Itinerary: Road Trip from Chicago to Badlands, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton

Itinerary: Road Trip from Chicago to Badlands, Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton

Leisure travel was far different in 2020 compared to the previous three plus decades of my life due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. It was important to do your due diligence in just about every aspect of trip planning. It was also important to assess whether the risk-benefit analysis favored flying or driving, and depending on your personal health or those around you at home, if traveling for leisure was something that should have been done at all. With all these considerations in mind, my family (wife, toddler son, and infant son) took a road-trip out to 4 different national parks. Initially we had booked a round-trip flight on American Airlines since both legs of the trip had a half-empty plane. However, as we got closer to departure, the Chicago to Bozeman, Montana flight started getting more and more crowded. Two days before our flight, I received a courtesy message from American Airlines that the flight was expected to be full. They gave me two options: A) I could get my miles refunded without any cost to reinstate them or B) I could book another flight for the same day which routed me through Dallas. Getting off the plane in a state that was a hotbed for COVID at the time? No thank you. We took option A and decided to do a one-way car rental and then fly back from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was also going to be a test-run to see how our 22 month old and 4 month old (at the time) would handle a lengthy drive. Driving also allowed us to add Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota to our itinerary since we weren’t going to drive 1,500 miles from Chicago to Glacier National Park in Montana in one shot. The benefit of driving also allowed us to do some research and plan our stops away from COVID-19 hotbeds. It required meticulous planning and multiple calls to various hotels to see what precautions they were taking for COVID-19. The least they can do is ensure all staff and guests were wearing masks in common areas of the property while sanitizing every area of a room that would be prone to physical contact. One hotel also informed me that rooms would be blocked off for 24 hours once a guest checked out. Gathering that type of information gave us some peace of mind.

Day 1: Chicago to Mitchell, South Dakota

So it began. We left Chicago at 10am with the GPS showing us an ETA of 8:03 pm at Mitchell, South Dakota. Factor in diaper change stops, gas stops, and venturing out of the car for a scenic viewpoint or two, we knew 10-10:30 pm was the more realistic time frame. We chose this town since it wasn’t too close to Badlands National Park (204 miles) where overcrowding could be an issue, but close enough where we can drive over and get there in under 3 hours. We took I-90 West and made our first stop to explore the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River at Great River Bluffs State Park. We did a relatively short hike here with the kids and got panoramic views of the Mississippi River. The hike itself wasn’t difficult and it was a perfect way to stretch out after being in the car for nearly 5 hours.

View of the Mississippi River from Great River Bluffs State Park

After spending about an hour here, we continued on our journey further west to South Dakota where we’d spend the night. We stayed the night at AmericInn (Wyndham brand) and they did a great job of keeping things clean. Since this was a stopover hotel rather than a destination hotel, I won’t be doing a detailed review but it was sufficient for our purposes.

Day 2: Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore

On our second day of the trip, we had Badlands National Park on our agenda as the first stop followed by Mt. Rushmore. We made it a point to get up early and get to Badlands National Park as early as possible. It took about 2 hours and 45 minutes and as soon as we got through the gates, I felt like our decision to drive was validated. The scenery and rock formations over here are unreal and there is also some wildlife. We saw bison, big horn sheep, and pronghorn. There are several trails you can hike at Badlands but due to our time constraints, sweltering heat, and an infant and toddler in-tow, we decided to focus mostly on lookout points and drive through the park.


Big Horn Sheep
Rock formation at Badlands
Bighorn sheep aka Rams

After spending about 6 hours at Badlands, we headed 75 minutes west to Mt. Rushmore. It’s not as big as I thought but the precision and detail that was necessary to carve out four U.S. Presidents is pretty incredible. In hindsight if I had to choose between spending more time at Badlands and visiting Mt. Rushmore, I’d have chose Badlands. If its a bucket list item that you want to cross off, by all means go ahead and visit it.

Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln

We finished Mt. Rushmore at around 7:15 pm and now it was time to make the 366 mile drive to Billings, Montana where we would spend the night. Along the way, we made a stop at Black Hills National Forest to take in the views. This was a very underrated place that deserved more than the 35-40 minutes we spent here. Absolutely beautiful and I should have done my homework before visiting. But hey, you can learn from my mistake.

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

We didn’t reach Billings, Montana until nearly 1am. Fortunately both kids were asleep nearly the entire way and the 80 MPH speed limit in South Dakota and Montana didn’t hurt.

Day 3: Bozeman, MT and White Fish, MT (Glacier National Park Area)

Our goal on day 3 was to get to Whitefish, Montana with a stop in Bozeman. Whitefish was going to be our home base to explore Glacier National Park. If you recall earlier, we had our flight booked to Bozeman, MT from Chicago and that is the location where we originally booked our rental car. We found a really good car rental deal through Budget and even though it was non-refundable, we went ahead and made the booking since prices were increasing by the day. Since we cancelled our flight, I came to the realization that Bozeman was going to have to be incorporated into our trip one away or another. With that in mind, we booked our one-way rental from Chicago to Bozeman and I just aligned the drop-off and pickup times so that we could drop off the car we rented from Chicago and pick up the SUV we originally booked in Bozeman. It took 2 hours to get there from Billings and then another 5 hours to drive up north to Whitefish which would serve as our gateway to Glacier National Park. The entire drive was scenic and beautiful and long drives don’t seem long and burdensome when you’re surrounded by beauty. We stayed at the Pine Lodge on Whitefish River and that is a hotel I will be doing a review on.

Quintessential Montana on the drive to Glacier National Park.

Day 4: Glacier National Park

This was our day to explore as much of Glacier National Park as we could. We entered Glacier National Park from the west entrance and immediately got on Going-to-the-Sun Road. This road connects the eastern and western sides of the park and offers stunning views at just about every turnout. There are many trails worth hiking at Glacier National Park but I strongly suggest going in groups of 4 or more due to the presence of bears. If you’re traveling with an infant or toddler or need wheelchair access, Trail of the Cedar’s is the one you want to do. It is an ADA accessible loop trail and there is no climbing, steep declines. or hard scrambles. This is a very popular trail for families with younger children so I strongly recommend getting there early as the parking area near the trailhead can get packed after 9am.

Trail of the Cedar’s

Continue driving on Going-to-the-Sun Road and have your camera ready for several pullouts that offer some of the best scenery in North America.

Going-to-the-Sun Road will eventually lead you to Logan Pass, the continental divide of the country. This where the watershed that drains into the Atlantic Ocean is separated from the watershed that drains into the Pacific Ocean.

There is a visitor’s center here and the parking lot tends to attract several bighorn sheep. It may be tempting but do not feed them if you encounter them. They will follow you and are capable of doing damage.

Juvenile mountain goats near Logan Pass

The sunsets at Glacier National Park are gorgeous. If you want the best spot for viewing, there is a stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road about a quarter mile from Logan Pass that will give you the best vantage point. There are also car pullouts in that area.

Day 5: Drive to Gardiner, Montana-Yellowstone National Park

We slept in on day 5 and took our time making the 6 hour drive about 400 miles south to Gardiner, Montana. This was the segment where our toddler was most restless due to the long drive and spotty cell phone data coverage along the way. My wife did a great job keeping him entertained and he did a great job not throwing a tantrum. Ridgeline Hotel was going to be our homebase for the next 2 days and is situated near the north entrance of the park. Ridgeline is part of the Ascend Collection of hotels under the Choice Hotels network. We called it an early night and prepared for a longer day tomorrow.

Day 6: Yellowstone National Park

If you enter from the North Entrance of Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs will among the first sights. I highly recommend getting there early as parking can fill up quickly and parking along the road is illegal (many tourists ignore this warning). There are some stairs to climb but there is a wooden walking path and ramp that will take you right to the springs.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Once you’re done here, you can either head south towards Grand Prismatic, Old Faithful, and other geothermal hot springs or you can head east towards Lamar Valley. If you want to view wildlife including wolves, bears, bison, Lamar Valley is where you want to be. We saw wolves from a distance, several bears, pronghorn deer, elk, coyote, red fox, and other native animals. I do want to point out that if you do get out of your car to take a picture of a bear or wolf, you should maintain 100 yards of distance and 25 yards of distance from animals such as bison or elk. The pictures below were taken using a 200 mm zoom lens with more than 100 yards of distance between me and the bear and more than 50 yards between me and the bison. Bison may seem docile and gentle but if you get near them, they may charge you and can potentially kill you.

Bison in Lamar Valley, Yellow Stone National Park

With the exception of wolves, we were able to sight all of the aforementioned animals from the comfort and safety of our car. This is ideal if you’re traveling with younger children and would rather not bring them along for a hike. I did allow my 2 year old son to walk on a trail with me and I made sure it wasn’t near the tree line or thick shrubs that can be used as a hiding spot for a mountain lion or bear.

