Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Even Better the Second Time - Our Trip to Hawaii with Mike and Mary

Ever since our first trip to Hawaii two years ago, I have been dreaming, plotting and planning a way to return. We were somehow able to miraculously amass enough FF miles to add up to first class tickets from Detroit to Honolulu. We were further blessed by the company of our best friends of 24 years. She was attending the APA conference in Honolulu, thus our first week was on Oahu.

We had made arrangements for a rental house on Sunset Beach, called Sunset Hale. We had a near disaster with the Kahana Kai Estate in the Kahana Bay area which had held our deposit since last August. In February a Fodors reader informed me that the estate seemed to be no longer available; phone numbers and website were inoperative. A day’s worth of long distance telephone sleuthing paid off and I was able to track down the owner. Her husband had died and she was living with her daughter. Eventually, we were able to get our deposit back from her. (She claimed she had tried to mail it, but it “came back”.) At such a late date, I was lucky to obtain the above-mentioned rental, Sunset Hale.

Flying first class was a dream. It was so great to be greeted at your seat with a Mai Tai! Being able to recline the seat all the way and put your feet up made the 8 ½ hour ride so much more bearable. The food was better than coach, although still not gourmet quality, by any means. But the service was excellent. I may use my FF miles exclusively to upgrade in the future.

The house exceeded all our expectations. The furnishings, location, and view were all better than depicted on the website. There was a 35” TV, VCR, CD player and state of the art kitchen appliances, matching dishes and silverware, good knives and quality linens. They had even had a billards table in the great room. The large sheltered front porch with wicker furniture and a brand new gas grill directly overlooked the ocean and we spent many a happy hour there. There were two bikes for our use. (There is a bike/walking path right behind the house that goes on for miles along the beaches.)

Sunset Beach was calmer than in the winter and it was possible to swim there. Sunsets were spectacular! We spent quite a bit of time at Sharks Cove for snorkeling. It had been my wish to see a turtle, but I am a wuss when it comes to water, so I floated around in the shallow part while everybody else blithely swam around in the deep end. Imagine my surprise when a huge turtle swam right by me three times in the shallows. Laniakia Beach was also a great spot to see turtles sunning themselves in the sand. My delight was tinged with sadness because despite the Do not touch the turtles sign kids and people were crowding around them, touching them and poking them with sticks. I felt like the turtle police, telling them to back off.

We didn’t eat out much, preferring to grill on our porch. Foodland, a few miles away, carried everything we needed to make romantic candlelit dinners. We had to try the original Giovanni’s Shrimp everyone is always raving about. I don’t think I’ve every had so much garlic in my life. The shrimp are swimming in butter and garlic. They are greasy, salty and yes, they are really good. I got a kick out of all the graffiti on the truck. There’s not an inch of spare space to write your name on. We had a very good pizza from the joint across the street from our rental. And we went early to snag a chocolate haupia pie from Ted’s Bakery.

Our beach house was so nice, it was hard to drag ourselves away, but I had purchased tickets to the Polynesian Cultural Center, luau and evening show. We spent another blissful day wandering around Waimea Falls Park and swimming in the refreshing pool by the waterfall. Waimea Bay is so picturesque, my heart leapt each time we rounded the curve and caught sight of it. Haleiwa was fun too, but really crowded and congested with cars, especially around Matsumotos shave ice. I got a kick out of the stretch limos that were always parked out front. A circle tour of the island convinced us that we had dodged a bullet when our first rental didn’t work out. The Kahana Bay house looked rundown and the water on that part of the windward side was very choppy and not as inviting as our beach on the north shore.

While our friends spent a few nights in Honolulu for the conference my husband and I amused ourselves by visiting some of the resorts for comparison purposes. At Ko Olina we valet parked (by a very snooty valet who reminded us that if we were using the beach, we needed to have our ticket validated at the restaurant and we had to be back in two hours.) We got our expensive, watered down Mai Tais and headed down to the lagoon to swim. The water was not inviting, warmish and murky. We didn’t stay long enough to violate the two hour rule. Later I checked out the Turtle Bay resort as well. At least there they provide accessible public parking close to the beach, but again I found the water less appealing than in front of our own house. Back in the Honolulu area, we enjoyed several drinks at the La Mariana Sailing Club and I chatted with the owner, a charming elderly woman with a fascinating story.

Our last night at Sunset Hale we were treated to a specially nice sunset as we polished off the last of the red wine we didn’t want to transport to Kauai the next day.

