Category Archives: USA

Waikiki – Homeward bound

Our initial plan was to spend only a week in Hawaii but due to lack of flights to New Zealand we had to extend to two weeks.  One week would have been a perfect finish to a wonderful adventure.  The second week though was tinted by a spell of average to poor weather, which really hinders any quality beach/pool time.  We did consider heading over to Maui for a week but the cost of flights and accommodation over there coupled with the luggage we have now acquired made this option not viable.

We made a couple of trips to the North Shore to see the fabled Banzai Pipeline and Waimea Bay and were rewarded with some monster waves to view from a very safe distance.  The trip north also allowed Dominic a couple of surf opportunities with the added bonus of another lesson.  His instructor this time was a lady named Karen who is a seasoned professional.  She used to run a junior pro surf team, which boasted in its ranks Jack Johnston who has since focused his attention to a new career as a singer/songwriter.  She also knows Kelly Slater, which Dominic was very impressed with.  Her father still coaches top professionals and her mother stills surfs even with a disability of only having one leg.  The lesson was held in a nice, secluded bay, away from the crashing waves that the North Shore is famous for.  Dominic’s second venture into the water was out in open seas and was his first time out without either a parent or instructor close by.  He coped very well and was totally oblivious to his anxious parents shore-side.  We actually wanted to base ourselves on the North Shore but accommodation is hard to find and what is available is very expensive.

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While the weather was good we spent some quality time on Waikiki beach.  It was jammed, a far cry from the beaches we experienced in Costa Rica.  We had a breakthrough with Callum on Waikiki.  It was at this beach that he finally put his head underwater and surprise, surprise, loved it.

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A straightforward public bus ride out to Hanauma Bay for some snorkeling was well received by the boys.  Callum didn’t get the snorkel or mask on but he waded out to waist deep and saw plenty of brightly coloured fish.  Dominic was out exploring the coral and the marine life and returned to the sand with stories of what he’d seen.  Hanauma Bay is a fantastic spot for a day trip.  It’s easy to get to from Waikiki, free for the kids and has plenty of snorkeling gear to rent for the day.  The water is a brilliant, clear blue and warm but there was a jellyfish warning on the day we were there.  Luckily there were no incidents to report.

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After our shopping extravaganza in LA, Trina had the spending bug and dragged us all off to the Ala Moana Centre for another day of ringing the cash register.  She managed to assist the state of Hawaii with the use of some of our tourist dollar but nothing on the scale of LA.  The outlet stores in California are a much better option for shopping and bargain hunting.

Kailua Beach is noted for being one of the most beautiful beaches in America and it certainly lived up to its reputation.  The beach is well worth the 45-minute drive from Waikiki and has a very gradual entry into the calm, warm water so it’s perfect for kids.  The sand is golden and although busy you didn’t feel overly crowded.

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I don’t pretend to understand American Football but have always been keen to see a game live.  The NFL ProBowl game is the annual end of season game made up of NFL stars (apart from the ones playing in the following weeks SuperBowl).  Tickets were averagely priced at USD55 each so we thought we’d go along and watch.  What a disappointment.  Firstly it rained then the main event turned into a non-event.  The game was a stop/start affair that never got going.  The actual game time is one hour but can run into nearer three hours with all the mucking about.  We found that the game failed to hold our attention and as we switched off we would miss the next play.  There was very little in the way of big hits or any excitement.  The nature of the match-up was one of game of tag, perhaps due to the fact that none of the players wanted to risk injury and damage their highly lucrative club contracts on a game that meant nothing.  After following rugby and rugby league there is no contest as far as a spectator sport in my mind.  Any sport that stops so dancing can take place will struggle to win any affection in my heart.  We couldn’t even drink to dull the pain.  At USD11 a beer it would have been a very expensive hangover (it was strange seeing Speights on tap there though – good on ya mate).  We left after the third quarter, despondent and wet.  It wasn’t just us that couldn’t appreciate the game.  I was sitting beside a guy from Melbourne who kept shaking his head saying “give me AFL anyday”.

