1,646 Miles: Costa Rica, part I (Spring Break 2020)

Not gonna lie: it was hard to come up with a Spring Break destination after the unbelievable awesomeness of The Big Trip.

However, even after doing such ridiculous things as climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge, snorkeling in Moorea, and hiking around Piha in New Zealand, the boys still wax poetic about our Spring Break trip to Costa Rica back in 2017. A quick search on SkyScanner (I can’t recommend this site enough!) back in October showed flights to San Jose coming in at a significantly lower price than flights pretty much anywhere else, domestic or otherwise.

So back to Costa Rica we go!

Little did we know (obviously) that the nasty virus brewing in China had begun to claw its way around the world, knocking out–or seriously putting a damper on–Spring Break plans of many of our friends. Luckily for us, as of March 3, Costa Rica is still Coronavirus free (though we did learn yesterday that 2 cases have been confirmed back in Atlanta).

[Actually, since first drafting the paragraph above, there are now 2 suspected cases here in Costa Rica. Oof.]

[And triple OOF: by the time I finally finished this post, Coronavirus has fully derailed our nation.]

Our flight down to San Jose left Friday, February 28. We sat on the runway for over an hour while TSA searched for a bag to remove from the plane. We were never told exactly what that was about, but we speculated it was someone who’d gotten cold feet due to rumors about the Coronavirus and about being cramped up inside an airplane with 150 other people for 4 hours.

Once on the ground in Costa Rica, we breezed through Customs only to be stalled by a rather inefficient system at the Hertz Rental Car agency. Russ checked in, signed all the paperwork, and was then told we needed to take a shuttle to get to the rental car lot. This being Latin America, things move slowly; we were told the shuttle was scheduled to arrive in “a little while”.

The shuttle finally pulled up 15 or so minutes later, we hopped in, and the driver immediately hopped out.

Five minutes later, we head off on what we thought was a quick jaunt over to the rental car lot. Twenty minutes later we were finally deposited at the lot, and Russ had to re-do the paperwork while enduring some haggling and confusion over insurance. All in all, procuring the rental car was close to an hour-long procedure which meant we were closing in on midnight (2 a.m. our time).

A Hertz worker finally whipped around with our car: a little white 5-speed compact number with no license plate. “No problemo!” said the Hertz worker when I pointed out the missing plates. “No problemo!”

Again, since it was midnight and the Hertz lot now had a line of people snaking out the door, we decided to let this issue go and headed to the hotel instead. Driving a car around Costa Rica is challenging at best, so having an unmarked car didn’t even register as an additional worry.

We were up and at ’em Saturday morning and began the 83 mile drive up to Monteverde, a bumpy, curvy journey that wound up taking over 3 hours.

behold, the iguana crossing sign…

As the name implies, Monteverde is up in the mountains…the steep, steep mountains. Our little unmarked car was not mentally (or physically) prepared for this drive. You know it’s steep when you have to drop down to first gear to grind up a hill; we inched up many steep, gravelly inclines that we likely could have walked up faster. We joked that the car had 2, not 4, cylinders and that our old gerbil, Digger, moved faster in his exercise ball that this car could…hence the nickname for our car was born: the DiggerMobile.

(FYI, Monteverde is the name of the region known for its cloud forest; Santa Elena is the name of the tiny town in the middle of it. Three narrow, sparsely paved roads form a triangle around the village of Santa Elena.)

We finally rolled in to Santa Elena tired, hungry, and predominantly carsick.

Our first priority was lunch. The Digger-Mobile struggled mightily with the steep hill up into Morpho’s Restaurant, and once we parked, we were happy to part ways for an hour or so. Our meals were great, and we hopped back in the Digger-Mobile for the short ride up to our hotel.

El Establo was a great call. The resort is basically carved into the side of a mountain and every room has an incredible view.

Jack checking out the view of the Peninsula Papagayo from the check-in area

We settled in to our rooms, tried to figure out how the A/C worked, and then decided to hike up to the pool for a bit before our first official Monteverde adventure began at 4 p.m.

a most interesting room lay-out

Roughly an hour later, we were at Sabine’s Smiling Horses, ready for a sunset horseback ride.

Our guides didn’t really speak much English, but the 2-hour ride was spectacular…

We watched the sun set over the Nicoya Peninsula which is about 80 miles away from Monteverde.

After our adventure with los caballos, it was dark and time for dinner. Rather than go to the Italian place I’d scouted out, we decided to eat at the first pizza place we came across that also had an easy-to-manage, flat parking lot (the struggle was real for the Digger-Mobile). The exterior of Pizza Natcha was quite charming; the interior was quite, um, simple.

The meal was nothing out of the ordinary–except for the incredible dipping sauces that came with our pizza. One was a bright yellow fiery pepper sauce that was surprisingly awesome (no one else in my family would even try it), and the garlic-olive-oil combo for the bread that came with Theo’s pasta was also great (and subsequently removed any concern about a vampire attack).

We were the lone guests until roughly 30 minutes into our visit when a group of about 10 twenty-somethings sauntered in, each carrying their own 2 liter bottle of soda which we obviously thought was a little odd. The waiter/bartender/owner started pouring shots of something out of a dusty violet colored, unlabeled decanter he’d pulled from the top of a refrigerator (that is, OFF the top of the refrigerator). He carried the tray full of them to the new clientele, and Russ stopped him to ask what they were.

The rest is history…in a flurry of Spanish, the waiter balanced his tray on one arm, pulled one of the shot glasses off, handed it to Russ, patted him on the shoulder, and then walked off.

the bottle looked like it was full of cigarette butts covered with some type of liquid
I actually cannot believe Russ took a shot of this stuff

We had no idea what it was, but thankfully, it did not taste like moldy cigarette butts. Before we could get the waiter’s attention again to ask what on earth Russ had just imbibed, the power went off.

thank goodness the iPhone has a flashlight

Only in Costa Rica, right? The power didn’t just flicker in the restaurant; there was full pitch-black-lights-out-darkness all over the town. We turned on a phone flashlight and hustled outside to see the most magnificently star-coated night sky. After a good and eerie 10 minutes, the power came back on and we were able to pay (cash only as the credit card machine was fried).

Before we left, we asked the waiter once again what crazy stuff was in the purple decanter. We learned that Russ had done a shot of the famous Costa Rican liquor, guaro, the production of which is supposed to be government controlled. We are 110% certain the guaro at Pizza Natcha was the furthest from government controlled you can get–a.k.a. it was some Tico moonshine–yet Russ lived to see another day, a statement which sounds cliche until one gets back to the internet and looks up guaro, only to find this disturbing article.

Back at El Establo, we learned that the earlier power issue was due to some absurdly strong winds. A wind warning had been issued (we weren’t told anything more than that), and the wind was shooting straight up the side of the mountain, rumbling over everything in its way. The winds were blowing so hard the doors of our rooms were shaking. It sounded like a hurricane, and all 5 of us slept terribly. (In fact, wind forecasting is a big deal in Monteverde; there’s even an app dedicated to forecasting wind speed, gusts, and direction.) We aren’t kidding when we say we spent a night listening to a constant howling, screeching, wall-rattling wind.

