Hawaii

Photo Sep 18, 4 50 23 PM

It’s not surprising that so many people choose to honeymoon or have a destination wedding in Hawaii — a state of extremes: beautiful beaches and dangerous volcanos. The latter is why my husband and I made the trip in September — both of us were in the wedding party of a couple of friends of ours getting married at the luxurious Kahala Resort in Honolulu. For both of us, this was our second trip to Hawaii.

My first was with my mom and childhood nanny during winter break, sophomore year of college. While temperatures back home in Houston were cold, we enjoyed 70s Fahrenheit pretty much all day and night in Hawaii in January 2001 — perfect weather for getting an even tan on Waikiki Beach.

This time, the weather was a bit warmer — enough to break a sweat.

East Oahu lookout point

East Oahu lookout point

Oahu

Honolulu

view of Pacific Ocean at sunrise from our Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort room

view of Pacific Ocean at sunrise from our Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort room

During my visit 17 years ago, we stayed at the Waikiki Sand Villa on the Ala Wai Canal, which is a great place to walk around for exercise and the perfect combination of city and water views. This time we stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort in an oceanfront, high-floor room with balcony for a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and white-sand Waikiki Beach.

You’ll want to visit the historically significant Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial, walk around the shopping & tourist areas of Waikiki, hike Diamond Head, and check out all the Asian dining options, as there is a large Asian population on the island, particularly native Hawaiians, Polynesians, Japanese, and Chinese. Poke (essentially, deconstructed sushi in a bowl) is a natural choice, but believe it or not, they’re not all good. Marukame Udon is a popular restaurant — the line was out the door, down the sidewalk, and to the end of the block — with a cafeteria-style setup where you can watch employees behind the counter cook your bowl of udon in soup (my favorite is beef, or niku) and pick up a variety of Japanese musubi. Some family of mine who live in Honolulu took us to the refined 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar with a New American and Pacific Rim buffet at Hawaii Prince Waikiki Hotel — the sunset view at dinner was beautiful with an endless array of sailboats lining the Ala Wai Harbor.

East Oahu lookout point

East Oahu lookout point

Venture out of Honolulu on the island of Oahu to the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail with a number of scenic lookout points to see cliffs, more secluded beaches, and ocean. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is a popular spot for snorkeling and close encounters with marine life, but we ran out of time to go. Another bummer: we had signed up for a seaplane tour of Hawaii, but unfortunately, the company running it had to cancel our trip due to unforeseen circumstances on their end.

Visit the Polynesian Cultural Center at Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus — we took a boat ride to tour the center in the mountains and saw The Hawaii Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A hilarious comedian/stuntman and coconut tree climber were part of a Polynesian performance in their tribal habitat.

Chief’s Luau was my second luau experience, complete with a buffet dinner feast, coconut leaf crafts, and performances with island music, dancing, and fire.

 

Molokai

like your own private beach, Molokai

like your own private beach, Molokai

If you really want to get away to some true peace and quiet, with hardly anyone around, this is it! Beaches, hiking trails, and parks… all to yourself. Molokai is called the friendly island of Hawaii, and it’s true. With a population of just over 7,000, it’s intimate enough that people would start conversations with us in public places, from restaurants to our hotel, Hotel Molokai in Kaunakakai. The hotel was a charming caricature in itself — crowing roosters, hens, and baby chicks roamed the property. Rooms didn’t have air conditioning, only a basic fan and air vents we could open in the door and windows. Thousands of crabs or more ran along the brown sandy beach, and as I would try to approach, each would vanish into the sand below and leave only a hole in the sand. The soil on this island is a brownish/orangish clay color.

view of Oahu from the air, flight to Molokai

view of Oahu from the air, flight to Molokai

We enjoyed visiting Kapuaiwa Coconut Grove, taking a step back in time at Molokai Pizza Cafe, and stopping at official and unofficial lookout points in Kamalo, Mapulehu, Pukoo and Halawa Valley, Cape Halawa. We drove from one end of the island to the other to see Papohaku Beach at sunset, which also offered treacherous waters and high surf. What Molokai is most well known for is its past history as a leper colony. From the Kalaupapa Trail & Lookout, you can see the isolated peninsula where several people with leprosy still voluntarily live.

