Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

Where to take a Babymoon

Let’s face it. Of all times in your life when YOU (or your partner, bestie, sister, daughter) deserves a vacation, it is when she is carrying around another human life in her belly. Babymoons are necessary and relieve a lot of pressure, put mom-to-be in a great mood and can be a unique way to see a destination in a different way.

For me, it meant slowing down. Not the action-packed itineraries, with lots of outdoor pursuits, physical adventures and the evening wine or cocktail hour. Babymoon meant relaxation, early bedtimes, delicious foods and a more nurturing approach to travel. Honestly this change of pace was great! I feel like I experienced each location in a whole new way.

Babymoon Kauai

Whom do you take on a Babymoon?

So, who is coming? The most common person to escort you on this babymoon is obviously your partner. (They got you in this mess in the first place right!? KIDDING) It is an important time away from the routine of normal life to really focus on the two of you. If you are first time mom-to-be like me, it’s especially important to take to appreciate your remaining weeks together as a couple before you become a family. Your partner also knows you best and will pamper you, which is what you need now more than ever.

I also recommend babymoons with close friends. You won’t be able to take time like that away from your newborn to hang out with friends the way you used to so it can be very rewarding to spend that extra QT with those close friends that are important in your life.

I also LOVED going on a babymoon with my Mom. What better person to help me transition into motherhood than my own mother! Plus, I knew it was one of the last times that I’d get to travel just with her, even though bringing my daughter on our yearly adventures will be just as fun too. Consider bringing a supportive family member that you want to spend time with and whom will enjoy the slower pace that babymoon offers. 

And as much as I love company, solo babymoons can be very personally fulfilling. Sometimes you need time to yourself, to read, get a pedicure, talk to the new life growing in your belly and appreciate the remaining quiet moments before your bundle of joy arrives.

babymoon ojai

Where should you go?

Babymoons also tend to be closer to home. Most pregnant ladies don’t want to sit on an extended plane journey so keeping it under 5-6 hours by plane is usually the most comfortable. Ideally, the closer the better!  (I didn’t follow that advice entirely and did fly to Europe for a 3 week trip while 20 weeks pregnant as well as Japan for a 2 week film shoot at 16 weeks, but you can read about those two trips here.)

Driving distance or short flights are best in the earlier stages of pregnancy. When you get to the third trimester, I’d suggest limiting your babymoon destinations to those within an hour or two home.

 

If you only have time for one babymoon, make sure it is the type of trip that you are craving now. Those pregnancy cravings can even apply to travel, ladies! I outline 5 types of babymoons in this post and where you can go to get your FIX!

 

If you are craving…something TROPICAL?

Go to KAUAI!

Lush, quiet, healthy and untouched: Kauai might be the most perfect of the Hawaiian islands for an expecting mother. The rhythm of nature dictated our stay here, with early mornings spent snorkeling Poipu Beach, leisurely days shopping in Kailua, picking shells on a secluded beach on the North Shore and grabbing fresh açai bowls topped with pineapple and passion fruit. By evening, the islanders stop to hold their breath as the sun sets in a dramatic fashion, sending up a fiery finale before nightfall.

Hanalei Beach Bump

My mom and I traveled to Kauai when I was at 23 weeks and I felt great. It was the right pace and I had a lot of energy in that second trimester to handle full days at a leisurely pace. The 6 hour flight didn’t bother me at all and I made sure to stay hydrated and walk the aisles frequently. There’s a lot of “mother energy” on this island too so it felt like the right place to be!

Where to Stay:  Ko’a Kea Resort

This intimate, boutique hotel is classy but cool. You won’t feel pressure to grab a pool seat and staying on the property to eat will result in some of your favorite island meals. Poipu’s famed calm waters are perfect for floating with sea turtles and catching those all-star sunsets.

Tip: Get a prenatal massage in their waterside cabana!

Where to Eat

Java Kai, Kailua: Healthy salads, delicious coffees & teas and Instagram-worthy breakfasts

Little Fish Coffee, Poipu: Fresh smoothies, pitaya bowls and bagel sandwiches bring in the customers but linger with the chickens at this rustic, local favorite.

Fresh Bite Kauai, Hanalei: Seek out this Hanalei food truck to grab a to-go organic salads, hearty sandwich and side of sweet potato fries.

Plantation Gardens, Poipu: Set inside a resort without feeling commercial, this restaurant is laidback but top quality, serving up local fish dishes like banana leaf snapper and coconut shrimp.

Postcards Cafe, Hanalei: A charming Hawaiian bistro feel with pastas, fresh catch and great salads. Grab one of the outdoor tables for an intimate feel.

 

What to Do

Snorkel with sea turtles in Poipu, stop at a crafts market in Hanalei, get a drink at the St. Regis Princeville, see a luau and take a boat tour of the Na Pali coast.

 

If you are craving…something NATURAL?

Go to OJAI, CA

As a Santa Monica local with a serious travel addiction, I cannot believe it took me 4 years to get to Ojai. It is only an hour and a half drive away into the valley of the Topatopa Mountains but if felt like a whole different world. My husband surprised me with a midweek Mother’s Day getaway and even though this babymoon was only one night, it was exactly what we needed!

The quaint village has delightful bookstores, ice cream shops, hippie boutiques and mom & pop restaurants. There are easy walks, creekside (paved) bike paths and just so much lavendar scented fresh air, mom and baby bump will feel the benefits of all this healthy energy.

Ojai Valley Inn Babymoon

Where to Stay: Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

Not the most affordable option, but if you want to splurge, I highly suggest this resort. Their adults-only pool is where I posted up for the majority of the day, alternating between a pool floatie and a mountain facing lounge chair, with my cucumber spa water in hand. The expansive grounds are lovely for strolling or biking and their spa is like a mini village wiht a juice bar, free yoga classes and all the treatments. While our room didn’t stand out, it was the location that really made this place special.

Tip: Grab picnic supplies in town and pull up an adirondack chair by the fireplace to watch the “pink moment,” Ojai’s famously hued sunset magic hour.

Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

Where to Eat

The Nest: We almost went back the second day, it was THAT good. Whether you want fish tacos or a fried chicken sandwich or a salad, this outdoor hotspot is the place for lunch. Order the meaty Tireman if you are ravenous.

Osteria Monte Grappa: Talk about locally sourced! The menu here features salads from local farmers, handmade pastas and wood fired pizzas, plus excellent friendly service.  

Ojai Deer Lodge: Fun for a beer (for your travel partner) and live music, this is a kitschy, cowboy stop with some wild decor located a little bit outside of town.

Babymoon Ojai Valley Inn

What to Do

Browse the boutiques, relax by the pool, take a bike ride, have a honey tasting at the local honey shop Heavenly Honey and explore the outdoor Bart’s Books.

 

If you are craving… something ALPINE?

Go to Northstar at TAHOE

My husband and I took our LAST flight together before the baby to have a wintry weekend. Just an hour flight from LAX or Long Beach and you are in the heart of the snowcapped peaks of Tahoe.We landed in Reno and took a 40 drive over to Northstar Resort, one of the most luxurious of the Tahoe resorts. The village is completely self contained, making it a one stop destination and easy for a weekend escape. We spent time exploring the village, doing yoga and even taking the gondola up to the slopeside Ritz Carlton Tahoe to indulge in some complimentary s’mores at their outdoor fire pit.

Note: Our babymoon fell during the winter but Tahoe is amazing in the summer, spring or fall as well!