Needless to say, Team Herakovich was a little tired and irritable the following morning. After breakfast at the hotel, we headed over to SkyAdventures for a hanging bridges tour. We had previously done a hanging bridges tour in Arenal during our last trip to Costa Rica, and we still speak fondly of Donald, our incredible guide, who could hear the frantic scurry of an animal–and then identify said animal–from half a mile away.

Marlin Perkins ain’t got nothing on Donald…

Our guide for the hanging bridges hike in Monteverde was no Donald. Well, to be fair, he perhaps was the botanical equivalent of Donald. And while plants are cool, if they aren’t your thing then it’s really hard to get excited and stay excited about hearing intimate details about them for 3+ hours.

crossing the last hanging bridge which also was the longest and highest (there’s a reason why they save this one for last…)

After a wee debate over whether we should zip-line, we opted instead to head back into town for lunch. I had the honor of commandeering the Digger-Mobile, and, in a feat sure to go down in the annals of Herako-history under Impressive Moves by Mom, I was able to parallel park the Digs on a steep, one-way street, with absolute textbook precision. The boys in the backseat cheered and complimented me–something that rarely happens with a gaggle of teenagers.

I had read fantastic reviews about a little taqueria called Taco Taco, but when we first saw it as we pulled into town the day before, my crew shot it down. However, the next time we cruised by–after our dinner at Pizza Natcha–Taco Taco piqued a little more interest. Its patio was strung with lights, and we could hear music playing and people talking; in short, it was the most hopping place in town.

So after our jungle hike, I insisted we finally go there with the promise that if it was terrible, we would send someone around the corner to fetch crepes.

It was not terrible. In fact, it was the best meal I may have had in Costa Rica. If you’re in Santa Elena, it’s well worth the 3 or 4 trips around the Santa Elena triangle to find a parking space. You must eat there. Trust me. (In full disclosure, we did have one child who still wanted a crepe, but the crepe station was closed. They all settled on ice cream for dessert instead.)

We spent the afternoon packing up a bit and trying to rest up for our upcoming night hike. Tucker wanted to go back up to the pool, so he and I made the required hike straight up the mountain. On the way, we passed the very bizarre peacock coop.

One of my sons observed that this peacock was “literally flexing.” There certainly was a lot of prancing, shaking of tail feathers, and A-game level of flirting going on, but this guy got shot down over and over. Tucker and I found it hilarious.

I walked back down to my room and found Russ and Theo very excitedly flinging potato chips off the balcony. I peeked over the edge to see this:

…a pair of very cute coatis. We are 99% sure we shouldn’t have been feeding them garbage snack foods like potato chips. Sorry about that.

The one thing on Russ’s bucket list for the cloud forest region was a night hike. After cross referencing a million reviews, we settled on the night hike at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.

Every review I read stressed the importance of being in a small group for the night tour (the more people you have, the louder they are; the louder the group is, the more skittish the animals are). As taxi after taxi kept pulling up the gravel drive to the Reserve and dumping out tourist after tourist, the more irritated I got. I thought I’d registered us for a small group tour with a maximum of 8 people in it, which would mean at most only 3 others would join us, but then I’d also thought I’d signed us up for the tour that started at 5:30pm and here it was almost 6:00, and we were still milling around outside the ranger’s office.

I’d forgotten one important thing: how Costa Rican time runs…very slowly.

Around 6:15, a van full of official looking tour guides pulled up, and the mass of tourists awaiting the night tour was divided up into smaller groups. We wound up being paired with a Canadian family of 3. We were all given flashlights and set off on a trail.

Our guide was fantastic, and like the aforementioned Donald, was a wizard at spotting critters in the dark. I was really good at pointing out clumps of moss hanging from tall trees. (They sort of look like a sloth.)

The trails at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are incredible. If we had it to do over, we would have skipped SkyAdventures and would have come to the Reserve and hiked around by ourselves. Each trail is very well marked and well maintained. We wished we could have seen this place in the daytime.

We had a late dinner at Tramonti, an Italian roadside place halfway between the Reserve and our hotel. The parking lot was packed to the gills, and we were nearly 45 minutes late for our reservation which made us worry, but we walked in and were ushered right over to a table with our name on it. Costa Rican time was on our side.

The food was tasty, and afterwards you walked up to the register and paid without a ticket or proper check, somewhat on the honor system. Costa Ricans are some of the nicest, most trustworthy people on the planet.

We rolled back in to the El Establo with our fingers crossed for a less windy, more sleep filled night. The next morning we were headed back to one of our favorite beach towns: Tamarindo.

9,280 Miles: Sydney, Part IV

Friday morning (July 19) was beautiful: clear, crisp, breezy, and calling for us to be outdoors. First stop: Darling Harbour.

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The Children’s Playground here (inside the massive Tumbalong Park) is something else; it’s not often you stumble across a playground touted as the best in an entire country. Even our 15 year old was drawn to it. One thing’s for sure: the Aussies have no fear of heights.

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Tumbalong ParkΒ also houses the Chinese Garden of Friendship, a place that makes just about every must-do list. Its name certainly does not invoke how awesome (and surprisingly large) this place is, nor does it give any hints as to how intricate and thoughtfully created it is. The Garden is truly a quiet, green haven in the middle of Sydney. We did not anticipate spending over an hour there, but once we started weaving along its intricate paths, we didn’t want to leave.

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From the Chinese Garden, we ambled over to the actual harbour for lunch. We were sucked in by Harbourside.

This next paragraph may make many of you shudder. Harbourside is a waterfront shopping mall. Egads. A mall. When the rest of Sydney was laid out before us. I know. But hear me out.

We were starving and having a hard time agreeing on where to get lunch, and we knew Harbourside housed a little diversion called 9-D Action Cinema, so we poked our heads inside to assess the food court situation. Here’s what we found just inside the main doors:

…a crazy bungee jump/trapeze type flipping apparatus…

…which our daredevils, Theo and Tucker, had to try.

While Russ handled that mayhem, Jack and I wandered the food court and settled on a depressing little facsimile of our beloved Willy’s, The Mad Mex. I think the rest of the gang ate pancakes from McDonald’s. It was a sad meal, indeed.

At this point, we should’ve ditched the thought of the 9-D Action Cinema, but oh no. We were already deep inside this vat of kitsch, so we weren’t about to give up yet.

We forked over way too much money for the menfolk to take a 9-D (is that even possible?) “ride” on a rollercoaster. I sat outside the cinema and people watched. I made the better choice.

All of that bouncing–both virtual and actual– coupled with a sub-par lunch had left a few folks a little green around the gills, so we hailed an Uber and headed back home. Actually, saying we “hailed” the Uber is not right; we called several Ubers, each of whom was having a hard time finding us due to lots of one way streets and the fact that we’d wandered back through The Children’s Playground and Tumbalong Park, between 2 gigantic office buildings, and out to the edge of what appeared to be a large interstate highway. And to make it even more confusing, because we were Americans who still couldn’t remember the whole “drive on the left” thing, we were on the wrong side of the divided highway.

