Hawaii has been on my list of places to travel ever since my grammar school project on the islands and a great TV miniseries (remember those?) on the island’s “discovery” and founding. Not that Hawaii ever lost its allure for travelers, but now that the Obamas vacation there I thought I’d check in with some friends who once lived there on what there’s to see and do should I have the fundage to go sometime soon.

Photo Courtesy of Patricia Robinson

Photos Courtesy of Patricia Robinson

So this is an Insider Q&A with Max Robinson who lived there when he was stationed there as a U.S. Naval OfficerNow an energy sector consultant, he currently ives in Houston with his wife and two young children. But he really misses Hawaii. For more on Max, check out Max’s LinkedIn profile.

As always, I’ve provided internal links for spots mentioned by my guest Insider. Happy Wanderings.

MTT: How long, when and where did you live in Hawaii?
Max: About 6 years, from 1994-2000. Island of Oahu, in towns of Kailua and  Aiea

MTT: For someone who has never been, why should I go to Hawaii?
Max: Duh!!! Best beaches in the world. Best year round weather in the US.  Very good hiking and outdoor activities.

MTT: To get the true Hawaiian experience, where should I stay and why?
Max:  Depends on what you mean by that. Most tourists are not there to get a “true” Hawaiian experience – they are there to relax and enjoy the weather. The Ko Olina Beach Club is nice because it is in a more secluded part of the island. The beach lagoons are actually man made though. There are houses and condos that you can rent on most of the islands. Rent a house in Kailua, or on the North Shore. In terms of islands, Kauai [and here’s also a link to the Kauai Visitor’s Bureau] and The Big Isand (Hawai’i) are less developed and hence have more of a rural or “true” feeling to them.

MTT: What’s the best time of year to go?
Max: ANYTIME. Weather is great year round. Halloween in Lahaina Maui is a really fun time.

Picture 045MTT: Any insider tips on how to get the best hotel deals?
Max: Depends on how price sensitive you are, and how you feel about the trade off between price and quality. Get a friend who is an [Navy] officer on a ship and offer to house sit while they are deployed.

MTT: Describe your ideal day in Hawaii that you would recommend for a visitor?
Max: Wake up and have a leisurely breakfast – fresh local fruit & some cereal. Eat the carbs and drink water and juice. You need the energy and you don’t want to get dehydrated.
–Go surfing. Waikiki is the best place for tourists to take lessons and is relatively easy. Best time of year is summer for south side swells.
(more…)

I’m a sucker for lists of any kind. Give me one and I’ll read it.  I also love to travel and read great travel stories. So combine all this and that makes for one happy mind trip.

Here are two sites that should keep me busy traveling the world on my armchair for awhile.

http://www.WorldHum.com  has some great writing, first person narratives, essays, book reviews and interviews. To celebrate its 8th anniversary, it’s compiled a series of eight “best ofs” in these categories: funny travel stories; family travel stories, the travel writing life; beaches, islands and tropics; serendipity and kindness; road trips, food; and shrinking planet.

http://www.wander-list.com is a blog about travel lists from other websites, such as 12 caves to explore and Lonely Planet’s top ten destinations… by web clicks.  I’ll resist the urge to go to my local library to check out the book, 1000 Places in the USA and Canada to See Before You Die. With no travel budget at the moment, this tome would definitely overwhelm me.

I just took one of those time-wasting, wonder-what-my-results-will-be FaceBook quizzes. It supposedly determined my “Soul City”. And the result: Amsterdam.

Here’s Facebook’s description of why Amsterdam and I are sympatico:

“Anything goes! Your laid back and cool dude attitude goes well with the free spirited capital of the Netherlands. You have a hidden, risqué side that unsurfaces when the mood takes you. A cheeky glint in your eye, a certain sex appeal that is extremely captivating. You very much believe in working to live, not living to work, so I don’t expect to see you in the boardroom with Sir Alan on The Apprentice – rather sitting outside a nice bar or cafe watching the world go by…”

The questions were innocuous enough, like “What’s my favorite tipple”? by which it means, libation. I chose a glass of red wine (though I almost went with “a cup of coffee”).  Nothing racy was in there. And yet, I get this description.  Maybe in a previous life, but the only thing risque I do these days is letting my preschooler pick his own clothes.

