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Ciao Italia!

A week wandering the Bel Paese

sunny 26 °C

Sample One-Week Itinerary
Day 1: Florence – check out the key religious sites (especially the main cathedral – il duomo), visit a museum or art gallery (there are endless options!), and spend the evening piazza-hopping from Piazza della Signoria to Piazza della Repubblica listening to live music
Day 2: Tuscan countryside, Florence – Tuscan daytrip! Although we didn’t have the time to do this, many of my friends have taken daytrips to beautiful surrounding towns and highly recommended it. You can also check out Pisa, if you’re really craving a classic touristy Italian photoshoot
Day 3: Florence – enjoy the area around the mercato centrale, consider a free walking tour like through La Bussola (bring cash tips, of course), visit the sinagoga e museo ebraico (Jewish synagogue and museum), cross any one of the beautiful old bridges (don’t miss ponte vecchio) to get to Villa Bardini and watch sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Day 4: Pompeii, Salerno – spend the morning and/or afternoon at Pompeii (easily accessible by train) before returning to Salerno, shopping and seeing its historical sites
Day 5: Amalfi Coast, Salerno – take the ferry to Maioiri, hike the “Lemon Trail” to Minori, take the ferry to Amalfi, consider bussing to Ravello (beware the crowds), walk over to Atrani, ferry back to Salerno taking in the beautiful Amalfi Coast sunset before strolling its pedestrian thoroughfare and walking by the seaside promenade
Day 6: Rome – spend the day exploring the Vatican City, both the surrounding areas and the museums (make sure to purchase the guided tour in advance!). Make the most of Roman nightlife in Trastevere
Day 7: Rome – cross through Isola Tiberina to explore the former Jewish ghetto and then the many historic sites Rome has to offer: Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and finally a tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Check out what’s happening at Mattatoio, a former industrial complex, and dine at Testaccio Market across the street

Overall Tips
- Carry a pack of Kleenex wherever you go – many restrooms don’t have toilet paper, will charge you (so carry coins too!), and might not have a toilet seat either
- Don’t forget to get a travel charger and also an adaptor (or even a converter depending on the electronics you’re bringing)
- Bring cash and credit card, most places accepted either but it’s helpful to have a back up
- Consider purchasing an anti-theft purse or backpack as certain areas are extremely crowded with tourists and have become hotspots for pickpocketing
- Download a language-learning app like Duolingo in advance so that you can practice some common phrases like “grazie”, “prego”, etc.
- Always make sure you have the medications you’ll need, my seasonal allergies really flared up (for example) so I was glad to already have my pills on hand
- Confirm what Covid restrictions are still in place. As of June 2022, it was necessary to wear a KN95/FFP2 mask on all of the high speed trains and inside the Vatican City museums but no Covid testing was required

Where to Stay
- Florence: B&B Relais Tiffany – roughly $100/night, 10-minute walk to Florence S.M. Novella Train Station
- Salerno: B&B Il Reticolo – roughly $80/night, 10-minute walk to train station
- Rome: B&B Suites Trastevere – roughly $115/night, 10-minute walk to Trastevere train station

Where to Eat
Florence: All’antico Vinaio sandwiches; I Tarocchi pizza; Mercato Centrale for everything
- Gelato, ranked in order of deliciousness: GROM (their signature flavour) then Edoardo’s and finally Venchi (likely wouldn’t go back there)
Amalfi Coast: Divin Baguette in Maioiri for superb sandwiches; Pasticceria Sal de Riso in Minori for treats; Ristorante Cicirinella and Pizzeria Giagiu’ in Salerno (our favourite pizza on the trip!)
- Gelateria Giallo Limone and Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria in Salerno both had fantastic sweets
Rome: Mercato di Testaccio (especially pizzeria Casa Manco); Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and Pizzeria da Baffetto were both recommended by friends but were totally packed so we couldn’t try them
- Frigidarium (chocolate dipped gelato) and the Pasticceria Boccione (kosher bakery) were both delicious

How to Travel
- We took high speed Frecciarossa trains between our destinations – they go up to 300 km/hr. I booked all our tickets in advance using Trenitalia. The competitor company, Italo, would have been fine but I found the prices higher or the schedule less convenient for us. I spent some time calculating whether Eurail passes would be helpful, but in our case it was cheaper to buy each individual ticket.
- Always double check the stations you’ll travel to. For example, Pompeii Scavi is the closer train station to the ruins, not Pompeii, but we couldn’t get there (on time) from Salerno so we had to budget additional time.
- When you buy a train ticket you won’t know which direction the seat will face. Since there were two of us, we always bought seats facing each other so I could always take the seat facing forward (to avoid motion sickness). The trains have washrooms, in case of emergency.
- They provide complimentary snacks and drinks depending on the tickets you purchase; otherwise, you can purchase them on board for a small fee. We brought our own snacks.
- KN95 (FFP2) masks are required on board, unlike the American Airlines flight to and from Italy (with more than one maskless, coughing American). The conductors really take masking seriously in Italy as on more than one occasion I saw customers being reminded that cloth masks weren’t good enough and that they had to wear the FFP2 ones.
- The train platforms won’t necessarily show up on the screen until a few moments before departure, but you can ask a staff member where they’re more likely to depart from.

- We bought all of our ferry tickets on the spot, rather than in advance. We never had to wait and were able to get on each ferry. That said, the ferry from Amalfi was chaotic and it was unclear where to wait or whether everyone would get on so try to get there early and consider buying those tickets online.
- There were restrooms on board but I saw one restroom out-of-order, so I’d recommend using the toilet while you’re still on land. And if you know you get motion sick, always carry a "barf bag" just in case.

- In Rome, we took a bus upon arrival. We purchased our tickets from a central booth and then had to validate the tickets once on the bus. I’ve heard stories about travelers not validating their tickets and then getting fined.


My Travel Diary

Despite visiting all of its neighbours, I had never become acquainted with Italy until this year. When I stumbled across roundtrip tickets for less than $500 each, I knew it was time. The only issue? (Aside from the ongoing pandemic…) We only had one week! For that reason, this blog entry will be more like the antipasti than the main meal – it’ll give you a taste of Italy, while leaving you (and me!) wanting more.


This was my first trans-Atlantic flight in over three years. Since the pandemic started I’ve become a nervous flyer, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being trapped in a small space with so many strangers especially since there’s always a chance that my motion sickness may strike. So, even before boarding, I dreaded the thought of having to fly for ten hours each way. It helped me to think about everything I was excited for – the food, the hikes, the history – but, it helped me more to fall asleep after taking motion sickness medication. We arrived at Roma Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport and made it to the train station within half an hour or so of landing despite my groggy state. I was shocked by how easy it was! Then I noticed the chaos of the train ticketing area: a couple of long lines, some broken machines, and many confused tourists. We skipped the machines and went straight to the line for ticketing agents. The trains could go to either Roma Tiburtina or Roma Termini – make sure you catch the right one! We headed to Tiburtina and from there we caught a train to Firenze (Florence) Santa Maria Novella train station.


Upon arrival in Florence, I was instantly impressed. It’s bellisima! Across from the main train station, we stumbled upon the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella which is a Gothic church that’s hundreds of years old (like much of the city). The style, to me, looks similar to the famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as “il duomo”. Seeing Brunelleschi’s amazing approaches to art and architecture (including the world’s biggest masonry dome) made me better understand how Florence was the starting point of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo (among many other talented people) all lived in Italy during the 15th century – what a roster of genius.