Uber after Uber would go blazing by on the other side, the driver honking his horn at us and waving his arms, with no way to stop.

We eventually resorted to a very dangerous game of human Frogger to get to the other side, but as we were still on a highway, there was no way for a driver to stop. So we trudged farther down (or up?) the highway until we could cut off onto a side street where we finally were able to catch a ride. The entire process took well over an hour.

We recouped at the apartment for awhile before our biggest outing of the week: the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb.

We opted for the sunset climb–an adventure that the website said was to take 3.5 hours, which made us a little nervous. Russ isn’t a fan of climbing up really high things. (Plus, three and a half hours sounded like a lot of physical exertion.)

Fear not, friends: it does not take 3.5 hours to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A great portion of that time is spent checking-in, watching the video on its construction (which was fascinating–it took 8 years to build, they used over 6,000,000 rivets…), getting suited up, getting trained, completing the practice climb, and then waiting for your “go time” with your guide. They stagger groups going up on the bridge. We’d lucked out and were in a group of just the 5 of us (and our guide), but there was a very large group who’d finished their pre-climb checklist barely 2 minutes before we did. Our guide tried calling the powers-that-be to hopefully get us leapfrogged ahead of the big group, but he had no luck.

So we were stuck behind a group of 12 climbers, none of whom looked particularly fit or adventurous.

While technically you are continually attached to the bridge, the tether that connects your climbing suit to the 1″ diameter or so metal railing doesn’t feel like it would do much to even slow down a stumble, much less halt a fall. We tried to not focus on that.

The climb starts out easy enough; you ride an elevator up to the bridge base, and the guide hooks you in there. Then you have to walk out across the flat part to where the actual arches begin. The flat part is roughly a quarter of a mile straight out to one of the four giant pylons that appear to support the arch of the bridge (you’re several stories above a large grassy plain). From this point on is where it gets a little more interesting.

There are a lot of steep, narrow ladders bolted into the side of the pylon, and you weave and climb your way up those. The ladder part was the most frightening to me; they aren’t very wide and the footpad of each rung was shallow enough that your entire foot wasn’t on it. There’s also the updraft (and noise) from the 8-lane highway running directly beneath you that gets in your head a bit.

Once through the ladder part, you pop out to the open-air arches and an incredible view of Sydney. This part of the climb is not strenuous, but it is still a little nerve rattling which was exacerbated by the fact that we were climbing at a snail’s pace due to the large group ahead of us. This same large group caused us to miss seeing the sunset from the summit of the bridge, so once it was finally our turn to cross the top from the east side of the bridge to the west side to begin the descent, it was full-on nighttime. Our little group was a little disappointed to have missed the sunset, and we were more than a little irritated with the massive hold-up the slow group was causing.

Thankfully, the way back down was decidedly faster (though no less harrowing on the ladders), and as we were about to start our descent, our guide pointed out the Southern Cross–our first time seeing it–which was spectacular! The night sky in the Southern hemisphere really is different; you can’t help but notice it.

Once we made it back to firm ground, we unsuited, peeked at the photos they’d taken of us during our climb, opted not to purchase them (we felt they were exorbitantly overpriced, but in hindsight maybe we should have tried to barter them down a bit), and walked up the road to grab dinner at one of Sydney’s oldest pubs, the Australian Hotel. It was crowded and a little rowdy, and the pizzas were a great way to top off a great day.

That marked 4 days down in Australia…only 4 more left to go. The Big Trip was going by way too quickly.

9,280 Miles: Off to the zoo–Taronga (Sydney, Part III)

My boys have always loved the zoo.

Jack’s very first trip to the Atlanta Zoo; January 5, 2005

In fact, they adore all animals, big or small, land-dwellers or sea-dwellers.

Sadly, little boys do tend to grow up, and weekend trips to the zoo begin to dwindle. While Zoo Atlanta is indeed great, after our 10,000th trip there, we felt like we’d seen all it had to offer. But throw a new venue into the mix and we’re all game; we’ve been to Farmer Sue’s Art Barn, the Georgia Aquarium (of course), the infamous Animal Exit off I-16, and just about any petting farm we come across. So when the opportunity presented itself to visit the world renowned Taronga Zoo in Sydney, we could hardly wait.

The zoo lies across the Sydney Harbour in Mosman. We bought ferry tickets at Circular Quay (through an ATM-like machine that oddly only lets you purchase 3 tickets at a time) and headed out before the zoo had even opened. The 12-minute trip across the harbour is smooth and lets you see Sydney from a different vantage.

We hopped off the ferry and onto the SkySafari gondola which whips you up the hillside and over the entire zoo and deposits you at the very ornate front gate. We bought tickets, grabbed a few maps, and made our way in.

when the main entryway looks like this, you know it’s going to be a pretty interesting place

We were initially on a mission to find a koala, so we hung a sharp left and set forth into the Australia Walkabout section.

Holy cow. The Taronga Zoo is squeaky clean, well laid out, and enormous, and it has the absolute coolest animal habitats I think we’ve ever seen. We popped in to the Australian Nightlife exhibit which was–of course–pitch black dark, so all the tiny critters in there would participate. There was a whole lot of scampering and scurrying going on in there. Our gerbils would have been fast friends with these guys…

(While one used to be able to actually hold a koala in Australia, folks figured out that it really stresses the little guys out–big time–so they put the kibosh on human physical contact with them.)

To enter the kangaroo/emu/wallaby area, you push open a gate, walk into a small holding area, close the first gate, and then walk across to open a second gate–so there’s a two-door system going on which we thought was pretty clever. Right outside the second gate, there’s a sign reminding folks to stay on the path.

This is an underrated reminder because there are no barriers between you and the creatures as you walk along this path. We were stunned to find ourselves walking along just three feet away from kangaroos.

We were truly floored to find ourselves so close to these guyss. And it didn’t stop there; the majority of the Taronga habitats are this way, so you constantly find yourself up-close-and-personal with all sorts of critters.

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…but there are also critters just free-roaming which is a bizarre (and quite fun) experience.

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this bird was fascinated with Theo’s dominoes…

The seal show was campy yet worthwhile…and a nice opportunity to sit down for a bit.

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We spent far too long watching the antics of the lemurs…fullsizeoutput_fa91

And we couldn’t believe just how tiny (and, frankly, humanlike) this baby gorilla was…

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Everyone knows Australians have the best accent around; they also have some of the best words around…like “muster”. Here’s the best we could muster:

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And then, after several hours of wandering around the awesomeness of the Taronga Zoo, we finally decided it was time to head out. We walked back up to the main gate, and Russ set about getting an Uber. While we were waiting, Theo–who was in serious domino building mode–sat down to make a video clip. This bird–perhaps the same bird who’d earlier shown interest in Theo’s dominoes–followed us out the gate and into the courtyard, where he proceeded to come at Theo and peck at his dominoes. No fear in this one (the bird or Theo).