The only part I didn’t like entirely was the short, roundtrip ride on a small Mokulele Airlines 9-seater plane from Honolulu to Molokai. The views of the islands from the low-flying plane were breathtaking, but the turbulence was enough to pull my heart into my stomach and hang on for dear life for several minutes after takeoff and before landing. I don’t like roller coasters with drops, or turbulence.

Maui

Maui (age 19, Jan. 2001)

Maui (age 19, Jan. 2001)

I visited Maui on my first trip to Hawaii. Beautiful white sand beaches make this island a favorite for tourists. Go see palm trees and mountainside views at Kuka Emoki and the idyllic Whaler’s Wharf (with whaling ships). We also saw a tiny island known as the “turtle” and the Guiness Book of World Records’ largest Hawaiian shirt inside the Hilo Hattie Island Store of Hawaii. We took a mini cruise off the island and enjoyed (as we did on the other islands on both trips) juicy Hawaiian pineapple and the best piña colada, while hula dancers and musicians entertained us. There’s a lot of audience participation involved in these shows, and I did plenty of dancing too.

Hawaiians seem to be obsessed with genital symbols, both phallic and vaginal, in the form of rocks and other natural formations on multiple islands, including Maui and Molokai.

Hawaii “Big Island”

 

Hawaii (referring here to the island so named, not the state as a whole), also known as the “Big Island,” was another I visited only on my first trip to Hawaii. We stayed at Hilo Resort in the town of Hilo, where we had an ocean in our backyard and played in the black sand. It is interesting to experience all the different types of sand on the various islands. Follow our lead and visit Rainbow Falls at Wailuku River, Kilauea Caldera Volcano, Akatsuka Orchid Gardens, Mauna Loa Macadamias factory and warehouse, and the Farmers Market in Hilo.

black sand beach, "The Big Island" (age 19, Jan. 2001)

black sand beach, “The Big Island” (age 19, Jan. 2001)

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beachfront wedding

beachfront wedding

If you have barely four days and a wedding to attend, you can’t do everything Puerto Rico has to offer, but you can get a taste of the tropical island that attracts so many tourists year round. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, travelers from the U.S. don’t need a passport. But before checking in for your return flight to the mainland, you have to run your bags through the USDA agricultural inspection — no native Puerto Rican fruits allowed back in the U.S. I spent a lot of time exploring the island with other wedding guests, as we all had the same flight itinerary and stayed at the same hotel.

The Beach

The obvious draw of Puerto Rico is its beautiful beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. I spent a weekend and two weekdays in San Juan this month, attending the destination wedding of a childhood friend. The host hotel was beachfront: La Concha, a Renaissance Resort whose name in Spanish means “shell” and which has a uniquely designed building shaped like a shell (sea shell, oyster shell, clam shell). The wedding reception was in this building, which houses the Perla restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that allow guests to look out of the shell and take in the beautiful view of the ocean and blue sky. The ceremony was on an outdoor platform overlooking the water.

The afternoon before the wedding, I spent an hour lying on a lounge chair overlooking an infinity pool, which overlooked the sand and ocean. The view was so serene that it put me to sleep. The constant sound of waves hitting the shore was wonderful.

A number of piña coladas and mojitos accompanied our visit — we sipped them poolside, beach side, and in the smoke-free casino, where I watched other wedding guests gamble and didn’t waste a penny. We also enjoyed Mahi Mahi bites and Latin sliders with Puerto Rican hot sauce at the hotel’s pool-side restaurant Solera. Tamarind was abundant at Voga’s breakfast buffet, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the fruit.

Our hotel room had an incredible ocean view, where daily we saw surfers and swimmers enjoying the waves and sand until a short rain shower interrupted them for just several minutes. We had the same experience on two days — one was cloudier and calmer, the other was sunnier and marked by a higher tide (providing for quite a thrill, as waves crashed farther up the shore than usual). I enjoyed letting the waves crash into me, tossing me around in the water. I ended our last visit to the beach with coconut ice cream from a cart.

me enjoying the Atlantic

me enjoying the Atlantic

Beach-front Tourist Area

We spent an afternoon walking along the street where our hotel was located, Ave Dr. Ashford. The stroll took us to lovely lookout points with pretty palm trees and sculptures, souvenir and beach shops like Piña Colada Club, high-end stores like Salvatore Feragamo and Gucci, and YogurtFit, where we stopped for Naranji, Coco, and other frozen yogurt flavors. A great dining spot we found was Waikiki Caribbean Food & Oyster Bar. I recommend the Empanadillas de Cachín (filled with fish and a tasty sauce), whole red snapper, red beans and rice, and fried Yucca balls.

