July 27, 2009

Annnnnd....We're Back

Well, actually we have been back (in NJ) since July 15th. (Isn't that a nice "welcome home" sign greeting by Mike's brother Dave, huh!? That felt good!) But with a house to move back into and re-setup, friends to reconnect with, family visiting, and work starting up again (for Mike), we have been a little slow in finishing up the Hawaii blogging and getting to this one.

Soon after arriving at home, we rattled off Costco, Whole Foods, Target, The Sports Authority, Vitamin Shoppe shopping excursion. (With the different way of shopping and living in Japan, we weren't exactly hitting these kinds of stores and loading up the mini-van!). It is terrific to be eating salads and have huge Costco-sized tubs of fruit like blueberries and strawberries again! (It is also wonderful to have the AC at levels that actually keep you cool.) Cruising around town, we discovered some nice new local stores, including the excellent Eden Gourmet and Rita's Water Ice in South Orange and a new bookstore called Words in Maplewood.

Right off the bat, we had a really nice little family gathering and backyard BBQ to celebrate Lauren's 5th birthday (!) last weekend. It was nice to see so much family and to be back in our house and yard. (Bonus perk - our house now feels HUGE and we are enjoying being out in the yard. Even though the yard is small, its all relative. In other words . . . we we are happy to have a yard to be out in! However, unpacking and re-moving back in, also made us realize that we have altogether too much STUFF and how little you actually need to live comfortably.)

Mike is back in NYC everyday, and feels like he fits in walking the streets again. (Not that feeling like he stuck out in Japan was a problem; actually, we got kind of used to that!) New York still has that amazing energy to it. And millions of rude people. So, no big change there.

Let's see. What else? The new Yankee Stadium is awesome. And NYC now has all these closed-to-traffic areas (like parts of Time Square), which is a trend in the right direction. Other noticeable changes include the Canadian take-over of the donut scene -- many Dunkin Donuts one day were replaced by Tim Hortons (?) Also, based on a new local law, which we think will really impact the way people eat, or at least cause people to think more about the way they eat, all chain restaurants in New York must display the calories of items on their menus next to the price. This does, however, make going to Yankee Stadium a bit less fun!

On the downside . . . NJ Transit (still) completely sucks. Sure, they have these nice double-decker trains, but they are still damned unreliable. Especially relative to the smooth-operating timely quiet trains in Japan. (2 decent length delays in 1 week here compared to 2 delays in a year and a half in Japan!) Mobs of mean sweaty New Yorkers crowded into Penn Station, waiting for the train to arrive, with an information board that says nothing but "Stand By" for the last half hours worth of train, well, let's just leave it at "not fun times." Also on the downside points, when that sushi craving hits, instead of this. our options now look more like this:

(Actually, the craving did hit last weekend, and we had a very nice sushi dinner at Samurai Sushi
in Maplewood. Not the same, but certainly passable. . . )

July 22, 2009

Hawaii - The Big Island (More)

Friday - Monday

We were sad to leave our cozy little cottage in Volcano Guest House, but excited to get to the Kona side for some total relaxation time.

Part III of our trip was on the West Coast of Hawaii – the Kona coast – at the mega-resort Hilton Waikoloa. To get there we took an incredible drive up the East Coast of Hawaii and then across the island from East to West. What a great scenic drive – the change in climates and landscape all within a two hour drive was incredible. We went from Rain Forests with towering plants and lush greens to vast pastures of green rolling fields with cattle and sheep grazing to dusty brown cowboy country to black lava fields to sandy beach resort.

Along the way we passed through this tiny town near Akaka Falls that had a rain forest gulch and my favorite canopy banyan tree ever. Check out the size of this thing!

Akaka Falls, in a tropical rain forest, was another beautiful stop along the way. (Lest you think its all happiness and light for the Kasdan family, we will share the kids were acting so badly in the car and at this stop - they were unimpressed with the rain forrest and waterfall, as it interfered with a movie they were watching on the portable DVD player in the care - that we almost left them there. Well, at least that was the end of in-car movie-time! Its scary when the gang up on you! At any rate, Mike and Ilena enjoyed it!)

Later on the trip, we also drove through Honakaa – a little old former sugar cane town with a very Wild West Main Street. And as we crossed Hawaii, we drove through Waimea, home of numerous cowboy ranches, green pastures, and rolling hill.

Later in the day, we arrived at the Hilton, which was a pretty over-the-top resort. It sits on a bay with black rocks and has a salt-water lagoon with boating and sea turtles, large pools with huge water slides, rope walkways, tropical birds in the lobby, and walkways that are lined with sculptures, cultural museum pieces, and art from Polynesia and Asia. A boat and monorail take you around the sprawling grounds.

Basically, we chilled and relaxed for our last three days at the different slide pools, boated and snorkeled with fish and sea turtles in the lagoon on paddle-boats and paddle surfboards. . We actually spent a lot of time hanging out with our new friends from Oahu that we met in the airport on the way to the Big Island. They have a girl that is Jacob's age and a boy that is Lauren's age, so it worked out pretty nicely! Their younger boy referred to Lauren as his "puppy love” and Jacob trailed his new friend around like a puppy dog.