It’s important to note that seeing certain animals such as bears and wolves in Yellowstone does require patience. It’s not as simple as you driving there and the animals just show up. The longer you stay in Lamar Valley, the higher your chances. The more days you spend in Yellowstone, the higher the likelihood that you will sight most if not all the animals. There is a 20 mile stretch of Lamar Valley which we drove back and forth several times. It took about 2 hours before we saw our first bear. Bison and elk are plentiful and those are the two you can count on seeing with minimum to no effort. We spent the entire day here and were rewarded for it. Remember to bring plenty of food and water if you plan on doing the same. Also remember to bring binoculars.

Herd of Elk at Yellowstone National Park

Day 7: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park

Just as most other days, we got up early with ambitions to cover two parks in one day. We started our day very early in the morning (can’t thank the kids enough for cooperating) and drove south to view the geysers. Old Faithful is the one that everyone wants to see and the parking situation can be impossible if you don’t get there early enough. The same can be said for Grand Prismatic, a hot spring that is the largest in the U.S. and third largest in the world. Grand Prismatic is part of the Midway Geyser Basin which also home to Excelsior Geyser, Turquoise Pool, and Opal Pool.

Excelsior Geyser
Grand Prismatic Hot Spring

Grand Prismatic is the size of three football fields so if you want to get a panoramic view or a picture that would fit its entirety, a little hiking is required. If you look straight ahead in the picture above, you will spot people (they’re very tiny in the picture) who have made the hike congregated in an area that allows them to get a birds eye view from elevation. Doing this hike with small children on a sweltering day was not an option for us but if that’s not a concern for you, do the hike. Once we finished the Midwest Geyser Basin, it was off to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

The southern entrance of Yellowstone and northern entrance of Grand Teton are only 31 miles apart. While Yellowstone covers over 3,500 square miles, Grand Teton is much smaller at about 484 square miles. Grand Teton National Park has stunning mountain views and also plenty of wildlife. We got here around 4pm which gave us time drive around Jackson Lake, Jenny Lake, and Leigh Lake and take in the various viewpoints the park has to offer.

Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park
Little guy taking in the views

We didn’t have much luck spotting wildlife other than bison on this day. We did enjoy the beautiful sunset and then called it a day. For this portion of our trip, we stayed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at Hampton Inn. The summer time pricing of $400/night was exorbitant and I ended up using 131k Hilton points to book two nights. This was an average redemption rate but the property itself was very nice and the décor really fit its Wyoming location. It was easily one of the best Hampton Inn properties we had ever stayed at. We had one more full day left in Grand Teton National Park before it was time to fly home.

Day 8: Grand Teton National Park

On the final day of our trip, we woke up early and started driving around the park early in the morning. When we got to a particular area of Snake River, we were told by park rangers that three grizzlies had killed an elk overnight and consumed some of the carcass about 600 yards off the road. They said it was possible, even likely that the grizzlies would return later to finish off the carcass. With that in mind we drove around other parts of the park with a plan to return to that area a couple of hours before sunset when the grizzlies were likely to return. From our vantage point, we were able to spot the elk carcass and park rangers did not allow anyone to get within 500 yards of the downed elk. So we took in the beauty of other parts of the park but full of anticipation for what may ensue later in the day.

Grand Teton National Park
Pronghorn at Grand Teton National Park

At about 6pm, we made the drive back to the area of Snake River where the elk carcass situated. By this time, several other groups had gotten word by park rangers about the potential of a grizzly sighting and the shoulder of the road was packed with cars. After about 30 minutes of waiting, we saw a grizzly running through the meadow and heading straight for the elk carcass. It consumed whatever it could for about 10 minutes before heading back to the trees.

To observe nature in action was the absolute perfect way to cap off our trip. Over 2,500 miles driven, countless hours in the car, and cooperation by both kiddos made this trip possible. A very special thanks to my wife who initially thought I was crazy for proposing this trip but eventually bought in. She did a great job keeping our 22 month old occupied while making sure our 4 month old was always fed. Without her kid/baby management skills, this trip would have been difficult. We’re always asked how we made this trip with an infant and toddler and if it’s possible for other couples with young kids in-tow to do something similar. Our 4 month old spent most of his time sleeping so he was pretty easy to deal with. To keep our 22 month old busy, we had several educational videos and interactive games uploaded to our phones. We also bought some puzzles, etch-a-sketch, and other toys that would keep him busy. The most important part of the trip was keeping our 22 month old (Now 32 month old) engaged and educating him along the way. If we saw a specific type of animal or landscape, we’d identify it for him and then ask him to identify it for us if we saw it later. This added to his vocabulary and gave him experiences he can not only look back on but also look forward to. We’re not huge fans of giving a ton of screen time but trips like this are an exception. These types of trips may seem daunting but you’re capable of more than you think. It does take a complete buy-in from both parents but once you have that, make a game plan and execute it the best you can.

Day 9: Departure from Jackson Hole Airport to Chicago

One of the unique things about Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming is that it is the only airport in the U.S. located inside a national park, in this case Grand Teton. This makes for some spectacular views upon takeoff and landing. Even plane spotting with the backdrop of the mountains is very cool. Thank you for reading and if you have any questions, please leave a comment.

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Cape Cod

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Cape Cod

Cape Cod is one of those timeless destinations that still has the charm of decades past. Most of the hotels on the Cape are independently owned mom & pop operations and you won’t find many chain hotels. If you ask locals on where to find the best lobster roll and seafood on the Cape, each person will likely give you a different answer as loyalties run deep. Whether you’re staying in Sandwich (the first town on the Cape), Provincetown (the last town on the Cape), or any other town in between, a beautiful beach and amazing seafood are right around the corner. Here is our itinerary for our stay in Cape Cod:

Day 1: West Dennis Beach and Nauset Light Beach

WDBeachMap

West Dennis Beach was the first place we decided to stop once we crossed into Cape Cod. Since the beach faces Nantucket Sound, the water temperature here is much warmer than the beaches that face Cape Cod Bay to the north or the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

WestDennisBeach

If you come between 9am and 4pm, parking costs $25 for the day and $75 for the week. Since we showed up at 4:30, the parking lot attendant waved us in and we didn’t have to pay. The sand is very clean and the beach doesn’t get terribly crowded. Unlike many other beaches in Cape Cod, I did not see any seals or shark warnings here. I’d still be very vigilant as prior summers have seen shark activity around this beach.  The only flaw with West Dennis Beach versus the others I had visited on Cape Cod was the seaweed. It is definitely noticeable (see video below) and it could diminish your experience if you’re getting tangled in it while going for a swim.

Once we were done with West Dennis Beach, we headed to the town of Orleans to check into Skaket Beach Motel. I’ll have a separate review of this motel but it was a comfortable stay and located approximately half-way through Cape Cod. This made it convenient to visit nearby sites such as Cape Cod National Seashore and the various beaches along its coastline. Since we still had plenty of daylight left,  we decided to go to Nauset Light Beach which is a part of Cape Cod National Seashore and run by the National Park Service. There are also 5 other beaches on the Cape that are part of Cape Cod National Seashore.

nausetlightmap
Location of Nauset Light Beach, Cape Cod

If you park in the lot before 4pm, it’s $20 to park but free thereafter. This is one of the most popular beaches along the National Seashore and the parking lot gets full rather quickly in the morning. Right across the parking lot and a short walk away is the famous Nauset Lighthouse, the logo on the bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips.

NausetLightHouse
Nauset Lighthouse

NausetLightHouse2

NausetBeach
Nauset Light Beach

NausetBeach3

Nauset Beach was clean, well maintained, and really spacious if you wanted to spread out. From the shore, we were able to see three humpback whales a few hundred yards away and plenty of seals close to shore. This beach had seen seal predation by a Great White Shark 2 days before we arrived and another predation which occurred about 30 minutes after we had left when we came the second time. Lifeguards were not allowing swimmers to go in water beyond waist-deep. If you do decide to swim here and you see seals, you should probably get out of the water as the threat of being bitten or killed by a shark increases.

SharkWarning

For dinner, we went to Arnold’s Lobster and Clam Bar. I got their fried cod sandwich called the “Fishwich” and my wife got the Fried Native Chatham Fish and Chips. Both were excellent and the great reviews we saw on Yelp were very accurate. Their onion rings were so good and they are very generous with the portions.

ArnoldsFishChips

ArnoldsLobster

This place is very popular for dinner and we had to wait about 15 minutes in line that went out the door to place an order. They have indoor and outdoor seating, an ice-cream shop adjacent to the restaurant, and mini-golf right behind the restaurant. They have a big gravel parking lot and parking is pretty easy to find.

Day 2: Provincetown

On our second day in Cape Cod, we made the 30-minute drive north to Provincetown, one of the most vibrant and eclectic towns in all of the U.S. It has great food, great beaches, unique art galleries, and many interesting shops. The people are very friendly and the vibe all around just makes you feel like you’re welcomed.