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Our final day on the island involved a trip to Pearl Harbour.  My pre-depature research (this time and for the first time on this trip was 100% bang-on – redemption!) had informed us that to see the actual USS Arizona memorial (the memorial right over the sunken ship) involved either taking an organized tour (pricey and a very long day) or booking your free tickets on-line and making your own way out there by public bus.  We took option two however once on-line we found that the first available tickets were for mid-February.  We decided to head out there anyway as you can still visit and climb on-board the submarine, USS Bowfin and the battleship USS Missouri.  The Missouri was the ship that Japan signed their surrender of World War Two.  On deck that day of surrender was General Douglas MacArthur so we were standing in the shadows of history.  The boys loved exploring both the battleship and the submarine, seeing all the weaponry, the sleeping quarters and how the sailors lived.  We also had a lucky outcome for the USS Arizona.  We approached the ticket office and managed to secure tickets easily.  We saw a movie about the attack, how it happened and why Japan wanted to bring the US into the war, followed by a boat ride out to the monument.   Parts of the ship are clearly visible and the oil is still very slowly leaking out (in fact at the slow rate it is coming out it will continue to leak for the next 75 years).  You can see why Pearl Harbour is Hawaii’s number one tourist attraction.  It’s fascinating, informative and very well run by both the national parks service and the military.

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Waikiki was a pretty good option for the final stage of our adventure.  Two weeks was too long and towards the end we were looking forward to leaving.  This may have been a factor of the weather, a mindset that we were almost home, comparing Waikiki to the amazing beach towns of Costa Rica (which it can never compete with), our aversion to mass tourism or a combination of them all.

Time to go home – happy or sad to finish our great adventure?  We’ll see.


Los Angeles – Retail nirvana

Leaving Costa Rica really felt like we were on our way home, but there was still time to fit in a couple stops on the way.  We chose to stop in Los Angeles for a few days really just to break up the flight home, and now that we were at the end of the trip we could upsize our luggage allowance.  Some retail therapy was called for.

To get to LA we needed to go via Dallas and clear immigration there.  Dallas serves as a major hub into the US and local flights then leave from there.  The queue for customs was very long (1 ½ hours) and we only just made our connecting flight.  Upon arrival in LA we discovered one of our bags did in fact miss the flight.  Modern technology soon confirmed that the bag was on a later flight so we had a two-hour wait at the airport for it to arrive.  This made for a very very long day for the kids but they coped admirably.

We then headed to our rental car pick-up and quickly realized that booking a rental car direct with the company is an expensive mistake as they sting you for over-the-top insurances.  We normally arrange our car hire through an intermediary like rentalcars.com or hotwire.com and have never had a problem.  Anyway, car collected and about $200 out of pocket we were on our way north to Camarillo, the mecca of outlet store shopping.

Camarillo Premium Outlet is a monster.  It boasts 160 stores and you could (well, Trina could) spend weeks there.  Luckily for me, I had the boys as an excuse to limit the time to a mere two full days.  After spending the past two months in Costa Rica and away from any form of retail therapy Trina was like a kid in a candy shop.  The look on her face as we pulled into the carpark was one of sheer delight; mine was of dread and concern.  The boys also knew what was coming and were not overly pleased.  Two brand new suitcases later (completely chocker) and enough dollars spent to cover the Gross Domestic Product of a small third world country, we had to reward two very well behaved boys with a day at a theme park.

The drive from Camarillo to Anaheim allowed us to take the fantastic ocean road through Malibu and Santa Monica – it really is one of the worlds great drives.  Not only for the ocean views but some of the houses are amazing.

As we had already been to Orlando and experienced the Disney and Universal theme parks there we opted for California Land, which is basically an extension of Disneyland just with different rides.  The highlight of this park was Cars Land, which is an exact replica of the “Cars” movie town “Radiator Springs”.  It really did feel like you were in the movie walking around it.  The pick of the rides was the Cars Radiator Springs Racers but it was busy.  At one stage we saw the wait time was 90 minutes (all for a five minute ride) – crazy!  Luckily from our time in Orlando we were familiar with the “fastpass” system so our wait on this particular ride wasn’t too bad.  We also enjoyed a ride called Soaring California, which is a simulated gliding ride over the highlights of the state.  It was amazing and really showcased just what a diverse and fantastic holiday destination California is.

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Our final day in LA involved a trip to see the Hollywood sign and lunch at Venice Beach.  It was a shame that the view of the sign and the city was impaired by the infamous LA smog.  The boys enjoyed seeing the posers at Muscle Beach but Venice Beach really is a dirty spot.  The public toilets were a disgrace and the tacky souvenir shops coupled with plenty of “medicinal” weed shops all made for a pretty ordinary detour.  It’s funny how your outlook can change as you get older.  Trina and I were at Venice Beach 13-years ago and had a great day sitting at a beachside bar drinking beers and watching the world go by.  Now with kids in tow, we couldn’t wait to leave.

