ITINERARY: 6 DAYS IN ALASKA TRAVELING WITH TODDLERS

ITINERARY: 6 DAYS IN ALASKA TRAVELING WITH TODDLERS

During the summer of 2021, my wife and I decided to take the kids (ages 34 months and 17 months when we traveled) on an adventurous trip to Alaska. Many of you know our affinity for wildlife, nature, and the natural beauty that’s found in every corner of our planet. With restrictions or logistical challenges for international travel still in place during this time, we decided that visiting a destination such as Alaska was the best option to experience a pristine environment without the worry of testing positive for COVID19 and quarantining on the way there or back. For work purposes, I simply could not afford to be in a place beyond my allotted vacation time. Having been there in 2015, I fell in love with Alaska and have longed to come back. Fast forward to 2021 and there was my opportunity to visit again. Rather than opt for the 6.5-hour non-stop flight from Chicago to Anchorage, we decided to stop in Seattle for 2 nights (a fantastic city in and of itself) and explore a little before continuing on. The kids tend to hit a wall on flights over 5 hours (the non-stop flight back was rough) and the 3-hour flight from Seattle to Anchorage was perfect to keep them fresh on our arrival to Anchorage.

Background of Denali National Park

When you visit Denali National Park most years, there is about a 2 to 3 week stretch from the beginning of May until about May 20th where anyone can drive their car on Denali Park Road, 30 miles into the park (Teklanika River rest area.) Once the summer season officially kicks off and tour buses and camp buses start using the roads on May 20th, only those selected via lottery (this occurs in April) are allowed to drive to Teklanika while others have to stop at Savage River rest area (mile 15) and turn around. When the summer season ends in late September, the lottery restriction is lifted, and anyone can drive to Teklanika until snow closes the park roads. If you want to go beyond Teklanika all the way to the Denali Road terminus at mile 92 (Kantishna), you have to take a tour bus. This is about a 12-hour round trip. With two young toddlers in-tow, this was not an option for us and it’s something I don’t recommend for parents with kids under the age of 5.

When the lottery occurred in April, I was not one of the lucky ones who was selected via the lottery process. The only option was to go the website and check every day if someone cancelled their reserved time slot during the days that we were going to be there. If someone relinquishes their slot, that slot becomes open, and it’s first come first serve. From April 28th to Jul 13th, I checked every single day, multiple times a day, but I had no luck. I would see time slots opening up, but they would never be during the time frame that we were going to be in Denali. It wasn’t until after we landed in Alaska, and we were on the way to Denali that my wife saw a time slot open for the following day. I immediately pulled into a parking lot, paid the $25 and claimed that spot. It literally went down to the wire. Keep in mind that the first 15 miles of Denali Park Road is paved and it’s all gravel road thereafter. Having an SUV makes the drive to Teklanika a bit easier. Important to Note: Lottery for 2022 has been cancelled and buses will only run until mile 43 due to the ongoing Pretty Rocks landslide at about mile 45. Read more about it here

Day 1: Arrival to Anchorage and drive to Denali National Park

Final Descent into Anchorage, Alaska

After arriving in Anchorage at around 1pm, we headed to the rental car counter inside the terminal where we surprisingly didn’t encounter any lines. If you are traveling to Alaska, remember to bring your car insurance card with you. This may not be the case with every car rental agency, but Budget demanded to see it. Even though premium credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Reserve and AMEX Platinum (among many others) offer primary rental coverage, there’s a possibility that the agent you deal with does not know this. Once we got our car, we grabbed a quick bite at a local restaurant before making the 4-hour drive north to Denali National Park. Even though we didn’t reach the park entrance until 7pm, the midnight sunset gave us plenty of time to drive 15 miles into the park. After viewing a bit of wildlife, we headed back to the hotel and rest up for the following day. Here is my rule for driving in Alaska and one which I’d recommend to everyone — if you are passing by a gas station and your gas tank is half full or less, pull over and top it off. Cell signal is spotty in many areas and almost non-existent once you drive a few miles into in the National Parks. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you have to choose between staying warm (or cool) and conserving gas in case of a flat tire or worse, collision with wildlife.

The hotel we selected for our stay in the Denali area was McKinley Chalet Resort. We loved this accommodation with its rustic rooms, beautiful views, and dining right on the premises. The dining will be a bit more expensive on resort grounds compared to other places in town, but you are paying for the convenience. Their cafe isn’t a Starbucks, but they do serve Starbucks products the way a Barnes & Noble Cafe does. Most of the restaurants and eateries around Denali NP close at 9 pm while a convenience store in town is open all night.

McKinley Chalet Resort

McKinley Chalet Resort

Day 2: Denali National Park

Our second day in Alaska was the day we had the coveted pass to drive to Teklanika River (mile 30) in Denali NP. We were fortunate enough to see a female moose with two calves on the trail near the park entrance. Having two kids that are animal enthusiasts made this encounter even better.

A mother moose (cow) keeping a watchful eye over her calves.

