Thursday, August 30, 2012

2013 Big Trip: Peru!

I just put down my deposit for my 2013 big trip!  8 Days/7 Nights in Peru.  My friend and I have decided to book through On the Go Tours/Tucan Tours on their 8 Day Peruvian Poncho excursion.  More details about the trip will be posted as the date gets closer.  Until there, here is a link to information about the trip we chose:  Pisco Sours here I come, Ole!

I would love to hear from anyone who has gone on this trip, either with Toucan or On The Go.  Did you love it?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

2012 Recap: Washington D.C. for National Cherry Blossom Festival (Centennial)

Cherry Blossom Trees in Bloom
For the last couple of years, I have made an annual trip to Washington, D.C. for the National Cherry Blossom Festival.  Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC. The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan and the continued close relationship between the two countries (  This year was the centennial celebration, 100 years of cherry blossom trees! Because I've gone several times, I've been able to do activities specific to the festival as well as activities available year round in Washington, D.C.  I am going to focus this post on the festival specific activities, but I will also briefly mention some of my more enjoyable memories of the D.C. area as well.

Cherry Blossoms with the Washington Monument
If you think you might want to visit D.C. during the Cherry Blossom festival, the official website is incredibly helpful for planning:.  They list all of the festival events on their calendar; they also have an app for the iPhone!  In addition, look into picking up a Petal Pass.  With this little card, you get discounts at lots of different places in the city.  Spring is a wonderful time of year to visit, and of course, the biggest attractions are the cherry blossom trees.  Most people like to walk around the Tidal Basin and see them blooming.  This makes for some awesome photos with the various D.C. monuments in the background.  Depending on the weather, the peak bloom period can occur later or earlier in the season.  The National Park Service sponsors a "bloom watch" each year to help predict the best time to visit the trees.  I've gone in years when the parade and major festival activities were timed perfectly, and I've gone in years where it was not.  I had a great time either way, but your pictures are much less stunning when the trees are just a basic green.

Balloons Along the Parade Route
Speaking of festivities and events, there are plenty of walking, biking, boating, and photography tours that will lead you to the best views.  One year, I went on a Cherry Blossom Tea Cruise on the Potomac River.  It was a lot of fun and the sights were excellent.  I also enjoy watching the Parade and attending the Sakura Matsuri street festival.  The parade is free, but you can buy tickets online for grandstand seating.  I did not have a problem seeing all of the floats just standing along the road (not at all like my experience in Chicago for St. Patrick's Day!).  You have to pay to enter the street festival, and I'm pretty sure the price changes every year; last year it cost $5 to enter.  I remember it was cash only and I had to hunt around the National Mall to find an ATM.  That was very inconvenient, but the $5 entrance fee ended up being worth it.  I really enjoyed how they had a traditional Japanese section and a more modern section (think Anime and J-Pop concerts).  They have TONS of food vendors and lots of places to shop and buy souvenirs.  The entire area is marked off, so I wouldn't try sneaking on.  Those security guards looked pretty tough.  Another fun activity I attended this past year was the Joint Service Drill Exhibition.  I sure wouldn't want to be very close to any of those people throwing swords and bayonets in the air.  If you happen to live in D.C, you can also partake in the earlier festivities like the Pink Tie Party

Me Outside the National Archives
One of my favorite things about visiting during this time of year is that the entire city seems to join in celebrating the Cherry Blossom Trees.  You will find a lot of restaurants adapt their menus to include cherry infused drinks and food and many of the museums will display Japanese exhibits.  Even walking through the National Zoo, you can spot cherry blossoms here and there.  It is a lot of fun! 

Some of my top spots to visit while in D.C. include as many Smithsonian museums as possible.  They are all over the city, including an Air & Space museum out by the airport, and they are all free!  I'm not sure how much better that can get.  Coming from Boston where I pay for everything, this was a great surprise.  I also like the Georgetown area for brunch and/or shopping and Adams Morgan for nightlife.  My best suggestion to anyone is to find a local (friend, family, etc) and latch on tight.  My brother and a few friends live in D.C. and they give great advice.  There is a lot to do, and if you're like me, you don't have too long to do it!  If you are interested in suggestions on restaurants, check out my Yelp page and look at my reviews in Washington, D.C.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

2012 Recap: Chicago for St Patrick's Day

View from The Metropolitan Club at Willis Tower
I sometimes get myself into trouble for trying to retroactively post information from a trip I took a while ago, but one of my goals for this blog is to have information from every trip I took in 2012.  I typically keep all my old itineraries and until very recently, I wrote in a journal about my day-to-day life, including vacations. I will try my best to remember what happened, and hopefully my friends can correct me if my memory is not 100%.