To fuel our Florentine expedition, we needed plenty of food. Fortunately, in Italy, there’s never any shortage of gelato – in Florence alone, I tested GROM, Venchi, and Edoardo’s. As I learned in my college statistics classes: sample size matters! On our first day in Florence, after filling up on too many treats, our only meal was sandwiches at the famous All’antico Vinaio – I got vegetarian #2 with Stracciatella, pistachio cream, tomatoes and basil. On the second day, we ate a proper dinner at a nice patio on the other side of the river. The pizza took so long to arrive that I was tempted to offer my assistance in the kitchen, but it turned out to be well worth the wait. My favourite meal in Florence was actually at the Mercato Centrale where Dmitriy and I ate with my friend, Dave. The three of us split everything from liver on toast to pesto pasta. The only thing I didn’t try was the famous Florentine lampredotto (tripe sandwich) – weeks later, I still don’t regret not eating the fourth stomach of a cow. In addition to food, we made sure to quench our thirst with local drinks. Downstairs we purchased cappuccino at the Caffe del Mercato while upstairs we went for an Aperol Spritz, famous in that region. As a side note, you have to pay for water there, but at least, for once, the washrooms were free!


Florence, like many cities, offers fantastic free walking tours; the only caveat is that you should tip the guide for their expertise and time. Dmitriy, Dave, and I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of Florence with our guide from La Bussola Tours who gave us a solid foundation in Renaissance architecture and insight into the incredible power of the Medici family in the 1400s. He explained that, in his opinion, the Renaissance started in 1401 and ended in the 1520s. It was the perfect storm: wealth in Florence, competition between rich families, and the prominence of religion and skilled artists. Wealthy people, in those days, would be patrons to artists like Donatello or Michelangelo and insist on religious art being displayed around their palaces to show their virtue. Doing terrible things and then hanging pious paintings sounded like my trick of eating three gelatos but following up with a salad and calling that healthy eating. Everything is a matter of perspective!


As we looked at the family coats of arms (like the 3 moons of the Strozzi family) on the palaces, we noticed how the buildings were built with bigger windows at the bottom and smaller windows on the highest floor to give the illusion of grandeur. All over Florence, we had to play with the illusion of reality: much of what you see is a replica, not an original. For example, outside of the Orsanmichele Church we saw a statue carved by Donatello… but not actually the one made by Donatello, just a copy. Regardless, the workmanship was incredible and we were fascinated to hear about how the church had been run by trade guilds like bankers, woolworkers, butchers, and sword makers, for example. I particularly liked the image of St. George made by Donatello, although every time I mentioned the artist’s name out loud my childhood obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bumped up against my adult art sensibilities.


The tour ended at the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried (another great ninja turtle!). Apparently, it’s the largest Franciscan church in the world but it has a massive Star of David on the front façade in honour of the Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas. We took that as our sign to seek out the Jewish area of town, a short walk away (as most everything is in Florence). Sadly, the imposing Sinagoga e Museo Ebraico was closed by the time we arrived; however, we did bump into a nice American Jewish couple who highly recommend the Ba Ghetto kosher restaurant. Always good to get firsthand recommendations!


Throughout our trip, Dmitriy and I made time for romance - admittedly, a pretty easy feat in Italy. So, on our last evening in Florence, we crossed the picturesque medieval Ponte Vecchio (where we had seen a proposal the night prior) to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun set over the city. We had anticipated a serene scene but were met instead with throngs of like-minded tourists and the constant shutter of camera phones.


So, our next stop, Salerno, came as a welcome respite with its local vibrancy complemented by quiet corners. Although it served as our base for a trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, Salerno is a beautiful city in its own right. Traces of human settlement in the area go back over 2,500 years and the city’s central cathedral hosts the tomb of St. Matthew. Since Salerno was the only city we visited where my friends and family hadn’t yet traveled, everything felt new to us. We opted to have dinner there both nights, wandering the wide pedestrian thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, to find the hidden restaurant Cicirinella and then the more prominent Pizzeria Giagiu’. In both cases, I enjoyed our dinners and also the subsequent treats at the delicious gelateria Giallo Limone and bar/café Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria respectively. At the latter, Dmitriy ordered crema del nonno, which sounded slightly more questionable when translated into English: “grandfather’s cream”. Dmitriy, as always, was nonplussed and happily enjoyed his creamy iced coffee.


While Dmitriy is generally a very easy-going person, our afternoon at Pompeii managed to get under his skin. For anyone who’s not been, the site is expansive – we’re talking over 98 acres of potential walking. When we arrived in the town of Pompeii, we weren’t at the train station closest to the ruins (Pompeii Scavi) which meant that even prior to the tour we had already walked half an hour in the heat. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s very little shade, very few restrooms, and a whole lot of space to wander. Our guide, Melania, worked with the company “Enjoy Pompeii” and was full of interesting information. She started by providing us with context and myth-busting facts like how lava wasn’t the killer, but rather asphyxiation from the gas and metres of volcanic dust shrouding the city. These people’s nightmarish deaths were helpful for historians as everything is incredibly well-preserved. That said, during WWII, Pompeii was bombed many times so some areas are more damaged from the recent past than the ancient tragedies.


Pompeii, like any contemporary city, went through different cultural transformations, but our guide talked to us most about who was living there in the first century AD. She talked to us about the earthquakes people experienced prior to the eruption and how the townspeople believed it was Bacchus (who they thought resided within Mt Vesuvius) sending them messages. Their main deity was Jupiter, and we saw evidence of this. Regardless, because Pompeii used to be a port city with people coming (and being forcefully brought) from all over, there were many languages and belief systems. For that reason, visuals were key to communication. For example, carved penises were used as street signs to advertise the 20+ brothels and within the brothels there were illustrated menus of sex positions with numbers underneath them. In fact, we saw phallic symbols all over the place. Apparently, horizontal penises were directional markers while etchings of vertical penises were actually symbols of prosperity.


The richer families also had some beautiful frescoes and mosaics with all kinds of vibrant, less sexual images. Melania emphasized that the incredible artwork and advanced systems like windows, geothermal heat, sliding doors, roadways and so on were mainly made by enslaved people. Another disturbing fact that she told us was that life expectancy was very short. Many of the 20,000+ residents would die in their 30s because of improper hygiene, lead pipes, and lack of medicine; even prior to that, babies were often killed if they weren’t considered “perfect”. Melania’s tour certainly wasn’t uplifting, but it was informative.


Our daytrip to Amalfi was a much gentler experience. We hadn’t bought ferry tickets in advance, so when we arrived at the dock at Salerno, we bought tickets for the next boat (regardless of where it was going!). After a very short 3-euro ferry ride, we got off at Maioiri. Because we knew we would be hiking the Sentiero dei Limone, Lemon Trail, we decided to stop and eat there first.


We got to Divin Baguette shortly after opening, so the server had lots of time for us. This came in handy not only for my many questions about which sandwich to get (the salmon one was excellent!), but also for the miscommunication surrounding my order of “lemon juice”. In my mind, lemon juice obviously meant lemonade; I couldn’t fathom someone opting to suck on liquid lemons. To the server, lemonade was not “naturale” enough to serve, so his “lemon juice” was obviously just freshly squeezed lemons – nothing more, nothing less. Suffice it to say, the drink left a sour taste in my mouth. We knew that the Amalfi Coast was famous for lemon everything, from alcohol to desserts; however, we weren’t expecting that level of immersion.


To access the trail, we began by climbing past the supermarket and up to Santuario Santa Maria e Mare with its beautiful green and yellow domes, preparing us for the many lemon orchards to come. The signs for the Lemon Trail were clearly marked, and truth be told it was mainly stair climbing past people’s homes and lemon trees – sometimes overhead, other times below us, but the plentiful lemons were always there. The views were stunning and we took about 45 minutes to walk (and photograph) it.


This wasn’t exactly wilderness, but we did meet a few stray dogs and some mules on route to Minori. Next time I wouldn’t mind staying at one of the many B&Bs, or stopping for limoncello, but we decided to keep going past the beautiful mosaics down the stairs to Minori and the Basilica I Santa Trofimena. We bought treats and boarded a ferry to Amalfi, savouring the sweet flavours and sights simultaneously.


Arriving in Amalfi your eyes feast on the cliffs and colours, and it’s clear that this town is much bigger (and busier) than the others along the southern coast.