Tip: Plan your weekend escape for a Mountain Table Dinner to enjoy an incredible, multi-course meal at the peak of Zephyr Lodge.

Where to Stay: Northstar Lodging

I loved our mountain chalet which we reserved through Northstar Lodging. It had a balcony, fireplace, kitchen and cosy living room. It was exactly what we wanted for a babymoon weekend!

 

Where to Eat

Inxpot Cafe: Grab a breakfast burrito at this village hotspot next to the gondola. It is best enjoyed outside by the firepit!

Rubicon Pizza Co.: An easy lunch in the village right next to the ice skating rink. It might not be the best pizza you’ve ever had but it is a solid choice and moderately priced.

Tavern 6330′: We loved dinner here with its live music and classic menu choices like iceberg wedge salad and steaks. Definitely split that lobster mac n cheese!

Babymoon Northstar Tahoe

What to Do

Take a guided snowshoe tour, grab a stick and roast marshmallows at the Ritz’s “Marshmology,” curl up by the fireplace with a good book, do yoga in town at Tahoe Yoga.

 

If you are craving… something Mediterranean?

Go to Catalina Island, CA

I enjoyed this babymoon with a group of friends in early March. It was so nice to go on a group trip like this so everyone could do exactly what they wanted to do. Since I was the only one pregnant, my activities were more mild compared to the parasailing, ziplining and jeep tour options.

Selfie View Catalina

However, I still had a blast exploring this incredibly unique island that is just about an hour off of the coast of Southern California. The main town of Avalon is the ideal hub with seafood restaurants, shops and lovely walking streets. I am so happy that I rented a golf cart, the main mode of transportation, to cruise around the rolling hills that surround Avalon Harbor.

I also spent time at the Descanso Beach Club, a secluded, sandy area of beach which also offers kayaking and SUP.

Tip: Definitely do the Frog Rock Kayaking tour if you have time!

Where to Stay: Pavilion Hotel

Located on the main street, across from the water, this gem of a hotel offers an ample daily breakfast and evening wine & cheese hour, both complimentary. The rooms are clean, nautical and cute, plus the courtyard area has quiet lounge spaces and firepits.

Where to Eat

The Lobster Trap: A local favorite with no-frills fish dishes and a lively atmosphere. We all loved the ambiance here.

Bluewater Grill: Great for a light lunch and lemonade out on the water, this is the most waterside restaurant you will find in Avalon!

Avalon Grille: Excellent dining with a fun bar scene, this is definitely THE place for dinner on the island.

Kayaking Catalina

What to Do

Cruise around in a golf cart, book a prenatal massage at the Island Spa Catalina, rent a kayak at the Descanso Beach Club

 

If you are craving… EASY.

Go to Santa Barbara, CA 

It’s not just because it is easy, Santa Barbara is a beautiful coastal California city with a stunning beachfront. But it also is easily accessible by train, meaning NO CARS NEEDED! That is what sold my husband and I on this one night, weekend trip. We hopped on a train in the morining from LA and enjoyed the ocean views before we disembarked just a couple hours later in the heart of SB.

We stayed near the water, kayaking with sea lions, eating at a beach bar, hanging by the pool and exploring the Funk Zone. Great food, great sunshine and just an easy, breezy, stress-free getaway. Isn’t that what you want for a babymoon?

Where to Stay: Hotel Californian ($$$$) or Harborview Inn ($$)

The swanky Hotel Californian is brand new and just steps from the water. The service, the style and the location make it hard to beat.

But if you want something more affordable, just next door is where we stay: the Haborview Inn. We loved the pool and water views and how convenient it was to the beach!

Lucky Penny SB

Where to Eat

Lucky Penny: Sister to The Lark, Lucky Penny is an order at the counter/sit outside at communal table pizza joint. Spoiler: this is some of the best pizza in California!

Shoreline Beach Cafe: Located RIGHT on the beach, the classic California food and sand-in-your-toes location made this an A+++ for me.

Sambo’s: A perfect spot for huge pancakes, egg burritos and even more. The menu is huge, the coffee is flowing and the atmosphere is what you want from a popular diner.

surrey bike SB

What to Do

Rent a Surrey Bike and cruise along the beach path, take out kayaks in the marina and see sea lions, go to Figueroa Brewery* for live music, explore the eats and wineries* of the Funk Zone, pack a picnic for the Amtrak train back!

*(your partner can enjoy the booze for you but it is still fun sober, trust me!)

Kayaking Santa Barbara

***

Most of my babymoons favor the West Coast since that is where I am based, but I have other recommendations for East Coasters! Here is my short list: 

  • Charleston, North Carolina
  • Chatham, Cape Cod (MA)
  • Vero Beach, Florida
  • Woodstock, Vermont (my hometown!)
  • Greenport, Long Island (NY)
  • Skaneatles, NY

 

Catalina Island Avalon Harbor

Escapes from LA: Catalina Island

I have to be honest. If you asked me to hop on a plane anywhere for a quick getaway, I’d say ‘take me to the Mediterranean!’ Who doesn’t love indigo water, crystalline shorelines, charming villages, locally made food and abundance of outdoor cafés? However, European destinations along the Med tend to be quite pricey, not to mention a long flight for us Americans (especially for other Californians like me). But that’s why I couldn’t be more surprised, delighted, and borderline obsessed with this European-esque destination that I recently discovered in my own backyard.

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

Catalina Island is not exactly “new.” It’s been inhabited for at least 8000 years, originally by the Native American tribe, the Pimungans. More recently, William Wrigley (yes, like the chewing gum) owned the island and brought his baseball team there for their annual spring training from 1921-1951. And of course, Hollywood also fell in love with Catalina, using it as the location for many early films as well as the playground for the stars and show biz elite. After visiting for myself for the first time, I can see why this island has been so popular for so long.

 

WHEN TO GO

I visited with a group of friends in early March, far outside of Catalina’s high season, which typically runs from June through September. Off season, or shoulder season travel is one of my all-time favorite travel hacks. It generally results in a much better experience overall because you aren’t battling crowds, lines and high prices. My tip would be to travel in either March through May or late September through November, to maximize best weather and least amount of people. However, don’t forget that it is Southern California so even December or January could have perfect weather!

Avalon Harbor Catalina Island

We also opted for a weekday stay as opposed to the popular weekend trips, arriving on a Monday and departing on a Wednesday. Like off-season travel, weekday travel usually means better rates and less people so you can focus on enjoying the destination without as much hassle.

Catalina Express Ferry

GETTING THERE

Catalina Express

Catalina Island is visible from Santa Monica all the way down to Laguna Beach, but this large SoCal island is actually much further away than it looks. The Catalina Express offers daily shuttles via high speed catamaran that whisk you out into the Pacific and get you onshore in about an hour. It’s also a fun ride! We departed from Long Beach and I sat outside, enjoying the salty breezes and the watery views. We even had a dolphin sighting! Note: there is a full bar for those that want to start the party the moment we leave the mainland.

Luxe Tip–> For those that have less time and the itch to splurge, there are helicopters that can bring you over in just 15 minutes!

 

WHERE TO STAY

Though it is possible to experience Catalina for the day, I would recommend staying at least one night, ideally two. During the day, the main town of Avalon is usually busy with other daytrippers and the cruise passengers. However by night, the town empties out and you can enjoy the calm, quiet beauty of this island gem.