Over St. Patrick's Day weekend, I went to Chicago to visit some friends living nearby and join in one of the bigger celebrations of the holiday in the U.S.  Coming from Boston, I didn't have high expectations for Chicago's Irish festivities, but I was pleasantly surprised!  I arrived at Midway on Friday morning via Southwest Airlines.  It was a short trip from Boston, and I didn't have any layovers, but the airport is a good distance from the city and I was sitting in traffic for about 40 minutes until arriving downtown.  I stayed 2 nights at the Westin on Michigan Avenue.  The location was perfect for sightseeing and shopping on the Magnificent Mile!  There was not too much noise, and the building and room was really modern.   As expected when a woman is surrounded by shops, my morning consisted of a lot of walking and shopping.   At lunchtime, I made my way over to Willis Tower (better known as Sears Tower) and ate at the Metropolitan Club in the 67th floor.  The views were great, but the food was lacking.  I did not make it to The Sky Deck on the 102nd floor, but I definitely want to do that next time!  Has anyone done this?  Is it awesome or a tourist trap?

The Bean in Millenium Park
That afternoon I walked around Millenium Park and took photos with the bean.  It really is a nice break in the middle of the city, but there isn't a lot going on as far as a central park type of respite.  If I got the right impression, most of the locals end up walking through the park on the way to and from work, but they don't really hang out there.  From the park, I walked over to the Navy Pier.  Unfortunately, coming in the winter meant that a lot of the typical summer attractions were not yet open, but I enjoyed the general vibe of the area.  My friends and I sat down at Margaritaville for some drinks and people watching.  Because we snacked so much at the Navy Pier, we decided to go straight out that night for drinks and apps instead of a proper dinner.  One of the things I was most looking forward to was going to a Champagne bar.  Why don't we have these in Boston?  Pops For Champagne was pretty close to our hotel, where we ordered a plate of cheeses and a bottle of champagne. It was a lot of fun, but super busy and we were waiting a while before we got a table. I'd suggest arriving early if possible (we got there around 9), or making making a reservation if you have a group bigger than 4 people. 

Green Jello River
The next morning, we all headed down to the river to watch it get dyed green - a Chicago St Patty's Day tradition!  It seemed as though everyone else had the same plan because there was no where to stand.  In the end, that idea was abandoned and we decided to get breakfast at a nearby restaurant, The West Egg, instead.  Conveniently, The West Egg is right next to Timothy O'Tooles, a popular Irish pub.   Even more conveniently, it just so happens to share a restroom with the West Egg and we were able to pop in for a Irish Car Bomb after breakfast.  Shortly after breakfast, the parade started.

Attempting to watch the parade was failed attempt #2 of the day.  Chicago needs to do a better job of providing a way for people to watch these festivities if they want them to keep coming back.  We walked up and down the parade route trying to look for a spot to stand, but found none. We abandoned that idea as well for drinks on the roof deck at The Wit hotel.  If you are looking for a place with awesome views, this is it!  We did eventually make it back to the river, and it was a crazy green jello shade of green.  Very cool and an awesome backdrop for pictures!

Dinner that night was supposed to be a traditional Chicago style deep dish pizza.  I will admit that on occasion, Yelp (my trusted go-to source for all things in a new city) lets me down.  Unfortunately, this was one of those times.  We waited for close to 1.5 hours for a pizza at Giordanos.  In the meantime, we just sat around and chatted.  Once we were finally seated, our pizza came out fairly quickly.  It ended up being a thin layer of crust, two inches of solid cheese mass, and a dash of sauce; definitely not good.  I was really hungry too, so that just made me mad.  I also was made that my tummy hurt the entire rest of the night.  Skip Giordanos if this isn't what you are looking for in a pizza.  Next time, I'm trying Ginos East.