The beaches were full of little pebbles, and all privatized so we set off instead for the central square: the Piazza Flavia Gioia. We appreciated the Fontana di Sant’Andrea and Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea, dating back to the 9th century. We then walked past famous fountains like the one devoted to donkeys, the Fontana “de Cape ‘e Ciucci”, built in the 18th century. I’m not sure how donkeys and dolls are connected, but this fountain has been decorated with dolls since the 1970s. Fortunately, they weren’t half as creepy as the dolls littering Xochimilco in Mexico City. Chucky couldn’t hold a candle to them. Following Lorenzo d’Amalfi, we arrived at Dalla Carta alla Cartolina/Scuderia del Duca – a casual postal museum and stationery store. I’m not quite sure what a postal museum is supposed to look like, but this one certainly surprised me. I had very little time to explore its contents before needing a washroom. This was an ongoing challenge in Italy. I’m not asking for a Tim Horton’s on each corner, but at least one public washroom for every few blocks would be helpful. Fortunately, there’s a public washroom near the Museu della Carta uphill from where all the tourism is, so I had access to a free toilet. It turns out there’s also a beautiful waterfall, gorgeous mountain views, and access to a hike up there.


Eventually, we made our way downhill to walk over to the neighbouring town of Atrani. It’s exceptionally narrow and tall. We didn’t stay long before heading back to Amalfi to catch our ferry. Unfortunately, the ride to Salerno was less than pleasant. Of all three ferries that day it was the ferry from Amalfi to Salerno which was, (1) the longest ride; and, (2) the bumpiest ride. It didn’t help that the washroom was broken. The views were still beautiful but I didn’t appreciate paying 9 euro for nausea. A man behind me paid to vomit. I got the better deal.


Speaking of transit, the trains were all wonderful – spacious and clean. I felt bad for the tourists with suitcases so large that they could barely fit in the overhead storage areas though. One woman looked about ready to leave the country and go home, cursing and muttering about the weight. The irony is that she wasn’t even doing any manual labour as a young Italian man had lifted her suitcase for her since she was blocking everyone from taking their seats. Because we never knew which direction the train would go, we had purchased seats across from each other. I knew it would be easier that way since my motion sickness won’t let me face backwards on a moving vehicle and I wasn’t sure how accommodating our train companions would be. I found out pretty quickly that not everyone takes the seats they pay for. On our journey from Salerno to Rome, we noticed an elderly Italian couple across the aisle who were seated beside the windows and had pulled out countless snacks. In Naples, a foreign couple got on and tried to kindly inform the old Italians that they were in their seats. After about five minutes of miscommunication and much huffing and puffing, the Italian man pretended to start gathering his goods but his wife stopped him. Dmitriy and I stared out the window, not daring to make eye contact with the naughty nonna. We got off at Roma Termini station and promptly our luck ended. We couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets for the train to Trastevere station which was leaving in a matter of minutes. Instead, we bought bus tickets, which turned out to be a blessing as it helped us situate where we were and how ancient this city really is. When we got to our B&B, we also quickly learned how prehistoric the elevator was. The doors had to be manually shut for it to work. We learned this when, approaching our floor, we excitedly started opening the inner door and the elevator abruptly came to a halt. We were stuck in the elevator a few inches below where the floor should have been. Fortunately, we’re good escape artists and we made our way back to solid ground within a matter of minutes. It’s a good thing too because no one responded to my cries for help; instead, an older Italian woman on the ground floor began yelling for us to hurry because she needed the elevator asap for her groceries. It’s a hectic city and this was just the beginning.


The day we arrived in Rome I had booked us a Vatican City Museums tour, so we had to hurriedly walk through Trastevere. We stopped along the way very briefly to take in sites like the 15th century Ponte Sisto and Castel Sant’Angelo (built BC by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum). It’s impossible to capture just how much life is vibrantly on display in the streets of Rome, and Italy overall. There’s an incredible togetherness when cities are built for people, not cars. Our tour started at 3pm and we arrived early at the Basilica di San Pietro, the world’s largest church and supposedly where Peter the apostle is entombed. We realized fairly late that we were at the wrong spot and we had to rush to the other side of the city where the museums are located. Everywhere was packed, and I’d made the mistake of not eating a proper meal yet – relying on free snacks instead. The lack of sleep, water, and food combined with the heat and crowds wasn’t an ideal combination. I found it hard to take in everything the small guide was loudly lecturing about.


She started the tour by explaining the symbolism of the Sistine Chapel including the size of the books that captured details of who would go to heaven and who to hell. I found listening to her less important than actually being present in the chapel (after the tour had ended) and taking in the immensity of the artwork: from Jonah and the Whale to Moses parting the sea, I was amazed by the detail and beauty of the tableaus. The chapel itself is also home to many security guards whose job it is to keep the area quiet and keep people from taking photos. They failed over and over again, until finally one of them warmed up a microphone and in a tone and pace like that of a Gregorian chant, he began reciting his prayer for “silenzio” followed by “no fotos” and finishing with “no videos”. I was entranced; Dmitriy was irritated.


On the museums tour, we just scratched the surface of Vatican City's immeasurable wealth. But the guide never mentioned any of the controversies, like what's covered in articles like this: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/metis-researcher-counter-narrative-vatican-indigenous-1.6394948. We started the physical tour by walking through a courtyard with a giant pine cone and peacocks, which were originally built near the pantheon (decidedly not a monotheistic locale). We also saw Pomodoro’s sfera con sfera showing the dynamic and fragile nature of the world. The gravity of the work was lightened by the English translation of the artist’s name: Mr. Tomato. We kept exploring the endless museums like Pio-clementino with sculptures predating Christianity like Laocoon (40 BC) which tells the story of the Trojan War. Our guide talked about how the Romans imitated the Greeks, their styles and stories. She gave us a long lecture about it; my short attention span couldn't keep up.


One of my favourite rooms was actually the map room, which depicted the many areas of Italy in surprising orientations (by modern cartography standards). We also saw more recent works like in the Sala dell’Immacolata (19th to 21st centuries), the Rooms of Raphael, the Room of Eliodora and other modern art by Dali and Chagall; however, the guide was in such a rush that we couldn’t even stop to see these pieces. In her tour, she shared too many details but not enough foundational information. Bits and pieces stuck with me though like how often faces would be dedications in art. For example, the Pope’s face might be painted on a hero’s body. It was also curious how only living people would be painted looking directly at the audience. She also underscored trivia like how all of the guards in the Vatican City are Swiss, which dates back to the reputation of the Swiss as killer mercenaries. Apparently, it had nothing to do with their chocolate-making abilities or purported neutrality – I guess those aren’t skills you look for when hiring people to save your life. Overall, I felt destroyed by the time we finally entered the Sistine Chapel at the end. We took our time sitting on a bench staring up at the glorious artwork, but it was hard to fully absorb the magnitude of the magnificence. Regardless, my feet welcomed the rest. On our way out, we still had to pass by multiple stores, cafeterias, and myriad other museum exhibits about topics like coins and stamps. In fact, they have a Vatican post office where you can buy a special stamp and send your mail. Whether the secular system will deliver the holy mail is another story. Right before exiting the Vatican City, we saw a small stand with photos and quotes about Indigenous people like “Your culture… must not be allowed to disappear”. The irony was not lost on me.


Hungry and tired, Dmitriy and I wandered in circles until he found a restaurant he was confident in. I’m less bothered by reviews when hungry, but Dmitriy is a stickler for stars. We ordered immediately and were promptly brought a multitude of antipasti. My fried tempura zucchini tasted mediocre at first bite, but it was the second that surprised me. It turns out that the cook had run out of the cheese advertised in the menu so had substituted… anchovies! Suffice it to say I’d rather sip pure lemon juice than bite into something so fishy. Sadly, “Claps” is not a restaurant I’d recommend if you have dietary allergies, or preferences. Anyway, we made up for it later. After wandering the Mattatoio area, which used to be a slaughterhouse and industrial complex, we came across the open-air Mercato di Testaccio. It had live music, dancing, and (most importantly) tons of great food stalls. We tried four different types of pizza at Casa Manco before waddling our bloated bodies to the dance floor. They played English, Spanish and Italian music… and hosted a Zumba class! We had a great time and I loved that everywhere we went felt so safe, even in a big city like Rome. It was a welcome change. That said, it’s a fairly dirty city – there’s litter and graffiti all over!


