The Big Island – Waipio Valley with Horses

31 07 2007

If you are among the dozen or so people who have seen the movie “Waterworld” starring Kevin Costner, you may have wondered where that beautiful valley featured at the end of the film is located. Even if you have never wondered this, I’ll tell you anyway. The valley in question is Waipio Valley. Well, technically, I believe they filmed it in Waipio Valley and the next one over.

A view of the mysterious Waipio Valley as seen from the overlook.

Waipio Valley Overlook

Waipio Valley is the southernmost valley in the chain of 7 valleys in the northeast side of the Big Island. This valley is a sacred place for Hawaiians and has both cultural and historical significance. Not only is this the most fertile valley in the islands, but it is also the setting of many ancient stories about gods and kings. In the past, this valley was well populated and had schools, churches, restaurants, and even a hotel. However, a great tsunami destroyed these structures in the 1940s and since then it has not been repopulated. Only about 50 people live down there now, mostly locals whose families have lived there for ages and um, nature lovers.

A waterfall in Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley Waterfall

Because it’s such a sacred place for Hawaiians, it’s best to take a tour. There are donkey cart tours, van tours, and horseback riding tours. I believe hiking straight to the beach is ok, but hiking into the valley and the back of it is definitely a no-no. However, I don’t know who would want to hike down because the road down into the valley is super steep. I mean it feels like you are falling over if you stand up straight and it is steeper than the steepest street in San Francisco. ONLY 4-wheel drive vehicles can even make it down the road and back. There is no sidewalk so you need to share the road if you walk, which is not my idea of a good time.

We opted to enjoy our tour of Waipio on horseback with Na’alapa Stables. This is the only stable actually in Waipio Valley, and they take you through streams and right into the thick of Waipio Valley. They are locally owned and operated, so you know the guides are good.

Waipio on Horseback

Our guide Keoni was very gregarious and funny. My horse was great. Very gentle and easy to direct. Actually, my horse is famous – he starred in “Waterworld.” I am a horseback riding novice and it was fine. The company gives you a quick overview of how to ride a horse before you go out. It is a nose to tail ride, but you go at a leisurely pace so that you can enjoy your surroundings. The views were amazing, and we even saw some wild horses! There are fruit trees everywhere – you can just reach out and pluck a guava. The valley is absolutely beautiful, and it was great to be given a tour by a longtime resident.

I would suggest some insect repellent though. This was the only place on the entire island where I got bitten by mosquitos. I got 4 mosquito bites on one arm, although I think it’s because it’s where I rested on the saddle blanket.

It was an honor to be able to visit such a beautiful, special place.

Next: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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The Big Island – Ocean Tour (and Dolphins)

30 07 2007

When in Hawaii, one of the activities you must do is take an ocean tour. The sea is such a huge part of the culture and daily life in Hawaii that not doing something on the water is like going to New York and not seeing the Statue of Liberty. Most outfits do the same thing – they take you out on a boat, take you 1 or 2 places to go snorkeling, view sealife, and maybe check out some sea caves. There are two main kinds of boats – huge party boats that provide a big lunch or dinner with booze and are crammed with 30 people OR small boats with fewer people on a more personal tour. Most companies provide the snorkeling equipment, but you can also bring your own.

Dolphin Discoveries Boat

Even though the large boats had bathrooms, we chose to go with the smaller boats. We did our ocean tour with Dolphin Discoveries (DD) on the recommendation of a few people on the Tripadvisor Hawaii forum. DD takes you to the two best snorkel sites on the island, the Captain Cook monument and the Place of Refuge, and each tour has less than a dozen people.

Near the Captain Cook Monument

Near Captain Cook

The snorkeling here is incredible!  We spent about 45 minutes at the Captain Cook monument.  We saw a fish that looked like it was made of rainbow sherbet, lots of bright yellow fish, brain corral, and many other beautiful reef dwellers.  After that, we moved to the Place of Refuge for about 30 minutes, where we saw dozens of turtles all hanging out, and Charles and I also managed to get a glimpse of a white tip reef shark before it zoomed back into the deeper parts of the ocean.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have an underwater camera and I was too chicken to use the underwater bag for my camera.

