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.

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…

Following the Paths of the Presidents

Hello from Abilene, Kansas, on the prairies of America’s Heartland.  This is the small hamlet in which President Dwight David Eisenhower grew up, home of his presidential library and museum and the final resting place for him and his wife, Mamie.  It is the most delightful little town, looking much like it did 50 years ago, when it’s favorite son served two terms as president.  Indeed, for two decades, “Ike” played a major role in shaping the history of our country.  Coming here and meeting the people of Abilene leaves with you the impression that he was a good and decent man, with strong values and a strong sense of God and country.

This is the fourth and final stop on our week-long adventure, which took us first to Austin, which served as our headquarters for three nights while we visited the LBJ Ranch to the west, President Johnson’s Library and Museum in Austin, and George H.W. Bush’s Library in nearby College Station, east of Austin.  Both were a treat.  This trip is not about politics, it’s about learning more about the men (and hopefully someday the women) who led our country.  The Bush facility was my personal favorite of the two, although LBJ’s ranch gave you a true feel for what the man was about.

Just before driving the three hours to Abilene today, we spent two nights in Independence.  This once small Missouri town is the home of Harry Truman.  During our stay, we “met” Harry.  Actually, Harry would be 125 years old if he were alive today, so his role is played by Mr. Niel Johnson.  At 78, he bears a remarkable physical resemblance to our 33rd president.  In fact, as he led us around “his” hometown, explaining how he met his wife Bess, showing us his childhood haunts, you felt as though you had met the president himself.  In 30 years of traveling around this great land, I cannot remember anyone creating such an incredible image of a historical figure.  Niel only dons his hat and steps on for tour coaches and special events, so individual visitors will never know of his talents.  But our travelers to Independence came away richer for having met him, and through him learned about a remarkably regular man who changed the face of history by his actions, and then came back to the small Missouri town that was his home and resumed his life.  It is said that when his term ended, President Truman and his wife Bess got in their car and drove out of Washington, boarding a train and arriving in Independence the way he had left, whistle stopping his way home, just as he had used the same route to the White House.

We have had a splendid time on this trip, a small band of dedicated and personable travelers, all dedicated to having a great time and learning along the way. Wish you were here.  And so it goes…

Pop’s, Rocks and Corn Dogs on Route 66

There is a certain beauty to retracing your roots, which is exactly what I did this past week, with a ride down part of the Main Street of America, Route 66. In preparation for our journey along the old highway next October, staffer Ryan Quinn and I flew to Oklahoma City to backtrack to Chicago. It’s my 13th journey down the old highway so it feels like going home. This is particularly interesting section of the old highway, with plenty of characters and attractions to visit en route.

First stop out of Oklahoma City is Pops. Open for two years now, it’s quickly become a modern icon of the highway. Like the name says, it’s a place to buy pop. Soda pop that is. Soft drinks in modern lingo I guess. At Pops, you’ll find every different kind of soda you can possibly imagine. Ryan and I each filled a customized six pack with goodies. Flavors like Marion Berry, Black Cherry Crème and Watermelon made my list, while Ryan, a connoisseur of Root Beer, found several different brands to sample. While Pops also serves burgers and sandwiches, I can’t imagine why you’d actually go there to eat. The food might be delicious, but the selection of “sody pop” (as grandma used to call it) just can’t be beat.

About 30 minutes down the road, past the Round Barn on the old highway, you’ll enter Stroud. This small hamlet is the home of The Rock Café. It’s been a favorite of mine since our first scouting trip back in 1995. But it’s a new day at “the rock.” You see, about a year-and-a-half ago, the restaurant burned to the ground, except for the rock facade that is. In a bit of good fortune, the burning building collapsed on top of (thereby saving) the old grill, which had been adding a special flavor to burgers for decades. But proprietor Dawn Welch refused to let The Rock go away. She has rebuilt a new restaurant, incorporating the curios of Route 66 with the best of modern day conveniences. The Rock has a new look, with about 20 more seats, but still lots of history lining its walls.

I might add that the pulled pork and brisket sandwiches were superb. It was nice to spend a little time catching up with an old friend on the highway, and hearing from Dawn the story of the fire and the decision to rebuild a landmark.