Pavilion Hotel Catalina Island

Pavilion Hotel

As I am the “Hotel Snob,” where I stay is very important and I would stay at the Pavilion Hotel again in a heartbeat. The well appointed property is located right on the main street, in the center of Avalon. It has water views, as well as a sunny complimentary breakfast and daily wine hour on the patio.  I particularly loved all the outdoor seating areas, fire pits and secluded loungers in the garden. This small hotel felt tranquil and private, even though it is just steps from the hustle and bustle of downtown Avalon.

 

The rooms are crisp and sea-inspired. New and clean, I wouldn’t call them extravagant in any way, but I wasn’t left wanting for anything. The separate sink and vanity area also served as a mini kitchenette with coffee and mini fridge. Of course, I would have loved it if the hotel had a pool but that is a rarity on Catalina Island in general.

 

WHERE TO EAT

Avalon Grille Catalina

Avalon Grille

This is one of the nicest options on the island and I’d recommend that you book it for one special dinner. The elegant menu has everything from well cooked steaks to local seafood to a mouthwatering burger. Definitely order the fried green beans to share! Also, as I’m always all about the atmosphere, I felt that the classy interior makes it work for a romantic night but the wraparound bar also makes it accessible for cocktails and appetizers. It was even busy on a Monday night, proving that the islanders love this spot as well.

 

The Lobster Trap Catalina

Image courtesy of Catalina Chamber of Commerce

The Lobster Trap

Another great dinner option at a lower price point is The Lobster Trap. This seafood joint is an institution in Avalon and you will be overwhelmed by the local “Cheers” vibe the minute you walk in. The owner was handing out shots, our makeshift table was on top of a pool table and there was a live lobster running across the table. However, the service couldn’t be friendlier and the no-frills seafood plates were fresh and delicious. I could see how a dinner here might turn into an all night affair as the bar was hopping, even on a Tuesday at 7pm.

Catalina Bluewater Grill

Image courtesy of @darinainwanderlust

Bluewater Grill

This one wins for best location as it is set on top of the water. We came for a sunny lunch and had a tremendous view of the Avalon Bay as well as fun, casual fare like shrimp caesars and fish tacos. I’d definitely go back for dinner or to check out their bar in the evening. Just like Europe’s sunny outdoor patios, the Bluewater Grill is a place you’d want to hang out for a few hours with a coffee or a cocktail.

 

Lloyd’s of Avalon

You have to give a lot of credit to a candy shop that’s been in business since 1934. They make all their own chocolates, salt water taffy and fudge, and even claim to have served Marilyn Monroe.

 

Scoops Catalina Avalon

Image courtesy of Scoops Instagram @scoopscatalina

Scoops

As always, I sought out the best local ice cream on Avalon and all locals pointed here: Scoops. This is the place to go for the best homemade ice cream and gelato. Beware though, in the summer the lines can get long!

 

WHAT TO DO

There is a LOT that you can do on the island, ranging from outdoor exploration, hikes, shopping, scuba, water sports and more. Normally the adventurer, I toned it back to focus more on relaxed, soft adventures as I was 7 months pregnant and I am happy that I did.View of Avalon Harbor Catalina

Golf Cart

Not only is the golf cart THE mode of transportation on the island, I find driving them to be so fun. It feels like you are on vacation! There are self guided routes that you can take to access the best vistas of the island and to take in a variety of landscapes.Golf Cart Catalina Island

 

Island Spa Catalina

Island Spa Catalina

This secluded hideaway is located at the end of Avalon’s main drag and it really is an oasis. When you step inside, the private courtyard has sun deck, a beautiful pool, a lounge area with sea views, and even a spa café. Take a class in their Wellness Studio or indulge in a massage at their spa. Or just grab a day pass for a day of R&R.

Descanso Beach Club Catalina

Descanso Beach Club

Just a 15 minute walk from the center of town along the water, the Descanso Beach Club was probably my favorite experience in Avalon. The sandy beach is bookended by natural cliffs on one side and the Catalina Casino on the other, making it feel like your private beach oasis for the day. If you come early, you’ll have it all to yourself but as the day wears on, the beach club kicks it up a notch. The outdoor bar and restaurant definitely becomes the place on the island to party!

Kayaking Catalina

The crystal clear water is not just perfect for swimming, you can hit up Descanso Beach Ocean Sports to rent an SUP or kayak. Take it a step further and go on a kayaking tour. I highly recommend the guided 2 hour kayak tour to Frog Rock. Our morning paddle out on the glittering water was breathtaking and I loved learning more about the life under the water from our knowledgeable guide. We stopped on a beach only accessible by kayak to rest, take photos, and enjoy some freshly made cookies. Pebble beaches, giant rocks, arid cliffs and glittering ocean–were we sure this wasn’t the Mediterranean?

 

Catalina Casino

Catalina Casino Tour

I am not going to lie, this walking tour was a bit a slow for me as it is geared towards an older set. But if you are a history buff, you will definitely appreciate the access to the first theatre in America that was “designed for talkies” as well as the pink art deco ballroom. From the top of the Casino, the views of Avalon and the bay might be some of the best on the island, so for me, that was the highlight. Plus, the Casino is the icon of Catalina so it important to understand its significance.

 

And More Adrenaline-Pumping Adventures

Many of my friends were able to partake in the more adventurous activities and the best reviews came from the East End hummer tour where my friends saw the island’s famous wild buffalo, parasailing 800 feet above the water, ziplining through canyons, and tight rope walking along the tree top ropes course.

East End Adventure Catalina

Image courtesy of the Catalina Island Company

Though I’ve mentioned the popularity of Catalina Island, I am actually most awed by the fact that the island is mostly untouched! 88% of the island is a nature preserve and the town of Avalon, the main hub of Catalina, is only home to 4000 residents. The rest of Catalina belongs to the bald eagles, the bison, the fox and the rest of the flora and fauna that live on or around its shores. For an island that is in plain sight of one of the US’s busiest cities, I am so impressed that it has retained its natural landscape and retro charm. Though you don’t need a passport to get here, it surely feels like you step off of the ferry into another world entirely.Selfie View Catalina

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Stay tuned for my video of this incredible island oasis COMING SOON!

 

xoxo

Kelley

Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

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Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley

torii gate

Top 5 Adventures in Setouchi, Japan

Japan might be synonymous with gardens, temples, sushi and cherry blossoms, but did you also realize that it is home to a wild variety of adventures? I spent 2 weeks exploring the Setouchi Region in Southwest Japan, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes so it’s no surprise that outdoor adventures are plentiful here. I had no idea that Japan looked like this! We explored beaches and coasts, clear waters, rugged mountains, sweeping valleys and iconic cities throughout this region, and it is the adventures that stand out to me most. Here is a list of my favorite experiences throughout the region. Note that since Setouchi is all about the Seto Inland Sea, each of these experiences have to do with water in some way.

  1. Kayak the Floating Gate

torii gate

 

You’ve probably seen images of this incredible gate, the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima is a Shinto Shrine and World Heritage Site, and I think it is a marvel unto itself. Built to honor the gods of the sea, it has been a popular place of worship for sea travels ever since the Edo period. This outdoor shrine is located on the shores of the sacred Miyajima Island, constructed near and even in the water. But this particular torii gate might be one of Japan’s most iconic images. The gate is built right on the water so during high tide, when the water surrounds it, it appears to be floating. High tide is the perfect time to see it up close, by kayaking!

