Our first 2016 adventure: Porto, Portugal  

I can’t believe the first week of 2016 has come and gone – how has that happened? Is it already too late for resolutions? I posted a few of mine on Twitter, but I’ll repeat them here for posterity:

My 2016 resolutions

  • Stop going on Goodreads (I have made it a week so far, which is longer than I thought! I love Goodreads and the community but it wasn’t healthy for my creativity, which leads on to resolution number two…)
  • Focus on my art (guilt-free, allowing myself to learn and get better)
  • Eat less sugar (failing slightly on this one already… there’s still time)
  • Live in the moment & not on my phone (hmm)

I’m not so sure I believe in resolutions, but it’s still fun to make them! At any rate, 2016 is going to be Our Year of Adventure, and so starting as we mean to go on, we took off on our first trip of the year… to Porto, Portugal!

I’ve never really thought of Porto as a top destination, but as one of Lofty’s friends (hi Steve!) is a pilot who is based there, it was the perfect opportunity to go and visit him and the city. To be honest, Porto surprised me in so many ways! Strolling along the banks of the river Douro from Steve’s home in Vila Nova de Gaia (just across the river from Porto proper), passing world-famous Port houses, stunning shops with blue-tiled frontages and buzzing restaurants, I was really impressed.

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Of course, Porto also found a place in my heart because it has a great literary tradition, home to one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores and also once home to that great idol of mine, JK Rowling. And it’s easy to see why so many people tie Harry Potter back to Porto – it’s a got a mysterious, meandering vibe that reminds me of the novels… streets to get lost in, with delights and surprises around each corner. Even the McDonald’s has an entrance that immediately put me in mind of the entrance to Dumbledore’s office… as if you just needed to utter ‘lemon drops’ to be transported from the land of Big Macs straight into Hogwarts. The Livraria Lello is renowned for his magnificent staircase – you do need to pay 3 euros for the privilege of seeing it, but to me it was worth it!

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Porto also feels different to the rest of Portugal because of its climate. It rains here. A lot. And the temperature is fairly stable throughout the year – there is no extreme heat or freezing cold like they get further inland, in the Douro valley (where they grow the grapes for the Port wine). Speaking of which… its climate also made it the perfect destination for Porto’s other major role: as the home of delicious Port wine! It wouldn’t have been a visit to Porto without stopping in at one of the Port wine houses – we chose Graham’s as one of the most recognizable, but there were so many to choose from. We had a tour of the cellar (where the aforementioned temperature helps keep the wine nice and cool as it matures) and, of course, had a tasting of three different varieties of port.

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Whenever it comes to a destination, I’m all about the food. Luckily, Porto did not disappoint. I was already a big fan of the Portuguese custard tarts known as pasteles de nata, and they were available everywhere! But I was not prepared for a ginormous sandwich known as the francesinha – a decadent spread of meats (steak, sausage and ham) between two thick slices of bread, covered in molten cheese, sitting in a bath of tomato soup and topped with an egg. Yes, it was just as rich and hearty as you’re imagining. Yes, we had to split one. I recommend Brasao Cervejaria as the place to go if you’re interested in trying one too!

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Porto is also extremely well known for its rich abundance of seafood. The supermarkets have huge sections devoted to dried cod (a Christmas specialty, apparently), and there was no shortage of seafood on every menu. We headed out to the coastal town of Matosinhos, where the restaurants are just across the street from where the fishermen bring in their catch. The seafood could literally not get any fresher! There are huge grills lining the street where fish is seared to perfection – alas, it was raining (typical Porto) so we headed for sanctuary inside. At the Matosinhos restaurant we visited (called O Valentim), we didn’t even bother looking at the menu. The waiter brought over a giant, fresh sea bass and we gave him the thumbs up. It returned a few minutes later, perfectly grilled and absolutely delicious. Who needs a menu?

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Another beautiful part of Porto – especially during the breaks in the rain – is the beach town of Foz. Here, we watched the waves batter the lighthouse from the cosy comfort of the Confeitaria Tavi, with its beautiful infinity views out over the ocean. Over a cup of strong Portuguese coffee and a nata, it quickly became clear that 2016 was getting off to a pretty great start indeed.

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Goodbye Real Life – Hello South America!

Since Lofty handed in his notice and I’ve gone full-time freelance, the question we’ve been asked most is: What now?