On through Oklahoma we traveled. The new Hard Rock Hotel in Catoosa (near Tulsa) served as our home for a night. Our travelers will stay there two nights on our trip next October. What a beautiful hotel, with several wonderful restaurants, a tasty buffet and of curse, the chance to tempt lady luck. Because dice and wheel games are against the laws of the state, the hotel’s owner have created a unique way to play craps and roulette using a unique deck of cards.

We checked in with Scott Nelson at the historic Eisler Brothers store in Riverton, saw the Rainbow Bridge in Baxter Springs, both in the tiny strip of the old highway that nips the corner of Kansas. Time was our enemy as we raced across Missouri, stopping only to sample the heavenly concoction called frozen custard at Ted Drewes in St. Louis. Forget ice cream, because there is nothing on earth like Ted Drewes custard. I recommend blueberries mixed in…How can anything taste that good?

Finally, on the third afternoon of our journey, we stopped in Springfield, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. But old Abe’s landmarks were not our purpose on this day. You see, Ryan loves corn dogs and it just so happens that the place where the corn dog was invented…yep, right there in Springfield at the Cozy Dog Café. After a Corn Dog fill up (the fries are the best at the Cozy Dog, REAL potatoes), we were happily on our way to Chicago stomachs and arteries full of dogs and fries.

There’s nothing like a trip on The Mother Road to rekindle your traveling spirit. It’s the original off-the-beaten-track destination. And it still brings a smile to by face, stopping off to see old friends like Dawn at The Rock Café, Sue at The Cozy Dog and Jeffrey at the Hard Rock. Because there’s nothing quite like the spirit of the old road. It’s alive and well, you just have to get out and see it. We’ll travel Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica (or Oklahoma City, your choice) next October. There isn’t a finer adventure to be found anywhere. And so it goes…

On the road in search of Mystery (and discovery)…

california - born in the usa mystery tourAs I return from another successful “scouting trip” across this great land, I come home with the knowledge that another of our popular Mystery Tours is going to be a big hit with our more adventurous travelers. For the past five days, two of us (Ryan Quinn, the man who is redesigning our web site and updating it to be as user-friendly as possible, served as navigator) have wound our way through two states, in search of the perfect additions to our spring Mystery Tour, Born in the USA.

We found some wonderful places to eat, things to see, places to discover. But since it’s a mystery tour, I can’t tell you about them. At least not completely. But what if you could spend a week on the road (ok, technically 8 days) and learn how things are made, how our country grew to take it’s place in the world, and be treated to a variety of cultural and fun experiences along the way? What if I told you you would stay in one of the finest and most exclusive resorts in the country, enjoy the chance to sample wonderful foods and see things you never knew existed? Would that spark your interest?

Mystery Tours are an interesting concept. Give someone a lot of your hard-earned money, and trust them to take you someplace fun and interesting. We’ve been offering these trips for 27 years. They are our most popular travel product. Our travelers trust us to come up with “never-visited-before-places” all across the country. Born in the USA, at the end of April, is no exception. Take the plunge and discover mystery touring. You missed Lewis and Clark’s expedition, you didn’t sail with Columbus, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go in search of discovery…

Welcome to Abilene, Kansas, home of President Eisenhower and Glenda, The Good Witch

Hello from The Land of Oz, also known as the state of Kansas. While my father lives in a Kansas City suburb on the Kansas side of the border, and our Route 66 tours cut through a tiny southeastern corner of the state; I confess my travels here have been limited. My loss has become my gain.

While on a scouting trip last week to finalize plans for our upcoming Paths of the Presidents tour, we made a stop in Abilene, Kansas. A town of about 6,000, it has the distinction of being the hometown and the final resting place of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (his wife Mamie was also laid to rest in Abilene). The first thing that strikes you about Abilene is that it is definitely a “Main Street of America” town. It has that wonderful small town feel. As you drive through the main residential area, you find beautiful modest homes, each looking like it came from the 1950’s (indeed, many did). It’s as though time has stood still in Abilene, and that’s not a bad thing.

A stop at the Convention and Visitors Bureau office turned out to be a treat. We were warmly welcomed and our questions about potential dining spots for our small band of travelers in October were discussed. That’s when we Met Glenda, the Good Witch. Actually, she’s Glenda Purkis, Director of the CVB. On her desk, next to her business cards, is a miniature reproduction of Glenda, the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. After all, this is Kansas. Glenda and her staff turned out to be a wonderful find. Restaurant recommendations were made, a short guided tour of the town was added to the itinerary and my mind was made up. His is someplace we will visit more than once.