Remember to keep a distance of at least 50 yards. This picture was taken with a 200mm lens, but we were about 65-70 yards away

The highlight of Zayn’s Denali visit. He bottled up his excitement and respected the wildlife. Great job kiddo!

This was mostly an overcast day, but we were lucky to avoid precipitation. If you’re coming with young kids and want to do a trail, remember to bring plenty of water, granola bars, a waterproof jacket, and hiking boots. If you’re here during the summer, bring mosquito repellant! They are large and aggressive in Alaska, and I learned that the hard way. We hiked a toddler-friendly trail called the Savage River Loop Trail. This moderately trafficked trail is about 1.7 miles that’s mostly flat with no steep incline or decline. You can also choose to do a portion of it and just turn back. Any part of the park is fair game to see bears but especially areas near water sources. This particular area of the park was also near a wolf den during our visit and although we didn’t see any wolves, we were told to keep an eye out for the pack. Remember to bring bear spray and make enough noise on the trails so wildlife in the area can hear your presence. If you do see wildlife, give it plenty of space, especially bears, moose, and wolves. Always carry bear spray and know how to use it!

Day 3: Denali National Park and Anchorage

On our last day in Denali National Park, we got an early start to the day and drove until Savage River before turning back and making the 4-hour drive to Anchorage. The sun was finally out but there was not much wildlife to see on this day other than a lone moose. The clear day gave us views of the beautiful vistas of Denali Nationakl Park. Mt. McKinley was mostly covered with clouds as it usually is for 70% of the year. The drive to Anchorage included some stops to enjoy the beautiful scenery that’s prevalent all over Alaska. Anchorage was our stop for a night before continuing south towards Seward.

Day 4: Chugach National Forest and Byron Glacier Trail

After spending the night in Anchorage, we headed south towards the coastal town of Seward. On our drive there, we made sure to stop by Chugach National Forest and hike the Byron Glacier Trail. I highly recommend this trail for everyone, but in particular, those who are traveling with kids. I would make this trail a priority if you are traveling to Alaska over the next few years due to the fact that Byron Glacier is receding quickly like most other glaciers. To hike from the trailhead to the glacier is only 0.8 miles and the trail itself is mostly flat with slight incline and decline at various points. There have been reports of bears in the area but if you go between 8 am and 6 pm during the summer, the trail is heavily trafficked. When you get to the glacier, you are free to climb it but be very careful. Even with my hiking boots, I had to maneuver slowly to avoid slipping. If you don’t have ice spikes, take your time since all the foot traffic on the glacier compacts the snow enough that you’re basically walking on ice. Although it is very tempting to go under the ice cave and see the deep blue hue, I’d strongly advise against that as people have been killed by the ice shelf collapsing on them while being under the cave. The temperatures do exceed 70 degrees during the summer so ice shelves can certainly melt and shift around.

The kids loved this hike! Walking on ice without needing a winter coat was a unique experience .

Ice caves of Byron Glacier

When you’re on your way to Seward, be sure to top off your gas tank at Girdwood as there are no gas stations between Girdwood and Seward. Once we concluded our hike on the Byron Glacier Trail, it was time to make the 80-mile drive further south towards Seward. During our time in Seward, we stayed at an AirBnB and you can click the link here to view it for yourself. Our host Angela went above and beyond to make sure we were taken care of and if you find yourself in Seward, I do recommend booking your stay here. Accommodations in Seward get booked out months in advance so if you’re visiting during the summer, start booking by no later than mid-April.

Day 5: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour

This was a day that I circled on the calendar and was really looking forward to during our time in Alaska. It was going to be the first-time visiting Kenai Fjords National Park for my wife and kids. You can access Kenai Fjords National Park by car if you want to get up close to Exit Glacier but the best way to view wildlife and multiple glaciers is by a boat tour. We booked the 11:30 am Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour with Major Marine as our tour operator. You need to get the harbor area and check-in 30 minutes before embarking. Parking isn’t the easiest to find in that area so I would factor in 15-20 minutes just for that. The narrated tour is 6 hours long (they will push it a bit longer if it’s a beautiful day with calm waters) and it also includes complimentary lunch, coffee, tea, and snacks for purchase. It was the first boat tour for my kids, and we were fortunate enough to have picture perfect weather. I was impressed with this same tour when I booked it in 2015 and since that time, the experience has only gotten better, with Major Marine taking delivery of two new modernized and spacious vessels. Whether you are coming to Alaska with kids or without kids, mark this down as a tour which needs to be on your list. You can opt for the longer 7.5-hour cruise but for us, 6 hours was perfect. We saw killer whales, Dall’s porpoise, puffins, seals, sea lions, and the highlight of our trip to Alaska, a humpback whale that breached the water about 150 yards away!

Seward Boat Harbor

Resurrection Bay

Transient orca

Sea Lions, Sea Gulls, and Cormorants at Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Adult Humpback Whale

Adult Humpback fully breaching. I was not prepared for this capture, hence the blurriness. The highlight of our tour.

