Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hawaii (Kauai, Big Island)

We visited Kauai and Big Island in December of 2012. Hawaii and Alaska are surely the most beautiful landscapes US has to offer. These are lesser explored islands compared to Oahu and Maui. Kauai is my most favorite island and here is my preference in order of beauty. Kauai > Maui > Big Island > Oahu.

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Big Island around noon. Mauna kea visit.
Day 2: Drive around the island.
Day 3: Day trip to Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park
Day 4: Snorkel Day.
Day 5: Arrive in Kauai around noon. Spend time at the hotel beach.
Day 6: Drive to Waimea Canyon and visit beaches on the way
Day 7: Beach day. Na Pali coast tour
Day 8: Drive to Princeville and Kalalau trail head. Fly back late in the night.


This is the biggest island in the archipelago. It has a variety of things to offer. In the south is the Hawaii volcanoes national park. On the east is the rainforest region and on the west are the huge lava fields.

Where to fly?

Ali'i Drive
To fly in to Big Island, you have only two choices:

  1. Kona(KOA): On the west side of the island and a more popular airport. Plus, it was a unique kind of airport. It was an open area with some booth like huts cordoned off for security reasons, but you land here and you feel you are in Hawaii.
  2. Hilo(ITO): On the east side of the island. You can take your pick depending upon the flight options you have and where you prefer to stay, but I think both the airports and areas are perfectly located for tourists. We stayed at Kona.

Where to stay?

Plenty of options on the island. We stayed in Kona as we were flying in to Kona airport. Plus there were a lot of snorkeling options close to Kona. All other day trip to Mauna Kea and Volcanoes National park are about equidistant from Kona and Hilo. We stayed at Courtyard King Kamehameha beach hotel in Kona. A pretty good choice.

Sunset at Mauna Kea

Where to eat?

Plenty of restaurants on the island. Our favorite was a falafel place on the Ali'i drive. There were many thai options as well. 

What to see?

Mauna Kea

Clear skies! Spot Orion!
One of the highest peak on the island. It is a dormant volcano which is now used as an observatory. The light pollution on this island is very less and the peak is high, which makes the conditions ideal for observation. many countries have their telescopes mounted here. 
It is a day trip from Kona. We left after lunch. It is a long drive up to the observatory and information centre open for public. Here you can get beautiful views of the island and witness a heavenly sunset. The information centre has info sessions in the evening and sets up telescopes for you to observe various planets, nebulae and stars. This was a lot of fun as we had been taking a course on Astronomy on coursera those days.
You can drive further up to the peak to the observatories. They are closed as they are remotely monitored. We ditched driving further up.
Akaka Falls

Snorkel and beachy stuff

There are a few beaches very very popular for snorkelling. I don't remember the name of the beach we went to. This is where even I felt comfortable snorkelling. Water wasn't very deep, but the bottom was very rocky. We got our snorkel gear and that made life easier. Many Many beaches to explore and waters are really warm and welcoming.

Drive around

We did a loop from Kona to Hilo and up north and back to Kona. We stopped at some scenic spots. What I especially liked were Akaka falls. Plus this side of the island gets a lot of rainfall so it is lush green and beautiful. We also stopped at the Waipio valley. 
Wai'pio Valley

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Magma in the evening
Jaggar Museum/Overlook: Here is where you will see some fumes and may be some lava depending on your luck, weather and volcanic activity. There may be a short trail to get a better view and your best bet would be to talk to a ranger on that very day.
Also, remember that this place will give you best view during dawn or dusk. This is when you will be able to see the faint orange magma glow in the fumes and get some photo ops.

Lava Tubes
Crater rim drive: Pretty much everything that this park has to offer is on this drive. Drive by and stop for sulphur banks, steam vents and definitely for Thurston Lava tube. This is the highlight. I loved this for some reason and it gave us some amazing photo opportunities. As you drive down, there are a few overlooks where you can stop by.

Lava Fields
Chain of craters road: This was the highlight for us. As you drive by, you come across huge fields of lava beds. Lava that has flown over the years and is now solidified. This leaves you awestruck at nature's beauty! So, drive down till the end of the road. Here you can walk up to point where lava flows in to the water, or where the road ends. There is a huge arch by the oceanside as well. All in all a beautiful drive and a must must do!