A friendly honu, the sea turtle seen all over the island, shot with my regular above water camera.

Honu

Now I will take a moment to say a word about dolphins.  I know everyone wants to see a dolphin and secretly wants to frolic in the water with them and maybe even pet or ride one.  Heck, I am one of those people who would really love to do that.  However, we have to remember that we need to respect dolphins and that when we are in the water we are in their territory and habitat.  You should not chase dolphins (actually it’s against the law) and should try to do the least harm as possible.  Companies that chase dolphins only hurt the very animals they seek.  That being said, there are several reputable companies out there that are respectful of nature and wildlife but you may still get to see dolphins.

When you go on an ocean tour, there is a big chance you won’t see a dolphin.  The big rise in snorkeling and kayaking has disturbed many of the dolphin resting places near the island coasts, which is why preservation of their habitat is so important.  However, you still get to snorkel in two of the most amazing underwater sites, see lots and lots of turtles, and other wild sealife.  Think of the ocean tour as a sealife/nature tour in which dolphins may appear.  If they do appear, it is that much more special!

We were incredibly lucky because as we were leaving the Place of Refuge after snorkeling, one of our fellow boaters spotted a spinner dolphin.  Our captain stopped the engine completely so that we were completely quiet and still on the water.  Then we saw two more dolphins, and four more, and then what looked like hundreds of dolphins slowly making their way into the dolphin sanctuary that is just to the left of the Place of Refuge.  Apparently dolphins “sleep” in this sanctuary, although they use it less often than they used to.  2-3 dolphins were still not completely asleep, though, because they spun through the air.  Their bellies were pink, and they were SO CUTE!  Even though I had prepared myself for the possibility that we would not see any dolphins, I was SUPER excited to them.  They really made my day/week/month!

I am not the fastest photographer, though, so this is the only good picture I have of my dolphin experience.  It’s still proof I saw these wonderful creatures though!

Spinner Dolphins

After our dolphin experience, everyone on the boat was pumped to see more sea creatures so we drove around.  The captain followed the flight of a seabird and we were zooming through the water.  Then, someone spotted something in the water – a pod of pilot whales!  Madame Pele must have been smiling down on us that day because we had such an amazing experience seeing all the different life in the ocean.

Pilot Whales

I know I have used amazing and incredible a lot in this post, but this was really one of the best experiences of my life.

Next: Waipio Valley





The Big Island – Pololu Valley

29 07 2007

Note: We went to Hawaii in August 2006. To start from of the beginning of this series of posts, see the post titled “The Big Island (Hawaii) – August 2006.”

On the northeast part of the island is a chain of 7 lush valleys. Pololu Valley is the northernmost valley and can be reached by road. On the way to Pololu Valley you pass through the town of Hawi. We stopped by this town to have lunch at Bamboo (pictured in the previous post) and some shave ice at Tropical Dreams before arriving at Pololu Valley.

On the drive to Pololu Valley, you pass through these green hills.

Near Waimea

Looking down into Pololu Valley

Pololu Valley

As you hike down, you are greeted with expansive views of the lush valley. It is about a 20 minute hike down a steep path. A fellow hiker gazes across the valley.

Pololu Valley

When you get to get to the bottom, you can frolick on the black sand beach. Swimming is not recommended.

Black Sand Beach
On the inland side, there is a view of the river crossing through the valley.

Pololu Valley

Unfortunately, it takes at least twice as long to climb back up to the parking lot.

Pololu Hike

Although this hike is not too strenuous, we were sweating when we made it back up to our car. Fortunately, an entrepreneurial man was selling coconuts on the side of the road. We picked a coconut for him to machete, and were able to enjoy a nice cold drink. I highly recommend this hike, as it was the best free activity we did on the island. Exploring is encouraged here.

Next: Dolphins!