A pod of Dall’s porpoise that followed our vessel for several minutes.

Holgate Glacier on the left, a transient orca on the right

We were fortunate to have a perfect day for wildlife viewing and to enjoy the beautiful glaciers and mountains. If you decide to do this tour or any boat tour for that matter, remember to dress warm and also bring earmuffs if you plan to be on the deck and in the elements for an extended period of time. Temperatures on the water are about 20 degrees cooler than land and the wind can make it feel really cold. If you decide to stay inside the heated cabin, you will still be able to view just about everything. Remember to tip the tour personnel on your way out.

After completing this tour, we planned on having an early dinner at a well-known place in Seward called Salmon Bake. They do not take reservations over the phone, or any website/app and you have to put your name on a list and stick around. The wait can be long to get a table so be prepared — we had to wait 45 minutes, but it was well worth it. I got the coconut crusted prawns and….wait for it……salmon! (Alaskan sockeye). Both were fantastic and as fresh as you will ever have. Try to have at least one meal here if you’re in Seward.

To conclude the evening, we drove a few minutes down the road to the car accessible part of Kenai Fjords National Park. This is where you can do the one-mile hike right up to Exit Glacier. And with that, a memorable and fun-filled fifth day in Alaska was in the books.

Day 6: Seward and Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Day 6 was our final day in Alaska. Since our flight from Anchorage to Chicago wasn’t until 11pm, we had most of the day for recreation. We spent the morning at Seward Waterfront Park to allow the kids to play before we had to get in the car to head north towards Anchorage. The views are beautiful here and it’s also a place where you can view sea lions, otters, native birds, and occasionally, whales.

Seward Waterfront Park

On our way to Anchorage, we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is another place which I strongly recommend for everyone but especially those traveling with kids. You can view just about any type of large land mammal that is native to Alaska behind the safety of a fence. This includes the Wood Bison, a species that was hunted to near extinction about 70 years ago and cannot be seen in Denali. The animals here have plenty of space to roam and their environment closely resembles their natural habitat. Budget at least 2 hours to comfortably see all the animals. After a memorable and fun-filled 6 days in Alaska, it was off to Anchorage to take our redeye flight back to Chicago (more on this below). What we did in 6 days is just a tip of the iceberg of what can be done while visiting Alaska. At the end, we wished we had more time and were able to visit other parts but perhaps that will be a trip for the future.

Trip Breakdown

Since this trip required us to utilize multiple airlines and hotels in addition to AirBnB, we used a combination of Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, American Airlines miles, Delta miles, Choice Privilege Points, and cash to book our itinerary. To get to Anchorage from Seattle on Delta was just 7k miles per person. If you have AMEX Platinum, Gold, or Green — either the personal or business verion of the three — you can transfer points straight into Delta’s frequent flyer program 1:1. The Chase redemption for American Airlines on the way back to Chicago allowed us to get 1.5 points per cent and book a $400 one-way ticket for 26.4k Chase Points. Since my wife has gold status with American, this allowed us to move up to main cabin extra and check bags at no charge. Since Chase treats Ultimate Rewards points redemptions for airlines like cash purchases, we also accrued American Advantage miles for this trip. Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book at the McKinley Chalet Resort got us the best value in Denali since large chains such as Hilton, Marriott, IHG, Hyatt, etc do not operate there. Back when I first got in the points and miles hobby about 13 years ago (the golden era of this hobby before several airline/hotel devaluations), I used to loathe Choice Hotels and didn’t care for their portfolio of hotel brands or their rewards program. Since that time, my view on Choice Hotels has evolved as they have really expanded the footprint on their upscale properties (Cambria and Ascend Collection) and have also invested in updating their mid-tier properties (Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Sleep Inn, Quality Inn and Clarion). Their mid-tier properties are perfect for a one or two night stay to break up a road trip. When you’re traveling with kids, having complimentary breakfast on premises can be a huge time and money saver. The Comfort Inn Downtown – Ship Creek in Anchorage cost us 10k Choice Privilege points for a one-night redemption when cash prices were over $220. Perhaps in the near future, I’ll dedicate an entire post for Choice Hotels.

Lessons We Learned While Doing This Trip with Toddlers

Since this trip involved a lot of driving — about 850 miles in 6 days— the biggest challenge was trying to keep the kids entertained and prevent them from getting restless. We would make a stop every hour or so and let them walk outside and be active. We also downloaded kids shows and movies onto the iPad prior to arriving in Alaska knowing that cell service can be very spotty. Any time we spotted wildlife, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, or anything that was interesting, we would point it out and give them some tidbits on what they’re looking at. Later on, if we saw it again, we would quiz them and test their recollection. These trips have incredible educational value and treating them like a field trip is always our goal.

