The best Hawaii visit ever

For years, we have searched for the right formula for a trip to Hawaii.  Hawaii is a tough destination to sell to folks living on the west coast.  By the time they reach retirement, generally they have visited the islands once or twice or 27 times.  Which means standard attractions like Pearl Harbor, the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Fern Grotto and Volcanoes Nat’l Park aren’t quite as attractive to them.  Been there, done that, is the vibe I got from our travelers.  But now we have something better in Hawaii, and will for future years.

So when we planned our tour to Hawaii this season, I set out to find something truly unusual and different to share.  I wanted to make the islands, their people and their culture, come to life.  I wanted the people who traveled to our 50th state with Sports Leisure to feel like they had seen and done things others had not.

Our itinerary featured three islands (in order) – Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island of Hawaii.  On Kauai, we stayed at the Marriott, a beautiful hotel on the beach next to the airport, just completing a multi-million dollar renovation.  There are still a few construction barriers scattered about, as the finishing touches are applied.  It served our needs well and will be a magnificent retreat when it’s finished (in time for next year’s visit).  We let “the garden isle” live up to its name, by visiting a botanical garden where we were allowed to touch, taste and smell the plants and foliage.  Lunch at the beautiful new St. Regis (formerly the Sheraton) at Princeville was featured, along with a tour of a new island agricultural attraction, a chocolate farm.  We tasted ten gourmet chocolates (like you’d taste and rate fine wine) and decided which best fit our palates.

On Oahu, we made the Hilton Hawaiian Village our home.  While the resort offers just about everything you could possibly desire, their attention to service and detail has been lacking the last couple of visits.  We will likely choose a different home in Waikiki in the future.  A highlight of our stay on the island was a visit to the newly reopened Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum.  This is truly one of the most beautiful buildings in the United States, with a magnificent interior.  A private docent-led led took us on a path of Hawaiian kings and their history for an hour.  Fascinating.

A bus ride to the west side of Oahu brought is to the Star Cruises dock, where we embarked on an amazing dolphin cruise.  No, not in the water with the animals, but having them swim within 10-15 feet of the boat, spinning and dancing in the water.  What an amazing sight.  A tour of historic Iolani Palace was also on the agenda and well worth the $20 admission price.  This is a sacred yet controversial place to the Hawaiian people and the story of how it fits into island history is worth hearing.

Our final destination was the Big Island, beginning with a stop for a burger at Drysdale’s Restaurant near Kailua.  Named after the former Dodger baseball star, the establishment serves hamburgers that are unbelievable, with onion rings to match.   The Marriott Waikoloa was our home for two nights, a beautiful resort on the edge of the ocean.

Our days were filled with two cultural and historical lifeseeing trips.  We learned of sacred religious spots dating to the days of King Kamehameha and stopped in the tiny town of Hawi, waaaayyyy off the beaten track.

Jim Reddecopp and his lovely wife Tracy, the owners of Hawaiian Vanilla Company, were our hosts on the last full day of our stay.  Lunch at the farm and a tour of the growing greenhouses (Did you know every single vanilla blossom has to be pollinated by hand?) was tasty and educational.  Jim’s kids are home-schooled and assist with the lunch service.  It’s a nice touch and a wonderful meal.  Visits to a mushroom and a tea farm rounded out the last day.  After an overnight in Hilo, we were on our way home.

I left Hawaii knowing that after 28 years of taking people to the islands, we had finally found an itinerary that took people away from the main tourist attractions and helped them understand the islands better.  This itinerary will return in November of both 2010 and 2011, because it truly is the best way to experience paradise.  And so it goes…

P.S. – Some will wonder why Maui wasn’t on our list.  No special reason, except for our feelings that there are more “undiscovered” things to see and do on the other three islands.  In addition, Maui tends to be more expensive for accommodations and suffer from more traffic issues, which weighed in our decision.

Vermont won’t be the same without Ted

I first met Ted Bridges at a tourism symposium in 1999.  I was the speaker, talking to a gathering of small, tourism-based businesses in Vermont and New Hampshire about attracting more tour groups to their shops, restaurants and hotels.  At one point in my presentation, I spoke of the importance of helping a tour operator create a unique experience for his or her travelers and how if you could assist in the creation of that experience, by providing names and contacts and even facilitating the added events yourself, you would win our hearts and our business.  Ted worked for the Cortina Inn at the time, and when the opportunity came to share your own creations with the audience, it was obvious to me that Ted “got it.”  He had worked with enough tour groups to know what made them tick.  He knew a cooking demonstration for the ladies and a cigar symposium for the men was a great way to occupy a lazy New England fall afternoon.  He knew the value of a tour operator’s business and how to make a lasting positive impression.

Ted was recovering from double bypass surgery when a staph infection popped up out of nowhere and within a week’s time, took his life.  And now the tourism industry has been robbed of one of its most cheerful faces, one of its biggest supporters.

Ted was like many people who make a living in the tourism industry.  He had a tremendous passion for his work.  You wanted your group to stay with Ted, because whether it was the Cortina Inn, or the Holiday Inn in Rutland, Vermont, where he had hung his hat in recent years; you knew Ted would take care of your people.  Every time you saw him, you knew you could pick his brain for ideas, little tidbits of information that might lead to a great experience for your travelers.

Farewell Ted Bridges.  You have left us far too soon.  There were itineraries still to build and wine yet to be tasted.  Cigars will go unsmoked and culinary creations unexplained in your absence.  For when God created you Ted, he broke the mold.  I was privileged to know you, to share a few laughs and a few short moments with you through the years.  They are memories I will cherish.  Farewell, my friend.  And so it goes…

New York’s Nooks and Crannies

After dozens of visits to New York, you would think the city would lose some of its excitement, it’s luster.  Not for me.  Every trip yields something I hadn’t discovered on a previous trip.  This week’s Thanksgiving in New York trip is no exception.  Sitting outside of Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving afternoon, while my charges are inside hearing Christmas melodies in one of the world’s finest auditoriums, is a good time to share my latest discoveries.

I’ve long been a lover of comfort food.  Iceberg lettuce is way more appealing than “field greens,” biscuits and gravy beat eggs benedict for breakfast any day of the week.  Foo-foo offerings are just not my style.

One of the beauties of the Big Apple is its incredible variety of eateries.  Nearly 14,000 in Manhattan alone at last count.  But one of the best has just opened near our favorite hotel, the Hilton Times Square.  “Schnipper’s” is on the 41st St. at 8th Ave., just across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  They proudly boast it is their only location, and they’ve served way under a billion (according to the sign on the wall).  But where else in New York City could you get a sloppy joe, served on a warm and lightly toasted homemade bun, leaking properly out of both sides?  The onion rings were thick sliced and deep fried and Chris’ burger elicited nothing but moans of delight from his overstuffed mouth for a full five minutes.

There are plenty of upscale places in NYC to dine.  Sardi’s in the theater district is a favorite of mine, with great crab cakes, even out of season.  Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington once ate before anyone ever thought of Wall Street, has the best pot roast you’ll ever cut with a fork.  And the homemade ice cream at the Delegate’s Dining Room at the United Nations is a true culinary delight.

But next time I want a burger, or a sloppy joe that reminds me of the ones mom made when I was a kid, I’ll think of Schnipper’s on 41st St.  Inexpensive, great service and clean as a whistle.  But don’t tell everyone, because they only have the one location.  Under a billion served.  And so it goes…