I do, however, like the “work to live, not live to work” aspect. And I do love Amsterdam. It has all the amenities of the U.S. only with charm and character. Nearly everyone speaks English, so it’s easy to make new friends without taking a Berlitz course. Damn good beer (the Heineken Brewery tour rocked) and such an eclectic mix of fabulous restaurants. Some of the best Indian and also some of the best barbecue ribs I’ve ever eaten were in Amsterdam (and I really love ribs). Hot french fries with pindasaus (hot, spicey peanut butter sauce) are also very yummy. The art musuems are also wonderful (big Van Gogh and Vermeer fan here!).

But, and this is a biggie, I can’t ride a bike (don’t laugh, I lived on a very steep hill as a child and never learned as a result) so I sort of wouldn’t fit in entirely in this very bicycle-obsessed culture.

Tomorrow begins the Race for the Roses, with the Kentucky Derby in Louisville’s Churchhill Downs.  I don’t have tickets, and several weeks of spring break, miserable rain and the swine flu outbreak have distracted me, so I dropped the ball on interviewing my Louisville connections on what there’s to see and do during Derby Days. For more on the Derby and the surrounding festivities, check out http://www.kentuckyderby.com and http://www.kentuckyderbyparty.com.

What I can tell you about Louisville is that Churchill Downs isn’t the only monument to sport in this Southern city. For baseball fans, Louisville features the Louisville Slugger Museum, (www.sluggermuseum.org) with its several-story-sized bat at the entrance. And then there’s the Muhammad Ali Center (www.alicenter.org) (nee Cassius Clay, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, was born and raised in Louisville).  I hope to take my son to see these someday.

What I love most about Louisville: The FOOD! Louisvillians know how to cook. We’ve had wonderful meals–and not just Southern fare–but great Indian and Italian too–the times we’ve visited. But, yes, the cheesy grits are great. And the home cooking keeps you from putting your fork down. And don’t get me started about the sweet smelling bourbon (while there aren’t any distilleries in the city itself, there are six bars that offer the most well-stocked bourbon bars in the world–my husband and I’ve been on the bourbon trail, but that’s for another post).

While Louisville maintains its Southern charm, it’s also quite cosmopolitan with numerous art galleries and museums and according to one visitor’s guide, “one of only  a few cities in the U.S. with a professional full-time orchestra, opera and ballet…”

We’ve always stayed with friends or done day trips to Louisville (when we lived in nearby Bloomington, Indiana), but we once did a walk through of the historic Brown Hotel (www.brownhotel.com) in downtown Louisville. Built in 1923, it maintains its Jazz Era opulence. If I had the cash, I’d fork it over.

If you can ever make it to Derby Days, you’ll surely see Louisville in all its glory. But this Kentucky town shines any time of year and really offers great value for your dollar, and lots to see and do whether you are a foodie urbanite or a family with small kids. It really is a homerun all around. So now you know, so go!

Okay, so while waiting the 15 minutes it takes for my pharmacist to fill my prescription, I decided to peruse the magazine rack. And something glorious caught my eye in SELF. The magazine is giving away $105,000 worth of spa getaways in its Spa Sweeps contest.

In desperate need of a vacation and some serious upper body massaging, I imagined myself winning one of these fabu freebies. It’s unclear because I couldn’t get the actual online entry form to work last night, but I think you have to choose which one you want when you enter the contest.