My husband and I fell in love with Kauai the first time around, two years ago. My friend Mary felt it the moment we began our drive from Lihue to the north shore. A feeling just washes over you that is tangible. The lushness and fragrance of the terrain holds promise that does not disappoint later. Anini Beach House was about a hour’s drive on the secluded part of Anini Beach that is past the public park and polo field almost to the end of the road. In his youth, Marlon Brando honeymooned at the house two doors down. Once again, we were astonished that the house exceeded all the photos on the website. The upscale furnishings, artwork and thoughtful touches were wonderful, but the kicker was the huge wrap-around deck with floor to ceiling windows that made you feel as if you were living outside.

The turquoise water of Anini Beach was calm as glass, the calmest beach I had seen on our entire trip. It was great for snorkeling or just for floating on an air mattress with a Mai Tai and a good book. On the last day, the beach offered up a gift to my friend Mary: a huge, unbroken, perfect shell sitting in the shallow water right in front of our house. We found the best snorkeling to be at Ke’e Beach. Our husbands stayed on the beach while we hiked the first part of the Kalalau Trail. Two hours later, our appetites were only whetted to come back and do more. What an unforgettable experience! The cool and clear water at Ke’e was so inviting after the hot and dusty hike. Once again I found myself angry with the cluelessness of scores of people blithely walking all over the reef! There were so many doing that, it would have been futile to try to prevent it. We made a short visit to Tunnels Beach which was choppy and both my husband, my friend and her husband were injured when the waves pushed them up onto the coral. Lumihai Beach was so beautiful, but certainly not for going in the water. Not too long ago a couple were washed off the rocks to their deaths, while their 11 year old son was left on shore. As we left the beach area, we noticed a memorial in the sand made of rocks, sticks and shells, that read “Mom” and “Dad”. We made the hike to Hideaways Beach and were awed by the fearsome power of the water.

Later that week the four of us were celebrating important wedding anniversaries and we had reservations at Bali Hai Restaurant at Hanalei Bay Resort. Our front table faced the famous view and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset of our lives. Waiting for it was a little difficult, because it was hot and the sun shone directly in our eyes for over an hour beforehand. But the end result was worth every drop of sweat. Due to a tropical storm, Kauai, and all the islands in general, had experienced an unusual amount of sporadic rain, but the weather for our special evening was picture perfect. The food was very good and beautifully presently and we were very satisfied with our choice for the evening.

The husbands took the Movie Tour van and had a lot of fun, while my friend did some horseback riding at CJM Stables. I played chauffeur and found myself with a couple hours on my hands. As I drove, I happened upon my favorite Kauai radio station, KKCR and just happened to catch Auntie Maria’s show Loved her mix of authentic Hawaiian music. Following my nose, I ended up on a nearly secluded beach with a small knot of people looking at something through binoculars. There was a mother monk seal with her four day old pup just a few hundred feet away. Reveling in the unexpected pleasure I wiled away much of the time observing the antics of the active pup as it circled around it’s mum.

We lunched at Brennecke’s Beach Broiler, enjoying the warm breeze through the open deck view of the water. Another place we can highly recommend was Coconuts. Loved the d├ęcor, the food (took Kal’s suggestion of lobster ravioli pupus) and the dessert (coconut flan) was to die for. The artwork by Kim McDonald is colorful and whimsical. I had seen her stuff in Hanalei earlier in the week. (I especially love her depiction of queen-sized nude women dancing with abandon on the beach. Ah, the magic of Kauai. It makes everyone feel beautiful.) Speaking of queen-sized, Lappert’s Ice Cream in Princeville has great ice cream (my favorite is Kauai Pie). Coconut/Guava sherbet is great too. Lappert’s is probably the most expensive ice cream you will ever eat, but IMO, oh so worth it.

One of our most memorable evenings was at Tahiti Nui on a rainy Friday evening. Like everywhere else in Hawaii, the shutters were wide open and the balmy rainy made it feel cozy to be inside. The small bar/restaurant was filled with a welcoming local crowd and the musical entertainment was remarkable. It was sort of a Hawaiian Cheers …where everybody knows your name…kind of place. We met an interesting older couple who had moved to Hanalei 30 years ago and were active in the polo club and the Hanalei historical society. We heard all sorts of stories from them about Tahiti Nui and the people of Hanalei and Kauai. With reluctance, we tore ourselves away. If we lived there we would surely be there at least one night a week.