And our answer…

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This is the Kingdoms and Carnivals route of our upcoming South American adventure, run by my favourite travel company, Oasis Overland. I travelled with them from Nairobi-Johannesburg back in 2007 and I just love their itineraries and their ethos – they’re all about off-the-beaten track adventure mixed with the opportunity to make great friends. Everyone is expected to muck in with the cooking, cleaning and set-up, but the Oasis crew take care of the sticky business of how we get from point A to B! Lofty had a taster of an Oasis trip when we used them to travel in Egypt and Jordan in 2012, and he was hooked.

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With Oasis travel friends in Dahab, Egypt

The trip begins almost exactly 8 years since Lofty and I first met in Christchurch, New Zealand, on our respective post-university gap years. We met in a hostel kitchen, fell in love pitching tents on secluded beaches, and together experienced some of the most beautiful places on this earth. From that moment onward, our fates were sealed: our life together was always going to feature travel in a big way.

But reality also beckoned. We both wanted long-term, sustainable careers in addition to lots of travel. (Nothing like wanting it all!) For the years that we were settled in the UK, Lofty worked and qualified as an actuary and I worked in publishing and wrote my books. We travelled as much as we could in Europe (and sometimes beyond), taking advantage of the cheap airfares, long holidays and short distances. We also, you know, got married, bought a flat, bought a car… all the trappings of a life most people would dream of.

Yet our dream of travel was still alive, and we knew we had to somehow fit in one more big trip before we added ‘family’ to the above list. Now we’ve jumped in with both feet! We’ve sold the flat (and all of its contents!) and moved in with very generous friends, sold the car, quit our day jobs, and put everything remaining into storage. Our flights are booked, the trip is paid for, the backpacks have been dragged out from under the bed and are filled to the brim. All that’s left to do is fly!

Some of the highlights of the trip have been on my bucket list for years:

  • Dancing the night away at Rio Carnival
  • Visiting the stunning Iguazu Falls
  • Eating steak in Buenos Aires
  • Hiking in Patagonia and Torres del Paine
  • Turning 30 somewhere between Chile and Argentina (I’m hoping for a posh vineyard in Mendoza…)
  • Taking crazy perspective photos on the salt plains of Bolivia
  • Walking the Inca Trail and seeing Machu Picchu (of course!)
  • Flying over the Nazca Lines
  • Spending a few nights in the Amazon jungle
  • Sailing around the islands of the Galapagos

Has anyone been to these places? We are collecting must-dos and would love your tips! Otherwise, follow the blog for more tales of our adventures… setting off on 4 February 2016.

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The Oasis truck in Africa 2007 (spot me in the blue T-shirt on the top)

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Thar she blows… A day trip to Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

Before tourists came to Hawaii for the stunning beaches, there was the lure of the volcanos. There aren’t too many places on this planet where you can walk on brand new land and see steam leak from deep inside the earth, but the Volcanoes National Park is one of them. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, it’s a great reminder of the wild power of the earth beneath our feet. It’s geography in action. In another word, it’s unmissable…

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

The smoking Kilauea Summit caldera

Our Hawaii itinerary initially didn’t include a trip to the Big Island, but using Adventure in Hawaii, we booked a day trip (airfare and car hire) from Honolulu Airport to Hilo (you want to make sure you go to Hilo as it’s only a 45 min drive from the National Park). A word of warning for those driving in and around Honolulu – the traffic can be terrible! A 25-min drive to the airport from Aulani turned into almost an hour, even at 6 in the morning. It’s worth leaving plenty of time to get to the airport just because of the traffic.

Hilo is a sleepy little airport that seems to cater mostly to helicopter tourists! I wish we could have flown over the island by copter, but as there isn’t any live red lava flowing into the ocean at the moment, it didn’t seem quite worth it. We did upgrade to a bright red Jeep (when in Hawaii) and we were on the road a mere three hours from leaving our hotel in Aulani. Now that’s service!

Our jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

Our bright red jeep on the Chain of Craters road. Photo by David Alward

We stopped off at a local Walmart to pick up essentials we couldn’t bring with us on the plane: water, snacks, sunscreen and PONCHOS. This is one of the wettest places on the planet and a theme of this holiday seems to be that whenever I choose to take us on an adventure, it rains! It was tipping it down as we entered the park, and everyone was glad for their wet weather gear. There isn’t much choice for food and drink inside the park either, so well worth bringing your own snacks.