One lesson we learned with our kids is that redeye flights are very difficult for them— as it is for most kids—and something we will try to avoid moving forward. I certainly don’t blame them as it’s hard to get into a comfortable sleeping position in an economy seat during a time which they’re used to sleeping comfortably. Our flight left Anchorage at 9 pm and landed in Chicago at 6 am. Most of the non-stop flights from Anchorage to the Midwest and East Coast will be redeye, but there are a few flights that depart before 10 am and get to their destination in the evening. These flights will cost more but are worth booking if it allows your kids to be comfortable and no tears are shed.

If you plan on following our itinerary with kids, bring an iPad, plenty of snacks, water or juice, a baby carrier if traveling with an infant, hiking boots for toddlers (and yourself), raincoats, warm clothing, and a stroller if you plan on walking around Anchorage or Seward. Denali National Park does not have any trails that I would feel comfortable pushing a stroller on, but I suppose if you have a rugged stroller with larger wheels and shocks, you may come out of it okay. Do not forget to bring mosquito repellant for kids. We chose the Babyganics Deet-free repellant for both of our kids and it held up very well. As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll try to respond as soon as I can.

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Review: Conrad Washington DC

Review: Conrad Washington DC

 

ConradEntrance

One of the newest hotels in Washington DC at just a couple of months old, my wife and I got to experience this beautiful property courtesy of our AMEX free weekend night certificates.  Unfortunately, the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend Card no longer has this benefit on the cardmember anniversary. Now you have to spend $15,000 in a given year to get the free night and I don’t think it’s worth forgoing points with Chase or AMEX Platinum/Gold to pursue a free night with Hilton in most instances. Since my wife and I both have the AMEX Hilton Honors Ascend Card, we were able to combine our free nights into a weekend stay. The nightly rate for our room was $450 so we got $900 worth of value plus $50 credit towards dining for the cost of the annual fee that we paid for both cards ($95 per card).

Check-In

When you walk into the hotel, take the elevator to the third floor. There is no second floor and the third floor is where the check-in desk, lounge, restaurant, and lobby is located. Upon checking in, the receptionist verified our Hilton Gold status, courtesy of the AMEX card and upgraded us to a room on the 9th floor. We were given a choice between 1,000 Hilton points and a $50 dining credit. We took the dining credit (please don’t ever take the points in this scenario). The receptionist was kind enough to give us a mini-tour of the hotel, Estuary restaurant, and some of the amenities this hotel offers.

ConradLobby
The circular lamp changes color each hour

My first impression when walking in was that this hotel did not have many 90 degree angles. The architect made a concerted effort to make the interior as curvy as possible. The lobby was beautiful and since the hotel was only 45 days old when we stayed, it still had that brand new scent.

ConradClock
Looking down from the 10th floor to the lobby below.

Hotel Room

Our room was on the 9th floor which gave us a nice view of New York Street down below. Keeping up with the theme, the room was curvy but spacious and very comfortable.

ConradRoomView

ConradHotelRoom

ConradCoffee
Coffee and snacks

As an avid coffee drinker, I always appreciate when a hotel provides a Keurig type machine with pods. The coffee was complimentary per usual but the snacks were completely overpriced. If you need snacks, there is a CVS across the street where you can get the same offerings for 1/4 of the price.

ConradShower

The bathroom provided two sinks and a separate blurred door to the toilet so two people can use the bathroom simultaneously while still having some semblance of privacy.

ConradToiletries

The toiletries were Shanghai Tang and the scent was very nice. Not too overpowering but not too light either. The room also provided slippers, a safe, laundry bag, iron, and bathrobes.

Estuary and Estuary Bar

Estuary is the restaurant on the premises which is located on the 3rd floor. We went there for breakfast on Saturday morning and ordered a custom made omelet and buttermilk pancakes. Both were delicious, albeit smaller in portion than your typical brunch diner.

ConradPancakes

ConradBreakfast

The Estuary Bar area was spacious and seating was plentiful during the day time. If there is an event going on at the hotel, it’ll likely get packed during the evening going into the late night hours. ConradLounge

ConradBarArea

ConradLoungeArea

3rd Floor Terrace and Rooftop Bar

Since the hotel was only 45 days old during our stay, the Rooftop Bar was not officially open to guests so I could only take pictures from behind the glass door. At this time, it’s likely open and running.  The 3rd-floor terrace was open for use.

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View from the Rooftop Bar

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The Terrace on the 3rd-floor

Fitness Center

The fitness center was one of the better ones I had seen at a hotel. Upon entering, guests are greeted with towels, earphones, and apples.

ConradGym

ConradGym2
There are multiple treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes

ConradGym3
If you’re into lifting, they have that covered as well.

Miscellaneous

Although I forgot to measure the internet speed, I had no issues with speed or Wi-Fi connectivity. If you are planning to park your car at the Conrad, the price of parking at their garage was $36 a day. I opted to use the Parkwhiz app and found a garage two blocks away which allowed me to park for $14. There is also metered parking on the street but it has a 3-hour time limit during business hours and it’s free overnight. One of the most appealing aspects of staying at Conrad DC is that the National Mall, White House, Capitol building, Smithsonian, and many other points of interest are only 10-15 minutes away by walking. I also want to acknowledge the receptionists on the 3rd floor who always gave us complimentary bottles of water whenever we walked by. The staff made an excellent stay that much better. We look forward to coming back in the future.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

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LagosTown

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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).