That was pretty much the end of my trip.  The next morning I had an early flight and made my way back home.  I think I need to come back to Chicago to see more of the city before I can really get a grasp for what it's about.  It probably won't be for St Patrick's day though. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

My Timeshare Presentation Experience

Does the mention of a timeshare presentation make you shutter?  Well, it did for me too until I decided to take a chance and see what it was all about.  I know that some are worse than others, and I'm not saying that I know all the tricks on how to get you in and out in 30 minutes with tons of free stuff, but I am willing to share my experience and let you decide if this is something you want to try and learn from.

I came across this timeshare presentation last summer at Six Flags.  There was a booth setup where you spin a wheel for a free prize, yadda yadda.  Everyone wins, but to claim the prize you have to first "tour a vacation property" nearby.  I setup my appointment for a few weeks later.  I am not at a point in my life where purchasing a timeshare is right for me.  I know people who have them and love them!  I think if this is something you're interested in, you should do a lot of research and make sure you're getting a good price.  Knowing where you stand when going into the presentation is essential, because they will twist and turn anything you say into making you think owning a timeshare is exactly what you need!

The first thing that happened to me when I walked in was that I was greeted promptly and then left to wait for someone to give me a tour.  I ate a couple of cookies and drank some coffee.  Might as well, you're there for at least an hour!   The tour was relatively short and the property was underwhelming.  I am not a wilderness camper, nor do I particularly like to vacation places where there are screaming children in the pool outside my front window.  Easy decision, right?

The most intimidating experience for most people is what happens after the tour.  You are sat down with your salesperson and given the whole speech on why timeshares are so great. Even with my excuse of this property sucks, why would I want to vacation here, he was ready to go with every reason under the sun to still buy (you can pick alternate properties, you save so much money, you have deeded property).  The biggest selling point at this particular property was that the money you spend vacationing today is so much more than what you would spend if you owned a timeshare.  If you can counter this argument, you can come out ahead.  What worked for me was telling them that a) I was saving to buy a house and why would I buy vacation property before a house?  and b) whenever I vacation,  I only go visit family and friends that  I can stay with to avoid the cost of a hotel room or food.  Ok, so maybe I fibbed a bit, but after 90 minutes of repeatedly saying NO, I was finally sent on my way with a gas card (it worked, i used it quickly) and two "free vacations" through spirit incentives.  Dealing with Spirit Incentives is a whole other story and deserves a post of it's own.  I will get to that at some point in the future. 

Is this right for you?  Can you handle the pressure of a sales pitch?  Most likely you can... so suck it up and give it a shot.  Please don't make any rash decisions while you're there and get yourself stuck in a contract that you can't get out of.  If you go home and decide you still want a timeshare the next day, you can always go back!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pop-up Trip: Twin Cities Minneapolis/St. Paul

From time to time, the forces at be line up the stars in a way that causes me to go on an unexpected trip.  This is usually how my weekend trips happen.  Not the long weekend, preplanned trips, but the regular 2 day affairs here and there.

Two days is not nearly enough time, but I will take what I can get!  The constraints of a real job make it impossible to spend "enough" time at most of the places I go to.  Now I get to use the next week or so to try and see what I can pack in to two days in Minneapolis...  I wonder what the minimal amount of time needed while still seeing everything at the Mall of America is?

Suggestions are welcome!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

7 Days and 10,000 miles: Maui, Hawaii

I recently returned to Boston from a 7 day trip to Maui, Hawaii.  Some of the first questions people like to ask me are:  "Why did you pick Maui?"  and "Isn't that a very long flight?".  To start this off, let me answer those two questions.
  1. I didn't really choose Maui, Maui chose me.  Last fall, I attended a timeshare presentation in the Berkshires.  Before I get a lecture from anyone, I did not purchase a timeshare.  I was only there to pick up some free gifts and see how "free" they actually were.  The first of the free gifts was the cruise to the Bahamas I took earlier this year.  The second gift was 4 hotel nights on an exotic island... blah blah blah (I will write about my timeshare experience at some point).  In the end, I was booked for 4 nights at the Aston Maui Lu in Kihei, Maui.  I ended up adding an additional night there at my expense and one night on the east side of the island in Hana.
  2. Yes, it was a long flight, and an expensive one!  I booked my flight through USAir several months ago at $1300 round trip.  Between then and the week before the trip, the flight dropped in price by $320.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, I don't know), USAir will reimburse the difference after they first take a $150 change fee.  So, I ended up paying $1130.  There were cheaper options, but those included a million layovers and a total flight time of something like 24 hours.  I had one layover in Phoenix for about an hour.  My total travel time was approximately 12-13 hours (A little shorter coming home and flying with the wind).
Day 1: Arrival 

