October 10, 2016

Why I Chose Mauna Lani Bay For My Hawaii Vacation

This summer our family vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii. We had not been there in many years, so we were eager to go back now that the kids were old enough to do some of the more adventurous activities.
Zodiac snorkel tour
There are so many great resort choices that it can be quite overwhelming to decide where to stay.  And even though I had it narrowed down to a Virtuoso resort, there were four from which to choose. They are all unique in style, location, and amenities,and understanding these differences helped determine which was the best fit for my family.

I know we would have had a fantastic trip no matter where we stayed, but here are a dozen reasons we chose The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows.

1) The coral reef in front of the hotel offers easy access to great snorkeling.  And turtles are seen frequently near shore.

Maui visible in the distance
Coral in front of Mauna Lani
Getting underwater video of a turtle

2) Connecting rooms are practically guaranteed due to the number of them available.
Queen beds!

3) There are natural lagoons throughout the grounds, filled with fish, turtles, eels, and even a shark!

The resort was built around the original fishponds.
4) Their resort credit is one of the most inclusive in Hawaii, including use of snorkel gear, spa and gear rental discounts, 10% discount on lunch and dinner at two of the restaurants, self-parking, 30 min of long distance and international calls daily, wifi, cultural activities, and more.

Family favorite: Macadamia encrusted mahi mahi over fried rice
5) They are devoted to preserving the cultural history of Hawaii.  A self-guided tour over 27 acres of historic parks visits ancient shelter caves, petroglyphs, and a prehistoric fishing village.  Or guests can go on a tour with the resident historian.

Interesting history lesson about Mauna Lani
Petroglyphs hidden in plain sight
6) The Mauna Lani Beach Club is a easy walk or short shuttle ride away, offering a great swimming beach, another beachfront restaurant and more excellent snorkeling.
The Beach Club is visible in the top left,
an easy 10 min walk along the waterfront
7) It has authentic Hawaiian ambiance including a large,open air atrium with lush vegetation and ponds filled with their youngest turtles waiting for their turn to be released.  Kids gather to watch the turtles get fed in the afternoon.

What a welcome sight! Live music here each evening, too
8) The grounds are compact, so it's easy to get from room to pool to beach to poolside restaurant and bar.   And there is plenty of lawn space and uncrowded beachfront with cabanas included in the resort fee.

View from our room (could see fireworks from here, too).
It was never hard to get one of these cabanas.
9) A quiet black sand beach is just a few minutes drive away within the resort complex, which also has great snorkeling.

Practically have the bay to ourselves
10) The Mauna Lani Resort shopping center has a full service grocery store, several restaurants, coffee and ice cream shop, Snorkel Bob's, and complimentary activities like a weekly Polynesian hula show.

Lei making class!
11) They have a reputation for warm hospitality and great service. The staff is well-trained and genuine, they treated us like guests in their home.
Soon an attendant will be by with ice cream

12) And by timing our visit over the Fourth of July holiday, we got to experience their signature event:  Turtle Independence Day!  Young turtles raised in their ponds are released to the ocean in a traditional ceremony.  
This little guy is getting his freedom soon.
The days leading up to the event are fun and educational for families, as they can watch researchers measure and inspect the turtles to ensure they are ready for release. Children staying at the hotel are chosen by lottery to escort the turtles from the pond to the ocean during the ceremony.
Making sure this guy is big enough to have a fighting chance in the ocean.
The entire community comes out for this annual event. 
Let me go, let me go!

And did I mention the snorkeling?? 

My clients receive these Virtuoso amenities:

  * Upgrade one category at time of booking subject to availability
  * Daily buffet American buffet breakfast two
  * $100 resort credit 
  * Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

Loco moco breakfast!
They also have five 2700 sq ft bungalows, great for larger families, multi-generational groups, or couples traveling together.  They all have two master bedrooms, a private kitchen, and plenty of living space. Outdoors is a 1,300 sq. ft. private terrace with a Jacuzzi and heated swimming pool.  And through Dec 20 they are offering one of the best all-inclusive values in Hawaii.