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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.

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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.

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View of Camilo Beach near the parking lot

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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.

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Nature carving out a heart

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Monument to the Restorers in Restauradores Square

 

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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.

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The trendy Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Review: Renting a Car With Turo

Review: Renting a Car With Turo

During my recent trip to The Big Island of Hawaii, I decided to give Turo a shot since car rental prices for a 5-day trip were ridiculously expensive. When I entered my travel dates on Kayak, the cheapest rate I found was $568 for a Ford Fiesta. Having a car in The Big Island is almost a necessity if you don’t plan on spending your entire time on a resort because the island is bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. If you’re staying near one of their two major towns, Kona or Hilo which are on the opposite sides of the island, the driving time to get from one to another is about 2 hours. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closer to Hilo and a 2-hour drive from Kona without making any stops. The time will increase significantly if you stop at viewpoints and other points of interest along the way (you really should). You can also take the mass-transit bus but it’s more than 3 hours each way and you’ll regret not being able to stop at places along the way. But man, $568 for a Ford Fiesta. I was looking for a compact car that would get great gas mileage but also comfortably fit an infant car seat such as a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Those types of cars were going for $615 for 5 days and since my goal was not to offset the savings I had on my flight (I redeemed AA miles) by splurging on a car rental, I turned to Turo and see what they offered.

 Booking Process

Turo markets themselves as the Airbnb for cars. Regular people make their cars available to rent and you can often get luxury cars or convertibles for the price of a standard car at a rental company like Hertz. I found a compact car (Dodge Dart) going for $280 for 5 days on Turo and the car owner had a near perfect rating with over 30 reviews.  I booked the Dodge Dart which also included 500 miles (extra 45 cents/mile if I went over) and bought their standard insurance coverage for $10 a day. Even after adding that to the cost of the rental, it was still significantly cheaper than what the standard car rental agencies were offering.   It is important to note that credit card companies will not cover damage on car rentals from Turo. If you decide not to purchase any of the three tiers of collision coverage that Turo offers, you will be liable for any damages.

                                     Picking Up The Car

Prior to departing DFW for our flight to Kona, I gave the car owner our flight info and he responded back immediately with directions on how to get the car. Once we landed, he sent me a video which showed me where the car was parked in the airport parking lot and how to walk over to the parking lot. It was right across the street from the baggage claim with the keys in the glove compartment. No lines, no waiting, no hassle. Since he took a ticket to get the car into the parking lot, he told me to pay whatever the total amount was upon exiting and to keep the receipt. That fee would be reimbursed. He also gave me his cellphone number and told me to give him a call in case any issues would arise.

The Dodge Dart I rented was big enough to fit two suitcases in the trunk and had plenty of space to install the base of the car seat as well as the car seat itself. Gas was $3.62/gallon for regular so having a fuel-efficient car was optimal since I knew I’d be driving at least 450 miles in the 5 days we were there. I ended up driving 494 miles, most of that being the round-trip from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Everything worked as it should and the AC was very cool and needed for the mid-80’s temperatures.

Returning The Car

We were set to return our car to the airport parking lot by 8 pm but our flight was closer to midnight. Our car owner (Anthony) said it wouldn’t be a problem at all if we returned the car at 10:15 pm so we would not have to spend close to 4 hours at the airport. I got to the airport parking lot, pulled out a ticket, and parked the car near the same area where I picked it up. I took a picture of the car and texted it to show him where it was parked. This was basically the “checkout” process. The picking up and dropping off process may differ with every car owner. I was very happy with my experience renting from Turo as it saved me both time and money. Anthony was an awesome dude and he asked me to spread the word about his cars. He has multiple cars available for rent in Kona on The Big Island, Kauai, and Honolulu. His rating is close to perfect so I highly recommend renting from him. In addition, if you use my link right here, you will save $25 off your first rental from Turo.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

Places of Interest En Route To Volcanoes National Park

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

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This viewpoint is right off the side of the road.

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

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Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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One of the scenic viewpoints on Chain of Craters Road.

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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.

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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.

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

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Pololu Valley from the parking area

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Chase Adds JetBlue as a Transfer Partner, Loses Korean Airlines

Chase Adds JetBlue as a Transfer Partner, Loses Korean Airlines

Chase added JetBlue as an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner today, a few days after losing Korean Airlines. JetBlue is one of my favorite U.S. airlines and one of the few that isn’t packing their planes with seats at the expense of leg-room. They provide free in-flight Wi-Fi, free cable TV, and serve gourmet snacks on the flight. I have not flown on their transcontinental premium cabin called Mint just yet.  It is a product which many travel enthusiasts have rated as the best business class service for domestic flights in the U.S. JetBlue routinely has flash sales and when the cash price of a ticket is cheap, so is the redemption using their frequent flier miles for that particular flight. If you’re based in the Boston, NYC, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles areas where JetBlue has a vast network, you will benefit from this partnership the most. You can transfer UR points into JetBlue if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred. If you have the AMEX Platinum or Gold, you can also transfer AMEX Membership points. Most of the time, the transfer rate is 1000 AMEX points for 800 JetBlue TrueBlue miles (right now its 1:1 as a promotion) so I would advise against using the AMEX option at the non-promotional rate. Chase has it as 1:1 but also remember to use the Chase Portal and see if you can get a better redemption if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You get 1.5 points per mile by booking through their portal and it’s certainly possible that the UR travel portal may be the better redemption option versus transferring to JetBlue.