Speaking of safety, a trend on this trip was people trying to enter our hotel rooms. In Rome, this meant that at 1 am we suddenly heard jangling on the door handle, while in Salerno it was the housekeeper entering before 9 am every day (which somehow felt less reasonable). Our first morning in Rome, we were awoken to knocking on the door because it turned out (for once) breakfast was included but we hadn’t indicated what we wanted to eat. We weren’t thrilled about being woken up like that, but the delicious breakfast in bed was worth it.


We still opted for a second breakfast – we didn’t want to repeat the mistake of undereating. I had read about Rome’s Jewish quarter and wanted to experience it for myself, whether we attended services at the synagogue, visited the museum or just ate some tasty kosher treats. In the end, we opted to pick up sour cherry ricotta cheesecake (crostata di ricotta e visciole) from Pasticceria Boccione – it was soft on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside. Dmitriy and I shared a slice, but secretly wished we’d bought at least two.


We also wandered past the impressive Tempio Maggiore di Roma, built in the early 1900s after centuries of Jewish people being contained within the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish Museum is located within the temple building, while the powerful Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Holocaust Museum, can be found beside it. We wandered through the latter and learned more about the resilient Roman Jewish community. In fact, Italian Jewry date back over 2,000 years. A couple of friends had recommended going on one of the Jewish tours in Rome and Florence (the food tours looked especially great!), but we never found the time. As a side note, one of the companies that came recommended was: https://www.florence-jewish-tours.com.


The famous Arch of Titus tells some of the story of Jewish enslaved people being brought to Rome. With its implicit and explicit depictions of the Roman attack on Jerusalem, destruction of the sacred temple, murder and enslavement of Jews and pillaging of their treasures (like the famous menorah), it’s a harsh reminder of how Jewish life in Israel was drastically altered leading to thousands of years of diaspora living for so many Jews. I hated how this was being celebrated in this arch, which is, to so many tourists, seen as just another unique piece of ancient art on their trip to the imposing Colosseum. There's always a juxtaposition between recognizing the beauty of a place and reflecting on its bloody past, I suppose.


Before leaving for Italy, I was really torn about whether we should take tours at Pompeii and the Colosseum but after speaking to friends about it, it became clear that if you aren’t a historian or archeologist, you should probably take a tour. Our Roman guide was incredibly enthusiastic even when recounting gruesome details of the Colosseum’s construction. He discussed how macabre the Colosseum was: from the enslaved people who were made to fight (and die) as gladiators to how Romans killed so many lions that they became extinct in North Africa. The amphitheatre, though it may not look like it, was the largest ever built, yet it was built in eight years (in the first century AD). The guide facetiously pointed out that the metro stop there has been in a state of renovations and upgrades for over ten years already. He should try visiting cities like Toronto or Chicago where extreme weather means that transit expansion, let alone maintenance, feels like it takes millennia. Anyway, at its peak, the Colosseum could hold 50-80,000 people who were able to watch the performances free of charge. Apparently, this was (and still is) a popular political strategy: distract the populace with free entertainment so they won’t fight back against the squalor.


A lot of innovations went into making the Colosseum: they would flood the stage and host water shows or have set changes with exotic plants they’d pull up and down using lifts and underground tunnels. The roof itself was even retractable! I made a joke about the Toronto Skydome, but I think the guide’s laughter was an automatic response rather than actual acknowledgement. He lectured us about the many uses of the Colosseum: entertainment, housing, and even prayer. On site we saw a lot of original relics like graffiti from the stadium, seats, and mosaics. While wandering, we were fortunate enough to hear an Italian singer taking advantage of the acoustics – her striking sounds wafted up through the air lending us an impression of how exciting it must have been to see a performance of any kind in a structure so intentionally built to bring together tens of thousands. We also watched our guide’s flirting in action as he complimented the singer and invited her to join our group... as long as her boyfriend wouldn’t mind.


The Roman Forum was literal layers of history. Once again, it felt overwhelming trying to catch all the details spilling out. The guide picked ancient artefacts up off the ground and reminded us never to think of the past as just one static point in time because it’s a mishmash of so many cultures and civilizations coexisting, killing, and conquering. There are so many distinct periods of time with so many unique customs that he could never answer a question like “what was marriage like for the Romans?” without specifying which century he was considering for his response. He hurried us past the crowds and into a church that was unearthed after destroying the one on top of it – frescoes of sullen faces were still fresh after 1400 years. I can only imagine how humans would be perceived if the images unearthed thousands of years from now were of botox-infused duckfaces. The guide pointed out Basilica Giulia, the temple of Rumulus and other places frequented by emperors like Caesar. The Roman Forum was always a gathering area while the Palatine Hill was for the emperors. We were forced to explore that area ourselves as the tour abruptly ended after two hours (I thought it would last three). Based on the signage, we learned about the ruins of Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins kept the flame burning to signify Rome as an eternal city – no men were allowed except one, and the women would be buried alive if they made a mistake. Linkedin would have trouble advertising that one. Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace took up the whole hill above and was split into three parts. We were exhausted by the time we made it up the hill so we quickly looked around the Farnese Gardens (named after the family that bought this land in the 16th century), took photos for a tall tourist and then headed to get our Covid testing done. At this point, the US was still requiring negative antigen or PCR tests for re-entry. I found it odd that people were forced to test before entering the country, but they weren’t required to wear masks on the 10+ hour flights. I’m not the one making the rules though, just abiding by them (with negative test in hand).


While in Rome it felt inappropriate not to visit the key tourist spots, so we made sure to snack in Piazza Navona, pose on the Spanish Steps (not sit though – that’s prohibited!), fill our water bottles outside the Pantheon, throw coins into the Trevi Fountain and stare in awe at the Piazza Venezia. I was most impressed by Trevi Fountain, much to my surprise. I couldn’t believe how huge it was! Neptune is incredibly detailed for his size and I can only imagine that even in the 18th century the crowds must have been huge. It’s an interesting spot too because on the one corner you have this fountain which is hundreds of years old and the other is a Benetton.


One of the older customs that some restaurants still honour is being closed on a Sunday. So, when it came time for our last supper we made our way to Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina, a place my friend Adrian had recommended, only to learn that it was not accepting new patrons and that many of the surrounding restaurants were closed. While frantically searching for an open, tasty restaurant, the tall red-headed man from the Colosseum strolled up. It turned out that he was from Amsterdam and was equally surprised by the coincidence of us running into each other again in such a large city. Fortunately for us he recommended Pizzeria da Baffetto and the Gelataria Frigidarium next door to it. We chose to eat at a restaurant in Piazza Camp de’ Fiori instead because of its phenomenal people-watching, including a very dramatic fight wherein a woman angrily crossed her arms, turned around, and then stormed off from a friend who promptly burst into tears. We couldn’t hear what transpired, but the stereotype was proven true: Italians really do talk with their hands.


Our last night ended with my sticky gelato hands meeting Dmitriy’s for a sweet slow dance on the Ponte Sisto footbridge to acoustic guitar music. We pulled ourselves away from the moonlit river and our private concert to wander the winding alleys of Trastevere, full of fun and mischief. Although it was hard to say "ciao Italia", I’m looking forward to sampling many more of its flavours in the future...


Posted by madrugada 19:11 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains beaches churches buildings food architecture hiking italy florence paradise rome beauty ancient eating amalfi tuscany cafes minori pandemic salerno amalfi_coast romantic_getaway bilingual_travel atrani maiori Comments (0)

Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.


We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.


Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.


We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.


Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.


We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).


I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.



We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.



In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.


The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!


A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.


In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.


Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).


The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.


Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.


By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.


And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!


We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!


Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Hawaiian Island Hopping

Aloha Oahu and the Big Island!

Sample Itinerary for 5 days on Oahu and 5 days on the Big Island

Day 1: Arrive in Honolulu, Oahu
- Walk around Waikiki and down Ala Wai blvd.
- Swim at Ala Moana Beach

Day 2: Honolulu
- Hike Diamond Head
- Explore historical sites: King Kamehameha’s statue, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church
- Swim and dine at Waikiki

Day 3: Honolulu and the East Coast
- Hanauma Bay
- Makapu’u hike
- Waimanalo (for lunch)
- Pearl Harbour
- Dinner in Waikiki

Day 4: North Shore and Polynesian Cultural Center
- Haleiwa (for breakfast)
- Laniakea Beach (check out the turtles!)
- Waimea Beach
- Sunset Beach and Turtle Bay Resort
- Polynesian Cultural Center (including the lu’au buffet dinner)

Day 5: Kane’ohe area and Honolulu
- Byodo-In Temple
- Lanikai Pillbox Hike
- Pali Lookout
- Ala Moana Beach to watch sunset
- Fly to the Big Island

Day 6: Kona on the Big Island
- Walk around town
- Swim at Magic Sands Beach

Day 7: Kona's Surrounding Sites
- Snorkel at Two Step Beach
- Visit Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
- Check out Kealakekua Bay

Day 8: Drive east to Hilo
- Manini'owali Beach/Kua Bay
- Lunch in Waimea
- Chasing waterfalls: Akaka, Umauma, Rainbow

Day 9: Volcanoes
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Day 10: Back west to Kona and fly home
- Botanical World Adventures near Hilo
- Maunakea
- Mountain Thunder Coffee Company near Kona
- Stroll around Kona and watch sunset at Magic Sands Beach

Where to Stay
- Honolulu, Oahu: Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki
- Kona, Big Island: Airbnb

Where to Eat
- Nanding’s Bakery near Diamond Head – the best macadamia nut cookie you’ll ever have
- Duke’s Waikiki Restaurant - great salad buffet, and right on the beach
- World Famous Hawaii HotDogs beside the State Supreme Court - hot dogs pair well with lilikoi (passionfruit) soda
- Hawaiian Island Café in Waimanalo - the gorg sandwich is amazing!
- Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa – mocha freeze was a great way to wake up
- Koa Pancake House in Kane’ohe – excellent macadamia nut sauce on the pancakes

Big Island
- Fish Hopper Restaurant in Kona -- beautiful view of the water, and tasty breakfast
- Annie's Burgers in Kealakekua -- award-winning burgers
- Humpy's in Kona -- good food, better view of the beach volleyball court right next door
- Waimea Coffee Company -- good caffeinated beverages
- Cafe Pesto -- best restaurant in Hilo, hands-down
- Papa Pa'aluo Bakery -- amazing apple bran muffins
- Island Ono Loa Grill in Kona -- creative burgers

What to Bring
- Sunscreen, dressy and casual clothing, swimsuit, flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, hiking boots/running shoes, USD cash, assistive devices, etc.

My Travel Diary
Departing from Chicago for Oahu, the Hawaiian island with roughly two-thirds of the state’s population, we had to fly through Oakland. When we arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city, we were both exhausted from our 10+ hours of flying so we promptly picked up our Alamo rental car and headed straight to the Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki. Unfortunately, the parking there was pricey, so instead we parked about 20 minutes away where the street parking was free and available. As it turns out there is free parking right beside the hotel on Ala Wai blvd., but it’s rarely available since it’s such a hot commodity. Tiredness aside, we were both really happy to feel the Hawaiian heat (yes, even at night you could feel it!).


Since we were in Hawaii for such a short time and had decided to explore two islands, our itinerary was packed. This approach is not for everyone, and if/when we go back we'll likely try for a longer trip so that we can spend more time relaxing, and also budget time for more islands: Kauai and Maui. Back to Oahu! As soon as we woke up on our first day in Honolulu, I was already pushing us both out the door to hike Diamond Head. In my rush, I forgot to bring cash – big mistake! You can’t enter Diamond Head, whether you’re walking, running, or driving, without cash. Our delay had a plus side though: it meant more time to savor the baked treats we’d purchased at Nanding’s Bakery. Once we finally got our cash (we only needed $1 USD per person to walk in!) and made it back to Diamond Head, it was already packed. We still managed to find a free parking spot on the way in, and save ourselves slightly more cash… to later spend on cookies, clearly. When you arrive at the base of the trail, you’ll notice some explanatory signs. That’s where I learned that Diamond Head was named such by explorers in the 1700s who thought the calcite crystals there were actually diamonds, but in Hawaiian it’s known as Le’ahi because its profile resembles the ahi fish.



The trail is open every day from 6 am to 6 pm, although you can’t enter after 4:30 pm. It’s only a 1.3-kilometre hike to the summit, but you’re climbing up 560 feet. The hike itself wouldn’t have been too challenging compared to what I’ve done in the past, but compounded with the lack of sleep, my underlying conditions, and heat, it caused my body to react in strange ways. I felt lightheaded, heavy chested, and nauseous to the point where I made it about 10 minutes from the top and had to turn around. I get really upset when I set goals that I don’t reach. My boyfriend kept going and showed me photos, but that’s just not the same. It seems that I turned around at a popular spot because I ended up hiking down with some other Canadians (whose accents were just as absent as mine). When I reached the bottom, I purchased one of the many pineapple products available to drown my sorrows. I also took a look in the mirror, and realized that I resembled the lobster from the Little Mermaid. Not a good look.


Keeping with the diamond theme, we drove by the Diamond Head Lighthouse, which was first built in 1899 and later rebuilt in 1917. After our brief drive southeast, we returned to Honolulu to see King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani’s respective statues, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church. The church was the first built on Oahu, in the early to mid 1800s and continues to use Hawaiian in parts of its service. It’s made of coral rock, which I found really visually appealing. The most beautiful building though, to me, was the Iolani Palace. Surprisingly, it was only finished in the late 1800s but the site had already served as residence to multiple Hawaiian kings (in another building that was later demolished), and was considered a site of worship prior to that. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, was actually imprisoned there for months after her ousting from the throne. There’s a lot to explore at the palace, and it’s open Monday to Saturday 9 am to 3:30 pm with admission set at $20 USD using an audio guide, which is available in nine languages.



Right behind the palace are huge, graceful banyan trees, a statue of Queen Liliuokalani and the Hawaiian State Capitol building, which is open to public visits. I’d recommend taking a tour if you’re interested in architecture – particularly if you like Bauhaus or 1960s architecture.


While you’re in the area it’s worth paying homage to King Kamehameha who united the islands we now call Hawaii in the early 1800s. His bronze statue stands tall at 18-feet in front of Aliiolani Hale (Hawaiian Supreme Court Building). History doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I think it’s a crucial part in understanding the current societies you’re visiting. In any case, all of these sites were in short walking distance to each other, so the only real challenge was finding parking. The consistent issue on all of our road trips – unless we’re headed to rural areas, like the Maritimes, or small-town Georgia – was definitely the availability and cost of parking.


Honolulu has a number of beautiful beaches, including Waikiki. Our favourite spots were: the beach that Maita’i Catamaran launches from and Ala Moana Beach. Both had beautiful views, but the Ala Moana Beach definitely had less available space when evening came as it turned into a prop for engagement photos. In fact, one evening the shoreline was covered almost entirely in engagement photoshoots as about six couples were lined up in a row for their “unique” photos.