Itsukushima Shrine

We rented kayaks from a small shop, right in the center of town. They helped us bring the kayaks out to the shore and provided a guide to help us paddle and navigate the two-seater kayaks. It was helpful to have help paddling since I had to stop a few times to take photos! I couldn’t believe how stunning the gate was as we passed through it. The vermillion color, the ornate carvings and the striking backdrop is even more tremendous when you experience it on the water. I will cherish the photos I took of this kayak adventure forever.

 

2. Fly in a Seaplane

Setouchi Seaplanes flight seaplane

The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands and it is probably the most dramatic part of this entire region. To take in the breadth of the sea as well as the beauty of the terrain, a seaplane gives you an incomparable perspective.

Setouchi Seaplanes

I couldn’t recommend Setouchi Seaplanes more. This company has an ultra hip, ultra modern checkin counter and lounge, complete with complimentary drinks and snacks. Check out their cute selection of souvenirs from their gift shop.

From there, you are guided onto the dock for a quick security check and then onto the seaplane. With one seat on either side, and 3 rows behind the pilots, our group of 6 had plenty of room. There are two amphibious aircraft available and I was excited that we flew in the bright red and green “L’ala Rossa.” As we took off from the water, it was exhilarating to see the islands, roads, and bridges get smaller and smaller. What I didn’t expect was how photogenic the landscape would be from this angle. I was captivated by the glittering sea, the uninhabited islands and the miniscule speeding boats as are we soared for 50 minutes. The pilots pointed out highlights along the route and I felt the entire service was very professional and the planes were very well maintained. Let’s not forget, it definitely pumps the adrenaline too!

 

3. Bike the Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido Biking

With over 37 miles of paved bike paths, it is no wonder that cyclist flock to Setouchi for their biking vacations. Not only are the paths very well constructed, they are extremely scenic as well! We picked up our bike at our homebase, the Hotel Cycle in Onomichi, and from there we biked along the coastal paths. This allowed us to stop at beaches, admire water views, cross some of Setouchi’s many architectural bridges and hop from island to island. We biked to Ikuchijima Island to explore the vivid Kosanji Temple. And if you are hungry, check out the delicious tempura restaurants in town!  

 

4. Cruise the Oboke Gorge

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley Boat

Yet another water adventure can be found away from the Seto Sea, up in the mountains of the Iya Valley on Tokushima Island. Surrounded by what seems to be endless, wooded peaks, this region is already spectacular. But try experiencing it by boat.

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley

We embarked on a sightseeing boat to explore the Oboke Gorge, a crystal clear part of the Yoshinaro River. The cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. It was such a lovely way take in the fresh air and surrounding nature of the Iya Valley. Plus the water is so clear, you are can see wild koi fish splashing about under the hull.

 

5. Cross the Kazura Bridge

Kazura Bridge Iya Valley

You wouldn’t expect a bridge to be an adventure, but this one is! The Kazura Bridge is a hanging rope bridge that spans 50 feet above a river. It is thought to have been built by the samurai that lived in these mountains, who chose to built it out of vines and ropes so they could cut it down in case they were being trailed by attackers.

Standing on the Kazura Bridge

Now it is a picturesque tourist destination for it’s Iya Valley views but also for the bragging rights of crossing it. I am not going to lie, I was a little scared when I stepped on it. I had not expected the vines to be so far apart, making me very aware of the 50 foot drop between each step. The bridge also sways with movement and with the wind, so hold on!

 

The best way to understand these adventures is to see them!

Check out my Adventure video where I dive into all these Setouchi experiences and even more that I didn’t mention! 

Kauai Sheraton Aulii Luau

Top 5 Things to do on Kauai, Hawaii

Hawaii and I are in a serious relationship. We just met last spring, when I first landed in Maui with my husband. We spent 10 days roaming her grassy hills, sand swept beaches and lush jungles. Eager to return and explore more of Hawaii’s shores, I returned to Oahu, just a few months later. This time I was on a film assignment so it was I was accompanied only by my camera. Together with our rental car, we saw all ends of the most populated island–from Waikiki to Kailua to the North Shore.

Maui sunset

Just recently,  exactly one year from my first trip to these paradisiacal islands, I flew back to Hawaii yet again. This time I was visting Kauai. What made it even more special was my mom was joining me. I couldn’t wait for her to experience the state that I loved so much. An added bonus was that since I am pregnant, this was a little mother/daughter babymoon!

Babymoon in Kauai

I’d heard all the rumors that Kauai was “the best” and I assumed that there was a reason that this verdant island was the top pick for honeymooners. But I thoroughly loved Maui and Oahu, both for different reasons; how could Kauai really compete?

From the moment I stepped outside of Kauai’s Lihue airport, I felt a big difference in just the air! The air was fragrant and more humid than other islands. As we drove to the South Shore for our stay at Ko’a Kea Resort, we passed through many lush landscapes which could have been out of Jurassic Park (it was filmed here after all!).

Koa Kea Resort Kauai pool

Our resort was a stylish boutique and it was small–which I loved. It felt totally laid-back and manageable–not a huge box style hotel. Poipu Beach was calm, clean with a good amount of sunseekers, but it not packed to the gills. There was even room for the seals that nap on the beach just about every afternoon.

Driving on Kauai

To me, Kauai is the more rugged, natural and chill version of the other islands. I’d maybe describe it as the hippie little sister with a lot of wild beauty and spiritual depth. In just 6 days, my mom and I put over 1000 miles on our car so it’s safe to say, we covered a lot of ground. However since my mom and I were not in a condition to hike, we limited activities to those accessible by easy walks, drives or boat rides. The following were the five highlights of our trip that I’d recommend to everyone–suitable for all ages and abilities. And next time I return, I plan to embark on some epic hikes, cruise the rivers on kayaks and take to the skies by helicopter.

 

  1. Snorkel with Seals 

Underwater snorkeling Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach is located in the sunny south of the island, which has the least rainfall on the island and thus the best conditions for snorkeling. It also helps that the waves are generally mild, making it family friendly and easy to see the world that is brimming with life just under the water.

Seals on Poipu Beach

I was staying just steps away from this beach at the Ko’a Kea Resort, so it made it easy to head out there each morning when the water was at its glassiest. To my surprise, the schools of brightly colored schools were just steps from the shore. I was barely standing in 4 feet of water and all I had to do was look down to see hundreds of multi hued fish! To be immersed in the marine life, snorkel between the shore and the small island off of the beach. But definitely try to get there early as many tourists know about this spot as well.

Since the seals seem to love to sunbathe on this beach, you might get lucky and be in the water as they pass by. These graceful creatures are still wild and respect them by giving them their space. If one comes near you, don’t try to touch it or swim near them. We are the outsiders in their home so we need to be good guests.

 

  1. Experience a traditional Hawaiian Luau

Aulii Luau Kauai

I love how Hawaii’s history, traditions and stories are still such a strong part of the islands today. The vibrant culture unlike any other state in the USA, let alone any other place in the world. It is so special to see how it is still alive and I think one of the best ways for mainlanders to understand it is through a luau.

Aulii Luau Sheraton Kauai

It was our first night on Kauai, we were lucky enough to attend the Aulii Luau on the South shore. My mom was giddy –this would be her first luau ever and she’d always wanted to experience one. The outdoor party was taking place at the Sheraton Kauai, just steps from their pink sand beach, in a prime spot for one of Poipu’s signature sunsets. The gold, pink, purple and orange of the sunset was just the opening act for a memorable, Hawaiian evening.