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Unfortunately, this comes a few days after the news that Chase has dropped Korean Airlines as one of their transfer partners. For international and long-haul travel, this was a very valuable SkyTeam transfer partner as you were able to get great travel redemption’s on SkyTeam alliance partners such as Delta, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Aerolineas Argentinas, and non-alliance partners such as Emirates. From the continental U.S., it was possible to fly from the East Coast to Hawaii for 25k miles round-trip, a bargain when you consider the cash price frequently tops $1k. Here is to hoping that Chase adds another transfer partner that has a vast international network such as Korean Airlines.

Review: The Lounge Boston Logan International Airport

Review: The Lounge Boston Logan International Airport

During a recent trip from NYC to Chicago, we had a layover in Boston so we decided to stop by The Lounge at Logan International Airport. It was rather convenient since we were going to depart from Terminal C and that is also the same terminal where The Lounge is situated. This lounge is part of the Priority Pass network but also serves as a business class lounge for Aer Lingus and TAP Portugal as they both depart from Terminal C. I didn’t have any issues getting in since it wasn’t full but I have heard of incidents where Priority Pass cardholders were denied access when The Lounge expected a large influx of business class travelers flying on Aer Lingus or TAP Portugal. Since it is the only lounge in Terminal C, hours between 4pm-8pm are no sure thing for Priority Pass card holders.

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Receptionist Desk at The Lounge

Upon entering, I showed my Priority Pass card and the receptionist scanned it and told my wife and I that we were good to go. The lounge was 3/4 full and filling up when we entered. Not surprising considering that we got there on a Friday at 6pm.

If you’re a business traveler that needs a plug outlet, I highly recommend going all the way to the back of the lounge. They have outlets there and a semi-partition that will give you some privacy.

Once we got situated, I went to see the food offerings. I wasn’t really hungry but for the sake of the review, I helped myself to small portions of a few things. They had pasta salad, hummus with pita, veggie sandwich which consisted of cream cheese and cucumbers, vegetables, salad, soup (clam chowder), and snacks. The pasta salad was ok but nothing special. The hummus was decent and might have been the best item they had out there. The veggie sandwich was simple but surprisingly not terrible. I didn’t have the turkey sandwich so the jury is out on that. Seems like their benchmark was to be just good enough to not be bad (does that make sense?).  The refrigerator had no shortage of cold drinks though. That was a big plus.

I don’t partake in drinking alcohol but for those of you who do, the bar looked like it was stocked pretty well.

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Bar area

My biggest gripe during my time here was the lack of dedicated WiFi for this lounge. You are forced to use Logan’s public WiFi and the speed was painfully slow. It’s certainly not business traveler friendly. The bathrooms were clean so that was a nice plus.  I would rate this place a 3.2/5. If you happen to be in Terminal C, being at this lounge would still beat sitting in the gate area. However, if you’re departing from a different terminal, I would not recommend making a trip to Terminal C just for the sake of visiting this lounge.

Chase Releases 5x Category for Chase Freedom

Chase Releases 5x Category for Chase Freedom

Chase has released their 5% quarterly categories for the 2nd Quarter (April-June) for the Chase Freedom credit card and there are some great opportunities to rack up the points. The categories are grocery stores, Chase Pay, and PayPal. Grocery stores are one of the most lucrative opportunities as most of them also sell gift cards for other retailers such as Amazon, department stores, and gas stations. If you happen to shop online, PayPal is now accepted at multiple websites and you can link the Chase Freedom to your PayPal account. The value of these points are further enhanced if you own the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred since you can transfer the points from Chase Freedom into either one of these cards. Make sure you activate the card prior to April and if you don’t have the card, it’s one I’d strongly recommend adding to your wallet. This card does not have an annual fee.

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Maui

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Maui

Maui was the first of two islands my wife and I visited during this particular trip to Hawaii. The second island we visited was Kauai and you can read about that here.  Our last trip to Hawaii (Feb 2019) covered The Big Island and if you are interested in reading about our time there, you can do so here. Maui, also known as the Valley Isle, is the second largest island in Hawaii and with endless beauty. Our three days didn’t cover everything, but it covered most of the main attractions. We had a total of 7 days in Hawaii (the first day was more like a half day), three which we spent in Maui and four in Kauai. The question a lot of people ask is if 3 days is enough to see most of the main sights in Maui. It was enough for us for two reasons: First of all, we woke up at the crack of dawn and got an early start to our day. This is absolutely crucial. If you’re not in your car by 8 am every day, it’ll be very difficult. The second thing which was totally out of our control but worked in our favor was the weather. We had sunshine all 3 days and that’s just us gambling on great weather for 3 days and getting lucky. Ideally, you want to have one or two extra days as a buffer for rain.