Trails: You must ask the rangers for the best options available on that day to go see the lava. Heads up though, it isn't a bulk of orange colored fluid flowing by. Lower your expectations as on regular days, you may just see fumes and some dark rock with orange tinge.

Helicopter ride: We took a helicopter ride to get a good view of lava and well, I would rate it about average. We used the blue hawaiian helicopter tours. Some of my friends who did loved it and highly recommend it. S The rides mostly depart from Hilo airport and last for about an hour or so. I loved the top of view of the island and the waterfalls as seen from the helicopter. That was amazing I think.
A choppy chopper ride!

Top view of the falls!
Magma - up close and personal

Map: Here is the park map

Where to eat: Well, you will be spending the entire day in the park, and I remember there were not many options to eat inside the park. Only option was volcano house restaurant, but that was closed when we visited. As you get out of the park, just about a couple of miles towards Hilo, there is a small volcano village(take directions), which has some good options. Where we ate was Thai Thai restaurant and it was really good. So much so that I even yelped about it 

Before you go: 
Check for weather conditions. Weather varies from rainy to sunny from east to west on the big island. It may be bright and you may have scorching sun on your head in Kona, but when you get to HVNP, it might be pouring cats and dogs! So, you have to be lucky and weather gods have to be generous :-) So, at least try and pick day when the forecast is for a better weather.

Check for volcanic activity forecast as well. Most/Some of the park is cordoned off depending upon the volcanic activity. So, as soon as you get in, go to the visitor center, and ske them for the best spots to see the lava/magma on that day.


Rent a 4 wheel drive if you plan to drive to Mauna Kea and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.


It is my most favorite Hawaii island and the prettiest one too. If I have to go to just one island again, it will be Kauai.

Where to fly?

There is pretty much only one option to fly in. The Lihue airport(LIH).

Where to stay?

Poipu is the most popular area for the tourists. Plenty of resorts available. Next is the Princeville area, which is up north. We stayed towards the east of the island at Aston Islander resort. Our hotel had direct access to the beach and we enjoyed walking by the beach at night and taking some pretty pictures here. In general it is a very small island so getting around isn't very difficult.

What to see?

Na Pali coast

Na Pali coast
Undoubtedly the highlight of this island. Very beautiful. There are two ways to see it. By air and by a cruise or on foot via Kalalau trail. Since we did not make reservations well in advance, we were left with the option of taking a boat tour. It was quite worth it. Spotted 4-5 humpback whales just about 10 feet away from our vessel. And the views were breathtaking. We booked our sunset tour with Blue Dolphin Charters.

Na Pali coast

Kalalau trail

This is the only trail that takes you just along the Na Pali coast. It is a tough hike, but you should easily be able to manage the initial 2-3 miles. Look online for details. We had to skip it as the trail was closed by the police as some killer was let loose in the area. There are several other trails on the island and hiking should be a must do on your list!

Waimea Canyon

Opaekka falls
It is a mini version of the grand canyon and worth a visit. An hour long drive from Poipu and easily accessible.


The island has a lot of waterfalls and they are all quite pretty. I have a liking for waterfalls, so I am biased here. I remember Wailua and Opaekka waterfalls and they have some amazing views of the valley.


Poipu beach is very popular, especially for snorkeling. Not all beaches on this island are accessible and it is the northernmost island and the wave are quite high. You might want to check with the concierge in your hotel for the best options on that day.

Driving around

Drive around

We just drove around the island and stopped over at some beaches to take pictures and enjoy the views. The northern most beach, at the trail head of the Kalalau trail, has very very high waves and they are worth watching. There is a famous Kilauea light house  close to Princeville which offers great views.

Snuba diving

You have an option to snuba dive on this island. Google for it. We couldn't do it as we did not make any reservation and they were quite full because of the holiday rush. But it a good option between snorkeling and scuba diving :)

Courtyard at hindu temple

Hindu Temple

There is a hindu temple located very close to Poipu. It was quite fascinating to visit a hindu temple in Hawaii and attend their prayer session. beautifully kept and very soothing place.