These pictures, pretty much tell the tale of our time at the Hilton:

So that was Hawaii. A terrific terrific family vacation; a great stop-over from Japan on our way back to home. And reality. . . .

Hawaii - The Big Island (Hilo & Volcano)


On Wednesday, we took an island-hopper flight over to Hawaii Island, flying into Hilo, on the east coast. The plan was to spend a couple of days checking out Hilo and Volcano National Park, and then drive across Hawaii to the west coast (Kona side) to finish off the trip beaching it on a resort. We really enjoyed the Big Island. It is incredible that the whole island is made of five volcanos at varying stages of their "lives." The volcanoes and Volcano National Park were even better than we expected, and the Hilton Waikoloa Resort was an over-the-top and terrific way to finish.

First of all, Hilo is a great place. Set on a bay with terrificly lush forrests in view, but also at the feet of the volcanos. Very green. Very sleepy. Hilo, in fact, is the rainiest city in the U.S., but the kind of soft sweet misty rain that you really don’t mind. And with its continuous pattern of rain-sun-rain-sun (we didn't think it was possible for weather patterns to change this quickly and often!), its great for rainbows.

We started our afternoon in Hilo at the famous Farmer's Market and wandering around town and checking out the wares. We scored some delicious honey samples, and ended up buying some some lemonade, three varieties of salsa and a bag of chips, which served as our picnic lunch in Liliokalani Park.

The park had a Japanese garden (not our main area of focus; we had seen plenty of those!), great views of Hilo Bay, and some amazingly old Banyan Trees, with massive canopies and meandering roots and vines. (The kids main focus was on a group of teenage kids who were taking leaping dives and flips off of a nearby bridge and into the water.) Just a great spot to eat chips and salsa.

On our way from Hilo to the town of Volcano, we made two nice little stops. First we hit the Big Island Candy Company, serving up free samples (which Jacob fittingly refers to as "tasters") and packaged omiyage delights, which seemed specifically designed for our Japanese tourist friends. Afterward, we stopped at the Mauna Loa Plantation, where they harvest and make those tasty macadamia nuts. (Free samples - er, tasters - too.) We bought some delicious macadamia nut-filled Hersey Kisses, which are apparently only available in Hawaii.

As we made the 40 minute or so drive to Volcano, we entered into a rain forest. Soon afterward, we entered into the Volcanoes National Park and drove to the visitor center and a bit further in to check it out. The weather was flip-flopping between sunshine and rain. We saw some of the endless black lava fields (incredible), active steam vents, and a large crater with smoke billowing out. It was truly an amazing sight to see in real life, and pictures just do it no justice.

On our way out we saw a full end-to-end rainbow arching over the crater. What an incredible incredible place, unlike any we’ve ever been before. (We must have had low expectations, because we were both just blown away by how cool it is!)

Afterward, we checked into our temporary residence for the next couple of days, the Volcano Guest House. What a terrific find! (We actually high-fived after check-in! We might have to become professional vacationers…). We have our own two-floor cottage in the rain forest far off the beaten path, but within minutes drive of the National Park. It includes our own kitchen, a small living room, a hot tub, electric bed warmers, a TV and DVD player with kids books and movies. Next door is a breakfast/snack house. Wow. And the rain is so good for sleeping . . . .


Thursday was our main day to explore Volcanoes National Park. To do this, we had planned a guided mountain biking tour (with the kids on trailer bikes) of the National Park. It started with an awesome lecture at the Visitor Center where were learned all about the five volcanoes (all at different phases of life and two of which are overdue for eruption!) that make up Hawaii and one more that is on the way. We also learned that Mona Loa is the biggest mountain and volcano in the world – at 56,000 feet to its bottom. We learned about the two types of lava rock, the smoother pahoehoe and jaggy ahah. (Geology tends to be a lot more interesting when you are surrounded by volcanoes.)

The 14 mile guided bike ride through the park was an awesome way to see the park. It took us from steam vents to pit craters to lava tubes to tuft cones to endless lava flow fields. It was raining on and off – in that Hilo misty-ness, but that was no problem. The tour ended at a beach at the end of a huge lava field, where we ate our lunch. We are thrilled that we saw the National Park this way.

Here we are near the entrance to a lava tube:

Exploring lava that had wrapped around trees:

Lava and lava fields:

That evening, we drove outside the park and down to the coast, where lava has been flowing into the sea since 1984. We got there at sunset and hiked over black lava badlands to get to the viewing point. Amazingly, there are houses on these lava fields - people actually live there! Again we saw an end-to-end rainbow arching its way across the sky. And the huge steam plumes of the lava flow were visible from quite a distance away. As the sun set, you could make out the black lava shooting up in the steam and as darkness came, it was red explosions of lava. Quite a majestic and amazing sight! Later, we (and hundreds of others) hiked back over the lava fields in the dark by flashlight.

Hawaii - PCC

On Tuesday, our last day in Oahu, after a morning swim and family sand castle making session at low tide, we headed to the Polynesian Cultural Center. The PCC was highly recommended to us by many people. The advice we got was consistent across the board: you need a whole day to do it, and its pricey, but its worth it. We can say that the advice was dead-on.