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A 5.30am wake-up call to catch our second to last flight and we said “later” to LA and “aloha” to Hawaii.


Everglades and Miami – Running on empty

When we originally planned this leg of the journey we thought that we’d spend a couple of days exploring the west coast of Florida, however as it wasn’t overly hot and we’d just had beaches in Cuba and the Bahamas, we decided to keep driving.  We stopped for lunch and a swim at Siesta Key, which is a very swanky beach town just outside Sarasota on the Gulf of Mexico.  Dominic had a swim and was rewarded with sharing the beach with a pod of friendly dolphins, playing no more than 50 meters off the shore.

It was a pretty uneventful journey until night fell and the petrol light started flashing.  You don’t realize how anxious you can become until you’re in the middle of the Everglades with very little gas, it’s pitch black, there are no other cars around, the only signs were those advising of Panthers in the area and your wife is chirping in your ear about not getting gas at the last petrol station you passed 30 miles ago.  The fuel gauge offering advice of exactly how many more miles until you hit empty didn’t help the dire situation.  Said wife closely watched this useful piece of technology and comments were made at very regular intervals.  Luckily my fuel management skills were 100% as we rolled into a petrol station just prior to it closing.  Cue heavy sigh of relief.

The next issue was trying to find somewhere to stay in Everglades City, which isn’t a city; it’s a small village.  There appeared to be three accommodation options available to us.  The first choice couldn’t sleep four, the second option refused to answer the door so it was again with some relief that the last choice had a room.   The Captains Table was budget and basic but clean and a provided us with a roof over our head.  Everglades City is literally in the middle of nowhere so it would have involved a long trek back if the Captain hadn’t come to the party.

We were up early to sort out a fan boat ride over the mangroves CSI Miami style.  Captain Doug was the outfit we went with (everyone here is called Captain something!)  It was a fun ride with plenty of thrills and spills to keep the boys smiling.  Dominic was allowed to drive for a while much to the concern of the German couple that was sharing a boat with us.  He did a great job and the mile wide smile on his face told a thousand words.

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The fan boats aren’t designed for wildlife watching.  They are very noisy but that was ok.  We just wanted to go really fast.  We did see an alligator stalking a family of raccoons which was great, but that was about it in terms of exciting wildlife.  It was great fun nonetheless.

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The boys did get to hold a baby ‘gator albeit with its mouth tied shut (these ties don’t come in sizes for seven and five year old boys unfortunately).  We didn’t think Callum would do it but he quickly volunteered.

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About 30 miles from Miami is Shark Valley, which offers walking tracks and bike rides through the Everglades.  We had hoped to rent bikes for all of us like we did in the Costa Brava but Callum was two pounds over weight for him to ride shotgun with me.  We tried to reason with the staff that two pounds is nothing but they wouldn’t budge on policy sighting a lawsuit they are currently involved in.  The US is so litigious that rules are strictly adhered to and there is no “bending” of the rules no matter how minor the request.  The massive billboards and TV advertising by lawyers all looking to sue anyone for anything highlight the state of their society.  An upset Callum went for a walk with Trina while Dominic and I rented some bikes for an hour.  It was an ok ride but no wildlife was seen so all in all a bit of a waste of time.  Trina and Callum actually saw more wildlife on foot than we did on the bikes.  Trina was a bit nervous walking so close to the water with Callum and jumped every time she heard a splash.   It was an ok day trip however the Pantanal in Brazil (visited pre-kids days) was a much better wildlife experience in my opinion for viewing reptiles and bird watching.

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We had a couple of days in Miami before heading to Costa Rica so that allowed us to introduce the boys to the delights of South Beach.  We actually had dinner and drinks at the same bar Trina and I went to 10 years ago.  The Cleveland Hotel is the best place to sit and watch the world go by.  South Beach, Miami is a melting pot of everything great and weird – fantastic fun!

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Orlando – Release the inner child

It was an eventful journey from Cuba to Miami.  Loaded with Cuban cigars we were quickly stopped by US Customs who informed us that it was illegal to bring them into the US.  After an escort to the “back room” for the destruction of said Cubans, we entered into a discussion with another customs official who took pity on us “simple foreigners” and kindly allowed us to keep them.

Howdy USA.