I arrived at Kahului airport on Sunday at 5pm.  I slept some on the plane and I was excited for the vacation to begin, so I wasn't too tired.  The rental car reservation was through Thrifty.  Fun fact, Dollar recently bought out Thrifty, so they are now in the same booth.  The weekly rate for a Mustang Convertible was approximately $400 after taxes.  This reservation was also made a long time ago.  More recently, I saw prices closer to $500.  Next stop was the Aston Maui Lu in Kihei.

When I was doing my pre-trip research, I came across a LOT of negative reviews of the Aston Maui Lu.  It was to the point that I was not sure if I would actually stay there.  Upon arrival, the woman at the front desk was extremely friendly and offered us an ocean view upgrade for an additional $20/night.  She suggested that I walk around the property and view both rooms before making a decision.  The garden view room was really large and seemed nice.  Not at all like the reviews I read, but who can beat an ocean view loft when it's overlooking such a beautiful sight?  Needless to say, I upgraded.  It was already pretty late (and felt even later), so that night only included a stop to the grocery store before hitting the hay.

The next few days were jam packed with activities and included a lot of driving.  At nearly $5/gallon, I'm not sure if the Mustang was the best idea.  It was nice to have the top down though.  If you'd like to read the detailed itinerary from this trip, please look at the "International" page of my blog.  The next few paragraphs will just be an overview of the different activities I participated in while on Maui.

Day 2: Haleakala and Upcountry Exploring

View into the crater
Because of the time difference, I was up pretty early the next day.  Around 6 AM, I left the Maui Lu and made my way to Haleaka Highway and up Maui's 10,000 foot volcano to Haleakala National Park.  Many years ago, Maui was actually two different islands.  Each island had an active volcano.  Because of plate tectonics (or arguments amongst the Hawaiian Gods), these islands came together to form a valley between two very high mountains.  The other volcano is no longer active and makes up the West Maui mountains.  Haleakala is not dormant, it just hasn't erupted in a long time.  Learning that tid bit of information at the visitor's center was disturbing.  There are a couple of different stops where you can get a nice view of Maui.  If you get there at sunrise, you can get some gorgeous pictures, but you also have to wake up at 3 AM and drive through some really windy roads in the dark.  I'm not sure how good of an idea that is.  There is an entrance fee of $10 per car and it is good for 3 days, though I only went once.

Alli Kula Lavender Farm
On the way back down from Haleakala, I stopped at the Kula Lodge for breakfast.  It was a quaint lodge with a nice view, but the food was just mediocre.  At this point in the post, I want to mention that I always write in depth reviews on  If you are interested in specifics, check out my site here: The upcountry is the area leading up to Haleakala.  There are a lot of farms here as the weather is not too hot.  I passed a lot of cow, sheep, and goat pastures during my drive.  One of my many stops was to Alli Kula Lavender Farm.  There is an entrance fee just to get in.  I'm not convinced that is warranted and after reading some reviews, it seems like the fee occasionally gets waived.  In addition, if you want to take a formal tour, you have to pay an extra fee.  I did not do the formal tour and opted to wander around on my own.  The grounds are very beautiful and there are many different varieties of lavender grown here.  The lavender tea was delicious, but at $18 for a box of tea bags, is expensive!  I'm not sure kids would appreciate this stop very much.

Fresh Goat Cheese Flight
The next stop was Tedeschi Vineyards - the only pineapple wine found in the US.  The good news here is that the tasting is free.  You can opt for a tropical tasting or a traditional tasting.  The tropical tasting includes 3 pineapples wines, and 1 framboise dessert wine.  This winery actually gets their pineapples from the Maui Gold pineapple farm down the road.  I love how they try and keep everything local on this island!  As expected, most of the wines were really sweet.  The Maui Blanc was a lot drier, and very delicious.  I brought two of those bottles home with me.  Overall, this stop only took about 20 minutes and did not wow me, but I always make time for wine!