Sunset at the Aulii Luau Kauai

We had Premier seating, which allows you reserved seats at one of the front tables. General seating is at one of the long tables further back and it is first come, first served.  I recommend the Premier if you are most interested in dancing. You might be the farthest from the food, but you are closest to the stage and thus can appreciate all the details, especially the expressions on the dancers’ faces!

Kalua Pork Buffet Aulii Luau Kauai

The buffet dinner included a lot of fresh, local dishes and Hawaiian specialities. I tried the purple poi for the first time and enjoyed the kalua pig. Following the meal, there is a whole dessert table. The pineapple upside down cake was the winner there for me! We had to walk to get our own drinks which included mai tais, blue Hawaiian’s and beer and wine options. As I was pregnant, I did not indulge but my mom enjoyed a mai tai and the white wine.

But not surprisingly, the show itself was the best part. The talented dancers gave skilled, emotional performances, each one very different from the one before. The bright and wild, costumes and the tiki stage design was a sensory overload. I particularly loved the coed performance with the grass skirts. And of course, the fire dancer brought the audience to gasps, oohs and ahhs. What a way to spend our first night in Kauai!

 

  1. Cruise the Na Pali Coast by Boat

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo

This might be one of the most well-known areas of the island but no one lives here and there are no roads. The 15 miles of coastline is nature at its most beautiful. Sheer, jagged cliffs, soaring mountains and rocky coves meet the swells of the sea along this magical stretch. It is no wonder that it is such a sacred part in Hawaiian legend.

We chose to explore the coastline by boat. We embarked with Holo Holo Boat Tours, a highly rated  boat tour company that operated out of nearby Port Allen harbor. Our vessel was a 65 foot power catamaran– the island’s fastest tour boat. It was very spacious and had plenty of spaces to sit, which came in handy on this 4 hour tour.

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo Charter

The route was up to the coastline and then back, but along the way, we had quite a surprise show. Whales were jumping out of the water, slapping the surface and diving down deep, showing off their tales. I have been on whale watches before I’d never seen so many whales, so close!

Na Pali Coast tour with Holo Holo

Once we made it to Na Pali, the boat slowed down so we could fully appreciate the drama of this place. Our captain told us more about the landscape, pointing out sites of importance for the Hawaiians and even spotting a sea turtle swimming in a cave. As we cruised back down, the sun was setting and an onboard dinner was served–chips, guacamole, cheese and crackers and some delicious kalua pork tacos. This was a memorable way to spend an afternoon on Kauai and we were happy to have sailed with Holo Holo. Just note, it is a bumpy ride so be prepared for a roller coaster style ride and to get wet!

 

  1. Wake up with Waterfalls and Breakfast Bowls

Acai Bowl Kauai

The island has hundreds of waterfalls in its rich jungles, but there are five that are the most well known for their grandeur and convenience. Since we were not hiking on this trip, we chose the easiest one to drive too: Opaeka’a Falls. Located just near the cute town of Kapaa, you drive just off the main Highway 56 to a convenient parking. From here, you can view the falls from above. The 151 foot falls are 40 miles wide and lovely for a photo opp.

Opaekaa Falls Kauai

After, make sure to stop for breakfast or lunch in Kapaa. I strongly recommend the salads and coffee at the trendy Java Kai. Or if you want a cute back patio vibe with banana trees and chickens running around, EatHealthy Cafe was as delicious as it was adorable. My coconut bowl there was very memorable but their entire vegan menu looked great.

EatHealthy Cafe Kauai

 

  1. Explore the North Shore

Hanalei Bay North Shore Kauai

We stayed on the South Shore, but I had to check out the legendary North Shore of Kauai. My mom and I drove up early on a Saturday, knowing that it’ll take over an hour and it did! We headed to the town of Hanalei, nestled at the foot of vibrant green mountains and next to the surfer’s paradise of Hanalei Bay. The town had a laid-back, slightly touristy vibe, with charming shops, cafes and restaurants. We snagged a few t-shirts and some coffee before settling on a food truck for picnic lunch to go.

Fresh Bite Kauai Hanalei

Don’t be fooled, the Hanalei food trucks are excellent and we loved Fresh Bite, which served up locally grown greens and organic meats in their salads, sandwiches and poi bowls. I highly recommend grabbing your lunch to go so you can enjoy it on the sand of one of the nearby beaches. (Need more info on the food trucks? Go here.)

Mai Tai at the St Regis Princeville

After your beach day, check out a hotel icon and have drinks at the St. Regis Princeville. We were hit with a sudden rainstorm, a common occurrence on this side of the island, but that didn’t dampen our outdoor happy hour! We had a dry seat overlooking the bay and were delighted to witness a complimentary Hawaiian song and champagne sabering just before sunset.

Happy Hour at St Regis Princeville Kauai

 

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Kauai is a stunning island and for us, it was restorative, natural and just uplifting. It has an overall ambiance that is very positive if you are open to it. For a babymoon and a mother/daughter trip, it was PERFECT. But I would recommend it to all sorts of groups of friends, families, couples and adventurers! If you have any tips, please let me know for my next trip!

 

xo

Kelley

Sunset Beach, Oahu

Oahu, Hawaii Travel Guide

I was positively giddy as I caught sight of those volcanic islands erupting from the expanse of blue out my airplane window. It was only my second time to Hawaii, my first trip being to Maui a few months earlier, and now I was going to be making Honolulu my home for one week. As I was traveling solo, I did a lot of research and created a pretty packed itinerary. I wanted to see, eat, hike, swim and explore as much as I possibly could.

oahu from the plane

Working with the Oahu Tourism Board definitely gave me a leg up on awesome activities and standout restaurants. But I dove in even deeper, reading blog posts from my travel blogger friends, watching videos from travel vlogger buds (thanks Cailin!) reaching out to those that I know visit Oahu often (looking at you Captain & Clark) and profiling all the Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews that I could find.

 

Ready for a day of exploring!

 

WHAT TO DO: 

Explore the North Shore

For me, renting a car and being able to explore was paramount to my whole trip. I found the driving to be relatively easy, though there is more traffic than expected and by the way, the island is big! It especially came in handy when I set off for a day of exploring the famous North Shore. A good hour drive from Honolulu, I took in some incredible mountain scenery and had the freedom to stop and take photos along the way.

North Shore Drive

North Shore Drive

Definitely head into Haleiwa to check out the cute shopping and great restaurants of this cowboy-meets-hippie surf town. I also stopped at beautiful beaches, saw the famous Banzai pipeline, hiked, swam in waterfalls and basically had one of my favorite days!

 

 

Under the Wahii waterfall

Swim under the Waterfall in Waimea Valley

For that waterfall I was talking about, head to Waimea Valley. This is not the hidden, off the beaten path waterfall that I was expecting. It actually is very much on the beaten path, but as I arrived early (around 10am) the crowds were pretty light. The valley spans 1800 acres and is a sacred site in Hawaiian culture. There is an admission to get in ($16 USD), but you also get to walk through a beautiful botanical garden and see ancient archaeological sites.

The Waihī Waterfall

The Waihī Waterfall

However, most people go here for the waterfall. An easy walk on a paved path takes you to a 45 foot waterfall, Waihī. With lifeguards and mandatory life jackets, this is not the rugged waterfall in the woods that I had hoped for, but jumping into the cool water and swimming under the falling water made me forget about all the other tourists, at least for a few moments.

