Thursday, December 31, 2009

Travel (& other) Highlights of 2009

I rang in 2009 in Scottsdale, AZ alone in my hotel room. The almost perfect end (would have been nice to share it with someone special) to a wonderful last minute vacation to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. I had gone to bed after watching the ball drop in Times Square on tv at 10pm local but was awakened by fireworks at midnight. I stood in my robe and watched from my balcony as they exploded and the light shimmered on the lake, so close I could smell them. A few hours later, I was on my way to the airport for the flight back to NYC. An auspicious beginning to the year for a traveler, spending 01JAN on an airplane! Later in January, I was in Nashville to celebrate my step-dad Ronnie's 50th birthday. With little advance notice, I invited some old junior/high school friends to get together for a so-called mini-reunion inspired by our reconnection on Facebook. Only a handful showed up but we had fun reminiscing and catching up anyway. Plus, I "re-met" Greg LaRowe face-to-face for the first time in almost 17 years and we hung out with more old friends until 3am. Most of you know the rest of the story; if not, keep reading... I got a last minute opportunity to go to the Grammy's in Los Angeles in early February and managed to book flights & hotel for a reasonable price one day prior to departure. I invited Greg to come, too (what an awesome first date right?!?!) but he couldn't get off work. Still, I had a great time hanging out with my Nokia buddies, going backstage, to the big after party, and to an exclusive after-after party in a big stretch limo. Greg came to NYC to visit me (& the city) for the first time on 26FEB, which also became the official start date of our relationship. It was just for the weekend but we made the most of it and it even snowed the night before he left. Very romantic! My maternal grandmother's 80th birthday was in late March, so I flew to Nashville to celebrate and see the Patterson family all together for the first time in many years. It was the perfect opportunity for Greg to meet everyone as well. The next day, my best friend Amy & I left for a week-long girls vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had a wonderful time despite having to purchase warmer clothes for the unexpectedly chilly weather. And we went hot air ballooning over the Rio Grande! Upon returning to work, I started the wheels in motion for my eventual departure from my job as well as from NYC. I had been planning this for years, but finally reached a point mentally & financially where I was ready to take this gigantic step without regrets. It took several weeks to iron out the details, but I was fortunate to be able to stretch out my employment for another 4+ months under very agreeable circumstances. To seal the deal, I also decided to have my hair dyed back to a more manageable natural brunette (from high maintenance rock star platinum blond!). Greg was able to work remotely for several weeks in April, so he came to stay with me in NY and truly experience life in the big city. We went to a movie premiere (Woody Allen's "Whatever Works"), a Late Show with David Letterman taping, the final Knicks (v Nets) home game of the season, and both a Yankees game at their new stadium and a Mets game at the new Citi Field. Of course we also just explored the city, with outings to Brooklyn, Harlem, Central Park, Chinatown, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and more. In May, I flew back to Nashville so I could accompany Greg on the annual Hermitage United Methodist Church trip to Mt LeConte Lodge, accessible via hiking trails only. We took the 6.5 mile Trillium Gap trail to the summit (6593' elevation) and overnighted at the lodge then hiked down the next day and stayed in a B&B outside of Gatlinburg for a couple of nights. Greg came to NYC for the last few weeks in June to help me say goodbye to my beloved city. We had plenty of adventures -- a second helping of Yankees & Mets games, special meals at great restaurants, fun get-togethers with friends & coworkers, and visits to the big museums and tourist attractions that we hadn't covered in April. I also spent a lot of the month packing, selling or otherwise getting rid of excess stuff. My one way flight to Nashville was scheduled for 30JUN but just as Greg & I were about to call a cab we both received calls from the airline that our flight was canceled and we were rebooked on completely different itineraries THE FOLLOWING DAY!!! Once I got it all sorted with an agent we ended up rebooking for 02JUL and had a couple of extra nights to say goodbye. Of course, this was actually a bit traumatic as I had made my peace with leaving and was then confronted with the reality of it all over again. But we had a good couple of days and even volunteered to give up our seats on our oversold flight on the 2nd in order to get $300 travel vouchers (each). I spent most of July acclimating to life in Nashville. I was still working full time, albeit remotely. Greg & I had some fun nights hanging out downtown and I enjoyed visiting with family & friends. I also turned 35 (what I consider to be about the halfway point in life), bought my Acer netbook which I absolutely love, and finally started this blog! Wanting to take advantage of Greg's & my ability to work remotely, we decided to "live" in Seattle for the month of August. You can read more about our adventures in the Pacific Northwest in archived posts but suffice it to say that it really persuaded both of us to move to Portland, Seattle, or somewhere in that vicinity whenever we do settle down together. The beginning of September marked my last day of employment. It was with a big sigh of relief that I shipped all of my work stuff back up to NY, not because I don't love the people I was working with (truly the best work experience I have ever had!), rather I just needed to make a clean break and start my "new" life. It was also the perfect time for an extended vacation, so Greg & I went to Eastern Europe (Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Auschwitz, Budapest) for a couple of weeks over the end of September & early October (see archived posts). Always wanting to live life to the fullest, Greg & I had already booked an apartment in Waikiki for one month starting in mid-October, again taking advantage of his ability to work remotely. We had such a good time (see archived posts) that we extended our stay another full month and did not return to Nashville until 14DEC. Highlights include our weekend trips to the Big Island and Maui, using our Honolulu Zoo membership (one of my 36th birthday gifts to Greg), and skydiving from 14,000ft while my mom & Ronnie were visiting. Since returning to Nashville, we have spent most of our spare time visiting with friends & family over the holidays. We managed to divide Christmas pretty evenly between our two families, seeing everyone that lives in the Nashville area in the days leading up to & on the 25th and then traveling to northeastern Indiana on the 26th to spend a long weekend visiting Greg's extended family and enjoying the snow. We are leaving tomorrow morning for the New Year's Eve Chick-fil-A college bowl game in Atlanta and will return to Nashville on the 2nd. So, as my year started, it will end, on the road again! I would be remiss not to mention a few of the things I was most thankful for in 2009, some of which really need to be expounded on, but will keep it brief here. In no particular order they are: Facebook, friends & family, good beer, good health & health insurance, a good job, financial security, and that I am now also part of We. :) Happy New Year everyone! I'm looking forward to sharing my adventures around the world in 2010!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Notes on living in Waikiki

As we're wrapping up our final day on Oahu, I thought I'd comment on what I think are the pros & cons of living in Hawaii, but more specifically in Waikiki. In no particular order, here are the LIKES: - reading by the pool - an annual zoo membership for two people only costs $30; we lived walking distance from the zoo (about 1 mile) - sunsets on the beach - drinks at the beach bars (Tiki Grill, The Banyan Court at the Moana Surfrider, Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai Bar) - drinking coffee & reading the newspaper on our lanai - happy hour at Yard House (over 100 beers on tap!) - watching live football at 7:30AM and still having the afternoon free - Chinatown for browsing the markets (all kinds of seafood, every part of a pig or a cow, whole roasted pigs & ducks, cheap vegetables, trinkets, etc.); cheap haircuts & pedicures; yummy restaurants (dim sum at Mei Sum and Legend, Little Village Noodle House) - the Waikiki library; again walking distance from the apartment and a 3 month visitor card was only $10 - the North Shore for big waves, good food (shrimp trucks, roadside produce stands), and SKYDIVING! - Kailua Beach Park & Lanikai Beach for beautiful views, turquoise water, and good activity options (kayaking, wind surfing, swimming, snorkeling, etc.) - Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina for $3 pints at happy hour and tasty pizzas - walking/jogging around Kapi'olani Park - fresh POKE! (ahi/tuna, shrimp, mussels, etc.) - public transport via bus for $2.25/ride; it's slow, but gets you anywhere on the island - recycling bins next to trash cans pretty much everywhere - the multitude of restaurants at all price points and offering every kind of food imaginable - the climate!!! - the flora (hibiscus, plumeria, bougainvillea, palm trees...) And the DISLIKES: - large homeless population although panhandling is not aggressive - traffic & related noise - high prices and overall cost of living - distance to anywhere else (in the U.S. or world!) - the shopping mall that is Waikiki's Kalakaua Ave In conclusion, Honolulu/Waikiki offers many of the advantages & disadvantages of living in a big city with the added bonus of almost guaranteed beautiful weather year-round. After two months here, this really feels like home and I'm quite surprised at how much more open-minded I am about considering a place like this for a permanent residence. I'm honestly not sure if I would be quite so enthusiastic if I had to work every day, especially if I was commuting by bus or by car in rush hour traffic. The high cost of living would also take its toll, especially if I could not earn comparable to what I was making in NYC (and I suspect that would be the case). But it's sure nice to know from experience what options are out there, and this little "living experiment", much like our month in Seattle, has really brought Greg & I closer as a couple and given us some insight as to what each of us wants & needs both in our relationship as well as from the place we live.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Oahu in Four Days

Greg and I are still living in Waikiki, but will be returning to Nashville in a couple of days. My mom and step-dad came to visit last week, which gives me a good excuse to update the blog. Of course, it's not really possible to see ALL of Oahu in 4 days, but with some pre-planning and great weather, we managed to hit most of the highlights.
view of the full moon from our lanai in Waikiki
Mom and Ronnie arrived at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 1. I had rented a car for the entire week; there's a Dollar location a few blocks from our apartment and they offered a great "City Breaks" rate of $100 for 7 days (with tax/fees = $129). The best rate at all other companies in the area was $40+/day. Greg and I greeted them at the airport with silk flower and shell leis. We came back to the apartment and gave them a chance to settle in, then had dinner at Perry's Smorgy, a budget buffet place. The food was predictably cafeteria-grade, but offered lots of options for our diverse tastes. We stepped it up a notch for after-dinner drinks at The Banyan Court at the Moana Surfrider on the beach, with Mom enjoying a "Tropical Itch" complete with wooden back scratcher!