ProvincetownTownhall
Provincetown City Hall

PtownShop
One of the many shops you will find in Provincetown

Provincetown is home to 3 lighthouses and all of them require somewhat of a hike to get to. Due to its location on the Cape, Provincetown has two beaches (Herring Cove Beach and Racepoint Beach) which face west and offer magnificent sunsets. Both of these beaches are part of Cape Cod National Seashore and the same parking rates apply. If you have a parking ticket for any of the 6 beaches that are part of the National Seashore, you can go to any of the other beaches and park within the same day. This is a nice way to beach hop if you get an early start to the day.

First thing I wanted to do was cross over the breakwater to get as close as possible to Wood End Lighthouse. Full disclosure, I was inadequately prepared and I hope you learn from my mistake. I had slippers on rather than shoes and this made walking on the jagged breakwater rocks more difficult than it should have been. I also underestimated the effort required to walk on sand for long stretches once crossing over. The breakwater is over a mile long and the best time to start trekking over is early afternoon in low tide. If you don’t make it back before high tide, you could get stranded.

PtownJetty

The breakwater jetty is much longer than it seems at first glance. At high tide, these rocks get submerged underwater.

Once you cross over to the other side, poison ivy is everywhere (another reason to wear shoes) and I certainly stepped on it a couple of times and felt the effects of it later. Since I didn’t carry water or a granola bar, I decided not to take a chance and continue much further towards the lighthouse.

PtownJetty2
Low tide makes the sand bar a haven for birds

WoodLightHouse2
Wood End Light House 

CormorantProvincetown
Cormorant spotted on the breakwater

This hike is definitely not toddler-friendly so my wife and 11-month old son explored the town while I hiked the breakwater. If you are driving into town, there is metered parking nearby and meter regulations are strictly enforced. I saw two cars with the dreaded orange envelope stuck on their windshields.  I used the Park Boston app (it works for parking in Provincetown) to pay for the meter.

Right near the entrance to the breakwater is an interesting little park with benches called Pilgrims’ First Landing Park. This was the spot where the Pilgrims first arrived in America. This spot really evoked memories of 4th-grade social studies.

IMG_8289

For dinner, we went to a very popular seafood restaurant in Provincetown called Lobster Pot. LobsterPotOutside

LobsterTank

I got the Lobster Rueben Sandwich and it was just as good as it looks. Had I stayed the night in Provincetown, I would have came back the following day to have the same thing again. It was that good.

LobsterRueben

After dinner, we made the short drive to Herring Cove Beach hoping to catch the sunset on what was mostly an overcast day.  To put it mildly, we were not disappointed.

HerringCoveBeach
Taken about 15 minutes before sunset

HerringCoveBeachSunset
There was just enough cloud clearing for us to get a glimpse of the sun as it was setting

HerringCoveSunset
The gorgeous sky about 10 minutes after sunset

Seeing the sunset from Herring Cove Beach is one of the must-do things when visiting Cape Cod. I have never seen a sunset so beautiful within the contiguous 48 states. This was the absolute perfect way to end the day in Provincetown. If you go in the summer, bring a lot of mosquito repellant. They are savage around sunset time.

Day 3: Salt Pond, Marconi Beach, and Chatham

On our final day in Cape Cod, we started off by having brunch at a place called Hole In One in the town of Orleans. I had a Benedict called ‘The Green Monster” while my wife opted for the veggie omelet.

HoleinOneBenedict
The Green Monster Benedict- Fried green tomatoes and avocado on a bed of fresh spinach. Topped with two poached eggs, hollandaise sauce and a pesto drizzle served with crispy home fries. If you’re in the Lower Cape Cod area, I’d recommend giving this place a try. It is a very popular place and we had to wait 35 minutes to get a table.

Salt Pond

We headed over to the Salt Pond Visitor Center which is run by the National Park Service. Since we had a baby in tow in a stroller, we decided to do the 1.3 mile Nauset Marsh Trail, a loop trail which starts and ends at the Salt Pond Visitor Center. If you’re planning to do this trail with a stroller, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, if your stroller does not have shock-absorbing springs, your child will have a very unpleasant time. The trail does get muddy at various points and if you have a stroller with small wheels, it might be a better idea to go with a baby carrier instead. There are a few points along the trail that have steps and you will be required to physically lift the stroller. It’s a very easy trail without a stroller but with it, it becomes a little more arduous. It can be done though and it was well worth it.  Parking at the Visitor Center was free.

SaltPondTrail

SaltPontMarsh

The trail itself offers beautiful views of the Salt Pond and is excellent for bird watching.

Marconi Beach

One of the 6 beaches that’s part of Cape Cod National Seashore, we came here because the parking lot at Nauset Light Beach was completely filled and cars were being turned away. This beach was just as good as that one and not as crowded. The water here was a chilly 60 degrees but it didn’t stop people from taking a dip. There were shark warnings at this beach as well and I didn’t see many people swim beyond waist-deep water. The beach was very clean and well maintained. The sand was nice and soft and my son had a blast playing in it.  You are allowed to bring dogs to the beach as long as you keep them leashed. 

MarconiBeach

After we were done with Marconi Beach,  we decided to go to Chatham to see the beautiful Chatham Lighthouse. On the way, we made a stop in Orleans to see the Jonathan Young Mill. This was originally constructed in 1720 and has been restored through the donations and labor of volunteers.

WindmillCapeCod

JonathanMill

Chatham

Chatham was our final stop in Cape Cod before we were on our way back home. We wanted to catch a glimpse of the Chatham Lighthouse and all its splendor. This lighthouse was actually constructed as a pair. The second lighthouse was moved to Eastham and is now the Nauset Beach Lighthouse (pictured under Day 1).  The house next to Chatham Lighthouse is an active Coast Guard station and living quarters for on-duty personnel.

ChathamLightHouse

This marked the conclusion of our trip. By no means was this a comprehensive list of places to see in Cape Cod. There is so much more to see and many activities you can do.  You would certainly need several more days to experience everything. The whale watching experience in nearby Plymouth is an activity we did a few years back and it allowed us to see humpback whales up close. If you’re into cycling, the Cape Cod Rail Trail is a paved bikeway that runs about 25 miles from South Dennis to Wellfleet. There are many points of interests along the way. There are other beaches which I have not listed that are also worth seeing. Cape Cod is very kid-friendly and family-friendly and a perfect destination to make a family trip. As always, thanks for reading.

Trip Review: Grand Cayman Island

Trip Review: Grand Cayman Island

During the second week of July, my wife, 9-month-old son, and I took a trip to Grand Cayman Island. Rather than do a separate hotel review, I’m going to combine everything into one post since there are a few relevant details which many of you may benefit from. We chose Grand Cayman Island for a few reasons. First of all, it’s about a 3.5-hour flight from Chicago and that’s approximately the maximum time for my son to be confined to an airline cabin before he really starts getting restless. When he was 5 months old and we took him on an 8-hour flight to Hawaii and he was perfectly fine. Once he hit the 7-month mark, even a 2-hour flight wasn’t easy. So with those considerations in mind, Europe, Asia, and Hawaii were out of the question. The second reason we chose Grand Cayman is that their beaches have been spared from the seaweed problem (sargassum) that has plagued destinations such as Cancun, Dominican Republic, Barbados, and even Florida. Most of these destinations are doing their best to remove it every morning but despite their efforts, it’s still noticeable. The third reason we chose Grand Cayman is that it is infant/toddler/kid-friendly.

Booking

For this trip, I was able to find saver level award tickets (tickets which require the least number of miles for a given route) on American Airlines for 30k miles per person round trip. Since my son is a lap infant, his ticket was free. The cash price for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Grand Cayman was $455 per person. Redeeming 60k miles for $910 worth of airfare was a decent redemption.

Owen Roberts International Airport does not have jet bridges so you have to walk down the stairs and onto the tarmac before getting into the airport terminal. The minute you land, you’re greeted by a musical band playing local music. It’s a perfect way to get the vacation vibes going.

   Sunshine Suites Resort

We stayed in a boutique hotel called Sunshine Suites Resort. It’s a 3.5-star hotel that is clean, comfortable, and very reasonably priced (usually between $140-$180/night). I saw its 4.5-star rating on Trip Advisor with over 2,000 reviews and that was good enough for me. Now, if you need luxury accommodations with an ocean view, this hotel is not for you. The main reason why I booked this hotel is we got to use all the amenities of the 5 star Westin Hotel which is a 5-minute walk down the street. Their pool, beach, beach towels, lounge chairs, gym, and access to its restaurants and bars are all included as part of the mandatory $35/day resort fee. The nightly price of the Westin was 3x the price of the Sunshine Suites. Since we were going to be out at the beach for a majority of the day anyway, all we needed was a comfortable place to sleep, shower, and get dressed and Sunshine Suites provided all that and more including complimentary breakfast. You can click on the video below to get an idea of the rooms and the property. FYI, if you don’t want to make the walk to the Westin, you can go to the front desk at Sunshine Suites and request a driver to drop you off in their golf cart. It works the same way if you want to come back from the Westin. Just let the front desk at the Westin know in that case.