I understand the hesitation in visiting Waikiki because of all the crowds, but I actually enjoyed the strip. Then again, I like Vegas, so what do I know? As we were walking toward Waikiki for the first time, we were caught off guard by the number of SWAT team vehicles and men with machine guns hanging out in front of a hotel. What further confounded us, was that tourists were still freely milling about… If there were an emergency, wouldn’t the area be cordoned off? Or are Hawaiians just that laid back? As it happens, we had accidentally walked onto the set of Hawaii Five-O. Feeling pretty VIP after that, we got ourselves a fancy corner seat at Duke’s Waikiki and ate our hearts out with my boyfriend’s Hawaiian friend. After the feast, we took a stroll past the Moana Hotel, which was Waikiki’s first hotel (opened in 1901), and savoured all the Christmas festivities in the outdoor malls and streets. The beauty of a busy area like Waikiki is that there are always events happening – from live quilting lessons to matcha tastings in the Japanese Market to ukulele concerts on the streets. From the get-go, Honolulu had me feeling all the aloha.


Honolulu was great, but our favourite moments were in the southeast and north of the island. We were happy to explore the more rural areas of Oahu. We drove east along the H1 exploring all the stops we could along the way, including a seaside park where my boyfriend tested his Tarzan skills by climbing a tree. We also drove past Hanauma Bay, Halona Blow Hole, and Sandy Beach Park. Parking was fairly tough along the way because there was so much tourism. We were still able to stop a few times to take brief strolls by the water and climb the chunky rocks. The most stunning views, hands-down, were at Makapu’u Point. We arrived on a beautiful day, so we could see 26 miles across the Kaiwi Channel to the island of Moloka’i. Roughly 20 000 years ago, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’dawe were a single island when sea level was lower. Nowadays humpback whales are able to swim through the channel between November and April. Anyway, the hike itself was about 1.5 miles with no shade, restrooms or water but it was paved which means it’s still a good place to visit on a rainy day. Apparently the trail (before it was paved) was made in 1909 for mules/horses to reach the previous lighthouse property. As is the norm, the lighthouse was automated in the 1970s meaning that the families who lived there had to leave. It’s amazing when you think about how the places you visit have shifted in time and place – from the geological changes, to the human footprints.


Driving around Oahu was breathtaking, from the seaside views to the journey through the Ko’olau Mountain Range which stood like noble green gatekeepers bowing for us to travel through. I also enjoyed our drive through the interior, past the Dole pineapple plantation (which was closed, unfortunately!) up to Haleiwa. Driving around listening to local radio was fascinating – from all the casual conversation about Filipinos (I'm not sure why?) to the ongoing pop music obsession with “Hot Girl Bummer”. It felt like the whole island was a tight community, which wouldn’t be surprising given the size. Although, when we delved a bit deeper we found out that there is some resentment toward perceived foreigners; so, when we saw the Hawaiian flags flying upside down, we came to understood it’s a form of visual protest.


The North Shore is a very different vibe. It was even more relaxed, if that’s humanly possible. We loved watching the massive waves crashing into the land, but unfortunately didn’t have many opportunities to hike because of the windy, rainy weather. We stopped briefly at Laniakea Beach where we sought out giant turtles. Sadly, we saw none but later on the Big Island my boyfriend was lucky enough to swim with one at the Magic Sands Beach. Next, we jumped out at Kawela Bay Beach Park to visit the secluded beach and incidentally stumbled upon huge banyan trees that were used in scenes from the TV show “Lost”. Right next door is the Turtle Bay Resort where “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was filmed, so we continued our Hollywood tour. To be honest, it didn’t seem worth the cost to stay there so I’m glad we just paparazzi’d and left. The natural beauty is so bountiful that you don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to stay at an exclusive resort in order to soak up the scenery.


Some of the strangest experiences we had on this entire trip were at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) in Laie on the northeast coast of Oahu. The city’s history is interesting because it was a sanctuary for fugitives until the early 1800s. Since the 1860s it’s become the Hawaiian Mecca for Mormons. Unbeknownst to me when I purchased our tickets, the PCC is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. They've stated that the profits all go to daily operations and the student-employees from Brigham Young University (the campus is right next door). I wasn’t aware of any of this when I purchased tickets – all I knew was that the prices were high ($123 USD each), but the reviews were excellent. When we first arrived, we felt like we’d hit Polynesian Disneyworld – cultural presentations, activities, and a lu’au! We set out to learn more about Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) before the 4pm lu’au began. We started at the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which was an eye-opener into the traumatic effects of concussions on these football players, including suicide. We then moved onto lighter things, by engaging in a ukulele lesson. I’ve been meaning to learn to play for years, so I really appreciated the introductory lesson. I’ve committed to buying one before 2021. There were plentiful activities, including a canoe ride through the grounds where we learned about patterns of migration through the islands and started learning some local lingo. I’m a much better linguist than spear thrower, as we learned in Tonga. We also tragically learned that I’m unable to board a Tongan outrigger canoe without dropping my phone in the murky Polynesian lagoon. A man reached in quickly and grabbed it for me but it was soaked by that point. I can’t pretend that I didn’t mope about it; all my photos were on there, not to mention my point of contact with others around the world through social media, etc. We still continued on our canoe ride but it all felt like a blur until we hit the lu’au where I was given a real orchid lei, which made me feel ok… until I started having terrible allergic reactions to it! It turns out a small percentage of the population has allergies to orchid sap. Count me in.


The most enjoyable games at the PCC were definitely from the Maori area. We played Maui Matau, which is a stick game requiring rapid hand-eye coordination and an astute ability to predict others’ behaviour. We also really enjoyed the Titi Torea game. After I deemed myself the big winner, we agreed to get matching Fiji warrior (temporary) tattoos. We also ate some celebratory Tahitian coconut bread, which was made in the ground. Surprisingly, it was even better than the lu'au food - although that's not saying much. I was fairly disappointed by the lu'au meal, but the people were very helpful – bringing me rice in a Ziploc bag to help my battered, drowned phone recover. The show itself was wonderful. We learned all about Queen Lili’uokalani, the last ruling monarch and only sovereign queen of Hawaii (who also happened to be a skilled composer!). She ruled until 1893 when the US overthrew the monarchy, and she was then placed under house arrest. This gave us greater context for why there’s still ongoing contempt of “foreign interference” for some people there.


Speaking of interference, it became clear fairly early on that the cultures being shared were more than just Polynesian when all the staff there kept asking if we’d yet visited the Brigham Young University campus, or seen the Mormon temple. While staff were wandering the audience at shows trying to convince people to go on a Hawaiian mission settlement tour, we just didn’t engage. We just consistently shut down any of the missionary talk, in favour of questions about the Polynesian islands instead. It’s neither here nor there really because the place was fascinating, but if you’re not interested in supporting the Mormon church then you should probably be aware of who’s running PCC. We were happy to enjoy the PCC in our way, sticking to ourselves, and enjoying the entertainment. We had a lot of fun watching the Huki Canoe Celebration, which showed clothing and dances from all the islands. Later, we appreciated the skills it took to perform the Ha: Breath of Life show. All the seats had fairly good views, but you’d probably need to reach out in advance if you have accessibility needs. The show had incredible pyro displays, like men even sitting on fire! The music was great too. Although I was irritated at myself for breaking my phone, it probably made me more present in enjoying the shows. There’s often a silver lining to frustrating situations…


The next day we explored the area around Kane’ohe, including the Byodo-In Temple. It’s located in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains. The Temple was established in 1968 to commemorate 100 years since the Japanese landed in Hawaii, and it’s modeled after the 950-year-old original temple in Uji, Japan. Unlike the PCC, there was no one actively trying to convince you about anything regarding their religion, so I felt more comfortable initiating engagement with an elderly gentleman who prays there. I had used the last of my cash to get us into the temple grounds, so we couldn’t make any purchases in the restaurant on the grounds, but we built up a bit of an appetite walking the grounds (and by that, I mean following the black swans around).