Old (Viejo) San Juan

Our welcome dinner put on by the bride and groom was at Patio del Nispero in the boutique Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, about 10 minutes from our hotel. The quaint ambience is what you’d imagine for the older part of an island city. The meal was delectable, complete with plantain soup, Tres Leches, and other zesty Puerto Rican dishes. All the shops we passed were closed by the time dinner was over, but the lights strung from buildings on one side of the street to the other were still on and provided us a charming atmosphere for a nighttime walk. The buildings are old, some dilapidated, but with beautifully intricate Spanish colonial architecture.

We came full circle on our final night, dining in Old San Juan at El Siglo XX — part deli, part restaurant. Lamb chops, chicken asapao (Puerto Rican-style gumbo), and cod with creole sauce were our menu choices. At 7pm, most retailers and other businesses were closed, which surprised and disappointed me for a tourist destination. But then again, it’s Puerto Rico, not Hong Kong (a city of high-speed commerce, much of which stays up all night).

I was also surprised to find the $2 daily maid tip and one-time $4 bell tip were already included on my final hotel bill — a bit deceptive, especially when you’ve already tipped for those services. As extensively as I’ve traveled throughout the world, staying at hotels at various price points over my lifetime, I’ve never seen those gratuities line-itemed on my bill.

People and things move slowly in Puerto Rico. They’re on island time — relaxed, unhurried, and friendly. You can get around fine speaking English, but my Spanish helped often when English wasn’t a strong language for the local I was speaking to.

Guava paste, Yaucono ground coffee, and breezy dresses were among the purchases our group brought back home. Had we stayed longer in Puerto Rico, I would have liked to explore its rain forests, caves, and water adventures. Maybe next time…

Until I write again, safe travels!

Old San Juan at night

Old San Juan at night

California

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to California throughout my life. With relatives and friends who live across the state, there’s always a reason to visit. As much as the golden state is portrayed in movies and entertainment shows, everyone knows it’s a naturally beautiful place with sun, surf, and sand and palm-tree-lined boulevards with majestic mountains in the distance. They also know it’s too expensive for most people to live comfortably, not to mention the risk of wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Even Californians themselves sit on two opposite extremes: While there are admirable ones who are environmentally considerate, there are also unnecessarily narcissistic people who flaunt their beach bodies and fake tans.

SoCal

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood Walk of Fame: Michael Jackson's star

There are so many sizable cities in Southern California that you can drive from one to the next without having to pass through a lot of countryside. Los Angeles is a sprawling city, laid out kind of like Houston — far and wide — but with even worse traffic gridlock. The cultural diversity makes the greater L.A. area colorful and welcoming to all sorts of people. There’s a “town” for most major ethnicities, where you can get their food, groceries, clothing, and decorations. You can spend a fun evening in Anaheim‘s Downtown Disney — restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues all lit up and live performers in the outdoor courtyards. Endless beaches line the Pacific coast, so you can relax in San Diego or Huntington Beach or any other coastal city. The Santa Monica Pier offers amusements in the form of rides, restaurants, and retail. Enjoy the charming town square in Orange, where I visited my husband (then-boyfriend/fiancé) who was attending graduate school at Chapman University there and living in Garden Grove, home to Crystal Cathedral. Plenty of family fun can be had at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Home to the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the sign in Hollywood Hills, Hollywood is just as you’d imagine it. In nearby Beverly Hills, you can take driving tours to see the stars’ mansions. Irvine is a safe, pretty community, which makes its property values sky high too. On one of my more recent trips to California, we got to sit in the audience during the taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at NBC‘s Burbank studios.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

Central Coast
Hearst Castle in San Simeon is definitely worth a tour. The beautiful Greek design is showcased from the indoor pools to the artistic sculptures.