We probably only had around six hours in the park in total, so we had a jam-packed itinerary. We arrived at the Kīlauea Visitor Centre at 10.30am, which was perfect timing as we joined a park ranger guided tour called “Exploring the Summit”. This was the perfect way to kick off our visit, as we learned a lot about the origins of the park itself, the special flora and fauna that we would see (I love the Ohea trees, which can ‘hold their breath’ when a volcano spouts sulphur into the air) and about the huge cultural significance of the volcanoes. Hawaiian myths and legends are deeply intertwined with the land – especially the legend of Pele, the goddess of fire, who makes her home in the Volcanoes National Park. We also got a great view of the Kilauea summit caldera (the giant smoking cauldron you can see in the first picture). He showed us things we definitely would have missed – like strands of Pele’s hair (really, rock that has been blown into strands as thin as hair by the power of the volcano) and the ‘fuzz’ that grows on the great ferns.

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Beautiful Pele, goddess of fire

Following the ranger tour (which took about an hour) we drove straight to the start of the Kilauea Iki hike. This was definitely the highlight of the day, despite the driving wind and rain! We headed counter-clockwise around the Kilauea Iki crater through lush rainforest and a few steep steps, until stepping out onto the crater floor itself. Despite the rain, it felt like we had arrived on another planet. The lava itself was surreal – it looked like the top of freshly baked brownies, or the inside of an Aero bar! (Or maybe we were just hungry…) The lava changes from crumbly spatter to a smooth lava lake. Steam vents burst out of the ground, making the lava feel hot to the touch – and this was enhanced by the cold, windy day we had (there were some benefits!).

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor

Crossing the Kilauea Iki crater floor (Photo by David Alward)

It looked like the surface of another planet

It looked like the surface of another planet (photo by David Alward)

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

Steam vents in Kilauea Iki crater

The hike finished with a stop at the Thurston lava tube, much different compared to the lava tube we walked through on the road to Hana! It was huge and very eerie. In total, with lots of stopping for pictures and a walk through the lava tube, the walk took us about 3 hours.

Thurston Lava Tube entrance

Thurston Lava Tube entrance – as you can see, I am soaking wet!

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

Inside the Thurston lava tube (photo by David Alward)

We were pretty hungry at this point, so we drove back out of the park to the aptly named Volcano Village where we stopped at the Lava Rock Cafe for lunch. I had loco moco, which I’m going to describe as Hawaiian poutine! It’s rice, a hamburger patty, a fried egg and gravy. It looks disgusting and tastes… pretty damn delicious! The perfect comfort food after a long hike 🙂

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food - aka Hawaiian poutine

Loco Moco, traditional Hawaiian comfort food – aka Hawaiian poutine

Back out on the road, we drove the impressive ‘Chain of Craters’ road. As the name suggests, this road winds its way down to the ocean through different flows of old (and relatively new!) lava fields. There were lots of places to stop and turn off to get a view of the destruction caused by the lava – it’s hard to believe that a lot of this land was once thick forest – although you can see the evidence in little islands of trees that survived the lava’s onslaught.

Lava flowing down the cliff

Lava flowing down the cliff

This road has been covered by lava and redirected many times! At the moment, the end of the road is for emergency access only, and you have to turn around at the sea arch at the end of the trail.

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Sea Arch at the bottom of Chain of Craters road

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

Oops, the road has been eaten up (photo by David Alward)

By this time, it was starting to get a bit dark and we really wanted to get to the Jaggar Museum before we had to leave for the airport. Unfortunately, because of our flight timings, we weren’t able to wait to see if the caldera would ‘glow’ as it sometimes does after dark. I would recommend booking the latest flight back to your home island if you’re only doing a day trip out to the national park so you can leave as late as possible.

Pretty coloured lava

Pretty coloured lava

In order to maximise our time in the park, we arrived at the airport probably the latest that I’ve ever attempted – maybe 15 minutes before our scheduled boarding time! It worked out absolutely fine at an airport like Hilo because there was no queue for security and you simply stroll straight onto the plane from one of only a few gates (obviously, we had no checked luggage) but I wouldn’t recommend it if being late really stresses you out 🙂

Overall, I wish we’d had a night in Big Island but the day trip was totally worth it – not too stressful, and we packed a lot in!

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Surviving driving the Hana Highway, Maui

620 curves. 59 one-lane bridges. And a full-on 13 hour day. 

It is actually quite tough to think about leaving our villa in Kapalua on the north-east coast of the island. We have a beautiful beach at our feet and we can whale watch over breakfast (yes, it’s a tough life). But for many people, the Hana Highway is one of the highlights of a trip to Maui and I wasn’t keen to miss out, so I dragged every out of bed bright and early!