 

SunshineSuitesNight
Sunshine Suites at night

SunshinePool
The pool at Sunshine Suites at night

The breakfast offerings were decent. A nice variety of pastries, pancakes, cereal, parfait, boiled eggs, toast, oatmeal, bananas, muffins, coffee, tea, orange juice, and apple juice. Sunshine Suites also had a restaurant on premises called Sunshine Grill which served lunch and dinner. This is not complimentary and does not come as part of an “all-inclusive” package. The fish tacos they served were delicious. If I can go back and have one meal in Grand Cayman, the fish tacos would be it.

Tacos

 

The Westin Hotel

Since we had access to all the amenities of the Westin, we would have breakfast and make our way there for the majority of the day.

SStoWestin

WestinEntrance
If you don’t want to walk here from Sunshine Suites, go to the front desk of Sunshine Suites and request to be dropped off via golf cart. This was a very convenient way to move around with our son.

WestinGCpool
The pool and swim-up bar at the Westin

WestinLobby
The Westin Lobby

WestinBack
View of The Westin from the beach area

WestinPools
The pool has a pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the beach. You can swim underneath to get to either side.

ZaynMePool
First pool experience for Zayn 

Seven Mile Beach

Once you cross over the pool to the beach area, you will be greeted by Westin employees who will direct you to lounge chairs and open up the umbrellas if you choose to have them open. Towels are available to the right of the pool and they must be checked out with your last name and room number of the property you’re staying at. Seven Mile Beach is simply amazing. Among all the beaches I have visited in my life,  I would rank it right behind the Maldives for water clarity.  There is no seaweed, no litter, it’s perfectly maintained, and waves are calm for water activities.

 

Sevenmilebeach (2)
The lounge chairs get occupied pretty quickly. The earlier you claim one in the morning the better.

sevenmilebeach3

 

7milebeach

ZaynBeach3

The water clarity makes it perfect for snorkeling at Seven Mile Beach so be sure to bring an underwater camera and snorkeling gear. You can also rent the gear from the hotel. Seven Mile Beach faces west and if the horizon is clear, you will be treated to some spectacular sunsets.  Even if the horizon isn’t 100% clear, the sun reflecting off the clouds will make a for a beautiful and colorful sky. SunsetGrandCayman

CaymanSunset

A point of interest which might be worth visiting if you’re reading this is Stingray City. It wasn’t age-appropriate for a 9-month-old but if you have kids a bit older or you yourself want to experience swimming with stingrays, it’s only a 10-minute drive away.  Keep in mind that when driving in the Cayman Islands, you drive on the left side of the road as it is a British territory.

Some of you have asked if the food, water, and snacks are expensive and for the most part, they certainly are expensive. If you purchase from the hotel or even convenience stores right next to the hotel, it will cost you 3 to 4 times would you are used to paying for bottled water. I asked a local where I can just buy a case of water and he directed me to a large wholesale club called ‘Cost U Less’ which was just a 7-minute walk away. If you’re familiar with BJ’s Wholesale Club on the East Coast, this was basically their sister store. It even had the Wellsley Farms brand which is the store label for BJ’s. You don’t need a membership and while the prices aren’t U.S. wholesale club cheap, it’s far cheaper than any other place you will find on the island. If you’re staying at an Airbnb and decide to cook rather than eat out, this is a perfect place to shop for your ingredients since they also carry fresh produce, seafood, and meat.

CostUless

 

Concluding Thoughts

We had a great time at Grand Cayman Island and the service and hospitality at both the Sunshine Suites and Westin were top notch. I’ve never seen two hotels so well coordinated when it came to transporting passengers between the two properties and accommodating each other’s guests at their respective restaurants. If there is one other important tip you take from this, BRING MOSQUITO REPELLANT and bathe yourself in it. They are relentless and if there any parts of your body that doesn’t have the repellant touching it, they will find it, guaranteed.  As always, thanks for reading.

TakeOffGC
Rum Point, Grand Cayman Island as seen from the ascent on American Airlines.

 

 

 

 

Itinerary: 3 Days in Washington D.C.

Itinerary: 3 Days in Washington D.C.

If you’re looking for a place to travel with kids and want to choose a place where multiple attractions are close in proximity, D.C. is that place. The best part about D.C. is most of those sites are free, something that large families will truly appreciate. My wife and I traveled here with our 7-month-old and we found places that suited all of us. If you’re staying in the downtown area or anywhere near the U.S. Capitol, you will be able to walk to the various tourist sites.  If you’re staying outside the city and are driving in, I recommend using an app such as Park Whiz or Spot Hero and parking at a nearby garage for the duration of the day. There is also metered parking available but they have two or three-hour limits.

                   Day 1- National Mall Area

Our first stop was the Washington Monument. It’s the tallest building in D.C. and it’s a great starting point or meetup point because you can’t miss it.  The immediate area surrounding the monument was fenced off since it was getting some type of facelift. Nonetheless, it’s an iconic structure and the field surrounding the monument is perfect for a picnic or flying kites.

WashingtonMonument
Washington Monument

Continuing on our path, the second stop was the World War II Memorial which was a short walk to the west. The Memorial itself was awesome but the highlight of our time here was the presence of WWII veterans.

WWIImemorial
World War II Memorial Fountain with The Washington Monument in the background

WWIIVets
World War II Veterans

Prior to coming here, I had only seen 2 or 3 WWII vets in my life. It was really cool to see an entire group of men and women who served our country decades ago. Thank you again for your service! After spending about 25 minutes here, we continued on to the Lincoln Memorial.

LincolnMemorialFront
Front of the Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is the most popular among all the memorials and you will find people here even past midnight when the Lincoln statue is illuminated. As you enter, the first floor will have information on the Civil War and its impact on the country. The second floor is where the statue of Lincoln is situated. They do have elevators if you are unable to climb the stairs or have a stroller.LincolnStatue

When you climb the stairs and look towards the east (the path we came from), you get an amazing view of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.

NationalMallDaytime

After spending a solid 40-45 minutes here, we walked over to the Korean War Veterans Memorial and then the Martin Luther King Memorial.

MLKmemorial
The MLK Memorial. The side of the statue reads “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

The MLK memorial is right next to the Tidal Basin and you have to walk south off of Independence Ave. The next stops were the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

JeffersonMemorial

JeffersonMemorial2
Front entrance to the Jefferson Memorial

JeffersonStatue

The Jefferson Memorial is a beautiful building that was influenced by the Pantheon of Rome. If you’re in D.C. during early April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, this is the place to be.  If you want to get a visual of our walk from Washington Monument to Jefferson Memorial, the map below shows our path as we went from place to place.  I’d budget around 3 hours if you really want to experience all the monuments and take pictures.

MemorialRoute

By the time we were done seeing all the memorials, it was time to get my restless 7-month-old son to the hotel so he could take his usual nap. After dinner, we walked to the South Lawn of the White House at night to take a few pictures.

WhiteHouse

No matter who is in office, the White House is just a beautiful building. I prefer the night view as there is a certain elegance in the dark backdrop. Once we were finished taking pictures here, our first day was in the books.

Day 2 – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Lincoln Memorial at Night

Mother nature did not want to cooperate with us on our second day in D.C. and we had to deal with rain and thunderstorms so that took most of the outdoor attractions out of the picture. Fortunately, D.C. has a lot of excellent indoor attractions as well so we took advantage of this and visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. There are some fascinating exhibits at this museum and it’s also an interactive museum with hands-on activities that kids will enjoy.

Smithsonian1

Smithsonian2

Smithsonian4
The aquarium at the coral reef exhibit was a favorite among many infants and kids, my son included.

Smithsonian5
The famous Hope Diamond

Smithsonian6

SmithsonianRotunda

You should budget at least 1.5 hours for the Smithsonian if you want to comfortably see everything. After dinner, the rain had mostly stopped and many people had recommended walking up to the Lincoln Memorial at night. The Washington Monument reflects off the pool and it makes for an amazing picture.

NationalMallNight

LincolnNight
The statue at night looks really cool

Day 3: Capitol Hill and Smithsonian Zoo

During the early afternoon, we walked to the Capitol Building

CapitolHillCapitolHill2

NationalMallcapitolview
View of the National Mall from the Capitol

Unlike all the other sites we had visited in D.C., the Smithsonian Zoo was a 12-15 minute drive from our hotel in downtown. Like all the sites we had visited thus far, this one was also free of charge. And for a free zoo, it really had a lot to offer.

LionSmithsonianZooTigerSmithZoo

We saw lions, tigers, cheetahs, gorillas, giraffes, elephants, and various other animals. This is another place that is perfect for kids and offers something for people of all ages.

Other Places of Interests to Consider

Since we were here for 3 days with a 7-month-old, it was going to be impossible to see everything we wanted in that short window. If you are going to D.C., also consider visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and the Sackler Gallery. The National Museum of Archives is home to the Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights, and The Emancipation Proclamation.  All these attractions are free and if you are so inclined, you can leave a small donation when you enter or exit.  D.C. is a wonderful city with no shortage of things to do and places to see. It’s a very walkable city and a great place for budget travelers who get to experience world-class attractions at no cost.