  • Make reservations well in advance. We didn't, so missed on some things, like Snuba diving.
  • We used Costco for our car and hotel bookings. Cars aren't easily available for renting, so Costco turned out to be a good bet.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


We traveled to Alaska in July 2012 with our friends Nirali and Kunal. We were debating between taking a cruise and taking a road trip. But given we had just 5 days, we decided to take a road trip as the cruises have a fixed schedules and are at least 7 days long! 

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 0: Arrive late night in Anchoragre.
Day 1: Leave early morning for Glacier Landing and Talkeetna. 
Day 2: Spend entire day in Denali National Park.
Day 3: Drive south towards Seward. Hike to exit glacier.
Day 4: Drive to Portage. Half day glacier cruise. Drive back to Anchorage.
Day 5: Half day in Anchorage. Fly back

Where to fly?

Anchorage(ANC): A lot of flight options are available from Anchorage. We flew in and out of Anchorage. And drove around
Fairbanks(FAI): This is another popular airport on Alaskan mainland. A good option would be to fly in at ANC and fly out of FAI or vice versa.

Where to stay?

You gotta have a Moose picture!
It was difficult to find good hotels during the July 4th weekend. Here is the list of hotels we stayed at:
Close to Anchorage airport:  Coast International Inn 
Anchorage Downtown: Marriott 
Talkeetna: Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge 
Seward: Holiday Inn 
Denali: McKinley Village Lodge

Day 0:

We landed well past midnight. Since we went in summer months, it never gets completely dark. At about 2 am, it was still twilight. We rented our car and drove to our hotel which was very  close to the airport. 

Day 1:

Drive to Talkeetna

Eklutna Lake
We left early morning and drove to Talkeetna. On our way, we stopped at Eklutna Lake. A beautiful landscape and a lot of activities to indulge. We also stopped at Thunderbird falls. It was a small hike to the falls. The view point was still a bit far from the falls, but a good option if you have time. We stopped at the Idiatrod Trail Sled Dog Museum as well on our way. But since it was summer months and no snow, there were no options for dog sled rides.

Drive to Talkeetna was very scenic. We stopped a few times on our way and took a lot of picture. Talkeetna is a small town on your way to Denali National Park. We toured the town for a little while and ate at some lunch trucks. It was very lively place and we spent some time by the riverside. 

Glacier Landing

Flight Seeing
Our intention to visit talkeetna was Glacier Landing. This was the most breathtaking experience during our entire trip. A small plane lands on a glacier and you have a few minutes to be just surrounded by snow. It is so surreal and serene that I would list it as a must do.
Our reservations were already made. We used Talkeetna Air taxi. There are other options, they are almost the same and offer almost the same tour. Infact their offices are next to each other and they use the same air strip. We booked the shortest tour in this list with glacier landing. 
Glacier Landing

Our ride

Talkeetna Lodge
We stayed overnight at Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. The lobby offered beautiful views of the Denali peak and the entire mountain range. Best part of traveling in summer is that it is still bright day light till about 10 pm and you can indulge in outdoor activities. 

Day 2:

Denali National Park

Denali Landscapes
We drove from Talkeetna to Denali National Park on Day 2. There are a few options on how to explore Denali National Park. If you plan to take your own vehicle inside the park, you cannot drive beyond a 15 miles. So if you intend to travel beyond 15 miles, you would have to either take the bus tour or take shuttles between various stops.
If you plan on taking a bus tour, there are three options. We took the second options which was a 8 hour long Tundra Wilderness Tour. We did see a variety of beautiful landscapes.  But we were disappointed with the amount of wildlife we saw. We did see a few bears and mountain goats along with Moose and Caribous, but they were mostly on a hilltop far far away. We had to use binoculars. Probably, we had higher expectations.
Mt. McKinley hidden behind clouds
We stayed at McKinley Village Lodge for the night which was outside the park and had good food to offer.