The Big Island (Hawaii) – August 2006

29 07 2007

Charles and I went to the Big Island, Hawaii, for our honeymoon in August 2006. Since there is a lot of information on Hawaii online, I will just go through the highlights of this trip, and our recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and activities.

Hawaiian Sunset

We chose the Big Island over the other Hawaiian islands because it is less developed than Oahu and Maui, yet still has all the positives. In addition, it was less expensive than Maui and has retained much of the “old Hawaii” vibe. The Big Island, also called Hawaii, not only has beaches, rainforests, and waterfalls, but it also has a snow capped volcano in Mauna Kea and an active volcano in Kilauea among its 5 volcanoes. Although I’m not a particularly active person, I considered this an adventure vacation. Within a span of 9 days, we hiked in a rainforest, crossed lava fields, snorkeled in a dolphin sanctuary, and went horseback riding in a sacred Hawaiian valley. It really was a trip of a lifetime!

The Big Island is separated into two main areas, the dryer West side, where most of the resorts and the city of Kona is located, and the humid East side, where the town of Hilo and the Kilauea volcano is located.

Old Hawaii can be experienced in the town of Hawi. Bamboo, a Hawaiian fusion restuarant, is pictured below.

Shave Ice in Hawi

Where We Stayed:

Since it was our honeymoon, we splurged a bit and stayed at the Fairmont Orchid on the Kohala Coast for 5 nights, then 2 nights at Hale Hualalai, a B&B on a coffee farm in Kona, and 1 night at Kilauea Lodge in Volcano Village . I recommend all these places to stay. I found Kilauea Lodge and Hale Hualalai through B&B reviews on tripadvisor.com.

We lucked out a bit, as we got a fantastic deal for this entire vacation. Since we went to August, we didn’t experience some of the high season winter prices for airfares. We bought our airfare and hotel package through AAVacations after researching several different vendors, including Expedia.com, PleasantHolidays.com, and pricing the airfare separately through sidestep.com. Be on the lookout for deals the hotel itself is offering – often other online sites will match this deal. We were able to get our 5th night free at the Fairmont through AAVacations.

The view from our hotel room. You can see the volcano peaks behind the hotel’s landscaping.

View from our room

Tips:

You will need to rent a car, as the Big Island is BIG! The cheapest gas can be found at Costco (if you have a membership) in Kona. For groceries and inexpensive but high quality souvenirs, go to the Walmart on the hill overlooking Alii Drive. If you do not want to shop at Walmart, there are many smaller grocery stores found all over the island.

Information on Hawaii and Guidebooks: We used the guidebook “The Big Island – Revealed” extensively in the planning of this trip.  While the book was invaluable,  it does go a little overboard in some more “adventurous” sections.  Use your common sense when using this guidebook.  I also got specific activity and restaurant recommendations from (I’m going to sound like a broken record) the tripadvisor forums for the Big Island.

Next: Hiking in Pololu Valley





Tokyo – Details

29 07 2007

Note: We went to Tokyo in May 2006. Please scroll down to the first Tokyo post, titled “Tokyo – May 2006” to start at the beginning of this series of posts.

We stayed at the Dai-Ichi the first night, and then at a business hotel in Yaesu near Tokyo Station the rest of the time. The Dai-Ichi was beautiful and the staff excellent. The rooms are spacious with a luxurious bathroom. Definitely a great choice!

We flew to Narita from Chicago on a connecting flight through San Jose, CA on American Airlines. On the way back, we were able to fly directly to Chicago from Narita. American Airlines uses Boeing 777s on flights to Narita. You can take the Narita Express train to and from Tokyo Main Station, and it’s just an hour each way. Narita also has a nice mini-mall inside the airport where you can buy Japanese desserts to take home or Mikimoto pearls. For information on layovers in Narita, check out this great website: http://www.mgnewman.com/narita/index.html.

We had a very full schedule just doing 3 things in one day. The ideal pace would have been to visit 2 sites a day. The best shopping for souvenirs and gifts (and fresh traditional snacks) was at Asakusa.