Travel Itinerary: 6 Days in Portugal

Travel Itinerary: 6 Days in Portugal

This is a long overdue post of our itinerary to Portugal from our trip over the summer. I had finished more than half of this post but never got around to completing it. Since I have a bit of time and with summer just a couple of months away, this is probably the ideal time to finish it since it people are likely in their planning stages at the moment.

Day 1: Arrival

We departed Chicago O’Hare at 10:48 pm on June 24th and were set to arrive at Frankfurt, Germany at 1:50 pm. Since we booked business class on Lufthansa using United MileagePlus miles, we got to enjoy the Polaris Lounge in Chicago as well as the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge in Frankfurt. You can read about the Polaris Lounge here and the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge here. Our layover in Frankfurt was over 7 hours so having access to the amenities of the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge was extremely helpful. We didn’t arrive in Lisbon until after 11:00 pm. Once we arrived, we walked over to the Hertz counter and my car was ready for pick up in the adjacent parking lot. There wasn’t a line (presumably due to the late arrival) and everything was straight forward. We drove to the Holiday Inn Express where we would spend the night before driving about 3 hours south to the Algarve region early the next morning.

Day 2: Lagos

We arrived in Lagos around 1:00 pm and decided to go straight to our hotel, Cascade Wellness and Lifestyle Resort. This was an amazing property which deserves a review in itself and I’ll get to that. Since they had a room available, they allowed us to check in early and greeted us with complimentary tropical beverages. The property has a gate that leads you to a walking path right along the cliffs. Just for its proximity to the cliffs, this resort was worth it.

IMG_1788

LagosPortugalMFPCopy

If you do walk the trail along the cliffs, please don’t get yourself too close to the edge. There have been people who fell to their deaths when they were taking selfies and lost track of the distance. The water below has jagged rocks and it will do some serious damage. Once we were done with the hike, we took a short drive to the colorful town of the Lagos that was about 10 minutes away.

FaroTiledSidewalk

LagoGreenBuilding

LagosTown

Lagostown3MFP

The town of Lagos was one of my favorite small towns in all of Europe. There’s a nice vibe during the summer and everywhere you look, you’ll see the summer colors and unique paintings and patterns on tiles and on the facades of many buildings. Painted tiles are a huge part of Portugal’s artistic history dating back several hundred years. There are other cities in Europe that incorporate it within their architecture but none do it as effortlessly as Lagos. Even their walking paths are tiled (this can get a bit tricky when it rains though).

LagosNightMFP

IMG_2026

Several of the restaurants in Lagos offers outdoor seating and the summer months are perfect for it. And speaking of restaurants in Lagos, there is one thing you should know when eating out. When the waiter or waitress puts bread and butter on your table, this is not a complimentary appetizer. It’s common practice within the U.S. that if you are brought bread/butter, tortilla chips with dip, or anything else that you didn’t order to your table prior to having your meal served, it’s a complimentary item that you don’t pay for. In Lagos, if you consume the bread and butter, it will be added to your check. If you don’t eat it, it’s omitted. They probably make a killing with thousands of tourists not knowing any better until they get their check. And if you finish the serving of bread, they will bring more, you might eat more, and that’s another easy 5 euros for them. Don’t be gotten.

Day 3: Lagos

Our third day in Lagos was one which I was really looking forward to since I had booked a kayaking tour that would allow me to kayak around the rock formations and cliffs that the Algarve region of Portugal is known for. Since my wife was well into her pregnancy at this time, she wasn’t able to go so I booked the morning tour which would also allow her to sleep in. This tour only had kayaks for two people and both spots in the kayak had to be filled. Since I was solo, they partnered me with another person who was also solo (if you’re reading this, thanks for being a great partner Stephanie. And sorry for hitting your head with the paddle.)  If you find yourself in the Algarve region, I highly recommend doing the kayaking tour. If you’re worried about bringing your phone on the kayak, get a waterproof pouch or bring a GoPro and a GoPro mount. The picture opportunities you will get here are postcard-worthy.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0340.

KayakingTour2

KayakingTour3

 

 

 

The entire tour takes about 2 hours with a stop on a remote beach in between. You kayak with the tour guide going one-way and there’s a boat that tugs everyone’s kayak back for the return. Wear plenty of sunscreen as you will likely have non-stop sun exposure during the tour.

Later on in the day, we decided to visit the beaches in the area. The one that really stood out was Camilo Beach. Crisp clean water, beautiful scenery, and plenty of space to lay your towel on the sand and just relax. The water was a lot cooler than I had expected but that was not going to deter me from getting in. There is a parking lot available if you want to get to Camilo Beach but the spots get taken pretty fast. Once you park, you have to walk down several flights of wooden stairs but the views from atop are spectacular.

CamiloBeachOverlook
View of Camilo Beach near the parking lot

CameloBeach

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0359.
View of Camilo Beach from the water about 30 yards out

Once we wrapped up our day at the beach, we stopped by the town of Lagos for dinner and it was back to the hotel to prepare for the following day.

Day 4: Lagos and Lisbon

Our rental car was due back at the Hertz at Lisbon Airport by 10 pm. This gave us the morning and early afternoon to check out the rock formations of Ponta da Piedade in Lagos. There is a parking lot that can fit many cars (though it likely will fill up fast during peak season) and you can take several flights of stairs down near the water.

 

I decided to take a hike up one of the “mini peaks”. There is only room for 3-4 people but it’s so worth it for the views.

SailboatLagos

LagosHeart
Nature carving out a heart

PontaDaPiedade3

 

Ponta da Piedade was our final stop in the Algarve region of Portugal. Now it was time to drive up north to Lisbon and see what that beautiful city had to offer.

Lisbon

When we arrived in Lisbon later that afternoon, there were overcast skies and a few ominous looking clouds. We thought it would be pretty blah type of day. Fortunately, the clouds moved on and there was sunshine just a couple of hours after we checked into our hotel.

IntercontinentalView
View of the terracotta rooftops from our room at the Intercontinental, Lisbon

This gave us the opportunity to explore outside our hotel and walk around the city. There is no better way to get a flavor for a city than doing it on your feet. We walked on Av. da Liberdade and just kept going and going.  The further we went towards the shopping district, the more it felt like the Las Ramblas area of Barcelona, Spain. Since the World Cup was ongoing and Portugal was still alive (this would change in a few days), there was a vibrant and festive atmosphere no matter where you turned in Lisbon.

CentralLisbon
Monument to the Restorers in Restauradores Square

 

lisbonstreetphoto1

While we were walking through Av. da Liberdade, we ended up taking a few turns that led us to a trendy shopping area called Baixa. This neighborhood had excellent shopping, dining, and chic hotels and lounges.

BaixaShopping
The trendy Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon

BaixaShopping3
Cobblestone streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon.

We found a hotel called Hotel do Chiado and on the 8th floor, they had a rooftop lounge called Entrentato. No reservations were needed and there was plenty of seating available. The views of the city and red terracotta roofs were awesome. LisbonRoofs

LisbonRooftops2

If you find yourself in this area check out Entretanto. Baixa also has a historic elevator called Santa Justa Lift that you can experience for 5.30 euros. It takes you to the top and gives you panoramic views of the city from a slightly different perspective. We did not do this since the wait time was over an hour and the rooftop lounge took care of the views we were looking for.

SantaJustaLift
Santa Justa Lift

Day 5: Lisbon

The first thing on the agenda for today was going to a place called Pasteis de Belem and have their famous custard pastries. You will find imitators throughout Lisbon but this place is the original. They’ve been churning out their famous custard pastries since 1837. If you come to Lisbon, you cannot leave without visiting this place. You just can’t.

CustardPastry
Why I don’t see these things in American bakeries, I have no idea. We’re missing out.

IMG_2156

IMG_2165
You will likely encounter a line outside the entrance to get in but it moves fast.

Once we were done eating, we took a walk around the area to see some interesting points of interest. First among them was Jeronimos Monastery. Construction on this building started in 1501 and was not finished until about 100 years later. If you’re into Gothic architecture, this building is a classic example of Portuguese Gothic architecture which can be found all over Lisbon. Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Jeronimos2

After walking around Belem, we took a 15 minute Uber ride to the neighborhood of Bairro Alto upon the recommendation of locals. Bairro Alto is known for its sloping and cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, and colorful facades. LisbonBridge

LisbonStreetPhotography

LisbonTram2

This quarter of the city was one of my favorites and really what I envisioned what Lisbon would be. It had a unique charm and it felt like it wasn’t trafficked by as many tourists as Baixa and Belem. There were plenty of cafes, restaurants, and local shops.  Walking was easy going downhill but uphill was occasionally a struggle. Your best bet is to walk downhill and take the trolley going back up.