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Our cab finally arrived and rather than go straight back down to the ferry we’d arrived on, we opted to get dropped off in a different area: Lavender Bay Wharf. While the name sounds lovely, there wasn’t too much to see at this tiny port, so we bought our return ferry ticket and waited on the boat.

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Ah, Luna Park. I was hoping we would not see this as I am not an amusement park fan and didn’t want to spend a day sitting around waiting for folks to ride rides. (Luckily, a sail-by was enough, though the name did come up a few times from Tucker whenever we asked if anyone had an idea of what we should do.)

Back in Circular Quay, Theo got sucked in to a bizarre busker who was balancing on a bicycle on top of a pole held up by four volunteers suckers. The show dragged on and on and on and when he started juggling knives, we knew it was time to go.

We grabbed a quick snack at The Rocks Cafe (for Russ and me) and Gelatissimo (for the boys) and then headed back to the apartment. 

The fabulous Centennial Parklands was basically in our backyard, so Russ took the boys over there for a little downtime while Jack and I relaxed and read in the apartment–or at least I tried to relax…until Russ started sending photos of the daredevils on the playground… 

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Thankfully, they all returned in one piece, and we walked back out to grab dinner at Vino e Cucina, which was a perfect way to wind up a perfect day.

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Yes, Paddington, we absolutely do love you.

 

9,280 Miles: Bondi to Coogee (Sydney, Part II)

(This one’s going to be flooded with photos, so consider yourselves forewarned…)

Before we jet off on any trip, I spend way too many hours reading everything I can get my hands on about our destination, solely to steel my nerves. What typically begins as a Google search on must-sees in a city often winds up with a trip far, far down the deepest rabbit holes of the internet. These crazy diversions often yield interesting sidebars, and I wind up with a solid list of things that we absolutely cannot miss. The Bondi-to-Coogee Coastal Walk was one of those can’t-be-misseds.

After an interesting breakfast at our apartment (interesting due to its composition: cheese, crackers, dry cereal…), we hopped in a cab for the surprisingly quick ride out to Bondi Beach. It was Wednesday, the 17th of July…we think.

There’s no other way to put it: Bondi Beach is spectacularly beautiful. It’s huge and wide and rounded and–well–just like you’d imagine a place known all the world over to be. There’s something about the beach in winter, too, that makes it even more magical. We fell in love. Hard.

An incredible paved trail wraps around the steep cliffs that surround the inlets housing several beaches between Bondi and Coogee. Like everything else we encountered in Australia, this nearly 4 mile trail is impeccably maintained and absolutely beautiful.

Before we could get started on the trail, someone had to take a peek at the skatepark…

We wound up lingering around Bondi for close to an hour because we just couldn’t pull ourselves away. We saw something incredible in every direction we turned.

After taking more photos than you can shake a stick at, we finally set out on our walk. We headed south on the trail and before we even got our heart rates up a notch, we came up to the world famous Bondi Icebergs Club and its fascinating, cliff-hanging pool.

this is one tough dude, swimming in the middle of winter in an unheated, ocean-filled pool

Once past Icebergs, the next stop is Mackenzie’s Point. The rock walls making up the sides have some fascinating designs and patterns carved into them courtesy of being eternally pelted by ocean winds.

We managed to keep moving along, though we were absolutely amazed at every turn we made.

We shimmied around a rocky point and then took a ton of steps downwards toward Tamarama Beach and its Surf Life Saving Club–a club which I think I would not want to be a member of.

From Tamarama Beach, the coastal walk takes you around another point and down to the largest beach on the Bondi to Coogee walk: Bronte Beach.

these people are certifiably crazy; the waves were huge, there was a riptide warning, and the water was ice cold

From Bronte Beach, the path takes you up some steep stairs and on the edge of a road that’s lined with ridiculous houses overlooking the sea. Keep walking and you’ll go back down some more stairs (did I mention the path is chock full of steps leading up and down and up and down?) to a boardwalk that runs between the ocean and Waverley Cemetery. The cemetery opened in 1877 and is spectacular in a creepy, hanging-on-the-side of the world kind of way.

From the cemetery, we kept trekking and came upon the Clovelly Bowling Club. The Australians love them some lawn bowling; we stumbled upon several different lawn bowling clubs while we were there. This one was particularly appealing, and we seriously debated going in for a game, but in the end, hunger prevailed. (It’s also very difficult to say “Clovelly Crocodiles” five times fast. Give it a try…)

We wrapped around Shark Point, headed through Burrows Park, and wound around the skinny inlet of Clovelly Beach before tackling a very steep section of the trail that runs parallel to a road. Once we came over the top of the hill, Coogee Beach lay out before us.

Coogee is a quaint little suburb of Sydney dating back to the early 1800’s. We were starving, so we headed in to the Coogee Pavilion for lunch. Afterwards, Theo and I moseyed back to the incredibly cool game area inside the Pavilion while Jack, Tucker, and Russ headed over to the beach. (Tucker made the moderately unwise decision of getting in the water and then was wet and cold until we made it back to the apartment.)

The Coogee Pavilion was outstanding: it was lively and had tons of food options, and the game area in the back was a marvelous surprise filled with giant versions of tons of classic board games (think Scrabble and Backgammon) and not one single electronic or video game.

The Bondi to Coogee walk is a manageable distance, but there’s a lot of ups and downs going on, so at times it was slow going. It’s also a visual overload of beauty, and we didn’t want to miss a single thing. All this is to say we were dog-tired afterwards and headed back to the apartment for a much needed lie-down (we were still a little off due to jet-lag, too).

That night we took it easy once again. I wandered into the village of Paddington and found the cutest wine shop, Paddington Fine Wines, with the cutest sales clerk, Rosie. Russ wandered off in his own direction and found an incredible Italian restaurant we would end up visiting two more times before we left.

The fresh air definitely did us some good. We were finally adapting to Australian time (more or less) and were already dreading this portion of our big trip coming to an end. By the end of day 2, we were Australia fans for life.

9,280 Miles: Sydney, Part I

(Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration; Honolulu to Sydney is “only” 5,071 miles…)

We managed to stay awake for the duration of the flight, which was relatively smooth with the exception of one batch of fairly bouncy turbulence as we crossed over the Intertropical Convergence Zone (where the north meets the south around the equator). However, right when we were bobbing across this patch, we were treated to two brothers (not ours!) a row in front of us getting into a fist fight. This altercation was so bad that one of the flight attendants got up out of her seat to come speak to them. (Their parents–seated a row in front of the boys–were headphoned up and somehow unaware of the mayhem taking place right behind them.)

Then, about 45 minutes out from landing, Russ was waiting in line for the restroom when one of those same boys walked up to the bathroom line and proceeded to hurl. On the floor of the plane. Russ barely made it out of the way. The poor thing’s hurling didn’t stop there. UGH.

Did you know that when you fly into Australia from another country, you have to stay seated once you finally arrive at the gate while they come on and fumigate the plane? It’s called “aircraft disinsection,” it’s conducted by “biosecurity officers,” and it’s a little creepy. Flight attendants go down the aisles and open every single overhead bin while the biosecurity folks stand ominously by the doors to the plane. Then they walk up and down the aisles, emptying umpteen cans of spray insecticide into the bins. Between the poor kid throwing up left and right and the dissemination of copious amounts of insecticide, we were beyond ready to exit that plane.