Spacious and bright living and dining area.
A lagoon provides separation from the beachfront path.
The Bungalow Inclusive Experience includes:

* Transportation to and from the airport and/or a premium rental car 
* Daily $500 Credit for Mauna Lani golf or spa 
* Pantry stocked on arrival with non-alcoholic beverages, fruits & snacks * Welcome bar set-up
* Daily afternoon amenity
* Breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 6 guests (excluding alcohol)

Canoe House oceanfront dining 
A great sunset on our last evening
For assistance with planning a fantastic vacation to Hawaii, and to receive the Virtuoso amenities, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

There can never be too many sunset pictures!

August 11, 2016

Six Trips Which Should Be Booked at Least a Year in Advance

Some destinations require advance planning due to limited availability, high popularity, or both.  Often the best options book up early, and in some situations there may be only one good option!  If any of these are on your list for 2017, you should start planning now.

African Safari   

The best Africa lodges and tented camps are small and intimate, often less than a dozen rooms, so there isn't much space to begin with.   Safaris are popular for family reunions or celebration trips, so it's not uncommon for one group to book the entire property.   Families should note that lodges might have only one family suite which can sleep 4 people, otherwise you will have to book two separate rooms.  

Who says you have to rough it while on safari?
The other key to a fantastic safari is having the right guide, and the most knowledgeable and respected ones are booked year round.  Even the escorted tours, that generally stay in larger lodges, are fully booked a year out. 

My client's South Africa wildlife encounter.

Due to a short travel season and high demand, hotels are booked to capacity every summer. The problem is exacerbated when cruise lines block chunks of hotel space far in advance, and I've had to reach in my bag of insider tricks to get even one room for my clients.  Wilderness lodges are small, and I know at least one in Denali that is already sold out for most dates in summer 2017.   

This beautiful lodge, built by the owner, has only 14 rooms.
Lucky family got a clear view of Denali!
Want to travel on an expedition cruise so you can get up close to nature?  They carry less than 100 passengers so you have to grab your spot early.  You can find space on large ship cruises on fairly short notice, but the options will be limited.  Your choice of cabin location or itinerary may not be available. In my experience, the best rates and perks come with booking earlier rather than later.
My clients got up close to a calving glacier on their Lindblad cruise.
Tuscany Villa

Yes, there are lots of villas available at any given time if you are searching on the internet.  But if you want to book a property that you know has been vetted by a reliable source so there will no unpleasant surprises on arrival, you need to plan early.   And if you want one with everything on your wish list (a pool, near a quaint town, centrally located, etc.), all the more reason to plan early.  Those villas you see available in April for summer travel?  There's a good reason they are still on the market.  

Wine-tasting with a fabulous view.

An easy day trip to Florence

Its popularity has skyrocketed for travelers seeking adventure, especially as it's considered one of the safest European destinations.  Unfortunately the tourism infrastructure has not kept up with demand, so hotels and our preferred tour partners are heavily booked. Reykjav√≠k is a decent sized city, but finding accommodations in the countryside can be quite tricky.  And when you find yourself in a remote location with limited resources, you definitely want to be traveling with someone reliable.
Clients captured this gorgeous double rainbow on their epic family adventure. 

National Parks

The national parks are always popular, especially with families, but even more so as travelers prefer to stay close to home rather than venture out of the country.  Because of the convenience and historical aspects, staying at a lodge within park boundaries is highly desirable, so even the most modest accommodations book up early. 

Can't get much closer to the Grand Canyon rim than by staying at El Tovar

A little chilly on top with the residual snow,
but great weather for a hike into the canyon
This year's centennial celebration increased demand, and I expect spillover into 2017 from travelers who got locked out this year.  Guided hiking and cycling trips are especially popular with active travelers, but their set departure dates mean you have to book early.

There is much more to Yellowstone than Old Faithful!
Any Destination Over the Holidays

It's not uncommon for the top beach and ski resorts to have waiting lists more than a year in advance.  And most have strict minimum night stays, so you need to make sure you've blocked enough vacation time. The best rooms and suites (and guaranteed connecting rooms for families) are always the first to be snatched up.   