Sorry, but the mountain and city getaways just don’t cut it for me. When I think total relaxation I’m thinking Caribbean and  SELF does not disappoint. But then I have a major dilemna, because there are so many to choose from. In the end, I’m planning on submitting my entry for the Galley Bay Resort & Spa in Antigua–something about the genteel nature of afternoon tea in the tropics has always intrigued me. But the plunge pools and six days of bliss don’t sound bad either.

My other dilemna may keep me out of the running entirely. Since going back to freelancing in December, I’ve been trying to land an assignment from SELF. Not sure if writing for them (should I be so fortunate) would negate me from winning anything (again, should I be so fortunate). Hey, when dreaming, you might as well dream big. In the meantime, I’ll submit my entry and hope for the best.

Enter yourself at: http://www.self.com/beauty/2009/04/spa-sweeps

MTT recently posted about Spring Break with the family on Sanibel Island. If you don’t mind the longer drive from the Ft. Meyers Airport, Marco Island is another great family island destination on Florida’s Gulf Coast. I interviewed sort of insider, Beth Quevli, of Minnesota, who goes every year with her husband and two young daughters (ages 3 and 5) to visit her parents who retired there. [I’ve provided additional info. in brackets]

MTT: When do you go to Marco Island and how long do you stay for?
BQ: We go several times a year, usually Christmas and then March/April. We stay for a week to 10 days.

MTT: Why do you like it there (besides staying for free)?
BQ: It’s beautiful, never too hot, quieter and more relaxing than the Naples/Ft. Myers area.

MTT: What things do you like to do with the kids that other families would enjoy?
BQ: Going to the beach; driving over to Goodland [tiny fishing community on the southeast corner of Marco Island that attracts visitors on Sundays for outdoor music and dancing at Stan’s. Fishing tours also popular here] or the Isle of Capri [2 miles noroth of Marco Island’s bridge with a marina and lots of various boat rentals, including pontoons and kayaks]; walking around the shops at the Esplanade;  going to the movies – it’s a theater with full menu waiter service, though small screens; watching the sun set on the beach; driving down to the Everglades.  We do trips out to Everglades City and various nature walks/boardwalks in the area; go out on the boat to Keewadin Island – great swimming, shell hunting; and go to Mackle Park.

MTT: What should they avoid doing?
BQ: I haven’t really heard of any don’t dos… I would say the Naples Zoo –- overrated and expensive.

MTT: What are your favorite Marco Island restaurants and why?
BQ: We generally go to kid-friendly places.
–Hoot’s is great for breakfast, but also serves lunch and dinner (possibly not year-round though). [No website for Hoot’s, not to be confused with Hooter’s, but ranked #4 out of 66 Marco Island restaurants on Trip Advisor.com]
–Vandis is a good pizza place.
–The Sand Bar [#6 out of 66 on Trip Advisor] has good food and a relaxed atmosphere.
–If you’re up for the drive the Rod and Gun Club in Everglades City is a fun adventure! [Rod and Gun is an historic landmark lodge on the Barron River adjacent to the Everglades National Park. Offers cottages, restaurant, cocktail lounge, pool and tennis and huge front porch.]
The Snook Inn – nice location/atmosphere [ranked #21 out of 66].

MTT: What are your favorite things to do during the day?
BQ: We like to go to Resident’s Beach, go out on the boat to Keewadin or Coconut Island, visit Mackle Park.

MTT: What’s your favorite beach and why?
BQ: Our favorite beach is Resident’s Beach – unfortunately it isn’t open to the public. Well, the beach is one long strip along the island, but to use the Resident’s Beach facilities, you have to have a resident pass.

MTT:  What are the beaches like?
BQ: The beaches are generally clean with nice, white sand. The shore slopes off slowly, so you can walk a ways out – pretty safe for kids.

MTT: Are there playgrounds for kids there and have you gone to them?
BQ: Mackle Park is a great park with a sprinkler/water play area, basketball courts, a soccer field, bocce ball courts – something for everyone.