Rather than roll our bags down the barf-aisle, we clambered across the middle row and then down the opposite aisle–all while being screamed at by a flight attendant for not going the right way. Um, sorry-not-sorry. We are steering clear of Patient 0 and his mushroom cloud of germs.

We zipped through Customs despite me not being able to put my hands on the printed copies of our visas; I pretty much dumped every single thing out of my backpack and all over the floor trying to find them before the Customs official said, “no worries, mate; they’re recorded electronically.” Deep breaths.

We hopped an Uber and headed out to Paddington and our home for the next 8 nights.

After the prequisite arguments amongst the boys over sleeping arrangements, we all fell into bed and crashed hard–only to wake up in the middle of the night absolutely freezing. Hello winter in Australia.

view up the street towards the market in Paddo

Our little neighborhood was adorable, walkable, clean, and comfy. We loved it and we loved our apartment (especially once we figured out how to turn on the heat). It served as a fabulous home base for the next 8 nights.

strolling through Paddo in search of breakfast

Science museums are normally our jam, so our first stop Down Under was the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Also known as the Powerhouse Museum, this place was on every single “must-see” list I uncovered. The Powerhouse also featured a special Apollo 11 exhibit in honor of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. We were all pretty fired up.

also, shout out to one of the boys’ favorite science teachers–Ms. Maas-on-a-Rock πŸ™‚

Maybe it was because we were exhausted and had no idea what day it was. Maybe it was because the Australians were on their winter school holiday, so the place was crawling with itty-bitty kiddos. Maybe I’d overhyped this place. Maybe…just maybe…our boys have outgrown science museums (Russ and I were truly saddened at this possibility). Regardless, we were in and out of the Powerhouse much faster than I’d anticipated.

[Revisiting the MAAS website now, however, makes me realize we just hit this place at the wrong time. While there were some bizarre exhibits (“The Ideal Home“, for instance), there were some really cool things, too. Like The Wiggles exhibit…I mean, like the vertigo inducing Zero Gravity Space Lab.]

(not the Zero Gravity thing…just a cool prism thingy)

From the Powerhouse Museum, we took an Uber to The Rocks and set out to find a lunch venue.

Australia has a very unique history; the British–once they’d discovered there was a giant mass of land way down there in the Southern hemisphere–decided it was a great place to ship out some of their convicts…a destination prison, if you will. Despite what most folks think, these convicts weren’t all that terribly dangerous; people were sent to the prison colony for petty crimes like stealing a bag of sugar or cutting down a tree. Sending criminals to Australia was actually a way for the British to remove a segment of their population that the Brits had deemed were less than desirable due to their poverty levels. Not the best moment for Great Britain.

Anyway, the remnants of the prison colony are in the area now called The Rocks, and The Rocks was our next stop for the day. But first, lunch.

I think we ate our weight in guacamole and queso at the El Camino Cantina

After lunch, we walked around The Rocks a bit; it’s one of the oldest areas in Sydney and is filled with quaint European-ish buildings and cobblestone streets. The area also stands in the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

If you turn around, you’ll also find yourself (somewhat) face-to-face with another Sydney icon: its Opera House. We walked a little ways around Circular Quay to get better views.

We made a pit stop for the boys to get some ice cream and then we headed up to the fabulous Blu Bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri La hotel. While the Blu Bar technically wasn’t open yet, the Aussies once again proved they are the nicest, most accommodating folks on the planet by humoring us and even serving us a drink. Bonus points for the Barbie Themed Tea Party going on in the lobby, too…

HTH Dominoes hard at work

After the Shangri-La and a bit more ambling around, we were once again running on fumes, so we headed back to the apartment. Russ set out to find a market for wine and snacks, and he came back praising the little neighborhood and all it had to offer. It felt like a perfect October night, and we all piled up on the sofa to watch a movie, marveling that we were halfway around the planet from our home.

We were smitten with Sydney already.

4,490 Miles: Hawaii, Part III

Friday, July 12–our second day with the rental car–found us still up and at ’em before sunrise.

Once the sun finally joined us, we headed out for a quick breakfast before a hike. Leonard’s malasadas are pretty much a legend in Honolulu (at least according to Google and any cab driver we encountered) despite the fact that they are actually a Portuguese, not a Hawaiian pastry. These hole-less fried doughnut-type thingies were pretty good, according to the boys. Get the plain sugar or the cinnamon-sugar regular malasadas and don’t mess with the malasada puffs, which are way over-stuffed with gooey, super sweet cream filling. Theo made an unfortunate order of a dobash malasada puff that was pretty much inedible until he squeezed out all the chocolate pudding filling.

And he squeezed that filling out of the window of the rental car–right onto the door of the rental car…without us realizing it had dripped on the door and had begun its slow slide downwards. [Foreshadowing.]

We were headed a tiny bit outside of Honolulu to Manoa Falls, but first, since we were only about two miles from the butt of a very funny high school joke, I forced my family to take a side-trip…

…by Chaminade University. Give it up for the mighty Silverswords!

(If you graduated from Vidalia High School back in 1989, you might be in on this joke, especially if you were stuck in homeroom with us cool kids whose last names started with A-Ca. Otherwise, I apologize for taking up a few paragraphs on this.)

Obviously, way back when we were applying to college, there was no such thing as the internet. And because it was over 4,600 miles away from Vidalia, no one–including VHS’s somewhat intimidating, opinionated, and homegrown college guidance counselor–had ever heard of this little university with an undergraduate enrollment of around 1,500 students (at that time)…no one, that is, except my dear friend Brian. (How he dug up info on it to begin with is beyond me.)

So while we endured presentation after presentation from our sweet-but-less-than-savvy guidance counselor on “choosing the right fit for you” and what she called “the benefits of staying close to home,” Brian would mumble under his breath something along the lines of, “nah, man. That’s not what they tell you at Chaminade.” It also did not help that our class had someone being recruited all over the southeast to play football; he’d come to school each morning talking about yet another college or university that had contacted him, to which Brian would reply, “yeah, well, the Coach from Chaminade had me on the phone half the night, too.” Or, “I’m really thinking Chaminade’s the place for me. It’s the right fit.” It was all stunningly ironic and incredibly dry humored, and Brian’s long distance love for Chaminade spread amongst my best friends. Midway through our Senior year, we were all Chaminade fans for life, sight unseen.

Trust me: it was really funny. (To the best of my knowledge, no one from my class (much less the guidance counselor, who grew beyond peeved at hearing random shouts of “Go Chaminade!” at all her mandatory guiding lectures) so much as ordered a brochure from this little gem of a school, much less applied to it.)

It took all of about 4 minutes to drive the loop through the Chaminade campus. If we could’ve found the bookstore, I’d have wiped them out of t-shirts.