How We Got There

You’ll probably notice a trend with just about every itinerary I post.  We rarely use cash to get to our destination and this trip was no different. Now keep in mind, my wife and I have schedules that for the most part, allow us to take these trips during peak travel season.  This trip to Hawaii happened to be during the last 9 days of December which is high season in Hawaii. Likewise, the number of miles that airlines require to get to Hawaii is also doubled from most cities. United usually charges 22.5k miles a person one-way to get to Maui. That redemption rate from Chicago, Newark, and D.C were 45k miles per person one-way. Fortunately for us, Denver still had the saver award redemption at 22.5k miles so we decided to spend two days there (both of us had never visited Denver), and depart to Maui from Denver International Airport.

 Arrival

Even though this was technically our first day, we arrived too late to do anything significant. Our flight to Maui arrived at 4:35pm and by the time we deplaned, got our bags, and picked up our rental car, it was close to 5:45pm. At this point, we only had about 15 minutes of daylight left. We checked into our hotel, the Napili Shores by Outrigger, ate an early dinner and decided to go sleep at 8pm.  The next day was going to be very long.

Day 1: Haleakala National Park & Papawai Scenic Lookout

  • Haleakala National Park

If you’re visiting Maui, you simply can’t leave without witnessing the sunrise at Haleakala National Park. It’s something that can’t be replicated elsewhere and it’s magical. The ideal day is when there is a layer of clouds below you that allows the sun to rise above that layer. Sometimes it can get cloudy enough where there is little to no visibility and that’s the type of day you want to avoid. Your best bet is keeping an eye on the weather. You do have to pay $25 per car at the entrance and you have to make a reservation for $1.50 if you’re going there at sunrise. The ticket for the sunrise is good for 3 days and it can be purchased up to 60 days in advance. My wife and I got there 2 hours before sunrise to assure ourselves a good parking spot.  You should aim to get there no later than an hour before sunrise or the desirable parking spots and viewing areas will fill up quickly. It’s a relatively slow 45-minute that has steep curves and hairpin turns after hairpin turns. It does require your full attention and if you’re the type that gets distracted with a cell phone easily while driving, turn it off until you’re at the top. If you run into fog, it can get a little challenging but fortunately for us, it was clear all the way through during our drive to the top.

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View of the sunrise at Haleakala National Park

A few important things to keep in mind. When you’re at the viewpoint, you are at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Not only is it cold, it is very windy! You will need a warm jacket and ear covers or I promise you it won’t be pleasant. The air is obviously much thinner so If you’re sensitive to elevation or have had trouble breathing in elevation before, please reconsider. Once you’re done with the sunrise, you can stop at other viewpoints on the way down. There are fantastic picture opportunities of the surrounding craters and landscape

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View of the craters from one of the scenic lookouts on the way down

  • Papawai Scenic Lookout

  • On our way back to Lahaina, we decided to stop at the Papawai Scenic Lookout. Locals recommended this spot as a great place to whale watch from land. During the winter months, mother humpback whales will birth their calves and teach them important behaviors in the waters right off of Maui. It took a little bit of patience but it paid off and we got a show of a lifetime. About 15 minutes after we got there, we noticed a mist of water that was sprayed about a quarter mile offshore.  And there it was, a baby humpback whale under the watchful eye of its mother practicing breaching behaviors. At first, the calf looked like it needed a bit of support just to breach halfway.

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This was as far as the calf could go the first few times.

After about 8 attempts of getting halfway up, it completely breached the water. I kept my camera in rapid-fire mode and I was fortunate enough to capture a memorable moment.

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Even if you don’t manage to see whales, the lookout provides excellent photo opportunities.

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At night we walked around Lahaina Town and stumbled upon one of the best Ice Shave’s you will ever have. It’s called Ululani’s Hawaiian Ice Shave and they have over 50 flavors. I had the ‘Haleakala’, a mix of coconut, leche, and condensed milk. I really wish I took a picture to post here but I guarantee you’ll find whatever you’re looking for.

Day 2: Road to Hana

Along with Haleakala National Park, the Road to Hana is another excursion you simply cannot leave Maui without experiencing. It has black sand beaches, waterfalls, bamboo forests, flower gardens, breathtaking ocean views, and it was one of the highlights during our stay in Hawaii. The Road to Hana from start to finish is about 52 miles it is a journey which will take the majority of the day if you factor in the time you will stop at various stopping points. There is over 600 hairpin turns, 54 bridges (46 which are one lane), and you will have to concentrate while driving as the roads can get very narrow at certain points. My wife and I had a rental car so if there were certain stop points we liked better, we were able to spend more time. You can opt to take a tour bus but then you’re on their time. If you are driving there,  fill up your tank before you start. The last town prior to starting this journey is Paia and the gas prices over there are expensive. You’re better off filling up in Kahului. There no gas stations between Paia and Hana. If you are driving yourself, I highly recommend downloading Gypsy Guide – Road to Hana on your iPhone or Android.