MTT: What advice would you give to other families considering Marco Island for Spring Break? The hotels are expensive and there are only two of them on the island, so look for rentals and condos! There is a company on the island that rents children/baby items so check them out vs. hauling all of your gear if you don’t want to.

MTT: Are no-see-umms a problem on the island?
BQ: I’ve been there in December, March, April, August, and October and have never found bugs of any kind to be a real problem.

MTT: What excursions (to nearby places) have you taken and what would you recommend families make the extra effort for?
BQ: There are some great nature reserves and boardwalks out into the Everglades between Marco and Ft. Myers – some are a drive, but really fun for the whole family.

MTT: What’s the one must-do thing you do each time you go?
BQ: Get a grouper sandwich from the Sand Bar!

For hip and happening people, who want to see and be seen during Spring Break, consider the South Beach scene in Miami. Famous for its Art Deco architecture, top-notch restaurants, hotels and spas,  happening nightclub scene and posh beaches, South Beach offers an upscale get-away. You don’t come here for the eco-tourism but sometimes you just need a little bit of bling (and it does not disappoint, apparently).

For this installment of Great Minds Travel Alike, MTT interviewed Allison Shulman, government affairs consultant, based in Washington, DC, who recently went there for a relaxing vacation (and second time there this year).

MTT: When did you travel to Miami and why?
AS: I’ve gone to the beaches in Miami (specifically South Beach) twice this year already. Once in January and another time in March.

MTT: Where did you stay and would you recommend it?
AS: On the second visit I stayed at the Kent Hotel.  The place is a great location (right at 11th and Collins and 1 block from the beach), but it does have some areas where it needs improvement.  The elevator didn’t always work, the room was completely lavender (including the ceilings, soaps, etc.) and you could hear your neighbors in the rooms around you.  Other hotels which I’ve stayed at in the past (the Loews, The Ritz, etc.) don’t have these issues, but they are very pricey.  I would recommend trying the Art Deco hotels in South Beach (there are tons!) since they have great character and wonderful locations at more reasonable prices.

MTT: What was your favorite location/not to miss?
AS: Big Pink! It’s a diner in South Beach.  I never miss a breakfast there at least once on each trip.  I also love Sunday brunch at Nemo’s.  To see the cars (and sometime celebrities) go to Prime 112 (at the Browns Hotel) for dinner.  There are always new clubs poppin up but Mansion & Prive are always good and the Delano Hotel is beautiful, great for people watching, and a “scene”!

MTT: What was a waste of time?
AS: Mango’s.  it’s a tourist trap and should be left to people who don’t know any better.

MTT:Most memorable travel experience?
AS: What happens in South Beach … Stays in South Beach 🙂

MTT: Biggest travel surprise in South Beach/Miami?
AS: The people you see… some famous, some want to be famous, but all are amusing to watch.

MTT: Favorite restaurants (s) and why?
AS: Beyond, Prime 112 for dinner, Nemo for Sunday brunch, and Big Pink for breakfast.  I also like Nemo for dinner.  Nobu [at the Shore Club] for sushi.  I try to find a new restaurants by asking the locals (usually people who work in the shops will give the most honest advice)

MTT: Favorite beach?
AS: All of South Beach is amazing…

MTT: Favorite nightclub?
AS: Mansion is the new spot, but Prive is also great.

MTT: Best travel deal/way you saved money?
AS: As always Kayak.com has the best flight information… but you can get deals through other online travel sites that will book both your flight and hotel together.

MTT: Any other tips for first-time travelers to Miami?
AS: The airport is crazy so plan for a slow check in (especially if you’re taking American Airlines).

MTT: How did you get around Miami?
AS: Rental car, but you can walk around instead.

MTT: I wouldn’t leave Miami without buying (finish thought)?
AS: Shoes… but then again, I buy shoes everywhere…

MTT: A vacation to Miami is for people who (finish thought)?
AS: Want to have fun, let loose or just relax on a quiet beach.