Anyway, I knew if I’d gotten that close to hallowed ground, I had to follow it through to the end–hence the photo above, which won the Facebook for the day (well, at least the Facebook of my friend Brian for the day).

And with that, we’re on to Manoa Falls…

After climbing Diamondhead Crater, Jack mentioned that he really enjoyed hiking, so we began searching out other [manageable] hikes. Manoa Falls is the second most frequently hiked trail in Oahu and clocks in at just under two miles round trip, but don’t let that short distance fool you; there were some tricky, slippery parts on this muddy, rocky trail leading up to a 150 foot waterfall.

deep in the jungle…

We were quite sticky, hot, and sweaty when we climbed up the last few steps to this:

Please note that large sign on the left: DANGER. STOP! Please also recall yesterday’s ridiculous cliff jumping episode. Clearly, “stop” and “no” are not well understood by some members of my family. (How did I fail so badly at this one aspect of parenting?) (<–P.S. That link is worth clicking, just saying–skip the ads.)

Thankfully, the two daredevils made it back from their dip in the freezing cold pool in one piece and without contracting leptospirosis. (<—proof that I’m not just a Nervous Nelly for funsies; I fear things for valid reasons.)

We wrapped up our hike and headed from one danger to another: the Halona Blowhole.

not the blowhole, obviously πŸ™‚
(the drive there was unbelievably gorgeous)

The blowhole was formed by lava from many volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. The lava flowed down into the sea and quickly cooled into tubes through which water shoots out, like a geyser. It doesn’t sound too impressive on paper, but trust me: it is. Watching the Halona Blowhole erupt kept our attention for close to an hour.

site of the rolling-around-in-the-ocean-make-out-scene in From Here to Eternity
(also the site of mermaid scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 4)

Did the daredevils want to climb down to the beach pictured above? Of course they did. However, this time, Russ and I were in agreement that such an adventure was a hard no. Just a few days before we were there, two people were washed out to sea from Halona and drowned. (And few days after we were there, two more folks were hit by a huge wave and sucked out into the ocean; they were luckier and managed to be rescued.) The Halona area is not one to be messed with.

We pulled ourselves away from the mesmerizing blowhole and drove back towards Waikiki a tiny bit to the Koko Marina to grab lunch. There were tons of options, and we wound up having a perfectly lovely meal at the Kona Brewing Co. overlooking the marina.

From there, we headed to Hanauma Bay to spend the afternoon on the beach.

Hanauma Bay is a state park and beach nestled inside the caldera of an old, old volcano–a location that’s a magnet for cool sea creatures to call home. You pay (a minimal amount) to enter/park, and they make you watch a short video about the conservation of sea life before you can take the 5 minute hike down to the beach.

up at the park HQ, waiting for our allotted video viewing time
lots of warnings on the lifeguard stand means this is our kind of place

We had snorkels for 4, so that meant we rotated through them with the odd-man-out in charge of guarding our stuff on the beach.

Snorkeling here was terrific; there were many, many more things to see than at Shark’s Cove (though don’t let that turn you off from visiting Shark’s Cove; it’s still absolutely worth it).

Theo and Russ snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, taken by Tucker and his GoPro
just one of the myriad critters we saw…

If you can handle a little bit of shaky filming, here’s a pretty cool video from Tucker.

Once our fingers and toes were all puckered from being in the ocean so long, we packed up and headed back to the hotel to shower and then out to dinner on our next to the last night in Honolulu. We took the path of least resistance and walked over to the Tiki Bar & Restaurant above the Aston Waikiki Resort right next door. The live music and sunset views were pretty doggone solid, and everyone left happy.

The purple taro rolls were an added bonus (this one was accidentally dropped on the floor which is why it’s rudely lounging on the table rather than a proper plate…).

Part One of our Big Trip was coming to an end mighty quickly. We had just one last full day in Oahu…

4,490 Miles: Hawaii, Part II (Road Trip: North Shore)

you can’t help but be happy when you look at these license plates…

…and here we go with the rental car!

When we began planning The Big Trip, our surfer boy, Tucker, had only one request: we must visit the North Shore.

(Actually, that’s not true…he had many requests, including cliff diving, amongst other ridiculous ones. But taking a day trip out of Honolulu was an easy item to address, especially since the island of Oahu is only 44 miles long.)

We were up and at ’em before daybreak once again on our third day in Hawaii, but we couldn’t pick up the car until 7 a.m. (most everyone knows I am not a morning person, so even typing that sentence cracks me up.). We borrowed towels from the hotel, loaded up, and headed north. First stop: Sunset Beach.

The North Shore of Oahu is famous for big waves and big beaches–pretty much everything a surfer desires…but the most spectacular display of these waves occurs predominantly in the winter months. Turn around to the summer months (we’re still in the Northern Hemisphere here), and these crazy spots of monster waves featured on YouTube are a bit in hibernation…just a bit. They’re still crazy enough to impress the socks off a gaggle of teenagers. I can vouch for that.

Sunset Beach, a little less than an hour from Honolulu, is pretty much a straight shot north up the middle of the island through fields of sugar cane and pineapple plants. The sand on Sunset Beach is ridiculously deep and quicksandish and–to be honest–tough to walk in, but the beach was stunning and almost eerily empty (perhaps because we arrived at the wee old hour of just quarter past 8 in the morning). We managed to keep the boys out of the water here and only stayed on Sunset, squashing up its ankle deep squishy sand for about 30 minutes.

Next stop: Ehukai Beach Park, home of the Banzai Pipeline where waves can roll in at 20 feet high. Fortunately (for me, not for our surfing kiddo), these ginormous waves only show up during the winter months on the North Shore. Still, the waves were pretty crazy, and the boys couldn’t stand not getting in the water.

loved this tree leading in to the beach park

The photos don’t do it justice; waves taller than the boys would come crashing down on a shore break–meaning the wave just sort of shows up out of the blue and then rolls over right on the shore. The boys were never in water above their waists, yet they would be completely submerged when the waves would come. It was fascinating to watch (and a bit nerve wracking).

After an hour or so of being slammed into the shore, we needed a little break. We headed into the town of Haleiwa.

Russ and Tucker are surf-shop junkies and the North Shore Surf Shop did not disappoint. Right across the street was a beautiful little restaurant, Haleiwa Beach House, so we popped in for a drink and a snack. Of course, nothing in Hawaii is cheap, so while the full menu there looked great (I particularly loved the garlic edamame), we opted to mosey on in to Haleiwa proper to search for something a little less extravagant for lunch.

waiting for our slices of pizza at Spaghettini in Haleiwa
(and Theo had an unfortunate sunblock application incident)

After lunch, we headed back out of Haleiwa Town towards Shark’s Cove for some snorkeling. I’m not the world’s best snorkeler–something about seeing all those living, moving critters underneath me gives me the willies–but Shark’s Cove was quite fun. We were grateful to have brought water shoes, though. There were tons of sharp rocks, and it’s a slippery walk to get out into the cove.

it gets deeper the farther back you go–it also gets much colder

Snorkeling Shark’s Cove is fantastic–if you have the gear. We all enjoyed it a ton and saw tons of sea-stuff (very colorful fish, flow-y sucker-creatures, what-have-you…remember, underwater viewing ain’t exactly my jam).