The drive from Miami to Orlando is about four hours.  It’s a flat, straight boring drive but the promise of theme parks kept Dominic and Callum (almost) well behaved in the backseat of our rental car.

Our base for the week was an apartment that had all the mod cons including a swimming pool and waterslides and, after Cuba, luxury American cable TV and WiFi.

We had specifically coincided the timing of the theme parks with Callums 5th birthday, with the intention of taking him to the Magic Kingdom for his special day.  However, because he wanted to go on the Star Wars ride, he chose to go to Hollywood Studios instead, which is Disneys version of Universal Studios.  The pick of the rides was Star Tours, which you hop aboard a flight simulator and travel through the galaxy, which is far, far away.  Next to this ride, Dominic signed up to train to become a Jedi, which reached its climax with a light saber battle against Darth Vader – he loved it!  Callum did sign up for this also but got cold feet at the last moment.  The thought of performing in front of strangers didn’t appeal to his conservative nature.  He did however enjoy getting to design and make his own personalised light saber.

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Actually, most of rides didn’t appeal to Callum.  He has an aversion for thrills (like his Dad).  Dominic on the other hand thrived on all the rides but his favourite was the Aerosmith Rock and Roll Rollercoaster.  It started by taking off at 60mph and then went through a series of loops and corkscrews.  Trina and I took turns in taking him on it and I have to admit it was fun.  As well as the rides there was also an Indiana Jones stunt show (which the boys enjoyed) but the part that explained how they make movies and the back-lot studios went totally over their heads.  We had some tired boys on the drive home.

Magic Kingdom at Disney was next and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was the pick of the bunch.  We did manage to get Callum on this but that was his limit.  I think he sort of enjoyed it although he would never admit to it.  Dominic and Trina also enjoyed Space Mountain and Splash Mountain while I was left to look after Callum.  This suited me fine especially as I was still unwell after Cuba and had visions of losing my lunch on a ride.

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When night fell a fantastic lighting and firework display was put on along with a parade of all the Disney characters.  The lighting and firework show was excellent with the famous Disney castle as the backdrop.

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Magic Kingdom was Dominic’s pick of all the theme parks.  He really enjoyed this one.  Callum could have taken or left it – it just isn’t in his DNA.  The parks really highlighted the difference in personalities between the boys.

A couple of quiet days were called for prior to hitting the waterpark, Blizzard Beach and Universal Studios, mainly as the boys were tired after the first two days and we weren’t still 100% healthy post Cuba.  The apartment was an easy place to just hang out, catch up on washing, homework and blog writing.

Refreshed and rearing to go we headed for Blizzard Beach and its waterslides.  Dominic and I took on the Slusher Gusher, which was the 2nd most “challenging” ride there.  I couldn’t muster up the courage to tackle the big one though, which was basically a straight drop into oblivion.  We once again had a measurement requirement for Dominic to ride, but unlike the Bahamas he was allowed to ride.  There was much joy.

For a rare night out on the town we headed to Downtown Disney which is a massive arcade filled with all types of video games, including virtual reality type stuff.  It also had the old classics like Galaga, Pac Man, Donkey Kong and even the original Space Invaders.  It was great to play games from a misspent youth and the boys enjoyed blowing things up and shooting aliens for a few hours.  Downtown Disney also has plenty of eating options.  We found a great burger bar and had a couple of drinks before heading home happy.

Our last day in Orlando was spent at Universal Studios.  There are some great attractions here but the clear winner was Transformers, which was a flight/fight simulation and was fantastic.  The smiles on all of our faces upon landing were proof of that.  The new Despicable Me ride was also well received.  They boys  enjoyed meeting their favourite TV and movie characters (much more than the Disney ones).  Simpsons were a hit, as were Shaggy and Scooby, Sponge Bob and Gru and the Minions from Despicable Me.

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Dinner at the worlds largest Hard Rock Café was on the cards for dinner and although the food (as expected) was ordinary it was a great place to wind down and chat about the fun had in Orlando.  Dominic is very into his music so he also enjoyed looking at the guitars and other pieces on display.  Unfortunately we were next to the Elvis display and they had no idea who he was.

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Orlando provided just what was required after the tough slog of Cuba and prior to Costa Rica.  Some western food (which included quite a few donuts), cartoons on the TV and some family fun at the parks.  A perfect week and a bit and only a few tantrums!  Travel with kids is anything but ordinary.