 

On top of the pillbox

On top of the pillbox

Hike Lanikai Pillbox Trail

Diamond Head gets all the fame but I much prefer the Lanikai Pillbox trail. The dusty trail starts steep but once get to the top of the ridge, all you have are 365 degree views. The Pacific and postcard worthy Mokulua Islands are on one side, and the lush Oahu interior on the other. And of course, you have to check the colorfully graffitied pillbox. These WWII bunkers have been given a facelift by local street artists, and I personally think that the graffiti added to their charm. You can climb inside of them, climb on top or just snap a photo, but they definitely added to the magic of this hike.

What a view!

What a view!

 

Go to a Luau 

Hawaii is known for luaus and having never done one, I was excited to start at the top. With the Royal Hawaiian being one of Oahu’s most famous, historical hotels, I was so excited to get to experience my first luau here. Oh, and did I mention this luau is oceanfront! The hotel has a special grass lawn that rolls out onto the beach for this Hawaiian feast and performance.

Aha Aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian

Aha Aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian

I suggest paying up for the premier seating so you can have full view of the fantastic dancing and performances. This show is called “Aha Aina” and it actually tells a story of the Helumoa, the ancient playground of Hawaiian royalty on the ground where the show takes place! In addition to the talented performers, there was a lovely live band and an entertaining emcee. Not only that, nature puts on a show as well when the setting sun turns the sky a beautiful shade of pink over the ocean–not unlike the iconic pink of the Royal Hawaiian Resort itself.

Quite the plate

Quite the plate

This certainly is a feast too. The buffet spread was impressive in size and in quality. It included fresh, Hawaiian dishes like locally caught fish, poke and kalua pork. I felt that each offering was just as delicious and well presented as a made to order restaurant and the dessert spread was the cherry on top. All the drinks were great too–I loved the mai tais but was glad to see top shelf wines and spirits available too.

I attended a Monday evening show, but they also now have Thursday night shows. I highly suggest you book early and show up early to guarantee that you’ll get the best spot!

Experience the luau with me in my video below!

 

WHAT BEACHES TO VISIT:

Sunset Beach, Oahu

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

You know when you look around you and literally gasp at how beautiful some place is? That place is Sunset Beach. It was hot and I had just hiked so I was in desperate need of a dip in the ocean. Using my Google maps, I pulled off on what said Sunset Beach, having no expectations. I was simply blown away by this magical slice of paradise. Crystalline, white sand, turquoise gentle waters and very few people scattered around–I couldn’t believe what I’d found! Needless to say, I stayed on this beach for hours. I didn’t have time to stay for the sunset, but I know I’ll be returning to this beach some day.

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

This was my go-to beach–I came here twice during my week on Oahu and found it to be just right both times. I loved that it is mostly populated with locals and travelers “in the know” as it the entrance is somewhat hidden. On the beach, I saw a high school girls outrigger team practicing, which I decided is the coolest high school sport around. The main attraction though was the clean, white sand, the crystal waters and lack of waves. It was very calm and the water is so clear you can see the fish darting by your toes. I also have to mention that the view of the two islands from the beach really adds to that remote tropical paradise feel. Parking on the residential streets near the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance is free and usually pretty easy to find.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach

Of course you will see Waikiki Beach and you should. The sunset there is simply stunning. However, it is a crowded beach in the water and on the sand. Hotels and restaurants line it so it can be tricky to walk the whole thing without being blocked by a hotel. However, if you need a quick dip and some refreshing sun, it does the trick. I also was told the waves there are a great for beginner surfers.

 

WHERE TO EAT:

Mahina & Suns

Located in the trendy, impeccably decorated Surfjack Hotel, Mahina & Suns is the type of place you want to go to every week. I felt like I was in a living room of a really cool, stylish friend. Located just off the pool, the restaurant was busy, mostly with locals and outside guests. The word about their food is out! I’d love to try their breakfast and lunch next, but I was blown away by their dinner. This is a casual restaurant with serious food. The menu focuses on “elevated home-cooking,” which basically means the type of stuff Hawaiian mamas make, but even better.

Incredible cocktails at Mahina & Suns

Incredible cocktails at Mahina & Suns

Having a hard time choosing between Kauai Shrimp & Grits, the Kuahiwi Ranch burger or the Naked Pig Pizza, I caved and ordered the Mahina family feast. This feast starts with kualoa oysters, then moves on to a whole snapper, either steamed or fried, plus a slew of local sides like delicious roasted roots. I opted for the steamed preparation, which had an Asian flair in it’s soy dressing.This snapper was a beauty to behold and even more delicious to eat. It was more than enough food for two people–I had to take some home in a doggie bag. I didn’t even get to the second best part, the dessert! The macadamia nut pavlova with fruit and cream was like eating a heavenly cloud. The only frustrating part was at this point, I was already quite full.

Mahina & Suns Family Feast

Mahina & Suns Family Feast

Their cocktails were the best I had on the island. Do yourself a favor and order the Unkle’s Rum Punch. If you need any more convincing, they also have live music every night!

 

Pioneer Salon

After my hike up Diamond Head, I was looking for a nearby restaurant that offered the signature Hawaii Plate Lunch. I wanted something fast, fresh and casual. Step in: Pioneer Salon. From the start, I loved this place. Maybe because of the quirky taxidermy and laidback, tongue-in-cheek vibe of the interior or maybe it was because half the menu is scrawled on scraps of paper and slapped on the wall. But I could see that this was a local favorite and for a Tuesday lunch, it was quite busy.

Pioneer Saloon

Pioneer Saloon

You order at the counter and there are an overwhelming number of options. As the menu skews Japanese, I went with a local Miso Black Cod plate, which came with rice and a side. You can pay extra for brown rice, which I’d recommend as it had delicious little beans in them. I found the fish to be fresh and flavorful and the portion was a good size. Note that since it’s all made to order, it is not the quickest lunch around but it is definitely high quality. Though it was expensive, I felt like it was worth the money.

 

Kono's on Kailua Beach

Kono’s on Kailua Beach

Kono’s

I still think about this kalua pork on a regular basis. There are several Kono’s on Oahu but I checked out the one in Kailua. Known for their surfer atmosphere and 12 hour slow roasted kalua pork, I stopped in for a lunch to-go. Though the “Breakfast Bombers” looked tempting, I had the “Pig on Grass,” which was a mesclun salad with a pile of kalua pork on top. I brought this to the beach and enjoyed every last bite on the sand.

 

The Local's natural shave ice

The Local’s natural shave ice

The Local Shave Ice

Nearby in Kailua is The Local shave ice shop. I actually entered a surf shop to find that The Local shared a space next door. Attracted by their cute logo, I walked over and I’m very glad I did. I was told by the friendly staff that The Local uses only fruits grown on the island and all their syrups are homemade and natural. I have to say, I was previously turned off by the brightly colored, artificially flavored shave ices I had tried around Hawaii and this one was a breath of fresh air. Getting to choose three flavors, I tried Kula Strawberry, Pineapple and Ginger. It was extremely refreshing and not too sweet. Thank you for changing my mind about shave ice, The Local!

 

Leonard's malasadas

Leonard’s malasadas

Leonard’s Bakery

Friends told me I had to go to Leonard’s to try their malasadas. What is a malasada? Good question. This doughy, sugar covered dessert is a Portuguese specialty and basically, a really good, large donut. I waited in line at the retro, pink and white striped bakery for a chance to taste these treats. I chose three flavors out of their many–chocolate, coconut and cinnamon. Still warm, I tried each one in my car and got sugar everywhere, but it was worth it. The cinnamon was classic and delicious but the rich chocolate filled one was my favorite. I didn’t like the coconut because it had an artificial taste to it. Overall, these were good but knowing that they weren’t very natural with their flavors definitely made me dock a point.