For what seems like such a small island, it sure can take a long time to get around Maui. Don’t be fooled by what the map looks like – if you’re coming from the Kapalua region then getting to the bottom of the island then prepare for a full day of driving and adventuring to get to Hana.

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A grove of painted eucalyptus trees

We were up and out the door for 5.45am, cruising the blissfully quiet road through Lahaina to our first stop, Paia. Luckily, Anthony’s Coffee Shop was open for us to grab a quick breakfast – although unluckily it was also pouring with rain at this point – not the ideal start to the journey! The optimists within us hoped that the bad weather would put people off today as their ‘Hana highway’ day – and I think it worked. There were several stops where we had the place all to ourselves and the weather brightened and darkened all through the day – only adding to the atmosphere.

I’m just going to take a moment to shout-out to the GyPSy app for the Hana highway. I’d done a ton of research before going (very typical of me) and written down the specific mile markers of things that I wanted to see. However, I’d read a little bit about this app and thought it worth a risk at £3.99 – and it definitely was worth it. We christened the friendly voice of the app ‘Jeff’ and he became our tour guide for the day. When you only have a day to do the Hana highway, it was really great having him point out the most worthwhile stops at the exact locations (his commentary was tied to our location via GPS – no data required) and saved us a ton of time and aggravation.

Our first stop was Hookipa Beach lookout, where we watched surfers as the most perfect full rainbow appeared.

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A full rainbow over Hookipa beach

 

After Hookipa beach, the famous section of the Hana highway really begins, and the roadside flora changes dramatically from windswept coastline to lush rainforest and the most beautiful trees (our favourite were the painted eucalyptus). I’ve never seen so many Jeeps and Mustang convertibles as on the road to Hana – they must be the most popular rental cars on the island!

We pulled over at the Twin Falls – unfortunately, this is where we had the worst of the weather and we were completely drenched only halfway to the falls. We gave this one up and ran back to the car to wait it out. When we arrived at the Waikamoi Ridge, the weather cleared and we stopped to hike the trail. This was really beautiful and took us through a gorgeous bamboo forest – but if we had to do the Hana highway over again, I would skip this and save more time for the end, as we ran out of time (and daylight) to do the brilliant-looking hike called the Pipiwai trail.

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Bamboo forest

 

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Stunning trail through Waikamoi Ridge

 

Our next point of interest was the aptly named Garden of Eden. Although our guide ‘Jeff’ recommended waiting for the (free) Keanae Arboretum, we paid (£15pp initially, but the lady at the front let us off with two ‘children’ in the backseat so we paid approx £10pp) to be allowed into these absolutely stunning gardens. This was completely worth the fee as not only were the gardens immaculate but also informative – and we learned a lot about the different plants we would see through the rest of our journey. My favourite were the bright orange African tulip trees and the myriad types of bamboo. We also saw the rock from the opening scene of Jurassic Park. I’m not sure how impressed I was about that – but the boys loved it.

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Jurassic Park rock view from Garden of Eden

 

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Staring intently at the Jurassic Park rock

 

It was now about 10.30am and we were definitely hungry for some famous Hana highway banana bread. Again, I’d done my research and found that the best stop was ‘Aunt Sandy’s’ on the Keanae peninsula. When we arrived there was already a bit of a queue and we had to wait 15 minutes… but that was plenty of time to look around the peninsula with a wild and wet lava rock beach and a tiny little lava rock church. When we returned to Aunt Sandy, we had loaves of banana bread waiting for us, hot straight from the oven. Oh so delicious.

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Home of delicious banana bread

 

Lava rocks no the beach, by Evan George

Lava rocks on the beach, by Evan George

Now we came to a secret place that even Jeff didn’t know about. If you’re reading this and about to head to Maui (lucky you), make sure to make note of this little stop. Just past mile marker 23, two turnouts on the left, park your car. You’ll see a little hole on the side of the road – it doesn’t look like much. But it opens out into an awesome (secret…ish) lava tube. I think all my passengers were impressed with this! It really opens up once you’re inside so there’s no tight places to crawl through – and you come out into the jungle which leads right around to the main road where the car is parked. Perfect!

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The start of the lava tube, by the side of the road

 

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Entering the lava tube… dun dun dun

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And out into the jungle

 

Although it didn’t seem that long from the banana bread, we were all getting a bit hungry. The Nahiku Market Place was the perfect place to fill our tummies (especially as the rain started again) with fresh island fish tacos and delicious Maui coffee. There were some men who were cycling the highway – now that’s impressive!