The campus (and that’s what it is, a 22-acre campus) at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is beautiful. On the day we were in town, the weather was perfect, with just a tiny hint of fall in the air. In addition to a nice visitor center with a video presentation, you can spend time in the museum and even the library if you wish, before paying respects in the chapel where the Eisenhowers were put to their final rest.

Thanks Glenda, for the warm welcome. We’ll be back soon.

Hello from the beautiful Oregon Coast…

Today we conclude our most recent stay on the Oregon Coast in my favorite town of Newport.  For the last three days, we have enjoyed the hospitality at the Elizabeth Street Inn, Newport finest lodging.  From the complimentary hot breakfast in the morning to salmon chowder and hot cookies each evening, you can practically “live off the land” at the inn.  The flat sandy beach that runs for as far as the eye can see north and south from the inn is just begging for you to pause for a moment and get some sand between your toes.

While in Newport, make certain you include the Marine Discovery Cruise in your itinerary.  Don and Fran Mathews put on the best marine wildlife cruise in the country and on this trip, we were particularly fortunate in our search for whales, with multiple sightings and two instances where the gray whales were seemingly showing off for our boat as they gracefully spouted and darted through the water.  It was an amazing sight.  I can’t remember seeing so many whales on one trip.  There’s a marine naturalist on board, and you’ll drop a couple of crab pots on the way to the ocean and pick them up on the way back to the dock.  That allows you to “meet” the creatures of the sea up close and personal.  Time and money well spent. 
We went on a sand dune buggy adventure Wednesday morning.  Adventure barely describes it.  Arriving in Florence in a light mist, 13 of us bravely (?) decided to try and trump Mother Nature.  We bundled up and headed out to the dunes.  Except the mist became a steady rain, and then a harder rain.  Within ten minutes we were soaked to the skin, despite our poncho and trash bag “protection.”  It was a time for leadership.  Knowing the driver had a “point of no return” early on, I shouted for him to return to base.  It’s one thing to brave the elements, it’s another to drown while trying to have a good time.  A for effort.  A cup of that great clam chowder at Mo’s in Old Town Florence and all was well with the world again.
Next stop, the Spruce Goose.  And so it goes…  

Chris and the Pageant of the Masters

Chris Galloway, one of our Tour Directors, just returned from taking the August tour to the Pageant of the Masters and the Hollywood Bowl last week. Here he offers his observations on the pageant, which is certainly one of the most unique cultural arts events in the country.

I got the call from Mark that a tour director was needed to escort a group to Laguna Beach to attend The Festival of the Arts & Pageant of the Masters. Knowing nothing of what the Pageant entailed, I hesitantly accepted the assignment. I did my research and was convinced that I would never appreciate the spectacle of the Pageant. I mean, a show comprised of people posing and replicating famous works of art? I had my doubts. My travelers, many of whom had attended the pageant previously, tried to convince me that I was in for a real treat and would be awe struck. By the time intermission came, I had to admit to them all, with hat-in-hand, I was impressed, absolutely amazed and intrigued. Though words can never capture the brilliance of the show, allow me to try.

The whole concept behind The Pageant of The Masters is to make what in real life is 3-D (the performers and sets), appear two dimensional and replicate famous works of art. Through the use of specialized sets, costumes, creatively applied make-up, and the magic of stage lighting, live people completely disappeared into the painting, so that one cannot distinguish the live performers from the rest of the subjects in the paintings.

In one instillation, the stage crew explains and demonstrates how this illusion is achieved. The sets are all constructed so that the foreground is to scale and slopes backwards into the scenery. Even the size of the performers is also used to create scale. For example, children are dressed as adults, and because of their small size, it creates the illusion that they are in the background of the painting. All the performers are harnessed into the set and posed identically to the subjects in the painting. Next, an adjustable framing system and drapes are used to dress the image. The lights are turned off, then stage lights are used and…voila!…the illusion is complete. On more than one occasion, I found myself slack-jawed, exclaiming, “No Way!” Seeing how the magician’s tricks are performed only heighten my enjoyment, because afterwards, I was better able to appreciate how much time, work, and creativity went into each presentation.

I was so impressed that I have already approached Mark about the possibility of returning next year with a group to the Pageant of The Masters. If you want a touch of class and appreciate the arts, I invite you to come along on next year’s trip as art comes alive right before your eyes!