 

WHERE TO DRINK:

 

Maui Brewing Company

An upper level, huge restaurant right on the strip in Waikiki, the Maui Brewing Company was popping on a Wednesday night. I had been to their Maui location and had enjoyed the calm, dark bar scene and a flight of beers. This restaurant was a whole different animal. Huge, modern and jam-packed, I couldn’t believe this was the same chain. However, busy usually means good and in this case, it definitely did.

The watermelon martini and fish taco

The watermelon martini and fish taco

The only seat I could get was at the bar, but as I was dining solo, this was perfect. As I am not a huge beer fan, I was attracted by the coral colored martinis the bartender was pouring. When I inquired, I found out that they were spicy watermelon martinis called “The Street Fighter.” Yes please! These were so good, I had to order a second one.

The food was also incredible. They have a more robust menu than the previous pub menu I experience on Maui and I was impressed with all the options. Wanting something lighter, I opted for the Fresh Mahi Tacos. I could taste how local the fish was and it was only elevated by being on homemade, soft corn tortillas, with a healthy dollop of guacamole. And they give you 4! Overall, I had a great experience with the food and would come back with friends for a rowdy, tasty night.

 

Duke's Waikiki mai tai

Duke’s Waikiki mai tai

Dukes Waikiki

It’s touristy, it’s crowded but it IS right on the beach and the mai tais are incredible. I’ve been to three Duke’s at this point: Duke’s Malibu, Duke’s Maui and now, Duke’s Waikiki. I was pleasantly surprised with the nice service and the mai tais are the best here. My fish tacos were a little lacking but did the job. The ambiance is fun and happy–people seem ready to party here!

 

Drinks with a view of surfers at The Point

Drinks with a view of surfers at The Point

The Point, Turtle Bay Resort

I made a point (pun intended) to check out this resort around sunset when I was on the North Shore. I have to say, the resort itself was a bit underwhelming, but the location of the outdoor bar, The Point, was spot-on. I had front row views of this perfect surf break and took in an expensive cocktail as the surfers caught wave after wave in front of me. The location alone gets this on the list.

 

WHERE TO STAY:

 

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

I can’t say enough good things about the budget friendly, brand new Holiday Inn Express Waikiki. Just a few blocks back from Waikiki Beach, the location is close enough to the action for easy walking but removed enough for a less hectic feel. The open air lobby is inviting and well designed and the rooms were simple but great. I loved the clean, plush bed and the water views. The coffee maker, mini fridge and modern, all white bathroom were definite standouts.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki rooms

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki rooms

 

Daily included breakfast was consistently solid, with fried eggs, make your own pancakes, cereals, yogurts, fruit and more. Plus, the dining area featured a lovely, lush patio.

Skydeck at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Skydeck at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Definitely the highlight of this hotel is the 5th floor skydeck. A large swimming pool, whirlpool, deck chairs and cabanas await you and make it easy to lounge here for the day. The kid in me also loved the miniature golf and shuffleboard set up. On this level, there is access to a very well-equipped, spacious fitness center as well.

Mini Golf at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Mini Golf at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Overall, I think you get a lot of bang for your buck by staying here when you visit Honolulu.

 

Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

 

This pretty much sums up my favorite things on Oahu. That was quite the week!

If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’d be happy to give my personal opinion and more tips. Just writing this has made me start to wonder how soon I can get back to that island…

I love you Oahu!

I love you Oahu!

 

xoxoxo

Kelley

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Poolside

Oahu Hotel Review: My Stay at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Six hours of flying over nothing but blue, it was almost a surprise to see the dark, jagged peaks shooting out of the Pacific Sea. These tiny islands were Hawaii and I was going to spend a week on one of them, Oahu. As we passed over the capital city of Honolulu, I got very giddy and was eager to start exploring. Luckily, the commute from the airport was fast and already I was in the bustling beachside Waikiki, pulling up to my hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki.

Oahu From Above Honolulu Waikiki

I am a hotel snob. I also produce and host a show by the same name, (check out an episode here: Hotel Snob). I’ve been able to stay, experience and review some of the world’s most famous and luxurious properties. Needless to say, it takes a lot for a hotel to impress me. This will be the first Holiday Inn Express stay ever and I have to say, I sure hope it is not the last. I was blown away by my overall experience. I know that when I return to Oahu, I’d stay at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki in a heartbeat.

Holiday Inn Express WaikikiFrom the get-go everything was just easy. First of all, as I’m a IHG Rewards Club member, I booked this stay all on points, with 35,000 points a night. No money spent! There is another property that I could have stayed at all on points, the Holiday Inn Resort Waikiki Beachcomber. However, I found that my points went further at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki and as it is a brand new hotel, I figured I’d enjoy the brand new rooms and facilities.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Room

Parking was right in the hotel, I had a quick check-in with the cheerful front desk attendant, and many friendly alohas as I walked through the modern lobby. A lightning quick elevator ride to the 42nd floor took me to my room in no time. It was tasteful, spotless and sizable. I even had a welcome basket waiting for me in my room with local Hawaiian treats like li-hing mango and taro sticks!

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki room View

As is my ritual, I went straight to the window and drew the curtains to check out the view. I could see curve of Waikiki Beach, glittering cityscape and the iconic shape of Diamond Head framing this perfect snapshot of Honolulu. As your room is basically your temporary apartment, it is so important that you feel comfortable. I knew after seeing my new Hawaiian homebase that it was going to be a good week.

 

THE ROOM

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Hotel Room
Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Mirror SelfieI had two queen beds and both gave a great night’s sleep–yes, I rotated each night! The mattress was not too soft or hard, and there was even a labeled soft and firm pillows, giving me a choice out of the 4 pillows on each bed. No tacky or dirty bedspreads here, just crisp white sheets and duvet covers. Thoughtful reading light fixtures framed the bed, which came in handy at night when I was plotting the next day’s itinerary. A large flat screen faced opposite the bed with a surprisingly wide variety of channels. A funky oversized lamp hung over the stylish indigo armchair, which served as my catch-all of the day’s adventures. And the full size mirror was so useful before I scooted out each day. I even featured it in my Instagram stories with each days’ outfits!

 

A second area housed the cutest little closet I’ve ever seen. It fit all my hanging items with ample hangars. In the same unit was a mini fridge, microwave and coffee maker. I was impressed with how it was all very compact yet it lacked nothing.

The bathroom had an illuminated mirror which was a nice touch, along with Bath & Body Works products. I always had enough towels and they were promptly replaced each day. The shower was pleasant and a good size. I especially appreciated the built-in clothesline which was perfect for drying my bathing suits at the end of each day.

 

 

BREAKFAST

Coffee and banana in the morning and I’m good to go. However I was impressed to see that this free breakfast spread went well beyond that. Cinnamon rolls, DIY pancakes, bagels, yogurt, cereal, sausage, eggs—this was a full on breakfast! I try to eat pretty healthy on the road so I was happy to see nonfat Greek yogurt, apples, bananas, whole wheat toast and even egg whites available. I won’t lie though, I did try the cinnamon roll one day and it was delicious!