LisbonHillView
Streets that slope downward and give you unobstructed views of the Tagus River are found in Bairro Alto

As we kept walking, we recognized some of the places we had been to the day before and didn’t realize initially Baixa was adjacent to Bairro Alto.

BaixaMFP

Many Portuguese restaurants in Lisbon serve ceviche which is raw fish cured with citrus juices and spiced with peppers and other seasonings. Since this was my first ever trip to Portugal, I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining my stomach so I avoided ceviche but it is a local favorite.

Day 6: Sintra and Lisbon

Sintra is a small town about that’s about a 45 minute Uber ride from Lisbon and is home to the Palace of Pena. If you’re in Lisbon, I highly recommend taking the trip to this part of Portugal and experiencing the Palace of Pena for yourself. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was completed in 1854. It served as the home for Portuguese royalty until the late 19th century and was converted into a museum in 1910. The Palace of Pena has a facade that’s composed of vivid colors and architecture that incorporates Romanticism, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance. If you are going to visit, I highly recommend not driving to Sintra!  The roads are very narrow to go up the hill and parking is almost non-existent. Uber or Taxi will drop you off near the ticketing office. If you haven’t purchased your tickets online, you can do so from the ticket windows. Tickets to get into the Palace of Pena cost 14 euros for adults, and 12.50 euros for children and seniors.  From there you can take the arduous 1 km hike up to the castle or you can pay 3 euros to take the shuttle. We took the shuttle and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Everyone we saw walking up the hill looked winded and tired. CastlePena

CastlePena2

CastlePenaGargoyles

PenaCastle

PenaCastle3

PenaCastleInside

They also have a cafe on the premises as well as a souvenir shop. You should budget at least 2 hours here and possibly more if you’re a really detail-oriented person.  When you’re outside on the Arches Yard, you get a beautiful panoramic view of Sintra and other points of interest such as the Moorish Castle.

MoorishCastle
Moorish Castle as seen from Arches Yard at the Palace of Pena.

When you’re exiting the Palace of Pena, you take the same shuttle that bought you there and it will drop you off near the ticketing area. The shuttle runs once every 15-20 minutes. Cars are not allowed to pick up passengers in this area. To get down to the town of Sintra below, we paid 10 euros for a ride on a tuk-tuk. Sintra itself is a small quaint town with nice restaurants, cafes, shops, and really nice vibes.

SintraView

SintraTown

SintraTown2

Once we were done walking around Sintra, we took an Uber back to Lisbon. Portugal’s soccer match vs Uruguay was going to start shortly and we did not want to miss the various viewing parties that were occurring throughout Lisbon.

Lisbon

At this point, Portugal was down 2-1 to Uruguay and you can see the look of consternation on the faces of many Portugal fans as the clock keeps ticking away. I wanted Portugal to win badly so I could witness the euphoria of fans who genuinely live and die with soccer every year. It just wasn’t meant to be and the atmosphere around Lisbon went from festive to somber as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The build-up leading up to this game was incredible and witnessing fans slam tables, curse at the TV, and explain to their friends why Portugal sucked, I knew exactly what they were going through. In a sense, it was comforting to know that the same type of behavior I exhibit when the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, or Cubs are playing terribly is universally practiced. Once the game ended, my wife and I got dinner and called it a night. Our flight back to the U.S. was early next morning so getting sleep was definitely on our minds. This concluded our memorable trip to Portugal.

Recap

We tried to fit as much as we could into a 6-day itinerary to Portugal.  Although we didn’t get to visit it this time, we hope to visit the city of Porto the next time we visit Portugal. For us, it came down to Lisbon plus either Algarve or Porto. Since there would have been some overlap with Porto and Lisbon, both being proper cities, we decided to skip Porto this time and visit a region that was completely different from either. Lisbon and Algarve have not been overrun by tourists the way London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Rome have. If you are planning to go, do it before Europe’s best-kept secret is no longer a secret. As always, thanks for reading.

Travel Itinerary: 5 Days in Big Island Hawaii

Travel Itinerary: 5 Days in Big Island Hawaii

Big Island was the fourth Hawaiian Island my wife and I visited. This trip was also our first long distance trip with our 5-month-old son so there was a bit of uncertainty on how he would handle being in a plane for 8+ hours. Fortunately, he was very well behaved and this gave us a ton of confidence in doing future trips with him. During this trip to Hawaii, we did encounter a day of heavy rain and another day where the eastern half of the island had rain so we could not see certain points of interest. This forced us to cancel a couple of sights we had planned to see. However, there was a positive trade-off of being “stuck” on the resort and you will see why as you keep reading.

Day 1: Arrival

We arrived at Kona International Airport on the Big Island at around 3pm. Since we rented a car from Turo (you can read my review on Turo and our experience here), it was a matter of collecting our luggage and walking to the airport parking lot where our car was already waiting for us with the keys inside. The distance to Hilton Waikoloa Village from the airport was about 20 miles and a 30-minute drive. On the way to the resort, we stopped at a lookout point to take in the scenery. If you see a lookout point anywhere, just stop your car and enjoy the views.

DSC00014
Vegetation growth on volcanic rock at a lookout point.  The Big Island is home to multiple volcanoes, some which are still very active.

Since sunset was around 6:15 pm and by the time we got situated it was already close to 5 pm, we spent the rest of the time on the resort to enjoy the sunset views.

ResortSunsetResortSunset2resortsunset3

I’ll have a separate review on the Hilton Waikoloa Village but this was a wonderful property that was very kid-friendly.

 Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Stops Along the Way

On the second day, I drove from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while making a few stops in between. I downloaded the Gypsy App specific for Big Island and it guided me on where to make stops in between Waikoloa and Volcanoes National Park. It costs $9.99 and you do not need to have data for it to work. The most appealing aspect of this app is that the narrator gives you historical context with regards to culture and geology at various stopping points and why it might be worth stopping or skipping. The app serves as a very knowledgeable tour guide and I highly recommend using it for Big Island.

 

GypsyRoad
The Gypsy App is available for each Hawaiian Island. I highly recommend it.

Places of Interest En Route To Volcanoes National Park

LavaFieldBigIsland
A lava field lookout point on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

Lookoutpoint2
This viewpoint is right off the side of the road.

PunaluuSign
This is one of the places you should definitely stop by on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

blacksandbeachsouthend
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

SeaTurtlesPunaluuBeach
Sea turtles basking in the sun at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park was the last place I stopped prior to entering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are a few other points of interest after this one such as South Point (southernmost point out of all the 50 states) and Papakolea Beach which is a green sand beach. Getting to the beach does require over 2 hours of hiking and I did not want to run out of daylight where I’d be hurrying at Volcanoes National Park. I skipped these two but if you find yourself leaving prior to sunrise from Kona or if you’re staying in Hilo, you’d have plenty of time to see both of these places.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

VNPEntrance

VNPSign I’ve been asked if I bought my 5-month-old to this park and the answer is no. Since the steam vents emit sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gas, I did not want to expose my son to potential lung irritants. If you’re pregnant, have heart problems, asthma, or COPD, it’s probably best to avoid the steam vents at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

SteamVent
One of the many steam vents that are found in the park.

Caldera2
The Kilauea Caldera. You can either park at the visitors center and take a half mile hike to get here or you can just park on the road and walk a few hundred feet. I chose to do the hike so I would get to see most of the steam vents along the path.

There were some parts of the park that were still closed due to the eruptions from 2018. The lava tubes were also not accessible during this time. As you continue your drive through the park, I highly recommend taking Chain of Craters Road all the way down to to the coast. It’s about 20 miles from the caldera and drive is one of the best you will find in any of the 50 states. Pictures really don’t do it justice so I took a short video so you get a better idea.

You will also find plenty of amazing photo opportunities and other points of interest.

VolcanoesNPViews
One of the scenic viewpoints on Chain of Craters Road.

PetroglyphsPath
Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field

Closer to the shore, you will find a sign for the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field.  This area is considered sacred to the people of Hawaii and you will find many symbols and images that were carved into the hardened lava. It’s 1.4-mile round-trip hike and I highly recommend it. Further down the road, you will see cliffs that are made from lava. This is the newest land on the Big Island and it’s made when lava hits the water and solidifies into rock.

VolcanoesNPLavaCliffs

RoadViewChainofCraters
Chain of Craters Road on the way back also has stunning views.

Day 3: Pololu Valley and Stops Along the Way

On this day, there was rain in the forecast after 2 pm so I made it a point to get this hike done as early as possible. The mornings also have cooler temperatures so it makes for a much more comfortable hike as it is. Pololu Valley is about a 45-minute drive from Waikoloa and about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Kona. You can just park your car on the road and enjoy the views from the look-out but if you really want to get the splendid views of the valley, you should do the hike. The hike down isn’t difficult but it can be slippery at times due to the frequent rainfall in the area. The hike going back up is moderately challenging and you will certainly need plenty of water and some granola bars.

PoluluLookoutParking
Pololu Lookout. If you decide not to do the hike, you still can’t go wrong with these views.