Before entering the PCC, which is up closer to the North Shore area, we grabbed lunch at hole-in-the-wall restaurant called (we think) Hukelua Restaurant. Perfect spot to have our first hamburger in a long time - and it was all Hawaii'ed up with a fried egg and a slice of teriyaki beef. Yum!

And this is some guy waxing his surf board right outside the entrance to the restaurant; a real local joint.

As it turns out, the PCC is quite the institution. Consider that they have the website polynesia.com and when you type "polyn" into Google, they are the first result to pop up. It is basically a relaxed cultural amusement park devoted to the music, history, crafts, games, and culture of triangle of island known as Polynesia - Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, and New Zealand. It really was a great and memorable day. There were lots of fun and hands-on activities, like fishing, learning to play the ukelele, spear throwing, drumming exhibitions, tree-scaling/cocunut cracking/fire making exhibitions, and learning to do some hip shaking dances.

All of the staff and performers had terrific warm personalities and senses of humor. Our favorite was this amazing Samoan guy with hilarious shtick in teaching how to crack and make fire from a coconut husk. (As it turned out, he was also the star of the show later that night, twirling and catching flaming spears).

Later that evening we joined in the luau and an incredible show of dancing, costumery, and acrobatic fire-twirling and actual dancing on fire. It was quite the show! (We have some amazing videos of this, but didn't yet get around to uploading them . . . )

Perhaps the most "interesting" thing about the PCC is its business model. And we only came to appreciate this after a completely weird and awkward proselytizing tour of the nearby Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) that we took in between the end of the luau and the beginning of the show. (There really isn't anything else to do during this dead time, and we didn't quite realize what we were getting into as we hopped onto the shuttle, staffed by several "Sisters.") See, right next to the PCC is the Hawaii campus of BYU. (Which got us wondering why U Penn didn't have a Hawaii campus!!). Anyway, BYU basically runs and sponsors the PCC. It recruits students to come to the school from the various Polynesian islands. In order to pay for their scholarships and education, many of these students work at the PCC.

July 18, 2009

Hawaii - Dole Planation, North Shore, Pearl Harbor

Sunday - Dole Plantation and the North Shore

As befits a vacation Sunday, we slept in a bit. In the late morning we drove up to the Dole Plantation, where we saw how pineapples grow, took little train ride, ate some Dole Whip Pineapple soft serve ice cream, and did the famous outdoor maze. (It took us a little over an hour to collect stencils from the eight hidden stations within. We think a respectable time.) Fun spot.

Afterwards, we explored the cute North Shore town of Hailewa. We walked along the main street, hit some art galleries, grabbed lunch at a cute little road-side shop with the menu written on a surf-board, and hit Aoki’s (next to the possibly more famous Morimotos, but it seemed darned good to us) for shave ice.

Back in Waikiki, we took runs along the canal, and then all went to beach spot in front of our hotel. Protected from the surf by a long wall, it was like a huge swimming pool. While the busy Waikiki beaches are not as nice as the other beaches we had been to, it was perfectly nice and a fun time with the kids, a Frisbee, and a large green floatie - $3 at ABC Mart! We strolled by the torch-lit beach of Waikiki at night, grabbed some dinner, and saw some street performers. The kids, in vacation mode, were up and happy until 10 PM. A totally contented and relaxed day.

Monday - Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor was definitely an amazing place to visit. We visited the USS Missouri Battleship first. The Missouri has an amazing history, serving in battle arenas from WWII to the Persian Gulf (it was the first boat to launch a Tomohawk Cruise Missile in 1991). Its imposing monster 16-inch gun turrets (with a range of something like 150 miles) are a sight to see up close and personal, and the whole ship is really accessible. We also picked up some cool history from the veteran tour guides about WWII surrender ceremony in Tokyo Harbor, which took place aboard the USS Missouri. MacArthur was quite the bad-ass.

We also visited the USS Arizona Memorial, which begins with an extremely well done short movie that includes real footage of the day and time leading up to the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing and the aftermath. Then a boat takes you across the harbor out to memorial, which sits over the top of the eerie sunk boat. Seeing the fallen USS Arizona directly below you and extending out hundreds of feet either way gives you a real appreciation of the size of it and the horrible explosions that destroyed this ship. (In terms of comparison to the feeling of being in Hiroshima or Nagasaki though, it is a very different feeling. Both are great tragedies of war at opposite sides. But the over-arching sadness we felt at the destruction and civilian devastation of a nuclear bomb and the Peace Parks leaves a very different impression than Pearl Harbor.)

Later that afternoon, we had planned to rent bikes and explore Oahu on bike. But the lone bike that had the child seat on it was never returned and another bike had a flat tire. So, in our lone vacation disappointment, the bike ride was not to be. Instead the kids continued making friends at the pool and at the beach. We did some more strolling along the beach at sunset and night in Waikiki, and enjoyed a really nice outdoor dinner with live hula music. Late at night, we listened to live guitar music from Tiki’s - Hotel California, Jack Johnson, Bon Jovi- off our balcony (sorry, lanai!).