The last upcountry stop was to the Surfing Goat Dairy.  The baby goats are adorable and you can buy a bag of hay for $1 to feed them, but their cheese (the actual reason for the stop) was just OK.  I didn't like their aged cheese at all.  I ended up with a standard flight of their fresh cheese, but was disappointed in the flavors.  I'm not a big fan of serving Ritz crackers either.  They have too strong of a taste when you are supposed to be tasting cheese.  I think if I could do it again, I probably would want to take a tour here.  There are lots of things I don't know about goats and it might be worth it just to pretend I'm a farmer for the day.

Overall, Day 2 was a lot of fun, but it was exhausting.  By the time we were done at the Surfing Goat dairy, all I wanted to do was relax.  That afternoon, we ended up at Big Beach on the southern part of Maui near Makena State Park.  The waves were really rough already, so there wasn't much swimming.  In fact, at one point, the lifeguards made an announcement that they were going home and everyone should get out of the water.  Yikes!

Day 3: Surf Lessons and Luau

Up on a Wave with Maui Wave Riders
After a busy day 2, day 3 needed a little more time to relax.  I was scheduled for a 9:00 AM surf lesson on the beach in Kihei, only about 5 minutes from the hotel.  Since I involuntarily woke up at 6 AM again, I got some breakfast at Kihei Caffe prior to the lesson.  I went to that Cafe 3 different times that week, it was great!  The food was hot and plentiful and it's super convenient to everything.  The instructors at Maui Wave Riders were great, but the admins and general lesson process was a bit chaotic.  Everyone seemed to be wandering around before any order happened. The on land portion of the lesson only lasted about 30 minutes.  After that, we all waded out in the water and hung on to our boards for dear life.  To be fair, I do believe everyone got up on their surfboard at least once.  A quick disclaimer though, the beach with the lessons has an extremely rocky bottom.  If you jump off your board, purposely of course - not a wipe out, you may bang a body part against a rock.  They provide you with ocean shoes, but if you have some thicker ones of your own, bring them!  They take some great pictures as well (see the photo insert), but that is done by a separate company and you have to pay cash.  The good news is they will take a LOT of pictures if you ask for them and they burn you a CD so you have the raw files.  It's a pretty good deal compared to other touristy photo traps.

Old Lahaina Luau
After the lessons, I stopped for some fish tacos at a Coconuts Fish Cafe.  They were really good, and not too expensive.  The rest of the afternoon consisted of lounging by the beach before getting ready for the luau.  The Old Lahaina Luau was the highlight of my trip!  Book this way far in advance because they do sell out and the order you book determines how good of a seat you get.  I chose traditional seating, which was a lot of fun!  If you have any back problems, you probably want tables though.  The luau grounds were gorgeous and the food was mouth watering!  There were at least 10 different hula dances during dinner and they were in sync with a beautiful story being narrated on the history of Hawaii.  This is a must when visiting Maui!  Plus, I got a fresh plumeria lei here.  :)  I was looking forward to that the most!

Day 4: Snorkel Trip to Molokini

Day 4 was back to the water for a half day snorkeling trip aboard the Frogman II in Maaleaa Harbor.  I contemplated a couple different trips before settling on this one.  One of the reasons I picked it was because it lasted only a half day.  Most of the snorkel trips were all day affairs.  In the event that I were to get sea sick and start puking all over the place, I didn't want it to ruin my whole day.  Fortunately, there were no pukers on the boat!  It took about an hour to get out to Molokini.  There were a lot of boats here, keep that in mind when you a booking a trip.  They all go to the same place.  The only thing you should be paying an upcharge for is whatever food is provided.  As a whole, Molokini was a little disappointing.  There weren't many different species of fish, and most of them were black.  We stayed there for an hour or so before making our way to turtle town.  Turtle town is off the coast of Wailea, further south on Maui.  I only saw 1 turtle, but another snorkeler on our ship saw a sand shark!  How cool is that?  I recommend this trip for anyone who wants a day on the water.  It was pretty cheap in comparison to the other boats and the food was plentiful!