We lingered at the Waianapanapa State Park, which would be an ideal place to stop and camp if you were doing the overnight version – as the sights just got better from here on out! We wish we had reserved more time for the latter end of the Hana highway, but there are just too many things to see. Waianapanapa had some very cool caves, but they were crowded with swimmers – I suppose it was one of the few places that you could swim that day, because many other of the waterfall pools were completely overrun with rain water and flash floods from the mountains. There was also a black sand beach here, which was very cool, and a sea arch. We watched one brave little boy snorkelling the black sand beach as waves pounded the rocks around him – I’m not sure that I would have dared.

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Cave in Waianapanapa

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Black sand beach, Wainapanapa

 

Past Waianapanapa is the town of Hana, but we didn’t stop – we carried straight on through. We turned off to view Koki beach and Hamoa beach – and we really lucked out as some professional surfers were catching some waves on Koki beach! They had an entourage of photographers with big long lenses – but even with our little point and shoots (and our phones) we got some good snaps. There was a lot of skill on display!

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How professional surfers wipe out!

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Pro surfers on Koki beach

 

The final stop on the Hana highway for us was the Haleakala National Park, and the Oheo Gulch (or Seven Sacred Pools – the more romantic, though inaccurate, name – there’s apparently nothing sacred about them). These are a series of (ordinarily) gentle pools running down to shark-infested ocean waters, but today they were raging waterfalls fed by the rains. No swimming permitted! If we’d had more time, we would have hiked the Pipiwai trail up to the Waimoko Falls but it was already 3.30pm by this time and we wanted to be back to Hana by 4pm to avoid travelling in the dark.

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The raging Oheo Gulch

 

At this point, there are two options – to turn around and drive back down the Hana highway, or to continue on through unpaved roads around the bottom of the island. I’d normally be loathe to come back the way we came, and we entertained the idea of driving the unpaved path – but the park ranger warned that because of all the rain, it was likely some of the road would be washed out. That finished off that idea – the unpaved road was technically illegal to drive our rental car on so we didn’t want to risk getting stuck. But actually, we were pleasantly surprised by the drive home. You see the highway from a completely different perspective, and you’re able to stop off at any roadside waterfalls that you missed. Since you’re not on the look out for stops and sights, you notice more of the lush jungle all around you, and appreciate every twist and turn in the road, the drama of the volcanic coastline. We loved it!

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Stunning Wailua Falls

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Upper Hanawi Falls

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The road to Hana, cut into the coastline

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A final painted eucalyptus, because they’re awesome

 

Back in Paia, we stopped for some much deserved gelato for the driver, before making our way back to Kapalua. Maui, so far you’ve been top notch.

 

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Waikiki Beach… the start of two weeks in paradise

It took us almost 24 hours, but some destinations are worth the journey.

Hawaii is the perfect meeting-up point for my family, dispersed as we are all across the globe (L and I, from the UK; my parents from Canada, my sister and her bf from Australia). We started as most people do – with a couple of nights on Waikiki beach. And what a place. Full of life and action, Waikiki is not what I would refer to as ‘chilled out’ (and especially not where my parents were staying, the frenetic and huge Hilton Hawaiian Village) but it is so much fun.

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How else would I sum up Waikiki?

1) It’s a surfer’s paradise

The time difference between the UK and Hawaii is 11 hours – so long it’s almost meaningless. We were up early the first morning, but still not as early as these surfers – who hit the water at first light.
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2) It’s a shopper’s paradise

Along Kalakaua Avenue, you’ll find every luxury boutique you can think of (although who wants to wear stuffy designer clothes in laid-back Hawaii? I’ll never know. I’m thinking of permanently ditching all footwear for flip-flops for the rest of the trip). We did do some sale shopping (of course!) in Ala Moana shopping centre, but if you have to shop anywhere, doing so in a bright, breezy open air mall is the way to do it.

3) It’s a foodie haven

We were only there for two days, but we ate some of the most amazing food – and not at ridiculous prices. My highlights were the ahi katsu at Chai’s cafe. Food this good should not be served in a box (but when it does, hallelujah!). Chai Chaowasaree is a world class high-end chef but this restaurant of his is no frills. Perfect for eating top quality food while not changing out of your sarong. Also delicious was the Luau Eggs Benedict from Tropics cafe in Hilton Hawaiian Village with kalua pork and a purple taro roll. Yum.

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4) It’s ridiculously beautiful. 

Who knew a major city could be this gorgeous? With sunsets like this, it’s tempting never to leave. But with Maui ahead, I’m looking forward to some major R&R…

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