After a good night's sleep we were all up and ready to start sightseeing on Wednesday morning. Greg had to stay home and work, but I took Mom and Ronnie to Diamond Head crater to hike. We stopped at Safeway to stock up on groceries for the week and came back home to make sandwiches for lunch. The afternoon was filled with more hiking -- the nature trails at Lyon Arboretum and the more challenging Manoa Falls. We cooked steaks on our poolside grill for dinner.
Manoa Falls
Thursday morning was perfect for a trip to the zoo. It also meant more hours on our feet but we enjoyed visiting the animals; only the cheetahs and warthog remained hidden from view. We again returned to the apartment for lunch and then Greg and I rested while Mom and Ronnie went for an afternoon walk on the beach and around Waikiki. We went to Ono Hawaiian Food for dinner -- a hole in the wall local place which consistently gets great reviews. While the food was pretty good and interesting, the restaurant is pretty shabby and seemed a bit unclean. I'm glad we tried it, but at the same time am sure we would have enjoyed other local restaurants a lot more.
Greg & I bought season passes to the zoo
It started raining that evening and continued to rain during the night, but had cleared off again by Friday morning. Which was good, because we got up early to go to Pearl Harbor and try to beat the lines. We arrived around 7:15 a.m. and were given tickets for the 8:00 a.m. movie. This gave us time to browse around the visitors center and memorial area, which is currently undergoing a big renovation (scheduled to be complete by this time next year). We enjoyed the 20+ minute film and then took the boat across the harbor to the Arizona Memorial, where you can spend about 15 minutes before catching the return boat.
Our next stop was Chinatown for a quick walk around the markets and a delicious lunch at Little Village Noodle House. Then we drove up to the Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) where we spent a couple of hours touring the memorial and enjoying the views of downtown Honolulu and Waikiki. We drove the Pali Hwy to Nuuanu Pali Lookout where it was quite windy and much cooler but still offered beautiful views of the windward side of the island. Then we continued heading east to Kailua Beach Park with a scenic loop around Mokulua Drive to Lanikai Beach. From there we drove south along the Kalanian'ole Hwy, stopping at the Halona Blowhole and a few other scenic spots. Finally it was time for happy hour at the Kona Brewing Company at Koko Marina where we enjoyed $3 pints and mixed drinks, a half-price hummus appetizer, and a delicious "Captain Cook" pizza. It was a great day, but we were exhausted so headed home to get some rest.
Nuuanu Pali Lookout
Saturday required another early start. We left the apartment by 7 a.m. so we could be at Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore for our 8 a.m. scheduled skydive. Greg and I were the only ones brave enough to make the 14,000+ foot jump, but Mom decided to ride in the plane as an observer and Ronnie took photographs from the ground. Check out Facebook for photos and watch the YouTube video embedded below to see more of this amazing experience! Despite being the first ones to arrive, Greg and I were assigned to the third group/planeload, which means we did a lot of anxious waiting until our turn. We also had made a point not to eat or drink anything prior to the jump "just in case", so we were all quite ready for some food when we finished around 10 a.m.
We drove into Hale'iwa and had breakfast at Breakers in the North Shore Marketplace. Then we doubled back to the Dole Plantation for a quick look around before getting caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Kam (Kamehameha Hwy) due to sightseers flocking to watch the projected 20+ ft waves. After sitting in traffic for 30 minutes or more, we were ready for a break, so we turned off into Waimea Valley and enjoyed a leisurely hike through the botanical gardens and back to the waterfall.
Ready to brave the traffic once again, we continued on the Kam to Sunset Beach and stood in the sand for quite a while ogling the huge waves. Knowing that we still had a long drive ahead of us, we continued driving east then south, stopping at a roadside stand in Kahuku to buy a fresh pineapple and at Kualoa Park to watch the sunset. Realizing it would be a bit late for dinner by the time we reached Waikiki, we decided to seek out the Hale'iwa Joe's restaurant in Kane'ohe where we enjoyed the outdoor setting and tasty food. A great ending to another wonderful day!
sunset at Kualoa Park
Mom and Ronnie's flight to Maui was at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, so we spent the morning doing laundry and getting them ready for the next segment of their trip. Greg and I dropped them off at the airport at 11 a.m. and spent the rest of the day watching football and generally relaxing at the apartment. As you can tell, these 4+ days were pretty packed with activities and not much, if any, time for just sitting on the beach or by the pool relaxing. I had discussed this with my mom in advance and had given them the option of choosing how much or how little they wanted to see and do. One big advantage for them was having Greg and I to chauffeur them around, with me driving and Greg providing commentary and/or answering questions. This is much less stressful than it would have been if they were driving themselves, completely unfamiliar with the island, and it provided much more flexibility and saved money versus the various tour options or taking the public bus. Note that while I did drive them around downtown briefly, we did not stop at the state capitol, Iolani Palace, or any of the historic sites in that area. This was simply a matter of time and overall preference of what they wanted to focus on seeing.