That afternoon, I spent some more time walking around Lahaina.  Dinner was at Betty's Beach Cafe.  The restaurant actually overlooks the Feast at Lele, another Luau option.  If you plan it right (around 7pm), you can watch a hula show and each a relatively inexpensive dinner at Betty's all at once.  Wednesday nights there is a $15 lobster dinner special.  Yum!  P.S. The Feast at Lele didn't look to be as good as Old Lahaina Luau, but that's just my opinion.

Day 5: Pineapples and Helicopters

Maui Gold Pineapple Tour
Our last day on the west side of Maui began with a Maui Gold Pineapple Tour.  I was most hesitant about this when planning.  It was really expensive and I wasn't sure how many pineapples we would really get to eat, or want to eat, during the 3 hour tour.  Fortunately, our tour guide was incredible and we got to see some really neat things including the processing plant and people out in the field planting pineapples.  I'm pretty sure I ate at least one whole pineapple during the tour - tasting it at various stages of ripeness.  In addition, the tour including lunch at the nearby Haliimaile General Store.  Yum!  This tour is a 5 star recommendation, but they probably would get more visitors if it was a little cheaper.  I would have loved to go back to the general store to try dinner, I bet it's delicious!

Cliffs of Molokai from Air Maui Tour
Before our helicopter tour at the Kahului Heliport, we stopped in Paia to look around at the artsy crafty stores.  This is an adorable little town with a great local vibe.  There are a couple restaurants that can pack you a picnic lunch for a day trip to Hana as well.  The reason for all this additional time to spend in Paia was because the tour I was scheduled on for 30 minutes over the West Maui mountains was cancelled.  To my surprise, I was upgraded to a 45 minute tour of Molokai and the West Maui mountains.  Of course, I agreed to this upgrade!  I really wanted to see Molokai, and I wasn't able to fit it into my itinerary.  This was a nice way to see it from above!  Air Maui was much better organized than most companies on Maui, and our pilot ensured a smooth trip even through some rough wind.  Maybe it was the dramamine, but I didn't feel much of anything.  If you've never been on a helicopter, Maui is the place to do it.  I saw some HUGE waterfalls on the Molokai cliffs.  They were breathtaking!

Day 6 and 7:  Hana

Three Bears Water on the Road to Hana
The last two days of my trip included a roadtrip out to Hana.  Hana takes anywhere from 1.5 hours (no stops) to 8 hours driving from Kahului.  Depending on whether, and how many stops you make, it can be a long day.  Fortunately, I stayed overnight in the Hana Kai Hotel and was able to divide up some of the stops past Hana for the next day.  I need to make a very strong recommendation if you are going to Hana.  Please bring bug spray!  Within 1 full day, I got approximately 30 mosquito bites hiking through the jungle.  There are some beautiful waterfalls to be found, but they come at a price.  Also, pick up a Hana audio tour CD if you can.  It will really help you out and shouldn't cost more than $15.  I was able to stop at a lot more places than I had originally planned out in my itinerary.

Sunrise in Hana
Try not to plan to go out to eat in Hana.  Most of the hotels include full kitchens because there are not many dining options.  The few restaurants are extremely overpriced and you will be better off buying some groceries and cooking at home.  Relax on one of the black sand beaches in the state park, or at the calm waters in Hana Bay and enjoy the simpler way of life.  You'll hear over and over again on the CD that the road to Hana is not about the destination, but the journey...  I'm pretty sure they keep saying this because there isn't much to do once you reach your destination!  :)

I will be updating this post in the near future with pictures and better references, including links where appropriate.  If you're interested, I will also post my full itinerary on the "International" page of my blog.  Hawaii isn't really international, but it's over international waters, so it counts in my book!

Travel Tip: I saved some serious cash by booking my snorkel and helicopter tour through  To be completely honest, I took a chance with this company.  I couldn't find many reviews online about them, but everything worked out fine.  After booking my activities, I did call each company directly and confirm that they had my reservation.  Some people feel comfortable using third party companies, and some don't.  That is completely up to you!