Northern California
To me, SoCal is less serious and more about fun, but Northern California is more intellectual — home to Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. San Francisco has the richness and unique characteristics of an older city, from streetcars to the world’s crookedest street, Lombard Street. The Golden Gate Bridge and classy art museums add to its dreamy quality. The vast Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but you can find all sorts of land forms in the wilderness.

A strange title for this blog post, but an appropriate one. I took an overseas trip with several family members in January 2010. We spent several days in Hong Kong (my 9th trip to my favorite place in the world) and then flew to Thailand (my first trip there).

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

Hong Kong skyline across Victoria Harbour from Kowloon (our view from Intercontinental Hotel)

You can read more about HK in a previous blog entry. This time, we added a few more highlights to our memories of my parents’ homeland: Lan Kwai Fong (a dining/entertainment district near Hong Kong Island’s busy Central business district), Gwennie Tam Fine Jewellery (my cousin’s store in Central with high-tech, futuristic display cases and beautiful jewelry for men and women), afternoon tea at Intercontinental Hotel on Kowloon Peninsula (a breathtaking panoramic view of the HK skyline across Victoria Harbour), and exploring new shopping malls on HK Island and Kowloon Peninsula. We also attended another cousin’s wedding.

Thailand

Thailand is a colorful place, literally and figuratively.

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

Bang Pa-In Palace, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

PATTAYA
Our first night in Thailand was a jaw-dropping one.

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

Pattaya Floating Market, Thailand (photo taken from a boat)

We dined alfresco by a body of water (no one could tell me the English name) and watched local Thai soccer fans cheer for their team on the big-screen TV projection screen — and I’m talking about a huge screen, the kind that you’d find at an outdoor amphitheater. Nothing strange yet. After checking into our hotel (with a Pattaya Beach view, no less), we headed out for a walk to a nearby mall and outdoor fruit market. And that’s where we started seeing patterns. Men were picking up female prostitutes from sidewalks left and right. Most of the men were white; I couldn’t tell if they were tourists or lived in Thailand. There were also groups of a few men with one prostitute to share among them. I also saw couples — one after another — that were made up of an elderly white man (around retirement age or beyond) and a young Thai woman (in her 20s). It’s not so strange if you see just one such couple, but one after another by the same description tells you something about relationships in at least that part of Thailand. I had known Thailand to have a “vibrant” sex industry, replete with gay tourists hiring personal escorts in the form of underage teenage boys, but I was seeing the industry with my own eyes. It got even more interesting. A nightclub/bar with no doors or exterior facades (as in, open to the outside for onlookers to watch) had a stage showcasing beautiful women dancing. It took us a while to figure out they weren’t always women. That was our introduction to Thailand’s transsexual industry. In the U.S., you can usually figure out a transsexual really fast, but in Thailand, they’re much more difficult to pick out. The surgeries and other transformation procedures are much more well done.

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

Three-headed Elephant in Samut Prakan, Thailand

We got tickets to Tiffany’s Show, the world’s premier transsexual stage show. It was a clean show — no nudity, just elaborate sets and costumes and beautiful music and dances, Vegas style. I was very impressed. If you looked closely at facial features, you could tell some of the women were once men, but with a few of the performers, you just couldn’t tell. They looked like Barbie dolls from head and toe — tall, thin, model bodies and near-perfect faces. They even danced like women, moving their hips fluidly and striking graceful positions.

Thai massage and foot reflexology services were advertised everywhere. Our tour package included an hour-long Thai massage, but we paid for a second hour to get the full-body treatment. It’s painful knowing how inexpensive massages are in Thailand, compared to what I pay in the U.S. An hour of massage in Thailand runs you less than $10, including tip! In the U.S., the nicer, cleaner spas charge upward of $60-70/hour. Thai massage was a new and laugh-inducing experience for me and some of my family. The masseuse stretches you in awkward positions and hits your bones in between staccato squeezes of your flesh.