PololuLookout2
Pololu Valley from the parking area

Blackrockbeach
The Black Sand Beach once you hike your way to the bottom.

PoluluLookOut
This is the view you hike down for.

 

Waimea Valley is nearby and also offers spectacular views. However, hiking there does require that you go on private property and that would be considered trespassing. You can also drive down there but you would definitely need an AWD or 4WD vehicle with some clearance.

Day 4: Whale Watching From Hilton Waikoloa Village (due to rain)

On this day, the plan was to go to Akaka Falls. If you are in Big Island, please make an attempt to visit Akaka Falls because it is beautiful from the many pictures and videos I have seen. Unfortunately, a lot of rain moved in and it basically spanned the entire island. But there was a silver lining.  As I’ve mentioned before, winter is humpback whale season in Hawaii. Mothers and calves are near the coasts of every Hawaiian island and this is the time when mothers teach their young on how to be whales. Since our resort was right on the shore, I took my camera and started filming the minute someone pointed out the whales in the distance. Then they started coming closer and closer.

Out of nowhere, the mother whale breached the water and I was lucky enough to have my camera recording. I do want to apologize for the grainy quality.

TwoWhales
Two humpback whales right off the shore of Hilton Waikoloa Village

Whales were seen 4 out of the 5 days we stayed at Hilton Waikoloa Village and it really made it fun and exciting for the kids who were also whale watching.

Day 5: Snorkeling in the Hilton Waikoloa Village Lagoon and visit to Kona

Day 5 was supposed to be a visit to either Akaka Falls or the green sand beach for the second day during our trip both those of places had rain in the forecast while our side of the island was bright and sunny. I used this time to go snorkeling.

 

 

This property does not have an ocean front beach due to the powerful waves and riptide currents that are common along the Big Island. It does have a lagoon with sand that functions as a beach and the lagoon is excellent for swimming and snorkeling. I saw plenty of colorful fish and several sea turtles, one which I was able to follow for almost two minutes.

Kona

For dinner, we were recommended Umekes Fishmarket Bar and Grill in Kona by the owner of the vehicle we rented from Turo. We ordered the Tempura Battered Fish & Chips and Cajun Style Ahi Fish Tacos. Both of the items we ordered were perfect.

FishTacosUmekes

FishAndChips

 

This concluded our trip to the Big Island in Hawaii. A popular question I get asked is among the four islands I have visited, which one is my favorite? I really can’t say I have one. Each island has its own unique charm and offers something different for everyone. The Big Island has a volcanic landscape that’s so vast, it can’t be seen anywhere else in Hawaii. It also has stunning valleys, excellent beaches, and a green sand beach that can’t be found on any other Hawaiian island. Since it is not as heavily trafficked by tourists, you get a better flavor of Hawaiian culture throughout the island. Big Island is also known for its coffee and macadamia nuts. If you have the time, you should visit a coffee or a macadamia nut farm.  But just like the other Hawaiian islands my wife and I have been fortunate to visit, the locals are wonderful. They are some of the nicest and friendliest people in the world. The physical beauty of the islands is certainly attractive and makes for great pictures but it’s the Hawaiian people and their hospitality that keeps us coming back. We look forward to coming back sometime in the near future. As always, thanks for reading.

Travel Itinerary: 4 Days in Kauai

Travel Itinerary: 4 Days in Kauai

Kauai was the second island my wife and I visited during our last trip to Hawaii. We started off in Maui (you can read that itinerary here) and took a one-way flight from Maui to Kaui on Hawaiian Airlines via JetBlue miles. Kauai is known as the Garden Isle for its lush tropical landscape. Based on my experience, Kauai offers more seclusion than Maui and Oahu and more lush greenery than Big Island. All of the islands are special in their own way so I’d recommend experiencing all four.  Here’s a rundown of what we did during our four days in Kauai.

Day 1: Arrival

My wife and I stayed at Mariott’s Kauai Beach Club Hotel during our stay in Kauai. Great property that wasn’t expensive and located right on the beach just 10 minutes from the airport. We rented a car in both Maui and Kauai and if you want to make the most of your time there, I’d recommend doing the same.  We arrived in the late afternoon from Maui so we spent the evening at Kalapaki Beach, right in front of our hotel and took in the live entertainment that was offered by Marriott.

MarriottKauai.jpg
View of the beach from our balcony

Day 2: Poipu Beach

On the second day, we spent almost the entire day at Poipu Beach. Of all the beaches I’ve been to in Oahu, Maui, and Kauai (I’ve been to many), this was my favorite in Hawaii. Plenty of space, clean, an abundance of marine wildlife, and a perfect place to snorkel. If you’re in Kauai, this beach is a must see. You also get spectacular sunsets if you decide to stick around until the late evening.

Kauai

 

I was very fortunate to be able to swim alongside a green sea turtle. If you’re going to snorkel in Hawaiian waters, get yourself a GoPro or any underwater camera. You’ll see some really cool wildlife and it’s worth getting on video.

Day 3: Waimea Canyon State Park

Waimea Canyon State Park is another must-see place in Kauai. From our hotel near the airport, it was about 32 miles away to the entrance and took about 45 minutes. You can also take a 3.4-mile hike to the bottom of the canyon and this will take about 3 hours round-trip. The cool thing about Waimea Canyon is that the surrounding area looks like Sedona, Arizona. You’ll find red clay, orangish water, and landscape that almost seems out of place for Hawaii.

IMG-5750

 

IMG-5748
The landscape on the periphery of Waimea Canyon

 

 

Waimea
The main lookout at Waimea Canyon

 

Once you’re at the main lookout point at Waimea Canyon, you’ll find local farmers selling local produce such as mangos, star-fruits, and papayas. They are delicious and if you purchase the fruits, you’ll be supporting local.

Day 4: Napali Coast State Park aka Jurassic Park

No trip to Kauai is complete without seeing Napali Coast State Park. This was the setting for Jurassic Park and the minute you get to the entrance, it will all come back to you. My wife and I were dead set on doing the hike and we did about 3/4 of it until park rangers told us we couldn’t go any further due to flooding from heavy rainfall the previous night.  The hike is definitely challenging, particularly the first quarter mile where there is a lot of steep uphill climbing. If you do the hike, bring some solid hiking shoes, plenty of water, and a couple of granola bars. I saw a few people with flip-flops and they were getting killed from mud and wet rocks. Please don’t do this hike with flip-flops or sneakers. You don’t need expensive hiking shoes and a $60 pair would do the job.  I’d also bring a very light raincoat since this part of Kauai gets a lot of rain and the weather can change from hour to hour. Other options to see the cliffs are from a boat or helicopter. I have heard the helicopter takes four people and that if you’re one of the two sitting in the rear, you’re kind of blocked off from the views when compared to those sitting in the front. Just something to be aware of.

KauaiCliffs
Overcast skies on our way to Napali Coast.

KauaiCliffs2

The weather on this part of the island changes from hour to hour. If you open up any weather app on your smartphone and you see rain for the entire day, take that with a grain of salt. On our drive there, we had mostly overcast skies with drizzle here and there. By the time we started the hike, the clouds started clearing up and gave way to sunshine. Don’t get disappointed if you see overcast skies while you’re driving there. Just wait it out and hopefully the sun will appear.

NapaliEntrance

NapaliOne
A view from the hiking trail. The skies cleared up about 40 minutes after we started hiking. 

Napali3
Waiting for a raptor to come around the corner….jk

IMG-2151

NapaliCoast2
The majestic cliffs and a rainbow from a distance

So this was Kauai in a nutshell. A special place and a beautiful island that’s home to my favorite beach amongst the ones I have visited in Hawaii. I really wish we had an extra day here and I know I’d be saying the same thing even we did. If you happen to visit Hawaii, try to include Kauai in your itinerary as well. But only if you are certain you can do the three must-see places above. If you want to read about our most recent trip to Hawaii (Big Island), you can do that here. As always, thanks for reading.

Travel Itinerary: 7 Days in Costa Rica

Travel Itinerary: 7 Days in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a beautiful and affordable destination and one which I get asked about quite often. It has such a diverse landscape that you can be on the beach taking in the sun one day while trekking the trails near Arenal Volcano the very next day. There is something for everyone in this beautiful country and you’re going to see wildlife, landscape, and other sites which you might have never seen before. My wife and I took a flight from Albany, NY to Liberia, Costa Rica and rented a small SUV to get around. We started on the northwest side of Costa Rica and made our way southeast. We returned the car to San Jose International Airport. It’s not really far in terms of distance but there are roads where you will have to drive slow either due to the speed limit or due to the poor conditions of the road themselves. If you are going to rent a car, I highly recommend an SUV. It doesn’t have to be huge and anything with decent ground clearance will suffice. You can see the distance between the two airports below.