Day 3:

Drive to Seward

Drive to Seward

This was the day for our long drive to Seward from Denali Park. The drive was long but we stopped at quite a few vista points. The drive get prettier and prettier after Anchorage. It is just surreal and the most beautiful drive I have seen in North America. I would say it is far far better than Hwy 1 drive in California.

On our way to Seward

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

We took a stop at Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center. It is a small zoo. You pay a little entry fee and the tour takes about an hour or so, but you get to quite a few animals up close which you saw far away in Denali!

Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier
Exit Glacier is one of the few glaciers easily accessible on foot. Search for Exit glacier hike in Kenai Fjords National Park. It is most up-close and personal view of a glacier you will ever get.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn, Seward for the night. Our room had a beautiful view of the pier surrounded by small mountains. 

View from our room at Seward

Day 4:


We drove to Portage from Seward. It is about mid way from Seward to Anchorage. There is a very popular hike by the Portage Lake, which we were intending to do. But the weather wasn't on our side and it started raining so we decided to ditch the hike.

Glacier Cruise from Whittier:

On our Glacier cruise
We did a half day cruise. It was pretty good. We got to see calving and cruises from here are your best bets. Here is a youtube video to show you how magnificent it is.No sea sickness at all. It was neat and clean and good fun. There were two options when we booked. One was for half a day other was for a longer day with more glaciers. We booked the Glacier Quest cruise because we were short on time. Here are their routes
It was lot of fun as we spotted many sea otters and a couple of porpoises. American bald eagles are easily spotted here. But the glacier views are phenomenal! 
Other option is to take a cruise from Seward to Resurrection bay, you will see more wildlife here.


Driving tip

Keep in mind that that there is a one way tunnel to get to Portage/William Sound which opens for traffic every hour only; so you don't want to be stuck waiting for that when you go to Portage/William Sound. Look at this link for details. 

We drove to Anchorage late in the evening. Walked around the downtown and relaxed for our flight the next day.

Where to eat?

It was tough to find good eating options around. Anchorage had one very awesome Indian restaurant. I even yelped about it! Bombay Deluxe. Otherwise, you can find Denny's and Subway at most of the places. The usual American fast food restaurants.  There was this truck in Talkeetna- which had awesome garlic-spinach bread or something. There are small restaurants everywhere otherwise. You will find some veggie options in middle of all the sea food.

What more to do?

  • Train rides: Alaskan railroad is very popular and a luxury rail that runs across the Alaskan mainland. Since we were planning on renting a car and had a time crunch we did not opt for train. 
  • Fairbanks: Driving up to Arctic circle and then up to the Arctic ocean is also a check box time you may want to do if you go to Fairbanks.  If you plan to visit in winter months, you may also get a chance to go see Aurora Borealis.
  • Juneau/Ketchikan: There are quite a few cities which are not connected by road to the Alaskan mainland. You need to either fly to these places or take a cruise. Next time!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Mexico (Cancun, Chichen Itza)

We decided to visit Cancun for the Presidents Day weekend. We spent 3 nights and 4 days in Cancun and I loved the Cancun beaches. I found it very similar to Miami in a lot of aspects, it felt like a mini version of Miami. We spent a day visiting Chichen Itza.  Here are some details.

When to go?

Cancun usually has pleasant weather during winter months and a very hot and humid weather during summer months. We went in February and the weather was just perfect. Once in a while Cancun is hit with hurricanes, so keep that in mind if planning to travel during rainy months.

Where to fly?

There is only one major airport close to the city. It is Cancun International airport(CUN). A lot of airline carriers have direct flights to CUN from major US cities. 
There are ride share vans outside the airport which transfer you to your hotels in case you are not planning on renting a car. We did not rent a car and didn't find moving about very cumbersome. There are good public transport options(buses) especially near the hotel zone which are cheap and safe. We used it on a couple of occasions.

Where to stay?

Cancun has this hotel strip between a lagoon and the ocean. It is called the Hotel Zone. You'll find most of the hotels located here. Take your pick from the plethora of choices they have to offer.  Another option would be to pick a hotel in Playa del Carmen. It is a little south of the main Cancun tourist area, but has equally pretty beaches and excellent hotels/resorts to offer
Most of the people I know go for an all-inclusive resort which covers for everything the resort has to offer. Most of the hotels do have an access to the beach and ocean facing rooms.