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It cost me $5 and it was the best $5 I spent on the island.  The app will recommend which points of interests are worth stopping for, which ones don’t require a lot of time, and which should be skipped altogether.  It honestly felt like we had an actual person with us and the app even told us of approaching food shacks and cafes. The great thing about this app is that it worked even when we lost data connectivity. On the way back, the app tells you more of the cultural significance of different points in Maui. These are the places we stopped in chronological order:

1. Garden of Eden Arboretum

This is one of the only points of interests on the Road to Hana where you have to pay to get in since it is privately owned. The cost is $15 for adults, $5 for children, and infants are free. They do offer student and AAA discounts. My wife and I found it to be worth it and you can budget about 30 minutes here. They have numerous native and indigenous plants, many you might have never seen before and it also offers some great photo opportunities. The garden also has a smaller waterfall and you’ll see peacocks on the premises as well.

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Garden of Eden Arboretum

2. Waikamoi Ridge Trail

This was a hike which really stimulated your senses. The best thing about this trail? There are mango trees all around and it smells like heaven. They also have one my favorite trees, the rainbow eucalyptus tree which looks like the bark has been colored by a pastel. The trail can get extremely muddy so if you’re wearing flip-flops or don’t want to get your shoes destroyed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to skip this and spend more time at Twin Falls (which we skipped).

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This fruit looks like pineapple but it is not.

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Rainbow-eucalyptus tree

3. Halfway to Hana Stand

They’re known for their banana nut bread and it’s delicious. If it wasn’t worth the hype I wouldn’t tell you to stop here.  It won’t take long and you can park on the side of the road.
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4. Upper Waikani Falls

There is only room for a couple of cars on the side of the road to see this trio of waterfalls but it certainly is beautiful and worth stopping if parking allows.

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4. Nahiku Market Place

Two words: fish tacos.  Perfect place to have lunch. The fish tacos were super fresh and delicious. I wish I had a picture but I inhaled them before I realized I’d had forgotten.

5. Wai’anapanapa State Park

This is one of the places where you absolutely have to stop. A beautiful black sand beach which also has an abundance of volcanic rock, a cave that takes you to the waters, and you can also go for a swim. The waves are very strong so something to keep in mind. We spent a solid hour here and honestly we wished we could have spent more.

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Black sand beach and volcanic rocks

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There’s a story behind this cave but I won’t ruin it. Download the app above and it will tell you all about it

6. Wailua Falls

Another point of interest that you should definitely stop by. You can park on the side of the road and walk down to the base of the falls. I even saw a few people swimming near the base and they seemed quite comfortable doing so. I have no idea how deep it is so please be cautious if you decide to go in the water. It’s a beautiful waterfall and probably the largest one you’ll see on The Road to Hana.

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7. Oheo Gulch (7 Sacred Pools)

This was our last stop on The Road to Hana. Unfortunately, due to mudslides, access to these pools was closed during our visit to Maui. We were able to see some of the falls from the trail but no one was allowed to swim at the base. Oheo Gulch is located 15 minutes past the town of Hana. Here is a very important detail to keep in mind. If you go beyond this point in your rental car and if something bad were to occur, your insurance becomes void! Even your credit card coverage would be voided.  The road beyond this point is mostly gravel and dirt and the major rental companies have this written out explicitly in the contract agreement. Many tourists will risk it because there are some beautiful sites to see even beyond Oheo Gulch. But even something as minuscule as a flight tire means you’re on your own.

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Oheo Gulch

Day 3: Napili Bay

Maui has plenty of amazing beaches that you can choose to spend your day. Or you can even go beach hopping and get a taste for almost all of them. Since our hotel was situated at Napili Bay, we decided to spend the day on the beach over here. If you’re into snorkeling and seeing marine wildlife, this was an awesome spot for that. I saw plenty of colorful fish and was lucky enough to see a few sea turtles, one which was managing to get by with a flipper missing. You can see the video below.

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You can see me snorkeling in the distance with the island of Moloka’i in the background.

If you happen to be in the Lahaina area, I strongly recommend stopping by Gazebo Restaurant for breakfast. Their white chocolate macadamia nut pancakes with homemade whipped cream were amazing. They are also very generous with their portions.

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So this was Maui for us in a nutshell. We wish we could have stayed a day longer but that meant subtracting a day from Kauai. We felt pretty satisfied with our 3 days here (excluding travel) and felt like we accomplished just about everything we wanted to accomplish. If you want to continue reading about Kauai or the Big Island, scroll to the top of this page and you will find the links. Thank you for reading.