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Breakfast

I especially enjoyed the seating area. This was not a typical cafeteria setting with bad lighting. There was a nice mix of high top and low tables, some larger and some for one or two. Inside, you could sit among palm decor or next to street front windows. However, I chose to sit outside each morning in the exact same spot. It was under a patio umbrella, next to the lush landscaping and with a view of the street. Since I had fast wifi, I could check email, eat breakfast and still be outside in the Hawaiian warmth to start the day. By the way, to-go coffee cups are available if you are like me and want to take a cup on the road. All you have to do is ask the courteous staff and they are more than happy to hook you up.

WIFI
As an IHG Rewards Club, all wifi is free (as it should be). Whether I was in the room, the lobby or the breakfast area (indoor and out), it was also very speedy. I could even upload videos! Too often hotels have poor wifi which can be really frustrating when you have limited time to be online.

PARKING
As I mentioned, parking was a big asset as this area of town can be challenging to find parking spots. The same elevator takes you to the parking lot and off you go to explore. It fills up at the end of the day but I always managed to find a spot–even on the day that I returned later from the North Shore and hunted out the very last space available.

 

POOL

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Pool Rooftop
To me, a rooftop pool is major sign of luxury. I was absolutely amazed when I stepped out on the Skydeck. I was greeted by a large, deep pool with adjacent rectangular hot jet spa. The jet spa could fit a number of people without being cramped and was nice if you were in the shade and needed to warm up.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Poolside

Cute turquoise lounge chairs bookended either side of the pools, giving you many options of where to relax. There were a number of chairs so I could find my own quiet area and never felt stressed about getting a chair. You could also opt for one of the intimate cabanas for more shade and privacy. Decorated with bougainvillea and palms, I felt the pool area was classy, simple and chic. The pool attendant was more than helpful, providing extra towels and making sure the pool area was cleaned and orderly.

 

MINIATURE GOLF

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Mini Golf Rooftop
I absolutely love miniature golf and I have played in quite a few places. You could say, I’m a bit of mini golf snob as well. I was very pleasantly surprised that the 9 hole course on the roof was not tacky or worn out, which they often can be. Rock features, palm trees and a giant faux pineapple gave the tropical ambiance and each hole was actually a fun challenge. It didn’t feel childish in any way, actually I only saw adults playing! The attendant just hands you a club and your bright ball and off you go.

 

GAMES

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki games Rooftop
Next to the mini golf, the outdoor giant chess and shuffleboard add to the Skydeck amusements.
On the other side of the roof there’s also foosball and ping pong tables, which I plan to utilize on my next visit when I bring a partner.Holiday Inn Express Waikiki games Rooftop

Inside, there’s also a game room but not the kind with old board games. Personal leather couch seats faced large flat screens each with WII consoles. With 4 seats, there could be a group challenge or Mariokart race in here. Holiday Inn Express seems to know what the kids today really want.

 

GYM

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Gym
Dark, stuffy, old— hotel gyms are often disappointing. The Holiday Inn Express’ gym was the opposite. Light, airy and brand new, the many types of equipment were housed in a large L shaped room, lined with floor to ceiling windows. The equipment seemed to be top of the line with ellipticals, treadmills, bikes and an erg machine—all within viewing distance of one of the multiple flat screens throughout the gym.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Gym

A separate weight area was perfect for abs and strength training, with a number of matts, benches, weights and medicine balls. I also liked that the gym had a pretty view of the pool! It is open 24 hours so I was happy to sneak in some early morning workouts before I set out for the day’s adventures.

 

SERVICE

The housekeepers were some of the sweetest and chattiest I’ve ever encountered. They always were pleasant in the elevators and my room was always cleaned promptly, giving me extra toiletries, coffee refills and towels. The breakfast staff was more than helpful and the food & beverage manager himself gave me some great personal tips for exploring the North Shore. All the staff were so friendly but it didn’t feel forced. Everyone genuinely seemed filled with the Aloha spirit.

 

LOCATION

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki Location
What a perfect spot! Not only could I easily walk to the shops and restaurants of Waikiki, there was a trolley stop outside the door. I also liked that there was a small food market and coffee shop right next to the hotel. I think the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki actually benefits from being a block or two away from the crowds, cars and noise of the Waikiki strip. It was a nice oasis to come home to each night, without fighting herds of people. I also took a morning run, and with the ideal location, I could run along the nearby canal and the beach.

 

SAFETY
As a female solo traveler, I found the area to also be very safe. There were always people around, bright lights, a trolley stop nearby and UBERS/LYFTS were always available.
Even when I was getting in the car to go somewhere, the highways were very close by. Though the lobby is open air, it was always monitored by security guards and plenty of staff members.

 

EXTRAS

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki market
The little things really added to my experience. A filtered water dispenser so you can refill water bottles. An orchid garden and bubbling pond at the entrance. A lobby mini market with useful toiletries, beverages, snacks and even make in your room meals. There were even a bunch of fresh waters in my mini fridge when I checked in. The Holiday Inn Express has you covered before you even realize what you needed.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki market

The IHG Rewards Club also applies to other hotel brands, like Intercontinental and Kimpton. There are 5000 hotels in almost 100 countries actually. Though I usually keep all my points for hotel stays, I was excited to see that I could also redeem for flights or even donate to a charity. There’s also number ways to earn points like signing up for cards, using UBER, shopping or dining. Seems like there’s a reason it is the largest loyalty program.

Diamond Head Crater Hike

Traveling can be tiring and as I do it for a living, a quality, safe, comfortable and convenient stay becomes more and more important. I feel the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki set me up very well for such a memorable trip to Oahu. Mahalo!

Have you been to Oahu? Have you stayed here? Let me know about your experiences in Waikiki, Oahu and more below!

Note: I’ll be sharing a video of the stay soon! Check back for the link here.

 

**This post was sponsored by IHG. 

Maui Dining Guide: My Favorite Eats

Maui has so much amazing food, it is hard to narrow down my favorite bites! We spent 10 days on this tropical island paradise and we ate & drank our way around Wailea, Kaanapali, Napili, Paia, Lahaina and Hana. Here I am sharing my favorite restaurants, snacks, dishes, cocktails–from breakfast to lunch to dinner.

Napili Kai Beach Resort: Tropical Boutique in Maui

Maui has no shortage of hotels, resorts, and B&Bs, but if you want a truly unique, natural, boutique resort that has as much history as it does coastline, Napili Kai might be the right fit.
I stayed here in February for 3 nights and I couldn’t get over the location! The Polynesian resort occupies a beautiful oceanside cliff and sandy bay–with postcard-worthy palm-tree studded beach. Plenty to do, there’s an 18 hole putting course, massage, a number of pools, and the delicious indoor/outdoor Sea House Grill, which serves up local catch & creative takes on Hawaiian dishes.

I really loved our oceanfront studio room, which had its own kitchen and a balcony that gave us front row seats to the sunset each night.

The resort is intimate enough that you can make it your own and walk through lush grounds felt like a step in the jungle. I’d definitely recommend this resort to couples, families, and groups of friends. When there, I noticed that many guests return year after year, and I can understand why.

Must Stay in Maui: Four Seasons Maui

This beach resort is an oasis. It is truly Hawaiian, yet has amazing pools, fabulous rooms, a pristine sandy beach, a spa and incredible restaurants. Beautiful to walk through yet delicious, luxurious, attentive and intimate–Four Seasons Maui knows how to make you feel like you are the only people in this tropical paradise.

Don’t miss Ferraro’s for exquisite outdoor dining, the Spa for their outdoor Hale treatments and a cabana at the Serenity pool. If you are adventurous, I LOVED the Outrigger Canoe experience in the early morning.