Last adventure-y spot for the day: Waimea Bay. I offered to drive from Shark’s Cove to Waimea, which was a critical error in mom-ness. See, for the past two months, Tucker had been jockeying to “cliff dive” while in Hawaii. He showed us multiple crazy, ridiculously dangerous videos of individuals making ridiculously bad life choices by jumping off various ridiculously stupid cliffs/rocks/jetties/what-have-you. We spent many a night ’round our dinner table with me going from merely voicing stern objection to this idea to me absolutely losing my mind over the idea of this idea.

But back to the adventure at hand: it’s notoriously difficult to park at Waimea Bay and its Beach Park. I dropped the boys and the other parent man-child/co-conspirator off, with the intention to meet them *right over there* on the beach as soon as I could park.

Well, they weren’t lying about the tricky parking situation. It was Buzzardville up in there; cars stalking folks walking out towards the lot/road, and it took forever…about 20 minutes, to be exact.

Upon finally winning my round of The Hunger Games in the parking lot, I grabbed the towels and made my way to our designated meeting area where I realized the folks I were to meet were not there.

Hmmm.

Then I looked around and saw the freaking stupid “cliff” from which Tucker had been wanting to “cliff dive” for the past two months. Guess where I found the rest of my family?

are you kidding me?
that one mid-air is Tucker
his response? “it’s only about 10m; I’ve jumped off that at diving…”

At the Waimea Jump Rock.

To say I was not a happy camper after this foolishness is quite the understatement.

Luckily–as is the case with most places in Oahu–the rest of the beach was gorgeous and semi-non-life-threatening.

Finally, we packed up and left the mayhem of Waimea’s magnetic (for some members of our family) Jump Rock and took a slight detour back through Haleiwa Town to visit Matsumoto’s Shave Ice for, well, one of their world famous shave ices. (We’re still not sure why it’s called “shave ice” rather than “shaveD ice” but the line was long and the boys say it was 110% worth it.)

We rolled on back to Honolulu late that afternoon with no plans for dinner. We all desperately needed a shower, so we handled that scenario with a little bit of UB40 playing in the background and then found ourselves with 3 exhausted boys, ready for bed. So Russ and I decided to pop down to a restaurant underneath our hotel; at the last minute, Jack pulled himself out of bed to join us.

Arancino was surprisingly hopping and surprisingly tasty. We 3 sat at a small table in the bar and had a lovely conversation and some excellent pasta to fill our bellies. Jack and I stumbled back upstairs while Russ went in search of the perfect swimsuit a little farther down the road (at least that’s what he said he was doing *just kidding* he came back with a new suit for himself and for Theo).

We had one more full day scheduled with the car and had our sights set on a solid hike followed-up with seeing several exciting parts of the windward side of Oahu on Friday. We had our fingers crossed that we’d all sleep past…oh…5 a.m. on Friday morning, but it wasn’t going to be in our cards (just yet)…

4,490 Miles: Honolulu (Or, The First Stop on The Big Trip)

The first leg of The Big Trip has finally arrived!

We bolted out of Hotlanta and headed to Honolulu to kick off what’s sure to be the most epic travel adventure we’ve ever had (and quite possibly ever will have).

Can we do this thing with carry-ons only? Consider the gauntlet thrown…

Our mega-adventure kicked off with a massive, unexpected bonus: two of our five flight tickets were upgraded…not just to Premium Select Class, not just to First Class, but all the way up to the *One* Class.

The plan (because there has to be a plan, you know) was to rotate the five of us through these two seats in two-hour shifts so that everyone enjoyed a good four hours of lie-flat, non-claustrophobic luxury. Our dear friends at the airline that starts with the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet weren’t really on board for this idea (shocker) and after a little back-and-forth, they finally told Russ to just be discrete about it.

[“Discrete” is hardly an adjective used to describe a few members of our family.]

Russ made a chart–a chart, I say–and I waited patiently for the fourth hour of the flight when my first round of luxury was to occur. The time crawled by…especially when Theo drifted back after his first two-hour rotation to send Tuck up front and showed Jack and me photos of him with a down comforter wrapped around his reclined body…along with a photo of the dining menu. A few minutes later, Russ came back to switch with Jack.

The careful reader will here note that we foolishly sent Tucker and Jack–alone–up to the lap of luxury.

The four-hour mark hit, and I hopped up and wanted to sprint to the front to dispossess the seat from Tucker, but I controlled myself because I’m discrete and all.

I cannot lie. I’ve now been behind the curtain. One Class is indeed the bomb.com. I spent the first 20 minutes of my shift looking like the rookie that I was and grinning madly as I stretched out completely flat (one benefit of being 5’3″) while gripping the down comforter with one hand and the wine list with the other.

A few minutes later, Russ drifted back up to claim his seat and oust Jack…

…who protested a bit too loudly, apparently.

After two of the fastest hours of my life, Russ shuffled back to start the rotation for the fourth time (it was Jack and Tucker’s turn again)…at which point our favorite airline shut that stuff down and requested that the two actual ticketed seat holders return to their seats (I mean, really. The nerve.)

(Kidding.)

So Russ and Theo finished the last two hours of the flight up in the Burj Khalifa while the rest of us were stuck back at the Tall Pines Motel. To one of our children, this was a brutal demonstration of inequality, particularly since he’d only gotten one trip up to the front while the youngest member of our family spent well over five hours there.

The struggle was real, folks.

Nonetheless, a little after 3 in the afternoon Honolulu time, we were in our hotel rooms and ready to go.

Our first view of the Waikiki coastline from our hotel room…

Four of us were quite excited to be back on solid ground and within walking distance of the ocean; one of us needed a little time to recoup from the travesty of missing out on a second shift in the upgraded seat.

above child did *not* spend over half the flight in a supine position…
…youngest child who did spend over half the flight being treated as a celebrity…
(and subsequently celebrated by dressing as a 75 year old male tourist)
locals were constantly jumping off the ledges and even the *roof* of that thatched hut…
(cue the “cliff diving” requests from Tucker…)

When one goes to Honolulu, one should obviously take the time to experience Pearl Harbor, but when Russ suggested we sign up for the tour that was leaving our hotel the very next morning at 6 a.m., I originally balked.

Fortunately, Russ made the correct decision. Our entire family was wide awake and raring to go by 4 a.m.

And Pearl Harbor by morning’s light is spectacularly moving.

Even though the actual U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is currently closed for renovations, this was still an incredibly educational and moving experience for us.
Learning about the Pacific Theater truly helped us understand the history of what took place during WWII on the other side of the world.