What to do?

This is the most important topic for Cancun btw. The resorts are pretty awesome in Cancun, so you can relax by the pool (our hotel had amazing pools) or rest by the beach, or go shopping. Cancun has a couple of really upscale shopping malls. 

Warm and clear waters of the Caribbean Sea
 If you are here for some adventure, you can:

  • You can snorkel in the clear waters of Caribbean.
  • Go Jet Ski, Para glide and other regular water sports stuff.
  • Go zip lining.
  • Rent an ATV/Jeep for a guided tour.
  • and much more that I have probably missed.

Other nearby places to explore

While you are in Cancun there are a lot of places nearby that might of interest.
  • Tulum: Another set of Mayan ruins overlooking the Caribbean Sea. About an hour drive from Cancun.
  • Isla Mujeres: A small island off the coast of Cancun. A 20-30 minute ferry ride from Cancun hotel zone. You can do a lot of underwater activities here.
  • Cozumel: Another island in the south of Yucatan peninsula. You can take a ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to get here.


  • Costco Travel: At times I have found it is useful to make your bookings using Costco Travel. I didn't use them for my Cancun trip, but I remember seeing good all-inclusive deals online for Cancun.
  • Carry sun block/hat to Chichen Itza. It gets really hot. We had to buy one as it was unbearable. Second, drink plenty of water while roaming about in Chichen Itza. There is no shade whatsoever and it is very easy to get dehydrated.
  • Eat at Elefanta: We found this Indian restaurant close to out hotel. It was by the lagoon and had lovely ambiance. Food was excellent. Best dal makhni everrrrrr! 
Elefanta Restaurant

Chichen Itza Day Trip

One of the primary reasons for us to pick Cancun for a vacation was to go see Chichen Itza. I was quite keen on visiting one of the wonders of the world! So, we planned a day trip from Cancun. You have two options here. One is to drive yourself to Chichen Itza Archaeological Site and hire a guide to tell you all about the history/architecture at the site. Other is to go with an organised group tour. We picked the latter as we were not planning on renting a car and were skeptical about driving through Mexico interiors. It worked out perfectly fine for us, but I don't think it would have been that nasty to drive. May be if I go next time, I will pick the other option.

The tour group picked us up from out hotel lobby early in the morning and guide kept us fairly entertained. His best joke was calling Chichen Itza, Chicken Pizza! We stopped at a Cenote first, then took a lunch break in the city of Valladolid and finally Chichen Itza.


These are sinkholes. A plenty of them are found in this region (Yucatan Peninsula) of Mexico. Most of them are open for swimming and if you are interested, don't forget to carry your bathing suit. The water is cold and you shouldn't swim for more than 10-15 minutes. The guide explained to us the religious/cultural significance of these cenotes in the Mayan era and how they were considered a gateway to afterlife. A lot of objects of archaeological significance are found in these cenotes.


It is a small city we passed through on our way to Chichen Itza. It is a small hep town with colorful houses. We stopped at some restaurant for lunch and there was special dance performance by the locals. I do not remember the name of this dance form, but it was entertaining! If you plan on driving to Chichen Itza, this town is probably your best choice for an overnight stay.

Chichen Itza Archaeological Site

Temple of Sacrifice
I hadn't seen ruins ever before and these were my first. Truly spectacular. I was simply amazed at the advancement in civil engineering and astronomy in those times. They are about 1,000 years old, but were not discovered until the early 20th century. We had a really nice guide who explained all the history behind the structures and shared a lot of lesser known facts about the Mayan culture.  The ball courtyard, Temple of sacrifice and El Castillo are my favorite. You can read more about them here.

El Castillo
We visited before the predicted doomsday of 23rd Dec 2012, so our guide explained us the significance of this date in Mayan calendar and how it actually works, which I don't really remember now. It had to do with the planetary alignment or something, quite like in the Lara Croft Tomb raider ;) We spotted quite a few Iguanas as well! All in all, it was a lot of fun. Here are two pictures from our visit to Chichen Itza. Alright then, Hasta La Vista, baby!