Hawaiian Vacation

I just got back from an insanely relaxing and enjoyable vacation on the big island of Hawaii. I'd previously visited Oahu, Maui, and Kauai before so I was looking forward to seeing a new island. After two previous winter trips to Hawaii, I realized 6-7 days wasn't enough to relax given all the travel time so this trip was planned as a two week trip, only the second one I've taken in my life (my honeymoon in 2001 was the only other time I've been away for that long). Here's a quick rundown of stuff that was great and not so great:

Stuff that was great:

  • The place we rented was amazing. It's called the Zen Cottage and you can check out their website here. It was a quiet, calm place in an absolutely perfect location. If the photos on their site aren't enough, I filmed a quick walk-through the place and put it on vimeo here. I can't recommend the place enough.
  • Renting a house is a great idea if you have a small family with kids. Getting to prepare most meals at home (especially breakfast) makes things easy for kids and you don't feel like you're running around spending loads of money eating unhealthy food.
  • Riding a bike in January on smooth roads while it's hot and sunny was great. I posted some tips here and big thanks to Bike Hugger for steering me to Bike Works and giving hints on where to ride.
  • The big island really does have it all. Volcanoes, wildlife, rainforests, lava flows, black, green, and white sand beaches are just some of the things we got to enjoy. I took over 2,500 photos in two weeks and I posted my favorites on this Flickr set. I also shot about 100 clips and edited them down to a few minutes of various locations and activities here.
  • My favorite places to eat in Kailua-Kona were Island Lava Java (I eventually ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner there and it was great each and every time) and Sushi Shiono (which I found from this flickr photo). The best shave ice was from Scandinavian.
  • This thread about stuff to do in Hawaii on Ask MetaFilter lead me to do the hike to the southern end of the Volcanoes National Park to see the lava hitting the ocean, which was awesome. There are only so many opportunities to see the earth creating new land.
  • I loved Hilo. I took a side trip there and didn't expect much, since there aren't many hotels and it was supposed to rain non-stop during January. We found a great classic Hawaiian city with plenty of history, tons to do and look at, and it didn't rain on us once. The Banyan Street hotels are relics of a bygone era (the place must have been hot in the 1960s), but the recently rennovated Naniloa Volcanoes Resort was pretty nice.
  • Island Naturals is the big island's answer to a hippie grocery store and they stock all the good stuff you'd normally get in the mainland. They make great sandwiches too.

Stuff that wasn't so great:

  • Food at restaurants was generally middling to poor. I guess with a big captive audience expecting to pay top prices, you don't have to compete on quality. The first few days we ate at one lame place after another, all while they were charging $80-100 for lunch and dinner for 4-5 people. I eventually used Yelp and other online review sites to find better places to eat.
  • I was surprised food wasn't typically local. I know being on an island means a lot of stuff is imported, but the big island really is a big island (about the size of connecticutt) and the weather is perfect for growing pretty much anything. Aside from farmer's market fruits and vegetables we got, I don't recall having more than a handful of things locally grown or caught. Most fish seemed to be from New Zealand, eggs were from California, most produce was from South America. It was kind of disappointing that restaurants didn't push local food sources more.

Pile O’ Tips

I’ve been meaning to write up each and every one of these tips for weeks now, but I’ll never get around to fully fleshing them out so instead here’s a bunch of things I’ve learned over the past few months that might help you as well:

    • When picking people up curbside at the airport, tell your friends/family to meet you in departures, not arrivals. Especially on weekends and holidays, the arrivals area at most major airports will back up ridiculously as people hog the lanes and wait for people. A couple days before Christmas, we landed and I went out to fetch the car and pick up the rest of the family, but had to wait in a 15min long line to pick them up. The departures area was dead. I used this tip on Saturday and it worked great, as there were no lines and no waiting.


    • Last year I finally started joining frequent flier programs and when I noticed I was renting cars often, I decided to go with Hertz, and I went beyond the normal program and paid $50/year for the Gold membership. It’s the best money I ever spent. Now when I arrive at a destination, I just walk over to hertz, note my name and parking location on a big lighted board and walk up to my awaiting car and drive off. It literally saves 30-40 minutes of lines, waiting, and more lines every time I use it. For someone that rents cars often, it’s totally worth the $4 and change per month.


    • When you travel with a baby, it helps to have an extra room in your hotel so you can have some separation of space and your child won’t see you and want to be picked up at 3am. It’s not always feasible to get a hotel suite, but I’ve found a real bargain in Embassy Suites. It’s pretty much an average Holiday Inn style room, but it’s about 15ft longer, giving you a living room area in front of the bedroom complete with desks and sofas. We put the baby’s crib in there, and could put her to bed early and still read, talk, or watch TV in the other room while she slept. Plus, we could let her wake up slowly in her own room. Bonus points for this hotel giving a free breakfast buffet for two with every room. The price isn’t much higher than a typical business travel hotel and works wonders for a traveling family.


    • If you give presentations, please drop everything and read Beyond Bullet Points. It is written by someone that worked at Microsoft but hates the standard Powerpoint defaults. He teaches you basic story structure from theater and has a great system for creating dramatic presentations. I read this book and used the lessons to give a talk last year and it was my best talk ever. I got loads of compliments from the audience and I felt really confident and prepared going in (reading them online without any context leaves a lot to be desired but you can probably get the gist of it).


How to fly with an empty seat next to you

Lifehacker just posted a travel tip on picking seats most likely to stay empty at the time you buy your ticket, but I’ve found I only keep an empty seat next to me about a quarter of the time using that method. There’s a much more successful way to get what you want and I find it works about three quarters of the time.

When you arrive at the airport, make a beeline for the electronic check-in kiosk and skip the humans if you have a choice. When checking in via kiosk, be sure to hit the Change Seats option. Then do what the lifehacker post says, which is select an aisle or row seat with an empty middle next to it.

The chances that someone buys the middle seat after you reserved your ticket weeks ago is much higher than the chances that someone selects that middle seat in the last hour or two before your flight. Of course, this works only on non-full flights that don’t happen during holiday season. I’d say on average weekday flights I almost always get an empty seat next to me and it’s only on end-of-weekend return flights with tons of standby passengers that I don’t get the extra space.