Water sports made a morning at the beach in Pattaya City a fun one! We watched my brother parasail, but the rest of us dared not try. He and I went on an underwater Sea Voyage, wearing swimsuits, water shoes and helmets, and staying vertical so the water wouldn’t come into our helmets. After pinching my nose and “blowing” to prevent painful ear pressure, I was giddy to reach the bottom of the sea floor — about 20 feet deep where we were — where we saw coral, fed and touched fish, and touched other ocean creatures. My husband and I jet skied, while the rest of the family shopped the seemingly endless line of shops along the beach. We all took a few boat rides to and from an island and the mainland. The clear, green water was beautiful.

BANGKOK
In Thailand’s capital and largest city, you’ll find very developed commercial areas next to very run-down residential areas, where metal roofs of homes overlap each other and people live in more primitive ways.

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

Downtown Bangkok, Thailand

We saw a panoramic view of the city from atop the city’s tallest tower, Baiyoke Sky Hotel, on a 360-degree rotating outdoor platform. There we also dined on a sprawling buffet of all types of Asian foods; the food was as heavenly as the height of the restaurant near the top of the hotel tower. Our hotel, Luxor: The Egyptian Design Hotel, was just as it sounds and truly one of a kind. Our rooms were two stories, with the bathroom, living room, closet, and desk downstairs and bedroom upstairs.

We visited Southeast Asia’s largest aquarium, Siam Ocean World, filled with very interesting, exotic sea creatures. On the outskirts of Bangkok, we visited Buddhist temples of traditional Thai architectural design, took a wooden-boat dinner cruise at sunset down the Mekong River, and toured the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. We also saw the faithful arrive in droves to buy incense and flowers to worship the 4-faced Buddha and release birds from cages to bring favor upon themselves from the gods. The open-air shrine was located right next to a Burberry store and other buildings and elevated highways — an interesting juxtaposition, considering how the area was far less developed more than two decades ago, when my father visited the same spot. In the nearby Samut Prakan province, we saw an imposing 3-headed, giant elephant at the Erawan Museum. It’s a symbol of the Hindu influences in Thailand. We rode a real elephant through a park and swamp, sat on an elephant’s tusks which the animal brought together to form a “chair,” and pet a baby elephant as it performed tricks.

elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

Julie on an elephant in Pattaya, Thailand

U.S. Virgin Islands

Charlotte Amalie Harbor

Charlotte Amalie Harbor

A true “getaway” — far from the continental United States, the Virgin Islands is the complete opposite of Hong Kong. You won’t find crowds, skyscrapers, and vehicles jam packing the streets. This is a place you go to to disconnect from and forget about the hustle and bustle of everyday life and work.

our hotel

view of the beach from our hotel

St. Thomas
My husband and I spent a week in fall 2007 on two islands, mostly St. Thomas. We stayed at Marriott’s Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Resort, which captured the island spirit and provided enough amenities, recreation, and relaxation to entertain us for most of the time. The sound of a man playing a steel drum on the backdrop of a Caribbean beach sunset during happy hour, a swim-up bar next to a waterfall, the wind blowing through the lobby because there are no doors — paradise. Actor Matthew Perry of Friends TV-show fame ate at one of the hotel restaurants the same night we ate there.

iguanas

iguanas

And iguanas appeared in our path around every corner. I was a little afraid of them because some of the locals said the strange-looking creatures bite… and they run fast. Sometimes I’d take a detour to avoid walking too close to them.

St. John
We took a ferry and spent a day in St. John, where shopping in the cute island shops right near the port was abundant and fun. We took the multi-row, open-air taxis around both islands. The weather was perfect. It didn’t rain until the last day of our trip.

MUST-SEE

Click on image to see full size.

Saqib at Marriott Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Resort

1. Beach. It’s pretty obvious the reason to go to an island is for the water, and water is my favorite part of nature. We went sailing out into the harbor, then snorkeling among sting rays, jellyfish, and other sea creatures. The beautiful, blue-green water and white sand were idyllic.
2. Downtown shopping. Lined with quaint shops selling all sorts of souvenirs and restaurants serving fresh seafood, it’s hardly downtown in a big-city sense. It’s just nice to walk around stone paths, view antiques, and see how many gold jewelry stores you can count within one block.

 

aboard Caribe Time ferry

aboard Caribe Time ferry