Our last day was spent lounging around our house and beach, trying to cram all our purchases into already full suitcases. We bought lots of coconut syrup, kukui nut lotions and chocolate covered macadamias, so we could share some of the aloha with our loved ones back home. Alas, real life has returned with a vengeance, but the gift of our two weeks in Hawaii will be with us always.

Monday, April 26, 2004

The Big Apple 2004

April 26, 2004

My friend Jan and I were fortunate to be able to spend a long weekend in the Big Apple last weekend. We had gotten a great Northwest airfare of $122 (RT) from Detroit and were booked into the Lucerne on the Upper West Side at $169 a night for a room with two beds, booked directly through the hotel.

Upon arrival at LaGuardia our luggage beat us to the carousel and within minutes we were outside in the cab line. Our first (and only) mistake: we should have waited for one of those cabs instead of accepting an offer from an independent. He quoted $40, (which is too much - I know now) but since we were splitting the cost, it didn't seem too bad. He said it would be more than I thought because our destination was the Upper West Side. He then lead us to the parking lot and into an unmarked car - not even a regular yellow cab. When I questioned this, he did point out the NY Transportation registration sticker on his windshield. By this time, we just thought "whatever" and got in. A young woman was standing nearby looking for a cab and we invited her to join us, thinking we could split the cost. At the hotel, he added the cost of the bridge toll, and told me he needed $44. In the meantime, he unloaded our luggage and the hotel porter loaded it onto a cart and took it inside. Later in the room we were shocked to realize he had unloaded the other passenger's suitcase, instead of Jan's! The stranger's suitcase did not have a name tag on it and we had no receipt or identification for the car which had just dropped us off. This comedy of errors made us feel like The Country Bumpkins Meet the Big City! (Remember the movie with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis?) It did end OK though, since my friend had her name and phone number on her luggage. One nervous hour later they called her cell phone and came back to our hotel for the switch.

We were so pleased with the Lucerne. I had done a lot of agonizing over this choice. We didn't want to spend a bundle but still have certain standards with regard to cleanliness, location, etc. The location was ideal because our main objective this trip was Central Park. (My friend was running a race on Sunday.) The service was impeccable as was the cleanliness. I had requested a corner room, which unfortunately was not available when we checked in, but we were on the 11th floor with a view uptown. The room also was a decent size with two queen beds and a bathroom with a tub/shower. The best part of the hotel was Nice Matin, the French restaurant accessed from the lobby, our first stop after unpacking. The cheery decor and outdoor seating area with its red awnings reminded me so much of Paris. Our affable waiter suggested a blood orange martini which became our signature drink for the weekend. A drink and a few appetisers later we were good to go on our first exploration of the area.

Our meanderings took us into the park at dusk. The spring weather was so nice there were many people there, walking, jogging, walking their dogs, fishing, smooching. That is just what we had hoped to experience - how the locals live. We were enchanted by Tavern on the Green at night. Although we did not dine here we boldly walked in an explored the whole restaurant. In the courtyard the trees were decorated with hundred of electrified Chinese lanterns. My friend who has five grown daughters fantasized about having weddings here. We were wowed by the spectacular Tifany windows and lights. Even the scent of the hand lotion in the restroom impressed us! We ended up having another cocktail in the upstairs bar.

We were back at the park early Saturday morning again for our early morning walk. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. Our favorite spot was Bethesda fountain, watching everybody with their dogs. The dogs expressed what we were feeling: sheer jubilation. As the owners turned them loose from their leashes, they raced down the steps and sailed into the water. I'm a cat person, but I almost wanted to rent a dog for the occasion. There were so many different breeds and they all looked so happy to see each other again. We exited the park at the Strawberry Fields memorial, which had been beautifully decorated with rose petals. This memorial to John Lennon is a place where tributes are paid to people in the music industry when they pass on. I was shocked to find myself teary here. Of course, we had to walk past the Dakota where the horrific shooting took place.

After the park we meandered through an a street fair and ended up at Sarabeth's Kitchen for breakfast. This began the first of many times when we got seated without waiting and shortly afterward there would be a huge line of people. Timing is everything! It was a beautiful day to sit outside and our breakfast and the service was perfect.