The tour is pretty much self-guided with the exception of the ferry ride out past the Arizona and the U.S.S. Missouri. We also toured the U.S.S. Bowfin, a submarine launched on December 7, 1942, exactly one year after the Pearl Harbor bombings. The submarine is only 311 feet long, yet housed between 70-80 sailors for months at a time. Going through this puppy in July really hit home just how hard it must’ve been to be a submariner. There’s no way I could have done it.

mess hall
sleeping quarters

While waiting on our extremely verbose bus driver to return, we realized we were starving. As you might imagine, there’s not exactly a lot of dining options at a national memorial, so we wound up cobbling together a lunch of hot dogs and bad nachos…at 8:45 a.m. (The jet lag was for real, just like the indigestion.)

a most excellent use of irrelevant quotation marks on a sign outside the snack shack

After recovering from the very hot and bumpy bus ride back to the hotel, we spent a little time on the beach and by the pool before heading out to hike Diamond Head Crater.

The crater was created by–duh–a volcanic explosion around 300,000 years ago. It’s not too strenuous a hike, but our Uber driver was a little shocked that we were heading there so late in the afternoon since they let the last folks onto the trail at 4:30 and the gates shut tight at 6. We were on the trail at 4:25.

The view from the top of Diamond Head is beautiful!

Back at the bottom–well before 6 p.m., thank you very much–the boys had their first Hawaiian shave ice, which Theo said was even better than the snow cones at NYO. (There’s actually no comparison.)

Post-hike, we wandered around Waikiki and looked for something for dinner. We should’ve been able to find vittles that would appeal to all tastes at the International Market Place–a ginormous outdoor-ish shopping complex, but the late afternoon shave ice had abated some appetites, and all of us were exhausted. Jack, Theo, and I cut bait and headed back to the hotel to go to bed; Russ and Tucker dropped in to the Hawaiian equivalent of Willy’s, Oahu Mexican Grill, which Jack and I had actually discovered earlier in the day after the 8:45 a.m. “lunch” had worn off. Being a Willy’s connoisseur, Jack gave it two thumbs up.

Two days gone already. Time to venture outside of Honolulu and Waikiki!

1,224 Miles: Bonjour, Montreal

Thirty years ago in Vidalia, Georgia, while I was celebrating my graduation from high school and the arrival of the first week of summer, way over in China, the nightmarish Tiananmen Square Massacre was taking place.

Thirty years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Russ’s family was actually re-routing their vacation plans, wisely deciding to go to Canada instead of China, which was their original destination. Even though one those countries is a little less exotic than the other, they both do start with a “C,” so the replacement made sense, I guess.

Visiting Canada with his family is a memory Russ always talks about; they had a fantastic time and fell in love with the quaintness of Quebec. Since then, Russ has frequently mentioned taking us to French Canada.

He had a surplus of frequent flyer points, so we finally bit the bullet and planned a trip up to Montreal and Quebec for the week after Memorial Day. (Once the tickets were booked, I remembered why I’d dragged my feet so long on agreeing to visit Canada: Delta only flies their little regional jets there. Eek. Not a fan; talking to you, winglets.)

Thankfully, the ride up there was fairly smooth–and short: Atlanta to Montreal only requires about 2.5 hours in the air. We landed and made it through Customs in no-time flat; traveling just with carry-ons is our new way to go and though it involves some strategic packing, not having to wait at baggage claim is a game-changer.

We were headed to a VRBO in a little neighborhood 5 minutes north of downtown Montreal. On the VRBO website, the borough of Outremont had been listed as a conservative, family-friendly, quiet neighborhood, and the apartment, in an older building, appeared large and well-kept. We were told there was an 11 p.m. quiet curfew which I thought was a little interesting but manageable.

Once we arrived, I realized I’d booked us a place smack dab in the Hasidic Jewish center of Montreal. To say we stuck out as tourists is a bit of an understatement.

We dropped our bags and walked around the corner to grab dinner at La Piazzetta, which was clean, fast, and tasty. After dinner, we strolled around the neighborhood and looked for a grocery store in order to grab some breakfast items.

It felt like a night in late October in Atlanta; we were thrilled to have escaped the 95+ degree temperatures.

We found a market and headed in.

oops…forgot we were in a Kosher market…

We woke up Thursday morning and headed out on foot towards Mile End. I’d read there were lots of cute boutiques and shops in this Bohemian area of Montreal. We must have been several streets off because we couldn’t really find a single one of them–with the exception of the UbiSoft office building.

I didn’t know what the thrill of the UbiSoft building was, either–until Jack and Tucker explained they are the ones who create all those video games you said you’d never allow your kids to play

Next up was a local food tour. We’ve done these in Rome and Chicago, and somehow they’ve always been big hits, even with our crew of picky eaters. We opted for the Mile End Montreal Food Tour and our guide, Andreanne, was adorable. After a taste of organic falafel at the popular vegan cafe The Green Panther, we began our guided walk around Mile End (which was much more informative than the unguided one we’d endured that morning).

a maple-pecan fancy handmade chocolate at Chocolats Genevieve Grandbois
a famous Montreal bagel at St. Viateur Bagel

We also had gnocchi from Drogheria Fine, a charcuterie at Boucherie Lawrence, and topped it off with an ice cream/sorbet mix at KemCoba.

After that gorge-fest, we headed back to the apartment for a much needed rest. I’d not thought it out very well when booking the food tour because we also had big dinner reservations that night at Les Enfants Terribles on the top of the Ville Marie–a 47 story building in downtown Montreal.

While the food was mediocre (and rather expensive), the views were incredible.

We were hurting for some exercise at this point, so we walked around downtown Montreal for a bit and stumbled across the Olympic Experience. I am a huge Olympics nerd, so this find made my day. The museum is chock-full of interactive exhibits, and I couldn’t wait for us to visit it later in the week.

the Tai Chi Single Whip…Ok, then

The temperature dropped and the winds picked up, so we opted to call it a night. Ubers are few and far between in Canada, a fact we were just beginning to learn. Rather than wait in the drizzle, we tackled the Metro.

Forty-five minutes or so later, we were walking (quietly) back to our apartment.

We hopped up on Friday, ate breakfast at the apartment, and then went back downtown.

We strolled through the Bonsecours Market, but the boys were much more interested with the happenings on the other side of the building.

It’s no secret we are escape room maniacs, and when the boys saw this place, the begging began…

I’d read mixed reviews about SOS Labyrinthe, but we all were entertained. It’s definitely not your typical escape room; instead, you have to find 4 different boxes and get a card stamped at each one–all while maneuvering a crazy maze. There are lots of switchbacks and dead-ends and turn-arounds and not very much intelligence is actually needed, but we made it out in less than an hour.

We spent the next few hours roaming around the Old Port of Montreal.

We stumbled across this magnificent ropes course…and the boys were set for 2 hours. Russ and I roamed a little on our own (always within view of the ropes course situation), and then headed up the street a bit for a snack once they were finished.

The boys were tired, so we Uber-ed it back to the apartment to rest and pack up for our early train the next morning. We planned on walking around the neighborhood again to find a dinner spot but had a hard time agreeing–a fate that typically happens to us when we get overtired and over hungry–which means we found ourselves back at the same restaurant we’d already visited, La Piazzetta.

We did manage to track down an adorable ice cream shop before we called it a night.

Our time in the Outremont borough was coming to an end. Next stop: Quebec!