save for a few locals riding bikes and another walking an elderly lady.  The views of Tuscany with its tall trees, green hills and Italian architecture is something I will never forget.  And at the top of the hill is a wine shop and tasting room where you can sample lots (and lots) of the special Brunello that the area is known for.  Our new friend, Angelina, made sure all of our wine made it back safely to the states and even sent us along with an additional bottle of my favorite, La Serena, as a treat.  You can bet all of that wine is under the house!

I also have some gorgeous wines from Sonoma and Napa, where we’ve traveled to four times over the past three years, all with amazing finds and a little more understanding of what makes this area so special.  We have 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Seavey and Anderson’s Conn Valley that are literally heaven in a bottle, and some outstanding Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley that make me want to eat lamb for a week.

I can’t help it.  I just love good wine.  I love it when wine is grown in a region that is superb, handled and tweaked to perfection by winemakers who just know their stuff, and placed in a dark bottle with a gorgeous label, just waiting to be enjoyed.  It’s literally a consumable piece of art.  Better than any shoe collection or crack habit, these 400+ bottles represent special trips, wonderful memories with my husband, a winery, winemaker or sommelier that told a great story.  They represent the good times to come, the special occasions where nothing will do but that certain amazing bottle under the house, even if it IS a Tuesday.  I mean, think about it… some of these wines will be carefully stored and later shared with our children.  Maybe a special 21st birthday wine is under our house.   Maybe a one-of-a-kind wedding gift is under our house.  If our children are anything like us, they will take a great bottle of wine over a toaster any day.

Wine Tasting at Rubicon in Napa

Knowing what pleasure the discovery of our wine has given us, as well as what pleasure we will experience when we open and share these bottles, is how I know I’m not crazy to think 400 bottles isn’t enough.  So I say, let 400 become 800, and 800 become 5,000.  Every wine has a story and every bottle under our house has a memory that will come back to life with the pop of a cork.  And a little cheese.



The wine shop in Montalcino is located in a 13th century old fort at the top of the hill.  They represent about 90ish wineries from the area, many of which do not distribute at all.  Therefore, your only chance of tasting many of these wineries offerings is at this enoteca.  There is a bit of a walk after parking in the lot, as you have to walk the ramp up to the old fort’s entry.  The enoteca is rich with history and the architecture and artifacts are fascinating.  The staff offers wine tastings, as well as tasty bites from their kitchen.  The staff has access to much more than the tasting menu of the day.  With a little persistence, they will let you sample several off-the-menu wines, which will make your trip worth while.

Some of the delicious wines we purchased from the Enoteca, and can highly recommend, if you can find them, are:

2001 Poggio San Polo Brunello
2003 La Serena Brunello
2001 Camigliano Brunello
2004 Aqua Bona Rosso
2003 Pian Pornello Brunello
2001 Pian Pornello Brunello
1998 Capanna Brunello
2001 Canalicchio Brunello
2003 Elia Palazzes’ Collelceto Brunello


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