Travel information and guidebooks: Lonely Planet -Tokyo provided a great overview for our trip. I also extensively used the Tokyo message board on Tripadvisor.com as a source of valuable information. I want to thank Route246 and the other forumers especially for their useful advice.

Some general comments:

– Tokyo is the most unique city I have ever visited worldwide. I would have to say that this is the cleanest, most efficient, and most crowded city I have ever visited.

– The Tokyo public transportation system is wonderful – clean, efficient, convenient. It was intimidating at first, but after the first time it was very easy to figure out. There are English maps in most of the stations. If there are no English maps, we just bought the lowest fare and adjusted it at the end of the ride. The fare machines all had English menus.

– For those who have never used the public transportation, the biggest thing to know is that the ticket is scanned when you enter and when you leave the station. Thus, if you bought the wrong fare, you can simply adjust the fare right before you leave in the fare adjustment machines that are situated right next to the exits.

– Since we stayed near Tokyo station, we found the Underground Mall adjoining it very useful. There were all kinds of food options and shops.

– I do not speak or read Japanese and was able to navigate and find everything fairly easily. The three words to know: Sumimasen (excuse me), Arigato gosaimasu (thank you very much), doko… (where). Please excuse my spelling. All the train and subway information and signage is labeled in English in Tokyo.

 





Tokyo – Day 3

29 07 2007

Note: We went to Tokyo in May 2006. Please scroll down to the first Tokyo post, titled “Tokyo – May 2006” to start at the beginning of this series of posts.

This was my last day in Tokyo, so I stuck around the immediate area around our hotel. We walked to the Imperial Palace grounds, but they were not open until 9-10AM. I still got in a few photos, and I am supplementing them with photos that Charles took a few days later.

The Imperial Palace gardens are open to the public, but the palace itself is closed to the public except for one day a year because it is a working royal residence.

According to Charles, the Imperial Palace grounds were beautiful and felt like what you think of Japan in the days of the samurai. He loved the beauty, tranquility, and the rest houses.

Imperial Garden

Imperial Gardent 2

Imperial Stream

We came back and walked around the Marunouchi area, the business district, right before rush hour on a Monday morning. It was like walking in a sea of suits. We both work in the Loop in Chicago, but Americans are mostly business casual these days. In Japan, everyone in the business district wears suits, so the effect is much more striking.

Look! It’s Bloomberg Japan!

Bloomberg

We then went back to the hotel so that I could catch my flight to Chicago. This was also Charles’ last day of fun, as he spent the rest of the time in the convention center (pictured below) attending a conference.

Tokyo Convention Center

Charles did have an opportunity to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market one of the remaining days he was in Japan. However, you have to remember it is a working fish market. Charles felt that he and the other tourists were just in the way a lot of times.

He did get to see a giant hunk of tuna though.

Tuna at Tsukiji

So ends our brief but enlightening trip to the city of Tokyo. We really wish we could have stayed longer. Next time, I hope to visit Kyoto and other places outside of Tokyo, in addition to spending more time in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and the Imperial Palace area. I also hope to have a chance to taste more of Japan’s cuisine, including some of the Iron Chef restaurants.

Next: Tokyo – Detail from our trip and some closing thoughts.





Tokyo – Day 2

29 07 2007

Note: We went to Tokyo in May 2006. Please scroll down to the first Tokyo post, titled “Tokyo – May 2006” to start at the beginning of this series of posts.

On Day 2, we went to Asakusa, Akihabara, and Shibuya.

Asakusa is a must-see for anyone going to Japan for the first time. Yes, it is touristy, but its popularity is well deserved. The main attraction for Asakusa is the Sensoji Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo. When you first walk out of the station, it looks like any other city block in Tokyo except the buildings look a little older. Then you get to Thunder Gate, a grand entrance marking the beginning of the temple grounds that is guarded by the gods of Thunder and Lightning.