Jan needed to pick up her race packet so after showering and changing we headed through the park over to the Upper East Side. I was born in Austria, so I was interested in the Neue Gallerie with it's Klimt paintings. The building itself is worth seeing, one of the most distinguished buildings on Fifth Avenue. There were only a handful of Klimt artworks, which were beautiful, but the rest of the art was not my favorite. I find German art in general to be so depressing. In short order we found ourselves seated in the museum's Cafe Sabarsky having very STRONG, but great, coffee served on a silver tray with whipped cream and we split a piece of authentic Viennese Sacher Torte. The wood paneled room was beautiful and comfortable with Austrian and German newspapers strewn on the Bosendorfer grand piano and a huge bouquet of apple blossoms lending a cheery atmosphere.

Our pre-theater dinner was at the Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar. It has been a New York institution since 1913. The historic terminal itself is a great place to be and we enjoyed our meal of yellowfin tuna and scallops. We have found the service and friendliness everywhere to be exceptional. Certainly not what we expected, considering what we have read in other sources.

We had tickets to "Wicked" at the Gershwin Theater and had plenty of time to settle in and anticipate. It totally exceeded our expectations! What a lot of fun this was. The plot is so clever (a prequel to the Wizard of Oz) and there are a lot of funny inside jokes. Chenowith is astounding and Menzel keeps right up with her. Highly recommended!

We needed to get back to the hotel so my friend could rest up for the race in the morning. It's true - it's hard to get a cab after the theater. We finally did get one, but had to walk a bit. I don't know how to do that whistle and my polite Michigan wave doesn't always get their attention.

Sunday dawned cooler, but we were soon warmed by our jaunt over to the park (again) for the race. It was a fun atmosphere watching as the thousands of people of all shapes and sizes geared up for the four mile run. I was so proud of Jan for doing so well and she was elated at being able to run her best time yet. She has run in a lot of places, but she will always remember being able to run in Central Park.

On the way back to the hotel we had fun browsing the Greenflea Market until it started to sprinkle. Breakfast this morning was at Isabella's - another winner thanks to the folks here on this forum. The rest of the day was spent dodging raindrops. We wanted to walk the Brooklyn Bridge but by this time it was raining too hard and we scrapped the idea. We ended up moseying through Chinatown and Little Italy.

If you are looking for cheap NY t-shirts to bring back as souvenirs, Chinatown is the place. I got 8 NYPD shirts for $2 apiece. In Little Italy we had to stop in at Taormina's restaurant since this is Jan's maiden name. When we told the bartender, he promptly bought us a drink. Before long we were chatting with the two other couples at the bar. The guys were firefighters from Boston, with their wives. This unplanned stop became a cherished highlight of our trip.

We took a cab to the New Amsterdam theater for "The Lion King". The music is joyful and life-affirming and we were extremely impressed with the creativity of the costume design. We hadn't really eaten since breakfast, so it was time for some solid food. Nearby was Don't Tell Mama, a cabaret often frequented by Nathan Lane, et al, but not much was going on. We had planned on Firebird, but unfortunately by the time we got there they were not serving anymore. They did allow us to walk through and check it out. It is such a beautiful space and will definitely merit a visit the next chance we get. They recommended an Italian spot just a few doors down and we were able to get our dinner orders in just before the kitchen closed. A note to self: even New York shuts down early on Sunday night. It was raining hard by the time we came out. Miraculously, a cab appeared, but did not stop for me (even though by this time I was practicing a more forceful signal). A screeching whistle from a helpful guy who exited the restaurant with us stopped him and we gratefully caught a ride back to the hotel.

A side note: When we got out of the theater there were angry demonstrations going on in Times Square by black muslim groups and police were everywhere. Some people were shouting back and it looked like it could get violent. Quite a contrast to what we had just seen on stage!

Monday morning dawned rainy again and we used our 25% off coupon to have breakfast at Nice Matin adjoining the hotel. After breakfast we walked over to Broadway, stopped in at Filene's Basement, and spent a lot of time at Zabar's. I bought a lot of goodies to bring home and picked up a half dozen hot bagels at H&H to bring to hubby. Then it was back to the hotel to pack and take our (sadder but wiser) $18 cab ride back to LaGuardia.

In summation: We loved staying at the Lucerne and would happily do so each subsequent visit to New York. The location is peaceful, the service was great and the room and bed were comfortable. The shops and restaurants in this area are affordable and plentiful. Nothing too chi-chi here, but that is a plus in my book. I would never want to be at a hotel in Times Square!

I had many so many plans to see so many things, and as usual, most of them went out the window as we made time for unexpected discoveries. I am already looking forward to my next adventure in this great city.