We were relieved to find out there was no cost to do the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, although I hadn’t expected it to be as rugged as it was. It had started drizzling by the time we arrived, so I was confused about whether to put on sunscreen, bug spray (not necessary on Oahu), or take an umbrella. It ended up being an uncomfortable, but beautiful hike. It was very steep at the beginning with no clear path, and the drizzle had made the path slippery. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long but the skies broke open with fury. We beat the windy assault to make it all the way to the top. We were then blown away by the rich colours of the water, grass, and sky. Once we made it to the top, the challenge felt worth it: my concerns about what happened at Diamond Head, the lack of infrastructure, the bad weather – it drifted away with the waves. The reason it’s called the “pillbox” hike is because at the top there’s a concrete pillbox, which soldiers used to hide in to watch for incoming enemies during the war. I'm not sure how anyone could focus on approaching enemies with such gorgeous views.


I found myself inappropriately dressed when we stopped at the Pali Lookout. Due to high winds, my loose t-shirt became a liability. Every two minutes the wind would hit and my hair would attack my face, while the t-shirt would fly up like it was trying to escape this world. Suffice it to say, the pretty views couldn’t keep me away from the car for very long. The expensive parking also helped keep me anchored to my car seat because we decided to leave almost as soon as we came. The only photos we got were utterly ridiculous, but we still enjoyed ourselves regardless. If you have accessibility issues, Pali is a good option because you can just park and then the views are a couple of minutes away (on paved ground), there’s no hiking required.


Before leaving Oahu, I’d recommend taking time to pay respects at the Pearl Harbour Visitor Center, which also serves as a memorial site. I will warn that it can be tricky to secure tickets because it’s done online and it’s a matter of first come first serve. The moral of the story: check early and be vigilant! There are multiple options, and we chose the free one – the USS Arizona Memorial. It entailed a 75 minute program with film and boat trip to the memorial. The memorial itself was built on top of the shipwreck of the USS Arizona, which made it eerie but meaningful. It’s simple and calming: white rectangular blocks with wide slits on top and at both sides, where it also sags; it’s higher on both ends to represent victory sandwiching the sagging defeat of lives lost in the middle. It was powerful visiting the memorial for many reasons, including the constant stream of leaking oil which reminds us of the ongoing impact of the previous devastation. I wasn’t surprised to hear that many survivors of the attacks on Pearl Harbour on that fateful day of December 7, 1941, felt guilt in the aftermath because I think that's a common response to tragedy; I was surprised that many of them have been cremated with their lost brethren. It turned out that a number of ships were destroyed that day, and over 2400 people were killed – many of whom remain lost in the waters below. The site also served to educate people by explaining the history of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, and how it led to America’s involvement in World War II. In fact, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour to reduce any potential challenges to their own intentions of taking over Southeast Asia, e.g. The Philippines. Of course, there are many theories about how things played out – many centered on the fact that Japanese planes (forming the largest aircraft carrier strike ever up until 1941) were able to attack in spite of active Hawaiian radar monitoring the airs, and also sail their fleet over 4 000 miles undetected. In some ways visiting Pearl Harbour becomes an academic exercise in studying political and military strategy, historical context, and current culture; but, it’s still a site of great loss and conduct should reflect that.


For me, it’s important to reflect on how the tragedy impacts our individual and collective actions nowadays. How do we memorialize? How do we identify as communities and nations? How do we protect our most vulnerable? And how do we come to share the narrative of caring, in spite of political difference? Overall, Oahu felt like paradise. We were able to learn about Hawaiian history and current culture, explore incredible hikes and take in beautiful scenery, eat all the macadamia nuts we never knew we needed, and soak up the sun. I kept wondering why we don’t live there, but then I realized the fatal flaw: the sense of isolation would surround me. It was hard for me living on an island on the west coast of Canada, and I was relatively close to the mainland (I could do a day trip, if needed!) – knowing myself, I don’t think I could handle being such a distant flight away from family and friends. Travel helps you push yourself, but also makes you realize your limits.


Travel between Hawaiian islands isn't as cheap as I expected, but the diversity of experiences is great. As soon as we arrived on the Big Island, we realized that it would be a much more rural experience than Oahu. The lack of light meant that it was slightly challenging finding our Airbnb, but once we did arrive we were happy with how private and spacious it seemed. At the end of the day, each couple is different but I like to have as much alone time as possible with my boyfriend on our trips given that we're already in a long-distance relationship which means limited face-to-face. It's been wonderful traveling with him because we like to do similar things: physical activity, cultural exercises, and delicious dining. As usual, we started our time in Kona at a restaurant. We chose Fishhopper because they had a nice view of the water and a good selection of food. The guava jam turned out to be terrific! I love visiting tropical destinations because the food reminds me of my family, and the meals we would have when visiting them in South Africa. Travel is always about taste.


Kona is the big city on the Big Island apparently, but its population only sits at about 15 000 people according to locals we spoke with and it can't compare in size to Honolulu which is home to around 70% of Hawaii's total population. Thinking Honolulu is like all of Hawaii would be a problem though. It's like considering Toronto representative of Ontario, or Canada - it's not, in the slightest. We really enjoyed Honolulu, but we were also happy to see the smaller towns and more recent volcanic scenery. That being said, my boyfriend loves the beach. So when our local host suggested Magic Sands Beach, we were happy to follow his advice. We had a lot of fun frolicking in the waves, but I don't enjoy turning into a prune quite so much. Unfortunately, my aversion to wrinkles meant that I missed the giant sea turtle that was swimming by us in search of Nemo. One girl screamed and ran out of the water. According to my boyfriend, the turtle was giant and looked prehistoric, so I can understand why she ran for land. I wouldn't be interested in coming face to face with Jurassic World either.


The other beach we enjoyed was called Two Step, although it's more of a snorkeling spot than anything else. My boyfriend actually borrowed snorkel gear from our hosts and so he was able to see the underwater world surrounding us. Instead, I observed the social dynamics surrounding me. Suffice it to say, there was blood, gore, and drama. Literally, there was a woman with a bloody hand. It turned out she had stuck her hand flat onto a sea urchin, and it was full of black spikes and dropping blood. Let this be a lesson to anyone who's visiting that area, please be aware of where you stick your hands. In fact, that's a good life lesson overall! Just south of that site is Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, which was a place of refuge and royal grounds. It also functions as a cemetery of sorts as 23 chiefs are buried there. Hawaiian islands have been populated since around 900 - 1100 CE and people continued back and forthing to Tahiti til the 1400s when chiefdoms flourished on the islands. We continued our history tour by visiting Kealakekua Bay where James Cook first had contact with Hawaiians in 1779. After all the learning, we had to do some eating so we conducted a burger tour around Kona. As a former vegetarian, I have to admit that burgers were one of the few things I missed, and I definitely made up for lost time while in Hawaii.


We went north of Kona to visit Kua Bay and Manini'owali White-Sands Beach. I was really touched seeing a woman use her hands and arms to move herself to avoid the waves because she had no control of her feet and legs. It was great that she was able to enjoy that beach on her own terms. Traveling in spite of chronic illness or accessibility needs can be challenging, but it's so important to remember that modifying an experience doesn't diminish it. I lose sight of that myself sometimes, like when I can't complete a hike (i.e. Diamond Head) I get really angry at my limitations but in those moments I forget my abilities. Anyway, we continued east to Waimea where we had a coffee stop before continuing east to get to the Umauma Falls near Hilo. The area wasn't well-maintained, but you still have to pay an admission fee. I enjoyed the scenery so much that we kept chasing waterfalls. We were going against destiny though, and the rains started coming down hard to halt us. We made it to Akaka Falls, but couldn't get out of the car due to the rain storms. We shouldn't have been surprised though because Hilo is on the wetter side of the Big Island, and we were visiting during the wet season. The only thing dry was our sense of humour.



I found Hilo very troubling. It had more dilapidated buildings, and a very visible problem with drug-use and lack of shelter. Hawaii is a study in contrasts: some of the most gorgeous scenery (and beautiful houses) I've ever been privileged enough to visit, but also some deep poverty. It turns out that much of the poverty is concentrated in the Hilo area. There is an active campaign to prevent drug abuse with slogans like "smoke salmon, not drugs". I can't really comment further given that I'm not part of the community. I can say that I felt very lucky to be visiting and I tried to really make the most of it, and support local businesses all over. I also loved the scenery close to Hilo, which included black sands beaches, waterfalls, and botanic gardens. Waterfalls really ground me: I find peace watching their powerful fall. My favourite waterfalls in the area were probably Rainbow Falls. The waterfalls were supercharged, but there weren't too many colours - just murky brown. I loved the shrubbery and trees though. It all felt like we had walked into a magical kingdom; all that was missing were the talking animals.