CRMap.JPG

Arriving in Costa Rica

We arrived at Liberia International Airport from Newark at 1:40 pm. 17.5k United miles per person was what got us here. We headed straight for the car rental counters which were adjacent to the airport and this was probably the worst part of our trip. We pre-booked with Budget so I assumed I would just have to show my license and passport, give them my credit card, and we’d be on our way. That’s not how it went. First of all the line was long and it was slow moving. The issue at hand with just about everyone in front me? Not reading up on their car rental laws prior to arriving and then assuming that Budget was in the wrong. Here is how it works: In Costa Rica, you are BY LAW, required to purchase government issued liability insurance  (SLI). This is different than benefits from your credit card. The concern with most people was that purchasing this insurance would void the collision damage waiver (CDW) their own credit card might provide. It does not void the CDW because purchasing the SLI is law. Now it’s true that the rental agencies might try to upsell you their own insurance in addition to the SLI. That’s where they earn most of their profits. For your sake, it’s redundant and a waste of money. We spent nearly two hours in line before we finally got our SUV. And again, I strongly recommend an SUV because you will find gravel roads and roads that are poorly paved in Costa Rica.

Days 1 & 2: Puerto Potrero

For the first two days, we stayed right on the beach at Sugar Beach Hotel.  It was a relatively inexpensive and comfortable place with a very friendly staff. One of the biggest appeals of this hotel was having their own private beach. A clean pool and complimentary breakfast were huge pluses. They also have their own restaurant but my wife and I opted for the local food scene instead. The sunset views from the beach were incredible. If you’re into surfing, boogie boarding, or water paddling, this place was perfect for that. There are plenty of hotel options on the west coast of Costa Rica and you’ll get sunset views and clean beaches from just about all of them.

Day 3: Bijagua and Tenorio Volcano National Park

We left around 9:30 and arrived at our B&B called Sueno Celeste around 11 am. This is the area near the Rio Celeste waterfall and if you happen to find yourself in this area, I would definitely recommend this B&B. Rather than one large building with multiple rooms, they have several colorful cabin type rooms in a lush green garden setting that is frequented by several unique and colorful birds. I saw birds on this property that I’ll probably never see anywhere else. You can see some of them below.

DSC_0616
The lush grounds of the Sueno Celeste B&B. All the birds that were seen below frequent the property so always have your camera ready

DSC_0707
Toucan

DSC_0729.JPG

DSC_0763

DSC_0769

We arrived at Sueno Celeste, dropped off our luggage, and drove to the entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park. There is only one road to get there and not only is it gravel, there are bumps, potholes, and craters everywhere. It was hard enough traversing this road with an SUV, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be with a sedan or smaller car. Once we were there, the entrance fee was $10 per person and off we were. The hike to get to the Rio Celeste Waterfall is about an hour and there is some steep uphill climbing involved. The return is about 45 minutes. Bring a couple of water bottles and some granola bars because the uphill portion can be exhausting. Since the trails get frequent rainfall, it will be very muddy and you will likely get mud over your clothes. Make sure you bring a decent pair of hiking shoes and hiking clothes that you wouldn’t lose sleep over if they got dirty. I saw a few people trying to do this hike with flip-flops and they struggled. The mud was eating their flip-flops alive. The views along the way are picture worthy and the reward at the end of the hike, the Rio Celeste Waterfall, is incredible.  Swimming in the national park is forbidden but since the Rio Celeste runs 9 miles, you’ll find locals swimming in the portions that are outside of the national park territory.

DSC_0629
The blue color of the Rio Celeste

DSC_0635
Rio Celeste Waterfall. Well worth the hike.

DSC_0680
Capuchin monkey high in the trees. These monkeys spend almost all of their time near the canopy. They won’t bother you but please don’t feed them. That’s how they lose their fear of humans.

Tenorio Volcano National Park closes at 4pm  and they don’t allow visitors after 2pm so the earlier you get there the better. After we were done with our hike, we drove the bumpy road back to Sueno Celeste. The family that owns this B&B has a rotating menu for dinner each night (for pay) that they cook themselves. That particular night, fish cakes with peanut sauce, steamed vegetables, and jasmine rice were on the menu. We never had anything like it and it was delicious. This property also had a large outdoor jacuzzi that can fit 8-10 people. Since no one was using it, we figured it would be a nice way to cap off a productive but tiresome day.  We stayed in Bijagua for just one night and the next day it was on to La Fortuna, about a 2-hour drive southeast with Arenal Volcano National Park being the main attraction.

Day 4 & 5: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano National Park

La Fortuna is a small town near Arenal Volcano and one that is used as a base camp to get to the sights near the area.  We stayed at an inexpensive but comfortable hotel called Hotel Eco Arenal for two nights. On the day we arrived, we did a quick hike to La Fortuna waterfall. The entrance fee was $15 and the hike took about 20 minutes. This hike will take you through the lush tropical forest and will provide you with plenty of spectacular picture opportunities.

DSC_0793
La Fortuna Waterfall from a distance

DSC_0796

Once we were done with this excursion, we headed back to La Fortuna and just walked around the town. They have a beautiful park located in the town’s center and there is an abundance of restaurants, boutique shops, and souvenir shops throughout town. The following day, we did the hike at Arenal Volcano National Park. The Volcano is easily seen from La Fortuna but to hike the trails, we had to drive about 40 minutes to the entrance of the park. The park is open from 8am to 6pm and there is an entrance fee of $15 per adult. If you’re in Costa Rica, this is one of the must-see places you should add to your list. Arenal Volcano is still considered an active volcano and it last erupted in 2010. On a clear day, there will be multiple points on the trail where you will be able to take incredible pictures of the volcano and surrounding landscape.

DSC_0840

DSC_0945
Arenal Volcano. The ashy gray areas are from the last eruption in 2010.

The hike was mostly flat grounds but if you wanted to get better photo opportunities, there are trails that diverged from the main path and required some steep uphill climbing. If you’re able to do it then I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. As an FYI, you don’t need a guide to do these trails but if you feel more comfortable having one, you will find guides at the entrance of the park (for a fee). Now it was time make the 3 hour drive southwest to Monteverde.

Day 6: Monteverde and Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Even though the straight line distance isn’t far, the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde took us 3 hours since there are no roads that cut through the center of Arenal Volcano National Park. We also had to drive around Laguna de Arenal and this added considerable time and distance. But 3 hours later we were in Monteverde and we stayed at a very cheap hotel called Hotel El Bosque. In places like Costa Rica where we were going to be out and about almost the entire day, we opted for cheap but comfortable accommodations. Although this place was cheap, it certainly wasn’t comfortable so I wouldn’t recommend it.

The main attraction in this area is the Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a sanctuary to over 500 species of birds, 130 species of mammals, and 120 species of reptiles and amphibians. For this excursion, we opted for the guided tour ($37 per person for foreigners and $27 if you have a student ID) on the recommendation of friends who had been here before. They had tours at 7:30am, 11:30am, and 1:30 pm. Since we had a 3-hour drive from La Fortuna, we opted for the 1:30pm tour.  You can choose between a few different types of tours including a night tour if you’re feeling more adventurous. The website for booking the tour is http://www.reservamonteverde.com/guided-tours.html.

Having a guide for this tour was worth it. Our guide was able to point out reptiles and birds that were well camouflaged in the trees which we would have certainly missed without his expertise. He was able to identify the species of birds based on their chirping noise and had some powerful Nikon binoculars that he passed around to everyone in our group when an animal or bird was spotted. This walking tour took about 4 hours and the trails were mostly flat and easy to navigate.

DSC_1070
Beautiful view from the hike at Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

DSC_1026.jpg
One of the rarer birds in the forest, the resplendent quetzal

DSC_1076

This concluded our hiking/nature/adventure portion of our trip to Costa Rica. It was off to the capital city of San Jose early the next morning.

Day 7: San Jose

Our return trip home was via San Jose International Airport so we made sure we gave ourselves an entire day to experience Costa Rica’s capital city. San Jose is a vibrant city and the largest city in Costa Rica. They have plenty of museums, theatres, parks, and interesting architecture. You can experience most of this by choosing a central hotel location and walking around. We decided to stay at Hotel Aranjuez which I highly recommend. Their complimentary breakfast had a huge selection and it was a clean and comfortable accommodation.  It only cost us $67 for the night so there was a ton of value there.

DSC_1079
The National Theater of Costa Rica, which opened in 1897

DSC_1081
Central Park in San Jose, Costa Rica

The following day we returned our one-way rental to San Jose International Airport and off we were back to the U.S. We used Southwest Airlines for our trip back and we got an incredible redemption of 6,200 points per person for our flight back to Albany via Baltimore. In a span of 7 days, we were able to enjoy the beach, spectacular sunsets, multiple waterfalls, volcanoes, exotic wildlife, and a beautiful city. That’s what makes Costa Rica very special. There is something for everyone and you can customize your itinerary based on your specific interests. The people are so friendly and helpful and it’s a place I’d highly recommend. Just remember to bring mosquito repellant, a good pair of hiking shoes/clothes, and read up on the car rental laws prior to arriving.