Thunder Gate

After you pass the massive gate, you come to a long outdoor arcade of shops selling touristy trinkets, traditional snacks, and other souvenirs. Even though most things being sold are knick-knacks, we found some great souvenirs here.

After walking past the shops, you finally come to the temple itself. Tourists and pilgrims come here to make incense offerings in the outer courtyard before this Buddhist temple. Inside the temple itself, you can pay a nominal fee for a fortune. If you get a bad fortune, you tie it to a tree and the bad luck will be taken away from you.

Sensoji Temple

Next to the Sensoji Temple is a five story pagoda dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu. (I had to look that up, as I couldn’t remember to whom it was dedicated.) There is also a beautiful temple garden that has trees, ponds full of carp, and small monuments and little houses.

Sensoji Temple garden

Sensoji Temple garden 2

After leaving the temple grounds, I discovered there was a Studio Ghibli store right outside of Thunder Gate (on the left coming out of the gate). I was really excited and dragged Charles inside to look at everything Totoro. It wasn’t until later that I realized that there are Studio Ghibli stores EVERYWHERE. There is also a Studio Ghibli store in the underground mall at Tokyo station, and of course in the Studio Ghibli museum. I heard there is a big store in Odaiba, and one near the Tokyo Tower. But I digress…

Our next destination was Akihabara, the electronics section of Tokyo. This area is popular with students, tech geeks, and anime fans. While the area is said to be not as good for electronics as in the past, it is still a great place to poke around. There are still tons of electonics shops, both little ones lining a shopping arcade to 8 story stores with several departments featuring different appliances.

Akihabara

In addition, we found a street off of the main drag where there was a row of cheap eats, including a ramen shop, a tonkatsu (port cutlet) shop, and an udon shop, among other choices. We had a great lunch in the ramen shop, and it was pretty easy to make our order understood (again, the order by number via the plasticized food menu). We only stuck around a little while here, but I wish we had more time to browse! We saw some tiny Canon cameras that the US mostly wouldn’t even see in stores for at least a year.

Our last stop of the day was Shibuya, the famous trendy area of Tokyo where the young and fashionable come to shop. We first stopped by Hachiko the statue, a monument to the famously loyal dog that is now a popular meeting place.

Here’s Hachiko:

Hachiko the dog

And here is the famous Shibuya crossing, the Japanese version of Times Square. Amid humongous flashing screens hawking ads is a large 3 road intersection. The coordination between the pedestrians walking and cars driving is amazing. The intersection is so large that all pedestrians walk at the same time and all cars drive at the same time.

Shibuya crossing

We walked around Shibuya, gathering in the atmosphere. Imagine pop music blaring, ads flashing, bright shops selling all kinds of things and throngs of people everywhere and you might get a hint of what Shibuya is like. There was an underground arcade full of teenagers and a first floor area that had dozens of claw machines where you try to pick up different stuffed animals. From my knowledge of Asian culture gleaned from watching Hong Kong movies, winning a stuffed animal from the claw game seems to be a mandatory date activity a la “He won me that giant panda – our relationship must be fate!”

We also saw a bunch of American fast food chains represented in trendy Shibuya.

KFC Shibuya

We returned to our business hotel after our busy day and had dinner inside Tokyo Station. Here I am going to rhapsodize about Tokyo Station and its underground mall. It is fantastic, convenient, and huge! It has a gourmet supermarket where you can grab groceries or pre-made dinners! It has a Studio Ghibli store, an arcade, a drugstore, and other random clothing stores. It has restaurants, including a breakfast place, a traditional Japanese lunch place, and a conveyor belt sushi place! We actually ate at the conveyor belt sushi place for dinner, and it was great! The sushi was fresh and there was quite a selection (at least compared to the Americanied Japanese places in the US). Seeing that we are so close to the Tsukiji fish market, it comes as no surprise that the sushi is fresh even at the little sushi place next to the train station.

Ah, another satisfying yet hectic day in the rambling city of Tokyo.

Next: My last day in Tokyo, walking around the Imperial Palace and the Marunouchi business district.








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