Ski out right from the terrace at the Ritz Carlton Lake Tahoe
The new Four Seasons Ko'Olina on Oahu does not have
a waiting list for the  holidays. Yet.
Imagine how happy and relaxed you would be to know you have the trip of your dreams planned out a year in advance. And research shows that the anticipation of a trip is what makes us happiest, so why not extend that feeling as long as possible?

Whether you plan to travel next week or next year, just send a note to suzette@family-treks.com and we'll get started setting up something for you to look forward to!

Our Amalfi Coast visit

July 22, 2016

High Adrenaline Hawaii

I recently vacationed on the Big Island of Hawaii with my family which includes two teens.  We had not been there since they were very young, so this time we got to experience some more active adventures.

This island has a large variety of unique activities, so if you are looking for more to do than just lay on the beach or by the pool, it could be the perfect destination for you.  Check out some of the fun things we did:

Stargazing at Mauna Kea
While looking through telescopes is not a high energy activity, getting to the top of the volcano does take some effort.   The Visitor Information Center is at 9200 ft, and at nightfall temperatures drop into the 50’s or below.  So we packed long pants, hats, gloves, and sweatshirts along with our bathing suits.   If you have a “true” 4WD drive vehicle you can drive to the  14000 ft summit on a steep gravel road (check safety guidelines first). 
Setting up the telescopes
Here you have one of the clearest night sky views on the planet, we could easily see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  We also  saw Jupiter, Mars and Saturn through telescopes, and watched deep space images on video monitors.
The Milky Way seen from Mauna Kea

Zodiac Raft Trip to Kealakekua Bay
Inacessible by car, Kealakekua Bay is one of the most protected harbors on the island and has exceptionally clear water. It is also the site of the Captain Cook Monument, the only foreign-owned land in the United States.  The crew will fill you in on the whole story.  You can also book catamaran trips and kayak trips, but if you like speed and watching dolphins surf next to you, the zodiac boat is the way to go.

Chasing a fish off a volcano
Exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
There is a lot to see here, and I generally recommend my clients spend a night or two at the summit. (I review the pros and cons with my clients as we design their itinerary.) 

Checking out a steam vent with a GoPro
Walk through a lava tube
We powered through a full day trip from our resort, and were still able to drive the entire length of Chain of Craters Road, have dinner, then go back to see the glow in the caldera after dark.
Kilauea by day and night
What’s exciting right now is a new lava flow which started right before our arrival.  It does require  advance planning as views are only accessible from a parking area about 45 minutes outside the park entrance, and you must hike a few miles along an emergency road.

Note: Lava conditions can change in hours, so visitors need to read the current updates on the NPS website, and talk to rangers before heading out on any hikes.
Lava arches at the end of the road

Night Snorkel With Manta Rays
This was not only the highlight of our trip, but could very well be one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will have in our lifetime. Because of the particular tour we booked, we had at least a dozen huge manta rays (3-10 ft. wing span) swimming within inches of us.  Yes, it was scary at first, but it didn’t take long to relax, realize we were safe, and enjoy the experience.  You can see a video my son took with his GoPro here.

This isn't a spaceship, it's the underside of a manta ray!

And More Snorkeling!
The Big Island is known for some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii and we were not disappointed.  This is one of our favorite activities (we call ourselves "snorkel snobs"), so we chose a resort that had good snorkeling on site and several good beaches nearby, including one with black sand.  There were also lots of turtles at our resort, so it was not unusual to see them in and out of the water. 
Great snorkeling right at our resort
Lots of coral reefs and fish like this Moorish idol
There are many other fun adventures on the Big Island that we didn’t have time to fit in our trip:

Waterfall zip line ~ ATV or horseback riding at Waipio Valley ~ Swim with dolphins
Akaka Falls

Helicopter flightseeing  ~ Lava hike ~  Bicycling tours ~ Scuba and SNUBA

Lava fields
For more information about how to plan a fun Hawaii vacation for your family, send an email to suzette@family-treks.com.