Our day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continued in the otherworldly vein. The rock formations, and colours were so unbelievable they felt like they were literally out of this world. The park has over 150 miles of trails and you can go as high as the Kilauea Summit (at 4000 feet). We started at the most popular trail: Kilauea Iki Crater. It was about 4 miles and took just over 2 hours with photo stops, of course. We actually did it "backwards" because we ascended the 400 feet on the stairs rather than the graded slopes. If you're interested in doing it that way, you start by going left from the parking lot instead of right. We had beautiful solitude for the first quarter of our hike with views of the lava fields from the rainforest. The lava spewed in 1959, but some areas still seem fresher than others. It was amazing to see how the ground has cracked yet vegetation has sprouted from it. The Kilauea caldera was beside us and includes lava flows from 1924 (and even before) until 1982. We couldn't really see it from our hike, but drove by later on the Crater Rim Drive and saw all the steam vents. It felt like the earth was opening up to prove its power. There's an angry boiling world below us, and occasionally the cracks reveal its potency. Honestly, the black cracked ground reminded me of Toronto's roads: although, I'm not sure which actually has more potholes.


We drove down Chain of Craters road about 20 miles to get to the Holei Sea Arch, which reminded us of the Hopewell Rocks we saw months before in New Brunswick. It costs $25 USD to enter the park, and it's all well worth it because the parking is included as well as a useful map, and the roads are well-maintained. The lava flow sites from the 1970s along the way and the 1.4 mile hike at Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs allowed us to really get a feel for how the area has changed over time. You can also look to the mountains and see the black, brown, green, and grey which is like a map for how lava flows have changed the landscape over time. If we had been there 30 years before or if we visit again 30 years from now, it'll be a different outlook altogether. The petroglyphs highlighted how cultures preserve themselves and their legacies over time. In the etchings we saw people and tiny circles, which indicated where placenta and umbilical cords were buried to represent birth and life. It's interesting how many cultures use imagery to represent their most sacred stories. It's amazing how the images weren't covered in lava flows when just 1 mile west all the lava from the 1970s covered the grounds. The most recent eruption was in 2018 and drastically changed the landscape of the park - shutting down the lava tube and museum. It also ended up destroying 700 homes nearby, creating a new black sand beach too. Most importantly, the visitor center is still open. We found many useful resources there. They also confirmed that there are no longer dangerous sulfur dioxide gases in the environment. I wonder if all of the 400 national parks in Hawaii are as well-run.

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Although we both preferred Oahu, we really did appreciate the geology and also the flora on the Big Island. On our last day there we visited Botanical World Adventures where I spotted the incredible Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree. I've never seen such a colourful tree in my life; it almost looked like an homage to the 80s with its green and orange neon hues. The grounds were really large so we were also able to admire all kinds of flowers and trees. We also saw more waterfalls. I'm starting to think Hawaii may be called the Rainbow Nation because there are so many waterfalls that play backdrop to the rainbows above them. Even the spiders in Hawaii were colourful; which made it easier to spot them, and then promptly run in the opposite direction. Apparently the huge spider with yellow markings that we saw a few times wasn't actually poisonous, but still scary for me. I really appreciated that Hawaii brings paradise without the trouble: no bears or giant cats to beware of, and even the snakes and spiders are generally fine. This was a far cry from our recent trip to Costa Rica where every day I learned about a new predator: from jaguars to tiny bullet ants, whose bite makes you feel like you've been shot.


There's an incredible amount of spirituality and symbolism on the Big Island. We happened to visit while there were protests around the mountain, Maunakea. I had heard about the protests and seen the signs as we drove through Oahu and the Big Island saying "Ku Kia'i Mauna/We are Maunakea". I had even followed the movement online. I still didn't really grasp the full significance of more development on this sacred site until we drove by and saw it. It's a huge area, and just driving through you feel the weight of its significance. In fact, it's earth's tallest mountain - yes, it's taller than Everest - but so much of it is submerged below water that you wouldn't realize its height from base to summit. It's also already home to thirteen telescopes (built on the mountain), and even an army base. This wasn't supposed to happen though. As the land is very meaningful to Native Hawaiians - it's considered the center of the universe - it was supposed to be held "in trust" for them after Hawaii's Queen was overthrown. The land was later leased to the University of Hawaii which was supposed to request approval before developing it, but instead they went ahead and built multiple observatories. It's a familiar narrative: colonized peoples losing sacred lands to development. It's an ongoing struggle in Canada too - especially when there's discussion about more pipeline development. In this case, there's an alternative option for development. Apparently the project could be built in Spain with similar scientific results.


On a less political note, after our Costa Rican adventure we both became curious to learn more about coffee so when we returned to Kona we visited the Mountain Thunder Coffee Company. We learned about the history of Kona coffee, and also enjoyed plentiful taste tests. Their grounds weren't as large as I anticipated, and each tree only produces about 1 to 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee per annum so surrounding farms actually bring their crops too. I also hadn't realized how much of the raw coffee beans aren't even viable. In order to sort the beans, they first look at size and weight before moving on to colour. The tour consisted of us and one other couple: the other man and I ended up throwing a lot of questions at the very knowledgeable guide. We even got into a discussion about insurance policies for business near volcanoes. Interesting stuff! The guide's mom is Japanese, so she also made a point of telling us about how the Kona coffee industry wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for hardworking Japanese people who committed to it flourishing. Hawaii's largest ethnic group is people of Asian descent, even greater than people of Native Hawaiian background, so I wasn't surprised to learn about the influence of the Japanese community on the Big Island.


Before leaving the Big Island, we made sure to spend more time strolling by the water and soaking up the sun (away from the coffee plantation's cloud forest base). We also had to have another burger because they had just been so delicious everywhere we went! We followed that up with a dole whip, which is an absolute must if you're in Hawaii. I hadn't ever tried pineapple flavoured soft serve ice cream before, but I really hope I get to try it again one day! I'm glad our final memories in Hawaii were so peaceful and happy because our return flight was an absolute nightmare. You have to take the bad with the good, I guess. We flew without interruption to Seattle, but then returning to Chicago we hit scary windstorms. In fact, a number of flights had been grounded and I'm not sure why ours wasn't. A high wind warning was in effect, and it seems really irresponsible for them to have continued flying even though they already had that information before taking off in Seattle. The wind gusts got up to 60 miles per hour, which caused turbulence like I've never experienced. Even once the plane had landed, the winds were so bad that the plane was being rocked side to side. I got through three airline sickness bags, and felt absolutely humiliated when I even ended up throwing up on myself a bit too. Thankfully, my boyfriend was really supportive and quick-thinking. He asked the flight attendants for a cloth for my head, and also some water so that I wouldn't get too dehydrated. He also got them to bring a wheelchair because I actually lost feeling in my feet. I've had motion sickness my entire life, and it can legitimately be debilitating but this quite possibly was the worst experience with it that I've ever had - I had even take tablets before the flight, as always! I was incredibly disappointed to find out that there was no first aid area in the airport where I could lie down in the dark - instead we were told to just sit in a boarding area until I felt well enough to leave, at which point an attendant could come wheel me out. After some sips of Gatorade, and many dirty looks (no, motion sickness is not contagious!), we were finally able to leave the airport. Worst ending to the best vacation. All I can say is, what a trip!


Posted by madrugada 11:27 Archived in USA Tagged beaches ocean hiking scenery palm_trees paradise wilderness tropical forest beauty oahu hawaii coffee botanical_gardens honolulu waikiki pineapple big_island aloha island_hopping rainbow_eucalyptus romantic_getaway lush_greenery Comments (0)

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